Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Things Prepared

Just a quickie this week, I promise.  Mostly because I am still recovering from an upper respiratory thing (I love the precise medical definitions) that has knocked me for a loop this week.  Partly because Pastor Chris is preaching this week and he has put the work into this passage and I haven’t.  And a little bit because La Donna is at a UMW meeting since yesterday and I’m nominally in charge of a sick teenager, a dog with an eye infection, a cat with some sort of intestinal thing, and an on-going debate about whether there is enough snow to shovel or to just let it go in this cock-eyed, poor excuse of a winter, predicted to be upper 50's in a couple of days!

Such is life, eh?  You’ve got your list, I am sure.  What’s piling up on your desk, or your floor, or kitchen counter?  What’s screaming to be done, at the top of your to do list? Or at the top of your I wish I had time to do list?  Or maybe when we are snowed in and I’m forced to do list?  We are pulled in so many directions we hardly know which way is up any more. 

And we think the best we can hope for is to squeeze in one more thing, make a little more room, build bigger barns ... I mean calendars.  Or barns.  For more stuff.  Then ...  Leave it to Jesus to poke us in the eye with it.

Luke 12:15-21  And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."  16 Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  17 And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?'  18 Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  19 And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'  20 But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'  21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

Not the same thing, you say?  He was talking about amassing stuff.  We were talking about being really busy.  Doing important ... stuff.  Is it really that different?  Drowning in stuff or in responsibilities, losing ourselves in the process?  Does Jesus just hate stuff, or does he dislike what it is doing to us?  We are defined by our stuff, or by our jobs.  We don’t gather in professional meetings and show off our latest acquisitions, but we trot out our calendars - electronic and otherwise - just to show how busy we are.  How important we are.  We can’t turn off our cell phones because we are so indispensable that the world would grind to a halt if we weren’t there to manage it.  Or maybe because we are afraid that it would become known just how unimportant we really are, so we keep trying to justify our worth by working ourselves to death.

When I think about it, whether we are talking about stuff or about activity, it seems to me that what Jesus is concerned about is our attempt to define ourselves.  He seems to believe that this is God’s job.  Our job is to live into that definition.  Our worth, our value is determined by God, and it is inestimable.  We diminish ourselves when we use any other scale. 

In the end, we might still be doing the same things, Jesus isn’t against responsibility, isn’t against activity.  He just wants us to keep perspective, to keep hold of our true selves as beloved children of God.  Asking “what is our life for,” or “whose life is it anyway” might be a way to keep us on track.  Maybe he is asking us to spend a little less time preparing our calendars or our inventories and a little more time preparing our hearts to live the life he has given us.  In Him was life.  But is it in us?


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Life Saving Surgery

How long can you stare at a blank screen before you come up with something to write?  I think I’m going for the record today. ... The problem is it matters.  I know that sounds pathetic.  Either it always matters or there isn’t any point in doing it.  Or in the greater scheme of things some words on a page aren’t going to amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.  So why get all bothered by trying to find the right ones?

I don’t know, to be honest.  Except that these next three weeks are a hinge upon which the plans for the whole year swing.  If I don’t get this right, then the impact of our “Year of Taking Jesus Seriously, Take Two” will be diminished.  And I realize that I may be the only one who cares about that.  But I do care.  For some God knows why reason, I do care.

The title of the three week series leading us up to the beginning of Lent is “In Him was Life.”  It comes from the prologue to the Gospel of John.  And it is, I am beginning to believe, the core of Jesus message to the church.  If we could come to grips with this message, the message of life, as Jesus presents it, we would be well on the way to being the church, being the body that he calls us to be.  It is because we have missed this, or obscured it, or moved it from its place of prime importance, that we are foundering on the rocks of doubt and despair.  It is because we have lost our grip on this essential truth that we are a shadow of ourselves at work in the world today, diminished influence, shrinking numbers, hesitant voices, empty shells.

Whoa, dude, chill out.  I know, it sounds ... well ... like I should take a pill and lie down for a while.  Don’t think I haven’t tried that.  And to make matters worse, I chose to open with a passage that doesn’t really explain it.  This life thing.  This gift that Jesus came to give, this thing that would make us never hungry and never thirsty.  This life that would so fill us that questions would recede into the background and doubts would be squeezed out. 

Instead I chose a passage that tells us just how important it is.  This one, remember?

Matthew 18:1-10  At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"  2 He called a child, whom he put among them,  3 and said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.  6 "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.  7 Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!  8 "If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire.  9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.  10 "Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.

Being greatest?  Is that what this is all about?  Is that the hinge, the key, the big deal that is causing all this angst today?  That’s what draws our attention, I’ll give you that.  That is the question that disciples asked one day after a hard day of not getting what he was talking about.  Befuddlement is hard work, let me tell you.  This isn’t something that Jesus comes up with.  It isn’t a teaching point he planned on.  It came because of the question.  Who is the greatest?, they asked him, hoping the answer was going to be “you guys!”  They had their “we’re number one” foam fingers hidden behind their backs ready for the celebration.  Which became pointing fingers when they got the answer.  It always trips us up, that question.  We want to be special, we want to be first in line, we want it to be all about us.  But it isn’t.  Which is what makes this faith thing such a hard sell these days.  When hair color commercials tell you that you are worth it, prayers of confession, of unworthiness don’t go down so well.

But no, that isn’t what this is all about, this time.  Maybe it is the children, then.  We like children, we like talking about them, about sentimentalizing them, about thinking about Jesus holding them, blessing them.  We like that.  Cute, we think.  Better than cute, it is sweet.  And filed with all the other sweet things that we look at from time to time when we need a sweet fix, like baby bunnies and newborn horses trying to stand on their skinny legs, rainbows and precious moments figurines.  Ignoring completely that Jesus didn’t bring a child into the circle to be sweet, but to turn their worldview upside-down. 

But no, that’s not it either.  Look closer.  Originally, I only picked two verses for this week.  Verses 8 & 9.  "If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.”

Oh, you are saying, that’s what this about.  Hell.  Or avoiding hell.  Fire insurance.  We’re about fire insurance.  Yeah, that’ll bring them back to the pews.  Right.

Wrong.  Look again.  This is about life.  About living, not about dying, or final destinations.  This about passion, about wanting what Christ has to offer so much that you would do anything to have it.  It is better to enter life, says Jesus, enter life.  Don’t let anything, he argues, get in the way, drag you down, distract you, from the fulness that he has to offer. 

Jesus sits with the woman at the well and says “if you drink from the water I give you, you will never be thirsty again.”  Never!  Never?  Why are we still thirsty?  Why does it still feel like there is something missing from our lives?  Why does this abundance thing, this joy pressed down and spilling over, this water gushing up to eternity, seems to be ... lacking?  Less than advertized.

Oh, we’re used to that, I guess.  Used to things not living up to the press.  Things disappointing us.  It looked so good in the commercial.  It read so well in the advertizement.  But it never – whatever it might be in the moment - it never lives up to the sell.  So, we’ve lowered our expectations.  We’ve decided to not want so much.  Not pay so much.  Not sacrifice so much.  Learn to be satisfied with less. 

Which is great when it comes to the stuff all around us.  That stuff will never fill the longing in your soul.  Will never bring contentment to your heart.  Will never challenge your mind.  Will never build up your real strength.  But when it comes to life, the life on offer from Christ, the life that is eternal, the life that is abundant, then never settle for less.  Because less is fit for the fire.

The fire, not hell so much, as the garbage heap.  Not a place of torment as much as a place of emptiness, of uselessness.  “Throw it away” describes so much of our culture.  But please, Jesus implores us, let it not describe you.  Or us.  The church, the body of Christ.  The beloved of God.  What are you willing to surrender, to cut off, in order to know this life?  An arm or a leg?  Or what?  What is in your way?  What have you put in God’s way that prevents the outpouring of a life of meaning and joy and purpose?  What needs to be cut off? 


Saturday, January 12, 2013

Heart Questions

Sixty?  In January?  Sixty degrees?  And then twenties next week?  I’m lost. Kinda makes you fall back on that classic question: Who’s in charge here?  A default query when things are falling apart.  When nothing makes sense, you are inclined to ask who got us here, teetering on this brink, up this creek, wandering in this wilderness?  Who’s in charge here?

That’s not just a random question.  It is what provides the backdrop to our text for this week.  It isn’t the main point, I don’t think anyway, but it is the undercurrent, the sub-text to this story.  It is the background noise that sometimes makes it hard to hear the symphony of grace and of love that issues forth from this watery yet fiery moment down by the riverside.

The baptism of Jesus is the second of three moments of epiphany that we celebrate in season.  The season of Epiphany begins with a dubious pack of foreigners struck by a star and ends with a collection of Jesus’ “best and the brightest” stunned by a transfiguration and a voice in a cloud.  In all three there is this sense that we are merely spectators, watching something just beyond our understanding.  Feeling our hearts pound with hope and with joy though if asked we can’t really put on finger on what it was that struck us so.  But just watching from a distance fills an emptiness we didn’t even know was there.  Answers a question we didn’t know we were asking.

Watch again as he comes down to the water.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22  As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,  16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." ...  Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,  22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

What is interesting about Luke’s depiction of the event is that the baptism hardly figures in at all.  The verses we skip serve to usher John the Baptist off the stage in favor of Jesus who now begins his ministry.  But after John’s bluster, the next thing we know is that the baptism had already taken place.  We missed it.  Ain’t that always the way?  We come for the show and by the time we got our seats, it had already happened.  “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus had also been baptized...”  Darn it! 

You’d think that if Luke had a clue about the centuries of struggle the church has had about the detail of baptism, he might have spent a little more time with it.  We don’t know if Jesus was immersed or sprinkled.  We don’t know which liturgy John prefers, or if the vows that Jesus made were the same as the ones we make or not.  We don’t know if John was properly credentialed or if Jesus followed the rules.  We don’t know who signed the certificate.  We need to know these things, don’t we? 

Luke doesn’t seem to think so.  “Jesus had also been baptized...”  That’s the sum total of the description here.  If Luke is saying that the methodology isn’t what is important, then what is?  If the methodology of baptism isn’t what we are supposed to be asking about here, then what is the question?  The fact that all four gospels spend some time wrestling with the relative position of Jesus vs John is a hint that at least one important question is “who’s in charge here?”

The people gathered on the riverbank and wondered.  They hoped, they leaned into the moment, into the phenomenon that was John the B.  They watched him wade in the shallow waters and call for a change, for real change.  Quit playing games, he said, quit fooling yourself.  Get down to the hard work of living right.  There is more to this life than status and power and riches.  Get right, or get left out!

Maybe it was his confidence as much as his content, but they began to wonder.  Maybe he is the one.  Luke says that in their hearts they were questioning.  Not their heads.  This wasn’t an intellectual pondering of possibilities.  No, this was a heart thing.  They were leaning in, they were wondering, they were hoping.  They had begun to recognize that they were indeed sheep without a shepherd and they were seeing some possibilities in the one who churned up the waters of the Jordan River.  Is the one?  The one we’ve been waiting for, the one we’ve been praying for? 

Maybe they began to murmur to one another, maybe someone shouted it out loud, or maybe he just saw the hunger in their eyes, but somehow John heard the question and jumped in to answer.  Not me, he declared, as forcefully as he had called for repentance.  No, someone bigger, someone stronger, someone with a shovel who will toss you up into the wind to rip away the empty husks of your sinfulness, someone who will see down into the depths of your soul.  No, it’s not me, said John.  But watch out, the one is on his way.

Or already in line.  That’s Luke’s subtle point.  No grand entrance.  No miraculous appearance.  No, not him, not Jesus.  When the people have been baptized, and when Jesus had been baptized too.  Too?  Jesus shouldn’t be a “too.”  An also-ran.  A member of the crowd.  It is Jesus, for heaven’s sake!    Why is Jesus even there in the first place?  That’s the question that has puzzled biblical scholars since the beginnings of the church.  John was preaching a baptism of repentance.  But we know that Jesus was without sin.  So, why would he need to be there?  What’s going on here?

Are you the one?  Yes, but not the one you want.  Instead he decides to be the one you need.  The one who stands in line with all the other broken ones.  The one who takes his place among the bruised and the hurting.  The one who wades into the mess of the world and buries himself in it.  The one who climbs up out of the anxiety of living in this world and falls to his knees.  That’s the one John was ranting and raving about.  It isn’t a shovel he carries, it is a cross, and by that implement we are all cast into the winds of the Spirit to be transformed.  But instead of condemnation we hear those words that he heard, “You are my Beloved.  With you I am well-pleased.”

Who’s in charge here?  We live our lives asking that question.  Most of the time we think it is us.  We are in charge.  In charge of our own lives, our own wills.  Yet, in our saner moments we know we need help.  We know we need someone to follow.  We need an example, a guide, a hope.  We need a savior.

Who’s in charge here?  An epiphany question.  A baptism question.  Your question.  And mine.

Who’s in charge here?  Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.  And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Who’s in charge here?


Saturday, January 5, 2013


Happy Epiphany!  I know!  You must be thinking: “Can it get any better?  What a run on major celebrations!  Christmas, then New Years and now,” drumroll and fanfare, “Epiphany!”  Wow.  Take a breath.  Slow it down.  Wouldn’t do to get too excited.  Please, pace yourself. 

OK, enough silliness.  But, there was a time when the big celebration in the life of the people of God was Epiphany.  Christmas was at best a minor celebration, a story read at night accompanied with hymns and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  Epiphany, on the other hand, was the big feast day, worship and singing, feasting and gift-giving.  This was the day that the community of faith looked forward to with joy and with hope.  It was a day of orienteering.

Wait.  What?  Orienteering.  Ask a scout, if you know one.  I first discovered this activity when we lived in England many years ago.  It was an outdoor kind of activity.  And getting lost and then found again kind of thing.  Orienteering is about using the tools of navigation to find your way around the wilderness.  Maybe with just a map and a compass, maybe with more sophisticated global positioning devices now days, perhaps it is easier than it used to be.  But there are still choices to be made, a commitment to follow whatever star you choose to follow. 

I believe that is why the symbol for Epiphany was the star that guided the wise men to the child in Bethlehem.  Not to spend more time on the cute baby stories, but to symbolize the need for a guiding star that will take us where we need to go.  Or to help us become who we need to become.

The Christian life is often depicted as a journey.  John Bunyan’s classic work Pilgrim’s Progress is but one example of this.  Hidden in all these metaphors is the concept of the map, the guide, the star that leads us along the way.  We like to think we can find our own way.  But the truth is we need help.  We need mentors and guides, we need helpers and leaders as we journey through this life.  And of course we, being good church folk, would say that Christ is our guide, Jesus is our leader. 

Of course that is true.  But also kind of vague.  Jesus is our guide when he turns water into wine?  Christ is our leader when he walks on water?  Step right up, you first.  I’m not just poking fun, well, not just.  I’m asking a serious question.  If Epiphany is about the light that shines forth, about seeing and knowing that presence and that invitation, that call from God through Christ, then what is it that we follow?  What is our star?

Mark 12:28-31  And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?"  29 Jesus answered, "The first is, `Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one;  30 and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.'  31 The second is this, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."

Polaris, or Alpha Ursuae Minoris, is the official name of the star we usually call the North Star.  It is the one that sits above the north pole and has been a guide to navigation for almost all of human history.  When you see those time lapse photographs of the stars, Polaris is the one around which all the others spin. 

The scribe who approaches Jesus is asking for Polaris.  What is the law by which all the others are measured?  What is our guiding light, the mentor that will take us in hand and lead us toward the Kingdom?

In 2004, Dr. Scot McKnight wrote a book titled “The Jesus Creed.”  In it he argues that this passage is that guiding star for all of us as Christians.  If we could let these “commandments” be our guide, shaping our behavior, directing our decisions, transforming us as individuals and as the community, then we too would be “not far” from the kingdom which is what Jesus says to the scribe who asked the question in the first place.

The question was “which commandment is first of all?”  At least in our translation. Others say “foremost” or “most important.”  Jesus had just come through the Palm Sunday experience, had been sparring with other leaders of the Jews over issues like politics and authority and power, and now was approached by this scribe who seems a little different.  Not trying to trap Jesus into saying something intemperate or inflammatory, he was genuinely curious, or earnestly seeking.  Sum up the law, he asked, tell me what path to take, what priority to follow.  Tell me who I am supposed to be.  The law defined them, they were people of the law, but now this one at least was asking what does that look like. 

Sometimes Jesus was frustratingly complex in his responses and stories.  Other times he was clear as crystal, and the struggle is not in the what - as in what did he mean - but in the how - as in how do we possibly do this.  This is one of those crystal clear yet overwhelmingly troubling times.  The axis around which all we are and all we are called to be and do is worship and service, or devotion and ethics.

Love God with all heart and soul and mind and strength.  Mark misquotes the OT (Deut 6:5) and adds in “mind” as part of the formula.  His intention was that we hear Jesus as being all inclusive - emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical power directed toward God.  God is the center, the source, the reason for our continued existence, source of our joy and contentment.  God is all in all.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  That would answer the question - the greatest commandment.  But Jesus continues on.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  “The second is this.”  Deutera autois. Could be second, probably is, that is the most common translation of that phrase.  But it could be “and also” or “next is.”  Meaning not second of a series, but a continuation of the first.  It is more, one commandment love God and love neighbor.  Two sides of the same coin.  Or the practice of one is found in the other.  How do we love God? By loving neighbor.  How do we find it possible to love neighbors?  By loving God.  We circle around these guiding thoughts, guiding commandments like stars orbiting Polaris. 

Practicing Jews still today, like they did centuries ago, write this commandment on a little piece of paper and attach it to the door-frames of their houses.  It is called the mezuzah, and it is the little reminder that they are guided by the law, summed up in these words.  It has become their Polaris.  This year at Aldersgate, I am inviting the congregation to meditate on the Jesus Creed every day of 2013.  Last year we read our way through the whole bible a day at a time, this year we are carrying with us the summation of that text.  We will be handing out magnets with the Creed printed on it.  Which is the passage included in this bible study.  And we are inviting families to put it someplace prominently so that when they come in and when they go out they can be reminded of the light that guides us, the Word that shapes us.  I’m asking them to follow this star throughout the whole year.  You can join us in whatever way works for you.

By the way, in looking up information about Polaris, I learned something interesting.  The north star, is not just a star.  In fact it is a collection of stars, a multiple star it is called.  First of all it is a collection of three stars - a trinity if you will - and then there are two others that are a little more distant but come together to make up the light that we see.  Interesting, don’t you think.  A trinity with a dual emphasis.  God the three in one, approached by worship (love God) and service (love neighbor).