Good Friday 2019: Spillage

The pain he bore upon the cross

was heavy, breaking him

and not the scale on which he hung.

Its heft was lightened

only by the blood that leaked

and dropped onto his earth.

The soil beneath

receiving liquid seed

was not newly stained

but saturated

time and time before

by rebels’ hearts spilled out.

Their desperation dried and dead

now mingled with his love

re-moistened by his tears,

together breaking open,

new life rising from

the humus of our fears. 

Tears and Sin

(The bulk of this post is an excerpt from “Willing to Love,” my sermon for the second Sunday in Lent, Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary. You can find the Lectionary Sermon of the Week and all three years’ messages
under the menu.)

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to [Jesus], “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Luke 13:31-35)

Jesus is weeping over Jerusalem, profoundly disappointed in the religious establishment that was charged with shepherding God’s people. 

It is easy to join in heaping blame on the “scribes and Pharisees” who are usually cast as the bad guys, relegate the story to ancient history, and move on to Luke 14. 

But I want to talk about sin.

Despite all that we have been taught about sin offending God, sin separating us from God, and so on, what motivates me to avoid sin is not belief in some column of misdeeds in some divine bookkeeping system.  When I am mindful enough to forego temptation, the idea of God’s sadness is what keeps me on a better path. 

Jesus weeps over Jerusalem because they will not hear and embrace God’s message of love for them and all the world.  They amended God’s simple laws of love and well-being so many times that it took a professional to keep track of them.  They insisted on making religion about judgment and power. 

Jesus had been working so hard to restore people to wholeness, healing their diseases and casting out demons.  Maybe his tears came from exhaustion in that moment.  But I think he was also frustrated.  He did everything he could to embody the reality of God’s love, and it wasn’t enough to change the hearts of the law-obsessed leaders.

What if we imagine Jesus weeping over our hard-heartedness?  Our sins are essentially modern versions of the power-hungry, judgmental ways of Jesus’ detractors.  What if we don’t walk past Jesus this time, but allow him to critique our non-acceptance of God’s love message?

So, here goes.

Jesus says, “I tried to get you to understand that people are more important than rules when I freed a woman from her infirmity on the Sabbath.  But you were not willing.  You’d rather keep score.

            “I called you to repentance, to turn away from the pursuits of money, prestige, and control—all those things that make you serve them but never satisfy.  I called you instead to a way of love and trust.  But you were not willing.  You were suspicious of my motives.

            “I described God’s way to you, what I call the kingdom of God.  It is the powerful, life-giving force that fuels an exciting, world-changing adventure.  My unstoppable love is the essence of this life I call you to follow.  But you were not willing.  You chose mediocrity instead.

            “I told you not to be afraid of those who can kill the body, or your reputation, or your 401K.  I asked you to trust me enough to give your life for my sake.  But you were not willing.  You’d rather keep your life for yourself, even though in keeping it, it is devoid of meaning.

            “I entrusted my other children to you.  As part of my body, the church, I depended on you to encourage one another in faithful service and watchfulness for my return.  I expected you to be so energized every Sunday after worshipping God, that you’d be driven to be a source of hope and rich possibilities as my people.  But you were not willing.  You preferred to have a cup of coffee and go home.

            “I taught you that to love me is to love the least of these my brothers and sisters, my term for the poor and oppressed and discouraged.  You saw the joy and wonder of those I healed, blessed, forgave.  You knew how much I love them.  I asked you to love them too.  But you were not willing.  You didn’t have time.

            “I gave you chances to confess my name in the public arena, and at your own family dinner table.  It was your job to proclaim that God is worthy of your worship, that you will bow the knee to no other.  But you were not willing.  You allowed yourself to be distracted by cheap substitutes.

            “I prepared a life for you.  My plans for you were developed in love before I fashioned your body and your personality to leave your unique stamp on the world.  I could have used you to bless many.  Your part would have been hard, but not nearly as hard as following a course you were not fitted to follow.  I used many ways to invite you to the adventure.  But you were not willing.  Instead you defined your own version of adventure and comfort, so you missed out on the amazing, Spirit-filled experiences you could have recounted to your grandchildren as a testimony to my faithfulness.

            “I provided ways for you to know me intimately, to be captivated by my relentless love.  I gave you my Scriptures to read for this purpose.  But you were not willing.  You thought it would be too boring.

            “I poured out my grace on you in your baptism, offering you the gift of belonging in the church, where you agreed to be set apart from the world, marked by love for one another.  But you were not willing.  You rationalized that you were too busy to take any initiative for the work of the gospel, even though you spent great amounts of time and effort on many other endeavors.

            “I taught you to pray.  But you were not willing.  You were too tired.

            “I gave you spiritual gifts for the building up of my church, so you could know the pleasure of participating in the greatest project ever undertaken: radically changing the world with the power of my love.  I called you to share my love with your community, so its families, its unemployed, its disillusioned, its exhausted people could be renewed in hope.  But you were not willing to use your gifts for this purpose.  You chose to use them for your own ideals instead.

            “I created a world of beauty to reveal my goodness to you.  I made it productive so that you could use its resources to be sure that everyone had enough.  But you were not willing.  You bought into the notion that some can have more than others, and that’s just the way things are.

            “I asked you to take up your cross and follow me.  But you were not willing.  You said I was asking too much.”

Jesus said we were not willing.  What keeps us from doing what Jesus wants?  I wonder if it is a matter of trust. 

            I think we don’t trust God because we are afraid.  We don’t know what God will ask of us.  We like our comfort, even if we know that God offers us more.  We fear exchanging what we know for the unknown, even if we have all the Scriptures to convince us otherwise.  So what is the solution?

            In God’s kingdom the opposite of fear is not courage, but love.  All Jesus wants us to do is love him.  Remember?  The greatest commandment is to love God with all that we are and all that we have, and the second is to love our neighbors as ourselves.  God does not expect great faith from us, but great love. 

            So when Jesus says we are not willing, how can we be more willing?  Not by convincing ourselves to do it, or by reciting a list of theological truths.  Not by feelings of guilt because of what you think you’re “supposed” to do.  We need to look at the cross, where Jesus gave his life for us because he loves us.  We can respond to that kind of love.  We can be energized, motivated, blown away by love.  We can love.  Love makes us willing.

            Love is often hard, and complicated.  But love—the authentic, self-giving kind—always wins.  It wins our hearts and steers us in the direction of the life Jesus desperately wants to give us.  Desperately enough to weep when we resist it.  Desperately enough to die so we will know it.

Glory

I

Three years old, my grandson

played happily with the boy next door

as I kept vigil with my chair and book,

content to be in the autumn air.

He caught sight of me, lighting up with joy,

ran to me as always,

eager for embrace and kiss,

but then I watched—I’m a witness!

Delight fell away.

He moderated himself,

arriving nonchalant.





Come as a child.





Most days he still breathes

the glory of discovery,

shame lurking mostly impotent

against the force of childhood,

until exhaustion or reason take over. 





I saw him push the glory away.

We call this growing up. 

The children learn to

hurry past it, resist its pull

until restraint becomes second nature

and we applaud the quelling of tears,

the skill of overcoming distraction.





When we come halfway to our senses

we are nostalgic for the capacity

to play and wonder with abandon.

We take great pains to manufacture awe

that was second nature

before we succumbed to the nonsense

of pushing the glory away.





II

I used to think the anticipation

was as fun as the trip itself. 

The dream of escape offered respite

from the mundane.

The hunger for adventure

aroused the senses lying untapped,

hidden in the succulence of now.





I thought I could locate glory on a map

somewhere else where they have guides.

It turns out the Wizard of Oz is

just a grumpy old guy who paints

everything the same color and doesn’t

really care about your dog.





III

The little boy loves diggers

and bulldozers.

Religion’s heavy equipment

laboriously pushes all the glory

into the future.

I’ll fly away, oh glory,

to the sweet by and by!

But what is nigh?





“The kingdom of God is within you.”

The map you need

is the one that says

“You are here.” 

For Russell

russ-c

Some of my favorite people are farmers.  They are practical, resilient, smart, deeply committed to their work, and graced with a sense of humor, if only for longevity’s sake.  A few weeks ago a cattle farmer named Russell Christensen died.  He was a dedicated father and grandfather, a wise leader in his church and community, a fun-loving storyteller, and a key player in the growth of the cattle industry in Iowa.  It was a privilege to know him.  

Solid as a tree he was

at least by all appearances.

He had his soft spots.

Mary knew them best.

 

Roots deep in the soil,

stories reaching through time,

pulling nutrients from the memories.

Riches no farm report could touch.

 

Shade for the cattle,

lumbering beasts graced with his care.

 

Branches extended

across acres and country and continents,

wood grained with faith and love

in equal measure.

Now felled, lives on

in each new sapling.

 

Grow tall and strong,

for him.

A Way in a Manger

A Christmas Message

           Tatya was a sweet girl, a typical teen with plenty of homework, friends and text messages.  Her parents were model citizens by all appearances.  They were almost too busy to recognize Tatya’s increasing silence.  They noticed that she was more withdrawn, but they thought it was a normal teenage thing.  They hoped it was just a phase.

Tatya herself couldn’t put her finger on the problem.  There was just this…emptiness.  It was hard to get up in the morning, and it took every ounce of her energy to get herself dressed and off to school.  She didn’t care about her classes, even creative writing with her favorite teacher.  Then Jose got assigned as her lab partner.  He was quiet like her, and nice.  They started sitting together at lunch, and within a week they were inseparable. Jose was funny in a shy sort of way, and Tatya liked that he was different from anyone she’d ever met.

Mom and Dad were happy that Tatya seemed more happy, had more energy.  Jose’s family was Catholic, they didn’t mind that.   They seemed serious about their faith.  The kids never stayed out past their curfew, and Jose treated Tatya like a queen.

Then it happened.  Tatya started losing her appetite, missing school because she felt sick.  Mom was suspicious, but didn’t dare entertain the thought until one day she couldn’t ignore it any more.  She confronted her daughter, and Tatya tearfully confessed that she was pregnant.

Their family would never be the same after that.  Accusations were hurled, doors slammed.  Silence hung heavy for hours, then more bursts of anger and cries of anguish.  Tatya would not consider abortion an option, and her parents agreed.  She loved Jose, and she loved her baby.  Eventually the arguments lost their steam, and acceptance settled over them.  Anticipation, even.  By the time little Joey was born, both families were thrilled to see the baby.  Tatya’s parents provided room in their home for a little one.  Jose’s family helped support the baby.  The young couple wasn’t sure if they had a future together; it would take time to figure that out.  Meanwhile, baby Joey needed lots of love, and he got it.

A baby changes everything.  Whether born into a stable home or as a feature on the old reality show “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant,” a helpless infant reminds us what really matters.  A new life forces us to rediscover how much we can care and nurture.  We change the object of our focus to the needs of a small child instead of all the other aspects of our lives that demand attention.  This is what life is all about, we tell ourselves.  The baby is worth whatever it takes to protect him and provide for him.  Our hearts are captivated by a tiny, wet, innocent baby.  We shake our heads and smile, and admit that life is good when it’s all about the baby.

This week we will celebrate Jesus who came into our world like that.  He was a vulnerable, hungry, sleepy little infant cradled in his mother’s arms.  The baby was Joseph’s top priority, and he managed to get Mary a warm, dry place for the night, even though it was among the livestock.  What a night for Mary to go into labor!  What a strange way for God to appear.

One way of thinking about Jesus is that he came to set things right in the world.  You would think that in order to do that, God would make an appearance in a way we could understand—as a mighty warrior king.  Powerful, commanding, authoritative.  The world needed a firm hand back then.  The powers that kept shifting through political schemes and military battles could have been instantly quelled by a show of God’s spectacular strength.  Then they would know who was in charge, once and for all.

But God wouldn’t compete for attention like that, with something even louder or more forceful than our own methods of control.  I grew up in a large family with five siblings.  Mealtimes could get pretty noisy.  As the second to the youngest, I had a hard time getting anyone’s attention.  I certainly couldn’t holler above the voices of my older brothers and sisters, and that was frowned upon anyway.  So I took to quietly tapping my neighbor and then whispering in their ear, “Pass the salt.”  It worked; my quiet method of communicating was noticed, at least by one other person, and I got what I needed.

God sent Jesus in the most unassuming, humble, quiet way that demands a different kind of attention than the noise and force of a busy, sometimes violent world.  He overturns our understanding of what God should be like to show us how God operates: through the poor, in the quiet, almost hidden.  It’s as though God prefers to come in the back door instead of the front.

God’s way is reflected in the song of Mary in the gospel of Luke, chapter 1: “[God’s] mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

A baby reminds us what is important, and that is what Jesus did.  Babies don’t care if we are rich or poor.  They don’t know anything about reputations, beautiful homes or sculpted bodies.  Babies ask only to be cared for and accepted as they are.  They teach us to love simply by loving us without condition.  If you think of it, Jesus does that too.  He simply asks us to accept his love, accept him as he is.

And of course our innocent little ones aren’t always so innocent.  They start knocking over each other’s blocks and pinching their little brothers.  They get bigger and cheat on tests and wreck the car.  They demand a different kind of attention.  Kittens grow up to be cats, they say.

Jesus grew up too, but the message we get from the manner of his birth didn’t change.  His birth signaled God’s way, different than that of the respected religious leaders of Mary and Joseph’s time.  They emphasized purity and strict obedience, while Jesus grew up to focus on forgiveness and grace.

His way was different than the Roman way too, that of enforced oppression and containment of the masses.  It seems that wealth and political power were coveted as much back then as they are today.  Jesus insisted that the force of God’s love is made perfect in weakness.  He showed how God’s goodness is reflected in humble personal relationships, over time.  Jesus’ way is never in a hurry to prove itself.

In order to show us his radically different way, the way of love and mercy.  Jesus came into the most vulnerable situation: an infant in a common, working family scraping to get by, subject to the whims of the Roman powers.  He asks us to meet him there, not in the temple or the state house.  He came in the same way he wants us to follow him, where it is messy and human and often inconvenient.

Maybe his way involves loving your annoying sister-in-law or being patient with the slow progress of your child.  It could mean giving in on a longstanding dispute, purposely trying on powerlessness as an act of love and humility.  Or standing firm for those who have no voice. In other words, making his way your way, in your own life right now.

There is one other aspect of Jesus’ coming that is easy to overlook.  In this season, we have come to think that generosity is God’s way, and that is true.  God gave us the greatest gift in Jesus.  But Jesus came and also intentionally received from us—from humans—the whole time he was growing up and even sometimes in his ministry.  He let his mother Mary raise him.  He let his friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus fill his need for friendship and comfort.  He enjoyed the friendship of his disciples and sometimes made jokes with them.

We are invited to be givers as God’s people, but giving can also be a position of power.  Jesus shows us how to have less control for the sake of more love.            His way sometimes means we listen to others and learn from them, even though social or educational or financial status would dictate otherwise.  Jesus sees what everyone has to offer and blesses it, blesses us.  And he asks us to do the same for each other.

A baby changes your focus for good, if you let the experience affect you from the inside out, like Tatya’s and Jose’s families.   It changed Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and Elizabeth.  It changed the shepherds and the magi too.

The Christ child demands our focus.  Nobody has to tell us “what Christmas is all about.”  It’s all about Jesus.  The trick is not to discard the infant after Christmas, as you might toss the Christmas cards into the trash.  To turn your attention from the noise and demands of popular culture often enough to hear his message of love.  Let your heart be moved by Jesus on his terms, in his way.

God did not come to a world that was expecting a baby.  It was a messy, obstinate, power-hungry world then, and it still is today.  It is a world of chaos and disappointment, greed and violence.  We see it in shootings and political standoffs.  So many in this world continue to suffer from lack of resources.  We are desperate for peace, for well-being, for some idea of what life is about.

And so God calls us to come away to a cow shed, to a makeshift nursery.  Our gaze is drawn there to a baby, the Son of God himself bearing God’s unmistakable message of love.  Go and find the nearest baby and let Jesus teach you his way, the way of love, the way to life.

 

 

“…And He Shall Purify”

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.  (Malachi 3:1-4)

              Despite the bass solo from Handel’s “The Messiah” running on a loop in my mind, I’m taking a closer look at this text from Malachi today.  In the past, I have glossed over this passage as a prophecy about the Day of the LORD. But could it not also be about Jesus’incarnation?  His “sudden” coming was not as many anticipated, but instead he arrived as a poor baby.

              I have seen poor babies.  Their vulnerability touches the deepest part of me.  They stir compassion but also a connection with my own vulnerability.  It seems to me that this is actually a refining, purifying process. 

              Seeing any baby, from any background, is arresting. They remind me that everyone begins his or her life this way.  Babies often remind me what really matters,and other concerns can seem petty when I am captivated by a baby’s smallness and innocence.  Maybe this is a reason the nativity of Jesus draws us in. God!  Like this?  Wow. 

              In the non-Advent/Christmas months, time spent in intentional awareness of God’s presence often conjures images of Jesus engaged various moments of ministry: healing,teaching, debating, showing compassion, feeding people, or just being himself.  The more I learn of him—learn from him—the more my ambitions, greed, and pettiness are put in their place or redeemed to become “offerings of righteousness” (or “right offerings”) for him.  The process involves not only repentance and purging, but also the cultivation of loving desires and a compassionate heart.

              This takes time, and I am often impatient.  But I am realizing that much of my spiritual growth these days comes not from conscious self-examination or intentional changes that I control. Instead, the changes happen mysteriously, almost passively, from exposing myself as openly as possible to God’s loving presence.  And at this time of year, it happens when gazing at the Holy Child.  “He shall purify”simply by letting me come close.    

Addressing Your PESD*

This post was originally written for the November 9, 2018 edition of the Spencer Daily Reporter.   

Today you might be experiencing a syndrome many of us had two years ago, after the 2016 presidential election: *Post-Election Stress Disorder.

The first thing I did when I got up the morning after mid-term elections was to look up the results for Iowa online.  After that I checked a few races around the country.  What was striking was how close so many of the races were.  As encouraging as the turnout was, it revealed more clearly than ever how much we are divided about the way we think our political life should be conducted.

For many, the election was a referendum on protecting an “American way of life.”  Yet we are not united in what we think that is.  Does it mean bigger government or more local autonomy?  Does it mean protecting our borders with a wall and firepower or a more liberal immigration policy?  Does it mean centralized health care or more individual choice?

For followers of Jesus Christ, there is a way of life we profess that does not necessarily align with what is touted as the American way.  In fact there is a sharp contrast between the two.  The compulsion in our culture to attain more and more possessions is not supported by Jesus.  He urges us to be free of materialism and instead share with the poor to the point of self-sacrifice.  The temptation to wield power over other people is also counter to Jesus’ teaching of servanthood and submission.  These are only two examples that distinguish between the American way and Jesus’ way, which the gospels call the kingdom of God.

Whether you are disappointed with the results of this week’s election or not, you may still be disheartened by the divisiveness that pervades the United States right now.  This is felt most keenly in personal relationships.  With the holidays approaching, you might be dreading the tension around the Thanksgiving table, or planning to avoid it altogether.

How can we find a new level of charity in our relationships with one another?  It won’t happen through legislation or political rallies.  We cannot elect a leader with enough wisdom and influence to cultivate the peace among us we all crave.  It feels out of our control.

Yet Jesus taught by words and example that we always have control over the way we move through the world.  In every situation we have a choice about what we say and do, and how we might restrain ourselves in an effort to understand and care for one another.  One of his teachings is, to me, critical for our times.

He said “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  (Mk 10.14b-15) Then he let them onto his lap and blessed each one.

How striking that Jesus talks about receiving the kingdom of God in this instance.  He asks us to accept God’s way as our way instead of expecting him to endorse the way we order our lives.  He recommends openness instead of pushiness.

Rydia

What is it like to be a child?  Think of it.  Children’s needs are so obvious, and relentless.  They need love.  They crave attention.  They need protection, and food, and guidance.  They are often confused and naïve.  Afraid sometimes.  And it’s tough being a kid, because everybody is always telling you no.  You can’t do this or that, you can’t go there.  Shame is practically a daily occurrence.  Children are not allowed many choices.  If you hang around children very much, you know that one of the things they want most is for someone to listen to them, to acknowledge them.

But aren’t we all a little like that?  We want to be loved and valued, taken seriously.  We just don’t wear it on our sleeves as kids do.  We get confused too.  We feel left out sometimes, and we worry about having what we need.  Shame and fear drive our behavior more than we want to admit.  Scratch the surface, and there is a child in all of us.  Maybe Jesus is simply asking us to own up to that.  To admit that we don’t have it all together, that life is confusing and disappointing and sometimes downright unbearable.  Confess that we have acted shamefully at times because we felt lost or threatened.

In Matthew 18:4 Jesus tells us to put ourselves in the position of a child in order to  participate in the kingdom of God—the way we are created to live together: “to such belongs the kingdom of God.”

How might we approach each other intentionally as children then?  Some possibilities: See the child in one another: the desire to be loved, the disappointments of life, the fears.  Play together sometimes instead of arguing.  Find a common cause to support so we can all practice love together, and remember what we like about each other.  Practice saying “please” and “thank you” as our mothers taught us.  And listen.  Just listen, even if we disagree.  We don’t have to approve or agree in order to listen well.  Be curious—like a child—instead of arguing.  Let someone else have the last word, just once.  Or even twice.

We do not have to be stressed.  Truly we don’t.  Like children, we can trust that Someone loves us and will always be with us.  We can make mistakes and listen to each other.  We can resolve to love fiercely instead of defaulting to hatred.  We can do the hard work of compromise that reflects the basic values we share.  We can work together to care for those who are suffering.

We always have control over this one thing: We can love.