Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Journey to Hope...Suffering

“God is No Stranger to Suffering”
Mark 14:43-64

How many of you have seen Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ? This movie changed the conversation about Jesus’ suffering. The point of his movie is this: Jesus suffered extensively for us. After seeing the movie, people would respond by being overwhelmed by the amount of suffering, awed by the sacrifice that Jesus made, with a faith deepened by how much Jesus suffered for them. I left the movie with two lingering questions: “Does anyone need to see that much violence?” and “Why wasn’t the resurrection scene more prominent?” But those questions were a bit off the mark. Gibson was intentional in his display of violence. He wanted people to know for sure the suffering of Jesus. For him, the point of Jesus’ death is how much he suffered.

The amount of Jesus’ suffering is not what is significant about Jesus’ passion. What is significant about Jesus’ suffering is how he faced that suffering.

This morning’s text begins in the garden of Gethsemane. Just prior to our text, Jesus is praying. It’s his prayer where we first see how he’s going to face the suffering. “For you all things are possible; remove this cup from me.” That’s a very human response. No one wants to suffer. Suffering in itself has nothing necessarily redemptive. Suffering brings pain and hurt, but there is nothing necessarily redemptive in the pain and hurt. In fact, it is Jesus who called folks hypocrites who made a show of their suffering for religious purposes. Jesus doesn’t desire the suffering that is coming his way. Like the rest of humanity would respond, Jesus begs God to make it so the suffering would go away.

And without even a breath, it seems, Jesus says, “Yet, not what I want, but what you want.” Here is the first way Jesus deals with suffering. While he does not want to face what lies ahead, he very much wants what God wants. Jesus understands that God has a bigger picture in mind, and that he is a vital part of that bigger picture. So, while his very human desire leads him to plead with God, it also leads him to trust in God’s ability to redeem any situation.

When we meet Jesus in the text today his passion has begun. Jesus suffers because of betrayal. The one he counted as friend and partner would turn on him. Whether its greed or passion for God that prompts him, Judas comes with a kiss and a crowd. It is not the swords and clubs of the crowd that brings the hurt. It is the kiss – the kiss of betrayal. This is how Jesus’ passion begins, with the betrayal of a close friend. For this he suffers greatly.

Jesus also suffers because of how they come after him. The authorities come at Jesus as if he is a violent criminal. The swords and clubs and crowd are big enough for siege. His is grabbed like a criminal, subdued in case he acts out. But this is never who Jesus was in his ministry, and they knew that. Jesus lived peaceably in his ministry. He said what was difficult and necessary, but he never resorted to any kind of aggression. He was never a part of the movements that sought a violent revolution for God, the Zealots. So for them to come at Jesus as if he was a violent criminal is beyond appropriate. He is a peaceable man, even in this time of suffering. When one of his own people wants to respond to evil with evil, grabbing a sword to meet the swords that came for Jesus, Jesus rebuke’s him. It is a peaceable solution that Jesus wants. It is the will of God that Jesus wants. And that does not involve matching evil for evil.

As humans in a broken world, we know suffering. We know suffering that comes unwarranted. We suffer from a disease and its effects, or a disaster comes into our lives. These are not the product of something we have done. Nor are they a part of God’s plan for our lives. These unwarranted sufferings come not do bring redemption to us, to somehow make us stronger or to test us. They come as pure suffering. And while redemption may come from them, they are not sent by God for redemption. Think Haitian earthquake. No one in Haiti deserved the suffering that came from the earthquake. They did nothing to provoke the earth to shake violently. That earthquake came unwarranted. And contrary to what some religious type folks will tell you, God did not bring on the earthquake for redemptive purposes, to somehow shake the unbelievers into belief. That earthquake is pure, unwarranted suffering.

We know suffering that comes provoked, too. Like when we take a stand for righteousness, we can incur another’s wrath and anger. And while we did not intend to provoke suffering, it comes none the less. Think Nelson Mandela. He stood up against legal segregation in his country. His stand for righteousness caused him suffering. He spent many years imprisoned, essentially for his stand.

Suffering is something that comes to us all.

How we meet that suffering is what can create redemption in the midst of pain.

In his suffering, Jesus shows us a way to meet our own suffering redemptively. Jesus met his suffering with prayer. He spent time with God. He sought not so much a way out of the suffering. He sought the strength of God in the midst of it. And he sought, more importantly, the will of God. In prayer God unfolded for Jesus God’s redeeming ways. Jesus met his suffering with courage. Not a passive acceptance of it, but a courage to face nobly the enemies who came after him. When they came with violence, he met them with goodness. He has this steady power that comes not from fighting back. His steadiness comes from his being deeply rooted in the goodness of God. Jesus’ courage is to bring good out of evil, rather than add to the suffering of the world.

It is a comfort to know that our God is no stranger to suffering. He paved the way to a redemptive response to suffering. He showed us how to meet it with courage. He demonstrated a desire to do the will of God in all things. He created good where only evil existed.

Our God, who is no stranger to suffering, journeys with us through our own suffering. When 9-11 happened, people asked “Where is God?” People wanted to know how folks could suffer so much if there really was a God. We worship a God who is no stranger to suffering. We worship a God who knows that suffering comes, even to those who have not provoked it. We worship a God who showed us how to redeem unprovoked suffering by our response to it. So that when people asked “Where is God?” we people who know the God who is no stranger to suffering could honestly answer, “Right there with you!” And then we prayed and acted out of a courage to do God’s will, to bring a goodness out of what was evil.

This Jesus who is no stranger to suffering has really just begun the suffering that will come. In this week ahead, this Passion Week, Jesus will suffer more than we can imagine. But the amount of Jesus’ suffering is not what is significant about Jesus’ passion. What is significant about Jesus’ suffering is how he faced that suffering with peace, with courage, with a desire for what God desires. Let us come into this passion, not to gawk at the suffering, but to experience the power to bring good out of evil. Amen.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Journey to Hope...Tempation

"Depleated and In Need of Refueling"

Do you think God has a sense of humor? I do! I’ve seen it too many times. I’ve seen it usually as a sense of humor that teaches me something I need to learn.

I walk by our church sign several times a week. There’s the sermon title, right there in front of me. I read it every time I walk up the ramp into the building. So many times I don’t think about it. Sometimes it reminds me of what I’m preaching about on the weekend. Sometimes it’s where God’s humor shows up.

I had an awesome work week. There were great team meetings full of energy and hope. I had several meaningful pastoral care moments this week. I felt the support by an awesome staff. But it was one of those really full weeks. In 2 days time I spent 30 hours in this building or doing this work. That’s how it happens sometimes, though not often. By the time I came in Thursday morning to work, I was wore out from not sleeping well, had a sore throat, and was feeling like I was catching a cold. And as I walked up the ramp to come into the building, the sermon sign that read “depleted and in need of refueling” made me laugh. See, God does have a sense of humor. God must have thought I needed a personal example this week from which to preach.

It seems I’m not the only one who knows what it’s like to need refueling. All week long people said to me: I can’t wait to hear that sermon!
Jesus, in his humanity, knew the need for refueling.

Mark’s gospel begins with Jesus’ need for refueling. He’s just been baptized, when the Spirit drove him into the wilderness. If Jesus was going to begin his public ministry, perhaps he should get away for a while to refuel himself for what was to come.

Jesus needs refueling after his initial public ministry. He’s been teaching and healing. He leaves the crowd behind. Jesus goes so far as to cross to the other side of the sea, into a foreign land. He and the disciples need a little time away.

And then again after the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus needs refueling. He sends the disciples to the “other side” again. This time he dismisses the crowd, helping them know he needs some time away. And Jesus himself goes up a mountain to pray. He sends the disciples for refueling, and he as a leaders does the same for himself.

Right before Jesus heads to Jerusalem comes another time out. Jesus takes his closest friends up the mountain for prayer. While they are up there, they have a time of spiritual renewal, an amazing experience of God. Jesus will carry with him this encounter with the living God into Jerusalem and his impending death.

On the night of his arrest, Jesus is keenly aware of his need for refueling. He is in tremendous emotional pain. The scriptures describe him as distressed, agitated, and deeply grieved. He realized how close he was to the agony that lay ahead. So he takes his closest friends to the garden with him to pray. This day his refueling has the familiar component of personal prayer and personal connection with God, and it has the important component of spiritual friends carrying him into the presence of God. How important it was that they “stay awake” to Jesus’ needs. How important it was that they are there for Jesus’ refueling.

Why is it so important to be refueled? What happens when we are spiritually, physically or emotionally wore out?

Well, I found out this week again what happens when I get physically wore out. The body becomes vulnerable. It’s so easy for me to get sick when I’m physically wore out. I don’t eat right or sleep enough, and my body just gets more vulnerable to illness. If I don’t take time to refuel, I will get sick. So, when I get to this point, I remember what works. I remember it’s my allergy season and take the allergy pills. I take my vitamins and my vitamin C. I drink lots of water and rest a lot. In other words, I refuel myself physically.

What happens when we are spiritually, physically or emotionally wore out? We are vulnerable to temptation. Temptation comes to everyone. It isn’t that good Christians don’t experience temptation. It comes to all of us, and it comes in many forms. We can be tempted by relationships that are outside of appropriate. We can be tempted by actions that are ungodly. We can be tempted by words that are meant to hurt. We can be tempted by the easy way out. We can be tempted to break rules that will make our lives easier. Temptation comes into everyone’s life.

When we are wore out, temptation has a stronger pull on our lives. We over eat or under eat to deal with our exhaustion. Extramarital affairs are a far easier decision when we have emotional pain in our marriages. Looking for a way to deal with our physical or emotional pain, the temptation to medicate is strong. Prescription drugs get overused. Alcohol or illegal drugs get abused. Whatever it takes to mask our pain or get through it. Shortcuts and lies in our work come to be justified in our minds. When we are depleted and in need of refueling, temptations can have a strong pull on our lives.

We can choose life-giving resources or quick remedies for our need to refuel. When I am tired, I could sleep. But all too often I choose chocolate and caffeine. Bring on the diet Mt. Dew and the candy bar. That should do the trick! Unfortunately, the tired after that is even more intense.
And that’s the thing about quick remedies to refuel. They often push the pain into the future. They mask the real need only for so long. And the quick fixes don’t fill us in a way that can stand up to temptation, so that we find ourselves equally as vulnerable to temptation as before.

Jesus’ refueling station was the life-giving resource of prayer. When he was wore out, he reconnected with God. When he had taught and healed and had nothing left to give, he went away by himself for reconnection with God. When he had something as difficult to do as give his very life up for us, he took spiritual friends with him to pray. He counted on his friends to carry him to God, while at the same time praying intimately and personally to God.

What refueling station will give you life? Time away in prayer? Connection with God through spiritual friends? Worship that carries you into God’s presence? A quiet devotional reading of scripture?

Temptation will come. It always does. Will you have filled up before temptation arrives at your door? Will you have gone to the refueling station that is God? Because that is the place of power that can help you resist the temptations that come your way. That is the place of hope. That is the place of lasting healing. Amen.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Journey to Hope ... Money

“Does Money Have You? Or Do You Have Money?”
Mark 11:15-19

This season of Lent we have been on a journey to hope. We’ve been looking for hope in the midst of suffering. The promise is that we will find that hope in Jesus, no matter what the suffering. We’ve looked for hope and found it with traveling companions, by knowing who we are in Christ, by turning Church into a verb as we serve others.

This week we are looking at the place in lives where most suffering comes from our relationship with money. You’ll notice I didn’t say money is where our suffering comes from. Money doesn’t create suffering, too much or too little of it. Our relationship with money can create suffering. I’ve talked many times about money in my five years at Homestead. I talked about how we can use our money in godly ways, about how to return a portion of what God has given us, and about how money isn’t the thing we need for joy in life. But today I just want to talk about how to have hope in the midst of the suffering we can create through our relationship with money.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus addresses that relationship a few different times. Let’s take a look.

First is the story of the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:17-22). Here is a man who wanted to know how to have eternal life. The question he was really asking is the same question we have: In what should I have hope? Jesus told him in what to put his hope when Jesus told him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. But the rich young ruler couldn’t do it. Scripture says “he had many possessions.” His wealth didn’t create a suffering for him. It was his relationship with money that was his problem. His possessions controlled him and controlled his response to God. Perhaps the scripture would have been more accurate if it had read “his many possessions had him.” We leave the Rich Young Ruler in the story unable to take the hope Jesus Christ laid before him.

In contrast to the Rich Young Ruler, we meet the Widow in the Temple (Mark 12:41-44). She had a completely different relationship with money. To start with, she had very little of it. But what she did have didn’t control her life. She was willing to give it all up in the temple. She so trusted in the God she worshipped, that she gave up all that she had for God that day. She found her hope not in money or things but in God. Jesus stood on the sidelines of the temple witnessing it all. As he did, he carefully pointed out to the disciples where this widow found her hope. She did not find her hope in having things, but in the freedom found in a life grounded in God.

And then there’s the question about taxes (Mark 12:13-17). That is a timely question, yes? Religious leaders are sent to Jesus to ask a question meant to trip him up. “Should we pay taxes?” was their question. The question comes from a broken relationship with money for the religious leaders. In the same way most of us are longing for Jesus to tell us something different than he does. We want Jesus to say to us: “No, you don’t have to pay taxes. Opt out of those silly taxes for religious reasons.” Think of the money we would have to do the things we want if we didn’t have to pay taxes! But what Jesus says is something altogether different. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus is encouraging us to a healthy relationship with money, a balanced and appropriate relationship. Not a relationship with money where we are trying to get away with things. Instead, a relationship with money where we pay our taxes, and live within our means, and have enough to give to God, too.

Then there’s today’s story of the Cleansing of the Temple. Like the other stories, Mark is trying to teach us about our relationship with money. So whether or not this incident actually happened as it is written is an irrelevant question. (That is a question scholars debate over. Some believe it would have been impossible for Jesus to create the described scene in the temple, citing things like the size of the temple – 12 football fields, the fact that the temple was the economic center for Jews from all over the world and money changing was expected, and that there were probably 400,000 Jews there for Passover. How could Jesus create such a scene as one person on such a large canvas like the temple at Passover?) Whatever you believe about whether or not this story actually happened, the writer of the Gospel wants us to know something about our relationship to money, something he felt Jesus was teaching all along. Jesus teaches that we can get so lost in our lives. We can get distracted by the way money controls us. We can be under the influence of what money provides and doesn’t provide. When money controls our lives, it’s difficult to find hope and it’s easy to turn something pure and holy, like the temple, into a place of greed. In righteous anger, Jesus turns the tables in the temple. Look at the scene: buying and selling animals for sacrifice in the temple, exchanging money to purchase other things. It was a flea market atmosphere right there in the temple. What are we to make of this? Jesus is angry for religious reasons, for the diluting of the sacredness of the temple, but also for the diluting of the sacredness of our relationship with money and things and possessions. Mark is emphasizing Jesus’ teaching that our relationship with money can get in the way of our relationship with God.

It occurs to me that much of our human suffering comes from the control we allow money to have over our lives. We set up a financial situation that controls us. The house payment is so much a month, and the car payment adds to that, and we have to eat, put gas in the car, and pay for braces. Then there are the medications, the dentist, and the insurance payments. Anyone of those things on their own is not a big deal. But add them all together and we have a budget, a particular amount of money we need to make, a level of expenses that need to be funded. And giving money that kind of control in our lives does not bring hope. It leads to feelings of being trapped. It leads to a sense of being controlled by something. It leads to decisions we would not otherwise make.

I know this personally. My friends and I always joke about getting our “No thank you, bishop” money together. “No thank you, bishop” money is the amount of money that we would need to have tucked away so that when the bishop got ready to appoint us to a particular place we did not feel we could go, we could, with financial security, say “No thank you, bishop.” But here’s the thing about that reality. Each year that passes, the amount needed grows. Each financial commitment made makes it more difficult to say “No thank you, bishop.” And before you know it, you find myself backed into a corner. We feel trapped into not making decisions we don’t want to make. All to keep financial security. And in that, you hear the control money has over us. (By the way, I have yet to want to say “No thank you, bishop.”)

Listen to how a high school friend of mine who exchanged messages on facebook with me, described the control money has over us:
It’s sad how it seems like money actually does buy happiness but that’s only on the outside. I wasn’t truly happy until I asked Jesus to come into my life. When people have to show off their big house or nice car etc...whether they can afford it or not… just shows an emptiness they have in some part of their life.
Each financial decision we make is a decision to have money have more or less control over us. Sometimes we make those financial decisions from a place of full awareness. We got cable back a few weeks ago. In full awareness, we made a decision about our money and how we would spend it. For good or not, that’s the decision we made, in full awareness of what financial obligations we were making.

Sometimes we make those financial decisions because we are backed into a corner. For instance, take last summer when our car stopped working, our good car we hoped to get a few more years from. We were four hours from home, and we were backed into corner to make a decision, especially since our little car only has 3 working seatbelts and there are four of us. We were backed into a corner.

Sometimes we make those financial decisions from a place of greed, and that’s what has Jesus mad this day in the temple. Here he is, on his way to the sacrifice of his very life. For him, things are in laser clear focus. And then he comes to what should be a holy place, the temple, and all he sees around him is greed and corruption. He sees people being controlled by money and things. It must have both saddened him and made him angry. Out of those emotions, out of his love for us, out of his desire to give us hope, he sends those money changers out of the temple. He sends those selling animals for sacrifice out of the temple. He cleanses the temple so that his sacrifice might carry the hope that the people need.

Jesus wants us to know that hope in the midst of suffering doesn’t come from possessions or money or things or financial security. Hope comes from refusing to let money control of our lives. Hope comes from living into Jesus’ priorities. Hope comes not from having a lot but living with what we have. Hope comes not from getting what we want, but giving what others need. It is possible, in the midst of a life like that of the widow, to have hope, not because we have a lot of money or things, but simple because we have Jesus, and Jesus has us!

So, does money have you? Or do you have money?

And who or what has your soul?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Journey to Hope...Work

What if Church was a Verb?

Mark 10:35-44

Sometimes we play church.

Don’t get me wrong. Community worship is so important. It is the time when disciples are nourished. It’s the experience where God draws us together as a community, fills us up, and sends us out to do the work of the disciples. Community worship is vital.

But sometimes we play church. We act as if what we do on Sunday is all there is to discipleship. We come here , get our fix, and do very little else as disciples onthe other days of theweek. We work at the church and think that is our act of disciples. We go to team meetings, choir rehearsals, and prepare meals.

But we are still playing church.

When I say we, I mean myself as much as I mean all of us. I gravitate toward the things that are easier for me in ministry, the things for which I feel particularly gifted by God. I could be about planning worship all day long, I just love it! I can prepare meeting agendas, manage staffing and develop processes to accomlish goals for the church.

But I spend far too little time on being church. I spend too little time in the community with folks outside of the church community. I spend too little effort toward meeting the needs of others outside of our faith community. I do too little reaching out and serving others outside of the church community.

Sometimes we play church.

That’s what the disciples are doing in our scripture lesson today. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, talking about his sacrifice to come. He's explaining the work he’ll do for the sake of others. But the disciples aren’t focused on Jesus' sacrifice and self-giving. While Jesus has been talking sacrifice, they’ve been talking position and power and authority. “Give us a place of honor,” they ask Jesus. "Promise that we’ll sit at your right and at your left.” In other words, let the whole world know how important we are to your ministry, Jesus.

This isn’t the first time they’ve done it. After being on the mountain with Jesus, in that wonderful, spiritual experience, and as they were all coming down the mountain toward Jerusalem, toward Jesus’ sacrifice, the disciples argued about who was the greatest among them.

Both times Jesus gives them the same words of correction: whoever wants to be first should take the last place. The greatest are those who serve others.

I hear Jesus saying to the disciples and to us, “Quit playing church! Be Church!” Turn church into a verb, an action, a life lived for Jesus, a life of being the least so that others can be the most, a life of serving others.

What if Church was a verb? What would it look like?

I’ve been focused on that in these last two months as we have narrowed in on the neighborhood to which we feel God is calling us to relocate. I have been thinking about reaching into northwest Rochester. What are the needs of families? Where are people hurting? What hope do people need? How can we serve the families of northwest Rochester?

If we started being church more intentionally than playing church, it might look like…

  • An after school homework help and childcare for the dual income families who are trying to fill that time between when their children get out of school and they get home from work with valuable experiences for their children.
  • Budgeting classes to help families whose income to debt ratio is high
  • Our older adults adopting grandchildren from the neighborhood who don’t have grandparents near by.
  • A safe playground for neighborhood kids and their families to enjoy outdoor play time together.
  • Food distribution / food shelf ministries specifically for folks in need in NW Rochester who likely have difficulty getting transportation to the local foodshelf or can't get their at the time it is open. Maybe we can be a satellite location for a food distribution.
  • Transportation help for folks with medical appointments
  • Child care for sick children whose parents run the risk of loosing their jobs if they can't find child care when they need it. Or child care on nights and weekends for shift working families.
  • Welcoming a neighborhood pickup game at a couple basketball hoops on our property where the players know they are welcomed and safe and loved.

The list could go on and on and on.

God invites us to not clamor for the top, but intentionally take the place of last and servant, to be a people who are Church by being unbound and outbound, as the video said: unbound of playing church and outbound in being church. To make church not something we play… but a verb, an action of the people within the community of faith. When we are being church we are changing people’s perception that church is a building that holds people interested in their own survival, by being a people who are interested in the survival of others.

Let’s stop playing church and start being church! Let’s make church not a place or a gathering of people. Let’s make church a people in action.

What if church was a verb…?