Friday, January 15, 2010

that thing

You know the classic thing - write a letter and then put it away and do not send it?

It works.

Was up restless last night with the memory of being discounted in my head. Wrote it all down and saved it on the computer.

This morning - well, I really was whining. Not worth losing sleep over, really. And not the way I want to appear to anyone, not only the person to whom I directed the missive.

So it will stay between God and me.

God knows why I was so disturbed. And God certainly helped me not make a public fool of myself. I do that often enough.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Great Expectations

The Baptism of the Lord C, January 9/10, 2010.
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 “Great Expectations”

You all know the story of the Cat in the Hat? It’s a terrible story, really, about these latch-key kids and an strange intruder with all sorts of strange ideas. The Cat’s idea of play gets wilder and wilder until the house is trashed, a mess, a horrible scene. The only sane voice is the fish – and when the fish talks to you – you know you are in trouble.

The fish reminds us that there will be a judgment, a reckoning , a taking stock of what we have been entrusted with. The children were trusted to be home alone – and now, now, Mother is coming – you can see her shoe through the window.

That was the terrible tension in the story, always for me. I always worried that the children would be caught and in trouble. Even when I knew how it ended.

It ends with Grace, because the Cat himself becomes the instrument of putting things back together.

I thought about this story, because we hear about ‘expectations’ in the Gospel lesson – we hear about the expectations that God is going to come – the Messiah is going to appear, much like Mother almost appears at the end of the Cat in the Hat.

Great Expectations – That’s what struck me when I read this story from the Gospel – the people had great expectations about John the Baptist and the coming actions of God. In their hearts they were questioning whether John was the Messiah. Interesting, they were convinced that the Messiah was coming – just not who the Messiah was or how it would happen.

So John, with all his strange behavior – living as a hermit in the wilderness, and for all his strange and harsh preaching about the judgment to come – John was in the running to be the Messiah.

That’s a great expectation, for sure. Could you be following the One, could repenting for your sins and getting baptized by John protect you from the coming wrath? John was pretty strong stuff, after all. But John the Baptizer had another role, another understanding of what he was there to do.

“I can baptize you with water – to mark your repentance – but someone else is coming, someone more powerful than I, with intentions to harvest the best – to test with fire and Spirit. “

Strong stuff. Winnowing and sifting, separating the chaff from the good grain. My husband, the old farm-boy – did you know that he grew up pushing cows around on an old-fashioned dairy farm? Ask him sometime about the old way of farming.

My husband commented that few people today would understand what winnowing was about. My research shows that winnowing the grain actually takes place inside the combine now – it is a hidden part of the process when that grain is taken into the machine and shaken.

In Jesus’ time it was a clear and obvious step in the process of getting good, clean grain. It was a necessary step, to move from the natural state of the wheat or barley – with its dried threads and covering – to first beat it – threshing or thrashing it, on a special threshing ground (the threshing floor), then throwing it up in the air for the lighter and looser waste to be blown away. It was hard, dusty and dirty – but necessary to get the good out.

That’s what John is promising – a process that will be dramatic in its rigor. Notice John is not saying this about himself – he is saying it about the One who is to come. He is saying it about the messiah of God. That one will be involved in a powerful movement with fire and wind and Holy Spirit.

It’s like the Mother coming back in the Cat in the Hat, you see – except I don’t think the Cat will magically correct everything that got messed up. The Mother will come, and that can make us anxious. John is about pointing the way to Jesus, and his vision is a difficult one.

So what is being winnowed and sifted and blow away?
Is it only the people of Israel – the people who are listening to John at the River Jordan?
Is it people in a group – some of whom will be cast out on the wind, and some who will be kept?
Or could it be that each one who comes to the water will face this process? Each one of us, could face this time of threshing, sifting, winnowing and removal of chaff?

If the Baptism of the Messiah – the one who is to come, is not just a moment in the life of a child – long ago for most of us - . If the baptism of the Messiah is really the start of our relationship with the Holy Spirit of God – then we should expect our lives to show it. Our expectations may not be about the end of the world – but we should have expectations that something will be different – in us.

John talks about a winnowing fork – a object that picks up the grain and tosses it high in the air, so that the lighter waste may blow away, and the good grain, which is heavy and meaty, falls to the ground.

Now some of you had had moments, even in the years I’ve been here, and certainly in the times before I came to work with you – when you’ve been tossed around by life. Maybe those are the times of threshing and winnowing by this Holy Spirit, the Spirit of honest love that comes to us in Baptism.

There have been times of stress and trial, times of doubt and grief, times of anxiety and times of repentance. There have been moments of hard decisions – of words that expressed our disappointments and struggles with each other – our families, loved ones, even the church.

There have also been, I’m sure, moments of joy and celebration – times when you felt you could commit to the best things in your life – to right relationships and honest work and excellent goals.

Are these the times when our chaff is blown away? Is this what John was telling us to expect?

Maybe these times, these hard times, these times of decisions, the times of celebration – are moments when the Holy Spirit – the spirit of fire and wind, the spirit of Jesus in love and in judgment – works most concretely in our lives.

I know, sometimes only when looking backwards, that the rough times, when I had the deepest struggles with other people, with myself and my dreams – is when the Holy Spirit was working in me to truly convict me of my sins, to point me in a new direction, to urge me to repair my relationship with God, and to start with a new attitude. And, in a lot of ways – that process never ends.

If the baptism of the Messiah is really the start of our relationship with the Holy Spirit of God – then we should expect our lives to show it. We are God’s children because he is our Father, and beloved of him – but like the children in the Cat in the Hat – we ought to be aware that he is also coming to ‘check us out’ – yes, to judge – and to make us more like him.

Great Expectations, indeed.
Great expectations of the Messiah – and of those who will follow that Messiah.

John’s words about the ‘One who is more powerful’ are frightening on the surface, but they are ultimately comforting, words of promise to those who trust and believe that Baptism is powerful event, an event extends to our whole lifetimes – birth and death and everything in between.

Welcome to water, fire and Spirit, says John, welcome to life, welcome to the power of the Holy Spirit in your life.

toward Sunday

I was struck by this part of the Working Preacher Blog by Roy Harrisville

John first replies to the expectations of the people by telling them that someone greater than he is coming. This message is shared by all three synoptic Gospels, but the reply concerning the threshing floor occurs only in Matthew and Luke. The Baptist mentions the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. Perhaps this is a reference to Pentecost in Acts 2. Perhaps it is a reference to Jesus' powerful life and teachings. The preacher may want to make the point that every baptism in the Lutheran church is a baptism of the Holy Spirit. That is why it is taken so seriously. It is a miracle each time it occurs.

The seriousness of baptism is made clear by the metaphor of the threshing floor. It is a discriminating rite. It is not an act that one may undergo lightly, but is linked to salvation in opposition to judgment. The Holy Spirit is not inclusive but excludes all unrighteousness and sin. Baptism is not a mere welcoming rite but a rite that signifies one's separation from evil. Any theology of judgment has fallen on hard times recently in favor of a softer and gentler message of peace and justice. But with justice comes judgment. It cannot be otherwise.

To ignore judgment leaves the preacher with no reason for preaching the gospel. It is not a matter of scaring people into heaven. It is a matter of revealing the need for salvation and why Jesus is so important. If he is only a common messiah who does what the people expect, then he is no use to us. But if, on the other hand, he is the Messiah who lays bare the pretenses and false expectations of the people and reveals their deep seated need for personal and inner transformation, then he is someone surprising and filled with ultimate and eternal meaning. For preachers to leave out the fire is to let go of the reason for the gospel and thereby cheapen the good news.

End of quote.

Now to get into the sermon in an accessible and coherent matter.

Cat in the Hat, here I come!

Friday, January 8, 2010

food for thought

Just finished a thought provoking book, The Nurture Assumption, by Judith Harris. It proposes that parents are less influential on the personality and behavior of older children and adolescents than we tend to think (the 'assumption' of the title), and peer groups have more influence. Not that parents and adults have no influence on personality, but they have less power than the culture that children and adolescents share. And that culture is often coherent with the parent's culture, so kids turn out rather like their parents. But at times the culture of children and especially adolescents can be 'contrary' to parent's values - then we have the generational war.

She wrote this more than 10 years ago, and I certainly can see the generation gap growing in the last 10 years. This concept speaks to me on so many levels.

On the personal level, our son's choice of friends, which we didn't control, didn't intervene about, does seem to have done more to shape his current malaise than our values. He just didn't accept what we were showing/speaking/living out. He admits we weren't bad parents (at least when he's calm) and that we have shown him what it means to work hard, be brave during tough times and have a good relationship/marriage. He even says he wants those things for himself, but none of his friends or their families really are strong in those elements.

Harris suggests that the culture of the peers parents/'the neighborhood' has a lot to do with shifting values over generations. I think it is one of the pieces for DS's issues. Parents who act to control their children's friends, through careful attention to their schools, etc., are fighting a hard battle, but one that may pay off.

As an occasional teacher of adolescents, I found her analysis of 'groupness' very interesting. 'Groupness' is her term for the sense that individual have when they identify themselves as a group against some other group. For teens, the major overarching definition that they are not adults. Being 'not adult' means, even when they fall into smaller groups when they get together, they first recognize (sub-consciously, probably) a pressure to remain as a 'group' against the visible adults.

Ah - confirmation class. It IS us vs. them! People in the group that see themselves as the majority, but without power (confirmation students) will always desire to resist (as a group, not as individuals) the control of the group by the minority, more-powerful adults (confirmation teachers). Even learning, and accepting the values put forth by those adults (the curriculum and the behavorial standards) is resisted by the pressure of 'groupness.'

This is what I fear I have learned. In America, we no longer use adolescence as a period for 'training' to be an adult in any real sense - there is no real life connection/valid skills/importance for real life (to the kids) for much of what we teach (especially in the church) - we have lost them before we start. Basically, we've had a 'liberal arts' approach to religious learning (it's good for you, it's fun (it was for me!), it just has to be done, and this is nothing you'll need to apply in real life), when maybe we should have a tech school approach (you will need this skill, focus on productivity, go out and do). We aren't doing anything that matters for the group.

All this doesn't mean that individual cases may be different. Yes, some kids love this learning, find it significant, find Jesus, live spiritually, etc. But look around, for each one that sticks, how many others are lost?

I don't know if I have any answers, just more questions. This raises so many issues for me, in the church, in the larger culture, in so many of the stories I heard.

Continuing to ponder.

Monday, January 4, 2010

God's autobiography

This is a early draft, I rearranged some paragraphs and improved the ending.

Christmas 2C, Jan. 3, 2010
John 1:1-14 “God’s Autobiography”

It's good to be here. It really is. As some of you know, the last time I preached here was on the Sunday before Christmas. I was fine during the first worship service and during the coffee hour before hand – I chatted with folks as we were setting up for Spirit of Hope, and all was well until I started the children's message, and then I started to feel – odd. Like the world was spinning and I was swaying with it. Like I was on a carnival ride – the ones that go around really fast. I don't like those rides. I could not stand up.

And all I could do was sit down and put my head down and close my eyes. Turns out I had an episode of vertigo – which is defined as a sensation of spinning and swaying. I'm all right now. But as I was recovering I had all sorts of people worried about me, and for that I'm grateful.

I also did some research on what could have caused the episode – and I learned more about the anatomy of the ear. There are three parts – the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear. Something probably was off in my inner ear. It's an extremely complex and delicate instrument in there – tiny canals and openings and spiraling structures and teeny, weeny hairs measuring every movement.

I was reading and looking at picutres and I said to myself – there is no way, no way, that this came about randomly – just no way. This beautiful and delicate instrumentation is inside of me. And inside of you, inside of all of us.

That is what it means to be flesh, to be made of matter, and to be a thinking being – to not only have these amazing bodies, these masterpieces of biology, but to know we have them. To be conscious of them. To know we are part of this organism and that we are so much more. We are our bodies and we are spirit, soul and mind. We are our bodies, and we are groups, families, teams and communities. We are our bodies and we are living through time in stories, making meaning or finding meaning. We are our bodies, and we are what we leave behind, legacies, books, buildings, relationships, grandchildren.

And we are part of communities that honor that and work to fix and heal what is wrong. To live with being flesh is to be in wonder, and in despair, too – for these bodies are also frail, will eventually fail, will no longer sustain life. To be a thinking person is to know this – all this truth – about each one of us.

So we are told God entered flesh. We are told that God, who created everything, who worked out the design of the inner ear, who is eternal and everywhere – chose to 'pitch his tent' among the species who stays aware of life and death, who lives to struggle with meaning of our fleshly existence. God, Almighty, Magnificent, the Lord, limited Godself to one man, one time, one language, one culture, one story.

The Gospel of John sets up it's unique way of telling the story of Jesus this way: In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.
This Word – capital W Word – is eternal, is one with God, is God's Word. (As much as the speech you hear right now is my word, part of me, given to you – so God gave his WORD away)

This is the intention of God that made the world – this Word – this spoken desire – this is the heart of the Creator. Without the WORD – capital W – nothing was made, came into being, was created. It is because of the WORD – capital W – that we have life, that we breathe, speak, wonder and learn.

And this Word – this desire of God – became flesh, like us. Had an inner ear, like us. Had a name – Jesus. Ate, had friends, walked, talked, struggled and suffered. Like us. Faced conflict, cruelty, pain, like us. Died like us. And more. Because he was the Word of God- the heart of the creator – in his life, his death and in what happened after he died – he showed what God desires.

“Yes, Jesus is God's autobiography - Jesus, is the Revealer of God. He communicates to us the thoughts, feelings, and desires of God. Yet, he doesn't just talk about what goes on inside God -- he is God. His life reveals God. In order to know God, one needs to look to Jesus, to listen to Jesus, to try and understand Jesus." (Brian Stoffregen) The Word – Jesus - reveals the creator of all.

And in this revelation – this autobiography – this great story – we find our story has greater meaning. Because Jesus lived – because Jesus taught – because Jesus suffered and died – because he arose from the grave and showed that this life of flesh is not all we are – our lives can be different – can be richer, shaped and formed into lives lived for others.

So, what difference does it make? That this thing happened? That this miracle – God taking up flesh – having a body like ours – once at least. What difference does it make?
That Big became little – that Great became weak – that Power came to know death?

For me – it has always meant that I am not alone. In these bodies, in these lives, in these relationships we are not alone. We not only have each other- we have someone who knows us even better than our mothers, our spouses, our dearest friends. We have someone who knows what it was like to have made us, and to live like us, and to be us. And that someone cares enough to invite me into his family – to be his child.

12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

That's the difference. That the God who created this realm of matter out of love – and who desires love back – offers to this part of his creation- human beings – his story of love. His autobiography of love. And through believing - we are part of that story – part of that movement.

It's a fleshy movement. It's a movement of people, like you and me, acting out God's story in a world of flesh and bone, money and agriculture, power and greed and evil and good. It takes flesh when we meet together here, when we have committee meetings and do good deeds and study and argue together. When we grieve together, when we rejoice together, when we eat together.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.