Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sermon from 2-24

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Close your eyes for a moment and picture Jesus in your mind. Go ahead, close them. What does Jesus look like to you? Does he have long flowing blond hair and blue eyes? Does he have dark skin and a beard? Does he have a piercing gaze or a strong jaw line?....

What is the Jesus in your mind wearing? Is he wearing a pristine white robe and blue sash? Or are his clothes stained and travel-worn, and unraveling a bit? Are his sandals falling apart, or are they the newest Nike flip flops?....

And what is the Jesus in your mind doing? Are his arms spread wide as he teaches a crowd of people? Are his hands open in welcome? Is he kneeling in prayer and looking up to heaven? Is he hugging a child or healing someone who is sick?...

And when he opens his mouth, what is Jesus saying? Does he say “blessed are the peacemakers?” or “Get behind me Satan?” Is he telling a parable or teaching his disciples? Is he praying or singing or saying anything at all?...

As you close your eyes and think about Jesus, who is Jesus for you?...
You can open your eyes now. Of course we can never REALLY know what Jesus looked or sounded like. There are as many pictures of Jesus as there are people in this room, as many images as there have ever been Christians on this planet. I’ve seen the blond-haired and blue-eyed Jesus pictured in central China, and I’ve also seen African-American Jesus with a big ‘fro in a church in a Catholic church in Chicago. For Leonardo Da Vinci, Jesus had long brown hair and wore a red and blue robe. And then there is that picture of Jesus that hung on your grandma’s wall, the one everyone has seen at one point or another – Jesus, serenely looking off to the side, long wavy hair shining from the mysterious glow that seems to be coming off of Jesus like a mist.

Of course Jesus always looked like this when he walked this earth, right? – placid, clean, and slightly radiating holiness? He’s never angry or frustrated, never rude to those with power and authority, never ever stubborn to a fault.

I’m really hoping that you’re catching my sarcasm here, because at this point you should be thinking  about how Jesus was just all these things he’s  not ‘supposed’ to be, just in these few verses from Luke today. If there is one thing we can know about Jesus, it should be that he is full of surprises, and surprising things are always happening when Jesus is involved, and our story today is no exception.

Surprise number one: there are some Pharisees that seem to care about Jesus’ welfare. Normally Pharisees tend to argue with Jesus, but these Pharisees instead give him a heads up that King Herod has a hit out on him.

Surprise number two: Jesus not only blows off their warning, but announces his resolution to continue his work, straight into the jaws of others who also want to kill him.

Surprise number three: Jesus describes himself as a chicken.
Of course Jesus is the very opposite of what we now think of as “a chicken.” In this story he shows he is not afraid of death, whether from the threat of murder from the king who killed John the Baptist, or from the city with a history of murdering God’s messengers. He is not afraid of what the powers of this world can do to him. He is not afraid of the consequences of his quest to gather all of his children into his loving care. He is not a chicken who is a coward, but a chicken who cares for her baby chicks.

As any mother would probably tell you, the desire to protect your children trumps any sort of physical danger you could possibly encounter. The power of a mother’s love is legendary, as are the lengths that mothers are willing to go for the health and happiness of their children.

Mary became the mother of Jesus even though she knew it would cost her status, perhaps her future marriage, or even her very life to follow God’s calling to be the mother of the Messiah. Another celebrated mother, Mother Theresa, never had children herself, but selflessly cared for the most ailing and most ignored of India’s poor. Every day, everywhere, mothers feed, clothe, and care for their children whether their children are naughty or nice, whether they are happy or sad, whether they will become the next president of the United States or the next in line at the unemployment office. A mother’s love for her children, biological or otherwise, is uncompromising and unconditional.

So it is only natural that so often in the Old Testament, God describes the love God has for us to be as powerful as the love a mother has for her child. God’s love for us is like a nursing mother for her baby, like a mother bear protecting her cubs at all costs, like a mother hen extending her wings of safety over her wayward young chicks. It is a beautifully tender image, marred only by the fact that these chicks do NOT want to be gathered under the wings of their mother hen. These chicks not only refuse the love offered to them, they seek to kill the very one who wants to protect them. But still, the mother hen continues to love her chicks, even her rebellious ones, whether they are from first century Jerusalem or twenty-first century East Windsor.

This indeed is a moving image, but it is not a complete one. In the end, Jesus is NOT the same as a mother hen caring for her chicks. Jesus is of course so much more than that. The most beautifully descriptive language could never fully express who Jesus is and what he has done for us.  No portrait of Jesus we can paint could ever be exact. But we do have access to one portrait of Jesus that is COMPLETELY accurate, one image that we see nearly every day that fully captures Jesus better than any painting or description ever could. This comes not from the words that Jesus said, but comes from something that he transformed.

In the world of Jesus’ time, it was an instrument of execution, coarse and full of splinters and nails. Today, it is everywhere, often ornately decorated, made of fine gold or precious stones and put on jewelry or used as wall art. In a few weeks some of you will create them out of the palm fronds we use for Palm Sunday. But no matter what form it takes, adorned or in its uncovered horror, when we see a cross, we are witnessing the lengths that love will go for poor sinners like us. Do you really want to know, in all his fullness, what Jesus was like? Just look at the cross.

In today’s reading, in our journey through the season of Lent, Jesus is on his way to die. Jesus knows this, knows that the very people he came to save want to kill him, and he doesn’t even blink. Jesus knows his destiny, and knows that not Herod, not the Pharisees, not unwilling children, and not even the cross can keep him from his final goal, from the completion of his work. And Jesus will not stop until all of his children, every last one of us, are underneath his outstretched arms.

In our own journeys through the season of Lent, we remember that we too are on our way to die. But because we follow the crucified and risen Jesus, we can find hope in the face of suffering; we see life in a tool of death, and we encounter our own self-portraits in the rough wood of the cross. What was done on the cross needs never to be repeated, but today, tomorrow, and the next day we all continue the work that Jesus began. When the world tells us to leave the way because it is too hard, we can press on - because there are still demons to be cast out and cures to be given. There are Jerusalems to be saved and chicks to gather. And hopefully we will find that day by day we too are being transformed into instruments of life and hope. AMEN. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Emily Dickinson Never Ceases to Amaze.

I got a blast from the past listening to NPR recently - they were talking about the poet Emily Dickinson, one of my favorite poets, especially as a teenager. Once I got a slim volume of some of her poetry from the Scholastic Book Fliers (weren't those things AWESOME!) and I read every poem over and over. Eventually the cover fell off, but I kept reading it. One of my favorites was one that begins "This world is not conclusion." After hearing the NPR segment, I went to my "Collected Works of Emily Dickinson" from Barnes and Noble that I bought a few years ago to replace my worn out copy. I looked up the poem - yes, just as I remembered! Awesome! 

Recently on Facebook I heard of an event, "Show them a theologian." You pick a theologian and use his/her picture as your profile picture. I mentally rounded up the usual suspects - Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, MLK Jr, Henri Nouwen... but hmm, where were the women? I haven't read a lot of Julian of Norwich, and I'm not the biggest fan of Theresa of Avila. Then, bam! An idea! I could use Emily!

I wanted also to include one of her poems, of course, and why not use my favorite, to show that she often wrote about faith, God, and eternal life? And why type it when you can google search it? But I got an unintended surprise. The poem I found was not the poem I remembered from childhood. What I found was I think the original, before it was edited for cleanliness and also before it was ABRIDGED. It turns out the poem that I had known and loved was not the COMPLETE POEM. I had no idea. And the poem in its entirety is more amazing, more subtle, more thought-provoking than the original. I'll share both for comparison. The one I grew up with:

THIS world is not conclusion;
  A sequel stands beyond,
Invisible, as music,
  But positive, as sound.
It beckons and it baffles;        
  Philosophies don’t know,
And through a riddle, at the last,
  Sagacity must go.
To guess it puzzles scholars;
  To gain it, men have shown         
Contempt of generations,
  And crucifixion known.

Nice and neat and drawn together. Now, this is the original, I think (I'm actually finding it hard to discover why it was edited the way it was). Imagine my shock and delight. 

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond --
Invisible, as Music --
But positive, as Sound --
It beckons, and it baffles --
Philosophy -- don't know --
And through a Riddle, at the last --
Sagacity, must go --
To guess it, puzzles scholars --
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown --
Faith slips -- and laughs, and rallies --
Blushes, if any see --
Plucks at a twig of Evidence --
And asks a Vane, the way --
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit --
Strong Hallelujahs roll --
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul --

Wow. What a difference that last stanza makes. It entirely changes the meaning of the poem. The first one ends with such trusting certainty in the unknown, while the second (or rather the first? Since it was the original?) leaves you with that nagging feeling of doubt... or it it belief in an afterlife that is nagging the soul? (Narcotics here refers to drugs used for dulling a toothache). It's unclear, and so much more realistic and interesting. The first poem affirms that we will never know what is beyond death in this lifetime, and the second affirms that this knowledge nags at us like a toothache.  No one has pat answers about what lies beyond, of course. Our faith gets tripped up all the time. But to think of heaven as another species (as in, we'll have immortal bodies like Paul writes, perhaps? 1 Corinthians 15:53: "For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality." ) rather than a sequel (more of the same thing) is so much more compelling... and Biblical. Way to go, Emily. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

League of Extraordinary Novice Church Leaders 2013

Formerly known as Region 7 First Call Education renamed to Leadership Guild, unfortunately nicknamed "Baby Pastor School."

For the record, not all of us who attend this event are young or pastors. Some of us are second-, third-, or whatever career people, and not all are ordained. But we are all in our first three years of ministry, during which we attend this one-week event. 

Last year's event was pretty much a big blur. It came straight on the heels of my ordination - I was by far the "youngest" pastor there. I pretty much showed up that Monday and walked around saying "Hi. I've been a pastor for about 24 hours now. I'm so exhausted." 

This year, things had been changed for the better, and not just my level of consciousness. The previous year we shared in our feedback that there was too much sitting and not enough downtime, and egads! They listened! Not only did we learn about adaptive leadership from the great book Leadership on the Line, but we were offered different "tracks" to pursue so as to tailor our experience to help our context. Plus we learned a fairly helpful way to discuss problems and brought actual case studied from our congregations to discuss.   The discussions we had at night with the bishops, including ours from NJ, Bishop Riley, were extraordinary. We "got up on the balcony" with them and they heard our hopes and our fears. PLUS I painted some pictures inspired by the 1 Corinthians reading of the upcoming week and did some yoga and a little reading. AND I got to see some old compadres from Luther seminary.

Worship, I think, was my favorite part. We were in this great flexible space and every time we worshiped it was in a slightly different configuration. Nothing too crazy, but it was fun to see how the worship planners shaped the space to fit the service - whether for Eucharist  Holden Evening Prayer, or a healing service. We lit candles, wrote on rocks, prayed for one another's communities, learned new songs and sang some oldies from the ELW lead by some awesome guitarists and musicians. And we didn't almost light the place on fire, like we nearly did last year. :) 

One of the many blessings that came out of this time was a sense of not being alone - we were all in widely diverse contexts, of course, but we were all working together in a common mission. And I now have a mentor, which I'm really excited about!

Well done, Region 7, well done.