Thursday, December 15, 2011

becoming (vocation)

Early in August I bought my first clergy shirt. This was kind of an exciting moment for me, and not just because it’s the most expensive shirt I own. Growing up a pastor’s son, these shirts were always in our laundry and in my dad’s closet. They were a symbol, for me, of who my dad was and what he meant for the community. I remember playing with the little white collar that he would pull off and leave on the table next to the couch after he crashed and fell asleep after Sunday services. I would feel the smooth white plastic on the sides and the textured middle as I turned it around in my little fingers. I would wonder why in the world the pastor wears this but never thought to ask this question (I later learned it is to symbolize that we are slaves to Christ—Roman slaves wore a similar collar to denote their lowly status).
When I bought the “Friar Tuck” brand shirt at the Augsburg Fortress store this summer the first thing I did was try it on with my suit and take a picture on my cell phone so I could send it to my parents. I felt like a kid playing pastor, getting dressed up in dad’s shirts and baptizing my GI Joes in a cereal bowl filled with water. It was like I was eight again, imitating my dad during his internship year. This feeling of playing pastor or imitating dad lasted for a couple of months. It returned each Sunday as I got dressed in the morning and made my way to the church. Yet, with each passing Sunday and with every funeral for which I wear the shirt during the week the feeling has dissipated. It is beginning to feel like my shirt, like my calling. And that is good.
I didn’t expect to feel like a kid playing pastor. It disturbed me at first. Even though I’d been told otherwise, I think I figured that as soon as a person is called to intern or called to be pastor for a particular church the pastoral identity would automatically come. Deep down, I figured that having the shirt or having the degree gave me the pastoral identity. What I’ve come to learn, and what I’ve come to treasure is the fact that the pastoral identity is not something given to a pastor like revelation from above or like a degree from an institution. The pastoral identity is earned in the relationships of mutual trust that form within the congregation. A person isn’t suddenly a pastor. A person becomes a pastor. My pastoral identity is formed in relationship with the parishioners of SPLC.
It has been a joy for me becoming a pastor for SPLC and I am so grateful that they have invited me into the trust of such formative relationships.

Monday, December 5, 2011

crying like a church on monday

Contrary to the title of this post (taken from a New Radicals song title--which, by the way is one of my favorites from the 90s and is the only non-weird CCM cds that can be found in our humble little church)...
As I was saying, contrary to the title of this post, I actually really enjoy Mondays at SPLC (St. Paul Lutheran Church). Shannon, our youth director (who also happens to be one of my closest friends since high school), and I kind of run the show on Mondays. Pastor Mark (my supervisor and the lead pastor at SPLC) has Mondays off and our amazing secretary is away today. So Mondays are always rather laid back, a breath of fresh air and a moment to focus and reflect after the hustle of Sunday. Today, like other Mondays, I shut myself in my office all day and did the prepatory work that is such a huge part of being a pastor. This is one thing I hadn't even thought about. I guess I'd always known somewhere in my brain that a huge chunk, maybe a majority, of the work of the pastor is preparation. We prepare for confirmation, for upcoming Sundays, for preaching, for Sunday school, for caroling, for our work with the homeless shelter and food shelf, for our evangelism program, etc. Most of what we do is preparation and Mondays are a great time to really dig into it. Mondays are a time to study and think and pray and read and write and plan, and on and on and on. And since most people hate this second day of the week I actually get a bit of time to work. Still, it is in the interruptions that ministry happens on Mondays or on any day for that matter. The interruptions just tend to be shorter. Even in the midst of all the work I got done today I still had the wonderful opportunity to help a fellow with an immediate housing need and I got to have a great and surprising conversation with a parishioner about theology.
Part of the hardest part of this ministry, and I'm sure at least some other pastors feel this way, is the loneliness. Now I've read Nouwen (and enjoyed it) and I'm well aware that our call to ministry is a call to mutual vulnerability, but bearing your soul to friends is different than bearing your soul to parishioners. I can't say it's harder or easier, but I can say it is different and it is something you have to learn to do. And I'm learning. I'm fumbling and failing all the way, but I am learning.
Today I had one of those moments where the loneliness was alleviated for a time. I really love these sorts of moments. They are like fuel. Part of my loneliness comes from the huge change from being a full time student for 20ish years to being a Pastor/student. I miss the conversations. That is why I was so excited today to have a conversation with a guy from our congregation about Marcus Borg. Now, I don't find myself in agreement with all of what Borg says, but I love his writings. There are pieces of his theology that really speak to my faith and the doubt which is a part of that faith. This gentleman from church was talking about the adult forum a few weeks ago during which we discussed hospitality. He talked about the spiritual practice of hospitality as a way to "see through the dense haze of self." Then he quoted Marcus Borg. This was a welcome break from all the preparation and planning I was doing. I got excited, maybe a little overexcited (as I am prone to do) and lent him the two books by Borg that I had in my study (The Heart of Christianity and The Meaning of Jesus). I'm really hoping to follow up with him and have a conversation about his thoughts on the books.
Mondays are great.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Hypersleep Update

Well, I'm deep into the internship year now here in Minnesota. It's been so long since I've posted I'll have to give a quick run-down of all the things that have happened in the last number of months before I try once again to start blogging regularly. Before I start I need to explain my rationale for trying to blog--after all, it feels like half of my posts on here are updates after months away. Whoops. Anyway, I'm not always one who is very introspective. It's easy for me to discuss high concepts and to pontificate about ideas of which I know very little. But it's not very easy for me to perform the ever important act of introspection or self-reflection. Now, I do journal pretty regularly, but I would like to learn to be introspective in a public way. I kind of feel as though it is my responsibility as a pastor to interpret my own experience for other people, to explain how and where and when I am encountered by God in the world and why in the world I believe that God is present in the human experience at all. Plus, when I journal and I know I am the only one who will be reading it, my writing gets very sloppy and I don't follow through on thoughts. The accountability of the other eyes that will see this help to change that. Besides all of this, I can get whiny and irritating if I know I'm the only one who will read what I have to say and that is tiring. I can really get on my nerves sometimes (insert comment about the importance of the external word here--thank you Dr. Paulson).
So, since I posted in May I finished the second semester of my middler year (that is seminary language for the second year). Last semester I was in what may have been some of the most influential classes for me personally and in terms of vocation and discernment. These included especially middler preaching, Lutheran confessions, and worship. I basically fell in love with Lutheranism last semester and now dorkily read the Formula of Concord in my free time.
Over the Summer I worked at the development office 10 hours every week. Even with my few hours and even though I sincerely liked my job I spent a good deal of time complaining about going to work. Pippi only worked a bit and so we got to spend a ton of time together. I watched a great deal of television and movies on netflix. Every weekend for 6 weeks in a row we were involved in weddings in Iowa and Minnesota, so that kept us pretty busy. I had the amazing privilege of delivering the homily and doing part of the liturgy at Jordan and Alisha's wedding. Really loved it. Got my wisdom teeth yanked out two weeks before internship started. Became really lazy after being in a drug induced stupor for a week and watched quite a few samurai movies. Read a bunch of good books. Pippi was offered a job at the very tail end of summer and took it. She's now a .9-time elementary music teacher.
In September I started internship at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Stillwater, MN. People often ask how it's going. Normally, my response is fumbling and bumbling. You know, church is church. It has its really wonderful things and its really terrible things. It's not a good or a bad experience. It's an experience and one that I like. The call to pastoral ministry is being affirmed, but not uniformly. There are parts that I don't particularly care for and there are certainly other things to which I may be called. Still, I'm really committed to the call, while also realistic about the fact that God may have other things in store too. I'm praying a lot for discernment, for God to guide me or lead me or help me listen or whatever so I can better come to understand what I'm called to be and do. I trust and hope that God is shaping Pippi and me through all of this. Sleep well.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Easter Reflection 1

Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14 Sermon Preached: April 28

Easter Sunday has come and past. Christ is risen!!! By virtue of Christ’s resurrection, death is defeated and we are given new life. We are promised that Christ’s resurrection is our resurrection. Paul tells us in Romans that in baptism, we have been put to death with Christ and since this is so, we too will walk in newness of life just as Christ has been raised from the dead. This is most certainly true.

This last Sunday we celebrated this defeat of death and subversion of reality as we know it. After all, in reality, death should win; it should have the final word. But we know that God in Christ has the final word and that word is life. In our text today, God promises resurrection: God promises regeneration and restoration to the exiled people of Israel. By this promise and act, God proclaims, the people will know that God is God. God defines Godself in today’s text by the promise and act of resurrection. God defines Godself as the one who creates life where there is only death. In this season of Easter we hear again and again that God has given life to the dead and will bring about life in our death.

But, amidst this resurrection celebration, we look to all corners of the globe and still see death. There are plenty of dry, dry bones in our world. If God were to show me around the world like God showed the prophet Ezekiel around the valley I am certain that I would not see many skeletons or corpses getting up to walk. I would see death, and in the face of this death I would see so many people haunted by meaninglessness and despair. I am sure I would wonder at the dryness and multitude of the bones, at the utter hopelessness of it all. Our world is full of dry bones, as far as our eyes can see. While we are not placed in the midst of the valley of dry bones by the hand of God as Ezekiel was, modern media allows us to witness just how dry, how hopeless it all is. Just turn on the news:

A month and a half since the earthquake and tsunami ravaged Japan there is still death and destruction as far as the eye can see. In Japan we see dry, dry bones.

Millions of Haitians are still recovering from the quake almost a year and a half ago. Many of these Haitians are still homeless and a great deal fell victim to a severe cholera outbreak that followed the quake. We are surrounded by dry, dry bones.

As we hear reports of the US economy’s recovery, millions of our fellow citizens are still jobless, homeless, and hungry. Many of these are caught in cycles of poverty that stretch back for generations ( We are standing amongst dry, dry bones.

People that we all personally know and love have died in recent months. I know I’ve lost people already this year. The valley in which we are standing is full of dry, dry bones.

Amidst all of this death…resurrection and the victory of God over death is hard to hear. It even seems absurd. It certainly defies our expectations of what should be. This season and today’s text challenge us to see all of this through new eyes, the way, perhaps, that God sees the world. There is despair as far as we can see, but there is hope as far as God can see.

In Ezekiel’s vision, this ordinary mortal is made to see the full extent of the death that abounds. In his time there was much of this to see. Ezekiel was a prophet in Judah leading up to and during the Babylonian Exile. This historical event was not just a relocation, a move to Babylon from Judah for the Israelites. No, the Babylonian Exile of the sixth century BCE was a displacement of a whole people. It was an occupation, a siege, a dislocation, and a decimation of a people and a culture. As David Garber puts it, “the Babylonians tortured the inhabitants of Jerusalem with siege warfare that lasted almost two years, leading to famine, disease, and despair…they destroyed the city of Jerusalem, razed the Temple to the ground, killed many of the inhabitants, and forced the rest to migrate to Babylon.” Ezekiel’s own wife dies before the exile and the prophet is not permitted to mourn, just as the people were not to be permitted to mourn for the destruction of the Temple. Ezekiel sees a valley of hopelessness.

He is shown around the valley. Yahweh leads him all about there so that he takes it all in. Having seen the extent of the dry bones, Ezekiel is astonished by the hopelessness of it all. The bones are so very dry, he notes, and there are so many of them. Those who were once held up by these bones have long, long since passed. It is as if a great multitude was struck dead as in battle and was then left to rot. These skeletons are not those to which we are accustomed. They are not the skeletons of Disney pirates or cute Halloween decorations. They are not even the skeletons that hang in our classrooms as learning tools. These are the bones of those who died at another’s hand. These are the bones of those whose life was taken from them. These are the bones of Ezekiel’s dead neighbors. There is no hope, no life to be seen here. Just death. Nothing more.

Yet, by virtue of Yahweh’s revivifying promise and action, Ezekiel is made to see more than his mortal eyes allow. God poses an absurd, perhaps even preposterous question to the prophet, “Mortal,” God asks, “can these bones live?” Is there any hope in despair? Were I Ezekiel, still astonished by the multitude and dryness of these old bones, I would have thought, of course not Yahweh. You have shown me. There is no life here. There is no hope. These people have been struck down and there is nothing more to do but mourn and despair. But, rather than presume to know the answer to God’s riddle, Ezekiel passes the question back to Yahweh. And Yahweh invites Ezekiel, this ordinary mortal, to see with resurrection eyes. Yes, God commands Ezekiel to participate in the regeneration of these bones. By the Word of God spoken to the bones and the breath by an ordinary human being, by the promise of resurrection and the infusion of breath, the bones are revivified and death does not have the victory. Life has the victory because Yahweh has the victory. In the midst of such death, of such hopelessness and despair Ezekiel is made to see life and hope. Ezekiel sees with resurrection eyes.

God tells Ezekiel, what you have seen here is the whole house of Israel. Yahweh has heard Ezekiel’s people cry: Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost, we are cut off completely. Ezekiel’s absurd and spectacular vision of the enlivening of old dry bones is God’s response to this lament. God’s people cry this cry and YHWH responds by showing the prophet Ezekiel something impossible: resurrection. New life. Yahweh responds to the cries of His people by promising and bringing about life where only death can be seen.

Where there is only death, God sees life. Where there is despair God sees hope. For God, the reality of resurrection, the reality of life from death, is greater than the reality of death. And this is because God brings this impossible reality about. The faithful and trustworthy creator of life is the progenitor of hope where there is only despair. Yahweh will deliver from every oppressor, even death. This is who God is in relation to God’s people. God has a history of listening to the cries of God’s people and bringing about resurrection where there is only death, and hope where there is only despair. After all, God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, God gave the same people sustenance in the desert, raised a widow’s son at the hand of Elijah, and this is all even before God delivered the Israelites from the Babylonian Exile! The people of this resurrecting God are called to see with resurrection eyes. God calls God’s people to see the death in the world, indeed, even to walk around and be amongst the dry, dry bones, but not as those who are finally beaten by death and despair but as those who trust in the promise of new life.

The gift of faith allows us to trust that Yahweh, our God, triumphs over death with life. We can see this only with the eyes of faith, with resurrection eyes. Seeing with these eyes does not blind us to the death that surrounds us, so that we naively see only life and ignore the world’s despair.

Quite the opposite, seeing with the eyes of resurrection means seeing the death that abounds clearly, but seeing more clearly life in those dry bones. God’s people are called into the deepest suffering and death that the world has to offer, to suffer in, with and for the world, but to do so with resurrection eyes, so that despair does not finally triumph but so hope abounds. These resurrection eyes strengthen God’s people for work in the world.

Resurrection eyes saw the reality of hope even amidst the hopelessness of the plague 500 years ago. There are numerous reports of christisn leaders who stayed with their people even through periods of quarantine to care for the sick. Ordinary people with resurrection eyes gave their lives to care for the terminal, and still do so today.

Ordinary people with resurrection eyes see hope today in the dry bones of the victims of natural disaster, in the dry bones of the victims of disease, racism, violence, and economic injustice. Hunger, a problem at least as old as history, is combated by people of faith around the globe as they advocate for fairer legislation and distribution of our abundant resources.

Ordinary people with resurrection eyes see, as Ezekiel did, that where there is death, life is possible; That where despair seems to reign there is reason to hope; that this hope is to be lived amidst the driest of the dry bones.

By virtue of the resurrection of Christ, God has given you resurrection eyes, to see and be hope where there is only despair.

This subversion of the reality of death and the triumph of life over death that we call resurrection is so utterly unexpected, surprising, and even absurd, that it only makes sense when one has known resurrection in the gift of faith. It is Easter, and at this time we are reminded that we are given new life and the hope of resurrection that breaks into our here and now so that we can live in, with, and for a whole world full of dry, dry bones. With resurrection eyes we live with the dry bones without hopelessness, meaninglessness, or despair, but with faith in the God who is defined by resurrection. We see with resurrection eyes, because we have been known by the resurrected one. We see with resurrection eyes because we have been known by the one who hears and responds to the cries of the world. We see with resurrection eyes because we are called to speak God’s word of hope to a hopeless world.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Lenten Reflection 3

Romans 8:6-11

The words we just read feel to me like a roller coaster. We climb the hill as we hear that setting the mind on the flesh is death and setting the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. The coaster slows as we climb: the mind set on the flesh is hostile to God, it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it. We reach the top of the climb and slow to a stop as we are told that those in the flesh cannot please God. We must live a certain way, orient our minds a certain way…or else. With these words, the coaster seems to stop. The wait at the top of this high hill after such a climb seems like an eternity. So we’ve got some time to think about these things.

Living according to the Spirit…setting the mind on the Spirit…achieving life and peace…pleasing God. There have been a couple of times when I was pretty sure that I had this figured out. I loved the thrill of the climb because I “got” the whole Spirit/flesh divide and was certain that I could live in a way that was pleasing to God. I had little patience for religious talk that strayed too far from demands like we heard in the first half of today’s text.

After working at a Bible camp a few summers back I was sure that I got it. I spent the summer bumping chests (Donald Miller) with Jesus and getting holier with my fellow counselors. Together we were more than certain about what was pleasing to God and what wasn’t. Everyday, we would rise before our campers to do Bible study together. We kept each other accountable for our horrible sins (most of which involved our teenaged hormones). On weekends we spent our free time passing out tracts at the mall and helping people recognize that they were sinners and damned unless they would repent and be saved. Thanks to our efforts to sanctify ourselves through all of the things we did, we could be certain that we were safe and wanted to get more recruits. The coaster climbed and climbed. As the requirements of faith, the pre-requisites for life and peace and pleasing God pulled us up the hill.

We knew that we were indeed abhorring the flesh and setting our minds on the Spirit and we wanted this to continue when we left each other and headed back into that nasty world. Each of us agreed to keep the others accountable so that we would leave our flesh behind and set our minds completely on the Spirit. So we promised to devote huge amounts of time everyday to prayer and Bible study. When we saw people sitting alone in our college cafeterias we promised each other that we would practice what we called intentional evangelism (I’m still curious what unintentional evangelism looks like). Because we happened to be politically progressive, we promised to be active in our campus advocacy organizations and do at least one thing a day for social justice. On top of that, I became a vegetarian. Since scripture told us that the flesh was bad, we would master our own. Any hormonal urges were to be punished with fasting. We were serious. We knew we had to set our minds on the Spirit. God demands no less. This was all so clear. Life made a lot of sense as our coaster climbed the hill.

Soon after returning to life away from camp things started to come apart. First, my friends sat together at meals, so I didn’t exactly follow through on the intentional evangelism piece. Then homework picked up, so I didn’t always get around to the 30 minutes of prayer and couple chapters of devotional bible reading that we expected of each other. I did better with the justice thing and vegetarianism, but always felt like I should have been doing more. And I certainly did not fast every time lust entered in. After a few short weeks I was miserable. I felt terrible about all of this. I failed my accountability partners and I failed my God. It was devastating. I was frustrated by my failure. And I also didn’t see the thrill of the ride ahead. (Pause)

Paul says in today’s writing that, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God…” At the top of the hill we are left wondering, have we pleased God? For those of us who have felt the sting of failure when we’ve tried so hard to improve, to make ourselves holier, the apex of this hill is a scary place because we know we have not in fact pleased God. Still, without our pushing, the coaster inches forward, and before we know it we are flying down the hill with our stomachs in our throats.

Just as swiftly as the coaster car falls Paul proclaims: But you ARE NOT in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. The coaster whips us around a spiral: If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. And finally, the momentum of that great hill is enough to push us though a loop that turns our whole world upside down: If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

What a ride! All of the demands we heard as we climbed the front of the hill, God has already given us. (Pause) The summons to set the mind on the Spirit is followed by the proclamation that we ARE IN the Spirit, because the Spirit DWELLS IN us, just like God dwelt with the Israelites in the wilderness and just like Jesus dwelt with humanity in the flesh.

After being dropped, spun around, and turned upside down by this surprising indwelling Spirit, I can’t help but see the world differently. In building up good works by my own holiness and a concern for my salvation and sanctification above all else, I was not setting my mind on the Spirit at all. In fact, this self-congratulatory religion that I practiced was really self-centered idolatry, it was a religion of distrust in the work of God and abhorrence for the neighbor, who was only useful to me if he or she added to my holiness.

Please don’t misunderstand, it is not that the things we did were bad, but it is that they came from a place of insecurity, of distrust for God’s work and trust in our own above God’s. As good as we thought our intentions were, my counselor friends and I misunderstood a couple of very important things. The call to set the mind on the Spirit is not a law or an obligation but a descriptive characteristic of life in the Spirit; it is a new way of living, not ruled by us but by the Spirit within us. It is the Spirit’s gift and not our work.

Moreover, we were operating under the assumption that these words against the flesh are a call to detest our bodies and the present, worldly reality. If this text was about hating the present reality and not seeking to change anything here and now, then the Spirit dwelling with us in this world and the promise of life for our mortal bodies that we hear in the text would seem rather out of place. There is a deep concern in this text for the present bodily reality. It is just that the approach is different. We are not called to trust God and love God’s people by our own power or will, but by the Spirit’s power and will. We do not live in that old reality of requirements and pre-requisites, but in the reality of the Spirit.

Flesh, in this text, is simply the characteristic of the old way of living, it is living without the truth that in the Spirit everything has changed. The indwelling Spirit alone makes alive and it alone is life. The righteousness of the law, this setting the mind on the Spirit is not fulfilled by us, blessed be God, it is fulfilled in us. (Pause) The Spirit is life within us and it will give life to our mortal bodies. What’s more, this Spirit is not achieved but received.

So we feel the thrill of the roller coaster, the thrill of God working new life within us. But this ride does not leave us the same as when we started. Here is where all of this really becomes beautiful. Because the Spirit is life within us, because the old way of understanding God and the world has died with our old way of being, we are free to LIVE this new life. We are made alive by the indwelling Spirit of God, and by this same Spirit, we LIVE this new life.

By virtue of the indwelling Spirit, we are free to live with our minds set on the Spirit. God has given us this freedom for a purpose. God has given us the freedom of new life so that we live a life of trust in God’s promises and love for our neighbors.

The Spirit changes everything, so everything must change. This change, this setting the mind on the Spirit, happens in the world in which we already live, and in the callings to which we have been called.

The Spirit has entered into our world, where we are, in our everyday lives and has made us alive to live differently.

So we live deeply into the Spirit in the context of our callings. We are called to live freely in love for God and God’s creation in the context of our day-to-day lives. We live in the Spirit, with our minds set on the Spirit as we change our children’s diapers, write papers, have meals with our spouses, prepare for internship, advocate for justice, plant a tree, or do anything else in our callings out of the freedom of the new life in the Spirit. Out of the freedom of a life changed by God.

The old, dead person who belongs to the flesh will certainly still try to dominate our lives and define who we are. But remember that you are not that old person. You are in the Spirit because the Spirit dwells in you. You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Now LIVE on the basis of that indwelling Spirit.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Lenten Reflection 2

Text: John 4:5-42 Sermon Preached: March 24, 2011

In our text today we witness the living water gushing forth to erode the walls that divide and exclude. We hear this word well aware of what water can do. In the last few weeks the world has watched in horror as water that was stirred to life by the quaking ground has claimed the lives of thousands of our brothers and sisters, especially in Japan. We mourn the movement of this water. Here in Minnesota, where the snow just does not seem to stop, people are bracing themselves for the water that threatens to burst the barriers that we’ve set up to protect ourselves and our possessions. We are very aware of what water can do.

In fact, many of us have probably witnessed the destructive capabilities of water first hand. I personally had the distinct privilege to be in central Iowa during the great flood of 2008. Our home that had never flooded before fell victim to the living water that summer. This water broke through every barrier. It crumbled boxes, weakened walls, and threw open doors. Everything that kept our belongings protected and in their proper places was eroded so that our stuff was scattered about the basement. Living water flows into unexpected places with the force to tear down barriers.

Whether we have experienced something like this first hand or have watched what has happened on the news, we are all aware of what living water can do when it moves into our lives.

The water that Jesus offers in our text today also crumbles and erodes barriers. The living water from Jesus erodes the barriers that divide us from God and one another. Only, when these walls are eroded it is not cause for mourning but celebration. For, with these walls destroyed, there is nothing to stop us from loving God and one another.

The world of the woman at the well is full of walls. Her walls have been constructed for her, to keep her in her proper place. The narrator knows this. While this woman is not mentioned by name, the narrator takes care to tell us again and again that she is a Samaritan and a woman. Both her ethnic identity and her womanhood should keep Jesus the Jewish rabbi safely on his side of the wall.

The woman herself is also keenly aware of her identity. Jesus asks her for a drink, and she responds suspiciously, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She knows her history; that her people have been victimized and colonized five times over the last 700 years, with Rome as the sixth colonizer. She knows that they have thus intermarried with their colonizers and that though they worship Yahweh her people and Jesus’ people have some central theological differences concerning the Law and where to worship. The woman at the well knows that these ethnic and religious differences should keep Jesus and her safely on opposite sides of the wall.

Perhaps she thinks it odd when Jesus brings up her marital history, that like her people who have been colonized 5 going onto 6 times, she has been given in marriage five times to five different people and is now with her sixth. She is a woman who has experienced tragic loss and great need. Her victimization and the victimization of her people should keep Jesus safely on the other side of the wall.

With this in mind, she initiates a deeply theological conversation with Jesus about the very wall that divides her from him. “Where should we worship?” She gets to the heart of their religious differences. Her identity brings with it walls of gender, nationality, ethnicity, and religion that should keep Jesus, the Jewish man, in his proper place, safely on his side of the wall.

When the disciples return, having found food for their teacher, they are astonished to find Jesus speaking with a woman. Can’t Jesus see the wall there? What sort of rabbi is this? I think the disciples are particularly concerned with her gender because the narrator had a hunch that future generations would have the same concern. What with all the non-biblical speculation about her…let’s call it sin to put it gently. See, even faithful preachers and interpreters see the wall there and can’t help but define her by it, making it as tall as possible by adding lacking morals to her identity. In any case, her gender identity should exclude her. Jesus should definitely stay safely on his side of the wall.

These walls should ultimately define her and keep her in her proper place. They should keep Jesus away. But here is the astonishing thing…Jesus does not finally let the walls define or exclude her. Jesus defines her specifically as one who is included. One who is welcomed, and beloved. One who is worth his time and his gift of living water, one who can provide for him and witness to him. He meets her on her side of the wall to give her the water that will crumble the walls.

The water that crumbles her wall starts with an encounter. Jesus meets her in the heat of the day as one in need. He does not let the walls keep him from her, but comes to her…in her land, at her well; to encounter the fullness of her humanity. He does not ask her to change her religion or national identity, or even to leave the man she is with. No! He simply reveals himself to her and shows that he knows her. He knows her truly and deeply, even in her most closely held hurt. When he reveals that he knows her she starts to see who he really is…he’s the one her people have been waiting for, the Messiah, I AM. He knows her so that she can know him.

Jesus crosses the walls that divide to enter deeply into relationship with this woman. In this she is given the living water that will never run out. This relationship is the water that sustains. So, when she leaves she doesn’t take her water jar with her. She leaves it because she doesn’t need it. The water has been poured into her. This water gushes forth crumbling all the walls that exclude her from relationship with Jesus and his disciples. She starts to see, like Jesus does, that the walls are crumbling and breaking down. She is still a woman, still a Samaritan, still one who has known tragedy, but these are no longer reasons for walls of exclusion as they are not her ultimate definition. She begins to see that she is defined by the relationship that Jesus has started with her.

With the walls crashing down around her she rushes home to bring her neighbors so that their walls might come crashing down, so they can see and can start to figure out with her what it means to see the world in this way and what it means to be in relationship with this odd and wondrous man. As the living water that Jesus gives starts to break down their walls that divide and exclude them from God and one another; when they encounter him for themselves, they can say, “Truly this is the Savior of the world.”

Jesus tells his disciples in today’s text that he has come to finish the work of the Father, on the cross he declares that it is finished; he offers the Samaritan woman the ever-quenching living water and on the cross it flows from his side, destroying all walls dividing God’s beloved humanity.

Our own world is full of walls. Literal walls divide entire nations. We exclude and are excluded by walls that our society builds around gender, socio-economic status, race, religion, and sexual orientation. These are only a few of the definitions that have walls built around them in our world. Our churches even erect or support walls to try to exclude the other from God and from us. It’s safer this way, we think to ourselves. Many friends have shared stories with me about walls erected to keep us from being who we are called to be in relationship with Christ. Whether we have been thought to be too young to be called or whether people have denied the validity of our call because of our gender, or you can add in your own experience. We have run headfirst into these walls.

Unfortunately for these barriers, Christ still encounters us with this gift of living water. Christ meets us in the ordinariness of our everyday lives, at our own wells where we are just gathering water for the day. He meets us in the everyday stuff of life, in bread and wine, in words, in the other who indelibly touches us across walls that should divide. In this coming to know Christ, in these ordinary encounters, we are given the living water.

Can you hear the walls start to crumble? Can you feel the living water spray through the cracks of our walls of exclusion and division? Can you see the rubble fly in different directions as the water finally breaks through? This living water gushes forth into the fullness of our world, crumbing the walls that divide us from God and our neighbors. Because Jesus has encountered us in our land, has met us and continues to meet us where we are, we are free to be united with God and one another…we are free to live in a world without walls.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Lenten Reflection 1

On the first Sunday of this reflective 40 day journey that we call lent, we ran into Jesus in what might seem like a rather surprising place. This place is one with which we human creatures are quite familiar. It is a place of chaos and danger, of anxiety and hunger, of distrust and temptation. We begin this Lenten journey by meeting Jesus in the wilderness.

The wilderness brings to mind a number of biblical images. The patriarchs and matriarchs in Genesis spend some time there, some figuratively, some literally. Elijah fled for his life and asked to die in the wilderness. And, of course, the people Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years, a really long time to be there.

For some of us, the wilderness brings to mind our own life experiences. The death of a loved one, the loss of a job, even the call to serve God in any number of capacities, and you can name your own wilderness experience, these leave us wandering, famished, exhausted. And Jesus meets us here.

Now, I do not come from a very outdoorsy family. When we went “camping” every summer it was either to my grandparents’ condo on lake Okoboji or at a resort style Bible camp complete with air conditioning. So, I did not get to really start to understand wilderness in the literal sense until college when I spent four months in Tanzania, mostly deep in the bush amongst Maasai tribes.

My first worship experience in Tanzania was toward the end of an especially dry dry season. Service on the dusty open plain in this small Masaai village was interrupted a number of times by debris blown into our windowless worship space, dust in our eyes, and small wind whipped dust cyclones that would tear through in front of the altar. Here was chaos and some level of uncertainty in the wilderness, but it was also here in our wilderness community that we heard the word and received the Lord’s Supper. To my surprise, Jesus was in this wilderness!

“Great,” we might say to ourselves, “Jesus showed up in this dry and desolate place, he must be here to scoop us up and take us out of here or at least turn this wilderness into a bright sunny beach. After all, we just learned in Jesus’ baptism that occurs immediately before this in Matthew that Jesus is the Son of God and the Son of God is certainly powerful enough to get us out of here.” But, to our surprise, we encounter Jesus, this Son of God in the wilderness as one with us. We encounter Jesus as one who is feeling the weight of the wilderness himself, as one who is hungry, tempted, and yet faithful. Suddenly, we are forced to reconsider what Jesus’ being the Son of God must mean. Maybe it means more than supernatural ability and kingly power. Maybe being the Son of God means trusting faithfully in God’s promises, especially in the wilderness.

In our text today, Jesus shows us what being the Son of God looks like, as He allows only God to define that relational identity. The season of Lent that we have recently entered is a time to reflect on that very identity and it is a reminder to us Christians that who we are is intimately intertwined with who Christ is. In short, because of who Christ is, we are who we are.

As we reach our text in Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus, God has just recently broken the news: “This is my Son,” God tells the world. Rather than throwing a parade or making up for twenty-some missed birthday parties, God’s Spirit brings Jesus TO BE tested in the wilderness. This is a time for Jesus to live into his newly revealed identity. Now, hungry from 40 days of fasting, the tester shows up and the exam begins.

“If you are the Son of God…” the devil immediately tells Jesus what the subject of the test will be. The subject is Jesus’ sonship. The temptations that the devil puts before Jesus are concerned with who Jesus is in relation to God. The devil, after all, has an idea about what should make someone God’s Son. This idea is what we might call common knowledge. The Son of God, common knowledge tells us, deserves and gets satisfaction, power, and authority. This Son of God should be glorious like a well-fed earthly king. The devil’s idea is that the Son of God has the power to fulfill his own immediate needs and that the Son of God has spiritual authority and autonomy and that the Son of God is entitled to imperial rule. Sounds right…doesn’t it?

These tests are temptations to live like common knowledge would tell us a Son of God should live. They are temptations of self-satisfaction, distrust, and the status-quo type power of empire and earthly rulers. Ultimately, all of these are temptations to be Son of God in a way that is defined by someone other than God. These are temptations to be someone other than who Jesus is, temptations not to live into his identity.

The amazing thing is that Jesus does not let the devil have the final word on the matter of who he is! God has the final word! Three times Jesus is tested and three times Jesus responds with God’s word. Trust in God’s provision, God’s faithfulness, and God’s way characterize Jesus as the Son of God and silence the voice that speaks against this identity.

Now, here is the beautiful thing, because of who Christ is in relation to God, we are freed to ever more fully be who we are…the Children of God! We are free, by virtue of Christ’s living into his identity as Son of God to live into our own identity as Children of God. What we hear in Matthew’s gospel is not that we can overcome temptation if we just try, but that out identity is finally not defined by the devil, that is, by the powers of selfishness, distrust, the might of the status quo, or anything we might worship other than God. No! As Children of God we are finally defined by God. God has the final word and says to all of us, “You are my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Because of who Christ is we are who we are. In the wilderness of this life and especially now in the wilderness of lent, we are freed to live more fully into this identity, to be who we are.

In this particular season, most of us in this room are in the risky and chaotic wilderness of waiting for internship placement. Others here today are in the wilderness of dealing with ornery students who are in the wilderness of waiting. Meeting Jesus in the wilderness at this particular time in this season comes pretty naturally, because, well, we are already there in this dry and desolate place of uncertainty and anxiety. This is our condition and Jesus meets us here.

In his commentary on the first temptation Jesus that faces in Matthew’s gospel, Tom Long tells us that Jesus is tempted to make the nature of his work too small, to satisfy himself (Long, Matthew, 35). Not to have in his mind and before his eyes the picture of his call. Now, this does not mean that it was bad for Jesus to be hungry or that it is bad to fulfill physical need. This isn’t some ethereal flesh loathing text that calls us to asceticism, to flee to the hills and master our desires. Jesus is not saying no to food per se or no to his body per se. Rather, Jesus says no to the minimizing of his identity, to self concern and self satisfaction as set against trust in God and God’s mission. Jesus gives the final word to God and reminds the devil that being the Son of God means trusting God in the wilderness and being concerned with God’s mission for the world, not just with himself.

My own temptation in this time of uncertainty and waiting, like Jesus’ in the wilderness, is to be drawn into self-satisfaction and self-concern over concern for God’s mission and my call to be in that mission. This inward turn of self-concern manifests in anxiety…and here we are…in the wilderness.

Meeting Jesus in this wilderness does not mean that the anxiety will magically disappear or that God’s call to us will make life nice, comfortable, or easy. But it does mean that the forces that cause such anxiety do not have the final word.

Our identity is intertwined with the identity of Christ, remember, we are the body of Christ, Christians, that is, little Christs. By virtue of his identity as the Son of God, we are brought into the family of God, we are brought into His story, and we are freed by Christ to live into this identity, trusting the promises of God even in the wilderness, following God’s way even when it leads to the cross, and living defined by God even when other definitions of who we are may seem very appealing. Because of who Christ is, we are who we are. As Christ is shown to be the Son of God in the wilderness, we are God’s beloved Children in the wilderness, in the city, and even in the classroom. Only God defines us. All other voices are silenced. God has the final word.