“So What’s Gonna Happen Today?”
Reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
February 21, 2016 Second Sunday of Lent
RESPONSIVE SCRIPTURE READING Based on
Psalm27 (read by One)
and Philippians 3:17-4:1 (read by Many)
(Common English Bible)
One: The LORD is my light and my salvation. Should I fear anyone? The LORD is a fortress protecting my life. Should I be frightened of anything? When evildoers come at me trying to eat me up — it’s they, my foes and my enemies, who stumble and fall!
Many: Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models.
One: If an army camps against me, my heart won’t be afraid. If war comes up against me, I will continue to trust in this:
Many: As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross.
One: I have asked one thing from the LORD — it’s all I seek: to live in the LORD’s house all the days of my life, seeing the LORD’s beauty and constantly adoring his temple. Because he will shelter me in his own dwelling during troubling times; he will hide me in a secret place in his own tent; he will set me up high, safe on a rock.
Many: Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ.
One: Now my head is higher than the enemies surrounding me, and I will offer sacrifices in God’s tent — sacrifices with shouts of joy! I will sing and praise the LORD. LORD, listen to my voice when I cry out — have mercy on me and answer me! Come, my heart says, seek God’s face. LORD, I do seek your face!
Many: Their lives end with destruction. Their god is their stomach, and they take pride in their disgrace because their thoughts focus on earthly things.
One: Please don’t hide it from me! Don’t push your servant aside angrily — you have been my help! God who saves me, don’t neglect me! Don’t leave me all alone! Even if my father and mother left me all alone, the LORD would take me in.
Many: He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself.
One: LORD, teach me your way; because of my opponents, lead me on a good path.
Don’t give me over to the desires of my enemies, because false witnesses and violent accusers have taken their stand against me.
Many: Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.
One: But I have sure faith that I will experience the LORD’s goodness in the land of the living! Hope in the LORD! Be strong! Let your heart take courage! Hope in the LORD!
On the road to Jerusalem, Jesus warns of coming judgment and anticipates his rejection in that city. Still, not even warnings about Herod’s plan to kill him deter Jesus from faithfully completing his God-given mission. In the middle of the passage is one of the few biblical metaphors for God that is feminine: it is worth paying attention to it. The translation we are about to hear is Thom’s own.
Just then some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get out. Walk away from here. Herod wants to kill you.”
Jesus said to them, “You walk away. Go tell that fox for me, ‘Listen up! Today and tomorrow I am casting out demons and healing. On the third day I will finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is not fitting for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I wanted to gather your children together in the way a hen gathers her chicklings under her wings. But you were not willing! Look: your house is left to you. I am talking to you! You will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'”
This morning, I want to share four stories with you.
The first happened a couple of weeks ago, on a rainy Sunday afternoon. I had an errand to run that required I head north on Wolf Road. I have already learned that one of the great debates here at Lyonsville is which exit to use when leaving the parking lot. That day I chose the western one – the one closer to Wolf Road. Using that exit to get onto Wolf Road is something like an S-curve. And traffic was a little heavy, which meant in order to take advantage of the green light I had to apply some speed to get out of the parking lot and get across Joliet to the far lane and then turn right onto Wolf.
As I made that turn on the slick road, coming toward me heading south on Wolf road was a car with red and blue lights on top. The lights were not turned on, but they got my attention. This was not the Indian Head Park police; this was not the county sheriff; this was a car of the state police.
The office stuck his hand out the window, pointed at me, and then used his hand to make this kind of motion (pushing downward) while he mouthed the words “slow down.”
I tell this story not as a warning for those of you who head from Lyonsville to go north on Wolf Road, but rather as an image of Lent: on the journey of faith we sometimes need to be reminded to slow down.
The story second took place over 15 years ago. As a doctoral student, I was hired by a parish nurse program as an educational consultant. My job description was fairly straightforward: review the existing curriculum, identify the curriculum theories being used, make suggestions on how to bring continuity to the program, and finally propose ways to move the program to online education.
Today there are a number of on-line tools for collaborative writing; 15 years ago we were just beginning to use email. And the director of the program used technology hesitantly: like many caregivers, she preferred face to face interactions. So a couple times a week I would need to print my notes, carry them over to her office, and sit with her to review my work.
That would have been OK, except one of her ministry mottos was “Our mission is in our interruptions.” She held to that because nurses can be notoriously task oriented and sometimes in the quest to complete that task forget about the people in front of them. Our medical practices overall have gotten better in the past 15 years, but this motto for ministry helped remind not only the director but all who worked in or went through the program that the journey is more important than the destination: our mission is in our interruptions.
For me, this meant when I went into the director’s office to discuss proposed curriculum changes, we might get interrupted by a student in the parish nurse program who was facing a crisis in a congregation and needed permission to focus on that crisis instead of getting a paper in on time. It might me mean that a seminary student might come in with a health crisis – the diagnoses of cancer or high blood pressure – and be seeking consolation. Or it might be a student who was looking for information on a better diet or the effects of caffeinated soft drinks on study habits or an idea for a youth group meeting focused on how God offers healing. “Our Mission is in our interruptions” meant that whatever was planned often got set aside – and delayed – because of the immediate presenting interruption.
In a memorable stretch, I brought a proposed curriculum change to the director one week only to have it postponed to the next week, and then the next week, and then a third week. When it was interrupted again, I patiently said to the director, “It seems a shame for you to pay me to come into the office for curriculum consultation only to have my time here redirected to these other tasks. I enjoy the other tasks, but you are paying me for the curriculum writing, which just keeps getting delayed because of interruptions. “
“But” she reminded me “our mission is in our interruptions.”
“Yet” I countered “sometimes our ministry requires we set aside time to not be interrupted.”
This was a turning point in our working relationship. I knew when I came to her office the interruptions would take a higher priority than any work I brought with me. But she also realized that sometimes she needed to meet me outside the office so we would not be interrupted.
The third story is not about me. It is about Henri Nouwen, a priest who wrote extensively about the importance of empathy in Christian faith. After teaching at Notre Dame, Yale Divinity School and Harvard Divinity School, Henri then went to live and work in a home for adults with physical and mental disabilities. In this home, everyone had specific daily chores: sometimes it might be washing dishes, other days mopping floors, and other days weeding flower beds.
Henri’s work as a scholar remained well respected, so he was often invited to speak at international conferences. So, as Henri tells the story, he was preparing a speech for a major international conference. He was feeling pressure to have the words well crafted. In the week prior to his speech he was feeling distracted by the required daily chores. He went to the administrator of the home, another priest, and asked to be relieved of his chores for the week so he could focus on what he needed to say.
“Henri,” the priest asked, “how old are you?”
I forget when this story happened, but let’s say Henri replied “I am 60.”
“Well, Henri, if you are a 60 old priest and unprepared to speak about your faith, then we have some bigger problems to work on than your work schedule.”
Henri went back to washing dishes, and his speech was just fine.
The fourth story is about my week.
I knew this was going to be a chaotic week. I planned ahead to set aside Wednesday for writing: writing my sermon, writing yesterday’s bible study, writing my newsletter article and a letter. But that plan figured that we would be moving into the office on Tuesday.
But Tuesday morning, the office was not ready. OK, I adjusted: some of my tasks for Tuesday we shifted to Wednesday, and I blocked Thursday to be my writing day. Slow down I reminded myself, seeing the hand of the state trooper.
Wednesday came, and yes indeed we were able to move back into the office. But a couple of unexpected interruptions made that process slower than I anticipated. That’s OK: our mission is in our interruptions.
I stayed late Wednesday to make sure I had cleared a bunch of tasks off of my to do list so I could focus on writing Thursday. Thursday started well. I actually got an earlier-than-expected start. But then came a telephone call for help. And a second call. And then a third call.
Without going into the specifics (because they aren’t important for this story), these were not the kind of calls I could put off until Friday: they needed my immediate attention. And attending to the matters of those calls took hours. I don’t mean a couple hours to resolve all three issues, but rather one of the issues took 8 hours to resolve.
Normally, that would be OK. Normally I would be able to say “Well, now Friday will be my writing day.” Except this week I promised Ronda an entire day of housecleaning and other chores in preparation for an anniversary party we were holding on Saturday.
Thom, how old are you? Well, if a minister of your age is unprepared to speak about his faith, then we have some bigger issues to work on than your work schedule.
The church has given centuries of advice related to being open to God, to preparing ourselves to receive God’s spirit, to becoming ready to discern God’s presence. I think we have underemphasized the surprising nature of God showing up.
We human beings are pretty good at reviewing events and putting them together as a story. We’re especially good at telling the stories about our encounters with God as a predictable, understandable sequence. I think we have neglected that it is in the least opportune times, in the messiest of circumstances, in the utter chaos that God is nudging us to more consistent life of faith.
So what’s gonna happen today? How is God going to invite you into ministry? I don’t know.
Some ministry requires we set aside time to not be interrupted, and sometimes our mission is in our interruptions.
And you are better prepared for responding to God’s call than you realize.