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Monday, September 19, 2016

September 18, 2016

Gospel: Luke 16, 1-13 
1st Reading: Amos 8:4-7
2nd Reading: 1 Timothy 2:1-7

A friend once told me, when I said we're only having one child, “There are just some things that siblings can only tell each other.” That doesn't really convince me, since there have been many only children that have been a-ok. Any family configuration has it's own positives and negatives.  I've seen my nephews learning from each other how to work things out.  Sometimes it is by wrestling.  Sometimes it is by wits.  My child is missing out on that daily experience.  I had this thought from the beginning that I would let my son work out his differences with other kids, and not step in every time to help him or to make him behave. However, I soon realized that doesn't work in a lot of cases because my son is usually in a position of power. He is male. He is white. He is big for his age. He communicates pretty well. So in many situations the other kids defer to him. He has the power. I get to help him become aware of his power and use his power well. I tell him, “You're bigger than he is,” or “Watch out for the babies!” The other day he came home and said, “Mom, there's a baby at preschool who doesn't cover her mouth when she coughs.” He was disgusted. I had to tell him, “You didn't always know how to do that. Have patience with her. Maybe you could help teach the baby how to cover her mouth.” He was delighted to think that he could help.

Today's Gospel reading is about a lot of things, but today today I want to focus on power. This is one of the most difficult parables that Jesus told, and Luke doesn't really explain very well what Jesus meant. So then after the parable it looks like several authors tacked on a bunch of other sayings or explanations, including “You cannot serve God and wealth.” 

Another difficulty comes with translation. The word for wealth here is “dishonest wealth.” “You can't serve God and dishonest wealth.” 

Then there is the contradiction that the master commended the dishonest manager and later when the Gospel reads “whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.”

Some have said that the manager was caught between the land owner and the debtors, with the landowner always wondering if the manager was doing a good job and the debtors always resentful that the manager was squeezing every last penny out of them. So when the manager lost his job, he had to think of something to help himself. He slashed the debt, so he would at least have some friends among the debtors. The debtors all threw him a party. So when the landowner showed up, everyone was thanking the landowner for his generosity, as well and suddenly everyone loved the rich landowner, too. So rather than get mad or heap the debt back on, the landowner just thanked the steward. He was so rich that he wouldn't even miss that money the manager slashed. Maybe the rich man learned that friendship and relationships are more important than money and eeking out every little drop he could get from those debtors.

The reading becomes slightly more clear when placed in context, surprise, surprise! If you don't understand something from the Bible, it can often be helpful to read what comes before it and what comes after it. Just before this reading is the story of another person who squandered or wasted his property, and that is the prodigal son. In the story of the Prodigal Son, though, the father is waiting with open arms for his son to return home and forgives him and throws him a party. 

In this parable, today, the rich man is waiting in judgment over his steward. He doesn't even let him defend himself. He's already made up his mind that his steward is guilty.

Jesus is telling both of these stories in the midst of the Disciples and Scribes and Pharisees and the tax collectors and sinners. He tells them to the Disciples. They are close to Jesus. They have power because of that, whether they realize it or not. Sometimes they are able to heal people or cast out demons. Sometimes they just want to make sure their special relationship, their power in relationship to Jesus gets them a front row seat in the heavenly kingdom. Jesus is giving them two examples of how power can be used.

He's telling the Pharisees and Scribes who also have power and need to use it well. He's telling it to the tax collectors because they are often like the steward or manager, stuck in the middle. He's encouraging them to be creative in their response and he's telling them that relationships are more important than money. And he's talking to the sinners, because they are the debtors and their debt is getting slashed. God cares about them. God treasures them and finds value in them, as we learned last week. God is forgiving.

We are powerful. On the one hand we can use our power to forgive and welcome and celebrate. On the other hand we can use our power to judge and condemn. Some of that power is financial. Many of us have enough money to be pretty comfortable. Some of it is our skin color. Most of us can drive down the street without getting stopped by the police. We can get approval for our loan applications. We can get an Uber driver or an Air BNB. We don't realize the roadblocks that people with darker skin experience. Sometimes it's our gender. Sometimes it is our profession. Sometimes it's our height or language. We are powerful. We are privileged.

Now God is asking us—how will we use our power? How we use our power might partly depend on how we see God. Some see God as a stern judge. Others see God as a forgiving parent. Will we use our power to welcome and share that power, to look foolish and undignified, throwing a party and sharing our wealth and power, giving people second chances, not hiding our enthusiasm to be in relationship with them? Or will we use our power like this rich man, judging people, just trying to earn more money for himself, firing people and making their lives miserable, taking advantage of his debtors, the poor who are working the land?

Of course we do both. These days we can trample on the needy and never know it. We don't know the working conditions of the people who make our clothes. We try to buy things made in America, however many of us don't realize that most manufacturing in the US is prison labor, in effect, slave labor, for people who don't make but a pittance for that work. We don't know where much our food comes from, what forests were cut down to grow it, who harvests it, or what the crop or fertilizer or pesticides do to the soil or the economy. One woman who shops for Backpack Buddies was saying that she started shopping at Walmart, because the lower prices meant she could serve 30% more kids. However, those kids might as well be the same kids who are receive the Backpack Buddies food each weekend, children of people who work at places like Walmart and can't make a living wage. 

We can pollute the earth and never know our personal part in it. We can drive past a person who is in desperate need and never see our own responsibility. We are blind to our own part, our own sin.

On the other hand we are faithful. We volunteer. We are generous. We are kind. We forgive. We welcome.

Now sometimes we are not in such a position of power. I have seen people treat seniors like little children. I have heard doctors talk about their patients as if they are not there in the room. We get ill. We lose our job. We have to give up most of our possessions and go into assisted living. Our driver's license gets revoked. We feel powerless to help our grown child who suffers from domestic violence, or alcoholism, or mental illness. There are plenty of times we are in the chair of the steward, losing our power or in the shoes of the debtors, powerless to do anything to help ourselves.

This story urges us to be creative. The manager could have told his boss to “Take this job and shove it!” He could have told him all the things that were wrong with him and his business. But he didn't burn that bridge. He asked himself what he would need going forward. He would need friends. What would be a way to make friends and make his boss look good? Cancel some debts. What power did he have and how could he use it to help himself and others?

We don't know what ultimately happens to this steward, just as we don't ultimately know what happens to the prodigal son. But they are both practical, eventually, and they both get commended. For them, the money was no longer there, the power was no longer there. That is true for all of us. No matter how powerful we are, we all face powerlessness. However, there are some kinds of power that last longer than others. Money is pretty short-lived and not very flexible. There are certain things you can't buy, such as true friendship. However, there are other kinds of power, such as the power of creativity that can help change a powerless situation into one of strength, and the power of relationships that can get us through hard times. The most powerful forces are not money or possessions. They are the power of love, the power of compassion, the power of relationship.

My son doesn't know anything about money yet. But I'm trying to teach him about power. Some of that is through my own example, how I treat him and try to involve him in decisions, and let him have a say. Some of that is helping him to understand how much power he has, how big he is, how loud he is, how expressive he is. Some of that is helping him to understand where the other person is coming from, that they have feelings just as strong as his. And some is helping him to understand the options and consequences of each action.

We were at Westmoreland park on Monday with some friends. Sterling was standing in the midst of someone's project with water and sand. The kids were older, taller, expressive, powerful. I let the situation play out. I didn't try to rescue him. I let him face the consequences. Thankfully the kids had been taught compassion. One tried yelling at him, which didn't phase him a bit. The oldest talked calmly and patiently, repeatedly explaining that he was standing on their dam and would he please move. After the 5th or 6th time he heard, he got it, and calmly moved away. If I had intervened, I probably would have embarrassed him and he wouldn't have been able to learn a thing. Instead he figured some things out for himself, practiced listening, responded in a way that showed he cared about what someone else cared about. That's what God wants for us, to guide us into life-giving relationships of compassion.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

September 11, 2016

(I used an outline this week.  Hopefully it won't be difficult to follow.)

Gospel: Luke 15:1-10 
1st Reading: Exodus 32:7-14
2nd Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17

Share a story about something you've lost
Share a story about something you've found

We are undignified when we are looking for something/desperate
God looks undignified in this Gosepl reading
Not to have all the answers
Not to have others to do that for him
Looking through the vacuum bag for the diamond from my wedding ring
God not here to be dignified
otherwise God wouldn't
beg for us back
change God's mind
come as a baby
become our friend
get arrested
hang naked on the cross
Instead God came to be with us in relationship
Dignified is distant, separate, better
Our job is also not to be dignified
Instead we can be in relationship, care, compassion

Normally I don't care if I lose a penny.
I can eventually get over the loss of a pet, although I've never had a sheep
But we all understand the desperation when it is a child who gets lost
That's what God is looking for, a family member
We each have value to God and God knows the community is stronger when the lost are brought back

We are lost
lost in our search for dignity
We won't ask directions
We don't want our name called across the PA
However, God finds us and brings us home
back to the fold
it sure feels good, wholeness, shalom

We get to let go of dignity and start building relationships
Be vulnerable
be open to searching, looking desperate, because we all need each other desperately

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

August 14, 2016

Gospel: Luke 12:49-56
1st Reading: Jeremiah 23:23-29
2nd Reading: Hebrews 11:29-12:2

This is the first year I've looked forward to preaching on this Gospel reading. I feel pretty passionate about it and this is why.  Sometimes we think we come to church because it is comfortable. In an age where we have cars that can get us easily to any one of a hundred churches, we have choice. We decide where to go to church and where to stay often based on where we fit in and where we are comfortable. 

However, Jesus came to change us, not to make us feel more peaceful in the short term, and this is one of those Gospel readings that lays this out most clearly. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” 

I've heard pastors say that if they don't stir up controversy in their sermon, they haven't done their job. They haven't truly preached the word of God, if people aren't challenged, even to the point of being offended. This hits awfully close to home, or rather the pocket book, for me and a lot of pastors. You've called me here to be your pastor. This congregation pays my salary. So I sometimes find myself torn about how much to challenge you. It isn't entirely conscious, but I do sometimes wonder who I work for. Do I work for God, preaching God's word, pointing out the difficult truths that need to be faced? Or do I work for all of you, whose offerings go to keeping me fed and clothed and roof over my head and paying my insurance and giving me what I need to live? Most of the time I hold the two together, and like a lot of “mysteries” in the Lutheran church, it seems to be a little of both.

The Disciples, too, are wondering who they work for. They have been following Jesus around for a few years in this reading. Jesus has been dropping little hints about the difficulty ahead, that he will die and the disciples will suffer, and called to take up their crosses, too. He is trying to tell them the truth about where they are headed, and they decide maybe this isn't such a good gig after all, that they should head back to Galilee where they can be safe. They have a choice, much like I do: Follow the path of Jesus which is difficult, to say the least, or follow the path of safety and comfort.

I don't want to stir up controversy for the sake of controversy. I want to challenge people in a way that gets them talking, that makes them think. I have felt ashamed that I more readily posted a message stating “Pokemon Go, Welcome Here” on our church sign than one that says, “Black Lives Matter.” What would it take to post a sign like that? Would we have a congregational forum first? What signs merit a congregational check in and which can be posted without people threatening to leave? How many people threatening to leave would mean that we change our message? How can we take time to have the discussion when lives are being lost every day because our society sends the message that some lives don't matter very much? On the other hand, how can we rush to post a sign that may not be where our hearts really are? How can we rush a conversation, a conversion of hearts, for an issue that has been going on in our country for hundreds of years? How can we honor and celebrate what we do not know, as a congregation that includes exactly 0 black people? I wish I knew the answer. I am still struggling and I know Jesus calls me to struggle and wrestle.

My dilemma as a pastor is not so different from my dilemma as a regular person, or yours. How do we stand up for what is right, when it is unpopular or causes divisions? How do we stand up in a way that is loving rather than condemning and alienating? How do we build relationships and community in a way that can withstand controversy? And I suppose there is some temptation that we know what is right in the first place, in that we make ourselves right and others wrong.

Let's start with the question, how do we know what's right in God's eyes. I try to use the “loving” test. God is love. So I ask myself, what about this is loving and compassionate? Is this only loving toward those who can give something back to me in return? If so, that may not pass the test. Is this loving toward someone who is hard to love, who is especially vulnerable, or who I might ordinarily ignore or dismiss? If so, it might be the kind of loving action Jesus' urges us toward, called justice. 

In the reading from Jeremiah, this morning, God is nearby, rather than far away. Near to those who are suffering or trapped, near to all those who hunger or who are in need. When we stand up for what is right, it isn't what benefits me, but it is what benefits those people most in need, most trapped, who are suffering with no one to care for them. That is one way to know whether we are following God, or making an idol of ourselves.

How do we build a community that can withstand controversy? Practice, practice, practice. First practice authentic relationships. Get to know each other on a deeper level. Share your thoughts and dreams with each other. Be curious about each other. Those relationships are the glue that keep us together when differences threaten to divide us. Then we practice good communication. When we don't we need to call each other on it, so we can work on it. And we practice respect for one another in the smaller disagreements so when it gets more heated, we can hold on to what is most important, our unity in Christ which transcends any other differences between us.

Fire—it sounds so cruel and painful. However, fire has long been used for cleansing. Field burning in the grass seed capitol of the world was something we endured every year in the Willamette Valley. We sanitize our dishes at this church at 150 degrees. We don't see the fire, because it is hidden in the hot water heater, but fire sanitizes, it cleanses, it kills germs and helps keep us healthy.

Division—it sounds so cruel and painful. However, the word for division here is the same word for when Moses divided the Red Sea so the Israelites could move through to freedom. The dividing of the sea made a safe path for an enslaved people to escape to freedom. That is what God wants for us. At times, we are the Israelites, standing there on the river bank. We've got the Egyptians coming toward us, powers of death and enslavement. We've got the river in front of us, swirling and chaotic. Can you imagine the courage it must have taken to step out into that river bed with the water raging on both sides. Of course you do, because you've been there, as widows and widowers, times you've lost your job, times you've spoken out on behalf of others, times you gave generously despite not being quite secure yourselves, times you took a risk to befriend someone who was friendless, you've been there, but never alone. God is in those moments guiding you and helping you toward a more excellent and lasting peace that can only come after a time of uncertainty and risk. 

The Israelites had some measure of peace as slaves. They ate garlic and meat when they were slaves. They knew what was expected of them. They had a place to live. However, God meant them for something greater than that kind of false peace that comes when you lie down and let others walk all over you, or when you don't speak up when someone says something hurtful or cruel. God meant us all for freedom. But getting there isn't easy. It isn't just a matter of picking up and going somewhere else. It was a matter of a change of heart that only took place with a long journey and a lot of trust building with God and a lot of community building in that 40 year exodus.

But sometimes we are the water that is standing in the way of God's saving action for the most vulnerable. In that case, God divides us, to get us out of the way so that something wonderful can happen. In that case, it may be painful and scary, but the same outcome—we are not alone, we can learn from these experiences, our faith can grow through these experiences, we can grow closer to God, we can realize what really matters, we can grow closer in community.

Change—God wants to change us. We're very comfortable. We have what we need. We benefit from this system of oppression that we live in. However it is a false kind of peace. What keeps this tenuous, false, short-term view kind of peace, enslaves our brothers and sisters and if we are honest about it, enslaves us.

There are just some things that are not going to be tolerated in the Kingdom of God, a lot of things we like and keep us comfortable. Consumerism, that some of us have way more than we need while others go without, racism, strip-mining, deforestation, pollution, greed and waste. We call this sin, and it is part of everything we do, we live in a state of sin. If I start I can get all mired in it, I'll never be able to let it go. Getting here this morning, burning fossil fuels, using hot water to bathe, eating food with 30 ingredients, not focussed on God or with a grateful heart, not enjoying the scenery, haven't made my homebound visits, dreaming of vacation, one foot out the door. I'm the hypocrite!

Jesus, here, is focussed. He's on his way to make the ultimate sacrifice, to die because he made so many people so uncomfortable, because he condemns it when our comforts mean that someone else's life is diminished. He asks us to open our eyes and see what we're doing to ourselves, what the price is for seeking short-term peace, instead of taking the longer view and doing the hard work for something that is real and beautiful. 

The fire prepares us, by cleansing us. The division prepares a way, in between, to lead all people to freedom and life. It is painful, but it is good. Make way for the Kingdom of God! Jesus is making his home among us so that we will all have lasting peace and love for all time.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

July 31, 2016

Gospel: Luke 12:13-21
1st Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23
2nd Reading: Colossians 3:1-11

How much is enough? How much is too much? How do I know when I have I crossed the line into greed? I wish Jesus would be clear with us, so we can follow a rule and know which side of the line we are on. But Jesus tells us and the crowd and the Disciples and the man with the complaint about his brother, only to be on guard against all kinds of greed. But it is so hard to do. We each have needs for food, shelter, and community. We don't want to be a burden to other people, and we like being self-sufficient, so we set aside for retirement and emergencies. I can't tell you how relieved I am that we were able to buy a house 11 years ago. With rents going up, like they are, we would be forced to move. We have a mortgage payment we can afford. We'll pay it off when I'm 66 years old, if everything goes according to plan. We are comfortable. We are wealthy. And we're looking at buying new windows this year. We'll probably take out another loan for that. And still I sometimes think to myself, if we only had 20 more square feet or two more closets, I'd have enough space. I picture where I would build on, if I could. Recently a friend inspired me to do some decluttering. There is always a new book or a new fad about it. It was very helpful for me, because when I look through my closet now, I don't have to look through all those clothes I never wear. Every single thing in my closet is something I like.

Instead of beating up on myself and you, I thought today we might be inspired by people who have lived this balance, who have not trusted in things, but found fulfillment in life and generosity. 

The first is my family friend Christine. We knew her from church. She sang in the choir and was assisting minister. She adopted Kiley from India. We assume that like many in India country, her family didn't want her because she was a girl, maybe a second or third girl in a poor family that couldn't afford her dowry. When Kiley came, she was the tiniest little child, less than a year old, with big brown eyes. I remember peeking at her in her blanket when she first started coming to church. My mom started babysitting Kiley in her daycare. I watched her at her house when her mom had evening meetings. She really liked “Scooby Doo.” Christine adopted Sylvia from Bulgaria. Sylvia was an unwanted child who was Bulgarian and Gypsy. Her eye was damaged in the womb because of an abusive partner. She wore an eye patch for a few years until her damaged eye was strengthened. Christine kept Sylvia's picture on the side of the microwave for at least a year while we waited for the orphanage to release her. We gathered items for the orphanage, clothes, bottles, toys, all kinds of baby things. They were a kind of bribe. It turns out that Sylvia was the first child released from that orphanage to the United States. Christine was a woman of means. She had an education. She was a teacher. But her life did not consist of her possessions. She used what she had to give two girls a new life. I remember Christine mentioning once when I was babysitting the girls, how she had almost got Sylvia paid off. She said it was like buying a house. And she also told me a story recently of when Sylvia first arrived and couldn't connect with the family, how Christine held and held her and wouldn't let her go. It was her way of communicating with a 2 year old through presence and touch that she was part of the family and she was loved and secure. Kiley and Sylvia are all grown up now and both very loving people. Christine is one of those people I always look up to when I think of people I would like to emulate.

The congregation of Bethlehem Lutheran in Portland struggled financially for many years. Their attendance was low and their building was huge. They welcomed community groups to use their space and rented office space to Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good. They had a preschool. They had a clothing ministry. When their pastor took a new call, their interim time was a time of reflection. They didn't have the resources to keep it all going. They would have to make some choices. What was most important, the church building, the ability to pay a pastor, or the relationships? Through a lot of conversation and soul searching, they let their building go and figured out how to continue without their own pastor. They kept their community, though. For several years they have nested in other congregations in Portland, as a group, worshiping at other congregations for a couple of months at a time. They continue to maintain their own identity and have their own council meetings and their own mission statement, but a building and pastor aren't the most valuable part of their experience of God.

The last example I am thinking of was the Tea Party held here this spring to benefit Backpack Buddies. A little girl, from our own congregation, wanted to be fancy and eat sweets and invite family and friends to be generous. Many of us put on our fanciest. I even dug through my jewelry box to find a bracelet, necklace, and earrings to please Kamryn. We baked and frosted and decorated and dug deep in our pockets and cupboards and donated to help kids who don't have enough to eat and we had a lot of fun.

Finally, I want to lift up a man who planted a million trees. He has spent his money and time reforesting a huge area, making sure the trees are doing well. He knows his life is not going to go one forever. He has a clear sense of what matters and what lasts and what doesn't. He has chosen to invest in generations to come. He knows the worth of a tree to this earth and the worth of a forest of trees.

This world values things. It measures the worth of things with money. Our society tries to tell us that we need more things to be happy and fulfilled. But look around. We are wealthy. We have what we need and more. But we don't have spiritual fulfillment, or we wouldn't come looking to Jesus. It reminds of me Jesse's music last week, “You can have all the rest. Give me Jesus.” Nothing else lasts. Nothing else matters. Nothing else fulfills.

The work we do, doesn't get us anywhere. The money we make, doesn't make us happy, doesn't fulfill our dreams. The education we receive is soon out of date. All is vanity---vapor, an illusion, fleeting pointlessness. We all find ourselves overcome with despair sometimes at the pointlessness of it all.

So if life doesn't consist of possessions, what does make for a fulfilling life? Jesus doesn't take sides in the dispute over the inheritance between brothers in the Gospel reading. The reading seems to bring up the point of what is worth more, the value of the inheritance or the relationship with the brother?  

What do these examples of generosity and balance have in common?  It is the wider view including generations which have come before and which will come after, it is the sense of imagination, it is the sense of imagination, it is the relationship building, it is about compassion and love.  And isn't that what Jesus taught us, the most generous one of all, coming among us, teaching us, loving us, and giving his life for us, so that we would truly have an example of generosity, so that we would know how much he's given us, so we can know what is possible when our possessions don't possess us, but we love one another.
 I want to share with you a hymn by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette.  Follow the link to read her hymn
Bigger Barns

Monday, July 25, 2016

July 24, 2016

Gospel: Luke 11:1-13 
1st Reading: Genesis 18:20-32
2nd Reading: Colossians 2:6-19

My dad was not much of a churchgoer in his adult life. He got enough church as a kid to more than make up for it. However, he did love to play church league softball. He was the coach of the Good Shepherd softball team for many years. As coach, though, he was expected to pray before games. He believed in God and he believed in softball, but praying out loud in front of a group was out of his comfort zone. So this is what he did. He wrote his prayer on an index card—I remember the card being that coral color, I think he always used the same one—and he'd tuck it in the inside of his baseball cap. When he took off his hat to pray, he'd have it right there in front of him and no one would be the wiser. It worked for him. And probably he could have prayed that prayer without the help of the card, but it gave him the confidence to lead the team in that spiritual part of the game.

Maybe some of you feel similarly about prayer. I know I even sometimes feel uncomfortable when I'm put on the spot and asked to pray, especially if I think the other person knows how to pray “better” than me! Is there anyone else who sometimes feels uncomfortable praying out loud? Whoever doesn't have their hand raised will be leading the prayers of the people today!
Today, we're talking about prayer, what it is, why we do it, what it says about who God is, and why we feel so nervous when the pastor asks us to pray out loud in front of a group. 

The disciples ask Jesus in the Gospel reading this morning to teach them to pray. I picture the disciples gathered around saying, “Yeah Jesus, we're already in the 11th chapter of Luke! Maybe it is about time you taught us to pray!” So Jesus teaches them the Lord's Prayer. This is great for Lutherans because we like to know what words to say. I can't tell you how happy I was years ago. I had a dream and the earth was shaking and all the buildings were falling down around me and in my dream I started praying the Lord's Prayer. I thought to myself, here is proof that I could stay calm, that I would know what to do. It was kind of like when you're learning a new language and you start dreaming in that language, you know you are really immersed in it. Praying the Lord's Prayer meant that I had internalized my faith so much that it was showing up in my dreams.

Jesus gives us these words of the Lord's Prayer. These are the words we say every Sunday. We say them after council meetings and other church meetings. This is our go-to prayer. Jesus said to pray like this. The concern is that we start to recite this prayer out of habit and we stop thinking about what it means. So let's take a closer look. The prayer starts with God, not as someone distant and inaccessible, but as a daddy, our abba. And this prayer says something about God, that God is Holy, that God is different from others we know. Our prayer is best focused on who God is. It reminds us of our powerlessness, and maybe helps us to let go of situations that we have no control over. But to remember that God is in that position of incorruptible power and love, means hope.

Then Jesus prays, your kingdom come. “This is about you God and your plan. We don't know how to fix this world. We know it doesn't work very well. We're asking for your Kingdom to come and we're preparing ourselves so when it does, we don't push it away and say, nevermind!” This is also about the big picture. We can't see what is best in any situation, so we remind ourselves to let God be God.

Jesus says, give us each day our daily bread. This is about basic needs. Not “Give us this day a Cadillac car or marble countertops,” but something we need for survival. However, this isn't just about me getting my daily bread, this is about each person having enough, and each animal, each creature in balance and health.

The prayer goes on to address how God treats us, that God forgives us, and that God's forgiveness impacts how we behave toward others. That forgiveness and love doesn't end with us, but goes on and is shared. The way God loves us, changes us for the better. We behave differently out of gratefulness for the way God behaves toward us.

The two stories that follow about asking for help from a neighbor and a child asking for food, put us in the right mindset when we pray. We can address God as beloved children, unafraid, familiar, knowing God is kind and wants to provide for us. 

The first reading from Genesis is also about prayer. For us there is a lot of baggage with this reading, because other Christians have tried to tell us what this reading is about and what the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was. However, if we go on to read Ezekiel 16:49 it is clearly explained that “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” Sodom's sin was that of inhospitality and indifference. So now that we've removed that first distraction, I think there is only one other, and that is the idea that God might be destructive. This is another case of explaining something after the fact. Scholars agree that fire did rain down on Sodom and Gomorrah at one point, and this is scientifically attributed to a volcano. So people wanted to explain in the Bible why Sodom and Gomorrah would be so completely destroyed and this was their best explanation. 

However if we look at this story as a description of prayer, we can learn a lot. We have a lot of hymns about God never changing. “Built on a rock, the church shall stand.” “The wise man built his house upon the rock.” “Which wert, and art, and ever more shall be.” However, I don't find the thought of such a God very warm or comforting, not like the Abba that Jesus would have us pray to, not really the picture we get from these stories of Jesus about a responsive neighbor or a parent tending to the needs of his or her children. This story and many others from the Old Testament do show God changing God's mind, really listening to people. Remember Noah's ark? God regretted destroying all creatures and vowed not to do it again, even hanging his weapon, his bow, up in the sky and vowing not to go that route again. Then there is the story about Jonah and when the people of Ninevah listened to him and repented, God changed his mind about the destruction he was planning to visit upon them. In these stories, God seems to listen and respond.

In this story of Abraham and Sodom, Abraham is learning how to pray. He is practicing communication with God. This prayer has Abraham in his proper place. He's communicating with God. He's being humble, rather than demanding. He's speaking on behalf of others, hoping for the best for them, showing them mercy and appealing to God's mercy. This is a prayer about who God is, forgiving, careful, judging rightly, kind, accessible, and relenting. This isn't a God who just swoops down in anger at a few ruffians and gets rid of them. This is God who carefully considers each person and will spare even people who are inhospitable if there a few good ones sprinkled among them. And when we hear the story, of course, we know for the sake of one, Jesus Christ, we are not destroyed, although we might deserve it, but we are given new life and forgiveness and claimed as Children of God. We can almost hear Abraham saying to God, “But what if there were one who is righteous?” And God saying, “There is one, my son, and I am sending him to make you all my children, so that even if a volcano destroys you, you will still have life, and even if you are inhospitable, you will find another chance to show love, and even if you break the commandments, God will be with you to help you to find a more life-giving way.”

And one other important part of this stoy is that Abraham is persistent. Prayer is something that will come more naturally to us, like many things in life, if we practice it often. Be persistent. Set aside time. Set aside a space that is conducive to prayer. Make prayer a priority and it will become more a part of you.

Finally, our reading from Colossians is about prayer. It speaks of the church as one body, with Jesus Christ as our head. A body has many ways of communicating so it can work together in unity. When we communicate with God, when we pray, we are keeping the body working in unity. And when we act in ways that are consistent with God's love and with our faith, isn't that another form of prayer that builds up the body? 

When we think of prayer, we often think of the right words. But prayer is communication with God. Prayer is about listening to God and being open to what God's will might be, apart from our own desires. Prayer is about how we live our lives. Prayer is about our thoughts. Prayer is about finding our proper place in God's Kingdom. They say that words only make up about 10% of communication. Most of communication is nonverbal. That's why they say, “Actions are louder than words.” So let our whole lives be a prayer, of gratefulness, of hospitality, of openness, of generosity and may prayer transform us to reflect our loving God.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

July 17, 2016

Gospel: Luke 10:38-42 
1st Reading: Genesis 18:1-10a
2nd Reading: Colossians 1:15-28

In last week's Gospel reading, a man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks him what it says in the Bible. The man responds, “ You shall love the Lord your God … and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus then gives the man an example of what this looks like in the parable of the Good Samaritan. I love the Gospel of Luke, because whenever there is a story about men, you can bet there will be a corresponding story with women as primary characters, and I have to respect Luke for doing that. So today we have the corresponding story of how to love God and neighbor with women as the primary characters, the story of Mary and Martha and their hospitality welcoming Jesus into their home. 

I'll go into this story in a minute, but first I want to go back to the story from Genesis that we heard this morning about Abraham and Sarah welcoming the three visitors. This tradition of hospitality and loving God and neighbor goes a long way back. Jesus isn't just inventing this from no where. It is part of the way the Israelites have done things even back to Abraham, the father of their faith, the father of monotheism. Abraham and Sarah extend hospitality to three visitors and to God. Some have likened these three visitors to the Holy Trinity, or to angels, but most scholars agree these aren't just men, but God or messengers of God. It is pretty exciting that not just Abraham, but also Sarah are seen as providing hospitality and that the three visitors also recognized that and asked after Sarah and gave a blessing to her. It is one thing to say that Abraham will have a son and many offspring. Big deal, he doesn't carry a child for 9 months at age 90. In those days, men were blessed with a child through a woman, but nobody cared what the woman thought. She was just the vessel. It was highly unusual in those days to say that a woman would be blessed with a son. So for the visitors to say that this child will be a blessing to Sarah—to bless a woman, who is normally hardly even acknowledged as a person, is really a step forward. How she responds to it is her business, I guess. She outright laughs at the prospect, but who wouldn't at her age, in her situation?

Abraham and Sarah are extending hospitality. In this case it is strangers, visitors, or is it? It is God. But how soon do they recognize that it is God in their midst? I know I am usually slow to catch on, and only after someone has left, does it hit me that I learned something about myself, that the other person shared something so profound. So they are extending hospitality to those whom they perceive as strangers. In that time, there was a code. You welcome strangers because you were lonely, out there in the desert, and because survival depended on it. It might be a long way between sources of water or food. And you extended hospitality because you need more allies—as many as possible. Whenever a stranger approaches, we have the choice to think of them as allies or enemies. Certainly three men could have overpowered Abraham and Sarah and stolen everything they had. But they chose to treat them as friends and by doing so entertained angels unawares.

The reading from Colossians, shows us a view of cosmic hospitality. First, that in Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. A human body was a host for the fullness of God. That God became fully human and united heaven and earth in one person for all people, that heaven and earth co-mingled in Jesus and made room for one another, welcomed one another. Then that in Christ all things hold together in hospitality, so that Christ unites us all, humankind and all creation. And then that Christ is the head of the church and the church is Christ's body. 

The reading goes on to accurately name our divisions, that we were estranged and hostile in mind. Paul hits the nail on the head, except he makes it past tense. This is the reality we feel we live in. Wherever we look we are suspicious. We are on the lookout for enemies, for danger. I see all the finger pointing in the news media and the campaign trail, blaming cops, blaming people of different races, blaming immigrants, always looking for a way to divide and separate, inventing fears. We get so divided, but that is not the way God made us and not the way God intends the world to be organized.

We invent divisions, but that can't stop God's love. In the person of Christ, God absorbed all the hatred and anger and divisions that we have to throw at him and that violence killed him. But God is life, and by definition, cannot be killed, so he rose again to show us another way to live that is fulfilling and loving and uniting and welcoming.

Even families divide themselves and create enemies of people of our own flesh and blood. Mary and Martha both welcomed Jesus into their home. Yes, Martha gets chastised later, but at the beginning of the Gospel it says, “Martha welcomed him into her home.” Martha always gets such a bad rap. Let's give Martha a break. She did well. She welcomed Jesus.

Shall we take a poll. Who here identifies with Martha—busy, making sure the guests have what they need, worker-bee? Who here identifies with Mary—listening, taking it all in, carefree? 

I know there are a lot of Marthas, out here, because I see how much you do around here, and you've got your own lives at home, and then helping grandchildren, going to their games, and looking after them, and some of you still caregiving for parents or elderly family members or neighbors. We all do so much. Many of you volunteer in the community and give so much. So why doesn't Jesus appreciate us?!

I don't think Jesus is saying, as we may think, that sitting is better than working. Jesus points out some things that Martha could improve on and it doesn't mean that Mary can't improve, she just didn't put herself in the position of complaining to Jesus or asking his input on her situation. 

Maybe the problem is that, Martha was distracted and worried by many things. Mary was focussed on Jesus. Martha was focused on whether her sister was contributing in the way she thought she should. She missed out on the wonder of entertaining God in her home, because she was mad at her sister.

Maybe the problem is that Martha complained to Jesus. Martha was unhappy with Mary. Why didn't she take Mary aside and try to work it out with her? Maybe she had. Who knows how long this disagreement had gone on, or what the history was between them. I think we can take away from this that if we have a problem with someone, we should go to them and try to work it out. It often works out so much better than just complaining about it, but it takes courage and a willingness to have more than a superficial relationship, to be willing to see another side.

Maybe the problem is a lack of balance in life. Mary and Martha represent two aspects of life, faith and good works. You can't have one with out the other. Faith without works is dead, we read in scriptures, and good works without a chance to sit and reflect and restock the storehouse can be exhausting and damaging.

Maybe the problem is that Martha made her sister her enemy. So often when we have a problem with someone we forget to look deep inside to see what's going on with us and where these feelings are coming from. Maybe Martha was unhappy because she wanted to sit at Jesus' feet, too. Who was keeping her there in the kitchen? Her sister wasn't keeping her there. She was doing this to herself. Maybe she could have been creative and left the dishes until after Jesus had left. Martha had the choice to see her sister as a friend, to be happy for her that she could spend time with Jesus. Instead, Martha blamed her sister and saw her as an enemy, as we all do sometimes. 

God has created this world in unity, from all the same stardust, to work together in cooperation for the mutual benefit of all. God came as Christ to reinforce that concept, that God is with us and that we are one with each other. Jesus treated each person with dignity as an example to us of how to foster unity between us rather than divisions. And even his enemies, he forgives and saves, because we are all brothers and sister, children of God.

The enemies seem to be all around us, but really they are few. Friends are truly all around us. Jesus is all around us. Jesus is in the lines of hundred standing in line to give blood. Jesus is in all the many peace officers who do their job well because they want to make a difference. Jesus is in all the people who encourage and help. Jesus is in all the people who give selflessly. 

If we look, we can see friends to extend hospitality to. We can see Christ. I invite you to see a congregation united in Christ, willing to reach out to those with different opinions and find out why that person acts the way they do, a congregation open to all the gifts that God has given us even when they are unfamiliar and a little frightening, a congregation with a view toward the future, willing to take risks and try new things in order to be relevant and approachable, a congregation able to let go of human habits that are getting in the way and dividing people, keeping others from Christ.

I invite you to look for and see a community united in Christ, getting to know each other more and more, extending hospitality to newcomers, caring for one another as life circumstances change, learning new languages to accommodate those from other lands, teaching one another and learning from one another, tearing down fences and sharing all things in common. 

I invite you to see a nation where the least are cared for, the hungry are fed, and the sad are tended to, in which every person is known and valued, where no one feels afraid, where dialogue between groups is standard practice, where the people most affected make the decisions about their own lives, where people are treasured because of intrinsic value rather than the money they have or the car they drive, where each person can contribute out of their gifts and talents.

We might, like Sarah, laugh at the prospect! It seems so far away. We've heard it all before. But to God, this is no laughing matter. This is what God is bringing to us, so we'd better get ready to be part of it, to let it happen through us. And I know when it does, I will be laughing in a whole new way, without cynicism, but with joy.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

July 10, 2016

Gospel: Luke 10:25-37
1st Reading: Deuteronomy 30:9-14
2nd Reading: Colossians 1:1-14

This has just been one of those weeks. It just felt like bad news heaped on bad news. The news this week was in some ways unsurprising, after all that has gone on this year and year after year. I felt numb. I felt helpless. Two unarmed black men had been killed by police in 24 hours and it seemed like more of the same. Are we ever going to learn? Are we ever going to do better, or are we doomed to continue this violence in our country? And then I heard the tape of the girlfriend of Philando Castille, shot by police as he reached for the ID the police had asked for. I heard her calm voice, pleading, “Please don't tell me my boyfriend is dead.” And I heard the panicked voice of the police officer telling her to keep her hands where he could see her. And I heard later that a 4 year old girl was in that car, trying to calm down her mom from the back seat. And then her mom was arrested. Of course it is hard to stay numb and distant, when I think of my own son witnessing such horrors. For a few minutes I felt like I was in the car with them and I couldn't hold back my emotions. And then I didn't hear until Friday morning about the 5 police men in Dallas, and on the radio, the recordings of gunshots and shouts of “Officer down!” Sometimes it is hard to find hope.

It used to be, we'd read about this stories in the paper or see a 30 second clip on the evening news. Now, people are taking video. There are police body cameras and there are cell phone cameras recording all this. These videos bring us right into the action and emotion of the moment. They let us see and hear almost as if we are there. They bring us near.

The point of the readings this morning is that the word of God has come near, that God is making God's words and commandments and way of doing things our way of doing things. In the reading from the book of Deuteronomy, God is talking to the people, reminding them that God's word is very near and asking them to turn toward it, to face it. For Paul and Timothy, they are far away from the people in the church of Colossae, but through this letter, through their prayers, and through their faith, they are near to each other and to God. And finally in the story of the Good Samaritan, we all walk along the same road and encounter each other there and God walks on that road with us. We are near to each other and near to God. We can see who is in the ditch. The question is whether we will let that affect us and whether we will allow ourselves to see a person there that we can care for and help, or whether we will walk with our eyes averted and do nothing. How do we make the leap from just loving ourselves, to loving our neighbor? How do we change from the one who walks by to the one who stops to help? How do we let God's words penetrate our hearts so that we are transformed, so that our world can be transformed into a more compassionate, loving place where people find relationship and healing?

The first inclination I have when I hear this story is to go directly to guilt, because I can think of a thousand times I walked right by someone who could have used my help. I have ignored my neighbor. I have failed to have compassion and take pity on countless people. However, I don't know that feeling guilty really helps any of us. None of us can go back and change the past. That's part of the reason we started with a confession this morning. We are honest about how we have not lived up to our potential, how we have let God down, turned our back on our neighbor. And we let that go. We receive forgiveness and the chance to move ahead in a new way.

The truth is, we can't become the Samaritan who helps, until we recognize that we are the one in the ditch who is helpless. I have been in the ditch many thousands of times, with illnesses, with fears, with my own failures, and with sin—separation from God and separation from my fellow human beings. We've all been there and we are still there in one way or another. But there is hope. This story is not called the bad Priest and Levite or the robbers who beat up some poor guy. The story is called “The Good Samaritan.” Someone stopped to help, and that person is Jesus. For all the times I've been in the ditch, I may be a little groggy from a head wound, but I know what and who saved me. Jesus, the great healer, brought me back to life. Jesus, my savior, long ago took me from having no purpose to my life, no reason to live, no hope, and got down in that ditch with me to lift me up and heal me. Jesus has brought me out of the ditch every single time I've failed him, every single time I've failed any of you, every single time I wasn't even sure if I could move, if I would live to see another day, if I could ever find a way to go on. And I know Jesus has saved you, too.

Once we acknowledge that we don't get ourselves out of ditches, that we don't heal ourselves, that we don't bring ourselves to full life, that it is Jesus who makes our paths straight, lifts every valley and makes the mountains level, Jesus lifts up the ditches so we all stand on level ground, when we admit that it is Jesus, the one we rejected, the one we betrayed and denied, that reaches into the ditch and hauls us out, who cleans our wounds and gives us food and shelter and everything we need, we see that person in the ditch in a new way. That could be me. 

That could be me, sitting in a car with my kid in the backseat, pleading for medical attention for my partner. That could be me afraid every time my son leaves the house that he won't be treated fairly that I might never see him again. That could be me, there to protect a crowd of peaceful protesters, fired upon by a maniac, that could be me desperate, and alone and helpless, acting out of anger instead of love. To each person, Jesus reaches out a hand of love and understanding and forgiveness. And because of what he did for us, we don't have to get stuck in the guilt of all that we should have done and didn't. We can be thankful for the times he helped us.

We live in a world where people get robbed and beaten and left in a ditch by the side of the road. We live in a violent and cruel world. And we live in a world where people help each other, where they pull each other up out of the ditch, share of what they have, bring healing to one another, are generous and loving to people it seems they have nothing in common with. The question is, what kind of world do we want to live in and then to take action. Every time we do reach out with compassion, God is working through us to make a Good Samaritan world. 

We can also let go of the guilt of not responding every time. It is easy to get fatigued by all the people in the ditches. We start with those close to home, situations we know personally, right here in our neighborhood. And we also know that I am not the only one. Yes, Jesus works through me, but he also works through neighborhood organizations, and nonprofits, and thousands of other people who are also close to the situation and perhaps more prepared to handle it. 

Share a time you were the one in the ditch. Who helped you get out and come to healing?