Saturday, September 17, 2011
So your teenager walks into the house after school, or after football practice, or band rehearsal, or just takes a break from homework, or even about an hour after dinner, and looks through the cupboards, opens the refrigerator door, and says, "Mom! There's nothin to eat." Just like the Israelites in this part of the Exodus. Whining, whining, whining, "God, we have nothing to eat, and what’s more, we don't like what you’ve given us to eat." But I do think that if I were wandering in the wilderness with Moses and Aaron for 40 years, I might be a little whinny too. “God, we’re tired, we’re hungry, we may as well have stayed in Egypt for all this gets us.” And they are reminded that in Egypt they were slaves, at least in the desert they are free. This is a great story. In the verses that follow these we just heard God instructs them to gather up what they need for themselves and their families. Each family got just what they needed, no more, no less. Then Moses instructed them not to save any of it, don’t leave any until morning he told them. Well, some didn’t listen to Moses, and hoarded the food that God had provided for them, and it got wormy and smelled bad. So not only do they not seem to want what God has provided for them, they go ahead and eat it anyway, and then save some up for later, only for it to go bad on them. Lord, lord, lord, give us something to eat, give us something better to eat, we don’t like what you’ve given us, but even though we don’t like it we’ll save it for later and risk losing what is right here in front of us. God provides, God provides enough. Even when it doesn’t look good. It’s all God’s anyway. Matthew’s gospel is paired with this story from Exodus and it carries the theme even farther. Matthew’s story always seems so topsy-turvy. The day laborers that show up at the end of the day get paid the same as those who showed up early to work, and work or no work, everyone gets paid the same. The kingdom is not business as usual. Remember, kingdom parables serve to show us that God is doing this absolutely new thing, there is no business as usual. In this kingdom everything is re-ordered. It’s not even as simple as the last will be first, and the first shall be last. God coming into our midst, living, loving, suffering, dying, and being raised from the dead makes this absolutely new. So this kingdom parable didn’t sit well with those who heard it centuries ago, and it doesn’t sit well with people who hear it today, because we are trained to believe there is a reward. The simplest statement of that is if we live a good life, we’ll get our reward in heaven. This parable refutes that conventional wisdom. Our wages are paid at the baptismal font, not at the grave. The new life that God has affected is available from the beginning. We live our whole lives loved by God, the delight of God’s life. The Christian life is not about earning our wage or our reward in heaven. The Christian life is about responding to God’s amazing and abundant love, about receiving God’s grace, right here, right now. The Christian life is about the fruit of our baptism; the Christian life is about responding to the joys and challenges of our lives in ways that show forth the grace that God has given us. The Christian life is not easy nor is it clear, it is not about finding Jesus, it’s about being found by God’s love. The Christian life is about grace and forgiveness, the grace and forgiveness that God offers us, and the grace and forgiveness that we offer one another as we love our neighbors as ourselves. So when did we get so greedy? When did we begin to hoard what we have? These stories we hear today remind or maybe even teach us that we’ve got all we need, and there’s enough for everyone. One of the seminal stories about who we are and to whom we are related is the story of Moses and the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. Moses relayed the ten commandments to the Hebrews as they wandered. Moses said to the people, “God spoke all these words: I am God, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of a life of slavery. No other gods, only me.” No other gods, only me, the Hebrew people, like us, had so much trouble accepting God’s gift of enough. God asks us for our undivided attention, and God gives us all we need. The Hebrew people couldn’t accept God’s gift of enough, and instead made their own god out of the gold they had and found. They got greedy. We get greedy, and we are encouraged in our greediness by a culture that constantly encourages us to buy more, and bigger, regardless of our ability to do so, regardless of need. Now, as much as the Hebrew people needed to hear “no other gods, only me,” and as much as the Jews of the first century needed to hear the inbreaking of God’s kingdom re-orders all that they knew to be true, we, in the 21st century need to hear this message that we are sought and we are found, that God loves us abundantly and claims us. Our wages are paid at the baptismal font, we are new creations. This is good news indeed. Good news in a world that needs good news. Good news that this life isn’t just about you, but it is about how you, and me, and every one of us is loved, and how you in turn love one another. It is about how you are the delight of God’s life, and about how you pay that forward. It is about how God transformed the world with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and how God continues to transform us and the world as each of us goes out into the world to do the work we are called to do, to love and serve God as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord. Today we identify and celebrate the ministry that God has given us. We don't hoard the abundance God showers upon us, and we are not greedy about it either. We show forth so much love by being the church in the world, by being the body of Christ. Our baptismal ministry is lived out in so many ways. We celebrate God's abundance by loving and serving our neighbors, by volunteering in schools and hospitals, by knitting hats and prayer shawls. We celebrate God's abundance in our work as we create a culture of mercy and compassion wherever we find ourselves. We are ministers, every one of us, by virtue of our baptism. God's abundance enfolds us, empowers us, saves us, sends us.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
In a small apartment building in North Minneapolis - a 59-year-old teacher's aid sings praise to God for no seemingly apparent reason. Indeed, if anyone was to have issues with the Lord, it would be Mary Johnson. In February 1993, Mary's son, Laramiun Byrd, was shot to death during an argument at a party. He was 20, and Mary's only child. "My son was gone," she says. The killer was a 16-year-old kid named Oshea Israel. Mary wanted justice. "He was an animal. He deserved to be caged." And he was. Tried as an adult and sentenced to 25 and a half years -- Oshea served 17 before being recently released. He now lives back in the old neighborhood - next door to Mary. How a convicted murderer ended-up living a door jamb away from his victim's mother is a story, not of horrible misfortune, as you might expect - but of remarkable mercy. A few years ago Mary asked if she could meet Oshea at Minnesota's Stillwater state prison. She felt compelled to see if there was some way, if somehow, she could forgive her son's killer. "I believe the first thing she said to me was, 'Look, you don't know me. I don't know you. Let's just start with right now,'" Oshea says. "And I was befuddled myself." Oshea says they met regularly after that. When he got out, she introduced him to her landlord - who with Mary's blessing, invited Oshea to move into the building. Today they don't just live close - they are close. Mary was able to forgive. She credits God, of course - but also concedes a more selfish motive. "Unforgiveness is like a disease," Mary says. "It will eat you from the inside out. It's not about that other person, me forgiving him does not diminish what he's done. Yes, he murdered my son - but the forgiveness is for me. It's for me." For Oshea, it hasn't been that easy. "I haven't totally forgiven myself yet, I'm learning to forgive myself. And I'm still growing toward trying to forgive myself." To that end, Oshea is now busy proving himself to himself. He works at a recycling plant by day and goes to college by night. He says he's determined to pay back Mary's clemency by contributing to society. In fact, he's already working on it - singing the praises of God and forgiveness at prisons, churches - to large audiences everywhere. "A conversation can take you a long way," Oshea says to one group. Which explains why Mary is able to sing her praise of thanks. "How many times should I forgive?" Peter asks. "As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times." The number seventy-seven represents unlimited, infinite. What Jesus says to Peter is that you forgive, and forgive, and forgive again, there is no end to forgiving. Unforgiveness is like a disease says Mary, it will eat you from the inside out. Jesus knows this. We are not asked to forgive, we are not asked to love our neighbor, we are not asked to love our enemy for the others sake, but for our own. Jesus knows this. If you don't forgive, you will be eaten up, from the inside out. This passage isn't about asking for forgiveness, it is about forgiving. There is a huge difference. Forgiving is about freedom, it is about liberation, it is about the journey from death to life, and it is not about forgetting. Forgiving doesn't mean that we arise unscathed or unscared. Indeed, we carry the scars of being wounded with us always. But we carry scars, not open, festering wounds that eat us from the inside out. Forgiving is what causes us to heal. There is nothing in scripture about forgiving and forgetting, there is everything in scripture about forgiving, forgiving, and forgiving. It is in that forgiveness that mercy and compassion grow. I was at Trinity church in Pierre for clergy conference on Friday, and I noticed that out of the cracks in the sidewalk were growing some wonderful flowers, any way I think they were flowers, but they could very well have been weeds, I've been known to mistake one for the other. Forgiveness is like that, out of the cracks, out of our wounds, healing gives rise to the beauty of mercy and compassion from which reconciliation and peace arise. On this day we observe the anniversary of what we have come to know as 9/11, although it continues to be our son Willie's birthday. And today I wonder how we grow a post 9/11 anniversary community committed to the mercy and compassion from which reconciliation and peace may arise. In our community, in our church, in our families, how does forgiving create reconciliation and peace? How does forgiving create sacred conversation? How does forgiving create the possibility of new life and new creation? We are capable of sacred conversation. We are called to mercy and compassion, to reconciliation and peace, because we take seriously the work that God has done and continues to do through Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection. Those are the wounds from which we minister, those are the cracks from which the flowers, or the weeds, arise. Forgiveness brings healing, nothing else does, nothing else. Forgiveness creates a compassionate reality. This post 9/11 anniversary community committed to mercy and compassion from which reconciliation can grow, a community that forgives and therefore will be healed, is what we are called to, indeed, it is what is demanded of us by our baptism. The forgiveness that is made possible by the work that Jesus did on the cross and in the resurrection, and that we enter into at our baptism can and will transform our families and our communities. We must live our lives differently, differently than the revenge seeking, self-centered, model that is splayed all over our social media today. We must offer forgiveness, seven times, seventy-seven times, every time, all the time. Mercy and compassion will change the world and love will win.
Saturday, September 3, 2011
Some of you have heard this story before. That's the way of very important stories. Just about every other year since I was in junior high, the Monson family has gathered together to renew our bonds and tell our stories. I heard over and over the story of my ancestors coming to America. I know the story well. My family lived in a valley on the inland point of the Nordfjord, in a place called Stryn. Once upon a time in the Nesdahl valley there was a great avalanche that collapsed the sod hut in which the family lived. Marta died in that avalanche, and later, Jacob, my great great grandfather, decided to come to America. He came and settled in Adams, North Dakota. He married Anna, and they had 11 children, Nelbert, my grandfather was the oldest. Nelbert married Inga, and eventually they settled near Glenwood, Minnesota. Nelbert and Inga had five children, including my father, Juel. One of those children died in an accident as a teenager, and Inga died when my father was a small child. Nelbert married again, and he and Lucille had three daughters together, and Nelbert was killed in a farm accident. Lucille married Guy, and together they had one daughter. This all resulted in many children that I call cousins. When I was 23 years old, I went on an European adventure, part of that adventure was to visit my Norwegian relatives. I arrived in Stryn, Norway, after having taken a ship across the North Sea from England, a steamer up the shoreline of Norway, and a bus inland along the Nordfjord, to Stryn. I arrived on a very rainy day, without exact directions or even contact phone numbers. Unsure of what to do next, after getting off the bus, I went into the business that was right there, it was like a AAA, some sort of travel store. I must have looked like something the cat dragged in, and I asked the young woman across the counter for help, in English of course, as far as I had gotten with my Norwegian was “tussen tak.” She answered me, in beautiful English of course, and I told her my story. She just happened to be neighbors to the relatives I was looking for, so we got in her car and went straight to the family farm. She ended up being my interpreter for the time I spent with my uncle and aunt. My uncle took me on an excursion through the countryside, and in the best English he could muster, he told me the very same story I had heard over and over at each of our family reunions for all those years. The point of all this is that this story, of course there are many more details I’ve skipped over in this telling, contitutues us as a family, it tells us who we are. Over the years it has been added to as we have learned more about our grandfather Nelbert, and as all these cousins have had families of our own. It is a story of heartache, of survival, and of tragedy, and it is our story. And yet it is not unlike many stories of Scandinavian immigrants. The story of the Exodus that we have been hearing, and that we will continue to hear is like my story. It is a story that contitutes Israel as a people, and it is a story that remembers who they are. Today’s portion of the story almost reads like a recipe, and yet it is a call to remembrance and to reconciliation. It says this is who we are and what we do together, and who we worship. It calls Israel to remember. It too is a story of survival, of tragedy, of heartache, and of hope. It says, if we can hang together, we can make it. In the gospel of Matthew today our family story tells us about how we are to be Christians together. The writer of this gospel couldn’t have known that a church would be founded around his rabbi, Jesus, so we can’t say that these are instructions for the church. But what we do have is some very practical advice on forgiveness and reconciliation. You see, as Christians we believe Christ is reconciling the whole world and each of us in it to God and to one another. In the teachings in our prayer book, on page 855, it says that the mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. Reconciliation is all about making whole what is broken. Reconciliation is about being transformed by God’s amazing and abundant love. When Christians take conflict as an opportunity to practice reconciliation, what they do can stand as a visible sign for the whole world of what we believe Christ is doing in the world. An outward and visible sign of a grace that we believe is happening in a broader and more mysterious way in the world. And that is the definition of sacrament, handling conflict well can be sacramental, the way we handle conflict can be a sign to the world that Christ is in fact working in our world. Conflict is a reality in our lives and in our church and in our families. In fact, when we meet someone who is really difficult, inside and outside our families, we can rejoice and be glad in that day, because we get to love them, and in the process we get a sense of how much God loves each and every one of us. When folks look at you and see that you handle conflict in this sacramental way, they’ll see that you mean what you say. But we are witnesses to the rhetoric of revenge and division often on our nightly news and in our newspapers. The news reports about folks whose loved one has been terribly hurt or died at the hands of a monster. The family member calls for revenge, for more blood. Reconciliation, unity with Christ, and forgiveness are not at all what any one of them wants to hear. But maybe it is what is called for. We are at a place in our politics that calls for reconciliation. The divisiveness of our political parties, the hatefulness in our language when we address one another, the lack of civility in our public conversation result only in a breakdown of public discourse. If we were to approach one another like Matthew exhorts us to listen to one another, if we can point to ways in which our own behavior has contributed negatively to the situation, if we listen to each other with the goal of reconciliation, real conversation can take place. And we are at a place in the greater church that calls for reconciliation, a place where the family story must be remembered and told again, to remind us who we are and who we are related to. What we really have to do is stand as a visible sign for the whole world of what we believe Christ is doing in the world. We need to be that outward and visible sign of grace that we believe is happening in a broader and more mysterious way in the world. As we enact forgiveness and reconciliation we are the agents of new life and resurrection that God calls us to be. We become the carriers of grace and God’s abundant and amazing love. We remember who and whose we are, we tell the story of God’s activity in the life’s of God’s people, we tell the story of God who loves us so much that God came and continues to come into this world, we tell the story of how that love suffered and died, and rose again. Hope is made real and Love wins.