Monday, October 28, 2013

Yesterday's Sermon - Who Are We?

2 Timothy 4:6-18
Luke 18:9-14

In the passage we heard today from Timothy, we hear the struggles and pain of a person abandoned by friends, by peers, by everyone.  We hear the suffering of a person who is alone, trying desperately to connect and get what he needs in the midst of the pain he is feeling.  He is alone, at the mercy of those who would and did attack him and imprison him.  He is also human.  And as a human, he feels the sting, the hurt, the deep pain of their betrayal and abandonment.  But even in the midst of that, even in the midst of that, he returns again and again to a deeper understanding of who he is.  And that deeper understanding is that he is a child of God, a God who loves him, who will stand by him, who will justify him, who will not abandon or betray him.  That is what he returns to each time.  Who is he?  A child of God.  Who are we?  Children of God.

The Luke passage is, in a way, a set up for all of us.  Do we find ourselves feeling like the tax collector or like the Pharisee?  If we are the Pharisee, we are condemned by Jesus for judging the tax collectors and others.  If we see ourselves like the tax collector and others, then we have put ourselves once again in the position of the judge – this time condemning the Pharisee.  No, the only way to understand this parable is to see ourselves once again by different definitions.  We cannot be defined by human definitions.  Perhaps in some ways we are both tax collector and Pharisee, and several commentaries I read emphasized this – that we must recognize that we are both people who strive to be good, and people who fail to be completely good at all times.  We are both people who at times recognize our failure and at other times people who are grateful that we haven’t fallen as far as others – and in that gratitude become people who judge and do the opposite of what Jesus calls us to do.  But, again, I think the greater truth, the truth of both of these passages is slightly different.  We are not “tax collector.”  We are not “Pharisee”.  We are not judge and judged.  Who we are, at our deepest level is, once again, that which is sometimes hardest to feel and find.  We are children of God.

I know and understand that all of us have had times of feeling hurt, devastated even, by betrayal or the rejection of others.  That’s part of the human condition, all of us experience disloyalty, treachery, and dismissal from people we love, we all experience these kinds of losses in our lives.  We all have, we all do.  But if we can separate our identity from what other people think, or say, or do to us…if we can live instead in the hope and joy of being God’s children, then we can face anything.  We can stand strong in the face of pain and loss, we can rest secure knowing we are loved and held no matter what.   That doesn’t mean we won’t feel the pain.  Does it still hurt to feel alone?  To feel inadequate?  To feel judged and/or to judge others?  All these things still hurt.  As we saw, the Pauline author of Timothy felt the pain, too.  We know of his deep and abiding faith.  And yet he still hurts and struggles.  That is human.  But he SURVIVES and has meaning and joy and life and love because of who he is at the deepest level – he is one who belongs to God.  For us, too, in those times of loss and pain, rejection and betrayal, we don’t have to lose our sense of self, our sense of value, the joy and meaning we find in life – because we belong to God.  And being God’s children gives us joy, gives us meaning, gives us love even when we are not getting it from other humans.

In the book The Life of Pi, Pi says, “Faith in God is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love – but sometimes it was so hard to love.  Sometimes my heart was sinking so fast with anger, desolation and weariness, I was afraid it would sink to the very bottom of the Pacific and I would not be able to lift it back up….Despair was a heavy blackness that let no light in or out.  It was a hell beyond expression.  I thank God it always passed…The blackness would stir and eventually go away, and God would remain, a shining point of light in my heart.  I would go on loving.” (p209)
God offers us that.  God offers that constantly and faithfully – connection, love, light, meaning, joy.  But the challenge for us is to take the personal time to connect with it, even when it is hard, even when there are pressures not to, even when we feel despair.

Mitch Albom described it this way, “The (Rabbi) puttered from room to room in quiet contemplation.  Having survived the Great Depression and two world wars, he was no longer thrown by headline events.  He kept the outside world at bay by keeping the inside world at hand.  He prayed.  He chatted with God.  He watched the snow out the window.  And he cherished the simple rituals of his day: the prayers, the oatmeal with cereal, the grandkids, the car trips with (his wife), the phone call to old congregants."(p 223)

I'm reminded of the joke about the man who complained that he wasn't able to reach his pastor by phone one day; when the clergy replied that it was his/her day off, the man snarled:  well, the Devil never takes a day off.  To which the wise pastor smiled and said:  true enough and if I don't take a day off I would be just like him.

And why would he be like him?  I think the slope into evil starts with a feeling that we lack love.  If we feel unloved, we stop caring enough to love in return, despite the rejection.  My kids and I have been watching Star Trek the Next Generation episodes.  And we saw an episode yesterday in which the crew encountered something that defined itself as a “skin of evil”.  It quickly became clear that this “skin of evil” defined itself this way and fed off of others’ pain because of its own hurt and feeling of being abandoned.  It self-defined as something that got joy out of others’ suffering because of its rage at having been left, rejected, abandoned.  Humans need love to live.  They need love to survive.  We know this from studies.   And when they don’t have enough of it, or when they are damaged by rejection and abandonment, that is when they can turn to evil.  But the truth is that no one is ever without it, not really.  Because God offers it constantly.  And if we can remember that we are loved, if we can turn to that love even when human love fails us (and it will because none of us is perfect – we all make mistakes and we all suffer from them and from the mistakes of others), then we do not have to sink, we do not have to give up, we do not have to become bitter or jaded or revengeful or torn apart by rage.

Paul’s faith continued with him to the end and so even at the end, his life had meaning and grace.  When we recognize, in reading stories like the one we heard about the Pharisees and tax collectors, that none of what we do or feel – for good or for bad defines us, we, too, can hold on to that meaning.  Who are we?  We are God’s children.  That is your identity.  That is what gives you value, worth, and the blessings of this day.  That is what defines who you are.  You are God's and ultimately, nothing else matters.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Happiness (which is different from joy)

       I am happy today.  Really, truly happy today.  I know that we are like a train on two tracks - one that is full of blessings and joy and the other which is full of challenges and "learning opportunities".  For the last three years, my "learning opportunities" have far outweighed the happy times.  But today I am not only filled with God's joy (which can come even when we are sad), but also with happiness. And it scares me.
      I find it very hard to "trust" happiness because it is fleeting.  It is a fickle friend.  And as such, it cannot be relied upon to stay for long, or to return when summoned, or to come when needed. Sometimes it is there constantly, every day making repeated calls, sending constant "texts" and stopping by to visit and stay.  And then, just as suddenly as it came, it can disappear and stay away for weeks at a time, not responding to calls for help, no matter how desperate and needy they are. When it comes it is incredible and wonderful and we find ourselves hoping that it will stay as constant, as helpful, as faithful, as hopeful, and as intense as it sometimes is, filling us with a sense of well-being and of being loved, causing us to laugh and play and feel young and alive.  But it never does.  It comes and goes of its own accord, when and where it will, and therefore truly can't be trusted.
      Most of us don't like friends that can't be trusted.  We don't invest in friends who can't be depended on to stick around, to be there when needed or to respond when called upon.  We can't waste our love and commitments on those who come and go on a whim without any warning at all.  So how do we relate to happiness?  Is it possible to simply appreciate the time one has with this friend called happiness, without resenting it when it goes?  Is it possible to enjoy the times when happiness makes a visit, without looking for and fearing the next time it will leave?  I don't know.  But I think that is the goal of living in the present...staying with happiness when it comes without fear of tomorrow, facing the challenges of the day without worrying about when we might next encounter happiness again, being at peace with whatever feelings we awaken to each day, and embracing whatever life offers us today with hope, welcome and trust that it will be what we will need that day, even if it is not that most favorite of friends called happiness.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Connecting with Others

       Relationships are funny things.  Relationships of all kinds are funny things.  They ebb, they flow, they grow close, they distance, they become one thing and then another and then another.  The only thing consistent about relationships is that they aren't static but are constantly changing. I must admit I find all of this very confusing.  This is another area of growth for me as it remains clear to me that there is still so much I just don't understand.  It seems there are as many ways to be in relationship with others as there are people, and each one is a new puzzle to figure out.  But I also see that it isn't just me. It continuously surprises me how often there are misunderstandings between other people as well, ie how little we communicate what we are actually intending to say, and how often we seem to communicate things we are not intending at all.  Some examples:
1.  I was organist and music director during seminary at a Missouri Synod Lutheran church.  While theologically different, I really enjoyed the people and especially the choir members.  I worked there for three years.  When I graduated from Seminary, I resigned from my job to take a pastor position, and was replaced with another young seminary student.  About three months after she had been there, I received phone calls both from the pastor and from this student expressing serious communication problems.  The student felt that the pastor's wife "hated" her.  The pastor's wife felt nothing of the kind.  She just was being herself with her particular demeanor and presentation.  But nothing I said could convince the new organist that she wasn't hated and despised by the pastor's wife.  I offered to meet with them both together, and did so.  Still, they could not understand each other.  One continued to feel hated, and the other continued to feel confused and hurt that her demeanor was understood as negative and threatening.  I see this happening often - someone's normal facial expression is seen as angry or judging.  The way someone expresses themselves is seen as sharp or critical.  But the person isn't intending these things, they are just being misunderstood in this way.
2.  I hear people say things that sound to me like they are apologizing and offering reconciliation, and then someone else who was at the same conversation will tell me they have been hurt and offended by what the first person said.  Both parties, to me, expressed themselves in the situation with grace and humility.  But neither heard the other doing that.
3.  I have had people come to me so upset and hurt by another person and when I ask why, I simply cannot understand what it is that has hurt them.  Sometimes people get hurt by differences of opinion on matters that are theoretical, hypothetical or so distant that it doesn't actually touch the lives of either person.  Why is it hurtful to disagree with another?  Aren't those disagreements opportunities to learn from each other?  To explore ideas from new perspectives?
4.  My children often get offended by one another over things, again, that I cannot begin to comprehend at all.  "She looked at me!" one will complain.  "AND?" I ask.  "Well, tell her to stop it!"  Huh.
5.  Sometimes we take offense at advice (I admit, this is something I'm guilty of!), when another person is simply trying to be helpful because they care about us.  Advice to me somehow feels like a judgment on my ability to solve problems and come up with solutions on my own.  But really, again, it is a sign of another person's caring and wanting to help.
       It is easy to misunderstand.  And it is easy to be misunderstood.  I wish this wasn't the case, but it is.
       But what fascinates me is that in the midst of all of this, there is such a deep need and desire to connect with others.  I think there is nothing in this life that I enjoy so much as making a new friend.  I love meeting new people, getting to know them and see what makes them tick.  I love encountering the differences that make us each unique and working to understand them and connect both beyond and through those differences.  That doesn't mean that it is easy for me to do that.  How do you approach someone and say, "Hey, I'd like to be your friend.  Are you interested?" but because it is so important to me, I find myself doing exactly that with more and more success.  Even when we've been deeply, deeply hurt by other people, our need and desire to connect are stronger than our fears.  We hope, we reach out, and we search for those new connections.    Why?
       I think we are created to be in community.  This, to me, is the profound truth of the trinity.  God is one in community.  God is in community with God-self, and in being in community becomes one.  Complex. And difficult to explain.  But in this way, we are made in God's image.  We become more whole, I am convinced, as we are in community with one another.  We grow and expand as we allow the different, the "other" into our hearts and souls.  As we learn to love that which is not us and maybe even that which is not like us, we become more than we were before.  And in becoming more, we come closer to seeing, understanding and becoming ONE.  We become more united with each other, and more united with God.  Yes, we keep our individuality, and yet, we are bigger and more whole and more united at the same time.
       It truly is the greatest joy to grow deeper in relationship with God, self and others. And I thank God that we were created to do exactly that.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Other Side of Forgiveness - Some questions about Being Forgiven

     Matthew 5:23-24:  “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift."  But what if your brother or sister is not open to reconciliation?

Matthew 1815-  : “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.  But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  But again, what if the other person will not listen and instead responds with anger or vengeance?

1 Corinthians 11:27-28   So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.  Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.  For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.  So, if we have said we are sorry, asked for forgiveness, but it is not granted to us (ie, again, there is no reconciliation), should we refrain from taking communion?  Common wisdom says that when we cannot forgive others, we should refrain from taking communion...using a fast from communion to empower us to focus our hearts instead on forgiveness, what that means, how to do it, asking God's help to let go and see the other with compassion rather than anger or hatred.  But what if we have forgiven, but are not forgiven in return? Not everyone is willing to reconcile, even people who consider themselves Christians.

John 20:23   If you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.  So again, if another person of faith declares you to be unforgivable, does this mean you actually are?

Next blog post I may give some of my answers to these questions...but I would really like to hear your thoughts in the mean time.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Today's Sermon - Breaking Bread Together

2 Tim. 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

Today is world communion Sunday, a day in which we focus on the part of our call that is feeding each other, feeding the needy, feeding the world.  It is a day that we celebrate that God is with us when we eat together and feed one another, because it is God who is actually doing the feeding.  Sarah Miles, in her book Take this Bread, put it this way, “it’s the really hungry who can smell fresh bread a mile away.  For those who know their need, God is immediate – not an idea, not a theory, but life, food, air for the stifled spirit and the beaten, despised, exploited body.”  That is what is offered in communion, in this last supper in the sacrament of this meal.  We are offered food, yes, but more we are offered life, we are offered Jesus himself – his body, his blood, his presence here in this meal.  Sarah Miles continued, “What Jesus offered was a radical…love that accompanied people in the most ordinary actions – eating, drinking, walking, and stayed with them, through fear, even past death.”  She connects all of this with Jesus’ call and command to Peter…She said, “I couldn’t stop thinking about another (Biblical) story: Jesus instructing his beloved, fallible disciple Peter exactly how to love him:  ‘Feed my sheep.’  Jesus asked, “Do you love me?”  Peter fussed, “Of course I love you.’  “Feed my sheep.”  Peter fussed some more.  “Do you love me?” asked Jesus again.  “Then feed my sheep.”  It seemed pretty clear.  If I wanted to see God, I could feed people.”
Sara Miles was actually converted to faith – she came to know the living Christ through the experience to taking communion.  When we read about Jesus feeding the 5000, my guess is that this was the conversion moment for many of them as well.  In the taking of food that God has given us, the food of Christ, the body of the Word, we experience God.  We are converted and reconverted to God.  When we feed others, when we offer them the bread of life, literally, we invite them to experience God as well.  Sara walked into a church one day an atheist on an anthropological mission to understand what people saw and experienced in church.  But she was invited to take communion that day.  She described her experience this way.  She wrote, “And then we gathered around that table.  And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of the fresh crumbly bread in my hands, saying ‘the body of Christ,’ and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ,’ and then something outrageous and terrifying happened.  Jesus happened to me.  I still can’t explain my first communion. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb, or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening—I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happening—the piece of bread was the “body” of “Christ,” a patently untrue, or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happening—God, named “Christ” or “Jesus,” was real, and in my mouth—utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry.... that impossible word, "Jesus," lodged in me like a crumb. I said it over and over to myself, as if repetition would help me understand. I had no idea what it meant, I didn’t know what to do with it. But it was realer than any thought of mine, or even any subjective emotion: it was as real as the actual taste of the bread and the wine. And the word was indisputably in my body now, as if I'd swallowed a radioactive pellet that would outlive my own flesh."  (quote from book p.58 of Take This Bread).
     Sara’s belief in the meal, the feast of communion as an honest to goodness feeding of people led Sara Miles to begin a soup kitchen in San Francisco that now feeds thousands of people every week.  Her soup kitchen is based on her understanding of communion…volunteers and guests eat together, commune together, with prayer, in a sacred space – in their sanctuary because it is for her where communion should take place.   It is a feast – and it is a feeding of the thousands again and again.  As such, it has also become a place of conversion for many – a place of deep renewal and recognition of Christ, of Jesus among them in the meal.
I’d like to play for you a song written and sung by David Bailey that echoes this understanding of communion, called Big Joe.
(I could not find a way to insert this here, but here are the words):
It was just another Sunday at the big church down on main. He was just another homeless man, Big Joe was his name. She was just a kitchen helper, Miss Betty mild and meek, who prepared the sacred elements, every single week.  Well the prayers had all been said, the hymns had all been sung.  The pastor set the table, invited everyone. Big Joe heard the music, he took a step inside.  He saw a bunch of well dressed folks who looked like they were trying to hide.  He saw a man in fancy robes hold up a loaf of bread, tear it into pieces.  And Big Joe thought he said, “All ye who are hungry…”  Joe thought, “That’s me!”  So he walked on down the aisle, hoping it was free. Well the pastor looked uneasy, not sure what to do. But the usher held the plate out and said “broken just for you.” Big Joe felt pretty lucky, then they handed him some wine. The cups were pretty small but it tasted pretty fine
 Then he said to the usher, “That bread was good. Could I have a little more? Do you think I could?”   Now the usher looked uneasy, looked a bit confused.  Then he said “I'm sorry sir.  That's not how this bread is used.” Joe said “I'd like to talk to the master of this meal.  I'd really like to know just exactly how he feels. 'Cause up there on the table I can see it plain as day: You got a half a loaf left over  - you’re gonna throw that away.  Cause I got a bunch of friends – they’re sleeping in the street - right outside your door and they could use a bite to eat.”  Well the ushers got to talking, then began to shout. Then before you know it, a fight had broken out.  Meanwhile miss Betty slipped away, to the kitchen she did go, filled a basket up with bread.  She brought it back to Joe.   She said “Take this to your friends and you come on back next week”.  Joe said “As you've done to them - you've done to me!” That's how it all got started at the big church down on Main, where people come from miles away to break bread in His name! Hallelujah!

     When Jesus began the last supper, he said, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.”  He ate a real meal with his disciples.  Yes, it was a ritual, it was Passover, but it was a ritual meal – one where there was talking, laughter, sharing…not the serious contemplative quiet taking of a tiny bite, but real and genuine fellowship and communion.  He was eager to share in this meal with his disciples, not only because he recognized that it would be his last Passover meal in this realm with them, but also because of all that it meant to him to eat with his disciples.  It was fellowship.  It was food.  It was community and deep communion.  It was a teaching time in which he shared with them that he would remain with them in this meal even beyond his death.  It was an invitation to be in communion with God.  It was prayer.  It was being together with Christ at every level.  We are called to do the same.  For me, our coffee hour and the meals we share – these are communion for us as the body of Christ.  The times when we eat with people at Bethany or at the Community meal, when we give lunches to the children over the summer or provide food bags for the families over the long weekends – when we share food with those who need it – this is the communion of Jesus feeding the 5000.  And today we share in the meal with people all over the world, celebrating Christ with one another, inviting the Word into our bodies in a concrete, tangible, and real way, inviting a deeper relationship with Christ and with one another.
     I have one more song I would like to share with you.  I ask you to pay close attention to the words that appear at the bottom of the pictures regularly.

Standing with one another around the world – standing by one another around the world …that is also another way to celebrate world communion Sunday.  To be in fellowship together…to work together to build something international – namely the body of Christ…to eat together.  That is world communion Sunday.  That is what we do this day.  As we prepare to take communion, I invite you to remember our unity, to remember that Jesus fed anyone who came and invited everyone to the table, to remember that we are Christ’s body – not just the body of our respective churches – but the body of Christ: united in our love for him and for God, united by this meal, this music, this fellowship – this is communion.  Amen.