Monday, January 31, 2011

...and He began to teach them

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and He began to teach them. He said: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn...
Matthew 5:1-4a
OK. Let's hold it right there. We'll never know how many in the crowds heard Jesus' words. Was it a real mountainside, or was it simply up a little hill where only his closest followers got their first instructions from the rabbi who had newly called them to follow him?
It was probably quick, on-the-fly instruction, not a nice spiritual retreat in which the new students got spiritual enlightenment in splendid isolation, far from the pressing crowds with their needs, the obvious afflictions, and their endless hopes for something better in life.
Jesus talks about being blessed. Blessed in times that don't look like blessing. Blessed in situations that are precisely the ones we are trying to pry ourselves out of or feel hopelessly trapped in. Trapped by poverty, by circumstances, by events way beyond our control, by afflictions and conditions and diseases. By the undying opinions and judgments made about us by those who have their hands on the levers of real power in society.
Hands that finally grab those levers seem as rigid as the steel in the levers themselves.
Under all these weights, how is it that people feel blessed?
Jesus' disciples would have to wrestle with these questions themselves. These would be the questions on the faces and on the hearts of the people they had not yet met, people whom they would be called to serve.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. If the kingdom of heaven is of God, how can Jesus say it will be something akin to feeling poor in spirit? Shouldn't it leave us leaping like a deer in fresh spring grass after a dismal and hungry winter? Shouldn't we literally be dancing with the stars?
There are 10 statements in the Beatitudes, the "blessed are" statements. Like the 10 words, 10 commandments that Moses came down the mountain with. These weren't all dumped on the whole population of Israel enroute from bondage to freedom. They came to Moses first. His was the task of giving them to the people in ways that were truly blessings of God, not more of the whips and rods of Pharaoh's labor bosses.
There is room for a lifetime of exploration in the Beatitudes of Matthew. They culminate in the example set by the prophets. We may not ever come to envy the life of a single prophet. Prophets' tasks were difficult, costly, filled with hardships. Life threatening. Yet nobody in their right minds would look back and regard the prophets as anything but priceless treasures.
Prophets, it seems, fit the description Andy Kerr once coined for environmentalists: hell to live with but they make great ancestors.
Maybe because the work of the prophets extended far beyond them as God's priceless and necessary work in the world.
Our lives of being blessed, of knowing that we are blessed, do extend beyond us in ways we cannot and will not see in this life. The promise from Jesus is that life in him and because of him is life that involves blessedness. The disciples cannot ever describe or exemplify this blessing to anyone unless they first know it and live it themselves. Neither can we.
As one of my very astute professors once said, "A word from the prophet must first of all be a word to the prophet." That's worth a great deal of thought.
A little story: On the night of October 6, 2008, I put Jean to bed, tucked her in, kissed her and said, "Good night, best wife in the world." We got about four hours' sleep that night after putting the house in order, taking care of dishes and laundry and all those mundane things.
We awoke somewhere around 4 AM in order to get to OHSU to check in for neurosurgery. Jean had a large brain tumor that an incredibly brave team of surgeons were willing to tackle. It was a grueling day. First the surgery got delayed by about two hours so that an earlier and more pressing one could be completed. Then the expected four-hour surgery for Jean dragged on. And on.
All they would say at the four-hour point was that things were progressing. They promised hourly updates.
An hour came and passed with no word. Then a second hour came and passed with no word. We knew the tumor was right up against the left carotid artery. Had something gone wrong? Would Jean live? Would she come out of surgery a brain damaged vegetable, aware but unable to see or walk? What?
By the time the day of the surgery came, our energy was at an ebb. We had already been all over the emotional map on this and now simply walked ahead to face whatever was there. I prayed with Jean and Hilary before they took her away. At that point, I said, "We are in God's hands, and that's all we know. It's all we need."
Empty. Emotionally flat-lined. Nothing. Dead. That's how it was up in the surgery waiting room with no word and no end in sight. If that's poor in spirit, then I know it. I was so poor I felt as lifeless as crushed rock. Like I was not only dead but had never lived. I knew that God was attending to things. That's all I knew.
It was the kingdom of heaven. It was enough. It was the silence of death which must come before resurrection. The "resurrection" finally came at 6 hours, 35 minutes, in a phone call from the assisting surgeon: "Normal resection. We're now actively trying to wake her up."
The kingdom of heaven.
Jesus was right. He knew what he was talking about.
In this whole process we had been blessed all along. We were blessed when we had nothing give. We continue to be blessed by what we have received. And we can't even see most of it.
Jesus was right. He still is. We have living proof. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

This Thing Of Ours...

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"

Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." Then John consented.

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:13-17 NIV)

So, it's this thing of ours. We apply water in one form or another. Some folks pour it. Some folks sprinkle it. Other folks put you in it. That's what the Greek word behind "baptism" implies: dunking. As in a river or a lake or fountain.

They quit doing the dunking thing in Europe around Luther's time because too many infants caught their death of cold when they got dunked 3X in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

It's this thing of ours, this thing we do. Just like Holy Communion. Another thing we do.

The bread and fruit of the vine. We do them because of that other thing we do: Baptism. That's where it starts. With this thing of ours as followers of Christ.

If I were talking Italian, I'd say it was "la cosa nostra", this thing of ours.

Kinda got started in a new way with Jesus there in the Jordan River. John is calling people to open up their hearts and minds to the nearness of God's new thing: the kingdom of God. "As a way of showing you are ready, wash up and make a clean start!"

Then Jesus shows up and says, "I'm in. OK, let's get wet."

John won't have it. He knows that when God's Messiah arrives, he, John, will be the one who needs to clean up his act. But Jesus persists. "We have to do this to fulfill all righteousness," Jesus says.

Righteousness is kinda off-putting. We hear the word and think: goody two-shoes... holier-than-thou... me better than you.

Not exactly its Biblical sense according to Paul in his letter to the Romans. Per Paul, God is righteous because he justifies. In other words, God is righteous because God makes things right. Not simply that God is righteous because God is sinless perfection (who God is) but also because of what God does: makes things right, makes us right. God is righteous because God "righteousnesses" us. That's what justification means.

"John," Jesus says, "we have to do this to begin the work of setting things right--my work. We have to begin at the beginning. In order for me to take what's wrong and have it nailed to the cross with me, I have to begin where you and every person is: in need of new birth, a resurrection."

John concedes. Jesus gets wet. Heavens open...

A dove-like form of the Spirit descends on Jesus and alights. The same voice to be heard on the mountain of Transfiguration declares the same thing here: My Son. I am deeply passionate about what my Son is doing."

It's a Theophany, a God appearance there at the Jordan. We go with Jesus to the Jordan in this season of Epiphany because now, after the birth at Christmas, we contemplate what on earth it means for God to appear, to show up upon, to shine upon, to appear here, on earth.

So we also begin where Jesus begins. 'Cause Jesus takes that beginning and makes way more out of it. Once he begins, it kicks off his ministry of proclaiming, teaching and healing. Yeah, the same work he's actually turned over to us. And when we do those things, we're supposed to do this thing of ours, this washing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It's more than just an attitude adjustment. It's a God appearance. God shows up in that Baptism to stake a claim on us. Ain't no solvent can dissolve that glue. Ain't no rite of the church called "unBaptism".

When you been washed, you done been washed. As in, forever. You belong to God. And the sign says:

Devils Keep Out!

So it's this thing of ours 'cause Jesus gave it to us and he said to do it. That alone, his words, would be enough reason for us to do it. But there's something more. He promises to show up there. He not only forgives our sins there, he takes 'em away to the cross. He stays in their place.

Which is also why we do this other thing of ours, Holy Communion. Yeah, he's promised to show up there, too. Bread and wine = body and blood. By promise, by faith. By Spirit, not by chemical analysis.

"Given and shed for you for the remission of sins" was the translation of Luther's words I learned.

This thing of ours, la cosa nostra...

Epiphany. Theophany. Jesus said. I believe. Amen.

Thanks be to God!

Pastor Roger

PS: Just between you and me, I'd rather get dunked in Wallowa Lake than that public drinking fountain in Northwest Portland with the built-in doggie dish at the bottom. Not to mention what mighta been floating in the ol' Jordan... That's just me. But the water doesn't matter. It's the getting wet in the name of the ThreeOne that counts.

Monday, January 3, 2011

1:10 Ratio Ain't Bad

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?" Luke 17:15-17

Some years ago at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, I played with an exhibit made of sprockets and chains enclosed inside a large case of clear plexiglass. There was an exposed crank that viewers could turn. The crank turned a shaft with a very small sprocket connected by bicycle chain to a very large sprocket on a second shaft. Adjacent to that large sprocket was another small sprocket which was in turn linked to large sprocket on a third shaft. And so on.

Each ratio was 1:10. That is, the first small sprocket had 10 teeth. The first large one had 100 teeth. If you turned the crank 10 turns, the second shaft would turn once. It would turn the third shaft 1/10 of a turn. Which would turn the fourth 1/100th of a turn. Which would turn the fifth shaft 1/1000th of a turn. And so on up through 10 stages.

Of course, most people tired mentally long before they had turned the crank 25 turns. Their efforts seemed to disappear into nothing. You could have stood there cranking for a half hour without seeing any perceptible movement of the tenth shaft. Ten-year-old boys would be the exception. They'd stand there cranking, determined to will the laws of physics into a new order until their families tore them away to get lunch.

Jesus had to cleanse ten lepers to get thanks out of one. Atcually, this is another way of saying, "Only one out of every ten people is going to accept my witness--and that's on my very best day when an extraordinary act of healing has taken place in front of God and everybody. And they will very likely be the people y'all don't like."

One out of ten.

Not a ratio to write home about. But still something...

The young woman prostrating herself before the gravestone above?

She is Mary McHugh, the fiance' of Army Sgt. James John Regan who was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Google his name and read about his story in his hometown newspaper (Manhasset/Mineola, New York) or any of the many online stories about him.

Here in America today we are running a 1:49 ratio. Only one out of every 49 families has someone like James John Regan serving in our armed forces or a grieving young woman like Mary who never got to spend her life waking up next to the fine young man she loved with all her heart.

She never even got to wear the title "widow". Her grief is officially unrecognizable to the government and almost the entire nation.

Not a ratio to write home about.

Except that it will never improve unless we all write home about it.

Pray for new things in this new year. Peace would do. So would life.