Saturday, March 20, 2010

In Lazarus' house

Elements from a sermon on John 12

Let’s think about this for a minute. If we didn’t know what the author John tells us, if we didn’t know how the story continues through the next week of Jesus’ life – would we think so harshly of Judas’ comment? The mission to the poor – is this a bad thing?

I find a theme running deep through all the lessons of this Lent. It is not what we usually concentrate upon.
It is the theme of the one who stands outside not ready to be fully with Jesus.
It is the story of the interaction of Jesus and those close to him who don’t get it
– who are almost ready to accept his radical, impossible understanding of the grace of God – but who don’t or can’t quite come to embrace it.

We hear of Jesus mourning over the city of Jerusalem – wishing to cover them with his wings like a mother hen, and they will not. (2nd Lent) We have the tree for which the gardener pleads for time (3rd Lent). We hear about the younger, forgiven brother, and the elder brother, standing outside in the dark, looking in (4th Lent).

And now, this scene in Lazarus’ house – the party gathered of Jesus closest companions – probably the twelve, since Judas is present, but also Lazarus, back from the dead – Martha, the hostess, and Mary, the prophet of Jesus’ own death through her beautiful, extravagant, expensive gesture. All gathered at this moment of quiet before great things may happen. Jesus will enter Jerusalem the next morning.

He will be in the midst of the city that will reject him,
with the Pharisees he’s been reaching out to for three years,
in the Temple he has visited, studied and worshipped in his whole life – and which he knows will not stand.

And right there, while Mary uses burial ointment on his feet, washes his feet with her hair and her tears – prepares him for his burial – right there –
one of his own chosen still stands outside,
still lacks recognition of the great sacrifice about to be made –
still tries to control the events with criticism and righteousness.
He can’t come to understand what is going to happen to Jesus next –

That Jesus traded his life for that of his friend Lazarus –
because Lazarus was raised from the dead – Jesus must go to his death.
That despite, or because of the acclamation that will happen on the next day
– Jesus is not entering Jerusalem as a king to be crowned,
but as a hostage to Satan and death.

And there is love in each one of those stories – love for the outsider, love for the tree, for the wild children of the city, for the elder brother – even for Judas. There is love for the outsider, the hard case, the resister all the way to the end –
“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

And the lesson for us? It isn’t new. We have heard it before. It’s that we are saved by Christ alone, as St. Paul reminds us. All our own righteousness is rubbish, trash, worthless. That is what Mary of Bethany knew, and Judas did not. That graceful gift of forgiveness was what the younger son received, and the older brother was offered.

Judas and the Older Brother represent all our good works – our programs to help the poor, in essence are all those good things we do or desire to do. All that good stuff we want to be proud of – our mission trips, mission events, our pretty buildings, our numbers, our right-ness.

Remember all that St. Paul says about himself – all checkmarks on the good smart Jewish boy list? We all have lists like that – and Jesus looks at Mary of Bethany – who is totally outside the box – and approves her gesture of worship.

For that is what she does – she worships, and through worship she has included herself in the action of Christ’s cross.

Jesus goes to the cross to bring us closer to the Father’s heart,
to open a way for our hearts to worship in spirit and in truth.
He extends a hand to us, and to all who struggle with being good enough, right enough.
He extends a hand to us – and we are joined in worship of this act itself.

Worship first, and worship forever. Jesus goes to the cross for the sake of our hearts.
Our service to the poor will happen, our programs will continue, our good deeds will multiply when Jesus is first, when Jesus is Lamb, when Jesus has made us his own.


Friday, March 12, 2010


This Sunday's lection is the story of the two sons and the father. Remove the word prodigal to remove the usual associations - who is the runaway, who is the generous one, who is the keeper of the standards.

Given my family situation, this is a very hard parable to exegete and to preach upon. It's too close to home. Should parents really be like the father in this story - so ready to rejoice at the appearance of the lost one? Our son has been sleeping on the floor in the back bedroom. He wants a room of his own again. Is it grace to grant that? Or are we then approving his choices, and setting ourselves up for manipulation, and abuse, and disappointment?

Jesus often thinks in terms of the end times. This passage from Luke tends to be seen in the present time. If it is an end-time parable, does that make a difference? When the world is falling apart, when all the resources are gone, when their is a famine, and even one's terrible 'just-a-job' doesn't supply enough to live on - then return home, because home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in.

What are we, am I, missing in the concept of 'son-ness' that is restored to the wayward child, and affirmed in the stay-at-home? And through the arc of the parable, offered to the listeners? What is this 'son-ness' identity? It is acceptance, love, support, celebration. It is God's preferential option for the sinner - the full-out, messy, messed-up sinner - over the cautious and careful working brother. And yes, it feels wrong when put that way.

As parents, we aren't really playing the part of the father - though we feel the father's pain at the loss of his son - we are playing the part of the elder brother, because we can not forget. The Father forgets and lives in the moment - Now my son is home! Now let's party! Now! Not thinking about the past injuries or future complications. That's the end-time sneaking in - because if there is no future except the fullness of the reign of God - there isn't really any reason to worry about reparations for the past.

Elder brothers must plan and know and expect the worst. They remember the past, and think about the future. They live before the end of time, and expect tomorrow to come, and have learned that the past can predict the future. Trust is an issue that has a temporal dimension - and this brother doesn't trust that wayward one. The past will repeat. Hurt will happen. So forgiveness and celebration - how can they happen?

Only if the elders find the reflect the joy of the Father. Only if they accept the invitation to the party. What does that look like? To say, today we celebrate, and tomorrow doesn't matter? To live in the acceptance of this person, enjoy his presence, and ask for nothing?

I really wish I was not preaching Sunday.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

big question

Well, a reworked older one. This is one of those that needs to be preached carefully - lots of precisely chosen words, as my hubby says.

Lent 3C, - March 7, 2010 PLC – after March 14th, 2004
Luke 13:1-9

Jesus did not have access to the internet, or to newspapers or radio or television. But he certainly wasn’t isolated from the realities of his time. He could have had one of our newsmagazines open in front of him this week. Building collapsing,earthquakes and natural disasters, war and dangerous dictactors abound.

The stories we hear in Lent set us upon the road to learn two things: to learn who God is, and who we are. Here we have teaching on both fronts: We learn about God, we learn about ourselves.

When did you come to that point in your life that you sought for an answer to the Big Question? What disaster or personal sorrow got you to that point? The Big Question, of course, is WHY? Why do people suffer? Why have I been hurt? Even worse, why do people I love suffer? Or we may phrase it as: Why do those who seem innocent suffer? We empathize and ask this question even about strangers, about those caught in earthquakes, and about those we know, who struggle with illness and death so close to us.

In some way this is the human question - this is the question that makes us human, that defines our humanity as compassion, sympathy, empathy, love for the other. If we did not ask why, and if we could not express that distress that these situations create in our hearts - we would not be human. Or, let us call it compassion, for others, of our creation at the hands of a loving God. If we are distressed at the sufferings of others, we must be echoing something of our creator. When we submerge or deny our compassionate response - we then have lost something - some part of the image of God in ourselves.

We learn that the big question - the question we ask as soon as we come to that moment of realization – “why do people suffer?”is a God question and an us question.

The people who came to Jesus, with the example of Galileans who were killed by the Roman governor, apparently as they were offering their sacrifices to God, desired Jesus to make a judgment upon those Galileans. How do we deal with this Big Question?

There were three Biblical strategies to respond to suffering. The first was to assert that Bad Things happen to Bad People. This was the thought behind much of the prophetic writing - repent of your authentically evil ways in order to avert disaster. And when disaster would come - when the enemy would finally batter down the gates and destroy the city - then obviously, one worked backwards - it was in response to the evil in that city.

The problem with this way of thinking is: what about those who did repent? What about those who did not participate in the sins the prophets were decrying? What about the children, the poor, the widows? What about times when there is repentance and disaster still comes? No, this way of thinking leaves much to be desired.

The second way of answering the Big Question is Bad Things happen to Good People - and God is testing your faith in his sovereign might and mystery. We still use this one at times - but it can ring very hollow, when the evil that is experienced doesn’t teach anything, doesn’t enlighten us or anyone.

And then there is the third option: Bad things, and Good things, happen to everyone. It’s what you do with your life that counts.

When these folks came to Jesus and asked him - what is your judgment on these Galileans - killed by the Romans - did they deserve it? Jesus replies: “What? Do you think that we can tell, because they were killed because of politics, that these were worse sinners than anyone else? You know you can’t say that these men are worse sinners.” They were asking for Option 1) Bad things happen to Bad People.
“Here, I will give you another example - there were 18 men killed when the tower fell on them - were they greater sinners? Of course you would say no, because they were “innocent” of sin, it was an accident.” Now the expectation is that Jesus will offer Option 2) Bad Things happen to Good People, and that’s God’s will.

But Jesus, knowing that this question (Why do people suffer) is as much about our heart as it is about God’s will in the world - talks about Option 3 - Bad things (and good things) happen to everybody - it’s what you do with your life that counts. It’s who you are before God - no matter what happens to you, to your loved ones or in the world - that counts.

So, he says, twice: No, it is not that these were worse sinners than those who are still alive - what is critical is that you repent, because you will perish as they did - you will perish without repentance, you will perish without establishing your righteousness with God. For Jesus, that is the tragedy here, that is the warning to all who hear him.

So we hear of the unproductive fig tree with the impatient owner. Shall it be cut down immediately? Or shall it be granted the grace, the free gift, of time, time to become fruitful? Time to be cultivated, nurtured and loved into bearing the fruit it was meant to bear?

This where Jesus desires us to stand. When we hear the news of the day, we are not to deny our compassionate response to the world around us,
and not jump to immediate judgment on wickedness or goodness
- but we are to take what we learn to heart.
We are to understand that we are the fig tree - beloved of the gardener, who is Christ - who is ready to nurture us into bearing the fruit of God’s love. AMEN.

spiritual reality

I’ve been talking a lot about ‘spiritual reality’ these days. I find it necessary to remind myself and others that we believe there is a reality to our spiritual lives, our spiritual needs and our spiritual existence. And understanding that that reality is real is in danger these days. You see, I believe that our cultural world really doesn’t know that we are spiritual being. We are physical being, fashionable beings, sport-fan beings. We are economic agents, consumer agents, and controllers of our health through exercise, diet and habits. We are acknowledge to have lives of the mind, to learn, to study and even to contemplate the universe, but not too seriously, please. We can be philosophers, but not spiritual.

But do we have spirit? Can there we any way we speak about spirit as a real dimension of our total being any more?

(We might ask - what is spirit? I am thinking about the connection with the divine being - in a good Lutheran framework - the part of me that relates to the law (is convicted of sin) and the part of me that embraces the good, great gift of grace (knowing I am loved in a profound way by the divine). So being a spiritual being recognizes that conscience is connected with something beyond or more than societal standards. So being a spiritual being recognizes that ‘self-esteem’ at the deepest level has more to do with the divine acceptance than familial, societal or cultural dynamics.)

The usual “I’m spiritual, but not religious” stance becomes pretty pale and anemic against the Biblical and churchly spirituality of the past. For myself, I know that I’m not just referring to the ‘spiritual’ values of peacefulness or serenity (or acceptance or ‘love’) when discussing Paul’s letter to the Corinthians with bible study. Paul is thinking and pressing for transformation, real changed behavior and hard choices to be made by that church. He sees the issues as ‘spiritual’ - important for salvation.

And for him, the only important arena is ‘spiritual’ - the arena of the right divine-connectedness. All those other dimension of life - sexual, economic, liturgical, judicial that he comments on are relativized by this concern for the ‘divine-connectedness.’


I haven't posted much recently. Life seems to move so fast through the winter. That may be because I was busy, but it may also be a function of being in the winter mode. Winter mode is quieter, less reflective, internall more passive. When I went back to the journals I kept regularly in my teens and twenties - there would often be a hiatus between January and March. And in March my mind would pick up again. (to the side there is a picture of a maple syrup tap - that's me)

This year there has been additional worry with an illness in my extended family, staff changes and re-alignment.

And I started a new program toward my master's degree in counseling. It's at night and on weekends with some on-line options. For me a lot is review right now - but very interesting. I'm becoming more conscious of my own prejudices and habits. Today I have a 17 min. interview to transcribe and analyze, a 5 page paper to write and two chapters to read. But the term is going fast, and will be over at Easter. Then a short on-line course and back to real-life courses in summer, I hope.

I don't even know if I can finish the degree, which requires two terms of 20/hour/wk placement. Don't know how I'll pull that off.