Monday, March 27, 2017

Challenged Assumptions

John 9

When I was 15 years old, my sister brought home a new boyfriend to introduce to the family.  He was a likable guy but the one real memory I have of him was of an argument.  Apparently, I thought he was going to do something and he decided to not do what he said he would do.  In my bratty teenager, little sister kind of way I told him “I assumed you would do it.”  In a very angry tone, he got in my face and told me I should never ASS-UME anything.  Saying that it made a ___ out of U and ME. 

I did learn to stop assuming a lot… about him anyway.  And, reluctantly I will say in some ways he was right.  We shouldn’t make assumptions. 
Unfortunately, this is part of who we are as humans and how our brains work. We take a partial piece of information about a person or situation and we transfer that information and apply it to a current event.
When I do this today, it drives my husband, Jay, crazy.  He will ask me a question like- is a restaurant open for lunch.  I will then answer without looking it up.  I assume people eat lunch, most restaurants serve lunch, surely this one will be open for lunch too.  Only to drive 30 min out of the way to discover it is closed.  My understanding of what is expected, and what is true are not the same. 

The people in our scripture lesson from the Gospel of John today are no less vulnerable to this thought process.  Jesus and the disciples are walking down the road when they see a man who has been blind since birth.  They do the natural thing many of us do: We ask why.  Why did someone get sick, be born with a disability, suffer from mental illness?  It seems to be against the natural order of things so we question. 

What did I/ they do to deserve this tragedy or problem?  It is the age-old question:  Why do bad things happen to good people?
When the disciples see the blind many they assume that he or his parents must have done something to deserve it.   Jesus tells them: neither he nor his parents sinned to deserved this ailment.  Their assumption is wrong because they don’t have all the information. 

After the man is healed; his neighbors start making assumptions.  This miracle is out of their realm of understanding, impossible.  So instead they try to rationalize what they cannot understand.  For some of them it is easier to believe that a man they’ve known all his life has a mysterious twin brother they have never met and somehow, they have now switched places.  As hard as that is to understand, it is more plausible to them than a miraculous healing. 
We are not immune to this error either.  We try to explain away what we don’t understand.  We blame people for getting sick- not eating right, or exercising.  We hear people blame natural disasters on some punishment from God for an assumed evil.  Then when something miraculous does happen we try to explain it away too.  It must have been a shadow on the scan- not a tumor that has now disappeared. The medicine did what scientists designed it to do, the mud must have had medicinal properties.  Anything other than a miracle that we can’t explain.   

Then the Pharisees put in their 2 cents.  After they can’t deny the healing, they begin to discredit the source.  These are the religious leaders who everyone looks to for faith in God.  These, one would suspect, would be the most accepting of miracles from God.  But, instead they assume that it is not from God because it doesn’t fit into their preconceived understanding of how God works.
So, they try to explain it away.  Either this man is lying or the cause of his healing is from an undesirable source.  It can’t be of God because it doesn’t fit in their God shaped box.  When they can’t make the situation fit with their assumptions, they refuse to accept they might be wrong.  They assume that what they know about God is correct, that God will only act in ways that are suitable to their understanding, they insist the man who is healed is wrong and they cast him out of the synagogue. 

Unfortunately, we can’t write this off as something these “Pharisees” would do, because we do it too.  Even if we believe in miracles, even if we believe that God works in supernatural ways we still struggle to accept that things/ people are of God when they don’t fit into our understanding of God.  We have rules, just like the Pharisees, of what God and godly people, look like, how they act and how they think. 
Nadia Bolz-Weber is kind of a Christian rock star at the moment.  She pastors a Lutheran congregation in Denver Colorado, is an inspirational author and spends a significant amount of her time traveling and doing speaking engagements.  On first glance some might challenge her call as a pastor, and as a Christian.  First of all she’s a woman, she’s a recovering alcoholic, she is covered in tattoos, usually wears jeans and a black tank top and she cusses like a sailor.    

She doesn’t fit our stereotype of a pastor, religious leader or Christian for that matter.  We tend to assume “those people” are clean cut, well behaved, never curse, never drinks, always knows their place, and whatever else you’d want to add to that list of expectations.  But I have never read anything like her.  I have never heard anyone else speak of Jesus and faith in a way that is so loving and approachable.
Through her writings and stories my eyes are open to see the Holy Spirit in ordinary people and places one wouldn’t assume Jesus would be.  And through her, many broken people have found healing in a relationship with Jesus Christ. 

But isn’t this the story of Jesus?  Jesus does the unexpected with the unexpected.  Jesus challenges all our assumptions of what it means to be a follower of God.  Jesus challenges our assumptions as to what it means to be loved and accepted, just as we are.  Jesus ate with sinners, with those the community had condemned as unclean, unworthy and unwanted and in that act of hospitality said “no!  your brokenness is beautiful, you are loved and you are accepted by the one who made you.” 

Jesus tells us that in God we are loved, we are accepted, our brokenness can be healed and made acceptable through the power of the Holy Spirit. 
Jesus spits and makes mud.  Spit is gross, spit is full of bacteria and germs, spitting on the ground is what you to do expel something undesirable from your mouth or insult the person in in your presence.  And mud. Mud is made from dirt, the stuff we wash off our hands before we eat, the stuff that everyone has been walking on, the stuff that makes us dirty.  And yet, repeatedly in the gospels, Jesus uses dirt and spit, the things we reject, to bring healing to someone who has been rejected by the community. 

This man whom Jesus healed is one of those outcasts.  As a blind man, he is a beggar, an outcast, so forgotten that the people don’t recognize him without his disability.  Even his family doesn’t welcome him with open arms.  Instead of celebrating the healing of their son, his family throws him under the proverbial bus to save themselves from being expelled from the synagogue.  The religious leaders expel him for not conforming to their understanding of what was right and for not cowering to their insistence that he defame Jesus. 
When everyone else rejects him, Jesus seeks him out.  Jesus welcomes him, confirms his faith and tells him that he is good, worthy and acceptable to God. 

This week in Bible study as we work through Mike Slaughter’s Renegade Gospel, we talked about why it is difficult to see Jesus.  It is often because we assume we know how, where, when and through whom God will act.  We are blinded to the true actions of the Holy Spirit in the world.  Our assumptions prevent us from seeing God in the ordinary because we only expect God to work in specific and extraordinary ways. 
We assume God only shows up in faithful believers when God has dominion over all the world.  Or maybe you assume that God would never work in you or them; sinful, broken, rejected by good “Christians”.  All because life doesn’t fit in the expected Christian Mold. 

But we see over and over that this is not how it is.   Jesus is always at work.  Jesus always offers healing to our brokenness and pain.  The Holy Spirit is always moving, creating, re-creating.  God is always there we just have to open our eyes.  We do this by practice.  Realizing that God can and does act in ways beyond our understanding, beyond our expectations.  The more we look for Jesus, the more likely we are to find him. 
The way you know it is of God is not whether it fits in our box but by its fruits.  Are people being healed, loved, accepted, treated with kindness and compassion?  Are people serving, caring, welcoming and generous to those in need?  Then no matter the box or the packaging.  This is of God. 

God broke the mold when you were made.  God is constantly challenging us to break the cycle of assumption and disbelief telling us the more right you think you are- the less you truly understand and any time we think God can’t or won’t do something we are wrong. 
This is the beauty of Jesus, showing up when we least expect it and don’t deserve it.  Offering grace upon grace, using ordinary dirt, ordinary us and making miracles happen.  All we have to do is open our hearts to see. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

To Enter God's Rest

Psalm 95: (NRSV)
O come, let us sing to the Lord;  let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;  let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!  For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.  In his hand are the depths of the earth;  the heights of the mountains are his also.  The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed.  O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!  For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.  O that today you would listen to his voice!
Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.  10 For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not regard my ways.”  11 Therefore in my anger I swore,  “They shall not enter my rest.”

My first job out of college was in a group home just outside of New Bern, NC.  It was a locked facility for juvenile offenders and runaways who had been mandated by the courts to live there.  Not only were the kids under lock down but so were the staff- unable to leave or go outside on our own without another staff person to relieve you. 
Surprisingly, the kids were pretty well behaved, the pay was ok for a first job, the company was good and my co-workers were great. Several of my friends from college struggled for years to find full-time work I should have been grateful. 
And, honestly, there wasn’t a lot to complain about, but around my 1 year anniversary, complaining is just what I did.  It had begun to feel like I was the one in jail.  The more I complained the more miserable I became; nothing would suit me but to look for a “better” job.  I had lost perspective.  I had stopped being grateful.  I could not be satisfied. 

I had hardened my heart, stopped listening to God.  I had lost my patience, so I took the first job I could find which turned out to be 10 times worse than the first.  Even though it had better pay and better hours, and the doors weren’t locked 24/7 but oh My- it was horrible!  I was ill prepared to work with this new group of kids.  I was miserable!  And, looking back almost 20 years ago, I can hear God say… I told you so.   
I struggled in that time to see God present or at work in my life.  I felt like I had jumped out of the frying pan into the fire.  Things had gone from bad to worse.  I felt unqualified to do anything in my field.  I struggled to find a place in God’s rest.  But honestly, I wasn’t really looking for God’s rest. 

This wasn’t because God was keeping me out but because I chose to stay out. I was stubborn and felt I could create peace for myself.   Except, I couldn’t because it is a place that doesn’t exist without God.  It is a place you find as you surrender your life to God not one we make for ourselves. 
The Psalmist speaks for God at the end of Psalm 95 saying that God loathed the Israelite people for their lack of faith and trust in God’s provision.  That in his anger he prevented them from entering his rest.  I understand that feeling but in my experience God’s rest is there.   I, and probably many others am just refusing to enter it. 

This place of God’s rest requires us to enter through gates of trust.  A trust that is often difficult to live into because it requires a sacrifice, not necessarily of money or anything tangible, because that would be easy, but a sacrifice of submission. 
Submission to a truth that may not be clear.  Submission to a plan with an outcome that cannot be controlled.  A sacrifice of control, a sacrifice of not having it my way.  But mainly the sacrifice of the selfish desire of wanting more, better and different. 

In this second job, I gave up.  I cried myself to sleep so many nights that I just couldn’t take it anymore.  My only option was to give up.  Give up control and learn to trust and accept the peace that I couldn’t create but that God was offering.  And, God being God, I was rescued. 
Psalm 95 is a psalm of Praise, it is a reminder to us that God is indeed God of all creation.  A God who made us, provides for us, saves us with love, compassion and understanding, even when we rebel, even when we choose to go our own way, even when we complain to God and about God.  Even when we just can’t be satisfied with the gifts we’ve been given.  God is still there, still providing, and still keeping God’s promises. 

God reminds the people of their waywardness in Meribah and Massah, not to show off what happens when God gets angry or threatening to withhold God’s love if they stray but as a reminder that God does provide, that God can be trusted, now and in the times to come. 
God is reminding them that it was God who saved them from slavery in Egypt, God who heard their complaining and lack of trust in God’s provision and loved them anyway, providing them with fresh water in the desert. 

Remembering the past has a way of helping us to look forward with hope and optimism.  It’s not that life isn’t hard at times.  It isn’t that we are supposed to put on a happy face with blind, Pollyannaish optimism.  No, because there are times, when God calls us to intentionally live in difficult times- resisting evil and injustice.    
Hope, true optimism, even in the face of challenge and difficult times comes as we look back at all the ways God has provided to get us where we are today.  We can sit around and complain about how horrible it is: it’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s too wet, it’s too dry, or we can look back and see all the reasons we have to give thanks, even when we are living in a time or place that feels like wilderness. 

When we look around us we can see the beauty of God’s creation, the snow tipped peaks and the daffodils blooming and trust that God knows what God is doing and created the world as it should be.   We can watch as the seasons change and trust that winter will lead to spring, just as it always does. 
We can look at our lives, our past and see the mistakes we have made, the decisions we chose to exclude God from and the consequences of those choices and recognize that even then God was there.  We can see the times when the sound of our complaining drowned out the sound of God’s voice trying to shepherd us through a difficult time.  We can remember the times when in fear we ran from God instead of trusting the guidance of the One who holds all things in his hands. 

And, in this remembering we can look forward trusting that just as God has provided for our past; God will continue to provide for our future.  We can move forward, following in the footsteps of Christ, desiring not our own will, but the will of the Father and as we move forward in hope we trust that the Rock of our Salvation is always present, always offering us a place in God’s rest if we are only willing to enter through the gates of trust, peace, hope and love. 
For this we have reason to give thanks and shout songs of Praise to our Lord.  For this we bow down, worship at the feet of the One who loves us even in our sinfulness, offers us a peace and rest that we cannot create on our own and offers us healing and wholeness amongst the brokenness of our world.  This is the reason we have hope, not only in times of plenty but in times of want too. 

Praise be to God!