Monday, November 23, 2015

Reflection on John 18:33-37

I need a little refuge this week. Have you ever had one of those weeks where the world is just too much? Well, that week happened for me.

This week I was upset. I was upset by the deaths that Muslim extremists cause the world.

That should have been enough to ruin one’s entire week, then I went on social media. And, what you find on social media is probably the same thing you find when you go get coffee at the diner…you find hatred and calls for more violence.

There’s the “just blow them all up crowd.” There’s the “well, how about I just blow you up” crowd in reaction to the “just blow them all up crowd.”

There’s the call to hate all Syrian refugees. There’s the call to hate all the people who are calling to hate all Syrian refugees.

Then there was an unsolicited little tidbit of love from an acquaintance in high school that I have not talked to face-to-face in 22 years that popped up in my email out of the blue in reaction to Muslims who publicly denounced the terrorist attacks in Paris. The nature of the email stated that they do not believe Muslims who denounce violence. Instead, they believe that these Muslims are simply trying to soften our hearts so that they can get near us in order to attack again.

I can basically sum up the entire week in one word, “violence.” It is all about violence, and I need refuge from it. You probably do also. But look what I have done here; I have just brought all of this violence into this hollowed conversation. Sorry.

You know what I want? World peace. OK, now that I have gotten my beauty pageant moment out of the way, what I actually want are leaders who do not focus on violence. What I desire is to have a kingdom where hatred and violence are not the first option. A kingdom where hatred and violence are not the first reaction. Rather, I want a kingdom where they are consider last option, if considered at all.

And, so I have found a place of refuge this week. It is not in a deserted cabin in the woods…though I wish I had one of those…with a little pond to fish in. Nor, is it being raptured away from all of the evil of the world.

Rather, my place of refuge has been this bible verse from the gospel of John. It is the exchange between Pilate and Jesus before he is sentenced to death.

Pilate asked Jesus, "Are you the King of the Jews?"

Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?"

Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?"

Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."

Basically, Jesus says, if my kingdom were a regular sort of kingdom, the kind you find throughout the world, people would be engaged in violence right now to free me from my chains. But, my kingdom is not a regular sort of kingdom. No violence allowed.

I know it feels like sort of a pipe dream in the reality that is our world, but can we just take a moment and savor the idea that God’s kingdom does not include violence. It is the sort of refuge we seek where “Christ will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

But, it is more than a distant future in a distant life far, far away from here. Notice that Jesus makes these claims while still here in this world. He renounces his claim to violence right before he encounters the terror of the cross.

Jesus would rather suffer for the sake of a murderous world than to bring more violence to it. Hear that again, Jesus would rather suffer for the sake of a murderous world than to bring more violence to it.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood this kingdom well when he talked about violence.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Once upon a time, while seated on the throne, a king was brought two criminals. The first came to the king with guilt in his eyes.

“Why have they brought you here to stand before me?” the king asked.

“My family was hungry, and I stole some royal food from your banquet” answered the poor man.

“You know that stealing is against one of the great commandments of God. All evil stops here. You deserve to be lashed with the whip.”

The king then turned to the second criminal.

“And, why have they brought you here to stand before me?”

“Sir, my neighbor killed my father, so I killed him as repayment for my father. And, then his son attacked me, so I killed him also.”

“You know that murder is against one of the great commandments of God. You have taken two lives. You deserve to die. The violence stops here!” the King declared.

And with that, the criminals were taken from the king’s presence, walked through the halls of the castle, brought through the front doors of the castle, were unbound and set free.

The criminals were utterly confused and looked at each other. At that very moment, they heard a squire shouting a royal edict from behind the walls of the castle.

“On the count of theft from the royal estate, lashes shall be the punishment.”

The two scrambled to climb the castle wall, and peer over its edge. When they had finally had made their way to the top stone, they peered over the edge seeing a bloodied man walking toward a gallows.

The squire cried out again, “On two counts of murder, the accused shall be put to death.”

How was it they had escaped punishment, but this man had not? Had he done worse than they? Was this king unfair, judging some and not others?

As the rope was placed over the accused head, his face turned their direction.

The face of the king peered back at them. It was only then that they understood. The king had said, “All violence stops here." And so it did. They just did not realize that the king was talking about himself…the violence stops here…the violence stops with myself.

The king clearly mouthed these words, staring across the distance right at them, “Now go and love.” And, with that, the platform dropped and it was over.

In the kingdom of the cross, violence does not multiply violence and hate does not spawn more hate. On the cross, all of our violence is put to death. All violence stops with Christ. In Jesus’ kingdom, violence is dead. It is not an option. And when violence is dead, only love remains. That is the kingdom we live in O people of God.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Reflection on Mark 13:1-8

I grew up in a small, rural church under the grand oak trees of southern Minnesota. It was the sort of church where farmers caught up with the area news with a cup of coffee in hand. It was the church of roast beef dinners, men and boy’s nights with fishing and hunting quizzes, and day long Vacation Bible School in the summer, all headed up by the gentle and congenial, Pastor N. Pastor N was beloved by the parish and he loved them.

Pastor N knew what he was doing. When he saw that the old church needed a gathering area for people to hang their coats and talk before and after church (he understood the importance of community in a small town) he convinced the congregation through some fine, one-on-one coffee sessions, to put an addition onto the front of the church for such a purpose. And, it worked! He even got a new, larger office out of the deal…all the better.

It was a beautiful, small, thriving church in a beautiful, slice of pastoral landscape in middle America.

Now it is just a building. That is not exactly true. A handful of people still worship there on Sundays, but the thriving ministry is gone and the sheen of newness has faded well into the past. If you had told me that the thriving church of my childhood would be all but gone in 20 years, I would not have believed you.

The Disciples cannot believe it either as they stare at the grandeur of the temple in Jerusalem. It is easily the largest structure they have ever seen. It is massive, with its commanding stones. It is fit to be the home of God. Yet, as they stare up, Jesus declares that it will be gone very soon.

“Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

And, it will. The Romans will exact their revenge upon the Jews for rising up against them, and the stones will literally be thrown down. The rubble still rests in a pile to this day.

May I say something very simply? Things fall apart. Temples rise and then disappear. Churches are built and then crumble. The peace of a nation is established, and then is blown away by terrorists. Lives are changed, hearts are broken, and all that once seemed stable vanishes over night in gunfire and explosions.

And, when stability vanishes, we yearn for what we once had. We yearn for the innocent days of pastoral landscapes and bustling family churches where all felt secure, and wholesome, and whole. We become attached to our temples. We yearn for the way things used to be.

This is why Jesus’ words are so jarring. Jesus is telling his disciples that their attachment to the great temple and the way that the temple does things is not healthy. It is following a false prophet. In reality, the temple actually does not gleam as much as it appears, and when you look close, sin discolors its walls. Sin does that; it discolors everything. Jesus warns that the old way of relating to God is not the future.

In the same way, stains can be seen on that pastoral church building of my youth. The way we did ministry back then is not working today. Even Pastor N does things differently today. He understands that roast beef dinners just will not pull the people in anymore.

Understand, it is not that the way we did things back then were bad ideas. To the contrary, they were great ideas. Our existence is a testament to the effective ministry that used to occur. But, things are different now. To think otherwise would be following a false prophet.

But, you know that. You are not a group of unsuspecting disciples, staring at a glorious temple, waiting to see a predicted future arrive.

Instead, we have already seen the stones falling. We see churches closing up. We see a culture that no longer lives and breathes the Christian story. We already know that we cannot assume that people know what we are talking about when we say “we will need the patience of Job to pull us through this.”

Cultural institutions that we hold dear, such as marriage, are not important any longer as the rate of people getting married plunges.

“No one comes to church anymore?” is heard as people confusingly try to figure out the new world that we are in.

Many of today’s children are an entire generation away from church…meaning that there are lots of children who have never heard God’s story…ever. The church that was made to help people after they wander through the church doors obviously will not share the story of Christ with today’s children. These children will not even know to wander through the doors in the first place.

Given this new, chaotic and, quite frankly, depressing spiritual reality, and add on top of it the terror and death of innocent people in Beirut and Paris this week as terrorists seem to be getting the upper hand, more and more people are increasingly asking me flat out, “Is this the end of the world pastor, is this the end?” Well, I don’t know. Tell us Jesus, is it?

After Jesus tells Peter, James, John, and Andrew that things will soon be very different (there will be no temple), he continues:
"Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!' and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs."

Alright, the wars and earthquakes and terror jump out at us immediately, but did you also hear this: “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs”?

What a strange and incredible thing to say. I do not know if you hear the good news there or not…but birth pangs are not bad news, they are good news.

Consider: while a baby is being born, and while the mother screams in pain as she pushes, and as the top of the baby’s head pokes through, family members do not say, “There’s the head, I guess this the end of the world.”

Well maybe they said it about an old boss of mine, but most people do not bring the end of civilization as we know it along with their birth.

No, the pushing, the pain, and the top of the baby’s head gives a sense of anticipation for the future. What will the baby look like? Will the baby be OK? What will this baby do in the future? Will he or she be a football player or a dancer? Will he or she look like me?

A birth has lots of unanswered questions, but there is one thing that we can say with all certainty, barring any complications, a birth is not the end, it is just the beginning of something very new.

So, though we do not know what the future looks like us people of faith, and though our world is changing quickly and we do not necessarily know how to adapt, Jesus has a word for us, “This is not the end, it is just the beginning.”

We are a resurrection people after-all! Things die in this life, things change, people change, cultures change, and temples crumble, but one promise holds true…Jesus cannot be kept in the grave. We are a resurrection people who have the story of Jesus rising again embedded in our hearts and we know that new life…a new way of being will come, no matter how dark the world becomes.

That is great news, is it not? Given that, how do we minister in this new world where people do not just show up to church? How do we minister in this new world where traditional morality seems to have shifted so much? How do we minister in this new world of terror where people go out to have a nice meal and end up dead? How do we share God’s story effectively in a world that is so different than the days of that thriving pastoral church?

I do not know. No one seems to know. But, that is OK. When no one has the answer, there are no false prophets to follow! It’s nice to not have to worry about following false prophets into the wilderness.

Instead, we get trust and follow Jesus. We get to trust Jesus, follow where he points us, and then, we simply try stuff.

That is right, we just try stuff. As you know, all success is built on a vast foundation of trying and failing.

When I was first learning the guitar, the bane of my existence was the G chord. You have to stretch and bend your fingers across the fret board in ways that God did not intend fingers to stretch. God did not create the guitar…some minion of Satan did…I swear. So, first, you cheat and play only half the chord. But, after a year or so of trying to stretch that little finger down, it finally goes and you can play a basic G chord. But, it took trying and failing repeatedly to finally get it right.

Do you think the people of my home congregation always knew that a roast beef dinner would bring in the people? No, someone tried the lutefisk dinner first, and when chemically preserved fish shockingly failed, they moved to hot, roast beef and gravy!

And, we get to do that! A new era of faith is being birthed right now, and we get to be a part of it! We get to see what God is up to! We get to catch the baby as it comes out. The disciples of Jesus learned how to live without a temple, and Jesus will lead us in this new day too. For this is but the beginning of the birth pangs. A new birth is about to take place.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Reflection on Mark 12:38-44

Almost no one noticed her. I mean, who would? As the rich enter the temple, their gifts to the temple clang so loudly that everyone’s heads turn to see. That is the whole point, is it not? To be recognized. To be seen as generous. To be seen as holy. To be honored at the heads of tables as the guest.

But, her two little coins barely registered above the conversation taking place right beside the large metal horn that collects the gifts to the temple.

I said almost no one noticed her. One person did notice her. One person did notice that her two copper coins were all that she had to live on. That is right, "all she had to live on." This was a death away it all.

One person recognized exactly what sacrificing your whole life looks like, as he contemplated giving his whole life on a cross.

What do you do when you notice goodness entering a den of thieves? What do you do when you notice that goodness is completely consumed by that den of thieves?

After-all, the poor widows gift will just be wasted on some lavish priestly living. Maybe not. Maybe it will purchase half a brick for the temple. You know, upkeep.

Do you know where the money is supposed to be going? Yes, the money given to the temple is to help provide a living for the priests. Yes, the money given to the temple is understood to provide for some upkeep.

But, the money is also supposed to be used by the temple to care for those whom God cares about: the poor, the orphans, and the widows. God cares about them, and so should everyone else. Well, they are easy to forget.

A recent study noted in a Ken Stern article “Why the Rich Don’t Give to Charity” (The Atlantic, April 2013) found that, statistically, the poor give a higher percentage of their income to charitable causes than do the rich. The study showed that this story of the widow and her two copper coins is the rule and not the exception. But why? Why are the poor so easy to forget?

The study explained that higher exposure to people in need drove greater generosity among those with lesser means. In other words, when you hang out with someone who is struggling, you are more likely to love, understand, and help them. The poor hang out with the poor. Those who can provide for themselves well, do not and often will not hang out with the poor.

That reminds me of a guy who had the power to be rich in any way he desired. He could have all the glory and might that he wanted in heaven and of earth. Angels would be at his command to minister to his every need. The mountains would move if he said jump. Yet, he chose none of those acts of greatness.

Rather, he chose to hang out with the poor and the sinner. He ate with them. He healed them. And, may I point out, in doing so he recognized them as actual people; just as he recognizes that old woman in the temple. Were it not for him, she would have gone unnoticed.

But, with Jesus, you do not go unnoticed. With Jesus, you are not forgotten. And, with Jesus, your gifts and sacrifices are not forgotten either.

Have you ever heard about the story of the hummingbird? There once was a little hummingbird that loved to zip through the forest. She loved the forest with its creek and all of its beautiful, delicious flowers. The forest was a perfect picture of serenity.

One day, the serenity was broken by the sound of heavy equipment and a wave of heat that overtook the forest. Someone was cutting down the trees and had set the forest on fire to clear the underbrush.

All of the animals gathered together to figure out what they were going to do. The hummingbird, who loved the forest, tried to give a suggestion, but she was too small to even be heard.

It was decided by the animals that there was nothing to be done, the evil was too great. They would give up their home and seek refuge somewhere else.

And, that is when one of them saw the hummingbird. She was flying to the creek, gathering a single drop of water in her beak, and flying over the fire, dropping the single drop of water onto the fire. All of the animals laughed at the tiny hummingbird and her futile attempts to save the forest. But, the hummingbird said meekly, “I know I can’t do it all, but at least I am doing something.” At least she was doing something.

At least the old woman was doing something. At least she was trying to provide for those who were struggling just as she. It was not her fault that the culture of the temple was broken, and that her money would go to fill the belly of a priest or buy half a brick rather than put food into the mouth of a hungry, orphaned child.

At least she was trying to do something. And, Jesus does not allow her sacrifice to go unnoticed. Jesus does not allow the weak clunk of her two tiny, copper coins to go unheard. Jesus does not allow any of us to go unnoticed. Jesus does not allow us to be forgotten.

But, he also does not stop her from giving to a corrupt institution. He does not chastise her for wasting single drops of water on a slash and burn forest fire.

A sacrifice is a sacrifice, and it is holy.

The old woman is not the problem. If the temple were functioning as it should, she would give her money, and the temple would care for her too.

The woman is not the problem. She is not the one who needs to change.

Change will come. As Jesus walks out of the temple with his disciples, and as they admire its enormity and admire the craftsmanship, Jesus points to the stones and says, “Not one stone will be left upon another.” Sometime it’s the institution that everyone loves and respects that needs to change. The temple will come down and God will bring change where change is due. Change will come.

As for the woman, she does not need to change. She and her sacrifice are perfect as they are. They do not go unnoticed. Jesus will never let an act of sacrificial love go unnoticed, because as we see clearly on the cross, Jesus is sacrificial love.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Reflection on Revelation 21:1-6a

“The sea was no more.” Most of the time when I read this text, it is the promises of tears being wiped away and death being no more that I cling to.

That makes sense. As a pastor, you deal with a lot of death and lots of people and those you love end up gone. Believe me, there are a lot of tears behind the confident proclamations of Christ’s triumph over sin and death. The tears flow on the way home in the car, or quietly fall behind the closed door of the Pastor’s Study.

But, I am not alone in this. A lot of you have shed the same tears over and over again. Some of you have lost a great deal of family and friends, the count getting larger every year older you become.

So, yes, most of the time I cling to the promise that the Lord will wipe the tears away, and death will once and for all be vanquished through Jesus death and resurrection.

But, this time around, it is the mention of the sea that has captured me. As the writer of Revelation travels into the heavenly realm to see all that the Lord desires to show, he notices a curious thing among all of the newness of the heavens and the earth…he notices that “the sea was no more.” The sea. It is gone. Non-existent. The sea is dead. And that is seen as a good thing. That is so curious.

After-all, it is the beautiful, blue ocean that you see on the posters hanging in the AAA office. It is the crystal blue waters of the sea that call to you from the screen saver of your computer as you plunk away at work. Why would anybody rejoice that those beautiful scenes would be gone?

You know what country has a lot of shoreline? India. You know what country seems to have very few swimmers? India.

When we visited India, we and some friends on the seminary’s "Religions of India" trip took a day to go visit the shoreline. We donned our bathing suits, walked past the staring locals who were fully clothed, and we jumped into the Indian ocean for a swim.

As the locals continued to stare at us, we quickly realized why no one else in the country was enjoying the ocean. Wading in only about 15 feet, the shore under our feet began to disappear quickly, and the pull of the ocean became amazingly strong. We dug our toes into the sand to keep from being pulled out into the high, crushing waves of the Indian ocean. Swimming in the Indian Ocean is not about relaxation, it is about survival.

We survived the encounter with the sea, but as you have probably heard over the past few days, the crew of a large cargo ship did not. Steering only 65 miles from a recent hurricane, they were caught in the high, chaotic waves of the sea, and were drowned. Far from being a destination of paradise, the sea is a deadly, chaotic sea creature that seeks to devour.

And, that is exactly how people in the ancient world viewed the sea. It was viewed as a creature that creates chaos and death.

In the beginning, God tames the creature of chaos and separates the chaos from the dry land. During the Exodus, the sea creature of chaos is literally cut into two as Moses leads the people through the sea…through the chaos…on dry land. And, Jesus stands up in the boat as it is being “swamped,” raising high his arms, and brings calm to the creature of chaos.


It is no surprise then that when our lives have become completely chaotic, we use the word “swamped.” Have you felt “swamped” lately? Have you felt the chaos pulling you in so many directions, that you do not know which way to tread water? Have the waters begun to raise, the chaos of the world overtaking what little order you had made out of life?

Have tests and papers overwhelmed you as a student; your future hanging in the balance? Have the pressures of job and relationships at home begun to raise the waters over your face? Have the deaths, one upon another, upon another, upon another drawn you to focus on the chaos of the deadly waters? Or, maybe someone you know is walking toward the metaphorical beach of the Indian ocean. You can see that they are about to be in trouble, pulled in by the sea as soon as they get 15 feet into the water, pulled in by the chaos, and you feel as if there is nothing you can do.

And, when the waters of chaos threaten to cover the dry lands once again, we call out to the Lord to separate the waters from the dry land once again. "O Lord, hear my prayer! When I call, answer me!"

When my one of my best friends, "R," slipped into a dark tone of lipstick and fingernails, no longer walking down the hall of the school between classes with me, and when I saw her from a distance holding a cigarette for the first time in her life, I cried out to God that the distant future of Revelation in which chaos is destroyed once and for all might break into the world today...for her.

And, so we cry out also. Please Lord, do not wait. Allow the vision of Revelation to break into the world today! That vision where the tears are dried up, the audible cries of pain cease, and the sea is gone for good! Lord, please create some order out of the chaos and mess that we have made of this world! Please Lord, set things at peace! Allow the vision of Revelation to break into the world!

And, the vision does break in. God chooses to break into the world and take on flesh. Jesus chose to come to us, bringing healing along with him everywhere he stepped. He healed the sick, set the captive free, calmed the storm, and drew us together once more in his arms on the cross.

The new heavens and the new earth are not a distant picture…a distant projection on the screen that we can only view far away. It is a reality that bleeds into the present and makes all things new this very day.

God’s intention for the world is not to allow it to destroy itself. God’s intention is not to allow it to get so bad that we need to be rescued from it; raptured away from the evil.

No, quite the opposite. God intends to heal it, to transform it, to make all things new. God will not abandoned the world, rather God “so loved the world,” and has promised come to it, to break into it and create a kingdom that where grace pervades every corner.

So we cry out for the reality of Revelation to bleed into today. We cry out for Jesus to come to us. And, every once and a while we catch a glimpse of exactly that.

Students make it through the stress of the tests and papers, struggling people eventually find peace, and friends who have fallen away eventually send an email to let you know that everything has somehow…in some way…turned out fine in the end.

It is not perfect, of course. Ships still sink, taking their crew with them, but the world is not abandoned. Sometimes, when we look close, we see that God has allowed the vision of then to bleed into the now, and it gives us hope. We hope in a future where the sea is no more. We wear that future as a pin on our shirts, or a mark of grace on our foreheads for all to see.