Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Friend

My cousin Edward had not just one but two imaginary friends. Their names were strange, names he heard somewhere. One of them was called Humid. I think he heard that name on the radio. The other's name was Buttergy. Humid and Buttergy.


The great thing about imaginary friends is that they go everywhere with you. Humid and Buttergy would go everywhere with Edward. They never seemed to get tired of his company. They agreed with him most of the time. Only once did he say that they scolded him. They were his constant companions. 


I'm not sure what happened to Humid and Buttergy.  By the time I was old enough to know what was going on, Edward was way too cool to have imaginary friends. Maybe some kid laughed at him in first grade and told him that they did not exist. Maybe he just decided that they could not be true, but it must have been a sad day, the day that they went away.


"Unless you become like little children, you cannot come to me," Jesus said. Only little children can believe that they could have a friend who never leaves them, a friend who always listens, a friend who understands who they really are. Only little children could believe in a friend who no one can see.


Jesus is talking to his friends in today's gospel. He tells them that they are not his servants, they are his friends. They are his friends. And so are we. All of us who try to follow his example, who try to do his will and bear fruit to feed the world, all of us are his friends. But how can we begin to believe that Jesus could be our Humid and Buttergy?


When a child is scared at night, it is good to introduce Jesus. After all, he is the one friend who will never leave them. With him, they are never alone. They can talk to him and he will listen. And many of us, if we were asked to comfort a child, would tell them to talk to Jesus. But when it comes to our own prayer lives, well, we get all intimidated and formal. We think that we must sit in silence or pray prayers that sound good. We feel guilty for not praying right or often enough or with a particular style, when all Jesus is really asking is for us to be friends.


I love the TV show House. It is a wild, sometimes ethically and scientifically challenging show about a doctor who's last name is House. And House is brilliant, probably the most brilliant diagnostician in the world, in fact, but House is also a jerk. He is a total jerk. And no one likes him. So he spends his time alone. And that seems to be the way that he likes it.


But as the show progresses, it becomes clear that House remarkably does have one friend. His friends name is Wilson. And the weird part is that Wilson doesn't like House either. Like everybody else, he too thinks that House is a jerk. But he cares about House anyway. And when House needs to talk, Wilson is always there.


"What have you done now, House?"  Wilson will ask. And often House has done something mean or petty or juvenile. Wilson will often gently remind House that he doesn't have to act like such a jerk. He will disagree with House and even get angry or frustrated, but he is always there. And he clearly loves his friend.


For Christ to call us his friends is, on the one hand, absurd. We are bumbling idiots when it comes to God. We may try to do what's right but we can be completely self-absorbed, greedy, self-pitying creatures. In comparison with Jesus, well, we all come out looking like jerks. But he sticks it out with us anyway. He truly cares. Christ really is your friend and when he said that he would never leave you, he meant it.


And this changes everything. First of all, we are never alone. Second of all, prayer is nothing more than a conversation with our best friend. It is that comfortable. You are sitting down with a cup of warm coffee and just talking with your best friend, sharing the thoughts that plague you, the mistakes that you have made, your worried and doubts and insecurities. You can say it all. Because God is your friend. 


What if prayer were to become as easy as breathing for you? What if you just start talking and don't ever stop. Yes, people will look at you as you drive by and you are talking  to God. They will think one of two things: either you have a Bluetooth or you have an imaginary friend. Or maybe they will think your crazy but does it really matter what anyone else thinks? If you are truly able to get back to that childhood trust that someone who loves you is right there, there is nothing that you cannot do. Nothing.


Oh, and one last thing. Jesus makes this incredible promise to all his friends. He promises that God will give us whatever we ask in Jesus' name. Whatever we ask.


I once came up to a well known professor after a great lecture. Many students were asking him a questions and vying for his time. He seemed scattered and unable to fully focus on any one of us. But when I mentioned that I knew his daughter, he immediately looked at me with sharp focus and seemed to hear my every word.


Whatever you ask for in my name, Jesus says, you will receive.


Not only do you have a friend, but he has major connections. Connections to God, the Maker of the Universe, who is unfathomable and beyond our understanding. 


    And Jesus has his ear and he advocates for us. Our friend. Not imaginary but more real than anything else here on earth.


Now, that's some kind of friendship.

Understanding Pruning

Most all of us who are old enough to remember September 11, 2001 remember exactly where we were when the planes hit those twin towers. A friend of mine was speaking in West Virginia. He had just turned on the news in his hotel room when the first plane hit. And he remembers the strange way his mind worked when the second plane hit. He thought, "There is something wrong with air-traffic control! Why are they giving these pilots the wrong coordinates?" 


There is something wrong with air-traffic control! I think we sometimes think about God as a kind of air-traffic control. When things go wrong and people suffer, we wonder if God just stepped out for a moment or if God possibly could have intended for us to suffer.


Our world seems to be torn apart by suffering, our cities aflame, the Middle East in crisis. The people of Nepal are devastated by natural disaster. Why does it have to happen? What is wrong with air-traffic control?


Studying religion all my life, I have come to the conclusion that suffering was not God's plan for us. No, we were meant for Eden, created for something much more harmonious and peaceful than the world in which we find ourselves. Suffering was not God's original intent. But when we chose to take our lives into our own hands, we chose free will and people were given the choice to do violence, to fly planes into buildings. God is still in control, yes, but God allows us to find our own way. 


Because of the fallen nature of this world, we feel pain and loneliness and heartbreak. The question is not why we suffer but how are we to view our suffering. When you encounter hardship and sickness and loneliness, how  will you respond? Jesus tells us how we should conceive of suffering in this gospel for today. How we view suffering has everything to do with the way that we understand God. By loving God and living in and with God, our suffering can teach us and even help us to grow spiritually. 


We all will suffer in this broken world. But how will you respond when you?


The God of the Old Testament was understood to be a God of punishment. When the Israelites disobeyed or failed to comply with the law, God would get angry. David the King even had a child die because he was being punished for his affair with Bathsheeba and the murder of her husband. David understood God to be a God who would take the life of a child to punish a crime. That is how they conceived of a God, that God willed suffering. They believed in a God who punished.


But not Jesus. Jesus knew that God is love and that love does not punish. As the disciple John would later write in his letter that we heard this morning, it is only fear that believes in punishment. 


Let me say that again. It is only fear that believes in punishment. 


God does not punish. But when we have to suffer because of the nature of our fallen world, Jesus tells us to look upon our pain as a kind of pruning. 



There is a rosebush in my front yard. This spring, early on, I took some sheers and I cut back its branches. I did not want to do this but I knew that a plant or tree, when pruned, will fill in stronger and will produce fruit or blooms. So I took my sheers and cut some of the branches. I did not cut them right to the stem, I left some part of the branch, but I cut off the old blooms and even some buds. It felt strange, to cut something so beautiful, but I knew that it would grow stronger because of the pruning.


Jesus often used images from nature. The people of the Galilee would have understood this image. They would have understood without having to think. But we no longer innately understand. Think with me for a minute about pruning. If God is the vine grower and Christ is the vine, then when we cut a branch back, it hurts the branch, but the branch becomes closer to the vine again....and as a result of its proximity to the source of life itself, it becomes stronger and produces fruit. It blooms. 


A gardener prunes out of love, to strengthen and produce. Though it hurts, it has purpose.


Did you know that scar tissue is stronger than any other kind of skin tissue? The body, responding to the wound, fortifies itself. It ends up stronger. 


The life of faith is the same way. If we know how to pray and how to rely on God and if we can believe that God does not punish but loves us, then we can approach our suffering as pruning. And in this way, it will make us stronger. Just like the cross made Jesus the Christ.


If we allow it to happen, suffering causes us to draw closer to God. When we fall ill, we pray. When we have to go to war, we pray. When we find our marriages breaking down, we pray. We are drawn closer to our maker through sheer necessity itself. It simply forces us back home to our Maker.  We must understand that this suffering is not part of Gods original plan for us, but if it has to happen, then let it be a pruning and not a punishment. Let it make us stronger and draw us closer to God.


I went to Wyoming last weekend to speak to the women of the Diocese. They have so little. The head of the ECW is a priest and a cleaning lady. She makes her living cleaning houses and her church has an average  attendance of seven people on Sunday. The suicide rate in Wyoming is the highest in the nation. And there she was, eager to hear whatever I had to say. She had so little but was so close to Jesus. She told me that just a month before, when the snow was still on the ground, she had baptized a raging alcoholic who dropped dead just days later on his way home from a bar at night. In his unconscious stupor, he had frozen to death. Pruned back to so little, this woman held onto Christ with all her strength. And her life was bearing fruit even in the bleakest of conditions. She listened to everything we spoke about with such intensity, as if she was starving for good teaching. And she cried whenever we sang about Jesus. 


I knew a young man whose mother got addicted to drugs and abandoned him to the foster care system when he was just four years old. He had memories of brushing her hair, of how beautiful she was but how she would go into a stupor and fall asleep. When he grew up, this man became a father. He learned all about his past and had to confront great feelings of worthlessness. But he also knew for sure that he would never abandon his little boy. His boy would want for nothing. This young man could have chosen to be angry his whole life, to do violence and end up in jail. But instead, he chose to be the parent he never had. He let his suffering make him strong.


Live in me and your suffering will become pruning, Jesus says to us. We live in a fallen world of 

free will. But we are never alone.

Friday, May 01, 2015

A Visit to Wyoming

I am seated in a small airplane, coasting above the sparce clouds on a windy day. We have just taken off from Casper, Wyoming and the vast expanse of brown and green land lies beneath us, just visible between the clouds.


I came to Wyoming to preach and teach a group of devout women. We spent one weekend together, singing, talking, praying, worshipping. This visit gave me a new perspective into the life of the rural Episcopal church. And times are truly changing.


The president of the Diocesan ECW in Wyoming is a priest and a cleaning lady. She has been locally trained at their Iona school for ministry. She is not paid for her priesthood but makes her living cleaning houses. Her congregation last Sunday had seven people in attendance. Her church building is what she described as "a log cabin church." She is bright and energetic and has a deep and abiding faith. She is a woman of God.


There were 35 women gathered. We talked honestly about the new era when church is no longer an assumed activity on Sunday mornings. The woman priest had recently baptized a Vietnam vet who was an alcoholic and died by falling face down in the snow on his way home from a bar. The suicide rate in Wyoming is the highest in the country. 


While praying in a church on Friday night, we were visited by three deer and an antelope. They came to the grass right outside the sanctuary window. We rushed to the window and took pictures.


These women are learning to adapt. Their churches are not dying but very much alive. They are learning that they must go out into the towns and listen to the loneliness and desperation of the people around them. They will be bringing people to church one by one, day by day. Whereas once the ECW in Wyoming would gather 100 women for their annual retreat, now they gather 35, but these women are faithful as the day is long. And the Holy Spirit is alive and well within them.


I bought a hand-made apron at their silent auction. It has a head of lettuce on it and it says "Lettuce Give Thanks." And I do give thanks, for these women and for the heartbeat of the small churches on the northern plains.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Scars

In the movie Bend it Like Beckham, Jesminder "Jess" Bhamra is the 18-year-old daughter of Punjabi Sikh Indians from west London. Her parents expect her to be to be a respectable Sikh girl and cover her body modestly. Her parents would naturally encourage modesty in any girl, but to make matters worse, Jess was burned on her legs as a little girl when she was trying to help her mother cook in the kitchen. Jess' mother accidentally dropped a pot of boiling water on the floor and it splattered over Jess' legs.  So her mother is constantly telling her to cover up, be modest, be respectful. Her mother also tells her that her legs are hideous looking and that no man would ever want to marry her once that man had seen her legs.  Jess is a good girl and she is prepared to be obedient to her parents but there is one huge problem--Jesminder loves to play soccer and she's really really good at it. So the movie is all about this young girl struggling to cover up her wounds and how she ends up covering her talent.


Jess sneaks away from her parents and battles her shame and humiliation. First she tries to play soccer in pants but before the first game, they are given their uniforms and Jess has to put on shorts, so she hides in the bleachers. 


There is this beautiful scene where Jess is up there in the bleachers hiding and her coach, a young man, goes up to sit next to her, to find out what's wrong. She shows him her scars and he lifts up his pants leg and shows her his scars from when he had to have numerous knee surgeries. He explains about how his scars on his knee meant the end of his career as a soccer player but that if he had not hurt his knee, he never would have discovered coaching. And without pity or shame, he tells her to get out there on the field. The young coach and Jessminder end up falling in love after showing each other their scars.  And Jess ends up winning a scholarship to an American University to play soccer.


In the garden of Eden we felt true peace and communion with God.  We were free to be naked and intimate with God in a kind of harmony that we all still crave. When we ate what was not offered to us, when we fell from God's grace, our first reaction was to feel two things: fear and shame. We noticed that we were naked. We were ashamed and we hid from God in fear.


Ever since that time, we all hear something like Jesminder's mother in our heads: cover up, hide, you are shameful. You are ugly. You have made too many mistakes. Put on a facade of success. Pretend that you have it all together. When someone says how are you, say fine. Talk about your degrees, your children's accoumplishments, how much you love your job. Tell people in so many words, how great you are or better yet, show them and they will be impressed and you will be loved.


But love is not born when one person impresses another, no, that is infatuation or idolatry if there is any feeling at all. No, love is born when people uncover themselves and share their wounds.


Jesus appeared in the upper room on the evening of the first day of the week. The disciples were were scared. They were certain that the authorities might realize who they really were, friends and followers of Jesus. So the disciples hid, because that's what we humans do when we are afraid. They were hiding. I can just imagine the atmosphere in the room: whispers, shame, blame, grief and a hint of hope from some unreliable women who claimed to have seen Jesus early in the morning. Their claim must have seemed so stupid, almost child-like, preposterous. And it must have made the disciples feel worse.


"Shhh! Don't be too loud! They might hear us! John, please stop with the pacing your driving me crazy. Just everyone be quiet..." They were trying to hold it together, to see which one of them might be a leader, but they were just so lost. And I'm sure that it had sunk in, the realization that they had abandoned their Lord. Talk about being ashamed. They were hiding in fear and shame.


Then Jesus just shows up. Jesus finds them anyway. Fear never prevents God from finding us. Hiding from God doesn't work. God walked in the garden long ago and called out for Adam and Eve and God searches for us still, but nothing can keep God from finding us, not locked doors or bushes or even thousands of miles. God finds the disciples just like God found Adam and Eve. And when Jesus finds the people who love him, he does two very important things.


First Jesus bestows peace. "Peace be with you," he says. It is the first thing he says before he even identifies himself. And the word in the Ancient Greek means harmony, the kind of relationship that we once had with God in the Garden. The risen Christ offers us peace. An end to fear. An end to hiding. Communion with God. Something that we can never find on our own. No, this peace is a gift from God and God alone.


And then Jesus shows them his scars. He doesn't say, "Guess what I did! I conquered death! Yay for me!!" No, in an unprecedented act of intimacy, Jesus lifts up his shirt and shows them his naked skin, and his wounds. He shows them the ugliest part of himself, where his flesh was torn in his hands and his side. And that is how they recognize him. By his scars.


Do you want to find peace? Do you want to find love? Then stop trying to show everyone that you have it all together. Show each other your wounds. Show them. Here is where I have been hurt. Here is how I suffer. That is how love is born. Love is born when fear and shame are overcome by the truth. That we are wounded creatures who cannot seem to get it right in this life, who kill our Lord and run away in fear. But God loves us anyway. And we should have never run. Not in Eden, not at the cross, not in the upper room. You can't run from God anyway. 


What is one of the best ways to run from God? Speed up your life. Make yourself so busy that you are always running. Who has time for scars when you are on the run, when running becomes the only way that you know how to be? Our business is born of our shame that we haven't yet done enough and it is nothing more than Adam and Eve hiding again.


I challenge you to reveal your scars to one another. At least here, in church, you should be able to nurture a relationship with someone with whom you can be truly honest, someone you can trust. If you do not have someone here who has earned your trust in that way, then you have not fully experienced church. (And your spouse doesn't count!) And even more importantly, are you the kind of person who others feel that they can be vulnerable with? When you go out on the street, at work, at the bank, do people feel that they can reveal their true selves to you? 


I pray that one day, you and I will stop running and trying to intimidate each other. And when we stop running, when we finally have the courage to stop hiding from one another and from God, then we can show each other our scars.  And the Risen Lord will be with us.





Sunday, April 05, 2015

Seeing Something New- An Easter Sermon



There is an Easter egg hunt evolution going on here today. Last week, the Sunday school teachers told me to announce that the Easter egg hunt would be only available for kids ages seven and under. So big kids were out. After all, they are so fast that they steal all the eggs. We have tried to have staggered starts, letting the little ones get a few minutes alone before the big kids jump in, but it always seems to result in some kids having tons of eggs and others having only a few. So we just told the older kids that their time was up.


Well, this went over like a lead balloon. Nobody wants to be told that they are too old to hunt Easter eggs. I thought we might have a rebellion on our hands. But then a very gifted teacher came up with something new and unexpected.


She developed a new kind of egg hunt. The old fashioned competitive, find-all-the-eggs-you-can-in-a-short-time-before-everything-is-gone method will still be used on the young ones. But there is something new for the older kids, ages 8-11. They are going to hunt for eggs that contain pieces of a treasure map. They must work together to put the pieces in the right order to form the map that will lead them to the key which unlocks a treasure. And there will be enough chocolate for everybody.


No one likes change. But I think this Easter Egg hunt 2.0 is even better. Instead of being competitive, it is community building. And everybody gets chocolate!


All that Mary Magdalene wanted was for things to go back, back to the way that they were. Jesus had made her well, you know.  Mary had been lost. She had demons, these things that she could not see and did not understand. We don't know what they were: seizures, voices, hurting herself...she was lost and alone. And then Jesus came and he made everything right. He healed her and from that moment on, she would not leave his side. She followed him everywhere. She fed him and helped in any way she could. She did not leave even when they made Jesus carry a cross, even when they hung him up to die. She did not leave even when they took his body down and laid it in a tomb. Where else could she go?


All Mary wanted was to go back to the way things were, when she was with him, when she could cook for him and follow him everywhere, when she was healthy  and well because he was near. She just wanted her life back, her life with Jesus, the way things were.


That's what we want. We all want our lives to be the way they once were, or at least the way that we imagine they were. We want the same in heaven too. We want it to be like our best memories of home, with our loved ones and friends, like the best party we went to, like the best day we had. We want the best things from our past. It's all that we can imagine, the way things once were. Who could ask for anything more than that?


When Mary knew that Jesus was dead, she still couldn't stay away. So in the very early hours of the morning, as soon as the Sabbath was as over, Mary went to the tomb. She just wanted to stay close to him. It was all she knew. She couldn't stay away. And when she saw the dark tomb and his body gone, her grief rushed in on her and she began to weep. Everything had fallen apart. They had even taken his body! There was nothing to hold onto.


And then Jesus comes. Mary looks up and there is this man standing there. She doesn't know who he is. She doesn't recognize her Lord. She doesn't recognize the man that she had served and followed for years. I think that this is very important. Mary wanted things to go back to the way that they were. Her longing for what was prevented her from seeing what was right in front of her. Mary couldn't recognize the new way that Jesus came. Jesus looked different. Jesus was different.


All over the world, Christianity is changing. Christians are dying in the Middle East, being pushed from their homes. Churches are being desecrated. I watched this past week as a Syrian Orthodox Archbishop cried bitterly on 60 Minutes. He had be forced from his town when ISIS invaded. He had just five minutes to leave a church built in the early years of Christianity. The church held hundreds of ancient manuscripts -- some dating from the first century.  He grabbed just five of them and fled, leaving the rest of them, and his beloved church, to be defiled and destroyed. In Europe, churches are falling apart for another reason. Fewer and fewer people are going to church. They are empty, becoming museums, marketplaces, nightclubs, luxury apartments. What is happening to us?

        

All I want is for things to go back to the way they were. I want every Sunday to look like today, full and flowering. Full of bright young faces, worshipping God together. I want things to be the way that they were when churches were full every Sunday and everyone said prayers at night before bed.


And whenever I struggle in life, I think back to the way things were. I want my 20 year old body, my kids being young and so cute. I want my old house that I loved and I want to see my father-in-law again. 


But at the core of what we believe is this mystery called the resurrection. Resurrection does not mean returning to something the way it was. Resurrection is something entirely new. We believe that when we die, we are born into a new life.  And this new life happens when our physical bodies die, but it can also happen in this life. Jesus told his disciples over and over again that the kingdom of God was all around them. It's all around you too. But you have to learn to hunt for it, to seek it out and to find it.


        When Jesus came to Mary in the resurrected form, she could not recognize him. He looked different. He looked so different that later on some of his disciples would spend the entire afternoon with him talking and walking and not realize that it is him. All of his friends wanted things to go back to the way they were before and it made them blind to what God was doing. If you are looking to repeat the past, the resurrection will pass you by.


Now don't get me wrong. I do believe that we will see our loved ones in heaven, that the best of our lives here will be with us there, just as Jesus came back to the people he loved, but our loved ones will be so much more than what we remember them to be. And we will be so much more. Life will be so much more! 


And we are not just talking about heaven. The resurrection is something that we can access now. Jesus is very clear that the kingdom of God is near to you. So we must open our eyes. God is going to do new things in your life, if only you can see them. We are so busy that we don't even know how to see God's work in the world anymore. And yet,  Americans are hungry for meaning. We are running around, busier than we have ever been before, almost frantic with busyness, and we are hungry for meaning. Books on spirituality and meaning are flying off the shelves. We are aware that there is a certain lack of depth in our fast-forward lives. 


So this Easter, I want you to go on an Easter hunt. I don't want you to look for candy. Look for God. Look for ways that God is giving you new life. Look for a new thing. Jesus stands right in front of you, inviting you to see him if you have the courage to slow down and hunt for him. I know that it is scary, this ever-changing world of technology and moving parts. But he is here. All you have to do is look.