Friday, April 18, 2014

Maundy Thursday and sacramental Christians

Tonight we begin the preparations for his death and burial. He prepares us, really.  Food, last words, gentle acts of humble service and care. Tonight is a series of preparatory moves; beginning with confession and forgiveness, moving to the waters where feet that have walked with him are washed and healed; finishing with the supper that became his signature practice. Tonight is how Jesus demonstrates the act of grace---God dwelling deep in our flesh, uniting with us in simple acts of love. Tonight the sacraments are born, instituted, established.  So…here are:
7  things everyone should know about the sacraments.
1.  There are really three.  Baptism. Communion.  The office of the keys or confession.  Tonight we experience a rare combination of all three.  Footwashing is a cleaning, a regeneration, and a sharing in Christ’s suffering (a kind of baptismal act).  Confession and absolution completes the 40 day fast of Lent and prepares our souls for resurrection life in God’s kingdom.  Communion is a participation with the disciples in the last supper and the new covenant established in his death and resurrection.
        2.  Sacraments are commanded by Lord Jesus.     “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them all that I have commanded you.”  “Do this in remembrance of me”. “I give you a new commandment.  Love one another as I have loved you.”  About confession’ Luther said, “Here reflect on your place in life in light of the ten commandments: whether you are father, mother, son, daughter, employer, employee:  whether you have been disobedient, unfaithful, lazy; whether you have harmed anyone by word or deed; whether you have stolen, neglected, wasted, or injured anyone.
3.      3.  Sacraments carry with them the promises of God.  “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved.” Mark 16. Luther says that baptism brings about the forgiveness of sis, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it, as the Word and promise of God declare.  He calls baptism a bath into a new birth in the Holy Spirit.  Communion carries with it the promise that it is “for you” and “for me”.  Jesus is for us and for our salvation.  Jesus intends for us to live whole, right, good, and faithful lives now and forever.  Baptism and communion physically unite us with Jesus’ body.  He is spiritually in the water, in the bread and wine.  So, he comes into us as we wash, eat, and drink. To get closer to Jesus one only needs to participate in these acts.    
4.      4.  Ordinary things carry the power of God to heal, to forgive, to save.  Jesus gives ordinary earthly elements divine properties.  Water, bread, fruit of the vine:  These are ever present on the earth.  They are building blocks of life really.  And they are signs to us that God is not up in heaven, in a royal palace, untouchable, unknowable.  God is present in these real tangible ways.  Immersed in, infused into these very real, very physical, very simple things.
5.      5.  It’s not magic.  Its faith.  We take Jesus at his word.  We say it is because he said it is. We believe because believing makes a difference.  It is a basic acceptance of a thing; like gravity or spring flowers or summer heat.  It just is.  Trust it and God will give you something.  That’s why babies and children are great examples of faith; they receive.  It’s not mechanical or philosophical.  It doesn’t require special knowledge, proofs, or evidence. It is mystery how Jesus becomes bread, wine, and water. Resurrection frees him to be present to us in these obvious and ordinary ways.     
6.      6.  They’re easy to share.  Because they are natural and safe. Because access is so easily granted us, and because we are the only obstacles to sharing them…the benefits have been experienced and acknowledged for centuries.  The command is clear.  And there are plenty of people who have not yet been offered these gifts, we are compelled by love to do so.  Tonight. This weekend and every week.
7.      7.  Pastors administer them.  God calls men and women to their service, not as protectors or gatekeepers; but as distributors and agents of invitation. We get to play host at a meal that is not mine.  We get to be deliverers of much needed good news to people estranged from God, wounded, broken, suffering in systems of injustice that alienate, accuse, judge, and condemn.  Longing for peace, real peace---shalom---wholeness, honesty, health, loving relationships, goodness---pastors get shepherd people to the waters and the bread of life.

So, tonight we receive the sacraments. He prepares us for death and new life.  He invites us to participate in his life, his death, his resurrection over and over again. As we enter into the story of his passion and death, may you enter with the strength and comfort of having received grace, love, and the forgiveness of all your sins.  Amen.  

On the 6th Day

 It is Good Friday.  The Sabbath has already begun, for darkness has fallen here tonight.  But at the hour of his death, on the day of preparation for the Sabbath, on the day when the Passover lambs were slaughtered in Jerusalem, it was still Friday and the sixth day of the week.  According to the story of creation, the sixth day is the day we were born.  On the sixth day, God said let us create humans in our image.  In the image of God, God created them.  Male and female.  And God said, “it is very good.”  On the sixth day, human kind comes into existence.  It is the final creative act, according to Genesis.  For on the 7th day, God rests.  The work of creation is completed and yet, there is a deeper reality at work that threatens; the darkness and chaos press against the goodness and the light.  They threaten to drown what God has made in the struggle for power and control.  Made in God’s image, we imagine ourselves too much like gods. Selfishly greedy, with insatiable appetites for more than our fair share that must be protected by violent opposition toward any human threat to our liberty.  The current debates in our culture over guns and gays is about power and control. Who has it?  Who should have it?  Me, you, them, us, the government?  In our superior egotism, we forget our vulnerabilities, our fallibilities, our mortality collectively earned and evenly distributed to all.  We forget that what we do unto others, we are doing to ourselves.  We let the chaos and the darkness in.  In our politics, in our private thoughts, in our foolish games, we let the darkness overwhelm us.  We let the chaos of a thousand mass shootings, of unending war, of intractable poverty, of tyrannical injustices too many to name, too painful to ignore and too entangling to fight overwhelm us.  To avoid the nakedness, we cover ourselves in shame.  We say “there is no God” while we play and work and self-medicate with toys and sex and food and drugs and treadmills and unworthy, vain pursuits.  We run from the light like blind moles emerging from winter’s earthen depths only to retreat at the touch of the sun’s rays.  We shop and watch and drive at the expense of hungry, dying children.  We take sides and blame and judge to protect ourselves and hold our own power over them.  We cast out, we oppress, we abuse and neglect.  We lash out and ignore.  What have we become but the shadows of our true selves? No longer innocent babes.  We have grown up, but we have not matured. We have not embraced the truth of our identities.  When faced with the reality of the God who dwells with and in us, we put him to death.             
On the sixth day, the man of God, the son of God, the Word of God who was with God in the beginning, is put to death on a cross.  He is shamefully executed by the government and religious powers.  Their authority was established by the will of the people who cried out, “Crucify him.”  On the sixth day, the crowning achievement of God’s good creation goes the way every single one of God’s children has gone; by the way of death; death that is the fruit of human sin; turning away from God to serve ourselves.  “We have no king but Caesar,” is to admit total infidelity to the creator God and full allegiance with Tiberias—who called himself son of God.  On a Friday afternoon, the sixth day, darkness and chaos close in and push God out, swallowing Him up and ending His life.  They extinguish the light of the world.  They lay waste the bread of life and pour out the living waters.  And as he hangs on the cross, life draining from his broken and pierced body he says, “It is finished.”  That which God started on the sixth day of creation, divine fellowship with humankind,  is completed in the death of Jesus.  God enters creation and loves creation so completely that God dies with creation; so that creation can be fully restored, healed, made whole.  On the cross, God makes peace with us.  Jesus finishes the work of creation by claiming death as the portal out of the darkness and chaos and into the light and life of God. Tomorrow, we must rest.  Because, on the 8th day the new creation begins. 
   



  

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

the one about the bones

Can these bones live?  Can the dead live?  Can those bound in the dark silence of the tomb breathe again? Can those whose lives are cut short be given another chance?  
There is a fascination with life after death.  From “The Walking Dead” to Zombie Apocalpyse, Vampire Diaries to Resurrection popular TV is a reflection of popular culture’s interest in the mystery and uncertainty of the future.  But neither the ancient Jews nor the first Christians were concerned only with the question; is there a personal life after death?  Their understanding of resurrection, the restoration of life, was about the dire present circumstances of the whole community of God’s faithful and whether there would be vindication for them after long-suffering. 
Ezekiel the prophet speaks to the exiled Jewish community in despair.  They longed for days of freedom.  They remembered Jerusalem before the great day of destruction.  And now they were living in a foreign land, deported from their homeland; their holy city and God’s holy temple destroyed.  It was the middle of the 6th century BC.  The Babylonian empire had conquered Israel, destroyed the temple, left the weak to die, deported the strong to Babylon.  When Ezekiel prophesies (a word which means one who publicly announces the Word of God), to Israel, he prophesies to a people who had seen death and grave loss.  They were desolate, lost, deep in despair.  They assumed their history, their way of life, had been destroyed forever.  God has abandoned them to die in a foreign country.  They were in bondage, captives to a people who did not know their God and their story.  Who were they apart from David’s city and solomon’s temple?  Their great story of Passover and liberation, a story that was meant to bring hope, brought sorrow.  Where was God now?  Their hope was gone. 
The Valley of Dry Bones symbolizes Israel’s hopeless sense of abandonment.  Their God had left them to die.  But, Ezekiel announces that the Ruah, the Spirit breath of God, was about to return to them.  The community would be restored.  Not because they were righteous, faithful, or pious. But because God is faithful and merciful and good.   Because God’s love for Israel was eternal.  The community would be restored as a holy people, the covenant restored by God for them.  And so God does restore them.  And Jerusalem is rebuilt.  And there is peace.  For a time. 
But 500 years pass and the people are in bondage again.  This time it is the Roman empire that violently oppresses with military force and high taxation.  They kill rebels and crucify messiahs.  And although the temple has been restored, it has been corrupted by money changers and turned into a system of economic oppression that benefited a few and hurt many.  And the nation is torn apart.  Some want to rise up and wage war.  Others want to quietly obey the Torah and pray for God to send a deliverer.  There was much suffering and senseless death. Jesus and the church emerge in this context. There is death because of poverty and violence.  
A brother died.  We do not know Lazarus’ story. How did he get sick? What illness overcame him and led to his death?  Jesus was familiar with this family, Mary and Martha and Lazarus of Bethany.  They had shown hospitality to Jesus.  And he cared for them like sisters.  And a brother.  But when he died, Jesus was off with his disciples.  If he had been there, perhaps he could’ve done something to save him.  That is the accusation leveled against Jesus.  His absence was almost as responsible for death as the disease itself.  Doctors take mortality seriously, seemingly holding life in their hands sometimes. Jesus had stayed away and Lazarus had died.  And although Jesus suggests that his death is a sign of God's life-giving power, it seems that he is too late.  Now it was four days later.  Past the point of return.  And yet, he arrives and promises more than a hopeful future.  Not "one day you will reunite in heaven."  He promises them life.  Resurrection.  Now.  In that hour. Our "too late" becomes God's "right now". 
And so, with a loud voice he raises Lazarus.  Lazarus emerges.  Alive.  Not so that the people can believe that heaven is for real.  But so that they might believe that Jesus is the son of God come to save the world from sin and death.   And he calls the community to unbind him and set him free. 
Can the dead live?  When we think about these two stories, death is linked with despair and hopelessness.  It is linked with "too late".  Who lives with such despair today?  Who are the living dead? Who are bound by injustice and oppression?  Who are hopeless? We aren’t.  We are safe and privileged and healthy.  The bible was written by those on the bottom of the human pyramid. The bible was written in the blood and suffering of martyrs.  We are not them.  How can we say it is our story? It is the story of those who are stepped on, abused, hated, rejected, cursed, unjustly treated. It is the story of the jews facing the gas chambers at Auschwitz.  It is the story of Native Americans facing extermination; of Rwandan Genocide.  It is the story of people who are stripped of human dignity and the possibility of a good, whole, and healthy life.  We may think of people in poverty, people dealing with oppressive governments, people living through the hell of war.  We may think of children living through famine, seeing death every day.  We may think of 2 million incarcerated Americans, the free-est country in the world incarcerates the most people.  Over 3, 000 Americans face life sentences without parole for nonviolent offenses. They do so in states where there are mandatory sentencing guidelines for multiple offenders.  Mostly they are drug-related offenses.  Are drugs nonviolent?  Perhaps not.  Nevertheless, the U.S, incarcerates a higher percentage of its citizens than any other country.  Can these bones live?  Hundreds of thousands of people are deported from the U.S. every year.  Families are divided.  Children watch their parents get deported.  People who have lived and worked here and paid taxes here without opportunity to apply for citizenship are deported.  1,200 people every day.  One of the largest detention centers for illegal immigrants is in York County.  A nation of immigrants has made it very hard for immigrants to become citizens. And so they live in fear.  Can these bones live?
We live in an age where there is reason to despair.  With all of our advances in medicine and science and technology, some people live with privileges that others are denied because of their skin color, their sexual orientation, their economic status.  We live in an age where food can be wasted in one house, while people hunger in the next one.  We live in an age where wealthy business owners build mansions in Manheim Township while a single mom and her 4 month old face eviction and homelessness.  Can these bones live?  
The bible was written in and for a community of people.  It is not a rule book for individuals.  It is community’s story, a national charter, a corporate manifesto.  It is the message, voice, and intention of God. It is a covenant between God and people.  WE are called to take up the prophetic work of setting the oppressed free. You will ask, but how? I cannot answer that.  God will breathe it into us.  God speaks and the dead listen.  We must shout against it. Death threats, incarcerations, what have you they will not prevent God’s people from saying what is true.  God desires that the oppressed, the poor, the imprisoned, the detained and deported will be free. We must not silently and idly stand by while injustice reigns.  We must stand for hope and truth and justice. One day it will be so.    Can these bones live?  Yes, they can.  Make it so, O Lord. Make it so.  Amen.      


Tuesday, April 01, 2014

the one about eyesight


Sight is something few of us take for granted.  Many of us wear corrective lenses.  I've worn glasses since I was 7.  I was called four-eyes.  When I take these off, I see undefined shapes and colors.  I'm near-sighted, which means I can't see things far away.  Unfortunately "far away" is limited to about 4 feet.  Several of you have had eye surgeries to repair injured eyes.  Loss of sight can be devastating.  But just as one’s ability to see does not define us, nor should one’s inability to see.  More often than not people are defined by their disability.  We marvel at people who overcome disabilities to become more able than expected.  Amputees who run, for example.  But we often pity or even fear people with disabilities we do not understand, especially those who are born disabled.  We discriminate. Just as there is physical blindness, we suffer from spiritual blindness. We determine what is right and what is wrong. Their outer appearance reveals their inner selves.  Right?  We need to determine cause and effect.  A defect, a flawed character, a bad seed. What caused this?  We say that people get what they deserve.  We want someone to be responsible. We need to blame. We want to fault someone.  And in so doing, we isolate the bad seeds from the good.  We separate them. Everything from skin color to physical and mental acuity, and even the distinction between wealthy and poor.  We have determined which is preferable and we prejudice against its opposite. And genetics doesn't help, does it?  Now our flaws are mutations that we may hope to control or eliminate through genetic redesign.  
When we see someone or something we don't like we avoid it or reject it.  
Whose in your spiritual blind spot?  Who do you find it hard to see as anything beyond their disease, disorder, or flaw?  What do we believe about addicts? Criminals? The poor? The disabled?  The mentally ill? Are they blessed or cursed?    
As usual, the gospel reverses conventional wisdom and understanding about the human condition.  Who is able?  Who is disabled?  Who is a sinner? Who is right?  Who is blind? Who can see?  Seeing is an important theme in the gospel of John, where it is a metaphor for faith in the God made visible in the crucified man Jesus.  Also, John astutely suggests that sight and insight are not the same thing. Some people seem to be able to intuit or trust that certain things are a certain way. They may even trust in invisible things.   We call this faith.  Others require physical proof and call those who believe in invisible things fools or worse. They are rationalists who depend on their senses to confirm truth. Most of us are not one or the either but a combination with a preference for how we observe and make sense of the world.      
I notice two things about this story from the fourth chapter of John's gospel.  The first is obvious.  Jesus is absent from the story from verses 8 to 34, the longest he is absent in the gospel of John. This is interesting because John’s gospel is all about the presence of God in Jesus.  The one who became flesh and dwells among us. And though many did not believe this, some did.  The whole story seems to hinge on the difference between those two groups; believers and nonbelievers. According to John, Jesus presence is the sign of God’s saving work for all of humankind.  And yet he disappears for half of this story. In a story about blindness and recovery of sight, the main character disappears. What might this mean?     
Second, a blind man receives sight and no one celebrates this.  From the moment he receives his sight, the man is interrogated.  It’s as if he’s on trial, isn’t it?  Who are you?  Have you been blind since birth or are you just a panhandler using “blindness”  as a way to people’s wallets? Who did this to you? Do you see this man in the court room?  You don’t see him? Then where did he go?  They even interrogate his parents, putting them on the witness  stand.  Is this your son?  Was he born blind?  Then how does he now see?  They intend to accuse Jesus, calling him a sinner.  They know that the law has been violated somehow.  Jesus did in fact heal the man on the Sabbath day, an act of work that was apparently condemned by the strictest adherents to the law.  
The prosecution rests with their final judgment.  This man was born in sin.  His testimony is therefore unreliable at best, and an outright lie at the worst. They know the law.  But they do not know Jesus.  And they do not believe this man’s testimony. 
Jesus never appears in his own defense or in defense of the man who was born blind and now sees. He is absent from the trial.
In the late first century, the early church had to deal with Jesus' absence. They lacked visible proof of his resurrection.  Their testimony that they had seen him was refutable evidence, plausibly deniable. John's gospel is strengthening believers and encouraging non-believers to take the risk of faith and trust testimony of the first adherents.  Jesus' absence continues to be problematic in a scientific world that requires empirical evidence to corroborate truth.  
Do you ever feel like God is absent from you and your circumstances? When things go badly, does it ever feel like you’re alone?  When you are surprised by an unexpected grace, do you ever feel like celebrating but no one is there to celebrate with you? 
There is an important clue to the absence of Jesus that Jesus himself gives.  Jesus says “I am the light of the world.” The thing about light is that it is always with us on earth.  Is there a place that humans dwell that is completely devoid of light?  Ever?  We cannot live without light. The sun, the moon and stars, fire.  Light.  We are drawn to it. Without it no one sees.  Is it possible that the text reveals something about Jesus?  He is visible in visibility. Jesus is our vision.  Jesus gives us sight, insight, the capacity to know and understand, to experience the other not as threat but as a fellow human.  In the creation story, light separates from darkness.  But it does not avoid it.  It fills it up.  Light fills darkness.  And so in this way, Jesus fills the darkness of every human heart.  Just as he gives sight to a blind man, Jesus makes it possible for me and you to see and know the truth about humankind. We are NOT prejudged by God through the lens of SIN.  We are all seen through the lens of God’s glory.  We see and judge people through the lens of good and evil; a lens God insisted would lead to death.  But God sees all of humanity through one lens: The light of pure love.  A blind man is given sight, because God has become visible for all to see in Jesus, in the light of the world.  Look around. There is no place where God does not dwell.  God is everywhere. In every person, place, and thing. Or maybe everything is in God.  Either way, God is not invisible to those who believe.  I believe and so I see God in you and in every living, breathing thing.  So what does it mean to reject, demonize, or hate someone?  What does it mean to imprison someone, put them to death, reduce someone to an action or a behavior or a disability?  What does it mean to see the poor as bad people, lazy people, worthless people? Natural selection is a process that, in a sense, negates the presence of God in some parts of creation. In our spiritual blindness, we fail to see God. 

Jesus is present in every living person and especially in those who are made to suffer unjustly.  The way we treat and understand others is the way we treat and understand Jesus. Do we crucify him or celebrate him? I think we do too much crucifying and not enough celebrating. Jesus is present in water, bread, wine, Words of grace and peace, in healing, in the light that surrounds us, comforts us, lets us see and know that God is as near as the air we breathe. What would life be like if everyone believed that what they saw, the ordinary stuff of everyday existence, life itself was the sign of God's existence, the sign of God's love?  Amen.   

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dinner Church

 This is an old idea.  What if we gathered around a meal and did a Eucharist while we ate it? The first Christians did this.  (See First Corinthians.  See 1st century Judaism.)  A Eucharist is also called the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion.  It is the ancient act of breaking bread and sharing a common cup of wine as a sign of reconciliation, for the forgiveness of sins, as a participation in Jesus' death and resurrection, and as a foretasting of a future reality in which all are fed and no one hungers or thirsts.
I'd also heard about St. Lydia's, a Lutheran mission church in Brooklyn practicing dinner church.
So we did it. This is what we did.
We gather around tables in a semi-circle.  We bring food to share.  We light candles.  We pray.  We listen to two stories:  A gospel story and a personal story from a new disciple of Jesus. We pray and we celebrate the Eucharist.  Here is the outline:

       Dinner Church.  Liturgy of the Eucharist
L=Leader; A=All
L          God, the creator of the heavens and the earth, the seas and the stars;
A         Show us your love.
L          Jesus the Christ, light and life, our salvation and peace.
A         Show us your grace.
L          Holy Spirit, breath of life, our comforter and guide;
A         Show us your power.
L          O God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
A         Give us your peace.  Amen.
L          What are the greatest commandments?
A         You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Psalm 51
L          Have mercy on me O God, according to your lovingkindness;
A         in your great compassion blot out my offenses;
L          Wash me through a through from my wickedness,
A         and cleanse me from my sin.
L          For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me
A         Create in me a clean heart O God and renew a right Spirit within me.
 All are invited to cast away their regrets, mistakes, guilt, and Sin by throwing a stone into the water basin.  We believe that Baptism unites us with Jesus, cleanses us from sin, and renews us in the Holy Spirit.

A reading from the Gospel of John
 We read the story in parts.  Tonight we need the voice of the woman and the voice of Jesus. 

A conversation with Beca Zimmerman
The risk of being vulnerable and the power of God to form us into called people with a mission to encourage others. 

Reflection time. 

Prayers of the People (A time to pray for people who need God’s peace, power, grace, and love.)

Liturgy of Thanksgiving

L          The Lord be with you;
A         And also with you.
L          Lift up your hearts;
A         We lift them up to the Lord.
L          Let us give thanks to the Lord our God;
A         It is right to give God thanks and praise.
L          In the night when he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying:  Take and eat this is my body given for you. Do this to remember me. Again after supper, he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it to all to drink saying: This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins.  Do this to remember me. 
  
A         Our Father in heaven, Holy is your name.
Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and forever. Amen

Sharing the bread and cup:  All are welcome to receive the bread saying: “The body of Christ for you.  And the cup saying: The blood of Christ for you.

We sing:          Eat this bread, drink this cup, come to me and never be hungry;
Eat this bread, drink this cup, trust in me and you will not thirst.

L          God is with us in the beauty and power of creation
            God is with us in the love that heals, forgives, and brings peace;
            God is with us in the Spirit that binds us together and makes us one.
            God, the creator, Jesus the savior, and Holy Spirit, giver of life be with you.
A         And also with you. Amen.

Let us depart in the peace and love of Jesus Christ

Liturgy means work of the people.  And so we entrust each other with holy words and holy things. There are many leaders, speakers, and servants around the table.  Last night, 30 people came with more food than we could eat.  The woman who participated in the gospel reading has never read scripture in public as long as I've known her.  Another young adult prayed the opening dialogue.  Children prayed the prayers of the people.  Another young adult prayed the departing blessing. Beca told her story.  We pass the bread and the grape juice.   It feels very communal.
There was a point at which Beca disclosed long-held beliefs in her own inadequacy, like she didn't matter to anyone.  Like no one should care about her. She actually believes that shit. She was taught to believe it in subtle ways by her family.  But it has become internalized.  She believes in her own unworthiness.  So I invited anyone else who has felt that way to stand.  Everyone stood with her and around her.  And communion happened in that moment.
There are unbaptized people in the room.  There are lifelong Lutherans in their 70's in the room. There are babies and single mothers. There are recovering alcoholics.  There are families.  There are teens and thirty somethings.  
When I proposed that we do this, I did not expect this to happen.  
Anyone can come.  Bring something to share at the table. If for nothing else, come for a great meal with a community hungry for a place to experience God's grace.  
   

  
            

the one about the well

Having an uncomfortable conversation with someone is never easy. Try talking about racial injustice and white privilege in a room full of black and Hispanic people. I had the frightening privilege of doing that in Atlanta in January. It was a hard conversation and we were kind and merciful to one another.   
Think about the last time you had a difficult conversation with someone.  Maybe it was this week. With a spouse or a child or a coworker or a parent…Maybe it was like talking to a wall of... miscommunication, misunderstanding, misinterpretation.  We talk past each other.  Put up walls.  Dig  trenches.  Retreat. Hide. Lie.  Divert. Blame. We let emotions cloud judgement and speak harshly.        
Last week's gospel story was the clandestine meeting at night from John chapter 3, Nicodemus and Jesus.  Nicodemus was a respected elder in the religious community, who was concerned about Jesus and about his own reputation. So he goes at night, in darkness, secretly.  He asked questions.  He received more questions and riddles about spiritual rebirth and the love of God.  I know John 3:16 is in there, but the conversation was more than a sentence.  It was an internal conflict about essential matters of faith. It's not easy talking to John's Jesus because he can be so esoteric. And yet, he's open to a late night meeting with a man who could be his religious superior.  Sometimes we have to initiate the tough, uncomfortable conversation because our own consciences are burdened.  Sometimes we have to question our own beliefs. Are we open to the possibility that someone like Jesus could point us to God in a way our safe religious habits can't?       

Today it’s the well confrontation. It’s not easy talking to Jesus. Because he knows.  He knows the woman at the well, her story of broken relationships, abuse, and bad decisions.  He already knows.  And we get a little creeped out.  I don't want to believe that someone knows my inner thoughts, my habits, my secret faults, my mistakes.  But the story shows that Jesus knows. And he loves us anyway. And that’s a little hard to believe, too. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

the one about the demons

As a pastor, one of the questions people ask me about the story of Jesus is "What is demonic possession?"   For years Movies like Poltergeist, Amityville Horror, and the Exorcist have dramatized the powers of evil to take over the human body and mind. These movies are scary.  The supernatural power that causes levitation, foaming at the mouth, spinning heads, shiny red eyes, murderous rage is portrayed as an invisible presence that enters a weaker human to become manifest. The invisible evil spirit needs a body in order to act maliciously.  Why do people like these movies?  Maybe because it makes demonic possession fictional,unrealistic, and bizarre.  Demonic possession in the movies tells us this is not real.  
I remember a youth retreat I went on once led by Lutheran pastors.  It was all about satanic worship and the threat it posed on our young faith.  They scared me.  More than ghost stories, they talked about supernatural encounters with possessed people, devil worship, and cultic practices.  This was in the mid 1980's and these pastors had lived through the 70's.  Satanic cults and black magic were perceived spiritual threats to people and churches, especially as young people tended to explore and dabble in the occult.  We listened to evil rock music, even playing some records in reverse to hear the subliminal cultic messages brainwashing our impressionable minds.  I actually wrote a research paper on the occult at some point in my academic life, largely because of the impact this one retreat had on me.  We were taught that there were religious rituals and practices that were opposed to the powers of God, that threatened the faithful.  I was taught to be afraid and to identify signs of cult participation or cultic behaviors.  For rural white middle class folk, satanic cults were real threats. They were to us what gangs were to urban society.
Except that I never met anyone who dabbled in the occult, practiced witchcraft or worshiped satan.
We were taught to identify and avoid evil intent and demonic activity. Since I never encountered it as a youth, I wrote off that retreat as a bunch of Hollywood hype.
But then I read the gospels and I see Jesus confront unclean spirits, demons, and the Satan himself in a 40-day biblical showdown in the harsh desert.  Jesus' ministry involved engagement with malicious powers that violently tormented people.  He cast out demons, amazing people with his power.
In one such story, from the gospel of Luke chapter 11, Jesus confronts and casts out a demon that made a man mute.  When he did this, the man spoke.  Others in the community began to suggest that Jesus used demonic powers (the powers of Beelzebul) to cast out the unclean spirit from the man.  Jesus says: "Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house.  If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?--for you say that I cast out the demons by Beelzebul.  Now if I cast out the demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your exorcists cast them out?  Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.  When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe.  But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his plunder.  Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters."