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Monday, October 17, 2016

October 16, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

October 9, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 29, 2016

September 25, 2016

Gospel: Luke 16:19-31 
1st Reading: Amos 6:1a, 4-7
2nd Reading: 1 Timothy 6:6-19

I've been reading the Oregonian newspaper online for years. For the past few years, they've had a feature article most days, right in the middle of the front page, of lavish homes. Sometimes these are Street of Dreams Homes, sometimes they are mansions of the very wealthy, other times they are the most energy-efficient and greenest of the fanciest, biggest houses. Today you can read about luxurious treehouses on the Columbia river gorge and look at picture after picture of a place you can rent for $400 a night. I admit there have been times when I have been tempted to click, to pour over pictures of wood beams, sun rooms, and swimming pool. This year, however, many of these stories stand next to stories of people struggling with rising rents, or those living along the Springwater Corridor, or those being evicted for no reason. 

Here are two pictures, literally side by side, of the very rich and the very poor. One is easy to look at, to drool over, to admire. The other is difficult to look at, sad, depressing, without any easy solution. I have found myself drawn several times to write a letter to the editor, about this disconnect. Why put up stories so often about something unattainable to most of us? Why dangle this in front of us? It is like junk food, leading us into the temptation to always want more than we have? Where are the stories about happiness or fulfillment in life? I guess they aren't so easy to tell. They probably put those stories up about the homes of the very rich, because people read them, are interested in them. Until we stop clicking on these stories, they will continue to jam up our online newspaper.

In our Gospel reading for today, we also have two stories, two pictures, two lives lived right next to each other, and yet they couldn't be farther apart. We've got the rich man, wearing the finest clothes, eating the finest foods, living in the finest house. 

And we've got Lazarus, with weeping wounds, dying of hunger, laying right outside the rich man's house.

When we read a parable, we are invited to enter it, to put ourselves in the place of the characters. These are two such extremes, the rich man and Lazarus, that we might not be able to see ourselves in either of them. 

Martin Luther's last words on his deathbed were this, “We are beggars. This is true.” Martin Luther could identify with Lazarus. All his life, he saw himself as a sinner, constantly being attacked by the devil. He knew his own shortcomings. At the end of his life he was mostly blind and deaf and very ill. When he said these words, “We are beggards. This is true,” he was away from his family, having suffered a heart attack on the road on the way to the ordination of two pastors, and dying a few days later in the same town where he was born, just a few blocks away from the home he was born in. It must have been even more apparent there, without his family close by, that he had nothing but the grace and love of God. 

We are all beggars. We come into this life with nothing. We take nothing out of it. The things we have in this life are temporary. Our comforts do not last. They do not have lasting meaning or value.

But Martin Luther was not afraid to die, or discouraged in life. He had the only thing that lasted and had meaning and was valuable. He had God's love.

We are Lazarus. We are weak and wounded. Our bodies wear out. We rely on other people for our food and livelihood. We rely on God for our food, clothing, shelter, and healing.

Although many of us are rich, in a lot of ways we are not the rich man. Some of us are rich by our country's standards. We have money, we have a house, sometimes a vacation home. We have a car, sometimes for every driver in the family. We have computers, televisions, furniture, dishes, gadgets. We eat fancy foods with many ingredients. We eat free range eggs, can afford fruits and vegetables, even throw out food because we have too much. We use fancy shampoo, deodorant, makeup, hair extensions and colors, and perfumes. We have multiple coats, shoes, and outfits for for every occasion. We are rich.

Thankfully most of us do not worship our possessions. None of us is entirely out to just serve ourselves. However, I do feel hints of the rich man in myself, blind to the plight of others. For instance, wondering if every homeless person is on drugs or alcohol, while looking right past the beer in my own refrigerator, judging people for having their child in plastic diapers or smoking cigarettes, when I indulge in many vices that are also expensive, and I had access to laundry facilities and money to buy cloth diapers when my child was in diapers. I don't stop to talk to homeless people in my neighborhood to find out what I could do to help. I don't invite hungry people to my table to share my food. I don't even use the food in my cupboard as well as I could. Plenty gets wasted. While I am not entirely self-serving and blind, I am both of these things to a certain extent. I am rich and in some ways I am indifferent and blind to the plight of others.

Whether you are rich or poor, there is one thing you cannot escape, and that is death. In death, it turns out the rich man is actually poor. He is thirsty. He is in torment and agony. I'm not a big believer in the flames of hell. This story isn't trying to accurately describe the afterlife to us. It is about the chasms in our lives and the ways we are blind to each other. Maybe he is tormented by guilt. Maybe his torment is fear for his brother's lives. In any case, the one who was comfortable is no longer, and the one who was in agony is now at peace. The one who thought he was rich, is actually poor, and the one who was materially poor, is rich in God's love and grace. This part about hell adds an urgency to the story. It is telling us that we have a limited time to work this out. We can't put it off forever, opening our eyes and waking up to the suffering around us.

The rich man was blind. He never saw Lazarus there in front of his house. Or did he? When he needed something from him, then we find out he even knows his name. “Tell Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” He knew Lazarus' name, but he had ignored him until he needed something from him. The rich man continued the way he always had. Even after death, he was still so self-centered. He could only see Lazarus as his servant, there to bring him water. 

The one who really did see Lazarus, was the dog. The dog didn't walk past Lazarus. This is the thing we can learn from dogs, and that is not to discriminate or show favoritism. They don't care about fancy clothes or food or houses or oils or couches, or any of that. They are simply loyal. So if you want to ask who is Jesus in this story, he might just be the dog, noticing the person in need, licking the wounds, bringing healing.

We are a little bit the rich man, and a little bit Lazarus, but probably most of all, we are the brothers. We have more than our basic needs. We live pretty lavish lives. We are somewhat blind to those around us. But this isn't all that life can be. This isn't the life that really is life. So our eyes are being opened, the chasm is shrinking. The scriptures are showing us what really is life. The describe people tempted by money and charmed into thinking that things could satisfy them, whose entire focus was on themselves, but who were ultimately unhappy. This Gospel reading shows us what it takes to live a contented life.

In the NPR series on the American dream, I heard a young woman who immigrated to the US when she was a child talk about her mother's dreams for a new life that she was trying to give her daughter. Now her daughter works as a lawyer for refugees. The reason she does this is not a big salary or importance, but because her view of the American dream is no longer the big house and car and riches, it is that everyone would have enough food and shelter and clothing, and experience justice. Her dream isn't that far from God's dream. 

Jesus is trying to hand us a free gift of life, life that really is life. We feel a need, a chasm that we try to fill with things. Jesus is crossing that chasm, closing the gap between heaven and earth, closing the gap between people, showing us that what will fill our need, is relationship and love. When we know our brother or sister in need, when we do not judge others based on their clothes or house or car, when we recognize our need of healing and our own true riches and share them, we do find satisfaction.

Let us open our eyes to the person on the freeway offramp holding a sign. Let us open our eyes to the person gathering bottles and cans from our curbside recycling. Let us open our eyes to the children in our church and neighborhood. Let us open our eyes to the Syrian refugees all over the world. Let us open our eyes to the homebound person with no one to visit. Let us open our eyes to this wounded earth, covered with wounds from our abuse. Let us open our eyes to each other, acknowledging the wounds we all share when even one is suffering. Let us open our eyes to Jesus in our midst.

Jesus is the one who is truly rich, possessing everything, yet giving it all up to come and be among us, who are blind and clueless and covered with sores, the ugliness of what we do to ourselves and others. He knows what really matters, and that is that we are all brothers and sisters helping each other and having compassion for each other. So he gave himself that we might have abundant life in this one and the next. Receive this free gift of life that really is life.

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