Thursday, March 29, 2012

Road To Emmaus: Guest Preacher, Tim Bowyer

Homily Recap:
Isaiah 42, Psalm 42 and 43, Luke 24:13-35

We opened with a question: What story are we telling when we worship on Sundays and when we
celebrate the Eucharist? We remembered that at the table, we tell a story. We all read a creed and
confession, we hear the words of institution and we get up together, share bread and wine, sit down, and
pass the peace. These acts tell a certain story - a story of a God of love who is reconciling the whole
world to himself through Christ - who has given us new life so that we might live in love with each other
and the world. But we reflected on what stories often race through our heads as we perform these actions
together. Depending on the day, and what has happened that week, or that morning, we may be speaking
the words and moving through the performance telling one story, while our minds are racing telling a
completely different one. Which one do we listen to?

The two psalms we read, Psalm 42 and 43, demonstrate a practice of telling a greater story over a lesser
story in the form of prayer. The Psalmist composed what we now call Psalm 42 and 43 originally as one
song with a beautiful refrain: “Why are you downcast, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” We see this three times in the two
psalms. Throughout a prayer naming to God the depths of his longing from exile, and his deepest desires,
we find the refrain that reincorporates his forsaken despair into hope, into praise, and into a greater truth -
that God, though seemingly far away and indifferent, is yet God and a present help to the psalmist. This
kind of movement is all through the psalms - awful experiences that would otherwise crush the psalmist
do not, because he wraps them up in the praise and hope of God and God’s promise. We find this is
rather hard to practice. How do we allow that greater story to so wrap ours up, that in the midst of the
immediate circumstances, we might see and feel and trust in God promise?

The Director of Swiss Labri, Greg Laughery, comments on this matter in a recent reflection: “Feelings and
experience can often attempt to be our sole sources and criteria for assessing who we are and what the
world is like. Someone says, “I feel like I have to accomplish something in order to be liked.” Why?
“Because this has been my experience.” Another says, “I feel ashamed.” Why? “Because I have to hide
my real self from others and I experience this as my fault.” Both confirm, “This is the way the world
works.” While feelings and experience are valid dimensions of being human, the question of whether or
not we should trust or be suspicious of them cannot be solely based on feelings and experience. Why? In
themselves they offer no valid way to discern if the perceptions of ourselves and the world are accurate.
Unless we’re willing . . . to raise the difficult question of what is true, we will spin around in circles of the
same, never having adequate criteria for being able to evaluate which feelings and experience can be
considered trustworthy and which suspicious. Once we begin to focus on this explosive question and start
to answer it, trust and suspicion will function in better ways that will in turn lead to truer view of ourselves
and the world.”

Most of us have mixed opinions about truth. While we still have ties to Modernist assumptions about truth
- that it can only be discerned by the scientific method or by historical criticism or by objective analysis,
we also are inundated by postmodern voices - that what matters most is what we experience. And being
“true” to that experience is how we find meaning. The modernist arrogance is something that needed to
be called to question. We understand now that stories constitute meaning and truth far more than the
brute facts of life, the raw data. We know that stories are what make up our identity and meaning. But we
get a bit lost, wondering whether to let our experience and our emotion take control of our destiny or to
hold on rigidly to the supposed facts as if they are the lifeline to meaning or salvation.

The Psalmist names the history of God’s promise, his faithfulness, his love and the present-future of his
Kingdom as the story and Truth that frames his otherwise suffocating reality. That great and greater story
of God cannot be reduced into mere historical data, nor will it be itself as a meaningful story for some,
some of the time. It takes the whole of our lives into it, all people are held together in it, any and every
experience gets wrapped up into it, all emotion finds its end in that greater context – of forgiveness, of
hope, and of new life. The practice of faith is one that tells that greater story as a refrain, so that whatever
we are experiencing, be it poverty, injustice, suffering, rejection, failure, confusion, boredom, or struggle in
sin, though it be valid and true, finds itself wrapped up in the greater story of God reconciling the world to
himself through Christ.

For the homily, we reflected on Luke together, having seen and heard it read to us dramatically. We noted
that Luke has a great appreciation for history and for narrative, weaving themes of travel, conversion,
Eucharist, and the fulfillment of scripture into his gospel and the book of Acts. The experience of the
disciples and their sense of disappointment are slowly wrapped up in a greater story that Christ reveals to
them. Luke tells it in this way to reassure his audience that all the promises of God made to his ancient
people - read in Moses, the prophets, and the psalms - about saving the world through them - had come
to fulfillment, but in an unexpected way. It was not through the fury of insurrection, but in the humble life,
in the suffering and death, and now in the resurrection of Jesus. The story of despair the two disciples are
agonizing over is laid down for the shining truth of a larger story they yet had no imagination for.

This is what often happens when we meet Jesus. We have too many expectations to name and most of
them are let down. We are frustrated, tired, and disappointed. Our experiences in this life have
devastated us and on our emotions, whether we show that openly or whether we push it down, retreating
into ourselves. But we meet Jesus because he comes to us on the road. He joins us, lets us hash out our
own stories, gives us time. But he invites us into a greater story and a different way of imagining him, the
world, and ourselves. He is no failed prophet or a stranger, who is out of touch with reality. The world is
not a only a place of splintered stories without meaning. We are not absolutely forsaken. Rather, he is the
one who has gone before us into death and risen before us into life. All stories find their end and center int
that one. We find our experiences and emotions wrapped up in that greater truth. We need not close
ourselves off from others or from God in the story of our own experience or emotion. Our story can be
taken up into his as we participate in following after him. In this, as the disciples along the road too
discover, our hearts may just start to warm, and we may start to live in greater courage.

To help us imagine what this might entail for us, we told two stories: the story of my friend and the story of
the seed. My friend was raising her young children and her husband was suffering in severe depression
and without work. She would sit by herself after dark on the back porch, and through tears name the
things that she was thankful for - a roof, food enough, and friends. In a small way, she was telling a
greater story than her immediate severe pain. She said at this time that she couldnʼt believe in the gospel,
but she continued to be in a church. The people there would say to her, “Thatʼs just fine. Weʼll keep on
telling the story and weʼll stand next to you.” She did not dismiss her story and neither did the church, but
they TOGETHER, slowly, wrapped it up in a larger one. Planting, like theses stories, reminds us that the
veil of the immediate emotion or experience is not the end of the story. The dark soil, at first, would tell a
story of death, of wrapping all that falls to the ground in its arms, engulfing the seeds in a cloak they
cannot see past. Yet water and sun call them upward. By forces unknown to them, they are being drawn
into air and into new being.

Lent is a journey on the way to the passion of Christ. Since it entails self-discipline and identifying with the
suffering messiah, we may feel like we’ve been on a journey that is designed only to wear us down. Or
maybe life is enough to wear down on us and we didnʼt need Lent to remind us. We may have lost a
sense of the greater story. But the end is not suffering, not the cross, but the resurrection. That is why we
speak of resurrection on the 5th Sunday of Lent. We were never meant to journey without the memory and
hope of that future. Jesus is already walking beside. His story goes before us and after. His story
envelops our in grace.


1. Where do we look for and find meaning in our lives? Are experience and emotion valid ways of
determining meaning?

2. If you can share, what are the stories that interrupt, combat, or threaten to overshadow the story of the

3. Do you have a practice, like that of the Psalmist, which weaves any and every experience and emotion
into a greater story through refrain? What might this look like for you?

4. How is the church to practice this kind of reincorporation of the lesser story into the greater? Can you
think of examples where this has been done well or poorly?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

good news for those trapped in slavery

It is common during the season of Lent to read and meditate on the passage before us this morning, of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Clearly, the 40 days in the wilderness is meant to evoke the image of God’s ancient people, Israel, wandering for 40 years in the wilderness - you may remember that those four decades come, remarkably, on the heels of their dramatic exodus from the chains of slavery. Tragically, having been set free from slavery in Egypt, God’s people of old exhibited the oh-so-human tendency to forget about God’s goodness, faithfulness, and love, about his power to redeem and about his concern that we humans live our lives in a certain kind of way that brings God’s goodness, peace, and justice to bear in this fallen world in a pattern that makes for human flourishing, our own and others. But the wilderness generation was just like the rest of us when they were showing what it looks like to be a broken and sinful people. They were demonstrating that the human condition is universally a broken mess; this mess is sometimes given the label, original sin. However, when we hear language like, original sin, it can be tempting to think of it as some sort of abstract concept like, in the words of one theologian, “a great metaphysical curse hanging over humanity”. But it is probably more helpful to talk about it in this way: Rowan Williams goes on to say, “there is a tangle that goes back to the very roots of humanity.... In humanity's history, the ingrained habit of turning inwards, turning in upon ourselves, is passed on. We learn what we want.... by watching someone else wanting it and competing for it. Before we begin to make choices, our options have been silently reduced in this way.... Our learning how to exist is mixed in with learning what does not make for our life or our joy. And every failure and wrong turn in the history of a person as in the history of our species locks us more and more firmly into ourselves. No wonder we drift further from peace, become less and less free to give. Something needs to reverse the flow, to break the cycle..... Only a human word, a human act will heal the process of human history; it isn't ideas and ideals that will do this, but some moment in history when relations are changed for good and all, when new things concretely become possible.”

That human act is Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. His human success in loving God in the wilderness is the beginning of that reversing of the flow that Williams talks about above. Jesus’ mission can be summarized in many ways but one way of talking about it is to say that he came to pioneer a new humanity, to put human beings in proper relationship with God and with each other by being in proper relationship to God and to his fellow human beings. (Ultimately, this mission would entail his death on the cross, which would also accomplish the forgiveness of ou sins. ) But back to the passage at hand: as a human being, his “saying no” to the devil in the wilderness is the first time a human had said an unmitigated yes to God since Adam’s and Eve’s fall from grace.

As the new Adam, the first representative of the New Exodus, he enters into the darkness of temptation in the wilderness so that we might know that he is near to us in our darkest moments. In our dark moments, he is there to break our cycles of self-destruction, to help us love others as we are meant to, to enable us to forgive those who hurt us, to be peacemakers in our families and communities. How about you and me this morning? Are you in the midst of a cycle that needs to be broken? If so, and we often are, Jesus is near you in your temptation and he is there to break that cycle for you and with you. Is there something in your life that you need to name and of which you need to repent hat is taking away your freedom to love others as you are meant to love them and want to love them? If so, Jesus is near to you and wants to help; will you ask him? Is temptation to bitterness and envy threatening not only to steal every ounce of joy from your life but ruin your friendships and work relationships? Have pride and self-sufficiency kept you from turning to God to ask him to help you grow into the person he wishes you to be? In all of these dark patterns, Jesus is near to you in any and every moment of your struggle to say yes to God; he is there to help you.

When you come to this communion table this morning, remember, “God has heard the cry of his people”. He is drawing near you - not in harsh judgment but in sympathetic love and with the power to redeem.

There are many different ways to summarize the gospel but one way to talk about it is as the response of God to the cries of those who are trapped in slavery. Slavery can take many forms. We talked about spiritual slavery, so to speak, before communion but the spiritual is never sealed off from the physical in scripture and God cares about what we do (and what others do) to our physical bodies.

The form slavery took among God’s ancient people at the time of the great Exodus from Egypt is similar to a great deal of the slavery that still goes on today. As I am sure most of you know, heinously, many millions of people today experience slavery through human trafficking, and various forced labor scenarios. It happens in the United States more than anyone usually wants to talk about; the most terrible and terrifying examples have to do with the trafficking of minors in prostitution - the ads for sex trafficking make media companies wealthy (e.g. lots of classifieds owned by ‘reputable companies’). What an awful situation!

When Jesus announced that he is preaching good news to the poor and to those who are
enslaved he has in mind people suffering at the margins of society and those who cannot really do much if anything to help themselves. He has in mind the people among us in the world today who are radically poor, enslaved, or at the margins of our world. One of the things that I wanted us to think about - and feel - on the way to communion this morning was that the good news of God’s coming kingdom is MEANT to feel liberating and compassionate to you. But how does that work out for those who are modern day slaves, or trapped in deep, multi-generational poverty. With regard to these people, we who have power and wealth have a large measure of responsibility as to whether or not we have made the gospel to be good to news to the poor or the exploited. Those of us with status and power must realize that the reason we have the resources of the world is to share them with those who do not. It is tempting to try to prescribe how to play this out in details but really I think with most of us we need to acquire or reacquire the discipline to realize moment by moment that we are here on this earth to join with Jesus on mission, to help those who have less than we do and to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

1. As mentioned above, Jesus’ unmitigated yes was the first in human history since “the fall”. What has Jesus’ yes made possible for us who are united in his life, death and resurrection? Maybe framing your answer in response to this passage would be an interesting exercise. Romans 6:1-7.

2. If we are free to say yes to God in Christ, why don’t we always say yes? Perhaps you might frame your response to this in light of this passage: 1 John 1: 5-10

3. In light of what was drawn out in the two meditations above, why is it important to know that Jesus has given us the power to say yes to God?

4. Can you think of something new you can do that will make the gospel to be good news for the poor and exploited?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

the blind leading the blind

Psalm 100 Call to Worship
Romans 12:9-18 Lesson 1
Luke 6:37-42 Lesson 2

As we mentioned last week, Lent is not so much a season to come up with epiphanies (little liturgical humor there - very little) at least not epiphanies of things we have never thought of before Rather, it is a time to wake up to what we know but what we don’t often apply in our lives. For example, we know that we are meant to be people who are joined to Jesus in his movement to reconcile people to God and to each other but we, ourselves, often prefer to brood over the wrongs we have suffered than desire to be energized to reconcile and see people hopefully. Sometimes we even get addicted to a sort of grinding pathology whereby we only look at peoples faults, rather than the good God is doing in their lives. It is hard to move in the direction to being at peace with people, as our first lesson exhorts us this morning, when you look at people that way. What helps is to remember that if we are to make any progress at all in this regard we must be disciplined to see people the way that God sees them, through the lens of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection - to see them in a new context, the context of his love for them and the future he has promised to them. If you do that you will be more likely to have your default set to desiring to love and forgive others as God has loved and forgiven you.

There may have been a twinkle in Jesus’ eye when he said the proverb about the blind leading the blind, because that little saying, together with the story of the log and the speck, are meant to conjure funny mental images which, in turn, would be easy to remember. The blind leading the blind really is like something out of the British comedy troupe, Monty Python. Think of it like this: a blind person says to the person sitting next to him in the village square, “hey I need to go to my next social appointment, would you guide me?” The fellow says, “yes, certainly”, but the joke is on the first guy - because the guide ends up being blind too and off into the ditch they go.

Now, the first thing to note about this little story is that it is meant to be confrontational to a certain way of approaching life. It is not offered as an abstract principle about how to choose good teachers, though it is adaptable in that way; it is rather a warning to Jesus’ followers that if they continue approaching their life with each other and God according to the way the current religious leadership of the day were teaching them, they were going to end up in the ditch. Jesus was saying that those who opposed his message of God’s grace and love for all people were blind and should not be followed. Follow the Pharisees and you end up not being able to get past their blindness which is what is meant by the comment about a student not being able to get past her teacher.

What follows in our text from Luke is a description of the way in which many of Jesus’ rival teachers were approaching human relationships and, in turn, their relationships with God. What a depressing image of a community we have here: a group of people who are bent on pointing out the faults of others, presumably in order to feel better about their own lives.

(You may remember from last week, the story of the good Samaritan, wherein the religious leader was seeking to justify himself by attempting to gain a definition of who qualified as his neighbor, a definition that would would make being a neighbor manageable, so to speak. However, Jesus disturbs him and his approach by telling the story that makes it plain that the neighbor can be anyone and anywhere. That seems to be a common theme among Jesus’ opponents, a desire to smugly justify themselves through an adherence to a manageable moral code and a manageable approach to ritual purity, all the while ignoring the condition of their hearts. Jesus said elsewhere of that approach that it was like straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel.)

Here in our text today Jesus exposes the condition of the human heart by drawing, with his words, a cartoon that describes the way we often are with people. The little picture he draws is potent! I mean it really does look silly, right? Someone is running around with a log jutting out of his eye who, instead of being worried about the log, is more worried about what he perceives to be a bit of sawdust in his neighbors’ eye. What an absurd vision but I bet it describes all of us at one time or another.

When we desire to hold power over others based on our perception of their faults, rather than being so aware of our own sins and of God’s love for us in spite of them, we can become addicted to that way of looking at others. Eventually, having only an interest in appearing to be better than others, we lose sight of the darkness in our own hearts and become numb to God’s love - what a mess!

What is the cure for this? what keeps us from running amok in that way? Well, a bit later in the gospel, Jesus says that we are to build on a firm foundation. That firm foundation includes a daily confession that Jesus was right when he said, in so many words, over and over again, that God “does not forgive us because we are good but he makes us good by forgiving us (Rowan Williams).” May that gospel truth lead us out of the ditch of self-righteousness and into the hospitable path of God’s love for all people. There is your firm foundation!

1. Have there been occasions for you where you realize that you have desired to look at people first and foremost in the context of their faults? What alarm bells go off in your head and heart when you head in that direction? Do you listen to the alarm bells?

2. Should you feel free to point out the sin of someone else? If so.....
Under what circumstances should you do that? What gives you the justification to do that? What should you say? How should it be done?

3. Is it ever right to confront someone else about something they have done wrong without leading off by choosing something appropriate to confess as a weakness or sin of your own?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

How Big Is Your Neighborhood?

This morning we come to a story that is familiar to many of us and, indeed, we have looked at this story as recently as last year during one of the homilies. However, looking at familiar truths during the time of Lent is a good practice because Lent is not meant to be a time to think about things we have never thought of before; rather, Lent is a time to think of things we have thought about quite a lot - but perhaps that is where it has stopped for many of us with regard to certain familiar truths of the gospel; we have thought quite a lot, but in many instances have not sought to actively apply the truths to our life-settings. Lent invites us in a focused way to ask of God’s spirit to expand our faith and couple our faith with the courage to act in accordance to the familiar truths we know.

So, a few things about this familiar story.

The lawyer asks the question who is my neighbor, Luke tells us, seeking to justify himself. That might puzzle us at first glance - seeking to justify himself? What is he fishing for here that could help him to justify himself? New Testament scholar GB Caird offers this insight - - and I paraphrase:

“many of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, in a passionate devotion to the OT Law, attempted to make it applicable to every eventuality of daily life - their method? To spell out in detail the exact requirements of the law in such a way as to define the limits of their liability.”

In other words, they worked out a schema for all of life that told them exactly what the limit of their responsibility would be in any given situation - they wanted to define life so that they could always see their responsibility to God and others within the category of limited liability - I have done what I am supposed to do and I have acted for whom I am supposed to perform so now I am done here; I am justified.

The lawyer was fishing for a definition of neighbor that would help him to justify himself.

However, Jesus messes this up by turning the lawyer’s reasoning and question on its head. Iinstead of giving a definition, Jesus tells a story that makes it clear that to represent God’s hospitality in this fallen world we must be preoccupied with a different question: am I a neighbor to whomever needs a neighbor regardless of who this person is and where I find them?

So, back to Caird - “The question, 'who is my neighbor', is a request for definition; and the answer of Jesus frustrates the desire of the lawyer to define his liability. Jesus offers a definition of neighbor that asks the lawyer to embrace an ethic of unlimited liability.”

One of the Lenten actions that some of our families at Grace will be doing with their children this week really drives the message of this parable home in a practical way by asking us to take a look at where our clothes are made. The action simply suggests, look at your stuff and see where it is made - leaves the rest up to you.

For the thoughtful person, finding out, or remembering, that one's clothes are made far away (as they are for many of us), is an immediate reminder to us that our neighborhood is bigger than we initially may have thought. And, in light of our theme today, I suggest that it would require an unimaginative, if not insincere, reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan to not see that, in our contemporary setting, we must have a large enough and holy enough imagination to recognize that our neighbor is someone living across the world and making our clothes and other stuff. What are our responsibilities to these neighbors? The answer will be a bit different for each of us but Jesus’ teaching calls all of us to recognize one thing for sure: they are our neighbors.

But what about our responsibility in situations such as these? I fear that in the United States we are either too distracted to think about this much - which is a whole problem unto itself - or, if we do think about it very much we are too mired in our political opinions about whether US businesses should be taking advantage of cheap labor overseas to think about what our own response as a follower of Jesus ought to be to the neighbor who made our what-nots and thingamabobs.

Some may advocate that our government should do something about all of this - to regulate and legislate in such a way as to end the opportunity for businesses here to make a profit on the backs of those who suffer workplace horrors. Others say, that is not the answer: "do you really want to take away the contribution our economy is making? "Better", these folks say, "for our relationships to continue to allow for slow reform over time, etc." Both of these views can be and are often held by faithful followers of Jesus - neither is un-Chrstian per se - but neither really has much to do with the gospel either.

What I want to suggest is that both of these political positions can end up distracting us from having as deep and meaningful a reaction as we ought to be having to the dire situations we have come to know about some workplace horrors overseas, Each of these political positions can keep the problems overseas distant from our hearts because if, on the one hand, we imagine that it is a problem just for policy people to fix we are tempted to limit our liability by transferring it to the halls of congress; on the other hand, if you want the markets to work it out and leave it at that then you are willing to limit your liability by transferring it to the invisible hand of capitalism to eventually help those who are sometimes working in situations that we would never allow to befall a loved one or friend.

I am not suggesting an easy, one-size fits all action-plan for every Christian regarding this issue. I am simply suggesting that the circle of people who include our neighbors, according to the gospel-logic of Jesus’ story before us this morning, includes many people we may initially be blind to, including those who make our stuff.

At the very least, when we become aware of injustices done to those overseas who are making our stuff (and by the way - I am not suggesting that every company is guilty of this, but some have been) - when we become aware we need to resist the initial impulse to think about the issue as a problem for someone else. We first must realize that it is a problem for us to pray about, and ask God what we are to do.

Perhaps the starting point for each of us after prayer would be to think about and formulate what we might want to say about this issue in the public square and start saying it; but when we do, we must do it humbly, for most of you are more like me than not when it comes to being a consumer - this sermon was typed on a computer made overseas and printed on a printer that was probably made overseas so we are all in this together. The first thing that came to my mind when I prayed about this was to write a letter to several companies I do business with and simply say that I care about this issue and from here on forward I will be giving more careful consideration to my consumption based on what I find out about how that company operates with workers in other countries.

Whatever we do, as Christians, we must be clear that the purpose of the gospel is to say to empire and power, whatever empire and power looks like when and where the gospel is preached, that Jesus is King and that he holds everyone with power accountable for the well-being of their neighbor who lies bleeding on the other side of the road. Specifically, as Christians, we must stand for an ethic that leads us to those who lie bleeding on the other side of the road, because an ethic of limited liability leads us away from the generous love we ourselves have received from God. May God give us wisdom, imagination and courage to work out what it means to be a neighbor to any and all.

1. What do you think God might want you to do differently in the midst of your mundane life in light of you most recent experience (this Sunday past) with this parable in worship?

2. An “ethic of unlimited liability” can sound pretty scary in terms of what it asks.... how do you embrace this sort of approach to the needs of others while maintaining the rest of your life and obligations? Examples would probably be helpful here..... for example, is the best approach to work with the idea of percentages of time and resources, by feel, etc.?

3. Do you think the church allows partisan politics to gag her voice on issues of social justice?