Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Shelter, Nurture, and Spiritual Fellowship of the Children of God

My daughter Diana Mae likes to play a game called Baby Bird.
It's a game she invented. She tells me what to do.
After her bath but before she goes to sleep, I have to pick her up and carry her to her bed,
And wrap her up in the middle of the bed like a little egg.
Then I have to hold her for a moment, all wrapped up, and say,
"Little egg, you're safe and warm, here in the nest. I'm going to go and get some worms for you so they will be here when you're ready to hatch."
Then I fly away, and she will call, from inside her blanket egg, "Remember to flap your wings!"
And so I obediently flap, feeling a bit silly, as I collect worms from the hallway.
And then I return, and wait for my little egg to hatch.
She peeks her head out from the cloth, and then she emerges into my arms, and I say, "Oh, baby bird, I'm so glad you're here!"
And then we go to search for worms together.
It's not really a game at all actually; it's more of a liturgy,
A ritual she created to celebrate our relationship as mother and child.
Human beings have, as long as recorded history exists, identified with our feathered friends.
Each of us could probably name an enthusiastic bird watcher we know, yet I've never heard of "reptile watchers" or "crustacean enthusiasts."
For some reason, we see the life of a bird as metaphorical of human life.
After you hatch, you're a little duckling, growing and learning until you spread your wings and fly the coop.
Then you spend a few years living as a crazy night owl, just free as a bird, on a wild goose chase seeking a mate for life or just cute chicks.
You know about the birds and the bees, but one day you just get goose bumps, because you've found the person with whom you'll build your little nest, and you're just as happy as a lark.
You know that the early bird catches the worm.
You're not going to chicken out with this one.
And so you preen your feathers and do your little mating dance, and when she responds you feel like the goose that laid the golden egg.
You don't want to count your chickens before they're hatched, but hey, you've got your ducks in a row;
You're moving up the pecking order at work, got a couple of little nestlings on the way    .
But then one day, your chickens come home to roost, and trouble comes your way.
No worries. You're not one to affect a fowl mood.
You're in fine feather whatever comes your way, and trouble is like water off a duck's back.
But before you know it, you've got an empty nest,
You turn around and you're no spring chicken anymore.
And so you start to think about your life and what it means,
You look to the heavens and your spirit soars; you sing your swan song and you fly away.
Why do we think of ourselves in avian terms?
Heaven knows, but we are like birds, unique in our capacity to communicate through sound.
Birdsong has been shown to have nouns and verbs just like human speech.
And birds seem, like us, to have some kind of preference for sounds that are musical;
In Why Birds Sing, David Rothernberg claims that birds vocalize traditional scales used in human music, such as the pentatonic scale and diatonic scale.
Birdsong has inspired the music of our greatest composers, including Beethoven, Vivaldi, and Wagner.
But there's even more to it than that;
Like birds, we are able to soar above other animals; they literally so, we through our intellectual capacity to soar to new heights.
We have been captivated by the ability to fly which they physically have and we do not, and so thrilling was the moment in our human history when we were finally able to join them in the skies.
We humans are crazy as loons about birds.
Bird references are frequent in Scripture,
Including Psalm 84 which we read today;
"Even the sparrow finds a home,
   and the swallow a nest for herself,
   where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
   my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house,
   ever singing your praise."
When I read the words, "the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God," I thought of this image,
Of the sparrow finding its shelter, being nurtured and cared for in its nest,
The warm shelter of the house of God.
Psalm 84 is a song of pilgrimage.
We know that the People of God would sing this and other songs as they approached Jerusalem, preparing to enter the Temple for Passover, the feast of weeks, and the feast of booths, required journeys under the Law of Moses.
These journeys, the psalms themselves tell us, could be physically taxing and dangerous,
With snakes, hot sun, and highway robbers to worry about.
Without radio to listen to in the car, pilgrims would sing these psalms to encourage one another.
As they neared the Temple, singing these songs, their excitement increased,
Beholding the awe and wonder of the city and its shining Temple.
And so the psalm exalts, "A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere,"
The people sang, "it would be better to be a humble doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than a guest in the tents of the wicked."
Do we feel this way today?
Do our souls long for the courts of the Lord?
Although church is not always a place of perfect shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship,
I do love the church, and I believe you do as well.
People might think we are strange because we would rather be doorkeepers in the house of the Lord than guests in tents of wickedness,
Because we would rather hold open doors for folks at church, than, say, spend the morning at Greektown Casino,
Speaking for myself anyway, I'd rather do work for free in the church than spend money on something like that.
For church people, the church is our home, and its nurture and care is vital to our very existence.
We need church.
There's a saying that you can't be a Christian on your own.
Although so many people try, we need church to guide us, to nurture us along the way,
And more than that, we need church because the church needs us.
The church is Christ's body here on Earth, and if someone is missing, well, Christ could be missing his ears, his eyes, his hands, his feet.
You might not be getting anything out of worship on a particular Sunday,
But the person next to you needed you to be there.
And another day, you will find yourself in need of her prayers and support.
I know we have all felt this.
As a teenager in Grosse Pointe, I never really felt like I fit in in my high school.
Adolescence is difficult, and I had moved into a pretty tight-knit community where people could be sometimes unwelcoming of newcomers.
The church became a refuge for me.
I found shelter and nurture under its wings.
I found opportunities to serve others through mission trips to Israel and downtown Detroit.
And more than that, people saw me.
When Rev. Nancy Mikoski mentioned to me that I should apply to be a church intern as a summer job,
I was so honored that she should see something in me like that.
During those important formative years, I was cared for like a vulnerable baby bird,
The church fed me and raised me and helped me find wings to fly.
And no matter where I go, when I am in church, I know I am among people who love me, because they love God.
In the black church, there's a saying, "It's great to be in the house of the Lord."
I've heard it often, but it's especially important if a guest is visiting from another church.
The guest will say, "It's great to be in the house of the Lord," and the church will shout "Amen!"
The visitor is saying, you are the house of the Lord.
You are church. God is here. This is home.
And the church is saying, yes, thank you for seeing that we are church,
God is here, welcome, you are home.
Here is the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.
This is the second great end of the church.
I like that we place it second. Our first calling is to proclaim the Good News.
We can never let caring for ourselves replace that.
And often, I think that churches today do spend too much time and money on ourselves and not enough time and money reaching out.
Yet the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God is essential.
You can't be a Christian on your own because you need shelter.
You need a safe place.
Each of us, like my little girl, need to know that there is a safe nest for us to fly home to, with someone waiting to care for us.
Or it may be that someone needs you to create a safe place for him.
I believe Starr Church is literally doing this by providing a shelter for people in need,
A safe place for them to go, through the Welcome Inn mission and through our warming shelter in the coldest months.
You also need nurture.
The baby bird needs to be fed.
And we need to be fed on the Word of God.
Bible studies and small groups in the church are so necessary,
So that we can really learn, ask questions, and dig deeper into what God has to say to us.
It is my belief that everyone in the church should belong to some kind of group or partnership like this that helps him grow spiritually, because like the little bird, we are called to grow up, growing more and more into the image of Christ.
And third you need spiritual fellowship.
Is there any stronger image of family togetherness than mama bird and daddy bird, feeding hungry mouths in the well-kept nest?
Our church, too, is a family, and we need spiritual fellowship.
Not just coffee, cookies, and potlucks,
But fellowship that is rooted in our relationship with God.
When we fellowship in the church, we are called to go beyond small talk,
To remind one another through our words and actions to trust God, to follow God's direction, to pray, to remember that God loves us.
When we are doing church right, our conversation is Spirit-filled, and our actions even more so,
So that when members and visitors come here they experience the presence of God.
And we are all in need of that presence.
Our hearts long for the courts of the Lord.
Because God is here.
We are, all of us, weak and vulnerable as baby birds.
Even though we like to pretend we have it all figured out, this Great End of the Church reminds us—we are, at heart, children. Children of God.
Who is the church's mama bird?
Certainly not me.
The Word of God says in Psalm 91, "he will shelter you under his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge."
And Jesus laments over the city, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how have I longed to gather you, as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings."
The Lord is the mother bird, who gathers us in, shelters us, feeds us, nurtures us.
We long for the church because God is waiting for us there,
Ready to welcome us, to keep us safe and warm.
And God is here;
God is in the hymns, the words, the caring faces, the warm hugs,
The Holy Spirit is among us.
And so when we come here we know we will never be turned away.
When we come here we know are safe in the nest..
Like a mother bird, the Lord opens his wings, and wraps us up, whispering, "Oh my child, I'm so glad you're here."
And we are home.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
"Under the Shadow of His Wings," by Gladiola Sotomayor. Available at

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind

Why are we here?
What's the point of church?
Is it entertainment on Sunday morning?
Is it a social club where we can spend time with like-minded individuals?
Is it a business meant to profit ministers?
In 1910 the United Presbyterian Church of North America, one of the predecessor denominations to the Presbyterian Church (USA), asked themselves—what are we doing here?
No record of their conversation remains.
All we have is their answer, which has been so powerful to Presbyterians that it has been recreated, nearly word for word, in the first chapter of the Presbyterian Book of Order ever since:
It's printed in your bulletin, so why don't we read it together?
The great ends of the church are:
•    The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind
•    The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God
•    The maintenance of divine worship
•    The preservation of the truth
•    The promotion of social righteousness
•    The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world
As you and I begin a pastoral relationship here at Starr, I thought we should think about our mission—why are we here? 
What are we as a church meant to do?
What are we already doing pretty well, and what could we be doing better?
How can we be church?
Ever since I first read the Great Ends of the Church, I have seen great truth in them.
Since few Presbyterians could even name one of these bullet points in our church's mission statement, it would do us good to learn about them as a way to consider our own church's mission and purpose.
So beginning at the beginning:
The proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind.
Way to put first things first!
It's a bold statement: we are meant to proclaim the Gospel and save the world.
Doesn't it sound a bit arrogant to our twentifirst century ears?
How can we claim that we know about salvation and others don't?
Aren't Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist truths,
Aren't new age truths, or the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, as valid as the truth of Christ?
Isn't everyone already on the path to salvation?
The Presbyterian Church's mission statement seems to say no.
Romans 10 would agree.
Romans is the fullest explanation of Paul's thought.
At this point in Romans, Paul has laid out his message: what's our problem? Answer: we are sinners incapable of saving ourselves. What's the solution? Accepting the grace that comes from Jesus Christ. And now Paul turns to a new question:  Well, what about those who haven't accepted the grace of Jesus Christ?
Most important to Paul is the Jewish community from which Paul, and most Christians, come.
And in Romans 10, Paul's answer is that to be saved, we need to accept Christ into our hearts and confess him with our lips.
Paul says that "being ignorant of the righteousness of Christ, they seek to establish their own."
Could this not be said of a lot of people today?
Without knowing Christ, we seek to be righteous on our own.
And, in my opinion, that path can lead us farther and farther away from God's goodness.
You may have read a news story this week that Pope Francis declared that he believes that atheists can go to heaven, that if they keep doing good works they can come into a relationship with Christ.
Like a lot of Christians, I'm a fan of Francis, and I think he can do great things for Christianity and the Catholic Church.
But I wonder, without a relationship with God, will it be easy for someone to be led astray?
Is trying to do something good enough without a relationship with God to direct you?
I've been watching the show Breaking Bad on AMC with my husband,
If you haven't heard of it, this is the story of Walter White,
Who is a chemistry teacher at a local high school.
Walt is diagnosed with terminal cancer,
And in frustration and disappointment with life, he decides that he's going to do something with his last remaining days.
He's going to leave his family a legacy.
And he's going to do it by starting up a meth lab.
With his chemistry expertise, Walt can cook up extraordinarily pure form of the drug methamphetamine
Yet at each step of the way, Walt makes more and more moral compromises.
The genius of the show is, Walt is not the exalted anti-hero in so much entertainment today,
The guy who makes some moral compromises but is still ultimately a good person.
Rather, each compromise Walt makes takes him further and further into the heart of darkness.
Lying to his wife undercuts their marriage.
Business success requires sacrifices.
Sacrifices become blood sacrifices.
And we watch as he justifies further and further depravity with his own twisted moral logic,
Repeating, "I'm doing this for my family, I'm doing this for my family,"
I'm reminded of what CS Lewis said: that evil is most tempting when it takes the guise of something good, like family, or politics, or health,
The most powerful idols are the ones that remind us of God, and so have the power to lead us astray.
"I'm doing this for my family."
With the idol of family before him, Walter White becomes more of a monster than a man.
As Paul says, "being ignorant of the righteousness of Christ, they seek to establish their own."
People follow many different paths, establishing their own righteousness,
But the witness of Scripture is that true righteousness is found only in the grace of Jesus Christ.
And that's the good news.
What I love about Christianity, distinct from all other religions,
Is that salvation doesn't depend on my actions but on God's love.
It's not about me finding the right path; it's about me having a relationship with Christ.
Paul says, "there is righteousness for everyone who believes."
According to Romans, "if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
That's it. Confess it with your lips; believe it in your heart.
You can mess up and do wrong. God knows you will mess up and do wrong.
If you sincerely believe, God will help you follow Christ more and more.
We don't have to understand deep theology: Paul says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ down)
If we think we have a complete understanding of the things of God,
that would be bringing Christ down.
We don't have to bring the Messiah to earth either: Paul says, don't ask, “Who will descend into the abyss?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
It's not our job to resurrect Christ. It's not our job to be perfect or to save the world.
That's God's job.
Our job, our calling, is to receive Christ into our hearts.
And in our doing so we are compelled to share Christ with others.
To share Christ with others is not arrogance.
It's the humility to say, I am a sinner; I don't have all the answers; I realize I need a Savior; I depend on God to get through the day; and I'm telling you about it hoping He might help you.
We share the good news without shame and we share the good news without judgment.
Listen to the exact wording of this, the first great end of the church:
The proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind.
We proclaim the Gospel "for" the salvation of "humankind."
This is how Presbyterians are different from other traditions that speak more frequently about saving souls.
There are two differences of emphasis:
One, the salvation of humankind is not the same as personal salvation.
The salvation of humankind is the physical, economic, social, emotional, personal, communal, and spiritual salvation of all people.
It goes beyond a one time experience of one person accepting Christ.
Second, we preach the Gospel for the salvation of humankind, but we don't preach the Gospel so that we can save humankind.
Saving humankind is God's job.
We are only His instruments.
Any preacher knows that when you preach, it's not your words that reach people.
It's God's Word.
I have had many people come up to me and say, "It was amazing what you said, when you spoke about thus and so, it was like you were speaking right to me."
But I never spoke about thus and so. People have told me I said things I never said.
And I don't know a preacher this has not happened to.
God wanted that person to hear something, and between my mouth and his ears he heard it.
When we set out to proclaim the Gospel, God uses us beyond our own capability.
We are God's instruments, but we never know what music God is making through us.
We can't determine how God will save humankind.
It would be arrogant to say that a person is unsaved because she is Jewish or he is a New Ager.
We don't know how others might accept Christ in ways we can't see.
As Paul says in Corinthians, "It is before their own Lord that they stand or fall."
What we know, what we are called to do, is to be good instruments.
To share the Gospel.
As Romans recalls the words of the prophet Joel,
"For How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed?
And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?
And how shall they hear without a preacher?"
We are all called to be preachers, to share the Gospel with everyone we meet,
To share it one by one and by the thousands,
To share with passion and to share with compassion,
To share the great Story and to share our own stories,
To share, and then to be ready to listen to how God is moving in our world.
And God is moving.
This is World Communion Sunday.
Growing up I used to think about people in far-off lands who had never heard of Christ,
And I would feel sad and anxious thinking of them not knowing Jesus.
"How shall they hear without a preacher?"
But today, Christ has been proclaimed to nearly every nation and tongue,
And where he has been proclaimed, millions, billions have accepted him as Lord and Savior.
We celebrate today because people are communing with Christ in Africa, and the Middle East, in Asia, in South America, and all over the world.
We celebrate a great gathering of believers whom we may never meet, but who are our brothers and sisters in Christ.
And let me tell you from my mission experiences and my relationships with Christians from around the world, particularly Christians I have known from Africa and Central America:
They are not afraid to proclaim the Gospel for the salvation of humankind.
We could use some of that global evangelical zeal here, where so many have fallen away.
Where so many have sought to be righteous on our own,
And found themselves breaking away from God's goodness,
Have found themselves breaking on a bad path.
We are called to lead them back.
We are called to show them the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
We are called to tell them His name. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

We Are Groot

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.  John 20

Has church ever made you depressed?
Have you ever prepared for a meeting, or a Bible study,
Ordered materials, organized your notes, made lunch for a whole group,
Promoted it in the bulletin and told all your friends,
Then sat and waited only…
To have no one show up?
Has that ever happened to you?
Have you ever sung a hymn with the congregation and been saddened by how quiet God's praise sounded?
Have you ever looked through the church directory and gotten depressed about how many people have, well, joined the heavenly choir?
I have.
Even in the medium-sized and big churches, it's hard sometimes,
Because you might have a lot of folks on the rolls, but that doesn't mean there are a lot of folks in the pews.
Church is just plain becoming less popular.
About one in five Americans attends a religious service on a weekly basis.
Among millennials, that is, teens and twentysomethings,
The number is more like one in ten.
I'm not really convinced that even the megachurches are growing at the rates they once were.
It's not just a Presbyterian problem, it's a church problem, a church illness.
A grave illness, so to speak.
Churches are closing.
Churches are dying.
This is something I've seen and you've seen,
Among family members whom we love and friends who we love
Who don't understand why we keep coming to church.
Who would never themselves show up, Sunday after Sunday.
The people who might come to help out at the soup kitchen but would never show up in worship.
There are fewer and fewer of us doing the work of keeping the church alive.
So, why do we show up?
Why do we plan the Bible study?
Why do we sing the lackluster-sounding hymn?
Why do we bake cookies for twenty and have two show up?
Why do we give so much of our time and money and energy to something that can be so depressing?
Well, why did Mary show up?
What was the point of going to the tomb?
She knows what she's going to find there.
And it won't be pretty.
It won't smell pretty.
That's why she has to bring some spices.
She's going to anoint Jesus's body,
But it's something of a fool's errand, because there is a hugs stone in front of Jesus's tomb,
Between her and Jesus.
Why did she think she could still get to Jesus?
She couldn't have thought the guards would let her in,
Would roll the stone away,
It weighed about two thousand pounds.
Not something an armed Roman guard was likely to do for an ordinary Jewish woman.
So why is this woman here?
Why is she clinging to a dead hope?
In the Gospel of John, she shows up alone,
In the other gospels, there are a couple of women with her,
But not more than a handful
Not enough to hold a worship service
A couple of women, clinging to a dead Savior.
Mary, and maybe a couple of her friends.
That's who showed up for the Resurrection.
When she saw the stone rolled away,
She didn't believe it then.
She assumed as any sensible, rational person would,
That someone had taken Jesus's body away.
So she ran to tell the disciples of this terrible tragedy.
There had been twelve of them,
Seventy at one point,
But who came to the empty tomb?
Peter and John.
They looked in the tomb and saw that the body was gone,
The linens laid aside in an odd way,
But still they didn't get it.
Some people interpret verse 8 as belief in the resurrection.
Verse 8 says, "the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, went in, and he saw and believed."
Some interpreters think that what the other disciple, who is John himself being humble,
Believed was the resurrection.
But the rest of the sentence is "for they did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead."
If they didn't understand it, they wouldn't have believed it.
So I think what he believed, what all of them believed, was that the body had been stolen,
Likely by the Romans and collaborators among the Jewish elites who had Jesus executed in the first place.
What seals it for me is that they don't seem to tell anybody about it.
Now that would have been pretty strange.
To have your religious leader die a terrible public death, realize he had come back to life, and tell no one.
If you lost your keys and thought they were gone for three days and then you found them unexpectedly in a kitchen cabinet of all places, would you tell anybody about it?
If one of your azaleas looked totally brown and dead in the spring and you thought you would have to replace it, but then it unexpectedly perked up and went into full bloom, would you tell people about it?
If you swatted a really annoying mosquito and saw it all dead and yucky and then it came back to life, would you tell anybody about it?
So if your rabbi, your teacher, your pastor, your friend, your Messiah had died and you believed he had come back to life, would you tell anybody about it?
Well, have you told anybody about it lately?
Peter didn't.  John didn't.  If they believed, they must not have believed much.
Not enough to share the news.
Not enough to change their lives.
Not enough to stay and see what happened next.
But Mary did.
Mary in her sadness clung to her king.
Mary clung to the little she had left of her Savior.
Mary, depressed, weeping, held on to all she had of Jesus, even if it was only his dead body.
Mary, the last believer.
And as she stood there, weeping, a man came up to her.
She assumed he was a caretaker, a cemetery gardener.
But then he said, "Mary."  And she knew.
She believed.
She believed so much she told everyone she knew.
And that's why we're sitting here today.
Because of an ordinary woman, probably not a prostitute, but likely something of a misfit
Because of a ragtag little group of weirdoes called disciples
Because we believe their story
We believe something happened in that tomb
We believe the stone was rolled away
We believe love is stronger than death
We believe this life, this planet, this universe, this church never had to exist
It's here because there is a God whose love beats through this universe like a heartbeat
Called it into life and calls it into resurrection.
And that's why we show up on a Sunday morning.
All it takes is for one person to believe.
All it takes is for one person to cling to hope, to love, to life.
I was reminded of that recently.
If you haven't seen the movie Guardians of the Galaxy I recommend it.
For the music alone, but also for the message.
You see, there's this little ragtag group of outlaws, misfits, weirdoes generally
Who meet up in prison and figure out that they're in charge of saving the world.
Or worlds, in this case.
And among them is a talking raccoon named Rocket, who travels with this creature that's described as his sidekick, muscle, and walking houseplant.
The creature is known as Groot.
We know because this thing, who is, in essence, a walking tree, says only three words:  I. Am. Groot.
We think of Groot as Rocket's sidekick, but things may actually be the other way around,
Because…major spoiler alert….
When the spaceship is crashing to the ground,
Groot grows all around it, strengthening it, saving it, at the cost of his own life.
And as he dies, he explains why:
His last words:  We are Groot.
It's difficult for someone who goes to seminary not to watch this and think of another strange wanderer,
Who said "I Am" a whole heck of a lot and who may not have been made of wood, but he was a carpenter,
And who gave his life for the community, so that we could become a part of his life.
Sometimes we in the church forget that Christ died not only for us personally, but for us communally.
He wanted us to have new life as the body of Christ.
The church not a building, not an institution, not a club.
The church is Christ's body on earth.
We are part of him.  We are Groot.
After Groot dies, Rocket is destroyed.
He searches through the rubble of the spaceship and finds only a little twig.
And through the rest of the film, the strange, depressed raccoon carries this twig in a little pot.
I was wondering why he would do such a thing,
Why won't you give it up?
Why do you keep clinging to threads?  Grasping at straws?
Why won't you bury what is dead and move on?
Then, in the closing moments of the film, with Rocket still mourning, the twig wakes up.
And begins to dance.
To Jackson 5's "I Want You Back."
All it takes is one person to believe.
All it takes is one person to cling to hope, to love, to life.
We here,
We are the people who hold on to the little branch
We are the faithful remnant
We are the people who show up to an empty church
We are the people who show up to an empty tomb
We are the people who expect miracles.
Even when it's tough.
Last fall about this time, we started a little Bible study at Oakland University.
Other than the Roman Catholics, we were the only church sponsored group on campus.
Our meetings never had more than five or six kids.
Sometimes I wondered, why am I doing this?
Why am I baking cookies for twelve just in case extra people show up?
Why when we can't even rent space on campus are we going ahead and having a Bible study?
Why do I come here on a Friday and spend twenty minutes finding a place to park at Oakland just so I can hang out with two or three college kids?
When one of them ended up in the ICU and I was among that student's first phone calls, I knew why.
When one of them told me, before this year, "I didn't know what I was.  Now I can tell people I'm a Christian and a Presbyterian."  Then I knew why.
When I received a text message that read, "I want to be baptized,"
I knew why.
When we hold on to that little twig,
When we cling to our Savior,
When we keep looking for God despite all reason, despite all logic, despite all it costs,
God finds us.
Why am I preaching about Easter right now?  I'm aware it's September.
Well, because I know right now it's hard sometimes.
Right now you and I can get discouraged by church.  Even depressed.
But you see, we aren't in this on our own.
We're part of something bigger.
We've got muscle.  We've got a sidekick.  You've got a friend who would die for you and did.
Who is, in fact, one with you.
You are Groot.
We are Groot.
We are one with Christ.
We may look weak, but we are in truth united to a resurrection power.
Since we are Christ's body on earth,
Since we believe,
Since we cling to this truth like a little twig we won't give up on,
I believe we will see resurrection.
We will see miracles.
We will meet again the God of lost hopes, of second chances,
Of new life.
Our God is a strong God.
Our God is stronger
Stronger than all those stones,
Those two thousand pound stones,
Sitting on people's hearts, keeping them from Jesus
Our God who will roll those stones away
Our God is tougher than the stones
Our God is actually stronger than anything this world can dish out.
This we believe.
This is our message to the world.
He is risen indeed.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

God Will Provide

Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

I can barely read that story out loud.
Genesis 22.
The terrible details.
The sharp knife,
The fire, blazing on its torch.
The wood.
All the steps detailed with maddening slowness.
Abraham rises early in the morning.
For how could he have slept?
He has two men to help him.
He saddles the donkey.
Making sure he has everything he needs.
The fire.  The wood.  The rope.  The knife.
They come to the mountain.
It stands tall, terrible before them,
Unmoving and impossible as God’s command.
And from here, Abraham and Isaac must go on alone.
He makes Isaac carry the wood.
Isaac turns to his father.
Did his voice shake?
Were his eyes filled with tears?
Did he know?
And his question that wrenches the heart, father, where is the lamb for the sacrifice?
The father answers, God will provide the lamb.
They reach the top of the mountain,
And Abraham took his son Isaac,
Bound him with rope to the rock,
Strapped him down and raised the knife over his baby boy.
Did he have to wrestle his child to the ground?
Was his son crying out in fear?
How can we read this?
How can we accept as Holy Scripture a text that I feel uncomfortable reading when children are in the sanctuary?
How can I talk about this moments before a baptism?
How can we just say, “The Word of the Lord,” to this?
Can you imagine your own child?
A child you love?
A child who has reached up to take your hand?
A child who has trustingly fallen asleep in your arms?
God says, Abraham, take your son, your only son, whom you love,
As though to torture this father.
Isaac is not just a child.
Isaac is the long-awaited promise of the future.
Isaac is the fulfillment of years of hope deferred.
Isaac is the hope of any couple who have experienced infertility:  a miracle baby.
Abraham and Sarah have gone through years of trying and failing,
Have withstood the well-meaning questions and the snide whispers,
Have withstood the continual bleeding out of lost hopes,
Have withstood the pain of watching as everyone around them celebrates what they will never share,   
And have been surprised by a miracle.
God has ordered Abraham to kill that miracle.
I wonder what would have happened if God had asked Sarah instead of Abraham.
How can we believe this of God?
Who are you, God of Genesis 22, and what have you done with the loving and gracious Father I believe in?
I was talking to a Jewish man who at the time only attends synagogue on the day of Atonement,
And he hates that annual duty because the reading is always the same:  the sacrifice of Isaac.
He cannot believe God would force people to have that kind of faith.
He cannot imagine doing such a thing to his own children.
It is as though to my friend God is a terrible and abusive parent.
And theologians have had the same reactions.
Rabbi David Blumenthal was once asked by a psychiatrist, “Are you trying to say that God is an Abuser?  If so, you should just come right out and say it.”
And so, Rabbi Blumenthal did.
Some people see in this text God as an abusive father.
Who hurts his own children, saying, it’s good for you.
Saying, you asked for it.
Is this the God we believe in?
A God who would ask this of a father?
What kind of faith does this God want us to have?
The kind of faith that would compel us to do something without any perceived moral good,
The kind of faith that would compel us to destroy someone young and defenseless,
The kind of faith that would compel us to do something almost physically impossible for a parent to do,
The kind of faith that would make me kill my daughter?
Is that what God wants?
A faith that would kill without reason because God ordered it?
Is Abraham’s faith the faith of Dan and Ron Lafferty, fundamentalist Mormons who in 1984 killed their sister-in-law Brenda and her infant daughter Erica?
Is the faith God wants the faith of Scott Roeder, pro-life activist who in 2009 shot and killed doctor George Tiller, while Dr. Tiller was serving as an usher in his church?
Does God want us to have the faith of Mohammed Atta, one of the September 2011 hijackers, who had in his checked luggage reassurances that he should feel complete tranquility, because the time between now and his marriage in heaven would be very short?
Mohammed had also reminded himself,   
With the twisted, high-mindedness of the deranged, keep your knife sharp.  You must not discomfort the animal during the slaughter.
Is this the kind of faith Abraham had?
Is this the kind of faith we are supposed to have?
That once God has given a directive it must be obeyed, no matter how much our moral compass, our hearts, our souls, find that directive reprehensible?
I do not believe it and I will not believe it.
I don’t like that this text is paired in the lectionary with Matthew 10, in which Jesus calls us to love God more than our children.
I do love God more than I love my child.
And that is why I would not kill my child or any child.
When my daughter was born, I had never known such a visceral love.
I began to have irrational fears of all the things that could happen to her.
I could leave her carseat behind my car, forget and run her over.
What if she rolled over in the night and was smothered in her bed?  Shouldn’t I watch her all night long?
I imagined my daughter’s death and I imagined how I would kill myself.
Because there seemed to me no other choice.
And when I heard myself have that thought, I prayed.
I prayed, God, do not let my daughter become an idol.
I prayed to love God more than I loved my daughter,
Knowing in that way I would be a better mother.
And in that moment my whole perspective changed.
And so, I am the mother whose daughter can be found climbing up a slide on the far end of the playground.
When she broke her foot last year, people asked if I was so scared.
And I did feel for her in her pain.
But I also thought it was just a little bit funny that she thought she would try to fly down the basement stairs.
I trust God with my child.
I love my daughter, but I love God more.
And that is why I would not kill my child or any child.
My faith in God is faith in Good.
I believe Good and God are the same thing.
My faith is not just that God is mighty but that God is good.
That he would not order me to do something that is wrong.
And so my reading of this text is different from many preachers and theologians and biblical scholars I have heard and read.
I believe Abraham’s faith was not an unquestioning obeisance of whatever command he believed he heard from on high.
I believe Abraham’s faith was such that he trusted that God would show mercy.
I believe that when Abraham said to his two assistants that he would come back down the mountain with Isaac he was not lying.  He believed that was what would happen.
And that when Abraham told Isaac God would provide the ram,
That is exactly and literally what he believed.
That Abraham held within him both the faith to take every step leading up to the altar,
And the faith that he would have a reprieve.
I believe this story is included in Scripture not to tell us to sacrifice to our children,
But the exact opposite: to teach God’s people not to kill children,
To not follow the popular religion of Molech at that time an in that area,
Which Scripture records had drawn away the Israelites from the worship of the one true God,
Or the many ancient religions that practiced child sacrifice.
In many places in Scripture God condemns child sacrifice, and God would not contradict God.
I believe God meant through this story to show us the cruelty of that sacrifice, and to point us to another way.
And I believe something else too.
I believe Isaac knew.
I do not believe Isaac fought.
I believe Isaac carried that wood up the hill knowing.
I believe Isaac laid himself upon the stone knowing, and accepting, and trusting.
And that as he felt the ropes cut into his arms,
As he saw the knife rise above him,
Isaac trusted in his (F)father.
I believe this because I am a Christian.
I believe this because I believe this story does not stand on its own.
Abraham finds a ram in the bushes, but in verse 8, Abraham does not say,
“God will provide a ram.”
He says,
“God himself will provide the lamb.”
This Hebrew word Seh is also the word used in Isaiah 53:7,
Which we read on Good Friday:
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.”
I believe the lamb is Christ.
I believe this story points us to another son,
Who carried his tree up another hill,
Who let himself be bound,
Who gave himself as a sacrifice.
I believe this because the God I believe in is the God who will never let us be alone,
A God who chose himself to feel the fear of Isaac,
The heartbreak of Abraham,
To cry the scream of the lamb who is slain.
My God loves us with such a love that there is no place he will not go with you,
No pain he will not bear for you,
And no hilltop where he will let you suffer alone.
This is the God we worship, the God whose name is Goodness, whose way is mercy, whose power is called Love.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Which way?

I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.  John 14:6-7

The fastest growing religious group in the United States is nones.
Not n-u-n-s but n-o-n-e-s.
People who claim no religious affiliation at all.
“Spiritual but not religious” is the most common way you might hear such a person describe himself.
You and I count people of no religion among our family and friends.
We love them deeply.
They are going along with the current religious trend.
So many spiritual answers are available in the marketplace.
From Dr. Wayne Dyer to Marianne Williamson,
From pop psychology to belief in the wisdom of the universe,
There are a variety of spiritual answers and truth claims available to comfort and guide us.
Christian truths stand alongside the truths of other religions in this marketplace of ideas.
But anything labeled “religion” is less popular these days,
Because the current culture abhors institutionalism of any kind,
Preferring individualism of expression.
With so many religious truths available to us,
We should be happier.
We should have better relationships.
We should pray more, meditate more, and be less anxious.
But that’s not what has happened.
Instead we are more stressed, less able to commit to relationships,
Less likely to pray, meditate, or even reflect.
There are so many paths we can follow, so many directions to go,
That I feel like many people dabble in one way or another,
But do not really commit to the spiritual life.
And so, like Thomas, so many people around us say, “How can we know the way?”
Thomas is a great example to those of us who have questions and doubts.
I am so glad Thomas was a disciple and an apostle,
Because he asked the questions others were too afraid to ask.
When Jesus decided it would be a good idea to go to Jerusalem, where all his enemies were waiting for him,
Thomas quips, “Well, let’s go, so we can die with him.”
Thomas will be the one to demand evidence of the resurrection—evidence you and I have never seen but perhaps have always wondered about.
And when Jesus, here, after the Last Supper,
Gives his long farewell discourse to the disciples,
Telling them not to be afraid when they see him on the cross,
Because he is going to go to the Father,
And they already know the way,
Thomas interrupts and contradicts Jesus.
“No, Jesus, actually we don’t know.  We don’t know how to get to heaven.  We’ve never been there.  How can we know the way?”
Thomas is a literal person.
He’s a scientist.  He’s an engineer.
He wants to know the coordinates of heaven.
He wants it mapquested.
He wants GPS.
Thomas wants directions.
But Jesus doesn’t give directions.
He doesn’t give us the details we want about heaven.
Where is it located exactly?
Outer space somewhere?
Inside black holes or dark matter maybe?
What is it like?
Pearly gates?  Streets paved with gold?  Will we be able to walk on clouds?
What will we look like?  Thinner?  Younger?
And my big question, will I get bored?
These are the questions we have, and one reason why we find descriptions of heaven, as in the book and movie Heaven Is For Real, so intriguing.
But our questions about heaven don’t match up with what Jesus wants us to know about heaven.
Thomas asks for directions, and Jesus…talks about Jesus.
He replies, you do know the way.  I am the way, and the truth, and the life.
Thomas wants directions…and Jesus talks about relationships.
“Way” is a word that has a multitude of definitions,
And it’s the same in Hebrew and Greek
In the Hebrew tradition of Jesus and his disciples, Derek, or way,
Is often used as a metaphor for the life of faith.
As the way of the Lord.
Deuteronomy calls us to “walk in his ways.”
The first line of Psalms says “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.”
Psalm 139 calls, “Lead me in the way everlasting.”
The New Testament describes the way, or hodos, as the Way of God,
And The Way is the first name of the Christian faith.
Rather than call yourself a Christian, you would call yourself a follower of the Way.
Yet the Way is not simply a Way to heaven.
The Way is the Way of Jesus.
To follow the Way is to be united with Christ,
To know him and to seek to follow him.
Jesus says “I am the Way” just before his arrest and crucifixion.
To follow the Way is to give yourself in sacrifice to others,
To take up your own cross, to experience suffering, persecution, and hardship,
To experience the death of sin within yourself as your own worst impulses are crucified,
And so to experience spiritual resurrection.
Thomas wants directions to heaven, as we all do,
But the Way is the description of a life lived in unity with Jesus.
Thomas seeks directions, Jesus describes relationship.
I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  It is through relationship with Jesus that we know truth and experience newness of life.
The Way therefore is not simply a mental decision that the principles of Christianity are right,
Or that the Bible is historically accurate,
Or even that Jesus is the Messiah.
The Way is an invitation to newness of life.
To salvation now, in this life, and forevermore.
This Way is a Way of life, a method, a pattern for us to follow.
I think of this Way of Jesus as similar to a sewing pattern.
In the past couple of years I have taken up sewing.
After all, Galatians says, as many of you have been baptized in Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
We are seeking to be covered, clothed with Christ, so that others will experience Christ through us.
We take the blank canvas of our own lives and try to model them on the life of Jesus.
The thing about a sewing pattern is that the pattern must be attached to the fabric.
You pin the pattern down very carefully.
In the same way, we must be connected to Christ, to know him personally, as we pattern our lives according to his way of love.
We have to cut out the pieces that don’t belong, and piece everything together,
Recognizing that the final product will never look as good as the model,
But hoping to create something beautiful.
That is what the Holy Spirit seeks to do in a Christian life.
There are so many people out there seeking newness of life.
Looking to create something beautiful.
Do we describe to them this experience of the Way?
Do we share with them how we have been crucified with Christ,
How we have known his truth, felt it resonate in our hearts,
Do we share with others how we have experienced newness of life?
It has become clear to most Christians that explaining the means of salvation as a set of beliefs that must be agreed upon is not a very effective means of evangelism.
Our culture no longer blanketly accepts that the Bible is true.
If people are to believe in the Christ of Scripture, they must have some experience that convinces them of that truth.
Most people experience Christ first through relationship.
And perhaps this is how Christ wants to be experienced, through relationships, as by the Holy Spirit, we share him with others.
“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”
These verses have been used to announce Christian triumphalism and to condemn people of other religions.
Certainly, Christ is expressing that he is the only Way to God the Father.
Yet the early Christians who proclaimed Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life were not proclaiming the truth of the world’s largest religion over against the claims of other major religions,
As do Christians today who use this verse in polemic debate over who’s saved and who’s not.
None of us is God, and none of us can know exactly how salvation through Christ is accomplished.
My personal hope for those who do not profess faith in Christ is expressed so beautifully by CS Lewis,
Who describes in his book The Last Battle a conversation between Emeth, a follower of the god Tash, and Aslan, a figure of Christ.
After the end of all things, Aslan and Emeth are walking together.
Aslan says, “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.”
Emeth responds, “Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.”
“Beloved,” said the Glorious One, “unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”
This is my hope:  that all find what they truly seek.
That those who have been led astray in this life might have a moment, a glimpse, maybe even at the time of death, to accept the Way, the Truth, and the Life offered by Christ.
I don’t believe the best way to persuade people of this truth is by arguments so much as by relationships,
By hearing their stories and sharing our own,
By giving of ourselves without expecting conversion, without expecting anything in return, in short, by love.
The early Christians, a small and persecuted minority,
Kicked out of the Jewish synagogues and living in fear of literally being crucified by the Roman Empire,
This little group of followers described the Way that had shown them Truth and given them new Life.
They believed that through Jesus anyone could experience that newness of life and come to God the Father.
Would that we, today, could have such passionate, infectious faith, such intimacy of relationship with Christ, and such a desire to share him with all!
We know the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Why should we follow any other?
Why should we live our lives by any other pattern?
Jesus is the pattern of surrender.
Jesus is the pattern of stewardship.
Jesus is the pattern of forgiveness.
Jesus is the pattern of evangelism. 
He met people where they were, and shared God’s truth and healing.
Jesus is the pattern of love.  He gave.  He fed.  He healed.
May we know him more, love him more, and seek more and more to pattern our lives after his, to follow in his Way. 
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Peace be with you

So sorry it's been so long since I've posted!  It was a very busy spring.  This is from Eastertide:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  John 20:19

The doors are locked.
The disciples are huddled in little groups.
Their faces are solemn.
Their voices full of anxiety.
Some make stern pronouncements.
“This is the end.  He was full of prophecies that will not come true.  We staked our lives on a lie and we lost.”
All are anxious.
All are afraid.
Some assign blame.
And then suddenly, and among all the fearful voices, there is a voice of utter calm:
“Peace be with you.”
These were ordinary words of greeting.
But this was more than just a greeting.
“Peace be with you” echoes the cry of the prophets:
The lion shall lie down with the lamb
“Peace be with you” echoes the song of angels:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will towards men!
“Peace be with you” echoes the prayer from the cross:
Father, forgive them, they do not know what they do.
“Peace be with you” echoes in the words of one who knew grace:
The peace that passes understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
“Peace be with you.”
What kind of peace did Christ bring?
It was not an easy peace.
He’s about to ask the disciples to follow in his footsteps,
He’s about to ask them to take up their own crosses, to be persecuted and even to die for his name.
This was not an easy peace.
This was not the peace of the status quo.
It was not the peace of the Pharisees, who wanted to keep order in the religious community, whose faith was about text and tradition more than grace and love.
This was not the peace of comfortable religious institutionalism.
This was also not the peace of Rome.
The Pax Romana was much trumpeted.
A peace based on everyone united under one empire.
One empire that would crucify anyone who got in its way.
Rome’s peace was based on military domination and economic oppression.
This was not the peace of Christ.
And the peace of Christ was not the peace the Zealots sought.
Social righteousness won at any cost and by any means necessary.
The peace of Christ was not just justice.
The peace of Christ is not the peace of the institution.
It is not the peace of economic stability.
It is not civic peace.
Christ’s peace is deeper than all of that.
The peace Christ offers is the peace of the soul.
I believe that at our very core, each of us struggle with two basic questions throughout our lives.
For some of us, the basic question is:  Am I lovable?  Does God love me?
The answer to that question is the cross.
There are some moments in our lives when we do things that are unlovable.
We say things we really shouldn’t say.
We do things we really shouldn’t do.
I hear people say, live life with no regrets.
Or, the popular saying in current youth culture:  YOLO.  You only live once. 
Of course, a Christian does not believe this life is all there is.
And, in my opinion, a person who says “I have no regrets” has not looked hard enough at his life.
Certainly, you may have learned something in your wandering journey,
But you also hurt others along the way.
You can’t avoid it.  We are all connected to one another, and what we do affects the community and the world.
There are people we have hurt and we can never take that hurt back.
We have even and especially hurt God.  And we can’t take that hurt back.
We are not always loveable.
But we are always loved.
When Christ proclaims, peace be with you, he lifts up broken hands.
His hands bear the marks of the nails.
Why were his hands not healed after the resurrection?
Wouldn’t his body be made perfect?
Perfect love is not always neat.
Love’s perfection is messy.
Love’s perfection leaves marks.
It is through his messy, costly sacrifice,
Through that love that takes our wounds and purifies them, sanctifies them,
Making us holy and making us whole,
Through that ultimate act of self-sacrificing love that we have ultimate peace with God.
The rift that separates us from the holy
The deep chasm of our sin
Is bridged by the cross.
In the church’s liturgy, we share the peace of Christ immediately after we learn that we have been forgiven of our sin.
“Peace be with you” is more than a greeting.
It is not a time to say hi, how are you, have you lost weight?
It is a time to celebrate together that we know peace!
It is a time to thank God that we don’t have to worry about our sin.
We are not perfect and we probably never will be in this life.
Because of Christ, we are forgiven and set free.
We can be in community and love one another.
So, it’s more than a greeting.
It’s a celebration and an exhortation.
The peace of Christ be with you!
Some of us need to hear that today, to remember we have been forgiven and set free.
And the church needs to hear that today.
I so often hear in meetings the anxiety over what we as a church could do better.
How we could be better and make people come to church.
How we could be better and stop people from leaving church.
As though the decline in the church were all our fault.
As though salvation were not ultimately in the hands of God.
I have been in many meetings where I felt like the agenda was self-flagellation.
As a church professional, I am very flawed.
There are things about myself that I’d like to change.
But no matter how hard I work, I will never be a perfect church professional.
And even if I were, that would not instantly make the church grow.
I don’t have that power.
While I keep working to improve my ministry to others, to be a better associate pastor,
I’ve decided to give myself a little bit of grace.
And I think we, in the church, need to give ourselves a little bit of grace.
Are we, the church, loveable?  Most of the time.  Not always.
But we are always loved.
Because when God looks at us, he sees the body of Christ.
Some of us will struggle with believing in God’s love our whole lives.
It is one of the great spiritual struggles.
The other great spiritual question I see is: Why do I hurt?
Or put another way, can I trust God?
And the answer to that question stands among the disciples.
He is here, in our midst, telling us, commanding us:  “Peace be with you.”
We, all of us, experience pain and loss.
We live, many of us, in fear of what could happen, when in reality it’s not what could happen, it’s what will happen.
We will, all of us, die.
And for some of us that vulnerability causes us to live in fear.
When the crucified and risen Christ comes to them, the disciples have no peace.
They have fear.
They are terrified of losing their lives.
And with good reason; their leader has just been murdered.
Fear is a great robber of peace.
Our fears of death can also be played out as fear of losing some part of our lives.
Such as the fear of losing money, comfort, or livelihood,
Or fear of losing a relationship or an institution precious to us.
Many of us have experienced the anxiety that surrounds the decline and death of a church.
So many meetings I have been in discussing the decline of the Presbyterian Church, or the church universal, have been marked by fear and anxiety.
“The church will die if we don’t do this.”
There are often stern pronouncements and solemn faces.
“This is the end.  We staked our lives on this and we lost.”
All are anxious.
All are afraid.
Some assign blame.
As though the death of a religious institution would mean that God is dead.
And to that anxiety, Christ says:  “Peace be with you.”
Love is stronger than death.
That tomb was empty.
Life is a miracle.
Christ is among us.
And God is not dead.
Whether the church is big or small won’t change that.
Whether I can be paid for my ministry or not won’t change that.
Whether Christianity is popular,
Whether Christianity is even legal won’t change that.
God is real.
Christ is risen.
And because he lives, we have peace.
We can trust that no matter what happens,
God is at work.
Good persists.
A light shines in the darkness.
I don’t know if any of you saw the series True Detective.
Matthew McConaghey and Woody Harrelson play good cop, strange cop.
Woody’s character Marty is an all-American churchgoing guy who likes to keep his life and his cases uncomplicated.
McConaghey’s character Rust is a reclusive agnostic who says what he thinks, and what he thinks is often very cynical.  He is, unsurprisingly, not very popular in the department.
The two get assigned to a high profile murder case.  There are strange Satanic symbols all over the crime scene. 
The investigation draws them into a bizarre underworld, a network of corrupt politicians and pastors, involving secret worship rituals and child abuse.  The investigation leaves both of them scarred for life.
They wind up in a terrible shoot out that leaves Rust in a coma.
As they leave the hospital, Marty is pushing Rust in his wheelchair, trying to cheer him up.
Marty wants his partner to open up and says, “Talk to me, Rust.”
After a moment, Rust answers, “There was a moment, I know, when I was under in the dark, that something… whatever I’d been reduced to, not even consciousness, just a vague awareness in the dark. I could feel my definitions fading. And beneath that darkness there was another kind—it was deeper—warm, like a substance. I could feel man, I knew, I knew my daughter waited for me, there. So clear. I could feel her. I could feel … I could feel the peace of my Pop, too. It was like I was part of everything that I have ever loved, and we were all, the three of us, just fading out. And all I had to do was let go, man. And I did. I said, ‘Darkness, yeah.’ and I disappeared. But I could still feel her love there. Even more than before. Nothing. Nothing but that love. And then I woke up.”
Caught up in that remembered joy, Rust breaks down, sobbing.  Marty, clearly uncomfortable, tries to get his friend to think about something else.
“Hey Rust, didn’t you tell me one time, dinner once, maybe, about how you used to ... you used to make up stories about the stars?”
Rust pulls himself together and answers, “Yeah, that was in Alaska, under the night skies.”
Marty says, “Yeah, you used to lay there and look up, at the stars?”
Rust recalls, “Yeah, I think you remember how I never watched the TV until I was 17, so there wasn’t much to do up there but walk around, explore, and...” he trails off.
Marty encourages him, “And look up at the stars and make up stories. Like what?”
Finally Rust says, “I tell you Marty I been up in that room looking out those windows every night here just thinking, it’s just one story. The oldest.”
Marty says: “What’s that?”
Rust says, “Light versus dark.”
It is clear that now they are not just talking about stars.  Marty looks up at the sky, all around them in the hospital parking lot, thinking about all they have seen, and says, “Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska, but it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.”
Rust concedes, “Yeah, you’re right about that.”
Marty insists on helping Rust out to his car, and Rust agrees.  As they head to the car, Marty helping Rust along, Rust stops for a moment.  He makes one final point to his former partner.
“You know, you’re looking at it wrong, the sky thing.”
Marty says, “How’s that?”
“Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.”
The light shines in the darkness.
The darkness has not overcome it.
And it never will.
Peace be with you.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Door Number One

15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God[a] that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.  ~Deuteronomy 30:15-19

From 1963 to 1977 Monty Hall hosted a popular game show, Let’s Make a Deal,
One of the gimmicks of which was so inventive that it became a meme of its own:
The choice is yours.  Do you choose door number one, door number two, or door number three?
Behind any of these doors could be something really cool, like a BMW, or something stupid called a “zonk.”  A “zonk” might be a used tricycle.
The meme of door number one sticks because a door represents mystery and possibility, a new future to be entered into.
Like Christ speaking in Revelation: 
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
Doors represent choice.
We make hundreds of choices every day
And we open hundreds of doors every day.
To get up and go to work or school, you have to open a whole series of doors.
You open the bedroom door, the bathroom door, the shower door, the refrigerator door, the kitchen cabinet door, the front door, the garage door, the car door, the office door, and finally you have to choose whether or not to open your laptop, open a window and actually work.
Each of these is a little choice.
Many of these choices are very simple and don’t seem to have lasting consequences.
But sometimes the doors we choose to open or walk away from can dramatically alter our lives.
Opening the refrigerator door could up your pants size.
Opening the door for a lover could cost you your marriage.
Knocking on the door of a drug dealer could take your life.
In Deuteronomy God sets before the people of Israel two doors:
Door Number One:
If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
Door Number Two:
If your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
God makes it ridiculously clear:
I set before you life and death, blessings and curses. 
These doors are not blank white mysteries.
On the first door is painted the promised land.
On the second door is skull and crossbones.
If God were Monty Hall, he would announce:  “OK Israel, here’s a hint. Behind door number one is an all-you-can-eat milk and honey buffet.  And behind door number two is a very fierce looking army. What’ll it be?”
There’s a drumroll as the audience weighs in.
“Door number one!  Door number one!”
Nodding helpfully in his pinstriped polyester suit and polka dot tie, God hints:  “Choose life!”
And yet, how often do we walk over and open the door with the skull and crossbones?
You know that five minutes after you eat the stale birthday cake in the refrigerator you’ll regret it.
You know that trading in your forty year old wife for two twenty year olds will only be fun until each of those twenty year olds demands child support.
You know that the temporary euphoria of intoxication quickly leads to a crash—and that it takes more and more and more to get that high, and less and less and less of you will be left at the end.
You know which of the doors placed before you will lead you to joy and which will result in sorrow.
For Christians it’s tempting to spiritualize this passage of Deuteronomy.
Door number one is heaven, door number two is the other place.
It’s true that Christians believe that the choices we make in this life have consequences in the hereafter.
Yet the people of Israel who stand before Moses are making a choice about here and now, about the life of the community in this world.
What God is offering them is a very real, physical, immediate consequence:  a plentiful land of their own.
This is something for Christians to pay attention to.
Heaven is not only something we are looking forward to.
This life is not a trial meant to be endured.
We are meant to experience a foretaste of heaven here on earth.
The joys of health, prosperity, love, and service
Are gifts that we are meant to enjoy.
And, in the same way, when we stop listening to God,
When we follow idols of romance or sex, comfort or pleasure, getting high,
When we choose actions which result in only temporary and illusory happiness,
We experience, over time, the slow slide
Into loneliness, frustration, and despair,
Getting high eventually gets you pretty low.
It’s not that God condemns us to hell.
It’s that our choices can result in what feels like a living hell.
Sometimes our temptations are not as clear-cut as treats or twenty-year-olds or tequila.
Sometimes our temptations are much more insidious.
I have a temptation to negative thinking.
For instance, I start thinking about my to-do list, and as I run over and over through the things I have to do, I start to feel overwhelmed,
And then thinking, “I feel overwhelmed,” causes me to feel more overwhelmed.
Or I think about every bad thing that has to me happened recently, and I think, “I have the worst luck.  Nothing good ever happens to me.”
Or as I’m driving home at 10mph up I-75, praying I won’t spin out, I think “Winter will never end.  Winter will never end.  Winter will never end.”
It’s very simple, but it took me a long time to realize that I had a choice in what I thought. 
That I could take a thought like “winter will never end,” and evaluate whether it was really rational or helpful.
To get into the habit of choosing the good,
Of choosing life,
Of daily choosing the path that will lead me to joy,
For me means relying on the Holy Spirit.
For me means listening to God:
I set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life.
For me listening to God means remembering what God has shown me in the past:
Don’t make decisions when you’re hungry, lonely, or tired.
Turn to those saints in your life who sit, maybe not on my shoulder, but on the other end of my phone,
people I trust who will call me on my stuff.
And finally, ask, is this me talking, or the demons that haunt me?
This ubiquitous pop song by Imagine Dragons is just running through my head:
“I wanna hide the truth, I wanna shelter you
But with the beast inside, There’s nowhere we can hide
When you feel my heat, Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide.”
That song sticks with people because
Whether we believe there are literal demons or not, we each have our metaphorical demons, our lifelong temptations, those habits and thoughts that lead each of us to that door marked death.
Our Oakland University group is reading CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, which is the collected letters of the demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, tutoring him on how to tempt his assigned human patient, a young man choosing between door number one and door number two.
Lewis is a great student of human nature.
He writes, “when two humans have lived together for many years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face that are almost unendurably irritating to the other.  Work on that.”
And, “When he gets to his pew (in the church) and looks round him he will see…his neighbors.  Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somewhat ridiculous.”
Temptations are not necessarily obvious and rarely have a supernatural quality.
Temptations are all around us in the smallest and most ordinary aspects of everyday life.
How do we resist?
Deuteronomy repeats the refrain it began back in Chaper 6, proclaiming, “Hear, O Israel.”
Recognize which voice is the voice of God and which is telling lies.
Hear God’s voice and listen.
The voice of God is the voice of your true self,
It is the voice of the angels that you can call at any time,
Your friends who you trust to love you no matter what.
The voice of God is the voice calling you to life, health, and joy.
The voice of God makes you laugh and smile.
You know what that voice sounds like.
You know what door number one looks like for you.
And the best way to stay away from door number two is to open door number one.
It’s the door to the gym.
It’s the door to the therapist.
It’s the door to the church.
It’s the door behind which Jesus stands and knocks.
And the good news is, he really wants to get in.
Look at the people of Israel.
In Deuteronomy, these characters the Israelites have already failed.
They already picked door number two over and over again.
Moses leads them out of Egypt, they ask to go back.
God parts the waters of the Red Sea, they say, hey, let’s worship a golden calf!
God tells them, Choose life!  after they have already chosen death.
God gives them this choice after for-giving them all the wrong choices they made in the past.
God could choose door number two for us.  God has every reason to condemn and punish us.
But God keeps choosing to forgive and forget and say, OK, let’s try this again.
If God has to, God will open the door himself, God will unclasp our locked hearts,
God will break down every door, every wall, every idol that separates us from him, and enter in our hearts.
Jesus is dying for us to choose life.
God wants us to choose life because life is a gift God wants us to unwrap.
God wants us to really live.
Saturday was a rough day in the Grano household.
Diana broke her foot on Wednesday jumping on the stairs
(I did not encourage this activity.  I was unloading the dishwasher.)
And she’s too little for crutches, so we have to carry her everywhere.
And she’s heavy.
And Rosie is barking because she’s been cooped up all winter,
And we’ve been staring at the walls for months and months,
Which by the way, I am thinking, are really dirty, 
When Dan crosses his arms and announces,
“We are going to Belle Isle and we are going on a nature walk.”
“Are you crazy?” I respond.
“Our daughter can’t walk. 
And we don’t have time.
Have you noticed how dirty our walls are?
We have to clean.  And unload the dishwasher. And put away the laundry. And I have to preach tomorrow.  I have to think of something to say. I have so much to do!
I’m overwhelmed.
Winter will never end.
Winter will never end.
Winter will NEVER END!”
And Dan says, “I’m gonna pull the car up.”
So, we drive to Belle Isle.
We put the invalid on a sled and I pull her along for two miles.
And halfway through, I discover she’s been reaching over the side of the sled, grabbing the snow (full, I’m sure, of microbes) and eating it.
She looks up at me with her face totally red from eating snow, and she’s smiling.
And Rosie is following the tracks of some small animal deep into the woods, panting with joy, and she looks back at us with this big doggy smile.
And Dan says, “Look!”
There’s an ice formation left by the barges that came through to create a shipping channel in the Detroit River,
Crags of ice jutting up from the water,
And nearby two tufted ducks sit together, gazing over to Canada,
And we are smiling, really alive,
Unwrapping the gift of this day.
Unwrap the gift of today.
Choose to really live.
See the door? Open it.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.