Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Journey to Hope...Traveling Companions

Choosing Your Traveling Companions

Mark 10:13-16; Ruth 1:14b-19 ; Matthew 18:6-7

I met an inspiring woman when we lived in Colorado. I got to know her as she helped teach in the children’s education program I oversaw at a neighborhood church. She was former catholic nun who met a man, married him, and grew a family together. Even though she was now a wife and a mother, her contemplative life was still important to her. Nothing stood between her and her relationship with Jesus Christ. She created in her home a special room for prayer and devotion with a nice chair, a lamp, and a side table with her favorite devotional books and Bibles. She taught her children to know that when she went into her special room, they were not to interrupt her. Only if the house was on fire were they to interrupt her. She taught her children to give her a full hour with Jesus. She knew she was a better Mom to the children when she grew her relationship with Jesus.

The things that can get in the way of our relationship with Jesus aren’t always negative things. Time with our children and spouse is beautiful and necessary. If we don’t do our job, we may not keep it. Entertainment and hobbies bring joy to our lives. But none of these need to block our relationship with Jesus.

That’s what the disciples were doing to the children that day. People were bringing their children to Jesus And why not? This Jesus was doing amazing things for people’s lives. And why wouldn’t people want that for their children? So they brought them to experience the love and power of Jesus. For some reason, though, the disciples stand in the way. I can almost see them standing there, arms crossed, blocking the way. I love The Message translation which says, “The disciples shooed them off.” They tried to send these children on their way. They stand as a gatekeeper between the children and Jesus, as if there are only some who are worthy to receive Jesus. And children certainly aren’t a part of that group of worthy ones, according to the disciples. Jesus gets mad! He’s irate that someone would stand between him and these children. And so the disciples hear about it.

In Matthew’s gospel, this section with the children is followed by a warning. Don’t be a stumbling block to other’s spiritual lives. Don’t get between someone and their relationship with Jesus. And when Jesus makes these warnings he warns those who would be stumbling blocks to others. It’s not going to go well for you. It would be better for you if you weren’t around. The language is strong: It would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Really, Jesus, how do you feel about this? Clearly being a stumbling-block is among the worst things we can do in another’s life. There are plenty of things that get in the way for people anyway. We should not be among the list.

One of the more tragic stumbling-blocks I see in my ministry is with children. When children are given access to the stories of God in the scriptures, they hear them with joy and wonder and imagination. They hear the wonder of Jonah swallowed by a whale. They hear the glorious promise of the rainbow after the flood. They hear of the saving work of God for Daniel in the lion’s den. They hear the beauty of the way Jesus gathered children up on his lap in welcoming love. They hear of the way Jesus invited the short tax man, Zaccheaus, to be his host. When they hear these stories, children receive them with wonder and joy and imagination. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is parents who rob their children of that wonder and joy and imagination by not bringing them to church until confirmation. This is the age of questioning and a search for facts and for what is real and tangible and believable. That’s a beautiful stage of life, too. But when we don’t bring our children until then, we rob them of wonder and joy and imagination as they encounter the stories of God with God’s people.

People and things in our lives can stand between folks and their relationship with Jesus.

Who or what gets in your way of your relationship with Jesus?
Busyness…always having something on your to-do list that you let be more important
Work…expectations of you in your career leave you little time to develop your relationship with Jesus
Relatives or friends…who have a negative view of faith and argue and fuss about your church-going
Priorities…setting so many things as more important than prayer, study, worship, etc.
Church work…we can be so busy doing things at church that it can act as a replacement with a deep relationship with Jesus
Addictions…living our lives for things that are destroying us, like alcohol, drugs, sex, overeating, and under-eating
Self-importance…believing in the uniquely American idea that the individual is of most importance, and that our individual desires trump everything else in life

This week I was reminded through a message on Facebook of three people who opened the way to Jesus for me …David, Rosanne and Tim. These were the sponsors of the youth ministry program. They spent every Sunday night with me and the other youth. They made the love of God tangible. They encouraged my relationship with Jesus Christ. They called me to be accountable in that relationship. They were just the opposite of a stumbling-block. They were what we are called to be for one another … spiritual traveling companions.

And that’s exactly what Naomi and Ruth are for one another. Naomi and her daughter-in-laws, Ruth and Orpah, have all become widows. Naomi has decided to head back home to where she is from, Bethlehem, and encourages her daughter-in-laws to stay in their home country. Orpah agrees to that, but Ruth will not have it. She will go wherever Naomi goes, she feels such a strong connection to her. “Where you go, I will you’re your God will be my God,” Ruth says to Naomi. Ruth and Naomi both need spiritual companions. They need people to encourage them in their walk with God. Naomi treats Ruth with such grace and respect that Ruth is willing to walk alongside Naomi as she recovers her home place and faith. Together they journey to support and encourage one another in the faith and in life. They are traveling companions on the journey of hope.

In our lives, whether we experience suffering or not, we need traveling companions who encourage our relationship with Jesus. Traveling companions help make the love of God tangible. Traveling companions encourage our relationship with Jesus Christ. Traveling companions call us to be accountable in that relationship. Traveling companions point us further down on our path toward the hope of Jesus. Traveling companions are God’s design for our lives.

Who are your traveling companions on this journey to hope?
And whose traveling companion are you?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Desperate Households: Broken Promises

“When the Covenant Ends”
Matthew 19:3-10

Sometimes scripture is very difficult. Today, that is the case. And the reasons why we find this scripture so difficult is that our corporate experience in these generations has seen many marriages end in divorce; something between 40% - 50% of first marriages. That’s one of every 2 marriages. In case you think we are immune because we are people of faith; it might interest you to know that, statistically, being a person of faith has very little to do with the divorce rate. We know that anecdotally by our experience even in this faith community. So that when we hear Jesus’ words in scripture today about marriage and divorce, they are difficult for us.

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, knew that reading scripture without a context was an impossible task. We can’t just read a text without bringing something to it. We always bring ourselves, and our own personal history, among other things, to the reading of any scripture. So those of you who have experienced divorce personally or in your family heard this scripture differently than others do today, and that is just how it is. We bring ourselves to the text, even the texts that aren’t as difficult for us.

In our theological reflections, scripture is always primary. We go to the scripture, as the foundation of our faith, to discover what God has to say about things of life. For instance, as we are talking today about divorce, it is appropriate, it is essential, that we search the scriptures for what they have to say about the topic. But Wesley warned that our attempts to grasp the meaning of scripture always involve tradition, experience, and reason. Like the scriptures, tradition, experience and reason can become the vehicles of the Holy Spirit to our understanding.

The traditions of the church shine light on the scriptures. They tell us how the scriptures have been interpreted over the history of the faith community. Personal and corporate experience gives life to the words on the page. Our experiences of God help us to better interpret scripture, giving life to what we read from generations ago. God gave us reason to confirm what we read and understand and experience. We check to make sure that our understandings of scripture make sense through our God-given gift of reason.

Wesley understood scripture as primary, like the top of this table. We don’t have much of a functional table without the top. Scripture is the primary source of God’s revelation in the world. Because the Holy Spirit is still at work, these are not just words on a page, but the living message of God for us.

But as Wesley understood it, scripture is not understood by itself, but in a context illumined by tradition, given life in experience and confirmed by reason. They are the legs of the table that hold up our interpretation and understanding of scripture. I brought this image today because it helps me see what Wesley talked about. The table is not strong with one or two legs, but all three. Scripture is not made less by tradition, experience and reason, but strengthened. They are the means through which God helps us understand the scriptures for our times.

Ok, so why all of that for today?

I find the words of Jesus in this text difficult. And not because I am looking for a reason to justify a pending divorce. (Michael and I are good right now.) I find them difficult because of my pastoral experience with people who are walking through relationships that are ending.
Late one night I received a phone call. There was a man on the other end; a strong man who I knew was having a difficult time in his marriage. His wife was struggling with alcohol abuse and not trying to work at their marriage at all. He knew the relationship was over, something I had heard him struggle with many times before. He wanted to do anything in his power to rescue the relationship. But by the time this late night phone call came, she was living in a different state. She had not made the agreed upon move with her husband. She was drawing a line in the sand, moving on from their marriage. It was clear for this man that his marriage was over. But what he struggled with was divine guilt. “God says that I can’t get a divorce,” were his words. He was gut-wrenched over the idea that he might have to do something that he thought God would think was unforgiveable.

What could I say to him? He knew the scriptures well enough. “Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” It was this very thing that had him tied up in knots. His experience didn’t match up with what he read in scripture or with the tradition of the church. When he allowed himself to use reason in this situation, he knew the relationship was over. What could I say to him?

What I said to him that night, and to others in some fairly similar circumstances, is that the covenant was already over. Like it or not, the covenant, the sacred promise of marriage, which he wanted to keep intact, was already broken. Sometimes that happens. Covenants can be broken by one party, and the other party can do nothing to restore it. Sometimes it is not very godly to try to restore the covenant. If there is abuse, it is not very godly to go on in that marriage covenant. If there is ongoing mistrust, it is not very godly to go on in that marriage covenant. As one of my clergy friends said to me, “I knew God wanted life for me, and there wasn’t any life left in my marriage.” Sometimes the covenant ends.

Jesus is right, of course. Sometimes we let go of our marriages because we are too hard-hearted. We don’t want to do the hard work of restoring a relationship that has gone through difficulties. Certainly some of the 50% of marriages that are ending in divorce are ending because someone is unwilling to do the hard work of breathing life back into a relationship. I wonder what Jesus would say about the way marriage is sometimes entered into somewhat casually in our generation? And I wonder what Jesus would say to those who are so easily divorcing when things get tough? Probably the same things he said to those trying to test him that day.

But I wonder what he would say to my late-night calling friend? Or to the woman in an abusive relationship? Or to the man whose wife continues to be consistently unfaithful? My experience tells me there is a grace of God for these times that is not in the words of these few verses of scripture. When I search the rest of the Bible, consult the tradition of the church, consider personal and corporate experience, and use my ability to reason, I know a God of grace who always sides with the vulnerable and hurting. So that a scripture that on the surface seems so plain, is really quite complex. And a God who on the pages of one short scripture seems to draw such a firm line, really is a God of love and grace and second chances. These theological tasks, these times of trying to figure out what God is saying to us in this generation, are less plain than they seem. They are certainly more complicated that a literal interpretation of the words on the page.

I pray we can know God’s grace in all our relationships. I pray that those who are experiencing the end of a covenant may know the grace of God that sustains and upholds them through it all. Because I think the disciples are wrong. I think it is very much worth it to enter the covenant of marriage and give life-long love a noble effort. But that’s a topic for next week. Amen.