Sacred Soil


Could we?
November 20, 2012, 5:39 pm
Filed under: Weeds

A few weeks ago, I hosted an event at the local seminary to train students to teach about finances. And quite to their surprise, and somewhat to mine, it was a joyful event, filled with surprise and insight.

At first thought, the idea of coming together to train about financial matters sounds fairly dreadful. I’d rather eat soggy Cheerios. But quite quickly, the students came to understand how having financial literacy can usurp and overturn the ways in which so many are oppressed and used by our financial systems. Indeed, this literacy has the power to change their own lives, and release themselves from oppressive systems. It’s a simple fact that it costs a lot more money to be poor, what with check cashing fees, higher interest rates, and so on. But, with some education these systems can be drained of their power, and that is thrilling.

Indeed, I find that work particularly thrilling, the work of teaching in this way. For, I am utterly convinced that we are capable of changing our world for the good. Our capacity is astounding. Rather, God’s capacity is astounding. This is part of what I feel called to do as a pastor.

Back in college I learned about the work of Myles Horton at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. It’s an amazing story. The work of this school is part of the back drop of the civil rights movement. Through empowering education, disenfranchised folks realized their capacity to change deeply entrenched systems of oppression.

There is so much that I love about the work of Highlander: their deep respect for the dignity of all people; their understanding of true wisdom; their commitment to equality. These are such integral concepts to good and effective education. But, what warms my own heart is how Myles and Highlander have been so delighted to step away from the center of attention, and instead point to the work of the people. Myles Horton firmly believed that his job was to create the environment for learning, and allow people to flourish in ways no one could ever imagine. His work was always about them, about their capacity. Never about him. Which, I think, is another way to say that the work is about God, not us. What a joy to step back and see God at work.

I’ve long been wondering how the church could/should play a role in this work. The biblical and theological foundations of such education are strong, though thoughts for another post. And then I remembered where Myles got his idea in the first place. It came from a Danish Lutheran Pastor. Through his inspiration, the Danes began a system of Folk Schools that inspired civic engagement and human creativity. Myles was so taken with this that he created his own school, which has in turn, created so much hope.

Which then got me thinking about how quiet our church building is during the day. How the fellowship hall echoes, empty of people. How the building seems to long for creative use.

Which then got me to thinking… perhaps this is something we could do? Our own Lutheran Folk School. A place where we teach using popular education models. A place to engage, to claim our power, to use our creativity and hope to overturn systems that oppress and limit our lives.

We could start small. Experiment with just one class. See what happens. See where it goes.



Of Soil and Dirt
November 18, 2012, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

Lectionary 33
November 18, 2012

I remember well that first month I had moved to the Midwest. I grew up on the West Coast, so this land was strange to me. Foreign, with the humid weather, and the overly nice people, and the sweet coffee. To be honest, I felt out of place as I searched the trees for moss, and scanned the horizon for mountains. But there was this moment, when I went out to the garden where I lived, and I began to pull weeds. First I begrudged the task, until I dug my fingers into the soil (strange though it was) and lifted out the interloping grasses, finely shaping the bed to welcome the flowers that were intended. And in the doing, the strangeness of the Midwest melted away. It became more normal to me. It is as if the soil welcomed me, invited me to make this place home.

Perhaps soil has this power for you too? I know there are many here who love to garden. Though, I’m just as sure that most of us aren’t that fond of dirt. The grime, the way it clings to clothes and shoes. The mess, the risk of planting and getting no yield. The work required. The water. The scheduling. These things get at me too… so quickly does soil become dirt. Dirty. Messy. Undesirable.

And it is interesting these words, soil and dirt. They are made of the same things, and yet, soil becomes dirt when it is no longer contained. No longer where it is supposed to be. When it has fallen out of the pot, soil suddenly transforms into dirt. Into mess.

Which actually brings me to those temple stones.

Jesus and his disciples have just left the temple, where he’d given a discourse on the dangers of the temple. And one of his disciples turns to him and admires the grand building. It is huge and magnificent. A wonder to behold.

And Jesus responds, you see this? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down. These stones will become rubble.

The soil will become dirt.

Jesus goes on to explain that things are going to get bad. There will be wars, and earthquakes and famines. The dirt will be rife and infested. Putrid. Everything they have ever known will be torn apart, tossed aside. Scattered.

Truth is, many of us know what it feels like to have our temples toppled, our dreams shattered, our traditions forsaken. It is that sense that whatever fertile garden we had, whatever soil we stood on, has suddenly turned to barren dirt, to mess and frustration and sadness and grief. And there is nothing left.

For too many have experienced this sense that the world as we have known it has ended. And nothing will ever be the same again.

We get anxious about change, about messiness. Anxious about the soil of our lives turning to dirt. It’s natural and human. Change is disorienting and causes us to feel as if everything has toppled.

These moments of toppling, these moments of dirt and mess, are overwhelming and confusing, and saddening. And they tear us apart. Overcome with grief, it is so tempting to live bounded by the devastation surrounding us.

But Jesus says a curious thing in this passage. Curious indeed. For all his prediction of dire events, for all his warning of the difficulty to come, he drops this one little sentence that seems to change everything. One little sentence that completely re-orients us: This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Now birth is a painful experience in its own right. Thus fitting with Jesus’ metaphor– but the end result is new life. The end result is birth.

And if there is one thing we know about God, beyond God’s overwhelming, and sometimes confusing love for us, it is that God desires life. That God yearns for new growth. That God’s creation cannot help itself but live.

Our God, compelled by love for all of us, came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.

But the truth is, as heart warming as that may be; it doesn’t make the dirt less messy. Doesn’t make the temple stones grand again, it doesn’t fix our broken hearts, and it doesn’t erase our grief.

One of the great saints in my life was Thea. She was an older German woman who served as a youth group leader. I was in high school at the time. And I remember clearly sitting in her living room one afternoon, with a few other friends of mine, talking about the Psalms. We had landed on one that seemed to us to be kind of angry, and we puzzled over it. How could something in the Bible be so angry with God?

Thea leaned in close to us. Her voice dropped, and her pace changed. And then slowly, she began to tell us about when she was five years old, when she and her kindergarten classmates solemnly walked through the city she had known, as flames licked the buildings, in the eerie calm after the bombs had stopped. Silent tears streamed down their faces, as they fearfully marched, too young to know what had really happened. Old enough to know it was utterly devastating.

And then she said to us, this is what those angry Psalms are for. For the lament and the fear and the sadness, for the frustration with God. For the reality of death. To remind ourselves and remind God, that God always seeks life. Desires life. Always. These Psalms are the anger of hope.

There is nothing that can ever take away the horror of that war. Nothing. But I was grateful that day for the seed that Thea planted in me. The permission to be mad, the permission to grieve, the permission to yell at God. The permission to join with God in hoping and yearning for life.

Life is complicated and messy like this. Good is intertwined with bad. Hope rises even from horror. Beautiful flowers grow in the dirtiest of places.

And so I wonder– perhaps this is an invitation to blur the distinctions. To mess with the conventions, to intertwine soil and dirt. To seek the life giving potential in both. An invitation to truly trust that God will bring all things together for good.

This is the promise we have: life will find a way; life will rise up from the ashes of our scorched hope. Indeed, this is our certain promise given to us in God’s own son.

And so we heed well the words from Hebrews: Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for God who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds… encouraging one another.

And from John, For God has so richly desired that we might have life, and have it abundantly.

Amen.



Of Soil and Dirt
November 18, 2012, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

Lectionary 33
November 18, 2012

Daniel 12:1–3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11–14[15–18] 19–25
Mark 13:1–8

I remember well that first month I had moved to the Midwest. I grew up on the West Coast, so this land was strange to me. Foreign, with the humid weather, and the overly nice people, and the sweet coffee. To be honest, I felt out of place as I searched the trees for moss, and scanned the horizon for mountains. But there was this moment, when I went out to the garden where I lived, and I began to pull weeds. First I begrudged the task, until I dug my fingers into the soil (strange though it was) and lifted out the interloping grasses, finely shaping the bed to welcome the flowers that were intended. And in the doing, the strangeness of the Midwest melted away. It became more normal to me. It is as if the soil welcomed me, invited me to make this place home.

Perhaps soil has this power for you too? I know there are many here who love to garden. Though, I’m just as sure that most of us aren’t that fond of dirt. The grime, the way it clings to clothes and shoes. The mess, the risk of planting and getting no yield. The work required. The water. The scheduling. These things get at me too… so quickly does soil become dirt. Dirty. Messy. Undesirable.

And it is interesting these words, soil and dirt. They are made of the same things, and yet, soil becomes dirt when it is no longer contained. No longer where it is supposed to be. When it has fallen out of the pot, soil suddenly transforms into dirt. Into mess.

Which actually brings me to those temple stones.

Jesus and his disciples have just left the temple, where he’d given a discourse on the dangers of the temple. And one of his disciples turns to him and admires the grand building. It is huge and magnificent. A wonder to behold.

And Jesus responds, you see this? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down. These stones will become rubble.

The soil will become dirt.

Jesus goes on to explain that things are going to get bad. There will be wars, and earthquakes and famines. The dirt will be rife and infested. Putrid. Everything they have ever known will be torn apart, tossed aside. Scattered.

Truth is, many of us know what it feels like to have our temples toppled, our dreams shattered, our traditions forsaken. It is that sense that whatever fertile garden we had, whatever soil we stood on, has suddenly turned to barren dirt, to mess and frustration and sadness and grief. And there is nothing left.

For too many have experienced this sense that the world as we have known it has ended. And nothing will ever be the same again.

We get anxious about change, about messiness. Anxious about the soil of our lives turning to dirt. It’s natural and human. Change is disorienting and causes us to feel as if everything has toppled.

These moments of toppling, these moments of dirt and mess, are overwhelming and confusing, and saddening. And they tear us apart. Overcome with grief, it is so tempting to live bounded by the devastation surrounding us.

But Jesus says a curious thing in this passage. Curious indeed. For all his prediction of dire events, for all his warning of the difficulty to come, he drops this one little sentence that seems to change everything. One little sentence that completely re-orients us: This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Now birth is a painful experience in its own right. Thus fitting with Jesus’ metaphor– but the end result is new life. The end result is birth.

And if there is one thing we know about God, beyond God’s overwhelming, and sometimes confusing love for us, it is that God desires life. That God yearns for new growth. That God’s creation cannot help itself but live.

Our God, compelled by love for all of us, came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.

But the truth is, as heart warming as that may be; it doesn’t make the dirt less messy. Doesn’t make the temple stones grand again, it doesn’t fix our broken hearts, and it doesn’t erase our grief.

One of the great saints in my life was Thea. She was an older German woman who served as a youth group leader. I was in high school at the time. And I remember clearly sitting in her living room one afternoon, with a few other friends of mine, talking about the Psalms. We had landed on one that seemed to us to be kind of angry, and we puzzled over it. How could something in the Bible be so angry with God?

Thea leaned in close to us. Her voice dropped, and her pace changed. And then slowly, she began to tell us about when she was five years old, when she and her kindergarten classmates solemnly walked through the city she had known, as flames licked the buildings, in the eerie calm after the bombs had stopped. Silent tears streamed down their faces, as they fearfully marched, too young to know what had really happened. Old enough to know it was utterly devastating.

And then she said to us, this is what those angry Psalms are for. For the lament and the fear and the sadness, for the frustration with God. For the reality of death. To remind ourselves and remind God, that God always seeks life. Desires life. Always. These Psalms are the anger of hope.

There is nothing that can ever take away the horror of that war. Nothing. But I was grateful that day for the seed that Thea planted in me. The permission to be mad, the permission to grieve, the permission to yell at God. The permission to join with God in hoping and yearning for life.

Life is complicated and messy like this. Good is intertwined with bad. Hope rises even from horror. Beautiful flowers grow in the dirtiest of places.

And so I wonder– perhaps this is an invitation to blur the distinctions. To mess with the conventions, to intertwine soil and dirt. To seek the life giving potential in both. An invitation to truly trust that God will bring all things together for good.

This is the promise we have: life will find a way; life will rise up from the ashes of our scorched hope. Indeed, this is our certain promise given to us in God’s own son.

And so we heed well the words from Hebrews: Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for God who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds… encouraging one another.

And from John, For God has so richly desired that we might have life, and have it abundantly.

Amen.



A Tale of Two Widows
November 11, 2012, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

Lectionary 32
November 11, 2012

1 Kings 17:8–16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24–28
Mark 12:38–44

Elijah was a gruff man, insisting, even demanding that this widow, the widow of Zeraphath, make him some food. In our Old Testament text for today, in the midst of a withering drought, this widow is out gathering a few twigs, with which to build a fire, so that she may make one last cake of meal, before she and her frail son lay down to die. She is equally clear–there is not enough food even for one, let alone Elijah. But he insists, without any flourish, God will provide, and the three of them make a way from no way. And despite Elijah’s gruff nature, God’s abundance us shown as they cast their lot together, making their way as unlikely companions through a difficult time.

It is as if a love is built up between the two of them, despite the insistence, the gruffness–a love and care that surpasses expectations of possibility.

And central to this story is the fact that this widow gave everything she had. Her last bit of meal, her last drops of oil. And some how God made a way. And we admire this, honor this, lift it up as a beautiful and glorious thing. And it is. Though sometimes I think we miss the point as to why it is so beautiful. Hint: it has something to do with God.

In our passage from Mark today, we have a very similar passage. A widow who also gives everything she has. Jesus points her out, as she drops her last two coins into the temple treasury. And we are similarly tempted to lift her up, raise her up for her generosity and trust in God. For we all know, it is good, and wise and hopeful, to give all we have to God, to trust that God will provide.

But, sadly, in our culture we have far too many impostors for God. Far too many who would claim to be God, or agents of God. Far too many who would devour a widows house, claiming to be doing God’s work.

You see, in this passage Jesus begins by decrying the hypocrisy of the temple scribes–look at their long robes, their elaborate prayers, and yet they devour the widows houses. And then there is this shift as our eyes focus on the widow, and we so often are tempted to read this next passage as a compare and contrast–the bad scribes compared to the good widows. But Jesus says nothing to exalt the widow, not thing to lift up her generosity. No, rather than compare and contrast, I think he is citing an example, pointing out precisely how the scribes accomplish the task of devouring widows houses, as this destitute woman drops in her last two coins. Her whole livelihood. Everything.

We have been tempted, compelled throughout history to see these stories as the same thing, I think in part, because we are so compelled to see God and the temple, or God and the church as the same thing. Tempted to believe that surely, surely, our place of worship must always be working God’s will.

But we know this isn’t true. We know too much history, too much pain caused by church, caused by people claiming to be working in God’s name. If we are honest, we know that we are a human institution, subject to the same reality of sinfulness as any other human institution.

And this is precisely what Jesus decried as the scribes, with their power and control established the order of the temple to benefit themselves.

Which then leads to this question– what is different about these two stories? Why does God rejoice in the sacrifice of the Widow of Zeraphath, but not the widow in the temple?

From looking at the text, it becomes clear that God is at the center of the relationship between Elijah and the Zerapath widow. And human greed and sinfulness is at the center of the relationship between the temple scribes and the Widow in Mark. And we know that we are to keep God at our center. It is nice that the authors were so clear.

But in our lives, it is not always so easy to tell. When is God at the center, and when is it our own sinful self? The way forward is muddy with complicated intentions and motivations. Nothing ever seems pure and as clear.

Despite the easy clarity of the Old Testament story, I do think the text gives us a clue into the greater complexities of our own reality. A window. Relationship. Elijah threw his lot in with the widow. He connected with her, stood with her, cared for her, desired her survival as much as his own. Relationship.

A friend of mine recently wrote an article wrestling with common critiques of church, tackling these as important questions that need honoring and holding. One of these is this sense that the “trouble with church is that it just brainwashes us.” I’m sure you have encountered friends and loved ones that have hinted at this challenge… maybe you’ve wondered about it yourself?

He is quick to say that yes, the church is complicit in terrible acts of brainwashing, or denying the tensions of human reality, of trying to impose structures and rules that serve only to further itself– much as the Temple in Jerusalem of Jesus’ time.

But, church is not the only purveyor of such brainwashing. Just listen to the commercials on your television, look at the ads in the magazines, count, how many times have you been promised salvation by human means? by make up or beer? a car or a vote, by whiter teeth or a freshly baked pie?

He goes on to suggest that perhaps, church can be precisely the antidote we need to such brainwashing. To the insistence of our culture. To the innumerable replacements for God that we might find lurking at every mall and in every addiction.

Because here is what we have– Elijahs in our midst. People who are willing to be honest and clear. And people who will steadfastly stay in relationship despite disagreements. People who can wrestle with the difficult ground, people who can discern together, looking for what is truly of God, and what merely serves human sinfulness.

It is a great gift. For this temple that was destroyed has been raised up—raised up in the body of Christ. For death and sinfulness have no power over our God. And I am convinced that the best symbol of Christ’s body, the best example we have are the people gathered here. As broken as we are, we are given this task, to seek God and the good together. And in so doing, find God’s abundance in ways never imagined.

For we cannot give anything that is not already God’s. So shouldn’t we do our very best to return that gift to the good that God so richly desires for all humanity? Indeed, I believe this is true. But this is not something any of us can do on our own. We need one another. Together, the body of Christ. The new temple, risen to God’s glory, not our own.

Amen.



Future Story
November 4, 2012, 10:15 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

All Saints Day

November 4, 2012

Isaiah 25:6–9
Psalm 24
Revelation 21:1–6
John 11:32–44

It’s been a devastating week, in the truest sense of the word devastation. From the Caribbean to Maine, life has been completely upended, tossed about in mighty waves, blown from its very foundations. Our hearts break, as Hurricane Sandy has claimed so much.

There are too many who still long for clean water, for food, for electricity.

Today we will take a special collection as a way to support those affected. As a small way of sharing our desire, our hope, that things will get better, that people will know that we care, that relief will come.

Yet, hope is a strange word for those whose lives have been flooded with the waves of the Atlantic, the grief of losing a loved one, the utter despair and frustrations that haunt us. It is a strange word when the evidence of life and picture presented is as muddy and dim as a town ransacked by Sandy. It is a strange word, when there seems no way forward, when it seems everything is struggle.

But on examination, it seems that hope itself is actually a function of struggle. It is a function of the belief that we have a “future story,” that there must be something better than this. Even if we cannot imagine it. Even if it is buried under mud and debris, pain, and grief. Shadowed by the whispers of improbability.

In our Gospel text this morning, Martha had lost hope. Her brother had died, despite their desperate pleas that Jesus come with all due haste. Laid in the tomb, bound in grave clothes, and sealed behind stone, Martha was sure that every ounce of hope lay locked behind an impossible door, shrouded in stench. The only glimmer she had lay in a far off dream that she barely understood.

Seeing Martha in grief, Jesus responded with his own tears. Some have proposed that Jesus’ tears reflected frustration, as much as grief. Grief that this beloved one had died and frustration that we so easily lose our hope.

With a great crowd around him, a swarm of frustration and confusion, the stone is rolled away, and Jesus calls into the tomb: Lazarus, come out. I imagine his words fell silently on the crowd, as they burrowed into the people, sinking into a sickening sense of embarrassment for Jesus, for themselves. And then, despite themselves, they heard a stirring, a shuffle, movement. And suddenly, the knot of despair was loosened, and hope was born again as Lazarus stumbled out. While the gathered still held their breath, Jesus leaned into them, pleading that they unbind him, and let him go. I’m certain that in so doing, they unbound their own capacity to hope.

The challenge though, is that we, who have yet to see a man rise from the dead, well we tend to get pretty cynical about hope. This is the stuff of fairy tales and day dreams.

Indeed, our culture honors the realistic and precise. Measuring our hope in poll numbers, well measured predictions. We want to be sure what we can expect, preparing ourselves for the worst case scenario with survival kits, retirement savings, and insurance policies.

And while there is a place for being realistic. But if we were always realistic:

  • Our ancestors would not have ventured to this swampy land to build churches that inspired the faith of so many generations.
  • No one would have ever thought a bunch of Swedes and Bohemians could make a church that would risk itself to be open to all people.
  • We wouldn’t be here today, encouraging a new generation of faith.

Our ancestors, the Saints of old, gave us the faith, a faith rooted in a certain hope for the future. They gifted us with an understanding that God’s church matters in the lives of those gathered here now, and into the future. They gave us the certain hope that God would work through us now, and for generations to come.

Here’s what this looks like:

  • It looks like Sunday School teachers, who invest in children and teach these sacred stories.
  • It looks like the people of this community who work to make the world a better place, through volunteering with the food pantry, Hepzibah, CROP walk, the library, giving blood.
  • It looks like people who treat their coworkers and employees with dignity and respect—even though there are days this is a challenge.
  • It looks like people who love their community, helping with PADS, our schools, encouraging meaningful civic involvement.

These are all things born of hope, born of faith, granted to us by the faith and hope of those who have gone before us. They are small hopes that rest in our great hope, the promise God has given each of us.

And the thing is we are invited into bigger hopes yet: hopes that fundamentally change those things that break our hearts. Hopes that are larger than a single generation. Perhaps even larger than our imagination.

The hope that all children will have a warm and safe place to be at night. The hope that our education systems would honor the potential and possibility in each child. The hope that all of our elders would be regarded with dignity and respect. These are hopes that seem impossible—and yet I believe God invites us to long for them regardless of our capacity to achieve them. Regardless of whether or not they are realistic, because it turns out, our God’s hopes have always been beyond us. Always.

God’s are the type of hopes that raise the dead.

It is true and real, there are days of tears. Days that seem impossible. And yet even our grief points to our longing, our hope that one day all our tears will be wiped dry, and we will all, with Lazarus, gather at that great feast upon the mountain. A feast with good food, and great wine.

So, for now, we make do with a glimmer, with a foretaste of that feast to come. Gathering here, at this table, sent out into the world as signs of God’s great promise, signs of real hope. We rise up as God’s great Saints, resting God’s hope for all creation. God’s hope, which is most definitely a sure promise.

Amen.