Sunday, July 28, 2013

Well, this is awkward: a sermon on the footwashing sinner at Simon the Pharisee's house

Children’s message

Who likes to go barefoot in the summer?  When is it OK?  When is it not?  Sports games, school, meeting the president.  If your shoes are muddy.  If the house is clean.  What about in church?  Would it be OK to go without shoes here?  Yes, it would, but we don’t very often. [I was barefoot for the whole service.]  What happens if we don’t clean off our feet?  Or take off our shoes in a friend’s house?  Or wipe the dog’s feet when they’re muddy?

Let’s hear the Scripture and listen for dirty feet.

Scripture:  Luke 7:36-50

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”

Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

“Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.”

Jesus said, “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”

And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”


Well, this is awkward.  There’s some … renegade backwater prophet wandering around Judea.  He claims he’s been sent to bring good news to the poor and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  He’s been casting out unclean spirits and curing people with various kinds of diseases.  He told some paralytic that his sins were forgiven and to stand up and walk -- even though no one can forgive sins but God alone.  He’s even healed a guy on the Sabbath, a day when no work can be done.

He’s picked up some followers -- kind of a scummy crowd, smelly fisherman and some hated guy from the IRS.  And he drinks, like some kind of glutton, and he eats with sinners, and is going around teaching people about loving their enemies and avoiding hypocrisy and judgment.

This is just … awkward.

So the Big Deal Guys, the religious leaders, the Pharisees, invite him to a dinner.  After all, what this weirdo is claiming to do is new and dangerous.  There’s a lot of fear going around about who this guy is and what he can do.  They need to find out his motives.  And what better way than over a nice meal?

Except it isn’t a nice meal.  Simon the Pharisee makes it pretty clear that this is no polite parlay over a four-star leg of lamb.  He skipped some pretty basic social graces:  no water for Jesus’ feet, no oil to freshen up his head, no welcoming kiss on the cheek.  It’s as if Simon is leaning against the doorway, his brow wrinkled, his lip curling, and saying (sarcastically) “It’s so nice to see you.”  It’s a big faux pas by the Big Deal Guys, to let Jesus’ dirty feet go unwashed, to let their dislike and fear show so clearly.

Then it gets more awkward, because some woman shows up with a jar of ointment.

The text just calls her a “sinner”.  We don’t know what she did.  We just know that she was a sinner -- and that everyone knew about it.  And isn’t that kind of the fear?  That it doesn’t actually matter what you’ve done -- but everyone might know about it.  The kind of fear you feel when you walk into a busy room and everyone looks at you and stops talking.  The kind of fear you feel when you’re standing in the doorway, looking in at Jesus surrounded by the religious elite, and everyone is looking at you and whispering.  “If he were a prophet, he would know what kind of sinner that is.”

Somehow this sinner took a deep breath and did it anyway.  She showed up with her alabaster jar.  She got through the crowd at the Pharisee’s door.  She got to the spot at Jesus’ feet.

There is a lot of courage in that step.  There is so much courage in this woman, this sinner, who walks into a room full of Pharisees who fear Jesus and people who fear her own sinfulness.  She walks right through that fear up to the feet of the source of love.

Because that is what she has come for:  not fear, but love.  Not repentance, not pleading, not sacrifice, but for the great love that arises in her when she hears the words “Your sins are forgiven.”  She chooses to live not out of fear but out of love.  Not out of fear of the Pharisees or the crowds or her own sin but out of the love that God is casting down and out and everywhere in the man called Jesus of Nazareth.

Which is beautiful.

And awkward.  Because Jesus says, in verse 47:

“She has done all these things for me; therefore her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”  

So showing love leads to receiving forgiveness which leads to showing love which leads to … receiving forgiveness … which leads to showing love?

Well, which comes first, the forgiveness or the egg?  The chicken or the love?  If there is a catch-22, then let’s call this a catch-47.

So which comes first?  We need to know.  We need to know how to get into this cycle of love and forgiveness and love and forgiveness and love.  We need to know which one comes first so we can get in on this miracle train that spins us into what Jesus promises this sinner:  salvation and peace.

There are days when I like to think I am Simon the Pharisee.  That I have answers, that I can demand answers to my questions, that I know what I’m doing.  And then God pats me sweetly on the head and says “That’s so cute”, and I remember that I like everyone else have this little tendency to fall into sin and brokenness and self-reliance which only ends up with resentment and hurt feelings and struggle.  I remember that being so very sure of myself and my own excellence at this whole “life” thing has ended up, more often than not, far away from love and forgiveness and salvation and peace.

So please tell me where the cycle starts, because I needed to get on that train about twenty-eight years ago.  Do I start with showing love or receiving forgiveness?  Just tell me because I know for sure I need a lot more of both in my life.

And Jesus looks across the room of whispering people and disapproving Pharisees and says “Your faith has saved you.”

Faith.  Faith is what gets us hooked into this constant and awkward and beautiful cycle of receiving forgiveness and showing love.  Not faith as in how much I pray, or how hard, or how well.  Not faith as in how lily-white-clean I scrub my outward appearance.  Not faith as in how good I am or appear to be but faith as in God reaching down and catching my hand, tugging at my heart, whispering in my ear.
This sinner shows up because she has this sneaking suspicion that there is something going on with this Jesus guy.  She doesn’t know what or why.  She couldn’t have told us, staying in the doorway of the Pharisee’s house, that she was going to receive forgiveness of sins.  She just followed her gut, that funny tug right at the edge of her heart, like a fishing line cast by love that hooks right into the broken and fearing bits of us and says “Come on.  Come in.  There is something for you here.”

This is what faith does to us.  Faith grabs us, pulls us in, invites us to shed our fear and live in love, douses our dirty feet in ointment and tears and grace.  Faith catches us up in this whirlwind of love and forgiveness and love and forgiveness and love.

This is awkward.  This is awful.  This is awesome.  This is grace.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Message for July 21st, 2013 on Luke 7:11-17 (The Widow at Nain)

Children’s message:  I passed out small boxes, with surprises inside. Each kid opened theirs and named the contents: Play-Doh, a koosh ball, soft felted rich blue yarn, cotton balls soaked in frankincense -- but also plastic spiders, and sticky lizards, and dirt, and rocks, and one golden box that was empty.

I reminded them (and everyone): There are things that smell good, that are soft to touch, that we want to play with.  But there are also things that are dirty, or scary, or sticky, or hard, or disappointing.  There are things that we have learned not to touch, because we don’t like them, because they get our hands dirty, because our parents have taught us not to touch them.

So let's listen to the Scripture today, and see what Jesus touches.

Luke 7:11-17

Soon afterwards Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep." Then he came forward and touched the frame that held the body, and the bearers stood still. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen among us!" and "God has looked with favor on his people!" This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

I led the funeral service for my uncle Vern last week. Funerals are a raw space in the lives of those left behind. There is grief, palpable, hanging in the air like storm clouds. We laugh at old memories, and then feel wrong for laughing. We cry suddenly, unexpected, embarrassed. When someone we loved so dearly is suddenly and irrevocably gone, we stare into the emptiness of where they were and say, “What do I do now?”
Funerals are about restoring the balance. Something beloved has been lost, for the rest of this lifetime. Words that weren’t said, forgiveness that was needed, a squeeze of the hand, a tight hug -- what we had relied on and what we had hoped for is lost to us. Grief makes us walk funny. And sometimes we have no idea how to go forward. So funerals are meant to start to restore that balance. To give us space to grieve, to cry too hard, to laugh too loud, to remember that there are promises and hopes for a life beyond this one and for the redemption of all the world. The patterns and traditions -- of a visitation, of a service, of familiar hymns and prayers -- they can give us comfort, help us breathe a little more rhythmically. Funerals are meant to restore our balance -- or at least to give us a start on walking in a new world.

And so it is with our unnamed mother today. Because there was no way to preserve the body, it is likely that her son had died that morning or the night before. She is walking behind the dead body of her only son. She has no husband to cling to, no other children to support her. People from her town had come to mourn with her, to follow their customs to honor the dead: to weep, to wail loudly, to tear their clothes in mourning. Pallbearers had stepped forward, friends of the family who carried the dead man wrapped in linen on a wooden frame. After the funeral, the bearers and everyone else who had touched the body would purify themselves, washing with water to restore their cleanliness before God. The wailing of mourning, the purification afterward -- these rituals gave comfort to those who had just lost a loved one. They restored the balance.
And for the grieving, widowed mother, that ritual was needed. She needed to mourn her son, to bury him properly, to weep with her community, because she was now destitute. Without a husband or children to provide for her, she had few options for an income. She may end up begging, picking leftover grain in someone else’s field. Last week we heard how, seeing the miraculous catch of fish, Peter and James and John left everything and followed Jesus. This woman, this unnamed widowed mother, has now lost everything.
And into this funeral, into these rituals desperately trying to restore balance and hope, walks Jesus. His crowd of disciples and followers meets up with the crowd of mourners. And he breaks the rules.
He says, “Do not weep” -- and then he touches the frame that holds the body.
I can only imagine that the crowd stares at him in shock. They are mourning a beloved son, a mother’s only support, and up walks some wandering preacher from Nazareth who tells the mother to stop her ritual mourning and risks making himself ritually unclean.
Luke doesn’t write it down, but I’m pretty sure there’s got to be someone at the back of the crowd going, “Are you serious?”
And Jesus answers “Yes.”
And with a word he calls the dead young man to rise, and gives him back to his mother. A mourning crowd is silenced. A grieving and destitute mother weeps with joy. And the balance that was lost is now restored.
Several years ago, I was working at a church-sponsored summer academy for urban elementary-age kids, doing math and reading review in the mornings and an art school in the afternoon. And I, as one of the few people on staff without a teaching license, was assigned to lead the Bible portion of the fourth-grade classroom lesson plan. And one day we were discussing Jesus’ miraculous resurrection of his friend Lazarus. One of my kids, Ashauna, leaned on one hand on her crossed knees and said, “That’s not really a miracle. I saw a guy do it on TV once. It happens all the time.”
That day I tried to lead the conversation toward the difference between TV and reality, and how Christians believe the Jesus story is real. And then in college I learned ancient Greek, and in seminary I learned ancient Hebrew, and I was taught about the Bible and church history and theology and practice and how to plan a funeral, and I will spoil you all on the ending right now: I am pretty sure that even in a year when I have a degree called the Master of Divinity I will not know how to raise people from the dead. Not even once.
But in all my studies I’ve also spent time with people. In church. In hospitals. In coffee shops. In classrooms. Even in an elementary school gymnasium, and here is another spoiler: I think Ashauna may have been right.
I know my uncle is gone. And Lazarus, and the dead young man we meet today, and his mother, and everyone in the crowd with them, and all the disciples and followers of Jesus -- they’re all gone. But the more time I spend with people, with God’s beloved children, with people who have faced down their sin and fear and brokenness and are still standing -- the more I see, the more I am certain that Jesus is raising up the dead to life every single day.
Because isn’t that the exact meaning of grace -- that Jesus walks right up to everything that is dead in us, all the sin that is ugly and mean, everything that tries to make us fear instead of love, and reaches out a hand to raise us up.
Jesus walks right up to sickness, to mental illness, to divorce, unemployment, anger, addiction, anxiety, poverty, imperfection, failure, all of our guilt, all of our shame -- and reaches out a hand.
In the face of everything that is boxed up in us -- what is dirty, or scary, or sticky, or hard, or empty and disappointing -- Jesus says “Do not weep. Don’t be afraid.” And then reaches out a hand to restore the balance.
That is the hope of grace -- that everything that feels dead in us can have new life. Everything. Not just the things that are nice to touch or hold or play with. Everything. There is nothing in you that Jesus is afraid of. Nothing dead in you that Jesus does not want to make new. That’s what God offers here, at a table laid with bread and wine: that by eating and drinking, everything might be made well in us.
So today we offer that grace to you. We offer prayer. We lay our hands on you, as a reminder that Jesus reaches out to everything that is scary and fearful and dying and dead, and says, “Do not weep. Don’t be afraid. Rise up.”

(We continued the service with an offering of intercessory prayer for anyone who came forward.)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Sermon for my uncle Vern

My uncle Vern, the longtime traveling companion of my uncle Father Maynard, passed away last week.

I had the honor, after having offered the eulogy for Uncle Maynard's funeral, of being asked to lead Vern's service:  something simple and something that honored him and his life.

This is what I planned and led.



Reflections (by Vern's nieces Jody and Dawn)


Psalm 116:12-19 (The Message)
John 11:17-27 (The Message)


Grief does strange things to us.

It comes in many forms.  Grief comes in denial -- in that terror that strikes the heart so close that it seems we can do nothing but avoid it.  It comes in sorrow -- in tears, in a trembling stillness, in what poets have called the dark night of the soul.  It comes in anger, in defense against the pain, a lashing out at anything around us.  It comes in pleading, in begging, in prayers sent up to whatever God we beseech:  Please, don’t let this be happening.  I’ll do anything to make it change.

Grief comes, centrally, as pain.  Our anger and sorrow and denial and bargaining all stem from the experience of pain in the face of death.  We hear that pain in Martha reaching out for Jesus, her words both angry and heartbroken:  If you had been here, my brother would not have died.

There is not only grief at death.  There is grief at every change in life.  At the end of a job, or the beginning of a new one.  At a new house, a new city, a new country.  When a child is born, or leaves for college.  When a marriage begins -- or when it ends.  There is grief at every change, because with every change there is a loss.  Something that we have treasured, or celebrated, or even never noticed for its simplicity -- is gone.  It is now only part of our past.  With every change there is loss.  And with every loss, there must be pain.  There is a readjustment, new steps to take, a new turn in life’s path.

We will grieve Vern in very many ways.  His absence will prick at us in funny ways:  sometimes all at once, in the next few weeks.  There may be activities that seem unbearable, like sorting his belongings -- or we may feel numb, only to break down later at a time that seems most inappropriate.  Sometimes something very simple, like washing dishes or tending the garden, will trigger a tear.  At family gatherings, we will notice his absence.  This is natural to us, as humans, who love and remember each other.  It is change, it is grief, and it is pain.

We rarely speak of any joy in grief.  It seems profane, sometimes, in the face of our pain to speak of celebration.  And yet we have a great joy today.  We have this beautiful confidence, this image shared among many of us, of the joy of Vern’s heavenly reunion with Father Maynard.  They were companions in this life, and now they are in the next.  They traveled throughout the world together; now they are traveling companions in a whole new way.  They served great dinners together, celebrations of family and friends united over good food and loud laughter; now they are seated together at God’s great banquet, of which all our meals and all Father Maynard’s masses are just a foretaste of the feast to come.

So in our grief, there is also this odd and wondrous joy.  These two dear friends, so united in life, are living out now the great promise of all those who love each other like family:  "where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay; your people will be my people, and your God my God.”  When we celebrate Vern’s life today, we celebrate also his death and resurrection.  We celebrate the moment that he let go of Suzanne and Don’s hands and, passing from this life, took Father Maynard’s hand in the next.  There was, at that moment, a great and joyous reunion in heaven.

So today in our grief we have this beautiful grace.  This hope and vision of the life hereafter, where our beloved brother Vern joins our brother Maynard in the welcoming arms of God.  And hand in hand in God’s wide embrace, they go on together, partners in the journey of the next life.

Today, in our grieving and our mourning, we cling also to that hope.  The hope that we, like Vern and Maynard now, will all one day be reunited with the ones we love.  The hope that we, like all those who have gone before us, will stand in the presence of the God of Love that made and cherished us.  The hope that we might be greeted with the joyous cry, “Well done, good and faithful servant!  Enter into the joy of your God.”

Let us pray.

Holy God, as we come together to mourn, to grieve, to remember, and to celebrate, grace our hearts with your loving presence, that we might be moved to the kind of service, friendship, and compassion that characterized your child Vern’s life.  Strengthen us to see your light and delight in each other, and to cling to love in all our sorrow.  Amen.

Prayers of the People 

"Abide With Me"



I also had the gift of leading the Committal at the mausoleum where we laid Vern to rest exactly where he belonged -- beside Maynard.  I read Romans 8:31-35, 37-39 from one of Maynard's pastoral visitation prayerbooks which Vern gifted to me after his death.

It was an amazing honor to be asked to lead and to have the chance to meet some of the many people who loved and honored Vern.  He was a great man with a generous and loving heart, and he will be very much missed.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

One saturated hour

I wrote this back in January 2013, just after Light of the World's founding pastor had been called to a new ministry and I was swimming in a mixture of love for the community and grief for its loss.  Today, when we scrambled for floor fans to relieve ourselves of the sweltering heat, and we wished we were lucky enough to be a baby baptized in cool water, I remembered January.

In seminary, we sometimes talk about God and time.

There are two words for "time" in Greek:  chronos and kairos.  Chronos is the word that becomes chronological -- the order in which things happen.  Chronos time is seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, millenia.  Chronos time is countable.

Kairos time isn't chronological.  It's squishable, squeezable, stretchable.  Kairos time is the moment that feels like forever, the minute packed dense with emotion.  Kairos time is relative time, time that stretches and compacts.  

Kairos time, for me, is Sunday morning, when so very much happens in just a few hours.

The worship leaders circle up, with fifteen minutes to go.  We pray.  We hope.  We try to get out of the way and let the Spirit do the work.  I call on one of our confirmation kids to choose the cheer that ends our prayer:  "1-2-3, Yay God," or "God's work, our hands."  His eyes flare with surprise and then a hint of pride.  We leaders split, to our guitars, our nametags, our coffee pots, our running kids.  I join the greeters in the hallway.

A couple that's been on vacation for a few weeks is back, cheeks red, eyes beaming.  The communion bread appears ten minutes before worship, just-baked and still-warm.  I graze my hand over a baby's head, greeting his dad before the service.  Suddenly there are little arms around my leg, a pleased and quick hug from one of our kids.  A teacher and mom bumps into me with a cardboard box, and laughs, sarcastically, "Excuse me, excuse me" as she bumps me again and again until I laugh.

The first song begins with a shake and stutter, and yet the congregation sighs out "Holy, holy, holy" like a breath held for a week.  I pray, and the words come in swells and rushes, like a wave under my swimming arms; all I can do is ride the crest and foam.  

The sermon eases us gently into our seats, rocking our chests with laughter, then slowly reaching in around our hearts.

We share the peace, and arms go round my shoulders like a blanket made of promise.

I beg the Spirit to show up, to speak, and when she does, it's with a rush of wind disguised as slowly spoken words about family and community and love.

I look into fifty-odd sets of eyes and say, over and over, "This is the body of Christ, broken for you."  Our gluten-free kid reaches for the rice cracker I put out for her every week.

I forget where we are in the service.  I stand and stare at my bulletin, and finally look out at the assembly -- "Are we at community time?  Is that where we are?"  They all laugh.  There is love and grace enough even for the leader who gets lost.

The kids rush forward during the final song, joining hands and pulling each other in a circle, tripping over their snowboots.  When we dismiss the congregation together, their arms spread wider and gladder than mine when we say, "Go in peace, serve the Lord."  And then they're off, in a rush for the cookie trays before Sunday School begins.

The band packs up.  The mikes come down, the chairs are put away.  I turn in my microphone, the one marked "Assistant," which is more true now than ever. 

I touch the elbow of a parishioner -- someone I don't know well -- who's just lost a family member, and he trusts me enough to let me into his mourning.

The altar's left untouched today: the wine and bread waiting to be poured out, cups and plates to be washed and wrapped till next week.  One of the many "duties not otherwise specified" that falls to the intern pastor, some weeks, and this week is mine.

I sneak a bite of a hunk of bread, thick and full of molasses.

Bread of the Presence.

People of the light of the world.

How can so much happen in one saturated hour?

But in the presence of God, how could anything less?