Thursday, April 27, 2017

Those charming, charismatic kids - or Lessons from Jane Austen, Part II

       In all but one of Jane Austen's books there is a character who is absolutely charming but who turns out to be a scoundrel and the ultimate villain in her books.  In Pride and Prejudice it is Wickam.  In Sense and Sensibility it is Willoughby.  In Persuasion it is Mr. Elliott.  In Emma it is Frank Churchill.  In Mansfield Park it is Henry Crawford.  In Northanger Abbey it is Captain Tilney.  All of them have similarities.  They are charming. They are charismatic. They are entertaining. They are romantic. They are popular. They have skills and resources in abundance.  Some are good looking, some are rich.  But whatever else they have, their primary quality is that because of their charm, their charisma, they are easily admired by everyone around them. And because of all of that, they are used to getting what they want. People bend over backwards to be with them. Even smart, intelligent characters are fooled by them and would do anything for them.  But they have one other thing in common as well.  They have no morals, no compass, no true empathy for others, and they use and abuse others cruelly to get what they want without remorse or regret. They charm their way through anything and everything and still come out smelling like roses, even after they have devastated the lives of those around them. They smile, they nod their heads, and they move on to charm and then devastate other people. No matter who they have hurt or in what way, they still come off well, still end surrounded by people who admire them and want to be with them, still can get whatever they want through their charm and charisma. The conflict in many of these stories comes at the point at which someone says "no" to them.  Because they never hear "no", they deal with it poorly, usually by seeking revenge on the one who has seen through them.  Their revenge has the potential in each of these stories to ruin the main characters of the books.  My sense is that the only reason it doesn't is that these are stories, stories with the intention of happy endings.
       As I said in my last Jane Austen blog post, Jane Austen's gift is that she is able to capture accurately so much about human nature, and this is no exception.  Unfortunately, these charming, charismatic, delightful scoundrels are real. They charm and then use and abuse. They devastate lives, but do it with a smile and an "explanation" that is nothing but lies, but is also so seductive and inviting that most people are fooled and continue to want to be around them and give them whatever they want no matter what kind of damage they have done to others. They seek revenge when they hear "no" and do so with such charm and finesse that only the wisest see them for what they are, and those who are hurt by them often suffer multiple injuries since their version will never be believed when the charmer puts forward his own story. As Lizzie said in Pride and Prejudice, "And if I endeavour to undeceive people as to ... his conduct, who will believe me?"  Lizzie was respected and well liked, but she did not have the charismatic charm of Wickam.  She knew, then, that people would only really see him for who he was when he injured them directly.  And in the mean time, his previously cruel and vengeful behavior would have to go untold.
       I found myself reflecting on all of this this last week in regards to several different situations.  I have a friend who works with very young children.  She was sharing with me that one of the girls she works with has already begun this behavior.  She is cruel to the other children, but so charming when she chooses to be that everyone wants to be her friend.  She fools her parents and other adults, but when she believes she is not being watched, she says unspeakable things to the other children, and seeks revenge on any child who does not give her what she wants, primarily by socially alienating them. Through her charisma and charm she has the personal power to do that successfully and she uses it to bully, control and devastate children who have dared to exercise their own personal power, have dared to say "no" or have dared to do anything other than what this one girl wants in that moment. My friend has tried to encourage the other children to choose different children to play with. But this little girl has an amazing gravitational force that the other children simply don't know how to step away from to choose something different. Even in her best moments she is insensitive, unaware of the other kids' feelings, and hurtful as a result. As I listened to her story, I thought that since the parents and most other adults don't see it and aren't willing to try to correct it (my friend being the exception), this is a child who will continue to act this way, will have no reason to develop empathy for others and will no doubt become like one of the villains in a Jane Austen novel - charming and devastatingly cruel.
       Similarly, my youngest two children were talking about kids at their schools who behave like this.  By late elementary and junior high these behaviors have been honed in those who learn them. They are better about "sneaking" their cruel behavior while charming the adults or others with power who could challenge it or protect the other children hurt by it.  They form "cliques" of the popular kids who have that same gravitational force that draws others to want to be with them, want to be near them, even when they exclude, are unkind, or sometimes are truly cruel.
        I wish that this behavior were outgrown.  And I think that for some it is.  By college, I think most people do have some kind of empathy and conscience that kicks in.  But unfortunately it just doesn't for everyone.  If you were never forced to develop empathy as a kid, it may not be possible to develop it as an adult. Narcissistic personalities tend to be charming and without empathy. Psychopaths go a step further. They, too, are usually extremely charming and often viewed as very trustworthy, though they are incapable of truly empathizing with others (they are very capable of pretending empathy), and so their behavior is often cruel, especially when it serves their own purposes (see http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2015/02/12/differences-between-a-psychopath-vs-sociopath/), but again, often in a "hidden" way so that it does not become apparent to other people and they never have to experience the consequences of their cruelty. We still know adults acting in this way, we still find people using their charm to be cruel.
      As I've listened to the news over the last year, I have been struck by how many of these people have made it, through that charisma and charm, but without any empathy or morality, into very successful public lives: Several politicians in response to the massacres in Oregon and in Orlando saying, "stuff happens" (clearly incapable of empathy), that shop owner who rejoiced over the shooting in San Bernadino because as she said it, "killings always result in more gun sales!" (again, no empathy), other prominent figures, with their complete inability or desire to understand people who are different from themselves, different backgrounds, different classes, different cultures who are seen as disposable and whose deaths are not counted. Why do people listen to them?  Because they are seductive, they have a certain "charm". We hear about charismatic pastors on a regular basis who abuse that power with children or with their congregants. They are so loved by their congregations that even when they do truly unspeakable stuff, the charismatic leaders are usually defended and often fail to be held accountable.  I am certain that there are many who never get caught at all for the same reason.  "Who would believe it?" I hear Lizzie say once more. Rather than be victimized again by telling their story to people who would rather believe the charming, charismatic leader, many victims choose to remain silent.
      The point?  I guess the point is that we have to look deeper, always.  And that being seduced by charming, charismatic folk because it feels good to be around them rather than really looking at their behavior or their words for substance or lack there of leads to pain, if not for ourselves, then undoubtedly for others. That listening to those who aren't as charming or charismatic for their take on a story is more than important: it is vital.  That charm can be dangerous and seductive and one should be careful about trusting it: those who have it are used to getting their way and often have not learned how to handle disappointment with grace, nor to be sympathetic to other people's needs or experiences. And finally, that if you do find yourself the victim of one of these charming charismatic people, know that you aren't alone. That your seduction by their charm was a normal, natural, human reaction. Hopefully we learn from those painful lessons to look deeper the next time. And we can pray and work so that others aren't hurt in the same way. Perhaps the first step is simply to name it for what it is.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Holy Humor

A tourist in Vienna is going through a graveyard and all of a sudden he hears music. No one is around, so he starts searching for the source. He finally locates the origin and finds it is coming from a grave with a headstone that reads "Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827". Then he realizes that the music is the Ninth Symphony and it is being played backward! Puzzled, he leaves the graveyard and persuades a friend to return with him. By the time they arrive back at the grave, the music has changed. This time it is the Seventh Symphony, but like the previous piece, it is being played backward. Curious, the men agree to consult a music scholar. When they return with the expert, the Fifth Symphony is playing, again backward. The expert notices that the symphonies are being played in the reverse order in which they were composed, the 9th, then the 7th, then the 5th. By the next day the word has spread and a crowd has gathered around the grave. They are all listening to the Second Symphony being played backward. Just then the graveyard's caretaker ambles up to the group. Someone in the group asks him if he has an explanation for the Music.  
"I would have thought it was obvious" the caretaker says.
"He's decomposing."


As I’ve shared before, “Laughter Sunday (also known as Holy Humour Sunday, Hilarity Sunday, God’s Laughter Sunday, Bright Sunday or Holy Fools Sunday) has its roots in a number of different Christian traditions.  For example, churches in 15th century Bavaria used to celebrate the Sunday after Easter as Risus Paschalis (‘God’s Joke,’ or ‘the Easter laugh’). Priests would deliberately include jokes in their sermons in an attempt to make congregants laugh. After the service, people would gather together to play practical jokes on one another and tell funny stories. It was their way of celebrating the resurrection of Christ – the supreme joke God played on Satan by raising Jesus from the dead.  However, this all changed in the 17th century when a pope outlawed it.  Then in 1988, the Fellowship of Merry Christians began encouraging churches to resurrect this tradition by once again taking a day to celebrate God’s joy, resurrection and overcoming of even death, through the gift of laughter and joy. 
            While the psalms we read encourage joy, and laughter is a way of expressing our joy, there is also humor in the Bible.  Some of the stories are joyful, but others are downright funny.  Professor Hershey Friedman says that the different types of humor we find in scripture include, sarcasm, irony, wordplay, humorous names, humorous imagery, and humorous situations.  A couple of examples, when the Israelites were fleeing Egypt, they used sarcasm in confronting Moses by saying, “was there a lack of graves in Egypt that you took us away to die in the wilderness?”  In the book of Samuel, Achish said to David, “Why did you bring him to me? Do I lack lunatics that you have brought this one to carry on insanely in my presence?"  Jesus says, “"You are like a person who picks a fly out of his drink and then swallows a camel", and a little later, “"Does anyone bring a lamp home and put it under a washtub or beneath the bed? Don't you put it up on a table or on the mantel?"  God names Isaac “laughter”.  The one who leads us forward, who is our ancestor in faith is named “laughter”. 
            Laughter is a gift from God in so many ways.  Research shows that laughing actually has pain-reducing capacities, and it raises our pain threshold so we can tolerate pain better and we experience it less when we are laughing and for some time after a full, strong laugh.  It helps us learn – we learn better after a good laugh.  And it boosts our immune-enhancing capacities.  When we laugh fully and completely, we are said to “lose” it.  What we actually “lose” in those moments is the distractions of everything else – the distraction of our self-consciousness, the distractions of the stresses in our lives, the problems of the moment, the concerns of the hour.  In the moments of laughter we become completely present in the now – and that moment, that NOW is where God is. 
            Sometimes we are afraid of connecting laughter with our faith, and yet, God delights in our joy and laughter is a part of that. 
Humor has other advantages as well.  It catches us off guard in a way that allows us to hear things differently, to hear things a new.  And because of that, laughter and humor also allows us to express truths in ways that we can sometimes hear differently or more easily.  Humor can get in to our minds, hearts and souls more fully, confront us with our own ridiculousness, our own hypocrisies, our own inner contradictions.  That’s why political cartoons are so effective.  They point out to us what we are really doing, often in ways that are so much more hard hitting, and yet at the same time ironically easier to hear. 
            Some non-political examples:  
            Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.
            In filling out an application, where it says, 'In case of emergency, Notify:'  I put DOCTOR'.
            Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.
Money isn’t everything, but it sure keeps the kids in touch.
If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you.          
          
            We see ourselves in these jokes.  We see ‘truth’ in these jokes.  They make us laugh because they tell us truths we don’t usually look at, don’t usually name, don’t usually think about, and certainly don’t think about in these ways. They make us laugh and that is a gift.  But they also point out realities that we don’t always see, and that is a gift as well.  Laughter also open us up to hear more serious truths in another way, too.  One sermon advice tidbit we were given at seminary was to speak our most poignant truths right after a joke – right after making people laugh because studies show we hear better, differently, more fully after laughing, and if we can say something funny right before saying something hard hitting, people usually take it in better.  Humor, laughter, does that for us.
On this, the second Sunday of Easter, we continue to celebrate the story of Jesus’ resurrection.  And through it we are reminded that God has the final “laugh”.  This time that laugh is on death itself.  Even that is overcome, to the surprise, to the joy, to the delight of God’s people and the disciples in particular.  God is the God of the amazing, of healing, of joy, of laughter.  And today we celebrate that gift – we honor that gift by laughing with God, by enjoying life with God.  But it, too, is best realized through laughter.  The joke is on Satan.  The joke is on evil.  We win.  It is hilarious and wondrous and wonderful that just when evil thought it got the ultimate prize in Christ, even death was overcome.  That is not only something to rejoice in, it is not only something to celebrate, it is something to laugh about!  God won!  When it was least expected, God won!

A nearsighted minister glanced at a note that Mrs. Jones had sent to him by an usher.  The note read, “Bill Jones having gone to sea, his wife desires the prayers of the congregation for his safety.”  Failing to note the punctuation, the cleric startled the parish by announcing, “Bill Jones, having gone to see his wife, desires the prayers of the congregation for his safety.”

A woman said to the pastor at the end of a service, “I hope you didn’t take it personally that my husband walked out during your sermon.”
The pastor responded, “well, it was a little disconcerting.”
“It’s not a reflection on you” she insisted, “Daniel has been walking in his sleep ever since he was a child.”

When the new pastor came to town, he began to visit all her parishioners.  All was fine until she knocked on the Jones’ door.  It was obvious someone was at home, but no one came to the door.  So she finally wrote on the back of her business card, “Revelation 3:20, ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to that one.” And she stuck it on the door.  On Sunday, her card found its way into the offering plate.  Below her message was written these words, “Genesis 3:10, “And he said, I heard your voice in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid myself.”

A small girl was reprimanded by her mother for giggling during prayer.  “It’s okay, Mom,” she said.  “I was just sharing a joke with God.”

Pastor: “I was just reading over this letter you did.  Your typing is really improving.  I see there are only seven mistakes here.”
Secretary: “Thank you, Pastor.
Pastor, “Now, moving on to the second line…”


Unhappy pastor and his frustrated church bill ringer are standing in the steeple and the minister explained, “no, no Hibby!  It’s ding after dong except after bong.”

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Easter

Christ is Risen Indeed!
Jeremiah 31:1-6
John 20:1-18

            It is understandable that there are times, at least, when we find the resurrection so distant from us that it doesn’t really affect our daily living.  We live in a cynical age, an age of pessimism and despair.  I listen to the words of popular songs on the radio.  20, 40, 50 years ago the words were things like, “Every little thing she does is magic” and “Love is all we need” and “I can see me loving nobody but you, for all my life!” and “God only knows what I’d be without you!”  But today words to popular songs on the radio include “I’m not going to write you a love song!” and “All these fairy tales are full of it, one more stupid love song, I’ll be sick!” and “Now you’re just somebody that I used to know!”  and “And now it’s clear to me that everything you see ain’t always what it seems.  Falling from cloud nine, crashing from the height.”  “Who died and made you king of anything”  “I don’t care for your fairy tales, you’re so worried about the maiden but you know she’s only waiting on the next best thing.  Once upon a time in a far away kingdom, man made up a story said that I should believe him, but go and tell your white knight while he’s handsome in hindsight, I don’t want the next best thing.”  “Gotta move on and be who I am.  I gotta do what’s best for me, You’ll be okay.” “No one said it was easy.  No one said it would be so hard.  I’m going back to the start.”  Even Christian lyrics express this broken idea of love, “How I wish we could go back to simpler times, Before all our scars and all our secrets were in the light, Now on this hallowed ground, we've drawn the battle lines, Will we make it through the night?”  Etc.
            I read a wonderful book called The Beethoven Factor by psychologist Paul Pearsall (Charlottesvill, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing, 2003).  In it he discusses what he calls the eighth deadly sin or “Acedia”.  He says, “Acedia was removed from the list of deadly sins in the sixth century by Pope Gregory the Great, but this sin of living with fatigued apathy, cynicism, ennui, and general spiritual weariness is still committed by millions every day.  In fact, languishing now far exceeds depression as the number one emotional problem in the Western world.  Unlike those whose life crisis led them to discover the capacity to thrive, flourish and savor, three of four of us are missing out on the full gift of being alive.”
And this cynicism is not just relegated to the secular world.  It exists in our churches as well.  Gil Rendle’s book,  Journey in the Wilderness (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010) looks at the alarming rate of decline in our Christian churches in the United States as well as the attempts over the last 50 years to stop the decline, to reverse the decline.  Every effort we’ve made has been unsuccessful, though we have tried many things with these different attempts.  And this does not just leave congregations fearful (especially where finances are concerned), desperate and needy.  It affects individuals and perhaps especially clergy.  There are increasingly too many clergy for the smaller number of congregations.  But it is more than that. 
Studies show that pastors work harder than ever now, with decreasing rewards as we are paid less, focus more and more energy on building our churches, and are often blamed for their decline at the same time.  I have a pastor friend of another denomination who went to a renewal of his clergy vows and was sharing with me the ethos of despair and pessimism and cynicism that he experienced among his colleagues who were there to renew their answer of “yes” to God’s call for their lives to be clergy.  They chose to do this renewal of vows because they love God and love the church, and yet there was a strong feeling of depression, of sadness, of despair, even in that renewal as they looked at the struggle to find lasting employment in declining congregations, as they struggled, sharing ideas about how to keep small congregations in shrinking denominations from dying, and realizing the many things that have been tried without success. Is it any wonder that we find stories of the resurrection distant?  Inaccessible?  Irrelevant?  That in many of our congregations people sit, even on Easter, and say “Christ is risen” as if they were saying, “It’s raining outside today” – as if it didn’t matter, as if it made no difference to their lives at all?
Does it matter? Does it make a difference? We come here every week to proclaim the good news that Christ is Risen. We come here as a statement that it does matter.  It matters more than anything else in the world. It is the deepest truth we will know and experience and it makes all the difference in our lives.  I stand here and proclaim this every week because I believe that it matters.  I do it more because I have seen that it is true.  I have experienced that it is true.  I have experienced the presence of the risen Christ, and I have experienced again and again that death, especially death for others, out of care, out of compassion, out of grace, ends with the resurrection, with renewal, with new life when we are open to God’s movement and God’s ever-changing love.  The truth that began with Jesus’ resurrection that God will raise us from death, this is a truth that transcends everything.  It is a truth that is so deep, that is so important that even our fairy tales and classic stories espouse this truth again and again and again.  What is the most popular selling book other than the Bible?  The Harry Potter series made more sales than any other book in the history of publishing except for the Bible.  And how does the series conclude?  (spoiler alert - so anyone who hasn’t read the entire series yet may want to cover their ears for a moment), 1st Cor. 15:26 is quoted in the final Harry Potter book, when Harry visits his parent’s graves. He is disturbed by these words “The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” but Hermione tells him that these are not words to be disturbed by but that they bring comfort. Harry finds that in order to stand up and defeat the evil in his world, Lord Voldemort, he has to defeat his fear of death.  It is the fear of death that he has to conquer, and to conquer it, he has to be willing to die to save his friends.  But as we know, that death, just like Jesus’ death, does not have the final word.  And while Harry Potter is a story, a fairy tale, I believe that a large part of its popularity is not just that J.K Rowling is creative and inventive, but that, like most deeply appreciated literature, it tells truths that tap deep into our psyche.  The truth of love protecting Harry against evil, the truth of love being a stronger “magic” than any other, the truth of a life lived connected to Love or God being stronger than even death, the truth of resurrection after death – all of these truths speak to us deep in our souls.
            Again, we see this in most of our classics.  The ones that are more existential in their faith end with the death – like in the Tale of Two cities – they end with the idea that love is being willing to die for another.  But the ones that speak to Christians the most tend to be the ones that include the resurrection following the death.  Authors such as Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, but also secular authors tell the same story.  And we love these books because they speak truth.  They speak the truth not only of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but of ours as well.  They speak the truth that we all need to hear, that God loves us more than we can imagine.  And that it is out of that love, out of that love that transcends everything that we are given new life after every death if we only open ourselves to the God who gives it.
If we can see this, if we can embrace this, if we can experience the resurrection, we can live, not only in the life to come, but NOW as well – letting go of our fear, letting go of our languishing, living into hardiness, happiness, healing, growth and HOPE.
            Paul Pearsall told this story in the Beethoven Factor, “There stood Beethoven, gravely ill and totally deaf.  Eyes closed, he kept conducting the orchestra even after they had ceased their performance and the audience had risen to its feet in thunderous applause.  As a singer stepped from the choir to turn him around to see those whose shouts of “bravo” resonated throughout the concert hall, tears of elation filled his eyes.  Perhaps the worst loss a composer could experience had been the catalyst for a remarkably adaptive creativity that allowed him to transcend his tortures to become immersed in the thrill of conducting the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy”.  At that moment, and not only in spite of but because of his adversity, Beethoven had experienced the thrill of thriving through adversity.”
            As Christians we would tell the same story, with one extremely important difference.  We would put it in terms of the cross.  Because of the pain of the cross, there is a resurrection.  Because of Jesus’ willingness to die for love, new life, greater life, better life, God’s life can shine not only through Christ, but through us as well.  As a church, the story is the same.  Gil Rendle continues in his book to the promise that even for the church a resurrection is promised, though we will not know yet what that looks like.  All of us, as community and as individuals are invited into new life by the resurrection of our Lord.  Will we seize it?  Will we embrace it as we face challenges, hardships and even death?  Will we raise our voices in song, in exclamation, in praise for the God who calls us to LIVE into all the blessings of each day?  Will we say with enthusiasm and with conviction, “Christ is Risen, He is risen indeed!”  For that is the truth.  The deepest truth. 
     Christ is Risen!!

            “He is risen indeed!”

Good Friday Homily


                                                            Luke 23:33-43
                                   
God’s way is different.  It is different from anything we can understand or relate to. Throughout our religious history, God has been trying to tell us this.  Don’t do it like that.  Do it with love, do it with forgiveness and compassion and the courage to care for everyone – even those who don’t care for us, even our enemies, even those who hate us.  We didn’t listen when the prophets told us this, and when we could not live it based on what God said to us through scriptures and stories and people and history,  finally Jesus came.  God sent Jesus to show us this other way, this different way.  Jesus came, the ultimate king, who acts nothing like we expect or understand rulers or leaders to behave.  He doesn’t walk around with body guards protecting his every step.  He doesn’t insist on taking from the poor to feed himself or his family or his profession or the services he offers us.  He doesn’t build a strong defense system or walls. He doesn’t push anyone out, push anyone away. He shows us something very, VERY different.  He feeds anyone who comes to him hungry.  He heals anyone who comes to him sick (and sometimes even dead such as Talitha and Lazurus).  He listens and allows even the most rejected, the least “acceptable”, the least “worthy” to physically touch him.  He includes children, women, people of different nationalities and backgrounds such as the Syrophoenicians and the Samaritans, he includes tax collectors and prostitutes.  He doesn’t reject them because they aren’t “the chosen ones” or part of his nation, or part of what we deem acceptable.  He doesn’t take their wealth and live in a big mansion.  He lives poorly, simply, and asks for nothing in return.  He relies on the kindness of strangers and does not worry about his own survival or well-being.  He leads with TRUTH rather than threats or bribery.
And when THIS king, this king that we cannot understand, this king who acts completely differently from what we want or expect or demand from our human rulers, when this king is killed, as of course he would be for teaching such a radical, outrageous, different way of being; this king still, on the cross, in his dying moments, behaves completely differently from any king we can imagine.  He doesn’t send for his troops to rescue him.  He doesn’t call for war or seek violence or revenge in any way.  He doesn’t threaten to end or kill or even incarcerate or punish those who did this to him.  He doesn’t shout out “you will be sorry”, “You will pay for this”, and he doesn’t fight back. He does not jump off the cross to save himself, despite the pain, and the inevitable death that he faces.  He does not “negotiate” or play politics.  He does not play numbers games, he does not lie, he does not try to scare everyone or do what would inevitably boost his popularity.
Instead, as he hangs there on the cross, as he dies, as he suffers the deepest pain, he continues to think about others, others who are suffering.  And again, it isn’t the “good” people he worries about in that moment. It isn’t those who support him, those who love him, those who are kind to him.  It isn’t those who believe in him or who send money to his cause. It is anyone, anyone at all who is suffering.  He is hanging on the cross next to two people who have done wrong, who are being killed as criminals for some atrocity or another.  Maybe they were both murderers.  Maybe they killed children.  We aren’t told.  What we are told is that in that moment Jesus doesn’t ask.  He doesn’t care what they have done.  What he cares about is that they are scared and suffering.  And in that moment, this king, who does not “rescue” them or himself, even when he is goaded on to do so, instead, in that moment, as he suffers, hanging on the cross – he offers to the criminal crucified next to him the promise of paradise.  He reaches out with the strength of knowledge and love that goes beyond any personal suffering, and he offers life beyond life to the scared and dying person next to him. He also prays.  And his prayer, too, is not the prayer we would hear out of the mouths of earthly leaders.  It is not a prayer for victory.  It is not a prayer of revenge.  It isn’t a prayer of “show those people what they’ve done!”  His prayer is not one of anger or hate.  Instead, he asks God to forgive the people who are torturing him to his death.
This is the man who shows us who God is.  He lives life following God to the fullest, and he pays for it with death, a death he accepts even while he loves and cares for those around him, even those whom, like this criminal next to him, we would probably not deem worthy of that love or care.

This is the man who shows us who God is.  More, this is the man who calls us to go and do likewise.  Can we be so forgiving?  Can we put aside our need for vengeance, for revenge?  Can we put aside anger and hate?  Can we put aside our need for others who have hurt us to hurt as well?  God shows us what to do.  Jesus shows us what leads us into life.  All we have to do…all we have to do…is choose love.  

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Palm Sunday - Blessed is the One

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.  One who would save them now from the hardships of this lifetime by ending those hardships, by coming in glory and allowing them to live full, vibrant and rich 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.  I’ve shared with you before Kierkegaard’s saying about grief – “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you'll never 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 angry and harmed 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?
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 core level, that caused us to envision 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.  But then I find myself wondering.  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 doing what God has called him to do.  It may not be what you expected.  It may not be what we wanted, but we need to open our hearts, open our 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 quiet voice that failed 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 to 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.  There are a lot of reasons for that silence.  The strongest reason of course being fear.  If they stood up to those crying for his crucifixion, they, too may have ended up dead.  There children might have been left without parents.  Their children might have been killed too.  But despite that fear we are called to ask, 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.  These too were people who were afraid.  They were afraid for their own lives, afraid for the lives of their families.  Their fear makes sense.  But 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.  What things are we afraid to take a stand on, for good reasons?  I watched a documentary this last with with my son on Anne Frank.  One of those who lived through the Holocaust, I believe it was actually Anne’s father said  that the nicest people in the world were the Germans who did nothing. They were nice, they did not create waves. But they also did not stand up to injustice. Again, we can understand the danger, the risk they would have been taking had they chosen to speak. But in failing to do so, they allowed great evil to occur and were participants in it.
It is hard to stand up to injustice. It is even harder to defend people whom we, too, may not like, may not understand, or who may 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 the pull within our own beings towards either destruction or silence in the face of injustice, especially when we are afraid.  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 the times 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 part 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. To work to change it.  To commit to standing for those who have no one to stand up with them.  This is not easy.  It is deeply hard, especially when we are afraid.  But when we cannot face the evil in ourselves, we are in grave danger of letting it take us over.  We must face it, we must confront it.  Especially when it takes the form of apathy, and of inactivity.
But the second thing that we are called to, which can be even harder, is, even in the face of such evil as the crucifixion of Christ, to try to respond with some grace to 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.  That doesn’t mean we allow them to act this way.  It doesn’t mean we allow injustice.  But when we can understand the other, the one doing evil, we have a much greater chance of changing it, of confronting it.  We must do this – see the other with compassion for two reasons.  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.
               As I wrote this sermon I was reminded of a scene from MASH.  In this episode, kids from the United States wrote letters to the MASH doctors and staff.  Most of the letters were positive, expressing gratitude for the work the doctors had done.  Some asked questions.  But 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.  The doctors in the MASH unit fixed him up, but in doing so, they enabled him to return to fighting and he had then been 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.  The letter deeply affected Hawkeye.  But eventually, he responded in this way:
“Ronnie, it’s not a good idea to take the love you had for your brother and turn it into hate.  Hate makes war and war is what killed him.  I understand your feelings.  Sometimes I hate myself for being here.  But once in a while in the midst of this insanity a very small event can make my being here seem almost bearable.  I’m sorry I don’t have an answer for you, Ronnie, except to suggest that you look for good wherever you can find it.”
               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’ve shared this poem before, but every Palm Sunday I am reminded of it again: 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 differently, and I would encourage you to think about how you might write this poem today.  Maybe we are called to reflect back on what we studied in Matthew this month and rewrite it this way:
First they came for the hungry, but I did not speak out because I was not hungry.
Then they came for the thirsty, and I did not speak out because I was not thirsty.
Then they came for the naked, but I did not speak out because I was not naked.
Then they came for the stranger, the immigrant, but I did not speak out because I was not a stranger, not an immigrant.
Then they came for the sick, but I did not speak out because I was not sick.
Then they came for those in prison, but I did not speak out because I was not in prison.
And finally 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 faith 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 and grace 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.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Kindness to those we love?

       Why is it that it is often harder to be kind to those we love than it is to be kind to strangers, and even people we don't like?  I've been reflecting on two couples that I knew a long time ago and their public interactions with one another.  With both couples, the husband constantly shut down the wife in public.  It wasn't just that these men disagreed with their spouses.  It's okay to have different opinions even from those closest to us, and to express those.  But in both of these cases the husbands seemed to be embarrassed by the behavior of their spouses and suppressed them with sharp words, with barbed insults, and with belittling behavior.  It was painful to watch.  And while these men probably were embarrassed by the words or theatrics or expressions of their spouse, they frankly should have been much more embarrassed by their own behavior.  While none of us present for these interactions were upset, bothered or offended by what was said by the wives at the time, all of us were made uncomfortable and upset by their husbands' attempts to shut them up.  I remember after one episode, one of those watching this interaction whispering to me, "Why on earth does she STAY with him?!"  To which my only reply was, "It's beyond my understanding."
        In the past I've assumed that the cause of this was a lack of boundaries.  Somehow the husbands saw their wives as an extension of themselves.  If their wives said something they didn't like, they felt it somehow reflected badly on themselves so they felt the need to squash it and make it clear to everyone present that they just didn't agree or didn't think it should be expressed that way, or didn't like what was being said or done. I understand this.  We see this with parents and children too.  If a young daughter or son is behaving badly, we can feel embarrassed because we feel it is a reflection on us.  When that same child is a teenager, the tables often turn and they become embarrassed by our behavior as the adults.  In those situations it is hard to separate ourselves from the loved one.  We feel their behavior is a commentary on us as well and we can become embarrassed by it.
       Of course from an outsider's perspective, it is easy to see that the embarrassment is misplaced. The best parents may still have a child who acts out, a child with issues, a child with their own minds. The best kids may still have parents who are socially awkward or who do silly or outrageous things. Spouses who love each other may still disagree about big issues and may express themselves in very different ways.  Most of us are able to separate people and we don't see Jane as a reflection of Joe, or Davis as a commentary on Suzie.
        But then I started to think about this in the bigger context of why people are unkind to others. Sometimes people carry a lot of anger and it comes out in unkindness to others.  Sometimes people are afraid and they express that by putting up walls of anger or meanness between themselves and others.  Sometimes people feel insecure and pushing others down is a way they try to raise themselves up (doesn't work, but doesn't seem to stop people from trying). Sometimes people are tired and forget their filters.  Sometimes people are carrying too much and dumping on others feels like letting off some of their stress.
       Why are we more unkind to those we love than to strangers?  Maybe it's because we recognize that those we love will most likely put up with our behavior, will still stay with us, will continue to love us.  We don't know how the stranger or those more distant from us will react.  It may just feel safer to express our anger, our fear, our insecurity or our discomfort to those who understand us and whose responses to our behavior are much more predictable.
       But whatever the reasons may be, here are my thoughts about unkindness this day:
       1.  Being unkind to others spreads discord rather than peace. It also doesn't actually make us feel better.  It doesn't serve any purpose that is useful or good or productive.
       2.  No matter what we may be feeling about something the other did or said or expressed, being unkind does not encourage others to change for the better. We don't change other people for the better through being mean. If we don't like something, the direct, honest, but kind approach is much more likely to result in positive change or at least in deeper understanding on our part.
       3.  Most of the time the people who need to change when we are inclined towards criticizing others is ourselves.  We need to change our attitude and remember the other is not an extension or reflection on us.  We need to confront our insecurities and remember that another person succeeding does not mean we are failing and the things that anger us say more about who we are than about the other. We need to face our fears and recognize that being unkind will not stop the things we are most afraid of.  Perhaps speaking our minds clearly, kindly and directly will.  But acting out of anger or rage never will prevent the things we fear the most.
        4.  When we are unkind, it only reflects badly on us, not the person we are attacking.  I'm not saying here that we should be controlled by how others see us.  What I am saying is that our responses to feeling embarrassed often do much more damage that whatever it was that embarrassed us in the first place.  Therefore, choosing compassion and kindness, no matter what the other did, always makes more sense.
       5.  It is hard work to look at ourselves to figure out why we are behaving the way we are.  But it is a worth while exercise if we want to contribute to the world in a positive way.  If we don't know ourselves, we are more likely to act out of unconscious feelings rather than choosing how we respond and what impact we will have on our world.
       6.  It really doesn't take that much energy to respond honestly and with kindness, rather than rashly and out of anger.

There is so much more that could be said here.  But I will limit it to this for now.
Be kind, to those you don't know, to acquaintances, and to loved ones. We will never know our impact on the world, not really.  But chances are pretty good that when you choose kindness, your impact has a much better chance of making a positive difference in the world. A small effort may make a huge change. It's worth the try.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Matthew 25: visiting those in Prison

Isaiah 61:1-11
Luke 4:14-21
Matthew 25:31-46

Today we finish the Matthew 25 series by looking at visiting those in prison.  I think this is the hardest of Jesus’ injunctions and words to us.  Not that any of the other things we are called to do are easy.  It isn’t easy to feed the hungry or give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, or welcome the stranger.  It isn’t easy to visit those who are sick.  But generally we do all of this well in most of our church communities, despite the challenges to us, despite how hard these things are.  Some of these things we do more easily than others, but we do them all, as a community, and as individuals. 
But visiting those in prison?  That’s a different matter altogether.  And for very good reasons.  First of all, we mostly have compassion for the homeless, the hungry, those in desperate or difficult situations.  But even when we run into people asking for our help whom we don’t like, even when we run into scammers or people who are so different from us they offend us, no matter how dirty or lazy or different or corrupt we may perceive to be the hungry or strangers or the homeless, it is a different matter altogether to face someone whom we are almost certain has not just done something to harm themselves, but has done something to harm other people.  Prisoners are generally perceived to be the scum of the earth.  These are not just people who have failed to take care of themselves, not just people who are attempting, perhaps, to scam us.  These are people who have actively done wrong, actively injured people, actively hurt, in sometimes devastating ways, people and sometimes whole communities.  Some of them are really horrible people and we know this.  Why would any of us want to visit people with whom we are angry, whom we find disgusting, who have messed up so badly and are paying for that, in part, by the isolation and alienation that prison affords?  Why would any of us want to subject ourselves to the possible abuse, verbal or otherwise of going to and being in a prison setting? 
We know that these, the prisoners, really are “the least of these” and Jesus says when we fail to visit those in prison, we are failing to visit him, Jesus himself.  But these are the people, still, in whom it is hardest, by far, to see God’s face.  I get that.  Jesus takes it even further in the other passages we read for today.  Isaiah and then Jesus in today’s Luke passage declare himself to be the one who will release the prisoners.  But I think most of us don’t actually want the prisoners released.  Many of those in prison, those Jesus claims he will release, are simply not nice people.  They are not nice in their actions, but they are also not nice in their words.  They can be mean.  They can do scary and frightening things.  They are hard to be around.  We don’t want them out of prison.  And we don’t want to visit them.  
And the truth is, after having visited the prison so many times myself, there is frankly nothing I could say to you that would reassure you in any way that it is less than the horrible experience we might fear it to be.  It is horrible.  Prisons are not humane places, even in the United States. Guards and prisoners alike have no boundaries and say things that are shocking, upsetting, humiliating.  The prison system itself is set up in such a way that visitors are routinely shamed, invaded in the searches done, kept out for random and unpredictable reasons, and propositioned in such a way that loved ones are threatened by our attempts to set appropriate boundaries. 
Let me give you a couple of examples:  I drove three hours down to a prison to see an inmate there, only to be told that my shirt was cut too low and that I would therefore have to turn right around and drive the three hours back home. This was not the case.  I never wear clothing that is immodest, as you probably know.  A young woman had gone in a head of me whose pants were so low that… well, you can imagine.  Another had gone in who truly had a low cut shirt.  My shirt was a nice blouse, long sleeved, not cut low at all.  But I was kept out as a power play, by a guard who didn’t like the look of me and wanted to show me the power he could exercise.
 Another story: there was a guard at the prison who, as I was leaving, pushed his phone number into my hand with the threat that if I did not call him, the person I had been visiting would be harmed.  Of course I didn’t call, and in fact the prisoner was harmed: ending up in intensive care for three weeks, and then in solitary confinement as punishment for having been beaten to a pulp, for another three weeks.  Every time you enter the prison, whether adult, child, pastor or other: if you come as a visitor, you must go through several different “security” systems both on the way in and on the way out of the prison doors.  Once inside, even children are required to stay in their seats for the duration of the visit, which often is about three hours.  It is a hard thing to do, to visit those in prison.  It is unpleasant, it is shaming, it is degrading, it is tough.  When you know the person in the prison it is especially humiliating.  And when you don’t, I think it is especially fear-producing.  It is not a nice thing, a fun thing, an easy thing to do, and it is hard to see what good comes out of it, what the benefit is to put ourselves through all of that.  For myself, I’ve visited those in prison now often enough that I know I don’t want to go back.  I don’t want to face guards who bark at me or harass me in other ways.  I don’t want to face the humiliation of being treated like we are just prisoners ourselves, yet to be caught and incarcerated.  It is hard to make the long journey and harder still to be in that environment.
And still, we are told to visit those in prison.
The commentary author of Feasting on the Word put it this way:
I read with a heavy heart, "I was in prison and you visited me." Not just the community jail where last night's vagrants and drunks are drying out, not just infamous concentration camps run by evil tyrants, but "prison."”  I wonder how we learn to see God’s face in these people.  I wonder how God could ask us to visit those who have done evil, or to constantly face guards who are not kind or good themselves.  I wonder if God somehow just meant this metaphorically, but I know Jesus did not when he said this.  (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)).
Don Gowan said it this way:
Love is the reason for (responding to all of God’s callings to us).  Jesus says God is good to both friends and enemies and that is love.  On the human level that kind of love begins to see other people as God sees them.  Every one of them is priceless.  No matter what they look like, or what they have done or are about to do, each one of them is irreplaceable, infinitely precious.  And we are just as valuable as they, but no more so.  The willingness to turn the other cheek is not based on anything like masochism or self-hatred, any more than it is the result of cowardice.  Indeed only a very firmly grounded self-love can make it possible to be so strong.  … Jesus claims that those who love others the way God loves people will not assume they have any right to harm another person in order to protect themselves!  No matter who that person is, that person is exactly as valuable in my sight as I am and it would really be a violation against my own character to inflict harm on anyone. (Shalom, A study of the Biblical Concept of Peace (Kerygma publishing))

             But I sometimes wonder, doesn’t it inflict harm on ourselves to visit a place that is almost hell on earth?  Doesn’t it inflict harm on children, even when they are visiting parents in prison, to take them with us?  These are some of the questions that go through my head.  I get why people don’t visit those in prison.  I hate doing it, and don’t somehow feel more “holy” that I have.
               And still, we are left with Jesus’ words, “Whenever you didn’t visit me in prison, you didn’t visit me.” 
To complicate things, choosing to visit someone in prison is not as straightforward now as it used to be.  If you do feel called to follow this mandate, it is not easy for practical reasons as well as for the emotional reasons.  For one thing, you can’t just show up at a prison and ask to visit someone.  You have to have your name on a specific prisoner’s “acceptable visitors” list (which means the prison has to approve your visit) and you have to fill out a bunch of forms that give a great deal of personal information about you before you can.  In many places, you also have to make a reservation to see a prisoner and these can sometimes be hard to come by.  There are ways to “visit” – anyone can send a letter and programs such as the “friend to friend” program allow access in a different but safe way to those in prison.  But these limitations, this need to either become involved with a program or to figure out how or to whom to write a letter or to get ourselves on a visitation list – these hurdles that are placed in front of us to do something we probably don’t really want to do in the first place, these, too, test our inclination to follow God’s word for us in this way. 
               And still Jesus tells us, “Whenever you visited someone in prison, you did it to me.  And whenever you didn’t visit me in prison, you didn’t visit me.” 
               Hard words.  Words that test our faith commitments deeply.
               The reality, the human reality, is that we all fall short. I believe we all struggle to do our best to follow Jesus and to follow God’s will for us.  We are all on a journey, and we just aren’t always going to be able to be the perfect Christians that we may choose to be.  As we finish up and sum up our study of Matthew 25 today, therefore, I want to leave you with this: 
I don’t believe God sits up in heaven with a tally sheet marking off which of these we’ve done and which of these we have failed to do.  I don’t believe that at the end of the day God measures or counts how many times we really did feed “the least of these” and in doing so fed Jesus and how many times we walked by.  How many times we clothed the naked and how many times we just walked by.  How many times we welcomed the stranger and how many times we simply didn’t see them.  Or how many times we visited those who were sick or in prison and how many times we passed up the opportunities or calls to do so.  However, the deeper we connect with God, the more likely we are to respond to these calls to care for God’s people.  How are we doing in our faith journeys?  How are we responding to the blessings with which God fills our lives?  Are we so filled with the grace and gratitude of God’s love for us that we cannot help but do the things God calls us to do?  To feed, to care for, to reach out to, any and all of the least of these?  Are we so connected with God that we can’t help but feel God’s call to action and to do it with every breath we take?  That is more what these instructions in Matthew get at.  They give us a concrete way we can respond out of love for God.  They help us to see how to connect more deeply with God, how we get to know God - by responding to God’s call and by getting to know God in the "least of these". The bottom line, always, is that God wants deeper connection with us and wants that wholeness for us.  Wholeness for us looks like doing what God calls us to do.  But we are on a journey.  It takes time, it takes prayer, it takes study, it takes listening to God.  Know that God walks that with us, with grace, with love, with compassion for those things that are hard to do, and with hope that we can be the best versions of ourselves, the versions God sees and the versions God calls us to be with all of our beings.   We do what we can.  We listen for God’s voice.  We strive towards wholeness with God’s help.  And we watch as the fruits of our prayers, our time with God and our commitments to God’s people blossom in us to make us more fully the people God hopes for us to be.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Sunday's Sermon - Continuing Matthew 25: visiting the sick

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

Today we continue our study of Matthew 25, focusing on caring for or visiting the sick.  We, as a community, are very good at this. Through our Deacons and through others do a wonderful job of visiting the sick.  Others in our congregation are constant care-givers for family, for friends.  Others volunteer and work in care-giving professions.  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 give them rides, we listen.  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. 
But we know that others don’t always do this well: I’ve shared this story before, but think it is especially relevant for today: At one of the churches where I served, the congregants were intimately involved with a program that served the homeless.  Through our 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, and 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.  At one point in our relationship with George, his drinking led him to fall and to hit his head very seriously on the street.  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, income-less, 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 only time that George really received any attention – the only time he would be brought his meals even – was when one of us was there to insist on it.  This was a “Christian” hospital, and the doctors and nurses who were hired to work there were, we were told, people of faith.  But they did not see the contradiction in their faith when they served their charges according to their resources, rather than according to their needs. 
This is NOT how Jesus acted.  And it is not what Jesus calls us to do.  Despite the reaction of those around him, including his disciples, Jesus found time to be present with “the least of these” every time.  He gave of his healing, of his energy, of his attention, even to those who didn’t somehow “rank” or “deserve” it. 
We brought George food.  We sat with him.  We fought for him with the medical personnel.  We cared for him.   Five years ago I learned that he 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 that congregation who had loved him, visited him, provided care for him.  And again, while he did not heal from his struggle with alcoholism, we were helped in our service towards him.
I think the hardest sick people to visit with, using this understanding of “sickness” as simply people who are hurting, broken, injured in body, spirit, mind or soul, are those who are struggling with mental illness or with any other kind of emotional pain.  When people are in emotional pain, we often try to fix it and if we can’t, we struggle to be around it. We don’t know what to say to people in emotional pain.  We want it to go away.  I hope this is improving, but I remember all too well going to the memorial service for a friend whose husband had just died and having another friend say to me, “Well, we need to just tell her to get over it.  Maybe we should ignore it and try to set her up with someone else right away.”  This not only showed a total lack of understanding about grief, I think more importantly, it showed the speaker’s discomfort with another person’s pain when he couldn’t fix it. 
I’m reminded of a Joan of Arcadia episode in which a young man who had been paralyzed through a car accident was being protected by his parents from having to discuss what he had been through.  They kept shielding him from ever needing to talk about it.  At one point he came in on them in a heated discussion about the accident.  They immediately grew quiet and said, ““Kevin, you shouldn’t have to go through this again.”
His response though was wise, brilliant and insightful for all of us.  He said, “But I have to.  Don’t take this away from me.” 
Going through healing is necessary for all of us, whether we are struggling with physical problems, with emotional issues, with a crisis, with whatever it is that we face.  Standing with others going through those experiences, visiting those who are sick or struggling or in pain, just being with others in their hard times… these do not only bring healing for the ones we stand with, these actions bring us healing as well.
This morning I found myself reflecting on a conversation I had had with a member of my previous congregation.  It was over the question of whether or not God ever gives us more than we can handle.  I don’t think God hands us the tragedies and traumas of life.  And I do think that LIFE does sometimes give us more than we can handle.  We know this by the rate of suicides in this country.  But also, we’ve all meant shell people – people who are so bitter, so worn down by life that there is no compassion left within them.  These are the people we are most called to care for, to try to be God’s hands and feet, moving them through and beyond their pain.  But in this particular conversation, I said, “wounds always heal with scars.” To which my parishioner responded, “yes, but scar sites are much stronger than the flesh around them”.  Okay, if healing is done well this is true.  Bones heal much stronger, scars on our skin are made of tougher material.  But when they don’t heal correctly, when scabs are picked at and allowed to fester, healing does not happen.  Again, we have a call to help one another through those times of bad injuries to our body, to our soul.  But we are also called to remember that it is we who are healed through the process of caring for one another.
But today I want to take this a little bit deeper:
Frederick Buechner says this about healing:
The Gospels depict Jesus as having spent a surprising amount of time healing people.  Although, like the author of Job before him, he specifically rejected the theory that sickness was God’s way of getting even with sinners, he nonetheless seems to have suggested a connection between sickness and sin, almost to have seen sin as a kind of sickness.  Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,” he said.  “I came not to call the righteous but sinners.” … 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.”
So I want to take a slightly different look at it and instead spend some time focusing on the truth 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 growth and healing, all of us, and the prescription that we are given for those challenges, for our scars and scabs that won’t heal on their own, for 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.  We all know of people who won’t or can’t see.  Of course, they probably accuse us of the same thing.  And the reality is that because there are always layers and layers of truth, and because we always understand, interpret and see truth from our own perspectives, not one of us has the whole picture.  Not one.  All of us have areas of blindness, areas of deafness.  We all do.  Together we have a much better picture of the truth, but even then, people lie, people hide things.  There will always be areas of blindness.  But the problem is, those areas of blindness create illness within us, as a people, as well as as individuals.  We lose understanding and compassion for the other when we cannot see their perspective.  We lose unity and our ability to grow and work together when we cannot see from their point of view. It creates in our culture, in our world, illness, dis-ease.  But I would say that is true within us as individuals too.  When we are angry, it is we ourselves we are harming (remember – anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other to die).  We are injured and made ill by our refusal or inability to see or hear.
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.  Our scriptures show us in these passages and others that 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.  When we come to understand another person’s point of view, our blindness is listened.  When we can hear other people’s fears, hopes, thoughts and feelings, our deafness is lessened.  As a country we need to hear each other better and see each other more fully.  But this starts with individuals.  Can we hear and see one another?  Can we work on our own healing, by visiting others who are just as blind but who need to be heard, who need to be loved, through that blindness? 
Our challenge, then, is this: to remember we all have areas of blindness, we all are in need of healing.  Not one of us sees or hears with completeness.  Not one of us therefore are completely well.  And so when we care for each other, even those who may not appear to need our care, but need it just as much, we are also doing it for Jesus. 

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.