Friday, December 27, 2013

Angels, Shepherd, Wise Men... and a Mass Murderer?

16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” Matthew 2:16-18
This is a disturbing passage, isn’t it? After the simple beauty of the birth narrative, and the wondrous story of wise men from the east following the star to find Jesus and bring him gifts, we get this. It’s an abrupt ending to what had been a merry little Christmas. Yes, merry, right up until the point where the evil king starts killing innocent babies. 
Well, I could easily dismiss this story by pointing out how it probably never happened. There is no historic record of such an event ever occurring. The only place we read about it anywhere is here in Matthew’s gospel. And Matthew made it a point to insert stuff throughout his narrative to prove that Jesus was a fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures. The parallel he draws here, of course, is with Moses. Remember how all the babies were killed in that story and Moses was saved? And remember where it all took place? Yes, it happened to be the place to which Mary and Joseph fled with their son Jesus. So, Matthew just threw this in because that’s what Matthew does, and we don’t need to fret over it. 
But I’m afraid that might be letting us off the hook too easily. Whether or not it actually happened, it seems to be an important part of the story, the truth that Matthew wants us to see. 
In American culture, there is typically an important figure missing from our nativity scenes. Are you aware of that? In other cultures, you will often find a figure dressed in a robe, with his arms folded and a great big frown on his face. When I first saw this I had to ask, “Who is that mean looking guy?” “It’s Herod,” I was told. And I thought, how weird is that? I mean, does a mass murderer belong with the angels and the shepherds and the wise men? Is Herod really a part of the Christmas story?
When the Magi ask him about the king of the Jews, he’s miffed because, after all HE is king of the Jews. Seeing a threat, he has the power to eliminate it, and he exercises that power. Matthew never tells us that the Messiah was born meek and mild. He tells us that, from the get-go, Jesus entered this world to challenge the powerful. And at the very beginning of the story, Matthew tells us how it’s all going to end. 
Matthew’s inclusion of the story of Herod reminds us that Jesus was born into a world mired in violence. Now, if you’ve ever read the Old Testament, you know that it’s just about the most violent book ever written. Its pages are dripping with blood. Often, the violence is attributed to God. God is angry with people. And when God is angry, somebody’s gotta pay. 
If you’re one of those people who think God wrote the Bible, God paints a disturbing picture of himself. But, if you happen to be someone who believes, as I do, that the Bible was written by people who spoke from their own limited understanding at the time, their perception of God is more interesting than disturbing. Those who told the stories we have in our Old Testament were trying to make sense of the world and their relationship with God, just as we all are. And they were speaking from their own limited experience. They held a primitive worldview that is reflected in a primitive understanding of God. God rewards the good and punishes the wicked, and you’d better do everything you can to appease God’s anger because when God gets angry, somebody’s gotta pay. That’s a primitive understanding of God.
Jesus said, “Do you really think that’s what God is like? That God smites entire cities just because they don’t do what he wants them to do? Oy! Nothing could be further from the truth. God isn’t about violence. God is about love. And to be a part of God’s reign, you need to be about mercy, and compassion. That means that when someone strikes you on your right cheek, you don’t strike them back, you turn the other cheek. That means that you don’t fight your enemies, you pray for them. That means you don’t retaliate when someone does you wrong, you forgive them. It means the ones who appear to have the most power are, in fact powerless. And the ones who appear to be the lowest of the low, are the greatest. The secret to being happy in this life can’t be found in proving how much better you are than other people; it’s about giving yourself completely in love.” “If you want to follow me, deny yourself,” he said. “Take up your cross and follow me.” He doesn’t say anything about becoming successful in the eyes of the world, or holy and pure people. “Deny yourself,” he says. Stop living as the façade you’re presenting to the world, the person who has it all together, and get real. Be your authentic self. The person God created you to be, created in the image of a God who is love. 
That’s what Jesus taught, again and again, in as many ways as possible. His life was about non-violence. The bottom line for Jesus, the new commandment he wanted to impress upon his followers more than anything else was, “Love one another.” He said this after he demonstrated what that love looks like. It looks like a master getting down on his hands and knees and washing the feet of his students. 
I’ve come to the conclusion that the opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s violence. And, by violence, I don’t just mean physically harming another. I mean whenever we assert our power over another in a way that is harmful to them, that’s violence. To demonstrate what love looks like, as an act completely devoid of violence, Jesus washed their feet. 
I’m not sure we can ever really understand Jesus if we don’t come to terms with the sin of violence that has permeated our world from the beginning. I don’t know if we can ever rid ourselves of our addiction to violence, but I do know that our violent nature is not what connects us to God. What connects us to God is our loving nature. Jesus was all love without the violence. And when we follow Jesus, we love. 
We seem to have a blind spot when it comes to violence. Maybe because we we are so accustomed to violence in our culture that we have little awareness of what it’s done to us. It takes something big for us to notice, something so shocking that we can hardly bear the thought of it. Like the slaughter of innocent babies in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, or the slaughter of innocent school children in Newtown, a year ago. We’ll look at these events as if they are anomalies, strange occurrences that appeared out of the blue, for no apparent reason, and we wonder, how could such things happen? When, in fact, they are the inevitable result of what happens when you eat, sleep and breathe violence.
We have an addiction to violence in our culture. And the first step in dealing with an addiction is admitting that you have a problem. 
  • Have you ever looked at all the shows that are on T.V., movies, video games, the sports we follow, and considered how much of our entertainment is based on violence?
  • Isn’t it incredible how even a great tragedy like Sandy Hook couldn’t get us to budge an inch by passing a single law that would make gun regulation more reasonable?
  • How might our leaders operate differently if they stopped working so hard to exert their power over others by proving they’re right and everyone else is wrong?
  • How would our parenting be different if we stopped teaching children that the way to resolve conflict is through violence? Let me be more specific here. Yes, I’m talking about spanking. Or insisting that the child who is bullied at school stand up for himself and fight back.
  • For that matter, will we ever stop belittling other people to make ourselves feel bigger?
  • How would our interactions with the people we encounter in our everyday lives be different if we didn’t see them as obstacles to manipulate or control so we can get what we want from them?
  • How would the way we do business change if we weren’t so preoccupied with obliterating the competition?
  • What would it be like if the whole concept of war became obsolete and the resources we now devote to building up our military strength could instead be spent on acts of justice and compassion for the world’s poor?
  • How would our relationships with those closest to us be transformed if we could give ourselves in love by forgiving, and showing mercy, and daring to reveal our vulnerability to one another?
But that’s not the way of the world, is it? If you want to survive in this world, you have to be strong. If you let people see your weakness, you’re going to get trampled. I mean, what would happen if a person really lived without violence like that in our violent world?
Well, we know what would happen. And I suppose that’s what we’re trying to avoid. Jesus lived a life of non-violence, a life given in love. And, it got him crucified. But even then, he met that act of supreme violence with love. He could have cursed those who nailed him to that cross. Instead, he continued to deny himself, he forgave them.
 Ironically, many Christians completely miss this point, and have used the cross to once again assume that God is angry with us and needed somebody to pay, so Jesus had to be sacrificed. Doesn’t that primitive explanation of the cross completely miss the whole point of Jesus’ life? He died as he lived. As a God who is confronted the violence of this world with love.
So, where does that leave us, as people who want to follow Jesus and yet are, in fact, a lot more like Herod than we are like Jesus? As people who are addicted to violence, how do we love as he loved? Could we turn our church into a twelve-step group that meets regularly to support one another as we struggle with our addiction to violence? I don’t know what it would look like if we dared to be that honest and vulnerable with one another. But I do know that in a church like that, when we read about Jesus’ birth, we would always include Herod in the story.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

This Christmas Message is Rated R: for mature audiences only

At our early Family Christmas Eve service, I read a book called Humphrey’s First Christmas to the children. It’s a delightful book told from the perspective of a camel named Humphrey who traveled with the wise men to see the baby Jesus. Christmas brings with it a lot of stories like this, where animals talk and angels get their wings and a little drummer boy performs for the holy family. It’s a magical time for children.

But if you're hoping to read about the magic of Christmas here, you might want to close this blogpost right now. Because this message isn’t rated G, for children; it’s rated R, for mature audiences only. There’s a big difference. Unfortunately, we may miss the deeper message of the incarnation because somewhere along the line, we got stuck in a child’s understanding of the Christmas story. That stuckness often pushes us as adults to either a) continue to understand Christmas as a child and suspend the use of our well-developed brains, or b) dismiss the story as nothing more than a fairy tale that has no connection to our real lives.

This whole dilemma reflects a larger faith crisis. I hear about it all the time from people who admit to me that they don’t believe in God. They’re often apologetic when they tell me this, as if to say, they really wish they did believe in God, but they just can’t bring themselves to do it. Now, if you’re thinking I’m talking about you, let me assure you that you’re not alone; I hear this more often from church members than you might expect, and I appreciate their honesty.

Because when adults tell me that they don’t believe in God, it’s most often the case that they don’t believe in the God they learned about in Sunday school when they were a kid. As thinking adults, they just can’t bring themselves to believe in that God. I have to applaud them for that because I can’t bring myself to believe in that God, either.

If you ask children to draw a picture of God, they will typically draw an old man sitting on a thrown with a long white beard. Maybe that works for kids, but it doesn’t work for adults.

As children, we believed everything adults told us at face value and we had no problem accepting ideas that were less than rational.  But then, somewhere around 15 or 16, a part of our brains started to develop that gave us the ability to think critically. We doubted and we questioned.

This is about the time the kids who are paying attention will notice the inconsistencies in Bible stories. And they’ll question information that doesn’t fit what they know to be scientifically possible. It’s just not rational to believe that a virgin can have a baby, for example. How can they possibly believe such a thing?   

It’s a challenging time, but necessary time in order to evolve from the faith of childhood to the faith of an adult. The task of adolescence, after all, is to break away from your parents and become your own person. As a person of faith, it’s also important to break away from a faith that’s based on all that stuff that your parents and other adults told you was true. This is the time to find your own truth.

Eventually, adults who continue to grow in the faith will come to realize that whether or not the stories of the faith are historically factual or scientifically possible isn’t really the point. The real point is, are they true? Truth transcends the facts. Is there truth in these stories? Truth that’s big enough to hold my life experience?

The real message of Christmas challenges us to grow up. An age appropriate telling of the Christmas story for adults has little to do with the sweet Christmas pageants we participated in as children. It’s about the deeper truth of the story, the truth of the incarnation.

Children think of God as someone who is a separate being, apart from us, somewhere looking down on us, making things happen. Unfortunately, many adults seem to be stuck in this very primitive understanding of God, as well.  If that’s who God is, I can understand why so many people have trouble buying into it.

Seeing God as distant and detached from us, out there somewhere doing stuff to us, like he’s moving the pieces on a chess board, leads us to ask questions like, “Why did God do this to me?” or “How can God allow this to happen?” At its worst, it’s used to pronounce judgment upon others, “God will reward you, or punish you for what you’ve done.” That way of thinking runs completely against the story of the incarnation, God becoming flesh. It seems to resonate with the popular song, “From a distance, God is watching us.” While the truth of the incarnation, is more in line with another song: “What if God was one of us, just a stranger on the bus.”

For the message of Christmas is that God IS one of us. There is no division between the realm of God and our very human realm.  God is not separated from us; God is in our midst. God is a part of us; we are a part of God. God works within us, and beside us, and between us, and among us. John describes it so well in his first letter when he says that “no one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”  God is as close as that person sitting next to you.

The faith of our childhood wants to separate God from us, but the adult story of Christmas, the story of the incarnation, just won’t allow it.

Really, it’s perfect that Jesus would enter into our human experience by being born the way we all are. As a child, I always pictured Mary glowing, a halo above her head and a smile on her face like the Mona Lisa. That was before I ever had a baby myself, and I know better now. The stuff emanating from Mary wasn’t love’s pure light. It was blood and guts and all kinds of nasty stuff that made a real mess. She wasn’t smiling, she was hollering her head off like any other woman who’s giving birth. It’s not a pretty way to make an entrance, and our tendency to ignore the grisly reality of Jesus’ birth  says a lot about our discomfort with the truth of the incarnation.

God doesn’t live somewhere up in the sky, removed from the real stuff of this world. God isn’t only present in Temples and churches, in beautiful sunrises and moonlit nights, in golden wrapped gifts under a twinkling tree, or in sentimental Christmas stories. God’s son Jesus was born amongst the animals. When he took his first breath, the air was heavy with the stinging smell of cow dung.

We get ourselves in a lot of trouble when we start deciding where God is present and where God is not, what is holy and what is not. The truth of the incarnation is that all life is holy, and God is present in all aspects of this life, even where we would least expect it. Because of the incarnation, we can’t point to any person or any place and say, God is absent. The truth of Christ’s nativity is that wherever you are certain God couldn’t possibly be, there God is. I know it may be hard to get your head around it, but God is even present at the Walmart on Independence Avenue on Christmas Eve. I don’t know how it works, but I know it’s true. It’s not magic, but it’s a mystery.

How is that possible? How is it possible that the creator of the Universe should take on flesh and blood? That he should befriend the most despised people on earth? That he would dare to touch people with dreaded diseases? That he should die on a cross between two criminals?

While the faith of a child may marvel at the magic of Christmas, the faith of an adult marvels at the mystery of Christmas. The truth of Christmas is not that God had a cute little son who never cried when he was laid in a manger. The truth of Christmas is that little baby cried just as we all do. The truth of Christmas is Emmanuel: God with us.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Something I can count on

There are certain things I can count on for Christmas. Despite my best efforts to stay healthy, I always end up with a nasty cold and a scratchy throat. After devoting the month of December to pumping myself with Zicam and large doses of vitamin C, avoiding crowds and washing my hands after touching anything in a public place, I thought I could escape the inevitable. But this morning, December 23, when I woke up, I discovered that the unwelcome guest I’ve spent so many Christmases with is back. Oh, goody.

I can count on not sleeping well the night of December 23. Not even the cold meds will help. I’m just too hyped about Christmas Eve, and not in a good way.  The weight of Christmas expectations bear down on me. I don’t want to be the one who ruins Christmas for the people who come to worship with us at Holy Trinity. I don’t want to leave anything to chance. I pick at my sermon until it bears only a slight resemblance to my original draft. I wonder what hidden mistake that I didn’t catch in the bulletin will jump up and smack me in the face during the service. I highlight every word I’m going to say. I make lists of details I will need to tend to as soon as I arrive at the church, last minute instructions I need to give to the assisting minister, and the organist, and the lector, and the ushers (all people who know perfectly well what to do without the last minute meddling of their pastor). I can’t remember how it works when we light the candles at the end. Do I go to the ushers to light their candles? Do they come to me? Does it matter? More than anything, I need a good night’s sleep, and that’s exactly what I won’t get. Yep, I can count on it.
I also can count on having an episode of feeling sorry for my poor, pitiful self because I live so far away from my family. I’ll remember how it felt to be with my brother and sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins on Christmas when I was a kid, and how it felt to spend Christmas with my own kids back when my whole world revolved around them, and I’ll wonder what happened. It’s just wrong. How did I come to this? And I’ll wallow in my sorrow as if it just occurred to me that I’m all alone. It often sneaks up on me when I’m watching some sentimental, sappy holiday movie on T.V. (or a greeting card commercial) and all of a sudden I start sobbing uncontrollably. It happened just last night, in fact.  I tried really hard to get a grip, but I lost it.

Are you depressed yet? Well, all of this is just leading up to the one thing I can count on at Christmastime that fills me enough to keep me going for the next year. It happens without fail on Christmas Eve when I’m standing behind the altar holding a lit candle in my hand and I look out over a sea of candles that illuminate the faces of God’s saints as we sing “Silent Night” together. This is the family I am spending my Christmases with these days. I’m far from alone. And they don’t care if there is a mistake in the bulletin. They don’t care if my sermon is a dud. They don’t care if I forget how to light the ushers’ candles. It doesn’t even matter if I can’t sing because I’ve lost my voice. Because, in that moment, it always becomes quite clear to me that Christmas was Christmas long before I came along, and Christmas will still be Christmas long after I’m gone. I’ve been blessed to experience it through the years in 62 different ways and counting. Every one of those Christmases and the people I’ve shared them with comes crashing together in that moment when “all is calm, all is bright.”
Yes, lately there are some things about Christmas that I’ve come to count on. Many of them involve struggle for me. But the one I treasure the most is that transcendent moment with the people of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on The Plaza. The song is there, the love is there, God is there. Just as surely as Christ was born on this earth, in that moment, he is born in us, in our community. It’s something I can count on.




Friday, December 6, 2013

Why I'm hooked on Olivia Pope

I’ve been thinking a lot about the appeal of the TV show Scandal. The first time I watched it I thought it was poorly written, much like a soap opera. The plot twists were so abrupt that I was getting whiplash from being jerked around so much, and it was insulting. Bleh. I’m not falling for this slop, I thought.

But then, so many of my friends were into it that I wondered if I was missing something. So, over the summer, I returned to it, and got caught up on Netflix. And, despite the plot that leaves me sighing, *oh, pa-leese*, I kept watching. Why? I got hooked on Olivia Pope. 

For starters, a woman who seems almost omnipotent, is way cool. Liv has the strength and determination to handle any crisis and she exudes a confidence that leads her clients to believe in her. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone like Olivia Pope in your corner -- someone you could trust with any problem, knowing she’ll fix it for you, even when you make a royal mess of your life? Oh, yeah. No matter how much they’re paying her, it couldn’t be enough. She is a badass woman. I admire that because I’ve tried to be a badass woman from time to time, and I know how hard is to convince other people that you really are badass. Liv manages to pull it off in a way that I never could.

But the most interesting thing about Olivia Pope isn’t her superhuman power. What’s most interesting is that it’s a complete façade. Her life is all about making things appear acceptable when they are teetering on the rim of the toilet.  In particular, her personal life is a disaster. She’s in love with a man she can never have, and continues to live with the dream of marrying him some day, when she has to know better. Her father is a monster she can’t get away from, and pretty much everything in her life is a lie. Some of those lies she has participated in, but many of them have been thrust upon her. For someone who appears to be all-powerful in public life, in her private life, she has been victimized again and again and she's struggling to survive.

Liv is an exaggerated version of every woman, and I suspect every man, too. We work really hard at presenting a persona to the world in which we are completely in control. We know what we’re doing. We can take care of ourselves, and we’re up to taking care of other people, too. But, we’re like the proverbial duck, floating along on the surface of the lake, looking like we have it all together, while under the surface, we’re paddling like hell to keep up. Olivia Pope reminds me of how inauthentic our lives can be when we deny our own vulnerability, and how tragic this can be for us, and everyone around us.

But then, there’s something that redeems Liv. And that's the odd little family she’s formed. Although they're at least as flawed as she is, they provide her with all the protection she needs to keep from self-destructing. Where would she be without them? The same place they would be without her. Dead.

For me, the appeal of Scandal is the way it taps into something so true about us, despite its far-fetched story-line. It portrays a woman who works really hard to maintain an illusion of competence in the world, which is the antithesis of who she really is underneath it all. She is so good at convincing people of her superhuman powers, that they entrust her with their lives. The irony is that if they knew how messed up her own life was, they would never turn to her for help. And then,  she has the good fortune, or good sense, to surround herself with a community of people who understand who she really is, beneath the façade. They know her, they see her, they love her. And she trusts that they’ll always have her back. That's the ironic double-twist summersault to the irony of her life. Liv, the one who deceives the world to get people to trust her, only trusts the people in her own life who can see her authentic self. Oh, that's good stuff!

The very human themes of authenticity, vulnerability and trust are all there. That’s what keeps me tuning in.  Come to think of it, that’s also what’s kept me in the Church all these years. Yep, it's good stuff.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Miserable Failure as a King

“If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” The sign they tacked above his head while he hung on a cross read:  “This is the King of the Jews.” The thief crucified next to him wanted Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. And yet, never once did Jesus refer to himself as a king. Not here, not anywhere.

The whole idea of Jesus being a king never came from him. It came from people who lived in a world where the most powerful among them were kings. If you remember the story of God’s people in the Old Testament, you may recall how God led them out of slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land. And, along the way, God formed them into a nation.

In the beginning, God chose people like Moses to lead his people. We can read about this period in the book of Judges. But almost from the get-go, God’s people were whining that they wanted to have a king, like all the other nations. God advised against it, telling them that would be a huge mistake. But they wouldn’t stop whining, so finally God gave them a king. But no king ever solved their problems. In many respects, kings only added to their problems.

Why is it that people long for a king? It’s puzzling. I can understand what’s in it for the king. But what’s in it for the people? Even in a democracy like ours, we have this propensity to long for someone who fills the role of king for us. We’re always looking for the next one to crown. As we remember the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, I think back on those days, and it seems like he came as close as any American could come to royalty. People even refer to the time of his presidency as Camelot. And yet, now, 50 years later, we know a lot more about his presidency and we’re able to look at it more objectively. To say that Kennedy was a flawed man is an understatement. King-making is always dangerous. The basic problem with kings is the power we give them. Is it possible to have a king without power?

If you’re really a king, prove it, Jesus. Now’s your big chance. No king is going to die on a cross if he can help it. Make your move, Jesus. Well, if a king is all about power, Jesus proves that he is no king. And that’s the irony of the Christ story. We call him a king. But his life was as far removed from  the life of a king as a person can get. The only way to recognize Jesus as a king is by flipping the definition of a king on its head. 

First, there is the way that a king would typically deal with those who attack him. He would retaliate. He would obliterate his enemies in a way that showed his strength so that nobody else would dare make a move against him again. That’s the way kings rule. Through fear and intimidation and brute force. But Jesus is the one who taught his followers to turn the other cheek and pray for their enemies; he is put to death by his enemies without a fight. Not only that, but, here’s the kicker. He actually forgave the ones who put him there. They stood there and mocked him, after nailing him to a cross, and instead of lashing out at them, he forgave them.

And then there were the religious leaders and the Roman soldiers, who challenged him to save himself. We know that self preservation is the most basic human response to any threatening situation.  We respond to a threat by fighting back or running away (fight or flight). And yet, Jesus does neither. How is that possible? He refuses to save himself.

Now, saving yourself isn’t only about protecting yourself from those who want to do you bodily harm. So much of the interaction we have with other people is about saving ourselves. We save ourselves whenever we want other people to like us. We want to look good to them. We want to save face. And so we present ourselves in ways that are often deceptive; we cover up the parts of ourselves that might cause others to see us in an unfavorable light. We’re always trying to show how we’re better than other people. We may blame someone else for our mistakes. Or it becomes way too important for us to prove that we’re right and the other person is wrong. It’s all a part of saving ourselves.

We had a good discussion about this in my clergy Bible study last week. One of my colleagues, Tim, recalled what had happened the week we met to go over the texts for All Saints Sunday. That week, I had told them I had a great joke I was going to use in my sermon and they asked to hear it. So, I shared it and they all laughed. And then they got quiet… and I knew there was a problem. Finally, Robin asked if there will be children in the congregation when I tell that joke. And I realized that if I told that joke with children present, I’d be in big trouble. So, I didn’t tell it. So last week, when we had a discussion about saving ourselves, Tim recalled how they had saved me from telling that joke on All Saints Sunday.  

And I had to come back with, “Well, it was early in the week. I’m sure that by Sunday I would have figured it out on my own.” As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I knew they were going to call me on it, and they did. “Yes, save yourself, Nancy.” It was said in good humor, but ouch! That’s exactly what I had done. Rather than admit that I came really close to saying something stupid in a Sunday sermon, I had to save face and insist that I would have figured it out without their assistance. Yep. I just had to save myself.

How is Jesus able to overcome the way we human beings seem to be hard-wired for self-preservation? When he was dying on the cross, he could have at least turned to the ones who put him there and told them off or cursed them as a way of saving himself. But instead, he forgave them. Jesus died  in a way that was consistent with his teaching. Remember how he taught his followers that the if you work hard to save your life, you’re going to end up losing it, and the only way to save your life is by giving it up? So, he didn’t save himself, and in the process, he saved more than himself.

And then we get to the part with the thief on the cross and we can see another example of how Jesus finished his life the way he had lived it. If you had a continuum with a powerful king on one end and the most wretched of the earth on the other end, it would have been enough if Jesus had simply been human and hung out somewhere in the middle, which is pretty much where we are. That would have been enough. But that’s not where he spent his life. He identified with the lowest of the low right up until his death, crucified between two criminals. He was never one to make comments from afar about how we should all be nice to poor people and sinners and the untouchables. He became one of them. He lived and died in a way that is about as far removed from the life of a king that you can imagine, in solidarity with outcasts.

And yet, the thief on the cross seemed to think that Jesus was about to come into his kingdom. Did the thief see something that seemed to elude everyone else? Did he understand that things going on that day at the place called The Skull weren’t what they appeared to be?

Mocked, derided, hung on a cross to die between two thieves. If you’re a king, prove it to us, the crowd jeered. “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. They thought he was failing the king test miserably. But the thief who hung beside him seemed to know better. We know better, too. We know he was showing the world what kind of a king he was.

No, he is not like any king this earth has ever known before or since. In many ways, he was more of an anti-king than a king. Because kings are supposed to be powerful. And yet, the irony is that he had a power greater than any earthly king has ever had. By emptying himself of all power and giving himself in love, he showed us what true power looks like.  

Monday, November 11, 2013

An Ordinary Extraordinary Sunday

Yesterday was an ordinary extraordinary morning for me at church. I say ordinary because it was a typical Sunday for Holy Trinity. And ordinarily, a typical Sunday for us is extraordinary. For me, personally, it happened to be my 61st birthday, and there was a sweet moment during the announcements when that was celebrated. It was also a significant day for me because it marked the 45th anniversary of the day water was sprinkled on my forehead as a community of the faithful gathered for worship.

Now, if you do the math, you know that I was 16 years old when I was baptized. I wasn’t raised in a church-going home, so my religious formation was rather random. When I was in junior high, my two best friends, Melody and Barb, went to the Lutheran church and I tagged along. I showed up at confirmation classes with them sporadically, yet it was enough for the pastors to go ahead and confirm me. But then, there was the matter of my baptismal deficiency that had to be dealt with first.  So, I was quickly baptized in order to be confirmed with the rest of the class. At the time, I was mostly concerned about how the moisture on my forehead might have messed up my hair for the pictures later. And yet, now that I look back on that moment and all that’s followed, I know it was a complete game changer for my life. Because of that moment, I have had a lot of ordinary extraordinary days like yesterday.
Our worship began with a baptism. A beautiful child named Jackson was carried to the font by his parents, Mitch and Becki. I had been forewarned that he panics when someone else takes him from his parents, so I was as hands-off as possible. And he also wasn’t crazy about water, so it might be a bit tricky. As his father leaned him over the font, Jackson had a puzzled look on his face. I scooped some warm water into my hand and poured it over his head. He looked completely startled, like he hadn’t yet realized this might be something to cry about. And then I quickly scooped up another handful and poured it on him. Now his look of surprise turned to fear and I saw him look over at his mother. Her eyes were locked with his, telling him that he was safe. But he wasn’t so sure. When the third installment of water was administered, he was just about to cry, but his mother’s look of reassurance saved the day. His frightened eyes met a look of love and encouragement that said, It’s all right, Jackson. I’m right here. Don’t be afraid. Mommy loves you. The parents who brought him to the water were there to carry him through that moment and they will continue to give him all the support he needs for his great adventure of faith.
I thought about a story I heard that morning from Miguel in our adult class. I had asked members of the class how often they read the Bible. Their answers were all across the board with some reading the Bible twice a day, others never reading it at all, and everything in-between. Miguel told us that when he was growing up he watched his father reading his Bible every morning after breakfast. He would randomly open it and read wherever it landed. Now, I’ve heard of other people doing that, so it’s not that unusual.  But then Miguel told us more. He said that he does the same thing now, every morning, just like his father. And all his siblings do, too. When his father died, Miguel had the honor of receiving his Bible, and now when he opens the Bible every morning randomly finding God’s word for his day, he does it with the Bible of the one who taught him this faith practice.
Later in the worship service, we received a group of new members. I called them up to the chancel, where they stood before me in a semi-circle. As I started to read the welcoming rite we use at Holy Trinity, I noticed they were hanging onto one other.  Some had an arm around the person beside them, others were holding hands. It’s as if they were physically supporting one another in love as they took this next step in their faith journey together.  When I saw this, I lost it, and for a moment I was afraid I couldn’t go on.
You see, this wasn’t a typical group of people joining the church. They had all been a part of another congregation. When their church closed, they were devastated. And yet, the Spirit led them to worship with us at Holy Trinity. The first few weeks, they were so happy to be together, despite all they had been through, that they huddled together in the back pews like they might never see one another again. After worship they lingered on the front lawn long after the rest of us had gone home. They were grieving and they needed to be together; they needed to talk about the emotional trauma they had endured. And then, over time, they came to see their struggle in a positive light. They realized that God had brought them to a new church family.  They learned to love a new congregation in a denomination different from the one they had known for so long. And finally, it felt like they were home again. They stood before me on Sunday morning, dear souls holding onto one another in love, one  community of the faithful being transplanted into a larger community of the faithful.  It was a powerful moment that I will never forget.
Now, in case you haven’t connected the dots of the thread running through my Sunday morning, it’s community. If you could imagine pulling a plant up by the roots and expecting it to grow without the soil to nourish it, that’s what it’s like for a person of faith to survive outside community. At least, that’s the way I’ve experienced it in my lifetime. I didn’t grow up the way Jackson will, or the way Miguel did, but somehow, community has found me and guided me along the way.
I’m baffled by people who don’t get this. Especially people who aspire to follow in the way of Jesus and yet see no value in being part of a faith community. I wish they could spend an ordinary extraordinary Sunday morning looking through my eyes at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church.  I can’t imagine how they could do that and fail to see the amazing gift that God offers us in Christian community.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

What will heaven be like?

Not all questions are alike. There are rhetorical questions where the answers are so obvious, there’s no reason to respond to them. Then there are questions that require a right or a wrong answer. And finally, there are those questions that really have no answers.

A good lawyer is trained never to ask a question to which he or she doesn’t already know the answer. And a good educator is taught the exact opposite. When I was learning how to be a teacher I was taught that the best questions to ask were the ones for which I didn’t know the answer myself.  

If you want people to think, you invite them to use their imagination. When you ask a question and you have no idea what the answer is, you open a conversation. When you ask a question and you already know the answer, there is no conversation.  Taken to the extreme, questions with definitive answers can easily evolve into gotcha questions.

A gotcha question was what the Sadducees asked Jesus in Luke 20:27-40. Right before this, they had asked him another gotcha question. That one had to do with paying taxes to Caesar.  And now they hit him again, firing at him with both barrels. He had entered Jerusalem and raised a ruckus among the people. He had to be stopped before things got completely out of hand.

So, they construct an absurd, hypothetical question to trap Jesus. The law of Moses says that if a man dies and leaves a wife without children, the man’s brother needs to marry his wife and raise up children for his brother who died. So, just suppose there were seven brothers in a family. The first one marries and dies, childless. So then the second one marries the same woman, and remains childless. And then the third, and so on, all the way down the line. (Okay. Just stop and think about that. What man in his right mind would marry this woman after the third of fourth husband died? Heck with the law of Moses. That man would have to be nuts.) Well, anyway, as the story goes, finally, after burying seven husbands, the woman dies.

So, here’s the big question: after marrying all seven men, which one will be her husband after the resurrection? Oh, what a dilemma! How you gonna answer that one Jesus?!

Luke provides us with a little background to expose the hypocrisy of the question. It’s asked by the Sadducees. And the thing about the Sadducees is that they don’t believe in the resurrection. And yet, they’re asking Jesus a question about what will happen at the resurrection.  

The question of what happens after we die has been out there forever.  In the Old Testament, people’s understanding of it evolved. The idea of the dead being resurrected came later, when it was adopted by some believers, but not by others. The Sadducees basically followed the earlier books of the scriptures, the Books of Moses, which didn’t support the newfangled ideas about the resurrection of the dead that the Pharisees embraced. So, this was a theological hot potato. It was a gotcha question. Jesus knew that. And yet, he didn’t answer it like a gotcha question. He answered it as if he had been invited into an open conversation.

First, he said that marriage is something people do in this age, but when the resurrection comes, marriage will become irrelevant. So much of what we believe about the next life is based on what we know of this life. If our relationships are important to us, we can’t imagine living without them. And, of course, there are a lot of other things that we’re attached to in this life: music, certain foods, our pets, our smart phones. How could we ever be happy without the stuff we cherish the most? And yet, in Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees’ question, he’s saying that the stuff we think is so important in this life isn’t going to matter a hill of beans in the next life. We can’t begin to understand that because our only point of reference is this life. So, when we imagine what heaven will be like for us, we picture it in ways we’ve already experienced. 

It’s like a two-year old wondering if she will be able to take two pacifiers with her when the time comes for her to go to college. She can’t imagine a world without pacifiers, and college is so far removed from her experience that she can’t begin to get her head around what that would mean for her.  It may help her to picture going to college one day with her pacifiers, but those of us who are older know beyond a doubt that when the time comes, the question over pacifiers will have become completely obsolete.  That isn’t all that different than the ways we think about life after death. We just can’t get our heads around what we have never experienced. 

Jesus says more about the resurrected life as he talks about what really matters. He says that, from our perspective, we make a distinction between life and death. We’re either dead or we’re alive. But that’s not how God sees us. From God’s perspective we’re all alive. We’re all alive because we’re in a relationship with the God who loves us and that relationship never ends.

In other words, Jesus tells his examiners, the things you’re worried about are kinda silly, when you look at them from God’s perspective. Well, we’re still obsessed with what happens to us when we die.  And why wouldn’t we be? It’s the great unknown that, one day, every one of us will come to know.

Last week we celebrated Dias de los Muertos and Halloween. And just look how popular “Walking Dead” is and all the movies about zombies. And vampires. And all the books about people who have had near death experiences and what they saw. We’re fascinated by the dead because we want to know what they know. But, the thing is, even the people who claimed that they died and came back to tell us what they saw, even those people haven’t truly died. If they died, their brains would stop working. And they would have nothing to tell us. The fact is, no living person has ever died and come back to tell us what it was like. Well, except Jesus. But, interestingly, when he came back from the dead, he really never described what it was like for his friends. I suspect that’s because he couldn’t have described it in a way they would ever understand.

They were still like babies, wondering if they will be able to take two pacifiers or one when they go to college. How could a two year old ever grasp what it would be like to move away from home and live in a dorm and eat cafeteria food, and go to classes, and study, and scrape together money for tuition, and drink too much at a party, and fall in love, and worry about finding a job after they graduate, and all the stuff people do in college. If you told them all that, they would still be wondering about their pacifiers.

But what we need to know about life after death Jesus has told us. We are God’s children. We will always be God’s children. The love God has for us will never end. God is the God of the living. In God we are always alive. God is there to hear our borning cry. All along the way God is there. And when we finally close our eyes for the last time… guess who’s there? (That’s a rhetorical question.)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Goose Bump in the Woods

About 20 years ago in the town where I was living in Ohio, an amusing phenomenon was going on. Everywhere you looked, someone had a concrete goose sitting on their front porch. They were painted white, with an orange beak, and stood just about the size of a real goose. Now, the fun part was that people couldn’t just let them stand there naked. They dressed them. In fact there was a whole cottage industry of selling outfits for concrete geese. I used to think they were the silliest things, and often remarked about them to my parishioners. “Did you see the goose on the corner dressed like a pink flamingo?” “How ‘bout that goose dressed like Abraham Lincoln?” I thought it was a hoot.

Apparently, I had commented about them one too many times, because the people in my church concluded that I must like them. So, they surprised me and gave me one. It was wearing a blue and white gingham dress and a yellow straw hat. Because it was given in love, I felt compelled to put my new goose out in front my house. And of course, I had to dress it: like a pumpkin, a turkey, Santa, a leprechaun, an Easter bunny. When my daughter graduated from high school I bought a cap and gown for it to wear. In the summer it had a little Cleveland Indians uniform.

Well, this went on for a couple of years and then I got a call to serve at a church in North Carolina. I had no intention of bringing the goose with me. But there was a problem. The people of my new church and the ones from my old church got together and loaded the moving van for me. They were just about to close the door to the van when one of them shouted, “Oh, don’t forget the goose!” And on the truck it went. Oy!

So, I moved the goose to my new home in North Carolina, where people knew nothing of concrete geese. It embarrassed me, and I never once dressed it. It sat there naked on my porch for a couple of years until it was time for me to move to my new condo and I wasn’t about to move that goose with me. But do you have any idea how difficult it is to dispose of a concrete goose? I couldn’t lift it, and I certainly couldn’t throw it in the trash can. But I had a plan.

Next to my house there was a little wooded lot. So I dragged the goose into the trees and dug a deep hole. As I tipped the goose over, it dove head first into the earth. After I filled the hole in with dirt, I noticed that a little bit of the tail, maybe an inch or two, was poking up through the ground. I hadn’t dug deep enough. But that was it. I was done with the goose, and I left it like that.

I often think about that little white goose tail sticking up in the woods. I imagine someone tripping over it someday and wondering, “What the heck is that?” And maybe they’ll dig it up. It might be some archeologist years from now and she’ll wonder what one of those strange concrete images they found in the area formerly known as Ohio, is doing here 500 miles to the south. For the fact is, even though I tried to get rid of that darned goose, it’s still there. And now someone in the future will have to deal with.

This Sunday we celebrated All Saints at worship. As a part of our liturgy, we remember those who have died. But All Saints includes more than those who have gone before us. It’s a great procession that includes us. And it is a procession that continues; there are those who will come after us, too. What will we be leaving behind us for them? Will they be stumbling over the stuff we tried to cover up, but couldn’t? Will they be living on a sustainable planet? Will they be cleaning up our mess? Will they be further buried in the consumerism that consumes us? Will they try to solve the world’s problems through violence because that’s the only way we’ve taught them? Will they be fueled by hatred and fear? Or will they learn from us a better way, a way of compassion and understanding?

For those who come after me, I really hope that I can leave behind more than a concrete goose in the woods.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Lord, I Wanna Be in That Number!

   On this All Saints Day, I’m thinking about my second call. It was a two-point parish with a town church and a rural church. The first time I went to that little country church, I noticed that there was a cushion in one of the pews, but nobody sat in it.  When I asked about it, I learned that the cushion belonged to a man named John, who was homebound and couldn’t get to church.  I met John and saw him regularly when I took Holy Communion to his home, but I never saw him in church.  And yet, his place was still there; the cushion waited for him on the pew.  After John died, I wondered what would become of his cushion, since now we knew beyond a doubt that he wouldn’t be coming back and he would never sit on that cushion again. Well, nobody touched it.  For as long as I remained at that church, John’s cushion remained in the pew.
   What if every worshiper had a place marker like that?  And what if we never removed them, even when the person died, so that we’d always be reminded of their presence in worship?  Some of us who have been a part of a particular faith community for a while probably know exactly where their cushions would be.  And then, imagine seeing all of those who have worshiped in that space through the years at the same time. That’s what the communion of saints is about.  We’re connected to God’s people of every time; there is a oneness we share with people we can no longer literally see. They’re very much with us.
   Now, you don’t have to die to be a saint. But as long as our pilgrimage on earth continues, we are saints who carry a heavy load. We’re people who have all kinds of limitations that keep us from being completely the people God created us to be.  We’re less than whole as God’s saints. It’s like we’re carrying this heavy weight on our backs. We’re never free of it.  No matter how much we grow in God’s grace, we can’t shake it.  We’re always burdened by it.  But when we leave this earth, that burden is removed from us.  We leave it behind. The sinner part of us dies; only the saint part of us lives on.  We finally become whole people, freed from our earthly limitations. 
   Just imagine how it would feel to carry a heavy pack on your back for years and years and then to finally have it removed.  Imagine how freeing that would feel.  That’s what that phrase in the hymn “For All the Saints” is talking about when it says, “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.”  We’re all saints.  But some of us are feebly struggling saints, while others are gloriously shining saints.  All Saints Day is a time to give thanks for the saints who once feebly struggled through life as we do, but now in glory shine.  Even if we never knew them, they are the ones who have it made it possible for us to be here today.
   There’s an old African parable that tells about the process ants go through when they come to a small stream and want to get across it. The first ant comes to the stream and steps out into the water, only to be swept away downstream.  And the next ant comes to the water’s edge and the same thing happens.  One by one the ants come, and they are swept away by the water.  But, eventually, there are the bodies of dead ants accumulating on the water’s edge.  Until, finally, there are enough dead ants that they span all the way across the water.  Now, the ants that follow are able to cross the stream of water by walking on the backs of those who have gone before them.  As the story goes, this is a metaphor for the whole human race. 
   It’s a story that has stayed with me over the years as I think about those whose backs I have walked upon in my life. As a woman pastor I think about those who came before me who didn’t make it to the other side of the stream, but provided a way for women like me: the women missionaries who came before me, the women who first served as presidents of the congregations, the women who started the first women’s organizations.  Way back when, this was a bone of contention in many congregations and those women took a lot of grief because they wanted to make their own unique contribution to the life of the church.  I would not be a pastor in the church today, were it not for the courageous ministry of those women.
   As we get ready to head to the polls to vote, I can’t help but think about the people whose backs I will walk across to get into the voting booth: the colonists who fought for freedom in our country and the women suffragettes who marched for the right to vote. 
   When I walk through the door to my church on Sunday, I know that I will be walking on the backs of those who came before us: the people of St. Mark’s Lutheran church who started our congregation as a mission church; Pastor William Lutz, the first pastor of Holy Trinity back in 1916 and all the pastors who followed him; all who contributed financially so that future generations would have a place to worship and do ministry; those who struggled through times of crisis and wouldn’t give up.  They weren’t just the ones who were here before us, they were the ones who have made it possible for us to be here.  No doubt, many of them could not have imagined what our church might be like today, but they provided the way for us to get here.
   What about us? There will be others coming after us, walking on our backs to get to the next place God is calling them.  Just as those who came before us have left a legacy for us, someday we’ll be doing that for those who follow us. So, we march on and take our place within the great procession of saints.   


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Tossing, Turning, and Transformation

Have you ever experienced so much turmoil in your life that you couldn’t sleep?  You’re exhausted and you need to sleep more than anything, but your mind keeps racing and you toss and turn. You wake up in the night to check the clock and every time you do, it’s about 10 minutes later than it was the last time you checked. 

It can be like that when you know you’re going to have to face something difficult and you start to imagine all the terrible things that could happen, because you don’t know what lies ahead.  Maybe you have an important decision to make and you don’t know which way to go. Maybe you know you’re going to be faced with something so big that it could change the course of your life. Like it’s the night before your wedding.  Or the night before you know you’re going to have a confrontation with your boss at work.  Or the night before you have a big test in school that will determine your whole grade.  Or the night before you’re going have surgery.

Now, I know there are some people who can sleep like a baby no matter what is going on in their lives. But if you’re not one of them, you’re not alone. Apparently, Jacob wasn’t either.  When he was on the brink of what could amount to either the end of his life, or a new beginning to his life, while he should have been sleeping because he has big ahead of him, he finds himself engaged in a nightlong wrestling match with God.  Here’s the situation…

After being away for 20 years, Jacob was finally going home.  To say that he hadn’t left under the best of terms is an understatement.  He remembered it all.  The lies and the manipulation he had used to cheat his brother Esau out of his heritage and Esau’s understandable vow to get even with Jacob and kill him.  Jacob knew it was time to leave.  So he went off and made a life for himself far away from home.  Then after he burned all his bridges in his new life, he wound up having no where else to go but back home again. 

Jacob isn’t sure how his brother Esau will receive him.  Had 20 years mellowed him, or did Esau still want to kill him?  When he sends some messengers ahead, they bring back news saying, “Your brother Esau is on his way to meet you and he’s bringing 400 men with him.”  Now, Jacob knows that you don’t need 400 men to have a friendly family reunion, so he prepares himself for the worst.  He divides his family and his lifestock into two groups.  That way if Esau attacks one group, maybe the other one will be safe.  He also sends some gifts on ahead of him, hoping to ease Esau’s anger against him with a little bribery. 

            Jacob’s whole life is hanging in the balance.  His slimy past has finally caught up with him and he has no idea what’s going to happen.  It’s a turning point in his life.  In fact, in the midst of the wrestling, God asks him what his name is.  “Jacob,” he says.  “Not any more,” God tells him.  “From now on you’re not going to be called Jacob.  But Israel will be your name.”

Israel means “one who wrestles with God.” And this was a wrestling match with a purpose. God wants Jacob to let go of who he was so that he can become who he will be. That’s really the ultimate wrestling match that any of us can engage in. God wants us to let go of who we were so we can become who we will be.  It’s the struggle of transformation.

Liz was a woman who seemed to go through one crisis after another in her life.  From my limited experience with her, I could see that her life was a mess because of the bad choices she made. Despite the fact that she was very bright and capable, she had gone from one lousy relationship to another and one lousy job to another. I couldn’t figure out why, until I got to know her better. She had a self-esteem issue in her life. She thought that she wasn’t good enough to have a really good job, so she settled for something that didn’t begin to challenge her or use the gifts she had.  She thought she didn’t deserve to be loved and accepted for who she was, so she ended up in relationships with people who put her down and treated her with contempt.
I shared my observation with her, that she was making choices in her life that seemed to reinforce her low self-esteem. She said: “When I was growing up my father was always finding fault with everything I did. He told me I was worthless and that I would never amount to anything.” That was her explanation. She was raised by a man who belittled her, and it had ruined her life. 

It was good for Liz to recognize how her history had affected her.  But what bothered me was that she seemed to be saying that her history actually defined her.  Do you ever find yourself doing that? Do you ever let your history define who you are? 

Nothing could be further from the life that God wants for you.  God wants you to let go of who you were, so you can become who you will be.  God wants more for you than the same old, same old.  God wants your life to be transformed. 

That’s not just true for us as individuals, but it’s also true for us as a church.  It’s not God’s will that his people define who they are by their history. That they continue to rehash a difficult time in their past, over and over.  Or, that they spend all their time trying to recapture the glory of days gone by. Our history doesn’t define who we are.  We don’t have a status quo God.  We have a God of transformation. 

Change is hard for all of us. If you’ve ever been walking in the woods, you’ve probably noticed that there are pathways between the trees. These are routes that have been traveled in the past.  The more traveled the pathways are, the more beaten down, the easier they are to use.  That’s also how it is for the pathways we have in our brains.  The more we travel a certain pathway, the easier it becomes to use it. 

When we’re hiking around in the woods, we tend to stay on the pathways that are well worn.  It’s easier for us to get from one place to the other and we don’t have to worry about becoming lost.  Our pathways in the brain are the same for us.  We tend to stay on the well-worn pathways, the ones that we have traveled in the past.

In order to change, we have to step off the well-established pathway and form a new one.  That’s why transformation can be so difficult for us.  It means setting out on a different course than the one we’ve always used in the past. 

A path isn’t a path at all until it’s been traveled a few times.  It takes a lot of effort to forge a new path in the wilderness.  There are boulders to be removed along the way, weeds to be chopped down, and trees you may need to go around. It can be such hard work that you may return to the old path by default, even if you know it doesn’t really get you where you need to go. It’s difficult to resist taking the well-worn path.  

Socrates once said, “The secret of change is to focus your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” Do you feel like you’re expending all your energy fighting the past and getting nowhere? Do you climb out of bed, after tossing and turning all night, and walk around the next day exhausted like a zombie, or agitated for no apparent reason? Could it be that you’re wrestling with God, perhaps without even realizing it?  
Jacob stood on the brink of the unknown and was reluctant to become anything more than who he had always been. But God had more that he wanted for Jacob. God wrestled with him and from then on Jacob was a man named Israel who walked with a limp. 

God wants more for us too.  Don’t neglect the opportunities he puts before you to forge new pathways. Stop fighting the past, so you can move into the future God has for you. And your life will be transformed.   Amen.



Sunday, October 13, 2013

Twice Blest

It’s the ultimate symbol of the outsider:  leper. Wherever there are people, there seem to be lepers. They’re the ones we like to keep at a distance. Those who are beneath us. The people we make unkind jokes about. We tend to treat them as if they don’t have feelings. Instead of referring to them by name, we label them, often with words that are demeaning and hateful. Who are the lepers in our world today?

When we call them lepers, of course, we don’t mean that literally. But we treat them much the way lepers were treated in the Bible.  The physical disease was a small part of the pain a leper had to deal with. The real suffering was social -- being cut off from community.

Sometimes when I use my GPS and I end up off the beaten path, it shows my little car wandering around in a blank space where there are no roads. That’s the kind of place where Jesus encounters ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19), and it’s exactly the place where you would expect them to be. They had to keep their distance from the general population because people were afraid that if they came in contact with a leper, they might become unclean, too.  

According to Leviticus, lepers were supposed to cover their upper lip and cry “unclean, unclean” as a way to warn people to keep their distance. But these lepers in the story don’t do that. Instead, they seem to know that Jesus could help them because they call out to Jesus, “have mercy upon us…”

So Jesus, knowing what the Law demands, tells the 10 lepers to go and show themselves to the priests. Once they were declared clean, they could be rejoined with their families and regain the lives they lost when they became lepers.

They hadn’t yet been healed, but they did as Jesus said. They set out to find a priest. And while they’re on their way, they discover they have been made clean. Every one of them. I would imagine that when they realized what had happened, they weren’t walking to see the priest any longer. Now they were running!

All except one. He didn’t follow orders. When he saw that he had been healed, he didn’t run to the priest, he ran back to Jesus. Did that make him a better person than the other lepers who had been healed? I don’t think so. After all, the other nine were simply doing what Jesus told them to do; they were following the Jewish law.

And there’s the rub. They were following the Jewish law because they were Jews. But this 10th leper wasn’t a Jew. He was an outsider. Even if he had gone to show himself to a priest, he wouldn’t have been declared clean. He still would have been excluded from the community. Because he was a two-time loser. A leper, yes, and also a Samaritan.

Jews looked down on Samaritans. They were racially mixed, with Jewish and pagan ancestors. Although they worshipped Yahweh, their religious practice deviated from Judaism on a number of points and they were considered religious perverts, unclean, and Jews wouldn’t come near them.

Interestingly, in Jewish culture, between being a Samaritan and being a leper, being a leper was the worse curse. The 10th leper had been included in the community with the other nine. It didn’t matter that he was a Samaritan and they were Jews; they were all lepers, and they were all in it together. But once they were healed, the old distinction of Jew vs. Samaritan became important again. You may be able to think of times when you have also witnessed the same dynamic. In a time of trial, people come together who ordinarily wouldn’t have a thing to do with one another, and they form community. But then, once the trial passes, the walls that divide them quickly go up again.

Now, it may be that the Samaritan, who didn’t have any reason to show himself to a priest who only would have rejected him… it may be that the Samaritan returned to Jesus because he didn’t have any place else to go. It’s possible. But then, he did, no doubt, have a home to return to, and he wouldn’t have wanted to waste any time getting back there. He didn’t need to have a priest tell him what he already knew, he had been healed. He had his life back.

But before he set off for his homecoming, he had something else he had to do. He felt compelled to return to the one who had healed him and express his gratitude. Barbara Brown Taylor refers to the 10th leper as the one who followed his heart instead of his instructions. She contrasts the ones who did their duty by following the law with a rule-breaking, risk-taking outsider. She writes that "Ten behaved like good lepers, good Jews; only one, a double loser, behaved like a man in love."

This reminds me of the story where Jesus is having dinner with some of the good upstanding men of the synagogue and a wild woman enters with a jar of expensive perfume, which she proceeds to pour all over Jesus feet. Of course, the men are appalled at her behavior. And Jesus explains to them that the woman is so over-the-top grateful because she realizes she has been forgiven for so much.” He’s suggesting that there’s a correlation between how grateful a person is and how much they actually have to be grateful for.

The Samaritan returns to Jesus because he recognizes how much he has received. Perhaps he has a greater awareness of how blest he was to be healed because he was twice cursed. Yes, he was healed, just like all the others, but he receives more. When Jesus finally sends him on his way, he says that the man’s faith has not only made him physically well, but also whole.  There is a second blessing that comes from recognizing the original blessing and giving thanks. It’s the blessing of wholeness and salvation.

That’s how thanksgiving works. First we’re able to experience a blessing from God. And then, we’re able to recognize that blessing, and give expression to it. When the 10th leper saw that he was more than a Samaritan, or a leper, but a child of God, whole and accepted and beautiful, it sent him back to give thanks. And that’s what the other nine missed. It’s not that they did anything wrong; it’s that they didn’t recognize their healing as a blessing, so they missed out on the opportunity to be made whole.

Have you ever thought  of yourself as a leper? Have you ever carried some physical or spiritual wound that has damaged you and alienated you from others? Have you ever been seen, healed, and welcomed home? Do you respond by turning around and giving thanks to the source of your healing, or do you continue on your way, oblivious to the one who has healed you?

The act of worship gives us the opportunity to be twice blessed. I think about how many of us at tend to take our blessings for granted as we neglect the opportunity to gather weekly to offer praise and thanksgiving to God -- the opportunity to receive a second blessing. How many of us wake up on a Sunday and decide to spend the morning in bed, or on the golf course, or working in the yard? And then I think about one of our church members at Holy Trinity, Larry Bollinger, who has been in the Mecklenburg County jail for a year and a half now. As you might imagine, he’d give anything to be with us for worship. Our faith community is something that he treasures deeply. In fact, every Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m., he gets out his church bulletin and worships with us from his jail cell.

I’ve noticed at Holy Trinity that God seems to lead people to us who have been hurt by a church in their past. They have felt excluded or unloved or judged. Our pews are filled with people who have felt leper-ized by the world and they come to be healed.

Although I began this post by observing that wherever there are people, there are lepers, it is not so in God’s kingdom. The Kingdom of God is a leper-free zone. And, among so many who worship with us at Holy Trinity, particularly people who are new to our community, I can see an overwhelming sense of gratitude for that. They’re so thankful to be part of a church where they are loved and accepted and celebrated as God’s children.

The world may see us as lepers, or we may even see ourselves as lepers, outwardly or inwardly. But by the grace of God, that’s not who we are at all. We discover who we really are in this world by seeing ourselves as God sees us: beloved, forgiven, whole – blessed. When we recognize our blessing and express our gratitude, we’re twice blessed.

I had wanted to see the Grand Canyon my whole life. This summer I made it. And after imagining the moment for so many years, I found that when I finally got there, what I treasured the most was not that first moment standing on the edge of the canyon looking at the majesty of it all. What I treasured most was standing on the edge of the canyon looking at the majesty of it all with my daughter Gretchen. I turned to her and said, “Thank you so much for being here with me.” And I was twice blessed. 

We all have opportunities to be twice blessed every day.  It happens in those moments when we realize how much we have to be grateful for and we call a time out before moving on to the next activity. We take a deep breath of thanksgiving and recognize that it happened again. Just when we realize how much God has blessed our lives, there it is -- a second blessing.