Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lent 4 - Year B

I have uber-sensitive teeth. Despite all my brushing and flossing, hot coffee and cold water become my own personal torture chambers.

So, my quarterly trip to the dentist feels like a date with the Russian mob, to whom I owe a month’s salary. I don’t know what’s worse, the digging into my gums with a sharp metal hook, or the needle the size of pruning shears they jab into my jaw to freeze it - to stop the pain.

And when I’m done, the dental assistant looks just as traumatized as I feel.

While dental work has its own unique discomforts, at least we know what to expect, and we know it’ll all be over and done with by the length of a Simpsons’ episode, life itself doesn’t promise an end when pain and suffering intrude in our lives.

But the question for me is, Can pain, somehow, be redemptive? Can it have meaning beyond the present torment or heartache?

“For God so loved the world…” those familiar words ring out. At least familiar to those of us who have been hanging around the church for a while. But the original Greek goes deeper, broader…For God so loved the KOSMOS. The whole entire cosmos! The complete universe as we know it, from the tiniest quirk, the smallest quark, to the vast star systems. God loves the cosmos!

And out of this vast love God shares, gives, offers God’s own self in Jesus. The Son is given so that all may believe in him and be saved, renewed. Healed.

We often reduce belief to an intellectual thumbs up, nods of agreement with propositional truths or creedal statements about God.

But that’s not what this passage is talking about. John was talking about trust. Jesus is given so that all may trust him. Trust that we will not perish but have eternal life. Eternal life over eternal death. But, again, the original Greek is more nuanced: “So that everyone who trusts in Jesus may not be RUINED, but may have eternal life.”

Ruined. Spoiled. Destroyed.

Jesus is given so that failure, loss, grief, will not destroy us. We will not be ruined. We will not be crushed.

After all, that’s what the following verses say, “I’m not here to condemn people,” Jesus says, “I’m here to save them.”

But then Jesus takes it a step further to where we probably wish he didn’t go. He had to talk about condemnation.

Why? Why spoil the party? Why taint such good news with ugly threats of eternal punishment?

As Presbyterian minister, Alison Bucklin points out,

“People only want to be saved when they perceive a danger. And those hearing that message – the people then, and us folks now, generally do not believe that we are in any danger. So when Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Whoever believes in me is not condemned, but those who do not believe in the name of the only Son of God,” he is saying, “whether or not you believe you are in spiritual danger, you are, and the only way out is through me. Spiritual snakes have slow-acting poison. You may not feel it yet. But you’re dying. Listen to me, look to me, and live!”

I think she’s right.

Have you ever been driving down a deserted highway and notice just off in the distance, an abandoned house? It was clear that someone once lived there. A family gathered for evening meals. Weddings. Funerals. Hellos. Good –byes. All the stuff of life, both heartbreaking and life-giving, both joyous and tragic, thrived between those walls.

But either suddenly or gradually, the people left. The house was emptied. The stories silent. A way of life forgotten. And the house that stands may have seemed lonely, when its paint was still colourful, the windows still whole, and the roof still strong. But now the house feels dead. A hollowed-out husk. A shell. Its history carried off with the west wind.

It lay in ruin.

I wonder if that’s the ruin that Jesus is talking about. The hollowed-out husk that we feel we’ve become, whether by illness or loss or abuse, or whatever, we feel like that house; hollow. Weak. Dead. And we wonder if we will ever find life again. Or we’ve settled for a comfortably ruined existence.

But the point of the passage is clear: when our lives are in ruins Jesus rebuilds them. Whether it’s the ruins of broken relationships, the ruins of grief, the ruins of depression, the ruins of guilt, the ruins of shame, the ruins of illness, the promise is this: God restores. God heals. God saves.

That why we gather around the altar this morning for prayer. Here we bring the ruins of our lives, so that, together, the pieces start to be put back together.

And those ruins are sometimes rebuilt in surprising ways. It was when you family moved the fourth time in five years that you learned how to make friends, even if it meant saying good-bye.

It was when your partner left you that you found your true calling in life and you realized that you can get by on your own.

It was when the doctor found the spot on your lung that you finally made up with your sister. (paraphrased from BBT, An Altar in the World)

At the time, you wouldn’t have called it healing, and you wouldn’t have chased after it, much less prayed for it, but its healing nonetheless. No less and act of divine love than a spontaneous moment of cure. God just asks that we trust, trust God and trust ourselves, that healing - somehow - will visit us when we need it.

It’s not always easy to trust, at least not in the way that God asks us to. If it were easy then we wouldn’t need Jesus. That’s the irony of faith. Trusting, believing, receiving.

These take strength that is beyond us. It is because we are weak that God gives us strength. It is because we have trouble believing that God gives us faith. It is because we don’t know how to receive that God gives us Jesus. Because God so loved the cosmos that he gave us his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not lay in ruin, but enjoy new and everlasting life.

So today, in prayer and hope, bring these gifts to the altar. Offer your tears and wounds, hopes and longings as sacrifices of praise to Jesus who takes the broken fragments - the ruins - of our lives and pieces them together in an expression of love and new life.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Lent 2 - Year B

I had a professor in seminary who said that if your church is growing the first question you need to ask is “What are we doing wrong?”

He’s not alone. I’ve noticed that, within Lutheranism, growing churches are met with suspicion, envy, or outright hostility.

“They must be soft peddling Jesus’ hard message,” they would say. “Any church that’s growing must be catering to peoples’ selfish, consumer demands rather than calling them to the hard road that Jesus walked.”

Pope Benedict would agree. He predicts that the worldwide Catholic population will be significantly smaller in the next century than it is today. He says that the Catholic Church will be smaller, but stronger. The deadwood will be discarded, spiritual tourists will be ushered off the bus. Only the committed core will remain.

Hypocrisy alert! I’ve made that same argument myself, many times, but for different reasons. I think, as the Christian church becomes less and less cozy with our culture, fewer and fewer people will naturally gravitate to churches on Sundays, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. And also folks will stop looking to churches for wedding and funerals. And I’ve noticed that I don’t get as many cold calls as I once did from non-church people asking for baptisms for their children.

And that’s okay. I think that’s a good thing. I think the Christian church will grow stronger once the cultural props are taken away. Instead of relying on peoples’ cultural memory, churches, Christians - US! - will have to actually do the work of sharing Jesus’ message of new life with those who only know the name Jesus as a curse word.

So, on one level, my professor was bang on the nail. Perhaps some churches are too cozy with the culture and are growing because they re-affirm what people already believed when they walked through the door.

Of course, that assumes that churches that aren’t growing are somehow more faithful to Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness. It assumes that Jesus is more offensive than life-giving. It assumes a gospel much like we’ve heard this morning.

“Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus says. “That’s what it means to be my follower. Deadwood will be cleared. No tourists allowed.” You can hear the crowd leaving and the disciples gasping for air. This is no kind of talk if you want to draw a crowd. “If you want to be my follower, you need to come and die.”

Doesn’t exactly warm the heart, does it? But then again it’s not supposed to. This wasn’t the gentle Jesus meek and mild. This was Jesus trying to birth a new world.

We read this story and it’s then easy to look down our collective noses at churches we feel are taking the edge off of Jesus’ cutting message.

We can make fun of the food courts in their main lobbies. We can mock the self-help preaching that has little or nothing to do with Jesus, just, good, ol’ fashioned self-esteem affirmations dressed in religious garb.

We can laugh at the yoga classes, the building that resembles a suburban mall rather than a traditional church, and the Krispy Kreme donuts served after worship (one church I know of budgets more money on those little round heart attacks than we do on our worship, ChristCare, Stephen Ministry, and Christian Education combined!).

It’s easy to laugh. But I wonder if our chuckles really mask our envy. Why are they so big and we so small?

When we worry about worship attendance we look at these churches and ask what they’re doing that we’re not doing.

When our Sunday school widdles down to only a handful of bright, shiny faces, we look over to others and ask how we can increase the numbers.

When we look around and see more grey and white hair than not, we ask what we’re doing wrong.

And those, of course, are not bad concerns. Matthew 28, the so-called Great Commission calls us to make disciples of Jesus and baptize folks. So, clearly Jesus is worried about who shows up for church.

But often what passes for good theology is really convenient theology. Preachers can say that God doesn’t care about numbers, it’s faithfulness that counts. And they’d be right. As far as that goes.

But when you’re staring down the barrel of deficits, presiding at more funerals than baptisms, and a quick calculation tells you that you’re maybe 10 years away from closing your doors, I wonder if it’s a good time to re-think what it means to be faithful.

Of course, Good Shepherd isn’t at that place...yet. That’s why the temptation is so great, the temptation to grow for growth sake. We tempted with the basic human instinct to survive merely to survive.

We see our Christian influence dwindling in society, and we confuse the trappings of the world’s success - numbers, money, the size of our building - with faithfulness, and we begin to maybe feel like we’ve failed, that we’ve squandered our inheritance, that we’ll be the last generation to see Christians meeting together in any meaningful way.

When the church baptizes the culture’s notions of success, we start straying from the path Jesus calls us to walk, the path that leads, not to bigger and better things, but to the cross.

Not pain for pain’s sake. But the consequence of believing a different story than the one our cultural tells. The story that we are not in change of the world or our lives, but that God is. The story that says that person’s worth is not decided by how much money he makes or how by how much stuff is in her garage, or by how smart they are, but by how much they loved and served others the way Jesus loved and served.

That’s Jesus’ story, and the story he calls us into.

A baptist church in Atlanta decided that there were going to live that story. The looked around and saw that there were enough generic, megachurches, in the city, and so they were going to be different.

They weren’t going to worry about growing, there wasn’t going to be a high-profile marketing campaign, they weren’t going to pay people $100 to attend church like one of their church neighbours did, they weren’t going to auction off a Porsche on Easter Sunday like another church did, they weren’t going to hire a professional rock band to lead the singing. They were simply going to live as Jesus asked them to live.

They were going to follow the way of the cross. They were going to be servants to the community and tell them Jesus’ story.

They organized a food pantry that grew into a food bank. They handed out sandwiches and coffee to homeless people and prostitutes. They prayed for their neighborhood, not that people would come to church, but that a woman’s cancer would be healed, that the guy next door would find a job, that the boy from down the street would be kept safe while serving in Afghanistan.

They marched against racism and child poverty. They advocated for abused women. They challenged gangs in their neighbourhoods.

And soon folks started coming to their church. They formed membership classes where the faith was explained and expectations were outlined. If you were healthy and in town on Sunday, then you were at church. No exceptions. You had to join a small group. You had to help out in one of the church’s ministries. And you had to tithe 10% of your income. No tourists allowed.

“They crazy thing is,” the pastor said, “people did it- joyfully! We grew despite all the expectations we threw at people. The more expectations, the more we grew. I guess people aren’t just looking for a Sunday morning fix. It looks like folks are hungering for the real thing. ”

Of course, the danger is that Christianity can then be seen and experienced as a bunch of tasks and obligations, do’s and don’ts, rather that living in God’s forgiveness and love. But one thing I found fascinating about that church was that they didn’t specifically worry about growth, they worried about living the way Jesus asked them to live.

But did they invite people to church? Absolutely. Did they work hard at sharing Jesus’ message of new life with their neighbours? Definitely. Did they love their neighbours’ with Jesus’ love? Undoubtedly.

And they did more than that. They called people into a story that wasn’t of their own telling, a story they couldn’t make up for themselves. They called people into a story that went beyond themselves, beyond their consumer needs, beyond their petty hungers and desires. A story that asks them to die, so that they may rise again with new eyes and a new heart. A story that says, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

I see this story unfolding here at Good Shepherd. The chili lunch last summer for the neighborhood. The Stephen Ministers who care for people inside and outside the congregation, with no other agenda than to be a listening ear and caring heart. And all the other ways we’re telling a story that’s not about ourselves, but about the one who named and claimed us as God’s own children in the waters of baptism, where we drowned to the old story told by the world, and were reborn in the story that God is telling in Jesus. A story that says “take up your cross and follow me. There, you will find life.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Lent 1 - Year B

What are you giving up for Lent? That’s the question of the day, isn’t it? What you’re giving up to share in Jesus’ 40 day desert fast?

That’s where the whole “giving something up” thing comes from. Folks read the story in today’s gospel about Jesus going into the desert to fast for 40 days and thought that it might be a good way for us to find ourselves in his story by fasting for the 40 days of Lent.

But, of course, not everyone’s going to book 6 weeks off work to go sit on a rock in the woods and pray. People aren’t going to go without creature comforts, much less bare necessities for a month and a half. In fact, if you did I’m sure your family would invite those nice young men in those clean white coats over while you sing “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha.”

So, Christians, through the centuries, did what we did to most church rituals that made us look crazy or caused discomfort: we house-trained it. At first it was no food on Fridays and Wednesdays. Then it morphed into no MEAT on Fridays and Wednesdays. But then came the Wednesday night chicken wing special and folks said, well, maybe we’ll just have meat-free Fridays. Now...?

Now...people give up chocolate, coffee, beer, something fairly minor, just to get in the spirit of Lent rather than create some real discomfort in our lives.

And now the wheel has turned the other direction. Some folks now take something ON rather than give something UP during Lent. To them it feels more creative, pro-active, positive, like they’re giving something to the world instead creating more negativity. Contributing rather than taking something away.

So people use this time to volunteer at the Food Bank, to learn to play piano, figure out a new computer program, visit people are care facilities. And usually, people carry on with what they’ve started long after the tomb is found to be empty. “There’s enough suffering in the world,” they say, “Why would I want to create more, even just a little.”

Good point. God knows there’s enough suffering in the world. Why would we want to go looking for more, even if it’s just a small discomfort? Isn’t it just a throwback to the mediaeval times when suffering was seen as a good in itself? And anything pleasurable or positive was seen as pulling us away from God?

While we don’t wear hair shirts, or those spiky rings around our legs like the Opus Dei do in the Da Vinci Code, the ideas run through our Lenten fast, or at least it could look that way. That suffering connects us more deeply to God, and that any suffering, self-imposed or not, makes us more faithful followers of Jesus.

Do we really want to go back to that? Do we really see God as desiring our pain in order to be free from the evils of this world?

I don’t think so. I think Christians have it backwards when we think that way. The point isn’t that we share in Jesus’ suffering, the point is that Jesus shares in our suffering, and brings hope and healing with him. We don’t have to go looking for pain and suffering, pain and suffering is part of life in a fallen world.

So, maybe we don’t have to go looking for a Lenten fast. Maybe our Lenten discipline comes out of our lives, and Lent simply shows us how much healing we need, how much we need to know that the tomb will be empty at the end of it all.

For some, your Lenten discipline is grief, Maybe decades old grief you wish you could forget or grief fresh and raw. A open wound, a sore you can’t stop scratching.

Maybe for you it’s a marriage hanging on by the slimmest of threads, and you’ll wonder if you can look at your partner with the same love and commitment that you shared that day when you stood before God and family promising to stay together until death parts. Or maybe you know its the end, and you’re just trying to manage the best you can.

Maybe it’s depression so dark that you can’t find your way out. No lamp seems to bring light or relief. And you worry that you’ll ever be yourself again.

Maybe its loneliness. You can’t remember the last time you connected with another person, someone to share your day with. A friend, a partner.

Maybe it’s addiction, failed dreams, an out-of-control kid, parents who just can’t hear you, Maybe it’s a disease you’re afraid will eat you from the inside out.

So what’s YOUR Lenten discipline? You’re the only one who can answer that question for yourself. But I’m guessing that you probably know what it is.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not discouraging you from giving something up for these 40 days. I think giving something up or taking something on mirrors the suffering that life gives us. These 40 days are a way to remind us that our stories and Jesus’ story connect. That we find ourselves in God’s story of life and salvation, but God wouldn’t tell that story if our story wasn’t filled with suffering and death.

Like the Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness while he was still dripping from his baptism, the Spirit drives us into the world more deeply, a world of temptation, of hunger, of disease, of death.

But as Christians, we know the 40 days will end. Like the people of Israel finding the promised land after 40 years of wandering through the desert, like Jesus given food after 40 days of fasting, we will find our home, our hungers will be satisfied.

After these 40 days, we will look inside the tomb where Jesus was buried and find it empty.