Tuesday, May 12, 2015


When I think of motherhood, I think of laundry.
Piles and piles and piles of endless, endless laundry.
I do laundry four days a week, and it takes up a major portion of my day.
Now you may say motherhood and laundry have no connection.
There is no biological reason why a man can't do laundry.
(Dan will surely point out to that there is no biological reason why a woman can't run the lawnmower. Thanks, honey.)
And in fact I'm sure there are many men here today who do laundry.
But I thought on this mother's day we would give people credit for a normally thankless job.
So raise your hand if you wash your own clothes.
Good job. Your mother would be proud. You are not stinky. Happy Mother's Day.
Now keep your hand up if you washed your childrens' clothes.
Good job. Be proud. Your kids are not stinky. Happy Mother's Day.
Now I know we have in the church some tough mamas who have laundry war stories to tell.
So keep your hand up if you have ever washed a baby's diaper.
A very Happy Mother's Day to you. If you lived in the era before disposable diapers…or like me you are a little bit nuts and choose to use cloth…I think you deserve a Happy Mother's Day!
Now I would like to see one more thing…keep your hand up if you have ever used a washboard. (Two women at Starr Church who were there, Peggy Beal and a visiting aunt, had used washboards!)
And this is why we need mother's day: because women who used washboards.
That kind of work just plain stinks.  Those women were superheroes.
And in many parts of the world today they use washboards.
In some places, women would feel lucky to even have a washboard.
They use rocks.
Laundry is hard work.
Laundry is tedious, thankless, neverending work.
It's the kind of work that gets you no recognition for being done well, but if you do it wrong you'll never forget about it.
Anyone here ever accidentally put something red in with white laundry?
Anyone here ever put a wool sweater in the dryer?
You don't forget it.
Because clothing is very personal, and when your clothing is destroyed, it feels a bit like part of you is damaged.
That's why the image of them casting lots for Christ's clothing is such a powerful one.
As they gamble for his garments, it's a disrespect of his person.
So clothing is very personal, very intimate, and the act of cleansing a garment, of doing someone's laundry, is a very personal act.
It's a loving act; as you touch that person's clothing and treat it with care, you are caring for them, grooming them, helping them to be clean and warm and to look and feel good.
This is what mothers do as they lovingly fold their childrens' clothing,
Stopping, pausing for an instant to hold up a tiny shirt and think how fleeting this moment will be, when their child will wear such small things.
It's an act of love.
An act of care that is tedious, thankless, and neverending.
It's hard work that no one sees.
But that's when love is real.
And that's how God loves us.
God, too, does tedious, thankless, neverending work.
God got you up this morning,
God nurtured the earth to make your breakfast,
God will watch over you this whole day,
Keep your heart beating and your lungs filling,
And give you the gift of another day.
God will help you to be sheltered, dressed, and cared for.
And, like the neverending laundry, these neverending blessings go mostly unnoticed.
We mutter grace before meals.
We grudgingly give an hour on a Sunday to worship.
We remember to thank God once or twice a week or a year.
Like a mother who's only remembered for the white shirts she turned pink,
We turn to God only when something goes wrong,
Or when God doesn't do what we want.
But despite our ingratitude, God goes on doing the endless, tedious, thankless task of loving.
We call God "Father," as Jesus did.
We refer to God as "He," as the Bible does.
But Scripture also compares God, who is, of course, beyond gender,
To a mother, who will not forsake her nursing child in Isaiah,
To a mother hen, who longs to gather her chicks under her wings in Luke,
To a mother, knitting us together with care in every stitch in Psalms.
Like a mother, God gave us life,
Like a mother, God nurtured us when we were young,
Like a mother, God feeds us, God sustains us, God keeps us warm, and God also washes us clean.
Psalm 51 might seem like an unlikely choice for Mother's Day.
What does the filthy story of David and Bathsheba have to do with such a happy day?
Well, like it or not, it is actually also the story of Solomon's mother.
Like it or not, a lot of motherhood is messy.
And the task of motherhood is the task of cleaning up.
In this Psalm as in nowhere else in Scripture, someone asks for cleansing.
David begs, "blot out my  transgressions, wash me from my iniquities, and cleanse me from sin!"
David looks at himself and sees a stained life,
And he wants God to pull out the Clorox.
He pleads, "cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean! Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow!"
We, all of us, have stained hands and stained lives.
We have a deep longing to be cleansed,
Not once only,
But over, and over, and over again.
Thank God God is in the laundry business.
God cleanses us, over, and over, and over.
God washes us in the waters of baptism,
God bathes us in the blood of the lamb,
God blots out our sin each time we manage to mess up our lives again.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.
What is hyssop?
The Bible mentions it here and in about a dozen other places.
Syrian hyssop is a plant more commonly known as marjoram.
It's used as a spice and a tonic,
But in Scripture, it had a very specific use.
Hyssop grows in little clumps, with leaves and fruit covered in tiny gray hairs.
The gray leafy clumps could hold a great deal of moisture.
It was like an ancient sponge.
It was an ancient Brillo pad.
It was a cleansing instrument.
So if you haven't gotten the women in your life flowers for mother's day, run out and get them some Syrian hyssop,
And tell them thanks for doing the laundry.
So this hyssop was a plant like a fragrant sponge,
And when God instructed the Hebrew people to mark their doorposts with blood,
He told them to take one of these hyssop clumps and dip it in the blood,
And it would absorb the blood like a paintbrush.
And that's how they would mark their doorpost.
And in other places; when disease left a house,
Or when someone died there,
There was a ritual cleansing that used hyssop as a sponge.
This is what David wants; to be made clean in this ancient, ritual way,
To be washed with this ancient, ritual sponge.
This cleansing is not easy work.
It is dirty, hard work,
And it is the work of self-sacrifice.
Mothers know self-sacrifice.
Mothers know what it is to give their hearts and their bodies,
Their time and their tears,
To do whatever it takes to care for us.
Mothers do the thankless work of keeping their children safe, and warm, and clean.
And this is what Christ did for us.
He cleansed us; when there was nothing else that would blot away our stains,
He used his own blood.
And there, on the cross, he cried out in his pain, "I thirst!"
John 19:29 records, "A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth."
Why did God choose to put that hyssop branch there?
To show us what was really happening.
We were being washed, cleansed, sponged clean with the blood of the lamb.
"Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean. Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow."
The cleansing David longed for was ultimately realized in Christ.
In Christ God cleansed us, washed us clean, and washes us still.
Each time we pray for forgiveness,
Each time we receive pardon for our sins,
Each time we come to the table to receive Christ,
We are cleansed.
We are made new.
That's what love does.
That's what mothers do.
The hard work of sustaining life, of keeping us fed, of making us clean.
So thank mothers, and thank God.
Don't let this be thankless work.
But know that whether you thank us, or whether you thank God, or whether you forget,
Mothers will love you anyway, and so will God.
Because mothers know, and God knows, that there are two things that will never, ever end:
Laundry, and love.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

On followership...and My Little Pony

In talking to our worship team, we were led to this topic of discipleship,
Or, as I call it, "followership."
Our culture values leadership, everyone being his own master,
Individuality is what our culture preaches, but our God teaches us to deny the self, take up a cross, and follow.
But should we follow him?
Well, everybody follows somebody.
Lions fans, Wolverine fans, Tiger fans, pick your animal.
Listeners tune in to radio hosts whose political commentary they find appealing.
Crowds flock to hear the rock and roll crooners,
The stand-up comedians,
Even the celebrity preachers whose voices speak to them.
Everybody follows somebody.
Even those who claim to "march to the beat of their own drummer"
Will, once you talk to them long enough,
Espouse the views of a thinker or an artist or a bumper sticker which they did not create.
Everybody follows somebody because human beings do not and cannot live totally in isolation.
We all of us choose voices to listen to and voices to ignore.
The question is not whether we follow.
The question is who.
The question is, whose voice do we listen to and which voices do we ignore.
In the electronic age there are even more voices to harken or ignore.
Millions of people define their lives as much by their online presence as by the physical world.
And in that online life, you can "like" and "follow" as many people or companies as you want.
What it means to "follow" someone is that occasionally,
Her 150-character tweets will show up in your news feed.
And you can choose to ignore those sound bytes or like them, re-tweet them, pass them on.
This type of following fits in well with modern life,
With its ten second attention span
And idolatry of image.
If it can't be understood instantly, it's not worth knowing.
If it can't be reduced to a sound byte, it's not worth repeating.
And if it involves more commitment than a virtual thumbs-up, most people aren't willing to sign on.
But following Jesus involves more than point-and-click.
It's more than 150-character tweets.
It's not a status update, it's a complete profile rehaul.
Forwarding an email or liking a photo might make you look like a faithful person,
But Christ is interested in more than appearances.
He wants your whole self.
He doesn't want to be one of the myriad things you "like."
As Kyle Idleman succinctly puts it, a disciple is not a fan.
Following Jesus means forsaking other likes, other loves, other distractions
To follow him and him only.
Anything that distracts or detracts our attention from Christ
Is wasting time and draining our energy from our true purpose.
As though I have time on my hands, I found myself recently getting really caught up in something that was draining my energy.
At the risk of ridicule, let me tell you about Hasbro.
Hasbro is brilliant, because they realized that a whole bunch of children of the eighties are now having kids,
And all the things we loved as kids can simply be repackaged for our children.
So, this Easter, my inner five year old was resurrected:
The form it took was My Little Pony.
My Little Pony was a cartoon in the eighties and all I have to hear is the opening five notes of the jingle,
And I'm transported back thirty years: I'm a kid again, without a care in the world.
The My Little Pony brand has come back full force for a new generation,
And there's a TV show, an endless line of trademark products, and a video game.
I downloaded this video game onto my Kindle for Diana to play with.
She would spend hours on it. It became a great reward and distraction,
Something she could do only when Mommy was nursing (which, I had noticed, was a time that she became something of a terror, because she could not command my full attention)
But one day, in a moment of exhausted weakness, I picked up the Kindle to see what all the fuss was about.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and I was checking every few hours to see whether my House of Hats had produced enough Fancy Hats to give me 1013 bits because once I got up to 47,500 bits
(assuming Diana had not wasted some of my precious bits on more Pink Flags)
I could buy Fluttershy and then if I could only get 90 Gems and three more Elements of Harmony by extracting enough Shards from the Crystal Mine and of course purchase Princess Celestia I would win the game!
I was so close at over 40,000 bits (representing days' worth of productive activity and, I'm ashamed to say, several bucks forked over electronically in the maniacal desire to acquire more "gems")
When the entire game crashed and Diana and I lost everything.
Incensed, I thought of calling Gameloft apps to complain and try to get everything back,
My beautiful virtual Pony world, where everyone was happily working to earn me Bits.
While I was earning plenty of bits for some guy over at Hasbro.
But then I realized I had been given a gift: an opportunity to take a breath and evaluate.
It's amazing how easily we can simply be distracted from serving Christ.
Before you even realize what has zapped away your time and energy,
Before you even notice what new shiny thing has made you forget what's important,
Before you even notice you're listening to some sound byte and ignoring the voice of God.
The electronic world makes it very easy to become distracted by a tweet, by a sound byte
The electronic world even makes it very easy to say things that we might not mean
We become distracted from serving Christ.
And Christ can't be one of the things we "follow."
Christ must be our only Master, our only Leader, our only Lord.
So is Christ worth it?
Is he worth giving your whole self to?
Is he worth being the only one we follow,
When that might mean other lords, other masters, other distractions, have to go?
My brother puts it this way: if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything.
If we don't put Christ first, if we don't commit to following him in everything,
Before we know it, we will have spent $100 on My Little Pony Game that could have gone to the warming shelter.
If God exists, then God deserves to be taken seriously.
More than just seriously: if God exists, God deserves to be the be-all, end-all, reason for getting up in the morning, last thought before you go to bed at night, the love of your life and the passion of your heart.
Or in the words of Deuteronomy 6:
"Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your might.
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.
Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.
Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,
and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."
Or in Deuteronomy 13:4:
"The LORD your God you shall follow,
him alone you shall fear,
his commandments you shall keep,
his voice you shall obey,
him you shall serve,
and to him you shall hold fast."
God calls us to listen for his voice and his voice alone,
And to ignore the other voices, the jingles, the sound bytes, the noise that distracts us and keeps us from Christ's calling to serve, to love, and to follow.
So how do we know which pursuits are following God and which are distractions?
Because I can hear you and I can hear myself already saying, but Pastor Marianne,
My hobbies, my sports teams, my interests, my "likes,"
They help me unwind. They make me less stressed so I am better able to serve God.
I can hear myself saying, that My Little Pony game, it was a good distraction for a tired mom in need of a stress reliever. Quit beating yourself up.
So where do we draw the line?
How do we know which are the distractions?
How do we pick out the voice of God from all the chatter, the jingles, the sound bytes?
Jesus says in John 10, my sheep know my voice.
I call them by name.
A shepherd's voice was familiar to his flock, and a shepherd would give pet names to his sheep.
They were individuals to him, and to them, he meant safety and security, and also sometimes discipline.
He would force them into their sheepfold,
But he would also keep the wolves at bay.
In the same way, Christ sometimes disciplines us, but he also keeps us from what seeks to ultimately hurt us.
In John 10:10 Christ says, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."
So we know his voice because it is the voice that brings more abundant life to us, but not only to us, but to the world.
If your hobby is bringing you more abundant life and also brings more abundant life to others, perhaps it is Christ's voice calling you to that activity.
Like knitting prayer shawls so that God's children will be wrapped in warm wool and know they are loved,
Or practicing an instrument to praise God in his sanctuary.
But if something causes you to be greedy, or petty, or less kind than you might be ordinarily,
If it's zapping your money in wasteful way,
Or taking your time unduly from what you truly need to be doing,
That catchy five-note jingle,
That's not Christ's voice.
That's the thief.
And if you're not sure whether it's Christ's voice you're following, perhaps you need to spend some time listening to Him,
Reading His Word, praying so that you know what His voice sounds like in your ear.
Perhaps you, perhaps I need to spend some time hearing Jesus,
Because he, and only He, truly calls us by name.
Thieves try to steal and destroy.
When we follow other gods, other lords, other masters,
We will find ourselves depleted, distracted, and depressed.
Winning the My Little Pony game probably isn't that satisfying,
And I'm sure Hasbro and Gameloft have always devised a next level to keep you grasping for gems.
But when we follow Christ,
When we hear His voice speak our name,
We will be led into green pastures, beside still waters, our souls will be restored,
For only He truly knows us, and loves us anyway,
Only He calls us by name.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Monday, March 30, 2015


What kind of parade is this?
This parade is nothing like the parades I have seen,
And I love parades.
I go down to the Thanksgiving Day Parade in Detroit every year,
And I stand in the cold, and I eat it up.
I love the monkeys jumping on the bed, I love the briefcase drill team, I love the distinguished clown corps, and I love to see all of the important people who show up for the parade.
I love the big balloons, and the confetti…
I remember, when I lived on the South Side of Chicago,
When the White Sox won the pennant, and there was a glorious parade to celebrate with black and white confetti everywhere,
Or the parades after the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup.
Wish we could go back to those days.
But this parade we heard about today is nothing like those parades.
There’s only one float, after all.
What are they even celebrating?
What is the victory?
What kind of parade was this, they must have wondered, because it was nothing like the parades they knew, either.
There were parades in ancient times.
The ancient Greeks had a tradition of a parade called a triumph celebrating a military victory.
In a triumph, the king would dress up as the god Dionysus, or later, Zeus,
And he would be carried by a litter of slaves
As the people cried out for the appearance of the god.
At the end of the parade, the king would appear, in costume,
And sacrifice a bull to the god in thanksgiving for the military conquest.
The Romans took over the tradition of the triumph parade,
But in the Roman tradition, the parade became even more tied to military might.
The Romans carried graphic representations of battle that had been won,
Demonstrating the bloodshed in elaborate pictures.
The king would ride in a golden chariot,
And for the occasion, he would borrow the purple robe and golden crown from the statue of the god Jupiter.
The king would wear the purple robe, but he wouldn’t wear the crown.  A slave would carry the crown over his head, so he wouldn’t have to be inconvenienced by the weight of all that gold.
They would carry the spoils of the battle too.
The most famous picture we have of a triumph shows them carrying the menorah from the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
The troops would march next, triumphantly upholding their bloodstained swords,
And behind them, the ultimate display of conquest:
The captured slaves were dragged along, in chains.
Eventually, only the emperor, by law, was allowed to hold a triumph,
Because it was such an important representation of the emperor’s divinity, which had won them the battle.
Perhaps this was the reason, scholars speculate,
That Jesus was killed so quickly after holding his own little parade.
What kind of parade was this, they must have wondered?
The Jews must have wondered,
After all they expected their Messiah to conquer the Roman overlords,
Great crowds to hail his kingly greatness.
Which brings us to the question--
How big was the crowd watching this parade?
Luke only mentions the disciples, over and over again,
He says, the whole multitude of the disciples was praising God.
Well, how big was that “multitude”?  Twelve?  Twenty?
Maybe seventy?
Not much to write home about.
And who were the people in this crowd?
Were they the big wigs of society?
No!  They’re society’s rejects!
They’re nobodies, the people who flunked out of Torah class!
Not the people of note.
There aren’t even any children shouting “Hosanna to the king!” In Luke.
There aren’t even any palms mentioned.
If this was all we had to go on, we’d call it Cloak Sunday, or maybe Donkey Sunday.
While this donkey technically fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah calling for the Messiah to ride in on a donkey,
The next few days won’t fulfill anyone’s Messianic expectations.
As they watch the Messiah, the man coming to restore the Davidic line, bring back the institutions of the righteous worship of Yahweh, conquer the Roman heathens,
As they watch him die at the hands of those Romans, nailed to a cross.
But what kind of parade was this, they must have wondered, the Jews and the Romans, watching,
Just as we wonder, what kind of parade has only one float?
Not even sponsored by Macy’s?
What kind of parade has no bands, not even a little trumpeter out front, only the cries of society’s rejects for its soundtrack?
Where are the balloons?
Where is the confetti?
What kind of king is this, riding not on a litter of slaves, not on a golden chariot, not even on a stately war horse, but on a borrowed donkey?
And as if that’s not humiliating enough, it’s a young donkey.  It’s a colt!
A borrowed young donkey!
What kind of king, for that matter, wears as his mantle a bloody, tattered robe?
What kind of king is coronated with a crown of thorns?
What kind of king has no bull to sacrifice at the end of his parade, this king is sacrificed himself?
What kind of a savior won’t march in to conquer the badguys, do what God said he would do, bring the powerful down from their thrones and lift up the lowly, make a crooked way straight and a rough place smooth?
God could have done it up, couldn’t he?
Don’t we want him to?
Don’t we want him to put on the parade to beat the band, ending with the conquest of those evil Roman warlords?
Why do we have instead this unlikely parade, this anti-parade parade, this dinky little parade that appears to be going nowhere and accomplishing nothing?
This parade that seems to underline its own humble understatement?
What kind of parade is this?
What kind of king could this be?
Could this be a different kind of king than the world has ever seen?
A king whose power comes not from armies, not from bodyguards, not from military or political power, not from his capacity to dominate, but from his capacity to love?
I believe that that is so.
I believe that the message of the little parade we celebrate this day is that his power, the power of love, is greater than the power of power itself.
Because we know the truth.
We know that this poor, uneducated, backwoods carpenter’s son happens to be the incarnation of God himself.
We know that in the moment of his greatest defeat, as he hangs broken and bleeding from a cross, the execution so humiliating it was reserved for slaves, at that moment he is a conqueror greater than any mayor or king or emperor because the great power he wields is the power of love.
That love, which sacrifices itself, bleeds itself out for another, it is the strongest force in the universe, strong enough to conquer any king, any army, strong enough to conquer death itself.
It’s not logical.  It doesn’t make sense.  But somehow, we see it.  Love keeps winning.
How else did a bishop stand in the way of Hitler’s army?
Without assembling troops, without firing a single shot, the people and the church of Bulgaria stood up to Hitler during World War II.
As they watched their Jewish friends and neighbors asked to wear yellow stars, a public outcry began in Bulgaria.
In late 1942, when the Jews began to be packed into sealed boxcars, members of Parliament rallied.
When the proclamation came in early 1943 that all 50,000 of Bulgaria’s Jews were to be shipped away, the people protested, led by Metropolitan Stefan and Bishop Kyril of the Orthodox Church.
On March 10th, 1943, many of the Jews of Kyril’s city of Plovdiv reported to a school building while the Nazis sealed the doors of their homes. 
They carried suitcases filled with hastily gathered food and clothing, the few possessions they could assemble.
Their destination, the concentration camp at Treblinka.
On that day, Bishop Kyril held a parade.
He marched with three hundred members of his church to that school.
He publicly stated that if the Nazis tried to pull that boxcar out of town, he and his entire congregation would lay down in front of it, on the railroad tracks.
Faced with this public outcry, and the real possibility of international attention, the Nazi government balked.
Without firing a single shot, the only power greater than power had shown itself to be the power of love.
Not one of Bulgaria’s Jews perished in the Holocaust.
Bulgaria is the only nation in Europe whose Jewish population actually increased during World War II.
Just imagine if the nations of the world had relied on the power of love like Bishop Kyril.
In the place where Bishop Kyril stood that day, a plaque now stands, engraved with a few simple words, his message to the Jews of Plovdiv:
I will not leave you.
I will not leave you.
Those could be the words of God himself.
I will not leave you.
The words of a God born with us in a feeding trough.
I will not leave you.
The words of a God riding in his humble parade on his borrowed little donkey.
I will not leave you.
The words of a God hanging from a cross in his tattered robe with his crown of thorns.
I will not leave you in your weakness.
I will not leave you in your pain.
I will not leave you in your death.
This is the God we worship today. 
This is the king to whom we shout, “Hosanna!”
The king who shows his power not with troops or trumpets, not with chariots or confetti, not with bodyguards or balloons, but with an unyielding, unquenchable, unstoppable, love!
That love will never leave us, brothers and sisters.
That love will defeat every power that is seeking to destroy us.
That love is more powerful than power itself.
And that is why this tiny, humble parade,
With its one float, its borrowed young donkey,
Its crowd of rejects,
Its doomed king,
This dinky little parade,
It is more famous and celebrated than any parade the world has ever known.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Fast Food

This morning, I'd like to take a few minutes to reflect…
What is the best meal you have ever eaten in your life? When was it, what did you eat, and who were you with?
I'm sure it wasn't a quarter pounder with cheese.
I like McDonald's when I'm out with the kids and need a quick bite.
In fact Diana goes often enough that she calls it Old MacDonald's.
But McDonald's isn't really food so much as feed.
It's calories, but not necessarily nourishment.
Even if you get the salad,
Eating quickly is not healthy in and of itself.
When you eat fast,
Your body doesn't have enough time to digest and so you don't feel well afterward.
When you eat fast,
Your brain doesn't have enough time to realize you're full and so you eat more.
Humans are meant, not to just inhale feed, but to have meals.
Just think:
What if you cut out the chips from straight out of the bag at 4:30,
And the cookies in front of the TV at 10am,
And the 3am bowl of cereal just because you felt like it?
What if you and I were to eat only at mealtimes, at the table, after taking time, not to mutter grace, but to really stop and give thanks?
If we were to eat only under those circumstances, would we not be healthier—body and soul?
Do we need another diet program, or is what we really need to eat more mindfully, intentionally—to eat more spiritually?
Do we need more fast food, or is what we really need communion?
The people wanted fast food.
They weren't interested in building community.
They didn't see this as a time for giving thanks.
They had come for some entertainment!
An exciting celebrity was in town…and everyone had come out to see a show.
But they got hungry, and they wanted, well, a TV dinner,
Some food on the run.
They didn't want to eat spiritually.
They just wanted to feed and get on with things.
But Christ offered them more.
John 6:10-11—
"Jesus said, 'make the people sit down.'
Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.
Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted."
In the story of the feeding of five thousand, the only miracle story to be repeated in all four Gospels,
Jesus gives a commandment—"sit down."
The people were not already sitting, or he would not have had to tell them.
They wanted fast food, but Christ makes them wait.
He makes them sit down, and then he makes them wait again—
He takes the time, not just to say grace, but to give thanks.
And the Greek verb in John 10:11 is "Eucharisteo."
Perhaps you have heard the word "Eucharist" before.
It's another word for communion—the Lord's Supper.
What we do in communion is giving thanks to God.
Jesus give thanks, and then he serves the meal—to those who were seated.
Why does John give us this strange detail, that they sat down?
And why does he tell us, in this offhand way, that oh by the way, there was a lot of grass around?
Is something more than feeding going on?
The people wanted fast food, but Christ is offering them communion.
But wait, Pastor, you say, this story isn't about communion.
That's the Last Supper you want.
Communion is about Jesus's death.
This story is about abundance and miracle and everyone having enough and by the way, you don't serve fish at communion.
Whose job would that be to cut it up?
And would I have to hold up a smelly fish?
The fish of the Lord, de-boned for you?
Maybe not.
Yet this is a story of communion—because communion, in its root, means relationship.
It's the same root word as community.
And in this story, Christ called the people into relationship with him.
They wanted fast food…but he made them sit.
They thought in terms of individual hunger…but Christ called them to share a communal meal.
They were anxious about their physical needs…but Christ wanted to give them food for the soul.
What is the meaning of these odd details, he made them sit down, on the green grass?
It's about communion.
It's about relationship.
"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul."
Jesus makes them sit down, in the grass, by the sea, so he can restore their souls.
They want food; Jesus offers communion.
They want stuff; Jesus offers relationship.
They want bread; Jesus offers himself as the Bread of Life.
Even the fish has meaning:
The word Icthys and the fish symbol were one of the earliest symbols of Christ.
For early Christians, the fish was a reminder of Jonah, who lived in the belly of the fish for three days,
Just as Christ was entombed for three days before breaking forth.
And the acronym Ichthys stood for Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior.
So Jesus is feeding the people with…himself.
He offers them a relationship with him that will satisfy their deepest physical, spiritual, and emotional needs.
He makes them lie down in green pastures; he leads them beside still waters; he restores their souls.
And he offers you and me the same.
This is a communion story because communion is not meant to be simply a memorial of Jesus's death,
A sad meal to be eaten grimly, guiltily, while slow, grim music plays;
Communion is an opportunity for relationship with Christ and one another.
When we share communion, we are mystically united with each other and with God.
He comes into our life, our bodies, and our spirits.
When we take communion, we allow him in, and that changes everything.
We are fed by God.
All other meals are, in a way, representative of that truest meal;
Because the truth of every meal is that God is feeding us with himself, every day, in everything we do.
I received an email this week that told me something I had never known before—
The very first food and drink consumed on the moon was com"moon"ion.
When Buzz Aldrin went to the moon, that same day, in his home church, Webster Presbyterian where Buzz was an elder,
Rev. Dean Woodruff brought out the bread for Communion, a portion of the loaf had been broken away.
The minister explained that Aldrin took a portion of the loaf with him on the moon trip and at some time during the afternoon, after the moon landing is made, Aldrin would symbolically join the other parishioners in Communion.
Buzz said, over the airwaves, "I would like to request a few moments of silence ... and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way."
I silently read the Bible passage "I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me." I poured a thimbleful of wine from a sealed plastic container into a small chalice, and waited for the wine to settle down as it swirled in the one-sixth Earth gravity of the moon. I partook of the wafer and the wine, and offered a private prayer for the task at hand and the opportunity I had been given.
But it is an amazing and beautiful thing that the first food partaken on another planet
Was the food of relationship with God through Christ.
In this time, when there was so much to do, Buzz paused,
Took time, gave thanks, and had something to eat, in communion with his church family, and, in a way, with the whole world.
Communion is a miracle.
How can Christ's body be multiplied?
How can there be enough for all?
Well, isn't love a miracle?
Francois Mauriac said, “To love someone is to see a miracle invisible to others.”
Love is, by its very nature, miraculous.
And so, when we love one another, there somehow isn't less love to go around, there's more.
You see, love, by its very nature, creates something out of nothing.
When we love one another, there's always enough to go around.
When we love one another, there's enough time.
The work, the errands, they can wait. It's time for family dinner.
When we love one another, There's enough space.
Parents always have a couch to spare for a child come home.
Churches always have space for people who need a place to be.
And if we don't we should.
When we love one another, There's enough bread.
If we're operating in love, food will materialize. Trust me. I've been to enough potlucks to know they are all a little bit miraculous.
We spend so much time worrying, anxious, that we won't have enough money, enough time, enough bread.
I'm even anxious this year because we're having communion on Easter.
Will there be enough time?
How can we make it faster?
But in the midst of our anxiety, in the midst of our fear,
Christ calls us—Christ commands us—to just sit down.
And be nourished.
To take time for relationship with the ones we love.
And to take Him in.
When is the last time you sat down?
When is the last time you sat on the grass and rested?
When is the last time you lay down beside still waters?
When is the last time you gave thanks?
When is the last time you fed your soul?
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Jesus Slept

Everything started out peaceful and calm.
We were out in the bay near Sarasota, Florida, on what was billed as the "sunset tour."
My husband, mother and law, Diana and I watched dolphins play by the side of the boat.
We witnessed pelicans and gulls fly overhead.
We soaked up the sunshine, happy not to be in Michigan in December.
But the sun did not set on our sunset tour;
Instead, within moments, our sunny day turned cloudy and dark.
The wind picked up, the waves beat against the boat,
And we in our optimistic sunwear cursed the lack of protection in the open-air vessel.
We were pelted from every side, my then three-year-old daughter began to wail,
And as the captain began the forty five minute journey to shore,
In my head I heard the strains of Gilligan's Island:
"A three hour tour. A three hour tour."
 Weather, like nothing else,
Brings home to human beings our total lack of control.
I don't want to get into climate change…but I wonder…
As scary as climate change is,
On some level, wouldn't it be reassuring to humans to believe ourselves responsible
For changes in the weather?
To believe that we could control the climate?
Because in general weather is something we can't predict entirely accurately, let alone control.
The most watched segment of any news program is: weather.
And more and more, weather seems to be hyped on the newscast.
The storm of the century!
Polar vortex!
El ni┼ło!
Breaking news: it snows in winter in Michigan!
The newscasters have begun to name winter storms, as though snowfall were a disaster on the level of a hurricane or tornado.
And half the time, they hype the snowstorm such that people run off to the store for new shovels, D batteries, and kitty litter,
Schools peremptorily close and people call in sick to work,
Then when it hits it's a non-event.
And when the big storm hits they've told us we were only gonna get two inches.
When it comes to weather, we are all as helpless as travelers at sea.
The image of the disciples on their little wave-tossed boat, in darkness, is an image of instability, danger, and chaos.
The sea is chaotic because, unlike dry land, it moves, it's unpredictable, it's by its nature dangerous.
Darkness is scary because we can't see and we therefore lose more control.
And to be in a boat is to be apart from the infrastructure of society.
To this day, when you go on a cruise you can't use your cell phone, the epitome of modern lack of control.
I always find myself a bit afraid when driving or being driven after dark.
Add in a rainstorm, and I can feel my heart beat faster just thinking about it.
When the disciples cry, "Master! We are perishing!"
Have you felt that disproportional fear?
Afraid for your life, even though you've been through dozens of storms before and always come through.
It's hard to tell just how bad this particular storm would have been.
The Sea of Galilee is not an ocean; it's a freshwater lake,
Now called Lake Gennesaret,
And it's very slightly bigger than Lake St. Clair.
The Sea of Galilee is a bit deeper, reaching a depth of 141 feet,
So there may well have been high seas and the possibility of drowning.
On the other hand, how could Jesus have slept through the storm,
If it were really so very bad?
The miracles of Jesus cause us to question when Jesus
Operated from his human nature and when he operated from his divine nature.
Theologians have maintained that when Jesus performed miracles,
He did so out of his human nature.
That is, all of the miracles he performed would be possible for human beings
If we trusted God and worked in harmony with the Father.
Here on the boat, Jesus slept.
Jesus was operating as a human being.
The tiny verse Jesus wept, John 11:35, is often cited as evidence of Jesus's humanity.
He wept as we do.
But what if he slept in the boat, not because he was divine but because of his humanity?
What if he was asleep because he was tired?
And while the disciples are flipping out,
Crying it's the storm of the century!
Someone, give it a name!
Get the D batteries!
Jesus is doing what his body and his mind need by sleeping.
Jesus is demonstrating for us a better way to be human,
By refusing to waste energy in worry and fear and instead trusting God and being well.
The storm probably was not that bad.
The disciples were probably overreacting.
It's human nature to want to be in control,
But when we operate as humans are supposed to,
We accept our lack of control and face the reality that we are weak, but God is strong.
We stop worrying about things we can't control and get some sleep.
What are the storms you can't control?
Has a storm of a relationship engulfed you,
And you are so frustrated that you cannot control another human being,
Cannot make them love you the way that you want?
Are you facing a storm in your workplace,
A storm that might cause you to lose your job, or just a storm of frustrating people that make doing your job a challenge?
Are you facing a storm of illness?
Does it seem that everywhere you look, people you love are struggling?
We have had several deaths and illnesses in the church in the past few weeks.
As soon as we think it is over, someone else is struck.
We want to cry out to Jesus, Master, we are perishing!
As a church we face a storm of apathy.
Fewer and fewer people seeing the value of Christianity, of "organized religion."
We look out at empty pews and we fear.
"Master, we are perishing!"
But whatever storms we face,
We are not alone in the storm.
Christ is with us in the boat.
Christ calmed the storm that night, not because the disciples were in danger,
But to show us that God cares.
And to show us that ultimately, the love of God is stronger than the chaos of life.
C.S. Lewis points out that if we were to keep track of the prayers we pray,
We would see that God answers most of them.
Most of the time the hungry find that they will be fed.
Most people who lose their jobs are able to find a new one.
Most people who get cancer beat it.
Most of the time, God calms the storm.
We will weather it. We will be safe.
But even if the storm engulfs us, even if we perish,
Christ faces that with us too.
So do not be afraid, you of little faith.
God made the wind and the waves.
And God made you.
God will be with you in the storm, whatever befalls you.
We see the storm as something to fear,
But could it not be that if we look with God's eyes,
If we consider the satellite picture, taking heaven's view,
We can see that the storm is part of a greater purpose?
When I think back to that day on the bay in Florida,
I don't remember being cold and wet.
I don't remember being afraid.
What I remember is how my daughter clung to me.
How I wrapped her in my body, pulled my shirt over her,
Allowed myself to be wracked by the storm to keep her safe.
I remember feeling her little body against mine,
Felt her complete trust,
And I have never loved anything more.
What is the good news of the storm?
It's the good news of Lent—we are mortal, imperfect humans, and we need God.
In Lent we recognize our sin and weakness,
By giving something up or taking something on,
We recognize in our bodies, minds, and spirits our utter dependence on God.
Storms, too, make us finally stop relying on ourselves,
And, realizing our weakness, our mortality, our lack of control,
Storms make us to cling tightly to our Father.
To trust him, and hold onto him, as he wraps himself around us,
Bearing the wind and the waves to keep us safe.
Is that what God was seeking all along?
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Parable of the Patient Father

This sermon is for the mother who has looked her son in the eye as he tells her he can no longer believe in God.
This sermon is for the sister who hangs up with her brother in tears because he's rejected her, her love, and her message of hope in Christ.
This sermon is for the husband who has given up trying to drag his wife to church, and the grandmother who has brought her grandkids to Sunday school faithfully and watched them fall away, and the father who has seen his sons reject Gospel truth and become disciples of Bill Maher.
This sermon is for all of us who love someone who will not or cannot share our faith.
This sermon is for the prodigal fathers.
When I read Luke 15 this week, I didn't identify with the younger son,
The way I did when I felt for the first time my sin, guilt, and estrangement from God.
I didn't identify with the older son,
The way I have when I feel self-righteous and whiny, telling God about how much I've given up to serve him.
This time when I read Luke 15 I felt the pain of the prodigal father.
While this parable is usually called "the prodigal son,"
As the word "prodigal" means "uncontrolled," "reckless," or "extravagant,"
This has been called the parable of the prodigal father,
Who is uncontrolled, reckless, extravagant, prodigal, in his love for his son.
He lavishes the undeserving child with honor, his ring, his robe, killing the fatted calf;
He calls him his "teknon," in Greek, "little child."
You could translate his words, "my baby has come back to me."
The father's love is boundless. He loses all dignity as he weeps over his beloved child, once thought dead, now come home.
We get to see the beauty of this love.
Jesus shows us the end of the story.
But what if we were to see that father in the middle of the story?
What if we were to observe him on an ordinary day, one of the hundreds, thousands of days of waiting for a son who would probably never return?
The son, in asking for his father's estate, had effectively said "you're dead to me," and left home.
No rational person would ever expect that boy to come home.
He had rejected the love of his father.
If we read the parable as a story of God's love for his children, he's rejected the love of God.
He is the person who has said, "God is dead to me."
Natalie Bolz Weber, who blogs as "The Sarcastic Lutheran," notes the vulnerability of God in this parable.
God allows the child to waste the estate.
God allows his children to waste our lives, to pollute our bodies, to abuse his creation, to reject his love and burn through our inheritance.
God allows his children to spit in his face and wish him dead.
Because that's love.
Love that is forced, obligatory, not freely given is not love at all.
Love has to allow the beloved the possibility of rejection.
I believe that hell, in some form, exists because if God truly loves us, he will allow us the possibility to hate him and abandon him completely.
And if that is true, then God also experiences that separation and abandonment.
Does God feel the pain of his separation from us?
I believe God does.
If you feel the pain of having a child, a sibling, a spouse, who cannot believe,
If for you, that is one of the great tragedies of your life,
Then how could God possibly fail to feel that pain?
We hear the pain of the Father in Hosea 11,
“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
    and out of Egypt I called my son.
2 But the more they were called,
    the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals
    and they burned incense to images.
3 It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
    taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
    it was I who healed them.
4 I led them with cords of human kindness,
    with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts
    a little child to the cheek,
    and I bent down to feed them….
7 My people are determined to turn from me."
God feels the pain of rejection.
When you worry, when you hurt, because people you love do not realize how deeply God loves them,
When your heart breaks because someone you love chooses a different path,
Know that God is with you in that pain.
Like the father who watched his son walk away.
Before the father showed his extravagant love with extravagant joy,
I believe that father felt an extravagant pain.
For each day of rejoicing at a son come home, there were hundreds and thousands of days when the father feared his son was dead.
Thousands of days with no communication, no contact,
Thousands of days for the father to hear those words of hate echo in his memory,
Thousands of days for the father to work the fields with his older son, with an invisible wound left where his younger son had left him broken.
Jesus skips those days.
The only hint is when Jesus says that the father saw his son from afar off.
And I only see that hint because of my father.
You see, I have a prodigal father, an extravagant dad,
A father who embarrassed me in the cheering section at Math Olympics when I was eight,
And embarrassed me on the sidelines of my track meets in high school,
And embarrasses me on Sunday mornings now with his prodigal love.
And it was he who said to me, do you know why that father saw his son from afar off?
Because every single day, that father was watching down the road.
Watching, and waiting.
Though he had no reason to watch.
Though he had no cause to wait.
Though his hope was entirely irrational, he watched.
And he waited.
And my father said, do you know why that father came running from afar off?
He said, "any one of you kids, I can see it's you, from the way you walk, from the back of your head, from the shape of your shadow I would know you."
The Father watches.
The Father waits.
What is the very first description of love in 1 Corinthians 13?
Love is patient.
God is patient.
We are called to patience.
One thing I recognized this time reading Luke 15 is that the father does not go searching for his son.
Even though the shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep to search for the one that is lost,
In this parable the father stays home.
And there's a message there.
Sometimes, God doesn't run after us.
Sometimes God waits.
And sometimes we are called to wait for God's children to see the light.
You can tell your child, your wife, your sister all your reasons for believing.
You can preach, you can give them books, you can invite them to church.
But then you have to wait.
Maybe one day he'll fall in love with a godly woman and she'll lead him to the truth.
Maybe when she holds her newborn child she'll see that he's truly a miracle.
Maybe on his deathbed he'll finally see the God who has loved him all along.
Like the waiting father, we can only hold on to an irrational hope that the child will come home.
Waiting is faith.
Waiting is trust that God will act in God's timing, not in ours.
In the black church they say, "He may not come when you want him, but he'll be there right on time."
2 Peter puts it this way: "with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance."
In other words, have patience with God, because he's patient with us.
Jesus has not yet returned because there are people God is waiting on to repent.
God can't give us our full inheritance yet because he's still waiting on that younger son.
But if you love your brother, your husband, your wife,
If you love your sister, your grandson, your child,
If you would do anything for them to know God,
Don't you think God will do anything to for them to know him too?
Do you think anything could stand in God's way?
Could anything stop this extravagant, uncontrolled, prodigal love,
The extravagant love that exploded in creation
And set the planets spinning,
The extravagant love that carved the Grand Canyon
And poured Niagra falls,
Wove the wings of the butterfly
And taught the whale to sing?
That extravagant love that somehow used ordinary people like me and my husband,
And our ordinary, imperfect, selfish, impure, mixed-motive love,
To create a miracle like my son,
With his eyelashes, thin as paper, his tiny, blue veined hands, his smile, that when it breaks forth, is like the sun when it rises?
That extravagant love that created the universe,
It will never stop waiting.
It will never give up.
So you don't give up either.
When you pray for that sibling, that spouse, that child, that friend,
Maybe even that prodigal parent,
Keep hoping with an irrational hope.
Keep working in your father's field.
Keep watching down the road.
And trust the prodigal Christ when he tells you one day, that child will come home.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Shouldn't we be as good as State Farm?

You're driving down I-75 in the ice and snow when you see a car stuck on the side of the road.
What do you do?
There are two young Hispanic kids in hoodies with enormous gold chains standing outside the car, rubbing their arms, clearly freezing.
Do you stop and help?
What if it's a woman in her nineties, still inside the car, who probably doesn't have a cell phone?
Do you stop then?
What if it's someone you know from work?
From church?
What if you happen to see your spouse is stuck by the roadside, do you stop then?
Your child?
When you're stuck on the side of the road in a car accident, it's not quite as bad as being beaten by highway robbers and left for dead, but add in a Michigan winter and I'd say it's pretty close.
Whose responsibility is it to help?
When most people have cell phones and everyone's required to have insurance, if you're like me you've never stopped.
You assume people are getting the help they need.
After all, it's someone else's responsibility to take care of it.
His friend.
Her daughter.
Triple A.
All I have to do is say…like a good neighbor…
And you know the response…come on…give it to me…
State Farm is there!
And if State Farm will be there, for the right price, who needs to be a neighbor?
Preacher Nancy Rockwell points out that we pay first responders now,
And maybe that's a good thing.
After all, I possess neither the training nor the equipment to deal with a heart attack,
Getting stuck in a snowdrift,
Or even, embarrassingly, a flat tire.
But it's easy to get into the habit of saying, let someone else deal with it.
When disaster strikes…we send in FEMA.
The elderly…they've got Social Security, Medicare.
The poor…we pay taxes and give to charity…let the government deal with that!
Stranded by the side of the road?
If you're smart, you've paid your insurance,
And for the right price, you'll get a good neighbor! State Farm will be there!
But in a nation where most people claim to be Christian,
Should you have to pay to have a good neighbor?
Whose responsibility is it?
Who is my neighbor?
Who would you stop to help?
A stranger?
Someone of a different tribe, class, race?
An acquaintance?
Your best friend?
Who is my neighbor?
In Jesus's parable, a man is traveling down the highway from Jerusalem to Jericho.
Rockwell points out, it was a highway.
It was I-75.
Everyone had somewhere to go, something to do.
Did the Levite, the priest, did they fail to stop because they didn't want to touch a dead body,
Didn't want to become ceremonially unclean,
Or was it because they had important meetings to get to,
People to see, animals to sacrifice, things like that?
And we, do we stop to help others
Or are we so caught up in our busy-ness that we just drive by?
As I was writing my sermon today, I was wracked by guilt
Because, between the snow, parenting, and family commitments,
I wasn't able to visit church members in dire need.
Whose responsibility is it to comfort the dying?
I want to respond, it's mine.
I don't want to be the priest, the Levite, who is too busy.
I know that my neighbor is not just my family,
That my obligation is not just to them,
But to all God's children.
Have I failed to be a good neighbor?
And, if this is the second most important commandment,
The first being to love God, the second to love my neighbor as myself,
Does failing to stop by the side of the road, failing to visit shut in church members as often as I'd like, failing to be the one to go into the homes of the flood victims this fall, does that put me in danger of hellfire?
And so I read the parable again.
The Samaritan stops.
The person least likely to help, with reason to walk by.
He puts the man on his beast of burden and brings him to an inn.
Where he pays the innkeeper to take care of him.
Which of these three helped him?
All three.
Not the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan.
The Samaritan, the donkey, and the innkeeper.
Several biblical scholars point out that the Samaritan was a good neighbor…but he didn't act alone.
The donkey, who had no choice, was the one who carried the suffering man.
The innkeeper, whose job was one thought of as less than holy, he helped the suffering man and received pay for his efforts.
The Samaritan didn't act alone.
He worked with what was available to him.
And, he didn't stay by the suffering man's side the whole time.
This isn't to get us off the hook from helping others.
But your calling and mine is to work with others.
We must remind ourselves: there was a Messiah: I am not him.
As a pastor, I am called to visit the sick, to bring communion, to pray for others and care for them.
But I want to tell you as a church and I want to tell myself—I can't do everything.
I can't even do everything I want to do.
And that doesn't make me a bad neighbor.
Our church understands that, and we all visit, care, and offer support.
We send flowers and we send out the prayer chain.
Could we do better? Absolutely.
One thing I would like to restart is the knitting ministry to create prayer shawls for those who are sick and hurting,
Because I think it will do a lot of good both for those who receive prayers and for those who give them.
I think we are doing a fairly good job of working together with others to care for our own.
And by housing the poorest among us during these cold days, we are being good neighbors to people in need in our community.
We need to recognize that we work together,
And we need sometimes to invite others to help us.
There are others in our community who, like the donkey, like the innkeeper,
Need to be put to work caring for our neighbors.
It's such a wonderful thing to me that we have other churches and community groups helping with the warming shelter.
It's not a bad thing that our church asks others to partner with us to get things done:
The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us it's healthy and right.
We are called to expand our definition of Samaritan.
Not just you.
Not just me.
Who could be doing more?
Do you have family, friends, acquaintances who can help?
We are called to stop taking on all the work and instead helping others to do the work God has called them to do.
We are called to expand our definition of a Good Samaritan.
We are called to expand our definition of a neighbor in need.
Not just my family.
Not just my friends.
Not just my church.
What if our visiting and caring for others were to expand?
If we grow our definition of Samaritan,
If we grow our definition of neighbor,
Brothers and sisters, perhaps that's how God will grow our church.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.