Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Holy Week

There are just a few things I want to remember, from Holy Week this year.

I want to remember how windy it was, while we were standing outside, waiting to go in on Palm Sunday.  I want to remember how everyone sang and waved their palms.  I want to remember how it struck me that we looked bigger in number than we were, simply because we were standing there waving our palms.  I want to remember the children who were sitting in the front during the message.  I want to remember them saying "yes" when I asked the question, "Did Jesus forgive you?"  I want to remember how several adults put their hand out to receive a bit of oil, to remember Jesus' healing ministry.   I want to remember how everyone got into the action and shouted out, "Hosanna! Blessed are you King Jesus!"

Then, suddenly, it was Thursday.  It was Thursday evening.  It was the night that Jesus' was betrayed.

There was a bowl, and a towel, and a pitcher.  I had asked a couple of children if it would be okay to wash their feet, as part of the sermon.  They said yes.

In the middle of the sermon, I walked down, and invited them up.  Two tiny children.  They took a turn sitting in the chair.  Their feet did not touch the ground.  They agreed to have their feet washed.  I lifted the bowl up and poured a little water from the pitcher on their feet, and then dried them.

And then, I asked if anyone else would let me wash their feet.  Another little girl scampered up.

I want to remember that.

After communion, during the stripping of the altar we heard the mournful beauty of the guitar, playing along to suffering and betrayal.

Too soon it was Friday evening.  It was a simple service, simpler than I have done before.  A short meditation, music, and nine readers from my congregation.  Nine voices telling the sorrowful story.  Everyone told it in their own voice.  Everyone's voice was strong.  A soloist sings Mary's sorrow.

I want to remember that.

Someone said that this simple service was the most moving Good Friday he had attended.  Other people said they were honored to be asked to play a part.

On Sunday we heard many kinds of Alleluias.  But what I want to remember on Sunday is the children, and how they put the flowers on the cross.  There is always chaos.  It always takes longer than I think it will.

Holy Week.  It belongs to all of us.  The children with their flowers, the soloists, the choir, the readers, the prayers, and all the rest of us.  His resurrected life is in our lives, our feet, our hands, our voices.

I want to remember that.


Friday, April 7, 2017

A Day

It is a beautiful day here.  Everyone says so.  On my local Christian radio station, they are singing the praises of this day, with its mild temperatures, blue skies and low humidity.  It is a day to take long walks with your dog, to take your coffee or your iced tea and sit outside, to revel in it.  Really beautiful days are rare.  This seems to be the case almost everywhere, although I have only lived in a few places.

Meanwhile, across the world, in Syria, a civil war rages.  I don't claim to understand everything about this, except that it is not beautiful.  There is so much horror and pain and people are fleeing but finding nowhere to go.  Just this week there was a chemical attack in Syria, across the world, and last night the United States sent Tomahawk missiles in retaliation.

When I was a teenager, it was popular to predict the imminent demise of the world.  All of the signs pointed to it.  Some people seemed to look forward to it.  But I didn't.  I just didn't understand that desire.  I loved the world.  I looked outside and saw it was a beautiful day.  I wanted a chance to grow up and have children and write books and see the world, or some parts of it, anyway.  I loved Jesus but I did not want him to come back, at least not right now.

Today, though, as I feel the sun on my face, I understand, a little.  I still love the world.  It is a beautiful day.  I love the parts of it that I have seen:  the Canadian Rockies, the streets of Paris, Mount Fuji and Galveston and Minnehaha Falls.  I love the faces of the children in my congregation and our school, and how they all want to pray for their dogs and their cats,  their dads and their moms.  I love the people at the assisted living center, especially the woman who told me that on the song, "Love Lifted Me" I could replace the word Love with God because God is love.  I love the world, but I feel the weight of all of the misery in it, too, and I want Jesus to come back and heal us, because I just don't believe we will ever figure it out.

I still want to make it better.  I think we need to do things to make it better, even if I don't know if they will help much, or at all.  Maybe bombing will help.  Maybe it won't.  I would take in a refugee family tomorrow.

Meanwhile, it is a beautiful day, and I still love the world.  And at the same time, I catch myself in a one-word prayer.

Maranatha.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Save us.

"Hosanna!"  It is the shout of Palm Sunday.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Close Encounters with Jesus: Lazarus (and his family)

Sermon for Lent 5, Year A
John 11:1-45

         
            “Do you believe this?”

            This is the heart of it, isn’t it?  Everything that comes before, and everything that comes after leads directly into this central question, the one Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this?”   
             Jesus has finally come to Bethany, finally, four days late for the funeral, even though Lazarus is his friend, and even though Mary and Martha beg him to come.
             Jesus has finally come to Bethany, has come to Mary  and Martha, and Martha comes to Jesus with this statement of faith, or doubt, or grief, or all three:  “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 
            And it is hard not to read many many things into this sentence.  Real things.  We can read her faith and her hope.  “You are so full of love, and you have so much compassion and power, I know that if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
             But also, can you possibly  hear some grief, and a question of her own.?  “If you had only been here… but you weren’t here, Jesus.  Why weren’t you here?  Why didn’t you come?” 

            There is so much reality wrapped in this simple statement, in the middle of a story that – let’s face it – has so much that is strange about it.             The late scene, the one on the other side, could be from a horror movie – with Lazarus coming out of the tomb, still bound in graveclothes. 
            How spooky is that? 
            But Martha’s words could be our words.  “If you had been here…..”  All of our whys are wrapped up in Martha’s words. 
            There is the why of the woman whose husband has died from cancer.  There is the why of the children who saw their mother fade away with Alzheimers. 
            There is the why of the husband whose wife died during heart surgery, leaving him alone with two small children. 
            You have so many more whys of your own.  And all of our whys start with faith:  we know you are loving and gracious and powerful, Jesus.  Why weren’t you here this time?

            And Jesus replies to Martha’s statement with these words, “I am the resurrection and the life.   
            Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
             This statement --- and a question, and I think the question is as important as the statement.  “Do you believe this?”

            Do you?

            It’s the question to Martha, and to the people gathered with her, and to you and me, too.

            I recently learned that this particular Gospel reading was one of those used when preparing new Christians for their baptism and confession of faith.
             In fact, all of the gospel readings we have heard during Lent – Jesus’ close encounters with Nicodemus – the woman at the well – with the man born blind – and with Lazarus and his sisters – all of them were part of the preparation of new Christians for baptism. 
            And so I was struck by this question – “Do you believe this?”  -- a question I suppose each and every candidate for baptism was asked. 

            Do you believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life?
             Do you believe that those who believe in him, even though they die, will live?  Do you believe that he is the light of the World, the living water, the Word made flesh? 
            Do you believe, even though you see evil in the world, even though there is danger, even though there is grieving and pain, do you believe that God’s love is stronger, that Jesus is working among us and in us and in the world?

            Do you? 

            Martha said yes.

            And so they went to the tomb, where Jesus wept, and where the people marveled.  “See how he loved him!”  And then Jesus said, Roll away the stone.

            Wait a minute, Martha said (the one who said that she believed).  “Are you sure you know what you are doing?  He’s been dead four days, after all.”  

            It is so with us.
             We believe that Jesus will raise us to new life – but later.
             Not right now. 
            But Jesus says that resurrection life starts now, in the world, with us.  They roll away the stone and Lazarus comes out, still bound up, but walking and living.

            And here is where Jesus says something interesting.
             He tells the people gathered, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  He tells them that they have something to do with Lazarus’ new life, with his resurrection life.
             They can help him to live right now. 
            They can help him off with his graveclothes, and on with the new life he has been given.

            It’s still that way.
             It’s why we like to have baptisms in church, where we can promise to support the person baptized, whether they are 4 or 40 or 80.  We want to be there to say – we will help you to live this new life you have been given. 
            In fact, you can’t do it alone.  None of us can. 
            We are here to help each other stay faithful, to pick each other up when we fall, to set each other free when we are bound in sin, to remind each other who we are, and the great mission God has given us.  
            We are here to comfort each other when the world gets too heavy, and to show each other the truth when it is so hard to see.

            Jesus is the resurrection, and the life right now.  He is making all things new.  Those he believe in him, even though they die, yet they will live.  Do you believe this?
            I remember one Sunday morning when I had to announce the death of a young man from my congregation.
             He had battled cancer for many years.
             I remember where he and his wife sat, every week, at our traditional service. 
            They were quiet people, but she loved to sing, and they attended a couple’s group. 
            When I announced his death, I thought I heard sighs too deep for words.

            Afterwards, I saw people from the community surround his wife, bearing her up, encouraging her. 
            This is what a congregation is for, I thought.
             We gather to remind each other of the truth, because we can’t always see it.  We gather to remind each other of the love that never ends. 
            We gather together to release each other from the power of death in our lives.

            Do you believe this?

            Jesus’ power over death was and is real.
             He is the resurrection and the life.  The raising of Lazarus tells us that.
             Like those who came out to console Martha and Mary, we care for each other, and remind each other of the promise – that Jesus will bring us out of death into new life – not just at the end of time, but now, and every day.  
            We are the people who take  the graveclothes from the dead and offer them the baptismal garments of their new life. 
            That’s what we do for one another.  That’s what our congregation is for

            Do you believe this?

            AMEN




Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Dirt

At this moment there is a small container of dirt in my office.

It has to do with the children's message on Sunday.  Wracking my brain for an idea for the complicated gospel reading about the man born blind, I thought about the mud Jesus put on the man's eyes.  Dirt plus water equals mud, I thought.  Surely we could riff on that for a couple of minutes with the children.

I thought I ought to go out and buy some dirt.  This is my way.  I am not proud to admit it.  My husband said, "Why don't you dig some up from around the church?"  But before I could retort to this perfectly sensible idea, one of my good church members was texting me about helping with the children and wondered if there was anything she could do.

"I need dirt," I texted back.

So I had dirt on Sunday morning, and a little bit of water, and I made a little bit of mud in a pie plate while asking the children about what was good about dirt.  They shouted out that things could grow in dirt:  flowers and vegetables and other things.  They thought about good things that we need water for too:  for drinking and washing and growing things.  We need water to live!  they said.

We need dirt to live too.

I poured a little bit of water on the dirt and asked what we made.

Everyone knew it was going to be mud.  Some thought it was cool, except when I asked about Jesus putting it on the blind man's eyes.  "Ewwww!"  said one little boy.

But a miracle happened.  Using dirt and water, Jesus made a blind man see.

Just water and dirt and Jesus.

We are made of earth too, according to the Bible.  Water and dirt.  It could be humbling.

And yet fearfully and wonderfully made.

Water and dirt and Jesus.  Miracles.  Each and every one of us, muddy, messy miracles.


Monday, March 27, 2017

Close Encounters with Jesus: The Man Born Blind

John 9:1-41/ Lent 4 Year A

            Dear friends in Christ, dear people of Grace, grace to you and peace from God our father, and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

            I remember the time, several years ago, I spent the morning in the waiting room of a prestigious university hospital. 
            A member of my congregation was having surgery, so that she could begin to hear again.  A modern miracle! 
            It seemed too good to be true! 
            How can someone who cannot hear – ever learn to hear again!  It’s a procedure called a “cochlear implant” – and I read up before the surgery to see if I could understand anything about it. 
            As I found it, it is not a sure thing.  There is more involved in learning to hear than just having the implants. 
            Once you do that, your ears have to be retrained so that they know and can interpret what they are hearing.  It takes time. 
            Still, though, a miracle.  Who would have thought it?

            The woman who was having the surgery had not been born deaf.              So in that way she was not like the man in the parable, who had been born blind. 
            She had been born with some hearing, but gradually, as she got older, she began to hear less and less.  And she missed it. 
            She wanted to have the surgery so that she could retrieve some of what she had lost.  She was willing to try anything.

            The man born blind, though, did not appear to be desperate. 
            He didn’t approach Jesus, asking for healing.  He was just sitting there, an object lesson for Jesus’ disciples. 
            So Jesus, they asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents?  What caused his blindness?” 
            Jesus does not answer their question really. 
            It is not the cause that he is interested in so much as the cure. 
            For the glory of God – he heals the man.  And then the blind man’s troubles begin.

            Because:  no one believes him! 
            They either don’t believe that he was the same man (the one who sat and begged), or they don’t believe that he was really blind, or they don’t believe that Jesus could have healed him. 
            Friends and neighbors question him – even the religious authorities.  It seems that everyone is looking for a loophole – a reason NOT to believe that something miraculous might have happened.    
            No one has ever healed a person blind from birth before.  It never happened before; it can’t happen now.  
            If Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath, he broke the law.  Therefore he cannot be a holy person.   
            There are so many reasons that this miracle could not have happened. 

            You have to wonder why people are so quick to dismiss, so quick to disbelieve – especially in something that seems so -- well -- wonderful… 
            The only thing that I can think is that somehow this miracle went against what they already held on to..  It upset the status quo.  It was unsettling. 
             It changed reality.  It was like an earthquake, somehow.    

            So no one believes this once blind man, and really, all he has to offer is this testimony, over and over again, “I was blind, but now I see.”  That’s it.  It’s just his experience.  
            He just keeps saying,  “This is what happened to me.” 
            And – and it took me many years of reading this story to actually notice this – even though this man received his sight from Jesus – he has not actually SEEN Jesus. 
            All of the people questioning him – they could ask him and he would not be able to tell them what Jesus looked like.  
            He has experienced this healing but he hasn’t seen Jesus yet.

            And I think that’s important.
            Because the point is not just to see.  The point is to see – Jesus.

            And that’s just where all of the rest of the people are blind, aren’t they? 
            They see – but they don’t see Jesus. 
            They don’t recognize him. 
            They have their own pre-conceptions about what a respectable Messiah will look like, and he doesn’t fit. 
            He cares about the wrong people – the poor, the outcast, the lonely, the desperate. 
            He is not so interested in cause – as he is in cure. 
            He goes around healing people without finding out first if they are worthy.

            Blindness.  What does it mean? 
            In John, it’s not just about physical blindness. 
            It’s about being blind to the presence and power of Jesus in our midst. 
            It’s about being blind to what he is up to, and who he is calling us to care about, and include. 
            It’s about being blind to his power – but also his grace.  
            It’s about being blind to injustice, blind to other people, hardened to suffering.
            It’s about being blind to how God is working in the world.


            The woman who had the miracle surgery – she was desperate to hear again, even just a little. 
            She knew what it was like, and she mourned the loss of the sounds and the voices she used to know. 
            Her parents were both hearing, so she was the only one in the family to have this  -- disability. 

            She and her family came to our church – we had a signer at one of our services. 
            And one year in Lent we learned a prayer in sign language.  We said it every week, along with the sign language. 
            I am not sure why I thought this was a good Idea, actually.  And truthfully, there were some people who didn’t think so. 
            After that year, they said, “Let’s not do that again.  It was a dumb idea.” 
            Be that as it may, every week we practiced this prayer.

            God be in my head, and in my understanding.
            God be in my eyes, and in my looking.
            God be in my mouth, and in my speaking.
            God be in my heart, and in my thinking.
            God be in my end, and in mine departing.

On the 5th Sunday in Lent, I decided to throw caution to the wind. 
            We would just sign the prayer this time, without speaking it. 
            It would be a different way to pray. 
            So there was this great silence while we “said” the pray and made the signs together.  It was odd. 

            It turns out that the woman’s parents were visiting that weekend.  They were in church with her, and afterwards they said to me, about that prayer, “It was the first time we understood what our daughter’s world is like.”

            God, be in my head, and in my understanding.

            The blind man had a close encounter with Jesus.  He received his sight.  And then – he saw -- Jesus.

            May it be so for us, as well.
            AMEN
           


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Close Encounters with Jesus: the Woman at the Well

Lent 3 Year A
John 4:5-42

          
            It’s the longest recorded conversation Jesus had with anyone in any of the Gospels. 
            It is full of deep theology, humor, and human interest.  There is eager curiosity, there is misunderstanding, there is deep insight. 
            And it’s a conversation between Jesus – and a Samaritan woman.  He’s not supposed to be talking with her, and they both know it. 
            First, because she is a woman, and second, because she is a Samaritan, an outsider.  Jews and Samaritans did not have anything to do with each other.

            The Samaritans lived in the area which had once been the northern kingdom of Israel. 
            They were of mixed-descent and mixed religion. 
            The Jewish people considered them to have sold out the faith.  When the Jewish people had been taken into captivity in Babylon, and then were allowed to return home, they did not allow Samaritans to help them re-build the temple. 
            The hatred between the two groups was hard and fast. 

            It’s hard to choose from all of the threads in this long conversation. 
            There are so many and they are so rich:  the living water, the Holy Spirit, the God who will be worshipped in spirit and truth. 
            There is Jesus, who wants a drink of water, and the woman, who does not want to have to keep coming to this well, for some reason.
             But for today, I am most fascinated by this – the testimony of the woman, when she leaves her water jar and runs to her village.

            He told me everything I had ever done.  He can’t be the Messiah, can he? 

            What kind of a testimony is that?

            Maybe it is because I have been thinking so much about testimony lately – and I won’t stop either, at today. 
            We are having these “close encounters” with Jesus, lately, and testimonies come from close encounters with Jesus, don’t they?             
             I have heard testimonies in my life – maybe you have too – and often they sound like this, “I was lost, but now I am found.”
             “Jesus changed my life.”  “I know that I am forgiven because of Jesus.”   “God has given my life meaning and purpose.” 

            But here’s what the woman said, here’s the thing that really amazed her:  “He told me everything I had ever done.” 

            What was it about that that convinced her?

            Maybe it was the pure idea of prophecy.
             He was a prophet, and he knew all about her, things that no one else knew. 
            It was his ability to speak about her past and her present that made a difference. 
            He started out by teaching about the deep things of theology:  about living water, about the time coming when true worshippers would worship ‘in spirit and in truth’
            – but it was when he got to her life – that’s when the prophecy, that is when the truth finally hit her, that is when everything he said finally made sense. 
            “He told me everything I had ever done.” 

            But I think it was something else too. 

            When Jesus told her these things about herself, about her life, he didn’t speak in judgment. 
            He was just telling the facts – he didn’t say that she was the worst sort of sinner, and he didn’t even say she needed to turn around and live her life differently. 
            It’s not that he never said that to anyone.  It’s not that those sorts of things don’t need to be said, sometimes, either.  
            Sometimes the kindest thing you can tell another person is, “you need to turn around.  You are living dangerously.”  
            But all Jesus did was tell her about her life. 
            He told her the truth.  Without judgment.  Without looking down on her. 

            He knew her.  I think that was the feeling she had. 
            That deep down, he knew her.
             Maybe it was not just his words about her life, the whole, long conversation, that he was willing to talk with her, and to keep talking with her, and take her questions seriously.  He knew her, deep down.           He knew who she was. 
            He knew what her struggles were, he dreams, her fears. 
            He knew who looked down on her. 
            He knew what she was thirsty for.  Maybe he even knew why she did not want to keep coming to this well to draw water any more. 

            You know how rare that is, to be known – to be really known, by someone else?
             There are so few people who really know us, that we will allow to really know us. 
            There are so few people who know us – and who will walk with us, and keep loving us – no matter what. 
            We are blessed if we have a few of those people in our lives.  We are blessed if we can be one of those people for even one or two others. 

            Jesus met this woman – and it was a life-changing encounter – with Grace.   
            Here was someone who asked her for help – who took her seriously – who answered her questions – who knew her – really knew her, and who loved her. 
            Have you ever had an encounter like this? 

            I recently read a testimony on social media – a woman who became a Lutheran in her teens. 
            She came from another religious tradition, and even though all of Christianity is based on Grace – she had not experienced it before. 
           
            But she remembers sitting in a church service and hearing words of Grace – words of love – she doesn’t even remember now exactly what they were – but she felt such joy and freedom – it just washed over her.
            She said that she went to every service at the church for several months, just to make sure she hadn't heard wrong.

            In this congregation, she said, she had a life-changing encounter with Jesus – the pastor and the people from the congregation taught her and helped her to know God’s grace. 
            They walked with her and were there for her in a time of grief.    

            You know how rare it is to be known, to be really known, by someone else?
             To be known to the depths of our hearts – our hopes, our fears, our dreams, our sorrows --  Jesus knows us.  He knows our temptations and he knows our gifts. 
            He knows what we are hungry for – and he knows our spiritual thirst.

             He knows us, and so he alone can quench our thirst.

            There’s an old song that I sing with the children – maybe you know it….

            I’ve got peace like a river…. in my soul)
            I’ve got joy like a fountain (in my soul)
            I’ve got love like an ocean (in my soul)….

            It’s the water of life, isn’t it?  It’s the love of God.  That's what we need.  And it is deeper and wider than any ocean, overflowing our hearts, enough and more than enough.

            Amen.