Wednesday, July 06, 2016

A poem for reflection as I leave this call

The Expedition by Anthony deMello

My time here has come to an end,
And I think of the days that I have spent in these surroundings.
I see an image of myself as I was when I came here
And I look at my self as I am today
At the close of this time.

I think of the persons and places that have been a part of my time here.
To each of them I speak in gratitude.
And to each I say goodbye.
Other places, other persons call to me,
and I must go.

I think of the experiences I have had,
The graces I have been granted
In this place.
For each of these too, I am grateful.

I think of the kind of life I have lived here,
The atmosphere, the daily schedule.

I say goodbye:
Another type of life awaits me,
Other graces, other experiences.
And I say goodbye to persons,
and graces,
I do so under life's imperious biddings.

If I wish to be alive
I must learn to die at every moment.
That is, to say goodbye, let go, move on.

When this is done, I turn to face the future
And I say, "Welcome".

I think of the work that waits for me,
The people I shall meet,
The type of life I shall be living,
The events that will take place tomorrow.
And I extend my arms in welcome
To the summons of the future.

A note: My last Sunday preaching at Fir-Conway is July 17, 2016. After that, I will be moving to Maine for a time for my spouse's job, and thus, supply preaching all over Maine.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The bookends of suffering

Easter 2c, April 3, 2016
The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Caravaggio
John 20:19-31 19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Judeans, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

There is something about getting a week of spring that brings hope. Having the doors and windows open to let in the sunshine and the breeze, smelling fresh flowers that are just opening helps me to trust that winter will not last forever and grey days will come to an end. I think I had almost forgotten what it was like to see blue skies every day.
Life can be like that- where we forget that things will get better. Of course, we have phrases to tell ourselves, things like, “this too shall pass,” or “everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” Those phrases can be great, but there are times when the situation is so difficult or complex that the encouragement is impossible to believe.

In the bible, those truly difficult times are called “thlipsis”, which is defined as “pressure, a narrow place that hems one in, tribulation, especially the internal pressure of tribulation, feeling confined or without options or no way of escape. I think of it as being between a rock and a hard place. If you’re truly between a rock and a hard place, it’s hard to believe that “this too shall pass.” It’s hard to have hope.

Although it’s not quite in the scripture we heard this morning, the word “thlipsis” comes up in the very next verse in the text from Revelation. It was because the people were suffering that they needed this word of grace and peace. This kind of tribulation wasn’t just happening to the original recipients of the book of Revelation. It was happening already to the early Christian church, as we heard described in Acts, and the disciples in the upper room lived it, too. That’s why they needed those greetings of assurance from Jesus, in which he says to them twice in our gospel reading from John, “Peace be with you.” Fear, doubt, suffering- these were all familiar feelings for early Christians, even for those who had heard the good news of the resurrection, even for those who had seen the resurrected Christ.

Yet somehow, there were some in every age who held out hope, who continued to cling to the promise that God would be with them in every circumstance and would bring them to a new day. In the acts passage, it is Peter and the apostles who put their trust in God’s authority even when it puts them at odds with human authority. In Revelation, it is John who assures the people that their present suffering will end, because the Lord is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. In the gospel story, it is Thomas who insists that he would know his Lord by the marks of his suffering.  These folks are the heroes of faith, or as we call them in the church, saints.

Yet as we see in the scripture, these folks were not perfect all the time- Thomas is not known as Thomas the faithful, but Doubting Thomas. Peter may have stood up to authorities in this story, but he wasn’t so steadfast when Jesus was arrested. And the folks living in the time of Revelation wavered so much that some of them wanted to be rebaptized after the whole thing was over. But that’s a story for another day.

The way the church came through that time and the way we humans get through these terrible times is by trusting in a God who brings a new day, even when it seems impossible. And when we cannot believe it on our own, we hold that trust for each other, greeting one another with Christ’s peace. For we know that just as winter does not last forever and new life returns, so too does new life spring from death, resurrection joy comes after Good Friday sorrow, and suffering will not last forever. Christ is our alpha and our omega, our beginning and our end, and we trust that he is with us always, no matter what.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Broken Rocks- The Resurrection from Peter's Perspective

Easter 2016
Gospel: Luke 24:1-12
1On the first day of the week, at early dawn, [the women] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body.4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

It was quiet, all that Sabbath. Simon, the one everyone now called Peter, sat quietly by himself, his whole life unmoored and untethered. Everything he had thought he knew was now called into question- not only by the death of his teacher, his dearest mentor and friend, but by the events of the previous days, his own actions and inactions. Simon picked up a rock and turned it over in his hands, feeling the smoothness, the definition of each line, the fissures where the rock would break if pushed too far.

Turning the stone over and over in his hands, he thought again about the day that he had acquired his nickname. “From now on, you will be called Peter, which means rock.” Later on, Jesus would declare, “Upon this rock, I will build my church.” Simon Peter remembered the glow of pride that had filled him as he had heard those words. “So much for that foundation,” he thought, as the memory of a different conversation filled his mind. “Surely, you know this man. Surely you are one of them. Surely you are a disciple of this man Jesus.” And his own replies, three times, “I do not know him. I am not one of them. Not I. I swear to you, I do not know the man.” As Jesus had predicted, he had rejected and denied his teacher and friend.

“I have considered myself the most faithful disciple, but I am no better than anyone else.” Despair seized Simon Peter, and the fissures of his soul broke open, and he wept bitterly.

The days since had passed like a blur. He could scarcely believe all that had happened- the farce of a trial, the torture of his gentle and loving teacher, the way Jesus had suffered and how nothing had stopped the unthinkable from happening. Jesus died like any other human being. It seemed impossible. How could the man who had healed so many, performed so many miracles, power that came from God- how could he have died? He had kept expecting that at any moment, something would happen, someone would come to intercede, to interrupt this awful chain of events, to give some sort of reprieve to Jesus, but instead, unbelievably, it had all proceeded as if Jesus were a common criminal, not a man who had fed thousands with just a few loaves and fishes or who knew how to quell a storm with a word.

That night, Simon Peter tossed and turned, drifting in and out of a troubled sleep as he relived the terrible events since Thursday. If only he had not fallen asleep in the garden. If he had known those would be his last moments with Jesus, he would have stayed awake. Oh, to have those moments back and to do it over again.

Jolted from sleep by the sound of a door closing, Simon Peter awoke in the early morning hours. Knowing there would be no getting back to sleep, he quietly began his day, noticing that the women had left, taking with them their baskets filled with spices and jars of oils. They had gone to the tomb, gone to perform that final service for their beloved rabbi, to care for him one last time. Simon Peter took a sip of water and lay back down, his head aching.

It couldn’t have been even a half-hour later when the sound of approaching footsteps alerted the whole household. As if shaken by an earthquake, every person in the room tensed, coming fully awake, their eyes trained on the door. With a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, Simon Peter waited for the knock that would signal the beginning of the end. This was it, he was sure, the sounds of Roman soldiers coming to arrest the disciples. “No less than I deserve,” thought Simon Peter, remembering how he had abandoned Jesus. In some ways, it was a relief.

Just at that moment, the door swung open, revealing not the clean-shaven faces of foreign warriors, but instead the familiar features of friends- first, Mary Magdalene, followed by Joanna, other women, and then, the oldest of the group, Mary, James’ mom. They were breathless, their eyes wide.
“What is it? Are they coming for us?” cried out Simon Peter’s brother Andrew.
Mary Magdalene, her chest heaving with exertion, answered, “No, but listen! The most incredible thing has happened. Jesus is alive, he is risen.” Silence hung in the air, then it was broken by gasps of disbelief. “What do you mean?” “There must be some mistake.” “What kind of a joke is this?” Men’s deep voices rumbled in question, but the women responded, affirming Mary Magdalene’s unbelievable tale. Debates broke out. After all, everyone knew Jesus had died, some had witnessed his final breath, others had seen his lifeless body sealed in a tomb. How could anyone believe that Jesus was alive?

Stunned, Simon Peter rocked to his feet. His heart pounding with fear and hope, he ran to the door, burst out onto the street, and raced to the tomb. Skidding to a halt and nearly falling to his knees, Peter took stock of the place where the body of Jesus had been lain to rest. The brisk morning air cooled his skin, clearing his headache. Craning his neck, Peter peered into the tomb, a shaft of light illuminating the empty ledge where Jesus’ body had lain. It was plain that no body was there now, only the linen wrappings remained. No one would take a body but leave the shroud; what would be the point?

Memories flooded his mind, flowing before his mind’s eye as if on a tide. He saw Lazarus, stepping out of the tomb, still wrapped in his shroud. If Jesus could overcome death then, surely death could not hold him bound and imprisoned in the tomb? Seeing the stone that had so recently sealed the tomb now lying useless next to the opening, Simon Peter remembered another day. Standing with Jesus and the other disciples, looking at the temple, Jesus had said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Although Jesus had been speaking about the destruction of the temple on that day, Simon Peter realized that Jesus’ words could have just as easily apply to these stones here, only now, he could see that this was good news. With great power, God had thrown down this great stone, and Jesus was on the loose, alive. Wonder overtook Simon Peter, filling the cracks in his heart, restoring his faith. Lethargy drained away as he was overcome by amazement. Feeling an energy in his body such as he hadn’t felt since he was a kid, Peter took off at a run, ready to strengthen the faith of his brothers.
As he ran, a song from his childhood welled up within him, its beat set to the rhythm of his pace:
I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. 
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. 

This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. 
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. 

And with his whole being, Simon Peter sang an alleluia. For Christ was risen, indeed. And something new was just beginning. 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Maundy Thursday- To Love as Jesus Loved

Gospel: John 13:1-17, 31b-35
1Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.”11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

31b“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Maundy Thursday, March 24, 2016
Tonight we gather for Maundy Thursday, from the Latin word mandatum- commandment. It is the night we remember the new commandment Jesus gave to his friends and companions. Jesus said, “love one another, as I have loved you.”
To love is at once simple and complex. A young child is capable of love, but only if he or she receives love. It is not innate, not something with which we are born; rather, the human capacity to love is shaped by the love we receive or not. If a child has someone who loves them, their brains respond and grow. If they don’t, their ability to love is diminished, their ability to connect is stunted.
Yet love is a uniquely human experience, defining who we are as people. Without love, we are more likely to be angry, disconnected, forlorn, unknown, and unknowable. Love is the basis of human relationship, the building blocks of connectedness and community. It is something we crave and long for: to be loved and accepted and known.
Jesus commands, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” How was it that Jesus loved? He loved unconditionally and without end. He loved with humility. He loved in action and in word.
So often, we try to earn love, yet the love that Jesus gave was given even when it was not merited or deserved, even when the person he beheld was at their worst. When the rich young man could not give up his wealth, Jesus looked at him with love. When Judas betrayed Jesus, he had been at table with Jesus, a sign of love and belonging in that culture. Jesus loved those who were rejected, those who had done wrong. He loved the tax collector, the prostitute, the Pharisee, the sinner, the leper, and the foreigner. Jesus loved when others rejected. His love knew no bounds, and it broke divisions.
What does this mean for us today as inheritors of this commandment to love? In this time, when our culture is divided, when fear of the other threatens to override neighborliness, Jesus’ love is needed more than ever. We are agents of Jesus’ love. Let us be bold as we follow in his footsteps. Amen.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Lenten Reflection: The Spiritual Practice of Keeping the Sabbath

Written for March 16, 2016

From Exodus 20: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”
It’s not so very long ago that whole communities in the United States stopped to rest on Sundays. Stores were closed, most people attended church, and families lived close enough to get together for Sunday dinner. It was rare to find anyone even doing yardwork on a Sunday. For most people, those days are long gone. These days, setting aside an entire day, Sunday or otherwise, for rest and restoration is a rarity.
What does it mean to keep Sabbath when the world doesn’t stop with you? How do we unplug from the never-ending list of things we must do, should do, and want to do? How do we take a rest, when being busy is a sign of being important in our culture?
God gave the gift of the Sabbath in the 10 Commandments, along with other really important instructions like “don’t murder” and “don’t commit adultery”. Most people realize that life has gotten off-track if they have taken someone else’s life or if they’ve broken their marriage vows. Yet how many of us have opened our email, done our laundry and dishes and grocery shopping, mowed our lawn, fixed our car, or been to a sports practice on what should be a day of rest and thought nothing of it?  Instead of remembering the Sabbath day and keeping it holy, we forget the Sabbath day, and make it like any other day.
What has this produced? Are we a happier or healthier people?
Taking time for the Sabbath may indeed yield some tangible benefits. It also produces something that cannot be measured: trust in God and a renewed sense of God’s promise for us. When we practice Sabbath keeping, we hear God’s voice saying, “You are mine, and you are my beloved one. You are so much more than what you have done or failed to do, what you have earned or lost. I give you a day of rest, a day of enjoyment, a day to spend with me, with my creation, with my beloved people.”
Taking Sabbath means admitting that we are replaceable- that someone else can fill our shoes. It means someone else will take the title of hardest worker or player who never misses a practice or the friend who never misses a gathering. It means having the courage to stick out because you are different.
As God’s people, we are called to be different, to march to the beat of God’s drum as we journey along together.  We are called to confess our limitations and rely on God’s grace.  And we are called to quiet our lives so that God’s still small voice might claim our attention once more.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Lenten Reflection: The Spiritual Practice of Anchoring in God

From Hebrews, chapter 6: “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”

In the early Christian church, before Christianity was legal, persecuted Christians used secret symbols to communicate their faith to one another. In the catacombs, where they would meet, there are still symbols that one can make out. Among them is the anchor.
Anyone who has slept on board a boat will appreciate that anchors are symbols of safety and security. It is reassuring to know that your anchor is well-set, so that you will not drag anchor while you sleep an awake having run aground.

The symbol of the anchor was particularly meaningful for Greek speakers, because the word ankura is close to “en kurio”, which means, “In the Lord.” There’s an old African-American spiritual that goes, “my soul’s been anchored, anchored in the Lord, in the Lord, in the Lord.”

But how exactly does one anchor in the Lord? Perhaps it is like Martin Luther’s explanation to the First Commandment: you shall have no other gods before me. Luther says this means that “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”
Anchoring in God comes by learning to love God through hearing God’s word, by praying and sharing our burdens with God, by learning to see God in our midst, and by trusting God with all the uncertainties we hold in our hearts.

This is not to say that it is easy to set an anchor well. Sometimes, you have to try, realize that the anchor did not set- because you are dragging anchor, pull up the anchor, and try again. When we find that we are dragging anchor, that we are drifting far away from that which gives us hope and life, God invites us to anchor again in his steadfast love and mercy and then rest again in his grace. Amen.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Lenten Reflection: The Spiritual Practice of Keeping the Eighth Commandment

A reading from Exodus, Chapter 20, the 8th commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
The Gift of the Commandments, copyright Dan Erlander
And from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism:
“Vas is das? What does this mean? 
We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray, or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”

When I attended seminary in Berkeley, California, my professor who taught about the teachings of Martin Luther spoke about Luther’s unique view of the 10 Commandments. Luther said we were not only to follow the Commandments, but he took an expansive view as to the scope of the influence of the Commandments. So it is that the eighth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness” is not just about not lying in the courtroom or elsewhere about someone else. For Luther, it also meant that we would come to our neighbor’s defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.
The very wise Rev. Dr. Jane Strohl. Doesn't she look kind?
I am sure I had heard Luther’s explanation before, but it was after that class with Dr. Jane Strohl that I began to take Luther’s expanded recommendations on as a spiritual practice. Initially, I found it very difficult to interpret the actions of those closest to me in the best possible light- after all, I could see for myself how my personal acquaintances and close associates had failed me, and I knew their reasons. My problem was that I judged based on my own high standards.  If a class partner failed to do their part of the group assignment, I judged that the person had let me down because they had not worked hard enough, which would have been my own explanation if I had not come through on my commitment. I found that knowing too much actually kept me from gentleness. So instead, I began to practice on people whose stories I would never know, people I could not judge: other drivers in traffic.
The stretch of freeway in question. Traffic looks pretty light. 
The freeway entrance nearest the seminary leads to a fast and full road, often choked with several lanes of traffic, all the cars going as quickly as possible. A mile down the road, the road divides- one side going to San Francisco, the other to Oakland. People are invariably changing several lanes of traffic, some merging left, some merging right. I was always tense as we crossed several lanes of traffic, and because I was scared, I would react with anger when someone cut me off.  So I began my spiritual practice by making up imaginary stories for these hurried and careless drivers. The woman who nearly clipped my front bumper- perhaps she was rushing to her daughter, who was in labor with the first grandchild. The man who cut me off with a yell and a rude hand gesture- perhaps he was impatient with me because he needed to get to work where he was worried about keeping his job. It was all imagined, but somehow, the sometimes humorous practice calmed me. I was able to be generous toward these people who had wronged me.

In the years since, I have kept the practice up. I know there are some people who think I am too soft- that I don’t hold other people to a high enough standard. It is a struggle to know when to hold a line, when to let things go. That’s a prayer I pray too- the wisdom to know the difference, as the serenity prayer puts it. But I have found that interpreting other’s actions in the best possible light has enabled me to love my neighbor better, and to hear with new ears about God’s unending and patient love for my neighbor, and also for me. For God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Thanks be to God.