Sunday, May 28, 2017

Remember Whose You Are

"Three Months" oil painting by the author

I had the pleasure and privilege of attending a portion of Festival of Homiletics here in San Antonio last week.  While there, I was reminded of the rule number 1 in sermon preaching:  “don’t write yourself into it, pastor.”  

Oops.  and here we go…

I used to get up every morning, make a cup of coffee, and read the news before I roused my kiddos from their slumber.  You know, in the early quiet hours, I felt like I could get a handle on what was going on in the world.  Make a plan of action and a plan for prayer…figure out which way I needed to drive into work or to school to avoid traffic.

But over the last couple of years or so, I had a harder and harder time with that practice.  I found that if I read the news first, my days began in anxiety.  A dark cloud of worry or frustration or even anger would build with that first headline and continue to color my day.  I was rushing my kids and sometimes snapping at them as the pressure I felt to connect and to deal with the external world kept me from being present with them.  And even after they left for school, I would be left cranky and anxious and feeling like the world might implode at any moment.

And truthfully, it wasn’t just the news.  I was coming to terms with the slow destruction of my marriage and the fact that I couldn’t “fix it” on my own.  And that I had run out of ways to ask for help in its restoration.  I was worried for my children if I stayed.  I was worried for my children if I left.  I was worried for myself if I stayed.  I was worried for James, my former spouse, if I left.  

Beyond that even, I was wrestling with the church…how I could be affirmed by the ELCA as a candidate for the roster of Word and Sacrament and how I genuinely felt called to be a pastor and for the first time was willing to answer that call and how other pastors and deacons and people to whom I had ministered expressed their joy at my approval and assured me of my call to this role but how there seemed to be no place for me in a congregation…therefore no place for me as a rostered leader in this church body.

The anxiety and the worry were killing me.  I was becoming physically ill.  I even developed a medical condition which will never be cured…to be sure, I was genetically predisposed but it was triggered by the stress of it all. 

It was a time of high anxiety for me.  

Although many of those worries have evolved or resolved, in some ways, it still is a bit of an anxious time.  The headlines haven’t gotten any better.  (But I no longer read them before my children leave for school.)  Although our marriage is over, there are other relational things to worry about:  do the kids talk to their dad enough?  How is James doing really?  He has been my best friend since I was 15, and I love him deeply…is he really doing alright?  How do I manage the deep loneliness that creeps in each night around 10pm?  And when will that go away?  Did I actually remember to pay the electric bill?  And although I mean it more deeply than I can express when I say “saying ‘yes!’ to this call is the best thing I’ve ever done,” every time I think I know which end is up around here, life tosses us another curve ball. 

You see, somewhere along the way, I came to believe that I am in control of everything.  That I am responsible for everyone.  That these things are “no big deal” and that “I’ve got this.  I can do it.  I don’t need any help, thank you very much for asking.”

Too often, I believe that I am in control.

I wonder if any of you are suffering from that mistake, too.

Life in relationship is difficult.  Families can be as challenging as they are joyful.  Jobs can be stressful.  Relationships with neighbors can be tricky especially when those neighbors don’t look like, act like, think like us…or for heaven’s sake…why don’t they bring their barking dog in at night?  The world appears to be fracturing around us.  Political and ideological infighting in Washington, DC.  Terror attacks in Britain.  Anti-Muslim violence here in the United States.  And here in Texas, we are looking at state legislation that is as hateful as it is in violation of the Civil Rights Act as it seeks to deny the humanity of our transgender siblings.  I could go on…but I suspect I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

Being human is hard.

And we want to “fix it” all.

But we just can’t.

And that idea of control…that we are ultimately in charge, that we are God…well, we’ve known since the book of Genesis that that idea comes from Satan…sometimes as a snake, sometimes as a roaring lion…but from Satan all the same.  It is an ultimately evil idea.  And that idea of “us in control” will devour and destroy us.  It will destroy us individually…one by one…and corporately…all at once…as we seek to control everything in our reach…even one another.

The apostle Peter says, “resist.”  Stop.  We have to stop.

All that is ours to control is our own behavior and our reactions to rest of the world.  We must give our anxieties and our worries to God.  They are simply too big for us to handle on our own.    Peter invites the people of the house churches in Asia Minor and, I believe, also us, to cast all our anxieties upon our powerful and loving God who will provide all the care they, and we, need.

But giving our anxieties to God doesn’t mean we cease to do the work.  It doesn’t mean we “check out”, right?  We are bound up in the Trinity, after all, being members of the Body of Christ.  So we are called through our baptisms to respond to the world in love and in word and in deed…not because we have to in order to be saved but because it is the good and joyful response to the Good News that through Christ, we are freed, forgiven, and loved beyond measure.

We are called to serve.  We are called to walk together, as Sue is promising to do in here life of Stephens Ministry.  We are called to bear one another’s burdens and to share our own…to ultimately lighten the load.  We seek God knowing that God is ever present, and we serve others understanding that our God lives right there…in the lives of our neighbors…but in our lives, too.  God who is so intimately involved in our very breath and being that God is continually creating us and calling us to remain authentically who God intends us to be.

I served my internship in part in a joint Episcopal and ELCA mission start congregation Catacomb Churches which was a congregation of house churches.  One of the foundational understandings of that congregation is that Jesus practiced and taught three major disciplines:  spiritual practices, critique of worldview through theology and Bible study, and the active practice of LOVE.  

And here, I would like to talk a little about the first one.  Jesus took time to pray individually, to fast, to pray with his disciples, and to participate in the worship life as a faithful member of the People of Israel - to remember who he was as God’s beloved child. And Jesus invites us to do the same.

One of the easiest and most helpful to use during times of high-anxiety has been (for me at least) the practice of the Examen.  It is based on the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius and it’s intent is to help us recognize what gives us deep joy and deep meaning, as my internship supervisor would say, “it’s the best clue to the kind of person God is creating in us.”  But it also can help us identify what exactly is bothering us.  It can help us to name our dragons, or our snakes, or our lions.  It can help us identify our anxieties and what, exactly, we should be handing over to God.  It can help us give up our illusion of control and to rest in the knowledge that we don’t have to have it all together, that God is God and we don’t have to be.

We’re going to practice that for a moment now.  (don’t worry.  you don’t need to share with your neighbor this time…although, I bet if you did, your neighbor would hold those stories of yours as sacred.  I just bet they would.)

But for now, let’s go through the Examen together.

1. Remember your baptismal identity, your authentic self, making the sign of the cross and saying, “God accepts all of me”
2. Take some long, slow breaths 
3. Ask yourself:
• When did I feel fully alive today?
• When did I feel life draining away?
4. Notice over time what gives you life and do
more of that.
5. Pray the Lord’s Prayer
6. Remember your baptismal identity, making
the sign of the cross and saying, “God is creating me”

Alright, folks.  Come on back.  

Over time, I imagine you will discover what it is that makes you feel anxious and that you will be able to hand that over to God.  Over time, you will be able to take notice of what gives you life.  Once you do, do more of that stuff.

In times of anxiety or crisis, remember who you are.  Remember whose you are.  You are a freed and forgiven child of our Heavenly Mother.  A member of the Body of Christ.  And you are loved beyond measure.  Just as you are.  Just as you are being created to be.


Monday, May 15, 2017

God Is Calling You Home

young people share in communion together at Affirm 2016 in the Southeastern Synod of the ELCA

John 14:1-14

I know that I must have heard this text a dozen times in my life just by following the lectionary.  But I imagine it’s actually more than that because this text is often read at funerals.  And rightly so, it is a source of tremendous comfort to know that our God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth has walked this world, endured our sufferings, and according to this and other biblical translations, has gone on before us to “prepare a place”.  

We've even written songs inspired by it.  Think about "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" (and I always hear the version popularized by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band).  "by and by, Lord, by and by.  There's a better home awaiting in the sky, Lord, in the sky."

The danger in relying only on that kind of interpretation, I think, is that it allows us to believe that since God’s grace is free, we don’t need to do anything else in this world.  We don’t have to worry about our actions or feel too bad about the times we hurt others, because, well, grace is free, and we're already saved, and there’s nothing we can do about that. 

On the other hand, we can be tempted to look at others who are suffering and say, “well, poor lamb.  Things will be better when you are living with Jesus.” And then we choose to look away, to leave those folks to their fate, trusting that things will be better for them when they are dead and that that’s okay.  That it’s all part of God’s plan.

We can become lazy Christians.

But being a Christian is about following and emulating Jesus, and if there is anything we know for sure about Jesus, it is that he was certainly not lazy.  If anyone was free from the risk of eternal hellfire and damnation, if anyone was entitled to sit back and watch the world turn around him, it was that guy.  (God made flesh does not need to work for God’s own grace, for forgiveness, for life eternal with God.). 

Yet Jesus showed up time and again to accompany those the world cast out:  the broken, the wounded, the unclean…those living on the margins of society.  and, it turns out, there are lots of margins.  Jesus gave of himself, his time, his food, his energy, his absolute unconditional love, to soften the lives of those whose lives were hard and to open the hearts of those whose hearts were hard.  Jesus who gave and who gives his life that we might be healed…back into relationship with God and with one another.

Wednesday evening, I attended (rather than led…Becca and I let Pastor Steve be in charge this time.  haha!) Bible Study here.  This group meets each Wednesday during the school year at 7pm, and you are all welcome and encouraged to attend…after all, the more voices in the room, the more complete an understanding we have of how the Word continues to live among us and to speak to us.

Anyway, as we studied the gospel lesson for today, we focused on what kind of place Jesus is preparing and the concept of home.  Our group was a pretty small one all things considered, but we had a wide variety of answers to the question “what does home mean to you?”

Some of us named a particular place.  Some of us named particular people.  One of us even named a dog from college days.  (if you’d like to know who that crazy person was, come to my office after worship.  I’ll show you a picture of Elliot and tell you all about him.). Some of us didn't really have words to express home.  Some of us have never really felt "home".

But as I participated in the conversation and listened to the wide variety of experiences in that small group, I reflected on still more experiences being lived by others in my circle.  I have been saying for years that FaceBook is the Prayers of the People.  As I scrolled through my feed this week, I observed the joy and the pain that comes from being human and from the struggle of living in relationship with one another.  I observed brokenness and healing.  I observed building and destruction and restructure.  

Some of us have intact families of origin.  Some of us experienced the divorce (or even plural…divorces) of our parents.  Some of us are desperately in love with our spouses.  Some of us are desperately in love with our children.  Some of us have lost a parent or a child.  Some of us are in the process of ending relationship…with a parent, with a sibling, with a member of our family by choice…with a spouse.  Some of us are queer and struggle with if or how we can have children.  Some of us are not queer and struggle with the same thing.  Some of us really miss our moms this time of year. Some of us don’t yet have the words to talk about what our hearts are feeling.  Many of us are living life on the margins.


Some of us are joyful and dwelling in hope for the future.

Some of us are devastated and grieving the past or the right now.  

Most of us are both.

All of us are searching.

As Maya Angelou said, "the ache for home lives in all of us."


So, I’m wondering, what does home mean to you?  If Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us, what does that mean to you given your current understanding of home?

We’re going to get a little vulnerable with one another, my people.  If you feel safe, you may share where you are emotionally.  But you certainly don't have to share more than that with which you feel comfortable.  And, as always, if you’d like to talk with a pastor afterward, I am absolutely available, and I know that Pastor Steve is, too.

Take a minute and turn to your neighbor.  In groups of two or three, talk about what home means to you and what you think Jesus means when he says “I go to prepare a place for you”. 

Did you learn something new about your neighbor?  Did you learn something new about yourself?  Did you learn something new about God?

Here’s what I am thinking about those questions today (show up on Sunday and you may get a whole ‘nother answer…but for today…)  

I think when Jesus says he will prepare a place for us, he doesn't mean some gilded mansion in the clouds or something to happen only when we die.  I think Jesus means that we are and that we will be with him and live in relationship with him and with Creator and with Spirit.  I think this idea of creating a place for us in the Father’s house is about being bound up into the Trinity here and now rather than simply something that will happen to us one day.

I think the idea of “home” is more about relationship…between humans and  between humanity and Creation and also between humans and our God.

And how do we find home?  The disciples ask for directions, but Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”.  Which is a promise that for we who are disciples, Jesus is all we need to find our way home.  Not that we need to "fix" or covert those who believe differently or that we have the only answer, but that Jesus is all we Christians need to be in relationship with our neighbors and our God. 

Jesus who is in our suffering.  Who is in the lives of our neighbors.  Who loves and beloves each and every one of us.  In this congregation and out in the world. Who gave and who gives his very life that we might live.  Who says, “this is my body and my blood given for you”. 

Hear the Good News.  You are freed, forgiven, and loved beyond measure.  God is calling you home…into relationship with the One who made you.  From that place of home, we invite others, we invite everyone, home, to the Table, and into relationship with God.  A place has been prepared.  We are invited.  Y’all come.