Sunday, March 5, 2017

We begin here

Lofoten Island, Norway

When I was in college, I spent the large part of one summer sleeping on a 3 foot round papason chair cushion on the floor of an apartment five friends were renting in Dinkytown.  At one point, we ran out of toilet paper and went through all the napkins, coffee filters and finally, Far Side comics, before someone finally bought more.  But whatevs. We were young.

When Andy and I graduated from seminary, we were in our mid-twenties, and were willing to go anywhere in the US to start our next life chapter. Coast? Desert? Mountains? Big City? Tiny town? Sure! Why not! Andy applied to programs all over, and when we moved to Princeton, New Jersey, we packed up all our things in a u-haul and drove from LA for five days across the country, each day listening to Harry Potter cds and eating sunflower seed and drive-through food; each night parking the truck with everything we owned in the world, towing our only car, strategically where we could watch it from our motel window so it wouldn’t get stolen.
There are times in our lives we anticipate change. We expect it; invite it, even. We are totally open to upheaval, happy to cooperate with a little chaos.
But I think we think that is supposed to stop.  That you go through your change and chaos phase, and then after that, things are supposed to be predictable and secure.

But life never stops changing.  Children, homes, illnesses, adjustments, they just keep coming.  That first friend to get divorced becomes one of many.  That dream job you pursued falls through, that church you loved falls apart, and that person you trusted falls away.  And they take your favorite show off the air, and stop making your favorite ice cream, and tear down your favorite diner to put up another Starbucks.  The president you loved is replaced by one you can’t stand, and that woody place you found silence and solace as a child has become a crowded, rowdy resort.

And instead of settling down, the changes seem to speed up.  More friends move away, drift away or pass away. Your doctor retires and your phone becomes obsolete, and every ten or so years, your body seems to have become a completely different shape than the one you’d adjusted to last.  At 62, you discover, a job loss is nothing at all like it is at 22.
And these are just the little changes, the everyday, ordinary, constant upheavals.  That is to say nothing of global crises, natural disasters, or community violence, of catastrophes, bankruptcies, life-altering diagnoses and devastating deaths.

Change doesn’t restrict itself to phases, and chaos doesn’t play by any rules.  Trouble, tumult, seismic shifts happen in our lives and in the world all the time.  From birth until death, living with the unexpected and in the midst of constant change is part of what it means to be human.

Also part of what it means to be human is to try to diminish change. We like to act as though we have more control than we do; we mitigate risk and bolster security however we can.  We depend on all sorts of things to make us feel safe and stable, because, as it turns out, we are dependent beings; we can’t do this life thing all on our own.  We need to find our strength and security somewhere.

So we rely on our intellect or our bank accounts, our health history and insurance policy. We trust institutions and governments, leaders, pastors and teachers. We depend on the climate, community and culture to give us predictable ways of living in the world, and then we act like they can’t, or at least shouldn’t, change. 
But they do. It turns out that none of these things, ultimately, can do a thing to protect our lives. They can make us feel secure for a time, but anything can change at any moment.
So what are we to do?

Our Psalmist, in this opening line, sums up the theology of the whole book of Psalms in these words: God is our refuge and strength.
God is the One we are to depend upon. God is our safety.  A very present help in trouble.  Not a helper in the midst of trouble, but Help itself.  Very present help.  Right here.  Right now.  Right in the midst of it.

Therefore we will not fear.
Even though the earth changes. And mountains fall into the sea, and tsunamis and storms and whirlwinds roar through our world, and the very ground seems to shake beneath our feet and turmoil and tumult overwhelm us.  Even though.  Not because these things don’t or wont happen, but because they will, and do. 
Still. We will not fear.

Why? Because God is our refuge, our strength, a very present help in trouble.

What does it look like to trust God? To find refuge in God?
What does it look like to trust or find refuge in anything, really?
We believe things will make us safe. We act as though it is so.  It soothes us to depend upon something or someone else for our ultimate stability.  It completes our dependent selves to depend on something outside of us.  
The question is simply, what or who will we depend on?

Repent! Jesus says, For the Kingdom of God has come near! Turn around, change your mind, look at things differently! For God’s reign and God’s way is already unfolding among you.

Repentance has been a primary focus of Lent for centuries, so I think we should keep talking about it these next five weeks.[1] Repenting is setting down your way of seeing things to take up God’s way of seeing things.  

And so, first, it exposes the things we turn to for refuge that are not God: the flimsy counterfeit security we find in camping out with those who are just like us and shutting out those we don’t understand. The sense of well-being we get from a well-paying job, or a well-spoken compliment.  The measuring and comparing, are we more or less secure than those others are?  And the soothing lies and half truths that ease our conscience or pacify our egos.  The protection we feel from hatred, blame and anger.  We find refuge in all sorts of voices, places, and things that cannot ultimately save us or make us any safer or more whole, and mostly just make us trapped by the trouble we are seeking to escape.  Repenting helps us turn from those things back to our true source of life, God.

And then, repenting leads to confession and forgiveness, or confessing and forgiveness lead us to repentance, in either case, it causes us to recognize our sin, that is, the places in our life where we have, either on purpose or accidentally, put up barriers between ourselves and God or others.  Because when we repent and see things from God’s perspective instead of our own, it reveals where we have brought pain, suffering and harm on ourselves and others, so that we can reach out for healing and forgiveness, and let God make us whole.

But repenting is hard.  
And we avoid it because it brings trouble.  
Did you take something that didn’t belong to you? 
Did you say something about someone else that caused them embarrassment or pain?  
Did you cheat on a test, or your taxes, or your spouse? 
Who among us would jump at the chance to come clean for any of these things? 
We tell ourselves that maybe we’ll avoid trouble if we avoid repenting.  If we hide our violation and move on, pretending we’re secure, maybe that’s almost as good as being secure.  
But to repent?  That’s just walking into trouble.

But, wait, this God of ours is found in trouble. Is very present there, in fact! 
For those who’ve had trouble brought down on them by others, and those who bring trouble upon themselves, God is Help itself.

Will you spend your life trying to avoid, diminish or escape trouble? 
Or will you find refuge in the God who is a very present help in the midst of trouble? 
Will you wall yourself off ineffectively from chaos and guard yourself unsuccessfully from change? 
Or will you rest your being in God who is our strength and our refuge?

When we repent, we are brought out of self-protection, judgment, blame and fear, back to the trust and dependence on God that the Psalms invite.
We are set free from pretending chaos isn’t chaotic or changes stop changing. 
We are released to speak honestly about trouble and walk into trouble by speaking honestly.
We are allowed to acknowledge how tumultuous it all is, and how vulnerable we sometimes feel, that we hear the roar of the storm and see the shaking of the earth and sometimes tremble with the constant change and threatening chaos, and still, still we find our refuge and strength in God.

God is our refuge and strength. A very present help in trouble.
Therefore, we will not fear.
Not because trouble doesn’t find us or find others because of us,
Not because the chaos dies down, or the earth remains tranquil,
or our lives stay stable and unchanged.
But because right in the midst of trouble, chaos and change, God is our refuge and our strength.

The psalm pauses here, as it will at the end of each of our three stanzas in our Lenten psalm, with the word “Selah.”
Selah is written right in, part of the text, and while it is never clearly explained, it is thought that it means something like: Pause. Breathe. Take it in. And Praise God.
Pause, Breathe, take it in, and praise God.

So here are our Lenten practices, my friends:
First, Repent.
Second, Pause, breathe, take it in, and praise God.

God is our refuge and strength. We begin here.

[1] Lent has traditionally been for fasting, repentance. 40 days of preparation for Easter (minus the Sundays, which are always mini-Easters, celebrations of the resurrection).  But both of these are incredibly useful practices. Fasting, is to refrain from something that is ordinarily part of your life for a set period of time, most commonly food, in order to turn that attention normally given to that thing, to God instead.  It shifts your perspective off of yourself, by breaking you of your routine and patterns, and requiring you to sacrifice something, notice the emptiness of it, the space it occupied in your consciousness, and opens up that space and attention for God.  It is a physical act of repentance.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

When things crumble

185 Chairs

Our family has been on a month long trip to Australia and New Zealand. Last week, we were in Christchurch.  In 2010 a huge earthquake hit Christchurch and caused extensive damage. Thankfully nobody was killed.  18,158 aftershocks followed, and people functioned in a daily life that felt unsure and threatening. They had no idea what to expect; anything could happen.  And six months later, it did. In February of 2011, a bigger quake struck. Large swatches of the city were decimated, thousands were injured, and 185 people died.  A lot of businesses and individuals have left the city, and while a lot of rebuilding has been done, a lot remains, and Christchurch is a city still locked in PTSD and exhaustion, as the slow work of rebuilding continues. 

Near the place we were staying, a 90 year old women came most days and set out a few dozen water color paintings along the sidewalk, for people to peruse and buy. She’d been painting for 60 years, she would tell everyone who walked by. One day, part of our group stopped to chat with her. And, as went with many conversations in Christchurch, she told them where she had been in the earthquake.  She had just come out of her home on a hill, where she had lived for most of her life. She walked down the walk to the mailbox and opened it, and was pulling out her mail when the quake struck, knocking her to the ground. She looked up and watched the house she had been sitting in 30 seconds before, collapse from the top down, and crumble into rubble before her eyes.

When our scripture opens, Jesus has just come out of the wilderness – 40 days in another world. No cell phone, newspaper or social media; he wouldn’t know if his great aunt had passed away while he was gone, or if the president had changed.  He wouldn’t have had any way of checking in on life back home, which is good, because he had his hands full with what he was doing out there anyway.
The wilderness stripped Jesus down to his most basic self, no protection or community, just him, out there in the elements, hungry, tired, alone, and then, at his weakest, tempted mercilessly by the Accuser. And when all that was finished, we are told, “The devil left him, and suddenly angels came and ministered to him.”

So Jesus returns to the hustle and bustle of the real world, sunburned and skinny, and the first thing he hears is: John has been arrested.

And it crumbles before his eyes.
While you were away, your cousin, the one destined from of old to pave the way for the Messiah, was seized by the authorities and locked away.
And the community surrounding John was undoubtedly in upheaval. What kind of tweets and status updates and forwarded articles were going around the followers of this movement? What urgency and fear hovered over them all? What rumors, interpretations, and rallying cries? What moans of despair, and calls for action? And what did it all mean? Does God’s plan get derailed? Does this mean the end?

Jesus, if you thought this would be easy, think again.  You’ll get no gentle reentry, no chance to reacclimate to ordinary life, in fact, here’s the new ordinary: you wont know what to expect. Anything can happen. And while you know in your bones and soul you can trust God; you can’t trust that God will protect those involved in God’s schemes from suffering and injustice.

So, the text moves really fast through this part, but what Jesus does next is super important: He withdraws to Galilee. And I want to stop in that little space between the period and the next sentence for a minute, because this says something a little shocking and pretty significant: 
Jesus disappeared for a while. Even though he had just returned, even though the community was swirling in drama, Jesus stepped out of the fray, off the grid.

Jesus withdrew. In Matthew, this verb is used when circumstances bring unexpected threat or loss - the Magi returning home another way, Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt, Jesus, later on when he hears John is dead, retreating to a quiet place – in times of upheaval, this verb has people “stepping out of the situation.”
Jesus steps out of the situation.
He withdraws, and gets his grounding. He does what he maybe just learned in the wilderness: he separates himself from the situation and puts himself where God can meet him uncluttered, unencumbered. 

In Presbyterian Women’s gathering, for over three years, we’ve been going through a book about women in the bible. It is taking us so long, because we love to talk, so we get through just one or two women each month, and it turns out, believe it or not, there are a whole lot of women in the bible.  So this week we met Philip’s daughters, in Acts, who were, all four of them, well respected prophets in the church; they spoke words of encouragement from God to the people.  And we began to talk about prophecy, and why we don’t hear so much about prophecy or prophets in the church these days.
Then one of us (Rosie) made the observation that today we live a non-stop life surrounded by noise. We are rarely quiet. Rarely still. We hardly ever let ourselves stop and simply be.  Even when we are alone, we fill the space with radio, television, other distractions. And perhaps with this way of living, we make it a whole lot harder for ourselves to listen to God. Maybe if we were still or quiet more, we would be more likely to hear God.

When Jesus heard the difficult, and potentially frightening news, he stepped out of the situation.  After the period and before the next sentence, Jesus put everything down and withdrew to a place where there was nothing that could distract him. 
And I think it’s safe to say that in that place, apart from it all, God met him, because (as we’re learning), when we stop, God meets us. And when Jesus was finished, when he remembered whose he was and who he was, he came into the next sentence with direction and clarity.  He packed up his things and left his hometown, Nazareth, in the region Galilee, for a new city, Capernaum, by the Sea of Galilee, the land that used to belong to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, but hasn’t been referred to that way for over 700 years.
Until this scripture. 
Because Matthew is always linking Jesus back to the prophets, showing the continuity of God’s story, so he draws on a prophesy and promise in Isaiah 9, the one we always read at Christmastime,
Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
   on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
   have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
   light has dawned.’
and if we continued on, we would come to, "...for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, authority shall rest upon his shoulders and he shall be called wonderful, counselor, mighty god, everlasting father, prince of peace,” and end with “the zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”

Here’s what all that is saying about Jesus as he begins to carry out God’s ministry in the world: God-with-us goes to make his home in the land of those God has not forgotten. This story has a long arc, and God’s promises do not fade away.
This is the story you are now part of.

Now once Jesus has settled into his new home, he begins his ministry by picking up the message John the Baptist got started, Repent! For the Kingdom of heaven has come near!

The word repent, Μετανοεῖτε means literally “change how you think after being with,” in other words, turn around, shift your being in another direction, change your purpose after this.” We could think of it as laying down your mind and exchanging it for the mind, perspective, and purpose of Christ.

The kingdom of heaven has come near. The reign of God, the way of life with God in charge, where we all belong to God and we all belong to each other, the order God created for the world and is leading the world towards, in Jesus, this reality has come near. It has come to live among us. 
So here is what that looks like:
We spent our last week with a group of people from New Zealand, South Korea, Vanuatu, and Tonga. We prayed together, sang together, and ate together; we shared stories of joy and suffering, listened to one another, and encouraged each other.
Even though we are divided by language, tribe, miles and circumstances, we found ourselves acting as though we belonged to each other, living out the truth of the Kingdom of Heaven right here on earth, because that is the real reality.

Then on Saturday, our group had the opportunity to help restore a memorial to the 185 people who died in Christchurch’s 2011 earthquake.  An artist had painted 185 chairs white, easy chairs, dining room chairs, folding chairs, car seats and wheelchairs. And he placed them on a grassy spot in rows.  Six years later, this exhibit remains one of the most powerful places of healing for this city.

So that morning the kids and I joined the artist and several other volunteers, many of whom have cared for this display for years, and we helped to repaint the chairs, lay down fresh grass, and replace the fresh chairs in their rows.  We worked alongside those who had lost loved ones, for whom a particular chair meant someone no longer in their world, and alongside these people we’d been spending the week with, none of whom were from Christchurch either.  And the importance of what we were doing, and sorrow for what it represented, did not hinder the laughter and cooperation, the tentative conversations, and the synergy of working alongside one another. 

And at one point, I looked around at this group of strangers in the summer sun, on the other side of the planet from where I call home, working together to minister to a city, and I felt overwhelmed by the awareness that we all belong to each other, and we all belong to God.  With paint on our arms and dirt under our fingernails, the kingdom of heaven has come near. 

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is here.
Perhaps it’s been taught to us in church, or at least insinuated, that Jesus never got afraid or worried, never felt overwhelmed or dismayed. But the way the gospel writers tell it, his whole adult ministry begins with God claiming him in the waters of John’s baptism of repentance, and then the Spirit immediately driving him into the wilderness of temptation. So I would be wiling to bet that sometimes he felt overwhelmed, and at times he felt tempted by the fear and the messages of the empire’s power to derail what God was doing. 
Rather than think that Jesus never needed to repent, I wonder if in fact Jesus repented all the time, if, at the first inkling of fear or doubt, Jesus steps out of the scene, opens himself to God, and allows his mind to be changed, his perspective shifted, and his being reoriented back God’s truth.

When we repent, when we change our mind for Christ’s mind, and turn around and head another direction, we also lift gaze lifted to a further horizon to see the long arc of God’s salvation, and the endurance of God’s promises that cannot be derailed.

Jesus gives us a way; he shows us his way. When he hears the news that John has been arrested, when he feels the messages closing in around him, bombarding him, threatening to make him believe the empire is in control, he withdraws. He leaves the scene and finds himself alone with God.

I was in Australia for the presidential inauguration, and for the next few weeks afterwards. And every day, because of the time difference, I would wake up in the morning and it would be late afternoon yesterday back home. And every day, I logged onto the internet and saw news that made me feel afraid, worried, and despairing.  And most often, I did not choose to step out of the situation, pray and seek direction, and let my mind be shifted back onto God. Most often I obsessed, and read every article I could find, and fretted and worried about what it could all mean.

But after I came home, a couple of days ago, I came into this sanctuary, and I laid out an American flag and some candles, and I sat in silence before God.  And I found myself being shifted back into the mindset of Christ, which is to say, I repented.

This is part of the story. I was reminded. This is not the whole story. 
The world belongs to God.

And after laying down my fears and frustrations, I felt myself rest. 
Instead of worrying, which is practicing fear over and over again, I rested, which is practicing trust. I let myself fall back into the care of God. 
And when I was finished, I found I could approach the world and my concerns with new clarity and purpose, with confidence that the Kingdom of God is here. Even when we can’t always see it; we know where this is all heading. And we get to live in that confidence and trust by living out what we know to be true, boldly and joyfully in a nation starving for connection and hope.  
And I will tell you that I will be doing that in this space every Friday morning from 9:30-10:00 am, and I welcome anyone who wants to join me, to come withdraw, repent, and practice trust with me.

In this life, anything can happen. 
And while you may know in your bones and soul you can trust God; you can’t trust that God will protect those involved in God’s schemes from suffering and injustice.  Things can crumble to the ground before our eyes.
But every day we can repent. 
Every day we have the opportunity to turn around, and change our mind for the mind of Christ. When we start to believe the empire is in control, when we start to shift into fear, when things are falling apart in front of us, we are invited to step out, into a place apart where God can meet us, and to shift our being and our purpose back into God’s reality.  And this story of God’s has a long arc, and the promises of God are trustworthy and true.

So come to me, Jesus says, and I will give you rest.
Follow me, Jesus says, and I will fulfill your purpose and bring you into my kingdom work.
Repent, Jesus says, for Kingdom of heaven is at hand.
And indeed it is.