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

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Unnamed Women

Luke 7:36 - 8:3

These two stories are not the same.
But they speak to one another, if we’ll hear.

The first story is the one we just heard right here.
Simon, a faithful man, gives a party and invites Jesus.
A notorious woman crashes the party, and embarrasses the host and the story-teller with her lavish public display of intimacy: weeping over Jesus’ feet, kissing, anointing, wrapping those feet in her unbound hair.
It’s behavior that belongs in the bedroom.

Simon gets more and more uncomfortable, as she undermines the reputation of this possible prophet, undermines his own reputation as a public figure and good host…. Until Jesus notices, and makes it worse by drawing him into a discussion about forgiveness.
Great forgiveness elicits great love, little for little, yes, so?

And then Jesus publicly, blatantly forgives the woman’s sin, sin only God should be able to forgive, a behavior as scandalous and startling as the woman’s.

Most of us, I suspect, like Simon, are used to little forgiveness. 
To needing, giving, and accepting forgiveness for rudeness, inattention, mistakes – things that really hurt, really sting, really break relationships, but don’t make us Bad People.
You and I, in our contemporary culture, are taught to see ourselves as fundamentally good people,
capable of really screwing up, certainly, but fundamentally better than the sum of our actions.

And here we are at the second story.
These stories are not the same. But they tell truths about each other, about ourselves, and about what we see in the world, and what God does.

The second story has been all over the news media this past week, a vanishingly rare sequel to a true crime story that happens every day.
Another unnamed woman, crashing a narrative with uncomfortable public intimacy, sharing the disturbing, emotionally naked, best-behind-closed-doors details of her experience of sexual assault,
of exposure and shaming and sexual acts, and the perversion of trust and hope and the self itself.

If it didn’t make you uncomfortable, it should.

Nothing in the second story seems to be about forgiveness.
And yet these two stories, different stories, resonate with each other for me.

At the beginning of last week, I didn’t read the Facebook posts and the news stories.
I skimmed and skipped because, you know, I already know rape is bad, and devastating, and we should be mad when serious crimes aren’t seriously punished and yes, it’s also bad to destroy someone when we should want to rehabilitate them.
I know that, so why should I read more?
But I did, eventually, get drawn in.

I read her statement
And the horror I felt was not what I expected to feel.

I knew before I started that I would be heartbroken by a first person narration of the sense of brokenness, self-doubt, depression, anger, being turned inside out, that comes with being assaulted,
sexually violated. I knew I’d be mad about the minimizing of a crime when the criminal is a privileged, accomplished, attractive person – the kind of person we’d like to be, or like our children to be, if it weren’t for this crime.
And I was.

What I didn’t expect was that I would also feel the opposite.
Feel sympathy for a “good kid” who “made a mistake” and wish his life could be restored to promise and wholeness.

That I would read the victim's account of the list of questions she was asked in court:
What were you wearing?
Why did you go to the party?
Who were you texting?
Did you drink in college?
Are you sexually active with your boyfriend? 
Were you wearing your cardigan?
and actually find myself reacting as though drinking and partying and dressing in certain ways made rape and assault predictable and likely,
as though I could believe “she invited it.”

I know better. I know better.
But culture is powerful, and I’m affected.
All of us are, whether we notice it or not.

Do you know that in the first story, the story of the dinner party, generations and centuries of biblical commentators have assumed or asserted that the unnamed woman was a prostitute. A sexual sinner, who enticed men to sin.

And yet the word Luke chooses to describe her – hamartolos, sinner – is the same word Peter uses to describe himself when he meets Jesus, the same word praised for humility and right relationship with God in a tax collector’s prayer, the same word used for the undesirable people Jesus eats with over and over in the gospel stories.

She could as easily have been a Sabbath-breaker, idol worshipper, or Roman collaborator as a sexual sinner, but century after century, men – and other women – have called her a prostitute and a fallen woman.

Did you drink in college?
Were you wearing your cardigan?
Aren't you a sinner?

That’s the problem that blinds us and the truth that reveals us,
all at once.

Are you a sinner?

I am a sinner,
not just because I hurt people and break the promises of my baptism and slide the commitments of my faith, accidentally and on purpose; often, from time to time.

I wear skirts and heels and makeup sometimes; I drink sometimes.
And beneath my logical, feminist, pastoral commitments, 
I also sometimes believe that it’s my fault,
and her fault,
for creating conditions that lead to insult and assault.

And, my God, for that I need the great forgiveness.
Not the little forgiveness of a good person making mistakes,
but the great forgiveness of a person who has lost my grounding in God,
and found it easier to see the world through the world’s eyes than through God’s.

My facebook feed has been filled, for a week, with righteous indignation at the minimization of a horrifyingly intimate and long-lasting violation as “20 minutes of action”.

And immersed in that sense of righteousness, I recognize Simon the faithful man, appropriately offended by the behavior of an unnamed woman who is publicly and knowingly violating the rules and norms of hospitality and public/private decency.

Because righteous anger is an easy response to intimacies that make us uncomfortable.
And it allows us to distance ourselves from our own complicity,
to blame and punish one person for sins of indignity and disrespect
that are, in fact, supported by our own unconscious assumptions and conditioning.
Righteous anger sometimes does great good, but not always.
Just as often, righteous anger conveniently protects us from any need for great forgiveness.

Like you and me, Simon is fundamentally a good guy.
A good guy who makes thoughtless mistakes in hospitality, little indignities and disrespect – mistakes overshadowed, you might think, by the indecency of party crashing and public intimacy.

So Simon only needs a little forgiveness, but “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

But what if Simon needed forgiveness not for the little sin of forgetting water for his guest's feet, but for losing sight of the image of God in the woman of the city, or in the rabbi he invited over to serve his own curiosity, and in himself.
What if Simon needed forgiveness for those great sins of failing our right relationship with God and God’s people, and, needing it, actually receives that tsunami of love that is God’s great forgiveness.
What might happen then?

If we only let ourselves need a little forgiveness,
that’s all we’ll ever get,
and all we’ll be able to give.

If I only let myself need a little forgiveness, I cut myself off from the ability to be unembarrassed and lavish in gratitude and love.

If we only let ourselves need a little forgiveness, for our own little sins, we’ll miss God’s lavish love for a promising athlete who both brutally broke another human being, and made a dumb drunk mistake.
We’ll miss sharing God’s lavish, generous entry into the pain of a woman waking up to a body that’s no longer hers, and a world she can no longer trust; God’s lavish, generous sharing of the pain in your life or mine that we hide from ourselves when it hurts too much.

But what if we let ourselves need great forgiveness:
for dehumanizing those other sinners with distance and shame?
for neglecting the generous image of God in criminals and victims and in ourselves?
What if we needed forgiveness with that great empty need?
Perhaps we too would find ourselves pouring out lavish, public, unembarrassed love.
Love we can’t contain,
when God unhesitatingly welcomes us with our sharp edges and inner ugliness,
to become whole and holy.

Those two stories aren’t the same.
But they speak to one another,
and they speak to my story, to yours, ours,
speak of great love
if we will hear.