Monday, March 24, 2008

I'm dreaming of a white Easter

     "Merry Easter" and "I am dreaming of a white Easter" were some of the jokes that parishioners and visitors were making about the snowfall for Easter. I certainly had to chuckle, though, at people's efforts to blur the distinction between Christmas and Easter. Yes, it seemed a bit unusual. I cannot remember the last time where we had to worry whether Rudolph could get the Easter Bunny to his destinations before, but such is life in March in Iowa. Wait an hour or two, we like to brag, and the weather will change more to your liking.

     But this blurring of distinction fascinated me. Personally, I was reminded of a gift of diaconal stole I was given by a lady of Bolivia. One of the personal ministries of Shawnee Lyons, the wife of Bishop Frank Lyons, has been to get some of the ladies in the church in Bolivia to make stoles. She then sells the stoles for the ladies stateside to earn money to support themselves. By and large, all these ladies are widows with no means of real support. Shawnee's ministry has allowed them to provide wonderfully for themselves and for priests and deacons who may lack the budget to spend tons of monies on stoles.

     Without boring you with all the details, I knew I would have to purchase a number of diaconal stoles for worship at St. Stephen's in OH. One fall month in 2005, when I had had a particularly good brokerage month, I purchased two diaconal stoles. My thought was that I would be well covered until I was ordained to the priesthood. I had a blue one for Advent and a green one for after Pentecost. But I lusted after this magnificent reversible stole (purple on one side and white on the other with fish woven into both sides). It was stunningly beautiful! But I could not justify the expense. Christmas, after all, was coming.

     To make a long story short, the next time I ran into Shawnee (she has a soft spot for larger families), she had a gift and a note for me. As I opened the box, I saw the stole. Then I saw the note. Shawnee had to translate it for me as most of my Spanish has long since left me, but the part that sticks with me was her answer to my question. When I first saw the stole, I had asked Shawnee what had ever prompted this lady to make a stole with Christmas and Saint days on one side and Lent on the other. The lady in her note responded to me that "Christmas without Easter is meaningless, and Easter without Christmas is worthless." I had received a real lesson in the "Widow's Might," and I had been priviledged to come into contact with a woman who understood God far better than I. I have no doubt that in the next world, when I go to thank this marvelous widow for her beautiful gift, that she will be much closer to His glorious throne than me.  
     Had He not chosen to come down to earth on Christmas, Easter would be just another tortuous death of a good man in the annals of history. Likewise, had He not gone to the cross for our sakes, Christmas would have none of the awe or wonder with which we are filled when we ponder the Incarnation of our Lord, the Creator of heaven and earth.

     Why have none of you ever seen this stole? For me, the lesson was too profound, and it, like the beauty of the stole, needed to be shared. Upon my ordination to the priesthood, I gave both the stoles and the story to an upcoming senior, Daniel. He in turn has passed it on to another. I have no idea where those magnificent stoles are now, but I thought of that lady's lesson this weekend. With apologies to all those who were distraught over the snow this past weekend, maybe it is not such a bad thing that God linked the day He conquered death to the day He came down from heaven. Maybe, just maybe we are called to remember them both together in that way.

Christ's Peace,


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Bread, manna, tortillas . . .

     What in the world am I going to do with these tortillas? -- It was a question which was giving me pause this week.  For some reason, Angel Food had put way too many tortillas on our truck.  We had nearly a hundred bags of tortillas too many!  There were not enough to give everybody two bags, but there were far too many to dispose of easily.
     I decided to take them to Winnie's Place.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that there were three hispanic families newly moved into the facility.  One of the kids took a couple bags of tortillas off the big box full of tortillas and starting shouting and thanking me all at the same time.  Better still, he took the tortillas and held them aloft like Rocky Balboa and proceeded to call the other kids to show them his victory.  My Spanish is so bad now as to be nearly non-existent, but I caught enough to hear the wonder and surprise.  The lady working at Winnie's was enjoying it as nearly as much as I was.  You see, they had been living without their comfort food.
     I suppose it might be analogous to my love of peanut butter and jelly.  Sometimes, I just have to have a good pb & j to make the world seem a little better.  It hits the spot and reminds me of simpler times.  The tortilla and butter seemed to serve the same for these children.  Keep in mind, each had been uprooted from an abusive home and moved to a place for their own safety.  Those that run the shelter do their best to provide food, shelter, and safety for those brought to them.  While the kids were being fed well, they were not well-fed.  They had no comfort food.  Their favorite snack was not provided.  In the midst of a new environment, with the uncertainty that surrounded their future, a tangible connection had been lost.  And here God had faithfully met a need.
     They were only tortillas, nearly too many tortillas; yet these children treated them as I would a good pb & j after a terrible day at work.  Nothing flashy, nothing fancy; just good old comfort food.  Events such as these never cease to amaze me.  God's marvelous works are often remembered from the Bible; yet so often He is at work in our midst.  Our Father in heaven provided food for His children whose own father had acted as anything but a father.  They had been forced to flee one who should have loved them more than anyone one in the world.  And, in the midst of their hurt, fear, and confusion, He gave them a feast which only a dad could provide.  Give us this day our daily bread, and pray that the Father always give us eyes to see His provision in our midst.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Who is He to you?

     If you are the Son of God – at the beginning of Lent, we read the stories of Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. I remarked at the time that Satan’s temptation was doubly devious. Satan challenges Jesus to feed Himself and to prove God’s love of Him, if He is the Son of God, knowing full well who Jesus is. Jesus is the Son of God; yet He is on earth to do the will of His Father in heaven. I made the comment at the time that these temptations were nowhere near as difficult as those which our Lord would later face. Flash forward to our Palm Sunday’s Passion Narrative.

     In our reading from this weekend, Jesus asks the Father to let the cup pass three times. Always, however, Jesus tells God “not My will but Yours be done.” Jesus so does not want to have to experience the upcoming torment; yet He agrees to follow the will of God. Then, in the midst of the torture, the very people He came to rescue mock Him and challenge Him in the very way of Satan. Passerby’s mock Him, “You who would tear down this temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself. If you are the Son of God, come down.” “He is king of Israel; let him come down from the cross now.” “If He is God’s Son, let God deliver Him.” Even the thief mocks Him at the end, “If you are the Son of God, save Yourself” The temptations for Jesus at the end must have been tremendous. He is the king, He is the Son of God, He is the Savior! Yet, to save His people, Jesus must lay down His life. You or I might want our circumstances to change, but we can do nothing about it. Jesus could have changed His circumstances by a simple force of will. In other words, He had to want to remain on that cross for all our sakes.  Imagine the suffering.  Imagine the pain.

     The narrative this weekend was particularly moving at both services as each of our voices was drawn into the crowd's. We each participated in the mocking of Jesus. “If You are the Son of God.” At the beginning of Lent I invited each of us to examine our relationship with our Lord. Were we like the Temple elites, ignorant of who Jesus was and is? Were we like the demons He encountered in His ministry, who knew who Jesus was but to whom they refused to bow and obey? Were we like the blind man, who was given eyes to see? Were we like Lazarus, who was raised from the dead? Far too often, we find ourselves as the mockers. Far too often we find ourselves acting as if we do not believe. And often, we find ourselves repenting of our failures. “If You really are listening Lord, give me that promotion.” “If You really are God, do this for me and I will never miss church again.” Yet it was for the likes of each of us that He came to save. Thankfully, mercifully, He asks only that we believe in Him. He promises to take care of the rest.

     So, who is He to you? Is He your Lord and Savior? Or is He something entirely different? Something unworthy of one who stayed upon that cross despite our persistent ridiculing of His efforts? It is, admittedly, an uncomfortable question. If He is our Lord, the thought what He did for us so long ago can nearly break our hearts and drive us to our knees. And if He is not, this week’s activities can seem as vapid as any blather. The ultimate focus of this week’s activities, Easter Morning, assures us that He is who He says He is and that He can keep each of His promises to us. The ultimate focus of this week reminds us each that He refused to leave us where we deserved to be. And instead of lording Himself over us, He came to serve and to save us. So, who is He to you?



Monday, March 10, 2008

He wept

     The past two weeks have included readings from John's Gospel which give Christian plenty of opportunity to present God as anything but loving. Last week, when His disciples ask about the blind man, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?", Jesus' answer is translated as "neither. . . he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." The way the verse is translated and often understood, God has this man born blind so that He can show off how powerful He really is. That does not really sit with our understanding of a loving, caring God who's self-revealing characteristic is hesed --covenant love.

     Fast forward to this week, Jesus gets a message from Mary and Martha that "he whom you love is ill." We are told that Jesus waits two days to return to Bethany despite the fact that He loves them dearly. Better still, He seems to heartlessly tell us that "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." Many of us understand Jesus to be saying "I am staying here until Lazarus dies so that I can be glorified." And if we present these two stories in this way, it is no wonder that people miss the miracles of healing and condemn us for following a god so self-centered and so cruel.

     Of course, if the stories are taught rightly, we understand that God is truly the loving, caring God whom we believe Him to be. The seeming conundrum of the first passage is overcome if we realize that the original Greek had no punctuation. Does the passage say what the NSRV says, or does it say "So that God's works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day." Admittedly, such a phrase is cumbersome in English, but it seems to point more to a loving God than the translations often used. And the second passage is even easier to understand. Jesus waits two days before returning to Bethany. But, upon His return, we are told that Lazarus has been in the tomb four days. In other words, Lazarus died two days before Jesus ever heard from the messenger that "he whom you love is ill."

     Cynics might well sneer and wonder why on earth we think that God is not cruel but loving, healing us rather than always punishing us, redeeming us rather than condemning us. There is plenty of evidence of His attitude towards us in the Bible, but this week's reading, which includes the shortest verse in the entirety of the Bible, relates His care for us beautifully. "Jesus began to weep." Imagine, the creator of the universe, of all that is seen or unseen, the God Incarnate began to weep. Our Lord is calls us each to a relationship that is so personal, so intimate, so loving that even He is moved to weep at our suffering. Though we would expect Him to stand off and be removed from us, He chose to enter this world as one of us. And the same God who created the universe and all its glory stands and weeps at our deaths, for He knows this was not what He intended. This world is not what He created. And how many of our friends, neighbors, families, co-workers, classmates and others reject that kind of love and settle for what this world has to offer? What loving heart would not be moved to such tears over such a tragedy? Brothers and sisters, that is the loving God to whom we are called to witness to the world.


Monday, March 3, 2008

The celebration of St. Thelma

      Whew! What a weekend. It is hard to imagine that life has to continue after a wonderful but busy weekend like we just experienced. Yet such is the life of a follower of Jesus Christ. When He grants us those brief experiences on the mountaintop, we are always sent back down into the valleys and wildnerness to witness His calvary-like love to a lonely and dark world.  In many ways, our celebration of the life of Thelma was very much a mountaintop experience. The church was packed to overflowing, brothers and sisters from all different denominations of the body of Christ attended, the choir sounded like angels singing her favorite hymn, and there was triumphant joy.

     I suppose I have worried unnecessarily that we have not ministered to her family well enough. I have worried for Norm, who lost a wife, a companion, and a bit of a taskmaster. I have prayed for Steve and Stephanie who lost a mother. I have prayed for the rest of the family which has lost a sister, a grandmother, a confidant, and a friend. And I have worried for this parish community in which so many trace their involvement with St. Alban's to that remarkable lady. We have all shared our favorite stories, lamented her loss, but then rejoiced in the knowledge that she is home. Truly, there has been very little weeping or sorrow. As I was reflecting on the gospel reading she chose for us yesterday, I realized that the joy we all have felt is probably the best witness and honor we could give to her life and the best response we could give to a confused world.

     The reading that Thelma chose for yesterday was all about judgment. For the rest of the world, judgment is something to be avoided and feared. For those who believe in Christ, however, judgment is a joyous occassion. There were few tears because we, as a community gathered in celebration of her life, knew that the One in whom she placed her faith is the One who has offered eternal life to us all. Her Lord is the Lord to whom all things in heaven and earth and under the earth bow and obey. Her Redeemer is the same One who went to calvary to redeem us all. Will we miss her? At times I have no doubt that we will miss her sorely. But as she helped to lead this congregation so carefully in life, it seems somehow fitting that she would lead us rightly by her death!

Christ's Peace,