Sunday, October 27, 2013


Luke 18:9-14
October 27, 2013/Reformation Sunday

            "There but for the grace of God go I." 
            I remember very well the first time I heard that phrase.  I was in California with my mom for a family wedding.  My mother, my aunts, my cousins and I were in a coffee shop and a woman, who would now be termed "morbidly obese," walked in.  To see someone with that particular disease was much more unusual at that time.  So she was noticed.  Every person I was with that day understood the struggle with weight.  I was only in 8th grade, but it wouldn't be very long before I understood it as well.  I think that the empathy for the woman's condition was real and sincere.  But as we sat there, eating our own desserts, shaking our heads with sadness and sympathy for her plight, one of my aunts said, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." 
            There, but for the grace of God, go I.  I liked that phrase the minute I heard it.  I thought those words expressed care and concern for the recipient of that sentiment, while also reminding the person saying them that there were people far worse off.  It seemed like the perfect way to put myself into the proverbial shoes of someone else.  There, but for the grace of God, go I.  Whenever I see someone in a bad way, I think, "That could be me, but it's not.  There, but for the grace of God, go I."
            I probably would have continued to unthinkingly use this expression had I not listened to the WorkingPreacher podcast this past week.  In their discussion of this passage from Luke, one of the commentators pointed out that saying those familiar words is just a nicer sounding way of expressing what the Pharisee expresses in his prayer.  "Thank you God that I am not a sinner like that tax collector over there." 
            What would you think if I were to stand in the pulpit and call us to prayer saying, "Dear God, thank you.  Thank you that we are not like the creepy losers outside these doors.  Thank you that we aren't like those people who sleep in on Sunday mornings instead of getting up and going to church.  Thank you that we aren't like those people who enjoy reading the Sunday paper more than they do your Word.  Thank you that we know that being in your house is more important than being at brunch.  Thank you, God, thank you that we are not like them."   
            You'd be appalled wouldn't you?  As well you should.  But what could I get away with if I stood here and prayed, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." 
            You see the problem is that however I express it, I pray not out of humility but out of self-righteousness.  That's what Jesus is getting at in this parable, isn't he?  He tells it in response to people who exalt themselves and look at others with contempt.  So right from the start, we know we do not want to be like the Pharisee.  His words ring with false piety.  "Thank you God that I am not like the bad people all around me.  Thank you that I am not a thief or a cheat.  Look at me, God.  I'm so good.  I do all the right things.  I keep the Law; in fact I go above and beyond what I'm required to do to keep the Law.  Yay me!" 
            No, we want to be like the tax collector who beats his chest and simply prays.  "God, I am a sinner.  I am a sinner and I know it.  Have mercy on me.  I am a sinner." 
            Forget the Pharisee.  I know I'm more like the tax collector.  I know I'm a sinner, and I'm not afraid to admit it.  I know that I need to turn to God for grace and mercy.  I'm not self-righteous like that Pharisee.  I know I could be like the Pharisee, but thankfully I am not!  There, but for the grace of God, go I. 
            Oh no. 
            Professor David Lose describes this parable as being so clear and to the point, that we miss the trap that it sets for us.  None of us want to be like the self-righteous Pharisee, proclaiming his goodness, his faithfulness.  We want to be like the tax collector; willing to admit our sinfulness, asking only that God have mercy on us.  As Jesus says, the exalted will be humbled and the humbled will be exalted.  I want to be one of the humbled that gets exalted in the great reversal that Luke emphasizes again and again.  But here's the reality that we often miss.  It is just as easy to be self-righteous in our sinfulness as it is in our goodness.  Think about that.  It is just as easy to be self-righteous in our sinfulness as it is in our goodness. 
            I am a sinner and I know it!  But thank you, God, that I am not like those other people who are so smug and self-righteous and they dont it.  There, but for the grace of God, go I.
            Kind of puts a different slant on it, doesnt it?  Either way we choose, we can become self-righteous and self-important.  So maybe, just maybe, what we really need to consider in this passage is not which one we're like -- the Pharisee or the tax collector.  Maybe the real point of the parable is that it's not about us at all.  Isn't that where we run into trouble?  When we think it's about us?  It's not about us.  It's not about us being good or being sinful.  It's about God.  Perhaps what Jesus was trying to make the people understand is that God is the real subject.  It's about what God does, how God acts in the world, the mercy God shows to all of God’s children, the exalting or the humbling at God's hand.  It's about God.
            Isn't that at the heart of the Reformation?  This is Reformation Sunday, the day when denominations still willing to claim Martin Luther and John Calvin and so many others as our spiritual ancestors remember how we came to be. 
            Think about what we know about Martin Luther.  While traveling he was caught in a terrible storm, and he promised God that if he survived he would dedicate his life to God.  He survived and he kept his promise.  Luther became a monk.  He was called upon to teach and to preach, to preside over the sacraments.  Yet he felt so completely unworthy that he tortured himself over his salvation.  There was nothing he could do to earn it.  He could never be good enough to merit salvation or justification by God.  He was conflicted, to say the least, and he began to see the Church, his church with new eyes.  He traveled to Rome, the great holy city, and saw firsthand how the indulgences that the church sold exploited the poor and the powerless.  Buying an indulgence meant that you brought a loved one a little closer to leaving purgatory and entering into God's heaven; the more indulgences you bought, the more out of purgatory your loved one traveled.
            Luther, studying the book of Romans, began to realize that it wasn't about him.  It wasn't about what he could do or couldn't do.  It wasn't about his own righteousness.  It was about God. 
            John Calvin, although he came to his own conversion and covenant with God differently, believed that every aspect of our lives must be about honoring God.   God was the subject of every facet of our lives.  God was the author of every facet of our lives.  Therefore how could we not put God first?  When he answered the call to go to Geneva and lead the people in that place that was his intent.  Geneva would be a truly reformed city.  Geneva would be the city that understood it’s about God.  Every aspect of life there would be about putting God first.  It should have been great, but Calvin was run out of Geneva on a rail.  But he was asked to come back, and the second time around went much better than the first. 
            I'm not making the claim that these two men or any of the other reformers, and there were many, were perfect.  I know that in spite of their best intentions, they still fell into the trap of thinking it was about them.  But what the reformers recognized was that it wasn’t just individuals who forgot that it’s about God, the Church had forgotten as well.  Just like that Pharisee forgot that it was about God.  Just like we forget that it is about God.
            While we talk about the Protestant Reformation as an historical event, it seems to me that what being a church in the reformed tradition really means is that we understand that we are never done with reforming or being reformed.  That is our motto, "Reformed, always reforming."  We are never done with the need for reformation, because it's just so easy to make everything about us.  But it's not about us.  It's about God. 
            It's about God; a Creator who pulled and pulls good out of bad, life out of chaos.  It's about God; not just some far off being who watches us from a detached position somewhere out there.  It's about God who Loves, who became incarnate, who became one of us to make manifest that Love.  The Love of God had flesh and bone, eyes, hands, heart.  It's about God, who is still with us, showing up in unlikely places and in unlikely people, blowing new life into what think is dead.  It's about God who is in every act of kindness, in every act of mercy, in every act of grace and forgiveness.  It's about God who calls us to be the body of Christ in the world; to be the hands and feet and heart in a world that is still so broken, because it's not about us.  It's about God.  It’s about God.  May we be truly humbled in our knowledge of that glorious, wonderful, amazing good news!  It’s about God.  Let all God's children say, "Alleluia!  Amen."

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Question of Comfort

"What's your comfort music?"  

That's the question my friend Brent Stoker asked me as we sat chatting over coffee on my recent trip to my hometown, Nashville.  It seemed appropriate to talk about music in Music City.  Brent is a talented musician and artist from a family of talented musicians and artists.  Periodically he plays with another talented musician, Les Kerr.  Kerr has written a song called "Comfort Music."  You've probably already guessed that the idea behind the song is that just as some foods give us comfort, so too does music.  

So what's my comfort music?  I rattled off some artists in answer to Brent's question; Billy Joel, Elton John, Steely Dan, etc.  I hemmed and hawed most inarticulately about liking so many kinds of music, so many genres and sounds, it makes it hard for me to choose what is my comfort music and what isn't.  All this is true.  I like a lot of music.  But what makes it comfort? Brent's question has stuck with me.  I've been trying to answer it every day since I came back to Shawnee.  What is my comfort music?  

Maybe the best way to find the answer is to think about why we label something as "comfort."  Comfort food is often associated with simplicity.  Dishes like homemade mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, meatloaf, and chicken pot pie are designated as comfort foods.  These foods are hearty and warm.  They conjure images of families gathering around the table, unconcerned with calories or fat content; unburdened with the fear of preservatives, or if something is organic or gluten free.  Those foods are fine.  Sure, they're comfortable.  But it seems to me that the comfort comes not from the food necessarily but from the memories and the emotions that food evokes.  So while I like mashed potatoes just fine, they're not my comfort food.  Instead it's caramel apples.  I knew that it was officially autumn when my mother would come home with freshly picked apples and a bag of Kraft caramels and popsicle sticks.  Toffee squares -- a gooey, chocolate bar with a brown sugar crust -- is  a comfort food, not because they're so good (they are), but because they're one of the first things I learned to bake with my mom.  

So, what's my comfort music?  Maybe it's Joy to the World by Three Dog Night because even though I wasn't very old, I sang "Jeremiah was a bullfrog" with gusto.  Same goes for Blood, Sweat and Tears' Spinning Wheel.  "What goes up must come down."  Every year when Spring would overtake Middle Tennessee -- and Spring was/is glorious in Middle Tennessee -- a local news team would film a montage of people enjoying the weather.  They would show families in Centennial Park and teenagers playing frisbee at Percy Warner Park, and the soundtrack would be The Beatles, Here Comes the Sun.  That's comfort to me.  

Hearing Billie Jean or Beat It by Michael Jackson puts me back in my friend Heather's car, driving around after school, singing and dancing in our seats.  James Taylor's You've Got a Friend wasn't just one of my sister and brothers' favorite songs; it was the song that cemented my friendship with Jeannie when we tried singing it together at the end of our freshmen year in high school.  Hearing Billie Holiday sing Stormy Weather gives voice to my every heartache, and Aretha Franklin singing Respect reminds me that I always found the courage to get back up.  Comfort.  

Pop isn't the only comfort music I know.  The opening notes of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik bring back my days playing cello in the school orchestra, and the thrill that ran through me the first time I really heard how all the instruments worked together to make this incredible sound.  Children of the Heavenly Father is an okay hymn musically, and definitely not my favorite theologically.  But, good or bad, when I hear it I get my gramma back.  She's sitting at our piano playing through the hymnals that always resided there, singing and encouraging me to sing along.  It's all comfort.

Comfort music like comfort food helps me remember -- moments, emotions, places, people.  Thanks for asking me this question, Brent.  All this remembering has been a comfort. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Praise God

Luke 17:11-17
October 13, 2013

            My mother was a stickler on manners, especially phone manners.  If she overheard me calling a friend and asking for said friend like this, “Is Andrea there?” or “Can I talk to Andrea?” she would immediately correct me.  “May I speak to Andrea please?”  She did this as many times as it took, until I began to ask in that way without being prompted.  Manners didn’t stop with phone etiquette.    
            There were table manners.  “Take your elbows off the table.”  “Chew with your mouth closed.”  “Were you raised in a barn?”
            There were the manners that went with sharing.  If I pulled out a stick of gum in front of my friends, I better have enough to share.  It was impolite to have something and not offer some to the others around you.  Having manners meant you didn’t interrupt people when they were talking, unless it was an absolute emergency.  Manners meant speaking politely in response to someone when you were spoken to.
            Of course there were the basics; “Please.”  “Thank you.”  “You’re welcome.”  “Excuse me.”  These were the “magic words.”  Whenever I would ask for someone or receive something, I was asked, “What’s the magic word?”  Please may I have that cookie?  Thank you for giving me a ride. 
            And if we didn’t mind our manners, we heard about it; not just from my parents.  Other adults were not shy about reminding my friends and me to mind our manners. 
            I hated the constant reminders to “mind my manners” when I was a kid.  Hated.  It.  I made a solemn vow never to put my own children through the same.  Then I actually had children.  Becoming a parent made me realize how important it is to teach my own children manners.  So, as my mother did to me, I drill manners into them.  I have since they were little.  I do it because good manners go a long way.
            This isn’t because I want to be the etiquette police.  I don’t push manners just to conform to some expected social convention.  Teaching manners is my way of teaching them to be gracious; to be respectful.  I want them to know that they have the power to turn an awkward situation into a joyful one.  They have the ability to transform a moment just by saying “thank you.”
            “Thank you” is the critical phrase in this passage from Luke’s gospel.  Two words, but they make a world of difference.  Jesus encounters ten lepers, heals them of their leprosy and out of those ten only one turns around and says “thank you” to Jesus for his healing.
            This isn’t the first time in Luke’s gospel or in any of the other three that Jesus meets lepers, but the idea of giving thanks to Jesus for healing is unique to this particular passage.  There doesn’t seem to be any other passage in any of the gospels where Jesus encourages the people he heals to turn around and say “thank you.”  I doubt Jesus healed someone, and then prompted that person with “what are the magic words?”  But in this instance, Jesus singles out the Samaritan leper because the Samaritan turned around and gave thanks.
            As I said, Jesus has met lepers before in other situations.  Lepers were some of the leading outcasts of this particular culture.  Not only was leprosy – and there were many different kinds of leprosy – considered to be a physical ailment, but it was also thought to be a spiritual misfortune as well.  Like other illnesses, it was considered to be a spiritual punishment brought on by the disregarding of the Law by the leper’s parents or an infraction or sin on the part of the leper himself.
            Lepers created their own colonies because they were forced to live outside of the main community.  When clean people approached their “space,” lepers were required to call out “unclean, unclean!”  This warned people to keep their distance.  Yet in spite of their uncleanness, they would sit near major traffic ways and beg for charity as a means to survive.
            It was probably not unusual to find this number of lepers together.  They may have been a colony unto themselves or just a small part of a larger one.  And although in normal circumstances Jews and Samaritans would never have associated with one another, their leprosy must have served as the great equalizer.  They were all unclean; what did it matter what religion or ethnicity they were?  But when these lepers see Jesus traveling in the distance, coming closer and closer their cry of “unclean, unclean” becomes a plea for help and healing.  “Jesus, Master!  Have mercy on us.”
            Jesus sees them and without hesitation sends them to the priest.  When a leper was healed and cleansed of leprosy, a visit to the priest was required.  The priest then declared the leper clean and able to return to the larger community.  The ten obediently respond to Jesus’ command and make their way to find the religious leader.  While on their way they are healed.  One, a Samaritan, happens to notice that his skin, his flesh has been made clean.  He immediately turns back to Jesus and begins praising God with a loud voice.  He prostrates himself before Jesus’ feet and thanks him.
            When the man does this, Jesus asks, “Didn’t I heal ten lepers, and only one came back?  What happened to the other nine? Only this foreigner saw fit to praise God and give thanks.”
            Only this foreigner.  The one leper who turned back to Jesus had a double whammy against him.  He was a leper, therefore an outcast.  He was a Samaritan, therefore an outcast.  In Jewish society, he was unwelcome either way.  But it was the foreigner who turned around and cried out his praise and thanks.  It was the alien in the land, the Samaritan, who showed an attitude of gratitude.  He was the only one who came back.  And the result of this was not only was he cleansed of his leprosy, but Jesus also blessed his faith.  The Greek verb translated here as made well can and has been translated as to be saved.  Jesus healed ten lepers and saved this one foreigner. 
            Throughout the gospel of Luke we’ve had one point driven home time and time again.  Jesus came for the Jews, the chosen ones.  He came as Emmanuel – God with us.  Jesus was a Jew and a good one at that.  He knew the Law of Moses backward and forward. 
            Jesus respected and loved the Law, but he also understood that the underlying motivation of the Law was not to hold people down to picayune details.  It was to set them free in love to love.  The bottom line of the Law was love, and Jesus acted on that love in every aspect of his life and ministry.  It got him into loads of trouble.  But what really angered and shocked so many people was not that he acted in love toward others.   Nor was it that he put compassion for the person over and above the rules of the Law.  People were angered by the different “who’s” Jesus loved.  Showing compassion and love to the good, upright Jews was fine.  But Jesus showed compassion not only to good Jews, but to disreputable Jews and non-Jews.  He showed compassion to the outcasts.  He loved the sinners.  He ate with the tax collectors and the lowly.  He healed the lepers and reached out to the foreigners and generally loved the most unlovable people of that time.  Jesus showed them through his words and his deeds that he was God’s love living on earth, and that God’s love was a gift for all people, not just one particular group.
            But if you were part of that particular chosen group, the ones for whom Jesus came; this supposed gift of God in Jesus must have challenged every belief and idea and preconceived notion you had about God, the coming Messiah and yourself.  It challenges us, doesn’t it?  It probably doesn’t offend many of us today to realize that God loves the outcasts of our society, the homeless, the poor, the sick and the lonely.  We do our best to love them too.  But I know that I run into people every day who I find exceptionally hard to love.  Truth be told, I really don’t want to love them.  In fact, I often rebel against it.
            I heard a story once about Martin Luther.  I don’t know if its legend or fact, but supposedly when Luther was faced with someone he really disliked, he used to pray saying, “God, I know I’m supposed to love all people, but if you want me to love this person, you’re going to have to turn my heart, because I can’t do it myself.”
            I could probably make a list of people and groups for whom I need to pray this prayer.  And as I’ve said before, I can well imagine there are many people who are praying this in reference to me. 
            But it is this foreigner, the Samaritan, the social outcast who receives the full blessing from Jesus that day.  Preacher and scholar Fred Craddock writes that this “story anticipates what is yet to come in Acts: a growing blindness in Israel, a receptivity among Gentiles.  Why was this the case?  Israel’s special place in God’s plan for the world had turned in upon itself, duty had become privilege, and frequent favors had settled into blinding familiarity.”
            Isn’t it the foreigner among us, the stranger, who has the power to make what was familiar and routine new again?  Maybe it is those strangers, those people I find so hard to love who can make me notice the blessings of God that I take for granted.  Maybe it is the stranger, the one who disturbs my complacency and disrupts my comfort, who can make me see the ways God continues to actively work in my life.  Maybe it is the stranger I struggle so to love who will be the one to vividly remind me that my cursory “thanks God” if and when I remember is not enough.  In this passage Jesus heals ten lepers and saves one.  And that one, that stranger, was so grateful for his healing that he prostrated himself before Jesus giving thanks and praise in a loud voice.
            Maybe we in the mainstream, the regular attendees, the ones on the inside of the church walls, the ones who sometimes glibly declare our faith, need to spend some time bent low before the Lord – like this stranger did.  Maybe we need to spend more time just praising God.  In last week’s sermon, I talked about the idea that discipleship is doing what is necessary and right without need for a reward.  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a great need to praise God, to give thanks, to show our gratitude for the blessings we know are in abundance.  Maybe we need to take a lesson from this outcast, leprous Samaritan and offer our thanks to God in a loud voice, recognizing with our whole hearts and minds that we have been healed – and saved.  Let us be like that leper, that Samaritan and praise God.  Let all God’s children say in a loud voice, “Praise God!”  “Alleluia!”  “Amen.”

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Story of Peace

Micah 4:1-3
October 11, 2013/Indian Nations Presbytery Meeting

            I did one tour of duty in summer camp when I was a kid. While most of my experience at camp was okay – I made some friends and found out I had a talent for beating boys at tetherball – it was the end of the week that made me realize summer camp was not for me.  At the end of the week the whole camp went on a camping trip.  It was supposedly the exclamation point at the end of our week.  We left the safety of our cabins and the camp grounds and went to a remote spot deep in the woods.  There we set up tents and unrolled sleeping bags.  We gathered firewood and added it to the growing flames of the campfire.  We roasted hot dogs and marshmallows. 
When darkness fell, we huddled together to hear ghost stories.  Most weren’t so scary, but then one of our counselors leaned in and began to speak in a fearful whisper.  Something happened to him at the beginning of that summer.  It happened in the very spot where we were camping.  He decided to go camping by himself.  Everything went fine until it got dark.  He went into his tent and fell asleep almost instantly.  But an hour or two later he was startled awake by a strange noise outside the tent.  Something was out there.  It growled an unnatural growl.  The shadow that circled his tent was unlike any animal that might have lived in those Tennessee woods.  Finally it stopped its pacing.  He prayed that whatever it was had crept back into the night, but then the silence was shattered with a blood-curdling scream and the creature ripped through the back wall of the tent, missing his head by mere inches.  The last thing he saw before he ran were five long, sharp, pointed claws reaching for him. 
Feeling the heat of the beast’s breath at his heels, he fled to his truck, locked himself inside, crouched low on the seat, and waited in terror while the creature rammed and clawed and scraped against the truck, trying to reach him.  When the first light of morning appeared in the east, whatever it was disappeared as quickly as it appeared.  Cautiously my counselor climbed out of his truck.  There were no tracks, no sign that this horrible creature had been there at all, except for one long, sharp, pointed claw driven deep into the truck’s door. 
No one sitting around that fire dared to breathe.  The only sound was the rapid thumping of our hearts against the walls of our chests.  Until the counselor whipped out what and enormous claw, screaming, ‘This is it!”  After the screaming stopped, it was time for bed.   While the other kids went to their tents laughing at this great story, and drifted peacefully to sleep with the sounds of the woods as a lullaby, I spent the night like this…body stiff, eyes wide open with fear.
My childhood was rich in stories, and thankfully most of them weren’t scary ones.  My earliest memories are of me sitting on my dad’s lap in a rocking chair, while he read to me.  Bedtime without a bedtime story was not an option.  Stories were told around the dinner table, and in the living room and on car trips.  My grandmother was a born storyteller.  From her I learned the stories of our family.  But some of the best stories were the ones I heard in Sunday school.  David and Goliath.  Jonah and the Whale.  Saul seeking out the witch to summon the ghost of Samuel.  That’s a ghost story! Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus.  Zacchaeus, too short to see above the crowd, so he climbed a sycamore tree so he could catch a glimpse of Jesus. 
I loved, love, all of these stories.  Isn’t that what the Bible is?  Story.  When I call scripture story, I don’t mean to imply that it’s fiction.  But it is the story of God.  It is the story of God and God’s people.  It is the story of God creating and acting in the world.  It is the story of loving his children, despairing of his children, teaching them, punishing them, forgiving them, loving them, becoming one of them because God loved them so much.  It is the story of God working through some pretty imperfect folks, some of whom did despicable things, in order for God’s purposes to continue.  It is a story that pulls us in, speaks to us, has meaning for us and gives us meaning, because we can see ourselves in these stories.  These stories aren’t just about people who lived a long, long time ago.  They are about us.  That’s why they comfort and disturb us, unsettle and console us.  The Bible, the story of God, is also our story.  Even those texts that don’t read like story still work to make up the larger narrative. 
We come to one of those texts in the prophet Micah.  Although some of my favorite verses in scripture come from this prophet, Micah does not bring words of sweetness and light to God’s people.  He pronounces judgment on Samaria, on Judah.  He calls for social justice and warns those who oppress and exploit.  He denounces rulers and prophets alike, who survive at the expense of the people they serve.  But in the midst of these words of decay and despair and destruction, we have these words of hope, “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills.  Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’”
Even as he prophesies warning, Micah also tells the people that the story of God goes on.  The story of God does not end here.  The story of God does not end in destruction.  There are days to come when people of every nation will stream to God’s mountain and beckon one another to come and listen and learn.  They will be taught God’s ways.  The word of the Lord will echo outward from Jerusalem.  They will study peace, not war.  And the sounds they will hear will not be of swords and spears clashing in battle, but of metal against metal, swords being beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. 
         As we leave the season set aside by our denomination as peacemaking, Micah’s words remind us that the study of peace cannot and should not be confined to a season.  One glance through the day’s news is enough to know that peacemaking is not an option but a necessity.  God’s story, what we read in Micah and in every book and every chapter and in every verse, is a story of peace and justice and love, and we are a part of its telling.  God’s story is our story.  So right now, let us begin to make our way to God’s mountain. 
Right now, let us beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks,
swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks,
swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. 
And may none of us, not our children nor their children nor their children learn war anymore.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”