Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Blessing (even if your room is messy)

I am indebted to my youngest daughter for the title of todays sermon.  I looked in on her in her room one day and it was cluttered.  (it was always cluttered)  I mentioned that her ceiling was really neat - nothing cluttering there.   I dropped in later in the afternoon and the ceiling was covered with posters.  That made me smile and I realized that I loved her  even if I couldn’t see the floor of her room.  I told her that.  
(now please don’t think that I am saying a  messy room is always ok - you may think differently than I do about that - but that is a different issue - a separate issue.
I also realize that I am talking to mostly grandparents, but we are still in the blessing business.  In fact I think that is our main business.  Parents believe that they have to train their children, but grandparents can just love them and bless them to death
In her book, MY GRANDFATHER’S BLESSINGS Rachel Remen writes about the blessings she got from her grandfather.
 On Friday afternoons when I would arrive at my grandfathers house after school, the tea would already be set on the kitchen table………After we had finished our tea my grandfather would set two candles on the table and light them.  The he would have a word with God inHebrew.  Sometimes he would speak out loud, but often he would close his eyes and be quiet.  I knew then that he was talking to God in his heart.  I would sit and wain patiently because the best part of the week was coming.When Grandpa finished talking to God, he would turn to me and say, ‘Come Neshume-le.’  Then I would stand up in front of him and he would rest his hands lightly on top of my head.  He would begin by thanking God for me and for making him my grandpa. He would specifically mention my struggles during that week and tell God something about me that was true.  Each week I would wait to find out what that was.    If I had made mistakes during the week he would mention my honesty in telling the truth.  If I had failed, he would appreciate how hard I had tried.  IF I had taken even a short nap without my nightlight, he would celebrate my bravery in sleeping in the dark.  Then he would give me his blessing and ask the long-ago women I knew from his many stories- Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah, and Leah-to watch over me. These few moments were the only time in my week when I felt completely safe and at rest.    (My Grandfathers Blessing.  Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.  page 22)
This biblical story Laura read for us this morning reads like a play.   Jacob and Esau both wanted the same thing from their father.  I have read some explanations of the blessing, but those explanations leave me with some unanswered questions.
Why could Isaac but bless one child?
  What did the meal mean?
Why did Isaac wait until he was on his death bed to give the blessing?
I don’t find any clear answers for those questions.
On the other hand some things were very clear.
The emotional urgency of the situation  is clear.
  The desire of the blessing of a parent is clear.
   (Don’t we all want that)
Think about the depth of this longing in Jacob’s life.
He obviously had the blessing of his mother.
   But look at the lengths he was willing to go to get it from his father.
He was willing to lie and cheat;     he impersonated his brother - fraud any way you look at it.  He brought in a dish made with lamb and said that it was venison.  That is the Biblical story.
But what is the significance for our lives?
It seems to me that the blessings in our lives has something to do with the quality of the relationship we have with persons who are important to us.
It is, at the very least a deep sense of affirmation;
  a strong sense of approval;
    unconditional love.
I think that is something we all  want / need.
In the story of the prodigal son which was read a couple of weeks ago, we heard that he had the blessing of his father;  he was given his inheritance early; he was  welcomed home with a barbecue.
Think about your own life.        Who was it who blessed you?  Who was it  whose eyes lit up when you came in the room?
Who was it who gave you their love without any strings attached.
Nothing required to earn that love;  you didn’t have to keep your room neat; you didn’t have to be careful not to bring your muddy shoes into the house; or get good grades.  Nothing like that.
For me it was my grandmother Ellis; it was my aunt Mary.  (When I called my aunt to tell her that my first wife and I were getting divorced her immediate response was .  “you know I am on your side.”  She didn’t even ask if there were sides to be taken))
She knew where she stood and so did I.
That, I would suggest, is blessing.
Who was that for you?
Who was it who blessed you?
??????????  Congregation response   Who was it who blessed you?
“My family of physicians and health professionals were always struggling to learn more and to be more. It seemed there was always more to know.  It was never enough.  If i brought home a 98 on a test from school my father would ask, ‘and what happened to the other two points?’  I pursued those two points relentlessly throughout my childhood.  But my grandfather did not care about such things.  For him, I was already enough..  And somehow when I was with him, I knew with absolute certainty that this was so . . . . . . . 
Many years later when, in her extreme old age, my mother surprisingly began to light candles and talk to God herself, I told her about these blessings and what they had meant to me.  She had smiled at me sadly, ‘I have blessed you every day of your life, Rachel’ she told me. ‘I just never had to wisdom to do it out loud.’ “ (op.cit. Page 23}

Those blessings were withheld, not because Rachel was somehow unworthy. but because her mother was somehow incapable of giving them. In his play, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, Tenessee Williams has the oldest son, who is determined to get his father’s blessing say to his father,
“you told me to get married,  I got married.
You told me to have a child.   I had a child
You told me to become a lawyer.   I became a lawyer.
What do I have to do to please you?”
 If our parents can’t bless us they can’t bless us.  There is nothing we can do to change that.  I believe that those are times we need to look to God for blessing. I believe many of us can tell how our hearts have been warmed as we feel God’s presence; how we know with certainty that we are important to God - we receive the blessing.
I also believe that we get those blessings from other folks; we need each other.  I have a friend who talks about getting the blessing from her next door neighbor; a woman who could listen to her when her stepmother couldn’t.
As we were packing up to move to Washington a member of the congregation stopped by to say, “everything I know about unconditional love I learned from you.”  I don’t remember speficly  teaching about unconditional love but she heard it.  A shop owner brought a dozen roses to thank me for all the help I had given her.  I remember having some conversations with her, but nothing I thought of as helping.
Those were blessings - which somehow set us free to be our own best self.
I believe that a big part of being our best self is to pass the blessing on.  Jesus did that in his ministry, and we have the same power; to bless others
I think that the source of all blessings is God.  It is not something we generate within ourselves.  It comes to rest in us, and then we are called to pass it on.  Something important happens in our souls when we hear and when we speak the blessing to another person.  I find myself humbled by the power of someones blessing.
My prayer for all of us is that we have receptive and generous hearts to be able to receive and pass on the blessings which come to us.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

God with Arms Wide Open

Romans 8:31-39
Luke 15:11-32

There is an old story, maybe you’ve heard it, about an old woman who grew up in Methodist churches.  When she was telling her preacher what she wanted at the end of her life, she asked to be buried with a fork.  The preacher asked her about her unusual request.  She said, “All these years at potlucks, we’ve told people when we picked up dishes to keep their forks because dessert was on the way.  I want to remind my children that the best is yet to come.”  This is the last sermon in a year-long series based on Brian McLaren’s book, We Make the Road by Walking and Brian McLaren has saved the best readings for the last.  In the end, after all that we have read, what can we say for sure about God, about who God is, and about how God will deal with human beings?
Let’s start with the story that Jesus told to bunch of Pharisees who criticized him for eating with sinners.  This is a parable for the church.  
There was once a man who had two sons . . . .
One son did everything wrong for all the wrong reasons.  He did not appreciate his father’s care and provision.  He wanted to be free to make his own choices and his own way in the world.  He was young and foolish and he wasted his whole inheritance until he had nothing and found himself feeding pigs, the lowest of the low, and so hungry, he would gladly have eaten pig slop.  When he hit bottom and finally came to himself he made a plan to go home and ask his father if he could become one of his hired hands.   But he never got to use his repentance speech.  While he was still at a distance, his father saw him and sent his servants to get a robe and a ring and sandals to cover his destitution and return him to his status as child and heir and to prepare a feast to celebrate the one who was lost returning.  And then the father ran with arms wide open to meet his son.  There were no words of recrimination.  There was no lecture.  There was no penance to be done.  The lost was found!  A son was home at last!
But that’s not the end of the story.  There was another son out in the field.  This is the part that is for the church.  This son did everything right for all the wrong reasons, and refused to go into his home to celebrate the return of his brother.  He resented never having a party thrown in his honor in spite of his hard work.  He worked hard to earn his father’s love and pleasure and resented not being rewarded for his efforts.  The older son shouted at this father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”  In his anger and self-righteousness he accused his brother of the worst sins he could think of.
Both sons were lost—one by his actions, and one by his self-righteousness.
Neither one was home.  The younger brother came to himself and came home and was welcomed.  There was nothing wrong with the older brother’s faithful obedience and hard work, until he wanted to shut the door in his brother’s face.  His jealousy over his father’s extravagant welcome blinded him to the love he had received all his life.  He thought he was earning his father’s love by his hard work.  He didn’t know his father’s love had surrounded him since birth.  He didn’t know he didn’t need to earn it and that he couldn’t lose it.  At the end of the story we don’t know whether the older brother will come in and join the party or whether he will become alienated and storm off on his own.

In Jesus’ time, the temple had been taken over by older brothers.  Even with this story in our Bibles, the church has gotten really good at telling the first part of this story as the model for repentance.  There are plenty of songs we could have sung today about coming home that are written from the older brother’s viewpoint.  They involve a lot of groveling and name calling.  “Come home, come home . . . oh, sinner, come home.”  But Jesus tells us that in the end, we are never outside of God’s love, whether we ignore God altogether, actively run away from God, or spend our lives trying to earn God’s favor.  God loves us no matter what.

That doesn’t mean that God approves of everything we do.  We can make horrible decisions and we can harm others and ourselves.  I imagine that breaks God’s heart rather than stirring wrath and anger.  As many of you know, Steve and I are advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse.  We’ve been doing this work for about 15 years.  We work with the victims in seeking just resolutions.  We work toward keeping the Church faithful by holding offending pastors accountable for their actions.  I’ve seen the damage done to victims and churches and it makes me furious and I have been very unforgiving.  That changed when one of the best preachers I’ve heard, the Rev. Gordon Lathrop, a Lutheran theologian and seminary professor, was in Seattle to lecture at the Summer Institute for Liturgy and Worship.  Gordon asked the board of the Institute to be sure that his long-time friend Jeff Smith would be at his lecture.  You may know that Jeff was a defrocked minister who became a television chef.  While he was famous as the frugal gourmet, he was notorious in the church.  Gordon and Jeff had been friends since seminary.  At that time, Jeff was very ill and it required great effort to get him to the lecture.  Two days later, Jeff died.  There is a prayer for memorial services in our book of worship that I seldom use.  On the day that Jeff died, Gordon Lathrop prayed it for him in our worship service:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior,
   we commend your servant Jeffrey Smith.
Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you,
   a sheep of your own fold,
   a lamb of your own flock,
   a sinner of your own redeeming.
None of us are outside the fold and all of us need redeeming.
Jesus tells us that God is like a father who will not, cannot stop loving us.  One of my friends had a son that would not quit picking on his younger siblings when he was left in charge.  My friend was furious and frustrated with his behavior, but she loved all of her children, and was determined to keep them all safe, even if it meant finding another place for the oldest son to live if he wouldn’t change his behavior.  I learned a lot about God from that mother.  We live with the consequences of our behavior, but that does not diminish God’s love for us.  We live by and through and in God’s amazing grace.  “Grace means that there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and grace means that there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.”  Those words are on the front of your bulletin so that you can take them home.
The apostle Paul put it this way:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”    God is always waiting to welcome us home—today and tomorrow and until the end of the age—with arms wide open.


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Spirit of Life

Philippians 1:20-30
Luke 20:27-38

Before I entered seminary, I volunteered as a chaplain at Valley Medical Center in Renton.  Every Friday night I went from room to room listening to and praying with individuals and family members that requested a chaplain.  My constant companion was a little book by Ron DelBene, called Into the Light: A Simple Way to Pray with the Sick and the Dying.  Ron DelBene developed the breath prayer.  Perhaps you’ve heard of it.  It is a prayer tool that is very helpful when you do not have the strength to pray.  You start by naming God or Jesus in the way you normally pray, then sum up your deepest need in a few words.  That’s it.  For instance, if peace is what I need, my breath prayer might be: Loving God, give me peace.  It’s that simple.  It’s a prayer that can be said in one breath.  When Ron DelBene was a chaplain, he would write a patient’s breath prayer on a card and ask nurses and visitors to pray the patient’s prayer for them.  I’ve helped many people write breath prayers and used them myself from time to time.  I want you to remember breath prayers when I come back, at the end of the sermon, to a story that changed Ron DelBene’s understanding of death.
Our scriptures this morning are concerned with what happens after we die.  That’s a huge question for human beings, and not one for which we have a very good answer.  The Sadducees in the gospel lesson were Jews that did not believe in an afterlife.  They tried to mock Jesus by setting up a ridiculous scenario to embarrass him.  It was Jewish tradition for a woman who was childless at the death of her husband to marry one of his brothers or another kinsman to provide offspring for her late husband and children to care for her in her old age.  So the Sadducees proposed a woman who married each of seven brothers trying to get a child, only to have each one die.  To whom then was she married in heaven?  Jesus’ answer is not one that is very comforting.  He says that we will not marry in heaven—not what those of us who long to be reunited with loved ones want to hear, but that is not Jesus’ point.  Jesus uses the question to assure us that our lives go on in God.  
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.  Moses speaks of 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 several years ago.  Her little head was bald, and there were big dark circles under her eyes.  She is so sick, but listen to her spirit.  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 this life.  We are children of the resurrection—just as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who lived and died long before Jesus.
Jesus claims that our eternal life has already begun.  All of us will experience death.  No one escapes.  Not even the comedian who claims he will live forever—so far so good.  We will all die.  But we don’t need to be afraid of death.  Brian McLaren suggests a way to think about death.  He writes:
We often speak of God as the one who was, who is, and who is to come.  The God who was holds all our past.  The God who is surrounds us now.  And the God who is to come will be there for us beyond this life as we know it. . . .Death simply means leaving the presence of God in this little neighborhood of history called the present.  Through death, we join God in the vast, forever-expanding future, into which both past and present are forever taken up.
Our bodies are mortal, but our spirits are eternal.  Those of us who are older know that our bodies begin to let us down.  Knees and hips and internal organs simply wear out.  But the Holy Spirit tells us that we are always God’s beloved children who are known in every way by our Creator and whose spirits never die.  
I am often asked what we can expect when we die.  I don’t know.  I have not had that adventure yet.  And I’m happy waiting for a whole lot longer to experience it.  But I am not afraid because of the stories I have heard and the peace I have seen.  Remember Ron DelBene and his breath prayer?   I have heard enough stories from people I know and love to trust the veracity of the story he shares about journeying with Karen and Jim.  Karen was dying of cancer.  She had chosen a breath prayer, “Let me come to you, O God,” and shared it with her husband, Jim, and the rest of her family.  One day Ron’s wife met him in the driveway to say that Jim had called from the hospital.  When Karen woke up that morning her pain was unbearable.  They went to the emergency room, but the hospital would not do anything for her unless she was admitted.  DelBene writes:
The three of us had talked at length about Karen’s wanting to die at home while sitting in her recliner and looking out the window at a familiar scene.  Now that was impossible. . . .
Ron called Jim at the hospital.  He writes:
Briefly I recapped what needed to be done: “Remember what we’ve talked about, Jim.  When it’s time, Karen will tell you.  Although it’ll be hard for you, begin to say her breath prayer out loud.  Maybe she’ll say it with you and maybe not.  Whatever, just keep saying it.  After saying her prayer for a while, ask her to look for Jesus.  When she sees him, tell her to take his hand and go with him.  You got all that?”
He said that he did.  I asked him to give Karen my love and hung up.
Later that same afternoon, I had a call from Jim:  Karen had died.
I met with Jim the following day and asked that he tell me what happened.  “It was really something,” he said and shook his head, still a bit bewildered.  After you called, Karen whispered, ‘What’d he say, Jim?’  I repeated what you told me on the phone.  No sooner had I finished telling her than she jerked a little and touched her heart.  ‘Jim,’ she said, ‘I think this is it.’”
Tears filled Jim’s eyes as he told how he felt as if the floor had fallen out from under him.  Even though I had just talked to him about what to do, his mind went blank.  “I just grabbed her hand,” he said.  “I was desperate!  Then—honest to God, Ron—the strangest thing happened.  It was like a power I had never experienced before came over me.  Almost without my being aware of it, I was saying, ‘Let me come to you, O God.  Let me come to you, O God.  Look for Jesus, Karen.  Do you see him?’
“ ‘No,’ Karen said weakly.
“I kept on saying, ‘Let me come to you, O God.  Look for Jesus, Karen.  Let me come to you, O God.  Let me come to you, O God.  Do you see Jesus yet, Karen?’
“She just shook her head.”
Jim spoke as if every detail of the scene was being replayed in his mind.  “Let me come to you, O God.  Let me come to you, O God.  Do you see Jesus, Karen?
“ ‘Y. . . yes,’ she said softly.  ‘Yes.’
“ ‘Take his hand, Karen,’ I kept saying and repeating her prayer.  Then Karen turned to me; her eyes were open wide, and there was a kind of astonished look in them.  ‘Oh, Jim,’ she whispered, ‘it’s more than I ever expected!’  And at that moment she died.  For a long while I just sat there holding her hand and saying her prayer.”
Karen’s earthly sojourn was over.  She had made to passage to risen life and was not disappointed.  Her experience is a reminder to all of us never to hold onto what we think is the wholeness of God.  In the end, it is always more than we expect.

Your life and my life are safe in God’s hands.  We do not need to fear the time when we enter peacefully into the heart of God—the God of the living.  Our eternal life has already begun and will not end.  Such is God’s love and grace.