Friday, December 11, 2020

Advent Joy

From the moment we brought out the advent wreath, several members of my house have been asking when we get to light the pink candle. Not all advent wreaths have a pink candle, and that’s just fine, but ours does and that is just right for us this year. “Not until the third week, I told them. We can’t light it till the third week. This candle is for joy.” On Thursday, we had a particularly joyful time playing outside and, after again getting asked when we could light the candles, I finally said, “all right, all right, we’ll light the joy candle early this year,” so we did, on Thursday. 

 I admit that joy is not my go-to feeling these days. The word Joy is still all over the place—on websites telling me to buy presents and “give joy.” On the ornament hanging on my tree of a little shepherd with the words “joy to the world” over him. On the coffee mug that says “joy and good cheer.” But I’m not feeling the joy in the same way this Advent season for a lot of reasons you might be able to relate with. 

For starters: Aside from the Christmas Eve that I was born, this will be the first time in my life that I won’t physically gather in a church building with a congregation for Christmas. Our personal family Christmas celebration will be different. Other than a couple of lovely virtual gatherings, it’s not like I’ve gone to any holiday parties or markets. And then, if we pay attention to the pain of the world, what’s there to be joyful about right now? Around the country, there are more and more people who are sick right now and medical professionals are maxed. We keep getting told to hunker down for the long, hard winter. The news cycles are understandably really tense. You probably don’t really need me to go on…other than to say that joy isn’t the ringing emotion. How do we dare even talk about joy right now let alone feel it? 

 But we light the joy candle this third week of Advent. 

 Why is it that Mary gets combined with the joy candle anyway? Is it because it’s easier to imagine Mary as joyful instead of John the Baptist who’s always painted as a little gruff and forceful? Is it because she’s just an adolescent and it’s easier to associate joy with younger people? 

 At first glance, it doesn’t make sense: Mary is an unwed poor pregnant teenager from a very working class family, who’s fiancĂ© is planning to possibly divorce her right after marrying her. Not joyful. She runs to her elder, Elizabeth’s, house. Unexpectedly, when she arrives at Elizabeth’s, the baby leaps in her womb and here and instead of bursting into tears, we have her in today’s reading bursting out into song, “my soul magnifies the Lord!” As activist Ruby Sales puts it, “we expect Mary to sing a blues song with all of this happening.” And she busts into a song of praise. 

 What is it that marks a joyful life? Like this one Mary had. Like I said, Mary’s situation doesn’t seem to warrant great happiness. She doesn’t have many of the things that we associate with a happy life before her. In this day and age, she would be very set back by the circumstances before her. According to our formulas, many times, happiness hinges on success: I’ll achieve happiness when I land a certain kind of job. When I get into this high school or college (or my kid does). When I meet “the one” or get married. I’ll be happy when… I lose 20 lbs. When I’m finally able to comfortably retire. When I succeed at whatever the thing is, I will be happy. Maybe we fight against that a little but it’s a hard one to fight because it’s deeply embedded in our culture. I feel it. 

 We also say things like, you can’t buy happiness, but actually you can. Emily Heath says, “you can buy happiness pretty easily, really. You can find happiness in everything from a stiff drink to a big paycheck, or a nice meal to a new car. You can get happy pretty easily, at least for a little while. And then you can lose it just as quickly.” 

 But next to Mary’s joy, these formulas for happiness are fairytales. The kind of joy that overflows from Mary is different. There are a lot of ways to talk about joy and one of them sticks out to me this week when I think about Mary’s song of praise. 

Psychologists say that our sense of deep and abiding joy doesn’t depend on positive circumstances around us (the right job, the perfect school, the perfect gift). One of the things our joy is deeply connected to is our identity, the things we value and the deepest seeds of truth that God has sown in us: These are seeds like: 

 We are forgiven. 
 God is with us. 
 Love your neighbor. 
 We are beloved. 
We find God is community. 

 These are the deepest things of our faith that we know to be true. Are there others that you would add to this list I just shared? Is there one of these that resonates with you? 

 So when you think about it we have a sense of Joy when we gather with loved ones at Christmas. Especially when their love connects to that seed inside that knows we are beloved. We find joy in doing things for others and serving at this time of year. These actions of service connect us to those deeply held Christian values that all of God’s family are loved and deserving of justice and this brings us joy. When we give money or offering to places that connect with those core truths that we cherish, it brings us joy. We give offering to a congregation that affirms the truth that all GLBTQIA people are welcome and beloved and we feel joy. We support a sister church during Christmastime that is struggling to make ends meet because of the pandemic and it brings us joy. (Actually, psychologists talk about how people who give to places that tie into these core beliefs are strengthened psychologically in a way that cultivates joy.)

 In the case of Mary, her song is prefaced by an encounter with the angel who says to her “greetings, favored one.” She knows and believes that God regards her and sees her and, despite the tremendously difficult circumstances she was living in, I think she holds that knowledge with joy and she sings because of it. 

 Now I don’t doubt that Mary also sang the blues. I don’t doubt that together with that joy of her 
Magnificat was the anxiety and stress of her personal situation, and an underlying tension for the political reality of life in ancient Galilee at that time. Mary’s life story, as we know, wouldn’t be one where the pieces always aligned perfectly. Sin and grief would also leave its’ fingerprint on Mary’s heart. 

 All of us experience feelings like sadness, frustration, envy, anger (that’s part of what it means to be human) but joy is not some feeling at the other end of the emotional binary. Joy hinges on a deeper, steady truth that lives inside of us. Joy is the rich and sometimes imperceptible underchord to the melody of life. Joy is the steady, stabilizing pillar of the house. Joy is the spread of roots that reach deep into the ground that sustains the great, great tree. 

 Under everything Mary was going through, she trusted God’s truth of promise that she held deep inside that she was highly favored and regarded. Her faith tradition had sown deep seeds of justice in her and she trusted that God would bring justice to the wronged, food to the hungry, restoration to the broken, and new beginnings to the dead ends. She trusted all of this, and despite the reality of her life, she connected with this truth deep inside and her joy bubbled up. 

Mary could have responded differently to the realization that she was pregnant. She could have said to the angel, “sure, whatever, I guess carry the Messiah. After all, it’s not hard to live a joyless life. “It’s simple,” writes Emily Heath, “it doesn’t take much effort. You can put others down. You can dwell in hopelessness. You can even lob out negative comments on the internet from the comfort of your own home. The best part is that if you lack joy, you don’t even have to do anything constructive. You can just dwell in it.” 

Mary, chooses differently and, anchored to those core beliefs of who she is and what she believes sows joy through her song of praise. She sings and hopes of a different world. She trusts that God is with her. And she is still sowing joy right here today in this worship service! 

 Beloved of God, I know that these are not the easiest of times. I invite you this week to think about some of those deepest values of our faith that you old dear and how your life connects with them. As people of faith, I invite you to cultivate joy and then to reflect it to a world that so desperately needs it. 

 Blessed be the journey.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

“We keep the Spirit in the back room, not because she is shy, but because she is dangerous.”

At some point in the last few months, I started using the word “Coronapocalypse.”  Someone said it somewhere and I picked it up.  It was sort of used comically in social media, like “everyone is stocking up on toilet paper because the end of the world as we know it is coming!” It’s a coronapocalypse. Then as things started to get more tense, I heard it used around the stress of homeschooling kids and the anxiety of being alone and isolated, the stress of unemployment.  It’s a coronapocalypse.

The word “apocalypse” is actually a Greek word (apokalupsis). It means revealing.

When Mary and Joseph present baby Jesus in the temple, the church grandpa, Simeon takes the tiny child in his arms and sings that he is a light for revelation to the gentiles.  The word that is used is that Jesus is a little bundle of apocalypse. Apocalypse doesn’t mean the “end of things” or “destruction and judgement.” It means “uncovering” or “the lifting of a veil.”  Revealing. A light to the nations.

The church grandpa, Simeon, promised that Jesus would lift the veil and reveal the truth, and he did through his life.  Jesus sought out those who were pushed aside. Jesus showed love to those most people ignored.Jesus pushed back against unjust economics and laws.  He showed us real, live characteristics of who God is. He pulled back the veil, uncovered the truth, turned people around.

We think about how Jesus lived so much in our Christian tradition. And for good reason.  We should! We should imitate how Jesus lived. But there is more to the story of following Jesus than just imitating him in a life of faith. In today’s reading, Jesus appears to his disciples in a locked room.  They’re overjoyed. He wishes them peace and then Jesus sends his spirit to them. He literally breathes on them, the scripture says, and sends his Holy Spirit to them.

As the Breath of God blows into that locked room where the disciples are gathered, I think of the story we heard from Acts about the time when the Holy Spirit came down on the church.  The truth is, I have to think of that story of the wild and violent wind that rushes in as the almighty breath of God. Because there are things in this world that take our breath away with their evil and sinfulness. 

Like, a respiratory virus that affects more people black and brown communities.  Like a black man named George Floyd who violently died at the hands of police officers and who cried out “I can’t breathe.”  Like Jesus, a common, working-class man, who was asphyxiated on the cross at the hands of the state.  

When I say that there is more to our Christian tradition than imitating how Jesus lived, it is because when Jesus physically ascended to be with God, he sent the Spirit of the living God to actually be with us, to challenge us transform us, to abide with us.

Part of the life of faith is to pay attention to and respond to and abide with this Spirit in our midst. And that’s where things get a little uneasy. 

The Holy Spirit doesn’t always get as much air time in our Christian tradition as the other two members of the Trinity.  The Spirit of God or the feminine Ruach in Hebrew--which the book of Genesis tells us hovered over the deep, dark waters at the beginning of creation--She is mysterious.  

In the story from Acts, we hear of the spirit that came like the sound of a rushing, violent wind. This is no gentle inbreaking of the spirit “that intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” This is a mighty and fierce and fantastic tornado that ignites fire and unifies whole group of strangers together.  This passionate and provocative spirit tells the truth and mobilizes hearts in the name of Jesus.  This immense and powerful presence of God Sees into our souls and transforms our lives. Barbara brown Taylor says that “we keep the Spirit in the back room, not because she is shy, but because she is dangerous.”

I can think back on moments in my own life where the Holy Spirit beckoned me to step into another space and grow.  Sometimes, this space was a dangerous space. For example, there was moment a few months ago when I realized with total dread that I was going to have to film myself for on line worship and step into a new space.  I mean, I was probably mostly terrified of you all… Well friends, I’m still a little terrified. But here we are. Just the church, doing our best.

The Holy spirit has beckoned me into other spaces too. There have been moments in my marriage where I actually felt prodded by the Holy Spirit and called to turn towards my partner and work for a better relationship.  Or right along side with that, I know the Holy Spirit has called me to walk with a friend through a very painful and life giving divorce.

We can trust that the Holy Spirit is moving and working around us.  The good news is that we can trust the Holy Spirit to act. The tricky part is that although she is the great comforter, she is busy creating a new heaven and a new earth and wrapping us up in that work which is edgy sometimes uncomfortable.

Sometimes it’s easier to believe in her activity in our lives if it’s comfortable, easy, and affirms what we want to hear. It’s those times that we are uneasy when it’s hard to believe and respond.  For example, sometimes we’re called to step out of the status quo and step into a holy, dangerous place that reckons with our privilege.  That’s not always an easy one to respond to, but it’s a holy step to take.

Where do you sense God’s spirit blowing in your life, ruffling feathers, guiding to you to reconcile, leading you to take a hard and humble look at yourself, challenging you to reckon with the brokenness and create something new? Sometimes, that call to step into a new space is so dangerous, so absurd, that we brush it off. In the story from acts, they brush it off and say, “they are drunk with new wine.” But it is a call that is before us.  Being a follower of Jesus isn’t just about imitating Jesus, it’s about paying attention to the living, breathing Holy Spirit that moves in our lives and where she is challenging us to journey.

We’ve got a lot going on right now in our world and nation.  I’m not sure where we’ll be by Sunday morning when we watch this message. As it turns out, the coronapocalypse is revealing more than the just the truth about the amount of toilet paper we need to get through a month.  After over 100,000 dead from the corona virus, after the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor and, and, and… The wind blows that there is a reckoning to be had. There is a call to answer.

Now, I don’t always understand how the Holy Spirit is working, but I trust her. And I trust that God will lead us to abundant life.

Blessed be the journey before us.

Remind me: how does prayer work again?

When I was a little girl, I would often stay by my Grandma if my parents went out of town for a weekend. One of my most consistent memories of her was waking up early and finding her at the kitchen table saying her prayers. She had this old envelope that was so worn, the paper was almost soft. It was full of prayers clipped out of devotional pamphlets, or prayer cards. I know in that little stack of prayers was the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi that she prayed every day “Lord let me be an instrument of your peace…” She also had a rosary with dark purply beads that she would pray.  She had handwritten lists of people that she mentioned in prayer by name.  She was one of those people who added prayer requests from her conversations in the check out line at Jewel. When my grandma said that she prayed for you, you can bet that she did.

I would like to say that I have a prayer routine like my grandma’s: that I wake before the sun each day and spend an hour in prayer.  Prayer has been something that has taken on different shapes at different phases of my life.  As a very little girl, I remember praying with my dad before bed. I don’t remember a lot about those prayers except that we always prayed for “teachers and pets.” 

Then, there was a period of time when I was in youth group and wore, oversized Jesus t-shirts under button down plaid flannel shirts.  And held hand with my youth group as we all prayed.  When my child was in the NICU after he was born, my prayers were different, spontaneous, urgent. I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say that there have been a lot  of periods of silence between me and God too over the years.

These day, my prayer life again looks differently. Sometimes I pray on jogs or walks with my dog.  Other times, I find myself sinking into the news I’m reading and just sort of mumbling “Lord have mercy” and shaking my head a lot.  I’m not really sure if that counts as prayer.

To be honest, I’m not sure if I’ve actually done prayer right over the years and even now. Have I gotten the words right? Have I been too focused on myself?  Should I have had more of a prayer routine? Written them down in a journal?

In today’s bible story, we have a little moment into this world where Jesus is praying. It’s the Thursday night right before he is going to be arrested and then crucified. He has been talking with his disciples for hours about how it’s going to be after he physically ascends to be with the God, he told them how he’s going to send them the Holy Spirit. He’s preparing them for life and ministry without him.  And then, sitting at the table with his disciples right there after dinner and he prays. 

When I think back on the highlights from Jesus’ life that I love, I think of certain bible stories, (the Woman at the Well, or those guys who lowered that man through the roof to be healed, that time Jesus got up and calmed the stormy seas).  Or I think of his teachings, like that story he told us about the good Samaritan. In my top ten or even top 20 Jesus moments, I realize this week that I have to admit, I don’t always look at how Jesus prayed.

In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, he taught us how to pray by saying “Our Father…” but in our bible story today from the gospel of John we see how Jesus himself actually prayed. 

At first, Jesus prays for himself: He is pretty down to earth, honest, he shares what’s hard in life, and asks for God’s help.  “Help me to glorify you,” Jesus says, which is kind of like saying. Help me to make you known in the world. 

Then he turns to what is on his mind, which is, as it turns out, his disciples. His friends, his followers gathered there with him. Now only does Jesus pray for himself, he also prays for his disciples. Jesus doesn’t pray that life for his disciples will get easier. He knows it won’t. He doesn’t pray that they will escape challenges, struggles, or persecutions or defeat their enemies.  He prays for them to hang in there together, for God to strengthen them, care for them, to protect them.

Now I don’t exactly know how prayer works.  I don’t think it’s some kind of deal where we put our order with God and back it comes piping hot to our table.  But I know that this week, when I got an email from someone on Friday that said that the person was praying for me and my family, that she was holding us in God’s presence, that it mattered.

Patrice Karts has a children’s book, “The Invisible String,” that suggests that when we hold one other in the presence of God we’re connected to God and one another through this “invisible string.”  That’s why we pray individually and we also pray here as a group in worship. Praying together connects us to God and to each other as the church. As we gather here today, I ask you: What is it that you would lift up to God right now? For encouragement when things are hard? For protection for someone you love? To be a better friend or a better parent? For courage or patience during this time of being sheltered at home? For hope when it feels like things are hopeless? For companionship during this time when so many of us feel lonely? For healing? For forgiveness? What are the honest things that you would lift up to God?

While a life of faith has to do with thinking and reflecting about God, it also has to do with connecting to GodPrayer is a connection to God. Maybe we don’t get the words right, maybe we’re clumsy, maybe we fall asleep if we pray late at night, maybe we pray for a minute here and there between email and making dinner, But prayer connects us to God and prayer connects God to the world, “that God so loves” (John 3:16). And this is very good news.

We don’t know exactly how prayer works, but we know that the Holy Spirit animates life around us  in ways that we cannot explain or understand. We know that prayer connects us to God and to one another in ways that are powerful and mysterious. We know that Jesus prayed and encourages us to pray.

Reflecting on that idea of an invisible string that connects us all in prayer, Nadia Boltz Weber says that “Maybe these silken threads of prayer which connect us to God and one another and even our enemies are how God is how is stitching our broken humanity back together.”

Maybe, just maybe. 

Monday, May 11, 2020

Preparing a place in an imperfect world

There is a line in today’s gospel reading that did not sit well on my heart this week. Jesus is gathered with his disciples, teaching them, and he says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  As I read these words over and over, they felt irrelevant. It was like some platitude or advice out of left field. Like Jesus sort of reaching over and patting my hand, “there, there, Lindsay, do not let your heart be troubled.”  Ah, yes. Thank you for your well wishes, Jesus, but these days, my heart is troubled.

The state of my soul has fluctuated emotionally over the last couple of months (perhaps that is a diplomatic way to put it).  Yes, this is in great part because our daily routine of work and school has been scrambled.  We miss seeing our family and friends. Plans we had for this summer have been cancelled. But on top of our personal little world that has been rocked, I’m rattled by other things too: By the number of folks I know whose jobs have been cut or shuttered. About the spread of covid especially in places like prisons and nursing homes.  My heart clenches when I see that the driver who has brought our dinner to our door is a slight white haired man named Miguel (according to my phone) with mannerism that reminds me of my father-in-law.  I’m unsettled that the county where my extended family is from in rural Nebraska has exponential growth in covid cases from the local Tyson meat packing plant where predominantly immigrants from Somalia work. 

My heart is troubled. 

I know some of you share this feeling of troubled right now. Some of us have lost family members and loved ones in the last weeks—some have died of old age and others have died tragically but regardless, we can’t mourn for them in a funeral service how we wish we could.  And speaking of grief, there’s the heartbreaking story of the young black man, Ahmuad Arbery who’s violent death was swept aside for many weeks until, by chance, incontestable evidence surfaced this week which  was grounds to arrest his killers.

Yes, Jesus: My heart is troubled. 

They say that we’re all grieving for all the things right now (whoever they are).  We grieve for the little things in life that have shifted.  We grieve for our dead who we cannot mourn in the way we long to. We grieve because the covid pandemic has forced us to roll back the polished veneer of who we are as a nation and stare systemic inequality in the face. 

In 1936, Langston Hughes wrote:

“Let America be America again
Let it be the dream it used to be  
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free
(America never was America to me.)”

Sometimes, it can feel hard to figure out how or where God is working and moving in all of this pain, grit and grief of life.  Last fall, the movie “Harriet” came out in theaters. It was a dramatization of the life of one of our great historical figures, the abolitionist, Harriet Tubman. The movie mostly chronicles about 10 years of so of Harriet’s life when she escaped slavery and became a conductor on the underground railroad.  According to the Smithsonian, a lot of the movie does parallel Harriet’s real life.  The grief illustrated in Harriet’s story and in the movie is very real.  Her heart was deeply troubled. She experiences the personal grief, agony and rage for her family suffering in slavery, and then a wider grief and anger for a segregated society and for all Black people living in bondage a slavery-infested south.

I find a strong echo of gospel truth in the life and story of Harriet Tubman.  Jesus’ words today remind us that in front of a troubled heart, it’s easy to turn inward.   But Harriet Tubman, in the face of the cruelty of life, she turned to love. She was passionate, militant, determined. And in it, she was almost ridiculously committed to loving people.  Upon obtaining her freedom, she could have stayed in Philadelphia, turned inward, and created a new life for herself but she dedicated her life outward to the abolitionist movement, to loving people. 

Looking at the gospel story for today, Jesus and the disciples are in a terrible situation saturated with grief, fear and pain.  Judas has just fled from the meal, Jesus has just told everyone that Peter will abandon him, there is civil unrest as people are exploited under the thumb of Rome, there is danger in the air, Jesus knows that he will soon die (and he will be violently executed by the state).  Their souls are deeply troubled. Jesus knows this and offers them words of comfort. Into that night of fear and grief, Jesus’ disciples could have turned inward, hidden, isolated themselves, protected themselves and faded into history. Instead, Jesus tells them to lean into love.  “Love one another,” Jesus says. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” 

Grief and love, when we open our hearts, are so often two sides of the same coin.  They co-exist together. Sometimes, when someone dies, it can inspire people to love more deeply: to set up a scholarship fund in memory of someone, to dedicate ourselves to a particular kind of service or raise money in or memory of the deceased.  We can either respond to grief by isolating ourselves, by focusing on protecting ourselves, and intentionally drift away from the  social realities that are going on in the world, or we can lean into love. 

Culturally, leaning into love isn’t always our forte.  In times of crisis, we panic, we look inward, we demonize others, we self-righteously claim our positions. Anyone can critique another group that’s out there.  But as people of God in times of grief and heartache, we are called to love, to run towards the needs of our society, to love others as we love ourselves.

Harriet Tubman died as an old woman in her 90s.  Her last words, were a quote from today’s gospel reading. As she died, the last thing she said was,   “I go to prepare a place for you” which is echoed in the last line of the theme song, “Stand Up” from the movie “Harriet” that I mentioned earlier.

Sometimes, we think of that “place that Jesus prepares for us” as a bright, shiny room for us up in the sky somewhere. While I do think that God does prepare a place for us where we will eternally be with him one day, we are cutting the gospel way short if we think that is the whole story.  I think Harriet Tubman brought heaven to earth to prepare a place, in the name of Jesus, where all people were free from the bondage of slavery. And in the face of grief? that is the face of love.   

I think that the disciples of Jesus Christ, after he died and rose and ascended, in the face of grief and pain and heartache, they brought heaven to earth and sowed seeds of the first Christian communities where each person in society had a place at the table. A place where there was neither jew nor Greek, nor male nor female, neither slave nor free, where there was room for us all. In the disciples grief and pain, that is the face of love.

I think that we are called as a church—as Christians--out of our grief and heartache, to prepare a place of anti-racism, of equality, of economic justice of safety from abuse. To show up and bring heaven to earth because that is the face of love

Next week, we’re going to tell you more about a match that we have set up of several thousand dollars for our local food pantry: It’s a need in our midst that is acute, And we’re going to respond.  I know that we have folks who Volunteer at this food pantry, and who are also doing important work at some of the other pantries which is so important. Offering money is important, critical in these times of economic disparity, but so is taking a hard look at our history and systemic injustice which we are also called to as a church. And in our grief and pain, that is the challenging face of love.

The last stanza of the song, “Stand Up,” from the movie “Harriet” which Cynthia Erivo sings is:

I'm gonna stand up
Take my people with me
Together we are going
To a brand new home
Far across the river
I hear freedom calling
Calling me to answer
Gonna keep on keepin' on
I can feel it in my bones
I go to prepare a place for you
I go to prepare a place for you
I go to prepare a place for you
I go to prepare a place for you

In your grief, in this moment when our hearts are troubled, what is the place that you are called to prepare?

Monday, May 4, 2020

An unexpected gate

At the most southwestern point of California, about 20 miles from downtown San Diego, there’s a park that looks out over the wide expanse of the pacific ocean.  Standing in the park, you can see the tall slats of the border fence march through the grassy, sandy bluff, down towards the beach, into the water.  The waves roll up out of the pacific and crest across the beach, across both sides of that fence. On the Tiujana side of the wall, this park is known as la Parque de la Amistad.  On the San Diego side of the wall, this park is known as Friendship Park.

Decades ago, people met at the wall and exchanged cards and notes with family, you could even buy a tamale or an ice cream from one side and pass it through to another.  At one point there was a special space with a gate on either side of the border where 2 or 3 people from each side could come together and embrace.  For many years, Christians have met on both sides and even celebrated Holy Communion together. A border church.  

At first, the bread and the wine were passed back and forth through the fence.  Then that was prohibited. Before the park was closed because of the Covid-19 virus in March, the church set up a table on each side of the border and celebrated communion together, each on their own side, but together.

Today’s gospel reading has talk about a fence and gates and sheep pens and shepherds who open the gates.  the bible says, “the sheep hear [the shepherd’s] voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…then…he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”  

I know some of you grew up on farms.  I’ll confess that I don’t have a whole lot of experience with animals and gates other than the two gates in my Chicago house that keep my dog in the backyard.  One I open to take the trash out to the alley and the other I open when we want to go into the front yard.  There are also some other choice dogs in the neighborhood that I’m happy are kept out of my yard and away from my dog. 

When we lived in Mexico, we lived in a gated neighborhood.  In that case, I wasn’t as concerned with keeping us on our side of the gate as I was with keeping unauthorized people out.  Today? In our covid world, we’v got all kinds of other gates and barriers out there.  There are the masks and gloves that we wear that keep the germs out, the stores that have created plexyglass barriers between customers and cashier.  When food or items are delivered, you can ask for people to just “leave it at the door” which serves as a barrier.  There’s the six feet of social distance that is also a barrier. 

Don’t get me wrong, I actually think that these practices are good and healthy right now, but we are taking great care through these barriers to keep ourselves and our germs apart.

In our scripture reading today, when Jesus is talking about sheep and gates and shepherds, he is talking to that man who was born blind who Jesus gave sight to.  I don’t know if you remember this story, but Pastor Kevin actually preached a wonderful sermon about this bible story for our first virtual service in March. 

There was a man who was born blind. He was ostracized, and sat and begged outside of the temple gates. Jesus found him, and made a paste out of some mud and his spit (do you remember this one?) and he puts it on the man’s eyes and suddenly the guy can see. After Jesus heals him, the guy is still barred from the community, and, Jesus goes and finds him again on the outskirts and brings him back again and restores him to the community.  Then, Jesus tells a story about how the people are the sheep and he tells them, “I am the gate.”

When I hear this story of Jesus, my mind goes to all those gates and barriers that divide and classify people. Then, I can’t help but think about ideas of gates that keep certain people in or out of the church.  I’m not necessarily referring to the famous “pearly gates.” While we often think of eternal life when we hear about gates--and yes, Jesus has most certainly prepared a place for us--we’re missing a big part of the story if we think that’s the whole story of the gate Jesus is talking about here .

But there have long been other kinds of gates that keep people in and out of the church. Depending on who you’re married to, maybe the church will let you through the gate, maybe not.  Depending on how you’re dressed or if you can “talk the church talk” maybe the church will let you in, or maybe you’ll feel so weird and awkward that it’s best to scoot out as fast as possible.  

Back to Friendship Park that sits between San Diego and Tijuana.  Today, those tall metal slats of the border fence are covered with a sort of metal grate so that people can’t pass things through the barrier.  After that border church celebrates communion, each on their own side of the fence, they share the peace. They do this by sticking their tiny pinkies—that’s all that will fit—through these metal grates and sharing the peace. Pinky peace. I can’t help but think that this is an image of what it means when Jesus says, “I am the gate.”

When Debie Thomas recently reflected on this pinky peace at this little border church, she wrote that this is an image of Jesus the gate and the:  “eager, loving hands reaching through small gaps in an old, steel barrier insistent sharing of song, prayer, bread, and wine across a bleak…border.”

Jesus isn’t the gate that separates us, condemns us, divides us or polarizes us.  Jesus is the door in the wall, the way in the wilderness, the tiny hole in the metal grate where a pinky fits through, that brings life in.

I don’t know what the walls are that you’re feeling in your life right now.  Maybe they’re walls of financial concerns, or health concerns. Maybe you’re exhausted with work and just feeling blocked or walled in. Maybe you feel surrounded by a wall of loneliness. Maybe it’s an angry wall built against folks who are irritating you for whatever reason. Maybe is a fortress constructed around our political opinion. Maybe the walls are just plain, dull weariness from being shut into our homes for weeks upon weeks—sometimes with people we really love and yet that are kind of making us crazy right now.

Whatever the walls are, I do know that the resurrected Jesus shows up wherever you are. (Like that time he showed up in that locked upper room where the disciples are gathered and afraid.) Jesus is the gate, the doorway where the light of the world reaches through to us even if it is at times only a pinky reaching through that little hole. 

Jesus the gate is in the bag of groceries that you gave or received from the food pantry. Jesus the gate is in the begonia that was left on your doorstep, the masks someone made for you, in the loving card that came in the mail. Jesus the gate is in the patient you lovingly cared for. He is in the beautiful hymn or song that you hear in worship that touches your soul. Jesus the gate is in the bread and wine that we will share in together shortly. 

Two nights ago, Jesus was a gate into my tired wall and I spent 20 wonderful minutes reading stories over zoom with some of the children from church in our pajamas and my soul was filled.

No matter the walls that surround us I know that Jesus is the gate and will call our name and like that pinky coming through the wall, we will hear his voice that leads us to green pastures and beside still waters, That voice will reach through and restores our soul, I am the gate, Jesus says.  I will find you. I’ve got you.   

There’s a lot of talk about the border right now that has to do with danger, crime and fear. One of the pastors of the border church in friendship park, John Fanestil, had a different take on it. He called the border “a place of encounter, exchange, friendship and fellowship.”  In other words, as Debie Thomas puts it, that little church makes it their practice to look for Jesus exactly in a place that is marked by a wall.  (They look for Jesus in a place where so many see only a wall or crime or danger!)   That is a spiritual practice to live into!

That’s how I pray for us to live: focusing our eyes on Jesus the gate who breaks through those walls, ushers unexpected grace into our lives, and leads us to bear the light of Christ to others. Blessed by the journey.

Friday, April 10, 2020

"Only a suffering God can help"

Grace and peace to you from Jesus our way in the wilderness.

A few days ago in one of our virtual small group meeting at Luther, I mentioned a story that Debie Thomas told about her daughter, who as a middle schooler, struggled with an eating disorder.  There came a point where the situation because so serious that her daughter had to be admitted to the hospital for both malnutrition and depression.  When Debie realized that she would have to check her terribly sick daughter in to the hospital and leave her there, she was a mess.  She said that she left the hospital shaking and, after aimlessly driving around, she arrived in a Catholic gift shop.  Wandering up and down the aisles a saleswoman approached her and asked if she could help her find something.  Debie burst into tears.  The saleswoman returned with a little velvet box with a small crucifix inside.  She pressed it into Debbie’s hands and said: “Only a suffering God can help.”

After reading them, these words, which were actually written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer while he was in prison, have been stuck in my head: “Only a suffering God can help.”

If things were normal right now, we would be preparing for Holy Week.  We would be organizing volunteers who would help set up the Maundy Thursday meal and footwashing stations, we would be rehearsing the dramas and the music for Good Friday and Easter Vigil.  We would be carefully lighting the candles and hanging the banners outside the church.  Some of us would be on vacation somewhere but would be perhaps to return to celebrate Easter Sunday next weekend.  On a normal Palm Sunday, I think I might have chosen to talk about Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem on a donkey.  But we’re not in a very “normal” space right now. Instead, we are at home The palm branches that we ordered for the church for the Palm Sunday celebration are sitting wrapped up in a box inside the door of the church building, the heat has been turned down and the doors locked in the sanctuary.  Things are not normal. But it’s even worse than just “not normal.”  Some of us have had our incomes cut.  Some of us are working to renegotiate our rent or our mortgage payments.  Some of us have loved ones who are sick.  Life is monotonous on one hand and on the other hand stressful.

On one hand, it kind of seems like what could help is a superhero God, not a suffering God. Like, a God who could come in and squash all threats and restore everything to the same as it was before.  A God who could just waive her magic wand and pouf things into existence like ventilators, and medications and rent checks. But today’s bible story doesn’t give us a super hero Jesus.

The bible story today is one that sits at the heart of our Christian story.  In the story of Jesus’ Passion, he is abandoned by his friends and unfairly put to trial. He is isolated and alone. Before Jesus was arrested, he begged God, terrified in the garden of Gethsemane to take this cup from him and preserve his life.  As the story goes on, Jesus is hit, whipped, mocked, and so gravely injured that he cannot even carry his cross.  Simon of Cyrene carries it for him.  On the cross, he struggles to breathe and suffers alone in physical and emotional agony hour after hour.  He feels utterly forsaken by God and cries out to God, “why have you forsaken me?!”

In this story, Jesus is our God who suffered and is our God who suffers with us.  In this story, it sinks in that God isn’t some distant, callous deity, but is instead this eternal love who deeply feels and suffers with us. As Jungen Moltman put it: In our pain, God’s pain is present. “God loves with those who love, God weeps with those who weep. God sorrows with the sorrowful.” God is not some external, unfeeling indifferent heavenly power named “fate” but the eternal love who feels and suffers with us. 

Only a suffering God can help. Only a suffering God can help us to carry our fears and griefs and pain. Only a suffering God works on our fears and anxiety. Only a suffering God can forgive our short tempers and petty frustrations. Only a suffering God can lead us to live differently and tune us into the suffering of others. We see that suffering God in ourselves. And then, when we see him in other suffering people, we mercifully reach out.[i]  This suffering God on the cross teaches us how to love. Look at the medical professionals and first responders who are drawn to care for people in love. Look at the different people who are making masks and sandwiches for vulnerable people who need them. Look those of you who are drawing pictures and writing notes to our homebound members. God suffers with us and also leads us to reach out in mercy to those who suffer.

When we lived in New York City, we bounced around between a few different churches. The pastor at one of the churches where we occasionally landed was named Heidi Neumark. She used to tell this story about how after 9/11, she would visit a member of her congregation who was in the burn unit of the hospital.  No matter what time of day or night she was there, she would see this hospital chaplain also working and ministering to people.  She finally asked the chaplain one day, “how are you holding up?” And the chaplain responded, “I’m not holding up.” (Which was like the last thing that Pastor Heidi was hoping to hear).  But a moment later she finished: “I’m being held up.”

In the heart of God, we belong to each other and we are both held up and holding one another up.  I pray that you all—that we all—are being held up in God’s mercy in all the big and small ways we need it to make it through the day.

Pray for one another. Serve those around you. Christ is with you.

[i] Bonhoeffer also said that we are called to “share in the suffering of God in the world. Christians stand with God in God’s suffering.”

Monday, March 30, 2020

In his grief, Jesus wept

Grace and peace to you from God our strength and our support.

At the end of last week, you might remember, it snowed.  I know I’ve told this story, but I’ve thought of it since then.  My kids were so excited when it snowed they asked if we could play “Joy to the World” which was the song that they sang for the Christmas pageant at church. I obliged and put on the Nat King Cole version, and wouldn’t you know it, we ended up listening to the entire album.  Clearly in the middle of All The Weirdness that is life right now, we needed a little reminder that God Emmanuel was with us.

When God became human in Jesus, that meant that God experienced the whole spectrum of human emotions.  In our story today, one of Jesus’ best friends, Lazarus, is super sick and the side of Jesus that was fully human was feeling it deep in his bones. When Lazarus gets sick, his sisters send word to Jesus and ask him to come. When Jesus finally does come, he’s too late. Lazarus has already died. So Martha runs to meet him, “Lord, where were you!” she asks.  And then her sister Mary says the same thing: “Where were you! What happened?” By the time he gets to the village of Bethany, the bible says Jesus is “greatly disturbed.”

Sometimes we’ve got to put a little imagination around the words scripture gives.  So when the story says that Jesus was greatly disturbed, did that mean devastated? Heartbroken at what has happened?  Whatever he felt, it was strong, because the bible story repeats it: He was greatly disturbed.

All things considered, I could show you a little greatly disturbed right now. A lot of the world is now affected by Covid-19.  We know this: businesses and people’s incomes are affected. The government in the country of India is mobilizing to deliver basic food supplies so that people simply have enough to eat.  Chicago is preparing for more infections. New York is in crisis. We know of people—we are people--who are starting to get sick. The markets are bouncing all over the place. We’re worried about loved ones and at the same time, we’re trying to hold steady and go through the motions of making dinner, going for walks, and helping with schoolwork.  Some of us still go to our workplaces. Some of us are completely “sheltering at home.” We’ve lost so much of what feels normal like our physical connection with people; and all while the earth is rumbling under us.

Things are weird and unsettled and, to use scripture’s words, we could say that things are “greatly disturbing.” In today’s bible story, when Jesus arrives in Bethany and finds his very dear friend, Lazarus, dead, the truth of how much has been lost just hits him; and in a moment of utter humanity, he breaks down and weeps.  So much has been lost.  And so much will be lost.  The Divine side of Jesus knows that soon, he will return to this very house of his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha where Mary will anoint him with costly nard.  Soon, he will wash his disciple’s feet. Soon, a warrant for his arrest will go out. Soon, he will be crucified at the hands of the state.  Soon, so much will be lost. And Jesus weeps.

We get that: thinking of the loss that has hit us and wondering about the loss to come. In an interview last week, David Kessler talked about the anticipatory grief we’re all feeling.  Usually we feel this kind of grief when someone gets a bad diagnosis or we know that a big storm like a hurricane is coming. Right now, there’s a virus out there that we can’t control.  We’re grieving what feels lost. And we’re anticipating what could be lost.

David Kessler, actually co-wrote a pretty famous little book about the five stages of grief and in the interview last week, he reflected on how those five stages could play out right now:   “There’s denial,” he says, “which we see a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks, everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.” I recognize all of those stages in me at different times. There is much to grieve for.

In our bible story, Although Mary and Martha are upset and disappointed, they don’t expect Jesus to come in and fix it.  But they do count on Jesus to be their hope and to restore life in a world that is full of death and grief.

You see, it’s just at the point in the gospel when things are going to get terrible, that Jesus gives the people this sign and he raises Lazarus from the dead.  “Lazarus, come out!” he says, and in the midst of the absolute most terrible thing they could have imagined (the death of one of their dearest community members) life triumphs over death and Lazarus comes out of the tomb.

Life persists over death. It does all the time in so many small ways. In the way we bring joy to people. In the way the community cares for one another. I mean, you can’t cancel church the way you cancel a basketball game.  The church goes on being the church.  Even on a normal week, we gather together as the church and then we scatter out into our various worlds that God blesses us with.  To take care of our neighbor, to bring life to places of death in Jesus name.

Taking care of our neighbor looks differently today than it did a month ago. But it’s still our call as church. It’s in the person who calls and says I’m going to the grocery store, what can I bring you?  It’s in the texting and calling and zooming and checking in with people.  It’s in the positivity, kindness, the encouraging word and the hopefulness.  (It’s also in the sharing when we’re not okay and opening a space for people to be encouraging or supportive.) It’s in the extravagant tip to the person who brought your groceries.  It’s in the financial generosity for the people who need it in our midst.

A few members of the praise band recently recorded a version of “Great is thy Faithfulness” that is posted on our social media.  The chorus sings, “beginning to end, my life in your hands, great, great is your faithfulness.”

I’ve been thinking of this. You see, Jesus never promised that bad things wouldn’t happen. But Jesus did promise to be with us in the good and the bad, in the storm and the sunshine, in the grief and anxiety.  Jesus promises to be with us. God is faithful. Beginning to end, our life in His hands.  God grieves with us, wraps Her arms around us, works through us for healing, and is quietly working to coax life out of death. For nothing, nothing, nothing  can separate us from the love of God. Amen