Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Harassed and Helpless

Matthew 9:35-10:23
June 18, 2017

            Harassed and helpless.
Hapless and hopeless.
Harried and hurried.
Hurting and haggard.
Heartbroken and heartsick.
The villages and the cities were filled with all of these. People pushed and pulled by life and circumstance. People sick and getting sicker. People surviving but only just. People loving their children and children loving their parents. People working hard, trying to care for their families. People trying to make it, just make it, without harming others and without bringing harm on themselves.
Keeping their heads down.
Hands to the plows.
Noses to the grindstones.
But still the world or life or existence plays by its own rules. People get sick and sicker. People are pushed and pulled. Hard work doesn’t always take care of a family. Love is not always returned.
People are harassed and helpless. Hapless and hopeless.
Harried and hurried. Hurting and haggard.
Heartbroken and heartsick.
Jesus saw this. He saw this in every village and in every city that he visited. He saw the people, harassed and helpless, and he had compassion for them. They were like sheep without a shepherd.
How many of you are feeling harassed and helpless today? How many of you are here just trying to hang on from whatever storms are buffeting you beyond these doors? I feel that way. I feel harassed and helpless. From the valleys of daily living, from personal circumstances, but even more by the circumstances of our world.
Two mass shootings this week, and I’m sure there were more that I have not seen reported. A terrible, horrific fire in London; a city which has already endured a terrorist attack along with the terrorist attack in Manchester a few weeks ago. The anguish so many are feeling over the acquittal in the Philando Castile case in St. Paul. So many people hurting. So many people angry. So many people sick and getting sicker. I cannot seem to shake this feeling of being harassed and helpless, hapless and hopeless. From city crowds to small towns, it seems as though we are sheep without a shepherd. My heart cries out, “We could use some compassion, Jesus. We could use a shepherd.”
But Jesus did not only feel compassion for the people, so harassed and helpless, so hapless and hopeless, harried and hurried. He acted on his compassion. He was God’s hands and heart and arms and feet and mouth and mind. But even the Good Shepherd could not shepherd so many. He told the disciples,
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
The disciples were his laborers. Although this took place before the Great Commission that we read last week, this is all part and parcel of what the disciples were called to do at this moment and in the future. Later on in this passage, the disciples were given specific directions to:
“As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.’”
There is much more to this passage than I am focusing on, more that should be contemplated. But for this morning, I have narrowed it to these beginning verses. Jesus called the disciples to labor, but the labor did not end with them. Each generation has called new laborers. We are descendents of those disciples, and we are inheritors of the call. I cannot claim that I have ever managed to do anything that Jesus commanded, other than proclaim the good news about the kingdom coming near. I’m not sure I’ve even done that all that well. I certainly have not cured the sick, raised the dead, cleansed the lepers or cast out demons.
Have you?
But that does not mean that we are not still called to labor, to go into that plentiful harvest. We are called as the disciples were called to shepherd the harassed and the helpless, even as we are also harassed and helpless.
Here is the funny thing about following Jesus’ call to be a laborer, to shepherd the lost sheep. When we reach out with compassion, even as we need compassion, miracles do happen. You can be dead in spirit and dead in your soul and yet your body lives on. But someone showing compassion, someone reaching out to you – another harassed and helpless person offering a hand – might give you new hope and new purpose. Isn’t that raising someone from the dead?
Every week, every day we pray for people who are sick. Sometimes they become well. Sometimes they don’t. But compassion can change a heart. It can open up the way to reconciliation. It can heal old hurts and provide a balm to wounds that run deep, or soften invisible scars.
What about those lepers? Lepers were not only diseased. They were outcast. They were segregated and separated from the community. Who are the lepers who need to be cleansed? Who are the unclean in our midst? Are they the mentally ill, the homeless, the out of work and out of luck? Are they the ones ignored by society? Is a leper the least of these that Jesus spoke of, the ones who are oppressed or forgotten? How can our compassion cleanse them? How can our compassion bring them back into community, into relationship? How can our compassion bring them home?
            And what do we do with this talk of demons? Does Jesus call us to perform exorcisms or is it more about giving people space to and permission to acknowledge and confront the demons that possess them? What possesses you? Is it anger? Envy? Fear? I may not believe in demons in the way they were believed in Jesus’ context. But I know this, depression is a demon. Anxiety is a demon. They are cruel demons that can cripple. But showing compassion, offering compassion, being compassionate can help to drive those demons out.
            At one time or another, all of us feel:
            Harassed and helpless.
            Hapless and hopeless.
Harried and hurried.
Hurting and haggard.
Heartbroken and heartsick.
We are like sheep without a shepherd. But Jesus looked at those people and he had compassion for them. He looks at us and has compassion for us. He acted on his compassion. He called the disciples to do the same.
So we are also called: to be his discples, to be his laborers, to go into a plentiful harvest, with compassion and with love.

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

Saturday, June 17, 2017

An Honest Failure

            I recently watched a TED talk given by one of my heroes, Anne Lamott. She made a statement, and I paraphrase, “Think about how crappy you’ll feel if you don’t write what tugs at your heart.”

            I don’t want to feel crappy, not about that anyway. So here is one of the many things that has been tugging at my heart. When it comes to ministry, I am a failure. No, I am not stating that to gain your sympathy or empathy or make you argue with me. I am not looking for feedback or pushback. This is not a self-deprecating, feeling sorry for myself kind of piece. Yes, I am discouraged. I am frustrated. I am tired and worn-out and weary and exhausted with the effort of trying everyday. I’m just exhausted at trying not to be a failure, when I know full well that I am.

            I’m serving on a search committee at the Synod level, and our task is to call a new executive to lead the Synod. For those of you unversed in Presbyterianism, the Synod is a mid-council. It is one of the governing bodies between a congregation and the General Assembly. Because I am on this committee, I have been reading PIFs from potential candidates. PIF’s are Professional/Pastoral Information Forms, i.e. resumes for ministry folks. The first question in the narrative section of the PIF asks the candidate to describe a time when they have felt successful or a sense of fulfillment.

            Let me tell you, these candidates seem to have no problem describing their successes. Their accomplishments and achievements are many and wonderful. Non-profits have been built. Faltering organizations have been restructured. Struggling churches have been turned around and brought back from the brink. Budgets have changed colors from red to black. Loving, well-organized teams have been created out of disparate individuals. And it would seem that the kingdom has been furthered through every action taken, every decision made.

            I’m not mocking these candidates. Their achievements are real. But when I think about how I would answer this question, I cannot come up with those same kinds of answers. In fact, I wish that there were a question that asked about our failures. I think a question like that might allow a candidate to be more honest. At least it would allow me to be more honest. When it comes to my belief that I am a failure in ministry, I am not writing this on an impulse. I have been struggling with this for a long, long time.

            To say that I am a failure in ministry does not mean that I don’t have strengths. I do. I know them. I am a good preacher. I have my down days and my off days, absolutely. Not every sermon I have ever preached has been golden, but when I am good, I am very, very good. My sermons challenge, and they make you think. Sometimes they make you feel warm and fuzzy; yet other times they might make you squirm uncomfortably in your seat. I’m okay with that. The gospel makes you squirm. It makes me squirm too.

            I am good at sitting with people who are dying. I am good with children. I am good at teaching. I am good at listening. If you are wrestling with your faith, with doubt; if you feel lost and alone in a wilderness, then talk to me, because I have felt the same way. I am good at irreverence. I am good at holding your hand and not saying anything, just being there.

            But I am not good at “growing a church.” I am not good at evangelism. I am not good at drawing in new members. I am not good at starting new programs and seeing them take off. I am not good at filling the seats at worship. I am not good at contemporary worship. I am not good at making people feel self-satisfied and content with where they are in their faith. I am not good at making faith easy. It isn’t easy. At least it isn’t easy for me. I wish it were.

I see others whose faith seems to hinge on Jesus’ words in John’s gospel about being “born again.” They seem to just know exactly what God wants of them. I realize that is in part because of their more literal reading and interpretation of scripture. I don’t interpret scripture literally. But the difference goes deeper than that. My faith does not rest on being born again. My faith turns on Jesus’ words about “the least of these.” What you do to the least of these, you do to me. How do I care for the least of these? How have I missed opportunities to care? How have I failed them? When have I remained silent in the face of injustice when it comes to the least of these instead of speaking truth to power? Faith is not easy when you take seriously Jesus’ words about the least of these.

            I am not good at proclaiming salvation, because to me faith is more about compassion now than salvation later. I am not good at preaching the hell I learned about as a kid, because I think we create our own hell on earth. I am not good at blaming God for the evils and ills we see all around us. I do not believe God allows evil to happen, we do. I am not good at telling people what they want to hear. I am not good at that. I know that not all successful pastors with large and growing churches just say what people want. It is beyond unfair of me to make that generalization. But they seem to know something I don’t. They seem to have some ability or knowledge or skill set that I lack.

            I am good at a lot of things. But the things a church needs to be successful today, the qualities in a pastor that attract others, I don’t seem to have those. I am not looking for pity or reassurance. I just needed to say it. I needed to say that when it comes to successful ministry, I have failed. I fail. Yet like Sisyphus pushing that damn boulder up the hill, I’ll keep trying. Maybe tomorrow or next week or in 2019 I’ll finally feel like I have ministry all figured out. I’ll be successful, and I won’t be a failure anymore. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Always -- Trinity Sunday

Matthew 28:16-20
June 11, 2017

            When I was in seminary, I was studying with some friends for a quiz on the gospels for our Bible survey class. We were reading through these last verses in Matthew’s gospel, because it was a sure bet that the Great Commission was going to be a question on the quiz. A fellow student said that whenever she read these last words of Jesus to the disciples, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” she just wanted to throw up her arms and cry, “Yay!!!!”
            I understand how she felt because I feel the same. Honestly, if it weren’t for those last words, I think I would dread reading the Great Commission much more than I already do. Yes, you heard me correctly. Dread.
            I guess I could try to explain that by reviewing hundreds of years of church history and examining how this passage has been used to justify colonialism, forced conversions, making them, the other, into our image. I could pounce on Jesus’ use of the word “authority,” and talk about our misuse of authoritarianism and the damage that it has done to so many people in so many places; and the damage that it still does.
            But while I think honest discussions about these topics are vital and important, that’s not where my sense of dread comes from with this passage – at least not at this moment. So often this passage has been interpreted as Jesus commanding the disciples to go out and do what is known in the sales world as “cold call.” I am the worst sales person ever when it comes to making a cold call. This is my technique.
“You wouldn’t want to buy whatever the product is that I’m selling, would you? No? I didn’t think so. Thank you and have a nice day.”
As a new pastor, I served briefly on the nominations committee for the presbytery. I was a disaster, because I felt the same dread asking people I didn’t know to serve on a committee I wasn’t sure about as I did trying to sell strangers a product.
“You wouldn’t be interested in serving on COM would you? No? Okay. Thanks.”
Cold calling for whatever purpose and in whatever circumstance is not my gift, my strength, or my forte. If the Great Commission is a call to hand out tracts door-to-door, that’s fine, but y’all go on ahead. I have to go the bathroom and I’ll catch up with you in a little while. (Psst. I won’t catch up with you. Ever.)
I realize that I am setting myself up for a very tense session meeting after worship, so let me offer another interpretation of these last verses in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus told his remaining followers to go and make more disciples in all the nations of the world. Make them through baptism in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach them to obey the commandments that he taught. And Jesus told them, before you become too overwhelmed or too daunted by this task, know this, you are not doing this alone.
“I am with you always to the end of the age.”
Some may hear this and interpret it as going door-to-door with tracts, and that is fine. That is their calling. But it seems to me that while Jesus was very specific about the necessity to make disciples, to make them in every nation and to do so through baptism and teaching, the means was not necessarily spelled out. If we want to understand how to make disciples, perhaps we need to look at how Jesus made disciples.
Yes, much to my introverted soul’s horror, he called strangers. He walked up to fishermen and said,
“Follow me.”
But he also talked to people. He healed them. He sat at table with them. He ate with outcasts and outsiders. He listened to them. He touched the untouchables and he broke the barriers between who was welcome and who was not. He even let children come to him and blessed them – something that other rabbis may not have had time for. Jesus loved people. Jesus created relationships with people. He made God’s love real and visible and tangible to the most broken and hurting. He invited any and all to sit at table with him, and he embodied the truth that love is not a limited, finite resource. The more love is given the more love grows.
Jesus was God’s living, breathing, walking, talking embodiment of love in the world.
Jesus, God’s love in the world, sent the disciples, that ragged, motley crew, out … out into the world to love others, to welcome others, to invite others to the table, to call all of God’s broken and beautiful people to hear the Good News of the gospel, to teach them, to baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
In just a few minutes, we will baptize little Bailee. This is the beginning, the first step of her journey of discipleship. When I met with her parents this week, we talked about what it means to baptize babies, and I said that one of the main reasons we do this as Presbyterians is because we believe that God’s grace works in our lives whether we realize it or not. This is true for us as babies, children, and as adults. God’s grace works in our lives whether we know it or not.
While I may not always recognize God’s grace in the moment, what I do know is that the times I have experienced God’s grace, God’s love, God’s care most profoundly is through other people. When I have felt the healing hands of Christ, it has been through the hand of someone else holding mine. When I have experienced the courage and strength of the Holy Spirit, it has been through the witness of someone else encouraging me, pushing me, and challenging me.
When we make our promises to Bailee and her parents to love and encourage them with our prayers and witness, we are also promising to try and be expressions of God’s love for Bailee in this world. We are promising to help her grow in faith, courage, hope, and love. These are no small promises. They are not lightly made. We make these promises to this beautiful and uniquely wonderful child of God so that she will grow in her own relationship with God, and also that one day she will heed these words in Matthew’s gospel to go out, to welcome others to the table, to make disciples of all nations.
But perhaps most importantly today, what we give to Bailee is the good news that we also remember and joyfully claim for ourselves; no matter what, no matter where we are called, no matter where we are sent, no matter how narrow the way or how rocky the path, Jesus the Christ is with us always to the end of the age. Jesus the Christ is with Bailee and with us always. Always. Always. Yay!

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

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

All Together -- Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-21
June 4, 2017

            “Hola.” “Mi casa es su casa.” “Mi perro es un dupa.” “Uno, dos, tres, quarto, cinco, seys.” “Cinco de Mayo.” “Corona, por favor,” “Gracias.” 
            These words and phrases are about the extent of my knowledge of Spanish. I took French in eighth grade and college. I took German in high school. I took Hebrew and Greek in seminary, but I never took Spanish. I was told that Spanish was easier to learn than other languages, but I was also told that to speak Spanish you had to be able to roll your “r’s.” I can’t do that. But thanks to Sesame Street and other friends, I can now say a few words and a couple of relatively useless phrases.
            Sadly a few words and phrases don’t help me much when I meet people whose first language is Spanish. I learned this quite vividly when we were living in New York. Our church was asked to host some Christian visitors from Costa Rica who were traveling in the United States for church related reasons. We were assured that they all spoke excellent English, so finding host families who spoke Spanish would not be necessary.
            One of the host families invited church folks over for a potluck in honor of our Costa Rican guests. We were all excited to meet them, and learn more about them and Costa Rica. Just one problem; they did not actually speak English. A few of them spoke about as many words in English as I speak in Spanish. But a woman who attended the local Methodist church was a native Spanish speaker, and she was happy to come to the potluck to help with translation.   
            That was helpful in general terms, but it didn’t make individual conversations any easier. That’s what happens at potlucks and events like it; you sit and get to know each other in smaller groups. At first it seemed that it was going to become a segregated party – English speakers with English speakers and Spanish speaker with Spanish speakers. But many of us were trying. I sat next to a young couple. The wife and I did a lot of smiling at each other. We would take a bite of food, mime yummy, appreciative gestures, and then smile some more. She knew a few words in English, and you’ve heard my Spanish. At first I didn’t think there was any chance that we’d be able to communicate. 
            It’s funny, though. The more comfortable we became with each other, the more we started to understand each other. We used some words, but we also spoke in gestures and pantomime. Eventually we were having a conversation about trying to keep up with our houses and working. We were laughing, and it became as comfortable and as familiar a conversation as any I’ve had with my oldest and dearest friends. We found that we had a common language that went beyond words. Our ability to understand one another’s language may have been limited, but we understood each other in a deeper way, in a truly human way. We were together in that moment in a way I could never have expected. It was a profound experience.
            But even this incredibly powerful moment in my life cannot compare with the moment we hear about in this most famous passage from Acts, chapter 2.The people gathered in that place hear the good news in their own languages. They hear the good news being spoken to them, translated for them, by the disciples, men they knew to be Galileans who should not have been able to speak the native tongues of Parthians and Medes and Elamites. What happened when they were there, all together, should have been impossible, yet it happened.
            What I love about this passage from Acts is that the Spirit enters that place with a bang. That is a profound understatement. The Spirit swooshes down upon them like a violent wind. That sound, that wind, filled the entire house where the disciples were staying. The sound of a violent wind has taken on a new meaning since I moved to Oklahoma, and my first response would have been to seek shelter, to hide from what was coming. If the disciples thought something like that we don’t know; before they even had time to register this awful, wonderful sound of wind and spirit filling their home, filling them, they were descended upon, literally, by tongues of fire. Those tongues of flame, forgive the pun, lit them up. Not only were they able to speak new languages, they were transformed, completely and utterly.   
            This wild happening drew the crowds gathered in Jerusalem to them. Jews from every part of the Diaspora were there, and hearing their own languages confused and puzzled them.  Along with their confusion, there were skeptics in the crowd. While some immediately believed that something wonderful and incredible and completely unexpected was happening, others dismissed the whole thing as being a drunken coincidence. The disciples weren’t filled with anything but new wine.
            Peter began his great sermon by dismissing this notion. This isn’t a drunken hoopla. This is the outpouring of the Spirit. What is happening is a fulfilling of the prophet Joel. The Spirit has been poured out on them. They are all together, and they are now able to speak in new languages and do new things. And this has all occurred because of Jesus the Christ. This has all happened because of the good news he brought, the good news he lived.
            I know that I have used this quote before, but it bears repeating. Author and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote, “That if you believe the Bible, than there is no better proof that Jesus was who he said he was than the before and after pictures of the disciples. Before Pentecost, they were dense, tired bumblers who fled at the least sign of trouble. Afterwards they were fearless leaders. They healed the sick and cast our demons. They went to jail gladly, where they sang hymns until the walls fell down. How did this transformation occur? You can read all about it in the book of Acts.”
            Jesus promised the disciples the coming of the Spirit. The last thing he told them before he ascended into heaven was to go back to Jerusalem and wait there for God’s promise to come true. They would be baptized by the Holy Spirit there, he told them. They did as they were told.  They went back to Jerusalem.  They prayed and they did not have to wait long for an answer.  On the day of Pentecost, the Jewish festival of weeks or the harvest which is set 50 days after Passover, they were all together in one place when they got a crash course in power. 
            That’s really what happened, isn’t it? They got a crash course in power. When the Holy Spirit came upon them, it came in with wind and flames and power. One commentator wrote that we should consider the noise it must have made. Think about the sounds and the sights that the disciples experienced. The coming of the Spirit on that day of Pentecost was like a special effects show. But this was a display that even Industrial Light and Sound, the company that has done special effects work for everything from Star Wars to Star Trek, could not have conceived. 
            More importantly than what this immense descending of power sounded like and looked like, is what it did. As Ms. Taylor wrote, the disciples went from being scared, anxious, unsure, and insecure men, constantly misunderstanding the good news that Jesus shared with them to men who were transformed. They preached with authority and taught with passion and expertise.  The disciples stood before huge, often hostile crowds and preached the gospel. They spoke in whatever language was necessary for them to be heard and understood. They baptized without hesitation. Evangelism flowed from them like water. They suffered whatever persecution and backlash came their way. When the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them, they were transformed. 
            When the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them, they were transformed.
            It seems that I pray all the time for transformation, for the power of the Holy Spirit to move among us, to gift us with whatever is necessary so that we can make a difference, so that we can spread the good news as individuals and as the church. But as I read this familiar passage this week, I was feeling discouraged and frustrated. Sure the Holy Spirit made a huge scene some two thousand years ago, but where is it now? I could do with hearing the sound of rushing wind that filled the disciples’ room? I could stand to see tongues of flame resting on us today? Why can’t miraculous, unbelievable things happen through us, just like it did for the disciples when they were able to speak in different languages? As much as I pray for the Holy Spirit, I’m just not always sure that the Spirit is there, that it’s moving, that it’s breathing new life into our midst. 
            But I read something in my studies that helped me reconsider the power of the Holy Spirit. Someone wrote that power can be understood in two ways. Sometimes power can be so intense that it erupts on you all at once. Think about the explosion that would happen if a match were lit to even ten gallons of gasoline. But then think about those same ten gallons of gasoline being channeled through the slow burn of a car engine. I can drive for a couple of hundred miles on those ten gallons. Power can explode among us. Or it can be channeled through us, all together.
            On that Pentecost day, the power of the Holy Spirit exploded on the disciples. It exploded in a way that brought new life, to the people who felt its power and to the church created in its wake. Today, we may not always experience that same explosive energy. But the power of the Spirit is alive and well right here, right now. It is being continually channeled through us, whether we recognize it or not. It still moves among us. It is breathing new life in our midst. We cannot control its power. The Spirit blows where it will. But I know, with renewed faith I know, that it is right here, where we are gathered all together. So come Spirit, come. Give us new life, new hope, and send us out, empowered, enlivened and enthusiastic to do God’s work in the world. 
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.