Monday, September 17, 2018

Reflection on James 3:1-12

One of the greatest gifts that you can give the world is well within everyone’s reach, but few people choose to exercise this gift.

It is the gift that fathers and mothers of young children dream of all day long.

It is a gift that is the opposite of effort, yet it is so difficult to accomplish.

It is a gift of peace on a stormy day, but you can provide it to a friend at any time.

It is a holy gift right from the hand of God, and you are able to wield it any second.

It is a gift at which an older gentleman, Graham, excelled.

You have to understand that Graham was a quiet man. When he shook hands while exiting church, he usually just the pastor a huge smile rather than saying, “Good morning,” or “Good sermon.” If you needed someone to be the master of ceremonies at a fundraising event, you would not ask Graham, but he would be there to help non-the-less.

Graham excelled at the gift of not talking; he had the holy gift of silence. Do you understand why I said that mothers and father dream of this gift?

Back to Graham, if you needed someone to help carry something heavy, Graham would be there. If you needed someone to direct traffic at an accident, Graham would be the one to choose. If you needed anything really, Graham was the sort of guy who would just show up and help however he could. He was a silent partner…and I mean that literally…whenever you could use someone to serve he would be there silently.

Just so you understand correctly, Graham could talk. It is just that he reserve his talking for the essentials.

He was often asked about his silence, and he would simply reply with the words of Mark Twain, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

But, Graham was just being modest. He was no fool. Though he opened his mouth rarely, when he did…when he did decide to contribute an idea to the conversation…it was smart for the group to stop and listen because the words were usually very well thought out and wise. He never spoke the first thing that came into his head. It was always around the 17th revised version of what he originally thought.

Graham had the gift of keeping his mouth shut. Graham had the holy gift of silence, and it truly was a gift to those around.

When pastors do funerals, one of the fun things…if there is a fun thing about doing a funeral…is taking the time to think about a person’s life, and see what scripture best describes the person. If I were the pastor at Graham’s funeral, I would have chosen this text from James…at least a little bit of it.

Graham’s entire life was living out the wisdom of this bit of James that is primarily concerned about protecting people created in God’s image from the abusive language of others.

James’ counsel to the faithful is to not seek to be a whole room full of teachers. Graham was safe here because he, in no way, looked at a room full of people and said to himself, “I have a lot of smart stuff that these people should know about!”

Teachers, the apostle James points out, are held to a higher standard than everyone else because their small tongues can persuade the whole room to move one way or the other. Like a ship in the ocean, the smallest movement of the small rudder below can change the direction of the ship, even if it is against the strong wind.

That is how powerful the tongue can be in the mouth of a respected teacher. If a respected teacher gives praise to a student, the class will also see that student as someone worthy of praise. However, if the respected teacher dislikes someone in the class, their tongue can shift the entire class, with just a couple of words, to commit acts of hate against that student.

That reminds me of a Sunday School teacher who would deal with misbehavior in the class by writing a list on the chalk board with the header, “Kids going to hell.”

Students of that class remember quite vividly Chuck always being on the top of that board. Chuck was the kid in class who ate the crayons rather than drawing with them…you all knew a Chuck.

Well, just imagine how his name constantly being on the top of the list shaped not only how the class’s thought about him, but also his perception of himself. I have no idea what happened to Chuck as he grew up, but murderous psychopath would not be outside the realm of possibility in my mind.

Our tongues can be powerful things. James says that they can be like a minuscule ember that sets the entire forest ablaze. If I stopped and asked you to name someone who frequently starts the forest ablaze with a slight movement of the tongue, my guess is that someone in particular comes to mind immediately. Am I right?

James has little good to say about the tongue. He says that it “stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

How many children of God died in the past century from racist lynching because of words of hatred spread by misguided tongues that were set ablaze?

But, we do not even need to go back that far. How many teens will die of suicide today because of the evil words spread about them on social media? Actually, I can answer that question, because we keep statics on this sort of stuff. 3,041attempts at suicide by teens on average will happen across the nation today. 3,041.

The saying goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words never hurt me.”

I must say that I have been hit by lots of sticks playing swords with my brothers in the woods through the summer and I have fallen on lots of rocks over the course of my life, but none of those incidents had lasting effects.

Words are quite different. They do hurt. Harsh words are what linger in the mind still to this day. The saying is wrong. Words can cause a fire that burns underneath for years and years like the unstoppable, smoldering mine fire of Centralia, Pennsylvania. They burn underneath and shape who we are and what we do for years to come.

That brings me back to Graham and what a gift he was.

Did you know that Graham was one of the teen’s favorite people in church? It was not because he was outgoing and energetic; the teens had a youth director who was all of those things. It was not because he won them over by giving gifts or money or anything of that sort. It was not because of any of those things. Graham was the teen’s favorite person by far because he was simply always there at their events. Because he was always there, and because he did not talk much, that meant that he was always able to listen.

You know that suicide statistic? That statistic might be higher if it were not for the Grahams of the world who would sit at the picnic bench with the teens and just listen.

He listened to the bullied, male Jr. High student who had an amazing talent of dance.

He listened to the High School girl who was struggling to break things off with a terrible boyfriend, but secretly feared that breaking things off with him would mean that she would be alone. She was not alone. Graham listened.

Graham used the gift that all of us have the ability to use, but most choose not. Graham was excellent at using the holy gift of silence.

When he used his words, he tried as best he could to make sure that his words would praise the holiness of God. That does not mean that he was always going around shouting “Alleluia!” But, it does mean that he tried to make sure that his words sounded a lot like Jesus’ words of love, grace, service, and forgiveness. Sometimes, the best way to make your words sound that way is to allow the words to remain silent.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Reflection on Mark 7:24-37

God is going to change your mind.

In fact, the life of faith is a life of constant mind changing, and you are not exempt. It may even happen today, and that is just fine…at least it should be, as long as you do not resist.

I remember back to when I lived in southern Minnesota in the 1980s. In southern Minnesota the topsoil is as black as the potting soil that you buy in the store. That black soil has a slight blue gleam to it…so much so that there is a small city in the area named “Blue Earth.”

In the 1980s a revolution was taking place in farming, and it was all due to a crisis. That beautiful, rich, black topsoil of Southern Minnesota with the blue gleam was disappearing slowly, year after year. You might remember that farmers used to plow their fields after harvest so that they would be ready for planting first thing in the spring. It was a mark of pride for farmers to have pristine, clean looking fields at the end of the year and throughout the winter. And, the few farmers who did not plow in the fall were simply considered lazy…and maybe they were.

But, those beautiful, stubble free fields were losing soil from the harsh winter winds, creating what we called, “snurt.” That is when snow and dirt mix together from the winter winds; “snurt.”

When the snow melted and during the spring rains the streams and rivers in the spring would carry that soil away from the region down to the Mississippi delta. The region quickly went from 12 inches of that great soil to 8 inches.

It was a crisis.

The solution was quite simple though: just wait to plow until the spring. It is so commonplace now that we do not even think twice, but at the time the idea was earth-rattling to those farmers who had farmed the same way for decades.

Some farmers refused to change their ways while others managed to change their minds. Some refused to disrupt the regular rhythm of their farming year and refused to be “lazy.” They did not want those stubbly fields in the winter. Their yields decreased over the years as they lost soil, while those who appeared lazy profited from their neighbors drifting soil.

Change can hurt, but refusal to change can hurt more.

God is no stranger to change. In fact, change is built right into the seasons of the year. Further, change is caused when you move from anger to mercy by granting someone forgiveness.

Change is a part of having faith. You will be changed, and so will I, and that is a good thing.

The goodness of change is so clear that we actually have a story concerning Jesus that deals with the subject of change.

Before we delve into the story, a story that is quite shocking at first glance because Jesus does not act the way we expect him to act, you have to understand one thing that is very important: in the gospel of Mark, Jesus does not know everything.

It is in the gospel of John where we get our more typical picture of Jesus who knows all and knows the mind of God the Father. He knows he will die. He knows who will betray. He knows the effect that his miracles will have on others. He knows he will rise again. In John, Jesus is most certainly God on earth…in the flesh…and he knows everything.

But, in Mark’s description of the Lord, Jesus does not know everything. He is described as an angry sort of fellow who is on a mission, but he does not necessarily know everything about that mission.

This is important to keep in mind as we enter this story and see Jesus seeking rest in the land of the gentiles. He hopes to get away from the Jewish people who know his miracles quite well now, despite his warnings not to tell anyone. He wanders into gentile territory for a little peace and quiet.

His peace does not come though, for his fame has spread into the gentile regions also. A woman, of Syrophoenician origin comes and begging him to cast a demon out of her daughter.

Shockingly, Jesus refuses. He likens the woman to a yappy house dog and states that his mission is not to people who are the likes of her. He was sent to serve the children of Israel.

This rudeness sets us moderns back a little in our tracks, because we know the end of Jesus’ story. We know how he dies in order to save the entire world, Jew and Gentile alike. We know that his mission is to all people, not just a chosen few.

We know the end of Jesus’ story, but his followers do not, and in Mark, neither does Jesus.

Jesus’ followers would not have been shocked by his rebuke of this Syrophoenician woman. She was a gentile. She was from a hated culture. She was a woman. She was a woman who addressed a man without permission. Plus, her daughter had a demon. What kind of woman was she to have a possessed daughter? Good Jews to not associate with people like this woman.

But, God has a way of opening our eyes to something new. Rather than slink away, defeated, the woman stands up for the sake of her child and responds to Jesus’ characterization of her “dogness” and says, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."

That, right there, is where God is at work.

That statement right there is where the true vision of God breaks through the clouds and descends onto the Son of Man. That statement right there is where Jesus changes his mind.

It is not a sin to not know everything. It is not a sin to learn something new. It is not a sin to learn that you might need to do things in a new way. It is a sin, however, to need to be right.

Jesus could have responded, “Woman, are you God’s Son? Did you see a dove descend from the heavens upon you? You think you have the right to question me?”

Jesus could have said all of those things, and more. But, he did not.

Jesus does not feel the need to defend himself in order to prove that he is “right.” Instead, Jesus takes this woman’s words as a sign of something new from God and responds, "For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter." The woman went home and found the child lying on the bed; the demon had gone.

It is not a sin to need to change. It is not a sin to learn something new and do things is a different way. It is not a sin to recognize that maybe you were once deaf to something important.

It is no mistake that the following story is the healing of a deaf and mute man. It is no mistake that Jesus allows the man to finally hear and then finally speak, because, sometimes God needs us to finally hear and speak something new.

Sometimes, God needs us to change. It is not a sin to need to change.

It is a sin, however, to demand that you are “right” and thus refuse to change despite all the signals from heaven that say otherwise.

In Mark, Jesus is OK with learning and changing.

He is OK with changing the ways of the past in order to embrace something new that is even fuller of love and acceptance of others than it was in the past.

Jesus is OK with learning the ways of God’s mercy and goodness.

I think that Jesus wanted his disciples to see that. I think that Jesus wants us to see that. I think that Jesus wants us to open our ears, listen to God, and open our minds to the possibility of change.

I think that Jesus wants us to grow more and more into God’s people of love and grace.

I think it is OK to not be right.

“Snurt,” that dirty snow, is ugly anyway. Who needs it? It is OK to change your mind.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Reflection on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

"Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile."

I cannot read these words without thinking about a young woman in Argentina. But, before I talk about her, just let me set the tone. The Pastor/President of the The Iglesia Evangélica Luterana Unida Church in Argentina was driving a colleague and I to a section of Buenos Aires which was quite poor. They had a school in the area that was educating the children of some of these poor families, all in the hopes of raising the potential aspirations of those youth who suffered under such poverty.
As we drove, I looked out the window at the poor conditions of the small houses and the general lack of trash disposal in the area. There was a small garage in which an old man pounded on an old vehicle, trying to eek out a living in an area with few vehicles. I saw a line of people at the bank, hoping to get some of their own money out, hoping that there was enough cash in the bank for them all. I saw women working the corners of the streets and thought to myself that we had really hit the low of the low in the city.

We toured the school. It was great. The kids were happy and were generally excited to meet with us and practice their English skills. They worshiped God with enthusiasm in chapel and played with just as much enthusiasm on playground, a special vision of joy in their dilapidated part of the city.

At one point, while talking to the pastor who was responsible for the school and the local church, I mentioned how these kids walked to their nice school, past all of the prostitutes, crime, and general “iffyness” of the area. He looked at me with unexpected eyes of disappointment and said, “You realize that those terrible prostitutes littering the streets are probably their mothers.”

He pointed to a smiling child who was playing nearby outside.

“Her mother is educated. Her mother cannot find a job around here. Her mother works those horrible streets so that that precious, beautiful little girl can get a good education and might be able to get out of here. Do not throw stones before you even know what you are talking about. Her mother suffers for her.”

Then, he quoted Jesus, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile." He stared at me and I knew exactly whose “things that come out” he was referring to.

The Pharisees and I could have gone and had a party together. For, they too pointed to others, chastising what others did without understanding or compassion. For the Pharisees of today's story, it was the disciples' failure to ritually wash their hands before eating.

This was not an issue of cleanliness before eating…it was not the inability of the disciples to grasp on to what we try to teach 4 year olds, “Wash your hands before you eat, you could get sick.”

Rather, it was a failure of the disciples to ritually wash their hands in order to be spiritually pure before touching the food from the markets and putting it in their mouths.

“Why don’t the disciples do what we all know is the right thing to do…the very thing that we have been doing for centuries?” the Pharisees ask.

There are lots of things that we do that are the "correct" things to do. We talk off our hats when we enter buildings. We shake hands when greeting. We look each other in the eye when we talk. There are a boat load of “correct” things that we do that we do every day that we do not even think about.

However, if someone were to fail in following one of these unwritten rules, we most certainly would think about it, and we would probably mention it; just like I mentioned those female street workers with dismay.

“What exactly is her mother doing wrong?” the pastor asked.

Well, my mind raced to the end of the reading for today. In my mind I quickly listed off a few of those internal sins that express themselves in terrible outer ways. “Fornication”…sleeping around…and “licentiousness”…unbridled lust…came to mind.

As if reading my mind, the pastor looked me in the eye and said, “She does what she does out of love for her child. She sacrifices her body and suffers the sins of others in order to save her child. This is what Christ did. I dare you to tell me any different.”

Again, quoting Jesus, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile."

I could not answer. The pastor had put me in my place in the same way that Jesus had those religious leaders in their place all those centuries ago.

As you search the gospels, you will see over and over again that Jesus loves those who we consider to be sinners, but has the strongest condemnation for those of us who think that we are righteous. For Jesus a sin that seems to be worse than the sins of the heart that he lists (fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and folly) appears to be the sin of condemning others. Contempt, for Jesus, appears to be one of the most corrosive conditions that can stem from the inside and spread its evil to the outside.

“Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile."

As we traveled back into the middle of the city, I thought about what I would do if I were in these women’s situation? What would I do for the sake of saving my child? What sacrifice would I make for the sake of their future? What horrors would I endure for the sake of love? Would I walk the streets? Would I suffer shame and derision from the righteous? Would I go to the cross for the love of another?

Jesus did. He suffered shame and derision. He suffered the fate of a criminal. He suffered the violation of his body on the cross. He did it all for the sake of love, because it was love that was in his heart. It was love that came from the inside and expressed itself on the outside. It was love that overcame the world of condemnation and hate. It was a heart of love that saved us all.

My heart was changed.

Afterward, I was less willing to condemn. I was less willing to assume sin. I was less willing to just look at the outside, but rather sought to search the inside.

I am not great at it. I still judge. I still fail. But, I pray that the love of Christ might, more and more, pour from my inside, rather than contempt for others.

I pray that the love that holds me fast forever might take a firm hold within me.