Reflection for March 30, 2014

1 Samuel 16:1-13, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

      Although I love the Samuel stories, and this first reading is a great Samuel story of political intrigue that would rival Scandal or House of Cards, filled with all that iron age detail to unpack as we rediscover  those primitive instincts still shaping us despite our modernity; I think today we are even more challenged by the story in the third reading.

     What is it about the gospel of John? Did you notice how long, I mean, long the gospel reading was? It’s too long. No really. It is too long. A story like this should be just about eight to ten verses. That’s how long it usually takes Jesus to do a major healing in the Bible. A quick introduction, some character formation, a description of the event, and some follow-up verses on the reactions or consequences, and then we are on to the next story. Why is this healing so long that we needed to actually sit down for the gospel reading this Sunday? What is John up to? Is he just verbose?

     The case could be made that John is too wordy, especially for today’s reader. But this is a peculiar long story in which most of the verses do not involve Jesus. That’s unusual for the gospels. For twenty seven verses Jesus is not part of the story. The story’s characters in those verses are the blind-now-seeing man, his parents, and various priests and religious authorities. In all of the gospels, the only other times that Jesus is not acting or speaking for so many verses are the stories of his birth in Matthew and Luke, where the parents, shepherds, Eastern sages and Herod are the principle players. So this reading today from John is long, unusual, and complicated even for John’s standards. What is going on in this extended drawn out tale?

     Jo-Ann Brant, in her commentary, John (Baker Academic, 2011), identifies what John may be up to as he tells this particular story. The story of the healing of the blind beggar and the reaction of the people is a mise en abyme (mis-on-abeam) or a scene within a scene: a little story within the bigger story. The effect of the mise en abyme is to place the reader between two mirrors, so that there is a deepening of the visual or the meaning as one stands between a series of infinite reflections. Such a little story comes often in the center of the bigger story, just as we are almost halfway through the book of John. And the little story tells us what is going on in the bigger story. They are reflections of each other. Shakespeare sometimes puts a play within one of his plays in this way: the little play helps reflect what is happening in the larger play.

     Here, chapter nine is the story of the blind man. But it is also the story of Jesus in the larger gospel of John. The blind man and Jesus are reflections of each other. The crowd deliberates on the identity of the blind man, just as in the passion the crowd deliberates on the identity of Jesus. The story of the blind man comes in scenes marked by exits and entrances in the interrogation by Pharisees and authorities, just as it is in the story of Jesus in his coming passion and death. In the story of the blind man, the key phrase is “I am the one,” just as in the passion Jesus says “I am he.” Both the blind man and Jesus speak frankly in their appearances before the authorities. Both express a sarcastic astonishment that the Pharisees do not get this. Both Jesus and the blind man are treated as invalid witnesses in their trials. Both are accused of being sinners. Both are accused of teaching without authority.  Both have complicated relationships with their parents and families. And as the blind man is thrown out of the assembly; in the coming holy week, Jesus throws the money changers out of the temple. Just as words alone do not heal the blind man, but the physical is required; so also it is only through physical crucifixion that the healing of the world can be accomplished.

     In many ways, this chapter is so long because the blind man is the Jesus of the passion, and in this chapter, in this little reflecting story within the larger story of Jesus, we have a foretaste of what is to come. What is coming is the healing of the world, reflected in infinite iterations, so that all might see God. This healing of the world will require the physical. The healing and the physician who brings it will be interrogated and rejected by people who just don’t get it. But in the end, we will encounter that someone who says, I am the one. I am the way, the truth, the life, the shepherd, the door, the lamb, and the light. I am the one who will help us see our way into a new relationship with God, each other and the world.

     At first this morning we may not have seen Jesus in the blind beggar, just as we often don’t see Jesus in the homeless and street people around us. And yet it is in the face of the poor, the marginalized, the sick, the dying, the lost, the homeless, the rejected, and the forsaken that we find the image of God. Not just in John, but on the streets of Madison, God is a blind beggar, healed and healing, with a long, sometimes too long, story to tell. And all of that is what we are called “to see.”

     But this story within the story is not just about Jesus and the beggar. Its reflections are infinite. Our lives become reflections: become little stories within the larger story of God’s recovery of the world. We are invited into this story, invited to identify with Jesus and the beggar by the details of life, rejection, death, and healing we share together. Our lives also come in scenes marked by exits and entrances of various friends, adversaries, and family members, as we face a variety of challenges and authorities. Those around us deliberate on our identity, as people ask, “Well, who do you think you are?” when we try to do what is right.

     In our own lives, one of the key things we need to do is figure out who we are so that we are able to say, “I am who I am. I am that one. This is who I am.” With both the blind man and Jesus, we too need to speak frankly at least now and then. With both Jesus and the blind man, we may be astonished that those around us are clueless. With both Jesus and the blind man, those around us may invalidate our stories, or consider us sinners. With both Jesus and the blind man, our explanations can often be discarded.  And sometimes every one of us has been asked to leave one group or another. And just as words alone do not heal the blind man nor the world, so also now and then we need to get physical and use a little grit and spit to accomplish our muddy purpose.

     Until our own story becomes one of many reflections, a little reflection used by future readers “to see” the larger image of God’s expanding grace for all creation.    

Reflection for March 23, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

      Let’s begin with the first reading from Exodus. The opening words of the reading are important. They speak of the wilderness wandering of the people of Israel.  After their liberation from bondage in Egypt before they come to the Promised Land, they wander in a wilderness of “sin,” the writer says, as we all do when we move from where we were to where we need to be. The writer says they move through the wilderness in stages. So it is with us. We move through the wilderness of sorrow, anger, sin and brokenness in stages, sometimes with painful steps and slow.

     But there is more in this reading. I must admit that sometimes in my pastoral past, I took some comfort in Exodus 17, because it describes the tensions and challenges of religious leadership. Like most leaders and Moses, pastors sometimes feel blamed for things beyond their control as groups go through the challenges of the wilderness. Yet, that’s not really where I have been in these years with you. Actually, as a congregation, you have been gracious and understanding of my challenges and shortcomings, and I thank you for that.

     But there is more in this reading than the stages of recovery or the challenges of leadership. Something primitive. If you drive from Madison to Dubuque on Highway 151, you drive through areas where the hills have been cut away so that a more level road may proceed through the hills. As you drive through the cutaways on either side, you see thousands of years of layered rock, mostly sandstone. The geology of the driftless area of Wisconsin is revealed. Mostly the layers are neatly arranged, but once in awhile you can see cracks in the rock from which water flows.  Something caused these cracks, something powerful or violent.

      In the summer you can see the water as it keeps the rock wet. But in the winter, the water freezes as it emerges from the rock and great icicles start to form, as in the ice caves of Lake Superior that have been unique in this cold weather. By the size of the icicles in the cutaways along the highway, you sense the power of the flow of water from the crack in the rock.

     Exodus 17 contains a primitive memory regarding a large crack in a rock near a place called Horeb from which a spring of water flowed, probably in abundance.  And according to the last verses of the reading, this story is told not to help us through the stages of life, nor to address problems of leadership, but to explain the name of a particular ancient spring flowing abundantly from a crack in a rock. To the primitive mind, such cracks would witness to a powerful struggle in which the natural spirit forces challenged each other with massive violence as they tested one another.  The spring flowing from the cracked rock would witness to the conflict and struggle of the natural spirits, perhaps the struggle between the spirit of rock and the spirit of water. And so the place was called Massah and/or Meribah. Massah means trial, test or challenge. Meribah means conflict or struggle or unrelenting unhappiness that can erupt with power.

     The most primitive memories of this rock cut spring may also involve conflict and challenges among tribes for rights to this water. And it may have become a place for some tribes where strength was tested in rites of passage.

     The writer of Exodus is preserving these most primitive names of the rock cut spring: Massah and Meribah.  But the writer of Exodus does not want anyone to believe anymore in nature spirits, water and rock sprites or that sort of thing. For by now the people of Israel have entered the land and hold a new religion based not on the worship of nature, but the worship of an elusive desert God.

     So Exodus 17 weaves a new story around the place named for struggle, challenge, and violent collision of spirits.  Yes, this spring flowing from the fissure in the rock is a place of testing, challenge and conflict; but in Exodus the struggle between God and the people of God replaces the natural violence of water and rock. In the Exodus rendition, the power of the desert God breaks open the stone. And the struggle between Moses, God and the people becomes the new reasoning behind the name of the spring. Exodus 17 is an example of ancient “spin” placed on even older name and tradition. It is an example of one religion re-working the sacred space of an earlier religion for its own purposes.

     Then later Exodus 17 itself gets reworked or re-spun: this time in the Book of Numbers. In Numbers chapter 20, the conflict, testing and struggle are between Moses and God. Moses gets angry with God. Moses gets so angry that he disobeys God and strikes the stone in anger, breaking it open. For this angry challenge and testing, Moses will die. But not before he completes his mission of moving the people through the wilderness. The book of Numbers wants to limit the reader’s respect for Moses. Why? Because it is written by priests whose patriarch is Aaron rather than Moses. There is now tension between these two priestly casts; and in their telling of the story, Aaron is lifted up. Moses is portrayed as less than perfect.

     So what we have here is story of challenge, trial, struggle, and conflict at an ancient spring, told and retold so that the memories of the conflict are changed with each telling. So what we have here is the story of the new people changing the memory to fit new perspectives and realities. So what we have here is a primitive example of the spin we still put on our stories as we go through our lives and talk about our well springs, rocks and conflicts.

     I would like to pause here for a moment and think a bit about ourselves and this story. We shape and reshape the stories of our conflicts. We revise things as we try to face new perspectives and realities. We still spin the stories of struggle that shape us. And sometimes we are so caught up in the spin we put on things, we become trapped in the web we have woven, unable to go more deeply into what really happened. We think we have the truth, but what we have is our telling of it.

     Lent is a time of self examination: a time when we seriously and honestly admit to God and ourselves, what we have done and what we have left undone. Lent is a time when we realize that we have glossed over or revised our stories so that they are more in keeping with our perspectives and self interests. Lent is a time for re-thinking our own history of challenge, struggle, and conflict and what we have made of it. Lent is a time of moving through the layers of rationalizations we have made until we encounter the God beyond all our reasons. Lent is a time when we stop arguing about what to call the spring of love flowing in our lives and instead bathe together in its waters. For beyond all the layers of naming, in the desert of sin, is this remarkable place where water flows, giving us the strength we need to make it through the stages of recovery and renewal.  It’s not the name of the spring that matters. What matters is the spring itself, surging through the violence of life, the water beyond naming, the powerful, angry grace of solid rock split open by the waters of life.

      Until we sense, as Teilard de Chardin says in The Divine Milieu almost sixty years ago (written in 1957, translated into English, 1960, Harper and Row, the beginning of Part III):

     All around us, we have only to go a little beyond the frontier of sensible appearances in order to see the divine welling up and bursting through. But it is not only close to us, near us, that the divine presence has revealed itself. It has sprung up so universally, and we find ourselves so surrounded and transfixed by it, that there is no room left to adore it, even within ourselves.

     By means of all created things, without exception, the divine confronts us, changes us, and shapes us. We think of it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its layers.

      And with that we come to another spring or well, this time in the gospel of John. This is the well of Jacob. This well also has a history, but I’ve already spent too much time on the history of springs. The people remember it as the well Jacob gave to Joseph, his son. By the time of Jesus, the well has become the watering source for the Samaritan branch of the people.  Although the Jews and the Samaritans intensely dislike each other, Jesus and the disciples have taken a trip to Samaria. Jesus is tired and stops by the well. He is thirsty, but has no bucket. So he asks the woman at the well for assistance. They strike up a conversation. This woman gossips about the encounter, and as a result, the gospel is shared in this village.

     Now this well also drips with conflict, struggle, challenge, and testing. There is more conflict in the story of Jacob than we can name here. The same is true for the story of his son Joseph. There is conflict between Jews and Samaritans. There is tension between men and women as lifted up in the story.  And the story speaks to the conflict between what is proper behavior and openness to those who do not meet the standards of propriety.

     And no one spins a story anywhere in the Bible better than the writer of John, who puts endless theological twists on the life of Jesus. Here John makes a point he often does: that to find Jesus we must dip more deeply. Jesus is about the spiritual. He is focused not on eating, but the bread of life. He is focused not on drink, but the water of life. He is focused on something called eternal life breaking into this life.

      And it is this water of life, this bread of life, this new life of the spirit, to which John points Jesus and us, again and again. We are reminded to draw more deeply from the wellspring of our souls, from the well of God’s grace, from the cracks in the solid rock of everyday life, so that the water flows more fully, quenching our thirst for the truth about who we are, and washing us fully in springs of living water and hope.

     But more than that. In the deeper reservoir of grace, love, and hope, we are able to renew ourselves, and find new ways to face the challenges, the struggles, the testing, the conflict that still seem to be part of the human experience. In the deep reservoir of grace and love, like the woman in the story, we encounter Jesus whose life and death speaks to the mystery of God’s love that flows forth from the violence of the cross. In the end, perhaps, it is time to name our lives, our places, and our events not after conflicts, nor our ancestors nor heroes or great men and women of faith, but after our ancient and present yearnings for truth, and justice, peace and love, hope and beauty in the midst of struggle.

Reflection for March 16, 2014

Genesis 12:1-4a, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17 

I.

     Faith seems to be a common theme in the three readings today. The first reading describes Abraham: a person of faith who trusts the future that God lays out for his family. I’d like us to note a small detail in the story. Abraham is 75 years old. This is a story about a seventy-five year old moving, like many 75 year olds actually do. There is a great deal of transition at this time in life. And note the presence of the younger generation, Lot, assisting in the move. These kinds of transition always call for courage and faith, confidence as one does what is best.

     The second reading comments on Abraham’s faith as the foundation for the courage Abraham needed to embrace the plans of God. And the third reading, the dialog between Jesus and Nicodemus, speaks of seeing the world with the eyes of faith, in the spirit, if you will, so that by faith in God, we enter a new perspective or understanding. And again in this lesson, note another detail regarding age. Nicodemus refers to someone older being born again, to the adult or older person discovering a new way to think and be.

     Faith. We often speak of it as a noun, or something we possess. But what if faith were a verb: something we did not think but something we did? What if it described actions rather than a set of principles or doctrines? What would faith be, if it were something done by people as they went about their lives? I wonder what kind of action faith would be?

     In the first and second reading, faith is probably the action of embracing the unknown future, walking through a door into a new place, the courage it takes to move, giving up the past to embrace new space, passing through a threshold to a new possibility. This is what Abraham, the man of faith literally does. He embraces his future.

     His ability to embrace the future, to make the journey into the yet unknown, to open the door to his possibilities is based on his confidence or his trust that God will be with him through this. The action of faith is grounded in confidence and trust.

      Despite the ancient age of these readings on faith, courage and trust, they are helpful to us as we face our own futures. We are often called to embrace new and unknown possibilities. Parents can recall a child’s first day of school, or the first day of college, when the young one is embarking on a courageous new journey. Young people see the entry into middle school or high school as a time of stepping into one’s unknown future. People sell their homes and move into new living neighborhoods. As we go through life transitions, we open the door to a new future as we start a job, or enter or end a relationship, or experience a new situation with our health. Sometimes as we grow older, we embrace a future way of living that feels like limitation, but in some ways is also freeing.

     In all of these movements into the unknown, we are acting on our future, risking sometimes a great deal, able to go forward because of the courage inside of us, and trusting that God will be with us. It takes courage and trust to embark on such journeys into the uncertain and new. 

 II.

     And then we read this third lesson about Jesus and Nicodemus who comes in the middle of the night, uncertain about where his life of faith is going. Sometimes these journeys into the unknown are not things happening in the outer lives we lead, but in our inner lives and spirit. The act of faith is not a physical move, but a spiritual one. The gospel of John expresses this inner journey into the depths of the spirit in the words of Jesus. He introduces Nicodemus to uncharted territories of the spirit’s unfolding. The journey in this third lesson, the new unknown, is the spiritual quickening that we experience in the lives we lead. Sometimes the door opens to new ways of thinking of God and being the people of God.

     Jesus’ words call to mind how our faith gives us the courage to journey more deeply into the unknown life of the spirit. Over the course of decades our spiritual selves are refined and renewed, over and over again. Our views change as our hearts grow. We become more capable of loving and being loved. We reflect more wisely as we encounter more suffering. We draw more deeply upon the wells of compassion that have always been there. We drink more deeply from the font of wisdom we experience in the presence of God.  We change our minds about matters of faith as we mature, as individuals and in community.

     Now I think the gospel reading is difficult to read. It seems to bounce all over the place: pulling at this idea and that, going all over the map or spiritual landscape, so to speak, containing some of the most profound and precious ideas as well as very obscure references. The gospel of John is that way. But “that way” is the way of the spirit in movement. For as we rebuild or reshape our interior life, at first it is a jumbled paragraph or two, as we bounce all over the place: pulling at this idea and that, going over the map, headed down obscure avenues and scattered with our thoughts until something new, something profound and precious dawns in our hearts. 

     Lent is a season of spiritual journey, of the deepening of the life of the spirit, of walking more boldly into new spiritual practices and realities, leaving behind older more familiar forms which may provide order and comfort, but may also limit our vision of the broadening rivers of God’s love. Each Lent sort of disorganizes our interior life so that a new vision can be constructed.  Each Lent is not so much a call to give something up, but to take something on as we boldly and with courage face deeper issues in our souls’ formation and reformation, until we feel the birth of something new in the festival of Easter. 

III.

    In that first reading, Abraham and Lot do not move as individuals. An entire extended family or tribe is on the move. Faith-filled communities, or communities of faith, also are called upon to embark on journeys of faith. Currently this is a critical issue facing the church at large and its congregations. For the church in America these days is challenged in many ways to embrace a yet unknown future, to enter new lands.

     For some time now, we have known that the church-that-was has been in decline. People are not as interested in organized religion. Fewer people come to church than ever before. And with each generation there seems to be less interest in religious organizations and activity. We still are a highly spiritual or spirited people. But today’s spirituality, especially for younger generations, does not translate into support of religious institutions or organizations.

     And in this transition gradually, the church is becoming something different, walking into a new future, as yet undefined.  The future church will be messy, like the words of Jesus this morning, going everywhere, pulling at this idea and that, obscure and sometimes pointless, bouncing all over the spiritual landscape, so to speak, on its way to the most profound and precious nature of God. The future church, we know will not take one shape. Sometimes it will resemble traditional religion. Sometimes in places like St. Johns it will be driven by a particular mission. Sometimes it will resemble a coffee house or micro-brewery or a child care coop. Sometimes it will sound like a rock concert. Sometimes it will emerge as an intimate and caring gathering of friends to study the word of God together. The future church, into which we are boldly called to venture, especially for older congregations, will require faith and trust of Abraham. This trust is not in our leaders, not even in each other, but in God, who has called the church to love and serve, and who will be with us as we work in new and exciting ways. For we are a faithful people. Faith is something we do. Faith involves moving out and into the future. And such movements are based on the courage of spirited people.

     This morning in adult forum we are beginning a discussion of our 160th anniversary at St. Johns. That anniversary will be in the year 2016. We’ll begin that discussion this morning, because significant anniversaries take time to plan. Whatever we plan, let us think of this celebration as a time to cast our eye not only to our past, but also to our hope, our new possibilities in the coming decades. Now more than ever, for congregations such as St. John’s, this is time to step into our future as we recall our past.

     This week, a new door may open in your life as well. A new possibility may emerge. Or a new reality may need to be dealt with. Or a difference will make itself known in some part of your life. Or you may discover yourself like Nicodemus, probing more deeply the spiritual mysteries of God’s abundant love. Springtime is full of such changes. Through it all, recall Abraham and Nicodemus, who moved into their future, trusting God to

Lent and Holy Week, 2014

Ash Wednesday March 5
12:00 Noon Worship with Imposition of Ashes and Holy Communion
7:00pm Worship with Imposition of Ashes and Holy Communion

Lenten Midweek Theme and Worship “Care of the Earth”
Table Reflections are adapted from the 2009 ELCA Care of the Earth Devotional Series and the Tennebrae for the Earth.
Liturgy for Wednesday Evenings following Ash Wednesday we’ll use an adapted Liturgy for Earthkeeping  by Dakota Road

March 12
5:30 Soup Supper by Choirs and Worship Team
6:30 Table Reflection on Earthkeeping: Soil and Water
7:00 Worship

March 19
5:30 Soup Supper by Congregational Council
6:30 Table Reflection on Earthkeeping: Consumption and Pollution
7:00 Worship

March 26
5:30 Soup Supper (Bonnie Block is organizing a group)
6:30 Table Reflection on Earthkeeping: Habitat
7:00 Worship 

April 2
5:30 Soup Supper by Outreach
6:30 Table Reflection on Earthkeeping: Climate
7:00 Worship

April 9
5:30 Soup Supper by Youth Team
6:30 Table Reflection on Earthkeeping: Women and Children
7:00 Worship 

Holy Week
April 13 Palm Sunday Worship
April 17 Maundy Thursday Worship at 7:00pm
April 18 Good Friday Worship at 1:00 and 7:00pm
April 20 Easter 9:15am Gathering to Prepare the Sanctuary
Worship and Celebration at 9:30am:  “Stories of Hope”

Reflection for Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014

     We now come to the medieval forty day season of Lent. The themes of the season are ashes, repentance, and crosses.  This is a traditional time for fasting, cutting back, giving things up.  Underneath these things, we sense the inner work of Lent as we face our own sin, the brokenness of our world and human fallibility.  Lifting up ashes, crosses, repentance, giving things up and sin can be difficult for us. Most people who call themselves Christians will not be attending worship today.

     These days we want the church to be uplifting to ourselves and attractive to others. People want to feel positive about themselves and others. We are more interested in self esteem than self discipline. Should we not be telling people how special rather than how sinful they are? We usually do not attract people by dwelling on their shortcomings and their needs to change their ways.

     Yet we also sense that we are less than perfect. At some level we know that we all have at least a few rough edges, broken chapters of our lives, a tendency to blame everyone but ourselves, been the victim of our own rationalizations, sensed that our negative coping mechanisms got a bit out of hand, and know now that what we thought was the best at the time was really not so good after all.  With honesty in the sacred presence of God, and with offering forgiveness within this fallible community, we recognize our failures and shortcomings.

     In this recognition of our limits and brokenness, something important is beginning. For what is often seen as a medieval custom may have the power to permanently transform our lives.

     This period of ashes, repentance, crosses, and fasting is an opportunity for us to approach God, amend our own lives, and relate to the people around us in new ways. As spring is the world’s recovery from even the most difficult winter, Lent is our bodies’ adjustment from our barren inner winter into the coming warmth. This general readjustment may have a profound and permanent affect on who we are and how we live.

    To begin this season of adjustment, we have the ashes. Ashes remind us of dust. In Genesis, the Bible says that we are created from dust. “Remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return,” are words we will use this day. Our lives are fragile and short. Too soon, the flower and strength fade. Our mortality and our limits are things we try to avoid. But the ashes today are drawn on our foreheads, and they remind us of the dusty limits of life.

    Our dustiness helps us to recognize that each moment we do have is precious. Each day and each moment, is an opportunity to express love more fully and to delight in life. We have wonderful possibilities to take our precious time to enjoy the world around us and to delight in its full abundance, to experience life more freely and to probe more deeply. When we know how precious life is, we appreciate it more. Ashes call us to remember what is important and to live each day recognizing that death is will bring its end.

     The ashes are also a sign of repentance. Repentance means to turn around, to change direction, and to altar our course of action. In repentance we are sorry for what has become of us. Repentance involves tears. It involves a new direction, making amends and doing things differently. The ashes of Lent call each of us to change something important about our lives, to modify what we have been doing, and to correct our course. Repentance begins with ashes. It continues in actions.

    With the ashes and repentance comes the cross. The ashes are drawn in the form of a cross on the head of all who wish it this day. The cross is the sign of the suffering and death of Jesus.  The suffering Jesus is the image of God, the imago dei. God suffers and dies on a cross. This suffering God is with us through our struggles and death.

     All of us go through seasons of despair and discouragement. The cross reminds us in these dusty seasons of the soul, that God is with us and that we will also rejoice fully in a coming resurrection. The cross is a sign of struggle, but it is the beginning of hope.

      Today on Ash Wednesday, as we become aware of dusty limits and our fallibility; we find these ashes, this cross, the beginnings of repentance, and the possibilities for changing and building a new life. This is a time for inner renewal. It starts with a cross drawn in ashes. It continues now for forty days in reflection, prayer, and an honest desire to be different in some way, to be more fully the people of God.