Sunday, April 25, 2010

Of Sheep and Men

I have a confession to make: I copped out this morning. This head cold has me so tired that I really wasn't able to fully process my thoughts the way I wanted, so I ended up with some generic sermon about Jesus and the Father being one, blah, blah, blah. The whole "we see God as Jesus -vs- we Jesus as God" routine, yadda, yadda, yadda. And while I know it happens to the best of us from time to time, I haven't had it happen to me for awhile and hope its not the onset of a recurring pattern.

 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," ( 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

Has Church Gone to the Dogs?

At last month's Church Council meeting I was asked by a pastor friend who is doing some consulting work with us what my vision for St. Paul's was. I wish I could tell you that I issued some brilliantly well thought out, theologically correct statement that just wowed everyone gathered. That would be a lie. And yes, Dr. House, everyone lies, but this time I choose not to. Basically I whiffed. A fastball right in my wheelhouse and I whiffed. Was I embarrassed.

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

Since Last We Blogged....

It has been quite some time since I last sat down at the keyboard to muse, so here are a few ramblings to get y'all caught up...

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

When Empty Isn't Empty

Peter reached the tomb huffing and puffing. He leaned on the huge boulder that had once been rolled in front of the tomb guarding the entrance, now gone AWOL off to the side. As he caught his breath, he thought to himself that he hadn't run that fast since he had called Zechariah's sister fat and ugly, and Zechariah had chased him all around the marketplace and back to his house. Peter chuckled to himself, ironically, Zechariah's sister, Miriam, had matured into a fine young woman and was now Peter's wife. If only this mad dash could end as well, but Peter feared the worst.

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

Good Friday Thoughts

More talk. More words. Words that burn. Crucify him! Words that seer. Crucify him! Words that incite. Crucify him! Other words just as cruel inscribed in four languages on a plaque and nailed above the figure hung on public display on the center cross. Labeling. Naming. Accusing. Deriding. Displaying the truth. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

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 light, we see light.
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.

Maundy Thursday Musings

We like to talk in this country. Yes, we like to talk. Just ask any one of us and we'll tell 'ya. Ja, sure. You betcha'. We love to talk. Nothing is more sacred to us here in America than the right to free speech. Just ask us. We'll talk your ear off. Talk a blue streak. Talk junk. Talk smack. Talk 'til the cows come home. 24/7, 365 days a year. We take a lickin' and keep on talking. We heat up the airwaves; chill out in the blogosphere, or hang out at the local watering hole. Words spew forth from us more free (and often thoughtlessly) than lava from an erupting volcano. And we're 'durn the torpedo, full steam ahead; get out of my way or be run over. Because we are exercising our God given, constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech. And if you don't like it: tough. Then maybe you just oughta' move to Russia, 'cause you probably a commie anyway, comrade.

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.

Love one another as I have loved you.

Do this in remembrance of me.


Maundy Thursday 2010.

I am the Unlikely pastor. Welcome to my world.