Reflection for March 2, 2014

Exodus 24:12-18, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9 

     When was the last time you felt the presence of God? Where did that happen? And how did it take place? I am sure that for many of us the answers would be different. Perhaps God comes to each person in a unique way.  We can have long stretches when God does not seem close. And then there are times when God seems near.

    Sometimes we carefully prepare ourselves to move into the presence of the divine. That is what Lent is: a season of preparation for coming into the full presence of God.  At other times God surprises us. We suddenly feel the warm presence of light or hope. Sometimes God comes to us at the peak moments in our lives or when we are in the midst of celebration. At other times God comes to us precisely when everything has fallen apart and we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

     Sometimes God comes to us in nature and in the most elemental ways. At other times God comes to us with great drama with a miraculous presence. Sometimes God comes to us when we are alone, in the quiet of our souls. At other times we come into the presence of God as we are lifted up through a group experience. Sometimes God comes to us when we are filled with peace. At other times we feel the presence of God in prophetic anger. 

     Sometimes God comes to us when we are engaged in our work or craft. At other times God comes to us when we’ve had a chance to get away. Sometimes God comes to us in the careful analysis of God’s scripture. At other times God comes to us in the revelation and spirit of our hearts. Sometimes God comes to us in music. At other times God comes to us in silence.

          When was the last time you felt the presence of God? Where did that happen? And how did it take place? These are questions that mark the Christian experience. They are important questions, because without the presence of God in our lives, our faith life withers and fades. Regardless of how God comes to us, we need at least now and then the sense that God is walking with us along life’s path. Somehow, someway, each one of us needs to encounter God

     This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which means that spring is just around the corner and Lent is beginning. This is the last Sunday of the Christmas and Epiphany cycle. On the final Sunday of that season, today, Christians for centuries recall the traditional festival of transfiguration Sunday.

     What we are in the transfiguration recalling is a deeply moving religious experience of the three disciples with Jesus when they were on a mountain top. Well into their time with Jesus, after they had experienced many things together; their experience and vision of Jesus shifted. Jesus was revealed as being about much more than the healing in Galilean villages and the teachings of a wandering rabbi.  The healing and the teaching were of more profound proportion. Jesus had tapped into the mysterious reservoir of love and peace that undergirds the universe. Intimately grounded in that power, Jesus was changed or transformed as they were on the mountain together. Their experience of Jesus in this new way is what we recall on this day as the transfiguration.

     The transfiguration reminds us as well, that as we move through this time of the year, as we prepare our minds and hearts for Lent, as we encounter again the stories of the great passion, we also encounter God in deep and mysterious ways. For with Ash Wednesday we begin a journey that each year transforms us as we renew our lives around the principles of love, hope and compassion.

     And the transfiguration story also reminds us that when we experience the sacred in our own ways, and our own seasons, there are often some common characteristics that mark our religious experience, our epiphanies.

     When we feel God is close, we often experience our tradition, as do the disciples when they see Jesus with Moses and Elijah, but that tradition is part of something new and fresh.

     When we feel God close, we often are on a mountain top or a height or a peak, like Moses and Jesus and the disciples, from which we can see things differently and more deeply.

     When we feel God is close, we may find a mist or a cloud, like Moses and the disciples of Jesus, and sense that there is as much mystery as there is clarity to the great divine presence, that we may be humbled by what we cannot see even as we are inspired by what we can.

     When we feel God is close, we may hear a voice, like the disciples, which may remind us of thunder or a quiet stillness we sense with us: a voice that helps us discern for ourselves the best way down this mountain or up this hill as we continue our lives.

     When we feel God is close, we may not be able to talk about it, like the disciples this morning, because God is something that we cannot fully express and because it may be the case people around us may not understand.

     When we feel God close, we often are able, like I Peter this morning, to recall that experience and use it to guide our lives and decision making as we go forward.

     In our times when God is close, we draw close to our tradition and reshape it, we find ourselves at high points of life, we use the experience to guide our lives, we find as much mist as clarity, we may hear voices, and it’s something we may not feel free to share.

     And in such ways and means God comes to us still.  When was the last time you felt the presence of God? Where did that happen? And how did it take place? For each of us the answers are different. Perhaps God comes to each person in a unique way.  And yet, no matter how unique, in each case we are encountering the same God, moving us ever more deeply into the mysterious mists of grace.

Reflection for February 23, 2014

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48

      The first reading for today is from Leviticus. I know: we all just love Leviticus. J But its opening line is probably the theme for the day: For you are to be a holy people. We, who are the people of God, are called to be holy.

     What does that mean? What does it mean to be holy? In the ancient mind, that which was holy was set aside. It was reserved, or made special because it was that which was set aside for an offering to God. A ram to be offered in the temple was set aside or holy. A bushel basket full of wheat to be offered in the temple was set aside or holy. A sacred place or a structure or a building which was set aside for the worship of God was holy.  That which was holy was set aside. And part of being holy was being dedicated to the presence of God for a sacred purpose.  This being setting aside for the sacred purpose made something or someone holy.

     Here an entire community of people is deemed holy. The people of God are set aside for a sacred purpose: the expression of the ultimate presence of God in the world. God’s people in how they live are to witness to the sacred purpose. The three readings together speak to three ways in which people are challenged to be the holy people of God: (1) how we as a community treat those who have little; (2) how well we are able to move beyond our secondary allegiances into deeper reservoirs of love; and (3) how we ultimately treat others in the charity of our minds.  Each of these areas of life, one public, one relational, and one deeply personal, are part of being the holy ones of God.  

 First, how we as a community treat those who have little: In the first reading, we have a section of the holiness code of Leviticus. Leviticus is an ancient law book which describes how religious, social, economic, and personal life is to be conducted.  We probably do not want to structure our entire lives around the book of Leviticus. And there is some doubt as to whether or not life in ancient Israel was actually constructed around these laws. But the regulations presented in this form, assembled by a group of priests idealizing the holy, probably reflect the values of ancient Israel in its social and economic life together.

     Here we have provisions for the poor and resident aliens; prohibitions against stealing, deceit, and unjust business practices; fair treatment of workers; injunctions against mistreating those with disabilities or special needs; justice and fairness regardless of social status.

     And the message of these economic statutes is clear to us, even today. A holy people use their personal resources as well as laws and regulations to limit greed and to protect those in want or with special vulnerabilities. How well we do this determines whether or not we are holy.

Second, how well we are able to move beyond our secondary allegiances into deeper reservoirs of love:  In that second reading, which continues this winter’s readings from I Corinthians, Paul is still working on conflict in this early congregation and the factions or groups within the congregation who are fighting with each other. It seems, from the beginning, Christians have struggled with each other. Here in Corinth, some people liked one former pastor more than another former pastor, and there is a great deal of disagreement about other matters as well. Most of this ancient letter is about most of those disagreements.

     But it is clear that Paul thinks that for all its arguments and squabbles, bickering and backbiting, these people are a sacred people, the holy building or temple of God, the sacred body of Christ.  He calls them to move beyond the empty arguments and puffed up explanations and justifications. He calls them to move beyond their loyalties to one leader or another. That in his mind is all secondary stuff. A sacred people moves beyond secondary allegiances into deeper reservoirs of love. The image of that love is not some issue we all want to discuss until we drop over dead. The image of that love is not a bunch of Christians pointing to one leader or another as more or less effective. The image of that love is not a profound thought or a catchy phrase. The image of that sacred reservoir of love is a Jesus who emptied himself of all pride and in ultimate humility suffered death as one of us all.

     And not only here, but throughout his early letters, Paul calls us to get over whatever it is we are worried about or are arguing about, and to get back to the cross of Christ and sharing that love with everyone around. We are a sacred people, called to move beyond our allegiances, presuppositions, arguments, and attitudes.

Third, how we ultimately treat others in the charity of our minds:  Finally, in the third reading Jesus is speaking in the Sermon on the Mount. This reading continues the theme of intense or passionate morality from last week’s reading from the same sermon. Here the focus goes deeply into the person’s heart and mind. Jesus says that to be the holy people of God, to be the ones that do the kingdom, who live by the will of God: these people in sacred trust actually treat their enemies as loved ones. This is primarily a decision of the heart, and it is not easily made.  But we are called to change our minds in such a way that we no longer think first about retaliation or self preservation, but to witness to the power of love in the life of the one we despise. To get to this sacred point, God gives us prayer and confidence. And above all we are given the knowing that God loves us and cares for us and will protect and sustain us. We are simply called to reflect that confidence for others in our lives. Being holy means letting go of all that makes us angry. Just let it go. And feel and then express the loving presence of God in our minds and hearts, for ourselves, our loved ones, and our enemies.  

 

How we as a community treat those who have little; how we move beyond our secondary allegiances into deeper reservoirs of love; and how we ultimately treat others in the charity of our minds: these are the sacred standards for the people of God. Will we ever accomplish these things? No. But we are called to set ourselves aside, to do what we can to move beyond greed, to give up the secondary so that God’s will is what we’re after, and to move into the deepest reservoirs of the mysterious love of God.

 

Reflections for February 16, 2014

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37 

     Lent and Easter are so late this year; we are still in the season of Epiphany. By now, Epiphany, the season of the Wiseman, star of Bethlehem, gifts, and the beginning of the life of Jesus: this Epiphany is running on fumes. Very seldom do we get to the Epiphany readings we have today because by now we are usually into Lent. But these lessons do help us reflect on life. Let’s look at them together.

     In the first reading, the historian describes that great moment when the people of God are about to cross the river Jordan to conquer the Promised Land. They had been slaves in Egypt, had been liberated by their God, and had wandered in the desert wilderness for forty years.  As they stand on the banks of the river, ready to cross, to begin their conquest of the Canaanites, this speech is used by their leaders to challenge the people to follow the path outlined by the god of the desert.  The people are called to live principled lives as they enter the land. Choose life.

     Recent work in ancient archeology, sociology, and history gives us a somewhat revised perspective on the first reading this morning. This is a complicated issue and I think it may be difficult to boil it down to a few sentences, but let me try. 

     As this group of desert nomads began to embrace a different way of life: including the new invention of agriculture, and the possibilities for living in larger groups and more permanent villages, and cities, they pressed into areas more suitable for cultivation of crops rather than grazing. (It’s easier to grow corn in Iowa than it is in Wyoming.) 

     This desert tribal confederation began to infiltrate the more agricultural land to their west occupied by a different cultural group, the Canaanites to the west of the Jordan River. The Canaanite culture was already shaped around cities and agriculture, and was experiencing tension and conflict between the urban elite and the agricultural villages. This hierarchical society was beginning to crumble. In some areas a revolution was brewing in rural areas. As these desert people infiltrated the area, they joined forces with the revolutionaries against the urban elites, and the alliance brought a regime change and a cultural shift.

     In the stories of Deuteronomy and Joshua we have a highly massaged version of this process, told from the perspective of the desert people. But we also have clues to this alliance and revolutionary take over. The battle of Jericho is one of several stories which speak to the urban centers, their power and collapse. The struggle between the views of the desert and the farm are etched in the struggles between the two religions of YHWH and Baal. A defeated religion would have died, but the alliance created a struggle between two competing religions.  The struggle between the two sides of the alliance is found in the political ups and downs of people like Elijah.

     I think all this might be important for us. Personally. For we also often portray our lives as having great turning points, when we cross that river, when we make a change, and when we decide to stand for something new.  Indeed this call to choose, to change, and to take a stand is deeply embedded in our own Christian tradition. We like to point to moments of decision and say, that’s when things changed.  We construct our life drama around such turning points. And we often clothe these moments in language of struggle and overcoming obstacles with strength or force of character or will. We may even use the military language of victory and defeat as we describe the epic moments when our lives were changed.

     And that may all be true sometimes. But I wonder if more often what we see as a sudden shift or a new threshold is actually the accumulation of things that have been building up, the sum of many smaller moments or steps along the way that we did not notice, slower change in which new things are integrated with old in a process rather than a revolutionary moment. Stories need climaxes, and so we create them for our lives just as this historian has. But so much of life is actually determined by the gradual movement of events so small we may not even notice them, events that shape our daily lives and determine how the story will end.

     A graduation from high school may be a dramatic moment, calling for a speech to be made about now it’s time to go out there and conquer the world. But it is actually something constructed from countless other moments involving effort, study, recovery after little disasters, and struggle. A wedding may be a dramatic moment, but it too is a culmination of many small encounters some of which we cannot even remember but which still may determine whether or not the wedding would take place or how it will last.

     The gradually infiltration of the desert people into the lower classes of the Canaanite land until enough strength resulted in the overthrow of the urban elites and the ensuing struggle of the two new religions was a long iron age social process and not nearly as interesting or dramatic as the story of a great conquest with the falling walls of cities like Jericho. But it is probably closer to the truth.  We too will shape our lives into dramatic moments often, like the historian this morning, embellishing the record with our own particular perspectives.

       So this morning, the first reading calls us to look at those moments of crisis in our lives and to see the choices that must be made in those crises. But the first reading also calls us to look at the more prosaic details buried in, with, and under the turning points we create of our lives, and how they contribute to the dramas we shape, yes shape, for ourselves.

 

    The second and third readings today also call us to shift our vision as we reflect on living as the people of God. In right living, so much of the time we have sensed that leading a moral life is following the rules. There is much truth to this. Rules, ordinances, statutes, and regulation are all important in the conduct of human affairs and in the organization of our lives around the personal and common good.  Christians are known for our moral rules.

    Christians are known for our rules. But what about Jesus? He seems to be reacting to the criticism that he doesn’t care about the rules. Notice that Jesus says the rules are important, but today Jesus calls us to something else in the area of morality. For in the Christian readings this morning, living the life of goodness is no longer about the rules. It is about moral intensity. Christian morality in these readings is not determined by the regulations or what is required of us, but by our intense passion for the moral and the right.  And in the second and third reading we get the impression that we are called to be intense in our desire for the good. Five areas of life are lifted up for our moral passion: care for the adversary, anger, sexuality, commitment, and speech.

     Paul says in Corinthians, the second reading, that as Christians we need to be morally passionate about caring for those who differ from us, those we argue with. It is not enough for us to hold our convictions and to respect the convictions of others. By the intense morality of Jesus, we are called to honor, uphold, love, and unite with those who are our adversaries or enemies.

    In the third reading, Jesus says that as Christians it is not enough to refrain from hurting others.  We are called by moral intensity to move through our anger into love, so that even in our hearts we wish others, no matter who they are, well.

     Jesus says that in matters of sexuality, it is not enough to refrain from adultery. We are called by moral intensity to be pure in thought and to practice restraint when lust hurts others.

     Jesus says that in matters of commitment, like marriage, it is not enough to be an honest and good partner. We are called by moral intensity to strive to deepen our commitments, all of them, with a sense of graceful love.

    Jesus says that in matters of speech, it is not enough to speak well of others and to use powerful words. We are called by moral intensity to strive to speak words of love and to be people whose word is sufficient, knowing that the word of compassion, spoken in quiet love, is the most powerful word of all.

      Today, five areas of life are lifted up for our moral passion: care of the adversary, anger, sexuality, commitment, and speech.  Each one of us probably has one or two things to work on. For these are times that call for rules and regulations. But more, these are times that call for passionate morality, intense desire to see the good in ourselves and in others, in word, in sex and love, in commitments, in thoughts about those who differ from us. It is by the measure of our passion, that we discern what is good, right, and true as we assemble the moments of our lives into the story of God’s love we sometimes suddenly, sometimes slowly see.

      By now, Epiphany, the season of the Wiseman, star of Bethlehem, gifts, and the beginning of the life of Jesus — this Epiphany is running on fumes, and we still have a way to go.  But these readings do help us reflect on life with God as we begin to feel God’s coming spring.

 

 

Reflection for February 9, 2014

Isaiah 58:1-12, I Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20 

     There are many ways a group of Christians can go wrong, but two are lifted up in these readings today.  Isaiah says that we can get so caught up in the world of worship and prayer that we miss the point of being the people of God: to help those in need, to care for the poor, and to strive for justice, serving others as best we can with a humble heart. Isaiah says this week, as the prophet Micah did in last week’s reading, that justice and compassion is the true worship of God.  And when we become preoccupied with our liturgical forms and song selections and those churchly things, we are missing the point of God’s intention for the people of God.  

       The second thing that can lead Christians astray is the preoccupation with ideas, thoughts and wisdom. We become rather attached to our ideas, even making them into doctrines, regulations, and guidelines. This desire to be thought-filled is the temptation Paul outlines in the second reading from I Corinthians which continues our late winter series of readings. We have reached the second chapter of Corinthians, and Paul is trying to move the people beyond the thoughts of the day into a deep relationship with God.

      Lutherans especially have been known to make Christianity into a series of concepts or understandings or perspectives that must be held in order to be Christian. But the faith we have in Christ is not about ideas. It is about being open to the Spirit, to new things, and that which does not make sense, or the sense-less. And when we make Christianity about what we think rather than what we do, we miss its point: to be led by the spirit to be open to others.

     Making our worship out to be more than it is. Making our ideas more important than our actions in a broken world. These are two temptations that can easily cause us to loose our saltiness as Jesus might say. These are the two temptations that may cause us to hide the lamp of love that has been lit in our hearts.

     And then there is that third temptation that can snuff out the light and take the flavor away. That is the temptation to think that the only thing that matters is care for those in need, working for justice and trying to do the good. Christian dedication to do the good is the important thing: just not the only thing. For day after day, as we strive to be the people of God, our hearts and minds need to be nourished. And that is the role of Christian worship and thought. We need to be fed for the effort, renewed for the journey, equipped to continue. That is why we assemble in worship and reflection, Sunday after Sunday.

     With all the temptations in mind, it becomes important to remind ourselves of our purpose as a congregation. We are called to be a welcoming servant in the heart of this city.  In that regard we should remember that each week about 100 people come through our doors for church matters. But over 600 people come through our doors for shelter, for financial help, for assistance in refugee settlement, for follow-up after time in jail, for help recovering from addiction. With all that traffic, we even had to replace a door last year.  St. Johns is a congregation, but more so,it is a site for service.

     Over the years our giving to those in need through the emergency relief fund has dramatically increased.  Ten years ago we were distributing about $14,000 each year to those in need. In 2013, $56,000 was given to those in need.  For our third year in a row we distributed over $50,000. Over the last decade we have given away almost a quarter of a million dollars in the emergency fund.   In 2013 approximately 2,000 assistance checks were written for the year with an average amount of about $28.00. Our total average worship attendance for a year was 4,400; so almost one assistance check was written for every two people in worship all year long.

    Ten years ago we had one shelter here. It provides essential shelter for 40 or so men each night of the year. Especially this winter, the night shelter has become of critical importance. St. Johns is a place in the winter that makes a difference between life and death.

     Now we have a partnership with LSS for Off the Square Club for a strong program during the day for those who are experiencing mental illness, doubling our capacity to be a home for those in need.

     And here is the place where refugee settlement is arranged, where people come for group meetings facing addition, usually in the same room used by our Lutheran World Relief quilters, and where women rebuild their lives after time in jail.  As a congregation, we have taken our mission of service and justice to heart.

     But all of that means that we face certain challenges. We could probably give away more, but we would need more administration in the background in order to do so. That would increase our cost. Our volunteer core for the emergency relief could use some younger folks involved. The volunteers play a critical role in making that ministry happen.

     We need to lift up our congregational contact with the shelters. That is the importance of the Sunday evening meal program that Karen Reiner has led for longer than I know. She can always use people to sign up and help with that effort of feeding those who come to the shelters.

     We need to stand by Off the Square Club as they go through a time of repair and equipment replacement, and then work with other funders as well as us in the renewal of space downstairs. By the way, if you would like to help replace a dishwasher, let me know.

     Because of the low temperatures, heating costs will be high for the poor for this year. Unpaid utility bills will be more of a challenge this spring. Each year we face a challenge when the deadline for utility cut offs hits Wisconsin. This spring those needs will be greater than usual.

     In the area of advocacy, I’ve begun to wonder if we should consider somehow making a connection with the city of Fitchburg. I really don’t know how to do this, but interestingly, much of our housing support goes to people who live in Fitchburg, because that community has less support for people in need of financial assistance for housing than other communities in Dane County.

     We will need to communicate to others, especially those new to the near east side, and also to our own sister congregations, the importance of our mission and our purpose for being here. This week I wrote two thank you notes to congregations who contribute to the emergency fund regularly, First United Church of Christ and Luther Memorial.

     We should think about that stack of floors where the quilters meet, the emergency fund and the refugee settlement are housed, and where AA groups gather. That space needs work and the windows should be replaced soon. We’ll need to support the growing Mosaic project as their murals, arts, and garden again fill up our space. And we will need down the road to expand the amount of space available for refugee settlement.

     Those are some of the ways we can keep our saltiness and light our lamps in the coming year, and I invite all of you to join in this effort.

     And in the meantime let us reflect and think as well as we can on the nature of God in the world, especially this month focusing in adult forums on other faith traditions and their commitment to caring ministry, as well as our efforts with Sunday learning Place and confirmation to assist our young in constructing balanced lives of faith. Let’s encourage a group of our high school young people on their way to Detroit to the church-wide youth assembly in August of 2015, and schedule that first meeting for March.  Let’s learn more about how to be a welcoming congregation.

    And let’s worship like we mean it. Let’s sing our hearts out, and enjoy the richness of our ensembles and choirs. Let’s all pray that Kristie’s toe get’s better so that she can play that wonderful organ again before too long. The piano has been great through the winter months, but we all will be lifted up when it’s time to play the organ again. And let’s learn a new liturgy for Lent this year as we focus during that coming season on care of the earth just as spring errupts.

     It’s time to eat some salt. It’s time to light lamps. There are cold and hungry people out there. We know what to do, and our hearts and minds need to be nourished for these tasks ahead. Amen.