Saturday, March 31, 2018

Rolling the Stone

Good Friday afternoon I needed to go home.  To change, to relax a moment, to prepare my mind and my spirit for what was to come that evening.  I wouldn’t be there long.  Just a moment at home before returning to be ready to greet the community who would come for the remembrance, for the re-enactment, knowing that they would be looking to me to make sense of a senseless moment, to put words to something beyond  our experience and understanding.  Something so cruel as to be unimaginable, something so holy as to elicit the silence of awe.  I’ve been doing this a long time, yet no matter the deluge of words and actions I have used to speak on Good Friday, nothing seems adequate to explain, or even describe this day, this action, this choice made by the One who loves us beyond our comprehension.  So, I needed a moment.  Of home.  A place to breathe, a retreat, an escape.

So, I got in my car and I drove the familiar route home.  The traffic was unusually heavy for a Friday afternoon, but I made my way.  Until I noticed the side roads were all blocked, jam packed with cars also trying to get home.  I kept going north, having multiple routes I could take and still get home.  But every turn, and I needed to take one sometime, was blocked.  A slow moving train, crawling along the track that ran parallel to the road I was on, blocking my way home.  I kept going, hoping to get around the end of it, but it went on forever, circling the globe it seemed, a train to end all trains, cutting the earth in half and I was on the wrong side.  

As the seconds ticked on and my respite time grew shorter, I began to panic a bit, thinking I was going to have to go back without changing, without going home.  I then remembered a way through, under the track, so I drove on north and found the turn.  It was backed up for blocks, cars slowly funneling through the only route from one half of the planet to the other.  And I knew I couldn’t sit in this line forever.  I turned out of that lane and went on north, thinking there had to be an end.  But there wasn’t.  Every pathway, every route, blocked as if with a mountain of stone, impassable, stalemate.  No route through, no escape, no hope.  I turned around to go back to where I started, frustrated, interrupted, cut-off from that moment of light, that breath of life which I sought.  

Mark 16:1-8 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

It is hard to comprehend the mindset of those women who made their way to the tomb that morning.  They went to serve, they went because it was what you did when there was a death.  The rituals of death were certain, known, automatic, unthinking.  Which was good.  Because they weren’t capable of thinking.  Just moving. Going through the motions.  Moving like automatons.  Gathering the spices, the oils, the cloth, wrapping it all together, preparing for the early morning journey.  Then they slept.  Or didn’t sleep.  Stared at the walls, at the dark night, eyes burning with used up tears.  They waited.  Numb in the night.  They all rose together, without a word, driven by a common need to serve, to do something that made sense in a senseless time.  And they set out.  Huddled together, but alone in their own pain and silence.  They walked on legs they couldn’t feel, burdened by the weight they couldn’t have described if they had to.  Then out of the silence was a sudden intake of breath, “the stone” someone whispered.  They stopped their march.  Stopped dead in their tracks.  Their way was blocked.  The tears that were barely held in check began to flow again, etching tracks in their dust covered faces, splashing to the ground like great drops of blood from an open wound.  “The stone.”  It blocked their way, their duty, their hope.  They couldn’t perform this last service for Him, they couldn’t take their last look at Him, at the lifeless body that once had been more alive than any person they had ever known, would ever know.  The stone.  It blocked them, cut them off, stymied them.  They almost turned back.  But they started to move again.  Toward the place of death.  Uncertain, bowed and almost broken, but they walked on.  Wondering.  Who would roll away the stone?  

Who indeed?  Those stones are everywhere it seems.  Across every path, choking every road, cutting off our way home.  Maybe your stone is physical: an illness that has changed your life, redefined you in ways you never foresaw.  Or a circle of friends, a relationship which manages to tear you down more than build you up, who wear away the surface of your self identity until you don’t know who you are any more.  A job that’s killing you, a lifestyle that keeps you from achieving what your heart really needs and wants.  Maybe your stone is social: a contempt for leaders who seem like schoolchildren locked in playground taunts and narcissistic braggadocio, the continual rape of a planet of living creatures driven to extinction and destroyed beyond usefulness and beauty, a community defined more by our antagonisms than our commonality.  Maybe your stone is emotional: a grief you can’t transform into hope, a sadness that engulfs you, a numbness that shrouds you in a darkness not of this world.  Maybe your stone is spiritual: the questions that nag at your attempts to pray, the emptiness of the rituals of worship, the inanity of praise when your world is careening off course at an alarming rate.

Who will roll away the stone?  They started to move again.  Their question was huge, their need greater than their own strength, but they started to move again.  They put one foot in front of another, headed straight for the stone.  As if it wasn’t there.  As if it wasn’t going to stop them performing their service.  As if it wasn’t going to keep them from the worship of their hands and hearts.  They went on, to the place of death and impenetrable stones, as if.  And when they got there, Mark says, the stone was rolled back. And in the place of death was a being of light and life, who told them that this wasn’t the place to find Him.  He wasn’t in a grave.  He wasn’t hanging around a cemetery.  He wasn’t behind a stone too great for any one to roll away.  He’s not here.  He’s there.  There where you live.  There where you work.  Where you love and serve.  He’s there beyond the stones, all of which will roll away by His power, the power of love and life.  

Then Mark says an odd thing.  He says they ran.  In terror and amazement, they ran.  And said nothing.  To anyone.  The end.  Most scholars agree this is Mark’s original ending.  Silence, fear and awe.  And running away.  The early church didn’t like that ending and so gave us a more comfortable certainty in the verses that follow.  But why would Mark do such a thing?  Leave the story so unfinished?  Because yours is unfinished too.  Think about it.  Mark is telling the story to people who knew that Jesus was alive, yet he says they told no one.  How did the word get out?  How did the Word get past the stone of their fear?  He rolled away the stone.  Even the stone of our own inadequacy.  Their silence wasn’t the final word.  God’s hope was the final Word.

When I turned around to give up and return to church, I got to the first road that would take me home and saw the track was clear.  The Ouroboros, the world snake circling the earth eating its own tail now transformed into a train, was gone.  Rolled away.  Opening the way for me to return home for an even briefer respite.  I’m not claiming divine intervention for something that simply required a little more patience than I had in that moment.  But the stone was rolled away.  When I turned and headed toward it, it was gone.  And I could go home.

I don’t know how your stone will be rolled away.  I don’t know what effort it will require, what struggle is before you.  I don’t know if it will roll away as if by magic by another hand in the twinkling of an eye, or if it will take a life long exertion on your part chipping away at the impenetrable rock until the shines through.  I don’t know if will happen today or tomorrow or when you draw your last breath in this life.  But I know, I know, that the stone will roll away.  He is Risen.  Thanks be to God. 


Saturday, March 24, 2018

I Love a Parade ... Again

I used to preach Palm Sunday sermons.  It’s been so long since I did that I don’t really remember when I stopped.  I know that many of you have heard the story of why I stopped already, but I guess I wanted to tell it again. 

Early in my ministry I was determined to let Palm Sunday be Palm Sunday.  None of this “slash” stuff for me.  We needed to focus on the Triumphal entry.  The passion of Christ would come during the holy week services - Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  That would get us in the proper frame of mind, the proper spirit to really experience - not to mention, really need Easter.  So, The Passion never appeared on Palm Sunday. 

Until I started paying attention to what people were actually doing.  Or not doing, in this case.  The crowd for Thursday and Friday was significantly smaller than the Sunday crowd.  Which meant that many folks were going from Palm Sunday to Easter, from a parade to a party without the passion in between.  Without walking alongside Jesus as he let his love for us fall like great drops of blood. 

So, I gave up preaching Palm Sunday for Lent.  And never picked it up again.  Many have commented on how moving the reading of the Passion story is for them.  And many others over the years have told me that Easter was different for them because of my surrendering of the Palm Sunday sermon in favor of telling the Passion story.  I don’t regret it in the least.  But I sometimes feel like I give Palm Sunday short shrift.  So, I decided to dust off a Palm Sunday sermon from the way back machine and put it here for you.  It’s a little longer than my usual bible study, but on the other hand it is a full sermon.  What I preached once upon a time, and might preach again if you all would promise me you’ll be there on Thursday and Friday without fail. ... Didn’t think so.  I understand, really I do.  Life is busy, we can’t do all the things we want to do let alone the things we think we should do.  Besides it is a powerful story that needs to be told. 

At the same time, I miss the parade.  So, here is a sermon from when you were a kid (not really) about Palm Sunday. 

Mark 11:1-11  When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples  2 and said to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.  3 If anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'"  4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it,  5 some of the bystanders said to them, "What are you doing, untying the colt?"  6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.  7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.  8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"  11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

I have always wanted to be in a parade.  I don't know why really, it's just one of those things.  Of course, what I would do in a parade is anybody's guess.  I don't really meet the criteria for Rose Bowl or Homecoming Queen or any other royalty for that matter.  Although, I can do the requisite parade wave.  It is one of my few talents.  But I don't get much opportunity to exercise it.  Which is why I decided to talk about parades today.  Just so I could wave like this for a while. 

La Donna came in when I was first working on this and told me she had been in lots of parades.  Oh, thank you very much, just rub it in.  The Girl Scouts, apparently, used to march in the Memorial Day parade in South Bend.  I forgot to ask if she got to wave.  She then proceeded to tell me that I couldn't be in the Easter Parade because I didn't have a bonnet.  But I told her that I wasn't talking about the Easter Parade because it wasn't Easter yet.  I was talking about the Palm Sunday parade.  "There's no such thing as a Palm Sunday Parade," she told me and then on her way out of the room she offered to make me a bonnet, if I wanted her to.  No thank you.

And there is too a Palm Sunday Parade.  Isn't there?  Of course there is.  In fact Palm Sunday itself is a parade.  And according to Mark that's about all there was to it.  This little parade down the streets of Jerusalem.  No floats, no marching bands, no Spider-Man balloons, no homecoming Queen, no royalty at all, just a guy on a borrowed donkey.  Not much of a parade, I guess. 

But that was the whole deal.  That's all there is to Palm Sunday, a ride into town.  Hardly worth getting so excited about, it would seem.  It does make a nice entry into holy week, I supposed.  It gets us ready for the real show that begins later.  Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter.  Those are the real parades.  Palm Sunday is just a road trip, just getting from there to here.  There's no such thing as a Palm Sunday Parade.

Jesus always wanted to be in a parade too, it seems.  Why else would he orchestrate this one?  Palm Sunday was planned.  Remember, he tells his disciples to go into town and bring a colt for him to ride into town, and he even tells them what to say if anyone tries to stop them.  So off they go, worrying about their reputations as they are about to break into donkey rustling, and wondering why Jesus decided he needs to ride all the sudden when walking has been good enough for him up to now.  But they do as they were told being experts at not quite understanding what was going on.  And sure enough there is the colt, just like he said.  They untie it and start to lead it back to him, when someone, maybe the owner of the animal says, "hey, what're you guys doing?"  And the disciples look at each other and back at the donkey like they were trying to remember how it go there, and then one of them remembers what they were supposed to say, "The Lord has need of it and will send it back here as soon as he's through."  With the emphasis on sending it back.  Borrowing always sounds better than stealing.  They wait to see whether the owner of the colt is going to call the cops or raise a fuss or shout for the neighbors.  But he doesn't.  He just says, OK, and let's them go.  Now, I don't know.  Maybe it was the way it was said, or maybe he decided that they looked too simple to be pulling a fast one, or maybe he was a secret follower of Jesus and would have done anything to help, or maybe Jesus had arranged the whole thing ahead of time.  But off they go, with this unridden donkey, casting a few backward glances to make sure the owner wasn't drawing a bead on them as they left.  

They got it back to Jesus, made a saddle out of their clothes and off they went.  One unridden donkey, now carrying a rider, a rabbi from the country, and twelve guys wondering what in the world was going on.  What a scene it must have been.  And yet as they drew nearer to the city, a crowd began to gather.  A big crowd or a small one, we don't really know.  But either way it was a loud one.  They saw him coming and they began to shout.  And not just shout, but pulled off their coats and jackets and began to toss them onto the road, to make a red carpet of many colors to welcome this parade.  And that wasn't enough they ran to the trees and pulled off branches and waved them around and laid them on the road, all the while shouting, shouting at the top of their lungs, shouting their hopes and their prayers and their joy in the recognition of the answer to that prayer riding on a donkey.  What a scene it must have been.

Because this was the moment, you see, where Jesus decided that it was time to make his claim.  That's what was going on here.  It wasn't that Jesus thought riding would be a pleasant change from walking.  There was something more significant going on here.

I remember once talking to a young man about faith and church and after listening to me for a bit he finally said, "well, I don't do religion."  You know, like "I don't do fish" or "I don't do country music."  "I don't do religion."  Oh. 

Well, Palm Sunday was when Jesus decided to do Messiahship, or Messiahdom.  It wasn't enough for him to say "Hey, by the way, I am, you know, the One."  No it was time to make that claim in a way that everyone would understand.  It was time to risk his life by telling the world who he was.

By choosing a donkey to ride on Jesus was not humbling himself in the way that we would suppose.  The donkey was not the symbol of slow stubbornness that it might be today, fit only for grizzled prospectors who have been out in the sun too long.  No, in this culture the donkey was a noble beast and a ride fit for kings.  But, you see, a king would ride a horse only when he was going off or returning from war.  The king on a horse was a sign that blood was to be shed and enemies to be vanquished.  On the other hand, when the king rode a donkey it was a symbol of peace.  So Jesus announced himself as the king of peace.  And the people; the poor, the hurt, the lost, the lonely, the hopeless, the sinner, they saw and heard and they got the message and for a moment at least they were moved to praise this king of peace.   Blessed is the one who comes, the one who comes was the awaited one, the Messiah.  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.  But it wasn't just praise that they shouted that day.  It was a plea, it was a prayer, Hosanna, they said with as much hope as they could muster, Save us now.  Bring us peace, bring us wholeness bring us a way to live that we might join in this parade with you always.  That's what the shouting was about - that they might be able to get on board, to march in time, to ride with him in this parade for peace.

We love a parade.  I remember watching a parade a number of years ago.  It was while we were in Yell County, Arkansas, serving two little country churches for a year.  It was an interesting time, to say the least.  As La Donna says, Yell county, Arkansas was not the edge of the universe, but you could see it from there.  But one fall day, I found myself in the country seat town getting ready to watch the homecoming parade.  The whole town was there, either in the parade or watching.  There were decorated trucks and wagons, a whole pack of kids on bicycles with paper streamers, some horses and carts, the high school marching band was there, the football team and homecoming queen and her court.  And I stood there watching with the parents and neighbors who laughed and waved and pointed out their little darlings as they rode by.  It was a great day. 

Along toward the end of the parade, there was a small yellow school bus.  Before it got close enough for me to see what it was, I noticed that it was having an effect on the crowd.  It was as if it was traveling in a little cloud of silence.  For was it would pass by the smiles and the laughter would stop and the hands would drop.  As the school bus came past where I was standing I saw the words "Yell County Special Schools" printed on the side, and out of a back window was one of the school's young charges.  She was leaning somewhat precariously out over the road, and waving her arm as if she was trying to get a plane to land.  As she drew even with me, she stopped waving and to all of us standing along the road she shouted with some exasperation "Wave!" 

My hand was halfway up before I noticed that no one else was waving or even looking at her.  And in embarrassment I let my own hand drop.  The parade carried her away from me on down the street.  I watched her for as long as I could, she was still waving her palm, still looking for acknowledgment, still needing a savior.

It seems an easy thing to do, to wave our palms and join in the parade.  But it's not.  For one thing it will make us stand out, be different.  Most of the world, most of our community doesn't even realize that there is a parade going on.  For us to stand and acknowledge the parade is to take a stand against the status quo, to stick out like sore thumbs by shouting for salvation, by admitting we need a savior.  We will be different because our values will be different, because what is important to our society will not be important to us.  To join in this parade is let other parades pass us by. 

And what is worse is that this parade will take us places we may not really want to go.  Jesus made his claim to be the king of peace, but the problem was that he was riding into a war zone.  If he had to go to Jerusalem the smart thing would have been to sneak in the back door and keep very quiet.  But no, facing imprisonment, the lash and the cross, Jesus rode in as the king of peace.  And to share in this parade is to share in that suffering. 

But still, we love a parade.   Because this parade does have royalty,  and we know that this is the only one who can save us.  This is the only one to whom we can shout Hosanna.  This is the only one who can bring us through the darkness of Good Friday and death, that we might meet the Easter light of the risen Son. 

So come on and join in the parade, bonnets are optional.


Saturday, March 17, 2018

There Will Be a Test

Spring begins on Tuesday, March 20th at 12:15pm.  So, just after noon Tuesday, we’re sunbathing on the roof.  Well, maybe not.  But we’re hoping.  I’m hoping.  Like so many, I’m tired of scraping my car windows in the morning.  I’m tired of seeing the dusting on the ground or the flakes in the air, tired of feeling cold and not knowing which coat I should wear.  We’ve been teased with warm weather now and then, but only to have it swallowed up by another cold front, Yankee clipper, bomb cyclone, whatever. It’s like a test.  A test of our stamina, our attitude, our faith.  

Life is full of tests.  Just living each day is to be tested.  Not in an out to get you someone up there is after me kind of way.  But in a life is hard sometimes kind of way.  To be alive is to be tested.  But what is tested, exactly?  Our demeanor?  Our perseverance?  Our better self?  Well, yes.  It’s our will. Our will is what makes us what we are.  Our intention.  Our driving identity.  What is being tested is what makes us us.  Who we are.  What we are.  And what is that? 

Matthew 22:34-39 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" 37 He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'

To test Him.  That’s what Matthew says.  And Luke agrees (10:25ff).  Mark has a different take (12:28-34).  Mark says that the scribe, or lawyer, was really interested. Was really asking.  And when Jesus answered the lawyer claps his hands and says, “yeah, that’s what I thought, that’s what makes sense, cool, thanks Jesus.”  And Jesus is impressed by him, and says “you’ve got it.  You’re on the right track, almost there.”

Almost there.  Not far from the Kingdom, that’s what He says.  What I wouldn’t give to hear that from Jesus.  But whether it was a test or a genuine question, Jesus answers the same.  What’s the greatest commandment?  The number one law.  The summation of the code.  Which is not really the question He is answering.  I mean it is the question He is answering.  But not only that.  Not just a legal question.  Not just a doctrinal question. This is a life question.  No, a living question.  How can I be alive?  That could have been, should have been the question that He was asked.  How can I be alive?  Fully alive?  How can I be perfect?

Hold on there sparky!  You do not want to go there.  You do not want to use the p-word.  It goes against one of our treasured defining statements of life in general: Nobody is perfect!  Yeah, we know Jesus told us to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.  But surely He didn’t really mean it.  Or said it with His divine fingers crossed, or a holy eye roll.  Surely.  Yeah, we know that John Wesley wanted to talk about Christian Perfection as if it were something reachable.  But he got a lot of flak for that.  Then and now.  And even he seemed to waver on his confidence about whether it was attainable later in his life and ministry.  Perhaps he had been exposed to too many human humans and began to despair that Christian perfection was even in the same time zone, let alone in the neighborhood.  

Yet he did not give up, old father John Wesley.  He still preached Christian perfection, despite the overwhelming evidence of imperfection. That’s where we are now, in our series, the “way to heaven” path that we are on this Lent.  We started with sin, the sin that cripples us, infects us, overwhelms us.  Then we acknowledged grace, the grace that comes before.  Before what?  Before we’ve done anything, before we’ve responded, before we’ve asked, before we were even aware we needed grace, knew about grace, understood grace.  It comes before all of that.  Prevenient grace, that’s what it’s called.  

But then we discover that we can respond to this grace that we’ve found, or that has found us.  We can say yes, we can say please, we can say give me some of that grace, I know I need it, I know I’m far from it, I know I’m lost without it.  I want to be right again, right with the One who made me, the One who loves me.  Justifying grace.  That moment of claiming and being claimed.  A new birth, a new creation, a new start.

It is a start, just the start.  The beginning of a journey, a life long journey of hope and joy.  Of living in to the possibilities of faith.  Of being made more like Christ, being made more alive.  Sanctifying grace, that which equips us for a life of loving like Christ loves.  Of loving God with all our heart and soul and mind, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.  

Surely that’s it.  That’s the journey, that’s our life. What else could there be?  Perfection.  Seriously?  Yeah. But wait, it’s not what you think.  Not the unattainable, not the infallible, mistake free image of perfection that we have in mind.  Wesley defined Christian perfection, or perfection in love, in specific ways.  He says that perfection in love doesn’t mean perfection in knowledge.  It doesn’t mean we will always do the right thing at the right time.  It doesn’t mean that we will never have anything go wrong, that we won’t be subject to the ills of life and living.  We are subject to the same viruses, the same calamities, the errors that everyone else is subject to.  We do not become super Christians or spiritual giants.  Neither does it mean that we have no room to grow, no development to engage in.  There is room for more.  More perfection?  Not exactly.  More like you are perfect as you are now, but you can be more in the future and perfect then too.

Wha....?  Perfection, Christian perfection, or perfection in love anyway, is not a state of being.  Not a standard to achieve, not a behavior to perform.  Instead it is a singularity of intent.  It is the desire to will the will of God in all things.  And I can will God’s will now, knowing what I know, having lived the life I have lived to this point.  But I can will God’s will in the future, when I know more, have lived more, loved more.  Steve Harper, the author of the book “The Way to Heaven,” describes a parent who measures a child in development and declares that they are perfect for a four year old.  But not done, obviously.  Not complete.  There is always more to come, more to reach for more to give and more to be.  Even as we claim perfect love.

Not that I’m there.  Yet.  Not that I have been made perfect in love.  Yet.  Not that I love the Lord with all my heart and soul and mind and my neighbor as myself.  I want to.  I really do.  Sometimes.  Now and then.  On my better days.  OK, the problem is my will.  It gets in the way of God’s will in my life.  I’m like the lawyer in the text this week.  I’m asking, but not really asking.  I want to know how to live my life in the best, most fulfilling way possible.  But I’m not really making a commitment, yet.  I’m testing the waters.  Testing, you know?  

And I’ll bet I’m not the only one.  Spring is coming.  Will we be ready?


Saturday, March 10, 2018

Live By the Spirit

Spring is in the air.  Even with the snow that fell this week, yesterday even.  Even with the chill that persists, the clouds that are never far away, you can’t deny it any longer.  Spring is here, and not yet.  Present in the lightness of heart and hope in the eyes, present in the anticipation and plans to plant and weed and tend and clean up, looking forward to the harvest to come. Whatever your harvest might be, fruits and vegetables, plants and flowers, or simply the breathing of the air and moving about set free from the encumbrance of walls and furnaces and blankets and coats.  We’re anticipating the harvest.  

Of course the true gardeners among us know that while spring carries the promise of the harvest to come, it also speaks of a lot of hard work that must come before.  There is labor involved in moving toward the harvest.  Workers are needed, effort expended, toil involved in producing the fruit we long for, the fruit we live for.  The snow melts away and we see the residue that must be cleared away, the pruning that must be done.  And there is a voice inside of us that calls for the clouds and the cold and wind and the wet so we can retreat inside and ignore the work that is before us.  

Our journey continues this Lenten season, our Way to Heaven.  We’ve come to the realization of our own sinfulness, our need for a savior.  We’ve been made aware of the grace that surrounds us, even before we’ve leaned into it, even before we’ve claimed the gift, it’s just there like the rain that falls on the just and the unjust.  And we’ve remembered that we have a choice, that we can run out and sing in the rain, dance in the rain or we can hunch over and try to stay dry, holding a rapidly dissolving newspaper over our heads as we dash for shelter.  It’s our choice, our response to the gift, to the grace that is life itself.  

But now we stand, dripping on the living room carpet and wonder what’s next.  Where do we go from here?  How do we hold on the joy of dancing in the rain?  How do we live the life that we have decided to reach out and grab hold of with both hands?  How do we keep it from running through our fingers like the puddle we tried to put in our pocket?  It’s elusive, this life thing, it seems to slip away almost as quickly as it came.  In our trying to get through each day, we can lose our grip on where we’re heading, what we’re embracing.  In living each day we can forget to be alive. Forget that we are alive. 

Gal. 5:13-26  For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

So, that’s how we do it.  We make lists!  (There you go, La Donna, you were right all along) That’s what Paul says anyway.  We make lists.  Paul loves his lists.  They pop us all over the place.  You’re reading along and suddenly there it is.  His shopping list.  What?  No, well, sort of.  A list of things he’s looking for.  

Or, in this case, a list of things he’s trying to avoid.  An anti-shopping list.  A take to the dump list.  A spring cleaning list.  A ... well, you get the idea.  He does go on a bit with his list of negativity.  It doesn’t take long before we’re waving him away, saying we get it, we get it.  Sin is bad.  Got it, thanks.  But he keeps going.  Almost as if he wants to find something that strikes a chord in our hearts.  Something that feels like our own crushed toes instead of the toes of the folks on the other side of the sanctuary.  We hear idolatry and sorcery (really?  Sorcery?) and we snicker behind our hands.  But he keeps on going and gets to jealousy and anger and suddenly he’s moved from preaching to meddling.  

Thankfully this isn’t just a list of disapproval, not just the stay away list.  There is also the embrace list.  The life list.  We’re looking for life, remember.  We’re embracing the new possibilities that are ours in Christ.  So we have another list.  A singular list.  Did you notice that?  The list of negativity is a plurality.  A list of diffusion, of scattering, of this and that and the other thing, a list of dividing and turning inward, a wall building list.  The first list is a list destructive of community.  But the second list is singular.  WorkS of the flesh, but Fruit not fruits of the Spirit.  Notice?  Not really a list.  An attribute.  A gift.  A focus. Love.  The fruit of the Spirit is love.  We could stop there - Paul doesn’t, but he could have.  Love.  That’s it.  That’s all.  All we need is love.  But what kind of love?  I mean there is love and there is love.  Love is in every song on the radio, on every soap opera on television, every novel we read, every ad we consume.  Ah, says Paul, ah.  The fruit of the Spirit is love - but it is love that is joyful, love that is peaceful - peace bringing, peace bestowing.  It is love that is patient, and kind (he’ll remember that phrase and repeat it later when he writes to the church in Rome).  It is a love that is generous, that pours out like the rain of grace that is poured down on us constantly.  A love that is faithful, that honors the relationship, that lifts up the other and doesn’t always ask “what do I get out of this.”  The fruit of the Spirit is a love that is gentle, not just that it cuddles kittens and puppies, but that it bends down to help those who have fallen, that it holds the beloved in an embrace that strengthens and not drains.  

And the fruit of the Spirit is love that is self-controlled.  Self- controlled?  Really Paul.  Self?  Or does he really mean the fruit of the Spirit is love that is Spirit-controlled.  Spirit controlled so seamlessly that it seems like self.  So natural that the will that resides in us seems like our will, but it is really God’s will woven into our DNA, our way of seeing the world, our giftedness that is played out in ways that are different from everyone else’s.  And yet it isn’t us.  It can’t be us.  It is us transformed.  Us remade.  Us surrendered.  Self-control, I’ve tried that.  I’ve been there.  I threw out the T-shirt.  I want Spirit controlled love to take root in me and bring forth the harvest of fruit that ripples out into a hungry and needy world.  

So, now we’ve got our lists.  Our stay away from this pile of squirming divisiveness list and our gathering together and focusing our whole being into one whole self-aware, spirit-filled person list.  Now what?  Now, work.  That’s what.  Soil to till, seeds to plant, pruning to do and weeds to pull.  Yeah, it’s not very glamorous.  It’s not the sinking our teeth into the ripe juicy fruit of our salvation, not the mountaintop excitement of breathing the air of the Spirit and knowing without a doubt that we are alive in Christ.  Well, it is. That is there too.  There is joy, there is enthusiasm, there is passion there.  But there is work there too.  There is the daily choosing to let the Spirit lead, the monumental effort of surrendering your will again and again and again.  

There are tools, every gardener needs tools to work the fertile ground.  The tools for this labor of sanctifying grace, letting God work in us and through us are called means of grace.  Spiritual disciplines.  Practices that bring us back to the decision point again and take us where God would have us go.  Wesley identified five instituted means of grace, not as exclusive practices, but as ones that help us understand the process of being shaped in faith.  His five were prayer and searching the scriptures, communion and fasting, and gathering in groups to share faith and hold one another accountable.  These disciplines are the means by which we work toward the harvest, through which we cultivate the fruit of the Spirit within us and between us.  They are the life’s blood of living the life that Christ came to bring us, the air that we breathe so we can inhale the Spirit that takes up residence within us.  They are the signs of God’s eternal spring at work in us.  Thanks be to God.


Saturday, March 3, 2018


I just completed a retreat with a group of people I love.  They are the Board of the event called Choir School.  Not an event, a community, a gathering of people who care about church music and about faith and about each other and those who haven’t yet found their way there.  I found them, or rather they found me in the mid 90's and invited me for a short stint as their chaplain.  Twenty years later I left as their chaplain because of reasons too many to name, but mostly having to do with me and the path I was on.  They didn’t understand why I felt like I had to leave, but they let me go.  And even more amazing, they accepted me back this weekend as though that rift hadn’t been there.  As though that leaving hadn’t taken place.

I was surprised when I got the invitation to lead the retreat.  I was asked to help them care for themselves this weekend.  Help them set aside the business and focus on the spirit, their spirits and the Spirit of God, the spirit of the community called Choir School and the Spirit that binds them in their individual churches and settings where they seek to sing the Lord’s song in what often feels like a foreign land.  Help them tend to their souls as an outsider who was an insider, who knows them and yet now comes from a distance, a different world.  And as my wife can tell you and now my new staff is learning, I have trouble saying no to such a request.  So, Friday night and most of Saturday I sat with them, thought with them, prayed with them and yes, sang with them, and in and among it all we were healed a little bit, encouraged a little bit, lifted up a little bit.  And the distance didn’t matter, the separation dissolved, and we walked together for this time, as though we knew the steps, as though we shared a pace.  We were right, we were good.

We were justified.  That’s the word we are focusing on this weekend, the next step in our journey, our “way to heaven.”  We began with the root of the problem, the sin that infects and infests our lives and before which we are helpless.  But then we quickly moved to the solution - grace.  Grace is God’s antidote to our sin problem, and it was there before we even knew to ask for it, before we even knew we needed it.  Prevenient grace is the grace that comes before.  Before what?  Before us, before any action on our part.  It is just there whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we embrace it or run from it, it is there.  Like the rain that falls even when we forget to look out the window.  It is falling everywhere and on everyone, it just falls.  Prevenient grace.

But sometimes, we choose to run out in it.  Sometimes we choose to get wet.  Sometimes we say yes to dancing in the rain, to singing in the rain.  There’s a little Gene Kelly in all of us when you get right down to it.  The tragedy is we often don’t let him out, keep him bottled up in there instead of reaching out to embrace the possibilities, to accept the gift that is given.  And what is that gift?  Life.  Pure and simple.  Wondrous and magical.  Rich and divinely eternal.  Life.

Romans 3:21-31 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

You missed it, didn’t you?  You missed the joy, the passion, the life that fairly drips from the Apostle Paul as he writes this breathless letter to a church he never knew.  It’s understandable.  It’s way too easy to get lost in the rhetoric that grips Paul when he gets carried away.  His vocabulary deepens and his mind tumbles over itself when he gets excited.  And we get lost in the words.  We stumble over the roots of Paul’s trees and we miss the vista of the forest he is trying to describe.  But take a breath and we can plunge into a small piece of it; a copse in the woods, let’s say, a clearing in the dense forest.  

“But now” he writes, or dictates, or proclaims with arms spread wide and eyes wide open.  “But now!”  If he was texting to the Roman church those words would be in all caps. BUT NOW.  Now what?  Now everything has changed.  Now the world is different.  Now a door is open that was previously shut.  Not just shut, but locked and bolted and overgrown with hedges and climbing ivy.  Not just impenetrable, but invisible to our eyes.  Not just invisible, but terrifying, a “here be dragons” scrawl on the edge of the map. But now, the door is open.  The door that leads us into the very heart of God.  God!  Imagine it. The heart of God, the righteousness of God, Paul calls it.  The purity of God, the holiness of God, the very essence of God that makes God God! And we have access to that presence.  We can see it.  Even more we can claim it for us.  Because of Jesus.  Not the law.  Apart from the law, Paul states, but attested by the law and the prophets. 

See, this is what everything has been about from the beginning of the people of God.  This access, this entry, this gift of life that comes from the heart of God – this is what it has been about.  And the law pointed to it.  And the prophets pointed to it.  But they couldn’t get us there.  The problem is they thought they could.  If only people would just listen to me, the prophets whined.  If only people would be obedient to me, the law would opine.  The Pharisees who wore the law like a hair shirt, like a gang tattoo, were convinced that if you just put a little more effort into it you could find your way to righteousness.  You could work your way there.  Just try harder.  The Pharisees aren’t gone, really.  We still have them.  We still are them.  Thinking that if we just try harder.  Just work longer, more doggedly, then we’ll make ourselves righteous, like God is righteous.  

But Paul says it was never the purpose of the law to make us righteous, or even to show us the righteousness of God.  It was never the function of the prophets to deliver to us the heart of God, the life abundant that we desperately want to enjoy.  Instead, their function was to point to the One who would.  Or rather they were there to show us how much we needed the One who could bring us into the righteousness of God, who could offer us abundant, eternal life.  But now, Paul squeals with joy, it’s here.  The door is open, the access is provided.  So.    Just step through.

God has done the heavy lifting.  God has wrenched open the door, torn apart the chains, busted through the locks, at great cost.  Just step through.  We could be compelled, forced through the door into life, into the righteousness of God.  But God chooses not to work that way.  To leave it up to us.  To give us the choice.  To allow us to partner with God in the reclamation of our own souls, our own lives.  God wants us to exercise our faith muscles and grab hold of the gift, step through the door.  To walk right with God.  To heal the breach, to cross the distance we’ve put between us.  And will help us every step along the way.  

Grace rains down still.  Same grace as before, but now we’re aware of it, now we choose it.  So we call it justifying grace.  Because it puts us right with God again.  Puts us back where we were created to be, but now need to choose.  Now we need to want to go back.  To be back, to be right.  All of us.  God is God of all, says Paul breathlessly, of all.  Stop making divisions, stop drawing lines.  Just say yes.  Just choose life.  Just choose love.  Just choose righteousness.  And continue to lean on the law, not as a way to redeem us, but as a measure for our redemption.  As a weather vane to tell us that the rain still falls and grace is still possible, still available.  That there are those who will love you even after you walk away.  There is a place, a place of grace, that will welcome you home when you’re ready to choose life.    

And in that place we will be right.  Right with God.  Right with each other.  Right with the world we struggle through now.  But then we’ll be right.  We’ll be good.  We’ll be alive.  We’ll be  ... justified.