Reflection for May 29, 2016

1 Kings 18:20-21, 30-39, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10

The dedication of the temple of Solomon is a very big deal. The beautiful temple has been built by the king, just as the nation has reached its pinnacle of power, prestige, wealth, and influence: its golden age. This is the dedication of a national cathedral. Here the sacrifices, oblations, and prayers of the people would be offered. Here the nation would cement its relationship to God. Here the people would worship the Lord of the universe. This would become the focus of national identity and purpose.

And so with great flourish the king in royal splendor leads the high liturgy of the dedication ceremony. And at the heart of this prayer of dedication, we have this reading this morning. It is a strange reading. For the prayer is that this temple, this worship, these people would be so sacred; that foreigners, outsiders, non-believers, and strangers would come here to pray and their prayers would be heard and answered.

A sanctuary so sacred that those on the edges can be heard. Occasionally that happens here. A few years ago one October at St. Johns, we decided to have an evening service to commemorate National Coming-Out Day: a day important for the LBGT community. It was a good service in many ways. But what I remember is that a musician came who that week had been fired from his job in a church because he was gay. He wondered if he could sing and play something in the service. And so he did.

He needed to sing in a sacred space and within a community that accepted him for who he was. He needed the reassurance that God still loved him even though he had lost his job. It was moving and healing for him and for us. As he was packing his keyboard to go and headed out the door, he apologized to me because he at first thought that I was the custodian. Only about half way through the service did he sense that I might be the pastor. We talked some more and then he decided that his mistake was actually not a mistake at all. A few months later I heard that he was working in another congregation in a different denomination.

Church is for those on the margins, the edges, the outcasts, the outsiders, the foreigners and strangers. It is their prayers God seeks. At least that is the point of Paul in the second reading as we open the book of Galatians. Paul will burn with anger in these pages because he has started this church in Galatia. It is a church that was dedicated to welcoming the Gentiles, welcoming the outsiders, the non-Jews, welcoming those who were different into the Way of Jesus. But in the meantime, some people had convinced the Galatians that in order to be a Christian one must be a Jew and follow the Jewish laws. For Paul the church was for all who believed in Jesus, regardless of their background, way of life, or ethnic identity. God sought the prayers of the outsiders and strangers. God wanted the church to open itself to the Gentiles of Galatia. And Paul is, as we shall see in the coming weeks as we read this letter, well, upset.

He was traveling as one might say in the homeless business. He stopped by St. Johns for financial assistance and then he wondered if I could open the sanctuary so that he could pray. He was on his way from Seattle to some place in Tennessee. And it was hard for him to explain why. Something about a lost love, and family, and the need now to move south. He was not old, but there is an aging that comes with this life, that etched his face. And in some ways he was just ready to move on. I asked if he had a faith, and he said no. He just wanted to pray. And as we sat in the sanctuary, he wondered if I would say a prayer with him. And so I did. Something about the safety of travelers and those on the move. And then he sat quietly shaping one of those wordless prayers that are so moving that I felt God giving him strength for the journey. For the mission we do here sometimes makes this place, this worship, these people so quietly sacred, that wayfarers, foreigners, outsiders, non-believers, and strangers come here to pray and their prayers are heard and answered.

God wants to hear and to answer the prayers of those on the edges, the outsiders, and strangers. Luke today remembers an encounter between Jesus and a Roman centurion in Capernaum. The Romans were the hated and feared rulers, and this army officer was the leader of the detachment charged with enforcing Roman law in this province. The Romans of the occupation were hated. But this man was not. Instead of using brute force, he won the respect of the people and assisted people in building up their community. And with this leadership style he won the cooperation of those who should have hated him. Even his servants are dear to him. And when one is ill, he asks his Jewish friends about Jesus. And they, out of mutual regard arrange for a meeting. The Romans are more hated than anyone else. Sometimes the powerful, the wealthy, or those in leadership are the ones on the margins of acceptability. Leadership can be a lonely thing. A Roman centurion would always be an outsider in Judea. That’s just the way the world works.

But God in Christ seeks the prayers of the foreigners, the outsiders, the Gentiles, those often not considered religious enough to ever darken a church door, even this Roman who goes to great pains to let Jesus know this is a request and not a command. And the prayer of the outsider is answered. The servant is healed.

One busy morning a middle aged African American woman stopped by the church to as they say “talk with the pastor.” And so we decided to talk in the gathering space this side of those glass doors. She was an evangelical Christian in her perspective, and she was wondering what to do about her family with whom she had become separated. Walls of hard feelings had built up over the years. And she was at that point in life when she wanted to work on that.

I genuinely felt sorry for her because she had to talk with me. She really would have been better served by an African American pastor, but she got me. She would have been better served by a female pastor more sensitive to the nuances of family life and mothering, but she got me. She needed someone who could focus on just her problem, and instead she got someone like me who ends up handling thirty or so issues every day. She needed someone who understood the conservative evangelical mindset, and instead she ended up with me. God could not have selected a worse pastor for her on her journey.

But after talking completely past each other several times, we decided to talk about prayer. And we decided that God was better at listening than talking. And she decided that this place was a good place to pray. And I suggested that she be the one to pray and I be the one to listen as she prayed to God.

And so it began. It was the most un-Lutheran thing I had ever heard. And the words just kept wandering around and around and around. I was beginning to think that God would run out of time before she ever finished.

But then something shifted in me and in the room. Slowly what seemed at times almost incoherent, was actually a woman in prayer, moving in a circular way around the presence of God, one revolution at a time, closer and closer to the heart of the matter. And as she prayed out her soul, creating a profound spiritual circle, it became clear to her what she should do about her family and the first steps she should take. And with that and a Thank You, Jesus and an Amen the prayer ended. And so God answered the prayer of this woman on the edge, on the margin, the prayer of the stranger to Lutheran ways, the prayer of a sister in our faith in the Jesus who can heal and restore.

The temple, the sacred space, and we, the people of God have been and continue to be called to elicit and honor the prayers of the lonely, the forsaken, the stranger, and those on the margins. May we attempt like Solomon, Paul, and Jesus, to live into that calling.


Reflection for Trinity Sunday, May 22, 2016

On the Sunday following Pentecost, Lutherans recall the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And the readings for the day speak of a creating God, a redeeming God in Jesus, and the continued presence of God in the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is not three gods, but one God, revealed in three different dimensions or aspects.

I have thought that the best way to consider the Trinity is to reflect on how one person can be different things to different people. One person can be a daughter, a mother, a niece, a grandmother, a sister, a spouse, an aunt, and a friend. It is always the same person, but the relationship changes the aspects or dimensions of the person.

There are of course other ways to look at the Trinity. St. Patrick thought of the three leafed clover, and used it to describe the unity in the Trinity. Sometimes the ultimate mystery of God is lifted up as we approach the ineffable union of the three in one.

But today, on a day when we are dedicating art glass for the serving of Holy Communion, and when we have afternoon and evening concerts at Oakwood celebrating our anniversary, when we have Trinitarian art above the altar and at the top of our stained glass windows, it might be good to reflect on the Trinity by recalling what goes into a work of art.

Art comes in all shapes and sizes. Many aspects of our life have a sense of art to them. Building a relationship or a career is an art really. Writing a paper or a sermon is an art. Kenny Pieper’s glass work on our altar this morning is art. There is art behind me on the wall and the shape of this room and in the windows, and in the shaping of these old pews.

There is art in our gardening and the mosaic and weaving work of the Women’s Mosaic Project. There is an art to running shelters and emergency relief. We become artists when we paint Ukrainian Easter eggs, organize our day around prayer, bake amazing cookies, stand for justice in public witness, engage in sports, care for the dying, and solve a difficult issue at work. Life lived well becomes art. And certainly our music in all its forms is an artistic enterprise.

The Trinity is a reminder that God is an artist. It speaks to what goes into art, both divine and human. For art first requires a creative capacity. In my hands, a lump of clay will always be just that: a lump. But in the right hands, in hands skilled for that purpose, the lump will take shape and form and become something, often a thing of beauty. Art first requires the creative capacity or the artist. And that is the first person of the Trinity. The creative capacity of the divine, in the creation of the cosmos: the greatest art we know. And as God dwells within us, each one of us also has some creative capacity.

But art is not only capacity. The second thing about art is that it is a physical expression. Something is created. It involves media, as they call it. Creative capacity is incarnated, made real, can be felt, seen, and heard. In Jesus we have the incarnation, the realness of the creative compassion of the divine. Jesus is love with skin on it. He is the means by which we can see deeply into the soul of a divine artist who suffers, dies, and rises to new hope. The second person of the Trinity reminds us of the concrete expression of the creative impulse to love one another. And as God concretely expresses that love in Jesus, so we are called not only to love each other but to do so concretely, in ways that can be felt, seen, and heard.

But what makes something art also involves a third thing: inspiration. The creative capacity is inspired to construct something concrete. And that art then inspires the person who encounters it. Art expresses the spirit of the artist and speaks to the spirit within the one who sees, listens, and feels. It is a spiritual enterprise. The inspired creative capacity of God loving the world, is made real in Jesus, and that inspires us to live our lives by a spirit of tender gentleness, kindness, and mutual affection even in the more difficult circumstances of life.

For us creatures, life itself is an art form. We are all given the creative capacity to make something of the lives we have been given. As we encounter God, we also are inspired to make things that matter, to inspire those whose lives we touch.

It is the Sunday of the Holy Trinity. And we believe in one divine artists who creates, who walks with us, and who inspires us.

Reflection for May 8, 2016

Acts 16:16-34, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, and John 17:20-26

     Let’s begin with the gospel reading, the third reading from John assigned for this day. I’m not sure how this reading strikes you. I wonder what you think of it. I am sure some of you are wondering why in the world this is in the Bible? What could it mean? Or perhaps you just think it is a tangled mess: a glob of words mixed together, that sort of make sense, but not really. I’m not sure how this reading strikes you.

The Jesus figure in John is a philosopher given to long speeches. These long speeches of Jesus actually are discourses in the classical Greek tradition like we might find in Plato. These speeches reflect the philosophy of John’s time and place. And so the words seem strange to us. We could spend a lot of time on these phrases and how they are assembled, but I may have bored you already.

It is sufficient to say that what is going on in these words is what I would call deep integration. Deep integration is the weaving together of all the strands of faith and life into one piece, one vision, one understanding. John is weaving here, taking this and that, pulling each string into the mix, creating a colorful tapestry of meaning and hope. He is deeply integrating Greek and Hebrew visions of divine hope, God, Jesus, and humanity.

Deep integration. Jesus is woven into the Father even as he prays. And they become one and the same since the beginning of time. And then the followers of Jesus are woven into this oneness, along with a spirit force, so that the people of God, Jesus, the origin of life, and the spirit are all deeply integrated into one piece, one hope, one prayer, one tapestry of love.

Deep integration. So what are the strands of awareness and life running through your mind as you walked into the door today? I am sure there are several. You may be thinking one minute about health, the next about God, the next about finances, the next about your crazy neighbor, the next about Jesus, the next about changes at work, the next about your sister, the next about the election. Life consists of disparate strands of reality and thought. We are many roles doing many different things all at the same time. We are all over the place. And Jesus is saying this morning, that it is time to pull it all together, time to weave, time to braid the strands, time to deeply integrate our lives around the one, the one thing that matters, that makes things happen, that unites us.

What is that oneness woven by John? We might use different words and categories than John, but we would probably settle on compassion and love and caring for others and all creation as God cared for the world. These form the framework upon which we would start to weave a sensible life, a common fabric, a deep integration that makes the difference between just existing and truly living. Get your life together. Weave. Move into the deeper integration of things and dreams. Weave yourself into God’s purpose and into the deep framework of human hope. Deep integration.

Now sometimes even the best of deep integrations seems more like a tangled web than anything else. That is the way it is sometimes. In honesty, John 17 may seem more tangled than visional. We all live with tangled messes, loose ends, and broken strands. Sometimes it may seem that we need to pull everything apart to start over. We live in a broken world, with broken people, and the fallibilities of our own hearts. But we are still called to weave, to integrate ourselves around the divine principle of loving compassion.

Sometimes as we weave, we encounter a disturbance in the force. A disturbance in the force. That is what is happens in the first reading today from Acts. The compassionate weaving of the apostles disturbs the “order” of things. Sometimes life becomes so structured, so nailed down, so secure, that it becomes a prison from which we need to escape. In those times, we may not be called to weave. We may be called to attend to the disturbance, the shift, the challenge.

The disturbing compassion of Peter and Paul challenges the economic power of the slave holder. The disturbing compassion of Peter and Paul leads to civil confrontation. The disturbing compassion of the disciples leads to a hymn sing in a jail. The disturbing compassion of God leads to an earthquake, and then a new community of the jailed and the jailers. There is a disturbance in the force.

How about you? And us? What are those disturbances calling us into new confrontations, new songs, new liberties, new communities? Are the forces that hold things down being disturbed?

Such disruptions happen along the way and eventually become woven into the fabric of our future, as we deeply integrate the disturbances into the strands of our lives.

Until, until we discover that necessary knot at the end of all weaving. Until we discover the end of the book of Revelation, our second reading today. Until we discover that at the end of our rope, at the source of the all disturbances, at the end of the line, at the edge of the tapestry, at the end of all time; there is God, waiting to integrate all things into the brightness of sacred presence by means of grace and love beyond our comprehension. There are always disturbances. As we deeply integrate our way to that heavenly place.