Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Chasm of Disapointment

There are some unique things about Luke’s account of Palm Sunday.
Notice that there are no palms.
There are no Hosannas.
What drew my attention this time was that the people blessing Jesus.
And calling him king are a “multitude of the disciples”.
This is not a crowd from Jerusalem gathered for the Passover festival.
These are the people who know Jesus well.
These are not the crowd that will be calling for Jesus to be crucified on Good Friday.
These are the people who have been with Jesus for some time.
They are people who have heard him teach, preach, and heal.
They don’t fully understand yet what it means for Jesus to ride into Jerusalem.
Even though Jesus told them that it will be here that he dies.
I wonder how much they will be disappointed by Jesus death.
There expectation on this day is that Jesus will be triumphant.
And yet to be the Messiah for Jesus means to die and give his life.

It got me thinking about our own expectations of Jesus.
How are we disappointed by him?
What are our expectations of Jesus in our lives?
Many people believe that having faith in Jesus means never having anything bad happen to us.
They see Jesus as the one who can solve all their problems.
They see Jesus as the one who heals every ill.
For example, just this week I was talking to someone who was telling me that if we only have enough faith God will heal our diseases and cure us.
I suggested that it does not always work out that way for everybody.
They responded by saying, “Those people didn’t have enough faith.”
Are we to suggest that Jesus died because he didn’t have enough faith?
In fact, the story of Jesus death suggests the opposite, that Jesus had enough faith to face death without fear.
Jesus knew that God works through death to bring about something greater.

The story of Palm Sunday and Holy week can help us to have realistic expectations about what God does for us in our lives.
Jesus teaches us that the world is a place that brings death.
That to be human means to live in a world of uncertainty, a world where death comes at any moment.
What should have been Jesus crowning moment, his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, was really what sealed his fate.
If only Jesus comes to Jerusalem quiet and without a lot of hoopla.
If only his disciples would stop screaming and making a fuss.
If only he doesn’t go into the temple and turn over the tables of the money changers.
But the story of Jesus is not a fairy tale where the king destroys the evil people and wins the day.
Instead it is God’s story of ultimate sacrifice.
It is a realistic story of what our world is really like.

At our Christian education meetings we will have Bible study.
And we were talking about our expectations and the reality we live in.
One of our teachers, Rene Maurer, was sharing with us a spiritual revelation he had one night.
We have on the one hand our expectations of how things should be.
And on the other hand we have the reality of how things are.
Think of Easter celebrations we have with our families.
We all have certain expectations of how those should go.
We have visions of kids happily wearing beautiful new Easter outfits, and happily standing for the family Easter picture.
We have visions of happy uninterrupted time sitting around a table eating the Easter ham, talking and sharing funny stories.
But then we have the reality of kids who don’t want to wear new clothes, or pose for a photo.
We have the reality of that relative that really gets on our ever last nerve.
We have the uncle who has too much to drink and starts telling inappropriate stories.
We have the mother in law who makes derivative comments about the food under her breath.
 We have the father who only wants to watch basketball on television.
Our expectation of a nice time with family becomes a nightmare.
And we begin to resent those in our family who don’t do their part to make it a nice day.
So we have our expectations and we have reality.
And we spend most of our time in between those two things in what Rene called, “the chasm of disappointment.”

That is a very difficult place to live.
It breads resentment and hurt feelings.
Live their long enough and well…you stop trying to have time with your family.
You miss out on life because you just know that it won’t live up to what you want it to be.

The same is true in the church.
Barbara Hemphill and I met this week to make up a list of people to call and ask to help with the meatball dinner.
We had a list with names of people I had never heard of before.
Barbara would say well this person became, “disenchanted”.
It is easy to do.
Just as there is no perfect family there is no perfect church.
They are filled with imperfect flawed people.

So what can we do?
How can we avoid the chasm of disappointment?
Well in our Gospel one thing that people could have done is listen closer to what Jesus actually said.
He told his disciples on three separate occasions exactly what was going to happen.
Jesus had no dissolution about what was going to happen.
Jesus knew people and knew that they would not deal well with his message.
He knew that people like Herod and Pilate did not want to give up power.
He knew that the chief priest and scribes would be threatened when he took away their ability to make money.
He knew that his disciples would flee because they were scared.

Christianity is a faith about the truth.
It starts with a confession of our sins, and a need for God to intervene because we cannot correct them on our own.
Christians should not be in the chasm of disappointment because we see the world as it is not as we want it to be.
Jesus taught us that the world is a place filled with sin, and violence.
The only answer is to put our trust in God.

So perhaps to avoid the chasm of disappointment we can be more realistic about our expectations of other people.
We can see that the reality of the world is not as it should be, but as it is.

That will only get you half way there.
The other half is that we realize that we are here to serve others.
This is the lesson of Jesus death, he did not come to make himself a hero, he did not come for his glory.
But he lowered himself to serve us.
We say it all the time that Jesus died for our sins.
Jesus gave himself for us.
And so we can make our reality better by seeing our job to serve others and make their time better.
We are not having Easter dinner so we can have the perfect Easter, we are having it to serve our family and make their lives better.

In doing this we close the chasm of disappointment.
We see the world and people for what they truly are, and in service to them we try to work with it.
I would suggest many of us do this.
I have friends who sometimes drive me crazy, but I will always say, “well…that is just so and so, and I love them anyway.”
Let me suggest that to live in the chasm of disappointment does us no good.
It does not help us spiritually.
But to live in reality and to love divinely makes our lives more full.

This is what Jesus taught us.
That the world is what it is.
But the great love of God has overcome the world, and given us the ability to live in joy by serving others.
This Holy Week may Jesus help you to find your way out of the chasm of disappointment so that you can live in joy of Easter morning.
And share a nice meal with those that you love despite their flaws.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Sweet Smell of Grace!

I have spent a good deal of my life thinking about the theological concept of grace.
What is grace?
How does God offer grace?
To whom does God offer grace?
However, the wonderful thing about the Gospel’s is that they don’t spend much time giving us great theological treatise about grace.
Instead they give us images, and stories that show that grace.
Our Gospel from John this morning is a good case in point.
In the first chapter of John’s Gospel John has told us that it is from Jesus that we receive, “grace upon grace”.
The rest of the Gospel is then images and stories that show us in real time what that grace looks like.
This morning we also get to an image of what it smelt like.
“The whole house smelled of the fragrance.”
Grace is not so much a theological proposition as it is a lived experience.
It got me thinking about all of us here this morning.
How do we experience grace upon grace?
What does grace smell like?
What does grace look like?

One thing I love to do on my day off is cook.
In fact, my perfect day off is cooking a meal for friends and family.
There is something about making food and then being in the company of people who will enjoy it with you.
I love it when people walk in my house and say, “something smells good.”
That is what grace smells like.

I used to work at home for abused and neglect kids.
That house had a certain smell.
Not all that pleasant.
Imagine a home with 13 teenagers living together.
This winter I was able to volunteer a couple of nights at the emergency cold winter shelter at South Church.
The shelter once all the guests where there had that same smell.
To me that is the smell of grace.
Where there is trouble and hardship.
I find God to be there.
In the midst of people struggling, and yet finding a way, I find God.
It isn’t always pretty, but it is graced filled.

I can still remember the smell of my grandparents house in New Jersey.
Or the smell of my grandparents house in Worcester, MA.
That is the smell of grace.
Because it was a place I loved going to and always felt welcomed and loved there.
How about the smell of pine needles, at camp calumet as you enter the outdoor chapel?
I have a friend who hadn’t been to camp in many years.
She said that when she walked on camp and smelled that smell of camp she cried, because it was the time in her life she felt most loved.
The smell of campfire late at night while camping, or the smell of the ocean?
All these things remind me of God’s grace, because they fill me with scenes of a living God at work.

That day in Bethany, Mary brings the smell of grace to that dinner.
She brings a jar of perfume and uses it as a gift for Jesus.
And it seems to others as too extravagant.
“This could have been used for the poor.”
Mary uses a year’s worth of wages on anointing Jesus feet.
Surely that is over the top.
Surely the money was better spent somewhere else.

That is what grace looks like.
It is extravagant and perhaps even indulgent.
Who in our lives have we indulged?
Who have we been extravagant too?

Yesterday, we had a service of gratitude that included many partners from our AA groups that meet here.
During this worship service people from AA got to share some thoughts on their sobriety.
Each story that was told was a ray of God’s grace.
You could feel and hear grace come out of those stories and be a blessing to all of us who heard them.
During the service people were cooking corn beef and cabbage.
You might still be able to pick up some of the smells of that meal.
This was our second year of having that service with people from AA.
Now the smell of corn beef and cabbage will remind me of God’s grace.

Grace is not merely a concept but it is tangible and has a feeling, a smell, a look.
And we always know it when we see it.

My grandmother loved to tell this story about my dad.
When he was in high school he got a new car.
One day he got into an accident.
My grandfather was away on business.
So she took it to the garage to have it fixed.
She told the man, “I would really like this done before Bob returns.”
The car was fixed and my grandfather never knew until years later when she thought it safe to tell the story.
It is story of indulgence, and grace.

My father learned that lesson well.
In high school when I got in a car accident I thought my Dad was going to be real mad.
All he said was, “I am glad no one is hurt, and I am glad you are ok.”
I didn’t deserve that response.
But that is what grace looks like.
It is extravagant, and it is indulgent.

Grace often makes us act like Judas.
We don’t like it.
We want someone to pay for what they did.
We want people to be smart and “do the right thing.”
God’s grace is like someone taking all the money they have and wasting it on perfume to wipe on someone’s feet before they die.

I like to think about God in this way.
I like to think about God over indulging us.
Sure you want to waste my gifts go right ahead.
I will be here when you get done.
God is extravagant to us, because despite all the ways we have tried to ignore God, he still sent us Jesus to show us this grace.

As we enter Holy week, as we contemplate together the death and resurrection of Jesus we remember the extravagant love of God.
We remember how much Jesus went through to show us this grace.

What I have discovered since leaving seminary is that the world is desperate for these stories.
The world needs to know of this indulgent extravagant grace.
What many people don’t want is the doctrinal answers, or canned theological propositions.
But they hunger to see and smell that grace.
And they do experience it in their lives.
Just as all of us do.

May all of you see God’s extravagant grace upon grace.
May all of you have sweet smell of that grace fill your house.
And may all of us learn to share, as Mary did, our own acts of extravagant indulgent grace.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Hard Road to Forgiveness

When I was the pastor of a Church on Long Island I received a call from the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia.
It was to ask if we would be willing to have an intern at our congregation next year.
In order to have an intern a congregation needs about $25,000, to pay housing, medical, and a small stipend.
The seminary said that the student lived in the area and didn’t need housing, and had insurance from her husband’s job.
Could we come up with about $5,000 for the stipend?
My congregation was struggling financially.
We sometimes had trouble paying the phone bill.
But I agreed to meet with the person needing the internship.
I met the person and liked him so I decided to go on faith and recommend it to the council.
At the council meeting I could tell that some people were skeptical how we would come up with the money.
But I made the case that we could help this person and we had to go on faith sometimes.
I put myself out there to help this student and make this happen.
The candidate came to our next council meeting to meet everyone, and he came with his home pastor.
We all agreed on terms and conditions of him becoming our intern.
About a week later I got a call from him that he decided not to come to our congregation, instead do his internship with his pastor.
I asked, “Did you tell the seminary about your decision.”
“No, I just think it is best.”
I shared my feelings that this had put me in a very awkward position, and that this is not how the process works.
Later that day I received a call from this person’s pastor to try and explain what happened.
I told the pastor that this was not right and this is not how it works and the student should be told that she needed to fix this mess he created.
The pastor then said to me, “Well…we have to forgive.”

This bothers me maybe more than anything.
It bothers me when Christians use forgiveness for a quick and easy fix to everything.
During the sex abuse scandal the Roman Catholic Church said that one of the reasons it couldn’t hand over pedophile priests to the police was because we have to forgive.

This morning’s Gospel is one of the most well known, and it is beloved by many including myself.
Ralph Waldo Emerson called it, “The greatest story in the Bible.”
It is beloved because it offers us such a wonderful picture of God.
A God who stands out looking for us to come home, a God who runs to embrace us, a God who throws a party when we return.

But it is also a complicated picture of a family fight.
And we all know those can be the worst.
I once did a funeral where the sisters in the family where feuding all the time.
One of them was responsible.
She always did the right thing.
The other was irresponsible.
She had no real job; she couldn’t meet her financial commitments.
On several occasions she had lied to multiple members of her family to get them to give her money.
And she did this on multiple times to the older sister.
And the mother usually bailed her out.
The mother would tell the older sister that she had to help out her younger sister, because God always forgives.
The mother would use the story of the prodigal son as a test case.
At the funeral the older sister wanted to know if this was true.

The Prodigal son is such a good story because there are so many ways to understand it and read it.
You can see things through the lens of the father, the forgive son, or the older son.
The father in the story is ready and eager to forgive.
I like to think this is how God is with all of us.
That even if we squander the inheritance given to us that God cannot wait to welcome us back.
In the story I most easily identify with the prodigal son.
I am always thankful for God’s forgiveness of me.
But if God is eager and willing to forgive us, the relationship between the two sons is more complicated.

I have found that this is true.
That forgiveness between two people is more messy and harder to come by than the forgiveness offered by God.
The older son had the most to lose in this story.
When the younger son asks for his inheritance we are not talking about dad cashing in his 401k.
We are talking about the father selling family land in order to give to his son.
Think about how important land is the story of the Bible.
It is this land that God promised Abraham, and then Moses.
It is this land that brings wealth and comfort.
The father was going to die sooner than the older son and so selling the land for him was not as big a deal.
But the older son was hoping that land would continue to bring the family wealth and security for years to come.
And now they had to sell it for the little punk who wanted to go off and party.
He is not so willing to forgive.
Notice that the story ends on a cliff hanger.
Will the older son go inside to the party?
We have to draw our own conclusion.
Or it is left for us to decide what will we do when we are wronged?

I would like to think that the brothers eventually mended their ways.
However, it doesn’t happen just because that is what we are supposed to do.
I found it interesting that the father doesn’t say to the older son, “Look I forgive your brother and so should you.”
Perhaps God knows that the forgiveness that forged between us is always harder, and fought for more deeply.

I would like to believe that the younger brother does ask his older brother for forgiveness.
And then maybe the older brother thinks that maybe he will forgive him, but that he had to prove himself.
The younger brother had to prove that he was willing to work just as hard as he would.
That is the thing about our forgiveness with each other; it takes work, both from the person asking forgiveness and the person offering it.

I would have offered forgiveness to the seminary student, but he didn’t ask for it.
And it was beside the point, because I thought he needed to learn a lesson about the way that you communicate in the Church.
That you don’t make unilateral decisions, but you ask what other people think, that you go through proper channels.
That is a hard lesson to learn.
It is one that I constantly have to relearn myself.

There can be forgiveness to those priests who molested little children, but not from the hierarchy of the Church.
It has to come through the hard work of being in the room with the person you hurt, and let them tear at you.
And perhaps you have to go to jail first to understand just how bad your sin was.
It seems that sometimes we want to skip a step.
We want to skip the step that it is hardest.
And that is to examine why we did what we did, and to make a plan for change, to agree to earn back trust.
We can’t cut out the most important the step of actually asking for forgiveness.
In the story the father he doesn’t need any of that stuff.
He doesn’t care why or how his son is back, he is just happy to have him back.
And that is the beauty and mystery of God’s grace freely given to us.
But we are not God.
We need that other human stuff that happens.
In this way I am like the older brother.
You need to do the work with me if you want my forgiveness.
I would offer to you this morning that this is indeed a healthy and good thing for all of us.
It is spiritually healthy to actually have to say the words to someone else, “I need you to forgive me for this or that.”
I have noticed that most of us don’t do that.
We instead offer non apologies-apologies.
“I regret that my words/actions offended others….”
That is not the same things as saying, “I know I messed up and I need you to forgive me.”

In lent we think a lot about our relationship with God.
Our relationship with God is always good because God is running to offer us forgiveness and throw us a party.
But it is also a good time to think about our relationships with each other.
If we are the younger brother we should remember the important work of asking for forgiveness.
And if we are the older brother the hard work of forgiving.