Espera con Esperanza – Isaiah 2:1-5

PastorSteveThere isn’t much in Bean Blossom, Indiana. There hasn’t even been a post office there since 1911. The town might have gone away completely except for a Bluegrass music festival that takes place there. There isn’t much in Bean Blossom, and yet the little Episcopal Church there was desecrated last week. Vandals spray-painted the exterior of the church with homophobic and racist slogans. In Bean Blossom.
Bean Blossom was not alone. For reasons I cannot fathom, some have felt empowered to commit hate crimes recently, directed against several groups. The name of our congregation means hope in Spanish. The root is the same as the verb “to wait.” That describes the season of Advent. It is not just a countdown to Christmas, Advent is also waiting for the coming of the kingdom of God. It is a waiting that is seasoned with hope.
When I read of the church desecration in, of all places, Bean Blossom, I realized that we are still waiting. I remembered the speech given by Martin Luther King Jr. following the march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama in March of 1965. 25,000 people were gathered, and Dr. King spoke defiantly about both hope and waiting, justice and perseverance. He encouraged the people, even in the face of violence and the threat of violence to continue the struggle.
“How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, you shall reap what you sow. How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
On the Plains of Nineveh between the Kurdish North and Arab South of Iraq, Christians have coexisted since the beginning of Christianity. That is, until recently. Since the beginning of the war in 2003, 75% of the Christians have fled persecution by ISIS and after 2000 years, the future of Christianity in the region is in doubt. Father Emanuel Youkhana recently returned to his church for the first time in two years. Inside and out, the building was in ruins. “We may be helpless,” he said, “but we are never hopeless.” Waiting with hope.
Isaiah’s life was in similar ruins. In exile, he too waited with hope: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
How long? Not long!

Here is the poem, “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickenson:

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

Of Cabbages and Kings – Luke 23:33-43

PastorSteve“The time has come,” the Walrus said,

“To talk of many things:

Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—

Of cabbages—and kings—“

 

The poem, recited by Tweedledee and Tweedledum in Lewis Carroll’s classic, Through the Looking Glass, has been the subject of great speculation ranging from religious allegory to those who thin Carroll never intended anything but a nonsensical ditty. I have tended to think it was about the clash between the aristocracy and the working class but no one knows what Carroll intended.

It has been a time of tumult since the election. Some feel empowered, others are dismayed, and there has been an increase in violence and hate-crimes. And so we come to the end of the church year with “Christ the King.” Much of Luke’s gospel takes place on the journey to Jerusalem and as Jesus and his follower entered the city, he began to speak in ominous tones, even to predicting the destruction of the temple (something that took place several years before the gospel was written).

This week we come to the climax of the story, and while the culture has already moved to the Christmas season, the church year ends with Jesus on a cross. Not exactly where we expect to find a king is it? We have become somewhat detached from the concept of a king, so much so that this last Sunday of the church year is also called “Reign of Christ” although I am not sure that makes it any clearer.

In Jesus’ time, Kings were first of all conquerors. The used military might to capture, subdue, control and maintain. First century Jerusalem certainly knew about kings. Ramses, Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Alexander Caesar. These were the kings known to Jesus and his ancestors. They were first of all conquerors and then often builders of monuments to their greatness.

And yet, this is the very ting that makes the Christian story so incredible. Jesus enters the city encouraging the people to not put their faith in the institutions (the temple and the empire) or the people who stand behind them and profit from them (the Scribes, Pharisees and military masters). Even after those very institutions and people put an end to him, he reigns as king. His kingdom is not about conquest and monuments; it is about service, sacrifice and compassion.

 

Here is the last verse of the poem, A Better Resurrection by 19th century English poet, Christina Rosetti:

My life is like a broken bowl,

A broken bowl that cannot hold

One drop of water for my soul

Or cordial in the searching cold;

Cast in the fire the perished thing;

Melt and remould it, till it be

A royal cup for Him, my King:

O Jesus, drink of me.

 

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PastorSteveWhen I was in graduate school we had a special program for juvenile offenders. They were kids that had been arrested on generally minor offences, usually related to some kind of drug use and instead of time in Juvenile Hall the judge ordered them to attend our program with their parents. Individual and family counseling was provided for each family and then there were two groups, one for the kids and one for the parents.

One kid had been arrested for under-age drinking and his father was also arrested because he was the one providing the alcohol for his son and friends. The father was not happy about having to give up time to come to the program and didn’t really think he belonged in the program at all. He was confronted by a couple of the other parents one night in group and angrily shot back at them, “at least my kid isn’t using drugs.” It was one of those “oh no you didn’t” moments.

Luke tells us that some of the folks traveling with Jesus were starting to feel pretty proud and self important, so he told them a story about two men who went to the temple to pray. They were not together physically, and they were miles apart socially. One was a Pharisee, the cream of the crop in that time, and the other was a tax collector, reviled for being a collaborator with the occupying Romans and probably also for cheating.

Jesus contrasts the prayer of the tax collector, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” to the long recitation of the Pharisee who is addition to enumerating all of his righteous deeds, says, “God, thank you that I am not like other people.”

There are usually two edges to the sword of self-justification. The first is to point out your own accomplishments (the Pharisee points out that he fasts properly and gives 10% of his income away). The second, and far more popular it seems these days, is to point out how terrible someone else in in comparison.

The parent group made it clear to the man that first of all, alcohol is still a drug even though it is legal and that second, his family was in just a great a need of some adjustment as all the rest in the group. It was splendid.

There are two edges to Jesus’ parable however. Seeing the self-righteousness of the Pharisee, we might be tempted to think, “thank God I’m not like a Pharisee.” Our comparison becomes just as toxic as the Pharisee’s, just as denial rich as the man in the parent group. Perhaps the best bet is to be like the tax collector: God be merciful to me, a sinner.

It is believed to have come from a monastic community in Northern Egypt called the Desert Fathers in the 5th century. Although very simple, it is said silently over and over. Here is what is known as “The Jesus Prayer.”

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The Coin Didn’t Do Anything – Luke 15:1-10, 1 Timothy 1:12-17

PastorSteveThis weekend is the fifteenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the attempted attack on Washington was thwarted by civilian passengers and ended in a Pennsylvania field. September 11th became one of those days that most of us will remember exactly where we were and what we were doing. It has also shaped the fifteen years since.

The two questions that keep coming to me are: how do followers of Jesus respond to violence and what was it that we lost that day? After a series of exchanges with the religious establishment, Jesus noted that the Pharisees were grumbling about the way he ignored the dining etiquette of the time – namely that he tended to share meals with “tax collectors and sinners.”

He asked them two questions about loss. Who among you having lost a sheep wouldn’t leave your other 99 and search for the lost? Who among you who, like a poor woman who lost one of ten coins would not light the lamp and sweep the house until it was found?

I have a weird theory about the sheep. I think the illustration flopped. I think Jesus realized that his audience was very practical and conventional thinkers who would conclude that losing one percent of the flock was an acceptable loss. So he went to plan B. A poor woman with only ten coins. Now the loss was greater and since coins don’t move around on their own and have no predators, there would be no reason to stop everything and search for the coin.

The point that might be missed however, is that neither the lost sheep nor the lost coin did anything, they just got found. All of the verbs apply to the shepherd and the woman. They search and the sheep and the coin are found, and then there is joy.

St. Paul confesses are dark past. He has actively persecuted the followers of Jesus, he has been a proponent of violence against those who think differently. All of that has changed, not because he reached the conclusion that he had to change his ways. Like the coin and the sheep, he did nothing other than receive the mercy of God.

Conventional wisdom just does not apply here – something different happened. The woman searched for the coin, the shepherd left 99 sheep to find the lost one, and a religious zealot with the capacity for violence changed completely. In this post 9/11 world, how shall we followers of Jesus respond to violence?

 

This seems like a good place for the prayer attributed to St. Francis.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Living Binary in a Non-binary World – Luke 14:1, 7-14

PastorSteveWhen I was in fifth grade I was placed in a class that was doing some experimental learning. Among other things, I particularly remember that we studied set theory and binary number systems. Little did we know at the time, that binary numbering was setting the stage for the computer age. Binary numbering took what is ridiculously simple – having only zero and one – to process enormous amounts of data.

Binary systems are actually very old, and they function on the same principle as computers. For example, if there are only two categories of people – lets say good and bad – I can extrapolate that to pretty much sort the entire population of the world. Likewise for us and them, clean and unclean, right and wrong, correct and incorrect, smart and stupid and even male and female.

The problem, of course is that we are not computers and the world we live in is not binary. Light itself is never just on or off. The dawn comes, followed by noonday then, especially in Arizona, terrific sunsets. And even after that, the nighttime sky puts on a different kind of celestial show.

The binary system of Jesus’ time was shame and honor. Status was important; being labeled honorable meant everything while being shamed was humiliating and destructive. So when Jesus made a point of including those, who by the binary system were to be excluded, it caused a major scandal. It went against the grain of how human worth was counted; it invited chaos into a system that was orderly and clear (at least to those who were on the honored side of the system).

Jesus tells us to take the place of least honor at the banquet. Only two things can happen to you then. Either you stay there, or you get invited to a place of greater honor. Neither possibility is humiliating. In the end, he took the most shamed place in the culture, the executioner’s cross, and the symbol of imperial domination. He did not stay there.

Here is a part of our second lesson from last week, Hebrews 12:1-2:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Sons (and Daughters) of Thunder.

PastorSteve I have a new grandson. He appears to be on what we around here affectionately call “Esperanza Time” because he arrived two weeks late. In a place that boasts 300 days of sunshine a year, he, and his big brother were both born on days with thunderstorms. We think we might call them “Sons of Thunder.”

It is the nickname that Jesus gave to James and John, the sons of Zebedee in the gospel of Mark. No explanation is given for the name, although some point to a different story in Luke in which the brothers ask Jesus if he wants them to call fire from heaven to destroy an inhospitable village. It seems like a bit of a reach, maybe they were born on stormy days too. I’s like to think the nickname indicated that James and John were men of action.

This week, we have a unique opportunity to celebrate to young women of action. Heidi Gerrish has completed a year in Uruguay with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Young Adults in Global Mission program. Julie Gerrish will be commissioned to begin her year with YAGM in Senegal.

Young Adults in Global Mission is for those 21-29 desiring an experience in international service while at the same time engaging in personal reflection and discernment about their own sense of identity and place in God’s work in the world.

If the word, missionary conjures up images of bible thumping do-gooders traveling the globe to, either gently or by force convert the heathen to Christianity, think again. The failed model of mission that tended to be an arm of European colonialism, YAGM’s model of mission is accompaniment. It is being with global partners, experiencing life as they experience it, engaging in mutual hospitality while assisting with such things as education, public health, human rights and advocacy for women and children. The program gives young adults the opportunity to examine issues such as economic and racial injustice through the lens of faith.

Daughters of Thunder? If you know the Gerrish’s, probably not (although I understand Heidi can be hellacious on the Roller Derby Rink) but forces of nature? Absolutely! Join us Sunday at 8:30 or 10:30.

 

Here is a quote from Alsatian physician, theologian, organist and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer:

Just as the wave cannot exist for itself, but is ever a part of the heaving surface of the ocean, so must I never live my life for itself, but always in the experience which is going on around me.

Teach us to Pray – Luke 11:1-13

PastorSteveA few weeks ago a friend asked me one of those since-you’re-a-pastor kind of questions: “Do you pray every day?” My first answer was, prepare to be shocked here, “no.” Then I gave a second answer, “Actually yes, but it might not look like what you’re thinking.” I’ll explain that answer later.

John Shelby Spong told the story of his first wife’s battle with cancer. Because he was the Bishop of Newark, a lot of people knew of her struggle and as he travelled around to congregations he was frequently told that the people were praying for her. Once, after she had outlived her prognosis by several months, one member of a congregation assured him that his wife was alive because they had been praying for her. It made him wonder if anyone knew that the wife of his janitor also had cancer; would she die sooner because not as many people were praying for her?

Spong’s story got me thinking and reading a great deal about prayer. One thing I noticed in particular is that books about prayer often have the word “power” in the title, or at least as a chapter. Prayer must be about power. But then I looked at the prayers of Jesus and they seem to be about the surrender of power.

In this week’s gospel, one of Jesus’ disciples asks him to “teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” I, of course, want to know what John taught but all Luke gives me Jesus’ answer. You will note that it is not quite all and not quite the same words as “The Lord’s Prayer.” There is another version in Matthew, longer and also not quite the one you know. There is a whole lot of reasons why the one you know is not exactly like Luke or Matthew’s versions, but I’ll save that one for another time.

In his Large Catechism, Luther wrote that each individual portion of the prayer (he divided it into seven petitions followed by a conclusion) was an adequate prayer on its own. Author Anne Lamott characterized the essentials of prayer in only three words: help, thanks, and wow (she wrote a book by that title).

So back to my answer, “yes, but it might not look like what you’re thinking.” I have abandoned the idea of “Santa Claus God” (I don’t recite my wish list), I also do not feel the need to grovel (“I am not worthy”) or butter-up (“you are to be praised”), and as for power – not all that interested in it. Nonetheless, a lot of stuff runs through my mind, including that which worries me, and I wonder what I can do with the worry. And prayer takes place in more places than I imagined: reading, listening to music, playing music, enjoying a fine supper, floating in the pool late at night looking at the stars. What I have noticed, is that my actions tend to follow my thoughts and concerns, and maybe that is the whole point.

 

Here is a quote from 19th century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard:

“Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.”

The Boat that will Never Sail – Colossians 1:15-29

PastorSteve   Perhaps you have seen something in the news about the Noah’s Arc park, located in Kentucky, a handful of miles south of Cincinnati. At 510 feet long and 85 feet wide, it is a big boat, but of course, barring a flood of biblical proportion, it is never going to float.

The arc has been a source of some controversy. The state of Kentucky offered an $18 million tax break and the small town where it is located approved a $65 million bond issue which raised separation of church and state issues. Its not something I particularly want to see, I like the boats that actually sail, but I don’t think I feel like shouting at someone for wanting to see it.

Unlike Ken Ham, who started the whole project, however, I do not think it will be “one of the greatest Christian outreaches of this era of history.” The arc in Kentucky is called a replica, and indeed it is proportioned roughly the same as the measurements in the book of Genesis, but given that no original exists how could it be a replica? As a naval architecture novice, I am not sure it is sea-worthy and I wonder how it could contain 2 of each of the 8.7 billion known species of the world (emphasis on the word “known,” more are being discovered). That’s a lot of critters.

And that brings me to the question: why? What you focus on determines what you miss. By building a big boat, the flood story (which by the way has variants in multiple ancient cultures) ceases to be a poetic metaphor for the relationship of creator and creature and the interdependency of it all and becomes a “proof,” or a replica if you will of something that likely never existed beyond the imagination.

And that brings me to why St. Paul was so focused on the cross. In his time and place, the cross was a symbol of Roman torture technology and imperial domination theology. It was Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome in lumber that stood as a warning to anyone foolish enough to challenge the total control of the empire. It was like a billboard on the road into every major city that read, “Fear This.”

What Paul and the early Christian movement did was turn the cross on its head. The peace of Christ comes on that very same cross, and boldly declares that even death, let alone the empire, does not get the final word. The kingdom of God is not about domination, intimidation and scapegoating, it is about vulnerability, forgiveness and acceptance. What you focus on determines what you miss. Do you focus on the cross as an instrument of death or a liberation to more abundant life?

 

Here is a quote from 20th century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Life Together:

“Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes.”

Thoughts and Prayers – Colossians 1:1-14

PastorSteveWay back in 1966, Stephen Stills – then part of Buffalo Springfield – wrote “For What it’s Worth.” “There’s something happenin’ here/what it is ain’t exactly clear/there’s a man with a gun over there/tellin’ me I got to beware.” It has been another week of troubling violence in our country; something is definitely happening.

In Baton Rouge, a suspect who was apparently pinned by two police officers was shot 6 times and died at the scene. In St. Paul a car was pulled over for a faulty taillight and as the passenger was reaching for his driver’s license, he was shot a killed. Both incidents were videoed and both involved young, African American men and white police officers.

During a protest in Dallas related to police shootings, at least one sniper shot 11 police officers, five of them died. Something is definitely happening, and it is disturbing all around. I will make no effort to offer a simple solution because it does not exist. Unfortunately, the internet has become the tool of those who want to generalize to entire populations: all cops are racists, the reason young men of color are 21 time more likely to be shot by police than white young men is that they commit more crimes. Neither of those things is true, not even remotely.

The Internet is also lighting up once again with commitments of “thoughts and prayers.” I suppose these things are sincere expressions from those who at very least, want to do something. But I also wonder if thoughts and prayers have simply become the instant conditioned response to events that really should disturb us deeply.

There’s something happening here, and while I imagine the problem has multiple causalities and the solutions are equally complex, at the core of it is a breakdown of community. Far from loving our neighbors, we are conditioned to be suspicious and fearful of them, and that is no way to live. We need more than just thought and prayer, we must strive to live in a way that draws us to one another rather than keeping the other at arm’s length. Paul encourages the Colossians to “lead lives worthy of the Lord.”

It is easily said, not so easily done. It is not so easily done because it demands that we make ourselves vulnerable, less insulated, and more available to each other as a way of building community. It is so much easier to point fingers, identify the culprit and then distance us from it all as someone else’s problem. It is so much harder to accept that all of the victims are us; all of the shooters are us; these things are happening in our family, we do not have the luxury of ignoring it. “There’s battle lines being drawn/nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”

 

Here are words of peace from Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu, 6th Century BCE:

If there is to be peace in the world,

There must be peace in the nations.

If there is to be peace in the nations,

There must be peace in the cities.

If there is to be peace in the cities,

There must be peace between neighbors.

If there is to be peace between neighbors,

There must be peace in the home.

If there is to be peace in the home,

There must be peace in the heart.

Are you willing to become sound? – John 5:1-9

PastorSteveI probably do this too often and I am far from a Greek scholar, but this is one of those weeks that I really have to quibble with the translation. The location is the Sheep Gate, the point of entry into the temple of livestock being brought for sacrifice. It is also the location of a swimming pool called Bethesda that was believed to have curative properties. Because of that, it was a gathering place for the sick and disabled.

It was also a place for the culture’s disposable people. Because illness and disability were viewed as a form of divine punishment, those that gathered at Bethesda were unclean and thus cut off from community. One could argue that being cut off from community was the definition of illness rather than the result of it.

Jesus encounters a man lying there who has been ill for 38 years and he asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” Here is where I quibble. First of all, what person who had been ill for 38 years and trying to get to the front of the queue for the healing pool would not give an eager “yes” to that question? If you have ever dealt with chronic illness, you know that there is a difference between wanting to be well and doing the things that can optimize your health.

And that is why I would translate Jesus’ question, “Are you willing to be made sound?” There are two big reasons why I like my translation better. The first is about the word “sound.” Sometimes we get too caught up in the “miraculous healing” part of these stories. Sound implies a larger kind of restoration; more than his physical well-being, sound restores him to his place in the community.

The second reason has to do with, “are you willing?” Being made well makes the man a passive recipient. Jesus wants to know if he is willing to be made sound; to be restored; to do the things he will have to do to return to his place, especially after so many years.

Years ago, I was the family therapist at a chemical dependency hospital. Part of my job was working with clients and their families as discharge was approaching. It sounds counterintuitive, but a big challenge facing people in recovery is fitting in with family and friends as a sober person. Often there was pressure to return to using because that was the more predictable (or predictably unpredictable) person they were used to.

Did they want to be made well? Certainly. Were they willing to become sound? That is an entirely different and difficult question to answer. And to put the punctuation point on it, Jesus tells the man to take up his mat and walk. Can we me made whole? Can we be restored? Yes, but are we willing to become sound?

 

In honor of all those who face the daily challenge of becoming sound, here is a prayer attributed to 20th century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

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