Three Poems At Night

March 21, 2011

The Night’s Middle Hours

The night’s middle hours moan for medicine
they always do
and when I hear them, sleeping lightly,
I can’t tell if I should go to them
if I should go and place two fingers upon a cheek
if I should gently kiss the forehead of the moon
if a moist cool cloth might soothe until morning
as temperatures rise, fogging the windows
and if I should whisper to the hours of night that I’m here
I’m here—what relief has come?
what rhythm distracts us from the shades of our unimagined masks?

Nicodemus Insomnia

I rouse to hear, but already
the old trees of Jerusalem are swaying to your anguish
already, in some avant-garde bar and grille,
a divorced girl taps her heels to your labored breath
already, the patient’s entangled in your catheter tubes
and it’s barely twelve-forty—you,
I think, must be apprentice as well as me
studying the question in watches later and later
and how can one be born after having grown old?
and after having been told in chapter and verse?

Birth From Above

Indulge me. I hate to be
obtuse, but the sheer placenta
must spawn more colors, more colors
if I, O if I, am to wait for pain intervals like a mid-wife.
Does water break in Japan? Do heads crown in Libya?
Yet my whole worked-for life’s a crawling from wind,
pitiful behind the fixtures of temple. My full stature’s
a scam, the shield-plates of my skull will no longer drift
beneath my scalp, excuses, excuses.
Am I, am I
as if, O Jesus, as if
only that would nurse the night to health.

Scott Kinder-Pyle

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Edict

March 17, 2011

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.
–Czeslow Milosz, Ars Poetica

I used to smell the wet maples, the leathery
green primers, saturated with cursive drops
of cloudburst, a lesson in penmanship after every
cleansing rain and as that sated sensation

hovered one mid afternoon between conscious
thought and oblivion an angel approached
barefoot on the window sill and stood toes
dripping with sap like medicine. He

said the only way to meet them all
is to patch the hole through which the
mosquitoes enter and the only way to
block that entrance is to re-write the edict

that’s been degraded by recent radioactive
leaks in Japan. He went on, get your energy
elsewhere, photosynthesis maybe. I
said, I’m a mystery to anyone on that coastline, but

would like to know them if there’s time. Then we
broke off communication—I from my end by preaching
a sermon and he from his end by converting
to Dadaism. Now nothing is ever really moist and

every tree’s ambivalent about growth in a downpour
although many might interpret leaves as they fall.
King Cyrus issued the last legal declaration yet
there’s no use hearing it unless debris cooperates.

Scott Kinder-Pyle

Transfigure This

March 7, 2011

It happened after we returned from our trip—after taking this looping tour—from Capernaum to the north, into the district of Caesaria Philippi and then up this enormous mountain, Mount Hermon I think you call it. Anyway, I don’t know if it was the high altitude, the thin air or the left over bread and fish that we had for breakfast, but no sooner had we scaled this cliff—I started to get really light-headed. James and John were lagging behind, of course. And one time, on this sheer vertical slope, I heard James go ballistic over how his sandals weren’t really suited for this kind of terrain. John got frustrated too with the way that his tunic kept getting snagged on tree limbs.

I told them to stop whining, but it didn’t really matter. With those two it never does. Kind of like being tuned into two different radio stations—constant static, with chatter tripping over chit-chat and then breaking into a braying contest between two jackasses.

Oh, pardon me. Every once in a while, my Galilean upbringing gets the best of me. You see, once you’re bred to be a fisherman, the only thing that makes any sense is catching fish. And, of course, now that I’ve been recruited by Jesus, we’re catching people. And by God, that’s all I want from this expedition. Don’t you? I mean, didn’t you hear what I said to him in chapter 16? I said, “You’re the Messiah! You’re the Son of God!” So let’s quit pussy-footing around and re-take this country for Yahweh. These Romans are a bunch of pig-eating pagans and the only way to get rid of them is to unite under the banner of Jesus. No, not the Pharisees. No, not the Sadducees. Not the Sanhendrin in Jerusalem. All of those so-called experts are corrupt. Don’t you agree? Don’t you agree that Jesus is the only way to victory? Don’t you agree that Jesus is the ticket to a better life? Don’t you agree that he’s the chosen one who can heal all our hurts and deliver us into a world where we, the nation of Israel, are number one?
I’ll tell you what… it used to be that I had no doubt. No doubt whatsoever.

But now, busting my butt up this mountain, I’m not so sure. It’s like, I step up and tell Jesus how great I think he is and then he calls me Satan. He says that the Son of Man is meant to suffer. I say, suffer what? And he says, suffer at the hands of the elders and the scribes and the chief priests. So I say, okay, maybe there’s a little suffering along the way, but we’re going to win, right? The crowds are going to rally, aren’t they? And he says, No. Jesus says, he’s going to get caught and crucified and then something else, raised, I think he said. Hah! Think of that, raised like a loaf of bread—and us being Jews and all, he knows damn right well, we can only eat unleavened bread…

Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. Maybe Jesus is right. Maybe Satan gotta a hold of me, or maybe it’s just this God forsaken mountain air. What are we doing up here? Is this supposed be a discipleship bonding experience? Hey, where is everybody anyway? Have you seen them? I haven’t heard those bickering fools for over an hour now. And Jesus, this fog bank is so thick! I don’t know where he is. O, thank God, it’s clearing. It’s clearing.

Jesus, is that you? [inaudible sounds] eeeeeeeeeeeeeeooooooooooooooooouuuuuuuuuaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiooooooooooooooooooooooooooeeee
Lord, it is good for us to be here and if you want I will make three dwellings, three worship locations, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah…
God—that was a stupid thing to say! This isn’t the festival of booths, this isn’t Sukkoth, where we try to shelter our religious landmarks from the weather.
Why do I want to box things in? Why do I always have to nail down the details? Why do I want to always measure how well I’m doing? Why can’t I

listen my own
knees crawl sideways
across sky-gravel
little fossils of fish give off a charcoal fragrance
brilliant translucent embers
beneath every movement
shards pierce my shins
electric splinters
angling up through thighs pelvis torso loosening shoulders
listen look up lift up neck tendons tilt up
to

Face Face Face
face of Moses who lost his memory of murder
and pharaoh blinked
face of elijah who jerked jezebel around
then who suckled on silent crags of stone
Face of him talking leaning into the abyss drawing journeys with
mist-wrapping fingers
desperate guttural verbs tense
upper cheeks reddening with pleasure
beard dripping wine
linens gestating in glory

and now every strand of my hair is
sifted like wheat in the lungs of the mountain—the wind
listen squint with shrill skin make out
the shaping of his
Face alone
feel the lashes of all eye-lids
reaching his Face without shame
each one held by the brown
verdant return
of his gaze
each one rained upon
each one
with dirt packed down to receive his luminescent stride
does any one spy
the destination
is it here or here what’s
the hesitation as he goes forward
and back

coming down late from the height the vapors still singe my nostrils and I can’t remember

the bright cloud and he tells us shhhhuush shhhhuush

SHARING

February 1, 2011

You see, the thing about Philippians that I love—and that I also hate—is the way Paul is so willing to share. He’s willing to share in the same way that a little kid is willing to share his juice-box and his stuffy nose and sore throat. He’s willing to share just like the boss at work gets angry with the husband, who comes home and yells at his wife, who reprimands her son, who pulls the pony tail of his sister, who kicks the cat who eats the goldfish who makes the cat have gas and the whole cycle starts over again.

But, of course, Paul generates this pattern of chain of behavior with regard to the grace of God and to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul shares. Paul shares grace and Paul shares gospel, but ways that Paul defines these terms may catch us off-guard. He claims, for example, that the grace of God may involve some time in the pokey—in prison, in jail, in the big house, in the slammer. And Paul also will add that the grace of God may spill over into the way that we handle words and stories and raw experiences about Jesus. That is, there will be times when those words and stories don’t connect, and when those experiences, in translation, fall flat. And, in fact, that’s how we know that we’re sharing:
“for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”

In the film, O Brother Where Art Thou, Ulysses Everett McGill remains skeptical about the intervention of God in the life of his fellow convict, Delmar. He says that Delmar and Pete are “dumber than a bag of hammers” for getting baptized by the preacher in the creek. “People are looking for answers,” McGill continues, as the three of them drive down the road. And just then and there, at the intersection, is a solitary black man, holding a fiddle.
The escaped convicts pick up the hitchhiker, who says that he has sold his soul to the devil. “Well, ain’t that a coincidence,” replies McGill. And, with Pete and Delmar still soaking wet from their baptism, he delivers this really funny line. He says, “I guess that makes me the only one that’s unaffiliated.”

Unaffiliated. And, you see, I’m telling you about this scene in the film because it’s tempting, isn’t it? It’s tempting to assume the part of the innocent bystander or to take on the persona of the cynical spectator. In this region of the country, for example, there are demographically more people who check the box marked None, when it comes to religious preference, and I’m okay with that. If by “religious preference” you mean Presbyterian or Lutheran or Methodist or Baptist, I think it’s acceptable to say None of the Above. But, you see, what’s impossible and dangerously inconsistent is for any person who has received grace to then turn around and refuse to share grace. The grace of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ must be shared—and shared in dizzying array of circumstances.

There’s a story about a depressed mother who came to church with her kids only to leave in a huff after a few minutes of the service. One of the ushers, who also worked as a nurse, flagged her down and asked what was wrong. The woman then just unloaded with a string of epithets and curse words until the usher returned to the worship service, weeping. The usher then heard this amazing song being sung by the choir and she went to work that night at the hospital.

Then, a few hours later, there was a severe car accident and who should show up but the depressed mother on a gurney. She looked over at one of her children, bleeding, and then up into the compassionate face of the woman she had hurled hate at earlier in the day, and this is what the prone patient heard: “It’s okay. Hold my hand. We’re going to pray.”
“How I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best…”

You see, it’s not always clear when and where and under what circumstances we will be called to share the grace of God. But God has mysterious ways, I think, of cycling things back around.

I don’t know whether I’ve told you this before, but Dr. Poulakis did me a favor. Dr. Poulakis happened to the speech professor in college who taught that we really don’t have anything to say to one another. Think about the irony of that lesson, coming from a speech professor. We really don’t have anything to say to one another. Chit-chat. BS. Propaganda. Yes. Weather reports. Yes. Sports commentary. Yes. But, when it comes down to really, really, really saying something that substantive about why we’re here and where we’re going—my teacher says, we’ve really got nothing to offer. So, this was his big favor to me. As I sat there, that with droopy eyelids, he stood within a foot of my face and said, “What do you think?” And I thought. I had never really given it any thought before. But then I thought and I feel. And gradually I realized I believe in grace. And if I believed in grace it needed to be shared.

Amen.

SANCTFIED

January 18, 2011

Unlike his letter to the Thessalonians, in which he emphasizes the chosen status of the church, and unlike his letter to the Galatians, in which he warns against the church trying to be the chosen (by caving to those who would emphasize circumcision and other religious performance), the apostle Paul’s first letter to the church of Corinth expresses both gratitude and agitation. “I give thanks,” he writes in verse four. But as we continue to read in verses five and six, it’s important to note words like “enriched” and “strengthened,” which, when combined, produce a pregnant clause that sounds like this:
“so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift…”

Now, I don’t know about you, but when someone of stature launches into a litany of complements and overt affirmations, I have to wonder. Is this person merely blowing smoke? Is he piling on the flattery because he wants something? Or could it be that I have not been living up to my full potential?

For example, consider a 7th grade class, who has mastered the dynamics of addition, subtraction, the multiplication table and so on. If that group of students were to some day refuse to try algebra, or geometry, or calculus, it would be tragic. It would be a waste of how far they‘ve come if they did not then decide to go out a little farther. It would be a waste if they simply came to school and performed admirably, but didn’t risk being wrong with a new set of problems and equations.

Listen to the irony in Paul’s tone of voice in 1 Corinthians 4:8:
“Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings! Indeed, I wish that you had become kinds so that we might be kings with you!”

You see, the truth is that the Corinthian Church does not have all that it wants. It has deluded itself into thinking that it’s good enough to learn the basics when it comes to God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ. But they are refusing to follow the implications of that grace. What have they been forgiven for?

Here’s another quick analogy: imagine if you’ve taken the time to have surgery on your knee or on your shoulder. The operation has been successful, and you now are recuperating on the couch at home. It would be such a waste and even dangerous for you then never to exercise that repaired knee or shoulder again. Your muscles would atrophy and you would eventually even wonder if the surgery had been worth the all the trouble in the first place.
“He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Last week, as we discussions the situation in Galatia, I emphasized how powerfully simple it is to accept that you and I are accepted by God. Grasping that truth, of course, is awesome and amazing—something we refer to as justification. But in Corinth, the problem involves a refusal to go where justification leads and that is, something known as being sanctified, sanctification or the process of being made holy.

Jerry Sittser, in one of his books, describes a friend of his who asked to meet, and during the meeting, the friend said that he was contemplating an affair with another woman. He didn’t exactly say it like that to the Whitworth professor of religion, however. Instead he asked if God would forgive him in advance for what he was about to do. And, you see, what we need to emphasize is that questions like that reveal the fact that this person is stuck. And presumably he’s been stuck for long time. Having mastered the mathematics of God’s forgiveness, he’s refused to contemplate what it might take to become more and more and more holy.

Yes, I know that sounds scary. And, without a doubt, the prospect of being transformed—of going from a blamed, but forgiven person to one of the “blameless” saints—does give us a reason to fear God. But not in the ways that we might imagine. Ordinarily, we might be afraid of God because of what punishment might be inflicted upon us by an almighty deity. But part of being sanctified means embracing the image of God as a loving Father—someone so personally intertwined with your life that it hurts.

And yet, what if I were to tell you that getting closer and closer to God might lead you to an experience in which we ultimately lose track of where our own egos end and where the Spirit of Jesus Christ begins. In fact, something about the ego—that mask of a persona which we defend tooth and nail—something about that competent, coping mechanism—breathes a final breath and dies. And then, something new emerges.

CONFUSING

January 9, 2011

Something is agitating the apostle Paul. Something is sticking in his crawl.

In letter after letter—and wherever he travels—he has always been known for his outpouring of thanks and, and if not his genuine gratitude, his polite civility. When, however, the recipients of this letter—the letter to the Galatians—opened it and read the assault of words aloud, before the wide-eyed assembly, I’m imagining their shock and dismay. Are they “confused” in the way that Paul claims them to be? Are they failing to live out some of the basic truth that Paul had originally taught them?

“I accept your apology,” says Steven Colbert on the Comedy Central program, The Colbert Report. “I accept your apology,” he says, even when the person doesn’t feel as if she’s apologized or has the need to apologize. And the overall effect, you see, is not only ironic; it’s disorienting. How do you say to someone who is not sorry that you accept her feeling of remorse? And how does Paul say to the Galatians, “You’re confused,” even when they may not feel confused in the slightest?

Well, here’s an important observation when it comes to church, to work, to family or to wherever people gather. And that is, confusion reigns when people feel absolutely certain of what they think. Or, to put that another way, when you and I are the most confused we are usually the most adamant about our own opinion and/or point of view. And perhaps this is the reason that the apostle Paul comes on so strong. He’s not insisting on his own way. And we know this by what he says in verse eight:
“But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed.”

So if you wondering at this moment, how we might avoid a gospel that is “contrary to what we proclaimed to you,” and simultaneously not hold our own opinions or points of view too tightly, my hunch is that it relates to the number of names that we drop.

Name-dropping, as we understand it today, is probably the most prevalent method we have of throwing our weight around. That is, ordinarily, if we’d like to convince ourselves and others that we know what we’re talking about—we will pull out the trump card of a name, of some reputable personality. For example, in 55 AD, the names that commanded instant respect in the Christian community went like this: Cephas (or Peter), James and John. And likewise, in 2011, we have names like Billy Graham, Beth Moore and Pope Benedict, among many others.

Now, to avoid confusion, I will insist that each name that I’ve just dropped is meant to symbolize a person, a person who has made a powerful witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the life of faith, there is nothing inherently wrong with relying upon the important people who have gone before us in the journey. The confusion comes, however, when we insist—and when we absolutely insist—on doing faith only and exclusively in the ways that have been lived before us.
“Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities…”

You see, I read this introduction, not as Paul trying to blow his own horn, but as him advancing a gospel message where he doesn’t need to drop names like Cephas or James or John.
“Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people I would not be a servant of Christ.”

The point is—no matter how many important people have influenced Paul and affected us and infected us with their faith—we will all have a component of our journey that remains unmapped by others. And it’s for this reason that we begin to see ourselves as “sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead.”

That phrase, “who raised him from the dead,” is not a throw-away tagline. It’s intended, I think, to remind us that God accepts our apology, that just as we have been uniquely forgiven for sins which we have uniquely committed and just as those sins pounded the nails into Jesus’ flesh on the cross, you and I have been uniquely called by the God who reverses all of that. Nothing else is necessary for our salvation. Just the contemplation of that story as the central core of our own story. Nothing else. Simply accept that God accepts your sincere apology.

But, of course, there’s a problem. There’s always a problem and the problem arises when we don’t really think of ourselves as confused. It arises when we assume without a doubt that we know the steps of faith, and we know them because Billy Graham has instructed us in the exact way that we should go, or Beth Moore has told us all we need to know, or Pope Benedict has issued an encyclical statement.
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you…”

So, let’s see: are we really “deserting the one who called”? Well, to the extent that we don’t see ourselves as taking any fresh and free steps in the journey, yes, we are!

For example, when we harken back to the first century, Cephas and James and John happened to be all circumcised Jews, and as circumcised Jews they met Jesus of Nazareth, walked with him, talked with him and therefore experienced transformation in his name. And yet, if the Christians of Galatia assume that all the males must now submit to the removal of their foreskins, they are confused. And they need someone to tell them: “but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.”

At this point, of course, the depth and the integrity of the message of grace takes over. It has to take over. At Latah Valley, for example, I’d like you to metaphorically survey the snow-covered landscape where we worship today. There are tracks all around us, made by animals and people of faith. Yet, in this journey that we take here, we need not follow the instructions exactly, precisely, without our equivocation and question. Take a step into the fresh snow of faith and live. Amen.

Summary Focus:

Paul is not anti-social. Nor is he against the human, embodied transmission of the gospel. What repulses him, however, is when the message of grace becomes twisted by who you know, when you know it and lastly what details you’d like to control.

A few days ago the Spokesman Review ran a story about a group of classmates who reunited for the first time since participating in a 5th Grade assignment. Evidently their teacher had invited them to bury a cookie tin in Riverside State Park and within the cookie tin these students placed various icons and memorabilia from the distant year of 1986. Some of the items included clothing catalogues and watches with these instructions: “This is a watch. We wear them on our wrists.”

Well, as you know, it has been a grand total of twenty-four years since that time capsule has seen the light of day, and although I was not personally a member of that fifth grade class, their assignment gives us the opportunity to wonder about the long-term effects of the passage of time on our work of faith. For example, if Mount Rainier should erupt in a fury of volcanic debris and molten-hot lava, like the Mount Vesuvius did over Pompeii, what might future generations say that we were doing right now? What labors of love might be encased in layers of ash for posterity? You and I have no way of knowing. We can speculate like good science-fiction writers often do. Based upon the ways that historians in 2011 examine the artifacts of ancient ruins, we can guess what our gadgets and our literature may say about us. But one of the intangible things that First Thessalonians highlights for us is what the apostle Paul describes as “remembering before our God and Father…” And, you see, remembering before God is not like any other kind fact-finding mission or any other mode of recalling experiences:
“For we know, brothers and sisters, that he has chosen you…”

An elderly woman, named Betsy, once sat in a circle with other patients at the nursing home. Philip Yancey describes her as “slender, with snow white hair, blue eyes and a pleasant smile” (p. 286). Yancey’s wife, Janet, introduces herself every week to Betsy and every week, without fail, Betsy responds as if she’s never seen her before. During conversations her eyes are vacant. The lights in her mind are still turned on, but for all intents and purposes, no one is home. After a few weeks, however, the ladies in the circle realize that Betsy can still read. She carries around with her a postcard from her daughter and pores over the sentences as if it came in yesterday’s mail. So, in a masterstroke, Janet began calling on the victim of Alzheimer’s to read an old hymn.
“On a hill far away, stands an old rugged cross,
the emblem of suffering and shame…”

Suddenly Betsy became agitated, and she said, “I can’t go on! It’s too sad! Too sad!” The others then put their hands to their mouths. Over the course of several years, they had never heard Betsy put together two meaningful and reflective words… “That’s fine, Betsy,” replied Janet. “You don’t have to keep reading if you don’t want to.”

But, you see, the old woman did read. She read the words as if she were remembering them before God. And then, amazingly, as the circle broke up and Betsy was escorted to the elevator, she began to sing:
“And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.”

Now, you and I, at our respective ages, can poo-poo and otherwise diminish this episode as nothing very important. We can pretend that interactions like these happen all the time. But really the only time they happen is when a person has internalized and utterly embraced the identity of being chosen. And that, you see, is what I’d like to recommend for those of us who gather here, and to those who are scattered from here.
“For we know, brothers and sisters, beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit…”

The fifth grade class that I mentioned at the start this morning has dug up a collection of relics from 1986. And, of course, only the members of that original group were chosen to go back and excavate the cookie tin. But just imagine a group of Greek-speaking Christians who met in someone’s home in ancient Thessalonica. It had been over two decades since the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred in a place over five-hundred miles away. How, in the world, would they consider themselves chosen? Were they a part of that Davidic line that could be traced over 42 Jewish generations through Joseph, the husband of Mary? Were they intimately acquainted Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? And considering what’s now expected of them, in terms of a change in behavior, why would the Thessalonians want to be chosen?

In the Fellowship of the Ring, a small and insignificant Hobbit, by the name of Frodo Baggins, has been chosen. He’s chosen at first by series of freak circumstances and then later by the secret council of Elround that gathers in Rivendell.
But here’s the bottom line when it comes to Frodo’s chosen status. He is chosen to carry the ring of power because no one else can. He is chosen, as Jesus had been chosen, because he is humble enough to bear all the temptations that come with it. Around him, however, gather eight supportive characters: an Elf, a Dwarf, a Wizard, two regal human beings and four other Hobbits. And these figures, to the extent that they embrace Frodo’s mission, are also chosen. In the story of J. R. R. Tolkien, they are chosen to see that Frodo makes it to the fiery chasm of Mordor and that he cast the ring of power back into the chaos and oblivion where it had been forged. They are chosen, you see, regardless of their backgrounds, to witness this cosmic event. That is, the fellowship is chosen to see the reason for its existence un-made. And likewise, so are the Thessalonians and so are we when it comes to Jesus!

Latah Valley, as you know, is a young and fragile fellowship. And what we bear with and for one another we bear in the name of this ancient and this most relevant message: in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, God is un-making the evil that we do and the evil that has been done and will be done to us and through us.

Latah Valley, as you know, is a meager fellowship. But this fellowship, in so many ways, has been chosen. Our purpose, awkwardly, is to unmake the reason for our existence—to anticipate a world where churches are no longer necessary and where reconciliation reigns. Amen.

PLAN LESS! DREAM MORE!

December 27, 2010

With a few exceptions, as I see it tonight, everyone here resembles Joseph. Everyone resembles Joseph in this respect: whether we realize it or not, everyone makes plans and everyone dreams. And the reason that we plan and the reason that we dream, I think, are one and the same. That is, di-kai-as-su-nai—righteousness—the righteous life… Have you planned for it? Do you dream about it?

My guess is that you have. My guess is that when it comes to the work you do, to the play that you enjoy, to the families that you help raise and to the friendships that you cultivate—you plan and you dream. Joseph, we are told in the passage, “being a righteous man… planned” to take care of his impregnated fiancé. He planned and resolved to take care of her quietly and discretely—not taking her as his wife of course. That wouldn’t be the righteous thing to do, and like him, you and I have made our countless plans to do the right thing. You’re probably making them right now, as I speak. But I wonder, I wonder if it won’t be later tonight, in the silence of the night, when the real work of righteousness will begin.

In the 2007 movie, Breach, Robert Hanssen had planned out his existence in the greatest detail. As a devout Catholic and as an F.B.I. agent he had arranged the elements of his world so that his wife would give birth to the babies, his colleagues at the bureau would search for the mole, and he, Robert Hanssen, would sell secrets to the Russians. You see, he had it all planned out, and all justified. Of course, if he had to live out a lonely existence without trusting another soul, at least, by his own calculations, he would be righteous.

So, think about Joseph. I’m offering this insight into the real-life espionage escapades of Robert Hanssen because he makes me think of something that Joseph may have considered himself. You see, just prior to his being taken into custody, Robert Hanssen makes this odd little remark. He says to his clerk, “I matter plenty.” And when I heard the actor, Chris Cooper, enunciate that phrase, I could also imagine it on the lips of the betrothed of Mary.

I MATTER PLENTY. Those words in fact may be the most tragic and the most comedic words that anyone has ever uttered. But I bet you they run like tangled threads right through the mind and the heart and the Davidic bloodstream of Joseph and I bet they have crossed your heart and mind as well. Think of it. Who says that you matter plenty? Where does the idea come from—that you matter plenty? And is it based upon what you do in this life—on your performance? Does it arrive in the mailbox at Christmastime? Does it appear on Facebook as your official status? I matter plenty! Or does the truth of you and I mattering in the grand scheme of things depend upon something a little more subversive than Robert Hanssen, and even Joseph, can handle?

Tonight’s activity orbits around a central core and that core is known as the Incarnation. In Jesus of Nazareth, in the child born to Mary and Joseph, God became incarnate. That is, he showed up in the flesh. He mattered. “Man’s maker was made man,” writes St. Augustine of Hippo, that the “Ruler of the stars might nurse at His mother’s breast; that Bread might hunger, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired on its journey; that the Truth might be accused of false witnesses, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Foundation be suspended on wood; that Strength might grow weak; that the Healer might be wounded; that Life might die…”

Now, if we try to plan for a paradox like that, we’re going to miss it altogether. What’s needed, you see, is a dream—the kind of dream that Joseph dreams in Matthew 1:20. And so, if you’re looking to matter and to matter plenty, go to bed tonight pondering these things:

First and foremost, the Holy Spirit. The child conceived in Mary, the teenage mother is there, in the womb, because of the work of the Holy Spirit. You and I do not plan for the Holy Spirit. But if the Spirit exists and still breaths and blows upon the earth, there may be those who operate and act under guidance of something that’s beyond every possible calculation—and so may finally subvert every righteous and self-righteous plan.

Second, Yahweh Saves. The name, Jesus, that we use in English, doesn’t match with the intention of the angel’s message to Joseph. Jesus is actually a Greco-Roman configuration of Yah-shua, or Yahweh Saves. And, you see, the reason that’s important is that this child with this name actually takes up into himself all the saving history that’s gone before. Jesus is surely someone radically new, but his roots sink deeply into every possible past and his branches therefore reach into every possible future there is for us.

And that brings us to the third component of Joseph’s dream, which is the future tense of the phrase, he “will save his people from their sins.” Notice: he won’t save them from the big, bad Romans. He won’t save them from the Russians. He won’t save them from an Asteroid or from an Alien Invasion. What threatens us the most—that from which we need rescue the most—comes not from outside us. It is within us. Jesus will save them from their (own) sins, and us from our own sins.

Please close your eyes and see the fragile face of the infant, Yah-shua. Feel how his little fingers can already grip your hand.

No one, in planning to live a righteous life, will be able to do it alone.
I am not able to do it alone.
But maybe that’s what dreams are for.

Amen.

ENTER INTO THE JOY

December 21, 2010

Enter into the joy. When I first heard that phrase in today’s parable, it seemed a little awkward. No one really enters joy. It’s not really a room or a house or an auditorium or a theme park. Joy, as we understand it, is an emotion, something that we feel in relationship to our circumstances and to the people who surround us. On the other hand, I have entered a junior high cafeteria, where it could be said that I “entered into” fear. There have also been moments, when, in a crowd, I have “entered into” hate. And still there are other settings—intensive care units, funeral homes and courthouses—where I have “entered into” sadness as if it were a thick fog. And so, “entering into joy” may be an odd and awkward thing to say, but maybe it’s the only way to describe what Jesus intends us to experience in his coming reign.

Enter into the joy of your master. That last part helps us to understand a little better. The joy that Jesus has in mind is not something that we conjure up on our own. It’s not something that we invent to keep us from getting bored. The joy of the master is the joy of finding value in what he values. His “property,” therefore, might correspond to God’s mission of seeking and salvaging what’s been lost. And this, you see, brings us to the slaves or servants that Jesus mentions in the passage. If each slave is given a portion of the master’s property—that must mean that the master trusts them. Moreover, if the master has entrusted to them his valuable property, it stands to reason that he is expecting them to begin to understand how he feels about it. And how he feels about it is joyous.

Enter into the joy of your master.

Paul Tournier:
“The most wonderful thing in this world is not the good that we accomplish, but the fact that good can come out of the evil that we do… Our vocation is, I believe, to build good out of evil. For if we try to build good out of good, we are in danger of running out of raw material.”

T. S. Eliot:
“In order to arrive at what you are not/ You must go through the way in which you are not…”

“I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends…” (John 15:15).

THE WAGE YOU AGREED TO

December 13, 2010

I agreed. The owners of the delicatessen told me that I would be cutting onions and I agreed. And as first jobs tend to go, cutting onions didn’t really seem that bad. Not nearly as bad as washing dishes. And not even close to the hassle of scooping up dog poop. In fact, in the pantheon of part-time, teenage employment I would have ranked cutting onions somewhere beneath the coveted positions of life guard at the public pool and usher at the local cinema. Think of it. For a whopping one dollar and forty-five cents per hour, all I had to do was wield a sharp, giant blade and thereby reduce bags and bags of thick, round onions into those little juicy, aromatic slivers, the ones that you might find on an Italian hoagie or a Pastrami sandwich. The whole culinary operation depended on me. And if, through that repetitive chopping motion, I began to cry and if those tears dripped their way from my cheek into someone’s order “on the side,” well, the owners of the deli didn’t mind at all. They had agreed. I had agreed. And upon agreements like these the chutzpa, the moxie and the gravitas of the free world continues to hang. Wouldn’t you agree?

In a way, based upon this morning’s passage, I think it’s obvious that Jesus would. Jesus would agree that the workaday world of first century Palestine offered a window or two into the coming world of God’s justice and love, where the tears of every cheek would be wiped away. And whereas some of us find ourselves elbow-deep in slivers of Vidalia, Jesus describes a vineyard scene in which the workers have agreed to harvest grapes for either “the usual daily wage” in verse two, or “whatever’s fair” in verse four.

Symphonésas. Agree with. That word—that image of contractual consent—is the crux of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 20. That is, when a person moves from receiving and believing the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and when that person is then wondering about what’s next on the agenda, the parable points the way. Moreover, when a society celebrates Christmas with the various agreements of sale, every once in a while, someone will stop and wonder, “but what’s next…? what else is there…?” And on those occasions, the parable of Jesus points toward symphonesas, toward agreeing with…

I had to laugh a few weeks ago when a wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills dropped a pass in the end zone during an over-time game with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He dropped the pass and then, went to the locker room and tweeted God. That’s right. You may not have known that God uses Twitter, but Stevie Johnson used his Twitter account to grumble against God, saying this: “I praise you 24/7 and this is how you do me…”

You see, the confusion here may be something that we all share. We expect that because we praise God a little more than the average Christian that God will slide us a little bonus at the end of the year. But was that the agreement? The parable says that everyone will be paid a denarius, that everyone, no matter how skilled or no matter how many hours they’ve praised God, everyone will receive the agreed-upon sum. And now, the only question is, what is that sum really?

When you and I make the imaginative leap from the vineyard to the kingdom of heaven, what does that wage represent?

In the original movie, The Matrix, Joe Pantoliano plays the character of Cypher who serves on board the cyber-ship, Nebuchadnezzar. Now, if you know anything about the storyline of the film, you know that the world as we see it is a computer generated illusion, and that a demonic computer program keeps human beings alive in order to feed off of their life-energy. Cypher, by contrast, is aware of the delusion. As a member of the crew, and as a citizen of Zion, he is among the many who have agreed to live truly free lives even though that means a terribly sparse kind of lifestyle. Cypher has agreed to what is real… until he gets tired, until he compares his own life with the lives of those deluded people who don’t know that they’re just food for the computer program. And in the end, he makes a deal with Agent Smith and the minions of The Matrix and he tells him, “I don’t want to remember nothing… I want to be rich and I want to be somebody famous.”

Now I’m rehearsing the plotline of The Matrix, not because I believe that computers will take over the world, but because of the “wage” to which you and I have agreed. That is, we have agreed in Christ to live lives that are totally free of jealousy, envy, malice and pride. And that freedom alone is what all of us have been, and are being, paid on a daily basis. The word, “idle,” in the passage is intriguing to me. When people are idle, have you noticed, they are all equally idle together. And it’s only when people go to work that they compare hours and worry about whose getting paid for what.

In our last congregation, there was a middle-aged woman who wanted to sing. She saw herself as a singer, as someone who could, not only lead worship, but sing solos. And she worked at it. She put in lots of time and energy. But in the end, we had to break it to her. She didn’t have those particular gifts. Now, this is where it became hard. We prayed that this person could remain idle, that she didn’t jump into another ministry or another thing to do just to do it. We prayed that she would wait until God’s Spirit came to her and said, here, here is where I want you to live out your freedom in Christ.

May it be so for you and for me at Latah Valley. May we be able to mind our own business and to do it for the wage we agreed to, and that’s all. Amen.