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.


           


Monday, March 13, 2017

Details from the Woman at the Well

There are a lot of interesting details in the story of Jesus and the woman at the well.  And I love looking at details.  I don't know if it is my shady past as an English major, or my love of one-to-one conversations, or if it is something else entirely, but I have found details from this story fascinating.

Take for example, the fact that the encounter takes place at high noon.  One chapter ago, Jesus met Nicodemus in the dark.  There is this chiaroscuro quality to their conversation, both light an darkness, insight and ambiguity.  He says, "How can this be?"  He is wrestling with the implications of what Jesus is saying.  That can't be a bad thing.  I think of the darkness in the story as a place of germination for Nicodemus' faith, and for ours, too.

But the next story takes place in brood daylight, high noon.  All the other women came to the well early in the morning when it was not so hot.  Why is the woman there by herself?  There's another detail to be reckoned with.

Here's the detail I am thinking about right now, though:  at the very beginning of the story, Jesus initiates the conversation by saying to the woman, "Give me a drink."

I think this is a very odd evangelism technique.

In John's gospel, Jesus does not come off as needy very often.  From the very beginning, he is the Messiah, the anointed, the Holy One of God.  He is self-assured.  He does weep at Lazarus' tomb.  But then, he raises him from the dead.

But today, he is sitting at Jacob's well on a hot day, and he begins by asking for help.

Water.

That's how this very deep theological conversation, the longest recorded conversation Jesus has with anybody, begins.

I think back to my missionary past, and the assumptions that I made when I first arrived.  I considered the good news that I had to share.  I thought that I should open with that.  Get right to the point.  Tell people what I knew.

But Jesus didn't.  He started with his own vulnerability.  He wanted a drink of water.  But at some point in the conversation, she discovered that she was thirsty too.  She didn't know how thirsty she was.

Sometimes I think that Jesus, at the beginning, is being coy.  "Give me a drink," he says, but he's not REALLY thirsty.  He's just saying that.  But then I think ahead to the end of the story, and how Jesus says, from the cross,  "I am thirsty."  Here he is, the Water of Life himself, and he is thirsty unto death.

Give me a drink, he says.  That is how the Savior of the world saves us.  By being thirsty.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Evangelical

It was Saturday morning.  I was drinking coffee and having a breakfast sandwich in a local spot.  It was mid-morning, not crowded.  I had a beginning, a middle, and an end for the sermon, so I was feeling relatively calm.  I had brought a book and my paper and pencils.  I spent a little time coloring in a prayer icon I had made a few days before, praying again for the names on the paper.

A woman approached me, curious about what I was doing.  I felt a little sheepish.  I wondered, briefly, about the upcoming gospel reading from Matthew 6, and wondered if I was "practicing my piety before others, in order to be praised by them."  Maybe I should not have gotten my pencils out.  Nonetheless, I shared a little about the prayer process with her.  She thought it was a good idea.

She asked a couple more questions, and for some reason, it came up that I was a pastor.  I gave her my card.  She said that she had been studying at another Lutheran church in the area.  She had been Methodist before that, she said.  She read my card carefully, and then said, "What is it about that word 'evangelical'?  Why is everybody 'evangelical' these days?"

My card read that I am a pastor in the "Evangelical Lutheran Church of America."  It is a part of the definition of my denomination that we are "Evangelical," in some way or another.   I was not sure exactly why, but it seemed like the word rankled her.

"It's not a bad word, is it?" I said.  "It's a good word."

"It means good news," she said.

I suppose I understand why the word "Evangelical" could rankle some people.  It's possible that some people share the good news with the subtlety of a bludgeon, making it seem perhaps not like such good news after all.  Maybe the word Evangelical has come to be associated with people giving out tracts with vivid images of the fires of hell, although I am not sure why that is.

It just means good news.

I knew a three year old girl once who used to stand at the front door of the church and shout out, "Welcome to church!"  She shouted it out to everyone who came.  What did she know?  It was just good news to her.  I met a man who shared his testimony with me over hot dogs.  He was lost, but now was found, he said.  It was just good news to him.  He had been a scoundrel and a lout, and he found out he was of value to God.

It may be a word fraught with baggage, but evangelical is what we are.  We are hearing the good news, and sharing the good news, in hot dog joints and at the church door, in hospitals and parks, with colored pencils and songs and stories.  We are supposed to share it without partiality, too.  It is our job.  We are not told to scatter the seeds carefully, but with abandon.   That is what makes the news so good.

Evangelical.  It just means good news.  It is good news for the dying, and good news for the living.  It is good news for the louts, and good news for the pious.  We're all in the same boat.  We all wear the ashes, and the same Heart of Love has room for us all.


Sunday, March 5, 2017

Close Encounters with Temptation

Matthew 4:1-11

            One thing you can say for sure about the devil:  he shows up. 
            He showed up in the wilderness to tempt Jesus. 
            And you can be sure he has showed up today to tempt the likes of you and me.  Maybe we aren’t tempted in the same way, or by the same thing as Jesus was.     
            Maybe you are not tempted to turn a stone into bread --  you’re not that hungry!
             And besides, you know you can’t. 
            But even so – there are temptations that the devil has, especially for you and me – and not just because it is Lent.  Some of them are big.  Some of them seem small. 
           
 
            How is God tempting you right now? 
            Because there is one thing you say for sure about the devil:  he always shows up.  He’s always whispering in our ears, like he whispered in Jesus’ ear….. appealing to your doubts, your uncertainties, your pride or your insecurity…

            But Jesus’ temptations are not ours. 
            The three temptations here are specific and unique to Jesus, because of who he is, because he is the Messiah.  
             They tell us something about Jesus, but they end up telling us something about us, too.  

            It’s worth noting that Jesus’ temptation takes place right after his baptism, where the voice from heaven declares him the Beloved Son. 
            God tells him that he is the chosen one, the Messiah, and then he goes into the wilderness where he fasts and prays and prepares for the ministry that God has given to him. 
            And after forty days and nights, the devil comes to him … and he starts with the obvious.  Jesus is hungry. 
            Forty days and forty nights he has fasted.  He is the son of God and he can do anything, right?  Why not make stones into bread?  Who will know? 
            What could it hurt?  But Jesus resists. 
            He will not do a miracle to relieve his own hunger.     
            And he points to the spiritual food that is most important for life – every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.   

            Next the devil tempts Jesus to do a spectacular thing – jump off the pinnacle of the temple, and call the angels. 
            The devil even quotes scripture!  If he is the Messiah, he can all the angels!  They will not let anything happen to Jesus.  And EVERYONE will be convinced that Jesus is the messiah. 
            Isn’t that the point, after all?  Put on a performance that will erase all doubt!  That is what the devil says.    But that’s not God’s plan for Jesus, and he knows it.  So he resists.

            Finally, the devil pulls out all the stops.  He may have been subtle before, appealing to Jesus’ hunger or quoting scripture.  But now he just says it.  Worship me, he says to Jesus, and I will give you everything. 
            The kingdoms of the world belong to me, the devil says. 
            If you want power, I am the one to give it to you.  Think of all of the good you can do.  Just worship me.

            Just as the serpent tempted our first parents, causing them to doubt and mistrust God, in the same way the devil comes to Jesus. 
            The temptations are just as real and just as hard as the ones that Adam and Eve heard.  But Jesus resisted.   
            He resisted  the impulse to take matters into his own hands, to think he knew better than God who the Messiah should be and what the Messiah should do. 

            Later on, of course, Jesus will do the miracles:  he will feed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish, not because he is hungry, but because they are.  Later on, of course, there will be a spectacle, but it will be a much different one. 
            While he is hanging on the cross, he will still recite from God’s word, but this time it will be, My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” 
            Later on, the people would pass by, and some of them would taunt him saying, “He saved others, he cannot save himself.  Let him come down from the cross, if he is the Messiah of God.” 
            But because he is the Messiah of God, he didn’t.    

            From the beginning to the end, Jesus trusted God. 
            He put his life in God’s hands.  He trusted the mission for which God had sent him:  to love, to heal, to bless the world, to turn us back to God. 

            He put his life in God’s hands, and that is where our lives belong too.  
            In God’s hands.  And to trust this – to trust God’s love for us – God’s life in us – is the most important, most essential thing.  Every.  Single. Day.
             That’s why Martin Luther said that we return to our baptism every day – to die and to trust that Jesus raises us again and again to new life.  It is the most important thing.  But it’s not so easy. 

             And it is so tempting – so tempting to trust ourselves more than we trust God, to doubt God’s goodness,  to think we are on our own in the world.
             It’s so tempting to believe that our salvation is in our hands, not God’s, that we can control the outcome.   
            All of our other temptations – all of our doubts and insecurities – go back to this one. 
            Some of us fall because we think too highly of ourselves.  Some of us fall because we don’t think enough of ourselves – we doubt that we too are created in the image of God.  
            Some of us fall because we think we don’t need God’s forgiveness.  Some of us fall because we don’t believe we are worthy of God’s forgiveness. 
            We doubt God’s word that he will pick us up and give us new life every single day. 

            I used to visit my dad in the nursing home.  When I was little, he used to sit on the edge of our beds and read us Bible stories, out of this book, ‘The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes.” 
            We taught us simple prayers, and how to pray the Lord’s prayer too. 
            He used to sing songs like, “Living for Jesus a life that is true…” and “O Jesus I have promise to love thee to the end…”  He showed me how to find my place in the hymnal, and sang the Baritone part on the three-fold Amen. 

            And there I was, visiting him in the nursing home, singing with him and helping him remember the prayers he first taught me. 

            One day when I came I could tell he was worried. 
            We sang some songs – he liked old standards, not just hymns, and talked awhile and looked at photographs. 
            But after awhile he confessed to me that he was worried about whether he was good enough for God.  He was worried about eternal life.   I think maybe the devil was whispering in his ear….

            “Dad,” I said, “Do you trust Jesus?”  Yes.  He said.
            “Well, then you’re okay.”
            “You mean, that’s all there is to it?”
            “That’s all there is to it.”

            One thing you can say for sure about Jesus, he always shows up.   He shows up in the waters of baptism, and he shows up in the wilderness.  He shows up on the cross, and he shows up every single day of our lives.

            Do you trust Jesus? 
            That’s all there is to it.
            Your life is in his hands.  AMEN