Reflection for Easter, March 27, 2016

John 20:1-18

On behalf of the congregation, I would like to thank you for sharing Easter with us. Thanks as well to all those for whom this morning is the culmination of a Lenten journey in which we have considered what it means to say, “all are welcome,” and have moved through the final days of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Thanks also to volunteers and congregational leaders, musicians and administrative staff for your efforts which have made these first few months of 2016 substantial in worship, in service, in growth and learning, and in mutual care and support.
If this morning is for you a homecoming in some way, welcome home. These days St. Johns has recommitted itself to its 160 year old mission of caring with passion and in partnership for those in need in the heart of the city. And we are opening a new chapter in neighborhood ministry.
If you are a stranger with us, welcome. St. Johns is not the kind of place where you receive any pressure to join. But please feel free to break bread with us at the table of the Lord when we celebrate Holy Communion together. May you find in this time together the presence of God renewed and may you be refreshed for your life’s journey.

Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. This resurrection from the dead has for centuries been the foundation of the Christian faith. The stories of the resurrection are preserved in the gospel accounts of the life and death of Jesus. For over two thousand years, each Easter, we have read one of these gospel stories. Today’s story is from the gospel of John.
In the story, Jesus has been crucified and his body entombed. Proper preparation of the body was not possible because of Sabbath regulations. So women return to the grave to fully prepare the body with spices and fresh cloth, discover that the body is gone, find only the grave clothes, and share this crisis with the disciples who come to see for themselves. No one is certain what has happened.
Mary lingers in the garden. As she despairs the stolen body, she thinks she is talking with a gardener and discovers that she is speaking with her old friend. Her teacher seems somehow to have transcended death. After this story, other post resurrection appearances are found in John within the community of the faithful. In these appearances, hope is rekindled. The faith of the church is born.

When we share this ancient story in contemporary Madison, it is sometimes difficult for us to actually believe in the resurrection of the dead. Belief is difficult for many reasons. We live in a scientific time when miracles of any sort seem impossible. Our approach to reality is based on finding the facts upon which we can depend rather than finding the truths that under gird the human experience. Our urban lives are filled with so many things that it is difficult to consider something beyond what we are currently experiencing. We are focused on the here and now rather than old stories from the Middle East or in some existence beyond death.
With all that filtering our awareness, it is difficult for us to sense and believe in the resurrection of Jesus or anyone else.
It is as if the city lights of our nighttime sky are too bright to really see the stars that shine in the dark. Contemporary thought is like living in the city where the night sky is too bright to really discern stars like the resurrection. Our way of being is so intense, so bright, that we cannot see what is shining in the night sky until we return to the country.
In The Literate Farmer and the Planet Venus, the poet Robert Frost shares a discussion between a city dweller and a farmer, as they stand in the country night, looking at Venus, the morning star, talking over together what it is. They understand it to be a heavenly body. But in their conversation, urban light becomes a metaphor for the intensities of life that keep us from seeing how the stars and darkness work together in their appointed rounds.

Believe it? Why I know it.
Its actions any cloudless night will show it.
You’ll see it be allowed up just so high,
Say about halfway up the western sky,
And then get slowly, slowly pulled back down.
You might not notice if you’ve lived in town.
As I suspect you have. A town debars
Much notice of what’s going on in stars,
The idea is no doubt to make one job
Of lighting the whole night with one big blob
Of electricity in bulk the way
The sun sets the example in the day.

Here come more stars to character the skies
And they in the estimation of the wise
Are more divine than any bulb or arc,
Because their purpose is to flash and spark,
But not to take away the precious dark.
We need the interruption of the night
To ease attention off when over tight,
To break our logic in too long a flight,
And ask us if our premises are right.

Our time and place debar much of what is going on in the heavens. To see the resurrection again, to appreciate the delicate ways in which light and dark, joy and sorrow, death and life, good and evil move through our lives, in the gradual transformation of our premises, to polish those eternal truths that provide the framework for what it means to be human — for all of that, we need to turn down the volume, the brightness, the intensity of our demanding nature and to move slowly back into an old garden where we find a grieving woman, a simple voice, and a borning hope.
To see the star of the resurrection in your own life, turn to the details of this morning’s story in a country garden.
If we are to see the star of the resurrection, we need to return to the tomb and give ourselves permission to be incredulous. The disciples do not know what to think. Nurture you own incredulity, astonishment, and amazement. Be surprised again. Understand that we do not understand. It is on this rising edge of amazement that we discover the arc of possible hope.
If we are to see the star of the resurrection, we need to return to the garden of Mary and listen to the voice of a friend. In the intimate voice of friendship hope is begun. When Mary hears Jesus say her name, she finds new life. Find your friends. They are the stars that do not take away the dark, but light your way through it.
If we are to see the star of the resurrection, we need to sense a larger plan. In the story, Jesus cannot be touched because he has not yet ascended. We do not know what that means, but it reminds us that Jesus’ resurrection is not only an intimate conversation but part of a larger plan assembled by a waiting God: a God waiting to tenderly hold Jesus after the ordeal, and a general movement of the spheres in their return to the creator of the universe.
If we are to see the star of the resurrection through the haze of contemporary life; may we be startled again, may we hear the tender voice of our friend, and may we sense the great yet infinite cosmic design of this waiting God of love.

Palm Sunday Reflection for March 20, 2016

When I was a small child, Palm Sunday was a special event. It came in the spring as the Iowa snow melted. People also began to thaw. The sun warmed us all, and the rains would bring that time when the earth turned from brown to green. In that congregation, confirmation took place on Palm Sunday. It seemed fitting to focus on youth in the spring. The confirmation ceremony, the warming sun, and the palms were all together a dress rehearsal of sorts for Easter coming the next week. In my earliest recollections, this day was a time for warming to the spring of earth and the spring of life. And there is no better way to look at this morning than that: this is a time when we warm to the growing hope of life’s spring.
Gradually through the arduous efforts of all the adults in the congregation, I began to acquire some knowledge about what Palm Sunday was supposed to be about. I learned about Jesus. I learned about Palm branches, donkeys and coats on the road. I learned that Jesus, this wonderful person, actually had enemies. I learned that you could be loved one day and crucified the next. I learned that this was the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life. I learned about the Lord’s Supper, the money changers in the temple, and betrayal, and some garden whose name I could not pronounce, the horrible Romans, and this gruesome crucifixion. All of that started with the waving of Palms. And there is no better way to look at this morning than that: this is the beginning of the last week of the life of Jesus, who loved and lived, suffered and died, all compressed into a few holy days.
For awhile in those childhood years, I began to sense something called guilt and sin, and how this story was connected to that. I apparently was a sinner. Some days I actually felt that way. Most of the time, I did not. But since I was something of a sinner, I also needed a Savior. Jesus was that Savior I learned. So this day began that story of forgiveness. And there is no better way to look at this morning than that: this day initiates that great process of reconciliation and forgiveness that through struggle and pain brings renewal.
Eventually, by the time I was in junior high, I had pretty much moved beyond the sin thing. I grew up in Iowa. Most Hawkeye fans aren’t really evil: just boring. Yes, folks did things that were wrong. But according to the calculus of my rural middle school mind, the rectification of that would not require something like Palm Sunday, Good Friday and the like. It would be as if God had a cow caught in a fence, and so he tore down all the fences and built a ten foot concrete wall around the entire farm to solve the problem. It would have been better just to take the occasional cow out of the fence, and keep life simple. Still, there is no better way to look at this morning than that: God as a farmer who in care for the flock does what is needed, big or small, to keep us well.
Then for awhile, perhaps in high school, I got really caught up in the ritual of this day and the week that follows. I learned when to walk, stand and sit. We actually received palm branches to wave in church. There was Holy Communion, something rarely done in my youth. A shout of Hosanna to a king in a place I was supposed to be quiet. And youth were processing in and out. All that passed for high church liturgy in Iowa, and I loved it. Even the most reserved old Germans discretely waved a branch. And there is no better way to look at this morning than that: a royal processional leading to a passionate vision for what a king was and did, a participation of all in the rituals that remind us of the life and death of Jesus.
They make you study to become a pastor, and so I did, leaving my childhood behind. And in all the books I learned that what I had taken to be a springtime ritual, a faint Iowa reenactment of something that happened long ago in Jerusalem, was actually a cosmic drama, the struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. That this was about much more than Iowa springs, or childhood guilt, or the joys of youth, or the details of Holy Week, or the liturgical rhythm and shape of life. This was the story that imparted the cosmic struggle for the fate of all creation. It had profound theological significance. And there is no better way to look at this morning than that: the necessarily violent events that begin the movement of the universe back to the sacred goodness undergirding all life.
But what I studied and learned changed over the years. Gradually I became less focused on the cosmic drama and more focused on the political and social realities of this story of a Jesus who challenged the religious authorities of his day in this procession with its political overtones. I learned more about offering hope and renewal in hearts, and villages, and communities based on love, compassion, justice and peace. And there is no better way to look at this day than that: the story of God’s hope for peace and justice as the eternal goodness of God breaks into this world, transforming people, homes, villages, communities, systems and cultures with hope and love.
Until the last few years, when I’ve begun to sense how much this day, this story of Palm Sunday, is really an entrance, a threshold, a beginning, a start. Jesus enters Jerusalem. Palm Sunday begins this holy week of life and death and new life. It begins the renewal. It begins the movement through struggle, through pain, into new possibilities. And this story from this beginning to end reminds us that God walks with us through it all.
This is the threshold of new hope. This is a day we remember that God enters our lives, our world, our hearts. Especially I think in the work of shelters and emergency relief, we know how important these entrances, these beginnings, these fresh starts are for all people in the stories of life: your lives and the lives of others. The new beginnings, taking that first step, the entrance all call for great human courage. God’s entrance gives us that courage. As people make a new start and boldly go on, God walks with us through the valleys of the shadows into new light. And there is no better way to look at this day than that: the beginning of a new possibility for you and for me and for life together, the entrance of the sacred one into our lives, the fresh start needed by at least a few people here facing the challenges of this week whether we call it holy or not.
This is Palm Sunday. And it is time to warm ourselves to the springtime of life, to remember the story of Jesus, to be reconciled to God and each other, to do the rituals and liturgies that reconnect us to life and death and new life, to sense the cosmic drama and its implications for this world, and to see this day as a day of beginning for everyone here. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God.

The Community Ministry Project: Discussion Draft


During the spring of 2016, St John’s would need to affirm and adopt a strategy for millenial ministry
April 3 Pastor Beth is preaching and presiding at St. Johns, and will present the findings of stage one and the emerging strategy in this current stage two of the project. (Ken will cover her parish that day.) April 17 Pastor Erik Jelenik from the synod office will be here to do the same thing. Sometime after that we would want to adopt the strategy, and begin the necessary processes to implement the strategy.
Funding and grant possibilities would be developed.
This involves part of the long range financial plan of St. John’s as well as a Partnership Grant from the ELCA (there are several different grant possibilities and we’re thinking the Partnership is the way to go), and a successful grant from Siebert.
With the synod St. John’s would go through a hiring process for a director.

Community Ministry Project Recommendation: Engage millennials in a neighborhood in which they’re highly concentrated
In getting to know the neighborhood, one thing stood out more than any other: the high concentration of “millennials.” The median age of this area is 27, and the average age is 31.7. Millennials are usually classified as people born in 1980 or 1982 and after, which currently puts them around 35 years old or younger. 2015 population estimates for the neighborhood show that nearly 69% of neighborhood residents fall into this category, with an additional 10% of the population between the ages of 35-44. This is a much higher concentration than the national average where millennials make up just shy of 25% of the population.
The wider church has generally struggled to engage this population. I would suggest that St. John’s is in an ideal and unique position to embark on millennial ministry because of their stability and location. In addition, St. John’s interests already intersect with some of the neighborhood’s interests, namely their Reconciling in Christ affiliation and their dedication to ministries that fight homelessness and poverty in the community.
Taking this ministry seriously would require a director. The director would have an office at St. John’s and be present in the congregation, but a majority of the work would be done out in the community. The director would also involve St. John’s members and lead St. John’s them in engagement in the community.

To begin with, we envision four simultaneous approaches:
1. listening (coffee shops, pubs, small groups)
This will be an attempt to facilitate conversations and build relationships where people are at. The goal will be to eventually have a group of people meeting regularly to talk about religion, spirituality, and life in general. This could include book discussions, theological questions, meaning of life ponderings, or just about anything. The aim is to listen to people’s stories and build relationships. If windows present themselves to talk more specifically about faith in Jesus, we’ll open them, but it will be important not to push or presume.
2. service possibilities
Many will assert that millennials have a strong desire to make a difference in the world, and this has been true in my experience as well. Another aspect of community millennial ministry could be giving people opportunities to serve. We can play a role in matching people’s passions with the community’s needs through St. John’s existing ministries, and possibly setting up other service opportunities.
3. large event(s) (Musical event, lecture series)
This is a neighborhood that likes events—concerts, festivals, rallies, just about anything. There is potential for the congregation and this ministry to host an event in the neighborhood. Perhaps a concert in one of the parks. Since the neighborhood is also highly educated, a lecture series or forum might also be of interest.
4. neighborhood relationships (festivals, associations, connections)
There’s a lot going on in this part of Madison. In addition to the abundance of restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues, there are several other non-profits and innovative new businesses. In my conversations, I noticed that lots of organizations strive to make Madison a better place for all people, including several in this neighborhood. I also suspect there is less connection and collaboration between these organizations than there could be. It would be helpful to at least know of the different organizations and grassroots efforts taking place. It may not be part of the mission to support or get involved with all of them, but it would be good to have a working relationship and be more aware of other organizations’ efforts in the community, be present at community events, and possibly be a catalyst for connecting various efforts taking place.

Congregational Engagement
As each of these four initiatives develop, members of St. John’s would be involved in each initiative. This connects the project to the congregation and also introduces the neighborhood to real members of our community.
The larger group events would occasionally use St. John’s as a venue.
A small group from St. Johns and the community (3-4) would form a steering committee or support group to work with the director on the project.

Down the road possibilities
As the community millennial ministry takes shape and builds trust and credibility in the community, St. John’s and this ministry could also play a role in addressing tensions within the neighborhood. One possible tension would be the racial and police tensions that have lingered since the shooting of Toy Robinson. The community is still divided and ambivalent, and the church could play a role in healing. The other tension is between the homed and the homeless. The homeless community is often misunderstood and feared by its homed neighbors. St. John’s could help build bridges of understanding and awareness of the complexity of these issues.
As this ministry progresses, it could also become a model for other congregations. While this neighborhood is unique in its abundance of millennials, most other congregations will have at least some millennials in their neighborhood. What this ministry learns and experiences could prove valuable to other congregations.

Reflection for March 13, 2016

Isaiah 43:16-21, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

When I was in third grade in a small town in Iowa, a long time ago, long before there were smart phones, computers, the internet, and the only public media available was am radio, and people heated their homes with coal, and there was only one television station about fifty miles away that broadcast fifteen minute shows in black and white for about half the day, and the snow was six feet deep and we had to walk two miles to school all winter long, and we all ground our own grain and raised our own livestock, and some of us had indoor plumbing, but others of us did not — way back then — my parents enrolled me in the Weekly Reader Book Club.
Deprived of any other stimulation whatsoever, this Weekly Reader Book Club was an amazing source of entertainment. About six times each year, a book came in the mail. I discovered that not everyone lived life the same way we did. Some people actually lived in interesting places and did interesting things. One day a book came about the desert. I knew in theory what a desert was. A desert was a vast expanse of land where it never rained and where people did not even try to grow corn.
But this book had pictures. And I spent many days with growing interest in the desert. A few chapters into the book, I came to the desert spring. After some brief rains, but enough to get things going, the desert blossomed. And the drab landscape of the previous chapters suddenly was alive with color: incredible, bright, fresh floral colors.
And occasionally even the driest deserts explode in beauty. Death Valley is the hottest place on Earth. But this year the California national park is experiencing a super bloom. El Nino has brought three to four inches of rain to the desert, lots of rain. And large swaths of its desert hillsides are covered with explosions of yellow, but also pink and purple flowers. The rains triggered long-dormant desert seeds. It happens only once in awhile. And it is all fresh and new and wonderful: even though the same El Nino has brought difficult flooding to many areas of the country.
So much of our lives are filled with drab, everyday reality. We all need that sudden new burst of fresh color, either in the pictures in our books and screens or in real life. Often this fresh natural beauty involves water. It is our warming showers of March and April that will give our winter landscape a fresh green. Soon we will see the leaves that will mark this new spring as Lent comes to a close.
This sudden new color in the desert is the theme of the poet Isaiah. The poet speaks of God doing something new in the desert. It involves rain. The desert of Isaiah blooms. And the animals of the desert rejoice. And the chariot wheels of Israel’s enemies get stuck in the mud, and so the people are able to escape from Egypt after a recent desert rain. In Exodus, this escape is told as the parting of the sea. For Isaiah, the escape is accomplished by the mud that comes from a desert downpour. Either way, the Egyptian chariots are mired, and the people escape, their way brightened by the desert bloom that comes after such rains. Isaiah remembers that once it rained, really rained in the desert. It bloomed. The creatures rejoiced. The people escaped. As God was doing something fresh and new.
These days life is different from when I grew up. We have all sorts of new things everyday attracting our attention. We have thousands of opportunities to do this, buy that, go here, experience that new thing. And often in our cluttered lives filled with everything new under the sun, we actually yearn for that childhood excitement that came as we waited for the book in the mail. Perhaps we need to take a break from all of the calls for new things so that we can simply relax, breathe deeply and focus. As we do that, we sometimes feel the excitement of life again, the new thing of Isaiah and God, the deliverance from the forces that oppress our souls, and the bloom that has faded over the years, the eruption of long dormant seeds.
So as we recall the poem of Isaiah, what is that fresh, new, colorful thing in your life? Perhaps your soul is parched. And there is a time for that. Perhaps you’re going through a rainy season. There are those days too. But beyond those times lies a walk through the flowers, a walk through the now blooming valley, into a new freedom and a new reality, a walk into a joy that is beyond what we already know. Whether we have too little, or too much, we just need to be open to the possibility of new things with God. What is the new thing in your life?
Openness to the fresh new blooming joy of God. That is the theme of the John passage today on worship. Mary and Martha are anointing. The anointing is an act of worship. Worship is not the dull repetition of the same old thing over and over, week after week. Watered by baptism, it is that time when we pause to smell the flowers blooming around us, to experience the blend of comfortable old things cast in new ways, to celebrate the presence of God with some extravagance and a delight in the arts.
The Christian life is not only about shelter work and caring for those in need and refugee settlement and women getting out of prison. All of that is really important. But once in awhile we need to extravagantly party. We need to enjoy each other in the presence of God. We need to delight in beauty. All work and no play makes for a terrible life, a difficult marriage, and a boring religion. God brings water to the desert, and expects us to take the time we need to smell the flowers, to delight in life, and to enjoy the beauty around us.
Whether we are older and have lives filled with memories, or we are younger as is Xander and we live in the future promise of the now, whether our lives are filled with many things or as empty as the driest desert, God is doing something new with you and with me, and every one of us. We will feel that new thing whenever we stop what we are doing, thank God for what we have, listen to the old poets, and have a bit of bread and a drink of wine. For God has watered this day not only for Xander, but for all of us. New life will burst forth.

Reflection for March 6, 2016

Joshua 5:9-12, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

The book of Joshua tells the story we know as the conquest of the Promised Land by the Israelites. It includes the famous battle of Jericho and the great collapse of the Canaanite cities as they were overpowered by the armies of the Israelites who had God on their side. The conquest was ordained by God, so the story reads. By the hand of God, the land was taken from its inhabitants who were destroyed during the invasion. We know this as the conquest of the Promised Land. And to be honest we do not really like to talk about it much these days. The book of Joshua is out of favor, as we regret the violence of our past. We no longer wish to call wars holy.
But the book of Joshua is a highly stylized and heavily interpreted version of the story. Many archeologists think that there never was a conquest as such. The book loosely describes a different human process. As the Israelites come out of the desert and into Canaan, they are moving away from the nomadic life of following herds and surviving by hunting and gathering.
In this chapter they have crossed the Jordan River at a place known as Gilgal, and camp there for several days. The most basic meaning of the word Gilgal is rolling stones or a circle of stones. And this story is the Hebrew explanation for a Neolithic circle of stones found at this location. The rolled stone circle is reinterpreted in Joshua to be a memorial signifying that the time of slavery in Egypt is over, the nomadic life in the wilderness is over, and these people are entering or rolling into a new stage of life. They are becoming an agricultural people. They now are eating not the food of nomads, the food of the desert life. Now they are eating the crops that are grown through agriculture. At this Stone Age circle, this transition is marked by a mass circumcision of adult males. And now they are ready to begin this new chapter in their history. They will settle in houses and towns, villages, and cities. They will plant crops and olive groves and vineyards. And they will struggle with their neighbors.
This struggle was probably not a conquest but the amalgamation of the Hebrew people into the Canaanite population. It may be the case that the Israelites joined the Canaanite peasants in a revolt against the cities that demanded tribute and taxes from the farmers. The book of Joshua speaks of the fall of cities, and the growing agricultural tendencies of the Israelites.
Ancient cities faced many problems: famine, fire, disease, or earthquake. Any of these could have turned the tide in a rural revolution. And the alliance of the peasants with these new outsiders from the desert probably assisted in the collapse of the urban Canaanite centers. The walls came tumbling down.
But as the Hebrews settled into agricultural life, and assimilated into this new territory, learning from the peasants the ways of farming, they began to struggle with their idea of God. The Canaanite gods were the gods of fertility suited for an agricultural economy and way of life. YHWH, the Hebrew god of the desert, became increasingly less attractive. And Hebrew religious leaders found themselves on the defensive in light of these new pagan rites that marked the agricultural seasons and aspirations. Over and over the prophets admonished the people to be faithful to YHWH and not follow other gods. This struggle is found in the book of Joshua. And not until the time of King David does the god of the Hebrews become well established. And then again after David, the agricultural gods gain power again.
All this reminds us that we, like the writers of Joshua, always craft our memories and our story. We tell our stories with drama and exaggeration, with heroes and villains, victors and victims, with God on our side working on our behalf. It’s what we humans do. Along the way we re-cast the past, the stone circles, giving old things new meanings that serve our purposes. Especially do we remake our memories when we are on the edge of something new, especially when we are moving out of one way of being into another. We make the truth we need. For better and worse, that is what we humans do.
In the parable of Jesus, the younger brother has fabricated the life of luxury beyond consequence. But the truth of that vision is exhausted. He changes his mind. He returns to the family.
In the parable of Jesus, the older brother has fabricated the life of responsibility and proportion. Everything has its just reward. But the truth of that vision feels hollow. For what matters is not the fairness, but human relationship, love, affection, forgiveness, and reconciliation. That, rather than measured response is what makes life worth living.
In the parable of Jesus, the father has fabricated a dream of togetherness. He is just happy that everybody is back together. But the truth of that vision is limited by the absence of the older brother at the party, and the absence of the mother from the story.
But together, the visions as broken as they are, make a run at the truth. The vision of a happy carefree life, the vision of justice and fairness, and the vision of coming together, in their interplay, do describe a truth that may lie beyond our fabrications. For we are meant not only to be good, but also to have a good time, and to have that good time together as saints as sinners of all stripes. And as Paul says, that is a very, very new thing. As he says: See, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
Reconciled to our own violent past, reconciled to one another, reconciled to God; we are people of joy, people of justice, and people of graceful love.

Reflection for February 28, 2016

Isaiah 55:1-9, I Corinthians 10:1-13, and Luke 13:1-9

Today Jesus reflects on two current disasters in his day, as his followers wonder why they happened. We too wonder about our own current disasters, and why they happen. There is a great distance between the ancient issues of Jesus and our more contemporary questions about why there are floods, earthquakes and continued human injustice. But the readings focus our attention on one of the great questions of our own times: why horrible things happen to innocent people. So we will focus on that.
Jesus is in conversation with people about two different kinds of disasters. One involves political torture of Galileans. The other is a natural event, perhaps an earthquake that topples a tower and kills eighteen people. Jesus addresses the question of whether or not these people suffered because of their sins.
His answer is no. They were no worse offenders than any others. This is one of the themes of the Bible. It seems that ancient people believed that when bad things happened it was because the person who suffered did something wrong. As the Bible unfolds; misfortune, disease, poverty, persecution, and death are not the result of some sin. Through the psalms, the book of Job, the suffering servant songs of Isaiah, the words of Jesus and Paul, the Bible’s growing message on the matter seems to be that suffering is not the result of sin. Indeed, God stands with the sufferer. The most important sign of this is the suffering and death of Jesus.
This idea that suffering is based on one’s sin lies deep in our brain. Like the ancient ones, occasionally we find ourselves wondering what we did wrong to deserve this. Occasionally we still blame the victim for the crime. But by and large we have a far different sense of this and we ask different questions about disasters based on a different world view.
Honestly, we are more likely to blame God for an earthquake or a disaster than we are humans. In our culture, sin is no longer such a big thing. When something goes wrong, we do not blame ourselves, we usually blame our situation. And we think that God should have stepped in somehow so that we do not suffer. We do not ask what sin this person committed when they suffer. We ask instead, “why does God let this happen?”
In our culture where everyone is not only above average, but even special, we are actually becoming more gifted at blaming others but not ourselves for the bad things that happen. Think about what all our lawsuits say about how we approach blame in our culture. We think that we may blame a restaurant if we eat their food and become overweight. We live in a time when we might blame a teacher or a school if we are not learning anything in the classroom. We expect our leaders to solve problems over which they have little control. And we are far more likely to wonder about God when something bad happens than to think about our sin.
So God gets blamed more than ever for a longer than ever list of bad things, as we whine our way into increasing irresponsibility. We would not be asking if the tower fell because of their sin. We would ask if the victims could sue the contractor.
So we are a long way from where these people in Luke are with respect to this matter. But what Jesus says may be instructive to us.
Jesus this morning (and the Bible in general) move us away from blaming when bad things are happening. Don’t blame the one who suffers for some sin he or she committed. Jesus’ restraint on blaming should cause us to pause whenever we feel ourselves wanting to blame somebody for something.
Instead, we might embrace a different perspective that moves beyond assigning blame. When bad things happen, instead of blaming ourselves, or even others, or even God; we could move beyond blame into a more complex understanding of the forces at work in our world.
Our science reveals to us more and more that our world is a complex interweaving of change and events. Causality is polyvalent, moving in many different directions at the same time. An accident on the freeway does not happen because someone said goodbye and got in their car at 4:30 instead of 4:33. It is more complicated than that. What happens is an intricate weaving. The threads of our lives extend much farther into the future and the past, and more deeply into the present than we usually assume. Sometimes the web gets tangled.
In this appreciation for the complex web of life, God is the force for good woven into the very fabric of this web: a force that can be tapped at anytime to help us untangled our unraveling tapestries. This God is found not in some control booth in heaven but in the spaces between the threads as they are woven. Divine space allows light to enter. The threads themselves change colors from somber to bright as they are held to the changing light of time.
In our own time, it may be the case that we can embrace the complexity of life, the delicate interweaving of so many things, and then embrace the biblical idea that we should not blame anyone when bad things happen, even God.
Moving beyond blame is a Lenten message. Another word for not-holding-blame is forgiveness. God calls us in the Lord’s Prayer to forgive as we have been forgiven, reminding us to always weave forgiveness into our emerging efforts, especially in the face of disaster.
This forgiveness is one of several biblical threads we need to weave into the fabric of Lent. Forgiveness must be woven with a biblical call for justice and fairness. Forgiveness must be woven with a biblical call for responsibility, especially the responsibility of the individual Christian to tend to one’s life. But in the end, events like earthquakes or floods, or the persecution of Galileans, or the collapse of a government are complex in substantial ways. Blame is not needed as much as reflection and response that make sense in our own time.
As Jesus moves us beyond blame, his story about the fig tree challenges us to adopt a longer time frame. Since things are so complex and the threads of our lives move beyond the present, we do not yet know how things will turn out. Today’s disaster may be part of a larger tapestry, a web that weaves our lives and the lives of those who suffer more deeply into the love of God. We are called by Jesus’ story, to give it a bit more time, and to use some fertilizer.
Finally, Jesus’ parable challenges his listeners and us to be better people than we currently are. Fig trees and people of faith are to bear fruit. As we face calamities of all proportions, we are called to bear fruit, the fruit of compassion and courage.
As Jesus says, in the end there will be death for us all, and then new life. In the meantime, let us not blame ourselves, others, or God. Let us fertilize our lives with forgiveness and renew our response of compassion when we encounter disaster.

Reflection for February 21, 2016

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35

Our vision of God is usually too small, and often our vision of our own lives is too small.
Transcendence. I think these stories of the Bible speak about transcendence. The word transcendence has a long and rich history. Usually the word transcendence is used to refer to God. It speaks of God beyond us and the world. God transcends life as we know it. And transcending the details, limitations, and issues of our life is what happens when we encounter the one beyond all things.
Often the transcendence of God is paired with the imminence of God. Imminence refers to the closeness of God to the world and to us. It refers to the intimate presence of God. In classical theology God is described as both transcendent and imminent, beyond us and intimately involved with us. In Christian thought, the imminence and transcendence of God are mysteriously bound as one in the person of Jesus.
We live in a time when probably God’s friendly presence and imminence is more highly valued that God’s transcendence. What a friend we have in Jesus speaks to the closeness of God we value so much.
To me though, these particular stories speak about divine transcendence. But they speak of God transcending in a different way. They indicate that God expands, amplifies, and transcends the vision we have for ourselves and our lives, enlarging our hopes, dreams, fears, and plans. God calls us to something bigger than the current preoccupation of our hearts. Our transcendent God calls us to transcend our way of looking at ourselves and our lives.
Our vision of God is usually too small, and often our vision of our own lives is too small. That brings us to the heart of these Bible passages.
Let’s begin with the story in Genesis of the interaction between Abraham and God. Here Abraham is worried that he will not have an heir. He and Sarah have not been able to have a child. He is afraid that his family will end with him. In this desert culture, if there is no heir; it all ends, regardless of how successful Abraham has been in his own lifetime.
In the story, God does not dismiss the worry of Abraham, but God is not satisfied with it either. God transcends it. He expands, enlarges, and amplifies the future of Abraham. For God, this is not about the continued survival of a desert clan. God has in mind the future of a nation and actually much more than that. For in this story God transcends the concept of nation as well. God is talking not about a desert clan’s survival, nor even about a nation or country. No, God is talking about a greater legacy. Abraham and Sarah will found a holy people shaped by faith, grounded in the vision of an intimate, present, active, principled God. Abraham is worried about his estate. God is worried about the state of the world, as both of them look to Abraham’s future.
Transcendence. Our vision of God is usually too small, and often our vision of our own lives is too small.
Working with transcendence can be difficult. It’s a spiritual thing, and sometimes turning to the spirit can be difficult for us in our practical world. But note how God interacts with the spirit of Abraham using both mystery and things that can be understood. The covenant or agreement between Abraham and God, with its cleaving of sacrificial animals, the walking of a path through the animal parts, the presence of a torch, and the hearing of voices in the night all seems strange to us because our faith is not the faith of an ancient desert nomad. But to Abraham, these ritual practices speak about the depth of the affirmation between God and Abraham. God uses our ways of thinking, praying and worshipping to speak to us about expanding our futures.
The strangeness of the details of the Genesis covenant remind us that God speaks to us in our own faith language; but that our own faith language is limited in its capacity to express the ultimate will of God. Our own faith language will seem strange and primitive to coming generations and those called by God in different cultures. Still God uses our own ways and expressions of faith to call us to grander things.
Our vision of God is usually too small, and often our vision of our own lives is too small.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul is calling the members of this ancient Greek congregation to a new vision of life. Yes, God has changed their approach to the world in which they live. In Christian community they become more principled and more compassionate in their care for one another and for others. Yet Paul transcends the faith of these practical Christians to include a life and love that goes through death: Their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory. No wonder in our Lutheran tradition, this text is often used at funerals. It reminds us that God transforms death itself through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Transcendence. Our vision of God is usually too small, and often our vision of our own lives is too small. In the story of Jesus from Luke this morning, we are returned to the transcendence in Abraham’s vision.
Remember that for God, Abraham’s future is not about the continued survival of a desert clan. God has in mind Abraham as the founder of a nation with a capital city Jerusalem. But the vision of God is really is more than a particular patriotism. For God does not want just a patriotic people bent on the preservation and expansion of their nation.
In the prophets, including Jesus, God calls sacred servants who challenge the people of God to practice love and hope more profoundly and completely. God transcends the idea of nation. God’s purpose is not about a desert tribe, not about a nation, but a holy people shaped by faith, gathered under the wings of God, grounded in the vision of an intimate, present, active, principled God. Abraham is worried about his estate. Jesus’ enemies want to preserve their Abrahamic institutions and state. But God is not focused on the nation state. God is focused on the state of the world, as God, Paul, and Jesus all call us to rethink our futures.
Transcendence. Our vision of God is usually too small, and often our vision of our own lives is too small.
So take a look all those worries and preoccupations in your heart. Is God calling you to transcend those matters of family, finances, security and health that generally consume us? Is God calling us to envision a broader future that sustains family life, financial security for the vulnerable, and matters of health for future generations? Or are we so preoccupied with the trees that we miss the forest? Are we so consumed by our inner preoccupations that we cannot hear the transcendent voice of God?

Reflection for February 12-14, 2016 (at Holy Cross Lutheran)

Mark 1:23-45
Beginning in the 1990’s, some began to interpret the New Testament in a new way (see the work of Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity and Cities of God) looking at the first Christian communities using sociology, comparative religion, statistics, growth and population studies, and archeology, as well the amazing increase in available manuscripts which described life in the first century Roman Empire. This social reconstruction of the first Christian communities revealed how the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the western world in just two hundred years.
The immense growth of early Christianity was due not to a series of sudden mass conversions, but the achievement of a 3.5% per year growth rate in Christian congregations, that made it the significant religion of the empire 300 years after the birth of Jesus.
Cultural trends of the first century contributed to this growth. There was a steep decline in the pagan sacrificial system, belief in the old Greek and Roman gods, and the old patterns of religious identity throughout the cities of the empire. People were looking for something new. There was a hunger for new beliefs, spirituality, values, and a new way of looking at life. Christianity’s success was grounded in these cultural trends.
But there was more. Much more. At the heart of this growth was the social mission of these early urban congregations. The cities of the Roman Empire were crowded: the most densely populated areas humans have ever experienced. The cities were often as densely populated as New York, but the tallest buildings were only two or three stories high. There was no space. Everyday life was intense and brutal. Crime was rampant. Fire was a constant threat and a deep fear. There was no sanitation. Disease could easily overwhelm the city. Plagues were common and could suddenly reduced the population by 30-50%: destroying relationship and kinship patterns. There was no health care. There were neither social services nor assistance to those in need. Famines were frequent. People died from want and hunger. Unwanted infants, especially girls, were abandoned in the streets. The prevailing cultural values encouraged people to scorn and reject those who were ill, disabled, or in need. The average life span was 30, and in the First century empire, the birth rate was declining. The death rate was climbing.
Into this urban hell, the first Christian congregations were born. These small groups of people with their new religion and new values began to live differently. Christians shared their resources in times of want and famine with an emphasis on widows, orphans and those most vulnerable. Caring for the economic needs of each other meant that fewer Christians died.
Christian congregations began the adoption of the unwanted female infants. The rapid adoption of unwanted children, especially females, in a society that accepted infanticide, meant that the congregations grew. Women were soon playing central and leadership roles in congregational life. And pagan Roman men were joining congregations through marriage.
Christian groups made caring for the sick a priority. Some became hospitals or clinics, especially in times of plague. Generally, out of fear, the ill were abandoned, but Christian communities became places of care. Survival rates for illness increase when the sick are cared for, even if that care is primitive, and so Christians survived illness at higher rates.
These missions of first congregations gave them a positive growth rate in a culture that was experiencing a population decline. Christian congregational mission in the first century explains why the church accomplished its 3.5-6% per year growth, resulting in half the empire being Christian by the beginning of the 4th century, moving their numbers from as few as 1,000 when Paul started his urban missionary work to as many as 300,000 by the close of the third century.

Now let’s look at the gospel of Mark and our reading for this first Sunday in Lent. The ancient congregation responsible for Mark was an urban congregation in a large city in the Roman Empire, perhaps Rome itself. Life is intense and fast. Things happen immediately. The congregation began in the Jewish synagogue, but moved beyond that space fairly quickly as it embraced more and more gentiles. Women are prominent in this congregation.
The book of Mark remembers Jesus primarily as a healer. In the thirteen chapters to his last week of life, there are seventeen healing encounters. Every time you turn around Jesus is healing. Look at how much healing takes place in these verses today.
By contrast, in Luke, written later, there are still sixteen or seventeen healing encounters, but it takes twenty-one chapters to cover the same ground. Jesus becomes much more of a story teller and teacher. That’s even more the case in Matthew who also has about sixteen or seventeen healing encounters. But now there are almost twice as many chapters as Mark. Jesus has long sermons and complex arguments with his opponents. And in John there are only four healing encounters and Jesus just talks on and on. But in Mark, in this version of the life of Jesus, he is primarily one who heals. Healing is important to these people.
The congregation must have been focused on caring for the sick. Healing may have been their mission. Their purpose. The building housing the congregation probably looked more like a field hospital rather than a church with sick people everywhere being cared for in every available corner. Caring for the sick or healing is the priority for this congregation just as shelter work and emergency relief is our priority at St. Johns in Madison.
We know that when people are sick, if they are cared for, they are more likely to recover. Care, no matter what that care is, assists in the healing process. Care increases the change that the person will get better, quicker. There are no miracles to this except the miracle of tender compassion and the way the body works. But the miracle of healing was what this congregation accomplished for many people. They did it by simply caring for those who were ill rather than abandoning them. And they were inspired for this mission by their memory of Jesus, recalling Jesus as healer whose death even brought the healing that comes at the close of life.
This reading begins Jesus’ ministry with healing. In these healings and through the book, we encounter the issues facing these first care givers, and details about how they accomplished the task. One of those issues is authority. Notice that the reading today quickly focuses on the question of authority. Authority in the community of Mark had become something different than in the Jewish synagogue where the congregation started. If you are a first century center for care, you will have many issues and things to decide. How do we care for the sick? Where shall we place them? How shall we feed them? What shall we do? These questions are asked over and over as mission is constructed.
So in the church of Mark, questions of moral and practical authority become important. And here, authority, moral authority, is grounded in healing. The basic principle by which we guide our lives is healing, that which brings wholeness and health and reconciliation of body and soul. That is the authority of the church of Mark. And healing is still a wonderful authoritative principle for living. Do you wonder what you should do? Well, what would be the most healing thing? Do that.
And this authority is put to the test whenever there was an urban plague. People often notice the intensity in Mark. Things happen immediately. The pace of life is fast, the issues intense in a mission hospital when people are dying.
People wonder why Mark is so secretive about the good news. But the small church was probably overwhelmed by the needs of the sick and did not want to broadly advertise what they did. There were just too many to care for already. This may be the case if there was a plague.
People notice the dark, end of the world, apocalyptic themes in Mark. But if half the people around you are dying as a plague spreads through the city, you may have a sense that life as we know it is over.
People notice the details of the many healings which reveal how healing was accomplished: cloth and the warmth it brings was important (think of LWR quilts), human touch was significant, oil or soothing ointment eased pain, naming the demon or diagnosis mattered, there is something to eat and nourishment makes a difference, people get up and move as we still do in physical therapy.
People notice the emphasis on alone time in Mark, and this may reflect the needs of care givers in intense urbanization to just get away. Care giving can be pretty overwhelming.
And people notice that the resurrection and the afterlife are not particularly strong themes in Mark. Other later memories of Jesus fully develop these things. Mark’s Jesus is too busy healing in this world to focus on a heaven. But it is clear in these pages that there is a growing sense of hope even when the community fails, even if we try to heal and the patient dies, even if we are filled with fear. And this emerging sense of hope, not yet fully developed, but still there, still real, energizes this people for its mission of caring for the sick. And so they write these words, inspired by the one who healed so many, so quickly, in such a short time.