Wednesday, June 18, 2014

In Case of Tough Times Brake Here

Psalm 69:7-10, 16-18
Matthew 10: 24-33

Every once in a while, the lectionary drops us down in the middle of a conversation and we listen in without context.  Most daily devotionals do the same thing.  And we’re expected to understand and let what we’ve read inform our lives.  About this time last year, we turned off our DVD player at the end of a movie.  You know how you return to whatever show happens to be on the station you were last viewing?  I happened to catch a short scene in a highly rated television drama and it grabbed me.  What was that about?!  I knew the basic idea behind the show, but had never watched it before.  I was captivated.  I wanted to know more.  Unfortunately, the scene I saw was near the end of the third season.  So before I could watch any more, we had to catch up.  We spent all summer renting five episodes at a time so that when the fourth season started in the fall, we knew what was happening.

I have to tell you that I skipped ahead one week in the lectionary.  What we missed are the three verses at the end of Matthew in which Jesus sends his disciples, and the Church, forward in mission.  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  That was tacked on to the readings from John and Acts about the events after the resurrection and the Pentecost experience that birthed the Church.  Matthew’s ending doesn’t belong at the end of John’s gospel or near the beginning of Luke’s story in Acts.  It’s a lot like the mash up collages that get made at graduations—bits and pieces of your story gathered together by people who love you, moments that were captured, highlights and odd bits that are sometimes iconic and sometimes more meaningful to someone else.  Each photo tells part of a story:  that was the day I learned to ride bicycle, that’s my first dance, that’s where I won first prize.  The photos help you remember.

It’s harder for the Church, almost 2,000 years later, to put together the context of the story, because we keep looking at the gospels as collages or highlight reels.  This was the time Jesus walked on water.  Here’s where he healed a man who was blind.  This is the one where he argued with some Pharisees.  Listen to this story that he told.  Most TV shows will at least help you catch up before you plunge into this week’s episode, with the “Here’s what you missed,” segment at the beginning of an episode.

          So we just got dropped in the 10th chapter of Matthew’s gospel right after Jesus has healed a man who was paralyzed, two men who were blind, one who was mute, a little girl who was dying, a woman who had been sick for years, besides teaching and visiting a tax collector.  That was the 9th chapter.  We pick up the story, just after Jesus told his disciples that now it was their turn.  He divided them up into teams and gave them some instructions not unlike the words you hear at graduation, “Congratulations!  You’ve learned some things, you’ve thought about some things.  Now go and change the world!”  Here’s what Jesus told his disciples, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”  While they are looking dumbfounded, he tells them how to do this without cash in their pockets or a credit card, without hotel reservations, and without a network of contacts.  Just their skills, their faith, and God’s Spirit.  I can just hear one of the disciples say, “That’s too hard!” 

          And then Jesus tells them how hard it’s really going to be.  They’re going to make some people mad and they’re going to disappoint others.  Their decisions and opinions are going to cause division and conflict among even the people that they love.  They were given instructions to break social taboos and to challenge oppressive systems.  That’s hard.  It’s just as hard today to bring healing to family systems, and neighborhoods, and political and economic systems.  It’s hard to stand against violence and for peace.  After I compared the Church to Hogwarts in a sermon, Karen Lomax shared that what impressed her about the first Harry Potter book was that one of the characters earned 50 points for his house because he had the courage to stand up to his friends when he thought they were wrong.  It’s hard to say no to strangers, but so much harder to say no to people that you care about.  Sometimes healing begins by saying no:  no to oppression, no to abuse, no to destructive behaviors, no to our myriad of addictions, no to anything that harms others or ourselves. 

          And sometimes the hardest thing is to say yes to ideas that challenge the status quo or our worldview.  Sometimes healing begins by learning how to create win-win outcomes over win-lose outcomes.  Sometimes healing begins with a yes to self-care, yes to negotiation, yes to counseling or mediation, yes to compromise, yes to alternative solutions, yes to new ideas, yes to new life for others and  yourself.

          What Jesus is saying to his disciples, then and now, is that you can do hard things.  You can!  One of my students this year interned as a chaplain.  She asked why the seminary didn’t teach her how to be a chaplain before sending her into a room.  She had learned listening skills and had some opportunities to practice.  She had learned theology, church history, Bible interpretation, and how to study.  But no one had taught her how to do ministry.  That’s because it’s something we all learn by doing, just like riding a bicycle, swimming, parenting, or working in any other profession.  There is a lot of information that can be passed on, but we learn how to do the hardest things by doing them, and in the case of ministry and parenting and many other hard skills, by reflecting on our experiences so that we really do learn from the hard things we have to do.  Jesus sends his disciples, you and me, out into the world to do hard things with the confidence that we can do them.  We won’t make everyone happy, our choices may cause controversy or conflict, but if what we do is in the service of new and abundant life for others and for ourselves, Jesus promises that God will be with us—that we will be supported by the power of the Holy Spirit.  When the going gets tough as you are doing hard things, God is your support, the ground under your feet.  God’s community is a resting place, a refueling stop, a harbor in tough times.  Church, the place where we practice being the Beloved Community, serves as our launch pad and refuge when we are called to do hard things.  Whether we are just starting out on our own, are trying to regroup and start again, or are seasoned disciples, we all need encouragement and support when we attempt to do the next hard thing.  So when the going gets tough, stop to let God tend your soul and find new strength and power.  And remember, Jesus promised to be with us always, to the end of the age.”      

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


June 8, 2014
Acts 2:1-21
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 7:37-39

Easter and Pentecost were Jewish agricultural holy days long before they gained significance as Christian holy days.  I was reminded of that this week when I heard Miyoko say that she was hoping for dry weather this weekend so that her newly mown hay crop could dry out.  The resurrection occurred on the Feast of First Fruits, the day in which Israel celebrated the miracle of new growth springing from the earth that promised a harvest.  The Festival of Pentecost came 50 days later as Israel rejoiced in the fullness of that harvest.  The symbolic significance of the resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit on these two harvest holy days was not lost on the early Church.  The resurrection was only the beginning and promise of the fullness of God’s power breathed into the disciples, ordinary people like you and me.

And what a spectacle that first Pentacost was!  The disciples were gathered for the harvest feast when they became the harvest.  The power to preach fell on Peter, a hot headed, leap-before-you-look fisherman.  People either spoke or listened in other languages, words that went straight to the heart.  Fear disappeared, replaced by holy boldness.  The power of God burst out of the temple, the locus of worship, and into the people.   

What I love about our readings today, are the many and varied images of the Holy Spirit.  In Acts, on that first Pentecost, the Spirit was manifested in tongues of flame and a mighty, rushing wind.   A few weeks ago, images of flames fueled by Santa Ana winds in Southern California were a terrifying warning about the power of fire to destroy.  The two images are not all that far apart.  Let me read you the quote from Annie Dillard on the cover of you bulletin. 
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  We should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.  

The Holy Spirit unleashed at Pentecost is powerful and sometimes frightening.  Do we dare engage such a power?  Are we willing to give up our sense of control?  Are we willing to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by a vision of God’s radically inclusive Kingdom, and to begin to live it out though Spirit-empowered acts of welcome, compassion, grace, and service?  Are we ready to have Christ’s law of love written on our hearts, to have our way illumined by the Spirit’s fire and to be blown into unexpected relationship by the wind of the Spirit?  If we can answer yes, even just a little, the Pentecost experience will come to us, and we will never be the same. 

Some of us may indeed live our faith with a fiery intensity.  But others might find a more comforting image of the Spirit in Jesus’ description from John’s gospel, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”  Rivers of living water!  Life-giving, healing, cleansing water.  

Or the Spirit might be manifested in a shower of gifts for ministry.  Preaching, teaching, helping, encouraging, leading, and the list goes on.  The point is that the Holy Spirit makes us, you and me, into something new.  Gordon Lathrop writes that, “The most important symbol of Christ in the [sanctuary] is not the minister, not the altar, not even the bread and wine or the water in the font.  It is the assembly, the Body of Christ, as the New Testament says.”

The assembly—that’s you!  There’s an old adage that says, “When the building burns down, and the preacher leaves town, what’s left is the Church.”

You are breathed into life by the Holy Spirit.

You are the full harvest.

You have been given the manifested gifts of the Spirit to do more than even Jesus did.

You are like fireworks that light up the night sky.  And like fireworks, you come in a variety of shells: Roman candles, fountains, wagonwheels, crosettes, crysanthemums, waterfalls.  Fireworks aren’t spectacular until they are lit and burst from their shells.  May we have the courage to awaken to the power that has already been poured into us and light up the night sky.   

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Church as Hogwarts

Acts 1:1-11
Ephesians 1:15-23
John 17:1-11

One of the things that made the Harry Potter books and movies so popular was their ability to imagine an alternate reality existing alongside the ordinary world. In J.K Rowling’s world, wizards live a charmed and fantastical life in the same space and alongside muggles, ordinary people who have no powers. Wizards are able to move freely from one reality to the other. Wizards may be born to wizarding families, but they also might come from muggle homes if their gifts are discovered. The Harry Potter stories take place at Hogwarts, the boarding school where young wizards learn how to use their powers. Harry Potter is the orphaned child of wizards who is being raised by muggles, his aunt and uncle who have no tolerance for 

But Harry is invited to Hogwarts and there he learns about his parents and discovers his true identity. At Hogwarts he is taught how to use his powers and along the way he discovers that the source of the extraordinary protection he receives is his mother’s self-sacrificing love. Eventually he is willing to put his own life on the line for the benefit of others. I have Edward Foley to thank for what I think is a beautiful analogy of Hogwarts as a metaphor for the Church. As Hogwarts does for Harry and the other young wizards, the Church teaches us who we are, the beloved children of our Abba God. The Church teaches us what our powers are and how to use those powers. At Church we get to practice using those powers and we discover that the source of the spiritual protection and security we experience is our God’s self-sacrificing love modeled by Jesus and many saints through the ages. They in turn were willing to put their own lives on the line for the benefit of others—in service of the alternate reality that we call the Kingdom of God. Like the wizards of J.K. Rowling’s alternate world, we live in an alternate reality, the Kingdom of God, with the ability to navigate both worlds. 

Listen again to Jesus’ prayer in John.

 “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from 6 the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 is from you; 8 and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

The witness of the Johannine community is that on the night before he was  going to be executed by crucifixion, Jesus prayed for his disciples and for the renewal that he had started. I believe with all my heart that Jesus’ prayer of agony in the garden was for the mission of the church, the living out of the prophet’s vision to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’ favor—jubilee. It was not for the building of the church, or coffee hour, or adult Sunday school or youth Sunday school, or programs, or Vacation Bible School that Jesus prayed—as fine as all those things are. He prayed for the mission of the church spelled out in the parable of the judgment of the nations:

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. 1

The mission was more important to Jesus than his life; his compassion for those in need was more important than his own fear. It was not about him, it was about the coming of God’s Kingdom. After the ascension, following Jesus became an alternate reality for his disciples. I want us to keep our eyes on the Kingdom and on the future ministry of this church. It’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s about the radical love of God that is not served by our playing small or letting our ego or fear get in the way. I trust that God will provide for this church if we are about God’s mission. 

Because Jesus is the head of this church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. We exist to be the fullness of him who fills all in all with the radical love of God.Along with Paul, I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ may give usa spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him, 

Matthew 25:34-36so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which he has called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. . . .So that we might live fully into the alternate reality that is the now and coming Kingdom of God.