Tag: dying

Things Unseen

Protesters Demonstrate In Philadelphia During The Democratic National Convention

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Our election this season is one of fear. Fear, feelings of persecution, feelings of unheard, feeling misunderstood, feeling marginalized, feeling belittled, feeling silenced. Fear leads it all. Followed by anger, and hate, and more fear.

Our African American citizens fear the cops. The cops fear the African Americans. On edge, the two confront one another – and far too often someone is misunderstood, marginalized, and forever silenced. Fear of authority; fear of the other; these fears fuel terrors into our election.

Sexual fear drives us. Fear of loved ones being abused; fear of being killed for whom one loves; fear of sex and bodies and passions themselves. A rhetoric of hate comes out of these fears and spews from the mouths of politicians and Christians alike. There is no attempt to overcome the fear – just destroy anyone or anything that reminds us of the fear.

And so: education on sexual health is banned from schools, access to sexual health services are denied, protection for gays and lesbians is denied, and transgendered adults and even children are murdered. All of this coming from fear of our own bodies.

And this fear drives our votes, too.

Insecurity is a major fear among us right now. There is the insecurity of being a white, high school educated, man. At one time – that’s all you needed to be to be very successful in America. But now – women and non-whites compete for the same jobs. This means college is often needed to stand out. It means when once being born a straight white man was ticket to wealth is no longer the truth. And that insecurity, that feeling of being less-than, drives our election.

When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. Just as Jesus said: the low will be raised and the high lowered, so all are equal. But this feels like oppression to those who once were high. And that makes them feel fear, insecurity, and hate.

The fear inside insecurity is what makes us speak of a wall between ourselves and Mexico. Speak of bombing other countries. Speak of banning whole religions, whole regions, from ever visiting family or friends here. Fear drives us to isolate ourselves, and inside our little bubble… we forget that we fear a very small minority… and the majority of the world’s people are just like you and I. But because of a few, we fear them all.

The very early church knew much fear, too. They had once been privileged: Hebrews, Jews, people of not great but not bad standing. Middle class, per se. And now… as soon as they began this Christ business… they were banned from places of worship. The cops always thought they were up to no good. Some people said they were planning a rebellion and so abused, terrorized, murdered Christians. Some people hid their belief in Christ for their, or their family’s safety. Some people were more open. But all together… they knew fear.

What would they do with it? Isolate themselves and stop living out their faith? Would they pretend to be secular, or follow Zeus or Caesar, in public?

Would fear drive them to make strict rules about who could, or couldn’t, enter their congregations? We now have a rule that only those with a Christian parent may enter the sanctuary. We now have a rule that only those who haven’t sinned in the last week. Now only straight people. Now only Americans. Now only white straight Americans whose parents were born here and none of them have ever ran into the law or defaulted on bank loans or crossed the street without looking both ways.

How ridiculous do we want the rules to get to make us feel safer? Will they help?

No.

There’s always more to fear… because each of us have a little portion in us that fears even the very things we do. What if someone else finds out? Will they still accept me? How long until I’m kicked out?

A cycle of fear is a cycle that works like setting a pot of water on a hot stove. A little bubble, a little fear, leads the water of people to a rolling boil, roiling fear; leads to fear flowing over the edges of the pot and eventually – no water, no people, are left in the pot at all. Everyone is gone. Fled. Hiding. And there is no more church.

Paul, when he writes the Hebrews, addresses their fears. Jesus, when he talks to his disciples, addresses their fears. The Bible tells us not to fear more than any other phrase! Do not fear, I am with you. Do not fear, I am your God. Do not be afraid, you are loved. Do not be afraid, I bring you good news. I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.

To the early Hebrew church, Paul reminds them that we aren’t walking by this world’s standards, and this world’s answers to fear are not God’s answers. He reminds them, and us, that we walk by faith, we are convinced of things not seen, and we do not have to be ashamed of this faith and assurance in things that we cannot see at all.

For instance, I turn on the news, and I don’t see love. But I have faith in it. I trust is exists even through I don’t see it. My hope and my promise is in God, who is love, and who says love conquers all things.

I see people using our faith as a weapon, and committing religious violence, acts of terrorism, against others in the name of God. I see this – I see the hate and fear – but I trust what I don’t see.

I trust the unreported, unremarked upon woman who drops pennies and quarters into the charity jars and donates her time to volunteer work.

I have faith and believe in the man never interviewed by the news and never praised by politicians; this man who stops to help change a flat tire and who lets people ahead of him in line.

I don’t see it, but I believe in the children who stand up for one another against bullies. I trust in the children who make ‘get well soon’ cards for teachers and bus drivers.

My eyes don’t tell me, but my heart tells me, to believe in the teenager girl who struggles with so many issues, so much daily fear and misunderstanding – and yet, not to participate in hate speech at work.

I have faith in the unseen. I trust in the hope of God. I trust in what the world ignores. I know we are sojourners, travelers, in a strange land. This land would have us believe that everyone is selfish, evil, and out to harm us. I know there’s a lot to fear, I have been scared… but I also trust in the promises of God.

As Paul writes, Abraham and Sarah never saw their descendants be more than the stars… they died without seeing the full promise come to fruition. Yet they had faith, and what God promised came to pass.

Isaac and Jacob too. They died without the full promise occurring… but their faith led to the next generation, and generation by generation, God worked and fulfilled the promise.

Do not fear, little flock, do not fear.

We walk by faith – not fear, not hate. We walk together – not isolated, not cut off from the world. We walk with God – and because we walk with God, we do not have to fear any evil.

You and I will likely die without seeing God’s full reign on Earth as it is in Heaven. We’ll likely die without Christ having yet returning in full glory. And yet, we can pass on this faith and trust for we know… as Jesus told us, it is God’s delight to gift us the kin-dom. It is God’s good pleasure to work with us to make the promises of peace on earth a reality.

Amen.

Vanities of Vanities

auction_bySheltonReality.jpgEcclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Luke 12:13-21

Have you been to an auction? I used to go all the time with my dad. It was our daddy-daughter bonding time. I remember this one auction very well: it took up the entire farmhouse yard, went into the barnyard, and into the two barns AND the house. There were tables of tools, boxes upon boxes of pots and pans, antique furniture around every corner, and enough holiday decorations to decorate the White House. The front lawn had a long line of folding tables divided into lots — lot 1, lot 2, — and so forth. Whatever was in your half of the folding table is what you were bidding upon.

I stood at the head of one of the tables and looked in the boxes. It was photo albums. Book after book of black and white photos; book after book of Polaroids; and Christmas cards with photos and address books with photos. About half were carefully labeled ‘Danny’s First Christmas’ ‘Hannah and Chuck’ ‘Whitehall, 1960’ and so forth. Weddings. Birthdays. Picnics. Men ready for war. Women holding little babies. Kids in bathing suits.

I suddenly realized a woman, an elderly woman, had died. We were rifling through her possessions. Soon we would be taking some, giving her family or her medical bills money, and then all she owned would scattered across the state.

These weren’t extra dishes. These were the dishes she ate with every day.

This table she had toast at, and fed her children.

These were the clothes she washed, wore, repaired, for decades.

And here, these photos in my hands, this is her nice cursive handwriting detail the people she loved. What would be done with the photos now? No one here even knows who Danny or Hannah or Chuck are. Would the buyer throw the photos away and reuse the antique albums? Who collects old color out of focus Polaroids? Why didn’t the family take these?

… Maybe she doesn’t … didn’t… have any living family left.

The auctioneer began his fast pelt of questions and calls and the people around me began to nod their heads or flick their little paper numbers. But I was lost in thought looking at that stack of albums. It made me begin to wonder about this dead woman I’d never met, and, what it will be like when I am the dead woman some day. What will I leave behind when I die?

Another death. Nuns and monks have their own private rooms although they share a big house. A UCC minister told this story of her aunt who was a nun. One of the nuns passed away, and, eventually, the sisters needed to clean out the deceased’s room. When they opened the door to her bedroom, they found it was completely stuffed with things: maps and books, little nicknacks and silk flowers, photos and paintings and everything you can name — all piled into that little room. I think it must have looked like my closet when I was a kid: one of those ‘Open Only If You Dare’ situations. It took days to clean and clear out.

Later, the minister’s aunt herself was diagonsed with incurable cancer. The minister was called by her aunt to come visit. When she got there, her aunt handed her treasures: her favorite painting, little ceramic cats the two played with, and pictures the minister had made her aunt when the minister was a little girl. The minister knew her aunt treasured these things, and was so surprised she was parting with them. But the aunt was adament, “I know you’ll treasure these like I do. Take them.”

When the aunt died, the sisters gathered one day to clear out her room. They found it was completely empty but for its bed, nightstand, and dresser. The aunt had given away everything.

The minister realized then that STUFF is for the living. We can’t take it with us at all. By giving away things, the aunt had seen all the people she loved one last time before passing away. She knew what true wealth is, and how to share it.

The writer of Ecclesiasties sets out to learn what is true wealth. He wants to know: what brings lasting happiness? What brings lasting joy? What is worthwhile to do? How should one spend their life?

And in woe, he finds that most things we do are meaningless in the big picture of the world. Every joy and every meaning is fleeting, is a vanity, a puff of smoke or is dust in the wind. Like cleaning the house, or weeding the garden, our toils never end and just seem to come to nothing.

He writes that if we work really hard and build up something to pass on to our kids: wealth, a furnished house, a business, or even photo albums labeled and organized… we have no guarantee what they’re going to do with those things. They might not appreciate the money and blow through it. Or they may not want to live where we have the house. Maybe they don’t want to work the business. Maybe they don’t want the photo albums.

Yet we want to have lives that MEAN something. If we can’t trust even our own kids to pass on our mark, our stamp, our memory, on the world, what can we do? Is life a vainity? Is life meaningless?

The Teacher in Ecclessiasties struggles with this. In the end, he concludes that the truest meanings of life we mortals can’t know. God alone knows. So, while we are living, live well: relax, eat, drink, be merry, enjoy time with your family and friends. Whatever you do, do with joy. Obey God and the commandments, for whatever life is, (a test? a dream? a proving grounds? a place to learn?) and whatever death is, we can ask God once we have passed away. What is certain is, he writes, “Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands.”

Our second reading echos, refers back to, Ecclesiasties. Did you hear it?

A man has come to Jesus and said, “Tell me brother to divide the family inheritance with me!” You see, each son was entitled to some of their father’s wealth when their father died. Usually Rabbis could step in and use scripture to chastize the greedy one not sharing.

But Jesus turns the tables, and warns everyone: don’t be greedy at all! Sure, this boy deserves his share by the law… but the real issue is that greed — greed of the older brother and younger brother — is tearing the family apart. One’s life does not consistent in the abundance of possessions. What you own isn’t who you are.

I can’t tell you how many families I’ve seen torn apart when somebody dies. My own included. Countless. Theft during funerals; hiding or changing wills; hiding possessions; changing locks; lawyers and police and decades of hurt feelings. Over what? Possessions. Jesus reminds us that who is right and who is wrong in these situations isn’t going to make us happy. Getting a laywer or a judge or pastor to say, “You’re right!” doesn’t knit the family back together again. Guard against all kinds of greed. It tears us apart.

Then Jesus tells the story that echoes Ecclesiasties. He says a rich man had land that made him even richer. He had so many crops they didn’t all fit in his barn. So he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. Then, like the teacher of Ecclesiasties, he chose to relax, eat, drink, and be merry. However, the Teacher told us to enjoy time with our family and friends, and to honor and obey God. He also told us that wealth is meaningless. The rich man chose to hoard his wealth all to himself. He didn’t share it with family and friends. He didn’t honor and obey God by sharing with the stranger and the needy. And God called the man a fool, and that the man was going to die that very night. “All the things you prepared, whose will they be?” All that toil was in vain. All that hoarding was in vain. The man didn’t need barns of food after he died. So who owned them now?

Greed tears us apart. Clinging to poscessions tears us apart.

Poccess your poccessions. Don’t be poccessed by pocessions.

When you store up treasures, store them up for God- not yourself! Store up good deeds, good memories, fun times, prayers, times of comfort and sollace, times of generosity, times of worship; store up heavenly treasures. Store up love for others — and share that love abundantly.

The treasures we hoard for ourselves all alone, without others enjoying or God invited, these we lose.

The Teacher writes in chapter 5 of Ecclesiasties:

Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.
As goods increase,
so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owners
except to feast their eyes on them?
The sleep of a laborer is sweet,
whether they eat little or much,
but as for the rich, their abundance
permits them no sleep.
I have seen a grievous evil under the sun:
wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners,
or wealth lost through some misfortune,
so that when they have children
there is nothing left for them to inherit.
Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb,
and as everyone comes, so they depart.
They take nothing from their toil
that they can carry in their hands.
This too is a grievous evil:
As everyone comes, so they depart,
and what do they gain,
since they toil for the wind?

Wealth – financial stability – comes and goes. Work – what we do to survive – should never consume our whole lives. Our lives are meant for more than labor. No matter if you have no income, a fixed income, make $30,000 a year, or 50, or 100, or a billion dollars a year… you always will think you could use a bit more. So instead of worrying about money, enjoy what you do have – and share it with others. In the sharing we find we all have enough to go around.

Jesus economics are like garden economics. This week I have so many cucumbers I beg you to take some and use them. Next week, you’ll have so many tomatoes you’ll beg me to take some and use some. By sharing, we all have richer summers, richer relationships, and richer lives. We store up in heaven our love for one another.

When we apply this to money, it means that some years of your life you’ll have more income than you need. Then is the time to share, because in later times of your life, you’ll not have enough. And there is no shame in taking tomatoes or cucumbers. There is no shame in taking offered finanical assistance.

For while one has more money than they need, another has more time, another has more skills in gardening or cooking, another has abundant repair skills, and another abundant stories. We each are blessed with more wealth than we can ever count. And together, when we share it, we always are an extrememly blessed community.

Where is your treasure? Stored somewhere fading and passing away; or stored in our heavenly home? Amen.

I Will Follow

P1020212.JPG2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Luke 9:51-62

How far will you travel with someone? How rough until you call it quits? I don’t think we really know until we begin to go.

Growing up, I had a neighbor who was like my grandmother a woman who I would talk with whenever I needed advice or companionship. She could do everything: kept a two acre garden by hand — and that was the vegetable one alone. She had more for flowers. Mowed, managed acres and acres of property, did all her own laundry, canning, cooking, selling at the farmer’s market, shopping, housework and bills… Her husband had died, and her kids grown – but this elderly woman kept an active life that put my own family of kids and 30-something year olds to shame. She honestly had far better lawns, gardens, and home-made meals than us. And you never, ever, saw her without her hair done perfectly and her makeup on.

In high school, I remember standing in my bedroom looking out across the corn fields and I saw an outline in the crop. I realized it was the old edge of my neighbor’s garden. Over the years, the farm land had crept into her garden, and her garden had shrunk to about an acre. It was so slow, I hadn’t noticed.

In college, the little creep had really begun to become noticeable in other areas of my neighbor’s life. Weeds – formerly an unheard of event – sometimes showed up in her flowerbeds. She stopped driving, and had her son drive her instead. More meals came from the freezer. Less tomatoes were boiled and canned each summer. Sometimes, her lipstick was crooked.

How far will you go with someone? How rough?

In graduate school, I no longer lived at home, but I still went to visit home and my adopted grandmother. She now had a ramp, and had a yardstick she used as a cane, and more often than not sat the day away. When once she told me with stunning clarity about riding the train to go meet her husband home from Army, or how as a child her parents used a team of horses to move her house on logs to its current place… now she struggled to remember what she ate for breakfast, and who the dashing young man with a bride was in the photos on the wall.

Some of her friends stopped visiting. It was too hard, too rough, to see their loved one… going away, moment by moment, erased and leaving a shell of the woman they loved behind. She would hate to know she’s out in public without makeup. Do we tell her? Cause her that pain? If we don’t, are we treating her like a child, babying her? She’d hate that too!

How do you love someone who has always been perfect, always been in charge, always been your leader and role model and guide… and now they need help remembering how to use a spoon? How do you stick by someone who goes from being parent to child? How far can you stick by a loved one’s side?

I don’t think we know until we try.

It was so hard visiting my neighbor in a nursing home the final days of her life. I felt like neither she nor I belonged there. But this is where the journey was taking us – to the river’s edge, or where the sweet chariots would swing low, the final fight with pain, or whatever analogy you want from scripture and songs: it’s the same. We were coming to when we would be separated by death.

She didn’t know me anymore. She only knew her daughter (usually). I could easily have stopped visiting and she wouldn’t have known the difference. But I kept going. This woman had mentored and tutored me from diapers to grad school. And we talked of birds and flowers and nothing consequential. We shared presence.

I wasn’t there for her final hours. God granted she spent those in the loving arms of her children, in one of their homes. I’m so glad for that; and I look forward to our conversations again.

Friends can so often be as close or closer than family.

Elisha is not Elijah’s biological son. Elisha was a teenager or so, working his dad’s lands with oxen, when Elijah the prophet walked by. Elijah dropped his mantel, the cloth, he’d used to hide his face from God on the mountain, over Elisha. Elisha was so excited – so thrilled – to be chosen as a prophet he nearly ran away from Elijah to go tell his parents and family. Elijah had to remind him to pray first – and THEN celebrate. Elisha burned his wooden plow, butchered his oxen, prayed a lot, had a big goodbye party, and joined the prophet.

Elijah became an adopted dad, a mentor, a guiding friend for Elisha.

And when Elijah felt his time on earth was done, he began to remove himself from the world. A little bit at a time, a city here, a city there — saying goodbye — telling the prophets he had helped raise up around Israel to stay behind. But Elisha would not stay. He vowed to stick by his friend through thick and thin, though the good times and bad times, through sickness and health, life and death.

We hear today how at last Elijah comes to the Jordan river. On the other side is where the great prophet Moses died, and it’s there that Elijah feels called for his ending. He again tells his followers — stay here. And again, Elisha vows he will follow.

Like Moses, Elijah splits the water in two, and the mixed family of Elijah and Elisha cross the Jordan. Alone, just the two, Elisha asks Elijah to give him a double portion of his spirit. Maybe he means make me your son; or maybe he means let me do twice as many miracles. What’s certain is Elijah tells him this is a big, big wish… and only possible if Elisha can stick through this to the very, very end. As they walk and talk in the desert on the other side, abruptly there is a whirlwind and fiery chariots from God. In the chaos, Elijah is whisked up to heaven and Elisha cries out after his adopted dad, and when he can no longer see him, he sinks to the ground tearing his clothes as he cries.

Eventually, the sorrow passes, and Elisha picks up the mantle Elijah dropped, and continues the prophetic work of Elijah for God.

Elisha had stayed to the very end – through the loneliness and sorrow. Through the unknown. Through the reversal of roles. He stuck by Elijah.

How far will you travel with someone? How rough until you call it quits? I don’t think we really know until we begin to go.

In our second reading, Jesus knows his end is coming too. And like Elijah, he begins to walk towards where he knows he will be “lifted up.” However, as he goes, the going gets rough. How far will those who love Jesus go with him?

Through Samaria, where Jesus bans them from returning violence for insult?

Through homelessness and a lack of a safe place to lay your head?

Though inconvenience and misunderstanding?

Will those who would follow Jesus know to stick by Jesus’ ways even when their family obligations call them elsewhere?

I will follow you wherever you go is a very, very big promise. Jesus points this out right up front. Tells all those who would follow that the Way of Christ demands much. Even Elisha had time to go back and say goodbye to his family before following Elijah… but Jesus says to be Christian, there is a bigger cost – a cost where we may be at odds with our families. A furrow gets all crooked when we try to plow and look behind us. It’s like trying to drive a car on the interstate while watching the rear view mirror the whole time.

Jesus says to these would-be followers… Are you sure you mean you’re ready to commit all of yourself? To burn the plow and eat the oxen — no going back — as Elisha did? Are you sure you mean you’re willing to follow me all the way to end? Do you know what a hard thing you’re asking?

How far will you travel with someone? How rough until you call it quits? Jesus warns us up front it isn’t always easy to be Christian, and to be a follower of Christ… we will have hard tasks and hard days.

Will you travel with Christ and the Christians knowing it isn’t an easy path?

Knowing it leads to a cross long before it leads to any heavenly ascension?

As Christians, we’re supposed to stick by each other through to the end and beyond. This journey, this walk, is a hard one that demands following it through to the end when memories fade, bodies fail, there is no more that medicine can do, and prayers don’t seem to work.

It’s a walk that takes us through times when Christianity is healthy and young and full of life – a thriving new church, full pews, prophets full of fire and dreams… And through times when our faith is sick, feels weighed down, and feels hollow and dead. When we’re not certain what tomorrow will bring.

Walking with other Christians means walking when the weather is fantastic; and walking in snow and sleet. Walking when we all agree, and walking when we bitterly disagree.

Walking with each other means sticking together when roles get reversed due to illness, age, and changes. It means loving our adopted family from cradle to grave, and beyond.

Other commitments, other priorities, will always come up and demand our time. But may you keep your eye on the goal of Christ – your eyes ahead and focused on where you are going – so that in all things, at all times, whatever you’re doing, you live your life as a faithful disciple following the leadership of Christ. Amen.