Monday, August 29, 2011

Burning Bush, Red Truck

Sometimes I'm jealous of Moses. In that burning bush, afire but not consumed, he had a powerful encounter with God. Who wouldn't want that - a chance to see God, to talk with God one on one, to hear God's voice? Surely after that meeting with God Moses never wondered again if God truly existed, if God was dedicated to Moses and the people of Israel. He had heard the promise from God's own mouth "I will be with you."

I long to see God. I yearn to hear God's voice and know beyond a doubt that God is here, that God cares for us. As the psalmist says (Psalm 42) "As a hart (deer) longs for flowing streams so longs my soul for thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?"

In the National Cathedral in Washington DC one can sense the nearness of God, beautiful and mysterious. Sitting beneath those soaring arches and impossibly high ceilings with the stone floor underfoot, hearing how sound both carries and dissipates in the cavernous space, the mighty presence of God is strong and transcendent. Evening prayer in the nave is sublime; voices solemnly chant the liturgy while fading light gleans through stained glass windows that depict fire, the saints, creation. In the Cathedral, God seems near indeed.

The National Cathedral, however, is far away from Texas. There may be burning bushes around here but not the kind Moses saw, just products of this persistent drought. Still I want to see God, I want to hear God speak and know in the depths of my heart and mind that God is, that God is with us in our day.

In Jesus we learn to look for God, not in glamour and glory, but in ordinary aspects of life. Jesus resembled you and me - a human person - yet he was God in the flesh. Jesus distributed bread and wine for his friends to eat and drink, naming it his own body and blood. Jesus promised to be with us whenever we gather in his name. Through Jesus we have seen that God comes to those who suffer, that God lives among the poor, that God sits in prison alongside the incarcerated. Cathedrals are marvelous places, but God is found in our ordinary, mundane lives.

My Dad used to say that God's grace is a lot like pecans. Our family did not plant the pecan trees in my parent's yard, but there they stand - tall and fruitful. Fall comes and the pecans drop to the ground without our aid. All we have to do is pick them up. Likewise, we do nothing to earn God's grace, it is simply given and all we have to do is receive it. I've seen glimpses of God, heard God's voice, so many times in my Dad.

The other day as I walked to my car in the parking lot I saw, halfway down the row, a man sitting in a red pickup truck. He sat there, window rolled down, smoking a cigarette, talking on a cell phone. As I passed I heard his deep voice say, kindly, "you're a pain in the ass, but I love you." I had to smile. It sounded like the voice of God, talking to me, to you, to the whole world. Individually and together we can be a great pain and a royal mess, yet God loves us still. What a wonderful thing to hear.

No burning bush experience for me, just a red pickup, a Texas farmer, and a word from the Lord. I think that will do, for now.


Pastor Kris

Monday, August 22, 2011

Blood and Body

I'm haunted by a song, its words and melody running repeatedly through my mind. We sang it recently during the Lord's Supper as people came up to receive the bread and the wine. The song is well known and we sang the refrain from memory: "bread of life from heaven, your blood and body given; we eat this bread and drink this cup until you come again."

The words and the tune guide us to the meal where we remember our Lord's death and resurrection. People file forward, one after another, humming or singing along "bread of life from heaven, your blood and body given..." their song echoing their actions as they come for the bread and wine. It's a pleasant song, a comfortable melody. Or it has been.

These days it's different. I picture her son lying on the pavement, blood everywhere, the assailants fleeing, leaving him for dead. No one aids him or calls for help. He regains consciousness, struggles to his feet and walks inside, calls his parents and they come. They rush him to the hospital, his face crushed from the heels of the boots.

"Bread of life from heaven, your blood and body given..." Their wrecked bodies mingle in my mind - her son's and our Savior's. Out in the parking lot he'd stepped in to help another man who was being attacked. That man got away and the group turned their fury on him - kicking, stomping his head. They left him broken and bleeding.

Anger grips him and he wishes he could find those men, beat them and leave them bruised and bloodied. The police have called it attempted homicide but say they can do nothing. At night his father howls with rage and cries in frustration. His mother listens, comforts her family, talks sense to them, decides how to proceed, and lies in bed with unrelenting images of her battered son.

"Bread of life from heaven, your blood and body given..." Your blood. Your body given - kicked, beaten, spat upon, nailed to a cross and left to die. His mother watched from a distance. God thundered in heaven, ripped the Temple curtain in anguish. In a violent assault - humiliating, painful, horrifying - the Son of God died. On the third day he rose - victorious over violence - with new life for all.

Can we lay our anger, our wounds, our own humiliations at the table of the Lord? Can we seek healing, justice and peace through his broken body and spilled blood? Imagine the people coming forward through the ages with hands outstretched - mothers of the disappeared in Argentina, victims of abuse, fathers of dead soldiers, people terrorized by gangs, families from Columbine, Oklahoma City, 9-11 approaching the altar for consolation, for hope, for a new world to inhabit.

"Bread of life from heaven, your blood and body given, we eat this bread and drink this cup until you come again." Come quickly, Lord Jesus, with healing for the nations. Come to us and help us live, that we may reject violence and vengeance. We vow not to strike back blow for blow; help us keep our vow. We cling instead to your love and truth. Guide us, feed us, and redeem us, Bread of life from heaven. Bring us justice. Bring us peace.

Pastor Kris

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Redemption and Violence

In Luke 6:27-29 Jesus says, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also." Passages like this have guided Christians throughout the ages, turning them from retaliation and vengeance to a non-violent way of addressing injustice. Martin Luther King Jr., and his associates led the Civil Rights Movement following this principle, this idea of resistance and non-compliance rather than violent confrontation. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela worked to win freedom and equal rights for blacks through reason, persuasion, and resistance. Great good can be done when we refrain from striking back, when we meet violence with truth rather than revenge.

The son of a good friend of mine was savagely beaten a few nights ago. I have known him since he was 8 years old. A sweet child, he is now becoming a wonderful man. Leaving a club, he saw several men beating one man. He intervened and soon found himself the target of the group's rage. He was kicked in the head repeatedly until his nose was broken and his sinus cavities shattered. Thanks be to God he is alive; he is facing a long recovery period.

When I heard about this I was furious. My friends are such good people, gracious, faithful, community-minded. Imagining the awful attack on this young man I found myself wanting to find those responsible and join with others in beating them senseless. That is often my first reaction when I hear that someone I care about has been hurt. I want to hurt someone in return. It feels justified; hitting back seems like what the other person deserves.

And maybe it is, but if we all hit back when we are injured, spit back when we've been insulted, where does it end? In my mind and heart I cherish Jesus' words, I embrace them: "love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you..." but my being, my person wants to react just the opposite. My sense of outrage longs to kick back when I've been kicked.

Theologian and author Walter Wink says we live in a culture founded on "the myth of redemptive violence." We believe that when danger comes we need bigger guns, more strength, and better weapons to fend it off. There's good evidence that, indeed, we do accept the myth of redemptive violence. Most of our stories show how those who've been attacked prevail by using greater violence - cowboys outshoot the villains, the Karate Kid out-fights the bullies, Men in Black out-zap the aliens. We live in gated communities, arm our homes with alarm systems, and keep a gun in the bedside table all in an attempt to keep ourselves safe.

Our salvation, however, does not come through force or domination. We are saved by One who allowed himself to be broken by violence. Insulted, whipped, spat upon Jesus did not seek revenge. He succumbed to violence, holding fast to love and truth. If Jesus is our Lord, then his way of non-violence is also our way. If our top allegiance is to Jesus then we will refuse to strike back, refuse to engage in violent behavior. It is one or the other - either we are saved by weapons and fighting, or we are saved by Jesus. We cannot have it both ways.

I pray for my friends and their son, that their lives will be restored and their wounds healed. I pray for those who senselessly beat a fine young man, that God's light will shine on them and they will be changed. And I pray for myself, that I will reject vengeance and choose truth and love. Truth and love, together, expose what is false and hold accountable those who are unjust. Only truth and love - God's love - will lead us all to true redemption.


Pastor Kris

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Jesus and the 'dogs'

There's a cartoon on our refrigerator, the one frame kind, with a picture of a dog, a man and a woman. The dog is sitting behind the man who is addressing the woman. The dog looks dejected and there's a tear on its face. The man is saying to the woman, "he'd just appreciate it if you'd stop referring to him as 'the dog'." That man and woman could be my husband and I; whenever I mention Redbone as 'the dog' Don looks at me in exaggerated alarm and says "the dog?" He prefers to call Redbone 'the pup.' It's nicer.

This Sunday's lectionary (assigned scripture readings) gives us a troubling story from Matthew 15. A Canaanite woman - a non-Jew, someone who is not 'one of us' - calls out to Jesus asking him to heal her daughter. First he ignores her completely. Then when his disciples complain about her nagging, Jesus turns to the woman and tells her he can't help her because she's not an Israelite. His mission, he says, is only to the people of Israel. She replies, simply, "Lord, help me." Jesus' next answer is disturbing. He says "it isn't fair to throw the children's food to the dogs." But she persists, saying "yes, but even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the master's table." Finally, Jesus speaks to her as a person, calling her 'woman' and commenting on her strong faith, and he grants her wish.

The resolution of the encounter, however, does not remove the earlier offense. "The dogs," Jesus said to her. Some biblical scholars have argued that the word Jesus used really means 'little dogs' or 'puppies.' I suppose that's 'nicer,' but calling someone a 'little dog' is still insulting. Why does Jesus say that? We think of Jesus as always being in the right, as always showing compassion for hurting people and this is so very unkind, so wrong. I want to explain it away, make some excuse for Jesus but I cannot. The story troubles me, gets under my skin, makes me uncomfortable. Name-calling is so ugly.

Name-calling is ugly, but we do it. There are derogatory names for all races, classes and types of people and we know plenty of them. "Spic, wetback, blimp, chink, faggot" - hurtful, degrading terms all of them. We hear them and sometimes we use them, aloud or muttered under our breath - "idiot, doofus, reetard, scumbag, loser." Why do we say these things? Those of us who are Christian wear the name of Christ. When we call someone "faggot" or "reetard" or "#*!%-head" it's as if Jesus is speaking that way. Those words wound, anger, and shame people; they say that the other is not worth our concern, our help, our consideration. Who are we to make such judgments?

In Matthew 15 it appears that the Canaanite woman broke through Jesus' prejudice and established herself as a human being in his sight. Undettered by Jesus' initial judgment, she asserted her claim on Jesus' concern and grace. And Jesus changed his mind, reversed his position and extended mercy to her. Even a Canaanite woman is worthy of God's love and care. Even a foreigner is acceptable in God's kingdom. She is not a 'dog' but a woman, a child of God.

This story remains troubling, but it may be especially so because we know ourselves to be guilty of what we see Jesus do. We're uncomfortable because the episode shows us ourselves. We brush people off with a label. We dehumanize others with slurs and unkind remarks. Will we, though, can we - like Jesus - change our minds and come to see all people as beloved by God? If a Canaanite woman is acceptable, who is unacceptable to God by virtue of their class or ethnicity or status? Anyone? This scripture says that all who call on the Lord, all who seek God's help, receive God's characteristic loving-kindness. No one is left out for being too fat or too poor or too foreign or too dark-skinned or too simple. All are welcome in God's house. And that's good to know - for us, and for our neighbors.

Pastor Kris

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Drought and Idolatry

I dream of rain. In this eighth month of the drought, the fifth month of 100 degree temperatures, my mind searches for relief wherever possible. It happened again last night - I dreamed I heard rain falling on the roof, tapping against the windows. Calm and serenity settled over me as I imagined the earth and her creatures enjoying a good, long drink. But then I awoke and saw the same parched grass and wilted gardens as before.

When Ahab was King of Israel he openly loved other things more than he loved God. He loved the power, the attention, the wealth, the status of being king. Scripture says that Ahab worshipped Baal, the Caananite god. In doing so he committed idolatry. Idolatry, the most common of all sins, does not have to involve Baal. We are idolatrous whenever we value, trust, and love something above God. Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, says "Anything on which your heart relies and really your God." Any time we replace God with something lesser in our hearts and minds we commit idolatry.

Not only did Ahab commit idolatry by 'relying and depending' upon something other than God, he led his people astray by his actions. Many of the Israelite people followed their King's example and built altars to Baal. God, who had given himself to Israel in a loving, lasting relationship, was angered. As a response God sent a severe drought upon the land. For three years there was no rain, or even dew, in Israel. Streams and rivers dried up; crops failed; people and livestock alike grew desperate for water. Baal, to whom they had prayed, could not make it rain and God was unwilling to do so until the King and the people recognized their fault and changed course.

Why has it not rained in Texas for the past eight months? It could be El Nino or La Nina has brought this latest drought. Maybe our arid conditions come from global warming or shifting weather patterns throughout the country. In scripture, the prophet Elijah had to sweep the land clear of idolatry before God sent rain. Elijah rebuked the King and the people for their devotion to Baal; he reasserted God's sovereignty and slaughtered the Baal prophets. Finally Elijah bowed before God, sending his servant to check the horizon for a change in the weather. Six times the servant saw nothing, but the last time he saw a cloud rise up out of the sea. Soon rain was pummeling the ground, pouring down on all Israel like the grace of God.

Since the recession the median wealth of white households in America is 20 times greater than that of African-American households, 18 times higher than that of Hispanic households. In addressing our nation's deficit and raising the debt ceiling the United States government opted to cut spending and raise no taxes on the wealthy or close loop-holes for large corporations. In Texas, spending has been slashed in education and other public services while tax-payers foot the $10,000 a month bill for the governor's rental house. Could rampant idolatry be the reason we are in the midst of a severe drought? Are we following the course of Ahab, loving and serving the wrong things?

"No one can serve two masters," Jesus said, "(you) will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." (Matthew 6:24) We cannot worship money and worship God; one of them has to give.

I dream of rain -- water falling from the sky, justice rolling like a river throughout the land. How long must we wait for the drought to end? How long must God wait on us to turn from idolatry?

Pastor Kris