Jesus as Peace Delegation…Especially Between Your Uncle and Your Sister-in-Law When it Comes to Kaepernick

peace-doveThere are some weeks where it seems all the literalists and fundamentalists disappear from the church pews.  One such week is when we read Jesus’ instruction to pluck out your eye or chop off your hand if it causes you to sin. Jesus doesn’t really mean that, of course.

Right?

One other such instance involves this week’s reading where Jesus says that to follow him requires people to “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life.”  Jesus doesn’t really mean that, of course.

Right?

But even that teaching can be swallowed by some.  It’s how this passage ends that usually seals the deal when it comes to not taking Jesus literally.  To cap off this section on what discipleship means Jesus says, “those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”

Ok, Jesus. So, that excludes everyone.  No one is left now.

Because Jesus is not just talking about the tangibles, but also the intangibles that we possess: our relationships, our pride, our self-worth, our need to be right. Everything.

Surely Jesus doesn’t mean that, of course.

Right?

A.J. Jacobs, a would-be social researcher who uses his body as his test subject, wrote about his journey to “live Biblically” for a year in his aptly titled book “The Year of Living Biblically.”  (A great read, btw!) He starts with the Hebrew scriptures, piling on code after AJ Jacobscode and law after law, moving to the Gospels and letters, until he was trying to follow every ordinance and command in the scriptures.

His conclusion: everyone who claims the Christian faith is a “cafeteria Christian.” That is, every person of faith and faith community decides which sections of the scripture are central to the faith (and subsequently, for the faithful) and which ones are not, because one cannot follow all the commands and ordinances (especially the contradictory ones).

And, the Lutheran would add, the faithful shouldn’t even try.  Because in the Lutheran cafeteria, that’s not the point of it all.

Let’s look at this gospel reading for this Sunday again.  Embedded in this confusing reading (I mean, we don’t really like it when Jesus talks like this, do we?) is, what I think, a key verse for unbinding the reading from traditional interpretations that smack of moralistic code-following commands.

Look at that second little story, the one about the king counting his armed forces before heading to war. Jesus says: “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?  If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.”

I love this little Jesus insert.  It seems really cut and dry, of course, like a moral tale about “counting the cost” as it were when it comes to following Jesus.  Kind of like Jesus saying, “Are you prepared to lose it all?  If not, ask for a peace deal.”

And let’s face it: we’re not prepared to lose it all.  Peter thought he was. “Even if all the others desert you, I will not!” he confidently says in the Gospel of Matthew when it comes to facing the cross with Christ. The other disciples mumble similar affirmations as they all back away slowly into the foliage of the garden that fateful night.

635932885436549431-USP-NFL-Preseason-San-Francisco-49ers-at-HoustonWe talk a big game, but we’re not prepared to lose it all. If we were really prepared to lose it all, then the Christian circles would be all atwitter (or, rather, on Twitter?) around this deal with 49ers would-be quarterback Colin Kaepernick, telling stories about how they, too, all swore off their allegiance to any flag directly after their baptism.

Can you be a Christian and salute the American flag?  Depends, I guess. Do you take Jesus literally when he says you must give up everything?

Everything?

That sort of nationalism is, after all, part of what is implied when Jesus tells his followers to “give up everything,” especially in the ancient world where family, tribe, and allegiance meant survival.  Everything, Jesus says, even your other allegiances: family, country, all of it.  So the Facebook post war going on between that uncle of yours and that sister-in-law over Kaepernick’s sitting out the national anthem takes on a new light when seen through this scripture reading if we’re taking in the context, right?

Are either of them willing to give up their ground?  Should they?

So here’s the thing: we’re just not willing to give *everything* up.  I’m not even sure we should be.  I’m not even sure that’s what Jesus is actually intending here, (though it could be a valid interpretation!).

But here’s what I do think.

I think that, seeing that humanity is not willing to give everything up, and indeed will fight tooth and nail to keep their possessions and right opinions and all the things that we cling our hearts to in this world: relationships and flags and laws and ordinances and the need to be right and know that others are wrong, God sent out a peace delegation.

A peace delegation named Jesus.  God looked at the field and saw that humanity would cut off their nose to spite their face and embodied a face to show it didn’t have to be that way.

And that Jesus, caught in the crossfire between factions of humanity needing to be right, gave up everything, including his life and his need to be right in the end, to show just how far God is willing to go for peace.

And maybe that’s what this little section of Luke is about.  It is about knowing that the cost of discipleship will eventually take everything, and only God is willing and able to do that in the end.

And thank God for that. Because if it were up to us, we’d all lose out.

The cost of following Jesus is a cost that Jesus will bear, and we will benefit from, and though that peace is costly, God’s willing to spend it.

I still think we have to be wary of what we cling to in this world. Everything can become an idol, even our opinions, our flags, and our sense of pride, and our moral high ground on social media.

But I don’t worry that those idols will hold too much power in the end.  I mean, I don’t actively try to worship them (and indeed, I keep my guard up!), but I also don’t think that even these things will keep God in Christ from continually seeking me out with that nail-pierced hand of peace.

Me with my right interpretations and opinions and moral high-ground.  And you with yours.

Rolling an Orange to God

<No recording this week.  You’ll have to hear it with your eyes…>

Luke 1:46-55

Oranges46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Rolling an Orange to God

Lord, scatter our proud hearts

That we might hear your humble word today

Lift us up or throw us down

But in all things love us beyond any love we’ve known.

We need it.

Amen.

My grandfather (Grandpa Red, married to Grandma Ladye, for those of you keeping track of my family tree) once told me about Christmastime when he was young.  He was called Grandpa Red for his thick red hair, by the way, a trait that my head, apparently, was too good for.

Grandpa Red grew up in Ponce de Leon, Florida, a hardscrabble place from nowheresville in the Western part of that skinny state.  He and his siblings lived a farm life.  He often rose before the sun to go hunting for breakfast, like squirrel or opossum. Mmmm…flavor country.

But he told me about Christmas this one time, and it all sounded idyllic.  They’d go cut down a tree, not always an evergreen mind you, but some tree.  And they’d make homemade decorations to put on it.  And they’d hang their own socks up, not these prefab stockings we have nowadays with cartoon characters or fancy embroidered initials. And they’d sing carols and have special cookies.

It all sounded Currier & Ives-ish.  That is, until he got to talking about the presents.  Or, should I say, present.

“What’d you get for Christmas, Grandpa?!”  “Well, sometimes we’d get a tin toy or a new belt or new socks. And usually we’d all get an orange.”

Nothing sounded less awesome to me than a new belt, socks, or some metal toy.  And an orange?

My grandfather went on about the orange, “We usually had to go find those on our own or buy them from the store.  We didn’t get that kind of big fruit every day, Tim, that was a big thing.”

Speaking of oranges, I was listening to NPR the other day and the guest reporter was talking about how difficult it is, especially this election year, to speak with any of the presidential or vice presidential candidates one-on-one.  And they spoke of this old method that reports sometimes used on the campaign trail involving an orange.

On the plane, with the candidate in the front half and this gaggle of reporters in the rear, with a curtain separating the two, a reporter might write a question on an orange, and roll it to the front of the plane, hoping that the candidate would find it, pick it up, and roll it back.

And this actually recently happened with VP candidate Pence, where a reporter did just this and received a written answer back.  I kind of love that story. What a weird way to get access when you feel like you can’t, like all other avenues are spent.

I kind of wish we could roll an orange to God sometimes.  Write a little question, and roll it on out into nowhere, praying for an answer back.

I mean, in simplest terms, that’s kind of what some prayers are, right?  Questions lobbed out into the darkness.

And Christmas, of course, is one of the times of year when we celebrate the orange returning with an answer.  The prophets groaned about waiting for salvation, the people were in spiritual distress. How long, O Lord? They cried.

In fact, I cried the same thing this last week when I saw the dust covered body of a 5 year old boy hit in an airstrike in Aleppo who looked like my boy. How long, O Lord?!

But the Christmas orange that year was this unexpected announcement from an angel to a teen in a nowhere town about an unplanned birth in a place and time where unplanned births meant bad news for the family.

The Christmas orange that year was special, but not in the way we probably wanted it.  Because the first news of Jesus’ arrival was entrusted to an angel and a woman.  The first one no one believes in, and the second one, in ancient days, no one believed.  Women couldn’t even testify in most courts.

And the ironic thing, of course, is that the people entrusted with the news of Jesus’ impending birth, are the very same people entrusted with the news of his resurrection: women and angels.

God has this predictable pattern of relying on the people you don’t imagine can be trusted with news so good that you can’t imagine can be true.

And it may not seem like much of a gift, or even that significant, to have the news of God’s work through the birth of Jesus show up from an angel and a woman.  That is, unless you are a woman.  Unless you are someone who feels invisible, like angels, a lot of the time.  It doesn’t mean much to have God show up on the outskirts of humanity unless you find yourself there.

And I guess that’s the real good news about God’s arrival in Jesus, what we call Christmas, but which is really every single moment of every day: it happens when you least expect in to those who least suspect it.

And so Mary is not blessed because her status has been raised, but because God looked upon her status and even there found her worthy.  Mary is not blessed because all of her troubles went away, but because, despite the troubles…and her troubles were about to get huge with the troublemaker Jesus…but despite the hardship and troubles was about to get in, she trusted God’s presence in and even through it.  Mary’s life has been disrupted, uprooted, and yet she trusts that her roots are found in the God who sees her, not in what seems to be her circumstance.

And, here’s something I’ve begun to love about this song of Mary’s that is our scripture for today, the first phrase there is “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Megalune is the Greek there, meaning “to extol” as if Mary’s very being radiates God, much as her belly will swell with God.

And it reminds me of that favorite line of mine from the mysterious Meister Eckhart, that wonderful mystic, who once wrote, “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the son of God fourteen hundred years ago and I do not give birth to the son of God in my time and in my culture?”

We are, as Eckhart would go on to say, all meant to be mothers of Jesus, even here and now in this world; this broken but beautiful world where we continue to cry a mix of Hallelujah and “How long, O Lord?” as we read the news, and as we celebrate births and we mourn the death of friends, as we are overjoyed because of new friendships found and feel lost because no one visits anymore, as we’re relieved to have our babies back safe from trips and distraught because we’re at sometimes odds with our children, as we’re falling back in love and as we’re contemplating divorce, as we’re struggling not to pick up that drug anymore and grateful we made it another day without thinking about suicide, as we’re wrestling with, or failing to wrestle with, our own racism or prejudices.

That’s our world, and that’s the world God in Jesus continues to break into by hook or crook, with angels and the unexpected bearing witness to it in loud and quiet ways.

Even now Jesus comes, and maybe we need to bend our ear to those invisible or suspect to hear it best.

Because, and here’s the kicker, I know we think we’re lobbing all sorts of oranges at God, trying to get answers.  But God’s the one, I think, rolling oranges to us.  Oranges that say things like, “I am with you, even unto the end of the age.”  Oranges that say things like, “I love you and you are mine.”  Oranges that say things like, “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with me.”  Oranges that say things like, “You are blessed.”  Especially, like Mary, when we don’t feel like it.

I mean, God entrusted the most important stories of Christian history, Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ resurrection, to people who others thought weren’t real or reliable.

And that may not seem like much, but for those of us who sometimes feel lost, forgotten, uprooted, invisible, or less than, when we feel like all we’re doing is crying How long, O Lord, trusting that’s where God shows up the clearest…well, as my grandfather would say, “that’s a pretty big thing.”

So Brothers and Sisters, What Do You Think?

August 14th, 2016

Luke 12:49-56

49 “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

54 He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. 55 And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. 56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?

So, Brothers and Sisters, What Do You Think?

Kindle in us the spark of your love, Lord

Help us to know that the time is right

To show your love, and a peace we don’t understand

In this world. Amen.

statue-of-greek-titan-prometheus-rockefeller-center

Did you know this was Prometheus? Well, now you know!

The Greeks had an explanation for everything, but their explanation for fire is one of my favorites.  Fire, held in the hand of Zeus, was meant for the gods.  But Prometheus, that wiley friend of the humans, stole fire from the great bowl of Olympus, and ran it to the humans like an Olympic torch.  Zeus, in a rage, shackled Prometheus to a rock, where he was tormented by eagles pecking at him the rest of his days.

But humans still kept the fire.

The sacredness of fire is something that our cave-dwelling ancestors knew well, and I think that we still remember. Anyone who has been through a fire, who has seen the devastation of lightning, who has known that frustration and embarrassment that happens when the campfire won’t light and young ones are waiting to roast their marshmallows knows that fire is not to be trusted.

And that’s a truth we should let sink in really quickly: fire is not to be trusted.

And so we don’t know what to make of a Jesus who talks like this, who wields fire like an ironworker, who speaks of wanting to divide rather than unite.

Just look at politics today if you want division, Jesus: send the remedy, because we already have the sickness.  And for in-laws divided, just talk to anyone planning a wedding.  We’re there.

The reason that fire can’t be trusted is because normally fire leaves nothing alone when it touches it.  And when we think of the peaceful night sitting around the fireplace with Bing Crosby crooning in the background, we’re only thinking of it from our vantage point, and not that of the sacrificial log…who has a less peaceful go of it.

And that other vantage point is the view this scripture encourages us to adopt.  Because when the call of God is upon your heart, it can be unsettling, and it can be less peace and leave you more perturbed. It can divide you against yourself, against even those closest to you, who may not understand this new calling on your life.

But what Jesus is suggesting is not that we should rebel against our parents or siblings, but rather that, in the world and realm of God, the old connections that kept society together would be shattered.  Connections like the strong over the weak, like the rich over the poor, like the healthy over the infirm, like the able-bodied over those who are still able, but not always with their bodies.

The Gospel of Christ is one that is absolutely liberating.  It is one that has the audacity to say to this little boy tonight, “You are a bearer of God’s goodness even though you can’t even walk yet” and tells those who walk to beware because they are not always bearers of goodness in the world, despite what their ego, the letters behind their name, or their status might say.

The Gospel of Christ is one that pushes the ego aside, throws the powerful from the thrones and lifts up the lonely, as Mary said earlier in this Gospel when she found out God had chosen her, and unwed teen to bear God into the world.  The Gospel of Christ doesn’t just root for the underdog, but became the underdog to show that God’s not just willing to throw support behind those left behind in this world, but becomes one left behind to overturn all expectations.

When Jesus notes that two are pitted against three, and in-laws against one another, he’s noting that when we give up power for the sake of others, as the Gospel calls us to do (primarily in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount), there will be power-inequity in a world who just is continually in love with power and keeping score and knowing who is right and who is wrong.

And Jesus just isn’t willing to play those games.  He’d rather die than play the power game.  And he does.

And so when Jesus prays for fire upon the earth, he’s praying for that Pentecost fire where everyone heard the Gospel in their own language.  He’s praying that the fire the burned up the altars of the prophets of Baal is kindled so that the altars we’ve set up to fame, success, power, politics, our pocketbooks, and our prejudices are burned up.

Because in the Kingdom of God, that’s how it is.

You know, I call you brother and sister here at church.  Quite Quaker of me, yes?  Quite Christian of me, actually.  In the ancient church they called one another brother and sister so as to strip you from your family’s prestige or shame, and if you were a slave at the time, the title brother or sister stripped you of your second-class status in the church.  Brother and sister became the equalizing title for those who see God as their parent and Christ living within them.

The ancient church understood what Jesus was saying when he said he’d divide people from the families.  We hear that and think he’s causing animosity or encouraging Christian children not to talk to their pagan parents.  It’s not that at all.  Jesus was calling the church to be a place where the primary connection for all people was their common humanity, their having been created by that imaginative, creator God who longs for right relationships over hierarchies.

I need that kind of Jesus, the one who won’t let me get away with lording over others, for discounting others, for propping myself up on my academic achievements, my good name, or any other power-play I want to wield in this world…

Oh, but look at the Son, the day is almost over.  Perhaps it’s time to just sit down, brothers and sisters, and ponder if we’re really ready for the fire of Christ who will radically change things in all our worlds, in our churches, in all things, or if we’d rather just hang on to the little flames from these candles instead.  Remember, fire can’t be trusted…it leaves nothing unchanged.  Are we ready for that?

So, brothers and sisters, what do you think?

“Why I think Children Should Be Involved in All Parts of Worship in Real Ways” or “Youth Sunday can Be Every Sunday”

12802811_10207558541875688_2133902341438277207_nI’ve seen the confused looks, and I’ve even heard the questions, some of them directly to me. “What about these children helping at communion?  I’m not sure if that’s allowed.  I’m not sure if I like that.”

I understand the sentiment, and I take the question seriously.  To be honest, having the youth help at communion wasn’t even something that I thought would cause people to pause; it’s been my practice throughout my ministry.  But I now realize it’s something new for many, and I never want you to think that I have a practice without a purpose.  So, with Education Sunday (where we’ll celebrate the gift of education and inter-generational ministry) coming up, let me tell you why I think this issue is an important part of youth ministry, specifically at GSLC, and an important part of my pastoral ministry.  

I’m always eager to answer these questions!

In seminary I took a provocatively titled class, “The Theology of the Child.”  History is easy to forget. We feel as if we are far removed from it today, especially because we feel that children are often lifted up as special and exceptional (especially your grandchildren!), but children in the ancient world were the most vulnerable population, even more vulnerable than women or servants.  Children were not even considered people in the ancient world, at least not until they reached their teens.  Infant mortality rates were high, and parenting classes were hard to come by.

Child rearing and children were not that important to most in the ancient world, which was part of why  God’s incarnation in the young child Jesus and his focus on children is so scandalous!  He elevates the child!

In this seminary class we not only learned and discussed how children were marginalized and abused in the ancient world, but we also talked frankly about how children are still marginalized in this day and age.  When wars break out, children are often the first victims and the scars are lasting. Hunger affects the developing child brain more than the adult brain, and there are too many children hungry in this world. Children are still used for cheap labor around the world, and are abused in homes, schools, and places of worship, often without notice.

And they’re also leaving the church in alarming and ever-growing numbers.

In my conversations with youth, one of the reasons they leave so readily is because we’ve given them no reason to stay: little connection with other youth, little connection with caring adults other than their parents and pastor, and little opportunity to practice the faith with and for the community. We’ve preached at them and taught at them, but the whole church catholic can do a better job at worshiping with and through them.

Oh, sure, the church has done a good job at giving youth opportunities to do some “youth” things for the church (remember Youth Sundays?). I want every Sunday to be a Sunday with youth.  I want every Sunday to be Youth Sunday. I’ve found that our youth want to be a part of the church, fully.  Many music programs, including ours, do this well! Many mission opportunities, including our own, involve youth well!

But I want us to do it well in all parts of our communal life, including assisting at the altar and serving communion.

And you should see their excitement when they hear they’ll get to serve communion with an adult.  Yes, they might be shy at first, but I think it’s because they feel the weight of it all, even more than some adults!  Yes, when they are an Assisting Minister they may stumble over words as nerves catch up with them.  But think of what we’re asking them to do: write prayers for the community and communicate them to God on our behalf.  Who wouldn’t be nervous?

And the beauty, of course, is that with practice this all gets a little easier and a little smoother.  And almost every month I have a new youth who wants to help light the candles, give the blood of Christ to wanting souls, and pray the prayers.  Think about that: we have youth wanting to be a part of church on Sunday mornings.

This is part of youth ministry, allowing them to minister to adults in real, meaningful ways.  And we train for it, and practice it, and review it, and try harder each week, just as we expect all of our worship assistants to grow in these gifts week by week.

But even beyond all of these very practical reasons, we cannot ignore that the Biblical witness makes clear that youth are bearers of the faith.

Jeremiah thought he was too young to be a prophet, and God told him to stop using that as an excuse (Jeremiah 1:7).  Mary was a young teen, and was chosen to be the God-bearer for a hurting world.  And when the disciples tried to bar children from touching Jesus, Jesus said to them, “Let the young children come to me; do not stop them. For the kingdom of God is theirs.” (Matthew 19:14).  We’ve lost how scandalous this passage is, but the children Jesus was inviting to him were not just some children tagging along with their parents. They were most likely street children: beggars, homeless, “not real people” in the eyes of the disciples and those hearing the gospels.

If children could hold Jesus in the ancient world, why should the church keep them from holding Jesus in these last days? And even our own tradition has lifted it up, as the blessed Martin Luther proclaimed that children are faithful from birth (Large Catechism XIIIA “Of Infant Baptism”).  It’s part of our tradition.

In the ancient church (and in many churches today including the Orthodox church), any baptized person of any age could participate fully in the church, including Holy Communion.  I long to go back to that practice and advocate it for our ministry together, not just because it’s theologically sound, but also because we have children abandoning the church at alarming rates citing that they don’t feel connected.

Let’s connect them in real, practical, tangible ways.  It may take some getting used to, but I assure you that I encourage this practice with strong theological foundation, with Biblical witness as the lens, and, more personally, as a parent who wants his children to feel connected to the faith in such a way that they can, as one child said to me one Sunday, “be a part of it all.”

And in connecting them, over time, I bet you’ll also find yourself better connected to the faith, and to the young ones who literally have “faith like a child.”

Umbrellas, Rain, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

<Listen along here to the sermon to give your eyes a rest. That’s actually the best way to experience this particular form of art: with you ears.>

Job 14:7-15; 19:23-27

keith

Photo Credit: Keith White, Salvation Mountain, California.

For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again,

And that its shoots will not cease.

Thought its root grows old in the earth,

And its stump dies in the ground,

Yet at the scent of water it will bud

And put forth branches like a young plant.

But mortals die, and are laid low;

Humans expire, and where are they?

As waters fail from a lake

And a river wastes away and dries up,

So mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.

O that you would hide me in Sheol,

That you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!

If mortals die, will they live again?

All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come.

You would call, and I would answer you;

You would long for the work your hands.

O that my words were written down!

O that they were inscribed in a book!

O that with an iron pen and with lead

They were engraved on a rock forever!

For I know that my Redeemer lives,

And that at the last he will stand upon the earth;

After my skin has been destroyed then in my flesh I shall see God,

Whom I shall see on my side,

And my eyes shall behold and not another.

My heart faints within me!

Umbrellas, Rain, and The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Remind us that there is hope, Lord

Even when we’re cut down by life.

Our redeemer lives.

Amen

As we hear last week, Job’s “frenemies” are doing their work.  You know, your friends who are enemies.  The gossipy ones, the jealous ones, the ones who post that bad picture of you on social media and then tag you in it saying, “having a great time!” except you were having a great time until you saw that pic….

Job’s frenemies are more nefarious than that, though.  They try over and over again to convince him that, not only is there a reason for the pain and horror in his life, but that his sin is the reason for it all and actually deserves it in some way.

And they think they’re trying to help.  They’re problem solving, as Pr. Dave mentioned last week.

Sometimes we’re our own best frenemies.  Or would it be worse frenemies?

What stories do we tell ourselves in times of trial.

It’s where we find our friend Job today, talking to himself, telling himself stories.

It’s important to note that lament is part of that story.  He doesn’t gloss over his own suffering, and he doesn’t say, “Oh, some have it worse.”

By the way, that line of thinking, “Well, some have it worse so I have nothing to be sad about” makes as much sense as saying, “Well, some have it better so I have nothing to be happy about.”  Both are attempts to delude ourselves into a state of being that ignores reality, heading the poetry of T.S. Eliot where he writes in the Four Quartets,

Go, go, go said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.

But we must learn to for wisdom.

And so Job laments.  “Mortals,” he says, “mortals die; they are laid low; they expire and where do they go?” he says in verse 10.  He’s looking at his situation soberly.  As St. Elton of the Johns once wrote, “When all hope is gone, sad songs say so much.”

And that’s a song of lament, that’s part of our journey with tragedy.

But it’s only part of the journey, and especially when it comes to stories that we tell ourselves when tragedy strikes us, we can’t pitch a tent in the desert of lament and stay forever or we will dry out and die because nothing can live in lament forever and retain their souls.  How long do we stay there?  Well, there is no prescription, but it’s not forever.  Ann Lamott has this saying that, “mercy bats last.”  I’d also add that hope bats last.  Grace bats last.  But they always bat. They must get a chance at the plate eventually.

But, see, our brains and hearts are fickle things.  They can trick us into believing all sorts of stories.  They can trick us into believing that things have always been this way and will always be this way.  They can trick us into thinking that there is no hope for a tree cut down, to borrow Job’s metaphor.

Part of the reason Christians struggle with this notion of whether or not God is to blame when tragedy strikes is because we’ve told ourselves stories about God, we’ve etched them in stone, and they contradict one another.  Stories like, “God is in control” and what we mean by that is that God is moving every little piece of every little atom, like God’s playing some sort of cosmic Monopoly game and keeps passing out “go directly to jail” cards. And no, you do not get to collect $200.

But it’s clear that in a universe where love is a real thing and not some compulsory action that God demands on us, then not every little atom is being manipulated.  True freedom means freedom from manipulation, which means God’s not pulling levers or strings or any old thing to make everything move.  Instead we have, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted, a world whose arc is bent toward justice and goodness.  That is, the grand story is one that bends toward the light away from the shadows.  And God invites us in on the act of bending!

And so when it seems like the arc has flat lined, as it has for Job, what sort of stories do we tell ourselves to remind ourselves that it is still bending?

This last week I was leaving the office late, almost 9pm, and I called Rhonda to inquire if there was anything we needed at the store before my trip home.  Which, you should know, is actually code for, “do we have snacks and/or beer?”  We didn’t, and so I pulled into Harris Teeter over here on Creedmoor just as the torrential downpour of the century began.

By the way, on the call paperwork here those torrential downpours and their propensity to pop up in an instant were conspicuously missing!

So I pull in and I’m just going to get drenched as I walk in, I can already see it.  And of course there are no close spots but, ahah!  I had an umbrella in the backseat, my big funeral umbrella.  Some people call it a golf umbrella but because I play golf like Charles Barkley, it’s my funeral umbrella.

And then, boom, I spot it: a parking spot up close.  And so I pull in and think on my luck and just in front of me I can see a sign through the crazy downpour in front of the spot that says, “Reserved for parents with children.”

Now: moral dilemma time.  It’s torrentially raining.  It’s crazy out there.  I’m expecting the apocalypse, dogs and cats living together, there’s no telling what this storm will do and this is the closest open spot.  But it’s for parents with children.  But wait, I have children!  They’re just not with me.  What to do…

I stayed put and reminded myself that if I need to prove I have children, I’ll invite someone to sit in the backseat of my car and then get back up again and inspect what sticks to their rear end.  Spoiler alert: we have enough Cheerios in our back seat to feed ten toddlers.

And I get out and put up my umbrella and I have to put it sideways because the rain is not falling, it is attacking me, from the side. And I make it into the commercialistic heaven of Harris Teeter, safe.

Now look, I’m not suggesting that we all park wherever we want and justify it however we want, but think on this: when all hell is breaking loose, when life is crashing down around you, sometimes the thing that you need to get you through the storm is to remind you of the story that, while not immediately apparent, is nonetheless true.

A story that says that you can park your spot in the life that reminds you that you are a child of God, because that story is true even if it doesn’t feel like it’s true.

A story like, “I know that my redeemer lives.”  And for a Christian, that’s talking about a 150lb Jewish guy rising from the grave.  A story like, “There is hope for a tree cut down,” because when they hung Christ on tree, he sprouted from the grave like a seed sown in the soil.

And these are not stories of vacuous hope; this is not you staring at posters of kitties dangling from trees saying, “Hang in there.”

This is the story of a God whose been there before, who is both the rain and the umbrella, a God who is both the victim and the conqueror.  A God who is both the savior of the public and the one sacrificed on the cross of public popular opinion.  It’s a story that moves right past the brain, because it doesn’t make sense, and right through the heart, because it’s not vapid and inspirational, and goes right to the soul, right to the very essence of who we are as humans who live and breathe and die and long for goodness.  It goes right to the very seat of pain and there takes up residence whispering the hope of resurrection within our songs of lament.

This is the story of a God who listens to T.S. Eliot’s little bird and goes, goes, goes to be with humanity, to help them bear the reality that they struggle to bear on their own.

And look, this is the story that you tell yourself.  Because if someone else comes along and tells you this story, well, it’s not going to be the same. Their well-meaning consolation just sounds patronizing and ill-timed.  But I’m talking about the stories we tell ourselves, and I’ve had to tell myself this story before.  A guy with low self-esteem, a kid who didn’t really fit in and was picked on quite a bit, who sat on the ash-pile of his lack of friends, I’ve had to tell myself these stories before.  Maybe you have to.  Or maybe you should have, but didn’t because you didn’t think you could.

The stories that we must tell ourselves when we’re sitting on the ashes of our lives is not some feel-good story on the news, is not some inspirational quote, is not some trite moralism from a frenemy, is not our story at all, even, but rather the story of a God who loves us, literally, to death so that death and tragedy does not have the final say.

 

God will not let us suffer or die alone, and even then won’t let us stay dead, and in that we have immeasurable hope.

You know, my friend Keith, a roommate of mine in graduate school, just made a trip out to San Diego for the first time.  And he visited this place in the desert called Salvation Mountain, an adobe and straw monstrosity with “Jesus Saves” sayings painted in bright colors all over the place.  It’s a mix of evangelical fervor and artistic genius that both disturbs and intrigues me.

And he’s taking all these pictures of the colors and the painted phrases, and he focused in on this one phrase that captivated me: You’re both my umbrella and my rain.  And after my fight with the July storm and the Harris Teeter moral dilemma, it brought it all home to me.

Because that’s kind of how I feel about God.  Because God’s love story seen through Jesus is the one that both gets me through storms, protecting me, but also kind of attacks and prods me from my place of perpetual lament.  It is my umbrella and my rain. It won’t leave me alone even as it covers me.  God’s love story assaults those narratives of the frenemies, and sometimes the stories of perpetual pain and woe that I tell myself, reminding me of a deeper truth that is always there, though I don’t always have the presence to remember it: that God never lets death and evil have the final say.

And so I tell myself, eventually, the same story at St. Paul told. That Neither life nor death, as St. Paul says, nor things present nor things to come, nor real systemic racism, nor revenge shootings, nor the reality of blinding privilege that insulates me from knowing true discrimination, nor terrorist attacks, nor divorce, nor trouble with our children, nor sticking a needle in my vein, nor a madman extremist in a truck driving through a crowded street, nor losing my job, nor losing my house, nor depression, nor anything under the sun will separate me from the love of a God whose story is one that persists

And persists

And lives

And gives hope

past death into abundant life.

Bold Mixtures, Sarcastic Zen, and The Refracting Power of Scripture

p01l4fl4We’re continuing with our Job sermon series, and we’re walking through the pages and pages of monologues found between chapters 2 and 40 both this week and next, and it’s full of speech after speech.

Seriously, the heavy use of soliloquy in this book would make an editor reach for their red pen.

But this week, instead of landing on a speech where some frenemy (definition: friend who is really an enemy) tries to tell Job that his sin must be the root cause of his calamity, we get a sober moment of Job reflecting on his situation using his own voice.

A bold mixture of helpless lament and stunning hope, verses 14:7-15 and 19:23-27, the verses we focus on this week, seem almost schizophrenic in their pull between nihilism and full-throated assurance.

It’s like an internet meme I recently found called “21 Sarcastic Zen Thoughts,” of which number 3 took to the cake for me: “It’s always darkest before dawn. So, if you’re going to steal your neighbor’s newspaper, that’s the time to do it.” It almost makes sense.

But that’s how life can feel in times of uncertainty, right?  Like a mix of heartless sarcasm, hidden wisdom, and dark despair.  Like a pull between two equally strong and equally unforgiving forces.

Like being stuck.

This week I wrote an article for Living Lutheran, our denominational magazine, that put a different, contextual lens on the “Good Samaritan” story.  It’s an imperfect attempt to take something that doesn’t make sense and filter it through the scriptures, not in order to make sense out of it, but rather to refract it and break it all open so that we can look at things differently.

Jesus did this all the time, by the way…that’s why he taught in parables.  Parables didn’t make things clearer, they just sufficiently rearranged everything so that they could be seen in a totally new and holy way.

When we’re stuck, allowing scripture to break things open for us and even break us open can help us look at things in a new way.  Job’s own reflection this week is through his lens of his scriptures, which both give voice to his very serious sadness while also provide a voice for hopeful words he can just barely speak and must roll over in his heart to test their truth.

That’s kind of how I feel after these last few weeks here.  Story after story of God showing up in unexpected ways, of loving mercy more than violence, of loving the neighbor over fearing the stranger, or giving life to protect the vulnerable and becoming vulnerable to give life, it’s all giving voice to the sadness around us while also providing a voice of hope.

Which feels like a pull between two opposites, but is actually just part of this strange whole that we call “life,” especially life as one who follows the crucified-yet-living one.

Perhaps this week you’ll hear your own story in Job’s refracted reflection.  I think, perhaps, we’ll all hear our collective story there: a bold mixture of lament and hopeful promise.

Getting Mixed Signals

<You can listen along by clicking here.  Like music, sermons are best heard rather than read.>

Job 1:1-22

grandpa's steel scripturesThere was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.  That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.  There were born to him seven sons and three daughters.  He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.  His sons used to go and hold feasts in one another’s houses in turn; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them.  And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “it may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” This is what job always did.

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and the Satan also came among them. The Lord said to the Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “from going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job?  There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.  Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing?  Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?  You have blessed the work of his hands and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”  The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.”  While he was still speaking another came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.”  While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was still speaking, another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”

Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped.  He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.

Getting Mixed Signals

We hear from the Psalms, Lord,

That it is better to trust in you than in flesh or rulers. (Psalm 22)

Yet when we talk about you

When we try to figure out your mind

We get mixed signals.

Humble us today, on the weekend of our national independence

Remind us of our nakedness before truth and dependence on you

That we might be clothed in your wisdom

And not our own. Amen.

I’m not sure if it’s my parents age or my age, but we’re now at the point in our relationship where they give me things from my childhood home or from the family clutter files, as if to say, “Here, you throw this away for us.”

But the last time I was with my father, he gave me something that I won’t throw away.  It’s right here: my maternal grandfather’s military issued New Testament.

I wrote about this for our denominational magazine, Living Lutheran, but the cool thing about this New Testament is that it’s steel plated on one side.  The idea was that you could put it in your front vest pocket, over your heart, and it would stop a bullet.

I don’t remember much about my maternal grandfather.  I remember he had a big mustache that tickled when he kissed me.  I remember his hospice bed in his Texas home.  He died of cancer when I was my son Finn’s age, when I was three.  We called him Grandpa Sodie, a nickname he received when he was young for his love of what Missourian’s called “sodie-pop.”  And, by the way, it’s “Missoura” in my family, a refined southern-sounding short a to cap off that state.

My mother adored him.  He was a faithful man, sometimes filling in for the Methodist preacher in their church when he was away on vacation.  Unlike my paternal grandmother who had a penchant for Manhattans and cigarettes, he had a penchant for snuff and pickled pig’s feet. You choose which is worse…

And when I was 14 I found something so rare I wasn’t sure what to do with it.  I came across a cassette tape, remember those?  Those windy tape filled things that you had to use a pencil to wind up.  I found a cassette tape of his voice. It was weak, maybe just before he died?  And in it he talked of his love for the family, but especially his love and regret over my Uncle John, and how things had turned out there. He spoke in this halting way about John.  He’d say something, and stop. Say a phrase, and then stop.  As if the silence was part of his testimony.

Christian Wiman, Poet Laureate and author of many great works, my favorite of which is My Bright Abyss, writes of his journey with stage four brain cancer.  He’s still here to talk about it, by the way.  Why do some cancers go in remission and others lay waste to healthy bodies?

But in it he talks about his faith journey, a long and winding road to quote the Saints of Liverpool. “Silence,” he says in one part, “is the language of faith.  Action—be it church or charity, politics or poetry—is the translation.”  I think there’s wisdom in that idea, which is why our jumping to action first in any crisis, whether that action is words or explaining away or trite expressions or even boiling water, goes against our faith.

John was an “oops” baby, born many years after my mother and her siblings. He fell in love very young and, against my grandparents wishes, ran off to marry her…they’re still married today.  But as happens, the relationship was strained for a bit.

And here was a recording of my grandfather, weak and naked in his hospital gown, talking about a part of his life he wished he could do over.  It was touching and important and I don’t know where that cassette tape is anymore; lost in the shuffle of several house moves I suppose.

Regret is a violin that continues to play after the symphony is over, and I can only imagine my grandfather’s steely reserve as his heart was broken…and my uncle and grandmother’s hearts were broken…in that fall out.

But, as I’ve said before, all holy things are broken things.

Broken like this New Testament, whose stories aren’t meant for steel plating; at its core this is a mixed message of sorts, as if God’s word is steel plated. It is a broken symbol because the scriptures, what with their heartening and heartbreaking accounts of healings, deaths, resurrections, insurrections, love letters and hate mail is anything but steel plated.  Rather it encourages you to break open your heart and your eyes to gaze upon a God that can be seen only through a mirror darkly if you look directly at God, and through Jesus and the movement of the Spirit when you avert your eyes to the side.  It’s broken like a tomb broken open to expose resurrection when it seems like every bit of life has been taken away. no amount of steel can prevent hearts from being broken sometimes.  That’s just wisdom.

Speaking of wisdom, this book today, Job, is known as a “wisdom book” in the Hebrew scriptures.  It sets out to tackle that question that humanity has been asking since it got its first whiff of injustice: why do bad things happen?  But it’s also a book of humor, Beloved, as in the events are so ridiculous you just have to laugh.  As the newly retired Minnesotan saint Garrison Keillor once said, “Humor is a challenge because it must encompass darkness and death.”

And, let’s be honest, it’s a question we’re spending a little bit of time thinking about these days. Even as we celebrate our national independence this weekend, we are acutely aware that we are not yet independent from fear. After the bombing in Istanbul and the hostage crisis in Bangladesh, and West Virginia, and Baghdad…some of you may be wondering where my pastoral letter to you is.

Frankly, I didn’t have the energy to write this time.  I needed to honor the silence.

It’s not because I didn’t want to, or because these global crises are not significant, it’s more like I feel as if I don’t know what to say anymore, and as the Quaker idiom goes, “Do not speak unless you can improve the silence.”

What to say?  It feels like we’re living in strange times.  Like perhaps God and the Satan, the ha-Satan are in cahoots and life is all this game of chess.  I don’t believe that, but it feels like that.  Job is not a steel plated book, Beloved.  Lot’s here to mine from its depths.

When God and the forces of evil make this grand bargain in this book of Job today, it’s like I want to shout, “Whoa God, what in your holy name are you doing?!”  That’s what I want to say…

And you’re supposed to ask that question, to say that, because sometimes it just feels like the universe is conspiring against you and you’re looking for something to steel you from it all.  You know, this place where Job comes from, this land of Uz, is not on any map, ancient or modern.  It’s a nowhere place, which, I think, means that you and I are from there sometimes.  Or at least, I am sometimes.  It’s that place where your naked and vulnerable and your sitting around trying to figure out how you got here, wherever here is, and it’s almost comical how bad everything is…

That’s Job’s story.  And sometimes it feels like it’s my story, our story.

The ha-Satan in the scriptures asks a really good question of God: is Job faithful because he’s blessed, or blessed because he’s faithful?  And the question that question leads to is one about you and me: what is true about us?  Wisdom can be arrived at many ways, but seems to be forged most acutely in the crucible of brokenness.  My grandfather learned that as much as Job.  Job’s good fortune insulates him from understanding.  Perhaps he needs to become naked as an infant; weak and naked as one on their deathbed to truly know God’s grace.

This section of Job ends with my midday devotional verse: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb; naked I will return. The Lord gives, the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”  I say it because I find deep wisdom in it, especially when I look at it through the lens of Jesus. When you think about it, this is exactly how God decided to impart his most divine wisdom, Jesus, upon the world.  Naked he came from his mother’s womb, and naked he returned to the grave with nothing but a cross to cloth him at the end. The Lord Christ gave up his life; the Lord Christ took away death and sin. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

And then there was silence for a day as the world tried to figure out what it all meant, these mixed messages from God that came through Jesus: about life coming from death and resurrection coming from the grave; and about how when you have nothing, yet you have everything; and how a mustard seed sized faith can move mountains and yet Jesus’ mountain of faith couldn’t keep him from the most ordinary criminal death. I mean what else could follow such a confusing storm of propositions except the silence brought on by trying to drink it all in, like sour wine that is like new wine, like nothing before or after.

Perhaps that’s where wisdom is truly formed: in the silence after the storm. 

And at this point the temptation for the preacher is to tell you to just trust in God when things go wrong; that there’s a reason for everything; that the world is full of silver-linings if we’ll just look to the edges of a problem.  God’s in control; keep your steel-plated theology and ideas about the world, your heart will make it through.

But I’m going to resist that temptation.  Simple answers won’t do, and simple answers are always the temptation when we’re from the land of Uz and feel like we’re getting mixed messages.

So that’s enough talk for now. I think I’ll just sit with Job for a while and be silent with him as we ponder what’s next.  And then maybe sing a song or two, say a prayer or two, eat a meal here.  Care to join us?