Monday, April 30, 2012

We are all sheep gone astray . . .

     In case you have not figured it out for yourself by the readings, today is the day that we in the church celebrate the “Good Shepherd.”  It may come as a surprise to many of you, I know it did to me when I read this, but the vast majority of the illustrations of Jesus in the early Church are not of His nativity nor of His crucifixion, but rather of His role as the Good Shepherd.  Clearly, our brothers and sisters who came before us found this image very comforting.  I wonder whether that image is truly understood in 21st Century America?  We are fortunate to live in Iowa.  We sort of have the best of both worlds here in Davenport.  On the one hand, we have a decent-sized set of cities surrounding us.  Most of us do not have to drive very far to get groceries, clothes, electronics, or pretty much anything we might need.  And, we are close enough to Chicago that we can even get to the culture events that we might lack around here, as well as any restaurants.  But, drive a couple miles west or north, and we are decidedly in farm country.  Our members from Eldridge, Buffalo, Wheatland, and other such communities, are tied closely to the farm life.  Heck, many of us here work for companies whose survival depends upon the health of the agricultural industry here in Iowa.

     But how many shepherds do you know?  I know pig farmers.  I know ranchers who keep cattle.  I know corn farmers and soybean farmers.  But the only shepherd I know in this country is retired and living outside Pittsburgh.  Fortunately, he is a seminary professor, and he gets to share with students some of the meaning behind some of the images that we, quite frankly, have forgotten as a culture.

     One day, as we were setting in class and talking about Psalm 23, one of my fellow students asked about the still waters.  What’s the big deal?  Doesn’t everybody want to lie down where food and drink are plenty?  Leander chuckled.  Then he began to remind us of some of the characteristics of sheep.  Those of you who have been here have learned that sheep are not stupid, that they are stubborn, that they are fragile animals, that they cannot see much beyond a couple feet in front of themselves, and dependent upon a shepherd for much of what we think we take for granted.  In any event, what they lack in smell and sight, they seem to make up in hearing (The sheep know My voice).  The problem with water is obvious once we think about it.  What does rushing water sound like?  What does still water sound like?  If you could not see well nor smell well and you wanted a drink, would you head toward the quiet or toward the babbling water?  Now you know why shepherds have to work to keep their sheep near calm waters.  The sheep wants to go where it thinks the water is.  The problem is that rushing water is usually more dangerous for a sheep than sipping next to a wide spot in the stream (think of swimming in a current in a wet wool coat if you lose your balance, and you might understand why).  Truthfully, the sheep only knows that it thirsts.  It does not understand the danger associated with the sound of the water that would quench its thirst.  It needs the shepherd to show it and teach it where the safe water is, that it might not get injured or drown.  It might seem cruel, from the sheep’s perspective, when the shepherd is pulling it away from the gurgling sounds; but the sheep eventually learns, over time, that the shepherd has something better in mind for it.

     I was reminded of this story during Holy Week.  I know some of you wonder how I ever got anything done that week, given the sheer number of conversations.  Trust me, there was a reason I looked exhausted on Easter Monday.  Another lady from AA approached me.  She wanted to talk about her mistakes and sins in life and wanted to know if God really forgives everything.  You and I would call the Reconciliation of a Penitent.  She called it “just talking.”

     At one point during our conversation, she asked me if I thought that God lets people suffer so that we can begin to know Him better.  I asked what she meant by her question, and she proceeded to tell me her prodigal daughter story.  A few years ago, she was living in another town.  She was pretty happy with her life.  She did not have a boyfriend, but she had a great job.  She made good money, but never enough to stay off or get off the credit cards.  On Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, she would party with her friends.  Occasionally she would hook up with a cute guy.  She was enjoying life.

     Then the crisis of life hit her.  I won’t share specifics because I keep inviting her to church, and I hope and pray that one day she will come.  But she had the kind of news that was life threatening.  As she dealt with the emotions of the news, she remembered her time in the church as a youth, and she began to pray.  She asked God for an amazing miracle to fix her problem. After all, He promised to answer whenever she called, right?  Sadly, He refused to listen to her prayers, or so she thought. 

     She went through the normal emotions of her problem.  She was scared, she was mad, she was determined, she was resigned.  Finally, her date with the surgeon arrived.  Thankfully, the surgery went great.  The only problem looming before her was her rehabilitation and her follow up treatments.  She said that as she lay there, still in the hospital, she reached rock bottom.  It dawned on her how alone she was.  She had lived her own life, but at what cost.  Who was there for me now?  As you all figured out from the beginning of this story, alcohol had figured prominently in her life.  When men dumped her, she turned to drink.  When work was stressful, she turned to drink.  She had played at recovery several times, but she always relapsed.  She had burned bridges with nearly every family member and real friend she had had in her earlier life.  Now, when life seemed most burdensome, she realized she had even given up on God.

     It was during that stay that she repented of her idolatry of alcohol.  She asked God to please come back to her.  She said she did not want the healing sped up, just for someone to be with her through the days and weeks ahead.  While she was still in the hospital, the pastor of the church where they met came to visit.  She bared her soul.  Thankfully, he was more of a pastor than just a hired hand.  Though she was not yet a part of the flock to which he had been given charge, her life began to change almost immediately.

     One of the ladies at that church, who always said hello and always had a kind word, showed up in her room.  They talked and, looking back on it, this saint was trying to figure the need.  When she was told she was going to be discharged from the hospital, our prodigal daughter was terrified.  She had no money, her credit cards were maxed out, her boss had let her go prior to her surgery because of “too many absences” caused by her illness.  How was she to eat?  How was she to bathe?  How would she ever keep her place?  Even going to the bathroom was going to be a challenge.  You’ll never believe what happened next, Pastor.

     One of the men from the church showed up with a couple ladies to take her home.  Once she was safely ensconced in the apartment, he left and the ladies went to work.  They gave that apartment a cleaning every bit as thorough as your ladies here attacking that kitchen.  And they started making calls.  Much of her early time is a haze, too many drugs and probably a bit of withdrawal.  But somehow, she was fed, she was taken to follow up appointments, her bills were paid, and she was nursed back to health.  When she finally came to her senses, she asked them why on earth they would devote that kind of energy to her.  They told her that in many ways, God had done this for them as well.  Maybe the details differed, but He had been there for them.  The very least they could do was to serve Him through her needs, and thus bring Him honor and glory.

     You know, Father, I had never heard of a group of people doing this kind of a thing outside the Bible.  And yet, I could not help but realize that God had engineered the whole thing.  In many respects, the miracle that I asked for would have been the easy thing to do.  But would have I realized it was Him?  Or would I have slipped into the bottle a few weeks or few months later?  I don’t know how to describe it, but I almost felt like He was there beside me all the time, even when I was not looking for Him.  Knock on wood, I was cured.  My bills were paid.  My body was nursed and nourished back to health.  And even my loneliness is gone. Do you know, I have not had a drink since before I went into the hospital?  Do you think He sometimes lets us hit rock bottom, so that we know it’s Him working?

     Intimacy.  What?  In theological terms we call it intimacy.  I don’t understand.  You do, you just don’t understand the term yet.  You all here know that this was like shooting fish in a barrel for me.  I reminded her of Scripture’s promise that God knows our needs far better than we.  I described some of Leander’s descriptions of caring for sheep.  Shepherds tend sheep.  When the sheep are injured, they nurse them to health. When the sheep need better pastures, the shepherd leave them there.  When the sheep need protection, the shepherds are there to try and save them.  Over time, the shepherd comes to know the sheep individually. Better still, the sheep begin to identify the shepherd as the one voice who is always providing.  Her story was proof of that in human terms.  As busy as we think God is managing the Church, or keeping stars and planets in orbit, or doing whatever He is doing, He still has the time to know and meet our needs.  In the beginning, she was her own boss of her life.  Later, she wanted cured.  He knew she needed far more.  So, He allowed her the freedom to choose.  And when she finally chose Him again, He was faithful.  Better still, He had the power to meet her need, even when the world blinded her to that need’s very existence!

     Brothers and sisters, whom or what are you trusting to meet your need?  Are you, like the lady in AA, turning to drugs and alcohol to forget the pain?  Are you trusting in your ability to earn a living to provide?  Are you, perhaps, convinced of the lie that only your doctor can save you?  Remember our Lord’s teaching this day.  Only one person has the power to lay down a life again and take it up.  Only one person will not act as a hired hand to you.  Only one person knows us each and calls us by Name, our Lord, our Savior, our Good Shepherd.  Why not answer his call today and serve, that He might give you that which you so need . . .
Christ’s Peace,

Monday, April 23, 2012

Art imitates life . . .

     Every now and again, I use a sermon illustration that really rubs people the wrong way. It might be the use of a great Christian movie such as Highlander or Hellboy, a Christian animated series such as Southpark, a Christian series such as The Big Bang Theory, a good book or series such as Game of Thrones or Hunger Games. It might even be a wonderful Christian game such as World of Warcraft. How do I know? The questions that follow. I will say this about all of us, we have very few bashful people in this congregation. I do have a small confession to make, sometimes I do sit around wondering what the most ridiculous example I can choose from culture to illustrate the lesson that we are reading. Partly I do it because I love the conversations that follow; but partly I do it in light of today’s instruction from the Gospel lesson of Luke.

     Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. We live in an age where the Gospel of Christ has gone forth to all nations. Our very gathering is proof of that. We are not exactly near the ground zero of this verse, Jerusalem. Yet, it is still His commandment to us to take the Gospel of repentance and forgiveness in Christ’s name to all. So where do we take this message to which we are all witnesses.

      People over the last few months have noted with despair some interesting statistics about the country in which we live. For the first time in our country’s history, self-identifying Christians no longer make up a majority of the country’s population. Think about that for a second. Fewer than half of all Americans claim to be Christian. It’s a sobering statistic. What’s worse is that sociologists and pollsters agree that the number of people who actually attend church has cut in half in the last 70 - 80 years. Somewhere around 22% of people claim that they have attended church in the last month, down from the 40% in the last seven days in the 1930’s and 40’s. Barely more than 1 in 5 Americans consider themselves to be regular or active attendees, if one understands regular or active to mean monthly. Our mission field, brothers and sisters, is all around us. More than half of those with whom you work, with whom you play, with whom you study self-identify themselves as not Christian. Only 1 in five go to church monthly. Probably, if we are honest about our families, those numbers apply to them as well. Maybe not our nuclear families, but certainly the numbers seem to apply in extended families. The question is not “Should we reach out to them?” or “Do I have to reach out to them?” but rather “How do I reach out to them in a way which glorifies God?” "What is it that I, little old me, have to tell them about Jesus?"    
      Yes, we and those whom we are trying to reach are turned off by those who stand on street corners proclaiming "repent or you are going to hell."  Yes, most of us lack the formal theological training to compose a treatise about isolation in a Facebook world, an encyclopedic answer on the question of evil and free will, and, let’s face it, we are all just guessing when we get specific about the world to come. But, as Jesus reminds us this morning, we are witnesses of these things. Each of us has a unique redemption story. Whether we were evil and willful human beings thumbing our noses at God until some Damascus Road experience in our lives or, thanks to our parents, lifelong members of the Church who have always felt encompassed by the love of God, we each have a story. We have all seen Christ’s ability to redeem all things, beginning with ourselves. So, when we are called to speak to the world about the wonders God has done, we can begin with that best known subject—our very own lives!

     What is even better is that God redeems each one of our lives to His glory. Yes, we are in a slow, in my case I sometimes think I am in reverse, process of sanctification. As we walk in faith we begin to get eyes to see things which He sees, to hear those things which He hears, to understand what those around us need and should be seeking. Like His resurrected body, we are ourselves yet different. What do I mean?

     An easy example is WoW. When I talk about that imaginary world, I know some of you roll you eyes or wonder how on earth I could ever think that God was present in an imaginary world. Truthfully, I would have responded like you a mere decade ago. But ask any one of those in this congregation who play. People in WoW are struggling in real life with deaths, with relationship issues, with school, with bullying, with drugs and/or alcohol, with questions of morality, with questions of meaning. Hmmmmm. Sounds a lot like that place you and I call real life. The conversations that I have in that pretend world are uncannily similar to those conversations that I have in this world. Art truly imitates life. But don’t take just my word for it, ask any of those who play.

     Related to WoW is the use of a series such as The Hunger Games. From a theological perspective, The Hunger Games is a simple story which captures the utter hopelessness and isolation that many in the world, particularly teens, around us feel. Heck, the possibility of the United States actually failing probably seems plausible for the first time in our country’s history, so the story represents a potential outcome of that failure. Ever hear anyone in your life or one television question whether the government really cares about their plight? Know anyone who claims that you cannot possibly begin to relate to them because we are, fundamentally, so different? Know any people who go to work mindlessly, worried about survival from day to day, completely without hope or vision for their future?
     I could go on and on with these examples and remind you of God’s teaching, but you and I have the most valuable tool for proclaiming repentance and forgiveness possible—the story of our own salvation! You and I can stand in the breach between the real world and the imaginary world and explain how Christ has healed us. We can reach into the hopelessness, the isolation, and the hurt so prevalent in modern literature, movies, television, and comic strips, and tell of the hope which He gives and the power to make it a reality, the community to which He calls us to share life’s joys and burdens, the healing which His cross can bring. Better still, because of His Resurrection and the one He promises for each of us, we can tell others that these things, all these things in the world are passing away. Yes they are painful. Yes they can take over our focus. But, because we know that we will be raised to a new life after our death, the measures of this life do not apply to us! Even if we seem to be the ultimate victims of evil in this world, still we know, we have witnessed, and we know that He will redeem even our deaths! So go! Share! Proclaim! You are witnesses! And you each have a story to share!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Why settle for immortality when His promise is Resurrection?

     I know it is Low Sunday and traditionally the day that we as clergy tell you as parishioners that it is ok to have doubts. After all, if the Apostle Thomas doubted and was still loved by Jesus, you and I really do not have to worry much about our doubts either, do we? Else why would Jesus declare us blessed for believing and not seeing? But, I found myself thinking this week more on the life to come. More specifically, I found myself reflecting more on conversations about our next body that I have had so far this year. The problem was I had no tag line. I had no pithy statement to sum up the discussions I had had with people in light of Rick’s death, Lilyan’s death, of confessions during and in light of Holy Week. Then Kathleen showed up, preached at Rick’s memorial, and gave me the tag line. Talk about a gift!

     When you go forth into the world and people ask you about the “benefits” of eternal life, how do you describe the world to come? More specifically, how do you describe what you believe to be the existence? Let me ask the question a bit differently: with a show of hands, who here hopes they get this body, the one we have right now, when we get to that great Wedding Feast with our Lord? Who here hopes they get their breaking down, achy, maybe a bit overweight body for all eternity? And we are the faithful! Can you imagine what people outside these walls think of their own bodies? I certainly can.

     There’s a great Christian movie out there that I feel almost always obligated to watch whenever I notice it is on television, no matter the hour, which is really stupid since I have the digital version. It’s called Highlander. And I won’t bore you with too many details about the movie, but in the movie there are immortals living among us seeking the prize. They are not sure what the prize is, but they all want it. And to kill another immortal, one must cut off his head (sorry, ladies, it is a sexist, violent movie and does not seem to have women as immortals). All other wounds, no matter how horrific heal; all other physical wounds heal. During the course of their lives, which sometimes reach a couple millennia, these immortals encounter other wounds. Hardest to cope with are the emotional wounds. Specifically, they are advised never to love. Love dies, and they live on until they lose their heads. It is a terrible tragedy of their existence. They can live for centuries, but they must live alone to avoid the hurt and pain of the deaths of others. It is a pain summed up neatly in that Contemporary Christian band known as Queen in their song “Who wants to live forever?” There’s no time for us . . . there’s no place for us. . . what is this thing which builds our dreams yet slips away from us . . .

     It is a frustration shared by many outside the church. As I reflected on the significance of Holy Week with various members of the Marquette Group, even those that are Christian were unsure why they should want to keep their bodies or even if they had a body in the world to come. Like you, they have aches and pains. Like you, their bodies are not the strong, vibrant temples of their youth. Perhaps like or unlike you, they have the cravings of their addiction on top of everything else. The idea of going through all eternity fighting addiction is not particularly a draw to them. Some simply kiss the chalice rather than drink from it, such is their addiction.  Who needs that? Who really wants it? And what of the psychological or emotional damage we all carry? All of a sudden, eternity with a body does not sound so appealing. Given the complete lack of hands a few moments ago, all of us share that same insight.

     What, then, will be our existence in the world to come? Certainly there will be a body. We are, as we remind ourselves each time we gather around this table, invited to a feast. What kind of feast lacks food and drink? Even Jesus seems to eat and drink (though He avoids the cup of Joy still) and walk and be huggable (though he commands Mary to wait). Of course, He is also somehow different. Sometimes, the Apostles and women do not know Him. He can enter through closed and even locked doors. He can travel incredible distances far quicker than we. So what will our existence be like? With all due thanks and footnotes to Kathleen, we as Christians do not proclaim immortality; we preach resurrection! Listen to that one more time, we do not proclaim immortality, we proclaim resurrection.

     What’s the difference? The difference is the gulf that exists between what happened to Lazarus when he was raised from the dead and what happens to Jesus when our Father raised Him from the dead. When Jesus told Lazarus to come out of that tomb, Lazarus was once again subject to the laws of this world. His life was simply restored to the same old shell he had always had. Like us, he was probably subject to disease and injury. Given that he is no longer around, he was subject to death. There is no account of him being unrecognizable or being able to enter locked rooms.  The life he lived once he was rasied from the dead seems to have been fairly normal, aside from the obvious notoriety.

     Jesus’ resurrection, however, was unlike anything ever before seen! He appears at times to be recognizable and at other times unrecognizable. he can interact with His friends and remain anonymous, and He can reveal Himself if He so chooses.  He is able to travel significant distances almost instantaneously. Clearly, as evidenced by the disciples and Thomas’ response, the wounds are still obvious. He is able to eat and drink. He is physically present enough that Mary wants to hug him, but Jesus commands her to wait. In a matter of a few weeks, He will ascend before the disciples’ eyes to be with the Father. His body has a physical presence; many of the Gospel narratives speak against the modern interpretation (as well as ANE) that His resurrection was a “spiritual thing” like a ghost or an idea. His body is as real as His promises and equally unimaginable to us.

     What we should be telling people about our bodies in the world to come is the good news that the nonsense to which we are subject here, pain, injury, fatigue, as well as the consequences of sin and death, will no longer be there to affect us when we are given our resurrected bodies. As we pray today, our minds, our hearts, and our wills will have been finally recreated to love what He loves, to desire what He desires, to know what He wants us to know. No longer will we be unruly. No longer will addictions hound us. Our bodies will be new, resurrected bodies, unique to each one of us, yet always glorifying to God. There will be a feast; that He has promised. There will be food and wine the likes of which we have never seen.  Maybe John of Damascus is right and there will be dancing (have you ever been to a wedding feast where there is no dancing?) I think it quite likely, and this would be amazing to you if you have ever seen me dance, we will all be good dancers, if there is dancing. I would even bet that calories will no longer have to be counted as we should count them in this life. We will run and not grow weary! In short, brothers and sisters, there will be activity, at least of a sort.

     What will our next body be like? To that, I have no specific answer. When people ask me if the bodies will be like their own at a particular age, I admit that I do not know for sure but that I would bet strongly against it. When asked why I would bet against that vibrant image of their younger self, I always remark that I have yet to meet the woman who thinks her body is without some blemish, and I have yet to meet the man who does not wish he had a bit more definition or a bit more whatever. Everyone has there own insecurities.   More often than not, people laugh at that observation. What I can promise is that God always fulfills His promises to us in ways that we can never ask or imagine. His ways are so far above ours, that I do not doubt we sell ourselves short when thinking of our bodies in the world to come. When we as children of God, are pondering the mysteries associated with the Creator of all things, seen and unseen, why should we ever expect to settle for immortality? We simply have to trust that our Father in Heaven, who created all things good in the beginning, has a wonderful body in store for us on that day He calls us home. And then with our own eyes, our own resurrected eyes, we shall see His face, the face who is not a stranger. Our message is joyful resurrection, brothers and sisters, not the disappointment, not the tease, not the hurt of immortality!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Rituals -- giving significance to events . . .

     Rituals have figured strongly in my ministry the past few days. It took me a bit of time reflecting today (Thursday) to figure out that fact. It began with my kids griping that there would be no seder this evening when I picked them up from school. There was lots of groaning and whining and offers to do what needed to be done when I mentioned the fatigue and malaise expressed by many of us. As I reflected on their response, however, it dawned on me that ritual had had a positive role on Wednesday, when I watched AA celebrate the 30 year of sobriety with one of their own. Now, of course, we are come upon the events of Maundy Thursday. This is that night that we remember and celebrate Christ’s commandment that we serve one another and the world in His name. And, if we think about it, His command that we celebrate the Eucharist is steeped in the foot washing ritual we are about to experience. You and I should really never be able to celebrate the Eucharist without reminding ourselves that Christ first served us. The ritual of the foot washing reminds us that He acted as a slave to us, and His death on the cross reminds us of the love He bore us. In between is this command that we eat and drink as part of our ritual reminder of who He was and what He did for us. How does ritual do this?

      I speak of ritual as a bit of a one-time outsider. Most of you know that I was raised in a denomination that did not place much emphasis upon ritual. There was much testimony given about personal salvation, but there were very little efforts to breed familiarity the way that ritual does. When Karen and I were going through pre-marital discussions and counseling, this nearly became a reason for us not to get married. She had been raised to accept the ritual as a way that one is marinated in the faith, to use a cooking term. Week in and week out, she had participated in a weekly celebration of the Eucharist. In a way that is hard to explain to those outside liturgical churches, the Eucharist became part of her consciousness and sub consciousness and, truth be told, a strong influence in her life. To an outsider like me, it looked a lot like going through the motions. Wasn’t it better to take communion once or twice a year, so as not to cheapen the experience or its significance, than it was to receive communion each and every day that the congregation gathered in worship?

     Our reading from Exodus tonight, however, reminds us that ritual is not a bad thing. Often, ritual can be used as a formative influence on individuals, particularly our youth. Over and over again, the Old Testament exhorts Israel to teach their youth the wonderful things God has done. Why? God wanted the children of Israel to know that He loved them, that He was guiding them, and that He would always be there for them? The parents in Israel were to tell their children constantly all of the saving deeds that God had done in an effort to form them into His people. The Passover meal about which we read in Exodus tonight, of course, was the ritual. The Passover was the signature act of God which reminded Israel of His power and of His love towards them. They were to eat certain foods prepared a certain way, dressed in a certain manner, seated in a particular way around the table to help form their consciousness about the event, to help remind them that they were related to those who had experienced the events in time and space.

     Flash forward to our Gospel lesson. What does Jesus do? He takes the Passover and supplants it. He kneels down, washes their feet like a slave, and proceeds to tell then how to eat this new meal and hints at its new significance. “This is My body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me. Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” You and I and all disciples in all places and in all times are commanded, not suggested, not asked, commanded to eat and drink in memory of Him, until the day of His return. Why? So that you and I will be steeped in the events of this week. How can we face the trials and tribulations of the world, if we lack the consciousness of Easter in the forefront of our minds? How can we truly experience suffering with hope, unless we remind ourselves that the events of Holy Week led to Calvary and to that wonderful Easter morning? How can we face our own death, the death of a loved one, or even the death of stranger without the stark reality of the cross and the blessed assurance of the empty tomb ever in the forefront of our minds!

     What was happening to my children was a kind of unhitching of ritual. The activities were being separated from the events they signified. For Robbie and those younger, they had no corporate memory of this night without the seder. For them, this night was that one night when we united ourselves to all those, like Sarah and Abraham and Noah and Ruth and Moses and Rebecca and whoever else we might name, who came before us, who shared these struggles of life with us, and who ultimately turned to God for salvation. Yes, Jesus significantly changed the ritual when He instituted His Supper. But they had been raised to see the Exodus event and the work and person of Christ with the eyes of salvation history. Now, in a way, because of the events of life in a parish, these two events were being disconnected. No wonder they were upset. No wonder they were concerned.

     I spoke earlier of a positive ritual and its impact. Yesterday, a woman walked into AA with a pretty butterfly cake made out of individual cupcakes. You may have seen the cake on my facebook page. As it turns out, this lady was celebrating 30 years of sobriety. What surprised me was that I had never met her. I thought I knew all the “old guard,” yet here was this lady telling me she had much about me, thanking me for the use of the space, receiving gifts and cards from the “old guard” I knew. As each of them entered, they had a card or gift and a kiss of congratulations. I asked how they knew she would be there. I was told it was an important day of remembrance. One of the men, who has been sober more than 25 years, told me how important the day was to him. When I asked why, he responded that he knew he could make it that many more years because she was further down the road of recovery. It was an attitude echoed by those who sobriety numbers impressed me before I met her.  No resentment (she only comes once a year); only joy and hope!

     Still, I had a question: Why didn’t she come every day like most? When I finally asked her, she told me she was no longer addicted. Even when dealing with the difficult death of a loved one, she had no desire to drink. God had blessed her with sobriety. So why do you return at all? Capturing that positive understanding of ritual, she said that she was paying back all those who set the example of hope for her. When she started, three decades ago, there were people who were years ahead of her. Their sobriety gave her hope when she had hit rock bottom and lost all hope. The least she could do as a thank you to them for all of their work was to do the same for all of these, as she gestured around the room.

     You and I gather this evening to once again immerse ourselves into these rituals of God. Though Christ significantly altered the meal of the Passover (and let’s face it, His offering far surpassed that of the lamb in the Passover feast), He left ritual intact. You and I gather each around this table each time we gather to worship God, cognizant of the reality that we, and all His Church, have been released from slavery. But we do this not as observers. Remember the root word of liturgy. This gathering is our work. How we worship is our work. Our rituals are our work. You and I, in a way not understood entirely on this side of the grave, are active participants in God’s Exodus event. We remember His death. We proclaim His resurrection. We await His coming in glory. We repeat those words, service after service. We repeat these actions, Maundy Thursday after Maundy Thursday. And the repeated become familiar. It becomes familiar to us. It becomes familiar to those who journey to the New Jerusalem with us. It was familiar to those who journeyed ahead of us and will be familiar to those who journey behind us.

     Do you remember our first foot washing liturgy? I do. Do you remember how many of you came forward? Thankfully my wife and children did, or this would have been a weird service, indeed. I think Robin and Charlie might have come forward only out of fear that I might start preaching again. I remember picking up the phone on Good Friday in 2007 and telling Bryan “I’ve got a bunch of Peters from verse 8.” Flash forward five years. How do you incorporate the fact that Jesus washed you clean as a slave washes clean the feet of masters into your everyday life? Human Trafficking. Community Meal. Winnie’s Place and Winnie’s Wishes. Intercessing. Lay Reading. Chalice Bearing. Healing. Work with prisoners. World of Warcraft.  Work with other churches for different needs. Serving on boards of ecumenical groups. Discipling. How do you explain that pouring out of ourselves?

     Were we not steeped in His service of us, such a change would be difficult to explain. But you and I can point to the events of this night, you and I can say “beginning on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week I began to understand what He was saying.” We serve Him because He first served us. We love Him because He first loved us. We love others because He loved us first and commanded us to love others in His name. We thankfully participate in these rituals because, just as rituals give significance to events, His rituals give significance to our lives! By participating in this meal and mysteriously having your feet washed by our Lord, you begin to see the meaning He has given to all that He did. And just as the rituals are important in the life of the Body of Christ, the significance of the events included in those rituals are life-giving to each one of us who participate. We can look at those who are a bit disjointed this evening by the unlatching of the meals and realize their willingness to be a slave to the wider parish body and a slave to those whom we serve next week at Community Meal and to their sister who’s husband’s funeral we will celebrate next week with thankful eyes and realize they gave up something intensely personal this week. And we can also reflect on the ritual of a three-decade sobriety celebration and remind ourselves that we do these rituals, we tell these tales, so that the generations that follow will know how much God loved them.

     The Lord Jesus, after He had supped with his disciples and had washed their feet, said to them, “Do you know what I, your Lord and Master, have done to you? I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done.” I bid those who would once again immerse themselves in the work of Maundy Thursday, to come forward at this time, that your feet might once again be made clean, that you might be renewed to go back out into the world to be a slave to all for His honor and His glory . . .


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Another reminder of the need for last week . . .

     I had a lot of individual conversations over the past month or so regarding the tragic shooting and publicity surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent George Zimmerman arrest. As I have shared with those who have approached me during the week, it was a fascinating story to watch as I drove to CT. During the course of my travels, the facts caused the narrative to change. In Iowa and Illinois, the story was described as an angry white man shooting a thug-looking black youth. By the time I got to CT, some Hispanics were mad that the shooter was described as “White Hispanic.” Some thought the press was trying to start a crisis between blacks and Hispanics; others thought the press was being insensitive to the hispanic culture. Nobody, regardless of their ethnic background, seemed to think that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were doing anything but grandstanding. After my return, we learned that the 911 tape had been edited and that the photographs being used in the beginning were hardly recent pictures. So what should we think?

     I think we should let the court system work itself out. Whether Mr. Zimmerman was justified in shooting Mr. Martin under the Florida statute often referred to as the “Stand your ground” law will be up to lawyers to argue and juries to decide. Obviously, witness testimony will be important. Pray that the truth is told and that people on the jury vote based on the testimony rather than rumors and innuendos. If Mr. Zimmerman hunted Trayvon Martin down and shot him out of spite, then the law should not shield him. If Mr. Martin attacked Mr. Zimmerman for being a creep, then the law will likely shield Mr. Zimmerman. No matter the outcome, I think it will be a good thing for these laws to be examined more closely, both in Florida and other parts of the country.

     The unaddressed elephant in the room is the charge of racism. As this story unfolded, I was reminded of Tommy Lee Jones’ statement to Will Smith in Men in Black. When Smith’s character asserts that people need to be told the truth, Jones’ character is adamant in his refusal. “Individuals are smart; people are dumb.” Jones’ character, as well as the press, understood human behavior quite well. Individually, we seem to be able to get along well enough. Two cops here in Iowa and a trooper in PA were really quite worried that the public would ever think that a police force in a decent sized community would ever be this racially insensitive, as if the force would lack minority representation or have minorities that think they should be subjected to this kind of nonsense. Their training and make up (and the presence of cell phone and dashboard cameras) simply weed out those types of individuals. Similarly, blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians all asked whether people in the South are really that way. The fact that we as strangers could address the elephant of racism that openly in rest areas and restaurants suggests to me that we, as a country, have made significant strides in our dealings with one another.

     Yet, the memory of the hurt remains. It is always a scab waiting to be ripped off at the slightest provocation.  My message of “let everything work itself out” was unsatisfactory to too many. Yet our own near “race war” in Davenport taught me much about how cases like this are used. The press sensationalizes them to make money and earn reputation. Politicians use them to get votes. Men like Sharpton and Jackson seemingly use the cry and uncertainty to increase their power and prestige (though, admittedly, maybe Sharpton and Jackson are not grandstanders but rather unable to forgive or forget when they have been victimized and need to be reminded of the Gospel).  And the bystanders and families are left wondering “what really happened?” I do not know the entirety of the facts of this case. I wonder if even the two individuals did during this terrible tragedy. What we can do for those involved, however, is pray that the local voices of God’s message of atonement and reconciliation through the work and person of Christ, especially during this season of Lent and Easter, will proclaim strongly and boldly the need for repentance and forgiveness, that the penalty has already been paid, that the individuals who make up the people will realize that they can forgive those who have repented of behavior and attitudes against them, because they were forgiven by Him first. Will it sell a lot of magazines? Nope. Will it end the press’ ability to manipulate people? Not in the beginning. But over time, and through His grace, all things can be healed, even racism. And then, maybe people will learn what individuals know and we can begin to live in peace.
Christ’s Peace,

Monday, April 9, 2012

Bringing Life to the dead . . .

     During the coming weeks of the Easter season, we will be reminded of our relationship with God. As we make our way mostly through John’s Gospel and the pastoral letters, we will be reminded of how today’s events marked a dramatic change in our relationship with our Father in heaven. Of course, looming in the background, is the relationship of the so-called old self.  How we were at emnity with our Lord?  How blinded were we? I’ll give you an easy example: Take a look around us. How many kids do you see dressed perfectly for the day? Now, what group of people in their right mind would ever take these little angels, pump them full of sugar after an egg hunt, and then pretend later today to be shocked by their behavior? And look around you some more! See all those older adults rubbing their hands together and cackling to themselves like villians? Their children are grown and they know they don’t have to live with the consequences of the pounds of sweets that they donated!

     Yes, we joke and laugh around here a bit, maybe a bit too much for some. But this is a day when it is incredibly hard not to feel incredible joy. The darkness and despair of Good Friday and Holy Saturday has given way to the hope and promise of Easter. The dirges of Lent have faded in lieu of the Alluluias and lilting tunes of this season. The reminders of the cost of our sins, the color red representing His blood, has resulted in those reminders of the purity that He offers us, through beautiful white linens and cloths. Those reminders of the joy we ought to have internally are all around us. And yet, we are still so blind! Perhaps blind is not the correct word, maybe the word is “wrongly focused.”

     I know that we have become the “home” for the Marquette Group of AA now. Last year, Holy Week was rather boring. This year, I have had a lot of Confessions. Without divulging anything already forgotten and forgiven by our Lord, I have had a few people really focused on their Lenten failures. “I tried to give up chocolate but binged six times, Father. Do you think He will still forgive me?” “I gave up soft drinks for Lent, Father, but found it even harder than alcohol. Do you think He will still forgive me?” For a group of people who recognize their addictions, this inability to control their will is frightening. Part of my job, of course, has been to allay that fear, and to do that effectively, I have had to refocus their minds on the truth of the Gospel.

     No doubt many of here gathered need that same refocus. What do you think was accomplished by His death on a cross and the Resurrection that we celebrate this morning? Do you think His death and Resurrection is just another excuse for a day off or a party? Do you think it’s an excuse to set the date of the Masters? Maybe it helps the networks remember to air that great movie with Charlton Heston? Do you think that His death and Resurrection is a quaint story important to your mom or grandmother but has no real impact on you or how you live your life? Do you, perhaps, pat yourself on the back thinking that you assign these events greater significance? Do you think His death allows you to forgive others because you are forgiven? Do you think that acknowledging what He did makes you a good or considerate person?  Maybe you think it is a great thing because, in your loss of right focus, you have determined that the whole "churchy thing" is not for you but that His death and Resurrection gives you hope?

     Brothers and sisters, if you are caught up in thoughts like that, you have missed the point of this week’s remembrances and celebrations! Some of those statements are obviously true. It is far easier to forgive when we inwardly digest the fact that we have been forgiven and Easter does set the date for the network airing of the Ten Commandments. Our focus, however, when we are paying attention to those benefits, is misplaced. Make no mistake. The events of Easter and Holy Week are not about making bad people good. The events of Holy Week and Easter are not about giving us an extra day off from work. The events of Holy Week and Easter are not “nice traditions.” The events of Holy Week and Easter testify to us, and to the world around us, that the dead have been given a chance at life!

     As I have been having some of these conversations with people at work, I have noticed in the evenings, as Karen and I try to catch up on the day, that the wonderful Christian movie "The Replacements" has been playing on one of the cable channels.  There are a number of Gospel illustrations in the movie, as well as some potty humor.  I would not counsel anyone to give up sleep to see it.  But, after the Washington Sentinels first loss, the coach (played by Gene Hackman) brings everyone together in a meeting to ask about their fears.  After an exhaustive consideration of the insect world, Shane Falco (the quarterback played by Keanu Reeves) answers that they should be afraid of quicksand.  Falco explains that human tendancy for things to get worse the more we struggle.  And, naturally, the more we struggle, the worse we make things.  Many of those who attend AA recognize this truth internally.  That's part of the reason they get so upset when they fail at a discipline like giving up chocolate or avoiding swear words for Lent.  But it is also why we should be so full of joy when confronted with the agony of the cross and the hope of the Resurrection.  You and I know that we cannot atone for all our sins.  As we looked a few weeks ago, even something as minor as a harsh word to a friend requires all kinds of repair, all kinds of work which we cannot begin to see when we begin the process of reconciliation.  And, once begun, we realize how inadequate we truly are to accomplish such amazing work.  Never mind the truly scandalous things in our lives.

     Yes, we can forgive others. Yes, we can do good and even great deeds. Yes, there are a whole host (holy host pun sort of intended) of benefits that result from Easter. But chiefly do we praise Him this day for freeing us from the death we had all earned, every single one of us to walk the earth except His Son. Easter is special because we are promised life for all eternity, if we would but accept His offer of salvation. You and I can go forth into the world to do good in His Name, to love others as we should love ourselves, to do battle with the spiritual forces of evil which seek to fight Him until the day of His coming certain of His ability to overcome everything in our lives, even our own deaths! How can we not celebrate? How can we not sing praises? As the days and weeks and months wear on, brothers and sisters, how will you live? Will you live as one caught up in the snares of the world, deluded by the false hope and promises of a world ever seeking to gain the worship and praise which rightly belongs to Him? Will you choose to live as one struggling in the quicksand of Shane Falco and the futility and frustration that entails?  Or will you live as a person brought back from the dead, a person placed on the rock of Christ's redeeming love, a person empowered by God to carry that same life-giving message into the world, that others might join you in amazing songs and incredible joy for all eternity?