Saturday, January 30, 2016

He Went On His Way

It was all too easy.  I should have seen it coming.  I need to learn to wait a little longer, to not assume everything is going well.  After all it has happened before.  We launch something new and it goes so well.  I think everyone is on board, everyone is with the program, everyone sees the benefit and is supporting the new thing, the new think.  Only to be surprised when I discover that isn’t true.  When the opposition rises up, when the negativity comes out from the shadows where it has hidden, and I’m caught by surprise.

It’s my fault.  I’m content to let sleeping dogs lie.  I learned that at home.  The crazy dogs are their most accepting and approachable when they’re sleeping.  Good dogs, I whisper, careful not to wake them up and set them to barking at threats real and imagined - mostly imagined.  No one is complaining, no one is coming and demanding change or a different opinion, no one is speaking of their fears and their doubts, so all must be well.  Right?  

Wrong.  A couple of months into the new Sunday morning schedule and I’m feeling good, like we made this change and everyone is on board, then it happens.  Feelings are hurt, charges of neglect and favoritism, folks unsettled by the change can’t keep it in any longer and it comes to a boil.  It was a mess. And I didn’t see it coming.  In the fourth week of a new teaching series on Christianity and Islam, trying to get us all to understand these neighbors who have come to live among us, to appreciate their faith, to be aware of the many similarities and not just the differences.  And I think we’re getting it, we’re on board, learning to live in a new world, live as neighbors, the kind Jesus called us to be when he told us to love even those unlike us, to love them like he loved them, like he loved us.  And I think we’ve got it, we’re on board, we’re ready to follow Jesus into a new world.  Then I’m handed a printed email forward telling us to be suspicious of our Muslim neighbors, that they are a plague on our culture and that our President is secretly advancing their agenda and squeezing us out, be ware.  And then I got an email from someone not even attending the class, with a link to a 139 page document warning all us good Americans that there is a conspiracy to take over our nation and run it according to the most fundamentalist laws of Islamic faith, and our President is behind it.  Sigh.  Never mind that the “proof” was compiled by a “think tank” that everyone from the BBC to Slate Magazine considers a less than reputable source.  

Us verses Them.  It is one of the fundamental fears of any human community.  Who are the enemies, who should we fear?  What makes it difficult is that there are those out there who want to hurt us, simply because we are who we are.  We do have enemies.  We need to take care, to pay attention, to stay strong.  There are responsibilities of a nation to protect its people.  No one can deny that.  But we can also go crazy if we choose to live in fear.  If we choose to see anyone who is different as a threat.  La Donna reminds me that the crazy dogs had a hard life, we suspect they were abused and neglected for years before they came to live with us.  No wonder they bark at shadows, no wonder they growl at ghosts.  But what’s our excuse?

Luke 4:21-30  21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" 23 He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" 24 And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Everything was going so well.  Jesus makes his proclamation, preaches his nine word sermon and the applause rains down.  I know, that isn’t the way you remember the story.  Wasn’t he rejected, didn’t they say he was just a hometown boy getting too big for his britches?  Well, not exactly.  Not at first.  Look again.  “All spoke well of him.”  They thought, wow!  A hometown boy made good.  He’s one of us!  He’s ours.  Aren’t we special?  Aren’t we cool?  That little phrase at the end of verse 22 wasn’t disparaging, it was pride.  He’s like us.

If Jesus has stopped there, it would have been a glorious homecoming.  They would have slapped him on the back and invited him to dinner and talked about the good old days when he was a boy and things were so much better back in the Nazareth that used to be once upon a time.  Jesus would have been a minor celebrity and they’s all wave to him in the Walgreen’s parking lot, and want to sit by him in the bleachers of the high school basketball games.  He could have done well back there in the little town.  

But he didn’t stop talking.  He had a bigger vision than one small town in the hill country of Galilee.  So he says, I know you want me to settle down here, because here is where all the people that matter are.  I know you don’t understand why anyone would want to leave Nazareth and go on to other towns and other countries.  But you don’t need me here.  You won’t hear me here.

Wait, he said that?  “No prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown.”  Different translations have us remember those words in different ways.  But what does it mean?  Why did he say it?  Because he knew what was underneath their approval.  And he knew they didn’t want to hear what he came to say.  He came to say they were important - that much they heard.  God is going to get the kingdom going right here, in Nazareth.  That’ll show the folks down the road, in the next county, in the next country.  God’s kicking things off right here!  Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.  Yee haw.  He came to say that they were important.  But that they weren’t the only important ones in the world.  He came to say that God thinks even the stranger, even the foreigner, even the enemy is important.  Important enough to save.  Important enough to love.

This has been God’s plan from the beginning, Jesus says.  You remember Elijah?  You remember that story of the widow?  God thought she was important, saved her, blessed her, loved her.  She wasn’t one of us.  You remember Elisha?  You remember that guy, that foreign general guy, with the skin problem?  That guy was an enemy, a conqueror of people like you.  God healed him.  God blessed him.  God loved him.  Get this, he was Syrian.

Syrian?  Wait a minute here Jesus.  A refugee from Syria?  He might be wanting to hurt us.  He might be hating us.  He might tell us he’s running for his life, but maybe it is just a plot.  To catch us with our guard down.  Maybe he isn’t really sick.  Maybe they aren’t really refugees.  Maybe they haven’t lived their whole lives in fear of their lives, surrounded by war and killing and living in an unjust system that doesn’t value them as human beings but rather sees them as pawns in a terrible game of power.  Maybe we should protect ourselves first, think of ourselves first.

How dare you Jesus tell us to love even those who are different from us.  Heck, we struggle to love the others in our pew, don’t go asking us to love across the boundaries that are there to keep us safe.  No wonder they got angry.  No wonder they turned into a mob.  You can’t blame them really.  Jesus was inconveniencing them something awful.  Asking them to make accommodations, to change ingrained habits, to think differently about who and what a neighbor really is.  That’s crazy talk.  So, they barked and barked and barked, drove him out of town, wanted to toss him off a cliff.  But he just left.  He had places to go, a Word to proclaim, a world to save.  He went on His way.

Perhaps the saddest verse in the whole bible.  Evidence that God doesn’t force us to change, to grow, to love like He loves.  Doesn’t demand that we become something more, something riskier, something with the potential to change the world for the better.  To be more like it was supposed to be in the beginning.  When God created the heavens and the earth and said it was good!  It was good.  We don’t have to be a part of the making good.  But Jesus isn’t hanging around.  He says follow me.  And goes on His way.


Saturday, January 23, 2016

In Your Hearing

The international terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport was nothing to write home about.  At least back then, twenty years ago.  More like a barn or a bus station than the fancy airport with the amenities we have come to expect these days.  A way station, an in between space really, despite the word used to describe it - terminal.  A place not of ending, but of changing.  From this to that.  From what was to what will be.  From a life that was to a life of something different and as yet unknown.  Not a terminal so much as a bridge.  And we walked that bridge that day, three of us crossed one way and four came back the other.  And life was ... different from that moment on.

I was reminded of that this week.  Because I stood in another airport to surrender the same bundle that came to us in Detroit twenty years ago.  Surrender temporarily to be sure, but still ... We stood in a terminal, hoping it wasn’t.  Trusting it wasn’t.  Just another curve, another bend in the road that we had been traveling for twenty years together.  Another adventure in an adventurous life together.

Maddie had been excited and nervous for a days, sometimes more one than the other.  But the trip to the Columbus airport in Ohio was a quiet one.  Mostly because she was sleeping, but also because we had said all we knew to say and couldn’t find words to calm the fears and ease the concerns any further than we had done.  When we arrived and were in the parking garage, even before the terminal itself, Maddie found one of her friends who was also making the trip and she began to unfold, like a bud that had found some sun at last.  By the time we got through the baggage check and were waiting for the trek to the security station, she was all smiles and ready to head off on her adventure - four months in Germany with students from her school in Ohio.  Witt in Wittenberg it’s called.  Wittenberg University goes back to Wittenberg Germany to stand in the footprints of Martin Luther.

She’s having a great time.  Modern technology keeps us in touch these days.  And yet, there was that feeling as she walked away from us to go behind barriers and through metal detectors, past guards with badges and guns, is this what I signed up for?  This surrender, this helplessness?  If I had known what all was involved in this parenting thing, in this family sharing of life and love and hopes and fears of all the years, if I had known would I have still said yes?

Luke.4:14-21  Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.  16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Everyone says that this scripture is about Jesus.  That this is the declaration of the kind of ministry he was going to pursue.  The time in the wilderness, there at the beginning of Chapter four, was about deciding, wrestling, if you will, with the possibilities in front of him.  Give the people what they want, that was within his power.  Turn this stone into bread, feed them, get to them through their bellies, through their hungers.  Feed them and they’ll follow you anywhere.  No, he says, there is more to it than that.  I want to feed the hungers they forgot they had.  OK, then, show them strength.  Flex your muscles, play the power card, the authority card.  People are drawn to power, like bees and honey.  Be strong and they’ll fall at your feet.  No, he says, power is not of this world.  Power belongs to God, we live in humility, we live vulnerable because that’s what living is, risking, letting go, surrendering.  Hmm.  Ok then, go for the sensation, it was whispered in his ear, the miracles, death-defying acts of derring-do.  Folks go for that, give them a show, you’ll have to fight them off with a stick.  No, he says, shaking off these thoughts as he was shaking off his raging hunger there in the wilderness.  No, you can’t live by miracles, you can’t sustain a faith based on miracles.  No, that won’t work.

What’s left?  How will he run this traveling salvation show?  I know what I’ll do, he thought.  And he came back from the mountains, got a drink of water and slim jim and wandered into the synagogues and town centers.  Word spread, Luke says, and the early reports were positive.  Everyone spoke well of him.  He taught something different, something new but old at the same time.  He taught ancient truths in a new language, as one with authority.  He spoke plainly, but told the stories, he offered a simple truth, but drew it in pictures that seemed familiar to everyone. 

But what was that truth?  What did he teach?  It wasn’t until he strolled home that Luke tells us the essence of his message.  He ambles into the synagogue where he sat as a boy in Sabbath school, reciting lines and repeating answers to old questions, and maybe asking an impertinent question now and again.  They had gotten the news, his reputation preceded him.  So he was invited to teach.  Called to the front, he was handed the scroll, Isaiah, the biggest one, heaviest one.  Was told to read.  Luke says he looked for the bit he wanted.  This wasn’t an accident, just happened to come in when the lectionary had the right text.  No, he searched for it.  He found the place, after an uncomfortable silence filled the room, and he began to read.  The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.  Well, of course it was.  Luke told us that in verse fourteen!  He was throwing off Spirit sparks wherever he walked.  It surrounded him like a cloud, preceded him like headlights on bright.  The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach.  

Yeah, well, that Isaiah, he was quite a guy.  He had quite a message, didn’t he.  Jesus read it through.  And they all sighed contentedly.  Yeah, those were the days, they thought.  When old Isaiah stood there declaring the Word of the Lord.  People took notice, you better believe it.  God was closer then.  When people like Isaiah were around.  Proclaiming.  Setting free.  Opening eyes.  Saying God is close, real close, pay attention and see.  Those were the days.

Jesus let the scroll roll up in his hand like a window blind and then handed it to the dazed attendant, and then he sat down.  Not because he was done.  That’s what it sounds like to us.  But no, rabbis taught sitting down.  You stand to read, out of respect for the Word.  But then you sit to explain and expound and apply.  You sat down and we had the word for lunch, we chewed it over and approached it from every perspective we could think of.  The historical, what did he mean and what was going on at the time?  The literary, what devices was he using to help them hear and see?  Is this poetry or prose?  The contextual, who were the listeners at the time, how did they hear these words.  The theological, how does this tell us more about God according to thinkers over the years?  They expected a lecture on the text when Jesus sat down.  

Instead they got a nine word sermon.  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  That’s it.  Can’t imagine they were thrilled by that.  Of course this passage is about Jesus.  He declared his ministry priorities, his core values.  He trotted out his mission statement, laid it out for all to see and hear.  In your hearing, he said.  Which means that, yes, this is about Jesus, but it is also about you.  It’s about me.  We have signed up for something bigger than we knew.  When we decided to be within hearing distance of Jesus we have entered into a whole new world.  A whole new understanding of our own lives and the mission to which we have signed on.  It’s about us as much as it is about Him.  Because we claim to hear, we claim to follow.  We may be afraid of the call, afraid we aren’t up to it, afraid it is more than we knew.  But it is about us.  It is about loving as he loved, loving enough to make a difference in the world.  Not just in us, but in the world.  

In your hearing, he says, meaning that we are now a part of it.  A part of the kingdom breaking in, breaking down the walls that divide us, lifting up the broken among us, even when it breaks our hearts.  This is taking place in our hearing.  And becomes our speaking.  And our living.  And our hoping.  And our loving.

I would like to believe I would have still said yes, even if I knew how difficult parenting is sometimes.  How tenuous our hold on them really is.  I still would have said yes, even if I knew it would tax me beyond my capabilities sometimes.  Because the love is worth it.   Maddie is half a world away, Rhys is finishing up his college career and will graduate in a few months, going on to who knows what.  But I still would have said yes.  You heard it from me.


Saturday, January 16, 2016

Why Are You Afraid?

Well, that was interesting.  Not how I planned to spend most of my Saturday.  Last night when I went to bed, there was a tightness in my throat.  I thought, “Uh oh, I can’t be getting sick.  It’s Saturday, for heaven’s sake!”  But, sure enough, I woke up with chills and achy all over, the tightness had become a full fledged sore throat, I was dizzy when I got up, and just felt lousy.  Great, I thought, I’ve got too much to do, it is still Saturday!  

I realize that you have to be a pastor/preacher to understand the level of panic in that statement.  It’s Saturday!  I can’t be sick!!  Could be worse, I suppose, it could have been Sunday morning.  Except that if it was Sunday, I would have forced myself to get up and go.  Since it was Saturday, I could panic.  So I did.  Well, long enough to stagger back to bed, where I slept all morning long.  Finally staggering out around 1:30 or so.  Feeling a lot better.

OK, as storms go, it was a minor one.  A sudden squall that caused a little course correction and a reorienting of my plans for the day.  But nothing like as devastating as many face on an all too regular basis.  We are in the midst of a storm.  Or storms, personal and individual storms, corporate and national storms, storms of all sorts.  It is sometimes hard to see the sun shining through given the thickness of the cloud cover.  It is sometimes hard to see the hope in the midst of the despair.  And yet, hope is what we are needing, what we are longing for.  Hope that comes not from the end of the storm, but from the presence in the midst of it.

Mark 4:35-41  On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side."  36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.  37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.  38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"  39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.  40 He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"  41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" 

If you back up a couple of verses you see a context that just might change our experience of this story.  Jesus had been teaching, and leaving many a furrowed brow behind him, as he seems keen to do.  And then verses 33 and 34 say that he was always teaching in parables.  Even when they didn’t understand.  And he only explained things to his disciples in private.  And you think well, that isn’t fair.  The disciples get an explanation, the people get confusion.  Until you get to this story and you realize that understanding makes demands on us.  But more on that next week!  For now we are caught up in our storms.  And begin see what is required of us as followers.

First of all, Jesus says, rather simply it seems, “Let’s go across to the other side.”  And off they go.  But we need to pause for a moment and consider what is on the other side, and it is the other side of.  On the basic level it is the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  Not a large body of water in world terms, but significant enough to give pause to the fishermen and boaters of that day.  Most fishing was done close to the shore.  It is possible, indeed likely, that the four fishermen had made a substantial career on that lake and had never gone across it.  That crossing represented a foray into the unknown.  Scripture is full of images of the sea as the representative of chaos, or that where God is not.  When Jonah was running away from God he went to sea.  In some ancient coastal cultures, whenever fishermen were heading out to deeper waters there was a ritual performed before they left that was essentially a funeral - a chance to say goodbye for what would very possibly be the last time.  And when, or if, they returned there was a celebration that had little to do with the catch, it was more like resurrection.  So, when Jesus said follow me a couple of chapters ago, what he really meant was put your life at risk.

And he didn’t say, sail out a way to get away from everyone.  He said go across to the other side.  He had a destination in mind.  But on the other side was “them.”  Jesus was heading to non-Jews.  He was leaving the land of people like him and venturing off among strangers.  Go to the other side is almost a threatening kind of statement to them and to us.  We don’t like going to the other side - whether it is the other side of town or the other side of the tracks, or - for politicians - the other side of the aisle.  The other side is where foreigners dwell, the ones we don’t know and don’t like if we were to admit it.  The other side is where the habits are strange and the behaviors are worse.  The other side is where the folks we stare at, and shake our heads and tsk under our breath.  Let’s go across to the other side.  And off they go.

OK?  One verse down!  Then it says they gathered up and took off.  But that Jesus went “just as he was.”  What does that mean?  To be honest, I don’t know.  But Mark who is so sparing with words wouldn’t include something just as a throwaway.  So, there is something here, some clue, some foreshadowing.  Jesus is always showing us how to live, how to be.  That was his main purpose in spending time among us.  He got frustrated when we focused all our attention on the spectacular, the miracles and the healings.  He wanted us to see something else, something deeper, more significant.  And perhaps his statements at the end of the passage - to jump ahead for a moment - came about for the same reason.  He was upset that those closest to him were missing something vital, some clue about life.  And maybe that clue is revealed in the statement that Jesus went “just as he was.”  

Maybe the invitation is to live within ourselves.  To be centered in who and what we are and to be satisfied with that.  Maybe our security in the end comes not from something or someone or some condition outside, but maybe it comes from within.  Maybe his rebuke to them was not that they were afraid to die, but that their fear was translated as “Don’t you care that we are about to die?”  It was their misunderstanding about the gift of faith that bothered him.  Don’t you care?  Because if you cared you would do what we want when we want it.  

Here’s my point - since the end of the page is looming and Maddie says I write too much anyway - storms follow us wherever.  The promise of the Christian life is not for constant sunny skies and clear forecasts.  Storms will come, you can count on it.  The question is what will you do in the midst of the storm.  When you live your life, fulfill your obligations, make something of yourself, even when you set out to retreat and be built up for the tasks ahead, storms will come.  Faith is not a ticket out of the storm.  Sometimes it feels as though we live from one storm to the next.  But the question remains, what will you do in the midst of the storm?  Or maybe better, who will you be in the midst of the storm?

Commentators will tell you that Mark’s proclamation here is a reminder that Jesus is stronger than the storms.  And if Paul is right, that it is “no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me” then there is no storm that can make me less than I am in Christ.  Which means that in spite of the fear and the sometimes panicked activity in the midst of the storm, I can find a place of calm.  I can be, like Christ, just as I am.  Even in the storm.

So, our prayer is not that there will be a miracle and the storms will suddenly cease.  Or actually, we do pray for that, and nothing wrong with that.  But whether the storm passes or not does not determine the strength of our faith.  Does not need to govern our fear.  Fear not, for I am with you.  Even in the storm.


Saturday, January 9, 2016

All We Ask Or Imagine

I have a dream.  Even the words stir a response down deep in the psyche of our nation.  I know I’m a little early, but it fits, so stay with me.  I have a dream.  In a little over a week we will celebrate the memory of one who served as the conscience of the nation, who still serves as that call to self-examination and corporate confession.  I have a dream.  Martin Luther King Jr’s dream was about racial reconciliation, a world that judged not by the color of the skin but the content of the character.  It was not just about rights, but about a fullness, a wholeness, about a Kingdom of God ordered world.  Our former Bishop, Woodie White, writes an open letter to Martin every year around this time.  To report how the dream is doing, or how we are doing with the dream.  Over the years that I’ve been reading those letters he has written about joys and heartaches, about successes and failures, about strides forward and retreats backward.  The issue is as volatile as the stock market in these early days of 2016.  Thrilling highs and devastating lows, and a growing unease as to whether this is an issue we can ever resolve as fallible, but earnest human beings, as sinners in need of redeeming.  

How fares the dream?  What dream?  Well, any dream, the dreams of a nation trying to learn to live as a community, the dreams of various peoples seeking inclusion, the dreams of families seeking solvency and security, the dreams of individuals - your dreams and mine - seeking solace and companionship, seeking meaning and purpose, seeking a love that defines and makes whole, that satisfies the deepest longings of our hearts.  How fares the dream?  The dream of the people of God to help individuals and peoples and nations shape those dreams to both ground them in reality and encourage them to reach higher, all the way to God’s heaven.  How fares the dream and the dreaming? 

Sometimes it feels like we’ve given up.  That we’re stepping back.  We’re out of the dreaming business and into the just getting by business.  Seen the new commercial about settlers?  For satellite tv I think.  “We’re settlers, son, we settle for things!”  We’ve stopped being dreamers and have become settlers.  We’ve settled for what is.  Oh, we complain, we shake our heads, we moan and even lament - good biblical precedent for that.  But then we shrug our shoulders and say that’s just the way it is these days. 

We try not to dream too much, because it hurts when it doesn’t happen as soon as we think it should.  We hesitate to climb aboard the dreams of others preferring to wait and see how it works for them first, or even to run away because that dream isn’t fitting into our dreams, it’s too disturbing for the scaled down, safety first dream we’ve settled for. We caution our children, telling them not to dream but to find a job, to go to school not to explore possibilities and expand horizon and fall in love with learning so deeply that it will sustain them for the rest of their lives, but to find what works, what is marketable, what will pay the bills and ground them somewhere.  Dreams are too flighty, better to stay low.  Don’t fly too high and lose your wings in the heat of the sun, better to keep your feet on the ground and walk.  How fares the dream?

What is the antidote to the fears that keep us from dreaming?  That’s what we’re about this Epiphany season.  Facing our fears.  I’m not afraid, you say.  Really?  Good for you.  You’re one of the few. Most of us are afraid of something - of getting older, of not having enough, or being ignored, or hurt, or ... well, too many to write here.  There are fears aplenty.  Named and unnamed.  Acknowledged and just felt.  What’s the antidote?  Fear not!

It’s a proclamation.  Fear not.  It’s an announcement.  A replacement for your fears.  Fear not.  Spoken by an angel about to turn the world upside down.  Fear not, everything you thought was true turns out to be wrong.  Fear not, the values you’ve learned to live by are killing you, killing the whole world.  Fear not, the self you thought was the pinnacle of all that could be is lonely and empty and needy.  Fear not, the solutions you have found for your unease in living in this world, are not going to help.  Fear not.  Because there is hope.  There is salvation.  There is a way to live that is centered, and content, and connected, and helpful, and full of joy.  You haven’t even begun to dream of what could be.  But you can.  You could.  Fear not.

Ephesians 3:14-21 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

A prayer for the church.  That’s what we are calling this year of worship at Aldersgate UMC here in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  These verses will become a touchstone for all that we do throughout the year.  A prayer for the church.  Or an invitation to dream.  To dream what we could be.  And to know that whatever we dream, it falls short of what God has in store for us.  “Able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”  Far more.  Than we can imagine.  How fares the dream?

This is a prayer that Paul prays for us.  For the whole church.  OK, some argue that it isn’t Paul.  That it was written after his death by a follower of his who kept his notes and adopted his vocabulary and his syntax, and his irritating speaking/writing habits.  Who knows?  I like to think it is Paul, who has seen it all.  Seen us at our best and at our worst.  Who loves us even when we aren’t lovable.  And now he prays for us.  Because he figured something out. 

“For this reason” is an intriguing way to begin a new thought.  For this reason.  What reason?  This one!  Back up a bit and you find the reason.  And that reason is that this grace thing spilled out across the borders we humans had drawn.  It was like he was attending an Oprah taping: “You get grace, and You get grace, and You get grace! Everyone gets grace!!”  And Paul claps his hands until they turn red and pauses to pray and sing.  He catches the theme of grace for all and wraps it up in his prayer to completely.  It’s a y’all prayer, not a you prayer.  An all y’all prayer to be precise.  This strength in the inner spirit is not an each, it’s an all.  This indwelling Christ is in all, in the body of believers, not the exclusive property of each or any.  Why tear down the barriers only to individualize it all again?  The “you” filled with all the fullness of God is all of us.

We know this is true, despite our desire to make it individualized.  We want our own spirit to be filled, we want our own strength, Christ in our own hearts.  We want to comprehend on our own even that which is unknowable.  And there is nothing wrong with that individual striving to receive and know and be known.  But we know that our comprehension increases when we share it together.  Our strength increases when we pool it together. Our awareness of the observation of the indwelling Christ is clarified when we look together, even into our own souls.  I am not always the best judge of what is living in my own heart.  Sometimes I need you to help identify what is going on inside of me.  Sometimes I need your wisdom to help me face my fears.

Yeah, we came back there.  This prayer, this prayer and doxology combo, is about facing our fears.  About dreaming dreams that we can’t make happen. Dreams so big that only God can realize them.  About not being limited by our limitations, our lack of vision, our fear of the future, our hesitancy.  Because we know, not just assume or hope, but because we know that God is able to do far more than all we can ask or imagine.  And to do it - here’s the kicker -  to do it through us.  Through the power at work in us.  And what we do in response to this power, this coming to be, this dream becoming a new reality, is give God glory.  To him, no, to Him, to God be glory in the church.  In the church.  The body.  The community.  All y’all.  We’re about glory.  Not our glory, but God’s glory.  It is our reason for being.  To worship.  It is why we were created.  We are most ourselves when we worship.  No, wait, we are most ourselves when we REALLY worship.  Worship in spirit and truth.  Worship with our whole selves, our whole heart, body and soul.  When we worship as though there was nothing else we could be doing in that moment, nothing else we want to do in that moment, nothing else that draws us but worship.  I have a dream.  A worship dream.  A fearless dream. A dream of us giving God glory in a way that ripples out and changes the world.  Because it also ripples in and changes us.  Into an all y’all, strong and fearless, and comprehending the unknowable love of God.  Being filled up so much it spills out across the lines we have drawn, and you get grace and you get grace and you get grace.  WE get grace.  Thanks be to God.


Saturday, January 2, 2016

In the Book of the Words

Resolutions.  We hear the call to make resolutions at this time of the year.  Even when we don’t make them, there is still a part of us that wants to.  Or at least wants to make sure that this time – this year, this attempt, this time of transition, this threshold upon which we stand – we do it better.  Or we come out better.  Or we take better care - of ourselves, our family, our jobs, our community, our world.  That we just do better.  

What a great plan, or an ideal, a goal to set at this goal setting time.  Just do better.  As a person, as a parent or child, as a neighbor, citizen, co-worker, partner, follower of Christ.  Yeah, you knew I was getting there, didn’t you?  Add it to the list, that faith thing.  Another item to work into our already over-busy schedule, another fitness program to bring to the table alongside the physical one, and the clutter one and the calendar one.  The faith one.  Faith fitness.  Loose a little sin from the mid-section, pump up those prayer muscles, tone the spiritual physique.  You’ll look better and you’ll feel better and you’ll be better.  Jesus will love you more.

Sorry.  Went overboard there, didn’t I?  We know that’s as ludicrous as it sounds.  “Jesus will love us more.”  Come on.  Except, there is a little voice in the back of our heads that thinks that.  Thinks that we aren’t loveable as we are.  Thinks that if we just work a little harder, practice a bit more, say the right words at the right time, then ... well ... Jesus will love us more.  Or, we’ll be more lovable.  More worthy of love.  Something.

More worthy.  What can we say that will make us more worthy?  What can we do?  

Luke 3:1-6 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

OK, John’s list of what we can do comes later.  Bear fruit, he says, worthy of repentance. (Lk 3:8) Wait, that’s not to be more worthy, that’s because you are worthy.  That’s acting out of worthiness.  We are worthy, John says, act like it!  Worthy of what?  Repentance.  Oh.  So ... we act like we need a savior?  No, we act like we know we need a savior.  We act like we know we have a savior.  Act like a savior has come and claimed us already.  Act like we have made room in our lives, that we have cleaned up, that we have lit the lights and unlocked the door, we have aired out the guest room, that we have gone out of our way to welcome the one we need, the one we know, the one we love.  We make room for what matters, for who matters.  We find time, we ... well, we make the paths straight and fill in the valleys and knock down the mountains that have gotten in the way.  Those mountains get in the way, don’t they?

But then, that’s a lot of trouble, isn’t it?  We don’t really have to go that far, do we?  We don’t really have to engage in major road construction now that it’s no longer Advent, do we?  This is Epiphany, just light the light.  Just bow the knee, just make the declaration.  “The Light has come.”  Good enough, right?

What if it wasn’t just a declaration?  What if it is was a list?  A to do list.  A resolution to believe, in the more holistic sense.  Believe as in stake your life on, believe as in live your life by, not just believe as in a good idea that makes some kind of sense.  What if the declaration had a follow on clause?  “The Light has come, therefore ...”  And what might that therefore look like?  Road construction?  Yeah, like that.  But maybe more than resurfacing, maybe more than filling in holes and grinding down some bumps.  Maybe this construction was down to the bedrock, down to the foundation.  This declaration is a starting over, even if we have started over before.  Even if we have done it time and time again.  We need to ... No, wait ... we are blessed to do it again, to declare it again, to claim it again, to put our feet on the beginning of the path and walk this journey again.  

Here’s a list.  Or a declaration.  Called a Covenant Prayer.  Words that speak volumes.  Words that are almost actions, simply be saying them you begin to do them.  Words are important.  Words made flesh in our skin and bones, muscle and blood are importanter.  When we speak these words we claim these words.  And in claiming them we begin to live them.  This is an action statement that begins with a being statement.  An “I will” because of an “I am.”  And the doing, if you look closely, is less about us and more about God.  God is the doer in this list, this declaration.  It is plea to let God be active in a life, in my life, in your life, in our lives together.  The doing that is ours is the declaring, the covenant making.  That is the action in this list, this statement.  

I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen. 

Luke says that John was doing what was written in the book of the words of Isaiah.  John was doing the words of a prophet hundreds of years before him.  He was acting on someone else’s words.  But a few verses earlier we see it isn’t Isaiah’s words that motivate John at all.  I don’t know if John knew of the book of the words or not.  Maybe he did, maybe he grew up in synagogue school like all the other boys his age, his cousin Jesus for example, who seems to know the words of the books like he had written them himself.  But, I can’t see John sitting still in recitation class long enough to let the book of the words sink into him.  

But Luke says it isn’t Isaiah’s words that motivates John to come out of the wilderness, with his questionable sartorial sense and unusual dietary habits.  No the Word of God came to John in wilderness.  To John.  Luke seems almost amazed, or thinks we should be amazed.  We have ruler after ruler, power and authority all over the place.  But the Word of God doesn’t come to them.  Doesn’t come to places of power, to places of action and might and force, to corruption and narcissism, greed and oppression.  No, the Word didn’t come down there, in the bright lights and big city.  It came to John, in the wilderness, no less.  And he got on the road, the under construction road, he took his shovel and his dynamite and set about filling in valleys and removing mountains.  

No, he didn’t don a hard hat and join a road crew.  He let the Word become his words and he spoke.  He invited, encouraged, cajoled, shouted, begged and pleased, pointed and accused, cried and challenged, he let the Word leak out of him in every way possible and spill out on those who gathered in front of him.  The words cascaded down over them, just as assuredly as the hands full of water that he poured out on their heads.  They were bathed in the words, cleansed in the words, so that they might be able to claim the Word.  Because in an alchemy unexplainable, his words and that water and their repentance and willingness made the Word come alive again in them.  And the words and the Word together became their flesh and their bones, became their choices and their actions, their priorities and their attitudes.  They lived out that Word.  They became a book of the words, no, a book of the Word.

That’s a resolution worth making again.  Let the words I say, the words I live by, the words that define me become  the Word alive in me.  Let me be an instrument of the orchestra of God’s oratorio.  Let me be a vessel filled with the Presence of the living God, full of grace and truth.  Let the words that I declare in this Covenant worship become the Word alive in my flesh and my bones.  I am no longer my own, but thine.  I so resolve.  

And you?