Sunday, January 15, 2017

Epiphany's question

Ethiopian Magi, from a photo online by Patrick Comerford

Epiphany has come to be known as the celebration of the three kings’ encounter with Jesus, only in this text there are only two kings, and neither of them are the Magi. 

Our passage begins “in the time of King Herod”, and I translate, “In the time of a notorious authoritarian demagogue, enormously wealthy and notably insecure, a ruler obsessed with his reputation, who both taxed the people extensively and offered extensive job creation on vast construction projects throughout the kingdom designed to build up his name. Herod was a sovereign answerable to a foreign government, who spent lavish sums of money building up his own private empire and secure fortresses, whose rule was characterized by security measures aimed at suppressing the people’s contempt for him and keeping them from speaking out, and whom history remembers for both for his successes and his tyrannical despotism, in that  time…”
In the time of that “king”’s rule, comes another king.

A baby, born amidst a bit of scandal and a shotgun wedding to a carpenter and his young bride in Bethlehem of Judea, which, to translate again, means either born in a tiny, nowhere town on the outskirts and in the shadow of powerful Jerusalem, or means to be born in a place of deep significance – the city of David, where David was born, and later anointed by Samuel, and then later crowned King of Israel. The place where the matriarch Rachel, Jacob’s wife, was buried many generations before, (her tomb is at the entrance to town). The place where Ruth and Naomi returned and lived. To the seat of power Bethlehem of Judea was an unassuming little town.  To the people of Israel, it was a city of identity and symbolism, a city of prophets, and kings, and divine direction “from of old.” 

We’re not even one whole line into this story and it’s already dangerous and provocative!

So what we’ve read so far could be stated, in other words, “In the time of a flashy, demagogue king of commercial success and paranoid dominance known throughout the region as “the king of the Jews”, after the King of the Cosmos was born, when the Messiah was a toddler hiding in plain sight in the modest, secret place of divine promise and deep and ancient authority…”
In THIS time
some magi came from the East to the center of Herod’s power asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him…

Now, while there actually are some wise men in this story. Scholars, sages, scribes – they are not the magi, they are Herod’s advisors. The ones who are gathered to tell the one in power what he wants to hear. These chief priests and the rulers of the people confirm what the prophets foretold – that the messiah would come from Bethlehem. 
But the ones who followed a star from a distant land, the strangers, foreigners who didn’t belong in the picture, they were magicians, astrologers, mystics with a vastly different worldview and understanding of the universe than anyone else here.

And they were the ones who really knew what was going on. They came in obedience, following a celestial sign, and when they arrived they were overwhelmed with joy, and they humbled themselves before a child and a woman. And then, not one bit deferential to the whims and commands of the so-called rulers of this age, they defied orders and went home by another way. Their direction came from the Creator of the universe, who guided them with stars and dreams, and revealed himself to them in the vulnerability of a child whose life was under threat from those whom the world saw as powerful.

I love this story so much for so many reasons. I love imagining the Magi showing up, and what it does to the neighborhood. Their otherness: Other clothes, other language, other skin, and hair, and smells, and mannerisms, and customs. The little town is invaded by otherness, in the form of these people who recognized, and came to celebrate, that this whole world has been invaded by otherness: “The word became flesh and made his home among us.” God has come in! Their arrival declares, and now resides, incognito, next door.

And I love imagining Mary and Joseph’s tiny circle of co-conspirators and witnesses, those on the inside who get what is going on – which so far, if we’re counting, has only been the two of them, Zechariah and Elizabeth, a bunch of random shepherds – whom I like to imagine them staying in touch with – and old Simeon and Anna from the temple.  Can you imagine that crazy hodgepodge getting together for a support group?  You have all been part of this amazing thing, this story that is changing the world has changed you, and nobody else will get it, but as different as you all may be, you have each other, you all are in it together.

But then suddenly this tiny circle is blown wide open by these people from the other side of the world, who have nothing in common with any of you – they haven’t shared the same messiah hopes, or the same ways of being captive or oppressed. They haven’t learned the stories or believed the prophets; they haven’t longed for the salvation of Israel, and they know nothing of David, or Moses, or Abraham and Sarah, any of those whose lives had gone before, through whom God has shaped the way.
Here come the astrologers. The ones who aren’t even looking like you do to your God and faith of your people- instead they are looking beyond this planet altogether for direction. They are watching the stars and measuring the universe for order and revelation, and their story of longing for hope and deliverance couldn’t be more different than yours.  But also, at its essence, it is absolutely the same.  We all long for our source, the source of all life.  And when love comes in, they will load up their camels and cross deserts and mountains to welcome it, to kneel down before the one who brings in the real, who brings salvation. And in wonder you discover that you are in it together far beyond how you ever fathomed together could mean.

Two stories are playing out at the same time.
One is the story of a so-called king, locked away in his fortress, raging in fear, perceiving threats to his power and authority, using manipulation and flattery to coerce strangers- as though they are under his jurisdiction – to do his bidding, so that he can stamp out a potential usurper by any means necessary.
The other one unfolds in a simple home on a simple street, with an ordinary family opening the door to astonishing strangers from afar, who unexpectedly kneel before a mother with a child on her lap, and then give strange gifts and tell strange stories in a strange language, with charades and hand gestures, of a long journey led by a mysterious star, the very heavens pointing them to this precise place.

Oh, Herod. This story is so much bigger than you. It’s so much longer, deeper, stronger and more significant.  God is doing this thing.  God has come, God is here – and this thing is moving toward its eternal and everlasting conclusion.
No matter how it looks on the surface at any given moment, the heartbeat underneath is love, and the project of a whole world indivisibly connected to God and each other, of all nature in harmony, and all people in family, with God as the true sovereign, who rules in disconcerting vulnerability and incontestable strength – like it or not, that is happening. 
And it can never be thwarted. Not by ego-maniacal leaders, not by the wisdom of the sages, not by coercion or might, or brutal violence or tragic suffering, not by anything human beings can forget or demand, or screw up or succeed at.  Nothing we can do, or not do, can stop what God is already doing. It is unstoppable.
And yes, we do a whole lot to muck it up –accidentally or on purpose.  We can act like we are divided, we can kill, and blame, and shut down, and overlook each other. We can contaminate the earth and wipe out whole species; we can ravage our own hearts and minds and go numb or afraid – and fear can make us do terrible, heartless things. But no matter what, God is doing this.
It can happen through us or it can happen in spite of us, but God’s project of redemption and wholeness is under way, and it will not stop until all that remains is love.

Today’s scripture is a story about some, one especially, who missed it. Who lived in the way of fear, obsessed with his own security and power – and ultimately lost it anyway because death is real, triumph is short-lived, and permanent success is an illusion. 
And it’s a story about some who got it. They set down everything and went on a long journey to lay themselves down at the feet of it, to welcome in the divine with ecstatic joy.  They let it shape them, each moment, taking it in, noticing, listening, sharing, and then getting up and going home by another way because ultimately security comes not from what we build up for ourselves or tear down in others, but from trusting our lives to the Great I Am, who directs the whole universe in true wisdom. 

And even when this King, who starts out his time here submitting completely into the arms and care of those made in his image, grows up to be killed by these he has come in to love and save, even that does not stop the project, it only cements it deeper and opens it wider.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. Not ever.

We have a choice. We can look at what is right in front of us at any given moment, and we can live in fear. We can believe that the powers that rattle their sabers are the real powers, and that the terrible damage they can do – and they can do terrible damage – can break us, or make the world go off course.
But we are the others, brought into this story not through the genealogy and messianic longings of our people, but through the strangers who followed the stars. We are people called to lift our eyes to a further horizon.

The whole world is in on this conspiracy.  Every blade of grass, and creeping insect; every daily sunrise and blazing planet, light years away.  We are people of this infinite vista, this vast, cosmic perspective, not bound to look only to the situations in front of us like Herods, captive in fear to events and circumstances by which we stand or fall, driven to go after our enemies or hide in fortresses of false security.
We belong to another narrative; we are subjects of another king: the Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, eternal and omnipotent. 
And this King has come; and now there is nothing, not anything, that can separate us from the love of God.  God’s redemption is under way already and forever. 

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 
For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 
Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. 
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice.

In the tides of history, there is, as Ecclesiastes says, nothing new under the sun.  Nations rise and fall. Great leaders come and go, fools rise up and disappear, fear dominates and wars rage, babies are born and gardens are tended and beloveds die and are buried, their graves are covered with new fallen snow, and the sun melts the snow and spring comes again, and love, love, love, happens, in between, in all the nooks and crannies, weaving us together and weaving us into the story that cannot be derailed.  God’s story.  There is never anything so bad that it can alter the origin or the outcome – it all comes from God and to God it all returns.
And in the in between time, God comes to share it. 
And I, for one, want to share it too. I want to be in it together with all the otherness and beauty that is in it with me.
And I want to know that I am in it while it’s happening, not just when it’s all over, looking back to see that I mostly missed it.
I for one want to be guided by the deeper, eternal force of love, instead of the shallow whims of panic, the rise and fall of drama and dread, addicted to the non-stop fluctuations of worry, frenzy and regret.

This is God’s world. We are just living in it.
And whenever I feel rage, despair, or frustration at how things seem to be going, I want to remember that I have a choice.
I could stop. At any moment.
And I could quiet myself.
And notice, and let myself plug back into the real – where nothing can stop love and forgiveness, nothing can hinder hope and healing – not the most terrible thing I can imagine can stop God from acting. 
And I could remember that God wants to act through me.
And that I want God to act through me.

THAT’S the story I want to be in.
The one where I kneel before the hidden, humble king, a baby savior, who saves us from all the darkness within and without. The One who brings together strangers to surrender in joy to the love and hope embodied in their midst.

I want to be in the story where I hang onto ancient and cosmic promise
and don’t cower at bullies or venerate false power,
where I pay attention to dreams,
and find solidarity with people I think of as other,
and bear gifts for the unsuspecting,
and gladly lay down my life, a gift of gratitude to the God who comes in,
and am made willing to be redirected and sent home another way.

Fear and love. 
Power and weakness.
Rulers and strangers.
In those days, in these days.
Two stories unfold; two stories are always unfolding.
One, as dominant as it sometimes seems, and as compelling as it often appears, will end. It is mostly illusion, anyway.

The other story is the story of God.
Eternal and unstoppable.

Which story will you live?


Sunday, December 25, 2016

Dear Congregation...

(Pastor's Annual Report for Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church)

Sunlight streaming in the glass wall between us and the lake, we were sitting in the library of St. John’s Abbey, pondering, What describes our life together right now? We had all just shared what characterized our own personal lives, the themes we were seeing unfold this year for each of us, and now our attention had turned to LNPC.
What is God doing in and through us in this chapter? 
How is God leading us to respond? we wondered.

Every year the leadership team of LNPC goes on a retreat to discern and plan for the next year.  This year the stories that came out were about new babies and new visitors, about Marty’s illness and our longing to care for him well, about some of our older members moving out of their homes.  We began to envision ourselves as a circle, like a donut, the community forming a loving and protective ring, with our most vulnerable members in the middle as our center, our guides in ministry.  And some of those who used to be in the center, we noted, like our younger members, were now moving to the outside. They were able to help care for others and take on expanding roles and leadership, while some who had been strong for others now shifted into the center where they could be held by the rest of us with attention and compassion.  This flowing shape of movement, change, strength, vulnerability, care and hope was a vision we all shared, and what we felt described who we were called to be this year as a congregation.

I love looking back on that day, and seeing that indeed, we’ve lived into that calling this year.  Caring for one another in our vulnerability, belonging to one another and to God – being the people who define ourselves that way and practicing it with each other- has been the focus of our life this year, the shape of our hospitality.

So, now to the question I asked each of you to answer...

How have I experienced God this year?

I personally experienced God profoundly in the care of the congregation when I was laid up for two weeks after foot surgery: prayers, cards, visits, food…  It’s excruciating for me to feel helpless; I am much more comfortable giving than receiving. This was a beautiful learning and growing experience for me, and a chance to glimpse church from another angle. Thank you.

When we gathered around Marty on Palm Sunday and laid our hands on him (a ring of children touching Marty and the rest of us surrounding them), and commissioned him to a Ministry of Dying, I felt God’s presence.  I continue to experience God in Marty’s ongoing courage to share honestly with us his journey of dying, and his willingness to allow us to be in it alongside him as it unfolds.  He is teaching us how to live even as he is facing death.  I am so grateful for Marty, his strong and gentle spirit, and his desire to live fully and wholly.
Marty on election day,
showing off his collection of
campaign pins from the past

I experienced God in Lee Widga’s funeral – which felt in some ways like the end of an era, a generation that has shaped this congregation with love and tenderness, handing it on to those who are to come.  The patterned dishes his beloved Agnes helped pick out decades ago and the silver tea set were used to host his funeral, the way Agnes had hosted for so many others, for so many years.  God’s faithfulness glimpsed through the light of Lee’s life.  It was a holy day.

I experienced God in the vibrant life and wiggly newness of this year – Helen's and Robby’s baptisms, Baby Louisa’s birth, Jonathan, Brittney and Laurel Anne’s joining, the cohort of tinies and their parents that have made us their community of worship: Helen, Ava, Laurel, Ben, Robby, Svea, Louisa: This is your church, little ones, and we are so blessed to be your people of hope and faith!

I experienced God in our Saturday services, worship designed to give space and rest for prayer and connecting with God.  As a pastor, I am trained to help shape people’s beliefs and thinking about God, (and I do love preaching)! But in these services, it’s my job to hold the space and get out of the way, letting God encounter each person however they need to be met.  That takes courage, and trust that the Holy Spirit is the one who mediates our encounter with God (not the pastor!), which I believe, but it makes me practice and renew that belief on a regular basis.  Every time, I am humbled and grateful, and reminded that when we stop, God will meet us. This is true.

I experienced God this year in the “milestones” times in Sunday worship, sharing the ordinary, notable moments of our lives with each other, and in the prayers, being able to hold each other’s grief and joy, and lift up our prayer for the world in a way that feels shared and powerful.  We are not alone.  And again, God is right here.

I experienced God in Sunday school with our kids, who, in case you didn’t know, are paying attention to life and God and questions.  And I get to sit in that with them, and we wonder together, and explore together, and think about how we are going to teach you grown ups the things we are wondering about and exploring each week.  That is a gift.

            I experienced God in the way the community has supported and empowered me to share our life and learnings with others.  I led a marriage seminar with Andy in Michigan in February, led worship for a Pastor Sabbath event in Kansas City in April, and was the keynote speaker for another Sabbath event in October.  In November I served as a Spiritual Director at an annual youth ministry conference, doing one-on-one what I see my role in ministry as with our whole congregation, that is, noticing together what God is up to in our lives and in the world, and seeking to join in.  Every year when I do this, I feel regrounded in my calling and strengthened for my work with you.  I also led a Sabbath workshop there that was attended by forty-some tired pastors and youth leaders, who left feeling hopeful and inspired by the stories of our life together.  I wish so much that you all could see the ways God is using you in the larger church to bring a message of restoration to so many other congregations and individuals.  Our life together is more unique than you may realize, and people are hungry for experiences of rest, belonging, and trusting in the Way of God instead of the Way of Fear. 

Our story was shared by the Duke Journal of Leadership, Word and World Journal, and Horizon’s Magazine, including visits from a reporter and photographer for a few weeks.  I coached two other pastors through beginning their own Sabbath pattern in their congregations, and gave ongoing advice and direction to a pastor and D.Min. student designing a Sabbath retreat component to congregational ministry with parents and children in his large congregation.  Session recognized these things as an extension of LNPC’s ministry and my own calling, and shifted my job description in October to begin formally including 10 hours a week on “special projects,” with the front and center goal for now being to write a book.  I want to tell you I have begun this, and it is really hard, and I am really grateful for the encouragement and accountability the elders are giving me.

 I experienced God in the many ways other people and communities intersected with us this year.  We joined with six other South Minneapolis congregations to host a racism workshop by Penumbra Theatre company, (a follow-up to our series in Lent on racism), and hosted a half-day grief workshop for the community with Beth Slevcove, author of Broken Hallelujahs.  Iris Logan’s mosaic
Westminster's Day Camp!
pieces and Anne Tiller’s quilts provided the backdrop for so much joy and life within the walls we share.  Westminster’s children flooded our space with songs, games, and stories for their weeklong summer camp (And even though Westminster’s building construction will be finished then, they want to come back next year!).  The young people from St. Joe’s came over for Movie Camp for the 6th delightful year, finding themselves and their world within the parables of Jesus.  Did you know a whole class of spiritual directors from Sacred Ground were trained in our space this year?  And that classes for women coming out of prostitution were held here too? Did you know that La Leche League has been gathering in our building for years and years, and every Tuesday I get to see new little babies come through our doors?  Did you know that a spiritual director meets with clients upstairs, actors practice in the basement, Girl Scouts gather here, and there are so many other people we never see, who think of our space as their own place of sanctuary, learning, support and hospitality?  Speaking of this, I am so thankful for Central Fellowship and for Iglesia Fuego Pentecostes, for whom we get to provide space to gather as church, and with whom we share trust in God’s love and a calling to love others with unrelenting faithfulness.  Gorgeous.

Of course, one amazing way I experienced God this year was through Lisa’s own journey of discernment and eventually ordination to Minister of Word and Sacrament, where another one of our crazy “what if…?”s became a reality.  Not daunted in the least by a financial barrier, session moved forward in trust with what they knew God to be calling us to, and the money followed.  And we got to hold this enormous party, welcoming friends from around the country to celebrate with us what we experienced all along but now made official: Lisa is a pastor to this community.  I say it every year, but I am grateful beyond words for her collaboration, creativity, and depth of care for this community. 

When Dee had to move to assisted living, the community rallied, visited, brought housewarming gifts and treats.  Dick hung pictures and Sue drove over some furniture.  Lisa supported Dee’s niece, Kathy, as she did the hard work of getting Dee to accept a new home, and even though it wasn’t easy, it was a good thing. 
Visits with those who can’t come to worship have been lovely.  Remember when we tried to sneak a visit in on Lee, but he was such an avid internet guy at 95 that he’d read the announcements and knew ahead of time that we were coming, and told us when we got there that we were an hour early?  And not just visiting, but all those who drive with others, picking folks up for worship and special events! I experience God in all the ways this community is in it together – meals, prayers, cards, calls, chomping at the bit for a turn to pay for housekeeping for Marty – you all love each other so well and it is beautiful to behold.

I experienced God in our garden blessing for St. Joseph’s Home for Children at the end of May and our neighborhood prayer walk service in July, moments of recognizing God’s presence and sharing God’s blessing in the world around us.  

And what great conversations we have!  From our chatty Coffee and Donuts with the Pastor, to PW’s theological digging around the women of the Bible over yummy cakes, to Adult Ed discussions, Connections monthly gatherings at Fireroast CafĂ©, and our summer Home Church services, we find solidarity, learning and support with each other in conversation. We are lively talkers.

I experience God in the generosity and faithfulness with which LNPC handles money.  Did you know that, between our monthly tithes and our monthly food shelf giving, (which alone totaled $4000) when the year is out this little congregation (with a 2016 budget of $160,000) will have given over $20,000 to other small, shoestring ministries, organizations and congregations this year?  The thank you notes we get back tell stories of God’s ministry unfolding all over our city and country, and we get to be part of that! At the same time, others are part of what God is doing in and through us – Westminster, in particular, continues to be a huge cheerleader and financial supporter of us.  We all belong to each other, and it’s all God’s ministry; we are the grateful, joyful participants.  

And did I mention yet the wisdom and thoughtfulness of your session? Discerning and intentional, we had some deeply memorable experiences together this year – particularly I am grateful for our meetings with Brittney and Jonathan, and Chris and Jen.  Bearing each other’s joy and pain, your leaders are leading with integrity, insight and compassion.

I experience God through those who sneak in and do things around the building to make it more hospitable for others – Gary repairs things regularly and Kathy keeps things clean. Folks from Fuego Pentecostes come in early Sunday mornings and scrub down the basement, then go home and change into church clothes and come back in the afternoon.  Remember on Palm Sunday, when we arrived and the glass front door had been smashed? The police with their dog checked out the building, then, during Sunday school a few people swept up glass, a few more built a temporary wooden replacement, another person called a glass repair shop and by that afternoon the door was good as new.  Every week Linnea and Jose change the sign, and they serve as hosts to parties that rent the basement on weekend evenings.   Linda D. has slipped in countless times and sorted and organized choral music. The water cooler gets magically filled, the coffee cups in the gathering room get washed from time to time, the sanctuary gets decorated, the communion bread gets baked, the front walk gets shoveled, and it’s not always the same person!  What an impact those with quiet gifts and hidden blessings have on our community.  “We all share responsibility for the ministry of the church” is one of our guiding convictions, and I witness this in action all the time.

I experience God in the unexpected moments that spring up out of nowhere.  On our family vacation to the Black Hills, I found myself on a side journey to visit Dick’s son’s grave, outside the former sanatorium where he lived as a child.  It was so moving, and a deep honor to pay respects there.  
A couple of weeks ago Jeanne and I found ourselves sharing conversation, soup and coffee with a homeless couple who had stopped by the church building.  They ended up keeping one of the crosses from our collection – a cross Barb Day had donated some time ago that said, “rooted in love,” that brought the woman great comfort to imagine carrying with her. When I emailed Barb in Florida and told her about this, she wept at the thought of that gift being a passed-along blessing to someone else.  I am telling you, we DO belong to God and we DO belong to each other, we humans, and that is not a shallow or simple thing.  It calls us to be deeply present, willing to suffer with each other and see each other, and willing to allow ourselves to be seen and known as well.  We meet Jesus, who is with and for us, when we are with and for each other.

In more ways than I could describe or count, I experienced God this year in our life together. We are not trying to be perfect, but to be present, to remember that we are free to be for one another and God.  And we learn from our missteps and keep adapting as we go, seeking always to keep asking, What is God doing now? And now? And what about now?

I am so grateful to be your pastor and co-journeyer in this messy and exquisite life of noticing God, following Jesus, and being with and for each other.

Here’s to another great year!