Reflection for April 2, 2017

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8:6-11, and John 11:1-45 

What enlivens the community of faith? After a difficult struggle that has resulted in defeat, how does a group of people pick itself up, dust itself off and go on? What gives us the energy to continue when the wind has been knocked out of our sails?

This is the question underneath Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. What enlivens the community of faith after difficult struggle and bitter defeat?

At first, one might think that Ezekiel 37 is about resurrection of the dead. That is a good possible interpretation of the story used by many in the Christian tradition. As we are approaching Easter, the festival of the resurrection; Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones is paired with the resurrection of Lazarus by his friend Jesus in the book of John. And the second lesson today, which continues our series of readings from Romans, speaks to the resurrection of the spirit through Jesus Christ.

But I am not sure that Ezekiel originally had in mind the resurrection of dead individuals through their faith in Jesus when he wrote this poetic material. Ezekiel is facing the defeat and destruction of his nation. I don’t think he is saying that things will be all right because we all go to heaven when we die. I think he is saying that God, or better the spirit of God, will revive us, renew us, and enliven us, when we are defeated and discouraged.

Soon enough we will get to the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting. Easter is just two weeks away. But to press Ezekiel into the service of that theme may be to miss what the prophet is saying to the community of faith in this life.

These are his words of renewal to a defeated nation. The enlivening in Ezekiel speaks to the nation’s resurgence. Renewal is about the community and the gathering, not the individual in Ezekiel. In this passage an army is raised up: a great host.

How does the renewal of the community of faith begin? The prophet calls the people to listen no longer to the despair in their hearts delivered in the cynical sound bites of social commentators, but to the word of the Lord. The prophet begins by calling the people to renewal in the word of God.

This is a change in the operating principle of the community passing from discouragement into possibility. We shift from our script of cynical woe and defeat to the word of hope. God does this through poets like Ezekiel. Poet leaders accomplish their work by grounding the community on its foundation: the word and spirit of God.

Then in verses seven through ten, the process by which a group is enlivened and moves beyond defeat and failure is described in three simple steps.

First, there is a rattling and gathering of the bones. As individuals and groups come together, there is a rattling. Sometimes the noise is very great. But this is the first step for renewal and enlivening: coming together. Rattling and gathering is the first step in a group moving from despair to hope. God gives leaders to guide us through this rattling and gathering.

Then in verse eight there is enfleshment. Flesh grows on the bones. Ideas, thoughts, resources, opinion and energy converge. Things are not only outlined but fleshed out, as the gathered people of God converge and incarnate or enflesh the renewal. You can see this in congregations as discouraging issues are addressed and solutions emerge when people gather and bring resources and insight to bear on the difficulties at hand. God does this through leaders as they bring resources to bear on the matters at hand.

The third step in the enlivening is an enthusing, a breathing of the spirit into the body of work, a sense of God’s spirit and presence that lifts us up as we enflesh things together. We sense God’s presence as God’s spirit blows in our sails, moving us, sustaining us in the recovery. Leaders don’t do this. Enthusing is the hand of God giving spirit to the group.

The gathering and rattling, the enfleshing, and the infusion of the spirit are the steps by which God enlivens the community of faith in the valley of dry bones wherever those valleys exist.

In Ezekiel this morning, the prophet is talking about the resuscitation of a people, the people of God, a nation, our community and society. God moves people through defeat into new life together.

Until, as Ezekiel says, this movement opens the graves of the dead. For, as you know, Easter is only two weeks away.

 

 

 

 

Reflection for March 26, 2017, The Annunciation

Isaiah 7:10-14, Hebrews 10:4-10, Luke 1:26-38

We are almost to the time of newness, when the earth explodes in warmth and beauty. Something new is about to happen. But it’s not quite here yet. It could be that something new is about to happen in your life. We sometimes sense that something is on the horizon, or that things are about to change. In each of these readings something new, almost but not yet happening, is coming.

In the Hebrew Scripture this morning, the prophet Isaiah is a court prophet in the established religion of the temple. The new thing that is about to happen is an invasion. In chapter seven, all of the enemies of Israel have formed an alliance and are now plotting an invasion which will destroy the country. All of the people, faced with this impending new thing, the prospect of upcoming disaster, are filled with dread. Even king Ahaz is paralyzed with fear. And Isaiah, the political prophet, realizes that he must call his timid king to courage. He asks the king to ask God for a sign or vision upon which to build that courage or confidence. But Ahaz is too afraid to ask God to do anything. To the king, it is all hopeless. What is the point?

So Isaiah points the king and the court to the most basic sign of human hope: to a woman with child. And he points to the coming of a child as a sign that birth comes through travail. The children of the community point us all in the direction of hope. Children remind us that before too long, as we watch them grow, what we dreaded will pass, and we will be facing joys and challenges beyond those upon which our anxieties are now focused. The child is a sign of hope, of God’s presence, of moving beyond the dread of our current horizon, of taking the longer view. The child will grow, and so will we. God is with us, and will see us through. When an invasion is that new thing on the horizon, remember our children, and do what is best for them.

The new thing in the second reading is the birth of a new religion, a new way to practice religion in the first century of the Roman Empire. Rather suddenly in the first century the idea of sacrifice to gods to appease divine anger or gain divine favor has lost its appeal. In the pagan temples of Greece and Rome, as well as the temple in Jerusalem, the idea of killing animals on sacred altars run by priests was on the wane. People just were not sacrificing as they used to. And the new thing that was being born was a new way to be religious that was not focused on the temple institutions but on individual faith and experience, living and sharing with people of the same perspective, leading life in a moral way. And this new religion, propelled by many different mythic stories, was catching on fast.

In this light the book of Hebrews makes sense. The writer says that Jesus is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. Jesus is God’s sacrifice on behalf of the world. So we can stop sacrificing all those animals, and focus on our faith and experience, living together and sharing, and finding our moral way. While honoring the old concept of sacrifice, the book shapes Christianity to move with the coming religious sensibilities. A new faith is being born. And maybe we live in that kind of newness now. But whenever a new religious perspective is being born, there is always a lot of anxiety and fear.

The new thing in the third reading, of course, is a pregnancy. This is the Sunday of the Annunciation, always about nine months out from Christmas. An angel tells Mary that she is pregnant. Since this is Luke, and Luke is a musical; Mary, of course, sings a song. But in all this wonderful news there are some issues and more than a bit of anxiety.

Think of Mary as a junior in high school. How would most high school students react to all this. I’m pregnant? Is that good? How did it happen? You mean there is this thing called virgin birth? Yea, right, who is going to believe that? I was planning on getting married. How is that going to work out? What will my parents say? What will people think of me? And you’re an angel? And my child is going to be the savior of the world? It’s all a little much.

And yet out of this new thing and all of the anxiety and fear it produces, comes the recognition that even in this difficult thing for this young woman, comes a new possibility. And the possibilities are greater than we can imagine, greater than our children can imagine, greater than all the temples and all their priests, greater than all the kings struggling with their own demons. For something new is on the horizon. It’s spring, something new is about to happen. What is the new thing dawning for you? Oh, I know you may be more worried than hopeful. But something new is coming. It will be more than we expect. And it will gradually unfold, just as a child grows into wisdom.

 

Reflection for March 19, 2017

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

Let’s begin with the first reading from Exodus. The opening words set the stage. 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 moved 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 the pressures of things going wrong as groups go through the challenges of the wilderness. 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.

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 witnessed to a powerful struggle in which the natural spirit forces challenged each other with massive violence. 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 and explaining these 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 this telling, 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. By the time this version is written there is 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. What we have is the story of the new people shaping the memory to fit new perspectives and realities. What we have 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 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 created 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 together.

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 story of 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 12, 2017

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

I.

     Faith seems to be a theme in the three readings today. The first reading describes Abraham: a person of faith who trusts the future that God assembles for his family.

The collected stories of Abraham are found in Genesis, chapters twelve through twenty-five. He is presented as the founding father of the Hebrew people. He is a somewhat mysterious figure and we are not sure whether he actually existed. His story was the legend or mythic memory of one of the confederating tribes which came together to form the tribal alliance that became the nation. The tribe of Abraham probably was the most significant group in the merger, since he is seen as the founding father, and his story is the longest of all the stories gathered into one national history. The myths of the other tribes were shaped into the stories of Isaac, Jacob and Esau. Let us recognize that as important as any one group’s story is, it yearns to be woven with the stories of others as the fabric of human life is constructed, and as people come together.

And if we too quickly mold Abraham into an illustration of faithfulness, we miss most of his story. Abraham’s God was active in the details of human life, even those which do not make sense, or in those small events we easily overlook or forget.

Abraham’s full remembrance would recall the great shift in his life when he decided at the “young” age of seventy-five to leave his home town of Haran, in Mesopotamia, in Ur, and to follow the Fertile Crescent trade route north and west, along the northern edge of the great desert and west toward the land known as Canaan near the sea. He may have farmed along the way, but he is mostly on the move, following herds, grazing his animals in the foothills. And he is buying, selling, and transporting merchandise along what was one of the most important trade routes of the ancient world.

His was a family business. The household, if you could call it that, probably numbered around 100 people. There were several relatives including Lot and his wife involved in this venture based on raising livestock both for themselves and others along the trade route as they traded with merchants moving goods through the corridor. Eventually they settle more permanently on the western end of the route, near the sea. At one point, because of drought and famine, the business almost collapsed, but they move temporarily to Egypt where there is food and pasture. Then they regroup before returning to their western grazing areas.

Land is important to Abraham’s storyteller, and in the area by the sea, in Canaan, Abraham buys or acquires control over several large fields, or base camps, or we might say ranches. After his death, his children and grandchildren expand on these holdings so that an actual territory emerges.

Once, when Lot was in trouble, Abraham formed a small army, or we might say Special Forces Unit, to rescue Lot who had been captured and probably held for ransom by a warlord. But by and large what marks the dealings of Abraham is that he had few enemies. He was gifted at getting along. He had a great capacity to work well with the economic, military, and political powers in the region. Abraham is a strong negotiator, who could be shrewd and at times even deceitful.

And there was one way of doing business that worked very well for Abraham. This was what we know as making covenants. A covenant was an agreement between two parties. It may be that the origin of covenants, or mutually binding contracts between parties, is a new invention for doing business in the Bronze Age as trade flourished. And Abraham made effective and long lasting agreements with all who crossed his path. You might say he was especially good at contract law, and made sure that the covenants made benefited all the parties involved: so good in fact, that even God and Abraham make covenants together.

Essentially he was a man of means who learned to trade well and prospered by not seeking conflict with those around him. In these stories he is remembered for this capacity to shrewdly negotiate with a sense of good will in order to strike a good agreement. Eventually the idea of covenants is used to shape our understanding of the relationship between God and humanity. God offers us a covenant with very gracious terms.

In his relationships, business dealings, and interactions with others, Abraham often showed two character traits that contributed to his success. He was highly adaptive, adjusting his perspective and understanding according to the circumstances. Even his vision of God involved several adjustments or changes along the way. Sometimes his moral agility got him into trouble, but by and large his capacity to adapt gave him the capacity to succeed.

The second character trait was a sense of hospitality and magnanimity. In dealing with war lords, petty kings, various emperors, family, servants, and business partners, his dealings were marked by a full measure of that desert hospitality that was so important to life in the ancient Middle East. Hospitality is often a theme in the stories of Abraham. And as we reflect on Abraham today, we could do no better than to simply understand that throughout life we will need to always build good agreements with those around us. Let us carefully attend to the details of the agreements we make with our neighbors, friends, and family, at work and at school, in our communities, nation, and world. As we do that we also will need to be adaptable and gracious. And let us do what we can to engage more and more people in the broader social contracts or covenants needed to make our own fertile crescent or these days we might say our blue marble safe and productive for all.

One of the most important things to Abraham was what we would call legacy. The question of his legacy comes up again and again in this story. What will he leave behind after his death? Because he and Sarah are childless so late in life, legacy becomes especially important. When most of us think of our legacy we think of family. But in these stories, legacy becomes more than having an heir. There is something about legacy that expands as we grow older. It involves more than our children. We want to leave something behind that makes a difference. We want to be remembered. We hope that what we stood for and what we did will grow and prosper. We want to see the good things of life continue beyond our frame. Eventually, Abraham’s and Sarah’s legacy is the founding of a nation, this new tribal confederation that blends the patriarchal stories of several tribes into one family story. But then this national legacy is broadened to include all people who seek a relationship or covenant with God. When we think of Abraham’s life we think about our own legacy and what we will leave behind. And that is a good thing.

And then finally, as we recall Abraham, this great negotiator and deal maker, high adaptable and gracious, focused on legacy, we also discover in these chapters that Abraham had a rather strange Bronze Age religion. Somewhere in his desert wandering, he gave up on the worship of the many Mesopotamian gods, and began to hear the voice of one god, one spirit in the wind of the desert blowing over the sand. There was one god, one spirit, one voice that spoke to Abraham as he listened. This voice called to Abraham. There was an intimate relationship between Abraham and the god of the desert wind. The voice became the source of his strength and courage. It helped him adapt. It helped him be gracious. And this faith became part of his legacy. This faith was not a static thing but is molded and then reshaped several times along the way: moving Abraham beyond malice to enemies, beyond the commonly practiced sacrifice of children, beyond family feuding, and beyond superstition. And each time God deepened Abraham’s faith, a new agreement or covenant was forged between this desert trader and his God. 

II.

     Today we also read 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 happening in the outer lives we lead, but in our inner lives and spirit. The act of faith is not always a physical transition, but a spiritual change. 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, along the trade routes of the spirit not yet fully explored. The journey in this third lesson, into the new unknown, is the spiritual quickening that we experience in the lives we lead. Sometimes the door opens to new ways of thinking about 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.

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 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.

This week, a new door may open in your life as well. A new possibility may emerge, either physically or spiritually or both. 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 be with them.

 

 

 

 

 

Reflection for March 5, 2017

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11

Oh, the Garden of Eden. One wonders whether or not it really existed. But the story of the Garden of Perfection speaks to something deep in us. We sense or dream or hope that once upon a time things were perfect. That life was simple and good, beautiful and full of truth, love, and light. The ancient mind may have shaped these longings for original perfection around a garden: a time and a place when creation was perfect, before there were such things as toil and pain, broken relationships, failure and hardship.

This particular garden of paradise may have been a religious response of a captive people, yearning for a better time to come. It comes when Judah has been overpowered by Babylonians who were world famous for their hanging gardens, one of the great wonders of the ancient world. This story, from that time and place, may have been their religious attempt to portray the God of Israel as the one who has the best garden of all. And the story makes the point that all amazing gardens, even those of the powerful Babylonians, are in the end places that will fall from grace.

Our own sense of original grace or innocence may not be attached to gardens, but perhaps more to children or infants. We tend to see infants as innocent creatures. And children often convey the sense that God gives us a beautiful start in life, until perhaps those teenage years. But whether we speak of gardens or children, there is here the view that once upon a time, at the beginning of life, things were wonderful and everyone was happy.

And then things begin to disintegrate and innocence is lost. The serpent is an ancient symbol of powerful evil. We have an ancient ingrained dislike of such creatures. The snake in this story reminds us that some of what happens is beyond all human control, even as we contribute to the problem with our own fallibilities. The forbidden fruit is a reminder that there are some things we best not get into. Boundaries are important. The name of the tree and the awareness of the man and woman in the story indicate how innocence is lost as we seek to know and control more and more. And once innocence is lost, it can somehow never be recovered. Once we know what we know, it is hard for us to find that innocence again. The carefully crafted dialog between the man and the woman is not meant to place blame on anyone but rather reveals how our rationalizations and good intentions can lead us blindly down the path to disaster. All of that is here. In this ancient legend. In our hearts. In our time and place.

And there is no better place to begin Lent than here, in this well crafted story. In the loss of innocence and the dawn of pain, in the rationalizations and fractured good intentions, in the loss of boundaries as we grasp at everything on every tree, in the way we interact with the evil around us, and in the consequences of knowing too much about things we can never control. It’s too bad the lectionary committee that selects these readings decided to omit so many of the verses.

But in the second lesson, Paul uses the theme of Adam and Eve. He’s speaking of Jesus, really, and wants to make a point. And Jesus is another good starting place for Lent. As sin came into the world through one person, it is resolved through another one person. Paul is speaking of Jesus as the image of that which can piece life back together again, once it has been corrupted, polluted, and desecrated by centuries of human endeavor. He is speaking of Jesus whose death reveals the deeper mystery of a loving God who lives and dies with us through the best and worst of life; until that innocence, we thought we had lost, we discover is embedded in all the experiences we have gone through. And then we all begin to find our way back to God’s garden again.

It is this Jesus who continues the ancient dialog with the devil in the gospel of Matthew. We are no longer in a lush Garden of Eden. This is the desert of despair. And the desert of despair is another good starting place for Lent. And the devil comes, surprising to us perhaps, with the Bible on his lips. It seems anyone can use the Bible for all sorts of things, and often those things end up badly. The devil tempts Jesus three times. The temptations involve hunger, the will to power and fame, and the question of the ultimate God. Often in the past, I’ve talked about each of these three temptations as a different issue of faith. And I suppose that is a good way to look at this. But this year, what struck me is that the three temptations indicate that the devil just keeps at it, over and over and over. And does not quit until Jesus himself takes the initiative in the dialog. And that might be the difference between Jesus and Adam, the intentional initiative for the good, the right and the true. And that is a great place not to start Lent, but to end it: with intentional initiative. Intentional initiative not so much in some garden or some desert, but in our own heart, in our lives. What do you need to work on?

For this is the season of Lent, the spring of life, when we sense the dawn of the innocent and the new, when we face that which ails us and reflect on what Jesus means and does, when we confront the evil around us, when we sense how just one person deciding to do what is right can make all the difference in the world.

 

Memorial Service Reflection for Corinne Groehler, March 1, 2017

Psalm 139:8-18, II Corinthians 4:16-5:1, Matthew 11:28-30

I.

    The Psalm today speaks of God as one who knits: a knitter: one who weaves the threads of life into the tapestry of creation. The patterns of the one who knits are microscopic and cosmic as both great darkness and wonderful light are woven into the stuff of life itself. We will return to God’s knitting in Psalm 139 in a bit. It is sufficient to recall as we begin that God weaves the strands of life just as Corinne knitted so much love.

And knit she did. There were mittens and shawls, baptismal blankets, scarves, and clothes. Stitching of all sort. She assembled kits, and blankets, and cloth for those in need, Woven in, with, and under it all was a sacred compassion that was actually more contagious than her laugh. Our lives, and the lives of so many, were warmed by her knitting.

But perhaps some of her best work involved the weaving of her life, the assemblage of those things that shape what it means to live well. Woven into her life is the story of a love many of us celebrated with her and Ken just a few years ago at the Old Feed Mill in Mazomanie. Do you remember that gathering to recall love’s anniversary? Here were two that loved each other, and out of that love was woven the gift of home and family.

She wove the life of a mother: teaching her daughters how to knit life for themselves: grounded in compassion and grace, courage and persistence, tending to knittings of their own making. Yet in this mother’s weaving were those darker shades of sorrow that come with the loss of a son. All of us, who knew her through and after Jared’s death, know that this sorrow was always present in her heart, even in times of great joy and laughter.

Corinne wove with us the fabric of life in church and community. She engaged us with her laugh and love. She was our friend. She knew how to be a friend, how to be there, how to express congratulations and sympathy, how to write in flourishing script what needed to be said.

And Corinne wove a deep courage into the web of her life. Sometimes knitting requires deep courage in the heart of the knitter as we struggle to pull the strands together in times of adversity. All of us who knew her were impressed over and over again with the courage it took to face grief and then cancer in this last years.

II.

   Oh, Corinne was a knitter. And may we be also. For every one of us has some weaving to do. Some knitting to attend to. We all need to learn about casting on and getting things going. Things badly started will never work out. We all need to learn how to hold the strands so that they come together without getting too tangled. We all are given the needles and tools we need to weave the yarns we spin in patterns not always of our choosing. And some of us will weave with the right hand, and others the left, while each of us intertwines our heritage and family, our loves and loved ones, our work and this community, our friends and strangers, our hopes and fears into something that can be worn and keep us warm in those later years. And then it is time to finish the piece and bind off the life we have been given. May we all weave well the strands we hold, through darkness and light; good times and bad, sickness and health, until it is time to hem our own piece of this life.

All knitting ends with a binding off: a death, a letting go of the needles of life, as the fabric is lifted from the framing tools that created it. The readings from Corinthians and Matthew are about this binding, this letting go. For as we find our frames no longer able to support us, we discover that the fabric we have woven was not intended to stay on needles at all, but to be released. The binding off begins a new reality, we would say in Christ. Paul in Corinthians would say we have a new life through the binding off. Matthew would say it is time to put down our needles. There is a time for the knitter to rest: to stop the movement of her hands and tools, and lean into an unknown future beyond her frame. Badger fans know there is a fifth quarter that always comes when the game is over.

III.

   Corinne was a knitter. And may we be also. But there is something more: something about God’s handiwork. The Psalm today spoke of God as one who knits: as one who weaves the threads of life into the tapestry of creation. The patterns of the one who knits are microscopic and cosmic as both great darkness and wonderful light are woven into the life itself.

As the years go by science allows us to more precisely encounter and make sense of the nature and mystery of the fabric woven by the weaver. And yet, just as Corinne’s knitting always expressed something deeper: a compassionate heart: the compassion woven in, with, through the yarn; so also the intricate and grand strands of life signify not only an astronomy and biology but also the joy and hope and meaning and purpose for which we and all creation long.

I think to me, one of the most interesting things about this divine yarn spinner is the dropped stitch. You know, we all expect God to knit a perfect piece. But then we encounter in God’s work, that dropped stitch, what seems to be a missed loop, a whole in the fabric, a flaw in the tapestry. Yet it is in the flaw, the rough spot, the opening, the loose end, the missing element, the imperfect, the difficult, the problem, the sorrow, the challenge, that we discover the deeper richness supporting the entire project. Compassion is woven in brokenness. For Jesus died, was crucified even, almost as if God were dropping a stitch, telling us that in such a tangled mystery we shall learn the secret of all great knitters. Even and especially in what is deemed the imperfection, the hands will express the love in the knitter’s heart. God, even and especially in the hard times is knitting us into eternal love.

And with this confidence, to this knitter, we now entrust Corinne as she casts off. May she know now the unity which awaits each of us: that deepest weaving of grace and compassion, that place where now Corinne and Jared are united in each other and all the saints in light.

Reflection for March 1, 2017: Ash Wednesday

We now come to the 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 face our own difficulties, shortcomings, over indulgences, sin, the brokenness of our world, and human fallibility.

I think this season of ashes, crosses, repentance, giving things up and sin can be difficult for us. Who wants to focus on the negative? It’s not a popular theme these days. To be honest, most people will not be attending worship today.

These days we all 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 pointing out their failures, dwelling on their shortcomings, and reminding folks of the need 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 our offering of forgiveness within this fallible community, we recognize our failures and shortcomings. It is Lent.

In this recognition of our limits and brokenness, something important is beginning. For what is often seen as an anachronistic medieval custom may have the power to permanently transform our lives as we take some aspect of our lives that needs changing and work on that.

This period of ashes, repentance, crosses, and fasting is an opportunity for us to approach God, amend our own lives at least in one small way, and relate to the people around us in new patterns. As spring is the world’s recovery from even the most difficult winter, Lent is our adjustment from our winter of the soul into the coming warmth. This general readjustment may have a profound effect 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 withers and our strength fades. 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 have is precious. Each day is an opportunity to express love more fully and to delight in life. We have wonderful opportunities 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 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. But it also 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 symbol of the cross is the reminder that our suffering God is with us through our own 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. Suffering with us as we move into a coming resurrection. The cross is a sign of struggle, but it is also the beginning of hope.

Today on Ash Wednesday, as we face our 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.