Friday, October 29, 2010
My take is simply this, Biblical faith is intensely personal but it is never private. Biblical faith is lived publicly; therefore, as much as I hate politics, Biblical faith is political. It involves making choices in the realm of politics rooted and guided particularly in the prophetic literature and culminating in the person of Jesus. Issues of social and economic justice; how those who live on society's margins are protected and cared for; decisions made out of compassion rather than fear; how we care for God's creation so that it may sustain us as God intended; how differences are settled with respect and dialogue rather than vitriol and force.
These are among the principles that guide me as I vote for candidates. Do these coalesce into a certain political agenda? Perhaps, but I'm not really interested in labels, just being faithful and true to the path to which I feel called to follow. It may not be the path my "biblically voting" friends had in mind, or it may be, it is simply how I feel called to walk this world following the path of Jesus my Lord and Savior. I am the Unlikely Pastor, welcome to my world.
Friday, September 10, 2010
Into the room wheeled her 98 year old brother. He was the elder statesman of the congregation, a true wisdom figure if there ever was one. His last few years had been pretty tough. He had survived a massive bee attack, several nasty falls, and had recently had his leg removed just above the knee due to poor circulation and wounds that would not heal. He wheeled himself straight toward her bed and the crowd parted as if Moses himself had raised his staff.
He took her hand in his and muttered a few words in German. Then without hesitation his shaky voice began to sing, the words were unintelligible to me, by the sound it was indeed German words he was singing, but the tune was clear and unmistakable, "Lord, take my hand and lead me, along life's way..." It was a holy moment. When he finished, he kissed her hand and then pushed back to join the rest of us who were gathered there. Her gaze still seemed distant and longing, and the confusion and lostness still registered on her face, but somehow she seemed a little more relaxed, a little less afraid, a little more ready to take the next step in her life's journey. It was indeed a holy moment.
As we sang that same hymn at nursing home devotions yesterday, those events of the not so long ago past came to mind. I can't help thinking about the world in which we live where religious speech is misappropriated and twisted into hate speech and to used to justify all sorts of bigotry, prejudice, and heinous actions that defy description (although the modern media falls all over itself to try). Perhaps religions critics are right. Perhaps religion is simply an infantile manifestation of wish fulfillment which humanity will be better off outgrowing, and the sooner the better. Perhaps...
Or perhaps the key can be found in the simple faith and actions of a humble 98 year old man who sang to his dying sister words of comfort, peace, and a living hope. Lord, take my hand and lead me along life's way...
I am the Unlikely Pastor. Welcome to my world.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
14Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, "There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath."
15The Lord answered him, "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?"
17When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. (Luke 13:10-17, NIV)
He bent over backwards to get this Jesus fellow here, and this is the the way he is repaid. No one knows the sacrifices that he made, the strings he pulled, the favors that he called in: all to get Jesus to be at his synagogue on this Sabbath. Jesus was such a hot commodity, everyone wanted the honor of hosting him. The crowds; the notoriety; the bragging rights... He was bent on getting him there... For a solid month it was his singular focus. All that only to have Jesus mock him and all that he believed by healing old bent over Sarah on that day of all days. Why, God, why? He couldn't believe it was happening... the Sabbath defiled on his watch... after all the trouble he had been through... now he was bent...
It hadn't started out that way. Actually it began as a pretty ordinary Sabbath day. Nothing too special about the gathering crowd. A few unfamiliar faces, onlookers, and curiosity seekers mixed in among the faces of the usual suspects. And of course there at her customary position at the edge of the shadows slouched old bent over Sarah. She was a fixture hanging on the fringes of his congregation. She'd been all crippled up and stooped over for as long as he could remember. Some whispered that she was possessed by a demon. He really didn't place much credibility in those rumors, but he kept his distance all the same. One could never be too careful.
He was proud of his little worshiping community. Nothing to showy or notable about them. They were just ordinary people living out the command of their God, just as their ancestors had done before them. And sabbath keeping wasn't just living out any old command; it was living out the command. It was the command which marked the Jewish people as special and chosen by God. No other nation, to his knowledge, kept anything like the Sabbath, a day of holy rest to honor God. No other nation went to such scrupulous lengths to safeguard this special day. The other nations had their festivals, their rituals, and their sacrifices, but they had did not have the Sabbath, a day when even the stranger in their midst was bid to lay aside their weekly burdens and rest. It was a Sabbath to the LORD; a remembrance of the Creator of all that is, of God's sovereignty over all Creation and of God's deliverance of the Jewish people who once were allowed no rest as slaves in Egypt, but who had been led out of slavery by God's mighty hand and set free. The Sabbath was all about Creation, freedom, and rest. And the Jewish people worked very hard to preserve that Sabbath rest. 39 types of work were extrapolated from the Torah and forbidden; and the rules were scrupulously enforced. This was their identity as a people, as God's people, they were talking about. So violations and violators were not treated lightly.
Jesus already had a reputation of playing loose with the Sabbath laws, of dancing around the fringe, poking and prodding and pushing. He was a little wary. But nothing had prepared him for this. It was a blatant disregard of all that he held sacred. He was happy for Sarah, he really was. To see her stand upright bouncing around in praise and thanksgiving was quite a sight. But not on the Sabbath.
Healing was a form of work clearly forbidden by Sabbath law. He couldn't remember which number 1-39, off the top of his head, but it was there all right. Somebody had to stand up and be counted. If the Sabbath observance is profaned, disregarded, violated at will, then who are we? Whose are we? Too much was at stake. He felt compelled to speak out.
And the ultimate indignity was to have Jesus turn it back on him, like somehow he was the bad guy here. True enough, unbinding animals and leading them to get a drink was permitted: it was humane. But by extension to allow for the unbinding of people? No, it didn't hold water in his estimation. Animals needed water. People, for the most part, could be healed at another time. No, not the same at all.
Yet, here he was, watching Sarah dance and sing and praise, like she was a young girl again. And while he wanted to be happy for her, for her release, for her freedom; he felt captive to the the Sabbath laws, bound by his people's tradition. He was bent...
(The biblical story was retold from the perspective of the synagogue leader in order to emphasize the importance of the Sabbath law in Jewish piety. This was not some trifling incident, but a major challenge to what had become a cornerstone of Jewish identity. It is easy on first blush to lose sight of that. Jesus tied into the part of the tradition that saw Sabbath keeping as a celebration of freedom and deliverance. The ensuing discussion ultimately was left with two questions: What keeps us bound and bent over and unable to celebrate with others? How are we enabled to free and release others from that which binds them?
I didn't take this tack, but I wonder if this text may somehow give some insight to those who are so angry and upset by recent ELCA Churchwide Assembly decisions to allow for the ordination of LGBT people living in "lifelong, committed, monogamous relationships," what we straight folks are allowed to call "marriage." Is this a case of folks being so bound by the tradition, a tradition held in good faith, that they can't celebrate with others? A question worth contemplating, IMHO. I am the Unlikely Pastor. Welcome to my world.
Saturday, August 7, 2010
I desire nothing more than eternity locked in the warmth of Your embrace. Eternity begins now...
(Move over Theresa of Avila! Not sure when I wrote this. Found it cleaning off the home office desk. It rather called out to be shared, so here it is. I am the Unlikely Pastor. Welcome to my world.)
Friday, July 30, 2010
I came back down the mountain Saturday to resume my normal weekly routine and to see that the world hadn't changed much in a week. The Gulf Oil Spill was still there, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were still on, the world was still the same contentious, seething, violent place that I had left behind.
So what do we who live in this world daily do? Wring our hands and moan? Brew a cup of tea and rail at the unjust nature of life and governments? Put on ruby slippers, click our heals together three times, while reciting, "There is no place like home"? Curl up in a fetal ball and hope that it will all go away? Yes, I suppose we could do any number of those things. But, Jesus gives us another option: in the midst of tragedy and devastation and injustice, in the midst of a murky future and a cloudy horizon and a flickering hope, Jesus gives us another option... wait for it... wait for it... Jesus teaches us to pray. (Insert the sound effect that is used when someone loses on The Price is Right).
Prayer? Did he say, "Prayer"? How lame! What good will that do? It's too weak, too passive, too otherworldly. What we need to do is strike a blow against the forces of cruel injustice. We need to write letters, set up a foundation, begin a crusade. Something. Anything. But, prayer? Come on, that's child's stuff isn't it? This is the adult world. The big show. The stakes are much higher and the the consequences more dire. The results more final. "Now I lay me down to sleep..." just doesn't cut it in the adult world of random violence, cruel injustice, and lurking death.
And that may be true. For many of us our concept of prayer has never evolved beyond the innocence of kneeling beside a child's bed, or the desperation of a student realizing at the last minute that they haven't studied enough, or the impotence of an 11th hour bargaining session as a loved one is in peril. No wonder in the face of adult reality prayer seems childish, weak, and lame. But there is much more to prayer than we may have ever dreamed possible.
Prayer is a very bold, even revolutionary act. Prayer is the tool given to us whereby we can hold God accountable to God's promises to us and to act in accordance with God's own true nature. I'm going to say that again because a.) that is one long run on sentence and hard to follow; and b.) because if you don't remember anything else from this sermon I want you to remember this. So, prayer is the tool given to us whereby we can hold God accountable to God's promises to us and to act in accordance with God's own true nature. Now let's how this unfolds.
Think back to Abraham's dialog with God in the lesson from Genesis (Gen 18:16-33). (http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis%2018:16-33&version=NIV) What is it that Abraham is doing here? "Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?" That is Abraham's question of God. What is he doing? Abraham is calling on God to act in a way consistent with God's revealed nature. Destroying the righteous along with and because of the wicked is simply not just. It is out of character for God to act in such a fashion. In all humility, yet with brazen confidence, Abraham calls upon God to be God, just and merciful and compassionate. And of course, God strikes him down dead right on the spot for his impudence. Uh, no. Well, at least God, as a consequence of his presumption, revoked a few of those cushy promises that he made to him. That would be be a no, too. Surely God was at least a little huffy and impatient with Abraham. No, not even that. Amazingly, God agrees to act in a manner consistent with God's revealed nature. As a result of Abraham's brazenness, the judge of all the earth agrees to act justly. Abraham's audacious actions not only receive airtime, but they garner results. Wow!
A fluke, you may say. An aberration because of God's special relationship with Abraham, but not a course of action available to us mere mortals of the faith. No. We don't get off the hook that easily. For you see, Jesus tells us a little story in the reading from Luke (Luke 11:1-13) (http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2011:1-13&version=NIV).
Jesus tells a little story about a man who has this friend audacious enough to show up on his doorstep at midnight and presume upon his hospitality. And being true to the nature of a good friend, he welcomes him into his home, despite the lateness of the hour, and prepares to entertain him. But like Old Mother Hubbard, he goes to the cupboard and finds it bare.
Now he is faced with a dilemma. How can he be a true friend, showing hospitality, with a bare cupboard? Obviously, the closest Wal-Mart Supercenter was too far away. What was he to do? It occurs to him that his good friend and neighbor lives just around the block, and surely he has a loaf or two of bread to spare in the name of friendship. So he sneaks out, leaving his guest to read the coffe table books, and poke through the drawers, while he goes and starts pounding on his neighbor's door.
KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK!
Now, you can just picture the neighbor, little striped nightcap, perhaps even a pair of those little eyeshade things pulled up on top of his head, peering bleary-eyed and confused through the upstairs window out into the darkness. Wondering what in the world was going on out there.
KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK!
And there at street level, barely visible in the dark is his soon to be good ex-friend and neighbor pounding away at his front door and babbling something about needing a loaf or two of bread for a late night guest. He tells him to go away, and if he wakes up his children with this nonsense he'll get more than a loaf of bread for his trouble (and I don't think he was referring to a brick of cheese).
But the friend persists, audaciously knocking.
KNOCK! KNOCK KNOCK!
Calling upon their friendship. Boldly presuming upon their friendship.
KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK!
Until the neighbor fulfills what friendship requires... even answering late night take out requests... simply in the name of friendship.
Let us be clear, the point of Jesus story is not that we can simply pester God into granting our requests in order to get us out of his face. Much like my children try to wear me down with their persistence when they think they want something. It is a shame that we have a key mistranslation in this story, which makes it seem this is the story's main point. This is not really a story about persistence. For the word translated as "persistence," actually means something more akin to "brazenness" or "shamelessness". And these translations are much more on point. It is the man's shameless presumption upon the nature and character of his friendship with his neighbor that is at issue and his brazen calling upon his friend to be a friend even at a ridiculous hour.
Do you hear echoes of Abraham's conversation with God? The punchline of the story being being that if a friend will respond out of friendship in such a situation, how much more will God do for God's own precious children when they cry out for justice freedom and peace?
And so we are called, in the midst of our adult world with its random violence, cruel injustice and lurking death... We are called to raise our cry of protest to God. Hey, this is not right. This is not just. This is not how you created the world to be. This is not who you call us to be. Come and come quickly! No holds barred. Pulling no punches. Laying bare before our Heavenly Father the depth of our wounds and the full extent of our needs. This is not simple, passive, lame acceptance. This is active, confident, revolutionary resistance to this world's violence, injustice, and death.
And as we knock on doors, and seek out solutions, and ask the difficult questions of our life, as we seek to brazenly call upon God to be accountable to being the God revealed in and through Jesus Christ; so God also calls upon us to be God's children in the world. Children who are there to to answer the knocks of midnight questers, who are there to become part of the solutions that are so desperately sought after to our world's ills, who are there to listen when the difficult questions of life are asked. Prayer is a two way street. Prayer is the open and honest dialog between our Heavenly Father and God's own chosen, holy, and precious children. In prayer we call upon God to be God. Through prayer God responds, opening us to be the means whereby God acts as God on behalf of our neighbors and the whole broken and devastated Creation.
In this time of great emotional, environmental, economic, and spiritual turmoil: Consider this a call to arms against the forces of violence, injustice, and death. Pray. Pray like you never have prayed before. Pray boldly; pray confidently, even brazenly and shamelessly. Knock. Seek. Ask. Now is the time. Here is the place. Pray that here and now God raises us up from the depths of our despair and shapes us into the people we are called to be, the people that we boldly pray we are becoming through Jesus our Lord, our Savior, our Christ, and our God. Amen
I am the Unlikely Pastor. Welcome to my world.
Friday, June 18, 2010
That having been said, I am not above celebrating when I think I actually, intuitively got one right. My middle son (who is the spitting image of his dad, in more than just physical appearance) was given an opportunity to attend a Boy Scout leadership training. The code of behavior expected at this training was pretty rigorous and unforgiving, even more so than for a typical Boy Scout event, and especially so for a 14 year old with ADHD. He signed the behavior agreement without hesitation.
Now, anyone who has been around me for any length of time knows that I am not a morning person. This appears to be an inherited trait for neither is my son (the spitting image of his father, remember?), and particularly not before his ADHD meds have kicked in. Well sure enough, coming back from an overnight outing, before he had a chance to visit the nurse and get his meds, an incident occurred and my son was sent home. Even though there were exigent circumstances surrounding the incident, the rules were the rules, and he clearly knew what was expected of him when he signed up.
His mom was absolutely furious; I was upset, but more disappointed than mad. Once I was clear on the what had actually transpired, I moved beyond the desire for punishment (although I made my disappointment quite clear to him as well as making sure he was aware of all the people he had let down his scoutmaster, who had recommended him, the scouts in his troop who were to be the beneficiaries of the training he received, etc. and told him he needed to live with the consequences for awhile), his mom saw to it that he made appropriate apologies, and he even voluntarily surrendered the input devices to his computer.
His mom wanted to go one step further. We were scheduled to go to an Iron Maiden concert immediately following the closing of his leadership course (is taste in music inherited?). He had worked hard to earn the money for the tickets and had looked forward to going for months. Mom wanted to ground him from the concert, and he himself suggested he didn't deserve to go. I, brilliant father that I am, saw an opportunity.
I put off telling him he could go until the very last minute (although he told me later he figured out he was going earlier) and we went. On the way we talked about successes and failures in life and how the true test of one's character is not in the amount of successes they rack up, but in how they handle success and especially in how they handle failure. I told him that how he moved on from this failure would tell me more about the person he was and was becoming than the failure itself.
A nice lesson in character building, oh, but I wasn't done. I asked him if he felt that he deserved to have been dismissed from the program and grounded from the concert because of his behavior. He agreed. I then went on to explain how he had violated the rules, and rules are rules. Circumstances don't come into play when it comes to rules. You are either guilty or you aren't; and you should expect the stated consequences to follow when rules are broken. This is the law. But fortunately for us, there is another principle alive in the world, Gospel, which sets aside the law's verdict (though not always the consequences), and allows for forgiveness and life: just because. He was going to the concert not because he deserved to go (which he may or may not have), but just because. And that is how God loves us: just because.
Not perfect, I know. I'm sure you can poke a million and one theological holes in it. But I think he came away with a better understanding of God's love and grace that is at work in the world for those who have the vision of faith, and if so, mission accomplished. As I look back perhaps there might have been an opportunity to talk about "what we deserve" and working for justice and peace in the world. But it is what it is. And the character lesson is not over. Mom joined the cause and we have an appointment on Monday to share with local BSA staff, his experience of the program (which on the whole was not good, his offending behavior being the result of not only his own personal failing, but the understandable outcome of many failings). He is learning the value of becoming part of the solution and not remaining simply part of the problem. A lesson most of us sadly need to brush up on.
There, my son received a lesson in character building and God's grace. And I have written a semi-inspirational, feel good, blog entry. Could this be the start of a trend? A kinder, gentler Unlikely Pastor?......NAH! I am the Unlikely Pastor. Welcome to my world.
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Now don't get me wrong. I pray for our elected leaders all of the time. I pray for them whether I agree with their politics or their decisions or not. I pray for them whether I care for their personality or not. I pray for them regardless of their race, religious or sexual orientation. I pray that they put the interests of the poor ahead of their own. I pray that they seek justice, truth, freedom, and peace for all of our citizens including those who may happen to be undocumented. I pray that they may be examples of cooperation for their constituents to follow. I pray as I believe I am called to pray. And I resent any implications or insinuations that my patriotism is suspect, because I question the wisdom and the necessity of a showy, contrived, feel-good, star spangled co-optation of a practice I hold very precious and dear (I opposed school prayer for some of the same reasons).
I also pray regularly for our military. Especially after watching a lecture on the role of the ancient Roman military in spreading Roman culture. It dawned on me that our military personnel are the only Americans some folks will ever meet; they are our ambassadors. And so I pray that they may serve with honor and justice and dignity. Lord knows the horrors they endure on our behalf. I pray, as btw do most military personnel that I've encountered, for the day when swords can be beat into plowshares and each person can live at peace under their own fig tree (or in this corner of Creation, pecan tree). I pray they may return safely to their families whole and at peace. I resent being told I do not fully support our troops because I question the wisdom and the necessity of a showy, contrived, feel-good, star spangled co-optation of a practice I hold very precious and dear (I opposed school prayer for some of the same reasons).
So I am in a quandary: do I stick to my principles or do I suck it up and be a good, little pastor and take one for the team? So many decisions, so little time. I am the Unlikely Pastor. Welcome to my world.
Sunday, April 25, 2010
My thoughts are still stuck trying to decide whether being a sheep is a good thing or not. For one thing, with all the variety of the animal kingdom to draw from, why Jesus chose something as mundane as a sheep to compare us to: Why not a jaguar, or a manatee, or a platypus? I'm really not sure I'm all that crazy about being compared to a smelly, stupid, defenseless herd animal whose claim to fame is being fleeced. As I have wrestled around with this, images of a Law and Order SVU episode featuring Robin Williams have sprung to mind. Robin Williams plays a man grieving the loss of his wife during a medical procedure which as it turns out was totally unnecessary. He compares his actions to that of a sheep, mindlessly following along with the doctors advice instead of trusting his gut; and he goes on an "anti-sheep" crusade, featuring staged events, flashmobs, buttons with the universal red circle with a slash through it superimposed over a picture of a sheep, and of course kidnapping, and murder. Not only that but I couldn't seem to get the sound of the Rush tune, "Subdivisions," (http://www.lyricsfreak.com/r/rush/subdivisions_20119867.html) with its all too telling lyrics about suburban (and yes, rural, too) conformity and how it suppresses one's individuality and creativity and still manages to lure us. Baa. Baa. Baa.
And yet, it is because they are so mindless and so defenseless that sheep make such a good analogy for our relationship with God. Without God, we are utterly defenseless against the forces of sin and death which weigh so heavily upon us. Still that doesn't mean that we have to follow blindly (see an earlier post for some thoughts along these lines concerning the often misunderstood disciple Thomas), but our dependence is complete, total, and without reserve.
And so dear readers, I got caught in a liminal moment (should I stay, or should I go now; if I stay there will be trouble; if I go there will be double...sorry about that, I'm back now). And instead of sharing my stuckness and inviting the congregation into it, I wussed out: I played it safe. Ah, well, you know what they about the best laid plans of sheep and men...
Incidentally, I do know that the title of this post is blatantly sexist. I thought about changing it to, "Of Sheep and Mortals", but then the literary allusion is lost. So out of respect for Mr. Steinbeck and Mr. Burns I chose to leave it as is. I am sorry if this choice has offended anyone, just know that I made it specifically with you in mind ;-) and as they say in the 12 step world, "keep comin' back.
I am the Unlikely Pastor. Welcome to my world.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
Since then I have been struggling to find an answer to that question, because we all know (all together now), "Without a vision, the people perish." Very good class. We will now recite Luther's explanation to the third article of the Creed... Anyway, as I came out of church Sunday I about tripped over a new visitor. Now, we're not located in the best section of town, but hardly the worst either. But it wasn't a homeless person, nor a drunk sleeping off a bender, it was a very friendly, somewhat overly submissive Basset Hound, with very soulful eyes, that had rolled over in front of my feet. With my weakened, sore knees I almost tripped and fell over the poor thing. She is a friendly dog, perhaps the subject of abuse, given her overly submissive behavior. She has a nice hand-tooled looking leather collar with a rabies shot tag attached. She belongs somewhere but for whatever reason has been cast adrift in a strange place.
Carla, as we temporarily named her, is not the first stray to show up at our door. Our neighbor's neglected and ill-treated Basset Hound, Carlo, (Carlo, Carla, get it?) is a regular visitor when he breaks free of his restraints. Earlier this year we had our own mini-dogpack that hung out on our front lawn. And so on and so on. We would love to adopt them all but finances and the emotional well-being of our family dog, Gracie, a 9 year old miniature dachshund, prevent us from doing so. It's like somehow the dogs have marked our place as a place where they can get attention, and care, whatever they need, until they decide to move on. It's sort of like how depression era hobos (is that still a pc term?) used to mark houses where they could find a hot meal and perhaps a few odd jobs to do, only its the dogs doing the marking.
Well, when I almost fell over Carla, the resultant twinge in my knees triggered a thought. What if the church were to become a safe haven for the neglected and abused of the world, providing them with the love and care that they need until they decide to move on, stay, or do whatever the Spirit moves them to do. No hassle; no pressure. Just establishing contact, building relationships, meeting needs, and allowing them to linger or move on in their own time.
The idea is still rough and not thoroughly fleshed out, but it works for me, for now. I appreciate the preliminary feedback I've gotten from my Facebook friends, and would love to continue the conversation. So please comment away... the good, the bad and the ugly...
I am the Unlikely Pastor. Welcome to my world.
Friday, April 16, 2010
Nothing says Post Easter Blah's quite like a hard disk crash. I know, I know, it couldn't happen to a nicer guy, right? Well I found out the reverse is also true. Nothing says resurrection quite like an external casing for an internal hard drive. Thank you God (via Paul), for the heads up.
Senior banquet lessons: How do you get 3 high school guys' attention when they haven't been active since confirmation? Get their head football coach to speak at senior banquet and have the meal served by the cute cheerleader who they've been pining over for the last several years (not sure which was more effective).
Lessons learned on the AT&T Center Ice: Pucks rule! Rampage were undefeated in games Alex and I attended this year. Think maybe the team might buy us season tickets next year? Just sayin'... The 3 Stooges are timeless especially when it comes to the level of humor of a 14 year old!
Seems my congregation did just fine without me last week. My wife gave my fill-in this review, "He was great. Had a great message. Can't tell you a thing he said or what it was about but it was really good. Short, too." Yep, the congregation didn't miss a beat. Maybe I'll go find me another sheet of ice to sleep on this weekend.
"Doubting Thomas" played a roll in last week's gospel lesson. I've always had a bit of an affinity for Thomas. Although I took a "Which disciple are you?" quiz on Facebook and came out as Philip, Thomas has always been my man. I believe his fault to be not his doubt (a little healthy skepticism never hurts) but that he chose to keep his doubts to himself and isolate himself from the gathered community, both of which I have a propensity to do. When brought back into the community his doubts were allayed and he made the bold confession,"My Lord, and my God." 'Atta' boy, Thomas. 'Atta boy.
Lessons from the College of Pastoral Leaders: I don't play nearly enough. Too much work makes this curmudgeon even more curmudgeonly. Not a pretty sight. Man, I miss being around theater people. They know how to put it out there and they are the most real, authentic, and fun group of folks I've ever been around. My congregation definitely needs a few more theater people as members to lighten the mood and remind them that we are here to enjoy and delight in the many and varied gifts of God, not to hoard, scrimp, and wait around for Jesus until we die. Too many of them died long ago. They just haven't stopped breathing yet. Do they even hear the good news of resurrection and life? Or does it seem to them much as it seemed to those first disciples, "an idle tale"? I really don't know. Kind of feeling like Sisyphus today, rolling the boulder of the gospel up the hill only to be flattened by it and have to start over again. Definitely need to start a mission among a theater troupe.... Just keep it short, brother. Just keep it short.
Finally just a few quick random thoughts on this weeks text: Peter rounds up the boys and takes them fishing. When all else fails and falls flat we fall back on he tried and true, the familiar. But then this stranger appears on the shore, whose form they can barely make out by the dawns early light, and they take trade advice from him. Very strange. And then when Peter realizes who the stranger is, he puts his clothes back on (apparently he was "skinny fishing") and then he jumps into the water and swims to shore. Hey, Peter, don't you usually work with your clothes on, and then take them off when you go for a dip? Very strange. Then there's the whole threefold restoration business. I've got two young people being confirmed this week (one who is my son, Alex) and an invading hoard of relatives from up North (DFW area). Not sure how this all fits together, but I'll come up with something. They won't remember it 5 minutes after I'm done preaching anyway, so maybe I should just give out some sage advice on safe swimming and throw in a recipe or two for broiled fish and it'll all be good. As long as its short, baby. As long as it is short.
I'm the unlikely pastor. Welcome to my world.
Saturday, April 3, 2010
It all began earlier that morning as those who had followed Jesus began to gather together to pick up the pieces. Some women of their group came running in with a tale so far beyond belief, most of their company dismissed it out of hand. Apparently, they had gone to the tomb to anoint the body, but found the stone rolled back and the tomb empty. Strange. And their tale grew stranger still. According to the women, as they were beginning to investigate what had happened, two men in what they could only describe as "dazzling apparel" appeared and issued the following statement: "Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here. He has risen." That was the message of the dazzlingly clad strangers, word for word.
Most of the assembled followers of Jesus scoffed. Grief induced hysteria and hallucinations. There were good reasons why women were not considered as credible witnesses and this was a prime example. But Peter wasn't so sure.
Peter's mind flew back to a day not so long ago when he had declared his belief that Jesus was the Messiah. What was it that Jesus said in response to him that had set him off and had him presuming to teach his teacher? Think, Peter, think. Something about being handed over to the religious leaders and authorities... and then... and then being killed... and then something about on the third day rising. Yes, he was sure that was it. Handed over, killed, third day rising. Well this was the third day since his death. Surely Jesus didn't mean... Surely he couldn't have known.
And so Peter had set off on his mad dash to the tomb, uncertain of what he would find, and of what it all might mean. Now having caught his breath enough to keep from gasping for air, he tentatively peered inside. What he saw almost caused him to lose what little wind he had recovered. As his eyes adjusted to the change in light, he clearly saw the grave clothes neatly folded and laying on the shelf where the body should have been, but there was no trace of the body. No strange men in dazzling apparel either. Just the folded clothes and the scent of burial spices. What had happened here?
Peter didn't know what to think, what to believe, what to hope. Could Jesus really have...? Dare her hope...? Could there be redemption, real redemption even for him? Peter left the tomb empty, his head spinning, his mind giddy with the possibilities...
You remember where we last encountered Peter in Luke's story: Peter, full of himself, had bragged that he would follow Jesus to prison and even to death. And at the time he truly meant it. He tried to follow through. He did honestly try. He followed Jesus to the High Priest's courtyard. But that's as far as his resolve would take him. There he denied being a follower of Jesus three times before the cock crowed, even went so far as to deny he even knew who Jesus was. This is exactly what Jesus had said would happen. How could he have known Peter even better than Peter knew himself?
And no sooner had that cock crow echoed off into the distance, then Jesus somehow turned and gave him a knowing look, an, O, Peter, I really wish I weren't right this time, kind of a look. It was a look that showed Peter how empty and useless his resolve really was. And Peter feeling extremely empty inside, retreated weeping bitter tears.
Flash forward: It was Peter's turn to look into the emptiness, the emptiness of the tomb. But Peter's was not a knowing glance. It was the glance of one who had failed miserably, despite his own best efforts. It was the glance of one knowingly in need of redemption, yet unable to believe that such redemption was possible; and yet... Hadn't Jesus, at the same time he predicted his failure of nerve, asked him to strengthen the believers when he had turned back? How? How could he turn back? He had no inner strength left. He was empty, totally spent... empty. It was at that point where Peter's inner emptiness intersected the emptiness of the tomb that his resurrection experience, his redemption began.
We are no strangers to emptiness. Empty words. Empty promises. Empty dreams. Empty experience. We try to fill the emptiness with stuff: with relationships, with possessions, with noble concepts or noble living; but, it all gets sucked into the vacuum of emptiness. Nothing fits. Nothing fills. Nothing remains. Only emptiness.
At this point three options exist: 1.) Vainly and heroically continue to fill the emptiness with what we know cannot fill it. 2.) Surrender to the emptiness, as did Judas Iscariot, and end up just as badly. 3.) Lay the emptiness of our existence at the entrance to the empty tomb and let God's resurrection power expand and explode the emptiness, allowing cracks for redemption and new life to begin.
We cannot come to the empty tomb full of oursleves -- our pride, our excuses, our accomplishments -- and expect to experience anything other than an empty tomb. But if we come to the empty tomb like Peter, gasping for breath, bearing only our own inner poverty and emptiness, we can experience that miracle that happens when our inner emptiness intersects with the emptiness of the tomb: resurrection, redemption, and life.
It doesn't take much imagination to picture Peter retelling his story again and again and again. How he thought he was strong. How he thought he was brave. But his strength and bravery were useless. He betrayed his Lord, denied him, refused to even acknowledge he knew him. And yet at his lowest, Jesus redeemed him. And if Jesus can do that for me, Peter, he can do that you too.
Peter's weakness became God's strength. Peter's inner emptiness intersected with the empty tomb, and great signs and wonders occurred. And if it happened for Peter, it can happen for anyone. Even you, and you, and you, and maybe even me.
The tomb stands empty before us. Dare we empty ourselves and approach? Dare we not?
The Resurrection of Our Lord/Easter Day 2010
I am the Unlikely Pastor. Welcome to my world.
Friday, April 2, 2010
Pilate wrote those words to cruelly mock and inflame the people he governed. Pilate hated the Jewish people. Pilate hated everything about them. Pilate hated their religious sensibilities. Pilate hated being in this backwater posting. He took every opportunity to goad them, to incite them, to alienate them.
Pilate didn't believe Jesus was any sort of a King, anymore than he believed him to be the incarnation of the Roman God, Mars. Jesus was just some poor, deluded, religious sot run afouls of the Jewish religious establishment. He was content to have Jesus flogged, just for the sport of it, and then to release him. But there was a scene, a near riot. He couldn't have that. No Pilate couldn't have that at all. He would never get back in Rome's good graces if a riot ensued.
Crucify him! Crucify him! FINE! What's another dead Jew to me? Pilate finally conceded. But not without getting in one last parting shot. He would have the last word on the matter, so he thought. He would poke them but good, and what I have written, I have written. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
Pilate got the reaction he was looking for. As soon as they read it, the Jewish leaders stormed his headquarters. "Do not write 'King of the Jews'," they croaked, "but, 'this man said, 'I am King of the Jews.''" What I have written, I have written. Pilate could hardly hold back the laughter as he turned on his heals and walked away from them, leaving them standing there gaping and arguing with the back of his cape. Giggling and giddy he strode away, wishing he could capture the look on their exasperated faces. Score one for old Pilate.
"Fat lot those hypocritical imbeciles care," Pilate thought. He had delighted in watching them fall all over themselves declaring their undying loyalty to the Emperor. "We have no King but the Emperor," quite insistently, too. He almost believed them. But then what of this God of theirs, who demands their sole loyalty, their life, their all. What of him? I thought God was your King. I don't understand you. I don't care to. Just let me done with you and your infernal God and your stupid, unending religious quarreling. Get me out of here with some shred of my sanity still intact. You miserable lot of religious misfits. What I have written, I have written. Deal with it!
Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
Yes, what Pilate had written, he had written. What he had intended as a cruel joke, as a cruel goad to poke at the people under his governance, he wrote in ignorance. And in ignorance he wrote the truth. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. INRI. Those initials are still written today. Inscribed deeply into the hearts and minds of those who have come to know the truth, the beauty, the hope of those words: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
In his love, we find peace.
In his life, we find hope.
In his death, we have life.
Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. INRI. No truer word have ever been written. Amen.
Good Friday 2010.
I am the Unlikely Pastor. Welcome to my world.
Tonight is about words. Tonight draws its name from certain words Jesus spoke to his disciples, some 2000 years ago. Maundy Thursday, or as when I was little, Monday Thursday... Mommy, why is Monday happening on Thursday this week? Mom never sis have a good answer for me. She would just roll her eyes at me and go back to whatever it was she was doing. (Smart woman!)
Maundy comes from the sane Latin word which gives us our word "mandate". We all just love mandates. Just ask us; we'll tell ya'. Especially federal or state mandates which lack the requisite funding. Those really get us heated up and talking. Costly mandates. We definitely don't like those costly mandates. They take away our freedom; limit our options; cut off our room to maneuver. No, we definitely don't like those costly mandates.
Now Jesus' mandate to us starts off simply enough, "Love one another..." Oh, yeah, we can do that. We love each other. Just ask us; we'll tell ya'. Why, we're the most loving, friendly bunch around. Just ask anyone. Why, we were just lovin' on poor ol' Jim the other day. Just sayin' what a shame it was that he lost his job, and his wife ran out on him and took the kids with her. Poor ol' Jim. Cain't seem to catch a break. When it rains it pours, dontcha' know. And if the government would just quit balin' out billionaire bankers and give poor ol' Jim a break, well, we'd all be a lot better off. Yessir, durn tootin'.
Seen Jim? Talked to Jim? Why, no. Why would we do that? Besides, Jim don't want to talk to nobody right now, anywho. But, we are right here behind him, luvin' him up. Just ask us. We'll tell ya'. 'Cause we're the most friendly, loving bunch in town. Ask anyone.
Yes, Jesus' mandate starts off simply enough, "Love one another..." But it doesn't stop there. It doesn't let us off the hook so easily. It keeps on going. And it gets costly -- very costly. "Love one another... as I have loved you." Silence. For words alone are no longer adequate. Action is called forth -- costly action. "Love one another... as I have loved you."
And Jesus doesn't just leave us to ponder as to what that might mean. He doesn't give our imagination a chance to rationalize his mandate away. He gives us a concrete example. A costly, humbling, humiliating example. Jesus grabs a towel and a basin and he grubs around like the lowliest of the low: washing the dust of the earth from tired, worn out, stinking feet. This how he loves us. He washes us clean. By setting aside his inalienable rights and emptying himself, pouring himself out, pouring out his life for us. And this is how he calls us to live and to love in his name. He calls us to make his presence visible -- not just audible -- visible, in the way we live together, in the way we welcome the stranger in our midst and care for the "least" among us, in the way we care for the Earth that has been entrusted to us.
Say what you will, this is a costly mandate. A costly mandate written and sealed in blood. The blood of the Lamb, the blood of raw knees and elbows, the bloody sweat of the garden's agony, the bloody shame and torture of the cross. A costly mandate, indeed. A mandate calling for our surrender, our service, our life.
On this day, all speech is hushed... all words fall silent... This is the day of the costly mandate.
Maundy Thursday 2010.
I am the Unlikely pastor. Welcome to my world.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
I borrowed an idea from a friend, and read the passion narrative from a chair (couldn't find a rocking chair, so an overstuffed armchair had to do). The ensuing conversation (ie, sermon) then revolved around the role and power of story in our lives, and the centrality of the passion narrative for defining who we are as God's people today.
The image of a family reunion came to mind. Gathered together around meal and story, sharing the stories which bring us together and define who we are as a family. I asked them to think about how the early believers gathered together and shared their stories and experiences of Jesus. I asked them to imagine Peter with people gathered around his feet telling about how he was willing to follow Jesus, even to death, but ended up denying he ever knew Jesus and running away in cowardice and shame. And then how Jesus forgave him and restored him to the community. I asked to imagine the emphases and the pathos of the man, Peter, as he told the story and how that would effect how the story was heard and received. And then I asked them to imagine how easy it was to identify with the man Peter and his story, and to see ourselves reflected in the telling. The disciples' story, Peter's story, the story of the early believers, the story of Christ's passionate suffering love for us: it is our story.
Today, Sunday of the Passion/Palm Sunday, we hear that story again. And we reflect on how that story is our story; how it intersects our own life story; and how we are called to listen to one another's stories and to find those points of intersection -- those places where our conversations can begin.
I am the Unlikely Pastor. welcome to my world.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
The odor filled the room. Strong. Sweet. Pungent. Oil of nard. Costly, very expensive, oil of nard. Poured out. Lovingly and lavishly poured out. An act of extravagant, loving service performed on Jesus' behalf. A sign, pointing and preparing for what is about to come.
Ironic that this event should happen in the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. You 'member Lazarus. The friend whose death moved Jesus to tears. When last we saw Lazarus on this story's stage he was bound up in the clothes of the grave: bound by death; and yet, alive through Jesus' mighty act of love and compassion. Ironic, isn't it, that in the home where we celebrate the gift of life, we make preparations for death. The death of the Lamb whose blood paints the doorpost of the house marking the place to be passed over by the angel of death; the flesh of the lamb to be consumed to sustain us on our journey to freedom and life in the promised land.
The odor filled the room. Strong. Sweet. Pungent. Oil of nard. Costly, very expensive, oil of nard. Poured out. Lovingly and lavishly poured out. An act of extravagant, loving service performed on Jesus' behalf. A sign, pointing and preparing for what is about to come.
Only a few short days later it is Jesus, the master, who performs the act of loving service. It is Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who humbles himself, like the lowliest of slaves, who dons a towel and washes the feet of his disciples. Instructing them in his farewell address to love one another, to humble themselves in the presence of one another by outdoing each other in acts of loving service. "Love one another, as I have loved you," he tells them; the parting command of the one who kneels down to wash the dirt of the earth from our feet, who lays down his life to wash the dirt of the world from our soul. Jesus is the master who shows us how to act as faithful loving servants. For if the master goes about humbly washing feet, what do you suppose the servants of the master are called to do?
"Love one another as I have loved you," the Master's parting command to his followers. The Master's legacy, the Master's final bequest, prefigured in dramatic, aromatic fashion by the woman draped around his feet, polishing, buffeting, and drying those feet with her hair. Loving hose feet that would soon travel the villa dela rosa, the way of sorrow, as an act of love for us. A sign, a prefiguring, a preparation for that which is to come.
Could Mary have known what was to come? Could she even have had an inkling of what her Lord must endure and of where those feet so lovingly anointed would have to tread? Could she possibly have comprehended the events that were to come? We know. But we have the advantage of time, of distance, of history. And yet, do we comprehend any better? We know what the Lord endured, what the Lord endured for us. We know where those feet trod, where they trod for us. And yet, do we comprehend any better than Mary? Mary's actions prepared Jesus for what was about to take place for us. How well are we prepared?
Are we ready to love, to serve, to give, to follow? Are we prepared to take up the towel and wash each others feet? What aroma fills the air on this day and in this place? Is it the smell of dirty, stinking, neglected feet; the feet of those too wrapped up in the busyness of business, too ground down by the daily grind to notice? Or is it the sweet aroma of feet washed clean in humble loving service? Feet that have followed the Master along the villa dela rosa on behalf of the world?
The world does not know, cannot comprehend, such loving extravagance. The world is too busy accumulating, humiliating, hoarding, grasping. The stink of frustration, desperation, humiliation, destitution sticks to feet blistered and calloused by the world and its minions who know little of joy, little of love, little of peace. little of hope.
The odor filled the room. Strong. Sweet. Pungent. Blood. Costly, very expensive, blood. Poured out. Lovingly and lavishly poured out. An act of extravagant, loving service performed on our behalf. A sign, pointing and preparing for what is about to come.
Perhaps Mary's oil could have been sold and the proceeds used otherwise. Perhaps Jesus' blood need not have been poured out, and the life it contained spent otherwise. Perhaps... But then we would be left only with the aroma of decaying feet, feet lost and wandering in the mire of sin and death. It is Jesus' blood which washes us clean, cutting through the accumulated layers of dust and filth, cleansing us and calling us into service on behalf of others.
We are drawing near to the end of our Lenten journey. Our feet are weary, aching, longing for rest. Soon we will experience anew the events that came to pass: the triumphal entry; the meal; the garden; the handing over; the denial; the hasty trial; the scourging; the mocking; the humiliation; the agony; the pain; the bloody sweat and tears; the dying and the rising. All done for us... for us.
But for now, a pause: a moment of indulgence, of preparation, a sign pointing and preparing us for all that is to come. For now we are left with the aroma of pure oil of nard filling our nostrils with its sweet, overwhelming presence. Soon enough it will yield to the odor of blood, blood poured out lovingly, lavishly, extravagantly for us.
The odors of sweet perfume, of blood, of sin and death, all mingle together on this day and in this place. Pointing and preparing us for all that will come. Amen
Sermon for Lent 5C (RCL)
Thus concludes my self titled, unofficial sermon series (for you see, I usually don't do the "sermon series" thing), The Stories of Lent in C Major (strike that, since it is Lent, after all, better make that C minor). Wiser heads than mine have conferred and decided that it is better not to post full sermon texts on blogs, but rather thoughts that occur during sermon prep. Perhaps so. Who am I to argue with wiser heads? So from now on, I will be posting more random thoughts, rants, and ravings (with the occasional sermon text mixed in, this is still my "world" isn't it?). Anyway, I hope you have enjoyed The Stories of Lent in C Minor. Peace out.
I am the unlikely pastor. Welcome to my world.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." 3 So he told them this parable: There was a man who had two sons... (Luke 15:1-3, 11) NRSV
What do you do when your whole world is flying apart and you feel helpless, powerless, impotent? That was her daily question of God. It had been for some time now. She had been raised to be a dutiful wife, a loving mother, and a skilled runner of the household. She was all that and more. Attractive, witty, charming, and much smarter than she let on. The years had been kind to her, too, but none of that mattered now.
She looked out the window. Yes, there he was, sitting, staring off into the distance. Waiting. Hoping. He hardly did anything else anymore. He ate little and talked even less. If it weren't for the evening chill, he probably would stay out there all night.
He long ago had turned over the management of day to day operations to their oldest son. Too much too soon. She had done her best to help out, without helping out, after all, she was only a woman, and what did she know? ;-) But with her advising and pulling a few strings behind the scenes, her oldest son had matured in a hurry and now ran the place with consummate skill.
Even so, she could sense the growing distance and resentment between her oldest son and his father. His father who spent his days and nights waiting, watching, praying. Too engrossed to teach a maturing boy the things a father should teach, to preoccupied to work side by side with him the way that most of his friends' fathers did. These days the two barely spoke. Just sort of exchanged grunts in the morning. Her world was disintegrating right before her eyes...
It wasn't always this way. They were a happy family, a deliriously happy family, once. She and her beloved and her two boys. God had truly smiled on them. They laughed and worked and prayed together. They weren't rich, but they were comfortable, lacking for nothing. The boys were developing their own personalities: the oldest, dutiful, honor-bound, responsible; the youngest, carefree, curious, a dreamer and a free-thinker. She saw herself in both her sons, and she loved them both, more than life itself.
It hurt to admit to herself that she saw the cracks beginning to form, and was powerless to do anything to prevent them. Her youngest was always testing, always pushing the boundaries and limits. His father was patient and tolerant. But the relationship between the two seemed precarious at best. Her youngest felt confined, cornered, boxed in by the expectations of his father and of his place in the family. So, even though it broke her heart, it didn't surprise her at all when the day came that he asked for his share of the inheritance and walked off down the lane and out the main gate, stopping only to give a perfunctory hug to his father on the way out. A spot forever memorialized, for on that exact spot is where his father, her beloved, kept his solitary vigil. From that exact spot radiated the cracks which threatened to shatter her world...
Every once in a while she would run into someone in the marketplace who in the course of their travels had seen her son. At first he was doing well. High hopes. Big dreams. But as time went by the reports became less frequent and less hopeful: This opportunity didn't pan out. That investor pulled out. After a time the reports dried up all together. She wasn't sure whether her son had moved on or something awful had happened and people were just trying to spare her from the truth.
She grew desperate for information. She finally succeeded in dragging some out of an old family friend who was told by a business associate that one of his field agents had spotted her son slopping hogs and occasionally sneaking a carob pod or two from the hogs feed. Her heart sank. Her son was alive, but that was no life. How could a Jew slop hogs? It was a disgusting and humiliating thought. Clearly outside the law of Moses. He must really be desperate. Her mother's instinct was to rush in and save him, she even said as much to her husband, but he just grunted something unintelligible and returned to sentry duty.
What was she to do? The rift grew wider. She loved her husband. She loved her boys. She loved her God. But love didn't seem to be enough to hold it all together. The resentments grew and the fault lines grew ever more dangerous and shifty. Her world was flying apart and she felt helpless, powerless, and impotent.
Suddenly, at the depths of her despair, she saw a figure approaching in the distance. Could it be? Dare she hope? As the figure drew closer and closer her heart leaped for joy and dread. He was home! He was home! Her baby boy was home! As she watched her husband rush the gate and begin barking orders to the servants she feared for her older son, and wondered if this day that everything would finally disintegrate and perhaps never come back together again. Healing is a tricky business, and is seldom easy and rarely pain free. She said a quick prayer and hustled off to begin homecoming preparations...
Hard to tell the players without a scorecard? Sometimes that's the way it is. Let's see, we have the younger son who wants to do his own thing, live by his own rules, make his own way in the world; to whom his father is as good as dead, and who comes to himself, realizing that his relationship with his father is everything. We have the older son, who plays by the rules, does his duty, slaves away in his father's house, all the while taking his relationship with his father for granted. Perhaps, even secretly envying his brother for being his own person, while publicly keeping up appearances, all very PC, don't you know. Then there is this enigma of a father, whose life seems to go an pause until his younger son returns, and who welcomes him home with joy and honor and respect. For him, all is not right until relationship is restored, with both his sons, younger and older. And, he is willing to let them make their judgments in order for relationship to happen. He does not force, threaten or coerce, because relationship built on those terms is no relationship at all. Relationship in order to be true needs to be entered into freely. Neither son is truly a son, until they come to themselves and freely enter into relationship with their father.
Throughout the course of my life I have moved rather fluidly between the roles of the two sons. I have been the older son, slaving away out of duty or obligation, never fully appreciating the joy of day to day life in my Father's presence. I have been the younger son, bound and determined to my own thing, to make my own way, to be my own person, only to have it all come crashing down and realize that perhaps life in the Father's presence wasn't so bad after all, and coming to myself, have headed home, tail between my legs, only to find my Father waiting and welcoming. That being said, I suspect most of us gathered here this morning, truth be told, have the most in common with the older son. Most of us have been loyal and dutiful; have never strayed too far from the fold; and probably feel we have earned our place in the household.
And that is where we get off track. Relationship is not earned. It simply is. We either live in relationship with our Father, or we live outside of it, trying to be our own person. Both sons are opposite sides of the same coin The younger son comes to himself and realizes that he can only truly be himself in relationship to his father, on his father's terms. As it turns out his father's terms are gracious, welcoming, and forgiving.
The older son begrudges the father's graciousness, that graciousness which has surrounded him every day, if he only had the eyes to see it. The older son is blinded by his own sense of self-righteousness and entitlement, which will not allow him to enjoy the father's lavish graciousness, and keeps him locked away from his true self, that self which is defined on the father's terms. And still the Father is gracious and welcoming, not truly happy until all join the party, until all come to themselves. There is room for all in the Father's household, younger and older sons alike, and the Father will not rest until all come and join in the celebration.
Jesus leaves the parable open-ended. We do not know what the older brother did. We are left with the Father's invitation to restored relationship. How will we respond? And if we respond in the affirmative and join in the celebration, what will it cost us? For you see, healing and restoration are a tricky business, seldom easy and rarely pain free. Dare we risk it? Dare we not? Amen.
Sermon for Lent 4C (RCL)
I am the unlikely pastor. Welcome to my world.
Monday, March 15, 2010
You see, I've been on Facebook for, oh, maybe a year and a half. I got on it because the Dean of the San Antonio Conference (it's an ELCA thing), got the brilliant idea that it would be easier to communicate conference events and news via Facebook than regular e-mail. Okay, I'm a loyal, dutiful person and I get on Facebook. Pretty benign, until lately.
Throughout my life I have drifted across the paths of many people and have enjoyed their company for a time and then just kind of drifted off. I've really led kind of a disconnected existence. Well, God's Lenten project for me seems to be in re-establishing many of those old connections. And Facebook is the vehicle by which this is being accomplished.
Facebook which started out as a benign, professional endeavor has grabbed a bigger time share than I ever would have thought possible. Now I trade barbs and puns with my 18 year old niece whom I've only seen once in her life, but who now knows that her uncle is a certified loony. I now converse regularly with a gaggle of fraternity brothers most of whom I haven't seen since college graduation in 1982. While commenting on the relationship status of one of my colleagues, I began a running conversation with a person who turns out attended the same Cursillo weekend back in 1988 and was even a fellow table member. And as a result of that conversation I will be writing a piece of palanka (it's a 4th Day thing) for my internship supervisor's daughter, whom I may have met once, back in '87-'88. Then there's the seminary buddy turned homletics professor; and the first guy who ever came out to me who is now happily married to his husband (and the world didn't come to an end). It's like, who's next? The milkman who delivered our milk when we lived in Cincinnati back in the late '60's (yes, we did have a milkman!)?
It has been an awakening for me, to see that spider web of relationships that I have ignored for so long begin to take shape before me. And to just ride with it and let it happen. God may be messing with me via Facebook (not to mention this sudden urge to author a blog), but I'm sure enjoying the experience. And to think, I was willing to settle for a school mass and stations of the cross. Just goes to show God's ways are not our ways and God's thoughts not our thoughts...
I am the unlikely pastor. Welcome to my world.
Jesus full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. Luke 4:1-2, NIV
You humans have a saying, "The devil is in the details." You don't know how right you are. I really shouldn't be telling you this, it being a trade secret and all, but all of the wars and genocide; the violence, prejudice, and hatred, they're mere cover fire for the real onslaught. If I can keep you distracted with "shock and awe" then the more subtle attacks which lie hiding in the weed-like details, the everyday stuff of life, go virtually undetected. And once I establish a beachhead, I am almost impossible to remove, yet alone, resist.
The secret to temptation is really no secret at all. I only dangle before a person what they themselves already desire. The old "carrot and stick" approach, keeping fulfillment just one step out of reach, and of course, concealing my role in the process in the myriad of details. And before you know it, scandal, ruin, values and position compromised. Booya! Score one in the old victory column! And the beauty of it all is that they do it to themselves, and have little to no idea of my involvement. Ah, the satisfaction is to die for, so to speak.
The one exception to the rule, over which I have scratched my horns for centuries is the case of Jesus of Nazareth. Obviously, over the course of time you win a few, lose a few; balance and harmony in the universe; yin and yang; yaddah, yaddah, yaddah. But the way I lost and the stakes involved... It should have been an easy play. It really should have...
I mean, come on, the guy fasted for forty days and nights -- obvious piece of cake, so to speak. Dude, he was hungry! Duh... tempt him to use his power to create food for himself. Rocks into bread. Scorpions into lobsters. Whatever! Jesus could have done it with his eyes closed; one arm tied behind his back; while hopping on one foot. You could here his stomach growling for miles. And the beauty of it all was playing out the implications. Rocks into bread... Sand into fish... An olive tree into a full course meal for a starving family... Become a traveling , magical, miracle, freak show. Forget the cross and the Father's will. Meet a few pressing needs now. Take the short term gains and let the long term take care of itself. But he resisted, and all I managed was a long foul ball down the right field line. Strike one.
Not to be easily deterred, I showed him all the kingdoms of the world in an instant. Told him that they would all be his if he just worshiped me. Thought I could slip that one past him, play on his compassion for the suffering of humanity, and have him forget that they were really his to begin with. But he saw through my effort, and I fouled it straight back. Strike two.
Now I really had to dig my heels in. Down to my last strike. The game hung in the balance. What to do? What to do? The it occurred to me: Play on his sense of doubt. Yeah, that's the ticket. If you are the Son of God... A wonderful word, if. You have no idea how much havoc I wreak with just those two simple letters: i... f... if... If you are the Son of God, make a big show. Everyone will see and everyone will know that you are truly God-in-the-flesh, and they will worship you and this messy business with the cross can be all forgotten. I thought I had him. I really did. I didn't even hear his reply. The pitch slipped right past me. Called strike three. I was out.
I put up a protest. Threw a base or two, even kicked a little dirt. But it did no good. Game over. I had lost the battle but was unwilling to concede the war. I was not through with Jesus of Nazareth; we would meet again. I am not used to losing, and am unashamedly what you humans would call a "poor loser". Oh, I can feign graciousness, but inside I am aflame with anger. Failure in my business can have eternal consequences, and is not tolerated under any circumstances. Hey, but I'm the boss, right? Who's going to question me -- and live?
So, I didn't fail. No, I just... It was just... a temporary setback. Yeah, a temporary setback. That's the ticket! I would find a weakness somehow, somewhere and exploit it. I just needed to bide my time and look for an opportune moment. Perhaps, one of his followers, I thought to myself at the time, a wicked smile twisting across my lips... Yeah, one of his followers. That's the ticket! But that story is a whole other post...
And so the devil failed in her attempt to bring Jesus up short of the cross. How is the devil doing in our midst? As the saying goes, "If you want to follow Jesus, you'd better look good on wood." What fears do we have that the devil plays upon? What weaknesses, unconfessed doubts, misguided ambitions do we suffer from, which give the devil an avenue of attack? What are we willing to settle for which brings us up short of the cross?
Lent is a time to explore these questions; to draw closer to God and God's vision for us. We do so, confident in the knowledge that Jesus has gone before us... and has won. And that even in our darkest hours, when temptation looms largest... We have hope. We can bear up. We can struggle through; stagger forward, carrying our appointed cross and following in the path pioneered and perfected by Jesus our Savior and Lord.
Our Lenten journey has begun now in earnest. Amen.
Sermon for Lent 1c (RCL).
No, I have not forgotten how to count. Due to popular demand by my many devoted followers, all 2 of them (I do appreciate you, honest, I do), I thought I would post the whole series of the what I am calling "The Stories of Lent C". Okay, okay, so there is no demand, just my OCD, but I hope you enjoy them anyway. Peace out.
I am the Unlikely Pastor. Welcome to my world.
Saturday, March 6, 2010
Isaac existed in a realm of fog and shadows. People appeared as if out of nowhere, their faces indistinct, yet vaguely familiar; their voices a muffled whisper, barely audible, hardly understandable. And then, just as quickly, they would vanish again back into the fog which engulfed him.
His emotions were just as clouded and hazy. Oh, there was anger at first, intense, white hot, searing; but it soon flashed out, giving way to feelings of helplessness and despair, and then ultimately to numbness, nothingness. Flat. Sterile. That is what his existence had become. Two-dimensional. He was reduced to a mere cipher of himself on the scroll of human existence.
He wasn't always like this. There were distinct flashes in his mind of times when he was happy, joyous and free. Even living as a Galilean transplant in Jerusalem and having even closer contact with those disgusting Romans. Ari had made it all bearable. He would put a bowl on his head as a mock helmet and do an impersonation of a Roman soldier that would have him in stitches for hours. Pops would have been so proud to see his sons working side by side in the family pottery business. He, Isaac, the master craftsman, and Ari, with his wit and charm the salesman deluxe. They made a good team and a good living for themselves even in those difficult times.
Through it all, Ari kept him laughing and kept him faithful. Isaac never had much use for religious faith. Being a Jew was more of an ethnic identity than a religious one for him. But Ari would not let him forget the deeper meaning of his Jewish identity. Isaac went to synagogue more out of duty and obligation. "Hey, at least I go," he would tell his protesting brother. The whole enterprise didn't make much sense to him though: old stories of long ago ancestors and a mysterious God who somehow singled them out of all the peoples of the world for special relationship. Yeah, right. He just sort of politely smile and pray that he wouldn't fall asleep and start snoring. But when Ari talked about the Jewish life of faith and explained things to him, it seemed to make more sense. Imagine that, his younger brother, the consummate salesman, being his rabbi. What would Pops thought about that?
So, when on that fateful day, Ari went off to offer sacrifice, Isaac let him go, even though they were in the midst of a rush order that was backing everything else up. Rabbi Ari, off to the Temple, Practical Isaac at home to work the wheel and fire the kiln. "We all make our own sacrifices," he could remember thinking to himself.
But then it got late. Ari never came home. That wasn't like him. He was prompt and true to his word to a fault. Isaac became worried. What could have happened? If he slipped out on him, leaving him behind with all that work... No, Ari was not like that. Something must be wrong. He hurriedly shut down the store, praying he remembered to shut off the kiln. As he approached the Temple he remembered a growing sense of foreboding and a knot in his stomach the size of Egypt.
The rest was a blur. The gawking crowd. The wailing women. And the smell of blood. He pushed his way through the chaos. Blood. A sea of red. Goat blood. Lamb blood. Human blood. All mixed together and indistinguishable. And there was Ari's lifeless body, a death grip on the lead of the lamb that he had purchased. The lamb was stunned and silent. Splashes of red like flames illuminating its fleecy coat. It looked up at Isaac with confused eyes.
Ari never got to offer his sacrifice. Ari became the sacrifice. Isaac barely remembered releasing the lamb and watching it wander off into the maze of people. He simply clutched his brother close to him, not even noticing the blood that stained his tunic.
Then the anger. Then the fog. It turns out that the Roman flunky of a governor, Pilate, got it in his head that day to sacrifice a few Jews. Why? Pilate probably had his reasons, but none that would make sense to any sane human being. Romans! Ari was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. A victim of a mad man's random wanton violence. Ironic, Isaac mused, Ari a victim of randomness in what he professed to be a God ordered world. Where was this God when Ari needed him most? What could Ari have done to deserve such a fate? Surely God didn't sacrifice Ari, because of Isaac's doubt and indifference? The questioning. The doubt. The accusing finger-pointing. The guilt. It was too much for Isaac to relive. He drifted back into the oblivion of his foggy existence.
One day some friends dragged him along to see this new rabbi that was the rage of the whole countryside, Jesus. Quite a reputation, they told him. Healed lepers. Gave sight to the blind. Even cast out demons. Quite a show. And to top it all off he was reported to be quite the preacher and teacher. Should make for great entertainment, they told him. Nothing like a good exorcism to perk up one's spirit! Besides, they reasoned, you have hardly left your house since, well, since it happened. And so they whisked Isaac away. He didn't have the energy to put up much of a protest.
Jesus, it turned out, was a rather unimpressive, ordinary looking man with a small entourage of followers. They found him setting in the Temple courts with his followers gathered around him, much like any plain old run-of-the-mill rabbi. They sat down on the edge to listen. It was pretty unspectacular, not very memorable at all until one of his buddies, wishing to to stir the pot, blurted out, "Hey, teacher, what do you think about those Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices?"
Time stood still. Jesus looked up. He looked right at Isaac and his friends. Then Isaac saw a little flash of recognition in Jesus' eyes. He felt very naked and transparent. Jesus saw his guilt and despair. Jesus saw his rage and doubt. Jesus knew him. And despite all of the ugliness he carried around with him, Jesus loved him.
Oh, Ari... Tears, long dammed up, began to flow freely and pool on the ground, much like the blood had flowed and pooled in the Temple on that day. Oh, Ari... And now under Jesus' knowing gaze, Isaac began to realize what Ari had always tried to teach him: Life is God's daily gift to us, what we do with it is our gift to God. How many times had Ari said that to him? Hundreds? Thousands? Millions? Now Isaac began to realize. now he began to understand. "God, forgive me!" he prayed falling to his knees. On that day, the fog that had engulfed Isaac, began to dissipate...
We want things to make sense. We want things to be fair. We want them to be right. We want to think that we get what we deserve, if not in this life, at least in the next. Problem is, what we want is not always reality. The wicked prosper. The righteous suffer. Face it, we can piously say, "Everything happens for a reason," until we turn blue; but that doesn't make it so. The fact is, stuff happens. That's reality. We are all sinners. We all fall short of God's glory. We are all dependent solely on God's grace for life.
"Don't think these are any worse sinners than any others," says Jesus, "Repent while you still can." Turn to God and trust in his grace for life, for you never know when a fatal heart attack, or a car wreck, or even a violent home invasion may occur. Treat each day, each person, as the precious gift of God they are, and live with a grateful and praise-filled heart.
Consider the fig tree in Jesus' parable: given a gift, a reprieve, another day to bear fruit, fruit worthy of repentance. Just as that tree depended upon the care of a loving gardener for the things that make for a life of abundance; so, too, we are dependent upon God for all that we need for life. And, yes, the pruning can prove painful, and the fertilizer messy and stinky, and the whole process long and drawn out and seemingly leading nowhere. And, yet, God still gifts us with another chance, another opportunity, another possibility for trust and repentance and life in abundance.
The questions asked by this text are not so much "Why?" but "How?" How can we live life in such a way, that we live out of God's gift of grace? How do we treat others as God's special gifts of grace to us? How do we bear fruit worthy of our calling as baptized Children of God?
As this season of Lent continues, may these questions lead us deeper and closer into relationship with the one who is our life, our hope, our love. Amen
Sermon for Lent 3c (RCL)
I am the unlikely pastor. Welcome to my world.
Sunday, February 28, 2010
One... Two... Three... Crunch! Three! How many licks does it take to get to the chocolaty center of a Tootsie Pop... No, no, no... Concentrate. One... Two... Three... Four... No, wait I counted that one twice! Or, did I? Oh, I've got to start over again. Man, there a lot of these stars... "Starry, Starry Night..." Now , come on, I've got to be serious.
God, how come you had to make so many? Seriously, would space be any less with bright, with, say, a few hundred thousand less stars? Ah, space... Space, the final frontier... Enough! I've got to concentrate here. Okay... Now we're really going to do it this time. One... Two... Three... Four.... Fiiive..... Siiiiixxxx............ Zzzzzzzzz!
Oh, this is impossible, God. I'll never be able to count all of these stars. Even if one of my future relatives invents the Hubble Telescope (whatever that is). But I suspect you already know that. I suspect the plans for that Hubble thingamajig are already rumbling around in your immense mind. There are certain things that I just don't need to know. Only trust... Only trust...
For instance, why me God? Why did you go and chose me of all people? I'm nothing special. Just the son of a maker of idols. There is nothing that particularly distinguishes me from my kinsmen. Good old "Average Abe" they call me. I know a little about a lot, but nothing, surely, to merit the attention of the divine.
Then of course, there's this whole childless thing. Sarai has been so embarrassed and ashamed. My heart goes out to her. She has felt the eyes of the small town market crowd upon her everywhere she goes; their hushed whispery tones echoing, accusing... "Poor old Abe. Such a great guy and he's going to die without an heir. Sarai cannot give him an heir. The gods must be really upset with her. Wonder what she did..." It got so bad, that there were days she absolutely refused to go to market and I had to do the shopping or we'd go hungry. Many the day I'd come home to find her curled up in a ball on the floor, vegetables scattered everywhere from when she came home and collapsed under the weight of her grief and shame. And I would just hold her and rock her and sing to her, whatever I could do to reassure her, but it never felt like enough.
And it's not that we haven't tried to have a child... It just doesn't seem to be in the cards for us. And although Sarai really dosen't believe it, I don't blame her. I really don't. She is the love of my life. I blame the gods and their maddening meddling in the affairs of mortals. They're gods, for crying out loud. Don't they have better things to do; their own affairs to meddle in? Why do they have to meddle in mine?
Then along you came, LORD, and you tell m e to pick up stakes and leave it all behind. You tell me that you will give a land and descendants more numerous than the stars. And, well, a fresh start sounded good. And it wasn't like there was a whole lot keeping me in Harran anyway, but it still was not an easy thing to leave behind everything I've ever known on nothing more than the Word of God. Who knows if these promises aren't simply a figment of my imagination, a fantasy of wish fulfillment, a bit of undigested cheese...
But Sarai and I, we talked it over, and we trusted you. And now here we are, a gazillion miles away from any signs of civilization. Just us and the stars. The dusty desert as dry and barren as Sarai's still lifeless womb. Kind of hard to be a great nation of two. Just saying. Looks more and more like the undigested cheese theory was correct and Eliezer will get all that isn't blown away by these dry desert winds.
And my dear Sarai... She cries herself to sleep most nights... She doesn't subscribe to the undigested cheese theory. She thinks it's all her fault that we are out here, just us and the stars, with little hope in sight.
As for me... I just try to believe, try to trust. There is nothing else I can do. I just sit out on these cold, clear nights, and try to count the stars that are splattered across the heavens. I try to imagine each one of them as one of my heirs... each one an heir who will birth great things into the world and carry on my legacy long after I have returned to the dust. Each star a promise, your promise, O LORD. Your promise to me, your promise to Sarai, your promise to the world. Your promise in which I trust. Your promise in which I hope.
Okay, now back to work... One... Two... Three...
Abram is a model for all of us who are his heirs. Even those who know what the Hubble Telescope is all about. Maybe we haven't had to pick up stakes and risk everything, like Abram, and maybe we haven't been promised descendants as numerous as the stars (three are quite enough for me, thank you kindly)... But, we are all recipients of God's promises. We are all asked to die daily to self -- to leave behind our own self-conceived, hopes, dreams, and visions -- and to rise each day to walk in the newness of the Spirit of God living within.
We don't have twinkling stars to hold onto; but, rather listening water droplets sprinkled upon us and the sign of the cross marked upon us. These, these are the signs of God's promise to us. Signs which are promises to the world which is to be blessed through us. Signs which are reckoned to us as righteousness. Signs in which we trust and which become the basis of our life and the source of our hope.
Perhaps we can look up at the night sky and imagine each twinkling star as a glistening water droplet... A glistening water droplet of promise. One... Two... Three... Amen
Sermon for Lent 2C (RCL)
I am the unlikely pastor. Welcome to my world.