Saturday, April 16, 2011

Thank You for Stealing My Bike

It is so hard to be thankful on a daily basis - especially during the season of Lent.  This is not the season for thankfulness.  It is the season for feeling undeserving, or so it seems at times.  Either way, it is a time to consider the blessings of God that we have received.  Some time ago I remember my sister challenging me to list all the things that I am thankful for.  I couldn't do it.  There was too much.  It is always easier to focus on the things we regret or that we wish were not so.

That has been a tough one in the Sasser house today.  We had a great morning celebrating Earth Day at the Lafayette Middle School.  My daughter climbed a 30' inflatable rock wall, made a candle out of bee's wax, and got to touch a preserved shark.  What will she report?  "We didn't get to go canoeing!"

As for me, I had some great time with my family today.  I had an opportunity to sit and visit with church elders who are passionate about their church.  I was able to visit with another member in the hospital and hear stories of her remarkable life.  Then I came home to find that my bike and my wife's bike were stolen.

Both were nice bikes.  Mine happened to have belonged to my locker partner from high school, who used it in his twenties to compete in triathlons before retiring it to my care for much less than its actual value.  I feel violated, angry, and concerned for the safety of my other worldly possessions.  I even feel a little guilty for letting my friend's old bike disappear.  Treva's bike was also second hand, but in good repair.  A friend fixed it up for us only weeks ago.  I had just bought her a new bike helmet for her birthday.  I'm not sure when or if they can be replaced.  We are not the kind of folks who can just go buy new bikes when we want to.

As the children began to project the feelings I expressed by talking about the bad people who stole our bikes, we realized that anger cannot have the final word.  So we talked about how sad it must be to need to steal bikes from a family.  We talked about the need to pray for the thief, and how this is one of the ways that our faith helps us to see the needs of others.  We talked about how it is easy to be faithful when things are good, but it is even more important to be faithful when they are not.

All of this led me to consider the many blessings in my life and to value them in ways that I never would have before.  I'm still angry and sad.  I will continue to regret this loss, even when I eventually get a new bike.  Yet there is a part of me that is truly thankful.  As I prepare for the palms, the passion, the memorial feast, and the empty tomb I have a profound sense of gratitude for God's providence I would not have without this theft.

So, here is a quick list of the things I am thankful for from today:
  • A wife who is my partner, friend, and colaborator against darkness
  • Conversations with elders who have a deep and abiding faith
  • Time with my children in celebration of God's creation
  • Watching my daughter climb a rock wall
  • Watching my son frollic in reckless abandon
  • Having a nice home
  • Receiving 6lbs of boiled crawfish from a friend
  • Being "friended" on facebook by someone else that I have not seen in 30 years
  • The privilege of visiting a venerated church member in the hospital
  • Knowing that I am part of a family of faith that is my church
  • Having friends and loved ones express care and concern
  • The Tagalong fairy brought me some cookies.
  • There is ice cream in the fridge.
  • The endless hugs and kisses of my children, and their deep, caring eyes
  • Someone stole my bike and forced me to think about all that is good in my life.
  • Knowing that all of the above and all that I have yet to express is because of God's providence, God's grace, and God's mercy; and that God's brilliance is so wonderful that it shines even through thieves and madmen like me.
As is said in many a funeral, even at the grave we make our song:  Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

So, wave the palms!  Shout Hosanna!  The King of Glory comes to forgive bike thieves, Pharisees, and even those who shout for us to crucify him.  May the mystery and majesty of God's grace continue to be revealed in all our lives, come what may.

Peace,
Zach

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Zombies

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana
April 10, 2011 – Lent 5 (A)
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

The valley of the dry bones is a favorite story of mine.  I can't tell you how or when I first heard the story, but I have always thought of it as an incredible image – these bones becoming people.  Modern special effects in film and media have really made it interesting, perhaps even grotesque, to imagine.  Unfortunately, those same special effects have combined with an over active imagination to produce a vision of a village of undead people, or as some would call them – Zombies!

Although I'll take the blame for telling you that I have these thoughts, I don't think it is because I am simply sick and twisted.  Zombies have been around for centuries, and they are found in the literature of almost every culture.  Western civilization, particularly in the last ten years or so, has produced an entire genre of film and literature related to the idea of the living dead.

In fact there is a tremendous amount of internet trash devoted to making parodies between Christians and Zombies, based on the idea that a Zombie is a mindless, lifelike creature driven with a singular intention – feeding on the life force of others.  Even worse, they infect those they attack.  Of course it is easy to hear that and say that the Christian Zombie critique is meant for fundamentalists who expect others to think, feel, and believe exactly as they do.  That is probably true, but I think there is something more to the Christian Zombie critique that all of us may benefit from.

Zombies in popular culture have represented anything from consumerism to class struggles and from civil war to the failure to confront injustice.  They are the demonized other that we cannot control.  They are the presence of death and the perceived absence of God.  They are even the darker side of our conscience and a reflection of the sin that abides even in forgiven Christians.  The simplest form of the Christian Zombie critique is found in Paul's letter to the church in Rome, as we received it today.  "To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace."

We are made of flesh – housed in earthly bodies.  It takes a great amount of effort not to be concerned with food, clothing, and shelter.  It takes even more effort not to be consumed by the things we consume – and that is what turns us into Zombies.  The more we do things the same way we always have done them without stopping to ask why, the more we are becoming like the living dead – moving through life but not really living.

Of course it is not just our choices that lull us into a singularly focused stupor.  The real terror of the Zombie myth is the idea that it is contagious.  There are things that are done to us that put us in a position of defense and back us into a corner.  Sometimes it is a big thing – a job loss, the death of a spouse, a fender bender that totals your car.  Sometimes it is the some total of little things.  Either way, they leave us feeling like Mary and Martha – saying, "If only you had been here, Lord.  Surely you would have done something."

There are a few things that I find particularly interesting about this part of our story.  First is that Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazerus.  Over and over the text tells us he loved them.  Jesus even weeps for them.  Yet at the same time he tells the disciples the illness is for God's glory.  They knew the road back was dangerous.  They had seen him heal long distance through his command.  Surely his decision was to do the same here.  That made the most sense.  It was also the most comfortable decision for them.  Of course that is what he meant – the powers of the earth could never touch them!  It is funny how overly confident Zombies, I mean disciples, can be some times.

Yet after two days Jesus tells them it is time to go.  Notice that it is Thomas – the one remembered only for his doubts – who accepted the command to go, even with the distinct possibility that it was a death sentence (this is very un-zombie like).  Then Jesus went to be with those he loved during their time of need, even waiting until their need was at its greatest!  And they say, "Where were you?"  And he says, "Don't you get it?  I am the life, and the resurrection." And he weeps for them.  Jesus weeps for their tears.  Jesus weeps for their lack of understanding.  Jesus weeps because they have been reduced to a flesh born sense of hope, and they are disappointed.  Then he demonstrates the hope that is born from above by calling, "Lazarus, come out!" and Lazarus emerges in the form of walking death that myth and legend hold dear – a mummified body wrapped in strips of cloth to hide the decay within. And Jesus says, "Unbind him, let him go."

Now, I have to say – as I have said before and will again – healing narratives trouble me, and resurrection narratives are the extreme version of these stories.  As an adult, the valley of the dry bones has become as much of a puzzle as it has been a comfort.  For some reason it never occurred to me as a child that the valley of the dry bones is not a real valley.  It is a vision – a metaphor.

As an adult, it troubles me to have a prophecy of restoration when the restoration did not really happen.  But then again, maybe I am expecting too much of the text.  It is funny how we tend to expect the scriptures to function literally when our needs are not getting met – a very Zombie-like quality.  Maybe the prophecy was not fulfilled with graves cracking open and dead people crawling out – but who can deny that Israel was restored?  Some may challenge their right to exist as a nation, but the ethnic and social reality of the people of Israel has never truly depended on land as much as it has on their identity as God's chosen people.  We, too, are God's chosen ones, holy and beloved.  Restoration, new life, a sense of hope and peace – that is the hope that is offered to us today, even in the midst of pain, suffering, and loss.

I know this because Martha told me so.  Not Martha from the Bible, but Martha who is my sister in Christ and a pastor of a small church.  I'm talking about Martha, whom I love and respect.  When talking with some other friends about a recent tragedy in another small church she said, "If I may be so bold as to offer my input as a pastor who has officiated four funerals in the past four weeks and just heard this morning that another is imminent - don't allow the sadness and darkness to consume you or the congregation.   Times like these allow us to feel the full effect of the power of hope in the resurrection.   I have told my congregation that the fact that they sing and praise and feast in the face of death is a bold proclamation of the sure and certain hope we have been given.  I love the liturgy used across denominations that says, "Even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!  Amen." 

So here we are – poised like a runner to come from the side of the grave and sprint toward the palms, the passion, and the cross of Christ.  Let us be sure then that we are not running like children after eggs.  Let us be sure then that we are not unwilling to look at the ugliness of the cross and the grave.  Let us be sure then that we are placing our hope, our trust, and our faith in the Spirit of God - for only then can we be transformed. Only then can the world around us be transformed.  Only then can we live as citizens in the Kingdom of God that is both here among us and yet to be realized!

You know, I caught a glimpse of it yesterday.  There were faithful members here working all day.  They were taking care of the property, handing out Easter baskets, and providing hospitality to strangers and old friends.  They worked with members of other congregations and people with no church home at all.  There were children, youth, college students, young adults, middle-aged adults, and older adults gathering in fellowship together.  There were people with differing lifestyles and political views that joined together to experience the peace of Christ's presence.  I don't think there was a Zombie within miles, and if there were they would have either been cured or repelled by the forcefulness of the love that pulsed through God's house all day yesterday.

In fact, I think if these walls could talk they would be saying, "Thank you!  Oh, thank you.  Thanks be to God!  This – this is what I was made for."  Now here's the tricky part.  A building can't talk, but you can.  The church building cannot be the only place that the Kingdom is demonstrated, or else the Kingdom is limited to our designs and architecture.  God's Kingdom, if we are to live in it, has to be demonstrated outside of this building.  Otherwise, we might as well be Zombies that are focused on matters of the flesh.

Certainly, we must come here and be drawn together in the Spirit's tether.  Certainly, we will find strength, meaning, and purpose through our common union in this place.  Certainly, God has called us, formed us, and made us so that we may explore, experience, and proclaim the goodness of God throughout all the land.  And to God be the glory, both now and always.  Amen!

Vision

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana
April 2, 2001 – Lent (A4)
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

"So, how's your ministry going?"  That's what my sister's friend, April, asked me when she found out that I had begun a career in ministry.  I was only 19 at the time and working part time with the youth of the church I grew up in.  April is a Baptist, and I took her question to be rather, well – Baptisty.  By that I mean to say that my cultural bias is that Baptists are more individualized in their expression of Spirituality.

I don't remember what I said but I remember thinking, "My ministry?  No. I don't have a ministry.  This is Christ's ministry that I am a part of.  The church has a ministry.  I could never be so bold as to claim that ministry was mine."  The funny thing is, that question has been - and remains - a central question to my understanding of who I am as an ordained minister.  Even more so, it is an essential aspect of my understanding of who I am as a Christian.

How is your ministry going?  How are you living as a child of light?  How is your very presence exposing darkness?  These are tough questions.  Quite frankly they make me want to turn the dial back so I can have a little more time of silent confession.  Sometimes scripture can do that.  In fact I had a good conversation the other day with a minister friend who was considering placing the confession after the scripture in worship because it is just so convicting at times.

But Jesus assures us that we are OK.  Rather, he assures us that through him we are OK.  If we read God's word and realize that we have been blind from birth, our blindness is not because we sinned in utero or because our parents did something horrible they have never told us about.  In fact, it is God's fault.  Yes!  God set it up this way.  The man on the side of the road was blind from birth for no reason at all, except to allow Jesus to demonstrate the character of God.  He did not even ask to be healed, but only held the position of a blind beggar awaiting charity.

I don't know about you, but God being at fault is a tough pill to swallow.  Terminal illness, blindness, and natural disasters – these are all things that have been attributed in the past to God's will.  The trouble comes when we try to square that with the concept of a just and loving God.  Then it gets even more cumbersome when we ask if anything can happen apart from God's will.  The real problem is that discerning God's intention for suffering is a dead end.

We know we suffer.  We know God is with us.  We know that God allows there to be some chaos – some free radicals, some things that are physically and spiritually out of control.  We know that God is working to make order out of chaos.  We know that Jesus was a man who demonstrated fundamentally, even elementally, God's care and concern for others.

So instead of, "Why did God make the man blind?" I think a more interesting question is, "Who is responsible for Spiritual Blindness?"  Perhaps the answer is obvious.  It is certainly easy to blame the Pharisees and the Jews when reading John's gospel.  We like to have someone to blame.  Just look at the disciples.  "That poor fellow," they said.  "Who's fault is this?"

Jesus stopped them in their tracks and said, "Mine – it's my fault."  Then he demonstrated what it is like to be in a relationship with some one who suffers.  Even worse, Jesus did it in a way that did not square with the religious authorities' concept of who God is and what God does.  You know, if anything seems to be a consistent theme in scripture it is that God's people often choose the familiar and the comfortable and miss the new thing that God is doing.

Why else was David left in the field?  Every possible candidate was assembled, yet God chose to anoint the one that everyone else overlooked.  Over and over again God seems to prefer the one outside of our expectations.  God has even done it with me, and God has even done it with you.  Paul is not kidding around when he says, "Now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light."  And although that sounds intimidating, he follows it right up with, "Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord."

We are not, cannot, and will not be perfect people – but we can try. Better still, we can trust that God will use even our weakest efforts to shine light into darkness.  I think that is why the parents were so important in this story.  They must have dealt with suspicion all their lives.  Now, finally, their son has been healed, and how do they respond but out of fear.  But even their fearful response moved the action toward the proclamation of Jesus!

So, I'll ask you again, how is your ministry?  How bright or dim is the light you project?  Paul does not say you have light in you.  He says you are light. Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind."

If I, then, find myself saying as the Pharisee, "Surely I am not blind.  Surely I have all of this figured out," or as the Disciple, "That person's suffering is not something that I am a part of," then I might very well be blind.  I know who is responsible for my spiritual blindness, and it's me.  If Jesus is willing to say what he is responsible for then so am I.  Now the question is, what am I going to do about it?  What are you going to do about it?  Jesus healed the man born blind without a request, and it ruined his life!  He got kicked out of the Synagogue and denounced by his people.  And Jesus found him, and he worshiped Jesus.

Now we, as children of light, find ourselves in multiple roles.  For we are the innocent bystanders through whom God demonstrates providence.  We are the forgiven sinners through whom God demonstrates mercy, and we are the ones called to suffer with others through whom God demonstrates grace.

I know of 300 families and at least as many children who have been waiting by the side of the road for someone to care.  This Easter they will receive baskets that will answer their question with a resounding "Yes!"  The light of their eyes will be a flood of light in the darkness all around.  Through Jesus Christ, you - the members of First Presbyterian have made this possible.

But the question remains – how is your ministry?  When you wake up tomorrow, how will you see the world?  Will you remain in darkness, or will you remember that you are light in a darkened world?  I hope that I will wake up and ask Jesus to help me see.  I hope you will too.  And to God be the glory, now and always.  Amen!