Saturday, June 18, 2016

Riding the Pig

It’s hard to find something coherent and witty to begin this process this week.  Hard to focus on one thing, getting this bible study reflection done so that I can then turn to putting the pieces of a sermon together.  There are too many distractions, too many happenings, too many responsibilities begging for attention.  Calling for notice.  The crazy dogs really want to take a nap, but the nice weather means the windows are open so they hear voices - real and imagined - and they have to comment on all of them.  Loudly and repeatedly, they give their opinion of walkers and bikers and - worst of all - walkers of other dogs.  

They are such good participants in a commentary culture.  The problem is I don’t know what they’re saying.  Which is typical, come to think of it.  An event that ought to bring a common spirit of sorrow and mourning, instead flares up in our differences, plays on our fears.  All those deaths in Orlando, we need someone to blame so that we can  rest easy in our prejudices.  Radical Islam, assault weapons, aberrant lifestyles, homophobia, the Republican recalcitrance, the Democrat weakness, the wrath of God, the consequence of a platform of hate and fear ... We are legion, say the demons that reside on our souls.  

That escalated quickly.  As things are wont to do these days.  Escalate I mean.  It gets to the point where one is hesitant to make a comment, give an opinion, for fear that it will get you labeled and attacked by the other side, because there is always another side.  Many sides, many nuances of opinion, of belief, of conviction or even of fear.  We are pulled in so many directions and running and hiding seems the only reasonable choice.  Not even realizing that we choose a place of death, instead of way of living, we hide among the tombs of what was, of our dreams and hopes perhaps, or our nostalgia, or our prejudices and hatreds.  

Wait a minute.  That’s not me.  That’s not us.  You’ve been reading Luke too much.  Listening to those stories and thinking that they are about you.  When you keep telling us they aren’t, they are about Him.  Luke set out not to write our story, but to write His. When we try to make it about us then we twist the meaning, or apply it too directly, too specifically.  These are supposed to be stories of reassurance, reminding us that the One we follow is able.  Able to overcome any storm.  Able to heal any infirmity.  Able to transform any failing into wholeness.  This is all about Him.

Yes.  True.  It is.  It’s about Him.  About Him and us.  Sorry if that sounds like changing the rules.  But it’s not my fault.  Blame it on the demons.

Luke 8:26-39  Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me"-- 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" He said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Why is it that sometimes Jesus asks obvious questions (like to blind Bartimaeus “What do you want me to do for you? Mark 10) And sometimes he just acts?  “What have you to do with me, Jesus?”  This question was asked after Jesus started to work.  That’s kind of curious, don’t you think?  The demons knew who he was, what he could do, and indeed he had already spoken, told them to come out.  But they played dumb, it sounds like.  “What have you to do with us?”  Are you talking to me?  They recognize Him, but they don’t really want to obey Him.  They want to argue with him.  Negotiate.  You don’t really want me to go, do you?  You aren’t really driving me out.  This guy likes me.  We get along well, sure he’s naked and living in a cemetery, but it’s a life, you know?  It makes some odd kind of sense.

No, it doesn’t.  Maybe to a demon it makes sense.  Living with brokenness, living with hatred, living in fear, doesn’t make any sense.  Not to Jesus.  He didn’t ask any questions at first, just was trying to get rid of the problem.  Until the negotiation started.  It’s almost like Jesus was prepared to take care of it until the guy chimed in.  Jesus knows what we need, but is always willing to let us self determine, even if our choices make things worse.  Jesus was going to send them out, they chose to ride the pigs.  

I know, I don’t want to go too far with this metaphor.  Demons can be a slippery subject for any of us.  But it is somewhat ironic that the legion asks for a ride on the pigs instead of being sent to the abyss.  Except as soon as they get on the pigs, they end up in the abyss.  The very thing they wanted to avoid becomes their fate.  Their self-determined fate.  And Jesus lets them.  Because they asked.  Just like Jesus left because the villagers asked.  He doesn’t put up a fuss, He doesn’t argue that he could do even more good given the chance, he just goes. 

How many times with anger or even with kindness have we said, no thanks Jesus, I’ve got this.  I’ll handle my own stuff.  I’ll ride my own pigs, wherever they may take me.  It was fear that caused them to send Him away.  Luke says coming and finding the one they knew to be crazy now clothed and in his right mind scared them.  It was a change that unsettled them.  If the crazy ones start sounding sane then by what do I measure my own sanity?  They’d grown used to him being there on the edge of town, shouting in the darkness.  He was useful for keeping the children in line.  Behave, or we’ll give you to the guy in the cemetery!  Now he was just like you and me.  The enemy, the other, they are us.  That’s kind of scary.  So, they got to together and stirred up their fears and all went to Jesus and asked him to leave.  So they could build a wall.  So they could stop immigration.  So they could be safe, be great again. 

What do you have to do with me, Jesus?  That’s our question too.  What changes will you effect in our lives?  What growth will you seek?  What effort will you require?  Require?  No, the effort we expend isn’t the result of a demand.  Jesus doesn’t come and say get to work or else.  No, He just loves us into wanting to work.  What have you to do with me becomes a man who begged to be with Him.  Did you catch that?  That fear that pushes away becomes a love that desires to move closer.  He wanted to be with Him, now clothed and in his right mind all he could think to do was to stay with Jesus.

He didn’t stay with Him.  At least not in the way he probably imagined when he made his request.  Instead, like us, he stayed with Jesus by telling his story to everyone he met.  He chose, having been rescued from a life of despair, to live a life of hope and of joy, sharing the love of Jesus with all that he encountered.   

Much better than riding a pig


Saturday, June 11, 2016

Staying Put

I’m just back from Annual Conference, which explains the tardiness of this epistle.  At least I hope it does.  Actually, my first thought was to send a note saying I’m not going to write anything this week and just go to bed.  Three days of denominational debate and institutional shenanigans are enough to weary the strongest of us.  Yet, to be fair there were moments of glory too.  Yes, indeed, I admitted that.  Some of them were small and interpersonal, friends and colleagues, some of them were grand and wonderful, worship and ministry celebrated.  The theme of the conference, because you can’t have a conference that’s just Conference, you gotta have a theme, was “Be Hope: Embraced, Lived, Realized.”  

Be Hope.  There were profound moments of hope shared.  Patterned after the TED talks, we had Hope Talks scattered throughout the order of the day.  Some of them were inspiring, some of them were idea generating, all worth the time.  I’m thinking of adapting the idea for Aldersgate.  Inviting members to share in different ways signs of the hope that sustains them, the faith that transforms them.  Not sure how to do that just yet.  So if you have an idea or just want to talk about it, let me know.  

Perhaps the most powerful moments were right at the end.  Our Bishop, Michael Coyner, retires this year, so this was his final ordination service.  That added a poignancy to the whole event.  The night before we had a rather long celebration of his life and ministry, ending with all those ordained by him coming forward at the end.  His influence was visible in that body.  Now added to it are those who were ordained Saturday morning at the conclusion of conference.  All of us who have been there with those on that stage, leaned in to that moment with memory and hope.  Then, just before the benediction, there comes the ritual of “The Giving and Receiving Appointments.”  This uniquely United Methodist moment is where we say yes again to serving in the Church, to claiming the appointment we’ve been given, and fulfilling the call in the place where we are sent.  Some of those are receiving a first appointment, or a new appointment. Many more, most in fact, are reclaiming the appointment they’ve been serving.  We’re staying put.  Trying to be hope where we have been.  

Part of the ritual is confessional, at least in intent.  “I now reverently accept my appointment with a glad mind and will, and pray that I shall be worthy of the call to the ministry...”  I’m aware that staying put is good news for some and not as good news for others who care about the church.  And I question my worthiness on a regular basis.  And yet it seems that the cabinet and the bishop, the church and I hope to believe the Christ who calls us all says that I still have ministry to perform in staying put.  We can still be hope for one another and for the community and world around us as we seek to make disciples, as we seek to feed hungry people.

But it seems we need something else to make all this happen.  Yes, the Spirit and Word, worship and discipleship and mission.  Yes, we need that constantly.  But there is something else we need in order to be the community of Christ that we are called to be.  In order the be the hope that we could be, that is within us to be, we need something else.  Something simple and yet profound.  Something easy and yet often more difficult than we can imagine.

Luke 7:36-8:3 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 
39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him-- that she is a sinner." 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." "Teacher," he replied, "Speak." 41 "A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?" 43 Simon answered, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt." And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly." 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." 48 Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven."
49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" 50 And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
8:1 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2 as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

“Do you see this woman?”  Jesus asks some really obvious questions sometimes.  Did you ever notice that?  It’s almost like he was rubbing Simon’s nose in it.  You see this woman?  Of course!  He hadn’t seen anything else since she walked in.  She was ruining his party, his clean home, his ethical standards and most of all, his opinion of this roaming teacher of parables and blessings, this miracle worker with a call to a different way of living.  If He really was something special, He would know what kind of woman this is.  He would know she is making Him dirty, she is fouling Him right here in my dining room!  

So, for his mental debate he gets a story.  Jesus knew what Simon was thinking, not because he could read his mind, but because he could read his face.  It was twisted with disgust, like he had tasted something so bitter it pursed more than just his lips.  Simon, here’s one.  Guests of honor at fancy dinner parties were supposed to pay for the privilege by telling stories, by making riddles and testing the intelligence of the crowd and especially the host.  Jubilee year, debts are cancelled, who’s happier?  A simple enough riddle.  I suppose, Simon drawls, feeling unchallenged by the game, the who had a greater debt canceled.  Lobbing it back into your court, Jesus.  Ready for the next one. C’mon, you can do better, Rabbi!

But Jesus changed the game.  This wasn’t a test of intellect, it was a test of obedience to a God of hospitality and inclusion.  You see this woman?  Well, no, to be honest, he didn’t.  Oh, he thought he did and probably nodded when Jesus gestures toward her.  But he didn’t really.  He didn’t see the woman.  He saw the intrusion.  He saw the sin.  He saw the embarrassment, the nuisance.  He wanted rid of her.  Jesus wanted to include her.  To welcome her.

She loved much, Jesus said.  Because she experienced forgiveness.  But Simon didn’t have a clue.  Didn’t know, didn’t offer, didn’t think much of forgiveness.  Oh, he asked for it, read the prayer of confession like everyone else in his pew, though he was pretty sure he didn’t need it.  But he didn’t believe in it.  He didn’t live it.  He didn’t love like he knew anything about forgiving or being forgiven.  

Our text includes three verses from the next chapter that don’t seem necessary.  Except that they are about loving because of forgiveness.  They are about being hope in tangible ways.  About letting forgiveness turn them into generous givers and supporters of the ministry.  I wonder if Luke wanted us to imagine the that unnamed woman in chapter seven became one of the women who being chapter eight with such hope and possibility.  She could have been a woman of means, there is that alabaster jar which Luke doesn’t quite identify like Matthew and Mark do, but it could have been expensive.  She might have been a woman of means, and a past, and a joy of knowing forgiveness and love and acceptance.  So, she stayed put there at the feet of Jesus.  Staying put only makes sense if we live in and with forgiveness.  Because that’s the only way we can be hope for the church and the world.  I’m staying put.  I hope you are too.


Saturday, June 4, 2016


Luke 7:11-17  11 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep." 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16 Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen among us!" and "God has looked favorably on his people!" 17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

An amazing story, a miracle story. Unexplainable by normal science, with the usual explanations.  It is just there.  To give us hope, perhaps?  Or to remind us that the certainties of this life aren’t as certain as we tend to think, maybe?  Luke would tell us that his job wasn’t to answer our questions about life, the universe, and everything, as much as we might wish it.  No, he would argue that his intention was simply to tell us about this person.  An orderly account, he says in the preface to his most remarkable book.  An account of what?  Of these things, he says mysteriously, the events that have been fulfilled among us (Lk 1:1).  The events, these things that have happened.  Luke investigated, like a detective, a researcher, to find out what happened. So that you may know the truth, he says.  The truth.  What is truth?  Sorry, that’s John’s question in the mouth of Pilate at the end of that story.  

Or maybe it’s our question.  What is truth?  What is the truth that I can claim from this story?  Am I called to hold out an impossible hope?  To rage against death, that great equalizer of us all?  Is this story to be normative for true Christian experience?  Is that the proclamation we receive from this text?  

Imagine a character not mentioned in this brief story.  Someone in the crowd, one of the many mourners coming out of the city with the widow and pall bearers.  Just another face in the crowd, who walked alone even in the midst of the many.  She felt the sadness of the gathering, it was in her bones, because she too had walked at the head of this procession not all that long ago.  It was her only son, following on the heels of her husband.  She too marched with a feeling of despair for the widow of Nain, because she knew only too well the grief that had struck, she knew how hard this journey was, how every breath was drawn in pain as though even the body refused to function, how every step was as though walking on glass, uncertain, unmoored, feet about to slip from underneath her.  Oh, yes, she knew.  She came along in solidarity to this new recruit to the ranks of the unloved and forgotten.  Maybe she thought that at last there will be someone to talk to, someone to share the burden of grief that still bore her down.

So, the disturbance from the front caught her by surprise.  And shock.  The words filtered back through the crowd passing by her as though she wasn’t there, she had to snatch at them to hear.  “Do not weep.”  Do not weep?  What else was there to do but weep?  Weeping has been her whole existence since the day she strode out of the gates of Nain to the burial caves that lined the main road.  Weeping defined her.  She was the one who weeps.  Do not weep?  Absurd.  Unreal.

The stranger moved toward the bier carrying the last hope of the widow.  He touched it.  No, wait, her eyes must deceive her.  He touched it?  No teacher, no country preacher no matter how wild, would come that close to death.  Close enough to touch.  It just didn’t happen.  He must be crazy.  We’ve stumbled across a crazy man.  He’s going to do something odd, something embarrassing.  He’s going to compound the grief of this moment.  Get him away!  The words almost came to her lips, but then died there in her head.  Because the wind carried the words her spoke to the dead man being carried, carried to be buried, to be sealed away and forgotten over time.  Like her own husband and her own son that no one remembers but her, no one mentions for fear of starting the flood of tears all over again.  Carried and buried and sealed away.  But the crazy man spoke to him.  “Rise.”  

Rise!  Rise?  She would have laughed if only she remembered how.  Rise.  No, rot.  Decay.  Fade away.  Those are the words to be spoken to the corpse lying on the open bier.  Not ... not rise.  Rise.  It’s what He said, the wild stranger with the eyes that saw what no one else could see.  Rise, it’s what He said.  And what it, no what he did.  He got up.  As though he had only been asleep.  As if he had nodded off after a hard day’s work and his mother wrapped him up and laid him to rest and they carted him off to bed.  To sleep.  Forever.

The rumble in the crowd around her was palpable.  She could feel it in her bones.  Fear and shock, making way for glory and wonder.  Songs of praise broke out from the makeshift choir that had been singing dirges and laments.  It is incredible, unbelievable, incomprehensible.  Unfair.  She feels alone again, our imaginary back of the crowd widow.  Where was this crazy holy man when her son died?  Why didn’t she get the miracle?  Why is she left to weep?  

Luke didn’t write the gospel so that we can base our lives on miracles.  He wrote it so that we can follow the one for whom life looks different.  Jesus doesn’t see life and death the same way that we do.  He sees bigger, He sees farther, He sees more deeply.  And part of what he sees is us.  That’s the message here.  That whether a miracle occurs and we receive the one we lost in an unexplainable way or not, He sees us.  Sees our grief, sees our pain, sees our limited vision and short-sighted hope.  He sees us and has compassion for us.  He sees us and cares about us.  And tells us not to weep.  Not because there is something wrong with weeping, but because we are apt to get lost in the weeping.  And not be able to see what He sees.  That life is bigger than we know.  What we think we’ve lost is not lost, just out of reach temporarily.  And He invites us to lean into His arms when the one we want to lean on isn’t there any more.  We are seen and we are loved.  From that fundamental truth we can embrace a world of uncertainty.

Then, here’s where it gets immeasurably harder, He goes to the one we’ve lost and says “Rise.”  And though we can’t see it, we can trust it.  We can live in that hope.  See, here’s the thing, we can get in the mode of praying for and being disappointed by the availability of a miracle; we can read every account of an unexplained resuscitation and start counting on that when death strikes too close to home for our liking, and more likely than not have to face the disheartening reality of the frailty of this existence.  Or we can believe every life is a miracle and every death is a continuation of that miracle.  That in life and in death we are in the Lord. 

Life is indeed fragile.  And fleeting.  And full of woe so that we are the ones on the bier being carried down the hill from the front gate of Nain.  Which means we are also the one over whom the Lord leans and whispers: Rise!  We follow the Lord of life even as we dwell in a land of death.  What else can we do but Rise?  When we make the choice to believe in hope, when we strive to bring justice to a broken world, when we choose not to rely on statistics but on the promise that all things are possible in Christ, then we hear the call to Rise.  When we embrace the stranger and try something new even though it feels odd even to us, when decide to be a people of joy when our culture tells us to mourn and to fear, we respond to the one who tells us to Rise.  When we gather in the house of the Lord to sing our praise and offer our hearts, when we give out of the sheer joy of pouring ourselves out, when we pray knowing that we are seen and loved, we are heard and embraced, then we begin to Rise.  Rise up and live.  Rise up and hope.  Rise.  Rise.