Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pentecost Sermon

Reverend Mel Baars
May 19, 2013
University Presbyterian Church

“No Fear”

It is no secret that a preacher’s greatest audience is often herself. This has proved very true for me this week as I have prepared for Pentecost. There are so many possible themes which emerge in these verses from diversity and the gifts of the multi-lingual to being open to the movement of the spirit, how loving God looks like keeping God’s commandments, and what its like to be driven by fear. 

As I read these familiar scriptures this week, I couldn’t stop fixating on fear. Everywhere I turned, fear seemed to jump out from the page which must say something about me I am sure. In the Acts passage, the people’s fear isn’t explicit. It isn’t named outright but instead displayed through how they respond to this otherworldly event. But, put yourselves in their shoes. Out of nowhere a sound like a rush of a violent wind has bulldozed through a local home, and the people inside have begun to speak in so many tongues that the entire crowd, no matter their native language, understands what is being said. They are amazed and confused. And though the text doesn’t say it, I think they are also afraid. In a desperate attempt to make sense of this thing which doesn’t make any sense at all, they blame this occurrence on wine and drunkenness. Because there really is no good explanation for what is happening, their fear drives them to draw unfair conclusions about the disciples. Fear gives rise to injustice. But isn’t this how it goes too often, even now, even with us?

The gospel passage also exudes whispers of fear. Today’s portion of the text begins with Philip asking Jesus to show him “the Father.” It’s not enough that Philip has witnessed Jesus in action, healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind. But, he wants something more in order to be satisfied. Because, as we know, memory is tricky and fleeting. As much as he might believe in the midst of Jesus’ miracles, during the high times, in those times between, his trust becomes shaky. His fears poke holes in his faith and inevitably he begins to sink. This cycle of belief, fear, and doubt is nearly impossible to break and Philip knows this. He recognizes his weaknesses which is why he makes his request in the first place. He is looking for some kind of “fear proof” evidence which will guarantee sustained faith. This is what he needs to be satisfied. This is what he thinks he needs to conqueror his fears. 

Like most human emotion, fear is complicated. On one hand, it is helpful, particularly when trying to teach a child the potential consequences of running blindly into traffic or touching a hot stove. On the other hand, though, too much fear can cause paralysis. It can push people toward inhumanity. It can propel otherwise decent people to make horrific choices in which innocent victims are caught in its crossfire. We need healthy fear to navigate our lives safely but fear, like fire, is difficult to manage. With just a little extra fuel, it can grow so much and so quickly that it becomes unmanageable. It can spin out of control without much warning, leaving but ash in its path. 

Of course, the spectrum of fear doesn’t always have to mean obvious casualties. I think our scripture passages are two great examples of how stealthily fear can take away from the quality of our life and of our faith. I can easily use myself as an example. There are times when I get so focused on my fears that I hardly have any other room in my life for living life well. There are seasons when it seems fear and worry become so encompassing that it is like I have another full time job which would entitle me health benefits and a 401K. I throw worry in there because worry stems from fear. And, at least according to my Apple dictionary, worry is “a state of anxiety and uncertainty over actual or potential problems.” Fear leads to worry and worry causes a state of anxiety and before we know it we are drowning. 

I read about a cartoon which depicted a patient paying a visit to his psychiatrist. In the cartoon he is laying on the couch, describing all of his fears to the psychiatrist. “Doctor,” he began, “I’m worried about the energy crisis, inflation, the sequester and balancing the budget, on-going conflicts in Afghanistan, Israel, Libya, Syria, political unrest in Africa, our diplomatic relations with China, whether or not my teenager is going to become dependent on drugs and alcohol or if my eighth grader will bring up her grades enough to make it into high school on track. I am worried my job, my health, my retirement plan, chemical weapons, bird flu, …” and his list went on and on and on. In the final frame the psychiatrist responded, “Shut up and move over,” after which he proceeded to get on the couch with the patient. Even hearing this list, I feel my anxiety rising. 

A few months ago, when my fear management was particularly poor, I made an appointment to see a military family life counselor, which is a counseling resource that all service members can access for free in order to building coping and resiliency skills. I sat down and I explained why I was there. Like the man in the cartoon, I had a lengthy list of worries. I had just found out that the Army was sending me to the Canadian border, most likely to deploy back to Afghanistan. I had been having some strange, inexplicable health issues which were not clearing up with the medicine my doctors prescribed. I was in a relationship which was going well but which was also in question due to my impending move to almost Canada. What was going to happen to me, my health, my future work and relationship? With each unknown factor, my fear for the future grew. 

Seeing the cross on my uniform and recognizing that I am a chaplain, she reminded me that all I needed to do was pray. Wasn’t I praying, she asked me. Yes, I answered, mainly because I didn’t want to disappoint her. And, I had prayed a few times about all of it but, if I am honest, not really the kind of praying that makes a difference. Happy with her diagnosis, she quoted some applicable scripture and sent me on my way. It’s funny now looking back. At the time I was very dissatisfied with her advice. Of course, I knew that I should be praying. I could have told myself that. I was looking for some other, more concrete, easier to obtain coping strategies. Reading Jesus’ words in John, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” While her advice didn’t seem very helpful to me then, now I wonder how many times will I have to hear Jesus’ words of peace and promise, before I will take them to heart, before I will truly believe them. 

Philip bargains with Jesus just like we do. Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied. O God, just help my mother get better, and I will do whatever you want. Just help me get this job, and I will be generous with those who are in need. O Lord, give me a sign that you are who you claim to be, just help me know my future, that I am going to be okay, and then I will have my peace. All the while, right beneath our noses, God continues to work and heal and bring about life instead of death

On Pentecost we remember that the Holy Spirit dwells among us despite how often we forget this to be true. From creation, throughout our many exiles, in the lowliness of a stable, and even from the murkiness of our unknown futures, the spirit of God beckons to each of us, giving us the strength to continue on our journeys, restoring our faith during seasons of fear, reminding us that we never face our fears alone. 

Some years ago, when I was in elementary school, a new brand called No Fear became popular, mostly among the boys in my class. This label was on everything from t-shirts to skateboard, and quickly because familiar. I remember wondering whether or not No Fear was actually possible. It’s one thing to act fearless or to profess fearlessness, but it’s another thing entirely to live without it. I was sure, even the toughest boys in my class, had their fearful moments. If only it was as easy as wearing a t-shirt. 

Desmond Tutu once said this, "All of us experience fear, but when we confront and acknowledge it, we are able to turn it into courage. Being courageous does not mean never being scared; it means acting as you know you must even though you are undeniably afraid." 

Living without fear isn’t really what matters. Instead, faithfulness looks like dealing with our fears, recognizing when we are driven by fear rather than led by the spirit. It means responding with love even when our gut instinct is urging us to fight or flight. And, maybe my counselor was on to something, even though her delivery in the midst of my crisis could have used some improvement. Jesus has promised us good life, leaving us with these words, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” There is much about the future that we don’t know. Even more that we can’t understand. Yet, the Holy Spirit dwells among us, even here, even now. Because we know this to be true, may we also know God’s peace. Amen

Sunday, May 12, 2013

New Reflection Piece

Here is a link to a reflection piece that I wrote for Duke's Faith and Leadership forum.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sermon from Sunday, April 14, 2013

Reverend Mel Baars
Main Post Chapel, Ft. Sam Houston 

“Do you love me?”

When I was little, I wasn’t a very good listener. I was always in such a hurry to answer that I hardly ever waited to hear the whole question. This especially drove my father crazy. Maybe some of you understand his frustration. We would get into these round and round cycles of question and answer repetition. He would ask me something a first time, but I would be so eager or so distracted, that I would answer before he even finished. “Mary Ellison,” he would say sternly, “Listen to what I am saying.” So, he would ask again, and, at least most of the time, I would still fail to really hear, even if I was trying a little harder. “Mary Ellison,” he would say exasperated, “Pay attention.” It was normally that third go round when his words actually sunk in, when I comprehended what I was answering. 

Most of us are guilty, on occasion, of speaking too soon, of jumping to the answer before we have understood the question fully. Today’s gospel exchange between Peter and Jesus is just this. Jesus asks a question which, in the end, will require Peter to give up everything, even his life, but Peter is in a hurry. “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these...” So eager, so ready to answer, Peter doesn’t take time to consider the question. What is Jesus really asking? Do you love me more than these? What does this really mean? More than what? Is Jesus talking about Peter’s friends or his family? Is he talking about Peter’s safety or comfort? Is he talking about his life? “Do you love me more than these.” To what is Peter answering “Yes?” I’m not sure he knows himself, but he wants to say yes so baldy-- Yes, without understanding what yes really means. 

I don’t think any of us can blame Peter for his eagerness, perhaps even for trying to assuage the guilt that has been weighing upon him since Jesus’ death. Because, just days before this scene, Jesus predicted that Peter, his rock, would deny him three times. Do you remember their conversation during the Last Supper? Peter asks Jesus where he is about to go. Jesus says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterwards.’ But, Peter pushes back asking, ‘Why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ And, Jesus answers, ‘Will you? Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.” Words can be cheap, especially when we don’t understand the fullness of their meaning. Of course, Jesus is right about Peter’s lapse of faith. Because of fear and confusion and doubt, Peter denies him, not once but three times. The shame of this failure must be fresh in Peter’s memory.

So back on the beach, Jesus asks the question for a second time. “Simon son of John, (listen to what I am saying to you) do you love me?” But, Peter is still eager. Driven by his need to say, “Yes,” he responds quickly, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” We can almost hear Peter’s annoyance growing. He already said “Yes” once. Why ask the question again? But Jesus knows Peter all too well, just as he knows us. He knows human weakness. He knows that our words easily slip off the tongue. He also knows that once the emotion has subsided, words can quickly be forgotten. In this moment when Peter says, “Yes, I love you,” he means it, or he thinks he means it. But, what about tomorrow and the next day and the day after that? What about when fear and doubt creep back into the equation? What about when his love is put to the test, when Peter is forced to face the crucibles of his life, or even, his death? Will he remember this moment on the beach when he said “Yes” and meant it? Will this memory be enough to keep him faithful?

This exchange couldn’t be forgotten, and this is what Jesus was counting on. Peter answered first with eagerness, then with a hint of annoyance, and finally a little hurt. As he answered, Jesus’ words sunk in. Do you love me... well then.. “Feed my lambs...” If you mean what you say.... “tend my sheep...” If you love me... “feed my sheep...” This is what love looks like. There is a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that, as a preacher especially, I always hold in the back of my mind, “Preach the gospel every day, but only if necessary use words.” If you really love me, Jesus says, don’t just talk about it. Live like it. Live your life as if loving me makes all the difference. Love is how you catch people. It’s how you spread the good news.

Jesus sees the future, what Peter can’t yet know or understand. He is like a wise father who looks at his young, innocent son, on one hand wanting to preserve his blissful ignorance but on the other hand wanting to prepare him for the storm that is coming. This is such a tender moment. Jesus knows what is next for Peter, the suffering that will transpire and eventually Peter’s death, and all because he has answered, “Yes” to this question. Some suggest that Jesus repeats his question three times to undo, one for one, Peter’s three denials. But, I wonder if he doesn’t ask his question, repeatedly because he wants Peter to comprehend, even if it is through a glass lit dimly, what he has gotten himself into. 

We know what is coming next for Peter? “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’” Jesus foretells Peter’s crucifixion.  He will not escape unscathed.

In a way though, none of us will escape this life unscathed. As much as this passage is about Peter, an unlikely “rock” who has good days and bad ones too, who is eager to be faithful and yet who struggles with following when fear and doubt cloud his vision, this passage is also about us. It is about the life of every disciple who says Yes to following Jesus, Yes to the perils of loving God and neighbor. Because there are good days and there are bad ones, too. There are times when we tend and feed sheep, when we provide food for a neighbor and her family who are all mourning the loss of a child, when we show up to the hospital to pray with a scared new mother whose baby is sick, when we knit a prayer shawl for a friend whose cancer has come back. This is tending and feeding. And, like Peter, we have other days, too, days that we are not proud of, when our fears and pains and disappointments prevent us from living out our love for Jesus. But no matter what, Jesus comes to us again and again, shepherding us along the way so that we will be ready for whatever may come next.

Jesus offers Peter a secret that morning on the beach. By tending and feeding sheep, by witnessing good news, reaching out to those who need us, by living our lives remembering that we are subject to one another, love can be sustained, even in the darkness. The acts of tending and nurturing each other give us the strength we will need to face our own crucibles, to be prepared for the day when we will reach out our own hands, allowing someone else to fasten our belt and lead us to a place which we may not be ready to go.

Jesus appears to Peter and to us, reminding each of us that all is never lost, no matter how far we have strayed, even if we have lost our way. We have been forgiven and called into ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths not yet trodden, and through perils unknown. But we leave this place with good courage, prepared to tend and feed, no matter where we may go, trusting that God’s hand is leading us all the way.

“Do you love me...” he asks us this question, too. Amen

Monday, April 8, 2013

Truth and Lies

“If my job requires me to withhold the whole truth, does that dishonesty still count as a sin?” I lost count of how many times one of my interrogators asked me this question, normally offline, around the smoke pit or in an anonymous corner of the dining facility. Occasionally, it was a question intended to stump me, or at least require some deft theological maneuvering. Most of the time, though, it was an honest question borne from a true tension which many of my soldiers felt every day when they talked to Afghan detainees and were required to develop relationships with them that were not altogether forthright. Soldiers don’t divulge information about their true identities during their interrogations. They don’t talk openly about their spouses or their children. They don’t tell their detainees where they were born or where they live now. They don’t even use their real name. It wouldn’t be safe or smart to do it any other way. However necessary it is to withhold information, the question remains, “Is this dishonestly sinful?” 

As a chaplain, my primary responsibilities are to conduct religious services and ensure that all service members, regardless of their faith background, have the freedom to practice their religion. I advise my commanders on issues of ethics, morality, and spiritual health, and offer counseling to service members who are struggling with a plethora of issues from family strife to trauma stemming from combat. Some days I talk extensively about God and pray about the fears which plague members of my unit. Most days, though, are less seeped in religious rhetoric. Instead, I find myself discussing the nuances which play out between the black and white lines of the military doctrine we are ordered to follow. Because my Soldiers have been trained to read beneath the surface and capitalize on subtlety, they are not easily convinced by rote explanations to complex questions. 

Over the year my unit was deployed to a detention facility in Afghanistan working as intelligence collectors, I never felt completely satisfied with my answer to their question about dishonesty. Is it or is it not a sin to lie, even when a lie may save a life? Normally, I would ramble on about how complicated this kind of question is. On one hand, a lie is a lie. Any falsehood, even when its purpose is saving lives or eradicating terror, is still dishonest. Ends don’t necessarily justify the means nor do they exonerate a perpetrator from facing consequences of his actions. Yet, some level of dishonesty seems to be a staple of human existence, even in the Bible. The Ten Commandments may instruct us not to bear false witness, but the Bible also regales stories where lying seems to be acceptable. Remember how Jacob lied to his father in order to steal a birthright and blessing away from his older brother, Esau. Because of his actions, Jacob ends up elect and favored. Dishonesty helped him get ahead, and instead of facing punishment, he gets to take his place among the greatest lineage in human history.

About halfway through our deployment, I along with an Air Force psychologist who was working with our interrogation teams, decided to address some of their questions pertaining to ethics. Convening a class on ethics in Human Intelligence Collection, we facilitated a discussion among our personnel who juggle personal convictions about morality with an often conflicting reality that the only way to get answers is to play with deceit. 

The first half of the class was a simple review of ethical systems. We talked about at the ethics spectrum from relativism to absolutism and discussed three theories of ethics: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue-based thinking. In each category, we looked at real world examples which are pertinent to the military community and conducting safe, legal, ethical, and effective Military Intelligence operations. From killing in combat to lying during an interrogation, we encouraged our soldiers to draw from their experiences as they broke into smaller groups and discussed the complexities of human intelligence collection.  

During the second part of the class, we discussed the challenges that arise when multiple systems of ethics converge. Throughout our deployment, we witnessed this in different ways. A detainee may have placed loyalty to family or tribe over a conflicting duty to tell the truth. An interrogator may choose not to lie to get particular answers because in his estimation the ends may not justify the means. We also noted that the Army’s system of ethics, though in part a blend of all three of these theories, drew heavily upon a Virtue-Based ethics model, evidenced in its core values, seven principles by which all Soldiers aspire to operate. 

The most compelling example of conflicting ethical systems that many of us witnessed while in Afghanistan took place at a local hospital. I organized a visit so that members of our unit would have the opportunity to interact with Afghan civilians and give blankets, sweaters, and other warm winter items to the children who were getting treatment. Our first attempt to give things away nearly devolved into a riot. Children were grabbing whole armfuls of knitted hats and gloves and seemed ready to trample each other so that they could get first pick of what we were offering. Mothers pinched their babies to make them cry so that they would be sent to the front of the line. We got the impression that the children would have said or done anything just for the chance to walk away with something. They placed highest value on the opportunity to get something which might help them and their family survive the cold winter, even if it meant jumping the line and taking from other children. 

Many of us were shocked by this behavior. We had never seen, firsthand, the kind of desperation and poverty which drove these children. Yet, this experience also helped my Soldiers understand the background from which their detainees originated. Though interrogators may be trained in detecting lies, having a greater understanding of what motivates their detainees to lie in the first place helped them hone their skills. 

No matter how lengthy a Soldier’s career has been in human intelligence collection, every good interrogator must continually strive for self-awareness, always knowing where the line between “self” and “interrogator” lies. Because this line is often blurred and Soldiers wrestle with the heaviness of their work, good leadership and guidance is always imperative. Wisdom comes most often from more experienced interrogators and warrant officers who have had to maintain this balance as a part of their career. Commanders provide mentoring which guides Soldiers as they negotiate challenging scenarios. I hope, at least occasionally, this needed guidance even comes from the chaplain. 

My theological training did not fully prepare me to tackle some of the questions Soldiers throw my way, but I know that I don’t answer them alone or in a vacuum. Instead, I join an effort of many who aim to uphold values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage while also trying to protect the world from those who play by different rules. Those engaged in this calling aren’t looking for easy answers. They know easy answers don’t exist. Rather, they are ready to ask the hard questions and tackle the complexities.  A good interrogator recognizes the importance of the questions but also, even more importantly, the necessity of listening well for the answers. For imbedded in the bramble of truths and lies and everything between is intelligence which can save lives.  

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Lord is Risen Indeed, Alleluia

After quite a few long weeks of chocolate deprivation, the seasons have shifted. With three egg hunts in the span of a week, it’s hard to miss Easter’s coming, even if you are not a part of a faith community. Easter sunday gets the most attention of all the services of Holy Week. However, many who participate in the fullness of the days which take us from the foot of the cross all the way to the empty tomb, prefer the quiet reflection of the somber services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. 

This past Thursday, as members of my own church community sat around tables, sharing a simple meal of almonds, dates, grapes, and pita bread, we were each asked to reflect on a time when we witnessed the love of Christ. Not everyone had a chance to share, but even a small sampling of our different experiences of God’s radical love, was a reminder that the only was to really understand the resurrection is to engage with the crucifixion. I say this because most of the people who had the courage to talk about their experience of the love of Christ didn’t describe easy, uncomplicated moments of joy. From affirming the love of a husband who has nursed his spouse through countless reoccurrences of cancer to mentions of jail ministries or dealing with a family member suffering with drug addiction, all of the examples shared were an intermingling pain and sadness which, despite suffering, held glimmers of hope, just enough to keep everyone going. 

Over the weekend, I have reflected on my own answer to this question. An image of my father, sitting at a table across from me at our local Baskin Robbins, kept coming to mind. He had a cut on his forehead, and I remember thinking that he looked smaller than I remembered when I left for college at the beginning of the semester. A few days earlier, in a fit of rage, my brother had struck my father on the head. The police were called in and eventually took my brother to jail for assault. Baskin Robbins was my version of neutral ground since I refused to go home. With my brother removed from the scene, there was no reason for me to be afraid. Nonetheless, I didn’t want to face the rock bottom that my father was living. It was easier to stay away. 

I don’t think I was very good at being a sibling, even before my brother’s struggles with mental illness and drug addiction. Family members don’t really know what to do when things fall apart, particularly when they are no longer living at home and participating in day to day activities. From a few states away, it was easy for me to have an opinion about how my parents should react to my brother when he started going down a precarious path toward alcohol and drugs. Having just experienced high school drama, I warned my parents that things could get really bad, but as most parents of teenaged children do, they didn’t really know how to decelerate the train once it started rolling. We watched, paralyzed, as my brother’s life devolved. 

It is what followed in the next five or so years which has given me perhaps the greatest personal example of God’s radical love shared from a father to a son. Since that day in Baskin Robbins, the image of my battered father, his own moment of crucifixion, has been backdrop of their relationship in my eyes. From a safe distance, I have watched my father search the earth for treatment facilities and programs which might afford my brother a real chance at recovery. My father was willing to risk both financial and personal distress, much to my dismay, even at the slightest glimmer of hope. I couldn’t understand his dogged persistence, but on the other hand, I am only a sister and not a father. 

For many years, I believed that lasting recovery was not possible. Mostly I was too afraid to open my heart to the disappointment I feared would be inevitable. I had already decided that my brother would never get better. Yet, after quite a few failed attempts and even more moments of backsliding, my brother celebrated his first year of being substance free. It’s been almost five years. A few Easters ago, a pastor friend asked me what resurrection looked like in my life. I didn’t need time to think. My brother’s life immediately came to mind.  What was all but dead, now had new life; what was once lost, had been found. 

We have seen the radical love of God through the gracious care of fathers to son, daughters to ailing mothers, between neighbors, strangers, and friends and in so many other places. This past week, we encountered it at the cross. We journey through Holy Week to be reminded that life is often marked with pain and grief, no matter the darkness, resurrection always promises to follow. 

Alleluia, the Lord has risen. The Lord has risen indeed, Alleluia. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Gratitude: My Lenten Failure

       Lenten disciplines are similar to dieting. It’s easy to start off strong, invigorated by the prospect of making a real change. Yet, when the impact of the sacrifice isn’t as fast or obvious as we might hope, keeping up with the discipline becomes more of a challenge. A little cheat here and another there and the slippery slope takes over. Some Lents I have done better than others, particularly when giving up something manageable. But, in the years that I have vowed to take on something more than just deprive myself of m&ms or diet coke, I inevitably have a point of total failure. This was my week to fail.

Early in the year before Lent was underway, I realized that I was in need of an attitude adjustment. The glass was half empty a lot more than in was half full, a perspective I have rarely succumbed to. Nonetheless, I wasn’t feeling very grateful. I was focused on all that was wrong instead of what was good, all the blessings that sustained me in the midst of a challenging adjustment after my deployment. Lent could not have come at a better time. This Lent was going to be all about remembering gratitude.

It’s easy to want to live more gratefully, but the practice of gratitude has to translate to something tangible otherwise it’s too theoretical of a discipline to actually do. Years ago I prayed for a different person each day and wrote them a letter. It worked, at least most of Lent. So, a letter of gratitude each day seemed like plausible. My forty days of wilderness started off well. I didn’t miss any days, and wrote even when I was falling asleep and my penmanship was abysmal. Many of the people early on my list were easy to write to so most of the time I wanted to write. It wasn’t a chore. 

A week or so into it, I would miss a day here and there, but make up for it by writing two letters in a day. The recipients would never know the difference, so what would it really hurt. Sometimes I would miss two days, but always by the end of the week, I would be totally caught up and ready for the next round. I should have realized that my slips would eventually get the best of me. This week was a complete fail. I wrote no letters. I didn’t practice gratitude at all.

I have been disappointed with myself throughout the day, particularly because I have no real excuse for my failure. I had plenty of time, in fact more time than in other weeks. Yet, I experienced what happens to many of us when our disciplines don’t take priority. After a while, it becomes easier and easier to forget them, often not even intentionally. They fade so far into the backdrop of our lives that they are hardly left on the radar. We find ourselves back where we started in the first place, in need once more of some real perspective.

I have always loved Lent because it is a season which helps us get back on the wagon. Because it’s got a beginning and an ending it is also easier to make a commitment. The hope is that the practice over forty days and night might become a real fixture in our daily living. I am sure for some this works. As a Lenten failure, I know that my struggle for gratitude will only intensify once Easter has come and gone. And, at this rate, I will likely have multiple letters left to write, too. 

Throughout this week, the National Public Radio station have been highlighting stories from service members who served in Iraq. When one female Soldier was asked what she missed most about her combat tour, she said, “Being grateful, every day, for my life.” It shouldn’t take a deployment to make space for that kind of perspective, but I know that I rarely give thanks for that profound yet simple gift. Despite my Lenten failing, I still want to live more gratefully. In the end, I know it is a practice that leads to faithfulness, and I have a long way to go. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

“Lost and Found”

Chaplain Mel Baars
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
March 10, 2013
Have you ever heard of the get to know you, ice breaker “Desert Island?” There are many versions of this game, but all of them boil down to answering this question. If you were stranded on a desert island, and you could bring ONE thing, what would it be? What each person picks is supposed to shed light onto who exactly they are. When I was in college, getting to know my dorm mates, answers would range from “make up,” or “my hair dryer,” to “my 3 inch black patten-leather stilettos.” None were very practical for deserted island living.

When I got to seminary, there was ONE item that everybody said they would choose. I am sure you could all guess the one thing a pastor would at least say he or she would bring... This is your hint: it starts with In the beginning.... Over the course of school, whenever we had to play this game, answering, “The Bible,” became forbidden. It was too obvious and easy and boring an answer since everyone felt obligated to say it, so they wouldn’t look less devoted than the other aspiring pastors sitting next to them. But one time, when we were in a small group, using this exercise to get to know one another, the group leader asked the question differently. She said, “If you could only bring one part of scripture, one story from the Bible, which would it be?” Essentially, what is your favorite Bible passage? A lot of people struggled to pick just one. I had no issue whatsoever, then or now. I would always pick “The Prodigal Son.”

I know it’s not just me. This story is a favorite of many. Just the other night I was discussing this passage with a colleague, and she told me about a man who didn’t know the Bible. When he heard the story of the Prodigal Son for the first time he said, “Wait, how did they do it? This is exactly what has happened in my family. This is my story.” Most of us see ourselves somewhere in this tale, somewhere on the spectrum between the waywardness of the younger son and the self-righteousness of the older one. This is why the story is so powerful. It is our story, the human story—perhaps this is why, for some of us, it is also difficult to read. In this parable parable Jesus illuminates some of the worst characteristics of human thought, word, and deed-- from greed and licentiousness and selfishness to jealousy and entitlement and hardheartedness. When we hear the ugly details, we see glimpses of ourselves.

The Prodigal son is just one story in a series of parables that Jesus tells about about lost things which include the parable of the Lost Sheep and of the Lost Coin. In all three, we encounter a principle character who represents God, the father, the shepherd or the woman, who is willing to go any distance to find what has been lost, even at the expense of other valuable possessions. Perhaps the Lost Sheep articulates this most vividly. The shepherd who goes out to find one lost sheep, leaving the other 99 behind. It has always been hard for me to wrap my brain around this. Those poor other sheep. Weren’t they vulnerable too? Didn’t they need their shepherd? Wasn’t it irresponsible to leave them all behind, susceptible to a plethora of threats, just for the one? I guess it’s a good thing that Jesus is our shepherd and not me.

In our story, the father seems borderline irresponsible. When his son asks for his half of the inheritance, the father grants his wish. He didn’t have to. It was within his rights as patriarch to say no, only over my cold, dead body. But, that is not how the father works. The son asks, and he gives. It’s a little like the concept of free will. The father realizes that this may not end well for his younger son, but he gives anyway. Yet, nothing is compared to what the father does when his younger son returns. He hands over his finest robe and butchers the fatted calf and throws one heck of a party.

Not only had the property been diminished by half but also, with this generous gesture, some of the remaining “best” assets are given to this younger son. These things, whatever was left over, were all supposed to go to the older son who at this point has gotten nothing. No wonder he is mad. It’s not fair. It doesn’t make any sense. I personally have a lot of sympathy for the older son because I get his frustration. I think he gets painted pretty harshly as if he has only been a dutiful son all his life just to get the family money.

But, I am willing to bet this older son was a decent guy. Always faithful to his father, not just because there was going to be a reward one day, but because good sons honor their fathers. They fall in step. They do their part. He had stood by his dad, even when he made the not so prudent choice to give away half his land, but this homecoming celebration was over the top. It was the last straw. The older son can’t even bring himself to say “my brother” and instead says, spitefully, “that son of yours.” No longer claiming kinship, the older son succumbs to hate and jealousy. This is his real sin, severing his relationship with his brother. I have heard it said before that to cut oneself off from another person is to kill them metaphorically. When someone says, “He is dead to me,” isn’t this what they have done?

One son makes poor choices and when he hits rock bottom, realizes the gravity of his mistakes. He turns back. The other son does it all “right” but not totally for the right reasons. Neither are all bad or all good. Both are very human. We should expect nothing less from them. But, it’s what comes at the end of the story that really matters. The party is going on inside the house and the older son is standing outside, unwilling to join in. From inside the party, the father realizes that his older son is missing, so he goes out to find him, again seeking what has been lost. The father pleads that he come inside. The father and the older son are on two different wave lengths. The older son makes some very relevant points about how impractical this party is after all the younger son has put them through. The father doesn’t disagree with him. He just says, “Your brother was lost but now he has been found. For this, we had no choice but to rejoice.” The father isn’t keeping score. He isn’t concerned about what kind of treatment the younger son may deserve. Something that was lost has been found. No matter the history, this is always worth a celebration.

A few years ago, when I was a chaplain at a VA hospital, one of my patients, a Korean vet, told me how The Prodigal Son was his story. He had been a rambunctious teenager, bringing both sadness and shame to his parents. He just couldn’t wait to leave home for better places, and so he enlisted in the Army and found himself on a boat out to Korea. For years, he didn’t communicate to his parents. As most know who have gone off to war, while there are moments of chaos, there is also a lot of time to think. As the months went by, he started thinking about how good his home had been and how he had really messed things up with his dad. He realized that if he ever made it out of Korea, he was going to go home and ask forgiveness. When the war ended, he made the long journey back home. When he got to his town, he had to take the bus out to a state road which would take him home. It was about a mile from the bus stop to his driveway. As he got closer, he saw that his father was standing at the end of the driveway waiting for him. You see, every day, about the time his father knew the bus would stop along the highway, he would go out to the end of the driveway to watch for his son, hoping it would be the day when he finally came home. When they saw one another that day, they ran and embraced. What was lost, had been found, and they rejoiced, no strings attached.

As much as this story is about human wrongdoing, it is, most importantly, about God, about God’s generosity despite what we may deserve. This is a parable about God’s love which is deeper and wider than we can ever fathom. God’s dogged persistence which beckons us to come home, no matter how far we have strayed or how long we have been away. God’s boundless love. For “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.” This is just how God is to each of us, and not just once, but again and again and again and again, until we have all been found, every last one of us.

You know, we don’t really know the rest of the story, how it all ends. Does the older son get over his anger in time to join the party? Some days I think he may have been moved by his father’s plea. Other days I think he remained out there on the fringe, unwilling to let go of his resentment. But isn’t this also how it is for us? Some days we are stuck, unable to get over our hurt. But other days, our better ones, we find ways to let go, to love despite the hurt and join the party. None of us are ever forced to go inside, but the invitation is always on the table. God is hosting the party for all of us for we, too, had been lost and have been found.  Amen