Sunday, November 11, 2012

A sinking ship or the missio dei?

I think maybe I am the last person who should be giving a sermon on Stewardship Sunday.   I’m the kid who has spent her entire life going to school - spending, rather than making - money. And I’m sure my in-laws are really looking forward to the day that ends. I’m the kid who thinks the best way to spend money is on comfortable shoes and good beer.  I’m the kid who is notorious at the seminary for arguing that most churches should blow their endowments. 
Seriously.  That’s what I think.  Of course, I don’t have a fiscally sound bone in my body, nor do I understand the complexities of dividends, trust funds, or annuities.  I don’t even know the differences between all those.  But I do know a little bit about church, and I know that the Presbyterian Church and the Christian Church as a whole, to quote my friend Pastor Jim Walker, is “the Titanic.”  It’s a sinking ship.  We are losing members at an astounding rate; some estimates claim that we have lost more than 50% of our population since the fifties.  Buildings are crumbling.  Congregations are shrinking, and in some places, pastors are stretched thin to meet the needs of up to five different congregations at once.

Just travel over to Hazelwood and you’ll see four different churches all within a block of each other, and all either dying or dead, boarded up, crumbling, abandoned. This ship is sinking. And we really should just grab the good silverware and jump into the lifeboats. The church - as we know it - as we are comfortable thinking of it - is dying.  And here we are treading water, trying to keep our doors open, trying to stay relevant.  
But of course, I’m also the kid who has spent countless hours parsing Greek verbs, reading Calvin, and arguing the benefits of infant baptism and weekly communion. I’m the one who is banking on the hope that there is something still living in this whole Christian Church thing. I’ve put my entire hope for my future, heck, for my son’s future, in this one crazy, dying, church basket.  From the outside, statistically, financially, and maybe in every other way, this is a very bad investment.  

Unless of course, you were to sit down with me over a cup of coffee, or a really dark stout, and chat with me about how much life I have received from doing what I’m doing.  I’d tell you about the people who come to the Table on Tuesday and Thursday nights at Hot Metal, about how they call me “Reverend” even though they know I’m not officially one yet. About Gail who drives thirty miles just for a meal, some friendship and to give me a huge hug and a smile as she says, “oooooh dear.”  I’d tell you about the women in the H.O.P.E. Pod at the jail, how they give me so much hope just by their stubborn tenacity and their willingness to share a little bit of their stories with me. I’d tell you about what it’s like to hang out with a group of young people, arguing over the superiority of different brands of ketchup, or eating Swedish Fish and cheese pizzas until we get sick, or that amazing moment when one of them opens up enough to talk about the pressures he or she feels from school and family and friends and society.  I’d tell you about the exhilaration and excitement I feel when a see a tiny chink of new life come through the words of tired Scripture.  
These are the investments that give me life. So, I guess my currency is just different. 
And maybe that’s why the traditional perspective of the story of the Widow’s Mite is so crazy-making for me.  We quickly rush to the assumption that Jesus is praising the widow for giving up everything she has - presumably, even the chance for her next meal - for the sake of the Church.  Look how much devotion and trust she has!  Look how committed!  Look how loyal!  We should all be like her!  We should all give up everything we have, to the point of absolute destitution, so that we can have the faith that she has.  But then we realize that we can’t, or we won’t, and then we give up on the giving and the vulnerability and the trust, and we blame practicality and go back to living our isolated, guaranteed, fiscally sound lives. If we look at the story this way, we’re still thinking with the currency of this world.
I don’t think Jesus wants us to be living on the brink of abject poverty any more than he wanted this widow to.  Just a few chapters earlier he criticizes the scribes and the Pharisees for putting their “Corban,” or their offering to God, above their parents’ physical needs.  In chapter 7, Jesus basically claims that our bodily needs are more important than our “offerings to God.” And I don’t think this is because Jesus thinks we shouldn’t offer anything to God.  I think it is because we are so very insistent upon differentiating and dividing our worlds.  We have separated our experiences into line items in order for them to fit in our budgeted lives: this much time goes to work, this much to family, this much to church, this much money goes to our cell phone bill, this much for our electric, this much for insurance, this much for NPR, this much for goats in Rwanda, this much to the church.  Everything has its perfect column, its perfect delineation - Its perfect allotment - it’s perfect limit.  Our lives are so subdivided that they have become pieces that we try to fit together to form into some kind of whole.  And heaven forbid we “go over budget.”
But I think Jesus wants us to understand that the currency of the Kingdom of God is completely different.  God’s currency is measured in wholeness.  And the only way to do that is to become a part of the missio dei - the Mission of God; and that probably means we’ll always be over budget. And I’m convinced it looks just like that picture on the communion table. And it’s just like that millisecond of joy I receive when a woman in my class at the jail “gets” that she doesn’t have to be a slave to her addiction, or her occupation, or the traumatic thing that has happened to her.  It looks like that messy moment when everyone is scrambling for their loaf of bread at the end of the meal at The Table. Or when our blind buddy, Brian, comes up for communion and ends up dipping half his fingers along with his entire piece bread into the cup. Or when I’m entirely exhausted and spent from the day of teaching and ministering and meeting and stretching out of my comfort zone that all I can do is watch reruns of the Gilmore Girls.  
A pastor friend of mine got an email last week from another pastor who was asking for help with a “membership” campaign.  Asking for clarification, my friend asked, “do you mean a stewardship, or a discipleship campaign?”  And the pastor said, “no, a “membership” campaign.  We just want more people to come to church.”
It sounds like he just wants better drive-thru statistics: “Welcome to Generic Christian Church USA, billions and billions served!”  The poor guy’s campaign is doomed from the start.  People don’t want “church.” We want community.  We want discipleship. We want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.  We want to be participants in the Mission of God. 
This was clear to us when we had a community meeting in Stanton Heights to talk about the future of an abandoned church building.  Last April, the congregation just folded up and left, leaving its silk flowers and communion trays and donation envelopes behind.  But at this meeting, a cookout, more than eighty people showed up - and they all brought potato salad and haluski.  They voiced their opinions on what they wanted to do with this building.  Some wanted a “silver sneakers” program, others wanted an after school tutoring program, others wanted community meals, and still others wanted some space for yoga.
They were very clear, unanimous even, about what they didn’t want.  They did not want a church.  And yet. They want community.  They want discipleship. They want to be stewards of their community.  They want to be a part of a mission that is greater than themselves. What they really church - to be a part of the missio dei, to be the Body of Christ in the world.

Being a part of the Mission of God really does mean giving money, or time, or our skills and talents. All that stuff is required. But it’s not the end in itself. Jesus’ disciples were told to give away their very coats if asked.  “Certain women” practically bank-rolled Jesus’ entire ministry operation.  Others offered their homes, shared meals, visited the sick and the dying, or went to distant lands on journeys of their own to spread the Good News.  So it’s not that God doesn’t want us to give; it is, in fact, that God wants more from us than our gifts or offerings.  God wants our very selves. God wants us “over budget.”  Can I be so bold as to say that God needs our very selves?  We are what God is doing in the world. And that’s how we’ve been created to be. 
We are invited to stop compartmentalizing, to stop differentiating what parts of our lives go where, and to see ourselves wholly - and holy - as children of God who are a part of the mission of God.  Are you getting it?  It’s a vitally important paradigm shift in our worldview.  It’s a shift away from budgets and line-items, to fullness, completeness, “over-budgeted-ness,” and ridiculous abundance.
Jesus tells the scribes, and tells us: “Beware of those people who are so devoted to one way of doing church that they start worshipping the institution and the traditions and the bricks and mortar instead of worshipping God. Beware the people who “give” only to improve and solidify their social and economic status. Beware of those people who just want warm pews and full collection baskets.  Beware of the people who claim there is just one way to participate in the Mission of God.  Beware of those people who make a poor widow feel so little of herself that she gives everything she has, even her very last meal, in order to support an institution that abuses and condemns her. 
Beware of ourselves, who, so often, define our worth, our identities, and even our faith on the currency of this world.  Don’t you see?” He says. “This woman here, with the two pennies we don’t even bother to pick up in the parking lot - she has given more than any of us.”
What if we lived our lives with the trust of this poor widow, but not a trust in buildings and furnaces and institutions or traditions but a trust in the Kingdom of God? - with a trust that we are invited to be a part of that Kingdom; we are invited into a grand community that explodes the boundaries of our carefully carved out and budgeted lives. What if?  
That is what stewardship is: participation in the Mission of God. It’s discipleship and communion. It’s active and it’s messy and complicated, and from the outside looking in, a really bad investment.  But for us, stewardship might mean keeping a roof over our heads and paying for staff to keep this community going.  It might mean prayerfully considering how we can use the resources we have - maybe even some of our endowment - to keep this community thriving and flourishing and participating in the Mission of God.  We have a lot of good silverware here; maybe it means gathering it up, jumping ship and building something new?  Maybe it means doing church differently?  Above all, it means listening deeply to the heart of God, listening deeply for the call of God to direct us and invite us to our part of God’s mission.  It means participating in, going “over budget” in our community - letting ourselves make mistakes, letting ourselves try new things, maybe even letting ourselves do something that to the outside world seems like a ridiculous idea, a poor investment, maybe even a “waste” of money.

May our stewardship escape the bounds of budgets and numbers and isolated line items.  May our stewardship permeate every aspect of our lives, so that we are all bringing all that we have to the Mission of God.  What an amazing gift that can be. What an amazing gift that is.  Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

for a new marriage...

There’s this great word used all over the Hebrew Bible.  Like most root words in Hebrew, it’s just three letters long. Transliterated, it’s chesed .  Unfortunately, its true meaning has been lost in translation.  In the Old Testament, it’s often translated as “loving kindness” and it’s used in the context of God’s loving kindness towards the people of Israel.  But this word, chesed, pronounced with one of those harsh sounding h’s, is much tougher than “loving kindness.”  It’s a bolder word.  It’s a scarier word.  To get to the heart of the meaning of this word, we have to see how it’s been used in the Hebrew Bible.  It’s usually used for God’s chesed towards God’s people, and it’s usually used after the Israelites have screwed up.  I mean really screwed up.  It’s used after they build the golden calf.  It’s used in Isaiah after the Israelites have failed to worship God.  It’s used 23 times in the Psalms.  It’s used over a hundred times in the whole Old Testament, and referred to again and again, in the New.  
Chesed is more accurately translated as something like “absolute covenant loyalty,” or “steadfast love,” or in New Testament terms, “Grace.” I like to think of it as “stubborn love.” The kind of love that is still there even after we build towers in the sky, after we worship idols on mountaintops, and after we fail to trust God in the wilderness and when we whine about the manna and the quail.  It’s the kind of love that is still there after we’ve hurt feelings, taken advantage of each other, and been complicit in all the powers of oppression and violence.  It’s not sentimental kindness, though.  Chesed is not “cheap grace.” It’s not those first emotions that come with “falling in love.” It’s not those quickly fading feelings. And it’s not a ticket to do whatever you want without the consequences.  It’s devastating Grace.  It’s the kind of Grace that ends you up on a cross. Like I said, it’s terrifying and it’s stubborn love. But it’s the love that God has for us.  Committed.  Unfailing.  Returning. The kind of perfect love that casts out fear.  The perfect love that will never truly separate us from God. 
It’s covenant.
So. This is what we wish for you, not on your wedding day, but for your entire marriage.  Chesed. Or the hope of chesed. Or the stubborn insistence on chesed. We wish for you the commitment and the loyalty and the determined persistence that no matter what, God’s stubborn love is going to follow you wherever you go.  May God’s Chesed be a model for the chesed you have for each other, so that no matter what comes your way, sickness, health, riches, poverty, fears, joys, uphill battles and downhill rides, you’ll have something to hold tight to.  Not the joyful emotions of this day, although those are great too. But the chesed that withstands it all. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Cheerios, Tree Limbs, 3 year olds...

        image from

Mark 9:38-50
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Well the lectionary passage for this week sure is a doozy.  I don’t know what it is, but it seems like every time I have the opportunity to preach, I get the tough ones...  Or, maybe they’re all just tough ones...
I was having lunch with a friend yesterday, and, as is becoming my Friday habit, I was bemoaning the struggles I was having with my sermon.  As I was telling my friend how impossible this passage was, and about how nobody knows what it means, about how it contradicts itself and sounds ridiculous and impossible, she interrupted me and said, “Just give them Cheerios.” She read my confused expression and she said, “that’s why we give Cheerios to babies.  They can’t choke on them.”
And there’s a lot to choke on in these verses.  In the age of the Westboro Baptist Church and Mayan apocalypse predictions and countless asteroid- and alien- Armageddon movies, along with our own personal experiences of people telling us we’re going to hell because of who we love or how we pray or what we think of Jesus, all this hell and fire imagery makes us queasy, to say the least. This hell imagery brings up all kinds of baggage, even guilt, and shame.

And then there’s this contradiction in the text; one moment Jesus is telling the disciples that all it takes is offering a cup of water in his name to inherit the kingdom of God, and then right after that, he’s telling us to chop off our hands and our feet and pluck out our eyes and then go off and get salted with fire, whatever that means.
Plus, there are at least 8 different possible textual variants in this one passage, most of them having to do with our second to last verse, “Everyone will be salted with fire.”  Because the scribes didn’t even know what this verse meant, they all tried different ways to explain it, by changing the words, combining concepts, and cutting stuff out. Even Matthew and Luke, who, it is believed, used Mark as a source, have conveniently left this verse out. So we surely can spend lots of time choking on all the academic parts of this verse, deciphering the original Greek, trying to determine exactly what Jesus said, and then what Jesus meant, and then how people have interpreted it, and on and on.  But no one, throughout all of our 2000 years of history, can say with any certainty, exactly what this verse means.  Ask Dan.  He’s written 368 pages for his dissertation, all related to, somehow or other, what this one verse means.  So there’s that to choke on.
Even the conflation of metaphors chokes us.  We have water and kids and hands and feet and fire and salt and amputation and demons.  It’s a big mess of pre-Modern world-views, imagery, and perspective.  Plus, there’s the salt, which has all kinds of connotations. It was used to purify, to season, and to preserve.  Salt was even used in sacrifices, and armies would salt their enemies’ fields in order to leave them barren.  And there’s fire, which can be a symbol of God’s revelation, or of God’s wrath.  And it was used to purify, or as a symbol of judgment, or as an image of the Holy Spirit.  It’s as if we could put all these meanings on individual cards, throw them up in the air like a game of fifty-two card pick-up, and then randomly gather up which combination of images and connotations we want to use, and we wouldn’t, necessarily, be wrong. You feeling that tickle in your throat yet?

Then we read these verses as personal threats - especially if we are of the perfectionist persuasion.  (Good thing we don’t have any of those in our congregation, huh?). In these verses, there is almost a demand for perfection, or else. If you don’t do this, you’ll have to do that. If you cause a little one to sin, too bad for you, kiss your hand goodbye. The expectations are impossible.  Of course we’re going to cause a little one to stumble; anyone who is a parent, or has had a parent, or has seen parents knows this. 
And this leads us to the thing that chokes me up the most, the extreme hyperbole - the exaggeration - used here.  You do this little tiny thing, like give a cup of water, and you will be rewarded.  But you do this other thing, like put a stumbling block before children, which maybe you’re not even aware that you’re doing it, and it’d be better if you were drowned in the sea.  

So where are the Cheerios here?  What’s the stuff that’s gonna feed us and not choke us up? What’s the stuff we can consume here, without it completely consuming us?

What if we tried to set these issues aside for a minute, acknowledging their complexity and confoundedness and frustrating mystery, and our own complexity and confoundedness and frustrating mystery.

First, let’s step back and get some context.  

Who is Jesus talking to?  - He’s talking to his disciples, those who, just minutes earlier, according to this text, have been fighting over who is the greatest of them all, and then, even after being rebuked by Jesus about this, start complaining about who’s a “real” follower and who isn’t.  After scrambling over each other to prove who is the greatest, then they go and judge others who are doing good work, but just aren’t following them. Jesus is talking to people who have been following him for awhile now, and frankly, should simply know better. So maybe that’s why we get such harsh language and such extreme hyperbole.
Second, if you were to read all of chapter 9 and the first half of chapter 10, you’d notice how many kids there are.  Children are all over these passages.  A boy is healed earlier in chapter 9, last week’s lectionary reading was about how when we welcome a little child, we welcome Jesus, then we have today’s reading, which is about not causing a little one to stumble, and then a little later in the earlier part of chapter 10, we have that lovely story of Jesus blessing the little children.  
So maybe some context will help us chew on this stuff a little easier.  Jesus is talking to his disciples, who are currently being punks, and this is all in the context of children, who might have been looked at only as “potential adults” and contributors in their family structures, if anything, and are basic non-entities, even worthless, in the wider social situation. But this isn’t how Jesus sees them. Jesus is talking to people who think they are somebodies about people whom the disciples think are nobodies.  Let’s hold on to that.  It might help explain our hyperbole problem.

And what if we let go - at least just a little bit - of all of our worries about hell?  Or at least, let’s just set it aside for a minute.  Let’s put our fears and frustrations and judgments and doubts about hell up on a high shelf somewhere, at least for a minute.

Instead, let’s think of two things.  Gardening.  And Parenting.

I’ve been thinking a lot about pruning lately.  We have this beautiful Japanese Maple in our back yard, but it’s starting to hover over our gutters, stretch against our back window, and is just getting all-around overgrown.  But there’s a right time to trim, and a wrong time.  It’s best, or so the interwebs tell me, to wait until it gets cooler and the sap in the tree stops running through the limbs before you trim them.  We have to do this in our front yard too, as we have a great big oak tree whose branches are starting to get in the way, or even are starting to die altogether. 

So, I read, that pruning, though drastic, is a way of wounding the tree in order to save the tree.  If a tree has a disease, when you cut off the source of the disease, a plant has this amazing ability to seal itself off from that disease.  But this has to be done just right.  If you cut off the branch too close to the trunk of the tree, you’ll very likely cut too much, and kill the tree. If you don’t leave what they call a “branch collar,” which is this swollen part of the tree that connects the branch to the trunk, you could kill the whole tree. This “branch collar” is like this magical forcefield that is the barrier between the diseased branch and the healthy trunk.  If you cut into the branch collar, you will very likely spread the disease into the entire tree itself, and kill the plant.

Pruning can be used to “train” young plants, to get them to grow the way you think is best or is most aesthetically pleasing or in the way that they will get just the right amount of sunshine and rain and nutrients.  Pruning can be used to prevent the spread of disease.  And pruning can actually encourage more flowering and growth. But here’s the thing.  You prune healthy plants.  If the entire plant is diseased, much greater intervention is needed, maybe even intervention that we ourselves cannot provide.  But it’s good to prune healthy plants.  It’s good for them.  It fosters more life.  It encourages growth.  It prevents or treats disease. 
Another kind of “pruning” can make entirely new life out of “old” life.  It’s called grafting.  And for some plants, such as apple trees, this is really the only way to create a new apple tree that will produce any apples, at least, anytime soon.  You have to cut a branch from an old tree in such a way so as to enable that branch to connect to another plant, and thus become a plant of its own.  It might be possible, at least according to those trusty interwebs, to plant an apple seed in the ground and hope for a tree to grow, but if it does grow, it probably won’t produce much fruit.  You really have to graft the new from the old.  That seems to be the best way to get new life, and, eventually, get some apples.
Pruning and grafting and trimming, these things aren’t about punishment for the tree.  All these things can invite new life.

Now the day after Jonah, my son, turned three, he woke up, literally, that morning, and I thought, “what IS this thing, and what has happened to my son?!”  He was whiney, and defiant, and resisting, and being an overall stinker.  We’d put him down for bed, and he’d get out every fifteen minutes. He’d forgotten all the “please and thank you” manners we’d tried to instill in him for the last year, and instead of asking for things, demanded them.  “I want cereal!” “Bring me my truck!” When we asked him to do something, he’d tell us to do it. “No, YOU go get my socks.” And when he’d reach his limit of one show a day, or one treat, or would demand something that he couldn’t have, when we said “no,” there were tears, and anger, and expressions of big big feelings.  

Now this isn’t the Jonah I know.  When he is freaking out, or being defiant, or hitting, or saying “No!” to things that he is usually pretty ok with, I wonder if it’s really Jonah in there.  Maybe it’s exhaustion. Or maybe it’s his coping mechanism for all the changes and growth his little brain is going through.  Maybe it’s his way of testing us.  There are lots of reasons, I think, for his behavior, but he’s not happy, and we’re not happy, and ultimately, he’s not being his true self - and frankly, when we lose our temper and get frustrated ourselves, we’re not being our true selves either. 

But what if we just let him act this way?  What if we didn’t prune these behaviors and attitudes that, ultimately, are not life giving?  That aren’t his true self?

But, it’s also important for Dan and I to remember that Jonah’s a healthy kid.  He’s just 3.  So we can prune him, gently correct and discipline him, when he’s doing something that isn’t his healthy Jonah self.  I’d never think of putting Jonah in time out if he had a fever, or if he was bleeding, or if he was mourning or whatever.  We prune healthy kids.  Healthy kids can withstand and grow and thrive with a little bit of structure. It’s not about punishing him; it’s about giving him ways to experience new life.

When we think of sin, we typically think of shame, self-hatred, fear of punishment, that inherent thing in us that’s gonna end us up in burning hellfire.  But if we take away all that hyperbole, put that exaggeration up on the shelf with the worries about hell and damnation, maybe excising sin is a little bit like pruning, cutting away that which isn’t us, that stuff that doesn’t give life. Maybe it’s simply like trimming our fingernails and cutting off our split ends.  Maybe God wants to give us a chemical peel or slough off the calluses on our hands and feet. 

When we tell Jonah “no” or put him in time out, this pruning feels to him, and frankly to us too, a little bit like getting his hand cut off or plucking out his eye.  It feels scary and dramatic to us. It’s so much easier for us to give in to his every desire. We like things the way they are, we hate change, and we want to be accepted for exactly who we think we are.  But here’s the rub. We’re not who we think we are.  We are neither the rejected, dried out, diseased, dead stump in the forest.  Nor are we the beautiful, thriving maple, whose sap makes perfect syrup and whose limbs are the homes for birds and squirrels.  

We need a little pruning.  We need a few time outs.  We need transformation.

We need to be willing to let go of those parts of ourselves that don’t bring life.  God is always on the side of life.  What will bring more life, what will impede disease, what will increase hope and peace and joy and love.  And sometimes we need to be willing to let go of those things that keep life from happening.  Sometimes that’ll hurt.  We will want to resist it because we’re choking on all those things that distract us from life.  We’ll choke on the fear of what’s next, we’ll choke on the fear of losing that crutch we’ve been so attached to, we’ll choke on the shame that we think should come from being pruned, we’ll choke on the worry about what other people will think of us, we’ll choke on this horrible vulnerability when others, or even God, see us with this gaping gash where we had to excise the tumor.

But Jesus says, “Everyone will be salted with fire” - everyone has a tumor, or a diseased limb, or callused heels. Everyone’s nails grow a little too long. Everyone needs to be pruned.  Salt has at least two functions here - to purify and to preserve.  God wants to purify us so that we are our true selves, exactly who God created us to be.  And God wants to preserve that at all costs.  But here’s the key: God does the pruning, not us.  And God does it only to encourage more life. Please, please, hear this.  We don’t prune.  God does.  But we can be open to the pruning. We can allow God to prune. And God doesn’t prune to punish, or to smite, or to horrify or to torture.  God prunes only to create a space for new growth, for new life, to make us more completely who God created us to be. Can we be open to the pruning of God? Can we let God prune us?  Can we trust that God knows how to bring about more life?
Everyone needs purification and preservation.  We all need a little salt, to be salted with a little fire, or to take the hyperbole and the scary hell-language out, - we all need a little pruning, both to purify us, and to preserve us.  “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

God in the bread.

John 6:47-69
 "Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day;for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

There are a million things I wish I could do, but I just can’t.  I wish I could pull off wearing “skinny jeans.” I wish I could resist buying Swedish fish and subsequently eating the entire bag, -- which might explain my skinny jeans problem.  I wish I could get by on just six hours of sleep a night.  I wish I could leave the house without wearing makeup and not have someone come up to me and say, “you look tired.”  These wishes have been going on all my life.  In fifth grade, and weighing about 50 pounds soaking wet, and maybe four feet tall on my tiptoes, I wanted to play on the basketball team. When I was in high school, I wanted to ace AP Chemistry and even just pass calculus.  I wished that just one boy would ask me to dance. (Whah wah...;) Now, I wish all kinds of things.  I wish these Greek paradigms would forever etch themselves into my brain before my final on Thursday.  I wish I had some useful skill that would actually make a difference in peoples’ lives.  I wish I could stop doubting whether I have any use or purpose this world.  And I wish I could just have a simple conversation with Pastor Jim without crying.

But ok, Jenn, let’s just take one step at a time.  Let’s start out simple.  

I wish I could figure out the mystery that is breadmaking.

At my liberal arts college, where everyone had to take a science class, no matter your major, they offered a special science class for those in the humanities - it was called “the biology of breadmaking.”  And that’s exactly what it was; you’d study all the intricate steps in the science of breadmaking, studying sugars and yeasts, and compounds, and chemical reactions. It was a class for all of us hopeless humanities majors.

It’s a complicated process to make bread.  If the yeast is too warm, it’ll die.  If it’s too cold, it won’t activate.  If you don’t put in the right sugars, the yeast will starve; you’ve got to knead the bread just enough without making the dough too hard, and if the humidity isn’t just right in your oven, then your crust will be too rubbery or the bread too dry, and it goes on and on.  You have to be present with bread.  You have to be aware at every step.

But for some of you, breadmaking is simple, just like how you can rock those skinny jeans and stay emotionally composed when you walk into this place.  But I can’t seem to figure it out.  For me, breadmaking is this complicated, intricate mystery that I can’t seem to get in on. It requires balance, and artistry, and trial and error.

This passage today is absolutely and totally about bread.  And it’s absolutely and totally not about bread.

But that’s what metaphors do, isn’t it?
They point to and away from both the object and the idea behind that object.

And here we have a metaphor of bread that is as complicated to me as actually trying to make the stuff.  It’s this complicated, intricate mystery that I can’t seem to get in on.  Wading into these waters of metaphor require balance, artistry, trial and error. And a kind of presence.

In this passage, we have this crazy dialogue about bread, and Jesus seems to contradict himself all over the place.  
But first, some context.
This whole chapter is about bread.  And it’s also not about bread.
Jesus has just fed five thousand people out of five barley loaves and two fish.
And people see this as a sign and begin to believe in him.
Jesus leaves, fearing for his life and freedom, and goes across the lake.
And the crowd follows him. 
And Jesus calls them out - he says, “you just want to find me because you want more bread.”
They’ve become adherents of the prosperity gospel - you know, Joel Osteen and the whole bit - follow Jesus and you’ll get stuff. I mean, who can resist FREE BREAD!

But Jesus redefines “bread.” - He tells them that real bread is that which gives life.
Jesus tells them that He’s the bread.
And this gets the crowds reeling.
They say, “isn’t this just the snotty peasant kid, the scrubby son of Mary and Joseph, from Nazareth - that hole of depravity and laziness and debauchery?”
And now he’s saying he’s the bread.  “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Even on a purely metaphorical level, this is difficult and haunting, especially for the Jews.  But taken 
literally, it’s just, well, weird.

The crowd has come to him, saying, “bread bread bread!  Give us the bread!”
And the Jews have come to him, saying, “spirit spirit spirit! Give us the spirit!”

The crowd has come to him wanting physical comfort and tangible signs. And Jesus says, it’s not about eating! It’s not about bread!
The Jews have come to him wanting spiritual and ethereal guarantees. And Jesus says, it’s about eating! It’s about bread!
And they’re both completely on the wrong track.  They’ve both got it all wrong.
And yet.  They’re both completely right.
It’s Bread. It’s Spirit.  BreadSpirit.  SpiritBread. “Brerit.” “Spread.”

With the crowd, and the Jews, and the disciples, and especially me, all still not getting it, Jesus tries again: and we get to what has been affectionately referred to as the “vampire passage.”
“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”

And it’s clear that no one is getting it STILL, and so Jesus keeps going!
He says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.  Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Now. Stop.  Stop where your brain is going right now. ‘Cause if it’s going where my brain was going, we’re on the wrong track.  This isn’t about who gets into heaven.  And this isn’t about the end times. This isn’t about some far off other-worldly realm of everlasting peace and happiness.  When Jesus talks about eternal life, yes, even in the Gospel of John, he’s not talking about immortality or heaven, necessarily, although that might be a small part of it, but as O’Day and Hylen tell us in their commentary, it’s “a metaphor for living now in the unending presence  of God;” it’s about “nourishment in the ongoing presence of God.” We’re not the ones who get scooped up into eternity.  Eternity has come down to us.  
Eternity has become Presence.

All throughout the Hebrew scriptures, manna and food and bread are all used as metaphors for wisdom, metaphors for God’s abiding presence.  When the Hebrews were wandering in the wilderness, God sent them manna - not just to physically feed them, but to spiritually feed them - to tell them that their Adonai is with them always, even in the desert. God is present.
When an angel and ravens give Elijah bread while he’s hiding out in the wilderness, it’s not just to provide him with daily sustenance.  It’s to encourage him that God is there.
In Isaiah and Proverbs, Wisdom, or Torah - the very presence of the teachings of God - is thought to come to those “who eat of her bread and drink of her wine.”
Bread makes us stop and think and re-member.  Bread is a reminder of God’s presence, even as we try to be present ourselves.
Presence.  It’s about Presence. Which is this messy combination of all that we are and all that we were and all we will be.  Presence.  It’s that messy combination of all that God is, and all that God was, and will be.  Presence is about what got you right here, right now, and is a starting off point towards where you will be.  

It’s interesting to me that the crowd in this passage who comes to Jesus for more bread, is coming to Jesus with full bellies.  They’ve just been fed.  It’s like they’re hoarders or something. Like the Jews in the wilderness, they want to squirrel away the manna for future use. And it’s interesting to me that the Jews in this passage who come to Jesus for answers already seem to have the answers they want. They, too, want to have it all figured out so that there are no surprises in the future.
And they’re coming to “get something out of Jesus.” Not to be present with Jesus. 

But God offers us presence.
And it’s in the form of bread and spirit.  “Berit.” “Spread.” 
God offers to be present with us and satisfy our hunger: with bread -- the “real” concrete, stuff made of yeast and sugars and flour, and the “spiritual” eternal now - the moment when time stops, and all the things you can’t do and have failed to do and will never be able to do fade away, and there’s only presence.  You and me and God. Here. Now. 
This is the fullness of the bread metaphor. 
If we focus on just the bread or just the spirit, we miss it.
In chapter 6 of the Gospel of John, Jesus says “the flesh - my flesh - is what saves you” and “the flesh is useless.” 
See, it’s not a 50/50 combination of bread and spirit.  It’s 100% bread. 100% spirit. 100% life.
It has nothing to do with “bread.” And it has everything to do with bread.”

And this gets messy.
This gets difficult.
I’m always rushing between regretting who I am and what I’ve done and failed to do, and flailing around trying to become someone that I’m not and that I can’t ever be. Wishing I could fit in to those skinny jeans and be cool and have friends and make myself worth something. Wishing I could just have a little more bread.  Wishing I could have just a little more understanding.
But there’s God, in the flesh. In the flesh. Or maybe in the bread is a better way to think of it.   Offering us presence. Eternal presence.
And this doesn’t make a lot of sense to us.  And it didn’t make any sense to the crowds or the Jews or even Jesus’ own disciples.  And this is the watershed moment.  This is the moment where you’re in or you’re out.  The crowds leave.  The Jews leave.  Lots of disciples leave.  
“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
But there’s good ol’ Peter.  The too quick-to-speak, flailing, dufus who gets it wrong when he tries to get it right, and then when he stops trying and is simply present, once in awhile, he gets it right.  He says, “Lord, to whom can we go?”  We don’t have anyone else.  You’re it.  You’re all we’ve got.  You’re HERE.

So I’m not very good at the practical application of all this stuff.  But, here you go - this is the best I can do - be hungry.  Know you’re hungry.  Know where you are right now - which is hungry.  Hungry for food. Hungry for bread.  Hungry for lunch that’ll come in about 15 more minutes.  Hungry for the presence of God in community. Then come to the Presence to eat your fill.

Jesus Christ is forever and always inviting us to be present to the Presence - to the one who is for us both spiritual and physical nourishment.  That’s where the life is.  Come.  Eat your fill.  Eat the yeast and the flour and the juice and the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Come hungry for the life which satisfies. Here and now. Come hungry for the presence. 
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

More, More Light - On the 15th Anniversary of Sixth Presbyterian Church's decision to become More Light

                                               image from

Matthew 5: 1-12

5When Jesus* saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely* on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

In 1997, I could fill up my Ford Escort for ten bucks. In 1997, the Spice Girls were still telling us what they want, what they really, really want, and I paid 5 bucks to see Titanic in the theaters. You can decide whether that was a deal or not... In 1997, I was a senior in high school. I was fresh off of the Young Life evangelical turnip truck, and I was praying for the salvation of my prayer-filled, devoted Catholic mother.  I was earnest.  I was hopeful.  I was idealistic. I was aching for some answers, some assurance.  And I was an Evangelical Christian who wanted all to know Jesus for the sake of their salvation.  I came to one of my really good friends in high school, when he told me he was gay, and I said what many of you have heard before, “hate the sin, but not the sinner.”  In 1997, while you were taking the risk of becoming More Light, I was shutting doors on my friends.  I knew another friend was struggling, and was actively separating herself from me, but I had no idea that she was struggling with her sexuality.  In 1997, while you were choosing to be an open and inclusive community, I was oblivious to how much I was hurting people in the name of my idealism, in the name of “my” god.
And I was a kid. I was trying to make my way through this complicated world, and I was struggling to cope as my idealism ran smack dab into the realities of the horrors of this world.  I had few tools with which to parse through my commitment to the gospel and what seemed to be opposing ideas from “the world.” All I had were my boxes, my ability to separate and divide, to draw lines, to say what belongs and what doesn’t. And I had my fear.  My fear that I wouldn’t fit in.  My fear of the Other.  My fear that if they found me out, they’d know that I was doubting and phony and terribly lonely.
Fast forward almost 10 years.  10 years.  2007ish. And a lot has changed.  Gas is at least three dollars a gallon, it costs 12 bucks to see a movie, we’re thinking about a recession, and we’re neck deep in two wars.  And I’m different, too. I’ve gotten a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, gotten married, and have experienced a lot more life. I’ve felt betrayed by almost every form of Christianity.  I’m new to Pittsburgh, and I need hangers and laundry detergent, so I’m trying to navigate these crazy streets and hills and rivers, in search of a Target.  I’m lost.  I’m depending upon Mapquest directions I’ve printed up from the internet.  And I pass by Sixth Presbyterian Church.  In the middle of a bustling intersection.  Waving a rainbow flag with a cross on it.
I think to myself, “If they are accepting of the LGBTQ community, maybe they’ll accept me, with all of my doubts and my questions and my heresies.  Maybe they’d forgive me for who I was and what I believed.”  
When I think of the Beatitudes, this part of the Sermon on the Mount in our reading today, I immediately think of that Monty Python movie, The Life of Brian. If you haven’t seen it, and you are of the heretical persuasion, it’s a hoot.  There’s this scene in the movie where this huge crowd is gathered around Jesus, and Jesus is giving his famous Sermon on the Mount.  But you can’t hear exactly was Jesus is saying, because the movie focuses in on the crowd in the way way back, furthest away from Jesus.  These folks are going back and forth between straining their ears to try to hear what Jesus is saying, and then interacting with each other.  They’re arguing with each other as they repeat what they think Jesus is saying. One says, “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” They respond, “cheesemakers, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?” and one man, obviously wealthy and educated-looking responds, “Well, we aren’t to take it literally. He means all producers of dairy products in general.” Ahhhh they all nod.  (Sound familiar?) 
Then another repeats, “Blessed are the Greek, for they shall inherit the earth.” And the rich man says, “The Greek? Which one? Did he mention a name?” Meanwhile, two arguers are missing everything Jesus is saying, working themselves up into a fist fight. Chaos ensues and everyone is distracted by the fight breaking out off in the periphery, and no one is hearing a word Jesus is saying.  
Now my homiletics professors would scoff at my exegetical work here.  But isn’t this scene from The Life of Brian what seems to go on so often in our denominations?  We’re so busy with our own little fights, our own ideologies, our own need to be “right,” or our own pet projects, that we miss what Jesus is saying entirely?  We get so absorbed in our fights that we miss what is most important.  

And how amazing it was, and still is, that you all took the time to carefully wade through the fistfighting crowd to discern what it is that Jesus is saying.  That you came to the decision in 1997 to become More Light.  That you adopted the mission statement of the More Light organization of churches: 
“Following the risen Christ, and seeking to make the Church a true community of hospitality, the mission of More Light Presbyterians is to work for the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of faith in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA).”
You sat with Jesus at the top of the mountain and listened to him.  You looked upon the crowds and saw the broken and the tired and the outcasts and you saw them for who they are.  You saw them as you. 
  • Blessed are the poor in spirit
  • Blessed are those who mourn
  • Blessed are the meek
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • Blessed are the merciful
  • Blessed are the pure in heart
  • Blessed are the peacemakers
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted.
  • Blessed are you...
  • Blessed are YOU.
This image of Jesus on the mountain teaching the disciples is a direct reference to Moses on Mount Sinai, expaining the law to the Israelites.  But instead of getting a list of shoulds and shouldn’ts, a list of what gets you “in” and what keeps you “out,” we get a list of who we are. We are poor.  We are meek.  We are hungry.  And we are blessed.  We are invited to see the crowds below us, not as a burden, or a strain on resources, or as a bunch of lazy dirt-caked alcoholics, or even as a bunch of idiots who’ve got their theology all wrong.  We are invited to see these fighting, hungry, dirty, misguided crowds as us. 
      When I woke up this Friday morning and heard the horrible news of the Aurora, Colorado shooting, I was as upset and shocked as everyone else.  As I was plowing through facebook posts about the subject, I was particularly struck by one comment.  Someone said, “This makes me want to avoid crowds altogether.”  
But isolation isn’t the answer.  Holing up in an apartment, never encountering others who are different from you is exactly what the alleged shooter did for at least six weeks before the shooting.  Isolation only creates more “others.” More separation.  More desperation.  Disconnect.
The mission of the More Light community of Presbyterians gets this.  We strive to “make the Church a true community of hospitality.” From those members of the LGBTQ community who come to Sixth, I get a clear sense that Sixth has become that community of hospitality. We see the value in welcoming who we thought were “the others.”  And we praise God for that.  
But how can we become more More Light?  
How can we hear Jesus’s words to the Disciples anew?  
Who do we need to welcome?  How can we further live out Christ’s command for radical inclusion?  Radical hospitality. So radical that people might think we’re a little bit crazy.
When I drove by that flag in my search for the Target, I thought, “If they feel that way about the LGBTQ community, maybe they’ll welcome me, too.”
Who else might have thought that same thing? Who else might have thought, “maybe they’ll welcome me, too.”
- The drunk?
- The guy who begs for quarters down Murray Avenue?
- The kids who hang out on our steps and leave trash in the bushes?
- The college drop out?
- The single mom living on foodstamps and in section 8 housing?
- The political and Christian conservative who is a creationist and believes in the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus?
- The 17 year old girl, straight off the evangelical turnip truck who tells her friends that she “hates the sin and not the sinner?”
And if they haven’t thought that, if they haven't thought, "maybe they’ll welcome me, too" then why not?
Today we celebrate our radical inclusion of the LGBTQ community.  The radical inclusion that started long before 1997.  And it doesn’t feel so radical now.  It’s comfortable.  It’s who we are.
But we are called to ever more radical inclusion.  We do “More Light” really really well.  Let’s celebrate that.  But let’s not get stuck there. Let’s not get too comfortable. Let’s continue to work toward the radical inclusion that is behind the mission of being More Light.  
It may take 10 years for hearts to change.  It may take more.  For some, it may never happen at all.
But can we say, “Blessed are you,” anyway? 
Can we say, “Blessed are you” to those with whom we disagree?  Can we say, “Blessed are you” to those who may take advantage of us, to those who smell, to those who are missing their teeth, to those who have made bad choices, to those who think differently about politics or theology or any number of hot button subjects?  
Can we invite those we consider “other” into our home? Into our lives?  Into our church? 
When I walked through those doors so many years ago, you all embraced me with open arms, and you’re still supporting me now. 
Could you embrace my seventeen year old self?  Could you have that kind of hope in me then that you have in me now?  Could you forgive me? Could you forgive those who are now where I was then?  Who are now where you were then?  
When Jesus said, “Blessed are you,” it wasn’t “blessed are who you’re going to be sometime in the future,” or “blessed are those who understand me fully,” or “blessed are those who “get it.”” He didn’t say, “blessed are those who have it all right, right now,” or even “blessed are those who grasp how fully, radically inviting I am.” He said, “Blessed are you.” Present tense. You, now. In the midst of your own failures and fears and need to carve out your own island of self-righteousness.  In the midst of your addictions and weaknesses and frailties.  Exactly where you are.   Blessed are you.
Can we say it too?  We did and do say so to the LGBTQ community.  
Now, who is next?  Who else can we invite into our community?
Who’s next?
It’s painful.  It’s hard. It makes a big ‘ol mess. It often doesn't make much rational sense.
But when we say, “blessed are you,” when we really live it out, when we really believe it, we will realize that we’re not so different. We come down from the mountain.  We stop striving to be right. We stop worrying about what everyone else thinks of us. We step out of the theological, political, polarizing rat race.  We step into relationship. Community.  Communion.
And the “otherness” between us starts to dissolve.  The kingdom of God starts to solidify.  We get a glimpse of how difficult and yet how beautiful true community can be.  
Blessed are you.  Blessed are you.
Thanks be to God.