Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Grateful Living

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 100
John 6:25-35

    Ten years ago, almost to the day, I officiated at the wedding of a beautiful young couple. Many people and churches had been praying for them since the groom was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma almost a year before. They postponed their March wedding until he could complete his chemotherapy treatment. But the chemotherapy did not remove all the cancer from his body. He was scheduled for a stem cell transplant. But first they decided to get married and go on a honeymoon in Hawaii—and the day after they get back his next ordeal began. There were many tears during their ceremony—we had to pause several times for the couple to hand each other tissues, but there was also joy. The theme of their wedding turned out to be thanksgiving. The groom asked for a few moments just before the benediction to say a few words. He said he now understood the words of Lou Gehrig, the great baseball player, who declared himself to be the luckiest man in the world in spite of being diagnosed with ALS, a disease that would take his life. He thanked everyone who had supported him with presence and prayer: parents who had loved him all his life, but especially in the last year; friends who had touched their lives in hundreds of ways besides helping them buy a house and renovating it while they were on a trip; a company that let him know that his job was never in jeopardy; coworkers who listened when he needed to talk; a brother who would drop everything when he called, and he called often; and his bride who endured all of this at his side and whose love never wavered. In spite of a life-threatening illness and facing a grueling procedure that promised to make the next six to nine months a nightmare, he was so grateful that he could barely speak through his emotion. And at the reception his brother and father continued the theme in their own thanks to all who had loved and supported the newly married couple and their whole family, and taught them how to receive, they hoped, as graciously as the support was given. Ten years later, I’m happy the report, the groom is working for one of the major industries in the Seattle area.
    Our national day of Thanksgiving honors a feast born in similar adversity. Less than a year after the first colonists landed in Plymouth, half their number had died due to the harsh winter. Even though their summer crops had been poor, the corn harvest looked promising. Governor William Bradford arranged for a harvest festival to give thanks to God. The festival lasted three days. Instead of succumbing to mourning, defeat, or resignation, the colonists chose to give thanks and celebrate. In adversity we learn to rely on one another, we recognize our interdependence, and true community is formed.
    Does it take adversity to make us truly grateful? Wouldn’t it be nice if we were grateful all the time? While I’ve been mulling over these scriptures this week in preparation for the sermon, I’ve discovered how often I’m anything but grateful. One of my best friends recently bought a Craftsman home near UW. Now every time I pass a beautiful Craftsman home, I wish I could buy one. Steve and I are agreed that we will never buy another home—it just doesn’t make sense at this time in our lives. But I am by nature a romantic and one of the manifestations of that romanticism is that I wonder what it would be like to live in almost every community that I drive through. Romanticism is the bright side of what I am thinking and feeling. The shadow side is envy. Instead of being grateful for my home and family and friends and neighbors, I’m envious. I wish I had what I see others with: a bigger home, a more beautiful lawn or garden, a gorgeous view, or better taste. I’m envious of tall people, and thin people, and people with a sense of style and grace—I’m really envious of elegant people. I envy people who can make music and people with beautiful voices.
    Envy is a sin. You know I don’t talk as much about sin as I do about how much God loves us. But envy is a sin precisely because it questions how much God loves us. It’s a challenge to God’s providence in our lives. Envy says that I think somebody else got a better deal than I did or that I haven’t gotten what I deserve or want. I have a friend with two daughters who taught me a valuable lesson. When one of her daughters complained that she was being treated unfairly—that the other sister got something better—my friend would say, “That’s because I like her better.” At first I was aghast, but my friend explained that she was only saying what the daughter who felt she was slighted already believed. And because she said it often and in front of both girls, they began to get the point. There was no favorite daughter. Each sister was different, with unique gifts and needs, each received what she needed, and both were loved equally.
    I remember being the guest of a woman for lunch a couple of years ago in a lovely restaurant in Seattle—the kind I would never have known about were I not her guest. I got out of my car in the middle of a cold, windy November downpour and I had had to walk several blocks to meet her. I was bundled under a soggy coat with a hood that fell down over my eyes. She met me on the corner near the restaurant and tried to protect me with her umbrella, but the damage was already done. Everything about me was drenched. When I took off my waterlogged coat to give to the maitre d’, half my sweater went with it. I couldn’t get my sweater back on because it was tangled in my purse strap. I looked like a drowned rat, and clumsy to boot, and my hostess was tall, beautiful, elegant, and dry. At the end of our lunch as I schlepped into my cold, wet coat, struggling to balance purse and day planner, I wondered aloud why grace is so elusive some days. The title of Mark Medoffs’ play, Children of a Lesser God, describes how I felt. My hostess seemed to have a more generous God than mine—or as my friend’s children would say, God liked her better. Do you see how subversive envy is in even the smallest situations? My envy questioned God’s fairness and love.
    I wasn’t grateful for the car that was waiting in the parking garage, or the money in my purse to pay the parking fee. I wasn’t grateful for the work to which I returned that afternoon that makes my heart sing, I wasn’t grateful for my gifts that made our conversation about ministry over lunch valuable to my hostess. I only saw what I lacked and not what God had given me. I only focused on what I wished that I had instead of the other kinds of grace that surrounded me. I want you to take just one minute and write down on your bulletin, or list in your mind, the times you have been envious just this past week. What were you envious of? What do you wish you had instead of what you do have in resources, gifts, or graces?
    Back to the wedding. I spent the two days of the rehearsal and wedding often standing next to the wedding hostess, a lovely woman with whom I was in a prayer and study group for three years. We had a chance to catch up on what had happened in our lives over the previous seven years. With each change in her life, Mary added, “We are so blessed! God has been good.” It was like a refrain in a song. Over and over again, “We are so blessed! God has been good.” Mary’s song of thanksgiving was woven in with the groom’s. Very different life circumstances, but one faithful and generous God whose love cannot be diminished even by our lack of recognition. Even when envy clouds our eyes, God is faithful. Even when our health fails, God is faithful. Even when we are doing well and forget that God is the source of our life and all that we have, God is faithful. Even when the future is uncertain, and we are afraid, God is faithful. Let us give God thanks and praise.

Let us pray.
God of grace and mercy,
You are the source of every good gift.
You clothe the lilies of the field,
You feed the birds of the air,
And you care as much for each one of us.
We ask you to lift the burdens we carry about our well-being,
Grant us peace in our hearts
And reliance on your provision
That we may be free from worry
And generous with our time, talents, and resources.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Children of the Resurrection

Job 19:23-27a
Luke 20:27-38

     This is the time of year that, whether the lectionary directs us that way or not, we naturally ponder death and the possibility of new life.  It’s autumn.  The leaves have changed color to brilliant golds, and reds, and a color of rosy orange that is as luminous as fire.  Slowly the leaves began to let go of the tree and float gracefully to the ground or dance momentarily on a whisper of a breeze.  But eventually the November winds strip the remaining leaves from the trees, the skies turn leaden, and winter rains blur the skeltons of once glorious trees.  Everything is gray.  The earth has entered its season of dying.  In spite of our intellect and sophistication, we are creatures of the earth and we notice.
     But we also know that the trees will bud again late in winter and that spring will bring new blossoms and the promise of summer shade.  Human beings in every culture have pondered the cycle of death and new life.  Some have imagined re-birth as reincarnation, the life force incarnated again, made flesh, in a new way.  Others have imagined an afterlife of reward and punishment.  Most people expect that human life will follow the cycle of nature.  That’s why it’s surprising to find that the Sadducees did not expect there to be life after death.  Perhaps they were willfully denying the Zoroastrian vision of heaven and hell that the Jews wove into their theology during their exile in Persia.  Certainly they were in the minority.  The Pharisees believed in resurrection, as did most other Jews.  But the Sadducees thought they had a puzzle that would not only trip Jesus with the Law, but would also prove, with clarity, their point. 
     Referring to the Law in the 25th chapter of Deuteronomy, they asked Jesus about the fate of a woman and the seven brothers she marries in succession.  According to the levirate law, when a man died without producing heirs, his brother had the responsibility to take his widow as his wife so that her children would carry her first husband’s name “so that his name would not be blotted out of Israel.”  The levirate law is a means of insuring remembrance—a way of enforcing one means of life after death—and a means of caring for women in a patriarchal society.  If you read Deuteronomy 25:5-10, you will see that this was a problematic practice.  But it is the basis of many stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, from Tamar and Judah, to Ruth and Boaz.  The Sadducees present Jesus with this hypothesis:  what happens when a woman marries all of seven brothers after the first dies?  To whom is she married in heaven? 
     Jesus says that after they die, each of these, the woman and the seven brothers, will find themselves in a way of being in which they do not marry or find themselves married.  Now that’s not a thought that most of us embrace when we think of heaven.  One of the great comforts when we lose a loved one is the thought of meeting them when we join them on the other side of death.  I know one retired pastor whose father made sure each child knew as they were growing up at which gate they would meet in heaven—sort of like agreeing on a meeting spot at the fair if the family gets separated.  Wives long to see their husbands again, children want to see their parents.  When Jesus says that we’ll be like angels, we hope that our loved ones will be hovering over us with their angel wings to guard and protect us.  If there is any passage in scripture, especially among the words of Jesus, that are completely ignored, it’s Luke 20:34 and 35.  And that’s okay.  That’s not what Jesus really wants to convey.  He wants to say that the children of God are children of the resurrection.  And we need to live like we believe it.  Jesus goes on to say that God is God not of the dead—that’s the heresy that the Sadducees proclaim.  No, God is God not of the dead, but of the living.  When Moses asked God’s name, he heard the great I AM statement:  I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.  Not only is God alive, but Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive with God.  Jesus serves the God of Life for whom death is not the last word. 
     One of my chaplain friends visited in the room of a four year old cancer patient at Children’s Hospital one day.  This little tyke’s head was bald, and there were big dark circles under her eyes.  She was so sick, but listen to what she shared about how she felt.  She said, “My body is sick, and it looks bad, but inside, my spirit is dancing.”  Her spirit dances!  This little one is a child of the resurrection.
     In Peru, participants at retreats on the spirituality of Christian nonviolence, create a dry cross on the floor of the retreat center as they name those who have been killed:  “In memory of a young lad killed by the investigative police”; “for Sister Augustina”; “for the mother president of our mothers’ clubs. . . .”  That awful cross will lie there for several days.  People kneel by it and weep over their memories and sorrows. . . .
     But after the communion of the closing liturgy, everyone is invited to bring in fresh greens and flowers . . . . The cross is covered with color and life.  It becomes the Tree of Life, a banner of hope. . . . And then the participants embrace one another with tears of hope and renewed joy and go back to their people.  They are children of the resurrection.
     The oldest piece of Judeo-Christian writing that we have is the book of Job.  In it, Job endures financial ruin, horrible grief at the death of his children, and finally great physical suffering, all the time railing at God, and demanding answers to his suffering.  You see there are many ways to react to suffering!  But in the end, Job believes that whether he lives or dies, he will see the face of God and that it will be the face of the One who loves him.  Listen to the Job’s testimony:

O that my words were written down!
    O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
    they were engraved on a rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
    and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
    then in (or without) my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side (or for myself),
    and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
                                        Job 19:23-27a
Job is a child of the resurrection.

     God is the God of Life and not death.  You and I are children of the resurrection.  Ours is the business of living an abundant Life.  We are to bring Life to every situation we enter.  Just as we plant tulips in the autumn soil, knowing that the frozen earth cannot kill them—they will break through with glorious blooms in their time—we must plant Life even in times of gathering darkness.  We are children of the resurrection and we shall see God for ourselves—our eyes shall behold God, for God is the God of Life. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Restorative Prayer

November 3, 2013

Isaiah 1:10-20
Luke 19:1-10

    For the past six weeks we have been in the middle of a single conversation that began this way at the beginning of chapter 15:
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
First, Jesus told three parables of the lost and found (a sheep, a coin, a son), to this crowd that included tax collectors, an otherwise unspecified group called sinners, disciples, Pharisees, and scribes, concluding each parable with an earthly celebration of friends and neighbors and rejoicing in heaven. (Luke 15)

    Jesus followed the lost and found stories with a parable about a dishonest manager who squandered his master’s property. When he realized that his dishonesty had been discovered, he quickly forgave portions of the debts owed to his master so that he would be welcomed by them into the eternal homes when he was discharged. The moral of the story was to make friends for yourselves with dishonest money because no one can serve two masters—you cannot serve God and wealth. (Luke 16:1-13)

    The Pharisees and scribes ridiculed Jesus because they loved money. (Luke 16:14)

    Jesus fired back with the parable of the unnamed rich man and poor Lazarus, the starving homeless man who slept outside the rich man’s gates. When he died, Lazarus was carried by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man died, was buried, and found himself being tormented in Hades. Abraham refused to allow Lazarus to cross the deep chasm that separated the poor, who had finally entered their reward and comfort, to tend the misery of those who had been comfortable in earthly life. And by the way, you can’t say nobody told you—Moses and the prophets did a fine job of explaining God’s justice. (Luke 16:19-31)

    And further more, Jesus says, if you cause a little one to stumble, you’d be better off if you had a millstone tied around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. And if anybody sins against you and repents, you have to forgive. I think it was the millstone thing, although it could have been the forgiveness thing, which made the disciples throw up their hands and plead for more faith. Which Jesus countered with the first century equivalent of “Just do it!” Do what God requires simply because God requires it—and believe it or not, it’s for your own good. Don’t expect to be rewarded for doing what is expected of you. Period. Faith is a matter of following the law and the prophets. (Luke 17:1-10)

    There are a couple of interruptions in this particular discourse, and some time passes. But Jesus returns to his theme with two more parables. In one, a widow has to keep badgering an unjust judge to win her case. Faith equals persistent insistence on justice in an unjust system. (Luke 18:1-8) In the other a Pharisee uses his prayer to brag on himself, while a tax collector is seen beating his breast at a distance, begging God for mercy. (Luke 18:9-14)

    C.S. Song, an Asian Christian theologian, imagines in his book The Believing Heart, that Jesus watched people and wove what he saw into his parables. Imagine with me for a moment. Imagine that Zacchaeus is one of the tax collectors in the crowd on that first day when the Pharisees grumbled. Could he identify with the dishonest manager, he was a chief tax collector, and with the unjust judge as well? Could he have a homeless beggar sleeping outside his gates? He was a rich man. Have widows begged him for mercy?

    When Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was passing through Jericho, he climbed a tree to get a better view at the itinerant preacher. Why do you think Jesus singled Zacchaeus out of the crowd? Because he was perched in a tree? Maybe. But maybe Jesus recognized the tax collector he saw praying and beating his breast in the temple, sitting in that tree. Maybe Jesus wanted to know about the agony in his prayer. He called out, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

    And our story comes full circle. Now, not just the Pharisees, but all who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Hadn’t anyone been listening? But this time Zacchaeus tells them why! Zacchaeus had been listening. It couldn’t have been easy for him if he really was the tax collector Jesus saw praying in the temple. It meant searching his soul, acknowledging his actions and owning the results of his actions. It meant looking deeply at this relationship to others and owning his part in the cause and effect of poverty. But when he figured out how to make amends, he was free! “Look,” he says to Jesus, “half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

    Can’t you see the joy on Zacchaeus’ face?! He got it! He got the gospel message! He heard what Jesus had been saying and he committed himself to action. He saw himself in the parables, his heart was touched by compassion, and he did what he could, with the dishonest wealth he had acquired in serving the Roman Empire, on behalf of the poor. He determined to repent of the fraud he had committed by repaying not double, but two times double—four times! Compassion had come to his house. Justice had come to his house. And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” Can’t you see the joy on Jesus’ face?! The good news broke through. Real people can make a real difference and bring about the kingdom of God.

    Let’s talk for a minute about the word “salvation.” I grew up hearing the question, “Are you saved?” understanding it to mean, “Have you made a decision for Christ?” It could also be interpreted, “Are you going to heaven instead of hell?” I have grown to understand the gospel to make very clear that salvation is a communal idea. Salvation means wholeness and healing, not a ticket to heaven. And it comes from making the community whole and well. Salvation came to Zacchaeus’ home when he obeyed the sum of the law and the prophets: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Zacchaeus got it. He loved God enough to love his neighbor as much as he loved himself. Salvation came to Zacchaeus’ home when justice was accomplished. There was a celebration at Zacchaeus’ house that day, and great rejoicing in heaven.

          Our prayer life should lead us to seek restorative justice. We need to take a long look at how our actions cause injustice, or how we are complicit in continuing injustice. Let me give you a very small example. I greatly admire a woman who learned enough about how coffee is grown and picked that she decided she would only drink fair trade, shade grown coffee to enable poor farmers to make enough money to educate their children and to protect the environment. But fair trade, shade grown coffee is considerably more expensive than coffee that comes in a can. Because she was on a limited income she learned to drink less and savor her coffee, knowing that her decision was restoring justice for people she would never meet. You’ve made a similar decision with the coffee that you buy for the church. The people on this island are more environmentally conscious than any place I’ve lived. How do we as Christ’s representatives in our community stand for restorative justice? How do we create justice in our small circle of influence? In our homes, families, work places, and communities? I invite you to spend some time in prayer searching each of the stories in the four chapters of Luke leading up to the story of Zacchaeus, chapters 15-18 to see if one of those stories speaks to your life.

          May salvation come to your house and this church in a powerful way as we work to make the community whole and well. Remember, salvation came to Zacchaeus’ home when he heard the stories of Jesus and recognized his own behavior in them. Salvation came to his home when his prayer convicted him and he repented of his part in causing others harm. Salvation came to his home when he chose to make reparations—to create restorative justice. Salvation came to his home when he obeyed the sum of the law and the prophets: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Zacchaeus got it. He loved God enough to love his neighbor as much as he loved himself. May it be so for us as well and may there be great rejoicing in heaven.