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.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Your Worth, Your Value - a note to women, especially.

       There are people, women especially I think, who never quite get past the internalized belief that if others don't value us that we therefore have no value. I see where this understanding comes from. When women are present in our fairy tales, and most of our movies even now, they are heterosexual romantic interests primary, if not solely, and their value comes directly from being loved by a man. When these are our primary stories, our identifying narratives, the stories that tell us who we are in this world, the idea that maybe we have worth all on our own, all by ourselves, separate from a male partner but also separate from the friends and family we love us is foreign, strange, and in some way incomprehensible.
      What happens, then, when someone we love stops valuing us in the way they once did?  Or when we become aware that the assumptions we had about someone's care for us turn out to be false? In those moments, we suffer not only the loss of the relationship or friendship, but truly, a loss of ourselves. We can become confused about who we are without that other person's affirmation. We can feel that we do not have worth. In some cases women have confided in me that they feel they don't even exist when they are not with another person who values them. When they lose their husbands or partners in any way, it can be devastating not only because of the loss itself, but also because it confronts their very assumptions about who they are and what they are worth. You may find that hard to believe.  But it's true. This year, 2017, I have heard from women for whom this is a true-ism.  We have a long, long way to go.
     I am hoping that perhaps the increase in movies and books that value women and women's love differently, especially when those movies are made for children, will contribute to women's sense of self-worth, independent of those around them, and especially independent of their "necessarily-male" partner.  Movies like Frozen, where the "true love" was between sisters; Brave, where the tension was between mother and daughter; and Zootopia in which there was no romantic interaction at all with the main character, who was a female - these movies give me hope that perhaps we are learning to teach and instill a different sense of worth in our girls and, as they grow, in our women.
       But in the mean time, I have this to say: a belief that our worth comes from those around us is problematic, untrue, and deadly.  From a faith perspective, perhaps especially, we are valuable simply because we are.  We have been loved into being and that makes us beautiful, worthy, and valuable all on its own.  God created us for relationships - yes with each other.  But more, God created us to be in relationship with God, God-self.  And that is high praise indeed.  You have been loved into being because God wants a relationship with YOU.  How awesome is that!
       When we start to embrace the fact of our own value, it radiates out of us.  When we come to understand that our worth comes from simply being in this world, a child of God, a brother or sister to all of creation, we carry ourselves differently.  That confidence changes us, flows through us, and challenges us then to be more who we really are, more true to who it was we were created to be.
      As I'm writing this, I find myself reflecting on a children's book written by Max Lucado, You are Special (Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 1997).  The story describes how every day the Wemmicks walked around giving each other dots or stars.  They would put a dot on another Wemmick if they didn't like them or thought they were ugly or bad.  They would put a star on another Wemmick if they thought they were pretty or talented or good.  The Wemmicks sense of worth was determined by how many dots and stars they each had.  But one day, a Wemmick who was covered with dots and who therefore mostly hid away from the others met a Wemmick who had no stars or dots on her.  When others tried to give her a dot or a star, it would simply fall off.  As you read on in the story, you find that her ability to let the dots and stars roll off of her came from a strong sense of self-worth, of value given to her by spending each day with her maker, the one who loved her into being.
     I wish in reality it really were that simple.  I wish that our faith would simply wipe away any hurt or sense of worthlessness or ugly dots given to us by others that we might experience.  The truth is harder.  Since we were created also to be in relationship with others, if those relationships are going to be genuine, they will involve a level of vulnerability that will leave us open to being hurt, rejected, and even scarred by others. But while grief at a loss is healthy, the devastation to our sense of self-worth is not.  And that is something we can work on, even as we strive to stay open and vulnerable.
    In Lucado's book, the solution for the Wemmick covered in dots was to daily spend time with the one who loved him into being.  That would be good for us as well: to daily spend time with the One who loves you, who wants you, who values your existence, whatever that looks like for you. Meditation, hiking in nature, talking to the trees or your pets, quiet prayer, Yoga, Tai Chi - however you get in touch with that which breathes life into you, centers you and brings you back to yourself, however you allow God (or the Universe or whatever you want to name it) to remind you that you are loved - spend time with that, preferably daily.  But for today let me also be the one to tell you:  You are worthy.  You are loved.  You are valuable.  You were created to be you because you are loved just as the person you are.  Try not to let others define who that is for you.  Try especially to not let others tell you you aren't worth much.  You've been loved into being.  And each day that you breathe, you are loved into being again.  Hold that truth in your heart.
          And watch the dots roll off...

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Days of Rest: Sabbath

           Lent is an incredibly busy time.  There are extra worship services (Taize, ecumenical activities, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunrise), there are preparations to be made for those services, there are special activities (Financial workshop, Immigration classes) as well as our usual meetings and planning.  In my own family, there are birthdays during this time , as well as in the congregation surgeries and hospitalizations – all of it takes up time, takes energy, takes work.  Much of it is good, but it is busy.  I know you find the same.  There is stuff to be done, lots of it, and time to rest is just not in the cards for many of us. 
               And yet, one of our basic commandments, one of the ten biggies, focuses on taking a day of Sabbath each week, a day of rest, an intentional time to not be busy, every single week.  It is a commandment, not a suggestion, not a recommendation, but a commandment. Frankly, I think this commandment, one of the ones that is most life-giving to all of us, is the hardest one of the ten to keep.  Not many kill others, not many of us steal, and I hope not many of us cheat on our spouses or partners. We try not to speak slander against our neighbors, we work hard not to covet what we can’t have, and we try to be respectful of our parents.  I don’t think worshiping other gods or making graven images is an issue for most of us. All of these are obvious to us in their value, and we work hard to keep them.  But keeping the Sabbath?  Taking a day where we truly do not do work, do not do errands, do not run taxi services for our kids and grandkids, do not run around but simply rest?  This is something most of us simply don’t do.
               I write this from the place of being one of those who is not good at following this commandment.  I am not good at it.  Period.  I’m aware of it.  I’m aware of the need for a time of rest, a need for a time to not be running around crazy.  Yesterday, though, brought this home for me again in a very concrete way.  I was struggling to find something to write my newsletter article about.  I had made four different attempts at writing something and each time the subject and my writing on the subject fell flat, only to be discarded.  Sandy said, “go for a hike.  It clears your mind and you will think better.” 
               “Ha!” was my reply, “Hiking is not in the cards today or any day this week or next.”  I proceeded to talk through the day, every hour of which, until 11PM as it turned out, was scheduled with an activity that could not be postponed or moved.  A meeting to plan the Far East Presbytery meeting, a visit to the hospital to see a parishioner, a meeting about a problem going on with one of our members, preparing for Thursday evening Bible study, preparing for my lesson in handbells with the church kids for Sunday, finishing worship for Sunday evening.  And when work was over? Driving a child to tutoring, driving another child to dance, the kids’ school band concert, a quick run to the grocery store and then helping kids with homework until late, late, late.  Today’s schedule is worse between three different meetings, visits to two parishioners, writing this newsletter, working on my sermon for Sojourner Truth, Bible study this evening, more taxi service for a child who has counseling and another who has dance…and today is Aislynn’s birthday, so somewhere in there dinner and presents must be squished.  A hike?  A nap?  A rest?  Not realistic at all.
               And then as I was heading out the door to take said child to tutoring, I picked up the devotional book that Lyle had graciously given me and in a hurry, in a “I really should look at this before dashing to my next thing” mood, I opened to the day’s entry. 

“The idea of a day of rest was not just ceremonial, but necessary to survival. If we are to live full and healthy lives, we all need occasional rest.” 1

Bam.  Message received, God.  Always, message received.  But today?  Message ignored because there are all these things that I MUST do.  Hm.
               The reality is, when we don’t get enough rest, we are not the people God calls us to be.  I see this in myself.  I become snippy, short, tired, weary.  Without my reserves, I am not the patient mom, I am not the pastor who listens, I am not the friend who is giving, I am not the person that I strive hard to be.  I don’t take time to do the things I value the most: making phone calls, reaching out, writing thank you notes, expressing gratitude and appreciation both to God and to those around me, when I don’t have the energy to do those things.  I don’t write well, I don’t think clearly, and I am not as kind as I want to be.  I can’t speak for all of you.  But it would not surprise me to find that you, too, need that day of rest to rejuvenate and to be the people God calls you to be.
               Lent is a time of self-reflection.  It is a time for repentance, for looking hard at the things we need to change and making an effort to actually change those things.  For me, that change looks like it needs to start with intentionality around Sabbath.  So I’ve put it on the calendar for next week: a day of rest.  And I will strive to do this for the rest of lent as well. 

Is this something that is a challenge for you too?  Do you take the time to rest, to pray, to meditate, to be with yourself and God in an intentional way and with intentional time each week?  Rest will help you to think clearly, love more fully, face the days' challenges with strength. It is a commandment given to us out of love because God wants wholeness for us, wants health for us, wants us to have meaningful and productive lives.  Blessings to you as we all move forward on our journeys.  May you find times of rest this lenten season.

1. Haberman, Hardy, Shouts in the Wilderness (Fl: Adynaton Publishing, 2017) p77

Monday, March 13, 2017

Matthew 25: Clothing the Naked

Genesis 9:18-27
John 4:5-42
Matthew 25:31-46

Today we continue our study of Matthew 25 by focusing on clothing the naked.  But while making sure that everyone has enough to wear is an important call for all of us, today I actually want to focus on this at a metaphoric level. While I believe that Jesus meant these passages to be very literal, the gift in Jesus’ words and I think in all of scripture, is that there are always multiple levels of meaning and of value to us.  Since clothing people is generally not as big an issue in the United States (as we know our thrift stores tend to be overrun with donations of clothing and if you are like me, you clean out your closets of unused clothing or clothing that kids and ourselves outgrow on a regular basis), I want to focus on the other levels of clothing the naked.
Looking on someone’s nakedness is generally considered wrong.  This was even more true in biblical times.  As we read in the passage from Genesis, even when it involved an adult man seeing his father naked, this was a wrong that could lead to a complete change in one’s rank within the community and even within one’s family, apparently for generations. 
But we do this – this looking on the naked, in more than just physical ways.  For example, when someone is “exposed” – when a piece of a person’s private life, is thrown onto the TV screen through news stories, we tend not only to want to see, but to STARE.  We are curious.  We rubberneck on freeways when there has been an accident, we watch the news avidly when someone’s tragedy is aired, we talk and chitchat with others about the scandals we’ve heard about.  We look on the nakedness of those who are suffering and exposed in our communities on a regular basis, and usually we have very little shame in doing so. 
The result of this?  Well, we are given a small glimpse of the results of that in today’s first gospel lesson:  We have a woman who is “naked” in her community.  She has had five husbands and now is living with a man who is not her husband.  We don’t know the why’s of this.  We don’t know the reasons behind this.  We don’t know what has led her to this place or what has happened to her husbands, or why she is with the person she is with now.  But we know it is easy to condemn her even today.  And we know that she was severely condemned then by her community.  We know that in the middle of the desert she is choosing the hottest, most horrible and inappropriate time of day to come to the well.  And we know that the only reason why she would have done this was to avoid other people in her community.  The reason to avoid other people in her community is because she has been condemned, alienated, estranged by those others and left to come to the well at this, the only time she can.  She is naked in her community – stripped of her dignity, her respect, her place among her people.  Despite this, despite the shame she experiences probably daily, when she speaks with Jesus, she still chooses to be transparent, to be open and honest when Jesus asks her to bring her husband.  And that, I think, is a great part of why he chooses to stay in conversation with her at that time and to offer her water and life.  She stands naked in her community, and what he is really offering her is the clothing of a new life.
For us, offering the exposed, the naked, the vulnerable in our communities “clothing” is not always easy and the way in which we can do that is not always clear.  I encourage you to think about what that might look like in this place and time. 
There is an organization called BACA – Bikers against Child Abuse.  This is a group of self-identified “scary”, rough bikers whose goal is to protect, support and care for children who have suffered abuse.  A news story a few years back told about one specific girl who was sexually abused by her step-father.  She was so terrified by this man and by her experiences that she could not sleep at night, was scared all the time and was falling apart.  BACA began to escort her to school, they went to court with her and literally stood around her as she testified against her step dad. They stayed outside her house all night in a circle, on their bikes, so she could sleep at night.  That is a profound example of clothing the naked – helping them to find and wear strength once again, to wear a sense of pride and acceptance for who they are.  This is an example of protecting those who have been stripped, completely, of dignity, pride, and a sense of self, and helping them to find those again.
Another group of bikers, the Patriot Guard Riders forms an honor guard at military burials, helps protect mourners from harassment and fills out the ranks at burials of indigent and homeless veterans.  In addition to attending funerals, the group also greets troops returning from overseas at homecoming celebrations and performs volunteer work for veteran's organizations such as Veterans Homes.  They, too, stand with those who have been stripped by mourning and grief, who stand naked in their feelings, trying to honor them while others would expose them and take away their pride, their experiences and their opportunities for transitions such as memorials and returning into the community. 
Recently a new movement has also started in the United States to help heal the raw naked feelings of those soldiers who are returning after serving from war.  Our soldiers often return hurting, injured in feeling if not in body.  A program called Warrior’s Journey Home uses the principles of Native Americans welcoming back their fighters.  In Native American cultures, the fighters are sent to the perimeters to protect the tribe and when they come back, they are put in the center of the circle and promised the protection of the tribe from their naked, raw feelings in exchange.  We are beginning to do a similar thing here in the U.S., intentionally inviting our returning soldiers into circles of love and care where they are reassured that it is now our time to heal them, care for them, and offer them protection from their memories, from their “nakedness”, from the experiences which now haunt them.  The movement has an amazing success rate in beginning and encouraging the healing from PTSD.  I was able to be part of such a group, as a support person, at my last congregation, and found it to be an amazing tool of healing and empowerment for those suffering from their own experiences in war. It is a way of clothing the vulnerable and naked who have had raw experiences which leave them in a feeling of fear and exposure.
These are three ways that people clothe those who are “naked” in their feelings, and in their experiences, who are raw to what the world has thrown them and exposed as a result. 
But you will notice that none of these groups are church groups.  None of the programs I’ve mentioned stem from religious communities. The commentary, “Feasting on the Word” has this to say about Matthew 25:  “(Matthew 25 makes several very radical statements.  One) is about the practice of religion. You cannot read the paper and not be concerned about the role religion plays in the world. Terrible atrocities are committed by people shouting, ‘God is great.’ Religious officials hide clergy abuse, deny sacraments to those with whom they disagree. Religious leaders condemn each other, excommunicate each other, invest inordinate amounts of energy and resources fighting one another over who gets in and who is kept out, over whose doctrinal formulas are true and whose are false—over a whole laundry list of issues about which Jesus had absolutely nothing to say.  He did, however, say this: ‘When you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.’  Students of the New Testament know that the only description of the last judgment is in Matthew 25. There is nothing in it about ecclesiastical connections or religious practices. There is not a word in this passage about theology, creeds, orthodoxies. There is only one criterion here, and that it is whether or not you saw Jesus Christ in the face of the needy and whether or not you gave yourself away in love in his name.”  (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).)
What that says to me is that in some places at least, church is a place where we have one of the hardest times accepting the naked or vulnerable.  We hide behind our theologies and our creeds, arguing with each other, excluding each other, and being least authentic with each other.  We are so uneasy with the vulnerable that we not only fail to protect those who are, but we also fail to be vulnerable ourselves. 
James Angell in his book, Yes is a world wrote, “Church ought to be a set of moments when we become most expansively, openly and honestly ourselves.  Yet it is in the church where we often find it hardest to be ourselves: where we are often the most guarded, the most paranoid, the most unsure of being accepted and understood.”  It is in part for this reason, too, that clergy children have one of the highest rates of suicide and other emotional issues.  As Religion News Service says, “Beneath the stereotypes of preacher’s kids as either goody two-shoes or devilish hellions lies a tense and sometimes taxing reality, the children of clergy say. Studies show that many PK’s, as the lingo goes, struggle with issues of identity, privacy and morality.”  Rick Warren is the author of “purpose driven Life” and “purpose driven Church”, pastor of the Mega church Saddleback in Southern CA.  His 27 year old son committed suicide a few years ago.   Jay Bakker, the son of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, said he identifies with Matthew Warren as a fellow PK and as someone who has also suffered from depression.  “It’s especially hard because his dad wrote the book `The Purpose Driven Life,’ which has this incredibly optimistic tone,” Bakker said. “My parents wrote the same kind of books, and it was like, `Things are good for everyone else. What’s wrong with me?’ I can’t imagine the pressure he must have felt.” 
My own son’s counselor when I was in Ohio said to me numerous times that the best thing I might do for my son would be to leave serving the church as a career, where everything he did and every response I made in caring for him was evaluated by 80-100 eyes.  While I don’t find that same kind of critical looking here, I am aware that he has chosen to stay quiet and unobserved in the back most of the time he is at church.  He protects himself by being invisible inside these walls.
We all know each other’s business and mine has been completely transparent for the last 6 years or so.  We are all, in a sense, naked in front of each other.  How do we clothe each other, then, with care, with grace, with faith, and most especially with love?  How do we walk that path? 
First of all, we intentionally do not choose to stare at someone’s humiliation and shame.  That means we stay away from gossiping about what other people go through, we avoid focusing on other’s tragedies from a place of curiosity.  It also means standing WITH those who are exposed.  Being human clothing for others as we protect them from other staring eyes.  We walk all of this with intention.  We intentionally invite and welcome in those who are struggling.  We intentionally invite and welcome in those who are in pain.  And we do do this.  Through housing our recovery groups, through opportunities like the grief group that we offered for awhile, through other small group opportunities like the women’s Tuesday afternoon group, the quilting group, the men’s group, we do get to know each other, support each other and love each other.  But again, we are also called to do it for the “least of these”, which begins with keeping our eyes open to see God’s face in each and every person we meet. 
The Good News is that we can trust that, just as with the woman at the well, when we find ourselves “naked” and exposed, Jesus will come to us and clothe us as well.  Jesus sought out those most “exposed”, most naked in their communities because of their shame (like the woman today as well as the woman caught in adultery and the tax collectors and prostitutes), or because of their condition (the blind man, the deaf man, those with leprosy, the bleeding woman).  Whatever it is that leaves us exposed, Jesus seeks us out to clothe us with righteousness.  That is what God does – God finds us when we are in our most vulnerable, rejected states and God clothes us with love, with faith, with hope when we are most hurting, most exposed.  We can count on that Good News.  Today and every day.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Matthew 25: feeding the people

Exodus 16:4-31
Matthew 4:1-11
Matthew 25:31-46

            This lent we will be doing a series during worship focused on Matthew 25, along with related passages.  I want to begin this series by providing an overview, but also by looking at the first of Jesus’ instructions in the passage – that of feeding the hungry.  The bottom line of Matthew 25 is, very simply, "When you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me".  Whatever it is – when you do it to the least of God’s children, of God’s people, you do it to Jesus himself. 
John Buchanan said it this way, “Jesus said it: profound, radical words. Every day I walk by half a dozen people, poor people, asking for money. Recently it was a family—a mother and three children. Another man said, "I just had surgery and I'm hungry," as he lifted his T-shirt to reveal an ugly surgical scar. "Come in," I said, "our social service center will help you." He swore. "I don't need their help; I need money." Matthew 25 makes me very uncomfortable when I think about it much. I cannot help everyone. I do not have either the money or the time. Besides, who can tell who is really needy and who simply wants a bottle of cheap wine? What can I do?”
            I think it is helpful to put this in the context of the other two scriptures that were read for today.  In the first story, from Exodus, we are shown a God who gives all that we need in each moment.  God gave enough manna for the Israelites to eat in each day.  No more, no less, except on the 6th day when they were then allowed to collect more so that the Sabbath day would be a day of genuine rest, another gift of abundance from God.  In the midst of the desert, in the midst of the hardship, there would not only be enough to eat, but there would also be rest, each week, from the struggles, from the hardship.  We are offered the same promises.  This is a story about who God is and how God is and God offers to us the same.  Enough.  We have enough.  And in the midst of the hardship we are also given rest from the labors of the calls God asks us to do.  This is hard to trust.  It is hard to believe that if we start doing God’s work, we will find rest.  And it is hard for us to trust that we will have enough.  But we are called to have faith that when we respond to God’s call, in this case, to God’s call to give to the hungry, to see the “least of these”, to treat each person with respect and dignity, that there will be enough for us, too.  For myself, I find this to be amazingly true. When I am generous, especially with the church and with the poor, I find I have enough.  It is the years when I am less generous that I also find myself struggling to make end’s meet.  And while this is not a stewardship sermon, I find this consistently to be true.  When I was only making $400 a month in college, but giving half of it to the poor, I lived comfortably on that $200 a month.  When I fail to tithe, I struggle to pay the bills.  God only knows why this happens but it does. 
I’ve told this story before but it is worth repeating.  Dorothy Day, founder and organizer of the Catholic worker shared similar stories of times when their house community, a community built for the purpose of and dedicated to serving the poor and destitute in and around them, would be on its last penny.  Time and again they would spend that last penny on whoever came to them for help because Dorothy and the workers had faith that the needed money would always come.  And come it did.  On one such occasion the electric bill had to be paid and there was no
money at all in the house.  The bill was for $9.57, not much now, but a lot at the time.  The power company said that the electricity would be turned off if the bill was not paid by the end of the day.  So everyone in the house began to pray. At 4:30 that afternoon, the mail arrived and within it was a check – for $9.57, enclosed with a note apologizing for the odd amount and stating that the donor had found that much on the sidewalk and had felt called to send it to the Catholic Worker community.  God provides enough, when we are faithful and giving, God provides enough.
            But while we give generously through organizations such as Monument Crisis Center, community meals, heifer project, etc., I think we are also afraid to help, especially those on the street or those we encounter in unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations – those who wander in off the street into our places of work or who approach us while we may feel “trapped” pumping gas or waiting for the bus.  We are afraid that if we give to those who ask, that they will just come back and ask for more.  We are afraid that we won’t have enough.  We are afraid that our resources will be tapped out.  We are afraid of how they will use “our” money.  We are afraid they don’t deserve our help and that we are being used and conned and that we will only make things worse by allowing them to become more dependent on us. I, at times, have felt afraid that if I take the time to talk to someone on the street or even someone who comes to the church asking for help that I will be trapped into listening to an elaborate but untrue story.  We are afraid, and for good reasons. 
But here’s the thing: Jesus did not say, “When you did it to the least of these WHO are deserving, you did it to me” or “when you did it to the least of these WHO are being honest with you about what is going on with them that you did it for me”. He didn’t say, “Do it for the least of these WHO have been checked out by the larger community and are found to be genuinely in need.” Or “when you did it for the least of these who will not spend it on alcohol or drugs.”  There were no qualifications on any of this. None. The only criteria here was “when you do it the least of these” – when you are giving, when you are generous, when you are loving, when you take time to listen and hear and care for those who ask for help: for the downtrodden, those who are poor, those who are weak, those who are dependent, those who are needy, those who must resort to begging… and especially children, then you are doing it for Christ.  We are called to look, to see, to not ignore – to look into the human faces of all of these people, no matter who they are or how they spend their money or time, what stories they weave or how they go about asking for help, to look at them, and to see there in those faces we fear and distrust the most, the face of Jesus, the face of the Christ, because he has told us that this is where we will find him, again and again, in these people, in the “least” of these people. 
And then we are given the story of the manna, the promise that what we need for today, especially when we are listening and obeying God, will be enough.  We will find enough if we choose to give, as God asks us to give, to the “least of these.”  That is a promise we can count on.  It is when we hoard and try to store up for ourselves, like the Israelites tried to store the manna, that we find ourselves struggling and in danger of falling.  When we are generous, when we are trusting, when we are obeying and following God, we will find there is more than enough.  MORE than enough.
            In the temptation of Christ passage that was read for today, we are told that humans do not live by bread alone.  Normally we focus on how this means that we cannot just search for material gain and neglect the spiritual. But today, I challenge all of us to think about this as encouraging us again to be generous. We must live by God’s love and God’s law. God’s love tells us that we will have enough.  And God’s law tells us we are called, therefore, from that place of love and abundance, to share it. Living by our own need to hold on to our “stuff” will not lead us into life!  It just won’t.  We cannot live by bread alone.  And if we try, we will find that we aren’t really living. 
            So where is the Good News in this?  The Good News is that this passage from Matthew is more than just a call to us to “be good” and “do right” and care for God’s people.  It is all of that.  But it is also, first and foremost actually, a statement about who God is. And who is God?  Not a remote supreme being on a throne up there above the clouds or out there somewhere in the mysterious reaches of the universe. Jesus tells us, God is here, in the least expected places of human life. God is here, in your neighbor, in the stranger, in the one who needs you, in “the least of these” – the least person you can imagine, the least deserving person you can imagine, the least capable and least prominent and least interesting.  You want to see the face of God? Look into the face of one of the least of these, the vulnerable, the weak, the children.  That is where God is. 

            During lent we walk towards the cross.  And we are called to prepare for that by repenting, by facing our fears, by confronting that within ourselves that does not want to live generously and lovingly. God’s will is clear – seek God.  Seek relationship with God, with Christ. Find God in the “least of these” and you will see God, touch God, know God.  Feed God in these least of these, and you will find yourselves fed in return, fed to fullness and beyond.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Ash Wednesday

My son showed me another video a couple days ago that was a reflection on the fact that we are actually made of stardust.  That our very atoms come from the stars and will return to the stars.  That just as we are made of the universe, the universe is also made of us.  It was an incredible reminder that even though dirt seems dull, ordinary, dirty, that that dirt is made up of the very stuff of life and of the stars and of the universe.
       The clip I showed you tonight says something even more profound, however.  On the surface it is just a reminder that we need to look more closely because in the dark places, those places that we don’t often look into with any depth, there is often much more to be seen than we can imagine.  There is richness, there is light, there is unimaginable beauty and life.  But I also think this clip says something about how God sees us.  Because we have those dark places within us as well.  We all have dark times and empty places and times of despair.  And what this clip says to me is that it is often within that darkness, within the shadow, within the doubt and despair and the places that feel most empty that in fact there are amazing lights, possibilities of beauty, galaxies beyond our imaginings…all within ourselves. God sees them.  As the psalm we read said today, “God, you have examined me and you know me.” God can see all those beautiful hidden stars and lights within you, but it takes us a little longer to look sometimes, to probe the depths of darkness and to see what stars are hidden within.  It also takes effort and commitment.  Just like in the video I showed, the scientists needed to decide to commit the time and resources to dig deep.  We have to make that decision as well.
Lent is a time of reflection.  It is exactly the right time to look at the dark places, the shadowy places, the hidden places within each of us, and within us as a group, as a whole, to search for the lights that cannot be seen without intention and commitment.  With Ash Wednesday we begin the season of lent by remembering that physically we are dust.  It is only with God and God’s love and God’s vision and God’s encouragement that we find the light within that dust, the life within that dust, the beauty within. That journey to look at that, to remember our dependence on God and to be willing to look at the dark places, this is not a comfortable journey.  It calls us to look hard at our relationship with God and at our lives, to take the time to stare into what appears dark and evaluate what needs some attention.  What in our life is a block to our relationship with God?  What in our life needs more focus? What in ourselves are we afraid to face, afraid to confront, afraid to look at. God’s desire for life and community has imagined us into being.  It is God’s breath that has breathed us into being.  And it goes throughout us, even into those places that look to be dark and without light.  What a wonderful metaphor: look into the shadows, into that darkness to see the galaxies hidden there within you, to experience the breath of God that is not experienced without intentional opening to it. Without that imagining, without God’s breathing, what are we?  We are dust.  Without God what do we become?  Again, dust.
For today, I want these ashes, and if you choose, the glitter that looks like star dust, to serve two purposes.  As you feel the ash on your face, I invite you to remember: to remember that the ash and starlight: this is this stuff of which you are made: that the dirt of the earth, the atoms of the stars have given you form.  And then as you see the ashes and glitter on one another’s face, I invite you to remember that you are so much more than dirt. You are made of starlight.  And within the dirties depths of your soul there are still galaxies of light waiting to be discovered.  God made you this way.  For it is God’s breath that has given you breath and it is throughout your being.  God’s love has filled you with love, and that too is throughout your being.  God’s spirit has blown into you, and has infused the dust and stars that are within you... into the spirit that is you.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Sunday's Sermon - Being Transfigured.

Exodus 24:12-18
Matthew 17:1-9

While at first the story of transfiguration may seem like something we don’t really experience, I think when we put it into different words, all of us have experienced or witnessed some kinds of transfiguration, probably not to the degree described here, but a transfiguration, none the less.  Let me give you an example: pregnant women often have a glow about them, and when people talk about the things that are deepest and dearest to their hearts, we can see in them a light, an animation, a transformation that resembles the glow we read about in the transfiguration stories. 
Additionally, most to all of us have had mountain top experiences - those times when we go on retreat or as a young person to church camp or to trienium or a family adventure or other adventure, have fallen in love, had heard a piece of music or experienced someone’s words that moved deeply within you in which we have encountered the God of goodness and love in an entirely different way.  Can you think of times and experiences like that in your lives?  We come away from these experiences on a high.  We come away feeling God’s call raging through our very beings.  We come away with a strong sense of God’s presence and a feeling that we can, truly, do anything with God behind us or in front of us, leading the way.  We come back on a mission, with a sense of purpose and God’s presence. 
That isn’t to say that the encounter with the holy is ever easy.  Most of the time I think it can really be terrifying to encounter the holy.  The disciples response, as we read it in verse 6 was, “When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified.”  Have there been times for you in which you’ve encountered the holy and it was terrifying?
I remember as a child one night laying in my bed and praying to God that an angel would visit me.  “Please God, just let an angel come to see me this one time!  Please God, I want to see an angel and know that your love is here with me!”  I prayed and prayed and when I finished I opened my eyes.  At that moment in the corner of my bedroom I saw a bluish, cloudy haze.  Whether or not that was an overactive imagination, the strong effects of hope, simply the result of having squeezed my eyes shut for so long while praying, or in fact a genuine answer to my prayer, my reaction was exactly like that of the disciples.  After seeing the blue haze, I immediately squeezed my eyes back shut and fervently began to pray again, “God, I made a mistake!  Take the angel away!  Take it away!”

But even our less dramatic encounters with God can be disturbing.  Because a consistent result of an interaction with God is a difference in the way you perceive the world around you.  An encounter with God causes you to see things in a way you hadn’t the moment before.  And that can shake us at a very core level.  It can change the way we relate to everything and everyone , the way we understand ourselves and the world, the way we see and experience God.  It’s like the first time that you put a prism into a white light, the first time that you see the spectrum of the rainbow come from the prism and you realize that what you thought was the absence of color is in fact all the colors.  Or the first time you learn in science that while everything that we see looks solid and like it is hard matter, that in fact atoms are mostly space, and therefore all that we see is mostly space as well. 
The truth is we don’t see the many layers of any reality very often.  We tend to see only one or two layers of the way things really are but we don’t see the whole.  That’s not to say that the layers we do see aren’t real.  They are, but it is only a part of the truth.  We see the white light, but we don’t see that it is made of all the colors.  We see the people in front of us, and we don’t see the atoms that make them up or the space that makes up the atoms. In terms of the world, all our histories and news stories - all of them - are written from a perspective. No one has the whole truth on anything.For people who don’t have faith, they see the world, but they cannot see the loving hand behind creation and behind every breath we take. 
And when we then are given deeper glimpses, or rather, glimpses at some of the different layers of reality, it can be amazing and awesome in the deepest sense of the word.  But it can also be disturbing to learn that our vision does not encompass the whole picture, that our reality is only a piece of the what is “reality”, and that this extends into everything, including our understanding of and our relationship to God.  Paul says in 1st Corinthians 13: 9-12, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.  For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  We get only glimpses into the deeper reality, and even these can be disturbing.
The transfiguration is such a glimpse into the deeper, a glimpse into the whole, an encounter with the big picture, with the many layers of reality, with God.  And that is not easy.  But it is transforming and changing.  It opens us up to a deeper relationship with God and with each other. 
The real question then becomes, what happens when the amazing, awesome interaction with the holy has passed?  What happens when we descend the mountain and return to normal life?  What happens when the prism is removed and we no longer have it out to help us see all the colors in the white light?  How do we continue to carry with us those mountain top experiences which feel so transformational even we descend once again into day to day living?
We have Moses and Jesus as examples of what that might mean.  When Moses returned from the mountain, he found that his people had made idols and were worshiping them and had turned from God.  Moses descended with the ten commandments to a people gone wrong.  But the faith that he gained from his transformative time with God strengthened him to confront their behavior and to bring them back into faith and faithful relationship with God.  Jesus returned from the mountain to a people in need of his healing, in demand of his being and presence.  Neither of them was allowed to bask in the glory of their experience on the mountain, neither of them came down from the mountain into a place where they could teach and preach about their wonderful experience of the Divine.  They both came back to this world: a world that is hard and demanding, confusing and disappointing much of the time.
And that is our experience as well.  We may have the gifts of these mountain top experiences, but we are called then to go back into the world and to use our time with God to strengthen us to face whatever life hands us.  We are not called to be monks, isolated and away from the world.  We are called to come back to the world, to be in it and to be part of transforming it.  Henry Drummond, a Scottish theologian said this, “God does not make the mountains in order to be inhabited. God does not make the mountaintops for us to live on the mountaintops. It is not God’s desire that we live on the mountaintops. We only ascend to the heights to catch a broader vision of the earthly surroundings below. But we don’t live there. We don’t tarry there. The streams begin in the uplands, but these streams descend quickly to gladden the valleys below.” The streams start in the mountaintops, but they come down to gladden the valleys below.
That isn’t to say that the mountain top experiences are pointless or meaningless or unimportant.  For Jesus and Moses, their mountain top experiences were not then just for nothing.   They remained a gift that empowered them, that guided them, that strengthened them to face day to day life.  And so for us as well.  It is from the place of our own transformation that we will be better able to transform the world and bring it more into God’s realm.
I want to read you a poem written by Christian Wiman about an experience with the larger vision.
From a Window
Incurable and unbelieving
In any truth but the truth of grieving,
I saw a tree inside a tree
Rise kaleidoscopically
As if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
I pressed my face as close
To the pane as I could get
To watch that fitful, fluent spirit
That seemed a single being undefined
Or countless beings of one mind
Haul its strange cohesion
Beyond the limits of my vision
Over the house heavenwards.
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.
Of course that old tree stood
Exactly as it had and would
(But why should it seem fuller now?)
And though a man’s mind might endow
Even a tree with some excess
Of life to which a man seems witness,
That life is not the life of men. [sic]
And that is where the joy came in
Christian Wiman

Those moments of transformation, those times of transformation can carry us forward on the wings of joy, to face whatever life has to offer us that day.

The final good news in this is that even though we do have to descend from the mountain into the valley, even when we struggle to hold on to our transforming experiences so that we may be strengthened for our times off of the mountain, the good news remains that God is not just on the mountain top.  While we may experience God and the holy in a new, different and awesome way on the mountain, God still remains with us in the valleys and God remains with us in the plains as well.  Take strength from the mountain tops.  But live in the valleys and plains.  Take joy from the mountaintops, so that you might be able to see God in the valleys and plains as well.  Be transfigured, so that you might transform the world.  Amen.