Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ash Wednesday

I told this story/fable at the Ash Wednesday service last night:

Once upon a time, not so very long ago-or too far away for that matter-there was a village. Everything it needed; from blacksmiths to bookbinders, this village one thing...the village lacked a bakery. And so, to make the best of an inconvenient situation, the village arranged to buy its bread from traveling merchants.

So it was that on a bright spring day; when the buds were just beginning to open, and the birds eggs cracked to introduce tiny wings and beaks to a new world, that the air in the village was filled with the warm friendly odor of freshly baked bread.

The smell itself was delicious. Toward it the children came, turning summersaults in the dusty street while their parents called happily to one another as they moved toward the market.

In the marketplace the merchant, gaily clad, stood calling; the bells on his bright three cornered hat ringing merrily. "Fresh bread here, warm bread here," he called as he saw them come. And they all bought his wares.

Suddenly..."You can't eat this stuff," a boy cried out. "It won't chew," cried a second child.

And it was true. It looked like bread. It smelled like bread. But unlike bread it was rubbery and hard and tasted sickly sweet.

"We cannot live on this," the people cried.

"Who said," the merchant replied, "that you could have both the pleasure of smell and warmth...and bread's nurture too? Impossible! You must chose: pick one, forget the other." The three bells jingled on his hat as he nodded in his wisdom.

And the merchant was dressed so fine, and spoke with such conviction, that the townfolk believed him; and swore they'd not be fooled again.

They buy stale bread in the village now; for it is hard and has no odor. And they shut their windows and bar their doors, whenever they smell fresh bread.

They eat the stale; and smell the freshness that creeps through the keyholes and the cracks in the windows. And often wonder, with tears in their eyes, if "maybe, just maybe......"

As we move into this season of Lent perhaps we might think of the things that we've been told will nourish us....that don't. Perhaps we can remember those relationships and events in our lives that have been "true bread"-giving us nurture and warmth and a 'taste' of something that we desire.

Lent will be a time of admitting that we've bought in to a lot of things that don't really feed us....even though, for the moment, they feel like the might. Can we explore setting them down...even for a day. Perhaps longer. Lent can become a movement toward freedom.

Can we remember what has feed us in our lives? The people, the relationships, the events, the moments. Remembering these may guide us back to the places where God's love and "true bread" have been evident.

This is my myself and to you, this Lenten season. I wonder where such a spiritual discipline might lead us.

Dr.Keith Jones, head of the seminary in Prague where Bill and Nancy Lively have served over the last four years, will be leading us in our morning worship and Euchrist this week. We will all join afterward for an Agape meal together. I hope you will be able to join us as we welcome Keith and look forward to his leadership.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Elijah and Elisha....A Tale of Departure and Loss

This week's scriptures are 2 Kings 2:1-14 and Mark 9:2-9.

This is Transfiguration Sunday. But I want to focus on the Old Testament passage rather that the one from Mark.

Elijah, the old prophet, is about to die. He and Elisha-his disciple-journey to the place where they will say their final goodbye. As they go through each town the local prophets come up to Elisha and ask him if he know that Elijah's end is near. Elisha responds to each group the same way; telling them that he knows, and that they should keep quiet.

The most poignant moment comes when Elijah asks Elisha what he can do for him before he dies. Elisha's response is that he wants a double portion of Elijah's spirit. Elisha doesn't know how he will go on without the one who has taught him everything he knows about being the Lord's prophet. He wonders what he will do when the people look for the Lord's prophet and that means him.

Any of us who have lost someone who was a central part of our world knows how Elisha felt. How will we go on? What will hold our world together now?

And what is Elijah's response to Elisha? "If you see me go." What does this mean? One of the best responses I've read was that what Elijah was pushing for was an awareness on Elisha's part that he, Elijah, was really gone. Elisha needed, before he could inherit Elijah's spirit, to be totally clear that Elijah was no longer in this world. Only then could he 1) tear his clothes (a sign of grief); and move into his own strength (taking up the cloak and using it to part the waters). As long as Elisha clung to his teacher he could neither grieve nor grow. Perhaps that is why the fiery chariot had to come between them before Elijah was taken up in the create enough seperation to block Elisha from clinging.

Accept, Grieve, Grow. I've seen families, churches, organizations torn apart because they could not do this. The year after Bill Curry's Alabama football team won the Conference championship the University of Alabama fired him. When asked why he thought this had happened, Curry replied, "I'm not Bear Bryant."

The comic version of this is the male mid-life crisis in which a middle aged man (oh, say 56 or so) has difficulty admitting and accepting that he is no longer the athlete he once was. Or that the dreams he once had may not all come to fruition. Small fortunes have been spent on sports cars during this phase of men's lives.

We've all known sons who could not move out from under the shadow of their father. And churches that took years to move past the pastorate of a famous minister or a time in the church's history when they were influencial and important. Clinging to what makes us feel safe is a part of the human condition, we come by it honest. But we do not move into the new things that God has for us by clinging to the past.

We accept the loss. We grieve it; both what no longer is, and what will now not be. And then we take from the relationship or experience what will give us strength and hope and move out into the new thing that God is going to do...nurtured by the gift of what once was.

See you Sunday.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Touching Lepers

This Week's scriptures are Psalm 30 and Mark 1:40-45.

I started writing this blog and stopped. I stopped because I felt a need to live with the story in Mark for a little longer. To turn it a little more and examine it a little closer. All the reading I was doing about this passage left me asking myself, "what am I missing that this story might have to say to me in my particular position today?"

It is tempting to read this story and find the most comfortable place in it to curl up for a rest. To find the place in the story that comforts me in my position-political, theological, or otherwise-and focus my meditation and reflection there. There are some wonderful points in this story (and hopefully we'll talk about them on Sunday) about challenging the system and reaching out in compassionate anger to heal and reconcile.

But my problem in reading this passage was/is that if felt a whole lot like "preaching to the choir" when I stopped there. It didn't challenge me to act different, or change, or repent. So I chose to stop writing and spend some time asking myself not "who are our lepers?" (which is, by the way, an important question); but "who is leper to ME?" "Who would it bother me if Jesus healed and sent back into community?"

It was not one of my more pleasant exercises in meditation on scripture. I found myself realizing that there are a lot of people that I really, really don't like. What, I asked myself, would I say if Micheal Vick (you know, the football player arrested for his role in dog fights) came out and said he'd found Jesus? What would I say? What would I think? And he's one of the milder examples.

The truth is (if we go back to the scripture again) that one of the reasons that Jesus couldn't go into the towns was that by touching a leper He had alienated himself from a lot of folks. On the other hand, those who saw in His behavior the possibility that he might touch the secret, unclean places within them flocked to him.

This lead me to this final thought. There are places in me that Jesus cannot come as long as I have a beef with who He heals. The degree to which Jesus can move into my life, and heal my dis-ease, is directly related to my willingness to accept His healing the dis-ease of others. Certainly puts an interesting spin on the "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."

I'm still mulling this one over. Maybe we can find some wisdom together on Sunday. See you then.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

This week's scriptures are Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39.

The picture painted by Mark in this week's scripture is a busy one. No sooner has Jesus had the encounter with the man with a demon in the synagogue, then he is off to the house of Simon and Andrew. There Jesus heals Simon's mother-in-law who is sick with a fever. Next thing you know, the house is surrounded that evening by those who were ill, possessed, or suffered from diseases. We're told that "the whole town was there, gathered at the door."

Mark is very focused on Jesus' action. This is the Kingdom of God on the move; the Power of God Loose in the World. From the very beginning of the Gospel Mark wants to make the point that Jesus' intention is to break down all the barriers between us and God; to get rid of all the things that impinge upon humankind: illness, disease, 'demons' (who represented both mental illnesses and those diseases, like epilepsy, which people did not understand)....all of these were taken on squarely by the coming of the Kingdom in the person of Jesus.

Our passage from Isaiah makes the point explicitly that the God who is at work here is the one so far above the earth and its inhabitants that they "appear as grasshoppers." And yet.....and yet....this is the same God who promises that "those who look to the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar as on eagles' wings; they will run and not feel faint, march on and not grow weary." This is the same God whom Jesus claims to be ushering in the Kingdom for. is the Power of God Loose in the World (I really like that phrase; it isn't mine, but I like it anyway) and what does it do? Does it strike down the Romans? Does it attack the political stucture?

Though these things are ultimately affected; Jesus' actions are not broad stroke, sweeping actions. They are intimate, personal inter-actions with ordinary people in the midst of their own pain and struggle.

Jesus'....and hence God' for us is as individual, particular people. God's desire is to touch us intimately at the place of our deepest need, our deepest pain. To God, as represented by Jesus, we're not some lump of humanity. We're Stephen who struggles with "X"; Mary who suffers from "Y"; John who's dealing with "Z."

Historically, 'movements' have quickly lost contact with the specific, real life, particular people they were created to help. And there are those who could make a case (and a reasonable one) that the Church has fallen prey to this same shortcoming.

But if we look at Jesus as the representative of God's power and intention; and if we look at Him, as well, as the example and role model for our work as God's people; we see a clear and unmistakable focus. Jesus is showing us that God's care is not some vague, general concern for humanity (remember Lucy from Peanuts saying, "I love humanity; it's people I can't stand"). Jesus is telling us that God cares about you and me; in all our brokenness, all our pain, all our struggle....individually, particularly, personally.

To me, that is real good news.

Hope to see you Sunday.