Saturday, September 22, 2012


It is raining.  It wasn’t when I sat down here to work.  But now it is.  Plus an hour or so has passed.  And now I’m wondering what is for lunch.  And I like this song that is playing right now.  Wait, did I hear Maddie finally awake and stumbling around in the kitchen?  I wonder if she is going to come in and say hello or not? 

Probably not.  Better get to work.  Our passage for this week... Wait, it wasn’t Maddie after all.  It was La Donna.  No wonder Maddie didn’t come to say hello.  Or at least flop down in my chair and turn on the TV.  Because it wasn’t Maddie.

It’s raining harder.  OK, got to focus.  Where was I?  Passage.  Sermon.  OK, got it now.  Right, well, what does Deuteronomy have to do with Love Languages?  You know, picking themes and worship series a year out sounds like a good idea, but then it was so long ago that I forgot what I was thinking when I chose these words.  I’m not sure how it connects with our theme, or with Gary Chapman’s “5 Love Languages” series that I’ve been using.  Sorry, Dr. Chapman.  Not just any old Chapman.  Wow, rain really coming down now. Was it supposed to rain this hard?

Maybe this week I should just start with the passage and see if I can comment on it later.  Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.  Oh, look, the rain stopped.  Amazing.  What’s that I smell?  Lunch?  Already.  Better finish this up.

No, better get this started.  Take a look at this, would ya?  And I’ll try to figure out where I’m going with this.

Deuteronomy 4:23-31  So be careful not to forget the covenant that the LORD your God made with you, and not to make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you.  24 For the LORD your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.  25 When you have had children and children's children, and become complacent in the land, if you act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything, thus doing what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, and provoking him to anger,  26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you will not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed.  27 The LORD will scatter you among the peoples; only a few of you will be left among the nations where the LORD will lead you.  28 There you will serve other gods made by human hands, objects of wood and stone that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.  29 From there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul.  30 In your distress, when all these things have happened to you in time to come, you will return to the LORD your God and heed him.  31 Because the LORD your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them.

“Be careful not to forget the covenant.”  Be careful.  I know as we read on it seems to get much more serious.  It talks about anger and judgement, about destruction and exile.  So, maybe be careful doesn’t really convey the seriousness of the issue here.  Be careful is something you would say to someone carrying eggs from the fridge to the counter, something you would say to someone walking in a room where you’ve broken something made of glass and you want to warn them not to step on it.  Maybe a louder warning, maybe more of a threat might work. 

On the other hand, the tone of Moses’ speech seems about right.  The people of God are standing on the threshold of a new life, a new land.  They’ve come through forty years of wandering in the wilderness, trying to find their way to being the nation God called them to be.  And now they are about to launch into it.  So, Moses says “be careful.” 

Take care, he says, there are things that are worth caring for.  Things that need to be valued above other things.  It is a matter of priorities, he is arguing.  And when you let this covenant slip down the list, there will be trouble.  He says “when you have had children and children's children, and become complacent in the land...”  Did you notice that?  When you become complacent.  It is as if it is almost inevitable.  When you have children, and they have children.  When you are distracted by life, then you are in danger.  And just what is the danger?  “If you act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything.”

Wait.  That’s the danger?  That we will make idols?  Not likely.  I mean the carving of totems or the shaping of statues doesn’t fit into my long range or even short range plans.  I’m too busy anyway.  I’ve got responsibilities, I’ve got jobs to do.  A house to maintain and kids to raise, and then there are various hobbies and interests.  You know all work and no play and all of that.  Gotta keep up with the world, gotta take my share of opportunities when they come, gotta ...

In the form of anything.  Kind of startling, isn’t it.  Anything.  Almost as though Moses knows how distracting this world is.  How many things, good things many of them, but they can still be distractions from the important things.  And Moses is pretty clear about what is important - the Covenant.  With God first of all, but also, I would suggest, with those were are in relationship with.  When we married - if we did - we made a covenant to love.  When we joined a church - if we did - we made a covenant to support with our prayers and presence and gifts and service and witness.  When we joined a small group - if we did - we made a covenant of support and caring and mutual accountability.  Sure, we’ve got lots of responsibilities and important things to be doing with our time and our resources, but those covenants need our attention, need our care.  “Be careful not to forget the covenant” says Moses.

The thesis of the Love Languages series is that all of our most important relationships need attention.  That we can improve our loving by paying attention to those with whom we are in relationship and learning to speak the love language that they speak, to meet them where they are instead of always expecting them to speak our language.  Sure, we need to be filled up too, we need those we love to speak to us in a language we can understand.  But if we focus outwardly first we are more likely to find fulfillment within.

The truth is there are distractions aplenty in our world today.  It takes some focus, it takes commitment, it takes a choice to lift our relationships to a higher level of importance in our busy schedules.  “Be careful not to forget the covenant.”

I wonder if the rain has stopped.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Pentecost Fix

It wasn’t so much a rush of a violent wind as it was a slight catch as her breath was drawn during an uncomfortable silence.  They weren’t divided tongues as of fire so much as two thin silvery tracks her tears made rolling down her cheeks.  Yet, the spirit in that room sucked the life right out of me.  I know, more of a reverse Pentecost, actually.  Instead of life-giving it was life denying, instead of bridge building it was division creating, instead of understanding it was confusion and hurt and anger and thoughts and responses that startle you that you even think them let alone claim them.  But real, no matter how unpleasant, real and deep and hurtful.  Because I was the cause of her pain. I wanted to gather her up and run away, far away.  Away from those who take out their frustrations on children, away from those who would rather use innuendo and judgmentalism, who would rather hurl stones from the sidelines than try to find a solution.  I wanted to take her away from all of that, to just leave it all behind and ... run away.

Yeah, Ok, I caught that.  So did she.  Even through her tears she said, “Dad, how is that going to help anything?”  Well, I thought, sometimes it isn’t about helping, sometimes it is about safety.  About taking care of yourself and those you love.  Sometimes it is about what you want, sometimes it is about getting your feelings hurt and making them pay for such a thing, shaking the dust off your sandals.  Yeah, that sounds biblical, doesn’t it?  Just move on, because it is too hard to communicate with folks who are just so unreasonable, so stubborn, so ... so ... human.

I thought all of that, but didn’t say it.  Instead I looked into those determined, shiny brown eyes and began to long for hope.  The lyrics to Jason Mraz’s song Frank D. Fixer came sliding shyly through my mind.  Frank D. Fixer was a handyman / He could handle anything; he was my granddad / He grew his own food and could fixed his own car / I watched it all happen in our backyard / He'd reinvent the part to fix the broken home / He restored the heart

Well, I wish I was a fixer / I would fix you up inside / I would build you a town if the world fell down / I wish I was that guy.

Acts 2:1-13  When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.  6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,  10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,  11 Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power."  12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?"  13 But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."

I’m sure they wanted to run.  It wasn’t really safe to stay where they were.  Right in the heart of the lair of the opposition.  Right where the people were who didn’t like the one they had followed for these past few years.  Right where they had won, and he had lost so painfully.  Sure they had those encounters, they saw him or something that seemed to be him, coming through the locked and bolted doors in that room that had become their world in those days.  Sure there were his somewhat cryptic words telling them to wait.  So, they waited, but I’ll bet they wanted to run.  Run for the hills, run for their lives.  You can only face such anger for so long. 

So maybe it was their weariness as much as their obedience that kept them corralled in that room.  Maybe it was their fear as much as their hope.  Who knows.  All we are told is that they were all together in one place.  And maybe because of that, God showed up.  Maybe because despite their desire to run away, to greener pastures, to safer terrain, to more familiar faces, folks like them who wouldn’t challenge them so much, let them be in peace, maybe the fact that they stayed in that one place in spite of all of that, God blows down walls and sets doubts on fire.

The first undeniable truth from Acts chapter two is that God is the fixer.  We can wish we were fixers all we want.  But it is only when the Spirit arrives that we can ever hope to bridge the gaps, to leap across the differences and come to a common understanding.  Otherwise we are too different, too set in our ways, too wounded by our encounters with one another to even come close to healing what is torn between us. 

When the Spirit comes we can speak in languages that we didn’t even know we knew.  Instead of languages of hurt and anger and revenge, we are fluent in forgiveness and reconciliation.  Instead of limitation and doubt and anxiety, we speak hope and joy like natives.  Instead of accusation and blame love rolls off our tongues as though we were born to it, with a perfect accent as though it were a part of us.

Amazing.  Oh, sure, there are those who will wonder when we speak this language, What does it mean they will say, with suspicion perhaps, with hooded eyes afraid to risk responding.  You must be drunk they will hiss, if you think this can be fixed, this can be forgiven.  You are out of your mind!  And maybe we are, we will have to admit.  Out of the minds that kept us from speaking this language before.  Out of the minds that only wanted revenge, that only wanted to lick wounds and pout in the darkness.  We are out of our minds, because the Spirit drove us out.  Drove us out into the wilderness of living in a world that sometimes hurts us, sometimes rejects us. But then gave us words to say, a language to live out, and so we do.  In fits and starts, but we do.

God is the fixer, that’s truth one.  But truth two is that the tools God chooses to use to fix what is broken are us.  Or in us.  Or from us.  Something, it is hard to know exactly except that we are invested in this fixing thing, more than we want to be sometimes.  We put ourselves out there, hair blown out of place by a wind that is sending us and sparks still flying off our ears by a flame that is empowering us, and get to work fixing.  And part of what gets fixed is ourselves.

“Dad, how is that going to help anything?”  That being running away.  That being giving up.  Her words haunt me almost as much as her hurt.  I’m so proud of her, even as I fear for her.  She also asked me, “Do you think we can fix this?”  I had to admit that I didn’t know.

Well, I wish I was a fixer / I would fix you up inside / I would build you a town if the world fell down / I wish I was that guy.

But I knew who could.


Saturday, September 8, 2012

Living in Shinar

Why does that happen?  One moment you feel like maybe you are making some progress.  One moment you have a big vision, a goal and a plan.  One moment everyone is on board and ready for the next steps. One moment you feel like maybe this thing will actually work - whatever this thing is.  You feel as though you are on top of the world.  But then the next moment comes and it is all different.

The plans fall apart, the hopes are crushed, it all seems like dead ends.  The relationships crumble, those who were gung ho and on board are now abandoning ship like you’ve hit an invisible iceberg and are going down fast.

And the worst part?  You have absolutely no idea what happened.  What seemed to be such a wonderful idea, what seemed to be just what everyone wanted, became a source of confusion and misunderstanding.  You thought that you were telling the story well, but the looks of confusion on those who used to be close to you told a different tale.  It was so clear and unifying before, before the clouds of uncertainty rolled back in, before the distractions of a complicated world jumbled the message.  It was as if all of a sudden everyone started speaking a different language.

 It always seemed fanciful, one of those Old Testament stories that border on the mythological.  Too grand for us to comprehend.  And besides it was obviously there as an “explanation” story.  Like many of the ancient myths, this story was there to explain the reasons behind the way the world was.  Why, someone wondered, are there so many different languages and cultures in the world?  Well, let me tell you a story. 

I’m sure that’s true, in part.  But I also think - as with most biblical texts - that there is something else going on here.  Maybe lots of somethings, but dismissing this story as an ancient pre-science myth seems to diminish the power of the story.  So, let’s look more deeply and see what we can see.

Genesis 11:1-9   Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.  2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.  3 And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.  4 Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."  5 The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.  6 And the LORD said, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.  7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech."  8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.  9 Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Ah, yes, that story.  The babbling story.  The tower and the languages and the scattering and the sin.  Except, it is sometimes hard to see the sin.  It is as if God picks a fight.  I know, I’ve heard the explanations.  They were thumbing their nose at God.  Well, maybe.  Though there isn’t a real clear taunt against the divine powers in this all too brief story.

One explanation that does make sense is that this story forms the end of the first section of Genesis.  After a bit of genealogy, we launch into the story of Abraham and Sarah.  So, this is a bookend to the first part of the bible, which begins with creation and the command from God to fill the earth.  But here we see people choosing not to fulfill that command.  They want to stay in one place.  They built their city in order to not do what God wanted them to do.  The explanation for the building is “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

It is understandable, really.  Safety is our number one priority it seems.  Fear of the unknown is a great motivator.  Avoiding risk, avoiding change is our prime directive.  Yet, God seems to want something else for us.  God seems to imply that we were created for more than that.  That we would be less than what we could be if we choose to live the way that makes the most sense to us. 

Now in the story, God comes down to inspect the construction project.  Upon inspection, God determines that something must be done.  “Nothing that they propose will be impossible for them,” is the diagnosis.  Which doesn’t seem like a bad thing.  In fact you would think that God would be proud of the offspring who have so much potential.  But instead, God decides it must be stopped.  So, the language trick is done and boom, the construction project is brought to a screeching halt and the migration out into the unknown begins - because the unknown came too close to home.

It all fell apart, and they weren’t sure why, I have no doubt.  Except that the folks they thought they knew, all of a sudden they realized they didn’t know at all.  Couldn’t even understand them anymore. They were speaking a whole other language.

We launch our four week relationship series titled “Love Languages” this Sunday.  It is loosely based on the books by Dr. Gary Chapman various titled but all including “The Five Love Languages.”  The thesis of these books is that we don’t all speak the same language when to comes to love.  Our expectations and our needs are different.  And that one of the reasons that relationships fail - whether between spouses, parents and children, neighbors and co-workers, or whatever - is that we don’t always realize we are not speaking the same language. 

We’ll do more about that theory on Sunday and in later weeks here.  For now, I want to lay that general idea alongside this story and ask a simple question.  Does the story of the Tower of Babel really talk about punishment?  Is God angry at us for going our own way and making our own choices?  Or does God give us diversity to enhance the human experience and invite us to overcome our differences and find a true unity not based on fear or complacency but full of the richness of living in relationship with those who stretch us and challenge us to be more than we thought we could be?

OK, not a simple question after all.  But then nothing in this life is ever simple.  I think this story is witness to the idea that God prefers it that way.  And when we think about it, we do too.  We often think, if only everyone thought like I do life would be so much easier.   Maybe so, maybe it would be easier if everyone spoke the same language, had the same preferences, leaned in the same directions.  Easier, but infinitely more boring.  Don’t you think?

Maybe God wasn’t punishing us to getting to big for our britches in that story.  Maybe God was reining us in before we got so far off track that nothing would stop us from total destruction.  Maybe the community you have to work to preserve, to choose to commit to, stretch to enlarge is worth more than all the towers we could build to the heavens.  Maybe our response to the Babel story ought to be “thank you.”


Saturday, September 1, 2012

Clean Enough

We’ve got a difference of opinion going on around here.  Which, frankly, isn’t all that unusual.  But it seems significant today.  Maybe because of the little encounter that Jesus has in our text for this weekend.  The difference of opinion is around the subject of clean up.  When my daughter Maddie asks if she can fix herself a snack or a meal we usually say “yes, as long as you clean up.”  “Sure,” she says.  And later I’ll ask her if she cleaned up and she’ll say “yes.”  And I’ll go in the kitchen and it isn’t cleaned up, and I’ll grumble while I do her dishes. (I know I should make her come and do it) When I ask her again, she’ll reply that she did indeed do the clean up.  I will say, “no you didn’t, I did.  I had to wash the dishes or put them in the dishwasher so that they can be cleaned.”  “Oh, that,” she’ll respond, “well, I put them in the sink and ran water in them.”

How clean is clean?  What constitutes clean?  Who decides?  The Pharisees were pretty sure they knew clean when they saw it and they were equally sure that Jesus and his gang didn’t know it.  They not only knew it, they were experts in it.  They were specialists.  It was their area of ultimate competence.  So, when the disciples didn’t measure up to their standards they decided they had to, no it was their duty, their reason for being, to mention it.  And here’s what happened.

Mark 7:1-8  Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him,  2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.  3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders;  4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)  5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?"  6 He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;  7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.'  8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."

Wow, did Jesus pick a fight here or what?  Seems like those Pharisees asked a legitimate question and Jesus came back with both barrels.  Or what?

Well, first of all, this isn’t about hygiene.  Let’s just get this out of the way at the beginning.  The Pharisees aren’t germ-o-phobes who are complaining about the ickiness of the disciples sitting down at table with grime under their fingernails.  Jesus isn’t siding with kids everywhere who slump their shoulders when mom sends them back to wash their hands before they can eat, even though they are starving and are convinced their hands are clean enough.  Sorry kids - go wash your hands.

No, this is a battle about ritual, an argument about liturgy, a war about worship.  Not the “should we use an organ or guitars” battle that occupies our thinking these days.  This is about life long worship.  This is about whether you acknowledge God when you are off the pew as much as when you are in it.  The Pharisees weren’t asking about table habits, but about life choices.  “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition..?”  That’s what they are asking Jesus, about living without God.  They didn’t make the proper acknowledgment of God in this dining moment (and remember that eating was one of the most holy and most ritualized activities of the people of God), so they probably didn’t do it anywhere.  They were living defiled.

And that word sounds worse in our translations than it might.  The word is in Greek is koine, which usually translates as common.  They were eating with common hands, instead of the holy hands that God wanted.  They were eating with hands fit for normal stuff instead of the divine stuff of God’s Presence.  No wonder they were offended, no wonder they were trying to get Jesus - who was becoming something of a celebrity and therefore potentially influencing people everywhere (Jesus didn’t wash his hands, why do I have to wash my hands?) - to get his disciples back on the right track.  Give them a break, they were just trying to help.  Jesus resorts to name calling. 

Actually, it was descriptive teaching.  Jesus called them actors.  They were worried about the power of his celebrity, he was worried about their acting abilities.  He says, you are just going through the motions.  You are performing these elaborate rituals, using buckets of water and showy gestures and genuflections and contortions and it doesn’t mean a thing to you except as a performance to get through.  You’ve turned what could be a simple ordering of the heart, a simple grace before a meal, into a Las Vegas routine complete with big band and sparkly outfits. 

The commandment of God is to bring your heart, your being, your essential self as an offering, setting aside all that would distract you from that moment, from that gifting.  The human tradition consists of all the ways we can think of to help us do that.  The churches we build and the spaces we create, the words that we say and the rituals we perform, the disciplines we take up to help shape our hearts after the patterns that Christ gave us.  Those human traditions are good things.  But sometimes they get in the way, sometimes they become more important than the relationship they are designed to help foster.  And we argue about which ones are best, or necessary, or helpful, or universal, twisting ourselves up in knots about the traditions, the behaviors that don’t matter all that much - except that they have fed people at various times. 

What works for you?  That is part of the question of this passage.  What brings you, heart and soul, body and mind, into the presence of God?  What is clean enough for you?  Or for us as a church, for us as twenty-first century Christians in this culture, what are the rituals, the behaviors, the practices that will shape us into the disciples were are called to be?  That we want to be? 

What is clean enough?  Maybe we need more water, like the Pharisees, maybe we need to practically bathe ourselves before we seek audience with God.  Or maybe it is just a touch, or even a sight of the water in our Baptism duck (long story) at the entrance of our sanctuary that brings us into that presence.

Jesus never complained about the practice of handwashing.  He never said you are wasting your time, silly Pharisees.  He was pointing out that they weren’t invested in the practice they had devised.  They weren’t present in the very discipline designed to make them present.  An apt warning for them, and for us.  Are we here?  When we bow our heads before a meal, or alongside our beds, or in our pews on a bright and sunny Sunday morning, are we present?  Are we making ourselves clean enough to be present?  Or just going through the motions one more time?

Some time after our conversation about what constitutes cleaning up after yourself, Maddie stopped me as I came out of the bathroom.  She looked me in the eye and said “Did you wash your hands, daddy?”

Are you clean enough, prepared enough, present enough for worship?  Or should you head back in to the water once more?