Saturday, October 13, 2018

Justice Song

What do you sing about these days?  An odd sort of question, I realize.  My wife, La Donna, often comes home from church with a hymn in her head.  Sometimes she even gets frustrated.  It just sits in there.  She can’t wait for the next week so she can get a new hymn!  You know that feeling.  Maybe you heard a snippet of a song, or something that sounded like a song, something that reminded you of a song.  And now that song keeps playing over and over in your head.  Even when you don’t want it to.  You find yourself humming the tune, you find yourself mumbling the words.  They are just there, rattling around in your skull, driving you crazy.  Or if not you, everyone around you as you keep singing that song over and over.  Because it is stuck in there - and it begins to define you in a way.

I had a friend who thought everyone should have their theme song, like in the movies.  If you look at a movie soundtrack you’ll see titles like “Jack’s Theme” or “Liza’s Song.”  And this music would play whenever that character was central to the scene.  Well, this friend thought that we should all have our theme music to play that would define us, that would announce our presence and point to us when it is our turn to enter into the dialog or to shape the action.  OK, I’ve had some weird friends over the years.  But still it is an intriguing idea.  If you had the ability and the opportunity to write your own theme song, what would it sound like?  What would it say?

We start a three week worship series with the reading for this week.  The whole series is titled “What the Lord Requires” and is based on Micah 6:8: what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?   Each week we will examine one requirement as outlined in this verse.  We are always asking the question, what are we supposed to do?  Who are we supposed to be?  What does God want from me?  This series is designed to help us answer that question.  

So we start where the verse starts, we start with the biggie: do justice.  It’s an overwhelming word in many ways.  A comic book word.  “Truth, Justice and ...”  How does that go?  It isn’t a lived in word.  Is it?  What does justice mean for us today.  What does it have to do with us in our every day lives?  Isn’t justice something for someone else, for the people in charge to deal with?   

Read what Isaiah says in our reading for this weekend.

Isaiah 42:1-9  Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.  2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;  3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.  4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.  5 Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it:  6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,  7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.  8 I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.  9 See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. 

This is the first of four passages called the Servant Song of the book of Isaiah.  There is some considerable debate about who is the servant referred to in the first verse of chapter forty-two.  On the one hand it seems to be the ideal follower of God.  Maybe there isn’t a particular reference at all, it is just anyone who seeks to follow, this is the kind of life he/she will lead, this is the kind of person she/he will be.  It is an example passage.

Some argue that this was a passage read after the coronation of a new king.  It was a reminder to the king and to the nation that a leader serves not for his/her own benefit, not from his/her own power, but as a servant of the Lord who called and equipped him/her to serve.  It was a celebration of a new administration launched in hope.  Sound familiar?  If only all our leaders saw themselves first as servants, what a difference that might make in governing.

Others, who read a little further in these verses determine that the servant is the whole people of God.  When Isaiah speaks of calling, of being the light on the hill, we know it is whole nation of Israel that was called to that task.  It has echoes in the words of Jesus when he tells us that we are salt and light, the church is the light on the hill, inviting all the world to come and know what we know, to know who we know.  So the servant is the community of faith.

Then, of course, we Christians can’t help but read these words and imagine Christ.  Jesus was the servant of the Lord who showed us what a life of service was like.  Jesus was one who lifted up the fallen, who received the Spirit of the Lord to bring forth justice.  This is a prophetic passage, spoken and written hundreds of years before the one to whom it refers came to be.

Finally, it is hard to read these words and not hear the call upon our own lives.  Each of us (as well as all of us, mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago) is called to serve the Lord, to work for justice.  Each of us, this is a call passage, an invitation to a way of living.

So, you might be asking, which is it?  Which one is the right answer?  Well, all of them.  That is the glory of the Bible, it functions on so many levels all at the same time.  I believe that historically it referred to the king who ascended to the throne of Israel and to the nation that ruler led.  And sometimes they listened and sometimes they didn’t.  I think it also carried the seeds of prophecy, paving the way for the coming of the Christ.  Did Isaiah know he was talking about Jesus of Nazareth?  Probably not, but God knew.  Just as God knows that we have the opportunity to live as servants to God and to the people.  This is indeed a calling, an invitation to live in certain ways, to work for certain ends.

And what might those ends be?  Did you notice that the word “justice” appears three times in the first four verses?  It seems pretty important, don’t you think?  Especially when we read that we or he or someone “will not faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.”  We can’t rest, the task isn’t finished, Christ’s work isn’t done until justice is established in the earth.

So, what defines justice?  Well, that is more than I can resolve for you in the small space left here.  But a glimpse is given in the passage.  To establish justice is to open the eyes of the blind - whether those blinded by material things or limited education or poverty or prejudice or....  It is the work of the servants of the Lord to help folks see what they overlook.  To establish justice is to release those who are imprisoned in dungeons or darkness - whether those dungeons are human made barriers to freedom and wholeness, to sustenance or beauty; or practices that enslave minds or resources and keep people trapped in a cycle of poverty or on the brink of illness or disease from the lack of sanitary systems we take for granted; or the lack of resources or knowledge that will enable children of God to know how valuable they are to their creator and to this world.  That is the work of establishing justice in the earth - to be in the business of systemic change, lasting change that makes life better for all.  These are the new things that are about to spring forth, the new things that we are to tell about.  These are the songs that we are called to sing into being.

Someone once said that God didn’t say let there be light, like is says in Genesis one.  God sang it.  God sang the world into being.  And we are now called to sing the songs that will bring forth justice.  And to keep singing, and singing, and singing.  Like that song we can’t get out of our heads, we are to fill our vision with justice.  This is our theme song, says Isaiah 42, the music that plays whenever we take the stage is a song of justice.

What songs are you singing these days?


Saturday, October 6, 2018

Receiving the Kingdom

Summer is back.  Autumnal Summer.  Dog days?  No, those are usually in August aren’t they?  The Dog days of summer?  Besides if you ask my dog he’s say these aren’t dog days.  These are hot and steamy days that wear you out every time you go down the street a ways.  Not the crisp cool October we’re used to.  There is a house down the street already decorated for Halloween, orange lights and black cloth and spider’s webs and tombstones with skeletons.  But if this keeps up, kids will Trick or Treat in bathing suits, and ask for a popsicle instead of a candy apple.  

Apparently we aren’t the only ones with odd weather.  Our friends in England told us about an uncomfortably hot summer for that island nation.  Our daughter Maddie was frustrated checking the weather before going to Europe, not being sure how to pack for her two weeks in the mountain villages of Germany and Austria.  Then of course the unusually strong hurricanes and tropical storms dropping a deluge on the south east and other island nations nearby.   Earthquakes in Indonesia, fires in California and Oregon and Colorado, and probably more. Now this isn’t a sign of the end times kind of rant.  Instead I’m heading in the completely different direction.  While I am in no way celebrating tragic circumstances, I do want to point out how these events tend to bring us together.  They also shrink the planet until we feel like neighbors with those in another hemisphere.  “Not in my backyard” gives way to how can we help dig out, dry off, cool down, restock, rehouse those in our world wide suburb?

It’s World Communion Sunday this week.  A date when we remember that when we partake of the sacrament of Holy Communion we don’t do it alone.  This meal we share is not for us alone.  The ritual is performed in more languages than we can count, the bread takes many forms and flavors.  The celebrants come in all colors and answer to a variety of titles.  It’s a World Communion observance in a diverse and divided world.  And yet it’s a world with needs as real as bread, and hungers as deep as the ocean that links us.

Here’s a question – Is communion primarily a spiritual event or a physical one?  Well, a bit of both is the answer of course.  But don’t we lean to the spiritual side?  Sure there is bread and juice, but it is the grace and the remembrance that really make it.  Our task on communion days is to experience the presence of Christ.  Isn’t it?  To transport ourselves onto a spiritual plane and commune with the One who set the table.  We’re to move beyond the mundane, to enjoy the sublime.  Right?

Well, I’m not so sure.  Jesus seemed intent on making things, making faith real.  He was always grounded in the reality of the world in which we live.  His images of the Kingdom, the metaphors he used were of earth - seeds and pearls, light and darkness, sheep and coins, the stuff we live with every day.  I think he sat at the table and took hold of the reality of bread and, here, this, this is my body.  This is me.  I’m here, I’m as real as bread.  And every time you pick up a loaf of bread, you’ll be touching me, holding me, claiming me.  I’m here, right here in this world with you.  He wanted them grounded, not floating around on some heavenly cloud somewhere.  When they tried to turn the talk to the reality of the Kingdom, asking about the seating arrangements, the place cards on His table, He got exasperated with them.  This cup, He said, this cup is my whole life.  I’m as present as the clay it took to make this cup.  I’m as alive as the bouquet of this wine, the fruit of the vine.  I’m that vine, He said.  He was trying to get them to live in the world, to pay attention to what was right in front of them.  

It was a trait of His, the invitation to pay attention. He was always pointing to the most unlikely of things, the most unlikely of people and asking His followers to see them.  To really see them.  Like this ...

Mark 10:13-16  People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.  14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it."  16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. 

This is the Jesus we know and love best of all, I believe.  But we have to realize what a radical departure this action was from normal behavior.  No one with any authority or power or standing in society in this period of history would even have time for children.  It just wasn’t done.  And yet here is Jesus, not only allowing children to be in His presence, but taking them up in His arms and blessing them.  Almost embarrassing, at least I am sure that some - like the disciples themselves - were scandalized by this behavior.

Yet, Jesus didn’t care.  What He cared about was blessing.  He cared about touching and putting them on His lap, because they were real people, worthy of His attention, His presence.  He cared about welcoming and including.  He cared about making sure that everyone understood the value of those of whom he said “let them come.”  Mark says He was angry, indignant our translation says.  It’s a harsh word in Greek.  It seems Jesus was trying to be concrete.  You’re in the way, He said to His disciples turned bouncers trying to keep the kids away.  You’re in the way, not just of these kids, but of the Kingdom.  This was a “get behind me Satan” moment.  One of many.  The disciples were missing something fundamental.  So Jesus was trying to help His hearers see something of the glory and the wonder of the Kingdom and He grabbed the nearest visual aid He could find.  

Come and see, He could have said.  See through these eyes the wonder of God’s creation.  Come and see the needs and the opportunities to serve.  Come and see how we can live out the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.  And then He gathered them up.  So that we could see that the best way to rid oneself of doubts and fears and suspicions and animosity is by getting outside of yourself long enough to bless a child.  To talk to them, to listen to them, to experience the world through their eyes.

But then, He wanted to make sure we didn’t miss the point here.  That they didn’t miss it and that through them we don’t miss it either.  To such as these belongs the Kingdom of God.  Actually, He didn’t say belongs.  The verb here isn’t belongs.  It is is.  Is.  For it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God is.  Is?  They’ve got it, He says, or they are it.  You want to embrace the Kingdom, embrace a child.  Let them come, He says.  Which means how we treat children, what we allow done to children or not done to children is what we do to the Kingdom of God.  

Wow.  I mean, wow.  Don’t you think?  And then, in case we were still unclear, Jesus drives it home.  Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child, will never enter it.  Which means what exactly?  That’s the question that has driven biblical scholars crazy for over two millennia.  On the one hand are we supposed to receive the Kingdom like a child would receive the Kingdom, or like a child would receive anything?  Or are we supposed to receive the Kingdom like we receive a child.  Or as we receive a child?  In other words is our ability to receive the Kingdom dependent upon how we receive children into our midst?  How we treat children.  Or mistreat them, as individuals and as a society.  When children suffer at the hands of adults, or governments, or religious leaders, or parents, are we in danger of losing our grip on the Kingdom of God?  

Maybe the heaviness of that line of thinking is why most commentators take the other track.  How do children receive things?  And how do we emulate them?  Lots of ink has been spilt trying to answer that.  Words like innocence and purity, or dependence or wonder, are often used to help us grasp the attitude it takes to receive the Kingdom.  But I wonder if it isn’t about an attitude, but an action.  Attitude is important, I don’t mean to suggest that it isn’t.  Yet, Jesus is being concrete here, grounding us in the world of doing.  So maybe His point is more earthy than we tend to think.  More simple.  So, how do children receive anything?  With both hands.  That’s how.  Then, how shall we receive the Kingdom?


Saturday, September 29, 2018

Apart From Me

I’m home alone.  La Donna is in Albuquerque with her aunt and uncle, catching up and getting ready for whatever might be next as she is executor of their estate.  Rhys is off helping move a playground at church, and then hopefully going to lunch with friends, as there is nothing he enjoys more than eating out, instead of leftovers with dad.  Which is fine, it’s great.  I like being alone.  It lets me write without interruption.  I’m enjoying being alone.  Well, alone with a neurotic dog who barks at shadows, and a cat with ADHD who simply can’t settle for more than a few seconds before she has to launch herself off to new horizons, and another cat who is convinced she’s unjustly imprisoned inside when the back yard beckons.  This is us, alone together.  This is how we go, today at least.

Matthew 28:16-20 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

“As you go,” He said, a way of living, a way of being, of sharing the essence of yourself.  That’s what it is to disciple another, sharing the essence.  The methodology is simple, He said, baptize and teach.  Baptize, offer a new identity, a new understanding of self and one’s place in the world.  Teach, share life as you learned it, are learning it.  But then something else.  One more thing, He says, one more action word, one more verb by which we live our lives as we go.  Remember.  That’s it?  Just remember?  Remember what?  “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Remember that you are heading somewhere - to the end of the age, which is the beginning of a new age, a new kingdom, a new way of living, that same way that you are learning to live now.  You’re learning to live in a new world, the one you are heading toward.  The end and the beginning.  Remember that you are heading someplace. But also, remember you don’t go alone.  “I am with you.”  Remember, you’re heading somewhere, and you don’t go alone.

John 15:1-5   "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.  3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.  4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 

Jesus is on his way out.  On his way to suffering and death and life and ascension.  Out.  Away.  Apart from them.  And he knew it and told them.  Over and over he told them.  I wonder did they not get it?  Did they just glaze over whenever he talked about that departure?  Did they live each day of their new and exciting lives thinking that it was always going to be like this?  Probably.  Do any of us imagine life without us in it?  Only on our sad days.  And if we try to talk to those we love about this departure, they won’t want to hear.  I can see a field full of disciples with fingers in their ears loudly singing “la la la la, I can’t hear you!!” when Jesus started his the Son of Man will be lifted up to die routine.  

But he knew it.  He knew it as sure as he knew he was breathing now.  And he faced it with the same confidence with which he faced drawing that first ragged breath in a barn in Bethlehem.  With the same sense of presence that he faced when he rose from the muddy waters of the Jordan with a beaming John the Baptism trembling beside him.  With the same sense of possibility and responsibility that brought a sigh out of him when he healed in the face of doubt, or the groan that came when he tossed out a demon that thought it was secure with claws deep in the human psyche.  He knew what was next, and he wanted to prepare them.  Abide in me, he told them, as an antidote to his absence.  Abide in me.

Wait.  What?  He was leaving so he wanted them to abide in him?  What?  Did he mean that the time is short, get your abiding in while abiding is possible?  Or worse, was it a “look what you missed!  You should have gotten closer!  You should have taken up residence, you should have gotten on board, you should have been on the team!”  But now the game is over.  The clock is ticking.  The last second shot will probably fall short, as they do more often than not.  And you will have missed it.  Too bad for you.  I’m on my way out.  You could have had more.  You could have been a contender.  But no.

No.  That can’t be it.  Jesus didn’t taunt in that way.  Jesus wept for missed opportunities, yes.  But he didn’t wag his finger at those who just didn’t get it.  No, this had to be a real opportunity, a real commandment.  Like the other commandment that is about to come in a few more verses, the love one another one.  That wasn’t a taunt.  Neither is this.  Abide in me.  Not you should have, you could have, but you didn’t abide in me.  No, there is still time, the clock hasn’t yet run out.  Abide.  Get in there and abide, there is still hope, we are still alive.

But how?  Jesus is annoyingly short on detail, even as he is rich in imagery.  Vines and branches, fruit and gardeners: there is a secret here.  Not a hidden code, but a obvious puzzle that if we could but glimpse it, then it would explode in our consciousness like a lightning bolt.  It doesn’t need a degree in ancient languages, but an ah  ha moment that unfolds the truth that was always there.  

Look again, abide in me as I abide in you.  As I abide in you.  He’s leaving, but He’s not leaving.  He is with us, even to the end of the age.  Which means we are with Him come hell or high water, when the chips are down or our ship has come in.  We are with Him and He is with us.  We remember, He told us to remember, remember Him and the life He lived, and the part He played. We remember the divine drama which is acted out as a historical remembrance.  Except that it isn’t an historical remembrance.  It is the rhythm of our faith.  Christ comes to us and we shout for joy, and ask Him to save us, because Christ comes to us.  To us.  And with tears streaming down our faces we embrace Him and hope for a new start and new opportunity and new outlook on life.  And when the glow dies down and the new outlook looks a lot like the old look and takes just as much effort to hold onto, if not more;  then our disillusionment grows and we look for someone to blame, a scapegoat who must be at fault for the rotten life we’ve been given, and we lash out and cast aside that which only recently seemed so full of possibility and hope, and now tastes like ashes instead of bread and wine.  And we turn our backs on the One we wept over, and we flee in fear and shame and doubt.  And in the darkness we feel so alone.  Again, so alone.  Like no one understands.  Like no one is on our side.  Like no one ... there’s just no one.  For us.  No one.

We are apart from Him, and can do nothing.  Or nothing that we can do seems worth doing.  Or nothing that we have done seems to amount to anything anymore.  Apart from Him.  Life is emptier.  The colors are muted, the air is heavy and gravity seems stronger.  Apart from Him.  Nonsense?  Maybe.  Maybe it is my imagination, my overactive spiritual sensibilities.  A little bit more time in the real world might do me some good, give me some perspective on how things really work.  Sure, a little bit of Jesus is a good idea, but you can go too far.  Am I right?

Unless.  Unless we are heading somewhere.  And we don’t want to go alone.  Being alone is great for a time.  And for sitting still.  But traveling is better with companions.  It makes it easier to stay on the path, to believe in the destination if there are those who travel alongside.  When Christ told us to abide in Him, He meant in part that we stay close to the community that bears His name.  That’s how we know Him, how we hear Him, through the voices of those who are also heading someplace, who also don’t travel alone.  

As you go, disciple!  Disciple by baptizing into a new identity and teaching about the life that you’ve been given.  Oh, and remember.  As you go remember that you’re heading somewhere and you don’t travel alone.  Thanks be to God


Saturday, September 22, 2018


My daughter is in Europe right now.  Eating dinner in Vienna, actually.  At a restaurant that was old when this country was carpeted in bison and elk.  She sent me a picture of her dinner.  Amazing.  And, yes, in case you’re wondering, this is the daughter that broke her leg a few weeks ago.  Broke it so well that she had to have a titanium rod (called a tibial nail) driven into her leg to hold the bone in place, from her knee to her ankle, and then some screws to hold it.  Yeah, that one.  She told me earlier in the week, before they left, that she’d been practicing walking.  Because they were planning to walk in the Alps.  Walk across the Vltava River in Prague.  Walk the narrow streets of some of Europe’s oldest cities.  So, she was practicing walking.  And now she’s there.  Walking.  Sitting and resting.  But walking.

As you go.  Remember?  That’s how we hear the direction from our Lord, the Great Commission we call it.  As you go, He says, while going perhaps.  As you go, disciple.  Wherever you go. As you go.  To the ends of the earth perhaps.  Really?  Yes, remember?

Matthew 28:16-20 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

That must have hit them like a truck, had they known what a truck was.  “Of all nations.”  We take it for granted.  This international travel thing.  It’s commonplace.  Old hat.  Jump on a plane, end up a world away.  Amazing, but not really amazing any more.  We do it all the time.  A flight to Europe?  Yawn.  A cruise to the Carribean?  Been there.  Africa, Asia, a long flight on a cramped seat, but no big deal.  Happens all the time.

I remember my first transatlantic flight.  I was scared to death, but didn’t want anyone to know.  Especially since I was going to spend a year over there, across the ocean.  I didn’t know if I could survive in a culture different from my own.  Maybe it would be familiar enough to function, maybe it would catch me out more often than I was comfortable with.  Maybe the accents would be too thick to understand.  Maybe mine would make me stand out.  Maybe it would be possible to have conversations, and to make relationships, to plant seeds and to disciple.  Maybe it would be a dismal failure.

See, it’s one thing to go, it’s quite another to disciple as you go.  I’m sure the eleven heard their hearts pounding in their ears as He said these words.  As you go, disciple, all nations.  They flinched, and looked at each other.  Did He say ...?  Surely not.  Their minds went back to the beginning, just after He had called them all.  One of the first things He did was send them out.  A field trip right out of the gate!  But, as He sent them, He said “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, enter no town of the Samaritans...”  Whew, they thought.  Glad we don’t have to do that crossing boundaries thing, those people are just weird.  So, they went and did what they were told to do.  But now, after all that happened, after death and life again, after despair and the rising again of hope, now they stand on this mountain and hear “of all nations.”  Cross those boundaries.  Tear down the walls.  You’re now limitless.

Um.  Really?  You sure about that?  That had to run through their minds in that moment. Limitless?  Because they were, like we all are, way too aware of their limitations.  They had slammed up against them just days before. They had tasted failure, they had run for their lives, they had huddled behind closed and locked doors.  Limitless sounded risky, sounded vulnerable.

All nations.  They were right to remember that the trial run was close to home.  That for that first foray into the mission field, Jesus told them to stay close to home, stay in familiar territory, deal with the folks they knew, the folks like them.  Yet, if they had been paying attention, Jesus had been dropping hints all along the way that the boundaries of their home town, their home country were not going to be the limits for long.  

Way back in the beginning of His earthly ministry He dropped a hint.  Before the twelve had been named, before the squad was in place, He sat down on the side of a mountain and cast a vision that still is bigger than we can really comprehend.  We call it the sermon on the mount and look at it as good advice.  We hear it as little proverbs that Jesus dropped like pearls before us swinish folk.  But it was more than that.  It was nothing less than a glimpse into eternity.  He stood on the steppes of that monumental mountain and spoke to the thousands gathered on the mall around the reflecting pool and said “I have a dream.”  

And that dream is our dream, our hope, the model of life itself, life fulfilled, life content and complete, life poured out in love and in joy.  In the midst of that dream is the hint that this life is limitless.  In terms of time, yes, but more than just that.  More than an eternity of unmeasurable time, it is an eternity of depth, an eternity of meaning and purpose.  Unlimited by the walls we build, the lines we draw and the boundaries we construct to keep ourselves “safe” or so we think.  A hint that the limits we suffer from are of our own making.   

Matthew 5:13-16  "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.  14 "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 

Did you hear the hint?  In those very familiar words it sometimes hides in plain sight.  You are salt.  Yes, we get that.  We struggle, we wrestle, but we get it.  You are light.  Same.  We know, we’ve heard, it seems to be asking a lot, maybe too much, but we know.  We are salt, we are light.  We add flavor and preservative.  We provide direction in the midst of darkness.  We’ve heard.  But what else?  

You are the salt of the earth.  The earth.  There’s a planet in need of our flavoring, our preservation.  Are we just caring for a small patch, for the bit with which we are familiar?  Or are we concerned about the earth?  The third rock from the sun.  That one.  You are the light of the world.  Really?  The world?  For heaven’s sake.  Yes, exactly.  We are the light of the world for heaven’s sake.  “World” in Greek is kosmos.  How’s that?  You are the light of the cosmos.  Daunted yet?  Overwhelmed?  You should be.  

Disciples have a global/local vision.  That’s how Brian McLaren puts it.  We are in the business of tearing down barriers.  Crossing over boundaries.  There is no where we won’t go.  No person beyond our reach, no relationship out of bounds.  So we go.  On broken bones if necessary, but we go.  With hesitant hearts, with doubts aplenty, but we go.  And as we go...

Wait a moment.  Retranslate that again.  We go.  You go.  Not just you, but you.  All y’all.  Remember?  This isn’t an individual task, you don’t carry the weight of the world by yourself.  You can’t salt the whole planet.  You can’t light the whole cosmos.  But all y’all can.  All y’all with the One who is the light.  You don’t need to dine in Vienna.  You don’t need to cross the ocean.  Oceans will be crossed.  But start with crossing the street.  Start with crossing the room.  Knowing that you are part of something bigger than just yourself.  It’s only in that understanding that we can truly be limitless.


Saturday, September 15, 2018

Abiding in Love

“In Baptism Henry put on Christ, so now in Christ may Henry be clothed in glory.”  

For those who may not have heard, my dad died this week.  Two years ago last June my mom died from a long and difficult battle with dementia, and we almost immediately moved dad back to Indiana and into a care facility.  He never really settled, never really felt at home in this new place.  He struggled with the idea that mom was gone, sometimes he seemed aware of her death, other times he wondered why she hadn’t come to see him lately. He believed right up to the end that he was only here temporarily and soon we would pack him up and let him go home again.  Well, I guess he wasn’t wrong.  And now he’s gone home.  

At his request he’s been cremated and now resides on our mantel while we wait to gather the family in Tennessee for a remembrance and burial.  We plan to go on his birthday, in the beginning of November for that final journey of his earthly remains.  Which means we are postponing a service.  But having led more funeral services than I can count, the words swirl though my being as we handle the details of the end of this life.  In baptism Henry put on Christ.  He claimed a new identity, a new relationship.  He began the journey to become a disciple of Jesus.  

Matthew 28:16-20 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

What we offer is not a ticket to heaven, but a new identity.  And in that new identity is a new community, new relationships with Him, of course, but with His followers.  We become a body, a family. But a family with open arms and a welcome mat as big as all the world.  A family that has room, has love enough for even the most broken, the most suspicious, the most wounded by the harshness of a world of sin.  We are who we are because we were claimed in baptism, the waters of life that made us one with Him, one of His.  

In baptism Henry, and you and I, put on Christ, claimed an identity, became something new, something more.  Disciples are identified as disciples.  We are who we are, and we claim who we are in Christ.  And we live that truth in the wider world.  We live it outwardly, it’s not a secret to be kept to ourselves, but a way of being, a way of loving that puts us at risk in a world that lives by other values.  But it is our joy, our duty and our hope to glorify God.

John 15:8-14 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.

This is, of course, part of the larger piece called the “farewell discourse.”  This is Jesus trying to give them everything they would need to go on without him as he had been with them.  These verses follow the description of the vine.  Jesus says “I am the vine and you are branches, abide in me.” That’s the only way to bear fruit.  And if we really want to glorify God, which is what we say when we worship, then we do it by bearing fruit.  But doing something. Branching out.  

Jesus tells us to stay connected.  To abide in Him, abide in His love.  That makes a wonderful picture.  Just hanging out with Jesus.  Just being filled up, like a buffet table with all our favorite foods.  Just being restored like a long lazy morning when you don’t have to get out of bed until you want to.  Abide in My love.  Like being wrapped up in loving arms and letting those arms be the buffer between our wounded hearts and the less than gentle world.  Abide.  Sounds nice.  Let’s get some of that.  So, Jesus, how do we go about this abiding thing?

“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”  Sounds a little more involved than just hanging out with Jesus.  Sounds like another one of those doing kind of things.  Keep my commandments ... and this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  We abide in love when we love.  We receive more of Christ’s sustaining love, strengthening power, transforming presence, when we sustain others with our love, when we strengthen those around us with our love, when we work for transformation in those whom we encounter.  It’s kinda like saying when we set out to love like Christ loves, we can’t ever run out.  

When the breathing slowed and then stopped and the room in which I sat with my dad grew silent, broken only by the burbling of the oxygen machine I knew that I was alone.  I went and told the nurses at the station outside his room that he had stopped breathing.  They grabbed their stethoscopes and ran to the room.  They listened, shut off the machine and listened again.  One looked to the other and said with tears in her eyes, you listen.  So, they listened.  And declared, we will miss him.  He was kindness personified.  He treated us like daughters, like friends, with a smile and a joke and a twinkle in his eye.  And for the next few hours and then days, there was a parade of staff members, aides and nurses, cleaning staff and chaplains, all coming to say how they will miss his gentle presence and friendly attitude.  He will leave a big hole, I was told, he cared about us, about the others.  He cared.

That’s how it happens, this abiding thing.  It is when you venture out.  When you wrap the love of Christ around you and take a step into the unknown, to give of yourself, you are abiding.  I know, it doesn't make sense.  Abiding sounds stationary.  Abiding sounds settled.  But Jesus redefines abiding.  

Or maybe He is just giving directions so we can find him to abide.  Remember the Easter declaration?  “He is not here, he is risen!  And he is going before you...”  You want to abide in Jesus? You have to keep moving.  Because He keeps moving.  He goes where the hurt is, He goes where the hunger is, He goes where the love is least so he can pour out more.  And He invites us to go with Him.

And here’s the bonus.  This is where joy is.  This abiding on the road thing.  This stepping out in love journey.  This is where the joy is.  “I have said these things to you,” Jesus says, “so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”  Complete joy.  Wow, what would that be like?  We get glimpses, we get moments, we get a taste of joy from time to time, if we’re lucky.  But Jesus is offering something else, something more.  Complete joy.  

Complete because it is shared.  That is the nature of joy. Mark Twain said that “grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with.”  Joy is a shared experience, rather than a solitary one.  Joy is of the community, even if the community is just you and Jesus.  You and one other, with whom you can share and know joy.  What a blessing.  

One other who takes up residence in your heart and helps make you who you are.  I have more than one, I suspect you do too.  But one of those I remember today is my dad, who he was and who he tried to be.  I mourn his passing, even as I give God thanks for his witness and his service.  I give God thanks that he knew how to abide in Christ’s love.  And pray that to honor him and so many others, I will learn to abide as well.  Thanks be to God. 

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Nothing for the Journey

We are consumed by conversation about resources.  Do we have enough?  Will there be enough?  Do we know enough?  Resources come in lots of different forms.  The money one occupies our thinking an awful lot.  But there are other questions facing us.  Do we have the smarts?  Do we have the courage, the brains, the heart?  “We’re off to see the wizard.” ...  Ahem.  Excuse me.

We’re lost in the wilderness and the trees are throwing fruit at us.  The yellow brick road is too hard to discern through the weeds of our doubts and hesitations.  The companions on the journey don’t seem up to the task, or they’ve let us down, or they’ve hurt us and we just can’t forgive them.  Or maybe we’ve lost sight of the destination, the purpose of the journey.  Maybe we aren’t sure we believe in the Emerald City any more.  Maybe it is more about surviving day to day than it is arriving somewhere.  Maybe it is more about being safe and warm and cared for than it is about accomplishing something.  After all we’ve got our own issues to worry about.  We’ve got wounds that need healing, we’ve got stuff we’ve got to learn, we’ve got families to tend to.  We are way too busy to be taking on more stuff.  Maybe later, maybe when we get the time, when we have the inclination, maybe when ... maybe.

Week two of our discipleship series is titled “Disciples are people who have a mission.”  Our guiding text is the Great Commission from Matthew’s Gospel, 28:16-20 – Go into all the world...  We’ll come back to that in a bit.  But I chose another passage for us to look at this week.  Similar, but different.  Take a look:

Luke 9:1-6  Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases,  2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.  3 He said to them, "Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money-- not even an extra tunic.  4 Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there.  5 Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them."  6 They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere. 

The first thing to note is that it wasn’t just at the end where Jesus launched the followers out into mission and ministry.  This is chapter nine of Luke’s Gospel.  He just called them in chapter five.  There’s a lot they don’t know yet, a lot they haven’t experienced.  They hadn’t heard the Good Samaritan story yet, they hadn’t been taught how to pray, for heaven’s sake!  Yet, he sends them out.  

And get this, take nothing for your journey.  What?  Take nothing.  You know Peter had to have grumbled about that one.  We would too, I suspect.  We aren’t prepared, we don’t have the resources, we don’t know enough.  You can’t be serious about sending us out there.  Are you?

Seemed to be.  He gave them power and authority.  Ah, well, that’s a different kettle of fish then isn’t it.  If only he would give us power and authority.  Then we just might take him up on his offer to go.  Cast out a few demons before lunch, heal some diseases in the afternoon, then call it a day.  

Take nothing for your journey.  Nothing.  Nothing to rely on but the power and authority that we just barely comprehend.  Nothing to fall back on but the name of the One who sends us.  Nothing to hide behind but the image of the one we are trying to bring to life in our lives.  Take nothing for your journey, because the journey is everything.  It is not a mission that we take up and do for a period of time and then set down again.  This is not a mission trip, a mission emphasis.  This is life as mission.  Mission as a way of living.  Take nothing for the journey because you are the journey.  You are the presence of the Christ who sends you.  Take nothing external, nothing to prove your knowledge or experience.  Take nothing in your hands so that your hands are free to hold and to welcome, to love and to soothe, to heal what has been broken with nothing but the witness of your life.
Brian McLaren says that we slightly mistranslate the instruction in the Great Commission.  That “Go” thing.  “Go into all the world!”  It sounds like marching orders.  It sounds like a crusade mentality.  Go!  Get on out there!  Ten hut!!   Get on out there.  Like we are crusaders, like we’ve got a fire on our tails, like we are going to make those disciples if it kills us or them, usually them.

McLaren says the tense is actually a little bit different.  He says a better translation would be “as you go” or “as you are going” instead of the hardline “Go!”  As if Jesus is saying “while you’re up,” “as you are going out and about in the world.”  As you are living your life, as you are making your way in this world make disciples.  No, I don’t think he means be casual about it.  Don’t take it seriously, or do it as an afterthought.  No, in fact it might just be the opposite.  Let it be the reason for being.  Let this making disciples thing be what drives you, what motivates you.

Maybe the question is more about the influence we leave, the ripples that our lives make.  Are we conscious of how our presence makes others around us different?  Are we building up lives or tearing them down?  Are we encouraging others or pushing them out of the way?  Are we sincere about what it is that motivates us, what drives us to go and do and be, or do we keep it hidden, ashamed or embarrassed to admit that we are guided not by our own inner power but a power that comes from above?  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, that’s what Paul wrote.  Would we do the same?

In the sending here in Luke there is a very specific mission.  Jesus gives power to do two specific things.  He sent then out, Luke writes, to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.  Hmm, not sure about that, are we?  Proclaim the kingdom of God.  We’re supposed to talk about heaven all the time.  About what happens after we die, about the condition of our eternal souls.  Oh, great, we’re supposed to be that guy.  That goofy not really dealing with the real world guy.  “So heavenly minded as to be no earthly good.”  Jesus sends us out to be that guy.  Great.  Just great.

Or does he?  When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God is didn’t sound like a place for dead people.  It didn’t sound like sitting on clouds strumming harps and polishing halos.  It sounded like relationships.  It sounded like people living together in community.  It sounded like caring and helping and supporting and loving.  It sounded like something that I’ve been looking for all my life, to be honest.  All my life.  Not my afterlife.  Oh, sure it is exciting that this kingdom thing, this way of living and being thing just goes on and on, beyond the physical limitations of this bodily existence.  That is a part of the appeal, I admit.  But the real excitement is that it isn’t just a someday kind of thing.  It is a this day, or the next day, or why not now kind of thing.  

As you go about in the world, are you living and inviting others to live differently than many do in this world?  As you are going about your living, your being made into a disciple, are you including as many others in the process as you possibly can?  Are you proclaiming the Kingdom, with words, but not just words, with hope and confidence, with joy and laughter?  Are you a bright spot in a dark time?

And healing.  Uh oh.  Be healed!!  We are to wield magic like powers, right?  Faith-healing.  Well, maybe there are some who can do that, miracles do happen from time to time.  But what is more likely is that we are to be a healing presence in the lives of others. We are to put back together what has fallen apart.  Maybe we heal hearts and souls by loving and accepting as Christ did.  Maybe we heal relationships by reconciling instead of holding grudges, by forgiving instead wanting to get even.  And we keep trying.  Again and again and again.  

Take nothing for the journey.  Nothing but Christ.  Nothing but faith and hope in the One who loves us and works in us to love others.  As you go, feeling underequipped and underresourced, trust in that presence.  Don’t make me get the flying monkeys!  We’re off ... to make disciples.


Saturday, September 1, 2018

You Have the Words

Words are my life.  Yours too, I believe.  But mine somewhat obviously.  I’m a preacher and a pastor.  I’m set apart to share words, and when I do it well, I share the Word.  But sometimes –  no, often –  they are only words that hint at, point toward the Word.  Yet, they are what I have.  I am a word smith, hammering them into place when they won’t easily fit; a word shepherd when they run and play across God’s green creation like living things bringing hope to many hearts. I live in words.  

Sometimes the words are words of finality, words a family can’t bring themselves to say, but needing to hear.  Words speaking the truth of life and of death, with the bold but elusive hope of eternity.  Words that make the lowering of the box and the throwing of the dirt seem less definitive somehow.  Sometimes the words are words of blessing accompanied by water dripping from fingers upon unsuspecting brows and bowed heads.  Sometimes they are words of binding  The old words used for many years to bind two people together to make them one, and the newer words that talk about hopes and dreams and plans and issues.  Lots of words.  

Some words need to be explain or analyze, others we knew or think we do anyway.  Words.  That’s what I do.  People ask me. We would like you to say the words, they say.  Say the words and help us say the words.  The words that would make us one.  The words that bring meaning in a meaningless moment.  The words that might help us survive in an uncertain world.  Say the words that bind us, that soothe our souls, that send us onward.  Say the words.  The good words that we long to hear and the hard words we need to hear.  The words of binding and of sharing, the words of committing and of sacrificing, the words of ending and sending. Say the words. 

We start a new series this week.  And our series is about words.  Some words we will like: Disciple, empowered and confident, vision and hope, for example.  And some we won’t like as much: Mission and evangelism, for example.  Scary words for some, fighting words.  But words woven into the conversation called faith from the very beginning.

We have two texts this week, two sets of words from the Bible to get us started.  The first is our governing text for the whole series.  A familiar one.  Even has a name, words about the words.  The Great Commission.  You know it.

Matthew 28:16-20  Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." 

Words of sending, words of blessing and promise to be sure, but the sending is clear.  “Go” he says.  This faith thing isn’t a stay, but a go.  It isn’t a dwell on this, think on this, consider this, but a go and do this.  Well, yeah, but to go and do you need to dwell and think and consider, don’t you?  Of course you do.  But sometimes we get caught up in the thinking we forget about the doing.  At least when it comes to our faith.  We are great doers with it comes to everything else.  Making a home, growing a family, shaping a career, working in a community - we are doers from way back.  And good at it.  Driven by it.  Sometimes overwhelmed by it but we keep going.  One foot in front of another on the long road to who knows where.  We are doers of our lives.  But are we doers of our faith?  

Well, yes, of course.  Our faith is such that as we live our life we declare our faith.  The values we espouse reflect the vows we made to follow our Savior, the commitments we keep let the words of our beliefs become actions, the generosity of our hands reveals our contemplations of the words of Christ, our lives put the words of our faith to work.  Who said “Preach always, use words when necessary”?  We like that.  Let our lives be our proclamation.

Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  Except sometimes words are necessary.  Say the words, they asked me.  Say the words of binding, the words of love and marriage.  Say the words that challenge and invite.  Say the words that bring folks a little closer, the words of welcome and acceptance.  Say the words of hope, or promise.  Say the words of a tomorrow that is brighter than the today we sometimes face.  Say the words that just might begin to heal the brokenness that was caused by other words.

Go into all the world, he says, make disciples, baptize, teach, remember.  Go with these words.  Challenging words, that’s for sure.  Words we would just as soon keep under wraps, as a hidden agenda rather than an up-front reason for being.  The words aren’t easy to follow.  Even those who first heard them struggled.  Our second passage is one of the saddest sections of all the Gospels.  Jesus had been teaching, teaching hard stuff, challenging stuff, confusing stuff. And he ends by saying God’s in charge, not you.  God brings you to me, you didn’t decide to follow Jesus, forgive me Sadhu Sundar Singh who tradition says first wrote that hymn (I Have Decided to Follow Jesus, that one!).  He was one of the first native Indian missionaries on that complex and confusing sub-continent.  And he heard a story of a man who believed even though no one else in his family or village or region did.  Though none go with me, I have decided to follow Jesus.  A powerful message, a powerful truth.  Except that Jesus says no one can come to me except by the Father.  God chose, you chose, God invited, you decided.  Which is it?  Both?  Neither?  Some odd combination?  It is confusing.  Some of the first disciples heard this and said this is too hard.  These words confuse us.  And they wandered off.

Jesus stood watching them go, with sadness, I believe, in his heart.  Then in that sadness he turns to the twelve, the ones he chose by name to follow closest.  Because they were special?  Or because they needed remedial work?  Maybe both.  But he turns to them.

John 6:67-69  So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?"  68 Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.  69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." 

What about you?  Are you leaving too?  Your heart breaks just reading those words.  But Peter responds.  With a shrug.  Nowhere else to go.  You have the words.  The words we need to live and breathe.  The words that make our lives into something with meaning and purpose.  The words that lift our hearts when our heads have fallen in shame and embarrassment.  The words that pick us up and dust us off and get us back on track when we stumble and fall.  The words that pull us out of ourselves into a wider, more wonderful world; a God-breathed world, vibrating with the presence of the Spirit, alight with possibility and hope.  You have the words that give us life.  Where else would we go?

 He has the words and he has given them to us.  And there is a world hungry to hear them.  Say the words.  Not just be a good person, but say the words.  Invite and encourage.  Heal and love.  Love, that greatest commandment, love.  The theologian Paul Tillich said the first duty of love is to listen.  You have the words, but first you have to listen so you know which words are needed, which words will connect, which words will feel like a balm and invite someone into a deeper relationship with the One who gave you the words.  That’s what we’re about this series.  Helping us all know that we have the words.  And then finding the courage to speak them.  Say the words.