Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Black Widow Widow and the Hermeneutic of Resurrection: Wherein I Probably Piss Off Some Biblical Literalists, and Propose that We Read the Bible - and Our Lives - Like Jesus Does   

look! I have a face:

Luke 20:27-40

27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man* shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’
34 Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’ 39Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ 40For they no longer dared to ask him another question.

Ok. Don’t tell anyone. But I have a confession. Sometimes I wish that I could go back in time to those days when marriage was simple. You know, those days when I’d welcome Dan home with a ham in the oven - one of those hams with the pineapple rings and maraschino cherries all over it, and I’d have all the laundry done, and I’d iron the sheets and we’d have a jello mold for dessert. I’d have one of those aprons on with the flowers and the ruffles and I’d have perfectly manicured nails, and my hair would be set and I’d wear petticoats, and simply revel in being Mrs. Daniel Griggs.
Ahh. Can you see it?

Then, we wouldn’t be struggling about whose career we should follow.  Then, only one of us would be exhausted and at our wit’s end caring for our two boys. Then, we wouldn’t end the day in complete exhaustion, too tired to even talk to each other, too tired to work through the things we need to work through, too discouraged to get through all the things we have to get through in order to come to a compromise about where we should live, whose job should take priority, whose passions we should follow.

Our identities would have been perfectly defined for us, even our desires and needs defined in terms of these outside influences and societal expectations. We’d have no questions. No conflicts. I’d be at home, caring for the children and making bundt cakes, and Dan would go to work from 9-5 in his giant Cadillac and starched suit.

Easy, right?

This is what is so attractive, I think, for the Sadducees - having clear lines, clearly delineated, to map out for them this thing called life.

The Sadducees believe in the written Torah - and nothing outside of that. The Torah is often called “The First Five Books of Moses” - those first five books of our Old Testament. So the Sadducees didn’t believe that there was an oral law, or prophets, or writings - they rejected every aspect of Jewish tradition and law and belief except what was found in the first five books of Moses.

They have the answers. All conveniently wrapped up in the scrolls of those Five books. Anything outside of that is simply not true:
There is no afterlife.
We should follow the laws of God here and now.
There are no angels
There is no Fate.

Simple. Easy. Defined.
Like those bumper stickers that say, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” The “Torah says it, I believe it, that settles it”

Until. Until we get to this riddle. This riddle of “the black widow” - or “the woman with the worst luck ever.”

The Sadducees come to Jesus with this puzzle - they want to trick Jesus- but they have no idea what they’re getting in to. They don’t seem to have a clue that the question they ask is going to shake the very foundation of their easy, defined, Torah-focused world. 

“So,” they say, “See, there’s this woman. And she’s got this husband. And no kids. And the husband dies. And now she’s a big nobody. A widow. No husband. No kids. No family. No identity. Isn’t it great that we have this rule, this law, this “Levirate marriage” that says that if her husband dies, -- the guy who gives her worth and dignity and value, -- isn’t it great that it’s the rule that his brother has to marry her so that she once again has worth and dignity and value? She won’t be left in the cold! She will have a last name! She’ll get another chance for babies!
It’s so great, right?!”

Ok. Maybe it’s a better situation for these widows than the alternative - which would consist of being left out on the streets, alone, penniless. But it still treats this woman as valueless property, unless she has a husband and children.

But then.
The brother dies too. And the next one. And the next one. And the next one. And the one after that. And then one more.

I’m starting to wonder about this woman...

Ok. So I know that this is a hypothetical situation. I know that this is a riddle, and isn’t really real, and it’s just a trap that the Sadducees want to set for Jesus to get him to accept that they are right and he is wrong - They just want to prove that there is no resurrection, there is no fate or angels or anything beyond right here, right now, and all the rules that God has given us. So they don’t think about the woman as a person. But even in the “real world,” they don’t think about this woman as a person. They don’t really think of this woman at all.

A fancy word for how someone looks at something is his or her “hermeneutic.” That’s a person’s lens with which to look at the world.
The Sadducees are functioning under the hermeneutic of “God said it, I believe it, that does it.” They approach the Hebrew Scriptures simply at face value. God/The Torah said it. I believe it. That does it. The end.They are living under a defined set of expectations and clearly delineated lines and boxes and walls and simple answers. And so they want an answer that fits in these lines, in these parameters.

But if we look at the answer that Jesus gives, we not only see that Jesus sees the woman differently than these Sadducees, but he also functions in the world under an entirely different hermeneutic - an entirely different set of assumptions and values and parameters.

Jesus is functioning under an entirely different hermeneutic.  He doesn’t see harsh borders and narrow binaries. Jesus is functioning under a hermeneutic of sight. Jesus sees.

Ireneus - one of the earliest Christian theologians - said that the “glory of God is a human being, fully alive.” And if Jesus is the fullest expression of the glory of God, then he is a human being, fully alive, and he sees humans, fully alive.
Jesus sees the human being, fully alive.
This is a hermeneutic of resurrection. The human being, fully alive. The God of the living, fully alive.
For Jesus, it isn’t “God said it, I believe it, that does it.” For Jesus, it’s “you are a child of God, beloved of God, whether you believe it or not, and that’s how I’m going to read the scriptures. That’s  how I’m going to look at this riddle. That’s how I’m going to see this woman - even this hypothetical woman, in this hypothetical situation, meant to trip me up and catch me in a lie or a heresy -- no -- I am going to see this woman as a person, full of personhood, and I’m going to make sure you all know that there is no property in heaven,  no contingencies of value, no hairsplitting or parsing or layers and layers of theological interpretation.

With a hermeneutic of resurrection, there are no transactions. Only transformations. Maybe transactions are how this world works, this world with its definitions and lines and divisions and clear expectations. But in God’s world, in God’s kingdom, this woman is a child of God. Period. Not because she has a husband. Not because she had children. Not because she was educated, or believed a certain way, or was liberated and had a PhD or hyphenated her name or was in an egalitarian relationship with her husband where they shared the work equally and they talked through their disagreements and made perfect compromises. No. She is a child of God. In the resurrection, she is a human being. Fully alive. The glory of God.

The Sadducees ask, “who owns this woman?  To whom does she belong?”
And Jesus answers, “in the kingdom of God, no one owns her. She is not a slave or a piece of property or a walking womb through which to advance her husband’s name and continue his lineage. She is not a bearer of children. She is a child herself. An expression of my glory.”

This is huge.  This passage isn’t just telling us that Jesus is a sly fox in a debate. This passage isn’t just telling us that Jesus is great at interpreting the scriptures. This passage shows us how Jesus reads the scriptures.  This passage shows us how Jesus looks at the world.

Jesus doesn’t use the scriptures as proof-texts to launch at the Sadducees. Shooting another scripture bomb over enemy lines, waiting for the destruction. Jesus doesn’t read scripture that way. And he doesn’t read our lives that way.

Can you see this? The order of things is HUGE. Jesus reads and interprets the scriptures with the mind wholly and firstly focused on the hermeneutic of the resurrection - and because of this, he is wholly and firstly focused on the intrinsic value of this woman. He doesn’t need a proof text for this. He doesn’t need a concordance or a commentary or a Biblical index. He doesn’t throw another bomb back. He simply disarms the Sadducees with his hermeneutic of resurrection.

“See Sadducees,” he says, “- and anyone else who thinks that God can be contained in a few words or a few beliefs or in a bunch of church buildings --You’ve got it wrong. It’s not “God said it, I believe it, that does it.””
He says, “This woman is of value. See how the scriptures attest to this? That does it.” But. The woman’s value comes first. The woman’s value comes first because of who God is -- God is the God of the living, not of the dead. The woman’s value comes first because in the resurrection, she is a fully human, fully alive, fully resurrected and no pawn in an elite community’s riddle games. God says, “She’s no one’s husband; she is my child.”

And he illustrates this - not through lobbing another verse from the trenches -- only through story - “You know, the one about the bush” he says. - The story where God reveals God’s very self to Moses through the burning bush - where God gives God’s very name. The one where God says, “I am who I am.” The Hebrew says,  אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה, “I am who I am,” which could also be translated, “I will be who I will be”-- not “this is what I think, or what you should believe, or write this down right now and then spit it back out to me later to prove how much you believe in me, for follow these laws and everything will be hunky dory.” I am the God whose name is a verb - “Am” - a verb of being - I am alive and doing and living and being. I am the God who is alive. The God of the living. I AM.
Jesus reminds us of the story where God reveals God’s very self. And then Jesus becomes that story.

Resurrection is about the glory of God. And resurrection is about personhood. Not right beliefs. Or scripture bombs. Or clearly delineated lines of definitions and expectations and societal structures.

And that is so messy.
But that’s the Gospel.

Jesus reminds the Sadducees - all of us - that it’s not about rules or riddles or splitting hairs to figure out who’s married to whom in the resurrection.
This passage isn’t really about will I or won’t I be married in the afterlife. It doesn’t get me out of reconciling with Dan when we have an argument because, “why would it matter, we won’t be married any way!”

This passage is about the hermeneutic of resurrection.

God says, “I am. She is. You are. That’s it.”


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Come Out of the Closet.


Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Eventually, we all have to come out.

At least once in our lives, for our own good, to be who we were meant to be, we have to come out.

We hang out in our mother’s wombs and our cells develop and multiply and we grow and grow and grow until we can no longer be contained in this safe, warm, life giving space.  We grow out of the warm walls that surround us.  We step out or are pushed out of the darkness, into the light. 

Eventually, we all need to come out--

come out of closets and prisons of ideologies and expectations and separations that trap us and divide us from each other.

And not just one time.  We need to come out again and again.

At some point, Levi, my 5 month old, is going to have to start eating real food.  And eventually, he’s going to have to stop pooping in his diapers.
Jonah, who’s 4, is going to eventually have to do his business in a big potty, instead of his toddler potty, and he’s going to have to accept that chocolate milk and yogurt that comes in a tube with cartoon characters on it are not acceptable substitutes for a good dinner.
At some point, I realized that my 34 year old body can no longer handle three beers and pizza and then a five mile run the morning after.  And that no matter how many sit-ups I do, I’m always going to have the evidence that I’ve carried two almost nine-pound babies in my midsection.

Changes. Transitions.  Stepping from one set of expectations, to another.

These transitions often come with a labor of sorts.  Sometimes this is the physical panting and shaking and sweating that goes along with birthing a child.  Sometimes it’s the emotional anger and stress that come along with starting school, or a new job, or quitting that abusive relationship.  In a way, it’s all a coming out.  It’s a stepping into the light.  Into something new and different and scary.  It’s often fear-filled and tear-filled and wonder-full.  It’s always a tearing down or escaping from the walls of separation that divide us from something - from one another, from our old ideas, from our old ways of doing things, from milk to yogurt and peanut butter sandwiches and then to kale and garbanzo beans and pomegranates and fancy souffles and protein and fiber.

Our parable today starts with a Pharisee who is very happy to be exactly where he is.  After all, he is so right. He has nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to confess.  He has even gone above and beyond the requirements of Torah.  This guy is an over achiever.  He gets an A+ in faith. An A+ in worship.  An A+ in being a follower of the law.  With his 4.0 GPA, this guy is the Valedictorian of the School of Faith. 

And maybe he has earned the right to gloat about it just a little bit.  He’s worked hard.  He’s earned his grades after all, and now he’s ready to receive the accolades and scholarships and letters of recommendation that come along with it. 

And here’s the thing.  We, in our contemporary interpretations of Christian Faith, often beat up on the Pharisees.  They are always the counter-example, the ones that Jesus condemns, and so, we easily place them in the “other” column, unlike ourselves. We say, “Thank God we are not like these poor Pharisees!” “Thank God that we’re so much better than they. We aren’t the hypocrites who say one thing and do another!  We aren’t the ones who are closed-minded and achievement-oriented or people who abuse their power! We drive Priuses!  We listen to NPR! We believe in global warming! I drink micro-brewed beer!  Thank God!”

Oh. Wait. Crap.

Except.  Except. The Pharisees were the liberals of the time.  They were the ones who were trying to open up the Jewish faith so that all could participate in Torah law.  From our post-Reformation perspective, we see the Law as a burden, but for most Jews, the Law was a gift from God, and it was the Pharisees who enabled the common people to keep those laws.  Compared to the Sadducees and the Essenes, they were the inclusive ones. In a lot of ways, they were More Light - they were trying to adapt God’s teachings to their contemporary cultures.  They came up with the oral Torah - developing new interpretations for old laws so as to make the Torah more acceptable, more relevant, and more inclusive.

But over and over again, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees.  Not for the actions themselves, but for how the Pharisees view themselves because of their actions.  Jesus criticizes the Pharisees because of their self-righteous insistence on building up walls, on making themselves so very separate from everyone else, for not being inclusive enough. The Pharisees have been inclusive only insofar as to say, “hey, you, join me up here, on this pedestal that I’ve erected for myself.”

The root of the word Pharisee comes from the Hebrew word, “parash” which means to “make distinct,” to “separate oneself.” The Pharisee’s very identity comes from being different from, walled up, divided from, all the Others.

And don’t we do this all the time?  Whether we are conservative or liberal, we tend to hang out with only like-minded people, separating ourselves from those who are different from us, those who, from our perspective, have it so “wrong.”

So here is this liberal.  This inclusive member of the Jewish community who is building walls around himself.  He is building walls of separation - separating himself from that poor sap over there - and - by extension - from everyone else.

His prayer is one of wall-building.
“Thank God I’m not like the others” = he builds a wall
“I tithe!” = a wall
“I fast!” = another wall
“I not only follow my superior interpretation of the Torah to the letter, but I go beyond it - fasting and tithing more than is called for” = and another wall is erected.
He has built a veritable fortress around himself. A fortress of “rightness.”  And no one is getting in.

“Thank God I’m not like those people,” he thinks.

Those people who have screwed up their lives.  Those people who have made poor choices.  Those people who are judgmental, or flailing around, or are swindlers, or who have too much credit card debt or who watch Fox News and have those terrible political views.

He has built walls between himself and others, between himself and The Other.  And he throws the tax collector under the bus just to prove how very “other” he is. He needs this tax collector to be the sinner so that, in comparison, he is the one who has it right, who has it all together. For the Pharisee, the tax collector embodies the very essence of otherness.

When we step out, or are pushed out, of our comfortable darkness and into the light, it’s a bit too bright, and we squint, and we’re disoriented and very, very uncomfortable.  We see things we didn’t think were there.  Some good things, like people waiting to embrace us, some not so good, like judgmental eyes and disappointing looks and obstacles that we never knew were there.

But, if we want to keep growing, we have to outgrow our ideological clothes and walls of assumptions and easy answers. 

Or we could stay inside.  In the dark.
If we like being comfortable, we’re going to stay small. We’re going to fortify our walls with the dry-wall of “being right” and insulate ourselves with our opinions and perspectives and justifications. We’re going to feel nice and safe because we can’t see the obstacles, or the disruptions, or the opportunities for change and painful growth.

Heaven forbid that the Pharisee see any similarities between himself and this corrupt, sinful tax collector.  His walls would come crumbling down.  And then, without his precious walls, without his protection from The Other, who would he be?  Just another sad sap, coming in front of God with all the shame and fear and honesty of a corrupt tax collector.

I don’t think this is simply a parable about how it’s good to go before God wearing hair shirts and whacking ourselves in the face with psalters and declaring how very wretched we are.  Because the truth is, neither the Pharisee nor the Tax Collector has the truth of who they really are.

They’re both in trouble if they stay where they are.  The tax collector is just as stuck as the Pharisee, both imprisoned in their closets by the view they have of themselves.  But the difference is, this poor sap of a tax collector knows that he’s got problems.  He knows he’s stuck in his closet of darkness, and knowing you’re stuck is the first step towards getting unstuck, the first step towards outgrowing that constricting space and stepping out into the light.

But God, being God, gives them both what they ask for. 
The Pharisee gets a nice dose of self-righteousness. He asks nothing and gets nothing from God.
The tax collector, asking for mercy and peace, gets forgiveness and redemption.

What makes the tax collector righteous in the sight of God?  It’s the opposite of the Pharisee’s self reliance.  He knows he’s not enough.  He knows he needs God - and he needs others. His prayer is one of confessing, and thereby tearing down, those walls that separate himself from God - the Ultimate Other - and from others.

The tax collector is asking for redemption, for forgiveness.  He is asking to be re-born. Maybe even to go from “rightness” to “righteousness.”

God makes him righteous - which, more accurately, or more clearly, means to be made upright.

The tax collector knows he’s been walking around with a bent back, hunched over and staring at the ground, limping a little. 

And it is the tax collector who has been made upright. Jesus tells us that he is the one who leaves the temple walking a little straighter, a little lighter, his gait a little smoother.  He is the one transformed and made new.

God wants to transform us.  To make us new. Not clean. Not right. Not smart. Or rich. Or all-together or valedictorians.  New. 

Not new like polished silver or new-car-smell or house in the new subdivision new. 
New like a newborn baby.  New like Levi, when they threw him on my chest, just seconds old.  Covered in blood and birth and squinting at the brightness of the light all around him.  New and able to stretch out his arms and shout with full lungs.  New and suddenly calm when he felt his mother’s breath and heard his mother’s voice.

New because a whole world has been opened up that we never knew existed before.  New because we don’t want to be trapped in the closet of our own minds and narrow perspectives and walls and walls of expectation and perfection and demands.
Why do we strive to be “More Light?” - Not because we have the answers.  Not because we are “right” and those “conservatives” are wrong.  Not because we have the light and they are living in darkness. Isn’t it so tempting to think that we are the source of that light - that our willingness to be open and affirming to the LGBTQ community comes from us?  But it doesn’t.  That light comes from God.

We are More Light because we know we need more light - more of God’s light.  More of the light that shines in the darkness.  That light that the darkness has not overcome.

We are More Light because we know that we can’t do this alone.  We are More Light because we are looking to be reborn again and again and we are striving to find the light in all this darkness.  And we are More Light because we realize that we, too, are sources of darkness. 

We are the Pharisees, and at the same time, we are also the tax collectors.  We are called to die to our pharisaical sides and to our tax collecting sides. That death looks a lot like houses being torn down, the walls and the foundations that we have built for ourselves to separate us from each other crumbling to the ground, leaving us vulnerable, squinting into the sun, covered in the dirty evidence of our rebirth.  But also with the freedom to move around a little more, the room to grow and change, and the openness to connect with the Pharisees and tax collectors and conservatives and Democrats and Republicans and radio personalities that we never ever thought we could connect with.

Oof.  That is so. Hard.

But that’s resurrection.  That’s being re-born.  It leaves us a little filthy, with the dirt from the grave still stuck under our fingernails and our eyes squinting at the shock of light that comes from stepping out of the grave and past the walls of separation that we have built for ourselves.  That’s being More Light.  That’s tearing down walls and dissolving those things that separate us from each other and from God. 

May we squint at all the More Light that God is sending into our world.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Faithing and a Chocolate Fountain in the Baptismal Font.

Luke 15: 1-10

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
 So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

The Parable of the Lost Coin

 ‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

There’s this amazing app on the internet - - where you can confess your sins to a rabbi during the month before Yom Kippur, and then watch the rabbi symbolically set those sins upon an adorable cartoon goat, and subsequently see that poor little goat get launched off a cliff on Yom Kippur.  This is a representation of when the High Priest would place all of the Israelites’ sins on a goat and then set it loose in the wilderness. Hence, one of the origins of the term, “scapegoat.”  Today, through the wonder of the interwebs, these particular confessions are limited to 120 characters.  You can read some of these confessions online, and there’s even a twitter feed that lists them as they come in.  Some are as silly and ridiculous as, “I missed work to watch all of Breaking Bad in a sleep deprived 4 day weekend,” and “When I tell customers I was changing out the keg, I mean I forgot your order but I still want a good tip,” as well as, “I wear headphones (not attached to anything) to avoid conversations.”  

And some are desperately serious, some heartbreaking: “I feel like a horrible mother sometimes,” “I’m having an affair with my wife’s sister,” “When my wife gets mad at me, I just can’t sympathize with her, and I shut down - no matter how hurt she is,” and “I was never in love with my fiancée and I should have told her.” It’s cathartic, really, to both read others’ sins as well as express my own, and then see them get chucked over a cliff. It’s cleansing, and silly, and a little bit heartbreaking.
We have another domesticated animal in our story today, one who shares the same genus as our beloved scapegoat - and this sheep is also in the wilderness.  Although all sheep could be fairly characterized as dumb, this one in Jesus’ parable is especially so, at least, from our perspective.  Let’s call her Marianne.  Marianne is lost in the wilderness - she’s wandered away, or maybe she just got left behind.  But somehow, she has been separated from the rest of the group.  
Maybe she got distracted and just wandered off. 
Or was somehow lured.
Somehow, she got lost.
Maybe she’s wearing tattered clothes and has no where to sleep tonight.
Maybe she’s got schizophrenia or a personality disorder.
Maybe she’s addicted to drugs.
Maybe she’s just simply a habitual liar.
Or maybe she just trusted someone she shouldn’t have, or she never had a strong community behind her.  
Maybe she made one dumb decision when she was sixteen and has never been able to recover.
Maybe she was the scapegoat cast out into the wilderness, carrying the sins of the rest of the 99.
And now she’s wandering around in the wilderness, begging for money or a hoagie on the corner of Forbes and Murray.
Tonight, she’ll sleep in a doorway, or on a bus stop bench, or under the Birmingham Bridge.
She’s lost in the wilderness.  And the rest of the 99 are at home watching “America’s Got Talent”, or we’re walking to the coffee shop for a triple soy extra cinnamon pumpkin spice latte, refusing to give her eye contact, or we’re posting articles on facebook about how awful it is that no one is doing anything about poverty in our country.
And there she is, tangled up in a thicket, getting more ensnared each time she moves.
And maybe she put herself there.
Or maybe her circumstances did.
Or maybe she’s been caught up in these brambles by a combination of both.
And where is the good shepherd in all this?  
Not in the government systems.
Not in big steeples or health care conglomerates.
Not in the air conditioned pastor’s study.
Jesus is out there searching the neighborhoods, the bridges and highway underpasses, getting cut up and torn by the thorns in the thickets.  Jesus is out there -  searching for Marianne.
And you know what, because Jesus is a good shepherd, The Good Shepherd, he’s gonna find her.  He’s gonna find her and he’s going to rejoice.  Marianne will be found and she’ll feel saved and like her life is back on track and she’ll even be able to pay her rent for a few months.  Until she can’t.
Maybe it’s inevitable.  Marianne is going to make poor choices, even after she gets a glimpse of Jesus.  Even after she is picked up, put back on her feet, and is given another chance.  Chances, are, she’s going to get lost again.  She will probably take advantage of Jesus.  She’ll use the charity given to her for drugs. Or she’ll waste it on booze.  Maybe she’ll get back on her meds, but then she’ll forget for a few days, or she’ll lose track of her prescription, or she’ll decide to buy a gallon of ice cream, a smartphone case for the iPhone she doesn’t have, and twelve matchbox cars instead of the medicine she needs.  
And Jesus might even be accused of being an “enabler.” 

But no matter the case.  No matter our perception, the fact remains: Jesus leaves the 99 and searches for Marianne. 
Jesus will risk it all - 99% of everything he has - just for this one.
And he will find her, and he will rejoice.

This is where Christ is.  Out in the wilderness, looking for and finding the scapegoat, the one whom we have laid upon all of our sins, and hurts, and blame, and ineffectiveness, and failures, and callousness.
But it’s clear. And not just in this passage. Jesus tells us again and again that when we find Marianne, we will find Him.  
That’s where he will be. That’s where he is. Out there in the wilderness.  With her.

So what do the other 99 sheep do while their shepherd is out looking for this lost one? Who knows?  We hang around in our sheepfold. We play X-box and wax our cars and fertilize unnaturally green lawns.
The sheep trample over the same ground they’ve trampled on for months.  Picture it.  It’s a muddy mess of hoof prints and sheep shit.  Here we are pacing around the pen, staring out between the fenceposts at the same stagnant landscape, waiting for our shepherd to come back.
Or.  Maybe there’s another option.
Maybe these 99 could call out to the shepherd as he ventures out into the wilderness.  Maybe we could shout to him, “Wait for me! I wanna come too!”

The sheep have two options.  They could chase after the shepherd, or they could hang around the sheep pen, twiddling their sheep thumbs, and wait.
We could stay put, wandering around in the mud and waste, staring at the same things every day, absentmindedly grazing on the same patch of grass, staring out into the distance at the hills and the trees and the landscape that changes all around us - everywhere but in our safe little sheepfold.
Or. Or could we risk getting lost, could we risk getting hurt, risk encountering something we’re unsure of on the off chance that we could see our savior?
We could hang around and wait. Or we could join in the adventure.
One thing is for sure; Jesus will find the lost ones. And then there will be a party.
And this is for sure; we’re missing so much Christ if we don’t look for him in the places where the lost sheep hang out.
And maybe we’ll get a little bit lost too. No. Not even maybe.  We will get lost.  We are gonna lose our way.
And we’ll be unsure. And afraid. And we’ll make some mistakes and wander. Some of us will screw up big time. We’ll get tripped up and get caught in some nasty storms.  Maybe we’ll be so scared that we’ll be paralyzed and caught in the thicket somewhere -  maybe, if we’re really risking and doing this faith thing for real.

But here is the good news. And it is such good news. Jesus came for those of us who are in precisely that same position!  And some more good news: whether you realize it or not, you’re already lost in the wilderness.  Some of us are just better at faking it and functioning in the wilderness than others. But see what that means?  That means that Jesus is looking for you, me, all of us, even as he has already found us.

Marianne has come by this church on several occasions this year.  She’s come in asking for food, for money, for a place to stay.  And each time she has come, she has been ignored or deferred by at least one person.  We’re afraid that she’ll take advantage of us.  We’re worried that we’ll be enablers of her poor choices.  We feel so overwhelmed by her situation that we don’t know where to begin, or we just have no idea how to help her. So we pass her on to someone else to deal with. Someone else will pull out his wallet and give her the twenty bucks.  Someone else will hook her up with a bus pass or a gift card to Giant Eagle.  Or maybe no one will do anything, and like a mangy dog who is no longer getting any more scraps, she’ll finally stop coming around her asking for help. But when we do this, we’re missing Christ.  We’re missing Christ even if she chooses to spend our five dollars on a bottle of malt liquor.  We’re missing Christ even if she rejects our offers to help.  We’re missing Christ if she takes our hoagies or our dollar bills and then comes back ten minutes later, asking us again.

This is “doing faith” - this is turning faith into a verb - faithing.  You’re missing so much Christ if you don’t look for him where you find the lost sheep.  You’re missing so much Christ if you don’t see the lostness in your own life.  Jesus is where the lost ones are. Where the scapegoats are. Where we’ve loaded all of our sins and shame and guilt and sent them out into the wilderness.
Faithing means that we’re going out into the wilderness - not to save Marianne - that’s not our job, but to be with Christ.  Faithing means that we’re going to take the risk, step out into the unknown, search for Christ, get lost, and then let Jesus come and untangle us from the thickets we’ve wound around ourselves.  
And faithing means that we join in on the celebration when a lost one is found.  Faithing means that we have a party when Marianne walks in to this church, or when we give her five bucks that she may or may not waste, or when we realize that we are just a stone’s throw away from being Marianne ourselves, and even, yes, even when we are the ones pulled from the brambles.

This is absolutely not practical. We’re going to lose money. And time. We’ll probably lose some pride.  But still, Jesus tells us that we should celebrate that the one we thought was lost has now been found.  The one we cast out into the wilderness has been reunited with us.  The one whom we thought has brought us down and caused us pain and has been so very inconvenient, is back in the fold.  We celebrate that we got to go on the adventure.  We celebrate that we got to experience Christ - Christ - out there in the unsure, terrifying, unpredictable, storm-laden wilderness. 

A woman searches and searches all day for her lost coin.  Looking in every nook and cranny searching for what was probably a drachma - about a day’s wages.  And instead of cutting her losses and spending her day earning another one, she spends her entire day trying to find the one she’s already “earned” but lost.  And then when she finds it, she throws a party - a party that costs about a drachma - about the same as a day’s wages - if not more.  She “wastes” a day searching for a coin she could have reearned in the same amount of time, and then when she finds it, she doesn’t put it somewhere safe, or deposit it in the bank to earn interest like she probably should have, she spends it celebrating the fact that she’s found it!  And maybe she knows that she’s a bit absent minded.  Maybe she knows that she’s going to lose another coin at some point down the road. Even still.  Even still, she throws a party.  And she invites everyone in to the celebration.
Just because you know another death is inevitable, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t celebrate the resurrection you’ve just experienced.  Just because we know we’ll screw up again, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t party when we finally get it right, or when someone else gets it right for us, or when we’ve been pulled out from the wilderness still carrying our scars from when we tripped, still sunburned from the desert sun, still angry at all of the situations of life that ended us there in the first place.  Life is a series of deaths and resurrections.  And Jesus calls us to celebrate every resurrection, even as we know another death might be around the corner.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran Pastor who planted a church in Denver called the House for all Sinners and Saints. Every year at Easter, after their vigil worship service, they celebrate Christ’s resurrection with a dance party in their sanctuary, complete with a chocolate fountain in their baptismal font.  Does anything say “Christ is Risen” better than a chocolate fountain in their baptismal font? Does anything say, “we have been risen with Christ” better than a strobe light and a booming bass in front of the Communion table?  Sounds like a mess.  And I can’t think of anything better.
It’s ridiculous.  It doesn’t make sense. It’s a big mess and probably a waste.  And yet, that’s where Jesus is - at the impractical dance party - complete with a chocolate fountain in the baptismal font - doing the electric slide with the rest of us flailing, ridiculous lost sheep out in the wilderness. Jesus is out there, out in the wilderness, finding all of the Mariannes, finding all of us, if we’re so brave as to step out and chase him. He’s calling all of us back to himself, and inviting us to join him in the celebration.  

Let’s do this scary faith thing. And let’s get lost. And then let’s get found.  And let’s celebrate.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Faith, Doubt and The Lord God Bird (probably my next tattoo...)

The ivory billed woodpecker has been extinct for at least 60 years.  This woodpecker used to be very common in The Big Woods, a span of 24 million acres from Tennessee to Arkansas.  When people saw it, they’d be so surprised by its beauty and its large size, they’d exclaim “Lord God!” and, so they say, that is how it got its name, “The Lord God Bird.” The Lord God Bird, the largest woodpecker in North America was gone, completely extinct, along with most of The Big Woods, by the 1940s. Hunting and clear cutting were the main causes.   All that’s left is 500,000 acres in Arkansas, dusty stuffed woodpeckers in taxidermists’ back rooms, and some gritty, fuzzy recordings of the bird’s call from 1935. The Lord God bird was no more.

And then on a gloomy day in February, 2004, a guy by the name of Gene Sparling was cruising through what is left of the swampy Big Woods in his canoe. And then, he says, “A large woodpecker flew into the channel from above the canopy. He was headed straight towards me." At first, he assumed it was the pileated, a large woodpecker that has similar features to the ivory bill, but this one had much more white on its wings.  After vaguely mentioning the sighting on the internet, two men, Tim Gallagher from Cornell and Bobby Harrison, a college professor from Alabama, rushed to Arkansas to find the bird.  With help from Sparling, they too, found the bird.  "And then this bird just burst across in front of us at close range," Gallagher says. "About 65 feet away. And right in the sunlight. … And it was just, I mean, I dropped my paddle and almost fell out of the canoe. I mean it was like getting slapped in the face."

They knew exactly what they were seeing when they saw it - The Lord God Bird.
Could this bird have come back from extinction?  Back from the dead?
These three men were convinced this was so. 

The original audiences in our Epistle and our Gospel readings today were expecting Jesus to come back any minute.  And they were waiting.  And waiting.  Generations have passed. They’ve buried those who knew Jesus personally. They are riding on dim memories twice removed and repeated stories told around the campfire. Luke was written something like 50 years after the death of Jesus. The temple has been destroyed.  They are being persecuted.  Things are falling apart, and they’re still waiting. 

The dating of Hebrews is a bit contested, somewhere between 60 and 90 AD, but whatever the case, they, too, are anxiously awaiting Jesus’ return.  They, too, are being mocked and ridiculed for worshipping a Jewish peasant who was crucified by the Romans for sedition.  For both communities, things are getting uncomfortable.  They’d suffered prison, the plundering of their possessions, and much hostility from their surrounding culture because they followed this humiliated, crucified Jesus.  They are actively being forced out of what was once their native habitat.  And Jesus is supposed to be coming back any minute now.  ...  Any minute now... 
Jesus could come right now...then I wouldn't have to finish this sermon...

So both writers are trying to encourage their communities to hang on a little bit longer.  A little bit of faith is all they need, a kind of trusting, waiting, a readiness for the unexpected.  “Be sure of what you hope for,” they say, even when you are being ridiculed and feeling lost and disillusioned by the world around you.  “Don’t be afraid,” they say, “for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Be ready, “be dressed for action and have your lamps lit” and the master will come home and you’ll be blessed.  Hang on a little bit longer, and you’ll be home, God’s kingdom will come, you’ll be back in your natural habitat.  You’ll see what you thought was forever gone.

Easier said than done.

These passages have, so often, been used to ridicule those of us who supposedly lack faith.  If you just had a little bit of faith, they’d say, you’d realize that losing your job or your house or your relationship was a good thing, something God wants, what’s best for you.  You’d realize this if you only had a little bit of faith. You know, the mustard seed and the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and all that.  If you only trusted.  If you only got rid of your doubt. 
‘Cause see, the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour to snatch up all the good ones, the faithful ones, and you’re gonna be left behind.  So we buy bumper stickers that say things like, “at the event of rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned,” “Know Jesus, No Fear, No Jesus, Know Fear” and “Jesus is coming, look busy!”  We put our faith into trite sayings and quippy slogans to prove to ourselves that we’ve got “enough” of this thing called faith.

But then I think about these men who encountered the “extinct” Lord God bird.  

They don’t have any pithy proclamations or bumper sticker slogans about what they hope to find or about their bird or about what it’s going to take to find it.  When the bird was first rediscovered, the man wasn’t even looking for it, it just came to him.  And when they did see it, they don’t even share the news. They entered the wilderness.  They kept quiet.  They watched and waited.  They hoped that they’d see something.  And when they didn’t, they came back out the next morning and tried again. 

Meanwhile, maybe they enjoyed the way the oars felt as they sliced into the swampy water.  Maybe they noticed the way the bark on the last of the first growth forest trees are patterned just so.  Maybe they watched how the sun reflects and the way the shadows arc and the how rings expand when a dragonfly lands on the surface of the water.  Maybe they were encouraged enough by these things to come back again tomorrow.

Gene saw the bird.  He wasn’t even looking for it.  It was extinct, after all. And with no proof or witness testimony from an expert, with no iPhone recording of the event, Tim and Bobby drop everything, come from miles away, to try to find it, too.  They enter the wilderness - what is described as “one of the most exotic and most inhospitable environments in America, a vast primordial ooze, a place so wild, that the Big Woods have been called this country’s Amazon.” And they catch a glimpse, a tiny glimpse.

And with the report of these two sightings, people began donating millions of dollars to search for this bird without any significant, scientific proof that it existed.  All they had was the testimony of a few dirty outdoorsmen armed, not with surveillance cameras and infrared scanners and night vision goggles, but with some trail mix, some beef jerky, a canoe and a couple pairs of binoculars.  And with that they formed teams that have spent over 15,000 man hours looking for this bird. A photographer spent 241 days in this wildest of wildernesses before he saw the bird, and still didn’t get a good shot. Finally, after all this work, they got a four second, blurry video of the bird in flight.

And there are still skeptics out there who don’t believe them. People who will never believe them unless they see the bird with their own eyes.  And maybe they will.  Maybe they’ll go out into the wilderness themselves and wait and float along for days and finally, finally see it. Or maybe they’ll get out there and spend 241 straight days in the wilderness and experience nothing but sore canoe butt and arms and legs full of mosquito bites.  Or maybe they’ll stay put in their air conditioned offices, completely content to deny the bird’s existence. 

The question is, what do we do with this four second blurry video of the bird in flight?  

What do we do with these two-thousand-year-old testimonies, often blurry, often perplexing, of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection?  What do we do with the hope that Jesus will come back again, and yet the distinct, pestering realization that Jesus is really hard to see around these parts, that maybe Jesus really is extinct, that those who claim to see him are all hallucinating and delusional?  We have the hope of all that we wish is true, and the stark, depressing reality of the world around us.  How do we carry both of these things together? 

What do we do with a four second, blurry video of a bird that is supposed to be extinct?

Jesus tells us to not be afraid. To light lamps.  To put your treasure in the things that will lead to the kingdom.  To be dressed for action.  Be ready to open the door as soon as God comes and knocks. Go out into the wilderness, put your oar in, pull out your binoculars, listen and look hard. Maybe we’ll catch a glimpse of the resurrected Christ.  

And yet. There are people like John Fitzpatrick, who is a leading authority and expert on North American birds.  He has spent his life studying birds.  He has worked countless hours to help protect the landscape and to learn more about the ivory billed woodpecker.  He has written politicians and raised funds and studied the evidence and searched and searched himself for this elusive bird.  And he’s never seen it.  Never spotted a glimpse.  And yet he still works for its protection.  He believes that it exists.  He fights to protect its habitat.  And all he’s gotten in return is a four second blurry video.  

Asked if he is upset that he has never seen the bird for himself, he says, "I don't really get frustrated at that. Right now I would love to see this bird. I can't lie at all. I'm so glad that other people have," says Fitzpatrick. "I mean, I've wept at stories of people describing it. It's an extremely emotional thing, this bird. I could happily go to my grave and not see it if we could find out what's going on and save it."

We could do everything Jesus calls us to and still never catch a glimpse.  We could believe and believe and believe and never be fully sure.  We could have been given a glimpse and never truly be certain about what we have seen.  Never - at least - in our lifetimes.

But could we “happily go to our grave and not see it if we could find out what’s going on and save it?” Could we be content with the forever searching and seeking and waiting for Christ?  

I can’t think of a better thing to wait for.  

These men - and these early followers of Jesus -  entered the wilderness.  They were quiet.  They watched and waited.  They hoped. But they didn’t really know what they were looking for.  They lit some lamps and got up early and some of them spent 241 days in the wilderness before they saw a glimpse. They came out bruised and and dirty and tired.  Or they are still waiting to see a glimpse.  
In the meantime, the scientists and birdwatchers are fighting to protect its natural habitat.  They’re working for the preservation of these wild, exotic, dangerous lands where the Lord God bird finds its home.  They’re telling their story again and again to anyone who will listen - partially to encourage others to believe in this strange, unlikely encounter, partly to convince themselves of what they’ve seen. 

And the Early Christians were doing the same.  They lived together.  They shared what they owned.  They struggled and suffered and were victims of their own harsh landscape.  They shared meals and told the stories of their own encounters with God.  They reminded themselves over and over again of the one whom they were seeking. They’d tell their story again and again to anyone who would listen - partially to encourage others to believe in this strange, unlikely encounter, partly to convince themselves of what they’ve seen.

They’d remind themselves that Jesus told them to be ready like servants waiting for their master to come home from a wedding banquet.  They’d remind themselves of the stories of their fathers and grandfathers: Jesus told them that the master would serve the servants. That Jesus would be back, and just as they served each other, Jesus would serve them. They’d remind themselves that Jesus himself didn’t even know when he’d be back, or how it’d happen.

And here we are. Longing to see a glimpse of this Lord God.  Aching to find some meaning in this boggy wilderness of violence and materialism and judgment.  Here we are trying to believe, amid all our doubts and fears and amidst all the evidence to the contrary, that Jesus is real and God is True, and that Christ is resurrected and will come back again.  
So, we try to protect God’s landscape - those places in the world where God’s will is truly being done, those times in life when we get a speck of meaning and understand just a tiny bit - who we are and who we were created to be.  We are forever searching and seeking and waiting for Christ.

We tell the story - the Good News of Christ among us as well as the Christ who came before us, who has been since “before” the beginning of time. We see that we are part of that story.  We sit quietly and listen to where we are being called to extend the story.  We ask others to enter in to the story.  We celebrate what we find, even if it is just a blurry four second video of a life, death, and resurrection of an unlikely God in our very midst.  

Is there anything better in this life to wait for?

Thanks be to God.