Saturday, February 28, 2015

Nothing for the Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take nothing for your journey.  Nothing.  Nothing to rely on but the power and authority that we just barely comprehend.  Nothing to fall back on but the name of the One who sends us.  Nothing to hide behind but the image of the one we are trying to bring to life in our lives.  Take nothing for your journey, because the journey is everything.  It is not a mission that we take up and do for a period of time and then set down again.  This is not a mission trip, a mission emphasis.  This is life as mission.  Mission as a way of living.  Take nothing for the journey because you are the journey.  You are the presence of the Christ who sends you.  Take nothing external, nothing to prove your knowledge or experience.  Take nothing in your hands so that your hands are free to hold and to welcome, to love and to soothe, to heal what has been broken with nothing but the witness of your life.

Brian McLaren says that we slightly mistranslate the instruction in the Great Commission.  That “Go” thing.  “Go into all the world!”  It sounds like marching orders.  It sounds like a crusade mentality.  Go!  Get on out there!  Ten hut!!   Get on out there.  Like we are crusaders, like we’ve got a fire on our tails, like we are going to make those disciples if it kills us or them, usually them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, February 21, 2015

You Have the Words

My day started with words.  Lots of words, wonderful words, special words, words of concern and hope, support and love.  I had an early meeting this morning.  A premarital counseling session.  A young couple who are each living and working in Indianapolis but have their roots here in Fort Wayne asked me to perform the wedding ceremony this spring at a church I used to serve here in town.  He was a young kid when I was there, he had wonderful parents and a younger brother who wanted to make his own path in the world.  They both did.  Good boys, good family. I was a little shocked then he showed up with his fiancĂ© here at Aldersgate some months ago and asked if I would consider doing the wedding.  He said he left for college a couple of years after I left and so didn’t know the pastors since, and really wanted me to come back and do that wedding.  And his bride to be agreed.  She and her family joined the church shortly before I left.  They came because they liked me she told me this morning and were disappointed when I left.  So, I agreed if they cleared it with the current pastor.

So today we met to talk about the ceremony and about marriage and all that it means.  We used a lot of words.  The old words used for many years to bind two people together to make them one, and the newer words that talk about hopes and dreams and plans and issues.  Lots of words.  Some we needed to explain or analyze, others we knew or thought we did anyway.  Words.  That’s what brought them to me.  We would like you to say the words, they asked.  Say the words and help us say the words.  The words that would make us one.  The words that might help us survive in an uncertain world.  Say the words that bind us, we even debated the old symbol of tying hands together while we say the words.  But also the newer symbol of lighting a candle that says we are one, feeding and being fed, united.

Say the words.  The good words that we long to hear and the hard words we need to hear.  The words of binding and of sharing, the words of committing and of sacrificing, Say the words.  That’s what we talked about this morning as we watched the snow falling outside my office window.  Refreshing the blanket of white that covers over everything, making it clean and new and bright.  We used words about words, accompanied by laughter and even a few tears.  Say the words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, February 7, 2015

I Got a Stick

Another slow start this week.  Some days these bible studies just flow from my fingers.  It is like they write themselves, I’m only along for the ride.  Like the message comes from somewhere else.  Someone else.  I just try to keep up and pay attention to spelling.  OK, well, pay a little bit attention to spelling and grammar and the like.  

Then there are weeks like this one where I can sit for hours and stare at the stark white screen with the little flashing cursor and wonder if it is sighing deeply.  Like there is nothing there, nobody home and I’m stuck with a job to do and no resources to do it.  With a message to declare and a roaring silence filling the empty space between my ears instead of the words that normally rattle around in there.  In short, I got nothing.  Sorry.

Though the words seem to echo a similar complaint.  Maybe it was the way I just said it in my head.  You remember everyone’s second favorite Charlie Brown TV special, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”?  What sticks in my head is the trick or treat scene, where Charlie Brown, after having trouble with his ghost costume, tags along with the gang as they from house to house.  Then they inspect their haul and everyone described what delights they received, except Charlie Brown who intones, with liturgical rhythm, “I got a rock.”  

What can you do with a rock?  As a Halloween treat a rock leaves much to be desired.  Even if his mother was resourceful and clever and tried to put a positive spin on it, (“Look, Charlie, the start of a career in geology!”)  I’m sure Charlie Brown felt lousy getting rock after rock all Halloween.  A bag of rocks was not adequate for the task of celebrating the excesses of Halloween, that’s for sure.

Just like a stick isn’t up to the task of setting God’s people free.  At least I’m sure that was Moses’ opinion in the middle of this conversation with God.  

Exodus 4:2-5  The LORD said to him, "What is that in your hand?" He said, "A staff."  3 And he said, "Throw it on the ground." So he threw the staff on the ground, and it became a snake; and Moses drew back from it.  4 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Reach out your hand, and seize it by the tail"-- so he reached out his hand and grasped it, and it became a staff in his hand--  5 "so that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you." 

“What is that in your hand?”  We are in the midst of Moses and his five buts, you remember.  Right in the middle of them, as a matter of fact.  This is but number three.  Which in the DCWV (Derek C Weber Version) is “what if it doesn’t work?”  What if they won’t listen?  What if it blows up in my face?  What I end up looking stupid or worse?  These are real fears, you know.  This doing God’s work thing is risky business.  It could all go wrong so very easily.  This was, I believe, the most reasonable but of them all.  But what if it doesn’t work?

God’s response?  “What’s that in your hand?”  What?  You can see Moses looking around for something significant.  Something that might help in this fool’s errand, this knight’s quest.  I’m sure he almost said “nothing!  I got nothing.  Nothing that will take down a Pharaoh.  Nothing that will accomplish this task you’ve given me.  I got nothing!”  But then he realized that he did have something in his hand, something that was always in his hand.  It was like a part of him, that’s why he almost overlooked it.  It was an extension of his body.  It was a badge of office, or the most important tool in the box, the sonic screwdriver of the Time Lords of Dr. Who.  He almost forgot it was there.  “I got a stick,” he said to the voice in the burning bush, or inside his head, he really wasn’t sure any more.  “I got a stick.”

Expecting, no doubt for a divine snort of derision.  A stick?  You got a stick?  We can do better than that, he was thinking, he was hoping.  A tank perhaps, a stealth bomber, the Starship Enterprise - beam us up Scotty, this ain't working here.  I got a stick.

We’re pretty sure that whatever it is that we got, whatever resources we've managed to scrape together aren't going to be adequate to the task.  Whatever is in our hand isn't going to see us through into the uncertain tomorrow.  We are sure of that.  Because we have failed before.  We have lost our way, we have let opportunities run through our fingers, we have lost friends and partners on this journey.  We've seen it happen before and we know it will happen again, that is the way of things.  This stick we've got in our hand isn't going to amount to a hill of beans in the crazy world.  

Oh, it’s a nice stick.  Quite useful for the task.  It can help one keep one’s balance in a rocky wilderness.  A third foot on uncertain ground.  It can fend off wild animals when necessary.  A good whack upside the head and wolves and lions will go running. A good shepherd knows how to knock one out of the park when necessary.  But it isn’t just blunt force justice either, no that curve on the end, that hook can prod a recalcitrant sheep back on the right path (“he leads me in right paths”) You just reach out and gently slip that crook around the neck of a sheep about to bolt in the wrong direction, and the smooth curve of the wood doesn’t hurt but can restrain and redirect, get those feet going in the direction they need to go, for safety sake.  

Useful, yes, but not for freeing a nation.  Not for ending four hundred years of slavery.  You need something more than a stick.  A bit of wood smoothed by sweaty palms and oil from a sheep’s coat, bloodied by the noggin of a hungry wolf isn’t going to be enough to realize a dream of freedom.  

I got a stick.  “Throw it down.”  What?  “Throw it down.”  What?  The stick?  It’s all I’ve got.  I know it isn’t much.  I know it isn’t up to the task, but it’s all I’ve got.  “Throw it down.”  My stick?  “Throw it down.”  This stick?  “Throw it down.”  But ...  “Throw it down.”

I got an email from a frustrated bishop this week, or maybe last week.  OK, I didn’t get it, everyone got it.  Everyone who signed up for the Bishop’s “e-pistle” (get it?).  It’s usually a word of encouragement, sometimes a word of explanation or a cheerleading of the latest Conference or Denominational doings, good stuff, usually.  But this one was a word of frustration.  We’re not measuring up.  We’re not keeping all the balls in the air, not providing the support, not carrying our share of the load, not just us, everyone.  “Are you all-in?” the Bishop opined from his digital pulpit.  “All-in”?  Throw it down.

God asked Moses for a total commitment, symbolized by the stick.  What’s that in your hand?  Throw it down.  It wasn’t much but it was all he had and he had to throw it down.  Not knowing what was going to happen to it, not knowing if he was going to get to pick it up again.  Throw it down.  Moses threw it down.  It turned into a snake.  We need more snakes.  Right?  Well, Moses wasn’t sure, Exodus says he drew back. It could be translated stepped back, or jumped back or ran away.  Screaming.  In terror.  OK, I added that bit.  But he didn’t want anything to do with the snake.  The snake that was his stick.  God says, pick it up.  What?  Pick it up, by the tail.  Everyone knows you pick up snaked by the head, just behind the head.  My dad taught me that.  Not that it was knowledge I wanted, mind you.  But everyone knows that. Pick it up, by the tail.  So, it could twist around and bite you.  Moses picked it up.  It was a stick.  A trick of the light?  Eyes already swimming from staring at a burning bush might have been fooled, it was a stick that he thought was a snake.  Until he did it again on the steps into Pharaoh’s palace.  Throw it down.  Pick it up.  Get to work, Moses.  Are you all-in?

That stick, it wasn’t much, but it was all he had.  Good for balance, good for predators, good for getting sheep reoriented.  In Moses’ hand.  In God’s hand?  Well, it could humble a king, it could part a sea, it could lead a grumpy nation through a wilderness, and bring water from a rock.  In God’s hand what is in our hand is not just something more, it is enough.  Enough to do what God would have us do.

What’s in your hand?  What have you got that when thrown down, when all-in can realize a dream?  What gift, what knowledge, what passion is in you?  I don’t know about you.  But I got a stick.  It’s not much, but in God’s hands...