Authenticity, Musings, Prayer, psalms, Suffering

Still Feeling It AND Not Giving Up

Last week, I shared some incredibly raw and real thoughts and feelings I’ve been having about what I am seeing within much of the American Christian world. I was struck and humbled by how much my words resonated with so many (and upset some, as well!). I am grateful for the space it has opened for some of us to share our collective grief and pain. While the post was precipitated by a recent event, the feelings and thoughts were not simply about this one situation or “issue” (I really don’t like that word, by the way). Rather, in many ways, this was the culmination of a lot of pain and frustration that has been on a sort of “low boil” for awhile. In regards to how people tend to respond to us when we are in that place, I will have more to write…perhaps later this week.

I believe that my post was not a cry for a debate about a certain topic, nor was it simply a knee-jerk reaction or “hot take” on the latest social media outrage. It was my attempt at a sort of prophetic lament. This is a way of naming what one sees as inconsistent, wrong, and painful…and holding it up to each other and to God. It is a way of saying: “I see this. I feel this. It hurts me and others. It is wrong. We can do better.” In short, it is an expression of where we really are in our faith and life and a small step toward imagining something better. And we see this especially in the psalms. I’d encourage you to read some of them like Ps 31 or 88. Or even Ps 41 (which is an interesting mix of lament and thanksgiving, seemingly on the back end of some intense suffering).

D. A. Carson says that, in biblical lament, the authors do not try “to whitewash the anguish of God’s people when they undergo suffering. They argue with God, they complain to God, they weep before God. Theirs is not a faith that leads to dry-eyed stoicism, but to a faith so robust it wrestles with God.”

I would also add, that such lament is not just before and with God, but it is amongst a community as well. And it is a KEY and necessary step in addressing any sort of action or response. In short, lamenting is is not giving up or losing hope. It’s looking at and letting out. It is the practice of naming what really is as it is.

Actually, I believe that when we refuse to lament, when we run away from that which is uncomfortable, when we “spiritualize it away”, or even settle for having abstract theological debates about topics, that these can all be forms of giving up. We jump from what is to how it can be quickly and easily resolved. So we respond like this: Here’s a verse. Here’s a book. You should just pray about it. You should just count it all joy!

Soong-Chan Rah in his EXCELLENT book, “Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times” says this: “The American church avoids lament. The power of lament is minimized and the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost. But absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes the heart forget. The absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in the loss of memory. We forget the necessity of lamenting over suffering and pain. We forget the reality of suffering and pain.”

The practice and habit of lament helps to ensure that we are still connected to suffering and pain in the world, even when it isn’t our own.

There is so much more to say, but I will leave you with one quote from Walter Brueggemann’s “The Prophetic Imagination”: “The cross is the assurance that effective prophetic criticism is done not by an outsider but always by one who must embrace the grief, enter into the death, and know the pain of the criticized one.”

I’m not done. I’m not going anywhere. I am carrying my feelings and grief with me in the work God has for me in the world. In the end, we lament; not because we have given up, but because we refuse to do so. May we lean in to all that we feel, think, and experience as necessary and un-rushed step forward. May we still feel it, still wrestle, and by doing so, not give up.

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church, Daily Office, Jesus, Musings, Prayer, Relationships, Suffering, Trinity

Ask God and Ask in Faith – Daily Office Reflection

Easter V

(Psalm 80; Deuteronomy 8:1-10; James 1:1-15; Luke 9:18-27)

James 1:1-15

1James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,

To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:

Greetings.

2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

9 Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 11For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.

12 Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. 13No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.

Have you ever just felt totally stuck? There have been times where I have felt paralyzed by a situation or just completely at a loss when it came to a decision I needed to make. Some of you may be like in that you walk out every conceivable consequence or possibility which may result from a decision or conversation. It’s exhausting, right? So much time and effort is put into trying to figure out what might possibly happen. And then, there’s that point where you eventually realize you actually can’t control outcomes. How frustrating is that?

James, as he is writing this letter, is considering the lives of many who would have heard it. They were driven from their homes, likely by some sort of persecution–by things they couldn’t control. After urging them to choose joy (in light of what such trials produce, not simply the trials themselves), he says, if any of you don’t know what to do–if any of you need insight into the world around you–it is time to do one thing: ask God for wisdom.

If I’m honest, this step all-too-often a last resort, not a first impulse. It isn’t until I’m broken down, confused, and lost that I turn to God and ask for help and insight. Now, the remaining part of this passage which talks about asking without doubting can get us tripped up. Sometimes, people take this to mean that we need to be certain about what we are asking. For example, people will say things like: “You really need to believe God will provide for you or heal you or [fill in the blank]. You can’t doubt, or it won’t work.” I think that’s missing the point, and it is pretty dangerous. If God only worked when I was absolutely certain about something, he wouldn’t ever work!

Instead, our trust (the opposite of doubt, by the way) is in the One from whom we are asking. We believe that our God is trustworthy and the wisdom he shares with us is good and worth heeding. It would be like saying this: ask for advice, and then believe that the advice is worth following, even if it seems a little strange, difficult, or confusing. You can trust the Giver of the gift of wisdom, which means you can trust the value of gift when it comes.

What if we just took a small step toward God today of simply asking for wisdom? Is there something you can hold up today and say: “I don’t know what to do here, God, will you show me?” This is asking and asking in faith; faith being a deep trust in the One who loves us and is excited to give freely of wisdom to us.

A Prayer for Guidance

O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and
light rises up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all
our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would
have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save
us from all false choices, and that in your light we may see
light, and in your straight path may not stumble; through
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

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church, Daily Office, Jesus, Musings, Prayer, Relationships, Suffering, Trinity

“That they may be one, as we are one” – Daily Office Reflection

Easter II

(Psalm 119:1-24; Daniel 2:17-30; 1 John 2:12-17; John 17:20-26)

John 17:20-26

20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

A friend of mine recently made a print of this icon depicted above with the phrase “As we are one” underneath it. The original was created by Russian iconographer Andrei Rublyov in the 15th century. It is meant to depict the Trinity, as he interpreted the visiting of the angels to Abraham and Sarah as a theophany, or revealing of God in the three persons of the Trinity. Now, the print sits on my prayer altar in my home study, a reminder of the invitation and prayer of Jesus for people like me: that we would be one with other followers of Jesus and that this oneness would be same sort of unity as experienced in the Trinitarian life of God. No small prayer, to be sure.

Since beginning my studies at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute, my desire to see and embody more expressed unity in the Church has grown. I have had the privilege of learning alongside sisters and brothers from a variety of streams and traditions. I have been challenged, encouraged, sharpened, and blessed by this experience. In short, I think I have had a deeper encounter with this Trinitarian life of unity for which Jesus is praying.

As much as we catch glimpses of unity and deepened relationships with other Christians, we often see much expressed disunity. We have become professionals at fragmenting the Church and building walls around our respective denominations and tribes. If we are to take Jesus’s prayer seriously, this lack of unity is missionally irresponsible. Jesus connects our expressed unity to whether others will believe that Jesus was sent by God to love the world.

Where is the disconnect? Why is it that many who are the most passionate about people hearing and believing in the good news of Jesus can also be the most fractious and divisive? Why is church unity often pitted against evangelism rather than being seen as integral to it? How can we preach a message of reconciliation while living so unreconciled to other followers of Jesus, even where we disagree theologically. Hank Hannegraff’s (The Bible Answer Man) recent conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy and the negative responses of many to him and to this Tradition are very demonstrative of this hostility. (No link to the story, but feel free to google it)

Where can we join God in the movement of love toward others? The mission of God to love and redeem the world is rooted in God’s own life of unity. God is interested in bringing all that is not God into communion with God. This is God’s mission. What might it look like for us to participate in this life of unity, which is available to us as those who are in Christ.

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Doubt, Jesus, Musings, Suffering

Skipping Saturday

“It’s Friday. But Sunday’s coming…”

If you attended a Good Friday gathering last night, or have as many friends who observe this tradition as I do, it’s very likely you heard this phrase or saw it posted somewhere. I was first introduced to it by Tony Campolo, as he recounts a sermon his pastor once gave. It’s a good story and a powerful tool for hope when hope seems lost.

But today, on Holy Saturday, this gives me pause. We go from Friday to Sunday, but what about Saturday? Are we too quick to jump from loss to victory? Are we skipping Saturday? I wonder how those who experienced the first Holy Saturday would have experienced it.

It’s Friday, and you reckon with the fact that you have denied your mentor, rabbi, and dear friend three times, just like he said you would, to people you don’t even know. He’s gone. You couldn’t bear to stay as he breathed his last. And now it’s Saturday as you awake for Sabbath. How can you even rest with such guilt and shame? You can’t even look the other disciples in the eye. you don’t feel much like a “rock” today and you are uncharacteristically at a loss for words.

It’s Friday and you have watched your beloved son die a traitor’s death. As the spear pierces his side, a sword pierces your own heart. You hardly slept and now it’s Saturday. Whereas you could sing before about the blessing of his birth and the hope for his work to come, any words now catch in your throat; held back by sudden sobs and more tears than you knew were possible to cry. John has been so good to you, but you see he is hurting and confused as well. You sit in knowing silence together, wondering how God will fulfill the promises made to you. You open up your heart in search of treasured memories, each one bringing pangs of loss and doubt. What now?

Saturday is a day where our grief, disillusionment, and loss still hang in the air and cloud our view. It’s understandable why we would want to skip it. It’s uncomfortable and inefficient. Let’s get to Sunday already! After all, we know how this story ends up, don’t we?

Though it was a sabbath, Holy Saturday has work to do in us. It allows us to actually feel loss, to sit in the silence of uncertainty and pain, to entrust ourselves to God with all the doubts, anger, and resentment we may be feeling.

Bonhoeffer referred to this as the “great gap”. He puts it this way:

Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.
They should remain open.
Our only comfort is the God of the resurrection,
the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who also was and is his God.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer from “Circular Letters in the Church Struggle”

May we leave the gaps open, our wounds open and felt. May we fully engage our suffering and loss today. May we feel the weight of how the world is not right. May we grieve. May we not skip Saturday. This will allow our celebration on Resurrection Sunday to meet us in our place of deepest need and allow for immeasurable joy and hope.

But, for now, we wait; trusting that God is working in ways we do not see and cannot fully understand, much like Christ’s descent to the dead/to hell (another topic for another post, to be sure!)

Finally, I love how John Harrell’s poem, “We Simply Wait” ends:

This Holy Saturday we watch and wait.
What comes will surely be his surprise-
He’s working on it right now-
And we must wait for it,
There is nothing else to do.
On Holy Saturday we realize, as at no other time,
We simply have to wait.
And then it happens!
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gospel, John, Sermon Notes, Suffering, Sunday

Sunday Sermon: 1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13 “Getting in the Way of Love”

I had the opportunity to preach this past Sunday at St. Hilda’s Episcopal Church and New Hope Community Church. They are ministry partners in Catonsville, and I was honored to be invited to preach in both of their services. The podcast should be available in the coming days here, but in the meantime, here is my manuscript for the sermon, which I titled “Getting in the Way of Love”. As you think of it, pray for these two congregations, and my friends, Jason Poling and Joe Miller as they serve there.

“Getting in the Way of Love”
Text: 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13

Love. Never has a word been used more to mean less in recent memory. And never has a word brought more confusion rather than clarity to discussions around faith. When we say we are called to love others, when we say God is love, we feel and see the limits of our language. As Bishop Tom Wright once said, “The English word “love” is trying to do so many different jobs at the same time that someone really ought to sit down and teach it how to delegate.” Where there is confusion or a lack of clarity about what love is and what it can look like, we tend to fall victim to different ways of living. We can follow the ways of power, coercion, apathy, or justification of wrong-doing. It can bring about fear and anxiety. It does subtle work in our midst, moving us off the way of following Jesus.

So, the question arises: what do we mean when we say “love”, and more importantly, how do we align with this “most excellent way”? As a community of people who are meant to be defined as loving, there often seem to be things which get in the way of the proper expression of love: disunity in local congregations and the wider Church, theological squabbles and disagreements, issues of conscience, cultural arguments, and even the abuse or misuse of spiritual and positional authority by leaders in the church. No longer is it “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Nevertheless, I (and others) would argue that the very essence of Christianity is love, not knowledge, gifts, or power.

Today, my concern is to get us to identify the things that often get in the way of love and to invite us to get ourselves into the way of love. The good news for us today is that we have access to this way of love and, together, we can participate and grow in this eternal and powerful way of love right now, right where we are. And Paul’s words here bring us great hope in the midst of this great challenge we see both around us and within us.

The key words which frame our understanding of this passage are how Paul ends chapter 12, “But I will show you a more excellent way.” Paul has been covering a lot of ground in this letter, and I understand that you have been on quite a journey together through it. Discussions about divisions and idols and sexuality…certainly not simple topics to grapple with then or now. I believe this chapter serves as a pause and a bridge, perhaps even a climax of an argument situated between two related discussions in the letter: playing your part in the body by utilizing the gifts given by the Spirit in Ch 12 and proper order of worship in Ch 14.

While we are often used to hearing this passage read in wedding ceremonies, I imagine that Paul would find that a little confusing. As a matter of fact, if Paul wanted to use this passage to talk specifically about marital love, he likely would have put this part of his letter in Ch 7. It is there where he gets “super romantic” about marriage and basically tells people, eh, yeah I guess you should get married if you can’t contain yourselves…but it’s not really ideal. So…sure…go ahead. Or be like me and don’t.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Paul is very much interested in the way of love—but he is most concerned with how it plays out in the life of the church. I believe this is the primary context. What we get is not a sentimental picture of love to be embroidered and hung on a wall, but rather a beautiful account of a rigorous, self-giving, long-suffering, rejoicing way of being. This most excellent way of love.

Rather than begin with that happens we don’t have love (in the beginning of this chapter), let me first call attention to how Paul describes love. Starting in v. 4, he describes it both positively and negatively. Love is patient and kind. These connote both its passive and active qualities: it puts up with a lot (endures) and it also moves toward others with generosity, without thought of repayment. Love then jumps into action: rejoicing in the truth, bearing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things. (which doesn’t mean that is just sits idly by with “all things”, the phrase speaks more to the capacity of love to bear, hope, and endure regardless of amount or scope of adversity). This is robust and hopeful language. This helps us better define this agape love as Paul sees it: the identification of ourselves with God’s interests in others. A genuine and selfless concern for the well-being of others.

This contrasts with the more negative descriptions Paul uses to describe what love is not. And Paul is less than subtle here, saying that love is not envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, or resentful. Love does not insist on its own way or rejoice in wrongdoing. Since you all have been sitting in this letter for awhile now, these words should sound incredibly familiar: they are basically everything that Paul accuses the Corinthian church of being.

  • The jealousy which was feeding the quarrels surrounding factionalism (I’m of Paul, I’m of Apollos.
  • The proud and boastful statement of one part of a body saying to another “I don’t need you!”
  • The approval and rejoicing over sins that aren’t even tolerated amongst the pagans

Paul is laying out love both positively and negatively: here is what love is and here is what it is not and begging the question: which sounds more like you?

So, after describing this love, I want us to begin to see what can get in the way of this love. This is where we can relate back to the gifts which Paul was describing in the beginning of this passage. He says that, if you speak in tongues but don’t have love, you are a clanging cymbal or a sounding gong. This, for sure, makes us think of something loud and annoying, but Paul may be hinting at something else. In Psalm 150, there are injunctions for praising:

1 Praise the Lord!

Praise God in his sanctuary;

praise him in his mighty firmament![a]

2 Praise him for his mighty deeds;

praise him according to his surpassing greatness!

3 Praise him with trumpet sound;

praise him with lute and harp!

4 Praise him with tambourine and dance;

praise him with strings and pipe!

5 Praise him with clanging cymbals;

praise him with loud clashing cymbals!

6 Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

Imagine, if in the worship band, there was only a drummer hitting his crash cymbal the whole time while the voices try to jump in. It’s not just annoying…it is comically incomplete and not really helpful. Similarly, when it comes to prophesying, knowledge, or sacrifice, if it does not connect to the needs of others and come from a place of deep love for the interests of others, it is worthless. No, everyone needs to use their gifts in proper proportions and a proper times. And this is love.

The Amish and Old Order Mennonites have a word for a guiding ethic in their communities. It is the German word Gelassenheit (Ge-las-sen-heit). As with many words, they can be hard to translate directly and have a lot of uses and connotations, but one Mennonite describes it this way: a “yielding of self-will and autonomy to the community, believing that true redemption and love is created through the selflessness of yielding my rights to the wisdom of the gathered.” The concept plays itself out in a variety of practices (surrendering of property, submission to the church community in decision-making, rejection of taking pride in one’s own individual work, etc.) But this concept is embodied most clearly and beautifully in the practice of singing, often called Sacred Harp singing. This is a style of a cappella singing in four part harmony. In order for the chords to be complete, everyone must show up and sing their part in the right way at the right time. If they don’t, the worship of God is incomplete and deficient and their communal life is literally and figuratively off key and discordant. This is a picture of a community of love, a community which yields and submits to one another out of reverence for Christ.

To put it most plainly: the gifts you are able to use, those that have been given you by God, are not ultimately for you, they are for others; for building up and equipping the church. When gifts are not used for their intended purposes, when they are used as ends in and of themselves, they can actually work against the way of love. I don’t think I need to prove this point to you. Rarely does a week go by without us hearing of continues schism in the church, of misuse of spiritual authority, of the fall of incredibly gifted and talented leaders in the church, or of hearing the stories of our brothers and sister who have been yet again abused and wounded by those in the church—often done in the name of “holding to the Truth”, or “defending the gospel” or “keeping the faith”. We have lost sight of our prime directive of deep, sacrificial, gritty, and resilient love.

Now, when it comes to a passage like this, and in numerous other places in Scripture, there is an attractive impulse that is often at work in us that I want to name: it is easy for us to hear that we are doing the wrong thing, agree that it is the wrong thing, and then try harder to to the right thing. Paul could have just said to the Corinthians, listen…your speaking in tongues is getting out of hand, or you are way to concerned with prophesying, or you are obsessed with the miraculous…so (in the words of the famous Bob Newhart psychologist sketch) I have two words for you: “Stop it!”. Stop all the tongues nonsense. Stop the signs stuff…you’re abusing it. Stop prophesying…no, Paul doesn’t say this. He actually admonishes the Corinthians to pursue these gifts.

Instead, or perhaps in addition to this command, he invites the Corinthians, and us, to pursue the most excellent way of using these gifts. This is not about simply doing different works or even believing different words. The Words are good (prophecy). The Works are good (giving all we have, giving up our bodies). But these amount to nothing without the way of love, which requires us to also be aware of our desires, our Wants.

Some people say love is a verb, meaning that love means nothing without action (this should make us think of 1 John 3:18, right….Dear children let us not simply love in word but in deed and in truth). Yes, and amen: love must lead to action, or it is not love. But what Paul is telling us is that not every “right” action is necessarily love. In fact, we can say the right thing, and we can do the right thing, and be wrong…if we are not acting from a place of love, a disposition of grace and truth toward others. I have had to face this reality in my own life in preparing to preach today. I could be the best studier of Scripture and the best preacher (of which I’m certainly not), I could give a great sermon, but what is my underlying motivation? Is it to serve you all today? Is it to encourage or admonish you and build you up in the faith? Or could it be to further my own ego, to help me feel adequate, or to simply please other people? I’m trusting that the very act of wrestling with these thoughts and questions is itself loving, and I am entrusting myself to the Lord, knowing that he knows my heart better than I do and that God’s Spirit is at work in my deepest place of need and struggle.

This, then, leads us to the core part of the way of love: We can know how to love because we are known by love. And this is how Paul understands his identity as an apostle of Christ. And he is not subtle here: the words he uses to define love are the same words he uses to describe his own ministry as an apostle: bearing suffering in hope, enduring for the sake of those whom he loves. This is why he can say, in 11:1 “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” Paul was, quite literally, showing them a more excellent way in his own life. We see this love at work in Paul, who points us most ultimately to see it in Jesus. Jesus, who emptied himself of all privilege and power to become like us, to lay his life down for us, to submit himself to the will of the Father on our behalf. Jesus knew how to act in love. Take notice of the times where it was appropriate to use the power and influence gifted to him through the Holy Spirit and when it was not. Stones into bread or feeding five thousand. Similar power, only one was done in love, while the other was a temptation to sin. Healing some and not others, waiting to heal others. Knowing when to stay an extra day in one place and when to leave, even while he was popular. Knowing when to speak and when to stay silent. Jesus knew he was sowing into what would endure until the end: love.

Are we giving our time and attention to what will last forever? Knowledge will fade away. Even faith and hope are transitory, as one day what we trust and hope for will arrive. Love is what endures. Love will define our life together. Our calling is to witness to and embody that reality now as the body of Christ.

To get in (or rather into) the way of love is to walk the way together. This is Paul’s climactic point: the way of walking together as a church is to walk in unity, and the way of unity is the way of self-sacrificial love. So, I invite you to consider as St. Hilda’s/New Hope Church, what might it look like for you to walk in this way together? Where can we pause and ask, “Why am I doing this? Is it for love and in love, or does it get in the way of love?” What desires are at work in you? What work do those desires seek to do for you? Allow me to share one possibility for you to consider this week: fear often operates within us at a very deep level. We have heard the verse “There is no fear in love because perfect love casts out fear.” I think we can suspect that if fear is at work in us, it is likely doing work in place of love. A question to consider as you seek to evaluate your motives this week: what am I afraid might happen if I don’t _______ ? And what does God want me know about him or me in light of that fear.

Love invites us to consider the words we speak, the works we do, and the “wants” we have, calibrating and considering them together so that we may be about the way of loving. This is the difficult, beautiful call of following Jesus. And, if we are to take Paul seriously, it is the only work which lasts and endures.

Love is not just all we need, it is our beginning, it is our means, it is our end, and in the end, it will be all we have. May God give us the strength, courage, and opportunity to join him in this way of loving the world as God loves us.

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Daily Office, Holy Spirit, Jesus, Musings, Prayer, Suffering

“Things are not alright” – Daily Office Reflection

Lent IV

(Psalm 69; Jeremiah 22:13- 23; Romans 8:12-27; John 6:41-51)

Romans 8:12-27

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh- for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

 

In reading this text alongside the Psalm appointed for today, I am remembering the importance of honest and raw prayer. I see such a great example in this Psalm of simply naming what we see, how we feel, and asking God to answer and save.

Sometimes I wonder if what keeps us from getting to this place is that we avoid being where we really are. “No, the waters aren’t up to my neck…I’m doing fine! Just going through a tough season. I’m just so busy right now, you know?” “God is still in control, right? God knows. And any way, it could be worse.”

There can be some amazing freedom in naming the fact that things are bad, broken, and feel hopeless. This passage always reminds me of a song called “The Resistance” by Aaron Niequist. The words are pulled straight from this passage:

all creation waits / bated breath in pain
for redemption’s day
all creation cries / floods and charcoal skies
things are not alright

with brokenness and broken fists we
beat upon the breast of falleness
we hear the call of kingdom come as
one more train we chase to only miss
but we will never give up on it

We are quick to quote Paul’s words above, ” I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us,” but have not done the important work of naming the suffering and, well…actually hurting in the midst of it. Paul was good at naming his own suffering: rejection, loneliness, despair, beatings, shipwrecks, thorns in his side…I could go on. But he then was able to reframe it with hope.

We miss out on the beauty and power of hope by downplaying or ignoring our pain. And we can miss the greatness of our God and our opportunity to depend fully on God today for our strength, our hope…even our words/meaning in prayer.

So…what is bad around you and in you? What needs to be set right? What do you look at and think, “God, save me! I am drowning!” And then, pray and groan about it, totally unfiltered. Don’t worry about the right words. Don’t worry about being theologically correct. Trust that, as you come to God as a child, God wants to hear from the kids.

 

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gospel, John, Sermon Notes, Suffering, Sunday

Sunday Sermon: Lent IV- John 9:1-41

I had the opportunity to preach this past Sunday at Breath of God Lutheran Church in our neighborhood. While I forgot to record it, I am posting my manuscript here. The name of the sermon was “Blind Witness News”. A big thanks to Mark Parker for the invite and grateful to have such an engaged church in our neighborhood.

“Blind Witness News ”
Text: John 9:1-41

I don’t know about you, but I’ve probably spent more time in the last six months absorbing news content than I have in the last 6 years. The political climate in which we live, regardless of your political persuasion, is unprecedented and unpredictable. And with newsworthy happenings in the world come the inevitable spin and questions. It is so easy to get sucked in to the news reports and the arguing and the punditry and the analysis.

As such, perhaps this what has caused me to think of today’s Gospel reading in much the same way: as a news story. Could you imagine if it were recounted by a popular 24 hour news network today? Perhaps it isn’t too difficult to imagine. We have a significant event happening and a lot of people questioning and disagreeing about it. So today, I do want us to follow this story a bit like we would a news story, and try to offer some self-reflection along the way.

The word “blind” is used by John 17 times in his Gospel. 15 of those times are in this passage. This should bring to our mind not simply the topic of this passage, but a theme of sight. John wants us to see something here (pun intended).  We will come back to the disciples question in a bit, but I wanted to focus on the rest of the narrative, as if it were picked up by the news.

Imagine what the local news coverage would have been like for this story. “Breaking: we have some odd reports of a man, apparently born blind, who has been healed with mud, and you won’t guess what it’s made out of. Tonight at 11.” Or further still: “It is unclear as to the true identity of this man who was allegedly healed by a traveling Rabbi. We have someone who claims it was him who was healed, others claim it was just someone who looked like him: you be the judge.”

There are a lot of fun details in this story, and we can’t address everything, but I just had to pull out this amazing question by the neighbors as they begin by questioning the blind man after he received his sight. They ask him, in v. 12 “Where is he?” and he said “I don’t know.” Come on now…that is funny! This man has literally never seen anything in his life, he is sent by Jesus to go wash in a pool, where he then receives his sight and begins to be questioned, and one of the questions is, “Where is this man whom you’ve never seen?”

Next, the story gets picked up from the local news by the big news channel. Let’s call them PNN (Pharisee News Network). Their headline would look something like this: “So-called Prophet Breaks Sabbath by Performing Alleged Miracle…Sinner performing signs?” On their show, they would invite the blind man and his parents on, along with some expert analysts (pharisees, of course), to talk about this situation.

At the end of their newscast, the blind man turns the tables, even asking the pharisees if they want to follow Jesus because of all their questions. And like good pundits, they stick to the talking points and seek to discredit the man in order show they are the ones who are right, saying “You were born entirely in sins, and how are you trying to teach us?” And they cut the interview off and send him away, feeling satisfied that they got another news story, and maybe boosted their ratings.

Notice, that Jesus is not invited into the Pharisee’s discussion. Instead, Jesus goes to find the man after he hears about how he has been treated. He hears his confession of faith and says to him: you are the one who really sees. You get it, while those who think they have insight into the ways of this world are showing that they are blind. This is the work of Jesus which elicits an important question, not just for the pharisees, but for all of us: “surely we are not blind, are we?” We see things the way they are, don’t we Jesus?

It is here where I want to finally come back to the beginning of the story. When Jesus and his disciples come across this man who has been born blind, the disciples’ first impulse is to ask a question which I would paraphrase like this: “Whose fault is it?” This man is suffering, is it his own fault or the fault of someone else? Or, put even more succinctly: who can we blame for this?

I feel this question on a regular basis when I encounter human suffering, illness, and injustice in our world. My first impulse is to ask: “Whose fault is it?” so I can quickly post something calling them out on Facebook or something (I am only speaking for myself…I’m sure you don’t do this!) Or, it allows me to make a judgment call. “Well, they obviously brought this on themselves.” This helps me deal with the suffering as I see it. It helps me explain it away. It helps me keep things at a distance.

But, Jesus invites us into another way of seeing, altogether. To simply see a blind man as a problem to be analyzed, diagnosed, reported, or blamed is the way of the world. It is the way of the 24 hour news media. It is the way of blindness. Furthermore, to dismiss the work of God in the world when it doesn’t look like we think it should is the way of the religious elite, it is the way of power…basically, it is not the way of Jesus. And it is damaging.

Let me just say, that people have been horribly stigmatized by those who claim Christianity. I work part-time with HopeSprings, an organization which seeks to awaken, equip, and engage the church to bring hope and healing to those with HIV. We are having some focused conversations with other health and faith-based organizations right now to better address how faith informs our engagement with the people most at risk for HIV. This includes people in the LGBTQ community, particularly black gay men, transgender individuals, and IV drug users. Some of the people we have the opportunity to serve amaze me, because they still love Jesus after being treated as subhuman by those who claim to follow him. Many struggle to even think of darkening the door of a church again, though their faith is incredibly important to them. So many have been over-analyzed and scrutinized because of these factors, but people often fail to see God at work in their lives (and oftentimes, God is working in them to work through them to bless others…like us!) Certainly these would be like those whom we would categorize as “blind” today and seek to blame them or others for whatever may ail them. I wonder who else may be treated like they are “blind” today. And I further wonder whether we aren’t, in fact, the blind ones.

When Jesus sees this man, born blind, he sees it as an opportunity for the kingdom of God to break into the world. He sees it as a chance for him to get to work. To literally get his hands dirty, making mud out of spit and dirt. The work which began in Jesus continues on in his body, the Church, by the power of the Spirit. He is the light of the world, and now, so are we.

So, as we move forward today, back into our neighborhood this week, we are invited by Jesus to see what he sees. When we see our immigrant neighbors, will we simply analyze our assumptions concerning their lives, or will we wonder where God might be at work and inviting us to join? When we hear or read of another carjacking, mugging, or break-in, will we seek to blame police, victims, or perpetrators…or will we wonder “How might the light of Christ shine in this situation?” Where is God inviting you to see the world around you differently, as pregnant with possibility?

Jesus’ words in response to his disciples are an apt challenge for us today: We must work the works of him who sent us while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. So, as long as you are in the world, shine in the world by working in the world, perhaps in the most unlikely places, in order to bring glory to God. May we move forth as people who see. May we look for opportunities for God’s kingdom to come in the situations and people we encounter. May we get our hand dirty in the work of loving and healing others. And may we have our own eyes opened to the reality of Christ.
Amen.

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