Sunday, September 28, 2008
Today is Sunday at 6:00 PM. I am working on getting the UPDATE finished before heading off to Coffeyville, Kansas on Wednesday for my Mother's burial. I apologize in advance for these rather personal observations about her dying and death. She is much on my mind and in my heart and it is difficult for me to write about much else. I hope you will understand.
My Mother will be buried on Thursday with the rest of her family, save her 100 year old sister, Pauline, who continues to live in Coffeyville, Kansas. I have shared the yoo-hoo story several times with this congregation, but as I was preparing the service for my Mother’s burial, I realized that my brother and I have been the ones who have been keeping our Mother in our view during her past seven years of difficult journey through “the valley of the shadow of death.”
During these years, Mom wandered away from the life she had made for herself as her brain struggled to hold fast to the precious bits of memory that made up her life. Mike and I watched her as she struggled to remember names and faces. She must have thought she was all alone in this growing darkness.
When I would visit her she would say that she was just that moment hoping I would come to see her. I knew that my face, even when it was no longer seen as the face of her son, at least represented a time of peace. She was known and seemed to be loved. Many of my visits were spent telling her about our family. I could tell that she struggled to remember how she was related to all of the people I told her about.
When her great granddaughter, Alex, was born, I took Mom photographs of her. As she starred at the image of that small child, I let her know who this little one was. She would tear up and hold the photo close to her. She so wished to remember this newest member of the family and her pulling the photo close to her heart was her prayer to make Alex a part of her memories.
Alzheimer’s disease is not sentimental. It does not allow these tender moments to remain conscious or to be stored for future remembering. Just as Mike and I believed ourselves to be lost as small children, my Mother must have felt this loss of self coming on each day. In her journal she practiced writing the names of everyone in the family and old Bible verses she had committed to memory. With each new filled up journal book, her ability to remember the long list of names and Bible verses began to leave her and the entries in her journal became shorter and finally stopped altogether.
I did try to keep my Mom in view during her long dark journey. Some days were harder than others. When she finally did not know me at all there was a deep sense of loss for me. She had disappeared from sight. Unlike the happy ending of the yoo-hoo getting lost story, Mom did not come back for me to comfort and reassure. Her comfort and reassurance were now to come as she came into the presence of the loving God who had created her, redeemed her, and made her life holy and gave it meaning.
As Christians we live in the hope of life in God. The yoo-hoo story that I shared with you all finds its full meaning when those we love move beyond our view and our ability to be there for them. God gives us one another, children and parents, larger family and friends on our earthly pilgrimage to be with us and for us when we get lost and seem to be beyond anyone’s caring vision or embrace. As death separates us from those we love our faith offers us consolation.
The burial service that we will use to celebrate my Mother’s life contains our yoo-hoo to God, our Father: “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” While we have lost sight of those we love, God continues to keep them and us in his loving view. Neither we, the living, nor those who have died are beyond God’s gracious and loving gaze. This is what the church calls the Communion of Saints.
As Mike and I make our way back to Coffeyville, I invite you to offer a yoo-hoo prayer for us, for our Mom and for all of those you love but see no longer. God is in the midst of us. Alleluia!
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
"By the power vested in me by the state of Califoria, I hereby declare you husband and wife." A Justice of the Peace may say these words when performing a marriage on behalf of the state of California.
But, by what authority do you or I act? Who gives us the power/authority to get married, to be parents, to do our jobs, or to do good or ill to a friend or stranger? Who died and made us Popes or Kings or Presidents in our own particular lives? These are questions which are seldom asked because we pretty much know what gives us such authority for each of these.
The State of California is in charge of legal marriages. If they say we can be married, we are authorized to get married and to exercise the rights and responsibilities of that particular relationship. By virtue of our authorization to be married, we are also authorized to bear and raise children.
When we are employed to do a certain job or other, our employer empowers us and authorizes us to do our job. Those for whom we work have power over us by reason of the authority given to them by our common employer. Of course our employers are answerable to the government and to different agencies who may need to also authorize us to do our jobs. Teachers are credentialed; people who work for the government, directly or indirectly, are required to pass security screens and all employers have some bare minimum requirements in terms of education, experience, and other attributes needed for the job.
Here is a trickier question. Who gives us the right, authority, or power to do good or ill to our friends or strangers? Jesus is asked this question in our Gospel for this Sunday. He had been healing those who were ill and outcast; he was casting out demons (setting people who had been demonized by their communities free of this terrible curse), and including those who, by the traditional authority, had been excluded. All of his works of doing good for those who were ill or demon possessed or excluded were violations of authority and tradition. That is why the leaders or authorities asked him to show his source of authority.
Jesus responds with a challenge of his own. He asks the authorities about John the Baptist’s authority. The religious leaders did not really approve of John because he operated outside their control. He offered forgiveness of sins without going through the priesthood of Jerusalem. John’s father was a priest, but John did not take his father’s name nor did he follow in his father’s footsteps.
So, Jesus asks the religious leaders of Jerusalem to identify John’s source of authority. Was it from heaven or from men? The leadership were trapped in their own belief system. They did not think John was truly acting on authority from God because it was commonly believed by them that only the priesthood in Jerusalem had such power to mediate forgiveness. But, they also were worldly wise and knew that John was popular with the people and to say that his authority came from men would result in their loss of face and perhaps place in the eyes of the people. So they offered no answer.
The question left unanswered by the religious authorities about John truly answers their question about Jesus’ authority. He was doing works that required power, but the power did not come from his popular appeal to the people. In other words, his power was not from human sources of authority, but from heaven.
Jesus concludes his exchange with the religious leaders with the story of two sons who are asked by their father to work in his vineyard. The first son says he will not work in the vineyard, but later had a change of heart and did go out into the vineyard to work.
The second son told his father he would go out into the vineyard and work, but then he did not go.
Jesus asks the religious leaders which of these two sons did the will of his father.
When the religious leaders say that the first had done the father’s will, Jesus says to them:
“Truly I tell you, the tax collector and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
Jesus points to John’s ministry as being like his own. They both offered a compelling message, good news that those who were not valued by the power that is constituted by human laws and institutions and enforced by threat, prohibitions, and violence were of great value to God. They could change and be the children of a loving God.
This final word from Jesus simply and completely reveals the authority that comes from human beings and the authority that comes from God. So the question is for us: “by what authority do we do good or ill to our friends and strangers?”
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Taxation as a way of redistributing wealth in the United States is seen as bad policy by many of our fellow citizens. There are many reasons for this assessment. One belief is that if government taxes the wealthy to pay for services provided to the poor and to give the middle class tax breaks, you are creating a negative environment for wealth making. Many members of our congregation have a much better understanding of this belief than I do. I guess that how we are taxed is will continue to be a major issue in this and every election.
Money, how we earn it and how we spend it, is given considerable space in scripture. This Sunday’s Gospel reading is all about how people perceive wealth and fairness in the distribution of wealth. Jesus uses a parable about a wealthy land owner who goes out at different times during the day and hires laborers to work in his vineyard. From the beginning of the day until the sun began to set he offered employment and a fair (whatever is right) wage to everyone he sent into the fields.
Now imagine yourself as one of the laborers whose work started at the crack of dawn. You come to get your pay and find yourself at the end of the line. Ahead of you, you see those who worked only a couple of hours as the day was beginning to cool off. They seem to be overjoyed at their pay for the short day of work. The question of how much you will receive immediately bubbles up in your consciousness.
If a guy who worked an hour gets a full day’s pay, how much more might you expect to receive? They say you should never count your chickens before they are hatched and this is so true as you look at the Kingdom of Heaven through the magnifying glass of a Jesus’ parable. So having been the first one sent out to work, you extend your hands in anticipation of a huge two hands pay day. Imagine your disappointment when you receive only a day’s pay like the guys who were first in line and last to go out and work.
So, you and your fellow all day laborers begin to protest the way you have been treated. Like good labor union folk, you remind the landowner and his double dealing manager of how unjust, unfair, and just plain wrong they are in their dealings with this hard working, long suffering group.
What response from the landowner could possibly satisfy the aggrieved workers? The landowner simply says: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
The landowner may seem like a pretty unfair person. Again, imagine if it were you who worked all day for the same pay as someone who had only worked an hour?
What seems to be clear is that the laborers do not own anything, but their time and the choice to work or not work. In point of fact, many people back in Jesus’ day were forced to accept whatever wages an employer wished to pay. The economic system under the dominating power of Rome and other empires had created a huge previously landed population that subsisted, like day laborers do today, on whatever they could earn by the sweat of their brow. At the end of the day, they had earned their “daily bread.” Jesus’ story was directed towards the landowners who were listening to him. At first they would be very much in agreement with the power of wealth exercised by the landowner. They genuinely believed they had “earned” their wealth and that they were free to pay people as they saw fit. Their power was the final word and anyone who might challenge that use of money and power were obviously simply envious of the landowner’s wealth and status.
But, there is a twist. At this point, the day laborers would understand this story as simply a retelling of their daily struggle to survive in a world controlled by the wealthiest and most powerful. Jesus has a punch line to his story and here it is: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Who are the first? Who are the last? Whose generosity is being poured out for all of humanity? Who is the ultimate landowner? Why would such a landowner give so generously and without envy that those to whom he gives would begin to claim it for themselves as an earned wealth and maintain by force of law and power?
St. Paul in today’s reading from his letter to the church at Phillipi expresses his relationship to the generous God of his creation, redemption, and sanctification:
“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.”
The pay day for Paul is knowing Christ and through Christ knowing God as generously overflowing with life, love, forgiveness, and mercy. Sharing Christ is, therefore, the labor of Paul’s life and the labor of our lives. Some people who have come late in their lives to this beautiful Gospel of God and the labor of sharing it with others (the vineyard) are receiving their daily bread. We all get the same God—generous, loving, merciful, forgiving, creative, and life transforming—in that daily bread. Length of service is simply joy in faith.
Paul also wrote: “For the wages of sin is death; but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus’ story about the landowner is meant to reveal to us the death that our world view brings us. God is the always generous creator and sustainer of creation. Who claims to own what God gives so freely? Paul sees is in such a claim the sin and the payoff for that sin in self-inflicted rivalries and violence. But he also sees the cure for what is killing us in accepting the gracious gifts of God and the laboring with those gifts so that all may live as brothers and sisters.
On Sunday, come forward to receive your daily bread, your gift without price, your life lived in God’s kingdom of grace and then live out that gift in the labors of your life. Amen.
Saturday, September 06, 2008
If you are on my blog list, you will be receiving this first installment on my reflection over a week and a day before I will preach on it. It is strange how God can take a simple note of sympathy from two friends to lead me down a path that both honors my continued grief and comforts me with a view of God into whose loving arms we all live and die.
I have been re-reading the end of the story from Genesis about Joseph, Jacob's favorite child, who saw himself early on in his life as the center of the universe. He even had grand dreams of his brothers and even his father, bowing down to him. Here is that conclusion:
Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph's brothers said, "What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?" So they approached Joseph, saying, "Your father gave this instruction before he died, `Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.' Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father." Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, "We are here as your slaves." But Joseph said to them, "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones." In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
Joseph's father had introduced Joseph and his other sons to the world of rivalry, violence, pain, and suffering by his exceptional treatment of Joseph. Joseph's ego was rather large (how could it not be) and his brothers feeling the less for all of this special treatment moved from admiration, to resentment, to rivalry, and finally to violence against their dream telling brother.
They sold him into captivity to some foreign traders and Joseph ended up going through a series of reversals where his previous high opinion of himself and his future were changed forever. He ended up being admired by the Egyptian Pharaoh because he alone could interpret Pharaoh’s dream of seven fat cows being swallowed by seven skinny cows and seven fat corn cobs being swallowed by seven skinny corn cobs. He told the Pharaoh about 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine.
Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of the project of storing food for the time of famine that was coming. Joseph's family, his brothers and father and all of their family go to Egypt to buy grain so that they can survive too. Joseph goes through an elaborate process of revealing himself to them. His father thought he was dead. He brothers thought he was somebody's slave. But Joseph had been transformed into what one Christian mystic called: "the glory of God is a human being fully alive."
Joseph through his suffering, his being confronted by powers greater than his fragile ego and his developing love for others and a desire to be of service was transformed into a human being fully alive.
When Joseph's brothers discovered that he now held the power of life and death over them, they were very frightened, believing that Joseph would pay them back for their violent treatment of him. But here, in the very opening pages of Jewish scripture we find the heart and soul of God revealed in Joseph. He forgives them and clearly says that whereas his brothers had intended him harm and evil, God had no such agenda for him and would have no such agenda for his brothers.
He tells them clearly: "I am in the place of God?" What a remarkable revelation for human kind. Joseph, who had believed he was in the place of God, discovered God to be an altogether different and compelling person. Joseph left all thought of pay back to God with the slight suspicion that God was not the sort of God who would act in a way that was contrary to his expectations for his human creation.
Monday, September 01, 2008
I am taking time to grieve the death of my Mother. Grief is a complex process and can sometimes be like one of those super balls that bounce unpredicably. Tears come and go; happy memories pop up and gently fade away; a sense of relief that Mom no longer has to suffer is like a melody that repeats through all of the other feelings;. Finally, I feel gratitude for being her youngest son.
I want to share with you the very special person she was. She taught me about God in the everyday stuff of life. She mothered my brother and me into a relationship with God. It is truly amazing that in her very clear and simple and loving way, my Mom taught us how to fulfill "the law and the prophets." As I complete the business of her life and prepare to take her home to Coffeyville, Kansas with my brother on October 1, I hope that by repeating something I preached on Easter Sunday, 2006 and wrote about in 2007 I will honor her memory.
God's Peace in the Grief,
What is the good news about Easter? Last year on Easter Sunday, I told the story from my childhood about getting lost in a park and forgetting to follow our Mother's three basic rules to follow when on an adventure:
1. Stay together.
2. Hold hands.
3. Yell yoo-hoo every once in a while to let her know where we were.
I am not sure where she got those rules, but they did work and my brother and me, having been lost, were found. The difference between being lost and found was simply being in the presence of someone who loves us. There is really no place or condition in which we might find ourselves that can be called “lost,” if we are in the presence of God.
The power of resurrection is in the message that Jesus entered into the most shameful, violent, and cursed experience we all fear and seek to avoid as human beings and yet continued to be held in God’s arms. When my brother and I were lost, our Mom never lost sight of us and her love for us claimed us as found.
Come to hear the story of Easter as we celebrate the love and forgiveness of God and discover that no matter how lost we are, God hears our deepest, voiceless cry. Let us stay together, hold hands, and make our voices cry out to God.
The yoo-hoo prayer that our Mom taught us works. The day of resurrection proclaims that there is no one left alone in the place of shame or curse. No one is lost. God knows where we are and claims us as found and loved. Let’s come together to celebrate being found and then gracefully and gratefully share this good news and take the hand of others whom the world has declared to be lost.
God’s Peace in the Alleluia Yoo-Hoo,