Saturday, February 18, 2012

Drawing the line in the sand

February 15th was “exclusion day” here in Oregon. Perhaps some of you are nodding knowingly, “ah, yes, exclusion day”. I tend to live with blinders on, so some common knowledge just slips right by me and I get rude, surprising wake up calls. Exclusion day was such a wake up call.

On Wednesday I dropped the Princess of at school and met my walking buddy at our favorite park. After an hour of walking around the most beautiful park in the Columbia River Gorge, I hopped in my car and looked at my phone. Three missed calls from the school! My inner, parental alarms were deafening, my child must be severely broken or sick or....

I called the school and the nurse assured me the Princess was fine, but she needed to be picked up. It was exclusion day and we were behind on her immunizations. I knew we were behind, I just had no idea the ramifications that would be taken! Now, to be clear, I'm cool with immunizations. I believe Malaria will be wiped out of Africa soon because of them, I have no desire to enter the not-so-long-ago Polio era AND for those who are immune-compromised or fighting any disease or infection, I think immunizations are a gift of God for the health of the whole.

The story ends just fine – after a little fuss with our Minnesota clinic we got the records we needed, the medicine was injected and after some ice cream and hugs, the Princess recovered. What left a lasting mark on my psyche is...exclusion day.

Has there ever been an uglier phrase? Exclusion day.

Exclusion: to be ordered out of any place or community.
To be shown a sign of unwelcome,
to be actively dismissed.

I am not sure there is anything so hate-filled, so contrary to the gospel that we, as people, can do to one another. All day I thought about exclusion, when and how I participate in the exclusion of others. Or that horrible pit in my stomach when I feel I have been excluded. There are so many societal trends that encourage exclusion...holding phones and computers and letting them stand between ourselves and others. Building back decks, instead of front porches. Gated communities, keep out signs (which are all over my church's parking lot!).

Why does exclusion hurt so, damn much?
How am I participating in exclusion?
How is our church participating in exclusion?
How is our nation participating in exclusion?

No small questions, and I offer no wise answers. These are simply the conversations I have been having with myself lately.

As I am serving a Methodist congregation, I report to a district superintendent. He has great stories and antidotes and he is well known for telling congregations, “If Jesus would have done cannot say “no”.”

Well, there are instances where Jesus draws line and practices exclusion (especially in Matthew's gospel account). However, the scenes are usually set by the human nature which draws lines and laws and says “keep out” to others. Jesus responds with grace, love and a whole lot of these scenes, the ones who are excluded are the ones who fight against grace.

May every day, be INCLUSION day.

And may I be a more responsible mother who never has to participate in another exclusion day again!

Friday, February 10, 2012

The water is wide...


This week we are following the story of Mark 1:40-45 and having a healing service.  This idea of healing is a difficult one for me, especially lately.  However, this image and these words have sparked some hope and healing in me this week.  We'll be using it at one of the healing stations around the worship space.

And I saw the river
over which every soul must pass
to reach the kingdom of heaven
and the name of the river was suffering –

and I saw the boat
which carries souls across the river
and the name of that boat was

Saint John of the Cross

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Good versus Evil (aka, Jesus with a light saber!)

Harry Potter and Voldamort.
Team Jacob and Team Edward.
Beavers and Ducks, or in my mid-west setting, Vikings and Packers.
Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.
And maybe closer to home...Sickness and health.
Political corruption and economic justice.
Light and Dark.

The cosmic battle of good versus evil. This theme can be found in almost every arena of life. We are drawn into these battles because we love dancing with danger, the thrill of the fight, the hope that good will prevail and the dream that redemption for all will win the day! Its the stuff every good cinematic trilogy, video game and teen-age drama is made of...the battle of good versus evil.  

This theme, this very real element of human life is present in church, too...we just call it different things. We practice confession and forgiveness – the naming of our own evil and the goodness of God to forgive. When we pray with words like, “lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil” we are casting the evil of the world into the hands of God and trusting in God's mercy and goodness to be victorious over all the evil all over the world. We come to the table and hear words like, “The Body of Christ, given for you.” and remember the day that Love himself was hung on the cross and it seemed as though evil had conquered. And then, we name the resurrection, that Love is alive and goodness has indeed risen again!

The comic battle of good versus evil is all over the place.

And here it is in our Gospel reading from Mark. Mark is the action packed gospel writer, his dramatic vocabulary and stunning scenes paint a picture of Jesus, who lived a life which constantly encountered the battle of good versus evil. First, Jesus is baptized, cleansing all darkness and being filled...possessed even...with the Spirit of God, the Spirit of goodness and love. Then, Jesus is cast out into the desert to be tempted and tested by the powers of darkness for forty, long days and nights. And then Jesus heads to the place where he encounters great evil, scary and threatening spirits. Now, you may be picturing back alleys and political offices, maybe you imagine evil dwelling in prisons and other countries...No, Jesus heads to an unexpected place, the synagogue, the place of worship and faith and community. That is the place that Jesus, the One who had now been baptized , the One who has been tormented in the sand, the One who is on the earth to engage the battle of good versus evil...Jesus heads to church.

It makes me nervous to stand before you and talk about the cosmic battle of good versus evil. If we were to leave it in the realm of Star Wars and Harry Potter, that would be fine! But its not family movie night, we are here, in church, reading the Bible and encountering the battle. In church we do not say words like demon, or possession, exorcism or unclean spirit very often. Yet, if we're going to read this book it is very hard to ignore, especially as we work our way through Mark, it is impossible not to talk about good and evil.

And, if we pay attention to the world around us – it would not take long to recognize the presence of good and evil in the world around us. It is true on every level of life – think globally, think nationally, think locally, think within your own body and soul. The forces that feel stronger than we are – the powers of injustice or corruption, the pull of addiction or compulsive behaviors, the emptiness of isolation and estranged relationships. These are all the sins that we beg forgiveness for, these are the entrapments we search for escape from...these are the prisons we wait for Jesus to liberate us from.

And liberate, he does. With the same power and love that Jesus spoke to the man with the unclean spirit, so Jesus speaks to us. “Be silent...and come out of my child!” is what Jesus says to the evil in and around us. On the cross Jesus encountered our sin and prisons and now we are freed! In our baptism, the Spirit of goodness and love filled!. So, while we are still in the world where sin is present and darkness is we are also in the world where LOVE is present and God is everywhere.

If you've been around this world for a day or two, you know its never so black and white. No person, no place, no system, no institution is only good or only bad, there is not only sinner and only saint. We are sinner-saint, oppressed and liberated, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker...all at the same, glorious time. Children of God, the ultimate battle of good versus evil is not our battle – that is God's alone and it has been conquered through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And so our God comes wielding love and light to all the unexpected, unworthy, broken and hate filled places... “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has NOT overcome it.”

So, where do we stand in this good and evil, light and dark world? What is our response as people who believe in a God of Love and a Savior who promises redemption for all people?

If we look back to the Gospel lesson we hear what Mark has to say. Jesus walks into the synagogue with authority, Jesus teaches with authority and then, Jesus addresses the man with the unclean spirit and liberates him...with authority. Jesus speaks to the unclean spirit directly and says, “Be silent...and come out of him!”

The authority of Jesus' is not his own, the authority that astounds the crowd and sets free a very burdened man comes from God alone. Mark is deliberate with how this Gospel story is told, and the opening scene is Jesus' being baptized. In that baptism Jesus is filled with God's spirit – the power of goodness, love and forgiveness. And it is by that Spirit that Jesus frees the man and teaches the people about this Spirit.

So, people of God...baptized and loved by the God of goodness, what does this means for us? That we employ the battle cry of baptism and run, armed and dangerous into the world?

Well, YES!

Now, God is not calling us into literal battle, nor do we name the powers of good and evil so we can put our selves in a place of judgment or condemnation. No, God is calling us into the world to speak with the same authority that Jesus spoke with...with the authority that comes from God alone. We are called to speak love, to liberate those who are imprisoned, to stand up to injustice and intolerance, to be the body of Christ in the world.

We, the people of the church, must be a liberating people. We must be people who exist for those who are suffering, those who are addicted, those who are possessed by something greater than themselves...or we do not exist at all. Because if we are freed by Christ, than we are freed to love and serve. Even as we struggle with our own possession, which whatever dominates a community, we are called to speak and act with the authority of that all may know God's love and the that we have experienced in Jesus.

How do we do that? How do we stand at the margins of society, at the dark places of our world and speak love and speak the words, “In Christ, you are free!” For every person the call of God is different, for every church the call of God is different.
Whenever I imagine what a liberating church looks and acts like, I think of a church I once visited in Baltimore, MD. This Lutheran church is located in the zip code which holds the most homicides per year in our country...almost all of them being drug related. The people of the church got tired of their parking lot being used for drug sales, they got tired for the corners of the church property not being safe and welcoming places. For awhile, the congregation was paralyzed, stuck behind their closed doors with a lack of vision, a lack of hope...they were possessed and dominated by fear. And then, the Spirit of God began to move in that place. The people became possessed and dominated with a love for the neighborhood and a love for the drug dealers and so they starting moving! This little Lutheran church partnered with NA – Narcotics Anonymous and began hosting meetings in their basement. The once a week meeting quickly filled up, so they moved to two a week, then three and in under a year the church was (and still is) hosting 8 meetings a week with over 800 substance addicted people attending.

However, it is never all good and all evil. So, the deals still happen on the corners, the unthinkable is all too common in that zip code. Yet, the people of God now have a voice too! The presence of NA empowered the church to begin an after school program and additional prayer meetings...that church is a beacon of goodness amidst the darkness, a powerful voice that loves and redeems in the name of Jesus by the authority of God.

What about First United Methodist Church in The Dalles? What is possessing you? How may God push and pull and strengthen you to be a church that in liberating in loud and bold ways?

We are forgiven, the evil within us is nothing compared to the love of God through Jesus within us. So, go, run armed and dangerous into the world with God's to love and liberation. You are set free!