Monday, February 29, 2016

Ministry of Reconciliation

It is probably in my top five favorite scripture passages in the whole Bible.  We are reading it this Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent.  It comes up every three years.  It is from 2nd Corinthians.

"So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!"

It is the middle of Lent, but this verse makes me feel like it is Easter:  the eighth day of creation.  It is the middle of Lent, but I want to go to the tomb and mistake Jesus for the gardener, planting seeds of the new creation.

It is probably in my top five favorite scripture passages in the whole Bible, but I'm not preaching on 2nd Corinthians this Sunday.  Instead, I'm preaching on Luke.  The prodigal son.  Again.

You would think I would run out of things to say about the Prodigal Son, or his older brother, or his father.  You would think that I would be chafing at the bit to preach on one of my top five favorite scripture passages in the Bible instead.

But the story gets me every time.

Every time I read I see a new detail that I never saw before.  (The older brother mentioned prostitutes in his speech to his father.  Who said anything about prostitutes?)  (Why does the story say the younger son 'came to himself' instead of 'repented'?  Is it possible that the younger son didn't repent after all?)  (What about that father?  Is he loving, or is he just a soft touch for his younger son?)

For some reason, tonight I can't help reading this story in the light of one of my top five favorite Bible passages.  It's the next verse, right after the one that I quoted, "All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself in Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation."

The Ministry of Reconciliation.

So right now, when I think of this story from Luke, this story about a family, I'm not thinking about a particular verse, or a particular detail, or even a particular character in the story.  But I'm thinking about a scene.  The younger son is inside, at the feast.  The older son is outside, with the father.  You can hear the music in the background as the father pleads with his son, whom he loves.   Then I think of the scene earlier, when the father runs to the younger son, who may or may not really be repentant, who might be home for a few weeks and then take the money and run again.  Or, he might truly be transformed by the father's love.  It could go either way.

The Ministry of Reconciliation.

I love this passage from 2nd Corinthians, where Paul tells us that God has given us the ministry of reconciliation.

And then I read the parable of the prodigal son, and I realize how messy and risky reconciliation is.  Many things could go wrong.  You could get hurt, taken advantage of.  You could be disrespected, rejected.  You're not in it for the prestige, or because the pay is good.

So I am haunted by the end of the parable of the prodigal son, because it ends with estrangement, not reconciliation, with one son outside, and the other son inside.  They do not know yet that they are brothers.

Who will tell them?  Who will tell us?

It is messy work, and risky, but God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, all of us:  the winners and the losers, the repentant and unrepentant, the refugees and the homeless and the rich and the successful, the workaholics and the con artists.

Who will tell them?  Who will tell us?

Monday, February 22, 2016

Sunday Morning

I don't know why I was so tired when I came to church on Sunday morning.  It was a beautiful day.  It was the second Sunday in Lent.  We were going to install our new church council at both services.  I had my sermon all ready:  "Animals of the Bible."  I felt good pretty good about it.

It's true, that the day before we had a Council Retreat, which was wonderful, and invigorating and exciting, where we dreamed some dreams for the coming year and maybe even saw a couple of visions too.  It was a wonderful day, and we were well-led, but I was surprised about how exhausted I felt at the end of it all.  Dreams and visions make you tired.

Then again, it might have been that last minute trip to buy some little toy chicks for the children's message.

Sunday morning I woke up and took my dog on an actual walk all around the apartment building.  For the first time in six weeks, I was without the boot.  But it made me a little later than usual for church, where I needed to get ready for the first service, set up for the first session of our new Adult study, and give instructions to the special musician (a pan-flute player who, as it turned out, did not speak English).

At the first service, I remember that I called Lent "Advent" once, during the announcements.  I think I stumbled over a few words of liturgy.  I hope nobody minded.

Everything ran a little late, so I raced over to the fellowship hall to begin the first session of the adult study.  It is on faith practices, and I was a little nervous about whether the series would go over.

The first session was on prayer.  I had a ten minute DVD and a couple of pages of notes and possible questions.  We were starting late, and I was giving an overview of the session.  But as soon as the DVD was over, I decided to ask for their initial reactions.

And you know what?  People started sharing, honestly, about what they heard or thought about prayer, whether they prayed all of the time, and easily, or had problems with prayer, whether they knew what to pray for, or were at a loss for words.  They shared barriers to prayer and what helped them with prayer.

My heart was strangely warmed.

After a little while, I realized that I did not want to cut this conversation off, even though the service ran late.  I asked them if we could take an extra week on prayer so that we could cover more of the lesson.

They all agreed, heartily.

Before I had to leave for the second service, I taught them something I used to use with confirmation classes:  a prayer called a "popcorn prayer."  I said it is a popcorn prayer because it is just one word, and you can pop up with that word anytime, and it is all right if people say their word at the same time, and when the popcorn stops popping, then you are done.  Then I told them they could close with the Lord's prayer.  I started them off, and as I hurried over to the second service, I could hear the popcorn prayers popping.

And my heart was strangely warmed.

Over at the second service, there was a guitarist and drummer, set to go.  A few people were settling in, with more to come, some after the service began.  We are currently "in interim" musically, at this service.  We are in the process for searching for a new music leader.  In the meantime, one of our young members has been a part of the interim team.  He started off the service with "Lord, I lift your name on High."  A little later we sang "Shout to the Lord."   And I could hear the voices of the congregation, singing with joy.

My heart was strangely warmed.

A baby fussed some, during the sermon.  I hope it was okay, but I stopped and said, not to worry -- it happens sometimes.  I didn't want the parents to feel bad.

Afterwards, I got so many compliments and comments about this young man, and how well he did.

I was so tired on Sunday morning.  I don't know exactly why.

But I know this.

My congregation held me up.  Their songs, their prayers, even the sound of the baby crying.

We are partners in the gospel.  Never let me doubt.

Thursday, February 18, 2016


For the last six weeks I have been wearing an orthotic boot on my left foot.  I fractured a small bone in my ankle while walking my dog one sunny morning in January.  I wasn't doing anything exciting or high-risk.  I just stumbled and rolled the foot enough to get a fracture instead of a sprain.

I have never broken a foot, ankle, or leg before, so I was unaccustomed to the extra weight of the boot. I have no idea how much the boot really weighed, but it sometimes seemed like a ton, especially on stairs and at the end of the day.  In the scheme of things, it was really a small inconvenience.

But it was heavy.

So lately I have been thinking about carrying around that weight, and how I would have gotten rid of it, but I knew that it was helping me heal.  I have been wondering about what I carry around that is heavy, and how much of it is necessary, how much of it is helping me heal, and how much of it might be holding me back.

It's hard to know.

When I came here last summer I did not bring everything with me.  The idea was to live lightly for a season; when my husband comes, the rest of our household will come with us.  So we debated the question of what was most important and what would be unnecessary weight.  Some of that debate was verbal, and some, I suspect, was in the silence of our hearts.  What should I bring?  What would I leave behind?

It was hard to know.

For awhile now, I have longed to downsize, and have imagined that much of what I have accumulated in the many years of living in one place were also holding me back.  It was the weight of actual, physical 'stuff' that was the problem.  All of it has meaning, and all of it is terribly difficult to lose, and yet, it is heavy, too.  What do I do with the dishes that came all the way back from Japan?  The books I have read and those left unread, the knick knacks which were gifts, the affirming cards?  I finally made some hard decisions.   I thought I needed to lose some weight.

But I have discovered that there is more than one kind of weight in life.  It is not just the weight of possessions.  But it is also the weight of memories, regrets and hurts held on to.  It is the weight of relationships, responsibilities, successes and failures.

On this day early in Lent,  the doctor told me I could take the boot off now, take that extra weight off of my foot, and start to walk again.  I discovered that it is not as easy as it looks, as I take my tentative first steps.  My balance is different now, and I have to strengthen my muscles, to make up for weak ligaments.  She told me if it starts to hurt again, I can always put the boot back on.

It would be easy to make a lesson from this:  use Lent to remove the weights from your life.  Lent is a time for giving it up, giving it away, taking off all that weighs you down.  But I am not sure it is quite that easy.  Some weights are for our healing, after all.  We need to wear them for a time at least, for healing to happen.  The trick is in the timing.

Instead I might say this for Lent:  that Lent is a time for feeling the weight of your life.  It is a time both for picking up a burden and for putting it down, for carrying extra weight or for taking it off.  What is most important?  What is unnecessary weight?

It is hard to know.

 But it is Lent, and maybe that is the first thing to admit.  It is hard to know.

Take up your cross; lay down your heavy load.  Let God heal you.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Child Of God

In my sermon this morning I told a story (it happens to be a true story) about a family I knew growing up.  They were friends of ours from church, really good friends of my parents, maybe almost their best friends, actually.  I didn't say that, though.  The family had two children, a daughter and a son, both adopted.  They were younger than I was, and I got to babysit them on occasion.  Okay, I think I babysat them a lot.  I babysat them so much that I really got to know some of the books that I read to them at bedtime.

There were a couple of books about adoption, and one line that I remember to this day, that explained adoption:  "You are really special because we chose you for our daughter or son."  Maybe I remember it because I was, at twelve years old, already sort of a proto-theologian.  I read that book, and that line, many times.

As their daughter grew up, she became troubled.  She rebelled fiercely.  She experimented with drugs and alcohol.  She went with a rough crowd.  She ran away more than once. She ended up in jail a couple of times.  For the longest time her parents didn't know what to do, and all at once it came out:  She never bought the line from the book on adoption:  "You are really special because we chose you for our daughter."  Instead, what she had been thinking was:  "My real mother didn't want me.  My real mother gave me away.  I must be worthless."  And the voices of those thoughts drowned out the voice of love and belonging given to her.

I told this story because I wanted us to consider that our basic identity is child of God, but it's so easy to believe and even seek other things for ourselves.  The popular one, the successful one, the failure, the one who dies with the most toys, the one who works the hardest.

Child of God.  We are tempted to exchange this identity for a thousand glittering ones, which in the end will fail us.

As I was greeting people after church, someone took me to task, gently:  You didn't tell us if the story had a happy ending, he said.  He hoped there was a happy ending.

I told him that yes, the story had a happy ending, which is true, but that was all I said.

The story had a happy ending, but it took a lot of time and heartache.  There was a lot of pain for this family, a lot of prayer and bearing-with, a lot of worry about what would become of them.  Eventually this young woman returned to her family.  She has a husband and two boys, both grown.  She hasn't returned to her childhood faith, but she is doing well.

I remember sitting with her and her parents not too long ago, when we all met for the funeral of a family friend.  There we all were, sitting in a row at the church:  my mom and my brother and me, her mom and dad sitting with her and one of her sons.

Her mother is losing her memory now.  Now they have to remind her about who she is.  They have to remind her that she is beloved, that this is her name, that she is really special, that she is a child of God that she has a name. This is holy work.  This is the mission of God.

This is the mission of God:  To go out and remind people:  You are beloved.  You are children of God.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Resisting Temptation

The first Sunday in Lent is coming up.  Right after we smear ashen crosses on each other's foreheads, we tumble into that Sunday morning where Jesus goes to the wilderness and is tempted by the devil.

There are three temptations, which is to say, I suppose, a trinity of them.  I have often tried to crack the code around these three:  turning a stone to bread, going after worldly power and jumping off the pinnacle of the temple.  Are they three temptations unique to Jesus, the Son of God, or does some version of these temptations afflict all of us?  I know that I am not able to turn a stone to bread, no matter how hungry I am, and it is hard to imagine myself jumping off any real height (although you may be more courageous or foolhardy in this regard).  When I think of the word temptation, it is not these three situations that first come to mind.

I am tempted to buy things I do not need, for reasons that I cannot always express.
I am tempted to hold back when God is telling me to go, waiting for one more sign.
I am tempted to waste time, work too hard, worry, hoard, doubt.
I am tempted to remain silent when I should speak.
I am tempted to believe that the bread in my hands is just for me, not to share.
I am tempted to believe that the bread in my hands is only to share, but not for me.

What about you?

I can't help noticing this phrase with which he tempts Jesus twice, "If you are the son of God…"  I notice it because both he and Jesus know he is, in fact, the son of God.  He has just come from the river Jordan, and he is full of the Holy Spirit's power.  How is he going to use it?  For whom?  "If you are the son of God…. just think of the explosion you could cause in the world."

Just think.

Perhaps the question for Jesus is not a matter of his identity.  Perhaps it is more a question of what kind of son will be be?  How will he use his power?  Who will he live for?  What will he care about?  Who will he see?  Will he turn a stone into bread, or will he feed 5,000 people?  Will he rule the world, or will he empty himself?  Will he jump off the pinnacle of the temple, and count on the angels to bear him up?  Or will he raise Lazarus after he has been dead for four days?

Will he save others, or will he save himself?  

At the foot of the cross, those who taunt Jesus say these words, "He saved others; he cannot save himself."  They are making fun of Jesus, but in those words are the truth.  The Messiah is for others, not for himself.  

The temptations are not quite the same for us as they are for Jesus.  We may not be tempted to turn a stone to bread, but we might be tempted to believe that God's good gifts are for us, but not for others.  We may not be tempted to accumulate worldly power, but we might be tempted to believe that we are secure because we have assets, or a roof over our head.  

The temptations are not quite the same for us, but the weapon is the same one:  the power of the Holy Spirit, the water and the Word, the love that has named us, and that promises us the only true bread, the only true power, the only true life.