Thursday, February 21, 2008

Shadow of Denial (Luke 22:54-62)

I spent one semester of my seminary education at a school in England. In addition to adjusting to the cultural differences there, I also had to think about how to explain my program of study to people who were most familiar with the Church of England structure. To them, a seminary education means studying to be a priest, not a phrase I use often. Not to mention the fact that I truly felt uncomfortable at that time when someone asked me what kind of work I planned to do.

It is not that I did not want to be a pastor or harbor hope in my heart that it would work out, but more I dreaded the look of shock on people’s faces and then the inevitable flood that comes after such an admission. By freely confessing to my profession, I have opened floodgates to hear about dislike of church structure, confusion about church history, questions about religious practices and, most frightful of all, desire to question someone about God. The potential for this deluge made me keep my finger in the dike by not mentioning my program of study or my sense of call to ministry.

Then one day, I was walking back from the grocery store and I saw her. On the raised edge of the sidewalk, away from the street, sat an elderly woman, a woman I later figured out was in her early 80s. She was sitting with her bags of groceries around her feet and she was breathing heavily. I looked at my own two grocery bags and then at her four. I thought about how I was planning to get back to my apartment before a campus event that night. Then I stopped and asked if she was all right.

I ended up offering to carry her groceries for her after she caught her breath. We walked up the sidewalk together, past my school, past the roundabout, through a park. I finally asked where she lived and then she named a town three miles from where we were. Not only had I committed to carrying her groceries home, we stopped every 300 yards or so for her to catch her breath, so this was going to be a long, long three miles.

So I settled in for the walk and we talked as we slowly moved. She told me about her job as a secretary during the Second World War and about her children. She discussed her life in the Cambridge area and why she still liked to walk into town for her groceries. As fascinating as her tales were, when she stopped speaking, her short-term memory would let her down and she would look at me and ask why I was in England. In terms of experiences I never thought I would have, explaining that I was studying to be a priest- over and over- to an eighty-years-plus English woman while I carried her groceries three miles, a trip that took two hours.

Eventually I learned that as a young girl, this woman had been a Methodist and considered becoming a minister, but they did not yet ordain women. Each time she asked what I was doing and I re-explained myself, I would learn something new about her and hear a new hope about the church’s preparedness for women ministers. When I left her, with her groceries, she said to me, “In the war, we knew what we hoped for, but didn’t know if it would happen. So we would say to one another, ‘Steady on.’”

When I think about Peter’s denial, I think of how easy it would have been to tell her anything else other than the truth. She would not have remembered and I would not have had to explain something new each time. Yet the experience taught me something about the carrying of the hopes and dreams of others. Through this woman’s life story and questions, I learned the truth that our lives are not only our own, but are touched and shaped by those around us, some of whom we do not know.

When we deny the gifts God has given us, when we walk by the man lying by the side of the road, when we promise to do whatever “the next time”, we find ourselves standing beside Peter- listening to the cock crow. Because we do not earn the gift of salvation, God’s grace grants us the opportunity and the freedom to be our best selves. We glimpse the fulfillment of that when we share the gifts and talents we have. When we are honest about our blessedness, seeing how much we have been given, we step out of the shadow of denial and into the warmth of known communion with God.

Not denying Christ is not just about being able to say what your vocation is or being a Samaritan in an obvious way. We are called into faithful relationships with our families, our church, our community and all of God’s creation. Daily opportunities present themselves to look into the eyes of the Lord by meeting some need you see. We all hope to do the right thing at the right time and yet we will all fall short of. But in that moment, our Savior looks at us as he did at Peter, and tells us, “I forgive you. I love you. Steady on.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

House of Prayer

So the church at which I work has been broken into and vandalized twice in the past week. This is in spite of the alarm system that was installed after six similar break-ins last year. The recent entries resulted in smashed windows, but no theft. The perpetrator is probably seeking cash, but there also seems to be an element of power-wielding and vengeance. The clean up from each break-in is more than simple removal of broken glass and replacing windows. We also have to look for healing in our hearts and our community that feels ever more violated and hurt and numbed by each experience.

This week when I was praying about this situation, I thought about Jesus cleansing the temple. As he threw out those who were selling offerings, providing monetary exchanges and making the temple into a general store, Jesus cried out, "My house was designated a house of prayer for the nations; you've turned it into a hangout for thieves."

These break-ins have not only violated our sense of community space, but also our sense of what church is about. Moments here, both sacred and mundane, are all fringed with the comforting knowledge of the Spirit and the gifts of God. It isn't that we are taken aback by the ways of the world (always), but that we don't expect to see that kind of violence and pain in a place of healing.

My prayers this week have been more along the lines of Psalm 137, than Luke 23:34. Yet we will gather again tonight and on Sunday to do what the Church has always done. We will worship and we will pray. This time we will pray for the cleansing of the temple from the specter of violence and violation. And we'll pray for the one(s) who continue to visit us- that they will know justice and, ultimately, peace. And we'll pray that God makes our positive prayers true in our hearts, but sustains us through the prayers that come from darkness, desperation and defenselessness.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Shadow of Betrayal (Sermonette 2/13)

Mark 14:17-21

I am starting to feel kind of frustrated at the darkness of the sermon texts that always seem to fall into my lap. This past Sunday, I preached on suffering, temptation and endurance. I believe one of the last times I stood here for a Wednesday night service, I preached about doubt. And today, we’re looking at the shadow of betrayal, the first of our Lenten series on shadows.

Where are the light-hearted sermons I thought I would be preaching? The ones about feeding the five thousand, the lame walking and the blind seeing? Where are the texts that make me imagine Jesus laughing and the disciples nodding their head in understanding? I feel a little betrayed.

How did this happen? Before I became an intern pastor, your vicar, I feel like I had a good understanding of what it meant to be a pastor and it’s not like the Bible changed. In the past year, there has been a gentle dawning of comprehension in my eyes about what you might expect from me, especially in a sermon. I betray the confidence you have in me, if I am too light with the text or I don’t fully deal with the darkness in there.

The miracle stories most of us, including me, need are not ones of food multiplication or casting out of demons, but of healing… of the heart, mind and soul. When we look to the passages, like the one today, we’re looking to how Jesus dealt with betrayal, something that happens to all of us- as a guide for our own behavior and as a support for our hope in the promises of God.

Knowing someone he loved was going to betray him, Jesus threw a party. A Passover seder is no quiet dinner, but a celebration of freedom and hope. Jesus brought everyone he loved to the table; even the one knew was a traitor to him. Yet it must have broken Jesus’ heart, regardless of the Scripture it fulfilled, to look not only at the eyes of the one who would turn him over to the authorities, but also at the eyes of all his other followers who saw in themselves the capability of betrayal. If they didn’t think it was possible for it to be them, they wouldn’t have asked, “Is it me, Lord?”

We too have all known betrayal. Even if we don’t eat at the same table with them, the ones who have broken our hearts, let down our trust and forgone our communion still breathe our same air and, for the most part, don’t appear to suffer. The pain of betrayal brings confusion and hurt.

Judas’ betrayal of Jesus led to the crucifixion and, more importantly, to the resurrection. Though we know how God used the events, we still look with some scorn at the nerve of Judas, but his actions speak to reality that we do not know the power of our actions. Just as those who betray us can underestimate the strength of theirs.

When we look at the shadows of Lent, it is important to remember that you only have a shadow where there is light. There must be a source of light, however small, to create a shadow. And a shadow is a false darkness, a moveable darkness that clings to our heels, but cannot overcome us.

Despite the presence of betrayal in our lives, a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. This is the miracle to which I am called to point, the sermon that must be preached over and over. It is the good news that we all need.

In the season of Lent, we look to a lengthening of days, more light and thus more shadows. However, even in the contemplation of this season, our eyes are always drawn to the Easter joy. That joy is not something that is forty days away, but is with us now. Despite the true pain of our struggles and our betrayals, we know we are always welcome Christ’s table- where he eats with everyone. And if scripture is fulfilled by Judas’ betrayal, then we can have faith the biblical promises of God with us, God for us and God transforming us are being fulfilled as well. That is the daily light the Spirit of the Risen Christ shines in our hearts today and always.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

February Newsletter

As I was sitting here thinking about my newsletter, a piece of gossip is burning in my mind. I keep thinking about how I want to share it and how the person who heard it would react. I can hear their laughter in my head and the news in my mind burns all the more. Yet I know in my heart it would not be the right thing to do, to share this piece of information since it would result in tearing down the gossiped-about person, instead of building them up through affirmation. This dilemma brings to mind a letter Martin Luther wrote to Phillip Melancthon- a letter that contained one of Luther’s most famous phrases, “Sin boldly…”
Does this mean I should just share this gossip, in the spirit of bold sinning? No, because then I would be ignoring the whole sentence from the letter, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death and the world.” In its context, the famous phrase seems a lot less like an exhortation to do whatever you want and is more of a reminder of what has been done for you.
The reality of life in this world is that nothing we do is without sin. Even our best intentions fall short due to large and small reasons (self-interest, self-promotion, lack of self-awareness). Yet this does not mean that we should or can rest on the laurels of grace and do nothing. Simply commenting on the transient nature of the world and watching it fall apart around us ignores the reality of God’s love for God’s creation and the fact that God has placed us in this world as well.
We have so many gifts and blessings given to us by God that meet the needs of the world in a variety of ways. The Holy Spirit moves in us, through us and for us- guiding to where we can offer moments of grace in times of great need. Along with that, Paul reminds us in Romans 5:8 that Christ died for us while we were sinners in order that we might be right with God. Christ’s efforts make us the great deficit that we cannot in terms of graciousness, faithfulness and mercy.
So what about sinning boldly? Well, we do not need to go around purposefully doing what we know to be wrong so that God can have even more chances to show grace to us. God does that without our creating the opportunity. We sin boldly by seizing the opportunities around us for love, care and service to others. We do the best we can with the blessed assurance that God’s grace and power cover our shortfalls in our relationship with one another and with Him.
As the ashes of that burning piece of gossip cool in mind, I rejoice in the fact that I am and will be forgiven for even thinking about it. More importantly, I need to think of something good to say about my potential gossipee- something that builds up and sustains. In the coming month, may the Holy Spirit grant you the courage to sin boldly, the wisdom to see opportunities and the faith to believe God’s grace stretches beyond the bounds of any shortfall.

Suffering produces Endurance (Sermon 2/10)

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; Matthew 4:1-11

Some of you may know of the British humor series Monty Python and might have heard of their sketch “The Four Yorkshiremen.” The four men sit around reminiscing about the “good old days,” as people are wont to do, and their listeners wonder just how good those days really were. One man would say, “In those days, we were glad to have the price of a cup of tea.” And another will respond, “A cup of cold tea.” “Without milk or sugar.” “Or tea.” “In a cracked cup, and all.” “Oh, we never had a cup. We used to drink out of a rolled up newspaper.” “The best we could manage was to suck on a piece of damp cloth.” “But you know, we were happy in those days, with what we had…”

We all know people like that, who throw out their story of struggles as a flag to their neighbors. So when I was thinking this week about how to preaching about suffering producing endurance, I tried to think about a story from my own life to share with you. But my mind kept returning to the stories that I know are in this congregation. There are stories here among us with which we are all familiar because we experienced them together and stories that are unfamiliar, because we haven’t had the chance or the energy to share them.

The fact is suffering is one of those two certain experiences in life. (I would say taxes can be classified as suffering.) When we experience true suffering, the kind that results in the dark nights of the soul, our most burning question is almost always: “Why?” “Why is this happening to me? To someone I love? Why is this happening right now? Why did this have to happen this way?”

Regrettably, the answer to all the ways is almost always silence. When the clear causations are stripped away, the deep chasm echoes nothing back, but the rush of wind. And it is at the edge of that darkness that suffering produces its most rotten fruit- temptation. In our struggles, we are often presented with what seems like an easier answer, opportunity or result. We can take the shortcut and fix the problems for ourselves.
Yet, just like in traveling and household repairs, shortcuts do not always diminish the difficulties. Eve ended her annoying twinge of curiosity by listening to the tempting words of the serpent. As she learned and as we know, knowing the difference between good and evil is not all it’s cracked up to be. It does not make many decisions any easier for both good and evil seem so often to come with consequences- known and unknown. That small taste of fruit, that in our tradition points to the entrance of suffering in the world, opened our eyes to the reality that we are not God.

Yet all the advertising to which we’re exposed, the information offered to us, the things the world flashes before our eyes tell us that we can be like God, not only knowing good and evil, but also by being immortal. What we are offered will make us more powerful, more alert, able to communicate in an even greater variety of ways, our packages won’t be late, our meetings entertaining, our coffee always hot and our legacy… everlasting. We are inevitably let down- left standing outside the garden once again with snake oil on our hands and wondering how it happened so quickly.

So where is the good news in all this? What’s the message of hope? There’s a famous book by the Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen, called The Wounded Healer. Nouwen writes about how out of our brokenness, we are able to bring a message of healing to the world. When I was discussing this book once with a friend of mine in the context of some struggles we were both having, he said, “You know, this wounded healer stuff is good. But I wish it could be different. For once I’d like to be the healed wounder… cause a little trouble myself.”

The truth is it is not our brokenness that brings a message of healing to the world. That idea seeks to find something good in the actual nature of suffering that is not there. Just like we don’t need to sin extra hard so that God’s grace may abound, we don’t have to seek out additional suffering to increase our endurance. Plenty will come our way because that is the nature of life.

It is important to remember, though, that the causation of suffering is not the extent of the nature of God. We do not need to seek to redeem our suffering because a greater redemption has already happened. Our redemption from the effects of sin happened through Christ; it is Christ’s brokenness that is the healing message for the world. Suffering itself gets no redemption because it is not the end goal. Neither is pure endurance, just waiting out the suffering, but both are markers of this life and markers on the road to hope.

When we look at Christ’s struggle in the wilderness, we see that the Tempter offered him power, knowledge and the promise that he would not die. This same voice came again at the cross, saying if Jesus was truly the Son of God, he would save himself. But this is how we know he was and is the Son of God… he did not save himself, he saved us.

What Christ endured gives us hope that we have been made right with God. Whatever suffering is part of the life in this world will not only not be a part of life in the world to come, but also we will not encounter additional suffering for what we cannot do for ourselves.

The joyful sharing of this knowledge is the boasting to which Paul refers. It’s not the “I can top that” sharing of struggles, but a gentle mutual ministry of hope- reminding one another and the world that God’s power is the greatest and nothing can separate from the love of God, who has suffered so much on our behalf. God’s word gives us the tools to resist the deepest temptations, that we might achieve patient resistance in difficulty. So then we look for ways to be the angels, to minister to those who are hurting, to wait with them in the darkness, and to rejoice with them in the light.

All of our hearts bear scars, the marks of the sufferings we’ve endured, and we look to the cross to make sense of our wounds. There we find One whose scarred hands and feet tell us we do not hope in vain. Those hands reach out to us, guide us and hold us in our darkest hours. Our eyes also behold the empty cross, which is the symbol this freeing truth: our suffering is not permanent, but God, who heals and saves us, endures forever.

Amen.



Some of you may know of the British humor series Monty Python and might have heard of their sketch “The Four Yorkshiremen.” The four men sit around reminiscing about the “good old days,” as people are wont to do, and their listeners wonder just how good those days really were. One man would say, “In those days, we were glad to have the price of a cup of tea.” And another will respond, “A cup of cold tea.” “Without milk or sugar.” “Or tea.” “In a cracked cup, and all.” “Oh, we never had a cup. We used to drink out of a rolled up newspaper.” “The best we could manage was to suck on a piece of damp cloth.” “But you know, we were happy in those days, with what we had…”

We all know people like that, who throw out their story of struggles as a flag to their neighbors. So when I was thinking this week about how to preaching about suffering producing endurance, I tried to think about a story from my own life to share with you. But my mind kept returning to the stories that I know are in this congregation. There are stories here among us with which we are all familiar because we experienced them together and stories that are unfamiliar, because we haven’t had the chance or the energy to share them.

The fact is suffering is one of those two certain experiences in life. (I would say taxes can be classified as suffering.) When we experience true suffering, the kind that results in the dark nights of the soul, our most burning question is almost always: “Why?” “Why is this happening to me? To someone I love? Why is this happening right now? Why did this have to happen this way?”

Regrettably, the answer to all the ways is almost always silence. When the clear causations are stripped away, the deep chasm echoes nothing back, but the rush of wind. And it is at the edge of that darkness that suffering produces its most rotten fruit- temptation. In our struggles, we are often presented with what seems like an easier answer, opportunity or result. We can take the shortcut and fix the problems for ourselves.
Yet, just like in traveling and household repairs, shortcuts do not always diminish the difficulties. Eve ended her annoying twinge of curiosity by listening to the tempting words of the serpent. As she learned and as we know, knowing the difference between good and evil is not all it’s cracked up to be. It does not make many decisions any easier for both good and evil seem so often to come with consequences- known and unknown. That small taste of fruit, that in our tradition points to the entrance of suffering in the world, opened our eyes to the reality that we are not God.

Yet all the advertising to which we’re exposed, the information offered to us, the things the world flashes before our eyes tell us that we can be like God, not only knowing good and evil, but also by being immortal. What we are offered will make us more powerful, more alert, able to communicate in an even greater variety of ways, our packages won’t be late, our meetings entertaining, our coffee always hot and our legacy… everlasting. We are inevitably let down- left standing outside the garden once again with snake oil on our hands and wondering how it happened so quickly.

So where is the good news in all this? What’s the message of hope? There’s a famous book by the Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen, called The Wounded Healer. Nouwen writes about how out of our brokenness, we are able to bring a message of healing to the world. When I was discussing this book once with a friend of mine in the context of some struggles we were both having, he said, “You know, this wounded healer stuff is good. But I wish it could be different. For once I’d like to be the healed wounder… cause a little trouble myself.”

The truth is it is not our brokenness that brings a message of healing to the world. That idea seeks to find something good in the actual nature of suffering that is not there. Just like we don’t need to sin extra hard so that God’s grace may abound, we don’t have to seek out additional suffering to increase our endurance. Plenty will come our way because that is the nature of life.

It is important to remember, though, that the causation of suffering is not the extent of the nature of God. We do not need to seek to redeem our suffering because a greater redemption has already happened. Our redemption from the effects of sin happened through Christ; it is Christ’s brokenness that is the healing message for the world. Suffering itself gets no redemption because it is not the end goal. Neither is pure endurance, just waiting out the suffering, but both are markers of this life and markers on the road to hope.

When we look at Christ’s struggle in the wilderness, we see that the Tempter offered him power, knowledge and the promise that he would not die. This same voice came again at the cross, saying if Jesus was truly the Son of God, he would save himself. But this is how we know he was and is the Son of God… he did not save himself, he saved us.

What Christ endured gives us hope that we have been made right with God. Whatever suffering is part of the life in this world will not only not be a part of life in the world to come, but also we will not encounter additional suffering for what we cannot do for ourselves.

The joyful sharing of this knowledge is the boasting to which Paul refers. It’s not the “I can top that” sharing of struggles, but a gentle mutual ministry of hope- reminding one another and the world that God’s power is the greatest and nothing can separate from the love of God, who has suffered so much on our behalf. God’s word gives us the tools to resist the deepest temptations, that we might achieve patient resistance in difficulty. So then we look for ways to be the angels, to minister to those who are hurting, to wait with them in the darkness, and to rejoice with them in the light.

All of our hearts bear scars, the marks of the sufferings we’ve endured, and we look to the cross to make sense of our wounds. There we find One whose scarred hands and feet tell us we do not hope in vain. Those hands reach out to us, guide us and hold us in our darkest hours. Our eyes also behold the empty cross, which is the symbol this freeing truth: our suffering is not permanent, but God, who heals and saves us, endures forever.

Amen.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

God's Business Card

I've been thinking about that scene from Exodus, when God (in the burning bush) says to Moses: "I am who I am."

Why didn't God just say God's name? Yet I think about this scene as related to the first commandment, "You will have no other gods before me."

Many idols in our lives try to convince us of their goodness, their salvific properties, their awesomeness and our intense need for whatever it is that they offer. These products, people, places promise to make us relevant, cause our story to endure, cement our relationships. But this is all just wind and it eventually returns to ashes.

The only solid rock we have is the great I AM. God doesn't need to announce Godself or what God's profession is because God simply is. God meets the gap where others fall short. God's relationship with us isn't broken through God's actions. God's promises are so solid, they could be insured by Lloyd's of London.

The gods of this world prey on our fears. The God who made the world knows our fears and hears our prayers.

God told Moses the name "I am" because there was no other answer that would seem really adequate when one is watching a burning bush go unconsumed. God is the God who grants grace to us while we are still sinners. God is the God who comes to us in the elements of the Holy Supper. God is the God whose presence comforts us and whose peace heals us. God is the one true Triune God.

God is.