Saturday, May 30, 2015

How Can These Things Be?

Just back from Annual Conference.  OK, not just, a little while ago this afternoon.  We skipped out a hair early, but just a hair.  I attended almost all of the required and recommended sessions.  As I always do.  Though my ears were bleeding and my eyes were going closed more often than I like to admit.  I was there.  Sort of.  In body.  My recurring thought during most of the presentations was “These people make a living talking?”  I mean surely there is a better, more interesting way to make some of these presentations.  The preaching professor in me recoiled more often than is healthy.  

Oh, there were a few bright spots, a few good words.  Some worship and music, some fellowship and reconnecting.  It was not a total waste of time. But don’t let it out that I said that, it would threaten my curmudgeon status that I’ve worked so hard to cultivate.  Yes, Virginia, there are good reasons for getting old. 

But good speakers or bad, the ones that normally set your teeth on edge were not the ones on the platform, but the ones from the floor.  The ones who jumped up to ask a question.  Oh, Lord, a question.  Can we drag this out even more?  Can we add to the tedium of a three day business meeting?  Please keep your questions to yourself.  Or ask them discretely, behind closed doors, on your time and not on mine.  Can we just move this along?  Please?

I wonder if the others who gathered around Jesus on that dark night wondered the very same thing when a Pharisee came up with questions that made Jesus roll his eyes.  You know the story.  I contains the most familiar verse in the whole New Testament, if not the whole Bible.  For God so loved.  Well, read it yourself.  

John 3:1-17  Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."  3 Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."  4 Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"  5 Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.'  8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."  9 Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?"  10 Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  11 "Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,  15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 

Did Nicodemus come with a question?  Or did he come to score points?  “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God,” he bombasts right in Jesus’ face.  We know who you are.  We’ve got you pegged.  We’ve caught, tagged and are releasing you back into the wild so that we can track your movements through our community.  And then we’ll make a determination as to whether you are an invasive species come to wreak havoc on our ecosphere!

Am I being hard on Nicodemus?  Maybe.  Maybe it was more open than that, more innocent than that?  Maybe.  But maybe not.  I mean Jesus lights into him right away.  John writes after that carefully worded political salutation that “Jesus answered him.”  Answered him?  Where was the question?  Maybe John should have said “Jesus responded to him.”  Or Jesus debated with him.  Or Jesus stripped to his wrestling singlet and leapt onto the mat for three falls out of four with yet another Pharisaical opponent.  Yeah, that might have set the tone nicely.
It seems like Jesus is trying to pick a fight.  And Nicodemus is outclassed.  And doesn’t even seem to know he’s in a stranglehold.  Which only escalates when he does finally squeak out his questions: “How can  anyone be born after having grown old?”  And “Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?”  And worst of all was “How can these things be?”  That really sets Jesus off, he gets personal in his response.

Why is he so upset?  I mean, he throws Nicodemus a wicked curve and is upset when Nick whiffs on the first pitch.  Maybe he’s upset at having his evening disturbed, Nicodemus was the first century equivalent of a telemarketer who interrupts dinner to sell siding for the house you don’t own.  Or maybe Nicodemus caught him on a bad day.  In the last chapter Jesus attended a wedding and was called out by his mom, then went into the temple and ruined everyone else’s day in one angry gesture, which left folks muttering about him as he strode through the wreckage back home.  And finds Nicodemus huddling on the doorstep, like a homeless man at his gate.  Or maybe Nicodemus forgot he was in the Gospel of John and missed the whole dark verses light symbolism.  Dark, for John, is the absence of the knowledge of and presence of God.  And then he proceeds to miss everything else that Jesus tries to tell him, because his mind is as dark as the night.

Probably because he starts with this “we know” stuff.  That’s what sets Jesus off.  He comes not to learn but to show his knowledge.  Nicodemus probably was expecting gratitude or something like that from Jesus.  “Wow, gosh thanks guys.  Gee, you really think so much of little old me?”  But no, instead he gets some head-spinning theology about the Holy Spirit, of all things.  And to make it worse, how did they know that Jesus was a teacher come from God?  Nicodemus says we know this because you do cool stuff.  You do magic tricks.  You do signs and wonders.  There is nothing that ticks Jesus off as fast as getting all excited about the special effects and losing the narrative of the film. He didn’t want heads turned by miracles, he wanted them to come to him.  He wanted them to hear his words and know his love.  He wanted them to have a relationship with him and not just come for the show. 

That’s how he gets to The Verse.  3:16.  There are people who wear T-Shirts with those numbers on it who may not even know what it means.  Which might also make Jesus mad.  As mad as at a pharisee who thinks he knows all there is to know about Jesus because he’s seen an unexplainable event or two.  As mad as at a temple full of buyers and sellers, making a buck off of the need to worship that is deep down in every soul.  Mad, or sad.  A little of both, I suspect.  God so loved, he says, so loved the world, that whoever believes ... Believe in the Gospel of John is more than a head thing.  Nicodemus had a head thing.  But he didn’t have a heart thing.  Or a soul thing.  He wasn’t leaning into the Jesus the way Jesus wants us to lean into Him.  He wasn’t hungry for Jesus the way Jesus wants us to be hungry.  I am the bread, I am the gate, I am the way, the truth and the life.  He wants to be all for all.  Our light in the darkness, our hope in the midst of the world’s despair.  He doesn’t want to be a side show, or a sometime friend, he wants to be the center of our lives and hopes and dreams.

How can these things be?  That would be Nicodemus’s reply, I’m sure.  Because it is mine.  Ours.  How can these things be?  How can we hold on to Jesus when the path gets slippery and light grows dim?  We must be born again.  Great.  Cliches.  Religious nonsense cliches.  Has there been a phrase more divisive in the body of Christ than that one?  Maybe.  I dunno.  But this one has been misused and misunderstood since Nicodemus stumbled over it one night.  Born again?  Anothen is the Greek word.  Anothen.  Means again, and anew and from above.  All wrapped up there together.  But not again as in repetition - same thing over again, that’s what Nicodemus missed.  But neither is it a badge of honor or entrance certificate. That’s what many modern day users miss.  Rather it is an invitation to join in the dance with Jesus.  Whoever believes, who ever takes Him by the hand and says lead me.  Whoever says I find myself in you.  Whoever leans for repose as the old hymn says (How Firm a Foundation for those who wonder), shall have life, abundant, eternal life.  

How can these things be?  They just are.  Start leaning.  And learning.  Lest, on this graduation Sunday, I leave you with the impression that questions are somehow bad, forgive me.  But no.  Questions, dumb ones and smart ones, irritating ones and time wasting ones earnest and honest ones, are good.  We need to ask in order to learn.  But then lean as we learn.  Trust as we seek.  Believe as we wonder.  How can these things be?  Believe.  And ask.  And live.


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

This Present Day

Acts 2:1-4  When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 

That’s how it began, at least according to Luke, who is the only one who captured the second act of the Jesus story.  The other Gospel writers run out of steam when Jesus leaves.  But Luke keeps plugging away.  He is just as fascinated by the fumblings and stumblings and the falling and rising of the motley band of disciples as he was by the God-enfleshed, baby in a manger who becomes the friend of sinners and outcasts and then gives himself away for the least of these - meaning you and me.  He is like the parent or friend who gives a gift and then is not content with seeing the joy in the unwrapping and admiring.  “Try it on,” he shouts.  “Let’s play,” he cries clearing a space in the rubble so the pieces can be spilled out and the board unfolded.

It’s not just receiving Christ for Luke, he wants to know what we are going to do with Him.  He wants to know how we are going to live today, in this present time.  That’s a hard leap for many of us.  We read the stories of the Bible, especially the stories of Jesus and we enter in, like watching a movie that’s so good the world disappears.  “Tell me the stories of Jesus I love to hear; things I would ask him to tell me if he were here.”  If he were here.  We look around our lives and wonder if he is here.  We stumble out of the darkened theatre and are surprised to find the world different than the one we watched while we munched our popcorn.  

If he were here.  The Spirit seemed so evident that first Pentecost day.  Wind like a freight train, roaring through the room.  We imagine the faces of the disciples distorted like those pictures of the effects of wind blown acceleration.  Tongues of fire light lightning, crackling down on each of them, making their hair stand on end and sparks fly from their fingertips, their eyes light up, their bones glow under their skin.  Then the babbling, languages fast and furious, spilling out of them in a Niagara effect, and the passers-by awash in the torrent of words.  It is surreal, mind-blowing, head shaking.  Ah, some muttered, they must be drunk.  This must be chemically induced.  They are on something.  People don’t act like they have the answers to all their prayers, unless they are so plastered they forgot those prayers.  They must be drunk, muttered the cynics passing by the party room full of spirit intoxicated disciples.  What an odd sort of day, with an odd sort of presence.  

The Spirit doesn’t show up like that anymore.  Today is full of unanswered prayers.  No, not so much unanswered as unspoken.  Unprayed prayers, because, why?  I mean really, why?  The cynics of today are as likely to be inside the room as they are passing by on the street.  Inside the room until they wander out, never to return because ... well because the Spirit doesn’t blow through our worship so much any more.  “Something’s missing.”  That’s the latest explanation for a departure from our congregation.  Something’s missing.  Is it?  Is the Spirit a memory, a story we read once a year, an object of a wistful sigh about what once was, if it ever was?  Something’s missing.

Romans 8:18-27  I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.  19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God;  20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope  21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;  23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?  25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.  26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 

This present time.  It is Memorial Day Weekend here in the US.  An event which began as Decoration day for the civil war dead in 1868.  A chance to honor, to remember, to decorate the graves of those who had died in that terrible war.  When it began there were competing dates for Union remembrance and for Confederate remembrance.  But somewhere in the early 20th Century the war ended and the dates merged together.  Memorial Day has been an official national holiday for more than 40 years.  We remember, we honor, we weep for those who have died serving their country.  Our country.  Our home.  And we pray for an end to war.  But still they die.  So, that we hardly know how to pray any more.  Or how to pray without despair.  Without anger, without a desire for vengeance.  We don’t know how to pray with hope.  That one day no new names will be added to the lists of those for whom we pray.

I consider the sufferings of this present day... Paul acknowledges that living in these days isn’t easy.  The sufferings of this present day.  He acknowledges that there is something missing, something not yet, something on the way.  At least he still believes it is on the way.  If you read Paul closely, when he starts writing his letters to the churches, he is full of the immediacy of the kingdom.  Jesus is on his way, get ready.  It’s almost here, maybe in the morning, maybe later today.  Just get ready, wash your hands and be ready.  But as time goes on he starts talking about how we need to learn to live together in community.  He tells us we need to shore one another up, we’ve got to figure out this church thing, this worship and service thing.  We’ve got work to do.  Not because he’s given up hope.  By no means, to use one his favorite phrases.  But the hope now becomes what sustains us in the living through the sufferings of this present day.  

And he knows we get tired of holding on to hope.  Our grip loosens and we fall into the darkness of the day instead of remembering the light that we bear.  The light that we are.  The glory about to be revealed to us is such a powerful idea.  The kingdom, heaven, the reign of God, Your will be done on earth, on earth for heaven’s sake.  But keep reading and he says that that glory is us.  The world is waiting for us.  Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.  That’s us, that’s them.  That’s us showing them that it’s them.  The world is waiting for us to reveal their inheritance.  For us to turn on the light, so that they can live not only in the sufferings of this present day, but in the hope of the end to suffering, the end to rejection, the end to hate, the end to war, the end to dying and to killing because we don’t know any other way to live in this present day.  Those are the words that the passers by are longing to hear come pouring down over them this Pentecost, in languages they can understand, in words that resonate with their own souls, not just in the words we know.  We need to learn new languages so people can hear the word we know, can see the light we see, the light we are.  And to hear it with such joy and love and acceptance that they will wonder if we are a little bit tipsy.

Except where is the wind?  Where are the tongues of fire?  Why can’t we be empowered like they were empowered on that first Pentecost.  It’s also Aldersgate Day, this Sunday.  Memorial Day, Pentecost, Aldersgate Day.  Aldersgate Day, the day we remember our founder, John Wesley, stumbling to a bible study he didn’t want to go to.  And hearing someone read from a commentary written by Martin Luther of all people.  And that in the midst of the reading and that hearing, something happened.  Something broke through.  Wesley reclaimed these words, this hope.  He was included in God’s loving act of salvation, in the hope for eternity and an abundant life.  It wasn’t wind and flame.  He described it as a warming of the heart.  An unexplained, strange warming of the heart. 

Maybe that’s what we should lean into.  Not wait to be knocked off our feet, to be blasted into speaking of glory and hope, but a warming.  The Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  Maybe we should keep sighing, for the sufferings of this present day, even as we hope for the glory about to be revealed to us.  To us.  Not just me, not just you, but us.  We’re in this together.  Linked, gathered, committed to hoping together.  Like a marriage.  Yeah, I got there.  It is also my anniversary.  Our anniversary, La Donna and me.  Thirty five years.  This present day.  And there is and has been suffering, but also glory.  And we live in hope, together.   

Happy Anniversary, La Donna.  Happy Birthday, church.  Hopeful Memorial Day, nation.  There is more to come.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

2015 Festival Journal - Day Four

Festival of Homiletics, 2015 – Denver Colorado

Day Four

Perhaps I spoke too soon.  Or too smugly.  Somewhere in the middle of the night, I woke with a pounding headache.  Decided that maybe all the warnings meant something after all.  So, I’ve been hydrating all day.  And so far, so good.

Anyway, aside from the nocturnal altitude lessons, the day began with worship again.  This morning I had the choice of the United Methodist Adam Hamilton preaching and lecturing at the Presbyterian Church, or the Presbyterian Dr. Craig Barnes preaching and lecturing at the United Methodist Church.  Wrestling with that irony for a while, I opted for Dr. Barnes.  

His sermon was based on the beginning of the book of Genesis. And to sum up a whole lot of stuff, he says that no one can do more damage to us than us.  But that from the beginning God’s plan was that God’s grace would be sufficient for us.  Not our successes or our failures.  Not our strength or our weakness.  God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.  And that no matter what, we can always choose gratitude.

Craig Barnes then followed worship with a lecture titled “The Soul of the Preacher.”  He began with an observation that I have heard in other places and am trying - trying mind you - to incorporate into my own thinking.  That the best way to do the job we pastors are called to do is to care for our souls as a priority to be able to care for souls of the congregations in our care.  “Nothing is more dangerous to the church than the pastor.  There is no such thing as a healthy congregation with an unhealthy pastor, at least for long.”

So, Craig presents some ideas for the care of the pastor’s soul.  The ones that seemed most telling to me are the toxic idea that we are more worried about God’s will than God is!  And on the positive end, a healthy idea is that for the pastor the day begins and ends by nurturing the first love, the love that brought them into ministry, the love of the savior.

There was of course much more, but I don’t want to weary you too much.  

I then moved from the United Methodist Church over to the Presbyterian one to hear the former United Methodist Bishop, Will Willimon, Who echoed some of Craig Barnes’ ideas when he said “the great thing about preaching is that you get to talk about something more interesting that yourself.  Or your people.  Or the church.  You get to talk about the always surprising, transforming God.  He then with the help of theologian Karl Barth, redefined the concept of election by saying it isn’t about God choosing special ones to receive grace or salvation.  No, election, Barth argues is God electing to be God.  A God for us, for creation, for redemption.  And then choosing us to be for God.  

The day ended with a lecture from Seminary president David Lose (a Lutheran this time - at the Methodist Church) who proceeded to look at the variety of resurrection stories from the gospels and asked us to rethink just what it is that we are doing as preachers and teachers of the faith.  Indeed what are any of us who claim to be following Christ doing?  He concluded by wondering is our job as preachers might just be to set people free.  Not about adding to burdens, not about naming sin, but about offering freedom.  Or in Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John, He came that we might have life and have it abundantly.

I had an abundant time here at the Festival.  It isn’t quite done, but tomorrow is both closing worship and presentations and departure, so finding time to write more might be problematic.  If there is something I want you to know, I’ll find a way to share it here.

And I have to be honest, there was another sermon I heard today.  And the main learning for me was that just because you can write about preaching and even teach preaching, doesn’t mean you can preach.  Enough said.

And sometimes what we need to do is to know when to stop.  I’ve wearied you with all this, I know.  I apologize.  But I also want to thank you for the opportunity to share a little of the joy that I have received this week.  It has been both affirming and challenging.  I often come away with the feeling that I should apologize for the preaching some of you have to endure from me week by week.  On the other hand, I was surprised by how often I have heard the themes I continue to proclaim repeated and expanded upon here.  So, maybe I’m occasionally on the right track.  If so, it is by the grace of God.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

2015 Festival Journal - Day Three

Festival of Homiletics, 2015 – Denver Colorado

Day Three

Is it Day Three already?  How does this happen?  One side note, despite the warnings and concerns expressed, I haven’t noticed any effects from the altitude.  There has been a lot of walking, but so far so good.  Fresh air and sunshine most of the time.  A few showers and storms roll through quickly, but nothing serious (there are threats in the mountains this evening, the news tells me tonight)   All in all a great visit to the Centennial State.  

(One pg rated observation: be careful when passing by a group of smokers on a street corner, it just might not be tobacco!)

My morning began with worship. The preacher was Luke Powery, the current Dean of the Chapel of Duke University.  He introduced himself as a Bapticostal, and said anything could happen.  But what happened in the sermon is that we were treated to a sermon reflecting the best of African American tradition and mainline progressive faith.  Based on the introduction of John the Baptist in the Gospel of Luke, Dr Powery talked about how the word of God comes in the wilderness and not in the places of power.  Which can mean that sometimes in our wilderness God speaks and sometimes when we are large and in charge it doesn’t come to us!  It wasn’t an us and them sermon, but a how does God choose to speak sermon.  And maybe we need to learn to listen to wilderness folk more often.  And wilderness usually means the marginal ones.  

But my favorite part was when he pointed out the wilderness words that came to the slave ancestors and he proceeded to sing a series of spirituals with an amazingly powerful voice.  I love preachers who can sing.

This was followed by a lecture from Walter Brueggemann, titled “Fidelity Amid the Seduction of Certitude.”  His premise is that scripture presents to us a God of wonder, not a God of consistency.  That faith is more about being in relationship - fidelity - than it is about right behavior - certitude.  

Along the way, he referenced the rabbis who taught that the bible is notoriously multi-layered, multi-voiced, profoundly complex and deeply conflicted.  Interestingly, Sigmund Freud immersed in this rabbinical tradition presents a theory about the self.  He says that the self is multi-layered, multi- voiced, profoundly complex and deeply conflicted.  

The morning then concluded with a presentation from Diana Butler Bass, a church historian who revived hope for the mainline church a few years ago with her book “Christianity for the Rest of Us.”  I found that book a source of hope for many of us.  Today she was presenting the work of her latest book coming this year.  The title is “Grounded: God Has Left the Mountain - Understanding the Theological Revolution of Our Time.”

Diana Bass suggests that the most prominent question of our age (beginning with the second World War) is “Where is God?”  And that the ancient vision of the three tiered universe, with God in Heaven above, and us on earth in the middle and underworld below representing the opposite of God or the absence of God has given way to a God of Presence.  God is not “up there” somewhere, no longer is “God in His heaven and all is right with the world.”  But rather that God is with us, in both pain and joy, in ugliness and in beauty.  God is with us.  Emmanuel.  That is the word for us today.  Presence.  Even Wesley knew that.  His dying words were “Best of all, God is with us.”

After a quick lunch I moved to the United Methodist Church for a sermon and a lecture from Anna Carter Florence.  Anna is a favorite of mine.  I heard her the very first Festival I attended many years ago and look forward to her every year.  She teaches preaching at Columbia Seminary in Atlanta and has a unique way of looking at scripture and the preaching task.

For her sermon she took one of the “texts of terror” as identified by Dr Phyllis Tribble in the mid 80's.  Judges 19, go read it if you want.  No easy explanation.  No way to smooth it over, or explain it away.  Usually we just ignore it.  But there it is.  

Anna preached about concubines.  About the difference between a relationship of love and a desire to use a person for your own purposes.  And while none of us would claim to take concubines, she asked us to consider are there cases where we use people for our own purposes rather than see them as whole persons with whom we can be in relationship?  It’s a hard question, a hard thought.  Sometimes this faith stuff makes our living so much more ... intentional.  That living blindly, without thinking about consequences or the impact on others or on the planet, is what leads us to texts of terror.  

Not an up sermon at all.  But maybe necessary.

She lightened the mood in her following lecture.  She is also working on a book and the thrust of her next book is about paying attention to the verbs in the text as a way of shaping our preaching and our understanding of our faith.

So she took the book of Ruth and discovered by paying attention to the verbs, the dominant verbs of each for the four chapters, we find that Ruth is actually not just a nice love story, but a manual for preachers.  (This is a preaching festival after all)

Chapter one the verb is “cling.”  As in thought Naomi told both of her widowed daughter in laws to turn back and stay with their people, and Orpah took her up on this advice, Ruth instead decided to cling to Naomi.  And cling here doesn't mean clingy or co-dependent or needy. But faithful, steadfast, committed.   Cling is a relationship word.  As preachers (and followers) we are called to cling to the truth, to the text, to the God behind the text.

The verb in chapter two is “glean.”  You know the story.  Ruth had to glean behind the harvesters to get enough for her and her mother in law to live.  But Boaz took a liking to her and made it easier.  Easier, but not easy.  Gleaning is hard work.  It is hands and knees work.  It is getting down to see what is left behind after the professionals have been through.  What tidbits of meaning, what insights of living, what hope is there down on the ground?  Is it enough to live on?  Look hard.  Glean.

In chapter three it is “uncover” and the textual story is interesting and odd and a bit ... racy, to tell the truth.  But for preachers, to uncover is the reveal truth.  To show the community the truth about who we are and how we behave, what we value and our practices that continue to shape us.  Uncover who we a really are, not just who we think we are, for good or for ill.  Just the truth.  Uncover.

Then she kind of wrapped it up for us.  But there is one more chapter.  There is another verb, she says, in chapter four the verb is redeem.  But that is not our job it is God’s.  

A long day, but I had reached the end of my endurance.  Even though there were more events, I caled it a day and came to write this and turn in.  One more full day and then a half.  Then the trek to the airport and back home.   

Stay tuned.

2015 Festival Journal - Day Two Part Two

Festival of Homiletics, 2015 – Denver Colorado

Day Two Part Two

After Nadia, I traveled to the third venue for the festival, St. John’s Lutheran Church (which is also a Catholic Church, oddly enough.  A move that indicates in some spots community is beginning to overcome history and long standing animosity.  There is hope.)  The speaker this time was listed as Don Davis, storyteller. 

I went, frankly with low expectations.  I’ve heard and always appreciate storytellers.  But also feel like I know what storytelling is about.  So, I went not expecting to learn and even to greatly enjoy, but it was the best on offer at that time.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Yes, Don started with a story that was good, but not overwhelming.  But then he began to explore with us how stories happen.  

His title was “Our Stories tell us who we are: An experience in discovering our own stories and some ways of using them in proclamation settings.”  A bit clumsy, I thought, and not gripping.  But after his story he told us of the need to stock our kitchen with the makings of stories so that when it came time to cook we had a full pantry.  By that he meant get the bones of the stories and have them ready.  And the bones he argued were not plots, not the what happened.  He says our education establishment is “plot obsessed” and that we are trained to reduce every story to just the action.  But stories don’t begin with action.  They begin with people and with places.

Four “P’s” to storytelling, and plot isn’t one of them.  Make a list of people and places.  When you walk around the places the stories “raise their hands and beg to be told.”  When you remember the people you remember who they were with you, and the stories are told.  The third P is problem.  Without trouble, Don says, there is no story.  Now it isn’t always bad things.  How many of you got married, he asked, how many have children?  That’s trouble that we choose.  And I thought of all the stories I’ve told of receiving and raising those kids.  Trouble, it’s a good word.

But the final P is one we often forget.  He called it a Progress Report.  What did you learn in this story, from this person, in this place that you wouldn’t have learned in any other way?  No matter how terrible or wonderful the moment.  How did you grow?  Progress report.

Then he spoke about biblical stories and how they neglect three of the P’s.  He says they aren’t good on people and places because they figure everyone knows them, we get names but no descriptions.  We don’t really know either well, he argues.  And he says too often, especially with Jesus’ stories, there is no progress report.  That was done on purpose, he argued, because we are to finish the stories.  Did the elder brother ever go in?  Did the Samaritan return and pay and did the beaten man ever meet his rescuer?  I see his point and while I may argue a few details, I agree and was entranced by his presentation.  Which wasn’t even his best of the day.

Then it was lunch and I met up with Nathan, the associate pastor from St Joe there in Fort Wayne.  A long way to go for lunch.  But it was good to catch up.

After lunch I went to the wrong venue and didn’t want to hear the speaker, so instead I went and found a plug to charge my phone for a while.  But then hurried back to hear Don Davis for his second session. This time in the United Methodist Church, he shared the stage with Rabbi Ben Romer who has served as a military chaplain for more than twenty years.  His stories were about crossing boundaries.  About interfaith.  He says interfaith dialog is about being strong enough in your own faith to set aside some of your language so you can listen to the other, and help them on their journey.

Don Davis took the stage afterwards and used his allotted time to tell one long convoluted story that was just masterful and gripping, funny and poignant, and in the end about hospitality, about welcoming the stranger and about Christ appearing in the strangest of places through the least expected of people.  To even attempt to give you bits from the story would be to demean the power of story and the gift of Don Davis.  Suffice it to say, I was in awe.

After a dinner break and shuttle ride back to the hotel and then back to the venue.  I ended the night with worship and more stories.  Don Davis told two stories, again was captivating.  My favorite part was the role of the ex-vet from the Cincinnati Zoo who settled in the little town where Don was pastor, and the unorthodox way the vet had of neutering 20 some cats owned by the crazy lady in town.  Nuff said.

But the sermon in our closing worship was preached by Dr Walter Brueggemann.  A venerable Old Testament scholar with immense reputation and an irascible demeanor.  His text was Matthew 11:25-30, “I thank the Father that you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”  And then proceeded to call us both wise and intelligent and therefore not privy to the understandings of God, and babies asking us to remember what it is that we know.  He said we need to stop trying to figure everything out and just be followers and imitators.  That sometimes our plans get in the way, our knowledge gets in the way.  And we just need to trust more.

The other interesting dimension to the worship is that besides the sermon and scripture ready, the rest of the service was sung.  Prayers, liturgy, everything was sung.  It was beautiful and different.  There is a bluegrass feel to the Festival this year.  Not sure whether Colorado is considered a bluegrass state, but it does permeate much of the worship here this week.  And it kinda catchy, I must say.

Another great day in Denver. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

2015 Festival Journal - Day Two, Part One

Festival of Homiletics, 2015 – Denver Colorado

Day Two

I neglected to mention that the first session on Monday night was held at the Denver Convention Center in the theater there.  That was because there is no church large enough to seat all the attendees of the Festival.  So, that meant that this morning after catching the shuttle into town, I had to navigate an unfamiliar city to venues I hadn’t taken the time to find the day before.

There are three churches downtown Denver that we are using for the Festival.  Central Presbyterian, Trinity United Methodist, and St. John’s Lutheran.  And the Festival runs concurrent events at each venue.  Which means the first order of the day it to decide who to go hear and who to miss.  And every year it is a struggle for me to decide whether to hear someone I know is good, or to go hear someone who might be good, but might not be.  There are some regular speakers/preachers that I don’t care for - others do, but I don’t.  So, in some cases the choosing is difficult.  I must confess there are some that I would be hard pressed to miss.  And one year, heaven forbid, two of my very favorites were scheduled at the same time in different places!  Horrors.

No such problems today.  The speaker at the Presbyterian church was one of those I don’t care for, so off I went to the UMChurch to hear Michael Curry, an African-American Episcopal Bishop from North Carolina.  I’ll let that sink in for a moment before moving on.  

I’ve heard Bishop Curry before and always appreciate his preaching.  He preached about love.  And said many of the same things I have heard or said before.  But he says them in such a way that you can’t help but be intrigued by them again.  John framed the passion story with love – A new commandment I give you on one end and Simon, son of John do you love me at the other.  He also gave a nod to the Methodists since he was on our turf.  He said “I love coming to the United Methodist Church.  It feels like coming home.  When you all left us, you took all the energy with you!”  Hmm, I wonder if he would say the same if he dropped in on some of our UM Churches today?  

Bishop Curry always manages to weave music into his preaching.  Usually turning to the spirituals his grandmother would sing to him when he was a little boy, “I was sinkin’ deep in sin,” Bishop Curry sang to us. “Far from the peaceful shore / Very deeply stained within / Sinking to rise no more. / But the master of the sea / Heard my despairing cry / And from the waters lifted me / Now safe am I.  Chorus (everybody sing!) Love lifted me / Love lifted me / When nothing else could help / Love lifted me.”

You can almost hear it now, can’t you?  But that wasn’t the only hymn he referenced.  No, again, he gave a nod to his hosts and quoted Charles Wesley.  Specifically the third verse of that great Easter Hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”: Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia! / Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia! / Death in vain forbids His rise, Alleluia! / Christ hath opened paradise, Alleluia!

Methodists got that one right, he proclaimed.  And I pray he is right.  Thank you Bishop Curry. 

Now he was about to give a lecture on some of the same themes and I could easily have stayed for more.  But Nadia was lecturing back at Central Presbyterian, so I headed over there.  Nadia began with a disclaimer saying she didn’t grow up in the church and therefore her vocabulary isn’t very churchy.  And she said she tried to clean it up but it felt inauthentic, and also very hard to change, so she kept it.  And some of those words, she said are very useful in the circles within which she works.  But, she hastened to add, she wasn’t advocating that all us clergy take up swearing.  Because “You aren’t very good at it!”

She always also begins by saying she doesn’t know why she gets asked to speak at places like this, she doesn’t have anything profound to say.  Except that she does.  She drops profundities more often then the swear words she claims to live by.  Like this little gem: “I preach from my scars and not my wounds.”  Wow, that was amazing.  A truth I knew but had never articulated like that.  It helps explain why some personal stories are powerful gospel illustrations and others just make you squirm.  

At the center of her lecture, she read from her forthcoming book: Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People.  The passage she chose had to do with demons.  Lots of demon talk in the bible, she noted.  And like most moderns she dismissed it as an outdated form of talking about disease and mental illness.  Those who did talk about them like they were real, she said, were like Christian Rednecks, and Demon possession was like a monster truck rally.  

While we were all laughing at this, she then proceeded to turn it around and talk about her own struggle with depression.  And that when she was in the throes of it, it seemed as though another person had come to take up residence in her life.  And this person could cause her all sorts of trouble.  She even named the person and tried to let others see her too.  So whether you call it, Nadia claimed, a demon, a disease or an addiction, we were no longer in control.  And until someone comes to cast out the demon, you are helpless and cut off.  Because what demons do, she claimed, is keep us from people who love us.  They isolate us from feeling worthy of love.  To takes (thank you Bishop Curry and Charles Wesley) Love’s redeeming work for healing to begin.  

But healing isn’t completed until you are brought back into community where others can love you too.  She then talked about her continued struggles with anger.  And one Sunday there was a church meeting between services (? Bad idea, seems to me) and someone got her so angry she didn’t think she could lead worship.  So she called on another member of her church to come pray for her to help her get over her anger.  And she chose a pregnant social worker to come and pray that she might be able to lead a peaceful liturgy of worship.  The prayer said “Nadia is in a bad way, so break her heart with our love for her and let her lead us in worship.”  

Break her heart with our love for her.  The church, she said, loved her into being the pastor they needed.  I was struck by that.  How often do I resist being loved enough to change?  And instead are forced into change by anger and spite?  Hmmm.  But the biggest profundity was this: “Faith is not an individual competition, it is a team sport.”

And it is still morning!  (End of Day two, part one!)

2015 Festival Journal - Just Arrived

Festival of Homiletics, 2015 – Denver Colorado.

My favorite annual continuing education event is called the Festival or Homiletics (which is fancy talk for preaching)  And each year I write reflections on the event.  It is an amazing experience.  I hope through this journal, you might see why.

Day One

After much ado about traveling, I arrived in Denver a little ahead of schedule.  Get this, I left Indy at 2:15pm and arrived in Denver at 3:00pm, wow that’s fast. OK, a two hour time difference, but still.  Going home on Friday will be very slow, by contrast.

The big struggle about traveling to Denver is that the airport is a long way from the city.  And no Denver hotel runs a shuttle to the airport, just isn’t cost effective, I was told. So, taxi, city bus, or super shuttle.  Super Shuttle sounded right up my alley, so I got a ticket and went to where I was told.  Along with a lot of other people who didn’t have a clue what was going on.  Waiting and waiting, shuttles came and went.  Waiting and waiting some more.  Super shuttle one arrived and drove way to the other end of the island we were on.  Traffic island, Denver isn’t on the coast.  Super Shuttle number two came and when we lined up, most of us were told wrong shuttle, he was going to Bolder.  Nice town Bolder, but not on my itinerary.  Finally a lady in a super shuttle came and asked who was going downtown Denver.  I said I was and she looked at my ticket.  You’re not downtown, she said.  That was my first indication that something was wrong.  The driver said, but he’s on my list.  So, I got in the black unmarked SUV.  I felt like a politician or something driving an unmarked car into town.

Got to my hotel to find out that it wasn’t within walking distance of the venues for the festival.  And I like to walk a lot.  I was pretty bummed about it all and resolved to have a terrible time.  Then I discover that the hotel has an hourly shuttle that goes to the sites, free of charge.  OK, better, but still too limiting.  Grump, grump, grump.

Then I rushed in for the first session.  Almost missing the start time because of having to wait for the shuttle (both the airport one and the hotel one!).  And by almost missing I mean not being at least an hour early, like I prefer!

The opening session is usually something significant, powerful and this year did not disappoint.  Nadia Boltz-Weber is an edgy Lutheran pastor here in Denver who is breaking molds all over the place, even while she claims a tradition that is ancient and postmodern at the same time.  She and her husband and a musician friend named Kent Gustavson composed what they called a Bluegrass Eucharist.  It was fun and lively and foot-stompin’ good.  But would take the right kind of musicians to pull it off.

As usual, though, my favorite part was the sermon.  Nadia preached on the text where Jesus came in from Capernaum and asked the disciples what they were talking about and they were embarrassed because they has been talking about who was the best.  So Jesus grabbed a child and said whoever welcomes one such as this welcomes me.  A text we all knew and had all preached.  And for a while she took a fairly typical approach about hospitality and welcoming the stranger and she affirmed all those meanings.  

But then she paused and said but I wonder if tonight we need to hear something different.  Over 1800 preachers had gathered for this week here in Denver.  And most of us were worn out trying to do too much and feeling guilty about what wasn’t done or wasn’t appreciated.  So, she says what if tonight this isn’t about hospitality, about welcoming anyone, but was about being the child.

What if we were able to rest in Jesus arms and that he was willing, because he is willing, to love us even when we don’t or don’t know how to love him back.  What if, like children in Jesus day, we weren’t valued because we were cute and cuddly and were marginalized and only valued for what we might someday be able to produce, basically replacement parts for adults, and yet we were loved by Him?  What if we knew, really knew that we don’t have to earn that love or be worthy of that love, it was just given?  

When I left the service and called the shuttle for a ride back, I realized that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.  Nothing was open in the section of downtown where I was, well nothing I could get a take home bag from in the few minutes before my ride would arrive.  So, I went back to the hotel, only to find the restaurant there was closing.  We had passed a Dollar Store on the way, so I set out.  Only about a mile away, it turned out.  I got there and got a few things and walked back.  

While I walked on tired feet through an industrial/railroad area of town where the hotel was, my daughter texted from home.  They couldn’t get the internet to work, and then the tv in her room wouldn’t turn on and they were asking me, some 800 miles away to trouble shoot.  I finally gave up when every suggestion I had was met with a “tried that. Nope” response.  Told her to go watch TV in the main room.  At that moment as I was walking past one business their sprinklers turned on and I was tired and sore and now wet too.

And loved.  That was the point.  Loved in spite of, loved through it all, loved.  Somewhere in the night, it all turned around and I’m having the time of my life.  As I usually do here at the Festival of Homiletics.  

And just wait until you hear what happened the next day!


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Tangled Threads

I've been on the phone to Paris Health Care for the past couple of days.  That’s the facility in Paris Tennessee where my mom resides.  There was an incident there, mom wasn’t hurt, but they needed to let me know as her power of attorney that something happened.  They are investigating and will make a determination of what might be next.  It involves my dad and the care he provides her while she is there.  He says, they say, hard to tell what really happened.  Happy Mother’s Day.

Further evidence that dementia has a communal effect.  The ripples circle out and wash over many of us.  The threads that bind us together get tangled and twisted, sometimes broken or at least frayed to a breaking point.  Sometimes we say and do things, even to those we love, that have nothing to do with them. But the threads have us so tangled up that we don’t know where the pain is coming from.  All we know is that we hurt and wish it would stop.  And every question feels like an accusation, every comment like a threat.  It isn't logical, it isn't rational, it isn't even right, but unless we are Vulcan like Mr. Spock, we rarely respond purely to logic.  Those threads that bind us to others, family and friends and members of the body of Christ, get us so tangled up we don’t always think straight.

Take Mother’s Day, for example.  I know that to ignore the holiday on a Sunday morning is to commit something akin to blasphemy in the minds of most people.  I’ve had my ear bent by passionate souls on that score.  Mothers are certainly due all the honor we can give them.  I know I want to honor my mother, and I want to honor my wife as the mother of my children.  And there are so many mothers who occupy our pews that deserve a little thank you, a little symbol that we know how important they are to us.  To the community as a whole.  What’s wrong with giving a little honor?  

At the same time, I know that an emphasis on saintly mothers would grieve those who suffered with a mother who didn’t epitomize the kind of love that Hallmark sells to us on their cards.  I know that calling motherhood the desire of God for every woman would wound those who have chosen to be childless or who suffer from infertility, or who lost their children in some heart rending tragedy.  And because within our community there are some from all those categories, a Mother’s Day celebration in worship is a tricky proposition.  The threads that bind us together make us want to be sensitive to those to whom we are bound.

Wow, I did not intend to follow this thread today.  But there it is.  And the more I write, the more the only sensible  response is the Monty Python Holy Grail response: “Run Away!”  Cut loose those binding threads, shake off those relationships.  “I am a rock, I am an island,” sang Simon and Garfunkle many years ago.  

Except ... I don’t want to live as an island.  And rocks are just too ... hard.  I don’t want to cut the threads that tangle me into the lives of those I love.  If anything I want them to be stronger, tighter, more binding.  I know, it doesn’t make sense, it is potentially too much pain.  But oh how I want those threads to stay connected.  The threads from my mother which are growing so thin they are almost transparent, how I wish they were strong and vibrantly colored with her love and her teaching and her reproof and her forgiveness.  The threads from my kids which are stretching longer and farther with each passing day it seems, how I wish they were shorter and younger and so full of the life we used to share.  The threads that bind me to a congregation and are strained to the breaking point, how I wish they were like it was before so many mistakes, so many decisions, so many choices were made putting us in different places.  How I wish we could hold on to what was.

Like the members of a little church on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.  Joppa First UMC lost one of the pillars of the church, no, of the whole community.  And they decided to grab a desperate hope.  You know their story.

Acts 9:36-43  Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.  37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.  38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, "Please come to us without delay."  39 So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.  40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, "Tabitha, get up." Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.  41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.  42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.  43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.  

The threads that bound Tabitha to the community were many and they were strong.  And when the illness and death came to sever those threads, the community was bereft.  Their hearts were broken, so they reached out to one who might be able to retie those threads, to re-weave the tear in the tapestry of their community.  They sent runners to Peter the apostle who had just performed a miracle.  And they thought maybe ... possibly ... But you notice they didn't ask for anything in particular.  Just that he come, quickly.  It wasn’t like that father who hoped Jesus could get there before his little girl died.  No Tabitha was dead.  They washed her and laid her out in the upper room.  They just wanted him to come.  

They washed the body, but didn't prepare it for burial.  Didn’t anoint it, didn’t wrap it.  Maybe they did hope, a wild desperate hope.  Hope for something they couldn't even bring themselves to speak out loud, or the sheer ridiculousness of it would ring in their ears and cause them to lose heart.  Just come quickly.  And, well, just come.

He did.  Drawn by their threads, Peter came, quickly.  And they fell all over themselves trying to tie him to her.  She was a servant, they said, a devoted servant, lived in two communities, didn't just care for us in the church, but for folks in the wider community.  They called her Dorcas, ‘cause that means “gazelle” in Greek, just like Tabitha does in Aramaic.  They called her gazelle, the folks out there, the ones she clothed.  Like this, they pointed to the clothes that they wore, proudly pointing out the straightness of the stitch and the line of the seam and the perfection of the fit.  They did a twirl like they were on a Paris catwalk.  Peter smiled at their love for their sister and friend. 

But then they stopped twirling as they caught sight of the body lying on the table in the middle of the room.  How dare they smile, how dare they take pleasure in anything, even the work of her hands, in a moment like this.  Peter felt the mood change and he sighed, then shooed them out of the room and got to work.  On his knees.

He prayed.  What did he pray for?  Who knows?  He prayed for the threads to be binding.  He prayed for the sake of the community who loved her so much.  He prayed for her lying there washed and cold and ready for what might be next.  He prayed for the will of his Lord to be done.  Then he stood up, and remembered another room with a body laid out.  He was there with Jesus that day, saw him reach out his hand to the dead girl and whisper “talitha coum - little girl rise.”  So, Peter reached out his hand and said “Tabitha rise.”  And her eyes opened and locked with his, and the smile on his ruddy fisherman’s face caused her to sit up at once.

He opened the door to their joy and disbelief and thought to himself with a wry smile, now where have I felt that before?  Nobody seemed to notice when he left.  He just passed by them hugging and crying and laughing, and he smiled when he heard Tabitha say, “that seam is coming undone, where is my needle?”  And he walked down to the seaside and knocked on the door of a man he hadn't seen since they were boys.  He never would have made this re-connection before, against the law, you know, because of the business that took place in this house.  But he shrugged and thought, things are changing everywhere and made himself at home with Simon the Tanner.  And somewhere a face familiar to Peter lit up with a massive smile and then thought, he has no idea.  No earthly idea.  Yet.

Sometimes miracles happen, and those we thought gone are returned to us.  More often the miracle is that the threads remain but they grow and change and become something new, something holy.  And we find we can continue on after all.  I am who I am because of my mother, a disease can’t take that away, can’t undo the threads of my being.  And whatever the future holds, I will honor her for what she has stitched for me.  Stitched into me.  We are the lives we touch and which touch us.  We are the threads we wear.  Thanks be to God.


Saturday, May 2, 2015

Pay Up

Well, what an interesting couple of weeks this has been!  Forgive my absence for the past couple of weeks.  But we were moving.  Packing and loading and moving, not changing appointments mind you, just houses.  We are in temporary housing, prepared to move into the parsonage at the end of June.  A lot of work, a lot of effort, a lot of energy expended.  On Monday night when the first a biggest hurdle was managed, La Donna and I looked at each other and said this used to be easier when we were younger.  Then moving was an adventure, now it felt like a burden.  A chore.  A weight we had to bear.

But bear it we did.  We are fine, settled, looking forward to the next part that settle us even more.  And then we will sing praise to God.  And then we will participate in the life of the community.  Then we will ... Why not now?  Why wait until all gets sorted out? 

That’s what we tend to do, you know.  When things aren’t going well, when the burdens seem too great, too much to bear, we tend to back off from the community of faith.  We tend to withdraw.  When I’m ready, we say.  When I feel better, we say.  When I get these things taken care of, myself sorted out, get back on an even keel, on the right track, then I’ll come back and sing praises among the community of faith.  

It’s as if we believe that church is only for those who have it all together.  Only for those whose lives are neat and ordered and obedient.  And many of us come to church fearful that we will be exposed as the one, the only one in the midst of the congregation, who doesn’t have it all together.  Who isn’t on top of the world.  Who can’t answer that ubiquitous social convention question - “how are you?” - with the usual answer - “doing just fine” - without severe cramping in the crossed fingers hidden behind our backs.  Without risking biting off that tongue in our cheek.  

We want to praise.  We really do.  Even when we don’t realize it, we do.  There is something deep down inside of us, something in the design of our very being that causes us to need to praise, to lift up our hearts to God.  We just don’t think we are worthy of singing God’s praise.  We don’t think God wants to hear our voice.  We’re pretty sure that God would prefer praise sung only by those who have it all together.

Except that we’d be wrong, if that’s what we think.  We’d be wrong.

Psalm 22:25-31  From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.  26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever!  27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.  28 For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.  29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.  30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,  31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it. 

“From you comes my praise.”  Did you notice that?  From you, from God comes the praise from my lips.  God is not just the object of praise, God is the source of praise.  It isn't our goodness that allows us to praise, it is God’s.  

This is Psalm 22.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Why?  Well, psalm 22 is the psalm we know well, except we know the other end.  We know the beginning of psalm 22.  We know it because it was the psalm Jesus remembered as he was dying on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”  Go back.  Take a look at the rest of the psalm.  By just looking at this end of it we are missing the depth of what is going on here.  We are missing the pathos of the human condition.  We are missing the struggle we all face if not regularly, then at some point.  At some point in our lives we will feel abandoned, we will feel cut off, we’ll feel like a worm as the psalmist does in verse six.  We’ll feel like our bones are all out of joint, like our hearts are melting like wax, like in verse fourteen.  Like dogs are snapping at our heels, like the sword is about to descend, like our hands and feet aren’t working any more.  

God back and read the rest of Psalm 22.  It is a tragic tale.  Except that interwoven throughout, not just here at the end, but throughout the psalm there is the call to praise, the call to faith, the call to trust in the goodness of God.  How do you trust in God when your bones are out of joint?  How do you praise when your heart is melted like wax and the enemies are dividing your clothes like spoils of war?  

Go home.  That’s how.  Home where you belong.  Where you are a part, where you pledged your faith, where you made your vow to belong.  “From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.”  In the great congregation we can find our voice again.  And great doesn’t just mean big, it means important.  It means the group that matters, the people of God, who have helped to shape you, who have made you who you are, who you couldn't do without if you ever stopped to think about it.  From you, From God comes the praise, come the words that I need to sing, even through melty hearts and dislocated joints, from you comes my praise, in the midst of the great congregation.  In the midst of the people who have decided to love me even though I’m not all that loveable.  In the midst of the people who build me up even when I am coming apart. In the midst of the people I have loved back to wholeness even as they have loved me back into wholeness more times than any of us want to count.  From you come my praise in the midst of the great congregation.

Thanks be to God!  And because of that knowledge and not because the prayer was answered.... Take a look throughout all of psalm 22 and tell me where it all got better.  Show me where it says, it was bad for a while there but I’m better now.  It says God heard me, which could mean healing has happened, or it could mean that his faith was shored up enough to believe that even thought bones are still dislocated and hearts are in puddles in the midst of bony chests, God has not forsaken after all.  All this praise may be coming from a sick bed, or a wooden cross.  But a sick bed surrounded by the congregation, the great congregation of the people of God.  

And because of that knowledge, because of that presence, not because of a resolution we might hope for, vows must be paid.  No, wait, vows will be paid.  What vows?  Where did vows come into the picture?  The vows of belonging, the vows of covenant and commitment.  I will uphold the church with my prayers, my presence, my gifts, my service and my witness.  Those vows.  Remember?

This is a stewardship emphasis remember.  An out of season stewardship emphasis, reminding us whose we are.  And Psalm 22 gives us the motivation for giving back to God, praise.  Praise that comes from faithfulness.  Faithful praise because of the relationships formed in the body of Christ.  Faithful Covenantal Praise that comes out in our words and in our deeds.  In our fulfilling of our vows.

Because those vows are fulfilled, the whole world changes.  That’s what the psalmist promises.  The result of our faithful fulfilling of our vows, giving to God and church, the poor are fed, those who seek can find, the word goes out to the ends of the earth.  Our fulfilling of our vows spreads out geographically until the whole world knows and joins us in praise.  But wait, there’s more!  Our fulfilling of vows spreads out temporally as well.  Those who have gone before join us in praise, those who are yet to come will join us in praise.  All time, all space, all belong to the God we praise in the midst of the great congregation.  

It staggers the imagination, frankly.  That my giving just might help change the world.  Just might help someone else, whose bones are out of joint and whose heart is melted like wax, stand in the midst of our great congregation and sing the praises God gives them to praise.  Because I was, because you were faithful.  Wow.  And when I have gone down to the dust, the praise will still ring in this congregation, because we were faithful.  Wow.  

Praise be to God.