Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Eating What Is Set Before You

I lived in Japan for three years and never ate raw horse meat, although I heard that it was a delicacy in the region where I lived.  It was called "basashi," I heard, and kept wondering if there would be a time when I would have to swallow my revulsion and taste it.  But it never happened.

There were new and strange foods, though, and I learned that it was part of being a missionary to learn to eat things I had never tasted before, to accept hospitality as well as to provide it.  Being a missionary was not about being in charge all of the time.  It was about learning to live in a strange place, and eat new things with chopsticks and humility.  I'll be honest, there were times when I would have identified with Peter -- being offered a meal, and wanting to shrink away and say, "Oh no, Lord, I would never eat that!  It can't be right to eat that!"

I remember the first time I bit down on something deep-fried, only to be told that it was "taco" -- octopus.  It was okay, actually, after the initial shock of picturing an octopus tentacle passed over me.  I also remember the surprise of tasting wasabi (Japanese horseradish) for the first time.  Many times I learned that a new food that I did not want to try was a gourmet dish and an act of extravagant hospitality.

But of course -- Peter's reticence was more than cultural.  These are foods that God had commanded him not to eat.  This was about obedience to God, not just cultural preference or being a 'picky eater.'  And the lesson here is not so much about the food as it is about people -- just as it was when I became a missionary in Japan.  It is about what we eat, but more than that, who we eat with -- who we allow ourselves to eat with, to associate with, to worship with -- to live with.

While we have learned to eat different kinds of ethnic foods these days, we are more divided than ever -- by race and class and language.  I remember the first time I helped serve a free meal through an organization called "Loaves and Fishes."  While I was very comfortable ladling the food, serving food, I became uncomfortable when someone told me to go and sit and eat with the people I was serving.  I have to ask myself why.  I don't like the answer.

I like to think that both Peter and Cornelius were transformed through their encounter:  both by the love of God.  I know that this was true of me, long ago in Japan:  though I thought I was going to serve in God's name and to tell of God's love, I ended up being expanded myself.  I ate what was set before me, with humility and chopsticks.  I learned to be loved at the same time I was learning more and more what it meant to love.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

But Some Doubted

It's true.  I have known this passage of Scripture since I was a little girl.  I have known what it was called,  "The Great Commission", for almost as long.  I probably have those words written in the margin of a Bible somewhere.  Jesus on the mountain, Jesus giving his "last words" to his disciples, Jesus telling the eleven of them, "Go therefore into all the world and make disciples….."

How could I have not noticed those three little words for my whole life?  Were they not present in the Bible of my youth?  Could I have skimmed right over them for all these years?

"But some doubted."

Here's the scene:  It is sometime after the resurrection.  Jesus is on a mountain, one last time.  He is teaching his disciples.  They are all there (minus Judas).  Now there are only eleven.  And on the mountain, in his resurrected glory, they worship him.

But some doubted.

It seems out of place.  Jesus is just about to give a bold command.  Go into ALL THE WORLD, he will tell them, in the next verse, not just to the city nearest you, and not just to your family and friends.  All the world is a Tall Order, especially if you don't know how big the world is going to be.

But some doubted.

I wonder which ones?, I can't help thinking.  The scripture doesn't identify anyone by name, but I want to.  I want to know who was certain and who doubted.  I want to know if Peter, James and John are among the doubters, or if it was Matthew the tax collector, or Andrew or Bartholomew.  I want to know who doubted, and what it was they had doubts about.  Did they have doubts, still, about the resurrection?  Even though they have seen him, they still can't quite believe it.  Even though they are on the mountain with him, still…. how can it be true?  Maybe that is it.  Maybe it is the truth of the resurrection that they are doubting.

 I am tempted to believe that they have doubts about whether they can do what Jesus is going to tell them to do, except that he hasn't told them to do anything yet.  He hasn't sent them out yet.  He has told them to meet him here, though, so perhaps they are anticipating.  What is the next part of the journey?  Where are they going to go now?  What is Jesus going to say to them?  What is he going to ask of them?  They don't know yet, but they are worshipping…. and doubting.

I can't help thinking back to the parable of the Sheep and the Goats.  At the end of time, the King will gather the nations before him, and divide them:  sheep on the right and goats on the left.  But today, here, on the mountain, there is no division.  Jesus doesn't put the true believers on his right and the doubters on his left.  He doesn't give the great commission (Go therefore into all the world….) only to the worshipful true believers, the ones who never doubted.

Of course, there are only eleven of them now.  They are broken.  They are not whole.  And some of them are doubting.  Still, with the utmost confidence, Jesus tells them to go into all the world and make disciples.  And I can't help thinking that Jesus has a strategy here, a strategy in which the doubters will play an integral part.

The doubters have questions.  The doubters are honest about it.  The doubters admit that they don't know everything, that they don't understand everything.

In evangelism, these may not be liabilities.  These may be strengths.  At least, that's what I am starting to think.

This and the promise:  "I am with you always, even to the end of the age."  All the way to the end of the doubts, Jesus promises to be with us.  The eleven.  The worshippers and the doubters.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Other Voices

Holy Week is one of those aerobically challenging times for pastors, a marathon of liturgies to plan, sermons to preach, services to choreograph and to lead.   I remember back to past Holy Weeks:  frantic calls to people to request that they consider getting their feet washed or read a portion a scripture, rehearsals for midweek worship services, nestled in the midst of communion visits with shut ins and occasional emergencies.

So it was a bit of a surprise to find myself sitting at our Good Friday service at 3:00, listening to members of my congregation read portions of Matthew's story of the passion.  I had not called any of the readers, assigned the readings or helped rehearse the readers.  My assignment for the service was to pray, to listen, and occasionally, to sing.

I could do that.

I have been in this congregation for a long time.  I know these voices, having heard them for years.  Some of them have been reading and assisting in worship for a long time.  There were a few who I had never heard read scripture before.  I recognized quiet intensity, faith, passion and pathos in their voices as they read.  They each, in their own way, inhabited the scripture reading.  

I heard one man's voice crack as he relayed Peter's denial.  Another woman's voice rose as the crowd roared, "Let him be crucified!"  

I sat, and I listened, less encumbered than usual with a sense of responsibility for making worship happen.  I sat and I listened and tears collected in the corners of my eyes, partly because it was Good Friday and partly because I could allow myself to be in the story, listening to other voices, voices I knew so well, as they told it.  So well.

Your voices, I want to tell them, your voices are more powerful than you even know.  You can do it.  You can embody the love of God.  You already do.  You have.  For me.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Hands Outstretched

Lately I have been thinking about a little boy I used to know.

I didn't know him very well.  I knew his older sister, because she came to confirmation classes.  And I knew his little sister, because she used to come to church and Sunday school by herself.  Everybody called her "the church girl" because she seemed to like it.  People teased her, a little.

The family lived on the edge of town.  You could walk in to church if you wanted to, and the girls wanted to, sometimes, without their parents.  Their parents didn't come.

The boy came too, less frequently.

His favorite service?  Maundy Thursday.  It wasn't a popular service with children, as you might imagine.  He stuck out, especially when he came up to kneel for communion.  I asked him once what it was about the service that he liked.  He just shrugged his shoulders and said he sort of liked having church at night.

At one point all three of the children expressed an interest in being baptized.  So we got them all baptismal sponsors, gave them some instruction and they all got baptized one Wednesday evening in Lent.

Not long after I left I heard that he was killed in an accident.  He was 14 years old.

Now, this is my most vivid memory of him:  kneeling in front of the altar on Maundy Thursday, his hands outstretched.

I imagine him there, at the table where we are all reconciled to God and to one another, where we will all be gathered up together, lowly lifted up, hungry fed, outcast welcomed.

Hands outstretched.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Holy Week

On one level, it is an ordinary week.  I get up, I have breakfast, I take the dog for a walk.  I go to church, and write a lot of sermons and plan a lot of worship, more worship than for an ordinary week.  The worship also takes a fair amount more choreography than ordinary worship.  So, it's not an ordinary week.

But I'll be honest.  In some ways, it does feel like an ordinary week.  I know this is Holy Week, which will be busy, and will be consumed with remembering and worshipping and singing and praying.  The part of me which would have made a good nun would like to think of this week with more intentional and disciplined times to stop and think about the week, and all that happened, how Jesus is getting near the cross.

What did he do today, I wonder?  It is Wednesday in Holy Week.  Tomorrow evening he will be celebrating the Passover with his disciples, one of whom will betray him.  Finally he will be alone.  But what did he do today, Wednesday in Holy Week?

He is in Jerusalem with his disciples, getting ready, I suppose.  He is telling those parables, the ones that make people follow him, or stop following him, the ones that make some people hungry and other people angry.  He is healing people, and getting ready for the Passover.

It is Holy Week.  And it is an ordinary week.  I need to clean the house, because we are having company for Easter.  But really, it is an ordinary week (and the house will not be clean enough by Easter either, but will still look like our house).

Somehow, for a flash and a moment I realize that the task is not to make this week special, not to wonder what Jesus was doing today and pay better attention and pray more, but it is to know that these ordinary moments are holy, that talking to the clerk at the grocery store is holy, that sweeping the floor and dragging the trash cans back from the street is holy, that doing my mother-in-law's laundry is holy.

God is in it, all of life.  In the flesh.

And it matters, every single bit of it.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Interactive Palm Sunday Homily for Children and Adults

Homily for Palm Sunday
“On the Road with Jesus”

Interactive message for children and adults.  Children were sitting in the front of the sanctuary, by the baptismal font.

Items I used:  pitcher with water, palm branch, cup with oil, some bread.
I also practiced the response before I began:

            Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our creator, and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  AMEN

            Here we are – disciples – and we have been on the road with Jesus.  We are here today with our palm branches and our praises – and our hopes.  Some of us have been with Jesus for just a little while.  Some of us have been following Jesus for a long time.  When did you begin following Jesus?  Think back.  Think back….
            Maybe you were there when he was baptized by John in the river Jordan.  Maybe you were there to get baptized too, and you saw something happen then, and you remembered, and ever since then you have been on the road with Jesus.  (pour water in font.  use the palm branch to spray some people.) Maybe you heard John argue with him, “I need to be baptized by you”.  Maybe you saw a dove or heard something from the heavens, something like “You are my beloved son….”  And then you followed Jesus….

            Or, it could have been a little later than that.  Perhaps you were one of the fisherman, standing by the edge of the sea, and you were throwing your nets into the sea when you heard him calling out, “Simon!  James!  John!  (I ad libbed other names and the children starting shouting out their own names.)  Drop your nets and follow me!  I will make you fish for people!”  Maybe you heard him call your name and you just couldn’t help it.  You felt like, for the first time you were important.  You belonged somewhere.  You belonged to someone.  You knew, just knew, that he was going places, and that he was going to do great things, and that you – YOU were going to be a part of it.  From then on you followed him – and you did get to see – and do – great things.  Sure you failed sometimes, but – one of you got to walk on water once!  Who has ever had that happen to them?

            Maybe you were there when everyone was on the mountain listening to him teach.  And afterwards, your stomachs were growling.  But, instead of sending you all away, he told you all to sit down.  You saw that the disciples had just this small amount of bread – 5 loaves – and two fishes – and you saw him lift those loaves and that bread up to heaven and pray.  (Give a few people a taste of bread.)  Maybe you can still taste the bread that he gave you that day.  There were 5,000 people, they said, and that was not counting women and children… and he fed you all.  Since then, you have been following him.

            Or this:  he held out his hand, and he spoke a word, and he healed you.  He healed you, or he healed someone close to you.  Maybe he took mud and put it on your eyes, or maybe he told you to get up and walk, or maybe he opened your ears so now you can hear.  (Walk around an anoint a few children with oil.)  You were a leper, an outcast, and he made you clean, so that you can be with other people again.  Or, he raised you from the dead.  You – or your daughter or your son – they are alive today because of Jesus.  And so, here you are, on the road, following.

            Or, he forgave you.  Did Jesus forgive you?  (the children shouted, "Yes!")  All of the things that held you back, he let go of.  All of the things you are afraid of – he promised to go with you.  All of the things you regret – he said – they don’t matter any more.  He said, “God forgives you all of your sins.”  So you got up and you followed him.

            Or maybe you just saw him now, recently, as he was entering Jerusalem.  He was seated on a donkey.  You had heard stories about him, and you saw all the other people following him, and you started following too, because of the things you heard and the people you saw.  And you thought, “Is this the One?  Is this the King God was telling us would come?”  Because you had heard from the prophets that the King, the one who would save Israel, would come HUMBLY, on a donkey!  And besides, the crowd was getting bigger and bigger and everything was getting louder and more exciting and people were waving branches and they were putting their cloaks on the ground. 

            Some of the people were shouting “Hosanna!”  (have one side of sanctuary shout “Hosanna!”)
            Some of the people were shouting “Blessed are you, King Jesus!”  (have other side shout)
            They were shouting at the same time!  (have both sides shout at the same time)

            This was it!  This is everything you have been waiting for.
            And you follow Jesus as he enters Jerusalem.

            And you know there are people who don’t like what he is doing.  There are people who are angry at Jesus, who are afraid of Jesus, but he just keeps on riding into Jerusalem.


            And we are on the road – we are following Jesus.  It is so exciting today to hear the shouts and to see the crowds.


            But he doesn’t stop here.  Does he?  He keeps going. 

            He keeps going into Jerusalem, and he doesn’t stop…..

            Until he gets to the cross.

            We are on the road with Jesus this week.
            Following the one who has fed, forgiven, taught and healed us, raised us to life, who has called us his own.
            And he won’t stop until he gets to the cross.
            For the lonely.  The outcast.  The poor.
            For you.  For me.  For the whole world.
            What will it mean for you to follow Jesus this week?


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Unrealistic Expectations

As part of my work, I have meetings and conversations with couples prior to their weddings.  We don't just plan the ceremony.  We also use an inventory which purports to measure the couple's "Strengths" and "Growth Areas".  The inventory gives us many possibilities for conversations that we can have about their relationship.

Some of the possible strengths (or 'growth areas') named are:  Communication, Conflict Resolution, Relationship Roles, Family and Friends, Spiritual Beliefs, Children and Parenting.

You get the idea.

Then there is this one:  "Marriage Expectations."  The idea is that if your expectations for marriage are "realistic", then this is a strength for you.  If your expectations for marriage are "unrealistic", then this is a growth area.

I've been using this inventory for a long time, and I'll tell you what:  I can't think of one couple who scored well on "Marriage Expectations."  Not one.  They all thought that their partner would never disappoint them, that nothing could make them doubt each other's love, that the romance would never fade.

I've taken to reporting these results with a preface:  "Marriage Expectations is a growth area for you," I explain.  "But as far as I can tell, it is for everyone.  Maybe no one would get married if they had realistic expectations."   We laugh about that a little, and go on to discuss their results, bursting their marriage pre-conception balloon, but as gently as possible.

I can't help thinking that the same dynamics could be applied to pastors and congregations.

I realize that there are a number of problems with this analogy.  No, I am not married to my congregation.  We aren't even dating.  But it is a kind of relationship, and I think that congregations have expectations of their pastors, some based in hope, and some based in tradition, and based in some sort of mythic golden age.  They might have expectations of what their pastor will look like, or what kind of a personality she will have (or even whether their pastor will be a 'he' or a 'she').  They might have expectations of what kind of leader their pastor will be, or how he will pray or sing or preach.  They might have expectations of what their pastor can or will do:  bring back the fifties, attract young families, be great with youth or old people, evangelize the neighborhood.

Some of these expectations will (possibly) be unrealistic.

Pastors have expectations of congregations, too.  They have expectations of what their congregations might look like, their piety, their worship life, their eagerness to come out to a Bible study or help with soup suppers or go on a mission trip.  They have expectations (perhaps) about a congregation's faith or their doubts, their neediness or their strength.

Some of these expectations will be unrealistic.

Maybe that's natural.  Maybe it's part of all of life, or at least, every relationship.  We do our best to tell the truth, and to hear the truth about each other.  But in the end marriage, friendship, and entering into every kind of community is a leap of faith.  We love each other and we hurt each other.  We soar and we fall flat on our faces.  We blame each other during the rough patches.  The romance fades.  We are bound to disappoint each other, sometimes.

So we continue to harbor unrealistic expectations.  That's just the way it is.  Only one thing is needful:  not to lower expectations, but to take another leap of faith, and practice forgiveness.