Saturday, May 31, 2014

Breathe On Me


Profound eh?  Just what you were waiting all day to read, right?  The gem of wisdom that is going to help you wrap your mind and soul around a taste of God’s Word this weekend, don’t you think?  


Sorry.  Best I’ve got today.  That little exhalation.  A sign of weariness and perhaps of soupcon of exasperation.  I’m just back from Annual Conference.  It was a surprising combination of the usual tedious  institutional folderol and profound moments of grace and joy and deep connection.  I even found myself enjoying lunch with the bishop and other fellow clergy.  Whoa there, such things just don’t happen, do they?


Maybe it is more than weariness and exasperation.  Maybe there is a hint of contentment.  Can such things be?  Contentment is a rare commodity, often frustratingly just out of reach.  If I can just get this done, if I can just accomplish those goals, just acquire these items, just save this amount of money, master these skills, then, maybe then, perhaps then I might find a sense of contentment.  But in the meantime ... work to be done, miles to travel, burdens to bear, struggles to endure, and on and on and on.  Contentment isn’t a word that speaks into our experience these days.  Too hectic, too shallow, too empty, too hungry.  Except then, maybe sometimes, once in a while, like a breath, like a cool breeze on a hot day, it is just there.  From somewhere.


John 14:23-27   Jesus answered him, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.  24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.  25 "I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 

And then ...

John 20:19-29  When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."  20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."  22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."  24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  25 So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."  26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."  27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe."  28 Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"  29 Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." 

Two words, same word twice: peace.  “Peace I leave with you.”  “Peace be with you.”  Sounds the same really, not much to distinguish between them.  Except life and death.  The first was on the threshold of death.  The second was in the glaring light of the resurrection.  That’s what separated them.  The last breath.  “He breathed his last,” Luke says.  “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit.”  He didn’t speak it, he cried it, Luke says.  In a loud voice, a voice choked with pain, a voice gasping for the breath that wouldn’t come because of the suffocation caused by hanging on a cross, somehow in agony he pushed himself up on the spike driven through his feet, straining the two nails through his hands, so he could catch enough breath cry in a loud voice.  Then, Luke says, he breathed his last.


Except he didn’t.  He breathed again.  He breathed some more.  “Peace be with you,” he breathed on them.  Breathed peace.  Receive the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit he commended to God.  The Spirit returned to us, in a breath, peace.


Breathe on me.  In the heat of the moment.  In the struggle of living and loving and finding our way in a complicated world.  Breathe on me.  Give me peace.  Not a peace that resolves every issue.  Not a peace that fixes everything that is broken, that removes responsibility or covenant, that answers every question that removes every doubt.  Breathe on me that I might find peace enough to continue on the journey on which I find myself.  Peace enough to work toward resolution, peace enough to mend the broken or that allows me to limp with grace and confidence.  Peace that breathes through my responsibilities and covenants, peace that lifts up and binds together.  Peace that cast out fear.  Perfect love - peace - casts out fear.  


Where does it come from, this peace?  Is it self generated?  Are there disciplines we can practice, rituals to perform?  Well, yes, there are rituals - corporate prayer, sacraments of grace.  Yes there are disciplines - meditations that call us to worship, study that drives us deep into the living Word.  These and more.  But no.  We don’t create this peace.  We receive it.  Like a breath.  That comes from elsewhere.  From beyond us.  The rituals and the disciplines are designed to shape us into vessels better able to hold onto the peace that breathes into us.  It is a gift, a joy, an unexpected encounter, a cool breeze that fills the sails and sends you across the horizon into new worlds of love and joy.  A promise from one side of life is fulfilled from the other.  A description, an image, a story told to a hurting and hungry heart becomes a wind of change in a new world.  

He breathed on them.  Peace be with you.  Receive the Spirit of holiness, of ordination, of mission and ministry, of love.  Receive it and then love.  Love from the strong center of peace, from the contentment of faith, of putting your hands in the source of love and joy and peace.  Lean into it, trust it, receive it.   

Sigh.  He breathed on them.  On you.  On me.  Breathe on me, breath of God, fill me with life anew, that I may love what thou dost love, and do what thou wouldst do. ... Breathe on me breath of God till I am wholly thine, till all this earthly part of me glows with the fire divine.  Breathe on me.  Sigh.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Festival of Homiletics 1

I have been privileged to attend for many years my favorite Continuing Education Event ever, the Festival of Homiletics.  This year it is in Minneapolis and I thought it would be good to share my reflections here. But I wrote it for me too, as a way of collecting the notes, but also as a report if anyone asks, so forgive me if it sounds like I'm lecturing, or preaching!

We began Monday night with a sermon from David Lose who teaches preaching at Luther Seminary here in Minn.  He decided to tell us why the Festival opened with worship and then a hymn concert by the National Lutheran Choir.  He said "sometimes words set to music are the most powerful words of all."  He preached on Ephesians 5:15-20 Sing songs and hymns and spiritual songs.  And basically told us that we will only begin to change the world, only begin to move toward the kingdom when we get everyone singing.  It felt like affirmation of my emphasis in Genesis about congregational singing.
Then we had this morning a sermon from Walter Brueggeman, an 80 year old, scholar of the Old Testament, who has gotten to the point that he is able to say what he wants to say and doesn't worry about the consequences.  He has earned that respect.  His title was "Getting Smashed for Jesus."  He was using the potter images from OT and NT about how God is the potter and sometimes what is made is broken and needs to be smashed and remade.  Maybe, in Paul's language, we are paying too much attention to the clay pots and not enough to the treasure held inside.  Maybe we need to let go of what was so that what is can be experienced anew.
That was followed by Anna Carter Florence who teaches preaching in Georgia, who lectured us on a Parable Universe.  It was a call to look differently at the world.  To see how God is already present, to claim when we do a godly thing instead of a reasonable thing, it is about being attentive to our relationships and to see how love defines us in new ways, lifts us into new levels, gives us new insight and new hope.  And that sometimes living in a parable universe is about stating the obvious, drawing attention to the truth that surrounds us everyday but we've become so used to it we don't see it any more.
The Barbara Brown Taylor - who for the first time that I have heard her, did not pray the prayer I attributed to her - who spoke about being Inside the Dark Cloud of God.  We are so focused on God as the light, that we forget that the bible says God is in the darkness too.  God invites us to walk in times of uncertainty, in times of unknowing, and to trust that God will meet us there even as we grope for sure footing, and to not run back into the light because we have things to learn and experience in the dark. 
Then this afternoon, Craig Barnes, who is president of Princeton Seminary, preached about Learning to Love Leah.  He says that the Jacob and Rachel and Leah story is every marriage, every relationship.  Except there aren't three people, but that everyone we marry is two people, the Rachel we fell in love with and Leah we got in addition.  And that rather than trying to change Leah into Rachel, we should learn to love her as she is.  He also said that pastors and churches are the same, there is the Rachel we love and the Leah we either learn to love or run away from.
Then Otis Moss III who is a pastor in Chicago lectured us about preaching the blues.  He said we too often try to skip the blues and go straight to gospel.  But it misses the truth of brokenness and tragedy.  But only after we name the pain can we move on to hope.
Then tonight we heard MaryAnn McKibben Dana who is a pastor and blogger in Virginia who preached on Lips, Stomach and Heart.  Based on the passage in Matthew 15 about Jesus saying it isn't what goes in the mouth that makes us unclean but what comes out.  And then goes on to call the Canaanite woman a dog.  And like Abraham and Moses with God, the woman works to change Jesus mind about what his mission really is.  The bible, she said, shows us a God willing to change, but the change is always toward inclusion and grace.
Surrounding all of this is music.  The National Lutheran Choir was amazing.  60+ people who sang Latin chant and African rhythms ad traditional hymns and spirituals with power and grace, and we sang along for much of it.  The hymns are accompanied by an amazing organist who can make that instrument sing with an incredible range.  Sometimes to just sit and listen is to be brought into the presence of grace and love and hope.  We've sung some hymns I'd love to bring back, but I'm hesitant.  We've been presented music I would love to have our musicians do, but I am not sure it is within them.
But for now, I am soaking it up.  Like a cat in the sunshine, like a plant straining toward the light and dew that falls from the heavens.  I put in my email to the group last night that I am already being impacted by what I am hearing, already seeing ways to bring some of what I hear to my preaching and leading.  But there is more to come.

Festival Of Homiletics 2

I decided today that I needed an adventure, so I walked from my hotel to the conference site, wonderful walk, only a little more than 2.5 miles.  Course it also meant walking back.  But that was good too.  I should really do that more often.
Today I made the choice to go to the second venue.  The first two speakers at Central Lutheran were both ones who have voices I struggle to listen to.  Sorry, but that's the way it is.  Besides, Lillian Daniel was at Westminster Presbyterian.  So, off I went.  Lillian was joined by John Bell who did the liturgy for opening worship, wearing a powder blue jacket, pink shirt and aqua tie.  Those Glaswegians!  At least it wasn't paisley. Lillian preached on Noah's Ark and it was amazing.  I loved her depiction of the whole story with her usual sardonic wit.  But she astutely pointed out that the only words Noah speaks in the whole story were words of cursing his son who saw him in his drunken nakedness.  Kind of startling for someone who lives over 900 years.  But the thought that I need to dwell on a bit was a connection back to the Garden of Eden story - it made sense, trust me.  And that was in her comment "were they kicked out of the garden, or set free?"  Back to Noah, "were they rescued when the boat hit land or were they stranded?"  I'm going to have to sit with that one for a while.
She then lectured on "Who's Asking?" (Are we answering questions that nobody's asking?)  It was a continuation of her work with the SBNR group (spiritual but not religious) and also with the NONEs (those who answer the religious affiliation with none)  Part of her thesis is that we were taught to preach in a world where there weren't so many nones.  And that our relevance is suspect, especially when we define ourselves by what we don't believe instead of what we do believe.  And that the mainline has been reluctant to talk about what it is we believe, wanting to be as open as possible.  And we have also bought into a consumer mentality, saying that the church is here to meet your needs.  What about the church is to form you in the faith?  A somewhat sobering talk.
After a break, we came back for John Bell's lecture.  I love John, actually worked with him for a brief time, many years ago.  As liturgist he is exactly what I would like to see us emulate in our setting.  The hymns he taught were powerful, but unique and sometimes even startling.  I think we need more of him.  Unfortunately the lecture he gave was the same one he gave at CTS that a team from Aldersgate went to hear.  I remembered the stories, could have told them myself, and most of the thrust of the argument.  Which is agree with, by the way.  It was all about unleashing the imagination in preaching and worship.  Imagination has a bad rap in many people's minds, and John says we need to correct that assumption.  Amen.
After lunch (I went to a Potbelly's (along with most of downtown Minneapolis) and had a sandwich that I misheard a simple question and thought I was getting hot mustard, but instead was getting the nuclear option - jalapenos and some sauce that is designed to remove paint from cars, I think) I went to worship with Michael Slaughter from Ginghamsburg UMC, only to hear a sermon I heard at Conference on Our Life Together back in February.  Again a very relevant message, about being a missional church. Mike argues that our focus should not be on getting more people into the church, but getting church people out into the world.  Amen.
Then I went to a workshop on something called the narrative lectionary.  Rolf Jacobson teaches Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St Paul MN and he and some colleagues have created a new lectionary based on the fact that the Revised Common Lectionary does not present the flow of the Christian story in order, but pulls pieces and parts in no particular order.  He said that the thinking  for the RCL was based on the assumption that folks knew the story and the story was supported by the culture.  But since the Christian Narrative is not supported by the culture and folks no longer know the ebb and flow of the history of the people of God.  So a new telling of the story needs to be done.  They begin in September and go to the end of May and begin with Creation and end with Pentecost.  It is a four year cycle, two readings each Sunday with a designated preaching text.  I'm not sure what happens in the summer.  But my biggest question is what do we do with folks who don't attend every single week, and therefore still are missing the flow of the story.  But I do have some sympathy with the idea.  I have broken away from the lectionary anyway and so maybe am not straining against that cage like so many others.  But it is something to consider
Evening worship tonight was Rolf Jacobson preaching on Caught between Can't and Can't Not based on Psalm 137, which is a troublesome psalm to say the least.  A wide range of emotion and pain expressed, vengeance clearly proclaimed at the end.  A hard text to preach, I commended him for wrestling with it.  Who are we and whose are we, what is within us and what can transform us.  John Bell was liturgist, they certainly work him hard when he is here and rightly so!
A day of ups and downs, but I am certainly ready for more!
Love you,


Festival of Homiletics 3

OMG.  Can I say that?  Dare I say it?  Today's journey at the Festival of Homiletics was a roller coaster ride to say the least. It was mind blowing, faith stretching, presupposition threatening and other stuff I just don't have words for at the moment.  I know, a preacher out of words - not a good sign.  But in fact it is a very good sign, a sign that something is at work.  Something is ruminating, something is waiting to be revealed.  I just don't know what it is yet.
The day began with a sermon and then a lecture from Brian McLaren, the father of the Emerging Church (or Emergent Church, depending on who you ask) Movement.  One of his first works was "A New Kind of Christian," a radical rethinking of the faith.  His sermon was titled "The Life You Save May Be Your Own."  He began with the statement that we are in the midst of a global crisis in religious identity.  Religion, he argues, is an engine of violence, that it functions to strengthen "us" through hostility to "the other."  That we have learned to create outsiders to fear in order to feel secure in ourselves.  In so doing we drive away people of peace (who may or may not be religious) from religious affiliation.  This is, he argues, the result of only telling a part of the story.  Meaning, we select portions of the biblical text to describe God in less than whole ways.  In the Jacob and Esau story, we only tell of God's choosing Jacob even while in the womb of his mother, and God becomes a puppet master who works things out to His pleasure.  Or we tell only the stealing of the blessing from blind old Isaac, and God becomes a puppet who is manipulated by deceit and then locked into specific patterns by words over which God is powerless to change.  Or we can tell the whole story and then ask ourselves where is God revealed?  Is it only in the places where God is named, or is it in the narrative flow that brings Jacob full circle to reconciliation with Esau who is more righteous and who reveals, says Genesis, the face of God to his brother Jacob.  What stories are we telling?  Who God are we presenting?  Are we perpetuating a broken or flawed image of God by only telling pieces of the story, or do we tell stories of God revealed in the other, the stranger, the alien, the very one we want to reject?  Do we tell stories of reconciliation and peace?
Brian's lecture which quickly followed the act of worship, was titled "Light Fires, Issue Permission Slips, and Invite Others into the Interpretive Community."  Not just a title, but an outline of the talk.  There is way too much to distill, but one quote that stuck with me actually came from his friend Rob Bell who told preachers that "you have to smoke what you're selling."  To which Brian muttered, if you understood that ... you must be from Colorado.  But the point is that the first fire you have to light is your own. (Or as I heard it from Bill Easum: Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First." Brian quoted Proverbs 4:23 which in the NIV reads "Above all else guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life."  Light fires.  Give permission slips.  Followers of Jesus are to give permission to be happy, permission to enjoy life, permission to dance.  For too we have been a part of a pacing religion - back and forth, wringing our hands, muttering "what are we going to do about ..."  Instead of being a dancing religion that rejoices in community, in creation, in God.  And we can't dance on our own, any more than we can heal the brokenness of the world on our own.  So, we invite others to work alongside us, even to help us understand the problem, to see ourselves through the eyes of the other.  Our task, he says, is to begin to interpret together what the Christian faith will mean and be and do when Christendom and its structures fall.  What's next?, he asks.
Which frankly was the theme of the day.  Brian was followed by a young man named Peter Rollins.  Peter is an Irishman with that culture's sense of humor and boundless energy.  I walked with some others who came out of his lecture in the morning with their heads spinning, as was mine, but not because I didn't understand him - my head was spinning because I did understand him.  I told my colleagues that they need to understand the Irish approach to conversation.  It felt like, they argued that he would wander off topic and lose us.  True, I said, they wander, but then they circle around and come up behind you again.  Just when you thought he lost you, then he finds you again.  Peter talked of the Evangelism Project that he was a part of.  Except instead of one group going out to change another group, he said in this project, they were sent out not to convert, but to relate, and then to ask the question, "what do you see in me that might help me be a better Christian?"  It would work with Republicans and Democrats.  We aren't going to change the other and they aren't likely to change us, but if we ask them to help us be better at what we are trying to do, then understanding might break out, and dialogue might begin.  He spoke about ideology and how it is more than an idea, but becomes a part of a the structure of a culture.  Racism is less about individual opinions about race and more about the structures that are bent in the direction of one and against another.  He said that the Christians were being subversive when they refused to treat Caesar as a god.  It wasn't the belief that was a problem, Rollins argued that no one believed Caesar was god, but they pretended to believe.  The Christians refused to play the game and it upset the structure of Roman society.  We are called to be subversive in our culture, to not play the game of racism, of economic value, or of narrow views of beauty.  But to do it indirectly, winsomely.  To tell better stories.
His sermon in the worship after lunch began with an Irish Blessing, but not the usual one, it was blessing of all the dualities of this life and how those - what we would normally call good and bad, or broken and whole - all bring blessing into our lives.  He said it is human to create scapegoats, and we think that our problems are in the scapegoat, if only we could get rid of them (whoever they are) everything would be good.  But the scapegoat is not the problem, the scapegoat is the solution, Rollins suggests.  By hating, by pointing fingers, by rallying around a common enemy, we've created the unity we seek.  But it is a broken unity, it is a diminished community.  Instead, the church is the place that reveals that the other that you hate is the instrument of your salvation.  Like Esau for Jacob - things are flowing together.
The final lecture of the day was David Lose again, this time his title was Jonah, the Whale and the Homiletics of Abundance.  Lose's argument was that Jonah is a story of scarcity, and he was a prophet of scarcity.  There is only so much grace to go around, so that if some are blessed others must be damned, it is how it works.  But God works on a different scale, a theology of Abundance.  Jonah, you might know, is the only biblical book that ends with a question: Jonah 4:11  "And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"  Jonah's answer was not, you should not.  How do we answer?  David Lose connected this dichotomy (Scarcity vs Abundance) to marketing strategies that are called Inadequacy Marketing and Empowerment Marketing.  In the former the message is you don't have enough, you aren't safe enough, you aren't attractive enough - based on greed, fear and insecurity.  In the latter the message is you are enough, you have enough and you can - based on love, contentment and possibility.  While marketers are still trying to sell something and therefore it is good to be wise, the methodology is something to learn from.  The dominant word in the Christian story is abundance _ I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.  And therefore sin is not an action we perform or a failing within us, it is whatever keeps us from God's abundant life.  Grace is God's empowerment to abundant life.  We live in an ear of conflicting messages how do we deal with them?  Lose suggests we learn from Classical Greek myth.  Remember the Sirens?  The Sirens were creatures who song was so appealing that it drew sailors to their doom since they sang among the rocks that would wreck the boats.  And Greek story gives us too ways to deal with the Sirens.  Odysseus is the first, he plugged the ears of all the sailors and lashed himself to the mast so he couldn't move.  Avoidance, keep the tv out of the house, close your eyes to the lure of the marketers and for those strong enough, an act of will that keeps you from following to your destruction.  But there is another way, Orpheus.  Orpheus was brought along on a cruise near the Sirens, and when they began to sing and the sailors turned toward the rocks, Orpheus stood in the bow and unstrapped his harp and played a better song. How do we counter the broken songs, and broken stories that might pull us to our doom, tell a better story and we sing a better song.

Which his how the day ended, with a concert of Gospel music with all the best from Minnesota - what Gospel music in Minnesota.  Child, it was glorious  Praise be to God.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

If You Only Knew

Have you ever said that?  “If you only knew.”  Have you ever heard it said to you?  Not fun, is it?  On either side, the saying or the hearing.  The phrase implies a breach, a lack of understanding, a miscommunication of some significant scale. It speaks of a brokenness that can lie between even the closest of companions, of friends or family or lovers.  If you only knew.

So, tell me.  That’s my response to “if you only knew.”  Tell me, I want to know.  I want to hear your words, I want to know your thoughts, I want to know you.  Tell me.  Speak to me, share with me, be with me.  Don’t expect me to read minds, don’t keep me guessing.  I need to know, want to know.  Tell me, show me.

I say this to folks all the time, to couples about to get married, to those already married and finding it more difficult than they realized when they were about to get married and now were wishing they had paid attention in those earlier conversations or at least remembered some of the things we talked about.  I point out the that ceremony doesn’t confer extra-sensory powers, that mind reading doesn’t come with the slipping of rings on fingers.  Tell them, speak up.  You want them to know something, tell them, for heaven’s sake.

“For heaven’s sake.  Tell me.”  I did tell you.  “Use words, I can’t just figure it out, you have to speak.”  I did tell you.  “I mean, I’m not ... wait, what?”

I miss stuff.  That’s the truth of it.  I get wrapped up my own thoughts, my own desires, my own self and forget to pay attention to what is going on around me sometimes.  I don’t think I’m the only one.  But that’s not really an excuse.  True, but not an excuse.  This outward focus thing is harder to sustain than we realize.  It’s like having to reorient our radar, it’s like having to step aside from being the center of your own world.  And that is hard, some would say impossible, especially living in a culture that says “I’m number one!”

You miss stuff.  Admit it, you do, I can’t be the only one.  Someone is longing for you to know something but you are missing it.  Someone needs you to know something, to be something, to respond to something.  To see something.  Open your eyes.  Can it be that simple?  No, but yes.  Open your eyes.  That what they want and need.  That’s what Jesus wants.  Really?  Yeah, really.

Luke 19:37-44  As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,  38 saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!"  39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop."  40 He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."  41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it,  42 saying, "If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.  43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.  44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God." 

To claim that Luke 19 is an emotional roller coaster is to grossly underestimate the plummet from the heights praise and glory to the depths of divine despair which then makes a whiplash turn to explode in righteous anger.  The chapter begins with the children’s song of Zacchaeus (“he climbed up in a sycamore tree for the lord he wanted to see”) and the parable of the talents (“you wicked slave!” At least you could have put it in a bank for my .001 % interest (sorry)).  But then it runs to the Palm Sunday event which is where we pick up the story.  We skipped the donkey-napping and moved right to the triumphal procession.  “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  They shouted and cheered and danced, flinging their coats and pulling branches off the trees.  It got so out of hand that the stodgy Pharisees told Jesus to tell them to keep it down.  You’re going to wake the Romans, and they get grouchy when roused.  But Jesus says it is time to praise.  This is the moment, this is the place, these are the voices that must be raised.  And then, he stopped.

I don’t know how you have pictured Palm Sunday, but it always seemed like a city thing.  He came bursting into the gates and everyone got excited.  A “rock this city” kinda vibe, a “dancing in the streets” spontaneous flash mod sort of scene.  But Luke says they hadn’t even gotten to the city yet.  They were coming down from the Mount of Olives and this event burst forth in the suburbs.  The Pharisees, who it seems were always hovering around letting their displeasure be known at every opportunity, were trying to stifle the exuberance before they got to the city walls.  So, they were sort of hop-skipping along side Jesus on his donkey telling him to put a cork in it and he was saying, no this is right, this is good, this is a God-moment.  And he comes around a bend.

You know those moments where you are just driving along and all of a sudden you come around a bend in the road and a vista opens up in front of you and it takes your breath away.  The mountains leap from the horizon and startle with their majesty and wonder.  The ocean rolls into view with all its endless power and relentless waves carving sculptures in the rock of the shoreline.  The city with its man-made towers like fingers reaching to the heavens and the lights making it sparkle out a dream of a better world.  And whatever conversation you were just wrapped up in is forgotten as you take in the view.

Maybe it was like that.  The Pharisees forgotten as Jesus gazes at the walls of Jerusalem and the sprawl of human habitation crowned by the magnificence of the temple a work or art and architecture unmatched by anything on earth.  And he began to weep.  The party winds down like a toy that loses its momentum, like a balloon that wasn’t tied tightly enough and they stand and stare in confusion as he weeps.

Then he speaks “If you only knew.”  Was it loud enough for everyone to hear or was it a whispered prayer, a last breath about to die exhalation.  Jerusalem, the city of Peace, it was in the name (shalom - salem).  “If you only knew the things that make for peace,” he breathed.  

Brows furrowed, questions came unbidden.  “Weren’t we just shouting for peace?”  “Peace in heaven,” they said.  Glory in heaven, they shouted.  But peace was in their midst.  Glory was riding a donkey down the hill right beside them.  They missed it and he knew it.  And it was about to get worse.  Much, much worse.

In years to come the Romans grew tired of trying to rule the unruly, and came and laid siege to the city, throwing up a rampart behind which they sat to starve out the inhabitants of the city of peace.  The stories from that time are gruesome and inhumane, worthy of the tears of a savior.

They missed it.  They were wrapped up in their own agendas, in their own hopes and dreams, and missed it when God rode into town, on a donkey, within reach, touching distance.  They missed it.  We miss it.  The offer of love, the moment of service, the gift of joy.  We miss it, Jesus who rides through our lives weeping at the many times we are too wrapped up in ourselves to see him.  We miss it.  And it breaks his heart, and ours.

But he keeps riding.  Keeps offering.  Keeps being present.  Open your eyes.  If you only knew.


Saturday, May 10, 2014

And Suddenly ... Peace

Let’s see if we can recount all the things that are piling on in these next few days.  Well, of course, it is Mother’s Day on Sunday.  Better put that one at the top of the list.  Then the kids come back next week.  Maddie is done on Tuesday and Rhys is done on Thursday (actually Wednesday, but says he needs another night to pack and recover - uh huh.)  Maddie’s 19th birthday is next Friday (19?  How in the world did that happen?  One more year and we won’t have teenagers anymore.  The mind boggles.)  Then the following Monday I leave for Minneapolis for a week of preaching and preachers, my very favorite Continuing Education event of the year.  Then I come back in time for our 34th Wedding Anniversary.  Hmm, better come up with something significant for that.  (Email your ideas to me, ASAP!)  After that is Annual Conference (not my favorite continuing education event of the year).  And somewhere in the midst of all of that the kids head off for summer jobs, Rhys back to DePauw where he works in the housing department all summer and Maddie off to Lakewood Camp where she is on the activities team for a summer-long series of elementary camps.

Not to mention that we are about to enter into the third week of the new Sunday morning schedule with Heartbeat worship at 9am in the Sanctuary and Genesis worship at 11am in The Street.  A radical and undoubtedly unsettling shift in time and style and setting that has gone - admittedly for only two weeks - amazingly ... well.

I almost hesitate to mention it for fear that I’ll destabilize the peace that has reigned since we made the switch at the end of April.  Like the sports commentator who doesn’t want to point out that the pitcher has a no hitter going, afraid that he will jinx it.  And yet it is an event worth celebrating.  We are moving forward.  We are still in one piece.  One peace.  I’m sure that there are those disturbed by the changes, and everyone is still adjusting, but no one seems to be talking about it at this point.  No, that’s not right.  No one is talking negatively, no one is complaining, there is peace at Aldersgate.

Surprisingly.  Startlingly.  Suddenly.  Peace.  Which is how I know that it has little to do with me or any of the other leaders, lay or clergy.  Suddenly peace isn't something within our capabilities.  Everything has changed, and yet nothing has changed.  The schedules, the plans, the busy work of the church is all over the place.  There are some folks who are working their ... well ... their selves off to accomplish the new things.  There are some folks who have always been hard workers who have had to shift what they are doing, re-energize, re-think, re-work what they have been doing in order to accommodate changes.  And that still continues.  There is excitement and fear in equal measures.  There is faith and doubt laboring side by side.  There is hope and there is caution vying for our attention almost constantly.  There is vision and uncertainty swirling around in all of us.

In other words, business as usual.  When has it ever not been like that?  When has it ever been calm and easy going, everyone content and happy little campers, without expending boatloads of energy and effort?  When have we ever been able to bring about more than a lull in the struggles, a cease fire in the antagonism, a temporary truce among combatants?

Well, never, really.  At least on our own.  We need something, or Someone to break in with good news of a great joy that we might have peace.  Wait, that sounds familiar.

Luke 2:8-14  In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."  13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,  14 "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

Suddenly peace.  It is an interruption.  It is a moment that stands apart, out of time, out of the box, out of the norm.  They were minding their own business those shepherds.  Well, someone else’s business actually.  They were laborers, workers in the field that had nothing invested except the need to make a living, to provide for themselves and their families.  It wasn't their flock, they were assigned.  But they were doing their job, whatever the people thought of them.  And the evidence is they didn't think much of them.  They were looked down upon, those shepherds.  But they didn't care.  They did their job, hung out in fields, maybe drank a little too much, maybe were a bit course for polite society, rough around the edges.  No big deal.  You try spending time with sheep, they are smelly and stupid and more trouble than they were worth.  Wasn't much of a job, but it was a job.  So, who cares what the city folk thought.  They didn't want to be friends with them anyway, they could all go to ... temple, as far as the shepherds cared.  Nothing to do with them, all this worship stuff anyway.

Until worship came and found them.  Until the skies lit up and voices rained down and their guts turned flip flops and their ability to speak deserted them.  Until they looked up and saw the immensity of the universe.  Until they felt about as small as they ever had and still wished they could get smaller.  Until they began to get the sense that maybe all that immensity was on their side, was for them.  And then they began to feel bigger than they ever had.  But it was a bigness that had to be shared.  A bigness that needed community, needed connection.  It was good news of a great joy.  So, they ran off to make peace.  To bring the peace that was in them to anyone and everyone, and especially the one they were sent to find.  The one that was the source of that peace.  The one who looked like any of a number of other poor kids born to parents too poor to buy him a bed.  And yet this was the one, somehow this was the one who came bringing peace.

Into our midst has been slipped a present.  No, a presence.  Something beyond us and yet within us.  Something from someplace alien to us, and yet our true home.  Something that is so unlike us and yet is what we long to become.  This Something, or Someone, is like us, is in us and yet is still far from us.  And that gap wounds us, that distance is like an ache that we need to soothe, a wound we need to heal.  And sometimes we lash out in anger or frustration because we are not whole, because we are hurting and it feels like this world is what is keeping us from healing.  We look for someone or something to blame.  We cover ourselves with stuff, with activity, with going and doing so that we won’t have to think anymore.  Because when we do, we think of what is missing.  We think of what isn't ours.  We think of the sadness of our soul.

Then suddenly.  I wish I had a better way to describe it.  I wish I had a formula for making it happen.  A three step process to bring you peace, a four word code that would fill the hole in your heart, a ... but I don’t have one of those.  Because it doesn't come from me, or from you.  Or from anything you can do or stop doing.

Except listen to the angel voices.  Except look up into the immensity that is the universe in which we live.  And believe.  Believe that it is for you.  For us.  For the family of God, the community of faith, the body of Christ.  And trust that someday, maybe someday soon, maybe suddenly peace will come and enfold you, it will bring you home.  And your calendar will be just as full.  But it will be full of peacemaking, peace living.  It will be full of love and joy and peace.  Suddenly.  Wow.


Saturday, May 3, 2014

Like a Wrecking Ball

No, not that one.  Sigh.  I was thinking of Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball.  It is a song about defiance, about standing up the face of destruction and decay, about valuing what is good and right, about protecting home and heritage.  And besides I like Springsteen a whole lot better.  A whole lot.

But then I did the research.  Yeah, pop culture research, sounds almost oxymoronic, I know.  But there it is.  And dang it if that other one didn’t fit better than the one I wanted.   Dang it.  

I came in like a wrecking ball / I never hit so hard in love / All I wanted was to break your walls / All you ever did was wreck me

Dang it.  It could have been written by St Paul.  No, I can’t picture him swinging in seated on a giant wrecking ball wearing what he came into the world with, can’t imagine him twerking in the acropolis, but the idea in this chorus sounds hauntingly like the words he wrote in our passage for this weekend.  At least a central point.  Don’t believe me?  Don’t believe that Miley Cyrus could stumble across some scripture truth?  Well, me neither.  But here it is.

Ephesians 2:13-22  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.  15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,  16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.  17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near;  18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.  19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,  20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;  22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. 

So many things that jump out at us in these verses.  But running through it all like a .. well, like a wrecking ball is the image of the wall.  There is division in this passage, separation.  There is us and them, there is then and now, there is the in and the out, the strangers and the citizens, the aliens and the members of the household.  Makes you wonder what a word like peace is doing in such a setting.  Makes you wonder if peace is even possible when there is so much division.  It would take a monumental effort to overcome those divisions, to tear down those walls.  It would take something that seems beyond us.  

A set up?  Well, maybe.  But we have come to accept Jesus as the answer so much that we’ve forgotten what the questions are.  We have come to see the easy solution to problems that we’ve forgotten just how pervasive and how immense those problems really are.  We think walking with Jesus is a stroll in the park when in fact it is a long hard climb up insurmountable peaks.

He is our peace.  We love that idea.  We lean into that comfort, that joy.  We beg for a little bit of peace.  Jesus is the comforter who pats us on the head in the quiet moments of our lives before sending us out to survive in the moral fray that surrounds us.  If we can just hold on, we think, if we can just stay clean and undaunted by the struggles all around us then we can retreat back into the loving arms of Jesus who will love us back into health, who will wipe away our tears and bind up our wounds.

It is a wonderful thought, and it is often what sustains us.  It is often just what we need.  The Jesus who soothes and comforts.  The Jesus who tells us that all will be well.  The Jesus who cleans up the messes we have made with our lives.  With this Jesus at our side, then we can sing with Springsteen “Bring on your wrecking ball!”  We know that hard times will come, we know that hopes and dreams will be dashed, we know that all our youth and beauty will be given to the dust.  But we also know that this isn’t the whole story.  We know that there is more, there is eternity, there is something beyond the horizon and no matter how many hard times come, there is always God’s time, God’s reign, God’s Kingdom still to come.  And Christ will welcome us home.  We can hold on knowing that.  Jesus will welcome us home.

That is the real Jesus.  Trust me on this. The real Jesus, but not all of Jesus.  Why Paul writes “He is our peace” he doesn’t have the quiet, gentle, comforting Jesus who just wants to give us some time to ourselves.  No, he has something bigger in mind, something louder, more transformative.  He’s been listening to Miley, I’m afraid.  I came in like a wrecking ball / I never hit so hard in love / All I wanted was to break your walls / All you ever did was wreck me  

This wrecking ball Jesus is about knocking down walls, the walls that divide us, the walls of hostility.  In love he hit so hard that all the things that keep us separate, all the measures we use to rise above another, to be better than, to be more important than, have all been knocked down.  Not just knocked down, but reduced to rubble.  Destroyed.  Eliminated.  

It wasn’t an easy battle.  It took blood, it took death, it took all that he had to pour out for us.  But he did it.  Came in like a wrecking ball, and got wrecked in the process.  But the walls came down, because of that love, the walls came down.

But here’s the funny thing.  Well, maybe not so funny.  Maybe tragic would be a better word to use.  Here’s the tragic thing, the terrible thing, here is the horrible reality.  We still think we are living behind those walls.  We still think we are defined by those walls.  We still think we are to keep to ourselves, to keep to our own kind, as herded behind those walls.

The walls are down, but we still live as though they were not.  As though there are still strangers and aliens.  As though there are those in and those out.  As though there are those near and those far.  And the result of that is that sometimes we are the outs, we are far away, we are strangers and aliens.  As long as we believe there are such divisions, we will continually find ourselves on the wrong side.  We build the walls that Christ destroyed and find ourselves not protected but imprisoned, not released to a better life but cowering behind the very divisions we reestablish.

He is our peace.  He is what binds us together into one body, into one family.  This peace is not an inner peace to keep us sane in an insane world.  This is a wrecking ball of peace that knocks down the insane divisions, the madness of superiority, and binds us together with those who are just like us, surprisingly just like us.  Those we thought were so different, are reflections of the same God that we try to bear in our hands and hearts and words and deeds, are really brothers and sisters.  We sit at table with them in defiance of a world that wants to build more walls.  And when we encounter those divisive construction projects, then we, like him, come in like a wrecking ball.  We strike hard in love.  We tear down those walls.  Even if we get wrecked in the process.  Even if.  Because if we don’t, if we let those walls stay up, then we will never know peace.  We will never know him.  Like we long to.  Like we need to.  Because he is our peace.