Monday, February 23, 2015

Lent is not about spiritual self-improvement…a sermon on Mark 1:9-15

Credit to Angie van Broekhuizen

Mark 1:9-15

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

It’s the first Sunday in Lent. Lent has an undeserved reputation as a season of penance.  If popular culture knows anything about Lent, it is generally limited to “giving things up” such as facebook or chocolate or red meat.  The popular theory about why we crazy Christians give things up for these forty days is that in some way, our menial “suffering” without our morning coffee, is supposed to bring us closer to Christ and his suffering.  Our discomfort is supposed to make us draw closer to God.  A time of attempting to atone for our inescapable humanness.
One year I tried to give up swearing for Lent, it lasted about 6 hours.  I also tried giving up refined sugar, but I found that chocolate has a much louder call to me than the call of obedience to self-denial. Coffee brings me far too much joy to willingly excise it from my life and while I probably shouldn’t spend so much time on social media, I am not willing to give it up either because it is the way I connect with many friends around the globe. About six years ago I dreamed up the brilliant idea of adding something positive to my life during Lent, so that I would become more spiritual or something.  I would spend time doing contemplative prayer or doing yoga or volunteering. I thought I was being more evolved by avoiding the concept of self-denial and trying to embark on some spiritual self-improvement program. My best attempts at self-improvement failed too.  I fall asleep during contemplative prayer, I often start laughing uncontrollably during yoga, and finding time to volunteer regularly with an organization is not as easy as you would think. All I concluded is that I failed at both abstaining from things that I chose to designate as unhelpful and failed at trying to add things to my life that were positive and life-giving. Because truthfully, I am not good at running my own life or drawing closer to God.
It’s kind of unfortunate that the Gospel text for the first Sunday in Lent is about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  It’s unfortunate that it’s so easy to make a parallel between Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness and the forty days of Lent. And it’s really unfortunate that Mark’s Gospel is so brief and lacks the clear commentary of Matthew, the prose of Luke, and the poetry of John’s Gospel. It makes it really tempting for us to want to fill in the details.  It is tempting for us to want to cast ourselves in the role of Jesus.  To see ourselves as wandering through a Lenten wilderness filled with the overwhelming temptations of refined sugar, red meat, and social media. We try to substitute more life-affirming practices that will help stave off the wilderness of loneliness, aging, despair and even death, so that we can emerge triumphant from the wilderness. But in this understanding of the text, and of Lent itself, we are succumbing to the greatest temptation of all, to think that God is not present and that we are alone in this crazy world.
Wilderness in scripture is the place where people just like you and me meet God.  Abraham met God on the mountaintop with Isaac, Moses met God on Mt Sinai, and Jacob wrestled with God alongside a river.  The wilderness genre in scripture tends to follow a particular script: a person goes into the wilderness, they encounter some sort of trial, they have a conversation with God, then they emerge triumphant. With that in mind, this short text from Mark is particularly troubling to us.  Mark’s Gospel doesn’t give us any description of what happens to Jesus in the Wilderness. We only know that Jesus ultimately makes it out because he came to Galilee to continue John the Baptist’s message of repentance after John’s arrest. I am not sure about you, but I’d sure like some dialogue between Jesus and his heavenly father, some sort of spiritual reinforcement.  But we don’t get that. Mark’s short description of Jesus’ time in the wilderness sounds pretty terrible.
It took me about five times of reading through this text and wondering where God was to make the connection between Mark’s description of Jesus’ baptism, in which God’s voice from heaven proclaims, “You are my son” and the fact that the son of God, Jesus, was actually God taking on flesh, living and breathing, and entering into the wilderness.  So if you also had questions about this text, you are in good company. This reading from Mark’s Gospel is not about putting ourselves in the role of Jesus and wondering how we would respond when and if Satan tempts us.  It is about God entering into the darkest places of this world and conquering evil.  It is about the message of, “it has been fulfilled.  It is done.  It is finished.” 
 The temptation to think that we can go it alone without God is far more insidious than a sugar craving that we think we can conquer for 40 days, and then celebrate our self-control by eating a three pound chocolate rabbit on Easter morning. On Ash Wednesday, we were reminded of our mortality, our bondage to sin and self, and our brokenness.  We confessed our deep need for God’s mercy. We were finally given space to admit to who we are, without pretense, without the fa├žade that we so carefully construct to pretend that we are okay.  The season of Lent reminds us of our inescapable humanness.  The truth of Lent devastates our sense of self-sufficiency, our sense of holding it all together, and our sense of saving ourselves. The Gospel is the worst good news ever, because it WILL kill you.  Or at least the carefully constructed image of you that is presented to the world.
We seem almost hardwired to resist God’s presence in our lives. I generally spend time praying when things are going really bad, and tend to attribute the calm and content moments of my life to my own efforts. I am more likely to get mad at God for God’s silence in times of grief and injustice than to give thanks to God when I experience grace and renewal and forgiveness. I’ve spent most of my life trying to prove God’s very existence beyond a shred of doubt, and lacking a confirmation letter delivered by an angelic messenger, it’s pretty easy to default to doubting God’s existence. In the course of all of this self-justification, it is really easy to miss that God is already here.  All of this is what it means to be in sin. Sin is not the things that we do or fail to do, but our self-inflicted separation from God. The season of Lent is about God loving us so much that God would send Jesus to live and die among us for our sake.  Lent is a time of drawing closer to God, because God is already here. It is NOT about our attempting to earn our salvation in time for Easter, through penance and self-discipline.

Lent is kind of hopeful for me. Hope and Lent are not generally two words that go together, so bear with me. I don’t want a God that lives in a palace on a cloud and has never walked among us, because there is no way that I can believe that God is real, and would probably be kind of a jerk.  Just as we are reminded of our own humanness during the season of Lent, we are reminded of God’s taking on flesh and being human, and ultimately doing the most human thing of all, dying. It’s really the most undignified kind of exit for a God who chose to enter the world to save it.  But this is good news, because I need to know that God knows what it means to be human.  I need to know that God knows what it is to suffer. Because it is only then that I can believe that God continues to show up in my own suffering and in the suffering of this world. That is the hope of Lent. Lent is about God entering into the darkest places of this world for our sake, and firmly saying, “Sin, death, and evil have no dominion over me. You are my beloved, and with you I am well-pleased.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Ecumenical/Interfaith memorial service reflection

A.Hanson 2009
The following text is a reflection that I wrote and delivered for the quarterly ecumenical/interfaith memorial service at the hospital where I serve as a chaplain.

A prayer by Joyce Rupp from Your Sorrow is My Sorrow:
All-Embracing love, your circle of strength is around me.  I ask for grace to yield to the reality of this loss.  I pray to surrender to what cannot be changed I beg for deliverance from the emotional drain and the unending sadness that this loss has brought me.  Let peace return.  Let hope begin.  Let comfort be mine.

On behalf of the chaplains of St Anthony Hospital, thank you for allowing us to walk alongside your families as you remember your loved ones. We hope that this evening of remembering is a place of safe harbor in a sea of grief.

It has been my own experience with deep grief and the loss of my own family members, that there are very few safe spaces in which to name our pain. It seems to be understandable to those around us if we are sad for a week or two, and others are more than willing to indulge our grief.  They are more than willing to allow us to weep and mourn and to wail.  But as the weeks stretch into months, our well-meaning friends, neighbors and family members tire of holding us up, and wonder why we can’t just move on. 

Living through the death of a loved one is not something that we know that we are capable of until we are forced into living that new and raw existence.  No matter how much we attempt to prepare, there is still much that is unknown.  How we will survive the first holiday, the first birthday, the first anniversary, after the death of someone we love. Getting through days turns into getting through hours or getting through minutes. 

But minute by minute, days and hours and weeks add up. The pain of the death of a loved one may never go away, but it will be accompanied by moments of joy and pleasure and peace.  Our loved ones live on in the stories that we share and in the ways that we love and care for one another. Tonight we speak aloud the names of those who have passed away as patients at St Anthony hospital.  We remember with you.

May you know peace.  May you know comfort.  May you know hope. And in time, may you know joy.  

Monday, February 09, 2015

Social media: the good, the bad, and the ugly

This decidedly pissed off peacock is
going to be my go-to retort
in social media conflict
I have reflected before upon the utility of social media in the church and in our world.  I have talked about how I have built relationships with new friends and subsequently met them in real life.  I have talked about how I have been challenged, loved, and opened up to new ideas by so many wonderful people.  This is the good side of social media.

But today I want to talk about the bad and the ugly sides of social media. Online communication is by its very nature anonymous. It is possible to be a "registered" user on Facebook or twitter or instagram or part of any comment section on a blog. But you are always behind a computer screen. You do not have the experience of seeing how your words impact someone else.  Words typed in an online forum are without context of non-verbal communication and it is incredibly easy to "read" something wrong.

I am a professional communicator.  I spend my entire day communicating with my patients and the words that they say are only a very small part of what they are saying.  Body language, tone, emotion, facial expression, and what they are NOT saying is just as important if not more important than the words that are spoken.  Online communication is devoid of this important context. This is the bad side of social media.

The anonymous nature of online communication means that you get to put some distance between yourself and your words.  You do not have to "own" them.  It is in this sort of communication that words can be used as weapons.  You can lob a digital grenade and then hide behind your screen name. This is the ugly side of social media.

Social media gives anyone a platform, even if they have nothing constructive to say.  It is a transactional form of communication, instead of a broadcast form of communication.  Anyone can say anything and anyone can respond to what you say. This means that there is a sheer avalanche of things going on in the realm of social media at any time. It is possible to choose how you want to engage and conduct yourself in online communications.

My friend, Pastor David Hansen, posted a helpful guide to online communications this week on Facebook.  He found it posted on the wall of an elementary school, which should tell us something about how basic these thoughts should be.  Unfortunately, this sort of common sense is not that common.

Think before you post online:  
-Could someone misinterpret what I'm saying?
-Am I showing a bad side of myself?
-Am I revealing too much about myself?
-Could someone feel disrespected?
-Am I posting in anger?
-Who might be able to read this?

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Meat, Special Knowledge, and what actually matters: A Sermon 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

A sermon preached on February 1, 2014 at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, CO, on
1 Corinthians 8:1-13.  There is an audio file below, listen as you read along.

Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen. 
I received a postcard recently that said “This piece of mail could change your story forever.”  It was advertising a new church “launching” in Denver called the Storyline Church. It invited would-be worshippers to come “find out the greatest story ever told” and “find out what could change YOUR story” at this church. I texted a picture of this thing to my good friend (and our former vicar) Alex, saying “just passing along an awesome idea for your new church” Alex responded, “I am totally going to do the same thing except advertise, ‘this piece of mail could change your life forever, with an asterisk: only if you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior and follow a rigid moral code.’” I then crowd-sourced other questionable church marketing ideas. They ranged from Afterlife scare tactics, to throwing other churches under the bus. Basically invitations to be part of the “in crowd” that gets to party with Jesus. We, the ELCA, the denomination to which House belongs, fall into this trap too, with the slogan, “God’s Work. Our Hands”, which implies that we have some monopoly on knowing and doing God’s work in the world. My dear friend Steve Ludwig refers to this as “Junk Mail from Jesus.” 
As I prepared this sermon and reflected upon this portion of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, I wondered what the marketing campaign of the church in first century Corinth would be.  Something along the lines of, “You can now eat the meat left in the Temple!” or “Your food no longer has to first be sacrificed to idols!” I am not sure about you, but this campaign totally works for me.  The sense of grace and liberation here is…palpable. 
Not quite working for you? What is going on here? Paul is writing to a congregation in the city of Corinth. This was a large and prosperous city, home to a variety of philosophical and religious movements. The church there had splintered into a bunch of small factions, each thinking that they had an exclusive monopoly on truth and had special knowledge about God. There was arrogance associated with possessing correct knowledge about spiritual and religious matters.
It is easy to dismiss today’s text as being irrelevant to us.  We don’t offer meat on our altar.  We never have.  Nobody here (I hope) has ever felt compelled to sacrifice a young sheep in the middle of everything to prove their devotion to God. And I am going to guess that most of us want to eat meat that has been sitting out for days. The conflict that Paul’s letter is addressing is that the gentile converts who filled the church in Corinth, were saying that they should be free to eat the meat that has been left in the Temple as a sacrifice to other gods.  Those who belonged to the church were being pragmatic: they were hungry, meat was hard to come by, and this meat was essentially going to waste. And they KNEW they had “special knowledge” that good works and devotion don’t earn us a special place in God’s heart and in heaven. Because these sacrifices don’t earn us bonus points, and grace is a gift from God,  it follows that they should be able to eat that meat. Simple enough, right?  Paul doesn’t think so. Paul agrees you cannot “earn” God’s righteousness through meat sacrifices. But, Paul says that even though the Corinthians have this knowledge of grace that others do not, what they do still matters.   
            I dismissed this text when I first read it.  It tends to fall into the category of “biblical stuff we don’t read because it doesn’t matter to us now.”  It’s a lot of discussion about meat.  I am not sure about you, but I don’t actually care that much about meat. But then again, I don’t eat Paleo.  And the idea of eating meat that has been left out for awhile makes me feel sick.  But the verse, “Food will not bring us close to God”, caught my attention.
            What if we took literal food out of this verse?  What if food represents a set of rigid norms, standards and laws.  What about, “Doing the right things will not bring us closer to God” or “Being a good Christian will not bring us closer to God” or “a robust devotional life will not bring us closer to God” Would that get our attention? Or perhaps most painfully true, “Knowledge will not bring us closer to God.” 
            Paul writes, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”  Thinking you have special knowledge makes you arrogant, but loving your fellow human beings builds everyone up.  But Paul falls into his own trap when he tells the Corinthians that they shouldn’t let their knowledge of God be a stumbling block to others who don’t have that same knowledge. Which amounts to, “don’t let people who don’t know what you know see you eating the meat left in the temple, you will cause them to sin because they could think its okay to eat the meat sacrificed to idols.  You know its okay, but they might not.” 
            As Christians today, we may not be that concerned with meat left on altars, but we are terribly concerned with special knowledge about God.  Like “junk mail from Jesus” most evangelism tends to center around “look what we have, don’t you want to have this thing too?”  We have an express ticket to heaven, we have freedom from our sins, we know something that you don’t know, and once you know what WE know, you’ll be special too.
            This is not confined to door knocking evangelism and the sinner’s prayer.  Mainline Protestants and progressive Christians and the emergent church are just as guilty. When we say that we are more welcoming or more innovative or we don’t take scripture literally, we are advertising that same exceptionalism. Once you know what WE know, you’ll be special too.
            But what if it’s not what you know, but how you love that makes you a Christian and brings you closer to God? I am struggling lately with the idea of knowing anything about God. Holding onto the promise of God’s love is about all that gets me through. My work as a hospital chaplain is messing up all of my conceptions of who God is, what God is capable of, and how God shows up. I struggle with knowing some kind of good news, because most days I don’t see any.  Last Tuesday I held the hand of a man my own age as he died from a massive infection, my iTunes playing Mumford and Sons to drown out the sounds of everyone in the hallway.  Yesterday I prayed with a family during a death vigil that God would hurry up and hasten the peaceful death of their loved one and stop her suffering. I would love more than anything to be able tell you with full knowledge that God is present all the time and is constantly working for good and working for life and healing, but my experience makes me question that on a regular basis. And I have a sneaking suspicion that I am not the only one here with those questions.
I’ve been to seminary and can kick ass in Bible trivia and know how to differentiate between Martin Luther and Phillip Melanchthon and I know Greek and Hebrew, the original languages of scripture.  Yet I don’t know much at all.  I don’t know why there is suffering. I don’t know why it feels like God doesn’t come to the Intensive Care Unit very often. I don’t know why teenagers are shot dead by police officers in alleys. I don’t know why most of humanity seems hell-bent on killing each other, either with words or with guns.  I don’t know what to say a lot of the time. I am called in to speak a word of comfort and I am constantly asked, “what do you know about God and what God is doing here?”    I don’t have much knowledge, and all I can do is try my best to love the beautiful and broken people of God.  And I think this what we all do because we are first loved by God.
            It’s not what you know, but it’s how you love. This is not a muted Hallmark kind of love.  It’s not “love the sinner, hate the sin”, it’s not about feeling good or altruism.  It’s about getting your hands dirty.  It’s about being present in the world now, not saving yourself for the hereafter.  It’s about me as a chaplain handing someone a barf bucket instead of praying that God would heal them in their sickness because I know God is capable. It’s not about telling people what we know about the Gospel, it’s about reflecting the Gospel in how we live and how we love. 

            What would it be like if we stop trying to draw closer to God by expanding our knowledge and instead relax into the deep knowing that God is already in and among us because of love?  God came to earth to live among us in the person of Jesus, and God continues to live in us. It relieves us of the huge burden of knowing/believing/doing/saying the right thing to save ourselves. Or someone else. Our own work will never draw us closer to God, because God is already in us.  We are loved deeply by God, and that love is liberation from the burden of knowledge.