Monday, April 30, 2012

Carried in Community

In American culture, we prove our worth by the way we’re able to stand on our own two feet. But not everyone in the world sees it that way. In Africa, what makes a person successful is not what they’ve been able to accomplish for themselves, it’s what that person has been able to accomplish for their community. The word they use for that is ubuntu. It means, I am who I am because of who I am with you. The person who makes their mark as an individual would not be well-respected in that culture. The one admired is the one who is able to live in community with others.

The culture of Jesus’ day was a lot closer to the African notion of ubuntu than it ever was to the idea that life is all about proving your worth as an individual. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the continent of Africa has taken more to Christianity than either Europe or North America.

It seems to me that all people have a longing for community, whether they realize it or not. That longing may  be felt more deeply after community has been lost. When I grew up, I had my grandparents, all my aunts and uncles and my cousins around me. I walked to school and everyone at my school lived in my area. At night, adults would go outside and visit with their friends in the neighborhood. You went to work for a company and you stayed there your whole life. The company was loyal to you and you were loyal to the company. People belonged to churches and they wouldn’t have dreamt of switching just because the one they were at wasn’t meeting their personal needs. That’s not our experience today. So many of us are disconnected from our families, from our hometowns, from our schools, from our neighborhoods, from the people we work with and for, from our churches. Community has become like most of things that we take for granted; once we lose it, we realize what a gift it was to have had it. And so people have a longing to experience some kind of community today. That’s the appeal of TV shows like “Friends” and “Cheers” and “How I Met Your Mother.” We all want to have close relationships with people we can enjoy and trust and love.

There’s a story in the Bible about a paralyzed man who is brought to Jesus for healing. He can’t walk, so he can’t get there on his own, and even if he could have, he wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere near Jesus because of the crowd of people that surrounded him. But the paralyzed man had four dear friends, and they carried him to the place where Jesus was. Then they lowered their friend through the roof so Jesus could see him. Finally, it was because of their faith that Jesus healed the paralytic. Where would he have been without his friends? No doubt, somewhere lying on a mat for the rest of his life.

Community is a gift for us as people of faith. In community, the strong look out for the weak. When we just can’t make it on our own, others carry us. I think that may be what Jesus meant when he said, “Come to me all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens and I will give you rest. My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” God helps us to bear our burdens by putting us in a community that bears them with us.

This isn’t only true about times of trouble in our lives. It’s also true about faith itself. None of us is 100% full of faith all the time. We waver. We’re up and down. Sometimes we would stake our lives on the truth of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Other times we’re filled with doubt. Sometimes we’re courageous in the way we express our faith in the world. Other times we’re paralyzed by fear. In a faith community, at any given time, some of us are fearful or doubtful, while others of us are faithful. The one who is faithful today may not be tomorrow. But there always seem to be some among us who are faithful who can carry those among us who aren’t. Sometimes you might be the one who is doing the carrying. And sometimes you may be the one who is being carried. In a Christian community that’s how it works.

There are some people I know who insist that they don’t need to be part of a church to have a relationship with God. This doesn’t ring true for me. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to try to have a relationship with God outside the context of a faith community. Why would a person refuse a gift like that?

I can understand why people are turned off by the church. Certainly, there are many Christian congretations where the community does more to hurt than help us. I admit that the church isn’t perfect by a long-shot. But when it’s working, it’s the community that carries us into the presence of Jesus. I'm thankful that I have been a part of many communities like this through the years.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Journey to the Center of the Universe

Is it all about me?
Am I the center of the universe?
What if my life isn’t driven by what I need, what I want, what makes me happy?
What if I stop trying to be the fixer of all that is broken?
What if I renounce my need to be perfect or moral or right?
What if I release my agenda for me: my hurts, my expectations, my desires?
What if I stop forcing reality to be the way I want it to be and forgive my reality for being what it is?
What if I am not set apart from the rest of the world, but a part of it?
What if I see myself, not through my own eyes, but through the eyes of God?
What if it isn’t all about me?

Is it all about you?
Are you the center of the universe?
What if I no longer need to compare and differentiate myself from you to know who I am?
What if I don’t have to feel superior to you to feel worthwhile?
What if I find no pleasure in evaluating what’s good or bad about you?
What if I stop expecting you to be who I need you to be and allow you to be who you are?
What if, before I try to change you, I allow you to change me?
What if you being you isn’t a threat to me being me?
What if it isn’t all about you?

Is it all about us?
Are we the center of the universe?
What if we don’t need to align ourselves with those who are like us to feel secure?
What if we release our need to be the best or the richest or the most powerful?
What if we see that our way isn’t the only way?
What if people in all places and times are a part of our communion, even if we don’t know their names?
What if we recognize that all people are God’s children, no matter how they may understand God?
What if it isn’t all about us?

Is it all about them?
Are they the center of the universe?
What if we find it unnecessary to define ourselves as people who are not them?
What if we no longer blame them for our own failures?
What if we stop trying to defend ourselves against them?
What if we release the resentment we have toward them?
What if we recognize that when they express their true selves, it doesn’t threaten our true selves in any way?
What if we let go of our need to declare that they are wrong so we can be right?
What if it isn’t all about them?

If it isn’t all about me, or you, or us, or them… is it all about God?
Is God the center of the universe?
What if we allow God to be who God really is, instead of who we need God to be?
What if my true identity isn’t defined by how I am a person like no other, but it’s found in a God who created me in the divine image, just like everyone else?
What if we are in God, and God is in us?
What if we stop expecting God to answer our prayers, and our lives become God’s answer to prayer?
What if God is bigger than one person, one religion, one country, one way of seeing the world?
What if each of us is a small piece of God’s presence in the world?
What if it’s all about God being in ALL, and ALL being in God?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Judging the poor (Now be honest, we all do it.)

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the way we respond to the poor and wondering if it’s done in a loving way or a judging way. Mother Theresa said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” We can't have it both ways. Even when we're giving to the poor, are we giving in love? Or are we giving in judgment?

I have come to the conclusion that, deep down inside, most of us pass judgment on the poor. We may want to help them, and we may feel compassion for them. But there is a part of us that believes they are poor because of something they did. Their poverty is a consequence of the way they have lived their lives.

When we give to the poor we often give the stuff that we don’t want. If you’ve ever sorted through clothing that people have given to the poor, it’s amazing how many pieces of clothing have little price stickers on them. By that I don’t mean price stickers from clothing stores, I mean the kind of homemade price stickers you use for rummage sales. People try to sell their used clothing at a garage sale first and then if nobody else wants it, rather than just throw it out, they’ll give the clothing to the poor. It’s assumed that if someone is poor, they should be grateful for anything they’re given. After all, it’s not like they worked for it, like we have. The really nice stuff is for those who have earned it.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu says that when we give to the poor, we should give as if we were giving to our own family. Would you want someone from your own family to wear clothing that has been rescued from the trash bin? Would you send your children to school in those clothes? What about the passage in Matthew that tells us whatever we do to help people in need, we’re doing for Jesus. It’s been suggested that we label collection bins for the poor, “Junk for Jesus.” That’s usually what we give.

Even when there is a face to the poor, when someone asks us directly for our help, the judging part of us is always making an assessment. We want to give to the one who is telling us the truth. We want to give to the one who will make the best use of what we’re offering. We want to give to the one who will appreciate it. We don’t want anyone to take advantage of us.

What about the story where there were 10 lepers who came to Jesus for healing? Only one returned to give thanks. I would imagine that people took advantage of Jesus all the time. They came to him for help and their motivation wasn’t always pure. If that story is any indication, we might conclude that 9 out of 10 times Jesus helped people who were just using him. People in need are selfish and sinful just as we all are. But it didn’t seem to matter to Jesus.

Our God is all about grace. He loves us unconditionally, even though we can do absolutely nothing to earn such a gift, he gives us his love freely, with no strings attached. It’s a challenge for us to love like that and a growing edge for all of us.

There’s a marvelous story about Robert De Vincenzo, the famous golfer from Argentina. Once when he won a tournament, he received his check and posed for pictures, and did all the things the victor does after a golf tournament. Then as he was walking alone to his car in the parking lot, he was approached by a young woman. The woman congratulated him on his win and proceeded to tell him about her child, who was seriously ill and near death. She didn’t know how she was going to pay the doctor’s bills and hospital expenses.

De Vincenzo was deeply moved by her story, so he took out a pen and endorsed his winning check for payment to the woman. He handed her the check and told her to make some good days for the baby.

The next week as De Vincenzo was out having lunch a Professional Golf Association official stopped by his table. “Some of the boys in the parking lot last week told me you met a young woman there after you won that tournament.” De Vincenzo nodded.

The official felt he should know the truth and reported, “I have news for you. She’s a phony. She has no sick baby. She’s not even married. She fleeced you, my friend.”

“You mean there is no baby who is dying?” asked De Vincenzo.

“That’s right,” said the official.

De Vincenzo replied, “That’s the best news I’ve heard all week.”

In John’s first letter, he poses a question that forces us to examine our own consciences when it comes to the way we interact with people who need our help. It’s a question that deserves an answer from each person who claims to love God. Not just an answer “in word or speech” but an answer “in truth and action.”

“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” 1 John 3:17

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

FOR Amendment One?

What are they thinking? That question has gnawed at me ever since I found out about the constitutional amendment that will appear on the ballot for the May 8 election in North Carolina. Here’s how it reads:
Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.

I’m well aware of the potential harms of this amendment. So, I’ve had a lot of trouble understanding what those who have proposed it are thinking. I just don’t get it.

On Sunday a friend handed me a bulletin from her son’s church. This has helped clear some things up for me. In the bulletin, a full page was devoted to why church members need to pray for the “Marriage Amendment.”

I love how those who support the amendment have framed it as the “Marriage Amendment.” (It reminds me of the way people on Fox News refer to corporate executive types as "job creators", which justifies their entitlement to all the money their greedy little hands can grab.) The amendment's purpose, Christian proponents say, is to define marriage in the way God defines it in Genesis. Really? Where does that definition mention the part that says no other domestic unions will be considered legal in the state? No, this isn’t just about how we define marriage (which is something that should be amended in a dictionary, not a constitution). This is about how we will discriminate against couples who don’t conform to our definition of marriage. You can say they're not married, if you like. But why should the fact that they're not married, according to your definition, be a reason to deny them the same basic rights that married couples have? It would be more honest to call it the “Marriage Discrimination Amendment.”

Anyway, I was thankful that my friend passed this church bulletin along because it helped me to get inside the heads of those who favor the amendment. And basically, it comes down to this. When a constitutional amendment is approved by the people of our state, no “activist” judges (another interesting word choice) or legislators in the future will be able to change it without taking it back to the people for a vote. This way, the Walmart shoppers of North Carolina have the power to decide, not some hoity-toity Chapel Hill educated activists, whom we could never trust with such an important decision. (Because, let’s face it, “activist” is code for “liberal”, which is code for “God-haters”, which is code for “nobody I’ll ever have to worry about spending eternity with.”)

They have a good, rational argument. I have to admit that it makes perfect sense:
• For anyone who believes it’s all right for the majority to decide what’s best for the minority.
• For anyone who believes it’s desirable for one religious group to impose their values on everyone else because they’re right and everyone else is wrong.
• For anyone who believes the only way they can protect their rights is by denying the rights of others.
• For anyone who believes Christians were put on this earth to be the moral watchdogs for the rest of the world.
• For anyone whose chosen way of life is so precarious that recognizing any other way of life (whether chosen or not) is a threat.
• For anyone who believes those who fall outside the realm of what they deem acceptable are throw-away people and don’t have a right to be treated like people at all.
• For anyone who believes children should be punished for the way their parents live.

Yes, it makes perfect sense for anyone like that. But I don’t happen to be anyone like that. So it makes no sense to me.

It’s a travesty that we are voting on this. But we are. According to the logic of those who favor the “Marriage Amendment”, the people of North Carolina should be able to make this decision. They also insist that the majority of people in the state favor the amendment. This is where their reasoning fails me completely. I'm convinced that they’re wrong about that, as recent polls indicate. Most of the people in North Carolina do NOT favor Amendment One.

And that’s why it’s so important that people VOTE. For those who insist that the people of North Carolina have a right to make this decision, then let the people speak. For God’s sake, VOTE!

Counting what counts

Whenever I meet someone for the first time and they find out that I’m a pastor, there are usually questions that follow. First, they will ask me which church I serve. Then, I brace myself for the next question, because nine times out of ten, I know what’s coming: How many members are there in your church? (If I ever meet someone who finds out that I pastor a church and they ask me how the church I serve is following Jesus, have the paramedics on standby, because I will surely go into shock.)

I know they’re probably just trying to make conversation, and it’s an innocent question to ask. But whether I’ve been serving a big church or a little church at the time, the question bugs the hell out of me. Why does it matter what size congregation I serve? Because size implies something in our culture. The value of a congregation is measured by its size. And, of course, if I take the question personally, and it’s hard not to, my value as a pastor is measured by my congregation’s size. After all, big congregations are for successful pastors and small congregations are for losers.

A passage that cuts through all this head-counting crap is in Luke 14. It starts out like this: “Now large crowds were traveling with him….” Jesus had a really good thing going; a whole lot of people were following him. But most church leaders in the world around us today wouldn’t think a whole lot of Jesus as an evangelist. He doesn’t do what a good evangelist would do with this crowd. He doesn’t take the time to get everyone’s name, address and phone number, so he can follow up with them and get them to join his church. He doesn’t enlist greeters so everyone feels welcome. He doesn’t make sure they sing some songs that would have appealed to the largest group possible. And worst of all is what he doesn’t do with his message.

"Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 'Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple....'"

Yikes! What was he thinking? Jesus has an opportunity to deliver an uplifting message that will make everyone feel so good that they’ll want to come back week after week to hear more of what he has to say. But he blows it, big time!

Jesus wasn’t into calling crowds; he was into calling disciples. When Jesus sees the crowds, he doesn’t see it as an opportunity to wow them. He isn’t concerned with being popular; he doesn’t make any wild promises about all the good things that will be theirs if they join up with him. Instead, he takes the opportunity to tell the crowd how difficult it is to really follow him. They may be checking him out because they’re curious. They may be along for the ride because they think there’s something in it for them. And Jesus wants them to know right from the start what it’s all about, so there will be no surprises later on. He tells them that there’s a cost to following him. Unless they can detach completely from everything they are holding onto emotionally and physically --- unless they can detach from their families and from their very lives as they know them, they aren’t ready to follow him.

Well now, that doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? Nobody wants to hear that a certain way of life comes with a cost. Is that the reason why we join churches? Is that the reason why we bring our children to the font to be baptized? Is that the reason why we have Sunday school? Because it will cost us dearly if we do?

Martin Luther once said, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.” Of course, he got that idea from Jesus who was totally up front with those who were considering discipleship. Before you sign on to follow me, he says, you better know what it’s gonna cost you.

“Now large crowds were traveling with him….” and “….he turned and said to them, ‘If you cannot carry the cross and follow me you cannot be my disciple.'” Seeing those two ideas together in one passage is surprising, to say the least. It’s a message for all of us who might have a tendency to count the crowd and not the cost.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Was this my first divorce?

I walked past a neighbor’s yard and saw the prettiest clump of daisies today. My first impulse was to pick them and take them home. But then, I remembered that you’re not supposed to pick the flowers in your neighbor’s yard. I learned this when I was five years old. That’s when Fritzy and I picked a neighbor lady's flowers and presented them to our respective mothers, thinking they would be appreciated as gifts from the heart. Instead, our moms asked us where we got them and insisted that we take them back and apologize. First, we hid behind a giant blue spruce and only pretended to go to the neighbor's door. But apparently our omniscient mothers could see through trees, and they sent us back.

I may not have known better than to pick the flowers, but I did know how humiliating it was to confess my transgression. It may have been one of my first experiences of shame. Another one was when I got caught under the bed playing you-show-me-yours and I’ll-show-you-mine. I couldn't understand why it was such a big deal, but, believe me, it was! That incident also involved Fritzy.

As far back as my memory will take me, Fritzy and I were buddies. He lived across the street from me in a neighborhood of tiny, two-bedroom, one bath, post-WW2 houses. This was back in the day when, in the evenings, all the grown-ups on the street would gather their webbed lawn chairs into a circle in someone's front yard to visit. I can still hear the sound of their muffled conversation, occasional bursts of laughter, and the constant rattling of the ice cubes in their drinks. I also remember how they were always watching us, even when it seemed like they weren’t, and how they all acted like they were my parents, even when they weren’t.

Fritzy and I were together every day. One of us would go to the other one’s porch and we’d holler, “Oh, Frit-zy!” or “Oh, Nan-cy!” I don’t recall ever ringing a doorbell or knocking on a door. We played army, we solved mysteries, we climbed trees and swung on great-vines in the woods. To my recollection, we never fought, although we did get into trouble on several occasions. Mostly, we just had fun.

And then, it got weird. Fritzy was a year older than me, and after he started junior high, we never spoke to each other again. We still lived across the street from each other, and all the way through high school , we would pass one another in the hallway at school, but we never spoke. Not a word. Ever. It was like we became strangers overnight. I remember feeling a little awkward with the situation, but it didn’t really bother me. I wasn’t angry, or hurt. I never felt slighted. Never once did I go over to Fritzy’s house and holler, “Oh, Frit-zy!” on his porch and have him come to the door to tell me that he didn’t want to play with me anymore. Our parting was just something that happened. We used to live in a little world that included each other, and then our worlds expanded and we moved on.

Now, I wonder, was this my first divorce? Isn’t that the way it happens? You share your life with someone and then, suddenly, you’re strangers. Well, sort of. But this couldn’t have been a divorce because it wasn’t painful. When you part ways with someone as an adult, there’s always pain involved. It feels like it’s personal, even when it isn’t. With Fritzy, it never occurred to me that I might take it personally. It wasn't about me. His journey simply took him to another place. As did mine.

Why can’t it be like that when adults part company? Why do we have so much of ourselves wrapped up in our relationships? Why do we expect so much of the ones we love? Why can’t we just enjoy the dear people who have joined us on our journey without holding on for dear life? Why does so much of the way we feel about ourselves depend upon the validation  we receive from someone else? And when our relationships end, why do we anguish over them for months, or even years?

I wish my relationships could be as easy for me now as they were back in the Fritzy days. As I journey through life, I would like to enjoy the people I love and appreciate the moments we spend together along the way. And then, if necessary, when the time comes, I would like to wish them well, and move on. Pain free.

Oh, if only it were that easy.

Monday, April 23, 2012

What is it about dogs?

What is it about looking into the eyes of a dog that rips my heart out? There’s a commercial on T.V. where they show the faces of homeless dogs while Sarah McLaughlin sings “In the Arms of an Angel” in the background. I can’t handle it. I have to mute it and look away or by the end of the commercial I’m sobbing uncontrollably. It’s crazy.

I have similar feelings about a movie I dare not mention. If I have to so much as utter the name of it, I lose it. I saw it when I was a little kid and it traumatized me for life. Although it's a Disney film, I do NOT recommend it for children. I suppose I'm going to have to name it here, so you know what movie I’m talking about. *deep breath*  It’s Old Yeller. Now, excuse me while I step away from my computer for a moment….

Okay, I’m back.

I can watch movies where thousands of people are blown to bits and hardly bat an eye. I tell myself it’s only a movie, so it’s no big deal. But if I see a dog mistreated in any way, my heart ends up in a meat grinder, and I’m dabbing tissues at the rivers flowing down my cheeks. Why is that?

Recently, my pug, Pooky, has been having some health issues. And I’m a basket-case. Seriously, it’s scary how much I love that little dog. I realize that there’s a very good chance I will outlive her, and not a day goes by that I don’t think about it. No one else fills my life the way she does. She keeps vigil while I work at my computer, she snuggles against me all night in my bed, and every morning she waits for me to open my eyes so she can roll over on her back for a tummy rub to start her day. I gush over her like a newborn baby and she is unabashedly devoted to me. Being separated from me is always traumatic for her. When we’re reunited she greets me with tail-wagging joy and kisses of adoration. If a person were as obsessed with me as she is, I’d say he or she needed some serious therapy, but from a dog, this is admirable behavior.

Aside from my personal relationship with Pooky, dogs in general do something to me. And I wonder why. Part of it, I know, is their vulnerability. They are at our mercy, much like small children are with their parents. They trust us to care for them because they can’t care for themselves. But it’s more than that. What is it? Is it their innate capacity to love us unconditionally? Or is it just those damn sad eyes? I don’t know. I really don’t.

What I do know is that dogs touch my heart in a way that no person can. Knowing that they are mistreated by their owners, and killed by the thousands every day because there aren’t enough homes for them, is more than I can bear. As much as I might like to change that, I can’t. All I can do is love the wiggly little snorting critter with the smooshed-in face and the curly tail who’s been entrusted to my care. And, believe me, I do.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Singing with a crowd

When’s the last time you sang along with a crowd? If you’re part of a chorus, or some other organized singing group, you may get to experience it on a regular basis, but other than that, opportunities for group singing are rarely found in the world around us.

Actually, that’s not true for very young people and very old people. Children sing quite a bit, particularly at school. I can remember singing a lot at summer camp. I still know all the words to the “Camp Luella May” song, “They Built the Ship Titanic” and “On Top of Spaghetti.”

I also know that older adults like to get together and sing around the piano because I’ve done it with them many times through the years. They sing the songs they grew up with, like “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” I wonder if future generation will do that when their time comes to grace the activity lounges of nursing homes. I can’t imagine a bunch of old people with sagging tattooes sitting around yelling out rap songs together. No, it’s not a good image.

So, for the very young and the very old, there may be an appreciation for group-singing, but not so much for us folks in the middle. One of the exceptions I can think of is sporting events. Of course, there’s always the good old “Star Spangled Banner” to kick everything off.

I was taught proper national anthem etiquette by my high school choir director, Mr. Shie. First of all, whenever it’s played, of course, we should all stand. But we also should all join in singing it, even if it’s being led by a soloist. So, whenever a soloist takes liberty with the melody, making it’s impossible to follow them, it irks me somethin’ awful. Not that it matters a whole lot, because most people aren’t trying to sing along anyway. Of course, you can hardly blame them, since it’s pretty much unsingable. But, for Mr. Shie’s sake, I always give it my best shot. He also taught us that when the national anthem is over, it’s not proper to applaud. Of course, that’s not something I ever experience at a sporting event, but he would be proud of me because I never whoop and hollar along with everybody else.

One of the reasons I enjoy going to professional baseball games is the 7th inning stretch where we all stand and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” together. Fortunately, they’ll flash the words up on the electronic screen so everyone can sing along. The days when people knew the words to old standards like that are slipping away.

In Charlotte there are these wonderful musical events called “The Tosco Music Party.” One of the things I love about them is the sing-a-longs. Several times during an evening of varied musical offerings, the audience rises to its feet and joins a band of local musicians in belting out old favorites like, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “My Girl.” These are moments of pure joy.

What I like most about group singing is that it draws us into instant community. When you sing with someone, you feel connected, even if only for the duration of the song. Even though you may not know the name of the person next to you, you’re creating something beautiful together. Even if you may not exchange words or even so much as a sideways glance, you’re supporting one another. Even if youre not much of a singer, your contribution is appreciated.

You may have noticed that there is one venue for group singing I’ve not mentioned yet. And that’s the singing many of us get to enjoy each week in a house of worship. I confess that this is my favorite part of Sunday morning. More than the Bible readings. More than the liturgy. More than Holy Communion. And... do I even need to say it?... more than the sermon. There’s something about singing together that does it for me. Yep. That’s what draws me into community.

A house of worship may be the only place where many of us sing regularly with a crowd. It’s also the only place where we sing together for the express purpose of raising our voices to an audience that consists of one very uncritical, forgiving listener. There’s nothing else in our lives quite like it. I encourage you not to miss the opportunity.

When in our music God is glorified,
And adoration leaves no room for pride,
It is as though the whole creation cried:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Flying first class

Have you ever flown in a commercial airplane and had the experience of passing through the first class cabin while you make your way back to the cheap seats? You have to walk right through the aisle while the hoity-toity people get settled into their wide leather seats, waiting for their free drinks and all the other fancy amenities that come with traveling first class. It’s interesting to see how the aristocracy will completely ignore the peasants who come wandering through their space. As I have passed through first class I’ve always been a little disgusted by the elite people who think they’re so much better than the rest of us.

On a few occasions in the past, I traveled with a friend who flew a lot for business, so that he had preferred flyer status. And sometimes, even though we bought the cheap seats for a flight, if they hadn’t sold out the first class seats, they would want to fill all the seats on the plane, so they’d put us in first class. It’s really helping the airline out to do this, and it’s out of pity for US Air that I allowed myself to take a first class seat.

Well, it was wonderful. Except for that moment when the economy class people boarded the plane and came wandering through the first class cabin. I tried hard not to make eye contact with them. Not because I wanted to ignore them, but because I felt guilty. And I wondered if they were as judgmental of me as I was of the people in first class when I was boarding the plane and heading back to the cheap seats. There are some planes that you enter from the center so everyone doesn’t have to walk through the first class cabin. I prefer that if I’m sitting in first class because then I don’t have to think about the special privileges I am enjoying while they’re crammed into a cattle car. It was really hard for me to enjoy living the high life when I knew other people were living the low life.

Over the past year, we’ve heard a lot about the 99% and the 1% in our country. The gap between the salary of corporate executives and their workers is greater in the United States than it is in any other industrialized nation in the world. It’s about 325 to 1, and widening more with each passing day. We in the 99% have every reason to shake our fists at the 1% with righteous indignation. It’s disgusting. It’s unjust. It’s an affront to our God who always sides with the poor.

Well, before we get too carried away, pointing an accusing finger at the 1%, we need to expand our field of vision. Because when we go beyond our nation’s borders, it’s a different story. When we look at the global picture, we see that majority of the 99% in America are among the world’s wealthiest people.

It’s like the difference between first class and the cheap seats on an airplane. Yes, there’s a gap, but we’re still all on the airplane! What about the people who can’t even afford a bus ticket to get to the airport? We’re so busy stowing our stuff under the seat in front of us that the existence of such people doesn’t even cross our minds.

I’ve been thinking lately about a couple of the places where I’ve gone to serve on mission trips. I remember when I went to Haiti we visited several schools. It was amazing to see a classroom of children who were sitting in a room without electricity, so there were no lights on. They didn’t have paper and pencils and there was one textbook, which the teacher used. They made do with what they had because they didn’t have a choice. And I sit in my well lit office surrounded by shelves filled with books, behind a desk scattered with papers, and I think I’m having a crisis when my internet connection goes down.

Another mission trip I took was to Mexico on the Baja peninsula. I was with a campus ministry group and we were serving in a small town where water was a real problem. It hadn’t rained in years and every drop of water they used had to be delivered by truck. Can you imagine how expensive that was for these people?

You didn’t do laundry very often. You didn’t let the water in the faucet run when you were brushing your teeth. You didn’t flush the toilet unless it was absolutely necessary. Needless to say, you also didn’t stand under the shower for 20 minutes. Showers were few and far between, and when you took them, there was a procedure you went through. First of all, the showers were all cold because it would take too much water to wait until it got hot. You got into the shower and quickly got yourself wet. Then you turned the water off. You soaped up. Then you turned the shower on and rinsed off. All together the shower water probably ran for about one minute.

It’s always an eye-opener to go on a mission trip and experience something like that. And then, when the trip is over, I get to go home; the people in that town are still living there.

I think of them whenever we’re short on water in Charlotte and I hear the people in our community complaining about not being able to water their lawns. That’s what we call a drought. It’s a crisis for us when we can’t water our grass. The people I spent time with in the small town in Baja wouldn’t even believe it.

What if, all of a sudden, God switched everything around and we were living in that tiny little desert village and they were living here? They would think they had died and gone to heaven. And for us, we would surely think we were in hell.

A big theme in Luke’s gospel is the Reversal of Fortune. It’s the idea that in the Kingdom of God, everything gets turned upside down. We first hear about this theme from Mary when she sings in the second chapter of Luke “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

The greatest problem we face when we have wealth may be that we start to believe we are entitled to our privileged status. We actually think that we’re more valuable than other people are, because we have more valuables. But God didn’t make the world this way, with this huge gap separating rich from poor. That’s something we did. And those of us who have more, have a sacred, God-given responsibility to those who have less. That’s the way it is in the Kingdom of God. As easy as it is to point an accusing finger at Wall Street big-wigs, it’s even easier for us to ignore the plight of the poor and hungry in the world around us. But in the Kingdom of God there is a great reversal coming. If we fail to see the gap now, and respond to the disparity in our world, one day it will be clear to us.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Second Easter Tomb

Did you know that there are two tombs in the Easter story? That may come as news to you, but it’s true. We Christians tend to focus on the first Easter tomb, the one where the stone was rolled away. But then as the story unfolds in John's gospel, there's another Easter tomb. Dead- bolted, closed and impenetrable, it’s the tomb where Jesus’ friends are huddled together, paralyzed with fear, listening breathlessly for every footstep, praying that their secret hiding-place won't be exposed.

The same Jesus who breaks out of the first tomb breaks into the second tomb. The disciples don’t recognize him at first. This is a common theme in the resurrection stories. Jesus appears to those who should have known him best and they don’t know him from Adam. Mary Magdalene mistakes him for the gardener until he calls her by name. The two travelers on the road to Emmaus don’t recognize the risen Christ until the very end of their journey, when they have supper with him. When Peter and John meet a stranger on the shore, they don’t realize who it is until he directs them to a huge catch of fish.

Here in the second tomb, behind locked doors, Jesus has to identify himself to his terrified disciples. And how does he prove to them that it was really him? By showing them his wounded hands and side.

We don’t know where Thomas was at the time. Maybe he went out to buy groceries. But he wasn’t there, and he missed the whole thing. When his friends told him about seeing Jesus, Thomas refused to believe them. He told them that he would have to see it for himself. In fact, he wouldn’t even believe it if he saw it, he said. He would have to touch the wounded body of Jesus before he would be convinced.

It’s amazing that Jesus honors Thomas’s request. He doesn’t say, “Too bad for you Thomas; you missed it. You snooze you lose!” But he comes back and invites Thomas to put his finger in the wounds in his hands and he asks him to put his hand in his side. This is a grace-filled moment for the disciples, and particularly Thomas.

When Jesus was raised from the dead, down to a person, no one believed it at first. Even right up to his last resurrection appearance, in Matthew we read “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” Although Thomas may be the disciple who was given the label of the “doubter”, this was a problem for all of Jesus’ followers.

On Easter morning, are you one of those people who struggles with the truth of it all? Despite the scriptures, and the hymns we sing, and all the shouts of “He is risen indeed. Alleluia!”, is there a part of you that isn’t so sure? You might look around at all the other people who seem to believe what you find so hard to believe. You might think you're the only one who feels this way. But the thing is, we don’t get together for worship and talk about what we don’t believe. If we did, and if we were truly honest, you would probably be surprised to discover that you’re not the only one who struggles with believing everything we say in church.

If we were honest, you would learn that many of us come to worship, not so much because of what we really believe in our hearts, but because of what we want to believe in our hearts. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s what it means to be a person of faith. Faith isn’t about clinging to our certainty; it’s about living into our hope.

In the second Easter tomb, Jesus greets his disciples’ fear and disbelief with loving acceptance as he assures them that he doesn’t mind their questions and their probing. Jesus doesn’t judge them or scold them for their disbelief. He meets them in their fear and offers them the peace they so desperately need.

You would think that one Easter tomb would have been enough. But it obviously wasn’t and Jesus knew it, because he knows what it means to be human -- it means struggling with doubts and fears even in the face of an empty tomb. And so Jesus didn’t just shed his shroud and leave an empty tomb behind him, thinking that would be all the disciples needed to understand who he was and what he was about. He joined them in their tomb, the one they had constructed for themselves.

If the first Easter tomb is difficult for you to get your head around, the second Easter tomb may be one you can relate to. It’s the place of doubt and skepticism. It’s the place of fear. It’s the place where we try to close ourselves off from God. And it’s in that second Easter tomb where Christ meets us.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Does God have some 'spaining to do, Lucy?

Sometimes when I’m on my way to the next stop on a busy day and I see a funeral procession of cars go by on their way to a cemetery, I’m struck by how wrong it feels. Especially because I know what it’s like to be in one of those cars going to the cemetery, feeling like my whole life has been blown apart. And I look out my window and see people going about their everyday lives as if they don’t even notice. As if the deep grief I’m feeling doesn’t even matter. To me, it’s the only thing that does matter. It seems like the whole world should stop; all creation should be feeling the loss that I am. How could they be going about their business as if nothing has happened? Can’t they see that everything world has changed, that nothing will ever be the same again?!

I think of that when I pass funeral processions and I’m on the outside looking in. I feel I’m being disrespectful of their grief, but I don’t know what else to do. So I drive on and tell myself that the death of the person they’re mourning has nothing to do with me. After all, there are deaths that are happening all around the world, all the time, and I go on about my business.

But when something happens like a huge earthquake or a hurricane that kills hundreds or even thousands of people, it’s not so easy to go on about my business. For one thing, we can see the devastation on T.V. almost as quickly as it’s happening. And we’re constantly being reminded of the suffering that other people are going through. That makes it difficult to go about business as usual. It feels like the whole world should stop. It feels like I’m in one of those cars going to the cemetery. How can I be concerned about the trivial mundane stuff that fills my days?

Hurricane Katrina was like that for a lot of people when it happened. No other hurricane in our memory can compare to this one in terms of the amount of destruction and the number of lives lost. Despite all our sophisticated medical technology and advanced modes of transportation and communication, we realize how vulnerable we are to a horrific disaster. The aid to the survivors didn’t come soon enough. We couldn’t get to them and they couldn’t get to us and we feel helpless. We did what we could, we gave our money and we prayed, but it didn’t seem to be enough.

It was hard to go about our day to day activities knowing that there were people waiting on rooftops calling out for help, people who had no food, those who had watched loved ones being washed away before their eyes. We saw: sick and elderly people living in sweltering heat and squalor, babies sleeping on a crumbled up highway, desperate people looting stores for basics like water and diapers, rescue workers ignoring dead bodies while they franticly sought out those who were still living. All this was going on while we were going to work during the day, fighting the rush hour traffic in the evening and returning to our air-conditioned homes for a juicy steak on the grill before we sat down on the couch to watch the tragedy continuing to unfold on our TV screens.

A huge event like the events of 9-11 or Hurricane Katrina can lead us to see things from a new perspective. We’re not the same as we were before.

First of all, tragedies on a grand scale don’t always bring out the best in us. God forgive me, but there’s always a little part of me that’s relieved when tragedy happens to someone else and not to me or anyone dear to me. I’ve also fallen into the trap of blaming. Remember after Katrina, we blamed the engineers who were responsible for the levees. We blamed President Bush for sending the National Guard to Iraq when they could have been helping with the relief effort. We even blamed the victims themselves for staying in the city when they were warned of the impending disaster.

Most of all, life’s tragedies cause us to struggle with our faith. A tragedy challenges the way we understand God and the world around us. We’re filled with doubts and questions for which there are no answers.

I remember hearing some people explain Katrina by saying that it was the result of global warming. That it’s a consequence of our excessive, over-consumptive lifestyle. Others said that the hurricane is a judgment upon our nation. At least one New Orleans-area resident believed God had created the storm as punishment because of the recent role the United States played in expelling Jews from Gaza.

With our very rational, western minds, we think we need to understand everything that happens in this life. It has to make sense. Not only do we have to understand how things like a natural disaster happened from a human standpoint, but we even think we have to understand why it happened, from a theological standpoint. I guess we convince ourselves that if we can somehow explain it, that will make it easier for us to handle it. But our attempts to understand life’s tragedies are feeble at best.

Often we’ll hear people refer to a natural disaster that can’t be explained any other way as “an act of God.” God gets blamed for all the horrible, unexplained events of our lives. They’re acts of God. This offends most Christians because we don’t want to pin anything that we perceive as bad on God. In our belief system, God is good and gracious and all-loving. He couldn’t possibly be the one responsible for a tsunami that kills thousands of people. So we make excuses for God. And sometimes we engage in some pretty serious mental acrobatics to make it all fit. The thing is, sometimes it’s pert near impossible to make it fit. Yes, God is gracious and merciful, but is God in charge of all creation or not? From our perspective, it makes absolutely no sense.

When Katrina happened, the governor of Texas made a statement that made me cringe. He said that Texas was ready to help the victims of the hurricane in whatever way they could because but by the grace of God, it could have been them. You hear people looking at the misfortunes of others using that expression all the time… “but by the grace of God” that could have been me.

What a disturbing thing to believe! That God is gracious to you, but that same God of love has not been gracious to someone else. Why would God be gracious to the people of Texas and not to the people of Louisiana? It doesn’t make sense.

Despite the fact that so many of life’s tragedies don’t make sense to us, I continue to be amazed at the people of faith who feel compelled to explain God’s actions. How arrogant can we be? Thinking we can begin to explain why God does what God does. Thinking we can defend God’s actions to all those people who are angry with him. It’s like we think God needs us to rescue him! Isn’t that the height of arrogance?

Remember how God responded to Job and his friends when they demanded an explanation for why God had allowed Job to suffer the way he did? God let’s Job have it.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place?…
God goes on and on for several chapters saying, in essence, you think you’re so smart Job, then why don’t you try running the universe for a while! The author Frederick Beuchner does a good job of summing up what God has to say when Job questions his ways: “God doesn’t explain, he explodes. He asks Job who he thinks he is anyway. He says that to try to explain the kind of things Job wants explained would be like trying to explain Einstein to a little-neck clam.”

When I was younger, I used to think that if I worked at it enough, eventually I’d be able to find the answers to all those questions that kept me awake at night. Where does God come from? Why does evil exist in the world? Why do innocent people have to suffer? I had a lot of questions I couldn’t answer. And I naively thought that the life of faith was about discovering the answers to those questions. I figured old people knew the answers. That’s why they’re considered wise.

Well, I’m a lot older now. Depending on who you’re comparing me to, you might even say that I’m just plain old. And I think I’m a little closer to figuring out what it means to be a person of faith. It doesn’t mean that you’ve learned how to find all the answers to your questions. It means that you’ve learned to live with the questions. To let the questions remain questions. And to be OK with that.

Mature faith is about being at peace with the ambiguity of life. In order to be at peace with the ambiguity of life we must put aside our prideful arrogance that would have us believe we can understand the ways of God. We need to acknowledge that we can’t begin to understand the ways of God. We need to stop playing God and allow God to be God.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t ask the questions anymore, or that we don’t seek the answers. But it means that we’re at peace with the unanswered questions. It’s OK to let God be God. To insist that I have the answers to why God does what God does is to rob God of his power. Would you want a God who you could understand completely? That would be a pretty puny excuse for a God, wouldn’t it?

When I was growing up, the pastor always ended his sermons with the same words. At the time I thought that they were just the pastor’s way of signing off. It never occurred to me that they were about the peace that comes from letting God be God. From acknowledging that try as we might, there will always be things about God that we can’t begin to understand. That’s a good way to end a sermon. By acknowledging that what the preacher or anyone else can tell us about God is but a teeny, tiny part of the truth. Let’s not kid ourselves by thinking we have it all figured out. Let’s trust God to be God and let that be enough.

May the peace of God which passes all human understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

LOL Sunday

A typical five-year old child does it 400 times a day, while a 50-year old does it only 17 times. What is it? Laughter. I wish it were true that when Christians gather together on Sunday mornings, it ups their daily laugh average. But I would suspect that our gatherings tend to have just the opposite effect.

Tomorrow is our third annual Holy Humor Sunday at Holy Trinity. Mind you, it’s not something we invented. In fact, the practice of celebrating a day of joy and laughter after Easter goes way back. It was the ancient custom on Easter Monday, which is still a holiday in many countries, to spend the day having picnics and parties, playing practical jokes on one another. In many places, boys and girls chased each other around, and soaked one another with water. Good clean fun!

Holy Humor Sunday, the week after Easter is an adaptation of that. It’s all about celebrating the resurrection -- that the sadness of Good Friday gives way to Easter joy and God had the last laugh on sin, death, and the power of the devil.

On Holy Humor Sunday we also revel in the God-given gift of laughter. And what a unique gift it is! It seems to sneak up on us when we least expect it. There's no such thing as a premeditated laugh. In fact, if I asked you to laugh, you probably couldn’t do it. It’s hard to fake a real laugh. And it may be even harder to keep a laugh in. It just erupts. You can’t control it.

Laughter is a universal human experience. People can laugh together, whether they speak a common language or not. In fact, laughter precedes language. Little babies develop the capacity to laugh before they learn to speak.

For the most part, laughter is a communal experience. We rarely laugh when we’re alone. It’s social and contagious. We tend to laugh at the sound of laughter itself. That’s why sitcoms run a laugh-track in the background. Just hearing other people laugh makes us laugh.

Scientists now say that most laughter is not about humor; it’s about relationships between people. An evolutionary psychologist at Oxford, Robin Dunbar, has observed that in addition to increasing our tolerance to pain through the release of endorphins, laughter also may have been very important in the evolution of humans because it contributes to group bonding. He refers to social laughter, as actually “grooming at a distance.” It’s an activity that fosters closeness in a group the way one-on-one grooming works in other primates. Now, as a pastor, here's what I take from that... Since it might be awkward to pick the lice off of one another in church, it’s important that we have opportunities to laugh instead.

For the sermon this week, I pretty much just tell jokes. And since learning that laughter doesn’t have as much to do with humor as it does relationships, I’ve stopped stressing over whether the jokes I tell are funny or not. It doesn’t matter. These are my people I’m trying to be funny with. They’ll laugh, if for no other reason than the fact that they feel sorry for me.

So, here’s a sneak peek from my sermon.

10. The pastor refers to God only as "Jehovah" and constantly exhorts the congregation to "witness."
9. New members are required to submit W-2's for the last 10 years.
8. In the sacristy the altar committee has a cage for the rattlesnakes.
7. The treasurer regularly attends meetings in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
6. The media refers to the church facilities as a "compound.”
5. The Women's Quartet members are all married to the pastor.
4. Instead of wine at communion, they serve Kool- Aide.
3. The chancel cross has been replaced with a bronze pyramid.
2. The pastor wants to visit you in your home and she won’t tell you what it’s about. When she gets there you learn that she sells Am-Way on the side.
1. In the church parking lot there is a place marked off on the pavement for the spaceship to land.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What I've learned about Easter since... Easter.

Yesterday my life was humming along when I got into my car to stop by Krazy Fish for a tuna taco on the way to a church meeting. As I pulled out of my driveway I saw a black cat lying in the driveway across the street. He was obviously dead. And I got a sinking feeling in my gut. Yes, it was my dear, sweet Romeo. It looked like someone had placed him there, although I’m not sure when. I had been out working in the yard all day and hadn’t noticed him earlier.

After wrapping him in a towel and carrying him home, the flies were already congregating around his eyes. I knew I had to get him in the ground a.s.a.p.

There’s a large natural area in the back corner of my yard where Romeo loved to play “Great Black Hunter”; I decided to plant him there. I dug at the petrified red clay laced with tree roots for about an hour and realized I had gone as far as I could go. It wasn’t a very deep grave, but it would have to do.

Numbly rocking back and forth in the porch swing, I sobbed as I reviewed mental snapshots of Romeo through the years. He was my first roommate after my divorce and had been by my side for over a dozen years. We had come through a lot together and I knew that losing him represented a number of losses in my life. They all came washing over me like a tidal wave.

I don’t know how long I sat there, but my thoughts were interrupted by the rumbling of a diesel engine that I knew so well. A dear friend, whom I hadn’t seen in a long time, heard about Romeo and suspected I needed help. He was so right.

He listened to my stories and let me cry without shushing me. And then I told him about how I had buried Romeo in the yard. I was worried that he might not be buried deep enough and the body would start to smell. But my friend had another worry, something I hadn’t considered. He feared animals would find the body and dig it up. He offered to dig a new grave, a deeper one, so we could move Romeo’s body to a place where it wouldn’t be disturbed.

It was almost dark by the time my friend finished digging the hole. Then he scooped up Romeo in the dirt and planted him in his final resting place. Just to make sure, he placed a large log over the grave. For me, this was but one more horrible ordeal to endure in what had already been a horrific experience.

To say it wasn’t a good day for me is an understatement. But it wasn’t all bad, either. In the midst of my grief I learned that I have a dear friend. He’s one of those in-deed friends, the kind who comes through when you need him.

It reminds me of a time when Jesus wasn’t having a good day. He was in the wilderness, hungry, tormented by evil, and tempted to throw in the towel. As the story goes, God sends angels to wait on him. So often, that seems to be what God does. God’s angels don’t necessarily come to wait on us whenever we snap our fingers. But when we really need them, they seem to appear out of nowhere. No, they’re not winged creatures in white robes. Sometimes they might even show up in a station wagon with a rumbly engine.

I’m thankful as I think back on the past 24 hours. Thankful for a wonderful, furry companion with whom I gave and received so much love over the years. I’m thankful for a dear friend who cared enough to show up on my porch without being asked. And I’m thankful for a God who seems to provide for what I need when I need it the most.

This happened the day after Easter and I see resurrection written all over it. New life doesn't just spring from death like a blossom popping out of a tree. New life is only possible through the death of an old life. No matter how many times I experience that, I continue to be surprised by it. And grateful.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Do you suppose it’s time for her to take a day off?

Suppose there is a woman who neglects to take the time necessary to regenerate her brain cells. And suppose she isn’t paying attention to the fact that she isn’t as young as she used to be and every brain cell is precious.

Suppose this woman is a pastor, and she gives up her days off for Lent. Not intentionally, mind you, but that’s the way it ends up. It might be her own fault, because she has a tendency to do things like waiting until Friday, her scheduled day off, to write her sermons. Just suppose this goes on, week after week. And then, suppose it’s Holy Week and she’s preparing for extra worship services and obsessing over Easter Sunday details, so she hardly stops to eat.

Suppose she pushes herself through Easter, and then has to face all the things she ignored while she was absorbed in church stuff. Suppose her house is a three-bedroom/two bath dust-bin, and she needs a machete to walk in her yard, and she's down to wearing her ratty old pjs under her clothes because all her underwear is dirty, and she doesn’t even have a clean spoon to eat her cereal in the morning. And suppose that doesn’t matter a whole lot, because she’s out of cereal.

Suppose she needs to pick up some groceries. And suppose she can’t find her purse because she didn’t put it over the door knob in the hallway the way she usually does. And suppose she finds her purse over the door handle to her bedroom closet instead, the one where she normally hangs her bras when she takes them off.

Suppose she grabs her purse and heads for the local Harris-Teeter. She proceeds to make her way up and down the aisles, filling her cart with groceries. Then, she goes to the check-out line, and as she reaches into her purse for her billfold she feels something silky brush against her hand. And suppose she sees that there is a black 36D hanging from her purse.

Do you suppose it’s time for her to take a day off?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Jesus is on the Loose!

If you’ve been around long enough, you’ve probably experienced that first visit to the cemetery after a loved one has died. And you know that it can be pretty hard to take. Someone you dearly loved, someone who was a big part of your life, someone you talked with, and laughed with. Someone who had hugged you, and helped you through many-a trial, is gone. It’s hard for that harsh reality to sink in. And then you find yourself standing in a place where the body of the person you love has been buried in the ground. How is it possible? The stark separation is too much to bear. It’s a pain that no Bible passages about eternal life can soften. A few days ago, this person you loved was alive and now, they’ve been planted in the dirt.

Three women are on their way to visit the grave of their beloved rabbi and friend. They come to perform the ritual act that is traditionally done before sealing a body in a tomb. Since he died just as the Sabbath was beginning, they had to wait, but now, at the first sign of daylight, it’s time. They come to comb out Jesus’ hair, to sponge away the dried blood and to massage precious myrrh into his skin. As they walk, they realize that they have no idea how they’re going to get into the tomb because there is a huge stone blocking the entrance. They know this because they hid and watched while Jesus’ body was laid to rest so they would know where to find him. So how are they going to move that stone? They’re discussing this as they arrive at the tomb and discover that the problem has already been solved. The stone has been rolled away! What’s going on? And then comes the real shocker. They look inside and the body of Jesus is missing.

Now, how would you feel, if you went to visit the grave of someone you love for the first time after they’ve died, and when you get there, you find a big hole in the ground with the coffin opened and the body gone? Terrified!

The women stood by and watched in agony as Jesus died on the cross. They knew he was dead. Now this was their last chance to pour a little compassion on his broken body. And just when they think things can’t possibly get any worse, they witness the final insult of this whole horrible mess. First, Jesus' life is taken, and now, even his body has been stolen away.

Well, if that’s not troubling enough, there’s this guy waiting for them in the tomb. He tells them not to be alarmed. Ha! Fat chance! The women do what any of us would have done in that situation. They run like hell!

And that’s where Mark ends his story.

There’s been a lot of debate over Mark’s non-ending through the years. Some translators have been so uncomfortable with it that they’ve added endings of their own. If you look in your Bible you will find a couple of different alternate endings. But these aren’t a part of the original text. So far as we know, Mark’s gospel leaves us hanging: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s it. And, actually, if you read it in the original Greek, it’s even more abrupt. Literally, the gospel of Mark ends like this: "To no one anything they said; afraid they were for..." It reads like the author of Mark had suddenly been jerked away from his writing in midsentence.

Mark ends his gospel with women who were scared out of their wits. Despite the mission to which the young man charges them-- “Go tell his disciples and Peter “, the women had one simple mission of their own in mind -- to put as much distance between them and that empty tomb as possible.
This is unsettling, to say the least. It’s like going home from a play before the final act, viewing a movie where the projector breaks down with 15 minutes yet to go, watching a tied football game on TV and the power goes off during the last two minutes… We can’t stand to be left hanging like that. We want to have all the loose ends tied up. We want answers. How could Mark do this to us?

But, you know, if you go to the other three gospel accounts, they might give us a narrative about what happened after the tomb was found empty, but they don’t much help. In fact, the story of the resurrection only becomes more confusing because the gospels are all different in the details. Who was there at the empty tomb isn’t the same in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Nor do they encounter the same thing when they get there. That leaves us wondering, what exactly happened?

Maybe, when it comes down to it, Mark’s gospel is the best account after all. Because, we don’t know what happened. And maybe what actually happened isn’t all that important. By faith, we can live without all the answers. We can live with the mystery. And we can grab onto what really matters.

What really matters is that our God is a God of resurrection. And by that, I don’t just mean that someday when we die we’ll all go to heaven. Resurrection is so much more than that. We are resurrected people, even while we live.

We know the empty tomb is found at the end of a path that first leads us through a graveyard. The way to a new life is always through the death of an old life. That’s not just the way God operated on Easter morning, it’s the way God always works. We read about it in Bible stories, we hear about it in the lives of God’s saints, and we experience it in our own lives.

Resurrection is feeling utterly defeated and being surprised by a victory. Resurrection is coming to the end of your rope and letting go, only to find a new beginning waiting for you. Resurrection is having every good reason to despair, and finding a better reason to hope. Resurrection is facing an empty tomb in terror, and running right into the arms of someone whose love will never let you go.

A Presbyterian minister, Scott Black Johnston, tells about an annual Easter greeting that he receives from his roommate from seminary. Every year, on Easter day, his phone will ring. The voice on the other end will say, “Jesus is on the loose” and the man will hang up. Jesus is on the loose.

I like it. It may sound like another way of saying, “He is risen!” but it’s more than that. Not only is Jesus risen, but he is living in the world around us. He is present among his resurrected people. As one of my favorite Easter hymns says:

Christ is alive! Let Christians sing.
The cross stands empty to the sky.
Let streets and homes with praises ring.
Love, drowned in death, shall never die.

Christ is alive! No longer bound
to distant years in Palestine,
But saving, healing, here and now,
and touching ev’ry place and time.

In ev’ry insult, rift, and war,
where color, scorn, or wealth divide,
Christ suffers still, yet loves the more,
and lives where even hope has died.

That’s the story of the resurrection. Death is no match for him. A tomb can’t hold him. Nor can he be contained within the pages of a book. Or within the confines of geography or time. He is alive in the world around us. He is alive in us and through us. Jesus is on the loose!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Is This Resurrection Stuff for Real?

I remember my first experience with death. I was only six years old, which was a long time ago, but I remember it. I remember a room filled with people who were all talking above me as if I wasn't there. I remember the stifling smell of flowers and the horrifying sound of my grandmother wailing. Most of all, I remember the body in the box. It didn't look real. It was like the people in the wax museum we had visited at Niagara Falls. Only this wax figure was my father. I took it all in. His closed eyelids, the expression on his lips, his powdery face, the hands with the puffy fingers. This was not the same person who had carried me in his arms and bounced me on his knee.

The corpse of my father traumatized me; not just when I saw it in the funeral home but for most of my childhood. I was afraid to look out the window at night because I would see that face looking back at me. I was afraid of the basement, the attic, the closet, and the top bunk in my bedroom, and any place I couldn't really see, because I was sure that the body was there.

I wanted desperately to believe that my dad was in heaven with God because the idea that he was in heaven was so much better than believing that he had just ceased to exist. But it all seemed rather unbelievable, like some fairy tale that adults made up to make people feel better when someone dies. When I was a little girl and into my teenage years, I was so terrified of death that many nights I cried myself to sleep. I used to pray that I could know there really was a heaven so that I wouldn't have to be afraid anymore.

Lots of people go through something like that, although usually not at such a young age. When we're confronted by death, our faith is challenged. I wasn't raised with any kind of a faith background, so I didn't have any spiritual resources to handle the death of my father. But even those who have been raised in the faith can have that faith seriously challenged by the reality of death. Is this resurrection stuff for real or is it just some fairy tale that we've been taught so that we can face the grim reality of death?

It's all rather unbelievable, and it's only natural to question it. That's been the case ever since the very beginning. Even Jesus' own disciples were in disbelief. The women who took spices and perfumes to the tomb that first Easter morning didn't go to witness a resurrection; they went to anoint a corpse. When Mary Magdalene saw that the tomb was empty, she didn't say to herself, "Oh, it looks like Jesus has been raised from the dead." She assumed that someone had come and stolen the body. When she and the other women told the other disciples that they had seen the risen Lord, Luke's gospel tells us, "These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them" (24:11). That night the disciples hid out behind locked doors because they feared for their own lives. Later, two witnesses told the disciples about their encounter with the risen Jesus, but the disciples didn't believe them either. And there's the story of Thomas, the most famous of all the doubters. Right up until what might have been his last resurrection appearance in Matthew, we read that there were still some of the eleven disciples who doubted.

The resurrection has always been hard for people to swallow, even people of great faith. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Saint Paul has much to say about the resurrection, because apparently it was a problem for members of the early church, as well. There were already those who were refuting the resurrection of Jesus. Paul has to remind them that without the resurrection, there is no Christian faith. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus are at the center of it all.

The proof that Paul gives for the resurrection is that the risen Christ appeared to the disciples, and to hundreds of other people, including Paul. That continues to be the strongest proclamation we can make regarding the resurrection.

You know, messiahs weren't all that uncommon in Jesus' day. There were others who had devoted followers like Jesus did. He was just one among many. Just like Jesus, they routinely died at the hands of Romans. But when they died, their movements died with them. The Jesus movement was unique, because it didn't die when he did. Instead, within days of his crucifixion, the movement had been transformed. Within weeks it was proclaiming that Jesus really was the Messiah. Within a year or two, it was taking the message of the good news to all the world. How can this amazing transformation be explained? It surely didn't come about because of a Messiah who had been crucified and buried.

There is a consistent message about the followers of Jesus in the Bible. Down to a person, not one of them believed in the resurrection of Jesus in the beginning. This rings true because the scriptures tell us about it in so many places and in so many ways. It also rings true because we know from our own experience that it's hard to believe. And yet, we know that something happened to Jesus' followers in the Bible, something so convincing that they devoted their lives to sharing the good news of the resurrected Christ with others. In fact, they were willing to give their lives rather than deny its truth. This, from the ones who cowered in fear behind locked doors after Jesus was crucified.

What was this thing that happened to them? The risen Christ appeared to them. We get some of these accounts in the Bible, but no doubt there were other instances as well. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul mentions an instance that we don't read about anywhere else in the Bible, so we're not sure what it's referring to: a time when the risen Christ appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at once. Now, when over 500 people see something at the same time, you cannot dismiss it as some kind of vision or a dream. There can be no doubt that it really happened.

After Jesus was raised from the dead, hundreds of his followers had the opportunity to see him. They saw the risen Christ. That explains why their lives were so transformed. I'm not sure how there could be any other explanation. After seeing the risen Christ, all the stuff that had confused them in the past became clear for them. Jesus really was the Messiah. From the perspective of the resurrection, the cross was not a shameful death after all but a victory.

The mission of the early church was simply to tell about what they had seen and heard. It was to bear witness to the things that happened. "... Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3b-4).

The biblical witnesses are still announcing the resurrection to us today. That's why we gather together on Easter, and every Sunday actually, because that's why the Christian church changed their sabbath day to Sunday, so every week our worship is a celebration of the resurrection. The resurrection had the power to transform the lives of the first disciples. The truth of their witness to the resurrection still has the power to transform our lives, as well. Amen.

Beyond the limits of love

According to Jewish law, if someone hurts you, you have every right to hurt them back. After all, the law above all laws says that you should love God with all your heart, mind and soul and the law that goes with it is you should love your neighbor as yourself. But this says nothing about extending love beyond God and neighbor.

And then along comes Jesus and he stretches the boundaries of love and takes it to a place that people can’t imagine. “Don’t just love your friends. Anybody can do that,” he says. “What I’m asking you to do, as my followers, is love your enemies. Don’t seek revenge for those who wrong you, but seek to do them well. Return love for hatred.”

Now, if that doesn’t push you to the limit, I don’t know what will. It’s what Jesus did in his own life. He hung out with the people no respectable person wanted to be associated with. He touched the untouchables. He ate with the unclean. And then, he pushed love to the limit by going to a cross and loving the ones who put him there.

I don’t know about you, but it’s been my experience that God is continually pushing me to my love limit, too. Just when I think I’ve gone as far as I possibly can, I’m challenged with a new struggle to love someone I had never considered.

On this Good Friday, take some time to think about the limits of your love. Who are those people in your life you find it impossible to love? How could you grow to see them through the eyes of the one who had the grace to forgive those who nailed him to a cross?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Doing feet

The scene of Jesus and his disciples on the night of his betrayal could rip your heart out if you could really grasp all that’s happening. Jesus was teaching his disciples then, and his disciples now, the very essence of what it means to follow him: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

In one way, Jesus’ disciples would have understood why Jesus was washing their feet. In that culture, any good host would make sure that his guests’ feet were washed when they entered his house. It was the custom. But it wasn’t something that the host himself would ever have done. It was the job of one his servants. So, it wasn’t the foot-washing that disturbed the disciples, it was the fact that it was being done by their host, their rabbi. What Jesus is showing them is about more than hospitality or good manners. He’s putting himself in the position of a servant. And he’s willing to serve all of them, even the one who was going to have him arrested and killed. Isn’t it amazing the Jesus didn’t turn him out of the community? He got down on his knees before Judas and washed the dirt from his feet.

So, Jesus tells his friends, I’ve set an example for you here. You also should do as I’ve done. He says the same thing to each of us. And, if he could include Judas, it forces us to think very seriously about those with whose feet we’d rather not find ourselves on our hands and knees washing. Face it, it would be hard enough to do that for a member of your own family, but for some low-down, back-stabbing, pathetic excuse for a human being, come on!

Whose feet are you be willing to wash? By washing feet, I don’t mean literally, whose feet would you scrub clean, but who are you willing to humble yourself before? Who are you willing to serve as Jesus did?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Am I "The Fringe"?

“Has your pastor been talking about me lately?” That’s what I asked my dance friend who goes to First Baptist Church in uptown Charlotte. His pastor has spearheaded the introduction of Amendment One in North Carolina, which says that the only people in domestic partnerships with any legal rights are those who are married. Of course, it’s intended to make it pert near impossible for gay folks to ever legally marry in our state, but lots of others would be hurt if we vote to add this amendment to our constitution, as well.

So, my dance friend informed me that his pastor had indeed been talking about me from the pulpit. Well, not me specifically, but people like me, people who are out there working against Amendment One. He referred to us as “The Fringe.”

The Fringe. Isn’t that something you’d say about people who are kooky? Seems to me that it’s a good way to dismiss them so that you don’t have to take them seriously. So, my first reaction to being referred to as The Fringe was to get all bristly over it.

I don’t know that I’ve ever been called The Fringe before, so I’ve been turning it over in my mind for a couple of weeks now. Am I The Fringe? Hmmm. If I lived in New York City, or San Francisco, I would never be considered a part of The Fringe. I’d probably be more middle-of-the-road. Heck, in Asheville, North Carolina, I’d be somewhere in the center. But in Charlotte, North Carolina, I’m The Fringe. What does this mean?

Well, I’ve decided that I like it. People on the fringe of society are the ones who are living just on the edge between being in and being out. And, this seems to be exactly the place where Jesus himself chose to live.

Is being part of The Fringe the same thing as being marginalized? I don’t think so. When you’re marginalized, you’ve been forced out of the circle by the people in the center who find you unacceptable. You aren’t on the edge between in and out. You’re just out. I may have experienced being an outsider from time to time in my life, in minor ways, but never enough to consider myself truly marginalized. Certainly not the way half the adults in my congregation have experienced it because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

I’ve grown in my understanding of what it means to do ministry with the marginalized over the past seven years. Back when I interviewed to be pastor at Holy Trinity, I told the search committee that I would not be stepping up to the microphone at a synod assembly and advocating for the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, nor would I publically speak out for the rights of gay folks in the community. I would support them, and encourage them, but I was never going to be an activist; that just wasn’t my thing.

God only knows why they called me to be their pastor. But, of course, since coming to Holy Trinity, I have done everything I said I would never do. All my preconceived ideas about what I would and wouldn’t do changed when I realized that the ones being marginalized by others are the people I love. I can’t throw them words of encouragement from a distance or text- message support to them from a remote location. I have to join them where they are-- in the margins.

But it seems to me that there’s a difference between being forced into the margins and choosing to go there. When you could live in the center, but choose to do ministry with those in margins, out of love, maybe that’s what it means to be a part of The Fringe. As a follower of Jesus, I can’t see any other way of being in the world. I’m not sure if it’s a group I’m worthy of claiming as my own, but it’s certainly where I long to be.

God, keep me on The Fringe.