Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lent 1B

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 start to worry about your neural functioning.

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 their lives.

But recently, the wheel has turned in 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.

Some 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. It`s already there.

So, perhaps 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. An 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 it’s the end, and you’re just trying to manage the best you can.

Maybe it’s job insecurity, financial stress, and an uncertain economy.

Maybe it’s 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.

And 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 Noah finding dry land after 40 days and 40 nights cooped up with the animals in the ark, like Jesus being given food after 40 days in the wilderness, 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. And then we can remember the resurrection in our lives. We can hold on to the promise that God has not and will not abandon us. We can trust that God will lead us out of whatever wilderness that we find ourselves in.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

I heard an interview recently with a scientist who said that we, everyone and everything, are made up of dust. Ancient dust. Dust from stars that have long ago disappeared. From planets long since destroyed. Dust from people whose names gave been forgotten. And that our dust is and will be the building blocks of future creations.

Isn’t that fascinating? I think it is. If also a little humbling. I like to think of myself as unique, a specific, individual creature. I was created out of the woman who bore me, and am a contemporary creation. I look forward, not backward. My flesh and blood is a lively blast of chemical reactions. My value to the world comes from what I do, what I contribute. Not from the raw material that isn’t unique to me, or over which I have little control.

As much as I would like the opposite to be true, I have to admit that the scientist is right. I know the bible would agree with her. I am dust, and to dust I will return. The same goes for you. The same goes for everything that lives and breaths.

I don’t know about you but my dustiness is not something that I like to dwell upon. But I find that I have to. In my job I’m always getting peoples’ dust on me. Sometimes the air is so thick with dust that my lungs can’t expand and contract like they’re supposed to.

Death - dustiness - is a big part of my job. And it’s not only physical death, but the death of relationships, the death of personal dreams. The living death of abuse, failure, rejection. The living death of loneliness and depression.

But, of course, it’s in Death - capital D - where my clothes get caked with peoples’ dust.

When a life has been stolen from us, a person gone, a presence lost, we work hard to make sense of it, and we SHOULD try to make sense of it, to create meaning so that we have some semblance of resolution, that death will mean something, that life will not be forgotten, that the gifts shared with the world will not disappear with their physical presence. So, we look for hope, something to hold on to so that the memory and presence will still live in and among us.

Or when we’re staring down the barrel of our own death, we worry about what we’ve done, if we’ve loved well enough, if we’ve worked hard enough. We worry that when we close our eyes at the last, it will be final. No one will be there to greet us. We don’t want to be dust. We want to be more than dust. We want to float free from our physical bodies and soar, bird-like into heaven.

But the bible asks us to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

Not a terribly comforting message, is it? It doesn’t soothe our anxious souls or mend our sorrowing hearts. It tells us that everything we’ve done, everything we are, is only a momentary trickle of water into the vast ocean that is eternity. It confronts us with the painful truth that life is fragile, short, and often painful. It tells us that we are not in charge of our destinies but that our hope for eternity lies outside of ourselves.

We are asked to remember that we are dust and to dust we will return.

Some might see our primal dustiness and think that life is cheap, that we are mere specks, insignificant. That our little lives end up meaning nothing. If we are dust and will return to dust, what’s the point of life?. All that we have, all that we are, will simply evaporate into nothing. Even those who remember us will become dust themselves, and with them, the knowledge that we ever existed.

But this is where God would interrupt these protests saying, “Yes, you are dust. You will become dust again. But what marvelous dust – fine dust; dust that is precious, beautiful, and rare. Dust that isn’t swept up and disposed of and forgotten, but dust that scatters and blows to all ends of the earth, and interweaves with the dust of every time and place.

‘Without your dust, there would be no creation, no life, no joy, no love. Without your dust there would be no sun, no moon, no stars. Without your dust, there would be no people, no fish, no moose, no eagles. There would be no Rocky Mountains, no Pacific Islands, no deserts. No boreal forests, no northern lights, no forests of evergreens. The whole cosmos would cease to be. Everything that exists needs your dust. Without your dust there would be nothing.”

St. Paul tells it a different way: he says that we are treasure in clay jars. He tells us that we are fragile, weak, and limited; but also that we are cherished, unique, and lovely; that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves and that we are not alone – even in death. And when we receive that gift of connectedness with awe and humility and hope, we become connected more deeply to each other and to God, even when, or perhaps, ESPECIALLY when our physical bodies have passed into dust.

From dust we came, to dust we are returning, blowing with the dust of the ages, the dust that God gathers from every time and every place, from everyone and everything that came into being. The dust of suns long since burned out and the dust of galaxies just being born. God is molding these dusty fragments together, sprinkling in the water of life, making whole that which is broken, reshaping, remodeling, renewing the cosmos into a place where there will be no more tears, no more death, no more good-byes. Only hellos to a new universe to which God is always giving birth.

So remember that you are dust. And to dust you will return. And because of your dustiness, you play an important role in God's ongoing creation. Indeed, God needs your dust, because God needs your life.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, February 05, 2012

Epiphany 5B

“…woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel.”

Those words rung in my ears on a viciously hot July night in 1999 at Christ Lutheran Church in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, when this scripture passage was read and preached by my bishop before he invited me to kneel, laid hands on my head, and I received the rite ordination.
It was like I was being joined – stitched – to a long line of preachers who held this message in their hands so reverently that they couldn’t help but share what had been so lovingly entrusted to them.

And while this journey of preaching the gospel has taken me on many adventures – including the one I am on now – I still wonder, in those quieter moments, if I am up the task that is put in front of me. I worry that the words I use and the words you hear are saving words that we call “gospel.”

As many of us know, the word “gospel” means “good news.” And those of us who’ve been around the church for a while might think we know what that word means. But I’m not sure that’s true. Because I find myself asking, “Good news” for what? From what? What is the bad news that is in your life, and then what is the good news that I am called to proclaim as a response to it?
How would you define the word “gospel”? What is “good news”?

For my master’s thesis I had to come up with a definition of the gospel. And because I allowed four years of graduate study in theology to get the better of me I defined the gospel as this: “The gospel is the eschatological fulfillment of Israel’s messianic expectation.”

Doesn’t that just warm the heart?

As I look back I’m embarrassed by how much of a pompous jerk I was. And while that answer might be academically satisfying it is also spiritual barren. Which was why my thesis advisor handed back my paper with the words “Make it simpler!” scribbled in angry red ink.

The exercise isn’t as easy as it sounds. There are as many definitions of “the gospel” as there are Christians. There is no real consensus as to what that word means.

Some may say such a disparity is evidence of Christianity’s lack of intellectual cohesion, or the result of factions fighting one another rather than looking for a common proclamation.
But I see such diversity as the natural result of a faith that is deeply personal. Good news isn’t universal in the sense that it’s the same for everyone. Every person has their own needs, their own challenges, their own struggles, their own bad news to which our God in Jesus brings good news.

The apostle Paul knew this instinctively.

“For though I am free with respect to all,” he writes, “I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Paul knew that good news could only be heard as a response to bad news. Good news isn’t a once-and-for-all proposition. It’s personal. It’s specific. It zeroes in on peoples` unique challenges and provides a soothing balm.

For us as a church, as we reflect on our future, I think the question, “What is good news for us and for our community?” is an important one to ask.

This past week I met with some other pastors of English-speaking churches, and I gained some useful insight.

Most, if not all English-speaking churches have ministered to ex-pats. And that seems like an obvious outreach. And we, ourselves, have identified ex-pats as the core community for outreach. And historically that has worked.

But things have changed. As we reach out to the foreign community we are still relying on Christianity being the dominant religion in the west. And as Christianity is dying in Europe and North America, the pool of western ex-pats looking for a church grows smaller.

Also, many ex-pats who DO come to Tokyo to live and work, only stay for a year or two. And since they know that their time here is limited they use their weekends and holidays to explore the city, th country, or other parts of Asia. And they don’t want to connect too deeply with any groups because they know they won’t be staying here long enough to make it worth their while.
So where does that leave us?

That’s hard to say. And that’s something that we’re asked to discern together. Just as Paul listened to the voices around him to learn how to make his message heard, we too are called to listen to our surroundings to get a sense of what our mission will be to our community.

And just like Jesus laid hands on people seeking healing, he put his hands on their heads with no other agenda other than to love them. He didn’t tell them what their needs where. He didn’t preach to them. He simply listened. And let them speak. And that’s how he could offer them the good news of their healing, at that moment.

Maybe that’s what we’re asked to do. Maybe our outreach begins, not with our needs and our agenda, but by listening to the voices that surround us, to hear the bad news for which our good news would be welcome.

We know that what worked in the past does not work today. We know that our world is changing. We know that the hurts and needs and sins of today may be different from those of yesterday.

But we know that God still has a future for us. As Isaiah says in today’s first reading,

“The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth….God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 30Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Because of what God has done for us, we have strength to move forward, we have wings to fly toward God’s future for us, and we have feet to climb any mountain that’s put in front of us.
So “woe to us if we do not proclaim good news.” God has given us everything we need to be faithful in that proclamation both as a church and in our lives. May we listen to the voices that surround us, and may we act with bold faithfulness.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Epiphany 4B

“...any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I, the Lord, have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.”

Yikes! Makes me want to watch my words even more carefully than I do!

But that’s what the people had asked for. They wanted someone to speak for God, because they worried that hearing directly from the Most High God might cause them to clutch their chests and do a face plant into the dirt.

A prophet, in the bible, as most of you know, isn’t someone who merely foretells the future. The prophet isn’t a fortuneteller. The prophet isn’t someone who sits at tables on the street, who, for a small fee, will tell you how your how much money you will make or who you will marry.

In the bible, a prophet is someone who speaks for God. A prophet is a preacher. The prophet’s mouth opens and it’s not the prophet’s words that people hear. It’s God’s words that reach their ears. They figured it was easier to hear from God through a human vessel, rather than endure the thunder and fire of the Almighty.

And God, knowing the human fondness for putting their words into God’s mouth lays down the ground rules for the one who will speak for God:

“They are right in what they have said. 18I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. 19Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.”

That’s a pretty tight leash for any preacher. And for the listener. It’s like God is saying, “Sure, I’ll send you a preacher. And that preacher will speak for me and I will make sure that the preacher`s words are true. But here’s the thing, you have to obey EVERYTHING the preacher says.”

That part warms the heart of any preacher, even if the first part makes them sweat.

And before the people entered into this bargain they asked for some details, and I don’t blame them: “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?”

Good question. God answers: If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.”

For some reason, this last part was left out of today’s reading. Maybe the folks who put together the readings (or lectionary as we call it) didn’t think those verses were important.

If they didn’t find these verses important, I certainly do. They’re incredibly important. They completely reverse the relationship.

God is asking God’s people to listen to the prophet with a critical ear. God is telling them not to put blind faith in the prophet assuming that everything the prophet says is true. God is making sure that the prophet doesn’t take advantage of the power of such a high calling. God is instead, putting the power to discern God’s will in the hands of the people.

It is the people who are to decide if the prophet’s words are true. It is the people who are to decide if what they are hearing is actually coming from God or if it is the fanciful musings of a preacher with a personal agenda. It is the people who decide if what they are hearing from the prophet is the direction that God wants them to travel.

In other words, God puts the prophet and the prophet’s message in the PEOPLES` hand. God puts the prophet and the prophet’s message in YOUR hands.

Think of that. Think of the power that God has put between YOUR eight fingers and two thumbs. Think of the responsibility and trust that God has placed on YOU.

YOU are the ones who decide whether or not the Word that comes from this pulpit is from God or is just my own personal ramblings. YOU are the ones who listen with an ear toward God’s future for this family of faith. YOU are the ones who discern whether or not my words or any words spoken in this place carry the weight of being GOD’S Word.

And that’s a bigger burden to carry than I one I bear. I merely speak. You judge. You discern. You decide. And after I close my mouth, I stand at your mercy.

And this discernment doesn’t stop after I live this pulpit. After worship, we’ll go downstairs, drink coffee, and have some nibblies (I hear there’s Krispy Kreme donuts waiting for us).

And then, we get to the business of talking about God’s future for this congregation. Our Annual Voters Assembly is a chance for us to confront - head on - the challenges this congregation faces, and to listen for God’s voice, directing us toward new day, filled with new possibilities for outreach and fresh opportunities for growth.

I don’t see these yearly gathering as a chore, a piece of business that we need to get through as quickly as possible before heading out for lunch.

I see these annual meetings as a time to celebrate what God has done with and among us. It’s a time to discern where God is taking us in the next year and beyond. It’s a conversation between all those who care about the life and future of St. Paul’s and God`s direction for us.

And we need YOU to be part of that conversation. If you don’t think I mean you, you’re WRONG. I mean YOU. EveryONE of you. I mean every person who’s walked through these doors seeking a Word from the Lord. I mean anyone who has sat in these pews. I mean anyone who has entered this place of worship wondering if anything good can still come from Nazareth. I mean YOU. St. Paul’s needs YOU. YOUR voice. YOUR insight. YOUR wisdom.

So, don’t walk out these doors without sharing what you think God is asking us to do. Don’t worry about offending others with your opinion. Don’t think that what you have to offer doesn’t matter. God has put you here - in this place - for a reason. God has put you here so that your voice may be heard within this family of faith, so that this church can move forward in mission, greeting the future with open arms.

God has put an awesome responsibility in your hands. It’s because God trusts you with the wisdom that God imparted to you, when God took you by hand to the waters of baptism, and joined you to Jesus’ death and resurrection, so that you can be a resurrection people, participating in God’s New Creation that is unfolding all around us.

So, today, after we finish the business we do here, let’s continue our worship downstairs, listening to the Holy Spirit’s voice in the discussions among God’s people, keeping our ears inclined toward God’s future for this particular family of faith, so that - together - we can meet whatever needs and opportunities come our way.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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