Reflection for July 24, 2016

Genesis 18:20-32, Colossians 2:6-15, Luke 11:1-13  

I.

     It seems that recycling is the way to go these days. Considering how resources are consumed to keep our lives going, it’s good to recycle everything from our clothes to our bottles and cans as much as possible.

So let’s look at how the book of Genesis is recycling an old story in chapters eighteen and nineteen, from which the first reading comes today. This story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is very old material recycled, retold, or reworked several times. Each time it is retold, another layer of meaning is added into the mix.

In Genesis, the story is retold by the YHWHist, the story teller who always uses the name YHWH for God (which we translate as THE LORD). Another word for YHWH is Jehovah.

At its deepest level, the story comes from primitive memories of an ancient melt down of cultures in the eastern Mediterranean basin about 3,200 years ago. Archeologists, scientists, and anthropologists think there were a series of earthquakes, climate changes, famine, wars, invasions, revolutions and rising sea levels that caused systemic breakdowns in the cultures of the day. In a few decades, the major civilizations of the Bronze Age died. These memories of fire and brimstone, flood and famine, earthquake and disaster are embedded in the stories of Genesis and other ancient writings. The story echoes the systemic collapse of many city states brought about by cataclysmic events coming together to create a perfect storm.

At this level we are reminded that human culture and life is more fragile than we might think. And we are challenged to do what we can to avoid undue stress on the systems (natural, political and economic) that support us all.

Then at another level this is an ancient legend regarding how a particular place came to be or how it got its name. Primitive human beings use divine legends t

Reflection for July 17, 2016

Genesis 18:1-10a, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

3     The calendar says that summer is half over. The Wisconsin country side is beginning to say the same thing. This week the Queen Anne’s Lace began to blossom with its white flowers giving a slight summer frost to the roadsides and fields. Soon the lacy white flowers will remind me of the hoarfrost or manna from heaven in the book of Exodus. And if the ephemeral white is beginning to cover the Wisconsin landscape, blending with the blues and yellows in our wildflower landscape, then the season of the harvest is not far behind.

Somewhere in the Wisconsin countryside, there was once a small town preacher who rushed to the railroad station every afternoon to watch the 3:08 train pass through town. He would drop whatever he was doing to walk down to the railroad tracks by the church and watch the train speed past. People in the community began to wonder what it was about their minister and this train. Increasingly, members of the congregation thought that his pastime was inappropriate and embarrassing. So the church council asked him to give up his scheduled view of the train every afternoon for the sake of the congregation’s reputation.

No, he said, I won’t give up the train. I preach the sermons, teach youth and adults, bury the dead, marry the young, push along church programs, and am involved in every drive or effort of the congregation. I pray at almost every function we have. But I enjoy the train and I won’t give it up. It’s the only thing that passes through this town that I don’t have to organize or push or pull.

There are days like that, aren’t there? When it seems that whether we are clergy or not, whatever our calling in life, over and over again we seem to be caught in the position of pushing, pulling, and organizing in order to make things happen. On many days, this Wisconsin pastor expresses the sense we all feel of having too much to do.

Is not this the feeling of Martha in the gospel lesson this morning? Jesus has stopped by for lunch. Of course, where Jesus goes, a group is always close by. The disciples are a hungry bunch. Someone has to assemble, push, pull, and organize the lunch. And if Martha is not there to push, pull, wash, cut, bake, serve, and clean up, everyone would go hungry. We understand her frustration with a sister that simply sits around.

Jesus, however, suggests that Martha needs to stop and watch a train. We can be so busy involved with the church that we fail to see Jesus. We can spend so much time with our concerns and projects that we fail to find a moment to visit with God. We can become so involved with our own work or our own family that we begin to think that it is by our own efforts rather than by God’s grace that things happen.

But Jesus is with us. He has stopped by our house to share a little bit of bread and a little bit of wine as well as a few words. It is time to relax. The purpose of this morning’s Sunday Sabbath is not to get things done. The purpose of this time is to spend a moment with Jesus reflecting on his words and taking the time we need to enjoy God again. Our purpose today is to refresh our souls.

We all need to stop and watch the train, remembering again the relative insignificance of our own efforts. This is the core of the Sabbath Day: stopping our labors, sitting quietly with God, letting God’s will come to us.

Sometimes we go through the journey of life so carefully watching each step we take, that we fail to notice where we are headed. The detail of existence with work, home, family, friends, and responsibilities can overwhelm our ability to enjoy even a moment with God. If that is the case, then it is time to sit like Mary and enjoy the great vision of the life God has given to us.

How might we do that? How might we carve out time to nourish the spirit of God within? How might we find our Sabbath time when we are already multi-tasking, cramming more and more into our schedules, and pushing, pulling and organizing our way into more and more work?

The answer of course will vary from person to person, and time is in short supply for almost everyone. But there are hints in these readings. Play. Pray. Visit with the angels. Listen. Feel creation.

Play. God gives us the presence of children to remind us of the importance of play. Play is delight in something, the involvement in some particular thing that is so much fun, the hours rush past. Children at play lose all track of time. Play is what children do best. The play of a child is what heaven is. Eternity is not so much time without end, but a sense of timelessness or life without time. Once in awhile, each of us, no matter how old we are, need to play.

Pray. In the story, Mary in reminds us of the importance of just being with God, and lingering in the presence of God. This is what prayer is. It is a kind of spiritual play. Each day, in the morning, or at bedtime, around our meals, in regular moments set aside each day, in moments between events, in worship, with friends and alone, we pray. Our prayer brings us into the presence of God. Let prayer be a time when we do not so much speak as listen. Let prayer be not only a time of sharing our deeper fears but also a time to enjoy God as our friend.

Visit with the angels. Today Jesus is visiting with Mary and Martha. In the first reading, Abraham takes the time to visit with mystic strangers who are messengers or angels from God. The reading reminds us of not only the ancient responsibilities of hospitality but also the mystical delight that is at the core of breaking bread together. In his hospitality he receives a blessing. He and his family are blessed. We find refreshment in our own spirits when we are hospitable to strangers and others, and when we converse with those around us. Angels do not wear wings anymore. They wear the clothes of our neighbors. Visit with the angels to nourish one’s own soul and to come into the presence of God’s blessing.

Listen. These days people are so busy proclaiming their own views as loudly as they can that listening has become a lost art. But let us listen, as Mary listens. Listening involves honestly respecting and caring for the opinions of our brothers and sisters because they are their opinions, and we love them even if the ideas are not our own. When we listen, as Mary does today, we hear, sometimes underneath layers of anger and hurt, the genuine concerns of our neighbors and friends, and the ones God has sent to help us grow in our faith.

Feel creation. In the second reading today, Paul grounds Jesus in creation. When these words were written, this is a new idea. Until these letters, Christians did not express a pre-historical identity for Jesus. They were focused on the life and death of Jesus. Here, though, Paul grounds Jesus in creation. Jesus is present in creation, and is the first born of all creation. Eventually this idea becomes part of the standard Christian framework of belief. But this morning, let us sense how important all creation is to God, how all creation participates in salvation, and how creation links us to God and Jesus. One cannot look at the stars of heaven, or the emerald green of a Wisconsin hillside without thinking of the creator. Creation brings us into the spiritual presence of God.

We may be like Martha. Like the minister in the small town, we may need to take some time to be with God, to stop striving so much to make everything happen. To play. Pray. Visit with the angels. Listen. Feel creation in this Wisconsin summer.

This week the Queen Anne’s Lace began to blossom. Its white flowers give a slight summer frost to the roadsides and fields. And soon, this ephemeral white in the Wisconsin landscape will point to the season of the final harvest and the fullness of time when we shall play forever.

 

Reflection for July 10, 2016

Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Colossians 1:10-14, Luke 10:25-37

I.

     Did you notice that a lawyer introduces the story of the Good Samaritan? At first it may seem that the gospel of Luke is reinforcing the bad reputation that lawyers have in our own time. The lawyer stands up to test Jesus. And then asks a question to justify himself.  And the passage could be read that way. Lawyers may deserve at least some of those lawyer jokes.

But there is something going on here in the church of Luke and also in the churches of Asia Minor to whom Colossians is written. That something has to do with the law. Or we might say principles. For as Christian communities emerge and then develop, one of the big issues is “how shall we live?” By what rules, guidelines, laws, and principles should we lead our lives? What are the norms of our community life together? And to whom shall we be responsible and in what ways? How shall we treat our neighbors?

Perhaps the events of this week lift up starkly the importance of the norms of community life and the values, guidelines, and laws we use to create safety and opportunity for all. Perhaps the events of this week remind us of the importance of engaging all of us as we face the complicated matters of racism, violence, the availability and use of weapons, and challenges facing all those involved in law creation and enforcement.

Now we may have a dislike for lawyers and even distain law and regulation as bureaucratic intrusion into our personal liberties. Those are the themes of our times. And there is a second prejudice against law that comes with being Lutheran. For Luther founded our tradition on the importance of grace and love as the way to God rather than obeying the law. And we Lutherans have spent centuries now condemning those who say you can earn your way to heaven by living a good life. We Lutherans say it depends upon the grace of God. So American Lutherans, focused on the need for human liberty, will have little trouble seeing the lawyer as the villain in the story.

But the lawyer is not the villain, rather the inquirer who raises the question that matters to the church of Luke? Ok, so we believe in Jesus. How shall we live? What are our principles? Our guidelines for living well as Christians? And how do we treat those around us? How do we build a common good in these fractured times? Do we favor those who are like us? Or is everyone our neighbor? And how would that work?

Some of the rules, guidelines, laws, and principles of early Christians seem grounded in the Jewish tradition. There is some attention to the commandments and the Hebrew law. A sense of fairness and compassion along with human decency that is present in these Hebrew principles. But limitations are also placed on the Jewish law in early Christian communities.  Circumcision is not practiced. Nor are the dietary laws. Nor are the laws of sacrifice and worship.

These early Christians are actually constructing their principles around a somewhat different center: a challenge we may face today in our common life. You can sense the newly emerging principles and guidelines for living in Colossians. There are four emerging principles, norms, or laws for the good found in this short passage: (1) Christians are called to know God: to spend time drawing close to God in reflection and prayer. (2) Christians practice patience. (More of a Greek stoic virtue than a Hebrew one) (3) Christians are called to be joyful and thankful.  (Notice how joy and thankfulness is not a personal feeling in Colossians but a principle for living.) And (4) Christians share life together. So Christians not only believe in Jesus, they also in the name of Jesus live the good life of drawing close to God, sharing, joyful thanksgiving, and patience.

The Luke Christians see two primary principles upon which to build a life in Christ, two laws that could be summarized by a good lawyer. Love of God or knowing God and then loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

At the core of this second principle of compassion is the necessary legal, moral and personal question: Is there a limit to my compassion? Who is my neighbor? And what are my responsibilities to others as a Christian?

Thoughtful Christians drawing close to God, patient, joyful, thankful, sharing of themselves, and filled with compassion want to know the answer to the limits of caring.

II.

     We sometimes ask ourselves this question at St. Johns. Many weeks only one out of six people who come through our doors does so for religious reasons. The rest come for some sort of shelter, assistance, or recovery program. This place sometimes creaks under the load of the compassion this little band of Christians attempts to provide. It seems that there is no end to the people beaten up by life on the side of the road who need our help.

Some time ago I read Jessica Wrobleski’s, The Limits of Hospitality (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2012). Now some people just want to avoid the poor and all their problems. Or blame the poor, the homeless, and the struggling for their problems. Jessica is not like that. She would fit into the compassion of St. Johns very well. She’s Roman Catholic, teaching religious ethics at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. She has spent a life doing shelter programs and meal serving in the catholic worker tradition for the homeless and those in need in West Virginia and elsewhere.  She is an example of a contemporary Good Samaritan who with deep compassion and experience wonders about the guidelines needed in order to care well.

In her book she addresses the limits one faces in a life dedicated to serving an infinite number of those in need. She talks about the need for structure and rules, the need for safety and security, the need to sustain oneself, the challenges to our sense of self, the need to get beyond a helping mentality, the limitations on one’s resources, the occasional scarcity that plagues life, and the regrettable struggle with boundaries.

These are issues facing not only the Christians of Luke but also today’s Good Samaritan, who provides immediate relief to those who are different, enlists the assistance of partners in ministry, the innkeeper, and establishes a budget for the caring, two denarii; all so that he can be that neighbor and yet go on with his journey. In the end, what makes hospitality and compassion work seems to be a sense of courage and the capacity to treasure relationships with those who are different from us while managing our own limitations.

And this lawyer in Luke, who carries the question of what the limits of our caring might be, is told by Jesus to go, be that neighbor; yes, work with the budgets and boundaries, attending to security and scarcity, but always have the courage to care and always to treasure the opportunity to be with someone whose suffering may mirror the face of Jesus.

So in this place, it’s not a problem that so many come here for help rather than worship. Their coming is our opportunity to worship more fully and completely, deeply and richly in the name of Jesus.

III.

     This courage to care means not only relating to different people, but also thinking in different ways. Caring compassion means bandaging those wounded on the side of the road. And it also means making the roads safer to travel so that there are fewer people being attacked by robbers, fewer travelers on life’s way subjected to violence.

That is the point of a book by another contemporary Good Samaritan, Laura Stivers’ Disrupting Homelessness: Alternative Christian Approaches (Fortress Press, 2011).  Caring for those in need involves thinking about what causes all those people to be so much in need. In her book, Stivers digs into structural causes of poverty and homelessness as they intertwine with the personal issues involving mental illness or addiction. And as poverty has increased in America in the last thirty years, more and more people, especially African Americans, are finding themselves caught in this personal and systemic web and without homes.

She sees providing shelter as important, and she also calls for advocating for changes in how we approach housing, mental health, and addiction for those on the margins so that we can disrupt the process by which people become ensnared in a web of hopelessness, poverty, and dependency.

And as one who cares about those in need, as a contemporary Samaritan, if you will, she lifts up this strange thing called the church, called the congregation, as a most important crucible for forming, shaping, and sharing a more prophetic vision for how we can address homelessness, as well as other social problems. For congregations, these places both intimate and public, are the places where we can both advocate and also work within the deepest recesses of the struggling heart.  The courage to care, calls us to attend to our limits, to recognize our own fears and doubts, to relate to those in need, and to advocate for those who are vulnerable.

And from the beginning, this compassion was one of the earliest principles, guidelines, or laws of faith. First Christians, in these readings were learning to know God, learning patience, practicing joy and thanksgiving, sharing life together, and helping those in need as they were given the grace to do so. And so must we in our own challenging times.