Reflections on Mark 12:28-34
God’s love for you is complete, comprehensive and consecrating. You are made holy by God’s love. Who are you to think you are not good enough!?!
The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself presumes that you love yourself. Notice that the commandment is stated positively. It does not say, “whatever you despise in yourself, you shall also despise and punish in your neighbor.”
Yet, whether we express it as arrogance or unworthiness, we have trouble loving ourselves. The arrogant mask their poor self-image with the pretense of superiority. The unworthy don’t bother to mask their poor self-image at all. Either way, we humans tend to focus on the many ways we fall short. Whether or not we are aware of our shortcomings, whether or not we are aware of our feelings about falling short, we tend to be very aware of these faults in others.
Sometimes, we over-focus on our neighbor and their faults. We busy ourselves with confessing their sins with statements that begin with phrases like “They should…” or “The shouldn’t…” God is not at all interested in your opinion of other people’s faults.
God is very interested in loving you and being in right relationship with you. Right relationship does not include self-deprecating burdens like “I should have done…” or “I should do…”. Right relationship with God does include accepting God’s unconditional love for you, and your neighbor.
So, for the love of God, don’t should yourself, or anyone else.
In business circles, they talk about managing expectations. They don’t want to over-sell their product. That would set-up their customers for disappointment. They don’t want to set-up their managers to be disappointed in their performance. They don’t want to set-up their co-workers to fail in shared projects.
In the book Love. Period., Rudy Rasmus writes “expectations are premeditated resentment.” Note the shift in perspective. My expectations of others set me up to harbor resentment. Lowering our expectations is said to be the key to happiness.
In the book The Cow in the Parking Lot, by Leonard Scheff and Susan Edmiston, they relate the Dali Lama’s detachment from other people’s expectations. He says “one day Nobel Prize winner, next day pile of shit.” Whatever.
Jesus talks to people about their own expectations. In Matthew 6, Luke 10, and James 4, we hear about people making plans as if they had the power to turn their own expectations into reality. The hard truth is that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
The first year of any new ministry is all about congregation and pastor getting to know each other. We are almost a year and a half into our time together and it’s good to reflect on where we want to go from here.
When I consider my role as the pastor of the congregation gathered at Bethlehem, the first thing that comes to mind is that I am NOT here to define the congregation. I do consider my role to be to help the congregation become what God has created it to be:
I see this helping role in three parts:
First, I want to help members of the congregation recognize, develop and make use of their spiritual gifts, according to their own faith. We can trust God to help and guide us to become the people God has created us to be.
Second, I want to help the congregation with the continuing process of discerning how it is being call to live out God’s mission in a changing world.
The third part, and perhaps the hardest, is to help the congregation stay healthy so that together we foster a culture that promotes the first two parts.
Spiritual Gifts Mission Safe Space
Before I was ordained, people would sometimes ask me why I would want to serve a church that treated people like me so badly. Seems like a reasonable question, but the “people like me” traits that churches sometimes distain are things I have no control over. I was born female and gay and a long time ago. It seems like a reasonable question, but the “church” is not a concrete, monolithic, structure acting with one mind.
Even the word “church” itself means different things to different people and depends on context. Are we talking about religious institutions in general? Or specific faith traditions? Or specific denominations or sects within a tradition? Or perhaps we are talking about a specific association of individuals who gather in a particular place to express their faith together.
Either way, we are talking about loose organizations of people who also have certain traits they have no control over. Each one also has their own history and has been shaped by their experiences. And each one is carrying a burden of sorrow, shame and anxiety that we may or may not see. We know this to be true because it is impossible to experience life without also experiencing pain.
Why would I want to serve a church that treats people like me so badly? Because they are the same people the God I love so much also loves.
We expect more from people gathered to experience and express a common faith. Sometimes we expect too much. We can’t always be our best self. Sometimes other people’s anxiety spills over onto us and we erupt. The good news is that the chaos of those moments creates a little room for the Holy Spirit to slip in and bless us.
I feel richly blessed here at Bethlehem, in every sense of the word. People sometimes ask me why here, why now? Because the people who gather as Bethlehem Lutheran Church are the same people the God I love so much also loves. Even more so now that the people of Bethlehem are no longer an idea in my mind of God’s people, but are real people whom I know and see and interact with. You share with me your very best and sometimes you invite me to stick around when you are at your worst. I count it all as joy.
It has been interesting to reflect on the things people have said to me over this past year when they have not been able to offer their best self. I have been treated as a fraud, a heretic and as someone who needs to be schooled in Lutheran doctrine. I’ve been accused of over-managing and failing to manage. My integrity has been maligned and my particular gifts dismissed. I try to avoid defending myself in those moments because it’s not about me. I mean that in two ways. We know that when one person is trying to undermine another person’s confidence, it is always about the actor, not the recipient. More importantly, as a minister, it is not important that you see me as I see myself, it is only important that you see Christ, reaching out to you through me.
And we are all ministers of Christ, called and equipped to reach out.
Yesterday, at the early service, we had enough youth to invite them forward to help introduce the readings. One child offered a particularly appropriate bridge into the text. The day before, we had been at church together and they drew for me a wonderful picture with the words “Thank You” big and bold and bright right in the center.
One reading was from Numbers. It focused on the murmuring of the people against Moses and against God, and how grumbling about everything that wasn’t right came around to bite them in the asp. Afflicted by deadly poison from snake bites, they prayed for relief. Of course, God, who is infinitely patient and merciful, gave them relief. God instructed Moses to made a serpent out of bronze and lift it up for the people to see. Anyone who looked upon it would be healed.
They would be made whole and holy by turning their attention outward, back to God. Instead of getting lost in everything they didn’t like about being free from slavery, they were invited to focus on their relationship with God and how God provides for our every need. They turn their attention to the big, bold and bright thank you right there in the center of everything.
Luther used the phrase “incurvatus in se” to describe sin, saying that sin is the practice of focusing only on ourselves; what we need, what we want. Today we recognize that service to others can cure the blues. It works because, it turns our attention outward.
But in all things, moderation, even moderation. If we focus too much attention outwards and neglect to care for ourselves, we no longer have our best selves to offer others. Perhaps even worse, we fail to see the gifts of the Holy Spirit, even when they are presented by a smiling seven-year-old whose heart is big, and whose confidence in God’s love is bold, and whose light shines bright, right there in the center of worship.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, one thing I did not anticipate about being a pastor was the shift in my perspective of congregational life. While I had been very involved in leadership teams in other congregations, I was one of many people relating to a single pastor; now I am the single pastor relating to many people.
Right now, I’m pondering the metaphor of being unevenly yoked and pulling in different directions, and I’m thinking it’s a good thing.
Congregations are loose associations of members and visitors who come to worship services and offer their time, talents and treasure in varying degrees according to their resources and faith. And that is wonderful! We are mysteriously and wondrously made by God in God’s own image as unique individuals, and God is always working in and around us to help us become the person we were created to be.
If this metaphor seems to fit, we might ask ourselves how can we view this as gift and how can we best steward this gift.
Have you ever wished you could know what someone else was thinking? When communication is reduced to meaningful glances, do you wish you could buy a clue? I imagine we can all bring to mind a time when we couldn’t say what we were thinking without breaking the unspoken rules of our group and how we relate to each other.
This tension between wanting to connect with others and wanting to be true to ourselves is so much easier to navigate when we have healthy boundaries.
You’ve probably heard the adage “good fences make good neighbors”. Maybe you’ve even seen a “good neighbor” style of fence. Instead of being a barrier like a fence that has all the slats on one side, each butted up against the other, every other slat is on the other side of the railings. A good neighbor fence looks the same on both sides and it lets a little light and a little air pass through. It creates a line of distinction without being offensive or cutting off the outside world.
Suppose you have one of these fences and the neighbor kid kicks their ball into your yard. The fence prevents them from running into your yard to retrieve it. Do you have any obligation to return it? No. Nope. None whatsoever. And yet, you probably will. We’re talking about a kid, right? What if the leaves from your neighbor’s tree fall into your yard; would you even consider returning them? These things seem obvious, even simplistic.
What if your neighbor backs their truck into your fence, knocks it down and refuses to repair it? You could get into a power struggle with them. You could sue them. You could ignore the problem. All three of these options gives them power over you. Your money, time, energy and attention is now invested in this person who has violated your boundary.
Because boundaries and power dynamics are closely related, I want to talk about the two ways one person gains power over another. The use of force, or the threat of force is one way people gain power over others. This can even happen unintentionally. If you look like people who are forcing themselves on others or who have done so in the past, you have an advantage in the balance of power.
The other way one person gains power over another is by consent. Politicians are voted into office. Doctors are selected by patients. Consent is temporary and it is limited. A symbolic giving of the “keys to the city” is not the same as giving a key that would actually open the homes of all the residents. The granting of temporary and limited power to someone carries the implicit expectation that they don’t take advantage of you or try to make their power over you permanent.
One thing I did not anticipate about being a pastor was the shift in my perspective of congregational life. While I had been very involved in leadership teams in other congregations, I was one of many people relating to a single pastor; now and am one relating to many people. This shift got me thinking about the different levels of involvement people have with their faith communities and whether or not it matters.
Some people are drive-by members. I, myself, am a drive-by member of a little Episcopal church in Virginia Beach. Every time we passed that church on the way to Grandma’s house, my mom would say to us kids, “that’s the church where Jean Marie was baptized.” That’s me: Jean Marie, the baby of the family.
Mom’s declaration was a sign that the long drive was almost over; we were getting close to Grandma’s; it was so exciting! It was also a prevalent reminder that Jean Marie was baptized and became a building block of my faith. It became and gave expression to the feeling of God’s love being like Grandma’s love. Unconditional, exuberant and sometimes hard to understand.
Other people are C, E and D members. Like the occasional Christian I worked with, a lifetime ago, when I was an internet developer in Seattle. He told me he went to church on Christmas and Easter and whenever his wife Diane told him to. The operative phrase here is that “he went to church”.
There are others who come when they can and some who come when they need to. Some come every week; religious services are part of their routine. Some come to every event at their house of worship; the congregation is an important part of their community. Some want to come and hear a word of hope, but aren’t interested in volunteering. Some are ready to help with whatever needs to be done, but aren’t interested in being in charge.
Although I’m presenting these different relationships in order of apparent engagement, no one is more or less Christian or worthy or saved than any other.
Salvation is God’s work.
We are only called to participate as we are able and to live in relationship with God. Being a person of faith – any faith – is not about being ‘right’ or ‘committed’ or ‘saved’. As the prophet Micah tells us “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah, 6:8, NRSV) Faith is about walking with God rather than trying to go it alone.
God calls out to us “All who long to meet Christ in the bread and the wine are invited to the Lord’s Supper.” This is how we begin the invitation to communion in our community. “Come, not because I invite you,” for I am only a servant. “Come because Christ invites you. This feast is for you, the dearly loved people of God.”
Are you wondering if we really mean you? We do. We continue, “You who have been here often, and you who have not been here in a long while.” The word ‘here’ doesn’t refer to the altar in our church, or any particular house of worship. Rather it refers to that relational space of walking with God.
God is always with you. We, however, are not always present to God. Now being present to God is not like watching a movie or reading a great story. It does not require the willful suspension of disbelief.
“You who have much faith and you who have little.” Having faith, a little or a lot, is not a prerequisite. Some days, many of us have none.
“All of you who have tried to follow Christ, and all of us who have failed.”
The feast is ready.”
A few women have asked me what I think about all of these allegations of sexual harassment that are surfacing. They wonder, “why now” and “what’s the big deal?” They talk about the old coot who would pat their bottoms at work or the music teacher who copped a feel in the choir room when no one else was there. No harm done; it’s not like he raped anyone.
The fact that they remember who, when, where, and what tells another story. It suggests there was harm. An unpleasant memory is etched into their minds, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Even so, this small part is worth examining.
She remembers, he probably does not. Do you remember every time you shook hands with someone? Probably not. It was that insignificant to him; but she remembers. The incident is her burden. His impulse; her problem.
Here’s another way to look at it. A young man is complaining about his wife nagging him to rinse the sink after he shaves. “It’s just a little razor stubble,” he says, “no big deal.” And what do you say? Are you inclined to think that razor stubble and raised toilet seats are just “part of the package”? His failure to return the thing he used to its original state has become her problem.
As the messy one in a relationship, I recognize there is an element of compromise here. If he lived alone, these things wouldn’t matter. If I lived alone, I could leave my dirty clothes on the floor until wash day. If my partner didn’t like that, they could put them in the bin. If my partner lived alone, they wouldn’t have to pick up after me.
There is also an element of compensation. If one partner does the grocery shopping, maybe the other puts the groceries away. If one earns all the money that buys the groceries, maybe the other shops and puts them away.
The other side of compromise and compensation is entitlement. This is where things get ugly. Does marriage entitle one person to expect the other to clean up after them, or to prepare their meals, or generally to meet their needs? Perhaps marriage vows should explicitly state the proposition: I promise to work for money as long as I feel like it, in exchange I expect you to meet my needs whether you feel like it or not. This unequal exchange requires both parties to think one is entitled to things the other is not.
Maintaining this false ideal takes the full energy of society and is embodied in the very fabric of its culture. When a man can grope a woman with impunity, it means society affirms his desire to fill his needs and her duty to let him. He is affirmed as a person; she becomes a thing to be used. This ugly, ugly idea is self-reinforcing. Every time he uses her to meet his own needs, she has to either accept that society views her as a thing to be used or pretend it was no big deal.
Grace and peace to you from our Savior, Jesus Christ. We celebrate lent as a time of self-reflection and repentance. And it is a celebration. It’s a special time when we can give ourselves permission to pay more attention to our faith. It’s a time for piety – that is the practice of faith.
And our relationship with God is not something to be exploited for personal gain. We don’t call out to God as a way to build credibility. We don’t call ourselves Christian to align ourselves to the dominate culture.
When Jesus tells us to give alms in secret he is telling us about more than modesty and discretion. He’s remind us not to take advantage of people. Don’t give just to create an obligation in others. Don’t give to call attention to the fact that you have more than others.
This is exactly what people were doing then and are doing now. We want charity to level the playing field. If someone is not able to work because they are sick or injured, we want to help them get well, we want to provide what they can’t provide for themselves. When children are born to poor families, we want to see them fed and educated. No one should go hungry – especially in this time and in this country.
But all these good intentions can so easily be perverted to reinforce the very same human institutions that cause the great disparities of wealth in the first place. The rich and the poor both recognize who is giving and who choses where it goes. Rather than focusing on the fact that we can’t have extreme wealth without extreme poverty, we tend to focus on not falling into poverty. Our fear of their plight turns to anger at the afflicted because we don’t want admit how random our place in the hierarchy is and how very vulnerable we are to slipping downward.
There is another dimension to this as well. When we are more focused on other people and human hierarchies, then other people have a hand in defining our place in the hierarchy and naming our short-comings. And they will name our short-comings because they need to reinforce their own place in the hierarchy. Another way of saying this, is that if we are not good stewards of our relationship with God, other people will exploit it for their own gain.
For some, for many, the word ‘church’ conjures feelings of being not good enough. It conjures images of putting on your ‘Sunday best’ and risking conversation with strangers only to be found wanting. Why would anyone give up their day off, or the only day that time-off schedules coincide, for a put down?
For others, the word ‘church’ a best evokes an image of complete ineffectiveness and cultural irrelevance, at worse it evokes reports and suspicions of graft and sexual misconduct. No thank you!
Guilt is another feeling commonly associated with church. Guilt because you haven’t been in a long time. Guilt because you don’t measure up to the Christian ideal. You judge others, you don’t want to forgive, you don’t want to give. An invitation to church sounds like “Come, have your flaws exposed. Give us your money so we can help you feel better (and worse)“. Why go to church when you can get this at the mall? We know that advertising is all about making us feel bad about ourselves so we’ll buy the product to make us feel better about ourselves. But when you go to the mall, at least you get to bring stuff home and pretend it’s all okay.
With choices like consumerism, irrelevance and guilt-riddled salvation, it’s no wonder so many people consider themselves spiritual but not religious. In our hearts, we know God, or at least we want to know God. But in our minds, we also know about the church and every evil thing justified in the name of God. And so, we prefer to commune with God at home, alone, in the comfort of our jammies.
And so I say, come for communion, stay for cookies, because it’s all about community. You don’t have to subscribe to certain creeds and doctrines. You don’t have to believe what I believe, or to feel what I feel. You don’t have to leave your brain at the door.
Bring your questions, bring your doubts. Know that the community is stronger for your participation. Know that you are stronger for the community’s participation in your life. We humans are social beings, and for all the great things we can accomplish with technology, nothing replaces the warmth of a handshake or hug. There is comfort in seeing the same people, week after week. There is grace in watching the children grow and knowing you are a part of what is good in their lives.
You don’t have to be whole or holy or saved or even full of faith, just come.
In my youth, in my imagination, this described me. Now, I am no longer young, not quite old. I’ve spend a lifetime honing assertiveness rather than aggressiveness. And I know, in my heart, in my bones, that salvation is God’s work.
As for impressiveness, my imagination and my mirror tell different stories. I can make a dramatic entrance, but I rarely want to. I can use body language to convey authority, but I often forget that I should. Does this mean I preach without authority?
Where does my authority to preach come from and why do I bring this up? First, I have been told that I am a much better writer than preacher. This was during my internship and was spoken to me by an accomplished retired preacher. His intentions were loving and affirming. “Use the things you are good at to improve the things you wish to improve.” Second, it has come to my attention that my style of preaching does not feel authoritative to some. It feels too whimsical and off-the-cuff and informal. To others it feels free and engaging. Finally, I bring this up because I want to talk about authority and purpose and style.
Authority and authenticity share the same root, ‘autos’, which means self. I would argue that one cannot be authoritative without being authentic. But here, I am putting the cart before the horse. One cannot become authoritative without first being vested with authority by others, years of practical work, and the authentication of others.
He was impressive because he spoke as one having authority. But that was Jesus. Fully human, fully God.
Preachers are just fully human. Hopefully they are well grounded in God. The call to preach comes from God. It can be difficult, even for the one called, to distinguish a call from God and a yearning to satisfy one’s own ego. For this reason, we, the ELCA, provide for an extended time of discernment, external confirmation by clergy and lay people, and theological preparation for pastors. Even with all this, ordination, that is the authority to preach, comes only from the lay people of the church.
Where does my authority to preach come from? It comes from you, the beloved people of God gathered as Bethlehem Lutheran Church.
Why do I preach? This might be better answered if we ask first: Who do I preach? Not myself, but Christ crucified. God has put it on my heart to share the good news of Christ crucified for us and for our salvation. God has put it on my heart to try to share the good news in a way that is accessible and relevant to us today.
Understanding this brings us from purpose to style. Preaching must fit the situation. It must fit the preacher and the listeners. I will say, that regardless of where I stand, I do much better without notes. While I have preached from the pulpit in sanctuaries where there is more distance between the pulpit and the pews, here, in this place, preaching closer feels right. I mean this in a very embodied way. I could probably maintain a little more distance if that feels more right to us, but I don’t think I can preach from the pulpit. I think it would feel too constraining, as if I cannot use my whole self to preach.
Finally, I want to offer a word about the relationship between preaching style and preparation. Generally, it takes a preacher about ten hours to prepare a sermon. For me, a lot of this takes place in my head. I also spend time reading scripture and commentary and news. I regularly attend the local clergy text study and I talk about my ideas with others. One thing I rarely do it write a manuscript.
Do I preach “off-the-cuff”? Only with careful preparation.
Run-flat tires seemed like a good idea at the time. The automatic tire pressure sensor that came with the car also seemed like a good idea. Until winter hit. Sudden drops in air temperature led to minor reductions in air pressure. That led to stupid false alarms on stupid cold days. And that led to ignoring the alarms. After all, they were run-flat tires.
Recently, when it was stupid cold and icy, the sensor suggested the tire pressure was low. Because the car felt like it was floating, somewhat erratically, on the busy city streets, I pulled into a gas station. Did I mention that it was cold? And icy? There was nothing graceful about me getting low enough to check the tires, or fitting the hose to increase the pressure by 3 psi in each tire. The pressures were at the low end of okay, but they were all the same. I was probably over-compensating, but I didn’t want to have to do this again in a few days. So there! The tires were now at the high end of okay.
Until my wife and I drove together a few days later. Yes, I had over-filled the tires. No, it’s wasn’t ideal for these road conditions. Did I mention that clearing the roads in my new home territory is optional, and generally left to the combined effects of traffic and sunshine? There I was, a few days later checking the tires again.
I went merrily on my way, feeling confident that the tire pressures were good and bolstered by the rediscovery of a magic button marked ‘DCS’. In a rare moment of pragmatic lucidity, I let go of the need to know what the acronym represented and the theory behind the button. Push the button, get better traction. Noted.
What I had not noticed, and didn’t understand for about a week, is that some time during my merry wonderings, I ran over a sharp piece of metal. As Soren Kierkegaard noted "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." It seems so unfair at times.
Again, on a day that was stupid cold and icy, the sensor suggested the tire pressure was low. Because the car felt like it was floating, somewhat erratically, on the busy city streets, I pulled into a gas station. Did I mention that it was cold? And icy? And I was not becoming any more graceful with practice. At least this time it was worth it. I had a reading of 0 psi. Or, I had a broken gauge. I checked again. Then I went back to another tire. The gauge was good; the tire was flat. Strange. I filled it and went merrily on my way.
Next day, the low-tire indicator comes on again. By now, I am simply annoyed with the whole thing. They were run flat tires, and I was running late, so I ran it flat.
Then I filled it again.
It occurred to me that this was not a good metaphor for self-care. But it is a perfect analogy for my approach to self-care. First, I want to finish what I am doing; then I will rest, or get a drink of water, or see a doctor.
So, I stopped at the tire place on the way home. Twenty dollars later, the tire is fixed, good as new. And I had the satisfaction of taking care of business before it became a three-hundred-dollar problem. Go me!
So, I went to the doctor too. I could feel that my recent sinus infection had not resolved with antibiotics. I knew that no amount of at-home self-care would fix it. And I was starting to feel pretty funky.
What I had not noted properly was that all my visiting with recently-sick people might include visiting with people in a highly infectious pre-sick stage. I mean the kind of infectious stage that frequent hand washing can’t fix. Lived forward, understood backward, so unfair.
The next forty-eight hours were a blur of nausea, fitful sleeping and an irresistible feeling of being fully grounded in my body. Mortifying.
How can I be a good soldier if I keep getting sick? We need to keep pace; not let the team down. In my head, I know this is a ridiculous work ethic. Who are we trying to keep pace with? Automatons? Human frailty is a thing. For sure and certain, we are all human and we all have limitations.
It’s great when we can accept and prepare for the consequences of those limitations – like having run-flat tires and pressure sensors. After all the world is a dangerous and capricious place. For instance, my wife took wonderful care of me when I was sick. Now, as if to prove that no good deed goes unpunished, she’s about 18 hours into that blur of nausea, fitful sleeping and undeniable embodiment. Dangerous and capricious.
But – at least I am now well enough to take care of her. The only thing worse than attending to self-care and succumbing to human frailty, is not attending to one’s own needs and becoming unable to care for others.