Thursday, February 11, 2010

Reflection on Isaiah 6:1-13

There I am again, sitting at yet another funeral and/or wedding luncheon, lonely because no one dares to come and talk to the pastor. Oh, occasionally you will get the obligatory, “good sermon, thank you” speech, but no one comes over to actually sit down and talk. Alone I eat my scalloped potatoes, roast beef, and apple pie. It is the curse of the collar.

I do not mention this luncheon neglect to make people feel bad for me. “Oh, the poor pastor who has to suffer through yet another free meal surrounded by kind people…that’s just terrible.” But, I do mention it because there is something very interesting going on at those funeral/wedding luncheons. You can correct me if I am wrong, but I think that I understand what is going on.

First, I think that some people are probably just as uncomfortable as I and simply do not have much to talk about with strangers. I understand that is going on for many people. However, I also think that people are afraid to speak to the pastor because their words may carelessly reveal who they are.

I do not know if you have noticed, but people try to act Holy while around a pastor. Most of you, of course, have thrown that fa├žade out the window because you intimately know my own lack of holiness, but people who are not a part of the church do not. And, the scene always plays out something like this: a man comes over to say, “Thank you for the kind words,” and as he says it his son comes up and gulps down an entire glass of punch in one swallow. Trying to be funny the man says, “Woe, slow down son,” but the man does not expect his son to respond, “why are you worried about me, you can put away a six pack in one sitting.”

I see the look in the eyes that says, “Oh, I’m in deep, deep, water!” The man’s sin has been exposed, in front of a man of God no less…in front of someone with the main heavenly phone line…their unclean lips, or unclean livers in this case, have been exposed, and no one wants that to happen. And, so people stay away.

That gets me to wondering, if that is people’s experience with a pastor, imagine how much more people try to stay away from God. To stand before God must be infinitely worse.

Isaiah has been there, and it does not look pretty. He is thrust into God’s throne room to speak face-to-face with God. It is not a meeting of equals, God is so great and powerful that the hem of God’s robe stretches as far as the eye can see. When Isaiah looks up he cannot even see up to God’s face. Quite frankly, God could squash him at any moment.

As if those were not frightening enough possibilities, God has flying seraphs attending to God’s every need. No, they are not cute chubby babies with wings. They are elephant sized snakes with six wings who are circling all around, screeching their high pitched songs of praise to God, and now swooping very near Isaiah.

Taking a look at his situation Isaiah remarks, “Woe is me,” or as we might say “I’m in deep water;” if we are in church we would say that. If we were outside of church we would say something else. You may fill in your own favorite, “Oh, I’m in deep trouble exclamation.” Like the man whose drinking been exposed by his son, Isaiah has nowhere to hide. When in front of God, we have nowhere to run…nowhere to hide.

Of course, Isaiah feels unclean and unworthy and is afraid that this very sight will cause instant death! The prophet's words are to quite so straight forward. Is Isaiah “lost” or “ruined?” I’m going to go a little pastor geek on you here because the Hebrew word in this case has three meanings. The word can mean "to be destroyed," or "be brought to silence," or "made in the likeness of God." One commentator from says that “It is possible that all three are meant because each tells a truth about humans and God. God can destroy us; an encounter could stun us into silence; and even when unclean we are still made in God's image.” The commentator finds it interesting that the word for "unclean" here is a word that implies that the prophet did not properly prepare for this encounter.

Perhaps, the guy at the funeral would have talked to me if he had thought to prepare himself…go to church a few times…do something nice for his neighbor so that he would feel pure enough. But, just as I don’t require people to clean up their lives in order to eat with me at a luncheon, neither does God wait for us to "get clean" before coming to us.

In fact, God acts just the opposite. Rather than waiting for Isaiah to get prepared, God sends over a Seraph with hot coals who touches Isaiah's lips and burns his uncleanliness away.  God makes sure that he is prepared. What we understand deeply about ourselves is that we cannot properly clean and prepare ourselves.  But, God can prepare us, and God does. Think of it; rather than waiting for us to clean up our acts, God sends Christ to forgive us. We have no reason to fear God. How easily we forget.

Maybe, we have no reason to fear God, but the story does not end there. The Lord is not done. We have been prepared for a reason.  And it is not long before God reminds us of something very important...something from our distant past that we may have forgotten: our call. The Lord gives Isaiah his call, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And, Isaiah said, "Here am I; send me!"

You were not created to live with no purpose. You were not created by a mistake of a one-night-stand. You were not the oops of your parents. I do not care what some of you have been told. From the foundation of the world, you have been created and called by God for a purpose. A commentator reminds us that, we may of course, "resist our call, but the truth is that we will not be whole until we answer God and become what we are created to be and do."

This truth is powerful, but it can also strike up another type of fear. Answering God’s call may no longer bring fear of God, but it does bring fear of failure, fear of being unliked, fear of being unfit, and fear of the unknown. God’s call will not necessarily make you into a rock star. It may be hard. Isaiah’s own call was to proclaim something hard to the nation which had the possibility of making him hated and lonely. God’s call is not necessarily the ride of your life, but it is the reason you were created. It may strike fear, but at the same time, following the call will feel quite natural. Again, we can resist the call, but we will not be whole…we will not be who we were created to be…until we answer it.

Is there really any other choice, than to say, “Here am I; send me!”

Cited commentary is by Beth Tanner, Assistant Professor of Old Testament at New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, NJ and can be found at:
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.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Reflection on Luke 4:21-30

Imagine for a moment that you are in church and you sit down in your pew and start to get yourself settled, taking off your coats, thumbing through the bulletin and announcements, and stretching your legs to stand for the first song, when someone comes walking into the church. This person has been a part of the church since the beginning, yet we have never seen him before. He comes to church more often than just Easter and Christmas…in fact he is a regular attendee, yet none of us has ever gotten to lay our eyes on him. No, he is not the phantom of the pew (which by the way is the third one back on the left side). Your eyes pop out of your head and your jaws drop as Jesus…our very own Jesus comes walking down the aisle.

The singing sort drops off as people slowly come to recognize and see who it is. It is Jesus! The choir keeps going, wondering what is wrong with the congregation this morning…must be a lot of flu…but eventually even they see Jesus coming to the front of the church.

Our very own, beloved Jesus reaches the front, turns around, searches for the Bible, and soon he has it in his hands. He opens the scriptures and begins to read,

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

He puts the Bible back, and sits down right in the middle of the floor. The eyes of everyone are glued to him. We wait for some words of wisdom. We wait for some words of life. And, finally we get what we were looking for, sort of. He says to us, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

We smile kindly at him. Someone in the back says, “That’s very nice.” Another is heard, “I’ve always liked that one.” Yet another, says, “I always thought that He had blue eyes, and what’s he doing wearing jeans to church?”

Jesus looks around at our adoring faces and says, “I have to be up front with all of you. I have to be straight up. I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that those who have been suffering are soon going to find their relief; those who are poor are going to find that they have enough to be filled; those who are held back in life because someone more powerful than them is holding them down are going to find their freedom; those who are in debt will find their debt swept away; and those who are imprisoned by their sin, will find their freedom.”

Then he leaves us hanging.  He simply gets up, and leaves through the left rear of the sanctuary. We stare at each other. “Is he done?”

No, he is not. He comes back in with a cup of water in His hand. “Sorry, I got thirsty,” He says as he takes his seat back on the floor.

Dave pipes up, “Hey Jesus, you said that their was bad news, I hope that this isn’t some joke…well actually I do hope that it is a joke.”

Jesus smiles and continues, “the bad news is that all of those wonderful things are not for you.”

We face him, confused; some of us are hurt, some of us are plainly baffled.

“Remember,” he continues, “the story of the widow in ancient Israel and her son who did not have any food? Only she and her son received food from God through the prophet Elijah. And, remember Elisha who was sent to Israel? He did not heal anyone in Israel, rather he healed a foreigner. So, I repeat two things. One: it is the year of the Lord’s favor. The oppressed will go free. You have heard my words.  You can live my words.  You can be a part of my words. Two: because of this, my words are not for you. They are for someone else. The gift is for others.”

And, so, we stare at Jesus…trying to make a decision. It is the same decision that those in Nazarene had so long ago. Do we sacrifice our own desires and strive to be a part of Jesus…to be a part of the year of the Lord’s favor when the blind see and the oppressed are set free; or do we simply take Jesus down to the river and drown him or on top of the hill and throw him off? Are we here for ourselves, or are we truly here to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor; when everyone will see the love of the Lord? What is our choice?

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 Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

It is a curious thing, even though Bible studies are rarely attended (not just in Lutheran Churches, but in all of the nation's churches), people are still curious about the Bible. I will be asked about the scriptures in the strangest places. I have been asked about the meaning of the crucifixion while buying lumber…I wonder what they were building. I have been asked about what God thinks of suicide in the post office. I have even been asked what the Bible has to say about pets going to heaven while standing in the K-mart shopping line next to the cheap DVD bin which coincidentally had a copy of “All Dogs God To Heaven” sitting right there. I’m not sure if the DVD sparked the question or mysteriously and quietly gave the answer.

It is so strange, people want to hear the Bible spoken anywhere but in a group that is devoted to engaging with God’s written word. It is strange, but I think there is an explanation for it. People do not want to study the word of God. People want to live with the Word of God. People want to pull it out of the religious institutions and into their lives.

The people of Jerusalem pull the scribe Ezra out of the temple, place God’s word in his hand, and ask him to read to them beyond the temple, beyond the water gate. "We want to hear God’s word right where we are. Give it to us Ezra, let us hear what God has to say to our situation." And, so Ezra begins to read the Hebrew Bible, and then takes time to put it into simple language.

That is what is happening in K-mart or at the lumber yard when God’s Word is sought; people are dragging us pastors and God’s word out into the world where it really matters. I imagine you dragging me downtown to the steps of the courthouse. You throw the Bible in my hand and shout at me, “Read to us all morning!” Not knowing where to start, I take the Jesus’ lead and open to Isaiah. Clearing my throat I nervously read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

The poor, who are walking up toward the courthouse door, hoping to keep their rented house of 20 years that they suddenly can no longer afford, turn and hear that there is good news in store for them from God: “It is the year of the Lord’s favor! The oppressed will not be forgotten.” They cry with tears of hope and push the courthouse door open, prepared to fight to keep their housing. A landlord hears the same words and stops ever so briefly with head down reconsidering his recent housing deals. The scriptures stop him for one brief and terrifying moment as he considers for the first time that his good fortune is in fact another’s person’s nightmare.

You have dragged me and the scriptures out of the church, and in doing so you have set the Word of God loose in the world.

You drag me on a plane down to Haiti. Making our way through confused and suffering people…some ask for water or any food that we might have on us, and others ask if we have seen their family…you drag me to the top of a rubble pile, throw the Bible into my arms, and demand that I read.

While I thumb through the pages with nervous sweat beading on my forehead a man yells, “What did we do to deserve this? Does God hate us?” I stare long, first at the man and then down where the pages have haphazardly fallen open. I read loudly from Luke 13 where some people ask Jesus if the 14 individuals who were killed in a tower collapse were being punished by God. I also read loudly Jesus’ response, “No.”

Again, I read from Luke that this is the “year of the Lord’s favor” where the poor will not be forgotten. The words do not give an answer to the devastation as they echo through the cracks of the rubble and above the crying of children. It is not an answer, but it is a conversation between God and those who are searching through the piles that were their former homes.

This time it is my turn. I pull you into the hospital room where my brother lays on his back, heaving his chest up and down with the assistance of a machine in the corner, struggling to cling to life. I thrust the Bible into your hands, and you open to the story of the empty tomb. You read about Jesus overcoming death and showing his wounds. I am stunned, doubtful that good news might be true now, but glad to hear a word of hope. A couple of days later you read me the same scripture and it speaks of joy for a new start for my brother, and struggle for a new start with so many scars to deal with.

In all of our trips together with scripture, we have not learned about scripture. We have not taken notes and memorized facts. Instead, we have lived with scripture. We have talked with it and it has talked back to us. We have allowed it to breathe into our souls both words of challenge and words of hope. You have drug the scriptures out of the institution and have set God's Word free to live with God’s people. When the scriptures have been turned loose, there is no telling what will happen.

For instance, what will happen if I turn loose this scripture to you, “Go your way, eat a glorious meal today and drink some sweet wine and send some of this great meal out to those whom have nothing prepared to eat, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be sad this day, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." I do not know what will happen, but do you not think it will be fun to see?

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 Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Baptisms are a beautiful thing. As a Pastor, you get to hold a small child close, look deeply into the baby’s eyes, and give a warm bath on the head as you say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."  On top of it all, you get to share in the warmth of the child as you carry the child around, presenting the child to the congregation. It is one of the most glorious moments that the church has to offer the world. It is not big and flashy, but it is worth a million bucks. Not only is a new member being brought into the congregation, but God’s grace is literally washing over the head of another person.

Now that I have set you at peace with those images of water, grace, love, and babies, I almost hate to continue with this sermon. Where the gospel text is leading me this morning is just not fair to either you or to me. This morning’s gospel text offers anything but a peaceful image of what Jesus has to offer in baptism. It is not water and love that Jesus offers, rather, it is fire and judgment.

But, let us not be too hasty right now. Why don't we just forget the word of God for now, OK? It is not pretty. Let's talk about gently falling snow on roses. Let’s talk about cold, refreshing streams of water from springs. Let’s talk about good times with friends. Let’s talk about a glass of wine in one hand and the hand of your loved one in another. Let’s talk about anything that is beautiful, and refreshing, and full of love, and full of liquid…full of lots of fire squelching liquid. Let’s not talk about fire today.

Let’s not talk about farmers bringing in their grain from the harvest and throwing it on the floor. Let’s not talk about the chaff that is scattered throughout the grain. Let’s not imagine that we see our own face on both the heads of the wheat and the on the top of the long strands of chaff. And we certainly should not imagine a farmer coming along and stabbing our chaffy faces with a pitchfork and throwing part of our very souls into a hot fire. We do not want to think about that. We do not want to think about God’s judgment right now. We do not want to think about our purification. We like John’s nice cool, gentle baptism of water. We do not want to imagine Jesus’ baptism of fire. We do not want to imagine lifting our child above a metal baptismal font filled with red, hot fire, ready to burn away part of our child. Let us just stop talking about judgment already!

But, if we stop talking about Jesus’ judgment on us, then the chaff never gets burned up. It continues to grow and clutter up our lives until it takes over our soul. I have met people who refuse to let the fire of the Holy Spirit burn away their unrighteousness. These people often appear stubborn, accusing of others, and always needing to be right. Do you know someone like this? Are you someone like this? When the Holy Spirit leads a friend to start a fire by kindly pointing out a person's faults, the person blows out the fire and seeks to destroy the former friend. I have met people who refuse to let the fire of the Holy Spirit burn away their unrighteousness, and it is sad to see.

I led the funeral of a woman who would fit the description of someone who claimed to love Jesus, but would never allow Jesus’ Holy Spirit to burn away the chaff. It was sad. A friend paid all of the costs of the funeral out of pocket, but could not find a single good word to say during the service. A son-in-law paid the entire cost of the funeral luncheon, but had no positive stories to tell while we ate. A handful of people showed up to the funeral, but not to pay respect to the woman, rather to be with the friend and the son-in-law in a time of grief. It was sad.

Jesus’ baptism with fire is a good thing. It may hurt; the truth always hurts. But, it burns away what is ugly and leaves behind the beautiful child of God whom God formed and molded with God’s own hands. Jesus’ judgment, Jesus’ baptism by fire is not an eternal punishing end to your life; rather it is the beginning of a new life. It is the beginning of a life that is anything but self-centered. It is a life that does not need to be right, but rather seeks what is good. It is a life that seeks to live in Christ’s love.

The Rev. Martin Luther King once reflected,

Every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don't think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, "What is it that I would want said?" ...Tell them not to mention [my]...awards—that's not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.

I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.

I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody...that I did try to feed the hungry...that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked...that I tried to love and serve humanity.... I just want to leave a committed life behind.

Baptisms by fire are beautiful in their own way. They are not clean and pure like baptism by water. But, they are Holy. And, Jesus’ baptism by fire permanently marks us as a child of God, preparing us not to live for ourselves and our own desires, but to live as grace-filled and loving children of God. It will prepare us to be someone of whom it will be said, “He/She tried to love somebody...did try to feed the hungry...did try in his/her life to clothe those who were naked...did try to love and serve humanity.”

Reflection on John 1:1-18

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being."

God’s Word; what a powerful force. Its very utterance cracks open existence and brings forth life. God says, “Let there be light.” And, as soon as God says it, the Word echoes through the darkness and brings light. God says, “Let us create human beings in our image,” and the Word tunnels into the dirt and fashions human beings.

When I was twelve or so, I was fascinated by this idea of such powerful words. I heard through some friends of this group of witches. They were Christian witches, so they said, and they claimed to have stumbled across the ancient words of God; the very words that God spoke to bring about life. They claimed that the word’s very utterance would create life where there was none before. They would run around the countryside, speaking these words, imagining that they were creating flowers and saplings. But, this was just the tip of the iceberg; they had discovered words for many things. Interestingly enough, these witches (who were late teens and early twenties in age) had amazingly stumbled across the words to create true love. Also very interesting, none of them had a boyfriend.

With those small elements of doubt cast aside, I experimented in my room with different words, trying to discover God’s ancient words. I would experiment on the dead flies in my window. I would force strange combinations of vowels and consonants at them to get them to come back to life. I figured a fly would be a good place to start. The word to create a fly had to be pretty simple. Sometimes I would think that I finally had it, but my air from my shouting had merely shifted the fly's position. I was not very good at discovering ancient words of power used by God in the beginning of time. But, that did not stop me from trying.

Later on, as a teenager, I would craft finely tuned sentences to try to get my parents to take me to the mall or to an amusement park. Sometimes the mall spell worked, however the amusement park spell never did.

I used finely crafted sentences to weave their way into the life of a friend who was incredibly depressed and doing all of the wrong things. Trying with all my might to keep him from drinking and experimenting with other substances, my words fell short of magical, and this friend ignored their power.

I am discovering that parents also believe that they wield magical words that can change the lives of their children and create new life in their lives. Parents truly do believe that these words will work to motivate and direct. They spend lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of time weaving together their magical words, only to have an hour’s worth of spell casting destroyed by one powerful little word, “whatever.”

We want others to have the best and to be the best. We want our words to weave their creative magic. We want control in a world of chaos. We desire more than anything to cry out into the darkness and create the light. There is only one problem, when we cry out, our words simply echo around in the darkness. They are our words after-all, not God’s words.

John the Baptist, never claimed to have God’s words. He never claimed that he could speak light into anyone’s life of darkness. You see, he knew and understood what we do not want to accept, “he himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” He was never fooled at a young age that his words could have real power. He understood whose Word could shape the world and whose Word could bring life. “The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world.” John understood that he could talk about God’s Word, but he could not control it. He could point to it, but he could not animate it.

Of course, we cannot have control of God’s Word. Of course, we cannot discover how to utter it to shape the world around us, because the Word is not a vowel or consonant that can resound from the mouth. God’s Word is not something to be spoke.  God's Word is someone. “And, the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

We cannot shape or control anything with our words, let alone God. But, we can let God in the flesh walk beside us. We cannot force God’s hand with words of demand, but we can ask and trust that God will do what God sees fit. You see, when God comes into the world, God will heap God’s grace wherever and on whomever God wants. We cannot control it. And, we certainly cannot tell God when to do it. All we can do is be a witness, like John, and point when God sends a beautiful young woman into your friend’s life who puts him back on track. All we can do is be a witness and point when God sends someone to gives food and shelter to the self-destructive. All we can do is be a witness and point when God heals the blind. And, perhaps, we will be called children of God, and be sent by God’s Word, Jesus Christ, to be the hands that feed the hungry or heal the hurt. But, notice our role is not one of demand or force. It is one of listening; listening carefully to Christ and following his word.

"It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known."

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.