Sunday, October 18, 2020

In a Time of Contested Truth, How Do You Find It? You Look Here First.

It stunned us.  It so rarely happened to us.  But it seemed to happen all the time to Genevieve.  We all lived in New York City, home to the rich and famous, but we rarely saw them.  But Genevieve seemed like a star magnet.   Again and again I heard stories of someone walking with her in the park or on the street, and out of nowhere, someone super famous would walk by.  But here’s the stunner.  Genevieve never recognized them, until one day, she did kind of. 

She was riding a bus on the West Side of Manhattan, when a man sat down beside her.  As she glanced over, she thought.  I recognize him!  He’s famous.  She was even sure she knew who he was.   He was an anchorman, one of the really famous ones.  So, with confidence she asked.  “Aren’t you Tom Brokaw?”   And with an ironic smile, Peter Jennings, the then anchor of ABC News, said.  “No, I’m the other guy.”    It’s been 25 years since that happened, I still love that story. 

Interestingly, Jennings didn’t take offense.  They even had an engaging conversation about bias in the news.  Now, Genevieve may not have recognized who exactly Jennings was. But it didn’t have any terrible consequences, maybe some mild embarrassment.

But sometimes, what you don’t recognize, who you don’t recognize can destroy your life.  What if the folks who lost everything in Bernie Madoff’s swindles had recognized him for the criminal he was?   What if someone, anyone had recognized that the young man who killed 14 children and 3 teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas had such an act inside him?   But let’s not even get that complicated.  If you could just recognize who had Covid or not, that would be a big help.  But here’s the stunner.  You can’t even recognize if you have Covid.   You’ve gotta get a test to make sure.

And that where the hard truth comes.  Too often, we can’t recognize the truth around us because we can’t see the truth within us.   Too often, the lies that others tell us happen because of the lies we’ve already told ourselves.   But how do you see that truth?   How do you fight the enemies of truth that have outposts right in your own head?  How do you recognize the truth of what’s really going on, what’s really going on inside of you?  In this story, Jesus points the way.  Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say. 

Luke 23:39-43

So, how does it happen?  How do you recognize the truth?  More crucially, how do you not get caught up in what is not true, in what could even lead you to destruction?   In this brief moment as Jesus dies on the cross, he shows you.   You recognize the truth only when you face how far you still are from it.   Only then, can truth save you, but save you it does. 

In this story, one person recognizes the truth, and the other doesn’t.   But to understand how stunning this recognition is, you have got to go a little wider, to look at the whole story of Jesus’ death.  In that whole story, only two people recognize who Jesus is, see what is truly happening in his death.   And the first one who sees it is the criminal in this story, someone so outside of the law, of society that he is dying at its hands.   And ironically, the other one who does, is a soldier, a commander of the very men who kill Jesus.

The religious authorities don’t see it.  Heck, they think by killing Jesus they’re the good guys.  The Roman rulers don’t see it.   But you kind of expect that. Jesus and the religious leaders didn’t exactly get along.  And the Romans, if they thought of him at all, didn’t think much.   But get this.  His own followers, his companions for three years didn’t get it either.  Not one of them got it.  Not one. 

Who did?   This criminal, and a soldier, two folks totally on the outskirts of the whole picture, total outsiders to the whole Jesus story.   And yet they become the ones who get it.   Why?  Well, when you’re living on the outskirts, often truth becomes easier to see.  

After all, if you’re living on the inside, you often have an investment in not seeing the truth.  Why?  Often the truth will just tell you you’re wrong, and that things need to change, as painful as that might be.    And who wants to hear that?  Yet that’s exactly what you need to hear, even as painful as it might be. 

Many years ago, when I first studied to become a preacher, I felt I had become so enlightened about how unfair the church had been to women, how things needed to change.   And knowing that truth felt good, even made me feel a bit superior. But that Christmas, our family traveled to visit with family in North Carolina.   And after dinner that night, I commented to my younger sister how sad it was that Uncle Charles, a conservative preacher, was so blind to what I was seeing. 

 My sister just looked at me and said.   What about tonight at dinner?  I looked puzzled.  So, she explained.   She said.  “After dinner tonight, a dinner cooked mainly by the women by the way, all the women got up to clean the table.   And all the men, including you, sat there, like it was the most natural thing in the world, all the men, that is, except for Uncle Charles.   No, he got up and helped.  He went into the kitchen and helped the women clean.  And you, you just sat there.” 

 I couldn’t deny it.  She was telling me the truth.   I realized I might know what the truth looked like.  But only one man at the family table came close to living the truth that night.   And it wasn’t me. That hurt.  It hurt to see how wrong I was, how far from the truth I still lived.  

The preacher Bill Coffin put it well.  Jesus said, “The truth will set you free,” but first it makes you miserable.    After all, if you want to know the right way, you’ve gotta first face the fact that the way you’ve been taking isn’t it.   Only then, can the change come.  As the writer and psychiatrist Scott Peck put it.  “The truth is that our finest moments are more likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled.”  Why?  “It is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”

Yet even in the discomfort, you have a choice.  You can choose to stay in the lie or face the truth.  In this story, you have two criminals dying with Jesus.   Both are dealing with misery, with a life gone sadly wrong.  Why does one see the truth and the other doesn’t?   That other criminal doesn’t see the truth for the same reason, a lot of us don’t.  

Near the beginning of the pandemic, Damian Barr, a writer in England sent out a tweet that got quoted around the world.  He wrote simply: 

 “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar.”

 And inspired by that tweet, someone expanded that thought into a longer poem, some of which I’ll share here:

I heard that we are in the same boat. But it's not that.
We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat.
Your ship can be shipwrecked and mine might not be.
Or vice versa…..
Some are in their "home office".   Others are looking through trash to survive….
Some have experienced the near-death of the virus, some have already lost someone from it, and some believe they are infallible and will be blown away if or when this hits someone they know.
Some have faith in God and expect miracles during 2020. Others say the worse is yet to come. So, friends, we are not in the same boat. 

And what those sentences say about the truth of this pandemic, speak a different yet still powerful truth in this story.   You see.   Jesus and these two criminals were all facing the same storm of crucifixion, but they weren’t all in the same boat.   Those two criminals had lived lives that led them there, to those crosses, to that sentence of death.  But Jesus had not.  They might have faced the same storm, but Jesus sat in a far different boat.    But only one criminal was willing to face that truth, to face that only one person didn’t deserve to be there, and that person wasn’t him.

When you face the truth, your biggest temptation will always be to blame someone else, to avoid looking at your own boat, at the choices you took to get to where you are.   But when you do get honest about your own boat, that’s when the help comes, that’s when the hope comes, that’s when the change comes.

For in this story, this criminal makes a crazy request.  He asks Jesus.  “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”    This criminal sees what no one else can.  He sees Jesus is the King, the rightful ruler, the one who can save him.   And Jesus does.   Jesus tells him.  “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”    That word, Paradise appears only two other times in the New Testament.   In one, the apostle Paul talks about being taken up into Paradise and seeing and experiencing things of God he could never express.  And in the other, it appears in Revelation, as a description of the paradise of God, where humans will once again eat from the tree of life.   And Jesus is specifically inviting this guy, this criminal there.  I love the way the writer Krish Kandiah puts it.  Jesus is turning up for his inauguration as King of heaven, and he is bringing a convicted criminal as his plus-one.    You see, that’s the truth.  

Why do we avoid facing the hard truths about ourselves, the ones no one likes to see?  We fear.  We fear rejection.  We fear what our failures or faults or mistakes say about us, that somehow, they show we’re not worthy.   But here Jesus tells you.  You are worthy.  My love has made you worthy.  And no mistake you make can take that worth away.  No ugly truth can make you less beautiful to me.   

 And the more you know that truth, the more it frees you to face without fear, every flawed place, every wrong direction, every dark place in you.  For in the light of that love, you wake up inside this beautiful truth. There is no truth that you need fear, when you know the truth of his love.   And I know of no one who put that better than a Christian named St. Simeon who lived a thousand years ago, and wrote this:

We awaken in your body, O Christ, As you awaken in our bodies.

I wake up inside Your Body Where all my body, all over,

Every most hidden part of it, Is realized as joy in You

And You make me, utterly, Real,

And everything that is hurt, everything

That seemed to me dark, harsh, shameful,

Maimed, ugly, irreparably Damaged, is in You transformed

And recognized as whole, as lovely, and radiant in Your light.

And the more you see that truth, the more Jesus frees you to see them all.  So, is there a truth you’ve been avoiding, a rut you need to break out of, a lie that you need to let go?  Let Jesus show you the truth.  Let Jesus set you free.   


Sunday, October 11, 2020

How Does Trust Return When a Society Loses It? It Returns As Folks Remember This.

Boy, it’s tough out there.  But up until this week, I didn’t realize how tough.   I don’t know if you’ve realized it yet.  I sure don’t want to.  But I’m getting old.   That means I don’t always see things the way other people see them.  I’m getting dangerously close to being someone who says things like, “Back in my day, young whipper-snapper, things weren’t like this.”  

And this week, a few numbers I read showed me how tough things have become for so many.  You see, I grew up in a generally high trust society.  In other words, we trusted folks to do the right thing.  So, when we went to bed at night, we didn’t necessarily lock our doors.   Heck, if we left the house, we didn’t always lock them.   Why?  We trusted folks. 

But today that has changed.  The top survey of the way Americans think discovered less than one in three believe that “most people can be trusted.”  They haven’t recorded that low a number since they first started asking the question in 1972!  And the lower you go in age, the worst it gets.  About 3 in 4 Americans under 30 believe that most of the time, “people just look out for themselves,”… that they would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance.”   And if you’re young and in a racial minority, the numbers get worse.  

And that distrust is not only bad, its literally life-killing.  In just ten years drug-related deaths among those 18 to 34 has more than doubled.  Alcohol related deaths went up by 69%, suicides by 35%.   As one science writer put it, “When you have no one to trust, your brain can self-destruct.”

And now that Covid’s hit, those numbers are getting worse.  You can see it in the controversy over masks.  You see.  Masks present folks with a social dilemma.  Let’s say, you’re low-risk.  So, if you pursue just your self-interest and don’t wear that pesky mask, it might be better for you.  But if you pursue the common interest, then yes, the mask inconveniences you a little, but overall, everyone is going to be better off.  Yet, too often, in too many places too many folks have refused to pursue that common good.  They don’t trust. They don’t trust each other. They don’t trust the authorities, the scientists, well, anyone.    And that’s bad.   When a society stops trusting, it goes down.  As the historian Arnold Toynbee discovered. Civilizations don’t die by murder.  They die by suicide.  Civilizations don’t get killed off.  They kill themselves.   Now, could that be happening here?  In late June, Gallup discovered our pride as a nation has gone lower than any since since they started measuring it.   And our happiness level? It’s gone down to its lowest level in nearly 50 years.

But everything I just shared can change.  No, it will change.  We just need to remember the powerful, the profoundly beautiful, the life-changing message of this story.   How does trust return?  In this story, Jesus shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say.

Matthew 25:31-46

Have you ever heard that saying; “Don’t miss the forest for the trees?”  Yet with this story, I’ve done that.    In this story, it’s too easy to just look at the things you’re supposed to do, feed the hungry, care for the sick, visit the prisoner.  And sure, Jesus wants you to do those things.  But if that’s all you get from here, then you’ve missed the entire point.  And I say that because I did.   I missed the entire point. 

Jesus is going deeper than simply telling you things to do.  Jesus is inviting you into a new view of the world, a new view of everything.   Jesus is inviting you, inviting the world to change how it thinks.   And when you do that, when you change the way you think, it changes everything. 

Have you ever heard the story of the man on the train that the leadership writer, Stephen Covey tells?  It goes like this.  This man is riding on a subway train, heading home from work.  But right in the next seat over, there’s this man with two little kids.  These two kids are running up and down the aisle, bouncing on the seats, being loud and obnoxious.  But the dad isn’t doing anything to control them.   And this man is getting more and more angry.  He is thinking.  How rude! How inconsiderate!”   Finally, he angrily says to the man.  “Please control your kids!”   And the dad apologizes.  He says.  “I’m so sorry.  My boys just lost their mom, and we’re coming from the hospital.  They just don’t know what to do with themselves, and honestly, I don’t know either. I’ll try to get them under control.”  

Let me ask you.  Do you think that man was still angry after hearing that? No.    But nothing had changed.  The kids were still going crazy.  The dad was still not able to control them.   What changed is now the man thought differently about that situation, about what was really going on.  

Here’s a powerful truth that we need to hear again and again.   What you think about a situation is not necessarily what that situation is.   It’s what you think it is. In other words, your thought isn’t reality.  It’s your thinking about reality.    But that thinking leads you to feel a certain way.   And once you feel that way, it leads you to act a certain way.  And that action leads to a result.

And if you have a culture that thinks and feels a certain way, that thinking leads to certain results.   And in Jesus’ day, the thinking pretty much said only a few people matter.   And anyone else doesn’t matter at all.   And when I say at all, I mean that, at all.   If you had a baby and didn’t want it, you dropped it by the side of the road and hoped for the best.  That meant a lot of babies died.   If you killed a slave, you regretted the same way you regret breaking your stove today.  The slave wasn’t a person.  It was just a tool, a thing, nothing more.  

Even the religion of Jesus’ own faith had its blind spots.  Yes, they valued human life far more than the culture around them.   But that didn’t mean they thought everyone mattered the same.  If you obeyed the law, you mattered more.  And if you didn’t, you mattered less, a lot less. And for those outside the religion, they only mattered if they had power, and only then for what their power could do for you. 

And yet, Jesus comes along and tells this story.   And he says, at the end of time, you’ll see who and what really mattered.   You’ll see reality for what it really is.  And what is reality?  Jesus says.   Reality is everyone matters.   The hungry and thirsty matter.  The sick and naked matter.  Even those who have done wrong, criminals, law-breakers matter.  Everyone matters.  No, Jesus goes further.   Jesus says.  In those people, you will find God.  So, treat them as you would God.    

And let me tell you, when you start seeing in everyone around you the presence of God, when you know honoring that presence has eternal impact, that changes things.   It changes the way you think about people.  It changes the way you feel about them.  It changes the way you act towards them.   And it changes the results of, well, everything.   

Before Jesus, hospitals didn’t exist.  You had doctors, places that cared for the sick, but only for the rich or for the soldier or gladiator so they could kill for you.   But anyone else didn’t matter. But Christians in every city where they placed a bishop, placed a hospital, a place of care for everyone.  Why?  They knew.  Everyone mattered.

Before Jesus, orphanages didn’t exist.  Why would you need an orphanage?  Babies don’t matter.  But Christians created them.  Why?   They knew.   Everyone mattered.   

And that way of thinking started changing the way everyone thought.  For you see, if you want things to change, you share a different story, a truer story.   And that story changes everything, often in striking ways, even today.

Years ago, when my grandmother passed, I remember riding in the funeral procession and noticing everyone on the road stopping.  They were getting out of their cars and standing.  Men were taking off their hats.   No one moved until the procession passed.  Why?   They knew. That person who had died mattered.   And he or she mattered more than their next appointment or task.   And their stopping mattered to me.  Now I do the same when a procession passes by.  

But when you stop thinking that way, it has impact.   The preacher Bill Coffin put it well.   There are people and things in this world, and people are to be loved and things are to be used.  And it is increasingly important that we love people and use things, for there is so much in our gadget-minded, consumer-oriented society that is encouraging us to love things and use people.”

And because we live in a world that increasingly does that, that loves things and uses people, it has heartbreaking results.  Why would you trust in a world like that?   Why would you risk or hope or sacrifice for others in a world like that?  

But that world isn’t reality.  This story is reality.   And if you want things to change, then you live in this story, the real one.  You let that story frame every situation, every person.  And as you do that, you get closer and closer to what is truly real, to God, the heart of reality itself.   

You see.  The way you think matters.  It’s why the word for repentance, metanoia, means just that, a change in thinking, in how you see the world.   In fact, in one story that thinking defines the very difference between heaven and hell.   In the story, someone enters a room called Hell.  She discovers people seated around a banquet of incredible food.   But each has a spoon too long for them to put in their mouths.  So, the food lies there with no way to eat it.  The people cry in agony and rage.   Then she enters another room called Heaven.  She discovers. The room is identical, a banquet full of food, spoons too long to put in your mouth.  But here there is laughter and delight.  Why?  People are using their spoons to feed each other.

Years ago, I experienced a group exercise around just such choices.  Our group had been together for a couple of days, and right at the end, the leader gave us this exercise.  He asked us to go around and stand before each other.  And he gave us each time a number of choices.  If you chose one, you chose to turn from the person standing in front of you.  If you chose two, you choose to simply stare in their eyes.  If you chose three, you chose to grasp a hand.   And if you chose four, you chose to hug.   As it was an exercise in choice, the lowest number someone held up won.  But you had a few moments to negotiate so if someone voted two, and the other voted four, you could settle on three.   Now as we began, we realized.  The exercise was a setup.   We looked at each other and we realized. We wanted to choose four again and again.   Before long, everyone was hugging everyone else.   It was wonderful.  And as we left, at the door someone greeted us with a construction paper hand that simply had four fingers held up.   The exercise had been about choice, yes.  But it had challenged us to make a particular choice, to choose four, to choose to love, to realize that choice would always be worth the risk.

Every day you and I face that choice.  You can choose to turn away or stand at a distance or you can choose to love, even when love doesn’t seem to make much sense, even when love seems to be losing.  Why choose four?  Because no matter how it seems; four is true. It’s real.   How do you know?  In Jesus you see that reality, that truth. You see the God who chooses four for you, even when it costs God his life.  And you see. That love, that reality is stronger even than death.    

And as you live in that love, it will not only change you.  It will change everything.  For God in Jesus is bringing a world that is truly real, a world where everyone matters.  So, live in that world now.  Choose it now.  And see what God will do.    


Sunday, September 20, 2020

How Do You Know God is There When You Can't See God? You Remember This.

He called me late last Sunday night, just to talk about a story from the fires on the West Coast that he had heard on the news.   You might have heard it as well. 

A man was looking for his family missing in the fire.  As he drove along, he encountered a badly burned woman wandering down the road.  He got out to get her to safety.  He told her he was looking for his wife and son.   And she turned to him and simply said.  “I am your wife.”  So badly burned she was, he did not recognize her.  And the man who called me simply repeated those words, “I am your wife.”   And then he said something like, “Boy, that’s something,” clearly moved and saddened by the tragic horror of the scene. Then he said, “You know.  You might want to use that story sometime.”   And I said “Yeah, maybe so.” But honestly after that, I dismissed it.

But the story kept hanging on.  It kept hanging on because I knew it didn’t end there.  The son they were both looking for did not make it through the fire. No. That 13-year-old boy died with his dog at his side, in a car he hoped would protect them both.  But it didn’t.

I am tired of those stories, from the fires in the West, and the storms in the Gulf.  I am tired of the ones from this awful pandemic where so many have died alone, or even now struggling to find food for their families.  In a time like this, do you find it hard at times to see God?  I gotta admit.  Sometimes it seems like God has left the building. 

This past Saturday, I was seeing my optometrist, and she was frustrated she did not have the right contact for me to try out.  And I said, “Well, it’s not the end of the world.”  And then she turned with a half-serious look in her eye (that’s all I could see – the mask covered the rest), and said something like, “Well, in your job, I guess you’d kind of know.”    

But it can feel a bit like the end of the world, this world where God’s presence, provision can be hard to find.   So, in times like these, how do you know?  How do you know God is still there?   How do you know God is still at work, still moving in the world?  How do you know God hasn’t just left the building?  In this story, where God doesn’t seemingly show up at all, God shows you the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

Ruth 1:1-22

Storms and floods on the Gulf Coast.   Fire and flame on the West Coast.  And a pandemic, happening, well, everywhere.   In times like these, do you ever wonder?  God, where are you?  Or maybe, you don’t exactly ask that question, but you feel it.   You feel a weariness with life.  You carry more fear than hope.  And at times, at almost paralyzing uncertainty rises up as you wonder.  What’s going to happen next?   And with all that, God just fades further and further into the background.   But in this story, God shows you.   Just because you don’t see God, doesn’t mean God isn’t there.  For you may not see God now.  But, one day, without a doubt, you will.     

As this story begins, it sure looks like God has left the building.    Everything seems off.  Bethlehem, of all places, faces a famine.   Bethlehem means literally “house of bread.”   How can a place with a name like that not have bread?   Yet it does.  

Then we hear that this man named Elimelech decided to leave Bethlehem for, of all places, Moab. His name, Elimelech, means My God isKing.    But in Moab, Elimelech’s god definitely doesn’t rule anything.  No, the god Chemosh does.   In fact, these folks in Moab, they’re enemies. They’ve attacked Israel off and on for years.  Yet Elimelech heads there.   It’s almost like someone named “Jesus rules” deciding to join the Taliban.  It makes no sense.   And how he names his kids’ makes no sense either.  Mahlon means sick, and Chilion means wasting away.  What sorts of names are those for your kids?   But they sure tell you where this guy’s head was. And it wasn’t a good place.    Thank goodness, his wife, Noami has a decent name.  Her name means Pleasant. 

Still this family moves to Moab, but then Elimelech dies.   Somehow Naomi and her sons survive.  They even get Moabite wives, but then that comes crashing down.   Both sons die.  Naomi finds herself alone.  

This painful double loss means more than deep grief.  It means economic ruin.  Naomi has no way to survive, no one to protect her.  With nowhere else to go, she hears.  Things are better in Bethlehem.  She decides to return home.  She invites her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth along for the ride.  It seems that over the years, they had gotten close.   And Naomi can’t face letting them go. 

But her invitation makes no sense.  She’s asking Orpah and Ruth to leave their families to go to the land of their enemies?  How are they going to have a future there?  Now halfway there, Naomi comes to her senses.  She urges them.  Go back.  And Orpah does.  But Ruth doesn’t.  Ruth refuses to go.  Instead, Ruth says.   I will never leave you.   Your home will be my home. Your people will be my people.  Your God will be my God.  

Why would Ruth do that?   Why would she leave her country, her family, even her religion to go to a place that offered her no future?  She loved Naomi.   And she wasn’t going to leave that love behind.   Now, strangely, amazingly, in that decision, in those moments, God is there.   But no one can see it, certainly not Ruth or Naomi.  But one day, one day, they will. 

Because, just because you can’t see God, doesn’t mean God isn’t there.   Yes, you may not see God then, but one day, without a doubt, when you look back, you will.

It began with a simple ride I gave to a man to get some formula for his baby son.  He seemed like an ok guy.   Then the next day, in the newspaper, I read how that same guy, had that very night beat that baby boy to death.   For three months that summer, I had been working in the brutal inner city of Paterson, NJ, creating of all things, Vacation Bible Schools, in churches struggling to survive.  I had been commuting every day from a sparsely furnished, flea-ridden vacant house in a wealthy suburb into the bleakest city I had ever seen.  I had been accosted by drug dealers, who thought I was a customer, and visited with folks who had seen their share of poverty and despair.   But that moment, reading the story of a man who less than a day before had sat in my car, and then gone home to kill his own son, that broke me.      

I came back a few weeks later for my last year of study to be a pastor.  Over the next year, a relationship I thought would end in marriage would just end.  A semi-truck would rear-end and totaled my new car, leaving me making payments on a car that no longer existed. And I would decide no way was I up for leading a church anywhere.   So, there I was, a seminary graduate, with no job, no girlfriend, no car.  I ended up working as a low-level publicist for a small firm in New York City and living in a small room in a church.    My whole life felt derailed.  And I didn’t know if would ever get back on the tracks.      

Now, my struggles do not come close to what Naomi faced here.  But I still get why she told folks.  Don’t call me Naomi. My life has nothing pleasant. It’s all bitter.  So, call me that.  Call me Mara, the bitter one.  But here’s the stunning truth.  Just because Naomi can’t see God at work, doesn’t mean, God isn’t.  For she may not see it now.   But one day, she will. 

As for me, that job in New York City gave me time I needed to heal.   And I got to meet a few soap stars.   And that church I lived in gave me a community that touched my life in more ways than I have time to share in a 20-minute talk.   And, I didn’t know it at the time.  But the church that I would serve for 16 years was an hour’s train ride away.   My life looked derailed.  But God was working, nonetheless, even if I couldn’t see it.         

And in this story?  Well, let me give you a glimpse of what happens next.   

Israel had no food stamps, no public assistance.   If you were poor, and Naomi and Ruth were definitely poor, you had to rely on the good graces of the better off.   Basically, you picked a particularly good field where workers were harvesting.   And you hung out behind them, hoping to pick up what they missed, what is called gleaning. 

So, Ruth goes out to glean.  And she ends up in the field of a wealthy man named Boaz.  But Boaz isn’t just any rich guy.  He is related to Naomi’s dead husband.   It means, if he chooses, he can help Ruth, even marry her.  He can give her the life she lost when her husband died.  But Ruth doesn’t know that. 

And Boaz sees her.  He finds out who she is.   And having already heard of her faithfulness to Naomi, he makes sure that his workers take care of her.   She comes home from her first day in the field with about twenty-five pounds of grain!  Naomi, blown away, asks. “Where did you go to get that?”  Then Ruth tells her about Boaz.  And for the first time, Naomi begins to hope.  She knows who Boaz is, that he can help. 

And indeed, if you read on in the story, you will find.  He does.  He not only helps Ruth.  He marries her.  And in the end, Ruth, an outsider, a Moabite woman, becomes the grandmother of the greatest king in Israel’s history, King David, the very King from whose line Jesus comes.   

But you don’t see any of that here.   No one could see it.   Not Naomi or Ruth or Boaz.  But just because you don’t see it, does not mean it’s not happening.   In fact, in all this pain and hardship, God is laying the groundwork for God’s own coming in Jesus, a thousand years in the future!   

So, is God at work in these days.  Yes, God is.  But does that mean, you will see it.  No, not always, at least now.   But one day, without a doubt, you will.  

That’s what this cross proclaims.   On that day, as an innocent, righteous man suffered a brutal and unjust death, it sure looked like God had left the building.  But God was right there in Jesus, dying for you, for me, for this broken and hurting world.  God was right there, defeating evil, destroying death, liberating creation.    And if God did that in the ugliness and evil of the cross, then no place exists that God cannot and will not work.   No place or time exists that God cannot redeem and restore.   No person exists that God cannot save and free.   And in these days, remember that.   And on the days you can’t see, trust that, one day you will. 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

How Do You Face the Unfairness of Life? You Remember This.

It all feels so sad, and so unfair.  Every time, I see the date.  I realize what happened.   

You see this week, I’ve been reading hundreds of resumes as we look for who will succeed our office manager, Lynn, as she retires. And on so many of them, I notice the date, the date of their last job.   I see a lot of dates in March or April when everything began shutting down.    And seeing that, this pandemic hit home in a whole different way. 

Yes, lots of folks have gotten terribly sick, too many.   And too many of those, sick, have died.  But you don’t have to get sick for this virus to wreck your life.   This virus may not take away your health, but it might have taken away your job, your financial security, even threaten to take away the roof over your family’s heads.

And yet, lots of us haven’t been hurt like that at all.  Now, we may not be able to travel.  We may have issues with our kids’ schools.   But we can still put food on the table, pay the bills.  And some folks have even done better in the pandemic.  The founder of Zoom made the list of the billionaires this week for the first time ever.

But life has a lot of unfairness like that.  Heck, I’d like to still have hair or look like Brad Pitt.  But hey, that’s life.   But these days, the pandemic can show just how serious that unfairness can be. Heck, even the virus doesn’t treat you fairly.   Some people the virus doesn’t affect at all.  But others, the virus sickens, even kills.  And the doctors still don’t know why.

So, when the unfairness hits us, hits you, where is God in that?   How is God working in those times when you face the unfairness of life?   In this story, God shows you the way.  So, let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

Genesis 32:22- 33:4

How do you face the unfairness of life?   More crucially, how does God face it?   When you face the unfairness, sometimes the brutal unfairness of life, how do you find your way through to hope, to peace, to even joy?  Here God tells you.   You realize.  The picture is always bigger than you see. And in that picture relationship trumps winning every time, in fact only relationship leads to justice.  And in that bigger picture of relationship, nothing, not even unfairness gets wasted. 

But before you can see that bigger picture, you first have to see how our smaller picture thinking gets in the way, how it hurts us more than we realize.  And to understand that, you need to understand how the man in this story, Jacob, dealt with the unfair hand life dealt him. 

In fact, he got his very name because of that unfair hand.  You see, Jacob had a twin brother named Esau, but Esau came out first.  Jacob came behind so quickly he was born with his hand literally on Esau’s heel.   So, his name Jacob literally means just that, “may he be at the heels.”  But come on, what sort of name is that?  May he be at the heels?   It’s literally a name that destines you to be always second place to your brother, just like you were at birth.

And sadly, that’s how Jacob’s life goes.   First, his brother, Esau, as the one born first (albeit by less than two seconds) gets the lion’s share of the family’s wealth.   But beyond that, Esau also got the lion’s share of their father, Isaac’s love too.  Esau was a man’s man, a hunter and outdoorsman, and his dad, Isaac loved that.  But Jacob liked to hang around the kitchen with mom.  And daddy Isaac did not like that much at all.   And Jacob knew that.  He knew that his own dad really didn’t like him that much, certainly nothing like how he adored his brother, Esau.   Talk about unfair! He doesn’t get a fair share of his family’s wealth.  He doesn’t even get a fair share of his father’s love. 

So, how does Jacob react?  He decides.  He will do whatever it takes to not just even the score. He will do whatever it takes to win.  So, he first gets his brother to give up the lion’s share of the inheritance for a bowl of soup (clearly Esau isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer).   But that isn’t enough.  He wants his dad’s blessing too, even if it means stealing it from his brother.   And so, he goes to his blind dad, and tricks him into thinking he is Esau, just so he can get those words of affirmation, that blessing.      

But you do something like that, you are not going to get away with it.  And Jacob doesn’t.  When his brother, Esau, finds out, he vows to kill him.  And Jacob has to flee.    He will never again see his father and mother.  Not only has he lost his brother’s inheritance, he has lost his own.   His obsession with winning has left him with nothing.   So, why does he do it? 

Why does anyone want fairness?  Why do you want fairness?  You want someone to see what you see.  You want someone to see that the way things are, is not just, is not right.  And because of that unfairness, no one is seeing the truth of who you are, the value of who you are.   You simply want someone to see you and the rightness of your cause.  

But here’s the problem.  Jacob goes beyond simply wanting fairness.  He doesn’t want to just be seen.  He wants to be seen as the winner, the one who has gotten ahead.   But in his obsession with winning, he loses everything.   But even if he had won, if he had gotten everything, he still would be lost.  Jacob’s picture of what he needs is far too small.  

And yet that small picture drives so many lives.  If I just get this job, this relationship, this family, this whatever, then I’ll have won.  Then I’ll have what I need. It can even drive those who have been unfairly treated.  You can think.  If I can just get my piece of the pie, what’s rightfully due me, or even more than that, if I can just win.   But it’s never enough.  The writer Oscar Wilde said it well.  “There are two great tragedies in life.  The first is not getting what you want, and the second is getting it.” 

 Yet as Jacob flees, one thing he hasn’t lost, something he maybe didn’t even realize he had. He doesn’t lose the love of God.  No, God finds him, and in a dream of a ladder to heaven tries to give Jacob, the bigger picture.  He promises him a future of blessing.  Yet, even then, Jacob doesn’t get it.   God is inviting Jacob into a relationship, but still all Jacob wants is to win. 

 So, after the dream, he offers God a deal where for whatever God gives Jacob, Jacob will get to keep 90% and God will get to keep 10.   Even with God, he simply wants to get a win.

 So, Jacob flees, and sets up shop with his mom’s brother, Laban.  And there he meets his match.  He wants to marry Laban’s daughter, Rachel.   And he agrees to work seven years for free  to earn her hand.  But Laban tricks Jacob into instead marrying his older daughter, Rebekah. 

You see.  In those days, you didn’t see the bride at the marriage ceremony.  The veil never came off until after the marriage. So, when the veil comes off, Jacob realizes.  He got married to the wrong sister.   Laban has won, and he has lost.

But Jacob doesn’t give up, he works another seven years, to win the wife he wants.   And then, in an ingenious livestock breeding scheme, Jacob figures out how to win the best of Laban’s flocks and, thus his wealth, for himself.   But again, Jacob loses.  He gets found out, and he has to flee.   Now at least this time he flees with his wives and his flocks.  But he has nowhere to go, nowhere to go but home, home to his brother Esau, the brother who vowed to kill him.

And that’s where we take up the story.   Jacob has already heard that his brother, Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men.   And being Jacob, he has sent sheep and goats on ahead to hopefully buy his brother off.  Still, he fears the worst.   And at that moment God shows up. 

But this time, God shows up in a way Jacob will understand.  God shows up to give Jacob a win.  But God doesn’t just give it.  No, God and Jacob wrestle over that win all night.   Do you know how long a real wrestling match lasts, even in the Olympics?   It lasts about six or seven minutes, and that’s with two breaks in between.  Why?  Because wrestling is brutally exhausting.   But God and Jacob don’t wrestle for just a few minutes.  They wrestle all night long.   God knows Jacob needs that.  Jacob needs to feel he earned that win.  And Jacob does until the twist comes. 

For right, before the win, God gives Jacob a wound.  The translation says here that God struck Jacob.  But the word is literally touched.    Basically, God touched his hip, and ripped the whole thing out of joint.  Then Jacob gets it.

Have you ever played a game with a child, and given the kid the win?  Maybe you were wrestling on the floor, and that four-year-old pinned you down.   Or maybe you had a race where that six-year-old broke past you at the finish line.   Why did you do that?   You did it for the same reason, I’ve done it with my son.  You didn’t care about the win.   You cared about the relationship.       

And Jacob gets it.  God will give Jacob the win because God wants the relationship more.  And to celebrate that relationship, God gives Jacob a new name, Israel, the wrestler with God.   And that name has power.  For God is telling Jacob in that name.   I see you.   I see your hunger.  I see your passion to win.  And yes, I see how it messes you up.  But I see too the wounds from where it comes.  In fact, the wound I gave you shows you that. 

And in that moment, Jacob becomes free.  He realizes.  He never needed the win as much as he needed the relationship.  He needed to know that God saw him, really saw him, in all the pain, and the hurt and the injustice.     And that’s how true justice comes too.   Sure, it may require some wins along the way.  But before the wins come the relationships.   For it is in the relationships that people see; that people see each other, that people see the wounds, the pain, the injustice.  And then the justice comes.  I’ve seen that again and again in our work building relationships in Bold Justice, with other people of faith, with public leaders, how through those relationships, through seeing that pain, wins come.  

Now, we still live in a world of broken relationships, a world where unfairness still reigns too often.  But in this story of God’s feigned loss, of God’s pretend weakness, God points you to another time, where God would lose in order to win, not just Jacob, but everyone and everything.        

In Jesus, God did become weak for real, even vulnerable unto death.    And while that night God saw Jacob.  On that cross, few saw Jesus.  Instead they saw a criminal, a man to be despised or mocked.   And while Jacob was wounded so that his heart might be healed.  But Jesus was wounded even unto death, so that you might be healed.   And Jesus held on to that cross, so he could be blessed, but so you could be.  He held on to give you a new name, beloved son, precious daughter, beloved child of God.  He lost everything so you might win, so you could see yourself as God sees you, beloved and precious.    And in that love, God will, in the end, heal and restore every wound, every injustice.  But until that day come, you now know God has seen you.  God has called you his own.  And nothing, no injustice, no evil, not even death will ever take that away. 

And the more you know that love, the more peace and hope and joy come even on the darkest of days   For, now you know.  The darkness will never be the end of the story.  The light of God’s love will.   That is the bigger picture.   And in the light of that, you can work with joy and hope to see the justice, the goodness that Jesus died to give.   For you know, even on the darkest of day, no darkness will ever be able to withstand that light.  

Sunday, September 6, 2020

What Can Hurt You Most in These Days? This Can. Here's How You Get Free.

Did you ever hear that term “stranger danger?”  Folks use it to warn kids about talking to strangers.  By the way, it turns out kids face greater danger from people they know than a random stranger. Go figure. But now stranger danger has a whole new meaning to me.

Every time I go to the grocery store and reach past someone to pick up an item or just get a little too close for comfort to a person in the aisle, I wonder.  Could they have it?  Could they give me the Covid? Heck, they’re probably thinking the same thing about me.  It’s so weird.  Every person you meet could carry this invisible thing that could kill you or if nothing else, make you really, really sick.  So, we do what we can to be careful.  We even steer clear of neighbors we know when we meet them on the sidewalk.   Heck, these days, anyone could be a danger. 

And in a world like that, fear can easily assume too much power, take too much control.  Yet, here’s the problem.  Again and again God warns how dangerous fear can be.  In fact, God gives no other command more than simply the words, “Do not fear.”   As a wise rabbi once said; “You must accept that fear is not only harmful but evil, not only unhelpful but deeply destructive.”  (Rabbi Shmuley Boteach).  But in a world that can feel pretty scary, how do you not let fear harm you like that?  How do you protect it from even destroying you?  In this stunning story, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

Genesis 18:1-21

In this story, God shows you a simple yet profound truth.  The more you move past fear, the more blessing comes.   And the more you let fear take control, the more you open the path not simply to harm but even to your own destruction.

Do you think that the first time God went undercover happened when God came in Jesus?  No way.   God did it before, including in these words you just read.  Right at the beginning of the story, God tells you something stunning.  When these three men show up outside Abraham’s tent, God isn’t just sending some angels down.  No, in these three tired strangers, God himself has shown up, standing right on Abraham’s doorstep   Christians have seen in this story even the first hint of God as the Trinity.   In fact, A famous Russian icon of God that celebrates this very story has an image that hints at just that.    

But Abraham doesn’t know that.  As far as he knows, these three strangers are just that, three strangers.   Now before we get into what Abraham does, it’s important to know one thing. In those days, no one went on vacation.   No one took a few days off to go visit Uncle Bob in Babylon.   If you left home, it typically meant something bad.   Famine had struck the land, and you had to go search for food.  Invaders had taken your town or city, and you had to flee.   That meant.  If someone showed up at your door, they were fleeing trouble.  And so, generally people helped.  They provided something to help the travelers along their way.   After all, you never knew when you might need that help.  

Yet, what Abraham does goes way beyond the norm.  First, he not only welcomes them, he bows before them, even calls them “Lord” (which is kind of ironic since they are the Lord).  But then he goes further, he literally kills the fatted calf.  He provides them a meal fit for a king.  Now we know that these three are God in disguise, but Abraham doesn’t know that. 

Not only that, three men traveling alone doesn’t sound like a family fleeing hardship.  No, these guys could have been criminals, scouts for a raiding party.  Abraham had a lot of wealth, sheep, goats, cattle.  But Abraham doesn’t hesitate to lay out a lavish spread, to welcome them with open arms.   For him, the call to share, to care matters more than anything else, including any fear he has.  And as a result, he ends up welcoming, a blessing he and Sarah had yearned for their entire lives, a child.    

For God has shown up to tell them, even though they are old, so old the idea of a child is laughable (as Sarah shows us) that it is going to happen.  A baby is on the way.  As God says it so well, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

But then God’s conversation takes a shift, a shift to something much darker, to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  And that’s where we ended the story, but the story didn’t end there for Abraham.  No, Abraham tries to save the cities.  Yes, he knows his nephew, Lot, lives there.  But he doesn’t ask God just to save his family members.  No, Abraham tries to save everyone, folks in two cities, he doesn’t even know.  He even starts haggling with God over it.  Talk about no fear!  And He gets God to make a bargain.  If God finds only ten people who are righteous between both these cities, God will save them.

And that’s where the stunning contrast between these two stories becomes clear.  For God does send angels to Sodom and Gomorrah, to look for the righteous.  But here’s the tragedy. God can’t find them.  And why?  Sodom and Gomorrah are captured by fear.     

The story goes like this.  Abraham’s nephew, Lot sees two strangers/angels arrive.  Like, Abraham, he welcomes the strangers into his home.  But Lot’s adopted city doesn’t feel the same.  No, they fear.   Who are these strangers?  Maybe they’re scouts from an enemy city.  Whoever they are, they don’t belong here.  So, the men of the city decide to gang rape them.  They think.   If we humiliate, brutalize them, then kill them, then wherever they come from, they’ll know.  You don’t mess with Sodom and Gomorrah.      

Now, Lot does try to save the strangers. But then Sodom’s fear turns on him. The folks of Sodom say.  “Hold on a second.  Lot’s an alien.  He’s not one of us, either.  Let’s kill him.”   Now, that doesn’t happen.  Instead the angels zap the folks outside with blindness.  So, they can’t even find Lot’s door.   And then, Lot gets it.  These aren’t strangers. They’re angels.  And Sodom and Gomorrah just failed God’s test.  The next day Lot and his family flee. And God destroys the cities, cities that now lie in what is now called the Dead Sea.   

Do you see the irony?    Sodom and Gomorrah’s fear, fear that led them to violence and brutality, ends up destroying them, even making them a byword for evil and depravity ever since.   The rabbi is right.  Fear, at least fear like this, it’s evil. 

But as much as I wanna bash Sodom and Gomorrah, I can’t.  Sure, I haven’t engaged in the brutality they did.  But out of fear, I have distrusted strangers for no reason whatsoever.   Out of fear, I have seen danger in people simply because they looked different than me.  I have let fear too often drive how I see the world and those around me.  And it has hurt me.  It has hurt others. Can you honestly not say the same?  Who hasn’t let fear drive them into a dark place? 

And that’s why this story gives me hope, because it points me to this table.  Now, you might be thinking.  What? What does this story have to do with Communion?

Don’t you see?  When Abraham bargained with God, he reversed the way everyone in his day saw guilt.   If one person in your family did wrong, it tainted your whole family.  The guilt of one stained the many. But here, Abraham says. Why can’t the righteousness of the few save the many, even save them all?   And God agrees. And in that, God is pointing you to God's most profound act of love.

For in Jesus, God did become the one who saved them all.   He, the righteous one, came to us as a stranger.   And captured by fear we turned him away. We even killed him.  But our fear did not destroy him.  No, Instead, his love saved us.    In Jesus, the one did save the many.  The one, this One saved us all.   His love defeated, even destroyed our fear.   And the more you let that love in, the more it will free you from the fear.  The more it will open you to the blessing God yearns to give.  For there is no fear in that love.  Indeed, God’s perfect love casts it out, and will in the end destroy it forever.     So, where are you captured by fear today? Where do you need God’s love to free you?  Let the love of this God free you, this God that has saved us all, now and forever.