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Monday, January 8, 2018

Christimas Eve 2017

Gospel: Luke 2:1-20                         
1st Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7                
2nd Reading: Titus 2:11-14

                I met Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus this week.  It isn’t as glamourous as it sounds for me or them.  It was the icy Thursday morning.  I finally had a block of time I could work on my sermon.  Susan got the phone.  A young woman was crying.  It was Mary.  They have been staying at Budget Inn.  The are on the waiting list for the SON program. They have no car.  They have a 10 month old baby.  She was terrified that they’d have to stay outdoors in these freezing temperatures.  The owner of the hotel let them stay last night out of pity.  They owed last night and hoped to also get tonight’s room paid for.  $154.90 total.  She said, “You couldn’t possibly help with that much, could you?”  She’d been on the phone constantly the past few days trying to figure out what they were going to do.  She told me she and her husband had been two years clean and sober, from meth addiction.  “That’s something, isn’t it!”  She was ashamed and proud at the same time.  But she said they both have a criminal record, which makes it hard for them to find work.  Here they were doing what was right and it wasn’t enough.  I really knew they were desperate when she asked if we had any food.  They have a microwave and can opener and a few bowls at the hotel.
                I really didn’t want to write my sermon, so don’t think I’m trying to make myself the hero of this story.  It is thanks to you and the Boy Scouts and Maritime CafĂ©, the marijuana dispensary that collects and donates food for the pantry every year, it is thanks to this community, both the church and the neighborhood, that we had food downstairs that came after we were completely wiped out by our December distribution.  It is thanks to Barb who makes the time to get a check done and mailed from her office even in a busy holiday season.  I put together a box of food that could be cooked in a microwave and even a few little squeeze packets of baby food and drove it over to them along with a letter stating that we would pay the hotel costs.
                I talked to the owner to make sure they were legit, they really did have a baby and they were good customers.  I don’t want to become known as the gullible pastor who doesn’t check things out.  And then I went back to the car to get the boxe of food.  Mary came down the stairs and she was so grateful and worried all at the same time.  Would her little family have a place to lay their heads?  She wore a sweatshirt with holes in the sleeves.  She had nothing but her family and her sobriety and some small bit of hope.  Joseph came down to the car to get the box of food.  He was grateful and worried, too.  I gave Mary a card with all the warming centers and their telephone numbers on it.  She asked if she could give me a hug and I said “Of course.”  That hug was for all of you.  I told her to call me and give me an update.  She said she would. 
                On the drive back to church, I missed my turn onto Jennings because I was pondering all these things.  I thought of the money in my wallet.  I should have given it to her.  I wouldn’t miss it.  To her it might mean another night of warmth.  One more day she wouldn’t worry.  I thought of my family, my warm, growing boy who had never known a day of want, who had so many toys he couldn’t possibly play with them all.  I thought of my community, people who love me and help me and look after me and I take it for granted.  I thought of my problems—how will I fit in all my meetings and get my son from school and volunteer with the PTA and find time for relational meetings and reach out to people who aren’t very happy with how I am serving them or this church. 
                Here is Mary, far from home, beginning a new journey as a mother.  What are her hopes for her child?  Here is Joseph, ready to work and support his family, but all the odds are against him.  Here are all these houses sitting empty from foreclosure, two on my block—the third one was finally torn down, and here are families lacking housing.  Can no one do anything about it?  How many derelict houses did Mary and Joseph pass and stare at longingly as was starting to go into labor?  Here are the arbitrary temperatures that we say are inhumane to keep people indoors that we use to determine when warming centers are open.  When is it ever humane to let a baby sleep outside?  Yet here we have a story of Jesus, baby Jesus, sleeping outside as so many homeless and refugees do every single night.
                It is not very glamourous to see the world the way it is, with government used to count people in the census, not so they count, but so they can be abused and discounted.  It is not very glamourous to sit among the houseless at the warming center and see the toll of living on the streets.  It is not very glamourous to give birth in a cattle shed.  It is not very glamourous for your job to be watching over sheep.  I decided the modern-day equivalent would be gas-station attendant.  Lo, they were watching over their pumps by night, when behold an angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them.”   They wipe off their hands and straighten their vests and walk into town to see for themselves.
                It isn’t very glamourous for your baby’s first visitors to be a bunch of gas station attendants or smelly, dirty sheep herders, yet there they are  The shepherds are a very special kind of leader, who care for the sheep, bind up their wounds, know them by name, protect them from wolves.  These shepherds come to a cattle stall, a place they knew well.  This was their turf.  There they find the one who would become the good shepherd.  Finally a King who cares about everyone from the least to the greatest.  Here the baby Jesus was met by what he would become.  And the shepherds become more than shepherds, they become the ones entrusted with more than sheep, they are entrusted with the good news of great joy, and they tend it well.  I wonder about the shepherds after that.  They must have wondered what became of that baby, that Messiah, that promise.  Did they see in each child they met after that the potential Messiah?  Did they look for him among the children they encountered?
                We read the story and we might feel tempted to get sentimental.  But there are real-life holy families all around us.  Mary and Joseph still wander the city looking for a place to bring the Christ child into this world.  If we search our hearts, and ask ourselves whether we have room for a little one like this, most of us hesitate.  Is it safe?  Is it convenient?  Is it glamourous?  Is it fun?  The answer to all of these is no.   When I ask myself, do I love the Christ Child or my security and comfort more, I’m afraid of my answer.
                It is true that we have rejected the Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Wonderful Counselor.  We crucify him every day by leaving him in the cold, executing him in our prisons, taking away his access to health care, etc.  But the amazing thing is that this shepherd king, who sees us for who we are and knows us entirely, makes his home with us, gathers us at his table, gives us his very body, gives us his life.  We constantly reject him, yet the light is shining.  There is hope because that hope doesn’t depend on us.  It comes from God who is love and who we can count on.  Because of that love and hope our hearts begin to long for a different world than we participate in and support.  Because of love and hope, we might open our eyes to see Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus in the poor and hungry.  Because of that love and hope and grace, we let go of those things that distract us from God’s vision of peace and justice and make life harder for people already having a hard time, and take on the new life that God is leading us toward.
              I met Mary today.  She’s a mother with two teenagers, fleeing domestic violence.  She needs food for her family.  Her eyeliner was thick and there were bags under her eyes.  She talked too much.  But she is the one God has chosen to bear the good news, the Christ Child, and when Mary calls for help, I don’t want to be the innkeeper who turns her away.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

December 17, 2017    

Gospel: Luke 1:39-56              
1st Reading: Isaiah 61:1-4         

2nd Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

            The readings this Sunday are all about the Spirit.  In Isaiah, he says the spirit of the LORD God is upon him to bring good news to the oppressed.  God will give a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  In 1 Thessalonians, Paul is encouraging the Christians there.  He says, “Do not quench the spirit.” And prays for them, that their “spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  And finally in the Gospel, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit at Mary’s appearance and greeting as the two of them met, both pregnant.  And as Mary sings, she says that her “spirit rejoices in God.” 

            The word “spirit” shows up in many forms in our language.  The word “spirit” comes from the word meaning ”breath” or “to breathe.”  For instance, the word “inspire” means to breathe into.  To expire is for the breath to leave someone permanently.  And to conspire, means to breathe with.

            Certainly this time of year we could use some inspiration.  The nights are long and dark.  The cold winds are keeping us cooped up indoors.  We feel inundated by the tasks we must complete.  We feel pressure to make this a special holiday for our family and friends.  We feel overwhelmed by the troubles in our world.  This would be a good time for a little inspiration—a little breathing in, more energy, more liveliness.  How amazing to think of God coming among us as a little child, reading about the joy of these two women anticipating the impending births of both their unexpected little ones, being filled with hope at the twinkling lights and the wonder expressed by children, looking forward to some time of rest and togetherness between Christmas and New Years Day.

            Then we come to the word “conspire.”  When we hear the word “conspiracy” we might think of someone who is paranoid, or an ISIS sleeper cell, or a favorite crime novel.  Conspire means to breathe with. 

            Consider Mary, young, but fully aware of the plight of her people.  The Romans had worked to crush the spirit of the Jewish people, to control them, demand cooperation from them, make them forget who they were or where they had come from.  Into this mess, comes a messenger from God, an angel, to tell Mary that everything is about to change, and she is going to be part of the change.  Mary and the angel of the LORD conspire to bring down this Empire with all its life-taking values, by the birth of God’s son.

            Consider the Christ Child, from his first breath, the forces of Empire sensing the threat, making a move to destroy him before he can begin to conspire to cast light on their true nature.

            Consider Mary and Elizabeth, two women at opposite ends of life, being swept up on God’s conspiracy to break into this dark and oppressive world with justice and peace.  Mary’s song hearkens back to Moses’ sister, Miriam’s song after the crossing of the Red Sea.  Her brother Moses sings a lengthy song and then she sings a short verse, however scholars believe it was likely Miriam who sang the whole thing.  You know how little brothers can be, stealing all the limelight! 

The song of Miriam is one of conspiracy to take out a Pharaoh that had oppressed God’s people and set those people free.  Both Miriam and Mary (their names are even the same) sing God’s praises and give credit to God for saving the people.  They both sing of God’s strength, of God’s triumph over the strong rulers, of God’s saving action throughout history, and about God’s power on behalf of the weak and poor.

I don’t want to dwell in all the bad news going on around us.  We get so much bad news on the internet, the radio, the television.  I worry that it causes a sense of helplessness.  Why remind us of all the bad news when we don’t even know what we can do about it.  Mass shootings happen almost every day in our country!  Families are living in their cars.  Miles and miles of this earth is burning.  The oceans are killing the fish that live in them.  And now into this misery, comes new laws to give more to the rich and take away health care from people who are sick, to take away Medicare from seniors, to make it more expensive to be a college student.  Yes, my taxes will probably go up, next year, but I am a home owner.  I’ll probably be ok.  So many people I love who are already suffering are going to suffer more.  People are going to die.  These policies make people expendable. 

I saw the new Star Wars movie on Friday, so you’ll have to forgive me.  I won’t give anything away, but this is a story of Biblical proportions.  The Empire acts out of fear and greed to consolidate power and control, feeds off the suffering disposable people and planet.  The Resistance acts out of selflessness to empower freedom and hope and balance.  There is a battle going on within us between fear and hope, good and evil.  We are simultaneously saint and sinner.  We have to decide whether we will live according to the values we say we profess: love and freedom.  So often we find we are operating out of fear, greed, and materialism.  Which of these values is really living?

          We go out and spend money and who really benefits?  Will our children and grandchildren be happier in the long run?  How quickly do they forget the things we buy them?  We give them momentary happiness and sacrifice their futures.  All this plastic we give them, all this fuel we burn running around like maniacs, all the workers in 3rd world countries dying to make toys for our children.  When will we learn to live by our values of simplicity? When will we stop gorging ourselves?  When will we stop sitting around while our world falls apart and our children's futures are sold to line the pockets of the very rich?  We have to find a way to join the resistance that Jesus and his followers choose.  Otherwise we stand as oppressors and the oppressors win in our lives and in our world.  We have to stand up and meet each other in our confusion and our joy and our pain and sing a song of resistance, like Mary sang, like Miriam sang.  We have to face the depths of our pain, the pain from being exploited and the pain from being one who exploits.  We have to face the truth of who we've become and be willing to let that light of resistance shine through us.  We have to be willing to be mocked for it.  We have to be willing to let people down who have swallowed the line of the Empire about what is important.  We have to decide if we are just going to watch movies about resistance, or whether we are going to join the resistance.

The Spirit is moving.  Spirit isn’t still.  Spirit moves around in unexpected directions.  And when we tell the truth about this terrible, harmful society we not only live in but are part of and these systems that crush people, that crucify them with asthma and debt and isolation and deportation, maybe we’ll get mad enough to do something about it, inspired enough to conspire with God and each other about how to subvert the forces of death that are killing people we love.

So into this truth about the darkness and helplessness, we sing.  We sing a song of God’s power and faithfulness and hope.  We remember that God is stronger than any force of evil and destruction.  We remember how God’s strength endures across the ages and how God lifts up unexpected people and situations to change us and our world.  This is a song our hearts long to sing, it is an earworm that continues to call us, whisper to us, conspire with us to resist.

This is supposed to be Joy Sunday in Advent.  And maybe that’s part of the conspiracy, that although we’re almost at our darkest point, our most hopeless and cold, we have joy.  We don’t have joy in our frantic, death-dealing, mass-extinction world.  We have joy because we have a greater hope in the promises of God to show us a new way and to make a new people out of us.  We have joy because, although we have deserved it many times over, God has not abandoned us.  We have joy because God is not far away, but is near, in the poor, in those who are imprisoned, in those who are sick, in the drug addict and the refugee, in the weak and lowly, and in a little baby.

This is one heck of a subversive conspiracy, to sneak in a little baby to open our hearts.  When we found out he wanted to change us, we tried to kill him, but he is life and we will not find life any other way.  There is no life in materialism or violence, hoarding or fearing.  There is no life in the values we live.  The life we can find is the freedom of letting go, of sharing, of standing up to power, of admitting our own weakness, of letting God set the course.  We will conspire to be inspired.  We will whisper to one another of the good things God has done and the vision God has for our world, and then we will shout it from the hilltops and defiantly live it.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

December 10, 2017

Gospel: Mark 1:1-8                     
1st Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11           
2nd Reading: 2 Peter 3:8-15a

                Every day, I walk to my son, Sterling, to Kindergarten and go and get when school gets out.  When I was his age, I walked by myself to school.  Almost everyone in my school did.  When I was a kid, our family lived about the same distance from the school as we do now.  I remember my mom teaching me to walk to school.  The house on the corner was my landmark so I would know where to turn.  She taught me how to look both ways, not to talk to strangers, etc.  But these days, Kindergarteners don’t walk themselves to and from school.  The last couple of months, I’ve discovered why.  The very short walk to school is a hazard zone!  The school is on one long block, so a huge line of cars gets backed up.  Some parents drop their kids off and then turn around in the driveways on the other side of the street, where my kid is walking, so they can get on with their day.  They don’t always watch very carefully for kids.  On Mondays the garbage and recycling trucks are coming down the street.  The other day, the bus and garbage truck were coming down the street toward the school from opposite directions.  Principal Canler was out there directing the bus forward so it would clear the garbage truck on the other side.  There were about 3 inches between the mirrors of the bus and the garbage truck.  It is unsafe for kids to walk themselves to and from school.  Sterling only has to cross one street, but crossing guards are scarce.  Most students won’t do it because cars will drive right through the crosswalk even when they have their flags out.  They don’t feel safe.
                A voice cries out from the PTA, “Prepare the way of the students.  Make their paths safe!”
                Long ago, the prophet Isaiah had called for a safe, straight path as well. The Jews didn’t know they were going anywhere.  They’d been in Babylon an awfully long time and had no reason to believe anything would change.  God speaks through prophets every now and then to remind the people of the vision and values they hold and how far off the mark they are.  Here God speaks through Isaiah to let the people know they aren’t where God wants them to be, that the God they were afraid had been vanquished or abandoned them, has not forgotten them, but is coming victorious on this new highway to rescue them and bring them home where they can start anew living abundantly in community, following God’s way.
                John the Baptist, as well, came proclaiming in the wilderness, calling for straight, safe paths.  This was during a crisis of debt and dispossession in which the Romans were occupying the land, and the wealthy controlled the flow of goods and services, landowners abused their workers, and the poor were dying of hunger and disease.  John’s act in the wilderness was a Protest Ritual, which was declaring, this is not ok.  This is not the vision of abundant life that God has invited us to live.  I once thought the people went out to John in boredom, because he was exciting and fiery, but I’ve since learned, they were going out him because they were dissatisfied with the status quo, with the way things were and seemed always to have been.  They were getting fed up and needed a path on which to welcome God in their midst to get things straightened out, a highway project, a landing strip.
                We, too, are not living the vision that God has in mind for us.  People are sick, hungry, suffering, in our own communities as well as around the world. Kids are not safe getting to school.  Refugees have no where to go.  Our planet is burning.  Into our current reality, God is speaking a word of hope.  “Prepare the way of the LORD. Make his paths straight!”  It won’t always be like this.  Something is about to change. Get ready!  God is about to land right here among us.
                We’ve been hearing, “Get ready!” for a long time, and yet, Jesus’ reign is still not fully realized.  It is easy to lose focus and get distracted.  We may start to wonder, is God active or not?  That is one of our shortcomings, is that we are so short-sighted.  Thankfully we have God who is faithful and sees the big picture and is going to turn things around. 
I spoke a couple of weeks ago about God taking us out of the goat line and keep putting us back in the sheep line.  God is so patient with us.  These scriptures are telling us that the reign of God hasn’t fully come because of that patience.  But I don’t want us to think it doesn’t matter where we wander.  It matters to the people in this world that are crushed by injustice who are standing on uneven ground, with the rug ripped out from under them.  They need us to prepare the way, to remove obstacles of God’s Kingdom coming so that everyone can thrive.  And truth be told, it isn’t just them that need it.  When God calls us to repentance out in the wilderness, we can ask ourselves a couple of questions: “In what way am I oppressed?”  And we all are.  We all have injustices coming at us, impeding our abundant life.  People are prejudiced against us, they are ignorant, they hurt us.  We are all oppressed in different ways.  And we can ask, “In what way am I oppressor?” because we all are.  We all act in ways contrary to our values, we all do things or don’t do things that hurt other people and get in the way of their abundant life that God is calling them to.  So it benefits us to examine both those parts of our lives, how we are oppressed and how we take part in oppression, and realize that we benefit from a more just world as well as those people we see as more oppressed than we are.  When God’s Kingdom comes, we all benefit.
                This promise of a highway being built was originally between Babylon and Jerusalem.  It would be a highway that God would use to swoop in to be among the people.  It would also be the highway the people would walk home on.  God would not just come in and be there, but would lead them out.  For John the Baptist, the highway was one between the corrupt city and the wilderness where a life of simplicity and reliance on God could be found.  The images of the wilderness recall the exodus, in which God brought the slaves out of Egypt and taught them to live in a new, abundant, faithful way.  When John baptizes at the River Jordan, he is recalling for the people the story of the people crossing that river to enter the promised land, how they had died to their old way of life, and were entering a land of abundance and new life, in which they shared with each other and lived in peace.  He is inviting them into that reality again, another chance to cross the Jordan river, to die to the old and live abundantly.
In Advent we sometimes say we are waiting for Christmas, however, Christmas already happened.  Jesus was born in Bethlehem a long time ago.  To echo Nicodemus’ question in the Gospels, “Can one after growing old, enter into the womb a second time and be born?”  Jesus came once at Bethlehem as a baby.  What we are waiting for in Advent is the fullness of God’s Kingdom coming among us.  We get out our excavator and dump truck and start removing some of the barriers to God coming among us.  We read our Advent devotionals and give gifts to the poor and children of people in prison.  We remember what is most important which is not presents and fancy shows of generosity, but being together, sharing, cooperating, speaking up for those in need, volunteering, and praising and thanking God.  God is not just going to swoop in and hang out, but is leading us out to something new.  And just because it isn’t yet fully realized, we need not lose hope or get lazy.  God’s Kingdom is breaking in with each act of kindness, with each relationship built, with every hard truth spoken, with each visit to a dying or lonely person.  It is happening!  Christ is here, in our midst, on the road, leading us out to something new and beautiful and just and simple and life-giving.
The book of Mark starts this way, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  The book begins with a voice crying out to prepare for God’s arrival, removing barriers in our lives that keep us from seeing and hearing Christ in our midst.  To this day, we still proclaim the same words with faith and hope, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  God is using our voices to cry out and encourage people to prepare themselves.  This voice in the wilderness is just the beginning of the story of how God takes a people enslaved to their own comforts and buried in the values of the oppressive Empire, takes them on a walkabout in the wilderness, and brings them through to abundant life for all, something that is still in process to this day.  Someday all will be revealed and we will really live in a way that matches our values, and God will reign.  Let us abandon our greed and selfishness and materialism and repent and turn to the one who gives us abundant life.  Let us remove all barriers to students and refugees, the hungry and sick.  Let us open our hearts to receive God and follow him out to the abundant new life that we have been longing for.

Monday, December 4, 2017

November 29, 2017

Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46      
1st Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-24
2nd Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23
                 People seek a King: Help wanted.  Must be strong and handsome, able to win wars and secure land, bring prosperity, help us to grow strong families, bring us through trouble, feed us good food, heal all our maladies, organize all the people and govern with wisdom.  Must be healthy, have a great wardrobe, eat the most luscious food every day, live in a fancy castle, and live a life among the rich and famous.  Must make us the envy of our neighbors, destroy all who stand in our way, allow us to amass wealth, and reward the rich with power while the poor get what they deserve for being lazy.  This King should be somewhat distant, letting us govern ourselves and make decisions that benefit us, staying out of our way and not changing us.  We are a people who easily forget.  So don’t make us remember that we were ever slaves in Egypt or that we ever wandered the wilderness, lost.  Make of us a great nation, better than other nations, and then let us defeat them and take everything that is theirs.  We like wealth and shiny things.  We like to be powerful and we like to win.  Give us those things, and you can be our King.
                King seeking people: Help wanted.  King seeks people who have been mistreated and scorned, enslaved and beaten.  Must want to be free and willing to learn that freedom means caring for one another and complete focus on Kingdom values of sharing and not hoarding, of being willing to wander and seek rather than know all the answers, of learning to trust the King rather than themselves, of treating one another with equity regardless of social status, of commitment to each other and the kingdom.  The people must be poor and lost, the underdogs, weak and scrappy, faithful and focused, generous and thankful.  Give me some people who are open to this kind of King and I will shape them into my people.  I will bring my Kingdom among them.  We will learn to be King and people together.  Through them I will bring my blessing to all the earth.  Through them the world will know me and learn my Kingdom values and find peace, cooperation, love, and abundance.  My gifts include being willing to live among my people, working side by side with them, not compelling them to do things my way but allowing them to make decisions for themselves.  In addition, I am a hard-worker, have been around since the beginning of time, and have a vision of a peaceful and equitable world that I will carry out with or without the people’s help.
                Christ the King Sunday: What does it mean to us whose main concept of a king comes from fairy tales?  What does it mean to a congregation that is named King of Kings?  What is King in our lives?  What matters most to us?  What are our priorities?  In a religion that has been so misused to intimidate and take away power from people who are suffering, in a religion that has been used to point to people on the margins, who are sick or in prison or in the way of a hurricane, and say, “You deserve what you get!” how does our view of our King make a difference in our response to our neighbors?
                In our reading from Ezekiel today, we get an image of a King who is seeking us out, all who have been scattered, who have been hurt and betrayed and damaged by the value system of this world—the greed, the blaming of the poor and weak, the favoritism of the powerful.  We are a people who don’t know what we’re looking for.  We might not even know we’re looking.  But we are aware that we are afraid, overwhelmed by the powers of this world.  We have hurt our neighbors, trampled them as we fled for safety.  We had been betrayed by shepherds, abandoned and left alone for the wolves.  Our ways  have not been serving us.  They are not working well.  They are not bringing about life for us or anyone else.  Into our woundedness and pain, comes a king like none we’ve ever encountered.   This King is muddy.  He’s been searching.  He’s covered in scratches from the thorns along the path.  He’s desperate and calling to us.  He’s gathering us together.  He helps us up.  He’s not afraid to touch us.  He notices our wounds and binds them up.  He lies down at the gate of the sheepfold to protect us.  He learns our names.  He knows our fears and our habits.  He leads us to abundant pastures and keeps our hooves from polluting the waters of life. He is a king we follow because he is reliable, he is there, and we are slowly learning to trust.  When we get out of line, when we start to think we are better than others, this shepherd King puts us in our place.  We realize that we are in his presence, not because we deserve to be, but because our King is one of life and love.  We realize that there is more than enough of that love and pasture to go around, so we can stop being anxious and afraid and get on to the task of living, not just for ourselves but in community, in the flock.
                The King we believe in is described in our reading from Ephesians.  This is a King who showed his power in his willingness to let go of power, one who drew all kinds of people to himself, not just the right kind of people.  This is a King who gives hope to us not in the temporary, material things of this world, but a permanent relationship of love, adoption into a family, responsibilities, powers, and a new vision of what really matters.  This is a King who, because of the people he talked to and empowered, and because of the Kings he defied, the values he was not willing to live under, was handed over to death.  He was so threatening to the values that rule this world, that he was put to death.  People thought they could kill his vision, that they could kill those values, that they could kill the hope that people had in a new and refreshing value system.  But that vision had already been passed on to a small, scrappy group of disciples, who were forever changed by their encounter with this King, and they found that King was still with them, and that the spirit of the King was stronger than ever, giving them courage to go forth and tell the good news, the vision, the love, the community, the empowerment available, the alternative view, the vision of truth that turned the world upside down.
                In our world, kings and law makers are far away, rich, inaccessible.  They seek to serve the very rich, the ones who line their pockets with donations.  They make rules that benefit themselves.  They don’t know us and they don’t care about us, except that we make them look good.  So here is the alternative view—that we have access to our King, we can be in his presence, seek it out      and we are constantly being heard.  The cries of the hungry reach the ears of this King.  He knows their stories.  He knows their names.  He sits at their tables.  He feels their wants. Here is a king who went about having dinner with people who didn’t matter to any King or even mayor before him, who knew the pain of hunger himself.  Here is a King who was a stranger, born a bastard child, with no where to lay his head, in an occupied country, a refugee in Egypt, a wanted man from boyhood, who has known scorn, an enigma to his own disciples, rejected and hated.  Here is a King who was stripped of his clothing, naked upon the cross.  Here is a King who said on the cross, “I thirst.”  Here is a King was sick and imprisoned, betrayed, arrested, denied, mocked, and killed.  This is a King we can meet everyday, everywhere people are hungry or thirsty, naked, alone, afraid, sick, or imprisoned.  This is a King of all of us.  When we are doing well, our own desires become our King.  We make King the value system of this world that says we get what we deserve.  But we all find ourselves in need and that does not mean our King has abandoned us, but that he loves us and is with us.  How do we serve this King, even when we’re doing ok, when we are tempted by the gods of prosperity and belief that we can do it ourselves?  How do we get in the sheep line rather than the goat line?  How do we make Christ our King?
                I really struggle with this, because often times I shape my work week by keeping my sermon writing time and time for meetings pretty firm, and then I see how many hospital or prison visits I can fit around all that.  I only serve at the pantry, if I have all my other work done.  If I have time, I’ll spend those Thursdays with hungry people.  I’m starting to think I’ve got it backward.  How do we make our encounter with Jesus in the sick and hungry the priority?  How do we change our priorities to make this vision in the Gospel the focus?  This is what we are each here to do: visit the sick and imprisoned, give clothing food and water, meet Jesus in the poor and lonely, welcome the stranger.  How do we open our eyes to see Jesus?  How do we make room in our lives to meet him in people around us?
                Thankfully we operate in a system of love and grace.  Jesus welcomes us, feeds and clothes us, leads us beside still waters, puts us back in the sheep line when we wander off, makes a community of us, encourages us, loves us, and reigns as our King.  We don’t need to be afraid that we’ll end up in the goat line, but only trusting Jesus to keep seeking us out.  And we don’t need to look at others and decide they are among the goats, because Christ is King, and this King keeps seeking us until all are in the sheep line, safe in the fold.  Just keep looking to the King and listening for his voice, accept his healing, and tend to him among the wounded and weak.  This vision of an abundant pasture with a shepherd leading us is assured.  And we shall dwell in the house of the Lord, forever. 

November 19, 2017

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30
1st Reading: Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
2nd Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
                A great debate erupted among the pastors at text study this week.  It was quite exciting.  We were pretty evenly split.  Was this a Gospel reading in which the Master represents God or not?  Today, I’m going to give you both sides of the story, because I think both have value.
                The one, we’ve heard many times and it bears repeating.  Some say this parable is about how God gives us so many gifts and talents.  Please note here that a talent is a ridiculous amount of money.  We’ll call it a million dollars.  People receive different amounts and kinds of talents.  Some use them to increase the Kingdom of God.  Other people are afraid of doing it wrong and bury it and miss out on getting to do God’s work.  The message here is this:  Use the incredible gifts God gives you to increase God’s Kingdom.
                Here’s the other way of looking at the parable.  In the time and place this was written, it was widely held that one could not increase one’s wealth without taking it from someone else.  So the first two slaves would be taking from someone else to increase their investment so much and hurting that person or people.  They would likely target someone with little power, and taking someone from a miserable situation to one of dire straits.  It was against the law to charge interest, taking advantage of people’s need, and yet the people did it.  There was a common practice of buying out poor farms and making indentured servants of the previous owners and squeezing them so they couldn’t even feed their own families.  It was common not to pay a living wage.  It was common to tamper with scales, so you wouldn’t be giving someone as much product as they bought.  It was common to pay workers different amounts to divide them.  Certainly, all over the Bible are warnings against treating the poor in this way.  So this may be a tale about a mobster Master and his cronies, who is cheating people.  The first two slaves go along with it.  The last one refuses to participate in an economy that hurts people and takes advantage of vulnerable people and speaks truth to power, telling off the Master.  The message here is this: Resist evil.  Don’t participate in an unjust system.
                I don’t think these two interpretations cancel each other out.  We have a lot of blessings, a lot of talents.  We have a lot of gifts from God, an abundance.  And God wants us to use them well.  We are not to be complacent, as it says in the Zephaniah reading for this morning.  We are not to rest on our dregs, which is literally leaving the wine in the barrel too long so that it gets a funny taste to it.  Don’t just let it sit there.  Do something with what you’ve been given.
                But also, don’t think that God doesn’t care what you do with it.  God cares greatly, which is why we have this diatribe in Zephaniah.  God is very angry in this reading!
In Kindergarten, the kids are learning about emotions and corresponding colors, like the colors of fire danger.  Blue is sad. Green is calm or joyful.  Yellow is starting to get upset.  And red is exploding anger.  The kids learn the physical reactions of each emotion, like when your face gets flushed, or muscles tense when we’re upset.  And they learn strategies for calming themselves or moving through the emotions, like taking a deep breath or taking a moment to yourself. 
So here is God, in the red zone, blowing God’s top, unleashing all this anger.  The reason God is mad is that people are abusing the poor.  This is God’s judgment against dehumanization.  God is angry because God’s children are injuring each other, and especially that the stronger is beating up on the weaker.  The more powerful are taking advantage of the poor and making them poorer.  God has strong feelings about this kind of behavior.  God has tried to reason with the people, encouraging them to share and protect each other.  God has given warnings when people started to go astray.  And now God has had it.  That’s enough!
God is angry, in the red zone.  This behavior must stop!  People need to hear how angry God is when we hurt each other.  The powerful need to hear God’s judgment against what they’re doing, so they stop and choose another way.  And the poor need to hear God cares about them, to be encouraged and hopeful.  And just like Kindergarteners don’t stay in the red zone forever, God doesn’t stay in the red zone forever.  Zephaniah isn’t a very long book, and by the end of it, there is a chance for reconciliation, a chance for restoration, to begin a new behavior, to live by God’s values of love, to care for the weak and poor. 
So now it is a matter of using what we have been given to love and serve God and our neighbor according to one interpretation of the reading and avoid participating in the systems of evil according to another.  It isn’t always an easy line to walk.  Almost everything we do has the potential to benefit the evil and corrupt systems of this world.  How do we avoid being so afraid of doing the wrong thing that we are paralyzed?  How do we boldly use our gifts to serve God?
If we aren’t to participate in the death-dealing, evil economy of this world, what is the kind of economy that God is supporting?  God’s economy is based on abundance, not scarcity.  For God there is always enough, in fact, more than enough.  There is enough food for everyone, enough shelter and clothing for everyone.  There is enough time for everyone to get their work in, as well as time to rest.  And there is enough community for everyone, a support system for those who don’t have anybody else.  In God’s economy we don’t have more than we need.  We have just enough, and we share with those who don’t have enough. 
The greatest power in God’s economy is not money, but love, and love never runs out.  The more we share love, the more there is of it.  Love is something that everyone has access to, rich or poor, young or old.  Love is a power that can change everything, by connecting everything.
And love is the power that is behind our work for justice.  When we love the poor and all who are hurting, as God does, we confront those who are hurting God’s little ones, and challenge them to try another way, the Kingdom way.  We speak up, even when we are risking our own security, when we might be persecuted or imprisoned for speaking up, when we might be thrown into the outer darkness of society and our family and friends avoid us.
This is what Jesus did for us.  He had great riches, many gifts from God, but he didn’t hide them and he didn’t just use them to benefit himself.  He used those gifts to speak out on behalf of the poor and rejected, widows and orphans, and against all the societal norms that put up barriers to these people having access to life.  He spoke up, at great risk to himself, and he paid with his life.  But still he worked within God’s economy, offering abundant life to all who would follow his way, and bringing God’s Kingdom near to confront the powers of this world.  This is what Jesus did for us and this is what Jesus does through us!
Another thought about this reading, and that is that these slaves probably don’t represent individuals, but congregations or communities.  As a community, we can get so busy focused on ourselves and our fears that we forget to use our gifts or speak out on behalf of the poor.  We bury our treasure.  We bury our voices.  However, God brings the Kingdom either with or without us.  What an opportunity to participate in something hopeful and life-giving.
This is one more link between the stories, risk-taking.  In the first interpretation, the ones who increase their talents take great risks to increase their master’s wealth.  They could easily loose it all, but they don’t let that fear stop them, and they are commended by their master.  In the second interpretation, the last slave takes a great risk by speaking up and telling the truth.  He risks his own safety when he tells it like it is, and he pays the price.  We too sometimes pay the price for standing up for what is right, but that is a risk God asks us to take, in order to shape this world more into God’s Kingdom. 
I believe that God is asking us as a church to take some risks, to let go of our fears and take bold steps toward God’s Kingdom, steps that help us make connections within our own congregation and with our neighbors.  That’s why your council members are reaching out to you to have a relational meeting.  Connecting is risky, but it is also Kingdom building.  Connecting bears fruit after a while, the fruit of strong community and the ability to speak up together so that no one is risking alone.  Please take a risk and accept an invitation, or extend an invitation to relate to another person within the congregation or in the neighborhood.  God promises to be there helping us to see and tell the truth and bear the fruit of the Kingdom.

November 5, 2017

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12   
1st Reading: Revelation 7:9-17
2nd Reading: 1 John 3:1-3
                Welcome to All Saints Day, a day when we remember and celebrate all who have died and remember that we, too, are saints, through our baptism and participating in the body of Christ.  I definitely have some mixed emotions on this day, especially this year, because I experienced some significant deaths of loved ones in my life this year.  It is a weird point to be 6 months from their deaths, because this time last year, they were living, making memories, making plans, going about their day.  They were moving and breathing.  It was such a short time ago and our hearts ache for them, to see them again, to hear them again, to know they are enjoying life, to write them a letter, or call them on the phone, or stop by to say hello.  They were just here, and now it feels like a there is a huge chasm, an empty place, a great distance between us.
                I was at grandma’s house in September, sorting through grandma’s fabric with my mom and aunt.  I hadn’t remembered that grandma’s house had a smell.  It has a cedar scent to it.  In that moment when I walked in, I thought to myself, “I may never smell grandma’s house again.”  That smell has so many memories for me and they flash through my mind, one after the other.
                Grandma and Macey are gone.  They died.  God promises new life.  So how should I picture them?  Where should I picture them?  What is this place they have gone?  What does new life look like?  Is it enough to believe that their memories live on through us?  Or do I picture them among green hills, running like in The Sound of Music?  How do we honor their memory?  What is this new life they are called to and are we called to it only in death, or in this life as well?
                The Book of Revelation is a word painting for suffering Christians.  It was written for those persecuted by Nero to have a vision of hope, in which God and the Lamb, Christ are in the center, surrounded by the saints and martyrs, singing and worshiping God, with God’s love and light extending from that central place and rippling out in concentric circles to the farthest corners of the heavenly realm and breaking into our world. 
                Macey and grandma and Carrie and Drew and Aileen and all these saints we honor today already stand in that inner circle in the light of God’s presence.  They live in the Kingdom fully, where there is no hunger or pain, sheltered by God, comforted by God, guided and shepherded by God, and living the new life God promises.  They live this vision of Revelation.
                And we get glimpses of it.  Did you recognize any of the words this morning in that reading?  We enact this scene, or try to every Sunday morning at Church.   We place God and the lamb, Jesus, at the center, and we gather together as many as come, although all are welcome.  There is no distinction, but all worship together from any nation, all tribes, and peoples and languages.  I wear the white robe for all the rest of you.  It is like a uniform that the saints wear, so that no one’s clothes are better than any other or a distraction for the saints.  We sing this song, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”  Sound familiar?  We sing these words from Revelation as we enact this scene, as the Kingdom of God breaks in, living this vision of what is to come.  We don’t just sing by ourselves, but our voices join with the saints gathered around the throne, collapsing the distance between us and them, between our world and the Kingdom of God.
                And it isn’t just in our singing that these realms come near, but anywhere and anytime that people have enough to eat and drink, where there is shelter and protection, when compassion and tenderness is shared.  This is fully the reality in the heavenly realm, and there are points where it breaks into our world when God’s love touches our hearts and brings the Kingdom through us to others in need.
                Never does the heavenly realm see so far away from this world than in the values that matter to God and the values that are lived in this world.  That’s where the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew come in.  In this world, we think someone is blessed if they are confident, don’t know the pain of loss, are full of good food and all kinds of treasures, are merciless, are smart, refuse to compromise, and don’t endure any suffering.  That’s when a person can say they are blessed.  Those are the people we tend to admire.
                However, that is not what God admires or values.  When we are so full of ourselves, how will we ever have room for God?  When we have all the comforts of life, what would cause us to open our eyes and look for something more, for a Kingdom and a realm of misfits?  If we can do it all ourselves, why would we need each other or God? 
To be blessed is to have room for each other.  To be blessed is to have room for God.  To be blessed is to look for God.  To be blessed is to realize that we all are broken and we all need healing.  To be blessed is to be honest about ourselves and our imperfections and shortcomings.  To be blessed is to be ready to receive.
I remember working as a chaplain, I found patients at the hospital were open to talking about their spirituality, more so than most people I met who were healthy.  I found my patients were blessing me with their openness to God’s presence.  Much of the time, I think we go about our day and don’t give God’s vision a single thought.  But when we mourn or feel helpless, we find ourselves remembering what is most important, and putting our hope in God, instead of our own power.  That’s when the Kingdom of God is breaking through and giving us new life. 
In the Beatitudes, God lays out God’s values.  Jesus begins with an unexpected blessing, for the poor in spirit, the merciful, etc.  This is a current reality that someone is living.  They didn’t choose this mode, it is the way things are.  Then Jesus offers a vision of a future reality that is God’s vision, of comfort, inheritance, fulfillment, mercy, vision, adoption.  This is the promised future.  This is the Kingdom of God which the martyrs know fully, and which is breaking into this world. 
Two times in the Beatitudes it isn’t a future reality, but a present reality.  For both the poor in Spirit and the persecuted, Jesus says, “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  This is a present reality more than the others.  They have access to it now.  They are part of it now.  It is theirs.  It is not far away, but here on earth, God wiping away the tears, these folks focused on what matters, living God’s values, open to God’s presence, upheld in community, shining with God’s light and love.
Every Sunday we also pray that God’s Kingdom come and it does come regardless.  The saints and martyrs are in that reality even now.  But we also pray it comes among us, that it breaks through in our world in our words and actions.  And we pray that we would open our eyes to see it in the hungry and homeless and ill around us and reach out to them as Christ in our midst.  “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called Children of God; and that is what we are.”  And that is what our neighbor is.  “Beloved, we are God’s children now.”  And this gives us hope for the future that God is revealing to us.

May you have hope in more than your own comfort and stability.  May you find the broken places in your life, spaces that God dwells and shines a brilliant light.  May you look for God’s Kingdom coming into the world and participate in it.  May you know blessing in pain.  May you know God’s presence and share it.  May God’s future Kingdom promise be collapsed into your everyday reality.  May you let go of what is distracting you, and live in the values of the Kingdom.

Monday, October 30, 2017

October 29, 2017    

Gospel: John 8:31-36                      
1st Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34  
2nd Reading: Romans 3:19-28
                Today we commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  Because of the reformation, we focus on God’s word in scripture as a primary way God reveals God’s self to us. 
Today the word that has been jumping out at me from the scriptures is “heart.”  In the reading from Jeremiah for this morning, God is going to write God’s law on the hearts of the people.  And in the reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart.
Both of these scriptures involve an ideal that God has in mind, a vision of what someday will be, a realm of peace and beauty, of community and love and belonging.  It will be something we won’t even have to think about.  Instead we’ll automatically know we belong to God and what we are for, which is to love. When Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, and he tells them to love God and neighbor, he is laying out his vision of the peaceable Kingdom, the beloved Community, a picture of heaven itself.  This is a vision of balanced priorities and focus, it is a vision of selflessness and sharing, it is a vision of love and belonging.
500 years ago Dr. Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses for debate, because he saw a major way the church was not matching with the vision of love that God puts forth in these scriptures.  His act began a questioning of church authority and motives.  So eventually the Lutheran Church was born from this struggle and the world was changed.
However, today we are having a commemoration of the Reformation, rather than a Celebration of it, for a couple of reasons.  One is that the Reformation was not all good.  People used violence against one another as they began to react against the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.  And Martin Luther later wrote and preached against Jewish people, not as a race, but in frustration that they didn’t convert once he had corrected the errors in the Roman Catholic Church.  Later these writings were used by the Nazi Party in persecution of the Jews.  In fact I only recently learned that Kristall Nacht (the night of broken glass) in which Jewish businesses throughout Germany were attacked in 1938, was carried out purposely on Martin Luther’s Birthday to make the connection between what he wrote and the Nazi’s murder of millions of Jews. 
Another reason this is a Commemoration more than a Celebration is that we haven’t yet arrived at God’s vision of unity and peace.  Our reality is still very, very far from the loving community that Jesus articulated.  The Protestant Reformation has changed the world and the church, however God is not done with us yet.  The reformation is not a one-time event, but ongoing.  We are always turning away from God and God’s vision, but God is always turning us back toward God. 
The problem is, we always forget is that we are the apple of God’s eye, that God made us in God’s own image, names us, claims us, redeems us.  We forget how much God loves us.  And we forget how much God loves our neighbor. 
The heart is the symbol of love.  It implies longing, connectedness, attachment, focus.  I’d like to propose today that maybe the heart is the part of us that is most in the image of God.  We are made in God’s image, but what does that mean.  There is such variation among people, in personality and appearance.  Maybe it is our hearts that are like God’s, if we would just listen to our hearts.
Our hearts, like God’s cause us to dream, to envision, to hope for what might be.  God’s dream is to create a universe in harmony and peace, to create a being to relate to, to let love reign above every other value.  Martin Luther had a dream, even though I don’t know that he ever articulated it that way.  He dreamed of a church that took away barriers between people and God.  He dreamed of a life free from fear of an authoritarian father and angry God.  I don’t know that he really fully connected to this dream, until he had been excommunicated, gone through all the religious courts, the reading of his works banned, and hidden away in Wartburg Castle.  It was only through the severing of all ties that he was able to fully see what might be.  In other words, he couldn’t see the dream or allow himself to fully dream until he had nothing to lose.  And he had lots of time which he chose to spend with God’s word in Scripture, translating it, and hearing it again as if for the first time, absorbing it, putting it into his own words, imagining how it would sound in people’s ears hearing it for the first time, seeing how completely different God’s vision was from the reality of the Roman Catholic Church and many priests at that time.  He had a lot of time to dream and for his dream to connect to God’s dream.  It was no longer about indulgences.  And Luther began putting out one treatise after another against the hypocrisy and greed of the Church.
God gave us hearts to dream, too.  When we’re invested in the current reality, it is hard to let ourselves hope for something so disturbing to our own comfort.  But our hearts must dream.  There has to be more than this!  And not just a little more.  We are assured our dreams are not in vain, that God is powerful and will bring that dream of peace and love to reality.
God gave us hearts to connect.  God would not go on alone, so God created humankind to relate to, to talk with, to listen to, to co-create with.  Our hearts produce a longing in us that won’t let us go on alone.  We seek community.  We seek communion.  We need each other.  Together we are the body of Christ.
God gave us hearts to break.  I think of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz.   He finally gets his heart, only to have it breaking as Dorothy is leaving.  Certainly God’s heart breaks.  Reading the scriptures we can hear it breaking.  We can hear it breaking in our Old Testament reading for this morning when God talks about the people breaking the covenant, “a covenant which they broke, though I was their husband.”  It sounds like a pout, but it is an expression of a broken heart, of unrequited love, of that feeling when the reality doesn’t match the dream.
And God gave us hearts to break, as well.  It’s called compassion.  Our hearts break when we really let our eyes see our own brokenness and sin, and the injustice in this world.  Our hearts break when death seems to win the day.  The pain we feel motivates us to do something about it, so that we or someone else don’t have to go through that kind of pain again.
                Jesus loved a party, so I think it’s ok to go ahead and celebrate this Reformation Day.  There are certainly things to be proud of, and which do lead humanity in a good direction, namely peace and love.  Let these be the hallmarks of being a Lutheran rather than the Liturgy which Martin Luther fought against establishing because he was afraid people might think it was the only way to worship God, and rather than Lutefisk and Lefse which the rest of the world is baffled about, since our denomination is not one race or ethnicity.  Let love and grace be our hallmark.  Let Jesus’ heart be transplanted in us.
                And let us continue reforming.  I think we have operated under the myth that the church was reformed 500 years ago and we’ve arrived, however Jesus is offering new life each day.  Let’s be honest about where we are not matching God’s dream for us.  Wouldn’t it make sense to be in constant reformation, to have a process of evaluation and accountability so we quit making the same mistakes, of building deeper relationships so that we can be honest and forthright?  Wouldn’t it do us good to always be letting go of what is selfish and sinful—barriers for our neighbors to worship with us?  Wouldn’t it do us good to be dying each day with Christ to our own comfort and interests and rise again to new life to serve our neighbor in love?  Jesus modeled it for us, by dying and rising again.  We say we believe in death and resurrection, but do we live as if we believed it?  Are we willing to let go, to die with Christ so that he might raise us to new life, to that vision of the Peaceable Kingdom where love is at the center? Maybe it is time to act on our beliefs and let God reform us again and again and again. 
                That’s one exciting thing about these anniversaries—500 years since the Reformation began.  It is a chance to look back and give thanks for the Reformers and all who have come before, to evaluate where we’ve been and where we’re going.  It is a chance to listen to our hearts, the deepest longings within each of us and in our neighbors. It is a chance to dream again the dream of God and look with hope to where God is leading us.  It is a chance to remember who we have been and be honest about the good and bad of it.  And it is a chance to consider who we want to be and to let God shape us into what this world needs for the reforms that are yet to come.