Sunday, May 25, 2014

The formation of the church: stinky feet, bar stools and love.

Sermon 5.24.14
Easter VI
Year A
John 14:15-21

One final sermon in the little mountain valley...and it falls on John 14:15-16 If you love me, follow my commandment and I will give you a helper, the Spirit of truth. 

I just returned from a two day out where we spent most of our time running mundane errands around Wenatchee.  After the oil was changed and the good will boxes were dropped off we found ourselves with hours left to waste until it was time to run to the airport.  Not wanting to just drive around town all day or spend hour upon hour at the library, I said “Let’s go to church!”   The pastor at Grace Lutheran in Wenatchee is a friend of mine and I thought we might be able to receive shelter and rest inside the church building. 

Sure enough we found Pastor James right away and he graciously showed us the youth room where we could lounge on a musty old couch and be comfortable for a couple of hours.  He also apologized he couldn't give us more of his time on this late Friday afternoon, but he had an appointment.  “It’s an unusual meeting I have today” he shared with me, pastor to pastor kind of shop talk. “I received a call yesterday from a man who had just been diagnosed with cancer and he wants to come to church and he wants to be baptized.  He needs support and is coming to talk with me this afternoon.” I immediately began to wonder about the kind of welcome this now-ill man might receive at Grace Lutheran in Wenatchee.  What made him call a Lutheran pastor? Did he know about this community? I asked Pastor James how he thought the community would receive this man, wondering if they could sustain the walk with one who would need much and could give little. He responded, beaming “They can do miracles”.  I thought so, I replied, “I thought I had heard you were those kinds of people.”  And off he went to do the mysterious, ever challenging work of ministry.

I grab onto experiences like this because I know how frail and broken and messed up the church community can be.  For every heartwarming story, I know two heart breaking stories all set in the context of “the church”.  I know her wider reputation in the world as hypocritical and narrow minded, as corrupt and bigoted.  So I hold onto stories like Pastor James and Grace Lutheran of Wenatchee and put them in my back pocket so that the next time one of my many, dear friends out there in the world who wants nothing to do with organized religion asks me about my job at “the church” with the look on their face they just smelled something bad…I can tell them about that one building in Central Washington offering refuge to a wondering pastor and her daughter and simultaneously welcoming the sick and seeking.

I do not come from a long line of preachers, and most of my friends come from more of a theater and music crowd.  For most of my adult life I have been the token spiritual one, the college student who spent Saturday nights perched on a bar stool fielding religious questions and higher power wonderings.  Most conversations, were deeply genuine and earnest, others were more suspect of why I would miss out on precious sleep to get up and go to work at “the church” the following morning.

It is a fair suspicion; one that is raised within my heart with a regularity that I find disturbing.

Even with all my doubts and frustrations and admiration for the church worn on my sleeve, my friends still call with really fun questions too.  Like when a college pal turned English teacher found herself tasked with planning the Baccalaureate service for that year’s graduating class she called me to help plan the service, or even more special was helping choose the music for her daughter’s baptism.  I feel so honored to be that churchy friend, who gets pulled into discussions about wedding liturgy and grave-side blessings and my real favorite is “I want to try out a church…” Because that last one comes from a hungry heart seeking something else, something counter-cultural and Divine, something broken and quirky as the body of Christ and as everlasting and sure as God’s love.  It takes vulnerable faith and bubbling courage to break through a church’s doorway. 

So why do it? Why work in the church? Why live in a gospel-centered worshiping community? Why tried out churches or ask for a word of God’s love spoken at weddings and funerals? The very core of who we are as feeling, thinking, and exploring humans chases after hungers – it is what keeps us moving.  And I believe the hunger for something perfect, something loving and eternal keeps us moving toward God and toward one another.

For this is what Jesus has prepared for us.

If we back up a bit in John’s gospel to chapter 13 we have Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  If you were here for Maundy Thursday, the Thursday just before Easter, you may remember that John 13 was enacted here as we washed one another’s feet.  Pair after pair came to the silver bowls, took postures of servant-hood and washed with grace and humility.   This was how Jesus began to prepare the disciples for their post-Easter lives, it would be formed first and foremost with humility and love for one another.  It was after this embarrassingly kind move that Jesus gave the new commandment, he said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  And the disciples, who spend so much time vying for the place of honor and scramble to have the right answer are silenced, designed and dazed by such a self-less command.

Tonight’s gospel reading follows the foot washing scene, Jesus still talking and preparing the group for his imminent death and he presses upon them “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  If only Jesus’ commandments, very recently issued, were as black and white as some of those original top 10 commandments.  Do not murder, or do not take the Lord’s name in vain – these are things measurable check points we can strive for…but the new command is different.  It is impossible to complete,   unattainable by human effort and strain: As Jesus as loved you, you also should love one another.  No wonder the church is a mess, this is a doosy!

Jesus, knowing our weakness, continues and says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  This is the spirit of truth…I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.  The formation of the community of faith continues, by the promise of the coming Holy Spirit.

In two weeks the church will celebrate her birthday – on Pentecost Sunday.  This is the Sunday we hear about the Spirit falling on the disciples and their faith being restored and their mission clarified as they continued to share God’s love with all people through the study of the Word and the caring for one another in humble love and service.  The community was formed that day by the Spirit and it is this promise that keeps me tied to the messy, glorious, simultaneously selfish and self-less church.

The promise that Jesus made after washing feet and showing the new command to his followers was made to the whole community! Even after Jesus’ physical presence is gone, the disciples are promised that they will know God’s love and they will know it together.  They would not be tied together by similar economic standing or geographical location, they would not love one another because of supreme righteousness and unfaltering faith, they would not even be bound by guilt or shame or any of the other human motivations which drive and direct us.  The church of Christ was and is bound together with a holy union that is founded in the love of God, fulfilled in the new commandment of Christ and shaped by the Spirit which inspires and creates anew again and again and again.

There is no other way so many crazy Christians could have kept the church running for thousands of years, certainly the Church would have been driven into the ground by corrupt priests or power-hungry kings, or maybe by contemporary politics and individualistic cultures.

Yet, here she stands.  Our gathering tonight is a sign of the constant, reforming, relentless movement of God’s kingdom into the world.   Can we love what Jesus has left us? Is this legacy enough?

I fear that too many people wrestle with a more internally placed question: can the community Jesus promised love and include you?  

One of the Apostle Paul’s first ministerial words was at the temple of the unknown God, which we heard about in the first reading.  Paul tells the people gathered there that God is not held in gold, or silver, or stone or even in images of art or in our imaginations…church does not mean a building, nor does it mean liturgy, nor does it mean traditional or contemporary, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, sinner or saint, welcome or rejection.

What Jesus manifested to his disciples was love and humility – two of the greatest forces in this world.  What Jesus commanded was a life lived in the posture of love and humility – this is the church.  And what Jesus promised was help to a community gathered together, sending a Spirit to break into the isolation of our hearts. Break them open in humility and sew them back together in the love of God made perfect in Jesus Christ.  And every broken person is welcome in that community, bonded together by the Holy Spirit, called church.

It began with stinky feet and a wash basin, it has been carried on a command and a promise which we fail and break consistently.  But we, the community gathered up by the Holy Spirit will also thrive and serve in immeasurable, mysterious ways because that is what Jesus has called the church to be and to do.

And the next time one of my dear friends, out there in the big world asks me about my work in “the church” I will tell them about getting knocked over with forgiveness by the body of Christ which gathers in a mountain valley.

Thanks be to God for the humility of our servant-Christ, for the witness of Pastor James, for people who move to mountain communities to be gathered into something more than self, for Christ who makes God’s love shown in our faithfully and faulty living. Thanks be to God for the promise of help in it all.


Monday, May 12, 2014

Vulnerable Dining

Holden Village Sermon
Easter IV 5.11.14
Year A
Psalm 23

As we begin to reflect on the Scripture we have just heard, I would like to invite you to think about a time you last felt vulnerable – really out there without protection, or your heightened awareness of the shields we try to cover ourselves with are penetrable.  Maybe it was on a hike when you saw the cougar tracks in the snow, or a close call in your car, or a time when the tears just fell out of your eyes despite your best efforts to hold yourself together.  Think about a time you were aware of your frailty and remembered that even though we are cunning, crafty creatures – we are also vulnerable.  Do you have a time in mind? Is it accompanied with the nerves and shakes or the memory of feelings of honesty and exposure?

I remember last May in the village, when construction season was lifting off and I remember the sense of assurance I felt as village renewal volunteers came pouring off the bus.  Their new enthusiasm and desire to work and serve was like a breath of fresh air and their new faces and stories brought some life to a small, unsure community.  I have missed that this May – we are in this relaxed, waiting month – preparing for the work before us.  Yet, our numbers are not growing, the new wave of enthusiasm and energy has not quite hit us – as a community, I think we are more vulnerable than usual.  We are small, we have come out of a tiring and intense winter and we are staring straight into a summer of construction.  When numbers are down I remember the wildness of the wilderness, the reality of danger and crisis and I remember that we need each other…direly and urgently need each other as we exist as a vulnerable community (include mining community!).

Before us tonight is  the most well known psalm in Scripture, and perhaps psalm 23 is even the most well known passage of all of Scripture.  We hear it on this day, Good Shepherd Sunday, every year just a couple of weeks after Easter.  I would like to read it for you again, when these fresh images of living in a mountain valley and the feelings of being vunerable still in your hearts and minds.  Because, while the image of sheep and shepherd may not be a familiar image to many of us...the exposure that a herd of sheep experience, and the vunerability that is their reality is something we can tap into...and the promises of the Shepherd are soothing, protective words for all creatures gathered here.

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2   He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; 
3   he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths   for his name’s sake. 
 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,  I fear no evil;
for you are with me;your rod and your staff—they comfort me. 

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow meall the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the 
Lord my whole life long.

The psalm begins with a statment of trust – "the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want".  Then the psalm ends with a declaration of faith – "surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life..." Maybe you have heard these beautiful phrases spoken at funerals, or having hanging somewhere in your home.  Psalm 23 is the Psalm we go to because these are the kind of reassuring words of faith we need to hear; guidance for our wobbly walking, rest for our weariness, God’s purpose for our self-centered priorities. 

In addition to being beautiful and reassuring, this psalm is also a run of paradoxical statements and tonight we center on verse 5: "you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies..."  this statement seems out of place in our beloved psalm filled with beautiful fields and streams and sheep.  Poor sheep, lured in to dine with the fox, unsuspecting child of God, seated at a table with the forces that move against us – now that is vunerability.  To be seated at a table feasting in the midst of enemies.

If this were your table, what enemies would be surrounding you? Would you be dining with shame or anger? Would broken relationships or addiction be at the table? Would an actual person be seated there or an injustice so cutting you know that experience would appear at the table of Psalm 23?

"you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies..."

When I was growing up my family did not have fine china.  But we did have a cherished set of dishes that always came out at Christmas and Thanksgiving and other holiday meals.  It was a simple glass setting, made in the 1930s and thus called depression glasseware.  During this time of great economic struggle and suffering this glassware was very inexpensive and was easily made and distributed around the nation.

The particular design of depression glassware that belonged to my family was called "Manhatten" and my mother began collecting it when I was a child.  Every road trip my family took always included stops at antique shops so my mom could see if she could find just one more piece of the collection – my brothers and I were less than patient with this antiquing.  My mother passed away a few years after she started the collection, so my father took it up.  Now he was the one stopping in every antique shop he could find to complete what my mother had started, and when I grew up and left home he passed this collection of depression glassware onto me.

The paradox of verse 5 led me to remember this glassware which my family has always used to every Christmas dinner, or Thanksgiving feast we were reminded my mother and reminded of her death.  I suppose setting the table had become an act of faith, because in the face of death...we live.  It seems ubsurb, paradoxical, yet this is the way of God.

"you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies..."

And what of your enemies? The powers or behaviors which compromise your life...that which leads you to death...that which hurts another and that which separates you from God.  Could you share a feast-meal with them? Could you engage in these paradoxical promises of God? Those enemies that we engaged with throughout this life are not for our conquering, we leave them at the cross of Christ and we come to the table prepared before us.  It seems upsurd, paradoxical, we should be going to battle taking down the enemy, fighting the good fight! However, when we surrender our enemies the Risen One it is not simply a letting go, we surrender our enemies to Christ because we are trusting in the conquering promise of Easter.  That life overthrows death, that ligh banishes the darkness, that mercy does cover the theives and bandits which destroy and kill, that Jesus lives to bring life abundantly for all.   We trust that God will do a good work in us, in our enemies, in our lives so that one day, we all will be able to say "surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of our lives".

In just a moment we will hear a beautiful and simple setting of Psalm 23 by Jon Foreman called "House of God Forever".  While the music plays you are invited to reflect on the enemies in your life, or the enemy you may have been for others.  Write down a word or prhase or list that captures the reality of enemies that you've experienced.  Then, when you come forward to the table that God has prepared, when you come forward to recieve communion leave your enemies here on this table, in the presence of God.  We will spend time in prayer after communion praying for these enemies, trusting that God really is preparing a table before us, a table before all the vunerable people of the world..

Come to the table and remember Jesus who stands up to our enemies and the powers of death in this world and responds with love.  Love so strong and so wide that it encompasses all of who we are.  And we remember Jesus who prepares this table through the enemy we will all face one day...the enemy of death, and we remember the promise of this Easter season which sets the table with mercy and goodness in the house of God forever.
5 You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
   my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
   all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
   my whole life long.

Thanks be to God, the Good Shepherd.  Amen. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Darkness will be Doubly Dark

Sermon – Holden Village
Easter II
Year A

May I begin with a little liturgical public service announcement? The lectionary is the word which names the pattern of scripture that is read in worship each Sunday.  We are brought into unity with other Christian communities as most Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists and many other bodies of Christ around the world hear the same bible readings we hear tonight. The lectionary is a three year cycle, year A focuses on the gospel of Matthew, year B on the gospel of Mark and year C on the gospel of Luke. Each Sunday we get a reading from the featured gospel, an Old Testament reading that compliments the gospel, a Psalm (which we sing) that supports the scriptural theme and a New Testament reading that either follows the theme of sometimes we just work our way through a New Testament book for a month or so.

You may or may not know that one gospel account that does not get a designated year and that is the gospel of John – that incredible book is sprinkled throughout all three of the lectionary years and is heavily used after Easter and into the summer months.  So, beginning in Advent – the beginning of the church calendar we entered Year A – the gospel of Matthew and will stay in that year until the end of November when the liturgical year ends and begins again with the gospel of Mark.

Why am I telling you this? Because we have arrived at one of the few Sundays when the texts are always the same, from Year A to B to C – every year on the first Sunday after the resurrection of Jesus we have these texts.  And really, they are a big ‘ole killjoy!  This Sunday is often referred to as Doubting Thomas Sunday, focusing on the questions and needs for this one disciple to believe in the resurrection of his friend and Rabbi.  Given the time of year, and the abundant beauty of our worship space – it feels as though we should still have stories in the garden, people running freely and yelling joyfully “He is Risen!”  Instead we have the disciples, terrified, hiding in a locked and darkened room.

This move of the lectionary, which brings us from the high of Eastern morn and immediately into the reality of what resurrection really means in for our daily living feels jarring…it also feels real.  When Becky was transforming the ReReDos into their Easter glory, she astutely commented that the deep, Lenten purple would not be easily hidden, it just kept bleeding through to give our Easter white a  dose of reality.  The promises of God were certainly fulfilled on Easter, and they are laid over our real, scarred, terrifying existence.  The white is so true it will not erase the purple of our lives, but transform it into something new.  

And so every year we have the very candid disciples,. ..wondering how the empty tomb will now alter or even derail life as they once knew it.  The promises of God are not all Easter lilies and high holy hymns, the promise of God come out of darkened caves and into our locked rooms.

The gospel writer, John is always telling us what time of day it is.  And for John – the cover of dark is a large part of the entire gospel story.  Nicodemus comes to ask questions of Jesus at night,  Jesus walked on the stormy waters after evening had fallen and even  the betrayal and arrest of Jesus happened in the dark.  This is the season of white, of brilliant and dazzling hope.  And yet our gospel story has pulled us into a darker place…a locked room at nightfall. 

Time article promoting Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book,  recommended by Sue Wilson…
It is 10:45 on a Sunday night when Barabara Brown Taylor sets off from her front porch.  The light in her northern Georgia farmhouse are off, the chickens have been cooped, and her husband Ed has cleaned the kitchen and gone upstairs to bed.  A waning moon will not rise for hours.  Time for a walk.  Most spiritual seekers spend their lives pursuing enlightenment.  But this Easter-tide, Taylor is encouraging believers and nonbelievers not only to seek the light but to face the darkness too, something that 21st century Americans tend to resist.  For the past four years, the popular 62-year-old preacher has explored wild caves, lived as if blind, stared into her darkest emotions and, over and over, simply walked out into the night.  The reasons, she says, are that contemporary spirituality is too feel-good, that darkness holds more lessons that light and that contrary to what many of us have long believed, it is sometimes in the bleakest void that God is nearest.
On a very practical level, she says, we pay a high price to shut out the darkness.  We glue our eyes to screens by day, while electric light hampers our ability to sleep at night.  Then, when we lie awake with all our fears, we turn to solitaire or to sleep aids to cope.  Our spiritual avoidance of the dark may be even more dangerous.  Our culture’s ability to tolerate sadness is weak.  As individuals, we often run away from it.  “We are supposed to get over it…do whatever it takes to become less sad,” she says.  “Turning in to darkness, instead of away from it, is the cure for a lot of what ails me.  Because I have a deep need to be in control of things…to do it all without help—and you can’t do any of that in the dark.”

Reading this article led to reflection on the physical darkness we experience in the village– sometimes on purpose, sometimes accidentally.  We know the darkness of power outages, we know the seasonal darkness of the sun staying hidden behind the mountain peaks and the lengthening of nighttime in the heart of the winter.  We also know darkness which we invite – each Friday night when the worship space is transformed into a darkened room.  Why is the absence of light such an effective way of centering our thoughts and prayers, helping us to relax into prayer or meditation, clinging to promises spoken out in the darkness.  Does it take the presence of darkness to help our honest tears flow, or our need to save face finally collapse?

Or how about the stages of darkness we live through.  Transitions, unknowns, strained relationships, personal failures, disease or injustice…darkness comes in all sorts shades and concentrations.   And it is most often in these times of darkness, when everything else that so easily distracts us or distorts our spiritual living falls away, and we are forced to lean on our faith instead of our own understand. 

Back to that locked room and the disciples…Thomas is asking for signs of faith he can see and touch.  Thomas comes to the darkened room, travelling in fear in the evening and hears about the resurrected Jesus.  He gets what we, contemporary disciples get, a second hand account of the story without the flesh.  He makes an honest statement of what he spiritually needs and is forever cast as “doubting Thomas” in the legacy of the church.  Could his doubt be renamed honesty…or a cry for help? In the dark he calls out for what he needs to help his unbelief, to help his sense of God’s presence, to understand what the resurrection will mean as he moves forward in life. 

The gift of faith comes to Thomas in the form of the risen Jesus.  Jesus appears in the dark room, and speaks a word of peace.   Perhaps the gift of faith comes to us more profoundly in the dark because that is where we need it the most.  The seasons of light are the seasons where we have more answers and feel more self-sufficient and who needs faith when all is well? Seasons of darkness are the seasons that crack us open, reminding us of our need for everlasting Love and unfailing mercy.  In the dark we can hear the voice of the risen Christ saying to us, “Peace be with you” even when we are locked in our dark rooms for fear of all we do not know or understand.

Martin Luther speaks of faith this way, “Faith is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (John 1). It kills the old Adam and the old Eve and makes altogether different people, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and it brings with it the Holy Spirit…Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a person would stake their life on it a thousand times.[i]

We are children of God who call upon faith, not in the times of light, but in times of darkness.  That is where we look to God, walk in faith, through the darkness we cannot navigate on our own! The darkness corrects our ways of self-sufficient living and allows us to surrender to the God of life and light-  in the darkness we confess our doubts, our failures and because of this risen Christ we are generously led to faith in God.
Spend time in the physical darkness, and face the inner and surrounding darkness of your life and this world.  For the risen Christ is there, waiting to speak that word of peace and to bring faith.  Our seasons or experiences of darkness will not ultimately be defined by the darkness itself, but they will meet the resurrected Jesus and therefore, be forever transformed, new ways of understanding and living will come with this life of faith.  Wrestle with your emotional darkness and listen for the voice of God which speaks words of life and light. 

Barbara Brown Taylor says this: New life starts in the dark.  Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!