Sunday, July 3, 2016

What Is Set Before You

Galatians 6: 1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

When I fly, I carry on. I make sure that my entire trip will fit in an overhead-compliant wheelie suitcase, and in a backpack under the seat in front of me, and I will not let those possessions out of my hands or my sight the whole trip.

This has nothing to do with checked bag fees. I’ve been doing this a lot longer than the airlines decided it was good business practice to nickel and dime the living daylights out of the traveling public. No, I strategize and lift heavy burdens and cling to my bag because I’m afraid the airline is going to lose it. And then I will be wherever I go without My Stuff.

It feels like it’s about independence for me. Not having to rely on strangers, being in control of my own destiny, and my own shampoo.

So Jesus’ instructions to his disciples today haunt me. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals….”
No luggage, and no wallet to purchase an extra shirt when the airline loses your bag.
It’s not like Jesus doesn’t know this is terrifying.  He’s right up front about sending these disciples out “as sheep in the midst of wolves.” Everything about this is a conscious, deliberate, act of vulnerability.
Oh, ick.

I mean, vulnerability is what we’re taught to avoid. It’s what politicians campaign against. (Successful politicians, anyway.) Let’s make our country safer. Let’s guarantee jobs. Elect me and nothing bad will ever happen to you (only to the other people).

It doesn’t actually work.
No politician seems to have been able to protect us the way we want to be protected. The beautiful young parents, the loving generous souls killed in the midst of their work and recreation in Istanbul, and Orlando, and so many other places tell us that.
Every economic crisis, from the Great Depression to the Housing Bubble to the Brexit market mess tell us that.

But we try, and we act as if we believe it, anyway.
When we go out into foreign territory, we’re warned to lock our car doors and roll up the windows, to hide our wallets, not to trust. Protect yourself. (If you don’t you can’t help others,) we’re told.

Vulnerability is hard, and hard to desire, even if you’ve been taught that it’s a spiritual virtue.
And it is.
Jesus is all over it. Jesus is dramatically vulnerable.
Not just in the crucifixion, but over and over – spending all his time on the road, risking the wrath of the religious authorities at every turn, risking having the crowd turn on him at any time,
risking hospitality all the time. Pretty much every time we see Jesus in Luke’s gospel, he’s eating someone else’s food at someone else’s house. Just as he tells his disciples to do today:

“Eat what is set before you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide…. Do not move about from house to house.”
You can’t go looking for something better, and you don’t get to leave until your hosts are ready for you to leave.

For me it triggers the same kind of anxieties as losing my luggage.
What if I don’t like the food? How will I take care of myself if they don’t do it right?
What if I don’t like the people? How can I depend on anyone that much?

One commentator I read this week talked about feeling similar things, reading this story, until she heard from a young man who’d grown up on the principle of “eat what is set before you,” not just in his own home, but in the many meals his father’s congregation had put before him.
This was a rural congregation, where many people had to rely on whatever they could kill or catch to put food on the table, even for company.  It wasn’t a question of whether you liked spinach, but of not even quite knowing what you were eating.

I’m a picky eater, though I’ve tried not to be.  And this viscerally reminds me that receiving hospitality can be as much of a challenge, as full of vulnerability, as offering it. Sometimes more.

Now, I know Jesus isn’t telling people with celiac disease or serious food allergies to eat things that can kill them, but he is telling, say, vegetarians to eat meat as a good guest and gospel messenger, or middle-class Americans to eat squirrel and snake. 
His disciples are being sent out into foreign territory, where some of their hosts will know nothing about the “right”, holy and faithful ways to plan and prepare food.  They’ll have to give up their lifelong personal – even religiously mandated – morality and expectations about food lest it get in the way of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus’ instructions, and that young man’s story, remind me that receiving hospitality can actually be a gift from the guest to the host, that although we may – subconsciously at least - think of hospitality and welcome as things that the established, comfortable, and secure can offer to those who have less, we can and should receive hospitality from those who are more vulnerable than we feel, or who are our enemies.
And we can give the gift of peace – a gift that grows and deepens – by accepting that hospitality.

Paul makes the other side of that case in his letter to the church in Galatia, telling the Jewish Christians – who are the “hosts” of the community, welcoming Gentiles into their faith – that they don’t get to choose the terms on which they offer welcome.  That in Christ, in the Kingdom of God, you have to accept and welcome things that challenge our sense of righteousness, of rightness, and learn to see them as godly, too.

Paul insists that freedom is not being able to do whatever we want – or get other people to do what we want – but that freedom is a mutual interdependence:
the freedom to rely on one another,
the freedom to be vulnerable,
the freedom to lose our image of ourselves, in favor of sharing in the image of God with people who are not like us and will change us in ways we can’t plan for.

As we pray for and celebrate our nation this weekend, what would it be like to apply these principles to our sense of nation, patriotism, self?

To think of ourselves as the Galatians, welcoming people who definitely do not do this thing right, and who might even be dangerous to our comfort and identity, and who are certainly going to change our community if we let them in – and trusting God and one another that the new nation, the new community of grace, that arises will be stronger, freer, and more worthy of trust.

Our own founding national story, after all, is about how strangers came to this land, bringing dramatic and even dangerous differences to the inhabitants, and how from that disruption a nation that that inspires freedom around the world was born.

Or how would it be, now, to imagine ourselves as always receiving hospitality, from our nation, from the land itself, from one another, from the folks who post strange things on Facebook or who disagree with us on the right path for our country?
How would it be if, accepting what is set before us, we learn to trust that what is strange to us will not only nourish our bodies, but form the strong bonds of table fellowship that build strangers into family.

It’s a failure of that imagination that seems to have lead to Brexit, to Orlando, to so many other painful and divisive experiences in our world.
But still, that vulnerable hospitality and guest-ship keeps popping up, too – stories of Muslims inviting a local LGBT community to a Ramadan meal, of people opening their homes and hearts to strangers in the midst of loss and grief and division.
Stories about how even now, the Kingdom of God comes near.

And it’s worth remembering, too, that even when Jesus instructs his disciples to wipe the merest dust of a place from their feet, when their mission of peace, hospitality, mutuality, vulnerability, and trust fails, they are still to remind that town – themselves, us – that the Kingdom of God has come near.

It’s worth remembering that when we open the door – even when we fail, even in spite of us – the Kingdom of God has come near.

Sunday, June 26, 2016


Luke 9:51-62

This journey doesn’t have an end. So abandon your dead father and your grieving family. Leave your business a mess and don’t even try to say goodbye.

Wow, Jesus is blunt, abrupt, maybe even mean today. Rejecting “family values” – both the liberal and conservative kinds – the relationships and rituals and connections that make us human, make us family, everything that eases the shock of transition and loss and change.

You could speculate that Jesus is under some stress when he says that.  He’s just been banned from a village where he was hoping to spend the night, and he’s had to talk his disciples down from smiting that town with lightning.

So you’d think it would be a nice change when someone on the road greets Jesus with enthusiasm:
“I’m with you! I will follow you anywhere you go!”
But Jesus responds, “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, and the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
It sounds like a brush off, and one that doesn’t even make a lot of sense.

It could be a cranky reference to having been rejected from the Samaritan inn.  But it’s almost certainly a warning that the journey of following Jesus won’t end, has no destination, and isn’t too comfortable on the way.

And then Jesus says – apparently to the next person he sees – “Follow me.”
A minute ago he didn’t seem to want a volunteer. Now he’s recruiting.
It's confusing, and gets more so.
"I'm in! I'm with you!" says the recruit, "I just have to finish my holy obligation of burying my father."

If I heard that from someone I was inviting to do church work, you know I'd instantly be asking if we could help.  Take all the time you need, my friend. I'm so sorry for your loss.  
You'd do that too, wouldn't you?
Not Jesus.
“Let the dead bury their own dead,” he says. “You go proclaim the kingdom of God.”

He seems to reject the next volunteer, too. Forget saying goodbye and letting folks know you’re leaving. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

We know that discipleship is hard that it’s supposed to take first priority, over everything else. But even over good, holy obligations? Yes. That’s the blunt, obvious truth of this story.
You want to follow Jesus?
No you don’t. So do it. NOW.

Following Jesus – being absolutely like Jesus, doing what Jesus does, would do – that’s difficult. Being Christians – “little Christs” – was never meant to be something to enjoy, to fill the tank for the week, to soothe and console us.  It was meant to change the world, to serve others, even enemies; to make God’s dream and joy for the world real among us.

The strength of being Christian is the strength of climbing another hill and another after you’re completely exhausted – or when you don’t have legs to climb with in the first place. It’s too hard for most of us to do when our attention is claimed by anything else – even the normal, natural, necessary care of our families and communities.
And Jesus is blunt and kind of merciless about that truth today.

But it might not be mean, and it might not be as impossible as it sounds.

Perhaps the problem in these encounters with potential disciples is not that they shouldn’t take care of their families, but the way they approach it: First, let me bury my father. First let me say farewell.

In the kingdom of God, there is no linear time, no progression.
There is only now and not-now.

Over and over, Jesus insists that the kingdom of God – the world the way God dreams it to be – the kingdom of God is here. Among you. Now.
The kingdom of God isn’t a future state of being, an afterlife, or a millennium to come when we get it right, but God’s will fully lived out immediately here and now, in spite of, in the midst of, all the messy, imperfect, unready clutter - and even evil - of the world as it is.

The difference for us is whether we live in the Kingdom of God now,
or not.

And when we say, “hang on a minute, I just have this one thing to do.
Let me do this one thing first,”
we’re saying “not now” to the kingdom.
And Jesus, the gospel, the kingdom, don’t have a later. Even a few minutes to wait.
It’s now.

Or not.

The kingdom of God is like my cat, it seems.
This cat is not shy about demands for love and attention. But, you know, I have things to do sometimes. I can’t cuddle right now. First, I have to go to the store and get you some kibble. I have to go to work first, so that you can have toys and treats and a house to play in. When I get back we’ll play.

It’s not that the cat doesn’t also want kibble and toys and treats and a safe place to call home. But as far as he is concerned, there’s no difference between “not now,” or “let me just do this first,” and “No.”

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t want us to love our families, have goals and destinations, fulfill our holy obligations, bury our parents.
It’s that the Kingdom of God happens now,
or not at all.

There’s an upside to this, though.
If the only time known to the Kingdom of God is now, then the only times we can’t live in the kingdom are the past and the future. Any now is the now of the kingdom.
The good news is that we don’t have to wait until we are ready, until we have our selves and our souls and our beliefs sorted out. You don’t have to wait until you’re holy enough, until you know what you’re doing, until you’re brave enough to pray or speak in front of people, or understand enough to explain it. Don’t have to wait until you have the money, the patience, for doing what Jesus would do.

Most of all, you don’t have to wait until you have time for God,
for prayer and service and love.

There is nothing to keep you and me, all of us, from living the kingdom of God right now. Nothing to keep us from living one hundred percent as Jesus would, now, no matter what else we’re doing.

I suspect that if that one man had said “Yes” to Jesus without hesitation,
he would have found himself supported and strengthened in his holy obligations, that he would indeed have buried his father, with Jesus, and found the strength and opportunity to restore himself and his family to wholeness, living the Kingdom of God, now.

I imagine that if a woman volunteered to follow Jesus without a pause to say goodbye to friends and family, she might have found those friends and family joining her on the way.

That if another leapt feet first into the journey without asking for the destination, or comfort, or assurance, the wonders encountered on the way would be enough, and more than enough.

It’s not easy to stay now with God.
We plan and pray for the future, work hard in the present, remember the past with regret or try to recreate the good old days.  My iPhone calendar and the calendars of sports and church and elections and doctors and work and family pulls me out of now, and into “soon,” or “later,” or careful scheduling, over and over again.

It’s not easy to be now, for Jesus.
But Jesus will never stop being now for us.
The Kingdom of God isn’t waiting.
And we don’t have to, either.

Ready or not, the time - God's only time - is now.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

I Can't Even

1 Kings 19:1-15 

I’m done.
I’ve had it. I just can’t even with this anymore.
I’m. Just. DONE.

You ever said that? Felt it?

I have felt that way this week; a year after Charleston, a week after Pulse.
Unable to contain my rage and despair while the news and social media fill up with the same – same!! – arguments and platitudes and thoughts and prayers and denials and accusations and Islamophobia and homophobia and racism and immigration rhetoric and all the other sad and nasty bits of the way this country and culture react to mass violence and gun crime.
Helpless, angry, lonely, and fed up.

That’s how Elijah feels. Walking away from the mess that is Israel, throwing himself into the wilderness in despair, he even says to God, “Just kill me now.”

God doesn’t, of course. God feeds him and provokes him deep into the wilderness, until he comes to the place where we know he can meet with God. And there in a cave, maybe the same place that God gave Moses the Law, God asks Elijah what’s wrong, and he complains,
“I’m done. I did everything I could, but no one will listen to me, or to God, and they’re just doing the same terrible stuff over and over and now they want to kill me.”
Help. I quit. I can’t even.

Elijah doesn’t ask God to change things, just throws his hopelessness and desperation out there.
And in response, God invites Elijah into direct experience of the presence of God.

I’ve tried to get there this week.
I’ve looked for the helpers. I’ve clung to stories of grace and love, the kind that always follow a tragedy like this, scenes and stories that demonstrate that God’s compassion and heart are here, embracing victims, embracing us, in spite of evil and violence and hate and death.

God  is  present.
But this time – often, honestly – not in the way I’m yearning for.

If God won’t just STOP this,
sweep away the guns, the many other tools of violence,
cast out the demons of fear and hate that are literally killing us,
come with great power and make it change,
I don’t know how to pray any more.

Like Elijah, I want my helplessness to be met by the power of God, because the more often this happens, the more often people are shot and murdered in places of sanctuary like gay clubs and churches and schools, and nothing changes, then the more despair overwhelms my hope and compassion, my ability to pray for change, or hope, or love, and my ability to act.

All I have left, like Elijah, is the angry assertion, to God and the world, that I can’t even anymore. A helpless plea that can’t even form the word, “Help!” in prayer.

And in that place, Elijah is met by the power of God.
He stands in a tornado, a wind ripping the landscape to pieces.
He’s thrown around by an earthquake, surrounded with fire.
He’s right in the midst of the power of God.
But God is not in that power.
After all that, God is in the sound of sheer silence.

God is not in the power of God, but in the utter absence of force and action and noise.

And in that sheer stillness, God asks again what’s wrong, and Elijah says the same thing.
I have done everything I can. And Israel is still an ungodly mess, unable to listen for and to God. The devastation of that broken relationship is terrible. I’m the only one left, and I’m in danger.

He says the same exact thing he said before the earthquake, wind, and fire, but with God in the stillness, perhaps the words sound different for the first time.

Perhaps sheer silence – that presence of God that is the antithesis of force and violent, dramatic power – is where the despair of “I am alone” becomes the determination of “I am the only one.”

In “Help,Thanks, Wow,” the book on prayer that many of us are reading this summer, Anne Lamott tells the story of when her mother’s Alzheimer’s had progressed to the point where she had to be separated from her beloved cat to enter a nursing home.
Lamott prayed first that her mother could simply die at home, with the cat, and be spared the pain of separation.
Then began to beg, “just don’t make me have to take the cat out of her arms. Just don’t make me have to cause and experience this pain.”
And finally, only “Help. Enter this mess.”
And she took the cat out of her mother’s arms, and said she’d be back in a week.

Did it suck? she writes. Yes.
Was my prayer – Help – answered?  Was it excruciating? Yes.
Did my mother end up in a warm, gentle place with nice light and nurses and exquisite care, where her closest people could visit and comfort her…. Yes.
Is it less of a beautiful prayer experience because it involved lying? Not to me.

Perhaps sheer silence is when helplessness crystallizes into action, action we did not really want to take, but that, once taken, puts us in a place of answered prayer.

In that sheer silence, in the echo of Elijah’s helplessness: “I have done my best and I cannot fix this mess. I am alone, and in danger,” God sends Elijah right back into the work,
and Elijah goes.

Perhaps God answers our prayers in this way, more often than we would like, when we are Done: fed up, lonely, helpless, and the dramatic power of God does nothing, but God is not in the drama.
Perhaps, more often than we know, God is in the sheer silence of the absence of power, and the actions of our helplessness and despair are transformed into works of grace.

I have been bitterly helpless this week about the futility and pain of preaching a mass shooting. Again.
I am cranky and hopeless about it even now.
But perhaps, in some sheer silence, I will find that these moments, and the wringing anger of preparation, has nonetheless been grace.

Perhaps you just don’t want, ever, to have to explain gun violence, homophobia, racism, radical fear, or the blame game to your children, but you have no choice.

Perhaps – like me – you don’t want to ever have to have – or watch – another of those conversations about background checks and government overreach and mental illness and “radicalism” and terrorism and public safety and bad guys and good guys where we keep talking past each other and nothing seems to happen, but you can't avoid those conversations.

Perhaps you don’t want to give up your rights, your faith in this country’s commitment to individual liberty, by prohibiting whole classes of people from buying guns, don’t want to have to write your representatives or march or petition again. But you have to.

Perhaps the pain or the anger gets so bad you hardly even want to pray again for the victims, or have to look for the helpers. But you have to.

Perhaps, for you, it’s not about guns this week, but about cancer,
or a gratingly broken family relationship,
or climate change,
or an endless deadly tightrope in your personal finances,
or some other grinding, hopeless pain.

But perhaps, in your own places and times of helpless pain, of powerless despair, when you’re past even a prayer for help, and God had better come with power because you can’t even anything anymore….
perhaps you and I will find ourselves encountering God in the sheer silence, where the things we do in hopelessness, the actions we dread as we do them, become our answered prayers.

Perhaps when we are at our end, we too will encounter the profound silence of the whole being of God that transforms our work of despair into works of deep and abiding grace.

And when I am past praying, I will try to remember that.
Will you?

Lamott, Anne. Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers New York, Penguin Group LLC, ©2012