“Like a Rat in a Maze, the Path Before Me Lies” – Simon and Garfunkel:​ A Sermon on Mark 2

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As another school year winds down, I am reminded we all need a certain amount of open time in the summer to allow space to plant new seeds in the fields of our life. Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is to sit back and watch the grass grow, taking a hike, walking along the river, going fishing, knitting. These little “sabbaths” are needed to replenish our bodies, and minds, and spirit.

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The full moon earlier in the week took me back to my childhood days when I was reminded how I could spend the entire day and night outside playing. Our work, when we are children, is to play. A healthy childhood involves play for the sake of play. One of our issues in our modern society is that we have lengthened the school day and shortened the number of time children has to play. When was the last time you saw children playing in the streets? Maybe you remember a time when children were free range, and as long as they were safe, life was good. Nowadays, children have to be protected and with what little free time they have, it is the usually structured activity which leaves little if any free time to discover a personal freedom and playing for the sake of playing.

This happens in part because of the parents and adults. Yes, we know the influence adults have on children. And our society has become so consumed with work and running a rat race, that we have almost entirely forsaken our own need to play. It’s sad really, we are teaching our youth to value work and being busy more than just being. We weren’t created to work all day, every day. Even God rested after created humans on the six-day, so why do we think we are smarter than the Creator? It’s just foolishness.

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Have you ever met anyone who has won the rat race? If the answer is no, then why do we feel like we must compete in an unwinnable race? Seems as if your human inclination is to consume more and more and we get sucked into a vicious cycle of the rat race to keep up the pace so that we feel good about ourselves, our existence, and purpose. Some people are motivated by their own need to feel like my people, so they run the rat race to buy beautiful clothes and fancy automobiles and toys. Fact is, there is no end. It’s an empty hole that is hard to dig your way out of. Only when you look back in self-examination, do you discover your motivation and purpose has been wrong? Heck, some people never examine themselves, and as a result, they become miserable because they are tired of running the rat race.

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See, the scriptures tell us there is a dichotomy between God’s order and order of this world which produces a strain on Christians. We all know that to live and buy stuff, you have to work, but the problem comes when all we know how to do is work and forget about the living part. Now I know there are worker justice issues and the real wages in this country have been stagnating for several decades, and the living wage is far higher than actual salaries paid. It’s a real issue for many people working three part-time jobs. The thing is, the system we find ourselves in is unsustainable. At some point, it will collapse. So, why put more effort into a system that only pays off in the short run? There has got to be a better way, right?

Actually, there is, it’s called a Sabbath. And the good news is that God commands us to take it. Hear these words of Jesus: “The Sabbath was made for humans., and not humans for the Sabbath.”

Some of us are better at taking sabbaths than others. We can all learn something for people who make the time for self-care and leisure. Who in your life is good at this? Talk to them and learn from them. I bet they are probably in pretty good mental, spiritual, and even physical health. They are more self-aware than the rest of us because they take time to care for themselves. Learn something from them, they have something to teach you and us.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a great Jewish thinker, writes: “The Sabbath as a day of rest is not to recover one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life.” If we are taking a sabbath rest, it should disrupt our lives in a right way. Setting aside time from busy daily life and allowing ourselves to just be alive, it gives us something to look forward too and can make us feel good about ourselves and our daily labors. If God can take a day of rest, you can too. Everyone can. Jobs, families, lovers, employers, and friends can exist one day a week without anyone of us, none of us are that important and if your ego permits you to admit, actually they could exist eternally in our absence.

I am always amazed at the energy I discover in my zeal for ministry when I set aside the time to take care of my own needs and step aside and remove myself from my vocation. It’s not that I’m trying to get out of my service, but it refreshes me to step out of the rat race of life, and let my mind wander into something new. It’s way refreshing and energizes me for newness and change. If we don’t step outside ourselves, we become dull. Our world becomes small, and we lose that sense of wonder for life.

Sisters and brothers, don’t lose your zeal for life. Take the time to care for yourselves. It’s not only good, but it’s also a commandment! Your soul and spirit will become energized by the time you take away. Your soul is on a different timetable than your body. It doesn’t like to be rushed, so it is of utmost importance to remove yourself from the daily task for moments of contemplation and the dimension of our spiritual realities.  You will be a happier person because of it. Amen.

Three’s Company – A Sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday

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         How easy it is for adults to ignore, gloss over, or to block out some of the pressing questions of faith of youth?  Even to say “I don’t know” is so much better than some flippant or derisive answer.  Today is one of the weird Sunday’s in the church calendar known as ‘Holy Trinity” Sunday. It’s a Sunday in which we come face-to-face with a mystery; the mystery of Almighty God.  Like the children who are trying to wrap their young minds around the concept of God, we too have questions about the Trinity.  Who is God?  Where is God? What is God doing?

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Frederick Buechner, who always has something witty to say about the Christian faith, describes the Trinity in his classic book, “Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC” describes the trinity in this fashion: 

If the idea of God as both Three and One seems far-fetched and confusing, look in the mirror someday. There is (a) the interior life known only to yourself and those you choose to communicate it to (the Father). There is (b) the visible face which in some measure reflects that inner life (the Son). And there is (c) the invisible power you have in order to communicate that interior life in such a way that others do not merely know about it, but know it in the sense of its becoming part of who they are (the Holy Spirit). Yet what you are looking at in the mirror is clearly and invisibly the one and only you.”

          This is one the days in the church year to ask these questions.  Our appointed readings give us a sense of what God is like.  You might say a glimpse of the Trinity; for we see Jesus, the Son of god, speaking of his father and of the unseen power of the Holy Spirit.  For those who are interested in searching for God, John’s Gospel gives us an unusual perspective.

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         Meet Nicodemus.  You know this story well.  Nicodemus is a man whose questions may have been squashed at one time or another, but he is curious about God.  He has searched for God, and went to one person whom he thought could give him a couple of answers, (or most likely more questions!)  Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews go to talk about God to Jesus by night.  No one of his social significance would take the chance of being seen with a rebel teacher. But Nicodemus was curious, so he meets with Jesus in the dark of night.

         You’ll note in verse 2 of the reading Nicodemus says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.”  Nicodemus pointed to the signs that Jesus did as evidence of his identity.  Without even asking a question, Nicodemus heard an unexpected answer about entering the kingdom of God.  “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Jesus tells Nicodemus. 

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         New birth is the entrance into the kingdom of God.  And if it’s the entrance into the Kingdom, it must be pretty significant. To Christians, especially Lutherans, baptism is essential.  God may have other ways of bringing people into the kingdom, but if God does, the Bible doesn’t say.  Someone has said, “God has bound us to baptism, but he has not bound himself to it.”

         What is this kingdom into which we are baptized?  We know it’s not a place.  You won’t find it on a roadmap.  There are no billboards or road signs.  This kingdom is instead a matter of your heart’s allegiance.  God’s kingdom is found in the soul of every believer.  Outwardly to the secular world, the reign of God doesn’t exist.  The domain is invisible.  But the people of the reign are everywhere.  We are gathered here this morning into what we call the church or the body of Christ.  Baptism is God’s new birth, and it changes us and makes us ready to respond to God’s will. It gives us a fresh start, a new beginning. 

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         You and I make all kinds of new beginnings.  New school, new jobs, new marriage, or merely a fresh start to an old way. None of these brings us into God’s kingdom.  Only that which God provides can do it.  The Bible calls it Baptism, by water and the Spirit of God, it is God’s means to enter the kingdom.

         And baptism lasts forever because it is the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the name of God in which we baptize. It is God’s grace that saves us- and that never wears thin.  No matter how old we are when it happens, in baptism, we come before the Trinity and receive grace upon grace.  God’s goodness comes to us, washes us clean, and saves us from death and the devil. Sometimes it’s helpful to think of the church has a large swimming pool with all kinds of kids floating around in the baptismal waters. 

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         Because every ministry we do in the name of Christ, we do from the waters of our baptism.  And our baptism isn’t a spectacle.  It is a sacrament featuring God – the Holy Trinity.  That means the spotlight is on God’s love and grace for us, each and every time.  And each of us can be part of the lighting crew that shines forth God’s love. Thanks be to God.

        

Congregational Positioning for Ministry with Seniors – Powerpoint Presentation May 20th, 2018 Zion Lutheran Church

As part of my congregation’s visioning process, I created a powerpoint presentation about some of the implications of an aging population in the U.S. and the implications on congregational life.

On Sunday, May 20th, I  shared a vibrant conversation about ways older adults contribute to the life of the congregation. The focus of the discussion was about what spiritual needs exist in the lives of older adults and discovering the value of ministry with the older adults in the congregation.

I included slides from my powerpoint presentation in this post. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to link the embedded videos into the slideshow.

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Photos from 2018 Garden of Eatin’ Blessing

As an act of worship on Sunday, May 6th, we blessed our “Garden of Eatin’ and prayed for all who are hungry and go without substance. This ministry has turned out to be a rather remarkable outreach opportunity for the congregation with many neighbors who pass by offering a sincere sense of gratitude and appreciation for our efforts.

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“It actually looks like someone cares,” quoting a neighbor who walked by.

The entire harvest is taken to the local food pantry for distribution. The pantry manager informs us that nothing is ever left from our vegetable donation at the end of the day. Most people take the variety of vegetables that contribute.

Crops selected are based on the market at the food pantry. We have three types of lettuce, beans, several varieties of peppers,  many varieties of tomatoes, kale, carrots, onions, radishes.

Know When to Hold Em, When to Fold Em, and When to Just Walk Away- John 15

[Jesus said:] 1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
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Tools to prune branches.

I didn’t think that the yard work I did last Monday would turn into the subject of a sermon, but it fits perfectly with Jesus metaphor of vines and branches. My lilac shrub and this vine plant that I can barely stand needed to a cut, so with the beautiful weather, I didn’t want to miss my chance to trim a little of the plants. Here is a piece of the branch that I cut.

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What Jesus is talking about as fruit is faith. We can be confident he is talking about faith because he gives a clue. He says that those who are not bringing forth fruit will have to be pruned and thrown away. This is because they apparently are not drawing their life from Christ who is the Vine. They are cut off from Christ. Consequently, they are cut off from life. Their lives are fruitless and dead. They must be pruned and taken away and ultimately thrown into the fire. On the other hand, Jesus says to his disciples, “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” This is to say that Jesus has already cleansed, pruned, and trimmed his disciples that they might be able to yield the proper fruit. This is an essential point in the text…. They did not cleanse themselves. They did not make themselves fit branches for bearing fruit. Jesus himself furnished them with the righteousness to produce their fruit acceptable to the Divine Vinedresser.

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The point of all this pruning work is so that we “abide” in God. Really, the heart of John’s gospel message is to abide in Christ love.

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So, this week, I want us to think about the fruits of our faith. Jesus says it like this, a good tree bears good fruit. And in our text, Jesus is the vine. God is the vine grower. We are the branches and expected to bear fruit. We cannot do so unless we abide in the vine.

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Like the shrubs I trimmed, God removes branches that don’t bear fruit. God prunes those that do. God is glorified when we become disciples and bear fruit. And what this fruit is not spelled out.

But, we might take a cue from Paul, who wrote about bearing fruit long before John wrote his gospel: The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…”(Galatians 5:22) If we consider this interpretation of fruit, love, peace, joy and such as the fruit, then John is saying we find these by dwelling in Christ.

Here’s this morning’s take away – the branches (disciples) cannot bear fruit (good works) apart from the vine. Our good deeds come from God. And if the branch tries to bear fruit apart from the vine, it will wither. Focus in abiding in Christ first, and the branch will eventually bear fruit.

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Being connected to Christ is the only way we can honestly know we are connected to the source which provides life.

It seems to me that in every parish I have served, there are a some who worked their fingers to the bone trying to do good at some point they flamed out. They weren’t connected to the vine. It’s our only source of energy, and we need reminding that we have to stay connected to Christ, the source of life. Some of us, rather than discerning God’s direction, operate frantically. Worship and prayer were secondary to some. I’m all for helping people, but without the spiritual food and drink, we will all eventually run out of gas.

Our spiritual lives are the food we need for a life of ministry, a life of walking the way of the cross. We can’t get there on our own. We need the energy from the vine to keep up going. So many of us take on too much and eventually we wither, like the seed that fell in rocky soil and then was withered by the sun because it didn’t have the depth of root. Even though some folks meant well, they got crispy from not receiving nourishment and fade away.  

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What are the things in my life that God calls me to Hold, Fold or Grow in my walk with Christ? Maybe I need to think about rearranging some of the priorities and values I profess to have??? Perhaps I need to do something more?  Possibly I need to cut back???   Pray about it and remember through your baptism your connection to the source of life.

And this week I want you to consider what you immerse yourself. What would it be like to immerse yourself in love? Specifically, what would it be like to immerse yourself in the love of Christ – to love as Christ loved?

Let us pray…. Amen.

The Beauty of Believing without ‘Seeing’

The scriptures tell us the evening on the first Easter Sunday; the disciples gathered behind locked doors to make sense of all the events that had transpired. From entering Jerusalem in an exciting display of heroic welcome to the last meal they shared to Jesus, to their brother, Judas betraying Jesus, to his passion and death, and then there was Peter- Jesus’ “Rock” who was a leader among them.  What on earth could have just happened?  What did it all mean?  Who would sort out for them so they could process all the events?

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Amidst all the commotion of the previous week events, one disciple, Thomas shows up late- for reasons not known –  and seems to miss out on the discussion.  What the disciples reported to their fellow disciple Thomas they had seen seemed unbelievable. And Thomas didn’t believe it! They said they saw Jesus alive. Well, Thomas saw him alive until late the previous Friday afternoon when Thomas saw him dead. It was now Sunday afternoon — and to what they said they saw, Thomas’ response was, “Seeing is believing,” and until I see something different from what I have already seen, I will not believe a word of what you say.

And for that little exchange, Thomas has gone down in history, not as the disciple Thomas, but as “doubting Thomas” — with his entry in my desk dictionary! I looked it up., a “doubting Thomas” as defined by Webster’s dictionary is “a habitually doubtful person.  And not just about Jesus. About anything. A “doubting Thomas” is one who when presented with the facts, stresses his or her right to raise questions, and demand proof, and doesn’t believe it until they get proof.

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Thomas wanted tangible, touchable proof that Jesus’ was still around.  He did not need further proof of Jesus’ death.  Thomas was there.  He saw with his own eyes that the Christ had been crucified.  He wanted the same proof that Jesus, whom he had witnessed beat to death, wanted evidence that he was alive and has been seen by the other disciples.  For Thomas, there was no doubt that Jesus was dead, and every reason under the sun to doubt that Christ was alive.  For his honesty, he has gone down in history as “doubting Thomas” — the man who doubted the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the term “doubting Thomas” has negative connotations to this day.

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But it shouldn’t.  Because Thomas isn’t alone, even in this Sanctuary.  And Jesus said not one negative word or comment about him.  From the very beginning, on the eve of the first Easter, doubt was a part of the risen Christ.  We say Christ is risen, we even sing it together in our worship, but do we act like it’s accurate?  Do we sincerely believe Christ was raised from the dead?  Or down deep do we, like Thomas, tend to doubt the story of Easter?

Jesus says to him, “Do not doubt, but believe.”  Don’t doubt, start believing.   Doubting has to do with debating the facts; while believing would have put our trust in something or someone.  One involves my intellect; the other my whole life.  One involves accepting something as true; the other is that I am already accepted by the one who calls himself “the truth, the way, and the life.”

It’s not really up to us to factually proof the resurrection the way the world demands facts and figures, but that we believe in the power of the creator that God’s love is naturally stronger than the power of death.  And consider what it means for you and me.

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Thomas insists that the risen Christ cannot be separated from the crucified Jesus.  And in these after Resurrection Sunday, when the altar lilies are beginning to fade, when the pretty Easter eggs are gone, and the bad news headlines are personal grief’s threatening to overshadow the good news of Easter, we need Thomas and his example of the persistent desire to see Jesus.  And grow in our understanding that doubting is part of our journey of faith.

As tender as it is to admit, we all have our doubts.  Doubting is not the opposite of faith, but are incorporated into our active life of faith, and our faith in Christ need not be perfected in this life.  There’s no way we can discover all that God wants to reveal to us in the waters of our baptism.  There is more to have revealed to us.  Jesus himself showed up with battered hands and scarred up fee, and that’s how the disciples recognized him.  That is the reality of our discipleship.

You are and doubt but are encouraged never to lose our faith.  His doubts lead Thomas to an encounter with Jesus.  For us, it might mean we seek a life of faith that serves us better as we mature, once we examine and let go some of the thoughts that formed our childhood faith as we discover a more profound richness to our adult lives.  Unpacking our doubts can indeed be frightening, going to the liminal place where transformation can happen, but much encouragement and understanding comes from those times when we face our misgivings head on and seek a deeper understanding of our lives in Christ.

Jesus did not blame Thomas for his questions and for seeking a new reality.  So often, we interpret our doubts to mean disbelief, but in the risen Christ there is no condemnation, not for Thomas nor for you and me.  Growing in our faith begins with curiosity, and faith being a living active thing, as Luther aptly describes it, must be fed for it to produce.  So what are you feeding your walk of faith in our Lord, Jesus Christ?

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May we learn a lesson from the life of the Apostle, Thomas, that there are things in life that will never be proven.  Jesus says, “Thomas, you have believed because you have seen.  But, blessed are those who have not seen yet still believe.”  With these words, Jesus is describing you and me.  We ’ll never see the crucified Jesus in this life, you and I will not have the opportunity to place my hands on his wounded side and my fingers into his scars.  It will never be proven to you and me that he was indeed raised from the dead.

There will be times when we encounter the darkness of doubt in our souls and will face our doubts about our faith in the risen Christ.  We might even equate this feeling of gloom and believe we are losing our faith.  Remember in the light; God reveals the glory of the resurrection.  In the moments of life, God has told you that God will not desert you.  In the moments of light, God had said to you that the resurrection is the reality.  Don’t let the darkness cause you to doubt.  Don’t doubt, but believe.  And if you question, know that that it’s ok.  God meets us just where we are.  Thanks be to God.  Amen!

Ash Wednesday – February 14, 2018

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Increasing as I age, I become more aware of my sinful nature. It’s not as if I’m a terrible person, but I realize the powerful effect sin has on my life and the world God loves. Perhaps it is the realization I have that I have the power to destroy and great potential to create distress and havoc. Not that I would ever wish to access my ability to create harm and hurt others, but I am aware of my power and limitations.

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St. Ignatius described sin as putting our hope in the wrong things. From this perspective, I can see how far off my inner drive and thoughts are from the will of God. I think for some it would be just easier to give into sin and live a life without any internal examination to discover the beauty of one’s self. In other words, it is so tempting to live life in these times of transition with the motto, “Do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm anyone.” After all, it is the beginning of the age of authenticity. The point in time where our own experience directs our life and if we don’t like doing something we might as well quit the practice because the cost of missing out on something else is too significant.

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The world is getting smaller every day and more focus on the self. Losing sight of the inner relatedness of life is easy.

As Dr. King taught, “all people see in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

In other words, what affects one person impacts us all. We might not consciously be aware of, but we are all, as Dr. King suggests, woven together into one fabric of life.

Moving away from our self-centered way of living to a concern for the Commonwealth of all people was Dr. King’s vision of what he called the “Beloved community” in which he meant the Body of Christ dwelling together under the Reign of God. The sin manifests itself when we divide the world into the “good” and the “bad.” Of course, we are always the good ones; the others are bad. The ones who have a problem are still outside of us, and therefore we tell ourselves we must struggle against those outside our group.

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But a real community is different because of the realization that the evil is inside of us – not just inside the community or group, but inside of me. Jesus talks about this as thinking about the need to remove the speck of dust from my neighbor’s eye but overlooking the log that dwells within my eye. Sin dwells within me. Warfare is within me, within my community. We confess that we aren’t living the life God desires for us and that we place our hope in things that do not create an experience for all.

Jesus calls us into living a different vision for life. A life where, through our baptism into Christ’s death, we too are called to live a different narrative. A narrative where we are called to be agents of peace amidst the violent nature of the world while recognizing the warfare that is going on inside of me.

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Jesus calls us to seek the wholeness, in that our souls are restless until they abide with God. Nothing else will satisfy this longing. Many will attempt to fill their spiritual needs with things that are not spiritual, and as a result, they can never find that inner peace as they continuously battle their own self.

Jesus gives us words of great hope this Ash Wednesday. He tells us that he is God’s “Way, Truth, and Life.” There is a need in all of our souls that we cannot meet. It’s impossible for a human to be completely satisfied on our own. We seek for meaning and life outside ourselves.

This is the day we remember how we have placed our hope in those things that are not God. That we have all wondered from the Truth, Way, and Life that God desires for us. This is the day we remember that we are not at peace. We wrestle with far more matters of life than we care to admit. This is the day where we remember that we have neglected God’s call to live peacefully in community with the world God loves. And because of all this, one day our life on earth will eventually come to an end.

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This is a heavy day. But there is hope. Hope is found in the alternative vision Jesus offers in which there are many places to dwell in God’s house. In Jesus, there are many kinds of people who stay and live out what Dr. King called a “beloved community.”

This Lent, we will dig deeper what it means that Jesus is the “Way.” Not “one way” or “a way” but “The Way.” Jesus words in the Gospel speak to us in ways that our culture cannot and will not talk. So, remember to listen to his words as if you were hearing them for the first time. Think about what you are seeing in your life and what God wants to show you. For God is there, ready to receive us and forgive us even in spite of ourselves.

Hear his invitation to repentance and the possibility of growth in your faith again. Trust that where Jesus is, there we may also be. Amen.

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Vision of Glory… ​The Image​ of the Cross – A sermon for Transfiguration

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Imagine you were Peter, James or John and Jesus pulls you aside and tells you he wants to show you something on a hike up a mountain. Not wanting to disappoint him, you’re like, “Sure, Jesus. I’ll meet you early tomorrow morning for this hike to see a different perspective, or whatever it is you want to share with me.”

The next morning rolls around, you awake and meet the other two and set out on a journey of not knowing what is in store, but that you are led with curiosity about Jesus is up to. So, you head out with the other two and spend the day climbing up the side of a mountain with your spiritual teacher. You reach the top, and it is a holy moment. The feeling that you’re close to the Creator. It’s a God moment as you look down on the rest of the world and see other people like ants. Then your focus is redirected to the leader who is not who you thought he was. Your sight of him is altered. Things are starting to get weirded out when you not only see Jesus as the Bible says “dazzling white” but also Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus.

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So, Peter is the first speak up, and all he can think about is hanging out with the prophets. Let’s stay forever in this glorious moment. It’s perfect. Let’s dwell with you here.

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The Bible says that Peter was frightened and didn’t know what to say. We can relate to that feeling, right? Those moments we are terrified and the words we want to say to express what we are thinking? So, whatever we word we come up with are the best at the moment, only to remember to ourselves later, “What was I thinking? Asking Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to dwell with me here on the mountaintop.” At the moment, it seems like that the right thing to do. Who wouldn’t want to dwell in glory forever? We all want to be blessed by God and God’s beauty to shine forth.

Then reality hits. The voice of reason and logic settles into our thoughts. In the biblical text, it’s the voice of the Father speaking: “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him!” Sisters and brothers – the last time we heard the Father speak these words was when Jesus was baptized. The voice of the Father came and uttered to Jesus “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).  This time, though, God is speaking to the three companions – the Father is speaking to the humans. “Listen to him.” In other words, “follow him.” The word for “listen” Mark uses is also the same Greek word as “obey.”  Obey Jesus. Abide in Jesus. Don’t feel the need to speak, be quiet and just listen to Jesus. This is the promise we need to make it to the other mountaintop experience on the other side of Lent where the real glory of God was shown through the cross on which this Jesus was hung.

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We are reaching the pinnacle of Epiphany with the mountaintop transfiguration story, and the thing that hit me in this gospel is that the vision of glory that Peter, James, and John saw an image, but the real message God is sharing with the disciples is that of abiding with Jesus. Not working for Jesus, but resting, remaining. Heck, not even serving others with Jesus, nor practicing good works. Just being present and aware of who Jesus is right here, right now.

Then the vision disappears and what is left is the reality of the moment, and the words of the Father, sight and the subsequent image from view become irrelevant. Fact is returning. Now, what comes next? How are we to make sense of this moment? Then it is back to reality. All that remains is the hope of a God of glory. Of course, this vision of fame is what will be, and they sustain us in a future hope for what will be. But this idea is not and cannot be the reality. Sure, we all want a God of glory, but what we get is a fuller revelation of who God is a cross on which hung the savior of the world.

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And therein lies the rub. We all want the glory of God, but that is not the full reality. Even Moses and Elijah in our text bear witness that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah, and it was revealed that Jesus is the Messiah, but the Gospel doesn’t end here. Moses came off the mountain with the Law for the people, but Jesus comes off the mountain with the grace of God.

Thinking theologically about the glory of God is not enough as it will always fall short. It diminishes the powerful effects of sin that grip our lives. This vision of fame is right to hold, but it falls short because it will never point out the gaps between our sin and self-centered living.

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If this is the case, then God’s glory and suffering cannot be separated. Of course, no wants to suffer. The avoidance of pain is one thing; the complete intolerance, or renunciation of it, is another. I want you to think back to a time when someone to you a compelling story of pain, loss, and suffering. Perhaps, you, yourself have a story to testify about grief and loss, or plight.  But I want you to think about how people talk about something that is painful. And by painful, I want you to think about where God is at in pain. It’s hard to see the glory of God isn’t it when we hear a story that pains us.

If someone has just undergone an ugly divorce, for example, he might be dismissive of the situation by belittling the other person- “I won’t miss her anyway  Then there is the kind of reasoning that justifies a painful situation by trying to minimize the impact of the loss. “Well, at least I learned a lesson from this horrible experience.”

This kind of reasoning tries to make something bad sound like it is good. It is a coping strategy to avoid looking pain and grief directly in the face, to avoid acknowledging that we wish life were different but are powerless to change it. So, we try to turn a bad situation into something that allows us to avoid the hard work of internal processing and dealing with any negative emotion of anger or sadness for the loss. It is merely a way to minimize the damage caused by sin.

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Martin Luther coined the term the theologian of glory as this approach to life. This kind of theology and practice of the Christian life tries to minimize or remove difficult and painful things or to move past them rather than looking them square in the face and accepting them.

As Luther puts it, the theologian of glory “does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore, he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil.[1] The theology of glory is the natural default setting for human beings addicted to control and measurement. This perspective puts us squarely in the driver’s seat, after all.

Despite the glory of the moment, the three disciples returned with Jesus from the mountain, apart from the rest of reality. It was time to move from the sacred toward the profane where the world is. The world that God loves and where we dwell. The world where we are invited to embrace our own vision of glory through the cross of Jesus.

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Catholic sister and author Joan Chittister shares a parable about our ability to block out Jesus when we return from the glory of the mountaintop to the valley below.  The fable Sister Chittister shares go as follows:

“Where shall I look for Enlightenment?” the disciple asked.

 “Here,” the elder said. “It is happening right now?” the elder answered.

         “Then why don’t I experience it?” the disciple persisted.

         “Because you do not look,” the elder said.

          “But what should I look for?” the disciple continued.

            “Nothing. Just look.” The elder said.

                  “But, look at what?” the disciple asked again.

“At anything your eyes alight upon,” the elder answered.

“But must I look in a special kind of way?” the disciple went on.

“No. The ordinary way will do,” the elder said.

“But don’t I always look the ordinary way?” the disciple said.

“No, you don’t,” the elder said.

“But why ever not?” the disciple asked.

         “Because to look you must be here. You’re mostly somewhere else,” the elder said. [2]

            We need this promise of glory to journey through Lent towards the cross. The hope of glory is what will sustain. Hope where “neither death nor life… nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39).

Abide always in this hope of glory wherever Life finds you. Amen. 

[1] Timothy F. Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. William R. Russell, 3rd edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012). P. 157.

[2] Joan Chittister and John August Swanson, There Is a Season, First Edition edition (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1995). P. 23.

Pouting in the Pit or Preaching to the People?

If I had been assigned the task of putting together the Old Testament, it would probably look a lot different than the one we use today.  First of all, I would take the opportunity to get rid of some of the folks I’ve never liked.

I know David is a pretty significant character, given that he is the ancestor of Jesus and all, but the whole infidelity thing has always bothered me—so, either David would have to go, or I would revise the story to take out his transgression.

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I would keep Deborah, for sure.  And maybe write a little more about her— we don’t really have enough female leaders in the Bible, right? 

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Elijah and his wonder-workings are too good to pass up, so he’d stay.

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Elisha, on the other hand, would have to go. After all, I think it is highly inappropriate to retaliate just because some little boy has called you – ‘baldy.’ (- 2 Kings 2:32-35)

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In my version of the Old Testament, Amos would stay with his beautiful metaphors of God’s justice rolling down like cascading waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

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Hosea would have go—his divine marriage metaphor just doesn’t work for me. —    (Hosea 1:2-3:5)

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And some of the smaller, minor prophetic books seem redundant, so I’d probably cut some of them and add someone a little more modern like Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King Jr.

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But the person I’d be least likely to include in my canon would be Jonah.  Sure, it makes for a great story, being swallowed by a fish.  But if you look at his character, it just doesn’t meet what I like to think of as good family values.

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Let’s see, the first time he ‘got the call’ from the Lord, Jonah went running the other direction.

In fact, he tried to hide from God by getting in a ship with a bunch of sailors and going to sea. Jonah must have known what God had in mind.  God must have known that God wasn’t going to cause destruction upon those Ninevehites.  Jonah must have known that God was merciful, even to those who run away.  And Jonah, in his indignation, did not want the good news to come to people like them.  Jonah thought he could keep the good news from the Ninevehites.  So he wimped out and ran as far away as he could from God’s call.

Okay, maybe not the first place that I would go if I were hiding from God, but this is Jonah’s story, not mine.  Not only does Jonah not listen to God, but he tries to make things better by getting the sailors to dump him overboard.

Jonah goes into the ocean only to be swallowed by a giant fish.

I don’t recall enough of my high school biology classes to remember much about fish anatomy.  I presume they must have ample stomachs.

But one big enough to hold a person, for three days? 

Or maybe Jonah was just a petite person?

I’d be curious to know what the Biblical literalists do with this one.

At any rate, Jonah’s marine home is short-lived, as he is literally ‘vomited‘ by the fish onto the shores of Nineveh.  God comes to him a second time, as we have in today’s lesson.

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I wonder why God is so patient with little Jonah here. It’s equally as unbelievable as Jonah’s being swallowed up by the fish.  He’s already proven himself to be a bit of a weasel and reasonably fool-hardy to boot.  Why God didn’t look for another more qualified person to prophecy to Nineveh?

But God tells Jonah, again, to go to Nineveh.  Get up, God says, Go to Nineveh and proclaim the message. 

So Jonah, grudgingly, picks himself up out of the sand and wipes off the fish goo.  His fists are clenched, his face twisted, as he stomps off to do the ministry he was called to do.

We never get to find out why it is that Jonah is so opposed to going to Nineveh.  We don’t know why these people, the Ninevehites, who were so eager to hear good news, were the object of Jonah’s disdain.

Why did Jonah dislike them so?  Why is it that sharing the good news was so awful for Jonah, that he would have preferred the cold sea to ministering to them? Was it because the Ninevites were different than Jonah?  Was this an ancient ‘race problem’?

Perhaps Jonah wanted to claim God for himself, and not share him with those of a different lifestyle and culture?  Was this an ancient case of ‘affirmative-action’?  Did Jonah think that these non-Jews were getting special treatment?

Maybe Jonah was upset because he had been faithful to the covenant, keeping the law, and earning the love of God, while the Ninevehites—who had done none of these things, were about to receive this very same love of God.

Was he mad because he had played by the rules, the same rules that had gotten him ahead in life?  Was Jonah jealous that God would waste his time on people he refused to get to know? 

Jonah, in his refusal to go to Nineveh, was saying that he knew more than God.  Surely, you don’t want me to go there, to those people, Jonah was speaking.  You wouldn’t want me to spend time with people who don’t share my same values, could you?

God, Jonah must have been thinking, you must have misspoken.  I’ll just wait over here for a while until you come to your senses.  Indeed, your message can’t be for people like them.

I said earlier, how I would choose to keep Jonah, among others, out of the Hebrew Scriptures.  I mean, his story is disturbing, perhaps too distressing. There is a part of Jonah’s story that hits a little too close to home.

There is a part of Jonah’s story that looks a little too much like myself, like someone I wish I were not.

It’s the part of me that get jealous when I hear other people’s good news.  It’s the part of me that gets angry when it feels like others get rewarded for not following the rules.  It’s the part of me that would instead judge a person based on stereotypes then get to know her for myself.

And its this same part of me that fakes happiness for a friend when deep down I am scowling with envy.  It’s this little, but persistent part of me that would instead remain in my insecurity than enjoy the Nineveh’s of the world. 

It’s the part of me that would rather pout in the cold stomach of a fish than celebrate what God has done. 

There is this pit, deep inside of me that resists being seen.  There is an ugliness that shows itself when one’s guard is down.

And it is from this pit that we find ourselves doing things for which we are later ashamed, like feeling for our wallets when we walk past a person of color, like only having friends who look like us, like thinking less of immigrants or the working poor.

These shameful parts of ourselves show themselves at unexpected moments.  We try to hide them by insisting that, ‘yes, I have black friends,’ or ‘skin color doesn’t matter to me.’ But our ugliness keeps us, like Jonah, sitting in the pit of a fish, holding us prison to our jealous fears and insecurities. 

But God doesn’t want us to stay in these pits.  God doesn’t want us to stay in the stomach of a fish when there are places like Nineveh that have yet to hear the good news.  God offers us a way out of our hatred, our isolation, and our shame.

And God doesn’t want us to rewrite scripture or pretend that there are not parts of us yearning for connection and security.  God knows that we are held prisoner to shame and envy. But God does not want us to live that way.  God does not want us to keep on living in the stomach of a fish!

That’s why God sent Jesus to us.  That’s why God offers us a new way to live, a new way that doesn’t see envy before humanity.  God teaches us this new way to live. God frees us from our pits of despair in the simplest of ways.  We don’t need to stay bound by our ugliness and insignificance.

Because God loves it away. 

God loved little Jonah, stuck in a fish, insignificant next to giant Nineveh, the giant sea, and the giant fish.  God found little Jonah, who had tossed himself away to sea, who was afraid of all that life had to offer and returned him to safety.

God seeks us out, especially when we feel insignificant, especially when we are isolated, and returns us to dry land.  God loves us out of our shame.  God loves us out of our insecurity and our envy. God loves away any ugliness that may be buried deep inside.

But the story doesn’t stop here. 

God rescues us from the pit, so that we may be freed to go to places like Nineveh, that we may be able to love others as we have been loved.

God rescues us from the isolation that we may connect with others.  And those of us, like Jonah, who know what it feels to be trapped in the pit of a stomach don’t forget this feeling of insignificance.

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But instead of being bound by this feeling, we use it to seek out others who may feel or who may be treated that way.

God sought us out, so we can do nothing else but seek others out, and share with them this great love that has restored our humanity and given us life.

Because with God’s love, no one is insignificant, no one is shamed, and all are made whole.

Amen.

 

God’s Great Reversal – Matthew 20:1-16

I’m going to share a truth that we know is true, but for some reason, it’s easier for us to deny it.  The truth I’m speaking of is that sometimes life just isn’t fair.  It’s a reality that sooner or later we’re all going to face.  It’s best that we are learning this fact while you are in your first half of life than waiting until old age to discover this truth.  In fact, you can learn this truth in nursery school – Sometimes lives deals us lemons.

Sometimes that’s the way things happen, isn’t it?  Sometimes life isn’t fair.  So we learn to deal with the unfairness.  So, let me tie this life reality in with the Gospel text today.  It’s a crucial point that I don’t want you to miss in the text.  Saying life isn’t fair is not the same as saying that God isn’t fair for two reasons.  First, of all, because God doesn’t owe you and me anything at all.  Like Luther said on his deathbed, “It’s true.  We’re all beggars.”  And second, God’s justice doesn’t work the way the world’s justice works.

Saying life is not fair is not the same as saying God isn’t fair because God doesn’t owe us anything at all.  In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, the very opposite is correct.  We owe God everything:  our time, our talents, and our treasures.  The very life that lives inside each of us has been gifted to us; even the breaths that you take, the clothes on your back, the food that is prepared for you, even your health to some extent is a gift from God.   The simple fact is:  God doesn’t owe us anything.

As active disciples of Christ, we commit our lives to God.  We resist the urge not to show up or to sleep in on our Sunday morning to worship God.  We spend our hard-earned money and resources to support the work and ministry of our congregation.  We spend time in prayer and the study of Scripture when we could be golfing or some recreation.  Our confirmation students could do something with their one hour on Wednesday nights other than talking about faith formation.  You see, as active Christians, we follow Jesus, the landowner into the vineyard, where we are called to do the work of God.

For us, active disciples of Christ, things may not always seem the way we would like.  It doesn’t seem fair to us that some deserve God’s grace when they don’t even show up or participate.  We are the ones, after all, who’ve done most of the work, we tell ourselves.  The laborers in the parable that began picking the first hour of the day picked more grapes than those who started picking the last moment.  If that were to happen today, there would be an uproar; labor strikes and unions would lash out. It is only right that the reward for our work should be consistent with the time we put into our efforts.

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But this parable has nothing to do with economics, at least in the sense that we understand the economy.  It is not a description of how employers should treat workers.  It is, after all, a description of how God works in the kingdom of heaven.  God’s goodness may or may not be entirely understandable.  We don’t fully understand the grace of God.  And based on this parable, we may indeed think that God doesn’t operate fairly.

God’s not fair, according to our limited human reasoning.  In fact, if we put ourselves in the place of the laborers who started at sunrise or midmorning or even early afternoon, we have missed the point of the parable.  Jesus is the one who works from sunup to sundown.  Jesus is the one who has borne the burden of the day and heat.  Only Jesus has earned us salvation.  The grace is that God still calls us towards God’s self and gives us the full wage.   God offers you the promise of salvation, not because you have worked hard enough but because Jesus has done it for you.

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God gives us more than we can ever earn.  The Bible teaches that the wages of sin are death, but it is God who gives life.  The laborers in the vineyard all received a full day’s pay regardless of the hours they worked.  We have all been given salvation, irrespective of the sins we’ve been under.

And perhaps even more remarkable is that God has entrusted us to do God’s work.  In baptism, we’ve been given the work of a lifetime, and at the table, God renews us and then sends us out as labors to plant the seeds of God’s word, to speak to those who have never heard and to proclaim the word anew to those who have fallen away.

ripe-47423__480.jpgRemember that the kingdom of heaven is a gift, and in a way, we’re all latecomers, aren’t we? In Christ, it’s never too late to come home to the mercy of God. Thanks, be to God.  Amen.