Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Conspiracy of Life--February 20, 2020

The Conspiracy of Life--February 20, 2020

"But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you." [2 Corinthians 4:7-12]

Sometimes the greatest act of courage is simply putting both feet on the floor and facing another day.  

Sometimes the fiercest sign of hope is just to put one of those feet in front of the other, and to take the next step.  

Sometimes the most important thing you can do in the face of what seems like a world full of rottenness is to keep going, to keep offering whatever small kindnesses, whatever acts of integrity, whatever reflections of light are yours to shine into the dark corners around you.

And maybe that "sometimes" is really just about "all the time."  Because Paul certainly found in his experience that it was often all he could do to just keep going one step at a time, despite all the million things that were swirling around him and threatening to snuff out his flickering flame. And yet Paul discovered that it was right there, on the verge of feeling overwhelmed, that glimpses of resurrection happened.  Paul knew it was not within his power to overthrow a hostile empire that hounded him, or the angry mobs that seemed to run him out of one town after another.  He knew he couldn't magically wave away the other traveling religious snake-oil salesmen who tried to turn God into a product to be peddled or a prize to be earned.  And he knew that he couldn't wish away the deep loneliness he often felt when it seemed like it was him against the whole world.  His head knew he wasn't alone, but sometimes his heart had a hard time believing it.  And in those moments, Paul says, he just kept putting one foot in front of the other in what seemed like a completely ordinary action, and in the midst of that ordinariness, God's power for life was seen.

Paul knew, too, that God's power for life might not always look like triumph in his day-to-day activities.  He might go to a new town and share the news of God's gracious love in Christ and get booed off stage. He might go to a group of skeptical intellectual Greeks and be dismissed with a shrug.  He might preach the bold news of the resurrection of the dead in a synagogue and be heckled by folks from his own Jewish faith who couldn't dare to believe it was true.  He might try desperately to encourage a new congregation to welcome outsiders, only have them dig their heels in and double-down on their policy of "We don't want THEIR kind here!"  There were days when it was all Paul could do just to put one foot in front of the other; there were probably days it was all he could do just to make himself get up in the morning and get both feet on the floor in the first place.

And, yet, precisely there, in those small, almost-unnoticeable choices to keep going, there were the signs that the living God was--and is--real, alive, and up to something.  In Paul's small but persistent work over here... along with, say, a Barnabas doing his thing over there.... and Simon Peter in another place over there... oh, and of course, Junia fulfilling her apostolic office in yet another place, and Priscilla pastoring a house-church in her community... and presumably Mary Magdalene and Martha and her sister Mary and Joanna and James and John and Andrew and Timothy and Titus and Apollos and a whole host of others... there was a conspiracy of life.  Each was a little spark God was kindling. Each might have seemed tiny alone, and always on the verge of being swallowed up by the darkness.  But God kept breathing the Spirit onto them to make the embers glow and the flames climb higher.  God kept bringing them to life... so that they could keep bringing life to the world around them.

That's always how it is among the followers of Jesus.  We don't get to wield big power and influence for our own benefit--at least, we shouldn't, and we shouldn't try.  We are always sent out in ways that look small and vulnerable, weak and foolish, always on the brink of death, so that when God pulls resurrection out of those deathly places, it will be clear that it wasn't our power that made it happen.

Today, maybe what you and I are called to is what Eugene Peterson (borrowing a line from Nietzsche, curiously enough) called, "a long obedience in the same direction."  That is, maybe all we are called to do is to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to keep moving, even if it feels like the progress is just one step. Maybe some days all it feels like we can do is just to get up out of bed and put our feet on the floor--but that, even that by itself, is an act of resistance against giving up or deciding not to care anymore.  Maybe even some days, even standing up seems precarious.  But like Fannie Lou Hamer said so powerfully, "Sometimes it seem like to tell the truth today is to run the risk of being killed. But if I fall, I'll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom."  Sometimes even just falling forward is all we can contribute for the day.  And then we'll get up again and rise... and rise... and rise.  The conspiracy of life that we often call the "Kingdom of God" is made up of such small footsteps, such getting up to put our feet on solid ground, and such falling and rising again.

There is the work for today.  That is more than enough for God to use to bring life to the world around us, in all its obsession with self-destruction. That is enough for God to kindle a light in us for the dark places into which we are sent like sparks rising up from a fire.

Lord God, give us the courage to put one foot in front of another, to keep doing good, to keep showing love, to keep telling truth, to keep showing Christ.  And let our ordinariness be enough for your extraordinary power to be seen.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Meeting Tabitha--February 19, 2020

Meeting Tabitha--February 19, 2020

"Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, 'Please come to us without delay.' So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, 'Tabitha, get up.' Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. [Acts 9:36-40]

Sometimes even just seeing someone as a person with a face and a story is the beginning of what brings them back to life.

Like here... A curious detail made me stop at just these two verses, and almost made me stop even before Tabitha (whose Greek name is Dorcas) is brought back from death. Luke records such a strange detail in the scene when Peter walks in and finds the body lying on the bed that I first wondered what possessed him to include it. As Peter walks into the darkened room, he finds the widows of the community all weeping alongside the bed—so far, nothing strange. But then, Luke notes that these women are—apparently while they are weeping—showing Peter "tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them." At first, I thought this the worst possible timing for a round of show-and-tell. The woman is dead, and the rest of the community responds by displaying her handiwork to the traveling healer who has come to town? Is this really the moment for something like this?

But I wonder if, perhaps, this is exactly the right moment for showing Peter the clothes and wares that Tabitha had made. Not to be crude, but let's be honest—she cannot get any more dead than she is. There is no such thing as arriving too late when you have been summoned to raise the dead. That seems to be abundantly clear from the familiar story of Jesus raising Lazarus after four days when, as the King James Version so eloquently puts it, "he stinketh." So Peter is not going to have any less work if he prays for Tabitha to be restored to life right when he walks in the room compared with waiting for five minutes to see the clothing the deceased woman had made.

But consider what it does to the situation when Peter takes the time to see these tunics and other clothes as they are held up proudly in the wrinkled, toughened hands of the widows of the community. All of a sudden, Tabitha is not a faceless, anonymous corpse in the room—she is a person. She is a human being with a story, with a talent, with a face. She is not just "the body," and she is not merely the object for Peter's divinely given power, used to wow the rest of the people in the town. She is not an "it" (the way we talk about a corpse), and she is not even just "she" or "her" (a generic placeholder for Peter to do his magic on). She is Tabitha. She is Dorcas. She has a face now. Peter takes the time--or perhaps he can't help it with these eager widows pressing in on him—to see who Tabitha was. She was a seamstress, and she would have had her own style, her own signature way of finishing a garment, her own customary way of cutting the shape of a tunic, a way of hemming a robe. You got to know Tabitha, or at least something of who she was, by seeing these garments. Recovering Tabitha's particularity was the first step to restoring her life. Peter honors this woman, and the widows of the town honor her, by hearing her story and seeing her life's work. Those works and that craft do nothing to earn her resuscitation or win Peter's respect enough to pray for her, but they are a part of the personality and the person that is to be raised. God does not raise theoretical people or generic examples of humanity—God raises actual humans with actual lives and actual faces. What seems at first to be an odd detail or digression in the story is actual the moment at which the dead Tabitha has her face restored to her so that she can be restored fully to life.

Think about how this scene speaks to us on this day—perhaps it is not given to us to heal sickness with a single prayer today, or to command the dead to breathe again with the call, "Get up." It may be that God will use you or me in such wondrous ways today, but even if not, we are still given the ability to give people back their faces. We may be a part of God's way of restoring the personality and the beautiful particularity of others who have had their faces taken away from them—we may be given the opportunity today to rescue someone from the all-consuming force of anonymity, of being lost in the crowd as a nobody. We are given the possibility to listen to someone else's story and to honor it; to take the time out of our oh-so-busy and oh-so-important schedules to look at someone else's life and to treat it with care and dignity. You may be stirred up today to visit those who are homebound--in your family, in the congregation, in the wider community, wherever—and to rescue them from being lost in a sea of anonymity and amnesia by letting them speak and treating them like human beings, not mere objects for our charity. We are so tempted to let the names prayed for in worship become meaningless and forgotten, or worse yet, to let them refer only to the work we have done—one more visit made and checked off the list, one more good deed done in the world. Or perhaps you will be stirred up to listen to someone and spend time with someone at work who would otherwise be consumed into a cubicle and treated like a number. Maybe you will be led to make sure that our outreach as a congregation and our giving to causes does not become a mere exercise in box-checking—you may be the one today who will call our attention to the faces of those going hungry in our community or world, or the hopeful futures of the students who will receive school supplies through a collection we take up. Maybe you will simply help to retell and remember and cherish the life stories of those who have already died and who are waiting for the authoritative call of the Lord to raise them up. Perhaps the first work that needs to be done before the dead are raised among us is to ensure that they have faces again—and perhaps it is enough for us today to be people who treat all whom we meet as people with names, with faces, and with stories worth cherishing. From there, we can safely leave it to God to speak the life-giving call that begins with our name, "Tabitha..." or "Steve... get up."

Right here, right now, this God of ours looks at us in the face and says to you and to me, "Child, arise."

O God who has given us each a name to be called by, and who has given us a name to call on you by, O Lord, Yahweh, O Lord, Triune God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—we are lost and awash in an anonymous sea of numbers, and we perhaps have forgotten or stopped noticing that we are reduced to our status or income or Social Security Numbers daily. We have forgotten how many around us hurt in that sea of facelessness. Grant us the peace to stop, to pause in our well-intentioned good-deed-doing and busyness, to listen, to see, to love, and to recognize the faces and the names that would otherwise be lost in a crowd or an empty room. We ask it in the name of Jesus, who is your face for us.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Jesus Is For Losers--February 18, 2020

Jesus Is For Losers--February 18, 2020

"Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." [Matthew 10:39]

You've probably heard before the quote of billionaire and mogul Ted Turner, who once (in)famously said, "Christianity is a religion for losers."

He meant it as an insult, of course (most people do when they use the word "loser").  But I don't think anyone who wasn't already a follower of Jesus ever put it quite so correctly.  Ours is a faith--at least when we are faithful to the way of Jesus--that is all about losing... and then about how we discover that losing, even to the point of giving our lives away, is the way we find ourselves found and our lives raised up to glory.  We aren't accidental losers, or losers in spite of Jesus--we are called to be losers precisely because of Jesus.  And to take it just a step further, we're only supposed to be "losers" because Jesus modeled it first in his own grand losing on a Roman execution stake that becomes the prelude to his resurrection anthem.  

We're called to be losers, because we follow after King Jesus, the Greatest Loser of them all.

We just can't get away from this upside-down-sounding logic, because it's not just in a single verse, or a single passage in the Bible.  This notion of surrendering your life in order to receive the life-that-really-is-life is woven throughout Jesus' words, life, and gospel message, and the whole rest of the New Testament, too.  Jesus gives himself away every step of the way that leads up to the cross--not just at Calvary.  Jesus' whole life was and is oriented toward offering up all of himself for the sake of bringing life all around him, rather than clutching onto it for himself, and that was true when he was healing people at the shore, sitting at table with unlikely companions, teaching disciples who just didn't get it, or washing the feet of his betrayer, just as much as it was true when he was nailed to a cross.  Jesus spent his whole life losing himself--and at the very same time, truly finding himself and the meaning of his life.  And in that way, we are called to be losers just the same.

So when we read these words of Jesus about "losing your life for his sake," let's be clear that it doesn't require your heart to stop--just that our orientation turns from being bent inward all about "Me and My Group First" toward letting God bring life to all around us, through us and outward to all the world.  We don't have to get killed by the Romans or stoned by an angry mob to do that. You and I can give ourselves away--we can "lose" ourselves, so to speak--and as we do so, we discover we are more fully in tune with what life was all about all along.  We become more fully alive precisely at the point where we loosen our grip on our lives, or as Jesus says it, we find our lives precisely in the act of losing them.

Maybe there is always something bittersweet about letting go of our selves, our time, our energy, and our love.  Maybe it always feels like the ABBA song that the things we treasure most are "slipping through our fingers all the time."  But maybe that is simply how love works--to live our lives oriented in love means that we give of ourselves to others, knowing they will grow up or move on, knowing we may love them to their last breath or to our own, knowing that we will give ourselves away for their sake, and knowing that sometimes they will not be aware of the costs we have endured for the chance to love them.  Maybe we are worried as we give ourselves away that we will become empty trying to fill up other people, or saddened to think that those we love most deeply are meant to grow up or grow old, and we will only get the chance to walk with them for a part of the road before our paths take us in different directions.  But it seems to me that the most honest thing we can do is to recognize that is the nature of how love works, and that we can either acknowledge it and choose to live our lives, like Jesus, oriented toward love... or we can pretend that we can control and clutch and hold onto things just the way we want them forever, only to be disappointed later on when it doesn't work.  So, yes, maybe to live the love of Jesus will mean that even our own lives are "slipping through our fingers all the time," but maybe that is exactly what you are suppose to do with life.  You can't grab a handful of water from the ocean and expect it to stay in your palm forever to possess and control, but you can experience the sheer joy and delight of letting the water pass through your fingers and down back to the shore.  Maybe that feeling--of letting the water flow--is exactly what it feels like to be truly and fully alive.  And maybe, just maybe, that is what Jesus has been daring us into all along.

Ted Turner didn't know how right he was--we Christians are at our best when we are losers.  Just like Jesus.  It just turns out that losing ourselves is the way God makes us most fully alive, too.

Lord Jesus, let us lose ourselves and be found in you, just as you gave yourself away and rose to abundant, overflowing life.

To Stop the Dying Inside--February 17, 2020

To Stop the Dying Inside--February 17, 2020

[Jesus taught:] "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire. SO when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift." [Matthew 5:21-24]

Hmmm... maybe there's more inside me that needs to be raised from the dead than I realized. Maybe I need to come face to face with the reality that Jesus sees deeper into me than I want to notice, and he can see places where hatred and bitterness have already begun to strangle the life out of me.

I've been having something of a re-introduction to passages like these--words of Jesus that often make Christians squirm with discomfort. We get uncomfortable because Jesus exposes how much deeper our brokenness actually goes--he isn't only concerned with our external actions, but with the attitudes, the hatreds, and the pettiness that sprout up out of our inmost selves. Most of us, after all, can get through an ordinary day without committing murder. We can probably avoid physical violence altogether in a regular day, and it would be easy then to assume that we're off the hook as far as God's commandment is concerned. But Jesus sees that the roots of the problem go deeper--not just to our external actions, but to our inner thoughts, our emotional life, and to our words. If there's hatred and animosity there, if there's rage and bitterness and rancor in our thoughts and speech, we are already starting to die inside. And Jesus won't let us off the hook by leaving us to stay dead inside our pet hatreds and spite. 

Jesus won't let that deadness stand. He just won't.

This is part of the re-awakening I've been having. Jesus isn't just protecting "other people" from me in this teaching about the murder commandment. He is about saving me from myself. See, here's the part I've had the hardest time realizing before. A commandment against murder--or against violence or assault or whatever other physical, external acts you might list--is obviously intended to protect potential victims. There's a good reason we need commandments, laws, and statutes against murder. But when Jesus goes deeper, to include things like my words, my thoughts, and the posture of my heart, he's getting into things that don't directly affect others. I can sit next to someone and feel positively toward them, feel neutral, or feel hostility toward them, and as long as I'm keeping my hands to myself, all three scenes would look the same. But Jesus still says that something has gone wrong when I allow hatred to fester in my heart toward someone else. The other person might not be able to feel it or sense it, but the hatred is slowly killing me from the inside, and Jesus is ruthless against all that prevents me from living life in the fullest, as well as against all that would diminish the life of others.

So when I hear Jesus say that it's not only my external actions that matter, but my words, my inner monologue, and my thoughts as well, it now becomes obvious that Jesus sees something that has gone wrong inside my heart that he has it in mind to heal. Where I have become consumed with hatred for someone else, even if the other person can't feel it, I am affected by the hatred. When I let myself get caught up prejudice against other people--other nationalities, other racial groups, other faiths, other social groups, and the like--I am dying inside already, even before that bubbles up to poison others. I may not see how it is affecting me right now (that's often how the worst cancers works), but that doesn't mean I'm well. While I go about my day, assuming I'm doing just fine, the rancor I allow to take root in my soul is metastasizing into something that will choke the life out of me altogether. And Jesus insists on cutting that out of me--which first means that I have to realize what it is doing to me.

Jesus' teaching here, then, exposes some of our old attitudes as lies. It is fashionable these days to hear people say, "Crude words and hateful speech aren't a big deal--as long as you get the job done." or "I don't care if someone is vitriolic and spiteful toward the people they don't like, as long as my bank account is doing fine." But Jesus says, quite plainly, "No--that's the business model of hell. And I am in the business of bringing people to life." Jesus calls us out when we grow comfortable with letting hatreds, pettiness, or cruel insults come out of our mouths, and he insists even on uprooting them from our minds and hearts as well. The criminal laws of a nation or statutes of a country do not police our thoughts and our words, that is true. They only handle the external actions we commit, like assault or murder. But Jesus insists that he has a higher authority and a deeper jurisdiction. And on his authority, he says that the hatreds, the bitterness, the childish pettiness, and the prejudices we allow to fester in our hearts are not OK. In fact, they are killing us.

Jesus doesn't say these things simply to leave us to fend for ourselves, but in order to heal them. We tend to run away from the insightful voices in our lives that call us out on the things we are not proud of, because we are afraid they are simply there to punish or shame us. But Jesus isn't here just to wag a judging finger at us or shuttle us into hell. He is here to name the deadness in us in order that he might bring us to life. He is here to cut out the cancer so that we can be healed. He has come to stop the dying inside.

Today, what if we opened up our deepest selves to Jesus' scalpel, to allow him to do surgery on these deadened hearts of ours and to bring us to life yet again?

Lord Jesus, cut away all the things we have gotten comfortable with that are also killing us, even the pet hatreds and familiar bitterness we have allowed to fester there.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Late Days of Orion--February 14, 2020

The Late Days of Orion--February 14, 2020

"We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus." [Romans 6:9-11]

Betelgeuse is dying... and with it, so is the last of my illusions that the things that seemed liked they'd last forever would actually endure.

You might have heard the news story somewhere along the way recently.  Scientists who watch the skies have been noticing that Betelgeuse, the red super-giant star that makes up the left armpit of the constellation Orion (the Hunter), has been dimming.  Like, really, really, dimming.  It's even noticeable to the naked eye.  A lot of astronomers think this supergiant star is getting ready to go supernova and explode. (Or, in a quirk of Einsteinian physics, that it may already have exploded but that the light from the explosion hasn't reach our eyes yet, because it is 600 light-years away from us). And when it happens (or when our Earth-bound eyes finally see that it has happened), Orion just won't be the same.  

Eventually, over a matter of months once the big explosion lights up the sky as bright as the full moon, the remnants of Betelgeuse will fade like dying embers in a hearth.  And maybe our eyes won't be able to see the shape of a human figure in the pinpoints of light that remain of Orion.  Maybe this hunter that human imaginations have been picturing in the sky for as long as civilization itself won't be recognizable any longer.  Maybe future star-watchers will think they see new images in the sky... maybe it won't look like anything at all.  It's mind-boggling, but it is quite possible that this star, which has been in the night sky for longer than there have been human beings around, will vanish in our lifetimes.  We may well be living in the late days of Orion.

And to be honest, that's a rather sad thought to me.  More than that, it's frightening.  It's scary to consider the very real possibility that the things we took for granted as permanent and unchanging might one day be gone.  It's unnerving to think that an object twenty times more massive than our sun could vanish from the spot in the night sky where it has kept constant vigil for all of our lives--and the lives of all our ancestors.  And it is unsettling to realize that if the very heavens are not as permanent and fixed as we wished they were, then all the other structures and figures we assumed would last forever could be shaken or taken away, too.  

A cosmos without Orion in the night sky means there could be a world without the institutions we have relied on, or without the old norms and principles we thought would endure, or maybe even without the people we were sure were dependable to make everything turn out all right.  It's just like the line from the old Fleetwood Mac classic: "I've been afraid of changing, 'cause I built my life around you." There are some pretty important fixtures--people, things, ideas, and institutions--we have all built our lives around, after all.  And it is scary to consider that the things we assumed were solid, were unchanging, and were unshakable, could all become only the memory of afterglow before our very eyes.

There's no pretending that this isn't the age we live in.  All the time, we are being reminded how things aren't "the way they used to be."  All the time, the norms and standards we thought would prevent the worst from happening reveal they are crumbling.  All the time, the people we counted on to be fixed points in our lives reveal themselves to be unreliable, shaky, or simply not who we thought they were--sometimes even the faces we see back in the mirror.  Like James Baldwin put it, "A civilization is not destroeyd by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked, but only that they be spineless."  Every time I look up at the night sky and spot Betelgeuse there in Orion's shoulder socket, I am reminded that even the things I thought would be there forever may just vanish--and maybe we are watching them start to fade right now.

When you realize that everything else we might "build our lives around" (to use Stevie Nicks' phrasing) could be shaken, at some point, you start asking questions about God, too.  If the very stars in the universe can be put out like snuffing out a candle, then what gives us confidence that the life we are promised in Christ will not flake out on us.  If the institution called "church" doesn't look like it used to... or doesn't seem to command the same perch of influence it once had... or doesn't seem as reliable as we imagined it once was... then how do we know we can count on the Christ the church says it is centered on?  What gives us reason to believe that Jesus will really be able to come through for us and deliver on the promise of life for us when even supergiant stars eventually succumb to the power of death?  If one of the brightest stars in the night sky for all of human history is fading out before our very eyes, what gives us assurance that the One we name as "the Bright and Morning Star" and "the Light of the World" will not vanish like Orion's shoulder?

This seems to be the very question Paul has in mind when he thinks about the kind of life that Jesus brings.  And for the apostle Paul, it is Jesus' own death that gives us confidence in his power for life.  Paul says that because Jesus has already died and been raised, he cannot die again.  He is no longer subject to the power of death--and because of that, he can make promises that really are building our lives around.  Betelgeuse can't promise that--it still has to deal with its own death.  Orion can't promise that, either--the mighty hunter will have to stare down his own mortality.  All the other institutions, structures, norms, and even civilizations of history will have to come face to face with their own expiration dates.  But the executed-and-risen homeless rabbi named Jesus has something that none of the world's empires or the galaxies biggest stars have: Jesus has the wounds of his own death still marking his body.  And because he has come through death, we have the confidence that he can give us life.

That's why he's the one worth building our lives around, despite all the other people that change in life and landslides that shift the ground underneath our feet.  Jesus is the one who will not let us down, because he has already faced the moment where we let him down and let him get strung up--and he has come through it.  Jesus' death is what assures us of our resurrections, because nothing can stop him any longer.

Maybe that's the long and the short of the good news we need right now.  Nothing can stop Jesus any longer.  Not the failure of our institutions, not the changing of norms we thought were fixed, and not the collapse of the safeguards we were sure would endure.  When they crumble--and they do--he keeps at it.  When they fade--and they will--his light keeps on shining.  When the others we built our lives on prove unreliable or fickle--and that happens, too--Jesus remains, because the worst that can happen to him has already happened.

On the days when I can't bring myself to put my trust in anyone or anything else, the apostle seems to say to me, "Safe bet.  I wouldn't trust any of them, either.  But Jesus is risen from the dead--you can count on him."

And I can.  Every time, I've learned, I can.  Even in these late days of Orion.

Lord Jesus, reach out your hand to us and let us build our lives around you, where everything and every one else proves shaky.  Let us trust in you to bring us to life.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Getting a Reputation--February 13, 2020

Getting A Reputation--February 13, 2020

"Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon's Portico. None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem. Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter's shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured." [Acts 5:12-16]

The early church had a reputation for bringing people to life.

That sentence--and that reality--both inspires me and haunts me.

I know it is easy to romanticize the life of the early church, or to imagine that it wasn't fraught with challenges, beset by divisions, and often hounded by the powers of the day. I know that there were a great many difficulties for the early community of Jesus, and it seems to me, too, that an honest reading of the Scriptures indicates that a lot of the time they were making things up as they went along. The first generation of what we call "church" did a lot of designing the plane they were flying in and building the boat they were already at sea sailing in.

So I don't mean to simply pine for "the good old days of church" to the book of Acts and say, "If only we could do things like they did back then...." both because we can't go back in time, and because we aren't called to duplicate a past era but rather to embody Christ for the present moment to which we are called.  And there are a lot of good things to be grateful for in this present moment, two millennia later, that weren't yet ironed out in the first generation of the church.  (You know, like, they hadn't decided yet at this point in the book of Acts that you could be accepted as a disciple of Jesus if you were a Gentile....and that's me.)

But what strikes me here about this short scene from the early days of the Jesus movement is that the followers of Jesus were getting a reputation for bringing people to life.  They had a hunch that life just might break out wherever the followers of Jesus went, and so even when they were afraid to join up, they would line the streets where the apostles just might be walking, in the hopes that life might break out among them, too.  And to hear Luke tell it, this wasn't empty hope or wishful thinking--the sick, the hurting, and the ones troubled by spirits all found themselves brought fully to life from just being around the disciples.  You almost get the impression that life just erupted wherever Peter and James and John and the rest went, that the power of God to give life just flowed from them without a thought, so that folks from around were just hoping to get touched by Pete's shadow.

Now, I know that this kind of cult of personality can go terribly wrong, and I know that plenty of religious hucksters have abused the hope of healing to solicit donations from hurting and sick people who placed their earnest faith in people who did not deserve it.  And I don't mean to say that the plan for the 21st century church should be to promise that people will be cured of cancer if the shadow of the preacher touches them during the sermon (that sounds like a terrible mash-up of liturgy and Groundhog Day).  But I do mean to suggest that there was something genuine about the early church that gave it a reputation for bringing people to life... and that life included everybody.

Luke seems to make a point of that here, too.  You had folks who weren't brave enough yet to join the disciple community or profess their allegiance to Jesus (which was a pretty dangerous thing to do), but they were still hopeful that they could be healed of their sicknesses anyway... and they were.  The gift of life--of healing from sickness, relief from hurts, liberation from the power of unclean spirits--was given all around, not just to church folk, not just to "their own," and not just to dues-paying, offering-giving members of the Jesus Fan Club.  The early church had a reputation for being loose that way--it just gave away the gift of life to anybody and everybody.  The followers of Jesus became known for giving life, not on condition that someone joined the church or made a decision for Jesus or prayed the right prayer first, but without condition and without fine print.  We were reckless... prodigal... extravagant.

You know... just like Jesus.

And this is what haunts me as much as it inspires me.  I don't know that when people think of "church" today, they have that same impression.  I don't know that when folks hear about Christians, they think, "Oh, those are the folks who bring life wherever they go!"  And I'm pretty sure that folks don't expect the Respectable Religious Crowd to be giving away good things for free without a sales-pitch, a guilt-trip, or a winking, "But I need you do me a favor first and join my club..." that comes along.

All of that is to say, a lot of folks' impression of the church in 21st century America is that we are NOT interested in helping folks who aren't already "like us" or "in the club," or "members in good standing."  A lot of folks assume (correctly, because church folks SAY things like this, or post things like this on their social media) that we're only supposed to "take care of our own" and that others who stand at the street corner hoping for help are just mooching and leeching and lazily siphoning off the rest of the "good people."  A lot of folks in the communities where we live think that the church is a building inside which people are taught to justify their own selfish "Me and My Group First" mindset, because we give them no reason to think otherwise.  We don't have a reputation like Peter did for being so full of God's life-giving power that others were brought to life more fully just by being in his presence.  We don't have a reputation for being "loose" with Spirit-given life like the first disciples got known for.

And this story both challenges me and encourages me to change that.  This ancient anecdote tells me that it once was that way, that we have been and once again could be a community known for life breaking out among us.  I can see it in our future again because it was a part of our foundational past. I can see it like the image C.S. Lewis uses in his story of the creation of Narnia of a world so new and brimming with life that a piece of toffee that touches the soil becomes a seed of a toffee tree, and a lamp post that gets stuck in the ground sprouts roots and becomes a permanent living thing.  The early church was so open to letting God's Spirit move through them recklessly and abundantly that they were known for life spilling over out of their presence in the room--and we could be that, too.

Dream with me here for a moment: we could be people that others choose to sit by at the coffee shop because they know they will find a kind and listening ear.  We could be people that others are willing to share their troubles with because they know our first impulse will be to listen with love rather than to condemn or ostracize them.  We could people who are the first the community turns to when there is a disaster or a tragedy or trouble, because they know that we are committed to walking through those times with others, rather than hunkering down and caring only for our own.  We could be people who are known for life breaking out among us, not just for church members, but for everybody--and we could be a part of God's ongoing mission to bring all of creation back to life in the fullest.

All of that could be our reputation, and if it happened, people would say, "Doesn't surprise us that they are known for abundant life and reckless grace--that's what Jesus was all about, too."  There is our once-and-future legacy--to be people in whom the overflowing life of Jesus is shared with all.

And it starts now, in what you and I choose to do with this day.

Let's get cracking.

Lord Jesus, let your life spill over through us in the needs of everyone around us, and let us get a reputation like yours, for being loose with life, and healing, and love.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Un-Normalizing Indifference--February 12, 2020

Un-Normalizing Indifference--February 12, 2020

[Jesus said:] "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.' He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house--for I have five brothers--that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, 'No, father Abraha; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead'." [Luke 16:19-31]

It's not about being rich--it's about being indifferent.  

And maybe it's about how easy it is for us to use our abundance to insulate ourselves from the needs of the neighbor on the other side of the walls we set up so that we can reinforce our apathy.  There's the real tragedy of this story: the nameless rich man has normalized his indifference, and because of that, he's dead inside already even before his heart stops beating.  He has made it ok (with himself) simply not to even notice the man outside his gate, sick and dying and hungry.  And because he won't let himself see Lazarus, he has let himself off the hook for doing what Moses and the prophets all said to do for the neighbor in need.  Because the rich man has given himself permission not to care for the neighbor God has sent across his pathway, he has hardened his heart from ever being able to see Lazarus' face... or to dare to invite him to dinner and to share a table.

I've got to tell you, I used to get upset by this story for all the wrong reasons.  The Lutheran in me would get nervous because it sounded like this was a story about earning your way into heaven, whether by good deeds or somehow through suffering in poverty in life (I was never quite clear on how that would have worked when I thought that's what this parable was about).  The respectable member of the American middle-class in me got uncomfortable at the idea that Jesus could so casually talk about a rich man being tormented in hell, when so many other voices around told me that being rich was what I was supposed to aspire to.  And some other part of me was just confused about whether Jesus was actually describing the literal geography of the afterlife, with its chasms, flames, and the presence of Abraham (who somehow seems to be a giant in this story, if Lazarus is curled up at his bosom).  There were lots of reasons for me to be unsettled by this story over the years.

But I'm not sure that any of those were the right reason to be unsettled.

The more I spend time with this story, the more I see that Jesus tells this story to un-normalize our collective indifference.  We have all become numb, both to the needs of our neighbor and to our unavoidable calling to love those neighbors, and Jesus has come to make our apathy wrong again--or rather, to remind us that it was never God's will for us in the first place.  He tells this story to wake us up, to shake us up, and to see the ways we have told ourselves it's OK not to care about the faces outside the gates, simply because they are on the other side of the fence.  And as Jesus tells this story, he is fully aware that he is simply repeating what the law of Moses and the oracles of the prophets had been saying all along.  What the Torah gave in commandments like, "You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself... you shall not oppress the poor... you shall care for the widow, the orphan, and the alien..." and such, and what the prophets declared in poetry and visions, Jesus just tells in a story.  But the driving point is the same: we have allowed ourselves to become dead inside by normalizing indifference.  And that is not ok.  This story, then, is less a roadmap of the underworld, like Dante's Divine Comedy with its curious pathways through limbo, hell, purgatory, and paradise, and more like a rhetorical defibrillator meant to shock our stilled hearts back to beating again.

And this, I believe, is the correct reason to be unsettled by Jesus' story.  He means to unsettle us--that is his point.  Not to offend for the sake of causing offense, or to be crude for the purpose of riling up anger.  But to unsettled and provoke us in places we have allowed our souls to become deadened, and our hearts to become hardened.  He tells this story, like Dickens told Scrooge's story in A Christmas Carol, for the purpose of shaking us out of our catatonic state of self-centeredness to see that God has always intended for us to care for one another, especially when the "other" is right at your doorstep.  Jesus wants us to see that God's command all along (indeed, from the beginnings of Israel's story in the books of Moses) has been that we cannot turn away from the neighbor outside our gate, because all are beloved of God.  And yet somehow, we, like the unnamed rich man, have all simply grown accustomed to the idea that "those people" don't matter because, well, they're outside my fenced-in area.  We have somehow convinced ourselves that being indifferent is acceptable, that everybody does it, and that we cannot be obligated to care for others if it would mean losing some of our precious first-quarter profits.  We have deluded ourselves--and deadened ourselves--into thinking that Lazarus is to blame for his poverty and sickness, and that the rich man can't be blamed for stepping around his sore-covered body without a second thought as he goes out his front door to work in the morning.

And, as I say, Jesus has come--both in this story and in his entire ministry--to say that we have normalized something terrible by allowing that indifference.  We have eroded the old expectations that we would take care of one another, and we have given ourselves permission simply not to think about the Lazaruses of the world as people who matter.  As long as we don't have to see their faces, we don't really have to think of them as human... or neighbors... or children of God made in God's own image.  And Jesus has come to tell us that normalizing what was unconscionable is not ok.  He isn't here to threaten us with hell if we make too much money, or to tell us that if we don't do enough good deeds we'll be on the wrong side of some postmortem chasm.  He simply intends to bring us to life where we have let our hearts become dead inside.  

This is a story, then, about two resurrections: Lazarus' and ours.  As far as Jesus is concerned, you don't have to worry about Lazarus.  God's got him covered.  Even though the indifferent rich man wouldn't give him the time of day, God never forgot about him or his name.  (The rich man, ironically, never even has his name remembered--for all of his attempts to be "great," his big name in gold letters on his properties is ultimately forgettable in the final analysis.)  So, at one level, this is a story about how God reserves the right to raise up from death those who are most stepped on and stepped around.  This is a story about God's commitment to raise up those who are regarded as unimportant, negligible, and forgettable by the world and to remember their names, to honor them, and to give them life.  But this is also a story that is told for the purpose of bringing us to life where we--who are probably a lot more like the unnamed rich man than Lazarus, if we are honest with ourselves--have let our hearts become dead inside.  This is a story that speaks hope for us, not unlike the visit of the Ghost of Christmas-Yet-To-Come creates a new possibility for Ebenezer Scrooge, that our deadened souls, insulated behind walls of our own creation, might be quickened back to life right now.  This is about the God who raises what is dead in us--and about our need to admit how much of our hearts we have allowed to die of spiritual gangrene.

So today, may we have the courage to hear these words once again, and not to be upset or concerned about them for the wrong reasons.  But instead, let's allow Jesus to unsettle us, as he always does, to see the faces of our neighbors, to welcome them to our tables (yes, maybe even into our very homes or churches or neighborhoods!) because at last we see that our life is bound up in theirs, and that God just might use those neighbors brought to our doors to resurrect our dead hearts to new life again.

Let's allow Jesus to make apathy wrong again... and to make our deadened, numb hearts alive again.

Lord Jesus, quicken what is dead in us as you open our eyes to recognize the faces of those we have been ignoring on the other side of the gate, and to see how deeply you love them... so that we may see anew how your love resurrects us, too.