Mind the Gap

Sometimes, another person speaks the truth of the Gospel so well that it is almost impossible to imagine saying it any better.  This is one of those weeks.  Most of the thinking in this sermon is indebted to the thinking of Craig Satterlee, a Lutheran Bishop in Lower Michigan Synod, whose “logjam” on Lent 5 informed the structure and direction of what appears below. 


we-want-to-see-jesus-4-638

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” That is what the greeks say to the disciples at the beginning of our gospel reading this morning.

Friends, I wish to see Jesus too.

But Jesus seems awfully hard to find right now…. There’s just a whole lot of other stuff that seems to be getting in the way.

Perhaps it’s the fact that, as a mother, every day can feel as though it is brimming with responsibilities—to my children, to my home, to my husband. There’s rarely a moment when someone doesn’t need to be held, or fed, or washed. And that’s just my husband!

And then there’s my third child—the church, which, like any other, will take as much as you are willing to give it. And so I look and my plate is brimming, and so often every blessed thing on it is screaming with importance.

A ministry friend of mine this week was so distracted with the load of responsibilities on her plate that she forgot to pick her kids up from daycare, and got that dreaded phone call that has left her, days later, sobbing with guilt, just another thing to lay on top of the pile.

We have so much that needs doing, don’t we?

And if we don’t, all we have to do is read the news to come away with the impression that the world is fraying at the seams. Children burned to death in Brooklyn, starved to death in Angola, homeless in Vanatu, or massacred violently by ISIL or quietly by an Ebola epidemic that just won’t quit. The world’s plate, it would seem, is filled as well, with voices crying out for healing, for justice, for anyone to listen.

I look around me right now, and it hits me: I just want to see Jesus. For a minute, a glimpse, a respite, a hope. I desperately wish I could find the time to breath, to look, to wait, and to watch for the Holy One.

I just want to see Jesus.

I wonder whether the answer to our yearning can be found in our gospel this morning– when Jesus says to his disciples, “and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

In his own preaching on this text, Lutheran Bishop Craig Satterslee says that “Jesus is a blessed magnet.”

It’s not:

  • I will draw all people who have this particular kind of faith to myself
  • I will draw all people who live a certain kind of righteous life to myself
  • I will draw all people who have a particular theology or ecclesiology social justice you name it, it’s not it, to myself

Jesus is drawing all people, all creation, to himself. Jesus really is a blessed magnet.

So why can’t I see it? Why can’t I feel it?

And of course Jesus answers in the text: unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Those who love their life may lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

Jesus is drawing me, and you, the church, our Presbytery, the state of Pennsylvania, our country, all who are struggling, disenfranchised, all who cry out for justice, for peace, for healing, to himself.

Why don’t we see it? Why don’t we feel it?

Because I think perhaps we are letting ourselves so often get in the way.

With the issues that people put in our plates. With all the things right in front of us that seem so much more important because they are here, screaming to be dealt with. With our own needs and insecurities, of maybe our own Lenten Discipline, that we worked so hard to take on/give up.

At this time in Lent it really does start to feel like us, right?

I’m doing so well, I haven’t had a cup of coffee in days……!!!!!! Tis the season for Facebook posts bemoaning how long forty days feels when all you want is a piece of chocolate, a sliver of meat, or just. One. Drink.

Or take our family. We decided to eat within the limits of an average SNAP benefit in PA for Lent. We told ourselves—this will help us grow in empathy for the poor, and learn a little about food insecurity in the process! And we can give away what we didn’t spend on food! Well let me tell you, it can be pretty easy to start to get on your high horse about how virtuous your suffering is right about now. It can get pretty easy to lose yourself thinking about how much YOU are giving up, and how hard this is for YOU. It can be easy to lose sight of the fact that you are doing this for a reason, and it has little to do with making you look holy, or righteous, or better than anyone else.

In the last week of Lent, perhaps the Lenten task is to work to give ourselves up for Lent. To do whatever it takes in that last week of Lent so that we can say to ourselves, I am setting you aside for a week. We can say to all the things piled on our plates: I am setting you aside for a week.

Beginning palm Sunday, for one week, it is going to be about Jesus, lifted high on the cross.

Cross

I’m gonna give myself permission to see, and to feel Jesus draw me and you and us and all things to himself

Which means for a week, I need to be a grain of week, and die. Allow myself to fall into the earth, so Jesus can raise me up.

And that means setting aside the things that scream for my attention on the plate. That means letting go of some of the tasks and responsibilities that give me the illusion of control and purpose, but really are more about myself and my ego. It means, for one week, letting Jesus guide my decisions about what is most important, and what needs doing. It means minding the gap between what seems important, and what actually IS important.

The fifth Sunday of lent gives us permission to spend a week dying to ourselves so that we can spend a week, a holy week, watching Jesus lifted from the earth, drawing all things to himself.

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Talkers and Doers

holyclothIf there is one thing that the Lenten Season does for us as Christians, it is this: it puts in stark relief the difference between talking and doing.  Over the course of the season, we are asked to reflect on what it means to be not just hearers of the Word, but doers as well, to work on becoming the sort of people who nod their heads at Jesus and then pick up their cross (whatever that means) and follow Him.

That is what our family had in mind when we decided to spend Lent 2015 living on SNAP benefits.  As a progressive-minded Christian, I knew lots of facts about hunger in the United States.  I knew, for example, that children are inordinately likely to bear the burden of hunger in this country.  I knew that the recession has resulted in a sharp increase in families who must depend on welfare to eat reasonably well.  And I knew that SNAP benefits had been declining on average throughout the recession as lawmakers in cities and states (and our nation) passed on the burden of deficit budgets to the poor.

But knowing doesn’t necessarily translate into doing. I knew all of this, but I wasn’t engaged in actions that would have a tangible impact on hunger issues.  Our church generously donates to the Warminster Food Pantry, a local cupboard for folks who fall between the cracks, but I often forgot to put a can in the basket.  And our youth group travels down to a local ministry in the city that serves the homeless on a regular basis, but I don’t always go.

Sure, I have my reasons  excuses (do two kids under 4, with all the chaos that includes, get me a little sympathy?), but at the end of the day, I knew that I had the time to make a difference.  The reality was just that it was easier to talk about the importance of hospitality and compassion and justice while doing very little to change anything on my own.

All of this is to say that the past few weeks have been an interesting lesson for me.  As I have mentioned before, this experiment isn’t so much about trying to replicate food-insecurity as it is about creating space for greater understanding and compassion about the challenges inherent to the struggle.  Our goal isn’t to say that we know what it is like to be one of the 15% of US households who were food insecure as of the last national estimates in 2013.  Our goal is to be in solidarity, and to support programs like the One Great Hour of Sharing that address food insecurity in the process.

And we have learned a lot so far, although not always what we expected.  For example:

  • when you have a hard and fast limit on food spending, you spend a great deal more time thinking about food, planning your meals, researching options.  Not only do we spend a good chunk of the weekend planning meals for the week, but both my husband and I have found that we are constantly weighing whether a snack or a food-related choice is worth the cost.  My husband told me that he stopped snacking all together because he didn’t know if we could afford it; for myself, it has meant eating far fewer empty calories, because I know that they will cost me something more filling.  Add in a few kids who don’t know that you are limited, and it gets even more complicated–I have found myself going without a snack so that we can afford to let our daughter enjoy fruit and other snacks that she needs as a growing child.
  • that being said, when we plan our weeks out, it isn’t very difficult to stay within the limits of our SNAP allotment.  This surprised me at first–I figured that we would be cutting it close at the end of every day, but instead we have found ourselves banking dollars and cents.  But the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that our upper-middle-class family takes for granted a number of conditions that allow us to save more money on our food.  First of all, we have the time and the ability to make all of our meals from scratch.  Both of us enjoy flexible work environments that allow us to be home in the evening for dinner.  We enjoy access to a fully functioning kitchen, and are able to make large quantities of more cost-effective foods that can be enjoyed for days afterwards.  We can afford to spend our time doing things like baking bread and muffins and making quiche and chili.  And lastly, we have the benefit of a partner to rely on for help.
  • Some of our dietary choices are made far easier by the knowledge that this experience has a hard and fast end date.  One of the decisions that has made this project far easier was the communal decision to go more or less vegetarian for Lent.  Why did we do it?  A couple reasons. Firstly, I find the meat production system that results in cheap, affordable beef, poultry, and pork morally objectionable. The rest of the year our family tends to purchase local and organic meat, and I wasn’t willing to buy the cheaper and more affordable meat in order to be able to enjoy it.  Second, even if we bought the cheap meat, it would have meant making sacrifices in other areas, and most likely we would have had to have given up fresh fruit or vegetables (or both).  Neither of us was up for the trade. And while this has been financially easier, it hasn’t been easy.  Our kids love meat, and they have noticed its absence.  Heck, I love meat, and I can’t wait to eat a big juicy steak when this is over.  But I have a feeling that I will look at that steak with different eyes when I do.

Ultimately, I am learning as much about myself as I am about hunger.  I am recognizing that I  participate in a system, and that so much of what I take for granted in my life is precisely what makes this project bearable. I am paying more attention to national policy choices that make it harder for families at the poverty line to provide for one another, and I have a heck of a lot more compassion for folks who make these choices day in and day out.  I am realizing that it takes a lot of energy to think this much about food, and I am wondering how I might be called to walk alongside folks for whom my project is a lifestyle.

Which makes me wonder: what sorts of systems and benefits do you take for granted?  In what ways do you take your production and consumption of food for granted?  And what would you do if you were faced with a choice like meat or broccoli?  Is that even the sort of choice a person should have to make?

Eli’s Tips and Tricks for Living Well

1Then God spoke all these words:

2I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me.

4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

13You shall not murder.

14You shall not commit adultery.

15You shall not steal.

16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Exodus 20:1-17

A man loses his favorite hat. He is devastated…. He wore that hat everywhere! But instead of buying a new one, he comes up with an idea. He decides he is going to go to the church down the road a steal one out of the vestibule while everyone is worshipping and praying.

So this man, he gets to the church, and as he opens the door the usher greets him, hands him a bulletin, and before you know it he is sitting in a pew, listening to the pastor’s sermon on “the Ten Commandments.”

After the service, the man walks up to the pastor and shakes her hand vigorously, and says to her, “I just want to thank you for saving my soul today! I came to your church to steal a hat, and after hearing your sermon on the 10 Commandments, I decided against it.”

The pastor smiles—she loves to hear that people are actually listening—and she says to him, “I guess the commandment, ‘thou shall not steal’ really made an impression on you?”

“Naw,” says the man. “When you got to the one on adultery, I remembered where I left my hat…”

Ten Commandments. Gotta love them. I have to admit, every time I read them, I am reminded of my little brother. When he was Amelia’s age, he used to get awfully angry at my sister and I for bossing him around, and when he couldn’t take it anymore he would yell at us, “DON’T COMMAND ME WHAT TO DO!”

We thought that was pretty hilarious—I mean, who uses the word command like that? Well, my brother did. As far as he was concerned, commandments are bossy pronouncements from your sisters.

But what are the commandments, really? As Christians, I think many of us have it in our heads that this is a part of “the Law” with a capital L. They certainly SOUND like laws, right?

Perhaps that is because we are so used to hearing that Jews are the people of the Law.

This past Friday, I joined two of our confirmation students and their parents on a visit to Ohev Shalom, the local synagogue in Richboro. Turns our their Rabbi lives right here in Ivyland. We spent an hour with him learning about the basics of Jewish faith and practice, and there is one word that I didn’t hear a single time while we were there. Do you want to guess what it was? Law.

But there was something else that we heard a whole lot about, and that was relationships. According to Rabbi Perlstein, the heart of Jewish faith is all about relationship—between you and God and you and your neighbor. Which is another way of saying that the heart of faith is covenantal life, those promises we make to one another and to God for the good of us all.

And that is the intent of the ten commandments. They are relational arrangements, best practices from a God who knows that we humans could benefit from some guidance on how to cultivate good and healthy relationships. Given our history, God decides perhaps we need reminders like:

And so God says to us:

Love the God who has continually had your back,

Be content with what you have

Remember to rest so that you can delight in the world God has made for you.

If we wish to think of these as laws, then they are the sort of common sense laws that are intended to give us MORE freedom, not less.

Here’s an example: some of you may know that I like to brew beer. Well, I also have dabbled with making bread over the years. And one thing that beer and bread have in common is that, despite the sheer variety of options, there is a very simple process. As long as you follow the rules and use the right ingredients, you will end up with a drinkable, edible, product. At first, those rules can seem constraining—it can seem like there are an awful lot of them. But once you are comfortable with those rules, once you have lived with them until they are second nature, THEN you find that there is an incredible amount of freedom in the process of creating something delicious.

The ten commandments are not all that different. They are the ingredients and the instructions that make for delicious living.   To honor one another, to respect one another, and to rest in God’s blessings makes for one heck of a life-affirming recipe, one that produces a people at peace with one another and God.

But there is more. These results of covenantal living—peace, life, freedom—it turns out that they are also the same things that we describe as the fruit of a relationship with Jesus Christ We tell one another that if you follow Jesus, then you will be formed into the sort of person who will love God and be a blessing to the world. You will seek peace and reconciliation. You will be a light to those living in the darkness.

This Jesus, whom we meet this morning driving out the moneychangers, has put on flesh amongst us so that we may see what freedom within God’s constraints looks like. He has shown us what it looks like to live a covenantal life, one that honors God and our neighbors. The Word Incarnate is the fulfillment of these commandments.

Except for one thing. When the Israelites were out in the desert, they see Moses speaking with God and they are so utterly terrified that they practically beg Moses to spare them from ever having to speak to God themselves. And so Moses becomes an intermediary, running up and down Mount Sinai with the Word of God for the people of God. But the people are always one step removed from the source—God is always veiled in cloud, or within the tabernacle in the desert.

But all of that changes with Jesus. For in Jesus, we come face to face with God’s Word. In Christ, we are no longer one step removed from God—the covenantal relationship that God desires for us is freely offered to us in the Temple of Christ’s body, what Paul called “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” We don’t have to go to a Temple or make a sacrifice or wait on a priest to speak with God—God becomes as close to us as breath, as near as our next prayer. In Jesus, God has moved into the neighborhood.

Here on the midpoint of Lent, let us give thanks for the One in whom we meet God face to face and by whom we are reconciled. And let us live the life of freedom that God intended for us as we honor one another and the Creator who made us and the world. Amen.

Not Enough Hours In the Day….

8hours
“Eight Hours” by Ricardo Levins Morales http://www.rlmartstudio.com/products/note-cards/justice/nc083.html

There is this wonderful woodcut that I came across a while back called “8 Hours.”*  It is a triptych, really, and there are three images with the following captions: 8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will.  I love this woodcut, in part because it resonated with my own feelings about the importance of rest and of Sabbath time.  But I always found myself wondering–where did it come from?

It turns out that this woodcut has its origins in the Industrial Revolution, and in particular, in the fight for the 40-hour work week in Britain.  A man by the name of Robert Owen came up with the slogan during a campaign in 1817 for workers rights.

Long before Robert Owen, however, laborers in America were agitating for a 10 hour work week. As early as 1791, Philadelphia carpenters were organizing for a shorter work day. By 1835, Irish “coal heavers” from Philadelphia had joined them with their modest proposal for limiting the work day to the hours of 6am to 6pm, with 2 hours for meals. By 1846, the 8 hour day had gained traction, but it wasn’t until the 1880s that workers began to organize in force to demand a limit to permissible work hours.

Despite an organized movement for workers rights, many laborers didn’t see the results of the 8-hour-day campaign until well into the 20th Century.  Until the Adamson Act in 1916, which established a universal 8-hour work day with provision for overtime pay, the 8-hour day was applied piece-meal at best. The Adamson Act was further strengthened under the New Deal provisions, and has become more or less standard practice today.

Personally, I find this fascinating, not the least because I had never truly appreciated or even understood the point of Labor Day until I started reading about the Labor movement. But it also got me thinking–despite the hard-won fight for the right to a 40-hour work week, how many people living in our country today truly experience the gift of rest from labor?

Because like many middle-class families, ours depends on two salaries to get by, which means that the housework that keeps our family going is squeezed into the hours that would otherwise go towards rest.  All of the cleaning, cooking, washing, straightening–like many families, these chores, which truly are a full-time job in themselves–are held over, to be done on a day or at a time that otherwise would be devoted to family or to rest.

And my family is pretty lucky as far as these things go.  We can afford to have someone come and help us keep our house clean.  We have two very flexible jobs that allow us to juggle our schedules when the kids are sick or an evening meeting comes up.  We are able to cover what needs being covered, and sometimes even have a little time to rest together in.  We have enough time to plan our meals for the week, to drive to a reputable shopping center in order to make sure that there is good, healthful food on the dinner table every night. Which means we don’t have to rely on the cheap prepackaged food that would save us time if we didn’t have it.

For folks living on SNAP benefits out of necessity, these kinds of intangible benefits make the difference.  A single mom on one salary has to work that much harder to provide the same meal that we have for dinner, not only because she is working with less, but because she likely doesn’t have the same flexibility and support at home. She likely can’t share the chore list with someone else, or take a break from her child when she needs a minute.  The time she takes to make dinner, to go shopping, to plan the week is more expensive than my time, because her time is all that she has.

In their book, Scarcity: Why having too little means so much, author Sendhil Mullainathan explores the ways in which insufficient resources (time, money, food, and more) create systems that serve to keep people poor, stressed, and inefficient. And I find myself reflecting on this reality as our family continues with this experiment.  Because while our family may be choosing to limit our monetary resources, we still benefit from the abundance of time, flexibility, support, and other resources that the middle-class takes for granted.  The longer this experiment continues, the more evident it is that there is more to poverty, more to hunger, than access to food.  This is less an issue of resources than it is an issue of morals.  And in particular, the same question that motivated the labor movement of the Industrial Revolution: do all people have a right to rest, a right to fair pay, a right to conditions that allow for abundance?

I continue to find myself reflecting on Isaiah 58, which was read on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent:

If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.

-Isaiah 58:9-10

God requires much more of us than empty platitudes and promises of solidarity with those who experience insecurity–God calls us to lift our hands and do the work of justice.  God calls us to lift up the cry of the poor, until all people hear it and respond with the mind of Christ. Then, and only then, can we begin to honestly address the disparities that leave so many good and hardworking people struggling to keep up in a world that is increasingly leaving them behind.

 

*Update 9/1/2016 I have since learned that this woodcut was created by Ricardo Levins Morales, whose amazing work can be found here: http://www.rlmartstudio.com