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Monday, August 22, 2016

Perspective - What's That?

Luke 13:10-17
It’s all a matter of perspective. This idiom is one that I frequently have to repeat to myself when I perceive someone else’s viewpoint or actions as illogical or, well, in my humble opinion, idiotic. It’s all a matter of perspective.
The things that frame our expectations, and influence how we interpret what we see and what we experience are all bound up in perspective. Perspective is created by the things we experience, or have been taught; perspective includes things that we have come to assume and believe are true, and based on our interpretation of events.
As we read today’s Gospel text, we read it through our own particular lens of perspective. For many of us, that lens is the lens of grace. It’s how our faith has been formed.
We have been taught that God is a God of grace and healing, always more willing to give than we are to receive, always more forgiving of us than we are of ourselves, always more just than we can ever understand, always full of grace while we get stuck on rules and mores.  
We see what a wonderful thing Jesus did for the woman in the synagogue that day. This poor, bent-over woman. Afflicted and deformed, bent over like this <demo>, her entire world probably consists of an area roughly seven or eight feet square –at most; on the ground, right there in front of her.
Imagine yourself in this position; you can’t really look up or back. Your field of vision is limited pretty much to this, <gesture on floor in front of you > for eighteen years.
In that time, if you had an infant he grew up, went through school, learned to play an instrument, maybe became an athlete, and you stopped being able to look him in the eye when he was about eight years old.
Bent over you would have remained through two common cicada cycles, and four American presidential elections and four sets of winter and summer Olympic games.
Eighteen years would mean you have been bent over since the year 1998 - when Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky were a “thing” in the news; the Good Friday Peace Accord was signed in Northern Ireland; and Serbs battled ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
You have been bent over since Shakespeare in Love, Saving Private Ryan, and Life is Beautiful were big winners at the Oscars, and Armageddon had the biggest box office sales for the big screen.
In eighteen years, you haven’t been able to look up to enjoy a cloud-filled sky, or a painting hanging in a museum, and skyscrapers are simply distorted reflections in puddles. Your frame of reference, your world, has been very narrow; very limited.
Perhaps it is hard for you to imagine being physically bent over for 18 years.
Back in the synagogue Jesus notices the bent over woman. The woman thus imprisoned for eighteen years. Following the voice of a man she probably could not even see, she hears his words, “you are set free,” and she is! Suddenly, she goes from this, <bent over> to this!
This woman goes from being burdened and imprisoned within her bent body, to being liberated, able to stand tall, look around, see the people around her – look people right in the eye; able to raise her arms like this <arms raised > to praise and glorify God.
Whatever evil spirit or infirmity caused her deformity flees and leaves behind a woman full of gratitude and praise to God for her restoration! Such a miracle! Such amazing joy! Such wonder!
As nice as this healing is, however, not everyone is pleased. The leader of the synagogue in fact is quite indignant, and he wants everyone else to be stirred up, too.
But before we judge him too quickly let’s check this out.
Our perspective judges this healing as a miracle and therefore as cause for rejoicing. The leader of the synagogue sees this Sabbath healing as a travesty against the rule and order of a commandment.
Remember that the Sabbath has two origins in Scripture.  We find one in the story of Creation, where God rested on the seventh day and declared that all creation should similarly have a regular time of rest and renewal.
Then in Egypt, the slaves never, ever had a chance to rest. Following the exodus, the command and promise of rest was extended to everyone – rich or poor, adult or child, human or animal, God made the time of rest the commandment we know of as Sabbath, to safeguard the welfare of all.
Let’s assume the synagogue leader is simply defending what he understands to be lawful – work (including this work of healing) should not be done on a day mandated by God as a day of rest. Period.
It is all a matter of perspective, right? The man’s perspective was that the law was, quite literally, carved in stone and that was that.
Jesus’ perspective and teaching was that the law was intended to serve God’s children and draw them more deeply into the abundant life God wills for them.
The leader of the synagogue may have been trying to uphold the law and order that undergirds the life of faith as he understands it. He is not wrong.
Jesus, however, places the health and well-being of the individual above the principle of law and order. For Jesus, life trumps law, and of course, Jesus is not wrong. There is a place for law and order and it is important for life in community. However, the law must take into account the human heart and need.
If we think about the events in our world today, we can see the tug-of-war between battling perspectives at work. We have heard a lot of perspective-laden statements this year, each gaining traction and seemingly at war with each other:
·        Black Lives Matter is a statement raised to protest the indiscriminate, unwarranted, and growing frequency of racially motivated victimization persons of color, particularly black men; to say that Black Lives Matter is not wrong. People of color continue to be bent over under the burden of discrimination and bigotry, suspicion and racial profiling. Healing will require each of us coming to understand the perspective of those who live the experience of colored skin.
·        Others respond: All Lives Matter; they are not wrong. It is true that all lives do matter – and Jesus would certainly support this statement, but not as a distraction from the fundamental sin of racism. In healing the bent-over woman, a person of no account in the social hierarchy of her time due to her sex and her disability, Jesus was once again defying social as well as religious convention in applying mercy to one of the “least” in his society. For Jesus, all lives truly do matter.
·        Let us not forget the more recent cries of Blue Lives Matter, and of course the voices crying out this mantra are not wrong. For those bent over under the heavy weight of the responsibilities of law enforcement, of serving as first responders, of putting their lives on the line every time they put on a uniform, or respond to an emergency call, or run into a burning building, or heroically act on behalf of others, they carry a burden few of us can fully appreciate, including the trauma associated with their work.
It is all a matter of perspective, and our perspective is formed from our experiences and the messages that are ingrained in us from a lifetime of teachings and from new learnings we have absorbed.  
But Jesus came to give us a new perspective – one that is shaped by grace and love. Because the truth is, that God has gone way out on a limb here, sending Jesus to set us free from the things that bend us over, not to bend us over with more things. Jesus constantly announces the coming kingdom in words and deeds that run contrary to the expectations of society – to the people of his time, and truthfully, to the people of our time as well.
Jesus alters perspectives as he speaks with a Samaritan woman (a thing no decent Jewish man would do). He eats with tax collectors and sinners, he challenges the status quo. Jesus heals those who are far, far from possessing “lives that matter” to anyone else. He raises up the bent-over ones, that they might stand tall and know the abundant life he offers.
In her keynote address at the ELCA Grace Gathering last week, Liberian peace activist and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee said, “Injustice for one is injustice for all.”
By the same reasoning, when one of us is bent over, none of us can truly stand tall or walk straight. We are each burdened. None of us can truly be free when there are any who are suffering, imprisoned, unable to stand tall.
The thing is, God, through Jesus Christ, gives us a new perspective: God created humankind to live full, meaningful, free lives. God finds even the most bent-over one lovely and loved, without condition, without caveat, without ceasing. However, the love of God doesn’t make things that bend us over disappear overnight. But it does remind us that this is not God’s will for us. God longs to untie us from our burdens, to straighten our backs, to make us whole and holy people. And that desire is life-changing.
We have divine permission, no, a divine commandment, to treat one another with the same love and respect that the ancient Israelites gave to beasts of burden: setting them free on the day of rest, and leading them to water <font> and to food <table>.
Today we get to experience both blessed water and holy food. We will witness the baptisms of Garrett and Grayson, and recall God’s enormous gift of unburdening, life-giving grace transmitted through the sacraments, through water, and the simple elements of bread and wine. As you come forward to the table in a little while, I invite you to dip your hand in the water of the font. Splash around a little. Bless yourself using the sign of the cross, and hear Jesus’ words to you, “you are set free!”
It’s all about perspective. Let us pray that our perspective and view are daily shaped by God’s grace and mercy, forgiveness and love, that our hearts may be opened to know God’s meaning and will for the mattering of all lives.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Building a Bucket List

Luke 12:13-21 and Colossians 3:1-11
If I actually had a bucket list, two items that would be sure to be on it would be taking a hot balloon ride, and going on an African safari – the kind where the only shooting that takes place comes from a camera.
So, when I came across this story, it really appealed to me.
A man named Danny and his wife took a hot air balloon trip early one morning while visiting Africa. Perfect!
As the balloon rose gracefully, they saw a herd of wildebeest running frantically across the vast expanse below. 
          As they watched, the herd suddenly stopped and began looking around as if they were confused. Danny asked their pilot why the herd had stopped so suddenly; what were they looking for?
          The pilot told them that the wildebeest, which migrate by the millions across the grassy African plains, are not good learners.  An entire herd will take flight at the slightest indication of danger. They run wildly for a short time, and then stop, forgetting why they began running in the first place.
          Meanwhile, lions, who are good learners, simply follow the stampeding herd at a leisurely pace and wait for them to stop. When the wildebeest forget why they are running, dinnertime arrives.
So I wonder, are we more like the wildebeest or the lion?
          Can you imagine running and running and running and then forgetting why you are running at all? 
          The truth is we all fall prey to this cycle at times, running here and there and back again, busy in our work or school, busy in our family, busy with our social and financial obligations, busy running to something, busy running away –  eventually overcome with our busy-ness, only to forget what it is we are running after to begin with, and why it was so important to us to be. So. busy.
This forgetting is more than the experience of walking into a room and failing to recall why we went there to begin with.
          Rather, in all our running and chasing after things that ultimately give way to confusion, we forget the things Christ has taught us about trusting in God, and about how we should live.
We forget the ways Jesus showed us about living in community, loving our neighbor, and forgiving those who have trespassed against us. We forget the priorities that God set before us – love me, love neighbor, love yourself.
We sometimes forget that caring for the outcast, the marginalized, and the sinner was at the top of the list of what Jesus taught us to do. Those were the things that were important to Jesus – connecting with, and caring for our neighbor. Sadly, when we forget this core instruction from God, our attention and focus naturally turns inward.
          The parable from our gospel today, shows us what happens when a rich man forgets that it is God who gives us all we need. We see what happens as he is consumed with running, running, running – amassing more than he can possibly use up himself, so that his “running” turns into building, building, building.
So, there is this telling conversation he has with himself, when he realizes that he has run out of storage space for his hoard.
The man thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” 
It is all “I, I, I, I, I, and my, my, my…..” This is his focus and his mantra – it is all about me, myself, and I.
          The writer of our first reading, from Ecclesiastes, calls this ‘vanity’ –it is “meaningless,” “useless,” and “absurd.”
          In the parable we see the vanity of the rich man who is obsessed with what the epistle to the Colossians refers to as the “things that are on earth”. These are fleeting things that we have a tendency to place importance on—everything from material wealth, to status, to power over others – the writer of the Epistle names the pursuit of all these things idolatry.  
While it is sensible stewardship of the resources God gives us that we save and reasonably plan for our future material needs, a component of stewardship as Jesus teaches it, is to trust that we are given ample resources to share and to use for the betterment of others.
Knowing that God provides for our daily needs, we are freed to trust that God also provides enough for us to share.
This message is at the core of all the stewardship stories in the bible, from manna daily given to the people of God in the wilderness, to Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer, which comes just before this text.
God carefully and lovingly gives us all we need. It’s the same message our own stewardship team diligently establishes in their messages to our community throughout the year.
However, there is more to this text than a message for the stewardship of material goods, as important as that is. For if we look at the beginning of the passage, we will see that this entire story begins with someone asking Jesus to settle a property dispute within their family. So this is also a message for the stewardship of human relationships.
Maybe you’ve known or witnessed the pain and turmoil that families sometimes experience when huge battles erupt over the inheritance of property upon the death of a loved one, whether a will had been left or not. Bitter divides form over such arguments, and lifelong scars and estrangements often result. So we can understand someone coming to Jesus and wishing for him to speak with authority on this matter.
But note Jesus’ response; “Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Instead, in Christ we have been granted abundant life to share both now and in a future we cannot yet see.
So, according to Jesus, greed includes not only those things that we yearn for that we do not have, but also those things we already possess but would do just about anything to keep.
Greed is indeed a deep pit into which we fall and cannot, on our own, climb out of.
The epistle lists so-called earthly things that we run after. I wonder what other things we can name? Living in a consumerist world, what are some of the earthly things that we chase after, long for, and amass for ourselves? I suppose such a list would include
·        winning the lottery
·        money
·        food
·        clothes
·        jewelry
·        the latest technology
·        beauty
·        youth
·        travel
·        power
·        land, property
·        ‘toys’
·        popularity
In contrast, Paul’s letter to the Galatians picks up this theme and reminds us of the good gifts or fruits of the Spirit, which God provides; gifts that build human relationships, gifts that are godly. That list looks quite different. It includes things that reflect on the love of God in Christ Jesus and the things he modeled for us, which help us dwell in authentic Christ-like relationship with our neighbors:
·        love
·        joy
·        peace
·        patience
·        kindness
·        generosity
·        faithfulness
·        gentleness
·        self-control
The good news of the gospel is that as life in Christ truly includes a radical reorientation of our values as individuals and even more as community, we are freed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ from the need to run in circles, consumed with worry after the things that are on earth.
We are freed by the grace of God through Jesus Christ to know that as the love of God is limitless, we will always have enough to share, and are already forgiven for the times when we struggle to do so.
As followers of Christ we find joy when we willingly and happily share with our neighbor the material, physical gifts we have – food, clothing, shelter, money for utilities and gas but also of this grand pool of love and welcome that we have been given.
As we are freed to let go of the things and the greed that has previously driven us, we are enabled to reach out to our neighbor in authentic love and invitation.
Let us therefore embrace Jesus’ word, that we might be rich toward God who, by the power of the Spirit promises to give us eyes to see that all we have is a gift from God’s gracious hand.
Let us know the gift of this community of faith that reaches out to share the gifts we have first received – time, talent and treasure, that all may know the abundant life of Christ.
Through the Spirit and in community, undistracted by the vanity of pointless running, let us see and hear the very people Jesus saw and heard; the lonely, the disenfranchised, the weak, the poor, the powerless – our neighbor – all those we are empowered to love and embrace.   
Let gratitude and grace define us and define our lives. May we have ears to hear God’s call to remember that our lives are not rich because of what we have accumulated or done, but because of what God has done for us in Jesus, on the cross, and through the abundant life that begins in our baptism and never, ever, ends.
Let us remember that in this God-given abundant life there are always more people to invite in and to embrace with the love, joy, gentleness, patience, kindness, and generosity and all the rest with which we are gifted.
Let us pray that Jesus will continue to show us the way, for surely Jesus’ own bucket list must include his desire that this abundant life of richness toward God be the single possession and treasure that all people will one day share.