Sunday, March 30, 2014

Ain't it a Shame

Sermon from Sunday March 23, 2014.  This sermon was delivered to the people of the Lutheran Church of the Nativity.  The text for the sermon is John 18:12-27.

I think it’s all too easy for us to give Peter a hard time in this text.  We listen to these women and men question his association with Jesus, and hear Peter’s denial of it, and we think…”really, you’re going to just straight up deny that you traveled with him? Really?”  And then it’s easy for us to harshly judge Peter.  To assume that if we were in his position we would stand up for Jesus right there in the courtyard.  That even if we knew that it meant that we too would be arrested and possibly killed, we would stand with Jesus to the end.  
And yet, it’s not that easy after all.  Perhaps there is more going on here in Peter’s relationship with these people that we can’t see on the surface.  Perhaps we need to dig a little deeper this morning.
Perhaps Peter isn’t at fault for his responses to these questions.  Maybe the world has “conspired against him” so to speak, so that Peter is being forced to answer negatively.  It’s not even that peer pressure we are all so familiar with, but it is something close.
If we take a minute and think back to our childhoods for a minute - for some of that won’t take as long as others...and we think about a time one of our parents tries to get us to do something.  I can think of a couple times when I would try and leave the kitchen before I had cleared my place at the table.  Instead of being asked to pick up my plate and silverware, I would sometimes get a question.  A question that goes, and perhaps many of you have heard it asked or asked it yourselves, “You’re not going to leave those there, are you?”  Or maybe with a messy room, “you’re not going to leave those Legos out are you?”
Well..of course I was going to leave my dishes on the table.  And of course I was going to leave the Legos out.  But the question is asked in such a way that I have no other answer than the one I was given in the question.  “No mom, I’ll clear my place.”  “Of course not dad, I’ll pick them up right away.”  Even though in my heart of hearts, I wanted to answer differently, I was trapped by the question and didn’t have a choice.
And I think that’s what happens to Peter this morning.  The phrasing of these questions is done in such a way that Peter can only answer in the negative.  “You aren’t one of *them* are you?”  Peter has been trapped.  He feels like he doesn’t have a choice.  He has to go along with the crowd’s opinion.  He is trapped by a language that should allow him to freely answer.  Even if he wanted to affirm his status as Jesus’ disciple, and I think he just might have wanted to do that very thing, he was forced into denying something very real about his identity.  
How many times do these similar things happen to us in our own lives?  In my experience, they happen more often than we like to think.  Such as when you’re in a conversation with friends about Clemson’s chances in the upcoming game, and all of a sudden they are looking at you to make sure that you root for Clemson and heaven help you if you say any other ACC team, or worse USC.  So, despite your own loyalty to Duke, you say, “Of course.  Go Tigers!”  
Or perhaps someone is talking about universal healthcare.  And they’ve torn everything about the new policies up one side and down the other.  And all of a sudden you’re being asked if you agree with their arguments and think the whole idea is terrible.  And you’re trapped into agreeing even though you think healthcare is actually a pretty good thing for everyone to have.
And when we feel the need to tell these “little white lies” that deny our identity we see one more glimpse of the brokenness of the world in sin.  We feel deeply that we are disconnected from one another.  We feel that we have to hide bits and pieces of ourselves.  And we feel like we aren’t going to be accepted by the world for being anything but normal - and nevermind that there’s no such thing as normal.
And yet, even the sin that permeates so much of how we talk, act, and live in our relationships with one another, that’s not what makes the problem worse.  Instead it’s the feeling of shame that comes with sin that causes the most damage.  The sense that we now have to hide our sins and brokenness - even if it’s a small one such as lying about cheering for Clemson.  We feel that we now have to be alone in our sins.  We can’t tell anyone that we struggle with sins - and nevermind that everyone struggles with some sins.
We want to sit alone and be left by ourselves - much like those who feel depressed feel.  For one of the major symptoms for many types of depression is feeling isolated and alone.  Feeling disconnected and feeling like you have to hide these feelings in shame.  And for many depressed women and men, it’s only when they realize that they are not alone in their journeys that they can begin to seek healing and therapy.  It’s only by having someone share their own struggles with loneliness and shame that a healing connection can be made.
The same goes with sin.  Unless someone comes to us and shows us that we do not have to be defined by our sin and the accompanying sense of shame we feel like we must struggle alone.  We feel like we have to stay pressured and bullied by a system that forces us to make hard choices.  And that even though we might have been trapped by the system we still made the mistake and we must feel bad about that.  
And because of that very one Peter ends up denying, we do not have to sit alone in our sin and we do have a chance to be healed.  For Peter this healing comes after Easter Sunday when “spoiler alert” Jesus is raised from the dead.  Peter is sitting on a beach having breakfast with Jesus when Jesus asks Peter if he loves him - no tricks, no traps, just a simple question about love.  And Peter replies that of course he does.  And this happens three times.  Just like Peter’s three denials.  Three moments of forgiveness and healing and connection to overcome the guilt and shame Peter probably felt after the night of Jesus’ arrest.  
And then for us, these moments of grace happen at the beginning of our worship services every Sunday.  We stand together and look at our baptismal font and say the same words recognizing that we have sinned and are broken, and need the one who works through the waters of baptism to heal us and make us whole.  
And even though there’s grace in the absolution that is proclaimed after our confession, I think we sometimes overlook the other moment of grace in our confession.  Confession together isn’t this time to feel ashamed because of the brokenness we feel inside, but rather it’s an opportunity to celebrate because we can see that everyone feels broken in some part of their lives too.  That we aren’t alone in this.  We don’t have to live in depression or sadness.  We don’t need to feel ashamed.  We have a whole community that has been joined together through the waters of baptism and we can begin to see each other as brothers and sisters - and see each other as only brothers and sisters can.  That way we look at our siblings, see their flaws and imperfections, and then love them anyways.  
And then we hear together that God comes to us, and forgives the sin, takes away the shame, and helps us the next time we are faced with impossible choices.  And then continues to forgive us when we feel like we need to hide and live in shame.  And God has promised to do this forever and ever.  Amen.  

Friday, March 21, 2014

Learning to Serve

This sermon was delivered to the people of the Lutheran Church of the Nativity on Sunday March 16, 2014. The text for the sermon was John 13:1-17.

As a child and teen, I had several chores that I would do throughout the week to earn my allowance.  And these chores were your basic, run of the mill chores that a kid would have to do: make my bed, clear the table, empty the dishwasher, etc.  But my least favorite chore to do as a child was to pick up after the dogs in the backyard.  My brother and I would each have a plastic bag and scour the yard looking for the presents our dogs would leave.  Trust me on this, not a fun chore to do.
And yet, it was a completely necessary chore.  My dogs couldn’t pick it up.  And if it was still there when my dad and later I went through with the mower, there was no way to pick it up after it had been smushed by the tires.  And if we wanted to play in the backyard, we wanted to make sure that our feet were clean when we came into the house - cause what self respecting kid wears shoes in the summer if they don’t have to?
And as I think about this chore from childhood and what my feet probably looked like when I came in after playing outside with my brother and our friends, I’m reminded of the text this morning.  
Picking up dog poop in the backyard with a Wal-Mart bag was certainly less degrading than what the servants of Jesus’ day had to do.  Wash feet?  Seriously?  Who would want to wash the feet of another person?  It’s gross for us to think about now, and we don’t walk everywhere in bare feet.  We don’t have to walk on dusty roads where camels and horses and donkeys all wonder for the people living in Jesus’ time thought feet where the most shameful part of the body.  I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to wash my feet for me after a day in the summer sun running through the grass at the age of ten.
So then it’s a complete and total shock when Jesus takes off his outer robe, and then starts to wash the feet of the disciples.  This guy, who they believe - rightly so - to be the Messiah, the Son of God, has taken on the role of the most lowly of the servants.  He’s going to wash their feet?  He’s going to wash all the dust, the dirt, the camel crap off of their feet?  No wonder Peter reacts so strongly.  Either that or maybe he’s really ticklish.
But I can’t blame Peter for his reaction.  He had a different expectation of the Messiah.  He’s been waiting for someone to come down and wipe the Romans from the face of Israel.  He’s been waiting for someone to come down and answer all the questions about God.  He’s been waiting for a king.  A priest.  A teacher.  Certainly not a servant.  And yet, here Jesus is.  Serving just like the unknown servant in our Isaiah text this morning.  
Jesus is shaking up the disciples, and I think our, understanding of God and what the kingdom will look like.  It’s not about being able to rule over people weaker than you, instead its about loving them and serving them.  It’s about meeting people where they are and not being afraid to get our hands dirty.
Except we are afraid to get our hands dirty, more often than not.  We have all sorts of excuses about why we can’t help someone.  Of why we don’t “have” to help them.  But most of our excuses boil down to, at the end of the day, that we’re better than the person we are trying to help - all of a sudden we’ve just become like the person mistreating the woman at McDonald’s because his order wasn’t “just” right.  We walk past the pain and shame that these people have, much like most people in Jesus’ day would ignore the feet of those around them.
And Jesus, in teaching his disciples and us what it means to be a member of the kingdom of God says that if he, the Son of God can lower himself to wash the feet of those who are learning from him, then we don’t have an excuse to do the same for those around us.  It’s not about ignoring the shame and pain of those around us, but helping people through them.  Getting to know them, and loving them as Christ loves them and us.
And in all of these things, we know that Christ comes to us, helps us with our guilt and shame and pain, washing them away, making us feel clean again when we are tired.  Christ continually comes to us, strengthening us, and patiently reminding us that the kingdom of God is not being served, but serving.  And the service industry there is powerful and sacred.  Amen.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Real Talk with God

This sermon was delivered to the people of the Lutheran Church of the Nativity on Sunday March 9, 2013.  The texts for the sermon were Job 30:16-23 and John 11:1-44.

When was the last time you were honest with God?  Can you think of a time in the past six months or so?  A time when you were so frustrated with God that you yelled?  Cried?  Maybe even swore a little bit?  Or a time when you broke down and really prayed for what was on your heart, instead of what we all think “we’re supposed to pray for”?  A time when we told God that we felt that the Lord of all the universe had “turned cruel to us, that we have been lifted on the wind, and tossed about in the roar of the storm.”  
Job’s prayer has never been my prayer, even when I felt like it should be.  Instead, I take on the tone of Martha in our Gospel lesson this morning.  “God, I’m a little ticked, but I know that you’re going to do what’s best for me.”  It’s almost honest, but I cover up my honesty with flattery.  I’m not allowing myself to be honest before God, fully.  To just be angry and emotional and let God deal with that.  That’s scary.  For some reason, I - and I don’t think I’m alone here - think that God is going to smite me for yelling or swearing.  
Like God cares about the language I use in a prayer, and not how I talk and act for the rest of the day.  Right…
But my reluctance to be honest with God says something about my relationship (and quite possibly our relationships) with prayer.  That it’s a special sacred time, and that everything has to be just right or God won’t listen.  That if I don’t take the time to flatter God, then whatever I have to say will be passed over in favor of one of the other billion people on this planet.  That I have to craft my prayers like the ones on Sunday morning are crafted - with flowery language and a recognition that God is God, and I am not.
And yet…That’s not exactly what prayer looks like in our texts this morning.  In fact, all three of our examples of prayer (one from Job and two from John) all begin with accusations.  You did this God.  Or you failed to act.  God if you had just been paying attention, this terrible bad, no good thing would not have happened.  Lazarus would not have died.  My life would not feel over.  There wouldn’t be a war looming in Ukraine.  There wouldn’t be millions of starving children in this world.  My grandfather would not have died when I was a baby.  I’d still have the dog I grew up with.  My friend would not have had to deal with cancer and the consequences of that for her whole life.  I wouldn’t live in a world that has been broken apart by sin.
God, if you had been here, these things all would not have happened.
What if those were our prayers?
God I’m mad. no, not just mad.  I’m pissed at what I’ve had to go through.  God I’m sad.  No, not just mad.  I’m depressed.  I’m grieving the loss of someone close to me, or someone far away.  Where were you God?  Where were you?
In this time of Lent, we are also entering into a time of honesty.  As we journey ahead together over the next 40 days (give or take), we will spend a lot of time holding ourselves accountable to God.  Where we have betrayed God, where we have turned away from God, and where we have killed God.  But I think, before we get there, we need to make God accountable to us - to have these brutally honest prayers where we demand to know where God was and is in our lives.
Because it’s only when Mary accuses Jesus of failing to save her brother, that we see Jesus’ emotions.  It’s there, in the face of the accusation - with no flattery that Jesus weeps.  That the Word made Flesh reveals where God has been in the midst of this family’s grief - right there in the middle of it.  That only by allowing herself to be honest and vulnerable before God, does Mary see that Jesus has been present in their grief this whole time.  That God has been here in the face of this tragedy.  And, I think, that God is present in all of our tragedies.  
In Job, it’s Job’s honesty in the question that provokes a reaction from God.  And God’s answer, in more or less sarcastic phrasing says, “I’ve been here since the beginning.  I’ve been present in everything.  Every gift of life, that was me.  So don’t act like I was never there.”  Ok, so maybe God is a significantly snarkier than my paraphrase.  
But do we allow ourselves to feel God in our journeys?  To see that God feels with us in our grief?  And in our anger?  And in our joys?  Do we allow ourselves to be honest with God, and in our honesty, we become open to see God with us?  I hope so.   
Because when we are open to God’s presence here and now - when we enter into a relationship with God through honest prayers -  we get to be a part of the resurrection that Jesus talks about when he says the those who believe in him will never die.  Because being connected to God’s presence gives life on both sides of the graves.
And we get a foretaste of what the life on the other side of the grave is when Jesus commands Lazarus to come out of that tomb.  That even death cannot stop God from being connected to each and every one of us.  And when we reach the end of our Lenten journey, we see how our real and powerful and honest relationships with God will bring about new life for all of God’s people. Amen.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Where Were You?

Over the past year or so, I've found that my heart and mind are being drawn to the book in the Bible known as Job.

Specifically, the last little bit of Job, where God comes out of the whirlwind and tells Job to "gird his loins" and basically get a tongue lashing from above.

And it's taken me some time to figure out why this passage speaks to me.  Why do I keep coming back to God's series of questions for Job over and over again.

Certainly it has something to do with the imagery.  God asks some very impressive questions.  Questions like:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? (38:4) 
Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
     or walked in the recesses of the deep? (38:16) 
Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,
     or loose the cords of Orion? (38:31 - maybe my favorite) 
Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishook,
     or press down its tongue with a cord? (41:1)

The rest of God's response to Job is similar to these questions.  There are three chapters filled with lots of questions to which Job is unable to answer.

I love each and every one of them.  And I have no idea why I love them.

Or I didn't until I was reading Rob Bell's What We Talk About When We Talk About God.

Great book.  Picture from
In the second chapter, Rob Bell talks about how we as humans are driven to have the answers to everything.

We need to know how things work.
We need to know why things work.
We need to know everything about everything.

And our need to know isn't bad.

In fact, our need to know has brought us great scientific achievements.  It's brought us modern medicine.  Great architectural structures.  Cars.  And my personal favorite, the iPhone.  

But, we get ourselves into trouble with our insatiable curiosity.  We think that everything can be explained.  And that everything will be explained if we just think on the problem hard enough for long enough.

But, as science is quickly teaching us, there are some things we will just be unable to explain.  Ever.

Just observing something to see how it acts (here's looking at you quantum mechanics) changes how that object acts.

So we will never know how or why things behave even at their most basic level.  

We will always have unsolved mysteries.  

And I think this is why I love God's response to Job.  

Job just wants to know why bad things happened to him.  He lost everything and there wasn't a reason for it.

Job needs to know.

And God shows up and says, essentially, "You will never be able to understand.  This is one great big mystery.  And you need to accept that."

"I am God, and you are not."

God basically tells Job that life is mysterious.  Things happen, good or bad, and they aren't punishments or rewards, they're just things.

Bad things happen to the good and bad alike.  
Good things happen to the bad and good alike.

And they don't have any bearing on God's presence or activity in the world.

God is intimately involved in all of these wonderful and terrible things.  Providing comfort and grace.  Giving hope.  Being life.

And any attempts to understand these great mysteries without making room for God to provide comfort and grace, hope and life is just going to leave us banging our heads against the wall.

We just can't comprehend how deeply God is present in all of these situations. Because we weren't there.  

We weren't there when God made the foundations of the earth.
We (for the most part) haven't been to the recesses of the seas.
We can't bind the Pleaides.
We haven't caught a Leviathan.

We are not God.  We cannot fathom being present in all things - especially when most of us have trouble being present in the here and now.

And the good news is we don't have to know how all of these divine and eternal mysteries work in order for them to work.  My chair is still going to sit here and be a "chair" whether I understand the physics of it or not.

God is still going to be present in my day to day life, even if I don't always know where or how.

And that's enough.