Monday, February 29, 2016

The Suffering of Untimely Death - Lent 3, Feb 28, 2016

Christians don’t always know what to do with untimely death. We’re pretty good at handling death when it seems “timely,” that is when it happens to someone or something who is quite old, and lived a good life, and maybe has been suffering. At those times, we turn to our Easter faith, and we celebrate that the one who died has new life after death. We turn to our Bibles and we find verses that say things like, “God’s reward for righteousness is a long life,”  which we find in several places in the Old Testament. But when death is “untimely,” when it happens to someone who’s young, or it’s the result of some tragedy or trauma, when it comes out-of-the-blue, and at the wrong time, we don’t really know what to do with that. When someone dies, and it seems that their life is not yet done, it sends us into a quandary. Were they being punished for something? Or is life completely random and there’s no meaning to anything? Was God not watching over them? Or does God not actually protect us from terrible things that go on in the world? If they died, does that mean something might happen to us? When an untimely death happens in our lives, it’s normal for us to go through an existential and theological crisis. And as Christians, we turn to the Bible to see if there’s something that can help us understand.

And so we come to the readings for today. Now before I get into what the readings *do* say, I want to be clear about what they do *not* say. First off, Paul in our reading from 1 Corinthians, is *not* saying that untimely death is God testing us. The first letter to the Corinthians does not have the same theology as the book of Job. While Paul does say that people experience testing, this testing does not come from God. This is a testing that comes from the world, and from the circumstances that people happen to go through in their lives because we’re in the “ends of the ages,” and terrible things happen in these times. In no way is Paul saying here that God sends death or suffering or illness to test us. God helps us to get through these terrible things, through these tests from the world, and God may not stop them from happening, but God definitely does not send them.

The second thing that the readings do *not* say is that untimely death is a punishment for some sin or another. In fact, in the Gospel reading from Luke this morning, Jesus outright rejects that line of thought. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” These Galileans, faithful Jews who had gone to the Temple in Jerusalem, were slaughtered by Pontius Pilate’s soldiers as they worshipped and their blood was splattered across the same altar where the Temple sacrifices were made. Were they being punished by God because somehow they has some terrible hidden sin that only God could see? “No, I tell you.” Jesus says absolutely not. “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.” Jesus is very clear. Unexpected and untimely death is not caused by our sins or failures in life. And I’m very emphatic about this, because sometimes I have heard people who are facing the possibility of an unexpected death say, “Well, I guess God is testing me.” Or, “I don’t know what I did to deserve this suffering.” Or even, “Pastor, why do you think God is punishing me this way?” No, I tell you. No, no, no. God is not a sick and twisted, sadistic deity up in the sky who enjoys seeing us suffer for what we’ve done. God does not test or punish us with suffering as payback for our sins.

So why *do* these things happen? Why *do* we suffer these untimely deaths? Well, first, why they happen, and why we suffer when they happen, are two very different questions. Why they happen is because God created us to grow and become people, and so God gave us the freedom to make choices about how we live our lives. God refuses to control our every step and movement and decision because God has determined that we are not slaves. That means, though, that, because we’re all connected with one another, the choices that others make affect our lives and vice versa. And so, in the Gospel reading, the Galileans who suffered an untimely death did so because Pontius Pilate made the terrible choice to kill them. And the people who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them died because the ones who built the tower didn’t take the proper time and care to build a tower that wouldn’t fall. They died because of shoddy workmanship. Sometimes our own choices in the past have consequences for our death, like if we chose to smoke and die of lung cancer, or if we chose to eat nothing but fatty meat and die of a heart attack, but they’re not punishments. They’re just consequences. If I didn’t know I was allergic to peanuts and then I ate one and went into anaphylactic shock and died, that’s not a punishment. That’s just a consequence. Those poor boys who died on the bobsled track a few weeks ago - they weren’t being punished for their decision to slide down the track after hours. That was just a sad, tragic consequence. So, *why* untimely death happens is because all death is the consequence of living, untimely or not. Untimely death is the price we pay to have freedom of choice for all of us.

But the question of why do we *suffer* untimely death is a different one. As I said at the beginning, there are some deaths that don’t bother us. They are timely. We accept them as a natural, if regrettable, part of life. But there are some deaths that cause us to suffer because they happen at the wrong time. We might say they happen “too soon.” And here we turn to the story of the fig tree that I just read. Most people see the fig tree as a metaphor for ourselves - that if we go for several years without producing fruit then we’re going to be cut down, and they see the landowner as God, and Jesus as the gardener. And this is the standard reading of the text, even if it does lead us to some confusing conclusions about the Trinity. But there’s another way of understanding this story. First there’s the interesting contrast between the landowner and the gardener. The landowner clearly knows a little bit about fig trees - he knows that fig trees produce figs. But he doesn’t seem to know that fruit trees actually take three years to produce fruit for the first time. They don’t do it from the get-go. They need time, and they also need care. They need proper watering, and proper fertilizing. But the landowner doesn’t seem to know this. The gardener does, which is why he appeals for more time for the fig tree. But not the landowner - he just jumps to conclusions about the productiveness of the tree.

And when it comes to looking at our lives or the lives of those around us, and judging the productiveness or value or meaning of a life, which we do when someone dies an untimely death, we are far more likely to be the landowner judging the productiveness of our own lives, and then we suffer because of it. We suffer when it comes to untimely death because we think the life of the one who’s dying wasn’t long enough. It wasn’t filled with enough meaning. It didn’t produce what it was supposed to. The biggest regret that people express when they’re dying is that they didn’t spend enough time doing what was meaningful and they didn’t live out their purpose in life. But simply adding days or months or years to our age is not the purpose of our lives. We were not created by God so that we could just exist for as long as possible. We were created for more than that. Specifically, God created us to love and to receive love from one another. We were made in the image of God, and God is love, so we are made in the image of love. Love is what gives meaning to our lives - loving others and receiving love, these moments of love are the fruit that we are supposed to bear. We are supposed to produce love. 

And love is something you can do at any age. Young or old. If you have loved others and been loved in return, your life is full and you aren’t “wasting the soil,” as it were, no matter how short or long your life. On the other hand, if we’ve never loved or been loved a day in our life, we could live to be 110, and we would still feel that our death comes too soon. We would still cry out when the landowner comes with an ax to cut us down. We would still feel that our life has been a waste.

  The waste of a life without love is what causes our suffering untimely death. This waste is what Jesus calls his listeners to repent of - the waste of living lives that have no love. Repenting means turning away from something, and turning to a new path. Jesus tells his listeners to turn away from believing that God punishes us, to turn away from living lives that are anything other than love, otherwise we will suffer when our death comes, not because God’s punishing us but because that’s just the consequence of living lives without love. Jesus calls us to turn away from believing that long lives are the purpose of life and to turn to believing that the purpose of our lives, long or short, is love.

If you fear that your life has been a waste because you haven’t loved or if you fear that you’ll suffer when your death comes unexpectedly, it’s not too late to change that. You have access to love always, and right now. You see, in the story of the fig tree, the gardener responds to the landowner who wants to cut down the fig tree by saying, Wait. Wait one more year. I will care for the tree - I will show it love, and then we will see what happens. God is our gardener. God is the one who cares for us and shows us love and nurtures us until we bear the fruit we are designed to bear - until we love others in return. So, in truth, our reality is that there really is no wasted life or suffering from untimely death because God has loved us and continues to love us. That is enough. Whether we live three years, or 40 years, or 65 years, when those years are filled with love for one another, and more importantly with God’s love for us, we do not suffer when death comes because we have already lived lives worth living - we have borne the fruit of God’s love for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.  

Only God Should - Lent 2, 2016

So let’s put this story about Jesus into a broader context. Here we have Jesus, coming towards the end of his ministry, teaching in “that very hour” in the synagogue and healing and doing all of those life-giving things that he’s been doing, all in the name of God. And some Pharisees, who have so far not been particularly friendly to him, come and tell him that Herod wants to kill him. And Jesus says, basically, “Herod can do what he want, but I’m not done doing what I’m here to do. I’m not done healing people and forgiving them and showing them that God is here to bring them life. I’m not done yet because I haven’t walked into the heart of the enemy and healed them.” Or, as the Gospel says in a bit more poetic language, “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.”

What’s going on here is that Jesus is telling his disciples and the listeners in the synagogue and the Pharisees and Herod, and us, that Jesus is so committed to his mission to tell people that God loves them and gives them new life no matter what, that he is going to go to the very epicenter of hatred towards him so that he can gather the haters in and protect them. This would be like Martin Luther King Jr walking into the heart of a Ku Klux Klan meeting to tell them they’re brothers. This would be like my German grandparents walking into the heart of the Cossack army that ravaged their home to bring them food and warm clothes. This would be like a Syrian child walking into an ISIS camp to bring medical supplies to the people who had killed her parents. Think of someone who hates you––maybe someone from your past who bullied you, or downright abused you––think of someone who has done you a great injustice and now imagine walking up to them and saying, “How I wish I could gather you under my wings and protect you like a mother hen protects her chicks.” Imagine feeling that attitude of nurturing and mothering towards someone who can’t stand you––who really, really, really despises you. Imagine mothering the fox who wants you dead.

It’s not easy, is it? It’s hard to imagine ourselves doing this, and even harder to actually do it, particularly when we’re talking about loving and mothering and offering healing to and even dying for those people who have done some serious harm to us. Who’ve abused us, who’ve tried to kill us. We are called to follow Jesus, but there is a line. There is a line that we cannot cross when it comes to loving and forgiving and dying for those who’ve abused us, because to cross that line would mean telling ourselves and telling others that it’s okay to treat people as less than children of God. 

I admit that I find this knot particularly hard to unravel. If you have ever been abused, I will not tell you that you should forgive and mother your abuser. And yet we are called to follow Jesus. And the whole story that we’re in right now in Lent, the whole story of Jesus deliberately going to the city that wants to kill him, and dying voluntarily for the good of others, suffering abuse and torture so that his abusers might know God loves them, this whole story leaves us struggling with some extraordinarily difficult questions. How far should we follow Jesus? Should we follow him to Jerusalem? Should we follow him into the court of the high priest? Should we follow him to the place of being whipped and given a crown of thorns? Should we follow him to the cross? To crucifixion for the world? To actual physical death? What does it mean, actually, that we should follow Christ? That we are to follow is not up for debate - Jesus says, “Follow me.” But does follow mean follow and watch? Or does it mean follow and do what he does? Does following Christ in this period of Lent mean we should be watching Christ die for us and for those who want to kill him? Or does it mean we should be doing what Christ did and dying for those who can’t wait for us to get on with it?

I wish I could tell you what the answer is, but I don’t know. I suspect that it’s the latter, that we should be doing what Christ did and we should die for those who want us dead. On the other hand, a dear seminary professor once told me, “Only Jesus Christ was called to die for the world. You are not.” So what should Christians do?

Well, whenever we hear the word should, we need to pause and really consider what we’re hearing. Luther was very wary of shoulds. Because should is a word of imprisonment. A word of judgment, a word of law. You should share with your little brother. You should eat more vegetables. You should be nice to those who are mean to you. Should is a word that makes us cringe, that makes us feel ashamed, that makes us feel less than children of God, because we only use should when we’re not actually doing the thing we should be doing. Should is a word of threat, a word that causes us to think only about ourselves and our failures and to forget what God has done for us. Any time we hear should in the context of following Christ, “You should follow Christ, you should die for others,” alarm bells ought to start ringing.

Jesus, you see, did not operate under shoulds. He did not go to Jerusalem because he should. He didn’t say, “I should gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood.” He didn’t say, “I should cast out demons and perform cures, and I should go to Jerusalem, the city that hates me.” Jesus said, I want to.  “I desire to/ I want to gather your children.” Want is not a should word. It is the very opposite.  I share with my little brother because I want to. I eat more vegetables because I want to. I am nice to those who are mean to me because I want to. I follow Jesus because I want to. I die for others because I want to. I love those who hate me because I want to. We are far more successful with things we want to do than things we should do.

But how do we get out from under those shoulds and into the land of want? How do we turn from we should follow Christ during this time of Lent to wanting to follow Christ? Well it will do no good for me to tell you that you should want to. Starting with should never works. Instead, I will start where Jesus started, and that is by telling you not what you should do for others, but what has already been done for you. This is the secret, you see. This is how Jesus was able to do all that he did, and why he told others to follow him. Jesus started with what had been done for him, what had been done for the people of Israel, with what we Lutherans like to call grace.

And the grace is this: A long, long time ago, our God did what no other god of that time had done before or has done since. Our God made a promise to a human. Gods don’t make promises to humans, you see. Humans make promises to gods. I promise to be good, so please make my crops grow. I promise to give you my first-born, so please protect my family from disease and starvation. I promise to pray every day, so please keep the wild animals from eating my flocks. I promise to be faithful to you, and do what you say, and follow all the shoulds you want, so please watch over me and don’t let anything bad happen to me. Humans would do all the things they thought they should so that the gods would look favourably on them. But not this time. This time, the god–-the God whom we now call the God of Abraham and Jacob and Israel, the God of Jesus and the first disciples––this time our God made a promise with humans first. God promised to Abraham that God would make Abraham’s descendants more numerous than the stars. And then, while Abraham was sleeping, so basically while Abraham was completely powerless, God established that promise as a covenant. And here’s the thing about covenants. If someone establishes a covenant, and then breaks that covenant, that person is destroyed in the same way the covenant was. God actually established a one-sided covenant with Abraham––that if God broke the covenant with Abraham, God would be as destroyed as that covenant. God did this! God became a God of the covenant––a God who was bound to humankind––not vice versa–– and who made one-sided promises to humankind of life and love. God took all of the shoulds away from us and put them on God’s self. God should be loyal to us. God should take care of us. God should be our God. God, in becoming the God of covenant, in becoming the God of one-sided promises to us, gathered up all of the shoulds and went poof - do them, don’t do them, it makes no difference to God’s covenant with you.

Jesus, a child of Abraham and Jacob and Israel, a child of Torah, a child of the covenanted God, Jesus started with this. Jesus started with grace. Jesus grew up hearing this story of Abraham and hearing that God’s covenant was with Israel, and that God took on all the shoulds of that covenant while Abraham did nothing, and that is the Good News Jesus went out to share. To proclaim, through healing and forgiveness, that God’s covenant removed the shoulds from the hurt and broken and suffering. To proclaim, by dying on the cross, that all shoulds were rounded up and nailed to the cross with him, burnt in the fire of the covenant God had established with Abraham, taken away from humans entirely. Jesus did all of this, not because he should, but because he knew all that God had done for him, and because he wanted the rest of the world to know that God had done it for them, too.

So, to go back to this question of how should we follow Jesus? Should we die on the cross? Should we forgive our abusers? Should we gather in like a mother hen all those chicks and foxes who hurt us? It seems to me that the answer is this: if the question is should we, the answer is no. We should not die on the cross. We should not forgive our abusers. We should not mother those who hurt us. If the question is should, then that means we need to hear the story of grace again. We need to hear it over and over and over again, we need to hear––as many times as possible––that God took all those shoulds upon God’s self, until the question, Should I? doesn’t exist anymore. Only when the question becomes the statement, “I want to...” do we move forward to do as Jesus did - to die, to forgive, to walk the entire road with Jesus to Jerusalem. But that might not happen for a long time. And when it does, it might not last. Some of us need to hear the story of grace more frequently and for longer than others, because some of us have been living under shoulds for longer than others, or because the shoulds shouted at us have been louder than all the other words we hear. So, whether you have done in life what you should or not, whether you have forgiven those you should or not (and that might include yourself), start with this: God is doing what God should so that you are forgiven and healed. To follow Christ during this season of Lent, start with what Jesus started with: God loves you. God is committed to you. God holds a covenant with you and gathers you under God’s wings because God is the one who should. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Terror and Transfiguration - February 7, 2016

Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12 - 4:2
Luke 9:28-43

How would you like to stand in the presence of God? If someone said, “Here’s your chance - line up now for some one-on-one time with God, the Creator of the Universe!” would you be lining up? My first thought is that, yeah, of course I would! Who wouldn’t want to get a chance to actually be in the presence of God? To ask the hard questions, like “Why did you make the platypus? Why did you invent the common cold virus? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why did you make me with depression? Why do you let children starve to death?” As a pastor and a professional theologian, I have with pages of questions that I would *love* to ask God if we were face-to-face.

I think. I’m actually not so sure, though. Because today’s readings, the texts for Transfiguration Sunday when we celebrate the times when humans have come fully into God’s presence, do not give us any indication that face-to-face encounters with God are particularly enjoyable. In fact, the readings seem to indicate that such moments are quite the opposite. In our reading from Exodus, Moses spends some serious time in the presence of God on Mount Sinai, and the skin of his face is glowing and shining so brightly with the light of God that “when Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses ... they were afraid to come near him.” Something about Moses’ encounter with God so transformed him that he took on an aura of heavenly brilliance so intense that the people were afraid. (Incidentally, the translation that says that Moses’ face was shining has been translated in the past to say that horns of light were coming from Moses’ face, which is where we get the Renaissance paintings of Moses that look like there are horns coming out of his head, and where we get the superstition that was alive not so long ago that Jews had horns growing out of their foreheads. Which just goes to show that bad translations can be real problem.) Anyway, the people were so frightened by the effect of Moses’ encounter with God - a second-hand encounter for them, actually - that Moses had to hide his face every time he talked to them.

And then there’s the disciples’ encounter with God when they went up the mountain with Jesus. Peter and John and James saw Jesus transfigured, and saw Moses and Elijah appear in front of them and talk to Jesus, about Jesus’ death no less, and then were confronted by the cloud of God. And they were terrified. So terrified that they couldn’t talk about the encounter for many days. Something about being in that cloud where God touched earth, and where God’s voice spoke clearly, was terrifying. Their encounter with God was so intense it made them speechless.

The Israelites that had a second-hand encounter with God through Moses and the Jewish disciples of Jesus who had a cloud-based encounter with God were not excited, or thrilled, or joyful. They were scared and even terrified. So I’m not sure anymore that I *do* want a face-to-face encounter with God. I now wonder if, given the opportunity, I might hide in the corner rather than ask God my questions.

I suspect that’s true for all of us. Because encounters with God are actually no small thing. When we come face-to-face with God, whether on the top of a mountain or on our knees in prayer or coming forward for Communion, whether exposed in the wilderness or secure in our own home, we are coming face-to-face with the one who created the universe. The one who is the creator of life-itself. We enter into the presence of the one who knows our hearts so fully there is nothing else - the one who knows what makes us cry, the one who knows when we have made others cry, the one who has seen our most shameful moments, the one who has seen into our hearts in those times we still can’t bear to think about. That is Not Fun. That is Not Something We Want To Do. Yes, God loves us, and yes God forgives us, and all of that - I’m not discounting that - but God also knows all about our failures - those times when we tried so hard to be good and do the right thing and just couldn’t manage it. God knows all about our limitations - those things that we hide from others so they don’t know we’re not perfect. God knows all about our weaknesses - those things that we want so badly we’re ashamed to admit it. God knows our thoughts, words, and deeds, things done and left undone - God knows our sins. We say those words so blithely during Confession and Forgiveness, but they are really actually terrifying. Think about those things that you won’t admit to anyone else, that you can hardly even admit to yourself, and now imagine that in the encounter with God, these things are so clear to God that it’s as if they are written on your face. Who would want to go before God under those conditions? It’s no wonder the Israelites couldn’t stand even a second-hand encounter with God. It’s no wonder the disciples didn’t talk about their experience with God until quite some time had passed. I’m surprised we even make it up the aisle for Communion and don’t hide under the pews in terror.

And yet, if we want to get past our failures and our limitations and our weaknesses, if we want to get past what we call our sins, we have to come before God. Because it is God alone who enables us to live in spite of our failures and limitations and weaknesses. God alone gave the Torah to the Israelites so they might have joy in living under God’s commandments. God alone granted the power of healing so that Jesus, God’s Son, could heal those who came to him. And it is God alone who transfigures us so that we are more than our failures and more than our sins. Only when we come before God, terrified that we have completely and totally mucked up this whole life that God has given us, only then does God pick us up and shine God’s glory on us, and fill us with such light that all the darkness of our lives is banished. God alone transfigures us so that our faces shine with God’s glory instead of our own dimness. God alone sees your wretchedness and claims you as God’s own beloved and, as the healing immediately following the transfiguration story tells us, casts out the demons that make your lives hell. 

So we live with this paradox - that we know we need to go before God - we know that coming face-to-face with God is what truly heals us - and yet we’re terrified to do it. So how is it that we manage to do this? How is it that we manage to make it up the aisle to Communion? That we manage to even begin to enter into the presence of God through Communion or even prayer? 
God makes us brave. As Paul says in our second reading, “Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness.” (And then Paul deliberately misinterprets Moses’ encounter on the mountain in Exodus, but we’ll let that go for today.) Paul points out that we are able to be bold because of the great hope, by which he means the justification that we receive through Jesus Christ. God makes us brave enough to come into God’s presence by first coming into our presence as Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us. The Incarnation––God taking on a human body––what we celebrate at Christmas, was undertaken for the purpose of the Crucifixion––God dying as a human body––what we celebrate at Easter, so that we would be made worthy enough to come into God’s presence and receive healing, be transfigured. Transfiguration Sunday falls almost precisely in the middle between Christmas and Easter. Transfiguration Sunday tells us that God arranges everything, does everything, for our sake. So that we can come into the presence of God to be transfigured and restored to wholeness.

And so we are made brave enough to withstand a face-to-face encounter with God. Maybe even brave enough to ask God all our questions. Definitely brave enough to come forward for Communion, into the presence of God, and brave enough to pray. Because we know that God has and continues to heal us, and that God has and continues to transfigure us, we welcome these times when God brings us into God’s presence, and we come both terrified and trusting, unprepared and made ready, proclaiming, as we always do, “Thanks be to God.” Amen.