Sunday, June 28, 2009

Reflection on Mark 5:21-43

As you plummet to the ground, toward your potential early demise, there are a lot of things that go through your head during those 30 seconds of skydiving freefall. The primary thoughts, well, quite frankly, probably do not translate well for a church blog, but the secondary thoughts focus on those around you, your support network.

If, for some reason, something where to go wrong while falling through the air at 120 mph, there are actually lots of people around to help. The instructor on your back knows all of the emergency procedures of cutting away the primary parachute and switching to the backup. The camera person who is videoing your insane step out of a completely good aircraft, knows how to maneuver through the air well and could float over to your rescue. And then, there is the other team jumping at the same time who just might try some heroics of their own. At least I prayed that Eli would want to save his pastor. I guess that I cannot speak for him. And if all else fails, there is God to whom you have not forgotten during this time, and who certainly could not have possibly forgotten you because you have been babbling incoherently to God since the plane took off from the ground. There are lots of people there to make sure you get safely to the ground. There are lots of people who are willing to intercede for you, if things go bad.

Things have gone bad for the little girl in today’s gospel story. She is falling quickly down toward an early demise because of some illness, and her father runs to the rescue. Interceding for her, he runs to Jesus, and begs him, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live”. It is good to have a support system. It is good to have a father like that.

I am not trying to be exclusive here, mothers are good too. Quite frankly, my mother might have been a little too efficient when I left to go skydiving. She would not have let me even step foot on the plane in the first place had she been told of my hopes for freefalling self-destruction; but she was not told. In the gospel story, the mother stays behind to care for the dying child.

Of course the mother cares deeply, but it is the father in the story who runs for help; the father who cannot imagine a world without his child; the father who would do anything for his child; the powerful leader who would be willing to grovel in the dust if it meant that his daughter would be made well.

There is someone in this story who has no father. It is the woman who has been bleeding for 12 years. Her support network has vanished. She has no one to turn toward while she falls. The doctors tried, but floated away unsuccessful. The husband is nowhere to be seen, and her father is missing. She is freefalling, and there is no one falling with her to help.

When you have no one else, you are forced to take matters into your own hands. Skydivers have to reach back and untangle the parachute themselves, hungry and forgotten little boys have to sneak into the grocery store and steal food for themselves, and forgotten, bleeding women have to steal divine powers of healing for themselves.

She thinks to herself, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well."

Her mind made up, she reaches up, touches his clothes, and steals her healing. "Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease."

“Who touched me?” Jesus cries out.

Having been caught, freefalling once again, resigning herself to her fate, the woman shamefully tells Jesus the whole truth. The whole truth about how she is not good enough to be loved. The whole truth about how doctors, family, everyone has abandoned her. The whole truth about how she has resorted to stealing to get what she needs, even stealing from God. The whole truth about how she has no father to care for her.

To this Jesus replies, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."

“Daughter,” that is probably the most beautiful word that she would ever hear; more beautiful even than the words “be healed.” Bleeding is something that you can get used to. It is something that you can put up with for 12 years. Being alone, you cannot. “Daughter,” what a beautiful, soft, yet colorful word.

This daughter will freefall alone no longer. This lonely, pain filled woman has been made a daughter of Jesus; the father who cannot imagine a world without his child; the father who would do anything for his child; the powerful leader who would be willing to be thrown down in the dirt and nailed to a cross if it meant that his daughter would be made well. “Daughter,” what a beautiful word.

Who do you know, who needs to hear the words, “daughter” or “son” spoken to them? Who do you know, who needs to hear that they are part of a family; who needs to hear that they are not freefalling alone?

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Reflection on Mark 4:35-41

The boat is being tossed and turned as it ventures toward the foreign territory of the gentiles. Water is filling the boat from all sides (from above: the rain, from below: the sea), and Jesus is right where we expect him to be, standing at the bow of the boat with arms outstretched, powerfully directing the boat through the storm…creating a part in the sea as Moses did when he stood with arms outstretched and parted the sea, allowing people to cross of dry land…we expect to see Jesus, with arms outstretched, creating a safe zone for the tiny boat.

That is where we expect to see Jesus anyway. Expectations fall a little short in real life though. Maybe we should lower our standards a little. How about Jesus sitting, directing the boat into calm waters using his pinky? No? How about Jesus on the cell phone, texting God the Father for a little help? No? How about Jesus with a bucket? Wrong again. The disciples are about to be destroyed, and Jesus is in the back of the boat taking his beauty rest.

“Don’t you care that we are in the very real process of being destroyed, wave by crashing wave, smashed board by precious board? Don’t you care Jesus, don’t you care?” the disciples scream at the man lounging in the rear.

This question is not an honest question of course. The disciples are not expecting any answer other than “of course, I care, where’s my bucket, sorry I was asleep.” This is a question to manipulate…to get your own way. When a three year old asks, “Papa, I’m hungry, don’t you care?” they really do not expect to hear, “You’re three now, fix your own darn meal!” You do not expect that.

As an aside, the hunger question is not a question you would ask your brother, “Bro, fix me something, don’t you care that I’m hungry?”

“You know what Jira…I couldn’t care less.”

Back to the disciple's question, it is not an honest question. The only answer that Jesus is supposed to provide is, “of course, I care deeply. I am sorry that I sent you on this crazy voyage to a foreign, gentile filled land. It is obvious, now that I see the storm, that God does not want us to go. Let’s get the boat turned around and head home.”

This answer is a good one. It gets us back home. It puts us in our soft beds with a good book in our hands and a good meal in our stomach. It is a safe answer. We love safe answers.

“What’s for supper?”
“Tacos,” that is a safe answer.

“What’s for supper?”
“Hazelnut Pilaf with a green pea masala,” not a safe answer.

“Where are we going Jesus?”
“Back to your hometown to worship,” safe answer.

“Where are we going Jesus?”
“Over to the other side of the lake, to the godless foreign people, to bring them the good news,” not a safe answer.

You see, the honest question is not, “Lord, don’t you care?” We know the answer to that one. Jesus will not remain asleep in the back of the boat. He will wake up. He will be present in our struggles. We know that. The honest question is, “this is really tough, do I have to do it?”

I wonder if the apostle Paul, as he was being stoned and thrown into a prison cell ever asked, “Jesus, this is really tough, do I have to do it?”

I wonder if Martin Luther King Jr., as he read death threats and sat in his Birmingham cell ever wondered, “Jesus, this is really tough, do I have to do it?”

I wonder if Jesus, while he sat in the garden of Gethsemane waiting to be taken to the cross was truly asking, “Father, this is really tough, do I have to do it?”

This question is not answered explicitly. It is never stated, “Yes, you have to.” I think this is because we know the answer before we even ask the question. It is tough going. The trip is fearful and sometimes painful. It is not the comfort of our own bed. Rather, it is setting us loose in a dark basement, our only guide being the words, "Go to the other side."

Speaking of honesty though, the entire venture is not rising water, dark storms, and broken ships. There are the moments when we hear the smooth words, “Peace, be still,” ringing over the waters. There are moments where we can see that the struggle will be worth it in the end.

God is up to something good. There are moments when we see the sick healed, the lost found, the angry reunited, and the broken being put back together. There are moments when we hear the voice of Jesus crying out, “Peace, be still,” and it calms the storm. There are those moments of grace and those moments are enough to keep us headed to the other side. They are enough.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Reflection on Mark 4:26-34

If you did not know, my wife’s father is a wheat farmer under the big blue skies of Montana. Though some of his equipment might be old (he is still using the same equipment his father did), his farming techniques are far from antiquated. He produces greater yields than his father could have ever dreamed, using a GPS system to guide his planting. The system makes the rows as even and close together as possible. He uses new techniques to reduce weeds manually and not have to poison the ground with herbicides. He has the timing of when to plant down to a science. For a guy in his 50s, he has stayed very advanced in his farming. He understands a great deal.

Yet, even with that, once the seed is in the ground, the ground will do what it wants. He has no control once it is in the ground. The ground may dry out and produce little. The ground may soak up a lot of water and produce abundantly. The ground may not protect the wheat from the hail, thus destroying the crop. In the end, the ground will do what it wants, and there is nothing he can do about it.

For those of you who are fans of church administration, and you know who you are (you read all the books about church growth, about group dynamics and family systems; I know there are tons of you out there), one of the basic principles is this: no matter how large the church, no matter the amount of people you hope to organize, you cannot ever convice yourself that you are in control. In fact, it is perilous to imagine that you are in control.

Trying to force people to organize and attend a coffee hour in a small congregation is bad enough; imagine trying to control the lives of thousands attending a huge church.

The temptation is to become a church Nazi and manage all the ministries so that nothing crazy and abnormal happens. It may be the natural thing to do but, it always results in the church having a monotone of color. Everyone begins to look exactly like the nicely dressed and well organized church leaders who keep the flowers in the right place, the children locked away in the back closet, and ask the old to sit in back so that when we look forward, we look like a young and thriving congregation. Such a church looks nothing like the Jesus we follow. It is not crazy enough. It does not do surprising things. It does not talk to unknown people.

Instead of becoming a church Nazi, you should try the advise that goes something like this: Give people a guiding principle, plant the seed of Christ, and let it grow however it wants. For example, the guiding principle for your church might be, “The love of Jesus heals the world.” With that seed planted, the podiatrist in the congregation may come up to you as a member of the church council and say, "we need to heal people’s feet."

"That's exactly what I was thinking when I laid out that priciple," you think sarcastically.

Though it may seem like a confusing, but none the less fascinating as in “what is he going to to our feet” ministry proposition, you as the leader would simply say, “Yes.”

You say, “yes” not because you understand that it is going to be a great ministry. It may or may not be great. You say “yes” because the seed is in the ground. The ground will do with it as it likes. God will do with it as God likes. When the podiatrist spoke to you, you might not have understood that healing people’s feet meant giving shoes to school children who have nothing but ragged sneakers held together by duct tape.

The church is not a tidy field. We cannot control the work of Jesus in people’s lives. We cannot stop God from using crosses to save the world. Once the seed is in the ground, God does with it what God wants.

The Bible talks about mustard seeds being planted in the field, but I want to talk about thistles. We do not have mustard problems around here, we have no idea how they take over everything, but we do have a thistle problem. You let one of them babies fall into your garden, and you will have thistles everywhere in no time. You chop one down and hack it into little pieces and you have a national park of thistles within two weeks.

You would never intentionally plant one, but if you did, it soon would grow huge and give a place for the gold finches to rest and would provide an ample supply of flowers for the honey bees. The ground will grow what is needed, and it will be good. The ground will grow an ugly, horrible, life choking cross, and it will provide a place for people to hang their sins so that they can walk away with a lighter load through Jesus the Christ. Had we the chance, we would have weeded out that ugly cross in the first place. But, the ground will produce what is needed.

Churches often have a desire to pull weeds, to remove that which causes fear, to cut off that which is not known, and to spray away that which appears ugly and abnormal. But, in the end, the ground will win. The ground is more powerful than any hand that comes along. The ground can hold onto the roots of a weed and bring it back at any time to produce a home for the gold finches.

Sometimes, the most holy thing one can do is to allow the seeds to be planted, and to stand back and see what beautiful creations God makes.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Reflection on Isaiah 6:1-8

Isaiah has found himself in a bad spot. As he gazes around his surroundings, he sees six winged serpents flying around in the air, he sees an enormous throne within an even more enormous temple, and he sees these huge feet right in front of him, covered partially by the hem of a robe (the bottom of which stretches as far as he can see). He knows this is a bad spot. It means one of two things. Either he is dreaming, or he has met his demise and is going to figure out the mystery of the Trinity much sooner than he had expected. I guess a third possibility has something to do with a horror scenario in which Isaiah is asked to serve the Lord by polishing the Lord’s ten mile long sandals with his spit and his hair, this puts a monotonous, postal service spin on the beloved hymn, (sung in bored monotone) “Here I am Lord, it is I Lord.”

Well, the truth is that Isaiah is not dead, and he is not going to be singing hymns of monotony, but this is a horror scenario. He is in the presence of the Lord. Every good Jew knows that only one thing can happen when you come in the presence of the Lord; the Lord will see your sin, the Lord will judge you unclean and unfit and unrighteous, and you will die. When in the presence of eternal truth, the lies have nowhere else to hide. Death is inevitable. And, we are not talking death as in you will be sent to hell so that you can drink beer for eternity with your best buddies who also managed to avoid the dull road to heaven. We are talking about dead as in no longer in existence; wiped out, gone, no traces, no more, eternal nothing.

I remember a fear-filled night as a child, nervously looking around my dark room, waiting for God to execute God’s judgment on me for viciously and excitedly stomping on an entire hill of ants. I took my great ten mile long sneakers (from the ant’s perspective) and stomped mercilessly down on the entire ant hill. Now, I waited in fear for the Lord to take his great ten mile long sandals and stomp on me to make things equal in the world again. I knew that evil would be punished and I waited through the night, fearful of the Lord, the only one who knew my actions, and the only one who would care about the evil performed on the tiny creatures formed by God’s very own hands. I understood Isaiah’s fear. Even children know that you and your sin cannot hide from the Lord. And, when in the presence of the Lord, you and your sin cannot live.

This is why heroes who jump in front of trains or run into fires to save others rarely claim to be great people; they know the truth. They know their own secrets. They know that they too would be judged swiftly. They know, that the Lord knows the truth.

So, Isaiah stands at the feet of the Lord, waiting for the inevitable to happen, he waits for his judgment, he waits for his death. He is a sinful man who cannot remain standing in the presence of truth. He must be destroyed. He is a fowl mouthed man who speaks lies and untruths and complains against God, and one of the six-winged serpents, carrying a long metal rod swoops near to take care of the problem. With eyes shut, hoping that it goes quickly, hoping that it is not too painful, Isaiah’s sinful mouth trembles in anticipation. Finally, after the long wait, his lips are lightly touched by a cleansing fire, like the burn of an antiseptic alcohol rub, and his lips are made clean.

He is not dead. He is clean. The heavenly judge chose forgiveness. In the end, coming in the presence of the Lord does not mean death. His ancestors were wrong. Coming in the presence of the Lord means forgiveness. Rather than death, coming in the presence of the Lord means a new life. It means being chosen for something new and special. The heavenly judge chose him, formally fowl-mouthed Isaiah, for a special task.

Lots of Christians worry about their abilities to be a servant of God. They feel inadequate because they cannot speak eloquently like their pastor, or cannot serve other daily like their retired neighbor, or give freely like their rich uncle, or serve because they are simply too rotten to be used. These Christians feel like they need something more in order for the Triune God to enter their life and use them for something important. Isaiah has discovered that the qualifications for being chosen are quite simple, you must be forgiven. This means that all are ripe to be chosen and sent. This means that all can say “Here am I, send me.” This means that no one need run and hide in shame from the Lord any longer. To be a servant of God, the only qualification is that you be forgiven.

The Lord is sending you out for a special task. It will not be easy. It will not be pretty. It will not be a fun day at Knobble’s. But, that is another subject for another sermon. Today, let it be enough to know that you are chosen as one of God special, forgiven servants.

Reflection on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

Did you remember to say it this morning? Happy St. Matthias Day. You are free to chastise all who did not greet you in the name of St. Matthias. If, for some reason you forgot, I am sure that you can still pick up a very nice and rather touching “Happy St. Matthias Day” Hallmark greeting card at Wal-Mart later today for your loved one. Of course, that is if it won’t make you late for your Matthias Day dinner with turkey and all the trimmings.

I finally, hung all of my Matthias Day lights the other night. I drug out the ladder as soon as I got home from continuing education. I am trying to compete with my neighbor of course. It is hard in this economy to waist all of that electricity, but I feel like I still need to do it; in order to honor St. Matthias.

My Matthias Day gift was nice. I hope that you got great gifts also.

Oh, and also, don’t call me this weekend. It is a long weekend after-all, in honor of St. Matthias, and family from all over the country is coming in. We will be busy singing Matthias carols; “I saw three lots come casting in,” “Cast the lots through boughs of holly,” and the classic children’s hymn, “Away in the evening the cast lots were read. Matthias was chosen for Judas was dead.”

Unfortunately, St. Matthias does not get this much attention. He is one of the twelve apostles, the one chosen to replace Judas, but I dare you to find me any place in the Bible where it speaks of his wonderful deeds as an apostle. I dare you to show me even one story about him, beyond his being chosen by the casting of lots. Not even the writer of Luke and Acts, who feels the need to tell the story of everything concerning Jesus and his followers, remembers this poor fellow. The early church fathers cannot even agree if he did his ministry in Judea or what is now modern day Georgia. He is an obscure man, and will always be so.

Perhaps, Matthias got a bad rap from the beginning because he was chosen by the casting of lots. This is not gambling per se, but it is like choosing the President of the United States by pulling straws. “Oh, I got the short one, where are the nuclear weapons located?” The apostles pulled straws between two qualified candidates, both who were with Jesus from the time of his baptism to his ascension, and both where trusted to witness to God’s love in Jesus. Matthias got the short one. Casting lots seems a little pagan and superstitious if you ask me.

But, I think our problem with the Matthias story probably goes a little bit deeper than worries about superstition. The apostles had no problems with casting lots because they were convinced that the result would be God’s result; it would not be influenced by themselves in any way. Casting lots in the ancient times was a complete act of trust in the wisdom and work of God.

Do we in the church trust God that much, or do we make sure to help God out a little, just in case God falters or does something crazy like send us to the cross, or send us out to minister in another part of the world, or send us…heaven forbid…to worship in another church with other Christians. What if all church decisions were based on this sort of complete trust in God?

I did hear of a church who decided their entire future in this way, in the casting of lots…for them it was the pulling of straws. The council pulled straws to see whether or not the congregation should begin the process of closing its doors or using its last bit of money to completely change the church’s ministry (music, structure, everything) so that it would reach the new people who lived in their community. The issue was so hot, so untouchable in the congregation, that casting lots seemed like the only fair and faithful way to do things. They cast lots, and God chose proclaiming the gospel in a new way. They followed through, and now are a thriving congregation in the ELCA.

I am not sure that I am proposing that this is a great, or even wise way to make major decisions in the church or in one’s own personal life (I’m not sure we should all carry dice around and make grocery decisions with them…“carrots or celery?”), but more important than the way that they did it, was the fact that the apostles sought a way to trust God’s wisdom rather than their own. The apostles understood that faith is more than a warm feeling, faith is actual trust in an actual God who has a tendency to work in strange and dangerous ways. God saved the world by sending his Son, Jesus, to die on the cross. Is not our problem with the story of Matthias that it trusts a little too much in what God wants, and, in reality, we are fearful that God will lead us somewhere uncomfortable and dangerous? Is not our true problem with the story of Matthias that it forces us to see our lack of trust in God?

What if the cast lot is not God’s will? What if it is just some random result?

There is evidence that this possibility was exactly the case in Acts. We never hear of Matthias again. Acts does not ever follow the story of Matthias and his ministry. Instead, it starts the story of Saul, who will soon become the great apostle Paul. The narrowed definition of who was suitable to be chosen (present with Jesus from beginning to end) and the cast lots was how the disciples made their choice, however, it was not how God made God’s choice. The disciples chose Matthias and God chose Paul. God will do what God desires to do, and there is nothing that we can do about it.

So, I want to ask a different question, “It may not have been God’s will, but was it wrong for the disciples to choose Matthias as a witness?” Of course not. This is important. How could proclaiming the grace and love of Christ ever be wrong? Maybe Matthias was not God’s twelfth apostle, but he was sent to work in the unknown and unremembered areas of God’s world. Matthias may have been forgotten by time, but not by God.

In the end, the apostles still trusted in God’s ways even when their own failed. Notice that the apostles do not reject Paul and his ministry, they trust that God knows what God is doing in using a horrible persecutor and sinner like Paul. Though they have much reason not to trust in a dangerous man like Paul, they trust in God’s work above their own. I pray that Christ give us the courage and wisdom to do the same.