Thursday, December 31, 2015

Where the Heart Can Rest

I admit that I’m not much of a traveler. Whenever I leave home, I can’t wait to return. But even for those of us who do enjoy travel, there’s always a sense of restlessness until we finally return home. Henry Van Dyke wrote about this in a poem.

I read within a poet's book
A word that starred the page:
"Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage!"

Yes, that is true; and something more
You'll find, where'er you roam,
That marble floors and gilded walls
Can never make a home.

But every
house where Love abides,
Friendship is a guest,
Is surely home, and home-sweet-home:
For there the heart can rest.

There the heart can rest. That’s the home we long for. That place where the heart can rest.

Do you ever feel a restlessness that you can’t identify? Do you find yourself searching for something and you don’t even know what you’re searching for? It’s like when you go to the grocery store because you’re hankering for something but you don’t quite know what it is. So you start walking up and down the aisles of the store thinking whatever it is you’re wanting will jump off the shelf and you’ll know it when you see it. You wander around searching for God-knows-what. That’s the kind of restlessness so many of us live with. And it makes us homeless.

Saint Augustine understood this kind of homelessness when he described the most basic human longing. He said, “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

John’s Christmas story tells us that “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” That word for lived is often translated “dwelt.” It’s a rich word for us because it describes our relationship with God. In the original language, it means literally “to pitch a tent.” God came and pitched a tent in our world. God became a human being, like us, and made his home in our world. God has made his home with us. And because God has made his home with us, we have a place where the heart can rest. We are always home.

As we begin a new year, it’s good to be reminded of that. God became a human being and made his home with us. And because of that, we don’t have to live as homeless people. Our home can be found here, in this place God has made his home.

So, here’s a New Year’s resolution for you. It’s really quite simple. But it can change your life on a deeply profound level. This year… spend more time at home.   

Friday, December 25, 2015

A Heart Pondering Story (Christmas Eve sermon 2015)

When I was a girl my family always spent Christmas Eve at Aunt Margaret and Uncle Jack’s house. The place was jam-packed with family, neighbors and friends stopping by and I figured that, in the city of Hamilton, Ohio, this was the place to be.

It never occurred to me that there were some people who went to church on Christmas Eve. Of course, since I didn’t grow up in a family that spent time in church ever, that’s not all that surprising, I suppose. But I’ll never forget the first time I experienced a Christmas Eve worship service. I was there because an Episcopal Church hired me to come and play my flute, which was something I continued to do all through high school. That first year, I was stunned. The church was filled with people and it seemed totally weird to me. Like all this time a whole other world had been going on right under my nose and I had no idea it existed. (It’s similar to the way I felt when I went to my first NASCAR race. I had no idea there were so many people so into something that was totally off my radar.)

I had associated Christmas with a lot of different things: shopping, baking, parties, concerts. But never church. I know that may sound strange to some of you because I suspect there are a number of people gathered here tonight who can’t imagine Christmas Eve without attending worship. Or there may be some here tonight who grew up like I did and had no idea until this very moment that some people actually go to church on Christmas Eve.

No matter what your background may be, we’re here in this place tonight. And that’s significant. Especially in 2015. There’s something countercultural about this gathering. Many people in the world around us are like I was as a kid. They have no connection or they’ve severed their connection with the church. They’re home feasting or drinking with friends, or watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” on T.V., or assembling bicycles right now—maybe while uttering a few choice words.

But you chose to be here. You’ve taken time out from all the business and busyness of your life, and you chose to worship tonight. You chose to sing carols and hear the ancient story once again. You chose to kneel at the altar and receive Christ’s presence anew in your life.  It’s a weirdly wondrous way to spend Christmas Eve.

Now, I know that a lot of preachers are prone to lay a bunch of guilt on the people in the pews for participating in a consumer culture that’s commercialized Christmas. I’m not going to do that for several reasons. First of all, Christmas originally piggybacked on the pagan celebration of Saturnalia so it’s always been a hybrid of the sacred and the not-so-sacred. But more importantly, when the Creator chose to enter creation and live as a creature, any division between sacred and secular world became blurred. Even Walmart is holy ground, yes even today. And finally, there are traditions of Christmas that have little connection to the baby born in a manger, but they’re just plain fun. Like visiting Santa at the mall, hanging stockings from the mantle, and driving around to look at the Christmas lights on display. They’re all expressions of Christmas joy.

Yet, in the midst of all the sparkling lights, and the eggnog, and the presents under the tree, there is a deeper meaning to Christmas. We know that; it’s why we’re here. It’s all rather incredible and it’s hard to get our heads around it in just this brief time we spend together tonight.

If you think the whole season has slipped away from you and you haven’t taken the time to reflect on the wonder of God with us because your December was so overbooked with activities that had little to do with the deeper meaning of Christmas, I’ve got great news for you. This night doesn’t mark the end of the Christmas season. It’s only the beginning. Christmas begins tomorrow and it lasts for 12 days. 

Now, contrary to popular opinion, there are not 12 days of Christmas so your true love has time to give you: twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lord a’leaping, nine ladies dancing, eight maids a milking, seven swans a swimming, six geese a laying, five golden rings, four calling bird, three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree. Can you imagine what a mess that would make in your house by the twelfth day? Thankfully, that’s not the point of the twelve days of Christmas.

The point is that we take time to back off from the demands of the days leading up to Christmas and do what Mary did after she watched the story unfold—she pondered it all in her heart. How do you ponder something in your heart? We associate pondering with the head, don’t we? You ponder something in your head. But Mary pondered it all in her heart.

She wasn’t seeking so much to rationally understand what happened. She was seeking a deeper meaning, one that would transform her life.

The days of Christmas are a holy time, a time that’s been set apart to ponder the mystery of God with us and to allow that truth to transform us. Beginning tonight, I invite you into twelve days of pondering.

Ponder the significance of a child who was born into a brutal world of violence and oppression in a land that was occupied by the greatest power on earth. If ever there was a time that was devoid of hope, this was it. And then, into the darkness of that world, Christ shone with the light of God.

Ponder how, because God became human, all humans bear a spark of the divine image of God within them. Ponder how this birth changes the way we treat one another in our day to day lives. And how we honor and welcome those who may not see things the way we do, those who may worship God by another name, those we’re naturally inclined to fear.

Ponder how significant it is that we’re together in this place on this night. In a world filled with injustice, uncertainty, anger and fear, we’ll light candles in the darkness and we’ll imagine a baby sleeping in his mother’s arms as we sing him a hope-filled lullaby. All is calm, all is bright.

Ponder in your hearts.

Friday, December 18, 2015

On my 40th Unniversary--wouldn't take nothing for my journey now

4o years ago on December 20, I was married in the chapel at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, surrounded by loving friends and family. It was a simple wedding. We didn’t have bridesmaids or groomsmen and no wedding cake. My sister-in-law, Judy, sewed my wedding dress. I’m guessing we did the whole thing for less than $300, and that includes the new suit my husband bought. I remember it as a wondrous day. I was so crazy in love with the man I was marrying that I couldn’t wait to begin our life together.

I looked forward to having children with him and growing old together. One of the things I used to imagine was one day having our grandchildren come to visit us at Christmas time. This Christmas, our grandson Nick will be spending Christmas with me. Last year he spent Christmas with his grandpa. That’s not the way either one of us had envisioned it. But that’s the way it is.

We had been through some bumpy times during our 20 year marriage, and I had vowed that come hell or high water, I was in it for the duration. And then I wasn’t. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make it work. Trust was broken beyond repair and I knew it was over, so I asked him to leave. Then for about a decade I was in shock. It was difficult for me to even say the word, divorced.

It’s hard to believe that what started out so promising could end as it did. After 20 years, we have now been apart about as long as we were together. During those 20 years of marriage we collected some cherished memories and parented two extraordinary human beings. I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. But we also brought devastating hurt to one another. Living through that hurt was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. And yet, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t trade that tumultuous time of my life for anything, either. Yes, I can say that…now that I’ve emerged from the wilderness, healed and at peace with myself.

I don’t know who I would be today if I had remained married, but I am certain that I would not be the woman I’ve grown to become. Not perfect, by a long shot, I still have more than my share of shortcomings. But I’ve come to appreciate my flaws as a part of who I am, the person God created me to be. I’ve been able to follow my calling in ways that I never would have if I were also considering the needs of my spouse, and as a result, God has surprised me again and again with unexpected adventures and a life that is richer and fuller than any I ever could have imagined when I was 23 years old. After years of suffering from self-esteem issues, I’ve decided that I’m actually a pretty cool person. I can take care of myself, and yet I also have learned to ask for help when I need it. I’ve grown to realize that even as a single person, I’m not a solo act, and I’ve come to treasure the gift of community. I’ve discovered that I can face my greatest fears and fiercely love others at least as much as I love myself. I’ve learned that even when I royally mess up, I’m loved by God, and that makes it so much easier to love others who also royally mess up. I’m a better mother. I’m a better friend. I’m a better pastor. I’m a better person.

So, knowing what I know now, would I do it again? Would I marry him? Absolutely. Not for the reasons that I thought I was marrying him then. But for the reasons that have come to pass as a result. I think of the title to a book of essays Maya Angelou wrote: Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now. Those words speak for me, too. 

It’s not that it all went down the way I had hoped it would. I didn’t marry the man of my dreams and "we all lived happily ever after." I know that happens for some people, but that’s not the way it happened for me. And yet, it’s okay. In fact, it’s better than okay. I’ve survived, I’ve grown, and I’ve been transformed because God has been with me through it all. I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Good News for Big Brains

What the heck is the matter with people? Every day when I wake up now, I wonder, where will people be senselessly killed today? The really scary thing is that it’s almost becoming normal. And every time it happens we go through this little dance. We find out who caused it, and then we start blaming the ones responsible. If they happen to be Muslim, or a police officer, that’s all we need to know. We’ve already created the narrative in our minds. If they are a 20 year old loner who’s white and never caused any trouble, then we go after the parents, or the teachers who should have seen it coming. Or we start on the National Rifle Association or our lawmakers who many will argue have been bought by the NRA. 

After the San Bernardino shootings last week, the inability of our Senate to budge even so much as an inch in regulating who is allowed to purchase guns boggles the mind. And the fact that you or I could go out and purchase an automatic assault rifle is terrifying. Why would anyone need such a thing? Certainly not to shoot a deer or fend off a home intruder. What the heck is the matter with people?

Now, did you notice what I just did? You may not have seen it because I did what we usually do it. I blamed the problem on them. I’m one of the good guys. I blame this problem on the bad guys. But the problem is not them. There’s a much deeper problem than that. The problem is our need to find someone to blame so that it’s always between us and them, and, according to us, the ones responsible are clearly them. 

I saw Richard Rohr talking about the season of Advent this week and he spoke about the monastic practice of, beginning nine days out for Christmas, saying a novena, which are special prayers, each of those nine days focused on a different theme. The first novena is about wisdom. Father Richard describes what they mean by wisdom. It’s not about smarts or even enlightenment. It’s about seeking what he calls a bigger brain. Opening the mind up so that we can see more than the literal. So we’re open to mystery and paradox. So we can see beyond a dualistic vision of the world where things are either good or they’re evil. Where people are either us or them. Advent is a time for bigger brains. I like that. 

The Bible is a book that can be read to disastrous effects by small brains. It is written for big brains. Now, by that I don’t mean only smart people can understand it. But it takes someone who has a brain that is big enough to receive a variety of viewpoints. The many authors of the writings that have been collected in the scriptures witness to their faith as they have experienced it, so their perspectives vary. 

I find that encouraging because it tells me it’s okay to see things differently in matters of faith and to disagree with one another. And so, when we read the Bible, we may find ourselves resonating with some of the authors more than others. 

Each year in our three year lectionary cycle we spend time with Mark, Matthew or Luke. This new year—which we began last week with the first Sunday in Advent—this new year is the year of Luke. And I admit Luke is my favorite gospel because Luke is the gospel with a heart for justice. 

In the first chapter of Luke, we hear Mary’s Magnificat where she sings, “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the empty with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

And now, in the third chapter, John the Baptist is introduced as one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth…” 

Are you hearing a common theme here? God’s gonna make things right. 

It’s actually a quote from Isaiah. And Matthew and Mark introduce John the Baptist with the same quote. But now, here’s where it gets interesting. Here’s the part that only Luke adds… And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

All flesh shall see the salvation of God. This addition that’s unique to Luke introduces two big themes for his gospel that I want to point out to you because as we spend the year together in Luke, you might want to be listening for these things. 

And all flesh shall see the salvation of God. The word salvation is a biggie for Luke. He understands it in a way that’s different from the other gospel writers, and it’s good to keep that in mind. For Luke, salvation is definitely more than getting to go to heaven someday. Salvation is now. It’s living in the fullness of God’s blessings. And it’s not really individual; it’s communal. Jesus isn’t our personal savior, he’s saves us all…together.

That brings me to the second big Lukan theme that’s introduced in this little verse that he adds to his version of this story… “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

All flesh. That’s the world Luke wants us to see. As Luther Seminary professor Karoline Lewis writes:  “According to the incarnation, if we take it seriously, there can be no selectivity when it comes to for whom God comes. This is the promise of Advent—that those we might write off on our way to the manger matter to God. In becoming human, God committed God’s self to all of humanity. All flesh, friends. All flesh.” 

So, what does it mean for all flesh to see the salvation of God? In the next chapter of Luke, Jesus himself will turn to the words of the prophet Isaiah in his inaugural address where he clearly states what his mission is: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

Jesus’ words are well-received until he starts to explain exactly who the poor and the oppressed are. And then things go south quickly. His hometown crowd decides they’ve heard enough. They escort him to the edge of town and plan to throw him off a cliff. 

Why is it that the gospel message is so often met with resistance and rejection? Remember when the women who first witnessed the empty tomb returned to tell the other disciples what they’d seen? The disciples think their story is garbage. Mainly because the ones telling it were women. What was Jesus thinking when he sent women to proclaim the good news of the resurrection to his followers?

The gospel is hard to receive. It’s offends us because it’s so unconditionally loving and merciful that we can’t stand it. All people shall see the salvation of God? No way. The radical inclusiveness of God in Luke wasn’t taken very seriously back then, and it doesn’t seem to be taken very seriously now, either. The expansiveness of God’s love may not seem so good to the small minded who will choose instead to distort the truth so it can fit inside the more compact space that they’ve created in their minds. It takes big brains to receive the inclusiveness of Jesus in Luke’s gospel.

On this second Sunday of Advent, I invite us all to expand our minds, take a cleansing breath or a crow bar to the skull or whatever you might need to do to receive the good news. Because it truly is good news. 

All flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Apples, oranges and terrorists

A stranger and I shared the waiting room as I waited to have my teeth poked and prodded. CNN was on the TV and a news story about the Paris terrorists came on. The man turned to me and offered some commentary. “You know what we outa do with them terrorists? We oughta take ‘em out in the center of the city and invite everyone to come and watch while we chop off their heads. That’s what we ought do!”
I winced.
“What? You don’t think that’s what we oughta do? That's what they do to us!” 
“I dunno,” I said. I was really trying to avoid getting into a discussion about this with a person I’d never met, someone who clearly had his mind made up. But then, I couldn’t resist.
“I wonder sometimes if maybe the people we call terrorists might say the same thing about us.”
“Are you crazy!?” he asked.
“How can you compare us to terrorists? It’s like apples and oranges.”
As I was pondering how I might respond to him, I heard a woman announce, “Ms. Kraft, we’re ready for you”, and I was up out of my seat.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about apples and oranges and the expression that never makes the point it is intended to make. When people are trying to explain how two disparate things are incomparable, they'll say, “It’s like comparing apples to oranges.” But here’s the thing. You most certainly can compare apples and oranges. They’re both fruits. They both are roundish. They both have skins, and seeds. They both grow on trees…
I’m thinking every teacher needs to put some apples and oranges before their class and ask the students to compare them. Then maybe we’ll get past this absurd notion that you can’t compare apples to oranges. And then, maybe we can gradually teach young people to compare more and more complex things until we get around to considering the similarities between us and them.
I do have a lot in common with a terrorist. We were both born of a woman. We both have X chromosomes. We both eat and sleep and have bowel movements. We communicate through language. We believe in something larger than ourselves. We long to make a difference in the world. We laugh and we cry. And, of course, there’s the really big similarity that supersedes all our differences—we’re both human beings created in the image of God.
Perhaps what we really need to compare are apples and oranges to a terrorist. One is fruit and the other is a human being. Chopping is appropriate for fruit, and that’s all I’m gonna say.