Sunday, January 31, 2016

Love's Healing: Luke 4:14-30 - Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

21Then [Jesus] began to say to [all in the synagogue in Nazareth,] “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. (NRSV)
Nazareth by  Creative Commons image on flickr
1 Corinthians 13 has long been the “go-to” scripture text for weddings.  It’s almost as ubiquitous as the Wedding March more popularly known as “Here Comes the Bride…

But just this past week, one of my fellow pastors suggested that this passage is far better suited for when the marriage appears to be going over a cliff…

You see, love is easy on the wedding day…  It’s easy when everyone is happy and nothing is going wrong…  But real life has a way of bringing out peoples’ true colors—true colors that do not always include patience or kindness; and often do include jealousy, boasting, arrogance, or rudeness.  Real people are stubborn; irritable; suspicious; resentful, and angry. 

One thing we can say for sure is that in today’s Gospel, Jesus showed his true colors—and the people of his home synagogue did to …

You’d think that Jesus would be the hometown hero—after all, the good word’s starting to get around about him.  And at first, you’d be right.  They’re proud of the man that “Joseph’s son” has become. 

But Jesus knew these people well enough to know that they’re holding him to some very lofty expectations… —and that he wouldn’t have their favor for much longer.

As their hometown boy, Jesus was expected to honor his own kin above all others.  He would do this by performing all the miraculous signs and wonders he’d been doing everywhere else.  Not only that, he was expected to put Nazareth in the spotlight of his mission.

But Jesus plainly tells them that his mission will be to both Jews and Gentiles; kinfolk and strangers; insiders and outsiders…  It’s not that Nazareth is unimportant; it’s just that they’re not his sole focus.

This leads to Jesus’ second major offense: the synagogue wanted Jesus to be someone who would eradicate the Roman Occupation of the Holy Land.  Jesus says nothing about hating the Romans—and everything about loving the people who were not of their own kin. 

It’s hard to imagine how these people could be so offended as to drag Jesus to the top of a cliff to hurl him over…  But that’s what happens when God’s grace meets human pride, arrogance, and stubbornness… 

We see this all the time in human relationships.  Something happens: one person offends the other; or some misfortunate befalls both parties. 

So we point fingers—and go on the attack.  We blame others; we blame ourselves; we blame God…  We bear grudges.

What’s worse, is that we attack the healers and the healing gifts God gives—because we don’t want to heal someone else’s way.  It doesn’t make sense to us.  So we dig in our heels; we shut everyone out; we go our own way—if for no other reason than that it’s my way.

Greed will show its ugly head, too.  It is what fuels the flames of prejudice and fear.  Greed puts as at war with everyone and everything that threatens our ability to attain and secure our needs and wants.

I believe that this is the #1 reason why things are the way they are in this country.  The presidential candidates demonstrate this better than anyone.  They all agree that the country is unraveling—but the guilt always lies on their political opposition and their champions in government and industry. The same thing happens in families; workplaces; churches…  Like-minded persons band together towards getting their own way and eliminating their opposition—as opposed to working towards shared solutions for shared problems.

Healing isn’t about winning.  It isn’t about having it your way without ever backing down; being right while everyone else is wrong.

Seldom will Jesus heal us on our own terms.  He forces us to confront the fact that some of our heaviest burdens are the hatred and grudges we hold; the pains and weaknesses we deny; the truths we refuse to believe; the challenges we avoid; the changes and compromises we refuse to make. 

In the end, you can’t walk the healing journey with all this baggage.

If we trust in Jesus to be our healer, we must give him all this baggage.  We must hurl all that over the cliff instead of Jesus (or other people)!  This is, in fact, one of Jesus’ first gifts of healing: that we are liberated from the bondage of our own making.  Once that happens, we can live more fully in God’s love. Our ears can be open as God speaks; our eyes can behold God’s works.

We can bear all things, believe all things, hope all things; endure all things.

God’s love heals the animosities and divisions that create so much needless suffering in pain.  By God’s love, we can live together—in patience, humility, and forgiveness.. 

God’s love goes out from us to those we regard as outsiders—so that we can begin to actually do something positive about poverty and hunger; crime and violence; fear and isolation.

For when the pains of life surround us, God’s love will often be a mystery.  There may or may not be a cure for the pain or a solution to the problem. Sometimes, all we’ll have to hold onto is a promise.  But God’s love is still very real.

God’s healing begins as something we know only in part; seeing in a mirror dimly.  But where faith, hope, and love abide—there is always healing. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Grace Made Perfect: Luke 4:14-21 - Third Sunday after Epiphany

14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
  because he has anointed me
   to bring good news to the poor.
 He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
  and recovery of sight to the blind,
   to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
What you see is not always what you get…
fresh strawberries @ mahabaleshwar by chirag_jog.  Creative Commons image on flickr

I recently re-learned this lesson the thousandth time… 

Strawberries are my absolute favorite fruit.  So I thought it a miracle when my eyes beheld the fresh and pristine-looking berries for sale at the supermarket.  I didn’t even flinch to pay $5 a pound for them…

But my excitement turned to disgust when I got home and realized that what I bought was better suited for compost, as opposed to human consumption.

It was then I realized that I fell for some of the oldest tricks in the grocery industry: special halogen lighting brings out the color of produce.  Misting makes it appear fresh.  But what you see is not always what you get…

The fast food industry is notorious for this.  Has anyone ever ordered a hamburger that comes out looking like this?  Probably not—even if you ordered it at a fancy restaurant.  This burger was assembled by a food stylist.  The condiments are glue with food coloring in it.  The cheese is sprayed with chemicals to preserve its texture.  So it looks perfect—and yet, it’s perfectly inedible…  An illusion of good taste…

That’s the problem with perfection: for as hard as we try to be perfect people living perfect lives, it’s all an illusion; the most perfect of lies.  But that certainly doesn’t stop us from trying!

The way I see it, the moral and spiritual recession happening in today’s society is largely due to the fact that we are regularly sacrificing ourselves to the god of our own perfection. 

24-hour fitness centers are popping up all over the place.  No one has to look old anymore thanks to Botox and plastic surgery.  The economy is in recession, but we’re spending money like never before on fashion, furnishings, home improvements, vehicles, vacations, dining out; you name it… 

Parents feel this pressure of perfection more than anyone.  “Good moms” need to be able to keep up with the likes of Martha Stewart and the Super Nanny.  They need to keep a clean house with hot, nutritious, full-course meals on the table by dinnertime.  They need to raise children who are well-groomed and well-behaved.

Nowadays, good grades aren’t enough to make it in the global economy.  Today’s children need to be “well-rounded,” so that they can earn scholarships, because college has become ridiculously expensive.  Sadly, we’re teaching our children that they need to be perfect in order to be happy and successful in life.

For as much as we sacrifice ourselves at the altar of our own perfection, we sacrifice others just as often.  We measure our perfection by others’ imperfections.  We value people only in terms of what we can get from them.  If they’re not with us, they’re against us. 

But what happens when the relentless pursuit of perfection breaks down on the side of the road?

For as much as we try to convince ourselves otherwise, there is no perfect “you”—and there is no perfect life.  We can no more achieve perfection than we can turn water into wine.  But as long as we believe the lie, several things will happen: we’ll drive ourselves mad with shame about our failures and self-pity about our misfortunes.  We’ll isolate ourselves from others, because perfect people never need help, and are always above criticism. 

But the worst part—is that there are people who can’t dress themselves in perfection.  These are the ones who can’t conceal their sins from the public eye.  These are the poor and hungry; the sick and the aged.  These are the ones have nothing—and society blames them for that: because they’re weak; they’re immoral; they’re no good… 

In the end, the pursuit of perfection leads not to happiness, but to hell.

Yet Jesus steps into an imperfect world to become the savior of imperfect people.  Today, he announces:
“that the Spirit of the Lord is upon [him] to bring good news to the poor; to proclaim release to the captives; to give sight to the blind; to free the oppressed; and to proclaim the age of the Lord’s favor.”

You see, the Gospel forces us to be realistic about ourselves and about our world.  Beneath the facades we can or cannot create, we’re broken; we’re weak; we’re all perfect sinners.  Yet our miserable condition is met immediately by Jesus’ perfect grace

When God forgives sin, God isn’t seeing it anymore.  As far as God is concerned, it’s gone.  Your past is washed away.  Nothing that people say or do can change that. God loves all the people he created. 

Furthermore, God’s perfect grace eliminates the need to worry and stress incessantly about our future.  Your hurts and needs matter to Jesus.  He’s not going to abandon you.  His grace will be made perfect in weaknesses.

Finally, God’s faithfulness turns us away from the endless, acerbic self-absorption of perfectionism.  God’s love is made perfect in community.  We who are the members of the body of Christ are blessed with diverse but equally-beautiful gifts through which God acts for our mutual redemption.  These are gifts of preaching, teaching, serving, helping, leading, welcoming…  Through us, God draws out all who dwell in the shadows of fear, shame, and sorrow so that we can live in the light of his love. 

Come what may, we rejoice together; we suffer together; we overcome together…

Perfectionism is the most needless and most preventable source of stress in our lives.  Perfection is found only in God; at the cross of Jesus Christ.  Thankfully, Jesus has come to make God’s perfect grace a reality in our world.  It’s not in what we have or what we get, but rather in what we receive and what we give.  It’s not in competing and outdoing, but in belonging.  It’s not in striving ourselves to death, but in trusting and obeying.  

Sunday, January 17, 2016

When the Wine Runs Out: John 2:1-11 - Second Sunday after Epiphany

1On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (NRSV)
Vignoble valaisan en hiver by Jean-Marc Linder.  Creative commons image on flickr
What would Colonel Sanders say?

Elizabeth and I once walked into KFC for lunch. The restaurant was completely empty, except for three employees standing behind the counter, doing nothing…

Immediately, we’re told: “we’re out of chicken…”  The cashier explains that the delivery truck was broken down, about three hours away…  She did, however, offer us sides and salads, which we politely declined. After all, there are plenty of other places to clog our arteries in the name of lunch…

But KFC without chicken was nothing compared to a wedding without wine. In Jesus’ day, the world ran on wine.  Naturally, it was the lifeblood of a wedding. Back then, you didn’t have clean water at your constant disposal. You didn’t have coffee, tea, or soft drinks. Wine was the beverage of choice. 

Add that to the fact that weddings were not celebrated in the space of a few hours. Most were massive celebrations that could last as long as a week. Everyone in town would be invited. So running out of wine would’ve been an even bigger disaster than a wedding I officiated where the reception hall had no running water. This was a “slap in the face” to the families, and to everyone who showed up for the occasion. You could actually be dragged into court and sued for such negligence.

This wasn’t a life-or-death situation—but it was a disaster.  It’s what we call “crash and burn…”

Wine was the lifeblood—and it failed. So what is your wine?  What does your life run on?

Most of us would say love and relationships; health and abilities; employment and income; as well as success, security, and the feeling of control…  The lifeblood of our country and communities are a robust economy and national security; good schools and safe streets; equal opportunity with liberty and justice for all… 

All of these are as precious to us as they are vital—and just like people, they are always subject to failure…

So here’s what Jesus does: he doesn’t miraculously refill the empty wine jugs.  Instead, he points them to six stone water jars used for purification rites. He tells the servants to fill the jars with water, which they do. Then he tells them to draw some water out, and take it to the chief steward—for the water had become wine.

This, we’re told, is the first of Jesus’ signs. So this isn’t a story about free wine refills. This isn’t a sign to show Jesus as a divine wine-maker or instant problem-solver.  This is God in Jesus Christ coming into our situations of need.  He comes to be the lifeblood of our existence.  Jesus comes to be the wine when everything else runs out. 

Just as he did at Cana, Jesus puts himself into our crises. Seldom is his grace the immediate replacement of something lost.  It doesn’t undo the sins we commit and the hurts we suffer.  It isn’t a simple return to business-as-usual.  Nonetheless, Jesus comes bringing God’s graciousness to us.  Jesus is the wine when the wine runs out.

So who or what in your life has failed?  Have you run out of strength or energy; time or money; friends and people who care?  Have you run out of faith?

You don’t need to do anything spectacular.  Simply pray.  Confess the sin.  Name the hurt.  Open the word and hear Jesus. 

The wine Jesus will give you is the Holy Spirit, who will give you faith to see him. 

What’s more is that you will receive the gifts of the Spirit so that you can turn water to wine.  The Apostle Paul describes them beautifully in today’s second lesson: gifts of teaching, wisdom, and healing; works called miraculous because there’s no denying the grace of God that’s behind them…  This is how we turn water into wine: Christ comes alive in our spiritual gifts as we share them for the good of all. 

This is what the Christian life is all about.  This is what the Church is all about. 

When the wine runs out, Jesus comes in.  By faith, we are drawn into the Spirit of what he’s doing.  Fear is turned into hope.  Sorrow turns into joy.  Shame turns into reconciliation and new beginnings. 

And—unlike so much else in life, Jesus will not fail us.  His grace will not run out.  When the wine runs out, Jesus is our wine.  Jesus is our lifeblood.  Jesus overflows.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Even Through Fire: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 - Baptism of Our Lord

15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Red Hot Lava by [sara-ann].  Creative commons image on flickr
I’ll never forget my first baptism…

It was Memorial Day weekend in 2008.  It was my fifth day as a hospital chaplain intern, and I hadn’t a clue as to how I would provide spiritual support for hospital patients and their families.

Early Saturday morning, around 9 a.m., the chaplain’s pager rings.  I was summoned to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where I met two young parents who couldn’t have been much older than twenty—and their son Adam, who was born fourteen weeks premature.

They asked if I would baptize their son.  I said “yes.”

There are no words to describe the child as he lay in the incubator.  His skin was bright pink; his head no larger than a tennis ball.  He was no more than eight inches long.

The nurse handed me a small plastic cup full of water, and explained that because this child was so fragile—I could only wet my hands and gently touch his tiny head.

The parents literally trembled as they spoke their baptismal vows as the Holy Spirit immersed this precious child in God’s love. 

My supervisor would later say that Adam’s parents were undergoing a baptism of tears.  Perhaps that explains what John the Baptist was talking about when he said Jesus “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Most of the time, Baptism is a joyous event.  Family and friends come from all over; we eat cake, take pictures, and give gifts. 

But Holy Baptism does not make any of us invulnerable to the calamities of life.  We still sin.  We still suffer.  We still die.

These are the reasons Jesus is baptized.  He stands in line, just like everyone else, to be baptized, just like everyone else.  We know for certain that Jesus will experience life, just like everyone else.  In his baptism, God immerses Jesus into all of the painful realities of our human existence, though he will be without sin. 

At the same time, God immerses us into Jesus’ reality…  We are baptized into his compassionate service to God’s people.  We are baptized into his obedience to God’s will.  We are baptized into his relationship with his Father to become children of God.  In baptism, we die with Jesus so that we may, in turn, live through Jesus.

Holy Baptism is a sign for all of us, that no matter what we may be going through, Jesus is in it with us.  This is a promise that makes all the difference when we’re going through fire…

Fire is the fear and sorrow that consumes you:
·         When you sit as the bedside or at the graveside of a loved one
·         When the money runs out, and you’re cold and hungry
·         When disease and old destroy your mind and body
·         When someone you love stabs you in the back

Fire is the shame of knowing that you’ve done something so terrible, that the words “I’m sorry” won’t fix it…

Sooner or later, we will all find ourselves baptized into the sum of all our fears.
Yet Jesus says, “I’m in it with you.”   Your baptism affirms this.  Jesus is closer than the fires; closer than the floods.  God takes fear, sorrow, and shame—and pours salvation into it.  The Holy Spirit envelops you to deliver you through the flames to the God in whose sight you are precious.  By grace, you are not destroyed.  You are saved. 

Make no mistake—we die every day; by the things we do; by the things we fail to do; by the things that happen to us.  God can take even fires of hell and use them to recreate you into a whole new person.  Can you imagine?  Because we are baptized, we shall always rise with Christ.

When the fires burn and the waters rage, remember God’s truth: “I have called you by name, you are mine.  You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”  It is to God that we must turn our hearts and minds, and not to the floods or the flames.  It is God to whom we must entrust or fears, sorrows, and shame.  The fires of God’s love are mightier than the flames; and more powerful than the floods…

Year of Epiphanies: Matthew 2:1-12 - Epiphany of Our Lord

1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
  are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
 for from you shall come a ruler
  who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Sunrises by Rachel Kramer.  Creative commons image on flickr.
“An object at rest tends to stay at rest…”

That’s Newton’s First Law of Motion—one of only a few things I remember from high school Physics class…

But it’s also how I feel at 6:30 most mornings when the alarm clock rings!

Could this also be how we feel as we stand at the start of a new year? 

None of us knows what 2016 is going to bring—but it will bring change.  Some change is good; some change is not…  It is as intimidating as it is inevitable.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the Bible… 

From Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden, to John in exile on the island of Patmos, God’s people are constantly on the move.  This is particularly true at the opening of the New Testament, with the birth of Jesus:
·         With the baby Jesus due any day, Mary and Joseph must journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of the census…
·         Shepherds come in from the fields to the manger
·         Now, the Magi journey from the East, following a star that leads them to Jerusalem.  After a brief consultation with the chief priests and scribes, the journey concludes in Bethlehem, where they find Jesus and his mother. 

We call this day Epiphany because God reveals Jesus.  When that happens, people are radically changed.  But change is not in our nature.

I don’t know about you, but looking ahead to 2016, there’s a lot in my life that I don’t want to change.  For starters, I don’t want to suffer any losses this year.  At the same time, I don’t want to have to learn new things or try new things.  I want to be comfortable.  I want to feel in control.  I want to be at rest.

I do, however, want to see change.  I want our schools and streets to be safe again.  I want to see good jobs coming back to the community.  I want to see new people coming to faith in Jesus Christ.  I want to see Jesus

God wants this, too.  God wants Jesus to be seen.  That’s God’s plan for 2016.  Jesus will be revealed to us as we worship and break bread together.   He will be revealed in the opening of our Bibles as well as the opening of our doors.  But some things will have to change. 

Change precedes revelation; it results from revelation.   Simply put, our God is too great to be confined in the boundaries of what’s comfortable, familiar, and easy to us.  God is too great to be confined in our private lives, personal knowledge, and present circumstances.  In almost all cases, God will lead you somewhere else to reveal Jesus to you.  That’s how we grow.  Growth is change. 
Sometimes, change will happen that does not come from God.  We all sin and suffer the consequences.  We all experience loss and hardship.  But God can take this change, just the same, and use it to bring you closer to Jesus.  God can take this change and use you to bring Jesus closer to someone else, too!

2016 is going to be a year of epiphanies!  So where will God be leading you?

God leads the shepherds and the Magi back home to tell others about Jesus.  Mary and Joseph, on the other hand, will be forced to flee from home and live as foreigners in Egypt to escape King Herod, who was determined to destroy the baby Jesus.  The Apostle Paul’s mission of revealing Jesus to Gentiles lands him in prison.  And let’s not forget that the life of the baby Jesus will end on the cross. 

All of this reminds us that, no matter what the new year brings; where we find ourselves one year from now, Jesus will be there.  Our challenge, then, is to be attentive: to listen and pray; to trust and obey; to be ready to go where we’ve never been and do what we’ve never done…

It’s a prayer I’d like to share with you:
O God, you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden,
through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.