Monday, November 30, 2015

He's coming in the clouds

Bleh. What a god-awful day. Grey, dingy drizzle chills the marrow of my bones. All I want to do is crawl under a down comforter and sit by a fire with a cup of hot cocoa in my hands. But of course, that ain’t gonna happen.
Instead I’m in the car shuffling around East Charlotte in the yuckiness and thinking about the bizarre message of Advent 1 that tells us Jesus is coming in the clouds.
I would guess that if you stopped people on the street and asked them, “Where do you expect to see Jesus?” none of them would say, “In the clouds.” Well, maybe in those fluffy, puffy clouds that are dabbed across a sky blue canvass on a perfect day, the kind of day we had yesterday. Or maybe people would expect to see him sliding down a rainbow, or appearing in the rays of sunshine streaming out over the horizon at dawn, or in any number of natural wonders that leave our mouths gaping in wonder. But on a day like today, not so much.
The people who wrote the Hebrew Scriptures seemed to get that because, for them, the clouds were the place where God was hidden. And yet, Jesus promises that he is coming in the clouds. Hmmm. As usual, in Jesus, God shatters our expectations and surprises us with a new way of seeing.
So, I’m thinking about the way I experience Jesus in my life and, guess what? When I’m feeling most discouraged, when life seems hopeless… when it feels like a dark cloud hovers over days… Jesus comes. It’s true. He comes in a word of encouragement, in the warm embrace of a grandson, in expressions of love and caring from the faith community I am blessed to have in my life, in songs of hope and in a simple meal of bread and wine. Just when I thought he was nowhere to be seen, there he is.
My colleague Reggie used to say, "When you're down to nothing, God is up to something!" And so Jesus comes to us in the clouds. When things seem most desperate to us, it's a sign that God is on the move. When it feels like we can't go on, Jesus is about to make an entrance. As people of faith, we can count on that.
Jesus promised us that he's coming in the clouds. And so he does. Again and again.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A story of drugs, sleeping around and unknown identities

On All Saints Day, after church activities, I headed for the hills. Every year the Lutheran and Moravian professional holy women in North Carolina have a three-day retreat. It's a marvelous get-away filled with conversation and laughter. (Yes, there's a little alcohol mixed in, too.) This year we met at Laurel Ridge, which is a Moravian Camp with a to-die-for view that is achieved by driving up a cork-screw road to the top of a mountain. It rained the whole time, but still, knowing the view was out there somewhere was comforting.

Two women led our time together: Dr. Katherine Shaner, an ELCA pastor who teaches New Testament at Wake Forest Divinity, and Kay Ward, who is a Moravian bishop and well-known author. Katherine's sessions led us to consider circles of saints who fill our lives, beginning with ourselves, then naming women who have influenced us, and then women in the Scriptures. Finally, we considered those who are unnamed, both in the biblical story and in our own stories. It heightened my awareness of the unnamed, and I spent some time pondering those who are unintentionally unnamed persons in my life, the ones whose names I would like to know but have remained unknown because of circumstances, and the ones whose names are unknown to me by intention, the ones who quite honestly don't matter enough to me that I would care to know their names. Hmmmm.

Well, I was having a great time until the wee-wee hours on the morning of the last day. That's when I was awakened by excruciating pain in my shoulder. I wanted to cry, the pain was so great. I made it to breakfast and happened to sit beside Kay. I mentioned my pain and asked if she had any NSAIDS with her. I had definitely asked the right person. She whipped out a days-of-the-week pill dispenser. In one compartment was aspirin, in another Advil, then Ibuprofen, Tylenol, Aleve... "What would you like?" she asked. I decided on Aleve. "They're small. Take two," she said. So I popped them in my mouth and hoped for the best.

About 30 minutes later I was relieved that I felt no pain. All was well! But then, as I was sitting in the morning circle, all of a sudden I was so sleepy that I was afraid I might fall face down onto the floor. That's when I realized that wasn't just any Aleve. It was Aleve PM. Lord, have mercy! I stumbled out of the room, landed on a couch in the lobby, and I was out.

There was a woman there from the camp who had been waiting on us hand and foot. She truly had the gift of hospitality. When she saw me on the couch, she came to me and asked if I needed help, if I wanted to go to a room with a bed... "I just want to sleep!" I snapped her. Then as I was dozing I felt someone place a blanket over me and, without opening my eyes, I knew it was this kind Moravian servant who wouldn't let me sleep.

My clergy sisters came and got me to lunch. Somehow I made it, and I was able to chew my food, although I could very easily have laid my head on my plate and slept in my pasta. (Have I mentioned that I am VERY sensitive to sleep meds? And I took TWO of those things!) After lunch, everyone was going home. What was I going to do? 

Three of us were there from Charlotte and we all had driven ourselves, of course, so I couldn't get a ride back. I clearly couldn't drive myself, not if I expected to live. I could take a nap and leave before dark, but I knew that the drug would still be working on me after a few hours. So, it seemed that the only logical solution was to stay in the lodge, get my sleep, and leave in the morning. We all agreed that would be the best thing. The staff would be leaving, so I would be all alone with no food service. My clergy sisters prepared me a plate of snacks, handed it to me, and they were on their way. Almost all of them.

As I stood with my food provisions in my hand, hoping to soon be in a bed, my dear friend Susan Bame and the Moravian servant approached me. "We're going to take you back to Charlotte," they informed me. Despite my objections--I couldn't put them out like that, it would mean at least four hours of time in the car in addition to the drive they already had to get home--they convinced me that it was the best solution. The Moravian servant would drive my car, Susan would drive hers, and after they left me in Charlotte, they would drive back up the mountain together before going home. Okay. We could do this.

And then it dawned on me. A woman is going to be driving my car with me in the passenger seat for a couple of hours and I DON'T KNOW HER NAME! Up until this point, her name hadn't mattered to me. So, I asked Susan, "What is her name?" She didn't know. The two of us began asking everyone we saw, "What is her name?" No one knew. Finally, we found someone who told us her name was Betty. Okay. Betty was driving my car to Charlotte with me in it, konked out in the passenger seat.

So, when we finally got to Charlotte, as Betty was about to get out of my car to get into the car with Susan for a couple of hours and ride back up the mountain, she turned to me and whispered apologetically, "Can you tell me what her name is?" How perfect was that?

Names. In some ways they aren't all that important. These two saints banded together to minister to me in a crisis and neither knew the name of the other. And yet, as the one they helped, I'm grateful to know both their names.

As a postscript to this blog... Yesterday I received a sweet note in the mail from dear Kay, the woman who gave me the Aleve PM. She wrote, "It isn't often that an upstanding Lutheran pastor gets drugged by a Moravian bishop." Of course she didn't mean to drug me, but it makes for a good story!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Communion of Tears

Preached at Holy Trinity for All Saints' Day, 2015.

You’re driving through a residential neighborhood. It’s about 9:00 in the morning on a Tuesday, and you come upon a house and notice that the driveway is full and cars are parked up and down the street for about a block. What do you assume is going on inside that house?... Somebody died. 

It’s not unlike the scene Jesus saw as he approached the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany. Mourners were surrounding the house so that it was difficult for Jesus to make his way through the crowd. 

Now the mourners could be divided into three groups. There were the ones were paid mourners. There also were those who had come to see if Jesus would show up and do something to incriminate himself. And then there were those who were there because of the love they had for Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha.

Which of these three groups was Jesus a part of? He wasn’t being paid to be there. He hadn’t come to see what would happen if he showed up. Was he there because of the love he had for Lazarus and Mary and Martha? 

Martha and Mary weren’t all that interested in why Jesus was there. The point for them was that he was there too late. Jesus knew Lazarus was dying and he delayed coming so that by the time he arrived in Bethany, Lazarus’ body had already been in the tomb four days. “Lord, if you had been here our brother would not have died,” they said. 

It’s almost as if Jesus waited around to make sure Lazarus was good and dead before he got there. Did he know that he would raise Lazarus from the dead, and did he know that this is what would be the final straw for the Jewish leaders who were looking for a reason to have him arrested and executed? The way John tells the story, that would certainly seem to be the case. 

But then, what’s with verse 35, the one that is famous for being the shortest verse in the Bible? “Jesus began to weep.” Earlier in the chapter, when Jesus learned that Lazarus was ill, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” He lingered two days before starting off toward Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem, and a dangerous place for Jesus. And as he made his way, his disciples warned him this wasn’t a smart move because the Jews were looking for a reason to kill him. Knowing this, Jesus continued his journey. And he explained to his disciples, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”

So, that’s what Jesus was thinking. His resolve was clear. And yet, when he arrived on the scene and looked around him, he began to weep. Why? Is it that he’s so angry about the fake mourners, or the ones who are out to get him? Many of those who saw him weeping assumed it was because he loved Lazarus so much. What gives? 

Well, if we read the verses just before 35, we read that when Jesus saw Mary and the Jews who came with her weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He asked where he could find the body of Lazarus, and he wept. It was the grief of others that led to his tears. Jesus’ cried out of compassion for those he loved. Their grief became his grief. 

It’s like when I’m at a funeral for someone I never knew. I’m there for those who are mourning. I may be presiding as a pastor, or I may be a person sitting in the pews. But often in those situations, I shed tears. Why? I didn’t even know the person who died. But I am sharing in the pain of those who are grieving so deeply. Has that ever happened to you? 

A couple years ago, some of our members were going through grief as a community. That grief was precipitated by the loss of their church, which closed its doors abruptly, and suddenly all they had was each other. By an amazing act of the Holy Spirit, they found their way to Holy Trinity. 

If you were here the first Sunday they worshiped with us, you will remember how they all huddled together in the back pews and they clung to one another. And then it was time for communion. 

They came to the altar and received Christ’s Body and Blood with tears flowing down their faces. And they learned that their community had suddenly grown much larger than they had ever imagined. For they were not alone in their tears. As I offered the Eucharist to members of Holy Trinity that day, many of them were also in tears. Why? No one had closed their church; this hadn’t happened to them. They didn’t even know these people. And yet, they loved them. They felt their grief, and they shared their tears.

Grieving is communal. It calls upon the very best part of us, our compassion. When you see cars parked around a house in the morning hours during the middle of the week, it has become a place of compassion. When you see bouquets of flowers piled at an accident site on the side of the highway, it is a place of compassion. When we gather as the Body of Christ to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the bread and wine, we are a place of compassion. 

On this All Saints Sunday, we remember those who have left us grieving. And we also remember that as the communion of saints here in this place, we are a communion of tears. We’ve been left behind in our grief, but we are not alone. We’re a part of community that holds us in our grief and carries us into a place of life.

I wonder if that’s one meaning of the resurrection body for us. Maybe there is a resurrection of the body on this side of the grave. As the Body of Christ, we are resurrected, and the power of the resurrection is working through us whenever we grieve compassionately with those who mourn. 

We’ve been reading a book about the Beatitudes in my Sunday school class and two weeks ago we were discussing “blessed are those who mourn.” The author used the example of Job to point out how the community comes together to comfort those who mourn. Job had lost everything in his life that was dear to him, and he had three friends who came and sat with him for seven days. For seven days they just sat with him. That was healing for Job. 

Then Job’s friends had to ruin it all and speak. One by one they tried to explain to him why this terrible situation had befallen him, and one by one they made Job angrier and angrier. Their presence, their shared grief had been enough. Their explanations were not helpful—a good lesson for us when we gather around the grieving and feel a need to speak. It is our presence, our shared grief that is needed. 

We hold the grieving person in our midst, perhaps literally, perhaps through cards and prayers and flowers and a casserole at the door. We give them the space they need. We free them to grieve in whatever way works for them, apart from any expectations of our own. We hold them in community. And, in time, they become community for others who grieve.

Look at the way today’s gospel passage ends. After Jesus shouts, “Lazarus, come out!” Notice what it says, “The dead man came out.” The dead man. When Lazarus emerges from the tomb, he is still a dead man. He’s bound up in bands of cloth like a mummy. It sounds terrifying, doesn’t it?

His face and his hands and feet are all wrapped up. Jesus says to the people gathered around, “Unbind him, and let him go.” It wasn’t until the community unbound him that he was given new life. 

Perhaps that’s what it means to have eternal life in our earthly existence. We are so bound by death: the grief it brings us when it takes someone we love away, the fear of our own impending death that snatches away our joy in experiencing the beauty of this life, the crazy things we do to deny the fact that our lives on this earth have a beginning and an end. To receive eternal life, to experience resurrection in this life, we must be unbound in the face of our mortality. We don’t unbind ourselves. That takes a community. In the face of death, we unbind one another to live as resurrected people. What a gift it is to be part of the communion of saints that is also a communion of tears.