Friday, February 16, 2018

"Dust in the Wind"

2 Corinthians 5:20b - 6:10

20bWe entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

6As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.


I have to admit, as much as I actually like Paul, this passage is not one of my favorites. How many times do we have to read that list to make sense of it? If you get there completely, let me know! It reads like a defensive laundry list of a schizophrenic ministry. And, why is it the lectionary for Ash Wednesday?

 Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, the 40 days often described as penitential that precede the crucifixion and Easter. Yet, this scripture in verse two says – now is an acceptable time, Now is the day of salvation. There is a community church near my house that always puts out a sign the week of Ash Wednesday – it says ‘He is Risen’ I take great joy in poking fun at this that they have totally skipped over the whole penitence and crucifixion thing and jumped straight to the celebration the joy. Don’t they know how to do things decently and in order like us good Presbyterians?

 Decently and in order, today we focus on ashes and reminding ourselves that we come from dust, that life is fleeting. And yet God makes something from that dust. That mere dust is everything.

 One of the things that my family enjoys doing together is puzzles. You crack open the new box, and pour out the pieces. There is nothing quite like the smell of new puzzle and the cloud of dust that lifts from the newly opened cut pieces. The proper way, or so I was taught is to turn over all the pieces to see their colors and patterns. Then put together the puzzle edges. Once you have the frame, then you can begin to piece together the patterns matching each beautiful piece to its place in the grand scheme of things. If even one piece is missing, the picture won’t come together.

 I find this fascinating that dust compressed together forms pieces that then come together in a beautiful picture. Reconciliation – is that coming together. We are dust that is valued by God. When we misbehave and try not to work together or to ignore our relationship with God, God has patience and pulls us back into the whole.

 And, dust isn’t just a trivial puzzle. Remember the huge plume of dust that arose after the collapse of the Twin Towers? The impact of that dust is forever emblazoned on the memories of millions. It changed lives. The power of dust – a smudge you wipe off a child’s face or a force to be reckoned with. The Holy Spirit blowing through something mundane and bringing it to life.

 I heard a new term a few years ago called an ear worm. An ear worm is when you hear certain combinations of words, they remind you of a song, slogan or ditty of some sort. For me one is about Jeremiah, and the other is Dust.

I can barely even talk about dust without singing the Kansas song, Dust in the Wind – All we are is dust in the wind…. But for me, this isn’t a forlorn song that some quick research led me to think. Rather than feeling that it is a negative that we are all just dust in the wind, this is a positive thing. Picture Elijah hiding in a cave, on the run: hearing the whisper of God, not in an earthquake, not in a turbulent storm but on the gentle breeze. A God who has the power to blow with a powerful storm yet cradles us in a soft gentle updraft.

 However, much like Elijah, no matter how much we may seek to run, God actively desires to be reconciled with us. In the verses immediately before tonight’s scripture, God reconciled us to himself in Christ. And God has given us a ministry of reconciliation.

The scripture in Paul’s message to the Corinthians has a big charge – be the righteousness of God. I could spend the rest of my life studying what exactly that calls me to do. However, Paul then elaborates. If anything, this list stops me from studying myself and all the reasons why I am not adequate for the task. This list means all of us no matter what, God calls us to reconciliation.

 We mark our foreheads with ashes and remind ourselves that the cross is not just pretty jewelry but a gruesome death. Today begins Lent, a season penitence. The word penitence comes to us through old French and Latin. Paenitere is thought to be the origin of the word with a nuance of not being enough. In Lent we remember that alone we are never enough. The grace and faith of Jesus Christ are our only hope.

 People often give up food or things that they enjoy for the season of Lent. Fasting or making a new habit a part of our lives for these 40 days, helps to remember whose we are. But this sacrifice is not just to see how strong our own willpower is. We don’t do this just because it is trendy but as a first step to dig further into our faith, the scriptures. The cross on our foreheads claims us. It reminds us of the abundant gift of grace and life we have been given. Not only to look inward. But as the words from Isaiah told us:

6Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

 Take the cross with you tonight remembering through this smudge of dust that God created is empowered by the Holy Spirit. Kansas had it right in their song – All we are is Dust in the Wind – dust scooped up by a Ruach, a breath of the Holy Spirit, blowing through the world in a revolution.

 God offers us hope, God wants us to pull the pieces together. The Holy Spirit will blow through even the mere specks of dust uniting them into a glorious picture, making of us a whole. Maybe that community church with the sign that seems early has it right – now is the time for salvation, now is the time for going into the world as the church. Alone we are not enough. United to one another and God, we are reconciled, and we are the reconciling hands of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Matthew 25:1-13

Ordinary Time

 Church is a very rhythmic place with predictable seasons and scripture, celebrations and remembrances. November 12 is one of the last Sundays in the church season called ordinary time. Seasons are funny things – not just the unpredictable weather of North Texas, but the leaning that we tend to do toward the exciting seasons. All of our stores and malls have already moved on to the Christmas season. Most of us already have well-planned Thanksgiving agendas. What do we do in these big stretches of time between the feasts? How do we spend our ordinary time?

 What does that word ‘ordinary’ mean anyway? What defines ordinary for you? Is ordinary the routine days between excitement? Is it the time when we are called upon to be patient in waiting for the next thing that is exciting or meaningful? Is it the dull stretches between holidays and vacations while we are waiting for that next event or get together? Life may certainly feel that way, but in church world, the Ordinary Time is to be one of preparation and readiness. And, that is what today’s parable is all about. The church in Matthew’s time did not expect to go back to their ordinary – they were anticipating Christ’s return any day. They couldn’t help but be disappointed that it hadn’t already occurred. Matthew writes several parables in a group in this part of the gospel all about the Kingdom and our readiness to enter the Kingdom.

 Today’s parable is especially challenging for many of us. Ten virgins – bridesmaids who would have been between the ages of 10 and 13 are waiting for the bridegroom to return for the wedding feast. For this to occur at night was normal, but the delay to midnight was unexpected. Five of the bridesmaids were not prepared for the wait and get left out of the festivities. This is challenging to us because if taken too literally or broken into pieces, it can sound like a God who is represented by the bridegroom is harshly slamming the door in the face of foolish teenagers. Expecting teenagers to be prepared ahead for an unexpected wait. Having my own teenager at home or even thinking of my own frantic routine, this seems like a lack of preparation that could all too easily happen to a majority of us.

 To find meaning in this Matthew text, I feel that we need to move past trying to match the parable literally and pick apart the roles. And instead look to what should we be doing in the waiting. Waiting is our ordinary, but after more than 2000 years, we are not so good at being aware.

 What is our ordinary that we are aware of? For me as a guest pastor, one of the things I get asked is if I can re-use sermons since it is a completely different congregation from week to week. My response is no because so much of a message relies on context – what is going on in the life of the community or nation. Unfortunately, large parts of my last sermon could be re-used this week because our context in the new ordinary is recurring with horrible frequency. My last sermon was the week of the Vegas shooting, and this week another tragic shooting, but closer to home. Looking at the news reports, our normal seems too often dismal – not at all what I pray for ordinary to be.

 I woke up Saturday morning, and I was pondering normal when I heard an ominous rumbling. My heartbeat quickened, and I was a bit afraid before I remembered that it was Veterans Day. This was likely an airshow that brought planes over my house at lower than normal levels – older planes or military versions that made more noise. For those of you who are old enough to remember, before 9/11, planes were very common. Our air traffic was congested and frequent. On the day of 9/11, I remember an eerie feeling beyond the devastation of the day’s events. The sky seemed too quiet. This wasn’t ordinary. We were used to planes, helicopters – private and commercial. The skies were full. Those few weeks of total lock-down were too quiet. Over time, I don’t think that we have gone back to the same level of traffic in our skies, but we have a new norm. We adjust to the ordinary and are only tuned in if something differs. We move back to our routine.

 A heavy part of my routine is social media. I am a social media junkie – spending crazy amounts of time on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. One of the memes that I have seen and even that was picked up on by the PC (USA) clerk was the idea that ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ are not enough. While I get the concept, I find this horribly troubling. I think that what is meant is that action is needed. Indeed – Pope Francis says, “We pray for the hungry, then we feed them – that is how it works.” Popular media has warped the idea of prayer – prayer has become either an acceptable platitude where if you say you will keep someone in your prayers, it is simply an excuse to do nothing else. Or, praying is seen as all that can be done because if we pray properly – God will grant us our dearest wish like some magic genie in the sky.

I want to argue that prayer is enough, but prayer encompasses our actions and our thoughts – not just words and platitudes. Prayer is how we are in relationship with God. God truly desires relationship with us. A colleague at presbytery describe it well – prayer is how we get all intertwined with God. Prayer is inviting God into your life, into your very being to become a transformed person.

 As such, it is simply impossible to separate what we feel called to do from our prayers. We can’t keep our actions in one bucket and our prayers isolated from our lives. Prayer should be what ordinary is all about. And, we should not let ordinary prayer be defined by society. Christ is counter cultural often expecting the opposite of what our society expects.

 Ordinary time is the time when we are charged to prepare the kingdom here on earth for the coming of Christ. That coming at a time that is not known to us. The best comparison that I read this week was that the oil in the lamps of the bridesmaids in today’s parable is the Holy Spirit. If we are actively engaging God in our ordinary, we will be welcomed in to the extraordinary. The Holy Spirit fills our lamps and brings light to our darkness. The darkness that otherwise might overwhelm us instead demands our thoughts and prayers in order to overcome. Oversimplifying that these are not enough is selling them short.

 Genuine prayers will include a response. How are we waiting? How are we using our talents as part of the body – each with a different and unique gift called to be used toward God’s Kingdom. If you think of our Thanksgiving feast, very few people are just called to come celebrate – most of us are called to prepare, to contribute. Everybody has a unique time and role in which he or she is called to serve.

 For some this may mean serving to protect others as those who we honor with Veterans Day willing to lay down their lives to protect the weak and stand up for others. For each it is something different – teaching, building, helping or offering kind words, a shoulder in support or sitting together in times of grief. The gifts that make up the body of Christ are boundless and all equally needed. The Holy Spirit moves through each of us in different ways empowering and expanding what we alone would be able to be and do.

 What are we to do in this ordinary time? How do we make sure that our lamps are full? For me, the words of Micah are summarize well when asked what God requires of us: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

 It is easy to get into the routine of our daily lives and forget that there is something amazing that we are a part of today. Even when the amazing seems hard to remember or we feel that we are in a position of helplessness, I keep these words from Micah in mind.

 It is easy to bail because we feel small and like we can’t make a difference. It is easy to get into the ruts of day-to-day drudgery of chores, work or school. But all we have to do is invite the Holy Spirit in, and our lamps will be full. Patience has certainly never been my strong suit, but I don’t imagine that these bridesmaids just sat around with no preparation before that night for the wedding feast. And yet, even in this parable, they all fell asleep. An unrealistic diligence with no rest is not what is required either. As we begin to lean into the season of Advent and Christmas, what will our prayers look like? As we are intertwined with the Holy Spirit in a relationship that breathes new life into us, we are empowered in ways that might surprise and amaze us. In a world where we feel helpless and overwhelmed too often as the new norm, small actions, prayers and deeds add up to a true display of the Kingdom in our Midst.

 God desires a relationship with you – to walk alongside us and share in our joys and sorrows. God desires us to pray without ceasing – with words and deeds. One of the great ends of the church is the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. Building the kingdom in the here and now. We do this through loving justice, showing mercy and walking humbly with our God. And, we pray constantly. That is how we are prepared – that should be our ordinary.

'We pray for the hungry, and then we feed them' – that IS how it works. Amen.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Can You Hear Me Now?

Matthew 13:1-9 and 18-23
One of the things that my family enjoys doing together is attending college football in the fall. My daughter Sydney is probably already counting down the days. A scene that comes to mind when I think of today’s scripture happened to us in College Station before an Aggie game. In the pre-game busyness with thousands of people gathering outside the stadium, a brave student had positioned himself atop a post and was loudly proclaiming his religious beliefs. Few if any in the crowd paid attention – my immediate assumption is that he was condemning our pre-game activity or even football – so along with the crowd, I moved on to my tailgating, not hearing a word this man said.
To some – the young man on the post was the sower from the parable, spreading seeds as broadly as possible without concern that the soil was appropriate to receive his message. I would have been the rocky ground that did not receive the seed. Ouch! How often do we feel like this man on the stump with nobody listening or like the crowd trying to hear the right story in Jesus’ parable from a boat? Yet even in the muck and distraction, this is how and who Jesus shares his story with.
Throwing seed out across the entire crowd is not how we prepare crops today or how we send a message. Crops are carefully tilled in rows of fertilized, watered soil. When we prepare a message and want to reach people today, we tend to do extensive preparation. For example if we are trying to recruit people for VBS, a class or a new outreach of the church – we wouldn’t just yell into the congregation. We would pick the best medium for our message, consider the target audience – do we need to send it via hard copy newsletter or email, posters on the foyer bulletin board/ easel or fancy video on a monitor, webpage updates or Facebook, a phone call or a Text or even a Tweet or Snap.

Then if we hit the right medium, what does it take for people to listen to us? First we have to catch their attention. In the parable, we have Jesus in a crowd. It was so large that he moved to a boat so that they could hear. I have some trouble still imagining how the crowd would have heard over waves, restless bodies around them and with no amplification at all. Telling a parable in that setting would be hard enough even with modern conveniences to amplify voices. Jesus is said to have told parables sitting with the crowd around him. The distractions would have been many around the boat.

Likewise, there are many things competing for our attention in the world today. The average working American receives 121 emails per day. In 2013 (Kenneth Burke Text Request), the average number of texts sent and received per day by American adults 18 to 45 was 85 – this means that on average two years ago there were 561 billion text messages in America per month! And these are just two of the ways we receive information. Ed Crow Marketing estimates that Americans are exposed to 4,000 to 10,000 advertisements per day. The amount of information to process and what to choose to pay attention to is astounding. Then what do we embrace and take action on?
How do we grab attention – a tickler or teaser? Without a cool story – have I already lost you here? The online story that says – “you won’t believe what happens when…” The catchy headlines on the magazine cover to pull you into the issue. In a world that is accustomed to this dazzle, do we lose the thread more easily? So we succeed in catching attention. But is it enough – are we listening? Are we truly invested if the message is not what we expect, takes too long or simply isn’t catchy?

We hear so much today about Fake News. How is it possible for a person to create a company whose whole purpose is selling advertising by attaching it to news that people want to hear? Are we so driven by fear that we will lose control or that what we think of as bad will happen that we would rather only hear good – even if it is a lie? This adds a whole other complexity in listening. I tend to be skeptical enough – now that is multiplied. If it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t - has someone measured or gauged my habits to feed me what they assume I want to hear?

This isn’t as unique to our day and age as we might think. In translating the New Testament from its original Greek, there are many version to select from. My seminary professor went into elaborate detail on the authenticity and research put into which bible manuscripts have been discovered across time, and how do we determine which of those are real! Over time, scholars have agreed on which are more likely those closest to what the original author intended. My professor did say that sometimes it just comes down to a judgement call when two seemingly reliable sources have differing translations. Her advice was to take the one that is more challenging. – the translation that makes it harder on us. She justified this by saying that the early copyists would have seen what they thought surely must be an error and corrected a word or even just one letter giving us sometimes drastically different meanings in scripture. She said that Jesus parables specifically were challenging and usually not what the listener expected Jesus would say, not involving the accepted crowd or ending the way that was culturally correct. In his own home town Jesus was not heard because the lens through which people heard him was that of familiarity – they expected to hear one thing so didn’t really listen or even begin to understand.

Are we listening to each other? When we have conversations with a close friend we haven’t seen in a while, are we both so excited to share our news that we simply don’t hear what our friend has to say. Recently I got a call from a close friend while on Bluetooth with a passenger in the car. After the conversation ended, the passenger in my car remarked that on the phone we were both talking over each other so much that he didn’t understand how we heard anything that the other was saying. Whether the distraction is a crowd and boats or technology and information overload, how well do we listen?

As I was preparing this sermon, I was reading through my commentary to see what others had to say about the parable. I was almost to the end of one that had suggestions on how to preach the message. I had switched over to skimming toward the end – you know once you think you know what something says and are done with it. And, I knew that I was not taking the same approach. That simply wasn’t what this parable said to me. Then, my eye caught the credit at the end. It was by a friend and mentor who is now president of Austin Theological Seminary, The Reverend Ted Wardlaw. I paused, went back and read the whole article more closely – still chose to take a different approach, but based on who had written it, I took it more seriously. Who do we listen to more? Is it only the people we agree with – are we in the bubbles that you hear so much about in media? The algorithms in social media that feed back to us what we already agree with reinforce that we already know what we need to and that we are correct in our beliefs. Do we read the bible this way – picking and choosing our favorite verses that reinforce the beliefs we hold dear, or do we read the verses that challenge or even condemn us?

How do we share our stories and hear God’s story, Jesus’ story in the distracting muddle of our world? Listening is hard, important work. We have to take care to not be taken in by the hucksters. It is a careful balance of staying informed and using our brains in our faith while expecting the unexpected from our extraordinary God. We must remember that God is with us in the midst – we need to look one another in the eye, pause to listen, question in love not cynicism. Hear one another. Hear without an agenda, loosen pre-conceived notions, really listen even when you disagree.

 Despite all to overcome this is a story of hope – a call to action. Even the few can make a huge difference. This story is positioned between two other instances of Jesus not being received, discipleship being rejected. Yet this doesn’t deter Jesus from continuing to tell his story. There were false prophets and people out to make money at the expense of others from the earliest of times. Jesus doesn’t end with the idea that 2/3 of the seed will die quickly or not be received. Jesus instead tells a story that ends with abundance. The soil that does produce the harvest would normally have produced sevenfold is said in this parable to have produce 30, 70 even 100 fold. This was amazing abundance – extravagant bounty. So, keep sharing the story, hold onto hope. God can and will work miracles beyond our careful analysis, dreary projections and expectation. God is far more powerful than a cell network that measures grids and carefully tries to connect the world. This table is much more amazing than a cell network and has been connecting people to God’s story for centuries. At the table of God, in the amazing mystery of God’s love, we are all connected and share the feast.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

I Bring a Sword

Well, the Lenten sermon series was not named the Tough Sayings of Jesus because it was simple. This is probably one that I struggle the most with because of my more pacifist nature. I wouldn't say I am exactly conflict avoidance oriented, but I think that often there are peaceful ways to co-exist with those with whom we have major disagreements. I follow a Christ who said to turn the other check. I have heard the lesson to turn swords into plowshares. What about worshipping the Prince of Peace? How can the Matthew 10:34 text be so contrary to everything I have come to believe about Jesus and God?

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

I am adamantly opposed to the idea of some Old Testament God who was different until Jesus came along and tamed things. And, wait this is Jesus talking!! Perhaps this text is challenging in the very face of the idea that our God is not tame, predictable, or always peaceful. Christianity does bring peace and comfort to those who need solace, but I think for many of us who are too comfortable - what it brings is the opposite. I have preached many a sermon where I have looked at congregants afterward and said, "If you are comfortable as you leave the sanctuary today, I haven't done my job - or you just weren't listening.

And, I don't exclude myself from that message. I think that the best example for me is the bullies in our schools, offices and larger communities today. How often do they railroad those who are weaker, make people feel stupid or create a sense that someone is not worthy? How often do we overlook bully tactics and not stand up to them in order to not 'rock the boat'?

Society is so polarized today that we don't sit and truly listen to one another. We don't take the time to disagree in a civil fashion. We resort to 'us and them' with one side obviously evil and wrong. And, in doing so we lose so much. Yet, who is the voice for the marginalized, for the one being bullied? Too often it is easier to not get involved. When is it my Christian responsibility to stand up and be the champion  - to pull out my sword?

The sword does not have to be a literal physical weapon or a remote fluffy metaphor. In some cases the written or spoken word is the most powerful sword. Our society today could use some pruning work with these swords. Jesus is calling us to just that - calling each of us to weld our swords. No, I am not creating a special topiary for elite. I am talking about beginning to hold people accountable to how they treat others. This bully-type behavior crosses demographics and starts innocently. Unfortunately rich and poor alike as well as everyone in the middle are susceptible to such behavior. It begins with just one little instance that seems minor enough that we can tolerate it. One little thing that doesn't seem to do too much harm. That doesn't impact me or my family directly. We can tolerate that. Until it grows, until it spreads. Until, we can't. Perhaps we have turned a blind eye for too long on the tiny instances to the point where abuses have mounted up out of control.

I have read many books on the Holocaust that from my perspective read years after the event make me wonder how the people couldn't have seen what was going on, how one little freedom or right or privilege at a time was taken away. How could THEY have stood by and watched while the atrocities mounted? One bit at a time until it was a steamroller with too much power to stop. But who is this THEY who allow this to happen?

We, we are THEY. WE are in this together putting Christ above family, called to a higher relationship. We are called to action to write, speak and act for the integrity and respect for all peoples. This is not easy - I guarantee that few of us are completely non-biased to a group that we have a blind eye regarding. As we go about our lives through this season of Lent, take a look at the people you come into contact within your routine, in your commute or neighborhoods, even those we see on news. Whose voice is being suppressed? How am I called to not keep the peace but rock the boat? Respect and love of neighbor demands that we not always lead with peace. When are we as Christians obligated to draw our swords?

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Get Behind Me Satan

Matthew 16:21-28

At Preston Hollow PC, this Lent, we are studying together some of the tough sayings of Jesus. We began with the saying "Get Behind Me Satan". This blog includes my thoughts on this passage as seen in Matthew's gospel. This statement was addressed from Jesus to Peter and the disciples immediately after the first passion prediction. I found particular insight and value in these challenging words on two fronts. I struggle with how I envision Satan, and how can Peter go so quickly from being the rock of the church, the very foundation, to a stumbling block in the way of Jesus?

I personally don't believe in a Satan that is personified. I can't because that would place a secondary god-like figure in opposition to God. To me the entity of Satan is those who stand in Jesus' way. It takes the Greek satana interpreted as adversary. But perhaps this is where the text gets 'tough' for me. Are we all in the role of satana alongside Peter? I tend to think maybe, or even likely, we are. When we are the best intentioned we use the scripture to justify conclusions we have already reached in our lives. When we think we have it all figured out, we stand the most between the least of these and the Word.

But if Satan is perceived as evil embodied, isn't this too strong a description for us or for Peter when we are in the way? I think I am in the way far too often and cringe to think that I am satanic rather than a true disciple of Christ. So I turn to Peter.

How often are we off charging down a path we have determined and not following Christ and what Jesus would have us do in the world today? How often is my way easier or less embarrassing? I truly think that Peter spoke out of care for Jesus. But maybe he also spoke out of fear - what do you mean you have to suffer? I chose to follow you; this isn't where I thought the messiah would lead me!

Our challenge is to follow Jesus and not put ourselves out front. How can I work in this Lenten season to step aside from the driver seat long enough to see who I am following? How can we follow Jesus more authentically without our own agendas?

God is capable of things beyond our wildest imaginings - even working in spite of us, in spite of all our good intentions and things we have 'figured out'. Our God is an amazing God - one who doesn't excuse us but will continue to work alongside us and will continue to rebuke and challenge us when we sell Christianity short or try to make it about us. As we journey in Lent we must remember who it is we follow. Amen.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Room for a Miracle?

Mark 7:24-37

24From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

 I haven’t always been a pastor. When I first told people that I felt called to ministry, the responses were varied. Some people just started to avoid me, others felt an invitation to a new friendship. Long-time friends who had worked many a late-night with me started apologizing for cussing in front of me. At my MBA reunion with all the talk of who was climbing the business ladder to success fastest, who had the right salaries, I could stop a conversation the fastest when I answered the question – 'What are you doing now?' with my answer - “I’ve gone back to graduate school to be a minister.” – silence, uncomfortable looks, time to refresh our drinks….

 Mark's gospel presents people as real. They aren’t sugar coated. Disciples make mistakes or just don’t get it when taught by Jesus. All people in Mark’s gospel are presented as they are. And, this includes Jesus. If we see Jesus as human among us, then to be truly like us, he wasn’t some superhuman with no mistakes and no growth. Here Jesus makes a mistake – how insulting to call a little girl a dog? The Greek words aren’t the same as girl and dog but use belittling terminology for little girl and little girl dog. Dogs would not have been beloved pets but mongrels that were in the way, scavengers, most often to be kicked out of the way at important gatherings.

 But then Jesus listens when the woman responds. Jesus grows and moves toward making space for people. How does Jesus respond to the outsider? A SyroPhoenician woman? Not only is she from a country that would have been shunned and avoided, she is also described as Greek. This would have meant she was not Jewish. And, of course, she is - a SHE which would have made her considered unimportant in that day and time.

 So much of the bible is tied to context of what was going on in that culture, but Mark makes it easier to tie to our own culture. If you look at examples in Mark, the family and disciples often don’t understand what Jesus is saying or teaching. It is time after time the downtrodden or outcast who catches on and gets it. The religious experts, rabbis, disciples and the family are not presented in the best of lights by Mark. They are not open to others. They don’t make space especially not space for those outside their immediate circles of what and who is acceptable.

 Take a look at our world today. What has dominated our news this week? The latest Donald Trump quote, football scores, VMA winners. Yet, my friend Kerrybett Dodson who flies internationally brought home a different story and newspaper for her family. I’d like to share her words with you:

 “This is the truth of what's happening, whether America knows or not. Yesterday, on the front page of nearly every European newspaper, was the most gut wrenching photograph I've ever seen. It's the body of a precious toddler, 3 years old, washed up on a beach in Turkey. His name was Aylan, and he was a refugee from Syria.”

Aylan’s story has now gone viral on the internet, but it was not news we wanted to see. Kerrybett took the UK paper home for her high school son to see. She said that they both cried but, they had to see it no matter how terrible and heartbreaking it was. Kerrybett describes this as a picture we have to see. She continues: “This is the world, and what is happening in it. It speaks volumes about the human race, politics, policies, and what we can live with. As a Christian, I look to verses like Philippians 2:4. "Don't look out only for your own interests, but take interest in others, too." We are to look out for our brothers, everyone we share this planet with. We must.”

 Since she wrote this, we have had more in our news about the tragedies impacting misplaced families, Syrian immigrants. Social media shrinks our world. In this case, it made it almost impossible to ignore. Yet, a brief scroll of our news yesterday tended to place the immigration crisis second or third in importance. News is reported by what gets attention, our responses. How do we respond? How do we not feel numb and helpless when faced with atrocities about which we feel unable to impact?

 Our Christian faith calls us to action. What are we called to in our world today? Look at the people directly in front of you. Start with them. Despite his first instinct being that the woman at his feet wasn’t in his circle, Jesus opens up and responds with a miracle. Jesus on hearing the words of the foreign outcast woman realizes that this is indeed what God is about. Such response is no less what we are called to – open up and listen to the outcast and ostracized around us.

Jesus was weary, he wanted to get away and relax. He probably was human just like you and me in the feeling of being overwhelmed. As Reverend Charlene Han Powell puts it, “Maybe Jesus was even grumpy and sarcastic at this point.” Yet Christianity is all about relationship. Our faith is strongest when it is exercised on behalf of others. In our lives and in this story today, the stranger and outsider has power over us. We can learn from them. They have perspectives that can challenge, enlighten, and move us in new and different ways.

We need to look around us – to our homes, schools, communities and even around the world. Who needs us? How do we use what is at hand to be the body of Christ in the world today? When we go about our daily routine and feel like there isn’t room to pack in any more, when we watch the fluff news or read the easy story, stop. Follow the example of Jesus who just wanted a break but couldn’t escape the crowds. Pause and realize that this is how we honor God in our midst – seeing Him in the eye of a stranger.
Start by making space for others in the simplest of ways and grow toward making space for those who are different in oh so many ways – rather than shutting down when we see the different, honor God by walking in the footsteps of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.

 Respond with miracles. Praise God – worship God by making space for others. Do you have room for a miracle? Amen.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Season of Epiphanies

You never know where that inspiration is going to come from; you never know which random thought or action is going to send you off on a tangent for the whole day. Or, perhaps that tangent is meant to be the main path and (because we resist or don't even see it) we are nudged toward it. In this season of epiphany, surprise, revelation - discovery is the name of the game. Where do we learn astonishing things? The profound? Where do we see Jesus in our lives? Or as Karoline Lewis put it in her Epiphany Expectations article, maybe it isn't about us discovering God but about God discovering us. I think maybe that could be taken further to say God helping us discover ourselves first.

My friend Deirdre Wilson posted to Facebook this morning that the eskimos have 100 words for snow yet there is no word for missing a child. Not one. My heart aches but can come nowhere close to her pain of losing a daughter. There are no words. The Nigerians face slaughter of untold proportions, and we can't even imagine the horror of so many deaths. Yet our media is dominated by football and the horror is barely a byline. There are no words. We gasp at beheadings and terrorists and are quick to point the finger, yet reports recently tell of our own CIA tortures. We barely discuss it and quickly move on. There are no words.

We have mostly put away our Christmas decorations, and in this season, some are still hanging on working to have God being more fully in their lives this year. How do we live up to resolutions and try to be better? Are we doing this for God, or is it a fad? Are we truly looking for something deeper? If Jesus were to come along today and reach out to us to drop everything and follow Him, would we do it?

I think a sad look at our words tells us that we would not. Where are the words? Our actions speak, but our words have power. Look at the power of the French to stand up for freedom of those very words. Millions moved to protect that precious voice. But how are we using that voice in the world today?

So often we try to hide or shut down when words become too hard. God gently follows us no matter what. Jesus came to disciples through the locked doors in love. Muslem leaders lately have given voice that this terrorism is not Islam, not what their faith is meant to be, even suggesting that Mohammed would have reviled the murders of journalists more than he would the satire they had produced.

We are a confused and weak people. We can't put down our trivial to embrace and recognize our weakness. Give us courage to support one another and move this world to a place where no child dies before a parent, no community lives in fear of annihilation and words are support, not weapons.

What is God revealing to us in this season about ourselves? How do our hearts learn to speak? Maybe it's not about the profound but learning to put one foot in front of the other and living day-to-day. Reaching out a hand, being their with one another. Slowly, slowly allowing our hearts to create the words, to learn to speak our pain and vulnerability. To learn to speak in reaching out when that might hurt too. Oh God give us the words! Amen.

In memory of Nicole - whose smile embodied words straight from the heart.