Monday, November 5, 2018

Unbind him!

Preached at Ascension on November 4, 2018 (All Saints Sunday). The text is John 11:32-44, the raising of Lazarus.

When I speak of the family I grew up in, I often tell people about my father, who died from ALS when I was in the 1st grade. He was well-known and admired in the community where I grew up. And as a child so often sees a parent who has died, he was a hero to me.

Now, I rarely share this part of my story, mainly because it’s hard to tell. A few years after my father died, my mother remarried. She married a man named Jim. He lived a tragic life. As a kid, he spent a lot of time in an orphanage. When he was in his twenties, a man hired Jim to drive a truck for him, and the man had no intention of paying him. Jim came across the guy at a grocery store, and he was so angry that he punched him, and the man died. As a result, Jim spent the next 20 years in prison. (laws were different back then)

As a child, I was afraid of Jim, and as a teenager, I grew to despise him. I don’t want to get into the details, but let me summarize by saying that he was inappropriate with me on many levels, and I was traumatized and damaged in ways I couldn’t begin to face until much later in my life.

I was a seminarian on my intern year in Michigan, when I got a phone call telling me that Jim was in the hospital dying. He had a hole in his heart and wasn’t expected to last much longer. It was nearly a six-hour drive to get home, so I figured Jim would be long gone before I got to him.

Well, he wasn’t. When I arrived, I found my exhausted family gathered in the hospital waiting room. They all had spent time with Jim, and for some reason, he was holding on and couldn’t let go.

Now it was my turn to see him. I went into Jim’s hospital room, sat beside his bed and spoke to him. Shortly after that, I returned to the waiting room to tell the rest of the family that he was gone. They had been with him for hours and he couldn’t let go. I spent about two minutes with him and, just like that, he died. “What did you say to him?” they asked.

Jesus hears that Lazarus is on his last leg and he takes his time going to see him. By the time he gets there, it’s too late. Lazarus is already in the tomb, the mourners are wailing, and Martha and Mary are wondering if Jesus might not have been able to save their brother had he come right away. Jesus joins them in their grief.

And then he offers a word of hope. “Lazarus will rise again.”

Jesus makes his way to the tomb. “Roll the stone away,” he says.

“That’s not such a good idea, Jesus,” they say. “He’s been dead for three days already, and by now the body really stinks.” But they do as he asks. They roll the stone away.

Jesus, standing at the entrance to the tomb, commands, “Lazarus, come out!” Lazarus stumbles to his feet and slowly emerges from the tomb. He’s wrapped up in strips of cloth, like a mummy.

The new life for Lazarus can’t begin yet. There’s one more thing that needs to be done. And it isn’t Jesus who will do it. Instead, he calls upon the community to finish it for him. “Unbind him, and let him go.”

There are deep truths in this story for all of us. When we cry out from the depths, God hears. When Jesus seems slow in coming, he is coming nonetheless. And if we lament that it’s too late, Jesus shows that it’s never too late. After we’ve become convinced that all is lost, when we’re ready to concede to death, and we’re seeking only to contain the damage or bury it, Jesus shows us that there’s no loss, no death, no tragedy, no power that can place a person, a situation, or a world beyond God's reach of infinite love and abundant life.

This is a story about the power of Jesus. And then, at the very end, it becomes a story about the power of Jesus working in us. Jesus literally tells the community gathered, “Destroy what holds him down. Free him.” It’s the work of Jesus to bring life. And it’s the work of the community to unbind people from the trappings of death.

My family wanted to know what I said to my stepfather Jim when I sat beside his hospital bed. I told him, “I forgive you.” And then I said, “We all love you.” It was all I could do to say either of things because on a very human level, I didn’t really feel them. But in the me that belongs to Jesus, in the saint me, I did forgive him, I did love him. These were words that he needed to hear from me, words to unbind him. After I told him that I forgave him and we all loved him, he took his last breath, and he was free.

When we’re all tangled up in burial clothes, when we bear the coverings of death binding us like bands of cloth wrapped around a mummy, new life, resurrection life, comes to us through community.

God calls us to resurrected life, not just at the moment of our death, but more importantly, while we continue our journey on this earth. We can never experience the new life Jesus calls us to be a part of without being freed from all that binds us to the old life. Perhaps you’re someone who lives with regret or shame. There are things you wish you could change or erase. Maybe you struggle to love or be loved. Or you cling to resentment. Or sorrow follows you wherever you go. You’re in bondage to sin and cannot free yourself.

Death is the ultimate unbinding for us. We’re released from all the sin and sorrow and struggle of this life and we’re finally truly free. All the saints who surround us today know that in a way that we can only imagine. I’m thankful that they surround us and cheer us on as we make our way through this life.

Because while we’re on our life’s journey, we don’t have to long for death as the only way to be free. Thanks be to God, we can bring life and freedom to one another through words like: You are forgiven. You are loved. There is no greater gift we can offer one another than that.

There is nothing you have ever done that God can’t forgive. Because you have always been and will always be loved by God. You are forgiven. You are loved. We need to hear that from one another. We need to experience that with one another. That’s what happens in community when we respond to Jesus’ command, “Unbind him and let him go.”
                          

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Something seriously wrong


I don’t know if any time is an easy time for a person who is clinically depressed. As one of those people who has bouts with depression, over the long-haul, I’m in and out. Not just one day depressed and the next not. It creeps up on me and engulfs my life for months at a time before gradually loosening its grip and releasing me. And for someone like me, this is a scary time.  

I am physically struggling with a condition that affects my stamina. It finally has a name, after many years of referring to it as my mystery disease. That name is fibromyalgia. Often, I find that my spirit is willing, but my flesh is weak. It’s important that I function, because people depend upon me, and I manage to do that, but there are times when I worry that they need more than I have to give. And it takes everything I’ve got to keep moving. After I spend all my energy on my work as a pastor, my spare time is devoted to recuperating. As a result, my pastor life is the only life I have these days, and as much as I love my work, I need to have a life. My lack of a life is starting to feel oppressive to me.

Then I’ve got life-sucking stuff going on that any pastor of a mainline church can probably relate to in 2018. I am surrounded by people who are grieving loss. And I’m not just talking about the loved ones who grieve at the funerals I’m doing these days, which is far greater than I have ever experienced in my life. I’m talking about people who are grieving and don’t even realize it—grieving the loss of a way of life within an institution that, in the way they have always known it, is slipping through their fingers. I have faith that new life will arise from the corpse, but the actual dying part is brutal. It’s hard to stay afloat above the grief that is constantly sucking me under. Sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe.

If I’m honest, I have to mention my getting-old struggles… something I don’t like to talk about it. As I approach the age my mother was when she died, I keep wondering how it’s all going to go down for me. Lately, I find myself waking up in the morning obsessed with some past wrong I have endured or inflicted upon others. Do I need to do an archeological dig of my life, knowing there are a lot of layers of sorrow and shame and anger I will be sure to uncover? Ugh. Part of me feels compelled to go there, and part of me wants to leave the dirt undisturbed and in place. It’s who I am, and I feel a need to be okay with that, if not for me, then for the people who relate to me. Am I the only older person who feels this way? I wonder if the joy-filled old people I spend time with are just putting on an act so that the rest of us can stand to be around them. (Come to think of it, that may be true for a lot of us, not just old people.)

The greatest joy in my life is my two grandsons, Nick and Justin. But even that joy is tinged with sorrow for me. When I watch the preschool children file past me in the hallways at church, it’s all I can do to keep from weeping. Students everywhere, including preschoolers, are spending time learning how to avoid being shot when an intruder with a gun comes into their school. The clock on climate change is ticking more rapidly every day, while those who could make a significant difference scoff at science. Fear-of the-other is used as a weapon to bolster the power of the already-powerful on a global scale. Ignorance, cruelty and immorality seem to be in fashion. It’s too much. And all I can think about are my two dear grandsons and all the other children who had the misfortune of being born into this screwed-up mess-of-a-world. 

If you follow my blog, you may have noticed that I haven’t been writing a lot lately. That’s because I have suspected that what I have to say right now, no one else wants to hear. If you’re still reading, you may agree. With the little I have shared with you, many of you will want to fix me and tell me that everything is going to be all right. Please don’t. I understand your need to do that, but it doesn’t help me to hear it. 

I will confess that I’ve always been a glass-half-empty kind of person. But lately the glass seems to be less than half-empty, and I can’t help but think that anyone who insists otherwise isn’t paying attention. 

If I couldn’t trust that God is loving and good, and somehow God is at work in the world, usually through us and sometimes despite us, I don’t know how I could get through these days. I suspect I’m not alone and I share this with you because, if you find yourself in a similar place, I want you to know that you’re not alone, either. There’s not something seriously wrong with you if you are disturbed by the fact that there’s something seriously wrong.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Leave them alone!

Did you see the wife and family of John McCain front and center on your T.V. screen throughout his funeral on Saturday? By the end of the funeral, I was screaming at my T.V., “Leave them alone!” Of course, it was nothing new. I remember seeing the same thing with the Kennedys when I was a little girl. Why do we do this? 

No doubt Cindy McCain knew that we were watching her every move during the most vulnerable time of her life. Can you imagine enduring such a thing at the funeral of your spouse, your parent, your child? Why is it necessary that the grief of a family be paraded in front of an entire nation? 

Commentators dissected the day, noting again and again how strong she was. When she finally shed a tear, during “Danny Boy”, I cried with her. But now that I’m thinking back, the whole thing leaves me feeling more angry than sad. 

I recall a tragic time in my own history when, being a somewhat public figure, I realized that my life was on display. I appeared to be a tower of strength. Everyone around me kept talking about how amazing I was, until I started to believe it myself. And it wasn't good. I was so concerned about portraying my superwoman façade that I didn’t allow myself to feel the grief; I just kept stuffing it inside. To say this was not healthy for me is an understatement, and it came with consequences. 
There is no right or wrong way to grieve. We’re all different in that respect, and it’s not fair to expect people to grieve in a certain way. Nor is it helpful to praise people for being strong for the sake of those who are watching. It’s harmful to both the performers and the audience they are performing for, as it continues to perpetuate the idea that when tragedy strikes, we all need to keep a stiff upper lip. 
What we need to be is authentic. That can be messy, I know. But when I see people fall apart at a funeral, I never consider it a sign of weakness. Instead, I am honored and comforted by their authenticity. 
I really wish we would stop praising people for their stoicism in times of grief. This is no more to be admired than the person who displays their sorrow for all to see. We simply need to give people the space to be who they are. And, to my way of thinking, that means privacy. In the name of human decency, can we stop shining the spotlight on those who mourn? And can someone with an ounce of compassion pass a law forbidding cameras to show us grieving families at televised funerals?

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Tell-Tale Heart

Preached at Ascension, Towson - September 2, 2018

The text is From the 7th chapter of Mark.
1Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus], 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
 ‘This people honors me with their lips,
  but their hearts are far from me;
 7in vain do they worship me,
  teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
  14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
  21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”





Villains! Dissemble no more! I admit the deed! Tear up the planks! Here, here! It is the beating of his hideous heart! 

You may recognize that as the conclusion of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, "The Tell-Tale Heart." It’s narrated from the viewpoint of a madman who kills a guy just because he doesn’t like the way he looks. He dismembers the corpse and buries the heart under the floorboards. When the police arrive and question him, he begins to hear the heart beating. The beating becomes more and more intense, until finally the madman can’t take it any longer, and he confesses. 

Is it really the heart of the murdered man that he hears? Or is it his own heart pounding in his ears? 

The heart is complicated. Both as an organ of the body, and as the metaphorical location we usually associate with the core of who we are as human beings.

“It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” That’s the punch to the gut Jesus delivers in today’s text. Let’s rewind a bit and see how he got there…

Some big-wig religious types from Jerusalem have come to check Jesus out. And they’re not there to give him a rousing endorsement. Their mission is to find fault with Jesus and his motley crew. Of course, they find exactly what they’re looking for: Aha! Jesus and his disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat. For shame! For shame!

From our 21st century perspective, that’s just plain unsanitary. We know how important it is to wash our hands. Especially before we eat. But back in Jesus’ time they didn’t have any awareness of germs. Washing hands didn’t have a health significance. It had a religious significance.

It all started back in the Temple when the priests had a ritual of washing their hands. Then, when the center of religious life moved from the temple to the home, hand-washing became the practice there. Ritual hand washing was a part of the purity laws. By following these laws, people were setting themselves apart, making themselves holy for God. It was a ritual that united them with God.

Well, these big-wigs from Jerusalem are appalled when they see that some of Jesus’ disciples aren’t washing up before eating. By this time, the purity laws are no longer a way to get closer to God; they've become a way to separate oneself from other people, to determine who’s in and who’s out, And, and as far as they’re concerned, Jesus and his followers are OUT.

Now, the thing we need to know about Jesus is that he has a different view of these purity laws that guide the culture of his time. You can see this clearly whenever he sits down to eat with people at a table that’s open and inclusive. He challenges the dominant purity system by breaking bread with impure people. Within his context, this is the most radical thing Jesus does. He allows himself to become contaminated. And he isn’t just doing it to be a nice guy to the poor outcasts and sinners. He’s living out what he believes about God.

For Jesus, what makes us holy before God, what unites us with God, isn’t shown in ritual, but in relationship. For Jesus, the law of God that matters above all else is the law of compassion.

Whenever people practice religious traditions at the expense of compassion, Jesus pushes back. Today’s text is just one of many examples we can find in the gospels. Compassion over purity is central to what Jesus comes to teach and who he is as a person.

It’s central to who we are today, as well, because whether we realize it or not, the purity laws are still very much with us. There’s never been a time when the intent of the purity laws in Jesus’ day hasn’t been present in the world. We heard a lot of that talk blatantly coming from the Nazis in World War II. And we hear it from Neo-Nazis, the KKK and other hate groups today. But we don’t have to be Nazis to have a spoken or unspoken aversion to people we see as other --- people we want to separate ourselves from because they threaten us in some way. It seems to be the way we’re wired. And when we examine our hearts, we know it’s true.

Last month was an Ascension month to provide needed items for ACTC’s food pantry. Along with the food items we were asked to contribute in August, they requested Walmart gift cards. These can be useful for the hungry, the homeless and people recently released from jail who show up at ACTC for help.

So, I decided to pick up a Walmart gift card for ACTC. When I went to do that, I realized that I hadn’t been in a Walmart since I moved to Maryland, over two years ago. So, I got out my phone and learned that there’s a Walmart on Putty Hill in Towson, not far from the church.

As I entered the store, I immediately remembered how unique the culture is inside a Walmart. I saw a woman shopping in her nightgown and slippers. I saw a family with 6 kids under the age of 5. I saw a woman wearing the sort of outfit you might wear to a Halloween party… if you’re dressing up like a hooker. I heard parents yelling at their kids, and I saw one smack a child in the face for crying. I heard a man having an extremely loud conversation on his phone, dropping the f-bomb more in one sentence than I ever imagined possible. Was I having a bad dream where I was trapped inside an episode of The Jerry Springer Show?

In the check-out line, the person in front of me had his cart packed with Budweiser beer, pork rinds, Doritos and jars of salsa. He also was picking up a couple bottles of antacid. All the while I had a subliminal message running through my brain --- these are not my people, I don’t belong here, and I gotta get out of here as soon as possible. I wanted to rush home and take a shower.

And remember why I was there? As a good Christian woman, I was doing something nice to help poor people. I wanted to help them while remaining insulated from them. It’s hard for me to admit that, but when I examine my heart, I know it’s true.

There’s an idiom people like me use for people who shop at Walmart. It goes back to the Victorian era, but I still hear people use it from time to time. We call them The Great Unwashed. It’s a revealing descriptor for the lower class, isn’t it? The Great Unwashed. Which, of course, is another way of saying unclean. The need for purity is ever with us.

Jesus says a life lived in connection with God has nothing to do with the things we do to look acceptable in the eyes of the world. It’s a matter of the heart. When we focus on what we’re doing to look loving and good, instead of being loving and good, something is wrong. You can be squeaky clean on the outside and a total mess on the inside. If there’s anything that needs washing, it’s not our hands but our hearts.

Jesus challenges us to stop propping up all the external stuff that we use to present a façade of who we really are to the world, and start looking inside. That’s where that long list of sins that Jesus names comes from. Stuff like murder, avarice, deceit and pride. And it’s also where acts of love and compassion come from. We’re all capable of all that. No one is completely good or completely bad. We are all moral messes. Moral messes loved by God.

The call in this passage is to sort through that mess and examine our hearts.

You may choose to bury your heart beneath the floorboards in your living room. You may cover it with a rug and scurry over it day after day while you’re working long hours at a job, taking care of aging parents, shuffling kids to soccer practice, writing a twenty-page term paper, or volunteering in the community… But underneath all our busy-ness and struggles to survive from day to day, when we roll back the rug and tear up the planks, we find a heart.

It is the heart that connects us to God and one another and our very selves. Ignore it at your own peril.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

In the Room Where It Happens

Have you ever experienced a moment when you know something important has shifted and moving forward things will never be the same? It’s like being in “the room where it happens”, as the song from Hamilton goes. Last night I was in the room where it happens at Ascension. 

The meeting of our Congregation Council (that’s what we call our Board in the ELCA) was unlike any I have attended since I arrived at Ascension. We didn’t meet during July, so we had a lot to cover. As an aside, I found out why we don’t meet in July from our President, Kim. She said it started something like 20 years ago when the pastor at the time was always away during July. Seriously? That’s like the old story of the woman who was constantly cutting off the end of the ham before she baked it. When her husband asked why she always cut off the end of the ham, she didn’t know; that’s the way she had learned to cook it from her mother. So she asked her mother, “Why do we always cut off the end of the ham before we put it in the oven?” Her mother informed her that she had to cut off a couple inches so it would fit into the pan she had. And so it goes. But you never know until you ask. (It may be time to revisit the practice of no July Council meeting at Ascension.)

As a result of missing a month, we had a lot of ground to cover at our Council meeting. But that’s not what made it so unusual. It was unusual because of the way people engaged in the process. 

We’ve been beginning our meetings with a book study that we’re doing all year. It’s about adaptive leadership. The discussion last night was about how to change the DNA of an organization. Unlike some months when I lead this part of the meeting, everyone seemed to have something to say. They are really wrestling with what adaptive leadership looks for Ascension. 

Next came approval of the June minutes. Also a part of the agenda that normally slips by with minimal discussion. Not so this time. We spent considerable time reviewing one of the goals the Council set for themselves over the next year. After a variety of perspectives were expressed, we eventually decided to scratch the goal. I was surprised by the passion people had around this. They didn’t hold back. Emotions ran high. And here’s the part I loved. They listened to one another. They disagreed and were experiencing a lot of cognitive dissonance, but they were open and they hung in there. And when all was said and done, we landed in a different place. 

We were not wrestling with a small thing like the color of the carpet or what to serve at a potluck. This was the big stuff. The stuff that Councils are supposed to be wrestling with. DNA type stuff. Do we focus our attention on reducing our mortgage? It weighs us down financially as we are not meeting our monthly payments from offerings and continue to dip into a fund that won’t last forever.  In addition, we live with the knowledge that in three years our interest rate will be changing, and we assume it will go up.  So the desire to reduce our mortgage is not unfounded. But then, there are some on the Council who are frustrated that we have emphasized reducing the mortgage in a way that is perceived as putting mortgage above ministry. 

One member put it well when she said that we all have mortgages at home. Should we just use all our money to pay off our mortgages without giving to the church? To her, that’s the message we are sending by focusing so much on paying off our mortgage. She made a similar point when we were discussing this at a previous meeting, but at that time she didn’t get much traction. This time she was not alone. And so, we were really hashing it out together. 

It’s a struggle that any congregation with a lot of property deals with. It’s so easy to invest all our time and energy on property needs at the expense of ministry. On the other hand, a congregation ignores property needs at its own peril. And things like heat, and electricity, and a roof are valuable resources that allow ministry to take place. (These are the kind of things that our building renovation covered. Nothing fancy, but necessary. And the mortgage lingers.) But does it have to be an either/or dilemma? Can vibrant ministry take place while we’re maintaining our building? Can opportunities for ministry increase while the mortgage decreases? 

I must add that Ascension is a generous congregation. We don’t sink every spare dime we have into reducing our mortgage. We are committed to tithing to our synod and giving to other ministries beyond the walls of the church building. This discussion was prompted because the congregation had just received a huge undesignated bequest. We put it into reducing the mortgage and doing some needed building improvements, which was pretty much assumed when we received it. But apparently, Council members had spent some time rethinking our decision, and they were feeling compelled to challenge it last night. As a result, we decided to take 10% off the top of all undesignated bequests and put it into a fund that the Council will manage for the purpose of supporting ministries outside our budget. It was a positive way to resolve the conundrum, and I have the sense that all felt good about it. 

The end result isn’t what I’m thinking about today. I’m thinking about the energy and passion in the room and how people freely expressed it. It was tense. It took a while. But it was a discussion of substance. It was about vision and really big stuff like faith and fear and what God would have us do. And we did it. 

This is why I have such confidence that Ascension has a future. I’m sensing a shift among the leadership and among members of the congregation. It’s a bit scary at times. But it’s such an honor to be in the room where it happens. Thank you, God.




Monday, August 6, 2018

Unlocking the Mystery of God's Will for Your Life

When I was a kid and my mom’s birthday was coming up, I would go to her and ask, “What do you want for your birthday, Mom?” And her answer was always the same. “Nancy, if you want to give me something, clean your room.”

Well, that was the last thing I wanted to give my mother for her birthday, and at the time I thought she was just being uncooperative. So I would go out and buy her something that I thought she might like. But you know, now that I’ve been a mother with kids who kept their rooms a lot like I did when I was their age, I understand what my mom was saying. And I realize that she meant it. The best present I could have given her would have been cleaning my room.

It seems like we all struggle with discerning God's will for our lives. We long to have a clear answer to the question, "What do you want from me, God?" But I've come to the conclusion that we aren't any more interested in hearing what God really wants from us than I was interested in hearing what mom really wanted from me.

After all, it’s not such a great mystery what God’s will is for our lives and discerning it is not like the search for the Holy Grail. We don’t have to go any further than the baptismal liturgy where we present a lighted candle to the newly baptized and say: “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

God’s will for our lives is spelled out for us repeatedly in the scriptures. One of my favorite passages is from Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God?” That’s pretty clear to me. Jesus himself gives us lots of instructions, including: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). He summed it all up by telling us that the most important thing we can do with our lives is love God by loving one another. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”(John 13:35). 

We have tons of scriptures that clearly tell us what God’s will is for his people. And yet, we act like it’s some great unsolved mystery. Why? Is it that we don't believe God really means it? Or could it be because we simply flat out don’t want to do it?

Monday, July 16, 2018

Can you handle God's Truth?

From sermon at Ascension, Towson - July 15. Mark 6:14-29; Amos 7:7-15



When Herod first hears about Jesus, he has a flashback, and he wonders if John the Baptist has risen from the dead. Because there are so many similarities between John and Jesus. Both are radicals. Both are prophets, proclaiming God’s message outside the religious and political establishment. Both are poor men, relatively powerless in the world. And both John and Jesus scare the bejeebers out of Herod.

Herod recalls the night John met his demise. Here’s what led up to it. Philip and Herod were brothers. They were also both uncles to Herodias. Philip married Herodias and they had a child together, a daughter. Herod was married at the time, too. Well, Herod and Herodias got the hots for one another, and they decided to divorce their spouses, one of which is Herod’s own brother, so they could marry each other. (This is like something on an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, right?) 

So that’s what John’s ranting about. And Herod doesn’t know how to shut him down. But his wife does. When Herod offers to give his stepdaughter anything she wishes after performing what must have been one amazing dance, she consults her mother for advice. Backed into a corner, Herod grants her wish, the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

You can see how that might be the sort of thing that would haunt Herod. (It haunts me, and I’ve only read the story in the Bible.) So, hearing about Jesus leads to this traumatic flashback for Herod. And this story of John speaking God’s truth and being killed for it, serves for us, the readers of Mark’s gospel, not as a flashback, but as a flashforward. A foreshadowing of what’s about to unfold in the story of Jesus. 

There’s something for us to learn, as well, as people who follow in the way of Jesus… who followed in the way of John… who followed in the way of the Old Testament prophets… We come from a long tradition of people who were called to speak God’s truth to a world that finds that truth threatening. 

Today’s first reading is from the prophet Amos. It talks about a plumb line that God puts in the middle of Israel. A plumb line is something people use in construction to make sure walls are built in a straight line. 

Amos says that God has a plumb line, too. It’s the line of God’s righteousness, and God’s people are judged according to how their lives line up with God’s righteousness.

Jesus introduced a plumb line of his own. He called it the Kingdom of God. The challenge for us as Christians is to take the vision of the Kingdom of God as it’s revealed to us by Jesus, lay it alongside the ways of the world and ask, how do they line up? 

Now, the only way to get a handle on what the Kingdom of God looks like is by studying the Scriptures. And when we study the Scriptures, we learn just how radically different the Kingdom of God is from the ways of the world. 

We live in a world that rewards people based on their merit and insists people get what they deserve, but in the Kingdom of God, people receive grace, which has absolutely nothing to do with what they deserve. Our world insists strength is shown by exerting power over others; in the Kingdom of God, strength is shown in service and giving yourself for others. In the world around us, when someone hurts us, we strike out and hurt them back; in the Kingdom of God, we respond to hatred with compassion—we turn the other cheek and pray for our enemies. 

And the really big thing we learn when we study the Scriptures, in particular the way of Jesus, is that God has a bias toward the bottom. God sides with the poor, the outsiders, and the oppressed. As people who are affluent, well-positioned in life, and who benefit from the status quo, that’s not something we want to hear. 

When we lay the ways of the world around us alongside the ways of the Kingdom of God, we can’t ignore the disparity or look the other way. We see God’s truth. How do we respond to it?  

Now this is hard for most of us. But I don’t know if you realize what a struggle it is for those of us who preach. It’s the sort of thing that has me tossing and turning on Saturday nights.  

I want you to like me. It would feel so good to stand before you week after week and tell you funny stories, and talk about my grandkids and my cat, and assure you that God doesn’t want any of us to change. 

I really don’t want to ruffle your feathers or become a source of anger for you. And that presents me with a dilemma. Because I can’t preach whatever I want to. I’m called to proclaim the truth of the Scriptures to you. And I work as hard as I can to do that—praying that the Holy Spirit will guide me. 

I know that many people have been conditioned to believe that preachers aren’t supposed to talk about politics from the pulpit. I’m not sure where that idea comes from, but it couldn’t have come from anyone who actually reads the Bible. When you read the message of the Scriptures—and I’m not talking about snacking here and there, but really feasting on the whole enchilada—a major theme of the Scriptures is speaking truth to power. 

That’s how it all started for God’s people when a motley group of slaves sought freedom from their oppressors. It was the message of the prophets in times of corruption and years of exile. During Jesus’ time, Israel was living in subjugation to the Roman Empire. That political reality colored everything Jesus said and everything he did. 

Partisan politics, that is endorsing a certain political party or candidate, has no place in the church. But addressing the political world is another matter. When we consider the witness of Jesus and his followers, seeking faithfulness to that story and relevance to our own, we have to ask, how do we faithfully respond to our own Empire?

This isn’t just a struggle for preachers. It’s a struggle for all of us as God’s people. And it’s a struggle for the Church as an expression of Christ’s presence in the world.

We don’t have the option of remaining silent so that people will like us. We may be considered offensive at times. We may be considered impolite. Like Amos. Or John the Baptist. Or Jesus. We may not get invited to many parties and when we are, we may end up the main course. 

That’s what happens when you lay the Kingdom of God alongside the Kingdoms of this world. You notice the difference and it’s not something you can live with.  


Saturday, July 14, 2018

The importance of being right

When I was in college, my roommate was dating a grad student who was way smart. I always thought I was well endowed in the brains department, but he had it all over me. His mind sucked up facts like a vacuum cleaner. Every night during supper, when Jeopardy came on TV, he enjoyed sharing his vast knowledge with us. I listened and silently gnashed my teeth, never daring to challenge him because he was just about always right. 

When I was handed an unexpected opportunity to stick it to him, I couldn’t resist. I happened to watch Jeopardy while I was home for Christmas break. Then, when I returned to school, lo and behold, an exact same episode that I’d already seen the week before was being aired on TV. It was like a dream come true! I pretended that I had never seen it before, as I called out all the right questions, including a few that he missed. Although I acted as nonchalant as possible about it, inside I was whoopin’ and hollerin’ and jumpin' up and down. Yes! 

It felt so good that I never told him the truth. To this day he thinks that I mopped the Jeopardy board with his face that night. Actually, he’s probably forgotten all about it. But not me! I will never forget it. At the time, I thought of it as an impressive victory. Now I look back and I realize it was NOT one of my finer moments. How could I have been so deceptive?

I wonder how many people in a similar situation would be able to resist such an opportunity? I mean, isn’t being right a rush for all of us? There’s something about it that satisfies us on a basic level. Why is that?

I suspect it’s a competitive thing. If you’re right, that means you’re superior to the person who is wrong. And who doesn’t love feeling superior? If we can point to someone else and say, “I’m better than she is!” it’s proof positive that we’re worthwhile.

Maybe this is one reason why some of us are so offended by the notion that God unconditionally loves ALL people. In the church we call it grace. It’s love freely given, with no strings attached. It’s loving someone just because. That’s exactly the way God loves us -- just because.

For those of us who have a need to feel we’re special, and I suspect that’s pretty much all of us, the undiscriminating grace of God can leave us feeling slighted. Of course, to God, we’re special, and that’s fine with us. But the problem is that, to God, EVERYONE is special. How can anyone be special if everyone is special? And how can we feel superior to other people if God loves everyone the same, whether they’re perfectly right or terribly wrong? Now, I realize that’s a very human perspective and I think it’s safe to say that a God of grace doesn’t see things that way.

Certainly, our need to be right takes on epic proportions when we align our rightness with God’s. It’s not so much a problem when we try to think like God; it’s when we convince ourselves that God thinks like us. And when we’re so hell-fire sure that God thinks like we do, well, we have to be right, by God! We’ll fight to the death to prove that we’re right because so much is at stake. It’s a scary place to be. And, ironically, it is exactly what a life in relationship with God is NOT.

To be in an authentic relationship with God, we have to be able to utter three words that so many of us find it pert near impossible to say: I was wrong. Until we can acknowledge that we’re not always right and quite often we might actually be wrong, we’ll have so much invested in proving we’re right that we can never let God be God.

Do you have an aversion to the words, I was wrong? It’s a true spiritual handicap that isolates us from God, as well as other people. And it keeps us from growing into the people God created us to be. That’s why, as painful as it is, every once in a while, it helps us to be reminded that we can be wrong. You might say that an occasional serving of crow is good for our spiritual health.