Search This Blog

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

November 11, 2018

Mark 12:38-44                   
1 Kings 17:8-16                  
Hebrews 9:24-28
                There was no reason that the prophet Elijah should know or be concerned about a Gentile widow from over the mountains.  They couldn’t have been more different, Elijah and the widow of Zaraphath—different races, different cultures, different religions, different genders.
                But God commanded Elijah to go to her.  Why?  He had the people of Israel to instruct, to grow, to bless.  I think Elijah was instructed to go to her because she had something to teach him about faith and something to teach all of us who get to hear this story, thousands of years later.  God commanded her.  She didn’t know God, yet she listened to God, and was obedient.  She used the last of her resources, flour and oil, and the skill she had to make that something edible, and she made it and shared it.  I admire this widow*.  I admire her resourcefulness, the way she keeps going despite the growing knowledge that she’s going to run out.  I look in my cupboard and if I’m missing one ingredient, I’m in a tizzy.  It must be time for take out.  But over these weeks, she rations what she has, stretches it, and finally on the last day, as she shakes out the last whisper of flour from her jar and after leaving her oil container upside down all day, she hopes she has a teaspoon full, enough to make a last meal for her and her son.  She is teaching us to value every little bit, and isn’t this last bit the most valuable of all, a last supper, a family communion that they will remember until they fade away from hunger and are no more.  She is this flour, this oil.  She is the forgotten, the nothing at the bottom of the jar.  Her neighbors don’t know or care, or maybe they also hunger because of a famine upon the land.
Now, along comes a stranger, Elijah, a prophet of God.  Elijah has stood in God’s presences, suffered persecution from God’s people, brought difficult, challenging words to God’s people, a food they just couldn’t swallow, something that would have nourished them, if they hadn’t been so distracted with their own self-importance.  So here he comes to a nobody according to what this world values.  However, she is more faithful than any of the widows in Israel.  So Jesus says when he almost gets himself killed in his hometown of Nazareth.  She listens to God.  She cooks this meal for Elijah.  She treats him like her own son, better than her own son.  She teaches us and Elijah about family, how to ask for help, how to tell the truth about our own need, how to come together in community and work together, who to trust when we cannot trust the powers of this world to feed the hungry, who to look to for resourcefulness and faith and obedience. 
There was no reason that the Scribes at the Temple would see the woman put in her last 2 coins, but there they stood not 10 yards from each other.  He was strutting around, making sure everyone was listening to him, seeing him, blessing him.  She went unnoticed, as she put in her 2 coins and a prayer.  He would take those 2 coins and it would mean nothing to him, even though it meant everything to her.  Would she, like the widow of Zarapheth, go home and cook her last meal and starve unnoticed?  What would the scribe do, when he got home?  Would he eat his fill and still feel empty?  God brings these contrasting people together to teach each other something.  They are a few feet away from each other, but they may as well be on different planets.  They don’t know the same people.  They don’t live by the same truths.  They don’t have the same priorities.  And yet they affect each other.  He affects her because he devours her last 2 coins, all she has to live on.  He doesn’t seem to be affected by her, because what she offers seems so small compared to everything else he has.  However, Jesus says, he will eternally be affected by how he has treated her.  He receives the greater condemnation.
The other contrast that the Scribe and widow teach us, is about acting out of fear and acting out of faith.  Why is he strutting around like this?  It is because he is afraid that he isn’t enough.  He’s put his faith in his position, and his wealth, and his importance, and it isn’t fulfilling him.  If he doesn’t have the reassurance and recognition that he gets from long prayers and even longer robes, he is afraid he isn’t enough.  He is acting out of fear.  She is acting out of faith.  She has put her faith in God.  She knows that robes and recognition don’t give satisfaction.  You’re always going to need more.  But she gives her last 2 coins, knowing that money isn’t everything, having experienced miracles before and knowing that God can make something out of nothing, trusting that her coins will be valued, if not by the scribes, then by God.  And she’s right.  She knows God made us good.  She knows that God values every contribution no matter how small.  She gives out of her faith, rather than her fear, and she becomes an example to us.
There was no reason that a poor family, driving an old white Ford 1-ton van the mom a childcare worker and the dad an insulation installer would fit in at the local Lutheran congregation full of teachers and nurses and doctors.  But that’s where we found ourselves.  My mom with 4 kids, dad staying at home.  We did our best to fit in, but I know we stuck out.  They gave us their hand-me-downs, and we were thrilled to get them.  We shared our friendliness.  My mom took on the Sunday school superintendent job.  We couldn’t afford $10 apiece for the Mother/Daughter banquet, that would have been $40, more than my mom made in 2 days work.  We stood up and said it was unjust.  We were heard.  We changed our community.  And we were changed by our community.  They were examples of professionals, of how life could have many choices with an education, so they helped me with my college applications, and paid for my books in seminary.  They changed me.  Mom took piano lessons, started a mom’s group, started a support group for people struggling with depression.  Two groups of people who should never have come together, did for the betterment of both.
A little babe is born on a cold night in a barn.  His cry pierces the night.  God made flesh, come to us.  So many unlikely combinations: The Christ child and the shepherds, the son of God and the magi, the shepherds and the angels, God and humans together, Jesus and the lepers, Jesus and the Samaritan woman, Jesus and the Roman Soldier, Mary and Elizabeth.
There is no reason that God should come here to us, people of no importance, who struggle, who are weak, yet Jesus came to share our experience and know us, and to give himself as a living sacrifice that we might have life abundant in communion with him and the whole people of God and all of Creation.  He came to us to make us family, to make us strong, to heal the world.
A little Spanish-speaking church is looking for space.  A little bigger Lutheran Congregation finds an opening as a preschool vacates the building.  There is no reason that we should come together, but 5 years later here we are, friends, working side by side for the Gospel.
There is no reason that any of us should be here, except we felt the pull of the Spirit calling to us, inviting us at different times from different places, to participate in something messy but beautiful and at times frustrating, but to be part of something bigger than ourselves and our needs.
There is no reason to think that a church is needed or welcome out there in our county offices, testifying at city hall, or relating to neighbors, but somehow God keeps bringing us together to teach us something about ourselves and to help us open our ideas of who we are and who matters in God’s Kingdom wider until we truly all are one.
And I can’t help but wonder what unlikely pairings and combinations of people we will find ourselves in in the coming weeks and months, how we will be challenged and stretched as we reach out to our neighbors, how we might be surprised by the person or people that God places in our hands, that when we thought we were the ones helping, we find ourselves helped, stretched, learning, growing, valuing life differently, seeing people instead of problems, awed by the complexity of our systems that keep people down.  There are neighbors right next door that we don’t even know their names even though they’ve lived there 10 years or more.  God has placed them here not for us to overlook the or assume we don’t have anything to offer each other, but to show us that we are all related, we need each other, and everyone has something to offer, gifts from God for the good of the whole and that we are stronger together. 

Monday, October 29, 2018

October 28, 2018

Gospel: John 8:31-36                       
Jeremiah 31:31-34            
Romans 3:19-28
Today is Reformation Day.  It is the day we celebrate the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. October 31 is the postmark on 95 Theses, or 95 points that Martin Luther was asking people to think about and debate with him.  But we continue to celebrate the Reformation as ongoing, because we’ve never arrived at the perfect congregation or larger church organization, or denomination, but everyday we celebrate our baptism as dying to our old self, the sinful broken parts of our congregation and denomination and selves which come together to make the body of Christ, and we rise again to new life, with forgiveness, for new possibilities, in the hopes that God can make something out of us, as flawed as we are.  So the reformation is ongoing and we pray that God would reform us today.
God reform us, we pray. God answers, “The days are surely coming.”  The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when God will come near and there will be abundant life.  No longer will they read commandments on stone tablets, but God’s commandments will a part of everything the people do.  People will know God as a mother or father, a friend, and approach God with hope.  No longer will we look at our brothers and sisters as strangers, but we will welcome them, and see them as God sees them.
No longer will broken relationship be the norm, but there will be renewal and love.  The days are surerly coming, when brothers and sisters have a complaint against one another, they will not hide their feelings, or go and talk to someone else about it, but they will approach the other person, seeing their full humanity, and being confident that the relationship will not be broken.  They will examine themselves and accept their own part of the disagreement and make any changes to themselves that might be necessary.  They will approach the other person seeing the best in them, that they will be open and receptive and loving in their response.
No longer will there be destruction and violence, but the lion and the lamb will lie down next to each other and the child will play near the snake’s den.  The days are surely coming when no longer will people destroy each other with weapons or grieve their children shot down in Synagogues and churches and schools and streets, but peace will reign and hope will live.
No longer will mass incarceration deprive people of a chance to live, while lining the pockets of politicians and those in power.  The days are surely coming when all races of people will be treated with justice and love, when no longer will lighter skin mean a lighter sentence.
The days are surely coming when, no longer will people forget who they have to thank for their lives and well-being, but God will be praised by all creatures. 
The days are surely coming when no longer will we push each other around, but we will take God’s hand and be led in abundant life. 
The days are surely coming when no longer will we compete in contests of strength and power, but we will work together to make sure everyone has a part.  There will be no war or genocide, but world powers will work for the good of the weakest member.
The days are surely coming when no longer will congregations discriminate against pastors based on their gender or sexual orientation, when gay pastors will get calls to churches that are a good fit, just as their straight brothers and sisters in ministry.  Candidates for ministry will no longer doubt their call or look to serve in other places because the church is afraid of them.
The days are surely coming when no longer will we talk over each other, but the powerful will be silent to give voice to the oppressed. 
The days are surely coming when no longer will we feel that we are never enough, but we will know that Jesus and his love and forgiveness are enough. 
The days are surely coming when no longer will we judge each other, but we will humble ourselves and see the best in our neighbor. 
The days are surely coming says the Lord, when God will come near.  When God comes near, the Bible says, there will be judgment, there will be forgiveness, and there will be healing.  Jesus will show us by the people he associates with, that our priorities are not God’s, and that God has good news precisely for those who haven’t heard any good news in a long time.
                The days are surely coming says the Lord when God will come near and judge the world in righteousness.  We will see clearly the times we’ve stood in the way of God’s dream as individuals and as institutions, like churches.  The honest assessment will say that we’ve broken the commandments.  We’ve broken the covenant.  We’ve sinned against God and each other.  We’ve forgotten who made us and freed us. 
                The days are surely coming when we will know we are free and live in that freedom, using it for good and the building up of the Kingdom of God.
                The days are surely coming when instead of banishing us or destroying us, we will understand that God chooses to partner with us.  This doesn’t mean any of us can brag or boast about how good we’ve been, or how much God loves or forgives us. 
                The days are surely coming when we will come to understand this passage as Martin Luther did, “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by God’s grace as a gift.”  What a moment that must have been, when he read that, and read it again, and again!  The word “justified” is a difficult one to get a handle on.  We cannot justify ourselves.  We cannot make ourselves just by our good works or right action.  I think of type on a page being right justified, aligned on one side.  We cannot align ourselves with God.  We can’t match God’s righteousness or glory or wisdom.  Instead, justification, or alignment is a gift that God gives us.  We can’t get to God’s level.  So God came and aligned God’s self to us, justified us, not because of anything we did, but just to be in relationship with us, and not the important people or the rich people who were too busy justifying themselves by their wealth and influence, but the most neglected little people, the throw-away people that no one noticed or cared about.
                The days are surely coming when we will understand this is a free gift.  It does come at a cost, and that is the death of Jesus our Savior.  He paid the price for all our sins on the cross.  But he didn’t want us to remain in sorrow and pain.  He not only died, but he rose again and raises us up with him to new life, today and every day.
     The days are surely coming!  Jesus’ reign is surely coming!  God’s forgiveness is surely coming!  Celebration is surely coming!  New life is surely coming!  

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

October 21, 2018

Mark 10:35-45                   
Isaiah 53:4-12                     
Hebrews 5:1-10                
                When you hear the word “leader,” who do you think of?  What qualities are important in a leader?  These questions were important to the Disciples following Jesus.  They were important in the early church.  And they are important in our church. 
                Being a leader is a mixed bag.  When we are asked to lead, we take on responsibility to make things happen.  We want to be knowledgeable on the topic in which we lead.  We want to be reliable.  We want to be inspiring.  We usually want to get things done.  On the other hand, we don’t want to do all the work ourselves.  If we have accepted responsibility, there are times we might find ourselves hustling at the last moment to complete tasks that volunteers committed to, but were unable to finish.  And we sometimes get the credit for the work others have done, which is also uncomfortable.  Sometimes as leaders, there are others who don’t like the way we lead, who challenge us out of jealousy or another reason.  We often don’t want to put ourselves in a position of power over others, or be seen as doing so, yet we might have skills or knowledge that other people don’t have. 
                The prophet Isaiah today talks about the fate of people who stick their neck out, of prophets who accept or who are compelled to tell the truth to rulers and whole communities of people who need guidance.  Many times, that help and challenge is not accepted, and that person is punished, made to suffer for doing what he or she had to do because of conscience or the Holy Spirit. 
                The readings for today help us think about leadership, our own, and that of others.  According to Isaiah, a leader is a healer, someone has a certain kind of knowledge, someone who is often abandoned, abused, and even crushed.  A leader is sometimes punished unjustly.  However, in the end, God will not forget someone who leads righteously, who selflessly gives and serves and tells the truth.  Such a leader will eventually find prosperity and celebration, and community.  This kind of leader will be eventually recognized for his or her gifts and sacrifices.
                We, of course, think of Jesus.  But this refers to what prophets have endured through the ages.  This is a story that recurs, over and over again. 
                According to Hebrews, a leader is able to “deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness.”  A leader not only relies on his or her strengths as a guide, but isn’t it the bad things we’ve done and the weaknesses we’ve endured that help us serve others the most?  Some of our pantry clients have come to be some our best volunteers.  Because they know what it is like to be without food, they come to make sure others don’t have to go through that.  Many hospice volunteers give their time because they’ve been through a death of someone very close to them.  They know what that’s like to hurt so deeply and feel so lost.  So they serve out of a place of pain. 
                This leadership that comes from a place of pain or weakness is a good thing.  It takes a terrible situation and creates power, the ability to act, to do something to relieve the suffering of others.  It creates community.  It says, “I’m not going to sit home with my problems and let them overwhelm me.”  Instead, this kind of service links us to other people.
                In the reading from Hebrews this morning, we find that leaders are to be obedient.  We associate obedience with being a kid.  We don’t have that many positive associations with the word “obedience” for adults.  But being obedient to God, is to trust God’s vision and direction and humble ourselves to be followers of the only one who is trustworthy and has the complete picture.
                Finally, in Mark, we learn that a leader is to be a servant.  Jesus is the ultimate example of that.  He is a leader who spends his time with the lowest of the low, at the bottom of the heap.  Jesus prioritizes those who others completely disregard.  He got no recognition for it.  He did it because those people matter in the Kingdom of God and were open to meeting him and were actually able to see God in him.  He found people who knew what all was wrong with this world, what was crushing people, what was causing suffering, and he joined with them in a vision of the Kingdom of God where everyone is valued and has a voice, where children are leaders, blind people are leaders, grieving people are leaders, sinners are leaders, all of us following Jesus our Savior, our shepherd, the only trustworthy leader, the only one who could give us what we really need, abundant life.
                Jesus disciples desperately want to lead.  Who knows if they want the recognition, or if they just want to be close to Jesus.  They want the seating chart in the next life.  Jesus tells them that he doesn’t make the seating chart, but if they want to be near him, they must be near the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, because that is where Jesus is.
                He is so kind to them.  Jesus doesn’t get angry when they are jockeying for their position next to him in the next life.  Instead he askes them if they have what it takes.  Are they prepared to drink the cup and be baptized with his kind of baptism?  They say, “Yes,” not knowing what they were saying.  Jesus refers Holy Communion and Baptism, the two sacraments, the two things Jesus commands we do and does himself to experience the real presence of God.  He will be present with us when we follow him faithfully despite suffering and pain.
                The cup is a cup of celebration.  But it is also a cup of blood.  This is Jesus’ blood poured out.  Are the disciples ready to pour out their blood?  They say they are willing, and they will as martyrs.  I think of the cup from the 23rd Psalm, “My cup runs over.”  There is blessing in the cup that spreads out to others.  This is a cup more than half full.  I also am reminded of the cup that Jesus prays about in the garden of Gethsemane.  “If it by thy will, take this cup from me.”  This is a cup of suffering, of death, of sacrifice, of servanthood.
                Jesus asks if they are willing to be baptized with a baptism like his.  A baptism is celebration of a person’s place in the community of believers, a washing away of sin, a moment when we are claimed by God.  It is also a commemoration of the Israelites passing through the Red Sea, crossing over into a whole new life in which they would learn to trust God and be God’s people.  It was a death of the old Israelites, and the birth of a new nation.  When we baptize we baptize into Jesus’ death and resurrection, drowning the old self, and rising to new life.  When the disciples were agreeing to his baptism, they didn’t realize they were agreeing to live in a whole new way in which their old self would die, the old self that was blind, the old self that wanted the seating chart, the old self that wanted to be important.  In baptism, too, we die to our selfish ways and are reborn into the body of Christ.  We are responsible to all others in the body.  It isn’t about us anymore, but about the health and wellness of the weakest members.  But the Disciples agreed to it anyway, and eventually his disciples would all learn what it meant to die to their old self and rise to become servants.
                In this church we have the most amazing leaders.  I have been so impressed by the people taking leadership.  Some pastors complain that they have to drag their congregations out into the community to lead.  But here, you're all telling me which community meetings it is important for me to attend.  You know your commissioners, the Mayor of Milwaukie and everyone in his office.  You are volunteering in the community and making a difference.  You are leaders.  We have a strong Stewardship Team.  Lots of people come up with ideas and work to make them happen.  The leaders in this church are phenomenal!  
                I don’t know if this is going to change how we see leaders, and put our faith in Jesus rather than earthly rulers and tyrants.  Of course, I urge you to vote.  And then I urge you to hold our elected leaders accountable to the people who are hurting the most, who lack power and influence, because this is who Jesus told us to look out for, because we are joined with them in one body.  Their pain is our pain.  Their joy and health is our joy and health. 
                And even though we are imperfect leaders, we shouldn’t give up.  We have the forgiveness and love of God, and a community of imperfect people who understand when we mess up.  We should strive to be trustworthy, however, we know that only God is good and reliable, so we step up with humility, never to draw attention and glory to ourselves, but to participate in God’s vision of healing and hope for all the world.

Monday, October 15, 2018

October 14, 2018

Mark 10:17-31                   
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15            
Hebrews 4:12-16

                Sit up and take note.  This is a story in which Jesus talks to someone much like us.  Take a moment to put yourselves in his position.  We may only have one car, we may have downsized to an apartment, we may not have a lot, but compared to most of the people of this world, we are rich.  And some of us clearly do have nice houses, cars, and possessions, even rich in relationship to most Americans.  Many of the stories of the Bible speak of Jesus interacting with those who are poor, or sick, or rejected, or blind, disregarded in some way.
                “As Jesus was setting out on a journey….” Maybe that doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but I think it might be.  Jesus was going someplace.  He was on the move.  Part of what enabled him to do that was his lack of material things.  Everything he absolutely needed, he could carry with him, most notably the approval and mission he had from his Father.  Everything else he needed, he opened himself up to receiving from God through the people he met and the land he crossed.  He is truly a person of the exile, living a life of wilderness wandering.  But he wasn’t on the journey to learn to be one of God’s people.  He was on the journey to show us the way through the wilderness to be part of God’s family and so that we could learn to trust the one who is trustworthy.
                “A Man ran up and knelt before him and asked, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.’”  This man approaches Jesus.  If everything was all right, he would never have left the house.  But something is not right.  I can relate.  Do you feel it, too?  When things aren’t right who do you go to?  Or do you have a place you go?  This makes me wonder how many spiritual leaders this man approaches before he comes to Jesus.  Somehow, he’s come to the one who is trustworthy, who has the key to eternal life.  We all have access to Jesus.  We can come to him.  We can come to him in prayer.  We can come to him in Scripture, in the Bible.  We can come to him in each other, in relationship to the body of Christ.  So we come and kneel before him and we confess that something isn’t right.  Life, as I’m living it, is not abundant.  Life is not fulfilling.  Something major is missing.  I hurt for this world.  I hurt for the systems I’m a part of that destroy people and God’s good creation.  I wake up at night and think of all those separated from their families by flood or war or famine.  I worry about the destruction and pollution of this earth.  I grieve my losses and consider my sins, and worry about what others think of me. 
                Jesus says, “Why do you call me good.  Only God is good.”  He deflects the praise, which is not a sign of what the man really thinks of him, but a polite greeting from one person trying to get into the good graces of another.  Jesus may well know the man isn’t going to be calling him good for long. 
                Jesus lays out the commandments.  But the man has kept the commandments and still isn’t living an abundant, eternal, satisfying, fulfilling life.  Something is still missing.  Martin Luther has pointed out in his writings that the 10 Commandments are really a minimum requirement.  It is a minimum not to take a weapon and take another person’s life.  But do we not take another person’s life when we steal their livelihood from them by cheating them or charging them too much?  Don’t we take a person’s life when we find them sleeping under our stairs and we shoo them away?  Don’t we take a person’s life when we add to air pollution so that it gives children asthma?  This man has followed the commandments, checked them off his list one by one.  Yet he has not found or shared abundant life. 
                And Jesus, looking at him, loved him.  It is a tender moment.  Jesus loved him.  Agape love is a self-sacrificing love.  Maybe this is partly why Jesus didn’t want him to call Jesus “good.”  Jesus is self-sacrificing.  He gives himself up for the love of his friends and for the abundant, eternal, fulfilling life of the world.  Jesus knows what it takes to find eternal life—self-sacrifice.  He knows that this man’s possessions won’t fulfill him.  He knows that actually this man’s possessions are holding him back, keeping him feeling safe and secure, keeping him tied to his home base, keeping him from following Jesus.  They are keeping him from following Jesus literally on his way to the cross, from learning from him.  They are also keeping him from following the way of Jesus, which rejects possessions and material things and embraces relationship and connection and vulnerability, which you just don’t have when you surround yourself with comforts.  Jesus’ self-sacrificing love is something he calls us into, because that does lead to abundant, fulfilling life for all.
                Jesus then talks to his disciples about how hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter God’s Kingdom—harder than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.  Many of you probably already know that the entry gate into a city was referred to in those times as the eye of the needle.  Sometimes you get camels trying to get through the gate that are so loaded up, they aren’t going to make it.  With a needle and thread, they are pretty useless without each other.  It’s pretty hard to thread a needle until you’ve had a lot of practice. 
I thought of that sewing needle and I thought of that gate into the city and I thought about eternal life verses the kind of life we’re living surrounded by possessions and comforts.  All of these needles are pinch points, they are points of transition.  In all transitions there are certain things we let go of.  That’s what we fear.  If we let go possessions or positions in the community or relationships or anything, we are afraid that we will grieve, that we will be vulnerable, that we will be pained.
But what we fail to consider is what is on the other side of that eye.  If God is the one we say God is, and if we trust God, we have a vision of the Kingdom of God that is worth letting go of everything in this world and moving through that eye, that transition, that little death, that pinch point.  I stood on the beach this week.  Somehow the sun on the water and the dog and bird footprints in the sand and the little crabs and jellyfish and shells and rocks and sounds of the waves and the sight of blue water and blue sky that melted into one another, in some ways overwhelmed me with the hugeness and power of this world, reminded me of the cycles and seasons throughout the ages and going forward, and made me feel connected to distant shores and people, and plant and animal life, the salt water matching the salt of my tears, the sun warming me and the water, at once feeling so small and so connected.    Nothing I had or was could give me the gift of the ocean.  It is not kept for rich or poor, but available.  There is a glimpse of what lies at the other side of the needle, the other side of the gate, the Kingdom of God.
The scriptures describe a reality in which we will not grieve or mourn, no one will be hungry or sleeping in the parking lot, no one will have more than they need and no one will go without, but we will all gather around a table of abundance and feast together in community and fulfillment and satisfaction and eternal life.
With a needle and thread, they are pretty useless without each other.  If we are the thread, we can do very little on our own.  Until we are threaded we won’t be fulfilled, we won’t be able to do our job, no matter how fancy we are.  Secondly, it’s pretty hard to thread a needle until you’ve had a lot of practice.  When a person first tries to thread a needle, usually they will try to stick the thread through the eye of the needle.  Sometimes we’re like that, too.  We try to force ourselves through the pinch point, win the Kingdom of God with our works, by being nice or enough.  But sadly we just crumple against the needle, like this rich man.  However, someone with experience will tell you, hold the thread still and pass the needle over it and you will likely be successful after just a few attempts.  First get the thread wet in baptism.  Then, pass the needle over.  We cannot force ourselves into the Kingdom, but the Kingdom will come to us.  We will not be comfortable.  We will let go of things that don’t fit with God’s justice, that hurt our neighbors, that protect us from needing each other.  We will have to let go of the things we think give us life and give our life meaning, but we will find what is eternal life, fulfilling, abundant life.  We will find Kingdom life, or rather it will find us.


Wednesday, October 3, 2018

September 30, 2018

Mark 9:38-50
            I am so honored to bring you a message today.   I am grateful to God that our two communities can be engaged in the same work in our community, sharing the message of God’s love, and the good news of abundant life in Christ.  As a small congregation, it can be easy to get discouraged about how much we can really accomplish.  But knowing that you are here and that we have partners and friends everywhere we look, and even places we never thought to look, is encouraging.  Your congregation is an inspiration to me, faithfully meeting and praying and learning about God’s word, challenging yourselves in leadership roles, and I especially appreciate the way you hold me and our congregation in your prayers always.  Because of your example, we remember you every Sunday in our prayers as well as during the week.
            Sometimes, especially in a small congregation, the people of God forget how expansive God’s love is.  We can get focused on our own congregation or our own trials, our own lives.  We’re not so different from Jesus’ first disciples.  It makes me feel better to read about their questions and mistakes, because a lot of times I don’t understand what God is trying to teach me, either.  In today’s reading the disciples are concerned because an outsider was casting out demons and they tried to stop him.  The funny thing is, just a little earlier in Mark’s Gospel, those same disciples were trying to cast out demons and they failed.  Now they are upset because someone else is doing the good work they couldn’t do.  I don’t know if the disciples were jealous, or if they thought this outsider was making them look bad.  The disciples didn’t like it at all. But Jesus liked the work of these outsiders.  They weren’t outsiders to Jesus. 
            Sometimes we Christians can get territorial.  We get possessive of our people, our area, even about the message of God’s love.  But Jesus says, you can’t control God’s Spirit.  It is bigger than your ideas of it.  God’s Spirit is plentiful and goes out where it will.  You can’t contain it.  Every time humankind tries to contain God’s Spirit, we get a rude awakening.  When the Israelites wanted to build God a temple, God wasn’t too happy about that.  God liked being in a tent, a moveable tabernacle, so God wouldn’t be seen as only being in one place.  When the Israelites were in exile in Babylon, they thought God was far away, until Ezekiel had a vision of a burning chariot with eyes all over it, and realized that God was right there with them and couldn’t be contained far away from the people who were suffering.  When people thought they knew God, God came as the baby Jesus, to walk among the people and experience our life.  Every time we think we can contain or control God, we get surprised by the expansiveness of God’s Spirit.  No one group has a monopoly on God’s power and Spirit.  And that is the joy we share as two congregations doing God’s work in this place.  We are part of the same body of Christ.
            Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  I love this!  People usually say, “Whoever is not for us is against us.”  That is human nature.  We suspect each other.  We don’t trust each other.  We put everyone not immediately related in the category of suspicion.  But Jesus says that’s not God’s view.  God knows the true story and that is that we all are related.  We come from the same Creator.  We all feel pain, we all bleed, we all have hopes and dreams, we are of the human family.  God’s view is not of exclusivity.  God says that unless we have good reason to believe that someone is against us, we must include them in our circle.  And that is because God gives gifts to all God’s children, all God’s creation, and God doesn’t want us putting out stumbling blocks, barriers to anyone using their gifts, because that would be trying to put up barriers to God’s life-giving work.  So to you this day, Church of God of Prophecy, I say, we are with you, King of Kings Lutheran Church is with you, and we give thanks that we are all doing God’s work and listening to God’s voice for the good of this neighborhood and for the advancement of the Kingdom of God.
            Now humans are so predictable.  We so easily put others on the outside and question the motives of others, but we give ourselves so much credit!  The first Disciples weren’t even able to cast out the demon, but they guarded their closeness with Jesus.  We, too, minimize our shortcomings and make excuses for ourselves.  Sometimes this reading about cutting out eyes and limbs has been used to banish people who we see as sinners from our communities, or as ammunition to use against people we disagree with.  However, this reading is about self-reflection.  If it was about pointing out the sins and shortcomings of others, we wouldn’t have this part about putting a stumbling block in front of other people, which we do when we judge them and push them away from  us.  God is watching out for the ones we often criticize, the little ones: the children, the women, the widows and orphans, the foreigner, the sick or imprisoned, or poor, or grieving.  God says instead of tearing people down who are little, who are down already, take a long look at ourselves and see what might be getting in the way of our wholehearted commitment to the reign of God.  Whenever we do hurt people who are already suffering, we are cutting at the body of Christ, hurting his little ones, hurting this beautiful community that God has made of the people, putting out an eye in the body of Christ, or severing a foot or hand.  I’m happy to say I agree with Pastor Juan that this is not a scripture about physically injuring ourselves!  But it is pointing out how we injure the body of Christ when we sin and when we put out barriers and stumbling blocks to God’s people.  And when we injure the body of Christ, we are only going to cause more stumbling.  If your eye causes you to stumble, he says, tear it out.  But that will only cause more stumbling. And the same with a hand or foot.
            When we read this Gospel we realize how serious it is when we sin, when we put up barriers to God’s work among us, when we exclude little ones, when we hurt each other.  I have to admit that I struggle with the concept of hell.  There are several words that get translated as “hell” in the Bible.  One is the grave, which is more a place of rest.  This one in the Gospel today refers to the garbage heap outside of Jerusalem that was perpetually burning.  Whether hell refers to a place of eternal torture, or the garbage dump, I think the message is the same.  We should take our sins seriously, because they hurt especially the little ones, the vulnerable people around us.  Whatever causes us to sin, we should figure out how it happened and work to find a way so that it doesn’t happen again.  We should look at our lives and find out what we do that causes us and others to stumble, and root it out.  We don’t want to waste the gift God gives us, throw it away, because we’re letting something get in the way.  We want to use these gifts as God intended them, to serve the vulnerable ones.
            I wish it was as easy as that to root out sin, to cut it out.  But how do we cut out our fears that cause us to stumble?  How do we cut out our jealousy?  I am reminded of the scripture from Ezekiel.  God is speaking and says, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”  Our hearts are soft toward ourselves, but to others they can be so hard.  God is trying to give us a heart transplant.  Maybe it is the same with our eyes and hands.  If we remove our eye or foot, we will just stumble more.  That is the problem when humans try to fix it ourselves.  But when we let God lead and heal us, we find God is replacing our eye with God’s.  So now we don’t just see the short view or how something benefits us, but we start to see with God’s eyes.  Where we once saw a stranger or foreigner or a threat, now we see with the eyes of God our brother and sister, a little one we care about.  Where we once reached out in greed with our own hand, now we reach out with God’s hand in generosity.  Where once we walked on our feet all the places we wanted to go, now we walk with God’s feet with direction and purpose to serve the little ones.  Whereas once we were tasteless, now we are salty, a little bit going a long way, seasoning and influencing those around us.  Whereas before we thought we were chosen by God for privilege and importance and riches, now that Jesus is correcting us, we see that we have been chosen for service, to be a blessing to others, to usher in the Kingdom of God.
            We give thanks that God is merciful, because instead of cutting out all the parts of us that are sinful, Jesus took all those wounds upon his body on the cross.  And he entered hell and conquered death that we might have eternal life and not be slaves to sin eternally.  Instead we are raised with him to eternal life.  So we move boldly forward, in the confidence of God’s love, not fearing that we might sin or make a misstep, but knowing that we are redeemed to serve for the flourishing of life.

Monday, September 24, 2018

I invite you to find someone near you and spend a few minutes talking about this question: What does it mean to welcome/receive Briana (a 9 month old baby) among us at King of Kings?

"Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37'Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.'” I know I'm not Jesus, but how convenient of him to place Briana in our midst this morning and almost every Sunday in the 7 months since she was born.  Not only does he place her here with us, but he says to us this morning that to welcome her is to welcome Jesus and to welcome Jesus is to welcome God.
    I don't know if you remember, but we prayed for Briana before she was born.  Do you remember?  It was a high-risk pregnancy, and we prayed for a couple of months at least.  Briana was almost not here among us, yet here she is.
    Why do you think God brought her to us?  
    What do you think God is teaching us through her?
    In the Bible, it is always the outsider that gets who Jesus is.  The Syrophonecian woman from the other day gets that there is enough Jesus to go around, the foreign leper is the only one of 10 to thank Jesus for healing him, the Good Samaritan/foreigner is the one to stop and help a man beaten and thrown in the ditch, when the rabbi and priest cross on the other side of the street.  Peter didn't want to see Jesus fail, but Jesus knew he would by the world's standards.  Briana fails over and over again each day.  She grabs for something and misses.  She tries to speak and babbling comes out of her mouth.  She drops her pacifier.  She bumps her head.  But Briana isn't afraid of failure, because she learns something each time she tries.  Briana is a death and resurrection machine!  Perhaps God is teaching us to be open to failure and to learn from our mistakes.  Perhaps Briana can be an example to us.
      Her cries are not distractions, but they are a wake up call to all those of us in comfort to look around at the suffering that is going on, that we perpetuate, that we ignore.  They represent the cries of the refugee in Syria, the cries of of the little ones in our own country who are locked in dog crates, imprisoned and separated from their parents with our tax dollars, for seeking asylum from war-torn countries and gang violence.  Her cries take us to a stable long ago when another little inconvenience came helpless into this world, uninvited, no room for him.  Will we make room for her?
    Jesus today puts Briana in our midst.  She is innocent, curious, hopeful, and do you see how she makes eye contact.  She wants to connect with us.  Through the scriptures, Jesus is placing her at the center.  We come here, for what?  To pray?   To hear a sermon?  To get spiritually fed for the coming week?  Jesus says we come here to see, to become aware of, to relate to these little ones.  We come here to be the body of Christ with others, including Briana.  Jesus puts Briana front and center.  She's what we're here for?  But God, I just want my quiet moment with you.  What's that, Jesus?  Faith in you is lived out in relationship with the Briana's of this world?  I don't know if we're ready for that God. Ready or not, we get to practice, because here she is!
    Do you remember 6 years ago, we were missing our right arm?  We were the body of Christ without a limb.  A person can get by without a limb, but it makes life hard.  We were a congregation without children, a crucial piece missing.  And we accepted it.  We said, "We will be a congregation of old people." And God laughed and sent us children!  We got our right arm back.  But we got used to being without it, and we're not sure what to do with it now.  We all have different standards of how to look after children, about their noise and movement.  People today don't raise kids the way you did--it is a different world than the one you raised kids in.  But Jesus is saying that our discomfort as a church is a challenge to us.  God is trying to show us something, teach us something, and we need to pay attention so we can learn from Jesus, through Briana.  Jesus is saying Briana is not a distraction.  She is essential to the body of Christ.  She helps complete us.  She is integral.  Our discomfort is not saying that she needs to change, it is saying that we need to change.  Jesus is trying to change us, to get through to us.
    I struggle with what it means to welcome the children.  Some parts of church can be difficult for an energetic kid.  So we set up a craft time.  But what message is it to send children out of church?  The message I fear it is sending is that the children aren't full participants, which is what I was trying to counteract with my sometimes disasterous, sometimes accidentally brilliant interactive children's services that we did for a couple of years until it clearly wasn't working.  So if they are leaving the service now, why are we surprised that kids leave and never come back once they get into middle school and high school?  When and how do they switch from being sent out, to being full participants in church, in the body of Christ?  
    I know I am old fashioned.  I sat in church for years not understanding very much of the sermon or the Bible readings, but fully understanding I was part of something, among people who loved me, and who I loved.  That's my prayer for Briana and my prayer for you, whether or not you can hear or understand the sermon or any other part of the service.  Know that you are loved and treat one another as members of the beloved community.  God gave us each other as a gift.  Those of us with more experience get to welcome and receive the little ones.  And we find that they welcome and receive us, they teach us what is really crucial, they soften our hearts, they help us look for the value in each one, even the parts that make us uncomfortable.  
    I pray that Briana will carry on in beloved community of one form or another.  Maybe a church, maybe a neighborhood group, some form of beloved community, who knows what form it might take.  I pray that she'll be there with her gray hair and her walker and that when someone comes in carrying a curious little bundle with big eyes and a bigger smile, that she'll give a smile, because she knows from her experience here what it meant for her to be received as a little child.

September 16, 2018

Mark 8:27-38                      
Isaiah 50:4-9a                     
James 3:1-12     
                We play a lot of children’s games in our house, right now.  When I was a kid, Babar was the game I loved best, and I was a sore loser.  I didn’t realize like most 4 year olds, that it isn’t about winning, but about relating to each other and having fun.  Now my favorite is UNO.  We also like dominoes, Candyland, and Chutes and Ladders to play as a family.
                In Chutes and Ladders, you spin to find the number of spaces moved.  If you land on a space with a ladder you get to move up the board.  If you land on a space with a chute, down you go. 
                In the reading from James, folks are moving forward on the board as teachers in the Christian Faith.  But the game they are playing is not God’s game.  They are trying to gain in importance and recognition.  The further forward they try to move, to get toward their goal of perfection, the more chutes they encounter.  The more they put themselves out in front of other people, the more people see their flaws and inconsistencies, the more times they put their foot in their mouth.  The more they let their mouth run, the more trouble they get into and the more people see them for who they are, not wise, faithful people, that God has in mind for them, but two-faced, and bitter and far from their goal of glory, or wisdom, or respect.
                The reading from Isaiah reveals someone who is on the path where God is leading, spinning the spinner and moving forward, sustaining the weary and teaching with compassion.  But others don’t value the path that the speaker is on.  Maybe they are jealous.  Maybe they just have different values.  But they are threatened by this path, so they strike with violence, they insult and spit, they pull, they try to influence.  They try to get the one speaking to play a different game, the game this world values.  But it is God who acts to support the one speaking here and help them move forward.  Sometimes we feel so alone out there on the path, but when we are on the path toward the vision of God, God is with us.
                There is a question here, who is this reading about?  Who is it that is faithful, not rebellious, who is accosted, who got his beard pulled, who did not hide his face from spitting?  Is it about the prophet Isaiah?  Isaiah is persisting despite all kinds of obstacles and people who stand against him.  Some say it is a prophecy about Jesus.  Some say it is about Israel.  In that case it might be more wishful thinking. I think it still applies to people who stand in resistance to the values of this world, with a vision of God’s Kingdom, people willing to sacrifice for what they believe in.  We could say our veterans, and those serving in the armed services have put themselves at great risk to stand for the greater good.  This could be about them. Some have said that those protesting at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building against the incarceration of children and those seeking asylum are putting themselves at some risk and pain to keep attention on the plight of vulnerable people.  Often as people have moved forward toward the vision of peace and wholeness they see as coming from God or from ultimate good, others have mocked them, hurt them, and tried to make them doubt themselves.
                The disciples are on a path with Jesus.  The end point is not that clear to them.  All they know is that they have been invited to move forward with Jesus and they feel drawn to leave their home and everything they have ever known at start, and move forward in faith.  Sometimes they land on a chute.  They argue about who will sit next to Jesus in the heavenly realm, they fail to heal people, they ask who sinned this man born blind or his parents.  Sometimes they climb ladders.  They participate in a healing, they see Jesus transfigured.  Today Peter climbs up a high ladder.  He correctly identifies that Jesus is the Messiah.  He realizes Jesus defies all the categories, that he is different from anyone who has come before.  I get the feeling Peter didn’t even know what was going to come out of his mouth, speaking of taming the tongue!  But this time his tongue bore witness to what was beginning to dawn on him, it spoke a deep truth that was just being born in his thoughts.  So he climbs so high.  He feels like he’s almost finished the game.  But then he listens to Jesus say what will happen to the Messiah, and Peter isn’t following Jesus anymore, he’s trying to lead him.  Peter’s trying to lead Jesus to safety, but that’s not where Jesus is going.  And no sooner has Peter climbed so high, that he encounters this chute, and Jesus is rebuking him and calling him Satan!  He couldn’t be more wrong about who Jesus is and what his followers are being called to. 
                Peter is playing a human game, in which the point is to win.  It is to ascend the throne, gather all the power, and gloat before your enemies.  Jesus doesn’t play that game.  He plays the game that he knows from his father in heaven.  This is a game in which everyone is liberated, everyone has enough, those in power give up what they have so that others can share that power, in which we all cooperate, and in which often chutes are ladders and ladders are chutes.  The Kingdom of heaven is like turning chutes and ladders upside down.  When the Scribes and Pharisees and people in authority try to get Jesus to climb their ladders and bow before their gods, Jesus seems to slip down a chute, but he climbs with the outcasts.  When Jesus touches a leper and talks to a woman divorced 5 times he should be going down a chute according to earthly customs, but he climbs closer to a vision of the Kingdom of God.
                So many times the values of our faith collide with the values of this world.  It is so much easier to follow the ways of this world, that value power, money, recognition, comfort, and glory.  It is easier to set my mind on earthly things just like Peter.  But it also isn’t easier, because the powers of this world pain me, and I know they do you.  We see the damage they do.  We even experience the damage they do.  So we look for a more true vision and we have found that in the life and death of Jesus.  So we find ourselves making choices that don’t always make sense to the powers of this world.  Give your money to people in need?  Spend your time with people who are hungry or old or alone?  Make friends with sinners?  Give up comforts?  Sit among crying babies and wiggly kids?  Are we climbing a ladder or going down a chute?  Sometimes it isn’t so clear.
                We are Christians.  We have chosen to follow Christ.  We go where he leads us.  We see him stopping to spend time with people that make us uncomfortable, we do it, too, and we find ourselves challenged, growing, enriched by new relationships.  We find him giving food to all who are hungry.  We do so, too, and we find ourselves fed at a deeper level.  We find him standing against the powers of this world that are greedy and threatened by shared power.  We stand looking at the cross, wearing his cross on a little chain, but do we really want to take the risk to pick it up and carry it?  We know the consequences of standing against the corrupted powers of this world to sustain the weary, sick, and lonely of this world.  We will go the way of the cross.  We will pay with insults and humiliation, with losses of friendships, with incarceration, with financial losses.  We may even pay with our lives.  But as we plummet down the chutes of this world, we follow our liberator Jesus through the valley of the shadow of death, and are born into eternal life, into the Kingdom of God, into God’s love and light. 
                August 31, 20 pastors were arrested in front of the ICE building blocking an entrance to bring attention to the plight of asylum seekers in our nation and our state.  They took on a small sacrifice for the sake of people they had never met who are fleeing violence in their home country, who had left everything out of desperation.  The pastors said they were scared and inconvenienced, however, they kept in constant prayer for the children removed from their parents and the unimaginable suffering they were enduring.  I hope I find myself, someday, standing up for what is right in a similar way.  Because this world is so cruel and unjust, we simply cannot let it stay the way it is.  We must be willing to make sacrifices, to face suffering, to reduce the suffering of others, to remake this world into the image of God’s Kingdom, into a place of wholeness for all, of cooperation, of joy, of hope, of love.