No One Left Behind

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 One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched.

When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

My husband, Mitchell is a doctor and I am a minister, so we move in very different worlds during our workweeks and have friends with very different backgrounds.

We do not entertain in our home very often – only a couple times a year — so when we invite people over it’s impossible to limit the guest list to only “my friends” or “your friends” or even “our friends.”  Our parties usually end up being a mishmash of guests, most of whom have very little if anything in common other than being friends with one of us.

We’ve hosted stockbrokers, bagpipe players, college professors, seminary students, teachers, attorneys, stay at home moms, physicians assistants, secretaries, ministers, doctors, rich people, poor people, white people, black people, hipsters, vegans, vegetarians, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, kids, babies, teenagers, college kids, little old ladies, gay people, straight people, atheists, Hindu, Christian, Jew – often all at the same time, in the same house, occasionally watching Steelers football which is the great social equalizer and spiritual unifier on Sundays in Pittsburgh.

But it’s always risky business to throw different people together as haphazardly as we do.

UnknownThere’s always the risk that the Emily Post dinner party we envisioned can devolve into a fiasco.

Like when the attorney for a school district got into a heated debate with a high school teacher who just happened to be the head of the local teachers’ union.  That was fun.

Or when the president of a synagogue met up over the buffet table with a pro-Palestinian seminary student who had just returned from Israel.

Those are the sort of evenings when I wish I could stand at the front door as guests enter the house to pass out a list of conversation topics that won’t lead to mayhem over the Buffalo wings.

But you know whom I really would think about leaving off the guest list?  Jesus, that’s who.

Because Jesus doesn’t seem to be the kind of guy who reads etiquette books.

Jesus doesn’t innocently wander into uncomfortable conversations.

Jesus creates uncomfortable conversations.

In fact, you can’t invite Jesus anywhere in the gospel of Luke.  He always manages to make a scene when he shows up for dinner.

For example, in chapter 5, Jesus goes to the home of Levi for a big party with a guest list including tax collectors and other offensive sinners.  This sketchy gathering stirs up all kinds of issues for the Pharisees who end up calling Jesus and his friends a bunch of drunks and gluttons.  Good times.

In Luke chapter 7, Jesus is at another dinner party and an uninvited crazy lady shows up.  Most people would send such an unwelcome guest out the door, but Jesus lets her cry all over his feet and it’s all so embarrassing and weird that the Pharisees end up madder than hornets.

Martha and Mary? They practically get into a fistfight when they invite Jesus to dinner.

And of course, in Luke 22, the last dinner party Jesus hosts ends with him getting betrayed, arrested, and dragged off to prison.

We have another dinner party story in our text today.

Even though he has proven himself to be just about the worst guest ever, Jesus has been invited – again — to a Sabbath dinner at the home of a Pharisee and from the get go Jesus is not behaving as the sort of guest who hopes to be invited back.

Jesus does not really care much for polite dinner conversation.  He does not bite his lip or hold back on offering an opinion, especially an opinion that is apt to tick off his host.

Instead Jesus quickly hones in on the dining customs of his hosts and Jesus decides he doesn’t much like what he sees.

Because what Jesus sees is a social hierarchy in which everyone knows their place based upon the seat they are assigned at dinner.  The most important people are seated on the right and left of the host, the seats of honor.

And Jesus begins innocently enough by saying that nobody should come into a dinner party assuming they’ll receive the seats of honor.  That would be sort of show-offy and nobody likes a show-off, even Pharisees. It is sort of show-offy to just assume you belong at the head table.

No, Jesus says – better to be humble and head for the cheap seats rather than to go to the head of the table and risk being embarrassed when somebody asks you to move.

You can imagine the guests who hear this parable murmuring in polite agreement with Jesus.  After all, there’s nothing controversial in pretending to humble.

In fact, everyone thinks it’s kind of charming when someone important or famous demonstrates how very ordinary they are, really.

It’s like that section in Us Magazine: “The Stars – They’re Just Like Us!”  They go to the grocery store!  They take their kids to the playground!  They go to baseball games!  They carry their own luggage through the airport!article_large1

Everyone admires important people who pretend they’re not really as important as everyone thinks they are.  Even if nobody actually believes that Ben Affleck carries his own suitcase through LaGuardia Airport. Really, if you were Ben Affleck, would you lug your own suitcase around?

It’s all a little game for these Pharisees.  Jesus knows that it’s all an act.  Jesus knows that while he’s watching the social maneuvering of the party guests, the Pharisees are watching him – as they always are –.to see how Jesus behaves.

This text isn’t about who sits where at dinner.

This text is about the larger power structure that Jesus has been poking at since his first sermon back in Nazareth.

And the Pharisees are watching Jesus and wondering:  has Jesus finally gotten the message?  Has Jesus finally decided to play the game?  Has Jesus decided to stop coming so dangerously close to upending a carefully constructed hierarchy?

Or is Jesus going to keep making trouble for the guys who already have the game rigged in their favor?

Well, it is Jesus we’re talking about here.

Jesus is that terrible dinner guest you regret inviting because he ends up ruining everything.

Who does Jesus say should be invited to the banquet?

The poor, the blind, the crippled and the lame.

And this is where Jesus gets in trouble with the Pharisees

And if we’re being honest.  This is the part of the story where we become either defensive or…well…even more defensive.

Because who does that?  Who invites a homeless guy to their house for dinner? We might go serve dinner at a homeless shelter or give canned goods to the food pantry.  But invite a homeless person to our house?

Jesus is really asking too much of us here, isn’t he?

Then it came to me.  Jesus isn’t talking about who we should invite to our house for dinner once or twice, just to feel good about ourselves.

Jesus is talking about totally changing our view of who is worthy and who is not.

Jesus is talking about the dinner party to which we are invited – that great and crazy banquet God throws for all of us.

The Kingdom of God banquet.

Who do you think is invited to THAT dinner party?

All of us who are blind, lame, poor, insecure, frightened, broken and dysfunctional people who waste enormous amounts of energy pretending that we are not.  We are invited.

We are all invited guests at God’s table of grace, whether we like the other people at the party or not.

If you’re going to have dinner with Jesus, the food will be incredible and the wine will never run out, but you will also find yourself at the table with other people with whom you would never choose to have a meal.

That’s the great joy of the kingdom of God and also the great pain in the butt of it.  God will not leave anyone off the invitation list, which is the good news.

The bad news is that God will not leave anyone off the guest list, which means we’ll have to rub elbows with all sorts of people.  And they will rub elbows with us.

How will we accept God’s invitation? Will we insist on picking who is worthy and not worthy of our time and consideration?

Or will we find the beauty in humility and be grateful just to have been invited at all?

 The movie “Little Miss Sunshine” is the story of a lttle girl, Olive, who has been chosen as a finalist in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest.

So she and her family head off for an 800 mile road trip to the pageant in a old, beaten up, barely working Volkswagen van.

In fact, in order to get the van moving, the family has to push the van until it reaches a speed of 20 miles per hour and then they all jump in and turn on the engine.____53715bba5c1c8

Olive is a chubby little girl with big glasses. At one point early in the movie, Olive says: “I don’t want to be a loser because Daddy hates losers.”  Olive’s father is a failed motivational speaker and throughout the film, he makes a lot of comments about there being two kinds of people: winners and losers.

The irony, of course, is that it’s absolutely clear to people watching this movie that Olive’s father is a loser and by most standards, so is the rest of the family.   When Olive’s father says, “There are two kinds of people in this world: winners and losers,” the camera pans round the people in the van and the audience sees his foul-mouthed father, his suicidal brother-in-law, his son who refuses to speak, his exhausted wife who is trying to hold them all together, and himself, the failed businessman.

But there’s a great moment in the film when the family is driving down the road and discovers they’ve left Olive behind at a gas station.

We see the van moving across the screen in one direction and the whole family whisks her up into the vehicle without stopping because at this point, if they stop they won’t be able to restart the van at all. Then we hear Olive’s father’s voice: ‘No-one gets left behind, no-one gets left behind.’

And I think that’s sort of the point that Jesus is making in this parable he unloads on the dinner guests.  In the kingdom of God, there are no winners and losers and no one gets left behind.  No matter how broken.  Or poor. No matter how difficult or annoying.

Which means that we are called to reach out and grab one another in this broken down, sputtering old van called “The Church.”  That’s what Jesus tells us to do here.  To continue going out into the world to gather up God’s people. Nobody left behind. That’s what church is about.

It’s like that game people sometimes play.  You know this one.  If you were able to invite three people to have dinner with you, living or dead, who would you pick?  That’s always a hard one.  You’d probably pick Jesus as one of your guests.  Then maybe George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.  Maybe Ben Affleck.  Who knows?

But if Jesus were playing the game, you’d ask: “Jesus, if you could invite any three people to dinner, alive or dead, who would they be?”  And Jesus would reply, “That’s easy.  The poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.”

And you would say, “But Jesus, that’s four people!  The rules of the game are that you only get to choose three.”

Jesus would pause for a moment.  And then he would say,

“Oh in that case, the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, the stinky man on the bus, that kid with baggy shorts, your jag-off brother-in-law, the playground bully, that guy you can’t stand at work, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Mother Theresa, Charles Manson, Mister Rogers, Osama Bin Laden…”

Do you get it?  The guest list goes on.  And on.  And on.  No one is left behind.

That is why Jesus was so threatening to those who had a stake in keeping the higher ups high and the lowly low. That is why Jesus was so threatening to Pharisees who needed to separate the world into winners and losers, sinners and saints.  That is why those invested in a social pecking order of judgment and shame – which still exists today and includes all of us — put Jesus to death.

What all of these texts about Jesus’ attending dinner parties suggest, at least to me, is that we need to turn the tables on our usual patterns.

We need to hang out with the wrong kind of people.

We need to notice who is missing from the circles we participate in.

We need to get to know and care about some strangers.

Rearrange the familiar.

Allow the humiliated components of our lives to move up, and let our prideful, aloof parts take a back seat.

We need to stop worrying so much about repairing this broken down van, and hit the road trusting God’s grace.

We’re rehearsing for nothing less than a resurrection feast — a new kingdom that has no place for our insecurities and hang-ups and prejudices and craving for order.

The good news is that you and I serve a resurrected Lord of life and love, who lifts his hands up in eternal blessing, welcoming all of us into a new vision where there is enough for everyone,

no first or last,

no honor or shame,

just God’s crazy, messy, beautiful creation,

forgiven and loved,

bound to one another in God’s abundant grace.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unbearable Lightness

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John 9:1-41

 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”

 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.”

But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.

 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”

 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”

 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

Today’s scripture reading is one of those texts you can read dozens of times and always find something new. It’s a long text, obviously, with many details.

When I read John 9 this week, the detail that captured my attention is one I have never noticed before. This week, I noticed:

The man born blind didn’t approach Jesus

The man born blind didn’t ask for his sight.

There’s absolutely nothing in this story to suggest that man knew who Jesus was or wanted Jesus to do anything for him.

The man born blind was just minding his own business. He couldn’t see, but he wasn’t deaf.

He probably heard the disciples ask Jesus about the sin they though caused his blindness.

The blind man didn’t say a word to defend himself or his family. The blind man said nothing. Did nothing.

All of what happens next is Jesus’ idea,

It is totally Jesus’ initiative.

It is Jesus’ idea to spit on the ground, and rub saliva and dirt onto the man’s eyes.

He could have just touched the man with his magic Jesus hands, right?  But he doesn’t.

Jesus uses spit and dirt.

Let’s just stop for a moment and think what it felt like for the blind man.Unknown

Not only is Jesus intruding into the man’s personal space doing something the man didn’t ask him to do,he is also touching the man in a way that had to have felt totally weird at best, and painful and frightening at worst.

Think about it.  Having dirt and spittle suddenly and unexpectedly rubbed into your eyes can’t feel good. If you’ve ever had an eyelash stuck in your eye, or a piece of sand, or sweat and sunscreen running into your eyes, you can imagine the physical discomfort of the blind man. You can imagine having mud and spit rubbed into your eyes by a complete and maybe crazy stranger.

The blind man didn’t ask for it. But Jesus did it. And after washing the mud out of his eyes, the man blind since birth could see. For the first time.

In the gospel of John, these miraculous actions of Jesus – turning water into wine, feeding multitudes, raising the dead, walking on water, giving sight to the blind – are not referred to as “miracles,” but as signs.

The blind man’s sight is not a miracle to marvel over, but rather a muddy, messy sign pointing us to a deeper understanding of Jesus, and who he is and who he calls us to be in the world.

And it tells us something about the way in which Jesus moves in the world, even now.

If Jesus wants our eyes opened, he will not wait for us to ask or cooperate.

And the process might sting a little.

I read an opinion piece yesterday by Peter McKay from the Post Gazette. He wrote about the virtual world of “Pokemon Go.” If you know a kid with a smart phone, you’ve probably heard of Pokemon Go.

I have a 15 year old son with a smart phone who has, indeed, caught Pokemon Go fever. In fact, we just got back from vacation and my teenager and his cousins saw most of Disney World, Savannah and Charleston, S.C. through the lens of their smart phone cameras.slim

Peter McKay described the Pokemon Go phenomena.  Players of the game use their smart phones to find virtual Pokemon characters that can be seen only by peering through the phone’s camera.  Pokemon Go has gotten so big that this month it overtook Twitter for number of daily users.

McKay says he knows he should be telling kids that Pokemon Go is a tremendous waste of time.

On the other hand, he says, spending time in the virtual world of Pokemon Go seems highly preferable to enduring the actual world of Summer 2016.

Maybe it’s better, says McKay, to withdraw from all the violence and fear and anger. Better to chase a Pokemon character at the bus stop,or turn off the television completely, or turn on old episodes of the Lawrence Welk show and hope the bubbles will drown out the sense of dread.

The virtual monsters of Pokemon seem highly preferable to the real ones that seem to be lurking under our beds or outside our door. Or in Munich, Nice, Baton Rouge, St. Paul or Orlando or any number of places that have been ripped apart by violence this summer.[1]

I get what McKay is saying. The impulse to tune out is strong. Sometimes it seems safer, saner not to look. Maybe that’s what you’ve decided to do this summer. Shut down and shut it all out.

The Pharisees in the text are blind-sided by the man whose sight has been restored. They cannot see what Jesus has accomplished.  They cannot see what Jesus is about. All they see is sin and broken rules. The Pharisees hide so deeply in their piety, they can’t perceive the possibilities of Jesus.

The man’s parents are blinded by fear. Even the neighbors cannot wrap their minds around what has happened.

“It’s too impossible.

Him? He’s been blind forever.

Are you sure it’s the same guy?

Maybe he’s faking all of us out.

Don’t ask me. Ask him.”

Nobody wants to see. Nobody wants to know. Nobody believes.

In the midst of all the commotion and controversy, stands a man who once was blind.

All he knows is that his world was turned upside down when Jesus touched him.

For better and for worse.

He will be ridiculed. Not believed.

He will be turned out and rejected by everyone he knows.

But for the first time in his life, the blind man sees what is real. What he sees is Jesus.

The man who was once blind now sees and believes. Over time, he confesses Jesus as Lord.

In the gospel of John, Jesus is introduced as the light of the world. And throughout the Gospel, the light of Jesus leads to conversion, at least for some. It leads to a moment in which the world turns upside down and nothing is ever the same again.  At least for some people.

Others in the gospels encounter the light of Jesus and miss it. They believe only what their blind eyes tell them.

Mud is mud is mud.

Water is water, and wine is wine.

A couple of pieces of bread and a few fish are only enough to feed one little boy, not thousands of hungry people.

After all, everyone knows the dead stay dead and blind people stay blind.

And if one day a man shows up and tells you a prophet gave him his sight by rubbing mud in his eyes,

you can believe or not.

You can rejoice, or question the man’s sanity.

You can hear his story and allow your eyes to open. For better or worse. It might sting a little.

I have learned how blind I am the hard way, and more than once in my life.

In fact, it happens all the time to me.

Jesus shows up and rubs mud into in my eyes.

And sometimes the light feels unbearable.

Hearing the story feels uncomfortable.

How has it felt for you, brothers and sisters? Has Jesus rubbed mud in your eyes? Have you felt unbearable lightness?

Jesus did it to me last week. While I was on vacation, a friend who is a pastor posted a testimony on Facebook.

I didn’t ask to see it. I didn’t want to read it.

In fact, my plan for vacation was to focus only on vacation. I planned to unplug everything except my family, an Alexander Hamilton biography, and perhaps learn a bit more about Pokemon Go.Unknown-1

I heard this testimony from my friend and colleague, a pastor who leads a congregation in Knoxville, a hilltop neighborhood on the South Side that has seen more than its fair share of tragic shootings and deep brokenness. In fact, a 6 year old girl was shot and killed there last week. But that wasn’t the story my friend Rev. White told on Facebook.  Here’s his testimony, edited by me but only a little:

So Saturday started like most Saturdays.

Kids up asking for cereal, wife sleeping in, and me on my way to 7eleven for coffee and a plan to finally wash my car. I was engaged in conversation with a member of my congregation about the events in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Minnesota as I pulled into 7eleven via my hands free mode, and remained in the parking lot for about 15 minutes concluding the conversation before going in to get my coffee.

When an Ohio Township police cruiser pulls up next to me, the officer gets out his car, nods to me and he goes into the store.

A few seconds later he comes out the store and he approaches my driver’s side, and says to me, “Sir what are you doing?”

I reply, “I was talking on the phone and am about to go in and get coffee.”

Then he hits me with the words every black man dreads “Well we got a call. I’m going to need to see your license and registration.”

“For what?” I ask?

“Well the employee inside called and said you were out here in the lot for 45 minutes and she was afraid. “

How’s my sitting here in my car on my phone in full view of the stores exterior cameras threatening this woman? What gesture was I unaware of? What action off putting?

I am in my car outside the store on my phone in a place I have lived my whole life, no hoodie, no bb gun, no loud music, big rims, or gold chains.

I wasn’t selling CDs or cigarettes;

I wasn’t fresh out of a high speed chase in a stolen car

I wasn’t speeding nor did I have a busted tail light.

I was present and Black.

police_gunAnd apparently in the times we live that’s all it takes for a call to be made and for me to be talking to an officer with his hand on his gun. waiting for me to comply with his request.

To many of you this might seem like a simple request.

Just give him your license and all will be fine.

But the distance between that and the truth is as great as what seemed like the miles between my driver’s seat and my book bag on the floor of the car which contained my license,  or the universe between me and my glove compartment which contained my registration.

The truth is I did nothing wrong but I didn’t reach.

The truth is I had no evil intent towards this officer but I didn’t reach yet.

The truth is I in no way threatened anyone but I couldn’t reach yet.

Because the certain reality for me as a black man in this situation is this.

What I do next may very well determine if my children ever see me again.

That may not be your reality. It is my reality.

What I say

how I move

what I do

will determine the answer to this question:

Can I live?

“Officer my ID is there and my registration there. CAN I get them?”

“Just give me your license!”

 As he walks away to his car and I ask myself why are you nervous?

And I realized in that moment that my fear is now turning quickly to anger.

I don’t have to be guilty of anything to die here for talking on my phone in a public place in a town I have lived in all my life where we raise our kids in a county where we pay our taxes, in a city where I pastor a church and work in the community at a store I visit once a day, in a country I have served as a member of the military.

Ten seconds the officer comes back to my window, hands me my license and walks away.

“Hold up wait a minute officer What did I do wrong in the first place?”

He turns and pauses. A look comes across his face that I can only describe as an angry man trying to calm himself.

He turns and says to me:

“She was afraid and had a right to call.”

And I said to myself

I am afraid and I have a right to live.

Can I?

Can I live?

 

Ouch.

That wasn’t just a little mud in my eyes.

 

Rabbi, who sinned?

The fearful white employee in the 7-11?

The fearful police officer with his hand on his gun?

The fearful Reverend White who was born with black skin?

All of them. All of us. They and you and me and we have all been born blind and sinful, steeped in prejudice and privilege and fear.

The good news is we are loved despite all of it.

The good news is because we are loved, Jesus keeps showing up and opening our eyes.

The good news is God’s work might yet be revealed in us and through us, thanks to the light that is Jesus Christ in the world.

The light of Jesus Christ in our families and in our churches. In Ben Avon and in Knoxville. In our workplaces and even in 7-11 parking lots.

Sometimes, it is unbearable light that we do not want to acknowledge.

We are free to look away or deny it or even give in to fear.

Or we can let the light of Christ reach us, and teach us, and draw us ever more closely to the heart of God.

The light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Peter McKay, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 7/23/16, “Go, Pokemon God, and take me with you.” Downloaded on 7/23/16http://www.post-gazette.com/life/2016/07/23/Peter-McKay-Go-Pokemon-Go-and-take-me-with-you/stories/201607230040

The Blessing of Giving Up

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Luke 9:51-62

 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Today, Jesus is on the road with his disciples and they have made the turn toward Jerusalem.

This text marks the beginning of the second half of Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry. The meandering journey of Jesus’ preaching and teaching through Galilee is over and the disciples’ journey with Jesus takes on new urgency.

Jesus warned his disciples this turn was coming.

But as usual, the disciples are entirely clueless about what the turn toward Jerusalem means. They have no idea what will happen next.Only Jesus knows what lies ahead in Jerusalem.

And Jesus is resolute.  Unwavering.  Determined. Jesus is a man with a mission and he moves forward.

He and the disciples come to a Samaritan village, where they immediately meet resistance.  We don’t know exactly why, but Luke tells us Jesus and his followers are rejected by the Samaritans.

Could it be that the people in the village don’t much like where Jesus is going or the people who live there? Maybe. There is a history of conflict between the Samaritans and the Jews, so it could be the case that any Jew would be unwelcome in Samaria.

Or maybe Jesus chose this village in order to prepare the disciples for the rejections to come,or perhaps it was just the most direct route to Jerusalem.

What we do know for sure is the way in which James and John react.  They want to call down fire from heaven and wipe the Samaritans out, just like Elijah called down fire on the prophets of Ba’al.

James and John are not “shake the dust from your feet” kind of guys.James and John are all about wiping the whole village out.

But not Jesus.

Jesus does not meet the Samaritan’s rejection with violence.Jesus doesn’t engage in an argument with the Samaritans over their lack of hospitality.

Jesus tells James and John to get over it. There’s no time to argue. There will be no vengeance today. It is as if Jesus knows that compared to the rejection ahead of them in Jerusalem, this scuffle with the Samaritans is a Sunday school picnic

Soon, Jesus and the disciples are on their way again and potential new members for the Jesus team sidle up next to them.

The first man says, “Hey, Jesus, sign me up! I will follow you wherever you go.”

Wonderful, right? A new member of the team!

But, Jesus totally messes up this evangelism opportunity.

Instead of encouraging the new recruit, Jesus says to him, “Are you sure you want to follow me?  Are you sure you want this kind of life? Foxes have holes and birds have nests. But if you follow me, you will never have a clue about what you’ll be doing or where you’ll going or where you will be sleeping.  Are you sure you’re ready for that?”

Potential follower number one decides a comfortable bed and a regular schedule is highly preferable to the life of a nomad.  Thanks but no thanks, Jesus.

Not long after, Jesus sees a second person on the road and Jesus issues an invitation to him. “Follow me,” Jesus says.

To which the man responds, “That’s a fantastic idea, Jesus.  But here’s the thing… I’ve got to go bury my father.  Give me a day or two and I’m all yours.”

And Jesus messes the whole thing up again by saying:

“Let the dead bury the dead. Forget about the past.  I’m inviting you to proclaim the kingdom of God.  That’s what matters now.  The kingdom of God can’t wait for a funeral.”

Not only is Jesus telling the man to break a pretty significant Jewish law, but he’s also being kind of a jerk about it.

So recruit number two scurries away instead of joining this heretical rabbi.

Finally, a third man comes along and says he’s very excited about this mission opportunity, but he’d like a couple hours to say goodbye to his family back in the village.

And again, Jesus completely shuts down a potential recruit.

Jesus says circling back is not an option for those who wish to follow him.If you are serious about following Jesus, you have to let go of everything that weighs you down and seriously reconsider your priorities. Your religious laws. Your attachments. Your need for comfort and security.

This passage from Luke is not exactly a problem text, but I think we can safely say we have a problematic Jesus on our hands this morning.

This is a Jesus who has no patience with stalling tactics or excuses, even really legitimate, reasonable excuses.

This is the kind of Jesus talk that helps us begin to understand why the Samaritans and a lot of other people in the scriptures don’t want Jesus around when he shows up in their town or their synagogue or their temple.Following Jesus

Every time I’ve heard this text preached, the pastor tries to smooth out the sharp edges of Jesus’ demands so Jesus doesn’t seem so…well…demanding.

But I think the writer of the gospel includes these sharp edged words from Jesus in the text for a very particular reason.

I wonder if we need to take what Jesus says seriously instead of trying to wiggle out of it. If Jesus really means what he says here, the question becomes: is this a Jesus we are willing to follow?

The kind of Jesus who tells us we can’t depend on comfort and predictability?

The kind of Jesus who says following him is more important than religious rules and tradition?

The kind of Jesus who will lead us headlong into rejection and controversy?

Are we willing to follow this Jesus all the way to Jerusalem? Even all the way to the cross?

All of these nagging questions have led me to the uncomfortable realization that having Jesus Christ as the head of our church means it might be hard to find anyone to stick around for very long.  And perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that so few do.

In fact, if Jesus were running a Billy Graham kind of crusade, he wouldn’t be the kind of evangelist who begs people to come forward after the service and dedicate their lives to him.

I think Jesus would say to those who answer the alter call, “Are you sure?  Have you really thought this through? Because you are really in for a rude awakening if you imagine your life will be any easier if you follow me. In fact, your life as my disciple will probably get harder.”

At the end of a Jesus crusade, I think the number of new followers Jesus would pick up would probably be around the number he attracts in this passage today.

Which, in case you haven’t noticed, is exactly 0.

If we take this passage from Luke seriously, I think we come to the conclusion that Jesus doesn’t fit our notions of a successful evangelist or a church growth consultant when it comes to number of people who decide to stick around with him.

In this text, Jesus is demanding.  Jesus is bordering on being downright offensive. The mission to Jerusalem is what matters. A mission that will lead, not to glory or comfort, but to the cross.

One of the problems we have as Presbyterians is that we want to be entirely non-offensive.  3417817301_501ff5ce4f_bWe do not often demand too much of ourselves or each other.  I have met very few pastors who don’t have a hidden or not-so-hidden need to be liked.  I have met very few church people who would respond positively to the kind of challenge Jesus throws down in this text.

I think all of us in the church do a fair amount of trying to shape Jesus according to our needs and our wants and our need to look successful.

We create the Jesus we want instead of allowing Jesus to shape us into the people God has created us to be.

In this text, Jesus will have none of it. Because he’s set his face toward Jerusalem. And it’s serious business.

His purpose in turning toward Jerusalem is to embrace the pain of the cross for the sake of the world.

Nothing will stop Jesus.

His purpose in turning toward Jerusalem is driven by nothing less than love, God’s profound love for all humanity and all the world.

Nothing will stop Jesus.

Nothing will interfere with Jesus’ single minded purpose of sacrificial and deeply radical love.

Nothing, on heaven or on earth, will stop Jesus. Not even a bunch of people pleasing, non-offensive Presbyterians like us.  And thanks be to God for that.

The would-be followers in this text are reluctant to follow Jesus because they know it means losing something dear to them. The kind of compassion Jesus calls us to demonstrate to the world is costly.

What stops us from making the turn with Jesus? What is holding us back?

Over the past four years, I have been working with colleagues in Pittsburgh Presbytery on a project we call, “The Unglued Church.” In fact, next Sunday, your guest preacher will be the Rev. Sarah Robbins who is my partner in crime in our Unglued Church effort.

When Sarah and I met, we soon discovered that we had something in common.Both of us served congregations that were holding on so tightly to survival at any cost that they had lost sight of the mission of Jesus Christ.

In working with churches over the past four years, Sarah and I and my other Unglued colleagues have observed that “survival at all costs” is a pervasive attitude in many congregations.

Given the continuing decline in membership and money, it’s not hard to understand the anxiety in our congregations.

My colleagues and I have spent the better part of the last 4 years helping churches stop clutching at those things they think they need to survive, and instead open up their hands and focus on following Jesus.

Such conversations are hard, much harder than we ever imagined when we began the Unglued work. The conversations are difficult because they are conversations about letting go and breaking open in ways that feel like death.  And Jesus might tell us that’s exactly how it is supposed to feel when we turn our face to Jerusalem.

My colleagues and I believe these faithful conversations are the first steps on the road to new life for tired and stuck congregations. These conversations lead us away from “survival at all costs” and back to the holy logic of death and resurrection.

The conversations at General Assembly in Portland this past week also were hard. Leslie Kaplan will, no doubt, brief you all on what she heard and experienced as she served as a ruling elder commissioner on behalf of Sixth Church and Pittsburgh Presbytery.

Presbyterians made many good steps forward at GA last week, not the least of which is the fact that the top leadership of our denomination now includes an African American man, an African American woman, a white woman and a gay, married Latino man. We also added the Belhar Confession to our constitution, the first confession to emerge from the global south, out of the experience of apartheid in South Africa.

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(l to r) Tony De La Rosa, Interim Executive Director/Presbyterian Mission Agency, Rev. Denise Anderson and Rev. Jan Edmiston, Co-Moderators of 222nd General Assembly, Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk of the PCUSA

But I watched a good bit of the live feed from Portland this week. And what I often heard in the debates and reports from committees was fear and anxiety rooted in a scarcity mindset.

A fear that if we open up our hands to fully commit to racial justice or divestment from fossil fuels, or generous parental leave for our mission agency employees or genuine reconciliation with our GLBTQ brothers and sisters, we’ll continue to bleed money and members.

It’s too costly, the commissioners seemed to think. If we open our hands, there may not be enough. If we give up our resources and our comfort and follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, the PCUSA might not survive.

But the General Assembly was challenged on Friday morning by our new Stated Clerk, The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, who said this in his opening remarks that,

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Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk PCUSA

“To focus on the survival of the church is to set our aim too low…it’s time to take our eyes off the church and place them on the Kingdom of God.”

If we are to believe our text today, survival at any cost was the last thing on Jesus’ mind as he makes the turn toward Jerusalem. He knew there was a cost in following God’s mission of reconciliation and grace.

There is a cost to doing justice, to loving mercy, to walking humbly…

There is a cost to living into the demands of the gospel.

But if we are to believe the promises of the Gospel, there is also freedom.

There is a freedom that comes when we are willing to risk no matter the cost.

There is a freedom that comes when we are willing to speak truth to power.

Before the disciples and Jesus began their journey toward Jerusalem, Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Lk.9.24)

We are resurrection people, brothers and sisters. The hope in our calling is the promise that death does not win and love has the final word.

We are resurrection people.  Let us turn our face toward Jesus.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unglued News

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Some colleagues and I will be blogging for Presbyterians Today over the next 12 months in an effort to share what we’ve learned so far in our work with The Unglued Church in Pittsburgh Presbytery. The opportunity to speak to the wider church about what we’ve learned in the process is both a great honor and a daunting challenge. I hope, if nothing else, we help churches and pastors who are feeling lonely and afraid about the future know that they are not alone.  More importantly, I hope we can encourage them to remember that God is faithful in all things.

Show PT some love and subscribe to the blog!

https://www.presbyterianmission.org/today/2016/06/06/unglued-church/

Safe Home

shepherd-and-lamb-pic2I am serving as moderator of a session for a church without a pastor. One of their long-time members died last week and I was asked to officiate at her funeral on Saturday. Although I met briefly with her husband and one of her sons a couple days before the service, I did not know the lady at all. I am clear with families in this situation that I cannot do a eulogy for a person I do not know. What I can do is proclaim the promise of resurrection as a representative of the church who ordained me and of whom the departed is a member.

I’ve done many funerals in my brief time as a teaching elder. The meditation I used this weekend is not entirely new, but rather pieces of others I’ve written over the years. I’m not sure it’s a great piece of prose, but it does feel like a meditation that can speak to everyone who has known loss, even if they are not Christian or people of faith. I know there are some pastors who consider public events like weddings or funerals as opportunities to evangelize to those who are never otherwise in church. For me, such occasions are opportunities to remind people that they are loved and that the person they are missing is not lost, but loved.

I also like this meditation because it references the last stanza of one of my favorite hymns. When I die, I hope someone thinks to have this hymn sung at my funeral!

Your sure provisions gracious God
attend me all my days;
oh, may your house be my abode,
and all my work be praise.
Here would I find a settled rest,
while others go and come;
no more a stranger, nor a guest,
but like a child at home.

Romans 8:26-28, 31-39

 26Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

 31What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

When I was a little girl, I had a recurring nightmare about being lost in an unfamiliar place. I can still remember feeling the panic of disorientation in my chest. My heart beat faster and faster as I struggled to figure out exactly where I was.

And then in my dream, I saw the familiar figure of my mother on a crowded street corner and I ran toward her as quickly as I could.  As I was running to her, she began walking away from me, heading in the opposite direction.  I called out her name and she just kept walking as I struggled to get to her, yelling out to her over and over again as she moved farther and farther away from me, eventually disappearing altogether into a crowd of people.

Some years later, I read that this kind of dream is not an uncommon one for children and adults.  The dream, of course, represented my fear of death and of losing my mother.  I was fearful of losing the most important human connection a little girl could have in order to feel safe and secure.

But here’s the thing:  our fears about losing important human connections are not at all irrational are they?  Our fears of being lost are neither childlike nor naïve. We will all eventually lose one another — and leave one another — through death.  Our worst nightmares will play out in our lives.  The experience of loss is an unavoidable consequence of being human enough to take the risk of loving someone enough to miss them.

When we gather together on occasions such as today, I think we feel that same panicky catch in our throats and pounding in our hearts.  We are reminded how fleeting our connections to one another really are.  Days like today have an ethereal quality.  These days and weeks after the death of someone we love are liminal, in-between times — time out of time — that feel as unreal as a bad dream.  The connection to V, a loving wife, mother, grandmother and friend may feel as if it has been snapped like a dry tree twig in winter, leaving us as bewildered as children, even if we are all grown up.

But in our reading from Romans this morning, the apostle Paul talks about a reality that is more real than death, more reliable than any dream, and more lasting than any human connection.  Paul reminds us of the one connection that is never broken, and the one love that endures forever.  What lasts through all of time is the love of God as expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Paul reflects back to us our deepest needs and our deepest fears and baddest bad dreams in one fell swoop.  Paul assures us that we will not – and cannot – be separated from God. We are never, ever lost in this world, even in our loneliest hours.

No matter what nightmares haunt us, no matter where we go or what we do or have done to us, no matter what bleak stuff life throws at us, there is nothing on heaven or on earth that can separate us from God.

Paul asks many questions: “Who is to condemn? Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness or peril, or sword?”

Paul’s answer is always the same – NOTHING.

NOTHING has more power than God’s love for us. And God’s love is perfectly expressed in Jesus Christ who came to take everything that is broken in us or by us, and put it back together.  The healing power of God’s love still happens in every moment of our lives through the creative breath and healing power of the Holy Spirit.

So while it may have felt as though V was slowly being taken away, that we were being robbed of her gifts and her presence – Paul assures us of the exact opposite. That while horrible things like age and illness happen, God is still at work making things new.  None of these things – not even death itself – can separate us from God’s love and from the power of the resurrection.

When everything else has gone from us – youth, memory, beauty, health, even our very lives – one thing endures.

This constant love of God, which is the heart beat of the universe.

The enduring love of God that seeps into our lives and moves from human heart to human heart, not requiring words, but the shared experience of our human lives together.  And when our lives are over, that pure and gorgeous love receives us, redeems us, and plants us in the very heart of God.

V has returned to the heart where love begins.

The heart of God who created her, and also created you and me.

The heart of God who loved her through each moment of her life, the joyful and the scary, the celebrations and pain.

And it is God’s heart and God’s love which will keep us connected to V.  Forever.

It is a poignant, terrible, beautiful fact of which we are painfully reminded this morning — as long as we are alive, people we love will go and come and go.  We are strangers and guests, husbands and wives, co-workers and friends, children and parents, family and lovers.  And in every human relationship, there is brokenness and beauty

What finally disrupts the coming and going of life is death.  And all we can finally know about that broken branch is the unceasing promise of God for us.  We can believe that V has arrived to a settled rest wrapped in God’s grace and love.   One day you and I will follow that same path when we will become who we always meant to be, even when we didn’t know it.  No longer a wayfaring stranger.  No more an awkward, out-of-place guest. No longer suffering all the pain and griefs and disappointments and longings of life on this earth.

V is who she was created to be which is God’s beloved child.  Safe and sound.  No more nightmares. She is finally at home in the heart of God.

 

#morethanmean #hardlyhuman

just-not-sports

On Tuesday, I watched a YouTube video that has since gone viral featuring two female sportswriters, Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro. The women decided to confront online bullies by having regular guys read the tweets/comments the women have received, out loud, face to face. If you haven’t seen it yet, go to this link: https://youtu.be/9tU-D-m2JY8  I will warn you, it is hard to watch, and much harder for the men in the video who can barely stand to read unspeakably vile words out loud to the woman sitting in front of them. It is powerful. It is real. And it didn’t surprise me even as the video made me weep.

And it didn’t surprise me that the comments posted about the video contained such charming nuggets as, “this video is so fake. who the fuck would rape that fat chick? she’s fat.”

Maybe it’s me. Maybe my heart is too prone to bleeding and I need to toughen up. Maybe the world has always been this mean, this angry, this cruel for those who do not fit in tidy boxes.NM_18borderprotestCOVER Perhaps the online world has just made it easier to see what has always lurked beneath the shiny surface of society. Racism. Sexism. Misogyny. Bullying. Murderous anger. Maybe it was inevitable that someone like Donald Trump would come along and make ugly public discourse about women, minorities, disabled people, immigrants, etc. a totally normal thing, even an admirable thing, so much so that we’ll enshrine such language and attitudes into the office of the Presidency.

Perhaps it just is what it is, and it has ever been so.

All of this has come into sharp relief for me over the past few months as my son has reached a boiling point in dealing with the kids who have alternately bullied, ignored, teased and laughed at him since he was a very little boy. He’s on the autism spectrum, but is extremely high functioning; he is smart, funny, a great student, well-behaved and, to the best of my knowledge, has never had a meltdown or tantrum in school or anywhere else since he was a toddler. His ASD makes it difficult for him to pick up typical social cues when he is with peers. It is hard for him to engage in conversations. He doesn’t like playground sports. He doesn’t get the joke and that means he becomes the subject of the joke far too often. He’s quirky in a way that his family loves and accepts, but not in a way that endears him to typical teenagers. For a long, long time, not being accepted by peers didn’t bother him much. He was happy in his own world, happy to hang out with his family, and not entirely cognizant of the fact that he didn’t have real friends.

But now, it’s clear to him that there’s something “different” about him that is alienating him from his peers. He feels as if he’s “not even human.” For the first time in his life, he’s articulating the deep despair that’s always been inside him. Which is good. Being able to express his feelings is a huge step for him.

And it’s also really horrible.

What’s horrible is that kids are mean. Really mean. And at the moment, I am so angry about the meanest that I am imagining all sorts of future for these kids who are making my son so unhappy.

I imagine they will probably grow up to become the kind of people that leave disgusting and demeaning comments on Reddit or Twitter. I imagine they will become the kind of people who will show up at rallies and demand that outsiders with the wrong color skin and the wrong accent be turned away from our borders. I imagine they will become the kind of people who will think it’s ok to block transgender people from rest rooms in the Target and that it’s perfectly reasonable for a police officer to shoot a 12 year old with a toy gun. I imagine they will become the kind of people who cross the street when they see a homeless person or a black kid in a hoodie.

Or not. Kids will be kids. If I am honest with myself, I can remember times in my childhood in which I didn’t stand up for the quirky kid. Ask my family about the day in 2nd grade in which my teacher informed me and a couple other girls that we should be “ashamed to call ourselves Brownies” after we teased another girl to the point of tears in the girls restroom.

I told a friend the other day that I believe part of the reason I was called to ordained ministry is that I have always had this deep and compelling need, in Star Wars lingo, to “bring balance to the galaxy.” There is darkness everywhere, but there is also a light in the darkness and the darkness hasn’t won out, at least not yet.

I am a follower of Jesus because, at some point, I took a look at the world around me and realized the only hope we really have for anything to get any better, or for me to become a better person, is to participate in the kingdom-bringing-building work of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus endured every bullying word and action that human beings could think of, and yet the light wasn’t snuffed out, not by the longest shot. Jesus promised to be present in our loneliest, awfulest, most soul-sucking and painful moments. The light isn’t gone. Love has won, despite all appearances to the contrary.

That is the promise I hold onto in my bleakest moments, when I am in bed at night and running through the teen suicide statistics in my head.

That is the promise I hold onto when I despair about the situation in South Sudan and the dear people I met there.

That is the promise I hold onto when I hear the angry words of Donald Trump.

That is the promise I hold onto when my child says he doesn’t feel human.

My brother and I had a long conversation by text last night. He is one of the best people I know and he understands, perhaps better than anyone, what we are going through. I actually slept a little better last night.

This morning when I woke up, I found an email from him containing a link to a Taylor Swift song/performance I had never heard before (yeah, I know…I am completely feeble when it comes to most popular culture stuff. But hey — I’m listening to “Lemonade” this morning!)

It was a video of Swift performing her song, “Mean,” at the Grammys a few years ago. The lyrics include:

You, with your words like knives
And swords and weapons that you use against me
You have knocked me off my feet again
Got me feeling like a nothing
You, with your voice like nails on a chalkboard
Calling me out when I’m wounded
You, picking on the weaker man

Well you can take me down with just one single blow
But you don’t know, what you don’t know…

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You, with your switching sides
And your wildfire lies and your humiliation
You have pointed out my flaws again
As if I don’t already see them
I walk with my head down
Trying to block you out ’cause I’ll never impress you
I just wanna feel okay again

Do me a favor, friends. Find an excuse to do something amazingly kind today. A #morethankind thing that might make a difference in a world that is increasingly #morethanmean.

 

 

 

 

 

Remember Me — A Eulogy for B

Coffee-and-Donuts

 

Luke 23:32-43

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus* there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[ 34Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’]]* And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah* of God, his chosen one!’ 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ 38There was also an inscription over him,* ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding* him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah?* Save yourself and us!’ 40But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into* your kingdom.’ 43He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

Matthew 10:26-31

26 ‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.* 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

 At some point in our friendship, B gave me a plaque that says:

“People who need loving the most are those who deserve it the least.”

It’s a gift I really appreciated and kept on a bookshelf in my church office where I could see it all the time. For a pastor, that is a really good quote to hold onto, because church life often hands us people who are hard to love.

And yet it is somehow true that those hard to love people sometimes need our time, attention, and prayers most.

We do our best.

But B was not one of those hard-to-love people, at least not for me. As a pastor, I appreciated his humor and his encouragement.

It was always a genuine joy to visit with B. He’d make a pot of coffee and I’d bring the good donuts. We’d spend a couple hours talking about life and cats and children, all the while watching car shows and old westerns.  Spending time with B and his beloved cat was always time well spent.

And of course, it wasn’t always donuts and laughter.

There were hard times for B. He worried a lot about many things. He would talk and I would listen.

The long illness and death of his daughter hit B hard.  Nothing is worse, I think, than not being able to save your own child.

He had some scary hospital stays that seemed to be his end. But it wasn’t.

He worried about money. He worried about his family. He dealt with significant pain and the slow, steady progress of aging and illness.

And every once in a while, B would talk about his wife’s illness and death.  When he talked about her, B’s eyes would become a little less mischievous and turn misty and damp. He missed her so much.

And yet, there was always laughter. The one liners. The horrible puns.  The marginally offensive joke.  Lots of goofing over coffee and donuts, and occasionally over an ice cold beer and some pizza. All of this was B.

And every time B left phone messages, there would be his unmistakable voice: “And how’s my favorite little pastor today?”  I will always carry with me the memory of that voice in my heart, because it will not only remind me of B, but also of who I am on those days when it’s hard to be anyone’s pastor.

It was not difficult to love B.

And yet I always sensed that B had a hard time believing he was lovable.

There was a sadness always beneath the surface of our conversations which would make me feel sad as well. We didn’t talk too much about B’s regrets in life, but I knew he had them.

And the reason I knew about B’s regrets is the simple fact that everyone has regrets.  We all regret something about our lives. We all carry that heavy load of remorse with us.

That unkind word we wish we could take back.

That poor decision that we wish could reverse.

The road not taken. Or the road taken that we would have been better off avoiding completely.

And always, always the very human feeling that we have not loved enough or loved well enough, and that we’ve left too much hurt in our wake.

I loved B, and I know you all loved B.  But I wish B had loved himself as deeply and truly as Jesus loves every single one of us.

I wish B had known and valued himself as completely as God knows and values every single one of us.

I wish B had forgiven himself as Jesus forgives us all.  Jesus forgives our regrets, mistakes, and deep hurts.

In the scripture I just read, one of the criminals hanging on a cross next to the cross of Jesus turns to him and says: Please remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And what does Jesus say to this ordinary man who is physically suffering and spiritually hurting, perhaps remembering people he had hurt and the regrets of his life?

What does Jesus do?

Jesus makes a promise to the criminal.

Jesus promises the man that he will not be abandoned or left alone to die, but will be loved and cared for in this moment and through all eternity.  Jesus says: ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

Truly, brothers and sisters, I stand on this promise of Jesus and say to you with confidence and joy that B is in Paradise, wherever that may be.  Because I believe Paradise is not a place, but a sacred promise that our lives after death are held tightly by the One who has defeated death forever.

Earlier in his life, Jesus looked upon a group of frightened people who wondered if their lives mattered at all.  After all, the world told them all the time that because they are poor and wretched, their lives are worth nothing.  Less than nothing.

And Jesus made a promise to them. He said, every single person who hears my voice matters. You have more value to God than you can even imagine.  Jesus told them to not be afraid and to remember:

 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Truly, brothers and sisters, I stand on the promise of Jesus and say to you with confidence and joy that B lived his whole life as a valued and beloved child of God.  And in death, B was caught and claimed and redeemed by God who loves each tiny sparrow and every flawed human being, and knows each one of us intimately, by name, because God knew and loved us long before we were born.

Each one of us. We are loved. We are forgiven. We have immeasurable value in the Kingdom of God because we have been adopted as God’s own children.

We are deserving of love not because of who we are or anything we’ve done or left undone but because of who God is – merciful and kind, slow to anger and quick to steadfast love.

Perhaps in looking into the face of the suffering Christ on a cross, the thief saw the truth of a God who is with us in all that is good and all that is hard in our lives.

Perhaps that is why B stayed connected to a community of faith and to his favorite little pastor. Perhaps what B saw in all of us was the face of Christ himself and a promise that he would be always be remembered in this life and the next.

A writer talks about remembrance this way:

“When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.

For as long as you remember me, I am never entirely lost. When I’m feeling most ghostlike, it’s your remembering me that helps remind me that I actually exist. When I’m feeling sad, it’s my consolation. When I’m feeling happy, it’s part of why I feel that way.

If you forget me, one of the ways I remember who I am will be gone. If you forget me, part of who I am will be gone.” (Frederick Buechner)

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the good thief said from his cross (Luke 23:42). There are perhaps no more human words in all of Scripture, no prayer we can pray so well on this day.