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Monday, June 27, 2016

June 26, 2016

Gospel: Luke 9:51-62 
1st Reading: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
2nd Reading: Galatians 5:1, 13-25

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Nick and I have enjoyed attending some comedy shows. A few years ago we saw Eugene Mirman and he told this joke: “I was thinking about truth or dare, and what the first dare was. I bet it was a cave man daring a cave woman to throw a burning stick at a monster. And I bet she was like, ‘Fine, truth.’ And I bet he was like, ‘OK. What’s your biggest fantasy?’ And I bet she was like, ‘Agriculture.’” It was hilarious the way he said, “Agriculture.” 

We take so many things for granted, and agriculture is one of them. Here we have two stories involving agriculture—plowing a field, to be specific. In the first, Elisha is plowing, with a team of 12 yoke, meaning 24 oxen. In the Gospel reading, Jesus refers to plowing, which takes persistent focus, just like following him, does.

What a leap it must have been to go from hunter-gatherer societies to ones of agriculture. Of course, it took place over time. In fact, my family used to go hunting when I was kid, and I still like to go pick berries in the summer. However, I am not going to get the majority of my food that way. When humans began to cultivate the land, we started to be able to feed ourselves better, and we started to survive longer, but it is not the end of the story.

We have found that our intense way of doing agriculture is damaging our home, the earth. Working the soil so much releases a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and is depleting the soil. We are not replenishing the nutrients in the soil as quickly as we are taking them out. Our current way of agriculture may not be able to meet all the needs of humans and animals moving forward. 

I've been reading a little about an alternative way of growing food called permaculture or food forests. We saw this working in Nicaragua. In some places people chop down all the trees and grow rows and rows of coffee plants. That takes a lot of fertilizer which is expensive. But the coffee co-ops we visited were shade-grown in food forests. There is a canopy of trees, dropping leaves and fruit which are fertilizer for the coffee plants, and providing fruit to eat for the people who live on the land. The birds in the high trees also provide fertilizer in the form of droppings which nourish the plants below. Below that are coffee plants, and other medium sized shrubs. More fertilizer comes from leaves and fruit dropping on the forest floor. Then in the ground, even lower, are other plants, like beans and squash. In this way, food can be grown in a way that is sustainable and which may not need added fertilizer. It takes some time to establish a food forest, but it might be worth the wait. The people who lived in the cofee co-op ate better, more variety of food, and were able to send their kids to school longer than other places we visited, because of the economic benefits of this way of farming. Look for shade-grown coffee in the store. You'll be doing the earth a favor. Drink fair-trade coffee and you'll be helping to send one of these kids to school or ensuring proper nutrition for a family like the ones we met.

In Galatians, too, it seems people went from one extreme like hunter gatherer society and then the other like agriculture and then found an even more life-giving way. People had been slaves to the law. If you want to be a good Jew, you followed God's law. Once the people were called into freedom, they didn't necessarily use their freedom very well and used it as a chance to do whatever they wanted, like the freshman boys at my college 20 years ago. It was like they never had the chance to make decisions for themselves, so they didn't know that if they drank all day and night, they wouldn't pass their classes. 1/3 were on academic probation after the first term and a large percentage of those boys flunked out after the second term. I don't know why, but the girls seemed to be a little more mature. The Galatians are like the freshman boys, given their freedom there was a lot of drunkenness and carousing. And now God is saying, let's be sensible. Let's practice a little self-control, love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and gentleness. It may not be the law anymore, but isn't it a better way?

Jesus' Disciples are following him to Jerusalem. Several of them were fishermen with their own priorities and entitlements and expectations of life. They find themselves following Jesus, but they are still focused on their old priorities. They walk with him, but they are out of step with him, otherwise they would know better than to ask to command fire to destroy some people they didn't like. Jesus face is set toward Jerusalem and the cross. He is single-minded in his focus. And here are all these immature Disciples goofing off and being rude and not taking their task of following Jesus very seriously. So Jesus rebukes them, scolds them. Here, we have the way of the Disciples, the way of the world, focused on glory, focused on power, on greed, on violence, and here we have the way of Jesus, focused on love, focused on sacrifice. Jesus is telling them they have to do more than put one foot in front of the other in order to follow him, they have to completely reorient their direction, or they are going to miss this amazing thing that is about to happen. They are going to fail to get it, to live life differently from the way they did before, a transformation as big as going from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, or from being slaves to the law or slaves to sin to servants of one another and of God.

We are all slaves to sin. We live in a world that values power, money, celebrity, selfishness, and greed. We have our focus. We are trained in it from childhood. It is our culture. It is who we think we are. But God knows who we really are and has plans for us. God comes by and puts his mantle on us, his coat, like Elijah does to Elisha when he is picking out his disciple, and we are clothed with Christ. We have a new identity. We are claimed for love and community and hope and life and equality. We are called to follow Jesus from the moment of our baptism. The old way is washed away and a new direction, new priorities emerge that are God's priorities.

In the Old Testament reading, Elisha is allowed to go back and have a big goodbye barbecue before he heads out on his journey, his ministry with Elijah. It is a big transition, a lot to take in. He's not sure if he will ever see his family and friends again. Elijah wants him to think it over, to prepare himself for what is ahead. But in another way he doesn't look back, because he burns all the yokes, eats all the oxen, destroys all the other allegiances to money and his identity as a farmer. He doesn't give himself the chance to turn back and change his mind. There is nothing left for him there if he does. When he goes to follow Elijah and God, he gives himself completely to that endeavor.

In the other reading, Jesus tells the Disciples their focus must be singular. No going back to your father's funeral. No saying goodbye. Keep your eyes on the road or you will lose your way. It seems like Jesus is being pretty mean. But he is saying what mattered before, doesn't matter anymore. There is new way, and if you take your eyes off the road now, you are never going to make it. The Disciples don't get it that this part of the journey is different than before. They've been in training up until now. This is where the rubber hits the road. It won't be long until Jesus is arrested and crucified, and they need to be able to remember what's most important and focus on what will give ultimate hope. It won't be violence. It won't be hatred or anger. It will be love and forgiveness. And I suppose, once Jesus was resurrected and forgave the Disciples for betraying him, they never did lose focus again of what is most important. Once Jesus was raised, they went from being Disciples to being teachers, they became leaders in the Jesus-following community, the loving and merciful community. It was incredibly uncomfortable for them, but because they took off the yoke of the world, the fear based values of this world that said that it is always about glory and power and that death was the final word, and put on Jesus' yoke which isn't as heavy as it looks (“My yoke is easy and my burden is light”), they found a new way of living that meant fulfillment and truth and hope.

Jesus has been resurrected for us, too, not with accusations or anger or to rain fire down on us, but with love and forgiveness. We focus on Jesus. We focus on love. But the thing about Jesus is that he never stays in one place for long, so what that love means for each time place might look a little bit different. The needy in my community might be different than the oppressed in your community. Your gifts are different from my gifts, so discipleship, or following Jesus looks a little bit different for each person and in each time and in each place, just like feeding people looks a little bit different for each person in each time, in each place, just like caring for the earth looks different in every place and time. So we go from one life-giving way to another, Jesus teaching us a better way all the while, and we grow up from disciples into teachers and finally pass the mantle on to the next generation and trust them to carry the good news forward and to learn new ways of conveying it to ears longing for hope.
We get to be focused on Jesus, the source of all life and love, to direct us in the most life-giving way to live in our time and place, the most life-giving and loving way to be church, so that none of us gets stuck in one way of doing things, but so we are always on the move with Jesus into difficult places where mercy is most needed.

Monday, June 20, 2016

June 19, 2016

Gospel: Luke 8:26-39 
1st Reading: Isaiah 65:1-9
2nd Reading: Galatians 3:23-29

One fun game in our household, these days is “Hide and go seek.” Sterling is beginning to branch out in his hiding places. In fact yesterday, he thought of a hiding place all on his own and I might have had a hard time finding him if he had not had to move a box out from under the bed to fit there. For almost a year, he always hid in the same place, under the kitchen table. Now he hides in various other places, enjoying the surprise when he is found or when he jumps out to scare us. He was happy to hide in the same place again and again, I think, because it wasn't the hiding that was thrilling at the time, but being found—the anticipation as the seeker went from room to room, his heart beating as he held his breath and his giggles, and then the excitement as the voice got closer and then finally being found, hider and seeker meeting eyes and smiles. It is a more advanced version of peek-a-boo—another game about object permanence. Not really about the hiding or going away, but the being found and coming back together.

I remember as a child, I was one of the older ones in my mother's daycare home. One cruel thing we would do to get rid of a pesky younger child was to have them hide and then not go and seek them. Of course I feel bad about it now, but what can I do? I would never do that to Sterling. Sadly, in the first reading for today, that's just how God feels, like those little kids we left in their hiding place, as one who has been abandoned in the game, who is waiting to be found, trying to reach out to those around him, “ready to be sought be those who do not ask, to be found by those who do not seek.” Why don't God's people seek the one who gave them life, who is the source of all love and goodness? Some are distracted by other gods, idols, priorities. Some separate themselves from God and others around them like we did as kids, from the younger kids, saying by our refusal to seek, “I am better than you,” “I am too holy for you.” “Holier than thou.” Christians get accused of acting like this quite frequently—who do we think we are, passing judgment, making ourselves better than other people, refusing to spend time with people based on prejudices and fears and superiority. In this reading, God is pleading for us to listen, because God has what we need to live well and treat each other well, but we ignore God's pleas. At first God gets pretty mad, but then relents in mercy.

In the second reading, we see a similar pattern going from anger to mercy. It says that at one time we were imprisoned by the law, but now we live by faith. At first we needed a disciplinarian. Children in the time and place of this Galatians reading might have been walked to school by a tutor or nanny, a slave who made sure the kid made it to school. Here the word for that person is translated “disciplinarian.” For a time, we needed someone to walk us to school, to remind us of the rules and limits, and ensure our safety. Now that we have grown up in the faith we have Christ, and he's pretty gentle. He isn't an enforcer of rules. He's a friend. He offers forgiveness and mercy. He offers relationship. He gives us a chance to be free, make our own decisions, learn from them, and grow into a more loving person. 

Furthermore, this reading from Galatians points out, God's grace extends to all of us, because we are all in one family. Because of God's love for us, we get to love one another, and to behave as loving brothers and sisters to others. We don't get to say to one another, “I am too holy for you.” We don't get to abandon one another during the game. We don't get to walk away from one another and separate ourselves or make ourselves superior based on race or religion (there is no longer Jew or Greek), gender (there is no longer male or female), class (there is no longer slave nor free), ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or “any other differences between people” as we state in our Reconciling in Christ Statement. In fact we don't walk away from one another because we are one another and we need one another to be whole. Hence the phrase, “We are Orlando.” No one is far away. No one is disposable—those wounds are our wounds, it hurts all of us when people are killed, when people live in fear, when families abandon people because of who they love. We must act as urgently as we would if I was in that nightclub, or if you were afraid to be true to who you are, or if Christ were shot by an automatic rifle, because we are all brothers and sisters, we all matter, and we need one another. 

In case we don't quite get it, we get this profound story in the Gospel reading for today. This man living in the tombs was abandoned there by his people who couldn't figure out what to do with him. He was intolerable in every way, naked, out of control, dirty, wild, possessed or mentally ill. They kept him out in the caves of the graveyard in shackles so that he wouldn't hurt himself or others. All they could think to do was to separate him from others.

We all know what it is like when unexplained terrors wreak havoc on our families and communities—sometimes it is natural disasters, sometimes a terrorist or homophobic madman, sometimes mental or physical illness, sometimes socioeconomic pressures like the economic downturn or losing a job. We stand there helpless to explain it, helpless to get out of it.

And we find that Jesus has more authority than all the terrors we face. We find that Jesus is here to upend all the chaos and fear that we face. Jesus is with us, way out in the graveyard, way out in the farthest reaches of our minds, in our sickness, in our misery, in our fear and pain, in our grieving. Jesus doesn't just cross over to the country of the Gerasenes, a land of the Gentile heathens and barbarians. Jesus crosses over to all those places at great risk to himself. He crosses the boundaries he's not supposed to cross as the clean, holy, Son of God, Messiah, so that God with us is with the very most despised, lost-cause, abandoned person out on the edges of nowhere. He goes there and he has authority and strength and power. He tells the demons where they can go.

I have to point out here, that another word for “demon” is “idol.” Apparently demon possession was something more common among the Gentiles, because they believed in other gods. So you have all these idols, other gods, competing for someone's allegiance, their mind and spirit. It made me wonder about the idols we worship in our own lives, the things we give our attention and money to (our cell phones, celebrities, sports, guns) and what we get out of those attachments—certainly not love and mercy. Only allegiance to God and God's way of live will break down the barriers between us, will lead us to new life for us and for our communities. 

The next scene, here sits the man. How can we even recognize him from before? He is clothed—It reminds me of the phrase “clothed with Christ” that we read in Galatians this morning. He is at Jesus' feet, the position of a Disciple. He is in his right mind—calm, clear, level-headed. He is ready to be reunited with his family, with his community, to become a productive member of society. You would think this would be one of those happy endings where everyone stands in awe and one person starts to slowly clap, and then in comes another one, and another until the whole crowd is loudly clapping and cheering. 

But no. They were seized with great fear and they asked Jesus to leave. Why? Because he threatened the balance of power that were already in place. He caused a herd of pigs to be drowned. We're sorry for the pigs. This may be another story where they explain what happened after the fact. Why did a herd of pigs all run into the water—maybe it was an evil spirit. However the symbolism here would be clear to someone who was Jewish—of course the unclean spirits would go into the unclean pigs and of course they would go into the water which is the symbol of chaos and the origin of unclean spirits. However people were upset because the loss of the pigs was an economic loss to the owner of the pigs and restoration of a man to his right mind means this man needs a house, a job, a wife, etc., and that means competition, it means fear for the rest of the townspeople that they might have to make room for this person, to give something up so that he can have a share in the good life. They were happy to draw that line between themselves and this man. They are too good for him, no matter how he seems now. They think they know his potential, and unfortunately, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy when we draw those lines and decide we know how things ought to be and how they ought to benefit me and only me. People are left in their hiding place, like the little kids in our game of hide and seek, with no one to seek them out. 

Again and again we find ourselves abandoning God and missing a chance to learn mercy and compassion. But God won't forget us or abandon us so easily. Sure, God gets frustrated, but God's primary way of acting is out of love and forgiveness, so we get another chance tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, until we find ourselves not acquiescing to the damaging, wild, chaotic ways of this world, and instead doing the thing that brings the most peace. Then we find ourselves clothed with Christ, close to our Savior, sitting as Disciples at his feet, learning from him to be merciful, to seek and be sought, to experience the great joy and excitement of a life that has been lost and then been found. And we get to experience the joy of knowing how this will all come out in the end, that God is always looking for us, locking eyes with us, laughing with us, and taking us into those strong and loving arms, so that we can go out again and lose ourselves in ministry and service and find and be found again as the divisions between us fall away.

Monday, June 13, 2016

June 12, 2016

Gospel: Luke 7:36-8:3
1st Reading: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15
2nd Reading: Galatians 2:15-20

Last Saturday I spent the day at the Bridgetown Comedy Festival. Over the weekend Nick and I saw about 10 different shows, and maybe 25 different comedians. On Friday I was laughing so hard my stomach muscles were hurting. Saturday afternoon we saw several shows at the Doug Fir on Burnside, but I had plans to see a movie with some friends downtown. It was also the night of the Starlight Parade, so instead of taking public transportation, I decided that walking about a mile and half would help me get my exercise in and allow me the chance to walk over the Burnside Bridge, something I've never done before. It was a beautiful evening. There was a breeze. The sun was behind the hills and the sky was a lovely orange, that kind of magical light as evening is beginning. And just as I was beginning to cross, a woman started talking to me. She had a cart full of her belongings with her. She was very tan from being out in the sun. She first assured me she wasn't crazy and I thought, “Here we go.” So my lovely, leisurely walk across the Burnside Bridge became a little quicker walk, as I was basically trying to leave her behind, and one with the company of someone who lives on the edges of society. She was mostly pleasant and I was, too. I asked her name. It was Stargazer. She asked mine and I told her. She told me she'd been assaulted on the streets, beaten as a child, and other things we don't usually tell strangers. I told her it was my first time walking across this bridge. She thought that was pretty funny and told me I should walk around downtown more. I asked her if she was going to the parade and she said she was. Then as we got to the edge of the bridge, something else caught her attention and she went off in another direction. She seemed a little irritated that I didn't offer her money, but she never asked me for it.

I thought I was going to spend time looking at the river, looking at the sky, taking in the breeze. I thought I was going to have a prayerful time, just God and me, with people around, but not bothering me. But instead I found this person that wanted to connect with me, have a conversation, tell me about her life. It was uncomfortable. I felt irritated. But then I wondered if I had any less of a conversation with God than if I had just been taking in the world around me. 

This Pharisee thinks he is going to have Jesus over, they will enjoy a quiet meal together, and he will have an experience of God that will confirm everything he already knows and he will go away comfortable, happy, and satisfied, and continue his life just as he has. 

However, here is this woman in the Gospel. We usually think it might be Mary Magdalene, or Mary of Bethany, but Luke doesn't name her. Anyway, she makes things very uncomfortable for the Pharisee. It turns out that when we invite Jesus, for dinner or into our lives or into our communities, we don't just get Jesus, but we get his friends, and we don't get little baby Jesus who can't challenge our comfortable lives, we get fiery grown up Jesus, who sees right through us, right into our thoughts and corrects us, invites us to see the world in a different way, to see one another as fully human. 

It says in the reading for Galatians, that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” What does it mean for Christ to live in us? It means that Christ's priorities are my priorities. It means Christ's friends are my friends. It means my life is different from the way it was before. 

Without Christ, my priorities are myself and my family. That was my mindset walking across the bridge. I spent the day laughing. I was going to have a nice, quiet little walk and contemplate whatever came into my little head. I was off to another event that I could afford a ticket to, to spend time with a friend in the air conditioning. 

But that's not really letting Christ fully live in me. I did not engage this woman fully. I didn't have time for that. I don't know that it would have helped anything if I had. I was civil to her. I looked her in the eye, but I did not look for Christ in her. So what do I do about that? I can feel guilt. I can try to do better next time. But I can also work for homeless rights, for affordable housing, for mental health services, for a more just city, for drug and alcohol services. I can leave intentional spots in my day to listen to people that I don't usually listen to.

I can speak up. Pacific Gas and Electric called me for a survey on Wednesday and when I finished answering their questions, they asked me if I had anything to add. I said that service outages and interruptions don't just happen when a tree falls on power lines. They happen when PGE shuts off power to a customer who can't pay. I told them I believe that people ought to have a right to electricity and that they can and should do more to help people who can't pay, especially people with kids and people who have health problems. Furthermore, to charge them exorbitant reconnection fees is ridiculous. It's not that people don't pay their electric bill because they don't want to. They don't pay it because they can't. I gave them pretty low scores on how they give to the community. What would it take to get all the Lutheran pastors of congregations that use PGE to call in and give the same feedback, or some congregation members? Would it make a difference? 

For PGE, maybe I am that woman who barges in on their feast, on their survey to confirm that everyone likes them and they can keep on, business as usual, and makes them just a little bit uncomfortable. Sometimes I am the pharisee, like I was on the bridge, and sometimes I am the weeping woman, full of emotion, and unwilling to shut up to make someone else happy. 

The Old Testament reading for this morning is pretty disturbing. It is a story that explains in retrospect why something happened—why David and Bathsheba's first son did not survive, which those who are hearing the story will know that led to King Solomon, one of the few good kings that ever served Israel was anointed King next, reigning after his father David. They will also remember the story of how the people of Israel had pleaded to God to have a king like all the other countries, and how God warned them that wasn't going to solve their problems, but would probably cause more problems, but they insisted, so this is what they are getting. Even their good king, their best King David, feels entitled. He is like the Pharisees, spoiled, not expecting anyone to critique him, getting everything he wants, and taking what isn't his. No one can stand up to him, but God sends a prophet to tell him a story so that he will truly see what he's done and repent—turn back to God. Once he gets it through his head what he's done, that he sexually assaulted the wife of a General in his army, Bathsheba and once he learned she was pregnant by this encounter, sends that General to the front lines to be killed, he is truly sorry and hopefully he learned something from this experience. God forgives him. However, he still has to face the consequences of his actions. In the story we feel bad for Bathsheba, that she is assaulted, that her child dies, that no one ever asks her for consent. We feel bad for the child, who didn't do anything wrong. But like I said, this is a story that tries to explain why things happen in retrospect. David has an experience that gives him empathy. His child dies. Now he knows the impact of what he has done. He has ensured that Uriah the Hittite will die by placing him at the front lines. He has taken away someone's son. He has taken away someone's husband forever. He has done all this in order to take someone's wife, when he had plenty of wives already. And now his beloved son is gone and he is in profound pain. We would not wish it on him, but he's done it to himself and he's done it to many others. We hope he's not going to act like this again. We hope he's learning compassion for others. We hope he's learning that even the king faces consequences for his actions and that God doesn't show favoritism even to God's favorites. We all face the consequences for the broken world we help create, from the greatest of us to the least.

When we welcome Jesus, it is Christ who lives in us, not our own desires. As it says in Galatians, “If I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor.” If David does whatever he wants to suit him, he is not serving God. He's like every other king that ever lived, like every other privileged person who wanted their own way at the expense of others. And if he welcomes God, he welcomes God's friends who are the vulnerable little lambs and the poor man in the story that Nathan tells David to reveal to him the error that he's made. When David experiences the loss of his son, he becomes the vulnerable, poor man. He knows how it feels to be helpless. Now he will begin to see the helpless people around him as actual people instead of obstacles to him getting what he wants.

Who are we in this story? Usually we are the Pharisees. We stand in judgment of people by the side of the road with signs asking for money. We think we know them. We say we know they will spend any money we give on alcohol. We say they make hundreds of dollars a day. We say they are faking being in need. We don't know squat. Until we sit down with them and listen to them and look for Christ in them, we don't know. And we are not ones to judge. How much do we spend on alcohol? We even sip it at church in Holy Communion! Jesus sees through our self-righteous judging. He knows that our judging keeps us at a distance from other people. He knows we judge because we fear—because we know that could be us, because we are embarrassed at our helplessness, because we don't know where to start. But where we start is with ourselves—noticing when we begin to judge and question ourselves. What emotion is under there? Fear? Anger? Sadness? What if that was my family member? What if that was my son or daughter or grandchild? What if that was God? And then we ask, how can we move from judgement to compassion, to let ourselves feel as deeply as this woman weeping at Jesus' feet, grateful for this relationship, forgiven and free. And we ask ourselves each day, “What is my life going to look like, now that Christ lives in me?” How do I divide my time? How do I spend time in sabbath and rest, listening to God? What do I see in my community where I can make a difference? What is worth shedding tears about? What do I see that hurts me so deeply? How can I work together with others to do something about it? 

And each of us is the weeping woman, full of gratefulness and compassion, because we know pain and we know forgiveness and healing because of our relationship with God. We know that we have made plenty of grave mistakes. We've hurt others. We've been selfish and shortsighted, but God continues to say, “Your sins are forgiven. You're all right with me. Probably have some things to learn in this world and consequences to face here, but I will never leave you.” We are grateful for Jesus' sacrifice for us, the pain he endured, and the new life he shares even with those who've betrayed him. He even agreed to live in us, as messed up as we are.

One final thing, Bathsheba is never named in this part of the Old Testament story. The woman who washes Jesus' feet is never named. Yet, she is held up as an example for all the men. In the Old Testament, women were not considered full people. Bathsheba had no say about who she married. It was revolutionary that Jesus should see women as people, and even hold them up as examples of faith. The point of the Gospel, isn't that women are better than men, but that the outsider, the one everyone dismisses, has value in Jesus' eyes. This story is about seeing one another as fully human, as important and valuable as we are. At the end of this story in Luke, I always give a cheer because he talks about the Disciples and also some of the women who were with Jesus, and he starts naming them. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, Stargazer from the Burnside Bridge, and Phylicia and Chloe, two transgender women I met at Synod Assembly. These are people, who have names, who have value to Jesus, and who are part of our community, who help make us whole, who teach us compassion and faith, and who we are to learn from and look up to. Whoever you are, God calls you by name. You matter in the Kingdom of God. Jesus not only tolerates you following him around, but welcomes your company, expects you to be there, because Jesus needs each of us with our full humanity, all our gratefulness and praise, to help reshape this world into one where each person is valued as fully human and each of us grows beyond our own desires toward compassion and love.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

May 29, 2016

1st Reading: 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43 
2nd Reading: Galatians 1:1-12
Gospel: Luke 7:1-10

A couple of days into my first week as a chaplain at California Pacific Medical Center, I was so happy to get parking at the Mass Transit station. As I got on the hospital shuttle, I heard my first news reports, that the twin towers had been struck. The announcer actually said, “There are planes falling out of the sky all over America!” Of course I pictured hundreds of planes falling from the sky and we certainly watched in San Francisco, because not all aircraft were accounted for and reports were that there might be one headed our way. We glanced at the television screens in the lobby as we walked by and in the patient rooms. Of course it was the same 5 seconds of video over and over again with the bright circle drawn around the second plane to hit the towers as it crashed.

That day I was called to a patient room. A man there was unresponsive. His sisters had come to be with him and they wanted a chaplain. I sat down with them to hear their story. This brother had been estranged from his family. They hadn't spoken in years, but when they got the call he was sick, they dropped everything to fly across the United States to be with him. I was there in the room when the doctor broke the news to them that their brother was dying. I talked with the sisters about what kind of prayers would be meaningful to them in saying goodbye. We all headed off to lunch with the agreement we would come back at 1 and pray over him. The guy died during lunch. 

I was beside myself. We said our prayers there in the hospital room, anyway, but I felt like I had failed. This man was alone when he died, and of course that is the last thing any of us would want, right? I went to debrief with my supervisor that week. I had so many questions. Why are some healed and some not? Why couldn't he have waited for our prayers? What more could we have done? I wanted to know because I was just beginning my chaplaincy and I wanted to do better in the future. I wanted to be there for my patients. I wanted to have all the right prayers. I wanted families to have closure. 

My supervisor told me that each person dies in their own way and it made absolute sense to her that this man died on lunch. He was estranged from his sisters. Why would he want them there at his death? He waited until they left and then he did what was more comfortable for him. He wasn't with them in life. Why would he want to be with them in death?

Through my year-long chaplaincy, I had a lot to learn. I'm glad I did chaplaincy, because it was ministry where people are hurting most and most open to thinking about their higher power's hand in their life and how they might be a better person. And it prepared me for this ministry, where I get to visit all of you in the hospital and talk about questions of life and death and why is there suffering and the different forms that healing takes in each of our lives.

I think the Disciples, too, were wondering about these questions of life and death and healing. Certainly the crowds that were following Jesus around wondered. Here is this Centurion, a very powerful man, used to having everyone obey his commands. Except this disease in his servant won't obey him and his servant can't obey him as long as he's got this disease. This important Centurion, this powerful man that has slaves and messengers and has built the temple and commanded in the military, now finds himself powerless. So he goes to one he believes has power, Jesus. But he's so used to the way his life usually works, that he first credentials himself. He wants to make sure that Jesus knows he is a man worth helping, that he would be in a position to help Jesus someday, and pay back the debt he would incur by having Jesus heal his servant. 

It reminds me of Martin Luther caught in the storm, “Spare my life and I will become a monk!” Doesn't this sound like some of the bargains we make with God? “Heal me, heal my daughter, my son, my husband, and I promise I've learned my lesson. I'll be kinder to others. I'll eat all my vegetables. I'll (fill in the blank).”

So what do we know so far about this Gospel story? 1. The Centurion is a powerful person. 2. The Centurion finds himself powerless. 3. He admits his powerlessness and asks for help from Jesus, who he believes to be more powerful than he is. 4. He gets others to make a case for why he is worth helping. 5. The Centurion sends a message to Jesus that he doesn't need to be physically present to heal his servant. The Centurion expresses a deep and profound faith in the power of Jesus for healing.

This Centurion goes from putting faith in his own credentials and worthiness, to putting his faith in Jesus. This Centurion, who we never see—he always sends a messenger—believes in Jesus, who he never sees, to heal someone important to him without coming anywhere near him. And Jesus holds up the Centurion as an example of what it means to have faith.

Paul is writing the people of Galatia about what it means to have faith. They are turning to a different Gospel. Gospel means “good news.” There is all kinds of good news in this world, but not a lot of it is lasting and real. One false Gospel the world holds up is that if we have the right connections and friends, if we are important enough, nothing is impossible—we can have whatever we want. However, I think we've all figured out that no amount of money or fame or possessions will ever make us happy or make our marriage healthy or make our kids behave or keep us from illness or pain or death. Another false Gospel is that we can have control. The sisters at the hospital wanted to control their brother's death and they were disappointed. I thought I could have control of people's grief and I lost that assumption very quickly. And if you think I was struggling with questions about the meaning of this interaction, you should have met the young doctor who had to break the news that their brother was dying. It was as if he had personally failed that this man wasn't going to make it. Here is a doctor, someone with the power to heal and to give life, who had passed countless anatomy exams and some of the most difficult classes one can take, and he was reduced to this pitiful, helpless person. He's a lot like the Centurion. Why couldn't this man be healed? What more could I have done? What more power could I have that would have kept his man alive? Weren't my skills good enough? Wasn't I worthy?

I do have some good news. We have very little power compared to God. Anything good we can do is because of God. Why is this good news? When we have the power we usually misuse it. God uses God's power for the life all Creation. God doesn't use this power just on those who are worthy, thankfully, since who among us would be good enough, or on those who can reciprocate. Instead God has mercy and compassion on us and uses God's power without prejudice, generously providing life and healing, for the citizen and the foreigner, for the Christian and the Muslim and the Jew, for the responsible and irresponsible, for the powerful and powerless. God isn't seeking our approval, or taking orders from us, but knows a better way and does what is best, whether we can see that or not.

Neither are we slaves bound to do everything our master commands. We do have the power of free-will. So now I'll ask you the same question I asked the Confirmation class last week. Does God's abundant love and grace and healing make you want to sin less or sin more? Of course they were trying to get my goat, so they said, “More!” But really, God is like a mother or father, who finding out their child intentionally broke a window, shows mercy and forgiveness on the child, and helps the child find a way to make it right. Now because of that forgiveness, is that child really more likely to want to do the same thing again? I doubt it! We want to please God because God is so kind. We want to live differently because of the forgiveness and healing God provides for us.

So what about this man who died at the hospital? Where was Jesus there for him? He wasn't healed. He died. If Jesus can heal from far off, as the Gospel indicates, why wasn't he healed? I like all my questions all tied up in a neat little bow, so I'm going to offer a couple of different perspectives. One is that God sees the bigger picture. What would this man's life been like if he had been healed—what would have been the quality of life for him? Many times death can be a relief—from pain and suffering, from mental anguish, etc. Another perspective is that Jesus brings life and healing to all living things, so maybe it meant more life for someone or something else that he died. Healing can take many forms. Maybe once this man died, his family came to a place of peace about his role in their family, or maybe they learned something about themselves. And finally, as Christians, death is not an enemy, because death is not the end. There is eternal life. Yes, we experience glimpses of it in this life, but in our death we are reunited with God and one another, in the Kingdom of God.

Let us, too, put aside the false Gospels of this world, stop trying to prove we're good enough to receive God's healing and love, and simply open ourselves to receiving God's generosity, and then stop expecting others to be good enough or worthy for us to share our bounty with. Let us be just as giving as the one who gives us life, shares power with us, and brings us healing.