Reflection for October 4, 2015

Reflection for October 4, 2015
Genesis 2:18-24, Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16

Gee whiz. Could the common lectionary committee have selected three more offensive readings than these? What were they thinking? First there is the reading from Genesis. For decades women have complained about this passage because who wants to be made from a man’s rib? There is way too much dependency implied in the reading. And then for at least a few years, women have been joined by the Gay and Lesbian LBGT community, many of whom view this text as the source of right wing insistence that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. And for quite a few decades, those who live alone are not affirmed by these words at all.
And as if it were not enough to offend at least half the people in the room before the first reading is over, the gospel reading usually manages to offend all of the divorced people in the room as well.
And if by some chance there is someone left who is not put off by the first and third readings, the second reading seals the deal, especially for Lutherans. Martin Luther did not think the book of Hebrews should be in the Bible. And if you came to church this morning expecting to gain direction for your life or to get insight into anything, that second reading leaves us baffled as we wonder about how inscrutable a passage can be. What is that peculiar combination of verses from Hebrews 1 and 2 about? Who knows? And to be honest, who cares?
Then after offending the women, the gay community, the single people, those who are divorced, those who are thoughtful, those seeking solutions to real problems in the wisdom of the scripture; the readings finally paper over the whole mess with a final reference to loving children. We all love children. And puppies and apple pie. That should make us all feel good. Wow. Talk about a preaching hole. It’s going to take at least a couple of hours to dig our way out of all of this. And who has that kind of time? Are the Packers playing this afternoon?
Well, since we don’t have the time needed to work our way through the matters at hand given to us by the lectionary readings, let me note a few things.
First, despite the fact that we don’t like the readings, we don’t discard them. We accept them as they are. We don’t discard the committee decisions with which we are unhappy. That’s part of being an adult and living in community.
The assigned readings for each Sunday are like relatives in our extended families. Our families nurture and support us. But at times some of the people we are related to are pretty hard to live with. Many of us have a difficult relative in our extended family that will make Thanksgiving dinner a challenge: an Uncle Harry who believes that ever since the visitors from space landed at Roswell, there has been some international plot to slowly kill us all by putting strange things in the water, and the only way to avoid Armageddon is to escape to the north woods and join some survivalist group who wants to become an independent country.
Over the years we’ve all learned that it doesn’t pay to argue down Uncle Harry. He is just part of our difficult lineage. Instead, faced with the difficulties of family life at Thanksgiving, we find our own bearings, our own values, and we resolve to live by those. Uncle Harry’s holiday rambling actually helps us clarify what is really important and how we want to live. And so it is with these readings. Oh, Uncle Harry, look at the time! Let’s not spend the next couple of hours arguing about these readings. Let’s just use the readings to highlight what might be important for us here and now: things like sex and relationships and that cross of Jesus.
Whatever you think about Genesis and Mark, they take partnership in relationships seriously. And it is enough to lift up that seriousness. Regardless of who is in the partnership and regardless of how that partnership is shaped (and relationships come in all shapes) the love and affection between partners in households and families is extremely important: too important to easily dismiss and important enough to call all people in all relationships to lives marked with honesty, respect, mutual support and consolation, and tender affection regardless of how those relationships are defined, who is involved, and how new or old the relationship is. Of course there will be failure in relationships as there is in every dimension of life. But people of faith take partnership seriously and understand its importance.
The reference to children at the end of the Mark reading is actually a comment on the importance of trust. Trust is the attitude learned in childhood that allows the child to relate to others and believe in the kingdom of God. Trust is the foundation of relationships, marriage, friendships, partnerships, and households. Trust is also the foundation of social, community and economic life. Trust is the foundation of life together. When trust is lost, it takes a long, long time for it to come back; if it ever does. In their odd way, these readings call us to mutual support and consolation, tender affection, honesty and respect, so that we can trust one another in our homes, congregations, and communities.
This leaves us with the inscrutable second reading. Let me briefly talk about Hebrews: this first century essay on sacrifice. All through the essay, Jesus is making purification for sins, atoning for the sins of the world. His death is the one great and final sacrifice.
One of the interesting things about first century religious practice, when Hebrews is written, is how quickly the sacrificial system died in all the cities of the Roman Empire in just a few decades. Suddenly people were no longer going to temples to kill animals to appease the gods or to atone for their sins. New religious winds were blowing. People were meeting in groups to share their beliefs and experiences, their prayers and rites of unity.
So in this environment, in Hebrews Jesus is portrayed as the final sacrifice. Sacrifice is no longer needed. We don’t need to kill animals any more to appease God. The sacrifice of the blameless spotless Lamb of God ends the need for this.
Hebrews is an essay following the new religious winds of its time. We do not live our faith by sacrificing animals. Instead, we will meet in groups, reflect on the word, help each other along, and remember the sacrifice of Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed. And then slowly but surely we build lives based on that allusive thing called trust, while we mutually support each other in our good times and our bad.
Now there is one way in which first century Jesus people were not following the winds of religious change. They were unique in one particular way. In the first century gods and great people did not suffer and were not humiliated. They were exalted in power and glory. But the Christian God faced suffering, humiliation, and even death. This was new.
Jesus was even crucified, publically humiliated. He suffered death and was buried. And that suffering is in this reading, as it is in almost every book of the New Testament. Early Jesus people took suffering as seriously as they took their relationships. They understood that we all go through hell at one time and in one form or another. And when we do, we know that God is with us. God not only knows that suffering is part of the human condition, but God actually is humiliated in the life of Jesus. God is suffering with us when we face humiliation, loss, despair, and the ultimate loneliness that comes to us all regardless of the shape of our relational lives.
Oh, these readings on the surface are a horrible mess, but even these readings drive us to what is most important: the need to work on building our relationships and the ultimate loneliness that comes when we are overwhelmed by the humiliations of this life. For through it all, like children, we trust that we will make it because God is with us. So, in honor of these readings, let us raise a glass to the Uncle Harry’s of this world, who in their own strange way, help us ground ourselves in what really matters.

Reflection for September 27, 2015

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

These ancient readings describe life together. Even after centuries, they still yield insight into how humans work together in groups and the challenges groups face. The primary focus of the readings is on the people of God or the community of faith. But the readings speak to all groups: families, households, work environments, schools, as well as political and social systems.
Problems, problems, problems. All three of the readings remind us that groups, whatever and whenever they are, face problems. We often forget that groups are grounded in difficulties, and that group life is itself difficult. We expect groups to be better than they are. But all groups face struggles. In Numbers the problem is hardship. Food resources are limited. There is little to eat in the desert. In James the problem is sickness and all that goes with disease. In Mark the problem is the demons: those unseen forces that seem to trip us up on our way to perfection. Groups are born in, with, and through problems. They face hardship, disease, demons and all sort of human frailty within and around us.
And the groups themselves also create issues. There is often some agitation or rabblerousing as in Numbers. And there are almost always rivalries in groups as in Numbers and Mark.
But the most interesting thing about the groups in these readings is that we are urged to ignore or move through the rabblerousing and the rivalries. In all three readings, the focus is to be on the group’s care for the most vulnerable. In Mark the vulnerable are those struggling with their faith. In James the vulnerable are the ill. In Numbers, the vulnerable are those who complain. Their whining or complaints are heard by both Moses and God. As groups go about their lives they will not be perfect, they will face agitation, complaints, and internal and external competition. Whatever. In these readings the focus of the ancient group is the care of the vulnerable. Why? Well, because in an ancient, and or for that matter a post modern world, the group needs everyone to plant the seeds and bring in the harvest. Problems, problems, problems. We will face them in all the groups we participate. But there is always this call to attend to those in need.

So with all these problems who is in charge? That is a question embedded in these stories. In these readings, God is the one who is in charge. And yet there is also a human authority in each of the readings. They speak to the origins, necessity, and limits of authority. Numbers may be a reading about the structure of authority by delegating responsibility to a council of seventy: a sort of tribal administrative council. They are given some of the spirit of Moses, and take on various leadership responsibilities.
And note that Moses authority is limited. Not all of the council members in Numbers are on the same page. Some go their own way. But Moses lets that be. Authority is never complete.
The same is true in Mark. Some people other than the disciples have started to heal in the Jesus, violating the Jesus trademark if you will. But Jesus lets that be. Remember groups and movements are not perfect. Not everyone must do things the same way. But there is still organization that moves most of us along.
You can see the spiritual authority in organized leadership in the book of James. The congregation has officers called elders. Their responsibility is to care for the widow and the orphan and to pray and support the sick. Their presence lifts up the purpose of this never total, never perfect, never complete authority with which we humans work in all our groups.
One of the challenges of leadership and authority in groups is forbearance. In Numbers, Moses feels the burdens, but handles his frustration by turning to God.
Mark has that interesting statement on salt. Mark uses salt differently from Matthew or Luke. For Mark it is a symbol of righteous indignation, of passion for truth and justice, of strong-willed faith. That is required of leaders. What good is an authority that has lost its passion, its zeal? And yet there can be too much righteous indignation in group life. Salt is great. But Mark says we should strive for peace. That too is part of group life. Getting along somehow. Working through but sometimes overlooking the many areas of disagreement that rise up. Have salt in yourselves, but live in peace.
Who is in charge? Someone given that responsibility and someone who cares about the people in the group with passion and at the same time someone who understands the opposite point of view. Problems, problems, problems face the group and its leaders.

But from where comes the hope for humans living together? As messy and problem ridden as life together is, is there any hope for us as we assemble group living? Finally, the readings point to something of great significance for all group life. Groups struggle with problems within and without. They need and also struggle with authority and leadership. But the strength to meet those challenges involves some turning inward for renewal. We think the great leaders are the ones who talk the loudest or the extroverts of the world. Moses in Numbers and Francis visiting the United States both take on the spirit of the introvert, turning inward to find strength to face the challenges. They talk with God. And in James, the council of elders focuses on prayer. It is in prayer that the community of James finds its strength. In many passages in Mark, Jesus goes off by himself, alone to pray, turning inward, to find the strength he needs. Inner resolve and strength is critical for all leaders and for group life.
In this imperfect world, we find ourselves still living in groups: at work, in our homes and households, in church life, in the political arena, in our neighborhoods, in our extended families, and in our interest groups and associations. Groups will always face struggles. And there will be rivalries and rabblerousing. That’s the nature of things. But the focus remains on the common good and the most vulnerable among us.
Groups will organize for leadership, and gradually that leadership may become more complex. A leaders’ authority will never be 100%. But leaders in groups should know when to be passionate and when to negotiate. Groups and their leaders sustain themselves as they seek their inner strength: as they align themselves with God for the sake of those who stumble.
This morning, think about your extended family, your household, people at work or school, and the community groups which make our city work. These ancient readings remind us to appreciate the problems we face, help us shape our lives, allow us to negotiate with others, and return our focus to the vulnerable around us, as we remember the importance of the nourishing prayers in our gatherings each week.

Adult Forum Schedule for Fall, 2105

Adult Forum Schedule for Fall 2015
September
27 The National ALCM/Worship Gathering with Kristie Halverson
October
Outreach Theme: Won’t You Be My Neighbor
4 Our Changing Neighborhood with Gary Stebnitz
11 Our LGBT Neighborhood and National Coming-Out Day
18 Ministry in Our Community with Pastor Beth Schultz Byrnes, our Community Minister
25 Issues Facing Our Neighborhood in our City with Ledell Zellers, our Alder
November
1 Quarterly Meeting
8 Annual Meeting
15 Video on Alternative Approaches to Homelessness, e.g. tiny houses
21-29 Thanksgiving Recess

Reflection for September 20, 2015

Jeremiah 11:18-20; James 3:13 — 4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

I.

   A few years ago, I knew a man who felt good about his life. A member of the church. He was married. The children were in school. His home life was fine. In those years the Packers were winning. He made good money in a factory as a foreman in charge of the day shift. Life was good. He was happy. His family came to church with some regularity, usually sitting in the same pew. We talked now and then. Became friends.
Then one day he said something to me about things changing at work. The economy was slowing down. Some people were being let go because the factory was using more and more machines. A large contract went to another firm outside the country. His happiness was clouding over. There was worry in the voice of my friend.
Then rather suddenly the factory was purchased by another company from someplace out east. More robots were used. Things grew tense at work. There were fewer contracts and fewer jobs. The line was down for long periods of time. And then the plant closed.
At first my friend was optimistic about finding other work. But that proved more difficult than he had hoped. He and his family began to feel the pain of long term unemployment as the life they once knew seemed to be gone forever.
In all of the loss and pain, he became angry, justifiably angry, at the causes of his loss, beyond his control. For awhile, my friend’s heart was filled with rage. He was really hurting. And when we hurt, we become angry people. Time passed.
Then one day, after he lashed out at his wife for some small thing, he found himself sitting on a park bench, watching the river flow by, wondering how he had become such an angry person. He began to sense deeper, better self returning, some sense of who he had been, not only before the closing of the plant, but far earlier in his life. He began to ask himself some hard questions about who he wanted to be and become.
And with great consternation, he began a period of struggling to make things different inside him. My friend was not gifted at self reflection. So this was hard work. And he was facing one of those life situations that usually give rise to bitterness or defeat. But he began to hammer out a way to first control the rage. And then he began to construct a way to work through the rage. He began to see that his wife and kids were what mattered. He changed his mind about how important the anger was. He still had a life. And people loved him and depended on him for emotional presence and support.
As he was rebuilding himself, he found a job. Not as good as the one he had before. But still a start. And through the consternation, through the struggle, he began to acquire a hard earned wisdom. He felt respected again, by others and himself, for having made it through the pain, for accomplishing this great inner work, and for his new understanding of the importance of what he had.
Then one day, a couple of years later, he found himself back on the park bench, watching the river’s flow. And he realized that he was where he was before the plant closed. Honestly happy. He realized he had made it through this crisis. He felt the importance of the people around him.
And he told me that one of those people who helped him through was God. My friend was not gifted at theological words, but he said God was with him every step of the way. God was with him in the innocent happiness, before everything fell apart, that time of original blessing. God was with him in the growing awareness of the coming difficulties. God was with him in the suffering and pain of loss. God was with him in the days of rage. God was with him in the consternation. God was with him when he chose not to give up to cynicism and defeat. God was with him as wisdom was born in his heart. God was with him when he found his happiness again.

II.

   Friends, each of these readings has its own meaning. Isaiah speaks of the community’s tendency to reject the hard truths of life. And James speaks of the constant inner struggle of people of faith to do the good. And Mark, with its emphasis on healing, lifts up the importance of caring for children in the hospitals created by the first Christians, the need to address the challenges facing children in ancient Roman society and our own. Unwanted children, especially girls, were left to die in Roman society. Christian congregations began to adopt these children in large numbers. Each of these readings has its own meaning. Our communities and nation need to face some hard truths. And we need to struggle to get to the good. And our children need our attention in Madison and in this world.
But together, these readings, in the order we have them this morning, interact with one another and point to the life cycle of my friend. For as we live and grow as humans, we all go through the loss of innocence, the time of awareness, the pain and loss, and the growing of anger into rage of which Isaiah speaks.
Until, with the consternation of James, we grapple with the forces within us. We come to realize that we will not give up our inner selves to cynicism, bitterness, and helplessness in the face of the cycles of fear and violence that can so easily swamp the human spirit. We instead, through the pain and through the consternation of discernment, gain wisdom as we ground ourselves in the good and find ourselves walking with others and with Jesus.
Until we discover ourselves as children again, recovering that innocence, trusting in the one who walked with us through every step of the way, laughing and playing in the presence of the One who loves us: secure in knowing that nothing can separate us as the children of God from the love of God.

III.

   And having made it through, we too are now able to assist the children around us. We are now able to help others through the wilderness of consternation. We too are now able to appreciate the anger, and see in it a new way to do justice.
It is as children, that we learn what we need to successfully complete the cycles of life that faced my friend and all of us. In childhood we mysteriously learn of this path through darkness into new light.
And so we-who-know-what-it-means-to-recover know that children need our help. Not only in faraway places, but also in Dane County. In a meeting this week, I learned that there are approximately 48,000 children in Dane County between birth and four years: 48,000 preschoolers. About 6,000 of those children in our county have substantial needs because of the nature of their childhood. They face poverty, homelessness, illness, immigration, disabilities, language obstacles, challenging families, medical issues, and learning problems. 6,000 children in Dane County. In this most progressive place, however, only about 1,000 of those children are able to find the help that they need, even when all of the various agency services are pulled together. For 5,000 of the children in our county, life is getting off to a rocky start. As we recall how we make it through the hard times, as we read the gospel of Mark, as we think about the children around us, let us do what we can so that children will be able to face the challenges of life. As the reading says, let us welcome children.

Reflection for September 6, 2015

Isaiah 35:4-7a, James 2:1-10, 14-17, Mark 7:24-37

The readings today point us to a time when those who face disabilities, the blind, and those who cannot speak, will walk with new vigor, will see clearly, and will speak with voices that are heard. The readings speak of a time when our backgrounds do not matter: when Gentile, Jew, and all ethnic and divisions will fade. The readings speak of a time when the distinctions between those who have much and those who have little will not matter. There is that hope in these readings, that longing, that vision, that fresh sense of hope beyond those things which now limit and divide us.
But what of the meantime? For we live in a world where many suffer from want. So many struggle with limitations. We live in a world where sometimes great distinctions are based on race and background. We live in a world where there is a great gulf between those who have and those who have not. Yes, we see the longing, vision and new life in these readings. They express our faith, our hope, our goal. But what of the meantime?
These readings speak not only of our longing, but also to our meantime. The meantime is the time for work and for labor. This is the time for the labors of love. This is the time for works of generosity. This is the time for the labors of compassion in the face of physical suffering. This the time for the work of healing the racial divisions that mark our community life. I’m not talking about a Labor Day weekend. I am talking about the labor of healing divisions among us and healing the brokenness within us: the work of compassion, generosity, and love.
As we labor together, let us welcome all as did the community of St. Mark who in their ministries decided to set aside the usual distinction between Jew and Gentile and to heal all those who came to their door. Let us welcome all as did the community of James who decided that on the ship of faith there would be no first class seating, no economic class, no business class, no tourist class, no, no class at all. If the Lutherans ran an airline, there would be no difference in the seating, everybody would get gluten-free Jello along with some hot-dish sometime on the flight, everyone would want to sit in the back seats, and we would sing a hymn when the plane landed. Let us welcome all, treating all with the same quirky hospitality and challenges, asking all to sing with us as best they can, regardless of however their lives are oriented, whatever their resources, regardless of the color of their skin, and without regard for ability or disability, smartness or stupidity. Everybody is welcome on this airliner headed home.
As we labor together, let us rejoice in generosity, and let us give thanks for those who share. And let us commit ourselves to being an agent of compassion as we share what we receive with those in need as did all the earliest Christian communities. From the very first, it was the responsibility of Christian bishops to preside at communion, reflect on the word, and distribute the gifts to those in need. Let us still do that.
As we labor together, let us recover the gift of healing through compassion. Yes healing is now a miracle of modern medicine. But we all know that healing takes place as we are prayed for as we tune our hearts not to the demons of despair but to the faith in new life and recovery, as we experience and feel that we are loved.
Let us welcome all. Let us rejoice in generosity and to accomplish the good. Let us recover the gift of healing through compassion. Those are the labors before us. These are the works we do in this meantime we have been given.
Until we come to that day when those who face disabilities, the blind, and those who cannot speak, will walk with new life, will see again, and their voices will be heard. Until we come to that day when our backgrounds do not matter, when Gentile, Jew, black, white, and all ethnic divisions will fade. Until we come to that day when distinctions between those who have much and those who have little will not matter. We have work to do together on our way to this future.