Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter Sermon

To Be Called by Name
Jeremiah 31:1-6
John 20:1-18

     We start Easter morning in despair.  We start with Jesus dead, and a journey to a tomb where we will be comforted by at least preserving the body.  And we go to the tomb and even the body has been taken away.  There is nothing left of the man who was hope, who was God, who had become everything to us in such a short time.  There is nothing left of the one who led, instructed, healed, freed, saved and LOVED us more than his own life.  We start Easter by facing an empty tomb that appears to be a sign that every single part of this Lord we loved has been taken from us.  Everything we have known, everything we counted on, everything we believed and trusted and which gave us life and a reason to get up in the morning, EVERYTHING has been taken.  It is all gone.  There is nothing left.  This, THIS is how Easter begins.
     Women are crying, men are desperate.  And God appears to be silent.  In the face of Jesus’ suffering and death, where is God for those couple days?  He dies on Friday evening.  A day and a half pass and there is nothing.  Emptiness.  Silence.
      BUT, God’s silence is not God’s absence.  I want to say that again because I think there have been times when all of us have felt angry, hurt or abandoned by God.  God’s SILENCE is not God’s ABSENCE.  I think it is sometimes in the silence that God is most profoundly with us.  It’s just that there are times when the pain is so deep, so profound that there is simply nothing left to be said.  Have you ever come across someone at the point of tragedy where you know that there just simply isn’t anything to say?  What do you say to someone who has just been evicted from their home?  What can possibly be said to a child whose dog has been hit by a car?  What words of comfort are there to a parent whose child has just committed suicide?  Phrases like “it’ll be okay”, or “everything happens for a reason” or “he’s in a better place now” not only mean nothing in those moments but often do more damage than good.  The best we can do is to be present with one another in those times.  Deeply, and completely present.  And that’s what God does.
       We see it first in Jesus.  When Lazarus dies, Jesus first response at seeing the tomb was not to speak words, but to weep.  So, too, when he comes before Pilate.  Pilate asks him “what is truth?” and Jesus does not answer but stands there in the silence – a profound statement in itself.
       And here we see it again.  Jesus has been killed, is dead.  And some of his last words are those feelings that we share, too, when we are faced with tragedy and devastation.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  And we feel that too in the face of our Lord’s death.  He is gone.  He is dead.  And now even his body is removed from the tomb, it would seem.  And God?  Where is God in this?  The answer is silence.  Silence for almost two days.
But I say to you again, God’s silence is not God’s absence.
       A pearl begins its life inside an oyster's shell when an intruder, such as a grain of sand or bit of floating food, slips in between one of the two shells of the oyster.  In order to protect itself from irritation, the oyster quickly begins covering the uninvited visitor with layers of nacre — the mineral substance that fashions the mollusk's shells. Layer upon layer of nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl, coat the grain of sand until the pearl is made.
       In the silence, as God sits with us, weeps with us, grieves with us, carries us, God is also doing a new thing.  In the silence, in the quiet, in the stillness, God is transforming the evil into good.  God is changing that which is ugly, devastating and destructive into new breath, new beauty, new meaning.  God is bringing life out of death.  Can we see it?  Is the silence around us so loud that we cannot see the new thing God is doing?  Like Mary, are we so blinded by our tears that we do not see the risen Lord standing right there beside us, but instead mistake him for the gardener?
       And yet, even then, God has the final word.  Even then, in that moment of ultimate despair when the silence, when the loss is so great that we cannot see even that which is before us, Jesus called Mary by name.  He spoke into her heart, opened her ears to hear that which she could not SEE, and through his voice, his naming her his own, his calling her by her name, he invited her into belief.  And that belief allowed her to SEE, finally.  Because, as we know, some things must be believed in order to be seen.   And resurrection is such a thing.
       Resurrection is not a past event.  The God of resurrection, the God who ended the ultimate tragedy and brought Jesus into new life continues to do the same.  That is what God is about.  That is what God does.  Can we believe in it enough to see it?  Can we have the faith to experience the resurrections that surround us?  Whenever a friendship that has died is replaced with a closer friendship that is even stronger.  Whenever a divorced person meets someone new to love.  Whenever a lost job leads us to find a new job that we really, deeply love.  Whenever our tragedies are made into that which is new and whole resurrection is occurring again.
 But perhaps the even deeper question is not only can we see it, but can we allow ourselves to be part of the resurrection?  I think about the women who began MADD – Mothers Against Drunk Driving.  One woman had lost her 13 year old as she was walking to a church carnival and was hit by a drunk driver, killing her.  The other was a mother whose 5 ½ month old baby was hit in a car by a drunk driver, leaving her a quadriplegic.  The two women began MADD, taking their rage, their pain and their loss and transforming it into a group that educates, tells the truth and works hard to prevent any further tragedies such as their own.  The tragedy still happened.  Lives have still been lost, others severely and permanently injured.  The resurrection doesn’t happen without the scars being there.
I was sent this story some time ago and found it appropriate to share with you today:  The author wrote: I try not to be biased, but I had my doubts about hiring Stevie. His placement counselor assured me that he would be a good, reliable busboy.  But I had never had a mentally handicapped employee and wasn't sure I wanted one. I wasn't sure how my customers would react to Stevie.  He was short, a little dumpy with the smooth facial features and thick-tongued speech of Downs Syndrome. …I knew people would be uncomfortable around Stevie so I closely watched him for the first few weeks.  I shouldn't have worried. After the first week, Stevie had my staff wrapped around his stubby little finger, and within a month my truck regulars had adopted him as their official truck stop mascot.  …He was like a 21-year-old kid in blue jeans and Nikes, eager to laugh and eager to please, but fierce in his attention to his duties. Every salt and pepper shaker was exactly in its place, not a bread crumb or coffee spill was visible when Stevie got done with the table. Our only problem was persuading him to wait to clean a table until after the customers were finished. He would hover in the background, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, scanning the dining room until a table was empty. Then he would scurry to the empty table and carefully bus dishes and glasses onto his cart and meticulously wipe the table up with a practiced flourish of his rag. If he thought a customer was watching, his brow would pucker with added concentration. He took pride in doing his job exactly right, and you had to love how hard he tried to please each and every person he met.  Over time, we learned that he lived with his mother, a widow who was disabled after repeated surgeries for cancer. They lived on their Social Security benefits in public housing two miles from the truck stop. Their social worker, who stopped to check on him every so often, admitted they had fallen between the cracks. Money was tight, and what I paid him was probably the difference between them being able to live together and Stevie being sent to a group home. That's why the restaurant was a gloomy place that morning last August, the first morning in three years that Stevie missed work.  He was at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester getting a new valve or something put in his heart. His social worker said that people with Downs Syndrome often have heart problems at an early age so this wasn't unexpected, and there was a good chance he would come through the surgery in good shape and be back at work in a few months.. A ripple of excitement ran through the staff later that morning when word came that he was out of surgery, in recovery, and doing fine. Frannie, the head waitress, let out a war hoop and did a little dance in the aisle when she heard the good news…But when asked what was going on by the customers, she responded, " Yeah, I'm so very glad that he is going to be OK, but I don't know how he and his Mom are going to handle all the bills. From what I hear, they're barely getting by as it is." One of the customers nodded thoughtfully in response.  After the morning rush, Frannie walked into my office. She had a couple of paper napkins in her hand and a funny look on her face.
"What's up?" I asked.
"I didn't get that table where Marvin and his friends were sitting cleared off after they left, and Pete and Tony were sitting there when I got back to clean it off," she said. "This was folded and tucked under a coffee cup." She handed the napkin to me, and three $20 bills fell onto my desk when I opened it. On the outside, in big, bold letters, was printed "Something For Stevie."
"Pete asked me what that was all about," she said, "so I told him about Stevie and his Mom and everything, and Pete looked at Tony and Tony looked at Pete, and they ended up giving me this." She handed me another paper napkin that had "Something For Stevie"scrawled on its outside. Two $50 bills were tucked with in its folds. Frannie looked at me with wet, shiny eyes, shook her head and said simply: "truckers."
That was three months ago. Today is Thanksgiving, the first day Stevie is supposed to be back to work.
His placement worker said he's been counting the days until the doctor said he could work, and it didn't matter at all that it was a holiday. He called 10 times in the past week, making sure we knew he was coming, fearful that we had forgotten him or that his job was in jeopardy. I arranged to have his mother bring him to work. I then met them in the parking lot and invited them both to celebrate his day back.
Stevie was thinner and paler, but couldn't stop grinning as he pushed through the doors and headed for the back room where his apron and busing cart were waiting.
"Hold up there, Stevie, not so fast," I said. I took him and his mother by their arms. "Work can wait for a minute. To celebrate your coming back, breakfast for you and your mother is on me!" I led them toward a large corner booth at the rear of the room.
I could feel and hear the rest of the staff following behind as we marched through the dining room. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw booth after booth of grinning truckers empty and join the procession. We stopped in front of the big table. Its surface was covered with coffee cups, saucers and dinner plates, all sitting slightly crooked on dozens of folded paper napkins. "First thing you have to do, Stevie, is clean up this mess," I said. I tried to sound stern.
Stevie looked at me, and then at his mother, then pulled out one of the napkins. It had "Something for Stevie" printed on the outside. As he picked it up, two $10 bills fell onto the table.
Stevie stared at the money, then at all the napkins peeking from beneath the tableware, each with his name printed or scrawled on it. I turned to his mother. "There's more than $10,000 in cash and checks on that table, all from truckers and trucking companies that heard about your problems. "Happy Thanksgiving."
Well, it got real noisy about that time, with everybody hollering and shouting, and there were a few tears, as well.
But you know what's funny? While everybody else was busy shaking hands and hugging each other, Stevie, with a big smile on his face, was busy clearing all the cups and dishes from the table...”

We participate in God’s resurrections whenever we transform the negative experiences we or others have had into life-giving, life-changing work.  We participate in God’s resurrection whenever we can forgive and reconcile a relationship.  We participate in God’s resurrection whenever we see an opportunity to give through a crisis or be present with someone else in their pain.  We participate in God’s resurrection work whenever we become creative in our solutions to problems that seem impossible and step out to make a difference in the life of one or more people.
       It doesn’t mean the bad things didn’t happen.  They DID happen.  The resurrection does not wipe out what took place.  When someone hurts us, it DID happen, and the reconciliation cannot look like the injury never took place.  The women who began MADD still lost their children or watched their children suffer.  In the story I told Stevie was still a boy with Down’s Syndrome who would still struggle physically as well as mentally.  Jesus, too, was resurrected with his scars, which we know because Thomas put his hands in them and in Jesus’ side.  But a resurrection with the scars is a resurrected life that has deepened, that understands pain and loss and that can walk with even deeper compassion and fully love.
       I want to end by sharing with you a poem written by Brian McLaren for pastors during this Easter time…one I think will none the less resonate with all of us:
  A prayer for pastors on Easter
Dear Lord, I pray for all the pastors today
 Who will feel enormous pressure to have their sermon
 Match the greatness of the subject
 and will surely feel they have failed.
 (I pray even more for those who think they have succeeded.)

Help them to know that it is enough
 Simply and faithfully to tell the story
 Of women in dawn hush ...
 Of men running half-believing ...
 Of rolled stones and folded grave-clothes ...
 Of a supposed gardener saying the name of a crying woman ...
 Of sad walkers encountering a stranger on the road home ...
 Of an empty tomb and overflowing hearts.

Give them the wisdom to know that sincere humility and awe
 Surpass all homiletic flourish
 On this day of mysterious hope beyond all words.

Make them less conscious of their responsibility to preach,
 And more confident of the Risen Christ
 Whose presence trumps all efforts to proclaim it.

Considering all the Easter choirs who will sing beautifully, and those who won't,
 And all the Easter prayers that will soar in faith, and those that will stumble and flounder,
 And all the Easter attendance numbers and offering numbers that will exceed expectations
 And those that will disappoint ...
 I pray they all will be surpassed by the simple joy
 Of women and men standing in the presence of women and men,
 Daring to proclaim and echo the good news:
 Risen indeed! Alleluia!

For death is not the last word.
 Violence is not the last word.
 Hate is not the last word.
 Money is not the last word.
 Intimidation is not the last word.
 Political power is not the last word.
 Condemnation is not the last word.
 Betrayal and failure are not the last word.
 No: each of them are left like rags in a tomb,
 And from that tomb,
 Arises Christ,

Help the preachers feel it,
 And if they don't feel it, help them
 Preach it anyway, allowing themselves
 To be the receivers as well as the bearers of the Easter

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Sunday's sermon - Blessed is the One: Palm Sunday

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Matthew 21:1-11

We know the story.  We hear it every year.  On Palm Sunday, the people are so excited about Jesus, they line up along the streets, they wave palms, they put their cloaks on the ground, they shout out “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” they treat Jesus like the King they hope he will be.  Within a very short time many of the same people are shouting “Crucify him!  Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  We understand this story.  The people had expectations, they had high hopes, they put all of their dreams onto one man.  But they wanted him to change their lives in a very specific way.  They wanted him to overthrow the control of the Roman government over their lives.  They wanted a military leader who would end their oppression and set them free.  They wanted a Savior, but one who met their ideas of what that looked like and how it would affect their lives.  And when he did not live up to their expectations, when he did not do what they wanted in the way that they wanted, when he overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple, when he confronted both the ways they were thinking and the ways they were behaving, when he acted from a place of peace rather than in a military fashion, when he called them to fix themselves and care for others rather than having him fix “the others” (the Romans) and pamper to their wants in the way they wanted them, when he called them to faithfulness and love rather than simply making their lives better for them - they became so irate, so angry, so disappointed, that they had him killed.

Jesus went in a week’s time from being lauded, sought after, adored, worshipped, hailed as the Messiah and the promised King to being seen as a villain.  We know Kierkegaard’s saying about grief – the deepest pain is remembering the future you can’t have.  Well, they had envisioned a future that Jesus was not going to deliver.  And the disappointment from that was so real, so great, so tangible for people; those in this capital city felt so broken-hearted that they felt personally betrayed that Jesus was not the person they wanted him to be, and they responded by rejecting him to the point of wanting him dead and having him killed in a most horrible way.

Do we do this?  Is this a mirror for us into our own feelings and thoughts?  When our hopes and dreams are disappointed, when the future that we envision will not come to pass and we have to let it go, we can feel so hurt and betrayed that we want another’s destruction.  We can feel so hurt and betrayed by the behavior and disappointing actions of people who are not the way we want them to be, who do not do what we hope they will do, who do not live up to our hopes and dreams or even our expectations, that we can have deep and repeating visions of revenge.  But while we may feel this way, I think very few of us are actually people who would actively work or even actively wish for someone to die, and certainly not to die in this kind of horrible way in which Jesus was killed.  What would it take for us to feel that way?  What kind of pain must those who were shouting “crucify” at the end of the week have been feeling that they wanted him DEAD?  The pain must have been intense.  It must have been deep.  What kind of disappointment would it take for YOU to feel that way?

Actually, my experience of this community is that it is made up of very thoughtful, caring people.  We are thoughtful and caring enough that I would imagine WE would probably recognize our disappointment at some level as being about ourselves.  We are thoughtful enough that we might know that it was our issue at the deepest level for envisioning who someone else should be, what they should do and HOW they should do it, and what our future should look like.  But even when we can’t do that.  Even when we still blame the other for what has come to pass or failed to come to pass, even when we are heart-broken, we still probably wouldn’t try to kill the object of our disappointment.  It would take something enormous for us to feel that way.  Even in the situation we read about surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion, in which the hopes of a future free from political oppression, the hopes of a person who would SAVE them in this political and practical way were dashed, I still think that we probably would not, even so, be baying for blood.  That kind of violent reaction is just not normally how we behave.  Which makes me wonder.  Where were the people who could have stood up next to Jesus and supported him when the crowd became angry, violent and cried for his death?  Where were they?  Where were the people who could have said, “no.  He IS the son of God and he is doing what God has called him to do.  It may not be what you expected.  It may not be what you wanted, but open your hearts, open your minds to the new thing that God is doing.”  Or even those who had less insight into who Jesus was and his identity, but who still must have seen that killing him wouldn’t solve anything – where were those sane voices of calm and reason?  Voices that said, “Killing this man will not make you feel better!  It will not ease your disappointment, it will not bring about the peace that you are hoping for.”  While there can be a mob mentality towards destruction, I think most of us probably would not have been part of it.

But still, where would we have been?  My fear for myself is not that I would have been fighting for his death.  My fear for my own place in that scenario is that I would have been the voice that refused to speak out against the injustice of their cries for his death.  I think it is more likely, in other words, that we would have been part of the silent crowd, celebrating his entry into Jerusalem, and then being silent when those extremely disappointed with the reality of God’s reign of PEACE turned into violence.  We would have remained silent.  We would have stood by, maybe shaking our heads at the insanity of it, but not acting ourselves to stop it.  What is that silence?  Is that less evil?  Is that less guilty in the face of Jesus’ death?

Bonhoeffer said - “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless.  Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”  He said this during World War II as he saw the many people who may not have participated in Hitler’s reign of terror, but who also failed to confront it.  Standing and being silent witnesses to Jesus’ entry, to Jesus’ actions in that week and to Jesus’ death – these are acts that leave us guilty as well.  They also call us into the current reality of our world.  And we have to ask ourselves in what ways do we remain silent now.  Who do we fail to defend?  Who do we fail to stand up for?  What injustices and even evils in the world do we choose to be silent about?  To simply stand by and watch, or wait, for God or someone else to fix.

It is even harder to defend people with whom we are upset, and again, especially those who have disappointed us.  But Bonhoeffer also said, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”  Scott Peck described evil as the inability to face the dark sides of ourselves, which we then project out onto others and work to destroy in the other.  And Mitch Albom in his book, “the Five People you Meet in Heaven” put it like this.  “Holding anger is a poison.  It eats you from the inside.  We think that hating is a weapon that attacks the person who harmed us.  But hatred is a curved blade.  And the harm we do, we do to ourselves.”

It is important for us to understand our own pull to either destruction or silence in the face of injustice.  It is important as we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem those things that cause us to react with such rage and anger in the face of disappointment.  It is important as we remember the passion of Christ to remember that that we, too, stand by in silence.  And then, as we look at that square in the face, as we are called to face our own destructive tendencies and our own tendencies to be silent in the face of evil, we are called to two things.

The first is to own our own parts so that we can change it.  We cannot become the people God calls us to be without seeing, owning and repenting our own destructive tendencies and our own failure to speak against evil.

But the second thing that we are called to is, even in the face of such evil as the crucifixion of Christ, to try to respond with some compassion for those who did react to Jesus in this way, these people who turned 180 degrees in their behavior towards him.  We are called to search out and find compassion, rather than judgment and condemnation, even for these people.  First because they are ourselves.  And second because Jesus calls us to love and not anger, rage or destruction towards others.  Connie Schultz put it like this, (56), “If we can’t remember the wrong turns, we’re bound to get lost again.”   Passion week, Holy week, calls us to remember the wrong turns and to strive to get it right the next time.

I want to show you a clip from a MASH episode.  In this episode, kids wrote to the MASH doctors and staff letters.  And one of the letters that Hawkeye received was from a kid who was spouting deep anger and even hatred at the MASH doctors.  He wrote that his brother had been injured and had been sent to a MASH unit.  They fixed him up at the MASH unit so that he could go back to fighting and then he was killed.  The young kid hated the doctors who had made his brother better because in making him well, they had sent him to his death.  Hawkeye responds in the following way:

We are called to love.  Love is action.  But it is not the action of simply joining a fickle crowd who moves from worship to destruction in the course of a week.  And neither is it the silent standing by while the destruction takes place without standing up to say “no”.

I am reminded of this Poem by Martin Niemöller.
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Perhaps we would write the poem very differently, but the idea is the same.  A Passion version of this might look like this…

“First they came for Jesus, and I did not speak out because I was not Jesus.
Then they came for the disciples, and I did not speak out because I was not one of the twelve.
Then they came for the early Christians, and I did not speak out because I was not one of the early Christians.
And then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

As we walk this week through the Passion of Christ once again, I invite you to spend some time reflecting on and striving to understand all of those who acted in this part of our Christian story.  To understand, I invite you to take some time to picture and to place yourself in all of those positions.  See yourself as one who went from hailing Christ to shouting for his death.  What does that teach us about ourselves?  How do we have compassion for that kind of pain and disappointment that can turn so quickly from love to hate and destruction?  See yourself as one who stood by silently.  In what ways do we still do this?  In what ways is it easier and yet just as evil to fail to stand by those who need us to speak for them?  See yourself as one who did take a stand but found your voice silenced and ineffective.  How did that feel?  Where are you able to find God and hope and life in that?  And finally, picture yourself as one who takes up your cross and follows Christ all the way to the end.  Where does that lead you in your relationship with God?

We walk towards this cross this week.  We go from hailing and celebrating Jesus’ coming to finding ourselves in pain and loss.  The good news, even in this hard, holy, passionate week, is that God is with us at every step.  God understands how we feel and why.  God has compassion and forgiveness for us even when we can’t find it for ourselves.  And God calls us beyond even the cross – and eventually into the new life of Easter.  It is just around the corner, waiting for us with lilies and joy.  Amen.

Monday, April 14, 2014


I've been thinking, the last few years in particular, about trust.  It had always been hard for me to trust people.  I have had a lot of fear of abandonment that had in the past made letting people into my heart a real challenge.  But I had overcome that.  I had made some amazing friendships (which continue) and had finally, at age 29, been able to trust enough to marry and commit my life to a person I loved, adored, and trusted completely with my heart.  But as with many fears, sometimes the things we fear the very most do in fact come to pass - perhaps in part God or the universe is choosing to show us that even these things can be survived, especially with faith and (ironically) trust in the One who will never fail us.  I am reminded of this clip from the movie "French Kiss" -


In the movie, "French Kiss", Kate lives in fear of everything falling apart.  And despite all that she does to protect herself, everything still DOES fall apart.  But through that tragedy she learns she can survive and she is eventually able to let go of all the things she has set up around herself to protect herself.  She realizes that all of that which she had set up had actually prevented her from truly LIVING, and that since you can't actually protect yourself against tragedy, it is better to fully live despite the risks, than to fail to live in an attempt to protect oneself against the inevitable.

The movie resonates with me deeply.  Because I had done the same.  I had tried hard to surround myself with the "safe", or to protect my heart from more heart-break and loss by being very careful about who I trusted, who I really let in.

The "wisdom" of this exists in the greater culture too.  Songs such as "owner of a lonely heart"  preach this.

I also saw recently a quote posted on facebook, "Be careful who you trust.  The devil was once an angel."  And my first reaction was "yes!"  After all, the angel I had trusted fell for me during those few years, breaking my heart, breaking trust in a way I could not possibly anticipate.  Additionally, loss compounded loss.  Broken trust led to more broken trust.  And my broken heart was shattered in more than one way.

But sometimes it is only from the most broken shards that we can begin again.  Sometimes the break does need to be complete in order for us to begin to build new hearts that are more full of love, more able to survive betrayal, more able to take the risks of trusting, even while knowing that sometimes that trust will be betrayed, and sometimes our hearts will be broken.

"The devil was once an angel."  But now, two things occur to me about that.
First, when people are angels, we can't anticipate which ones will become devils.  We can't.  The only way to protect ourselves then against our angels becoming devils is to trust no one.  In other words, again, we can choose to fail to really live, fail to really love, in order to protect ourselves.  But we won't succeed in protecting ourselves because life happens even when you don't trust.  And in choosing to not trust anyone we will fail to have experiences and build friendships and relationships and connections that do give us life and do build us up and do enrich us and help us grow.

Second, why is it that the angel-that-was became the devil?  I wonder if the angel had been loved more, if this would not have happened.  No, I'm not so naive anymore as to think that love really conquers ALL.  But I think it does conquer a whole lot.  Sometimes angels become devils because they aren't loved with the depth and fullness they really need.  Sometimes they don't experience enough compassion, enough caring, enough trust to trust fully themselves in such a way as to avoid falling, or at least to minimize it.  In other words, we don't just serve ourselves by taking the risk of loving and trusting.  We also serve those around us by choosing to invest in people, trusting them with our openness, our love, our honesty, and our care.

Is it still hard?  Is it still risky?  Will we be hurt?  Yes, Yes and YES!  It is hard and risky and we WILL be hurt when we make the choice to trust people.  But life is hard and risky and we will also be hurt if we don't trust people.  And personally, I'd rather live and love fully, taking the risks and suffering the cost, than choose to not live and love at all.

Monday, April 7, 2014

last week's sermon - Matthew 25: Visiting the Sick

Matthew 25: visiting the Sick
John 9:1-7
Luke 9:1-6
Matthew 25:31-46

     As we continue our study of Matthew 25, I want to read to you another quote from the commentary “Feasting on the Word”.  The author writes, “In many ways, Matthew's depiction of the last judgment is like a wellness check. Its purpose is not to condemn or scare but to provide a snapshot of our overall health, development, learning, and growth that should lead to new habits and ways of life. After all, as our doctor wants us to flourish, so does our Creator, Redeemer, Judge, and King.  Although not a parable but a narrative depiction of the last judgment, the main thrust of this lection is the same as the previous three parables. The call is to do right at all times. According to 24:10-14, growing antagonism and cooling love are among the most dangerous cancers facing followers of Christ. Distancing ourselves from others, allowing apathy to grow in us like a tumor, expecting that our actions have no real consequences, or relying too heavily on past love and care of others are critical concerns. The image of the Son of Man one day separating sheep and goats is a diagnostic tool designed to inspire faithfulness, root out self-centered living, and help each of us measure who and where we are as we grow in the likeness of Christ.  In fact, the wellness check is so important that throughout this entire teaching block of Matthew (24:1-25:46) the negative warnings (24:48-51; 25:8-12, 24-30, 41-46) are presented in more abrasive detail than the positive affirmations. Telling the story so that the eventual outcome of misguided attitudes and choices will not, and in fact cannot, happen because we now know better (25:37), Jesus teaches that what and whom we choose make a difference. He states clearly and forcefully that those who think there are no consequences to actions are mistaken. In a world that seems too big to be changed, our lives have more meaning and value than we imagine.” (Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).)
I felt that this was especially appropriate for today’s study on visiting the sick.  Because what it points out is that the sick we care for, when we care for the sick, are, once again, ourselves.  We are the ones in need of healing, we are the ones in need of correctives and the prescription that we are given for our disabilities, our inabilities and our human illness is to follow Jesus.
We see this clearly in today’s passage, but perhaps we see it even more clearly in other passages.  The passage we read from John that talks about Jesus healing the blind man ends with the following chastisement of the Pharisees:  Jesus said, “I have come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don’t see can see and those who see will become blind.”  Some Pharisees who were with him heard what he said and asked, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”  Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
A similar thing happens with the man Jesus heals who is deaf and mute.  In the book of Mark, Jesus cures this man and those around him prove themselves instead to be the ones who fail to really hear and fail to speak truth or wisdom.
       Who are the sick?  Who are the blind?  Who are the deaf?  It is shown again and again through scripture that the blind are often those who will not see.  The deaf are those who refuse to hear.  And the sick are often those who physically appear the healthiest, but who live lives that are not godly.  The passage from Matthew, as we read it today, gives us the cure, invites us into the health that Jesus offers.  We find that health by doing what Jesus asks – by caring for one another, by understanding at the deepest level that we are all connected, all one, all so intimately united by God’s love that we literally are healing ourselves and feeding ourselves and caring for ourselves when we care for others.
As for the tasks that are listed, I think that St. Andrew’s, through our care committee and through amazing people like Nancy, Sue and Regina do an wonderful job of visiting the sick.  Others in our congregation are constant care-givers – Janet; Carmen; Karla, Dave and Karen; Jane and Rich; Judy; Lindy: for our families, for our friends.  Others volunteer and work in care-giving professions – such as Katie, and Trish.  We visit people at home, we visit people in the hospital, we visit people going through rehab.  And we do more than visit.  We pray with people, we care for people, we spend time with them.  We genuinely care about our people who are struggling, and we offer our presence and anything else we know how to offer.  As much as if not more than any of the other things on Matthew’s list, we do this caring for the sick and we do it well.  That is something you should feel really proud of.  Even if you can’t or don’t do this as an individual, as a community we are amazing in our care for others.
         Where is our challenge, then, in this?  Well, our challenge is to remember that we really are ALL sick.  None of us are completely well.  And so again, when we visit the LEAST of these – those who may not appear to need our care, but need it just as much, we are also doing it for Jesus.
     At a previous church where I served, the people of our congregation were intimately involved with a program that served the homeless.  We were part of a community of churches that provided food, showers, haircuts, community fellowship, resources for getting one’s life back together, clothing and a variety of other services and goods.  Through this work and through our time with the homeless people in our community, we developed a very close relationship with one homeless man in particular.  This man was very loving, very giving, very caring.  He began attending our church and when he did so, he offered to run our sound system, he helped with the gardening, he was always on hand to help us in any way.  He was not unintelligent, but he was a severe alcoholic who could not seem to get through the disease to a place where he could give up drinking.  He would give it up for a week or two and then something would happen and he would be drinking again.  We saw him fight for his life against this disease and we saw him losing the battle.  For a while he lived on the church campus, but we, too set boundaries around his drinking behavior and when he could not live up to them, he could no longer stay on the church campus.  Still, he understood our need to protect the children and families who came to our church and so he continued to be an active member of our community, and we continued to provide care, love and support within the boundaries.  At one point however in our relationship with this man whom I'll call "George", he had a seizure while walking along the street, fell and hit his head.  The police found him hours later and took him to the local hospital.  His injuries, especially to his brain, were very serious and he was admitted for long term hospitalization and rehabilitation.  However, when the nurses and doctors at the hospital came to understand that he was a homeless, jobless, resource-less man, they gave up caring for him.  He remained at the hospital for quite a while, because he was unable to walk a straight line, he could not speak clearly and had very little control over his movements.  But in large part he was at the hospital for so long because they would not provide the care to get him to a place where they could discharge him.  The people of our church loved "George" for the gentle caring soul that he was, and it broke all of our hearts to see our brother in faith, our brother in Christ, our neighbor, the neighbor Jesus calls us to care for, treated in this way.  But the only time that George received any attention – sometimes the only time he would be brought his meals even – was when one of us was there to insist on it.  We paid what we could to the hospital, but our church was mostly made of working class families and retired folk on fixed income, and we simply did not have the resources to pay for better medical care for our brother.  Still, we brought him food.  We sat with him.  We fought for him with the medical personnel.  We cared for him.   Two years ago I learned that George had died.  He was in his 50s, and while he remained a homeless man struggling with alcohol addiction until the end, his funeral was well attended by those of our church who had loved him, visited him, provided care for him.
        Again, this is something that is done well at St. Andrew’s, too.  We fight for those without resources who are members of our community with the medical people, and with any who would deny these the care they need.
       My prayer for all of you is that as you care and love others, you feel God’s healing hand caring for you as well.  That you experience God’s touch on your heart as you touch the hands and minds of those who are sick.  That you know Jesus love for you, as a person struggling with the human illness, even as you offer love to those who struggle with human diseases around you.  In the name of the one who loves you into being and into wholeness and into healing we pray.  Amen.