Joy Matters – sermon from 5/13/18

Rob Bell, a well-known pastor, author, and speaker tells a story about a time he was sitting in a meeting at the church where he was a pastor. It was a huge church and this was the meeting where the various leaders of the different departments of the church came together to discuss the running of the church.  Important stuff. But it was a very large staff, and so at one of their meetings, a couple of the people said that after those meetings they have to go back and tell everyone else about what happened in the meeting and so it might be good to invite more of the staff to come to the meeting so they could get the information first-hand. This was discussed for a long time and nothing was resolved, so they spent much of the next meeting talking about this, too. And Rob said that his heart began to sink because he realized now they were mostly just having meetings about meetings. So, he went to the person who was in charge of the meeting to talk to him and he said, “You know, I’ve noticed that we’re spending an awful lot of our meeting time lately just talking about the meeting,” and then he said he stopped because he realized with horror that in that moment he was having a meeting about a meeting about a meeting.

He talks about how in the course of all of it, he felt a whispering in his mind saying, “What am I doing here?” He said it was a feeling deep in his bones – that although figuring out all the meeting stuff was important and there were other people who may have been really into that and whom God put on earth to organize and attend meetings about meetings about meetings, he knew that was not his work to do. He had other work that needed to be done, other work that God had given him to do, work that energized him and gave him life and was hard in its own right, and it wasn’t to sit in meetings about meetings about meetings.

As we continue going through Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul is talking a lot about humility and service. He says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

This is the kind of verse that is so contrary to our culture today. Most everything in our culture is hyper-focused on developing the self and looking out for number one. In fact, this culture elevates a positive self-image to such a degree that we run the risk of becoming our own false gods. Having a positive self-image is important, but it seems like it can run off the rails pretty quickly, too. For example, during a confirmation class some years ago, I asked a teenage girl to name someone she admired the most and she said herself.

Herself? Is that the message our kids are getting? That they should love themselves so much that they refuse to open their eyes and admire all the varied gifts and beauty of the people around them? To think so much of themselves that they have unwavering certainty that their way of seeing the world, their story, their little plot of land on which they live, their past and their future, is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end? I inwardly did the hugest eye-roll possible and then calmly asked her, “how about someone aside from yourself?”

Oh, trust me, Saint Paul would have done an eye-roll, too. As he sits in jail, writing letters of encouragement to his co-workers in Christ, urging them to put others first, think more highly of everyone before themselves, so much so that they consider themselves slaves to others.

These words about selflessness are powerful – and they can conjure up visions for us – maybe we think of Mother Teresa, serving the poorest of the poor in India. Maybe we think of our mothers, sacrificing their time, their energy, their own interests for the sake of our growth and security. Maybe we think of teachers, who so selflessly give of their energy and love and wisdom to teach our kids.

And probably, if you are at all like me, you feel a little guilty. Because it can feel like there’s no way to measure up to what Paul is asking of us here. The truth is that we don’t want to always think of others first – sometimes we want and need to look out for ourselves. We are fine with thinking highly of others, but we need to value who we are, too, and what we have to contribute to the world. And as far as being a slave to others?  It’s just hard to get behind that one at all.

But it’s good to remember here that the word slave is from the greek word ‘doulos’ – which means slave or servant – and usually by one’s own free will. One has chosen to serve, chosen to give one’s life over in this way. And that makes all the difference, along with something Paul says a bit later in this same letter, “Rejoice in the Lord.”

Yes, this giving over of ourselves, this putting others first, this thinking more highly of others than ourselves, it’s important to who we are as followers of Jesus, but the key is to find a way of doing that that brings us joy, and brings joy to the world through us. Joy matters.

There was a fellow I knew at seminary who, like me, was studying to be a pastor. He was a very good student, he always knew the right answers in class and everybody liked him. We graduated at the same time and lost touch, but years later he found me on Facebook and I was interested to notice he wasn’t a pastor anymore. He was a full-time traveling musician now and leads song-writing conferences and retreats. I asked him a little about his work and he told me a bit about his journey – how he had gone to seminary because his parents wanted him to and because it seemed like the right thing to do. He wanted to serve God. It seemed like a good thing to do, even though he wasn’t ever very excited about it. “Seminary was fine,” he said – “I liked the classwork and our friends and the variety – but once I got into a church it got harder. I felt claustrophobic and like I was playing a part that wasn’t me. I stayed for many years, partly because I had invested so much money in the education and partly because I felt like maybe I was just supposed to suck it up and try harder.” He talked about how the church he grew up in had stressed that you had to think about others first and die to yourself and so he wondered if maybe he was supposed to be miserable. Maybe that was part of learning how to really follow Christ. After all, he thought about people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other martyrs who had suffered and died for the faith – surely he could withstand a bit of unhappiness for the sake of his love of the Lord, right?

He began to get chronic backaches and headaches, various other aches and pains – but figured he was just getting older and that happens. He got used to a low level of despair hanging over him and took comfort that his work may not make him happy, but at least he could be useful.

The only time he felt really joyful in his work was when he was leading music – which he would do often at church or for other events that needed a musician. He wrote music and recorded some songs, always thinking of it as a hobby but nothing more. It wasn’t until one day a woman in his congregation stopped him after church and told him about how she appreciated his ministry of music. He thanked her – others had kindly said this to him before. But then she added, “I wish you could only do that. I mean, it seems like that is when you are happiest.”  And something deep within him said, “Yes.”

Those few words she said shifted something for him that day and he knew what he had to do. He set for himself the goal that within a year he would find a way to let music be his full-time ministry. He said it wasn’t easy, there was no direct route to follow to do what he does now, it took longer than he planned, but he loves his work now because he’s using his best, most life-giving gifts, and he’s joyfully serving God and others. The backaches and headaches went away.

Joy matters. My prayer for all of us is that we find ways to put others first, to serve often and well, but to find ways to do that with joy. Rejoice in the Lord! If you consistently have a slow sense of dread on your way to do something, even if you are good at it, listen to what that dread is telling you. Is it time to find another way to use your gifts or perhaps change up the way you are doing the same old task? Is it time for that season to end so another can begin? Listen not just to all the needs of the world and the advice of those around you, but listen to yourself and the Spirit of God at work within you. Or as the author and theologian Howard Thurman said it, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Rituals (an Easter Message)

I’ve been thinking a lot about rituals these last days especially. Probably because Holy Week is always full of them. Palm Sunday we process in with the palms and say “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Maundy Thursday we have holy communion and the stripping of the altar. Good Friday we hear those last words of Christ and then leave in silence to wait for Easter morning. The Easter egg hunts, the cross outside with the flowers, the “alleluias” – all of these are traditions we love.

But of course, the church has many rituals that extend well beyond holy week. We have particular colors adorning the walls and the lectern at certain times of the year – white and purple and green and red – all these colors telling ecclesiastical time for us. We have our certain hymns that are appropriate for this occasion but not that. Even words we use at certain times of the year – you’ll hear “Emmanuel”during advent, and now we can finally say “Alleluia” again after putting away that word for the season of lent. There are creeds and prayers and responses spoken at just the right time. The Lord be with you….See what I mean? We know how to do these things. They are part of our life together. And there are rituals we don’t even think of as rituals – the men who take off their hats and place them on the rack by the door before they enter the sanctuary, the way we teach our children how to treat this space with respect. We have rituals about so many things in the church.

In fact, some might even say that we have too many rituals. That nothing ever really changes in the church and so you don’t really miss much if you happen to miss a Sunday or two or five or more.

Yet, I like to think of these things as more a rhythm than ritual.  Just as with music – there are intricacies we miss if we only hear parts and not the whole piece. We need the crescendo of the lights and carols of Christmas Eve but we also need the diminuendo and hush of sparse Ash Wednesday, the steady beat of those Sundays in the middle of the summer where there are no big church holidays but the story is still being told of Jesus’ life and ministry. And it’s when we join in the dance where we sway from Pentecost to Holy Trinity to Christ the King Sunday to Advent to Epiphany, where we move in time to the music of Reformation Sunday and Transfiguration and Ascension and hear every note, and feel every beat in our chests – when we give ourselves the gift of not only hearing the whole story of the Gospel but to be swept up into it to be part of it day after day, week after week, season after season, year after year that’s when we begin to recognize the nuances, the special things. Think about it – your favorite song – how there’s that part where it speeds up or slows down or changes keys in a way that just takes your breath away and you want to sing along and you say, “I love this part.” That’s how it gets to be, doesn’t it, with certain readings as we hear them again and again. Oh there’s Mary letting down her hair again to dry Jesus’ feet – I love this part. Or there’s that father who brings his boy to Jesus to be healed and he cries out words we could have cried out a million times ourselves, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” I love this part. Or what about when the psalm is read that was spoken at your mom’s funeral or at your brother’s grave, a million emotions stirred to the surface as you hear those words you could speak by heart, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” I love this part. As we hear these scriptures over and over we come to see ourselves and our own stories reflected in them. They become part of us and we become a part of them. To hear these stories and sing these hymns is to tell the truth of who we are – our beauty and our brokenness.

No, our life together is about more than simply participating vacantly in rituals – it’s about the fullness of the rhythm of faith. Truthfully, we can forget this, though. Oh, I know it. I live it sometimes. Not every text is one I’m just so excited to preach on. I know you have lived this, too. Oh, I can tell when you’ve spaced out and are probably thinking about lunch or if you can fit in a nap this afternoon instead of listening intently to the Gospel reading. Sometimes the rhythm of faith can seem monotonous, predictable, it can even become difficult to hear.

Which is why I am so thankful for Easter. Sure, we have made Easter a ritual, too – because that’s what we do – but it is a ritual like no other. Because the truth of Easter is that we remember that all the rules were broken. Suddenly everything was turned upside down and the impossible was possible. The thing that seemed to have the final word, death, no longer had the last say at all. With a stone rolled away and some women spotting the empty grave clothes – everything changed. And not just for then, but for ever.

Do you know what this means? Yes, it means that our slate is wiped clean. Praise God, Alleluia – we are the recipients of grace and forgiveness we never deserved because Jesus accepted the punishment for us. Yes. Because of this day. Because of our dear Lord. Alleluia!

Do you know what else this means? It means that the worst things are never the last things. Not anymore. Because of this day. Because of our dear Lord. It means that when I stood by my mother’s grave on a November day in 2012, I could weep and feel so desperately sad, yet hovering in the cold air there was not only grief but the whisper of a promise. A promise that Jesus went to prepare a place for all of us – a home, our real home, beyond this one. It means the ones you have loved and lost are just waiting for you, a heartbeat away. Easter is the promise that there are no final goodbyes for those who trust in a resurrected Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Do you know what else this means? It means that those things that are broken and dead ends in your life, that those things that chain you or cause you misery or heartache, those things don’t have the last word either. Because of this day. Because of our dear Lord. Jesus teaches us that he is the God of new beginnings and new life and great hope – and we celebrate Easter every year because we need so desperately to be reminded of that. This faith we share in the love of God is eternally optimistic – in the words of Paul, “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things.” You were fearfully and wonderfully made – you have no reason to accept anything other than being treated with respect and care and kindness by others and by yourself. Good Friday is over, the darkness of night has given way to Easter morning, folks. Whatever is causing you hurt or harm, sleepless nights, anxiety or frustration – if there was ever a time to let it go and move toward life and joy – it’s this day. May you do it with boldness and bravery and certainty that God accompanies you on your journey.

He is risen! He is risen Indeed!  Alleluia!

A Time to Grieve – sermon for 2/18/18

It’s too hard to keep up. The stories of horrific, unchecked violence just keep coming.

It was in the middle of the afternoon this time. It was a high school this time. It was a 19 year-old former student doing the shooting this time. It was an AR-15 rifle again this time. This time there were 17 victims – students and teachers.

Parkland, Florida joins a list that seems to be becoming endless – a trail of blood and tears – Las Vegas, Newtown, Orlando, Columbine, Charleston, Sutherland Springs, and so many others. Violence. Unspeakable Loss.

Then the predictable cycle of grief, blame, debates between the various sides on the issue of gun violence, talk about mental illness and what can and should be done, and then we go back to life as usual. Just hoping that the next time the headlines spout another shooting spree has happened that we won’t be in the line of fire, or our children, or our grandchildren.

I’m heartbroken. And sitting down to write this sermon felt nearly impossible. Because it was just in November that we were talking about the 26 people who died in their Sunday morning worship service in Texas – butstatistics show that on average 36 people die each day by gun violence in the United States – that number does not include suicides. Sutherland Springs and Parkland and Las Vegas and Newtown and Columbine and Charleston and all the others just make the news because in those cases the violence was all condensed in one place.

You know the statistics as well as I do. We can hear them on the news if we choose or we can turn our heads and not listen.

I think one of the reasons that we scramble toward answers and blame in times like this is because if we don’t, all we are left with is grief and lament. And I don’t know about you, but I’m so tired of this grieving and lamenting. I’m worn out from thinking of the rivers of blood in our schools, churches, homes, workplaces, concerts – you name it. I’ve grown weary in my prayers, too. It was six years ago when I lit candles like those after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was nineteen years ago, the same year I became a pastor, that the shootings at Columbine High School happened. What was an unheard of occurrence back then has now become everyday. Somewhere along the way, I stopped lighting candles on Sunday mornings for those who died in gun violence because it was impossible to keep up. There weren’t enough candles to keep up with the bullets. I wanted solutions, not more grief. I wanted answers, not only prayers. I desperately wanted us to fix this broken gun-addled society, not spend more time crying out to God over our countless losses.

But then I was reminded that each time this happens, while we must keep working for peace and solutions, first we must grieve and lament for that loss of life, that additional scar on our humanity, the stolen joy and peace. When we stop taking time to grieve, it numbs us, we start getting too used to this. Not allowing time for grieving is the quickest route to treating this kind of bloodshed as a new, horrible normal.

There are all sorts of ways to grieve, of course. There’s no correct recipe or timeline. Grief is sneaky, too – just when we think we are starting to feel better or more normal again, something can set off a fresh wave of grief. A couple weeks ago my mom’s best friend died and in the days that followed I couldn’t understand why everything was making me tear up. I felt awful. I didn’t understand it. I cared about my mom’s friend but we weren’t terribly close. I was telling a friend about it and she matter-of-factly said, “Ruth, you have to realize that this isn’t just about your mom’s friend. It’s losing another connection to your mom. In a way, you are feeling the loss of your mom all over again.” And of course, she was right. The wounds of grief are never completely healed over and it doesn’t take much to rub the scabs off and we feel the pain all over again.

But perhaps it helps to remember that grief is human and necessary – and even something that Jesus himself felt. In the gospel for today, Jesus weeps after Lazarus’ death. It’s interesting to note that the scripture says Jesus was both moved by the grief of those around him and his love for Lazarus. His grief had many layers – as grief often does. When we think of another school shooting we grieve for those families who are planning funerals for their kids; we grieve for the families of the teachers who died protecting their students; we grieve for our own kids that they live in a world in which they not only have tornado drills at school, but now they have drills for what to do if a shooter enters the building.

Jesus began to weep. It’s an important verse. Especially when we hear people who are busy trying to make sense of these kinds of situations and saying all sorts of things. One statement I’ve heard over and over after school shootings is something like, “The reason that shooting happened in that school is because God isn’t allowed in the schools anymore.” I understand that the intention is likely well-meaning – that those who say something like that are promoting that they wish prayer or mention of God still be allowed in school. But there are distinct problems with this. First, it makes God sound pretty awful – like God is punishing every little school child and every teacher and school worker; like the hallways flowing with blood are due to something they have done to deserve punishment. This doesn’t sound anything like the God of grace we know. And secondly, do we honestly think school doors or school policies can keep God out? Do we believe that our beloved friends who are teachers and principles and workers of all kinds at the school don’t bring God along with them in their work and their words each day?  Do we think for even a millisecond that our beloved children who attend school aren’t treasured and adored by God wherever they are – whether at home or at church or at school or at the mall or anywhere?! God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-present – there is no place that God cannot find us and is not with us. So, when we hear that kind of bad theology, “The reason that shooting happened in that school is because God isn’t allowed in the schools anymore.”  – we must be careful and remind ourselves and others that God whom we know through Jesus Christ is not in the business of raining down bullets of judgement and bloody death because of human-made policies. Rather, where we find God in this in so many other places. Especially weeping with us.

He’s right there, right here, weeping with us. Jesus wept along with Mary and Martha and the friends and neighbors gathered – and Jesus weeps along with us today.

I know we want to fix this. I know we want just the right answer, the right policy, the right miracle, the right movement, the right hashtag that will fix this – so that this is the last time we ever have to mourn violence like this. Tomorrow, let’s get up and work toward all that, with whatever smarts and energy and insight we have – let’s work to solve the problem in big and small ways – not bicker about it on social media, not blame the right or the left, but work together so that this disease of gun violence plaguing our country stops. Our prayers must always go along with action.

But today we grieve.

We take time to grieve. Let’s pray…

Our God and God of all people,
God of the Rich and God of the poor.
God of the teacher and God of the student.
God of the families who wait in horror.
God of the dispatcher who hears screams of terror from under bloodied desks.
God of the first responder who bravely creeps through ravaged hallways.
God of the doctor who treats the wounded.
God of the rabbi, pastor, imam or priest who seeks words of comfort but comes up empty.
God of the young boy who sees his classmates die in front of him.
God of the weeping, raging, inconsolable mother who screams at the sight of her child’s lifeless body .
God of the shattered communities torn apart by senseless violence.
God of the legislators paralyzed by fear, partisanship, money and undue influence.
God of the Right.
God of the Left.
God who hears our prayers.
God who does not answer.
On this when we live in the aftermath of the 18th School shooting in our nation on the 46th day of this year, I do not feel like praying.
Our prayers have not stopped the bullets. Our prayers feel so little sometimes in the face of this kind of hyper-recurring evil.

But still, we lift them up to you. Be with us as we grieve this loss that is so senseless but not unexpected anymore. Weep with us as we yet again list names of your precious children who died violent, unnecessary deaths:

Assistant football coach and campus monitor Aaron Feis

Jamie Guttenberg – age 14

Martin Duque – age 14

Athletic director Chris Hixon

Geography teacher, Scott Beigel

Alaina Petty, 14

Gina Montalto, 14

Nicholas Dworet, 17

Joaquin Oliver, 17

Alyssa Alhadeff, 14

Meadow Pollack, 18

Peter Wang, 15

Carmen Schentrup, 16

Cara Loughran, 14

Alex Schachter, 14

Luke Hoyer, 15

Helena Ramsay, 17

Be with us as we grieve today. And help us rise tomorrow with strength, vision, and purpose to work however we can for peace.

We pray this in Jesus name. Amen.

Mary of Bethany (a Lenten sermon on John 12:1-8)

Our sense of smell can bring back memories in such powerful ways. I have what was left of my father’s aftershave when he died. I keep it in my dresser and every now and then when I come across it, I’ll open it and close my eyes and sniff – and I’m instantly brought back to when he would take my face in his hands after he was done shaving and pat some of the good smelling aftershave on my face, too. The smell of woodsmoke immediately brings me back to summer nights on the shores of Lake Carlos when I was a camp counselor. The scent of lilacs transports my thoughts directly to my grandmother’s yard no matter where I might be.

And if we were living in the moment of the twelfth chapter of the gospel of John, the room would be filled with the scent of pure nard. In case you ever wondered about what Nard was, it is also called Spikenard and muskroot. It is a flowering plant of the Valerian family and it grows in high altitudes. The plant itself grows to be about 1 meter in height and it has pink, bell-shaped flowers. It can be crushed and distilled into intensely aromatic, thick, amber-colored oil. It was used as a perfume, an incense, a sedative, and an herbal medicine said to fight insomnia, birth difficulties, and other minor ailments.

Anyway, pure nard is the scent filling the air after a dinner party – the scene includes we’re not sure how many people – but we know Jesus is there and Mary comes in with this oil and begins to anoint and massage Jesus’ feet.

Then as if this scene weren’t tender enough, she uses her own hair to gently wipe off his feet. This scene is scandalous in a number of ways – First, that she loosens her hair in a room full of men, an honorable woman never did that.  An honorable woman only let her hair down in the presence of her husband.

She pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, which was also not done.  The head, maybe–people did that to kings–but not the feet.  Then she touches him–a single woman rubbing a single man’s feet–also not done, not even among friends.  Then she wipes the perfume off with her hair. 

But none of these things strike me so much as that it is a scene of complete generosity and extravagant affection. This oil was so expensive – worth about a year’s salary then – that to use this oil so lavishly and all on one person seems foolish at first glance. Her giving to Jesus so completely of what she has and of herself and her attention makes the reader feel we perhaps should turn our heads, give these two a little time alone.

Judas Iscariot voices the concern that others in the room are probably thinking.  He says, “Why wasn’t this oil sold and the money given to the poor?” Judas seems right on the mark to me. In fact, he seems to be saying something that Jesus himself would normally say. We know Jesus was a champion for the poor and the oppressed, but he defends Mary and he says, “No, leave her alone. You’ll always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me.”

So there it is:  Jesus, who used every moment as a teaching moment – was he doing it again now – reminding them he was the lamb, the ultimate sacrifice.  Or did he simply want to treasure for a moment the fragrance of the oils filling the room, the touch of a friend offering him comfort.  Did he just want to savor these small pleasures of this life as long as he could before the next things were fulfilled?

The whole story is so sad and bittersweet.  From our vantage point we know what is coming next and we know how precious those final moments with friends must be for Jesus.  Did Mary’s kindness and extravagant care for Jesus bring him some measure of comfort as he endured all that happened in the next days? Did the scent of the oils linger on his skin even as he was brought before Pilate? Did the memory of gentle hands that lovingly massaged his feet have enough power to lessen some of the blows that other hands soon dealt?

We can only wonder.  But what is not a mystery to me as I read this text are the actions of Mary.  I think I understand Mary of Bethany very well.  What she does here is clear to me – as clear as when Peter wanted to make those dwelling places on the mountaintop the day of Jesus’ transfiguration – when Peter wanted to stay in that moment of wonder forever.  His actions and words often interpreted as brash and even foolish – but who doesn’t say and do impetuous things when wonder and joy have filled you to the top?  And people around Mary might shake their heads at the foolishness of sharing all that precious oil with just one person, they might tsk tsk at her unrestrained actions as she kneels at Jesus’ feet and even lets down her hair to use it as a towel – but these were the things she had to give.  Who doesn’t understand that feeling of wanting to give all that we have for the people who mean the most to us?  We’d give anything to see them not suffer or be harmed – and if we know the end must near – then we at least do everything we possibly can to make that end be pain-free and dignified and meaningful as possible and surround that person with love.

What Mary had to give were these precious oils and her actions. She shared all of it without holding back. She shared all of it because soon she would no longer have Jesus near to give him all that she could give. She had to give it all and give it then. This was no time for stingy love or small gifts. This was a time to pour it all out because soon, there would be no more time.

And yes, she did it for Jesus but she was also doing it for herself.  That’s how giving is.  We have a need to give.  It’s a great and true mystery how generosity never leaves us empty or wanting or poorer for having done it. Generosity only helps fill the empty places and gives wholeness to our brokenness. 

I’ve heard Mary described as a prophet – that with her actions here and using these precious oils she’s not only preparing Jesus for burial but she is showing the extravagance of God’s love. 

In fact, some call Mary “the prodigal woman.”  “Prodigal” means “extravagant.”  We remember how the prodigal son took his inheritance and spent it recklessly.  But when we look at that word “prodigal” knowing its true definition we see prodigal happenings all over the place in our scriptures.  The prodigal father who welcomed back the son and gave him a robe and a meal and his place in the home, loving him extravagantly even though he did not deserve it.  The prodigal shepherd who loses one sheep and will not rest, goes over the top in his searching, until that lost sheep has been found.  The prodigal widow who only has two small copper coins and she recklessly gives them both away trusting that little becomes much when it is placed in the master’s hands. The prodigal woman, Mary, pouring out oil and tears, letting down her hair and her guard to love profusely.  The prodigal God, Jesus, making his way down the Via Dolorosa and ultimately giving up his very life – loving us with everything he was – then and now and forever.

When we begin to take note of this Spirit of generosity, the giving away of both love and possessions lavishly, that fills our Holy Scriptures it is easy to see why the happiest people are those who have learned how to give.  Yes, of possessions and money and time – there is no question that belief in Christ commands that we be good at sharing these things – but God demands even more. 

Let’s take a lesson from Mary of Bethany. 

We begin by giving of what we have.  As she poured out expensive oils without thought of the cost, we give generously as well, and if that is hard to do, which it is for most of us, we work bit by bit to become better at it.  We try to loosen our grip on stuff, loosen our worries about money and materials and instead see all that has been entrusted to us as simply means to help bless others.  Anyone who is wise knows that anything we think is ours isn’t really ours, it’s only a gift from God given to us for a time and to be shared.  Our view of the world becomes a lot more beautiful when we see everything this way.  There is no material thing to which we cling tightly.  Worries become less as we take our focus off our own wants and instead minister to the needs of others.  Our time becomes more meaningful when we use it to benefit others rather than primarily looking for our own entertainment and comfort. 

Giving is a joyful thing.  Giving lightens our load in so many ways – it frees us of things we never really needed anyway and opens the doors and windows wide for things like peace and joy and love to rush in – and heaven knows, those are the things we really need.

One night during seminary, I was sitting at supper with a group of friends. One of my friends, Joy, offhandedly said to my other friend, Steve, “Hey, I like your sweater.” Steve immediately took off his sweater and gave it to her. Joy said, “no, that’s crazy, don’t give it to me! I was just saying I like it!” But Steve insisted. He smiled and told us he had been practicing his giving. He had made a promise to himself that if anyone said they liked something he had, if at all possible, he was going to give it away – to remind himself how little he actually needed. He said that since he started doing it, it had been one of the best things he had ever done – he said, “Please, as a favor to me, take the sweater!” Joy laughed and took the sweater. She said, “you are nuts.”

I think of that night at the supper table often – how Steve was so willing, happy actually, to let go of his stuff – to walk home on a chilly night with no sweater. But he knew he didn’t need it. He knew practicing giving things away opened up something in him, practicing generosity blessed him. It was a genuinely cool thing to witness.

We may not have precious oils or hair to let down to wipe Jesus’ feet, yet we can still ask ourselves each day what kind of fragrant offering we can give to show how very much we love him, how thankful we are for this life and our blessings.  Each day we have the opportunity to be the prodigal son or daughter, too –  love, live, help and give extravagantly.  

Changes

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar…
“I hardly know, Sir, just at present,” Alice replied rather shyly, “at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
– Lewis Carroll “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

The author, William Bridges, tells a story about teaching a class called “Being in Transition”.  The twenty-five adults who showed up for the class were in various stages of confusion and crisis.  He said he was surprised by the wide variety of people who ended up coming.  There were men and women who were recently divorced or separated.  There were a couple of people who were newly married or remarried, one a twenty-six year-old man who had suddenly acquired a full-scale ready-made family of four kids.  There was a widow and several recently retired folks.  There was a woman who had just had her first baby, a man who had just had a heart-attack, and even a man who had just had a big promotion at work.  There were three or four women who had just returned to college after year years of child-raising.  There were two people who had just been fired.  And there was a young woman who was living on her own for the first time.

Although there was a wide variety in the people and the circumstances, as they met together the first night, three similarities in their experiences emerged – each had been through an ending, followed by a period of confusion or ‘lostness’, leading to a new beginning, in the cases that had come that far.

As they talked about their various transitions, each person’s attitudes toward these different phases differed.  Those who had chosen their transitions tended to minimize the importance of the endings, almost as if they felt that to acknowledge that an ending was painful would be to admit the transition was a mistake.  On the other hand, those who had gone into transition unwillingly found it very hard to admit that a new beginning and a new phase of their lives might be at hand.  But all of them agreed that the in-between place was strange and confusing.  They hoped to get out of it as quickly as possible.

The in-between place – we’ve all been there at one time or another.  It is somewhere between the Good Old Days and the Brave New World.  Many people have written about it – one of my favorite reflections compares it to swinging on a trapeze.  Part of that reflection reads:

“Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging onto a trapeze bar swinging along or I’m hurtling across space in between bars.

Most of the time I’m hanging on for dear life to my trapeze bar of the moment. It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life. I know most of the right questions and even some of the right answers. But once in a while as I’m merrily swinging along, I look ahead of me into the distance and I see another bar swinging toward me. It’s empty and I know that this new trapeze bar has my name on it.  I must release my grip on the present, well-known bar to move to the new one.

Each time it happens, I hope and pray that I won’t have to grab the new trapeze bar. But I realize that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar and for some time I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar. Each time I am filled with terror. It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing, I have always made it. Each time I am afraid I will miss -that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between the bars. But I do it anyway.  I soar across the dark void of “the past is gone, the future is not yet here.” It is called transition. I have come to believe that it is the only place that real change occurs.”

I wonder what transitions you are facing right now?  What are those changes and challenges you are wrestling with today?  John F. Kennedy said:  “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” How are you doing at facing the changes you meet?  Do you find yourself welcoming them or dreading them?

Certainly some changes are easier than others.  Someone who understood a lot about this was probably Job in our OT reading for today.  Job was a prosperous, respected, and good man whose life was devastated in one day.  He lost everything he had, including his ten children.  However, he refused to blame God for his troubles.  In fact, the first thing he says after he learns of the loss of everything he owns and all his children is, “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  Later, Job was stricken with a terrible disease and he suffered excruciating pain for a long time.  Then, some of his friends come to comfort him but later they criticize Job and tell him that the horrible things that have happened to him must be because of his own sin.  They told him to repent – but Job was convinced that he hadn’t done anything to deserve this kind of terrible luck.  However, he couldn’t understand how God could let this happen to him, either.  He struggled on with the confidence that he would eventually be vindicated.  Job never did lose his faith.  For a long time he suffered – but at the end, God restored Job’s fortunes – the scripture says he was blessed more in the end than in his beginning – he had ten more children and lived a long life.  The last sentence of the book says that ‘he died an old man and full of days’.

But before we dwell too much on that happy ending, it’s fair to spend some time on those terrible changes Job had to endure – changes that made absolutely no sense to him, changes that broke his heart and threatened to break his spirit.  Changes that we can’t understand as readers of his story.  Though we see that his fortune was restored at the end, I wonder if the more important lesson we learn from Job doesn’t have as much to do with his ending, as how he handled his own time of ‘lostness’?

It’s such a sad scene – shortly after Satan had smote Job with boils all over his body and he was sitting among the ashes, his wife comes out to talk to him and, she says, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity?  Curse God and die!”  But even though he is in mourning, and in physical agony he says, “Shall we accept good from God and not accept adversity?”  Sure, in later pages he laments, sure he despairs, but at the same time he says things like, “I know my redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth.  Even after my skin is destroyed, yet I shall see God.”

Scott Peck said: “The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”

Job found that when all else was lost he still could find his truest answer in his God.  He still found his foundation there.  He still put his trust there.  I wonder how well we do the same when faced with the challenges and changes that affect us most deeply?  Are brave to face the in-between times, the times of feeling ‘lost’, trusting that God will bring us through them to a new beginning?

I was in my late twenties when I graduated from seminary and was sent out on my first call to a little church in New York.  I’ll never forget the feeling of packing up my books and clothes and cats and heading east in my old black 1984 GMC Jimmy.  While I had moved a million times before, this felt different.  When I said ‘goodbye’ to my mom this time I didn’t know the next time I would see her.  We had lunch together before I left and the soup we ate tasted bitter and sad as the reality hung in the air that I was really moving away.  This time it wasn’t for a school year or for a internship or some mission trip – this time it was indefinitely.

I remember being stuck in traffic around Chicago, praying my truck wouldn’t stall in the late summer heat.  My Siamese cat, Sam, looked up at me from her cat carrier giving me indignant meows.  She could tell everything was changing, too…It was hot and loud with the car windows rolled down…no litter box, no food dish, no catnip toys readily available.  Cats have their own transitions to deal with.

The next night I made it to New York and pulled up to the big old house next to the church.  There was an echo throughout the house as I opened the door and walked into the empty living room.  A parishioner who knew I wasn’t going to be bringing any furniture had brought a chair and a lamp over for the living room.  As the darkness settled over the house and the cats explored the smells of their new surroundings, I went out on the front step and sat on the concrete steps.  In the fluorescent light of the church sign I could see the tops of the tombstones in the cemetery across the street, the distant warm lights of homes of neighbors whom I imagined I would meet soon, the traffic from the cars speeding by on I-90.  I imagined how many of those souls out driving tonight were starting something new in the same way I was.  And I sat there quite self-pitying and wondered if any of them felt as alone as I did right then.

That house was so empty in every way when I came.  It felt like a foreign land to me – coming from a city full of friends and always being busy with school and work and travel to now be planted in this little spot in the country.  I felt strange in my own skin for a while to be so completely transplanted…there was nothing that was ‘usual’ anymore.

But bit by bit I saw in a way that was mystical to me, that empty house being filled over the months and years that followed.  In a tangible way, of course, as I collected some old furniture from thrift stores and began to fill in the spaces. But in a less tangible way, God brought me the things I really needed – like friends – out of nowhere they appeared, people with whom I could laugh and talk.  And after a while, one of those friends, Stephanie, needed a place to stay and since I had this huge parsonage filled with just me and a couple cats and I said, “come stay with me.” And she did.  And suddenly it wasn’t just me in that house – but Stephanie, and all of Stephanie’s bohemian friends stopping by.  And then before I knew it on a trip to Minnesota I ran into an old friend named Chad and on a July morning we had a little wedding at my church and a picnic on the yard between the house and the church.

And I remember being amazed as the years there unfolded that now I could almost see the life overflowing out of the windows and doors of that house.  There was nothing empty about it anymore….but in ways I never could have imagined God filled that house so perfectly.

Anatole France writes, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”

May God make us brave to face our changes…brave and faithful.  God is with you in whatever changes you face today.

Mary

I’ve been thinking about you, Mary. This time of year I tend to think of you a lot – partly because everywhere in this season of short days and long nights we hear about you in our carols and in our scripture readings. In the Lutheran church we don’t tend to spend as much time talking about you as do our brothers and sisters in the catholic church, but this time of year we turn our gaze toward you a bit more.

I’ll always remember how much I thought about you the two Decembers I was pregnant with my sons. I felt like I experienced the Advent season, the season of waiting and expectation, in a whole new way then, and I thought about you, Mary, in a new way. Between you and me, during the worship services on Christmas Eve those years I was boiling in my robe and stole, both my boys were like little furnaces growing bigger by the day – so I was always hot. The Christmas tree in the sanctuary at my church in Colorado obstructed the view of the chairs where the pastors sat, and so during the hymns, I stood behind that tree, took off my shoes, and rested my face on the cool marble pillar back there. I was so hot, so tired, so not glowing or any of the good things they say about pregnant women – but I was thankful. And I thought about you, Mary. You were no longer just a character in a story I had heard my whole life. You were a mom, like me.  

But of course, much different than me, too – because your pregnancy was announced to you by an angel and all.  And you were probably about fourteen years old at most. You had never slept with a man, you were unmarried.

So, when Luke writes that you were “perplexed” or “troubled” at what the angel was announcing to you, I tend to think that must have been an understatement of biblical proportions. I mean, I feel perplexed or a bit troubled when the dryer quits working or if there is stain on the couch that has appeared that no one is taking responsibility for. But when an angel appears with news that is not only going to change your life but the entire world through you – well, I can think of better words to use: stupefied, astonished, flabbergasted, dumbfounded.

And, Mary, isn’t it wild how streamlined Luke makes your story? I mean, just a few neat and tidy verses and your tale is told. In verse 31 you begin to find out all that is about to happen. You ask one question, “how exactly is this going to happen?” in verse 34, and by verse 38 you say essentially, “Okay then.”

Pretty sure that moment wasn’t quite so neat, tidy, and quick as Luke portrays it. Mary, only you and God and perhaps Gabriel got a glimpse, too, of how this really went down. I’ve been thinking about you and wondering – If you felt terrified, if you wanted to say “pick another girl from the village, please!”, if you had sleepless nights over the months that followed as you wondered, and worried at this strange blessing that was happening to you.

Through history you are often portrayed as so meek and mild. But Mary, that’s not how I think of you. I think of how brave you were. Brave to say, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word,” even if your voice was trembling when you said it.  God blessed you with that bravery and Gabriel reminded you that nothing is impossible with God. I wonder if you repeated that to yourself over and over, a mantra of sorts that held you up through the morning sickness, the swelling, the heartburn, all the glorious accompaniments to pregnancy? “nothing is impossible, nothing is impossible, nothing is impossible with God.”

I think about you, Mary, and this story of how you believed and trusted God. For however many doubts were woven in along with it, God blessed you with just enough faith – and you leaned into that faith to carry you through all that was to come. Day by day.

That’s what I wish Luke could have written more about. Sure, he was just trying to tell a story and it’s easy to criticize the storyteller, but he made it sound so easy. We get to learn so little about you and we are left to wonder so much. And if we aren’t careful we can think that you had some superhuman faith and bravery and if we were only better people, we would have that kind of faith and bravery, too. We can think that as followers of God we can’t have doubts and we need to be sure and certain all the time, confident as we proclaim with voices that don’t shake, “Here I am, Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”

But you were a fourteen year old girl, Mary. Maybe as young as twelve. You were the age of a middle-schooler. You were a human being, like any of us. Luke doesn’t write about your fears or hesitations, he doesn’t linger over how common you were, how completely unremarkable you were compared to any other girl alive in those days. Rather, he focuses on what happened through you – which is, of course, the point. Jesus is the point. Jesus is the reason. Jesus is Christmas.

But you mattered, Mary. You mattered so much – I hope you knew that. You matter because we all matter. You matter because you remind us that God is able to work through any of us. You remind us that the extraordinary can still happen – because nothing is impossible with God.

26-28 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David. His name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name, Mary. Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:

Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.

29-33 She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that. But the angel assured her, “Mary, you have nothing to fear. God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus.

He will be great,
    be called ‘Son of the Highest.’
The Lord God will give him
    the throne of his father David;
He will rule Jacob’s house forever—
    no end, ever, to his kingdom.”

34 Mary said to the angel, “But how? I’ve never slept with a man.”

35 The angel answered,

The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
    the power of the Highest hover over you;
Therefore, the child you bring to birth
    will be called Holy, Son of God.

36-38 “And did you know that your cousin Elizabeth conceived a son, old as she is? Everyone called her barren, and here she is six months pregnant! Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.”

And Mary said,

Yes, I see it all now:
    I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
    just as you say.

Then the angel left her. (Luke 1: 26-38)

Christ Still Comes

Christ still comes – ready or not.

Grace to you and peace on this Christmas morning.  Advent has come and gone;  the candlelight of Christmas Eve is over – and here we are in the broad daylight of Christmas day. 

To tell you the truth it all snuck up on me.  We just moved into a different house and even though it was several weeks ago we still haven’t uncovered the Christmas ornaments or lights.  You wouldn’t know it is Christmas if you came to our house unless you saw the spectacular lights on our next-door neighbor’s house.  It is surprising to me that even though we’ve had our advent journey and lit the candles on the advent wreath one by one, I wasn’t quite ready for Christmas Eve to arrive yesterday.   Frankly, even now I’m not all that filled with what anyone would recognize as stereotypical Christmas spirit.  I’ve had a cold all week, I’m sure I’ve gained at least three or four pounds since Thanksgiving, and for the 34th year straight I haven’t sent out any Christmas cards.  Yesterday as I scuffled my way from the parking lot into the church I was in a sour mood.  I couldn’t find the right outfit to wear, my hair had turned out wrong, the cat had thrown up on the kitchen floor, and my head was full of congestion.  And worse than that, I felt guilty that I was in such a bad mood on the morning of Christmas Eve.  No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t shift my gaze from myself to that manger.  No matter how much I wanted to be full of Christmas cheer, my demeanor better suited Good Friday.

I wonder if you have ever felt that way during the Christmas season? Have you ever felt like if you could just pause for a moment and catch your breath you might be able to enjoy this time of year a little more –but there is too much to do:  too many people to see, gatherings to attend, gifts to buy and cookies to bake?  Have you ever felt like it’s too hard to dig through the wrapping paper and tinsel and colored lights to even begin to find the real meaning of this holiday?  Wouldn’t it be kind of nice if we could put off Christmas until we were really ready for it?  Until a time when everything was in place and we all felt like celebrating?

Well, that is how I felt.  But Christmas came anyway.  It came in spite of me.

A friend of mine in Minneapolis told me a story about her young daughter who is fascinated with the little green plastic army figures that belong to her brother.  Her daughter picks up these army figures and moves them around the house and so my friend said she wasn’t surprised when one day a few weeks ago she noticed in her family nativity scene, there wasn’t just Mary and Joseph, but six little green army men pointing guns in all directions.  She said that she immediately took out the little green figures, but then she realized that maybe it was more symbolic of the true story of Jesus’ coming than she had initially thought.  Jesus was not born into a world free of violence or hate.  He was not born into a perfect world – but rather he was born into our world, right how it was, and he still comes into our lives, right now, just how we are.

It’s interesting, isn’t it?  We dress up our houses and dress up ourselves and pour all sorts of time and effort into creating just the right holiday and to exude some sort of Christmas spirit to those around us – but the truth is that Jesus came for Scrooge just as much as Tiny Tim.  He came just as much for the antagonist as the protagonist, as much for the villain as the hero, as much for the person you like the least, as for the person you love the most.   We gather to celebrate Christmas and the good news of Jesus’ birth – but the best news is that he came even for those who cannot or maybe even will not celebrate his birth.  That is amazing love.  A love that though we may search for it, actually finds us all along.

One December when I was around 20 years old.  I was full of righteous indignation at the commercial excess of the holidays and convinced that no one understood the depths of my feelings about this – including my family –  and so on my Christmas break from college instead of going home or going to a friend’s house or staying at school and working, I went out to stay at my old Bible camp by myself. 

I had high hopes for spiritual enlightenment as I went to live in the wilds of northern Minnesota for those weeks.  I didn’t tell anyone where I was going.  It was my secret pilgrimage.  I sat and wrote in my journal by firelight and thought deep thoughts about the true meaning of Christmas far away from any of the commercial trappings, far away from my family’s traditions. 

On Christmas day in the midst of the silence, the phone rang – it was my mom.  To this day I don’t know how she tracked me down – but she called just to say “merry Christmas” and “I love you.”  Although I was annoyed that my pilgrimage was not so secret after all, it provided me with the greatest revelation I had that week.  There was nothing I was going to find by putting myself apart from everyone for that week.  No great words of wisdom were written down in that journal.  Although I had listened for God in the sound of the trees and the quiet of the snow dancing across the ice-covered lake, it wasn’t my searching that brought me closer to any great understanding.  Rather, the things I needed to find were looking for me all along.  The things I needed to find had been knit into my life from the very start.  The things I needed to find were things I just had to learn to recognize rather than hunt down and conquer. 

What does all this mean?  It means that especially today, don’t worry so much about the searching – you have already been found.  It means Christ comes to us again and again.  Emmanuel – God with us – God with us in so many ways!  Christ comes to us in parents, in each other, in strangers, in words that startle and amaze us, in the sacraments we share, and in a manger.   Christ comes to us though we may not feel ready or happy or sane.  Comes to us just as we are.  When all is said and done, Christmas Spirit is something we are given, not something we create.  And for that I am grateful.  Merry Christmas. 

(December 2004)