Monday, March 28, 2011

"Sundays are Hard."

We have a saying in our household. "Sunday's are hard!" They're hard because I have to get up extra early and am usually trying to read through (or finish) a sermon while I'm eating breakfast. Then I have to get the kids fed and dressed, and we head to church to make much of our day there. Once we get to church, things usually even out for us; the kids go to nursery or Sunday school or they spend some time with some of their special adult friends at church who are like our Sunday angels.

But for whatever reason, yesterday was particularly hard. I didn't have anything good for MM to wear to church, and so I had to lay out an outfit that she has never liked. We got into a huge argument about it, and she ended the argument by shouting, "I look ridiculous!" and storming off. Just before we left, she asked if she could take her favorite stuffed toy, "Kitty", to church with her. I told her no because she had taken it last week and almost forgotten it, and it had been a huge ordeal, and I just didn't feel like I could deal with it on this particular Sunday. Of course, that started another round of hystrionics, but I finally got everyone into the car and headed to church, feeling a little ragged around the edges.

I had managed to regain my composure and was mostly done with the 8:00 service. We had reached the part where I was giving communion out to everyone, and this is always one of my favorite times in the service. It is a thin place for me, when I get to look into the faces of these people who are entrusted to my care and share with them in this deep mystery. As I was making my way around the altar rail, I reached my children, who had come up for communion with one of their adult friends. And I received quite a shock! MM had plopped her "Kitty" (that was supposed to be left at home) right up on the altar rail next to her and was gesturing to it most proudly. I was livid! But I gave her and the rest of the people communion and finished the service.

In between services, we had quite a talk (witnessed, in part, by the choir), and her father and I doled out her punishement after we all got home from church.

But I've been thinking alot about the plight of preachers kids lately, and this instance brought it even more to my awareness.

At my Uncle Mike's funeral last week, I was struck when his pastor told the gathered congregation how Mike, a pastor's kid, had always been very deliberate in his care for his pastor and most especially his pastor's family. He spoke about how it had been a part of Mike's ministry because he knew what it was like to be a pastor's kid, and how his family had not always been very well taken care of.

So today, I give thanks for those people like my Uncle Mike, who minister to my children-making sure they get to communion, getting them donuts, dinner, something to drink, a snack after church when they're waiting on mom, giving them someone to sit with, looking out for them and making sure they don't get into trouble, and just taking care of these little orphans of the church. It is a gift to me to know that they are taken care of when I am busy taking care of others.

Lent 3A sermon

The 3rd Sunday in Lent
March 27, 2011
Once, in the middle of a long, hot summer, I was faced with a dual disaster. During the same week, the air conditioners at work and in my apartment both stopped working; and boy, was it hot!
We muddled along as best as we could at both places, and we tried to stay in our normal rhythm of life, accomplishing the things we needed to accomplish. Until one morning, late in the week, I became ill. I was completely incapacitated with horrible physical symptoms, and only then did I realize in all my 24 year old wisdom that I was extremely dehydrated. I’d had no idea!
When I told my roommate what was going on, we went out and bought some Gatorade, and then we each went to our respective parents’ houses and stayed there until our landlord got our air-conditioner fixed.
If only all problems in life were so easily diagnosed and resolved!
In the reading from the Old Testament, we see the Israelites, who are wandering in the wilderness. God tells them to camp at a certain place, and they do, but there is no water there. As they realized this, they become thirstier and thirstier. They know that neither they nor their children nor their livestock will be able to live long in the wilderness without water, and they grow increasingly more hysterical, crying: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kills us and our children and our livestock with thirst?... “Is the Lord among us or not?” Give us proof of God’s presence, proof of God’s favor.
When Moses cries out to God for help, fearing that God’s people are about to stone him, God tells Moses—go ahead of the people with some elders with you as a witness. Take your staff with which you struck the Nile and changed the waters of Egypt into undrinkable water. I will go before you and stand upon the Rock at Horeb. When you strike the rock with your staff, my presence will summon forth the water from the rock for you and all the people to drink.
And so it was. But the story is not remembered by the fact that God saves the Israelites once again, calling water forth from the rock. It is remembered for the testing and questioning of the Israelites, who even after they have been given water, continue to ask, “Is the Lord among us or not.” The Israelites know that they are thirsty, that they need water, and they let their fear and their hysteria cloud their memories of how God has freed them from slavery with miracles and divine intervention, how God is going before them in a pillar of fire and in a cloud, leading them. They forget how God has been providing for them, even in the dry desert wasteland of the wilderness, and in their fear, they cannot see the saving works of God that are even right in front of them in that present moment.
How often do we get distracted, fearful, hysterical, blinded by our “thirst”, by our lack, by our scarcity? How often do we let our fear, our lack, our hysteria cloud our memories of all the times and all the ways God has saved us, of all the times when God has revealed God’s presence, always going before us in the wildernesses of our lives?
In today’s gospel reading, the Samaritan woman has gone to the well to draw water, and there she encounters Jesus. She knows that she needs water, but until she begins speaking to Jesus, she is not aware that she is thirsty, possibly even spiritually dehydrated, all dried up without hope, so that she is practically incapacitated.
The first thing that Jesus does for her is to ask her for a drink of water from the well, and his one small request does many things. First, it invites her into relationship, into conversation. He calls her out of her solitude and loneliness. Second, he begins to gradually reveal to her the truth about himself, and in that revelation, to shine the light of truth upon her deep, deep thirst which she had not recognized or acknowledged. Finally, in his first request, he reminds her and equips her with the truth of a gift. She is able to draw water out of the well because she has a bucket to do this. In Jesus’s encounter with this woman, he teaches her about the spring of eternal life, which will cure her deep thirst, and in his attention and love for her, he gives her a bucket so that she can draw water from that deep, deep well.
The Irish poet and theologian John O’Donohue wrote, “The blessings for which we hunger [and thirst] are not to be found in other places or people. These gifts can only be given to you by your self. They are at home at the hearth of your soul.”
On this day, Jesus is inviting you to acknowledge your thirst. He invites you to name your fear of your thirst and to recognize how it causes you to forget God and seek to quench your longing in ways that are not life giving.
On this day, Jesus is reminding you that you have, within you, a deep well from which you may draw the water of eternal life. It is fed by a spring that was created at your making, made holy at your baptism and that continues to be fueled and purified by the hope of God that pours into it through the Holy Spirit.
On this day, Jesus looks at you and loves you, and he reminds you that he has already given you your very own bucket, that you may lower into that deep, deep well to draw forth that sweet water of life whenever you thirst.
All you have to do is remember—remember your bucket, be mindful of your well, and hold fast to the hope that God goes before you in the wilderness.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday 2011

Ash Wednesday 2011
March 9, 2011

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Solemn words for this solemn, dreary day. The temptation of Ash Wednesday is to bear these words that remind us of our mortality and to carry our sinfulness as burdens upon our hearts. But that is not the truth of Ash Wednesday.

Over the last few years, I have been given a gift of a new way of thinking about Ash Wednesday through two different encounters. In the first, I was sitting with my daughter at the noon service while my husband preached and presided. She was probably only about two, and so I spent some time trying to prepare her about what was going to happen in the service. I told her how we would go to the altar rail, much like we do for communion, but instead of getting communion, we would get the sign of the cross, in ash, on our foreheads. I told her about how this reminded us of the cross that was made on our foreheads at our baptism, how it reminds us that no matter what happens, we belong to Christ. And I told her that she could get this cross, just like everyone else. So when the time came, we went forward to receive our ashes, and my daughter began to get upset because she didn’t receive communion. As we were walking down the main aisle of the church with her protesting that she didn’t get communion, I was trying to quietly remind her that she had gotten ashes, just like everyone else. To which she proclaimed: “Hurray! I love my ashes!”

And then, a couple of years ago, I was regularly visiting an elderly woman who was shut in. She told me that she loved Ash Wednesday, and so I was trying to get to see her to take her communion and ashes, but I was not able to get there on Wednesday. I did see her the next day, and when I offered her ashes, she told me that she already had gotten some. When I asked her how she had done that, she told me that her husband, to whom she had been married many, many years, had come home from our Ash Wednesday service at church, and she had asked him to press his forehead against hers. He did this, and it left the mark of his ash cross as a shadow upon her forehead as well.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. I have learned that there is a strange kind of comfort in those words, a strange kind of belonging. They are a reminder that we belong to God, and that we will return to God. They are a reminder that, through our belonging to God, we also belong to each other, and that not even the loneliness of death can destroy that belonging. They are a reminder that we continue to exist, in every moment of every day, because of God.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. These words are an invitation-- an invitation to allow God to transform our hearts this day and throughout this season. They are an invitation to allow God to create within each of us a clean heart, an invitation to come back to God with all of your heart…to let not your hearts be broken…for God is all tenderness and compassion. They are an invitation to admit our wrongs and to receive God’s forgiveness. They are an invitation to conversion, to returning to God through not just repentance but also through amending our lives to more closely follow the way of our Lord Jesus Christ. They are an invitation to go deeper into God, to allow our hearts to be stripped, by God’s spirit, of the layers of hardness that we have built up, to allow our hearts to be lightened of their burdens.

Despite its starkness and austerity, this season of Lent is not a time to be burdened by more stuff or obligations, nor a time to be burdened by the weight of our sins. All of that and more is wiped clean this day, as we are invited on this journey to go deeper into God.

The temptation for us this day, and all through Lent, is to let our religion take precedent over God, to try to fill our deep longing for God with the trappings and practices of the season and whatever we give up or take on. Those things can be ways that we move deeper into God, but they can also be layers that we try to add back onto our new, clean hearts, so that we don’t have to bear to stand before God with our undefended hearts.

So really, this is a good day. It is a day when our hearts can be unburdened of the lies that we tell ourselves and each other about our mortality; it is a day when we can be unburdened of the untruths we create our identities from; it is a day when we can be unburdened of the deadness in our lives; it is a day when we remember that we always belong to God, and that God always calls us back to that belonging.

And it is a day when we begin to move deeper into God with our newly unburdened hearts, that we may be transformed and purified to revel in the resurrection on Easter Day. It is a day when we are invited to listen carefully and hear the echoes of the Palm Sunday Hosannas in the ashes on our foreheads.

(Note: Thanks to my mother for her sharing of the image of the invitation of Lent to go deeper into God, and to the poem Ashes by Ann Weems for the image of the
echoes of the Hosannas of Palm Sunday in the ashes.)

Last Sunday after the Epiphany--Year A

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A
March 6, 2011

Today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany—a season of light in which we celebrate the manifestation of the glory of God in the person of Jesus Christ. In our readings today we get a few more glimpses of the glory of God in Moses’ encounter with God on Sinai and in Jesus’ transfiguration as witnessed by his three disciples.

In our reading today from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has already set his face toward Jerusalem when he takes his three closest disciples up the mountain with him where they witness his transfiguration. I wonder what those three disciples expected when they made that journey up the mountain with Jesus? Surely they didn’t expect to witness, first hand, the glory of God? Do any of us ever really expect to encounter the glory of God?

I think that we can relate to both the disciples and to Moses who witnessed God’s glory in slightly different ways. God calls Moses to come up the mountain to meet God and to wait indefinitely, not knowing when God will reveal God’s glory to Moses. And we get that, don’t we? We try to follow God’s call, but so much of our life is bound up in the waiting, and sometimes it is in how we wait that we live into God’s call in our lives.

And then sometimes the weight of God’s glory can steal upon a person, amidst both the holy and the mundane events of life. I have encountered the weight of God’s glory in the most mundane events—putting my children to bed, in a conversation or a meal; and I have encountered God’s glory in the holy moments—when you have shared details of your life stories with me, when I look into your shining faces as you kneel before God’s table. Sometimes God’s glory steals upon me when I witness people being able to set aside their own egos and agendas and to work together for the greater good.

Jesus’s three disciples were surprised by God’s glory in their trip up the mountain, and when God speaks to them, they are pressed to the ground under the weight of God’s glory and under the thrall of their own fear. They are raised up out of their fear by the glory of God as they encounter it anew in the touch of their friend and teacher and in his assurance to them: Do not be afraid. Then he leads them down the mountain and tells them to not speak of his glory until after many things have come to pass. And so they go about their lives.
One of the temptations that we face in this life, that we may encounter in the wilderness of this coming Lent, is the temptation to seek after our own glory, or in the absence of the evident presence of God’s glory, to try to manufacture some in our lives. We are like the children of Israel who see the initial signs of God’s glory up on Mt Sinai, but after Moses is away from them for 40 days and 40 nights, they begin to crave more evidence of glory, and so they attempt to manufacture their own, crafting the golden calf out of their gold.
So what is the good news in this? What are we to do when faced with the weight of God’s glory or when faced with the apparent lack of it?

Henri Nouwen wrote about how he struggled with the temptation of replacing God’s glory with his own, and he wrote about how he would pray and wrestle with the question of “how to live for the glory of God and not for your own glory.” Finally, he received some wise counsel from the abbot at the monastery where he was staying. Nouwen writes, “Well the first thing is to realize that you are the glory of God. In Genesis you can read: ‘Yahweh God fashioned man of dust from the soil. Then he breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and thus man became a living being’ (Gen 2:7). We live because we share God’s breath, God’s glory. The question is not so much, ‘How to live for the glory of God’ but ‘How to live who we are, how to make true our deepest self?’ With a smile [the abbot] said, ‘Take this as your koan: ‘I am the glory of God.’ Make that thought the center of your meditation so that it slowly becomes not a thought but a living reality. You are the place where God chose to dwell…and the spiritual life is nothing more or less than to …create the space where [God’s] glory can manifest itself. …Ask yourself ‘Where is the glory of God? If the glory of God is not there where I am, where else can it be?”
“You are the glory of God.” The glory of God is revealed this day, not just in our worship, but in each of you, in each of your lives. And the gift of its surprise this day, if we can hold fast to its truth, will carry us through the wilderness of Lent, through the times in our lives when we are called to wait, to carry out the ordinary rhythms of life. It will carry us through the times of inconsolable sorrow, of boredom, of weariness.

How might each of our lives be transfigured if we can hold fast to the truth of this day—that each of us is a part of God’s glory and that it is never far away from us. It is always there, waiting to surprise us?
“You are the glory of God.” What a powerful statement! One that may make us wish to fall to the floor under the weight of its burden and our own fears. What must be expected of us if we are truly the glory of God? What must we do to live into that?

We make manifest the glory of God when we actively follow the way of Jesus in our lives: when we comfort the poor, pity the afflicted, when we offer hope and healing to those who have little, when we deliberately treat others with kindness and mercy. We live into the glory of God that is within us when we forgive others, when we choose life over death, blessings over curses. We become the glory of God when we live for others and not for ourselves alone; when we consider the impact that the way we live our lives and spend our money has on other people in our own society and around the world. We live into the glory of God when we hold fast to the hope of the resurrection, even in the darkest moments of our lives. We make space for the glory of God in our lives when we love God and when we love others.

Let us pray. O God, who before the passion of your only¬begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.