“I see paradise trees”.

I see paradise trees.  That’s what Micah said to me as we stepped out the doors of the Orlando, airport in Florida.

“Paradise trees?  What are those”? I asked him,   And he pointed to the big palm trees across the street.  “Oh  I see them now (I told him) Thanks for showing them to me.

It would make sense that he would see those palm trees and rename them, “paradise trees”.  After all, those trees don’t grow up here in the frigid semi arctic of Wisconsin.  And isn’t the typical picture of paradise white sandy beaches, crystal clear blue water and skies, maybe a puffy white cloud, and a palm tree–paradise tree–too. So for the rest of our vacation we saw paradise trees.  Of course we had seen them before, but then they were just leafy green palm trees.  It took a new vision to now notice and recognize them as paradise trees.

You know, I bet paradise trees are in the kingdom of God.  Now I’m not trying to describe heaven and add palm trees to images of the pearly gates, people floating decked out in white robes, wings, and golden harps.  Because that’s not the only thing Jesus is talking about in our story for this morning.  You see heaven and the Kingdom of God, well they not exactly the same thing.

Heaven, heading there, going there, that’s a done deal for those who believe.  As Jesus says, “those who believe are not condemned”.  That’s what Paul is telling us in his letter to the church in Rome, chapter 5.1:   Paul writes, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God”.

Faith in the love of God in Christ, means we don’t have to even worry about heaven, getting there or going there.  That’s a done deal, done for us through the simply and only, or as we Lutherans like to say, solely through God’s amazing love.  That belief makes us confident and bold, it gives us comfort when things are going rough, when life gets really tough, like it does.  We know that this all here, well it’s not the end, we have something even bigger and better to look forward to.  That’s the hope that can get us though each day.  Heaven is where we are headed. No need to worry; end of story. 

Except it’s not the end, because there’s this whole kingdom of God stuff. The thing is Jesus isn’t done with us and the promise of heaven.  He doesn’t come to this world just to focus on the next, on what happens after this life, but to change us in this life, to change life right now, to change this world right now–to give us eternal life, and that eternal life is something that starts right now, as Jesus says we have it.  right now.  You see God isn’t just the God of heaven, but of of heaven and earth. Don’t we pray every Sunday, if not every day, thy or your kingdom come on earth as in heaven.

As Jesus says in his talk with Nicodemus, the Pharisee, this leader of the Jews, it’s all about seeing.  Seeing this kingdom, this God power, this rule and reign of God in this world right now.  As Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” So, it takes  a whole new way to see, a new vision to recognize it, a whole new set of eyes that we get when we are reborn from above.

Here’s where we get the born again Christian, because the Greek word, anothen, can be translated as “again”, but in John it’s better translated as “from above”.  Almost the same thing, really. 

 The thing about this vision, though, is that it doesn’t come naturally.  It’s from above, from God.  It got it’s start in us when we are reborn in the waters of baptism,  but we need to practice seeing this way; we need to come again and again together so that others can point it out to us, we need our vision fixed again and again.  We baptize only once, but we come back repeatable,  to that new birth.  , practiced and formed and reformed, because it will be tested.  Evil wants us to close our eyes of faith, and just rely on the flesh as Jesus says.

 Here’s the thing, the eyes of faith look at the same world as the eyes of our flesh. And Let me tell you the flesh can have really good eyesight.  You can see real sharp with that 20/20 vision.  The flesh won’t miss a thing.  Seeing with the eyes of flesh will notice any imperfection, the flesh sees all the flaws, the flesh sees all the evil and wickedness of this world.  The eyes of the flesh see hypocrisy and violence.  Oh sure evil likes to hide; it likes to camouflage itself and pretend to be good, pretend to be harmless, but even the eyes of the flesh can see through that ruse.

 The difference between eyes of the flesh and eyes of kingdom/faith, is that where the flesh sees death, faith sees life, where flesh sees despair, faith sees hope.   With our new eyes, our new vision we see water turned into wine, we see healing from the touch of love, the kiss of forgiveness, we see Jesus calming the waves of water and waves of fear, the eyes of the kingdom see Jesus sitting with sinners around a table at a tax collectors home, and sitting with us sinners as we gather around this table today–young and old, rich and poor.  We see Jesus standing with us when we work and speak for justice and peace. 

 Just like I needed Micah to help me see the paradise trees, we need Jesus, we need God’s Word, we need one another to see paradise trees blanketed in snow, see paradise places where people are together, paradise people praising God, see us being paradise people being Jesus in our lives and in this God’s world.  With these eyes of faith we see a whole new world, God’s kingdom, paradise on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.

“the Ikea Effect” vs Faith

It is called the “Ikea Effect”[1]. Ikea Effect is named after the store that began in Sweden that features build it yourself furniture.  Researcher Dan Ariely has studied how we assign more value to things we make–like assembling furniture, cooking meals, knitting socks.  Often we will value that item more than it would objectively be valued.  So, for instance we buy a self-assemble desk, put it together, maybe with a few missteps, crack or chip a piece of wood here or there, maybe even do our own not quite or not even close to professional paint job, and walah we have the most valueable and precious desk, at least in our eyes. And since this is Father’s Day, we could ask whether men suffer from this condition more than women.  But I won’t be the judge of that.

Needless to say, the Ikea effect didn’t begin with the store.  It is a far older condition, dating at least back to the first century, to Jesus’ own day.  We can observe this Effect in the story we read this morning from Luke’s Gospel.

A Pharisee, who we learn later is named Simon invites Jesus to come to his house and have dinner with him.  As the men are reclining around the table, they are interrupted as an unnamed, but evidently well known woman enters and opens an alabaster jar, places  ointment on Jesus feet, rubs it in, washes and massages his feet with her hands, her hair, her tears, her lips.

Seeing this, Simon the religious leader thinks to himself, note he doesn’t say this out-loud, because of course that would be rude, but he thinks it, and well Jesus evidently even has a problem with that.  This religious man takes Jesus allowing this woman to touch him as evidence that Jesus mustn’t be a prophet, mustn’t really be sent fromGod because he is allowing this woman, who is evidently a well-known sinner in the community (although we don’t know the specific sins, we don’t know her whole story much like we don’t know the whole story of the people sitting around us or standing in front of you).  But Jesus is allowing her to touch him.  For the religious leader this is disgraceful; this is shameful,this thing happening right in front of him.

The religious leader has passed judgement on both Jesus and the woman, and both of them are not as righteous as himself–the woman for whatever things she’s done, and of course just being a woman, and Jesus because he’s letting her get too close to him.  They are figuratively tearing apart the way the society has built has established itself.

The Pharisee on the other hand, in his eyes he’s done everything right.  He follows the rules, he lives according to God’s law, he knows better, he acts better, his relationship to God is better, face it he is better.  And all because of what he does.  He has built himself a great system that keeps him close to God and far away from the dirty and the sinful.  He has built his own righteousness, his own salvation, his own little ladder (stairway) to heaven.  He is suffering from the Ikea Effect, and he doesn’t even know it.  Of all the people in need of God’s love and forgiveness in this story, the greatest isn’t the “sinful woman” but the “sinless” Simon.

Jesus long before economic behavioralists came up with the catchy name like the  Ikea Effect, Jesus knew what was wrong with Simon.

Jesus points out to this religious leader that the woman is actually a better model of faith than the Pharisee because she knows she needs God, she knows she isn’t even close to perfect.  Her tears are tears of love and thankfulness, her actions are of great love and gratitude, because in Jesus she has seen the love and forgiveness of God.  She sees a God who loves and welcomes sinners, who eats with them, holds them and heals them, doesn’t judge them for what they’ve done, doesn’t condemn them and forget them, try to stay safe and clear of them.  because of Jesus was just like them.

This separation that we build can be so sublte.  We can say to ourselves, “isn’t it great that we come to church here so that we can help the suffering, help the poor”.  Instead of realizing that we are just like them, we suffer (maybe not with economic poverty) but we all suffer a poverty of spirit, we all suffer a poverty of love, poverty of knowledge of what life, what struggle is like is for others, poverty of compassion, poverty of courage to work for justice, to work for a better community, or world.

What that nameless woman knew and felt in the core of her being, what Simon needed to know too, was the love of Jesus.  The love of Jesus that keeps us from building ourselves up at the expense of others, the love of Jesus that keeps us from building  ourselves up as better, building  ourselves up as more righteous, more blessed than others.  The cure for sin of every kind, even that which can be called the Ikea effect–it is the love of Jesus in our hearts, in our words, in our actions, and in our thoughts.  Then together, it will be God’s kingdom that we build.  Amen.

[1] “The Upside of Irrationality: the unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home”, Dan Ariely.

From those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away

I’ve always had troubles with these words from the Gospel of Mark 4. 25, “For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”  I know I am probably misinterpreting them. After last night, they are rattling around in my mind. I serve an urban congregation. We have a small youth group. This Spring they spent many hours reclaiming an old youth room in our building, cleaning it out and painting it. Through grant money we purchased an XBox Kinect. It was intended to enable them to play and be active. We put it all together, and the youth were able to use it at most three times. Last night, we discovered that it is missing–most likely stolen. We don’t know who did it.
Truthfully, I am angry. These kids really have so many limitations in their lives. In some of their neighborhoods, it is not safe for them to just go out and play. They can’t just go for a run or exercise.  They aren’t part of sports teams and leagues. Some haven’t even had gym class. They don’t have multiple electronics and nice computers. And when they do get something, look what happens.  It gets stolen

From those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

Our challenge, among so many others, then is to work to make the first part of that verse just as real, “For to those who have, more will be given”. Of course I’m not talking about game systems and stuff. I am talking about faith, perseverance, and even forgiveness.

Because of what happened, last night we talked about how desperate and sad it is to steal from kids, from a church youth group, and we prayed for whoever hurt us. Now, I’m not saying our anger magically disappeared. No, this is a process and a journey, and that’s why we are together. It’s more than a LifeSkill (the name of our summer youth activities); it’s a GodSkill.  I ask you to join us in our struggles, in our joys, and in our prayers.

I don’t believe in Miracles

I don’t believe in miracles.
It’s not that I don’t believe that God could do all sorts of wondrous and spectacular feats that we think of when we think miracle. That’s not it at all.
But, you see something I learned early on was that when we put our faith in miracles, it often means that we’re going to be terribly disappointed, hurt, and well lost. And folks, let me tell you. I’ve been there, and I don’t want to go back. Because you know what, I’ve been that woman in the crowd—no, not the one who as in our story from Mark’s gospel who was cured of some disease or had some problem miraculously disappear. No, I’ve been that other woman, and if we honest, there’s a lot of folks, a lot more folks out there who have worn their knees bare in prayer, who have cried out for relief for self and as so many of us do countless times a day, cried out for a cure a miracle for someone else, someone loved, someone in pain, someone lost. And honestly, more often than not that miracle just doesn’t seem happen. So no, I don’t believe in, I don’t have faith in miracles.
What I do believe in is God.
Our faith is in God. This is the God who didn’t stay up in heaven waiting to see if we prayed hard enough, waiting to see if we were good enough, and did and said all the right things to then dispense a miracle here and there. No we believe in a God who stepped down, way down and into the realness of life—it’s pains, sadness, disappointments, joys, even its day to day, some might say un-remarkableness.
Now I’m not saying miracles don’t happen, and I agree with folks who point out that faith is what makes something a miracle. When there is a miracle, God’s in it. When there isn’t God’s there to. That’s what the bold belief is all about, it’s not about miraculous cures and amazing feats; bold belief is when it doesn’t go the way we want, and we turn to God, turn to one another still holding onto Jesus.

So, while we don’t put our faith and trust in miracles, we do believe in God. We certainly believe that the woman who was so desperately ill,

Image: Crossan, Linda. Untitled,
from Art in the Christian Tradition,
a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

who had suffered so much and for so long. Those twelve long years. We certainly believe that she heard about the amazing thing and power of this Jesus, and she got up the courage to give it one more chance—that she would do whatever it took to even as an outcast, someone unclean and avoided for so long to charge boldly into that crowd, to press herself so close to Jesus, to fall down at his feet, to touch just the corner of his robe, and be healed. We believe that’s the kind of thing God does.
We also believe that that leader of the synagogue, that congregational leader was so desperate, so committed, so bold in his powerlessness and helplessness that he threw himself to the ground in front of Jesus and in front of his neighbors, in the presence of all to throw himself in the dirt to boldly beg for Jesus to turn aside from wherever he was headed, to interrupt his schedule and plans and to come and heal his daughter. We believe that Jesus could go into a room where death had taken hold, where grief, and pain filled the emptiness and raise a girl only 12 short years old. We believe that’s the kind of thing God does.
Today we are to live boldly in this faith in Jesus. It is faith that lets us be honest in our prayers, honest in our joys when they seem to go our way, honest in loss when they don’t—believing no matter what in the God of Christ Jesus our Lord who we can also reach out and touch on bended knee, who gives us the hope and promise of healing that is far deeper than a cure as we will, hold onto him in the bread and wine, the body broken, blood shed given for and to us, for the sake of the world—that’s what we believe is the the kind of thing God does.

Good Eats

Bread of Life, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54927

It is said, we Lutherans will talk and share all about having a good time at a restaurant much more than we’ll talk about God or Jesus. In other words, we’d rather talk about food than faith. Well since that’s oftentimes the case, let me tell you. It was for an anniversary or some other special occasions. Brad and I made our reservation at a fine restaurant. We get dressed up, get there, are seated at the table, handed our menu, and then the server asks if we would like to start with a glass of wine. I said, “No thank you”. Well, let me tell you the meal went downhill from there. The server asked again if I wanted wine at least 2 or 3 more times. I believe I was pregnant at that time, but I didn’t feel like I needed to justify or defend my decision. Anyway, then when it came time to order, well my choices were let’s say not to the server’s standards. It was probably something like I wanted blue cheese dressing on my salad, and then an entrée with a cheese or crème sauce, and he promptly suggested I order something else—that that was too much cheese. Well, the food was excellent, but the meal was ruined.
We all know, there’s more to a meal than just filling our stomachs and consuming calories. We are hungry for more than just tasty treats. We sit down whether it’s around a table, in a both, or even on the floor like Jesus most likely did with his disciples. We need to feed more than just our bodies. Sometimes we’re hungry for a nice conversation, or maybe we just want some peace and quiet, maybe we’re hungry for family.
This is one of the strengths of Community Night. It’s not just a meal program. It’s not just to feed people. We are trying to build a community St. Paul’s, our neighbors. No matter how much money we have, we are all hungry. The same is true in today’s story from the Luke’s gospel. Now first of all when I read the gospel, if it felt to you like we started somewhere in the middle of something, you’re right. So far in the Easter Sundays we’ve heard from Mark, last week from John, and now from Luke. This story is part of all the events of that first Easter day. Jesus isn’t at the tomb, but he does show up and walk with 2 of the disciples (who don’t recognize him). They walk and talk all the way to the town of Emmaus, they then sit down, he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and whalaa they’re eyes are open and they know it’s him—it’s Jesus. He disappears, and these two run all the way back to Jerusalem to the rest of the disciples and are telling them about seeing Jesus, about walking with him, talking with him, about the bread, when Jesus appears and that brings us to the “Peace be with you” he greets his disciples with this morning.
The point is, Jesus is resurrected. He’s not a ghost. He’s got a body, but see it’s all brand new. It’s something so new, this resurrection thing, is so new we’ve never ever seen it before. The wounds are still there, but they don’t slow him down. In this story, Jesus eats some left-over cooked fish. Now it wasn’t that he was hungry from that long walk to Emmaus, and his return to Jerusalem. He’s eating because the disciples were hungry; they were hungering for something to make sense. They needed that meal to calm their fears, their confusion, to give them purpose and direction. That meal, even though it’s just a bite fish was more about the experience of love and forgiveness of Jesus than about the food.
So another memorable meal I’ve had was at a tiny restaurant in Rome. My husband and I were travelling, and we were using one of this guy Rick Steves’ guidebooks. And we were hungry we’d been running around Rome sightseeing all day, and in this guidebook Rick suggests a particular little restaurant. Well luckily we find it, through the door with our guidebook open in our hands. With that the owner, manager, server I don’t know, I don’t speak Italian, and his English wasn’t great—he greets us, grabs the book, closes it, gives it back to us and maneuvers us to a little table. There are people all around us. We are not handed a menu, but quickly brought something to drink, and then offered plate after plate of food. We looked around us watched in wonder as each table was served, it seemed not all the same things, it was like the people of the restaurant somehow knew just what was needed. One table with a couple ate just a few things and then moved on while others like us seemed to sit through course after course—the place was filled with smiles, laughter, and warmth. We were truly fed.
Much like today. You see this day is a very special day for us. Five of our children, young people will join us to receive their first communion. In so doing, they will take a bit of bread, taste a bit of wine. This will be new to them, but there’s so so much more here than just that first taste. This is for them and for us, a first course in a much bigger meal. It is a taste of the joy that will happen with the feast that will have no end. But until that time, because Jesus knows that his disciples are still hungry. We are still hungry, we are still hungry for welcome, hungry for forgiveness, and meaning, direction, and purpose. We are hungry for peace in our hearts, in our relationships, our families, our neighborhoods, our world. We are hungry for love.
So Jesus invites, calls, pulls to this table. Now I said just a moment ago that this is a special day for us, I said that very specifically—yes it is so important for these children but it’s also for us. For while, at this meal, we will not be completely filled, it will not magically remove all of our hunger, our questions, our pains. But we will be fed; we will be welcomed, and this meal will be deeper and better because we will see God in action in the lives of these young people, and together our eyes will be opened, and we will recognize that Jesus is here, among us, that we together are fed, forgiven, and loved—this is the meal we share. Amen

Easter 2

John 20:19–31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

“4 reals”
I like Thomas. I like Caravaggio’s image of Jesus and Thomas. To me it seems like Jesus is grabbing and guiding, pulling a hesitant Thomas into his wounded side. This isn’t an antiseptic and polite interaction. Touch makes things real; love isn’t real until it is touched and felt, skin to skin, my lips on my childrens’ cheeks and forehead, my husband’s arms around me, the tears of the grieving and troubled on my shoulder. This isn’t shameful; this is living through death. This is sacred.