Sunday, August 31, 2014

Jesus' Ice-Bucket Challenge

I remember the low raspy sound of a man grunting in exasperation because he couldn’t use his tongue. He resorted to communicating with a pad and pencil. I was too young to recall the sound of his voice before he got sick. But I do remember what it was like to watch a once vibrant man who threw a softball and ran around the bases go to needing the assistance of a cane to get around, and then a wheel-chair. I remember how the simplest tasks in life became impossible for him to perform. Most of all, I remember the sadness in my mother, as she watched her husband, just a 45 year-old man, lose the use of his body. Because I was a little girl at the time, I didn’t realize the cruelest part of the disease. While my father’s body was wasting away, his mind was functioning perfectly, so that he was fully aware of what his disease was doing to him. It was more than he could bear and he wanted it to end. When I was in first grade, his prayers were answered, and he died.

The letters A.L.S. have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. But I’ve rarely heard other people talk about it. And now, for the past few weeks, all that has changed. I’ve been hearing people talk about ALS more than I ever have in my life.

If you’re not on social media, you may not know what I’m talking about. It’s called the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge. And what happens is that a person who is challenged has the option of making a contribution to the ALS Association or they can dump a bucket of ice water on their head. Most people choose to do both. And then they challenge their friends to do the same. Every day, I’ve been watching videos of celebrities and Facebook friends dumping buckets of ice-water on their heads. It may sound like a gimmick, or just something trendy to do, but apparently it’s working because contributions to the ALSA are way up. Over the course of one month, they have topped 100 million dollars. Awareness about ALS among the public is up, too. How can this not be a good thing?

Because of my personal connection, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. And in many respects it reminds me of the gospel lesson for this Sunday, Matthew 16:21-28. (Yeah, preachers find that pert near EVERYTHING reminds them of Sunday’s text.)

Peter has just experienced his bright, shining moment. When he’s asked who he thinks Jesus is by none other than Jesus himself, he rises to the occasion. “You are the Messiah!” he declares. Jesus is pleased and he praises Peter up and down, calling him a rock. But then Jesus starts talking about what it means for him to be the Messiah and it wasn’t what Peter had in mind at all. He’s going to be arrested and killed? “No way”, Peter says. “That’s not what I meant when I said you were the Messiah.” And just like that, Jesus comes back at him and shoots him down. In a few short verses, Peter goes from rock star to Satan.

First Peter was smokin’ hot, and then he gets cold water thrown on him. No doubt it caused some steam! (Oh, forgive me for that.)

When we talk about throwing cold water on something, the expression usually refers to a downer. We’re flying high and everything’s coming up roses and along comes someone who throws cold water on us and ruins all our fun. That’s what the expression means, and Jesus certainly threw an ice-bucket of water on Peter. But we don’t only use the metaphor of cold water to turn a moment of elation into a sobering confrontation with reality. We also use cold water to awaken people and shock some sense into them. There’s nothing like splashing a little cold water in your face to startle you from your sleep-walking so you’re ready to pay attention. And it seems that what Jesus has to say in this gospel text does that, too. His words are like cold water in both ways. To those who were waiting for him to come into his glory as a powerful hero who will defeat their enemies, the vision he lays out for his Messiah-ship is a real downer. But that’s not why he tells his disciples that he’s headed for a cross. He sees that they’re living in la-la land and he wants then to wake up to reality. He’s inviting them to see the truth that will change their lives.

“There is a cross in my future”, he tells them. “And if you want to follow me, there will be a cross in your future, too.” Of course, this applies to us, as well. If we want to follow Jesus, there is a cross involved.

What does that mean to you? I mean, what does it really mean? Not, what have you been taught it should mean because you’re a Christian? But what does it really mean to you to take up your cross and follow him?

I’ve struggled a lot with this over the years. One thing I can tell you for sure is that I can’t buy into the Jesus paid the price for my sins thing. For starters, that concept wasn’t a part of Christian thinking for the first thousand years of Christianity. What came to be known as the satisfaction theory of atonement was the creation of a man named Anselm.

Beyond knowing the history of the concept that Jesus paid the price for my sins on the cross, the whole idea doesn’t make logical sense to me. I believe in a God of unconditional love. So it makes no sense to me that God would only be able to forgive us on the condition that first he kill his son to pay the price for our sins. Really, does someone have to be killed before God can forgive? I think that’s the very thing Jesus came to refute in the way he lived. This idea that when things don’t go our way, somebody has got to pay, was what he gave his life for. He could have cursed those who crucified him, and he would have been justified in doing so. But instead, he forgave them. His followers seemed to get that, because after Jesus died, they didn’t do what the followers of great leaders normally do under such circumstances. Not one of them sought to avenge his death. They understood that this is what it means to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

A lot of people think that taking up a cross means we all need to suffer, or that we should all try to be good little martyrs. But I’ve come to see the cross in other ways. I see the cross as evidence of the absolute humanity of Jesus. I see it as a symbol for defying the ways of power and violence that so dominate our world. I see the cross as a model for resistance of the status-quo. I see the cross as evidence of our human propensity to eliminate the voices that call for justice, mercy, compassion and love. I see the cross as putting to death the ways of death that keep us from truly living so that we might be resurrected to new life.

How do you see the cross? The key to following Jesus is found in the cross. This is not a sidebar to the life of faith. It’s at the very center. “If you don’t get that,” Jesus says, “then you don’t get me.” Our lives as followers of Jesus are shaped by the cross. It’s where God’s love conquers the world of power and violence with vulnerability, mercy and grace. It’s where death leads to life.

There is a challenge in Jesus’ words: “You say you want to follow me? Well, this is how it is. There is no following me without taking up the cross.”

Every day on Facebook I see people challenging one another to dump a bucket of ice water on their head for a worthy cause. And one by one, the challenge is met with enthusiasm. What would it mean for us to rise to Jesus’ challenge -- to take up our cross and follow him?

It’s more difficult than dumping a bucket of water on your head. It’s not something you can video-tape and post on the internet. When we’re baptized, water is poured on our heads and we receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads. When we die, the sign of the cross is made over our bodies. And in between those crosses that mark us and set us apart as Christ’s people, there is the challenge of the cross that meets us every day of our lives.

Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

If we can't love one another, how can we ever love the world?

 Part of the gift of being a church with a clear sense of what our mission is is that it can so often make difficult decisions a lot easier. Last summer we were confronted with an invasion of sorts at Holy Trinity. A group of foreigners started filling our pews. Some even sat right in our seats. It was disruptive to us. They weren’t Lutheran. Of course, none of our reservations mattered a whole lot because our mission is "Loving Not Judging" and we weren’t going to hold it against them because they were Episcopalians. So we decided to love our newfound brothers and sisters. That was actually an easy decision.

But there have been other times when our mission of loving not judging at Holy Trinity has been tested and it hasn’t been so easy. A couple years ago one of our members got himself into some serious trouble. He was arrested for engaging in illicit sex with minors, something that happened while he had been serving as a missionary in Haiti. It was all over the news. And, as a congregation we were trying to make sense of it. Beyond the initial shock that we all shared, there were mixed reactions within our community. Some were sympathetic with Larry. Many were angry and disgusted with what he had done. A number of us expressed great compassion for the victims. Others focused their attention on supporting his wife, Margaret. Most of us got caught up in the details: the circumstances of Larry’s life, the way he was treated by the justice system, the age of the girls involved, the length of his sentence.  

But it wasn’t really our job to weigh in on the details of the case or make a decision about the gravity of his offense. As a faith community, we only had one decision to make. And it was really quite simple. Would we love Larry? Would we love him with the mercy and compassion of Jesus? Would we love him as a child of God? That was our decision to make as a community. And we knew the answer to the question before it was even asked. Despite how we may have felt about his actions, yes, we would love our brother, Larry. It was an unpopular decision with the public. But that’s who we are at Holy Trinity. And it’s what it means to follow the way of Jesus.

The central command Jesus gives his followers in community is that they love one another. And that has to be where a ministry of love begins, in the way we show our love for one another. Of course, it doesn’t end there. It ends in the way we love the world around us as Jesus did. But we practice loving with one another. If we can’t get it within our Christian community, we’ll never be able to get it out there with the rest of the world.

I’m thankful to be a part of a faith community where we can experience something of the unconditional love of God in the way we love one another. “This is my commandment,” Jesus said, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Straight Talk About Gay Pride

I hang out a lot with LGBT folks. Often I find myself in a social situation where I am the only straight person in the group. It’s become so commonplace for me that I sometimes have passing moments when I forget I’m not gay. And I’ll wonder, “What’s wrong with me that I’m not attracted to women the way my friends are?” Then I'll remember. Oh, yeah. It's because you're straight, Nancy.

My relationships with gay, lesbian and transgender friends have developed while serving at Advent and then Holy Trinity, both in Charlotte, over the past 15 years or so. I’ve learned a lot through those years. In the beginning, I remember being relieved to discover how much we have in common. But as I’ve grown closer to my gay, lesbian and transgender friends, I've also come to realize just how different we are.

I have trouble imagining the world as they experience it. Their sexual orientation seems to be the soundtrack of their lives that’s continually playing in the background. They may not always mention it, but, in every conversation, they are filtering everything they say and hear through their experience as a gay or transgender person. Everywhere they go, they are scoping out how safe the situation will be for them. Will they be accepted? Will people feel uncomfortable with them? Will someone say something hurtful, knowingly or unknowingly? Will it be better to hide who they are in this situation? Such thoughts are always present for them. And yet, such thoughts never cross my mind.

Once, my friend and colleague Pastor David Eck, who happens to be gay, told me that every time a gay person reads a Bible story they identify with the person in the story who is being ostracized or judged or persecuted in some way. They see themselves in the outsider. I had assumed they read Bible stories the same way I do. And when I read a Bible story, I NEVER identify with the outsider. I always identify with the people who are being challenged to welcome the outsider, or even Jesus, as the one who is standing up for the outsider. That’s the perspective I take when I preach. And yet, many of my parishioners who are gay/lesbian/transgender don’t really relate to the story as I do. When they read about outsiders, that's who they identify with. This blew me away.

As we’re preparing for the Pride Festival in Charlotte this weekend, I’ve been thinking a lot about that word, pride. I confess that in my younger years when I saw gay people parading in the streets on T.V., usually in some far-off place like San Francisco, I couldn’t understand the point of it all. Yeah, okay, so you’re gay, I thought. Do you have to make such a public display of it? Well, I don’t see it that way anymore.

Now I think about how pride is actually the opposite of shame. Every gay person I know has struggled with shame on some level. Growing up in our homophobic culture has done a number on them. They may internalize that homophobia and turn it upon themselves. Or maybe they rebel against it and express their sexuality openly and freely. But in any case, they are living in reaction to the shaming that has been directed toward them in their school or their place of employment, their house of worship or their family. They have been told in hundreds of ways that who they are is not acceptable and the only way to become acceptable is to become someone they’re not.  

What courage it takes to journey from a place of shame to a place of pride! To live into the person God created you to be. To love the person you truly are.  To be gay and proud! I can only imagine how freeing it must feel to emerge from the shackles of shame to strut your gay-self down Tryon Street with Pride.

It truly is something to celebrate. That’s why I’ll be there, waving my rainbow flag, basking in the pride of those who are so dear to me. Even though I can never fully understand how it is to live in their world, there’s a larger world that we share. My life would be greatly diminished without the gifts of the LGBT community. And that fills me with a pride of my own.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Scam or an Opportunity to Serve Jesus?

Because I serve in an urban setting, I often have people stopping by the church asking for financial assistance. Rarely do I give money. I might take them to the gas station and fill their tank or give them food directly, but even that hardly ever happens. I have been burned more than once by people who are playing me and have grown cautious. I'm usually quick to send them away. In as nice a way as possible, of course.

So, today, a man and his wife and their little boy showed up in my office. I decided before I met them that they weren't getting any money out of me. The man had a wooden cross hanging from his neck and he introduced himself to me as a minister. He handed me a flyer from his ministry, which serves the homeless in Charlotte. Every Wednesday they serve pizza in the park to hundreds of people. Of course, all the while I'm listening I'm waiting to hear what he wants. Is he soliciting money for his ministry? I continue to listen, nodding my head, really thinking about how I am going to gently turn him down and send them on their way.

His story was that his ministry has received some funding, which they will receive this afternoon. They had been staying in the house owned by a woman who ended up losing the house, so they had to move. Since then, they've been living in a hotel room. Okay, here it comes, I'm thinking. They want money for their hotel room. They explain that they don't have the money to pay for the room and they need it by 11:00 or they're going to get kicked out. Yep, money for a room, I was right. And, it was pushing 11:00 so they needed it immediately. Of course.

But there was something about this guy. He seemed sincere and his family did, too. I had no doubt that his ministry was legit. So, for some reason unknown to me I asked him how much he needed. The room was forty-three dollars a night. (What kind of a room could you rent in Charlotte for forty-three a night? I didn't want to think about it.) And he had ten dollars. So he needed thirty-three. Okay, thirty-three dollars. This was not a large amount of money. They were not living a lavish lifestyle. And they were doing good in the community. I could do this. "Let me see what I can do," I said.

He told me that if I wanted to call the hotel and use a credit card, that would work. He pulled out proof of his bill. His wife offered to come back in the afternoon and return the money after they received their funding. But really, thirty three dollars? So, I dug into my purse and pulled out my wallet. "Let's see how much I have here."

I started pulling out bills and counting them. I had a twenty and a five and then a bunch of ones. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven... eight. "You aren't going to believe how much money I have in my wallet," I told them. "Thirty three dollars."

His eyes filled with tears. Her eyes filled with tears. And then mine did the, too. I felt a chill going up my spine. Oh, my. Of course, the money was theirs.

Was it a scam? Possibly. But if it was, it was the best scam ever. And that alone was worth thirty-three dollars. Who knows? It's also possible that these three visitors gave me an opportunity to do something for Jesus. And that's the story I'm choosing to believe.