Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Protest! What Are They Good For?!

One thing about me that you may not know is that I love a protest.
I have been to many of them.
I think protests have what I love most about life.
Lots of people coming together who believe that they can make a difference.
People who see something that is wrong and want to do something about it.
I will tell you that I like protesting so much that there have been times when I was at protest and I wasn't exactly sure what it was for.
Someone invited me, or there have been times when I saw one going on and I just joined in.
I mention this because there has been a lot written about the crowd that gathered to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem.
Did they understand what they were asking for?
Did they understand the significance of the moment?
Did they understand what they were chanting?

They thought that they were welcoming someone who was going to overthrow the Roman Government.
Someone who was going to make their lives better.
They knew all too well that things were not good in Palestine.
They didn't like being subjects of a foreign power.
They believed that this Jesus person could make things better, they believed he had the power to do it.
They had heard the stories of Jesus calming storms, healing the sick, feeding 5,000 people.
They had heard that he preached the Kingdom of God that took care of the least and most vulnerable.
It is perfectly understandable that they had high hopes for what Jesus would do.

Everything about this protest was set up to be about triumphant.
Palm branches in the ancient world were a symbol of military and political triumphant.
They shouted that the King of Israel would come and save them.
They thought this could be that moment that the messiah would finally come and right the wrongs.
That is the thing about protest.
They are meant to right wrongs, to fix something that we feel is wrong with the world.
I have noticed over the years a couple of things about protest.

First, the rarely fix the problem.
I came to the realization when I was at protest in Washington DC to protest us getting into the war in Iraq the second time around.
We were marching down a street and there was a office building next to us.
Some of the people in the office building had come to the window to watch.
One of them had written on a 8*11 sheet of white copy paper a sign that said, "F*#$@ Peace"
It made me see that in some ways this was not changing anyone's mind, nor was it stopping the war.

Second, Protests are meant to make one side righteous and the other wrong.
I have found in life that rarely are things that black and white.
Let me put it in theological terms.
We are all simultaneously saints and sinners.
(I really wanted to talk about this during our reformation series, but we ran out of time.
It is a key in understanding Lutheran theology."
All of us are a complex combination of saints and sinners.
Even our best of intentions are not that great.
But Jesus gives us grace we can do good.
The Holy Spirit draws us out of ourselves and into something that helps our neighbors.

Third, protesting isn't about taking on an individual.
It is not about a person, it is about an entire system that is bigger than any one person.
You don't protest that a person is bad, but that the systems of the world are bad.
What is the systems that lead us to kill each other, hate each other, rob from each other.

Fourth, protesting is still necessary and good.
It helps us to express our desire for a better world.
For a world without violence, greed, and hatred.
A world without corrupting power.
A world where we are all free, and all are valued and fed.
I am big believer in being part of lost causes, and things that will never become law.

And that is what is happening on Palm Sunday.
The crowd thinks they are there to see the start of victory.
They think this is the beginning of Jesus Triumphant over the forces of a corrupt government, that has conspired with corrupt religious leaders.
They think this will lead to that change that they have dreamt of and wished for.

The problem is that they are not really looking closely at what Jesus is doing.
In Mark's Gospel it is interesting that Jesus is silent.
In the other Gospels Jesus speaks on his ride into Jerusalem.
Here he take it in.
He doesn't condemn the crowd, but he doesn't give it his full endorsement either.
Instead he rides without comment.
Knowing what the crowd doesn't.
Knowing that he is the Messiah, that there will be a victory, but not in the way that they think he is.
Knowing that the victory that will be won is not a military one.
It is not about passing just laws.
It is about something even more, beyond the reach of the crowd.
It is about giving of his life, so that we might live.
It is about proving that God is more powerful than any government or religion.
That the freedom we seek comes from knowing God's power in our lives.

Palm Sunday is the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
It is the entry for us into the Holy sacred story that lies at the center of our faith.
As we enter into it we should remember these lessons.
Jesus fixes our problems by showing us how to be in the world.
How to love each other, how to give of ourselves, how to be peaceful and caring, how to stand up for what is good, right, and just.
Jesus is our Messiah who wins the victory, but not in the way we think.
Jesus is the humble peaceful son of God who comes in silence riding on a donkey.

The story is not about bad people versus good people.
It is about how we have failed, to love and care and understand.
We are both sinners and saints.
Sinners because, like the crowd, we don't understand fully the beauty of Jesus.
Saints because Jesus shows us the way to truth and life.

The story is not about individuals fail.
It is about how systems of oppression are evil.
It isn't about Pilate, but about how Pilate is part of a system that executes people.
It isn't about the religious leaders, but about how the system has blinded them to the truth.
It isn't about how Judas failed, or Peter failed, or the disciples failed, but about how they too couldn't fight against the system.

And finally it was all necessary and good.
It was according to plan.
Because Jesus knew that the system would never change, it would kill him first.
Jesus knew that even his disciples were sinners.
But it didn't stop Jesus from protesting, from trying to show us a different way.
It didn't stop Jesus from entering Jerusalem.

I hope for us this week that we focus on Jesus.
Not on whose fault it is that he died.
Not on what the people of that time knew or didn't know.
Not on what we know or not.
But see Jesus giving himself for us.
Jesus loving us, offering us grace.
Jesus entering our hearts so we might know God.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Struggle of Wonderful Grace

Grace is a powerful force.
It changes lives.
It helps us see beauty in unusual places.
It sets us free.
It is wonderful.
But it always comes with struggle, with pain, with loss.
We forget this about grace.
We want it to come to us easily, without the other parts.
We want it to be a magical pill that cures all our ills.
We want it to be instantaneous.
The faith of God's grace given in Jesus Christ is about a story.
It is about our story interacting with God's story of redemption and love.
I want to encourage all of us this morning to think about our stories.
And to think about how the pain, sin, loss, heartache, and struggles of our lives lead us to know God's grace.

Our stories cannot just be about the end result.
It has to incorporate the other parts, even the ugly parts, the parts we don't want to talk about.
I was talking to someone a couple of weeks ago.
He was a believer at one point in his life, but doesn't currently..
He  wanted to know from me why God had let some bad things happen in his life.
Why had God allowed his father to die?
Why had God allowed him to become an alcoholic?
Why had God not done a better job of caring for him in his life?
What I couldn't explain to him was that all of those things were not of God's making.
But that if he would have looked at his life he would have seen grace.
He would have seen Jesus in his recovery.
He would have seen Jesus in helping him to deal with his father's death.
Those darker turns of his life would have been part of his story that lead him to see Jesus' grace.
We have to go through hell to get to heaven.
In John's Gospel the lifting up of Jesus into glory is both his death on a cross and his resurrection.
Those thing go together.
It is in the death, pain, and heartache that we experience the wonder of the resurrection.
Any story of one's faith has to consider that we experience grace only in those times when we think it is not possible.

We have confused this.
We think that forgiveness comes without confession.
That grace comes without the struggle that goes with wondering why we are here in this moment.

The story can't be.
I did nothing wrong and I am wondering where is God's grace.
The story can't be.
Nothing bad has ever happened to me and now I know God's grace.
The story can't be.
I did nothing wrong now forgive me.

Any faith story has to be more complex.
It is twisted with dying and rising.
It is twisted with sin and redemption.
It is twisted with pain and relief.
It is twisted with struggle.

Recently it came to light that the President of the United Lutheran Seminary didn't put on her application that she was the executive director of a group that worked on "conversion therapy".
For those that don't know conversion therapy is an evil thing, that tries to convert people from being gay into being straight.
It is illegal in many states.
She was the executive director of this group 20 years ago.
Eventually someone found out about it.
There were people saying, "This happened a long time ago. A lot of people used to believe in this. She has changed her mind. Let's just let it go."
My problem is that she never made this part of her life part of her faith story.
It was probably a great story.
All of us have things we used to believe in that we find out later are not good.
All of us have things we have to change about ourselves.
She wanted the grace without the hard work that goes with confession, forgiveness, and understanding of who we really are.

This is what Jesus always confronts us with.
I find it weird that in our Gospel this morning Jesus doesn't really answer the Greeks.
When they ask to see him he doesn't say, "Sure come on in."
Instead he says, "If you really want to see me here is what it means."
It means that you will see me die and resurrected.
To understand me is to know that this will then be your story.
It will mean that glory comes through the hard and uncomfortable work of dying and rising.
It means giving of your life.
That you will have to wrestle with that as long as you are alive.

Isn't that the truth.
Wouldn't it be easier to not have to confront ourselves.
To not have to ask hard questions of our past.
To not have to wonder about who we are, and why we do the things we do.
Wouldn't it just be easier to live a life without care.
Don't worry about who we hurt, or why we do what we do.
Just do what feels good to you.
Just do what you think and believe.
Never have to confront yourself or the world around you.
That sounds like a pretty easy life, it is not a life of faith in Jesus Christ.
That life has costs, it has struggle in those deep questions of who we are and what we are about.

Why do it?
Because the payoff is grand.
Grace is so wonderful and beautiful.
It is so freeing.
It frees us from things we don't even know hold us back.
It frees us from having to hold onto so much resentment, and anger, and shame.
Like the man who came to see me who had lived through so much.
How much would he be able to let go of if he could see his life through death and resurrection, through confession and grace.

Mostly to herself.
She had not done the work of making her life story part of her faith journey.
I pray that she will.
Because I know that on the other side is grace.
The other side is the one who was lifted up so that the whole world would be drawn to God's grace.

May your story follow the story of one who gave his life so that we might have ours.
May your story be one of pain, sin, heartache, suffering, and loss.
So that you might know the glory of God's grace.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

We Are Broken

A couple of weeks ago I was standing line to get popcorn at the movies.
My daughter Phoebe was with me.
She was telling me about some things happening at school.
Then she asks me this question, "Is everyone broken"?
It is a deep question, and where I want to start my sermon this morning.
In order to understand John 3:16 I think we need to understand this question.
Everyone is broken.
Not some people, some of the time.
But everyone all of the time.
And because everyone is broken our world is broken.
This is important the world is broken.
We tend to read this passage as being about our individualistic salvation, but it is really about how God saves not just us but the world.
The world doesn't work.
We have a false sense of security.
We think the world works, or will work.
if only we vote in the right person, or pass the right law.
Or we think it works in certain parts of the world, but not in other.

My answer to Phoebe was, "Everyone is broken, some just hide it better."
Some of us can hide our brokenness behind money, or tough talk, or self congratulations, or self delusion.
But if we are able to really see everyone for who they really are we would see people broken by something.
We all have something.

This week I read an article by the Basketball player Kevin Love.
He plays for the Cleveland cavaliers.
He is an all-star, NBA champion.
Richer than you or I will ever be.
He wrote about his problems with anxiety.
He had a panic attack  in the middle of a game.
At the end he wrote this, "Mental health isn’t just an athlete thing.
What you do for a living doesn’t have to define who you are.
 This is an everyone thing.
No matter what our circumstances, we’re all carrying around things that hurt — and they can hurt us if we keep them buried inside."
Kevin Love is essentially saying everyone is broken.

And this is why the world is broken.
It is why nothing works as it should.
It is why politicians are always caught lying, or cheating.
It is why our schools are not helping children succeed.
It is why we are killing each other.
It is why we are working harder and getting less results.

I want to believe that things can be fixed.
That we can make things better.
But I know that we are all broken.
It is hard to put things back together that are broken.

God's answer to this brokenness of the world is not to fix it.
God didn't come down to earth and make take away all the brokeness.
It is not to give us a prescription for getting rid of it.
God's answer is to join in it.
To be lifted up on a tree.
To be killed in the most humiliating way possible.
God's answer to our pain is to join it.

Interesting that we took that and made it into an institution.
We gave people titles of honor, we made a hierarchy, we gave power to a few people.
We built up a church around Jesus and made it almost impossible to actually see Jesus.
Because when we come here together we dress up.
We look good, we keep our kids quite so they don't disturb anyone.
We put on a good show.

I don't understand us.
We talk about our need for Jesus, our imperfections.
But we try to hide them from each other.
What God tells us is that it is only in love that we enter into each other's pain, and brokenness.
It is only out of love that we try to understand someone else.
It was out of love that God tried to understand us through Jesus.
Jesus came so that we might stop trying to be something we are not.

When something bad happens the first reaction we have is to ask, "how do we fix this?"
how do we stop this from happening?
And maybe the first question we should be asking is, "How has my brokenness contributed to this?"
Where is there a need for confession?
Where is there a need for love, empathy, justice, forgiveness, kindness?
Where is God's heart in this?

While talking to Phoebe she wanted to know how to fix it.
And I struggled to give her a good answer.
I struggled in this part of my sermon to come up with something that will be helpful to all of you.
Here is what I came up with.
Reading Kevin Love's story again, he talks about how he never thought that he could have anxiety.
He was taught to be a man, be tough, deal with it himself.
That is what lead him to his panic attack.
We need to talk about our brokenness more.
We need to share it with each other.
We need to name it.
That will be healing for us, to know that we are not alone, that we can find solace in each other's pain.

And as people of faith we need to look up.
We need to see Jesus lifted up on a cross.
It is there that we find God's heart for the world, and for us.
God comes not to condemn us, but to love us.
To give us something we can use in this life.
I have been clinging to that lately.
Yes, the world is broken, the systems the world creates don't work.
And yet God loves this world enough to join it.
And I don't believe that God has left us alone to spin out of control.

I think of what St. Paul said, "I see now only in a mirror dimly."
I can't see all the ways that God is fixing the brokenness.
Most days I can't see it at all.
But in faith I trust that it is being fixed.
In the meantime God has entered our pain in order to understand it.
That God is there for you and me, and the world.

Today you came to worship broken.
You will go back out into a world that is broken.
But you have come here and lifted up your head to see Jesus there for you, and now you leave knowing that you are not alone.
You know that other's share in your brokenness, and that it is good and right to talk about it.
That we can't fake it.
It will be our brokenness that saves us.
Because if we can see that we are all broken then we can be more Christ like to each other.
We can be more loving, forgiving, kind, and merciful.
Not because we are those things, but because Jesus Christ is.

We all have something we are dealing with.
So let us share our brokenness with each other, with the world.
Let us look up to Christ who is broken so that we can know the depths of God's love for our world.
Let us trust that Jesus has come to save our world from our brokeness.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Life on Mars! Some Thoughts on Turning 45!

For some reason I have been going through a David Bowie phase. My kids keep asking me, “Dad, what’s up with you and David Bowie”. I bought the book, The Age of Bowie: How David Bowie Made a World of Difference, by Paul Morley. I purchased two new David Bowie vinyl records (The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory). I believe certain music finds us at certain times for certain reasons so I have been thinking about why David Bowie and why now. My current phase started with the song, “Life on Mars”. I had heard it before, but became obsessed recently. For those that don’t know it is a song about dislocation. It is about feeling that the world is not of your own making. I will let David Bowie explain, “I think she (the girl in the song) finds herself disappointed with reality…that although she’s living in the doldrums of reality, she’s being told that there’s far greater life somewhere, and she bitterly disappointed she doesn’t have access to it.” As I turn 45 this is how I am feeling dislocated from the world. I have spent my life trying to construct a different world, and hopefully one that is better.
               I have always believed that we were moving to a new place. I have tried to live a life centered in God’s love. I have tried to find a way to understand people, even the people I don’t understand. I have dedicated my life to preaching and teaching that all people are created by God, and loved by God. And I am feeling that all of that work has failed. We live in a world that seems to be getting crueler, nastier, and harder of heart. Recently at a family dinner I broke down and apologized to my kids for the world they would inherit. I asked them to remember that I did try, but failed to produce a world that was better. I failed to create a world not being destroyed by corporate polluters, taken over by racial hatred, homophobia, and xenophobia. I have failed because we live in a world that wages war on the poor and disenfranchised, allows kids to be slaughtered at school by guns, separates families based on where they were born. In the words of Jack Black’s character in the movie, School of Rock,“The Man ruined the ozone, and he's burning down the Amazon, and he kidnappedShamu and put her in a chlorine tank!”
              I don’t know if 45 is the middle of my life. I know all too well that we simply don’t know how long we have on this earth. But it feels like the middle, like I am walking on a razor edge. And half of me is sad, frustrated, disappointed about the world we live in. I hear it in the stories my kids bring home from school. I hear the cruelty, the meanness, the violence, the disrespect for human life. I know that the world was like this when I was kid. I know that kids were cruel then too. Racism, sexism, homophobia all existed before now. I was hoping to make a difference. To create a world that was different for my kids to live in. I am also well aware that all those things exist in me too. In my human brokenness is my own sin. I was hoping to be better myself. It has been hard year to realize that the world is just mean, as mean as it ever was. It is hard to think that there is something better out there and realizing you don’t have access to it.
           But middle age means not only losing our optimistic view of the future. It is not only realizing we live in a world that we wish was different, that we were hoping to create. It also means a nostalgia for something that never was. I am finding myself being very nostalgic for days I can only remember as endless and free. I am nostalgic for summer days spent going to beach, jumping from cliffs, sitting in a movie theater, goofing with friends. All of the past is clouded in this nostalgia. It all seems so innocent now, so wonderful.
           I have been listening to songs about nostalgia. Not songs that make me think of a certain time and place, but songs that speak of what was and how great it was. I have been listening to songs that sing of that longing for that time gone by. I came up with a playlist of these songs.
Poems, Prayers, and Promises – John Denver
Fire and Rain – James Taylor
We all Go Back to Where We Belong – REM
Touch of Grey – Grateful Dead
These Are The Days of Our Lives – Queen
Glory Days – Bruce Sprignsteen
I Wanna Go Back – Eddie Money
Runaways - The Killers
Shining Through the Dark - Ryan Adams
Yesterday - The Beatles
Fire and Rain - James Taylor
Losing Days - Frank Turner
Ode to My Family - The Cranberries
When it Began - The Replacements
Home That Never Was - Chadwick Stokes
Stars are Crazy - Lindsey Buckingham
100 Years - Five for Fighting
The Toast - Adam Ezra 

            It might seem from what I am saying that I am depressed about turning 45, or that I am going to have some major breakdown. I will buy some fancy sport car, or run off on some crazy adventure in order to recapture my early days. The truth is that what I really feel is gratitude. It seems weird thing to say considering what I have written above. In the middle we walk the razor’s edge of what was and what is going to be. I can only be thankful for what has come before. I can only be thankful for those memories of glorious times gone by. I am thankful for those summers on the shores of the Lake Ossippee, the people I have met, the friends I have, the Church that formed me, the family that raised me. All of those things are what brings me to this point. They have made up a fabric of my life that is far from ordinary or boring. I am nostalgic, but I would never want to live those days again. I actually like these days a lot. They are filled with different things like picking up my kids from school, sharing a fancy dinner on Friday nights, snuggling on the couch and watching a movie, trips in a car together, getting away for a night out, working on a sermon, visiting people in a hospital, sitting around a table with family and talking about the challenges of life. These are great days. In some ways these days do seem like a life on Mars. They are better than I could have dreamed. My life is so rich and wonderful I am thankful for it. When I was young I am not sure I imagined it to be this good.     

            I am still dismayed at the world’s cruelty. The good news is I am not done yet. I still have some more years to convince others of the power of love, the goodness of God, the beauty of grace, the importance of justice. My hope lies in God. I also see in my children an improvement over what I lived through. They are more open to things that were taboo in my day. They don’t care if someone is gay, transgendered, or whatever. They are open to the world in such wonderful and beautiful ways. So I see that this is the way of life. We pass things down. We hand off the work that is always ongoing. I am sure they will face their own challenges, they will have to make the world they live in their own. They will have to decide what kind of world they want to create. Will they live here or move to Mars? I hope they choose Mars! I hope they don’t accept that things are the way they are. I believe in the kingdom come, in God making something new out of the dust we create.

            And ultimately this is where I am right now at 45. I am in the middle, in the space in between, on the razor’s edge. I am living somewhere between despair and hope, acceptance and rejection, what was and what is to come, life and death. I am in between life as it is and life as it could be, between life here on earth and life on Mars. All in all it is not a horrible place to be. I am happy for this time of my life to live in that in between space. I am grateful to be alive. I the words of John Lennon, “Where there is life there is hope”. I can honestly say that I am looking forward to what comes next, because you never know there just might be life on Mars.