Thursday, February 15, 2018

Violence and some terrible reactions to it.

       I'm going to say some things that may not be very popular, and I am saying them from a place of anger, so beware: if you are uncomfortable hearing a different opinion than your own, or if you are uneasy with my anger, you might want to stop reading right now.

       In response to the recent mass shooting, I read some very disturbing posts on Facebook.  One blamed the kids for not reporting that the shooter seemed to be having a hard time, and blamed their parents for not encouraging profiling. There is no other way to put this.  It put people in boxes and told us we should all do the same to prevent violence, never mind that this shooter was a white, heterosexual male. This rant stated that the shooter should have been reported and then locked up before he did anything because he was clearly having a hard time and the solution to people having a hard time is to throw them in prison, which would have prevented the shootings.  It went on to blame liberals who don't want to indiscriminately lock people up, as being the problem and said that if someone at school names another person as having an issue, that kid should be imprisoned.  Another comment I read on Facebook indicated with joy that one community did imprison a student who appeared to be struggling with mental illness, thereby preventing him from shooting anybody.
        I think I was almost as disturbed by the suggestions in these posts as I was by the shootings themselves for several reasons.  First of all, if we set up situations where, when a kid doesn't like someone else, they can just "report" that child as being disturbed with the reaction that the child reported will then be imprisoned, we are inviting a whole different kind of very serious bullying.  What happened to innocent until proven guilty?  Are we now saying it is okay to imprison someone on the chance that they MIGHT hurt someone else?  Forget proving guilt, this is even suggesting arresting someone before they have done anything wrong!  And again, what an invitation to bullies.  I can see it now.  Bully says, "If you don't give me your money or do exactly what I tell you to do then I will report you as seeming 'off' and they will throw you in prison!"  Bully says, "I don't like you - I'm going to get you thrown into prison just because I can!"
       Second, and more importantly, if we start dealing with people who have problems, are disturbed, and are struggling by throwing them into a prison where undoubtedly their problems will be exacerbated and emphasized, we are creating the very villains we are hoping to prevent.  What happens when they are released, then, from prison?  Or are we thinking we just lock them up for life because they are mentally ill or are different?  And if we expect them to eventually be released, are we thinking that because of their time in hell (no exaggeration here... I've visited enough prisons and talked with enough inmates to know that American prisons are hell, despite what certain media may tell us), they will be calmer, better able to handle the stressors in life and less likely to go on a shooting rampage?!  We would have to be insane to believe this.  Prison creates and hardens criminals, make no mistake about that.  When a child is struggling with mental illness, anger, depression, and problems they need help.  Our prisons do not help people.
        There are so many aspects of our society and culture that must be addressed here; so very many, starting with how we help one another, how we care for one another, and how we learn to love one another.  People who are struggling should not be put into a box we call "other" or "bad" and then simply locked away.  They are us: they are our family, they are our siblings and our parents and our children and they need us to help them. I write this from the personal experience of having kids who are "different".  Yes, I admit it, my kids are different. They don't fit in in the same way many other kids do, they've gone through some hard things, they struggle at times, and they are sometimes bullied. I deal with this with counseling, love, resources, and as a result they are doing well in school, doing well at home, they are balanced and healthy, though they undoubtedly will always be a little "different".  But many kids do not have those resources.  And I can see it being all too easy for those kids without those resources to be thrown into prison for their pain.  We have to stop separating ourselves into "us" and "them".  We have to be willing to love people who are different from ourselves and to recognize that for a society to be truly healthy, everyone in it must be healthy.  We have a responsibility to create the opportunities for care, opportunities for growth and learning.  We have a responsibility to care for one another, and to heal ourselves in the healing of each other.
      We also need to address our justice system and move into a more restorative justice model where both victims and offenders are recognized as needing help and healing, and are given the help to change and to heal. Societies that use restorative justice models have an extremely small recidivism rate: people learn how to be better, how to do better, which lowers crime in those places substantially.  The victims also truly achieve healing, unlike our current system where they are often re-traumatized by the court processes.  The revenge-punishment model we have for our prisons does NOT work to deter crime, to lessen crime or to help the victims.
       Mental health care needs to be funded and seen as a priority.  Again, we do this for all of us: when we create a society where people with mental health issues cannot afford or obtain help, we create societies where violence is inevitable.
       Gun control also must be addressed: yes, it must.  But I will allow others who are more knowledgeable and articulate to speak on that at this point: there are so many who do so much better than I ever could.  I will only say that from a Christian perspective, I see absolutely no justification for our turning towards violence as a solution.  Jesus was clear that killing was never acceptable.  He was clear about turning the other cheek.  Our arming ourselves with weapons whose only purpose is destruction of another is antithetical to everything he taught about seeing the other, even our enemies, as people we are called to love.  Period.  And our responding to violence with more violence escalates the problems.  It does not bring peace.
       Perhaps more than anything else, these tragedies call us to show who we really are.  Are we people who take seriously the call to love one another, even those we consider "enemies"?  Or are we fear based people who want to destroy, put away, and get rid of anyone who is different than ourselves?  It is truly worth thinking over.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Listen to HIm


2 Kings 2:1-14
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-10

Transfiguration Sunday

            The Disciples have had a hard time listening to Jesus throughout the time they have been together.  Jesus has spoken about his death.  They deny it.  He has spoken about inclusion.  They still try to send the children away.  He has spoken about love and giving and servant-hood, and they still don’t let him wash their feet, and they still want Jesus to be honored, revered in a way that he doesn’t seek or think is appropriate to who he really is.  He has called them to join him as healers, and they are unable to do it.  He has spoken about faith and they still stumble on the water.  He has spoken about many things and the disciples remain confused, unclear, clue-less even at times.  This is proven once again by their speech on the mountain.  They don’t get it.  They want to stay on the mountain.  They want to build shrines and bask in the glory.  They want to continue the mountain top experience, rather than carrying it down with them to the people, as a source of strength to do their ministry, to do their service, to live the lives Christ calls them to lead.  They don’t get it. 
            In light of that we have God’s words “This is my Son, whom I dearly love.  Listen to him!”  God has three things to say.  This is my son.  I love him.  And listen to him. 
            When you listen to Jesus, what do you hear?  I would like to invite you to take a moment and really think about that.  When you listen to the Jesus you read about in scripture, in our conversations, in bible studies, in life, what do you hear?
            Do you always like what you hear?  Or are there times when the words are hard to hear, not what we want, but still are what we hear? 
When I was in Ohio, I was part of a weekly lectionary group in which we read the lectionary assigned scripture passages for the following week together.  We often read from different translations of the Bible.  And because of that, we have found at times that the different translations are translated differently  For example, Mark 1:40-41.  In the NRSV, this passage is translated, “A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”  However, the passage that in the NRSV is translated, “moved with pity” is translated in the NIV (which you have in front of you) as “Jesus was indignant” and in the CEB (the one that I usually use) as “incensed”.  The word they are translating is actually “anger” so “Moved with anger” might be a better translation in both.  Either way, there is a huge difference between “compassion” and “anger”.  And the reason for these different translations is that when we look at the old manuscripts of these texts, they don’t always agree with one another.  There are many old manuscripts and scrolls of these Biblical passages, not one.  And they don’t agree with each other.  It is not always clear which one was written earlier, which one was the “original” or which one is closest to what Jesus actually said.  So the NIV and CEB chose a different original manuscript for this phrase than the translators of the NRSV.  Different translators have to pick which text they believe to make the most sense, to be the most accurate, to be the most original.  And different translators often pick different original texts from which to translate specific passages.  As we sat, in my lectionary group, with the difference between Jesus being incensed and Jesus having compassion, one of our pastor friends made the comment that because translators are also interpreters at some level, they want the passage to make sense and to match with their own theology.  Therefore, the translation that is least comfortable is actually often the one that is the most accurate.  The ones that are more comfortable are often made that way by the translators, by the interpreters.  The words that they find which are uncomfortable, they try to ease, to smooth down, to make more palatable.  So they pick the texts that make most sense to them and translate them according to those texts.  They don’t always pick the ones that really appear to be the oldest, or the most original, or the closest to what Jesus probably really did or said.
This is a very human thing to do and we do it as well.  We try to block out things that make us uneasy, things that don’t make sense to us. We see this with our news, and our reaction to news, actually. I recently read about several psychological studies which show, consistently, that in light of evidence that disproves people’s biases, people are more likely to entrench in their own viewpoints rather than change their opinions.  Even when hard, cold facts that cannot be argued are presented, if what is offered is different from what the receiver believes, most people will discount the new information rather than be willing to change their minds or be confronted by a truth other than what they already know to be true. This applies to scripture as well. 
The truth is, if nothing in the Bible has ever disturbed us, then we haven’t read it closely enough.  Or rather, we haven’t listened well enough.  If nothing in Jesus’ words has ever disturbed us, then we haven’t been paying attention.  Because Jesus said disturbing things.  Jesus challenged us.  He challenged us with passages such as Matthew 25: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. (for) I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink.  I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’”
We are challenged with words such as, “This is so that they can look and see but have no insight, and they can hear but not understand. Otherwise, they might turn their lives around and be forgiven,” which seems to imply that he doesn’t want specific people to turn their lives around and be forgiven.  We are challenged with words such as “I came not to bring peace but a sword,” and “Anyone who does not hate their mother and father, brother and sister, wife and children- yes, and even his own life - cannot be my disciple.” We are challenged by the many parables which are hard to understand such as the story of the wheat and tares.  We might be challenged by Jesus’ own breaking of the biblical rules such as the Sabbath laws, by curing and picking grain on the Sabbath.  We might be challenged by Jesus telling us we are to do what he did and to follow in his footsteps. These should make us uncomfortable. And when they don’t, it could be because we disagree and are okay with that.  It could be because we have taken the time to really study the passages and have come to an understanding we can live with.  But I think often it is, if we are honest, because we are not really listening.
            There was a wonderful article in Sojourner’s Magazine a few years ago entitled, “Five Ways I’m the Worst at Following Jesus” by Christian Piatt.  He said, “My biggest concern at the moment is that though a lot of us claim to “be Christians,” or even to follow Jesus, a lot of us don’t spend much intentional time trying to figure out what that means and what it looks like in daily life. We try not to be too (mean) to other people, try not to kill, steal, adulterate… or worship graven images. We try to love, and to accept love — though we still hurt each other. A lot. The world is messed up and so far from realizing the fully kingdom-inspired image of wholeness and reconciliation to which God invites us. And at least in my theological world, that’s on us, not God. I believe, with all of my being, that the audacious vision of God’s kingdom, here and now, isn’t something we sit around and pray for God to make real for us. Like Jesus said, we can (and should) collectively do greater things than even he did. …So here I am, not so much trying to be Jesus, but trying to at least follow his life, teaching, and example better. And in taking my own personal inventory, I can see that I (am pretty bad at it). That doesn’t mean I’m giving up, but it’s clear I have plenty of work to do.” 
Are we aware of the things we do that are failing to follow Jesus?  And again, if we aren’t aware, it means we have not been listening. 
            But the good news in all of this is that despite our failure to listen, Jesus stays in relationship with us.  God stays with us no matter how we fail to hear.  Jesus brought Peter, James and John up to the mountain top and even though they didn’t get it, he let them see the transformation, hearing God’s voice directly and God’s instructions in a clear voice.  Jesus explains his parables to them, even through his frustration with their lack of understanding.  He repeats his message, repeats his descriptions of what is to come, repeats what they need to hear, despite their lack of deep listening.  He loves them and models for them what that love looks like, despite their reluctance to embrace it, to follow him completely, to walk the path he walked in the way he walked it.  And he does the same for us. 
            Still, God calls down, “This is my son whom I love.  Listen to him.”  Bonhoeffer said, "The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists of listening to them. Just as love of God begins with listening to his word, so the beginning of love for our brothers and sisters is learning to listen to them." —(Life Together).
            Peter, James and John wanted to stay on the mountain. They had been given a new glimpse of who Jesus was, one that filled them with joy, with hope, with life. They had seen the transfiguration, they had a real and deep glimpse of who Jesus really was. And it filled them with a joy that they did not want to give up. That is understandable. That is absolutely understandable.  To be given that mountain top experience of seeing God and seeing Jesus as God’s son – what an incredible gift. To see Moses and Elijah next to him. To experience these people of God in this way.  It was an amazing gift.  It was a gift that was not withheld even though they failed to listen and understand.  It was still given.  And the opportunity to listen to Jesus was also given again, with the instructions, direct from God, to listen.  We, too, make mistakes. But we, too, are not deprived of the good gifts of God.  And we, too, no matter what we do or fail to do, are invited every time we hear Jesus’ words to “Listen to him.”    Amen.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Who is our enemy?

(Please excuse the ramble...I'm still processing this through.  Your thoughts, as always are welcome!) 
         As I continue to reflect on the conversations I've been having with others around what it means to "love our enemies" one thing becomes especially clear to me.  We all define that word "enemy" differently.  I've heard people talk about "enemies" as people who hold power and use it in ways they believe to be wrong or hateful towards others. Enemies, then, can be politicians who are doing things that harm others, or they can be people we know and interact with personally.  If an "enemy" is anyone who injures others, some will have faces and names and others won't. Many people have told me they have no enemies.  But for others, enemies are very personal: specific faces and experiences come to mind of people who have done personal injury to that person or to a loved one.  I think how you define "enemy" will change how you learn to love that enemy.
        Personally, I undoubtedly define enemy differently depending on the context of the conversation as well as the person with whom I am speaking.  Still, if someone were to ask me if I believed myself to have enemies, I would have to say "yes".  There are people who would choose to do me or those I care about harm; there are people who have, intentionally, chosen to do me or people I value harm; and there are people who, out of a sense of revenge, anger, hatred, or fear intentionally hurt me, or other people that I value.  For me, those are the people I identify as "enemies".  If you intentionally seek to hurt me or other people whom I value, you put yourself in that category.
         What does that mean for me?  Well, it doesn't mean I hate you. I choose not to hate my enemies  because that would be "returning evil for evil".  It also doesn't mean I will try to "get you back" because that, too, is against what I believe and against what I practice.  I take the call to turn the other cheek very seriously - not just for the other person, but because I believe I allow the "enemy" to do more damage to me if I allow them to infect my soul with anger or hate.  I won't go there.  Some may say, "well, then how are they an enemy?"  For me, that term is helpful because it helps me to name the reality of these people in my life, and the call for me to work towards something different. Again, I do not and will not choose to treat them as such.  But it does me and my family no good to lie to myself about the intentions of some people with their harmful words or behaviors.  I am certain that some would/will label me as less than "holy" or less than "whole" because of the very labeling of others as enemies.  And perhaps they are right. When people like the Dalai Lama, Ghandi, MLK, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, or even Mr. Rogers use the term "enemy" it is always in the context of building bridges with those folk, getting to know them, seeing them as the real people they are, so that they might be transformed from being enemies into being something else.  But they are better people than me. The call for me is to strive to love and work towards bridges with these people.  But I am also all too aware that I do not have my heroes' gifts of being easily able to transform those relationships, or of being able to cross those bridges easily.  For me, naming them as "enemies" sets before me the call and challenge of working to love that enemy.  The term does not let me off the hook, it calls me to work harder to transform those relationships and to cross those bridges.
       Again, I have to recognize that I cannot successfully do this with everyone.  When I can't turn an enemy into a friend, "the other" becomes simply the object of my prayers: prayers for transformation of hate into love, of fear into trust, of greed into generosity: prayers for healing; prayers for wisdom; and prayers for reconciliation.  Mostly I pray that I might be given the wisdom, courage, strength and insight so that I can do my own work towards healing and reconciliation in these difficult situations.
      I wish there were no enemies.  But until the world has been made perfect, there will always be a need for us to face that which is hard.  For me, that starts with the call to love our enemies.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Healing the Demons


                                    Isaiah 40:21-31
                                    Mark 1:29-39
                                     
As you reflect on the New Testament passage for today, what things stand out for you?  The part that always strikes me is summed in the last sentence of the New Testament passage, “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” Jesus sees two aspects to his ministry.  First, he is proclaiming the message – and what is that message?  According to Mark it is “the good news of God, that the kingdom of God is near” - (Mark 1:14-15).  This was once again in direct contrast to the message of the Pharisees and Scribes who were insisting that God and God’s kingdom were far away, holy and separate and required strict obedience to the law.  Instead, Jesus is saying that God is close – God is ABBA, which literally means “Daddy” – not a distant father figure, not someone who stands in judgment and concern about following rules, but a close Daddy, a loving, close parent.  The kingdom of God is not inaccessible, but present, here, standing in front of them.  Proclaiming that is Jesus’ first job. 
The second part of that passage says that he was doing what?  Casting out demons.  In other words, he was making that kingdom of God present for the people in his community at that time who were isolated, who were ill, who were rejected and outcast and who were unable to be the whole people God created them to be. 
These are the two things that made up Jesus’ ministry during his life: proclaiming that God’s reign was here, and bringing God’s realm to earth, just as we pray every week in the Lord’s prayer: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  This is what Jesus did and he mostly did this in the form of healing – at all levels – those around him.
Today I want to focus on that second part of Jesus’ job; the part about casting out demons. This is language which is different from what we are used to. We don’t usually talk about demons or demon possession. But it is not really that we are afflicted differently from the people of Jesus’ time. It is, rather, that we don’t use the same name for those things that USED to be believed to be demons.  To put it another way, we still experience things that prevent us from being the best versions of ourselves, the most effective, most fulfilled, most giving, most serving, most present, most whole, most holy versions of ourselves.  For example, it used to be believed that schizophrenia and other mental illnesses were demon possession. They certainly can prevent people from being the best God-servants, or the most whole that they can be.  Addictions are also "demons" in this sense.   If it is an addiction to drugs or alcohol, these can also prevent people from being active, contributing, helpful members of society.  They cause us to act badly towards other people, to be irresponsible.  Other addictions can injure or possess us in other ways that maybe only affect us internally, but still do not allow us to be the fullest, best, most whole people God calls us to be in our bodies as well as in our minds and spirits.  We can often see these kinds of demons from a long way off, we recognize these problems or issues that others have and we know they need to get them under control or exorcised or "fixed" in order for people to reach their greatest potential.  Jesus, in his ministry, cast out these demons. 
There are other obvious burdens or handicaps that also make life hard for people to thrive in this world: poverty, lack of education, a lack of resources and the knowledge of how to “work the system” leave many people in places where they cannot be the best they were created to be.
But, using this same language of demons, I think there are many other kinds of "demons" that are harder to see - or that are so common that we forget how limiting and problematic they really are. Fear is at the top of this list. Fear stops us from being generous or caring for others ("if we give what we have, there might not be enough for us!").  Fear stops us from reaching out to those most in need ("I can't go into that neighborhood - I'll be hurt!" and "Those people are just going to take advantage of me!"). In an extreme amount fear stops people from loving ("I might be hurt: might be rejected") and we know that phobias prevent people from living.
There are other demons as well: low self-esteem keeps some people from being able to respond to opportunities, or stops people from being allowed, at times, to really be of use to other people. Guilt, shame, regret: these can be useful in small amounts - helping us to see where we need to change, what we need to do to grow. But in large amounts these too can be debilitating, stopping us from taking the risks needed to be whole people, preventing us from living in joy and love and hope. Depression, loneliness, anxiety, jealousy, even grief - all of these can be debilitating, limiting and can feel like we are carrying unwanted demons around with us.
How do we, in today’s society, overcome these challenges? Counseling, groups, education, in some cases medicine. But I believe that we would be better able to overcome these if we also recognized the spiritual aspect of each of these problems, or in a sense, returned at some level to seeing them as "demons:" demons that need to be sent out and away, demons that we no longer wish to carry within us, but hope to ban from our beings, demons that need to be spiritually treated as well as physically, emotionally, mentally. I can't help but wonder if the rituals that used to exorcise demons didn't help people to overcome them in a way that we have lost. If we were to use ALL the resources at our disposal in order to overcome these trials - counseling, groups, education, medicine, friends, AND the spiritual rituals that call on God's help in a community of people all praying and surrounding the one hurting with those prayers, and that commitment to asking God for help, we would undoubtedly have more success. 
Most of us in our churches are comfortable with prayer.  But there are other spiritual gifts, spiritual disciplines, spiritual practices that we engage less, or that feel uncomfortable to some of us. Asking others to pray for us can be uncomfortable, but God gives us this community to help us. Meeting in faith based groups to ask specifically for the purpose of healing is not as common but can be a very helpful spiritual tool.  Bible reading: especially praying some of the psalms of anger and lament can be spiritually healing.  We often feel it isn’t “polite” to cry out in anger or frustration to God, but many of our psalms are prayers which do exactly that and give us both the models for how to do that as well as permission to express our feelings, all of our feelings to God. Fasting, Meditation, the laying on of hands, and speaking the truth.  All of these are tools that we have with us all the time. 
            Jesus’ ministry was in large part about casting out these demons.  I realize that Jesus isn’t walking among us and I believe that God does send us the counselors and doctors and others who help us with these problems today.  Also, it can be problematic if we rely solely on prayer, and don’t use the other tools God has given us for healing.  For example, you’ve all heard of faith healers who, when they aren’t able to heal someone, accuse that person of not having enough faith.  That is hugely problematic, especially since, as Paul tells us, faith is a gift from God, not something someone can “muster” or increase on their own.  I’m not suggesting that we ignore the gifts of healing that surround us in our medical fields.
But failing to turn to serious prayer, to the power of the community of the faithful to surrounding a person, to the spiritual guides and practices and gifts that God gives us to help us with these problems is failing to recognize that half of Jesus’ ministry was about moving people out of their pain, isolation, the depth of their sorrow and into healing.
I think the power of 12 step programs is that they bring back into the struggle with addictions, a spiritual connection, prayer and spiritual disciplines.  The 12 steps of looking at yourself, giving up your attempts to control what is really God’s to control, facing those things that you can control and that you have done: offering amends, asking forgiveness, learning to forgive yourself and others – these are all spiritual disciplines.  These are all ways of releasing the things that block our relationships with God.  These are all ways of re-connecting with God, whatever God is for you, and recommitting to that relationship with God.
Frederick Buechner says this about healing in his book “Wishful Thinking” :
The Gospels depict Jesus as having spent a surprising amount of time healing people… 
This is entirely compatible, of course, with the Hebrew view of man as a psychosomatic unity, an individual amalgam of body and soul whereby if either goes wrong, the other is affected.  It is significant also that the Greek verb sozo was used in Jesus’ day to mean both to save and to heal, and soter could signify either savior or physician. 
Ever since the time of Jesus, healing has been part of the Christian tradition.  In this century it has usually been associated with religious quackery or the lunatic fringe, but as the psychosomatic dimension of disease has come to be taken more and more seriously by medical science it has regained some of its former respectability.  How nice for God to have this support at last.
Jesus is reported to have made the blind see and the lame walk, and over the centuries countless miraculous healings have been claimed in his name…  You can always give it a try.  Pray for healing.  If it’s somebody else’s healing you’re praying for, you can try at the same time laying your hands on him as Jesus sometimes did.  If his sickness involves his body as well as his soul, then God may be able to use your inept hands as well as your inept faith to heal him.  If you feel like a fool as you are doing this, don’t let it throw you.  You are a fool of course, only not a damned fool for a change….If God doesn’t seem to be giving you what you ask, maybe he’s giving you something else.”

            Jesus was a healer.  He cast out demons of all kinds.  And he invites us to help him in the recovery, in the healing, in the movement towards wholeness of all we encounter.  That has to start with our faith.  From that place of faith we can help people find the ways to heal physically, emotionally, mentally, and especially spiritually.  We are called to see others as the whole people they are, and to address them with every tool God has given us.  Thanks be to God that Jesus was the master physician, that the Christ continues to be the master healer, and that God calls us to follow suit, proclaiming the good news and casting out demons, in all that we do.  Amen.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Connecting with God

1 Sam. 3:1-10
1 Cor. 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

Today we have three passages that all talk about recognizing or hearing God in different ways.  In the 1st Samuel passage, Samuel is learning to recognize the voice of God when it calls him.  It takes him time and the words of his mentor/teacher to realize that the voice that is calling him is coming from God, but he does eventually learn to hear and recognize God’s voice.  In the John passage Nathanael is challenged to recognize Jesus as the Messiah or Emmanuel, God with us.  Nathanael recognizes Jesus because Jesus can tell Nathanael what he was doing when Jesus wasn’t there.  The Corinthians’ passage is perhaps the hardest to understand.  But even there the Corinthians are being challenged to recognize where God is in our actions, in our behavior: what is Godly behavior.  The Corinthians had been arguing over the necessity of obeying Jewish law, Biblical law: whether or not they needed to be circumcised, whether or not they needed to follow the food laws that are outlined in books such as Deuteronomy.  And Paul basically told them that no, they did not need to follow these laws.  Their faith in Christ gave them freedom from Law for the sake of law.  But, he added, out of their love for God, they were stilled called to do what was right – or in other words what showed love to God, neighbor and self.  And while we might argue about how to do that, as obviously the early Christians were, hence the argument between Paul and the Corinthians, the message is important.  We are called to discern what is most loving to God, self and other, and we are called to do our best to behave in ways that express that care for all three.
These three passages, then, represent three challenges that are really part of the same.  The challenge to recognize what is Godly behavior, the challenge to recognize the Godly person and the challenge to recognize the voice of God when it speaks.  In today’s world some might say that these challenges are easy – we know that Jesus is the Godly person, we hear the voice of God in scripture, and the Biblical instructions help us to know what is Godly behavior.  But in other ways, I think that all three of these remain very challenging.  How do we hear God’s voice in the world around us?  How do we discern it from the voices of so many others around us?  How do we see who is leading us in God’s path and who might be pushing us into a path that may not be what God calls us to?  And there are times when it is not clear what is the most loving path to take.  Also, and what is harder, there are times when we have to choose between what is most loving to one person over another person or even what is most loving to others vs ourselves.  Those challenges confront us regularly, and can make living a Godly life very difficult.
Sr. Joan Chittister told this story: once, the ancients say, a seeker asked a group of disciples: "Does your God work miracles?" And they replied, "It depends on what you call a miracle. Some people say that a miracle is when God does the will of people. We say that a miracle is when people do the will of God."  If discerning the will of God were easy, this parable would not make sense.  But it does.  It rings true to us because living the life that God calls us to live is a miracle, and part of the reason it is so hard is that discerning the voice, the will, and the presence of God can be a real challenge.
I have heard it said that life can be understood by looking backwards but must be lived going forward.  How do we do that, how do we live life going forward when we can really only see where God’s hand guides us by looking back on our lives?
A while ago for Film and Faith night we watched the movie, “The Help”.   In it, an African American maid named Abileen in Jackson Mississippi in 1962 is asked by a white woman to help her write a book about the experiences of black maids working for white women in the South.  Abileen knows how dangerous it would be to tell her story – that she would be risking everything, including her very life, to share her experiences.  She refuses, therefore, to do so.  But then she goes to church, as she always does, one Sunday when the preacher is talking about the call to be brave.  And he says, “Courage isn’t just about being brave.  It’s about overcoming fear and daring to do what is right for your fellow humans.  It’s about being willing to speak the truth.” As Abileen sits there and listens, she hears God’s voice calling her to do what she knows to be risky, but what she hopes will begin to make some changes as people come to understand her experience and the experiences of other African Americans in the South during the 60s.
In early 2013 the Pope resigned.  The last time that had happened had been in 1415.  He read from a statement that said, “Both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.  For this reason and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of St. Peter, entrusted to me by the cardinals on 19 April 2005.”  It takes a strong person to give up power, to acknowledge ones limits.  It took incredible strength to recognize his time was over.  It took courage.
I found myself reflecting on a poem written by Ken Untener, later bishop of Saginaw, called, “Prophets of a Future that is not our own.”  Sometimes attributed to Archbishop Romero.
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. 
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete:
            which is another way of saying
            that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that should be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
 No set of goals or objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted,
            knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
            far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything
            and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
            a step along the way, an opportunity for
            God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
            but that is the difference between the master builder
            and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
            ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future that is not our own.
Once again I believe that through prayer, through gathering together in worship, through time with God, through building our relationships with God, but also by weighing everything against the central call and message of Christ – to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves  – that is how we learn to hear God’s voice when it speaks to us.  In that relationship to God, we learn to recognize God’s presence and God’s call for us.  Samuel was just a boy at the time that God first called him.  But through his mentor and teacher, Eli, Samuel began to learn to discern when it was God’s voice calling him.  Nathanael began as a doubter, but when confronted by the Jesus who looked into his eyes and knew him, he believed.  The Corinthians came to know the will of God through conversations, and sometimes arguments, with other Christians.  We come to hear, to see, to recognize God’s voice, God in our midst, God’s call for our lives by spending time with God.  When our hearts are open, God does come in. When our minds are open, sometimes we are given the grace to hear the call, to recognize the voice, and to see God in our midst. 


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Enemies? Love? Loving enemies? Definitions and challenges

      I speak and write constantly about the call to love our neighbors, and yes, even our enemies, as ourselves.  This is central to my faith, central to what I believe we are supposed to be about: offering love even in the face of hate, non-violent protest in the face of violence, empowerment in the face of oppression, justice in the face of greed. I believe nothing as strongly as I believe that this is our primary call: to respond, always, with love.
     Many of my parishioners hear this as a political message, and in many ways it is.  I don't think there is room in our faith to tolerate, let alone condone the "isms" (which are forms of hate, the opposite of love) that we see so rampant in our leadership these days: the sexism, the racism, the heterosexism, the nationalism, the "this person/people is better than this other person/people and therefore is more deserving, more worthy of resources, well-being, survival, safety, care" thinking.  We are called to stand up to all of that, to say "no" and "enough" BY loving even our enemies and modelling something different, by choosing and insisting on something different.  But this causes confusion.  Some tell me it is impossible for them to love those who are creating such pain and injustice for our brothers and sisters.  After all, how can they feel love for people who espouse hatred and entitlement with every decision they make and every word they speak.  Besides, they ask, isn't loving the same as condoning?  Isn't loving a passive thing that says we tolerate abuse and injustice?  Isn't forgiveness about letting go of what has happened and giving more chances for that abuse to occur again?
      No!  No, no and no.
      First of all, love in this context, is not about a feeling.  It is not about liking the other.  It is an action and a choice, every single time.  I find it just as impossible as anyone else to like what is happening or to like the people who are greedy, self-promoting to the cost of others, and hating/judging of other people.  I can't like them.  But I still believe in the call to love them.  So what is love?
       Love to me is "working for the highest good for the other."  And while I realize that this, too, could be confusing, I will try to offer some clarification here.  "The highest good" for the other is not riches beyond belief for one person while other people in the world are starving to death.  The highest good is not happiness and ease for some while others struggle daily, often working several jobs simply to put food on the table.  I believe deeply that as long as any one person is without, is struggling, is in pain and does not have what they need to live, that all of us are lessened, that every one of us is less than whole because of it.  The "highest good", then for everyone, is for each person to have enough, to have what they need, to be able to live full, healthy lives.  I do not see it as in anyone's best interest for them to be able to amass riches beyond belief while others don't have their basic needs met.  I believe strongly that the highest good for those who have too much is liberation from their greed and extreme wealth even as the highest good for those who have too little is to be able to have enough.  I believe the highest good for those who live in their fenced in, security ridden houses is to create a world where those walls that keep others out are not needed because each person has what they need and doesn't need to threaten those who have more.  I also believe the highest good for any one person is not allowing them to be abusive or harming to others.  How can it be good for you to be allowed to be a bully?  It is for your highest good as well as everyone else to be stopped from bullying and harming others.  I could go on.  The point is that wanting the highest good for any one person means wanting the highest good for all people.  To me this makes things easier at some level because I believe people having what they need really is best for everyone.  Easier, I say, but still not easy.  It is still hard to respond to hatred with love.  It is still hard to respond to injustice with nonviolent action.  It is still hard to refrain from judging or condemning and instead to work for the best for everyone.  But that is the job, it is the call, it is what we are to be about.
        In another blog post I want to talk about this more personally.  But for now, I will just repeat that to me, this is the call; to love our enemies, personal, political, economic: individual, group, national - to love them all as ourselves. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

In the Beginning

Genesis 1:1 - 2:4
John 1:1-5
Mark 1:4-11

            According to the gospel of John, what is “the Word”?  It’s Jesus, actually.  Not scripture.  The Word of God is Jesus.  And we are told that, in the beginning, this third person of the trinity already existed.
            “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people…The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
            The Word was already in the world, it was there since the beginning.  Jesus, as the Word, was there from the beginning.  And yet Jesus was born and Jesus was baptized as one of us.  What does that mean? 
            As I’ve said before, Epiphany actually has three parts, or three events.  Epiphany is the revelation or revealing of who Jesus was.  The first part of the epiphany is the visit of the Magi, their recognition of who Jesus was, through the star, through their study and wisdom and their declaration of who Jesus was by their commitment to travel, to bring him gifts, to honor him.  The second part is what we read today, the revelation of Jesus by the Spirit descending on him like a dove, with the voice that came from heaven saying: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”  The final piece of the epiphany is Jesus’ first miracle or his turning the water into wine.  The Magi represented the revelation to the Gentiles of who Jesus was.  The Baptism was God’s own naming of who Jesus was.  And his first miracle was done for his own community, for those attending the wedding, or other Jews. 
            But baptism, the piece of epiphany on which we focus today also has other meanings for us.  And the fact that Jesus was baptized shows the extent to which God, the Word, joined us in this human journey, including this, the baptism or the second revelation of God’s coming to be with us.  It was, for Jesus, as it is for us, a renewing.  It is a commitment to living in the way of Christ, in the way God calls us to be.  Mostly, it is a commitment and an acceptance of our being God’s children.  We accept God’s claiming us as God’s own and we honor and celebrate that claiming.
A seminary professor was vacationing with his wife in Gatlinburg, Tennessee . One morning, they were eating breakfast at a little restaurant, hoping to enjoy a quiet, family meal. While they were waiting for their food, they noticed a distinguished looking, white-haired man moving from table to table, visiting with the guests. The professor leaned over and whispered to his wife, “I hope he doesn't come over here.” But sure enough, the man did come over to their table. “Where are you folks from?” he asked in a friendly voice. “ Oklahoma ,” they answered.  “Great to have you here in Tennessee ,” the stranger said... “What do you do for a living?” “I teach at a seminary,” he replied. “Oh, so you teach preachers how to preach, do you? Well, I've got a really great story for you. ” And with that, the gentleman pulled up a chair and sat down at the table with the couple.  The professor groaned inside and thought, “Great.. Just what we need.... Another preacher story!”  The man started, “See that mountain over there?" he said, pointing out the restaurant window. “Not far from the base of that mountain, there was a boy born to an unwed mother. He had a hard time growing up, because every place he went, he was always asked the same question, 'Hey boy, who's your daddy?' "Whether he was at school, in the grocery store or drug store, people would ask the same question, 'Who's your daddy?' He would hide at recess and lunch time from other students. He would avoid going in to stores because that question hurt him so badly. When he was about 12 years old, a new preacher came to his church. The boy would always go in late and slip out early to avoid hearing the question, 'Who's your daddy?’  But one day, the new preacher said the benediction so fast that he got caught and had to walk out with the crowd. Just about the time he got to the back door, the new preacher, not knowing anything about him, put his hand on his shoulder and asked him, 'Son, who's your daddy?' The whole church got deathly quiet. He could feel every eye in the church was looking at him. Everyone wanted to know the answer to that question and finally, they thought they would get it because surely this kid would not lie to the preacher!  This new preacher, though, sensed the situation around him and using discernment that only the Holy Spirit could give, said the following to that scared little boy. 'Wait a minute! I know who you are! I see the family resemblance now. You are a child of God.' With that he patted the boy on his shoulder and said, 'Boy, you've got a great inheritance. Go and claim it.' The boy smiled for the first time in a long time and walked out the door a changed person. He was never the same again. Whenever anybody asked him, 'Who's your Daddy?' he'd just tell them, 'I'm a Child of God.''' 
The distinguished gentleman got up from the table and said, “Isn't that a great story?” The professor responded that it really was a great story! As the man turned to leave, he said, “You know, if that new preacher hadn't told me that I was one of God's children, I probably never would have amounted to anything!” And he walked away. The seminary professor and his wife were stunned. He called the waitress over and asked her, "Do you know who that man was who just left that was sitting at our table?” The waitress grinned and said, “Of course. Everybody here knows him. That's Ben Hooper. He's governor of Tennessee!”
In doing some background checking, some parts of that story are factual (for example, Ben Hooper, the governor of Tennessee, really was born to an unwed mother) and some parts aren’t (he did know who his father was and eventually he ended up living with his father), but regardless of the historicity of the story, it is a story that I find to be true.  If we can really claim our identity as children of God, if we can be aware of the awesomeness of our baptisms, of God’s claiming us as our own, we should be changed by that awareness, made new and humbled by the greatness of that claim. 
On this, baptism of the Lord Sunday, we remember our baptism in which God comes and claims us as God’s own.  The Spirit revealed Jesus as God’s son for all of us.  And when we are baptized, we are called to celebrate our revealing as well – God’s children, God’s chosen, called, loved into being.  Baptism of the Lord Sunday is the day when we celebrate that God calls us first, claims us first, even before we are able to ask for it, even before we are able to recognize it, even before we are able to respond.    
But what does that mean to be God’s child?  As I worked on this sermon, I was reminded of a Star Trek Next Generation episode called “The Defector” in which a Romulan (an enemy) appeared to be defecting and asking for asylum from the federation (those are the “good guys” for those not familiar with the series).  He said that he had defected in order to prevent war.  He believed his own people were taking an action that would lead to a terrible war and he wanted to prevent that by giving information to the Federation so they might stop the war from beginning in the first place.  When pushed, he kept saying, “I’m not a traitor! I love my people. I’m here to prevent a war!” As the story unraveled, it became clear that this was a man who was deeply grieving.  He did not want to leave his home, he did not want to leave his family.  “What I did had to be done. But to never again see the Firefalls of Gath Gal'thong, and the spires of my home as they rise above the Apnex Sea at dawn. It's a bitter thing to be exiled from your home.”  When it was pointed out that his people would believe him to be a villain, that they would see him as a traitor, and that because of that he would never, ever be allowed to see his children again, let alone return anywhere near home because of his actions, his response was simple, “There comes a time in a man's life…when he looks down at the first smile of his baby girl and realizes he must change the world for her.  For all children.  It is for her that I am here.  Not to destroy the Romulan Empire, but to save it. For months, I tried desperately to persuade the High Command that another war would destroy the Empire. They got tired of my arguments. Finally I was censured, sent off to command some distant sector. This was my only recourse. I will never see my child smile again. She will grow up believing that her father is a traitor. But she will grow up.”  
That kind of love, the kind of love that cares so much for the other that it is willing not only to die but to suffer humiliation, rejection, exile – that is the kind of love God had for us in coming to be with us in another human person.  That is the kind of love God has for us when God claims us as God’s children.  When we accept our baptisms, when we remember Jesus baptism, we are both accepting the love of this kind of God, AND we are promising to try to love with that same self-less depth.

Today, on this second Sunday of Epiphany, we are called to reflect on the amazing gift of baptism that God has given to first Jesus, and then us.  It is a gift of remembering that God calls us into relationship with God.  It is a gift of remembering that God initiates care for us, call to us, purpose and meaning for our lives, before we are even old enough to choose to respond. It is a gift that says, “because I first chose you, because I first brought new life to you, because I begin your life by giving to you every day again and again; now you are called to return that gift to all God’s people which are all people, to all creation, caring back, giving second chances to others, choosing to love and live and care for others in the way that I have cared for you.”  It is a gift, like the star of last week, that shows us the light and invites us to use it to see just how much and how deeply we are loved by God.