Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lent 4: What is good and right and true?

A. Hanson 2012
Denver, CO
When I start thinking about what is good and right and true, I also start thinking about permanence.  What is actually permanent?  What has staying power?  What is a rock?

I think about this a lot, because my entire life is up in the air right now with my career and eventual call process for the church.  Belongings don't have permanence.  Jobs don't have permanence.

But relationships/friendships are good and right and true.  And they can have permanence, but that requires hard work.  But more often than not, they do not survive the geographic separation or transition that comes with the ebb and flow of life.  I think that the Triune God is both good and right and true, and also permanent.  And maybe the only entity that is.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Prayer Series Part 1: The Collect

Amy Hanson, 2009
Ameugny, France.
The Collect is a form of prayer unique to the Western church (descended from the Roman Catholic tradition, as opposed to the Eastern Orthodox tradition).  

The collect is composed of five parts:

1. An address to God

2. A statement that refers to some attribute of God or to one of God's saving acts

3. The prayer petition

4. The reason for which we ask

5. The conclusion (a restating of the name of God and 'Amen')

There are many possible names and attributes of God, and even more in scripture.  We were discussing the Collect in our adult Bible study at church this week, and some people felt constrained by the collect.  For me, the structure is actually a blessing. I find that in my prayers my mind can wander and drift and my prayers drift off, so the collect provides a way to focus my intentions.  

Example of the Collect:
Gracious God, source of all goodness and peace, we ask that you care for our brothers and sisters in lands ravaged by warfare and strife.  We know that you would have us live in peace.  We ask this in the name of your most precious son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Lent 3: Spirituality and Jesus in unlikely places

The reflection question this week is "Where are you encountering Jesus in the unlikeliest of places?"

Counter protest to WBC held at Lorde Concert
as reported by The Denver Channel
Last week, on March 19, Fred Phelps died in hospice in Kansas. Fred Phelps is one of the most hated men in America because of his highly controversial Westboro Baptist Church and his outspoken hatred of LGBTQ folks.  In the days before his death, it came out that he was excommunicated by his own church in August 2013.  There are a number of blog articles and conversations about how we should respond to his death.  Some people want to respond in kind, protesting his funeral, like his church has protested so many funerals (although WBC said there would not be a funeral), some people want to ignore them, and yet others are responding out of love.  The image to the left has been making the rounds of the internet for the last few days.  This is an example of Jesus in the most unlikely of places. I want to hate Fred Phelps because of the hateful vitriol that he has spewed and the fact that he hates people like me and so many of my friends.  Yet, I find myself unable to do so.  He seems like a lonely, miserable person.  And Jesus loves him too.

Nate Phelps, the estranged son of Fred Phelps who is now an atheist and outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights, said it best in his public statement, referenced in this article, when he said he will mourn his father "not for the man he was, but the man he could have been" and implored us all to work for justice and "have his death mean something.  Let every mention of his name and his church be a constant reminder of the tremendous good that we are all capable of doing in our communities."

We were talking about the death of Fred Phelps in my church office last week, and my supervising pastor said, "He will be welcomed into heaven, but God is going to have some SERIOUS questions for him."

Jesus shows up in the most unlikely of places.  I am definitely NOT saying that God ordains the sort of vitriol spewed by WBC, but rather, that Jesus shows up in people who continue to love in spite of this hate.  For the Gospel is not just for people that I like.

Monday, March 17, 2014

How Can These Things Be? A sermon on John 3:1-17

Preached at First Lutheran Church in St Peter, MN on Sunday, March 16.  Gospel Text: John 3:1-17

Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen.

In today’s episode of frequently misunderstood Bible passages, I present to you: the story of Nicodemus and the one conversation with Jesus that has done more to divide Christians against one another and all other people than almost any other verse in all of scripture.  Let’s open up this story a bit.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a group of Jewish men who were religious and political leaders in Jerusalem. Nicodemus would have been very familiar with all the ins and outs of what it meant to be Jewish, he would have been closely following what Jesus was up to in his ministry. It is not entirely clear as to why Nicodemus wishes to see Jesus, but he comes to see him in the darkness because as a member of the Jewish elite, it just wouldn’t do to be seen keeping company with this unkempt radical who just got done throwing the money changers out of the temple, upending tables, and shouting that the temple has been turned into a marketplace. Then Nicodemus does something bold: He confesses that Jesus is a teacher sent from God, and that he is filled with the presence of God because of the signs that he has performed.
But then Jesus answers a question that Nicodemus is not asking.  Jesus says, “no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above” (or as some translations have it, born again or born anew).  Nicodemus was not asking, “how can we be sure you who are you say that you are?”  So, it is actually Jesus who begins this confusing conversation.  Nicodemus asks a very logical and literal question, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter their mother’s womb again?”  Jesus counters with, “do not be astonished.  No one can enter heaven without being born of water and Spirit.”  Again, Nicodemus speaks for all of us who are still confused, “How can these things be?”  And Jesus is almost impatient with him, “How can you be a teacher of Israel and not understand these things?  We, presumably meaning Jesus and the disciples, tell you what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not believe.  How then can you believe about heavenly things?”  Then Jesus utters some of the most well known words in all of scripture, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” 
That is John 3:16.  It’s on t-shirts.  It’s on billboards  It’s on that guy’s sign who attends football games wearing a rainbow wig.  It has become shorthand for Christians to identify one another. It has become a way to identify who is in (that is, who believes the “right stuff”) and who is out.
John 3:16 is one of those Bible verses that we have heard so many times that we think that we know what it means.  And we as humans like this verse a lot, because we think that we hear a command for us to DO something to provide for our own salvation. You know, “whoever believes in him may not perish.”  We just have to believe and we will be saved, and that seems simple enough.   We don’t have to be like Nicodemus, who is cast as some kind of bumbling idiot, who just doesn’t get the most obvious thing that Jesus is trying to say to him. We grab onto the one word in this verse that allows us to get involved, believe, the verb where we are the subject. Yet, we miss so much of what is going on here. 
The real subject of this verse is God.  God Loved.  God Gave.   And we hear in John 3:17, which is what should REALLY be on billboards and t-shirts, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  God Saved.  We are not the ones doing the work here and it is not some exclusive club of saved people.  It is the whole world, no exceptions.  
What does it actually mean to be born again or born from above?  I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be born.  Two of my dear friends back home in Denver had a baby girl on Ash Wednesday.  Little Willa Rose did absolutely nothing to bring about her own birth.  Just as all of us gathered here today did absolutely nothing to bring about our own birth.  Our mothers labored and brought us forth into the world out of love.  Being born again of water and the spirit means that God is laboring to bring us into new life out of pure love for us. 
We Christians like to think that we are not like Nicodemus, because we know the rest of the story.  We know that Jesus will be crucified and raised from the dead for the salvation of the whole world. But I think that we are more like Nicodemus in this particular story than we would like to admit.  As Lutherans, we do not have a theology that mandates that we make a personal decision to be “born again”, but as humans, we have an innate and overpowering drive to want to orchestrate our own lives. We do not necessarily make a decision to “choose Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior” and thus save ourselves from eternal suffering or some other such thing, but we do want to have a hand in controlling the outcome of our lives. We say that we understand that we are born again through water and the word, and that our baptisms mark our new life in Christ, but like Nicodemus, we still come to Jesus in the dark of night with questions that we cannot answer on our own.  How can these things be?” 
The sort of questions we face when having faith becomes hard.  When we face illness or uncertainty.  Living with overwhelming grief or suffering.  When we beg God for a sign of how to move forward with an impossible decision and hear deafening silence instead.  We ask…“How can these things be?”   
I think our hope lies in the season of Lent.  In the season of Lent we are journeying towards Jerusalem with Jesus.  We are contemplating who God is as fully human and fully divine, as Christ crucified on the cross.  But we cannot talk about the promise of birth, without it being accompanied by the certainty of death one day as well.  We boldly confessed this fact on Ash Wednesday, as our foreheads were marked with ash.  But death does not have the final word. We have a God who loves us so much as to actually die for our sake, so that we might never be separated from God in death ever again. The season of Lent and the crucifixion show that God is never absent in our suffering, because God knows, on a physical, visceral, literal, level what it means to feel pain and to die.  I recognize this might sound kind of odd, that this is hopeful.  But bear with me.  In the holy work of pastoring, we pastors get the privilege of accompanying so many people through the last days of their lives.  We pray, we sit, we sing, but most of all, we proclaim that death on earth is not the end.  And in these holy places of dying, the thin places where the here and now meet the hereafter, the presence of God is palpable. That even in dying, there is a rebirth happening as well.  That is the Gospel.

Let us pray…God, thank you for birthing us into new life every single day.  We trust in the promise of new life and we trust that you bear with us even in death.  Amen.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lent 2: Vocation

This week's portion of the Lenten disciplines asked us to reflect upon vocation.  This is something that I think about a lot, because I am engaged in an entire year's worth of vocational formation as I do this internship in parish ministry.

Author Frederick Buechner said that vocation is where your deep gladness and the world's deep needs meet.  I think this is my operating definition of vocation as well.

My understanding of vocation has also been shaped by Martin Luther who writes that vocation is not limited to clergy.  We all have a vocation, and that is to serve our neighbor.

So vocation is about knowing your gifts and how they can be of service to the world, while also paying attention to the needs around you.  I think it is this second part of vocation that is all too easy to forget.  When I lived in intentional community nine years ago with seven other young adults (wow, that feels like a lifetime ago!) we had a sign in our kitchen that read, "See the Need…Meet the Need."  It partially had to do with cleaning up messes in the kitchen, but also had to do with our lives outside of the Ogden Street house. Lives of service in organizations serving those experiencing homelessness and poverty.

Vocation: It is about seeing the need and meeting the need. Using your gifts to meet the needs of the world.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Lent 1: Temptations

View of Colorado Blvd, A. Hanson 2011
This week's discipline asked us to reflect upon what temptations that rule us and make us turn away from those in need.

The picture in this post was from my Colorado Blvd apartment building.  Just a few blocks to the north of my apartment was the intersection of Colorado and Colfax.  There was always someone on that corner with a sign asking for money. 

Even for all the years that I worked in homeless services, I still turned away from these signs and did not meet the eyes of those asking for money while flying cardboard signs.  Part of this was evolved street smarts from living in a city, part of it was self-interest, part of it is undoubtedly judging those people who are holding the signs, but most of it was mortification and pain that I just felt overwhelmed by the problems of poverty and homelessness. I was closer to this than most people, I worked at a homeless shelter, I did case management, I worked in a food bank, I had friendships with people who were homeless.  Yet I still had that lump in my throat that was hard to work around.  

There is an attitude among many people that those men and women who hold the signs are only using the money to buy drugs and alcohol.  Which is probably partially true and I don't deny that.  My reluctance to look these people in the eye and turn away from their need is a temptation to stay ignorant about their humanity.  And that cuts me to the bone. It means that anyone could end up homeless and lose their dignity.  

Dear Lord, in this season of Lent, please break our hardened hearts that we might more fully love others as you love them.  Amen. 

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Ash Wednesday

The entire city of St Peter is currently engaged in a food drive during the month of March.  For Ash Wednesday, we are asked to reflect upon the basic needs of our community and how we might participate in meeting those needs. Hunger is an insidious beast.  When I lived in the inner city, it was relatively easy to see hunger.  It was in the face of the person standing on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Broadway.  It was in the faces of the people lined up outside the Denver Rescue Mission.  Here, in a small town, that is relatively well-off, hunger is harder to see.  But it still exists.  Because we have a busy food pantry just down the street from my house. So I am participating in this city-wide food drive by bringing canned goods to church, donating a few extra dollars to the campaign every time I shop at the grocery store, and encouraging others to do the same.

Lent 2014

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Illuminating the path to the cross…a sermon on the transfiguration, Matthew 17:1-9

A.Hanson, Minnesota 2014
Grace, peace and mercy are yours from God who is the light of the world.  Amen
Sometimes I like to imagine bible stories acted out on a stage.  I imagine the backdrops, the scenery, the actors, the scripts. And I think that the Transfiguration story falls more within the realm of bizarre performance art or something like Cirque du Soleil than anything else.  There are a lot of things happening with bright light and clouds and booming voices and ascents and descents of mountains. Let us set the scene…
            Just before we catch up with Jesus and the disciples in today’s Gospel, we have the group walking through the desert.  Peter has just declared that Jesus is the Messiah, but Jesus has sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone.  I imagine that the disciples are eagerly trotting after Jesus, attempting to take in as much as they can.  One day as they break from their long hours of walking, Jesus begins to teach his disciples that he will have to undergo suffering and die before being resurrected. Peter, whose eagerness often gets in the way of his listening, says, “Lord, this must never happen to you!”  Peter knows that Jesus is the Messiah, and so cannot fathom why he wouldn’t just destroy his enemies and take control of things. The normally gentle Jesus snaps at Peter saying, “Get behind me Satan.  You are setting your mind on human things, not divine things.”  It is six days after this dramatic revelation that we find Jesus and three of his disciples on top of a mountain.
            Jesus is lit up from within with a brilliant, painful white light. Transfiguration means to change in form or substance, particularly in a spiritual sense.  When the disciples get their bearings, they see Moses and Elijah there with Jesus.  The three of them are sitting around having a conversation like this is the most normal thing in the world.  Somehow the linear timeline of life on earth has gotten all jumbled together, and past, present, and future are in a glorious mess on top of this mountain. Peter recognizes that something pretty exceptional is taking place, and has the most human response of all, a desire to box up the entire experience and keep it contained there on top of the mountain. He offers to build tabernacles, or little structures, for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to live.  As Peter blathers on, a huge cloud rolls in.  Imagine something like the thunderheads that roll over the prairie with a summer storm, with cloud-to-cloud lightning, and this massive cloud surrounds the disciples.  A voice rumbles from within it saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.  Listen to him!”  The disciples shudder in fear and fall to the ground.  The cloud rumbles away, and Jesus is left standing over his three disciples who lay in the dirt.  He gently touches them, saying, “Get up.  Do not be afraid.  Let us go down the mountain.  There is work to do.”
            This is the last Sunday before Lent begins.  It is not a coincidence that Lent is marked on either end with mountaintop experiences.  Strange things happen on top of mountains in the Bible.  Encounters with the divine. And this story is no exception. God shows up to make the definitive statement about who Jesus is, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” Transfiguration is the point where Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem and what awaits him there. The light from the transfiguration is illuminating his path all the way to the cross.  Because as you know, Lent ends on top of a mountain as well.  Golgotha, the mountain with the cross.  
            The transfiguration story is a pivotal point in the life and work of Jesus.   He has been definitively claimed by God for the salvation of the whole world.  But this is a new thing.  This is a terrifying thing.  It does not make one bit of sense to the disciples. It doesn’t make one bit of sense to us. But in a way, isn’t this kind of what it is all about? Since when has anything that the God of heaven and earth has done in Christ Jesus made sense? The transfiguration is about us seeing, in searing brilliant light, the sort of God that we have, not the one that we wish that we had. It is about seeing the beauty in the absurd.  It is the crazy revelation that God came to earth fully human and fully divine to keep company with all of us sinners and loves us so much as to die on a cross for our sake.
            But God also knows that we, like the disciples, fall down in fear and shield our eyes from this truth carved out in brilliant relief from the bright light of Christ.  The most hopeful part of this Gospel story for me is Jesus reaching out to the disciples in their fear, actually physically touching them, and saying, “Do not be afraid.”  We too are so very often afraid.  Uncertainty threatens to devour us.  Financial insecurity and job loss..  Aging parents.  Illness. The creeping darkness of depression in a winter that never ends.   War and violence around the world.  
The disciples are wrestling with what it means that their Lord will suffer and die and the crippling fear of things to come that they cannot understand.  As we enter into the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, we too dwell in fear with mysteries that we cannot understand.  But God reaches out to us again and again and again and again through the Word, through bread and wine, through the waters of baptism, and through one another, touches us, and says, “Do not be afraid.” 
            Let us pray:

Dear God, you come to us in mystery and in ways we cannot understand.  Bear with us and continue to make yourself known when it seems like you are far away from us in our fear. Amen.