Monday, March 23, 2015

What it was like

About a year ago I was attending a conference just east of Portland when I received a text message from one of my parishioners that went something like this:

M just diagnosed with brain tumor.  Transporting to Children's Hosp now.  We are following behind.  Surgery scheduled for tomorrow morning.

So much for my parishioners following instructions about major incidents while I'm out of town.  The good news is that they were going to Children's Hospital in Portland, just 40 minutes from where I was.

I kept in contact with the family during the 4-hour drive and made arrangements to be at the hospital in the morning.  My timing was impeccable as I got to her room about 20 minutes before she was wheeled to the O.R.  After some conversation and prayers, off she went.  The family and I went to the waiting room and I sat with them for about an hour.  Dad eventually released me and said he would keep me updated.

It's been just over a year, and M has recovered nicely.

Her sister has written a dramatic poem and entered to qualify for a national speech and debate tournament.  Apparently the number of youtube "likes" will help her cause.  So, with that in mind, here is Lucy waxing dramatically poetic about what it was like.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Head . . . Desk

Every Sunday morning I stand out front by the main doors to the church and greet people as they come in.

Today, as one of my parishioners was coming into church, she said, "There's a homeless looking guy hanging out in the parish hall.  Do you know about him?"

As a matter of fact, I do know about him.  He sort of planted himself here two or three months ago.  I allowed him to come in out of the cold.  I've given him something to eat out of the FISH box.  I've allowed him to wash his feet in the bathroom.  I've allowed him to sleep in the building during the day.

He can be sneaky quiet, so I need to make sure I go through the building to keep from locking him inside.

Anyway, Lee and I have sort of an understanding.  And, for the most part, he's been living up to my rather low expectations (as in, clean up after yourself, don't hassle people, clean up after yourself and clean up after yourself).  Last Thursday he wandered into the parish hall while we were holding our Lenten soup supper.  I was pleasantly surprised when everyone there pretty much invited him to grab some soup and sit down.  Some of what I'm preaching might be sinking in.

But then again . . .

"Yes, I know about him.  That's Lee."

"Oh . . . he's the 'regular' that you've told us about."


"Well . . . that can't continue."

"Oh?  Why not?"

"Because pretty soon there'll be another, and then another and then the place will be full of them."


She just looked at me like I was nuts and went on in.

Maybe today's sermon was just what she needed to hear.

Sermon; Lent 5B; John 12:20-33

I’m going to do something a little risky at first.  I’m going to ask you to think back to the sermon for Lent 1.  What do you, or can you, remember from that sermon?  If you are having trouble, here's a hint: And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.

I asked two questions:  how many temptations did Jesus endure; and, when did those temptations end.  The answers were, “According to Mark, we don't know,” and, “Maybe not until the cross.”

That led us to consider the implication of daily temptations and the doctrine of fully human/fully divine.  He lived as one of us, yet without sin.  It is this fully human aspect of Jesus that tells us we are not alone.  It is this fully human aspect of Jesus that tells us we worship not only a high and lofty, omnipotent, mysterious being, but we worship a God who loves us enough to walk in our shoes.  The Incarnation is as much about us understanding God as it is about God understanding us.  And it is this fully human aspect of Jesus that is a big part of today's gospel.

But as we go through our lives, and probably most especially as we go through our worship lives, the humanity of Jesus tends to get overlooked.  We worship God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We hear Scripture passages telling us of discipleship, healings, feedings and other miracles.  We participate in Communion where bread and wine are changed into the mystery of Christ’s real presence.  Jesus has become synonomous with God.

This is the God we worship and this is the God we long to see.  We want to see the miracles.  We want to see the signs.  We want to see water turned to wine.  We want to see your kingdom come.  And this is exactly what those Greeks in today's gospel reading are asking to see.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

Philip goes to Andrew and they both go and tell Jesus that there are some people here to see him.  We don't know if those Greeks ever got to see Jesus; but what we do know is that Jesus gives an answer nobody expects, and one which provides the basis of exactly how we are to see Jesus.

They ask to see Jesus the miracle worker; what they get is much more profound.

“I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

The first thing Jesus says is what we call the paradox of Christianity – in order to live, we must die.  This has permeated Christianity since before Christianity.  We must die to self.  We must die to the world.  Sometimes we must die physically.  For it is through death that we are given life.

Easter is two weeks away.  Everywhere plans are being made for brunches and dinners and gatherings and white shoes and egg hunts.  Everywhere plans are being made for celebrations of all kinds.  But we must never forget that to get to Easter we must go through Good Friday.  To get to resurrection, we must go through the cross.

This is not what those Greeks were expecting to hear.

The second deeply profound thing Jesus says is, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

A quick reading gives us a, “Yeah, that makes sense,” understanding.  After all, if we are servants of Christ, and if we go where he goes, then it makes sense that wherever he is, we, his servants, will be also.  But we should know by now that Jesus deserves more than a quick reading.

The question then becomes, “Where, then, is Jesus?”  He is confronting corruption.  He is talking theology with anyone who has questions.  He is crossing boundaries.  He is treating foreigners as equals.  He is welcoming the sinner, the impure and the unclean into his midst.  He is among the crippled, sick, dying and dead.  He is bringing food to the hungry.  He is protecting the powerless from the powerful.  He is speaking to outsiders.

That is where Jesus is.  That is where we must follow.  And when we follow Jesus into those places, we meet him there.  Amid the hungry, the broken, the beaten, the sick, dying and dead, the foreigners, the outsiders and powerless – amid those people is where Jesus is.

If we go to those places expecting to see a miracle of water walking, mute talking, deaf hearing or blind seeing, we might miss seeing the miracle of his humanity.  But if we go to those places understanding that that is where Jesus is, then we might be more open to experiencing the miracle of his humanity.  We also might experience the miracle that changes Them to Us.

And it is in that miracle, Them to Us, that a part of us might die.  What might die is our fear of outsiders.  What might die is our distrust of those who don't look like us, dress like us or smell like us.  What might die is our fear of being contaminated.  What might die is our desire to keep up the walls and divisions that define us.  If those things die, then we will bring forth much fruit.

Sir, we wish to see Jesus.

He's here.  But we probably need to change where we look.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015


So this is odd.

I was logging into my blog and, just for the fun of it, started poking around the stats page -- looking at when I had high traffic and from whence it came.

It turns out that, next to the U.S., I'm receiving more visits from Russia and Ukraine than from anywhere else in the world.

I'm not sure what that's all about.  Maybe I need to start paying more attention to that Russian-Ukrainian conflict thing going on over there.

I'm also wondering what on earth a relatively insignificant priest in a small Oregon city has to say about God, religion, faith and football that could possibly attract people from Russia and Ukraine.

As the song says, "How bizarre."

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sermon; Lent 4B; John 3:14-21

John is an interesting gospel, to say the least.  It's quotable (John 3:16), it's confusing (I am in my Father, you in me and I in you), it's a beautiful mystery (In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God), and it may have been the source of Gnostic Christianity.  One of the motifs of his gospel that I want to touch on is the interplay between light and dark.  Jesus is the light of all people who shines in the dark and is not overcome.

Today's gospel passage is part of Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus.  If you only pay attention to today's passage you may not know this; but the whole thing begins when Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, playing into the light/dark motif that runs throughout John.  Jesus uses this conversation that takes place in the dark to shine the light of why he came – he came for the benefit of those who live in the dark.  The light that shines in the dark is life and love, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

One problem with this passage is that people have turned it into a passage of condemnation.  That isn't Jesus' fault, that is our fault.  We have a way of taking passages that speak to God's love and turning them into passages that speak to God's condemnation; especially if we are dealing with people who refuse to believe like we do.

Take one of the most cited verses in Scripture – John 3:16:  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

We used to see this all the time at football games, mainly behind the goal posts.  And it's obvious why – God loved the world.  So people want to get that message out there by broadcasting that verse on a sign to a bunch of people sitting at home on Sunday, watching TV, drinking beer and eating chips.  Makes sense to me.

But leave it to people to change the emphasis from God “so loving the world,” to emphasizing condemnation for those who don't believe.  We change it from emphasizing Jesus and eternal life, to a turn or burn message.

That message of condemnation gets picked up two verses later when Jesus says, “Those who do not believe are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

“See,” we say, “Jesus himself says those who don't believe in him are condemned.  So it's our job to let people know they are going to hell if they don't accept Jesus as their personal Savior.”

First, that's not what Jesus said.  And second, why are people more concerned with a gospel message of condemnation than they are with a gospel message of love?

God did not send the light to condemn, but to save.  And here's where it gets tricky, because Jesus does say that those who do not believe are condemned.  But notice that he doesn't say, “I will condemn,” or, “My followers will condemn.”  What he says is that they are condemned already.  In short, they condemn themselves because they prefer darkness rather than light.

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.  He gave.  Jesus is a gift to the world and the purpose of that gift is to give light and life.

We don't have to accept this gift.  For that matter, we don't have to accept any gift – just look at the return/exchange lines in department stores the day after Christmas.  By accepting this gift, we are choosing to participate in the life it offers. By accepting this gift, we are choosing to participate in the holy mystery of God through faith and belief.  By accepting this gift, we are choosing to participate with God in shining a light onto a darkened world.

Conversely, people are also free to reject this gift.  For John, if a person rejects this gift, then they reject the life it offers.  If a person rejects the gift, then they condemn themselves to a realm of darkness and death.

The final verses of this discussion have to do with the end times: This is the judgment . . . all who do evil . . . those who do what is true.  This is a very shortened version of the sheep and goats story found over in Matthew 25.  Like there, Jesus is pointing out that who we follow and what we do has a bearing on whether we live in eternal light and life, or whether we live in eternal darkness and death.

The paradox of this light and life, however, is the cross.  In Numbers, the Israelite camp was infested with poisonous snakes.  The solution was for Moses to make a bronze image of a snake on a pole, and anyone bitten was to look upon the image so they might live.  That which might kill a person was the very means by which they might live.

It's the same with Jesus.  Not that Jesus will kill us, but if we choose to follow him and proclaim him Lord and Savior, then we must, in some way, die.  We must die to the self.  We must die to worldly desires.  We must die to systems that want to maintain the status quo, prefering to keep the message of Jesus in the dark.

When this happens, when we are confronted with people and systems that want to keep the message of Jesus in the dark, when we are confronted with selfish desires that take us away from the love of God, we must be willing lift up our eyes to the cross and understand that Jesus also confronted these very things and chose to die to the world.  We need to remember that it is in his death on the cross that we also are lifted up and exalted with life.

This passage in John isn't to be used to condemn others.  This passage is meant for us to move from dark to light, from death to life.  It is meant to remind us that it is through Christ’s death and resurrection that we experience light and life.  It is meant to be shared.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son for light and life.

May we always remember that we have received a gift of love, light and life.  More importantly, may we remember to share that gift with others, not as a tool to condemn, but AS A GIFT freely offered to be accepted or rejected as desired.


Friday, March 13, 2015

Mom was right

A long, long time ago . . .

Mrs. Ref and I were in the position of having to name The Kid that would soon be arriving.

I wanted to name her Andrea, after my maternal Grandfather, if it was a girl.  If it was a boy, I wanted to name it David J Ref.  That's J without a period.  That would accomplish three things -- my maternal Grandfather's middle name was J, my Dad's name was Jim and my Father-in-Law was Joel.  By naming it David J, we could tell each person (except grandpa, who was dead by now) that he was named after him.

It was Brilliant, I tell you . . . Brilliant!

Mrs. Ref overruled that idea.

She wanted to name it Priscilla or something odd like that.  I vetoed that name.  We actually did settle on the boy's name rather quickly -- David Joel.

The girl's name, however, took a little more time.  We eventually settled on a name (and a spelling) that we could agree.  When we notified her mom, my M-i-L, her exact words were, "That's horrible .... that's an old woman's name."

Mrs. Ref responded, "I hope she'll be an old woman some day."

The name stuck.

I've been saying for years that The Kid drives like an old woman.  Why drive the speed limit, when 5 mph under is much safer?  And she wouldn't dream of pulling out into traffic unless there's enough clearance for an airplane to land.

Today she asked me if I wanted to walk over to the bank with her.  Before we left, she came running out of her room all excited.  She had apparently found a "crap-load" of twenties stashed away in a pillow case from her college days.

Yep . . . mom was right.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Sermon; Lent 3B; John 2:13-22

There is a difference between facts and truth.  Facts are verifiable and quantifiable.  Facts can point to truth, but facts can also hide the truth.  As a quick example, in my generic marriage sermon, I say something to the effect of, “1 + 1 does not equal 2; 1 + 1 equals 3.”  The fact we all know is that 1+1 = 2.  But that hides the truth that, in a marriage, two people are coming together (1+1) and creating a space for not only themselves (2) but for the marriage (3).  There is a difference between facts and truth.

Getting back to the gospel, the fact is that Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers and drove them out of the temple.  In the synoptics (Matthew, Mark & Luke), this event happens toward the end of the gospel story.  And in those gospels this is THE EVENT that caused the leaders to begin looking for ways to eliminate Jesus.

John, however, wants to use facts in different ways to point to larger truths, so he rearranges things to fit his story.  John moves this story from the end of Jesus' ministry to the beginning.  John is less concerned with the facts of when than he is with the truth of why.  One of the truths John points to by putting this incident up front is that, like the words of the old spiritual song, the Lord's gonna trouble the waters.  John gets right to the point:  following Jesus means encountering challenging times.

Another truth John is pointing to here is the authority of Jesus.  Jesus cleanses the temple because, as God incarnate, he has the authority to change the place and focus of worship.  As he will tell the woman at the well in a couple of chapters, “The hour is coming, and now is, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”

According to John, Jesus has the authority to move the dwelling place of God from the temple to the body, and the body of Jesus is the new temple.  And it is the words of Jesus that consistently refer to the truth of who he is.

The truth John points to is that Jesus is God incarnate.  The truth John points to is that Jesus is showing the people a new new way of seeing God.  The truth John points to is that our relationship with God is more than a business transaction.  The truth John points to is that, in following Jesus, existing systems will be overturned.

In John, the facts of Jesus cleansing the temple point to those various truths I mentioned.  But I also said that not only can facts point to truth, by can also hide truth.

The first instance of this comes in the placement of this story.  As I said, Matthew, Mark and Luke have this event take place shortly after Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, what we now call Palm Sunday.  In our current time of caring about facts, or in peoples' desire to debunk Scripture, this fact of an intentionally misplaced story can hide the truth of what John is trying to get at.

A second instance comes in Jesus' words to the money changers.  We are used to hearing Jesus say, “You have turned my Father's house into a den of robbers,” or thieves or something along those lines.  But John uses the term, “marketplace.”  This word creates a different image for us.  Instead of money changers out to swindle the people and turn a tidy profit (like the money changers Joelene and I saw in Prague), this gives us an image of people participating in an open market.  Again I'm picturing the main square in Prague in front of the cathedrals of St. Nicholas or Our Lady before Tyn, with all kinds of vendors, food stalls and entertainers bustling around.

And at the temple, that may have been factually true.  But it can also hide a deeper truth of what John is getting at.  How do we see God and Church in our lives?  A larger truth is that we should see God and Church not as commodities to be sold and purchased on the open market, but as part and parcel of who we are.

A third instance comes in the discussion of the temple.  Facts are verifiable and quantifiable.  Facts are those things which we can see.  In the case of the temple, how people had always talked about the temple clouded their vision.  The temple is this building around us.  The temple has taken 46 years to build, and parts of it are still under construction.  Facts tell us this is where we have always, and will always, worship.

But John is going for a larger truth.  For John, the truth is that the temple is not made with human hands.  The truth is that the body of Jesus is the new temple.  “Destroy this temple,” reveals the truth that those to whom he was talking to would set in motion the earthly destruction of Jesus.

And, of course, there is the ultimate truth John points to in the resurrection.

Facts and truth.  Sometimes we can get so hung up on ensuring all the facts are correct that we miss the larger gospel truths.  As you journey through Lent, may you focus less on the fact of your discipline and more on the greater truth that might be hiding from you.