Sunday, July 29, 2007

It Is Finished. The Final of Four

The final sermon in my month's series: Luke 11:1-13...

Dear God, please keep me safe tonight. Don’t let anyone break into my house and hurt me or my family or kill me. Thank you for the trees and the animals and my cat and the mountains and the sun. Please help me to fall asleep quickly. In Jesus name I pray, Amen.

I used to pray the same prayer every night as a child. I can still remember it. Lord, don’t let anyone kill me and thank you for the trees. Supplication and thanksgiving in its purest form.

That prayer carried on until high school when I became very studious with my Christianity. I bought a prayer journal and read my Bible every night even if I fell asleep halfway through. In the prayer journal I would write my prayer requests on one side and the answered prayers on the other. Week after week I’d write the same requests only by now they had become more sophisticated: please God, help me to get a boyfriend and help my dad to get a job.

The first time I ever experienced pain on a deep level I was in college. To cope, I prayed all the time: I’d lay awake at night praying and crying and crying and praying. The second serious loss I experienced was after seminary. I cried some more and decided to write out my prayers in a journal, this time for a half an hour during lunch. It was Lent and I would sit in the Teacher’s Lounge at work and write; write and beg God and praise God and try not to cry. The third time I experienced overwhelming pain, I stopped praying. The pain was so acute and so unfamiliar that even prayer, which had been as familiar as breathing, could not ease my pain. So I just cried and put up a wall around my heart, to protect it from the world, protect it from an unreliable God. No prayers would escape and no healing would enter in.

So now I don’t pray a lot. I’m not a Jane Lowrimore or a Margie Mines or a Millie Bishop. It doesn’t come easily. It’s confusing, and often the complexity of it overwhelms me. I pray when people ask me to mind you. It’s my job. I pray in staff meeting. I pray for people who call in prayer requests. I pray when emergency vehicles pass me with their sirens blaring. I pray every week at Beresheth and I mean the prayers, I really do. But I don’t know what they mean and I can’t explain them. So when I discovered the topic for my final week of preaching was Prayer, I began my prayer of lamentation.

“Roger, I can’t preach on this I don’t understand it!” He was not helpful in releasing me of this burden. So I went to my friends.
“This is the most difficult topic for me you guys, I can’t do it. I don’t even pray much myself. I don’t know if I believe in it!” (Whatever that means).
“Well that’s not an option Ann,” they chided me. “It’s your job. You’re supposed to pray.”
Their words were a slap in the face. A moment of vulnerability and I was given no grace.

They were right though. If I’m a spiritual leader, or even if I’m just a recent convert, I’m supposed to pray. I’m supposed to talk to God. Even if it weren’t my professional job, it’s my duty as a Christian!

The problem is that fitting prayer into a formula of “give me bread and keep me from trials” isn’t helpful for me. “Ask and ye shall receive” seems a blatant contradiction to much of my experience and observations about life. And just because my dad doesn’t give me a scorpion when I ask for fish doesn’t mean my neighbor won’t. The world is unpredictable.

“The prayer of a righteous man will go far!” people used to tell me. But I don’t know why they quoted that. I don’t have the confidence to admonish someone to pray and to expect it to change their situation in life.

Because when we pray for God to change things in our lives, it doesn’t always happen. When we view prayer like this, prayer doesn’t always “work.” Prayer is not a prescription for success. It’s not a health plan. So when someone calls to tell me their father has cancer, or that their cyst turned into a tumor, I do pray for healing of their bodies, but it scares me. I’m afraid of what will happen if healing doesn’t come, of how that person will feel, how I will feel. So mostly I pray God’s comfort goes to the family, I pray that the best medicine will be prescribed, I pray for wisdom on the part of the doctors, I pray for peace and perseverance for the patient. I pray for healing, but I don’t necessarily believe it will be given.

I’m a terrible minister, I know.

But God doesn’t intervene on every illness. God doesn’t prevent every car wreck. God doesn’t stop the downsizing of a company. And I can’t stop it either. Even if I ask God to, I will not necessarily receive what I ask for. So often I’m afraid to ask.

But the Bible says…

Yes, I know. The Bible says an annoying neighbor will get what they request. The Bible says a father will not give his child a snake. The Bible says ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find.

So I guess my question is – what? What will we receive? And do we even know what to ask for?

Often I think prayer can be easily interchanged with wishes. Wishes and wants. Not necessarily selfish ones, but things we expect from life and from God nevertheless. What I can’t control, I give to God: safety on airplanes, healing of family members, protection of loved ones. As I was growing up, I wished for what was out of my reach, and subconsciously, expected God to deliver.

As a teenager, when I’d catch a star’s eye at night, this is what I’d recite: Starlight star bright first star I see tonight, I wish I may I wish I might have this wish I wish tonight. I wish I would pass my history test, in Jesus name I pray, Amen.

A wish functioned as a prayer and a prayer ended in Jesus’ name. It was habit.

When I have trouble understanding something about life or God or myself, I often turn to music. I find that musicians have a way of articulating through words and music what I cannot express myself. So it is with prayer. Much of what I understand, or don’t understand about prayer is expressed by some of my favorite songwriters. My questions are… Why ask for things in prayer when there is no guaranteed outcome? Why does the Bible speak in such concrete terms about prayer when in reality life is so much more complicated? Should we pray to change the world? Should we pray to change ourselves? If the prayer of a righteous woman goes a long way, why didn’t healing come, why didn’t safety prevail, why weren’t her prayers answered? If I can supposedly raise the dead in the name of Jesus why can’t I get over this cold?

Sufjan Stevens in one of his songs off his album Illinois articulates my frustration as he sings about a friend who died from bone cancer.

Tuesday night at the bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

Yes. Yes. That’s what I don’t understand.

And it makes me feel helpless. Sometimes I feel helpless and I feel like God is helpless too. He’s battling humanity’s free will and the cyclical nature of cause and effect in the world. And so Don Chaffer sings from the perspective of an angry Christian calling God out on all the evil in the world.
I came stumbling into church
With a hot gun in my hands
I was ready to talk to Jesus
To tell him my demands.
(He says to Jesus)
Now you can stand right there and judge me
Shoot, you can send me straight to hell
I know you got the power
I know that fact full well
But before you do explain to me
Why suffering and why death?
And why did I pray all those years
And waste all that good breath?

Do you ever feel like that?

Now you may argue with me and say, “Ann, what you’re describing is an issue of theodicy (reconciling the presence of evil with the presence of a good God), not an issue of prayer.” But to attempt to reconcile the presence of suffering in the world with the presence of an active and wholly good God necessitates, in my opinion, a discussion on prayer.

After all, it is Abraham in the Old Testament who talks God out of destroying Sodom for the sake of 50, 45, 40, 30, 20 even 10 righteous people. And it is Job who boldly confronts God in prayer about taking away everything he had in life from his job to his family to his health. It is Jesus who cries out, “Not my will, but yours!” when facing capital punishment.

They prayed. When faced with evil, they prayed. And so, for me, the two are inextricably linked. You can’t talk about prayer without acknowledging the reality of pain. If God is not good, then why appeal to him for goodness? And if we are not meant to have a personal relationship with God – one in which we can talk, and communicate on an intimate level such as prayer suggests – then why bother with the incarnational Christ?

Prayer is relationship.

No! No! Some of you may want to scream. “Ask and ye shall receive!” “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly!” “The Lord bless you and keep you.” “The same Lord is the Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him.” “God blesses the home of the righteous.” Are you saying God doesn’t want to give us the desires of our hearts?

I think God would rather give us the Holy Spirit. At least, that’s what it says in verse 13. And then perhaps the Holy Spirit adjusts the desires of our hearts so they match what is in God’s.

Truthfully, I would say my life is a prayer, that as I live and breathe and think and emote, all my self belongs to God. When my life depends on the breathe of God, how could anything I utter be anything but a prayer? Being in constant conversation with God - that feels like prayer. When I’m sad and can’t talk so I go garden, that’s prayer. When I’m overwhelmed with excitement and I rejoice with my friends, that’s prayer. When I’m frustrated in traffic and then get frustrated because I’m frustrated – that becomes prayer too. But somebody else would probably say that “life is a prayer” is a copout answer. And if “life is a prayer” were really what prayer’s like, then why would the disciples have asked Jesus to teach them how to pray? Maybe because they felt like me.

And so Jesus complies.

And so do I. Prayer is obedience.

You know what Mother Theresa told a reporter once when he asked her how does she pray. She responded, “I listen.” And what does God do, the reporter asked. “He listens,” she replied.

I don’t have any brilliant insight on Luke 11:1-13. I don’t have anything profound to share with you about prayer. All I have is my experience and my confession as one of your pastors but more importantly, as your companion on this journey through life in Christ. It’s true, I don’t always voice my prayers, and I’m working on that; but my sighs and smiles and aching and laughter are always lifted up to heaven. I don’t always get what I expect in life, but I depend on God to get me through it anyway. God knows. God is my source and my salvation. The Holy Spirit is my comfort and my conscience. And Jesus Christ was confronted with evil every day he was here too.


Ann Pittman
First Baptist Church Austin
July 29, 2007

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Time Was Sweet, the Hour Has Passed

Day is Done
Gone the Sun

And so are the parents.

Sigh. So short lived. But man we got a lot accomplished in four days (three full, two half).

4 Lunches
2 Bar-B-Cues
3 Dinners
1 Breakfast
Which makes 8 restaurants, two friends homes, good food and of course a ton of friends (including FBC friends, Mosaic friends, Waco friends and neighborhood friends)

I had bought Dad (and mom) tickets to see Jesus Christ Superstar/Estralla at Zach Scott for Dad's Birthday/Father's Day gift. The show is an artistic masterpiece. With regard to its creativity, it beats every show I've ever seen - London, Broadway, wherever. Mom and Dad were shocked and in love with it too and dad said I should have been cast in it. That made me feel good.

They got to go to their favorite Sunday School in the world which happens to be at my church: Symposium. That made them happy. Then worship of course where their darling daughter preached and hopefully didn't embarrass them too much with anecdotes of their family. :) Then came bbq and swimming with Awakening (mine if i went to one) Sunday School class which was so relaxing and fun. Will, Frank and Michael diving off the board were the icing on the cake. Too much fun. We finished up Sunday with another bbq at Ren and Alicia's where mom and dad got to see the Johnsons and the Chance's which they liked.

Monday we attacked my yard moving 6 bushes to the back of the house. Thank you Jesus! and rearranging several in front. It was hard on my parent's progressively older bodies, but even more painful for the plants. We definitely killed one of them, my favorite, but mom bought me another one to make up for it and after trimming the dead one, she assured me it would bloom back again!

My father loves to shop. So one day we went down to San Marcos to peruse the #3 Mall in the World. A huge outdoor outlet mall with "Little Italy" inside it. Complete with gondolas. It rocked and I hit some much needed sales on some much needed work clothes, so that was a bonus too. The hideous restaurant we ate at after shopping did not rock. It was unpleasant. I hope that word conveys what is really in my heart. Blech. However, the next day when we shopped at Home Depot (one of my favorites!), my dad bought me a weed eater!!!! Watch out world. I will whack you! It's the best gift all summer!

We got to spend time with the Nethercuts (always a hoot and a half), Roger, and Pete and Joy too. They updated my parents on all of their adventures. My parents left breakfast motivated and inspired.

And then they left town. I was sad to see them go. I wish they could have stayed longer. But maybe next time they'll stay longer and bring grandma, and emily.

That'd be fun too.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Returning To Our Roots

Week Three of the Sermon Series: Luke 10:38-42...

I know all about what it means to have a younger sister. I’ve got two of them. And for this reason, I’m pretty sure Martha’s the oldest sister and Mary is younger. I’m not comparing myself to a Martha mind you – don’t be so quick to judge. But I am an older sister and I know what it means to feel alone.

Isn’t that strange? To have siblings living in the same house as you, and to feel alone? Sisters are supposed to be your best friends. And mine are, by the grace of God. We all made it through high school and now we’re all friends. But that doesn’t mean at one time or another, our sisterhood didn’t make us feel alone. That’s what happens when sisters disagree on matters of the house and how to life’s gonna get lived. Jealousy rules the roost.

Now, I gotta tell you, my father was the only man in my house and he was faced with four Pittman women. You can imagine how that fared. Needless to say, my dad never made any decisions regarding the family. Mom would pick what’s for dinner cause she was cookin’ it anyway. Each evening each of the daughters would announce what her schedule was for that night and demand to be driven around. My dad would suggest that we should help mom clean up in the kitchen, but that usually amounted to mass hysteria because somebody was late and had to go, somebody had a test the next day, somebody was too short to put away the dishes and somebody always ended up in tears. I think my dad ended up cleaning the kitchen.

Not on holidays though. True to our matriarchal heritage, the women took to the kitchen. First would appear the appetizers: little water chestnuts wrapped in bacon, cheese balls with crackers, pickles and okra and olives and shrimp. The main course would probably be a large turkey with stuffing and green beans or brussel spouts and rolls with homemade jelly, probably some sort of salad and of course mashed potatoes with brown gravy. Dessert came hours later as everyone was always too stuffed to eat immediately after our meal. So we would partake of the cherry pie, pumpkin pie, rhubarb pie and angel fruit cake (for anyone watching their weight) later in the day. The women produced the food. Except me. Cooking food was of no interest to me, still isn’t, and so I’d take to the living room to hear about politics or sports (which I don’t even like) or I’d hear the latest theatre gossip or about what’s going on with the businesses or what second cousin so-n-so is doing now - all depending on who the guests were at the house. And if all that conversation became boring, I’d read.

When my sister Amy got old enough to join the cooks in the kitchen, she would complain that I wasn’t helping, that I was just sitting around sipping on sparkling grape juice not doing anything while she rolled the crescent rolls or tried her hand at a homemade pie crust. Maybe she was right, but usually my mom would say to my sister, “Well do you really want her cooking?” and she’d call me in to stir the gravy. I’d smoosh out the hot bubbles with the spoon as the gravy boiled in the pan and wonder about the book I’d left and whether Atticus was going to be able to get Tom Robinson out of jail.

As we got older, we took to fighting over cars. We had one to share, the Green Bomb, a 1980 Buick Century and technically it was mine, I was older. That car was a disaster but we’d fight over who got control of it come Friday night. I’d take the higher road insisting that I was older and the car was mine after all until my parents starting giving Amy their car to use which was at least made in the 90’s and had air conditioning and a tape player and was obviously not a fair decision. I was older, I should get to drive their nicer car – give Amy the Green Bomb!

And back and forth it was – who wasn’t helping out with chores, who wasn’t being nice enough, who was misbehaving at dinner, who got the good car, etc. etc. etc. It didn’t really end until my sister got divorced and I stopped believing that life would be fair. The need for equality and everybody putting in their share, their effort, their dues went out the window. Life wasn’t going to be fair so we were going to have to support each other.

Some say the story of Mary and Martha, is a study on attitude. Martha is nervous and uptight with her tasks, with her duty, with Jesus. Mary is focused, calm, receiving the ample love of God. If the two characteristics of people who belong to the covenant of God are to love God and give that love to others, then they cannot be separated. For without receiving what God gives, we see giving to others as undesirable, a burden, something we have to do. Or worse, our self-righteousness produces anger at those who we feel are not doing their part. Attitude issues. Nervous, over-wrought, judgmental, bitter, work-a-holic attitudes. “I’d love to go sit with Jesus and get out of this kitchen, but somebody’s gotta get dinner on the table…” Martha may have muttered. Attitude.

Some describe the story of Mary and Martha as a clash of the temperaments: the active person versus the contemplative person, the busybody versus the quiet listener, the practical versus the spiritual.

My grandma is offended by this interpretation. In fact, she’s offended by the whole Mary Martha text. I remember her telling me so when I was in high school. “There’s gotta be a Martha!” she exclaimed. “Otherwise nobody’d eat!” and she’d serve me some cottage cheese. But my grandma is a very practical person. She has the gift of hospitality and so does my mother. So when their children and grandchildren come home, the feast is prepared. “Do you want chicken with avocado tonight, Ann or Aunt Martha’s spaghetti?” Yep, my Great Aunt was named Martha. Not a joke.

But if hospitality’s a gift of God, it’s gotta be used properly. So some scholars say the Mary Martha story is one that illustrates the wrong type of kindness. We find mercy in the Good Samaritan story, good kindness, but in Martha’s story, kindness is appropriated according to her need, not Jesus’. He was tired from traveling, was on his way to Jerusalem to die, he needed quiet, he needed time with good friends, he wanted a simple meal (not some grand feast) and he wanted time to talk. To give him those things would have been to show him mercy. Putting on all the airs was to extend kindness he didn’t need or want.

Some scholars say the Mary Martha story is in juxtaposition with the Good Samaritan story in a different way though. Whereas the story of the Good Samaritan illustrates the second commandment, love your neighbor, this passage illustrates the first commandment: love your God. And so we as readers get stories that show us how to love God and how to love our neighbors. In this reading of the text, Mary is the embodiment of what it means to love God wholly, just as the parable of the Good Samaritan held up the Samaritan as the embodiment of what it means to love one’s neighbor. The two together teach us what it means to inherit eternal life.

But still others describe the Mary Martha story in a slightly different way. Some say it’s a parable, a parable about discipleship: First we get the Good Samaritan, a story about serving, and now we get the Good Disciple in a story about loving God. In this parable, Mary can see that Jesus is himself the Law and is ready to receive her instruction. Martha however, lacks proper attention which brings insight. And so our heroine, Mary, is the Good Disciple.

This are all helpful interpretations of this biblical passage, some you may have considered before, and some perhaps are new to you, but as I reread the text again, I return to my own family, to our dynamic. And I revisit the story again.

“Ann isn’t helping! She’s just sitting on the counter!”
“Just cause I’m female doesn’t mean I have to cook, Amy.”
“I don’t care. You should at least help.”
“I don’t like it, I’m not good at it. Leave me alone.”
Tears would well up in my eyes. I knew everyone in my family was good at cooking. I knew it was a favored pastime of all my relatives. But it didn’t interest me. To be myself wasn’t to be in the kitchen.

Some read the Mary Martha story as a subversive text. Jesus gives Mary the freedom to get out of the kitchen. Her role in society pales in comparison with who she finds herself to be in Christ. Sitting at someone’s feet meant studying under him or her, being a disciple of someone. With regard to church-work and what it means to be a pastor, I sit at the feet of the Rev. Dr. Roger Paynter (don’t tell him I said that!). But no real rabbi at the turn of the first century would teach a woman. Jesus however extends to Mary citizenship in the kingdom of God, he grants her worth in the realm of the spiritual and secondary to this identity are society’s expectations.

But I think there’s more to the text than just that.

With sisters there’s always judgment. Even in love, we critique each other. Our choices in men, our choices in clothing, our choices in movies. My sisters and I are constantly laughing and critiquing and encouraging and judging each other. Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it’s frustrating. But none of us has pulled a Mary.

You see, some scholars assert that Mary is not only the sister of Martha who we know through other texts is also the sister of Lazarus, but that Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ sister, is actually Mary Magdalene. What an interesting turn the text takes when we consider this option.

Imagine your sister is the shunned prostitute, the deranged woman with the demons. You don’t know why she chose this path, how she grew so sick. All you know is you don’t know how to help, what to do, and quite frankly, it’s embarrassing the way everyone looks on you with pity. “There’s the sister of that demonic…” You can only extend so much love to one who behaves like that, even if she’s family. So Martha would scurry off to the kitchen to hide her shame. It was safe in the kitchen behind the scenes, where you didn’t have to hear them talk about your family.

Mary is crazy, demon possessed and then she encounters the love of Jesus. He gives her healing and redemption and Mary, she goes home. She commits her life to being a disciple of Christ, and she returns home, healthy and wonder-filled, and when Jesus comes to visit, she can’t help but be near him. Him who brought her healing, him who gave her back her life, him who changed everything.

But Martha thinks her sister Mary ought to be in the kitchen with her. Having a guest is no time to be lazy around the house, gaggling over him. That’s the sort of nonsense that got her in trouble in the first place. If Mary’d just stick with her responsibilities, maybe that would help her stay on track.

“Jesus do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

But Mary has learned something from Jesus that Martha has yet to embrace. Mary knows the mystery of God and she wants to know more. Mary has been trapped by demons in her life and Mary has been set free. Mary has stayed silent in the arms of many men, but now in her silence she forms prayers. Mary has seen the world through the eyes of an imprisoned woman, and now she sees the world through the heart of an empowered disciple. And she needs more. More teaching, more learning, more time in the presence of her Master, her Healer, the God who set her free.

Avocado chicken or Aunt Martha’s spaghetti? In Mary’s case it didn’t really matter. Hosting Jesus in their home wasn’t the issue. Hosting him in their hearts was.

You know, the only other person in the book of Luke described as sitting at the feet of Jesus is the Gerasene demoniac. The man who was so severely possessed by demons that he could break chains lived wild and alone in the graveyard outside of town. But after an encounter with Jesus, he too was healed and sought to hear more from his new Master.

Maybe when our pain becomes so acute, we have no choice but to cling to God. Any word from our sacred text, any prayer uttered from our lips, any spiritual discipline we can find becomes our energy, our connection to our source, to the One who makes us well. Maybe that’s why Mary Magdalene and the Gerasene demoniac both got it. They’re so in tune with how they desperately needed Jesus that it becomes easy to see Him as their only priority.

When life fails us, there is a remnant remaining inside, and if we turn to our hearts, turn to our Spirits and open ourselves to God, we return to our roots.

It’s always been about communing with God. In the garden, God and the humans talked, they had a relationship with one another. They lived in community. In the beginning, Abraham left his gods and idols to develop a relationship with a relational God. He talked to God, he learned from God, he communed with God. Josiah, as a teenager, when he found the sacred scrolls in the Temple ruins knew God well enough to demand that the nation cling to that Scripture. Prophets prayed and fasted and slept in the sacred halls begging to get closer to God or to get away from God, because they knew the power of God in their lives.

It’s all about God saving us. It always has been. And maybe what Mary teaches us is that it’s time to return to our roots.

Except this story is also about Martha. It is Martha who takes Jesus into her home, it is she who meets his needs, it is she who plans the huge meal and gets out the tablecloth and the good silver. But it’s Martha who needs to be fed. And probably most of us in here today do too.

Good news: loving your God doesn’t mean being a work-a-holic. Loving God means taking in the words of Jesus, taking in the Spirit of God. It means receiving and giving back. Receiving healing from Jesus and giving him back our adoration.

It’s not our job to host Jesus in our churches or in our homes. To parade him around like a superstar: put his pictures up and eat meals together complete with BBQ and homemade ice cream. That’s fun, but that’s not what’s needed. As John 6:27 says, what matters is the “food which endures to eternal life.” The world is hurting and it doesn’t want to have fun with Jesus or dine with Jesus, the world wants to be near Jesus. The world needs to be healed by Jesus. We need to learn how to be disciples. We need to listen, to study, to heal and to give Jesus our undivided attention.

Mary got it. Maybe she got it because she’d strayed so far from the law – she knew how much grace really cost. Maybe she got it because she was quiet, not really a people person, but a thoughtful girl in her own right. Maybe she got it because her father had taught her the scriptures, because when she burned too many pieces of hallah in the kitchen, she got sent out to play with her dad.

Maybe she just wanted it. Wanted to be filled.

So do I.

So do I long to be refreshed, to relax at the feet of Jesus, to take it in and not constantly give it out. To learn and listen. To be healed and feel safe. To not feel so alone in the kitchen we call life, but to be loved intimately by the Spirit of God.

You see, Jesus’ own service to us is the source of our being, and consequently of all our action. Love God and love your neighbor. Love of God isn’t just connected to love of neighbor. Jesus as Lord, as Healer, as Teacher is the connection between the two. We can’t claim to either love God or love others without choosing to sit, to be quiet, to be changed by Jesus.

It’s Jesus who will get us through. It’s Jesus who can move us from loving God to loving our neighbors. It’s Jesus who can heal and empower and forgive and love. Jesus.


And it’s Jesus who will get us out of the kitchen.

Ann Pittman
First Baptist Church
July 22, 2007

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Rain Shoes

This is what we're wearing in Texas now a days. Hope mom brought a pair with her...

Monday, July 16, 2007

It's My Anniversary

July 16, 2006

a year is a long time... and yet not very long at all.

When the Bad Guy Wins

This is the sermon I preached yesterday at First Baptist Church Austin...

It doesn’t matter who the hurting person is; it matters who you are.

“Who is my neighbor?” the man asked coyly. He’d been questioning Jesus on behalf the Pharisees with the intent to catch him in either a lie or blasphemy. They had offered him five silver coins to strike up a conversation with this Jesus fellow, so he had to make good. He asked the question and his eyes glanced for a second over to where the Pharisees stood watching, smiles just barely curled the edges of their lips. He had asked the right question. His eyes darted back to Jesus.

It doesn’t matter what falls across your path in life; it matters who you are.

Maybe the man just wanted clarification. “Who is my neighbor?” he asked, wanting to make sure he got it right. His friends called him anal retentive. He chocked up his need for preciseness to being a “type A personality.” Whatever the motivation, he wanted to make sure he covered all his bases so he asked his final question and looked at Jesus honestly wanting to get the rules down good, do it right the first time.

It doesn’t matter what other people have done; it matters who you are.

Maybe the man was tired. He knew the deuteronomic code said to love your God and love your neighbor. It was the shema. He’d been fed that line his whole life. So it was easy to answer Jesus. And so he asked, “Who is my neighbor?” seeking understanding to the mystery of God and what it meant to really live out his Jewish faith. He knew that “neighbor” technically meant Jew but he was tired of the pat answers and needed something more. That’s why he asked the Teacher for clarification. He was tired of searching and just wanted the truth.

But he got a story instead. They all did. No matter what the man’s motivation was for engaging in this conversation with Jesus, no matter what prompted him to ask the question that would plague our world for years to come, he got his answer and it changed the world.

It was a story about a man mugged by robbers. A Jewish man. A story about who would be a neighbor to this beaten down Jewish man.

Once upon a time there was an American and he was mugged and robbed and left for dead. Who would be a neighbor to this beaten down American man?

It’s a story not only about the shema: about what it means to love God and love your neighbor, it’s a story about seeing. Seeing people, seeing relationships, seeing how far the kingdom of God will extend. It’s a story about inclusion.

A priest walks by, sees the bloody man and in an effort to avoid him, crosses over to the other side of the road. Ooooh. The Parisees shift their stance and cross their arms; they were used to being the bad guys in Jesus’ tall tales. Another dumb parable. The disciples pat each other on the back and lean in. They loved it when Jesus really stuck it to the temple priests.

A Baptist minister saw the man lying on the sidewalk. She couldn’t tell if the man was moving. So she stopped at the crosswalk and pressed the button to cross to the other side. Unwilling to wait for the flashing white symbol, she hurriedly jaywalked across fumbling in her purse for her phone. It wasn’t there. She must have left it in her office. She was always doing that! Well, hopefully someone else would dial 911.

It’s a story about people, the way we interact with each other, what we believe about each other. It’s a story about the covenant and drawing lines around who’s in and who’s out. “Who is my neighbor?” is a question of boundaries: we want to know who’s in and who isn’t.

Jesus’s tale continued prickling the necks of all who heard. A levite passed by – not a priest by vocation, but he was in the family line. A “PK” passed by, “preacher’s kid,” 25 years old and he still couldn’t move passed that affiliation. Both saw the man lying there and both had been sucked dry by good deeds and sacrifice and living in holy community. Both looked. Both stood a moment, uncomfortable with the options. But both crossed the street.

It’s a story about godliness, about understanding, about loving your neighbor. Loving your enemy. It’s a story about loving the people who hurt you.

Jesus continued, “Then a Samaritan saw him and bent down to him and began to bandage his wounds.”

Everyone drew in a breath, the lawyer, the Pharisees, the disciples. “Jesus…” one of the twelve started to question. They all looked at each other. This Teacher of theirs was full of surprises and full of nonsense. Just a few days earlier they had been in Samaria. Look at chapter 9 in your Bibles verses 51 and following. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him: but they did not receive him.” Samaria wouldn’t take him in.

The disciples were mad. Nobody says no to Jesus. “Do you want us to call down fire on top of this stingy Samaritan village?” they asked Jesus as they began to look for some stones to set up as a marker of their wrath. But Jesus rebuked the disciples, they dropped the stones and they all walked on to another town.

The Samaritans were bad people. Not only did they practice faulty Judaism, but they kicked Jesus out of their community. They rejected the idea of the Temple being in Jerusalem and they rejected the Messiah God had sent to save them. Ever since the Jewish people returned from exile it’d been nothing but problems with the Samaritans and this was the final straw.

So when the disciples heard Jesus describe the Samaritan binding the wounds and taking the man to the inn and paying for his room there, they too felt defeated. This was no longer just a story about a hurt Jew and some Temple so n so’s passing him over like they always did. Why was the one who showed mercy a Samaritan? Why had Jesus chosen a Samaritan to play the good guy? Was this a joke?

The disciples had been kicked out of the Temple by the Pharisees and they’d been kicked out of a town by the Samaritans. Those heretical fools, the disciples had thought as they kicked the dust off their sandals and kept on traveling. And now Jesus was telling a story and the protagonist, the hero, was a Samaritan. A Samaritan.

After the two had passed, a Mormon traveling came upon the beaten man. After the other two had crossed over to the other side of the road, a Muslim came and tended to the man’s needs. After the minister and the P.K. passed by, an illegal immigrant bent down to check on the man.

Choose your enemy. Choose who’s outside the box; outside the realm of redemption. And get ready to change the way you view God. Get ready to change the way you see people. Get ready to move the lines you’ve drawn around your church and draw them a little wider next time. Or don’t draw them at all.

Because God is bigger than boundaries and lines and races and religions and denominations and differences.

And because with Jesus everything gets turned around.

A Samaritan is a good neighbor. A Savior is a carpenter. A revolution requires no swords. Women are healed, the poor are forgiven, the outsiders drawn in and to those who believe, the kingdom of God they will receive.

It’s not about number of Temple sacrifices or how often we volunteer at church. It’s not about the location of the Temple nor is it about what kind of instruments get played in worship. It’s not about whose been to the synagogue this week or who’s been to a bar.

It’s about people hurting and people being redeemed. There are so many layers to this text. There’s the hurting Jew: a normal man who got jumped but who is now stuck, alone. There’s the hurting Samaritan, shunned by the Jews but faced with one who needs his help. There’s Jesus who just days earlier had been subbed by the Samaritans and now tells a story praising a Samaritan. There are the disciples as confused as ever still hungry from missing dinner cause that Samaritan village didn’t let them in and still learning what it means to forgive your enemies.

I can’t decide who to empathize with more: the hurting Jew, the compassionate and forgiving Samaritan, the ashamed disciples or Jesus who teaches us again and again in overt and subtle ways that his way is peace, his way is love, his way is unpredictable.

You never know where Christ will find you and you never know who Christ will find you through.

It didn’t matter what baggage they brought to the table. Social norms went out the window. When it came down to it, it was a Samaritan and a Jew. It was Jesus and a town. It is us everyday. And it’s the Samaritan’s character that takes the tale. Loving your neighbor is about who you are. The door was shut on Jesus in a Samaritan village but Jesus knew how great God’s love ran. It flowed beyond city borders or racial lines or societal norms or even religious affiliation. Jesus knew that God is in the work of bringing redemption and all have the possibility of being redeemed.

So go ahead and second guess that guy with the tattoo who shops at your grocery store. And second guess your neighbor who always keeps the shades drawn. And second guess the young woman who wears too much make-up to worship. Don’t leave them marked in your
mind by your first impression by your first experience. Widen your horizon. They are your neighbor. Give them the grace to be full of God.

And go ahead and love your ex-wife or your ex-boyfriend no matter how they’ve hurt you. Go ahead and be graceful towards your oppressive boss or your spiteful co-worker. Go ahead and pray for the men and woman who spend their lives making sure ours are miserable.

They too have the potential to be our neighbor. And we have the potential to be a neighbor to them.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, old nor young, Baptist nor Catholic, rich nor poor, gay nor straight, east side nor west side…

We are all one. We all sin. We all are being redeemed. Give yourselves the freedom to live fully in that mercy. Mercy.

Mercy mercy me.

Friday, July 13, 2007

I Should Have Known Better

History repeats itself.

That's all I have to say about that.

Feel free to contribute your own thoughts.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Hospitality, Heroes and the Human Heart

This is the sermon I preached yesterday at First Baptist Church Austin...

When Roger first assigned me this project and suggested in a very mentor-esque fashion that I preach from the Lukan narrative, the following occurred. I opened my Bible, read Luke 10, said out loud to myself, “Christians can step on snakes and not be hurt?” and instantly regretted that I hadn’t planned out a brilliant sermon series of my own.

After my anxiety level returned to its natural resting point of medium-high, I re-read the scripture again, and again and again.

Sometimes I amaze myself at my naivety when reading the Bible. Upon the first reading of a text and especially of a story I haven’t read in a while, my instinct is still, after seminary, after college, after 29 years of life, my initial instinct is still to take everything literally. The disciples cast out demons? Jesus saw Satan fall out of the sky? I can step on a scorpion and not have to go to the hospital? You’d think I was 8 years old.

But then I return from literalist la-la land and what I learned in my English classes about literature and my Religion classes about Biblical context returns to my previously panicked mind. Look at the context, find the metaphors, understand the language, learn the symbols, seek the meaning of the story. Invite the Holy Spirit to move between you and this sacred text.

Soon I realize that 70 is a symbolic number frequently used in the Bible that recalls older texts and Jewish beliefs, and so when 70 people went two by two (does that strike a bell?) into the cities to prepare for Jesus, I learn that Jesus sent out reliable, humble, intentional people to testify about God. 70 people may also represent the 12 disciples who Luke changes to 70 to remind his readers that everyone is called and everyone is called to go – even to the Gentile nations. All are loved by God and all are called to go. Those followers of Jesus, whether there were twelve or 70 or 72 or 25 or 94 were sent to offer a witness to what they had experienced, to represent – to be Christ to the people he would soon be traveling to see.

As Luke tells the story of their preparation and journey, he uses rich, meaningful metaphors and similes bound to please any English teacher. Imagery like
• lightening that in a flash streaks from the sky toward the earth and disappears – so quickly was Satan defeated by Jesus,
• images of traveling on a journey – shoes and wallets and dusty feet – and the necessity of leaving unnecessary baggage behind,
• evil in the world characterized as harmful, poisonous reptiles – evil that ultimately cannot defeat you,
• a book in a far away place that no man or woman has ever seen with names of the redeemed listed on it’s sacred pages – the assurance God gives that we are loved,
and so on and so on.

And the story begins to unfold.

Followers of Jesus, disciples perhaps, or messengers are sent out by Jesus to prepare cities for his arrival. He’s going on a journey, teaching and healing and bringing life where death reigns. But he can’t do it alone. So he sends his disciples ahead of him, throughout the countryside to warm people’s hearts to the Good News. Before they go though, Jesus gives them some instructions. They are to be intentional on their journey, not to spend a lot of time worrying about etiquette or frivolous chitchat. They’ve been sent with a purpose and a sense of urgency they they’re encouraged to stick with. They’re to travel light for people who accept Christ will accept them into their homes and provide for their needs. But, Jesus also warns the messengers of what they may experience – rejection often comes with truth-telling and good, subversive, reconciliatory works are often unappreciated. Don’t be surprised when doors are closed and you are dismissed. Let God handle such places, he tells them. Communities that are open to hearing about Christ and being healed will welcome you in, feed you, house you, Jesus tells the disciples, but inhospitable cities must not even be thought about twice. If they reject you, let them go, walk away, and don’t even look back. Shake it off and carry on. Bring the good news to a listening ear and an open heart. And so the disciples set off.

However, Jesus’ messengers return rejoicing at the ways they were able to bring healing to communities. You gotta hear this, they say to Jesus. But Jesus laughs and tells them not to be surprised by the good things they can do in his name, for God has already defeated evil, Satan has fallen, and Goodness really does win. They throw high fives, flex their muscles, and share stories about demons and illnesses and healing and peace. But Jesus warns them again, this time redirecting their rejoicing. Jesus tells them not to get excited about the great things they are able to do in the name of Christ, but to marvel instead that God has chosen to love them.

God has chosen to love them. All that stuff about hospitality and heroic deeds and traveling and healing and returning and rejoicing and the story ends with God loves them?

How about “Good job guys, you did it!” Or, “I love you guys, you worked so hard in my name – thanks.” Or even a slap on the old back would be appreciated.

But Jesus says, and I believe this is the heart of the text, “Your heart belongs to God because God has chosen you. Rejoice in God.”

But I taught Sunday school for forty years!
And I mentor at an under-privileged school every week of every school year!
I make good money to support my family so my kids can have an enriched life!
I’m a social worker and I work everyday with the homeless! Didn’t Jesus say to love the poor?
I go to Deacon’s Meeting every single month and I don’t even complain about it!

I – I – I

“I have made you and you are mine,” says the Lord God. “That is where your worth lies.”

And once we realize that, then we realize that secondary to that promise is the promise that we can do great things in the name of Christ.

And there are great things to be done. We are still in the process today of preparing individuals and communities for an encounter with Jesus Christ.

Jesus said to heal the sick and so we write our Congressional representative to be active toward treatment and prevention of AIDS in Africa. Jesus said to tend to the needy, so we make dinner for our friends who are going through divorce and listen to their anguish and assure them of a peace that comes in Christ. Jesus said to provide for the marginalized and so we tip our servers well when we go out to eat. Jesus said to care for the poor, so we participate in mission trips to the inner city, the gulf or Juarez, building houses and building relationships. Jesus said to take care of the widows and orphans so we write checks to victims of Katrina, Rita, and the tsunami of 2004. Jesus said to love one other and so we invite our friends to church, because everyone needs to belong, everyone needs to believe and everyone needs to hear that they are loved by God.

And we’re back to the essence of the story. What we do is contingent on who we are, and we are chosen by God.

Two sisters only 14 months apart in age were worlds apart in personality. The younger was constantly on a track to be seen, to set herself apart from her older sister, to be different. If her sister wanted to go to the playground, she wanted to go to the pool. If her older sister chose to play tennis, she chose to play the drums. However, when they were in middle school, their differences took a drastic change. Their father died and while the older sister channeled her grief into homework and their youth group, the younger sister decided that since life would not give her what she wanted, she would go in search of it herself. She quit going on youth trips with her sister and slept through not just the sermon every Sunday, but the whole church service. She started drinking the summer before her 8th grade year, and by the time she was in high school, had sampled her fair share from the drug world as well. Cocaine became her drug of choice and since her dad had left her mom plenty of money, she could afford it. She’d ask for advances on her allowance and when her sister complained, she starting making up stuff that she needed for school: extra books, cheerleading outfits (even though she had dropped off the squad), new shoes, none of which she actually purchased. She moved out when she was 18 and though she told her mom she was taking classes at the community college, she had never even applied. Her sister begged her to come visit her at the university, but she never did. At Christmas of what should have been her freshman year in college, she asked for money as her only Christmas gift: the money her father had left her in the will. Her mother just sat silently while her older sister went nuts, protesting that the money was supposed to pay for college, for their weddings, for their future. But the younger sister was stubborn and nagged her mom until she gave in. She took off the day after Christmas and with the exception of one hang up phone call from a 213 area code, her mom and sister didn’t hear from her again. Her older sister on the other hand, went on to graduate with honors, got a job in publicity for a big name firm and married an oncologist. She was 8 months pregnant when her mom called, “Your sister’s home.” On the car ride to her mother’s house, all she could think about was her younger sister. Where had she been? Why hadn’t she ever called or emailed? Did she know what an embarrassment she was to the family? Did she know that their mother had spent two months trying to find someone, anyone in Los Angeles who had seen a girl at the payphone around the corner from Starbucks? Tears well up in her eyes. Hot angry tears. Where had she been? When the older sister arrived at her mother’s house, she rushed inside ready to hear an apology, an apology for missing her wedding, for missing grand-dad’s funeral, for leaving her alone to support their mom, for doing god only knows what with their dad’s money; she gasped. Her mother and younger sister were sitting at the kitchen table laughing and drinking champagne. Champagne the older sister had brought back to her mother from her trip to New York. “What are you doing?” she asked her mother in shock. Her sister looked terrible. She was skinny, too skinny, and wearing an old Chicago Bears tee shirt with the sleeves ripped off. And she stunk. Their mother looked from girl to girl. From the narrowed eyes of her oldest child, her daughter who had been with her through thick and thin to her baby girl, eyes blood-shot from the three day bus ride home. As different as they were, she knew the hurt each daughter felt. “You girls used to ask me when you were little who I loved more. Every time I would ask you back ‘how could I ever choose between my two beautiful girls?’ And it’s still true. I’ve loved you equally, from the moment I discovered I was pregnant with each of you to this moment now.” “But why?” the older daughter asked, incredulous at her mother’s behavior. The mother replied, “Because this sister of yours was dead but has come alive, was lost but now is found.”

God loved us first. It’s not about the prodigal children or the righteous older siblings. It’s not about how many people they healed or how many demons they cast out. It’s not about Sunday school attendance or how many nights we volunteer a week. It’s about the love of God.

Don’t rejoice because you’ve made the decision to follow Christ, because you bring healing to the world, because you did something meaningful with your life. Don’t rejoice because of the great things you can do in Christ’s name, the great work you can accomplish in God, the empowerment you’ve received through the Spirit. That is all good and wonderful and keep on working, Jesus says, but it’s not time to strut your stuff as a Christian. Take joy that you are chosen by God. Take comfort that you are loved by God. Take time to thank your benevolent God. Evil has not triumphed; Goodness has prevailed. God is good and has chosen you.

And truthfully, for all the good we do, we’ve got plenty of bad that we’ve swept under rugs and hidden in the closet. That bribe we took, that hasty word we gave, that grudge we held, our pride in being right, our stubbornness at having things our way, the objective way we treated others, the manipulative way we pulled strings, and the list just goes on and on and on.

But so does God’s love.

So does God’s love.

Rejoice because your names are written in the book of life. Rejoice because God loves you.

Again I say, rejoice.

Friday, July 06, 2007

It was sunny today. SUNNY. For a good, 7 or 8 hours. It was amazing, it was divine, it was hard as hell to mow my one-month-and-growing grass. It took me an hour and a half to mow 1500 square feet. The grass was up to my knees. But it was sunny by george.

Someone should have knocked on wood.

It is now overcast again as it has been for months now. Apparently I live in Seattle and someone failed to tell me.

Here's some pics of the creeks that are now rivers. And some pics of the dams where the floodgates have been opened. Fortunately, I live on a hill and I work on a hill, so I have no problems...except with my grass.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Happy Holidays

Happy 4th of July! Remember, remember who we are.

The Washington Memorial

WWII Memorial

Abraham Lincoln Memorial

FDR Memorial

Thomas Jefferson Memorial

Let Freedom Ring!!!

Sunday, July 01, 2007

DC Reflections

Washington DC is larger than life, yet smaller than most notorious cities. Jam packed in between the most interesting and almost sacred memorials runs the United States government, from the lowliest lobbyist's assistant to the vice-president, politics tick their way around the clock and through the city.

This is just a thought, but do presidents (current ones) ever visit these amazing sights? Does George W. ever go to Ford's theatre and ponder his own mortality? Does he ever visit Lincoln and wish he'd hired better speech writers? Does he ever visit Vietnam and think, "Dear God, what have I done?"

Maybe if he visited FDR, it would bring all that into perspective, the humility and the profundity with which our presidents should work.

Please Mr. President, make it stop.