Saturday, March 31, 2012

Palm Sunday Yr B

This is one of the hardest stories to hear. Jesus, friend of the sinner, friend of the outcast, friend of the marginalized, put to death in the most horrific way possible, on a cross. Maybe some of you even squirm listening to me say it. It's hard to look in the face of death, especially when that death is violent and innocent. Remember when we all went to see The Passion of Christ? One of the criticisms was that it was so graphic. Who needs to see all that blood and gore? And yet, we'll go to the movies to see body parts and blood and guts flying across the screen when it's an action adventure, or a horror movie.

But when we go to church we really don't want to be confronted with life and death, do we. We really just want to feel good, sing some good songs, say hi to our friends, and then go out to breakfast. And then we are confronted with this story. Jesus was tortured and killed by the government of his day, for turning the tables, for raising the dead, for freeing the imprisoned.

It's not much different than what we do most of the time. We shy away from death and grief. Our language even reflects our discomfort with death. People say that someone has passed away, what does that mean? Or we lost our mother last week. What did she do, get stuck behind the sofa? Death is real and grief hurts. We know this, we are in the midst of it. A world without sadness is a world without importance. If we are not sad, if we are not inconsolable at the death of our loved ones, or at the death of so many we don't even know, we have lost the importance of human life, and we have lost humanity's relationship to our Creator God.

I read, like many of you, the Hunger Games. You may know the story because it's in the movie theaters now. It is an awful story, incredibly well written and awful. It's the story of a culture that has lost the ability to be sad at death. And like the gladiators of old in the coliseum, these killings are televised for the country to watch. But what makes these killings even more horrible, it is children killing children. Human life, life, becomes unimportant. Relationship, has become unimportant. Someone must point humanity toward toward the dignity and importance of life, in the Hunger Games, the main characters do that. In the story before us today, Jesus points humanity toward the importance of life. Jesus collects all of our pain and suffering and embraces it, Jesus takes it with him, and leaves us with love. Joy and pain, are part of love.

The week that lays before us, Holy Week, encourages us to live fully and completely in the sadness of death, and the joy of life. Both things are happening simultaneously. One cannot happen without the other. I encourage you to participate fully in the events of this week, the darkness and hope of the Service of Darkness on Wednesday night. The servant ministry of foot washing and holy communion on Thursday night. The story of Jesus passion told again in a new way on Friday night. And the Great Vigil on Saturday night, when we light the new fire of Easter, when we tell the epic stories that form us as a people, when we baptize and renew our own baptism, when we rejoice in the acclamation of Jesus resurrection, and the new life that affects for each of us.

I invite you to a Holy Week.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

5 Lent Yr B

From the prophet Jeremiah we hear today, I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. What I hear in this passage is that God doesn’t give up. No matter what god's people do, God doesn't give up, love wins.

We recall the pattern of the story. God creates, God blesses the creation, and God promises always to be our God, creation turns away from God, and God calls us back. God reconciles creation, and restores the relationship. The part of the story we read this morning in Jeremiah represents one of the many times people turned their backs on God and God reaches out again, as God had done many times, and continues to do today. God reached out to Moses and the people wandering in the wilderness, the people were whining and gripping, and God gave the “ten best ways” to Moses, and what did the people do? They worshipped the golden calf. Then, under Abraham, God promised many descendants, and what did the people do? They continued to worship the Canaanite gods.
 
The story in Jeremiah is prophecy, and Jeremiah is a prophet. We sometimes get a bit confused about what prophets are and what prophecy means. Prophets were men and women who were and are in relationship with God, and their jobs are to tell the people to return to God, to repent and turn around. Prophet does not mean one who predicts the future, and prophecy does not mean stories about the future. Prophets constantly remind people to return to God, because people are always finding someone or something to worship other than God. The stories of the prophets are not stories that tell the future, they are stories told in hindsight about events that happen that seem like they must be punishment for turning away from God to worship things and people who are not God.
 
In this story in Jeremiah, once again we hear God entering back into relationship with the people who keep turning away. Just think of it, all of these stories tell us that no matter what we do, no matter what we worship, God will call us back, God will not let us go, Love wins.
 
This time, it’s not commandments on stone, it’s not a promise of many descendants, but this time the law is written on their hearts, the law is written on our hearts. And what is the law that is written on our hearts? In the other gospels, in Matthew, Mark and Luke,
when the question about which law is the most important law is posed, Jesus responds from sacred scripture, scripture all good Jews know by heart, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and, Love your neighbor as yourself.
 
How is this law written on our hearts? There is a story that I have heard, that is attributed to Madeleine L’engle, my favorite author, that I think addresses that question, it goes like this.
 
A mom and a dad had a new baby, and one night after they put the baby to bed, their older child came to them and asked if he could go see his little brother. The mom and the dad being just a little fearful of the older child’s intentions, said that would be fine and one of them would go with him. The older child insisted that he go see his baby brother by himself, and his parents gave in. So the older child entered the bedroom of his baby brother and walked over to his crib. His parents, being very curious and somewhat fearful, eavesdropped at the door. In a soft whisper this is what they heard their older child say to his baby brother. Please, could you tell me what God is like, you just came from there, and I’ve been away so long I’m beginning to forget.
 
God’s law is written on our hearts, we just tend to forget it. I think it is part of our humanity to love God with every fiber of our being, and to love our neighbor as well. It is in living that we begin to forget. Our children, who can be prophets too, remind us what love of God really is. When we pay attention, we observe that profound desire to love and worship God. The sadness is that we learn a very different lesson. Our culture teaches a lie that love is appropriately placed in things and stuff, and that each of us is more important than any God or any neighbor.

But the Good News is that once again God calls us back, and in an absolutely new way. The radical shift in the gospel of John is that God gives up all power to come into our world as one of us, so that we may return to God, so that we may be healed. The Glory of God is Jesus, and in Jesus, in living and loving and dying on the cross, the relationship between humanity and God is restored. But the story doesn’t end at the cross. The story goes through the cross to resurrection, because it is in death and resurrection that we become a people, a community, a body of Christ. And yet today, this 5th Sunday of Lent, we stand oh so close to that cross. We stand in the promise of the resurrection. We remember that after the pain and sadness of the cross comes the joy and new life in the resurrection, and we know that we are not there yet. We know that our pilgrimage today is in the hope that when that grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it will bear much fruit. That’s what the story in our scriptures tell us, that’s what we celebrate each time we come together here at this table.
 
We know that love of God and love of neighbor are not easy, in fact, love of God and love of neighbor can be very hard and painful indeed. There is much pain and sadness in our world, in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our lives. Pain and sadness are a part of living fully, pain and sadness are realities that we never choose for ourselves, but come part and parcel with the joy of living. We need to intentionally look for Jesus in our midst, we need to focus on God’s divine spark in others, so that we can find God in our midst, so that the transformation that God promises, will be realized.
 
Another story. The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery. The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. "I know how it is," he exclaimed. "The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore." So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other.

"It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years," the abbot said, "but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?" "No, I am sorry," the rabbi responded. "I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you." When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, "Well what did the rabbi say?" "He couldn't help," the abbot answered. "We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving --it was something cryptic—was that the Messiah is one of us. I don't know what he meant." In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi's words.

The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that's the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people's sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn't be that much for You, could I? As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends. Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi's gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.
 
Sir, we wish to see Jesus. Through the life, death, and resurrection we can see Jesus, and the law is written on our hearts. Jesus is right here among us. Love wins.
 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

4 Lent Yr B

Last week, Virginia taught us about a word we tend to dislike, obedience. She helped us to see that obedience is about listening receptively to God's word in our lives. It is what we do when we are on a pilgrimage, we make camp, pitch our tents, and listen receptively to the word who is Jesus.

Today we hear another word we don't like much, judgment. I recently read a novel, called The High Flyer, (by Susan Howatch) in which a character, Nicholas Darrow, tells a story that his father, an Anglican priest, would tell. Once upon a time, a man and his small son were on holiday and they saw a sign directing them along a road to some sheepdog trials which were being held on a nearby hillside. The little boy said: 'O, I'd like to see a trial!' so his father agreed to take him, but when they arrived at the scene the little boy was very disappointed. He said to his father: 'But where's the jury? And where's the judge in the black cap, like the judge at the Old Bailey who sentences murderers to hang?' Then the father had to explain that it wasn't that kind of trial. No dog was going to be condemned to death or sentenced to prison. Every one of them was there to be affirmed and valued and encouraged, and if some of them didn't come up to the mark they were always told they were welcome to come back later on when they had learned how to be more skillful." You see, God is like the judge of the sheepdog trials, not condemning to hell, but loving the creation so totally and absolutely, that our lives are transformed by that Love.

In a book many people were reading a couple years ago, The Shack, the author illustrated judgment in this way. The scene involves our protagonist, Mack, and he is in conversation with an unnamed character, who calls him into thinking about how he views God as judge. It is a compelling scene, and she invites Mack to recognize that he is blaming God for all his pain, for his Great Sadness as Mack describes it. She says to Mack, "if you are able to judge God so easily, then you certainly can judge the world." She asks Mack to choose two of his children to spend eternity in God's new heavens and new earth, and the other three he will sentence to hell. Of course Mack is alarmed at this, but isn't it exactly what some have led us to believe, that God so easily can condemn God's children to hell. Mack pleads with her, and finally says to her, "Could I go instead?" Mack was willing to put himself in his children's place and be condemned, so they didn't have to. But you see, that has already been done for us. God has judged us worthy of love, and it cost God everything.

You see, the purpose of judgment is inclusion, not exclusion. It is not that God is so warm and fuzzy that anything goes, that we can do no wrong, indeed, we all miss the mark, we are all judged guilty, but, according to Eugene Peterson, judgment means the "decisive word by which God straightens things out and puts things right. Judgment puts love in motion, applies mercy, nullifies wrong, orders goodness." We are guilty but we are forgiven. God's love and God's grace call us into mercy, repentance, and we are forgiven and transformed.

So we hear in the gospel today, Eugene Peterson's translation, "This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life." Again, the purpose of judgment is inclusion, not exclusion, it is about transformation, not damnation. Love does indeed win.

Again, with all of this said, it is Love that calls us into a whole and lasting life. Love calls us into mercy and compassion and away from the judgment of others. And Rob Bell writes in Love wins, "...there are strong, shocking images of judgment and separation in which people miss out on rewards and celebrations and opportunities. Jesus tells us these stories to wake us up to the timeless truth that history moves forward, not backward or sideways...While we continually find grace waiting to pick us up off the ground after we have fallen, there are realities to our choices. While we may get other opportunities, we won't get the one right in front of us again...Jesus reminds us in a number of ways that it is vitally important we take our choices here and now as seriously as we possibly can because they matter more than we can begin to imagine. Whatever you've been told about the end-- the end of your life, the end of time, the end of the world-- Jesus passionately urges us to live like the end is here, now, today."

Live as if you are fully and completely loved, right here and right now, today is the day you have, how are you going to show forth God's amazing love and grace. How does your life tell this story of Jesus, this story that Love wins?

Here is one story, it's not my story, but it's a great story about how Love wins. "Last weekend, Chase and I were grocery shopping in the produce section and he was having a blast weighing each new bag of vegetables I collected. I handed him a bag of tomatoes and he walked over to the scale and waited patiently in line. As I watched, a man walked up behind Chase, scowled at him for a moment, and stepped in front of him, bumping Chase out of the way. Chase looked shocked and scared. I left my cart and walked over to Chase, stood by him and said loudly, "Are you all right honey? I saw what that man did to you. That was very, very wrong and rude." Chase said nothing, the Grumpy Old man said nothing. Chase and I held hands and waited.

When the man was finished weighing his bag, he turned around quickly and all of his onions spilled out of his bag and on to the dirty floor. The three of us froze for a moment. Then Chase looked up at me and I motioned toward the floor. Chase and I got down on our hands and knees and started collecting onions while the old man grouchily and grudgingly accepted them from our hands and put them back into his bag. After Chase and I retrieved the last onion, the man walked away. Chase and I did too, and we didn't discuss the event until we got back in the car.

On the drive home, Chase said through tears, "Mommy, I've had a frustrating day. That man cut right in front of me and that was wrong. And we had to help him pick up his onions! Why did we do that? That didn't make any sense." I took a deep breath and said, "Chase, that man was acting horribly wasn't he? He seemed to have a very angry heart. I'm so sorry that happened to you. But if we didn't help him with his onions, do you think we would have made his heart softer or angrier?" "Angrier," Chase said. "Since we did help him, do you think that might have made his heart softer?" "Maybe," Chase said. "But you know what, Chase? I understand how you feel. I didn't want to help that man with his onions. You know what I wanted to do?" "What?" "I wanted to kick him really hard in the shin. I was very angry with that man for treating you badly. But sometimes doing what we really want to do, if it's going to add more anger, isn't the right thing to do. Even if it feels good at the time. If we wouldn't have helped that old man, we might have felt good for a second, but then I bet we would have felt really, really yucky about ourselves for a long time. You and I, we have a lot of love to share. Maybe that man doesn't have much. Maybe we offered him some today. People who behave badly still need love."

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/glennon-melton/best-mommy-moment_b_1334708.html?ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false

Many people in our lives behave badly. Many people in the public arena as we have seen recently, behave badly. We, at times behave badly. But judgment is about inclusion, not exclusion, because Love wins, every time.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

2 Lent Yr B

In his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson writes, "people submerged in a culture swarming with lies and malice feel as if they are drowning in it: they can trust nothing they hear, depend on no one they meet. Such dissatisfaction with the world as it is is preparation for traveling in the way of Christian discipleship. The dissatisfaction, coupled with a longing for peace and truth, can set us on a pilgrim path of wholeness in God. "

The culture we live in today not only is deeply dissatisfying, it enlivens fear. As long as we are afraid of what is soon to be, or around the next corner, we are held hostage to immediate fixes and short sighted solutions. Our son Willie spent his January term in Guatemala, and he was there when the newest president was seated. The faculty advisor on the trip was posting photos and observations while they were there. Many of the photos were of poverty in the city and many were of the amazing beauty of the jungle. When Willie got home, I asked him in the midst of that poverty, where he saw hope. Willie's reply was that hope was in the long view the people had of the world. They didn't have much hope in the new president, but, he said, they were absolutely certain, given time, life would get better.

Here in this country we have so much and are afraid of so much, we are afraid of not being the best, so we come up with short term solutions to long term issues. We are so sure of our status, and of course we are better than the other, and we are so afraid of our differences, we come up with ways to exclude people from benefits the rest of us take for granted, or we make laws that disregard the dignity of every human being. The truth is, we have to get fed up with the anxiety that our culture feeds, we have to get fed up with the lies we are told, in order to lay all of that down and find the quiet space where we know that the only truth is that Love wins.

And that takes a long view, not an immediate or instant conversion. Lent gives us some practice in that long view. We can't just beam up to Easter and resurrection. We need to be on this pilgrimage, we need to carve out some time and space where we can let love in, let truth in, where we can set our minds on divine things. The truth we hear today is a very hard truth. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for God's sake and the sake of the Good News, will save it.

We get so convinced that our way is the right way, we tend to walk in front of Jesus, we think we can show Jesus the way. Jesus even is reported to say to Peter, "get behind me Satan." It's as if we say to Jesus, "our way, the way of the world, the way of greed, of power, the way of status and honor, these are the way Jesus. You'll never get ahead in the world if you don't take advantage of every situation, if you don't step on and over the ones who are too slow or too weak. You'll never get ahead if don't exert yourself as the best, the fastest, the most important. Following is for losers, being out in front where winners find themselves."

But that's not the way this story goes. We are to follow Jesus on a pilgrimage that just takes time, a whole lifetime, and even more than that. That's what Abraham and Sarah's story is about. God is calling Abraham to God's future, not Abraham's wealth or our wealth, success, or even failure. Abraham and Sarah's story surely is a story that has a long view of things. No baby according to their plans and their timeline, but according to God, they are the parents of a nation.

So what is this pilgrimage about? Why do these stories that seem so odd, that seem so counter cultural, that seem so topsy turvy, hold any meaning for us at all? This pilgrimage is to freedom, that is what God offers. Over and over the old testament stories show God's people that they are free, and for a while they live in freedom. But they always seem to fall back, miss the mark, making bricks for Pharaoh is a sure thing. Wandering in the wilderness, looking for food and a place to make camp, pitch their tents, is so much more uncertain. God's freedom is a lot more uncertain than the certainty of riches.

So you see, creating the quiet space, making camp, pitching your tent, is to listen to God's call to love and freedom. Those who lose their life for God's sake will save it. As we make this pilgrimage, and practice this long view of things, as we become followers of Jesus, rather than try to tell Jesus what to do, we begin to be transformed and formed in God's image. We become the people who include rather than exclude. We become the people who love no matter what. We become the people who fall on our knees in repentance when we miss the mark, and rise up in praise to give God glory. As a very wise woman has written, we become the people who carry the light for someone walking in great darkness and we will walk beside someone who can carry the light for us. We will stand shoulder to shoulder at the table with a whole bunch of imperfect, but perfectly loved, people of all ages—and we will leave renewed, strengthened and forgiven.

We are these people. We are these people who risk uncertainty, who risk imperfection, who risk being open-hearted, for Jesus' sake. We are the people who encounter Jesus in the mess and the muck, we are the people who encounter Jesus in children among us, we are the people who sing mostly together and mostly on the right notes, whether we know the song or not. Because the kingdom is not about perfection or certainty or judgment, the kingdom is about love and freedom, the kingdom is about encountering Jesus in the here and now, the kingdom is not about us and our institutions and our judgments and our morality, the kingdom is about God.

Following Jesus on this pilgrimage is to follow the way of love, and freedom, it is to accompany one another on the way, no one is excluded. It is to fall down, and to take the hand of the one who reaches out to us in love, it is to reach out in love to the one who has fallen down. You see, losing your life is really a good thing.