Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What are You Getting for Lent?

So, what are you getting for Lent? That’s kind of a weird question, isn’t it? Normally we think of giving something up for Lent. You might even think of that as a Roman Catholic thing to do. Certainly it comes from their tradition and history, which is also our tradition and history. Some protestants may think that it is somewhat of a “works righteousness” kind of thing to do. Or maybe it is, like in the movie Chocolat, an unreasonable measure of control that isn’t really connected with kindness or compassion.

All of these things may be true, but they aren’t the whole story. First off, giving up something for Lent is a way that we can participate in something as the church catholic – meaning all who follow Jesus. And while some may think of giving things up as earning bonus points or sky miles, it can also be understood as a type of Spring Cleaning for your soul.

The word Lent has origins in Old English that simply named the season that we call Spring. Thinking of the word Lent as a synonym of Spring has changed my entire outlook on both of these seasons – for they really are one and the same. Typically, I think of Lent as that dreary time before Easter. It feels liturgically burdensome. I mean really, 40 days of recognizing my face in the mirror as though I were looking at a wanted poster? No thanks.

Spring, on the other hand, is when the sap starts flowing and the water is high! The bees are buzzing and the world begins to sing again with new life [unless you are still snowed in]. Of course the church set up a schedule years ago such that Lent and Spring do not always coincide, but I’m not going to worry about that today.

Lent is here, and Spring is coming! I know because I spent hours in my back yard yesterday, and there are still so many weeds that you would never know. Those weeds – they are a constant reminder to me of the need for maintenance. And so Spring brings with it a need to clean out the weeds and make space for new life. Likewise, Lent is a call to repentance. It is a call to turn from self-centeredness and toward a new and deeper devotion to God.

And that’s what makes me ask the question, what are you getting for Lent? Our maybe I should say, what is that you stand to inherit? Is your life a cluttered garden with weeds from the past choking out new life? Are you reaping what you have sown? Are you all alone in your consequence or reward, or are you a part of something beyond yourself that you may or may not even understand?

According to our readings today, we are not simply set to receive an inheritance. In fact we are part of the inheritance that God promised to Abraham so long ago. Think of it. You were thought of by God as a shining star in Abraham’s night sky. Like the stars, your light may have gone out by the time it reaches someone else who is set to inherit your faith many years from now. At least, that’s what I’ve heard about stars.

Either way, the inheritance we are set to receive is that we are included in the covenant that God made to Abraham. And this covenant was about protection. It was about inclusion. It was about a God that was not bound by a region or selected by a king. It was about this God choosing a people in order to demonstrate sovereignty and power and salvation. And so Lent is a time to remember that our inheritance is salvation, and that it comes from no source but God alone.

That may sound elementary – or even overly convenient – but the expectation that salvation is real and that it comes from God is an essential building block of our faith. If you’ve ever put together a Lego kit, especially one of the themed play sets, then you know that missing a step early on can make the whole thing a hot mess. And so it is with you and me.

We live in a culture of competing agendas and loyalties. We receive messages from birth about our bodies and the things we put in them and on them. We watch programs and share news feeds that expose the most self-centered among us as the most worthy of our time. But their God is the belly, the appetite, the hunger that creates hunger, and we love them.

Yet we are called to be more than that. In fact, we are given one another so that we can become more than our appetites, for our citizenship is not limited to a country, or a parish, or a voting district, or even a building. Our citizenship – the place that we claim and the place that claims us – is none other than the Kingdom of Heaven. And it is from Heaven that we receive salvation. It is not what we give up or what we take on that saves us.

Incidentally, Sue and I were talking the other day about the music program that she will offer for that Lenten lunch in a few weeks, and she noted that in her research on the season of Lent she found that there has been a shift in the way people discipline themselves. She found that it used to be that people focused on giving up as a way of exemplifying suffering or purging their sin. Now you are more apt to find encouragement to pick something up – like a healthy habit or a particular act of service.

I was thinking about that when I read Paul’s words about salvation from Heaven, but also when I read about Abraham asking God, “How will I know?” and then about God demanding a sacrifice. Of course we understand that – because of Jesus – God no longer needs a sacrifice. Yet I think that sometimes we still need them. The thing that interests me about Abraham’s sacrifice is that it wore him out, and in that state he received a vision and God made a covenant with him for land and offspring. And so, part of the promise of the discipline of giving things up is that it will make space for God’s vision. Likewise, in order to pick something else up, we usually have to put something down. So, whether you are picking up a new way to serve God or putting away something that keeps you from serving God, the likelihood is that it will wear you out, but it will also create the space for you to see what God is about more clearly than before.

I have to wonder if that was part of the Pharisee’s experience in our Gospel lesson. Just a chapter before Jesus was calling the Pharisees out as bad yeast and hypocrites. Yet here is one concerned for his safety from the King who beheaded John the Baptist on a whim at a party, even though he kind of liked what he had to say.

I kind of like the way that Jesus seems a little flippant. He’s righteously indignant to threats from Herod. “Look, you little fox, can’t you see that your people – who are God’s people – are suffering? I’m kind of busy. Tell you what, I’ve got to go to Jerusalem in a bit. They have a pretty low tolerance for those that challenge their authority, so that’s not going to go too well anyway. But that’s on my agenda, not yours.”

So, there are two things out of this story that I think connect with the rest of our story today. The first is that Jesus is on target with God’s mission. He’s teaching and healing now, but soon he will go to Jerusalem. And he is going there to challenge the system. He’s going there to complete God’s work of demonstrating faith, living as a sacrifice, and creating a new understanding of what it means to say, “Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord!”

Then there is that line about wanting to gather the city under the wings of God like a mother hen, if only they wanted it! But instead, their house is left to them. That’s what they get. Like Aretha Franklin in the House that Jack Built, “Listen, I got the house, I got the car. I got the rug, I got the rack. But I ain't got Jack.”

We have to be careful about limiting the grace God might extend to others, but we also need to take seriously the idea that if we try to out-fox God then all we’ll be left with is a crumbling house. So, what do we do, and what do we get out all of this Lenten preparation? What is the inheritance that we are receiving even here, and even now?

Now, I’m the last person to suggest a three step plan to spiritual fulfillment, but there are things we can do to make us more aware of what God is doing. First and foremost, we need to expect God to show up.

God is present in our daily lives, and we are particularly aware of God’s activity when we pray together, sing together, serve together, and study together. When we share our life stories and our experiences, God is with us. When we take time for personal devotion, God is with us.

And once we become more aware that God is truly with us, we can begin to make sacrifices that open up space in our lives to receive God’s vision. The more space we create, the greater the vision. And finally, I believe that God calls us to look for others who are examples of faith and practice. Not only that, but God calls us to recognize that someone else may be looking to us as examples for their faith.

Above and beyond all of this, it seems to me that what we really need to remember is that our ministry together – and our personal journeys of faith – are all a part of something so much bigger. For, as it was noted in our Presbytery meeting last Tuesday, “The church is not the generator of its own mission. The church is the result of what God is doing.”

On our way to the cross this Good Friday, let us be about the work of making sacrifices that create an open space for God’s vision. That might mean picking something up and serving God in a new way. It might mean putting something down that separates you from God. Whatever we do, let us do it as those gathered under the love of God, ever hopeful in our salvation, and ever expectant that God’s will is being fulfilled through you and me so that everyone might say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Amen.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Love Is Not to be Tested

Today is Valentine’s Day, formerly known as the feast of St. Valentine. The internets have been flooded with Valentine memes over the last few days – those silly pictures with a witty phrase. People more clever than I have turned everything from dictators to sci-fi characters into kitschy fake Valentine cards. One of my favorites is the picture of the aforementioned saint with the caption, “Rose are red, Violets are blue. I was beaten with clubs and buried in darkness [there’s actually more to the legend than that] and you commemorate my martyrdom by sending each other chocolates.”

Now, as for me and my beloved, we have never really celebrated this holiday – by mutual agreement. Primarily that’s because flowers that will soon die and trinkets that will never be worn are not the way we express our appreciation for one another. Expressions of love that are mass marketed, conveniently packaged, and socially expected just aren’t our thing. Love cannot be captured in a holiday. It cannot be purchased in a store. Love cannot be tested by its service to us. Yet love that is true and real will put us to the test.

I’m not just talking about romantic love. I’m talking about the love we read about a couple of weeks ago in Paul’s letter to Corinth. I’m talking about a love that is the greater over and above faith and hope. Love that is true is not to be tested, but it will test you.

I say that love must not be tested because testing it is to open the door to temptation. Oh how we love temptation, though. We sing about it. I bet you could each think of at least three songs right now about the positive effects of temptation. We create marketing demographics around it. We use temptation to justify our weaknesses and to elevate our worst behaviors. “I couldn’t help myself.” we say. “The temptation was just too great.” And everyone nods slyly, knowing that weakness has become the convenient justification for self-destructive habits.

Yet Paul speaks about justification of another kind – not as a means to get our way, but as a means to be accepted by God. He told the church in Rome that their belief in the resurrection of Jesus is what will justify them before God. Why? How?

Essentially he is saying that belief in the power of God to raise Jesus means believing in the power of God to save you. Whether it’s because we expect ourselves to be capable and find that we are not or because we have heard the gospel of ridicule too many times, all of us find ourselves – at some point – in need of salvation. All of us find ourselves in a position of limitation. Words fail us in the face of tragedy. Our politics ensnare us and we forget how to be a community or how to recognize our connection to others and how important it is to be compassionate.

Yet there is this hope found deep within our belief in God’s power to redeem. Believing in the resurrection of Jesus means believing in God’s power over death and suffering and human attempts to limit the hand of God. And our confession seals the deal. Our confession of a God whose grace and mercy and kindness belittles the grave and restores those who suffer is the answer to the test of love.

For love cannot be put to the test, but love will test you. Why is that – you may ask. Does God want it to be this way? My son and I were having a discussion about this question after the Ash Wednesday service. I was worried that it was too heavily focused on the terribleness of our sin, and he asked, “Did God make us this way on purpose?”

Ah, theodicy – the problem of sin and evil and a just God! Well, near as I can tell, we are made as limited creatures. Our limited time and knowledge leave us longing for more, and our experience of God’s love lets us know that there is more to life – more than we can know. It affirms that “we are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

And so it was with Jesus in the time when love tested him. One of the first things I noticed about this passage is that the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness where he would be tempted by the devil. And what does Jesus do during this time of full humanity? He makes himself vulnerable. He fasts. And so the first temptation hits where he is most vulnerable.

Is it not the same for you and me? Our strongest temptations hit us where we are most vulnerable. Yet Jesus created the open space for the attack. His vulnerability put him in a position to be able to confess that his true need would only be met by faith in God. And then the devil tried to take that away. “Look, I’ll set you up over everything that you can see. Just put your faith in me.”

It seems a silly proposition, but it makes me think. How do we seek authority? How do we claim our position and how often do we position ourselves to have authority? Where do we give our true and absolute devotion in terms of our time, our resources, and our attention? That’s not a plug for attending church programs (although that would be a start). It’s a question of worship. Who, what, and how do we truly worship? What is the center of value that organizes every action, every relationship, and every material possession? Do you have one center of value, or are there others?

Jesus states his position loud and clear – worship the Lord your God. And so the devil moves to the final test. “Fine.” he says. “If this God is a God – and if this God loves you – make God prove it.” I like to think that Jesus has a wry smile on this one. I like to think that he knows that he’s won. I like to think of him saying something like, “You can’t test love. Love is its own proof. You cannot force love to act. Love will not reach out and grab me. Love is already holding me. And love is even holding you.”

And so it is with you and with me. We are held by a love that will put us to the test. We are held by a love that allows – and even leads – us to be tempted. Let us, in this season of Lent, consider how we might become more vulnerable to the love that holds us. Let us consider how we might become more attentive to the love that truly sustains us. Let us let go of our desire to control so that we can truly worship God. Let us remember not to put God to the test, but instead to see our trials as an opportunity to confess our belief. And we believe in a love that is stronger than death. We believe in a God who will yet take our limited faith and transform it again and again into just actions and right practices.

But first, we must be put to the test. We must become vulnerable to love, and we must confess with the actions of our days that which we believe. May it be so with me. May it be so with you, and to God be the glory – now and always. Amen.

Friday, February 05, 2016

No Offense

“Have you ever noticed that when someone says, ‘no offense’ it means that they want to say something offensive.” I was reminded of that last Sunday by one of our youth. Not because she said, “No offense.” but because she made the observation about that phrase. Her comment reminded me of some other disclaimers, such as, “I’m not trying to be mean,” or “I’m just saying.” All of these are phrases that can sneak in to our vocabulary and mask the true nature of our feelings, our beliefs, and our fears.

Fear is a very real thing that we all have to manage and live with. It has been described as a monster in the closet or under the bed, and when we do not recognize how fear motivates us then we can become its prisoner. We become the monster. We lose the ability to become motivated by love.

I think that’s why scripture tells us, and characters like Jeremiah, over and over again not to fear. Of course, especially in Jeremiah’s case, God never says it will be easy. God tells the Prophet not to let his age get in the way, and we love telling this to youth. I’ve heard it all of my life, and I’ve used it too. Don’t say, “I am just a boy (or just a girl).” God has something in mind for you to do! But we forget that what God has in mind can put you in some very tight spaces. God even tells Jeremiah that God will put words in his mouth that will “pull down, destroy, and over throw,” but God will also give him words that “plant and build up.”

Now these commands were given to a particular Prophet during a particular time – so we have to be careful with how far we generalize – but it’s not unreasonable to believe that God might put words in our mouths that have the same power, even if on a smaller scale. And not only that, if we hear God’s invitation to speak – whether it is with words or actions – and we refuse to do it, we just might be the ones to be uprooted. For in verse 17 God says, “Do not break down before them or I will break you before them.”

So, how do we know what is of God and what is of our own fears? How do we know what is born even out of love, but becomes rooted in fear? How do we know what to say, and when to say it?

The answer, of course, is love – not romantic or sympathetic feelings, but truly selfless, self-giving, and “other” honoring love. And it makes us vulnerable.

In his book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

He went on to define four different words used in the original Greek text of our Bible that we have mushed into our concept of the word love. The first is “storge,” which is also empathy. It means that we feel as the other person feels. The second is “philia,” which is friendship – or maybe even kinship. The third is “eros,” which is erotic or sensual love. And the fourth is “agape,” which is love in its purest form – love that finds its meaning in the act of loving.

Agape is the type of love that Paul describes to the church in Corinth, and – while it certainly is the kind of love you need in a marriage – he was not talking about the love between two life partners. He was talking about the kind of love between a people who follow in the way of Jesus.

These people – this church in Corinth – needed to know that none of their accomplishments mattered unless they were done in love. And love that is truly of God was only realized in conflict, or in the absence of certain needs. Why else would he need to tell them:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

Love – real self-giving, agape love – never ends because it is of God! Its end is its beginning, and it is the basis for everything that can be and all that remains through time and history. Love is about essential things that benefit all of God’s creation. Love echoes in the trees and it finds its fullness in you and me as agents of the one true God. Love can disturb us. It can dismantle things that we hold sacred, and it usually puts us at risk even as it offers us our salvation together.

I think the risk factor of loving is what Jesus had in mind in the synagogue when he reminded the crowd that God had a nasty habit of loving people who were outside of the covenant. The first was a widow who sheltered Elijah. The next was a Syrian General – quite literally a mortal enemy. If not to acknowledge the risk of loving, why else would he have said such things to his elders? It would be as though a child that grew up in this church stepped forward and said that we were no longer acting like a people of God. The words of Jesus seem rude and harsh – even unloving. In fact, his words were so insulting that they moved the crowd from praising him to wanting to kill him! Sound familiar? But it was not time for that – not yet. This story happens at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, and so it acts as a kind of mission statement for Jesus.

It’s his way of saying, “Look. This is what I am here for. I am here to show you what salvation looks like. I am here to demonstrate that it is not all about you, and I am here to teach you that loving as God loves is not an exclusive practice. I am here to offer you salvation from your own limitations, and salvation does not look like you think it does. It does not look like fairness. It looks like release from suffering, and it looks like suffering for and with others.”

It looks like agape. But how do we do it? We can’t just let the streets be filled with violent criminals, but we can take prison reform more seriously. We can look at institutional practices that create a self fulfilling prophecy between homelessness and incarceration. We can look at our school systems and ask serious questions of our legislature about spending. We can look at our community and finally start wrestling with the question of who is our neighbor and how do we target a mission field in a way that encourages and inspires faith and breaks down the barriers between them and us. We can start to think less about being a physical asset on the corner of University and Johnston and more about becoming a mission outpost in a world that is constantly changing and yet consistently crying out for salvation. We can do all of these things – and more – and we will, with God’s help.

I can say this with confidence – not just because we’ve done it before, but because I believe in a God who acts in us and through us when we open ourselves up to God’s self giving love. And how can we do that? A member of Session offered me some wisdom the other day that I think interprets the Gospel pretty well. Like the example given by Jesus, it  from outside of our tradition. Many have attributed these to of an Indian Mystic from the early 20th Century named Sai Baba. [Further study reveals that this might have entered the public realm though through a poem called "Three Gates" written in 1835 by Beth Day and said to be "after the Arabian"]

Her words of wisdom were that before speaking or acting, we consider whether or not our words or actions are kind, necessary, and true. And lastly – and I would say essentially – do they improve upon the silence? Is it kind? Is there any compassion in your words or deeds? Are they self-serving or do they benefit the greater good? Is it necessary? Does what you feel compelled to do or say have to be said or done in order to effect change, protect the innocent, or create space for justice and restoration? Is it true? Does what you have to say reveal the truth or simply your perspective? Does what you have to say or do improve on the silence that would be there without your interruption?

For even if we move mountains and build great cities, we still need clean water. If we do not have love in our hearts for everyone and everything, then we are just noise and static. And love is risky. But the reward is worth it. For it is in faith, hope, and love that we abide – but the greatest of these is love. Amen.