Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sunday, Oct 24, 2010

“The Pharisee’s Desperation”
Rev. Justin Nickel
October 24, 2010

Luke 18:9-14

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:  10  "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  11  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  12  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.'  13  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'  14  I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

Beloved, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen. 

Well, as many of you know, I am a devout fan of rock and roll music, and one couldn’t possibly make that claim without having at least a passing interest in the Beatles, and one of their tunes, “Getting Better,” seems an appropriate place to begin this Sunday.  Now fear not, I have no intention of singing to you all, but the chorus of “Getting Better” goes like this “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better/it’s getting better all the time.”  The optimism of this sentiment, along with the undeniably catchy jangle of the melody presents a pretty persuasive argument.  I mean, honestly, who could argue against this sort of glossy positivity as an entirely life affirming world-view? Yes, it would take a healthy dose of cynicism to suggest that this should not be our goal for the way we encounter the world, even if we are not feeling this optimism in the present moment.   For who wouldn’t want the world to be this way, on a course of constant and steady progress, heading towards more comfort and more stability?  I dare say that this sort of thing is essentially our default mode as people living in this time and place.  There is nothing more seductive than this myth of progress, be it in our politics, our economic lives or our religious and psychological lives, as we constantly search out a more true and real version of ourselves.
Now, it is certainly the case that our lives ebb and flow and some periods are more full of peace and contentment than others, and I am not here to dispute that or disrupt the joy that we feel during such times.  However, I would like to suggest that this myth of progress, when applied to our spiritual lives, is particularly poisonous and leads us not towards our God and neighbors, but away from them, isolating us in the coldness of our own supposed piety and virtue.  God’s mercy becomes that which we must buy off with our good deeds, and our neighbors are of value insofar as they can be used in our quest towards spiritual perfection, but this seems to be what the text is arguing against.  For really, this story that Jesus tells to those who believed that their relationship with God allowed them to look down on others, is not a story about what we can accomplish of our own accord, but rather the limits of our abilities, and our spiritual talents.  Yes, there is a way to turn this text into a performance of our own religious sentiments, but such a reading is little more than a cul-de-sac.  For, if we come to this parable asking what we can do, we will, in all likelihood, come away from today’s text saying prayers of thanksgiving that we are not like the Pharisee, that we are sufficiently humble and therefore have done the necessary work to position ourselves in the wide spectrum of God’s mercy.    This, dearly beloved, is what we might begin to call a wrong reading of the text.
Which begs the question, I suppose, what then, can be called a “right” reading of the text?  Well, it seems to me that the answer to that question lies not in what separates the Pharisee and the tax collector, but rather what unites them.  They both go to the Temple in search of God’s mercy and kindness, and it seems to me that they both make this plea with a certain desperation.  This is easy enough to see in the case of the tax collector.  He, with bowed head and bruised breast, will not even look to the heavens, lest his gaze draw the attention of God’s anger, nor will he enter the Temple, for fear that he will taint the place where God dwells with his sin.   He is acutely aware of the space that stands between him and the God of infinite holiness and this awareness, this desperation,  leads him to one action, throwing himself on the mercy of God.
Conversely, the Pharisee’s desperation takes a slightly different form.  His, one might say, is a desperation that is still in development, and avoiding the crisis that comes with genuine honesty remains his central goal.  In the end, there is no difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector in terms of their need for God’s mercy, but the Pharisee will do anything to avoid that fact.  To open up, to make himself vulnerable to the fact that, in spite of his best efforts, including fasting and tithing, he still cannot climb a ladder to God’s mercy, well that is just too frightening.  That his spiritual health is not improving through these efforts and that he might not be in as much control as he wants to believe, well that is a thought to be suppressed at any and all costs.   He wants, it seems, to believe that God is rewarding him for all that he has done and continues to do, and the only way to ensure that is to point out the differences not between him and God, but between him and others, between him and thieves, rogues, those who cheat on their spouses, and finally the tax collector whose loud groans he can hear in the distance.  This space that the Pharisee is carving out, though, does not end there, nor can it.  No, instead, because he cannot bear a God who does not leave him in control, the Pharisee will finally attempt to sever that relationship as well, praying not to God, but to his own good deeds, for this is the where all his trust is finally placed. All this in an attempt to avoid this one central fact, we need God, and we need God desperately.  
And it is not that Pharisee was performing the wrong task where the tax collector had figured out that actively being humble was what prompted God’s mercy.  No, this is not a story that ends with that neat, little take-away.  Instead, what grounds this story is the same realities that ground our story, our need for a merciful God.  A God whose love reaches over our notions of progress and greets us right in the middle of our lives, and a God who will not be the reward for the way we perform in our lives, be it at work, at home or in the context of our relationship to God.    Really, what we need is a God who surrounds us in our desperation, our worry, and our concern.  We, like the Pharisee and the tax collector, like the priest and the grifter, need a God whose presence is constant, even and especially when our living seems to consist of  little more than just getting through each day.  We need a God whose love is present in the morning, when the alarm goes off too soon and we are questioning whether or not it is even worth it to begin yet another exhausting day.  Indeed, we need a God who will go to the cross on our behalves, so that we may know for certain that there is no place, no life circumstance, which will ever separate us from the love of God.Yes, a God who is there when we must admit that it is not getting better.
So come, dearly beloved, and bask in the mercy of God that is always present, always active, in the lives of desperate and honest sinners like me and you.  Please know this, that while it may not always be getting better, God’s love, poured for you in the broken and resurrected body of Jesus Christ, will always be waiting to greet and surround you. And this love and forgiveness that grants pardon to the sinner and comfort to the broken-hearted does not depend on your spiritual improvement.  The bar for next week will not be set a little bit higher. No progress reports are required.  Instead, this mercy that knits together the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the con man and the pious, well, this is simply the way that God operates, freely and recklessly tossing around mercy and pardon so that we may be freed of our need to construct a self that God will love without condition, requirement or stipulation.  For, in the love of Jesus Christ, God already does.  Amen.   

Sunday, Oct, 17, 2010

“People of the Limp”
by Rev. Justin Nickel
Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010

Genesis 32:22-31

22  The same night (Jacob) got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  23  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.  24  Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  25  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  26  Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me."  27  So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob."  28  Then the man  said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,  for you have striven with God and with humans,  and have prevailed."  29  Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him.  30  So Jacob called the place Peniel,  saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."  31  The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Beloved, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.

One of my starkest memories from childhood involves sitting in the large Sunday school room at the west end of St. John’s Lutheran Church, the light pouring in through stained glass windows and the slightly sour smell of the room providing an unexpected comfort.  We would gather there, as children, to sing songs led by my mother and to close in prayer.  Now the prayer time always felt like it was on the verge of spinning entirely out of control. After offering an introductory word of thanksgiving, my mother would ask us what we would like to pray for, and it was in the asking of that question that the danger existed.  For we as children, delightfully free of filters or concern about social convention, would pray for just about anything, though I remember that the welfare of various pets always seemed a central concern.
Now there is a temptation here to wax sentimental about situations like this, especially when the gentle care of one’s mother is involved, to say nothing of the adorable and unexpected things that come out of the mouths of babes.  However, this sort of sentimentality, no matter its goodness and nobility, is not the reason we have brought up such a story, in fact, quite the opposite.  Rather, I think that what is instructive in this brief anecdote is the intensely honest concern with which these children prayed.  There was not a process by which one assessed what was appropriate to reveal to God in prayer.  Instead, the needs of this little community of faith were voiced with an unvarnished honesty.  I mean, from the vantage point of adulthood, with all its seriousness and concern, there is something undoubtedly precious about a child praying for her dog, but from the perspective of that same child, one wonders if there could a more candid and vulnerable petition.
It is this same honesty, this same vulnerability in the life of prayer, that makes our first reading so incredible.  If we learn anything from Jacob, it is that our encounters with God are not tame, tidy affairs, nor should we expect them to be so.   We meet Jacob, that legendary scoundrel of the Old Testament,  as he is returning home to his brother Esau, the one from whom he stole the family fortune, if you will recall the story.  He is rightly terrified that his brother will kill him, and so with impressive cunning and calculation, he sends processions of gifts ahead of himself to both appease his brother and gauge Esau’s level of anger.  It is, one must admit, a pretty brilliant plan.  If Esau is persuaded by the gifts, then Jacob can make his return home without the fear of losing his life.  If Esau’s anger still consumes him and he lashes out in violence, then Jacob will have fair warning and enough time to make a hasty escape.
So with his household out in front of him, Jacob, with his fear as his only companion, is startled out of his sleep by God who begins a wrestling match with him, and how deep this match actually is.  There is an incredible intimacy that is here occurring between God and Jacob, one that probably makes us feel a bit uncomfortable. For when this divine stranger asks Jacob what his name is, there is more going on here than mere identification.  Instead, because the name Jacob in Hebrew also means “trickster” or “over-reacher” to which we might add schemer, the God with whom Jacob is now in an intimate struggle has asked for Jacob to confess all that he is, all that he has done, including cheating his brother and his father-in-law.  This is God asking “who are you, really, who are you?”  What is remarkable, then, is that Jacob has the out and out audacity to, in the midst of this struggle with God, to ask for a blessing, even as he is being asked this most profound question about what his life really means.   The blessing that Jacob receives is not delivered apart from the struggle, from the pain, of striving with God and with humanity.  And just what, then, is meant by this word “striving?”  Perhaps we can say that this striving is an act of honestly reckoning with one’s past, present and future, of gathering all that one is, all that one fears, all that one wishes to be and throwing that whole mess into one’s relationship with God. Jacob, you see, while by no means a paragon of virtue or ethical behavior, has incredible courage in his relationship to God, and far from being reprimanded for this courage, far from God telling Jacob that it is inappropriate for him to ask for such a blessing, God grants Jacob the blessing for which he has been striving. 
But this is, without a doubt, a costly endeavor for Jacob.  By the time that the day breaks, Jacob will be blessed, true enough, but he will also be exhausted and wounded, his bruised and tender hip a testimony to what it means to be in relationship with the living God.  Yes, Jacob has been blessed, and that blessing comes to him through a struggle with the God whose love is a dangerous and mysterious force. Yes, the blessing and the wound are inseparable, and both are delivered by the God who encounters Jacob as he really exists. One could even say that the blessing which Jacob receives is a sort of death, though not a death for its own end, but rather a death that gives way to the new life that results from this divine confrontation.  For Jacob does not leave this struggle the same man; he has quite literally undergone an ordeal that changes his life’s trajectory, and part of that trajectory is realizing what will and will not be revealed.  God you see, does not grant Jacob the whole of his request.  In spite of the excruciating intimacy of this encounter, God will not reveal the whole of God’s being to Jacob, regardless of Jacob’s request.  And maybe, just maybe, this is the first lesson that Jacob is to learn.  That what has occurred in this encounter is of more significance than Jacob’s specific request being granted.  For Jacob, what God has already done is enough.
While it would probably be fair to say that none of us have had a spiritual experience of this intensity, Jacob’s encounter, nonetheless, provides a sort blue print for the course our own prayer lives may take. Yes, we often come to the act of prayer assuming that we must offer to God some idealized version of ourselves, ignoring our pains and fears, our brokenness and our anger, but that sort of prayer is, if I may be so bold, unbiblical. For genuine prayer to the God of Scripture is an act of relationship in which God responds to our lives as they actually are, including all the pain and messiness that surrounds us. Genuine prayer is an act of giving our whole selves to the God who appears in the most unlikely of places, be it the sleeplessness of a lonely night or on a cross outside the city limits.  Because this God, in Jesus Christ, has taken the estrangement and brokenness of this old world into God’s own being, we need not fear bringing our whole selves to God.  I dare say that is precisely what God wants of us in prayer.   Indeed, prayer, in the words of theologian Marjorie Suchocki is “not the place for pretended piety; prayer is the place for getting down to brass tacks.”  And when we come to this God in prayer, we can expect to be confronted in a way similar to Jacob; we will be blessed, but that blessing might just come as a wound to our pride or our despair, as a fatal blow to our myths of self-sufficiency.  We might not receive an exact or immediate response to our request, but we will most assuredly be given the presence of the God who can sustain us until all questions are answered.  Yes, we will probably walk away limping, and that, dearly beloved, is a blessing.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Sunday, Oct 10, 2010

“A Leper’s Faith”

Rev. Justin Nickel

October 10, 2010

Luke 17:11-19

11  On the way to Jerusalem Jesus  was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.  12  As he entered a village, ten lepers  approached him. Keeping their distance,  13  they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"  14  When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean.  15  Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.  16  He prostrated himself at Jesus'  feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.  17  Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?  18  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?"  19  Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."

Beloved, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen. 

The unyielding routine of it all must have eventually gotten to him.  I mean, day after day, week after week, perhaps even year after year, sitting and waiting for something that was probably never going to happen, but at least the hope that it could get better was better than giving himself over to despair entirely.  That kind of unrelenting sameness can grind a person down until there is nothing left, and his was a battle against the hopelessness that everywhere threatened him.   Here he was, exiled in his own community, set apart by a disease that allowed others to call him impure, cursed.  His disease had quite literally moved him to the very edges of communal life, and any interaction he had with others, with his neighbors, his loved ones or even strangers was too brief and too sterile to be called human.  And oh, the suspicion with which they stared at him.  The pastor had long since stopped visiting him, having declared him unclean and not fit for life amongst the pure. To avoid him was to avoid God’s anger and judgment, realities that he now wore on his body.   Indeed, he was one that others did not want to touch or smell, lest the stench of his disease stain them, as well. Somewhere along the line he had stopped being human and was now only a leper, a thing to be pitied, but ultimately avoided.
            And so he did what all the exiled and forgotten do, he found ways to survive and friends who shared in his walking damnation.  They gathered at soup kitchens and in alley ways, and together, they found ways to ensure a tomorrow.  They stood on street corners with signs and worked as day laborers.  They slept in shelters and on park benches, and ate food prepared by those who seemed both frightened and fascinated by them.  They, the ten of them together, counted on the charity of strangers who thought them unclean, and what a tenuous existence that was. Yes, they, from time to time, took advantage of those who tried to help them, and about that, he had some regrets. He had cheated and hustled, he lied and told stories, but his survival was at stake, and how much that same struggle for survival was beginning to weigh on him.  The exhaustion was even beneath his bones now, and, at some point, laying this whole mess down might be the only escape.  The world had simply turned too cold. 
            Had he heard rumors of this man?  Well, of course he had, who hadn’t?  There were stories that seemed entirely too good to be true, rumors of healing the sick and recovery of sight, but he never took it all that seriously.  They began to sound too much like the local boy done good sort of thing, and he had an inherent mistrust of that kind of folk lore.  Stories have a way of getting out of control, and he learned a long time ago that unfounded hope was entirely lethal.  It never occurred to him, though, that this Jesus fellow might be returning this way, after all, everyone who actually gets out of Galilee tends to remain as far away as possible.  Galilee was a place for the crude and the uneducated, the desperate and the impious, an outpost for the riff-raff and those who have to scrap together a living. There was no culture, no university, and if one had the good fortune of leaving for the bright lights of Jerusalem with its sophistication, its lawyers and its temple, there was very little reason to return.
            And even he was surprised by what he did when he saw Jesus walking by.  For a brief moment, he gave himself to hope. How strange that old sensation felt, having lived for so long without it.  Maybe, just maybe, some of those stories had in fact been true, and perhaps his cynicism was premature.  So he, along with the other nine, began asking for, well, they weren’t entirely sure of what they wanted this man to do.  Shouting for mercy across the divide of their disease, he was not even sure that he expected a response.  So when the word came to go back and find a priest, they all looked at each other with a mixture of unbelief and the beginnings of joy.  If this Jesus was telling them to go see a priest, well that could really one mean one thing: they were, in some way and at some point about to be cleansed of their disease.  Finally, finally the drought was coming to a close. That this moment, this moment that had often carried him to sleep at night, that this maybe, just maybe, actually might be happening was too much to comprehend all at once. His thoughts sped out in front of him. He could once again try to find work, he could find his wife, assuming she had not moved on, and tell her with genuine conviction that he was a changed man.  Yes, his body would be a testimony to that fact.  He could return to worship and be invited to parties.  He could, once again, be human.
            When he recalled the encounter later amidst the easy comfort of family and friends, he did not really remember turning back around and running towards Jesus.  The way he would tell it, he saw that he had a patch of clean skin and the next moment, Jesus was telling him to get up, to rise, to be resurrected.  He was unable to recite, with any real precision, the praise of God that thundered from his mouth as he realized what had happened.  For, in that moment, he had found himself in a mercy that claimed his voice, his body, his whole being.  His song, was in some sense, not even his own.  What he could remember though, with alarming clarity, was the encounter that happened next, for it was so bizarre, so entirely unexpected that he would come to later regard it as his second birth, the day on which he was yanked out of the grave. 
            For when this Jesus told him that his faith (faith he did not realize he had been given until that moment), had made him well, had made him whole, had in fact saved him, Jesus was indeed speaking of something added to his cleansing.  No, this was not simply Jesus reflecting on what he had done for all ten of them, but was speaking about whatever had drawn this man back to Jesus’ feet.  The man could only speak of that force, that presence, that Holy Spirit by approximation and metaphor, but he knew, as certain as he knew anything, that it was God.  It was God’s Holy Spirit that had cleansed him, and God’s Holy Spirit that had drawn him back to the source of all healing, this eccentric man, Jesus.  It was God’s Holy Spirit that graced him with the vision to see his flesh had been cleansed by God en-fleshed, and it was the Spirit who gave him the song of praise that spontaneously erupted from his lips.  Indeed, it was the Spirit that gave him back to Jesus; it was the Spirit who saved him.
And it is this same Spirit, the Spirit of love, mercy and holiness that delivers us to the source of our cleansing, as well.  The same Spirit that claimed our ancestor in faith, some unknown leper, and a foreigner at that, that is the same Spirit who gathers us together in this place and once again carries us to God’s mercy. It is God’s Holy Spirit, moving in this body and in these sacraments that gives us the gift of faith and hope in the God whose love extends to the margins where the lowly and mourning gather.   It is the Spirit that resurrects us from the stale fear that separates us from our neighbors and gives us the courage to help those who we would probably rather ignore.  Indeed, it is God’s Holy Spirit that gives us the faith of the leper.  Thanks be to God, amen.