Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Living Water


A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?  John 4:7-11

I will always remember the first time I visited my new home in Sarasota, Florida.  It was late in the evening, the stars were twinkling over head, and we were meeting the chair of the search team at his condo.  Now you need to know two things: 1). we had just heard before boarding our flight from Wisconsin to Florida that our family cruise on a Disney boat had been cancelled; 2).  I dislike flying...really dislike flying.  So, we were exhausted: physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  We pulled up, parked the car, and were greeted with a hospitable smiles and warm hugs.  Then, the chair asked my children to stop and be silent (the fact that they did was no minor miracle!) and listen.  We all did.  Standing silently under the star-filled skies in Sarasota, we heard the crashing and churning of the wave on the beach.  We dropped our luggage in the condo and stepped out onto the sandy/shell filled beach.  The moon was bright, glistening off the gulf; the sound of the waves relaxing; and water could be tasted in the air.  At that moment, I knew I was home.  

Jesus asks for a drink from the Samaritan woman.  Samaria is famous in Scripture as being on the wrong side of the tracks with "those people".  What you may not know is why.  During the Babylonia exile in the time of Isaiah (587 B.C.E), Babylon not only took people from their native land to live in Babylon under the watchful eye of the leaders, they also settled people in other lands ~ causing people to intermix and in the case of the Samaritans - inter marry.  This was perhaps the origin of the Facebook relationship status of "Its complicated!"  Jewish folks frowned on marrying someone who was not Jewish...even though many of the kings in Israel thought that did not apply to them!  Moreover, when the people of God were allowed to come back to Israel, the Samaritans did NOT want to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (we will get to that in the next post).  

So, when John writes the word "Samaritan" (like when Luke tells the narrative of the Good Samaritan) it would raise some eyebrows and shine a light on a complicated history.  Think of someone you struggle to get along with at the place you volunteer; or even better - think of the people you know of the opposite political party!  Our brothers and sisters on both sides of the aisle who claim to follow Christ would do well to learn from what the gospels are trying to proclaim God's realm is like...especially as the State of the Union is given tonight.  What would you do if that person...you know that person... asked you for a drink?  Would you give the person a drink?  Would you try to walk away with your head low?

Who is the Samaritan in your life?  For far too long in our world and in our culture we continue to define people by other-ness, we look for differences in skin color, religion, creed, gender, sexual orientation, geographic location, and the list goes on and on.  Jesus does not seem as interested in a political agenda here as he does a genuine relationship.  Yet, the vexing problem is the reality that for the relationship to be authentic it needs to be a two way street.  Jesus engages and the Samaritan woman engages him right back.  Too often the decades of tension render us mute to the other.  Or as I just heard someone say, we 'turn people into issues'.  We hear someone is part of a different religion/gender/orientation etc. and we start to think of issues rather than the person right in front of us.  We wonder, "What is that person's agenda?"  Therein lays the problem, we've stopped seeing people.  

Jesus sees the Samaritan woman and engages her!  How does that wisdom speak to you today?  Is there someone you've been meaning to talk with, but find you've lost your voice?  Is there someone you've automatically placed in a box based on the fact that the person is other, locked the door and thrown away the key?  Can you find a way to start talking again?  Not because words solve our problems, but because relationships do!  I invite you to have lunch with your friend who has a different political view.  I encourage you to listen to someone you disagree about on some issue.  Not because suddenly everyone will start singing, "Kum-ba-yah" but because our faith needs to engage each other to deepen and grow and be challenged and changed.  Who knows, maybe even you will find the taste of living water on the tip of your tongue, maybe you might feel at home, or perhaps sense just a trace of God's grace in that moment.

May it be so for you and for me! 

Blessings ~ 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Middle School and Scripture


Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, "Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John" - although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized - he left Judea and started back to Galilee.  John 4:1-2

Over the next few posts I am going to slow down and savor one of my favorite chapters in John's gospel, chapter 4.  It is one of the most beautiful and powerful narratives (like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son) in all the Gospels.  These first few verses do more than just set the scene for the story.  

Chapter 4 starts off like a scene from a Middle School hallway.  'When Jesus learned that the Pharisees knew how popular he was...', I just have to chuckle.  Seriously?  The first verse sounds like a popularity contest.  Yet...how often do we do the same thing in our churches today?  We end up comparing ourselves to the other church down the road where there are more members or a bigger budget.  We are caught up in the cycle of commercialism that is based upon you never being fully satisfied.  Because the truth is if you were satisfied with the bucket of rust you call a car...you would not want to buy that new Ford or Chevy.  The truth is commercials play not only to your desire for newness, but also your emotions.  They "sympathize" with how hard it is to be a parent...so make life easy and pick up a bucket of chicken on the way home tonight so you can have some family time.  Honestly, I have nothing against the bucket of chicken, but we cannot buy our way into quality family time.  Spending time with our families brings its challenges regardless of what is on the table.  To be sure, if we don't have to worry about the meal, it can help, but it will not solve all our problems and it is not some kind of magic formula.

The other part of John that is fascinating is the length John goes to with Jesus and baptism.  He is insistent that Jesus was NOT baptized.  Go ahead...look over the first three chapters of John's gospel to see that NO WHERE is Jesus named as being baptized.  Really...go ahead and look, I will wait.

I am not sure why John felt so strongly that Jesus was not baptized by John.  Scholars speculate that it made Jesus look less divine.  The other three Gospels get around it with God's booming voice claiming Jesus as God's son or a dove descending.  But John just completely leaves it out, except for these occasional awkward mentions.

But maybe that is good, because we are not always sure of what to make of baptism today either.  I don't look at a child and think of original sin.  If a child dies without baptism, I believe God's heart breaks alongside the parents with profound grief and God still welcomes the child into God's embrace.  Baptism, for me, is a communal sacred event...like communion.  It is the community promising to help raise the child and support the parents.  That is vital!  It is not just about having the child be present so we can feel better about our Sunday School program.  Children are not just our future...children are already our PRESENT.  They are a living reminder of God's fingerprints and created in the very image of God.  That is what baptism celebrates.  

What are your thoughts on baptism?  When the water evaporates on a child's or adult's forehead and you promise your support, what is God up to in that moment?  In about a month, we will observe Ash Wednesday.  The ashes from burnt palms from last year's Palm Sunday Celebration are placed in the shape of a cross right over the place on your forehead where water was placed.  Both are vital moment: life and death; celebration of new life and grief over death.  In some ways, baptism is both too!  Many would say in baptism we die to our old life and are born anew/again/above (see John 3:3).  

I pray today you will remember your baptism...perhaps not the exact moment.  But remember that you are claimed by the very grace of God who knows you and loves you!  May that fill your life with hope.

Blessings ~ 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Moving



So Abram went, as the Lord had told him ~ Click here to read Genesis 12:1-9

Scripture says Abram (who would eventually be re-named Abraham) was 75 years old when he pulled up the tent stakes and set out for some undisclosed locations that God was going to show him and his family.  Abram doesn't ask where he was going, in fact, he is mute to the possibility of moving - responding only by packing up the camels, circling the wagons, and heading out.

Today I set out on moving from the community that has been my home for the last seven and half years (Janesville, WI) to a new community that has called me to be their pastor (Sarasota, FL).  And today I think about Abram.  In the midst of his silence was there any trepidation or hesitancy?  Or did he just leap into the excitement of a new adventure?  Or was it a little of both?  

There is always hope that is heard with the sound of tape sealing a box.  A chance for a new beginning, a new start, time to escape those mistakes that can hang over us like a cloud when someone says to us, "Remember when..."  But with each new beginning come new (sometimes unforeseen) challenges.  

Maybe Abram was excited until the third day of the journey under the scorching hot sun and the wine skins are running dry and he wondered, "What was I think?!"  Then, maybe a pool of water suddenly appeared like the grace of God to refresh his energy and replenish his body.  

Moving is always part of the both and of life.  We lean into a grace and a strength that is not our own.  We leap into a hope and into new situations that might challenge us in good ways and push our buttons in difficult ways.  Yet, God promises God's presence to Abram.  God offers a blessing.  

What God does NOT offer is some money back guarantee that life is going to be all peaches and cream just because Abram listens and leaps into God's grace.  In fact, Abram will end up in Egypt and try to pass his wife, Sarai, off as his sister lest he run amok with the Pharaoh who had some romantic inclinations to Sarai.  It is not Abram's finest moment.  But then again the stress of moving pushes all of us to our limits.  

We often confuse blessing/blessedness with a promise of everything is going to be alright.  To be blessed is about knowing/noticing God's presence even in the stress.  The hug that comes at just the right time or renewed strength to face the ups/downs of the road before you.

To be sure, there are always bumps and laughter in our journey.  As I set out, I do so trusting in God's guidance and grace...that while it is not always easy...it is always a promise of presence that makes a difference.

Wishing you God's blessings...and the next post will be from Sarasota, FL!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Cleanse




Quick review: 
John begins his sharing of the Good News with a prologue in chapter 1 that really is a synopsis of his entire gospel.  Jesus the light that shines in the darkness and in Jesus there is grace upon grace; a huge heaping helping of grace in our ordinary every day lives.
Then, Jesus is at a wedding where the wine skin runs dry and he changes water into the best tasting wine you've ever had!  There is an abundance of wine, more than was needed or necessary ~ which is to say this was a tangible moment of grace!
Right after that...Jesus goes into the temple, makes a whip out of reeds and drives money changers out.  Whoa...wait...how is that again?

How do you go from the joy of a wedding feast to the anger of creating a ruckus in the temple?  How do you go from laughing and dancing at the new life of a couple to making a scene in the most sacred space known to the Jewish faith?  Talk about an emotional roller coaster!  And yet, perhaps, not so much.  Both stories are rooted in passion.  Passion for enjoying the grace of life and passion that we cannot be silent in the face of injustice.  Both stories are rooted in hope.  Hope for what God is doing and hope that God will work through us to transform systems that exploit.  

This chapter also represents the complex the truth of the already and not yet.  In Jesus our Christ we encounter the already of God's realm.  We already taste on the tip of our tongues the deep joy of true life, like the best wine.  And yet, things are not all rainbows and chocolate rivers.  There is too much brokenness and pain and suffering and discrimination.  We live in two realms: the already and not yet. We live in God's grace; yet God's grace is not some magic pill for what ails you or our world.  

What do we make of the cleansing of the temple?  Too often I think it is seen as a critique of Jewish system of sacrifice and offering.  And yet, the church today also encourages people to make sacrifices...not with doves or goats...but with time, talent and treasure.  We cajole and sometimes even guilt people into giving more.  The truth is it takes time and money and gifts to be the body of Christ.  And the truth is there is never enough to do every thing.  The cleansing of the temple is an opportunity to reflect on our own stewardship. 

Stewardship is a difficult word...a foreign word...to many of us.  We tend to think of it as being a manager for what we already own.  But Stewardship is not ownership.  It is more like watching over something that does not belong to you.  But wait...we will protest...I earned this pay check or bought this house.  We are brought up in a culture of either or rather than both and.  Stewardship is a challenge to our either or thinking...how can time be both God's and mine?  That is the stewardship question with which we all must wrestle.

Stewardship shines the light on the already and not yet quality of God's realm.  We do share faithfully and give generously...and we are sometimes afraid and hold back for a rainy day.  
I hope these few thoughts might invite you to reflect on your own life.  I hope reading this passage from John might also help you reflect on where God's still speaking voice is inviting you to re-evaluate and re- prioritize our lives to embody more the realm of God here and now.  

For God's realm is not a destination we reach once, but a daily decision for us to embrace God's call for love, invitation to justice, and God's humble prayer for our world.

May there be traces of God's grace for you this week!  
Blessings ~

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Whoa...Rewind



Click here to start reading the Gospel of John...or feel free to find your Bible to follow along

I grew up in the era of VHS and cassette tapes.  I remembering the video store imploring us to "Be Kind and Rewind".  I also vividly remember them displaying what happened to those VHS movies if you left them in the car on a hot summer day and they became a mangled mess of melted plastic!  Good times.  Often in life it would be good to have a rewind button, especially for moments when you make a fool of yourself, which for me is about....every day!  I would love to have back some of the things I've said or done.  Then, again, I also know and fully accept that some of the best learning in life happens with mistakes; the reconciliation and forgiveness that are possible (although not always realized) in the wake of missteps.  

Still, there are moments it is good to step back and rewind just a bit, especially with this blog.  For the last several posts, I have focused on the Gospel of John: his beginning in chapter 1 and then a sermon for January 5th on John 3.  John's gospel is so rich...like a piece of the most decadent chocolate.  I remember a clergy friend saying he took a class in seminary on John's gospel and they never got past chapter 3!  Each verse in John is dripping with metaphor and meaning.  Of course, you can also get so caught up in every word of John that you miss the proverbial forest for the trees.  At some point you cannot get too immersed in the minutia of each word, lest you miss the meta-meaning John is striving to share. Namely, the Good News of great joy of God becoming flesh.

There are three important metaphors and words for John that are good to keep in mind.

1.  Light and darkness...and you thought George Lucas came up with the light of the force battling the dark side!  It was actually John.  He proclaims in 1:5 ~ "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it."  For John this is not just waxing poetic...it is a reality in our lives.  In fact, John employs the setting of light and darkness early on in his Gospel.  Compare John 3 and 4.  In chapter 3 Nicodemus visits Jesus...at night.  In the dark.  Nicodemus ends up getting confused and flustered by Jesus' word puzzles.  Eventually Nick fades into the shadows of the night and we are never sure if he figured out what Jesus meant by the unconditional and unceasing love of God for the whole world.  Contrast that to the very next chapter, Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well...at noon...when the sun is at its zenith and it is the brightest/lightest part of the day.  The woman talks with Jesus and is led to go back and share the good news of great joy with others!  Nick at night is silent.  The woman in day is immersed/soaked by the light to share with gusto.  One other quick example is John 21, where Peter - after the the resurrection - goes fishing...at night...with others...and catches nothing.  Only to have Jesus appear on the beach at day break to give them both some good fishing advice and breakfast.  Light and darkness become important metaphors that are woven throughout John to pay attention to as you read through the Gospel.

2.  Men'o...or abide...or staying...or standing.  It is vital for John to help us trust that Jesus is the one who abides with us...in us...around us.  Jesus promises at the Last Supper that he will offer the Spirit to be our advocate to abide with us...especially in times when the shadows of darkness creep into our lives and the light flickers or fades!  We also, like the disciples, make a choice to abide in...stand with Jesus.  In chapter 1, Jesus does not say to the first disciples, "Come and follow me" (he does that at the end of chapter 21!); rather he invites them to abide...come and see!  For John, discipleship is about the experience of the light in the darkness and unceasing love.  That is what we are invited in life's journey to be open to see and embrace.

3.  Invitation to lean into the new thing God is doing.  One of the first signs (in John, Jesus never performs miracles...it is always a sign...something we need to abide or be open to noticing in our life!) is changing water into wine in chapter 2...right after that Jesus goes into the temple and turns over the tables causing a ruckus!  It is important to be careful with taking Jesus' challenges to the religious order (like using the six stone jars for Jewish purification or turning over tables in the temple) too far.  We need to be careful that we do not interpret Jesus' actions in ways that dismiss or demean the Jewish faith.  Rather, I see those acts as challenges to our own Christian church today.  What stone jars do we have laying around that need to be filled with new wine of God's actions in 2014?  Or better yet, what ways has the Christian church set up our own money tables that need to be overturned?  There is a good passage for Stewardship Sunday!  When God slips into skin to walk among us in Jesus, things change...faith is challenged...and do we respond by abiding in the light and trusting in the new things God is doing?  Or do we cling to what is comfortable, the well worn ruts of our own personal religion/understanding?  That is what is at stake for John.  

Hopefully these thoughts have offered you some depth to part of what John is up to.  In no way is this exhaustive.  Over the coming posts, we will read John together, side by side, immersing ourselves in the One who is light, who invites us to abide in the newness/fullness of life found in our connection with God!

Blessings and peace ~

Saturday, January 4, 2014

More than Maybe


 
 
Although we don’t realize it, so many of us learn early lessons about love from nursery rhymes that to be honest, when you think about, are a little on the strange side.  We learn that love can overcome differences when a dish runs away with a spoon, which makes us all wonder about what really happens in the kitchen behind the closed cupboard doors at night.  We learn that love involves sacrifice as Jill hurls her body down the hill after her clumsy boyfriend Jack, yet we seriously wonder why she did not just walked down.  And we learn the hard lesson that love is fragile when poor Humpty Dumpty falls from the wall and despite all the best efforts of the kings men, he could not be put back together again. But seriously why was the egg on top of a wall in the first place?  That’s just risky.  But so is love.  And while those lessons sit in the recesses of our minds, they can quickly get covered up and confused by fifty shades of whatever you see and read in the culture around you.  The complicated nature of love is sometimes reduced to sentimentalize poems by card companies and gets chocolate covered at Valentine’s Day in a month.  More importantly, what exactly do we mean when the word “love” falls from our lips, especially when we think and act upon it from our faith?
I am not sure Nicodemus was looking to hear the most famous, oft-quoted verse in the Bible when he came to Jesus that night long ago.  In fact, we don’t know what Nick was expecting or even why he went.  Just before this scene, in chapter two of John’s Gospel, Jesus had changed water into wine and then immediately went into the temple and turned over the money changers tables; that certainly one way to get noticed.  Maybe Nicodemus had been there in the temple, heard the cacophony of crashing tables, commotion of people yelling, and even saw the chaos Jesus caused.  So, he goes to see Jesus.  On the one hand, this is a good thing.  Nick is a leader in the temple and seeking Jesus out is positive.  On the other hand, Nick chooses to do so when he can slip in and out of the shadows of darkness, perhaps so he will not be seen. Nicodemus called Jesus a rabbi and affirming that Jesus must come from God because of the signs, like water to wine, Jesus is able to perform.  In John’s gospel if your faith is based only on what you can see or observe, then you are always a step behind.  Nicodemus, like so many of us, is interested in talking about the proofs of faith rather than sharing leaps of faith.
After all of Nick’s praises, Jesus’ response to him has all the warmth of a snowball that hits you in the neck and slowly, chilly ice chucks of snow stream down your back baptizing your skin. After hearing Nick’s compliments, Jesus takes an esoteric exit ramp and starts waxing eloquent about being born again.  And the Greek word used for again, also means born above and it also means born anew.  So, which definition is it?  Again?  Above?  Anew?  I image Jesus silently standing there with a slight sarcastic smirk, as Nicodemus squirmed and the wheels in his mind spun trying to figure out what Jesus meant.  Nicodemus decides to go with door A, be born again.  Only to have Jesus half-mock Nick for not being able to understand what Jesus meant was not only being born again, but also above and anew, all three intertwined together.  I wonder why can’t Jesus offer concrete facts on faith rather than frustrating word riddles?  It seems to me that Jesus, in John’s gospel, is one mystery that cannot be cracked no matter how much you use your Ovaltine decoder ring.
Then you arrive at John chapter 3, verse sixteen.  For God so loves the world, God offers the gift of God’s Son so that we might know life, full, authentic, deep, abiding life.  You could spend your whole life studying this one verse and I don’t think you will ever exhaust its meaning.  God’s love is for the whole world, not just for humans.  Remember from John’s first chapter, God’s Word is what is sung at the beginning of creation.  God’s Word brings forth bee and wildebeests and whales and snails and shoots of green leaves that sway in the spring breeze.  The song that awakens creation is one of unconditional love.  The Word is an emphatic “Yes” to life, love, hope, peace, and joy.  Yet, as Nadia Bolz Weber points out, what the church is really good at, is turning God’s yes into a conditional maybe.  We get uncomfortable with God being so careless, even reckless with love.  Surely, it would be better to set up some rules around here like, “Blessed is the person who sits in the same pew every Sunday.”  We carve up who is allowed where and when inside the church.  We compartmentalize our lives so that the light of stain glass might block and blind the gossip and giggles we share at another’s expense. Too often we approach life as though it is just one committee away from perfection.  We’d rather not deal with God’s reckless love.  It is as C.S. Lewis once wrote that God’s love is the intolerable compliment, because in the end we know who we are, we know our own brokenness.  And moreover we know that if God loves us, God might just love that person.  That person who makes your life hell. 
God’s unconditional love and emphatic “Yes” will mess with your whole life.  Because suddenly your judgments say more about you than God.  Suddenly your checkbook and your calendar really do reflect what you value more than your spoken words.  Suddenly, faith is not a mathematical formula to solve, but a promise to lean into.  Like those trust falls you once tried and ended up on your backside, you really question if God’s “yes” and love is strong enough to catch you or will it soften the impact when you hit the ground.  Love is not some magic pill that will make all your problems disappear.  Love is not some sappy sentimental solution for what ails you.  And God does not put the church in charge of love so we can parcel it out to those who are worthy. Rather God loves the church so we can be freed from our own brokenness to actually love each other and those seen as unworthy in our world.  Love is not something, it is the only thing.  The only reality as people of faith we find our fullest being.  Maybe we would do well to stop chocolate covering love.  We would to do well to remember the truths we already know deep inside.  Love can bridge differences not only between spoons and dishes, but between people.  Love embodies the hope that other matters more, even when the other is a klutz fetching a pail of water and our response when the inevitable tumble comes.  And love, while it doesn’t fix brokenness, shows up and sits for while, trying what it can.  That can love is more than just our hope for the church, it is really the only hope for our world.  For God so loved the world, and at the dawn of a New Year, the invitation is to immerse ourselves in the One who offers us more than a maybe.  We are called to be in a life giving relationship with God who offers you, the other, and the world every day this year an extravagant love.  Amen.