Sunday, February 22, 2015

What to Do Part One




Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:1-4

I wonder in Jesus' day how many people had a marching band precede them into the temple? How many people had their own theme music as they dropped an offering into the coffers in the temple? I think we all like a little fanfare and recognition. I walk into so many buildings and there is a wall of names in glass or brass or granite that declares who contributed money. I go to a theater and in the pages of the program are names of the patrons of the art. I go to my children's school....yes school...and the "business partners" are listed on the wall. In a world of consumerism and constant commercials; in a world where we are told that you consume therefore you are; and what you buy is part of your identity ("Oh I am totally a Mac, not a PC," we say at parties as though hat distinguishes us in some way from millions of others), I struggle with this passage.

I struggle also because the church is not immune from the above pressures.  Every week we receive an offering.  Every year we ask for a financial commitment.  Every month we review the budget ~ breathing a sigh of relief in good times and wringing our hands in bad times.  While I don't hear many trumpets, I do hear folks tutting their own horns.  It is difficult.  We want people to feel good about the funds they give to the church.  We want there to be a sense of joy, but not gloating.  That is a moving target.  One person's joy in sharing is another person's bragging.  The line moves depending on who is talking.

Jesus tells us that we should give in secret, not let our left hand know what our right is doing.  That does not sound like very practical advice.  How in the world do I write a check or see what bill I am pulling out of my wallet.  I think the deeper point is to realize that money is neutral; as humans we assign the value.  We assign what is a meaningful gift by the trumpets we blast or the shrug of the shoulders.  Maybe we should have a wall of gratitude for all gifts?  Or maybe we should take down all the walls?  I am glad Jesus did not give us advice, rather he shined a light on a concern so that we would be faithful and prayerful in our approach.

Speaking of prayer, I guess there were some in Jesus' day would enjoyed carrying on a bit in prayer.  The gloating did not stop at the offering plate, it continued into the worship service in the words offered from our hearts.  All this matters.  Both money and our words matter, because both have power in our world.  I love the image of going into the inner room.  That was often the dressing room, where you would be naked.  Many (Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, Barbara Brown Taylor) have spoken about naked spirituality, the naked now, or praying naked in front of the mirror.  That image might come from this very passage.

We are in the season of Lent, a time set aside to pay attention to all that is going on inside us and around us.  Lent is about being intentional and thoughtful.  We practice this, not so that on Easter Sunday we can pick up where we left off on Shrove Tuesday.  We practice this kind of honest, naked, reflection so that we can continue on that path through the coming days.  

I pray that something above might have sparked an insight for you about money or prayer.  I pray that as you continue on the Lenten journey you will continue to strip back the wallpaper lives we so often post on Facebook or show to our friends.  Go into that inner space and room, offer all you are to God.  According to Jesus, there is more than a trace of God's grace in doing just that.

Peace and blessings ~

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Hardest Part



You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  Matthew 5:38-44


Jesus wraps up the first third of his "Sermon on the Mount," with some of the hardest words for us to hear and especially to live.  Today, I was listening to a sermon from Kent Dobson on the Sermon on the Mount.  He makes the distinction that Jesus did not sit down on the mountain and begin to talk about what people should believe (orthodoxy - right belief).  Jesus sat down and preached how we should live (orthopraxy - right action).  It is easier to say I believe in loving others than to actually love others.  It is easier to give our mental assent to something rather than try to live our whole life from morning to night.

Often we read this passage from the Sermon on the Mount and immediately we want to jump to the extreme.  What about Hitler or Isis, are we really supposed to those them?  It is like we are daring Jesus to defend this statement.  It is good to remember two truths in these moments.  First, Jesus did not live in some utopia.  He lived in a time when his people were crushed by the weight of the Roman rule.  Judaism is monotheistic, only one God.  But then along comes Caesar, who violently crushed anyone who go in his way.  Talk about eye for the slightest infraction.  So, let's not pretend that Jesus' words were somehow easier back in those good ole days of the Bible.  Second, I think we offer the extreme, because we want to get ourselves off the hook.  Our defensive mind goes into hyper drive..."If I can get people to agree that we don't have to love the unlovable, than it is a slippery slope to arguing I don't have to love my neighbor whose dog leaves 'gifts' in my lawn!"  I don't know that I consciously think that...but I do know that I like to go to the extreme to argue and win points...to make life easier.

Now, it is not easy to love people who presently killing and using violence.  But that does not excuse the call to love my neighbor who is a Hindu by faith or my neighbor who talks to himself while smoking outside.  I am called to love to the best of my ability...and acknowledge that I have room to keep growing.  But Jesus does not stop there.  We need to go the extra mile and take off our very coat.  Ufdah!  Here is the rub.  Jesus sets the bar so high, we constantly find ourselves failing to make it over.  I don't love others, I sometimes take short cuts, and I cling to my stuff.  These are hard teachings...and they are even harder if we think it is only about believing rather than practicing.

As churches, how do we start practicing this with each other and in small ways?  And like any practice, it is good to pick one and focus there.  Lent begins today.  Maybe you are going to give something up.  That is good.   Maybe you have a prayer practice.  That is good.  But this Lent, I am also going to try to love people whose voice is like fingernails on a chalk board.  I am doing this NOT because I think it earns God's grace, but because Jesus' wisdom says that such practices can lead to full and authentic life in God's realm here and now.  I am practicing now, so maybe by summer I am less prickly toward people who I know are children of God.  I am practicing now, because I am about to get another year older, and know there are many more practices Jesus invites us to live faithfully.

I pray you have a blessed and holy Lent.  I pray these words from the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount have stirred within and stayed with you.  I pray we will do more than just mentally adopt these words...which is a start...but also try to practice them in the coming forty days.

Pax and blessings ~

Friday, February 13, 2015

Lust

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.  Matthew 5:27-30

It seems appropriate on the day that Fifty Shades of Grey opens in theaters to land in this passage from the Sermon on the Mount.  To be clear, I have not read the book, I will more than likely not see the movie, and will not offer here any criticism for that which I do not know.  What I do know is that we live in a world where intimate relationships are at an interesting place.  I know that our twenty-something young adults are delaying marriage.  They often talk about the struggle with moments when the romance in a relationship fades.  That is not news to our great grandparents.  Relationships are tough work.  No one knows us quite as well as our significant other.  I know all the right buttons to push to send steam rising from my wife's ears.  At some point the butterflies of the first dates turn in the ordinariness of a Valentine's Day spent at home with the kids and a pint of Ben and Jerry's ice cream...who says I am not a romantic?  I sprung for the quality ice cream after all!

Add to this complex mix a new phenomenon of invisible boy- and girlfriends.  Where for a price, a company will send you texts, letters and voice mails pretending to be your significant other...supposedly to appease your nosy parents or your constantly questioning friends, I have to say that I have no idea what Jesus would do with that.

I know that relationships matter.  I know that I made a vow to my wife almost fifteen years ago now.  I promised with fragile words to love her that day and every day henceforth.  Believe me, it has not been all chocolate rivers and pony rides.  After the glow of the honeymoon wore off, sorting out chores and the realities of late night meetings and then throw two kids into the mix, why not?  It is not easy.  But it is worth it.  Part of the problem is realizing that there are 7 billion people, what is the likelihood you will find your soul mate?  Only if you work really hard at tending the relationship with the one in your life right now.

But people bring a mixture of blessed and brokenness into marriage.  I try to be caring, but I tend to work too hard.  I try to be a good listener, but I can get distracted by emails.  I try to keep connected in a disconnected, time and space bending world where I can video chat with my dad twenty four hours away.  That make presence and relationships move into new space.

So, where do that leave us?  With a whole lot of talking to do.  For so long the church's specialty in relationships was telling us what NOT to do.  We have not spent much time talking about what to do.  We have not dealt with the legacies of Victorian sexuality that still governs too much of the religious dialogue or the "just don't hurt someone" morals that came as a reaction.  The truth might be found in the broad and wide messy middle.  Tomorrow, on Valentine's Day, I invite you to think about your relationships.  It does not need to be intimate.  It can be your close friend.   Who do you love and why?  Is the relationship based on respect, mutuality, connected-ness of mind, body, and spirit?  What do you value about the person closest to you?  What annoys you?  And where is God in the midst of all that?

I pray you will do more than just read this blog...that you will talk with the people you love and celebrate that love.  Because we worship a God whose love could not be contained and came to us.  And that for me makes all the difference in how I share love with my family!

Pax and blessing and Happy Valentine's Day.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Anger




You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.  Matthew 5:21-24

We continue to explore Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, I am struck by this passage.  I am struck that first of all Jesus does NOT say, "Don't get angry."  I think sometimes in the church we have given the implicit or even explicit message that anger is always bad.  And so, we tend to repress and push down anger...which we all know is really healthy and NEVER ends poorly.  Yeah right.  Every time I try to convince myself that I am really not that angry, that I should love that church member...you know the one...I just delay the inevitable.  Unfortunately, I also tend to take out that frustration on those closest to me.  Richard Rohr says, "Pain that is not processed is passed along."  I agree with that, it rings true from my experience.

I am also struck by the fact that Jesus is upping the ante here.  It is no longer enough to say, "Well I never murdered anyone"...even though I treated that person as though she or he was dead to me.  "Well I did not do any physical damage"....even as our words or sarcasm or silent stares wounded just a bad beneath the flesh.  Jesus challenges us to reconcile and to do so before we take an offering.  You might now understand why this passage is NOT preached on very much in churches today... the offering totals might be down that day.

I appreciate the challenge to reconcile.  Yet, I also know realistically reconciliation takes time.  That offering might have been left by the altar for years on some of the issues in my life.  I also know realistically reconciliation is not always an option...at least not immediately.  I think of issues of domestic violence and other crimes, where it could wound the victim more if the accused came to reconcile.  So, although we preach lofty sermons forgiveness, it is tough, difficult work of our lives.

That is not to suggest we should all shrug our shoulders, give up, and reconcile with a pint of Ben and Jerry's ice cream.  There are some places where many of us could reconcile.  I have had people close to me die without ever reconciling.  That is tough, difficult place to be.  I have had church members leave without ever a chance to say, "I am sorry."  That is a tough, difficult place to be.  And I also have had those hard conversations Jesus is pointing to in the above passage.  Conversations where I need to own my own stuff, say "I am sorry", see that the words I used went awry and caused unintended pain.  In those moments, after the tears and the words upon words and the silence and the coming together and finally hugs shared at the door...I know the following Sunday in worship there was a JOY...a deep JOY.  The songs were easier to sing and the prayers were deeper and the offering of my whole life to God felt more in harmony with God's still singing voice.  We should not allow one of those experiences to trump the other.  Both have a place in our lives...neither is the full truth.

I pray you will think about places of anger in your life...and who you are angry with...is reconciliation possible?  Why or why not?  And most of all, I pray this will offer a chance, a window for a trace of God's grace to move in your life.

Pax and blessings ~

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Salty


You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.  Matthew 5:13

The gospels record very few of Jesus' sermons.  The above quote is taken from what is usually called, "The Sermon on the Mount," starting in Matthew 5.  Luke calls a very similar set of sayings,  "Sermon on the Plain".  While you cannot judge a book by the cover, you can tell a lot by the title.  It matters to Matthew that this sermon is preached on a mountain because centuries earlier another religious leader climbed a mountain to chat to God and he came down with a sermon etched by the fingernail of God.  That was Moses and Matthew wants Jesus' life to echo...echo Moses' life.  Luke is much more concerned about equality and making room at the table for everyone...preaching a sermon on a plain...a level playing field... makes much more sense for him.  

In both Gospels, the writers begin with what is known as the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-11.  While there are important differences between Matthew and Luke here, what I find fascinating about the Beatitudes are they beg the questions: How?  When?  Where? Who?  When are the poor or the poor in spirit seen as reflective of God's realm?  How are those who mourn comforted?  Who in the world does that?  I imagine that if I was there, on the Mountain or Plain, found the courage to raise my hand and ask these questions, Jesus would stare at me silently with the implication being; You!  You and I are called to fill the gap between what is (mourning, persecution, and words spoken harshly) and what can be (comfort, solidarity, and love).  The church is the bridge between broken reality and the in- breaking of God's realm.

I am not sure we always think of the church that way.  There are budgets to balance and buildings to improve.  There are worship services to plan and leadership retreats to develop.  The church I serve tries to reach out, to be that salty bridge from the final "Amen" on Sunday to the prayers of the people during the week.  But it is not easy.  Pastors are called to be BOTH a part of members' lives AND reach out to the community, some of whom may never enter the church door.  It is a balancing act.  To be honest, I am a big klutz....literally and figuratively.

I sometimes wonder how much saltiness I can take in my faith journey?  I like comfortable situations where I am in control...but it is good to step outside that zone.  On Monday this week, I went to a homeless ministry in our community.  As I drove down the road to the location, there were people waiting outside.  I felt their stares piercing through the car window and my heart started to beat a little faster.  I KNEW I was safe, but I was outside my safety zone.  

Salty faith will take us to places we may not like.  For some reading this blog, you may volunteer at a homeless shelter, but put you inside the office of a government official and your tongue is twisted and mouth dry.  For others, you love building houses, but put yourself in a silent retreat where you have to sit and remember that God is God...and YOU are not...causes you to shift uncomfortably.  We all have places in our faith where we are in the zone and places that are outside of what feels comfortable/natural.

We are approaching the season of Lent, this might be something to ponder.  Maybe you often give something up for Lent...which can be a very meaningful part of the faith journey.  But maybe this year you need to drive down that road that leads to a place where you have not normally encountered God.  And the good news is I hear Jesus not saying "You" individually, but rather "You ALL" collectively.  You don't need to go to that place alone...probably better if you don't.  I met a few other folks at the homeless shelter, people I knew and I learned a lot about this important ministry.  I pray you will find ways to add spice to your faith in the coming days, especially during Lent.  Most of all I pray that stretching your faith adds more than a trace of God's grace.

Pax and blessings ~ 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Discipleship

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.  Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.  Matthew 4:18-25

How would you define "discipleship"?  Perhaps it starts simply with following Jesus, which was certainly easier when he was physically on earth.  Maybe it is about obeying what he says.  But which gospel, which stories, is it just the ones we like? Maybe discipleship means letting go.  Maybe it means a willingness to take risks that go against what rationale sense.  The image of Peter and Andrew's net floating, abandoned in the water, fascinating. When was the last time I dropped everything to follow an instinct?  I like structure, carefully constructed and carried out plans, not just willy-nilly following some random guy with eternity dancing in his eyes who wonders past and say, "Hey, follow me."  

Sure, I know that being asked to follow a rabbi was an honor akin to getting an acceptance letter to Harvard.  But, if I received such letter from Harvard, would I really drop everything?  Would I leave my family and job?  Of course, the disciples, it seems stick somewhat close to home.  Later in the Matthew we will hear about Jesus healing Peter's mother-in-law...which most of us forget the disciples were even married...but their wives didn't!

Sure, I know no one wants to miss their moment to be something.  Many of us live with the regrets of "What if??"  What if I would have taken that job or said, "Yes" to the date, or been willing to take a leap of faith?  Yet, realistically, often those moments to be something, to cross over the fence where the grass looks so green, once over we see that things are not as rosy as we thought.  Even when we say "Yes" to the promotion or to the opportunity to be the chair of an organization, there are expectations and stress and life changes.

My hunch is the disciples' lives changed drastically.  When was the last time our life changed drastically because of faith?  We are about to run a membership class at the church our served, that question might just make everyone shift uncomfortably and maybe decide NOT to join.  But if discipleship stakes a claim on our lives, maybe we can expect some changes and some amazing opportunities and a lot of walking and wandering.  

One of the images of the disciples echos the wandering in the wilderness in the book of Exodus.  We learn on the road.  We learn from the topography of traveling together through the ups and downs, storms and sunny days, and all that we encounter day in and day out.    I encourage you to think of your definition of discipleship and maybe even post a comment below for others to see.

May we continue to find traces of God's grace as we seek to be disciples of the One who still has eternity dancing in his eyes. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Wilderness

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  Matthew 4:1

Quick review: Matthew begins with a genealogy, the deep roots of Jesus' family tree, including people whose halos did not shine the brightest.  He moves on to shining a light on Joseph, Jesus' adoptive father, who swims against cultural and religious expectations by dismissing Mary quietly.  By doing that Joesph takes on the shame of a broken relationship, since people would assume the baby Mary carried was his and he was not taking responsibility.  For this Matthew calls him "righteous," which stretches our understanding of that word.  Then, we get visitors from the East, who knock on Herod's door, causing a nervous Herod to go into hyper mode when he hears that there is a "King of the Jews".  When the Wise Ones leave for home by a road that did not pass by Herod's palace, Herod inflicts infanticide on people, creating misery and pain and reminding us of the ways people in power today still use their influence to hurt rather than help.  Jesus and his parents flee to Egypt, so that Jesus' life will echo...echo...echo Moses' life.  Eventually, Herod dies, a new regime is put into place to serve at the pleasure of the Roman empire.  It is safe for Jesus to stop being a refuge and return to his homeland.  We then have a gap in Jesus' life from age 5 or so, to the moment he shows up on the shores of the Jordan for baptism.  Whew!  And that is just the first three chapters! 

You can click here to watch a sermon from January 11th I preached on baptism.   But it is those moment following baptism, as the echo...echo...echo of God's voice claiming Jesus as a beloved son fade into the blue sky that is so powerful.  Jesus does not jump up and down, shouting, "Look at me, I am the king of the world."  It is not cue dramatic music ala Rocky Theme or Chariots of Fire.  The amazing moment of being named and claimed by a child of God is follow by...wait for it...temptation!?

I once heard a theologian say that the moment you get what you want, whether it is the corner office or relationship or the recognition, you are going to be tested.  You will be tested because the dreams you'd built in your imagination will clash with the harsh realities of life in the office...or relationship... or with the award on your wall.  The dream and reality meet and it is not always cordial.

But, you may wonder, what is the deal with the devil?  So often we picture the devil as some being in a red suit, pitch fork, piercing eyes, the overseer of the underworld no one wants to visit  But the better translation here is "accuser".  Ever gotten a new position and found an "accuser", someone who tests and tries your patience?  A new employee you are supposed to supervise who undermines and trash talks?  A co-worker who you confide in, only to have it come back to bite you?  We all have made trips to the wilderness, we have spent some time there.  So did Jesus.

This may not make everyone feel better.  But, for me, it makes a difference that it was not all pony rides and chocolate rivers in Jesus' life.  He was tempted, he was tested by voices that wanted him to do all sorts of things his heart told him not to, and he was able to find another way.  Just as the Wise Ones found another way home, Jesus finds another way.  He does not give in to anger or to gossip in response to the accuser.  He simply faces the difficulty with honesty and his heart wide open.  

Are you going through a wilderness moment right now?  Are you living with physical, emotional, or spiritual pain that numbs you from feeling fully alive?  That is wilderness.  While I do not believe God causes pain, I do find moments of trail and wilderness to be times when I encounter God in deeper ways.  There is a vulnerability in living in the wilderness that opens me to God with honesty and an open heart.  And there, I do find more than a trace of God's grace.  I am not sure this is always an "all is well that ends well moment."  The times of testing and trail can leave scars that take time to heal...sometimes never fully recover.  Wilderness moments, trial moments, and struggles are part of life, even Jesus' life, and while that doesn't make it easier, it does make a difference for me.

God's love and blessings, especially to those in the wilderness right now!