The blog of a lutheran pastor, writer, and political animal.

Monday, October 20, 2014

A few journal entries of my trip to the Holy Land, with commentary

October 8th
            “The North American Church is Cromwell's child.”—One of the things that immediately struck me was how colorful and statue-laden all the churches were. It made me reflect upon the roots of our own church aesthetic. We Americans come out of a tradition shaped by Oliver Cromwell who destroyed much of the church imagery in England.
            “I see the full moon over the sea of Galilee, clouds streaking, lightening flashing… lights on the “other side.” Amazing!... It’s humid air… Jesus among humid air crossing the sea to the other side… the other side.”— Just being there was amazing, and the Galilee especially so. I think about all those boat stories about Jesus, it was right there! Those storm stories, well, I got to see a storm on the Sea of Galilee!

October 9th
            “Magdala has a restaurant and a gas station in it. How banal… no, how real.”—So, the village from which Mary Magdalene got her name was not very pretty… but that too was important to remember, that these are real places, with real hurt and mud and dust and needs. Jesus didn’t show up in a fairy story, but in real life, and dealt with real life!
            “The fifth loaf is in Jesus’ hand… the hand of the priest.”—At the Church of the Multiplication there was a giant fresco of two fish and four loaves… but as we know from our Bibles there were five loaves… and it was explained to us that the fifth loaf was in the hand of Jesus by way of the Presider at Communion… that piece of art was done in such a way as to remind us of our continuity with the earliest followers of Jesus, that we are still fed by Christ, just as the multitudes were then fed.
            “At the Mount of Beatitudes you can be caught up in the blessing, caught up in the calling to be blessed.”—The Mount of the Beatitudes and the Church there were so comforting. It was green, calm, a beautiful view, a deep focus on the famous and powerful words of Jesus found in Matthew 5.

October 10th
            “The Israelis told Bishop Chacour he could return home to Bir’im after 2 weeks, and his Bishop told him he would only serve as Pastor of Ibilin for 2 months… he’s still in Ibilin.”—Bishop Elias Chacour was forced from his home village of Bir’im as a child in 1948. Instead of responding with violence, Elias has worked for peace between Israelis and Palestinians as a Melkite Catholic Priest, as an Archbishop, and as the Headmaster of Mar Elias Educational Institutions, a school in Ibilin where Christian, Muslim, and Jewish children study together.
            “25 conquests of Megiddo.”—The fortress of Har-Megiddo (The Hill of Megiddo… or Armageddon in the Greek) was constantly overrun by one army or another for literally thousands of years… so it should be no surprise that John places preparations for the ultimate cosmic struggle there…where else would someone fight?

October 11th
            “What is Theology in the desert?”—I’ve mentioned before in sermons that deserts are a place where you are stripped bare and end up alone with God… and, even with a bus and water bottles and such, that rang true in the desert around Qumran.
            “Do people make it holy or the place make the people holy?”— In Celtic Christianity they talk about thin places, places where the wall separating the Spirit world and the world of humans is less pronounced. I thought about this idea a lot, as one thing you start to notice at these archeological sites is that Temples, Churches, and Mosques are continually built one atop the other. It makes me wonder if it’s just convenient, or is there something holy about particular places?

October 12th
            “Going up to Jerusalem your ears pop.”—In the Bible it always says people “go up” to Jerusalem… well, you really do.
            “We were lost in Bethlehem and couldn’t find the Inn.”—On our first night in Bethlehem we were dropped off not too far from the Lutheran Center, but managed to get lost. I was kind of freaked out, lost in the West Bank, but Jill, the Pastor of Nativity East Brunswick, reminded me how Biblical it was to not find the Inn in Bethlehem, and that made it better!

October 13th
            “The rocks that would cry out is the resurrection of the dead, a Zombie Choir.”—While on Mt. Zion we saw all these tombs with rocks on them, a common burial practice there going back to a time when you put rocks on tombs so critters wouldn’t get in. Our guide told us this was what Jesus meant when he said the rocks themselves would sing—post-Lazarus, the point was if the Palm Sunday crowd hadn’t sung to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem the dead on mount Zion would have!
            “The explosions? They’re just welcoming you to Jerusalem.”—While we were across from Jerusalem a scuffle broke out between Jewish settlers and Muslim worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque. The exchange there escalated from taunts to home made explosives and gun fire to the Israeli Police stepping in, definitely an eye-opening experience.

Tuesday October 14th
            “I met a woman who can't leave the confines of Bethlehem because she voted in a student election in College!”—I met Angie a Lutheran who works with both the Lutheran center its social ministry arm, Diyar. She voted for the wrong political party her freshman year of college and the Israeli government blacklisted her and she can no longer get permission to leave that little town of Bethlehem (she’s now 29). The amazing thing about her, was the ongoing joy she had in the face of exile in her own home town.
“Christmas Lutheran is the 3rd largest employer in Bethlehem.”—Just a cool Lutheran fact to know! Christmas Lutheran’s outreach is amazing. They serve over 2,000 people in Bethlehem!
            “Remember, the Gospel was first proclaimed in Arabic on Pentecost.” Mitri Raheb—Pastor Raheb is the Pastor of Christmas Lutheran. Sometimes people suggest the Lutheranism there is a second hand because they worship in Arabic… the above is his response.
            “Raheb studied in Germany and showed up in Bethlehem as a first call Pastor the week the 1st Intifada started.”—If I ever talk about my first call as overwhelming remind me of Pastor Raheb.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sermon: How do we exchange Graven Images for the Image of God?

         A week ago Thursday I was in Capernaum, at the house of Simon Peter’s Mother-in-Law (the doorway from which Jesus healed many). A few doors down from that house is a Synagogue from the 3rd or 4th century.
         Now, when you go up the steps into the entrance of this Synagogues there is an interesting feature—you’ll miss it if you’re not looking for it.
         You look down and see two holes, both filled in with modern concrete… well, they’re the place where money was exchanged.
         You see, by then the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, so the Synagogue had become the center of worship for Jewish people. And much like churches today, that meant money needed to be collected for the maintenance and ministry of the community… but much like the Temple, that money couldn’t be Roman coins—because those often had images of emperors as gods, so the money was traded in for Jewish coins without those graven images on them.
         In other words, you’d put your roman coin in one hole and exchange it for a Jewish coin from the other hole when you entered the Synagogue.
         And today, that’s my question: How do we exchange Graven images for the Image of God?
         The Pharisees show up in the temple
the Pharisees are a group who go out of their way to keep their people separated from non-Jews
—They want to make sure Jews are different.
         The Herodians show up in the temple
The Herodians are fierce Hellenizers
—they want Judaism to shed it’s differences with other cultures and become just like Rome or Greece.
         They agree on nothing.
It’s like Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Rand Paul of Kentucky
… or the University of Oregon Ducks and the OSU Beavers,
Whatever analogy you prefer—it’s like these two polar opposite groups ended up in the same room together.
We expect a conflict to erupt… but there appears to be one thing the Herodians and Pharisees can agree on…
Jesus is disruptive.
Jesus is dangerous.
Jesus isn’t playing the game
and Jesus definitely isn’t playing it by their rules.
         So they come at him, each from a different direction.
         They butter him up and then ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?”
         If Jesus says yes
the Pharisees can say he sides with the Herodians and dismiss him as such. The crowds will see him as a stooge of the empire, someone unwilling to stand up to those who occupy their land.
         Likewise, if he says no
 the Herodians can tattle on him to Herod and do away with him as a rabble rouser who preaches insurrection.
         So Jesus makes sure the crowd knows he’s not really in on this fight between the Herodians and the Pharisees.
He begins “Let me see one of those coins.”
After all, he doesn’t have such a coin in the temple—that’s a no-no, just as you don’t bring graven images into the Synagogue you surely don’t bring them into the Temple…
maybe even Jesus has never owned such a coin—After all, I don’t think Jesus was known for his hording of money.
         He answers in a way that satisfies the Herodians, and goes beyond the Pharisees…
sure coins belong to the image they have on them…
 but the image on us—the image of God—belongs to God.
         Human beings do not belong to Caesar… or his Empire… or to the coins themselves… no, from the beginning we’ve belonged to God. We’re made in the image of God.

         And that brings me back to my question—How do we exchange Graven Images for the Image of God?
         How do we take the broken, or at least incomplete, images we’ve made,
of ourselves,
of our neighbor,
of our highest ideals,
         How do we drop them into that hole and exchange them for the Image of God?
         My answer in short is this, we see images for what they are and we become who we are.

We see images for what they         In Isaiah we read that Cyrus the Great of Persia has just broken the power of Babylon and freed all the people from there—including the Jews who were in exile.
         Now one response to this would be to deify Cyrus, to make him a god—to turn him into a graven image…
Instead Isaiah makes an amazing theological move—he recognizes God’s actions behind the scenes
—that Cyrus rather than being a god, is called by God—anointed by God for his particular task in history.
         Isaiah exchanges the coin of Cyrus’ conquest by recognizing that he is just a man—by making a distinction between creature and creator.
         Or if you want to think in more Lutheran terms think of Luther’s explanation of the 10 commandments—we ought to Love, be in awe of, and trust God above all things—the creator alone is creator, all else is counterfeit coin.

We become who we are.                  In 1st Thessalonians Paul praises the Thessalonians as imitators of both Paul and of the Lord, that is imitators of Christ. They are made in that image because of their joy in the face of persecution and their faithfulness…
these two things point people to the Holy Spirit from whom their Joy comes, and the Lord who is always faithful.
         This is, in fact, the meaning of the earliest place where we find the image of God—Genesis 1, where we hear that God “created humankind in His image, in the image of God he created them, males and females he created them.”
         This isn’t about us looking like God or God looking like us—that God stands upright, has 10 fingers and toes and no prehensile tail.
         No, the point of the Image of God—the Tsella of God—the point of humans, is that we are the marker on the earth pointing out who takes care of the earth—pointing not to ourselves, but instead to God.
We are images of God that point all of creation to God.
         The Thessalonians exchanged graven images for the Image of God when their being
—their faith and their joy—pointed to God.

How do we exchange Graven Images for the Image of God?
We look at the images of Caesars of all sorts and see them for who they are,
just another part of creation.
We strive to be glass, so we ourselves are not seen, but instead God is seen through us,
knowing even that is a gift from God.
We see images for what they are
and we become who we are.


Sunday, October 05, 2014

Sermon: Fuzzy Sabbath

Fuzzy Sabbath
            In Walter Brueggemann’s book “Sabbath as Resistance: Saying no to the Culture of now” he makes the case that the Commandments at Sinai, especially the command about Sabbath—is directly opposed to slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh.
            Just listen to Pharaoh, the hard nosed production manager in Exodus:
            All that in 14 verses. Work work work work work work work—relentless restlessness.

            Pharaoh and his gods are all insatiable gods. They are all gods who require production to produce, they require toil to just get by, slaving away just to sustain the status quo.
            And to this situation of slavery and to these gods—to these cries of desperation out of Egypt—comes a God who rests on the 7th day of creation. Who institutes Sabbath for His people—a day that is, “good… for nothing.”
            In the face of slavery, Sabbath insists, “The wellbeing of creation does not depend on endless work.”
            It points to Grace in creation—the radical proposition that the earth will keep spinning with or without our effort.
            Grace in creation.

            Now, at this point you might we wondering what Pastor is on about… All the readings have animals in them, we’re blessing the animals… and he’s talking about Sabbath… did he just want to do a mini-book-report for us? Is he trying to tell us something about our society’s habits of relentless restlessness?
            Just what gives?
            Well, let me tell you a story.
            It was 11 o’clock on a Tuesday, and I was putting my mail out before I went to bed, when Simul, the Parsonage Cat, zipped between my legs and into the bushes
—Now Simul is an indoor kitty, ever since I brought her to Baltimore as a kitten—so naturally I endeavored to bring her back inside every way I knew how
—Catnip, gently calling her name, treats, wet food,
chasing her, calling after her,
following her through my neighbor’s prickly bushes, yelling at her…
you get the picture… all of this until 1:30-2am something like that… at which point I thought the neighbors might call the cops on me for disturbing the peace, so I left some food out and the door open and I went to sleep on my couch…(God help me if I become a dad—I can only imagine.)

            Then, around 5:30-6 O’clock I wake up to hear Simul crunching and munching in her little kitty bowl in the kitchen.
            --She got back on her own… no effort of mine.
            Even an indoor cat can survive a few hours in the wilds of suburban New Jersey… no human effort needed… grace in creation.

            That’s what Animals do, they remind us creation can continue spinning without us (maybe even a little better without us in some ways)…
that there is a grace in the created order.
            “The wellbeing of creation does not depend on endless work.”

            These barnless birds Jesus talks about in Matthew—Grace in creation.
            These lilies that have no need to toil for their clothing—Grace in creation.
            A pet rat’s restfulness exposes our addiction to the rat race—Grace in creation.

            Our little companions are fuzzy, feathery, scaly, Sabbaths—Reminders of God’s creative grace. Good simply because they are.
Like the Sabbath—Good, for nothing
(And as a cat owner I can add some are a little more good for nothing than others).
            In some ways a pet blessing is superfluous, in their fuzzy flesh they so often show that original blessing said seven times at the start of Genesis “God saw that it was good.”
            Critters are part of what makes creation good and very good—seven times good—completely good.
            Their ongoing presence sings praise to God the creator of all that is, seen and unseen. Singing a song of praise to the LORD from beginning to end.
And let all God’s living creatures say: Amen!


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sermon: By what authority, dear Church?

By what authority, dear Church?

         Today’s Gospel lesson is an ongoing question about authority. The Pharisees want to know where Jesus gets his authority—by what right he teaches and heals and so on… who permits him to be a religious leader?
         Jesus in turn asks about John’s authority, knowing that this will turn the tables on the Pharisees,
         And today,
keeping that question of authority in mind,
but meditating on the famous Christ hymn of Philippians 2
and what it might have to say to the Church in 21st century America,
with all its anxiety and uncertainties
With this hymn to Christ’s self-empting and humility in mind,
I would like to ask, “By what authority, dear Church?”
By what authority, dear church?

         Throughout history there have been many wrong places that the Church has found its authority.
         After the era of the persecution of the Church, the Emperor Constantine put his authority behind the faith and made it a official religion of the Roman Empire. Our authority became derived from the whim of the State.
         Which was fine… until the sacking of Rome, which made many question everything, including the authority of the Church and the promises of God.
If the Church’s authority and trustworthiness is defined by the state and the culture of Rome, they figured, and Rome went bust—then clearly the Church had no legitimate influence, or positive value.
         Likewise, during the era of the colonization of the Americas, Africa, Australia, and Asia, the Authority of Christianity, was often mixed-in with the authority of the conquistadores and colonists—Christianity was sometimes presented as, “Now that this territory is ours, this religion is yours.”
“Why is the Church pertinent to your life?”
Was often answered “because it’ll make getting along with your occupiers easier.”
         Or think of “The Good Old Days” (and please understand I’m not knocking it)
—When everyone went to Church, because there really wasn’t a whole lot else to do on a Sunday—there were Blue Laws—so no stores were open, no soccer games played.
         All your friends were in Church—going to Church was a downright social thing to do, the place to see and be seen at, the place to catch-up and share.
         America was in a Cold War with Godless Communism, so when you went to Church you weren’t just being a good Christian, you were also being a good American.
         So the Church’s Authority and significance was amplified in the good old days—we allowed it deeply into our lives, because there was no competition from other entities, it filled an agreeable social role, as well as a national one.
         And, as you’ll read in the Newsletter, I recently talked with ELCA high-ups and not so high-ups, who are worried about the end of Christendom—the time when Christians got special treatment… the end of the Good Old Days.

         Now days, blue laws have been blown away…
to think about this concretely, Baltimore is a very Catholic city, and the Church held some Authority there… so up until the Baltimore Colts left the City, they were not allowed to start a game before 2pm, because not all the Church folk would be done with services before then (and you couldn’t buy alcohol in the city before then either)… but by the time Baltimore got a new team—the Ravens, there was no way an NFL team would even dream of waiting on folk to get out of Church.
         Now days, there are a myriad of ways to socialize that don’t involve Church
—from Social Media to Social Clubs, the Senior Center to the Buddhist Center.
         Now days America is in a war against Religious Extremists,
so any form of faith that isn’t clearly tame is suspect, instead of a mark of citizenship.
         So we have these high-up Church folk worried about all this—about our loss of authority—that we no longer have special treatment, and therefore ministry is going to change.

         And one of the potential directions to go down is to go to the Mega-Church Corporate model. Figuring perhaps the Church’s authority can come from the Marketplace
Figure out what people want,
And give it to them
And be justified in your role within society.
         This model assumes the Church can out-compete our secular equivalents.
That congregations should be Mini-malls with a veneer of spirituality
·      Starbucks-like Baristas serving coffee—or even renting space to an actual Starbucks in the back of the congregation,
·      A joint gym membership with Church membership,
·      Bike ramps for the kids if they get bored during the sermon,
·      A church sponsored Fight Club
—I’m not kidding, a Christian Fight Club
—bashing one another’s brains in, in the name of Jesus.

         If we’re playing against a secular market, we’ll always be trying a little too hard to be something we’re not.
         Our secular competition is always going to win, because we’re playing their game.
         Tony Robins does the inspirational speaker thing, better than your Pastor.
         Menlo-Park Mall does the mall thing, better than the Church.
         Starbucks does Coffee, better than our Kitchen-folk.
         CJBMX does bike tracks, better than the Church.
         Planet Fitness does exercise, better than the Church.
         The South Plainfield Fight Club does fightin’, better than the Church.
         And so I ask again, “By what authority, dear Church?”
         Not that of the Marketplace, or Laws-Blue or otherwise, or Nationalism, or Conquest, or Imperial Sanction.
         The only authority we have, dear Church—dear Sisters and Brothers—
         The only authority we’ve ever had,
is that of our humility exposed.
         Our natural selfishness, ambition, and conceit, combated in the name of Christ.
         Our regard for others, bolstered by the Spirit.
         The widows and mourners gathered together in mutual support at Good Grief Group—that’s our authority.
         The individual confessions, and sincere struggles with our human passions—that’s our authority.
         Our Prayers of Intercession—naming aloud in the company of the Saints, that raggedy long, yet incomplete, list—that’s our authority.
         The sincerity with which we are community together—rough edges and all—that’s our authority.
         We beggars pointing another beggar to where they can get some bread—that’s our authority.

         Sinners pointing to the one:
“Who though he was in the form of God,
Did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
But emptied himself,
Taking the form of a slave
Being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
He humbled himself
And became obedient to the point of death
Even death on a cross.”
That’s our authority.


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Church 2034--A Sci-Fi vision for the ELCA

            We land right where we started, St. Stephen, a few minutes before service begins. The first thing we all notice is that the Education Wing has a pitched roof. Praise God!
            The second thing we notice is the new sign on the side of the building, “St. Stephen Lutheran, a SP/P/ED/M-UP Church.”
            “Sped mup?” one of us says aloud.
            To which an usher responds, “Yeah, Sped-‘em-up… South Plainfield, Plainfield, Edison, Metuchen United Parish. Welcome to service, if you turn your Tablet to Wireless J3:16 you can find the order of service… oh… you all don’t have Tablets with you… that’s okay… we have some dead-tree editions somewhere,” and with that he passes you a paper bulletin.
            The service seems fairly normal, at least at first, though the person leading the service isn’t wearing a stole… then when it comes to the sermon a screen falls from the ceiling and Pastor Jim of St. Paul’s Edison reads the Gospel to both his congregation, as well as to St. Stephen. He proceeds to preach about the Good Samaritan and how our recent contact with sentient life from another planet is another opportunity to serve our neighbor in need.
            Then, at collection, everyone but us uses the Simply Giving application on their tablet and electronically sends their tithe in.
            The Deacon leading the service proceeds to preside over communion… I nudge one of the ushers and ask discretely, “He’s not ordained is he?”
            “No,” she whispers, “but that’s okay, the ELCA has allowed Lay Presiders for nearly a decade now… ever since tele-preaching became normal… Sped-‘em-up has 4 Pastors, so two congregation go without an ordained clergyperson each week… the options were tele-preaching or changing service times, and for whatever reason churches prefer a change of technology to a change of service times.”
            A young lady in the pew across from us shushes us.
            We take communion, are blessed, and then comes announcements.
·      Since none of the individual churches can hold us all, there will be an All Sped-‘em-up Advent Service at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. Pastor Hagos of All God’s People Lutheran in Metuchen will preach.
·      Pastor ‘Tina is looking for a representative from St. Stephen for the South Plainfield Interfaith Council (formerly the South Plainfield Ecumenical Council of Christian Churches).
·      Sped-‘em-up’s confirmation students will play their confirmation Massive Online Role-playing Game from 4:30-6pm this afternoon.
·      If you’ve given clearance to Sped-‘em-up, an updated calendar of Parish events can be found on your tablet.
            “What’s All God’s People Lutheran?” one of the time travelers asks the Usher.
            “It’s one of the other churches in our Parish, you should check them out sometime… they meet in the basement of the Metuchen Assembly of God.”

            We make our way to Metuchen just in time for the service. We notice the congregation is mainly African and Asian (this shouldn’t have surprised us, already there are more Lutherans in the Global South than in the Global North). Our mainly European group of time travelers kinda stick-out.
            The usher hands us very well-worn copies of the ELW, along with song inserts in Oromo, Swahili and Hindi. The service is mainly in English, though Pastor Hagos breaks into Oromo on occasion. She preaches a powerful sermon on the Jews being in exile in Babylon and relates it to the feeling of dislocation many in the congregation feel, speaking English as a second language and watching their children Americanize before their eyes. She concludes by letting everyone know God provided in Babylon, and God provides now too.
            We feel quite at home in the service, up until communion time, when everyone but us seems to know the moves to a sort of shuffle/dance thing we all do around the altar during the singing of the Sanctus (which was done in Spanish).
            Pastor Hagos closes the service by giving a Seminarian from the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Campus, the mic. He proceeds to thank the congregation for its generous donation of $30,000 to the Fund for Leadership, which means he will have no student debt once he finished up his three years of seminary.
            “Hey,” you ask the Usher, “If you guys can donate that much money to the Fund for Leadership why don’t you have your own building?”
            He snickers, “That’s why we can do it… not having a building saves us $40,000 a year, we spend the other $10,000 on Sped-‘em-up’s joint evangelism team… this year we decided to send off a big donation to a church in Portland, Center 7, their Pastor, Chris, is doing some pretty amazing stuff.”

            With that, we all hop back into our time machine and use it to whisk us to Portland and Center 7… which is a bar!?! And behind the bar is a 51 year old guy with no hair and a potbelly… “Oh my… that’s Pastor Chris?” one of the time travelers (perhaps present day Pastor Chris?) says in horror.
            “Hi, what can I get you?”
            “I thought this was a Church?”
            “Oh… sort of… Here at Center 7 we’re a decentralized worshipping community centered on the 7 central things of worship: Gathering, Confession and Forgiveness, Baptism, Word, Thanksgiving, Meal, and Sending.
            We have teams that make sure those seven things happen… they don’t necessarily check with me in advance, hence the de-centralized thing… it can be rather chaotic and uncontrollable, but as the two congregations I served before going part-time can tell you, control was never my strong suit. So, on any given day the Gathering Team will be knocking on doors, both physical and electronic, inviting people to events or checking in with people connected to Center 7; the Word Team… God bless them, run 10 Bible Studies, discussion groups, book groups, what have you—maybe more than 10 now… they agreed to split every 6 months and I can’t keep track of them anymore—they also train newer members on how to tell their faith stories; the Sending Team coordinates the food bank and keeps an ear to the ground regarding needs in the community… it’s a good time.”
            “So you’re part-time?”
            “Yeah, when I went to Seminary they kept talking about Pastors having to be Bi-vocational—in other words being a Pastor and some other job at the same time, but pastors wouldn’t do it, I mean who could afford to with student debt as it was…before the Leadership Fund really took off… but once I paid off that debt I kinda felt guilty about being full-time when everyone kept saying moving to a part-time call was the faithful thing. So I did something about it, I quit my second call, moved out to Oregon, bought a bar, and re-named it Center 7. I do the bartender gig and also making sure Church takes place in and around the building.”
            “You’re a worshipping community, but not a Church?”
            “Yeah, the official ELCA term is a Synodically Authorized Worshipping Community—a SAWC—as long as we stay a SAWC we can organize in a much more decentralized way than we could otherwise, this makes us more nimble and empowers lay folk to do more, which is good, because I’m part-time and I have to manage the bar… speaking of which, can I get you a drink?”

Labels: , , , , , ,

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pastor Grace: A Retelling of the book of Jonah

“Pastor Grace”

          Sometimes we know a story so well, we no longer know it. It becomes a parody of itself, a stereotype of its own meaning.
          Think about the book of Jonah we read from today.
           Just saying the word Jonah, half of you are already thinking of Sunday School, or Pinocchio’s whale, or the tried and true phrase, “It’s a big fish, not a whale,” as if that’s the important point to the story.

          And in doing that we miss really big, glaring pieces of this biting funny, weird, prophetic, story that fits better in a George Carlton stand-up routine or a Monty Python Skit than in a Sunday School classroom.
          We miss that Jonah’s name means Dove—as in he’s a really upstanding peaceful guy.
          We miss that he runs to Spain in the West when God tells him to go to Assyria in the East.
          We miss that the Pagans are the only people who praise God without their finger’s crossed.
          We miss that Jonah has experienced the destruction of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians and doesn’t want God’s mercy extended to the enemies of his nation, he wants revenge.
          We miss the strange man covered in fish barf speaking in a foreign tongue, and getting results.
          We miss the ridiculousness of all the Animals in Assyria putting on sack-cloth and pouring ashes upon themselves.
          We miss just how obsessively suicidal Jonah is.
          We miss the bizarre ending with those poor animals bearing Jonah’s wrath.
          We don’t hear the message of Jonah any more.

          We need to hear Jonah with fresh ears in order to hear it at all.

Pastor Grace—a Retelling of Jonah
          Did you hear the one about the Pastor from Lower Manhattan who God called? Her name was Grace.
          God said to Pastor Grace, “Go to Mosul, Iraq, to the extremists there, and I will tell you what to say to them.”…
          And Pastor Grace took the first plane to Beijing, China.

          And as they flew along there was greater and greater turbulence and while everyone was freaking out about impending doom… Grace was spread out across several seats snoring away.

          On that plane were Communists Party leaders, every last one an Atheist… and as the plane went into a tailspin they all began to pray.

          And one of them shook Pastor Grace awake and said, “What do you do? What is your faith? Perhaps you could join us in prayer.”
          And Grace, heavy sleeper that she was, mumbled to the Atheist, “Oh, yeah… I’m a Christian, a Pastor, a Minister of the Church of Christ, I have Christ’s authority”…
          And the Atheist responded, “Why in God’s name aren’t you praying for our safety?”

          And Pastor Grace responded, “If you fling me out of the plane you all will survive.”
          But the Atheists, good folk that they are, talked amongst themselves and responded, “It would be unholy and against God’s law to throw you to your death.”

          But Pastor Grace insisted they throw her out... and as the ground grew closer and closer they finally gave in and threw her out the emergency exit.
          And at that very moment, the plane leveled off saving the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party—Atheists every one… and they rejoiced and praised God every last one of them.

          And Pastor Grace careened down toward the ground… but at the last moment a stork swooped in and picked her up.

          She clung to the stork’s feet and neck, and prayed to God, saying:
 “O’ Lord Jesus, you know how faithful I am, that at all times, whether I’m awake or asleep, I call on you to protect me in all things… that when I’m in trouble you lift me up on eagles wings… that I, and I alone rejoice and praise you, even when the ground rushes at me.”

          Then the LORD spoke to the stork, and it flung Pastor Grace into a manure pile on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq.

          “Get up and go into Mosul, into the very center of the city” the LORD said to Pastor Grace.
          And she walked and walked through the town, and when she neared the center she shouted, without God’s prompting and in English—while still smeared in manure, “Three days from now God will destroy every last one of you!”

          And the people of Mosul, every last one of them, believed God, and repented by fasting, and mourning, and looking downcast day and night... Even the cats and dogs and cows fasted and mourned and wore cute little vests that had embroidered on their sides, “Sorry about that.”

          And news of this reached the head of ISIS in Iraq and the head of Al-Qaeda in Pakistan—they too repented and decreed that every member of their organization, and every person in territory they controlled, were to repent as well.
          When God saw this, how they turned away from evil… God turned away from the evil He was to bring upon them.

          But God’s grace and mercy deeply displeased Pastor Grace and she became angry.
          “Lord Jesus, this is why I tried to flee to China, I know you—you with your mercy and grace and generosity… I knew if I showed up doing what you asked me to do you’d be merciful. I’m so angry I want to die.”

          And with that she stomped off and camped out in a hut she made for herself right outside Mosul… waiting to see what happened next, hoping against hope for blood and destruction and death and terror and violence and all kinds of mean nasty things.

          It was very sunny in Iraq, and she didn’t have sunglasses, which made her even grumpier. But then in the middle of the night a spider built a web on the side of her hut, and the next day it kept the sun from Pastor Grace’s eyes, and she rejoiced at that!

          But then, in the night, a wind blew and the web and spider floated off elsewhere.
          “Lord Jesus!” she prayed in the morning when the sun came out, “Why have you taken away that web? I’d rather be dead than alive!”

          And God said to Pastor Grace, “Really? You’re freaking out about a spider web? You, who were perfectly okay with the smiting of thousands of people, you who wanted to see blood and destruction and violence and all kinds of mean nasty things, all because these people remind you of the people who knocked down the twin towers, are worried about that a web? Seriously?”
          Without a second thought she responded, “Yes. Yes I am freaking out! I’m angry, angry enough to die!”
          And God responded, “You mourn a web, yet condemn a whole city, a whole country, a whole people—don’t you see how much more substantial all these folk are then a web. You don’t fit your name, you’re not very gracious—you’d even condemn all those mournful little animals to die.”
          Word of God, Word of Life.