Monday, March 20, 2017

Reflection on Romans 5:1-11

We know who we are quite well. We understand what being human is all about. But, do we know who God is? Do we know what God cares about?

As human beings placed on this earth, we know that we are capable of great things, but we are also capable of terrible things.

We escaped the gravitational pull of the earth and placed a man on the moon. Amazing. But, we did it in the context of nations battling each other, saber rattling, trying to prove who was worthy of controlling the world. Not quite amazing.

We show compassion for dogs who have been abandoned, left without food, and have a righteous anger against those who would neglect them in such a way. Compassionate. But, when neighbors are struggling and are hungry, we question whether they are hard workers and question whether or not they deserve the gift of food. Not quite compassionate.

As I said, we know who we are. We are people who strive to make our nations fair and equal in all ways, but still seem to create barriers for groups of people to overcome.

The disciples were no different. One day they came upon Jesus having a deep theological discussion with a Samaritan woman, which in a world where all things are equal should not have been a shocking sight However, this is not a world where all things are equal. In the real world, the disciples questioned in their minds why Jesus was wasting his time talking with a woman...who was from the hated region of Samaria no less.

Like the woman from Samaria, sometimes we are forced to suffer through terrible things. And, that suffering can lead to the ability to endure through hardships. And that endurance creates a sort of character in us that does not give up in times of struggle. And that character creates in us a hope for the future, even when reality seems to say that a good future seems unlikely.

This kind of suffering makes me think of a couple of coworkers that I read about recently.

The male coworker had top marks in sales in his firm, and his female companion just did not seem to be able to complete the deals in an equal amount of time. She always took longer. He always assumed that, though she was good, she simply was not as efficient as he.

One day, the male coworker accidentally started a sale under his female coworker's email address, and he discovered something that opened his eyes. When they thought they were talking with a woman, the clients were rude and did not inherently trust anything he said. He had a hard time closing his deals under his female coworker's name and email address.

The woman, on the other hand, had a great day of sales logged in under his name and email address.

The female coworker had assumed over the years that all of her hard work and abuse was just a part of the job. The suffering that her job put her through produced endurance, and the endurance turned into character, and the character contained hope for moving up in the company.

One could argue that the character she developed through all of that hard work and abuse is a good thing. Even if that is true, she should have never been required to suffer all of it in the first place.

We strive for an equal world, but as all of the women reading this already know, it is not an equal world. The whole situation is all too human.

We know who we are as humans. We know that we can do great things, but we also know that we somehow are able to destroy our greatness with inequality, lack of compassion, and plain old evil. None of this is surprising. We already know all of this.

So, the questions that remain are: Who is God? What is God like? Does God look a lot like us? Is God fashioned in our own image? Does God also require lots of hard work, lots of character forming, in order for people to be acceptable and loved?

Paul answers with question quite simply: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

Lots of people would go to any length to save a family member or friend. But, who puts their lives on the line for their enemies? Who saves people while they are still entrenched in their evil ways? What superhero, at the end of the movie decides, “I guess I will just give up and die so that Dr. of Evil, can live?” Who does that?

Christ does.

While we were still sinners (while we were still being quite human, with all of our faults and inequalities) Christ died for us that we might find life.

In God’s world, we do not need to prove ourselves worthy. Instead, God declares that we are already worthy. No proving of our worth is required.

You are already worthy of love. You do not need to prove anything in order to be beloved.

This may not mean much to the people of the world who are given all of the privileges in life.

It does mean a lot to the woman who has to work hard and endure suffering every day just to get an ounce of basic respect in her job. That woman is already loved by God. No prior proof of character is required.

It means a lot to the woman who Jesus met at the well. She normally came to draw water in silence, and did not expect anyone to even acknowledging her existence. That woman discovered her worth the day she met Jesus. She discovered that she was already loved by God. No prior proof of character was required.

It means a lot to those who have messed up in life and struggle just to get food on the table. God has already fed them with love and mercy. No prior proof of character is required.

God may have come down in the flesh to walk as one of us, but Jesus is not like us. Jesus does not require us to scrape a good life together first before he will even think of showing us any kind of mercy or love. Instead, Jesus pours the waters of life out from his well and baths us in his grace. The waters of new life wash over us as a refreshing gift in a dry world. No prior proof of character is required.

This Spirit of love is what pours through you this day. It is the liquid love that pumps through your veins as you go out into the world and encounter the woman at the well and the hungry families. It is the love that flows in stark contrast to stagnant waters of the world that requires goodness in order to receive goodness and love in order to receive love. It is the type of refreshing, unconditional love that is able to save the world.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Reflection on John 3:1-17

What I saw when I looked at him was a piece of garbage. To me, he was the left-over scraps of creation, thrown together with a little bit of cheap glue that caused him to be abrasive around the edges. No one liked him. I, obviously, did not either.

The kid would pick his nose and fling the discharge your way. In the second grade he was already talking like an industrial pipe-fitter who drinks on the job and sleeps around on the weekends. He would hit and kick you if you were unfortunate enough to be found alone in the bathroom when he entered. If people’s faces had left a smeary imprint on the mirrors, you knew who was responsible. As I said, he was nothing but a piece of trash.

He was to me what John, the evangelist, describes as “the world.”

When John talks about “the world” he is not referring to the beauty of the mountains and streams, and the infectious laughter of innocent children running around the water’s edge.

No, when he says, “the world,” he means the garbage that does not give a rodent’s posterior about God, decency, or other people. He is talking about all those who not only lack the Spirit of God, but seem to have an active dark void in their souls that seeks to suck in others.

So, you have to understand my surprise when I walked into the coffee shop with my dad for a cheeseburger and I saw the piece of garbage talking with my pastor over a milkshake.

My pastor!

It did not make any sense. What would such a good guy like my pastor be doing hanging out with Satan’s illegitimate step child? My grandma had always told me that you are who you hang out with, but I had a hard time believing that my pastor was a piece of garbage.

Other people started to question him though when they saw him carrying a casserole into the home of the local, suspected, drug house. What was he doing?

You have to understand, the town I grew up in was a little bit of a Mayberry-ish type of town. It was wholesome in that old-time way where children would walk by themselves to the bowling alley and get an ice-cream after the baseball game. No one would question the safety of the children because adults looked out for all children as if they were their own. Well, almost everyone, except for the trash…except for those few people with their worldly ways.

When my pastor preached Jesus’ famous words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” I am quite certain that most of us heard two things. Number one: we heard that Jesus loved us. We were pretty good people after-all. We were not perfect of course, but we were a community that was certainly worthy of love. And, the second thing we heard were those words; “that everyone who believes in him may not perish.”

As regular church attendees, no one would accuse us of being anything but believers. I even tucked my bible into my duffle bag on family trips when I was young. I did not read it of course, I was not that good, but at least I packed the thing…you know…just in case I needed it in a freak Christian emergency or something.

But, the garbage of the town did not even attend church. They did not care. They clearly did not believe. They were simply a vortex of darkness who had already decided that they, proudly, would be the ones to perish. Or, so I thought.

So, what was my beloved pastor doing hanging out with them? This is the loving, fun guy who would roll down the grassy hill behind the church with all the children just because it is a fun thing to do. What was he doing, putting his reputation and maybe even his soul on the line by hanging out with the worst of the worst?

You already know the reason, of course. You are all intelligent Christians who can see beyond what the eyes of my childhood self could see. You know that he was merely doing what Jesus did; eating with sinners and showing love to the unloved.

I am truly happy if you can clearly see what the pastor was doing, because the human tendency to divide people into categories of acceptable and unacceptable is incredibly strong. The smallest infraction on the part of someone is enough for most people to want them far, far away. Like the old westerns, we put tighten our white hats beneath our chins and force black hats on those we dislike or do not understand.

I read an article this week about a young woman who grew up in a fundamentalist church that, to this day, spews hate towards all the “sinners” in the outside world.

For years as a little girl she carried signs with words of hatred, but she thought that she was showing love. She truly believed that all those in her community were those who were saved, and that if the cardboard signs scribbled with hate for "the world" shocked any of the garbage outside of her community into waking up and turning their lives around, then all the better.

For years she saw the world outside of her church as hostile garbage, and the outside world usually obliged that image by tossing back their own hate-filled words and carrying signs that returned hate for hate.

Things started to change, however, when a handful of the garbage started talking to her seriously and debating her views politely. One Jewish man, with whom she had had good conversations, even came out to one of her church’s protests, handed her a nice dessert to eat after a long day of protesting, and asked how her day was, all while she held a sign spewing hatred for the Jews.

Soon, she started to question the walls she and her church had built against “the world.”

She also started to read the scriptures in a new way and realized that John 3:16 did not say, “for God so loved the church,” nor did it say, “for God so loved the believers.” She realized that it said, “for God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…”

She read about Jesus eating with the sinners and caring for the forgotten.

All of this made her realize that she was the one who needed to repent and turn from her ways. And, what it took for her to get to this point of holy love was for someone to sit down, take her seriously, not treat her like garbage, and love her seriously.

Jesus knew that we would likely take his words the wrong way. He intimately understood that we have the tendency to exclude rather than include.

He knew that we would get hung up on the words, “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish.” He knew that we would use those words like a chainsaw to cut away those who did not appear to be believers. He knew that we might throw those people away like garbage and not trust that God just may send the Spirit their direction, blowing where it wills, to land in even the darkest of nooks and crannies.

Jesus knew all of this, so he added one sentence just for us believers. The line in John 3:17. It reads: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Theologian David Lose, in his March 6th, 2017 In The Meantime article encourages us to re-read these two verses as John the Evangelist intends us to hear them.

“For God so loved the God-hating world, that he gave his only Son…” and “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn even this world that despises God but instead so that the world that rejects God might still be saved through him.”

That is how much God loves. That is the love that saved you. And, that is the love that reaches out to the garbage of the world; the garbage that is otherwise known as “children of the creator.”

Monday, March 6, 2017

Reflection on Matthew 4:1-11

Take some time right now to list the temptations that you face throughout your daily life. Really do it. Take out a piece of paper and write them down.

Consider this: Lent is not about who you are, rather it is about to whom you belong.

In the same way that Jesus faces temptations in the desert, we also face temptations during Lent. Jesus faces the temptation to turn stones into bread in order to ease his hunger, and we face the temptation to turn Lent into a diet scheme in which we overcome our addiction to chocolate in a single-handed way.

The temptation here, for both Jesus and us, is to give into a temptation that makes everything about ourselves rather than God.

There are millions starving in the world, and Jesus is tempted to use his power to feed himself. There are millions starving in the world, and we are tempted to ignore that reality and, instead, worry about how our figure looks in the mirror.

The temptation is to make our entire spiritual life about our own, personal walk. The temptation is for us to focus on Jesus’ ability to overcome temptations, and to gauge whether or not we are able to accomplish a similar act of self-salvation.

But, I remind you that Lent is not about who you are, rather it is about to whom you belong.

We are tempted by stuff every single day. It is such a regular occurrence that we probably do not even realize it is happening anymore. With that reality in mind, the whole point of focusing on temptations through Lent is not to create a test so that we can prove our worth in overcoming the temptations, but to focus on the temptations themselves; so that we might recognize them when they come.

I invite you to not choose giving up chocolate for a Lenten discipline. When we do so, it ends up being a test on whether or not we were able to save ourselves from its evil, creamy and succulent ravages. Such a Lenten discipline focuses on over-indulgence of a treat and completely misses the reality that our neighbor does not even have bread.

The disciplines of Lent are not about proving ourselves worthy of God’s love and attention.

Notice that Jesus does not need to prove himself in order to be worthy of the title, "Son of God." God had torn open the heavens and declared Jesus as the beloved before he even set out in his ministry.

And, we too, have already been declared a child of God in the waters of our baptism. Jesus had nothing to prove here, and neither do we. Temptations are not about proving our worth.

However, the thing for which we do need training through the desert time of Lent is recognizing the kind of temptations that are coming our way.

“And, what are these temptations?” Biblical scholar Karoline Lewis in her February 26th, 2017 article answers: “To satisfy your own hungers when millions go hungry.” (Turning the stones into bread.) “To insist that God’s loyalty and promises need to be tested on a regular basis.” (Testing whether or not God cares and will send angels to save from a fall.) “To choose the power that the world values over obedience to God.” (The temptation to be ruler of the kingdom and make the world work your way.)

In other words, temptations seek to make you focus on yourself. The temptation is to worry about who you are, rather than to whom you belong.

The tempter would love us to focus only on ourselves and completely ignore our neighbor.

The tempter would love us to ignore the love of Jesus on the cross and have us question constantly whether or not God loves us.

The tempter would love us to seek to make the world in our own image rather than in God’s image.

And, the tempter would love it if we ignored all who seek to do these very things themselves and refused to hold them accountable.

But, Jesus knows to whom he belongs. Jesus sees these temptations coming and feeds the 5000 when temptation tells the disciples that the hungry people should just go feed themselves. God cares for the poor and the hungry.

Jesus knows to whom he belongs. Jesus sees the these temptations coming and he trusts what God is doing as he hangs on the cross for living a life of radical love. He hears, and ignores the tempting taunts of the people who would convince him that God does not care. God does care and raises him on the third day.

Jesus knows to whom he belongs. Jesus sees the temptations coming when he is given the opportunity to rule the world anyway that he sees fit, but instead chooses to follow the ways of God the Father. God cares that God’s kingdom come and that God’s will is done for the sake of the neighbor. God cares about all who live in the kingdom.

Lent is not about who you are, nor is it about how great you are or how you are able or not able to overcome temptation. Lent is about to whom you belong. Lent is about God, and those God cares about: your neighbors. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Therefore, do not make this Lent about what you will give up. Rather, make this Lent about who you will live for. May this Lent be the time that you strive to care for God and all that God loves.

But, you can only focus on this love of God and love of neighbor if you are able to recognize the temptations that might get in the way.

Given all of this, I ask you to again list the temptations that come your way. List the ones that block you from caring about your neighbor. Really do it. Your second list will probably look different from your first list now that you know the nature of temptation.

Recognize these temptations so that they may not block your view of Jesus and his love for others. Just as Jesus loves us, no matter what, may Jesus lead you in ways of love this Lent and always.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Reflection on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

The church was a serious sort of church. The liturgical colors were always appropriate and in full display. The choir was professional in sound and demeanor with eyes always on the church minister.

The crowd was always silent and respectful.

Perhaps, it was the serious nature of the church that made what happened at the Ash Wednesday evening service even more exaggerated.

It happened during the imposition of ashes. The pastor was drawing small crosses with the ashes upon people’s foreheads in a very holy way. He had a holiness about him that was unshakable. Even when he tried to crack a joke during the sermon, the congregation remained silent. You do not laugh in the face of the holy.

The event has been talked about many times since. As far as anyone can deduce, everything that happened that evening was due to the assisting minister politely relinquishing his duty to the pre-teen acolyte.

You see, when the minister was done marking ashes on people’s foreheads, it was the assisting minister’s job to mark a cross on the pastor’s forehead. But, the assisting minister allowed this honor to pass to the acolyte that evening.

That, normally would not have been an issue in this holy of holy churches. Acolytes were well trained children. However, it just so happened that the pastor had a physical anomaly that allowed what happened to take place.

Right there, in the front of the sanctuary, for all to see, the acolyte dipped their finger into the ashes, lifted the finger to the pastor’s lowered BALD head, and proceeded to mark a cross all the way from the back of the gleaming surface to the eye brows. The cross was huge, and thick. It took up the pastor’s entire head! The pre-teen was impressed with himself when he studied what, I swear, was a cross that was only a quarter of the size of Christ’s real cross.

From that moment on in the service, you just could not take the pastor seriously. He was a holy man with the Empire State Building sized cross sketched onto his head.

People giggled as he lowered his head in prayer.

People held back laughs each time the guy looked down to give communion to every person in the church. The cross flashed its presence every time the pastor lowered his head to whisper, "The body of Christ given for you."

The enormous cross completely ruined the holiness of the night and disrupted the holy nature of the church in general.

But, as I reflect back on that night, I cannot help but think that God intended that pre-teen to be there to create that ashy masterpiece. After-all, there was nothing true about the serious, and perfect holiness of that church or the pastor. Each person went home after worship and acted just as sinful as anyone else. The pastor was no exception. No matter how silently reverent the church acted, how perfectly the choir performed, or how holy the pastor acted, they were all still dust.

When we were created, God took dust and molded each one of us. And, when we die, we all dissipate back into the dust of the earth. None of us are gods. We are all dust, stuck together with spit, and we are nothing more.

But, I would also like to point out that we are also nothing less. We are all people who have been molded and shaped by God. We have all been stuck together with the waters of baptism, held together with God’s love. We are balls of dust that were lovingly created by God the Father and saved by the cross of Christ. And, since we were molded with in love, we are balls of dust that show love. So, we are not just any dust. We are God’s dust.

Since we are God's dust, we do seek to share ourselves and our possessions with others, in the same way that Christ gave his life for us.

We do pray to the one who formed us from the dust and still shapes our lives.

We do fast from the things that make us less than what we were created to be.

And we hope to no longer store up a wall-like pile of earthly treasures, just as Jesus was never distracted or blocked from loving us.

Indeed, we are God’s dust, but, today we take a little time to remember that we did not mold and sculpt ourselves. This humility does not allow us to take ourselves too seriously. And, if we were somehow deluded into thinking we were the savior of the world, God would allow a pre-teen acolyte to draw a life-sized cross on our bald foreheads, just to humble us a little bit.

After-all, Jesus did not come to the world in order to get a boost to his ego through our worship and praise. If that was his intention, he failed completely. He was put to death on a cross. That is hardly glorious.

No, Jesus came to the world, not to stroke his own ego but to save the world through perfect love. Jesus came to serve rather than be served. Jesus has no need to get an ego boost from all he does. Jesus Christ simply loves, because he is love.

And, as God's dust, formed through love, we seek to live in the same way as our creator.
With that in mind, may I suggest a few things you can give up for Lent, that you can humbly do in secret, but would also allow you to love those around you.

The Rev. Phil Ressler actually lists 40 things that you can give up, but here are 5 to choose from to get you started.

Fear: Jesus constantly says not to fear. Fear keeps others at arm’s length. Love draws others close so they may truly be known and accepted.

The Need to Please Everyone: We are all dust. No one is any better than anyone else. Therefore, there is only one we need to please: God. So go ahead, love in every way that you are able. Please God and ignore those who may not like it.

Blaming Others: No passing the buck allowed. Taking responsibility for your own actions means that you can alter the harmful ones and stop hurting others around. Not hurting others in the first place is a very hidden, but important way to love.

Fear of Failure: We are dust. We are imperfect. But, try anyway. Try to love your neighbor in the best way possible. It may not work, but no one will be loved if you do not even try.

Feeling of Unworthiness: You are not just dust, you are God’s dust. You are worth something. You have plenty of love of offer in your own unique way.