Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Lifted Up

John 3:14-21
March 11, 2018

            My age means that I fall into the original generation for several cultural phenomenons. I am the original generation of “Sesame Street kids.” I mean forget “who shot J.R?” I still remember when it was revealed that Mr. Snuffleupagus was real and not just a figment of Big Bird’s imagination. I was a high school student when MTV aired, and that was a major influence in my life and in the life of my friends. And I was the first generation of Mr. Rogers’ kids. While my mother made dinner, and my older sister and brother did their homework, I would curl up in my dad’s lap and we would watch Mr. Rogers together.
            It has been 50 years since “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” first aired on public television. It was the simplest of programs. There was almost no budget, and the host, Fred Rogers, was unlike other hosts of other popular kids programs. He didn’t act like a clown, although I know he wasn’t afraid to try different things or even look silly. He never talked down to kids, he just talked to them. He was gentle and humble, and if I remember my facts correctly, the sweaters he wore were ones that his mother knitted for him. He was always kind, and he always made you feel welcome. In a time when “inclusive” was not yet a buzz word, Fred Rogers went out of his way to be inclusive. People of every race and creed were welcomed into his neighborhood, and he also made sure to include people of differing abilities.
            I will never forget watching a tribute to him, when a young man in a wheelchair told him that when he could not navigate other places in the world because of his limitations, he could watch “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and always feel welcome.
            Fred Rogers testified before the Senate about the importance of keeping children’s public television available to everyone, and managed to sway the most cynical of senators. One thing about him that I did not know until after I went to seminary was that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister; ordained, as I understand it, to his ministry with working with children through the medium of television. I like to believe that this man, one of my earliest role models, encouraged my own ministry, although that’s not a connection I made for a long, long time.
            Other than the fact that his show is still remembered and honored 50 years later, why talk about Fred Rogers today? Is it just nostalgia on my part? Maybe, but I also think that Fred Rogers, in his own human, humble, flawed way, did his best to love the world as he believed God loved the world.
            “For God so loved the world…” That’s the beginning of perhaps the most well-known verse in all of our scripture; John 3:16.
            For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
            Or, if you learned the King James Version…
            “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
            This verse is everywhere. It’s at football games and on license plates. I’ve seen it on billboards and bumper stickers. “For God so loved the world…”
            But the problem with a verse that is as iconic as this one is that it is easy to forget it was not written in a vacuum. It has a context. There are other verses around it. It’s part of a larger story. We don’t read the whole story today, but it’s important to know that Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus, a Pharisee. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and confessed that he knew Jesus was of God. No one could do what Jesus was doing if he was not of God. In response, Jesus confused Nicodemus by telling him that no one could see God’s kingdom if they were not born from above. From that part of the story, we get into the debate over what it means to be born again, and I don’t want to jump into those difficult waters today.
            Yet it is all part of what Jesus was trying to teach Nicodemus, of what he was trying to make him understand about who he, Jesus, was. Yes, he was of God, but what did that mean? Yes, he was God’s Son, but what did that look like? He ushered in God’s kingdom, but what did the kingdom actually require?
            The first verse in our part of the passage this morning is about the Son of Man being lifted up. Moses lifted up the bronze snake in the wilderness to cure the people of their snake bites – that’s the story we have from the book of Numbers this morning. Just like Moses lifted up that metal serpent, so the Son of Man will be lifted up.
            The Son of Man will be literally lifted up on the cross, and don’t we look to the cross as the “cure” for sin and death. But the Greek for lifted up also means “exalted.” The Son of Man will be exalted, lifted up not just on a cross, but lifted up as living proof of God’s love for the world.
            For God so loved the world … It would seem that since this verse is so ubiquitous in our culture that it must be because we love its meaning so deeply. But I’m not so sure. We may say it, proclaim it, display it, but do we really love it? Do we live it?
            I realize that some people are attracted to this verse because of the promise of judgment that is implied for those who don’t believe. Yet, go one verse further and we read that God didn’t send the Son into the world to condemn the world but to save it. Yes, those who do not believe are condemned already by their own inability or refusal to believe. Yet, the judgment we read about is from the same Greek that we get the word, “crisis.” There is a crisis for those who remain in the darkness. There is a crisis for those who are afraid to come into the light, afraid of what the light might reveal; what it might reveal about them, about their own hearts and minds.
            Remember that Nicodemus came to Jesus in darkness? It seems to me that he was in crisis; crisis about what it would mean to believe this man in front of him was the Son of God, crisis about what that would mean for him as a Pharisee. Nicodemus was facing a judgment, but it wasn’t of the hellfire, brimstone sort. It was a crisis, a crisis of faith. Can you step into the Light, knowing what it may reveal? Or will you choose to stay in the darkness because the darkness is easier, because it seems safer, because it is more familiar, because you are afraid?
            It seems to me that our beloved John 3:16 is not so much a verse of comfort, but of crisis. Because if we believe that God so loved the world, if we believe that God did not send God’s Son to condemn the world, then what is our response? What is our response to the world God loves? What is our response to the people God loves? We may proclaim on banners and billboards that God so loved the world, but when it comes right down to it, do we?
            I know I don’t. I know I fail. I know that I refuse to pray for my enemies, that I constantly look for the speck in others’ eyes while ignoring the log in my own. I know how I struggle to remember that every person I meet is a child of God. Not only that, I completely and utterly forget that every person I meet could be Christ himself; as I said last week, God right in front of me, only I’m too busy or distracted or too blind to see. I walk in darkness and I don’t even realize it.
            Yet, isn’t that what this season of Lent is about – a time of intention and preparation, a time of examination and reflection, a season to recognize the darkness and once more choose the Light.
            I stick with my earlier statement that John 3:16 is a verse of crisis. But that does not lessen its good news. It is good news. It is incredible and wonderful news. For God so loved the world is not only in the past tense. For God so loves the world, for God so loves us, that God’s Son was lifted up, exalted, so that we might have see the Light, have new life, and learn to love as we are deeply and truly and completely loved.
            For God so loves the world.
            Amen and amen.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Temple of His Body

John 2:13-22
March 4, 2018

            I read a story recently about an event that took place in a Washington, D.C. metro station. A young man with a violin was playing for the commuters passing by. His case was open and on the floor in front of him, and occasionally people would walk by and throw change into it. The only people who really paid any attention to the violinist were children. They would stop and watch until their parents shooed them along.
            I used to live outside of D.C. and while it was not completely uncommon for a street performer to be found in a metro station, it was not an everyday sight either. You would notice someone playing the violin. But the passengers who walked by him that day were either too busy or too distracted to care. So the young man played on, and by the time he quit there was about $32 in his case.
            Here’s the thing; the musician was world renowned violinist Joshua Bell. A few weeks before this train station concert, he had played to a sold out crowd in Boston, where the cheap seats were more expensive than what he collected in the metro station. I couldn’t find out the name of the piece of music he was playing, although apparently it was one of the most intricate and complicated pieces every written for the violin. And Mr. Bell was playing it on a Stradivarius violin worth over 3.5 million dollars.
            The people in that metro station had the opportunity to enjoy a free concert from a renowned violinist on a magnificent instrument, and they didn’t stop. They didn’t look. They didn’t take notice. They didn’t know what they had right in front of them.
            Unless we read all four gospel stories of Jesus cleansing the temple side by side, we might not know what is right in front of our eyes either.
            This story of Jesus cleansing the temple is found in all four gospels. On the surface it may seem that John is telling the same – or at least a similar – story as the other gospels. But there are some significant differences. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, this event is placed after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It comes after the people have gathered to wave and welcome Jesus into the city like a king. The synoptic gospels place it as part of the culmination of events that lead to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. In fact, Jesus cleansing the temple is the straw that breaks the camel’s back for the religious leaders and authorities.
            But in John’s gospel, Jesus turning over the tables in the temple follows the story of his turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. We are just at the beginning of John’s gospel and at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He was barely getting started. Which begs the question, why was Jesus so angry? It makes sense that he was angry in the other gospels. He had been preaching, teaching and proclaiming to anyone who would listen, that the kingdom of God was in their midst. He had been on the move for three years, speaking truth to the powers that be, calling out the leaders for corruption and abuse. So it is understandable that when he went into the temple and saw further evidence that the poor were being exploited and taken advantage of, he was furious.
            But as Karoline Lewis pointed out in the WorkingPreacher podcast, it was too soon in John’s gospel for Jesus to be angry. It was too soon in Jesus’ ministry for Jesus to be angry, and she made the point that in John’s version of this story, Jesus wasn’t angry. He was zealous. He was filled with zeal and a righteous fervor, but he was not angry.
            In the other gospels, Jesus accused the moneychangers for turning his father’s house into a den of robbers, but in John’s version, he just told them to stop making his Father’s house a marketplace. Yet, this is also confusing. The marketplace was a necessity. The people could not use Roman coins to buy their sacrifices. So the Roman coins had to be exchanged for Hebrew coins. To bring a foreign coin into the temple was sacrilege, a glaring violation of the Law. There is no indication in John’s telling that the moneychangers were doing anything but their job. There is no sense of violation or exploitation.
            But this scene in the temple inflamed Jesus’ zeal. Why? What are we not seeing? I think what we are not seeing is that the people in the temple were not seeing. They did not see Jesus for who he was. They did not see that God inhabited more than just a physical space that they visited on religious holidays. They did not see that the temple of God was in Jesus’ very body.
            If the gospel of John were written as a stage play, John would be the narrator and his remark about the temple of Jesus’ body would have been an aside to us, the audience. When Jesus was questioned about what he was doing, he told them,
            “Destroy this temple, and in three days time I will raise it up.”
            Sure you will. This temple has been under construction for almost half a century, and you’re going to rebuild it in just three days? Right.
            “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.”
            The temple of his body; God within Jesus and Jesus right in front of them. They did not know what they were seeing. They didn’t know who they were seeing. They didn’t know who was right in front of them.
            It seems to me that Jesus wanted them to understand – or at least begin to understand – that God was not limited to the temple. God was not limited to the walls and enclosures of a human made building, even one that was sacred and divinely appointed. God was not limited or restricted only to where they thought God would be or should be. God was in Jesus. Jesus was God’s Son, and God was in the temple of his body.
            This makes me wonder how many times I have encountered God and not seen. How many times have I talked with God, laughed with God, ignored God, and not realized it? How many times have I overlooked the hands of Christ or the feet of Christ because they were not hands or feet that I expected?
            But isn’t that why we make this trek through Lent? To prepare ourselves for the unexpected? Isn’t that what Paul was referring to when he wrote of the cross as foolishness? It is foolish. It is! It is nuts. God dying on a cross?! God dying?! That’s absurd! Yet that’s what we believe, and that is what we are moving toward. Every day brings us closer and closer to God’s great foolishness; God’s absurd and ludicrous cross.
            So if God does what is unexpected and foolish, why do we only expect to see God in certain places and in certain people? The people in that metro station did not expect to see a world renowned violinist, but there he was, right in front of them. The people in the temple that day were there to see God in those four walls, but Jesus said, no. Jesus said that he was the temple. He was the temple that would be destroyed but raised again.
A commentator wrote about the church using centripetal and centrifugal force. Centripetal force is the force that pulls you in. Centrifugal force pushes you out. If you have ever been on a whirling, spinning amusement park ride it is centrifugal force that keeps you plastered to the wall of the ride. His point was that instead of thinking of church as centripetal, drawing people in, we need to see church as centrifugal – sending people out.
It seems to me that we need both. We need to draw people in, not because this is the only place where someone can find God. It isn’t. But because this is where we learn and this is where we remember. We remember what God has done. We remember who God is. We remember through the stories and we remember through the table, and we find strength and hope and courage once more.
And then we need to be pushed out, pushed out to the world expecting to see God, expecting to see God alive and at work. We need to be pushed out to see God in the heavens that tell of God’s glory and in the people God created. We need to be pushed out, sent out so that we can be the body of Christ and so that we can be Christ’s hands and feet and heart. We need to be pushed out and sent out so that just as we can see Christ in others, others can see Christ in us. Look around and know that God is here. Go out and know that God is there. God is right in front of us; may our eyes, our minds and our hearts be opened to see.
Amen and amen.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Into the Woods

Mark 1:9-13
February 18, 2018

            The first time I ever heard about the musical, “Into the Woods,” was not when Shawnee High School chose it for the spring musical a couple of years ago. It was not when the movie came out with Meryl Streep and Johnnie Depp. No, the first time I ever heard anything about this Stephen Sondheim production was when I was about to graduate from seminary. The graduating class officers sponsored a retreat for those of us about to enter into the real world of ministry. A local minister was asked to come and lead the retreat. “Into the Woods,” provided the template and the outline for the weekend’s discussions and reflection.
            Once upon a time, in a far off kingdom …
            “Into the Woods,” puts the characters that many of us know from fairy tales all together: Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and the Witch who kept her in a tower, a Baker and his Wife, Prince Charming and a couple of other princes who were charming as well.
            Every character had a happily-ever-after they were seeking, and the only way to capture that joyful ending was to go into the woods. Into the woods was where their destinies lay; going into the woods was necessary for them to find what they were seeking, to reach their goals, to make their fairy tale ending.
            But going into the woods changed them. It both disoriented and reoriented them. It made them see their lives a little differently. And it turned out that their happily-ever -afters were not quite so happy after all. Just like life, the character’s stories didn’t end just because they’d finally reached their goal, found what they were looking for or lived a longed for adventure. It was in the woods that they met their true selves, and understood that life was not about happily-ever-afters, but in facing fears and finding others to travel the woods with them.
            Can you guess why our retreat leader used this musical as a talking point? Here we all were, about to graduate, finally reaching the culmination of our seminary careers. We were about to cross the divide between learning to be ministers and actually being ministers. We were all about to go into our own woods. We were all about to be remade and reformed – whether we realized it or not. We were all in search of a happily-ever-after that may or may not exist. We were going into the woods.
            Jesus may not have gone into a literal woods or forest – the wilderness he wandered in would have been more barren and harsh, devoid of the lushness that might be found in the woods. But his wandering in the wilderness was no less a time of being remade and reformed.
            Jesus went into the wilderness and was tested. He was tempted. He relived in 40 days and nights what the Israelites endured for forty years. 
            As we should expect at this point in our year with Mark’s gospel, Mark’s version of the temptation story is much sparser, much sparer than the other gospel accounts. I’ve said before that Mark’s gospel is an urgent one. He doesn’t have time to waste on a lot of detail. But even with as few details as Mark provides, there is still much to learn, much to ponder about Jesus’ wilderness experience. According to the Greek, what is translated as “driven by the Spirit” is better read as “picked up and thrown.”  Jesus was tossed into the wilderness. Immediately. Immediately upon his baptism, and hearing God’s confirmation from the heavens, Jesus was thrown into the wilderness for 40 days. He was tempted by Satan. He wandered there, along with the wild beasts who also made the wilderness their home, and angels waited on him. 
            That is the extent of our details. But even in this brief description, we can come up with one picture of the wilderness that is terrifying. Just the thought of Satan sounds scary. But wild beasts?! I don’t do so well with wild beasts.
             One of the theological conclusions that we draw from the wilderness stories is that Jesus was tempted just like us, but he doesn’t sin in response to temptation. This helps us establish him as both human and divine. He faced temptations. They were real.  In his humanness he may have wanted to give in, but his divine nature resisted. He overcame. 
If Jesus did in forty days and forty nights what took the Israelites forty years, then his experience in the wilderness provides a stark contrast to the experience of the God’s chosen ones. Jesus was tested and tempted, but temptation did not win. God tested the Israelites as well, but they failed repeatedly. They endured the wilderness, and somehow got through it.
            When we speak of our wilderness times we express them as the times we’ve had to endure – hardships, sacrifice, temptation, struggles. Endure is the key word. We have to endure the wilderness. We have to go into those wilderness places because Jesus went there. We are so like the Israelites, complaining, never fully grateful for what we have, for what God has done for us, so we are sent into the wilderness, whether it’s spiritual, physical, emotional or all three and more. We endure the wilderness until finally we can work our way out breathing a sigh of relief that we survived. 
Yet as we make our way into this new Lenten season, I wonder if this is just one aspect of the wilderness. Maybe this is too one dimensional of an understanding of what the wilderness is and what happens to us while we’re in it. 
            The Israelites became the Israelites in the wilderness. That time shaped their identity as a nation, as the people of God. Perhaps Jesus was hurled into the wild for the same reason. It was there, in the wilderness, in the midst of the wild beasts, the temptations, the struggle that he came fully into himself as God’s Son, the Beloved.  Perhaps going into the wild was the true confirmation of his baptism. Jesus came into himself in the wild. When he emerged on the other side, the course of his ministry was set, and he did not veer from that path. 
            I promise you that I wanted to end this sermon on a happy and encouraging note about how this time of Lent is our time to be remade and reformed, to reorient ourselves back to God, to reprioritize, etc. It is all of those things, true, but I think we have found ourselves in a different kind of woods – as individuals, congregations and as a country.
            We all know about the school shooting in Parkland, Florida this past week. We all know that 17 people – students and faculty – were killed, along with many others who were wounded. This is the second most fatal mass shooting in a school since Sandy Hook; which means I am standing in this pulpit once again trying to make sense out of something that makes no sense, and I am angry. I am damn angry! It is all horrible, but what is even more horrible is that on the 18th of February, 2018, we have already had 18 mass shootings since the year began. 18.
            I am not trying to veer into politics. I’m not going to preach that every one who owns a gun should get rid of it, or that every gun owner is bad. That’s nonsense. That’s like assuming that people who are not gun owners are all good. Again, nonsense.
            But we are in the woods in our culture. We are in the woods and we are failing our children. I was nervous taking Zach to school the day after the shooting in Florida, and I’m sure I was not the only parent or the only student or teacher who felt that way. Zach told me that they spent a lot of time talking about it at school that day, and at least one of his teachers cried.
            We are in the woods, and we can either use this time to be remade or we can go deeper and deeper into a wilderness that I fear we will not emerge from.
            One story I read from a student who survived was that as she was escaping the school, she heard a boy who had been shot calling for his mother.
            Think about that. Just think about it. Let that pierce your soul.
We are failing our children. If Lent is a time of repentance, of preparation, of being remade and reformed, of becoming more fully who we are created and called to be, then how are we preparing? How are we repenting? How will we stop failing our children? What is our next step? Because, my friends, we are failing our children. We are failing our children. We are in the woods. We are in the wilderness. Can we turn around, repent and find our way out?

            Amen and amen.

Midweek Lenten Service

February 15, 2018

Basis of life.
Fundamental need.
Water covers most of our planet.
We are made up of it, in our hearts, our brains, even our bones contain this true elixir of life.
A person can go for a few weeks without food, but only a few days without water.
Jesus came out of the waters of the Jordan River and heard the voice of God.
From the waters of baptism, Jesus rose to his call.
From the waters of baptism, Jesus went to the wilderness and made ready for his ministry, for his work, his life, his death.
Water is precious in the arid land of Jesus’ birth. The Jordan was a source of life. The people gathered at its bank could not have understood that when Jesus rose up out of the Jordan’s waters, he would teach them what life could actually be.
He would declare to them that the kingdom of God was already there, in their midst.
It was the ground they walked on.
It was the air that they breathed.
It was in the water they drank. It was in the water that filled them. It was in the water, their source of life.
Jesus went to the Jordan to be baptized by John.
From the waters of baptism, he rose to his full calling, his purpose, his ministry, his life, his death and new life in the resurrection.
From the waters of baptism, we rise.
Some of us may have been baptized in a pool, whole bodies lowered and raised, dying and rising with Christ.
Some of us may have been baptized at a font, head and hair wet from the water falling on them.
However we were baptized, pool or font, we were baptized into … something.
We were baptized into our salvation.
We were baptized into a community of faith.
We were baptized into the Church Universal, adopted into the family of God, grafted onto the true vine.
We were baptized into grace.
We were baptized into hope.
However we were baptized, rising from the waters or feeling them on our foreheads, we were baptized into … something.
Our baptisms were not the end. They were the beginning.
The beginning of a life of faith.
The beginning of a call to ministry, a call that is issued to each of u.
The beginning of a life’s work.
The beginning of God’s purpose for us.
From the River Jordan, from the waters of baptism, Jesus rose to his calling from God.
Jesus rose to his true identity as the Son.
Jesus rose to give the blind their sight,
the lame, healed limbs,
the lepers, cleansing
the deaf their hearing
the dead, new life
the poor good news.
From the waters of baptism we are raised to see God in others,
to follow as disciples,
bathed in grace and forgiveness
to hear God’s call
to trust in the new life promised
to serve the poor, the hungry, the sick, the forgotten.
From the waters of baptism, we are called.
From the waters of baptism, we are sent.
Children of God, remember your baptisms.
Amen and amen.


Ash Wednesday Service

February 14, 2018

            There’s a desire by some folks out there to make this service, this Ash Wednesday service, a little less Ash Wednesdayish. What I mean by that is that some consider this service to be depressing. It does, after all, remind us that no matter who we are, no matter how much money we have or don’t, how healthy we are right now or not, whether we have power and influence, regardless of any character trait we may bear, one day we all are going to die. One day we all are going to go back to that from which we came – dust.
            I’ve heard different suggestions for making this service a little less somber, therefore a little less depressing. Instead of saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” when I impose the ashes on your forehead, I could say, “Remember that you are stardust, and to stardust you shall return.”
            I have read that scientifically there is a theory that we are carrying bits of stardust within us. With the Big Bang, life was created through a series of processes – none of which I claim to understand – and out of creation’s beginning, the elements that formed the universe also form us. Hence, we have some stardust in us.
            Another trend is glitter ashes. That’s what I said, glitter ashes. Glitter is mixed into the ash. This is actually being done as a way to support the cause of the LGBTQ community, so using glitter ashes are not just for fun or for silliness.
            While I support that cause, I’m not convinced that glitter ash is the way to go. Also, while I can totally get behind having stardust at our core, when it comes time to impose ashes, I’m not going to remind you that you are made of it.
            No, I’m going to say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Yes, it will probably make you consider death. Yes, it is somber and this is a somber service. Tonight is not the night for lively entertainment, or even raucous rejoicing. Tonight we put on ashes and we remember that one day, hopefully not soon for any of us, we will die. It is the reality of life. It is the one thing in life that is certain. As the old expression goes, the other thing in life that is certain is taxes, but I read a preacher who offered a third certainty. We mess up. We live, we pay taxes, we die and we make a mess of things in the middle of it all.
            Wearing these ashes is not just a reminder that we will one day die. Wearing these ashes is a sign of our penitence. While Ash Wednesday may not be biblical in and of itself, the practice of wearing ashes, of putting on sackcloth as a sign of remorse is.
            So we remind ourselves tonight of our deaths, and we accept these ashes as a sign of our penitence.
            But what does it do to remind ourselves of our own mortality? Perhaps it is true that reflecting on our death will help to actually live while we are still alive. Lent is not just a journey with a destination of the cross of Good Friday and the new life of Easter at its end. Lent is a time of preparation and it is a time for renewal. Yes, we are preparing for the death of our Lord and Savior, and we are preparing for his glorious resurrection. But we are also actively remembering that Jesus did not come so we could have half lives. Jesus came so we could live fully, so we could live abundant lives. Jesus did not die for us to forget the beauty of life here and now. Jesus was not raised to new life so that we might abandon the life we are called to live in the present. In Lent we prepare for death and new life, and we live this life more fully, more completely.
            And these ashes are a sign of our penitence, of our recognition that we sin, that we mess up, that we are complicit in larger sins and sinfulness. But they are also a mark that declares we are claimed by God. We wear these ashes because we know that we are God’s. We know that God wants more than an outward sign of remorse. God wants our hearts. God wants our minds. God wants our all. But these ashes are a start. They are a start and they are statement that we remember the One to whom we belong.
            But we cannot wear these ashes everyday. Sometime in the next few hours, the ashes will be washed off. We may go out after this service and people will see our ashes, but tomorrow they will not. But while the outward sign may wash off, we are still claimed. God still calls us to repent and turn around once more toward him. But I am not asking us to walk around in a constant state of guilt. That’s not what tonight is about. That’s not ultimately what these ashes are about. I don’t think God wants us to live guilty, shame filled lives. I think God wants us to live with all that we have and with all that we are for God and for our neighbor.
            Tonight is also Valentine’s Day; a day when romance and love is celebrated. It seems odd and disconnected that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday should fall on the same day. But I think it works. I think it works, because ultimately Valentine’s Day is about love and so is Ash Wednesday. We are claimed in love. We are called to love. We are made because of love. We are loved. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, but it is love that marks every moment of every day from dust to dust.

Amen and amen.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

A Healing Hand

Mark 1:29-39
February 4, 2018

            When I was at the grocery store last week, getting a cart from the long row of carts, I noticed a woman beside me taking longer than one would think is normal to pull her cart and start shopping. I realized she was busily disinfecting the handle of the cart with a cleaning wipe. I admit that at other times, I might have rolled my eyes a little bit at her prolonged precautions.
            “Life is risk, lady. Let’s keep things moving.”
            Let me put it this way, I was one of the moms who rejoiced when it began to be reported that children who grow up in homes that are not perfectly clean and disinfected, homes that have a little dust, have stronger immune systems than children who grow up in overly sanitized households. I battle the dust in my house, but the dust is winning, and I try to tell myself that my kids are better off because of it. A colleague of mine once came over to my house unexpectedly, and when I apologized for the house not being in pristine condition, she said,
            “Oh Amy, don’t worry about it. I have so many dust bunnies under my bed, if my husband dies, I can make a new one.”
            So in ordinary circumstances I don’t worry too much about who touched my shopping cart before me. I wash my hands – a lot, and move on. But this is no ordinary time. This has been an awful flu season, and it’s not over. In this season there have been over 70 deaths from the flu in Oklahoma alone. Zach told me that another strain of flu is going around the high school. Look around at the people who are not here today. So taking precautions like wiping off the handles of shopping carts and making the peace sign instead of passing the peace by shaking each other’s hand, may not be such a bad thing; at least until the worst of this flu season has passed.
            Not touching other people when we’re trying to avoid the flu or other contagious diseases is one thing, but what about avoiding contact with people whose disease could not be rubbed off through a handshake?
            When the HIV/AIDS epidemic began to get national attention, people were convinced that you could transmit AIDS through simple touch. There was so little education and so much misinformation that it resulted in people treating others terribly. Case in point was a boy named Ryan White who lived in Kokomo, Indiana. Ryan was a hemophiliac who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. He was one of the first children to get the disease, and when he was initially diagnosed he was told he only had about six months to live. But he beat that original prognosis and lived five more years. The real problem for Ryan came in how people in his community treated him. The Kokomo school system would not allow him to reregister for school. People accused him of being gay. He and his mother were told again and again that he must have done something wrong, something really bad to get this disease. They were told that God was punishing him by giving him AIDS. The harassment got so bad Ryan and his family was forced to move to another town. But at the school there, a young woman who was the student body president, took it upon herself to invite medical professionals to the school to educate the students and faculty about AIDS and how it is transmitted, and how it isn’t. The students shared this information with their parents. Because of this, Ryan White was welcomed and was able to be a teenager, go to prom, and get a part-time job. He died just a few months before his high school graduation, but because of the efforts of the community, he was able to live, really live, before he died.
            Those people who welcomed Ryan were not afraid to be near him. They were not afraid to touch him, and make him welcome. I can’t help but wonder if the welcome, the love and the compassion that was shown to Ryan and his family didn’t contribute to his living as long as he did. I have no way of proving that scientifically, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
            In our story from Mark’s gospel, there is a detail that is often overlooked, but I find it profound. We are still on day one of Jesus’ public ministry. Last week we read that Jesus and the disciples were in a synagogue in Capernaum. Not only did Jesus astound those who were present with his teaching, he also exorcised an unclean spirit from a man.
            Now they have left the synagogue and gone to the home of Simon – or Simon Peter. Simon’s mother-in-law was sick in bed with a fever. When we hear the word “fever” in our context, it may not seem dire. But at that time, without antibiotics, a fever could be fatal. But Jesus did not hesitate in his response to her illness. Not only did he go near her, he touched her. That was how he healed her. He took her by the hand and lifted her up. Jesus took this woman by the hand and lifted her from illness to wholeness, from sickness to health.
            Along with the risk of contagion, Jesus most likely crossed accepted boundaries and defied social norms by touching this woman. He may have been considered ritually unclean. But Jesus did not hesitate to touch her anyway. He took her hand and lifted up and she was healed.
            Another difficulty of this passage is that Jesus did not just heal Simon’s mother-in-law, he healed her to serve. There is no getting around that. There is no way to put a more acceptable spin on this part of the story. She was a woman who was healed to serve men. We have to look at in its specific context. Gender roles were rigid. It was a patriarchal society. That would have been her expected role. No matter how much we may wish that the disciples would have said, “No ma’am, you rest, we’ll fix the sandwiches,” it didn’t work like that. Unfortunately, over the centuries this passage has been used to harm women.
            But Jesus healing her was not a subtle way of harming her. Not only did he heal her physically, he restored her to her community. Her role in the community was, in part, based on what she did. Her serving was not a measure of her servitude. It was how she contributed to her community. He restored her and brought her back into the fold of her home and her household.
            Jesus freed her from a fever that would have harmed her both physically and emotionally and socially. He freed her. Her response was just that. She responded to her freedom by giving back. We don’t have to agree with the strict role she had to play in her culture, but we can still learn from her response. We can still understand that Jesus does not only free us from that which keeps us from God and one another – as he did in the exorcising of the demon. Jesus frees to do something. Dr. David Lose wrote that Jesus frees us for a purpose. It seems to me that the woman’s serving the men upon her recovery was not just her taking up her expected task. I suspect that gratitude and love were also motivators.
            Jesus not only frees us from something, Jesus frees us to do something. How has Jesus freed us? How are we called to respond? What is our new purpose that comes with our deliverance?
            Jesus takes us by the hand and lifts us up to freedom, to newness of life, to newness of purpose. What are we now free to do? How are we called to serve?

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Friday, February 2, 2018

First Things

Mark 1:21-28
January 28, 2018

            Winston Churchill referred to it as the “black dog.” Apparently it was something that hounded him, haunted him. Author and illustrator, Matthew Johnstone, created a book and an animated short film about the black dog, because he too was hounded by that creature. In the short film, Johnstone illustrates how he tried to ignore the dog, but it wouldn’t go away. He tried to suppress it, silence it, but the dog continued to pursue him. Johnstone pretended the dog didn’t exist, especially when he was around other people. He put on a happy face, and silenced the canine as best he could. But nothing seemed to work. As Johnstone grew older, the dog grew bigger. He turned to drinking and smoking, but the dog refused to be silenced. It refused to heel. No amount of ignoring it, pretending the dog didn’t exist or numbing its ferocity through other means made the dog disappear. It was persistent. At one point in the animation, the man and the dog become one creature; the man brought down to his knees by the dog that not only followed him, but seemed to have possessed his entire being. The black dog is depression. With no disrespect intended to either dogs or the beautiful color black, this was an apt and poignant analogy for what depression feels like and for what it can become to the person who is struggling against it.
            According to the World Health Organization, depression affects over 300 million people worldwide. “It is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and is a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.” And according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, in 2015 around 16.1 million adults, aged 18 years or over, had experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year. That represents 6.7 percent of all American adults. Perhaps you have not experienced depression yourself, but there is a good chance that someone you know, someone you love, has.
            Depression can feel like a dog that won’t leave you alone. To be depressed feels as though you have been taken hold of by something you cannot understand, and definitely something you cannot control. In other words, to be depressed feels as though you are possessed.
            I realize this is a provocative statement. To say someone is possessed has many connotations. In our culture, saying someone is possessed brings up images of Linda Blair in The Exorcist, or even the current hit, Stranger Things. Certainly, the descriptions we have in scripture of someone who is possessed seems a far cry from how we understand someone who is depressed; the possessed man who lived among the tombs comes to mind. The man had no control of his words, his actions, even his own strength. The people would bind him in manacles and he would still break free. That doesn’t sound like our modern depiction of depression, does it?
            It also seems highly insensitive of me to make the connection between depression and possession. Demon possession was blamed for what we now know is mental illness. How many suffering people were made to suffer more because it was thought they were possessed by demons?
            But if you have ever struggled with depression as I have; if you have ever seen the world through its particular lens or bought into the great lie that it tells you, then maybe possession isn’t such a far cry after all. Depression feels as though it owns you, body, mind and soul.
            It is impossible to know if the man with the unclean spirit who confronted Jesus in the synagogue was depressed or not. But we do know that even this spirit that possessed this poor man recognized Jesus for who he truly was.
            This is the first thing, Jesus’ first act of public ministry. All four gospels record a different action by Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. In John, Jesus changed water into wine at a wedding in Cana. In Luke, he preached in the synagogue and was rejected by the people. And in Mark’s gospel, Jesus exorcised a demon. Biblical scholars make a point of noting these differences, because the first thing each gospel writer chose to highlight gives a clue to the agenda of the writer and of Jesus. The first thing Jesus did in Mark’s gospel was exorcise a demon.
            How did Jesus exorcise that demon? He uttered no prayers, offered no laying on of hands, nor practiced any rites or rituals. No, Jesus rebuked the demon. He ordered it to leave the man. The unclean spirit confronted Jesus by calling out to him,
            “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”
            Jesus confronted the demon right back. He was not cowed or afraid of this spirit, nor did he blink when the demonic recognized the divine. Jesus demanded that the spirit leave the man, and the spirit obeyed. Jesus was on an urgent mission to preach to people that the kingdom of God was in their midst. His ministry was urgent. God was on the move, and there was no time to waste. Anything that prevented God’s people from full life, from abundant life, had to be dealt with … immediately. If anything could prevent someone from the abundant life found in God, it would be an unclean spirit. Jesus wasted no time in sending that spirit packing, and opening up the man it had possessed to the fullness of life in God.
            “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”
            Yes. Anything that possessed people, any spirit or object or blinder that kept people from recognizing God, from full life and abundant life in God, had to be swept away. Jesus did not just exorcise that demon, he confronted it. He rebuked it. His ministry was clear and imperative.
            I wonder who else in that gathering around Jesus needed to be released of what possessed him or her. I wonder what other unclean spirits needed to be rebuked. Surely there were others there who were possessed by something that kept them from fully knowing God, from having a full and abundant life in God.
            What keeps us from having that abundant life? It seems to me that you don’t have to have experienced depression or another form of mental illness to understand possession. Maybe you are possessed by fear. Maybe you are possessed by hopelessness or anger. Maybe despair grips you and owns you or maybe it is something else. But whatever it may be, know this, the first thing Jesus did in Mark’s gospel was exorcise that demon. He rebuked that demon, confronted it and cast it out, so that the man could have abundant life in God. Isn’t that what God wants for each of us? Isn’t that what God longs for? Isn’t that a fundamental tenet of why Jesus came, so that what blocks us from relationship with God, what blocks us from abundant life in God could be rebuked, removed and cast out?
            The first thing Jesus did was confront and cast out a demon. The first thing Jesus wants for us is to be able to live the abundant life God promises. That is our hope.
That is our hope.
Maybe what possesses us cannot be cast out as cleanly as the unclean spirit was, but that does not mean that Jesus isn’t working on it and on us. The first thing Jesus does is confront what stands between us and God. And he calls us again and again to be free from possession, and live an abundant life in God.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.