Sunday, April 15, 2018

Faith5: Reading the Word -- keeping it in our Hearts

Hebrews 4:11-13
Psalm 119:105
Luke 24:36b-48
            How did you learn about the Bible?
             How did you learn the stories of the Bible?  From Sunday School? From your parents?  From worship? 

            As for me, I remember going to church every Sunday, where the readings were printed on the back of the bulletin.
             I was fascinated by this, and even got the connection once in awhile that sometimes  one week’s readings followed exactly the readings from the week before.
             It made me think that if I cut and pasted the bulletin readings for long enough, I might be able to make my own Bible!  How cool would that be!

            But really, what I remember most about learning the Bible stories is how my dad sat down with us at the end of the day, and,
            right before prayer time, would read a little story from a book called, “The Bible in pictures for Little Eyes”
            When I was in college I came across a copy of this book, and I had to buy it, because it brought back so many memories. 

            It was such a simple book.
             Just one small picture of a Bible story, a few words, and 2 or three questions. 
            You didn’t even have to know how to read.  You could look at the pictures and answer the questions.
            Even better, it was time we got to spend with our dad.

            How did you learn about the Bible? 
            How are your children and grandchildren learning those stories? 

            Last week we learned the first step in the Faith5, Sharing highs and lows.
            We learned that it is so important to cement relationships of trust, in families, among friends, and in the church. 
            So we start by sharing the small and big things of our day,
            the good things and the hard things, and we trust that God is in all of it –- that God is in our highs and in our lows, with us always.

            This week’s step is “Read”. 
            The next thing we do together is to read the word of God
            We learn Bible stories and Bible verses that will help us know who God is for us and who we are. 
            And every day of our lives, we need those reminders – when we’re children – and after we grow up. 

            Do any of you have a Bible verse or a Bible story that is very important to you, that is comforting or challenging or helps you when you are having hard times? 
            (Several people Answered with verses that were meaningful in their lives.)
            Why is this verse or story important to you?
             One of my favorite Bible stories is the one about Peter walking on water – and that tells me that sometimes I have to take a risk – get out of the boat.
            – have an adventure – but it also tells me about the God who – when I fail – when I am drowning – will grab my hand – and lift me out of the deep waters.    
            And you know what?  I need to hear that message.

            We need to have scripture passages in our heads and hearts because of who we are and because of the world we live in. 
            The world has a lot of goodness and beauty in it, but a lot of danger and evil too. 
            There are pitfalls and temptations for our children – and for us, as well.    
            There are so many messages – words and pictures – that  glorify violence,
             that tell us that we must meet an impossible standard of beauty to be loved, and that we’re only valuable if we’re wealthy or successful or popular.
            Children  (and adults) see advertising that makes them dislike their bodies, and feel ashamed of them, because they are not perfect.      
            So knowing scripture – is so critical – and being immersed in the message of God love and forgiveness as much as possible…. This is our true identity. That’s part of what the text from Hebrews is about – the word of God is
            a two-edged sword, that holds us accountable to God – and convicts the heart both about what is wrong – in us and in the world – and about God’s love for us in the middle of everything.

            It’s true, though, that not every part of the Bible is equally easy to understand. 
            There are some stories that are clear, and others that we can spend our lives studying and never totally figure out. 
            And it’s okay to start with the basics – the story of God’s creation – the life of Jesus, and his death and resurrection, Abraham and Jacob and Moses (the prince of Egypt!).  
             It’s good to read with others – your family, your friends, for example – because in sharing – we witness to one another about our faith, encourage each other when we doubt – and learn more together than we would alone.  
            …. But that’s for next week.

            Sharing scripture together with your family will ground your children in their faith and will give them a different imagination – about who they are, who God is
            – and what it means to be God’s person in the world.   
            They might be inspired by God’s word to organized against hunger, to pray for their friends, or their enemies, to stand up against bullies.. 

            But you know, knowing scripture is not just for our children. 
            And it’s not just for childhood.  It is for our whole lives, and it benefits all ages.
            I still remember when my dad first went to the nursing home.  It was temporary at first, complications from his Parkinsons, and memory loss.  
             I used to visit him. 
            Sometimes he was pretty positive and other times he was confused and depressed. 
            One time he was going back and forth, trying to convince himself…. “Worrying never did any good”, he said.
             I agreed.
             But then suddenly he started saying, “The wages of sin is death.”  I tried to reason with him. 
            I tried to change the subject. 
            I sang – because sometimes singing worked.
            But he just kept repeating, again and again, “The wages of sin is death….” 
            I know that was true, but it was only half of the truth. 
            He seemed depressed and that he was judging himself.  “The wages of sin is death.”

            Suddenly I remembered something. 
            “But dad, I said, “the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.”  He smiled. 

            Don’t we all want our children and our grandchildren to know that the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord?     Don’t we want to know it ourselves?  To have confidence, to  know and to remind each other of the best, most truthful things in life? 

            Tell them.  Share them.  Because when we share scripture with our children, we are learning it again for ourselves.


Friday, March 23, 2018

The Neighborhood

I've been driving by a local coffee house for some time now, thinking that one of these days I would have to stop and go in.  It's not a chain, it's a local joint, so rare these days, not just in coffee shops, but in everything.

One day we finally carved out a little time to stop in and get some coffee, pull up a lime green easy chair and stay for awhile.  It turns out they have a small menu as well, including some homemade breads, instant oatmeal and quiche (while it lasts).  I brought along the book I was reading at the time, Everything Happens For a Reason (and other Lies I've Loved).  There were a couple of local mystery writers sitting in one corner, discussing plots and current events.  Every once in awhile someone would drive up to the window and order something to go.

We carried on a conversation with the young, friendly barista.  She's originally from Montana, but lives now in a tiny town just west of us.  Besides her work at the coffee shop, she also babysits a young boy.  And she reads.  She loves to read.  Right then she was reading the book Accidental Saints, a book by a pastor from my particular tribe (Lutheran).  Although Nadia has tattoos, and I don't.

I talked a little bit about my church, just a little way down the road, and its pre-school.  I told her a little bit about one of my dreams:  to have a tiny children's bookstore, and call it "The Wardrobe."  It would only need to be the size of a walk-in closet, and specialize in children's books with spiritual themes.

She said, "I would soo... hang out there!"

I don't have a plan for this dream, knowing as I do that bookstores are sort of the wave of the past, not the future, what with online purchasing and e-readers.  But it was nice to share it with someone who could see its possibilities.

* * * * *

This morning we were back at the coffee shop.  We made small talk with a woman who was there, purchasing fresh-ground coffee.  She loves sushi and is learning Spanish.  She has a four year old son who does not yet talk much.  "Einstein was a late talker," I offered.  She counted her change in Spanish, just for practice.

The barista and I had another conversation, over coffee and oatmeal.  She likes to read the feminist Christian writers, she said, and we took turns naming some:  Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans, Jen Hatmaker.   We talked about a book club starting at the coffee shop.  The next book they are reading is a mystery.

I love my congregation.  I love leading worship every Sunday, all of the voices lifted in praise, making sure all ages and all people have a place, and know they belong.  It makes a hinge on my week.  But it's too easy for me to get the impression that all the important things happen inside its doors, when that is not really the case.  The most important things happen when we meet God through all the week, in all of the conversations, in the details of each other's lives, where God is at work, if only I had more time to listen.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Our Failures, God's Promise: In the Wilderness, a Way

Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21

           When my nephew was about 4 years old he came out to visit me in South Dakota.   
            Grandma and grandpa drove him out, he went to Bible School with the children at my church, and we had a good time together.      At the end of the week I drove him back to Minnesota and to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. 

            Which turned out to be an ordeal.  More than I expected.
             It was about a  4 and a half hour trip, but you would have thought it was 40 years in the wilderness. 
            He was sitting in his car seat in the back seat and every couple of minutes he would ask again, how many miles?  (Like he knew what a mile was) 
            Or how any minutes?  (Like he had any real concept of how long a minute was.) 
            Every few minutes the question again, and every few minutes I tried to give him an answer.   I even tried to stop at a Dairy Queen for a treat along the way, and that didn’t seem to brighten his mood. 
            And at one point his little despairing voice cried out, “Oh, I don’t think we’re EVER going to get to Grandma’s house!”

            O Ye of little faith.

            There is so much in this reading from Numbers that is outside of our experience.   Except the complaining. 
            That part we can understand. 
            The Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for about 40 years now and they are complaining. 
            They don’t like the manna, they don’t think they are ever going to get where they are going, they doubt not only Moses’ wisdom, but God’s.        And this “Murmuring”  --that’s what it is called in scripture”  -- this has been going on for –oh – about 40 years. 
            So they are complaining in the wilderness – but the things that happen next – they are strange, and if we are honest, they probably don’t fit our picture of God.  
            First there are the serpents that God sends. 
            The scriptures doesn’t say that God sends them as a punishment exactly – but that’s what the Israelites understand, and when the serpents start biting them, and they die, they cry out to God for help.              They ask God to take the serpents away. 
            Which (and this is strange too) God doesn’t do. 
            Instead, God says, make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole and when people who are bitten look at it, they will live.
             And that is what they do, and that is what happens. 
            When the people who are bitten look at the bronze serpent on a pole, they are healed.  They do not die. 

            I’m not going to lie – this seems like a strict punishment for complaining, which is something we all do,  sometimes.   
            In fact, if you read the Psalms, there are plenty of laments that sound exactly like complaining. 
            The Psalmist complains about the presence of evil in the world, and that he doesn’t understand God’s ways. 
            “Why do the wicked prosper?  Why am I suffering?  My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  
            All of these complaints and questions are right there in the Psalms.  The words are there for us to pray. 
            But here in Numbers, when the Israelites complain, they get serpents. 
            And when they turn back to God and ask for help – instead of getting rid of the serpents, God sends another kind of remedy. 
            And I am not even going to begin to say that I understand all of what God might be up to here.

            But remember the covenant.  Remember the promise that God made to them, and that they made to God.  God said, “I will be your God.  Trust me.” 
            And they said, “We will do everything that you say.”  And they don’t. 
            Their complaints reveal ingratitude (We don’t like the food – blech), faithlessness (why have you brought us out here?),
            and  distrust.   But I will give them this:  when Moses tells them to look at the pole with the bronze serpent, they do it. 

            “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up”  -- Jesus says, in the gospel reading. 
            He is speaking with Nicodemus in the darkness.  They are talking about the mysterious things of God, the Spirit of God, light and darkness, life and death, being born anew. 
            These are things that Nicodemus doesn’t understand, even though he is a teacher. 
            And then Jesus brings him back to what has to be a story familiar to him:  remember when you wandered in the wilderness, and you rebelled and complained and did not trust God for your salvation?      Remember the serpents, and how when Moses lifted one up on a pole, and you looked at the serpent, you were healed? 
            When you look to me, on the cross, when I am lifted up, you will be healed.  

            And it must have seemed every bit as strange to Nicodemus as the serpent does to us. 

            I can’t imagine what it must have been like for the people of Israel to look at a replica of the thing that bit them.  Well, maybe I can.
             I’m not a lover of snakes, especially if I know they are dangerous.  That’s one of the things that sort of makes me nervous about Texas.  You have the dangerous snakes here…. Not just the icky, but relatively harmless ones. 
            It had to take a sort of courage – to look at the serpent – and trust – to believe that it would work. 

            And for the early church – to look at the cross must have felt the same. 
            We put flowers on it at Easter time – but the cross did not start out to be a symbol of salvation.
             It was a particularly gruesome form of execution, reserved for the worst criminals.  Look at the cross, and live. 
            Believe that the cross heals you somehow.  It had to take some courage to do that.

            But even more – to look at the serpent on the pole meant that the Israelites had to look at their own complaining, their own mistrust of God, their own failure to live as God’s people. 
            They had to look at the serpent and know themselves.  That takes courage too. 

            “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believed in him may have eternal life.” 
            So that whoever trusts him may be healed.  So that whoever looks to him may live. 

            When we look at the cross, really look – what do we see? 
            We see an act of evil – and maybe we also catch a glimpse of the evil in the world, the suffering that we cause each other, the ways, large and small, that we grieve each other, and God. 
            When we look at the cross, what do we see?  Do we see the ways we have turned our back on God, trusting anything else to save us?  Do we see the one who offered the world healing, life, and forgiveness?
             Do we see both of these things on the cross?
            It is an act of courage to look at the cross.  And see ourselves.
             It is an act of trust to look at the cross – and trust that THERE – in that unlikely place – we will find healing.  And love.  And life.

            I don’t understand why God didn’t just take away the serpents in the wilderness. 
            But he didn't.  He didn't.
 There are serpents in this world,  there are dangers, toils, and snares. 
            And God doesn’t take them away.
            We live in the wilderness – where there is a lot to complain about – a lot to lament about.
            We live in a world where there is suffering and sin, and some of it belongs to us.   We live in the wilderness, but we live with the remedy as well.

            I think of my nephew – in the car – in the wilderness – on the way home.
            And maybe the best we can do is say, like he did, “Are we there yet?” 
            It IS a long journey – but God is with us – and on the way there is manna
            And dairy queen
            And grace
            On the way we can point out for one another and remind each other to look up – to lift our eyes  -- 
            And be healed.



Thursday, March 8, 2018

Monologue: The Servant Girl who Challenged Peter

            It started out as simple curiosity.  That’s the truth.  Usually, I try to keep to myself, just do my work, follow the high priest’s instructions, keep out of the way.  I find that works best. 

But this evening there was so much commotion.  Usually it’s quiet at night – but this night there was a trial – and that was such an unusual thing.  I thought – this prisoner must be something very special, for them to want to do everything in the dark.  So of course I was curious.  I overheard some of the questions they were asking this Galilean – questions about tearing down the temple and claiming to be God.  But I couldn’t hear his answers. 

And then I saw this man – a man I didn’t know.  He looked like he was from Galilee, I thought – and he seemed interested in what would happen to the prisoner.  I looked at him for a long time.  Then I got up my courage and asked, “Weren’t you with this Jesus?  Aren’t you one of his followers?”  I have to say, I was surprised at how loudly he protested.  But the more loudly he protested, the surer I was that he must have been one of Jesus’ men.  I appealed to those around me – I saw to them, “I think he is one of Jesus’ followers.”  And I think they agreed with me.  But he got angrier and angrier – and scared too, I think.  For some reason, he wanted to put as much distance as possible between himself and this Jesus.  Then why was he hanging around?  That’s what I wanted to know.

            That Jesus must have been a dangerous man.  The high priest was afraid of him – I could tell that by the way he asked him questions, and how he tore his clothes.  But that man was afraid of him, too, in a way – afraid to be called one of his followers, afraid of what Jesus stood for.  I suppose that he was afraid that what happened to Jesus might happen to him, too.  But he was supposed to be one of Jesus’ friends, wasn’t he?  And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get him to admit it.  He was ashamed and afraid.

            I was right, though.  He was one of Jesus’ friends.  I’ve seen him since then.  He talks to everyone about Jesus now – right out in the open.  One of these days he’s going to get in trouble, just like his friend did.  But now, he doesn’t seem to care any more.  I’m curious about that, too.  I wonder what has changed.  I mean, if I were him, I’d be ashamed.  First, I’d be ashamed of Jesus, and what happened to him – he died on a cross, and you know what THAT means.  That’s the worst thing that can happen to a person.  And if wasn’t ashamed of that, I’d be ashamed of myself – that when the chips were down, I didn’t stand up for my friend.  Some friend I turned out to be.  That’s what I’d think.  I do hear rumors that some people say that Jesus isn’t dead any more, but I don’t know about that.

            Sometimes I want to go up to this man, just like I did on that night, and ask him again.  I’m curious, like I said.  I don’t know what is stopping me, so far.  I suppose I don’t have much opportunity, serving the high priest, like I do.  But I’d like to ask him about his friend Jesus, and see what he says this time.  I’d like to ask just the same question – “Aren’t you a friend of Jesus?” and see what he says this time.  And if I had the opportunity, I’d ask him…. “Why aren’t you afraid any more?”  I wonder what he would say.