Friday, July 31, 2015

Taller Fences

How tall should the fences be
to shut out the people who don't look like me?

How wide a barricade,
how high the wall
that blocks the deadbeats
and their urban sprawl

What building can I build
that will keep me from seeing
the homeless, the helpless,
and those who are fleeing

homelands without homes
and tyranny unchecked,
maybe it's bad where they come from
but why should I stick out my neck

for the lazy, the useless, those
who won't try more
Get a job! Work harder!
Stop being so damn poor!

And don't throw your 
Socialist Jesus in my face
with his free handed love
and his unjust grace

the wheat from the chaff 
Jesus preached separation
the sheep segregated 
from the goat's damnation

In my America
this Christian nation
eternity is the prize
of my privatized salvation

Just how tall should the fences be
to shut out the people who are other than me?                                         

Sunday, July 26, 2015

I Am

John 6:1-21
July 26, 2015

            On a hot summer day, much like this one, my neighborhood friends and I wanted to walk to a convenience store down the street and get an Icee – that frozen, sugary delight that eased the sticky sultriness of a Nashville summer. My friend’s mother declined the request for cash saying, “I don’t have any money right now.” My friend was undeterred. She looked at her mom with great seriousness and said, “Can’t you just write a check?” You see my friends and I did not understand the concept of money. Actually, that’s not entirely true. We completely got the concept of having it. What we didn’t understand was not having it. That isn’t to say that our parents were loaded; they weren’t. But we couldn’t grasp the fact that sometimes when we asked for money to buy something or do something or go somewhere, they didn’t have the available change at that particular moment. We just figured that the money was there when we needed it. I don’t want to make it sound like our parents just doled out dollar bills whenever we demanded them. We all had chores to do, and I received an allowance that was supposed to cover things like Icee’s. But our parents were a source of many things – love, support, discipline … and cash.
            As a child I approached the concept of money from a point of abundance. I assumed my parents had an abundance of it; whether they did or didn’t. But those childish ways are long gone. As an adult, my departure point for thinking about money is not abundance, but scarcity. Now I look at money from what I don’t have, not from what I do. When my kids ask for something, they usually preface their request with, “When you get your next paycheck …” I approach my life from a point of scarcity.
            Don’t get me wrong, I know that having a budget and living within your means is a necessity. I wish I had learned some of the financial lessons I’ve grasped in these last few years a long, long time ago. But the problem with the scarcity approach is that it is often based on perception, rather than reality. Even when there’s too much month at the end of the money, we aren’t going to starve. We still have enough. But scarcity is driven by fear. Fear narrows a person. What I mean by that is that fear makes one close-fisted, and even worse, close-hearted. Fear of scarcity makes me less generous, not just of my finances but of my spirit.
            There is a fear of scarcity in our passage from John’s gospel. A large and growing crowd has been following Jesus. As John puts it, “they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.” Jesus takes the disciples up a high mountain and when he sees the crowd approaching, he asks Philip what they’re going to do about feeding all these people. In an aside, John tells us that this is a test. Jesus knew what he was going to do already.
            Philip answers out of scarcity. Even if we had six months wages, we couldn’t feed all these people. There is no way we could ever have enough. Andrew speaks up and tells Jesus about a boy who has a couple of fish and fives loaves of barley bread. But after telling Jesus this, he also points out the scarcity of the situation. What are five loaves of bread and two fish in the face of so many people?
            Instead of giving them an answer about what he’s going to do, Jesus just tells them to make the people sit down. Jesus takes the loaves, gives thanks for them, and distributes them to the people. He does the same thing with the fish. After all those present had eaten their fill, he tells the disciples to gather up the leftovers in baskets. The leftover bread filled twelve baskets. 5,000 people were fed from two fish and five loaves of bread.
            What the heck just happened?
            What happened indeed? The people saw this sign and declared that Jesus was the prophet who was to come into the world. It’s not a surprise that their next move was to try and make Jesus king. Chronic hunger was an issue then just as it is now. Anyone who could feed that many people with so little food could ensure that hunger would be eliminated. But Jesus realized that they were going to use force if necessary to make him king, so he went away by himself. Our lesson ends with the disciples going by boat to Capernaum. Jesus was not with them when they departed. Yet in the dark of night, as the sea was becoming rough and stormy, they look out to see Jesus walking on the water toward them. This terrifies them, but Jesus says to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Although his words are translated as, “It is I,” this is essentially the Greek version of the Hebrew we read in the book of Exodus. From the burning bush, God replies to Moses’ question about God’s identity with the words, “I Am.” Jesus responds to the disciples fear with, “I Am.”
            We read these stories in the other gospels, but John conflates them into one continuous event. Why? As I understand it, John is not trying to highlight the miraculous in these stories. Yes, we can consider them miracles. But the word miracle is not used in John’s gospel. Jesus is not performing miracles. He is offering signs. Miracles seem to point to themselves, but signs point to something else. Jesus performs signs and those signs point to his identity. He is the I Am. For the next four weeks, we will be unpacking the rest of this chapter, because John devotes this entire chapter to illuminating exactly what Jesus identity as the I Am means. His multiplying of these fish and this bread is the sign he gives of how this food may satisfy their physical hunger, yet he is the real bread necessary for life.
            But even as this signs point to Jesus’ true identity as the I Am, it is also about the abundance Jesus gives in the physical, the here and now. There is an abundance of bread leftover. There is even an abundance of grass. That’s a rather overlooked detail in this text. John makes a point of writing that there was plenty of grass for the people to sit on. In an arid climate such as this one, grass was scarce. Grass in any amount was probably not something taken for granted. But in the presence of Jesus the grass grew in abundance. When it came to feeding the people, the disciples saw only scarcity. When it came to sitting down to eat, I imagine the folks gathered assumed that there would be a scarcity of grass as well. Even when that crowd wanted to force Jesus to be their king, it is easy to believe that they desired this because they saw food as a scarce resource in general. The people around Jesus, even the disciples, saw life through the eyes of scarcity. But Jesus gave life in abundance.
            Like the disciples, like those crowds, I see through scarcity’s lens; whether it is about my money, my time or my talents. I always believe there isn’t enough. But this story is about abundance, not scarcity. It is a real feeding of real people; however it is even more than that. It is a sign that points to abundance the people have yet to imagine.
            Are we able to imagine abundance? Are we able to conceive that God in Jesus is providing abundantly for us, not just as individuals, but as a congregation? Are we able to imagine God working abundantly in our life together? Or do we perceive only scarcity? Are we afraid there won’t be enough – whatever that enough entails? How does that fear drive us? How does that fear narrow our response to God’s call? I understand being afraid of all that lies ahead. I’m afraid too. But this is our moment to answer God’s call, not with fear but with faithfulness; not in anticipation of scarcity, but in expectation of abundance. This is our moment; this is our time, to see Jesus, to trust Jesus, to recognize that he is indeed the great I Am, and that the I Am is present in our midst. The abundance of God – God’s abundant love and grace – is right here with us. May our faith be abundant in return.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

People with Power

Mark 6:14-29
July 12, 2015

            During my internship in a church in Virginia, I worked with the youth in a variety of ways; youth group, mission work, etc. But two of young people came to me for pastoral care. They were both 18, and they were both struggling with different issues. They would come and meet with me periodically in my church office, and I would listen and do my best to guide them. One of the reasons they chose to talk with me was because they trusted me. I took that trust seriously, but I had a “great awakening” during one of these pastoral care sessions. These two teenagers, both of age, trusted me so completely that they would listen to whatever I had to say. I realized that I could ask them to do anything, short of something illegal, and they would do it. I could have convinced them to do any number of things. I had their trust, and because of that I had power. I could respect that trust or I could abuse my power over them. Let me be very clear, I chose the first option. But it was a profound moment in my becoming – really becoming – a minister when I understood that I had that power.
            A topic that was being widely discussed while I was a student was that of clergy misconduct; clergy becoming involved with their parishioners in inappropriate ways. As far as I know, this was not a subject that was taught or talked about in previous generations. But it needed to be because it was an issue in every denomination, protestant and Catholic. A term that was used over and over again was “fiduciary trust.” Fiduciary is most often associated with money or matters financial. But it is also defined as something that is “held or founded in trust or confidence.” [1] When it comes to our parishioners, ministers have a fiduciary responsibility.
            I understood the definition of the term, but it wasn’t until I was working with those two teenagers that I really grasped its full meaning and import. I got it. Whether I like it or not, feel it or not or believe it or not, as a minister I have been given a certain authority. Just stepping into the pulpit means that a certain level of authority is invested in me. I may not believe that that authority is justified, but it’s there. And with that that authority comes power.
            This authority and power combo is true in more occupations than just the ministry. Teacher and student, politician and intern, boss and employee, the list goes on. In our passage from Mark’s gospel – a hard and challenging passage – we read about a king with authority and power. This is not a good example of a king who understood the responsibility that authority and power carried. I think it is an understatement to say that Herod was a weak king. Anyone who has read Matthew’s gospel already associates Herod with brutality and cruelty after the massacre of Hebrew children in the wake of Jesus’ birth. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, to read that he had John the Baptizer beheaded to save face. Saving face is the first link in the chain of events that led to John’s death. Saving face and power gone horribly wrong.
            Jesus does not appear anywhere in this story, and as far as I know, it is the only flashback that we read in the gospels. In the preceding story, Jesus has given the twelve disciples authority to exorcise unclean spirits. He has sent them out, two-by-two, to villages to preach and heal. They do so and they report back to Jesus what they have accomplished. King Herod hears about this, “for Jesus’ name had become known.” People were guessing as to who this great teacher might be. Is it the prophet Elijah? Or is it John the baptizer back from the dead? Herod believed that it was John. We know immediately that Herod had him beheaded, but in the following flashback we discover why.
            Herod had taken Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife as his own. John refused to bite his tongue and hold back his disapproval of this marriage from Herod. I’ve always assumed from this that Philip was dead, but then why would John preach against the marriage? It was an expected custom if one brother should die, another brother would marry the widow. This was a way to protect the family name, the heirs of the family, and the woman who had little power in that situation. But if John is ticked off about this, then Philip must not be so dead after all. Herod had John arrested for his outspoken criticism about Herod’s marriage. But Herod also feared John. He kept him in prison, but would go and talk to him, listen to him. Herodias was a different matter. The text says she bore a grudge against John and wanted him dead. However she couldn’t have him killed because of Herod’s fear of him.
            Herodias got her chance to have her revenge on John when Herod threw a birthday party for himself. The word translated as “opportunity” can also be translated more literally as “a happy day.” When Herodias saw her opportunity to have John killed, it was her happy day. Her daughter – named Herodias in this version of the story, Salome in others – came into the banquet and danced for the king and his guests. She must have been a heck of a dancer, because Herod in a fit of lecherous benevolence swore to her to give her anything she wished. She ran to mom to request motherly advice, and Herodias replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” The girl told Herod her desire and added that his head should be given to her on a silver platter. Herod was the king. He had power. He had authority. He could have said, “No.” But Herod was a weak king, an abusive and brutal king, who used his power to keep his subjects in line through terror. He had also made this great promise, this solemn oath in front of all the important leaders in Galilee. If he changed his mind or went back on his vow, Herod would look like the weak and insecure king we know him to be. He had to save face. Herod saved his face, and John lost his head.
            People with power; in some people’s hands, power can be a dangerous and abusive weapon. There’s a reason for the saying that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Power creates dictators, tyrants, bullies and fools. We could make a list of people with power who abuse that power that would stretch the length of this room and beyond. Yet when power is used wisely and responsibly, good can be created as well. There are examples of people using power that way as well. It seems to me that a wise leader, a wise person, understands the seductive danger of power and acts accordingly.
            People with power can be a good or bad thing, but what about the power of God? You see that’s where our understanding of power gets upended. Power, even when it is used wisely, justly and mercifully, is power that comes from top down. But in Jesus, in the incarnation of the Word into flesh and into our lives, power comes from the bottom up. We attribute top down power to God all the time. There are plenty of examples in both the Old and New testaments of God using God’s power in exactly this way. Yet, if we take the incarnation seriously, we have to take the shift in God’s power seriously as well. God could have zapped the world back into shape, right? Wasn’t that the point of the story of Noah? God promised never to flood the world again, but couldn’t God just force every person to live the way we are commanded to live, to love the way we are commanded to love?
            God didn’t do that. Instead God became one of us. In Jesus power took on a new meaning. Power was not about forcing or coercing people to do God’s will. Power, real power, meant becoming powerless. Jesus did not come to command a great army, and whip the butts of everyone who opposed him. Jesus came as the suffering servant. Jesus walked directly to his death, and on the way he demonstrated what it meant to live in the power of God. The power of God, as I see it, is grounded in love. That is the greatest power. I may be scoffed at for saying that, but that is my unshakeable belief. Love is the greatest power. That’s why it is so hard to do, to live. But it is in love that we find God’s power. It is in living love, active, embodied love, that we find our power. People with power can lead to abuse and oppression or it can lead to care and generosity. But God’s power? God’s power leads to grace, to compassion, to life and to love. God’s power is, and as far as I am concerned, always will be the power of Love. That is our good news. That is what we are called to share and to do. That is our power, people. Love.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

[1] Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Sunday, July 5, 2015

When We Were Strangers

Deuteronomy 10:12-22
July 5, 2015

            Right after Phoebe finished fourth grade, we took a trip back East. We spent a day in New York City, and our goal for that day was to go to Ellis Island. As many times as I had visited NYC, I had never been to the historic site so I was looking forward to it. But the motivation for the trip was Phoebe.  Every fourth grader in our school district participated in a project on immigration. It was sponsored by the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah. A large part of the Vesterheim’s exhibits are about the Norwegian immigrant’s experience in America, and the museum wanted to encourage the ongoing interest in immigration and our immigration history in kids. Phoebe and her fellow fourth graders, and Zach after her, studied the history of immigration to our country. They created an immigrant identity for themselves. They kept a journal. They wrote about the kinds of items they would have brought with them. They created a final project which was then displayed at the museum. It was a big deal. Phoebe’s identity was a young girl from Ireland, and Zach was a Swedish immigrant named Oscar Frederick, the name of his great-grandfather. Needless to say, this project piqued our interest in Ellis Island.
            My gramma Trudy came through Ellis Island. Her story was a bit different than most. Her parents and two older sisters were all born in Sweden. But my Gramma was born in the United States after they immigrated. One more sister was born a few years after my grandmother. Her name was Hulda. Hulda got very sick, so my great-grandparents decided it would be better for her in Sweden. They made the journey back, but Hulda didn’t get better. She died when she was four. I imagine that Sweden and that memory became too painful for them, so they returned to the States. That’s when my gramma came through Ellis. This was during World War I, and the ship they sailed on was stopped and boarded by Germans; an event my grandmother remembered vividly to the day she died. But that’s a story for another day.
            At Ellis Island there is an archive area. For $5 you can spend 30 minutes on a computer searching for your ancestor. I decided to give it a try. I entered the potential time range and her name in the search engine, and within a matter of minutes, I found her! It was such an emotional moment for me. My gramma died three days after Phoebe was born, and seeing her name and then names of her family on the ship’s manifest made me feel connected to her in a way I hadn’t in a long time. I was proud, in that moment and now, that my family played a small role in the motto of our country: E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One.
            But I do not want to talk about immigration and its history in our country in wholly rosy terms. Many of our brothers and sisters were brought here in slave ships and were traded like animals. We should never, ever forget that. To do so is to diminish our fellow human beings, ourselves and it denies our history which is dangerous. In spite of the words on the Statue of Liberty, immigrants were not welcomed here with open arms either. Each new wave of immigrants were often seen with suspicion, treated with disdain and scorn, and reminded that they were strangers. Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Jewish immigrants of every country, were all made to feel like unwelcome strangers in a strange land.
            What I found so beautiful and moving in this passage from Deuteronomy is not only God’s commandment to the Israelites to welcome the stranger in their midst, but to remember that they were once strangers in the land of Egypt. They were strangers. They were strangers and slaves and lived in a world and culture that was hostile to their presence to say the least. They were strangers. Remember that, God tells them, when they are confronted with strangers. You were once strangers as well.
            That is easy to forget though. Perhaps this forgetfulness is a part of our human nature. I’ve been a stranger in many different places throughout my life, but I have never been a stranger in my own country. I was born here. I grew up here. Although I’ve traveled to different countries, I have never lived anywhere but my own native land. But my ancestors did. For the majority of us, our ancestors were strangers here at some point in time. It doesn’t matter if they came across on the Mayflower or the Heilig Olav, the ship my grandmother sailed on. They were strangers. While I could easily fall back on our national sentiment of immigrants coming to look for freedom in the land of opportunity, honesty compels me to say that opportunity eluded many. It still does. Welcome for the stranger was not always offered. It still isn’t.
            But even if you have lived in Shawnee your whole life and have known the same people for that same amount of time, was there ever a time when you felt like a stranger? Was there ever a time when you needed someone to welcome you, to care for you, to see you not as a stranger but as a guest? As a friend? As family? I know that I have felt like a stranger many times, but I also know that I have been made welcome in ways I never expected. I have been brought into families as if I had been born into them. I have been greeted and treated with kindness because I was a stranger, not in spite of that fact. I have been a stranger, but I have also been welcomed.
            We were all strangers once. I hope that you have had similar experiences to mine; that you were made welcome, that you were shown hospitality and kindness. The Israelites were strangers in the land of Egypt. God reminds them of this, and bases his command to welcome the stranger on that reality. You were strangers, welcome strangers. You were shown hospitality, show others hospitality. If only we could all remember that. If only we could view the stranger in our midst, not as danger, but as friend. If only we could show real welcome to others, not out of required politeness but simply because we have walked in the shoes of a stranger. We were also strangers.
            Yet God calls us to welcome the stranger, just as we have been welcomed. Not only have others welcomed us, but God welcomed us. God welcomes us. We have never been strangers to God. We have never been aliens to God. God does not know strangers, only children. God welcomes us and welcomes us back, again and again and again. When we were strangers to others, God welcomed us, loved us, called us by name. God does not know strangers. Let all of God’s children, all of us, say, “Alleluia!” Amen.
My grandmother and other children on the ship from Sweden.