Friday, February 26, 2016

Vigil with the Word, Year C, Third Sunday in Lent

A.Kumm-Hanson, 2016
The texts for the third Sunday in Lent are:

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

I have chosen to focus my commentary on the Gospel text.  This is a portion of a sermon I will be preaching this upcoming weekend.

Luke 13:1-9
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” 

In the course of our daily lives we don’t really equate small inconveniences with our moral uprightness. We don’t believe that our frozen pipes in a blizzard or the dead battery in our car have something to do with our character. But we are not all that different from those gathered around Jesus when it comes to the big stuff. In my work as a chaplain, I bear witness to agonizing questions of “What did I do to deserve this cancer diagnosis?” or “Is this miscarriage a result of my mixed feelings about being pregnant in the first place?” or “My last words to my mom were spoken in anger. I feel like I will be punished for that the rest of my life.” We ask ourselves, “because we have suffered in this way, are we a worse sinner than someone else?” Or worse yet, we attempt to rationalize the suffering of our neighbors by saying “they were asking for it”, “they brought it on themselves” or “it wouldn’t have happened if they were ‘living right’.” When asking these questions for ourselves and others, we become trapped in an agonizing spiral of trying to assign meaning to what is often meaningless. We place ourselves in bondage to a system of rewards and punishments with real life consequences. We stop actually living and instead try to stop ourselves from dying. This is never how God intended us to live.

In the text, Jesus refuses to be part of this broken earthly system, and pointedly remarks, “No! I tell you, unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” This doesn’t sound that hopeful upon first reading. But repentance is far more interesting than that. Repentance is not about feeling bad and vowing to do something different next time. It is not about a moral renovation of your life. It’s not about getting saved or choosing Jesus. There is so much more to repentance. The Greek word for repentance, metanoia, actually means “to be of a new mind.”

What if repenting meant believing that God claims us wholly and wants  abundant life for us?  What if repenting meant releasing the white-knuckled grip we have on our lives and trusting that the God of the universe has the power to make all things new? Jesus knows that we live in broken world, he cites random violence and an incredible tragedy of a tower falling down as evidence of that fact. The brokenness of the world will continue to be made known to Jesus as we move ever closer to his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and his final walk to the cross throughout this season of Lent. And yet, Jesus still shows up, and like a patient gardener, says to us, “let them alone, I will tend them.”

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Vigil with the Word: Year C, Second Sunday in Lent

It's not a mother hen, but its close enough!
A.Kumm-Hanson, NYC, 2014

The texts for the Second Sunday in Lent are:

Genesis 15:1-12,17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35

I have chosen to focus my commentary this week on the Gospel text.

Luke 13:31-35

 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’

Most of the texts during the season of Lent are those leading up to the events of the passion in Jerusalem. Jesus seems to be exasperated in this text.  He is busy healing people and casting out demons and restoring people to life, and the Pharisees are running him out of town. He knows that he is on the way to Jerusalem, he knows what awaits him there, his followers, or the people of God at large, do not yet know. In this text, Jesus is lamenting the willfulness of the people of Jerusalem. A community that “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.” A community who cannot hear hard truths and lashes out in anger. Jesus states that he wants to “gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” and that the community at Jerusalem is still unwilling to be gathered.

I love this imagery.  A mother hen, feathers puffed up and wings spread over a flock of chicks, is delightful. It is nurturing, it is a promise of warmth and protection. It is a sort of promise of “I will bear with you through hard things, through hearing the hard truth about the world and yourselves, and I will bear with you until the end of days.”

And yet, the people of Jerusalem rebel from this promise of care.  Because of the pain of acknowledging the reality of death, brokenness and sin, is far too great, they would rather “kill the messenger.”  We are really no different when we hear some piece of news that reminds us of our mortality.  The most human of responses is to deny, out of self-preservation, news about our death. 

I have been seeing a ton of people lately who have been admitted onto hospice services just hours or days before their death. Who themselves struggle to come to terms with death, and whose families vehemently deny the inevitable process of aging and death and broker prayer deals with God. I also see families in extreme suffering in the hospital, whose loved ones have exhausted every possible avenue of modern medicine in an effort to stave off death, and who bargain with God to stop this mortal inevitability. These kinds of deaths are the most difficult to bear witness to, and they break my heart.

I wonder how living, aging, and dying might change if we nestled into the bosom of a mother-hen God who nurtures us and tends us as the world rages around. We cannot deny that our bodies will fail us, some due to trauma or cancer, some due to age, but that death is not the end, but merely a stop on the way.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Vigil with the Word, Year C, First Sunday in Lent

The texts for the first Sunday in Lent are as follows:

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

I have chosen to focus my commentary on the Gospel text from Luke and the epistle text from Romans.

Luke 4:1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’
 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, 
“On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ 
Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Romans 10:8b-13

But what does it say?
‘The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart’
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

I find these two texts put into conversation with one another to be particularly interesting. In the Gospel text, Jesus is in the wilderness.  He is being tempted by what the text calls the devil.  I do not believe in the personification of evil, but that is a discussion for another time.  The important takeaway for me from this text is that Jesus is repeatedly tempted by a force outside himself to do something to better his immediate circumstances of suffering (40 days in the wilderness). Jesus’ final comment to his adversary is, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

I find myself frequently wanting to put God to the test.  To say, “I need you to do something to save this patient or alleviate this child’s suffering or show up and do a miracle so that I can believe in you.”  And I am not the only one who does this. Many of my patients suffer crises of faith as they pray fervently for healing and healing does not come. I have done nearly all the theological gymnastics that I can stomach about this issue.  I have tried to be okay with things such as “healing doesn’t come in this life sometimes” or “We are just not seeing the bigger picture and God’s plan” or so on. And I have yet to be satisfied.  What I have settled on is that I just do not know.  I do not have an answer, because sometimes there are not answers.  I am not Jesus, and neither are any of my patients—to the best of my knowledge—so I probably would not be able to resist the temptation of doing something to alleviate suffering in my immediate circumstances.

This Gospel text warns against putting God to the test, but the text from Romans says, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” So how are my patients who cry out for salvation from their pain and suffering supposed to reconcile these texts? 

I don’t have an answer.  But as I told one of my patients the other day, the only thing that I am 100% sure about is that God knows what it is to suffer because of the cross, and because of that, they are never alone when they suffer. Is it okay to “put God to the test” to alleviate suffering or intractable pain?  Is it acceptable to pray for very specific things (safety in surgery, a brain bleed to be healed, and so on) or is that putting God to the test? Furthermore, what does it mean to be saved?  Is it merely an existential, far off, sort of idea? Like you shall be saved from this life…eventually. But there is a lot of pain you have to endure first. Or is salvation more immediate? Saying that you will be saved and have eternal life is absolutely ridiculous to someone who is enduring the excruciating pain of cancer or trauma from a hospital bed.

I am not willing to settle on any quick and easy answers nor am I willing to preach them to others.  It is not as simple as advising “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” or offering the platitude “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Maybe the only comfort is that God knows what it is to suffer and even Jesus called out to God from the cross.  In dying, suffering, and pain, we are not alone.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Sabbath Coffee Tour: Sisters' Sludge (Minneapolis)

For my latest stop on the sabbath coffee tour, I visited Sisters' Sludge Coffee in south Minneapolis. This tiny little shop (on the corner of Bloomington Ave and 46th St) is owned by three identical triplet sisters.  This shop serves beans roasted by UP Roasters  in Minneapolis.

I enjoyed a skinny latte (see picture below) during my time in this shop.  It was the perfect amount of foam, steamed milk, and espresso served in a glass mug, which is my favorite way to drink a latte. There were abundant (and fresh!) baked goods available, with muffins being pulled out of the oven while I was there.  Other snacks including yogurt, wrapped sandwiches, and oatmeal available.

This shop has numerous small tables available for seating, as well as some couches in a cozy grouping. When I first arrived, the shop was quiet, but soon filled up with neighbors enjoying each other's company.  This is clearly a neighborhood gathering place.  I was greeted warmly by the baristas when I walked in, and the baristas seem to know all of their guests by name.

This is a cozy gathering place on a very cold day.  There is free wifi, and abundant street parking, and the coffee shop is an intimate place to meet with friends.  I was doing some work while I was here, but the tables are not large enough to spread out too much. Overall, a comfortable place to chat with friends over great coffee.  There is a hot drinks menu, a cold drinks menu, a kids drinks menu and gourmet hot chocolates.

Vigil with the Word, Ash Wednesday, Year C

I have always resonated with the season of Lent and in particular, Ash Wednesday which starts this season of the Church Year.  The season of Lent is sometimes understood to be penitential, and some traditions understand Lent to be a time of giving things up in order to draw closer to Christ through what I call “small scale suffering.” Lent is also understood to be a time of contemplation, and historically, has been a time of preparation for baptism. For me, and my tradition, Lutheran Christians, it is a time of drawing closer to God in preparation for bearing witness to Christ’s death on a cross and what that act means for us.  The crucifixion is the vanquishing of the finality of death, but also represents the passage from death into life. You cannot skip the suffering.

Personally, I resonate with Ash Wednesday because we are given the opportunity to name, without qualification, that we are mortal.  That at the end of this life lies death. That no matter how we try or what we do, life ends the same for all of us.  That when we are marked with ashes on our forehead and our preacher proclaims, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.”

It’s the one day in the church year where Christians slow down enough to notice the ever forward movement towards death that begins at our birth. Where so many other people get to witness what I witness every single day in the chaplain trade…that death is inescapable.

It’s hard to see this as good news.

That no matter what you do or where you go or how many life-prolonging procedures you might undergo, you too will die. Just like everyone else.  Exceptionalism is a farce when it comes to death. There is often a lot of frenetic activity up until the moment a patient or family recognizes that death is inevitable.  Then, time seems to open up and expand and be intense and emotional, in a way that happens at no other time. Its a Kairos time instead of a Chronos time. There is freedom when we look death into the face. 

Ash Wednesday represents freedom to me.  Freedom from the burden of fighting mortality. Freedom to say boldly, “I cannot save myself.”

The Gospel text for this day, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, seems to call out all those practices, such as almsgiving, fasting, and so on, that would make you publicly appear to draw closer to God. Jesus uses the word “beware” in this text.  Because activities will not bring you rewards or everlasting life or comfort.  You cannot orchestrate your own salvation through the things that you do. The only thing you have to do is the most difficult there is, which is to surrender. 

And Ash Wednesday is a profound surrender.  Dwell deep in the fact that you are mortal…you are dust….and to dust….you shall return.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Vigil with the Word, Transfiguration, Year C

Transfiguration is the sunday that occurs prior to Ash Wednesday. The Gospel text for this day in Year C is Luke 9:28-36

 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

Transfiguration is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, and occurs before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. Lent is a 40-day journey into contemplation, a reckoning with who we are and to whom we belong. Lent ends with a death, and with new life on the other side of that death.  But it can be terrifying.  I think that we are given this story of Transfiguration as a foretaste of the feast to come, to provide us with encouragement on the journey of Lent.  That Christ is God-with-us and God-among-us, and is dazzling with the light of heaven.  Yet, this glimpse of the face of God is terrifying.

I met with a hospice patient last week who stated that she is excited to meet God and yet she is terrified. This about sums up my feelings about meeting God too. What might be revealed about God?  What might be revealed about me to God? The transfiguration scene is one in which Peter, John and James are with Jesus on a mountaintop.  In a scene of chaos and confusion, a cloud overshadows them and a booming voice comes from the cloud says, “This is my son, my chosen; listen to him.”

What sticks with me about this text is that the voice comes FROM WITHIN the cloud.  They are not alone. They have never been alone.  Even as we stare down a journey of which we cannot see the ending, the season of Lent, but also a metaphor for the life that we live here on earth,  we are not alone.  After the voice has spoken, it is Jesus who is there.  The Son of God is present on that mountaintop and present here with us even today.