Wednesday
Nov142012

Wet and thirsty

Weeks ago, when Sandy was just a boy’s or a girl’s name, we made plans. A few of us got together and we put dozens of ideas on large sheets of newsprint. Everything about water. We talked about art projects, how to put a fountain in the sanctuary, about field trips and river clean-ups, about music and movies, about the countless ways we encounter water daily and about water in scripture, about thirst and floods and baptism, and how good it tastes - a cup of cold, fresh water. And then we went to work and made plans for water:360, plans that would allow us to tap into the topic and the reality of water in as many ways as we could imagine – geographical, biological, political, physical, spiritual, musical and wet. And we made worship plans – one Sunday around baptism, and another around the simple hospitality of offering a thirsty stranger a cup of water, and two more Sundays around the deadly threats of too much and too little water, around flood and desert, around drowning and thirsting. With the joy of explorers who stumble upon one beautiful find after another, we discovered psalms and scriptures for each of the Sundays.

Weeks ago, we thought that today we would reflect on thirst, on parched throats and dry deserts.

Some wandered in desert wastes,
they found no way to a city where they might dwell.
They were hungry and thirsty,
their spirits languished within them.

That was weeks ago, long before Sandy became a byword for destruction; long before the wind and the tide pushed a wall of water against the coast in New Jersey and New York; long before the largest storm on record covered nearly a third of the United States; long before more than 80 people drowned in this country alone and countless others lost their homes and businesses to flood, wind, and fire, and the power went out for millions.

We made plans, and then life happened. You know how it goes. And all that, of course, a week before an election that will only confirm how divided we are in this country and how we have lost our center in every sense of the word. I feel like I just need to sit for a moment and breathe, do you know what I mean? To hit the pause button and just sit for a few minutes and hum, “Be still my soul, for God is on your side…” and remember who I am and where I belong.

Some wandered in desert wastes,
they found no way to a city where they might dwell.
They were hungry and thirsty,
their spirits languished within them.

The desert wastes are not just dry landscapes out there where the dust longs for days of gentle rain and the return of flowers, grass, and trees. The desert wastes are inner landscapes; parched souls and languished spirits also long for refreshing and renewing showers of mercy.

It is a rather bitter irony that flooding – very much a problem of too much water in one place all at once – results in a shortage of water. We know this; it’s only been two years since we lived through a flood and one of our two water treatment plants went underwater. The lovely, old Omohundro plant had to produce at full capacity for weeks without interruption, leading the City Paper to call it “savior to a city at the same time wet and thirsty.”[1] Wet and thirsty. Water, water everywhere, but not enough for thoughtless consumption; in the aftermath of the flood we learned to focus on essentials.

Chris Bonanos lives in Chelsea, a Manhattan neighborhood, and on Tuesday morning he wrote about the odd reality of a flooded city running out of water,

It’s not the elevators or the climate control that makes a tall building unlivable in a blackout. Any building taller than six stories requires one thing to support ordinary life, and that’s a big pump. Water has to get up to the rooftop tank to be gravity-fed to the apartments below. Once the pump dies, the tank begins to empty, and you and your neighbors can share only its finite supply. (In my building, we had one overnight’s worth — about twelve hours. Newer buildings have backup generators for the pump, but ours did not.) After the tank has drained, the taps go dry, and toilets will flush only if one pours a bucket of water into them. When the buckets run out, an apartment gets pretty ripe pretty fast. The situation activates a set of moral questions: Should you be selfish, and bathe as soon as the power fails? Or selfless, and rigorously conserve? Fill buckets, a bathtub, a Brita pitcher? How obligated are you to live amid your own filth? If we all use too much, we invoke the tragedy of the commons, or at least the irritant of the commons. I tried to be a good citizen when I awoke on Tuesday morning, limiting myself to a 90-second shower, surrounded by pails and pots to catch the wastewater. That gave us three toilet flushes’ worth, enough to carry us through a day. Did we consume less than our share? More? We may have been bad neighbors, or good. We’ll never know.[2]

Chris and his family may never know if they consumed more or less than their share, but I believe they were good neighbors, because they didn’t just take as much as they could without a thought about their neighbors’ needs. The blackout only brought to the fore questions we all must answer in a world that’s getting smaller, hotter, and more crowded every day: how do we share life with each other and with future generations on this planet? Will we make sure all people have access to clean, potable water or will we watch water flow up the hill to go to the highest bidder?

Disasters like Sandy or like the 2010 flood here in Nashville are terrible tragedies, but they also have the potential to make us wiser. For a moment, the mayor, the governor, and the president ignored the fact that the campaign never ends and they have worked together to help our cities up after they’d been knocked down. For a moment, we are realizing how strong we are together and what we could accomplish if we just stopped soundbiting and started listening to each other. For a moment, in the midst of disaster, we are given a flickering glimpse of possibility, a flash of a vision of a better way.

When hurricane Isabel hit the East coast in 2003, our family lived maybe ten feet above sea level in a small community next to the Chesapeake Bay. The wind had done a lot of damage, the power was out, and the storm surge was about nine feet. For a few long hours, our house sat on a tiny island. Ten days later, when we gathered in the sanctuary for worship again for the first time after the storm, I talked about the glimpse of possibility we had been given.

“Nothing builds community like a disaster, it seems,” I said. Many of us decry the fact that people don’t sit on their front porches anymore, but that hasn’t kept us from staying in the house ourselves most of the time. Many of us complain that we don’t know our neighbors anymore, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we make an effort to introduce ourselves to people who have moved into our neighborhood. All it took was a good-size storm, and things changed. For several days, the neighborhood kitchen and dining room was Billy and Penny’s driveway, and every morning we could hear Billy calling, “coffee’s ready!” It’s amazing what you can do with a gas grill! All across the Peninsula, strangers with chain saws knocked on doors to offer their help, and it turned out they lived only three houses down the street. People emptied their thawing freezers and there were block parties everywhere. It was a feast of rich food, a feast of neighbors sharing casseroles, lasagnes, chicken and burgers, generators, washing machines and cell phones. Neighbors opened their homes to neighbors to let them live with them, or to let them enjoy a hot meal and take a long hot shower.

“The power is still out in some areas,” I said, “but we have discovered the power of sharing, the power that builds and strengthens community.” Of course there were also those who burglarized the 7/11 on the corner as soon as the lights went out. “What we learned, though,” I said, “and what I hope we will remember in the days ahead when we will withdraw again to our TV’s and our computers, when we will take it for granted again that the water in the shower is hot and the beer in the refrigerator cold—what I hope we will remember is that living together is a beautiful thing, that solidarity between people is stronger than a hurricane.

For a moment, in the midst of disaster, we are given a flickering glimpse of possibility, a flash of a vision of a better way. It’s like gentle rain falling on parched land.

When disaster strikes, or when we’re drained by the relentless shallowness of so much that passes for public discourse these days, it is easy for despair to creep in, and to be weighed down by the “shroud that is cast over” us. But Isaiah sings of a banquet for all peoples, prepared by God. Isaiah sings of a banquet where God destroys the shroud – the fear, the worries, the little deaths that get in the way of the abundant life God wills. Isaiah sings of a banquet and John of a city where death is no more. This is where we come from as followers of the risen Christ, and this is where we’re headed.

In the midst of the desert wastes where we find no way to a city where we might dwell, God puts our feet on a path of hope, the way of Christ. Our prophets declare that all of creation is headed toward unending communion with God, and we take it to heart. We point our feet toward the city where Christ rules and God is at home among us.

And the vision of God’s city shapes our hope and our work. Trusting the promise of God, we each add our little strength to each other’s little strength. Even the smallest gesture of kindness matters in the big picture, and every small act of love becomes part of the city of redemption. Gently wiping a tear from a crying neighbor’s face is not only kind and tender, it is holy. It proclaims the faithfulness of God who will wipe away the tears from all faces.


[1] http://nashvillecitypaper.com/content/2010-flood/omohundro-shrine-water-god

[2] http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2012/11/16-sad-crazy-and-uplifting-stories-from-sandy.html

Wednesday
Nov142012

Worship shapes us

Julia's final Sunday as Organist and Director of Music Ministries gave me an opportunity to share one of Michael Lindvall's great stories. Thank you, Julia! And thank you, Michael.

Bartimaeus sits by the side of the road, and when he hears that Jesus is coming through town, hope wells up. Hope wells up like water from the deep, and he shouts; he shouts, and nothing and no one can silence him.

And then we listen to the psalm, and we hear about mouths filled with laughter and tongues with shouts of joy. God has done great things for God’s people, redeeming them from the oppressor. Joy wells up, and anticipation, and they shout; they shout, they laugh and sing out their gratitude.

Worship is everything we do in response to the presence and the mighty acts of God: we shout, we sing, we tell stories, we laugh and love and serve, we eat and drink together – in response to the presence and the mighty acts of God we worship and are shaped as God’s people.

Several years ago, Michael Lindvall told stories about life and ministry in Minnesota; when I heard the one you’re about to hear, I knew that some day I would tell it. It’s a marvelous little gem, a lovely and surprising reflection on how worship shapes us as God’s people. I have waited for just the right day to tell it, and I believe today’s the day.

Carthage Lake is a vanishing town on the Minnesota prairie: seven weathered frame houses, only five of them inhabited, plus the church. The last minister left Carthage Lake in 1939. He blew away with the dust bowl and the depression, and with him went most of the town – but not all. A faithful remnant – fewer and fewer every year, but the more tenacious for their smaller numbers – have saved it from the dread fate of so many country churches – becoming an antique shop, a warehouse of memories for sale.

Carthage Lake still has a church where people worship the living God on Sunday, though not every Sunday anymore. It’s only one Sunday a month, and soon one would guess, it will be every other month, and then after a few funerals, the pews and the two stained-glass windows will be auctioned off, and maybe an antique dealer will buy the building for his shop. But for a while yet, a visiting minister comes once a month, usually a visiting minister who has already preached his sermon that morning to his own congregation and has been cajoled by Lloyd Larson to preach it again at noon in Carthage Lake to the eleven souls who will always be there barring bad colds or worse than usual rheumatism. Lloyd has been the Chair of the Board for the last 31 years and when he calls, he always says, “Yep, dere ain’t so many of us no more, but you’ll have 100% attendance, preacher.”

It was Tuesday morning when Lloyd called Michael looking for a preacher for the Sunday coming. He offered his routine confession and promise: a small group, but a faithful one. And he promised Michael an organist, the same organist Carthage Lake had been promising guest preachers for the last 60 years: Lloyd’s sister-in-law, Agnes Rigstad.

Michael said he’d be pleased to preach in Carthage Lake, and the next morning he called back to give Lloyd the title of the sermon and the hymns for Agnes. No answer and no answering machine. So he asked the church secretary to send the information in the mail.

Come Sunday, he arrived late. Only two cars and a pick-up were parked in front of the freshly painted church. He noticed the sentimental stained-glass windows on either side of the steeple: one of Jesus the Good Shepherd, lamb in one arm, staff in the other. The second showed Jesus praying alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, his eyes lifted toward heaven.

Inside there were twelve people, all but Lloyd seated in the front two pews of the little sanctuary. Lloyd was standing beneath the pulpit in the far corner. At eighty years, he was perhaps the youngest of the congregation save one, a young man sitting at the end of the second pew.

Lloyd was slowly reading the adult education program leader’s guide to the others when Michael entered. “Well, that’s that, then,” he said, closing the pamphlet, “Next week we do the Trinity. Hello, Reverend, perfect timing.” The class stood up slowly, all except the young man, and moved to their accustomed places for worship. One very old lady in what was obviously a wig slightly askew on her head, mounted the chancel steps and went to the organ bench to the right of the pulpit.

Lloyd pulled Michael over and offered the same whispered instructions he had given a hundred visiting ministers before him: talk loud, there’s no mike and some folks don’t hear as well as they used to. Then Lloyd added: “And we don’t do a Sunday bulletin anymore; can’t get parts for the printer, so you just gotta tell us when it’s time for a hymn.”

Worship started. “This is the day the Lord has made,” Michael said; “let us rejoice and be glad in it. Let us join together in singing hymn number 204.”He glanced over to Agnes to make sure she had heard this last. She smiled back and launched into the hymn. She had not played but a measure before he realized that she was not playing “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart.” It clearly was “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.” Maybe Agnes hadn’t heard him?

Michael read the New Testament lesson in a voice that was just an inch this side of a shout. The text he had chosen was from John’s Gospel, words that Jesus spoke to his little band of followers on the eve of his death. Words that include his promise to send the Holy Spirit, “I will not leave you orphaned.” He also read some of the words from the next chapter, Jesus’ injunction, spoken several times more as a fond wish, that his followers might love one another after he was gone: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Michael was going to preach a sermon about love and the power of the Spirit abiding among those who love each other, but before he started, he announced the second hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” a hymn that he had carefully chosen for this sermon. He announced it very loudly and rather too pointedly, looking Agnes in the eyes. She smiled back before diving at the organ keys and launching into “I Love to Tell the Story.”

After the sermon Michael prayed, and when it came time to announce the last hymn, he looked at Agnes and thought better of it. He took two steps over to the organ bench, bent down and whispered loudly in her ear, “Agnes, what are we going to sing?” She smiled, said not a word, and began to play, “Just As I Am.”

After the service was over, Michael greeted at the door. Agnes smiled broadly as she pumped his hand, but said nothing beyond “Nice sermon, Reverend.” Lloyd and the young man were at the front of the church when he went back to gather up his notes. Lloyd gave him a sheepish look, “Forgot to tell you about Agnes,” he said. “You don’t need to tell us what the hymn is, only when. Agnes only knows those three hymns, so we always sing ’em.”

“How long has she been your organist?” Michael asked.

“Well,” Lloyd looked down at the worn carpet at the foot of the pulpit, “since ‘37 when old Rev. Simmons left. Rev. Simmon’s wife, she played the organ for us back then, and when she was gone, there was nobody, so Agnes learned to play.”

“Good God, Lloyd, you mean to tell me you’ve been singing the same three hymns every month for 60 years?”

He was concentrating on the carpet more intently. “We like those hymns well enough, and we know ’em by heart - and she is our organist. You want some coffee, Reverend? I got a Thermos out in the truck.”He disappeared out the door and across the road to a rusty brown Ford pick-up.

The young man offered a hand and introduced himself to Michael. “My name is Neil Larson. I’m Lloyd’s grandson, I’ve been living with him for the last few months. Moved up here from Texas in March. You have to understand about Agnes. She’s my late grandmother’s little sister, Lloyd’s wife’s baby sister. Agnes has never been quite right. She never says more than a few words, and usually the same words. But she learned to play those three hymns in one week 60 years ago. It was a moment of musical emergency. Anyway, she hasn’t been able to learn another one since. Playing the organ this one Sunday a month means the world to her. Sometimes I think it’s mostly for her that they keep the church open. Aunt Agnes lives for the first Sunday of the month.”

Neil looked down, he played with the frayed carpet with the toe of his loafer.

“They asked me to play, of course. They had to ask. But Grandpa knew I’d say no when he asked. I remember how he sighed with relief when I said no, then he slapped me on the back.”

“You’re an organist?” Michael asked.

“Eastman, class of ’84. I’ve had some big church jobs, the last one down in Texas, big church in the Houston ’burbs. Brand new Casavant—102 ranks. Four services a Sunday. Then I got sick. I’ve been HIV-positive for six years, but it wasn’t till last fall that I got sick. The personnel committee of the church figured it out, the weight loss, all the sick days, not married. They told me it would be best if I were to move on, but not till after Christmas, of course. My parents live in St. Paul, but my father and I haven’t spoken since I was 19. I’m not sick enough for the hospital, but I’m just too tired most of the time to work. I really had nowhere to go. My grandfather said I could move in with him and Agnes. To tell the truth I kinda feel right at home in a town of 80-year-olds.”

He looked up from the carpet and said, “You know, pastor, that was a fine sermon, but I think that they got it a while ago. I mean the ‘love one another’ part. And they have not been left orphaned.”

He paused and went on, “They keep Agnes, and they took me in. And since I moved up here, most every night either Lloyd or old man Engstrom from down the road opens up the church for me. If it’s cold they lay a fire in the wood stove. And then I play the organ. It’s a sweet little instrument, believe it or not. Lloyd’s kept it up. These last weeks, it’s been almost warm in the evenings, so they leave the doors and the windows of the church open and everybody sits out on their front porches and they listen to me play—Bach, Buxtehude, Widor, Reger, all the stuff I love. And they clap from their porches, even Agnes claps.”[1]

Worship is what we do in response to the presence and the mighty acts of God, and for thirty-six years Julia has led us in worship, both inside and outside of this sanctuary. She has led us with exceptional skill, great faithfulness, and much love. Thank you, Julia.


[1] Michael Lindvall, Leaving North Haven: The Further Adventures of a Small-Town Pastor, chapter 12

Wednesday
Nov142012

Tip of the Week

Not just for lectionary geeks: would you like to see the Sunday readings on your calendar?

All you have to do is paste this link into the IMPORT CALENDAR box of your calendar app: 

webcal://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/feeds/lectionary.ics 

Wednesday
Oct242012

To drown and to swim

On Pentecost, Jews and Jewish converts from around the world were gathered in Jerusalem. It was a great festival day: just about every language spoken under heaven could be heard in the streets, in the markets, and in the temple. It was like the whole world had come to Jerusalem, and on that day something amazing happened: the disciples of Jesus, all of them Galileans, proclaimed God’s deeds of power, and the whole world heard them, each person in their own native language. They were amazed and perplexed. Something new and unheard of was on the loose, something that blew through language barriers like wind through a fence.

“What does this mean?” people asked, and Peter responded by telling them of Jesus of Nazareth. He talked about the deeds of power God had done through him, and how he had been crucified and killed. “This Jesus God raised up,” he declared, “making him both Lord and Messiah.” The miracle of mutual understanding they all had been part of that day had been brought about by Jesus the Messiah – by his life, his death and resurrection. Amazing stuff, but what did it mean for them? How were they to respond to what God had done with this Jesus? How does one live in a world where Jesus is Lord, rather than Caesar? “What should we do?” they asked, and Peter said, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4-39).

God had raised Jesus from the dead, inaugurating a new creation, and the way to enter it was through water. Repent, for the old ways of the old world have been judged. Be baptized, for God calls you to live the new life of the new creation in the power of the Holy Spirit. The miracle of the whole world gathered in Jerusalem, each person hearing the mighty acts of God proclaimed in their own language – that miracle was not just for a day. It was a glimpse of the future, a glimpse of the fullness that had been unveiled by the death and resurrection of Jesus. The love of God in Christ is the reality that transcends all our cultural differences, and we enter this reality through water.

In the beginning, when the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2). Water and the Spirit go together, in creation and in the new creation we enter through baptism. Water and the Spirit go together in moving life toward fulfilment.

In baptism the church from its earliest days has perceived echoes of the whole story of God and the people of God. Every baptism contains the flood that threatens to undo creation, and yet we emerge to live. Every baptism contains the sea in which the powers of oppression drown and through which God’s people escape to freedom. Every baptism occurs in the river which God’s people cross to enter the promised land, and where John the Baptist calls them to repent and Jesus obeys. We are baptized in the river of life that runs from Jesus’ wounded side on the cross and from the throne of God. Baptism is the water that breaks at the birth of new humanity; it is the washing of feet at the end of a long journey and the bath on the eve of the great sabbath.

Water and the Spirit go together. When Peter preached in Caesarea, he and the other circumcised believers were astounded to realize that the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. Pagans were extolling God! Nobody asked, “What does this mean?” or “What should we do?” Peter simply stated, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Baptized into Christ, we learn to follow the movement of the Spirit who tends to act in ways that astound us.

We look at Jesus, and we find in his life and teachings the embodiment of God’s compassion and power to heal. We hear God’s call to trust God’s promise that all of life will be redeemed and renewed in Christ. We hear a call to live in Christ. And the call to live in Christ is more than a call to believing differently, or to thinking, talking, and acting in more promising ways;  it is all that, but it is above all a call to be renewed in the image and likeness of Christ; it is a call to say yes with our whole being to the work of God. And saying yes to one thing implies saying no to others.

“You were taught to put away your former way of life,” we read in Ephesians, as though saying no to bad habits, loveless attitudes, and selfish practices were as simple as giving your old furniture to goodwill. “You were taught to put away your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). Yes, we were taught, by apostles, prophets, parents, teachers and preachers, but the old self can’t be put away by teaching.

In Romans 6, Paul gets to the heart of the matter, which is why we read this passage every time we have a baptism: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). Baptism is the burial of the old self.  The new self is not a better educated version of the old; the new self is being born and raised in Christ; the new self belongs to the new creation.

Martin Luther called the old self the old Adam, and he reminded the church “that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new human being daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”[1] He didn’t suggest that we need to be baptized every day, but that we remember every day that we are baptized and that Christ has made us his own. Because we are in Christ, the knowledge of our falling short of “true righteousness and holiness” doesn’t lead to despair, but opens the door to greater trust in the power and mercy of God. In Christ, everything has become new, and in baptism and discipleship we embrace that newness and we are embraced by it, held by it. Living in Christ is a lot like learning to swim. We float on grace with complete trust that we will not sink.

I want to go back to the image of clothing ourselves with the new self. In the ancient church, that imagery was an important element of every baptism. New disciples took off their clothes and entered the baptistery naked, leaving their old life behind like a pile of old clothes. When they emerged from the water, a deacon dressed them in a white robe – but not silk for some and scratchy wool for the rest; no, the same white robe for all, because in Christ the world’s distinctions of ethnicity, class, status, and gender no longer apply. Or as Paul put it, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28). We are one in Christ. In baptism we are made one with him and through him with the whole people of God.

Baptism is very personal. To each believer baptism is the tangible assurance of God’s love and forgiveness and the equally tangible expression of God’s claim on his or her life.  Baptism is deeply personal; but baptism is also deeply communal: Newness of life is not a private adventure but life as a member of God’s covenant community, life with the brothers and sisters of Christ.

In baptism the whole story of God and the people of God, past and future, is condensed in one moment. God acts by embracing us as God’s own, incorporating us into the body of Christ, and giving us the Holy Spirit. The church acts by obeying the command of Christ and welcoming new disciples as brothers and sisters and equipping them for ministry. And the individual believer acts by responding to God’s call in Christ, renouncing the false gods of this world, and committing to a life of discipleship.

In baptism, God draws a line between our old self and our new life.  We know that, but we tend to redraw that line. Rather than seeing ourselves as fully claimed by God for God’s mission and God’s future in God’s world, we draw a line between religion and the rest of our lives. We draw a line around a little garden, where Jesus lives and where we love to go and visit; but we don’t live there. Most of our life takes place outside the little garden, on the other side of the line, and there, it seems, idols of our own making and beyond our control are in charge. But God is faithful. God doesn’t leave the world to our idolatrous tendencies. God continues to call us and claim us for the mission of transforming all things in the Spirit of Jesus, beginning with ourselves. So remember this: We are baptized. Christ has made us his own. We belong to the new creation.

 


[1] Small Catechism IV.4.

Wednesday
Oct242012

Family Wealth

Here comes that man again, running up to Jesus, asking him his simple, urgent question about life. And before we had even a moment to see him kneeling before the good teacher, we can already hear those dreaded words from Jesus’ lips, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” We already know that he will go away grieving, because he has much to give. And a part of us grieves with him, knowing that his choice could be ours as well.[1]

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

This is not the kind of word we look for at the calligrapher’s booth at the craft fair, so we can frame it and hang it over the fire place. This is not the kind of word we want our auntie to cross stitch on a sofa pillow; we know it will disrupt our slumber. Sure, it’s funny, but it also hits us like a hammer: What if the rich aren’t just other people? Is he saying that I am too rich for the kingdom? Do I have to sell what I own and give it to the poor?

The nervous questions trigger my desire for comfort, for somebody to calm the waves of my anxiety: Surely this episode isn’t to be taken literally. Surely there is a preacher somewhere who will find in these unsettling words a spiritual meaning that won’t render me penniless. And if the calming voice that soothes our worries with some measure of authority can’t be found quickly, we don’t despair, for we have learned to rationalize: The women among us will point out that Jesus is talking to a man, not to them. And all of us rich men will discover that wealth is a relative term and that, comparatively speaking, we are not rich at all but only comfortable.

Perhaps somebody who has done a little research will remind us that according to some medieval commentary ‘the eye of the needle’ was the name of one of the city gates in Jerusalem; in order for a camel to get through, the burden had to be taken off its back, and the camel had to get on its knees.

Now this was obviously an excellent interpretation for a time when the pope was building a new cathedral in Rome and was in need of a steady stream of cash; and it remains a tempting interpretation for some churches who are looking for solutions to their fund raising shortfalls: tell folks who wish to enter the kingdom to get on their knees and write checks until the burden on their back is small enough to fit through the gate. But the pope’s accountants and their contemporary brethren in Christian tv conveniently ignore that Jesus tells the man to give the money to the poor, not the church.

No, Jesus isn’t talking about a tiny gate that a camel could only crawl through. He points to the largest animal his audience would have been familiar with, and to the smallest aperture they knew from daily life, the eye of a needle, and he makes his point. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for you and me to squeeze through the card-slot of our local ATM. The point is indeed that it is impossible, not just really, REALLY hard.

In the scene just prior to today’s reading, people are bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them. In that scene he teaches the disciples, saying, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (You may notice that he’s been talking about children a lot lately.) A little child is the personification of need, helplessness, and trusting dependence, and Jesus teaches that we are to receive the kingdom like little children.

The man who comes running to Jesus in today’s lesson is everything a little child is not; he is the personification of power, achievement, and confident independence. He is grown-up and successful. He is used to making things happen and getting things done. When presented with a challenge, he weighs the options at his disposal, and a solution is never more than a phone call away. And yet he comes running to Jesus, and he’s kneeling in the dust. Something is missing in his life, and his desire to change that is urgent and sincere.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“You know the commandments,” Jesus responds, naming six of the big ten, and the man replies, “I have kept all these since my youth.”

Nothing in the story suggests that he is lying or bragging. He is a good man who has done everything right, yet his life is incomplete. His considerable achievements are not enough. His virtues are not sufficient. His best obedience cannot still the question.

“What must I do to live in God’s realm?”

At this point, Mark briefly interrupts the conversation between the two to let us know that Jesus loves this man. We could say, “O well, Jesus loves everybody, let’s get on with the story.” Yes, he does, but this man isn’t just an extra put on stage so Jesus can do his teaching in dialogue. Jesus looks at the man intently and he loves him; perhaps for his integrity and his commitment to live a God-pleasing life; perhaps for asking the question that so easily gets drowned out by the world’s noisy answers.

“What must I do to enter the kingdom of God?”

And Jesus says to him, “You lack one thing,” and gives him a five-step answer, “Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, come, and follow me.”

Jesus turns our world upside down to set things right. The little children who possess nothing, achieve nothing, and know nothing, the little children don’t lack anything – the kingdom of God is theirs. Yet this man who knows so much, has achieved so much, and possesses so much, he lacks the one thing that opens the door to eternal life. He was a child once, perhaps he still remembers being small, dependent, helpless and trusting. Can he become small again after all these years of growing and knowing?

“Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor; then come, follow me.”

He can’t do it. He walks away saddened.

“Children,” Jesus says to the disciples, “it’s hard to enter God’s kingdom!” Children he calls them, all of the grown-ups who are trying to keep up with him on the way. Like us, they are perplexed and shocked. The eye of a needle is small, too small to squeeze through – then who can enter?

Nobody. The rule and realm of God is not a squeezing matter. No amount of knowledge, goodness, or wealth will open the door to life’s wholeness. The big question is not, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” but rather, “What is God doing to make life whole and how am I part of it?” And the answer is the life and the way of Jesus.

We want to believe that with enough money or education or ability or goodness or effort we will be able to make it all work. And Jesus, God’s Messiah stands there, looking at us, loving us, and says, “No. Come with me.”

We can stop running. We can stop worrying so much about how to get ourselves through that door. Again Jesus redirects our attention from ourselves and our salvation to the poor, and to the way of Christ, and to what God is doing to make life whole. Our salvation is not a private matter but deeply connected with God’s salvation of the world.

For life to be truly full and fulfilling for all, the perils of wealth must be addressed as well as the perils of poverty, and Jesus gets us to think deeply about both in this encounter. Ken Carder wrote several years ago, echoing the best of Christian teaching of many generations,

“If our worth is based on what we know or own or achieve, we are always going to be insecure, for our value will depend on that which is precarious and temporary. Instead of loving one another, sharing with one another, nurturing the well-being of one another, we compete with one another, use one another, abuse one another and discard one another.”[2]

Jesus says that those who leave behind the things that promise security for the sake of the good news of God’s reign will live rich and full lives, now and in the world to come. How? They find themselves members of a large family of unlikely brothers and sisters, no longer living for themselves, but for one another.

As to the wealthy man in the story, I imagine he eventually returned, perhaps not running this time, and said, “Jesus, it’s me again; no matter how hard I try, I can’t do this on my own. Is there another way?” Yes, there is. It is the way the children know: Jesus took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. It is the way of Christ: he opens his arms to embrace and hold us, rich and poor, to heal our wounded lives, and bless us.

 


[1] Stacey Elizabeth Simpson, “Who Can Be Saved? (Mark 10:17-31),” The Christian Century, September 27-October 4, 2000, p. 951

[2] Kenneth L. Carder, “The Perils of Riches (Mk. 10:17-31),” The Christian Century, Sept. 24-Oct. 1, 1997, p. 831

Monday
Oct082012

Mother tongue

A table is a remarkably simple thing. A flat surface with legs for support. It wouldn’t make anyone’s list of the world’s most wonderful inventions, but it should. In the evolution of humankind, I imagine we first gathered around the fire to share food and stories, to sing and debate. And then somebody at some point figured out that we could have the food and the stories, the singing and debating without the heat and smoke, and we started gathering around tables.

There’s a scene in Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, where Jesus is finishing a table, a most unusual piece of furniture in Galilee, where most people had their meals sitting on the ground. His mother takes a good look at it and says, “This is certainly a tall table. Who is it for?”

“A rich man,” he answers.

“Does he like to eat standing up?”

He laughs, “No, he prefers to eat like … so” and he squats a little to show her what sitting on a chair might look like. “Tall table, tall chairs.”

She mimicks his sitting on a chair, puts her jug on the table, pretends to be reaching for things, and finally she says, “This will never catch on.”

We know it did, and today we celebrate the table that is at the center of our lives as Christians, a table that represents God’s welcome to all of humanity, a table where we share the bread of life and the cup of salvation, where we tell the story of our hope, sing songs of praise and redemption, and have our best debates.

Friday evening I got a message from a dinner table. It came from the mother of a boy already known for asking excellent questions. Thomas, we are at dinner and [he] wants to know what language Adam and Eve spoke ... Can you help? Tables, dinner tables in particular, are perfect for questions that have no simple answer but have the power to make us wise. Had I been there at the table with them, I would have asked the little guy right back, “What do you think?” But since I was at home, I sent his mom a message, “GREAT question! It’s been one the greatest minds have tried to answer, but nobody knows.” We don’t know the origins of language, which means we have all kinds of wonderful, creative, and beautiful ideas about it, and in the process we realize, every last one of us who’s willing to go on the adventure, just what a marvelous thing language is, any language.

The best questions don’t demand answers, but demand to be asked again and again. They direct our attention not to riddles to be solved, but to mysteries to be pondered.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

The best questions arise in the evening, when the hustle and bustle of the day begins to fade. What are human beings? Is there a language that is the mother tongue of all? What’s our place in this vast universe?

A wise woman from New Orleans once told Robert Coles something her momma had told her, “Remember that you’re put here only for a few seconds of God’s time, and He’s testing you. He doesn’t want answers, though. He wants you to know how to ask the right questions. If you learn how to do that, then you’ll do all right when you meet Him, and He’s there looking you over. You have to tell Him that you’ve learned how to question yourself, and when you show Him what you know, He’ll smile on you.”[1]

God doesn’t want answers but wants you to know how to ask the right questions. Who came up with the first word? Why is there something rather than nothing? Who am I? What are human beings?

Scholars and scientists give us answers, and every answer raises seven new questions. They tell us that human beings are tool-making, weapon-bearing mammals with large brains whose technical skills are far more evolved than their capacity for moral reasoning. They tell us that human beings are the only living beings conscious of their mortality and that human consciousness is like an iceberg – only one seventh is above the surface and the most powerful forces reside in the unconscious depths. They tell us that human beings are to a signifant degree the products of particular historical circumstances, determined by economic and political factors. We get answers from anthropologists, biologists, sociologists, psychologists, neurologists, economists, historians, philosophers, theologians, poets and musicians. What are human beings? As far as we know, sparrows, trees and whales don’t wonder what their place in the universe might be; they simply occupy it. Human beings ask questions and turn them into poetry and song.

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

The song of praise erupts with a shout, and it ends with the same exuberant phrase. Between these two pillars, the poet meditates on what it means to be human before God. The meditation is not a solitary quest for answers, but a song that includes all of creation. First babies raise their voices in praise of the Creator who has prevailed against the powers of chaos and established a world in which life can thrive, even small, vulnerable infants. Then the song turns quiet and becomes an evening hymn.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

You have seen the images taken by the Hubble telescope, you have heard of physicists exploring subatomic space; and when you allow the vastness of the universe to enter your consciousness but for a moment, you feel very small and insignificant – yet you also realize that you are this tiny speck of dust with the capacity to contemplate the sheer enormity of it all.

“We exist in a universe that does not notice or care about us,” says Jim Mays, and he adds, “To be human is to be afflicted with the capacity for this subliminal glimpse of the significance of our insignificance, to live constantly on the edge of consternation before the cosmos.”[2] The universe does not notice or care about us, but the poet sings of moon and stars, of planets and galaxies, protons and neutrons as “the work of Your fingers.” We are indeed specks of ancient stardust, but the One who brings forth life in all its wondrous forms is mindful of us. The final horizon of our existence is not the unimaginable immensity of the universe, but the loving gaze of the One whose majestic name is revealed in it – written onto the night sky and into the story of Israel and Jesus.

After this quiet moment of awe under the stars, the psalm changes from evening hymn to morning song.

Yet you have made them but little lower than Divine, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

In the light of the morning sun, the poet looks at the world, the work of God’s hands, and marvels at our royal vocation: crowned with glory and honor, we have been given dominion over all things. Specks of ancient stardust, meant to be kings and queens in the realm of life. The sons and daughters of Adam and Eve are given power and responsibility within the sovereign rule of the mindful, caring Creator. What kind of dominion? To be kings and queens in the realm of life we exercise care for other creatures in the same way that God is mindful and caring. Anything less would be a  failure to be who we are.

The poet of the psalm doesn’t give us answers, and of course we all want to know how to be mindful and caring, given that our experience with the human species hasn’t been very encouraging. The poet of the psalm doesn’t give us answers, but the song itself is an invitation to sing along, and to sing our questions before God and to God. Throughout the psalm, the focus is not primarily on the human beings, but remains on God; we find our place in this relationship: How majestic is your name! You have founded, you have established, you are mindful, you care, you have made, you have crowned, you have given.

What are human beings? Throughout the generations, human beings have answered the question by comparing themselves to animals, to gods, and to other nations, cultures or ethnic groups. The psalm locates us between God and animals, responsible to God and responsible for the creatures placed under our care. But no mention is made of others – other nations, cultures, peoples, tribes, or ethnic groups. There is no us and them, only one humanity in our shared location between God and the creatures entrusted to our care.

Which brings us back to the table.

“This will never catch on,” she said, but sometimes, thank God, even mothers are wrong. The risen Christ invites us all to his table, regardless of our ethnic background, our religious views, our political philosophy, our income, age or gender. He invites us to eat and drink with him, and to learn from him how to be mindful and caring. In his company we discover that our mother tongue, the language spoken by Adam and Eve, the language spoken in thousands of dialects around the globe, the language spoken in the city of God, is the language God has been teaching us in every moment of wonder since life began: our mother tongue is praise.

 


[1] Robert Coles, Children of Crisis

[2] James L. Mays, “What is a Human Being? Reflections on Psalm 8,” Theology Today, Vol. 50, No. 4, p. 514

Tuesday
Oct022012

My Way or the Way?

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, and the disciples are trying to keep up. Jesus is on the way to the cross, and the disciples don’t know how to follow. Jesus speaks of being rejected, condemned, and executed in the city, and the disciples are discussing who is the greatest. They are still with him, in close physical proximity, but it’s like he’s already as alone as he’ll be on the cross. Yet he keeps teaching.

He takes a little child and puts it among them, and taking it in his arms, he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

He keeps teaching. He continues to surprise and confuse us with his words about welcoming the great God of heaven and earth in the little ones. I wonder if Jesus was still holding the child in his arms when one of the disciples said, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 

Jesus wants to draw our attention to the little ones; he teaches us to welcome God by welcoming those too little to reach even the bottom step of the status ladder; and he’s not just talking, he’s holding one of them in his arms. Show and tell. Teaching by example. But the disciples are distracted. They are concerned about what others are doing in his name.

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Yes, you heard that right. Someone is doing powerful, liberating work in the community, and they are watching with suspicion and even trying to intervene, because that someone is not part of their group, their tribe, their denomination. How dare he claim to do anything in the name of Jesus?

I like to think that Jesus is still holding the child during this scene. I like to think that he is smiling at the irony of it all: the disciples’ objecting to others doing powerful stuff, when only moments ago they were unable to do anything when a father asked them to help his son who was being tormented by a demon. Instead of celebrating the great works of healing that are being done outside their circle, they act as if they were the exclusive copyright holders on Jesus’ name.

I was listening to Krista Tippett’s conversation with Jim Daly, the new president of Focus on the Family.[1] Focus on the Family is a very conservative Christian organization, and some have referred to it as a “Religious Right powerhouse.” Focus on the Family headquarters are in Colorado Springs, and the city is also home to the Independent, a proudly liberal weekly newspaper. Jim Daly described the paper’s publisher, John Weiss, as “a Berkeley-Harvard guy [who] worked on Henry Waxman’s campaign [and] would be self-described as a pretty strong liberal.”

Jim Daly and John Weiss. Two guys that hardly see eye to eye on anything. Jim Daly was talking with Krista Tippett about the recent work Focus on the Family had been doing on foster care issues in Colorado:

We had 850 kids in the foster care system available for adoption. If you know church history, that is one of the things the early church engaged. We were known for taking care of the orphan, and it’s in part what the early church was built upon. And so for us in this country, with all that we have, particularly the Christian community, to be able to engage that, so over a couple of years, we were able to get that number down from 850 kids waiting to about 300. That was the most progress that had been made on that issue in the state for a long time.

That’s when John Weiss of the Independent wanted to meet with Jim Daly, and when they did meet, he said, “I didn’t know anything that good would come out of Focus.” Later he wrote to his readers,

Here’s something you need to know. The Independent is involved in a community-based partnership with Focus. No, Hell has not frozen over. Here is what happened. Our publisher, John Weiss, realized that there was at least one issue on which Focus and the Indy can agree. We want all kids to grow up in a loving home.

Now some will call this welcome political compromise, others the work of the Holy Spirit, and again others clever PR. I have no desire to give it a name. I want to say, “Thank you!” and “May we have some more, please?” I see two leaders in two very different camps who for a moment aren’t guarding the tribal fences but paying attention to the little one Jesus is holding in his arms. “Whoever is not against us is for us,” says Jesus.

At the council of Carthage, in the year 400 A.D., one of the delegates, Pusillus of Lamasba said, “I believe that there is no saving baptism except in the Catholic Church. Whatsoever is apart from the Catholic Church is a pretense.” And Augustine replied, “But there may be something Catholic outside the Catholic Church, just as the name of Christ could exist outside the congregation of Christ, in which name he who did not follow with the disciples was casting out devils.”[2]

Disciples of Jesus must learn to recognize the works of Jesus on the other side of the fence. There may be something Catholic outside the Catholic Church. There may be something Christian outside the Christian Church. We must not allow ourselves the ancient comforts of tribalism. We must keep our eyes on Jesus, and he happens to hold up a little child urging us to welcome her.

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, and we are trying to keep up. Jesus is on the way to the cross, and we don’t know how to follow. Jesus speaks of his suffering, death, and resurrection in the city, and we’d rather have any other conversation.

Mark is holding up the gospel mirror, and what we see reflected is not flattering. Our eyes are not on the one who is going ahead of us, and our attention span is quickly shrinking to twitter length. Our feet are not pointed in the direction Jesus is going, and our paths follow the fences around our turf. Our hands could be holding the little one he urges us to welcome, but we are very busy. Mark is playing a short clip, “Disciples of Jesus” and we watch ourselves stumbling over our attitudes, our priorities, our distractions, ourselves.

I imagine that this is the moment when Jesus tells the child to go outside and play with the others. You see, the gospel reading for this day has another nine verses, and they are rated “R” for violence. Jesus says,

If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.

Drowning, cutting, tearing, and everyone salted with fire - terrifying words, shocking and disturbing. It’s like the gentle Jesus who loves the little children has suddenly turned into a fire-spewing preacher. He frightens me and I don’t know how he manages to end his speech with a word about peace.

I remember men and women who have been cut off from their communities for allegedly causing others to stumble. I remember heretics who were cut off and burnt at the stake lest they cause the body of Christ to stumble. I remember dissenters who were cut off and disappeared lest they cause any more disturbance in the body politic. It’s not that violently simple. The source of our stumbling is not something that can be removed with a sharp enough knife.

It’s not your foot that’s causing you to walk off the path, and you know that. It’s not somebody’s hand that’s causing them to lash out and hurt their spouse or child, and you know that. It’s not my eye that’s causing me to see only what I want to see; it’s my delight in shiny things; it’s my curiosity so easily aroused by new things; it’s my desire to live life fully and completely; it’s all good, actually. Except that my delight, my curiosity, my desire and the paths they lead me on are so completely self-centered.

I wonder if Jesus is using this terrifying, violent language to break through the fog of our self-absorption and remind us how much is at stake. This path of self-absorption, this path of status-obsession, this path, he says, can only end in hell, and I believe him. But I don’t believe that hell is a place of God’s making. Hell is what happens to life when we have it our way.

Jesus calls us to a different way. Jesus calls us to go with him on the way to Jerusalem. He calls us to go with him on the way to the city where all are at home and at peace. He calls us with such love, such passion. He calls us this very moment. Shall we go?



[1] http://www.onbeing.org/program/next-christians/4839

[2] See Placher, Mark, p. 136

Monday
Sep242012

Ground Level

Do you remember how big everything was when you were little? Do you remember having to reach up to touch the door knob? Do you remember that kitchen stool you had to climb like some piece of playground equipment if you wanted to sit on it? And that moment when you were finally tall enough to simply sit down on it without any effort? Do you remember the room full of adults who were all standing tall as trees and chatting way up there while you were trying to find your way across the room through a forest of legs?

I remember sitting at the children’s table with my siblings and cousins at every family gathering. It was great fun, usually. We had a wonderful time eating and drinking, joking and laughing amongst ourselves while the grown-ups were at the big table. We did have a wonderful time, but I remember how proud I was when I got to sit at the grown-up table for the first time. They had to put one of the firm pillows on my chair to bring me up a couple of inches, but I had made it. I was still short, but I was no longer one of the little ones. That day, I grew at least a couple of inches inside.

We all have memories like that, memories of a world just beyond our reach, a world we can’t wait to belong to. Getting to sit at the grown-up table is easy, it’s just a matter of time, all you have to do is get older. Getting to hang out with the people you really want to hang out with at school is a lot tougher. And getting a seat and voice at the tables that define our communities and shape our life together – that is both a measure of our human dignity and a struggle.

From a very young age, people around us encourage us to be ambitious and competitive, to set goals for ourselves and pursue them, to work hard, to meet the right people, to make something of ourselves. The disciples had met Jesus. They had met the one who would set all things right. He had talked about going to Jerusalem, and they were ready for the challenge. They were still in Galilee, still preparing for the great journey south.

Jesus was teaching them, talking again about being betrayed into human hands and being killed and after three days rising again. They did not understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask him. Why were they afraid to ask?

Well, we kinda know how it is. You don’t want to appear too slow for the big race to the top. Even when you’re confused and clueless, you still want to project confidence and make everybody else believe that you have it all together. You fake it till you make it.

In Mark’s story, instead of asking questions, the disciples were jockeying for cabinet positions in Jesus’s government. We also know how that goes. Two of them had been talking about sitting at Jesus’ right and left in his glory. One of them probably never missed an opportunity to mention that he had been with Jesus the longest, and another that Jesus had already entrusted him with the office of treasurer. And while one touted his revolutionary zeal, another bragged about his connections in the business community. They were afraid to ask what Jesus meant when he talked about what would happen to him in the city, but they had no trouble imagining their seats at the big table and their names and titles on the letterhead.

Jesus, we know, is never afraid to ask. When they got to the house, he said, “What were you arguing about on the way?” And suddenly they were silent, the whole chatty, ambitious bunch; no one said a word. Why the sudden silence?

Well, we kinda know how it is. Had he asked them in private, individually, several of them probably would have told him about Theophilus who “thinks he’s the greatest” or about Bartholomew who is “dreaming about a seat on the supreme court.”

Three times in the gospel of Mark, Jesus talks about being rejected and betrayed, being handed over and condemned to death, being killed and rising again after three days. Three times, not just because this is disturbing news that doesn’t sink in easily, but because being a disciple of Jesus is so tied up with that particular path. We don’t understand and we’re afraid to ask not just because we want to keep up the appearance of our intellectual brilliance and deep knowledge. We’re afraid to ask because we’re afraid he’s going to turn our world upside down. Because we want Jesus very much to be part of our world, but we hesitate to let ourselves be part of his.

He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In our world, those at the top of the ladder lord it over those at the bottom. But in the world of God’s reign, earth and heaven do not touch at the top, in the clouds of power, but at the bottom where Jesus stoops to wash the feet of all. On the way of Christ, greatness is defined in terms of service, and the path doesn’t lead up to thrones and cabinet chairs, but remains at ground level and leads to us, always to us.

We all start out little. We all start out needing to be welcomed. We all need somebody to see us and speak our name, somebody to hold us and care for us, because we all start out little, needy and helpless. How much of our drive for greatness, do you think has to do with that deep need to be seen, to be noticed and recognized, and finally, finally welcomed?

Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

We argue about who is the greatest and Jesus puts a little child among us. Who knew there was a child? Who noticed? We were engaged in important matters, making sure our voice would be heard, our opinion registered, and our contribution recognized in its significance. And Jesus puts a little child among us. Mark doesn’t tell us if it’s a precious, cuddly little sunshine or one of the rascals from Capernaum Elementary who is sent to the principal’s office at least twice a week and whose parents dread opening the home folder, afraid there might be another note from a teacher who is at her wits’ end.

Politicians pick up little children all the time, it looks good on television and it makes them more likeable. But Jesus doesn’t pick up a child to draw attention to himself. He does it to draw our attention to the child. He does all his work at ground level to draw our attention away from our high-altitude power pursuits.

“If you want to be great, notice the little ones and bring them in.” You want to be great and so you make yourself as big as possible just to be seen, recognized and welcomed. But in the world of God’s reign you’re not welcomed because you’re great. You are welcomed because you belong; you are loved for who you are. So don’t be afraid to shift your attention. Notice the ones that habitually go unnoticed. Welcome those who are not great by any common measure, and bring them in.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Welcome is woven through this teaching unlike any other verse of scripture. Welcome, welcome, welcome, as steady as the holy, holy, holy sung in heaven. Welcoming those who are so easily overlooked at the tables of greatness, we welcome Christ himself, and welcoming him, we welcome God.

Much of our religious tradition has taught us to wonder, “What must I do, who do I have to be, who do I have to become in order to be worthy of welcome by the holy God? How can I work my way up?” But Jesus works at ground level. He looks us in the eye and says, “I see you. I know you. I love you.” He invites us to live in the world of God’s reign, where even our religious tradition is turned on its head. He turns our attention away from ourselves and our anxious obsession with our status,  and turns our attention toward each other. He stops our lonely ascend to the top that is our quest for fulfillment, recognition and control and he guides our feet into the path that leads us to see and embrace the little neighbor. He teaches us to see that the little ones who are constantly rendered invisible by our arrangements of power, are indeed the embodiment of the invisible God. Welcoming one such child in his name, says Jesus, we welcome the Creator of heaven and earth.

Jesus works to redirect our attention to ground level, and much of discipleship is about new habits of seeing and acting. Peter was the first to confess that Jesus is the Messiah, and the first to wrestle with the implications of that confession for his life. Becoming a disciple of Jesus is incredibly embarrassing and slow. Mark was wise to frame the long section around Peter’s confession with two accounts of blind people who are given sight (Mark 8:22-26 and 10:46-52).

The gift of sight comes gradually. We can’t quite see who Jesus is; we can’t quite see what it means to follow him, but we receive the gift of sight on the way, gradually. We learn and grow, like all little ones – and why would we be afraid to ask our questions and share our curiosity? We learn and grow together, welcoming each other in the name of Christ.

Monday
Sep172012

The Tongue is a Fire

Barely anyone remembers Zacharias Warner but he was a famous man in his day. In the early 19th century he packed Vienna’s churches. You might assume he must have been a musician or a singer – but no, he was a priest and a poet. Zacharias Warner was famous for his fiery sermons against the sins of the flesh.

One Sunday, once again before a packed house, he looked across the congregation saying, “That tiny piece of flesh. That most dangerous member of a man’s body.” The gentlemen panicked, the ladies blushed and he went on to speak rapidly about the horrendous consequences of the misuse of that most dangerous member. Then he leaned over the pulpit, his eyes shooting sparks, and said, “Shall I name for you that tiny piece of flesh?”

The sanctuary was perfectly silent. Nobody was moving, let alone coughing. All eyes were on him as he leaned further over the pulpit and exclaimed, “Shall I show you that tiny piece of flesh?” Some of the ladies were reaching for the smelling salts in their purses when the priest said with a sly smile, “Behold the source of our sins!”

He stuck out his tongue. We can laugh about it, the story is clearly from another century. So much has changed since then, yet so much more hasn’t.

The tongue is a powerful little muscle. It’s still sticks and stones that break the bones, but words - it always begins with words. Words do hurt, be it unintentionally or by design. The tongue can affirm or alienate, build or belittle, delight or destroy, offend or befriend.

The tongue is a fire. When James wrote those words, he couldn’t begin to imagine the kind of wildfires the tongue can ignite in the age of youtube. Some fool in California makes a bad movie about the prophet Mohammed, a movie steeped in the muck of ignorance, a movie that on opening night draws an audience of ten at a Hollywood theater, and that would have been the end of it just a few years ago. But the fool wants an audience, he wants to be heard, he wants at least a few good laughs from fellow fools and a pat on the back for saying what they think needs to be said. And so he makes a trailer of the most offensive frames and puts it on youtube for the whole world to see and hear.

The tongue is a fire. Fools play with matches without a care in the world, and far away in Libya a house goes up in flames and people die. Is the fool responsible?

I want to tell you another story that’s wonderfully quaint. A young man comes to the priest for confession.

“Father, forgive me for I have sinned. I have told lies and gossiped about my neighbor.”

“Do you understand what you have done?” asks the priest and adds, “Go home and bring me a feather pillow.” The young man leaves and when he returns with a pillow he meets the priest on the steps of the church.

“What now?” he asks.

“Open the stitching on the side and shake the pillow,” the priest tells him. He does as he’s been told. He opens the seam and shakes the pillow vigorously and smiles as he watches the feathers flying across the church yard, to the lane and beyond.

“What now?” he asks.

“Now pick up all the feathers.”

“But that’s impossible, Father! The wind has blown them all over town!”

“Just like the thoughtless words you spoke.”

The tongue is a fire. Thoughtless words, careless, heedless, reckless, loveless words are not just blown all over town like feathers in the wind; they are sparks and hot embers that can start a blaze.

Freedom of speech is being honored in this country like a sacred law, and rightly so. Speech must be free for a democratic society to flourish. The freedom of speech must be protected, even foolish, hateful, and hurtful speech. But our responsibility for what we say and how we say it cannot be limited to legal liability. We have moral and spiritual obligations that go far beyond what the law of the land requires.

The world we live in is just as vast as it has been for all of human history, but we are one neighborhood like we have never been before. The young man with his pillow only needed to consider the little town he lived in. The feathers only flew so far. We live in a neighborhood where the thoughtless word, the careless, heedless, reckless, loveless word travels faster and further than ever. Yes, we are responsible for our tongues.

James sounds rather pessimistic.

Every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.

The tongue is a fire, and whether flames of praise emerge or flames of hatred only one human being can determine. My tongue, my choice, my responsibility.

From the same mouth come blessing and cursing, but our first language has always been blessing and praise. Blessing and praise are as old as creation. Long before there were liturgies and hymns, prayers and creeds and theologies, there was praise. Long before there were music directors and organists, choirs and anthems, there was praise. Our babies remind us of this truth. I remember a little boy, still an infant, singing his morning psalm almost every day. Lying there in his crib, usually some time before the rest of the house was up, he awakened with the first morning light. He could not walk, couldn’t even stand up yet, and he could not talk. But with the light of dawn in his eyes he chanted a morning prayer of giggles and gurgling, a song of thanksgiving for life, a hymn of praise to the maker of heaven and earth. That praise lies deep beneath every word and language and song. That is our mother tongue.

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

Days and nights proclaim the glory of God, and so do we. The world is vast and glorious, and our native tongue, our mother tongue, our first language is praise, not hate speech.

Steve and Cokie Roberts have been married for decades, and they measure the health of their marriage by the number of teeth marks in their tongues. That kind of wisdom isn’t always true and everywhere, but you know very well that sometimes biting your tongue is less painful than the words about to pour out of your mouth would be. James only considers this option, the taming of the tongue, the bridling of the tongue, learning to live with the teeth marks. But there is another option: the training of the tongue to sing and speak its native language in every dialect spoken in the neighborhood.

So let me tell you another story. On Wednesday I met Michael, a songwriter who has been incredibly successful in contemporary popular music. Josh Groban sang In Her Eyes on a CD that went multi platinum. Jaci Velazquez sang On My Knees, a song that won both Song of the Year by the Nashville Songwriters Association and the Dove Award by the Gospel Music Association. Michael’s songs have appeared on over 15 million albums sold worldwide. He also wrote songs for tv and film, including Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Terminal, True Blood, and The Simpsons.

But he mentioned none of that when we met. He wanted to tell me about a group of people who want to change life in the Middle East. A group of people who “believe it is possible to create a Middle East that is peaceful, open, and prosperous. A place where human life is highly valued and the quality of life is steadily improving; where justice and human rights are respected; where religious, cultural and political diversity is both appreciated and secured through mutual trust and freedom of expression.”[1]

Michael wanted to tell me about a group of musicians who share this vision. They are top selling Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian, Norwegian and American songwriters and recording artists.[2] They got together and called their unlikely collaboration My Favorite Enemy. They began as a vehicle to build professional and personal relationships across cultural, historical and political divides. But it didn’t take them long to do together what they each do best. They co-wrote and recorded ten songs and began to perform together in settings as small as a family home and as large as the European Parliament.

“A three minute song,” says Michael, “in some small way, has the potential to bridge the divide between two people who actually consider (…) themselves enemies. A song doesn’t have to be rational or logical - it can bypass that entire side of the brain and begin the process of healing and transformation by finding its way to the heart.”

Michael told me all that while we were just beginning to try and understand what had triggered the violent protests in many cities in the Middle East and the attacks in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others.

The tongue is a fire. We decide whether flames of praise and peace emerge from our lips or flames of hatred. We decide whether to practice singing and speaking in our native tongue of thanksgiving or to throw words like rocks.

Tonight begins Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. At Congregation Micah, Zaid, a musician from Jordan who has never been in a synagogue, let alone a synagogue service, and Michael, a Jewish-American songwriter, will sing in the New Year together.

The tongue is a fire. Flames of peace or flames of hatred? You decide.

 


[1] www.iyouwe.org

[2] Basel Khoury, Zaid Modhi Mansour, Jordan; Rami, Alaa Shaham, Palestine; Christian Ingebrigtsen, Hans Petter Aaserud, Venke Knutson, Norway; Aya Korem, Ohadi Hitman, Mika Sade, Kobi Oz, Israel; Michael Hunter Ochs, USA

Monday
Sep102012

Children first

Cassandra Nelson works for Mercy Corps, a non-profit dedicated to alleviating suffering, poverty and oppression in many places around the world. Cassandra has spent the past couple of weeks working in the Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan, about six miles from the Syrian border.

The camp was opened about a month ago for Syrians fleeing the violence in their country, and over 20,000 men, women and children have moved into the camp already. The pace of new arrivals has more than doubled, with more than 14,000 arriving in the last days of August.Humanitarian aid organizations and UN agencies have been working around the clock to accommodate the sudden increase in new arrivals of refugees, but it is hard to keep up.

“We need more of everything,” said the camp manager. You know the basic things he’s worrying about, things like tents, blankets, clean water, and medical supplies. What may surprise you, is that he’s also pushing for more playgrounds.

Cassandra has spoken with many mothers at the camp, and most report that their children have terrible nightmares and are not behaving normally – either they are being very aggressive and misbehaving, or they are silent and afraid, running and hiding at any loud noise.[1]

Tens of thousands have fled Syria and the demons that are on the lose there, seeking refuge across the border. But the demons of oppression and violence don’t just stay behind. The children are bound by painful and frightening experiences, and they need safe places, playgrounds, and wise counselors to heal and flourish.

I thought about those Syrian children and their mothers when I read again the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.

Mark only tells us that Jesus went away to the region of Tyre. Not a word about why he went so far from rural Galilee, both geographically and culturally. Did he have to leave the country just to get a little peace and quiet? That would explain why he didn’t want anyone to know he was there. Whose house did he enter and how did the woman find out and get in? We don’t know; it’s almost as if Mark stripped away all unnecessary details so we focus all our attention on Jesus and the woman.

He does tell us that her little daughter was tormented by an unclean spirit. But then he just lets us sit for a moment with this explosive tension: a gentile woman and a Jewish man in a house across the border, an almost unthinkable clash of gender, culture, language, and religion. She throws herself at his feet, begging him to cast out the demon that has bound her daughter.

We don’t know why Jesus crossed the border, but we know why she crossed every boundary of custom and propriety; we know what having a sick child can do to a parent. Having a sick child makes you desperate.[2]

It makes you say horrible things to the receptionist who won’t give you an appointment until Wednesday next week. It makes you very rude to doctors who will spend hours running test after test and then tell you in less than two minutes that the nurse will call you tomorrow. It makes you scream at the insurance representative who tells you that your plan does not cover the treatments your child needs. It makes you stay up all night doing research on the web, finding out where the best clinics are, the best doctors, the best therapists, the most promising programs.

And after you’ve exhausted all options, would you consider a trip to Mexico or India or anywhere else on God’s green earth? Of course you would. You will do anything it takes to make your child well. You will knock on any door and cross any border for your child’s wellbeing.That’s where this mother is – in the place at Jesus’ feet where l love, determination, and hope have given all and await an answer.

“Let the children be fed first,” he says, and who wouldn’t agree that the little ones, the vulnerable ones, the ones who have so much life ahead of them, who wouldn’t agree that they need to be fed first, with love and good food, with education and health care and safe places and playgrounds and the best we can give them.

“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It may take you a moment to realize that he just told her No, and not just that, he insulted her by calling her and her child dogs.

We love our dogs. We love ‘em a lot. The other day, cartoonist David Sipress allowed us to overhear two doggies chatting on a Brooklyn sidewalk.[3] Each is on a leish. Each has just dropped a you-know-what on the concrete. Each has a most attentive owner with a little baggy picking up what the puppy just dropped. Says one pooch to the other, “I don’t know about you, but it always makes me feel kinda special.”

We love our dogs, and for many of us they are simply canine members of the household.

Every year, the American Pet Products Association conducts a National Pet Owners Survey. If you want a copy of the full report, it’ll cost you $2,995. The information is costly, because pets are big business.

The current estimate of basic annual expenses for dog owners in the U.S. include

$655 Vet Visits
$324 Food and Treats
$274 Kennel Boarding
$95 Vitamins
$78 Travel
$73 Grooming
$43 Toys

That adds up to over $1,540 a year for the basics for each of the 78.2 million dogs in 46.3 million U.S. households.[4]

This was very different in the world in which Jesus grew up. In Jewish communities dogs weren’t pets, but semi-wild animals that roamed the streets scavenging for food, and they were not allowed in the house. They had to stay outside.

Jesus tells the woman that her place is outside and that the door is closed. In saying “Let the children be fed first,” he implies that the time is not right. God’s salvation will come to the gentiles, in time, but not yet, not her, not now. His mission is to the house of Israel first, and for the time being the Gentiles will have to live with their demons. The day will come when those outside will be welcome inside, but not yet, not her, not now.

“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

He tells her that the door is closed, but she is already in the house. And if you want to call her a dog, call her a bulldog, for she won’t let go. She is courageous, persistent, and quick-witted.

“In my house, Sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

In my house, dogs don’t wait until the children are finished; dogs and children both eat at the same time. The doggies wag their tails in joyful expectation of every bit of bread dropped either by accident or by a child’s secret cunning.

In my house, the children eat their fill and the dogs still get to feast on the crumbs. What I’m asking of you isn’t taking away anything from the children. Have you paid attention to your own miracle? Five loaves, and 5,000 ate till they were full and wanted no more, and the pieces filled twelve baskets. Your table can’t hold the abundance you bring, it overflows with blessing.

I’m not asking for a seat at the table, but let the doggies have a feast. My little daughter is bound by a demon, and I know that what she needs is yours to give. Crumbs will do.

This is the only story in all the gospels where Jesus is bested in an argument, which is remarkable. The fact that he’s being bested by a woman is perhaps no longer remarkable in some quarters, but it surely was for generations. And the fact that she’s a gentile puts the cherry on it.

Like Jacob who wrestled with God through the night, saying, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” she didn’t let go.[5] She left the house with a blessing she had wrestled from him; “You may go,” he said, “the demon has left your daughter.”

The word faith is never mentioned, but everything about this anonymous, gentile mother speaks of it: her tenacity fuelled by love, her courage and perseverance, and her insistence that mercy is not a limited resource. When she went home, she found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. The house of bondage had become the house of laughter. That is the promise of God for all of life.

Almost immediately following this story, there is another bread story.[6] At first glance it looks like an awkward repetition of the feeding of the 5000. Jesus breaks bread with thousands, seven loaves for 4000 people. All of them eat and are filled; and they take up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Plenty of crumbs, don’t you think?

This gentile mother’s fierce love ties the two bread miracles together. Because of her we can see that there are not two stories but one; there are two courses of the one meal. Of this bread, there is more than enough for all of us, and the door is open. No need to keep anybody outside or under the table. Every child of God has a seat at the table.

Za’atari is a Syrian refugee camp in northern Jordan, about six miles from the Syrian border. Many sons and daughters there are tormented by the demons of terror and bound by the demons of war. But there are also groups there with beautiful names like Mercy Corps or Week of Compassion. They are there to break the bread of mercy that turns a refugee camp into a community with safe places and playgrounds. The house of bondage becomes the house of laughter.


[1] See http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/29/opinion/opinion-nelson-syrian-refugee-camp/index.html and http://www.mercycorps.org/

[2] With thanks to Anna Carter Florence, Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. 19, No. 5, August-September 2008, p. 30

[3] New Yorker 2012, see http://tinyurl.com/d7guo7o

[4] All data from http://www.americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp

[5] Genesis 32:22ff.

[6] Mark 6:30-44 is the feeding of the five thousand; Mark 8:1-10 is the feeding of the four thousand

Tuesday
Sep042012

Good Habits

Wherever Jesus goes, people gather. On the street, in houses and synagogues, in villages and cities, people gather, bringing the sick and the possessed, hoping that they might touch the fringe of his cloak. Wherever Jesus goes, people gather, because his presence is healing.

Others gather, because Jesus’ presence can be profoundly confusing, even disturbing. Today’s passage from Mark tells us that some people are watching Jesus closely, keeping an eye on him and his followers and what they do and fail to do. What they notice is that Jesus loves to break bread with just about anybody. They watch him break bread with five thousand, and they notice his smile, how he breaks the loaf and gives a piece of bread to any and all; he doesn’t even hesitate when the person he eats with is clearly a crook, or a prostitute, or a stranger from across the border. And it’s not just his eating habits.  He also has a rather unique way of observing the sabbath, or some would say, not observing it. You watch him and there are moments when you think he’s the most devout person you’ve ever met, and then you stumble upon a scene where he acts as though religion means nothing to him.

The Pharisees were a reform movement within Judaism, and their passion was to live holy lives; they sought to sanctify every dimension of daily life. They took seriously that God had chosen Israel to be “a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). The big challenge they saw was, how to be a holy nation when foreign occupiers determine so much of public life.

In a context like that, the small, daily, at-home activities take on greater weight and importance. Every meal becomes a sacred ritual of remembering, “We are God’s people.” Every moment of every day becomes an occasion for blessing the Lord God of Israel. You open your eyes in the morning, praising God for the gift of light. You go about your daily work, praising God for the gifts of strength and skill. You open scripture, praising God for the gift of the commandments. You break bread, praising God for the gifts of the earth and of human labor. You tuck in your sons and daughters at night, praising God for the gift of children. And you go to bed, praising God for the goodness of day and night, springtime and harvest, work and rest. It’s a beautiful practice. You sanctify every moment by living it with attention to God’s gifts, commandments, and presence.

 

Marcia Falk spent years writing a book of Jewish prayers; it was published in 1996. In it, she comments on the practice of handwashing that some Jews observe and others don’t. The reason for washing one’s hands has long been that they’re about to touch bread.

“The rabbis saw bread as a double symbol – of God’s gift of sustenance to humanity and of humanity’s sacrificial offerings to God. For the rabbis, the table was an altar and the meal at which bread was served was an reenactment of the devotional rituals of Temple times.”

Every table an altar, every meal an act of worship, every host a priest. Marcia Falk writes that “In the case of its use before a meal, [handwashing] was originally intended, among other things, to reenact the priestly purification ritual performed when offering a sacrifice at the Temple. One might say that mandating the washing of hands before eating, the rabbis turned every meal in the daily life of ordinary people into a sacred event.”[1]

In the days of Jesus and the early church, these practices were still emerging and occasionally hotly contested, especially in the church where Jews and Gentiles had to determine which traditions to continue and which ones to abandon.

In Mark’s story, some Pharisees and scribes who had come from Jerusalem questioned Jesus, because they had noticed that some of his disciples were eating without washing their hands. They weren’t concerned about their personal hygiene or health. Handwashing was a matter of piety and faithfulness. Pouring a little water over one’s hands before a meal, a simple ritual inspired by priestly rules, established and maintained the boundary between holy living and the common world of pagan idolaters and other disorders.

Some of Jesus’ disciples did not observe that tradition, others apparently did. In Mark’s account, however, the lines are clearly drawn. He even adds an editorial comment saying, “all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands,” which isn’t entirely true, but makes for great drama.

Jesus shows little patience in this scene. “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” some Pharisees ask, rather innocently, I would say, but there’s no room for innocent questions in this drama.  Jesus calls them hypocrites who honor God with their lips, but whose hearts are far from God. He accuses them of teaching human precepts as doctrines while abandoning the commandment of God and holding on to human tradition.

If anyone questioned you and me whether we live by God’s word or by human tradition, we would obviously say, God’s word. But many of us would want to add that God’s word is available to us only through human tradition. The word and command of God is not a voice from heaven or a book that fell from the sky, but a voice that speaks to us in the voices of Moses and the prophets, in the life and teachings of Jesus, in the proclamation of the apostles, in the stories of the gospels, and in the voices of friends and strangers. We listen for and obey the word of God, but our understanding and obedience will always depend on how we interpret the words spoken and written by human beings.

The people questioning Jesus about the practices of his disciples wanted to honor the commandment of God, “You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you from the other peoples to be mine” (Leviticus 20:26). To them being associated with God meant avoiding any association with ungodly people and things. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with keeping an eye on that line between what is holy and what is not, and not allowing it to get blurry?

In Mark’s story, Pharisees and scribes with a passion for holy living saw Jesus eating with sinners. They saw him crossing the line; but they didn’t see that he crossed it to bring reconciliation. They saw him crossing the line when he cured a man on the sabbath; but they didn’t see that he crossed it to bring redemption, so the man would be part of the sabbath peace. They saw Jesus breaking bread with five-thousand – but, no, they didn’t, not really. All they saw were some disciples who hadn’t washed their hands first. They missed the miracle altogether. Suddenly their holy passion seems petty-minded. They could only see what their tradition allowed them to see. They didn’t take into account that sometimes God will say and do something unheard of. It’s something that happens all the time, and to all of us – not just some Pharisees.

“Listen to me,” says Jesus, “all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Not so fast. There is plenty outside a person that by going in can defile. We are not born with our prejudices. We are not immune to the subtle messages that tell us that we are unworthy of love. Words and attitudes do defile a person’s innate sacredness and snuff the flickering flame of dignity and hope. There are things outside a person that by going in can defile. But we can’t pretend that we can keep it all away. We can’t pretend that we can create islands of holiness in the threatening sea of unholy chaos that is the world. We can’t pretend that the line that divides the holy and the unholy can be drawn in a way that we’re always safely on the inside.

The line runs through the very core of our being. “It is from within,” says Jesus, “from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” The trouble, says Jesus, doesn’t arise from a world hostile to the holiness of God’s people. Evil cannot be walled out or fenced in or locked away or bombed out of history. The trouble arises from the human heart. From my own heart, not from people whose piety is different from mine.

If I expect the threat to holy living only to come from outside, then that’s where my attention will be, and I will learn to watch, and avoid, and accuse, and condemn others. But in the company of Jesus I learn to look at my own heart with greater honesty, and the better I know my own heart, the deeper my compassion for others will be.

I still love the notion of sanctifying every dimension of life. You open your eyes in the morning, thanking God for the gift of light.  You go about your daily work, thanking God for the gifts of creativity and community. You eat your meals, thanking God for the gifts of the earth and of human labor. You go to bed, praising God for love received and love given. It’s a beautiful practice to sanctify each moment by living it with attention to God’s gifts, commandments, and presence. And that attention, together with the practices that sustain it, shapes your heart, the very core of your being.

Protestants have been highly critical of ritual, for good reasons, but we have dismissed them as empty too quickly. Rituals are not just outward actions, but practices that can help us live more faithfully. Think about the good habits that help you remember that you belong to God and God’s people. And if you can’t think of any, come and see me sometime.

 


[1] Marcia Falk, The Book of Blessings (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)p. 428 and p. 426

Monday
Aug272012

Love builds a house

Note from the editor: the following meditation on the lectionary readings was given on Sunday morning. We had four Muslim women guests, and one of them, Maha Elgenaidi, later addressed the congregation. We believe this was a first, but it is part of our continuing effort to talk about matters of faith with people of other faiths.

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How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! (Psalm 84:1)

This psalm is a pilgrim song, a song for the highway, and it’s not difficult at all to imagine a tired but happy throng of men, women, and children on their way to Jerusalem. They’re coming up the road from Jericho, and the older ones who have made this pilgrimage before know that soon they’ll come to the turn where suddenly Mount Zion comes into view and they can see the temple from a distance – how beautiful! How lovely is your dwelling place! They sing, they sing all the way, they sing until all of them are close enough to see the nest the swallow has built for her young near the altar.

My body and soul shout for joy to the living God! Happy are those who live in your house, O God, ever singing your praise! Line after line gives voice to the joy of going to the place where God may be found and the pilgrims are at home: Your dwelling place, O Lord; your house; the courts of the Lord where the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest; better one day in your courts than a thousand anywhere else; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. This psalm is all about the place where God dwells; the pilgrims say they’d gladly trade a thousand days elsewhere for one day there. Think about that for a moment. Summer is just coming to an end, and for those of us who’ve been on vacation the memories are still fresh. Think of those precious days of fullness and rest and joy; days on the beach, in the mountains, on the river, or by the lake – a thousand days there for one day in God’s house. What a day! What a house!

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem has been a holy place for many hundreds of years, for generation after generation of the children of Abraham, for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Suddenly we don’t feel like singing anymore, or only a very different song. Suddenly we realize that we can only take turns singing our laments about destruction, suspicion, and jealousy, about pogroms, crusades, and other terrors. We children of Abraham don’t know how to live together at the same address. It’s like we’re singing, “your house, your courts, your dwelling place,” but what we’re really saying is, “our house, not yours.” But we – and by we I mean all of us, Jews, Christians, and Muslims – we can’t sing the beautiful words of Moses, David, Jesus, or Mohammed to the ugly tune of mutual exclusion or colonization and pretend that it’s still the same song. It’s not.

In John 14, Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” I believe that is a good place for Christians to start thinking about sharing God’s address with neighbors of other faiths. For some of us that will be a much easier task than for others, but I consider it the call of God for this generation.

And I believe that it’s not just a matter of learning to be tolerant, civil, and respectful or of being nice. Tolerance, civility and respect are all important and good, but they still allow us to continue to live side by side behind thick walls without ever getting to know each other. Prejudice thrives in the shadow of those walls; therefore, whenever the opportunity offers itself to us anywhere to take out a few stones for a window or a door, we need to embrace it and use it well.

The psalm for this day sings of God’s house, and how lovely a place it is where God abides. Now to abide also is a key word in the Gospel of John, and one of the more than forty times this word occurs there, is in today’s passage from chapter 6 where Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

We know John is sailing to the very edge here of what language can convey. In Jesus, the word of God became flesh and blood, a human being, and yes, we are to listen to his teachings and follow his instruction, but he gives his whole self to us, and what he intends for us is the most intimate relationship imaginable, a relationship of mutual abiding – he in us and we in him. This is the house that love builds, not with walls, never with coercion, but with hospitality and grace. It’s God’s house for us and our house for God.

I want to close by going back to Psalm 84. The translation we commonly use in worship reads in v10, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.” Now doorkeeper sounds a little like an entry-level job in the temple hierarchy, and the whole phrase conveys a holy humility: it is indeed better to be a lowly servant in God’s house than master of the house in the tents of wickedness.

The verse can also be translated, “I would rather stand at the threshold of God’s house than dwell in the tents of wickedness.” Jews, Christians, and Muslims have a long history of mutual suspicion and violence, with but a few periods when we lived together like brothers and sisters. We are still only beginning to see and understand that the “tents of wickedness” are not necessarily places where only the others ever dwell. Sometimes our very conviction that we are in God’s house, turns that house into a tent of wickedness and we end up living in the most ungodly ways.

“I would rather stand at the threshold of God’s house than dwell in the ents of wickedness.” I find the image of standing at the threshold very moving. It speaks of a willingness to stand in the door of what we know and love as the dwelling place of God, and to keep the door open, to say our prayers and sing our songs and preach our sermons within earshot of each other. The image of standing at the threshold reminds us that the peace and reconciliation we seek and find inside the house cannot be separated from the peace and reconciliation outside. The image invites us to think of the house of God as an open courtyard with many dwelling places.

Monday
Aug202012

To receive or devour

The bishop and his wife went to see a movie; it was a Canadian movie, The Gospel of John. It goes through the Fourth Gospel, word for word, start to finish, in about three hours. The bishop and his wife loved the movie; they found it beautiful and engaging. A few days later, when the bishop mentioned it to a friend of his, the friend said that his wife looked at him midway through the film and asked, “Will Jesus ever shut up?”[1]

The Gospel according to John is known for its high christology, its rich imagery and poetic style, but also for its relentless redundancy. “Wordy is the Lamb,” one commentator quipped, I don’t remember who it was – but who says that the Gospel word has to follow the rules of screen writing?

John isn’t fast food. John’s Jesus isn’t a quick word for the busy who love to quote the memorable one-liner. John is slow food. John’s Jesus is meant for slow reading and ruminating and for the joy of discovering new layers of flavor, texture and meaning. The Gospel of John is no summer blockbuster; it’s daily bread for a lifetime.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” says Jesus; “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” He keeps talking about bread; three times the word pops up in just this one verse. And of course he’s still talking about bread to people who have eaten. Barley bread he had given them, good bread that fills the belly and strengthens the heart. And to some it was all like manna in the wilderness, the bread of angels for men and women who knew all too well that hunger is more than a metaphor.

I love his talk about bread because I love bread; I love making it, I love breaking it, I love how it fills the house with its warm fragrance, I love eating it; I love the many ways each loaf, every slice and piece, tells stories about our life together. But then, and it’s like Jesus is saving it until the end of the sentence, because he knows that this one’s going to be hard to swallow, then he says that the bread he gives for the life of the world is his flesh. And as if that wasn’t enough to raise a few eyebrows, he adds, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” And he keeps talking about flesh and blood as food and drink. Who can be surprised that many turn away in disgust? Who can stomach such teaching?

Even Martin Luther (certainly not a man known for being squeamish) asked, “What could he mean? Is one man to devour the other? Surely this cannot be the meaning.” And he insisted that this is not the sort of flesh from which red sausages are made.

Is one man to devour the other? Surely not. But that doesn’t mean human relationships can’t be bloody and violent. Listen to this; this is the prophet Micah, crying out against wicked rulers: “Should you not know justice?—you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a cauldron.”[2]

Should you not know justice?—Micah’s indictment finds an echo in the psalms, “Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord?”[3]

Should you not know justice? When we talk about bread, we talk about all the ways we relate to one another. Bread contains our relationship to the land, to the farmer, the miller, the baker, the grocer, and the hungry neighbor. When we talk about bread, we talk about justice. Without justice, all those relationships become abusive; they become deadly instead of life-giving.

The gospel according to John teaches its attentive, slow readers that the world that didn’t know how to receive the word become flesh, certainly knew how to devour him violently. Receive or devour – the two verbs represent two utterly different attitudes toward life. One knows life as a gift that is given, received, and shared. The other knows life only as a hunger for more that can never be satisfied. One is communion, the other we call these days consumerism.

Years ago, William Ralph Inge said, “The whole of nature is a conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and passive.”[4] I eat. You eat. He/she/it eats. We eat. You eat. They eat. I am eaten. You are eaten. He/she/it is eaten. All living things eat. Active and passive. Past, present, and future.

For any creature to live, countless seen and unseen others must die, often by being eaten themselves. Plants absorb nutrients from the soil, animals eat plants and other animals, and microbes and insects eat animals and plants and transform them into soil. And we humans are part of the cycle, no matter how hard we try to pretend we are not. All flesh is grass, and all grass is soil. God created a world in which every living creature must eat. The question remains, how we eat. Are we receiving or devouring?

Wendell Berry, Kentucky farmer and prophet, said it beautifully, “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.”[5]

The sacrament is life shared in communion, the desecration is life devoured. We will know the difference, when we know Jesus. Not just his words and teachings, but him. Abundant life is not a question of better knowledge, but of participation. That is why in the Fourth Gospel Jesus encourages us not only to come to him, follow him, listen to him, and learn from him, but to consume him, to eat and drink him, to participate in the life he embodies.

Consumerism is not about whether or not to be a consumer. Everyone must consume to live, because God created a world in which every living thing must eat. But not all practices of consumption are conducive to abundant life for all.

Consumerism teaches us to see ourselves and one another as sovereign choosers and shoppers who are detached from other people and who appropriate our choices for private use, the only real constraint being our respective credit limits.

Communion is a practice that heals that deadly detachment and draws us into the membership of abundant life. In communion, eating and drinking are not acts of private consumption, but acts of mutual abiding.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood, abide in me, and I in them,” says Jesus. The individual consumer of the Lord’s supper does not simply take Christ into herself or himself, but is taken up into Christ. The life of Jesus becomes part of our bodies, and our lives become part of the body of Christ. In Paul’s words, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”[6]

Augustine of Hippo heard God say, “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you (…), but you will be changed into me.”[7]

When we gather around the Lord’s table, the act of consumption is turned inside out: instead of simply consuming the body of Christ, we are consumed by it. We do not stand detached, as individuals, from the rest of creation, appropriating, consuming, and discarding to satisfy our hunger for life. Instead, we become participants in the life of Christ who gives himself for the life of the world. We become participants in the love that redeems life.

Men and women who feed on Jesus simply can’t continue to relate to others in ways that desecrate their dignity. Men and women who know Jesus in this most intimate way of mutual abiding can’t go on and use  others, absorbing them to suit personal need and satisfaction, without regard for justice or mercy. Men and women for whom Jesus is food and drink participate in his life of attention and welcome, feeding and forgiving, and healing and reconciliation. That life is the liveliness at the heart of life. It is the abundance that seeks to make its home in us as much as we desire to make our home in it. It is the bread our hearts crave. Let’s eat. Let’s eat well.

 


[1] Will Willimon in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 357

[2] Micah 3:1-3

[3] Psalm 14:4; 53:4

[4] quoted in Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul (New York: Free Press, 1994), p. 17

[5] Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land,” in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: North Point Press, 1981), p. 281

[6] 1 Corinthians 10:16-17

[7] Confessiones, VII. 16 

Thursday
Aug162012

water:360

We drink it.

We swim in it.

We wash our cars with it.

We spend the first months of life immersed in it.

We are baptized in it.

We dam it.

We pollute it.

We waste it.

We thirst for it.

We can’t imagine life without it.

We take it for granted.

Water.

In the fall, Vine Street will do another 360. That’s the name we came up with when we first decided to look at something from every possible perspective and address it with as many of our senses and capacities as possible. We have done hunger:360, homelessness:360, prison:360, aging:360, and now it’s time for water.

We may well have discovered the one thing that touches every dimension of our life: physical, spiritual, political, economical, theological - or try to name one aspect of life that doesn’t participate in water’s flow.

What do we want to learn about water? How do we want to explore its theological meaning? What ways of knowing water have we never thought about? What do artists do with it?

If you would like to be part of a small group that plans this series, please get in touch with Thomas. We’ll find all kinds of ways to bring water into education, worship, service, and other aspects of our congregational life, and you could be part of the group that puts it all together!

Wednesday
Aug152012

Free to a friendly home

I keep a laptop computer (DELL Latitude|D 620 with added RAM and new keyboard, but no battery; still running great on Windows XP), a Logitech wireless mouse (laser), an HP printer (Deskjet 810C; works just fine), and a Targus port replicator in my office. I don't use any of them anymore. Do you have any ideas what to do with them?

I'll gladly give them away to a friendly home or let you sell them on Craigslist. The reason I'm posting this: I suspect one of you will have a brilliant idea for their use.

Monday
Aug132012

Bread line

I hear the word bread line, and I see men and women waiting in line for something to eat. Inevitably, I see a woodcut by Fritz Eichenberg[1] that has become defining for my imagination. It is called Christ of the Bread Line and it shows Jesus waiting in line with others for something to eat.

“When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?” the righteous will ask, and you know his teaching about the judgment of the nations. Jesus reminds us that we don’t have to look far to find him.[2] He stands in line for bread. He applies for food stamps. He who is the very bread of life, waits patiently with the poor until we know how to eat and how to share the bread of mercy with each other.

Bread is so beautiful because among many other things it contains our shared human need to eat as well as God’s desire to give us all that is needful and more.

It’s difficult for us to know and understand what is happening in Syria, but a few days ago there was a story from Aleppo.[3] Every morning, just before sunrise, some rebel fighters step away from the front lines in the city for another vital and urgent task: baking bread. Bread is a mainstay of the Syrian diet — it accompanies every meal — and the city has been paralyzed by over two weeks of war.

In war everything becomes a weapon, even bread. “The regime has tried to deprive our supporters of water and gas, and now they are using bread,” said one militia member. But he said the rebels had learned how to fight back against the government’s attempts to keep bread out of areas controlled by the opposition. “We took control of the wheat warehouses in Aleppo’s suburbs,” he said. “We have many of them, in several areas, and they might keep us supplied for weeks.”

Some of you may have seen the footage of bakeries in Aleppo that have become opposition outposts, with long, loud bread lines snaking around corners. Abu Mohammed, a rebel baker in eastern Aleppo, said that skirmishes sometimes break out among customers, especially when there is not enough to go around. But his squad — seven to nine rebels baking and distributing bread — try to feed who they can and make sure no one gets preferential treatment, he said.

Bread is so beautiful because it contains the stories of our human hunger for food but also for freedom, our hunger for power but also for peace.

In bread all dimensions of human life come together. It contains the generosity of earth and sky, the blessings of sun and rain, the miracle of growth, the skill and toil of human labor; it contains the hunger of the poor and the appetites of the rich; it contains the poetry of our songs and the prose of our commodities markets; it contains our worries about tomorrow and the feast of the Lord’s table. Bread contains what we do to each other and what we do with life. When we begin to receive Jesus  like bread, we begin to see how in him all dimensions of human life are coming together in new ways, in redeeming ways, in ways that are healing and fulfilling. We receive the bread of heaven for the life of the world.

In 1983, in yet another armed conflict in our hurting world, Israeli troops pushed north into Lebanon. Members of a church in Beirut began to buy all the food they could – cans, boxes, bags, you name it. They were not sure if the troops would come all the way to Beirut or stop further south, but they wanted to be prepared.

Then the siege came. West Beirut was totally cut-off. No one could enter or leave. No food was allowed in. People ran out of bread. The bakeries ran out of flour.

At the church, they called a board meeting to decide how to distribute the food they had stockpiled. Two proposals were put on the table. The first was to distribute food to the church members, then other Christians, and if any was left to Muslim neighbors.

The second proposal was quite different. First food would be given to Muslim neighbors, then to other Christians, and finally – if there was any left over – to church members.

The meeting lasted six hours. It ended when a much-respected elder – a woman – stood up and said, “If we do not show the love of Christ in this place, who will?”

Her question ended the debate. They had the courage to follow the demands of love rather than fear. The second proposal was passed, and in the end there was enough for everyone in the neighborhood.[4]

Bread is so beautiful because it can be broken and shared, even across lines that appear to be carved in stone.

Now we’ve been in Aleppo and in Beirut, and I think it would be good for us to add a quick stop in New Jersey. Many years ago, Joey Ramone met Bruce Springsteen in Asbury Park, and he asked him to write a song for The Ramones. Don’t worry if you don’t know The Ramones; I want to talk a little about the song Springsteen wrote that night. It was a great song, but he didn’t give it to Joey. He recorded it himself in 1980, and it became one of his best-known songs ever.

The opening lines sound incredibly cocky,

Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack
I went out for a ride and I never went back

But then the tone changes dramatically, and the chorus hooks you,

Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going
Everybody’s got a hungry heart, everybody’s got a hungry heart …

I love this song. I love to turn up the volume and sing along at the top of my voice, and I hope that before either Springsteen or I retire, I’ll have the chance to sing it with him and a few thousand others. I love the song because I know the hunger that  doesn’t come from the stomach but from the heart. Everybody’s got a hungry heart, and we tend to try and fill it with a lot of junk before we know what we really want or see what we need.

Bread and Roses is one of the great songs of the labor movement, and it has this beautiful line in it that sounds like a prayer:

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes; hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.

Our hearts are hungry and they will starve unless they are nourished with beauty and truth and respect and forgiveness and hope. I still think that Isaiah said it best, finding words for the call of God’s voice,

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.[5]

“Come,” the voice cries out, four times in this brief passage, and in Jesus, this urgent, loving word becomes flesh. “I am the bread of life,” he tells us. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” He doesn’t just sing Isaiah’s lines, he embodies them.

The deepest human hunger can only be stilled by love, unsentimental and dependable love. And Jesus is the bread that stills that deepest hunger. He is the gift of God’s unsentimental and dependable love. The only way to overcome a world hostile to the purposes of God is to love it – and there is nothing sentimental about that love, as even the most casual glance at the life of Jesus will show. God does not respond with hostility to a hostile world. God sent Jesus into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.[6]

This bread chapter, like much of the gospel of John, is colored by conflict and anguish. The words were written during a period of painful separation; followers of Jesus were trying to make sense of the fact that many of their fellow Jews did not share their belief in Jesus.

In v45 Jesus says, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to me.” These words imply that those who do not come are unteachable or refusing to listen and learn. Perhaps such words did provide some comfort to those who struggled to understand why so few shared their belief; but to me they only sound like a hurtful insult. We must read and listen carefully, lest we turn bread into stones. Belief is not a simple matter of decision. Belief is not a simple matter. Period.

In v44 Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” Belief is not a simple matter of decision, but the process and outcome of being drawn by God, of being wooed and invited, perhaps even seduced by the fragrance of good bread. It’s, “Come and see!” over and over again. “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”

The gift of Jesus isn’t this or that or the other. It’s not health, wealth, happiness, or truth. It isn’t some thing. The gift of Jesus is he himself, because with him we find the fullness of life our hearts crave. He gives himself to us trusting that we would soon run a rebel bakery in the neighborhood, serving the bread of heaven for the life of the world. No more front lines. No more lines of suspicion and mistrust. Only one long, loud bread line circling around the table of Christ.


[1] Fritz Eichenberg (1901–1990) was a German-American artist and illustrator. He was a public critic of the Nazis, and when Hitler came to power, Eichenberg was able to emigrate with his wife and children to the United States.

[2] Matthew 25:37

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/04/world/middleeast/bread-becomes-a-staple-of-syrian-rebel-strategy.html?pagewanted=all

[4] See Michael Lindval, The Christian Life: A Geography of God (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2001), p. 126

[5] Isaiah 55:1-3

[6] See John 3:17 and 12:47

Monday
Aug062012

What would you tell Harry?

A few weeks ago, Nancy and I had the pleasure of dining down at the Farmer’s Market. It was a fundraising dinner – now I don’t know how many fundraising dinners you have attended, and perhaps yours have all been memorable and delicious. I’ve been to too many where I looked down at the plate in front of me, and all I could say was, “Really?” A sad piece of chicken breast, devoid of any residual moisture, sitting on a bed of overcooked, cold pasta, with three or four stems of asparagus trying hard to cheer up the plate. But Nancy and I had the pleasure of dining at the Farmer’s Market; it was a fundraiser for the Nashville Food Project, appropriately called, Nourish.

Every living thing on earth must eat in order to live. But we all know there’s a big difference between fueling your body and eating, between eating and dining, and between dining and feasting. We know that grabbing a bite is different from having a meal. Food is not just calories, proteins, carbs, and fats – and what we do with our food says a lot about what we do with life. In Scripture, images of life’s fulfillment are visions of feasts, not drive-throughs.

So Nancy and I had the pleasure of dining at the Farmer’s Market to raise funds for the Nashville Food Project to continue to nourish our community. The meal had been prepared by some of the best chefs in the Southeast, the wines were delightful as well as the company, and John Egerton MC’d the evening with charm and grace. Before the meal was served, John talked a little about regional foods and about bread in particular. In the South, bread is hot and delicious: cornbread baked in cast iron, biscuits that play the whole scale from flaky to fluffy, with butter and jam or eggs and ham. In the North, bread is rarely hot. Bread is baked at night so it has time to cool off and rest: crusty sourdough, chewy ciabatta, sweet rye with caraway seeds, and gorgeous challah that shines like the light of morning was braided into it. John talked about the invisible line that runs through the Eastern U.S., with hot breads in the South and cold breads in the North, and how much he loved all good bread (as do I).

Bread tells stories. It tells us about our ancestors, about farms and cities, about immigration and slavery and labor relations. In much of the world, bread is the very essence of food and life. “Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray – and with bread we pray for all that is needed for life to be nourished and raised to fullness.

During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve.[1] The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But, many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. Their lives had been uprooted by war, their families killed and their world destroyed, but holding on  to a piece of bread, they held on to hope and peace.

There’s another John who loves to tell us stories about bread; now I’m talking about the one who wrote the gospel that bears his name. He tells us how around Passover time Jesus was sitting with a large crowd and he said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” They were hungry, and he didn’t want to start teaching until they had all eaten (it’s difficult to learn anything when you’re hungry). Philip quickly did the math in his head and said, “Half a year’s wages wouldn’t buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Andrew told him about the boy who had five barley loaves and two fish and added, “But what’s one boy’s lunch among so many people?”

You know the story, of course. He took the bread, gave thanks, and distributed it among all; so also the fish, and they all ate as much as they wanted. Male and female, young and old, rich and poor, wise and foolish – all ate until they wanted no more. He gave them bread to eat until even the hungriest among the teenage boys said, ‘I’m kinda full’ – and then he told his disciples to gather up the fragments, and they filled twelve baskets.

Now fullness of life is not the same as a full stomach, but nobody wants to hear about fullness of life on an empty stomach either. For the hungry, the good news begins with bread, or rather the breaking and sharing of bread.

The next day, the crowd found Jesus on the other side of the lake, and you already heard what he told them. They had this long talk about bread that perishes and bread that endures for eternal life. We all need the bread that fills our stomachs, but we need just as much the bread that nourishes our life together toward fullness. And Jesus offers himself as the true bread from heaven, the bread that our hearts crave when we hunger for life that is fearless, joyful, and whole.

For many in our community and around the world, the good news still begins with the breaking of bread so they can eat and go to sleep in peace. But we’re all nourished toward fullness by the bread that is Jesus’ life of obedience and love.

I’ll tell you another bread story, and this one has a cake in it.[2] Tony Campolo found himself walking the streets of Honolulu at 3:30 a.m. one morning. He had flown in from the east coast, and the time difference meant that he was up and ready to go way before dawn, hungry and looking for a place where he could get some breakfast and a nice cup of coffee. Up a side street he found a little place that was still open. It wasn’t clean and smelled kinda funny, but it was the only place he could find.

The guy behind the counter asked him what he wanted, and he told him, “A cup of coffee and a donut.” So he sat there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee when suddenly the door of the diner swung open, and in marched eight or nine boisterous women. It was a small place and they all sat along the counter on either side of Tony. Their talk was loud and crude (he was convinced they were all prostitutes) and he felt completely out of place. All he could think about was how to get out inconspicuously.

Then he overheard the woman sitting beside him say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be thirty-nine.” Another one sitting a couple of chairs down replied, “Birthday? Why are you telling me? What do you want from me? Ya want me to get you a cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ or something?”

“Come on!” said the woman next to Tony. “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. I don’t want anything from you. I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”

Campolo just sat there, but when the women had left he asked the guy behind the counter if they came in there every night.

“Yeah.”

“What about the one who sat here next to me?” Campolo asked, “does she come in every night?”

“Yeah, her name’s Agnes. She’s been coming in here every night for the last fourteen years. Why do you wanna know?”

“Tomorrow’s her birthday. What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her – right here – tomorrow night?”

“I like it! That’s a great idea! Hey, Sue! Come out here! This guy wants us to plan a party for Agnes!” His wife thought it was a wonderful idea. “Why don’t you bake the cake, Harry, and I’ll get some candles and nice napkins.”

At 2:30 the next morning, Tony was back at the diner with balloons and a big cardboard sign that read “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” He figured Sue had done a pretty good job of getting the word out because by 3:15 the diner was packed. At 3:30 on the dot, the door swung open and in came Agnes with a couple of her friends, and they all screamed, ‘Happy Birthday!’”


Agnes was stunned and shaken. Her mouth fell open. They all sang “Happy Birthday” to her when Sue brought in the birthday cake with all of its candles lit, and Agnes just sat there and cried. “Blow out the candles, Agnes!” Harry shouted. “Come on! If you don’t blow out the candles, I’m gonna hafta blow out the candles.” And he did. Then he handed her a knife, saying, “Cut the cake, Agnes! Everybody wants a piece.”


But Agnes just looked down at the cake, and without taking her eyes off of it, she softly said, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I … is it okay if I keep the cake a little while? I mean is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?” Harry shrugged, “Sure! It’s okay. If you want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home if you want to.”

“Can I?” she asked. She told them that she wanted to take it home and show it to her kids and she promised to come right back. Then she got off the stool, picked up the cake, and carrying it like it was something that belonged on an altar, she walked slowly toward the door and left.


They were all silent, and Campolo looked around and said, “What do you say we pray?” Now that’s a curious thing to do in a Honolulu diner at three-thirty in the morning, but to those gathered there it felt just right. And so they prayed. Tony asked God to bless Agnes, to be good to her and watch over her. They all said, “Amen,” and Harry leaned over the counter and said, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” Tony told him that he wasn’t a preacher, and he added, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties at three-thirty in the morning for folks who never had one.”

Harry looked at him for a moment before he responded, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that!”

I don’t know what, if anything, Tony said to Harry. What would you say? What would you tell Harry about the bread that our hearts crave when we hunger for life that is fearless, joyful, and whole? What would you tell Harry about the bread of life?

 


[1] See Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, Matthew Linn, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995), p. 1

[2] See Tony Campolo, Let Me Tell You A Story (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000), p. 216-219; I have modified the text

Monday
Jul092012

incredibly everday human

I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.

The quote has been attributed to Robert McCloskey, Richard Nixon, and Alan Greenspan, but who said it first doesn’t really matter; it’s a very common experience. You are talking to a person who appears to be reasonably attentive, of good hearing and sound mind, but he or she still can’t hear you. You make eye contact, you speak slowly and clearly, without a trace of condescension, using common English, but you can tell you’re not getting through to them. It’s incredibly frustrating. We just don’t understand each other as well as we’d like to.

Our hearing develops while we’re still in the womb, and we learn to talk in the first years of our life, but we all know that speaking and listening is not just a matter of talking and hearing. Marriage and family counselors are known to spend much of their time coaching their clients how to speak and listen.

The Bible is full of sayings and writings of prophets who saw very clearly what was going on in their day, and they spoke, they declared, they urged and threatened, some even walked around naked to make their point – but who listened? Often their pronouncements were collected a generation later by men and women who wondered how their parents or they themselves could have missed the urgent truth; they sighed as they added the words of the prophets to their sacred texts.

Ezekiel heard a voice saying to him, “I’m sending you to the Israelites, a rebellious people. I’m sending you to their hardheaded and hardhearted descendants, and you will say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ You’ll speak my words to them whether they listen or whether they refuse. You aren’t being sent to a people whose language and speech are difficult and obscure but to the house of Israel – they will refuse to listen to you because they refuse to listen to me.”[1]

The prophets knew that listening is not only determined by language and speech, but by these curious human traits that can only be described as hardheadedness or hardheartedness. “Whether they listen or whether they refuse,” the voice said, “they will know that a prophet has been among them.”[2] Has been – that’s the sad past tense of regret. But it can also become the gentle healer of our hardheaded and hardhearted inclinations. It can open our stubborn hearts at least for the desire to listen more attentively and carefully to each other.

When Jesus began his ministry, he left home and went to Capernaum, and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. The people there were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority.[3] He continued to teach and heal in the villages of Galilee, and word about him spread. His family wasn’t thrilled, though. They were embarassed; the neighbors heard them say, “He has gone out of his mind.”[4] The people who had known him all his life didn’t know what to make of this sudden urge of his to leave home and walk from town to town, talking about repentance and the reign of God. They tried to convince him to come home, but once, when people told him that his mother and his brothers were outside, asking for him, Jesus replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”[5] Now that is a beautiful word for all those who recognize the wisdom, love, and power of God in Jesus, but imagine what a harsh word that was for his mother or his little sister.

So eventually Jesus came back to his hometown, and on the sabbath he went to the synagogue and began to teach, and people were astounded. Their astonishment, however, wasn’t the wide-eyed wonder that erupted in Capernaum and elsewhere, it was bewilderment riddled with bits of outrage. Where did he get all this? What is the source of his power? Don’t we know this guy? Who does he think he is? Nothing he said and did in his hometown was any different from what he had done elsewhere, but the outcome was the exact opposite: no miracles and wonders, no more signs of the inbreaking of God’s reign, only upset and angry people.

Jesus, Mark tells us, was amazed at their unbelief. I imagine the disciples were pretty puzzled as well, scratching their heads, wondering what was going on. They had been there when he silenced demons and drove them out. Even the unclean spirits obeyed him! They had been there when he stilled the storm, commanding the wind and the waves, and they obeyed![6] But in this little town, it was like his words hit the walls and fell to the ground. The contrast couldn’t be more striking. “Prophets are not without honor,” he said, “except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

Mark tells us that the people who should have known Jesus best, didn’t grasp who he was. It would be easy for us to dismiss them as hardheaded or hardhearted – but only if we can’t see ourselves in their shoes.

“Isn’t this Mary’s boy who used to work in construction?” they said. “We know you, Jesus. We know your family. We’ve known you ever since you were a little boy in diapers – who are you to come here with your newfangled ideas and God talk?” It was inconceivable to them that God could be at work in the man who had grown up just a couple of houses down the street from where they lived. And so they didn’t bring their sick for healing. They didn’t bring their children for his blessing. They didn’t come to hear his teaching. They quickly jumped to, “Who does he think he is?” and stopped listening to what he was saying and went home and left him standing there with his hands tied behind his back. They didn’t expect anything, and Jesus could do no deed of power there. There wasn’t a sadder town in all of Galilee that day. It was a drab and dreary place, with no expectations, little wonder, and little hope.

A miracle, the story suggests, is like the tango: it takes two. We know it takes one who performs and another who perceives the miracle. But Mark invites us to consider the reverse: it takes one who is open with expectation for the power of blessing to become manifest. Without faith, the wonders cease.

Communities where everyone knows everyone else feel comfortable and safe; but for those who want to look at life from angles that aren’t defined solely by family and by what the neighbors might think, life in Mayberry can be suffocating. Small communities have lots of unwritten rules of how things are properly done, and that’s why they can be hardest on their most creative people. If anyone has an idea that breaks the mold, the first response is not, “Tell us more!” but more likely, “Who does she think she is? The King of China’s daughter?”

Churches, of course, are small communities, and I wonder how many times we stifle the wisdom and power of God in our midst, and we don’t even notice. How often do we want to make sure everybody knows their place? How often are we simply not receptive to God’s surprising intrusions? These questions get to the crucial difference between having known Jesus all your life and listening to Jesus now. And Mark’s story suggests that it might well be the difference between “no deed of power here” and “it was a time of miracles and wonders and he was amazed at their belief.”

Between the lines of his story, Mark says to us, “People who have never seen Jesus face to face know him better than his own family and kin because they dare to believe and expect that God speaks and acts through him.” Perhaps we all secretly wait for a god who pops onto the scene like the Incredible Hulk popping out of David Banner’s suit, and so we miss the God who now and then looks a lot like the kid who grew up a couple of houses down the street or our cousin from North Carolina: incredibly everyday human.

But when we begin to believe that Jesus indeed embodies God’s love, word, power, and wisdom, and when we begin to believe that God is not too big to meet us in each other, deeds of power begin to happen. Acts of mercy. Works of compassion. Miracles of understanding.

Jesus sends us out, two by two, like tango dancers. He tells us to take nothing for the journey, but to travel light. On the kingdom trail the gear doesn’t matter. It never was about the gear, and it never will be. It’s just baggage more likely to slow us down than to help us accomplish our mission. It never was about steeples, pews, robes, and bells, and it never will be. It’s all about the miracles and wonders of God’s reign. It’s all about the authority and the power we make manifest when we receive the word of God in Jesus with expectant hearts and respond to it obediently. It’s all incredibly everyday human.

 


[1] See Ezekiel 2:1-7

[2] Ezekiel 2:5

[3] Mark 1:21-22

[4] Mark 3:22

[5] Mark 3:32-35

[6] Mark 1:27; 4:41

Monday
Jul022012

Into the depths

Out of the depths I cry to you; Lord, hear my voice. Some cries are beautiful. Loud shouts of joy from the top of the mountain or cheers of victory from the track and the bleachers at the end of the race. The beautiful racket rising above a pool on a hot summer day, children playing and splashing, shrieking with delight.

Some cries are beautiful. But the cry out of the depths comes from a different place, it comes from a great distance, far from where life is at home. Out of the depths I cry to you; Lord hear my voice.

The psalm gives voice to the love and the despair of a father who falls at Jesus’ feet begging him to lay his hands on his little girl so that she may live. And the words give voice to an unnamed woman who doesn’t dare speak as she comes up behind Jesus to touch his clothes, reaching up from the depths of twelve years of suffering.

A couple of Sundays ago during worship I remembered Cheryl Bridges Johns, a professor at the Church of God seminary in Cleveland, TN. I hope I will never forget her challenge to make room in our worship services for unscripted things to happen. “Make room,” she said, and I’m paraphrasing her words, “make room for a little chaos to give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to tame it.”

The depths of chaos are frightening. We know they are there, some of us are sitting in them right now, but it takes a lot for any of us to cry to the Lord from the depths, unless we’re alone or have a pillow to muffle our cries. Make room, Cheryl said, for a little chaos to give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to tame it. Have yourselves a little festival of tears every now and then, she said.

When did we begin to believe that grief, despair, and helplessness must be transformed into well-written litanies before we can bring them before God? Why do we insist on projecting that everything is under control, that we have it all together? I don’t know, but I suspect it is because we want to be in control. We are afraid of chaos and we are afraid to fully trust the power of God to tame the chaos. We are afraid of what might erupt once we take the lid off. We are afraid it might overwhelm us.

And so we script our worship services carefully and expect them to be over on time. And we talk about praise and worship and create an entire industry that writes the songs for it – but who gives voice and melody to the cries that well up from the depths?

Some poets do.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.[1]

There is no setting of this poem or anything like it in the hymnals of the church. We don’t do laments, nor do we weep or wail; we cry in movie theaters, silently and grateful for the darkness, and at home behind closed doors. There is no room for a ‘festival of tears’ in our public gatherings, and so the Holy Spirit must find other ways to tame the chaos that threatens to undo us.

Jairus was a leader of the synagogue, a prominent and influential member of the community, a man people recognized and greeted in the market place. When he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet, his hands and knees in the dust, and he begged him, not just once, but repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” He was a man used to having things under control, and he was powerless. The love for his daughter made a beggar of him. He could have sent a servant to ask Jesus to come to his house, but he didn’t; he was no longer afraid to reveal his love and helplessness in front of the whole town, he fell to his knees and begged, a desperate man.

In one of his memoirs, Frederick Buechner recalls his own helplessness as a father whose little girl was very sick. “One of our daughters began to stop eating. There was nothing scary about it at first. It was just the sort of thing any girl who thought she’d be prettier if she lost a few pounds might do – nothing for breakfast, maybe a carrot or a Diet Coke for lunch, for supper perhaps a little salad with low calorie dressing. But then as months went by it did become scary. Anorexia nervosa is the name of the sickness she was suffering from.” The hardest part: there was nothing he could do. “No rational argument, no dire medical warning, no pleading, or cajolery or bribing would make this young woman he loved start eating normally again. … The psychiatrists we consulted told me I couldn’t cure her. The best thing I could do for her was to stop trying to do anything. [But] the only way I knew to be a father was to take care of her – to move heaven and earth to make her well, and of course, I couldn’t do that. I didn’t have … the power to make her well.”[2]

“My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live,” Jairus begged. Jesus went with him, surrounded by people on every side, and suddenly he stopped, turned around and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

The disciples were like, “You’re kidding, right?” – they didn’t know that a woman in the crowd had come up behind Jesus and touched his cloak, convinced that if she but touched his clothes, she’d be made well. They didn’t know she had been bleeding for twelve years. They didn’t know she had spent all she had on medical bills, and was no better. Had they known, they might have told her, “This is not a good time, Mam. A little girl is dying; look, you’ve waited twelve years, a few minutes more won’t be much of a difference, but for the little girl it’s a matter of life or death.”

The woman touched Jesus with a mixture of desperation and hope. Out of the depths, too tired and poor to be afraid anymore, she reached out and touched his clothes. That was all the faith she had.

Immediately she felt that she was healed. When Jesus turned around and asked, “Who touched me?” she fell down before him and told him the whole truth. She told him the truth of twelve years of suffering and poverty, of loneliness, hopelessness, and shame – and who knows how long it took her to tell the whole truth of her suffering.

And then Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” The truth was and is that she was not just some anonymous, marginalized and impoverished woman in the crowd, but a member of God’s family. The truth was and is that God hears even the silent cry from the depths and invites us into wholeness and peace through Christ.

But what about the little girl who was only twelve years old? It was too late, they said. “Your daughter is dead,” they said, “Why trouble the teacher any further?” But Jesus said, “Do not fear, only believe.” He went into the room where she lay and took her hand. “Talita, cum,” he said, “little girl, get up!” And she got up.

Out of the depth we cry to God, “Lord, hear our voice!” and God comes into our depths, where we are so far from where life and peace are at home; God comes with healing mercy.

Mark loves to sandwich his stories; he does it quite a bit throughout his account of the gospel. Here he begins telling us the story of the little girl, then he arranges an interruption to tell us about the woman who had suffered for as many years as the girl had lived, and then he returns to the first story to finish it. And he finishes it although so many said, it is too late. Finishing it is his way of saying it’s never too late for the love and power of God.

The little girl was dead when Jesus told her Dad, “Do not fear, only believe.” Believe what? Certainly not that if we believe just right, Jesus will do a miracle for us. Thoughts like that cross our minds when we are helpless and despairing.

Mark loves to sandwich his stories so we can begin to see how our own stories, even our entire life story are woven into the life of Jesus. Our lives are his and his life is ours. Even the depths of our helpless and hopeless despair are his. He sits with us and says, “The depths of chaos are frightening, but they will not overwhelm you.” The final word of the story is God’s, and God says, “Get up.”

This word may be too big for our imagination, but it’s just the right size to tame the chaos of our fear and give us the courage to hope. May it be so.

 


[1] Written by W. H. Auden; known as “Funeral Blues” and by other titles; see http://www.wussu.com/poems/whafb.htm for some background

[2] Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets: A Memoir (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), pp. 23, 26

Wednesday
Jun272012

7x7 Autumn book study

After the summer, I would like to lead another small book group. I'm leaning toward N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Wright is one of the leading New Testament scholars of our time, a prolific author, and the former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England (he retired in 2010). I don't agree with some of his positions, but I always learn from him, and I love his passion for the church.

I think we could read and discuss his book without hurrying in 6-8 weeks. If you'd like to be part of this small book group (6-8 people), let me know, so we can start looking at our fall schedules.

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