Thursday, January 31, 2013

Teacher Told Me

Teacher told me
I would love the circus
but it was stale sweat and sewer
Bejeweled elephants
in somber procession
carried bikinied beauties
on their backs
feathered costumes tickled
without relief for sad eyes
No giddy gulps of excitement
for trapeze artists flying overhead
Clowns with sinister smiles
tumbled, bumbled
without laughter’s reward
Only the jugglers
extracted my pity
eyes on each
ball tossed into the air
stealing glances
hoping another would drop
their spheres first
No one was brave enough
not even the strong man
to step out of the ring
and ride an elephant
into the stars

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

First Words

Luke 4:14-21
January 27, 2013

            I was a Communications major and an English Writing minor in college; which means I wrote a lot.  I wrote speeches, short stories, news stories for my broadcast work and for the school newspaper.  I wrote poems and essays.  It seemed that no matter what heading I was writing under, one aspect was true for all of my writing, the first words you wrote were important.  The beginning of something counted, because that’s how you hooked your reader or your listener.  You had to capture their attention.  So the lead in a news story was vital.  The first sentence of your fiction, whether it was a short story or a novel, had to make your reader want to keep reading, know more.  And one of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from one of my poetry professors.  He said that after you write the first draft of a poem, go back and automatically cut the first line.  Be ruthless about it, he told us.  Don’t be so married to a first line that you aren’t willing to do this.  His reasoning was that often the first line is the most stilted or awkward, because you’re just trying to get started, get warmed up.  So cut it, and 99.9 % of the time, your poem will be better for it.  He was right.  I’ve applied that philosophy to poetry.  I apply it to my sermons. 
            It all comes back to the idea of first words.  What do you want your first words to be?  They are essential, so choose them carefully.  They set the tenor and tone for what you say and do next. 
            The words of Jesus in this passage from Luke’s gospel are his first words in his public ministry.  It is his first sermon or as one commentator wrote, his “inaugural address.”  That is certainly a fitting analogy in this week following the inauguration of our president. 
            What is so profound about these first words of Jesus is that he lays out succinctly and to the point what his ministry and his purpose is.  He quotes the prophet Isaiah, and says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 
            Then when he’s finished reading from the scroll, he sits back down and with everyone’s attention focused on him, he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”    As I interpret that, Jesus tells them that what Isaiah prophesied has now come to fulfillment.  The one who has been anointed to do these things, to bring this good news is now here. 
            This is what Jesus does.  He brings good news.  But the good news isn’t just a general happy note about God.  It is specific.  The good news is for the poor.  I can imagine that the poor then, just like the poor now, live on a steady diet of bad news.  So to hear that this man anointed by God, filled with the Holy Spirit, has come on their behalf, to bring good news to them, that must have been incredible to contemplate.  The good news continues in release of the captives, sight for the blind, and the oppressed going free.  The jubilee of the Lord is truly upon them all. 
            From this point on this is what Jesus’ ministry is all about.  From his first words to his last act of sacrifice, this is what Jesus does – brings good news and healing and liberation to the poor, the blind, the captive, the oppressed.  The least of these and those who live with so much bad news are now the recipients of God’s good news. 
            What Isaiah prophesied has come to pass.  And more importantly, that prophesy has been fulfilled in our hearing.  I don’t believe that the fulfilling of these words was meant for the people sitting in the synagogue with Jesus only.  It has been fulfilled in our hearing.  We too are now able to recognize the good news that is in our midst.  But the hearing of the good news, the recognition of the good news is not an end in itself.  I think perhaps it is just the beginning.  We can’t just hear these words and then move on.  Hopefully, we’re doing a little listening as well.  Hopefully, we’re thinking about these words, pondering them.  I don’t think we’re called only to hear them, I think we’re also called to respond.  As one New Testament scholar put it in her commentary, we are being given the chance to participate in the good news.  It isn’t just being acted upon us and we are its passive recipients.  It has been fulfilled in our hearing, so can we respond with our doing. 
            On Friday the kids and I made a very quick trip to Kansas to see our good friends, the Hawley’s.  Their daughter, Jamie, was in the musical Hairspray at the High School, so we went for the show, and for her birthday which was yesterday.  They also had a family from their church in Nebraska coming for the final performance on Saturday night and for Jamie’s birthday, so we all met at the IHOP for a birthday brunch before the kids and I set off for home again. 
            At brunch Jim and one of the Nebraska friends and I were talking about this passage today and what I was trying to accomplish in my sermon.  We talked about this idea of not just hearing these words of good news but participating in them.  And the Nebraska friend said, “but what does it mean to participate in the good news?  What does that mean?” 
            I thought about her question the whole drive home.  Because I think it cuts to the heart of why we’re here.  We’re called to participate in the good news, but what does that mean?  What does that look like?
            The truth is, I don’t have an answer.  I don’t think there is one single answer to the question.  I think there are many answers.  I think part of our call to respond is to figure out our own answer. 
            In a few minutes we’ll be ordaining and installing new ruling elders for our congregation.  I think they’re willingness to serve the church in this capacity is their answer to the call to hear and respond. 
            This afternoon we’ll host our monthly community meal.  Many hands will work together to feed the hungry and to bring a little of the good news to the poor. 
            Paul wrote to the church in Corinth that they were all part of one body.  No member of the body was better or superior to another.  No member was less important, less necessary than another.  They were all needed.  They were all indispensable to both the hearing of the good news and the doing. 
            So how are you called to participate in the good news that Jesus declares in his first words?  What is your answer to that question?  We all have an answer to offer.  We all have a way to participate in the good news.  So for Jesus’ first words and his last words and all the words he spoke in between, let all God’s children say, “Amen.”

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Best For Last

John 2:1-11
January 20, 2013

            I have no problem believing that God uses our dreams – whether it’s to send a message or open our eyes or wake us up, metaphorically speaking. I think that dreams can be one way that God gets our attention.  Saying that does not mean that I don’t also realize that most of the time our dreams are just our subconscious way of dealing with all the different threads of our daily life.  If I’m anxious and worried, it’s probably going to come out in my dreams.  If I’m dealing with issues or problems, those will pop up in my dreams.  My dreams are often wacky and disjointed, but that’s just how they are.  But then there are other dreams.  Dreams that have stayed with me long after I’ve dreamed them.  Those are the dreams that I think maybe there was something more going on than just my subconscious sorting itself out.
            I had a dream of that kind when I was first serving as a solo pastor for a church in Albany, New York.  That church had a long, rectangular fellowship hall like we do.  Everyone gathered in the fellowship hall each Sunday after worship for juice and cookies and coffee.  In my dream, I had finished leading worship, and greeted the last person as they left the sanctuary.  I hung up my robe and walked into the fellowship hall ready for a cup of coffee, but instead of our normal fellowship atmosphere, a banquet had been set.  Instead of the smaller groups of tables and chairs, one long table stretched from one end of the room to the other.  It seemed like hundreds of chairs were set around the table.  And everyone I knew was there.  People from the church were there.  My family.  Friends from different times in my life.  And what’s most amazing is that people I’d lost were also there.  My grandmother.  Members of the congregation who had died.  They were all gathered around the table.  They were all there for this feast which had been prepared. 
            As hard as it may be to believe, seeing the living and the dead feasting together was not the most amazing aspect of the dream.  What was even more powerful and moving about my dream was the tremendous feeling of joy and love that I had in that room, at that feast.  It was tangible.  You could almost see the abundance of love as you walked around the room.  And that’s what I was doing.  I was walking up to each person and hugging them and being hugged back; welcoming them and being welcomed in return.  In the dream I could not stop crying, but they were tears of absolute joy.  It may have only happened in a dream, but I still count it as one of the most precious moments in my life.  I woke up with tears on my face.  I have yet to find an adequate way to describe the love and joy of that moment.  All I can say is this.  It was abundant. 
            If there is a word that I associate with this passage from John about the wedding at Cana, it is abundance. 
            Jesus, his newly called disciples and his mother Mary have all been invited to a wedding in Cana.  The wine at the wedding has run out, which would have been more than just an awkward moment in an otherwise great party.  It couldn’t be resolved by sending someone to the store to get more wine.  It would have been an enormous embarrassment to the families throwing the wedding.  It would have been a breach of hospitality.  Wine was a sign of abundance, of harvest, of plenty, of blessing.  It’s very likely that the families of the couple would have gone without for a long time in order to provide this celebration.  Running out of wine was more than just awkward.  So Mary turns to Jesus.  Somehow she knows that he can do something about this problem.  She doesn’t make a specific request of Jesus, but her words imply that she believes Jesus can and will do something.  Jesus responds by saying, “Woman, what is that to you and me?  My hour has not yet come.”
            This response of Jesus has always bothered me, because it seems an overly harsh response to her request.  It’s rude.  In our English translations, Jesus’ words to Mary do sound rude and harsh and even cruel.  Seeing this passage through our contemporary 21st century eyes doesn’t help that dispel that interpretation either.  But was Jesus actually being rude to his mother?  Or do we have to dig deeper to look and hear these words in the context in which they were spoken.  Doing that helps us to realize that Jesus is not just being uppity to his mama.  Jesus often addressed women he encountered with this same greeting.  It was, in fact, a form of greeting.  It was probably unusual to address one’s own mother this way, but it may be that Jesus was playing down their relationship as mother and son.  He didn’t do this to be rude, but to disengage himself.  He was trying to place himself in a larger context than this one event.  He had come to Galilee not just for a wedding, but to call disciples.  His ministry had begun.
            When Jesus goes on to say that his hour had not yet come, Jesus was not speaking about the time but about his hour of glorification.  He was speaking about his death, resurrection and ascension.
            By disengaging himself, in other words, by separating himself verbally from the current situation, Jesus pointed to his larger ministry.  Jesus pointed to the larger purpose of his ministry – to save the world through death and resurrection.
            I find it interesting that when Jesus tells this to Mary, she doesn’t question him further.  Instead she told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 
            This shows Mary’s unswerving faith in Jesus ability to do something.  I also think she realized and understood more about her son’s time, God’s time, than we first realize.  She knows he can do something, and she knows that the time is right.  But the choice to act is up to him.  He can choose to do something about the wine or not.  “Do whatever he tells you.”
            Jesus makes a choice.  He told the servants to fill the huge stone jars used for the Jewish rites of purification with water.  They filled them to the brim.  Then Jesus told them to draw some of that water out and give it to the chief steward.  When the steward tasted the water become wine, he immediately went to the groom.  The steward thought the groom was responsible for this wine. 
            Normally people put the good stuff out first.  After all when wedding celebrations went on for at least a week, you would want your guests to drink the good merlot when their palates are sharp.  Why serve them the good stuff when they’ve already gotten used to Boone’s Farm?  Put out the cheap stuff last, when nobody will know the difference.  But the steward told the bridegroom, “You have saved the best wine for last.”
            Jesus did what Mary wanted.  He saved the reception with more wine.  But this wasn’t just any wine; it was the “good stuff.”
            In the telling of this story, John doesn’t give many details.  His writing here seems to be for basic information only.  Until he gets to the stone jars.  Now we have numbers.  There were six of them.  Each jar had the capacity to hold 20 to 30 gallons of water.  This was an enormous amount of water and an enormous amount of wine.
            Six huge jars filled to the brim with water.  An abundance of water!  An abundance of wine!  John goes from sparse, basic facts to the abundant.  The huge.  The plenty.  The best.  The superior.
            And from all of this, from the first of his signs and miracles, Jesus revealed his glory, and the disciples believed in him.  As New Testament scholar Karoline Lewis wrote, miracles in John aren’t just miracles, they are signs.  They are revelations.  They mean and reveal far more about Jesus, about God than just the miracle itself.  This is a sign. 
            But why is changing water to wine a sign?  Why is an abundance of really good wine a sign that would reveal the glory of God through his Son? 
            Part of the answer to this question comes from looking at the Old Testament.  In the Old Testament an abundance of fine wine is an eschatological symbol.  It means that God’s wonderful joyful new age has arrived.  In changing the water into an overflowing amount of good wine, Jesus shows that the hopes of Israel for the coming of a savior have been fulfilled.  Let the wine flow and the people be joyful, the Savior is here.  God is present among us.
            So perhaps the sign that this miracle reveals is that God’s presence is evident among them.   God’s love and glory and goodness flows in abundance.  That is what I think this first miracle of Jesus, this sign, is about.  It is about goodness and love overflowing.  It is about abundance. 
            In my dream the living and the dead were gathered together.  There were no boundaries between them.  The physical act of dying did not separate us into two groups or two worlds.  And we weren’t gathered for a banquet in some far off time or place.  That dream wasn’t pointing toward some far off future; it was real in the present moment. 
            Isn’t Jesus, with this sign of abundance, saying the same thing?  The kingdom of God is here.  God is present now.  There’s no need to wait for some distant reality.  The abundance of new life is yours right now.  God’s true nature, love, and glory is revealed if only you would see.  It is abundant and it is in our midst.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Blessed Are The Peacemakers

This is my upcoming article for the Shawnee News Star to be printed on Saturday, January 19th.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
                                                Matthew 5:9, New Revised Standard Version
            I taught an Introduction to Ethics course for seven years at a community college in Iowa.  One of the subjects that my students and I spent a great deal of time discussing and debating was the ethics involved in both War and Peace.  As part of this conversation we often talked about Mohandas K. Gandhi and his life’s work of non-violent resistance.  From his first moment of consciousness raising when he was thrown off a train in South Africa for being a non-white in a white’s only car to the moment of his tragic assassination, Gandhi sought to be a peacemaker.  For him that meant more than just talking about peace or living a peaceful life that affected him and him alone. It meant actively resisting the forces that opposed peace.  He worked tirelessly to overcome oppression and injustice.  But it was all done non-violently.  He was not afraid to stand up to those who opposed his ideas.  He was not afraid to have his body beaten or abused.  He gladly went to jail.  He believed in conversion rather than coercion, and engaged in hunger strikes as a way to bring about that conversion.  Everything he did was to bring about peace.  He fought back, but it was with love not weapons.

            From my study of Gandhi I learned a word that continues to have significance for me, as a pastor and as a person.  The word is ahimsa.  Ahimsa is both a moral virtue and a doctrine of non-violence.  For Gandhi, to practice ahimsa did not mean just avoiding violence; it meant acting completely and wholeheartedly out of love.  To him it was “the largest love.”  It was not a passive state, but an active one. 

            The reason I resonate with this so intensely is because I believe this is what it means to be a peacemaker.  To say that peace is just an absence of war or violence is to see a small part of the picture.  In my mind peace is not just an absence of strife; instead it is an active pursuing of the good, of justice, of righteousness, of love.  It is, to use another word that has meant a great deal to me, shalom.  Shalom, as I understand it, is a robust peace, a peace that is not just lack of enmity but that actively seeks the good and the well-being of the other; whether that other is a person or a nation or the world. 

            My denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has encouraged its congregations and middle governing bodies to enter into a time of discernment about peace and peacemaking.  How are we, as a denomination, called to be peacemakers?  How are we as congregations called to make peace?

            While this sounds as though it should be relatively simple, in truth it is a complex subject.  Peacemaking looks differently to different people.  The issues that peacemaking needs to address are many and varied.  I’ve learned in recent weeks that one issue that is prominent here in Oklahoma is human trafficking.  With the crossroads of I35 and I40, slavery, which is the fundamental definition of human trafficking, is a very real threat.  Although it may seem to be a problem that affects someone else, our interdependence as children of God would suggest that when one of us is exploited and violated, in some ways we all are.  This is true for other issues of justice and injustice as well.

            In the next few months our congregation will enter into this time of discernment about peacemaking, through Sunday School classes, Bible studies and a time of retreat.  We invite the larger community to join with us in this ongoing discussion.  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”