Tuesday, December 23, 2014

What the Heck? The Better Angels of our Nature are Speaking

What the Heck?  The Better Angels of our Nature are Speaking
Luke 1:26-34a

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a young woman engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. Her name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be?

A few years ago, sitting in the midst of children at the front of the church I said, “Today we are going to hear a story about a woman named Mary who had a conversation with an angel named Gabriel” and before I could take a breath a four year old exclaimed…”What the Heck!”  His parents were glad he choose heck.  And to be honest I could understand where he was coming from.  A child that might not question how Santa slides down the chimney thought this story form the Gospel of Luke was hard to fathom.  Luke’s Gospel is filled with angelic visitors that share God’s message and urge people to make choices beyond their fears.  

We know about an angel visiting shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night.  Even if you don’t read the Bible, you probably know this story by watching Linus explain it to Charlie Brown every year.  The Angel of the Lord appears in the sky, urging the shepherds to “fear not”  because they are bringing good news of great joy for all people.  They announce to the nobody shepherds, in the middle of no where that a savior is born this day in the city of David and then they direct them to go find the baby wrapped in bands of cloth and laying in a manger.  The conversation is over and the shepherds follow.  If they have any questions Luke doesn’t think they should be included.  They don’t say to the Angel, so which part of town is this manger located..south or north..any hint other than listen for the crying baby?  They don’t ask the Angel if he can watch their sheep or if they should take them to town even though the towns people don’t like the sheep.  They don’t ask if they should fill out a form for PTO and none of the shepherds start to wonder if their was something “special” in the brownies they had for lunch.  Apparently Angelic messengers make the unreasonable reasonable.

Another angel makes an appearance in the Gospel of Luke…it happens in a church of all places.  Mary’s Uncle Zechariah is performing his priestly duties when an Angel of the Lord appears to surprise him with good news.  Mary’s Aunt Elizabeth and her Uncle Zechariah have been unable to have a child and now that they are long in years.  In a culture where a woman’s value is based in her ability to bear children..preferably hard working sons and preferably 12 or 15…  Elizabeth has born the shame of her struggle with fertility.  And now an angel announces they are going to bring a child into the world.  And Zechariah doesn’t ask any questions…which may be in part because he goes mute for awhile.  Of course he could have spread some incense on the table and drawn out his questions.  But he does not and he does not speak again until he can proclaim the good news of his son, John’s birth to the world.  

No one has any questions when these angels arrive in the Gospel of Luke…that is except Mary.  She is perplexed and I love her response to the Angel.  The Angel says, “Greetings favored one.    The Lord is with you.”  She is perplexed.  She does not respond to “the Lord is with you” by saying, “and also with you.”  She thinks..what kind of greeting is this.  The presence of God, wrapped up in the form of an angel named Gabriel proceeds to tell her that she is going to have a baby.  Which she knows is not really good news by the world’s standards.  She is unmarried, she does not belong to any particular male household…she is a virgin which could also be translated to say she is a woman belonging to herself.  And women who belong to themselves that get pregnant need to be put right back in place.  Mary is pregnant in a world where the people of her community have every right to publicly stone her.  If she receives mercy  she can endure a life of poverty and fend for herself and a child that no one else loves.  She of course has one great Aunt that is excited for her but she might have a few others lamenting how such a good girl ruined her life.  She probably has an uncle or two that can't believe she would bring shame to her family.  Things are not looking good.  Plus none of them know that Joseph is getting a visit from God in a dream in the Gospel of Matthew.  No one can really believe this is a blessing.  But Mary moves forward in faith, carrying all her doubts, questions and hopes as she response, “May it be with me as you have said.” 

That’s the thing about the Gospel of Luke.  Shepherds on the margin get to proclaim God’s good news in the center of town.  An elderly couple brings new life into the world.  And a young woman that should be ashamed of herself proclaims herself blessed then she lifts up her illegitimate baby as filled with the very presence of God. This is counter to every reasonable social norm.  And I through the unreasonable part was the angel.  I have always struggle with how to take these winged beings seriously and yet I’m not so sure that’s the detail that we have to take seriously.

Perhaps you remember a show from the 1990’s called Touched by an Angel.  Once a week these beings that walked around earth and had some perspective beyond what we can see would solve everybody's problems within an hour.  Occasionally a really big problem took two weeks to solve but for the most part every time these angels were involved things were smoothed out after and their work was done.  But in the Gospel of Luke the angel shows up and the problems are not solved in an hour or even a lifetime.  The Angel shows up and once Mary or the shepherds or Zechariah choose not to be afraid they are in for a life time of hard work.  This is a different kind of angel than I had been imagining.

In his first inaugural address to the nation, President Abraham Lincoln alludes to angels in a way I find really helpful.  He urged a nation consumed by violence, struggle and potential war to connect with “the better angels of our nature.”  He gave these words as seven southern states had left the union.  He gave these words as snipers stood ready to discover anyone bent toward violence on that day in our nations capital.  He gave those words and pointed to the work that would be done to make the world new.  It may not have been his original language, Seward may have borrowed the phrase from Dickens and he may have borrowed the notion from Shakespeare’s Othello but regardless of the route, Lincoln’s words landed with deep meaning.  

Perhaps this helps you, as it does me, I imagine the angels with in and around..less winged and glowing but brilliantly urging us listen to God’s love all the same.  Perhaps if we could listen to the better angels of our nature when the knot in our throat nudges us to speak up or when our stomachs turn in witness to injustice.  Perhaps if we can listen to the better angles of our nature we will hear them say be not afraid to act with compassion and love with deep vulnerability.  Perhaps if we can listen to our better angles we will hear God say, “Greetings favored one” and we will remember we are beautiful, beloved and sacred.  Perhaps we will notice that everyone else is too.  Perhaps as we listen to the better angels of our nature we can be the ones proclaiming good news and great joy to all people.  We can live the good news with our hands and our feet and proclaim great joy when every action we take and every word we speak is motivated out of love not fear, out of hope not dispart, out of grace not anger.  

May we have the courage to listen to God urging us from those better angels of our nature and then perhaps we will say with Mary, “May it be with me as you have said.” Amen   

Rev. Debra McKnight
Pastor, Urban Abbey

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Vegetarian Lions and The War on Christmas by Rev. Debra McKnight

Isaiah 11

Isaiah is putting together some pretty powerful images.  He is offering parings that seem impossible.  The scripture imagines that the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp and if you search asp google will promptly offer you photos of an Egyptian Cobra.  Isaiah does not stop there, he says, “the weaned Child shall put its hand on the adder’s den”..which means a toddler is hanging out with a whole host of snakes in the viper family.  This is a scenario you will never find encouraged in a parenting handbook.  The thought of my own baby playing in a den of poisonous snakes is so terrifying I thought about cutting this stanza from the poem.  I mean Babies hanging out with Snakes…is not the theme for a child’s nursery. 

 Isaiah is committed to these impossible pairings.  A pack of wolves hanging out with sweet little lambs, not even grown up sheep.  The calf, the sweet baby cow with those big brown eyes is hanging with a Lion and his mama cow is grazing near by with the bear that has developed a sudden taste for grass.  It’s like suddenly all these veracious predators have had an epiphany and decided to be vegetarians.  I like to imagine the wolf telling the Lion, “Oh I just have so much more energy on this green diet, you know plus I just feel good knowing my food is ethically sourced.” And the Lion nods while the Leopard and says, “Yeah, plus I have so much free time without all that hunting and its been kind of great getting to know the goats…you know one actually made a joke about having a BBQ.”  They pause awkwardly…”Such a kidder.”  And really its one thing to be the Lion or the Wolf but to be the sheep or the cows; stuck hopping none of your new friends have a relapse or remember that they don’t have four stomachs for processing grasses.  That’s faith right there.

Isaiah is writing about the impossible.  Snakes and toddlers living in harmony.  Lambs and wolves taking a little nap together, the lions and bears eating straw…you know…just chewing the cud with the cows…Isaiah doesn’t even need to say, ”though it may seem impossible, nothing is impossible for the Lord.”  He has pretty much clarified that God dreams an impossible dream.  Isaiah offers this word when Israel is in an impossible place.  Their days of being the Lion are long gone.  They are not the regional power they were when David was king.  He rose to power when other regional superpowers were in decline.  So with a bit of charisma, violence, cunning and luck David not only rises from obscurity into royalty, he takes his country with him.  They become an imperial power, they become the lion but no matter how much David invests into the future of Israel, his grandsons and great-grandsons will struggle.  And now they are the lamb and they are circled again and again by violent and deadly armies.  

If you read about this time period in Kings you will find an interesting litany.  Every chapter or so the new king is named, his parents and then it will say he did what was evil in the sight of the lord.  Over and other, the king, his parents and he did what was evil in the sight of the lord.  Clearly being king has a pass/fail grading system and only two pass.  Only two kings do what is right in the sight of the Lord.

The two right and just kings, the two good kings are Hezekiah and his grandson Josiah. They are notable for their commitment to their faith identity.  They are committed to listening to God and to being a part of the covenant that their fathers and grandfathers shared with God before them.  And when they commit to the covenant they re-commit Israel.  Israel has a complicated history of not listening or living into the covenant and the kings really highlight this struggle.  Listening to the covenant means putting the vulnerable first and creating just working conditions but most kings don’t grow kingdoms that way.  Additionally, as the nation grew in power, the opportunity to grow even more was enhanced by marriage.  A princess from another country brought wealth, trade agreements, access to goods and she brought her Gods.  Having many God’s complicates a covenant to the One God of Israel but they keep trying it anyway.  Jerusalem became a cosmopolitan city and priests and practices, altars and shrines from other faith traditions took their place in Israel, in Jerusalem and even in the temple that belonged to the One God of Israel.  Some of these practices involved priestly prostitutes and child sacrifice, practices Israel had long ago abolished.  And the relationship between people who want to be faithful to the covenant with God grow in conflict with the royal family that increasingly drifts from the covenant.  Hezekiah and Josiah go on a rampage cleaning house.  They tear down the altars and shrines and remove and even kill the priests.  And it begs the question is that what it means to do what is right in the sight of the Lord?  Do you have to remove the alternatives?

Israel has always had a mindfulness about their identity and about maintaining it often to the exclusion of others but that has not always been with an attitude of purity.  They celebrate the story of Ruth.  Ruth a Moabite who loves her mother-in-law so deeply that she will risk it all to journey with her, works the fields and even secures a new son and her family land by marring Naomi’s relative, Boaz.  Ruth is celebrated.  She is honored.  She is an outsider, from a different tribe with different Gods and she is King David’s grandmother.  David understood the covenant with God was about listening and about being faithful, just like his Grandmother Ruth.  David understood that even as he made mistakes God was still part of his family.

Every Christmas there are debates and discussions about a war on Christmas.  News personalities with great passion will argue that we are loosing our christian identity and that christmas is under attack….not because Lexus uses the name of a peasant baby born in a barn to sell luxury automobiles but because a cashier says Happy Holidays.  We live in a nation where we don’t have to doubt a vast majority will have Christmas day off of work and yet there will be a month of ranting and raving about Christians being oppressed because public school children don’t sing Christmas Carols anymore.  I suspect this energy is not a reflection of wanting deeper faithfulness as much as it is an anxiety about change.

Fifty years ago you could open up a Methodist church in any new suburb and the people that grew up Methodist would show up.  There was no need to prod, market or invite and if anyone got really angry with their church they might do something crazy like become Luthern.  Fifty years ago there were probably people lining up to join the finance committee or to serve as a trustee or to help bake cakes for the funeral lunch.  Maybe people were just better or maybe they really worked a forty hour work week.  Regardless, no one really gets enthusiastic about serving on a committee today.  Fifty years ago you could pray before the high school football game and you just had to make sure the Methodist pastor shared with the Baptist preacher and the Catholic priest.

The world is different and I don’t think we have to see it as a threat.  It’s not really even new…maybe just new to some of us.  Diversity is an ancient reality.  Maybe we are just starting to get back to the kind of diversity that the our faith ancestors negotiated on a daily basis…I mean Jesus is talking about people going to the Hebrew temple caring Roman coins and that is really just the start.  We live in a world where people are free to choose; choose their faith and even choose none.  You see when people can really freely choose, their choice means something.  When people can choose they can be rooted in their tradition.  

Maybe that’s what makes a king right in the sight of the Lord.  Maybe it’s not the removing of choices as much as it is this one thing that King Hezekiah and King Josiah practice.  They go into the temple and they pray.  They are the only kings that go to the temple; they listen, they read the sacred texts and they urge people to practice their faith.  They are the bearers of the covenant and they find themselves rooted in it.  It allows King Hezekiah to make a decision when the ruthless Assyrians are surrounding the city, proclaiming destruction and violence.  He listens to God, seeks council from the Prophets and maybe the covenant reminded him to care about the people so much that he turns out to be one of the only kings invest in the infrastructure of walls, tunnels and wells that could save his people.

We have the chance to do what is right in the sight of God and continue Isaiah’s wild dream.  Maybe if he was writing today he would day, Isaiah would add the Republican will sit down with the Democrat.  And the person with the Jesus fish tattoo will dip his toes in the water of the Jordan with his Jewish neighbor and his muslim friend.   Maybe the American general will sit down with the Afghan child.  Maybe the man that drives the car with the “GUN control means using both hands” bumper sticker will sit down with the father that lost his five year old daughter in the Sandy Hook School shooting.  Maybe the politician calling for war will sit down with the wounded warrior longing for peace.  We have a table.  It’s God’s table and we are invited to dream big about who can sit down at the feast.  May it be so, Amen.

One baby's response to the idea of playing with snakes.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

When Pharaoh says, "Call the Midwives!" by Rev. Debra McKnight

We all know the story of Moses.  It not only looms large in three major faith traditions but if you register for baby gifts you will find there is a thing called a Moses basket…which is not actually intended for use in the nearest river.  The story of Moses is dependent on five Middle Eastern women and historically the church’s cycle of readings called the lectionary has skipped them.  Shifrah and Puah are two of them.  They are Midwives and we join them as they are being called into the Pharaoh’s office.  Some of us can relate to being called into the Principal’s office or maybe even the Bishop’s office… or maybe some other office that invites a wave of anxiety or fear.  As much as we may not want to dawn that door, I am certain the Pharaoh’s office is worse.  With a glance or a gesture the Pharaoh certainly could have them disappeared, exiled, jailed or executed.  Fear and terror at the thought of seeing Pharaoh is reasonable but the Bible says they weren’t afraid of Pharaoh.  

The Bible says they fear the Lord.   They fear God.  I can understand them fearing Pharaoh but the thought of fearing God, well that is unsettling.  A good number of us have spent years trying to let go of notions or images of a scary, punishing, damming God.  But that’s not what the Hebrew Bible means when ancient voices say they feared God.  It is a three fold meaning braided together and I’m not sure that is captured in our translation.  The first strand, is awe.  Standing in awe and wonder before the mystery of God’s presence.  And translators may have said, “the Midwives thought God was totally Awesome"…but they didn’t want to risk sounding like 90’s valley girls or the script from “Clueless.”  The second stand is listening, it is being in relationship and covenant with an awe inspiring presence.  The third strand is discipline.  It is practice.  So fearing the Lord means not only listening in the awesome presence of God but doing something about it.  Fearing the Lord means your life reflects your faith.  It means to take a stand and a risk and when you make mistakes you try again.  Shifrah and Puah fear God and that means they don’t fear Pharaoh.  

The only one truly afraid in this story is Pharaoh.  He is afraid of this growing ethic minority within his nations boarders, the Hebrews.  As they grow so does his fear.  While he may have everything he is terrified of losing it.  I imagine him tossing and turning in bed, wondering what if they take over, what if they are loyal to some other country, what if we all have to speak Hebrew.  He is so afraid of loosing everything, his power, his privilege and his stuff.  Which seems further ironic because he quite literally has everything because of the work of a former Hebrew Slave named Joseph, you know the one with the technicolor dream coat.  A previous Pharaoh listened to Joseph and prepared for a coming drought.  Now a leader preparing to feed people when they are starving…that might be a story of about the kingdom of God but this story is about an earthly king.  And that king takes his advantage.  Joseph is the lead administrator and when the land is of little value and the farmers will do anything to feed their family, he buys it.  Joseph secures absolute power  for the Pharaoh who in turn thanks him with choice real-estate in the Nile Delta.

Maybe the new Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph.  Or maybe he always through someone else should have had that job or that land…you know someone more Egyptian.  Maybe he didn’t know Joseph but perhaps he went to school with one of his sons or his grandsons.   That guy was probably picked first for kick ball, he was probably voted most likely to succeed or crowned prom king and he probably won the spelling bee which is a huge insult since Egyptian isn’t even his first language. Maybe the Pharaoh was always interested in Joseph's great granddaughter and she never texted him back.  Maybe there were slurs, maybe everyone thought why do those people get to live on the best piece of land around the Nile.  Maybe there were jokes, you know the kind you can’t say in church, about those Hebrews reproducing like rabbits.  We have to imagine the details of why and how but we know he is afraid.  He is terrified that this group of people will team up with an enemy and help over run Egypt or maybe they will be come so powerful he will lose all of his.  And even through he is more afraid of loosing his own power then he is of the Hebrew people he sets Egypt on a course of genocide.  

Of course, genocide is a modern word with a long and ugly tradition.  We know it.  We have seen it and learned about it.  We know it starts with slurs and slander.  It starts with stereotypes that diminish and belittle.  Sometimes it looks like generations of hatred and violence.  Sometimes it looks like people rounded up into camps and onto reservations.  Sometimes it looks like patches, uniforms and numbers in permeant ink.  Sometimes it looks like forced labor and starvation.  Sometimes it looks like mass graves and smoke stacks.  We know it.  On occasion, we in this country have been perpetrators and on occasion we have been liberators.

Pharaoh’s course of action looks like many others.  It begins with labor, forced labor.  But that doesn’t break the spirit of the people.  Then ruthless, cruel, impossible labor but that doesn’t break the Hebrew people down.  So now he has decreed that all sons born to hebrew women will be killed.  And he expects the midwives to do his dirty work.  Now you may be able to convince the people you pay like solders to carry out acts of cruelty and violence, they may even come up with some added insults on their own.  Your money might help you sway the public opinion to buy into the fear and stereotypes.  You might get people to put ugly bumper stickers on their chariots and you might be able to get the media to shape the story in your favor.  You may be able to get some religious leader to rial people up enough that they carry signs to say, “God HATES HEBREWS.”  There may be some ‘academic’ that writes a landmark paper or makes a great play that proves Egyptians are just morally, physically and mentally superior.  And you may even be able to silence your objectors.  But convincing midwives, women who stand in the sacred threshold of life, to kill a baby.  I don’t think so.

They are midwives.  They stand at the threshold of life and of death.  When there is a man who is nervous or belligerent or losing his lunch because of this delivery…they know how to handle him.  If there is a matriarch making all the wrong comments at all the right moments…they know how to handle her.  They know how to coach the most timid of women into loud screams of strength.  They are there at the threshold of life and death; coaching, soothing, urging.  They know how to focus a woman through the pain and panic of labor.  They know how to stay calm when even they fear the worst.  And I suspect that midwives have a sacred and holy calling and they know that a woman can die be she rich or poor.  They know a baby can die by he Hebrew or Egyptian.  They know a healthy mother with a healthy baby bring relief and joy whether they are surrounded by animals in a manger or marble in a palace. 

They know something about life and the sacred that Pharaoh doesn’t or has forgotten, and so when they are called to his office they may bow before Pharaoh but they don’t bow to him.  They take him by the hand and subvert his call to genocide.  “Oh Pharaoh,” I imagine them saying, “you know you just wouldn’t understand what it’s like?  How could you your a man.  You see, just like you said Hebrew people are strong and robust…you know those mothers just deliver so fast we can’t even get out of the house fast enough to be there.”  They will not be tools of one man’s quest for destruction.  They will not deal death and honor his fear.  They honor a higher calling.  They fear the Lord not Pharaoh.  They stand in awe of life and act to care for it.

We are called to do the same.  To stand with the midwives who have brought us safe this far.  We are called to use our hands for guiding life into the world.  To wipe the sweat from anthers brow and to urge them forward in the quest of giving life.  We are called to open our hearts and minds to ask questions and restore hope.  We are called to be midwives birthing justice and subverting norms.  May we have the courage.  Amen.

Rev. McKnight one year ago...when she was about to call the midwife.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Epiphany in the Peanut Butter

Epiphany in the Peanut Butter: A response to Sunday’s Sermon by Linda Seyfarth

Your reflection on Sunday afternoon struck a chord with me and reminded me of what I went through many years ago.

I had two normal pregnancies back in 1969 and 1971, both healthy baby boys and John and I were delighted. A few years later we tried to have "just one more", but each time I got pregnant, I lost  the baby, first at 11 weeks, then 9 weeks, then 7 weeks, then 5 weeks. I finally got smart and realized that we were only going to have two sons, both of whom are happy and healthy.

Each time I had a miscarriage, though, I suffered greatly. I wasn't denying the fact that I already had two perfectly wonderful children, but I thought I "needed" one more. The doctors could give me no reason for the losses, but still in my mind I pursued "why". I prayed about it, but kept hearing my family and friends "explain" it to me......."you wouldn't want a deformed baby"......."each baby was another boy, so your body 'automatically' rejected it as it knew you wanted a girl (NOT true!) (and that explanation came from my dad)......the clincher: "God wanted that baby more than you." Can you believe someone actually said that to me?? The sad part was it came from a well-meaning Christian lady! People tried to talk to my head, when, in fact, it was my heart that was aching.

I struggled with the "Why?" question for several weeks. Finally, one morning I had an epiphany in the peanut butter aisle in the grocery store. As I reached for the jar, I heard a baby crying in another aisle and it grabbed my heart. As I stood there grasping the grocery cart, I heard in my head the words, "It's OK. You are going to make it through this. You don't have to understand the "Why" of it; someday you will, but not now. Just accept....... accept....... accept for now." It became a transforming experience for me. I wish I could say I never cried again, but I turned a corner and was changed, transformed, ......in the peanut butter aisle. I've been able to use that experience when I have talked with other women about that kind of loss, or any kind of loss actually. Once you let go of that pursuit of trying to understand something, of figuring it out, a burden is lifted. There are many ongoing questions in life that will never be answered, nor need to be. When I saw the experience in a whole new way, I was able to move on, continue living the life God intended for me to live. I finally felt the courage to use my "God eyes" to become at peace. God works in strange ways!

By the way I have four granddaughters today!

Thanks for listening!


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

"The Gospel We Don't Have"

"The Gospel We Don't Have."

Proverbs 3:5-10
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
   and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
   and he will make straight your paths.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
   fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
It will be a healing for your flesh
   and a refreshment for your body.
Honor the Lord with your substance
   and with the first fruits of all your produce;
then your barns will be filled with plenty,
   and your vats will be bursting with wine. 
Matthew 6: 24-33 

No one can serve two masters; for a slave 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. But strive first for the kingdom of God and God's righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Recently I heard a man on NPR explain how he pretty much looks at the world through a lens of fear and anxiety.  He laughed and said, "that way I'm never disappointed."  It seemed particularly strange because this man directs big action blockbuster movies like Wild West and Men In Black..which seem to expect people to come though and save the day.  But maybe it's easy to look at the world with no expectation.  Don't expect someone to come when you need help and don't expect someone to stay when they say they will.  If you’re on a team don't expect anyone else to be a team player.  Plus if you have low expectations of others. You apply that to yourself.  Live with the reality that people suck and if someone comes through. Well that is really a bonus.

So I started to imagine if Jesus had approached his ministry with this general frame work.  What would the gospel would look like if Jesus lived in fear?  I suspect he would have saved a lot of time teaching and re-teaching.  Every time the disciples don't understand or make a mistake Jesus would have just taken that as par for the course.  Perhaps he would have said, "That's what I expected.  I figured I would have to do this all myself anyway.  Why don't you guys try fishing again."   The scene where two disciples are fighting over who is the best and calling some type of holy "shot gun" that meant the winner got to sit by Jesus for eternity would have looked different.  Instead of Jesus reminding them that the first is last and that discipleship means being a servant to all. I suspect Jesus would have said, "Hey guys, how about you take turns or something."  Would feeding the 5,000 have looked like Jesus standing up with a few fish and a bit of bread saying, "I have mine so open your baskets people because you probably brought some food and you might want to think carefully about sharing because you know sometimes people take advantage."  If the red letter print involved Jesus asking for a favor after healing the sick or standing up in the synagogue to whine; I am 100% confident we would not be gathering for worship on Sundays to celebrate the Christian spirit.  Jesus told the disciples and us alike not to worry.  Again and again he points out the pointless-ness of fear.

In our scriptures, Jesus seems to be the only one not worried about food, not worried about clothing, not worried about saving for a new house or diversifying his portfolio.  Jesus in fact only seems to express interest in food or money when it relates to how much he cares for people who don't have any or people have so much that they place it before God.  Again and again he says give it way, takes the risk and share.  Which I think is why the primary object of fear in the New Testament is Jesus.  If you will excuse, for just a moment, my objectification of Jesus. Consider all the plotting that goes on to quiz him, trick him, trap him, chase him and kill him.  His way of being in the world was a practice of peace.  A practice of letting go of stuff and things.  Letting go of wants and even needs.  Letting go and living in the confidence that his true self and the true self of others was enough.  Jesus was confident in God's presence within and around him.  He didn't need to worry, he just needed to help people discover that true presence within.  If everyone would discover their true selves there would no need to store up and hold back.

The only fear Jesus had is what his tradition called, the fear of the Lord.  Now perhaps that makes you uncomfortable. But the fear of the Lord is not about a big, bad vengeance loving God.  The Hebrew wisdom tradition invited Jesus to explore the fear of the Lord as an avenue of honoring your relationship with God and image of God within.  You don't fear anything else because that money or that emperor doesn't reflect your identity like God.  Focus on God.  Jesus would have grown up in a tradition that invited him to honor God and by honoring God you honor yourself and others.  There is nothing to fear but falling away from that.  The fear of the Lord was a practice.  Dr. Alyce McKenzie says the fear of the Lord means approaching God with awe on bended knee, opening a listening ear to discern Gods call, keeping a cool spirit of self-control in the midst of hard times, and ultimately working to subvert unjust systems for the Kingdom of God.  Fear of the Lord is nothing like fear.

Kingdom of God is about a bold, fearless life.  It keeps your focus on God not on the worries of the day.   You can listen with the Shepherds when Angels say, "fear not for I bring you good news of great Joy."  You can imagine yourself as Mary, vulnerable and alone except aware of the life growing within.  With her you can imagine the urging of angels and aunts to remember you are blessed.  Fear the Lord and walk with God.  Fear the Lord and expect the best from yourself, from people, from the world.  Fear the Lord not your boss or the stock market, not smoking or weight-loss.  Fear the Lord and really live.  Live with your truth out for everyone to see and share.  Live with your whole heart and live ready to grow.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Christian Response to Cadillac and Snowboard Cross

Deut 30: 15-20         15See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in God’s ways, and observing God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish…..I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God…
I don’t know why I care so much about snowboard cross or a woman flinging her body down an icy slop on something called a skeleton...but I do.  I really do. I watch the Olympics and I worry and wonder along with the athletes and their mothers as men and women fly down ski slops and spin in the air over a sheet of thin ice.  My personal experience of winter sport is limited to ice skating on the pond at my childhood home and one trip to an Iowa hill called “Mount Crescent.”  But I watch anyway.  

I think the best part of the Olympics happens off the ice and before the snow.  I think the best part of the Olympics is really the athletes themselves.  Their dedication and discipline, their hours of daily practice for most of the years of their lives, their falls from grace and their recoveries, their blood and sweat and tears.  Perhaps that is what draws me in.  I can only imagine what it is like to reach such a level of perfection at a discipline that it is judged within tenths and hundredths of a second.  I can only imagine what is is like to have a lifetime of work culminate before the world in a two minute 30 second program.  

It is easy for us to imagine these young athletes finding their gifts within and then finding the right coaches to nurture their talents.  We can imagine them working out before the sun rises and long after it sets.  We can imagine the lonely pursuit, driven by a personal discipline and courageous will that surly makes each deserving of something much more than a participation ribbon.  Young athletes can image themselves on the podium.  They can imagine the moment where their hard work matched the right conditions and they came away with a gold medal around their neck. 

What would it look like for us to take our faith with such discipline?  What  would it look like for a young person to look up and say I want to live a life of faith like she did or he does?  What would it take for us to put our whole hearts and whole selves into the life of faith?  Maybe that is a hard question because the goal might seem unclear.  I mean what does a life of faith well lived look like?  What are the rewards?  Perhaps some of the struggle rests in the fact that for many the goal is more of an afterlife goal, that doesn’t push us too much in this life.  Or maybe for those that explore faith in the here and now, the goal is foggy...does it look like showing up to church every Sunday?  Does it look like giving everything away?  Does it look like Mother Teresa or Moses or Dr. King?  And if that is the goal...then maybe that participation ribbon isn’t so bad after all.  

In Deuteronomy, Moses is reaching the end of his road and getting a little philosophical.  Moses, a man, raised in privilege by a family bent on the genocide of his people, didn’t have an easy path.  He ran away, he killed a man, he found refuge and created a new family in the wilderness and then he found his way home.  And that didn’t mean he got to stay there it just meant he stood with his people in the hardest struggle of their history...leaving bondage in Egypt.  Moses lead a band of escape slaves through the desert for 40 years and now he is thinking back on his life.  And he tells us, choose life.  Choosing life meant choosing to live as God would have you live.  Choosing life meant once you are free from bondage you don’t put other people into bondage.  Choosing life meant honoring the wisdom of your mothers and fathers, it meant loving God and neighbor, it mean not harming but emaciating.  Choosing life wasn’t just an occasional thing on the big moments but it was a every-moment choice.  

For us choosing life isn’t always easy.  We get it on the big things like murder and theft.  But the everyday choices are filled with shades of gray and the supermarket doesn’t put a sign on the bananas that says these are life-giving bananas because all the workers were treated fairly, the earth was nurtured in their making and the carbon to ship them was off-set by new trees planted in the rainforest.  The choices before us are filled with gray from the t-shirt on your back to the coffee in your cup.  Every choice is one that gives life or deals death in some way.  Our time and our money show our choices.  And most of the time it is hard to know if they are getting us to the goal of a life well lived.  

The world is filled with images of a life well lived.  You can pin what you want on pinterest or you can see it on tv.  Magazines will sell you images of the goal and commercials will tell the story of how to get there.  The recent commercial from Cadillac points to working hard and taking less vacation as the way to reach the goal of a nice house, a nice wife, a nice suit and a nice car.  But I don’t think that is what Moses intended as choosing life.  

Perhaps the easiest way to imagine this is to start from the goal.  Once at a leadership gathering I was asked to write my obituary.  What would I like people to say about me?  What do I want my my life to mean?  Why did it matter?  I invite you to consider those questions too.  Do we want people to say he worked hard and had a lot of toys or he worked hard and was generous and his community is better for his gifts.  Do we want people to say her friends and family could count on her and she gave her time to take care of others or she was proud of having watched every episode of Sex in the City...four times.  He was kind, understanding and always made room for more people at the table.  She worked for justice, laughed hard and tried new adventures.  He loved his family and friends with the deepest devotion.  My guess is almost no one wants to be remembered for having a great car. 

Discipleship is a life of generosity and abundance.  It means making different choices, choices that give life.  And like any goal it is work.  A lot of work.  And just like the athletes we see on TV.  We don’t have to do it alone.  There are teammates and coaches all along the way.  I mean isn’t that why we gather every Sunday, cheer each other on and pick ourselves up when we stumble along the way.

May it be so.  Amen

Rev. Debra McKnight
New Start Associate Pastor
Urban Abbey, 1026 Jackson St.
First United Methodist Church, 7020 Cass St.
Omaha, Nebraska