Friday, October 05, 2012

Flesh of our Flesh

Genesis 2.18-24 & Mark 10.2-16

            "Adam, things are about to get a lot more interesting."  Maybe that's something that God should have mentioned to him at the beginning of this Garden of Eden story.  In this second, different account of creation (That's right, this is a second, different account of creation. If you think the Bible is a completely accurate account of exactly how things have happened in history, then you simply aren't reading it.  This book is a collection of stories, poems, and letters that reveal to us truth about who God is, what God is up to, and who we are in relationship to God.  But I digress...)  In this second, different account of creation, God has decided to make this creation that has been formed by God's hands just a little more interesting.  I actually find this interaction that God has with Adam to be a little comical.  I mean, God's like, "Adam needs someone that he can interact with.  I know!  I'll make him one!"  But what ensues is scene where God parades this long line of animals to see if one of them would do.  I wonder how long Adam had to politely go through this process.  It's God, so you gotta give God a little bit more respect than the usual person.  But I wonder how quickly Adam was saying to himself, "Oh my god how long is this gonna take?"  All the while God's saying, "How does this, what did you call it?  Zebra?  How does this look to you?"  "No! a zebra will not work.  It doesn't even come close to interesting me."

            I find it funny, but I also find it really interesting.  I find it interesting that this part of the story doesn't conclude until God causes that deep sleep to come over Adam, takes his rib, and forms that first woman.  How wonderful is it that Adam finds his suitable partner, his helper to be bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.  There is great truth in that.  Maybe it's because we are truly vain creatures.  But maybe it's also because we can only ever truly know ourselves.  No one can truly know what the world looks like to another person.  For instance, a color blind person CANNOT ever know it is like to personally experience the full spectrum of what we call visible light.  Yet, I feel that when Adam sees this woman, this Eve, he sees something of himself in her.  That here, finally in the body of Eve, Adam finds one who knows what it is to be human with everything that comes along with being a human.  This has never meant that women are lower to be subject to men.  The word used to describe what this woman is, helper, is word that is only ever found in Hebrew to describe God, our helper and redeemer.  This partner that Adam finally finds his joy in is his helper who he depends on as much as she.  Women were never meant to be viewed as unequal.  Never.  And I have to believe that that is part of the reason that Adam finds his joy in her.

            If this were a fairy tale, this just might be a good place to stop the story and say, "And they lived happily ever after..."  But we know the story continues on.  The story continues on with disobedience, blame, pain, suffering, murder, theft, selfishness, and indifference.  Adam and Eve disobey God. They are exiled from Eden.  Their child Cain murders their other child Abel.  Sin enters into the world as people turn away from God and turn toward their own desires over and over and over and over again.  "Adam, things are definitely about to get more interesting."

            And we complexity and pain that world offers every day.  People grow hungry in the world while each of us who live here in America let so much food go to waste in our trash bins and landfills.  People are forced to lived under the constant fear of terror from those who seek to destabilize and control others like we see going on in Syria this day.  Children are bullied for being different so that others may feel like they fit in sometimes to tragic, ultimate consequences.  Adults and children suffer from abuse that sometimes literally bruises and scars and sometimes causes emotional scars and bruises that can be as hurtful.  And families and relationships can lie in broken tatters as promises once made are broken.  The pain and suffering that we experience is most definitely not the "happily ever after" of a fairytale.  But our story does not end in pain and suffering either.  Things are about to get even more interesting.

            In our gospel reading for today, the Pharisees have come to test Jesus.  That must their job.  They spend an awful amount of time figuring out newer and newer ways to test him.  Yet this day, they come to Jesus to test him about something that obviously has been a sticky issue for thousands of years.  They come to him with a question about divorce.  First of all, I believe that this is such a sticky for us humans because we want to believe that the promises that we once made and wholly believed in when we made them should mean something to us even into a future that no one can possibly know.  Yet it is quite obvious that those promises do get broken, not by everybody, but by some.  But the thing about divorce is that at no time is it ever a completely joyous occasion that gather families and friends together to celebrate.  Divorce is hard, and anyone who has ever gone through will tell you that, no matter what the reason, it sucks.  Yet I also do know that there are times and places where it must happen for the health of individuals or for the health of children.  It is the classic case of something that sometimes needs to happen.  No one gets married intending to get divorced, but sometimes it happens and it is the healthiest choice for everyone involved.  So what are we to do with what Jesus has said to the Pharisees and later the disciples?

            I think that by making the judgment that he has made, he is lifting up the reality that divorce is an event where we indeed see clearly the brokenness of humanity in creation.  As to what Jesus says to the disciples, he affirms that divorce is never a way to upgrade to a new model just because you've gotten tired of the old one.  Jesus stands up and says that human relationships are not like children's toys that get discarded as something new and enticing gets introduced.  But even more than that, I firmly believe that the path to our forgiveness and salvation is not found in our ability to be righteously pure.  So even as Jesus names remarriage as adultery, he is not concerned with whether we have been adulterous.  Rather, I see that what concerns him the absolute most in our gospel reading for today is the real indignation he expresses when the disciples try to bar children from coming to him.  Moreover, I feel that anyone who is in a loving, life-giving relationship is doing a good thing that God sees and names good.  But again our salvation is not found in our ability to be pure in our relationships.

            God knows this.  God knows that even as Adam finds his joy in Eve, humanity will vainly search for forgiveness and life that we can see in ourselves, that we are still in search for that which gives us life even in the midst of our sin and death.  So I find it interesting, I find it wonderful that our salvation is finally won for us as God takes on flesh in the very person of Jesus who goes to the cross for all of us and all of our sins.  In Jesus, we see our God who has taken on our flesh with all the pain and suffering it means for us.  We see that our God comes to where we are.  We see that our God loves us dearly and will not even stop at death to bring us into new life.  In the end this is the truth that we cling to.  We cling to the God who has become flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone.  Then we see that the bonds of death cannot hold God in - that life, love, and forgiveness of all of our sins springs forth from this Jesus who becomes indignant, not at the prospect people divorcing, but at the prospect of children being brought to see and know him and his love and forgiveness.  For that good news is for everyone.  That good news comes to us, in Jesus, in God made flesh.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A case of the "supposed to's"

Mark 9.38-50

            On my mom's side of my family, whenever we get together for Christmas, Thanksgiving, or even summer vacation, we always end up playing one specific game together.  It's a game that we call "May I?"  "May I?" is a simple game where players try to be the first one to get rid of his or her cards.  There are seven rounds of play where each player must meet a requirement to start getting rid of the cards.  For example, in the first round, you must collect two books, which are two sets three of the same card - like three "nines" and three "jacks."  The requirement gets progressively harder each round.  The "May I?" part of the game comes in when someone lays down a card in the discard pile.  If it is a card that you need or want, then you simply have to say "May I?" before anyone else.  You then get the card and the top card from the draw pile.  By the way, did I say simple?  Maybe I should have said "a game with a long list of intricate rules that are best learned through experience and enforced ruthlessly."

            It's always fun to see new people introduced into the game as new people have been welcomed into our family.  It's always a process of helping the new person ease into what's going.  Although, adding new people into the game always brings a fresh perspective and new insights into what could possibly happen.  Yet, that's exactly where this game with extremely polite name can start to get a little nasty.  You see there are a number of unwritten rules that people are not allowed to break, no matter how much sense they may seem to make.  The biggest one of these is basically the process of "taking a knee" in the final hand.  You see, there can be someone who is so far ahead by the last hand, that he or she basically doesn't have to do anything except collect low point value cards without regard for trying to meet the hand requirements.  The only problem with that is that there is almost no greater way kindle the fire of my mother's anger than to engage in that kind of tomfoolery.  Without a doubt, it would be said, "But that's not how you play the game!"  Feelings get hurt, tempers are lost, and what was once a pleasant social family activity turns into a cause of strife.  All because of the notion of "That's not how you're supposed to act!"

            "John said to Jesus, 'Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.'"  Our Gospel reading for today very much has the disciples concerned with what people are supposed to/not supposed to do.  But before we go too much further into the gospel for today, we must remember what has come before in the story.  One chapter earlier in the gospel according to Mark, Jesus was telling the disciples and everyone else who was following him around all about following him.  And so now that the disciples found someone who was not following them but still doing some things in Jesus' name, they thought that they were doing the right thing because this person wasn't following in the same exact way as the disciples.  I can almost hear them say, "That's not how you play the game!"  Who are these disciples to be telling Jesus the rules, all the "supposed to's" of following Jesus!?

            To Jesus, all the "supposed to's" can become stumbling blocks in the way the little ones, those who are the children of the faith.  They then can become the very millstones that get hung around our necks.  Faith is not and has never been about following a list of "supposed to's."  Faith has always been the simplicity of trusting that Jesus brings us life in the midst of death.  Faith has always been the simplicity of trusting that Jesus forgives us even as we are all sinners.  Faith is about trusting in what God is up to, and that that is Good News for us all.

            You see, when Jesus starts listing off all those body parts that could possibly cause us to stumble and suggesting that they be cut off rather than drag you down into the fires of hell, he is not suggesting that we all go a grab our favorite sharpened knives to start cutting out our eyes, cutting off our hands, and cutting off our feet.  If that were true, then I assure you that would at least have a blind pastor standing before you today.  The stumbling blocks are those things in our lives which cause us to mistrust that God's grace is grace is real and is enough, even for our enemies, even for ourselves.  Have salt in yourselves!  Have that salt which is the good news of the kingdom of God be within you and never leave.  For if the Good News is like salt then the Good News can never lose the saltiness of its love and grace which seasons us all.

            Often we do get concerned with how things and people should be or shouldn't be.  Those are not the arguments that we should have in this world.  Rather rejoice that God's great love is an embrace that touches all of existence and be at peace with that!  With that joyous trust, we just may find that the Good News of the Kingdom of God is indeed a message that we and the people we meet need to hear.  We just may find out that it is a message that we even begin to feel should be told with all of our voices and hands in love and service to people who just might be the "little ones" of our faith.  Again, have that salt which is the love and forgiveness of God in the midst of our sin, and be at peace with one another.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Doing Compassion

James 1:17-27

            The oldest manuscripts (for instance the Muratorian Fragment from 170 A.D.) that we have of the scriptures do not include the Letter of James in its contents.  Martin Luther has famously called James the "Epistle of Straw," evoking the image that it blows away in the wind when it is examined too closely.  And honestly, it is light on what actually makes the gospel, gospel.  It makes a couple of passing mentions of Jesus.  And it runs counter to the message we hear from the Apostle Paul, "For by grace your have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that none may boast." (Eph. 2:8-9)  No, instead we hear in the Letter of James, "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:17)  So James, poor maligned James what are we to do with you?

            It would seem by some reasons, you should not be included in our Bibles.  But then why is it that Bible after Bible that buy or receive from parents, teachers and pastors have this "book" named James after Hebrews and right before 1 Peter?  Why has this book remained in our canon, the contents of our Bibles?  I could be cynical and say it only because some long dead men declared that it should be, but I truly do believe that would only be a discounting of how the Holy Spirit guided the Bible to become the book it has become.  It's here for a reason.  It's scripture for us because it has something very important to say about our life of Faith.  It's hear to say that the Word of God has come into the world to dwell richly within in us and call us to a life lived out in tremendous displays of compassion.  The Word of God dwells within us to move us into ever greater acts of love and sacrifice. 

            I want to take a moment and talk about a word that I just used – compassion.  Compassion is a word that has taken a few hits in recent years.  It has been weakened to refer mostly to the pity we might have for someone who's having a tough time in life.  We think of compassion today, and we think about someone who has had a really bad and we say, "There, there.  Everything is going to be alright."  More over, in recent years we've even had the development of the term "Compassionate Conservative" which describes a fiscally conservative person who cares for people in their plights.  Yet the response to people's plights too often in recent years has been, "I'm doing this thing that may hurt you, because it will be good for the whole and even you in the long run."  And that's fine.  The voice that says, "How do we help people change rather than enable behaviors?" is a good one in the political sphere.  Yet, when we begin to talk about who our God is and what our God does in this world, we have to be willing to delve deeper into what this word "compassion" means to God.

            Compassion means much more than feeling deeply sorry for someone else and their plight.  We can actually get deeper into what compassion means to our God when we look at the word's counterpart in the German language, Mitleid.  In German, that literally means with-suffering.  As the theologian Douglas John Hall writes in his book The Cross in Our Context, "To feel compassion, deeply and sincerely, is to overcome the subject/object division. it is to suffer with the other."  How do I know that that is what God means when compassion is used to describe God?  It is because, when I look upon that cross from which Jesus hung, I see that God has made the ultimate, grace-filled decision to come down from heaven and be with the creatures and creation that God has made in the midst of all of our pain, all of our suffering, even in all of our death.  Our God is compassionate because our God comes to where we are, in our suffering.  And then God lifts us up into new life, never abandoning us.

            The wonderful gift that the Letter of James gives each and every one of us is that it describes how this new life that we have in Christ must be a reflection of the compassion that our God has shown us.  Does James describe the pure perfect Christian life as one where church is never missed on Sundays, where only best clothes are worn, where you put on display to everyone else how good of a person you have been from day to day?  NO! In fact, the Letter of James expressly warns against that kind of behavior!  No, instead James paints a picture of the life of faith as one where we have true compassion for those who suffer – that we suffer with them.  Being a "doer of the word," means being someone who loves, cares, and stands with the other, because our God loves, cares, and stands with us.

            You might ask, "But Pastor are we also not to worry about how purely we are living?  Aren't we not to be stained by the world?"  Well, I say to you if an unstained life means that you care first and only for the purity of your morals, then you misunderstand what James is saying about the purity of religion.  Being unstained by the world means constantly remembering who you are as a person that God has done tremendous things for.  "Unstained" is not permission to distance yourself from the messiness of the world we live in.  "Unstained" keeping that identity that God loved you so much that God died on the cross to bring you up out of sorrow, sin and death as you engage and seek to suffer with world around you.  And if you read the Letter of James you will see over and over again that the works that James is calling us to are indeed works of true compassion.  The letter is filled with calls to care for orphans, widows, the poor, and the hungry.

            Will any of these works of true compassion save you?  Absolutely not.  But you have received the tremendous work of God's compassion throughout your whole life.  And I do think that begs the question:  How will you respond to the compassion that God has for you?  You have been made holy by a love that knows no bounds or depths.  God doesn't want our piety and our purity.  God wants us.  God wants us to be people who go forth bearing this good news to whole world, so that others may too see the boundless compassion that God has for the whole of creation.

Ruth: A Story of Life, Loss, and Faith

Ruth: A Story of Life, Loss, and Faith
Summer Pulpit Exchange 2012

            So who here has a brown or browning lawn?  Who here has fields of corn that are beginning to wither up because rain has decided to take a vacation this summer?  Who here is beginning to wonder and worry about what this year is going to bring, or maybe more accurately, not bring?  I know that I have been simply amazed driving to and from La Crosse and seeing all the grass and fields turning brown as if it were preparing for winter.  I heard that this summer nearly 2/3rds of the Midwest is experiencing drought this summer.  This is definitely looking to be a lean year.

            I come to you all this day to present to you all one of my favorite stories of the Bible and say a few words.  Way back in May, I decided on the story of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz.  This story begins with a few words that I think we all can somewhat identify with this summer.  "In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land..."  This is what sets the context for our story this morning.  Naomi has found herself in a foreign land, because her husband decided to move to where there was a possibility of food.  Only now, her husband has died.  She is a widow whose sons have even died, and she is only left with two daughters-in-law. 

(read Ruth 1:6-22)

            By all accounts of what we know about Ancient Middle Eastern society, being a widow was hard.  But being a widow who is the mother-in-law of two widows must have been worse.  So not only is Naomi grieving the death or her husband and her two sons, but she is also being faced with the prospect trying to provide for her life and the life of Ruth and Orpah without status and without claim to property.  She in final talk with these daughters-in-law even counts herself amongst the dead.  Naomi feels as if there is no hope for herself, and that's why she even decides to change her name from Pleasant to Bitter.  Naomi literally means pleasant in Hebrew.  Mara literally means bitter.

            Yet in all this bitterness a glimmer of something wonderful begins to shine.  We get to meet Ruth.  We get to meet someone who either loves Naomi so much as a mother or feels a dutiful commitment to her that she cannot turn away and leave her.  Ruth clings to Naomi.  Ruth will not abandon her.  This makes me think.  What are the things we will cling to in our lives?  What would be so important to us that we would never let that go? 

            Whatever the answers to those questions might be, I see something yet still in these opening verses of Ruth's story.  Clinging to Naomi is also clinging to Naomi's God.  A huge part of what Ruth displays is that what is important to her is her faith in God.  She puts total trust of her life in her God, even if her God only seems to deal in bitterness.  But is God only a god of bitterness and sorrow?

             Even though the answer may seem to be yes, based upon our story so far, I'm certain that the answer to that question is indeed, "No."  Ruth and Naomi are on a journey, and that journey is not over yet.
Sing verse 1 of "Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song"

Read Ruth Chapter 2:1-13

            Who here has ever been so hungry that your only chance for food comes from picking up the leftovers from a field that has just been harvested?  This is such the situation that Naomi and Ruth find themselves in.  Naomi is a widow without place or power.  Naomi can't even have children, so the prospect of re-marrying is off the table for her.  Ruth is also a widow, but she is a foreigner.  The only hope of a meal is literally picking through the leftovers, going through someone else's trash essentially.  Their journey has taken a bitter turn indeed, but Ruth does not waver in her commitment to stand by and care for Naomi. 

            I recently had the pleasure to accompany some youth from the Blair-Taylor area on a Youthworks mission trip.  We went to Heart Butte, Montana.  Now the thing about Heart Butte you must realize is that this small town rests in the middle of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.  If you were only to look around, you would see that life in the town of Heart Butte is not an easy one.  In our time there, the marks of poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, addiction, and abuse were easily seen.  Yet, one thing struck me as I reflected on what we were doing there painting houses, cleaning up yards, and working with children in an afternoon Bible school:  We may not have fixed everything for these people once and for all time, but in our service, they at least were able to see that they weren't unloved.  That they weren't forgotten.  That they still somehow mattered.  And when we were helping one particular family, the grandmother said, "Thank you so much for helping.  I don't know if I could ever have begun to do these things.  You all make me feel like I still matter in the world."

            And maybe that's where this story of Ruth and Naomi is going.  Maybe their journey is taking them to a place where they can see that they aren't forgotten and are taken notice of and loved.  And that's the great thing that Boaz does for Ruth and Naomi.  By taking notice of Ruth, Boaz says to her and her beloved mother-in-law, "You are worthy of love and compassion."  In effect, Boaz says to them, "I see you.  I have not forgotten you."

            That is one of the most powerful things that our God does for us.  Our God has indeed made a claim upon us and our lives in our baptisms, and God has said to each and every one of us, "You are mine, and I will not let you go."  Life indeed can take us down some bitter roads.  But we have that promise that God will be by our sides every step of the way.  That doesn't mean that it's all feather pillows and gumdrops for us for the rest of our lives, but it does mean that even in our darkest times our God gives us tremendous hope of new life.  God will be with us on our journey.

Sing verse two of "Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song"

Read Ruth 3:1-13

            Okay.  Sometimes feet are just feet.  We have come to the part of out story which Ruth and Boaz finally have their midnight encounter.  Could you heavily sexualize what is going on here?  I suppose you could, but I think you would be missing the point of this scene.  This midnight encounter is not in the Bible so it can be more exciting to read.  Rather than call this a tawdry scene full of innuendo,  I see this scene of Ruth coming to Boaz in the middle of the night as a scene of intimate love and affection that goes far beyond sex.  What Ruth does here for Boaz is care and comfort him and show him that she is as committed to him as she is committed to Naomi.

            So often in today's world we can get caught up in only thinking about what we can get out of relationships.  And this certainly goes beyond our romantic relationships.  We want our friends to show us a good time.  We want our friends to help us make more money.   We want our friends to help us advance along our career paths.  We want friends so that they can add something to our lives.  And it seems to me that that is an awfully selfish view of friendship and romantic companionship to only think of the other as a means to an end.  It seems to me that we should spend time considering what we bring to the relationship, how we can make someone else's life better.

            That's what I see Ruth doing here.  I see her finding a way to comfort and care for Boaz in his weariness.  You could make a case that Ruth is scheming with Naomi to get her proverbial slice of the pie, but why does Boaz consider what Ruth does here as loyal service?  Boaz reckons what Ruth does as loyalty, because even with all the other options of young men available to her, Ruth cares and comforts Boaz.  What she does is love and care for another. 

            It seems to me that Ruth's love and care is a reflection of the love and care that our God has for Boaz and has for us.  I think that's what steals Boaz's heart in the end.  He sees God's steadfast love in the face, hands, and feet of Ruth.  Is that not what we should show forth in our lives?  Should we not show forth the steadfast love that God ahs shown us?

Sing verse three of "Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song"

Read Ruth 4:9-12

            In the end, the story works out.  Naomi and Ruth have been welcomed into a new situation in which they will be loved and cared for.  Even though Boaz uses the traditional language of ownership, he takes Ruth as his wife with heart and eyes wide open happy to love and care for someone who loves and cares for him.  And Ruth and Boaz conceive a Son.  Do you know who that Son is? The son is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David, who the Gospels of Matthew and Luke trace Jesus' lineage to.  And that Son, would be the Son who give everything, even his own life, so that the whole world might be redeemed and know the depth of God's love.  You see in the end, this story is a story about faith.  It's a story about what God is up to in the world.  When we see what God is up to, that God is in the business of giving love and forgiveness to the whole, we see that the one who we trust is the one who gives us hope even in the midst of bitterness, sin, and death.  We see that our God has not and will not abandon us.  We are God's own children and there is no power in heaven or on earth or above earth or below earth that can separate us from that love.  Our journey is a journey of faith in the one who gives us life.

            Faith is not simply the unwavering belief that God is going to make everything better in our lives.  Faith is the trust that the one who made us and gave us the breath of life is the one who will love, guard, and guide us even through the bitter twists and turns of life.  Faith is clinging to God even when it might seem easier to turn away forsake the journey.  Faith is something that calls us to love and care for others in our life.  Faith is that life centering trust that no matter what may happen to us, our God loves us and always will us and will bring us into new life, even through our death.

Sing verse four of "Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song"

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The case for Judas

John 17:6-19

            Who are the villians of the Bible?  If you think about scripture as the story of God within the world, who is opposed to God fulfilling what God want to do in the world?  We're in the summer blockbuster movie season, and already, we have seen villians who are disgruntled Norse gods and aliens who have come to destroy our world.  Many of our favorite stories have a main villain who we can all root against and hope for their destruction or neutralization.  So who are the villains of scripture?  Name some:

            Of course the primary villain in many of our minds is Satan, the devil, the Accuser.  And there are plenty of instances in which the Devil is trying subvert the will of God.  The Devil provokes God to rain destruction down upon Job to see if Job would still trust in the Lord even if everything was taken away from him.  The Devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness , trying to turn Jesus away from the path that is laid out before him.  And then the Devil gets portrayed as that one who is finally thrown into the eternal fires at the end of the book of Revelation.  But what other villains are there in the Bible?  There's the snake who convinces Adam and Eve to eat of the fruit in the garden.  There's the monstrous Goliath who is the champion of the Phillistines.  There are the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees (people who very well could have been Jesus' cousins) who antagonize Jesus throughout the Gospels.  And then there is Judas.  Judas, the one who was destined to be lost.  Judas the one who betrays his friend, teacher, and master with a kiss all for a mere 30 silver coins.

            Judas.  Certainly here is another villain who is unredeemable, right?  It could be easy to think that,  but today I want to challenge that.  I want to make the case for Judas this day.  I want to make a case for the one who set everything in motion that ultimately led to Jesus being beaten, ridiculed, and publically executed.

            The evidence is certainly stacked up against him.  It is Judas who questions why expensive perfume should poured out onto the feet of Jesus.  It is Judas who the author of the gospel of John accuses of being a thief who stole regularly out of the common purse that the disciples had.  It is Judas who accepts the bribe from the chief priests and Pharisees of 30 silver coins.  It is Judas, who in the guilt of what he had done, hangs himself in despair.  Going by the evidence, Judas was gulty of the terrible crime of conspiring to murder an innocent who had done nothing to him other than to call him to be a disciple and love him.  Yet with everything that is stacked up against Judas, with everything that points to Judas getting exactly what he deserved, I still want to stand here this day before you all and make a case for Judas.

            I cannot deny that Judas had done a great and terrible wrong.  I will not even stand here and try to convince you that he was simply out of his mind and possibly temporarily insane.  What I will do is stand here and proclaim to you that Jesus love enfolds around Judas just as surely as we are all wrapped up in the never-failing arms of Christ this day, the days we will all die, and into that future in which we will all be raised up into new life with all saints who now reside with the Lord.  I have this confidence not because of all the good things that Jesus did for people while he was living, but because he gave up his life so that we all may be raised up with him in the Easter resurrection.  Judas was indeed the one who was destined to be lost so that scripture may be fulfilled and that we may look upon our Lord as one who gives up everything, even his own life, so that we may not be condemned and lost forever.

            Furthermore, my confidence comes from the prayer that Jesus lifts up for the disciples and for us all, literally right before he is betrayed by Judas and sent on his way to the cross.  Jesus knows that this is the last night before he is to die.  Jesus knows that Judas has already left group to betray Jesus and hand him over to those who would have him killed.  Jesus knows that he is to be the sacrificial lamb for the forgiveness of the sins of all creation.  Yet with all that going on in his mind, Jesus prays for the lives of all the disciples whether they be deniers, abandoners, doubters, or even betrayers. 

            The case for Judas is simply this.  Jesus' death and the events that led up to his death are the good news that embraces us all, the whole of creation and raises us up into new life in Christ as a people who find our joy not in our own accomplishments, but in the great love that our God has for us.  The truth, the truth that makes us holy, is the truth that seeks us out in our failings, in our mistrust, in our dark places where it may seem like all we have done is done wrong in the world.  That is grace.  Have faith in that grace, and you too will find that Jesus still loves you and has always loved you.  Faith in what Jesus has done is what lifts us up.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

God's love is gift and life; not reward

Acts 3.12-19 & 1 John 3.1-7

            I heard a friend speak earlier this week, and at one point during his lecture, he relayed a story about a team of researchers that were observing how and why children play with the toys they play with.  The researchers would bring in a parent and his or her child, and in one corner of the room, the researcher, parent, would sit down at a table.  The researcher would then turn to the child and then say, "You can either stay here with your mom or you can over to the other corner of the room and play with the toys." Over there in the other corner was a box of toys and a bright carpeted area to play in.  Above the carpeted area there was a mirror that allowed other members of the research team to observe the child as he or she would play with the toys.  They were to observe which toy the child played with the most – in other words, which toy the child liked the most.  If the child like the big red truck the most, they would write down big red truck.  If it was the stuffed doggy, they would write down stuffed doggy.

            They would take note of this and then would have the parent and child come back another day.  Only this time, the researcher would say to the child, "You can either stay here, or you can go over there and play with the toys.   But if you play with the big red truck (remember they observed that this was the toy that that specific child had chosen by themselves in the earlier session), if you play with the big red truck, I will give you a bag of M&Ms when we are done."  What would you expect to happen?

            Of course the child's going to want to go after the bag of chocolate encased in a candy shell that allows the chocolate to melt in you mouth and not in your hands.  I bet there are even a few of us older people who might even do something as simple as that for a bag of chocolaty goodness.  But that's not what interested the researchers.  They found that after you make playing with child's favorite toy a requirement for getting the promised reward, the child ended up HAVING to play with that toy.  Before, you can imagine a little girl or boy zooming around the carpet with their big red truck, making the sound of the engine, and picking up and dropping off loads of plastic frogs, blocks, and Barbies.  Now the child kind of sits there half heartedly rolling the truck back and forth wondering why her mom is taking so long.  In other words, the first time, the child GETS to play with their toy.  The second time, the child HAS to play with the toy.  The expectation of reward, which one might think might enhance the experience, has only ended up ruining it.

            How do we end up doing the things we do anyways?  It seems to me that our first two readings that we've heard today focus much on what God would have us do or not do.  In our reading from Acts, we see Peter speaking to a crowd of people, and what is he trying to tell them?  He trying to tell them who Jesus is, what Jesus has done, and finally what they should do in response.  In our reading from 1 John, we hear the author trying to explain what the life lived in Christ looks like.  He is trying to explain that living in the light has a bearing for how we live out our days here on earth.  Yet, I think the question still remains:  How do we live out these words that we gather around in our worship assemblies?
            Peter seems very much concerned with what it means to be a people of the story of Jesus Christ.  He recalls what Jesus did for us on the cross.  He recalls how death and the grave could not contain him as he bursts forth from that tomb.  But then he makes a call to repentance.  He makes that call for the people make a change in their lives in live them in different way.  So why should we heed Peter's words this day?  There are a couple of different reasons.  #1: We could hear them only as a promise of a future reward.  Yet will the promise of a future reward be able to sustain us throughout our lives and provide the motivation to live out a repentent life?  Or will the promise of reward (and the implied punishment if not followed) simply cause us to begin to hate having to play with the toy that once cause wonder and joy to well up within us?  My feeling is that we will would end up like that little girl who can barely tolerate HAVING to play with the toy just so she can get her reward at the end of this experiment we call life.  Following in the way of Christ must mean more than the expectation that we will get some goodies like angel wings, streets paved with gold, and dinners with grandma and grandpa.  Otherwise, we will simply end up despising all the things that we HAVE to do to make God love us.

            Thankfully, that is not what God wants from us in our lives.  God wants us to live fully and freely!  God wants us to live joyfully and abundantly with a grace and love that is able to embrace the whole of creation.  God wants us to live not in the expectation what we or I get out of this deal.  God's will is that, when the Son is revealed to us and in us, our lives will be changed, not because of what we have done.  Not because of how we've kept up our part of the bargain, but only because of what love Jesus has done and given to us in our lives.  We are to live out lives as if there is a toy chest of love, grace, and abundance that is open and available to us all to play with and share with the rest of creation.  God's will for us is to be able to say to ourselves, "I don't have to earn God's love.  It has already been graciously given to me.  I GET to share what love God has given me with the rest of the world around me."  And that is a life that is full of life and wonderful opportunities that is able to fulfill us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. 

            Some days this easier to feel than others.  Some days it feels as if there has just been a ton that has been taken away from us.  Yet, those are some of the days in which we need to hear those words "God forgives you." "Jesus is given for you." "God loves you." and "There is nothing in this world that can separate us from the love of God that we have in Christ Jesus our Lord."  These are words of gift.  These are words of promise.  These are words of life. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Listen! And hear God's love...

Mark 9.2-8

"This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him!"

If any of you out there are wondering what exactly is going on in our Gospel reading for today, hear that phrase spoken by more than any of the other words that you've heard this morning. This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him! That right there is what this strange story on a mountain, dazzling lights, famous forebears of the faith, and terrified disciples centers on more than anything else – that Jesus is God's beloved Son and that we should listen to him. This has importance because it has huge implications for what happens next. So listen up people! God is about to do something wonderful. The only problem is that we often have a terrible time with listening from time to time.

For example, my mother likes to tell this story about when she was in college. It was the end of her third year of college, and with the end of every semester comes all the final tests that one must take to pass the classes you enrolled in to eventually get your degree. In one of my mom's classes, the professor hated how no matter how much he emphasized reading all the directions before starting on the test, most of the students would rip right into the questions as fast as she or he could. Some would do it because taking a test is like a race where you feel better about yourself if you get done before others. Others would start answering questions as fast as possible because the logic goes "the sooner you get done with a test, the sooner you are done with class and can begin the year end parties that some (definitely not me...) looked forward to.

My mother got to this final, and she heard again the clear caution to read all the directions before you started to answer the questions. the only thing was there were four pages of solid text that were the directions. Most people got through maybe a half a page of these severely pedantic directions and decided to just get on with the very long test so that they could get done with the class. My mother and a few others decided to heed the professor's advice and read all four pages of directions which concluded with "Thank you for reading all of the directions. Write your name on the top, turn it in, and meet me at the bar downtown for a beer. You will receive an 'A.'" Not many that day read all the directions, and really that does not surprise me too much.

We all have times in our lives where we have trouble actually listening to what is being said to us, whether it be in a text or in a conversation. We would much rather hear what we want to hear rather than listen carefully to what's been said. In fact, I believe the greatest indicator of how healthy a relationship (friendship or marriage) is how well the two people actually engage in communication. That truly is one of the most important things two people can work on in their relationship, and at times it takes hard work to truly hear what the other is actually saying. Yet, we also see this in our news as well. How many of you have heard a report or a commentator misquote or misrepresent what a public figure had actually said?

Yes, it is true we sometimes have a hard time really listening to what is being told us, even when God personally tells people like us to listen to the Beloved Son. How do we truly hear what Jesus is telling us through his life? First of all, there are times when we need to get out of the way of God is up to. Peter, who often sticks his foot in his own mouth, would love to enshrine Jesus on the top of that mountain so that he and others could always come back to that place again and again and again. But this Good Thing that has come down to earth cannot be locked up on the top of a mountain. Jesus is a Good Thing that must be brought out to the whole world for it is Good for him fill to fill the whole of creation with God's light and love.

Second of all, there are times when we simply would rather that God would do things in a different way, a way which would perhaps not include the cross which Jesus has become resolved march towards in this Lenten journey. Again, it is Peter who begins to scold Jesus for saying that he must go and die on the cross. But the cross is the way. It is the only way. It is the way which shows each of us the incredible self-emptying love of the God who truly gives up what he deserves to give us what we need – to give us mercy. In fact, that phrase I quoted at the beginning of this sermon? There are two other places in Mark's Gospel where it occurs in much the same way: 1.) at Jesus' baptism where God declares "This is my Son, the Beloved. With Him I am well pleased." and 2.) When Jesus dies on the cross and the Roman centurion proclaims "Truly this was God's Son." In sense, we only truly believe, we only truly see, we only truly listen when we gaze upon the cross which is itself the revelation of God's love in the world.

So if we truly take the time to heed God's words "This is my Son, the Beloved; Listen to him!" we must see these words as words that take us away from ourselves and towards others in the world as we too bear that cross to the whole world in our words and deeds. If we heed these words, we need not bear how wonderful our lives are, but simply bear how wonderful God's love is. For that has been and always will be enough. Because on that cross, that cross that journey towards again as begin another season of Lent this Wednesday, God's love and mercy embraces the whole world, a Grace beyond any measure. And in that, we just might find that we too might begin to be able to better listen to the world around us and hopefully respond with grace-filled love that has been shown us.