Saturday, March 31, 2012

April Fools

Someone said that New Years’ Day used to be on April 1st and when it got moved to January 1st some folks forgot, or wanted to hold on to the old one, or simply refused to acknowledge the change and so continued to celebrate New Years on April 1st. Naturally these folks were called April Fools. On the other hand, maybe I just made all that up as a faux explanation for the phenomenon of April Fools’ Day.

Maybe it has connections back to the Roman Festival of Hilaria. Think about it, wouldn’t you want to celebrate the Festival of Hilaria? Just sounds great! Or the Mediaeval Festival of Fools, that sounds like a don’t miss on everyone’s vacation schedule. Both of these were spring, or even vernal equinox celebrations when everyone goes a little crazy after a long cold winter. There was an element of turning the tables on these events, a bottom of the heap folk seeing how the other half lives dimension. They were designed to vent the pressure that sometimes leads to revolution, by acknowledging that sometimes life just isn’t fair. That the have nots are not any less than the haves. It was a chance for just a day, just a moment, to get back, to get even, to get your two cents in, a sort of “so there” in your face, thumbing your nose at those who think they are in charge of everything and everyone.

So, of course, Palm Sunday on April Fools’ Day is strangely fitting. You know the story, you’ve marched in the parade. You didn’t know you were participating in civil unrest, did you? You didn’t realize you were making a statement about how the world was ordered, I’m sure. But that is what this event was designed to do and to be. Take a look:

Mark 11:1-11 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'" 4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, "What are you doing, untying the colt?" 6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" 11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

On of the questions endlessly debated is whether this incident was accidental or planned. Did Jesus one day decide to make a trip into Jerusalem and a parade broke out? Or was this deliberately chosen and planned out to make a statement at this specific time? The truth is we may never know. But what we do know is that the Jesus who spent the first part of the Gospel of Mark telling people not to tell who he was, to keep it all a secret, all of a sudden makes a big announcement.
He rides this colt into the city of Jerusalem, and his followers walk with him and shout “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Neither of those were random acts. When a king is going to war he rides a horse, when he is proclaiming himself a king of peace he rides a donkey, and only enhances that statement of peace by choosing an unridden colt. The words that were spoken come from one of the enthronement psalms, used when a new king was coming into power.

Hard to miss, really. A slap in the face to all those who thought they were in charge. A declaration of authority and power in a place of power and authority who saw him as an outsider. It was like the best April Fools’ prank ever. The one who appeared powerless is the one who is the King of Kings. The one who rode into a war zone with the authorities out for his blood, is the Prince of Peace.

Hosanna was a common word in royal psalms. It was understood by most folks to be a statement of celebration, a shout of joy and welcome. And it was. But originally it had a translation and it meant “Save Us” or “Save now!” For leader after leader, the crowds would shout save us to one who more often than not was more concerned about his own safety and prosperity. And now they shout Hosanna to the one who can save them, but most of the city doesn’t even know what is going on.

When we lift our palms and wave them on Palm Sunday morning we declare our allegiance to the Prince of Peace, the very one the world considered a fool and did its best to destroy. And perhaps we are participating in the best April Fools Day ever.

But then on the other hand, sometimes April Fools get fooled. Maybe a better description is to acknowledge that the world resists being turned upside down. Or at least it won’t stay that way for long. The powers and principalities of this world come rushing back in and order as they understand it is restored.

That is why Palm Sunday is not just Palm Sunday, it is more properly Palm/Passion Sunday. That slash is important. It is a reminder that there is risk involved in taking the side of the marginalized. There is danger in trying to upset the status quo. And just when you think you’ve won your point and gathered your crowd, you discover you are alone again.

At least that was Jesus’ experience this Holy Week. From the parade to the way of sorrows, from the king of peace riding on a donkey to a hated criminal hanging on a cross, from “Hosanna” to “Crucify him” in a matter of days. Who’s the April Fool now?

Maybe it is us, for clinging to hope in a hopeless world. Maybe it is us for embracing life in a world obsessed with death. Maybe it’s us. Maybe it’s him, proclaiming Easter joy in a Good Friday world.

Maybe so. Still, I’ll wave my palm and shout my hosannas, even though... Call it April Fools’ if you want. I’d rather be a fool for Christ anyway.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Cast Away

I feel strangely unmoored this weekend. La Donna is away for a UMW meeting again. Maddie is off dancing at her studio. Rhys is tucked away with games somewhere in the house. The dogs are recovering from the goose stalker on the pond (long story). But probably most disconcerting is that I am not preparing a sermon for tomorrow.

Oh, I’ll be there. And I’m looking forward to what Chris will share with us at worship. But after so many years, so many services, so many sermons, there is just something wrong ... no, not wrong ... just ...not ... right. Hmm. I seem to be at a loss for words here.

You know that feeling. That something is just out of place. Something is broken, or out sync. The funny wheel on the shopping cart. The tiny stone in the shoe. You just limp along feeling out of sorts. And when someone asks you if everything is ok, you don’t even know how to answer. Because nothing is wrong, really. Just not ... right.

Or maybe you do know. Maybe there was a word spoken that you wish could un-speak. Maybe there was a effort you should have made but didn’t, and now it is too late. Maybe there was a response you should have held in, an event you should have acknowledged, a call you should have made. Maybe your brokenness lies heavy on your heart today.

Whichever, whether known or unknown, the feeling of disconnect is very real. What we need is not explanation, but antidote. And where better to turn than to worship. At least that is the suggestion of the Psalm for this week. Take a look:

Psalm 51:1-17 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. 5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. 6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. 7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. 14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. 15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. 16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. 17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Wait a minute, you are thinking. How is that about worship? It is about sinfulness and the need for confession. Yes, and ...? It is about the separation from God and the need to be cleansed. Right, and ...? It is about guilt, heavy burdensome guilt and the need for restoration to joy. Certainly, and ...?

And what? You are getting on my nerves with all this “and?” stuff. Where are we going here, what is the point that is being pointedly pointed at? Or something.

Where do you go for restoration to joy? Where do you go to be purged and made clean? Where do you go for a new heart? Worship, of course. The purpose of worship is to glorify God. And the result of worship that glorifies God is to reconcile the worshiper with the Presence. For reconciliation to take place cleansing must occur. For cleansing to occur an open heart must be offered. For an open heart to be offered, a hunger must be acknowledged.

When we come to worship hungry, then something happens, we are transformed, we are healed, we are made clean. We are made right with God, and then it becomes possible to be made right with one another. That is why we worship as a body, so that the effect of our worship can be felt between us as well as within us.

That is what is missing when we are missing from worship. That is the “not right” feeling that we get when we are away from the body. Many have spoken to me about that lack, that unsettled feeling that we get when we miss worship for whatever reason. It is hard to name sometimes, but it is real. The truth is we can have that feeling even when we are present in worship. Because presence doesn’t always mean engagement. Presence doesn’t always mean coming hungry. We are so filled up by the busyness of this life that we forget how hungry we really are. We forget to seek the face that defines us, that accepts us, that loves us with a love almost beyond description. We think we are self-sufficient, when in fact we are anything but. We are needy. We are often empty. We are hungry for that word of acceptance, of unconditional love. We are hungry for meaning and direction and hope.

And our unspoken fear is that the one we seek this from won’t offer it. That we are somehow not worthy. That we are too dirty to be made clean. Too broken to be made whole. Too rotten to be made healthy. And that feeling of disconnect is not just inside us, it is from that source and we are cast away from all that will make us “right.”

The Psalmist feels that too. And yet there is a plea, there is a hope, there is a remembrance of wholeness and joy. So, the psalmist seeks it, even as we seek it. The psalmist worships even as we worship. That we might be made right again.

Create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and put a new and right spirit within me. That’s our prayer, our theme for worship. Then our lips will open and our mouths will declare praise. Come and worship, come hungry and worship with joy. Amen.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Faith and Begorra

And a happy St. Paddy’s Day to one and all. Though it is somewhat ironic that the symbol of Irishness in this country is an English aristocratic kidnap victim stolen from Wales and abducted to Ireland who became a priest and returned to the country to which he was taken. Kind of weird when you think about it. Add to that the fact that in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day was a religious celebration and the pubs were all closed, at least until very recently. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin was held in 1994 as a tourist attraction. All of which means St. Patrick’s Day as we commonly experience it - with the green beer and green rivers, with the kiss me I’m Irish buttons and leprechaun t-shirts - is a thoroughly American construct. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

But spare a thought for poor St. Patrick. First of all, kidnapped and taken across the Irish sea to a foreign land, forced into slavery for six years until he finally escaped. You know his heart was full of prayers in all that time. Had to be. Prayers for rescue, prayers for redemption, prayers for salvation.

Had to be. Because he went back. He went back because his heart was full of prayers. Prayers for rescue, prayers for redemption, prayers for salvation. Except this time they weren’t prayers for himself, but for the people he somehow - don’t even try to figure it out, it doesn’t make any earthly sense - the people he somehow learned to love. So much so that his life and work caused the people of Ireland to name him their Patron Saint.

An incredible story to be sure. Only made credible by the power of prayer. The power of the Spirit to work transformation in hearts. Patrick’s heart, certainly. And the heart of a nation.

“Real prayer,” writes Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline, “is life creating and life changing. ... To pray is to change.” Our Spiritual Discipline of the week (or one of them anyway) is Prayer. And I got there by looking at Psalm 107. Now you almost have to look at it all to get the grand sweep of the psalm. And in worship we will try to unpack it a little bit more. Here I want to start with the lectionary passage. Take a look at the verses chosen this week:

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. 2 Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed from trouble 3 and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. ... Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction; 18 they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. 19 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; 20 he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction. 21 Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. 22 And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.

Prayer. OK, the word prayer isn’t actually in those selected verses. All right, I’ll admit it, the word prayer doesn’t appear in any of the forty-three verses of Psalm 107. And, frankly, most commentators would say that Psalm 107 is about something completely different. Yet, if you look closely, you’ll have to admit that prayer permeates this psalm. Just substitute synonyms: give thanks - pray; cried to - prayed; thank the Lord - pray; offer thanksgiving sacrifices - pray. See? It is there.

More than that, the kind of transformation that Foster was talking about is there as well. From sickness to healing, from the brink of death to deliverance, and from desperation to thanksgiving. It is there. “To pray is to change,” says Foster and we can hear an “Amen” from the writer of Psalm 107.

In fact, this change is what Psalm 107 is really all about. If you take a wider look in the Psalm you will see a repeated theme. Verse 17 above says “Some were sick...” Verse 4 says “Some wandered in desert wastes...” Verse 10 says “Some sat in darkness and gloom...” Verse 23 says “Some went down to the sea ...” The psalm is full of folks in trouble, folks on the edge, folks dealing with difficult days. Folks in need of prayer, in other words.

Folks like Patrick. OK, I don’t know for sure in a fact check-able kind of way that Patrick prayed while enslaved in Ireland. But given what his life became, I don’t think it is a big leap to assume. And maybe, but this IS a stretch, he started that cliched Irish statement “Faith and Begorra.” Which is a shorted form of “By my faith” as in a way to live and “by God” which is choosing to put your trust in something beyond yourself and the hope to see beyond your current situation.

OK, it is a stretch. Trying to put too much meaning in a meaningless phrase. Sort of like pointing out that Goodbye is really a shortened form of God be with you. And when you say goodbye you are not just waving, but actually conferring a blessing, actually praying a prayer. Silly really. Sorry.

Well, then how about this final note on this St. Patrick’s Day - March 17th is not the day he was born, it was the day he died. So, Patrick is remembered not just for existing, but for giving himself away, for sacrificing because of a prayer.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

It's the Law!

It was another Course of Study Saturday, which means I was up before the sun and heading to Indianapolis to teach my preaching class. Then a long day of teaching and listening to and critiquing sermons. Followed by a drive back home to get here in time to have a funeral. Then supper. Then to the task I usually start my Saturdays with. So, I’m late. Sorry.

But it was a good day. A long and somewhat exhausting day, but good. And I suspected it was going to be a good day because I got to see the sun come up while I drove to Indianapolis. It was a glorious day today. Made me somewhat sorry that I was inside all day long. But at least I got to watch the gradual shift from night to day. The black sky that begins to fade into a purple and then a rose and finally to the full yellow of the bright sun, it was glorious to experience this morning as I drove along. Suddenly, I felt a little less alone, a little less burdened with the responsibilities of the day. It was an performance just for me and the other cars out on the road this morning. A private show for the few. A message about ... well ... something surely. Let me think about that for a moment. In the meantime, take a look at the Psalm chosen for this third week in Lent.

Psalm 19:1-14 The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. 2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. 3 There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; 4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, 5 which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. 6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat. 7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple; 8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes; 9 the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. 10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. 11 Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. 12 But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults. 13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. 14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

The heavens are telling. That was the message. That’s what I saw this morning as I drove along. The glory of God. Of course when that glory got a little higher, I had to squint and move the shade over to block it out. After all I had places to go and safety to consider! Hmm.

No wonder the psalmist says both “day to day pours forth speech” and “there is no speech, nor are there words.” It’s there, but not there, you know what I mean? We get a glimpse, we see something, our hearts are lifted, a smile comes to our face, or a tear to our eye. But just as quickly as it arrives - as surprising and wonderful as it is - it fades away and we get caught up in the busyness of our lives again. And we are left to wonder if we saw anything at all. If we heard that message, or felt that presence. Or if it was simply a figment of our imagination. It’s here, it’s gone, was it really there at all?

So, what is the solution? What is the antidote to our inability to grasp the presence of God in the world around us, to hear the voice of God on the wind, to see the glory of God in the palette of the dawn?

The law, of course! Say what? Yeah, go back and look at the psalm again. We go from rapture about the vocality of creation to a giddy celebration of law. OK, I can the nature thing. We’ve all been carried away by an awesome vista now and again. But rapture over the law? Well, ok, I’ve met a lawyer or two in my day who was just crazy about the law. But we all know that they are not normal people (sorry lawyers, but you know it’s true).

The rest of us understand the law to be necessary, even useful. But soul reviving? Seems unlikely. Heart rejoicing? Hardly. Isn’t the law the something we want to be able to do away with? Aren’t we set free from the law because of grace?

Is it possible that the psalmist has a different understanding of the law than we do? Is there something to the law that we miss because we are caught up in legalism and in limitation and boundaries - all of which seem like such negatives to us. Is there another way to approach this thing called law?

My Hebrew professor used to tell us that we had pretty much mistranslated the ten commandments. Not because the words were wrong, but because the essence was missed. She said that a better translation than “you shall...” or “you shall not...” would be “You are...” and “you are not...” In other words, she argued, this law was description and therefore an invitation to live into it. Rather than mold we are pressed into, the law is a picture drawn of the people of God, the community of faith. This is how we can live, the law tells us, this is who we can be.

Now it is something we can aspire toward, something we can reach for, not something that cuts off our attempts to fulfill our passions. And Christ’s call to love God and love neighbor is not a rule to follow but a way of living that fills the emptiness of our souls, that gives us insight into what it means to be human, that gives us a heartfelt joy of connecting with another soul. The law is enfleshed in Jesus and now by His grace can be enfleshed in us.

Can be, meaning we are on the way, we are in process. The Spiritual Disciplines I chose to go along with this Psalm are Study and Service. Which simply are reminders that we don’t know everything we need to know yet, and spending some time learning would serve us well. And that the crucible of learning about love is found in how we care for others. Acts of Service bring us into compliance with the law. But more than that they rejoice the heart and enlighten the eyes.

So, study and serve. So live and love. It’s the law, after all.


Saturday, March 3, 2012


The Psalm assigned for this Second Sunday of Lent is sort of innocuous. I don’t mean that in a bad way, honest. But there is really nothing in there that would grab our attention. And in planning for this season, I almost chose something else that would allow me to say what I wanted to say in a more dramatic or obvious kind of way. These verses don’t jump off the page in a way that we would like them to. Important, significant, yes, but almost leads one to a “yes, and ...?” kind of response.

Well, take a look and see what I mean:

Psalm 22:23-31 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! 24 For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him. 25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him. 26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever! 27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. 28 For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. 29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. 30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, 31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

Good stuff, right? But not necessarily earth shattering. Praise God. Yes, indeed. An important word, a useful reminder, but ... duh ... am I right? At least until you go back and remind yourself that this is Psalm 22. Ah, now that changes things, doesn’t it? Surely you remember Psalm 22! Jesus did. In a difficult moment he remembered that Psalm. On the cross Jesus remembered the 22nd Psalm. How does it begin? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yes, it is THAT Psalm 22.

Wow. Now all of the sudden the assigned verses seem to pop a little bit more. Pop? No, they seem to startle, or shock. They seem to move a little further out of reach, as if they are asking an impossible thing. As if they are trying to stretch us pass the limits of understandability.

How can we praise when we are in pain? How can we praise when devastation seems all around us? No doubt there are some right now wondering how we can conduct services of worship on the same weekend when lives are lost to sudden and terrible tornadoes. Some were made homeless, businesses and schools were wiped out in a moment. There is a report of a two year old who was found wandering in a field near her southern Indiana home and her whole family was killed by the storms. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?”

Praise seems a long way away all of a sudden. Almost out of reach. How are we expected to heed these words now? How are we supposed to have an attitude of praise when we are broken inside? It seems like too much to ask. Doesn’t it?

I know I’ve used this before, in a sermon if not in this space. But there is a poem of sorts that I stumbled across a few years ago that seems appropriate here. Not so much a poem as a manifesto perhaps, or a statement at least. It was presented as coming from Mother Teresa and was reportedly hanging on a wall in her mission in Delhi in India. Others dispute the origin and yet it is still a powerful statement.

It reads like this:

People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered; Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives; Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies; Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you; Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight; Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous; Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow; Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you've got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.

While perhaps emphasizing different experiences, the “anyway” kind of attitude pervades Psalm 22 as well as the poem. Sometimes praise grows out of the joy of living. It is the only kind of response we can make because everything is going well. How does that saying go? “God is in His heaven and all is right with the world.” Those days seem to bring forth praise without any problem, almost without any urging it just happens, it just spills out of us.

But then the other days roll around with all too much frequency. The days when praise seems as far from our minds as anything could possibly be. Those are the days we need to praise anyway. Because praise is what we are made for. And when all else fails to fall back on our reason for being is a pretty good way to go.

Now, my real problem this weekend is that for some reason I chose Fasting and Frugality as the Spiritual Disciplines for this Sunday. How am I going to get from here to there I wonder?

Stay tuned.