Sunday, March 29, 2015

“Prelude” (Mark 11:1-11)

I love musicals.  All musicals begin with what they call the “overture”.  This musical number is a compilation of all the songs in the number put together in such a way that a person gets the idea that there is something big yet to happen.  The definition of “overture” is “an introduction to something more substantial.”

Well, I am here to tell you that musicals have nothing on the church when it comes to introducing something more substantial.  We don’t call it an “overture” . . . we call it the “prelude.”  When I looked up the definitions for both words they had the exact same explanations . . . “an introduction to something more substantial.”

Palm Sunday serves as our “introduction to something more substantial” . . . serves as our “overture” . . . our “prelude”. 

Palm Sunday marks our entrance into Holy Week.  Due to the fact that all of the events that happen from the start of Holy Week—kicking off with Palm Sunday and ending with the darkness of Good Friday, none of us enters into this “prelude” without knowing the story.  In fact, we have perfect 20/20 hindsight.  We have heard the story over and over again each year . . . the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the Passover celebration, the city teeming with fellow sojourners from all over the known world, the sharing of the last meal, the prayer in the garden, the arrest, trial, and finally the crucifixion.  We know the story and we know it well.  And, Palm Sunday serves as the “prelude” of what is yet to come.

The question is:  What exactly is it that is coming?

What is the big deal?

Well, the “big deal” is that there is a “new covenant” between humans as individuals and God . . . a new relationship is formed . . . fresh beginnings happen . . . new life is experienced . . . and, there is hope.  That is the “substantial thing” that the Prelude is pointing to.  And, that “substantial thing” comes through the witness of Jesus . . . his life, his words, and his actions.

Now, I might be a little too simplistic in my understanding of all that takes place prior to the resurrection that we will celebrate next Sunday, but I cannot embrace the idea that it is the blood of Good Friday that establishes this new covenant.  I believe that it is the whole movement of Jesus’ witness . . . of his life . . . that shows us the way to this new covenant between us and God.  It is not by his blood that we are so-called “save”, but by his willingness to give himself over to God completely.  The quote goes: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)

Most of us humans are pretty concrete thinkers . . . we see things literally.  It is not Jesus’ death upon the cross that creates the act of atonement, but the willingness to completely give himself over to the will of God.  As humans we probably would not have gotten “it” had God embraced Jesus’ willingness to die and pulled an Abraham and Isaac . . . with God proclaiming, “Just kidding—you don’t have to die.”  No, we would have quickly forgotten . . . it took a concrete example.  But, it is not the death that gives to us new life, it was Jesus’ willingness . . . willingness to completely give himself over to God and God’s will.

As the followers of Jesus we are called to do the same thing . . . we are called to give ourselves over to God and God’s will completely.  If we do we will have new life.  Jesus has shown us the way by the way that he lived his life . . . it was a radical way to live life.  To love God completely . . . to love ourselves . . . to love others.  That is God’s will for establishing the new covenant and the kingdom.

Hard stuff.  The season of Lent has proven that.  It is not easy to give one’s self over to God completely.  We struggle with this.  Yet, we are not alone.  Jesus struggled.  There in the garden after the last meal, Jesus went to pray.  Remember his prayer?  It was a prayer of struggle . . . should he do God’s will?  Should he go through with what he knew was about to happen?  There in the garden he agonized over what he should do.  In the end he chose to do God’s will.  Jesus said: “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you.  Take this cup from me.  Yet not what I will, but what you will.”  (Mark 14:36) Jesus completely gave himself over to God and God’s will.  The rest is, as we like to say, history.

Thus it is that we enter into the “substantial” part of the story this morning . . . we begin with the “prelude”.  Palm Sunday is the “prelude” of something more substantial taking place.  We enter into Holy Week and all that it represents and through our minds we replay not only what happens that week in Jerusalem, but also the whole life and times of Jesus.  We see it all . . . the movement . . . the grace, the love . . . the willingness to embrace God completely by giving his life over to God.  It is the summation of his witness . . . his life that shows us the way to this new covenant, this new life.

But, do not get derailed at the foot of the cross.  Do not get caught staring at the broken body of Jesus upon the cross.  Do not get wrapped up in the violence . . . the concrete example of one giving one’s life up to embrace a new form of life.  It is not by the blood of the cross that we are saved, but it is by the willingness of Jesus to be nailed to the cross . . . the willingness of Jesus to let go of himself and be fully embraced by God.  It is the love and grace of Jesus’ willingness that saves us . . . Unfortunately we need concrete examples to open our eyes.  Like Jesus, we are called upon to completely give ourselves to God and God’s will . . . to enter into the new covenant . . . to embrace the new life that comes from being totally God’s children.

The “promise” is there.  The prelude of Palm Sunday announces that it is coming.  We enter into this exciting time and join with the countless generations before us . . . waving our palms . . . shouting, “Hosanna, hosanna to God in the highest”.  Yes, we know the “promise” is there . . . it is in the life of Jesus and his willingness to give himself over completely to God and God’s will.  Jesus calls us to do as he has done . . . not literally climb up on the cross, but to be willing to let go and allow God to fully embrace us in love and grace.

As I said earlier, I might have too simplistic of an understanding of what this “substantial thing” might be.  Yet, I truly believe that it is love that trumps everything else when it comes to us and God . . . that is pretty substantial.  Think about it as you enter into Holy Week.  May we all discover that love and grace for ourselves.  Amen.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

“It Begins with Me” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

I want to assure you that I am not a health nut . . . not by any stretch of the imagination.  At Montana State University Billings, where I work during the week, they have started what I would call a “health consciousness” program.  I think that it is some sort of scam that the university’s insurance company has created to cut down on the cost of claims and increase the profit margin . . . but, they insist that it is out of concern for the university’s employees.  Something like “healthy employees make happy employees, and happy employees are more productive and profitable.”  Either way, they have created a program to help make people healthier.

They call the health program “It Begins with Me”.  Now I want you to understand that the program is completely voluntary and no one is forcing anyone to participate in the program.  I also want you to know that they are giving away some really cool bling and prizes for participating.  The foundation of the whole program is that no one can do it for anyone else, if a person is going to be healthy he or she must do it for themselves . . . thus, the title—“It Begins with Me”.

Remember what I said at the start of this?  I am not a health nut.  I am not good about watching my diet . . . nope, I have a wife who does that for me . . . and trust me she does as she makes me eat all of this healthy stuff like chicken.  I do not like chicken unless it is deep fat fried with the skin on and screaming “heart attack”.  I am far from being a healthy eater . . . I love greasy hamburgers, thick steaks, lots of pasta and rice, salt, butter . . . everything a nutrition expert would claim is bad for you.  I am not too excited about exercise.  Exercise sounds like work . . . tiresome . . . and, painful.  Besides, exercise makes you sweaty and then you have to take another shower.  The health program at the university calls for its employees to embrace this idea and practice of healthy living . . . but, I struggle . . . I struggle with jumping in with both feet.

My co-workers at the university give me a hard time about it.  They encourage me to embrace the program . . . but I haven’t quite done it yet.  Now, it is true, that my body is a little rounder . . . okay, a lot more rounder . . . than it should be; but, the ol’ ticker is still ticking.  I am standing before you this morning breathing and living.  What more can anyone ask for.  They just roll their eyes and tell me, “That is up to you.”  And, they are right!  It is up to me.  If I am going to be healthier it is up to me . . . it has to begin with me.

The words of the prophet Jeremiah come to a people who are exiled . . . who are oppressed . . . and who miss their way of life back in their homeland.  They long for the way that things used to be when they were an important nation . . . a powerful kingdom . . . and, they seemed to be blessed by God in all that they did.  Unfortunately their current situation is their own fault for not doing the will of God . . . they had broken the covenantal relationship.  Even though they knew this it did not stop their longing for the way things used to be.

Sometimes it takes something major to shake things up . . . to grab people’s attention . . . to create change.  Being violently exiled from one’s homeland can do that.  This exile, particularly with their relationship with God, created some changes.  In the past the relationship with God was between the corporate—the people as a whole.  Everything that God did was for the people as the children of God . . . as a nation . . . as Israel.  Now the covenant would change.  No longer would the covenant be between God and the people as a whole . . . it would be between God and each individual.

God says: “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time.  I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they will be my people . . . they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”

From corporate to personal . . . the covenant now begins with the individual.  This is a major shift that points to the New Testament saga of our journey of faith.  It is now between us and God.

And, it begins with us.

The key to our faith begins with us . . . it is our choice as to whether or not we embrace the covenantal relationship between us and God . . . up to us whether or not we will claim our place in the family . . . up to us as to whether or not we will count ourselves among the faithful.  It begins with us because God has placed the covenant within our hearts.

From the beginning of the creation story God has always desired an intimate relationship with creation—especially the human relationship.  Yet, at the same time—after generations and generations of attempting to make the people love and relate to God—God will not force anyone into that relationship.  No, God places that responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the people as individuals . . . places it upon each of us.  It is our choice.  If we are not in a relationship . . . an intimate relationship with God . . . there is no one else to blame.  We cannot blame our families . . . we cannot blame the church . . . we cannot even blame our Lord and Savior Jesus who showed us how to live in intimacy with God.  We can only blame ourselves.  It is up to us.

The season of Lent calls us into a time of examination of our relationship with God.  To determine whether or not it is everything that it should be; and if it is not, then to determine what it keeping it from being that.  Then it is up to us to change it and make it what we and God want it to be.  Kind of sounds like a “health plan” for our faith doesn’t it?  A sort of “It Begins with Me” spiritual direction plan for our faith.  And, like any plan for our health—physical or spiritual—we recognize the fact that it is not going to be easy.  It is going to be hard, tiresome, and frustrating to get back to being healthy and staying healthy physically or spiritually.  The season of Lent calls us to this work . . . work that only we can do as individuals.

The words of the prophet Jeremiah remind of this.

Though I joke about my health, I do take it serious . . . I at least think about it and feel guilty as I am eating that greasy hamburger.  It is hard work, but only work I can choose to do for myself . . . it is up to me.  So it is for each of us as we strive to grow closer and closer to God in our personal relationships with God.  It begins with us.

No one ever said that it would be easy . . . but, Jesus showed us the way and the rewards are great.  Hang in there.  As my co-workers at the university tell me . . . it is worth it.  Amen.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

“Back to Egypt Committee” (Numbers 21:4-9)

The Israelites just didn’t seem to get it.

Despite the fact that God lead them out of slavery to freedom—they don’t get it.  Despite the fact that God provides them with heavenly food—they don’t get it.  Despite the fact that God establishes a covenant with them on Mount Sinai—establishes the law—rejects the golden calf—they don’t get it.  Nothing seems to have driven the point across that it is God who has freed them, provided for their needs, kept them safe, and desires to be in a relationship with them.  They didn’t get that they were called by God to be God’s people.  Instead of seeing opportunity, potential, and promise . . . well, they complained.  They did not trust God.

Now it is true that things had not and were not going as smoothly as the people had hoped.  True that they had endured more than a few bumps in along the way.  True that it was a lot harder than they had imagined it would be.  The present backtracking of their journey’s route just happened to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.  The result?  Complaints . . . lots of complaints.

It did not take long for the complaints to escalate to the forming of what the Reverend John Jewell refers to as the “back to Egypt committee.”  In their complaints against God to Moses the people expressed a desire to return to Egypt . . . at least in slavery there was food and shelter . . . it beat the heck out of what they were experiencing: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?  There is no bread!  There is no water!  And we detest this miserable food!”  Such murmuring and complaining only served to create more murmuring and complaining to build even more momentum for the “back to Egypt committee.”

Needless to say God’s reaction with this constant and incessant complaining is a little disturbing—God sics venomous snakes among them to bite and kill the complainers.  That’s right—God sends poisonous snakes to kill the people.  Our reading tells us that many Israelites died.  I would venture to say that God was not too happy with the people . . . not were the people too happy with God.  It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to know who is going to win this battle.

If we are honest with ourselves we would have to admit that we have all been a part of more than a few “back to Egypt committees” in our lifetimes.  We would have to admit that we have done our fair share of moaning and groaning, complaining, murmuring, and lamenting when things weren’t going the way we wanted them to go . . . of if it was more difficult than we thought . . . or, if it wasn’t moving as fast as we wanted it to go.  When we haven’t been happy . . . we bellyache.  Instead of seeing good, we only see the bad . . . instead of blessing, we see curse . . . the glass is not half filled, it is half empty.  Negativity.

This is dangerous.  Negativity breeds negativity.  The spirit of any “back to Egypt committee” is contagious.  Remember . . . mudslinging works . . . the negative sells.  Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to get a negative, complaining discussion started?  Complaints create more complaints.  Such behavior brings everything to a halt—nothing gets done—it kills momentum, kills progress, squashes opportunity, and nullifies potential.  In biblical terms such a complaining spirit is a sinful spirit.

Even the people in our reading this morning recognize this.  Running to Moses the people confess . . . “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you.”  They want help . . . “Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.”  At this point I am not sure whether or not the people get the point . . . whether they understand; but, they do recognize that they are in a whole heap of trouble.

As I stated earlier, we have all complained . . . we have all been a part of a “back to Egypt committee.”  Especially when we have become frustrated . . . when we have become impatient . . . when we have decided the results were not what we thought they would be . . . when things are harder than we imagined it would be.  So, we complain.  What does complaining do?  Usually not much . . . at least not much good.  Typically it creates more problems than it solves . . . it is a poison that slowly kills.  Such was the complaining of the people of Israel . . . it was slowly killing them . . . slowly killing the dream . . . and, slowly killing the relationship between them and God.  They had committed the sin of separating themselves from God by complaining and not trusting God and God’s word.

We are now four weeks into the season of Lent . . . well into the thick of it.  In the season of Lent we are called upon to examine our journey of faith . . . to examine our relationship with God . . . with one another.  We are asked to find and identify those barriers and blockages that keep us from these relationships . . . to discern them . . . to pray about them . . . and, to remove them to grow closer to God and one another.  We all know that this is hard work . . . time consuming work.  It takes a lot of patience and trust . . . God’s ways are not always our ways.

At this point in the season of Lent it is not unusual for those who are taking serious the challenge of the Lord to examine and change one’s life and journey of faith to be close to the point of complaint . . . this is hard work.  No one likes the season of Lent.  But to find the reward one has to go through the darkness to embrace the light.

So, what is the solution to the complaints?  Well, it is to look up and beyond.  God has Moses make a bronze snake to place upon his staff.  He is to hold the staff up.  Those who have been bitten by the snake and look up to this bronze snake are spared from death.  In the looking up and beyond the miracle is squarely in the hands of God.  The bronze snake was a symbol of their sin . . . only when they looked beyond their sin towards God would they ever be saved from their sin . . . they had to look beyond themselves and to trust God and God’s word.

It is the same for all of us.  We must look at our complaints for what they are . . . they are desires . . . our wants . . . our expectations that are not being met.  The focus is on us and not God . . . on us and not God’s will . . . on us and not others.  In looking at our complaints . . . our sins . . . in looking beyond ourselves towards God . . . we begin to avoid the death that so often happens with the “back to Egypt committee.”  God calls us away from the self.

In the Gospel of John the writer tells us: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)  In the cross, we see the consequences of sin.  When we can stop our complaining and look beyond ourselves we discover our hope.  The cure for sin . . . the cure for complaining . . . is not within us, but rather is from God beyond us. 

We are on a spiritual journey in this life.  From time to time we hit bumps . . . we get side-tracked . . . we lose our way . . . we complain . . . we organize “back to Egypt committees.”  Yet, we are still on the journey.  Lent calls us to reflect upon this journey.  The secret to fulfillment in this journey is to look up and away from ourselves towards the promises of God.  For the Israelites it was a bronze snake on a staff . . . for the followers of Jesus it is the image of Christ upon a cross . . . beyond that is the promise.

Yes, the journey is hard . . . but the promise is worth it all.  In the words of Jesus we all find the hope during this season of Lent . . . “whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  Amen.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

“Cleaning House” (John 2:13-22)

With the time change and the warmer weather . . . Spring is getting closer.  With Spring comes Spring cleaning . . . people are stirring from their winter hibernation and solitude to jump in with both feet to give their homes and houses the once-over.  Carpets are cleaned, windows are washed, everything is dusted, floors are mopped and waxed . . . it is time to clean the house and make it livable once again . . . presentable to themselves and to others.    

In psychology and spiritual direction the “house” is a symbol of the individual . . . a metaphor for the person.  When one dreams of a house he or she is dreaming about themselves . . . and, surprisingly, it is typically a pretty accurate description. 

In our reading this morning the writer of the Gospel of John provides us with a picture of Jesus doing a little house cleaning in the temple.  Jesus arrives at the temple and he is not pleased with what he sees . . . there were people selling cattle, sheep, and doves . . . others were sitting around at tables exchanging money . . . it resembled a marketplace more than it did holy ground.  Upset, Jesus sort of goes ballistic.   He makes a whip from cords and proceeds to create havoc by driving out the animal sellers and their critters . . . he overturns tables and tosses out the money-changers . . . he cleans house with a definite statement: “Get out of here!  How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”

Needless to say, this did not make everyone happy.  People were not cheering him on . . . no, they griped and complained.  In cleaning house Jesus pretty much upset the economic balance and livelihood of temple.  As offensive as those merchants were—the animal sellers and money-changers, they were still providing a service to those who came to the temple to worship.  Those selling animals sold them to the worshipers as sacrifices to offer to God.  Those who were exchanging money were providing a service to assist the worshipers in making an acceptable offering in the local currency.  True, they might have been gouging their shoppers, but hey . . . everyone has to make a living.

Jesus literally upsets the apple cart as he cleans house.  The sellers and merchants are not happy that Jesus puts them out of business.  So, they complain.  In particular they want to know by what authority Jesus has the right to come in and mess everything up.  They want a sign to prove that Jesus has the power to do what he has done.  Jesus simply tells them: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

Such cocky answers does not sooth the complainers.  They don’t buy it telling Jesus that it took over 46 years to build the temple . . . and, he thinks that he can destroy it and rebuild it in three days?  Hogwash!  It cannot be done.  Unfortunately for Jesus they don’t buy it and keep on complaining.  But, they don’t get it.  The “temple”—the “house”—of which Jesus is speaking is not the temple made of stone, but the one that is called the body.  As followers of Jesus we recognize now that Jesus was not talking about the Temple, but himself.

One of the great debates throughout the journey of faith as described in the scriptures has been the dwelling place of God.  Was it on a mountain?  Was it in a special tent?  Was it in a temple built of stone?  Where exactly does God dwell?  Is it this building where we gather to worship and fellowship?  What do you think? 

I would suggest that God is everywhere . . . like the air that we breathe.  And, I would suggest, that God is within us . . . that God dwells within our hearts.  All of creation is “holy space”.  If this is the case, then we might want to take to heart the scene we just witnessed in the Gospel of John of Jesus cleaning house.  What Jesus demonstrates in the temple cleansing is what he expects of his followers when it comes to their own houses.  As someone once said, “It is an outward demonstration of an inward act.”

In the season of Lent a yearning is created within us to clean our house and to clean our souls.  We are to be about the business of “house cleaning”.  When I think of those merchants and money-changers that Jesus tosses out . . . and, about the fact that this is a call to cleaning the soul . . . I wonder how I am selling God short within my own house . . . selling God short within myself.

None of us is immune from the clutter of life.  That is why we have to clean house every-so-often . . . to get rid of the clutter so we can get some more clutter.  Sometimes that clutter makes it impossible to do what we want to do.  So it is with our spiritual lives.  Sometimes we clutter our “temple”—our “house”—with more clutter than we can manage and still live a life that is according to the will of God.  We can’t see God through the clutter.  When that happens . . . well, when that happens we need to clean house.

Lent is the season of “house cleaning”.  We are called to examine our houses . . . called to determine what it is that is cluttering up our faith . . . what it is that is blocking our relationship with God and with one another . . . and, we are called upon to toss it out and make it livable once again.  It involves a lot of examination, discernment, and prayer . . . hard work.  House cleaning is hard work and that is probably why no one enjoys it.

Thus we complain.

As a parent I never enjoyed Saturday morning when it came to cleaning the house.  Each kid was given a chore to do.  With each assignment came the traditional lament . . . the gnashing of teeth . . . the moaning and groaning.  The kids would complain and complain and complain.  Their mother and I would tell them to get to it . . . that their complaining was only making the task that much longer.  I once pointed out that they complained for nearly an hour about having to do a job that only took fifteen minutes . . . they had now made the job an hour and fifteen minutes long.  Using the infamous motto of Nike they were told to “just do it”.

The same goes for us as followers of Jesus.  No one likes Lent and its challenges that it puts upon us to examine our lives, to clean our houses, and to get back on the right track with Jesus and God.  No one likes it because it is hard work and work that none of us enjoys doing.  Yet, we need to do it . . . we need to clean house.  If we don’t they might put us on the next episode of “The Hoarders”.

We are called upon to keep the place where God dwells clean of all that would block our relationship with God and others.  Yet, God really has no physical dwelling place as everything in creation is God and is God’s.  So we must begin where each of us knows God and that is within our hearts.  We begin with our own house.  May the Spirit guide you through this cleaning of house . . . may we all discover that relationship that brings us closer to God and one another.  Amen.