Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Abundance of the Heart

Ezekiel 36:26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

On December 3rd in 1967 the first heart transplant was performed in a hospital in South Africa by the renown heart surgeon Dr. Christiaan Barnard.  Unfortunately the patient, Louis Washkansky who was 55 years old and dying of heart damage, only lived for 18 days with his new heart.  In the 52 years since that pioneering moment in medical history, the technique has been improved tremendously.  It is almost a routine surgical operation these days, only rare because of the availability of functioning hearts that aren’t being used by their original owners.  The world isn’t riveted by the news of a heart transplant anymore.  

And yet, no one has been able to transform the essence of the person as easily as these internal organ swaps.  No one has figured out how cut out that broken part, broken heart, broken will, broken soul, and replace it with one that functions better.  Better?  Happier, perhaps.  Righteous, maybe.  Good.  Just good.  We all want to be good.  Don’t we?  But there is no surgical procedure that will get us there.  Will make us good.  Make us more like Christ.  

That’s it, isn’t it.  We are striving to be more like Christ.  It’s hard work, to say the least.  Impossible work.  Yet we labor on.  Striving for perfection.  Though that word scares us.  Nobody is perfect we say with some relief.  We can excuse all kinds of behavior with that line.  Nobody.  No body is perfect.  Except Him.  The One we seek to be like.  The model and the pattern. Yet always out of reach.  Because nobody is ... well, it’s true.

Then why does He ask us to do the impossible?  Why does He tell us to be perfect if we can’t?  Is He just trying to frustrate us?  Just trying to keep us in our place?  Remind us how much we can’t do on our own?  Well, maybe that is a part of it.  That acknowledgment of the need for a savior.  If we could do this on our own, if we had the capacity for perfection why would we ever turn to Him?

Luke 6:43-45 "No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. 45 The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.

Good.  And bad.  We want to be good.  And here it sounds like we’ve got to work on it.  We’ve got to be so good that no bad comes out.  What a burden.  Every slip.  Every mistake, every time we let our emotions get the better of us, we reveal that we are at heart – at heart, mind you – bad people.  I’m not sure that we can carry that load.  I’m not sure we can measure up to that standard.  We fall into that mindset that claims everyone is just bad, irredeemably bad.  It’s worm thinking.  Defeated thoughts.  I’m not sure it is helpful.  Or even Christian.  

I know some would argue.  Those who put the doctrine of original sin at the top of their list, as the main definer of human existence, would say yes, we are bad.  So bad, too bad.  Just admit it, just claim it, just accept it and then everything will be better.  You sinner you.  Because you mess up from time to time, it must reveal that your heart is bad, rotten to the core of your being.  Right?  Well maybe.  Except, if we look closer in this passage we’ll notice something significant.  

This isn’t really about good hearts and bad hearts.  Yes in the metaphor He talks about good trees and bad trees.  And then He talks about producing fruit according to type, implying that we’re one type or the other.  Maybe.  But when He gets to the heart, He makes a switch.  He doesn’t talk about your heart - and it’s goodness or badness.  He talks about the treasure of your heart.  Or in other translations, about the storehouse of your heart.  And do you know what the word is?  Thesaurus.  That’s the Greek word that is translated as treasure in this version.  The “good treasury” the Common English Bible says.  Thesaurus.  

What words fill you up?  What descriptions?  How do you define your life and the lives of those around you?  Jesus is asking us to watch our language.  To build up our vocabulary.  To use our words to build up and not tear down.  To describe a world that has room for all of God’s people in it, that has room for God in it!  

Too easy?  Not really.  How often do our words reflect the depths of our hurt or our shame?  How often do we let the words of frustration and anger take us over in an unguarded moment?  The treasury of our hearts hold a lot of both joy and pain, a lot of brokenness and hope.  It becomes a matter of choosing, of selecting the attitudes we want to project, the person we want the world to see, the person we want to be.  Jesus is asking us to pay attention to who we are, by choosing our words.  Deeds too, I don’t mean to imply it is only a vocabulary test here.  But that we reveal who we are by how we speak to and about one another.  

So, how do we pay attention?  Well, that’s what we are doing here at Southport this Eastertide.  Our series is titled “A Disciple’s Heart” and we are thinking together about we care for our hearts, or how we fill the treasury of our hearts as disciples of Jesus Christ.  We are engaged in what the theologians call “sanctification.”  When we say that our mission is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, we are not claiming that this is a one time poof you’re a disciple kind of thing.  That’s an on-going verb – making.  We’re making disciples.  And first of all we are making disciples of ourselves.  And when we invite others, we invite them to join us in a process, join us on a journey.  We’re all in this being made into disciples thing together.  

One thing we’ll learn as we go along is that we have a certain amount of responsibility for the making ourselves.  There are things we can do to shape our hearts, to fill the treasury of our hearts.  Those have traditionally been called Spiritual Disciplines.  They are ways of exercising our faith and are both inward and outward acts that we can do for the good of our hearts.  We’ll talk more about them later, so stay tuned.

But another thing we will learn is that we can’t do it alone.  We need the help of those around us.  Family and friends, our church, become vital helps for all of us and each of us on the journey into discipleship.  There are things we do on our own, but there are things we do together.  And some of the things we do, like prayer and studying the Bible we do both on our own and together.  And we find new depths and greater resources when join with others in these disciplines.  

Yet, even that isn’t enough to fill the treasury of our hearts.  We need another presence, another helper.  We need to look back at the beginning of this essay and be reminded what Ezekiel heard.  We need the hand of God, the Spirit to enter our lives and help us fill the treasury of our hearts.  God promises to help us in this process, promised to take out the heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh.  Promises to take out of the storehouse all that is hard and unyielding, all that is painful and angry, and replace it with grace.  God’s grace and our grace.  God walks with us in this transformation process.  Filling our storehouse with the treasury of grace.  And the promise is that we will live with this new heart a lot longer than eighteen days.


Saturday, April 20, 2019

Spices They Had Prepared

It’s another Easter season of transition.  It seems to happen a lot to us.  This will be 21 times we’ve gotten ready to move, so yeah, it’s happened a lot.  But there was one time of preparation that was different than the others.  It was not to move to a new location, a new place of ministry and service.  Instead it was a journey of discovery and revelation.  Thirteen years ago we were getting ready.   I had been awarded a Lilly-sponsored Clergy Renewal Grant, and we were preparing to take a series of journeys beginning with a family trip to Korea.  It was called a Homeland Tour and was made up of families like ours, with one or more children adopted from South Korea.  Naturally there was a lot to prepare.  Especially since I was going to be out of the pulpit for an extended period of time.  We had to prepare, the church had to prepare.  La Donna’s dad had to prepare, since he decided to accompany us on this trip, for a couple of reasons.  He figured we needed a grandpa along, and he wanted to go back and see the country in which he had spent his military service.  Mostly, he told me, he wanted to see if it had rebuilt, to see if anything grew there, since the war had pretty much devastated the land.  It reminded him of a gravel pit, he said, and he really wanted to see if there was something green there now.

So, we were all preparing for this trip.  A long trip, to what was for most of us anyway, an unknown destination, an undiscovered country.  But we weren’t the only ones preparing for a long journey.  La Donna’s mom was also putting things in order, getting ready for a journey.  She was dying of cancer, had been fighting it for some years, but was beginning to tire from the struggle.  Our journey had a schedule, hers didn’t.  At least not one we knew.  In the end, she set out on her journey before we were finished with the preparations for ours.  

Which meant, of course, that we had a whole other set of preparations to make.  These preparations caused us to set aside those preparations for a while.  Many of you know when someone you love dies there is a lot of work to be done.  And wrapped all around the doing is the feeling - of loss, of hurt, of anger, of ... well too many emotions to mention here.  The emotions often get aside so that we can do the planning, make the preparations.  Don’t they?  “I ain’t got time to grieve.”  Or is the grieving, the feeling, a part of the preparations?  

When Beverly died, Don said that he probably shouldn’t go to Korea.  It just wouldn’t be right.  We nodded our heads, we understood.  In the midst of the preparations it didn’t seem right, it didn’t seem possible.  Who could go on a journey of discovery when one’s heart was broken?  Who could plan for tomorrow when today seemed so bleak, so painful, so empty?  No, keep your head down and make preparations.  It is the only think that makes sense.

Luke 24:1-12  But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again." 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

They brought the spices that they had prepared.  It was the only thing that made sense that Sabbath day following the darkest Friday they could remember.  There is work to be done here.  Preparations to be made.  At church when a death is announced the machinery goes to work.  The system of caring  for leaps into gear.  Preparations are made.  Is there grief, is there brokenness and doubt and hurt so real that you can almost taste it in the air you breathe in?  You bet there is.  More or less depending on how close you are to the person being celebrated.  But regardless of feelings, of personal grief, there are preparations to be made, meals to cook, tables to set.  

They brought the spices they had prepared, because they had a job to do.  Luke doesn’t even know how many went to work that Easter morning.  He names three and then throws up his hands - other women, he says.  Don’t ask me.  The workers, the preparers.  They were ready, they were at work.  Ready to go and deal with the body.  Except ...  The tomb was empty.  Well, ... dang.  Luke says they were perplexed at this.  Hmm, you sure we got the right tomb?  Maybe it is that one over there.  Maybe it was not this cemetery at all.  I thought you were here when Joseph and Nicodemus put him in it.  Weren’t you paying attention?

Did they start to accuse one another?  Or were they all equally perplexed?  Retracing their steps.  It was dark that Friday afternoon.  They’d slept since then.  Or hadn’t slept, as the case may be. But Luke’s choice of words seem fairly benign, just confusion.  That lasts about a verse, however, half a verse until the shiny guys appear.  Who are they?  Luke calls them men who glow.  He says angels earlier in the book, but now it is men.  Has he gotten hesitant toward the end of the story?  Chapters one and two have angels dripping from the pages.  But now it is men.  In dazzling clothes.  Wandered there off the Las Vegas strip perhaps.  They show up and just stand there.  At first.  Then the women notice them and fall on the ground.  “Bow their faces to the ground” our translation says.  Could be a simple nod, a look away, women don’t look men in the eye in public, not in those days.  But given that he also says they were terrified, falling face down seems more likely.  Plus it is an undeniable sign of the holy.  

Then they speak.  Once the women fall down, the shiny guys give directions.  Like cemetery caretakers who notice the women are in the wrong place.  But in this case it isn’t the wrong place in the cemetery, or the wrong cemetery either.  They shouldn’t be in a cemetery at all.  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  The guys had to have smiles on their faces when they said that.  They had to know that such a sentence wouldn’t make any sense to the women while they lay there face down in the dirt.  Not dead?  What do you mean not dead?  Of course he was dead.  He breathed his last!  Didn’t you read the last chapter?  For heaven’s sake!  Which must have set off another round of laughter from the shiny guys.  For heaven’s sake.  Of course for heaven’s sake.  And for earth’s sake too.  For your sake and for mine.  That’s why he’s not in that tomb.  That’s why he’s roaming the countryside looking for the bus back home.  

Then, Luke says, they gave their only word of instruction: Remember.   And they remembered.  They had to be reminded to remember.  Remember what he said?  Remember all those words?  All that instruction?  All that teaching, all that warning?  Remember, they said looking at the spices they had spilled all over the ground when they fell, all the preparation he was doing for you?  Then they remembered.  That’s what we’re doing when we gather week after week, Easter especially, we’re being reminded to remember.  All those words.  All that life.  Remember?

The funeral had taken place, the preparations continued.  There were people to notify, insurance companies to contact, death certificates to hand out.  The preparing never ends it seems.  But Don says to La Donna in passing, “If I were to go to Korea, what would I need to take with me?”  He wasn’t committing to go, just wondering.  Is there life after death?  The preparations continued.  And one day when La Donna and her dad were out delivering papers to proper authorities, he says, “maybe we should get me some traveling clothes.”  So, she smiles and changes the route a little bit, squinting in the light of the sun that peeked out from behind the dark and dreary cloud.  She came back home and we completed our preparations and then the five of us flew to a home we didn’t know across the sea.  And Don was pleased to see how green it was, how new, how alive.  Death, the death of a nation or of a land, had lost its sting, as up from the gravel pit of a grave arose a nation of beauty and innovation, of creativity and of faith.  What faith, churches of the tens of thousands worshiped the resurrected Lord.

Sometimes it is in the preparations that we come to grips with life.  Life in the midst of death, life after death and life before death.  The theology of Easter is so deep and rich and full, but one thing that it clearly proclaims is that death is not the end that we sometimes think it is.  And the preparations we made for one purpose might be needed for something else entirely.  

I don’t know what those spices the women prepared that first Easter morning all included.  But I suspect that the next person who came to the cemetery to look for a loved one caught a new scent, one that hinted of life in all its fullness. 
Shalom, Derek

Saturday, April 13, 2019

You Know the Way

Luke 19:29-40 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'" 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" 34 They said, "The Lord needs it." 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" 39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." 40 He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."

Did anyone get lost?  An odd question, I know.  But I wonder.  It seems like a big event, a crowd formed, branches were broken, coats were tossed into the road, people were shouting.  It was a big deal.  How big?  Who knows?  Some of the gospel accounts make it sound huge, others make it sound like it was just a small gathering on one end of town.  Big enough.  Loud enough.  Disturbing the peace enough that those annoying neighbors called the cops.  Can you keep it down, they said?  You’re making a racket.  People are trying to sleep.  

Actually the fear was bigger than that.  It wasn’t just a passive aggressive neighbor battle.  The Pharisees had genuine concerns.  You gotta give them credit.  They figured out what was happening here.  All the shouting, Hosanna, that was all right as far as it went.  I mean the Pharisees knew the scriptural reference here, they saw the connections.  But to make sure no one missed it, they didn’t stop at Hosanna.  No, they had to add in “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  The king.  This wasn’t just a re-enactment with vague religious meanings.  Now, we’ve slipped over into politics.  By declaring a king, anyone a king, that guy on the donkey a king, they were saying Caesar wasn’t their king anymore.  They were making a political choice.  They were in the polling booth and the Emperor lost the popular vote. 
That’s just the kind of thing that the Romans got all tetchy about.  The kind of thing the Pharisees started sweating about.  They ruled by the good pleasure of Rome.  As long as they could keep the people in line they could keep their power, their authority, their court side seats at the home games.  But if the Romans had to step in and break up this little act of sedition, then it would all be over.  Rome would pull off the velvet glove and smack them with the iron hand.  No wonder they trotted alongside Jesus and told him, in between their panting to keep up with the skittish little colt, that He needed to turn the volume down.  Don’t wake the neighbors, they told Him.  His response was that the noise is world wide.  The rocks are shouting, the trees are praising, the earth was declaring who the King really was.  

The Pharisees dropped Him like a hot plate out of the microwave and backed away hoping the spillage wouldn’t splash on them, and when Rome showed up they might be able to avoid the stain of this messy meal of a parade. They heard, but stuck their fingers in their ears and sang la la la la, all the way back to safety.  They heard, they saw which way this parade was going and they didn’t want any part of it.  They didn’t want to go that way.

But others, the crowd, the branch pulling, coat throwing, hosanna shouting crowd were all in.  They were ready, they were hoping, they were happy.  They were ready to go the way of the King.  They were ready for the new order, let’s throw the rascals out, let the little people rule, let there be blood running in the streets if necessary, this is revolution.  We’re on the way.  At last, we’re on the way.

Except was that the way?  The King they proclaimed, was that His way?  If I had included one more verse in that opening reading for this Palm Sunday weekend, we would have found that declared King weeping.  Yes, weeping over the Jerusalem He loved because they had lost the way.  His way.  The way of peace.  His way was different.  His way was one of sacrifice.  His way was one of surrender.  He wasn’t riding that colt into a mob to stir them up into a revolutionary force.  That wasn’t His way.

Did anyone get lost in that parade?  An appropriate question, it seems.  Because the answer seems to be, yes, they all did.  The Pharisees weren’t the only ones who lost their way that palm strewn day.  Even His closest followers, the ones who got to hear words from Him that no one else heard, the ones to whom He confided His deepest hopes and highest call, even they didn’t know the way.  Didn’t know His way.  They must have been grinning like Labrador pups that day, rustling donkey’s and waving branches and cheer-leading a crowd into singing some ancient enthronement psalms, they must have been bursting with joy.  At last, they thought, after all the incomprehensible zen-like stories that seemed to conceal more than reveal, at last we get some clarity.  He’s the king.  We knew it, now we can shout it.  He’s going to kick it into gear now, gonna ride hard over the enemies of the people.  Right?  Right!  

Except then they stumble over Him weeping over Jerusalem as though this city has broken His heart.  As if He was a jilted lover, left by the one who doesn’t really understand Him.  If only, He said as the tears streamed down His face, if only you had known the way of peace.  If only you had known the way.  The disciples looked at each other with that practiced look of confusion.  I thought we knew, each of them said in the silence of their own minds.  I thought I knew the way.  

John 14:1-7 "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going." 5 Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" 6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."

We’re a few days on now.  So much has happened since that hot mess of a parade with palms and shouting.  Now we’re sitting in a room.  A stunned and silent room.  They’ve shared a meal, but only after He took a basin of water and washed their feet, as if He was some sort of slave, some sort of menial worker doing the dirtiest of jobs.  And then while they ate He took a piece of bread and dipped it and handed it over to one of them, it could have been any of them, but it was one who was sweating as if under a bright light, and that one jumped up and ran out of the room pushing his way out the door into the darkness of the night.  And now they sit there, without any words to say.  So He speaks.  A word of comfort.  A word of grace.  

Do not let your heart.  He said heart.  We translated hearts because that seems more grammatically correct.  But He said heart.  Do not, you do not, all y’all do not let your heart, your singular heart, your common heart, the heart of fellowship, the heart of shared hope, do not let your heart be troubled.  Trust God.  Trust Me.  I know we translated it believe in, but trust fits better.  Put your trust in God, in Me.  Put your life in My hands.  Go with me on this way.  I know what I’m doing.  I know where I’m going.  And you know the way.  Notice He doesn’t say you know the destination, but you know the way.  Thomas blurts out what they are all thinking, “we don’t!  We don’t know where you’re going, we don’t know the way.  We don’t know anything.  We’re just as lost now as we ever were.  Don’t go.  Don’t leave us.  Just don’t.

I am the way.  The true way, the life giving way.  You know Me.  You know the way.  Trust me.  Do we?  Do we know the way?  How can He think we know?  The list of what we don’t know is so long.  We get the shakes just trying to take a single step.  How can He trust us that much?  You know the way, because I am the way, and you know Me.  That’s all it takes.  Know Him and put one foot in front of another.  And suddenly, we’re on the way.  On His way.    You know the way.