Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter ... ready ... set ... go!


Matthew 28:1-10

About three years ago I committed to the Narrative Lectionary.  It is a four-year cycle that takes the congregation through each gospel writer in the winter and spring months, basically from Christmas to Easter.  I am a self-confessed lover of Luke’s gospel.  Last year we were in John and I approached his gospel with a little hesitancy but came to fall in love with his gospel.  This year we have been in Matthew and have had the same reaction I had with John’s gospel.  Matthew is chock full of simple amazingness.  From boundary crossing, to proclaiming that God is out there among those we don’t even know, to surprising us with his account of the resurrection.  His Easter story is breathtaking and unique and so powerful for the church in the United States today. How did I not see it before? 
I’m not sure many have.  I did my usually internet search to get inspired for the children’s moment in worship only to find that so many of them combine the gospel narratives.  Yet they each had their own unique audience and were called to write their own account of how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus has brought them closer to God and has opened them to the movement of the Spirit.

In Matthew’s account, the two Mary’s arrive empty handed and I have to wonder why?  Did they not expect to find a body?  Did they already believe in resurrection?  Or were they sure the stone would be immoveable? So why bother bringing spices and oils to anoint their Lord’s body and finish up the funeral preparations that were paused for Sabbath rest?  When they arrive, they experience an earthquake, see the stone rolled away and converse with an angle. While the guards shake in fear and are like dead men, they look inside the empty tomb and then they are off.  There is no lingering, no weeping, no hesitating, no leaving only in fear, not to mention there are no disciples running or coming up after them. Not a single disciple shows up.  Allow that to sink in.
It is just the women who come, looking for something they had lost (as the Greek implies) and they find it!  Into their fear they find joy!  Unexplainable joy that has them off, like a marathon runner, to the disciples and then onto Galilee.  The bold, courageous Mary’s are the first in Matthew’s gospel to be entrusted with the Good News!

What Matthew is telling us is that God isn’t in the grave tending business.  Rather God is in the resurrection business.  Providing us with ways around impossible, fear-filled situations.  Breathing life among the dead parts of our lives and our communities, including our churches.  Matthew seems to want to offer us something beyond grief, a quickened response.  There is no time to grieve what had been, only time to rush forward to see the new thing God is about to do.

How might this empower our congregations to move in new directions?  To look forward, expectant? To know that God is out ahead of us, leading the way forward? 

Today is Easter.  May you be open to the new thing God is doing in your neighborhood!  May you quicken your pace as you push past fear and allow joy to enter in. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

An extravagant gift


John 12:1-8

John’s gospel will call us to examine how the God of the cosmos who graciously created all that is,
calls us to be good stewards of this creation. 

Even during Jesus’ final days, it is brought to light.
John is good about highlighting contrasts:
Light and darkness
Good and Evil
Life and Death
Abundance and Scarcity

John fleshes out this final pairing by sharing stories of an alternative economy contrasted against the old existing one, in our passage for today. 

John is full of stories of this alternative economy
that is rooted in the abundance of God. 
He lends so much detail to the stories
that we can begin to believe
that the old economy is really the myth that we have bought into,
a myth that tells us that there is not enough to go around, we have to look out only for ourselves,
we have to hoard, protect and hold onto.

Mary however leaned into this alternative economy. 
She had allowed it to seep into every fiber of her being
until she was breathing it in with every inhalation
and back out into the world with every exhalation.

It began when she sopped up Jesus’s teachings,
like one might use bread to make sure all of the delicious sauce on your plate makes to your taste buds.
While her sister Martha was frantically cleaning the home, Mary sat and listened intently. 
It is here that Jesus first speaks up for Mary,
defending her choice to sit and listen to him teach,
after Martha chastises her for not lending a hand
with the household chores.

This abundance took on new life
when her brother who had been dead for four days,
now emerged from the tomb to live again.

To live in the alternative economy is to participate in the abundance of God.
The outpouring begins with an invitation
for Jesus and his disciples to dine with Mary and her family, Martha and Lazarus.  
They offer up a feast for her brother
that was dead and now is alive,
in response to the abundant gift Jesus has given them.

Yet the food doesn’t take center stage,
instead it is Mary’s additional abundant gift that does. 
She takes an extraordinary amount, almost three quarters of a pound of very expensive perfume
and anoints Jesus feet with it. 
I can only imagine it poured off onto the floor.

Seeping in the cracks,
absorbing into her hair as she dried his feet,
removing the excess. 
I imagine it like a toddler that has gotten into his mother’s nice face cream and has it thickly caked onto his hands, oozing everywhere, making an unbelievable mess.
Leaving’s its imprint everywhere he curiously touched.

The aroma of this gift fills the air as Mary acknowledges
the kingship of Jesus and his abundant kingdom.
Mary’s fierce commitment to the abundance of God is contrasted against Judas. 

Judas you see lives fully in the world of scarcity.  Where there is never enough to go around.  Where we have to look out for ourselves.

How easy it is to vilify Judas here,
believing we would never utter such nonsense. 
How easy is it for us to neglect to notice
when we are like him. 
When the walls of scarcity press in against us,
when we have closed off, turned away,
or refused to help. 
Because in helping we would have to acknowledge when and how we have contributed to the larger systems
that allow some to have and others to go without.

We are not immune to scarcity thinking
just because we have lived into the alternative economy
in small and big ways,
scarcity has way of seeping back into our lives,
filling the nocks and cracks …
or flooding back in if we find ourselves
in a new fearful situation
washing out any abundance
we had begun to live into
welcoming our immersion back into scarcity. 
Scarcity can generously permeate everything
if we allow it to. 
It is good at building walls,
of keeping some in and others out.

Scarcity constricts the flow of forgiveness
and is unbending to the hard work of reconciliation. 
It causes us to love conditionally …
it restricts the gift of mercy and compassion …
it licenses our hatred and sanctions our prejudices …
it permits us to hold onto
that which we possess and choose to be possessed by because we believe the myth of scarcity
that there just isn’t enough to go around. 
It causes us to count and quantify,
measure and weigh every ounce
that we are willing to release.
Even at the table of perhaps what was an abundance of funeral casseroles now turned into a celebratory meal
for the once dead and now alive,
Jesus continues to embody this alternative economy. 
How could he not?

Freshly anointed, he directs even the greatest skeptic to enter into this alternative economy.

The radical abundance of God calls for a response.
It calls us to loosen our grip on our own theology of scarcity so that we can respond graciously and abundantly
to God’s over flowing goodness and generosity
in our lives and in the life of our community.

It calls for us to believe deeply that there is enough, there has always been enough to go around. 
It calls us to respond in ways that help to live in the kingdom for which we pray, “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

It calls us to make sure there is enough room
at the table for everyone. 
For it is at the table where God’s feast of welcome is realized, where abundance flows forth,
and grace is embodied,
where there is always enough to go around. Always enough.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Storing your treasure


Read Matthew 6:7-21

Back 2001, Dan and I led a mission trip into the mountains of Nicaragua to help with hurricane recovery.  We could only take what we could carry for one week.  So we filled our hiker’s backpacks with clothes, an extra pair of shoes, snacks and our bibles.  We arrived in Managua after sun set, found our guide, and road in a van to our temporary home.

It was a compound surrounded by fence and barbed wire.  We could smell the diesel exhaust, burning trash, hear the bark of dogs
and in the early morning the crows of roosters. 

After breakfast we piled into the back of a truck
and road into the mountains,
leaving behind running water and electricity,
and cell coverage. 
We traveled through the mountains with guides that carried machine guns and machetes.  
Over large holes in bridges left behind from the war between the Sandinistas and Contras.

For the most part,
all preconceived notions about safety and normalcy
were left behind. 
Our accommodations were the top level of a barn, above the space where the pigs lived. 
With full walls on three sides
and a half wall on the forth
allowing in fresh air and a view of the country side. 
The family had built a kitchen
on the first floor of the structure
but had not installed a chimney for the stove. 
So as daily meals were cooked,
the smoke, from the fire rose to the barn’s ceiling and created a layer of black smoot. 
We were in a cold climate rain forest,
so that meant humidity. 
Each morning the excess of dew would drop,
mixed with the black smoot
that had accumulated onto the ceiling.
It only took one morning of not sleeping fully inside of sleeping bag to realize
that an uncovered face
was a prime target for the falling substance. 
It was a rather humbling experience.

Out away from all that can possess us,
that we might seek to gain and acquire,
we were pulled into community and into the presence of God. 
It caused us to pause and wonder
“where do we store our treasure?”

Can moth and rust consume it or does it reside where thieves can break in and steal it?

Where do we store our treasure?

While in Nica, I pondered and still do to this day,
how might experiences so far from our normal,
daily living change us? 
How might it help us see our lives,
our priorities, in a new light?

Being taken so far out of my comfort zone, I was struck by the lack of material baggage the people of Nica had.    

While this passage is often reserved for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.  The Narrative Lectionary offers it in the season of Epiphany.   It is a season of being surprised by the presence of God, of having "ah ha" moments of revelation.

Perhaps in pondering where we store our treasure, we will come to a new understanding of how it is we are to be stewards of all that we possess.  Maybe we will be able to see more clearly if our possession possess us.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Temptation


Matthew 4:1-17

Back in the early years of my ministry,
I led a group of senior high youth through a 30 hour fast.
It was a trend among youth groups at the time,
we got people to support our fasting
by donating money to the cause
which sent resources to a community
in the developing world that faced starvation.

We ate a generous lunch on our own on a Friday afternoon and then gathered at the church that evening for a lock-in.  We filled our time with conversation,
bible study, service and
education on the multifaceted structures that led to extreme poverty.

In the afternoon around hour 27
we went to a local park,
it was in February, during a rare thaw. 
The temperature soared to the mid 60s,
in a time when the average was around 30,
so everyone and I mean absolutely everyone,
was outside enjoying a brief break
from the blistering cold grey days of winter. 
The sun was shining,
the birds were chirping,
dogs were happily playing fetch
and every single family gathering there was grilling.
And there were a lot of people in the park.

We laid in the grass,
watching the clouds pass by,
stomachs growling,
hunger pains ensuing,
as the delicious aroma of food filled our nostrils.
A veritable temptation indeed.
We could taste the cooking delicacies.

Peer pressure worked in a positive way,
we had committed to our donors not to eat and we only had a few hours left. We could make it.
Yet we wallowed in the irony of it all.
It seemed as if we could not escape food.

If you have ever fasted before,
you may know that it is ridiculous how much you think about food.

We broke our fast with the associate pastor of the church at the end of hour 30.
She joined us with large loaves of freshly baked French bread and jugs of grape juice.

We were each given sizeable hunks of bread
and generous glasses of grape juice to wash it down
as she blessed the bread, juice and our community.
The familiar liturgy of blessing and breaking took on new significance.
An abundant feast of bread and cup. 
Communion had never tasted so good before.

Surely Jesus knew all too well what hunger felt like after 40 days of fasting in the wilderness.
“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.”
A nuanced challenge grounded
in an ancient story of hungry sojourners in the wilderness, longing for the former days of slavery
and the provisions of Pharaoh …
IF you are the Son of God,
IF you are the beloved,
worthy of doves descending and God proclaiming,
then prove it,
why don’t you just feed yourself?

Jesus sustains three temptations at the end of 40 days of fasting, to teach us many things …
the one I want to reflect on is that he is present in our temptations,
our temptations to be self-reliant (not in a “good job you made your own bed way”, but in a “I don’t need the help of anyone to make it in the world way.”) In other words self-reliant at the cost of community. 

He is present in our temptation to place ourselves
above others and use that place to exploit
those with lesser means;

and he is present in the temptation
to be bigger than the world, to seek
someone other than God first and foremost.

These temptations literally remove us from the beloved community that we are kneaded into. 

He is present because he has been there. 
This is what it means that God-is-with-us, Emmanuel.
The struggle then isn’t to avoid temptation but
To change our perspective and to see it as an opportunity to seek out God’s presence in the midst of our wilderness moments.


Monday, January 14, 2019

The baptism of Jesus


Matthew 3

The church tells the story of Jesus’ baptism
every year during the season of Epiphany.

In the early church, baptismal candidates
would be in prayer all night with the community
at the end of their catechism,
so that at dawn they could stand on the edge of the water
and boldly renounce anything and everything
in our world that claims us as something less
than a beloved child of God,
before immersing themselves in baptismal water. 
Dying to their old self and rising a new.

In baptism we claim what we know to be true, that God claims us as beloved.

I grew up in a church that baptized babies and confirmed teenagers.  When I was a young child,
my mother volunteered at the church. 
I have this vivid memory of my mom filling up a golden pitcher
with water from a water fountain in the basement of the church opposite the old serving counter
of the first kitchen in the church. 
Too short to see over the counter and peer into its darkness,
the location was lost on me.
The kitchen had long been abandoned
to the newer updated one in the larger expansive fellowship hall.  Since she was using a water fountain
tucked away and no longer used,
in an unfamiliar part of the expansive building,
in my younger self I imagined
none of the practicalities that I have mentioned
but believed that the fountain was reserved for filling this golden pitcher for baptism because it held within holy water. 
In my young mind, baptismal water had to be holy and special.

It wasn’t until I was an intern at my home church during seminary that I stumbled across the old water fountain
and my childhood memory returned.
Eyes now able to see the bigger picture.
Old abandoned kitchen.
It all became clear.
The fountain and its proximity to the chapel.
 How silly I was to think that the water was holy. 
Clearly it is just good old city water,
treated with some chemicals and cooled inside the fountain. 
But is it just good old water?

Isn’t the scandal of the Good News finding God in the ordinary elements of our world, in broken bread and poured out wine, in water offered to mark new life?
Of finding God
in the valleys,
on the mountain tops, and
in hidden away spaces no longer used or useful to the masses.
Of hearing the invitation to be part of a beloved community, led by the incarnate God who is willing to stand in line along with us, as we wait our turn, to feel the muddy bottom of the river bottom, with river current upsetting our balance.

Easter ... ready ... set ... go!

Matthew 28:1-10 About three years ago I committed to the Narrative Lectionary.   It is a four-year cycle that takes the congregation t...