Sunday, July 26, 2015

New Day Dawning...




I have been walking through the valley with Sara for months now...
or perhaps, I should say that I have been having the privilege of
accompanying her on this final journey which we will all make at
some time. And it is indeed a privilege, as together we walk toward a
sunrise which only she will see, a new dawn for which I will have to
wait a while longer. Together we talk and laugh and share silences
in which the only agenda is to welcome the Holy Presence. Together
we move slowly, slowly, inexorably slowly toward that final inevitable
farewell...though we both hope and trust that it will be "till we meet
again" rather than "goodbye".

Lest you think this is all heaviness, this journey we are making
together, I hasten to assure you that there has been and continues
to be lots of laughter as we share our left-wing political views and
dissect together the various candidates on the political stage. And I
confess to more than a little sacrilegious language salting our
conversations (usually coming from me, I'm afraid, though Sara
occasionally adds her share.) We talk music, too, a love we deeply
share, and I listen to her expressed grief at no longer being able to
play her beloved piano, or the organ at our church, at which she had
presided regally and imperiously for oh, so many years.

During these long- for her, tediously long and difficult- months, we
have become friends, as well as pastor and parishioner, and I
suspect- no, I know- that these visits mean as much to me as they
do to her. That's the beauty and wonder and mystery of it all, isn't it,
this task and calling we name "ministry". Even as we minister, we
are ministered to, in ways most lovely and healing, by dear people
who have no idea of their ministry to us...of the incredible gift they
give to us by inviting us, not only into their homes, but into their
lives and hearts.

Today, at worship's end, I announced that I would be taking Holy
Communion to Sara, and invited anyone who wished to come to
accompany me, to create for Sara a small taste of community to
go along with the taste of bread and wine. Seven saints joined me
in the sitting room at Sara's small home...along with her daughter,
five dogs, and one of the six cats brave enough to emerge from
hiding. Together we shared in confession and forgiveness...
together we shared in the Eucharistic Prayer and the Lord's
Prayer...together we shared the loaf broken at the altar a short
time earlier and handed from one person to another as we
communed each other..."The body of Christ given for you." And
now we were adding dear Sara to that communion of saints in
which we all share.

My joy and privilege was to preside, to speak the age-old words
and pronounce the blessing. Holiness was present...filling the
room and those gathered in that place. My gift was the peace on
Sara's face...and the gratitude she expressed over and over to
those who had taken time to be community with her. Thank
you, Sara, for reminding us all how much we need each other...
reminding us what it means to be "church". I'll see you on
Wednesday.



Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Face of Compassion...

We get tired of it all, don’t we? Does anyone really want to see the photo
of another starving African child? Or a replay of 9-11 on TV? Or the results
of yet another earthquake or tsunami on the other side of the world?
Does anyone really want to hear the statistics about the numbers of
people in our own area, our own county, who are regularly hungry?  Or
read about the numbers of out-of-work veterans? Or be confronted by
still another at a stop light person with a sign saying “WILL WORK FOR
FOOD”? We get tired of it all- because it seems so overwhelming. We
want to care, I think, but all of the demands, all of the needs, seem
overwhelming- and what can I, what can you, do about it? “Compassion
fatigue”, the experts call it; being worn out by the call to care, to give,
to do something about the problems of this world. 

But you see, Jesus means COMPASSION. And that’s what we see and hear
him showing in today’s reading from Mark’s gospel. The disciples- actually
they are called “apostles” here for the first time…the “sent-out ones”-
they’ve just returned from their first mission trip on their own…without
their teacher and friend, Jesus. He sent them, commissioned them,
instructed them, and they went into the towns and villages, preaching and
teaching and healing, just as he said. Now they’re back, sharing stories,
sharing successes and failures, and they’re exhausted…tired, over-
stimulated, underfed, and in need, in desperate need- of solitude.
Care-taking is wearisome work, isn’t it? And these bone-weary men find
that their friend and mentor is himself in the throes of deep sadness.
John the Baptist, Jesus’ kinsman, teacher, friend, has been brutally
murdered by Herod, reminding him and us that God’s called ones are not
immune to violent, senseless deaths. We saw that a few weeks ago in
Charleston, didn’t we? Jesus is heartbroken, is in the valley of shadows
where we all go after the death of someone we dearly love. I’ve been
there…so have many of you…and it’s exhausting, isn’t it?

So Jesus says to the twelve, “Come away with me…we need a break from
these crowds…we need some R&R…time to regroup, to refresh, to rest.”
So they get in one of the fishing boats and go to a deserted place all by
themselves. I can imagine each of them heaving a sigh of relief… can
imagine Jesus gratefully welcoming the peace and quiet of the brief time
on the lake…can imagine how much they are looking forward to just a
little time away from the caring and the responsibilities of every day.
We call it a “vacation”…
 
But the Gospel writer tells us that it was simply not to be. There is to be
no rest for the weary. Many from the crowds that perpetually followed
Jesus saw them going and went along the shore on foot, arriving at the
destination before them. And as Jesus went ashore, Mark tells us, he saw
a great crowd. There goes the rest. There goes the peace and quiet.
There goes the relaxation and renewal. And I can imagine the disciples
saying to one another- even to Jesus- “Come on, let’s get back in the
boat and go further up the shore. Let’s get away from all these demands
and expectations for just a little while. We need it, Jesus. YOU need it.
After all, you’re only human.”

But, Mark writes, “he had compassion for them, because they were like
sheep without a shepherd…” Jesus is COMPASSION. His mission, his call,
his ministry was to show the love of God in his human flesh and so he did
not turn them away but was with them, teaching, and eventually,
healing so many who were continually brought to him.
 
COMPASSION- the Greek word means “feeling it in your gut”…gut-
wrenching…tearing you apart…stomach-churning…not just a few
butterflies in there but a herd of buffalo stampeding around. It is visceral.
It grabs hold of us and wrings us out. And for Jesus, compassion was
not just a feeling but a doing…and he demonstrated this to his disciples-
then and now. It is about more than feeling sad or bad for the plight of
others…it is being hit in the gut and being put into motion for the sake
of the other. It is to suffer with. It sends us outside ourselves…outside
the church doors…into the real, beautiful, terrible, hurting, in-need-of-
healing world.

 I have to tell you, it is so easy for me to remain complacent…to be
moved to tears by a story or a video or a film… then to read and
research about the problem from the comfort of my home- and DO
NOTHING! Oh, yes, I pray, but in the words of one of the most
forthright books in scripture, James:
         If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and you say
         to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill,’ but you do
         not supply their bodily needs, what use is that?

And I can find all kinds of excuses for not getting involved, for not
reaching out. I’m getting too old…I deserve some rest…I’ve been
caring for others for my whole life…time for a little break from it all.
But there have been times when what I most needed was a little
compassion…how about you? Times when I was so fearful, hurting
so badly, that what I most needed was a loving hug or a shoulder
to cry on…how about you? Times when I was lonely, confused, at
the end of my rope and most needed someone to reach a hand into
my darkness and just hold on…how about you? And when it happens-
that hug, that shoulder, that hand- it’s God’s grace at work…alive,
enfleshed in another human being- and I am made whole once
again…how about you?

Do you remember August 2005? Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans
and help was very late in arriving. Many died; many more were
displaced, became refugees from their own city. Many were stranded
in and around the Superdome and the Convention Center, without food,
without water, while untended dead bodies lay everywhere. The images
filling our TV screens were dreadful, horrifying- and New Orleans- at
least the poorest neighborhoods- remained virtually untouched for years.
Enter between 20 & 25,000 Lutheran youth at the 2009 and 2012 ELCA
Youth Gatherings, with their themes of “Jesus, Justice, Jazz” and
“Citizens with the Saints.” All over the city, young people were clearing
out debris, cleaning, painting, working hard for people they did not
know because they were dedicated to the Jesus Way…dedicated to
sharing the love and compassion of Jesus the Christ.

And all this week, more than 30,000 Lutheran youth have been living out
their faith on the streets of Detroit, part of the 2015 ELCA Youth
Gathering, with the theme “Rise Up Together”. Again, they were building,
clearing, painting, serving, visiting nursing homes and day care centers,
sharing the love and compassion of Christ with all they meet. And if
you’ve been following the Live Stream or the Facebook and Twitter posts,
you can see and hear the impact these youth have been making with their
enthusiasm and dedication and determination to live the Jesus Way…
because the Jesus they follow is COMPASSION. There are kids of every
color, kids from every state in the union, wealthy kids and poor kids,
smart kids and intellectually-challenged kids, tall kids and short kids,
skinny kids and fat kids, popular kids and nerds and jocks, kids with
Southern accents dripping magnolias and kids with Texas drawls and
kids whose speech is peppered with the broad vowels of New England.
But what they all have in common is their one-ness in Christ. That is
what makes them ONE.

Our churches tend to be enclaves of the similar, you know- similar
lifestyles, similar skin color, similar politics, similar values. But our
world is NOT like that. Our world is marked by diversity…beautiful,
wonderful, creative diversity. Think of flower gardens…I personally
like them best when they contain flowers of many varieties, many
colors- some short, some tall…some fragrant, others odorless…some
blooming only briefly, others bearing blossoms for the entire Summer.

I am blessed to be part of two congregations who are beginning to
defy the stereotype: Emmanuel in High Point, which has a number of
Sudanese families as members, which adds some glorious color to the
Sunday morning worship. And Nazareth, Rural Hall, whose two Hispanic
families bring a warm hue to our otherwise-white congregation. Here
I am, in the last quarter of my life, and God has graced me with what I
wanted when I entered the ministry twenty-five years ago…diversity.
You see, I had wanted to serve a diverse inner-city congregation, with
people of all colors and backgrounds…and God has brought me on this
long and winding road through the back roads and small towns of North
Carolina to where I am now. Only we are not finished…actually, we’ve
only made a tiny beginning. The flower garden of our congregations
will only be truly complete when they reflect the diversity of our culture-
the wonderful, challenging, glorious diversity of God’s kingdom.

But it’s challenging, isn’t it, because we humans tend to feel
uncomfortable with those unlike ourselves. We quite readily divide
ourselves into insiders and outsiders- us and them… forgetting- or not
caring to remember- that we are ALL God’s children. ALL of us…
every one. No exceptions. And with the compassion of the Christ we
are called to reach out to…to welcome…to share table with all who
come- or need to come...with all those the “world” rejects or turns aside…
with all those seemingly different from ourselves…those who are lonely…
those who are forgotten…those who desperately need our hospitality.
Instead of seeing them through a lens of fear and mistrust and anxiety,
we are called- you and I- to see them through the same lens of
compassion through which Jesus the Christ sees them.
 
In the words of Paul Wadell, Professor of Religious Studies at Baylor
University:
       Any love modeled on the divine love cannot be cautious, narrow,
       or safe. It must always be willing to make room for the other,
       especially those others who come to us hungry, forsaken, homeless,
       or alone.
 But walls of hostility divide us- walls of race, gender, sexuality, socio-
economics, age, politics, location, religion, language. Walls are
everywhere. Some of us here remember the Berlin Wall of the Cold War
Era, dividing a city, dividing families and neighborhoods. We watched the
wall come down and rejoiced, but in more recent years we have watched
as walls are being built once again- in the Middle East, dividing Israel and
Palestine; on our Southern border, dividing the US from our Mexican
neighbors. Once again, these walls divide families and neighborhoods,
imposing the reality of separation, enforcing the mentality of US and
THEM, while politicians give no thought to how painful it must be for
those on both sides of the dividing line. And I just don’t believe that God
intended us to live this way.

The writer of Ephesians put it so beautifully: “Christ is our peace”. So
how do we as a Church live out our existence as a compassionate,
reconciled, welcoming community? Because the HOW matters. It really
matters. The HOW is what the world sees…the HOW is what speaks
more loudly than our words…the HOW tells who and whose we really
are…on the streets of New Orleans, on the streets of Detroit, on the
streets of High Point, on the streets of Rural Hall, North Carolina.
When others look at us, what will they see? Who will they see?...Amen