Monday, January 25, 2016

Feet, Kidneys, Eyes, and More

1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21 

When I was in high school, I took a lot of tests.
Not just the kind to find out whether I’d learned what I was supposed to in trigonometry and history and French, and not the kind that trigger opt-out and government interference backlashes these days, but the kind that put you in categories, the kind that are supposed to tell you who you are.
My experimental, high school was very interested in studying the students, (because it would help prove the need for the school) so I took learning style tests, personality profiles, aptitude studies, longitudinal assessment questionnaires, you name it. 

But in spite of all those tests, I never had as much confidence in who I was, and what I could do as Jesus gets from reading a little piece of scripture.

He goes home to Nazareth, and they invite their home-grown up-and-coming rabbi to preach.
So he stands up, reads the prophet Isaiah’s words promising that God will anoint someone to release the captive and the oppressed, overturn the order of the world, transform the lives of the poor, and heal the blind, puts the scroll down and says,
“Done. That’s me. I got it.”

He knows who he is, and what he’s meant to do; finds it in scripture and declares it to the world.

How many of you have had that experience?
The powerful conviction of who you are, and what you are meant to do, so certain that you can announce it not only to the world, but to the folks who know just how awkward and difficult you were as a teenager.

How many of you have that experience about faith, church, and spiritual gifts?

And how many have ever felt uncertain, confused, or perhaps unnecessary?
Like everyone else is better at prayer and preaching and healing and scriptural interpretation and leadership than you, your skills aren’t spiritual gifts, and even if you live a faithful life, it doesn’t make much difference to the church or the world?

Me too, actually. Even with seminary training and official discernment processes, profiles and tests and deep immersion in scripture, Jesus’ confidence today and all those biblical lists of spiritual gifts make me feel inadequate or a little irrelevant sometimes. 

So I take all these spiritual gifts assessments, and my results always include things like “administrator,” which doesn’t seem to show up much in the Bible. I mean, it’s useful, but…spiritual?
There are clearly folks who are a lot better equipped as prophets and evangelists and healers than I am - some right here at Calvary. I have very definitely never spoken in tongues, and I don’t really feel more confident about my ability to pray extemporaneously in public than most of you,  even though I do it because it’s my job.

And that’s what Paul’s talking about.
God has made us, Paul says, as a body with all kinds of different parts.
Feet, hands, eyes, ears, and the bits we put clothes over and don’t honor in public.
And even the bits we generally ignore are absolutely necessary — even the bits that seem pretty irrelevant; even those of us whose spiritual gift appears to be the appendix.

I think Paul is telling us not just that eyes and intestines and little toes and hips are equally important — which is good for balancing out the ego and sense of value between those who lead the march and those who clean up after — but that we have to consider what all those parts do for the body, to know how many things we get to do for God in the world.

So think about it for a minute.
Let’s start with the feet.
What do feet do? stand, walk, balance….
So what you do - in the church, in the world - as a foot or feet for God?
run errands, fetch things, support work, keep things balanced…

How about a mouth?
What do mouths do for God in the world?
not just speak, but eat, taste, kiss and make intimacy

How about eyes?  What do eyes do for God? 
see, observe
What would you do if you were an eye for God?
search, see opportunities, recognize friends, see what others are overlooking….

How about the parts of the body we can’t see (at least not without an X-ray)?
Like kidneys.… Your kidneys clean up your blood stream, separate the toxic from the healthy.
If you’re being a kidney for God, you might be the one who finds joy in putting things back in order so we’re functional and ready to go, but you also might be someone who pays attention to sorting the good from the bad, helping communities lose unhealthy habits, feeding healthy nourishment into the world.

Or the spine, the skeleton. What does your spine do for your body?
What would it be like to be a spine for God in the world
(give shape and structure, stand up for things…..)

And there’s so much more.
Lungs, skin, fingers, wombs, colons — all those bits of our reproductive and digestive systems we’re not comfortable analyzing in church — there are so many different things our bodies do, so many things to do for God in the world.

I think Paul is not just telling us to honor all the different things people do for God, but helping us recognize that there are so many more things to do for God, so many more things we can do that are of God. And that we don’t get to opt out by considering our gifts and our work unimportant, because it’s “just” the feet.
I think he’s telling us that some of us may be called primarily to be a mouth, but all of us may be called upon at any time to be the fingers, the nose, the lungs, or the kidneys, because together we are all of the body.

So it’s okay if the spiritual assessment tests, and the ambitious instructions in scripture, 
don’t make a spiritual call clear to you, or tell you exactly who you are and what to do.
Paul’s telling us that these gifts that fill us with the Holy Spirit are more obscure and more obvious, more practical and more intangible, than we are used to thinking.

Paul’s telling us that indeed, you have gifts and call that are as important as mine, as important as his, as magnificent and as important as Jesus’ - because they are Jesus’.
Because we are all part of each others’ gifts and call.
Because the pancreas and the mouth both matter, in our bodies and in the Body of Christ, even when we aren’t exactly sure what one of them does. And the way the Body works together is a miracle of God’s own creation, an ongoing, holy, act of love.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Whatever He Tells You

John 2:1-11

This has been one of my favorite Jesus stories for a long time. It’s fun; it happens at a party; there’s that exchange between Jesus and his mother that feels like a glimpse into a daily relationship that’s not too far from our own experience, and it’s a bit funny.

But maybe my favorite line is “Do whatever he tells you.” It speaks volumes about Mary’s knowledge of her son, of her theological and maternal confidence, that after Jesus announces that this wine problem has nothing to do with him, she rounds up the staff and tells them to do what ever Jesus says.

And it may say something of Mary’s authority - familial and theological - that the staff in fact, DO what Jesus tells them. Because what Jesus tells them to do is ridiculous.

The host is about to have to shut down the party and the servants undoubtedly should be helping with that, but Jesus tells them to fill up all the water jars. To get something between 120 and 180 gallons of water from the well or the river or wherever you get water in Cana, haul them to the courtyard, or the family hall, and fill up the jars (which, by the way, is a LOT more water than even a wedding full of guests needs for the “rites of purification,” which would have taken place before the feast started, anyway).

And they just do it.
They do what he tells them.

And then when they’ve got the jugs filled (it must have taken ages!), he tells them to dip some out, and give it to the steward to serve.
Serve water?? Seriously?
I mean, he’s going to make Mothers Against Drunk Driving happy, but the whole point of his mother’s instructions was to keep the party going, right?
But they just do it. Just do what he tells them, foolish and odd as it is, hard as the work was; 
they do what he tells them. And the miracle appears.

It’s no longer water. It’s wine.
It’s really good wine.  First toast, savor the taste, high quality stuff.
And there is a ton of it (literally, probably equivalent to the amount of wine you get from a ton of grapes - thanks, Google!)
And the party is saved. The party is amazing. And God’s glory is all over the place.

Because they did what he told them. Because they went along with the unusual, apparently pointless, goofy activity of filling up those ridiculous water jars, humored him, maybe, trusted him, maybe, imagined the possibilities or had nothing to lose, and did what Jesus told them.

Did you ever do that?
I know this congregation enough to suspect that at least one of you has a story - often told or kept close to your chest - about when you went out on a limb for God. Maybe you quit your job or took on one you hadn’t planned, spoke up in public - protested, or preached, or told a story you meant to keep private; moved across the country, fell in love with the “wrong” person, came back to church after the church hurt you, donated something you couldn’t spare…
and something impossible and wonderful happened.
When you did something that it seemed like Jesus was telling you to do, foolish or odd or outside your comfort zone, and discovered a miracle.

Sometimes what God asks of us, what Jesus tells us to do, makes sense - fits with our own experience and clear logic: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you, for example. And we live well in God’s call to us when we follow the teachings we understand.

But miracles mostly don’t appear when we’re doing what makes sense.
Miracles mostly appear when we’ve run out of sense, when logic and experience won’t take us any further. When we’re out of wine, and we’ve already spent the whole wedding budget, and besides, the merchant couldn’t deliver more for weeks, and Jesus tells us to dip up water.

Miracles happen when there’s nothing to eat, and Jesus tells us to feed people. When there’s no hope for a cure, and God tells you to take your open, bleeding sores and go bathe in a dirty river. When you have fished all night, and done everything right, and there are clearly no fish there today, and Jesus tells you to cast the net on the wrong side of the boat. When your brother has been dead for days, and Jesus tells you to open the tomb and undo his wrappings - in spite of the stink and the impossibility of healing the dead.

God has a tendency - Jesus has a habit - of telling us to do foolish, uncomfortable, illogical things that add up, in God’s presence, to an unreasonable, extravagant miracle.

And, boy, are these miracles extravagant. 
When Jesus feeds five thousand hungry people, there are leftovers. LOTS of leftovers. The impossible haul of fish overflows the net. A dead man - very dead - lives.
And there’s enough wine to party for weeks, not just an evening.

It’s worth noting that when the host ran out of wine, the wedding party had to stop, and stopping early probably gave you a loser’s reputation. And when Jesus makes new wine, he makes so much that it’s clear he’s not just saving this party, he’s telling us that the celebration never needs to end.  That the joy and unity and fellowship can go on and on and on.

It’s nice, when you need a miracle, to be able to hear exactly what Jesus is telling us to do, to be confident that even if we’re doing something crazy, we’re precisely following God’s instructions.
But most of the time it doesn’t work that clearly. 
I suspect the miracles we read about in the Bible got remembered and retold because of how rare it is to hear our impractical instructions so clearly, to be told, explicitly, to “Fill the jars with water.”

More often, its very hard to figure out how to get “outside the box,” even when we know the usual ways don’t offer any solutions.  The things Jesus tells us to do come through as vague promptings: feelings, impractical dreams, odd recurring ideas that seem to go in precisely the opposite direction from the one we want.
But miracles still happen. Not always clearly, but so real.

Now, it might sound like I’m saying every crazy idea is good. But we all know that only some of our crazy ideas are holy. And we don’t always know which until we try.
But it’s clear that miracles don’t come from our sensible selves, but from our willingness to obey Mary, to do what Jesus tells us to do.
And it’s clear that Jesus uses us to make miracles, so Jesus needs us to listen for instructions that might be irrational, to put our backs into hauling gallon after gallon of apparently pointless water, to imagine the possibilities, and trust with both heart and action.

Because when God makes miracles with us, Jesus brings out the very best: the high quality, top of the line wine, in a glorious abundance, more than we’d ever ask or imagine.

Monday, January 4, 2016


Matthew 2:1-12

It must have been a long trip.
But now, after all the exhaustion of travel — the lines, the traffic, the bad food, the strangers, the never-quite-right-ness of sleeping in different places — finally they’ve made it to Jerusalem, they’ve accomplished their goal, they are ready to see the king.

So they start asking around, confident that anyone in town will know where the big events are taking place.
“Where is the royal baby??” they ask, “we saw his star, saw the signs in the heavens. This great thing has happened and we have come to be part of it, too, to honor and celebrate your new king!”

The people of Jerusalem are baffled, and it doesn't take long for the people in charge to hear about these disruptive visitors, insisting on finding a new king. Herod’s upset, of course, but so are the normal folks.
Would you want some crazy foreigners wandering around here insisting on a radical change of government? Announcing that they know, from indisputable signs and study, that the overthrow of our government is already underway?

How long do you think it would take Homeland Security to get involved in that one?
If a delegation of folks with funny accents from Azerbaijan or Myanmar or someplace else you can’t quite place on a map came around asking to meet with President Trump, or announcing that they’d seen the future and America is about to become a benevolent dictatorship governed by some direct descendant of George Washington they’d just discovered online?

No doubt we’d think they were crazy.
But if we believed them, or they got credible coverage on your favorite news channel, you might start to worry. 
I might.
Might be glad to hear that Homeland Security had rounded them up, and were taking steps to make sure that no one was interfering with the 2016 election.

So Herod called the magi to his palace, got them out of the streets and the media, sent them to Bethlehem, and took steps to insure that this “child king” of theirs wasn’t a threat to his lawful government.

Do you know how that story ends?
Know how - when the magi didn’t come back to identify the particular dangerous baby they were looking for - Herod had all the infant and toddler boys gotten rid of?
It’s a terrible story, a massacre none of us would stand for, one that would never happen here (right? right??), but at the time, it made sense to Herod and his leaders: For the greater good, for the protection of the people, to keep some unknown stranger from threatening our way of life, our security, our comfort.

It didn’t work, did it?
Didn’t work for Herod to eliminate infants;
doesn’t work for us to ban Muslims from entering our country, take off our shoes at the airport, put cameras on every police officer, or build a better border fence. 
It doesn’t actually stop the change that comes, or eliminate the fear. Sometimes it just feeds the fear, the perfectly normal, human fear that change means loss. That “justice” or “reform” or “welcome” or “security” is going to mess with my rights, my access, my normal, my freedom.

It gets me all the time, but most of the time I hardly notice. Because that fear of loss runs mostly under the surface, not very conscious, but still powerful.
Powerful enough to make it sensible and easy for most folks in Jerusalem to go along with Herod — unsatisfactory Roman puppet-king that he was — and be happy to see the foolish or disturbing foreign visitors fade from the scene, to know that “steps were being taken,” and that inconvenience for some meant protection for us all.

There’s a deep and broad and subtle connection between Herod’s reactive and preventive measures, and the TSA-enhanced, crazy campaign politics, uncomfortable with religion, money-driven world that you and I live in.
And when the magi —when the weirdos and the strangers and the protestors insisting that everything must change — show up in our lives, it’s worth remembering this story.

It’s worth remembering that we’re all going to fear loss or pain from the change we can’t choose or control, and it’s worth facing those fears, not just obeying them when they whisper to us below our conscious thought. 
Because we never get to choose or control the changes God is busy bringing.

That rumored government-changing baby didn’t do what anyone expected or wanted. Not once in his life, despite what the carols will tell you about his “meek and mild” appearance, or unchildlike obedience and sleep habits.
He didn’t drive the Romans - or even Herod - out and restore a free and independent Israel, didn’t bring the religious renewal the rabbis might have wanted, disappointed his best friends and closest supporters, and wouldn’t even stay decently dead to be cherished in grieving memory.
Didn’t do what anyone had prayed for, but went around defying the social and religious order, bringing God intimately and undeniably into the messiness of human life, ruined the sad but essential certainty of death, broke down the security of “us” and “them,” and eliminated “impossible” as an excuse for anything.

That’s why the crazy magi got it right.
They stuck with mystery — with the impossible and improbable, with astrology and dreams — and were led by a star to meet God made flesh, and protected on their homeward road.

They didn’t worry about the bizarre impracticality of their baby gifts, and got to worship the King while he still had that adorable infant face that makes all the inconvenience and ridiculous demands worth it.

The magi are the people who tell stories of wonder and joy when the chemo fails, or the pain is chronic, and all the losses are vivid, and new life sounds like a ridiculous fairy tale.

The magi are the ones who keep stirring up the protests that no one takes seriously, until the momentum for healthy change has taken hold. The magi find inspiration and hope in an unjust system, and spread that good news to the satisfied and the hopeless alike.

The magi believe their hearts, and risk disappointment and embarrassment, for the chance of glorious love and joy, in the little things and in the big things.
The magi make us laugh, at them and at ourselves, until the laughter shows us changes we actually want to embrace.

Change is hard on us. Even change we choose, even - or especially - God-given change. But right now, the news and the internet are bursting with enthusiasm for change, for new commitments for a new year: resolutions and hopes - and sales! - that encourage us to choose the new, embrace change, and believe in the improbable. 

So perhaps, if you’re making resolutions this year, it’s worth trying something improbable,
and commit to being a magi, being a little foolish, impractical, irrational — in just one thing, if not everything.

Commit to listen to your dreams, laugh with your half-conscious fears until they become old friends, follow stars instead of conventional wisdom, or go exploring in the foreign lands of race, religion, science, art, age, illness, love - whatever holds mystery for you.
Choose wonder and trust and change, because God is leading us there, whether we plan the journey or not.

We won’t ever get to choose or control what God is up to in the world, and it’s entirely, naturally, human to be uncomfortable with that. Even afraid.
Herod is always going to show up in our story.
But the magi are always there, too. Fools, strangers, odd folk, different in ways that make us uncomfortable, asking questions we don’t know the answers to, but telling stories of promise and wonder that are truer than we can possibly believe.

The good news is that God doesn’t stop making things new when we get anxious, doesn’t worry about our unintended, unconscious fears, but keeps inviting us on adventures of mystery and wonder, as non-sensical as dreams, improbable as a baby king, but truer than we know how to believe.