Sunday, August 12, 2012

Bread for the Journey

John 6:24-35

1 Kings 19:4-8

Life can do that in an instant, can’t it?  We can go from sitting on the top of the
world, to scraping the sides of the barrel as we try to crawl out of it in the
blink of an eye.  Things can go from the
best of times to the worst of times before we even know it.  The doctor walks into the room with a worried
look on her face and grim news to deliver.
A friend, a spouse, a child, or a parent who has always been there could
suddenly be gone.  The simple dreams of
children who grow up, find jobs, find spouses, and have children fly away when
things happen in a different order.
Friendships crack under pressure, relationships fracture under betrayal,
the person we thought would always be by our side suddenly isn’t and on top of
that we begin to doubt if what we thought was true ever really was. 

Or maybe the plummet from mountaintop to the lowest point on
the earth is harder to see on the outside.
Maybe the relationship we are losing isn’t that of a friend or family
member, maybe it’s our relationship with Christ.  Faith in God who is mighty, who is strong,
who has done miracles for the world and before our very eyes for others,
suddenly doesn’t seem to matter, doesn’t seem to stand up in the face of the
danger that is before us.  Faith in Jesus
who promises his yoke is easy and his burden is light, feels like a heavy
weight on our shoulders when we struggle to understand his love for us, his
call to us, his presence with us.  Faith
in the Holy Spirit that others seem to recognize as active and moving in their
lives is absent in our own. 

Maybe the faith in God that we see in other people, faith
that looks strong and unwavering, faith that sees God’s presence at every turn,
faith they can talk about, sing about, pray for hours and hours about, just
seems out of reach, mind-boggling, unreal.
Maybe it all just seems too preposterous to fake anymore.  Maybe it all seems way too important to be
entrusted to our untrustworthy hands.  Maybe
holding onto the mystery of faith seems more trouble than it’s worth, and we
just want to walk away from it all, walk day’s journey or more away, and just
lay down and sleep.

Have you ever felt like that? 
Have you ever just wanted to sleep, to stop thinking, to stop wondering,
to stop worrying about whether you’re doing all of this right, or praying often
enough or strong enough?  Have you ever
gotten tired to listening to voice coming from someone you can’t see?  Have you ever wanted to just lie down under
the broom tree and sleep to get away from everything that is plaguing you, your
worries, your grief, your brokenness, even your struggles with your faith in

I have.  And not just
once long ago after which I had this amazing youth group camp conversion experience
which solved all my faith problems forever.
I have, as a teen.  I have as a
20-something graduate student - - a 20-something SEMINARY student no less.  I have as a 30-something wife and mother of
three kids, a pastor of a church.  I
have, and I do go through times like this when like Elijah I just want to go to
sleep instead of face my fears, my doubts, my crises of faith, my empty
relationship with God.

A day’s journey away from anyone he knows, Elijah has
successfully withdrawn into the wilderness.
A lone tree dots the desert, a lone place of shade and shelter in the
stark landscape of his faith.  Satisfied
that he has withdrawn far enough, he surrenders to the sleep he craves… even if
just for a moment.

“Suddenly,” it says in 1 Kings, suddenly an angel appears,
not letting him sleep for even an instant, not letting him disengage from the
divine presence.  “Get up!” the angel
commands.  “Get up and eat!”  At his head Elijah finds a cake baked on the
hot stones of the desert, and a jar of water, not much different than the jars
he used to intensify the miracle  God
performed at the sacrifice just days before.
Elijah ate and drank, his physical needs satisfied, and lay down to
sleep again.

But again, the angel, this time also touching him, urges, “Get
up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  God’s persistence in the relationship is
relentless.  God’s desire for even this
one prophet to continue on the faith journey is so strong, even the heavenly
beings are employed to bring him back into the call.  God’s trust in Elijah’s potential as one who
will point to truth in the midst of a world that follows too easily what is
false, is so high that Elijah can’t be left to just sleep.  God’s desire to remain in relationship with
Elijah is so deep that Elijah can’t be lost to fear and loneliness, and
feelings of inadequacy.  His call, his
journey onward is a given; it’s assumed that there is more to his tale, more to
his walk with God.  That Elijah has
farther to go is not in question for the angel, for the agent of Yahweh, so
strengthening Elijah for what comes next is her purpose, reminding Elijah of
the persistence of God’s grace and providence her mission.

Elijah feeds on the cakes provided.  Elijah eats what is given to him by God.  It’s some pretty impressive cake because apparently
it is enough to sustain him for the forty days and forty nights ahead has he
continues his journey, his destination finally clear to him, to the mount of
God at Horeb.

Cakes that strengthen him
for forty days…

I want some of that.  I
want some of that sustenance, some of that proof, some of that taste of God’s
grace, God’s promise, God’s presence.  When
I am lying listlessly in the deserts of my faith, a cake baked on the hot
stones that will fill me for as long as I can imagine sounds absolutely perfect,
so perfect in fact that nothing else will do.

But have you tried to eat such rich and heavy food on an
empty stomach?  Have you ever indulged
too much when you’re coming out of a time of fasting, either forced or by
choice?  Have you ever experienced the
discomfort, the dissatisfaction that comes when your eyes have been too big for
your stomach?  How about when your
spiritual eyes have been too big for your spiritual stomach?

Or the problem I more commonly face is wanting all or
nothing.  Sometimes the cakes that fill
for forty days aren’t just lying there when I wake up.  For me, anyway, they are RARELY sitting there
waiting for me to feast, be filled, then continue on my journey.  Rarely, OK never, have I been able to move
from the lowest desert of spiritual loneliness to the tip of the mountain in
the presence of God on just one serving of cake.  And sometimes that frustrates me so much that
I just want to give in.   Where can I
find this cake that will sustain me for FORTY DAYS?!?!?!  And when I can’t, with exhaustion and defeat,
I ask “If I can’t have it all back at once, if my emptiness can’t be filled in
an instant why should I even try to fill it at all?”

But once as I sat under the broom tree in the desert, a
friend, an angel of Yahweh sent to point out the food in front of me, reminded
me of something different.  We don’t have
to worry about the days.  We don’t have
to worry about how long the cake will last, how long the food will sustain us,
how long it will reinvigorate our bodies and spirit, how long it will
strengthen us for the journey.  We don’t
have to wait for the biggest cake of faith on which to feed, because the Bread
of Life is with us all the time.  Our bread
is provided not forty days at a time, but daily, our daily bread is set before
us.  “May don’t worry about how many
days,” my friend wrote to me once.  “Can
you be fed by the bread of life at all?”

Like manna in the wilderness that rained down from heaven for
the Hebrews to gather as they left Egypt and made their way toward the Promised
Land, the bread of life is available in perfect serving sizes for us to eat and
be filled every day.  The bread of life
doesn’t need to be stockpiled or rationed; it doesn’t need to be shoveled hand
over fist into our famished bodies in order to last for forty days, forty
nights, for as long as we can imagine, for eternity, because the bread of life
will never leave us.  The bread of life
is God’s gift the endures forever, that can fill our bodies and spirits, that
gives life to the world.

The goal is not to consume it once and for all.  The goal is not to feast on it in one
sitting, in one stage of our life, in one moment of baptism or confirmation or
conversion so that it will last forever.
The bread of life is what we chew when we devour the Word of God with
the people of God, like in the Story small groups that are forming for the
fall.  The bread of life feeds our faith,
again and again, not just when we are children, but when we come back to the
Scriptures with new eyes, new experiences, new challenges in our lives.  The bread of life, eaten little by little,
day by day, gives us strength to live again, to trust again, to believe again

The bread of life is what we feed our children when we talk
with them about the lessons they learn in Sunday School, when we read Scripture
together as families, wondering aloud about what it means, not being fearful of
not having all the answers.  The bread of
life is what we ingest when we gather as the body for worship, for reading and
hearing the word, for celebrating with simple gifts of water, bread, and juice,
for praying and hearing the good news of God’s grace.  The bread of life is what break and share
with the world when we speak words of peace, when we touch others with
compassion, when we work with love for justice for all.

The bread of life is meant to be eaten and enjoyed day after day,
sitting at the table in companionship with God, giving energy for our walk, giving
strength for our life.  The bread of life
is a meal for the road.  The bread of
life is bread for the journey.  “Get up
and eat.”

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Welcome to Soup & Spirit Summer Blog

Summer opens the door to so many of God's blessings and we would love to hear about your summer experiences.  Tell us about God in your beautiful corner of summer.  Let's continue to share our concerns and praises and pray for each other.  Share your thoughts, pictures, favorite new songs, stories, bible verses, poems, and of course, any new soup recipes! Have a wonderful summer!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

More Than a Feeling

1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

Mildred and Richard were in love. They had known each other since childhood, but as they grew up they fell in love. In 1958, when Mildred was 18, the left their small, nurturing hometown in Caroline County, Virginia to be married in Washington, DC. Having returned home, five weeks later, in the middle of the night, the newlyweds were abruptly awoken, handcuffed, and taken in jail. Their crime? Being in love.

Richard and Mildred Loving (really, that was their last name) were in love with each other in a time when their love was prohibited because Richard was white and Mildred was black. They lived in Virginia under the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 which not only prohibited interracial marriage in Virginia, but it prohibited Virginia interracial couples from circumventing the law by legally marrying elsewhere and returning to Virginia to live. They were charged, pled guilty, and sentenced to a year in prison that was suspended for 25 years on the condition that they leave the state. The Lovings left Virginia again and moved to the District of Columbia.

In 1964, frustrated by the fact that they couldn’t visit their family in Virginia they were referred to the ACLU for legal help by then Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Three long years later, after their case made its way to the United States Supreme Court, the Lovings won the right to be in love and be married. Their sentence was overruled and the Virginia law was struck down as a violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Richard, Mildred, and their three children returned home to Virginia.

Love can’t really be legislated. Can it? We can’t tell people who NOT to love. Can we? And, for me at least, knowing that we can’t tell people who not to love, it’s hard to heard Jesus’ commandment TO love. Commandments about love are counter-intuitive to how I usually think about love.

Love as our culture commonly talks about it is something we possess. Love is a thing we try to get or a feeling we fall into. It’s butterflies in the stomach. It’s an aching, a longing, a desire. It’s a cure for an ailing heart, the key to happiness, an elusive prize waiting to be found, won, or given away.

But here in John’s gospel love seems to be something different - -something that can be commanded. Love seems to be more than a feeling for which we hope, or an impulse that flows from desire. Love is something we MUST do.

Last week we heard in the first letter of John the simple, yet profound statement at the core of the gospel, “God is love.” If we cut to the chase about all of this, about faith, about life, about our call as the church, we get to this message, “God is love.” I even said it was simple. Ha! It’s simple as in singular. It’s simple as in an argument with few points or counter-points, but let’s not be so na├»ve as to think it’s simple in living

The love we talked about last week was certainly more than a dizzying or warming feeling at the sound of a voice or the sight of a face. It is, in the words of John, abiding love, and abiding love is the love of Jesus. It is intruding, disruptive, difficult to offer, and maybe just as difficult to receive. Abiding is the act of dwelling with another, even a stranger wherever she is found. It is a willingness to go the distance, descend to the depths of pain and suffering, and stay there with him in darkness until the glimmer of light appears on the horizon. Abiding love is the love of hospitality, the love for the stranger that is just as strong as the love for family, friends, for self. It is love that is open to a change of plans, love that that is given without judgment, without convenience, without checking the calendar or plans for the day, or for the life. It’s the love of Jesus’ command.

It isn’t easy, is it? It isn’t easy to open our lives, ourselves to the deepest needs of others. It’s not like the things on our “to do” lists are optional. It’s not that we are TRYING to ignore the people in front of us who are aching for friendship, companionship, a good word, a hot meal. It’s just that there are all these other things we need to do first. It’s just that abiding with someone takes time, it takes an energy of the spirit that we just don’t think we have right now. Maybe once my finances are in order, I can help someone else with theirs. Maybe once I feel calm and refreshed, I can offer refreshment to another. Maybe once I have experienced the abiding love of another, I can abide with a stranger. Maybe once I have felt loved, I’ll know how to love others.

But then there comes this commandment again. “Love one another as I have loved you.” It’s not even “love one another when you feel my love for you.” Jesus doesn’t give us time to get it, to feel it, or to understand it. He doesn’t give us the excuse to wait until we have found love before we share it. He commands us to do right here, right now, because he knows love is more than a feeling. He also knows we may never get up and do it if it’s dependent on our experience or knowledge or feelings of preparedness. So, having loved us from the beginning, Jesus tells us to go out and love others. Actually, he doesn’t just tell us to do it, he tells us what it looks like and even shows us.

Love is what we do. Love is an action. Love is more than a feeling; it’s a sacrifice. Love is laying aside our schedules, our priorities, our preferences. Loving is putting down our comfort and our security to love other people. Love is active. Love is setting aside, but in setting aside it is also taking up, taking up the causes, the burdens, the pains, the injustices of others. Love is what we do with who we are.

The gospels don’t tell us very much about what Jesus was feeling. Here and there we get a few snippets of his emotions – anger, frustration, tears and sorrow occasionally – but for the most part time isn’t spent reporting or speculating about what Jesus felt about what he encountered and experienced. The bulk of the time in the gospels is spent telling us what he said and what he did. The bulk of the time in the gospels is spent showing how Jesus shared the good news with the people he met, how he healed them of their injuries and ailments, how he included the people who were left out, how he fed the people who were hungry, how he gave living water to the people who were thirsty. We don’t know how Jesus felt while he was doing what he was doing, but we know by what he did that he loved.

Today in the United States is the day that has been set aside for honoring mothers. It’s a day of flowers and gifts and brunches and pampering for many, but it can also be a day of longing, confusion, and sorrow for others. Historically speaking, the latter is more appropriate to the founding of the holiday than the former.

Mother’s Day has varied roots throughout the world. Many different cultures and religions have a day set aside to honor and give thanks for those who bring forth life. In earlier Christian understandings Mother’s Day wasn’t even about human mothers, but about the Mother Church. In US religious history this understanding was dismissed by the Puritans who barely even celebrated with obvious joy Christmas and Easter, much less a holiday that celebrated the institution of the Church.

No, our modern US Mother’s Day has its roots in the Mother’s Day Proclamation written by Julia Ward Howe, better known for penning the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In 1870, deeply saddened by the carnage of the Civil and Franco-Prussian Wars, disturbed that the sons of one family could be responsible for the death of the sons of another family, Howe called on mothers and all women actually to shape their societies, to work for peace on all levels, not just in their homes, but in their nations, and in the world. 

"Arise, then, women of this day! 

Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly: "We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs." (1870 Mother's Day Proclamation)

Howe’s call to women was a call to love. All the “feelings” in the world won’t do anything unless they are applied. All the compassion, all the heartache for the loss of life that we hear about, all the sadness over what we see on the streets of the city, in shacks of forgotten villages, in the slums of the world, all the concern we can muster when we hear about the young who are abused, the elderly neglected, men, women, and children who hunger for a bite to eat - - all of it won’t do a THING if we don’t love with our actions.

Jesus hasn't just commanded us to love each other, he has shown us how to love each other, and he has given us what we need in order to do it, and he promised us joy and victory over despair when we love with actions like his.

The good news in Jesus is that he did not sit by the wayside and watch a world in pain waiting for the perfect status, the perfect checkbook, the perfect platform from which to love. He loved from where he was. He loved the people he was with. He loved with everything he was and everything he did. And now he has sent us to love in the same way – by acting on it, by healing and helping and wiping away tears, by calling injustices unjust, by working for peace not discord, by forgiving and welcoming and listening, by judging a whole lot less and serving a whole lot more. And, thankfully, he has promised to be with us, the source and shape and strength of love in the world.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Cut to the Chase

Psalm 133
1 John 4:7-21

Do you remember when billboards like these began to pop up?  Pithy little notes, apparently written by God.  
Life is short.  Eternity isn’t.  (One of the newer ones.)
Well, you did ask for a sign.
I miss how you used to talk to me when you were a kid.
What part o “Thou shalt…” didn’t you understand?
Keep using my name in vain, I’ll make rush hour longer.
Have you read my #1 bestseller?  (There will be a test.)
We need to talk.

I understand that the billboards began in south Florida in 1998 when an anonymous donor decided to create andad campaign, not for a business, not for a particular church, not for anything else, but to try to create a spiritual climate and get people thinking about a daily relationship with a loving and relevant God. (

My favorite is this next one from the original campaign in 1998 - - 
“That ‘Love thy neighbor’ thing… I meant that.”

It just cuts to the chase, doesn’t it? It gets right on down to the heart of the gospel, the core of Jesus’ preaching, teaching, healing, disturbing, dying, rising, and living. “Beloved, let us love one another.”

Sometimes short and simple is best. (I know, a dangerous statement to make from the pulpit…while preaching…what is usually a less than short message…but certainly not the longest in town!)

Sometimes short and simple is what is needed to get the message across in a way that jars someone just enough to hear it in a new way, but not so much that they are thrown completely off course.

Sometimes short and simple is what it takes to guide a mission, set a vision, and move a community forward.  “Beloved, let us love one another…. God is love….”

This is what it is all about.
This is what our faith is all about.
This is what our church is all about. 
This is what our life is all about. 
This is what our God is all about.
LOVE!  It’s short.  It’s simple.  It’s love.

Yet over and over and over again we make our faith and our life together about so much more.  We make it so much more complex.  We add layers upon layers of rules and expectations and understandings and policies, oh the policies. 
Our fear of the unknown,
our fear of losing control,
our fear of where love might take us,
our fear of what we might be asked to do,
our fear of what we might have to give up takes over
and then before we know it,
without even noticing we have completely clouded what it’s all about,
what following Jesus is supposed to be all about. 
It’s not about fear. 
It’s not about judgment. 
It’s not about setting up rules. 
It’s not about deciding who is in and who is out. 
It’s not about protecting the carpet. 
It’s not about perfecting the music. 
It’s not about coming up the most elaborate craft. 
It’s not about the tastiest snack (no matter how much we love those tasty snacks). 
It’s supposed to be about love,
·         love that looks like a father sending his only son to show the world what life is really about,
·         love that looks like the one who is divine coming to abide with us, dwell with us, live with us,
·         love that looks likes self-giving and self-sacrifice
·         love that looks like the holy one entering the experience of the profane,
·         love that looks like boundaries of gender, ethnicity, religious party, political leanings, class, all being broken down,
·         love that looks like touching the untouchable, speaking to the forgotten, feeding the hungry, praying for the hurtful.

It’s about love because God is Love, and Love chose to live among us. 

Love chose to walk in our experience,
to live in our skin,
to see with our eyes,
to face our temptations,
to hunger our hunger,
to cry our tears,
to laugh with our joy. 
Love chose to dwell with and love chooses to dwell in us, showing us how we can love each other. 

Everything we do as people of God, as people of Love, then should be about doing this same thing.  Everything we do should be about living with our brothers and sisters, those people who have been born into the same human family as we have been born even if they live in this family in very different ways. 
Everything we do as people of Love should be about dwelling in each others’ experiences –
seeing through another’s eyes,
facing another’s temptations,
hungering another’s hungers,
rejoicing in another’s laughter. 
Everything we do as people of Love should be about breaking down boundaries and giving ourselves in love to our brothers and sisters around us, to the world around us.

In just a little bit we are going to ordain and install new officers in our church, ruling elders and deacons who have been called by God through the voice of this congregation to lead us through their service.  On behalf of the whole church I’m going to ask them to affirm a whole lot of different things in ten different questions about their faith, their understanding of their call to leadership, and how they will be guided as they guide this church.  And as much as a I love our tradition and understand, at least a little bit, why we ask all those questions, on a day like today, in light of a Scripture like this one, I wish we could ask just one simple question - - “Do you accept the call to lead with God’s love in this church and the world?”  That’s what it’s all about – for the officers of the church, for the members, for the friends, for the people of God and God’s love everywhere.  When we cut to the chase, it’s all about showing love.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Synods aren't sexy

Earlier this week, down at a Lutheran camp and retreat center in Farmington, MN, I was installed as the vice moderator of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies.  

Don't worry.  I expect to only hear crickets upon that announcement.

"The What of Who and Where?" you may be asking.  It's OK.  I expect to hear that, too.

The synod is not one of the better known aspects of the Presbyterian Church.  I like to consider our synod, that which includes almost every Presbyterian church in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska and a few churches sprinkled beyond these states, one of the best kept secrets in the PC(USA).  I wish it wasn't so well kept.

The synod is one of two "middle councils" between the local congregation and the larger national organization of our denomination.  More locally our congregation is a member of a presbytery, the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, which covers the metro area  and stretches all the way down to Albert Lea.  Our presbytery is then a member of the synod, along with sixteen other presbyteries ranging in size from the Des Moines, Iowa metro area to the entires state of South Dakota.  We also have on non-geographic presbytery within our synod, a Dakota language Native American presbytery, the oldest Presbyterian mission west of the Mississippi River (someone PLEASE correct me if honor isn't quite right).  
These two middle councils are a big part of what distinguishes Presbyterians from some of our brothers and sisters in faith.  We are a connectional church.  By that I mean that we don't believe it is good for any one congregation to operate as an island.  We don't believe we are all out here on our own, with no support from or accountability to others.  We believe it is in the very nature of the church Christ formed to be connected to one another, partnered with each other, and in mission together.  Our connections can be local and organic, but they are also institutionalized so that sometimes, many times, we are forced into working and missional relationships with brothers and sisters in faith with whom may disagree.  Personally, I think we are all the better because of this.

We also believe that there are important ministries and missions that are better organized and carried out by levels of organization larger than local congregations not because no one cares locally, but because it is a better stewardship of resources to work together.  Presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly do for local congregations and the whole church what we can't do on our own and what is better accomplished when we work together.  They aren't some nebulous "them" out there dictating what "we" must do.  Presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly are "us," members of local congregations with passions and visions for ministries beyond their local community who are called and elected to carry those visions for the whole church. There are things the Presbyterian Church can do to demonstrate God's love and grace in the world that are better done on a national or regional level.  Commissioners to these other parts of our body make sure these ministries and missions happen.
It doesn't make sense for every single congregation to publish Sunday School curriculum.  It would be a poor use of our collective resources for that to happen, so the national church works to provide options for us.  It doesn't makes sense for one congregation to in Madison to provide an entire campus ministry including a magnificent student church, campus pastors, student housing, counseling, and mission outreach to the community and the world, so the synod provides a great deal of resources, networking, and oversight to Pres House, our Presbyterian presence on the UW-Madison campus.  It doesn't make sense for one congregation to work completely on it's own to start a new congregation in an unchurched neighborhood when there are four, five, or more congregations who can see that vital need from different angles, so the presbytery pools resources to do that work together.  

Our Synod of Lakes and Prairies, through an extremely hard-working staff, commissioners like me who spend two days together a few times a year, and other volunteers around our constituent presbyteries, participates in God's work in the world inexhaustibly.  

1.  We maintain covenant relationships, sharing human and financial resources (when possible), with seven Presbyterian colleges and universities.   
2.  We fund scholarships for racial-ethnic students pursuing higher education.  
3.  We provide training for the committees of presbyteries that oversee their member ministers and congregation and those that prepare women and men for ordained ministry as pastors.  
4.  We offer Self-Development of People grants to community and regional organizations, directly related to Presbyterian churches and not, that low-income people identify a problem within their life experience, organize themselves to do something about their condition, and are the direct beneficiaries of the project.  
5.  We support collegiate ministries on Presbyterian and non-Presbyterian campus through grants for specific projects and conferences for ministry leaders.  
6.  We provide support and a place for collaboration for presbytery executives in our area.  
7.  We respond to the unique mission needs across the presbyteries by connecting people across those boundaries who are best equipped to assist each other.  
8.  We heighten the awareness of our presbyteries to larger justice issues, particularly when it comes to race relations and the condition  of racial and ethnic minorities in our midst.  

Many of these things are not immediately on the ministry radar of our local congregations, but I hope you will agree they are important to the church's call to demonstrate the kingdom of God on earth.  This isn't even ALL of what we do, and it doesn't even include our famous Synod School.  (Please, talk to ANYONE in my family about Synod School.  We'd love to tell you all about it and have you join us there this year, July 22-27, in Storm Lake, IA.  You won't regret it.)

Locally, we don't hear a whole lot about what happens at the synod partly because I have not been a great communicator of these things and partly because synods don't directly relate to congregations  And because, well, synods aren't sexy.  Synods aren't the bodies that elect commissioners to the General Assembly to vote on things that get the headlines - things like sex.  Synods are the bodies that vote on changes to the constitution that get the headlines - changes about things like sex.  Synods aren't the body we LOVE because they helped our church find a new pastor.  They aren't the body we we HATE because they wouldn't help us get rid of that horrible pastor fast enough.  Synods aren't sexy.  

And without the sex to sell them mixed with maybe a bit too much humility unfortunately many of them don't market themselves or their fantastically faithful ministries to the local church. They have some excuse for this minimal marketing.  Their charge isn't necessarily to serve the local church directly.  However, as I've found myself saying over and over recently, it's members of local churches who do the praying and discerning and voting as General Assembly and Presbytery commissioners.  Synods may not directly serve local congregations directly, but they better figure out how to communicate their value to them, and they better do it pretty quickly.  

Unfortunately, my term of service to the synod as vice moderator this year and moderator next year may be the last such term for anyone.  There is an item of business that will come before the 220th General Assembly (the national decision-making body of our church that meets every two years) this year that contains a recommendation to eliminate this level of our denomination's organization.  This isn't the first time this has been before the General Assembly, but this time the recommendation seems to have more momentum than in the past.  There are some who think eliminating synods will save money, and this hope plays into the fear many people have that we don't have enough money.  Synods are funded in part by a portion of the per capita payment that is collected based on the membership of each local congregation.  Other synod funds come from congregations like ours who make a mission pledge to the different levels of the Presbyterian denomination.  Even if synods are eliminated there are a number of their functions that will need to be picked up by General Assembly or presbytery staff, meaning new positions will need to be created and funded carry out these duties.  The cost won't likely change without synods; it will only differ to whom the money is sent.

It is true that many synods around our denomination are not NEARLY as functional as ours is.  There are several regions of the country that already operate as if there is no synod.  I am not saying our current structure is not worth examining.  However, I am deeply concerned about the kinds of ministry that are taking place here in the Synod of Lakes and Prairies that may get lost in the shuffle if there isn't the continuation of the important connection in our church.  They are important and life-giving ministries, but they aren't necessarily the kind of ministries which everyone feels called to support with their own energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  In fact, they may be ministries that have one supporter in Wisconsin, two in Minnesota, another in Iowa, and then someone way out in the far northwestern corner of North Dakota, but thank GOD for these supporters who feel passionately called to work on behalf of our church in anyone of these unique ways.  The problem is if we eliminate the synod, the infrastructure for their meeting organization, the bookkeeper for their grant monies, the institutional memory for their legacy of ministry, we make it very difficult, if not impossible for them to continue to work for Christ in these unique and vital missions.

I hope it doesn't come to this.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

In Joy and Disbelief

Luke 24:36-48

During my second year of seminary I was selected to participate in the Middle East Travel Seminar, a three week study tour of biblical and archaeological sites in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, the occupied territories of Palestine and Greece. The application and interview process was rigorous as sixty seminary students from five schools were chosen for this almost fully funded trip of a lifetime. One thing that was reiterated over and over again throughout the process, in the way that only happens when someone has previously complained about their own experience, this was NOT going to be a spiritual pilgrimage.

All around the land we call the “Holy Land,” for thousands of years, people have been making pilgrimages. There are churches and chapels and monuments scattered everywhere, some of them 15- and 16-hundred years old, marking THE mountain Moses climbed in order to receive the tablets of the ten commandments from God, THE mountain on the east side of the Jordan where Moses died, the underground cave-like stable where Jesus was born, even THE very rock that served as a table for the fish breakfast that Jesus shared with his disciples in another resurrection account from the gospels. There are plenty of places to which someone could make a pilgrimage, but it didn’t take long to figure out why our trip organizers warned us that is not what we would be doing.

My leader, Dr. Jerry Mattingly, was kind of a character. As a local, state-required tour guide would be making her speech about the holy site we were seeing, Jerry would hold up fingers in the back row. Five, ten, fifteen. We thought at first he was grading her tour guide skills, but eventually we discovered he was correcting her assertions.

“This is the site where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law.” Or according to Jerry, somewhere within 10 miles.

“This is the site where Jesus’ body was buried” Or according to Jerry, somewhere within 500 yards.

“This is the site where Jesus was baptized.” Or according to Jerry, 15 miles up or down the river. Give or take.

This is why they warned us. Instead of developing in us a sense of awe at the innate holiness of each site we saw, Jerry put questions into our minds about the accuracy of the claims of the churches which were built on top of the holy ground on which Mary delivered Jesus. He let doubts creep into our minds about the HUGE STORMS that supposedly threatened the lives of the fishermen on the mere lake the Scriptures call the Sea of Galilee. Obviously, this could not have been a spiritual pilgrimage, because doubts are not very spiritual right?

The story we heard this morning took place on Easter evening or maybe the day after. In Luke’s gospel the resurrection is discovered by the women, then confirmed by Peter when their account is thought to be an “idle tale.” But two disciples, Cleopas and his companion didn't stick around for Peter’s confirmation. After the women discovered Jesus’ missing body and heard the witness of angels at the tomb, these two hit the road out of town. They aren't present when Peter shares his apparently NOT-so-idle tale, but instead they get an up-close-and-personal encounter with Jesus as they are walking to Emmaus, a town seven miles from Jerusalem. After eating dinner with Jesus they turn around and head back to Jerusalem, even in the middle of the night, to tell the rest of the disciples what has happened.

When they arrived, they told their story. Presumably they also heard about Peter’s trip to the empty tomb and then right in the middle of all this story-telling and confusion, Jesus finally appears! Not stolen, not lost, not buried, but resurrected. Whatever THAT means. Right in the middle of them.

They've all been talking about resurrection for a while, but obviously this is their first experience with it. The Pharisees and Sadducees, the dominant religious “parties” of the day, fought about it all the time – would there be a resurrection or not? Would it be bodily or just spiritually? Is it going to be when the Messiah comes or at the end of time? Who will be included? People were used to talking about when, how, and who will be resurrected, but really, when it came down to it, nobody REALLY knew what it would look like, what it would be like when someone actually WAS resurrected. So here was Jesus, right in the middle of them, and as if he could hear their questions running a mile a minute through their heads - - “Is he real? Is he a ghost? Can we touch him? Can we see through him? Does he sleep? Can he fly?” - -

He interrupts them, offering them his hands and feet as proof that he is real. He invites them to touch him and feel his skin and bones so they can know that he isn’t a ghost. And then while they are still caught between both rejoicing and wondering, he asks them what seems like a really ridiculous question, “Does anyone have anything to eat?”

It answers some questions (Yes, he has a body and it needs nourishment. No, he isn’t a ghost. Yes we can touch him. No, I sure HOPE we can’t see through him to see what eating looks like on the inside.). And joy, what joy it brings! But at the exact same time this simple act of eating also leads to so many more questions, doubts, even disbelief. (The dead don’t walk around. Bodies don’t just stand up after dying. What is the end if being killed and sealed in tomb isn’t the end? What in the world does any of this have to do with what God is doing?) So yes, his presence brings joy in their midst, but just like Luke said, it brings confusion, doubts, and even disbelief.

But this can’t be right, can it? Because everyone knows that doubts are not very spiritual, right?

Doubts have a bad name in the version of Christianity that seems dominant in our culture. Doubts are dismissed by some of our traditions as unfaithful, disrespectful, disingenuous. People who ask questions about how things happened in Scripture, people who are willing to say Scripture tells us less about “how” the world was made and more about “why” the world was made, people who wonder about the need to believe every detail written down between the covers of the Bible are literally and factually true are put down by many of the Christians who are holding the microphones on television and the radio, who are typing what is in print and on the internet. Thinking for ourselves is encouraged in pockets of faith, but the loudest voices, the ones way too many of our non-Christian neighbors can hear are the ones who say this is a take or leave it faith. You’re all in or you’re not in at all. Doubts are not very spiritual.

But guess what - - That’s not the viewpoint Jesus holds in this story. I love, love, LOVE the way this resurrection appearance takes place. I love, love, LOVE the way joy and disbelief are held right next to each other. I love, love, LOVE the way the disciples who were closest to Jesus still can’t quite figure out what’s going on. And I love, love, LOVE that Jesus doesn’t abandon them because of it.

Jesus doesn’t turn right around and walk out the door when the disciples can’t wrap their minds and hearts around what has taken place. He doesn’t give up on them and go find the Roman soldier who was able to declare with full faith and conviction in Luke’s gospel “He was innocent” and in Mark’s gospel, “Truly this man was God’s son!” He doesn’t stop them in their tracks and demand that they choose sides, that they sign on the dotted line, that they affirm a set of specific beliefs and understandings about every little thing that happened. Jesus doesn’t do it!

Jesus goes to great lengths – even COMICAL lengths – to show them his body is real because it’s so unbelievable, but even when they still don’t believe he doesn’t stop believing in them. Jesus doesn’t give up on his disciples. He doesn’t chastise them. He doesn’t get angry with them. He sits down, he eats with them, and he teaches them, in the middle of their joy and their disbelief. In the middle of their excitement and their wondering. In the middle of their celebration and their confusion.

We forget sometimes, that THIS is what the church is about. We forget sometimes that the questions are as welcome as answers. We forget that there isn't any one tradition or denomination or theological leaning that has it all right all the time. We see church marketing plans that ask us "Have you found Jesus?" because they claim they have a hold of him. Well, I'd love to start a different kind of campaign, one that puts signs out in front of churches saying "Got questions? We do, too." I'd love to start a different kind of campaign in which we don't have to pretend we know it all, that we understand it all, that we believe every last thing, but a campaign that is bold enough to say we gather with joy and disbelief, with reverence and wonder, with excitement and questions to see Jesus, eat with him, hear the Scriptures and how they tell of God's working in the world, and to be his witnesses in the world. That's a campaign I can get behind.

They told us before we went on the Middle East Travel Seminar that we weren't going on a spiritual pilgrimage, or more accurately, that they weren't leading a spiritual pilgrimage. They must have assumed like so many others that we might think questioning the tradition wasn't very spiritual. For me it was the exact opposite. For me the questions led me to think about what I was learning, what I was hearing, what I had heard for years and years in the church. For me the questions forced me to decide whether it mattered if I knew exactly where Jesus' feet had touched the ground, exactly where Moses encountered God, exactly where words of blessing and beatitude were spoken. For me the questions, the doubts invited me to enter into a relationship with God that wasn't based on geography and historical fact, but was based on the witness of people of faith who have gone before me, the witness of people of faith who struggled just as much as I do with what it means to follow this resurrected Jesus.

Here’s the thing - - Jesus isn’t scared of our questions. Jesus isn’t scared of our doubts, our disbelief, our confusion, and our wondering. He doesn’t get mad at them, he doesn’t look down on us for them, he doesn’t tell us they have to be wiped away before we are loved. And he definitely doesn’t tell us we have to have them all worked out before we can work in his name. The same disciples who stood there in disbelief are the same disciples who are equipped and sent as witnesses. The same disciples who are tentative about jumping into the pool of faith with both feet are the same disciples who are called to the ends of the earth to tell the story.

And thankfully they didn't wait until they totally get it all, until all their questions are answered and they know and believe and trust in exactly what's going on. They jumped in with their questions and doubts and disbelief, too, and apparently that's OK with Jesus. He came to where they were and commissioned them to serve with all their joy AND their disbelief. And he comes and commissions us to witness in the same way.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Anatomy of a Joke

Ecclesiastes 3:1-4
1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Blue Collar Comedy Tour comedian Bill Engvall tells stories about going to church as a family when he was a child. He and his siblings were less than attentive to the preacher, he admits, sometimes, just sometimes, causing a bit of a ruckus in the pews. When things would start to get out of hand, he remembers how his dad used to stretch his arms out over the back of the pew, turning to smile knowingly at the kids, and looking like he was just hugging and loving on the whole family. But Bill says he knew that wasn't what the stretch was for because just as his dad would work with stealth to lay a little "plunk" on the side of his head, he would also lean in to whisper, "God don't think stuff's funny!"

That's the unfortunate reputation that God has, isn't it? At the very least it's the reputation God's followers often have. I can remember in seminary the LENGTHS my classmates and I would go to in order to avoid telling strangers what school we attended and what we studies. Upon meeting someone at a coffee shop, or (gasp) a local beverage establishment, the grocery store, or EVEN a CHURCH the conversation would go something like this - - -

"So, do you work?"   "
Well, not fulltime right now." 

"Oh. Well, what do you do?"  "I...uh... work with youth."

"So, you're a teacher?"  "No."

"You're a tutor?"  "No."

"You're a nanny?"  "No."

"Well, what do you do?"  "I work for an organization that tries to instill values in young people."

"OK.... So what do you do when you're not working."  "I read."

"For school."  "Yep."

"What school do you go to?"  "One over in Decatur."

"Is that one of the universities?"  "Nope."

"Well, what do you study?"  "Religion."

"What do you want to do when you graduate?"  "Find a job."

"Doing what?"  "Well, teaching, and helping people, and ...."

Talking to us was like PULLING TEETH, because we figured out pretty quickly that the conversation would be even shorter than that annoying exchange if we told a stranger what we studied and what we felt called to do after graduation. Sitting next to a future pastor at a beverage drinking establishment (or even CHURCH) was apparently a buzzkill, because as we all know, "God don't think stuff's funny" and so follows, neither do God's people. Or at least that's the unfortunate reputation.

I talked to a friend of mine this week, Dorie Griggs, who last year did her part to try to change this reputation. Dorie was a seminary classmate of mine, and she still lives in the Atlanta area where she is a member of a Presbyterian congregation, not serving as an ordained pastor. A year ago in March Dorie graduated from the Jeff Justice Comedy Class at The Punchline Comedy Club in Atlanta. She's the most qualified person I could think of, having studied both theology and comedy, to help me confirm my hunch. Books upon books, as we can see and imagine, have been written about how to write a good joke, so there must be something that can be taught, something that is common to many, if not all, jokes. I asked Dorie about the structure of a good joke. She said it all boils down to the idea that "1+1 doesn't equal 2. Leading people down a road with a story and reversing expectations is the core of joke writing."

Reversing expectations. That's what it's all about. That's where the joy is, the laughter. Telling the story of the duel between the priest and the rabbi, thinking it's all about biblical interpretation, only to have the train of thought reversed, one of them thinking something completely different, something utterly human and earthly not lofty and divine. Sarah believing she is well beyond her child-bearing years only to find out she carries laughter in her womb. Hearing the old favorite worship songs and hymns with just one key piece pointedly reversed. It's funny, and it points out something maybe painfully true. "How Great I Am" Ouch. We resemble that remark sometimes don't we? But hearing it that way, with the humor of the reversal, it makes its point while bringing us laughter and joy at the same time. Laughter at our own foolishness.

...Which brings us right to the gospel of Jesus. The good news of Jesus our Christ. The joy of the resurrection. The laughter at the greatest reversal of all times. It seems completely ridiculous this story we have heard and told. It makes absolutely no sense at all. We've been led down one road in this story of a Savior, one who will change the world, one who will show the religious establishment just where they are going road. We've been led down this road that shows him going up against every possible enemy and we start to see that it's not going to end well, that he's upsetting as many powerful people as he's healing ones who are powerless. 1+1 even equals 2 as it all comes to it's logical conclusion, and he's put to death for stirring up trouble, killed for preaching that there is another way.

The story of God on a's absolute foolishness. While it's exactly where the gospels are leading, it flies in the face of what every good person of faith knows about his or her god. It's not what any of us want to think will happen to the one in whom we are putting all our trust, our God, our Creator, our Redeemer, our Sustainer, our God, powerful, compassionate, healer, teacher, peacemaker, forgiving, all-loving, all-welcoming, all-accepting. He's put to death on a cross; it's ridiculous Paul tells the Corinthians knowing how hard it is for them to hold onto this embarrassing faith in front of others.

And then the reversal. The joy-bringing, laughter-birthing reversal. The tomb is empty. He is not there. All that's left behind is a pile of rags like the cloths left behind in a delivery room, and Jesus has been birthed out of the tomb and into new life again. He has risen, and in the greatest reversal of all time, the greatest joke, the joke pulled over on death itself is told by our God who apparently DOES think stuff is funny, who apparently DOES think life is worth living, who apparently DOES think that our messed up human condition is worth saving, worth redeeming, worth rejoining enough to come back and join it one more time, shattering all expectations, living beyond all hope, laughing through all the tears.

He's not here. He is risen. It's the greatest punchline, the reversal, the "1+1 does NOT equal 2." It's the the resurrection. He predicted it, but we still never expected it. It's the source of our joy, the reason we can laugh again, the greatest joke ever told and somehow we have found a way to dull it down, wrap it up in so much thinking and theologizing and rule-making and judging, that everyone who sees us thinks we believe in the MOST. BORING. GOD. EVER.

Well, hopefully not after today. Sure the whole world isn't watching what's happening in this sanctuary right now, and I'm not so bold as to say in this hour we have fixed ages upon ages of joyless faith, but hopefully after today we all have a little more courage to laugh at ourselves, a little more interest in sharing joy with one another, a little more impulse to enjoy and rejoice in the new life we have because God played the biggest joke on us all. He isn't here. He is risen! Rejoice and be glad!