Sunday, March 15, 2015

What You Need

Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21

The wilderness is a great place to go when you want to encounter God, but it’s never going to get a five-star rating from me.

I’ve been camping. I used to be a kayak guide. I’ve been in the Arctic and the desert and the woods. And yes, I’ve found peace and grace there. Yes, I’ve felt overwhelming awe, felt the presence of God there, but the food is limited, cooking it is more difficult - everything is more difficult! - lots of things are dangerous, and I would be a lot more comfortable at home, thank you very much.

I know that some of you may love camping, but my heart resonates with deep empathy for the Israelites whose story we heard this morning. They’d been freed from slavery and promised that God would bring them to a rich and fertile and secure land - but it's been decades of wilderness, now.
No wonder “the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’"

Manna from heaven may be a miracle, but even miracles can get boring and tasteless after so many years. The Israelites are suffering from real fatigue, from the effort to keep hope and trust alive when God’s promises take so very long to happen, from the ongoing instability of wandering and waiting and living in tents.  Their complaints are real, and heartfelt.

And then they are surrounded by snakes.
“Fiery serpents,” the text says, venomous snakes whose bite was deadly.

There’s no concrete connection in the text between the Israelites' complaints and the appearance of the snakes.  
They just happen one after the other, and it’s up to us, the readers and hearers, to interpret whether the snakes are a punishment for whining and lack of trust,
or just another vivid danger of life in the wilderness, piled on top of the misery of bland and boring food, scarce water, and the sheer unending difficulty of everyday life.

You really couldn’t blame God for getting frustrated with the Israelites leaning into the refrigerator, whining, “There’s nothing to eeeaaat, I hate this food!” and wanting to make a point. 
But we also believe, on the strength of our own experience and generations of faith, that God is generous, forgiving, and pretty committed to the welfare of this odd community, saved and called by God’s own choice - even if we do get a little whiny.
So it could go either way.
But either way the snakes are scary.  People are dying.
And the survivors turn to God for salvation.

“Please!” they say to Moses, “please, we’re sorry we complained about God, and about you. Just ask God to get rid of the snakes. 
Please! We’re sorry!!”

I’ve prayed like that a time or two. Have you?

God answers those prayers.
Moses makes a bronze snake sculpture for the center of the camp, and just looking at that sculpture heals anyone bitten.
But the snakes stay.

God gives them healing, miracles, opportunity; the answer to prayer.
But it’s NOT what we asked for at all.

It’s one of those things that every pastor and preacher and well-meaning friend says sooner or later, one of those things that every prayerful person has to wrestle with:
God answers prayer.
God saves and heals and responds and loves,
but so often it looks nothing like what we asked for, or what we imagined.

Or, in the words of 20th century American philosophers Jagger and Richards,
but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”

I’ll admit I enjoy that truth a little more when the Rolling Stones are singing it than when I’m wrestling with it in prayer and preaching, but it’s real either way.

And it’s one of the first faith problems of our Christian gospel.  
Because Jesus isn’t what anyone was praying for.  
He heals, he inspires, he casts out demons, he challenges the corrupt authorities,
but he also goes around knocking down and tearing up the practices that we love and count on to keep us right with God.
He yells at Peter for not getting it.
He confuses everyone as much as he inspires anyone,
and the fundamental problems of the world don’t change no matter how many he heals.  
The corrupt authorities stay firmly in power and get Jesus killed without much of a fight.
Healing, miracles, opportunity, absolutely.
But NOT what anyone had asked for.

The Messiah was supposed to really fix the world.  
But the snakes are still here.
Corrupt authorities, devastating illness, pain, injustice, hunger, boredom, and fear are just as much a part of our lives now as they were before Jesus - in spite of how often and how generously God answers our prayers.

Very early on in John’s gospel story, in response to the first curious, cautious Jewish leader to ask about who he is, and what he has come to do, we heard Jesus compare himself to Moses’ bronze serpent.
He knows, even if we don’t, that we’re not going to think we got what we want,
even if God has, indeed, given us someone we deeply, desperately need.

It would be enough, I think, to learn from the Bible, or from the Rolling Stones,
that what we need may be found and given even when we don’t get what we want.
But these stories, and our own need for God, might call us to something more.

The snake-bitten Israelites are healed when they turn their faces to the thing that they fear, the thing that hurts them. They are healed when they look on the serpent given to them by God.
Jesus wraps a confused Nicodemus in the contradictory mystery of God’s gift: that when Jesus is “lifted up,” crucifixion, ascension, death, resurrection, humiliation, exaltation blend into one inseparable truth.

In Christ, with God, loss and grace, pain and wholeness, are simply part of one another,
and we are invited to embrace that gift.

To know, when we pray, that healing can’t be separated from living with our fears,
that victory can’t be separated from loss,
grace can’t be separated from our fumbling sin,
the joy of abundance is tied to the pain of hunger,
that life in the world as it should be can’t be separated from our gritty wrestling with the world as it is,
and love can’t be separated from pain.

And that’s how we’re invited to pray,
invited to embrace the dangers and discomforts of the wilderness,
and the confidence and abundance of the promised land
all at once,
knowing that they are one and the same.

And then we may just get what we want,
because, God knows, we certainly will be getting what we need.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

A Fierce Conversation

Exodus 20:1-17, John 2:13-22

How many of you know the Ten Commandments? What do you know about them?

It’s relatively common knowledge - available in Sunday School and via movies and TV specials - that God gave the commandments to Moses after God led the Hebrew people out of Egypt, 
and that they were written on stone tablets.

And - despite the fact that the Biblical text does not actually call this set of proclamations, instructions and prohibitions “commandments” - these have become the most famous “commandments” around.  Just ask Google.  
The idea of these commandments has become set in stone - in our culture if not in our courthouses.

So most of us know them; if not word-for-word, at least what they’re about.  
(Without looking at any of the paper you hold in your hands) how much can you remember?  How much can we remember, together, of those “Ten Words,” those famous “commandments?”

In no particular order: God’s identity, no idolatry, careful with the name of God, honor parents, keep Sabbath, no coveting, no adultery, no murder or killing, no stealing, no false testimony… 

Here we have a strong moral foundation, a commitment to one God.  Core principles, widely recognized and honored. Could we ask for more?
And if we’re keeping these, could God ask for anything more?

Well, yes.
Very much yes, to both questions.

If you read this story in the Bible, in Exodus, you’d notice that there’s a moment of pause where our assigned reading stops today - a pause in which the majority of the rescued Hebrew people tell Moses that this commanding God is scary and Moses should just explain to us all what God wants, so that we don’t have to get that close to God.
And then the commandments - the words, the speech of God - pick right back up.  

God picks up with instructions about worship and altar building, and goes on commanding and instructing for pages and pages; for hours on end.  Specific rules about property crime, treatment of slaves, sacrifice and offering, lawsuits and economic justice, sabbaths and festivals…and the proper furnishing, decoration, and care of the tent of worship.  
All of that before God ever carves commandments in stone for Moses. Which suggests that all of that (more, really) is carved on those two stone tablets you’ve seen in the movie.

God most certainly asks for more.
And so do we.

God’s people have nuanced and analyzed, developed and debated the application of these commandments, questioned them, and demanded more, from the very first moment we tried to live with them.  Moses never got a break from conveying and interpreting the law of God. And Jesus fields questions about God’s commandments throughout his ministry on earth.
No doubt as long as humans go on thinking up new ways to do things, someone will be asking for God’s commandments about those things. That’s why the Roman Catholic Church demands that the Pope weigh in on reproductive technology, whether pets go to heaven, and what to eat on Fridays.

The truth is, these commandments aren’t a stone wall or a bedrock at all.
These “Ten Words” of God’s that we hear today are just the beginning of a conversation;
a conversation we have with God in every situation and language and time and place known to humankind.
A conversation that God keeps having with us.

It’s not a quiet conversation, either, but a fierce one.
One that sometimes shatters our confidence, our righteousness, and our expectations, the way Jesus did on that visit to the Jerusalem Temple that we heard about this morning.
It’s a wild and shocking moment, 
Jesus throwing over tables, scattering money and animals and people right and left,
literally whipping up the crowd.
It’s dangerous for him, and for anyone in his way,
and it’s a natural, fundamental part of the conversation between God and God’s people that starts with those famous words we heard a few minutes earlier: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,…you shall have no other gods before me.”

It’s not a specific one of those famous “commandments” that Jesus is challenging that day in the Temple, but rather the way that God’s people have shaped the conversation to suit ourselves: to ease our worship and our obedience to God into something more convenient than overwhelming, and distracting ourselves with details instead of risking our whole hearts to the relationship.

We do that still, of course,
and often more by accident than purpose.
Because a face-to-face, honest, and unlimited conversation with God can be just as scary now as that mountain of thunder and darkness which God’s people encountered when Moses first went to hear God’s words and commandments.
A conversation with God, by God’s very nature, isn’t cozy or casual, but fierce.

There are a group of people based in Seattle whose business is to foster “fierce conversations.” They teach models and techniques to make any conversation more honest, creative, accountable, productive and real, because their belief is that not every conversation will change the world, but any conversation can
It’s powerful stuff that they teach, and it’s changed things for me.

Their Fierce Conversation training is aimed at businesses and institutions, but whether they know it or not, the original fierce conversation, the conversation that absolutely changes the world, 
is the conversation between God and us;
the conversation that opens with “Ten Words” on a thunderous mountain, embraces upheaval and change and death and resurrection, and includes you and me, right here and now.

It’s a great thing that we teach ten commandments in Sunday School and debate them in court, 
but we kid ourselves if we ever think that knowing these - or even doing these - is enough.

Because those “Ten Words” are only the beginning of a conversation, a conversation God wants us to keep having.
The Fierce Conversations business people have a spiritual truth they tell you in the most secular of training: that the conversation is the relationship.
And so if we drop out of the conversation or distract ourselves with details, when we make the talk small or the conversation casual, we’re denying our relationship, whether we mean to or not.

I don’t think we want to do that to God, but sometimes - even often - we do.
But if we’re lucky, when that happens,
Jesus comes bursting in, tossing over the tables, whipping up a storm,
shaking us back into risking our whole hearts to this relationship with God.

Let Jesus shake you, too, today.
Listen with your soul for the thunder and the awe of God’s invitation to conversation, and risk your most honest, fierce, real response.
Because the conversation IS the relationship,
and God won’t give up on relationship with us.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Collecting Rainbows

Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15


How many of you know the story of Noah?
We learn it in Sunday School and in song, but rarely hear it in worship, so let’s review.
Tell me what you remember.
God told Noah to build an ark.

Why did God have Noah build an ark?
There was a flood!

Do you know why there was a flood?
People were being bad?
It seemed like everyone on earth was evil. So bad that God couldn’t even find good buried deep in people’s hearts. And God couldn’t stand it any more, and decided to wipe out EVERYone and everything. Except Noah.  Somehow he managed to still put God first, so God decided to keep him.  

So Noah built the ark.  Do you remember what God told him to do with it?
Save the animals!

So Noah put all the animals in the ark, and his family, and plenty of food, and then it rained.  The water rose up higher than the highest mountains. It rained for forty days, then the flood lasted for months and months and months, a long lonely time, before it was safe for Noah and his family and the animals and their families to leave the ark.

Do you know what God did then?
Made a rainbow.

God talked to Noah and his family, and told them a promise, “I am never, ever, going to flood the whole world again. No matter what.  No matter how bad you human beings get. It’s a covenant with you and all the animals and birds and critters, too. A promise that I can’t break, even if you all screw up….again.
Look, you can even see the covenant. This rainbow is going to remind me never to wipe you all out again. ”

Did you notice just how that works in today’s scripture story? God points out the rainbow to Noah and his family as a symbol of this solemn promise, but not to remind them that God won’t do this again. It’s to remind God.

The rainbow is like a string tied around God’s finger.
(Or in the 21st century, the voice in your iPhone that reminds you of something you want to do).
It’s a reminder for God,  a visible symbol of God’s promise to us, that God will never give up on us again.

I wonder if Jesus remembered that, out in the wilderness.
I wonder if Jesus saw rainbows.

Mark tells us almost nothing about what happens.
He might almost have been writing for Twitter:
“Holy Spirit enters Jesus at baptism, 
drives him into wilderness for 40 days.
Tested by Satan. Wild beasts with him. Angels take care of him.”
140 characters is all it takes. 

Mark leaves a lot to our imaginations.
So Jesus might have seen rainbows, or some other reminders of God’s generosity, to sustain himself during a long, lonely time of testing; to sustain his trust in humanity and his divine commitment to us.

Forty days - a bit less than six weeks - isn’t that long in a human life-span, but it’s long enough to for us to need reminders of even the things that are most important to us.
Think about what it would be like in a marriage to go forty days without hearing, “I love you.” Or forty days without freedom, forty days without laughter, forty days without sun….

Christian tradition urges us to give something up for the forty days of Lent - not usually something as dramatic and essential as freedom or love - but something meaningful. 
We don’t do that because we want to be miserable (that really doesn’t make you holier - a lesson I learned when I gave up coffee - once!), but to remind ourselves of how we want to act toward God. 
To remind ourselves that no matter how easy it is to satisfy ourselves with sweets and habits and things, we won’t use those as a substitute for God.
It’s like tying a string around your finger.
Or looking at a rainbow in the sky.

Reminders like that are important. 
They give substance to our good intentions, create anchors for trust, and give us practice at being the people we want to be.  

It might be nice if making a promise was really all it took to keep it.
But in real life, and in faith, we need reminders, guideposts, and practice to keep our promises, to keep our relationships strong, to keep acting the way we want to act, keep believing in God and in ourselves.

Do you have any rainbows like that? 
Any things, or words, or actions that remind you of how you really want to relate to God, and others, and yourself?

I have a picture of the North Carolina mountains that I bought after a retreat there years ago. I keep it to remind myself that I want to be always as open in prayer as I was on that retreat.  And that my spirit will heal, no matter how wounded I get.

Do you, perhaps, wear a wedding ring? Like the rainbow, it’s a symbol of a covenant, a visible, physical reminder of your promise to trust and honor and love - no matter what.

Do you have a mantra, a phrase you say when you’re facing a challenge, or a slump? A reminder to yourself, and maybe to others, that you’re not willing to give up on yourself, no matter how much of a mess you’re in?

Do you have keepsakes? Gifts or objects that remind you of a relationship that matters, a way you want to be with others?  Or reminders of the beauty and grace that others have seen in you? Or reminders, like the original rainbow, that God is never, ever, giving up on you and us - no matter what?

If you don’t have those, it’s time to start.
It’s time to collect rainbows, this Lent.
Collect reminders that trigger generosity, trust, hope, and faith - in one another, in God, and in yourself.

Because we’re human, after all, and it’s easy to forget.
It’s easy to slip into indifference or dissatisfaction, cheerful ignorance or bored resignation,
to forget who we want to be
and how we want to be with God.

God chose the rainbow as a reminder of how God wants to be with us.
Because when God forgot that, the world drowned.
When we forget, the disasters are smaller, but just as real.

So this Lent, let’s collect rainbows.

Start here, with a rainbow you can tie around your finger, a symbol of God’s promise never to give up on us, and let that remind us of how and who we want to be, for ourselves, with one another, and with God.