Sunday, May 29, 2011

Reflection on Acts 17:22-31

What would you think of God if someone came into your life, watched you from afar for weeks, listened well, felt their way into your struggles and hopes, walked beside you through your daily tasks, learned the language of your life, and then presented God to you using the words and images of your own life? Would you be able to see God’s relationship with you as clearly as if someone had just wiped the fog from the glass of your bathroom mirror? What would you give to have Christ’s love put into the words of your own life? Would you give up all you own to have such a chance? And, with your new understanding, would you care for someone else in the same sort of way so that they too could have the sort of life in Christ that you have?

Unfortunately, I am not so certain that all of us get that sort of tender care and concern for our spiritual development. Often our first encounters with Jesus look a lot like the children’s sermon that Randele and I sat through while in seminary. The pastor invited all of the kids to the front of the church and then asked the simple question, “Why did your parents bring you here today?” Of course, the pastor held a young child in his mind that would wisely answer, “Because at our baptisms our parents promised that they would bring us here so that we might know the unconditional love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The vision of this spiritual honors student floated around in his head while the very real children before him raised their hands. Choosing a young boy, he asked again, “Why did you parents bring you here today?” In an exacerbated tone, the boy answered, “Because kids can’t drive.” Duh! Of course, since kids can’t drive, their parents drove them to church. You could literally see on the pastor's face the vision of his spiritual honor student pop as all of the children mutinously agreed that this was indeed the best and most obvious answer.

Sometimes I think back on that children’s sermon, and I wonder how differently it would have been if the pastor had taken time to simply play with the children of his congregation. Would he have been able to learn and use their own language to tell them about baptism and Jesus. What if he had simply remembered what it was like to take a bath? Would the fleeing dirt in the water have given him an idea as to how he might talk about sin and God’s cleansing grace?

As the Apostle Paul entered Athens, he did something that today we might see as extraordinary because we have such busy lives; he simply walked around and looked and listened. He went through the city and stared at their statues, looked inside their temples, read their plaques, and studied their poets. What Paul noticed as he looked around was a plaque underneath a statue. The dedication read, “to an unknown god.” What Paul saw, was that God was already at work here. What Paul saw was that the Athenians were open to seeing God and God is…they had no preconceptions.

Only after taking the time to learn about who the Athenians were and what they thought and how they lived, did Paul decide to paint a picture of Jesus, the unknown God, who has come down to earth and made himself known.

What would it be like to have Christ’s love put into the words of your own life?

How much joy would a farmer have when the farmer learned that God’s word is like seed that was spread and fell onto good soil? Would he understand and scatter the seed on other farmers?

How much joy would a homemaker have when she learns that life with God is as abundant as yeast that raises the bread so much that it spills out of the pan? Would she understand and spill God’s love on other homemakers?

How much joy would a poor person have when he or she learns that, in God’s kingdom, all of the awards shows would honor them; the poor, the blessed. Would they run into the streets and shout for joy that they have not been forgotten?

Over the years I have learned a lot about living in Jesus and Jesus in me. There is much more to learn I am sure, but one thing that I do know is that, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus walks beside me…not moving too quickly…taking the time to see and listen and learn my language, and then shaping me using words and images and stories that I can understand.

Have you ever considered just walking with someone, learning their language, and seeing what God is up in their lives, and then, using their own words, revealing the unknown God to them? Belief is more than simply accepting and reciting a Creed. It is an actual relationship with Christ. And, relationships require some time to learn each others’ languages before the friendship can grow. So, have you ever considered just walking with someone, so that through a relationship they may gain Jesus’ assurance to all?

Reflection on John 20:19-31

There are a few things that I refuse to do today, and most of them surround Thomas the twin! The first thing that I refuse to do today is to call Thomas by his common nickname: Doubting Thomas. Such a derogatory name makes Thomas sound like a weak of faith, short, and depressed disciple. The name makes him sound like the primary actor in a black and white Zoloft commercial. “Do you find that you cannot believe in the Lord at least four times a week? Do you have chest pains at the sound of his name or troubles trusting in his word? Maybe Zoloft can help.” Cannot you just imagine the image of a modern Thomas sitting silhouette in a window, staring gloomily outside with the bible uselessly collecting dust on the floor nearby?

But, Thomas is not depressed, and I can prove it. When most of the disciples are mopping about, locked in their little tomb of a room in fear of the Judeans (this is the same time when Jesus comes and appears to them) guess who has not holed himself up in a little room and therefore was not there to see Jesus? Thomas, of course. Who knows where Thomas is when Jesus reveals himself, but at least Thomas is out in the world. Unlike his fellow disciples, Thomas is far from depressed.

Nor, is Thomas plagued by the lack of trust in God that his nickname, Doubting Thomas, seems to imply. Thomas does not have a problem trusting in God. He is the one who leads the rest of the disciples to “go and die” with Jesus when Jesus reentered hostile territory in order to raise Lazarus from the dead. Now, that is trust. How could I possibly degrade this courageous soul by dubbing him “Doubting Thomas?”

Of course, there is the part where he refuses to believe that Jesus is risen. But, refusing to believe off hand what someone else has experienced can hardly be considered doubt, it is merely unbelief. Doubt and unbelief are not quite the same. Doubt is a deep, fundamental lack of trust. Unbelief is just that, not being able right now to believe something; a condition caused by lack of evidence. And, the next time you to sit down next to the fireplace and crack open the Greek Bible for a little bit of light reading, if you looked at this story you would see that the Bible never says that Thomas “doubted.” Trusting God was not his problem, but I do think he did have one issue: he did not want to be hurt again.

You can hear it in his words, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” He refuses to simply let himself be hurt like this again. The very person, whose cause Thomas previously would have died for, was gone. Unless, Thomas can have proof, he will not be hurt again! This is not doubt, this is wisdom, and I can understand it.

I can understand it. People get their hopes high all the time, only to have them destroyed in seconds. I knew of a woman who had her hopes set on a man who might deliver her from the poverty stricken houses of her childhood. She did not ever want to find her shelter under a car again in her life. The woman poured her heart and soul and entire life savings into this wonderful man, who promptly took her savings and gambled it away. Guess what, she found herself taking shelter under a car once again. After the man was gone from her life, she was skeptical of future men; as she should have been. She would not be hurt again.

And, Thomas is skeptical, as he should be. You do not just pour your heart and soul into someone again after being hurt like that. Thomas is no fool. You need proof the second time. Thomas needs proof that the Lord really is back. He needs to see and feel with his own eyes and hands.

Unbelief is an underrated virtue. The gift of unbelief…the gift of skepticism…is a gift from God and it allows a person to focus on the truth, rather than simply what others say is the truth.

I refuse to say anything against Thomas this morning because, rather than being the doubting disciple who lacks belief like I have heard so many other preachers spout out of their mouths, I see that Thomas is actually a model disciple of sorts. He did not fear death, nor those who might bring it to him, either before or after Jesus’ crucifixion. In addition, he never simply trusted what anyone said, even those closest to him, preferring to see and feel the truth for himself. Preferring to be close to Christ; preferring to abide in Christ and Christ in him.

And, there is one last thing that makes him a great. It is the one gift from God…ability really…that I hope each of us can take away with us this morning. When Thomas looked and touched, he not only saw Jesus, but he saw God. Thomas is the only person in scripture to look at Jesus and say, “My Lord, and my God.” When Thomas looks around and studies what is in front of him with his skeptical eye, he is able to see God at work in the world.

God is at work in the world; despite the pain and despite the loss. Really, God is there, even in the tornado damage of the south and the fallen houses of Japan and Haiti, and in the streets of Towanda, and even in your own friends and family. It may be difficult, but look hard, God is at work, present with the joyful and suffering alike. May we have the eyes of Thomas to see God, so that we can join in the work God is doing.

Reflection on Matthew 28:1-10

Jesus Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia. I once had a pastor who made us say that phrase over and over and over again Easter morning.  "How many times are you going to make us do that today!" I asked myself.

As if he could hear my thoughts, he declared, "We are going to say this until you mean it!"

“Until you mean it,” that is what another pastor said to me during my teenage years…alright he did not say it to “me,” he said it to everyone. But, I felt like he said it to me, and I feared that every time he made us shout that thing the word “dork” would slowly scribble again across my face until I was completely blackened with dorkyness. “Stop Pastor already, you are embarrassing me in front of all of the other Christians who are saying it too at the exact same time.” Alright, I was a teenager so cut me some slack. I was focused on myself and I did care about what I said and did. And, I did not think it was honest to shout something that I did not even understand. Say it until you mean it…what if I did not mean it? What if I did not even know what it meant in the first place? “He is risen indeed.” Who cares?

Well, Mary Magdalene cared for one.

Mary Magdalene comes in and shouts to the disciples that Jesus is risen, and that she has seen him!

For Mary this was not just some embarrassing, ancient, out-of-date church rite. For Mary, the sight of Jesus raised from the dead was the unsealing of a tomb for her life. You have to understand, Mary and all of Jesus followers put their whole lives into his ministry. Mary went as far as putting even her money and trust into Jesus. So, you can see how the execution and death of the one she trusted meant her own death, both emotionally and probably even financially. All of her hopes and dreams were sealed in the tomb with Jesus. And, as we all know, once tombs are sealed, there is no coming back. Her hopes were gone, for good.

Have you even been there? Have you ever had your hopes and dreams buried away in a tomb? Maybe, someone else buried them for you: telling you that you would never be good enough or smart enough.

Tim was convinced that he would never amount to anything. I have to say right out that Tim was a brilliant teenager. He did extremely, extremely well in school. He simply was a genius, and he was kind and caring on top of it all. Now, at this point, I understand that this story makes no sense to you. How can such a great kid feel like he would never amount to anything? Well, Tim’s Uncle, brother, and even his own dad were all in federal penitentiaries for separate murders. As his friend, I knew he was a great person, but when everyone else looked at him, they simple saw someone to be feared. Other people had carved out Tim’s tomb and rolled the stone over the entrance, sealing his dreams inside.

Have you even been there? Have you ever had your hopes and dreams buried away in a tomb? Maybe, unlike Tim, you did it yourself. Maybe, you destroyed your entire life all on your own and you have no one to blame but yourself. It does not matter if you did it or someone else. A tomb is a tomb, and what is put in a tomb never comes out again.

But, what if it did? What if your dreams did come back? What if you opened your mail and found out that you were accepted into the prestigious school MIT on full scholarship, even after they found out about your murderous family? Would you drive around town shouting out of your car window, “I made it…I make it…I made it!” like Tim did?

What if someone gave you another chance at life, even after you completely messed it all up? What if God forgave you for everything, even the unspeakable stuff? Would you run and tell your friends?

What if the one you trusted and in who you put all of your hopes did come back; for you? Would you run and shout to the others who trusted in Him that he was alive! Would you shout, “he is risen indeed?” Because, I am here to tell you, the tomb is not the end. Whether you carved the tomb yourself, or someone else did, the tomb is not the end. Jesus will not let your hopes rot in a tomb. Death cannot hold him down. He is risen indeed, and so are your hopes. What would you shout if Jesus came to you and raised your hopes from the tomb, giving them new life?

Reflection on John 20:1-18

“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

That first Easter did not start out joyful. There was no initial shout of Alleluia, nor any reassurance of Jesus’ eternal and unfailing light. No, before that sort of celebration was desperate searching for the Lord, and the pain of losing someone very important.

“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

I still hear these words in my office and in the break room at work, though they sound more like, “I once believed, but now I am not so sure.” “Where is God? I do not know where to even begin looking.”

I remember seeing a heart wrenching scene in the hospital. An elderly mother was laying in the hospital bed, crying out, “I’m so alone,” as her daughter sat next to her, holding her hand and looking helplessly into the woman’s eyes. The old woman did not have dementia, she was simply very lonely. The woman confided in me that God had left her, worse, everyone had abandoned her. I looked up at her daughter and she simply stared helplessly. I knew what she was thinking, “I am here mom.”

Sometimes the one you are looking for is standing right in front of you, but you are locked away tight in your own tomb. Mary did not recognize Jesus, supposing him to be the gardener. She was searching, but she could not find. She needed to see, but was unable to open her eyes.

I do not know about you, but I find it hard, if not impossible to open my own eyes. I find it impossible to make myself see God or feel God’s care. Ask any depressed person and they will tell you that you cannot just make yourself quit being depressed. Heck, they cannot even make themselves get up out of the chair. How do you make yourself do something that you do not know how to do. It is like me telling you to just build a jet. Just do it. How? I do not know how, I have forgotten, or maybe I never knew.

I love the resurrection story in John, because it is about more than Jesus’ defeat of death…though that is important. What I love is that Mary does not find Jesus. In fact, she does worse than not find Jesus, she talks right to him and still cannot see him. Why do I love this? Because, when you are struggling in life, and you cannot “just” do anything, you need Jesus to call you by name. And, Jesus does. “Mary!” Jesus said to her. Only when Mary is called by name can “she turn…and said to him in Hebrew ‘Rabbouni!” (which means teacher). She does not search and find Jesus. Jesus searches and finds her.

You do not find, but you are found. Jesus is not yours, but you always belong to Jesus. Death could not hold him down, and neither can you. When Jesus searches, he always finds.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Reflection on John 11:1-45

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, "Lord, he whom you love is ill." 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, "This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it." 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Did you see that? Did you catch the significance of that? “After hearing that Lazarus was ill, Jesus stayed two days longer.” It is a hot, lazy middle-eastern day and Jesus will get around to the sweaty work of miracles sometime. This proves that Jesus would have felt right at home as a porch sit’n, banjo play’n Southerner on a hot day. He came from a backwoods town, grew up in a backwards area, and considered arriving sometime within the same week a mark of being on time.

Though I am literally not there with you, I can tell that joke did not quite fly like I thought it would. Or, maybe, God’s absence is just not amusing. When you are laying in bed late at night, staring up at the lazy moon, the worthless moon that just sits there in the sky and does nothing to still the fears of the mind, Jesus’ absence is not amusing.

“Where is Jesus?” Mary asked herself while her brother struggled through nights of fevers and chills and then death. “Where is He?” On such nights we desire Jesus to be a Wall Street Hedge Fund Manager; on time, ahead of schedule even, and attentive to every movement and manipulation.

But, God will do what God wants to do in God’s own time, and there’s nothing that we can do about it. Even in prayer we cannot make God do anything; Jesus may simply say, “No,” or “Not right now.” Perhaps, that perception is just a little negative. Maybe, God does do the right thing at the right time and we are just impatient? Maybe, God cares about this life too, not just the afterlife. But, that provides little comfort when we stare at the cold, uncaring moon at night.

Back to the story.

7 Then after this he said to the disciples, "Let us go to Judea again." 8 The disciples said to him, "Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?" 9 Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them." 11 After saying this, he told them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him." 12 The disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right." 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him." 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."

Jesus does act on Jesus’ own time. As frustrating as this can be, we do see that once Jesus sets his mind to something, He will not be deterred even by threats of pain and death from his opponents. For Jesus, death is not an obstacle. Life will win.

I once playfully asked a fellow pastor friend if they would die for me. They looked me square in the eyes and said, “You rate just under my grandmother in importance in life, and I wouldn’t give a finger for that old bitty.” After the smile, he said in a serious tone, “but, Jesus would die for you, and the bible says that Jesus is in me. I think there’s a pretty good bet I would come through for both you and her.”

You can see the stirrings of Jesus and the life that He brings already inside Thomas as he sets off, into hostile territory with his Lord, undeterred by death.

Back to the story.

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." 23 Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." 24 Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." 25 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life.

“And,” it is such a simple, yet important word. “And.” I am the resurrection “and” the life. Martha falls into a religious trap that so many of us do: that faith is only about life beyond the pearly gates. Martha tries to comfort herself with the idea that her brother will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.

Once a woman, with tears in her eyes, grieving over the loss of her husband said to me, “the only thing that is keeping me going in life is knowing that he is not in pain anymore and that he is in a better place now.”

Really, where else could this woman or Martha find comfort in such a situation? But, Jesus is concerned about both resurrection “and” life. Jesus does care that life spring forth in the here and now. And, the stirrings of new life have already begun with Jesus’ arrival.

Back to the story.

Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" 27 She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." 28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, "The Teacher is here and is calling for you." 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." 35 Jesus began to weep.

“Jesus wept.” Need I say more? God may work in God’s own time, but God is not coldhearted. Suffering is suffering, pain is pain, and grief is grief even if you know it will come out well in the end. Jesus wept. As spring showers refresh the earth, sometimes tears are required for new life to spring up.

Back to the story.

36 So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" 37 But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?" 38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days." 40 Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go." 45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

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 John 9:1-41

1 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" 3 Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; but he is blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.

“I must have done something to deserve this.” “You must have done something to deserve the struggle you have been handed!” “Everything happens for a reason.” “What goes around, comes around.”

There is a famous psychological study that included two groups of people: a control group and the experimental group. Both groups sat in a dark room and watched the same video. It was a scene of a typical interaction between a mother and her son after school. The control group was asked to describe the mother. All in the control group said that she was nice and the interaction was appropriate for a mother and teenaged son. So far, there is nothing exciting about this study, until you look at the experimental group. The experimental group also was asked to describe the mother. However, there was one big difference. After the video was run, the experimenters told the experimental group that a week later the son tragically died in a car accident. To the experimenters shock, when asked to describe the mother the majority of the people in the experimental group described the mother as mean. Most were hyper-critical of her interaction with her son in the video. The conclusion: people inherently need to believe that people deserve what they get.

Did the blind man deserve to be blind? Did he deserve to be locked away in darkness for most of his life? Jesus answer is, “No.” No, he did not do anything. No, his parents did not do anything. “How about you consider this,” Jesus says, “maybe instead of assuming that someone deserves what they get, assume that it is simply a bad situation that God will use to work a miracle.”

Have you ever wondered not “Why did this happen to me?” but, “I wonder how God is going to use this one?” “Great, I lost my job. I wonder how God is going to use this one?” “Wonderful, heart disease; I wonder how God is going to use this one?” “Terrific, I won a million dollars, I wonder how God is going to use this one?” That last one touches me right here (touching the heart emphatically). We do not always see how there will be a good answer, but asking how God will use a bad situation is definitely a better response than one that assumes that we deserve what we get.

Back to the story…

4 [Jesus said,] We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man's eyes, 7 saying to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam" (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, "Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?" 9 Some were saying, "It is he." Others were saying, "No, but it is someone like him." He kept saying, "I am the man." 10 But they kept asking him, "Then how were your eyes opened?" 11 He answered, "The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, "Go to Siloam and wash.' Then I went and washed and received my sight." 12 They said to him, "Where is he?" He said, "I do not know."

This story confirms the answer that every young child who plays in the mud knows to their mother’s question regarding mud. "God created mud to get things clean, of course." With plain old mud, Jesus cleans the eyes of the blind. With plain old water, Jesus washes away our sin. With plain old bread, Jesus feeds our souls for life. With plain old you God is going to…well Jesus is going to…well I do not know! I really do wonder how God is going to use pain old you and plain old me and my lazy second cousin on my mother’s side? “I wonder how God is going to use this one,” I ask pointing to the slob of a second cousin, knowing that God can and God will. If God can and will use mud, God can and will use even him, and you, and me.  (By the way, the second cousin on my mother's side thing was made up...I do not want any emails from second cousins on my mother's side!  Those on my father's side...well...)

Back to the story…

13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, "He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see." 16 Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath." But others said, "How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?" And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, "What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened." He said, "He is a prophet." 18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, "Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?" 20 His parents answered, "We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself." 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, "He is of age; ask him."

Whoever said that Bible stories set good standards for “family values” has obviously never read the Bible. I think that it is safe to say that these parents would never be nominated for a “parent of the year” award. “Let’s see, if anyone says that Jesus is a savior, the religious officials will make sure to strip away our entire social life including worship and community connections, thus putting job and family connections on the line, we will therefore decide to have them talk to our son instead." Yay, it is throw your son under the bus in order to save ourselves day! "Ask him if Jesus is the Messiah yourself;" thump, thump.

At least the Pharisees are asking questions. At least they are willing to at least try to see. The parents are happy to be blind to Jesus and what God has done for their son. You can say a lot about the Pharisees, but at least they are looking around.

Just as today, people can say a lot about those who say they are atheists, but at least those who say they are athiests are asking the questions…at least they are looking around…at least they are not denying what they know to be true.

Back to the story…

24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, "Give glory to God! We know that this man [Jesus] is a sinner." 25 He answered, "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." 26 They said to him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?" 27 He answered them, "I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?" 28 Then they reviled him, saying, "You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from." 30 The man answered, "Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." 34 They answered him, "You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?" And they drove him out.

“I once was blind, but now I see, but now it does not matter because I have been driven out of my synagogue, my community, and my family and there is no one left for me to look at.”

On a light note, the former blind man could move on to a very successful country music career…I lost my church, I lost my job, I lost my family, I lost my mule… But, this is not a light note. This is just the way life is, you just get something great, like your sight, and something else is taken away…like your entire life. You just get your relationship with your spouse or children back on track, and then you get cancer. This is not a light note for the blind man.  The man's miraculous healing (the thing that he has dreamed for his entire life) has not imporved his life, rather it has left him destitute.

"God what did I do to deserve this? God, why did this have to happen…wait…stop…take a breath…let’s start over. I wonder how God is going to use this one?"

35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when [Jesus] found him, he said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" 36 He answered, "And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him." 37 Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he." 38 He said, "Lord, I believe." And he worshiped him.

The formerly blind man was delivered from a life of blindness, a life with back stabbing parents, and a life with blind religious leaders who would drive you out of town, to a life with the one who loves you and would never drive you away; Jesus. Maybe, God could do something good with this one also.

39 Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" 41 Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, "We see,' your sin remains.

This is the way of God’s sheep. We do not know where we are being led. We also do not know where we are going, but we are not blind or stupid. The one who leads us also sees us, and we see the one who leads; Jesus the Christ. We do not necessarily know what God is up to, but we do trust that God is going to use whatever falls in our path for good.

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.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Reflection on Psalm 121 and Genesis 12:1-4a

I am not sure that I have many answers for you today, but I have plenty of questions. As we stare out to the hills and beyond, staring at a world destroyed by an untamed ocean of tsunami waters that wash away cars, buildings, and lives; staring at a world where dictators gun you down for disagreeing; staring at a world where loved ones can be taken away in seconds; staring at a world where all you have worked for (house, job, car, etc.) can be taken away in seconds either by a flood or by the complete breakdown of your relationships; as we stare at such a world we wonder with the Psalmist, “where is my help to come.”

Of course, the Psalmist has the answer; “my help comes from the Lord,” and that is supposed to be the end of it, I guess. Every Sunday School student knows that either “God” or “Jesus” will stop the incessant questions from the teacher and allow you to go back to eating your crayons. But, it is one thing to say, “my help come from the Lord” in order to answer the question correctly, it is another thing to actually believe it.

The world, has all the answers, of course. When life has destroyed all you have, the world answers, “Maybe you deserved it. Maybe you did something wrong and you are being punished? Why don’t you just work a little harder?”

That is always the world’s answer, is it not? Work a little harder. Trust in yourself, and you will get through it all. Trust in your abilities, and you will be fine. Dig deep down! Find your hidden potential. Your grandfather overcame the greatest of obstacles. This implies at best that you also will overcome the greatest of obstacles and at worst, you are not worthy of your grandfather’s name if you do not.

Sometimes the world’s ideas leak into the church and we say, “God will never give you more than you can handle.” The typical misunderstanding of these words from Paul are not a call to trust in the Lord who comes to your help or a call to trust in your community who, together, can surely overcome anything, as Paul actually meant when he said “God will not let y’all be tested beyond y’all's strength." Rather, we hear it as a call to trust in yourself. God will never give you more than you can handle. So, try harder.  The words wreak of failure when you indeed have more than you can handle. Sometimes, the church of grace sounds an awful lot like the world: your works will save you. What if my works cannot save me? Where is my help to come?

Surely, there is something to buy that can save you: a book of wise answers maybe; some chocolate cannot hurt; some more clothes will always help. What if you do not have the money to buy these cheap gods? Where is my help to come?

You know where all of this is going, of course. The end of the sermon will surely follow along with Psalm 121 and say, “my help comes from the Lord, who made the heavens and earth.” Then there will be some sort of exhortation to just trust in God. "Trust," another work to be done if you can swing it. Surely that is where the sermon is going.

But, what if you cannot just trust? What if life has beat you down so much that you just are not sure that there is a God to trust. The sermon cannot end there and be considered a helpful Lutheran sermon. I cannot tell you to trust. Luther himself in the small catechism (you know, that little book that you were forced to memorize but don’t actually remember…it actually says some pretty profound and amazing stuff) it says in the explanation of the third article of the creed that, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him.” A good Lutheran sermon cannot end with, “just trust in Jesus and things will be fine,” because we actually believe that we are incapable of trusting God. Luther goes on to say that faith is a gift given by the Holy Spirit. You cannot go out and collect it off of the lawn or gather it up from the store shelves of your soul. Those shelves are bare.

So now what? If I cannot even get faith, then what?

I guess we wait and hope that Holy Spirit will come to our help. I think that hope is really underestimated in its power. Hope allows you to remember that God created the heavens and the earth. If God can do that, maybe God will create a new life for you also. This is not trust in what is certain, but hope that God may make it happen. Hope allows you to remember that God saved the Israelites from Pharaoh, and brought the exiled back from foreign lands, and raised Jesus up on the third day, and actually helped you through the death of your grandfather. Hope is not certain, but, if God delivered us in the past, maybe God will deliver us again. We do not know for sure, but we have hope.

It was in hope that Abraham set out from where he lived to journey to unknown places with God. Did he know for certain that God would take him somewhere where God would make of Abraham a new nation? Of course not. Just as a newly dating couple has no idea where the relationship will go, Abraham sets out in hope. Nothing more. Just hope. He hopes that God will bring him to someplace good.

I guess, sometimes, there is not much more that we can do either. We can just hope that God has not fallen asleep; we can just hope that God will deliver us from evil; we can just hope that God will give us something to trust; we can just hope that Jesus’ death and resurrection means new life for us also; when all else has failed, at the bottom of life we still have the gift of hope. And sometimes, hope is enough. When we stare out at the hills, we imagine that God will come and deliver us in some unexpected way. But, until we see God crest the hill, we lift our eyes to the hills and hope. Maybe, this sort of hope is actually what faith is all about.

Reflection on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

The serpent slithers its way down the tree, the beautiful, bright fruit is plucked from the tree, a crisp bite is taken, the woman shares it with the man and the delicious juices of the knowledge of good and evil run down both of their lips. They look down in shame, the nakedness of who they are and what they have done laid bare.

This is the story of Adam and Eve, of course. It is one of the most iconic biblical images in our culture, featured in fine art, film, and the most refined genres of all the arts; shampoo commercials. It is the story that we all think we know. It is the story about humanity’s fall from grace. It is the story that describes humanity’s sin. But more than those, it describes what it means to be human. And it says, to be human is to be insecure. Before the first sin was ever committed, before the first bite was ever taken, defying the order, “you can eat of all the trees, just not that one, or you will die,” before any of that, there was insecurity. Theologian David Lose goes as far as giving it an official name, not original sin, but original insecurity.

This story of insecurity plays itself out soon after God tells the humans not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent, like a cat surrounding its prey, toys with the human soul and the hole leaching of insecurity that can be found in each person’s heart. “You will not die if you eat the fruit, you are simply missing out on something,” the serpent bats at the couple as they stand there. “You are missing out on knowledge that only God has. You can have it. You can be made whole…more complete…just like God…just eat,” the snake insinuates with its slippery words.

Humans may have been made good, but this story indicates that we were not made completely whole; we are missing God. Being created is a beautiful thing, but it has one inherent problem, the very act of creation separates us from our God. We inherently have a God shaped hole that we try to fill with many things we find at hand; fruits of knowledge, intense relationships, personal accomplishments, delusions of self-sufficiency, and the things we are told will make us more complete, like good looking running shoes that will make us healthy and develop us into a stronger person. Do not believe those advertisers, I have great looking running shoes sitting in the closet and I am not healthier or stronger. They did not fill my God shaped hole.

Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century French philosopher, spoke of the God shaped hole, but did not speak of it in these negative terms as I have. He thought of the hole as the one thing within us that continually and inherently draws us to seek a closer relationship with God. Note: that Jesus’ very own notion of ultimate wholeness is when he abides (or lives) in you, and you live in him. You are made complete when Jesus is able to live inside. The hole is a gift that makes us yearn to be closer to God.

So, with that gift in mind, Adam and Eve then are tempted, not to sin, but to fill their God shaped hole with something other than God. Adam and Eve are tempted to think that God is not trustworthy; that God is somehow holding out.

Is this not the very thing that Jesus is tempted with in the wilderness? “If you are the Son of God, you will be given the power to make stones into bread.  Prove that God will provide.” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down and prove that God will send some angels to save you.” “I will give you all the world, all you could ever want, just worship me,” the tempter says. In other words Satan asks, “How do you know that God isn’t holding out on you? Why don’t you fill your hole with something else right here and right now? Why wait?”

You may disagree with me, but I think that most of us would do much worse than Jesus with these temptations, and would then try to cover up our naked shame with the nearest fig leaf. Though I am not going to ask you directly, I bet you could name right now what temptation you use to fill your God shaped hole. This story is about us.

Most of us think we know the end of the Adam and Eve story: Adam and Eve are punished by God with the consequences of working hard, having painful childbirths, and being kicked out of the garden forever. I would pose that this is not the most important part of the story’s end. What we fail to see when we focus on the punishment is that God does not kill them on the day they ate, as promised. God shows mercy. We also fail to see that God takes away the stupid fig leaves and sows real clothes for them to wear. God cares to their needs. And, we ultimately fail to see that God helps them to thrive in the world and build great cities. These acts of love are all in the story. Look it up for yourself. These acts are a sort of resurrection for Adam and Eve, a new life given to them by God; the God who does not forget God’s own children. Even when it appears that insecurity and death are going to win, God still triumphs; this is the promise of the cross.

Perhaps, we fail to see these good things because we are inherently insecure and cannot see good things. Perhaps, we are in too much of a rush to fill our God shaped holes with something else that we fail to allow our holes to be a gift; a gift that draws us toward God just as a baby is inherently drawn towards its loving parents.

The Adam and Eve story, in the end, is about us. We do not do any better with our temptations than Adam and Eve did with theirs; but Jesus did. Jesus remembered who he was and whose he was through all of his temptations in the wilderness, through all of his doubts in the garden, through his pain on the cross, and beyond his death into his resurrection. And, though we might not always allow Jesus to fill our God shaped holes, Jesus most certainly does not forget to keep us in him. We are in him as he rises to new life and to new possibilities.

Pray with me the words of Saint Augustine, "[God,] you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you." May we at last find rest in you, Almighty God. Amen.

Reflection on Matthew 17:1-9

Welcome to everyone’s favorite church holiday! Transfiguration Sunday! I know you have been waiting all year for this holiday to arrive. After all of the anticipation you can finally…well…go to church and listen to the bible…and sing hymns…and listen to the pastor blab on…you know, stuff you cannot do any other Sunday! Come to think of it, we do not do anything special for Transfiguration Sunday really. What a lame holiday. But, at least you can go to church and see the white banners! That is something you do not see every Sunday except for the season of Easter and the 40 days of Christmas and Holy Trinity Sunday and All Saints Sunday, and Christ the King Sunday, and other random saint commemorations throughout the year. Forget it! It’s lame.

As you may already know from years past, I hate this Sunday. And, it has a lot to do with the story. Look at this wreck of a piece of scripture! It is a story of wandering up a mountain, Jesus glowing like a plastic night light shade, Peter stuttering and bumbling over the appearance of Moses and Elijah, and then as soon as it has all started, it is over…not to be talked about.

What does a preacher say to you about this? Give me a nice “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Or, a striking “love your neighbor as yourself.” Or, at least a story with Jesus healing someone. These I can do something with! “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” You are all loved. No matter how hard you fail and wreck your spirit, you are blessed! Nice…very nice. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Since you are loved by God, join with God in the mission of love others! Bold challenge there. “You are healed.” Words for even the lowest of us…words that promise hope. You are healed. God does not forget you. Inspiring!

What can I say about the transfiguration? Sometimes Jesus likes to rip open his superhero suit and glow in the dark. Should the church buy some glow sticks and wave them around in the dark in celebration? This is all just ridiculous.

I am admittedly a heady person. I like to think about the faith. I like to hold a reasonable faith. I like to understand. And, this story does not allow me to do that. This story is anti-intellectual. It is beyond reason and plays on the soul somewhere else entirely.

Even Peter knows this to be true. He cannot make heads or tails of his situation. He sees lighthouse Jesus, displaying a beacon of hope to all ships sailing up mountains. He notes with interest that Jesus likes to talk with dead people…at least they are famous people; Moses and Elijah. And, as soon as he tries to make sense of the whole situation, create a tent around the situation, create a proper sanctuary for everything…being reasonable about it all, God blasts a voice from the heavens that stops him mid-sentence, mid-understanding, and mid-boxing-in of God.

Maybe, this story is not meant to be understood, or even talked about. Jesus does tell Peter, James, and John to keep their mouths shut, at least until the resurrection. Maybe, they should have just kept their mouths shut period.

It is like the great preacher Will Willimon once related about this text. Once you start preaching about weird, mystical experiences like this to people, they feel like they have an invitation to pull you aside and tell you about their own weird experiences. Like the guy who pulled him aside and said “This might sound crazy but I think that I’ve finally figured out what I am going to do with my life. I am going to be a teacher!”

“Oh,” Pastor Willimon said, “that’s a big thing, how did you come to this conclusion?”

“Well, you see, I was thinking about teaching while driving, and I saw this bumper sticker that said ‘Go!’ It was like it was from God. When I saw that, I was certain.”

Pastor Willimon looked at the man and said, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”

Stories like this are a problem to those of us who want to understand the faith. These sort of stories have meaning way beyond the way we do or talk about church. But, they are powerful experiences non-the-less. They are experiences that often shape and define who we are and who we will become.

Maybe that is the problem with this story. It is a story that judges our need to understand God and judges our own need to safely predict the future and make a stable present. It defies our need to make sense of the world and leaves us in an uneasy state of bewilderment.

Struggling in his own state of bewilderment, Peter literally starts to babble, not understanding what he is saying, and like a big finger that reaches down and finally shuts him up God's voice thunders, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" In other words, God says, "Enough of trying to understand and control and predict already! You don’t need to understand! Jesus already has a direct connection. Just listen to him!"

Theology and religion are fun to talk about over a beer or a cup of coffee, but that is not what being a disciple is about. Being a disciple is about a relationship with God. The best relationships are not analyzed; they are just lived and enjoyed. Being a disciple is about living with Jesus and listening to him. You do not understand what God is up to? It does not matter, just listen to him. He will not lead you astray.

As I think about this more and more, I realize that I cannot bad-mouth this text much longer. I remember sitting with a man, behind the locked doors of his hospital room, talking about why he tried to kill himself. His main reason was that he could not find answers. Why did his wife die? Why did his Dad die a week later? Why did he lose his job? I did not have any of the answers. I recall starting to babble a little bit, struggling to find a way to help to young man. I cannot believe I forgot about this, but I actually told him this story, about how Peter did not understand what was going on. And, the solution for Peter was not understanding, but simply listening.

“Seeing as we are both confused, why don’t we just try to listen to Jesus,” I suggested. And, so we did. We listened our way out of the pain. We listened our way into a future life. We did not understand, but we did not need to; Jesus already understands and knows how best to guide us as people of God. We just did our best to listen. Listen to him.

Reflection on Matthew 5:38-48

I think that by now most of us have seen that amazing photograph stemming from the protests in Egypt that portrays Christian protesters linked, hand-in-hand, circling and protecting the Muslim protesters as they set their bodies toward Mecca in prayer. The Christians, in effect, created a human shield that would block those in prayer from any harm.  The photograph is amazing and it strikes us as a rare gift of love on the part of the Coptic Christians.  However, this was not the first time that something like this has happened in Egypt.

Some time ago, another photo was taken in Egypt.  The photo was not as popular and did not spread around the Internet in any viral way, but it is not any less powerful.  It portrays Muslims circling around Coptic Christians while the Christians gathered for Christmas Eve worship just after the New Years Day bombing of Coptic Christians. It is an amazing photo, because among the Muslims protecting the Christians are women and children. They had decided to create a human shield that would protect the Christians against a regime that hated the Coptics.

As we in the West stare at these two photographs, we cannot help but think that they might make ideal posters for Jesus’ message: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

It looks like an example of loving your enemies to Westerners because Westerners, in general, have been convinced by friends, political pundits, some Christian leaders, and maybe even our own experience that Christians and Muslims are to be enemies.

However, in Egypt this generally is not true. In Egypt, most Christians and Muslims are friends.  With a bigoted regime aside, most Christians and Muslims in Egypt would never consider each other enemies.  Most Egyptians say that any haterd between the two groups either stems from the regime, or it is a foreign hatred leaking onto their soil from the outside.

So, this leads me to wonder, if Muslims are not the enemies of Christians in Egypt, then must they be our enemies in the West?  I am not certain that anyone is inherently an enemy of anyone else.

I recall my enemy in late elementary school: Rich (the name has been changed to protect the guilty).  He was the class bully and was the enemy of the entire class, including me. There was not much that our class could agree on, but one thing was that Rich was to be uniformly hated. I was fine with this arrangement, except for one small problem, there were times when I actually liked the guy. For some insane reason, I invited him to stay the night once in my home. To my surprise, we had a blast playing in the woods and jumping over the creek. During our adventures, I learned that his Father was constantly on his case, pushing him around, literally.

This story does not have an amazing end.  The day together changed nothing at all. Following the night, he was still horrible in school. I can recall wanting to believe that he was a monster; an enemy. However, there was one problem; I knew better. I knew he was a person who suffered and desired to be loved by his father, like the rest of us.

In Rich's story, and in the Egyptian photographs, we see the world as God sees the world.  It is a world full of people who God loves. God makes the "sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous" alike. Maybe God does this because our enemies are not necessarily God’s enemies. Maybe God cares for the good and the bad alike because God sees them the same: as children that God loves and desires to redeem.

I ask, what Father wishes for their children to wander far away? And, what Father, when their child has wandered far away, does not wish for someone to befriend them, turn them around, and send them back?  I have the sneaking suspicion that God wants us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us” because when we do that we see them as our brothers and sisters who need to our love and prayer.

Loving our enemies is really what turning the other cheek is all about. Turning the other cheek is not a warrant that allows others to abuse us. The truth is that when a right handed person strikes you on the "right" cheek it must be done with the back hand.  This is a slight against you meant for an inferior.  But, when you offer the other cheek, the right handed aggressor must slap you with an open hand.  Not only do you force a person to do more damage than they first intended, but you also make them hit you with a slap intended for equals (the open-handed slap).  In other words, a person is forced to consider you as an equal, a fellow person. This offers them the opportunity to reconsider their actions.  By offering the other cheek you are doing none other than treating your enemy the way you would want to be treated; as a lost person who is worthy of being turned around.

This care for the enemy reminds me of President Abraham Lincoln near the end of the American Civil War.  In a speech, the President was heard speaking kindly about "our southern brothers" An older northern woman chastised him after the speech saying,

"Should we not destroy our enemies?"

Abraham Lincoln wisely responded, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I consider them my friends?”

Abraham Lincoln spoke the truth that Christ embodied; love of the enemy. On the cross, Jesus died to free the world.  On the cross, Jesus died to free the enemy.  And, because you have been freed, you are also free to love your enemies as a brother and sister.  You are free to do this, because in Christ they are your brother and sister.

Reflection on Matthew 5:13-20

It was the day that the world went weird. The first clue was when the airports started cancelling flights across the nation. For some inexplicable reason, the wings on the nation’s airplanes could not create the natural air foil that causes lift. The ends of the nations runways were looking like used plane lots. Turning the channel on the TV, I found that Regis Philbin was not saying anything annoyingly funny and when switching over to the radio, I heard Rush Limbaugh doing the impossible, praising a liberal.

To sooth my nerves over the strangeness of the day, I picked up my guitar and started to plunk. That is all I got, an empty plunking sound; the vibrations did not bring about any beautiful music. Turning to my coffee for comfort, I found that it was not bitter nor did the sugar I dumped in offer any sweet treat. Dipping my finger directly in the sugar I found that it tasted like flour. In an experiment, I grabbed the flour container, put my finger in, and the substance inside tasted like, flour. The day was ridiculous. I had enough with it. I grabbed the salt shaker, stuck my tongue directly in, and I found that the salt had lost its saltiness. Wondering if it was good for nothing, I threw it over my shoulder and our ceiling fan immediately unscrewed itself from the ceiling and fell on my head. I concluded that the salt was good for nothing.

Of course, the day I just reported never happened. Air foils always lift planes, sound always comes from taut strings on guitars, and salt cannot possibly lose its saltiness.

So, when Jesus calls you the salt of the earth, he is saying something quite incredible. You are already who you need to be to have an impact on God’s kingdom. You need not strive to be more than who God shaped you to be. You are the salt of the earth. You are a gift from Christ to the world.

As Pastor Roger Prescott, my internship supervisor, walked with me into the congregation that I would be serving for one year, he started to describe the people. He described them as real “salt of the earth” people. Previous to this, I had always heard this as a half derogatory comment…referring to people who are nice, but extremely uneducated. To my surprise, I found that I was wrong. Roger’s “salt of the earth” people ended up being a small, biracial congregation, who were passionate about God’s love, passionate about equality in everything that they did, desiring very much to do the right thing to their neighbor, and wanted to make an impact for the good of their community. They knew that their little congregation would not survive in their tucked away neighborhood (in fact, they just closed their doors a couple of weeks ago). They had the opportunity to move to an affluent part of town and potentially build a huge mega church. But, they stayed where they were. Such aspirations were not what they were about. They were salt of the earth people. They stayed because they cared about the small, forgotten community around them. They could not leave. They were salt. How could they choose to do otherwise?

You are the salt of the earth. It is who God created you to be. You cannot be otherwise. You do not have a choice; you are the salt of the earth. You are God’s people and you became one of God's when Christ chose to die for you. Loving you and including you in the kingdom was what Christ was about. He could not rightly do otherwise.

I suppose it is at this point that I have to bring up an unfortunate point. My youth ministry professor put the point this way in class. “As an adult in the faith, children will look to you. You do not have a choice. You are a youth minister. The only question is, what are the children learning about God when they look to you? Are they learning that God does not care about the “least of these,” or are they learning that God loves all? Are they learning that caring for the poor is not important, or are they invited along with to care for others. All adults are youth ministers, the only question is, what the children learning about God when they look to you?”

So, when I declare that you are the salt of the earth, it is more than sending good vibes your way. It is declaring the truth about you. You are God’s representative wherever you are.

What are the people at work learning about God when they talk to you? Do your emails reflect God’s love and forgiveness for the whole world? What would people say Christ is like when they describe your life? This is what some people are saying when they look at the faithful in our area:

“I saw God when I was having an audition and my friend helped me get ready for it so that I would not be nervous.”

“I've seen God this winter when my neighbor shoveled my driveway while I was at work.”

“I saw God today when we overslept and I gave my 15 yr old the chance to stay home or go to school and he choose to go to school.”

“I saw God when I forgot to light the candles on the altar this morning, and my pastor giggled and said ‘It happens.’"

“I saw God these past couple days when a friend made me smile when I definitely needed one.”

You are the salt of the earth. Just as Christ was a gift to you, you are created to be a gift of God to the world.  Because God chose you to be, you can be salt wherever you are.

Reflection on Matthew 5:13-20

“God bless you!” the grandma says to the little girl. Smiling, the girl runs off into the living room. “God bless you!” the Uncle says. The little girl giggles and runs into the dining room. Running up to the edge of the dining room table, peering over the edge to see her Mom and her aunt talking, she takes a deep breath and gives out a large sneeze. “God bless you!” the aunt says. “That was fake…you blessing stealer!” the mother playfully chastises. The little girl giggles and runs off, filled with the joy of God’s blessing.

Of course, in the middle ages, the little girl’s sneezing would not have been such a laughing matter. The blessing for the little girl would have stemmed from fear that she had caught the plague. So many people were dying that the words, “God bless you” were used to ward off what many feared was the inevitable. In the middle ages, blessing came out of fear, rather than joy.

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” the father hissed at his son. With the redness of the fight still draining from his hands, the son lowered his head. “Is that any way to solve anything? What did that little display of fists prove anyway? Blessed are the peacemakers!” the father reiterated with force in order to drive the point home.

Again, blessing is used in a context of fear. But, more than that, God’s blessing is used to reinforce failure. I think that I often hear these blessings the same way that the son did, as a reinforcement of my failure. I am not necessarily meek. I am not certain that I thirst for righteousness in the way God would like me too. After-all, you do not see me out protesting on the streets, at the courthouse, or on the lawn of the national mall for the rights of the ones God loves.

“My anger flares way too quickly for me to ever be a peacemaker.” A friend of mine once observed about himself. “You got that right,” I chimed back. “What do you mean?” he fired back immediately, somehow missing to irony of the entire conversation.

But, I do not think that Jesus intended us to hear his blessings in such a negative light. Caught in our own moral shortcomings and failures, we fail to hear the words as actual blessing. But, they were just that, bestowals of honor upon people who God cares about.

We cannot all have righteous anger when we see someone being treated unfairly. But, it is good that some of us do. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Those same people probably are not the peacemakers. Not all of us are mellow enough to sit back, see the situation from all sides, and enact a plan that will resolve the conflict. But, it is good that some of us are able. Blessed are the peacemakers.

The meek will never take charge like those with righteous anger or the peacemakers, and the mourners will be necessarily fixated on something else, but God does not forget them either. Neither does God forget those who are struggling in life; the poor in spirit. Blessed are they.

Blessed are you. People of God, do not forget that you are members of Christ family. You may be as different as the nations of the earth, but that is of no difference. Each of you is uniquely gifted and each of you is uniquely blessed. Together, we are a blessed community. So, blessed are you.

Do not forget, in your baptism, you were named child of God, never to be forgotten. Blessed are you.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Reflection on John 1:29-42

John the Baptist saw the Holy Spirit descend like a dove and remain on Jesus. When John's eyes rested on Jesus, he saw the Son of God. He then pointed out the Son of God to two of his own disciples. He wanted them to see for themselves.

The two disciples ran up to Jesus, not knowing what to expect. Jesus asked, “What they are looking for?” They asked, “Where do you abide?” Jesus said, “Come and see.” They came and saw.

The grandmother saw the peace on the face of her life-long love as she held his hand and he took his final breath. His last vision was of God, and it brought him peace. She carried this peace with her from that hospital room. She took that peace out and stared at it through the tears of the following months. She wore that peace like a handbag and gathered as much peace as she could into it again and again every week in worship.

“Why do you go to that building with the plus sign on it grandma?” the granddaughter asked.

“Because it is a good place,” the grandma answered. “Why don’t we go together this morning? We can see what the big plus sign is all about. Come and see.”

And, the two held hands, came, and saw.

The man could not really explain his faith. He could not exactly find the right words that would describe it. If he had tried, it would look something like, "a doubter and skeptic who searches anyway." Long ago he began to doubt the miracles. Long ago he began to doubt the virgin birth. Long ago he began to doubt the talking serpent and talking donkey. Long ago he began to doubt the words of his pastor. But, what he did see in Jesus captivated him. He saw a love that could transform the world from what it is to what it could be. He believed that not only could we show love and do loving things, but like Christ, we could be love. More than anything he desired Christ to abide in him. He wanted the same for his teenage son.

“Why should I go to church. It's stupid and boring,” the teenaged son said for what seemed the millionth time. “You don’t even believe half the stuff they say anyway!”

The man looked at his son with a tired expression, weighing carefully his words. “You are right. Sometimes the music is old and boring. Sometimes I don’t believe a lick of what is said. But every once and a while, if I wait and listen, Jesus comes to me through the boring words of the songs and the long Bible readings. If I am patient, Jesus says something that changes my life. Please come and see."

Together, they sat through another boring service.  It was, as expected, a waste of time until the son saw a woman with a deep scar on her face, and torn, dirt smudged jeans on her legs join the nicely dressed at the communion table. The nicely dressed smiled at her and made room for her to kneel. "What kind of love allows that to happen?" he wondered in awe of the people. He came and he saw.

Some say that the three most important words for any Christian to know are “Jesus loves me.” This is probably true. What is more important than God’s love for us demonstrated clearly in Jesus? But, a close second has to be these three words, “come and see.” You do not have to understand why you believe what you believe in order to say, “come and see.” You do not need to be a trained theologian to offer the chance to “come and see.” You do not need to be able to explain the deep questions of life in order to say, “come and see.” All that is required is a desire for others to share what the Lord has done for you. “Come and see;” these are some of the first words spoken by Jesus. They are the very words that inspired the disciples to follow; “Come and see.”

The man caught her in the hall at work. She had seen him before, he cleaned the offices. He was an unshaven tangle of confusion; talking about how he thinks God hates the fornicators; then shifting to how hypocritical church people are; and then, with tears building in his eyes, talking about how he misses his daughter this time every year…the anniversary of the day he messed up and lost her from his custody forever.

“I don’t know what to say. I don’t know if you will find any answers in my church. I’m not sure that I always do, but it wouldn’t hurt to come at least once and see.”

She waited at the church door, but did not see him. As the music started, she took a place at the back of the church, but he did not come. And, as the readings began, and she looked back to the church door one last time.  She did not expect to see him there, but there he was.  She smiled immediately at the sight of his unshaven face. He looked at her, smiled back, and then walked over as she signaled him to sit next to her. He took a seat, and for at least one Sunday, he came and he saw.

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 John 1:1-18

“No one has ever seen God.” There it is, right there; John lays it right out for everyone to see. “No one has ever seen God.” This truth is painfully real to those who have lost hope and stare out at night to the stars, seeing only the vast emptiness stretches between the stars. If no one has seen God, how do we even know there is a God? And, even if we knew there was a God, how would we know what God is like? After-all, the Bible itself states that “No one has ever seen God.” All we can see are the things around us, and the vast spans of emptiness in between.

“Is God good?” The man laid his question right out on the table. The man sat in the break room; struggling with the reality of unaffordable medical bills and the imminent loss of his job (his medical condition and his poor job performance were intimately connected). “Why is this happening to me? Is God good, or is God like the one I read about in the Old Testament who punishes harshly? I must have done something wrong. I must be doing something wrong right now!” He put his head in his hands and muttered, “I wish God were more like Jesus. I could deal with a God like that.”

“No one has ever seen God.” I am sorry if past doubts are starting to churn once again as you read, but sometimes the Bible does not allow doubts to remain dormant forever. John, of all the gospel writers, is very concerned about truth, and the only way to see truth is to allow doubt to rise up from the pit where it was asleep so that it may be confronted anew.

That said, I am pretty certain that this doubt is not just me or John bringing up bad memories. Christmas Eve is usually great, but it is always followed by the truth that it was celebrated without a certain someone, or ot was not as festive as we remembered it to be.

Perhaps, doubt does not rear its ugly head this time of year for you. Certainly though, your neighbor is not so lucky as to walk away unscathed. And, you will not be so lucky in the future. Sooner or later, doubt rises from the pit and threatens to overpower us once again. If only it could be slain for good and we would be free from the questions and the stabbing chest pains that come with them! Unfortunately, doubt does not work that way. Doubt is an ever-present companion, asking the hard questions. “Is God there?” “Is God good?”

As a pastor, I have the opportunity to talk with lots of church going people. Not simply those within this congregation, but from everywhere. They seem to be able to seek me out. Rarely, do I even get a peaceful plane ride.  Each time I sit down in my seat I try to decide whether or not to tell the person next to me that I am a dentist. I imagine that no one wants to talk to a dentist. I would not want anyone staring at my teeth. If you are a dentist, let me know if I am wrong. However, everyone wants to talk to the pastor. It seems like every person who rides planes wants to tell the pastor about how God hates adulterers and fornicators and how people like that deserve the punishments they get from God, because pastors will most certainly agree with a kind, fake smile. If you see that smile from a pastor, it means “I would rather be talking with a dentist right now.” These people definitely believe that they have seen the face of God and know for certain what God is about.

But, the god that they know is the same god that the struggling people sitting in the break room fear. This god, the god of unbendable laws, is the reason the people in the break room do not go to church. They are not certain that such a god is good.

John would assure those in the break room that “no one has ever seen God,” especially not those who claim to know what God is up to. And, John would remind those who think that they have seen God that it was Moses who came bearing the unbendable laws. As for God, “no one has ever seen God.” John continues, “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made God known.” Only Jesus is close to the Father’s heart. Only Jesus knows what God is up to. Jesus has not seen God, Jesus is God…Emmanuel, God with us.

The law, as understood by the religious, says that adulterers should be stoned to death. But, this is not the heart of God. Of course, God does not like adultery, but, when an adulterous woman is dragged out in the street to be crushed with huge slabs of stone, Jesus runs up to her, faces her accusers and says, “Whoever is without sin, cast the first stone.” The heart of God is one of mercy. The heart of God is the same heart we see in Jesus.

The man in the break room declared, “I wish God were more like Jesus. I could deal with a God like that.” And, the answer to that man is; “God is like that. Whenever you are dealing with Jesus, you are dealing with the heart of God.” When Jesus forgives the sinner, heals the sick, and cares for the poor, God forgives the sinner, heals the sick, and cares for the poor. Jesus shows us exactly what God is about and what God is up to in the world.

I look forward to the day when I sit on the plane and am pleasantly surprised to hear from the person in the seat next to me that God has healed the sick, cared for the poor, and turned the life of an adulterer around. That would be a nice conversation. That would be a conversation that speaks truth about God. No fake smile needed.

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 2:1-20 and John 1:1-14

The Shepherds heard a glorious message declared from the Angel above.

I heard a message blaring at me from the television that I better hurry up, the deals are about gone!

Whose birthday is it anyway?

The Shepherds were terrified when they saw the angel who sent them on their way.

I was terrified when I saw the traffic backed up across the bridge extending all the way past the church; why did I even think to come out at 5:00pm?

Whose birthday is it anyway?

The sign to the shepherd was a child wrapped in bands of cloth, lying a manger. Peace surrounding him.

My sign was a backlight monstrosity; the remains of summer moths still plastered on its surface.

Whose birthday is it anyway?

The heavenly host sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When I saw the long line of people at the checkouts, despairing even before I searched for my wonderful deal, words to Jesus Christ rang out from my lips also.

Whose birthday is it anyway?

The shepherds made haste to see Mary, Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.

I made haste and beat a shrimp of a seven-year-old to my deal.

Whose birthday is it anyway?

"Whose birthday is it anyway?"

“It’s my birthday…I’m a Christmas baby,” the boy shouted.

“Your still to slow,” I shouted back and ran off giggling a triumphant giggle!

All were amazed at the shepherd’s story.

I was amazed how big a bruise a mother’s shopping bag can deliver. Apparently, her children where all getting coal for Christmas.
Whose birthday is it anyway?

Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

I’m not even going to mention the mother’s words, she made sailors sound like a children’s choir.

Whose birthday is it anyway?

The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.

I returned battered and bruised, with a gift purchased (but not the one I wanted), looked at myself and the people around me, and wondered aloud:

Whose birthday is it anyway?

With all the extravagant gifts bought for other people, I would swear that we had gone wrong somewhere in celebrating this day. It is a birthday alright, but who is getting the gifts?

This year children of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, and members who pitched in also, did indeed buy a birthday gift for baby Jesus. Since Jesus cared about the poor, we bought a milk cow for a poor family somewhere in the world. I love this gift. It is truly a gift to Jesus, in line with the things Jesus cared about. It is a gift full of grace to the poor. We also bought $25 worth of crabs, a nice stocking stuffer…until you reach in the stocking that is. But, my point is, these gifts seem right, and they are. They remember whose birthday it is this night.

Well, yes and no.

The writer of John sees this night, this anticipated birthday a little differently. The one who reminds us this night that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it,” also reminds us that those people who follow the light, Jesus Christ, became on this night children of God, "born not from the will of man and woman, but born from the will of God." According to John, Jesus Christ (the light of the world), was born on Christmas night, and so were we. It is our birthday also. When Jesus entered into the world as a child of God, "on this night" we did also. Maybe there should be some presents for us too.

The kind and generous bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, St. Nicholas, (yes, the one who shares Santa Claus’ name) seemed to think so anyway. One of the oldest legends about St. Nicholas and his miracles is the one about the stockings. A widowed father had three daughters.  Unfortunately, he had no money and, therefore, no dowry to give them so they may be married. The father despaired at the thought of selling his daughters into slavery, but what else could he do? To save them from being sold into lives of slavery, St. Nicholas threw three bags of gold down their chimney so they may each have a wedding dowry. The bags of gold landed in the three socks hanging there to dry and the girls were thereby saved by the grace of this saint of God. Through the gifts, the father and the girls were reminded that God had not forgotten them. Through the gifts, and through the generosity of the St. Nicholas, the father and daughters knew that God would come to them and save them.

Maybe, the gifts, and the driving, and the angry shoppers are worth it…to a certain degree. The gifts given have always been, and always should be signs that we have a loving God who is willing to come to us and save us. We had simply forgotten this truth about those gifts under our trees. The gifts are a reminder that we have a new life because of Jesus. The gifts are a reminder of the birthday we and Jesus share.

So, go ahead and give your gifts this season without guilt. Give with the generous heart of Saint Nicholas; a generous heart that is given by God. Go ahead and give your gifts as a reminder that it is your loved one’s faith birthday. It is the day we celebrate our new birth as God’s children and the day we celebrate the one who gave us a new birth, Jesus Christ our Lord. Whose birthday is it? It is the Lord’s and it is also ours. Go ahead and celebrate!

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.