Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Sixth Sunday of Epiphany: The Ten Best Ways

In Godly Play, we call them the 10 best ways. It is a desert story, so we get to use the desert box (always a treat - because y’know sand…). The tray holds a small mountain, a basket of people, and a heart shaped box. The story begins with Moses and the people crossing the desert, and coming to a great mountain. The mountain is covered in fire and smoke, and anyone who touches the mountain might die. It is a scary proposition. Moses is the only one to climb the mountain. When he gets to the top a cloud covers him: God comes very close to Moses and Moses comes very close to God. When Moses comes down the mountain, he has a story for the people. It is a story of how to live, of God’s way of life for them. Then, the heart shaped box is opened, like a gift, and the ten best ways are read.
Love God. Love People. God Loves Us.
Don’t serve other gods. Make no idols to worship. 
Be serious when you say my name. Keep the Sabbath holy.
Honor your mother and father. Don’t kill. Don’t break your marriage. 
               Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t even want what others have.
“I know,” the storyteller says, “These are all hard. God did not say these are the ‘ten easy things to do.’ They are the Ten Best Ways to Live…They are hard, perhaps even impossible, but we are supposed to try.”  Then we wonder together: which one of these ways is your favorite; which one is the most important; which one is especially for you; are there any we could leave out and still have all we need? 

The Book of Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Pentateuch or Torah: the Jewish written law. Deuteronomy uses Moses’ voice to tell the story of Israel’s sojourn in the desert. The book centers around three speeches from Moses. These speeches tell the history of the people, present and explain The Law, and remind the people of their loyalty to YHWH.   The book ends with Moses’ death; he never enters The Promised Land. These speeches are his last chance to instill God’s covenant into the hearts of God’s people: love and serve God and God’s way will be a blessing to you.

Since then, people have studied and interpreted The Torah. It is a holy book that tells the story of God’s people. It has come to mean many things to many people. It is creation. It is a family story. It is The Covenant. It is The Law. 

And sometimes we overthink things; or, at least, I over think things. And I suppose I imagine that I’m not the only one. I imagine that anyone willing to devote themselves to study of The Law may, on occasion, find themselves “in the weeds.” In other words, they may wonder (as the kids and I sometimes do) what does “be serious when you say my name” really mean? Perhaps Moses knew people well enough to know we would over-think The Law, which is why, in Deuteronomy, he continually reminds the people the heart of the law: Love God; Love People; God Loves Us. For Moses, The Law is best way of life: follow God and you will have life in God. 

I wonder: what defines our way of life? What are our core values? What do we believe makes us the people of God? What do we believe are the ways that lead us to life?

I have a feeling that we might all agree “in theory” about what the best ways are. We might even all agree that The 10 Best Ways are the best ways. And, if we dig a little deeper, really commit to them, in real life, we might find places where we diverge. For example: none of us wants to serve two gods, and sometimes we find ourselves torn between God’s way and our own desires; none of us may want what our neighbors have, until all of a sudden they have something we want. 

There are times when we try to shape the ten best ways into practices that suit our purposes, our way of life. Yet, their intention is to shape us, who we are, and how we live.

The good news is that the choice Moses presents to Israel is not a one-time choice. The Israelites stray from the covenant many times. And they start over many times. They worship Baal, then return to YHWH. They turn from love of God and neighbor, then re-turn to love God and their neighbor. They turn their lives away from God, then they turn back. Again and again, God embraces them, renews the covenant, and starts over with the people. 

Over the last few months, I have watched and listened. I know that we do not all agree: about politics, about righteousness, about justice. I have listened to the scriptures: to Isaiah, Amos, the Apostle Paul, Matthew and John. I have wondered and prayed about what to say and what to do. I am on my own spiritual journey wrestling with the scriptures, in prayer, and working hard to practice my faith. I went to seminary to lead congregations on their journey of faith as they wrestle with the scriptures, pray together, and practice their faith. Sometimes the people I serve want to know what I think or how I feel. Most of the time, the people I serve want me to listen. I believe that all of the time the people I serve want to know who God is, where and how God acts in the world. If you are here on a Sunday morning, if you’ve made the effort, then I’m assuming you’ve come for more than the coffee. Over the last few months, I have watched and listened; and I believe you’ve come to hear the word of God, say your prayers, meet God at this table - and to do all of these things together, as a community.

What I have found to be true, for me, is that the scriptures are a solid ground where I can root myself. When I am searching for Jesus, I turn to the Gospels. When I am grieving or lost, I turn to the Psalms. When I am looking for a way through life, I can go to Job, or Ruth, or Romans, or Deuteronomy. There I find deep reminders about God. In these places, I find Jesus digging deep into the law and demanding I do hard things like forgiveness, faithfulness, and living a life of integrity.  I find Paul reminding us that we belong to God, our Creator, and no one else. I hear the words of Moses: choose life, choose God, choose the ways of God. These words give me hope: they remind me there is a way, a way better than any other way, the best way. If you are searching for a way, I commend to you the stories of our people, God’s people. They will help you find your way.

And the good news is that when we lose our way, we can start again. When idols have more power in our lives than God, we can turn back to God. When we turn from love of God and neighbor, we can re-turn to love God and our neighbor. When we begin to try and shape the practices to suit our needs, we can return to the originals and try again. Again and again, God will embrace us, welcome us home, and start over with us.

The worlds offers us so many different ways. We can be whoever we want, worship whoever we want, live however we want. 

God invites us to live a particular way in the world. It is the way that Loves God. It is the way that Loves People. It is the way of God’s love for us - all of us. It is the hard work of faithfulness (to God and one another). It is the hard work of honoring one another, living with integrity, and being pure of heart. It is the hard work of choosing life, for ourselves and our neighbor. These are God’s ways. They are the best ways. They are not easy ways. God’s way is hard, perhaps even impossible, and we are supposed to try. 

May God give us the courage and strength we need to try - for our sake and for the world.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

We have a story to tell (Christmas 2016)

Every birth story begins before any one is actually born. Skipping all the gory details, we all begin before we begin - our parents have a story to tell, whether they want to or not. Jesus’ story begins with his mother - well actually Luke starts with his uncle, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Anyone listening to Luke’s Gospel has this story, and of Mary’s visit with Gabriel and later with Elizabeth, in the back of their minds. These stories set the stage for what is to come, for tonight, for the mystery of Christmas. Those stories tell us to be ready for this birth because it changes everything; indeed, it has already changed the lives of Mary, Elizabeth, and Zechariah.

Did you notice that Jesus’ birth, his actual coming into the world, is basic? I’m talking about those first seven verses, the ones the lectionary actually leaves us. Notice there’s no snow, no angels, no animals; there’s not even an innkeeper. (Of course, our imagination has already added them in to the scene.) If we were listening for the first time, we might notice that Joseph and Mary are not married yet; that the child is wrapped like every other newborn, in warm cloths to keep him warm; that he is laid in a manger because they are not sleeping in an inn. And, if we were listening for the first time, we might wonder what is so special about this story. It is a story of humble details, yes, and still it is the story of a child being born - happens every day.

Every time I hear this birth story I wonder about Mary. For obvious reasons, yes, and also because I remember Gabriel’s words to her: …you will bear a son, Gabriel says,…He will be great, son of the most high, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob…and of his kingdom there will be no end… (Luke 1: 28 - 38). Did she wonder, like I do, how can this be? How can this child, this story, tell the story of the son of the Most High, of God?

The writer of Luke tells us in small details and big ones. For example, it is no coincidence that Jesus is born in Bethlehem. The Emperor’s census may demand that Joseph make his way to Bethlehem. And God uses that for God’s purposes. The people of Israel know that their king will come from Bethlehem; the prophets have said this for generations. And it is no coincidence that Joseph descends from David. This ancestry links him (and the child) to the great king of Israel. Pay attention, Luke seems to say, these little details matter. They tell us something has happened in this time and place that fulfills God’s promises.

And then, there are the big details: messengers and a choir of angels. They have more to tell us. Emperors and governors expect amazing things to happen to them. Shepherds expect wolves. These messengers, though, do not go to Rome or fancy palaces. They show up in a field; they visit the shepherds. The Emperor and governor are left alone in their palaces. The announcement of God’s life on earth is given to the humble and lowly: The son of God, the Messiah, has come to you, the angels say, go and see what God is doing for the people. Pay attention, the angels say, God is with you, go and see.

Have you ever seen or held a newborn? I hope so. It’s an amazing thing. There are few words, if any, to describe the experience: tiny lips and small ears? There is a quiet peacefulness occasionally broken by the cry of hunger. It is vulnerable and miraculous: life born again and again in our midst. It is wonderful and astonishing.

I have often wondered about the shepherds. Every year I notice that they are not traveling for the census: they live in those fields. I wonder if they count: in the eyes of the governor, Emperor, or even for themselves. 

And yet, God chooses them. Whoever they are, they are the first to visit the child; the first members of a crowd that will follow Him. They do not see Jesus walk on water, heal the sick, or feed the hungry. They meet a child: tiny lips, small ears, peaceful sleeping broken by the cry of hunger. They are the first witnesses to the mystery of Christmas: the incarnation, the miracle of God in the flesh. 

These shepherds: they expect wolves. Instead, they get a messenger and a choir of angels. They expect to go unnoticed. Instead, God sends them on a journey of their own. They expect to care for their sheep. Instead, they receive Joseph, Mary, and a baby. Nothing is as they expected. Everything has changed. They are the first witnesses of God’s redemption of the world.

If I could have one moment, I would like to see the encounter between the shepherds and Mary: to see the wonder on the shepherds faces; to see Mary’s (or Joseph’s) face as the shepherds tell their story; to hear the shepherds as they head back into the fields. 

How did this change them, all of them? Did Mary and Joseph find comfort in the ways the shepherds affirm God’s promises? Do the shepherds comprehend, even for a moment, that God notices them, cares about them, loves them? How does anyone begin to understand what they have seen and heard?

And here’s the thing: they each only have their part of the story. The shepherds only know what they have seen and heard. Mary and Joseph only know what they have seen and heard. Even Elizabeth and Zechariah only know what they have seen. Perhaps Mary was able to gather this all together, to understand and interpret what God was doing. I’m sure these stories followed Jesus everywhere he went. I imagine his mother (like I do to my children) told him these stories on the anniversary of his birth. Eventually, the stories all come together for us. We, the hearers of Luke’s Gospel, get all the pieces in their places to tell the story of God’s work. We are witnesses to the whole story.

I wonder what it means for you? Is there a moment that is your favorite? Or perhaps a moment that we could leave out, as least far as you’re concerned? Is there something in this story that is just for you? 

The mystery of Christmas is vast and immense. It can be hard to enter. It is a revelation of God and of who we are. How do we begin to understand God’s self wrapped in the package of humanity? And we know this story does not end with a king, at least not a typical king. How do we comprehend God’s life as vulnerable and humble as a baby’s, or even a shepherd’s? Can we imagine that God notices us, cares about us, loves us? 

God’s birth gives life to our lives. God’s humanity gives meaning to our humanity. And our humanity, our lives, gives life to God. Now, God’s love resides and lives in us. Now, we are known to the divine and the divine is known to us. The mystery of the incarnation is God’s self given to us, all of us, through space and time, throughout history. God comes to us and embraces us as we are, God’s very own. It is an invitation to be fully and wholly who God intends us to be. This is the gift God’s life gives to us that we live no longer for our selves. Now, we live as the one God made us to be: lives full of God’s grace, mercy and love.

And now we, like the shepherds and Mary and Joseph and Elizabeth and Zechariah and all the generations that have come before and come after us, we have a story to tell. It is the story of God’s love made real in the flesh, the birth of a child. It is the story of a life lived not for its own sake, for the sake of all creation. It is the story of a son and a king, the Son of the Most High, the glory of God in heaven for all the world to see. It is a story treasure and ponder in our hearts, a story that changes everything.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

We are fragile. We are beloved: Ash Wednesday/Lent 1B

This week was a little unplanned. Monday 14 inches of snow, at least, settled into our region of Kentucky, pretty much shut everything down. We had no school: FOR A WEEK! Our Ash Wednesday services were canceled. And, for a few moments, I wondered if we would have church on Sunday.

I found there were three ways I dealt with all of this change. There was at least one day – and many moments – when I was frustrated, grumpy, and anxious. There were other moments (like sledding with the children – way beyond my comfort zone) when I decided to just jump in and enjoy the moment. And, by the time I started working on my sermon for Sunday, I found I could dig deep into my experience and find some meaning in this unplanned time.

This was the first time in my life when I missed an Ash Wednesday service. Even in college, when I was not attending church very often, I still made it to Ash Wednesday. In New Orleans, well Louisiana, we got at least Monday – Wednesday off of school for Mardi Gras Break. I went to Ash Wednesday with the same faithfulness that I attended Bacchus and Rex. At the age of 40, I found myself sitting at my kitchen island anxious for some dust.

I’ve had a long struggle finding my theology of repentance.  I’ve often wondered what meaning or purpose comes from repenting from "little" things. It’s only in the last decade that I’ve found comfort in our prayer of confession; and, this comfort comes from one line: by what we have done, and by what we have left undone…  These phrases, I find, cover a lot of living space. By the time I make it to this line (the fourth one in), I’ve found at least one thing (often a laundry list) of “little things” that need a “do-over.” At minimum, this phrase offers me a clean slate every week.
With this in mind, Ash Wednesday has always been my one big, yearly "do-over." The Litany of Pentitence covers a myriad of sins that I'm either not willing to admit or afraid to confess. And this year I was knocked over by what it meant to not experience this moment of confession in community. I discovered how much the "outward,sacramental" moment of ashes scrapped on my forehead meant to me. Every year, as those ashes are placed again and again on our foreheads, I remember that we are loved and forgiven by God, our creator. I experience God's mercy; and those ashes become a physical moment when that forgiveness and mercy are tangible. This year my soul ached for them.
I had planned to use the sermon/homily on Ash Wednesday as a reminder of our fragility. The last six weeks, for me, were filled with constant reminders that we are fragile. Despite what we might believe about ourselves (our intelligence, our medicine, our science, our technology), we are fragile.

I've heard many times during these weeks that children are not "supposed" to die before their parents; that someone is too young to be so sick; that bad things shouldn't happen to good people...still, our children are fragile. Young people are fragile. Good people are fragile. We are ALL fragile. We are made from dust. And at the end of our lives, we return to dust. We are fragile. The dust on our foreheads reminds us that life is fragile.

At the end of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, we gather around this altar and share bread and wine. This sacrament, the Eucharist, is the outward reminder of what we know to be true: God's gift to our fragile life is God's love. This feast reminds us that the one enduring quality of our lives is love because love never ends. Nothing destroys love, not even death. And so, on Ash Wednesday we do not end with dust; we finish with a feast. I grew up in the Lutheran church and before the Eucharist we would sing, "This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!" Now, I'm not supposed to say Alleluia during Lent. And this Lent, I don't mind because I need, my soul needs, to hear the song of God’s love in that word: ALLELUIA! My soul needs to remember that despite even death God's love reigns. I need to remember that even in his last moments Jesus loved his friends and followers. I need to remember that I experience that love in this meal, the same meal he shared with them. I want to remember that yes, we are fragile, and God's love is stronger than our fragility.

I think I know why the First Sunday of Lent begins with this reading from Mark. It is, most likely, not because of Jesus' Baptism. It is probably because of Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness. Ash Wednesday marks, for us, the beginning of our 40 days. During this time, our traditions are fasting, praying, and taking up acts of service. This is a call to mirror Christ's time in the desert: to resist temptation, and to notice the way God comforts and protects us as we resist.

What I noticed in my study this week, though, was everything surrounding these temptations: Jesus' Baptism and his work of proclamation. Jesus enters the desert AFTER he is claimed by God as the beloved. And when he exits the desert, he immediately begins to share the good news of God's kingdom. These are reminders to us: we, too, are claimed by God, beloved by God; we, too, proclaim and share the good news of God's kingdom with our lives. And somewhere(s) in the midst of our lives, we experience a desert: sometimes for 40 days in a row; sometimes the 40 days are spread out over weeks, months, years; often there's more than one desert.

The good news is that we don't enter the desert alone: God goes with us. The good news is we don't depend only on our own strength or ability: we are already claimed as God's beloved and God goes with us. And, on other side of the desert, we have a story to tell: a story of how God draws near to us: a story of love.

When we are baptized, two things happen. We are sprinkled (or dunked in) water. Then, the priest takes oil and draws a cross on our foreheads: "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever." This moment is an outward revelation of something we hold to be true: that every one of us is a child of God, beloved, claimed, and marked as God's own forever. Then, on Ash Wednesday, we take dust and mark it on our foreheads: outward symbols of our fragility and our belovedness. Finally, we gather at this table every Sunday and remember the depth of God's love, grace, and mercy for us. Yes, we are fragile; and, yes, we are beloved by our creator.

It is with this knowledge, the cross marked on our foreheads with oil, made visible with ashes, that we enter into the world. The beloved of God face temptation, resist evil, even find sustenance in the desert; and somewhere in the midst of it all, we find God right there alongside us, near to us, right there with us.

This is my prayer for us this Lent: as we acknowledge our weakness, dwell in our suffering, recognize our fragility, we will experience God's enduring, faithful love for all of creation. Yes, we are fragile; and yes, God's love is strong and mighty, never ending, and never failing. Thanks be to God!