Monday, September 21, 2009

Bad Newsletters

So this weekend I found a couple of features, "The Compliment Game" and "The Thank-You Note Game," over at Hedwyg's place that I found hysterical. That discovery and a Facebook thread that started with some newsletter article frustrations leads me to ask my friends this: What is the worst opening phrase or sentence you can imagine for a church newsletter article?


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Scared Silent

Mark 9:30-37

Some of the most in depth conversations I can remember from my childhood and adolescence, those conversations with my parents that REALLY mattered, happened in sort of a strange place. At least it seemed strange to me. Now, years later I’ve heard that it’s not uncommon, and in fact one youth ministry expert works to not only encourage, but foster these sorts of heart-to-heart conversations because apparently I am not the only one who had my most pivotal conversations with my mom while sitting in the car.

Yep. The car. Family dinners are important. One on one chats on the couch can be wonderful, but apparently for me and for many others, the best parts of our relationship were built while talking in the car. I can even remember some talks that ended in the dark garage because we couldn’t interrupt ourselves when we pulled in the driveway and the automatic light had long ago turned off.

In the car we’ve got nothing but time. The radio can provide that slight distraction that keeps us from feeling to vulnerable, the side by side seating gives a feeling of equality and takes a little bit of the edge off staring face to face. In the car we’ve got nothing but time and the endlessness of the road before us to keep the conversation flowing.

Jesus couldn’t exactly pile his disciples into a 15 passenger van as they left Caesarea Philippi, but he did the ancient world’s next best thing when he knew he had some important stuff to talk about. While they had been in Caesarea Philippi, the farthest north of all his travels, Jesus broke some difficult news to his disciples. He told them for the first time what awaited him as they made their way back to familiar territory – great suffering and rejection, pain and death. Understandably, his news about the treatment of the Messiah had been met with disbelief and complete denial.

Knowing they needed a chance to talk through this again, knowing the disciples seemed to be missing the point and the trajectory of his ministry, Jesus cleared plenty of time in the busy schedule, and with the disciples began the long return trip to Galilee, to Capernaum, about 40 miles away. They seemed to be able to dodge the crowds this time, so Jesus and his disciples had nothing but time.

It was the perfect opportunity to continue the difficult discussion he had tried once before. They could hash it out, discuss it, sit in the dark garage with their lives held open to teach other and find out what indeed it meant for the Son of Man to suffer, die, and rise again. But even with the stage set perfectly for a long heart-to-heart, it didn’t happen.

Jesus laid it all out there for a second time, and the words just dropped to the dusty road like a lead balloon. Silence. Not a peep from his disciples. Nothing. Actually, it’s worse than nothing as we watch this PAINFUL exchange because the disciples KNEW they didn’t get it, and they STILL didn’t speak up and get engaged in the conversation. They let Jesus’ words and their questions just fall from the air, because they were too afraid to ask them. Too afraid to ask, they shut themselves off from the reality that has been laid before them, answering Jesus’ shocking words with silence on the long walk to Capernaum.

Why do they do that? Why do we do that when we don’t understand? Why do we default to fear and silence instead of questions and dialogue? Are we scared that he will get mad? Jesus has shown frustration, maybe even anger before, like when Peter rebuked him in Caesarea Philippi. Jesus answered, “Get behind me, Satan,” and that isn’t exactly something anyone wants to hear twice? Do we fear that we will find out we’re wrong? Are we nervous that what we always thought was true really isn’t our expectations are being challenged? What is it that we fear? The news itself or the way we will have to change our living because of it?

Defeated and disappointed in the disciples’ lack of engagement, maybe even hurt by their apparent lack of concern, Jesus’ pace quickened a bit. He had just told them yet again the fate that was awaiting him in the coming days – a fate that included betrayal and murder – and they just let the words stand unquestioned, unexplained, unbelievable. Not only that, but as soon as they think he’s out of earshot, they began arguing about what seemed to REALLY matter to them, who among them was the greatest.

The nature of their argument exposed the depth of their cluelessness. Who is the greatest? Jesus just told them that the Son of Man, the Messiah sent from God, was going to be humiliated and killed, and his disciples are worried about who among them is the greatest. Jesus just told them that he is going to end up at the bottom of the barrel, and his disciples are worried about who is going to rise to the top of the heap. Who is the greatest? This is what they are worried about?

Who is the greatest? The one who stands the tallest? The one who walks the closest? The one who sits at his right hand? Who is the greatest? The one who shouts the loudest? The one who threatens the strongest? The one who steals the microphone to make his voice heard? Who is the greatest? The one who earns the most? The one whose sacrifices are public? The one whose bank accounts are the fullest? Who is the greatest? Who is the greatest we argue and scuffle with our words and our actions, with our scared and silent competitions? Who is the greatest we want to know as our Messiah, our Lord, listens disappointed by our focus? Who is the greatest?

It was a slap in Jesus’ face. From his point of view it’s like telling someone you have a terminal disease and having them change the subject to talk instead about how good they feel because of the nap just took. There’s a complete lack of compassion, not to mention utter selfishness and a total lack of understanding about the nature of Jesus’ ministry.

When the group finally reached Capernaum 30-40 miles from where they started, Jesus, who walked the rest of that painful trip alone far enough ahead that the disciples thought he couldn’t hear them, far enough ahead that they couldn’t see his disappointment in them, asked them what they argued about on the road the rest of the way. Embarrassed to answer, they fell silent yet again.

The disciples again were too scared to answer or ask the questions that really mattered. They knew in an instant they were missing the point. They knew as soon as he asked them. They knew in an instant NOTHING Jesus was about, none of the healing, none of the preaching, none of the casting out of demons nor calming of seas nor feeding the masses, was about making him the greatest of all. Because really, when has reaching out to any of these brought anyone fame or fortune. They knew in an instant their desire to be the greatest was all wrong, but even then they still remained silent.

Graciously Jesus steps in. With love and hope that they soon would “get it,” and mercy if they never would, he saves them from their embarrassing misunderstanding. He doesn’t chastise them for their fear; he doesn’t even acknowledge the complete MISS exposed by their argument. Instead, with a new way of teaching he shows them what he means instead of telling them what will happen.

This life he has called them to be a part of, this life of following the Messiah, the one sent by God to redeem the world, it’s not about being the greatest. It’s not about rising to the top. It’s not about being honored by our peers. It’s not about accumulating wealth or power or success in the eyes of the world. It’s not about being the most well-known, being the most attractive, being the first among all others, not for the disciples, not for us, not even for our church.

This life he has call them to be a part of, this life we have committed to being a part of, this life of following Jesus, it’s about two things – service and welcome. That’s how we succeed, if you can call it that. Sitting down among his confused and misfocused disciples, Jesus tells them what it means to be first in his kingdom. It means being last. It means setting aside ego and pride. It means honoring others before honoring ourselves. It means stepping down out of the seats of privilege we hold and not just moving to the back of the line, but serving, waiting on the ones who now stand in front of us. It’s not just about choosing to live simply because we have the luxury to do that; it’s about serving those who have no other choice.

To further show them what he means, Jesus brings a child to sit among them, no not just sit among them, to be held by him. We love this image, don’t we? We love to hang it in our Sunday School rooms and paint in on our nursery walls. We imagine a pastoral scene with a soft lens, soft light. But as is often the case with some of our favorite pictures, it would have dropped more jaws than sentimental tears in the time of Jesus. Childhood then was definitely not childhood now. Children were not considered a “precious gift” the way they are now. They were a blessing not in the joy they brought, but in the work they could do, the wealth they represented, the income they could bring or protect.

Under Roman law, a child was not even guaranteed the right to live at his or he birth. The pater familias, the father of the family or head of the household, could choose after the birth to accept the child’s life in the family or choose to have it put to death. Children were not really full humans in the dominant thought of the day. What Jesus is showing the disciples by bringing the young one among them is about more than welcoming innocence. It’s about welcoming those we consider below us, less than us, sub-human even.

Holding a child in his arms showed the disciples that his life was not about jockeying for position. Jesus’ ministry was not about climbing to the top to be declared the greatest. His ministry, the ministry of his true disciples, is not about seeking honor and ensuring a glory-filled reputation. It’s about serving the dishonored and glorifying the unwelcome. His ministry, the ministry of his true disciples, is not about insulating ourselves from the reality of pain and death, even the humiliating death on a cross. It’s about subjecting ourselves to that kind of ridicule from the world by serving those others would expect to serve us, welcoming the ones who are welcome no other place and welcoming them right into the very middle of our circle, right into our arms.

That’s the way to follow Jesus. That’s the way we understand what his life, what his death, what his resurrection is all about. We understand by serving the way he served, with his whole life shared with the whole world. We understand by welcoming the way he welcomed, with arms stretched open for the overlooked, the ignored, the unvalued.

Our fears and our silence may keep us from asking all the right questions, and you know, maybe our rational minds wouldn’t let us understand even if we gave them voice. So Jesus showed us what his way is all about. He showed us by teaching us with his example, by serving us with his grace. He showed us by welcoming and holding a child in his arms. He showed us by going all the way to the cross, not to be the greatest of all, but to be the servant of all, and to call us to this kind of life with him. May we find the courage to follow.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Cross Culture

Mark 8:27-38

Location! Location! Location! It’s not just the key to real estate; it’s often the key to the gospel of Mark. “Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi.” If Mark bothered to tell us where they were going, it must have something to do with what they did or said on the way there.

The gospels mention two different areas known by this name, one on the western coast of Judea, on the Mediterranean Sea, and this one, which is inland. It is northeast of Galilee, which is north of Jerusalem, so it’s quite a ways away from the Temple and the center of the Jewish faith. In fact, it’s getting to be about as far away from the center of the Jewish population as a Jewish person would probably want to get in Roman occupied Palestine. It’s also the farthest north Jesus ever goes during his ministry.

The region was important religiously to the Syrians, the Greeks, and the Romans. Temples and idols of Syrian gods dotted the landscape. The Greeks believed it to be the birthplace of Pan, and named the area Panias. The Romans gave it its biblical name, Caesarea Philippi. Having been given the region by Caesar Augustus 20 years before the birth of Christ, Herod the Great built a great temple of white marble to honor the godhead of Caesar. The city itself was built later by his son Herod Philip. Hence the name, Caesarea Philippi.

Needless to say, Jesus and his disciples were crossing some very important boundaries as they made their way on the road to Caesarea Philippit. They were moving toward a place where worship of Caesar and worship of Pan was far more common and acceptable than worship of God, whom they knew as Yahweh, God whom they declared was the ONLY God. Walking on road in an area littered with the temples of the Syrian gods, a place where the Greek gods looked down, a place where the white marble splendor of the home of Caesar-worship dominated the landscape, they were crossing the boundary into a culture that was foreign, possibly hostile, and definitely not receptive to their beliefs.

Their trip was taking them into a multi-cultural pressure cooker. There was likely anxiety about where they were going and how different they would be. They would soon be in the minority, always a stressful place to be. They would soon need to figure out who they were going to act, talk, believe, and behave in the middle of a completely different culture. So on the way, Jesus begins to prepare them for what they will experience with a couple of questions. It always helps to discern your way through the future with a reminder of your beliefs that define you.

“Who do the people say that I am?” Jesus asked his followers. The reports sounds like a biblical all-star line-up to us – John the Baptist, the prophet Elijah, others of the prophets Israel honors. They were all strong men. Remembered men. Men who made a difference, but also, lest we forget, they were men who were known for disrupting the culture. Visionary men with visions that challenged the establishment, criticizing the status quo, as visions often do. They were men who were not necessarily honored by the culture where they ministered, and in fact, John the Baptist was so DIShonored his head showed up on a silver platter. A biblical all-star list, yes, but at the same time not a list you necessarily hope to be on for safety’s sake.

This is probably not a problem we’d have so much. People don’t really see Jesus as THAT controversial of a person anymore. Maybe we’ve gotten to the opposite end of the spectrum even. If people are even thinking of Jesus, they don’t see him as much of ANYTHING – a good teacher, maybe, a wise sage, a spiritual man at best. But a political danger, a world disrupter, a threat to ANYTHING? Probably not. And whether it’s the chicken or the egg, more and more people don’t see his followers as having much impact or relevancy either.

The culture that surrounds us, Jesus’ followers, those on the road with him, is dismissive at best, hostile at worst to the message we hope to proclaim. Do unto others has turned into do what’s best for me. The rugged self-sufficient individual is worshiped more than the selfless servant of others. Our public opinion poll about Jesus may turn up very different responses today than it did years ago, but as we are walking around in a culture as foreign to our faith as the disciples in Caesarea Philippi, the follow-up question would have to be the same.

If this what the world think of Jesus, if they even THINK of Jesus, a teacher, a guru, or a speaker of generic universal wisdom, if this is what the competing and dominant culture says about him, then he asks us, “Who do you say that I am?

It’s what he asked the disciples. That’s what the people think of me, but what do YOU think? Who do YOU say that I am? As they are making their way into a foreign land. As they are moving deeper and deeper into a very different culture. As they are becoming even more of a minority than they have already been. As they are making plans for their ministry when they get to this new location, the important question for Jesus comes, “Who do you say that I am?”
It’s the question we have to ask ourselves periodically, too. It’s a question we have to ask as we find ourselves living and working in a culture that is competing with our faith. It’s a question we have to ask when we face challenges in our lives.
“Who is Jesus?” when I’m out of work and running out of money?
“Who is Jesus?” when relationships are disintegrating?
“Who is Jesus?” when I don’t know how to be the person I’m becoming?
It’s the question we have to ask when we face challenges in our society.
“Who is Jesus?” when we can’t speak to each other respectfully?
“Who is Jesus?” when wars take the lives of the world’s sons and daughters?
“Who is Jesus?” when some live with luxurious abundance and others live in poverty?
It’s a question we have to ask when we stand at the threshold of a new day as a church.
“Who is Jesus?” when we are blessedly surrounded by children?
“Who is Jesus?” when we’re wondering how to serve our community?
“Who is Jesus?” when we are discerning our mission and calling in the world?
Who is Jesus? Who do we say that he is?

Always the first to raise his hand, Peter spoke up with the perfect answer, straight from the textbook, “You are the Messiah,” but knowingly Jesus told him to keep what he declared quiet. The words from Peter’s lips sounded just right, but Jesus knew he’d have to teach the meditations of their hearts about what his sort of Messiah would be. Peter and the others were expecting a conquerer who will free Israel from its captors, a king who will rule from David’s throne, a priest who will bless the people as he ushers in a peaceful and PROSPEROUS era. So, Jesus’ idea about great suffering and rejection, killing and rising again, that wasn’t what Peter was talking about. So, Peter rebukes Jesus for getting it all wrong, and Jesus rebukes him right back.

This question, “Who do you say that I am?” and its answers, matter. This question, “Who do say that I am?” and our responses make a difference. If we expect to be the followers of the Messiah, a king who is touched by no sadness nor suffering, we’re going to be rudely awakened when see him in pain. If we expect to be the followers of the Messiah, a wise teacher widely respected, we’re going to be shocked when we see him rejected and ignored. If we expect to be the followers of the Messiah, a heralded, lauded, and honored leader, we’re going to be crushed when we witness his death on a humiliating cross.

Followers of the kind of Messiah the disciples expect, followers of the kind of Messiah we sometimes secretly wish for, don’t have to worry about losing jobs, because they are always the boss. Followers of the kind of the kind of Messiah the disciples expect don’t have to be worried about being spit at or mocked, because they when they walk by people stop to watch with respect, when they stand up to speak people stop to listen. Followers of that kind of Messiah don’t have to wait in line, or share what they have, or worry that there won’t be enough or it won’t be good enough, because they are always first and people always bring the best to them. Followers of that kind of Messiah never have to worry that a street or a plane or a trip to the city will be unsafe, because the strength and the might and the reputation of their Messiah will protect them.

If, however, we hear and believe in the kind of Messiah Jesus says he is, if we see the kind of Messiah Jesus has shown us he is, then the way we follow him will be completely different. We won’t expect to be treated like we’re on the side of the good guy. We won’t anticipate the seat of honor in every public forum. We won’t count on the world catering to our every desire. We won’t put our needs, our desires, our cravings before those of others. We won’t be exempt from helping our neighbor or the stranger on the street before we help ourselves. We won’t expect the world to understand our call to show love and mercy without boundaries, justice without retribution.

Because the Messiah that Jesus is in the world, is not the kind of Messiah the world expects. And therefore the followers of Jesus, those who walk on the road with him into a culture that stands against him, are called to followed him in these unexpected ways. We are called to leave our lives behind to live cross-culturally, in a way completely different from the culture around us. We are called to live in the culture of the cross, in a culture of sacrifice and sometimes even suffering, in a culture of selflessness and compassion for others, in a culture of gospel mercy. We are called to bring a culture of love, a culture of forgiveness, a culture of compassion, a culture of mercy, the culture of the cross to the relationships we are in, the community where we live, and the world we serve.

The way we live as Jesus’ followers should show exactly what we believe about who he is, because knowing who we are following gives us the map for the way forward on the road in a different culture. Knowing who we are following gives us the rules for the cross culture. We are called to pick up things, ideals, beliefs and priorities that feel cumbersome, awkward to carry, maybe just maybe even humiliating before the world. We will need use our time in ways that honors God. We will need to treat those who hurt us in a way that brings dignity to our relationship. We will need to budget and spend our money in a way that pleases the Messiah.

As a church we will need to set priorities for our future and organize our mission in a way that may feel heavy and uncertain at first. We could be called to give up the programs we’ve held onto, give up our pre-conceived ideas, our cravings, our comforts, the things we hold onto too tightly in order to take up a new and life-giving vision. We will need to look at what we are being called to be and do NOW, not just what we’ve always done in the past.

Who do you say that he is? Ask yourself. Ask each other, because the answer matters. The answer tells us who and how we will follow. Is he a teacher, a prophet, a peacemaker, the Messiah? Who do we say that he is and how will the world know our answer?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Keep These Words

The Israelites were getting ready to pass through the waters, and Moses had been given some last few, but very important, words to deliver. They were about to pass through the waters of the Jordan and enter into the Promised Land, but God wasn’t quite ready to let them go yet. There were a few more things they needed to hear as they got ready to live their life, redeemed and freed from slavery.

These words from Deuteronomy 6 have become some of the most important words in the Jewish faith. It wouldn’t be overstating the case to say they are the most beloved words of Scripture. Observant Jews recite these words in prayer twice a day, they are the center of their prayer services, and it is traditional for them to be spoken as a person’s last words. The passage, beginning with verse 4 is known as the “Shema” for the first Hebrew word in the passage – “Hear!” or maybe better yet, “Listen up!” The command lets us know something important is coming. The command alerted the Israelites to the center of what they needed to know as they made their way through the water.

It’s a good command for us, too, for we who have come through these baptismal waters, for we who have promised even today to care for those born, through their baptisms, into our family of faith. “Listen up!” God’s going to tell us how we should live in this family formed by the water and the Spirit.

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

At the playground recently I saw a dad waiting with his son for some space to clear up on a climbing toy. The only dad in that area, while helping his son wait patiently, he also helped some other children make their way safely to the top. Even after his little boy had reached the high platform he kept helping the others, spotting them so a potential fall wouldn’t be so dangerous, giving a hand to steady them if they got a little wobbly. Another dad came jogging up when he saw his daughter getting some assistance. He thanked the first dad, apologizing for not being there; he was chasing his other children, too. The first dad, smiled and shrugged, “Hey, we’re all in this together!”

We sure are. We’re all in this together! God’s commandment through Moses in Deuteronomy 6 doesn’t come in a little “For parents only” section of scripture. It’s not set aside for just those who are raising children in their homes. It’s not that elusive instruction manual all parents sometimes wish came with their children. It’s not just for those with the immediate responsibility of day to day care for little ones. Hear O Israel! Israel! It’s for the whole community, the whole people of God. It’s for ALL of us!

Hear, O Israel! Moses calls to all of God’s people, the whole nation, the entire community and because of this you know something very important is coming up - - Hear me! Listen to me! Listen up now! The Lord is our only God and the Lord has some important things for us to do. We are supposed to love God with all that we are and all that we have, and we show that love by following God’s command. We’re commanded to know this all by heart. We’re supposed to love God and love what we know about God. We’re supposed to keep all of this treasured inside, NOT to horde it away from others, but so that we can live it before others - - especially so that we can live it in front of our children.

This is the call and command to the community of faith. It is the community’s responsibility to teach our children about God and God’s love for us all. It is the community’s responsibility to recite these words by heart, to talk about them, to talk about God, to tell our children the stories and the promises of God’s love for them and for the world.

Sometimes it sounds daunting, I know, because we don’t know when and we don’t know how. Many of us think to ourselves, or even out loud to one another, “But I don’t know enough. Someone else speaks to the children better than I do. I’ll mess the story up, so maybe if I learn it a little better, then I’ll be able to teach it. I don’t really see a lot of children, so I don’t get the chance to teach them.”

But really, it’s not that hard! Moses tells us how we should do this - - by heart! I don’t mean memorization here, but truly by heart. We are supposed to love these kids, this children made all of ours by the waters of baptism, we’re supposed to love them so much that they know God’s love. We are supposed to love God so much you can see it coming from our hearts, hear it coming from our lips, feel it coming out of our very souls.

And when should we do all of this? Oh it’s not too hard, Moses tells us - - only when we’re home or when we’re away. Only when we’re sleeping and when we’re waking. That’s all! In other words, there isn’t a designated time. It isn’t just in Sunday School or worship. It’s not just at Networks youth ministry or Children’s Time. This is our call, this is God’s commandment to us ALL THE TIME. Loving God and teaching God’s children is our fulltime job, and we do it with the lives we live before them. We do it by holding close to God’s Word, by keeping these words in our heart and in our lives.

We do it by heart, when we choose the Way of Jesus in our thoughts, in our words, and in our actions, in the church, in our homes, in the schools, and in our communities. We do it by heart when we remember we are the family of Christ, born through the waters of baptism, sealed by the Holy Spirit, marked as Christ’s own forever, and we ACT like a loving family. We do it by heart, we hear God’s commandment and we teach it to our children, when we choose the way of love and forgiveness and justice, over fear and revenge and retribution in all that we do, wherever we are.

We keep God’s commandment to love the Lord and teach love to our children, we do it by heart, when we come to this table, the table of our Lord, Jesus our Christ. We do it when we proclaim with our lips in prayer and our hearts in humility and our faith in the action of eating this bread and drinking from this cup, that by these humble, common elements we are fed by his body and his spirit, so that we will be enlivened for his ministry. We do it by heart when we come together as the community of Christ, the family of God, not just with those who share the Lord’s Supper in this room on this day, but with all people in all times and in all places who share his body and blood through this sacrament.

We keep these words in our heart, we recite them before our children and the world, when we join together around this table, obeying the words of Jesus, “Do this in remembrance of me,” taking his very life, his very spiritual presence into our bodies to nourish our lives and our faith.

Keep these words, and share them by heart. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. In all that you do, and all that you are, whether you are here or there, close by or far away, working or resting, going or coming, in the church or in the world, share this love with all the generations.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

An Evening at the Fair

Things witnessed/heard/saw/thought at the State Fair:

1. Even just watching a birth is exhausting. At the Miracle of Birth pavilion I think ever woman who had ever born a child (myself include), pushed with that cow. Long active labor due to breech presentation, but that little bull made it out.

2. Do the churches at the State Fair serve communion-on-a-stick? Deep fat fried wafers on stick dipped in wine? Maybe I need a to take our congregation to the fair next year.

3. Skyways are still fun when you're not a kid.

4. The crowd at the MN Winegrowers booth was WAY different than the crowd at the Open Class Elvis Impersonators stage.

5. Pumpkins can get REALLY big!!!

6. I did not see any Jewish rabbits (or rabbis that I know of).

7. Girl seen talking on cell phone while riding on horse. I know it's 2009, but that just seemed weird to me.

8. Some people just were not made to be salespeople. You should haven't to ask a guy three questions about his product in the Random-assortment-of-as-seen-on-TV Products Pavilion before he offers any information about his unbreakable plates.

9. There's a fine line between trying to strongly encourage/convince and chastising/mocking. Tread it carefully.

10. If you advertise hotdogs encased in spiral cut potatoes on a stick in every newspaper for months leading up to the fair, you should make them WAY easier to find at said fair.