Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Gospel of Fred the Fig

“Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none…’”    — Luke 13

Once upon a time… a time not so long ago, in a small valley in Nevada not too far from here, there was a beautiful vineyard.   And it did well in Nevada’s sandy soil.  It was not just a vineyard that produced wine, but one that produced champagne.  You have to grow three kinds of grapes to make champagne.  Two of them are black with white juice, the Pinot Noir and the Pinot Meunier.  The other one is a white grape with white juice, the Chardonnay.  But this is not a story about the grapes.

There was a fig tree planted in one corner, and his name was Fred.  He wasn’t beautiful and delicate like the vines.  He had flat, broad leaves, and stalks going everywhere.  Sometimes he was jealous of the grapes that people gathered with such care and praised.  You see, Fred had no fruit.  He also knew he wasn’t as important because he was stuck in the corner.  Secretly, he wished he could be a grapevine.

Fred had two friends: God and the Gardener.  God sent the sunshine, and water, and gentle breezes.  And the Gardener?  Well, Fred loved him.  He would come out some days and sit in Fred’s shade and have lunch.  Sometimes they would talk . . . well, mostly the Gardner would talk, or he would read to Fred after lunch.  You may already know that fig trees are very good listeners because they rarely interrupt you.  Just every now and then, Fred would say, “Is that so,” or “How interesting,” or “Tell me more.”  All those nice things friends say when they’re really listening to you and want to help you tell your stories.  The Gardener never seemed to tire of Fred’s company, and never said a mean thing to him about not growing any fruit.  Still, Fred never confided his sense of failure or secret wish to his friend, the Gardener.

No, Fred tried to go it alone . . . grow it alone.  He had curious roots.   His soil in the corner was not as carefully tilled as the floor of the vineyard, but there was some chalky subsoil added, and he tried to break up the tough Nevada soil beneath, but it was hard.  Any of you who’ve tried to dig in your own back yard here know that mostly of what we grow in Nevada are rocks.  He knew he had to spread his roots if he was ever going to produce fruit, so he didn’t give up… but it wasn’t much good.  He actually grew quite large, although fig trees tend to spread out sideways, not get tall.  But still, there was no fruit.

Unfortunately, the kindhearted gardener wasn’t the only visitor.  There was a road on the other side of the vineyard.  Sometimes people would pass by after champagne tasting trips and stop for a rest.  Sometimes they would talk with each other of strange things: terrible accidents that had happened in the town, and even acts of violence in the news.  Sometimes they would attribute these terrible things to God.  Fred couldn’t understand that kind of thinking: God was his friend who sent the sun and the rain and the warm breezes.  The Good Gardener would shake his head sadly when Fred told him about these conversations.  He explained that good happens to the good and the bad; bad happens to the good and the bad.  God didn’t cause the accidents or violence, people did.  What God did was send help:  bystanders who stepped in; police and Firefighters to protect; doctors and nurses to heal; Friends and neighbors to pray and listen.  That made a lot more sense to Fred. 

Some of these strangers were looking for maybe a ripe fig or two for lunch.  When they found no fruit, they would get angry and say rude things to him, and that would discourage him more than ever.  A few people had gotten so upset with Fred they snapped a couple branches, and just to be even meaner, they didn’t break them cleanly off, and the broken branches dangled there, and it hurt.

One man in particular had stopped by only once a year during the three years of Fred’s young life.  Fred always trembled when he came close.  He knew he was important.  He had heard he was the owner of the vineyard.  The owner would look at him disapprovingly for a few moments, and then walk away to look at his prize-winning champagne grapes.  This year, however, after looking at him disapprovingly for a while, he muttered three words: “What a waste!”  Those three words were the final blow to Fred’s gentle figgy soul, and he wept.  It’s one thing to have others disapprove of you, but when someone who’s really important to you is disappointed it’s almost too painful to bear. 

The kind Gardener, passing by, heard Fred weeping, and asked, “Why are you weeping?”  Fred told him about what the owner had said.  The Gardener quietly said, “Yes, there are impatient people like that in the world.  Don’t worry, I’ll handle it.”  The Gardener went and talked to the owner.  Fred couldn’t quite hear what was said.  Finally, the owner walked away, and the Gardener returned to Fred and reassured him it was all handled.

While the Gardener sat down in Fred’s shade, took out his lunch and began to eat, Fred, for once, began to talk.  He told him of all the sadness in his heart because he had not grown any fruit.  He told him about people who had hurt him and broken off branches.  He even told him his darkest secret: that he was sometimes jealous of the grapes and wished he too could be a grapevine.

The only time the Gardener interrupted was when Fred mentioned he also knew he wasn’t important because he was planted in a corner.  The Gardener looked surprised, “Don’t you remember?  I planted you here.”  Fred didn’t… you must remember he was only a little twig at the time.
“Why?”  Fred asked
The Gardner said, “For a vine, the corner is wasted.  Only you could grow and produce fruit here.  Vines wouldn’t have even made it a season.  You’ve been here three years.  You’re right where I want you.”

They were quiet for a while, and then the Gardener asked, “Do you really want to produce fruit?” 
Fred whispered, “Yes!”
The Gardner continued, “I can help, but you have to let me do the work.”
“Oh, thank you!”  Fred exclaimed.
The Gardner added, “Your fruit won’t be like the grapes.” 
“That’s OK,” Fred said.
The Gardener warned, “Sometimes it’ll hurt.  I’ll have to do some deep digging, and some pruning.” 
Fred was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “I’m ready.”

So, the next day, the kind Gardener got to work.  It took a long time.  Sometimes it was
painful, and it smelled bad when the Gardener spread manure around him.  But Fred trusted the Good Gardner and time passed.  One day in early spring, Fred woke to a warm sun and a gentle breeze.  He yawned and looked down, and he gasped — he was covered in delicate yellow fig blossoms!  It had begun.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a champagne grape.  I’m more of a fig tree… I suspect most of us are.  Although I work to grow and bear fruit, it’s a great comfort to know that the Good Gardener is willing to take on most of the hard labor in my life: breaking up the hard, rocky soil of my heart to let the fresh air of the Spirit and the Water of Life get to my very roots.  He will give me everything I need to grow and bear fruit.  My fruits may not be champagne grapes, but figs are good too … yes, they’re good.

This is the Gospel of the Kind Gardener,
and the Gospel of Fred the Fig Tree,
and… the Gospel of the loving God who always gives you and me another chance.  Amen.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Silence Between the Wings of the Cherubim

“Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.”   — John 2

The people of Minnesota have given us some great things. Scotch tape was invented there,
lutefisk (if you don't know what that is, you can check it out on your Google machine here ), Garrison Keillor, and the Mall of America.  I once had a conference in Minneapolis and we got some free time and went to the Mall of America.  We went there three days in a row and walked, and walked, and walked.  At the end of our last day, I looked at the map of the mall and realized that in three days, we had only covered one tiny portion.  If you haven't seen it, you can't imagine how big it is.  258 Statues of Liberty could lie inside the Mall.  If Mount Rushmore was divided into individual monuments, a president could reside in each of the Mall’s four courts. Annually, it is estimated the Mall of America generates two billion dollars for Minnesota’s economy.  Yeah. it's big.

In Jesus' time, the Temple in Jerusalem was one of the greatest malls of its day.  What began as a temple of worship — a place of prayer — had become something quite different.  It had become a shopping mall, bank, government building, and revolutionary symbol all wrapped into one.  And all of these were in the outer courtyard of the temple.  

What is it that caused Jesus to become so angry? It can only be one thing: injustice.  Have you ever bought popcorn at the movies?  Have you ever filled your tank at a gas station right off the freeway?  You know because of their location they're going to charge you more.  The merchants in the temple had that all figured out, and they were the only game in town.  The sacrificial system in the temple had evolved, over the centuries, into an efficient machine for fleecing rich and poor alike.  
 If you went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, your goal was to sacrifice an animal, according to the Law of Moses. You could bring your own sacrificial animal, of course, but if you came from far away, it was easier to purchase a beast locally, at a steep markup.  The law said you had to present a perfect animal, without mark or blemish. Unless you purchased a pre-approved animal within the temple precincts, you had to bring your offering before an inspector, who would tell you whether or not it met the grade. And guess what? The inspectors were in cahoots with the animal-sellers, who knew how to grease their palms with silver. Rarely did they grant approval for a sacrificial animal brought in from the outside.

There was something else. If you had journeyed from one of the lands of the Jewish diaspora —
Greece, Egypt, Asia Minor, even distant Rome — the coins jingling in your purse would have been imperial coins, engraved with the Emperor's likeness. Such graven images violated the Second Commandment, and so were forbidden within the temple precincts. In order to buy yourself a sacrificial animal, you had to first exchange your Roman money for image-free Judean coins. The money changers, who had a monopoly, charged exorbitant commissions, but the poor pilgrims had no recourse. They got them coming and going, those temple merchants.

You can see why when Jesus walked into that chaos of the free market, he didn't see a house of prayer. he saw a den of thieves.  It was not enough that Rome was oppressing Israel. The leaders of Israel were oppressing their own people.

For the longest time I read this passage as Jesus losing his temper and flying into a rage. But there is a detail in verse 15 that suggests this was a more deliberate action that Jesus took time to prepare for.  "Making a whip of cords" would take some time and gathering of materials, wouldn't it?  If Jesus had merely lost his temper, he would have grabbed the nearest blunt object and started flailing away.  But this detail suggests that there was a time lapse between noticing the money changing going on and reacting to it.  His followers and the people of Jerusalem were all watching him. And he was going to teach a lesson.

And do you notice, that not a word was said, nor a hand raised against him, as He poured out the
changers’ money, overthrew their tables, and drove out the livestock.  His Presence awed his opponents, and the people who had been ripped off all their lives were on his side.  The only challenge his opponents could come up was to ask him for a sign. A symbol of authority that gave him the right to do all this. And Jesus replied, "Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up."

Let’s just pause for a wonderful quote by Garrett Keizer: "I am unable to commit to any messiah who doesn’t knock over tables."  Don't you love that? [Garret Keizer in The Enigma of Anger (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004)]

Then came the calm aftermath spoken of in the Gospel of Matthew 21 — Jesus began to teach every day in the temple and it says there were "children who were crying in the temple, "Hosanna to the son of David!" And since the temple officials couldn't win the argument, they decided to become indignant about the kids, and in Matthew 21:16 said to him, "Do you hear what these are saying?"  And a very calm Jesus replies, "Yes. Did you never read, 'Out of the mouth of babes and nursing babies you have perfected praise?'"  Oh, don't you know that ticked them off!

Former Presiding Bishop John E. Hines said it's so well: “They did not crucify Jesus for saying ‘Behold the lilies of the field, how they grow.’ They crucified him for saying, ‘Consider the thieves of the temple, and how they steal.’”

Do you think what happened to the Jewish Temple could ever happen to us?  How would we know if we've stopped being the Church and become a mall?  I've sometimes heard people say, "The Church needs to be run more like a business."  It isn't that we can’t take some lessons from business, but when we make business our model I think we're in trouble.  When we judge our success as a church the same way Apple does, we've got a problem.  John's first readers would have known that the temple was already a smoking crater by the time they read his gospel, since it was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70.  Jesus' words and actions were thus not only prophetic, but a stark reminder that any institution that claims to be of God is doomed to failure if it refuses to pay attention to God's own core purpose and values.  Jesus' action in the Temple this morning challenges us to look at Trinity to determine whether we're being faithful to his call, or whether like the Temple in Jerusalem, we’re due for some table flipping. some spring cleaning. For example:

·      Do we measure the church's success like a business? Are we so focused on our attendance figures, buildings, budget, programs, that we fail to question whether we're doing what Jesus wants?
·      Do we talk in our meetings more about property and budgets or about people and what we are doing and can do for people within our walls and outside our walls?
·      Do we avoid the risk of being prophetic and challenging people with the Gospel of the Kingdom, and instead play it safe and not talk about controversial subjects? About justice for the poor and a living wage and fairness for workers; equality in our nation for women, people of color, immigrants, gays and lesbians; and safety for all our children from pollution, global warming, and gun violence?
·      Have we started to look to human beings to take care of all of our problems and make this church what we want it to be. Instead of we ourselves truly becoming disciples of the Christ the way Jesus intended to change the world, do we sit back and look to the Vestry. or the priests. or our new rector to solve everything?

We don't need to be able to answer each one of those questions, but I think we do need to keep asking them.  As long as we keep our eyes focused on the one who said, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations." and keep asking those questions, I think we're on the right track.

The noise in the outer courtyard must have been deafening: Moneychangers and merchants haggling, sheep baa'aing, cattle mooing, doves cooing, people talking, laughing, getting upset with each other.  Jesus stopped all that in today's Gospel, and what was left was a silence so profound that the people there could hear the voices of the children crying in the temple, "Hosanna to the son of David!"

In the very deepest room of the temple. The Holy of Holies. was the Ark of the Covenant.  The High Priest only went in there once a year.  Arching over the mercy seat were two cherubim, their golden wings reaching toward each other at the top. But the mercy seat itself was empty. Yet it was that space that was considered the very presence of the Almighty.  Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury talks about this emptiness: "The cherubim did not reside on the mercy seat. God's presence was nowhere portrayed within this "Holy of Holies" — or anywhere else within the temple. All that greeted the high priest was a blank slab of open space, a void, "the great speaking absence between the images".

Lent is a time of stripping away of all the noise — letting go of things that are holding us back from life, real life.  Before we can be ready for the joy of Easter, we take this time to examine ourselves, to examine our church, and to seek the silence between the wings of the cherubim.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

I Am Not Crazy!

“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit.”   — Mark 1:21-28

I am not crazy… and I have papers to prove it.  One of the things you may not know about becoming an Episcopal priest is the Church requires you to take a full battery of psychological tests before you're allowed to even begin the process.  Yes, call us old-fashioned, but we try not to ordain crazy priests.  It costs you five hundred dollars, and you have to pay it yourself.  So, ten years ago, before I began my process, I sat down for a half day of written exams in a psychologist's office.  After you answer sheets and sheets of questions on two different instruments, you go away and the psychologist analyzes it and then meets with you.  Just a little hint about being interviewed by a psychologist who's trying to determine whether you're crazy or not: That's probably not the best time for humor.  She went through my test, and said things like, "You have a good self-concept. You score highly in compassion and empathy for others."  But then she said, "There is some slight indication of defensiveness." And I couldn't help myself and replied, "What do you mean I'm defensive?"  I thought it was pretty funny.  The psychologist said nothing.  She just stared at me for a long moment, sighed, and then looked down and made a note in my file.  For those of you who are wondering, I passed my psychological with flying colors.  As I said before, I am not crazy… of course, that was ten years ago.

In Jesus' day, calling someone "crazy" or saying they had a "demon" was shorthand for anything that couldn't be explained.  Everything from epilepsy to mental illness to measles was explained by saying someone had a "demon".  (Hmm… speaking of measles. Sidebar here: Get your kids vaccinated. I think it comes under "Love your neighbor as yourself."  OK, back to the sermon.) 

At one point, people even accused Jesus of having a demon. In other words, "He's crazy!"  In our modern day, I think there are people who would describe Jesus as being crazy.  Those who think everyone should just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps think Jesus is pretty crazy for caring for the poor and the discouraged.  Those who think they are somehow superior or God's favorite because they are rich — who make the mistake of thinking they hit a home run, but actually they were just born on third base — think Jesus is crazy for talking about how hard it is for a rich person to get into the kingdom of heaven.  Those who think it's all about them think Jesus is crazy when he called us to have compassion for others.

But, Jesus wasn't crazy. He was authentic.  The people in that synagogue knew what the scribes had written. To them, no one was as important, as authoritative a prophet, as Moses.  Maybe, hearing the young man from Nazareth on this day, they were remembering the words of Moses concerning true prophets we read in Deuteronomy this morning: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people: you shall heed such a prophet.”  The people were used to preachers who simply talked on and on about Moses and what different rabbis had said, about what Moses said: “Moses said to tithe. To explain in more detail, Rabbi Akiva said one must tithe only his major crops; but Rabbi Hillel said one must include even the spices of the garden”— that’s how some of their preaching likely went.

So, what would the differences in the teachings sound like?  Was it just, "Moses said..." vs. "But I say to you..." as he did in the Beatitudes, or was it something more... something about how Jesus spoke and carried himself?  I like to think it was something more. Jesus not only taught differently, he lived in such an authentic life walking with God that he could speak on it authoritatively. And it astonished people!  Isn’t it sad that often when we see and hear truth, transparency, integrity — we are astonished?

And he was so authentic, he didn't want his miracles to be the focal point so he tried to get people to keep them secret.  Jesus asked his followers not to speak about his miracles — he did not want his miracles to attract people to him. He wanted the Word of God to be the central Good News he was proclaiming.

And in today’s Gospel, we see him healing a man by casting out a demon.  And Jesus knew a lot about casting out demons, because he had wrestled with his own.  Earlier in Mark 1 we read the temptation stories of Jesus in the desert right after his baptism, and everything there points to the image, as Henry Nouen described him, of a “wounded healer.”  Jesus, the wounded healer, knew the kind of demons and weaknesses and brokenness that people wrestle with every day. because he had done battle with them himself.

Today, we still have to wrestle with all sorts of demons. Those things inside us that make us feel crazy: addiction, loneliness, fear.  I like to refer to mine as the Greek Chorus.  If you don't know about them, they were really big in Greek plays, especially the tragedies.  The chorus consisted of between twelve and fifty players, who variously danced, sang or spoke their lines in unison and sometimes wore masks, as our fears often do.  In many of these plays, the chorus expressed to the audience what the main characters couldn’t say, such as their hidden fears or secrets.  I guess it was a kind of early form of rap music.  The chorus entered from the two ramps known as paradoi on either side of the orchestra. Once there, they sang the choral dialogue.  Cheerful things, like in the play Antigone: “Oh, you unlucky daughter of an unlucky father,” or in the tragedy Oedipus: "Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him. Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day, count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last."

So, have you heard from the members of your Greek chorus lately? Sure you have.  Every time you put yourself down. Every time you say to yourself cruel things you would never say to anyone else like, "You're a loser!" "What's wrong with you?!" "You're so stupid!" "You're always going to mess it up!"  — That's your Greek chorus chiming in.  I try to handle my Greek Chorus with a sense of humor.  After my chorus comes in rapping, "You're going to fail miserably." I always thank them. rather formally.  "Ladies and Gentleman of the chorus. I thank you. Off you go now, back into the wings."

Naming the demons means knowing the demons. The Gospels imply that anyone who exorcises cannot be a stranger to demons. To have faced our demons is never to forget their power to hurt… and never to forget the power to heal that lies in touching broken heartedness.  Jesus hears, below the demon noises, an anguished cry for deliverance. And we can tune our hearts to hear that same cry in others.  John Watson once said, "Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."  People you know may appear to have it all together. to be successful and happy and loved. But make no mistake. everyone's fighting a battle.  Everyone gets entertained by their own Greek Chorus.

Henri J. M. Nouwen once wrote, 
“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, "Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody." ... [My dark side says,] I am no good... I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the "Beloved." Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

You are the beloved.  Believing that… allowing Jesus to help us make peace with our inner Greek Chorus. We in turn can become wounded healers for others. 

Perhaps, what you need most is the touch of the wounded healer on your heart.  Or maybe this morning you already are one of those wounded healers bringing healing and love and comfort to others, but you don't even realize it.  Paulo Coelho, bestselling author of the parable The Alchemist, tells this story: 
Many years ago, there lived a man who was capable of loving and forgiving everyone he came across. Because of this, God sent an angel to talk to him. “God asked me to come and visit you and tell you that he wishes to reward you for your goodness,” said the angel. “You may have any gift you wish for. Would you like the gift of healing?” “Certainly not,” said the man. “I would prefer God to choose those who should be healed.” “And what about leading sinners back to the path of Truth?” “That’s a job for angels like you.  I don’t want to be venerated by anyone or to serve as a permanent example.” “Look, I can’t go back to Heaven without having given you a miracle. If you don’t choose, I’ll have to choose one for you,” the angel explained. The man thought for a moment and then said: “All right, I would like good to be done through me, but without anyone noticing, not even me, in case I should commit the sin of vanity.” So the angel arranged for the man’s shadow to have the power of healing, but only when the sun was shining on the man’s face. In this way, wherever he went, the sick were healed, the earth grew fertile again, and sad people rediscovered happiness. The man traveled the Earth for many years, oblivious of the miracles he was working because when he was facing the sun, his shadow was always behind him. In this way, he was able to live and die unaware of his own holiness.

By facing the sun. by wrestling with our own inner critical voice. by believing that we are indeed beloved of God. by the healing of the wounded healer, Jesus.  We can turn and heal others... don't underestimate the power of love or your own importance in spreading Jesus' love to others.  You may never know all the good you do, but have no doubt, you have a unique and critical role to play in the healing of this broken world.  And you are the only one who can do it.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

OK, seriously now... Great Ways to Celebrate Lent with Your Kids!

     After my post about dreadful ways to celebrate Lent with your kids, here are some serious suggestions I found on the web that would be fun and meaningful for kids!
  • Make a paper chain countdown: Anticipate Jesus’ resurrection! Remove a link from the chain each day to illustrate the passage of time until Easter. 
  • Create a Lenten calendar: Make a calendar that indicates Ash Wednesday, each Sunday of Lent, and Holy Week, and let your child mark one spot each day (or print this one!) You can also use the ones supplied by Trinity.
  • Revitalize your prayer/devotional routine:
    • Learn a new prayer. Selecting a new bedtime or mealtime prayer can be a great way to get kids to really think about the meaning behind their prayers, rather than just reciting words without thought. Stuck? Prayers for mealtime can be found in the Book of
      Common Prayer on p. 835. There are also some simple and cute prayer kids on the Internet if you Google “Prayers for Kids”. They’re simple and easily memorized.
    • Learn a new method of prayer, such as a walking prayer (Focus on seeing God everywhere), centering prayer (Pick a word like kindness. Sit in quietness with this word for 5 minutes. Share your feelings.), or color prayer (Think of what you want to pray about, and then color it.)
    • Learn a new hymn together!
  • Fasting (but not like you think):

    • The practice of fasting is an attempt to focus on life’s blessings, by pausing — to be mindful of our gratitude for family, time, and food. Here are some ideas…
    • Fast from fast food — Replace it with a dinner your kids help cook and eat together as a family.
    • Have a Fish Friday! Ever wonder where that came from? When fish was the cheapest
      meal a person could have, it was suggested on Fridays that people eat fish, and donate the difference between this cheap meal and what they would have regularly eaten to the poor. Not a bad idea, but nowadays, we might have Mac & Cheese Fridays.
    • Fast from TV one day a week — Replace it with family reading and outings.
    • Fast from electronic games one day a week — Replace them with family games.
    • Fast from using the computer — Spend that time with your family.
  • Read the Bible daily: Read a different Bible story from your child’s favorite Children’s Bible each day. Or add some Easter or “God books” to your home library.
  • Start a prayer/devotional/gratitude jar: This can take many forms. Fill a jar with either prayer
    starters or short prayers and read one together each day. Or leave slips of paper out for family members to write down people and things they are grateful for. Collect the slips and read them together during dinner or keep them for Sunday dinners, or wait for your Easter Sunday celebration.
  • Donate:
    • Food: Have your children help you pick one non-perishable food item to put in a box each day to be delivered to a local food pantry at the end of Lent.
    • Money: Collect a daily offering to be given to your church or favorite charity.
    • Toys/Clothes: Have your children sort through their things for toys that they no longer play with and clothes that no longer get worn. Donate the unused items to those who need them more.
    • Time: As a family, find ways you can volunteer your time to help others. Depending on the age of your children, it may be appropriate to volunteer at a soup kitchen or shelter. Other ideas include picking up trash at the neighborhood park, making cards to give to nursing home residents, helping elderly neighbors with yard work, or preparing a meal for someone who is sick or injured. Write a letter, send a card, or call someone who is lonely or shut-in. The possibilities are endless!
  • Become a better steward of God’s creation:
    • Make a bird feeder: Then hang it outside to help the birds in this late winter/early spring season. 
    • Reduce/reuse/recycle: Brainstorm together ways you can take better care of the
      environment. Can you take reusable bags to the store or use them in lunch containers? Can you start composting? Can your kids create something new out of those food containers you would normally toss?

Friday, February 27, 2015

Teach your child to hate Lent!

     For the 2nd Sunday in March, I was searching for ideas to get kids involved in Lent (prayer, fasting, and alms).  Think of positive things like Coloring Prayer, Recycling, Visiting the Elderly, and Donating old Toys.  But here are the absolute worst ideas I came across on the web  (Yes, these are real... and sick!  I'll be back in a week with some great ideas!):

  • Take your child to Stations of the Cross at Church, and then when you get home, say the Sorrowful Mysteries on the rosary (Oh, mommy, no, don't make us go outside and play!  We'd rather do the Sorrowful Mysteries.)
  • Bake braided bread in a circle and stick pretzels (or more lethally, toothpicks) in it to create a tasty crown of thorns (Governmentally sanctioned torture never tasted so good!)
  • Visit a Cemetery: Find a family member in a cemetery and explain how Jesus died so this person could go to heaven. ("So... you better watch out, you better not cry..." sing on!)
  • Temptation Cookies: While baking cookies, tell your children about the temptation of Jesus in the desert. When the cookies are done, leave them on the table, but they cannot eat them. (Remember Aunt Mabel in the cemetery? Well, if you eat these cookies...)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Blessed are the Doubters

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, We have seen the Lord. But he said to them, Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe. John 20

Poor doubting Thomas.  There ought to be a beatitude for the guy.

Blessed are the doubters... for they shall not be suckered in... and though their phones ringeth off the hook during the dinner hour they shall not fall for telemarketing fraud.  Nor shall they be caught up in Wall Street Ponzie schemes.  Yea verily, though they be compassed about on every side by friends and television commercials who plead earnestly with them to do this or that, blessed are they, for they shall check their facts and make up their own minds.

Blessed are the doubters, for once they have been given the chance to live into their doubts, like Thomas, their faith shall be all the deeper for it.

Some Christians are afraid that doubt is a sin, but its not.  Only humans are offended if you doubt them  God doesnt think like we do.  Jesus doesn't criticize Thomas for his doubts — he knew Thomas.  Thomas was brave and utterly dedicated to Jesus.  In John 11, when Jesus decided to go into terrible danger by returning to Bethany because Lazarus had died, it says, "Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, Let us also go, that we may die with him. Thomas spoke his mind.  In John 14, Jesus said, "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’"  Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?"

Jesus isnt offended.  Jesus reacts as God does.  He just opens himself up, allows himself to be questioned, explored, examined.  He doesnt argue with Thomas.  He has more of an attitude of, Come and see.  In First John it says, "God is light and in him there is no darkness."  He's not going to get angry or impatient.  God can take your doubt.  God can take your anger.

Doubt can be a tremendous gift from God, an invitation to draw closer and touch the wounds.  Doubt can be a call to examine the Body beneath the skin, an invitation to touch what I don't know and haven't seen, what I don't quite believe.

Thomas became a great believer in short order.  But, some of us have created a Jesus we're afraid to touch.  We've made him into a porcelain doll.  Were afraid to doubt as if Jesus is so fragile, he might wobble off the shelf and break.  Baby Jesus is fine at Christmas, but I'll tell you, in my life I need a grown up Jesus.  Thank you, God for giving us a real Jesus!  One that we can doubt and touch and hold onto in lifes storms and have faith in.  After all the doubt, Jesus gives an even greater gift: He breathes on them and says, Receive the Holy Spirit.
The real Jesus meets us in our doubts.  Theology is a fancy word priests and academics use to describe sitting around, drinking tea, and chatting about what we think God is like.  Todays Gospel is about God meeting us where we live... in the flesh.  This is called Incarnation theology.  It is an understanding that the physical matters to God and that God is present in the physical. Again in First John:
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.
God runs out and meets us in our doubts and our unbelief and lets us touch and handle and see and try things.  In my life, it always has seemed I recognized God when I was most in doubt and most broken.  Has it been that way for you too?  When everything is going just fine, we skim along paying little attention, but when everything falls apart, we cry, "Where is God?"  God has left heaven and pitched a tent among us. God reigns here. God is not someplace else.   The only way to know God is in the incarnation, the real stuff of life: The rejoicing of springtime, the resurrection of the earth, in our jobs, in our relationships and fellowship with each other. 

For so many Christians, fellowship with one another is based on a long list of requirements: Do you believe exactly like I do on all the major controversies of the day?  But in John 1, their fellowship was based,  not a list of requirements, but on walking together and a sense of being forgiven: "But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us."  Even forgiveness of sins was changed in todays Gospel: “If you forgive sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’"  Forgiveness is no longer passive waiting for God to act, but somehow embedded in our relationship with one another.  We have an active role in the reconciliation of the world and each other. 

We dont have a porcelain, fragile Jesus who goes all wobbly if we have human doubts and fears.  We have a tough Jesus, a grown-up Jesus, a real Jesus, a Jesus who comes to live among us.  Scripture points to the real Jesus, but it's not the real Jesus - lets not confuse the two.  John says everything has been "Written so that you may come to believe... and believing ... have life."  Many other signs were done, but this is enough so you can have life.  All of this is just to point us to real life with our Lord.  All the scriptural proof-texting and theology done by all the theologians and priests and scribes and rabbis did not lead to the revelation of the risen Christ.  That revelation only came when the risen living Christ walked alongside the disciples grieving his death on the road to Emmaus, and he went in with them and broke the bread.  That revelation only came through allowing Thomas to doubt.  That revelation only comes through the sharing of bread and wine.  It is in the bread and wine where Jesus comes so close he breathes on you, as he did the early disciples, and says, Receive the Holy Spirit.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Skittles for Jesus

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’  — Matthew 4

I have to admit I don’t know much about football, but I heard so much chatter about the behavior of Seattle Seahawks fans, that I got curious.  There were stories of loud yelling and Skittles being thrown on the field.  I even came across an article about the Seahawk fans causing an earthquake. That was a bit of hyperbole; they simply stomped and made enough noise to be picked up by a nearby seismograph — very different from causing an actual earthquake. 

There was a story about how, in one case, fans from the two rival teams almost got in a fight, until one of them tried to talk some sense into them all.  He said, "You realize neither of us is actually playing on one of the teams?"  There’s a huge difference between being a fan and being an actual player. 

As people are looking forward to the Super Bowl, perhaps we should ask ourselves the same question about our faith in Jesus, "Are we just fans, or are we followers?"  You may be Jesus’s greatest fan.  You may be the one wearing the funny face paint and the colored wig, waving your flag and throwing Skittles onto the field for Jesus, but don’t kid yourself; there’s a huge difference between being a fan of Jesus and being an actual player on his team.

It is here on this ordinary Sunday, somewhere between Christmas and Easter that we read the Gospel account of how ordinary people became star players on his team — how his church began.

Fishing was tough work.  Much of their fishing was done at night, using lanterns. In the morning, the fishermen would sort their catch (Luke 5:5; John 21:3).  When the fish had been sent off to market, it would be time for the fishermen to clean and repair their nets.  Once this was done, they could sleep and get ready for the next night’s work.

In our text today, Jesus is walking along the shore early in the morning, and he comes to Simon Peter and Andrew while they are going about their morning routine.  And something amazing happens…  Jesus calls his first disciples, the first players on his team.  Renowned Rabbis didn’t go out and call followers; they simply waited for followers to come to them.  Not Jesus.  And if you know any of the stories about them in the Gospels, you know these guys weren’t ready for prime time.

I already told you I don’t know much about football, but my impression is it’s kind of tough to get on a major league team.  Kids spend their youth playing on Pop Warner teams, and then they compete to get on their high school football team.  If they succeed there, they carefully choose a college that has a great football program or will offer them a sports scholarship, and then, they fight to get and to keep a position on their college team.  And they hope… just hope they’ll get noticed by a scout for a national franchise.  And most are disappointed.

The Denver Broncos do not select their players by driving up to a couple of ordinary guys out fishing and say, “Hey, you!  We want you to be on our team. Oh, bring your brother too.”  But that’s exactly what Jesus did.  “As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew...  'Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.'” 

I think it’s important to notice what Jesus did not say.  He did not say, “Follow me, but first you have to believe in me.”  He did not say, “Follow me, but first you have to love me.”  He did not say, “Follow me, but first you have to be a perfect person.”  There were no preconditions in Jesus’ call to his followers.  You don’t have to have perfect faith.  You don’t have to understand everything.  You don’t have to subscribe to some list of required beliefs.  When Jesus calls, he asks me, and he asks you to step out into the unknown with him.  He asks us to follow even though we may not be quite sure of where he is taking us or whether we are up to journey. 

Peter, Andrew, James, and John must have wondered and even been a little intrigued by Jesus saying, “I will make you fish for people.”  But as they heard him preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” they learned two things about fishing for people:  One, it had to start with them.  They had to be a certain kind of people to bring in others.  It started with them wanting a new kind of life, a change.  And the second thing they knew, it wasn’t going to be too hard to get into this Kingdom of Heaven because it was nearby, right in their midst.  In one place it can be translated, “The Kingdom of God is within you.”

And as they followed Jesus day by day, learning to live a new way, a way filled with hope instead of despair, and as they and the multitudes who followed Jesus saw the Kingdom of Heaven breaking out within them and among them, the prophesy of old Isaiah began to be fulfilled, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

We need this light today every bit as much as they did 2,000 years ago.  Each of us has some dark corners in our lives, places where we feel hopeless, lost, overwhelmed, and alone.  But when the great light of Christ begins to shine, we move from darkness into a new day.  But that light, that change of life, doesn’t happen if you’re just a fan of Jesus, you have to be on the team.  You’ve got to get out on the field not just throw Skittles for Jesus from the grandstands.

Now, I’ll be truthful with you, it’s a lot tougher to be a player than it is to be a fan.  And there are no guarantees that there won’t be dark times in our lives.  But what we are promised is we are not alone, and darkness is never going to win.  Knowing that, with God’s presence in our lives, we can walk through any darkness without fear overwhelming us as we hold the hand of the one who walked alongside the sea that morning so many years ago.

The part about “fishing for people” was always kind of hard for me to understand because I’m a pretty bad fisherman despite my poor dad’s best efforts.  But I think maybe that misses the point: If Jesus can use a fisherman, he can use me and he can use you!  He reached out to people where they were in their lives.  To exhausted fishermen, he said, “Follow me, and I’ll show you how to fish for people.”  To builders and architects and carpenters, he says, “Follow me, and I will show you how to build up people.”  To lawyers, he says, “Follow me, and I will show you how to share the law of love with others.”  To those who feel they might not have many talents to offer, he says, “Follow me, and I’ll show you how talented you can be bringing light to others.”  And he calls wives and husbands who work at home, and taxi cab drivers, and young people who think they’re too young to have anything to offer, and old people who fear they have nothing more to offer.  Jesus called ordinary people right in the middle of their ordinary lives to do extraordinary things, and he still does this morning.  You can do this where you are   In fact, Christ needs you right where you are.

Phillips Brooks was the Bishop of Massachusetts in the late 1800’s.  Most of us know him only as the author of "O little town of Bethlehem," but he was also renowned as an incredible preacher.  Here’s what he said in one of his sermons:

"It seems very certain that the world is to grow better and richer in the future, however it has been in the past, not by the magnificent achievements of the highly-gifted few, but by the patient faithfulness of the one-talented many.  “If we could draw back the curtains of the millennium and look in, we should see not a Hercules here and there standing on the “world-wasting” monsters he had killed, but a world full of (human beings), each with an arm of moderate muscle, but each triumphant over (their) own little piece   of the earth... It seems as if heroes (have) done almost all for the world that they can do, and not much more can come till common (men and women) awake and take (up) their common tasks." 

We don't need one more Superman or Spiderman.  The world doesn’t need any more Wonder Women or Xena: Warrior Princesses.  We just need more ordinary people like Mary and Joseph, like Martha and John and Mary Magdalene, and Andrew and Peter.  We need to stop merely being fans of Jesus and become followers.  What the world needs… what God is looking for in our time… is just folks like you and me living our ordinary lives, doing our most humble tasks, sharing our love and our faith and our light with our brothers and sisters as we meet them every day along our journey.