Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sunday Sermon: Costs and Benefits

Reading: Mark 5: 1-20

Everything we do has costs and benefits. In each decision we make, we weigh the pros and cons, coming up with a little balance sheet. For example, it’s late. If we order pizza, we don’t have to cook and there’s only a little clean up afterwards. There’s a bonus, too, in that it comes to us. On the other hand, we have to spend the money, we’re not eating food we already have, and we always eat too much pizza when we order it.

Even decisions that seem automatic have costs and benefits. Do I go to the bathroom right now or wait five minutes to finish this task? In all situations, we weigh costs and benefits and then make a decision. That’s what the people did in today’s gospel story. Jesus gets into a boat and he crosses over to the “country of the Gerasenes”. This means that he is expanded his ministry into Gentile territory.  How do we know that? The presence of pigs is a big clue. This isn’t one or two pigs- it’s 2000- the livelihood (and food) of most of the village. This village also has a town crazy man, who has been plagued by demons for years. When the original readers of Mark’s gospel heard this story, they would have picked up on several different things we need explained. A legion is a group of six thousand (6,000) Roman soldiers. Not only, then, does the man have a large number of demons, but the story is constructed to have the hearers think about how Rome has “possessed” their land. They would also recall how they, like the Gerasene demoniac, had hoped the Messiah would bring an exorcism. However, in this story, the people weigh the costs and benefits of having Jesus in town and the cost is too great.

Pigs (livelihood)
Healed Man
6000 demons gone
Community order
God in their midst

What does it cost the Gerasenes to have Jesus in their territory? First, it cost their livelihood. Pigs can swim, but apparently not demon-possessed pigs. It’s like Jesus
shut down the mill- this affects the whole town- not just the man who came for healing. This is very high cost. Secondly, Jesus brings change. He takes the livelihood of the town and heals the crazy man, he upsets the order of things and how they’ve been handled for years. Lastly, Jesus is messing with their stability. They have an understanding of God, through either their own practices or what Jewish leaders tell them. They probably have a town hierarchy. Jesus rocks the boat in a big way.

On the plus side, they do have a healed man who can be restored to family and friends, if they’re accepting of him. They are rid of 6,000 demons. (Though, it’s arguable that they demons were really only bothering one person.) They have God in their midst. (But do they know that?) Finally, again, Jesus is bringing change. Change to the status quo can be a huge benefit, if people are able to accept it. The people of the town weighed this situation in the balance and they were afraid. The benefits did not outweigh the costs that they could see, so they ran Jesus out of town.

That’s okay, though, because Mark is a sixteen chapter gospel and this is only the start of chapter five. After this, people will totally be able to perceive what Jesus has to offer and they will laud him as Emmanuel, God-with-us…

Wait, what? That’s not how it will happen?

Well, what about today?

God in our midst
Physical resources
Your life is not your own

We too have to weigh the costs and benefits of our life in faith. Believing in God, trusting in Jesus, and relying on the Spirit all take their tolls. The first cost is the greatest. It takes time to be in relationship, whether deep or superficial. It takes time to pray, to listen, to help, to praise, to wrestle. Sometimes we just want to sleep in or do it tomorrow or wait until the kids leave home.

In faithful living, we sacrifice certainty. While we continue to believe in scientific discovery, expanding human knowledge, and deeper intellectual understanding, we also come to know that there are just some unknowns, some mysteries that will always be beyond human comprehension. We don’t understand how Jesus is present in communion or how God acts in baptism, we only know that these things have been promised to us and we go on in faith.

In faith, we circle the reality that we are not in control. Each of us has to remind ourselves of this daily, just as we are reminded of the One who is. In remembering that all we have is a gift, we spend our physical resources. The costs of money, energy, goods, and services are part of what living faithfully entails. Each expenditure reminds us, again, that our life is not our own.

These huge costs are weighed against the benefit of relationships- with our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer and with other people. Faith brings us into unexpected quarters and finds us with unplanned allies. We are encouraged, enticed, and sometimes forced to interact and commune with those whom God loves, even if we do not know how that’s possible. In these relationships, we encounter Emmanuel, God-with-us. Jesus promises to meet us in people all around us and so he shows up, invited and unexpected.

Just like for the Gerasenes, Jesus brings change. Salvation is an event and a process and we who are being saved are also being changed, becoming more fully the people God intends us to be. In the life of faith, we are participants in this change through obedience, repentance, and boldness in love. We are brought more fully into the light no darkness can overcome. We are consoled in our knowledge of grace, our belief in the life of the world to come, and God’s work in Jesus Christ.

We constantly weigh these costs and benefits. Do the benefits outweigh the costs? We all want to say, “Amen! Hallelujah!” Yet, we know plenty of times when we were unable to perceive the benefits or unable to bear the costs.

There is one more being in this scenario. One other who weighs costs and benefits and makes decisions.

Relationship with all creation

God’s desire is for relationship with the entirety of creation, to bring justice and peace to the world that God has created and loved. What does it cost God to have that relationship? It costs everything.

We cannot know the mind of God, but if we consider the actions of which we know…

The outpouring of the Trinity into the creation
The frustration we see in the histories and in the prophets
The hope with which God comes into our world as Jesus the Christ
The triumph over the power of death and the grave
The continuous expectation that creation will respond to grace and mercy

How is this any less than everything?

We look at our cost and benefit list and it seems difficult. And it is. That’s true. We are only able to incur the costs because we have already received the benefits. This is the knowledge we have that the Gerasenes did not, because we are Easter people- already rejoicing in resurrection.  

We are able to pay the costs because we have been loved first, received grace first, been born out of a desire and call for relationship. We are able to love because we have first been loved… by the One who is Love.

The thing is, God has decided repeatedly… on your behalf, on mine, for the sake of the world… the cost is worth it. Every. Time. 


Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Gospel I Need to Hear (Sermon for 1/8/12)

Sermon for Epiphany 1, Text: Mark 2:1-22

          Sometimes I need a sermon myself. I don’t mean that I need one written for me because I’m tired or uninspired. I mean that I need to hear one.  Usually, I have four or five of you in mind and I hope that the Spirit speaks to all of you through the written and spoken words on Sunday. Yet, sometimes I ended up preaching the Word that I needed to hear and I hope something came to you as well.

            Today, as we look at the stories of people who meet Jesus, I felt like I should be honest about what I want to hear. Perhaps you have the same plea as you listen to these stories. We have a story of friends interceding, a paralyzed man walking, doubtful scribes, uncertain disciples, and adoring crowds. These are the people Jesus meets and it's hard to decide which thread to follow. Healing, forgiveness, welcome, celebration, correction, renewal, restoration, resurrection- any and all of these are messages I want to receive. How about you?

            Pastor, speak to me of healing. I need to hear that miracles can still happen, that they do still happen, that they will still happen. I want to hear, again, that God heals through medicine  and through miracles and, sometimes through death, through death. Assure me, with sincerity, of the double significance of this gospel story. First, Jesus releases the man from the sins that plague and disturb him- a powerful symbol of the power and grace of God. 

          In order to prove that his power was of God, Jesus then healed his physical ailment, cured whatever bound him to his pallet. In the face of cancer and all manner of other illnesses, Preacher, tell me with confidence that the healing power of God in Jesus is not limited to a house in Capernaum, but that it transcends space and time and the bounds of our understanding. This is the gospel I need today.

            Pastor, speak to me of Epiphany- of a dawning light and a great understanding. In my daily life, I hear a lot of people talking and it all begins to sound the same. I remain hopeful, but cynicism and frustration curls the edges of my hope. I feel kind of like a Pharisee, because I just want something to make sense and to fulfill my expectations. Structure, continuity and tradition provide reliability and stability in chaotic times. A season of new understanding, of A-ha! moments, of bright inspirations is exactly what I need, but not necessarily what I want. 

          Preach to me about the meaning of Emmanuel- God with us. Remind me that there is nowhere I can go that God has not preceded me, nowhere that Jesus does not accompany me, nowhere that the Spirit does not receive me. This is the gospel I need today.

            Pastor, speak to me of sin and of release. Speak the hard truth about sin- about its power to separate us from our neighbors and to make us feel separated from God. Look me in the eye and tell me that sin is action and intention, both concrete and nebulous. Use words that are familiar, but help me understand in a new way that sin is the things I have done and left undone, said and remained quiet about, things I have given too freely and things I have withheld. 

            Now preach to me about release. I don’t want to hear about forgiveness only, about a formula or words that make things right. I want a powerful, truthful, toe-curling honesty about release- release from the fear of death, release from the captivity of sin, release from the mistakes of the past, release into the freedom of a new future in God. Speak to me of the release that is offered through Jesus, every day, every minute. Pastor, speak to me of amazing grace and do not stop. This is the gospel I need today.

            Pastor, speak to me of resurrection. I know that is the wrong season, that we have not yet trudged through Lent to the gleaming white of Easter morning. Nevertheless, I look at today’s gospel and its words of feasting and celebration. I read of new wineskins to receive new wine. This kind of new life makes me think of renewal. Remind me again that God has promised not to make all new things, but to make all things new. Could it be, Pastor, that resurrection happens within us before it happens to us? 

             Is it possible that God-with-us in the person of Jesus was bringing new life to Levi, to John’s disciples, to the outcasts, and even to the Pharisees before the tomb was thrown open? Help me to chew over the idea that spiritual resurrection comes before the resurrection of the body, but is just as important. Tell me in no uncertain terms that God was resurrecting through Jesus Christ long before Easter Sunday. Resurrecting faith, resurrecting community, resurrecting hope, resurrecting relationship. Tell me this is not a metaphor. This is the gospel I need today.

            Pastor, I like it when Jesus says, “I have come not to call the righteous, but the sinners.” I like that a lot, except that I would like to be a little bit righteous. Isn’t Lutheran theology that we are all righteous and sinners at the same time? So aren’t I a little bit righteous? Break it to me gently, one more time, that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Ugh. Again. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. 

            Okay, I’m ready to hear that my perceptions of myself (and of others) fill up my wineskin and get in the way of the fresh wine that Jesus would put in there. Bring it on home, Pastor, and tie together the truths that I have to release what I think of myself and others, so that I can be open to the healing, the epiphanies, and the resurrection that God has in front of me. Not only that God has in front of me, Preacher, but that God is doing in me and around me. Not only in me and around me, but perhaps, Pastor, with God’s grace and gifts, through me and with me. Today, I am one of the people whom Jesus meets. This is the gospel I need today.


Friday, January 6, 2012

Friday Five: The A-ha! Moments

Over at RevGalBlogPals, kathrynzj spurs us along an Epiphany theme: 

This past holiday season is not one I will soon forget, but not for the reason some may think. Certainly, it was a busy one for those involved in the life of the church. The 1-2 punch of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on a Sunday brought more than a few of us to our knees (or hopefully to a more comfortable napping position).

In the midst of the holiday season I had one of those moments where a path suddenly was made clear - A-ha! This experience has prompted me to wonder what some of your A-ha moments may be.

They can be mundane - a realization that you like/don't like a certain food or that you really look good in that color you never had the guts to try. They can be sacred - a way to better pace your day clicks into place or finally a devotion or meditation practice that really works for you. They can be profound - the moment you realized he/she was the one (or wasn't)or the moment you realized where your deepest passion could meet the world's greatest need. 

Please tell us - what are five (more or less) of your 'A-ha' moments. Where have you had a moment of clarity?

1. From the time I was five, I really, really, really wanted to be President of the United States.  I played church, using the clothes hamper as a pulpit. People found their way to me to unburden themselves of problems. I was interested in what I would later figure out was family systems and developmental issues. Nevertheless, I really wanted to go into politics, which I perceived as an avenue for helping people. I went to many events around my state and outside it, designed for high schoolers were interested in politics, government service, and law. Then the Clinton impeachment dovetailed with my first class in psychology. Suddenly, I could see clearly what I wanted to do and where it wouldn't happen: the White House. Not only was that not too likely to happen, but I didn't have the drive to pursue that end through the means necessary to do so. I liked stories, forming relationships, and personal touches. "Hail to the Chief" will never play for me and I'm okay with that. A-ha!

2. A-ha #1 led to A-ha #2. When I transferred to a four-year college, I was majoring in psychology. I specifically picked a school that had a strong psych department, with an emphasis in developmental disabilities. In particular, Meredith College had an autism intervention program wherein students were trained and children were helped in reaching their highest level of functioning. I was (and am) very interested in this work. I had a client with whom I enjoyed working and I looked forward to taking on more. Then one day, after working for several weeks to get the client to use a spoon, I arrived to see him eating Cheerios with his hands. His very tired mother said, "I just didn't want to fight with him about it today." A-ha! came the epiphany. This work was exhausting and led to much frustration, with occasional bursts of hope and inspiration. I saw myself burnt out at 26. Yikes. I looked at my colleagues in the program and they didn't have the same feelings. I realized this was not my vocation, for this time in my life, possibly ever. I finished with that client and never took another intervention rotation. I declared a second major in religion (with my first in psychology) and, well, the rest is history. I remain extremely interested in developmental psychology and read frequently about the new concerns, developing interventions, and the latest in disability issues. 

3.  A-ha! Sometimes you have nothing but good choices and God will be with you in which ever path you choose. I understand through physics that time moves both forward and backward, but as a human being- I live it forward and learn from it backward. When I was graduating from college, the path I thought I would take fell through in November. Then in late March and early April, I suddenly had three choices for my future: a position as a caretaker in a L'Arche community in Boston, a position assisting in a congregation in England through the Young Adults in Global Mission program of the ELCA, or a position, through Americorps, with KNOM Alaska Radio Mission in Nome, Alaska. I decided against L'Arche before I got to the final steps, but I was offered the other two spots within one week. A pastor told me that sometimes we get to choose from among blessings, part of free  will and part of God's faithfulness to us and in us. A professor told me I should take the job I didn't think I'd get again. So I moved to Nome, Alaska to be the Deputy News Director for KNOM (Yours for Western Alaska) from August 2002- July 2004. Two years in Nome changed my life. It was neither a better or worse choice than England. It was a different 

4. I had a list of things I wanted in a life partner (in my case, a husband). When I met the man I eventually married, he was so many things I never expected or planned for. His career wasn't what I would have picked, I wouldn't have described him if you asked for physical characteristics, our meeting in a bar wasn't my dream encounter. Yet he met what I really wanted and, more importantly, showed me what I couldn't live without- so I married him. Those things I couldn't (and can't) live without were a real A-ha! 

5. My final A-ha! happens again and again. Within one's sense of call to ministry, within seminary, within the process of call, no one tells you that you will eventually look up from presiding at the table or praying or the announcements and realize that you love the congregation you serve. I mean you LOVE them. In the moment that it happens, you will feel punched in the stomach because you will realize 1) the power they have to hurt you, 2) the hopes you have for them, 3) the hopes GOD has for them, and 4) like Moses, you will not likely be with them when they reach the Promised Land. Oh, it hurts! It burns! You will rejoice with, ache for, mourn among and swear about the flock for whom you pray. The only relief comes from knowing that you cannot save them and that's not your job. The congregation I serve is a part of me in a way I cannot describe and that will not let me go. So I care for them and they care for me and we move forward together toward, God willing, more epiphanies. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Books of 2011

In 2011, I read 155 new books. Here are my top 10 recommendations from what I read, in no particular order:

1. True Grit I read this book prior to seeing the movie and I'm glad I did. Matty is the center of the book and her nerve, strength, and determination makes her better than a classic heroine. The biblical references, the smart writing, and the sharp dialogue moved this book into one of my all-time favorites. Each time I re-read it, I find something new.

2. God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America This is a history of Patrick Henry College and some of its recent attendees and alumni. The details of this story reveal the sense of call certain people feel, through their faith, into public service. That lifestyle then impresses itself into the kind of lawmakers Patrick Henry students support and that they wish to be. The details of this book, the personal stories, will remain with me for a long time to come.

3. Bossypants This was as funny and inspiring as I had hoped. I think many people expected this to be hilarious and were disappointed, but I found Fey's dry observations and witty reflections about her life and work very enjoyable.

4. Unbroken I had not read very many stories about World War 2's Pacific theater. This story of an American former Olympian turned POW in Japan was riveting, terrifying, and inspiring. It's not just his survival that moves the reader, but the details of how people can treat other people.

5. The Friends We Keep This book made me think about God's relationship with non-human animals in a new and different way. I reviewed it here.

6. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand I don't often read character-driven novels, but the gentle truth of this novel swept over me. It is about an elderly English widower as he comes to grip with the changing face and faces of his village and in his life.

7. The Blue Bear This is a provocative story of friendship and loss. Some recent Alaskan history may not be interesting to all readers, but the story of Lynn Schooler and Michio Hoshino is transformative in its ebbs and flows. 4 out of 5 tissues.

8. A Thousand Lives This book about Jonestown gave me the shivers. Jim Jones's powers of manipulation were terrifying, even years removed. I reviewed this book here.

9. A Canticle for Leibowitz I know that I missed a lot reading this through the first couple times. Written in the 1960s, it projects into an apocalyptic future where the remainders of the 20th century- like grocery notes, blueprints, and letters- become the artifacts of religion.

10. Those Who Save Us The last book I completed this year was a novel novel. Told about a mother and a daughter, it follows a German woman who is in the Resistance, but also maintains a relationship with an SS officer so that she and her daughter can have food. Revelatory about the struggles and moral dilemmas people face in a time of war, the books also mulled over how lifelong grudges, community outsiders, and our ability to understand the actions of our ancestors and predecessors.