Saturday, September 24, 2016

Luke 16: 19-31

(Originally preached in 2007)
I have to be completely honest with you all this morning. This scripture has been eating me alive all week long. Seriously! I could not figure out what to say about it, what God wanted to be heard. In fact I almost gave up and sought out another scripture. This passage from Luke just seemed so hard. And to a congregation that has been through so much it didn’t seem to fit. But, I read the scripture and my notes again and realized there was a message for all of us after all. I just didn’t see it at first.
This parable is about an unnamed rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. It follows Jesus’ many teachings in Luke to the Pharisees, the elite of his day. Jesus tells of a rich man who lives a good life, with good things. The Pharisees would have identified with this man, after all the common held belief was if you were rich it was because of God’s favor or blessings. Outside of his gate, Jesus says, lived a poor man, ill, hungry, and in need, with only the neighborhood dogs for company. To the Pharisees this would not have evoked sympathy for Lazarus, they would have felt disdain for him for daring to sit in front of the gate of a wealthy man, begging for food, what a disgrace. If they thought God had blessed the rich then it stood to reason God has cursed the poor.
Jesus tells the crowds that both men died, reminding them and us that rich or poor we are all mortal. It’s the next line and the following that would have shocked the hearers of Jesus’ words. Jesus tells them that the rich man looked up from Hades and saw Lazarus with father Abraham. What? If wealth was a sign of God’s favor or blessing then why is the rich man in Hades, and why is that filthy beggar with Abraham? The rich man calls out begging Abraham to send Lazarus to cool his tongue with some water. Abraham replies with words that would have made the Pharisees shake in their boots. “You received good things on earth and Lazarus evil, now he is comforted and you are afflicted.” The rich man then begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his living family members that they might not suffer the same fate. And again his request is deigned. Even from Hades, the rich man cannot imagine that Lazarus isn't there to serve him and his purposes. Though the rich man is in agony in the flames, he is still completely focused on himself—his thirst, his family, what others can do for him. Regardless, Abraham will no longer allow Lazarus to be exploited. The tables are turned.
“If they did not believe Moses and the prophets they will not believe when someone rises from the dead.”
I can only imagine the looks on the faces of the crowd as Jesus had once again scored a major point for the oppressed and downtrodden. But what does this parable really mean to us this morning? Is it a description of the afterlife? Is it a God’s gonna get ya so watch out text? No, not really. Parables were not told about a specific place, person, or time. Rather they were teachings about how to live, NOW not in the afterlife, but in our lives here today!
You see, the rich man could be anyone of us. We live, as we know, in the wealthiest nation on the planet. Not all of us are millionaires, some of us even struggle to pay our day to day bills, but we are still wealth in the terms of the world. And so there is a certain kinship with the rich man. But I think the true kinship is in our inability or unwillingness to see, really see. The rich man lived in his home in comfort and bliss while a man sat dieing a slow death outside of his gate. While Lazarus dreamed of edible garbage and kept company with dogs, the rich man lived a life of comfortable pleasure. He might have seen the vagrant that loitered outside of his home. But did he ever truly see Lazarus, the human being, the son of God, who just needed some food?
No, he didn’t really see Lazarus. Even in Hades, he never speaks to Lazarus, just about him and around him. What happened to the rich man should
be a life-changing experience--a destitute at his
door, his own death, but nothing is his demeanor or
attitude is different--it is still all about him.
Isn’t that often the case, it is about us? I was reminded of a story about St. Francis of Assisi by a friend recently. There are many legends about the amazing power Francis had with animals. One of them tells us that in the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, there was a wolf “terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals.” Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and went up into the hills to find the wolf. Soon fear of the animal had caused all his companions to flee, but the saint pressed on and when he found the wolf he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at the feet of St. Francis. “Brother Wolf, you do much harm in these parts and you have done great evil…” said Francis. “All these people accuse you and curse you…But brother wolf, I would like to make peace between you and the people.” (Here I picture Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, come to rehabilitate the wolf and the town into a pack that can get along). So, Francis led the wolf into the town, and surrounded by startled citizens he made a pact between them and the wolf. Because the wolf had “done evil out of hunger” the townsfolk were to feed the wolf regularly, and in return, the wolf would no longer prey upon them or their flocks.
The town’s folk had never questioned why the wolf was attacking; they only saw him as dangerous and a threat to their own survival. They were, as a result, blind to his need for food.
Too often we live a life that is blind by choice. We chose to not see the hurting in our community. We chose to not hear when our neighbors yell and fight. We chose to not see the men gathered near a store front hoping to get hired on as a day laborer. We chose not to see the group of homeless men and women who have taken up residence under the interstate on ramp. We chose not to see those in our own congregation that are in need of financial, emotional, and spiritual assistance. Why do we do this?
Because to see means we must do something, or come to grips with our own selfishness. We cannot be confronted by true need and not be changed. And so it is easier for us to live lives that are quite, peaceable, and unaffected then to seek out relationships with persons in need. Throughout the Gospels we are taught to care for one another, even in manners as small as the sharing of loves and fish. We are told that the kingdom of God is unlike the kingdoms of this world that devour widows and orphans, that attack the alien, that abuse the poor. And yet, for some reason we do not see!
Do we live our lives hearing and talking about the gospel, but never letting it in? Are we constantly divided by a chasm we cannot not cross because of our sinful selfishness? On our own we would not even notice this chasm let alone have a thought to cross. Unfortunately, that is how we often try to live our life; on our own. But the chasm can be crossed, thanks be to God, Jesus crossed it for us. If nothing reaches us, touches us in this life, than we cannot rejoice and celebrate in the freedom Jesus gives. It is out of grateful hearts that we use our hands for the work of God. It is with thankfulness that we fill boxes for Operation Christmas Child. It is with humble hearts that we give to Habitat for Humanity, to the Heifer Project, to missionaries both here and abroad.
What we can learn from this parable is a better way to live, in the here and now. A better way to show the Love of God and our love for God, through being instruments of his peace. St. Francis wrote a prayer to that effect once and it was turned into a lovely hymn that I would like to share with you as we reflect on this passage and it’s meaning in our lives.

Make me a channel of your peace.
Where there is hatred let me bring your
Where there is injury, your pardon, Lord
And where there's doubt, true faith in

Oh, Master grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console
To be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love with all my soul.

Make me a channel of your peace
Where there's despair in life, let me bring
Where there is darkness, only light
And where there's sadness, ever joy.

Make me a channel of your peace
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned
In giving to all men that we receive
And in dying that we're born to eternal

Friday, September 23, 2016

Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option- and Other Things the Bible Says About Sex. A Book Review

I am a thirty-seven-year-old clergywoman. I have been married for fourteen years to the same man. He is a clergyman in my denomination. We met in Seminary. It was his last year, my first year, and he showed me the safe place to shop in the big city of Memphis, TN. A month later we were dating exclusively. A month after that we were engaged. Five days shy of knowing each other a year we were married.

Why would I give this information in a book review?

Because my husband and I decided to read this book together. Yes, a book on Good Christian Sex was read every night by two clergypersons. And to be honest, I think this book led to the first real and meaningful conversations about sex that we have ever had with one another! I would recomend this book based on that fact alone!

When I first proposed reading thiss book together we both began to feel like nervous teenagers. Talking about sex made us uncomfortable to say the least. The fact that we were going to talk about God and sex completely freaked u out.

By the time the Reverend McCleneghan explained the intent of the book “to lay out some of the theological and ethical questions that arise in your average, everyday experience of adult sexuality, and to walk readers through those discussions in a clear and engaging way” (page 11) my palms were sweaty. Just what might she mean by “average, everyday experience of adult sexuality?” I’m not really sure I think about my own adult sexuality, let alone the everyday variety!

My husband and I got through the introduction with the occasional laugh and felt a bit better. The we started the first chapter called “My Favorite Feel” and all bets were off! “My reticence,” writes McCleneghan, “ to speak about pleasure and the solo pursuit of it is not just because it’s embarrassing as all get out. It’s also because I’m a woman talking about the solo pursuit of pleasure. Much of our cultural conversations around sex and pleasure is highly gendered.” (page 19)

This particular quote sent my husband and I down a lengthy rabbit trail. While the topic was initially awkward, the conversation began to get easier. We were able to share our thoughts, our preconceived notions, the things we had been taught.

The attitude my husband had been raised with about sex was very different from the one I was raised to believe. Most of his revolved around the stereotypical “Don’t do it, but if you do, use a condom.” While mine was squarely out of the “Purity movement” of the mid to late 1990’s. The attitude that “Sex is dirty. Save it for your spouse.” It is this mentality that led me to struggle with sexuality and appropriate expressions of sexuality for a VERY long time.

McCleneghan makes wonderful arguments for the blessed nature of sexual relationships. Her discussion on the fact that the Christian church tends to be very Gnostic in its beliefs, valuing the spirit over and above the body. This heresy is still dangerous to us today, because by denying the humanness, the body, we deny that the incarnation (God becoming human in Jesus Christ) is necessary, or indeed, holy.

These thoughts gave each of us pause and opened us up to much more productive conversation. But the real “ah-ha” moment for me came on page 53 and 54:
There’s a grace, then, in sexual intimacy that is mutually pleasurable. There is a grace in deeming someone worthy enough to see and know you; there’s a grace in being seen by someone in a new way . . . and maybe even coming to see yourself in a new way. There’s grace- and passion and delight- in coming to know another’s scent, another’s taste, another’s body, and to see oneself as having a particular, and beloved, scent, taste, and body

I think I cried for two days after reading this passage I had never seen sex as a means of grace. I had realized that my relationship with my husband was a means of grace. Through it I have learned so much about how beautiful and painful love can be. But the thought that God could use something that I had been told for 23 years was “bad” or “dirty” as a way to show us love and intimacy shocked my system.

These words helped me see something I had never been able to see before. They helped me see that mutual love and affection, yes, even physical affection, could not only be good, but could be holy.
There are so many other things that I have learned and I am beginning to realize through reading this book. There are so many things that together my husband and I are learning about one another and our relationship through the discussions we have had and continue to have about this book.
If I could say one thing to the Reverend McCleneghan it would be this:

Thank you for being brave enough to talk about adult sexuality and faith in the same breath. Thank you for digging into the hard questions, from defining sex, to consent, to past histories, which have allowed such open conversation between me and my husband. Thank you for taking sex back from a world that has made it cheap, disposable, and dirty. Thank you for reclaiming the presence of grace that can be found in such a sacred union. If nothing else, you have helped this pastor/wife/mom of three realize that there is so much more to the issue than “Just say no” or the equally upsetting “just do it!”


I received a free copy of the book after agreeing to participate in a Book Tour, with no promises made in exchange.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Be Dishonest

Luke 16:1-13
I honestly like my house. This may be the first home that Steven and I have lived in that I really liked. It’s not the nicest house in the world, maybe not even the nicest on my block, but I like it. We put down new floors this summer and I really enjoy the laminate flooring we have.
I feel settled, secure, safe, perhaps for the first time in my adult life. We live in a nice neighborhood with kids about the same age as our kids running around. It’s a quiet neighborhood, except when my neighbor has his band over practicing like he did last night. I have wifi, cable TV, the roof doesn’t leak and the air conditioner runs well enough. I like the security of my situation. I don’t have everything anyone could want by any means. In fact, there are dozens of things I can think of right off of the bat that I’d like, starting with a car big enough for my family, but even with that I know that I am blessed and more than that, fairly content.
And that my friends, might be why I really don’t like our parable for this morning. It is unsettling. It is disturbing. It is confusing. I don’t like it, and I am not alone.
The most common thing I read when studying this text, the thing almost all commentators agreed upon was this: This is perhaps the hardest passage in the Gospel of Luke, perhaps even in all of the Gospels.
The parable of the dishonest manager is troubling at best and worrisome at the very least. Why would Jesus tell this story? Why must it be so unsavory? Why must it be so confusing? Why tell a story about money to begin with? After all money is a touchy subject and when a church or preacher bring it up it makes people uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that many, including me, try to avoid the topic at all costs!
And why tell this story about money, Jesus? Why tell us a story where the ending is so unsatisfactory? Why tell a story where the bad guy wins?
There is a strong taboo in our society against speaking of or preaching about, money. But in Luke, and throughout scripture, God makes it very clear that money matters. Why talk about it so much if it doesn’t? I think one of the main reasons it gets brought up is that people in Jesus’ day, just like today, struggled with money. How much is enough? How much do I need? How much do I share? And while this parable doesn’t give clear answers it does “present us with characters who also struggle with money, characters with mixed motives and yet who change overtime in relationship to their circumstances. Characters, perhaps, not unlike ourselves.”[i]
That is the beauty of parables. They are stories connecting the ordinariness of our life with the extraordinary nature of God. They give us a glimpse into the present not yet kingdom of God. And while today’s is certainly difficult, its goal is to illuminate a part of the kingdom that is hard for us to see.
What happens in this parable is hard for us to understand. I think with our 21st century understandings of the world, everything about this passage is wrong. The steward or manager is told he is fired and so he goes and cheats his boss out of a large percentage of profit and then he is commended by that same boss for his shrewdness. To do this he goes and negotiates with these debtors with no real authority to do so. This goes beyond bad business practice; this kind of stuff will land you in jail. From the capitalist perspective he is guilty of all charges.
But perhaps some of what we see here is in our world view, most specifically our economic world view. We forget that biblical times were not the same as today. We forget that charging interest for loans was forbidden in Jesus’ day because it exploited the most vulnerable. Exodus 22:25-27, Leviticus 25:36-38 and Deuteronomy 23:19-20 all say do not charge interest.
Theologian Barbara Rossing says “We pray in the Lord’s prayer ‘Forgive us our debts’ but when we encounter a debt collector who actually reduces poor people’s debts by 20% to 50%- namely, reducing their debts to what was probably the original amount borrowed, without hidden interest charges- our first instinct is to judge him.”[ii]
Here we have a man reducing debt and he seems like a bad guy. Why is that? Well partially because he is seen as cheating his master out of potential gains. So we get put off by these actions. But the master, he commends the man for these actions. Not only that, but Jesus tells the crowd to make friends with dishonest wealth so that you will have a place in the eternal homes. Clear as mud right?
But maybe we are looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps the economics of the situation are clouding our vision. Let’s try something else. Perhaps if we look at this parable through another modern day parable.
Biblical Scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer tells this story:
When she was in her junior year of high school she played a trick on a teacher based on this very scripture. This was a VERY unpopular teacher. Students thought she was humorless and inflexible as well as very, very odd. A lot of teachers occasionally let the class order and chip in, one by one, for pizza to munch on during class, but not this one. A few friends and Sarah decided to see what this teacher was really made of.
They collected money from peers, sworn to secrecy, to buy pizzas for the whole class.
Sarah ordered the pizzas in the teacher’s  name, but had the cash on hand to pay for it.
The pizzas arrived, with the deliverer proclaiming that "Mrs. ____" (the teacher) had ordered them. The teacher looked flummoxed and panicked.
But within a second, Sarah sprang to her feet and said, "Mrs. _____, it's SO generous of you to buy pizza for the whole class. But I can't do that. Some friends already pooled some money for lunch, and we'll spring for it."
Her teacher had a choice to make in that moment. The whole class was applauding her for ordering pizza for all -- which she hadn't done. She looked at Sarah with a raised eyebrow, accepted delivery, and then paid for the pizza.
She could have let the class eat pizza but let the class pay for it, but Sarah thinks the teacher is a good person, and she decided that since everything was disrupted anyway, she might as well accept the acclaim of the class for her generosity, even if it wasn't her idea.
She had an in-between choice not available to the landlord of the "Unjust Steward" parable: she could have accepted the applause of relaxing class discipline, but refused the cost of the pizza.
But things were already upset. She did what I probably would have done in her shoes, and took the applause and affection of the crowd. She was a little different from then on; Sarah thought she saw a glint of mischief in her eye after that, and Sarah likes to think it was a glint that was always there, but was before suppressed. I suspect she wasn't so married to the order of a traditional "orderly classroom" as they all thought, and she welcomed the freedom to do things differently.
Maybe the landlord in the parable felt the same. Maybe he felt freed to function in ways that would make him a "Bad Landlord," but a better human being.
The Steward in this story doesn’t tell the farmers that he has been fired, that he has no real authority to make these changes, any more than he tells them that the landowner didn’t authorize this generosity.
“The result is that the farmers believe that the landowner is more generous than just about anyone else in his position would be. The landowner is now a hero in the farmer’s eyes- and the steward is also, by extension.
Dishonest this manager may indeed be, but he understood how to use what was entrusted to him for a greater good. We should take note of that Jesus says. How much more must the children of God do with the riches entrusted to our care?
What, precisely, is it that the steward does, albeit without authorization and with deception?
The steward forgives debts.
“The steward forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct. But that's the decisive action that he undertakes to redeem himself from a position from which it seem he couldn't be reconciled, to the landowner any more than to the farmers.”[iii]
Forgive. Forgive everything. Forgive it for whatever good or bad reason you may have, or for no reason at all. Forgive for every reason in the world.
Forgive because you were forgiven. In the realm of God, debts are forgiven and slaves are set free.
This is so radical to us because somewhere along the way being in debt became normal to us. Owing someone something, whether it be money, favor, power or pride, became an everyday occurrence. Somewhere along the way we lost the freedom in God’s vision for God’s people. We stopped hearing the joy of God’s voice telling us that we are all beloved children of God, just as we are. Somewhere along the way we buried our treasures and are not sure where to find them.
What is important is not how much we have, how much we accumulate, how much we are owed. What matters is how we use what resources we have in light of our relationship to God and to those God loves. We, my friends, you and me, we have been entrusted with the resources of God’s kingdom. Will we act on behalf of God’s kingdom with the same sense of urgency and creativity as if our own personal well-being depended upon it?
You cannot serve two masters. It’s there in black and white, or red and white if you have a red letter bible. We are kidding ourselves if we think we can have two separate lives, one Sunday mornings and another the rest of the week. We cannot bounce back and forth between serving two masters when it is convenient.
“When faced with the pronouncement that we cannot serve God and Mammon we might do well to remember that whereas the Lord’s attention, care, and providence are constant; Mammon proves to be a pretty fickle and ultimately untrustworthy master.”[iv]
In the end my friends, this parable is like so many of Jesus’ parables. It expands our knowledge of the kingdom by pushing us to look outside of what is comfortable and into what, through Christ alone, is possible.

[i] David Lose, Working Preacher 2013
[ii] Barbara Rossing, Working Preacher 2016

[iii] Sarah Dylan Breuer Dylan’s Lectionary Blog 2007
[iv] David Lose . . . In the Meantime

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Lost and Found

(I was really impressed by and influenced by Jill Duffield's take on the scripture this week.) 
Luke 15:1-10
I will admit to feeling very lost this week. While I know where I am, and for the most part what I am to be doing, I feel a bit, lost. You see, this week my beloved Milo, my pet and companion for 16 years had to be euthanized. It was a difficult decision, but the right one for Milo and for our family. But I feel lost without him, like my anchor has drifted just enough to make the surroundings seem unfamiliar.
I was reading an article by the Reverend Jill Duffield this week about today’s text of the Lost Sheep and lost coin. She said “The World never looks as big as when someone is lost.” And while I know that Milo is no longer suffering, while I know that he is in a better place, the world seems very big and slightly more frightening to me without him there.
“The world never looks as big as when someone is lost. This is the last sentence from an article  in The New York Times about Japanese families who continue, five years after the tsunami, to look for loved ones lost in the great wave that overtook the island. They are so desperate to find their lost loved ones that some of them have learned to deep sea dive, repeatedly taking to the ocean to search. Daily, one woman takes food, her missing daughter's favorite meals, and throws them in the sea. "You will do anything for your child," she said.
Years have not eased the urgency of the search. The man who dives in hopes of finding his wife says, "I have no choice but to keep looking."
This morning on the radio I heard that a GoFundMe site has raised $130,000 to fund the search for two American hikers missing in Pakistan. The site was updated with the following: "Our friends and the families of Kyle and Scott are working vigorously with local Pakistani heli, porter, and fellow climbing teams to locate them on the mountain. Weather has not been in our favor. Visibility is next to none. Heli has not been cleared to launch. Our rescue team at basecamp has attempted to climb the descent route but have been turned back due to weather. They will continue to try with each window of opportunity."
The world never looks as big as when someone is lost."[i]
In the aftermath of 9/11 there was news of a small chapel 100 yards from the towers that had survived. There is a book about it called “The Little Chapel that Stood” Some firemen hung their shoes on the fence and ran to help the people in the towers. One line reads “Oh what gallant men did we lose/ who never came back to get their shoes.”
The world never looks as big as when someone is lost.
The parable that we heard this morning from Jesus, about the lost sheep and the lost coin, stop before the perhaps better known story of the prodigal son. That particular text is covered in another Sunday. Today we get the first of Jesus’ responses to those who are criticizing him for his habits. They do not like the people he is associating with, the people he chooses to be seen dining with in particular. They are down on him for spending time with tax-collectors and sinners.
Jesus turns to them and tells them these two stories. One about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin.
What in Sam hill do a lost sheep and a lost coin have to do with sinners and tax-collectors, one might ask. Those of us who have made it around the lectionary a few times know that Jesus is equating those called sinners with those things lost. But it is an interesting point to think on.
What does the scripture mean when it says sinners? Sinners were individuals whose pattern of sinning were so well known, so a part of their identity, that the whole community is aware of the sin. Sort of like how a lot of families have an Uncle Jim, you know, the one who drinks too much at every family event and winds up cussing out grandma and apologizing to the refrigerator. (You don’t have one of those? Must just be me then)
Well then if sinners are habitually fallen, who are the righteous? These were not holier than thou people who pretended to be perfect. The righteous were those who tried their best to really live by the law.
Here we have Jesus being friendly with those who should not have been in polite company. Jesus is extending his reputation to those he eats with and Jesus has had his fair share of meals with Pharisees in Luke. Jesus is hanging out with the riffraff and the Pharisees, the decent folk are none too pleased.
That leads me to ask something. When we see people outside of our particular community, do we see sinners? Or do we see the lost? That’s an important distinction my friend.
If we see sinners, then we can easily pass judgement. They know they are in the wrong, they know they are less than, they should know their place, and it certainly isn’t here.
 But if we see lost ones, might that change the way we interact? We don’t blame them for being lost, there is no fault finding of the sheep or the coin in these parables. Would we instead seek to bring them into safety and shelter, like Jesus?
When we see people as lost we would go to great lengths to recover them, if they are of value. There is the rub. Of value. What do we value? Have any of you lost your car keys? How long did you search? Until they were found.
Have any of you lost your cell phone? How many times did you call it to find it? How long did you look? Until it was found.
I lost my wedding ring two months after Steven and I got married. We were setting up for a fall festival at the church I was serving. I was stuffing a Piñata and took off my rings so that they wouldn’t accidentally end up inside. Once that job was finished we went to each with the rest of the church in the fellowship hall. Then we had the festival and broke the piñata and gathered up the trash and started to leave.

I realized as I was walking to my car that I did not have my wedding rings. Steve and I went back inside and tore the place up looking for those rings. Someone from the church went and got his metal detector and we poured all of our trash out on the corner of Mendehall and Walnut Grove Road in Memphis, TN. We found 37 foil topped jelly packets but no ring.
The next Sunday this Gospel reading was the reading for the day and the children’s message was a plea for anyone who might have seen the rings to give me information.
A week later the rings turned up, in someone else’s pocket book. Her son had placed his pile of candy on a shelf and when she came to pick him up he racked the candy, and my rings, into her purse. She had been looking for change to buy a coke and she pulled out my ring. Her son exclaimed “That’s Mrs. Cardelia’s mom, keep digging, there are two more!!!”
The rings were important, but compared to losing a child in the store, they were nothing. How much more would you seek a lost pet? How much more would you seek a loved one who didn’t come home from school or work one evening? Or maybe a son missing on a mountain? A daughter washed away by a tsunami? Someone lost in the rubble of collapsed buildings?
The world never looks so big as when someone is lost.
Jesus will do anything for the lost children of God, in fact he is setting his face for Jerusalem in Luke, towards what he knows will be his death, so that the lost might be found. No price is too high to pay.
You see my friends, these parables are not about the sheep or coin choosing to become better, or different before being welcomed back into the fold or purse. They are about the grace of God.
The grace that seeks even when it seems extravagant. The grace that sweeps even when it seems pointless. The grace that searches even when all others have given up hope.
Duffield says “The common denominator, however, is sin and Jesus' relentless desire and unquestionable power to overcome the division, isolation, destruction and pain of the separation it causes. He has set his face toward Jerusalem in order to recover the missing, find the lost, save the doomed.
The world is never so big as when someone is lost. Thankfully, Jesus has the whole world in his hands: sheep, coins, prodigal sons, sinners, tax collectors, Pharisees, scribes, you and me. Therefore, we can rejoice."
My friends, church is a place for all of us who feel lost, righteous or sinner. In the end these parables are really about a God who loves us so extravagantly, so crazily that God will do anything to find them. To find us.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Art is life

Psalm 139, Jeremiah 18
Pablo Picasso once said “Art is a lie by which we see the truth.” While I appreciate the idea, that art is representational, that it allows us to look at things with new eyes, different perspectives, I’m not sure that it is true.
Oscar Wilde said “Life imitates art far more often than art imitates life.” This quote seems eerily truthful. But that word imitates bothers me, as if life and art were not real, but rather images of one another.
In digging through quotes and statements about art I have found only two that really seem to speak truth to me.
One is, “Art is my life and my life is art.” Who said this? Yoko Ono. While the source may be unexpected the truth I find in these words is just as strangely comforting.
And if our lives are art and art our lives it only makes sense to listen to St. Thomas Aquinas, “God is an artist and the universe is his work of art.”
God as artist. That is the image and truth that comes to me through our texts this morning. The rich images of God as potter, of God as knitter or weaver speak to me. There is something about them that fills my heart with joy and a bit of anxiety.
Joy at the beauty of creation, of the imagination that spoke the world into being. Of the God whose hands fashioned humanity out of the clay and dust of the earth.
Anxiety because sometimes art is not only beautiful, but painful. Sometimes the truth of an artist will wrench your soul wide open. Sometimes it will make you so uncomfortable you cannot look away, no matter how much you want to.
That to me is the tension of God as artist, the beauty and the pain. And these scriptures bear those out to us.
In today’s Psalm we have the image of God as a knitter, a weaver, putting us together a loving stitch at a time. As a knitter this image really appeals to me. I know the work it takes to cast on the write amount of stitches. To knit one then purl another, to yarn over or knit two together. There is a rhythm to this and other fiber arts, a back and forth which lead to completion.
You start with a skein of yarn, unless of course you are a true fiber artist and then you start with a sheep, or lama, or rabbit, or goat, or plant fibers. You brush or shear these animals or you pick and decontaminate these plants and then you card the raw materials. Carding involves pulling back and forth on the fibers using paddles with small or large teeth. You pull you rake you maneuver until they are ready to be placed in a pile for spinning.
Spinning the yarn involves stretching and twisting the fibers into a cord. It’s a long process, adding materials at just the right time. Too late and they don’t attach to one another strongly. Too early and you can get a lump in the yarn that can be difficult to overcome.
If you choose to add colors to your yarn there is a dying process, which I won’t get into here. And then a winding process to make it ready to be used.
Once you begin knitting you cast on the stitches and work back and forth in a set pattern until the work is complete.
I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have pulled a project apart, called frogging by the way, and begun again. In fact, I have a baby blanket here that I have started no less than 10 times kitting and crochet trying to make it for the child it is destined for. I hope to have it ready for her 1st birthday this October.
So the psalmist says God knits us together and I like that picture. But what goes along with that is God having a knitter’s eye on us. When I look at a project I can see the imperfections. I see where I’ve dropped a stitch or where a join between two skeins appears. But I also see the prayers I prayed as it was being formed. The moment I realized that this finished project might bring joy to another’s face. I have an intimate knowledge of whatever I have created. And while I can see the flaws, I can also look at it and say it is good.
In Jeremiah we have God telling the prophet to go down to the potter’s house. In our day and time, we call potters artists, their amazing working with raw clay and turning it into a masterpiece is held in great regard and awe. In Jeremiah’s day potter’s were tradesmen. Their work was a necessity of life, not a luxury. You needed the jar to carry water. You needed the bowls to bake your bread. You needed to cups to hold your wine. The potter’s house would have been well known in the community and would have been frequented by most.
Jeremiah sits and watches the potter work the clay. I will admit to never having actually used a potter’s wheel before. I have no personal knowledge of how this act comes into being. I did however read up on the process.
Before using the wheel, a potter must knead his clay to rid it of impurities and air. He “wedges” it—slicing it in half and slamming the halves back together to force out air bubbles. When he feels the clay is ready, the potter places a container of water at his workbench (to keep his fingers wet) and turns to his wheel.
The potter next throws the ball of clay down on the upper wheel. Then he sets the wheel in motion and surrounds the clay with his hands, forcing it true to the center of the wheel head. Now the potter must “master” the clay, making it responsive to his touch. He applies pressure at the base of the clay ball, causing it to rise up in [a] sort of rounded cone. Then he pressed on top of the clay with his thumbs or the palms of his hands. Repeating this three or four times increases the flexibility of the clay and increases its strength.
At this point the potter “opens up” the clay ball by pressing his thumbs into the center, gradually hollowing it out. Applying pressure with his fingers, he evens out the thickness of the cylinder walls. Finally, he shapes the clay into a vase, a pitcher, or whatever he chooses.
As the terms force, master, and throw imply, clay is not always easy to work with. Often a partially formed object will disintegrate into a shapeless heap of clay—perhaps because a tiny stone was overlooked when the clay was worked. The potter must begin to knead the clay again. Or he may dislike the way a pot is forming and sweep it off the wheel in disgust.
This is the act Jeremiah witnessed. God seems to say to him “Am I not like this potter? Shaping the people of Israel? Look how they pull and fight against my hand. Should I shape grace or should I shape evil against them?”
That’s where the uncomfortable part comes in for me. The thought that God might shape good is, well, good. But the thought of God shaping evil against me is well, not good.
But there again it is all in the perspective. If you are the clay, all of this slamming to get out excess air is painful. This tugging and pulling, the water and spinning can leave you confused and overwhelmed. If you pull too much your walls fall down and you feel a completely useless heap.
But if you are the potter? The clay needs to be rid of impurities and so you do what you can to make sure that it is as strong as possible. You pull and guide, you hold and press. And if it falls apart? You start again. The still pliable clay is reformed. It is pressed back into service time and time again until it is ready to become the functional masterpiece you desire it to be.
Friends, God the artist knows us intimately, stitch by stitch. God’s the potter is constantly turning us on the wheel making and remaking until we become what we are designed to be.
And not just us as individuals, but us as the community of faith. God continues to pull us along towards God’s goal. If we would be what we are called to be, then we must yield to God’s hands, trust in God’s craftsmanship, bow to God’s will.
When we are truly pliable in God’s hands, when we trust that God has a direction, then we will begin to truly appreciate the artistry of our creator and our Lord. Amen.