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Monday, November 21, 2016

November 20, 2016 Christ the King Sunday

Gospel: Luke 23:33-43 
1st Reading: Jeremiah 23:1-6
2nd Reading: Colossians 1:11-20

We were talking about how busy families are these days, and one of the neighboring pastors told us a little story. He was visiting one of those busy families and they had five calendars stuck to their refrigerator. One schedule for the mom and one for the dad and one each for the two children. In the center of all four was the church calendar. The pastor was really touched. This was a family they saw at some church activity about once a month, but they had placed that calendar in the center so they could remember they were part of something bigger than themselves and to remind themselves of priorities and their church family.

That got me to wondering what God's calendar looks like. There are some who want God's calendar to be full of things like “Smite my enemies,” or “Find me a parking spot."

However, God's leadership model seems to be more like a shepherd's calendar, like in the first reading for this morning. Guide the sheep to green pastures, keep watch for wolves, clean and bind any wounds on the sheep, stay near the flock. The Israelites wanted a king, begged God for a king. They wanted someone to further their interests, to give them military power, and to lead them to greatness. They wanted a strong leader. Their calendar was full of efforts to this end.

However, God was trying to talk them out of it. Like we tried to explain to Sterling when he begged and begged us to buy him Magic Tracks, it is a cheap toy that doesn't last very long. It breaks easily. Same with the King. It usually doesn't go very well. And as sure as most of the Israelite Kings were crooks which needed to be returned to the store, I found myself in Walmart, exchanging Magic Tracks within one week, because the gears of the car were broken. 

It turns out that God's interests and priorities are very different from human interests and priorities. God has little interest in strength and might where people force others to do what they want them to. God is interested in all God's creation and the well being of each creature, so is more interested in sharing power and making sure each one is cared for and receiving basic needs for abundant life.

The last thing the Israelites expected to see on their Messiah's calendar was “Get arrested,” “Be mocked,” or “Die on the cross.” The leaders stood there mocking him, saying, “He saved others, let him save himself.” They thought saving himself would be a priority on Jesus' calendar. 

But Jesus showed us from the very beginning of his ministry that wasn't the kind of leader he would be. Do you remember when he was tempted in the wilderness after his baptism? He hadn't eaten a bite in 40 days and Satan encouraged him to make bread out of stones. But Jesus pointed out that one doesn't live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Jesus didn't put it on his calendar to save himself or avoid suffering, however if there was a crowd to feed, he put that on his calendar more than once. 

Sometimes Christians believe that to be Christian is to avoid suffering, that we should be spared pain, and even that God promises that to us. We know that God promises us life everlasting and abundant life. We may picture any number of wonders and pleasures in heaven, in the Paradise that Jesus promises to the thief on the cross. 

However, Jesus' life teaches us that we don't get special treatment or an easier life because we are Christian. Jesus is our example. He was born in a stable, he didn't have a fancy cradle. He was a traveling preacher, having nowhere to lay his head, often frustrated with his disciples, unconcerned about earthly comforts or riches or power. He didn't need to be treated as more important than other people, maybe because he was fully aware of who he was as the Son of God. We don't need that either. We are God's people—will always be children of God. That doesn't give us any special status or guarantee us an easier life. It does mean we have the comfort of knowing that God is with us even when we find ourselves suffering.

The danger of believing that we should have it easier, if God loves us, is that when we see someone else suffering, we might be tempted to believe they are getting what they deserve. Jesus helped point out again and again the falsehood of that kind of thinking. Remember when someone asked him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus replied, “Neither this man's sin or that of his parents caused this.” Instead think of this is an opportunity to behold the glory of God, and then Jesus heals the man of his blindness.

Jesus didn't just suffer for suffering's sake. He faced pain because he spoke out against the injustices in his day. He spoke up because the rules against picking even a single stalk of wheat on the sabbath were hurting people who were hungry. He spoke up because people were ready to throw stones at a woman, when they had all committed similar sins. He spoke up when children were pushed aside, when the word of God was misused to keep people down, and when people were rejected by society for arbitrary reasons. He spoke up and he paid the price for crossing those in power. However, the pain he faced on the cross was nothing compared to the pain he felt every time he encountered injustice. Because he was so uncomfortable with the world as it was, the way the powers of this world benefitted some at the expense of others, the way the powers of this world crushed vulnerable people, made their lives miserable and cut their lives short, because of this he had to speak up. This speaking up made him a target, by those who wanted to keep the system benefitting a few, and so he was tortured and executed to try to shut him up. 

This is the kind of King Jesus is for us. As one who created this world, he was in pain seeing this world misused, so far from the vision he had for it from the beginning. He could not remain silent or removed. He walked alongside all those whom this world rejected and he paid dearly with his life. The way he was killed was meant to intimidate anyone else threatening the powers of this world—this is what is in store for you, too, if you stand up and express the pain this world brings and stand with those who are hurting and oppressed and dare to say, “This isn't right!” Many of this world's injustices do benefit you and me. We are so removed from the pain we benefit from that often we are unaware. That is why it is important for us to walk side by side with people who are less powerful than we are and to understand their lives and what they go through. 

Pain isn't the only thing on our calendar, though. Pain isn't where we stay. Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Paradise—it sounds so good. When the Israelites were asking for a King, paradise was what they wanted to create for themselves—a realm where their interests were furthered, where peace reigned for them, where they would prosper and grow. When Jesus promises paradise, he pictures the Garden of Eden. Paradise is the original view of creation—all creatures in balance, God walking with people, everything created beautiful and good, relationships flourishing, all creatures fruitful and multiplying. But as humans grasped at power, like Adam and Eve in the garden eating of the tree to gain power for themselves, like the kings using force to gain power to further their own interests, like any of us trying to get our way at the expense of someone else, we fell into sin and brokenness and this world was not like the one God created in a lot of ways.

So here's Jesus. Paradise, in his mind, isn't for the few. On the last day of his calendar, he has a vision coming true for all of us. It is abundant life and the interests of all God's creation, and the flourishing of all life. And so pain isn't the vision we're left with, it is part of the path that Jesus walks to bring us Paradise, and the path we walk as Jesus followers as he brings justice and peace and paradise to all that he has created. In some ways, God is still creating us, making us a new people whose priorities are not just ourself anymore, but closer match God's own priorities.

According to my calendar, it is Christ the King Sunday. Christ is our King, not President Obama, not President elect Trump, not fear, not any other ruler but Christ. So pull out your calendars, and put there some opportunities to speak against the powers of death in this world that crush people. Come and volunteer at the pantry. Stand side by side with people who are hungry and hear their stories of pain. Come to our next Social Justice meeting December 13 at 3 pm or our next Clackamas Housing team meeting December 15 at 2 pm at Milwaukie Lutheran, find yourself a soup kitchen to volunteer at, or head down to the senior center and sit with someone who is lonely, visit someone with me this month who is homebound from our congregation. You will find pain there, but you will also find joy and paradise and love and understanding. You will find the Kingdom of God because Jesus' reign has begun.

Monday, November 14, 2016

November 13, 2016

Gospel: Luke 21:5-19 
1st Reading: Malachi 4:1-2a
2nd Reading: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

I've mentioned before that I'm not so good at transitions, at changing gears. I have learned the same is true of young children. We give a ten minute warning before we go anywhere. We give a ten minute warning before we expect toys to start to be cleaned up. We give a ten minute warning before meals, before bathtime, and so on, so our guy can adjust to what is coming next.

And at the end of the day, we transition. On an ideal night, usually while we get pajamas on, we spend some time talking about lessons learned, people we met, what was fun and what was difficult. We take some time for appreciations. I try to tell Sterling that I was proud when he took some action or another, or when he was kind. I thank him for good behavior. I am sure to tell him he is loved. And then we talk about what tomorrow will bring. What kind of a day will it be? Will it be a preschool day or mommy/Sterling day or mommy/daddy/Sterling day, or church day? Will we be going anywhere in particular, or need to get up early? Should we lay some clothes out or make any other preparations?

In our country, we are at a transition. Some of us would be more comfortable if tomorrow didn't look so different from today, and some of us are rejoicing that tomorrow will be different from today. Some of us are afraid the sun is setting on compassion, a stable economy, and respect. Others of us are pleased the sun is setting on government insiders and entitlements. We have some major changes ahead. 

The reading from the Old Testament, this morning talks about the coming day. The sun is setting on evildoers and the arrogant. The Israelites are in Babylon, in exile. They want the sun to set on their current chapter, but it also means the sun setting on almost everything they've ever known. A generation has passed, and they are there in Babylon, so integrated that they use imagery of the Babylonian god, a solar disk with wings, when they picture the next chapter of their lives, “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”

“The day is surely coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all the evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up.” The temptation is to put everyone who disagrees with us in this category of arrogant evildoers. However, I had to think during my post election shock, that maybe I had been the arrogant one. I hadn't prepared myself for this outcome. All of us do evil. All of us are arrogant in various amounts. But the good news here is that evil won't last. That part of us will have to go away. It will be removed by life experience, by falling, by unexpected turns of events. That part of us that does evil and hurts those around us will not last. The sun will set on that part of all of us. But the sun doesn't set without rising again. The sun of righteousness shall rise. In the Old Testament reading, they use the imagery of the rising sun to talk about God and the healing God offers. When the sun comes up, it is a new day. New possibilities emerge, hope continues. Isn't that gorgeous imagery of the sun of righteousness, God, rising with healing in its wings, soaring, inspiring, flying free?

In the reading from 2 Thessalonians, the sun is setting on idleness. The people of that time and place thought the second coming would be any day now, so some of them were just waiting it out, sitting around. But they were missing out on contributing toward Kingdom work, bringing God's Kingdom in by their actions. They were missing out on a key experience of the body of Christ, Christian community, when they were sitting around. Community is built in shared experiences, and some were refusing to participate. 

“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” In some ways, I feel like the election was trying to affirm this value. It seemed to be a reaction against undocumented immigration, and welfare, and foodstamps, so-called free-loaders. The ones who were sitting idle in the Thessalonians reading, though, were the rich. They weren't used to doing work. They had servants for that. They thought it was below them. Paul knew they had something to learn by working and to share the burden of the cost but also the work. When we work, when stand side by side ladling soup into a bowl for the homeless families served by the SON network, or with pruners on church cleanup day, or sharing the bread and wine on Sunday morning, or with a clean pair of socks, washing the feet of someone who is unloved, we are joined in Christ's body in a new way, and healing does rise on those wings of the sun of righteousness.

“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Children are idle, should they not eat? The elderly are occasionally idle, should they not eat? Would we not feed our pets, because they do not work? No one would be so cruel. Some people have given up on looking for a job, because no one will consider them, and are idle because they are discouraged. I talk to Janis, there is no housing in her price range, not even as far away as Vernonia. She hasn't given up yet, but she sure feels like it. To all these, Jesus says, “Come to the table of mercy and share my body and blood.” The truth is, we are all free-loaders. We all benefit from workers being paid less than what they need to live. We benefit from undocumented workers picking our fruits and vegetables and nuts and yet we send them a strong message they aren't welcome here by our votes, and perhaps now we will see what our country is like without them. 

We are all free-loaders, since we are created by God. Did any of us make ourselves? We are all here by the grace of God. We are all children of God, we are all loved by God. And we are free-loaders, as Christians. We don't get God's love by working. We didn't die for our own sins or each others. God did all the work of creating this world. We are doing all the work of destroying it. Jesus did all the work of giving us an example of God's love embodied and lived. Jesus did all the work of dying on the cross. We all sit idle at the foot of the cross, because ultimately we are helpless. But that is good news, too. Christ loves us helpless ones and claims us all as God's children.

Finally we come to the Gospel. Here is the temple—so inspiring, so beautiful. But Jesus only sees a pile of stones. He doesn't see why people are so proud. This is a temporary structure and doesn't matter compared to everything else. He knows that temple was built on the backs of everyday people. He knows the earth was torn apart to make it. He knows what bodies were crushed under stones to move them to that location. He was there when the rocks were formed. He is not impressed. He says, “Big deal!” You're focussed on the wrong things! Look around you at the people God is making God's temple. Treat them as well as you do this pile of rocks. This is where you find God, in one another, and especially in those you've disregarded. Of course, Luke wrote this after the temple was destroyed. Jesus is reassuring the early Christians Luke was addressing everyone that the end of the temple is not the end of God's reign or God's love. And he's reminding us not to put our trust in buildings. That's not what God's church is about, not what God's love is about.

Both sides in this election have been saying, “If the other candidate wins, that's going to be the end of the world.” These readings fall at the end of the church year (did you know we are in a transition in the church year, too. The beginning of the church year is in 2 weeks), and point to the end times which will herald Jesus' return. We are at an end, the sun is setting on something. Something is ending—maybe just the current Presidential coming to the end of his term, maybe more. Something is rising—and I won't let it be hatred and fear, for me. The first thing we did Wednesday morning before Bible Study was to pray together. Maybe the sun is rising on our own penitence, turning us in prayer toward God, opening our eyes and hearts in devotion.

What is surely rising is God's love and healing. That is the promised outcome. I am standing here in the rubble, the stones have fallen of the temples I have built to my own ideas. God never needed those stacks of rocks. God just wants to love us and to bring in the Kingdom so that everyone would experience God's love. Whatever is coming next, I hereby re-commit myself to working for the Kingdom. Where there is hatred, I will strive to be loving. Where vulnerable people are insulted and attacked, I will stand up for them. Where our planet is being pillaged, I will work to build up. Where families are torn apart, I will shelter them. Where people are told they are nobodies, I will remind each one, you are a child of God, loved by God, claimed and valued, you are part of the body of Christ, one with us and with Christ who is rising with healing in his wings. But not just me, but our congregation, our neighbors, all those who believe in the power of love and the power of God. 

At this transition, let us look back on lessons learned. Let us show appreciation to one another. And let us look ahead with hope, prepared to act on behalf of the poor and neglected, as Jesus would.

So, we turn now, to a remembrance of baptism, to remind ourselves who we are, children of God, and to remember that we don't belong to one party or nation or race, but we are one in Christ Jesus, our Savior.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

All Saints Day 2016

All our lives people try to tell us what really matters, what is most important.
Sometimes they say what is most important is having lots of money.
Sometimes they say what is most important is having lots of really yummy food.
Sometimes they say what is most important is having lots of nice clothes.
Sometimes they say what is most important is people saying lots of nice things about you.
All of those things are nice to have, but God says they are not most important.

In fact they can get in the way of our faith in God.
If we have lots of great stuff, we may think that we don't need God, that we can get what we want all by ourselves. We might run out of places to put things. We might not have in mind other people's needs who don't have enough food. We might be so busy trying to impress other people that we forget what impresses God.

God isn't impressed by money or food or clothes because God knows they don't last. Food gets eaten or rots, money gets spent and people aren't any happier, and we outgrow our clothes. 

Do you know the one thing we never outgrow? God's love. God has always loved you and always will. Love is the one thing that lasts, that we never outgrow, that everyone has.

God asks us be loving, too. That's why we say that God lives in our hearts, because that is where we say our loving comes from.

What are some ways to be loving? To share, to take turns, to let someone else have a chance to shine
(Share a way we've seen each child being loving.)

Sometimes people tell us that what is most important is being strong. Sometimes another child might hurt others on the playground, or hit someone to show their strength. Jesus tells us that isn't most important either. Remember God loves you and you don't deserve to be treated like that. Jesus asks to be loving, but also doesn't say to let them keep attacking us.

I wonder if we could think of some loving ways to respond to someone who hits us or tries to hurt us.

Tell an adult. When someone hurts you, I want you to be sure to tell an adult that you trust, like your teacher or your parents. That is loving because an adult might be able to teach the child a better way to communicate.

Find a way to be safe. Maybe spending time with different friends who treat you better. That is loving to yourself and that's good too.

Stay calm and confident, if you can. Maybe the most shocking thing to a bully is to let them know they don't scare you. Remember, you have what is most important and that is God's love. Don't let them ruin your day.

Today is All Saints Day. All of you are Saints. Saints are the people in our lives who have helped to teach us about what is most important, God's love. There are saints who are living, right here in this room, but there are also saints who have died who are with God. We can't see them anymore, but they are in our hearts whenever we remember them. I invite some folks in the congregation to share a little something they've learned from one of the saints they love. 

Each person who shares receives a paper heart. This is a reminder that the saints remain in our hearts and of God's love for all of God's children.

Reformation Day 2016

Gospel: John 8:31-36 
1st Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
2nd Reading: Romans 3:19-28

Reform us, O God, reform us.

You made us very good, O God, in your image, generous and caring and compassionate, a beautiful creation working together with every other part. And you created us to be in relationship with you. But you also did not make us robots. You gave us free will, so we would be free to make our own choices. This freedom sometimes causes us great joy and sometimes causes us great harm. We give you thanks O God that we have minds of our own, that life is more interesting because it could go any number of directions, and that you stay in relationship with us, even when we wander away.

You made this beautiful child, Pepper. She reminds us of more innocent times, when life was simpler. She is certainly in your image, O God, good and loving and curious and creative, but as she moves through life, we teach her our bad habits. Her choices are currently mostly about getting her own needs met, which she needs to survive. She also already shows compassion and forgiveness to family and friends and acquaintances and strangers. We will try to guide her by being good examples, by teaching her our values of love and forgiveness, by reading to her stories from the Bible and helping her to understand the faith journey of those who have gone before and sharing the love of Jesus with her. Yet she will see that we make compromises, that we break your laws, that we are hypocrites. She will decide for herself, as she grows, which paths to take. She will bump up against decisions that don't have a right answer, in which someone will get hurt either way. She will take paths when the consequences aren't clear, otherwise she will be choosing to be paralyzed, which is a damaging path all on its own. She is beautiful and made in your image and will experience great joy in life and hopefully even change the world for the better, and she will bump up against people who will hurt her feelings, whose waste of resources make her life harder, who tempt her to go against her values, and she will sin and she will fall and she will have wounds and brokenness and eventually she will die. This is the path of all of us. But you will never abandon her, O God. That's your promise. You never abandon us. You continue to write your love upon our hearts and be our God, no matter how many times we go astray or ignore you or break your covenant. 

We pray to you, whatever stage we are in life, to make a new covenant with us and reform us, O God, reform us.

You made your church, O God, of people—came among us as Jesus to be the head of the church. It started out a bunch of bumbling Disciples, people who knew your Son, people who wanted to hand down the stories so people would know your love for us through the life and death of Jesus. Sometimes the church was on track and sometimes it was not revealing your love and life. We give you thanks for the reformer Martin Luther, who spoke out against injustice in his time, the sin of the church which was charging people for salvation, taking the free gift of God's love and grace, and making people pay to spring their loved ones from purgatory into heaven. The church was not reflecting your love—it was too busy building fancy cathedrals, elevating corrupt clergy, and keeping the poor and illiterate afraid and ignorant. So at great risk to himself, because he couldn't participate in a system like this without endangering his soul or misusing the Gospel, Martin Luther spoke up. He tried to start a dialog. Many priests, several kings and princes, and many regular folks joined him in the dialogue. The Pope and those in power tried to squelch the conversation, excommunicated him, and called for his execution. 

Today, we are proud of our history, but we cannot boast. It is excluded. We all fall short. You call us to repentance, again and again, to turn around, to be aware of our sins and errors, and to follow your Gospel way. Your servant, Martin Luther said that we must always be reforming, finding the injustices that we all participate in, the way we enslave and injure one another, the ways we deny the Gospel by our actions, and we must reform to better reflect your love and speak it clearly in our context to those who need it most.

Our congregation doesn't purposely injure anyone, but we are a long way from what you taught us. We have rooms downstairs in this building that sit empty, not serving those in need. We use language in worship that isn't straight-forward to people of our time. We use energy to heat this building that pollutes the earth and makes people sick. We expect people to come to us to hear the Gospel, when you told us to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” We worship our own comfort, our money, our nice cars and clothes, our cupboards full of food. We mistake these for salvation and signs of your favor. Reform us, O God, reform us.

God, you created the heavens and earth beautiful and very good. This part of the world is especially beautiful to us—the green hills, the mountains, the rivers, the birds, the fish. And yet we lament the death of hundreds of species a day because of our carelessness and selfishness. We lament the pouring of poisons into our air and water. We lament the depletion of the soil, the handing over of power over our crops to a few corporations who do not have the best interest of your planet in mind. The poor bear the brunt of our ruin of your good creation, while the rich can move places that are cleaner and dump their waste far away. We lament our indifference, our helplessness, our unwillingness to be inconvenienced in order to renew creation so that life may abound, so that our children won't have to fight each other for the few resources that are left, so that Pepper can live in freedom and hope.
Reform us, O God, reform us.

God, you created us and the church and this world, this universe good. Yet, we all have sinned and fall short of your glory. And so our mouths are silenced, every mouth. What can we say, when we have broken the covenant, when we have betrayed your trust, when we have divorced you in order to follow others? We have no excuse. We have nothing to boast about.

Into this silence, God finally gets a word in edgewise. God says to us, “I will make a new covenant with you. I will be your God, and you will be my people, and I will forgive you and love you.”

In Romans God says to us that God doesn't give us the commandments so that we can brag that we fulfilled them all, but so that we realize how helpless we are and turn to God for help. All have fallen short, all have sinned, all are wounded. So all are granted a free gift, God's love, God's forgiveness, relationship with God. All fall short: all are justified by God's grace as a gift. “Justified” is an unfamiliar word. In this case, it means to declare innocent or guiltless; absolve; acquit. We are acquitted because of God's grace. 

We all fall short. No one can brag or say they are better than anyone else. We all are acquitted, so we can't put anybody down. All are acquitted, not only the person who sinned worse than you sitting here in this room, or the other Christians who are mean and ruin it for the rest of us. All these are now justified, acquitted, but also included are Muslims and Jewish people, agnostics and athiests and Humanists, the rich and poor, the old and young, Republicans, Democrats, Green Party, Libertarians, and Independents. We know Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and we know that even they are justified by God's grace as a gift. God claims absolutely everyone. Some say those other groups are left out because the Bible says here this is through faith in Jesus Christ, so it depends on our faith. However, verse 22 can also be translated this way, “through the faith of Jesus Christ.” Therefore it might not be our faith that does it, which we know waivers and isn't that reliable, and it seems more likely to me that it is the faith of Jesus Christ, which is strong and true which assures our place in God's family.

When we read this scripture, we are reminded that none of us can earn God's love, and that we all fall short. We find out that he loves, forgives, and accepts us as his own. Then we learn that everyone else is in the same boat, so when we meet other people on the journey of life, we would do well to see them as our equal, rather than boast or put them down. We are invited instead to see them as a child of God, just like we are.

We have been slaves to sin and all this bad news. Sometimes we see it, sometimes we don't. A lot of times we are blind to our own slavery. We are often blind to sin of humanity, the church, and toward the creation. We often don't see how we are enslaved to our busy schedules, or to keeping up appearances, or to our possessions, worshiping them, focusing on them. God opens our eyes to our sin, not to make us feel bad and paralyze us, but to free us to act in the best interest of this broken world. We are freed from slavery to sin, freed from repeating the mistakes of trying to earn God's love. We are freed, not to do whatever we want, but to serve this broken and hurting world, and to be reformed again and again into God's image.
Reform us, O God, reform us!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

October 23, 2016

Gospel: Luke 18:9-14 
 1st Reading: Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
2nd Reading: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

In our Sunday morning Gospel readings, we're in a section about prayer. Luke talks a lot about prayer—Jesus praying, Jesus teaching his Disciples to pray the Lord's Prayer, and Jesus telling Parables about praying. Last week, we had the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, which Jesus told to encourage people to pray and not lose heart. That story ends with the question, “But when the son of man returns, will he find faith on earth?” That was a cliffhanger, to this Gospel story.

This Gospel is about what faith looks like and what prayer is. It begins to explore the question of whether God will find faith on earth, and if so faith in whom. It is especially directed at those who trusted in themselves, had faith in their own abilities, that they were righteous, and regarded others with contempt. And it shows us something unexpected, that people who are aware of their mistakes and shortcomings, who might seem like they don't get it or that their faith isn't as strong, are actually the ones who are more tuned into God's love and mercy and compassion. It tells us that when we are humble and we don't feel very strong or faithful, we may be more open to God's love for us.

Last week we learned to be persistent in prayer and not lose heart, to have hope in God's justice, and to pray for God's justice, God's vision for this world, and to let our prayers be active, working for God's vision of justice. This week, we have two examples of people praying. God hears both their prayers. I am relieved that God even hears my self-centered, judgmental prayers. Maybe these two prayers are two ends of a continuum, between humble and proud. Maybe they are two parts of the same prayer. 

I remember reading Goofus and Gallant in HiLights Magazine as a kid. The formula was always the the same. I just knew what each would do. Poor Goofus, never tucking in his shirt, always getting dirty, being rude, such a mess. And good old Gallant. He dressed well. He was always polite. He ate his food with his utensils. He was a model citizen. So here in the Gospel we've got Goofus and Gallant, and we know the formula—we know what to expect and we get a surprise. 

Gallant dressed well. He had success in life. He was educated and well-liked. He always did the right thing. And then we've got Goofus, always screwing up, universally despised, rude, greedy, and untidy. And in the temple they go to pray and just like that, they switch places. Gallant opens his mouth, and we think we know which way its going to go. He starts the way we expect him to, “Thank you!” Oh good old Gallant, always being thankful. He's so aware of what God has done for him! But then it takes a turn. “I'm so glad I'm not like Goofus! What a loser! I always tie my shoes in a double knot and eat everything on my plate and say please and thank you and go to church every Sunday! Not like him!” And in contrast, there stands Goofus in the temple, frustrated, desperate, aware of his shortcomings, pleading, begging for God to hear him and love him and we hear Jesus say that Goofus is closer to God, that day. They have always fit in their categories of clueless, forgetful, idiot and conscientious, friendly, well-behaved golden boy. 

Goofus and Gallant are actually two extremes on a continuum. None of us is completely one or the other. But we expect certain things from one and certain things from the other and it is surprising when someone we have known to do things right not to be commended and the one who is always screwing up to receive praise from Jesus. We forget, the Kingdom of God is not like this world. God doesn't see people based on expectations, or surface indications of right and wrong, but God knows our hearts. Every prayer is another chance for interaction with God, for us to reveal what is truly in our hearts, and for God to show love and mercy. Even when we are good, there are traps we fall into, such as becoming self-centered and worshipping ourselves, and when we can't seem to do anything right, that is when we know we most need God and we come to God in humility. 

In this story, the pharisee in his prayer shows faith in himself and all that he can do. The tax collector shows faith in God. It's pretty clear to him that he's not where he should be. In fact it is almost as if the pharisee prays to himself. What does he need God for, if he can do it all?

The Messiah was expected to be Gallant—rich, well-dressed, a king, someone who would have the right friends. Instead, here comes Jesus, a bastard child, born in a stable, hanging out with all kinds of riff raff, homeless, arrested, weak, and eventually dead. This is proof that what often matters to us, doesn't matter to God. It is not about outward appearances, but orientation to God's priorities—justice, love, forgiveness.

God doesn't love Goofus or Gallant more, just like their mother doesn't love one more than the other. The part of the Gospel that says, “This man went down to his home justified rather than other,” can also be translated this way, “This man went down to his home justified as well as the other.” God doesn't leave either out in the cold. What God seems to want here is honesty, self-awareness, an openness to being changed for the better, and not putting others down to build ourselves up. God wants that because it is good for us and it is good for our brothers and sisters. It is about building up the Kingdom of God and working toward the vision God has for this world. If we think we're already perfect, we don't see the need for change. We are done. But if we see where we fall short and see this as an opportunity for growth, we are more open to God's action in our life. This reading also reminds us that none of us is in a vacuum. We affect those around us, and if we have a heart like God's, that heart will break when we know of the suffering of people around us. We cannot possibly be whole while others are hurting, because we are part of one another. The things we say and do have an effect on others. 

I was always suspicious of Gallant, because I was Gallant. On the surface, I did what my parents asked me to, was polite, and cleaned up after myself. But inside I always wondered if I could keep up appearances, or if people would abandon me if I let my grades slip or started dressing Goth. And inside I was jealous of the Goofuses around me, who were living a more free life, making their own decisions based on their own consciences rather than some outward, outdated, and superficial rules that didn't really reveal whether someone was a good person or not. I was Gallant, relying on my own tenuous control and it was kind of miserable.

I have come to accept the Goofus in myself. I am more free to make mistakes, stick my foot in my mouth, every couple of weeks, just to keep me humble, and to be forgiven by those around me. I think I am more relatable when I am Goofus, not trying to better than anyone or good enough, but just another human being bumbling through.

In the Old Testament reading for this morning, there is no question that the Israelites are aware the they are Goofus. There is no more pretending. God is at the end of God's rope. Yet, there is hope. Where there is awareness and confession, there can be healing, and instead of giving up on them, God frees them and brings them home.

It might seem at first that Paul, in 2 Timothy is boasting in his own works, however, he gives all the credit to God. His faith is not in himself. His prayer is not to make himself better than others, but to lift up his life story as an example of how God never abandons us, even when the world doesn't appreciate the gifts God has given us.

Gallant, drop your resume of all the great things you do, and instead be honest about where you can improve. Stop comparing yourself to others and live an authentic life. God loves you and wants you to focus on what matters to God, God's vision of justice and love, not some arbitrary standards of appearance and manners and success.

Goofus, God loves you, too, and will never forget you or forsake you. Keep being honest about your shortcomings. Keep working on yourself. Keep focussed on what God wants for you. Keep worshipping God rather than yourself. 

Remember our Goofus Savior Christ offers mercy and compassion to all of us, forgiveness and love, and rose from the dead to bring us new life. Whether we are Goofus or Gallant or somewhere in between, we are children of God who always hears our prayers.

Monday, October 17, 2016

October 16, 2016

Gospel: Luke 18:1-8 
 1st Reading: Genesis 32:22-31
2nd Reading: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

God has a generous vision for us, that we read about in the scriptures, the Bible, a vision that we would look out for the most vulnerable among us, that we would share all things in common, that we would have enough but not be greedy, that every tear would be wiped away.
Jacob wasn't that confident in God's generous vision. He stole his brother's birthright and spent the next 20 years running from his brother. Jacob's name means heal grabber, because he was born clutching his twin brother's heal, and also trickster. When we get to this story, he has not only tricked his brother, but he has more recently tried to trick his father in law and leave without telling him goodbye or letting him tell his daughters and grandchildren goodbye. Jacob is headed back toward his brother, when he encounters this man? Angel? God? And wrestles with him there at the crossroads, the ford of the Jabbok.

Jacob is wrestling with a lot of things. He's wrestling with his guilt and shame at having tricked his brother out of his birthright years before, with the help of his mother impersonating his brother and receiving the family blessing and inheritance. He's wrestling with the relationship with his father-in-law who tricked him into marrying his older daughter Leah when he was promised Rachel, and then having to work 7 more years on top of the 7 he already worked for Leah before he could marry Rachel. Then he wrestled with the rivalry between his wives and finally with his father-in-law who he tricked into giving him most of his flocks. Now, he's about to see the brother he hasn't seen in 20 years. The last time he saw him, his twin brother Esau was threatening to kill him. Now, Jacob sends his wives and children and flocks ahead of him like a coward, and hangs back, maybe to spend some time in quiet thought, maybe to see how things would play out between Esau and his family, maybe to pray.

So on the river bank he wrestles. He's all in knots. He's a mess. But when the day breaks, it is clear that he's had an encounter with God. Where this sparring partner comes from is unclear. His identity is a big question mark. The two “men” seem to recognize each other's strength. Jacob asks for a blessing and receives a new name, Israel, which means “striven with God.” At that point, if Jacob didn't know before, he now knows this is God that he's been wrestling with. God who doesn't tell Jacob God's name, has revealed it in another way, by renaming Jacob. And Jacob passes by two places named “the face of God,” Peniel and Penuel, probably the same place. 

Jacob seems to always be wrestling. His wrestling does not go unnoticed by God, who meets him there by the crossroads, which is what Jabbok means. And like a father wrestling with his young son, God goes easy on him. God knows that Jacob needs to work a few things out, and God lets him win, while still leaving him with a limp, a little reminder of their encounter to carry with him throughout his life. 

We wrestle with plenty ourselves. We wrestle with personal relationships. We wrestle with the right thing to do in certain situations. We wrestle with God, wondering about some of the big questions about life and death and meaning. We wrestle with our society, that this world often doesn't reflect values of love and sharing and compassion and care for the poor.

God doesn't leave us alone, but joins us in the wrestling, helping us work through all these things. And God encourages us to take our wrestling moves to our society to make it more just, more equitable, especially for those who usually get left out.

This story of Jacob continues after this: He crosses the river to meet his brother. Instead of finding someone who hates him, he finds his brother embracing him, loving him, forgiving him. And Jacob says again, “Truly to see your face, Esau, is like seeing the face of God.” There it is again, the face of God, Peniel, Penuel.

What do we see when we see God's face? We find generosity, forgiveness, love.

One very important way to see God's face for us, is to read the Bible, the scriptures. We look there for God's face revealed in the words that have come down to us from the earliest believers and those who knew Jesus. 2 Timothy invites us to look there for instruction, teaching, and training in righteousness, to get equipped to wrestle with whatever is on our minds, and equipped to wrestle with the powers of this world that do not fit God's vision of justice.

It is easy, when we are wrestling with the powers of this world to give up, when we are wrestling for justice, because sometimes it seems no progress is being made. But I have to admire this widow in the Gospel reading. She is powerless, seemingly, except for two things, she is arguing for justice, for what is right, for God's vision for this world, and secondly she is persistent. She shows up every day in court. She follows this judge to the grocery store and the opera and every other place he goes. It makes me wonder if she physically follows him, or if maybe like Jacob wrestling on the banks of the Jabbok river, it is his conscience eating away at him, her memory haunting him. In any case, she makes him, the last person in the world to care about someone like her, wrestle with doing the right thing, just to get her off his back.

Sometimes it seems God made us to wrestle, to struggle, to work things out. And it isn't a bad thing. We wrestle with ourselves over the right thing to do. We have choices to make and not many of them are clear black and white. They all have consequences, both good and bad, and God doesn't make those decisions for us, but gives us free will to wrestle with them and make our own decision. 

We also wrestle with God. Isn't this an apt description of prayer? Prayer is relationship. Prayer is listening, thanking, pleading. It is communication with God. It shapes us and our desires, hopefully to align more with God's vision for us, but also the Bible shows us that prayer shapes God, too. God cares about us, intensely, and hears our prayers. And God grants justice. When we see justice being done, that is God's action, God's Kingdom entering our world.

People of faith ought to also wrestle with the powers of this world. We have voice and influence. We have power. When we pray, we place our concerns in God's hands, not so that God will take care of them for us, but on the one hand to let go of what we have no control over, but also to take up what we do have the power to do, to lift up our voices to speak to those in power on behalf of the widows, and first of all to listen to their concerns and know them, so they aren't going alone to the unjust judges of our world.

The Social Justice Group, in cooperation with Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good, have been investigating how to help the homeless in our congregation. Shelters and tiny houses are some possible stop-gap measures until affordable housing can be built. But we want to be sure to hold our leaders accountable in the meantime and not let them think that churches will take care of the problem and they can focus elsewhere. We don't want them to think they can drop the ball on making our neighborhoods more equitable and liveable. We don't want them to think that just because some churches might be able to shelter some people for a while that they don't have to get busy building a lot of affordable housing. Many of us are already planning times to go down to Salem and talk to our representatives and state senators about justice issues, about greed, about laws that protect the most vulnerable. We'll bring stories from members of our congregations and stories from pantry clients, and we'll be there following them to the grocery store and the opera if we have to, until justice is done. I hope you'll join those efforts in the coming year. We'll give you lots of notice that they are coming up.

I read an interesting take on this Gospel reading yesterday, and that is that maybe God is the widow and we are the unjust judge. Maybe God is appealing to us day and night to do the right thing and grant justice and we have no fear of God nor respect for people. Maybe we have the power to grant justice but instead we mostly ignore those in need. However God is not going to give up on us and will nag us until we relent. How different God is, quickly granting justice to those who cry out in need.

When we go to God with our justice concerns, we know God is listening and surely will ensure justice is done. And when the poor and hungry go to God with their justice concerns, God will surely hear their cries and bring justice, not with a magic wand, but with the persistence and power of God's people who see that vision, who know what is right and what isn't, and who speak up and use our power to change this world to better match God's vision.

In the Gospel lesson this morning we read, "Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart."  Just before communion each Sunday we say these words: Lift up your hearts, we lift them to the Lord. Lifting our hearts is continuing to have hope, continuing to pray in hopes for healing and life. When we lift our hearts, they are vulnerable and open, helpless, but also brave and ready to do what needs to be done. When we lift our hearts, we are ready to face whatever powers stand in the way of God's vision, and lift our voices and our power in the service of God's vision, and ensure God's blessing goes out to all who all who wrestle.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

October 9, 2016

Gospel: Luke 17:11-19 
1st Reading: 2 Kings 5:1-15
2nd Reading: 2 Timothy 2:8-15

I'm sorry to have tell you all this, but you've got leprosy. There is nothing more we can do for you. I know it is hard to digest, but here is a referral to a leper colony. Someone will collect your belongings for you. We can't risk you going back home and infecting your family and friends. From now on, you have to keep your distance from people. You're whole life will change, but you won't be alone. You'll be among your own kind. Grab your stuff. Let's go.

As far as I know, none of us has leprosy. We've made significant advances in managing it and understanding it in the past 50 years. Some of us have been on the receiving end of bad news related to our health or the health of a loved one. We've lived the burden of diseases of the body and mind just as debilitating and isolating as leprosy, both our own and of those we love and care for. We know the pain of addiction and depression, and we know our own diseases of anger, entitlement, selfishness, and greed. We struggle with these diseases that hurt us and others. We wonder is there a cure? How do we treat maladies like these?

We are Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram. We suffer from our own forms of leprosy, yet somehow we push through each day, we are high-functioning, we have everyone around us fooled. And yet deep inside we wonder—why? Did I do something wrong to deserve this? Is God punishing me? Do people avoid me because I am different—because of my disease? 

We are the 9 lepers who meet Jesus. We've been sick and isolated for a long time. Jesus brings us healing. We follow his instructions, to the letter and head off to the priest. Yet, is there something missing? Could God have more in mind for me than just going back to the way things were. 

We try everything to cure our leprosy. We go to endless doctor appointments and try every possible test, we try hypnotism, we try acupuncture, we try home remedies, all kinds of creams. We read every self-help book, change our diet, try different kinds of exercise, read up on WebMD. Nothing works.

Then a friend of ours suggests that God can heal this disease. Forgive me if I'm a little suspicious and jaded by this point. Forgive me if I don't get my hopes up. I'm willing to try, I guess, but it doesn't sound very likely. This cleansing involves something called baptism. You have to humble yourself to receive it—admit that you are human and hurting, admit your diseases, that you can't do it on your own. You die to your old self, be drowned in the waters of the Holy Spirit, and rise with new life in you. You become part of a community that teaches each other how to live a life of love and compassion. You become part of the body of Christ, responding to needs in this world. 

After your baptism, you don't feel any different, or at least the joy fades away after a time. Life is still frustrating. Your leprosy is still afflicting you, your depression, your grief, your anger. Some give up at this point, probably 9 out of 10. But some endure. Some endure out of habit. Some endure out of hope. Some endure because they know about delayed gratification and letting something new have a chance to work. 

Healing begins slowly for many. It isn't in the expected way. There is not usually a flash of light, or waving arms. There is no exact moment when you can say, “I am healed.” But bit by bit, you notice a difference. You notice yourself making connections with others in the community, in the body of Christ. You find yourself with more of an attitude of praise. You find yourself noticing the good qualities in those around you and eventually in yourself. You find opportunities to pitch in and make life better for someone else. You find yourself cultivating gratefulness in yourself. You find yourself thanking people. You find yourself thanking God. You find yourself falling at Jesus' feet. You find your life changing.

Jesus heals ten, he heals all. Where are the other 9? Where are the other 90%? Jesus will continue to heal each one, because that is what Jesus does. Jesus provides healing. Not always in the way we hope he will, but his area of expertise is restoration, love, and new life. He provides this for 100% of us. But he can't live that new life for us. He gives it to us and we decide whether upon finding ourselves healed we are comfortable enough with our old life, or whether we will go on in a new way and use what we've learned during our time of trouble and isolation to live a fuller life in gratefulness, in praise, in hopefulness.

The ten lepers were all cleansed. They were healed of their physical ailment. They were restored to their community. However, the Samaritan leper wouldn't be received by the priest. Jesus is the only priest who shows no partiality. He is the priest of us all, powerful in healing, powerful in inclusion, powerful in love. Jesus says to the healed Samaritan, “Your faith has made you well.” It actually should be translated this way, “Your faith has saved you.” He is not only healed physically, but he is saved, his life is saved, he has new life to live. It seems that at least this time, the other 9 missed out on a deeper healing in which their lives are saved and they go on to live in a different way than they did before.

Their highest hope is to go back to the way things were. They want nothing more than to go to the synagogue, be with their friends and family, eat together with friends, and get their old job back. But the Samaritan has never fit in, has never been welcome at the synagogue, has always been spit on by neighbors of other religions, isn't allow to hold the same job as others in the community, and has never received the same wages as others in the same position. The Samaritan has higher hopes than this. The Samaritan's faith is not in the old system, that he knows oppress and hurt people, it is in Jesus, whom he praises. He may very well not even have hoped that Jesus would offer him healing, too. He probably expected to be overlooked like so many times before. But even he receives Jesus' cleansing and blessing, and not only that but Jesus' commendation, Jesus' praise, because he comes back to say, “Thank you.”

It isn't that Jesus has such a fragile ego that he needs to be thanked. It is that Jesus recognizes new life springing up in this Samaritan. He knows that things will be different for him from here on out. He will be living a new life—one of gratefulness, one of hope, one of compassion. His leprosy was not caused by God, but the healing of it was, and the direction of his life from this point on will be shaped by this healing and this love and the fact that even he was included.

How do we cultivate gratefulness? How do we grow gratefulness in our lives? How do we come to better appreciate what God has done for us? There are many ways. One is to reflect each day on what you are thankful for. Keep a note by your bedside or wherever you plan to reflect so you don't forget. Thank others for the kind things they do for you or others. Be sure to include thanksgivings in your prayers—we started formally doing that in the prayers of the people at church every Sunday a couple of years back. Start a gratefulness jar in which you put pieces of paper marking all the things you are thankful for. Then each month, sit down with your jar and see how much God has done for you. Gratefulness is both good for the one who is thanked, but it is also good for us. It may be a key to healing and wholeness. Healing brings about gratefulness and gratefulness heals us, in a cycle that goes on and on.

Today we bless the Purple Hats. These hats have come out of a great tragedy, Shaken Baby Syndrome. They are reminder that babies cry sometimes for no reason, sometimes for hours on end, but that they grow out of it. They are a reminder for all of us to get the help we need when we are overwhelmed. These hats are made because babies have sustained brain damage and death and parents, as devastated as they were, had to move forward. There wasn't hope that things would go back to the way they were, because the children harmed would never be the same. The parents found an even greater hope than this, that other families would be prevented from going through the same tragedy, that awareness would be raised, that people would help each other when newborns screamed for hours. These parents had a vision of what could be. It wouldn't bring their child back, but it would ensure that others wouldn't know the heartache that they knew.

I'm sorry to have to tell you, our world has leprosy. It is messed up for the vast majority of people. 62 million refugees worldwide have fled violence in their home countries, Haiti has been devastated by Hurricane Matthew and before that the major earthquake a few years ago, children and the elderly are going hungry in our neighborhood, people can't afford their rents, we're polluting our earth, burning fossil fuels and heating our planet, depleting our soil, and we're in the midst of a mass extinction. We have leprosy.

Jesus is offering us healing, hope, love, even us!

We can't go back to the way things were. We have to hope in the new life that God offers. But he's not going to be able to live it for us. We must grasp for this greater hope, receive this greater vision of what would mean life and healing for all. The first step is to stop, turn to face the one who gives us this new life, and praise him, thank him, acknowledge him. Then, we don't head back to everything that made us comfortable, we go to those seeking comfort, whose leprosy afflicts them in every area of their lives, knowing we are not alone but Jesus is with us, and showing compassion to them. 

We are all on a journey of healing. Jesus heals us all in different ways. Sometimes we stop to thank him, sometimes we don't. If we are faithless, he remains faithful. He continues to heal us, hoping we will soon see beyond my own healing and what Jesus can do for me, to the vision he holds up of new life, and wonder what Jesus can do through us to bring healing and love to this leprous world. In the end it isn't my faith or your faith or all our faith that makes us well and saves us, it is Jesus' faith that saves us and brings us to wholeness and new life.