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Monday, February 27, 2017

February 26, 2016


1st Reading: Exodus 24:12-18 
2nd Reading: 2 Peter 1:16-21
Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9

We went camping last summer on Orcas Island for 5 nights. It seemed like the tent was always in disarray. I don't need things to be absolutely tidy when we're camping, but if I've made the bed and sorted the laundry, you'd think it might stay that way. It was raining quite a bit and Sterling was going in the tent and jumping on the bed and throwing blankets and pillows all over. He just has so much energy. One of the families we met had a boy about Sterling's age. His parents had this brilliant idea. They brought an extra tent just for their kid to jump around in. That preserved the sleeping tent for actual sleeping and kept the mess and chaos contained to the other one for the most part.

Maybe poor Peter is just trying to keep the chaos contained when he offers to make three tents. However, this doesn't seem to be the direction God is going, so back down the mountain they go to heal the sick on their way to Jerusalem and the cross. 

Our family goes camping for several reasons. We go camping to get away from home. We go camping because it is a fun, inexpensive vacation. We go camping to experience nature. We go camping to break up our routine. We go camping to be healed by nature. I was just watching Big Bang Theory, so it must be true. Leonard and Penny and Sheldon and Amy were heading out to spend time at a cabin in the forest. They were talking about the power of nature—that people who walk through campus to their college classes retain more of what they learn than if they drive there. Some of our favorite memories are our camping trips.

One thing Sterling loves best about camping and hiking are the waterfalls. There are several waterfalls on Orcas Island, and on out hike Sterling didn't want to leave the waterfall. It was so loud and powerful and awe-inspiring! 

Peter and James and John are having a similar experience. They are having this incredible experience of awe and wonder. They have summited the mountain and they could stay all day. They are basking in God's presence. Their enthusiasm and excitement actually cloud their vision, though. They are so excited about the first part of their experience, seeing Moses and Elijah, that they don't realize that there is more, that God's not done yet. Peter tries to capture the experience. He's got his Instamatic Camera there and he wants everyone to squeeze in for the shot. He wants to preserve this moment for always. But he doesn't realize that the snapshot he is trying to take will not at all resemble the experience he is having. This experience is part of a bigger picture, the whole history of experience of God's presence with us from the beginning of time, through Moses and Elijah, in and out of exile, leading to Jesus and his ministry and this moment. But God has more. God interrupts Peter. God speaks about Jesus and who he is and scares the daylights out of the disciples. Then, Jesus reaches out to them and makes contact. They see Jesus alone. They go down the mountain. They heal people and fail to heal people. They misunderstand and they get it. They are welcomed in Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna. They share the Passover. They deny their Rabbi and Savior. He is betrayed and arrested. He goes to trial. He is killed in a brutal way. He is in the tomb three days. He appears to them on the road. And on an on. 

They don't want that moment on the mountaintop to end, but this moment is revealing that God has always been with them, in slavery in Egypt, in the wilderness, in the exile, on the sabbath, at each meal, in every relationship, in every moment. When that vision and that voice go, who do they see, but Jesus himself alone, the voice still echoing, “Listen to him!” Once in a great while we stand in the midst of a vision, so convinced and overwhelmed to be in God's presence. But normally we stand next to an ordinary-looking guy and we're still standing in God's presence. Or we're at the foot of the cross weeping, or at the deathbed of a friend, weeping, and we're standing in God's presence. Or we're driving past a family doing homework under the lights of 7-11 because they are homeless and we are standing in God's presence. 
 
We do take a hint from our son and stand and enjoy waterfalls. Why rush off? But waterfalls are rare, and God's presence and power is not. Moments of awe upon the mountaintop are rare, but God's presence and power is not. Once we wrenched Sterling away from this captivating moment, we found other signs of God's presence with us. Up the trail a ways, we crossed several streams that eventually feed into the waterfall. There is something so beautiful and holy about a the trickling of a little stream. It's music is unmatched. God is present. 
 
We stood among some amazingly tall trees covered with moss or some overturned trees with the roots shooting up into the sky, and we felt the dramatic presence of God. In that moment time is collapsed. We can picture the tree seed on the ground. We can picture it taking root. A tiny tree, then growing larger, birds nesting, insects crawling, and God there through it all. Then in a moment, the tree falls, and we can look into the future. All the people who walk past this dramatic reminder of how small we are, the slow decay of the downed tree, all the creatures that live in it and chew it up, until it becomes the soil that grows another tree. Is God only there in the dramatic moment where it takes our breath away? It is more breathtaking to picture God's presence through the whole journey.

Wednesday night begins our Lenten journey. These 40 days in the wilderness correspond with Jesus' 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, cementing in him and convincing us of what kind of savior he would be and who his ministry would serve. These 40 days correspond with the 40 years that the Israelites spent wandering around in the wilderness, when they were discovering what it meant that God was their God and they were God's people and when they were learning to trust God.

That's what Lent is for us. It is a time to get back to basics. We're not going to be carrying heavy loads on this wilderness camping trip. We pack light. That's part of trusting. We're learning who we are. That is partly about what we can live without. The Israelites wandering 40 years in the wilderness had become so accustomed to being slaves that they kept begging God to take them back to Egypt. It takes some time to break habits. We get to consider in what ways we are enslaved. Who are the masters that we let rule over us? In what ways have we been bound to addictions, and partisanism, and the almighty dollar, and other's expectations? We learn in these 40 days that God is leading us to freedom, even if it is uncomfortable and new. We learn who we really are without all that extra stuff, comforts we had in Egypt or distractions that keep us from freedom. We learn what we're made of, what we're capable of. And we learn who and what we are not, namely in charge, or entitled. We learn in 40 days how much we really need God and really need each other. We learn to pray. We learn to be generous. We learn to love. And we learn to receive love—not the kind of approval of everything we do, but the kind of love that challenges us and makes us think for ourselves and makes us work together, and makes us love our enemies.

Lent is a time to practice noticing that God has always been with us, to train ourselves to see God's presence with us in this moment and this one and this one, whether it is a roaring waterfall of a moment or a little musical trickle, whether it is a dramatic tree root, or a little sliver under our finger, whether it is a moment of joy or a moment of grief. It is a time to let go of the thought that God is only with us in the dramatic moments. It is a time to feel Jesus reach out to us and see Jesus himself alone.

Moses stood on the mountain and he was surrounded by a cloud. I can't imagine how disorienting that must have been. Peter stood beholding this image of Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus and he was completely disoriented. He knew he stood in the presence of God, but he didn't know what to do with that. He thought he would enshrine it, put a leash on it, capture it so he'd know where he could always find it. We stand disoriented in God's presence. As soon as we try to explain it and define it and capture it, it gets away from us, because God's presence isn't in one place or time, but it is always and forever and everywhere. We get to look for that presence in the moment and the next moment and in each other and in the stranger and in the enemy. 

God can't be contained either in a tent or any of our explanations or ideas of who God is. So God invites us, not to contain the chaos and disorientation, like the family with the extra tent, or Peter trying to build three tents, but to walk in that disorientation and chaos with God by our side, and to walk with our brothers and sisters who are in it and let them know they aren't alone. We're invited to walk down that mountainside into the thick of it, to eventually pack up the campsite and get back to work, healing, loving, walking, looking, and listening, until we are aware of God's presence constantly and powerfully with us and our neighbor.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

February 19, 2017


Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48 
1st Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

When I was a kid, all the rules were around not inconveniencing dad. Don't talk with your mouth full because that irritated dad. Go to bed at 8 pm, so that dad could have the TV to himself. Do whatever mom said, or she would complain to dad and interrupt the ball game. Inconveniencing dad brought harsh consequences, so we found that we got by pretty well by avoiding dad, and sadly most of us kids are still doing so. We could break the rules, as long as dad didn't find out.

God's rules, the 10 Commandments, invite us to consider how our actions might impact another person, but this time it isn't dad, it is our neighbor. Our neighbor is not an afterthought and inconvenience. Our neighbor is central and essential—to be considered first, partly because when neighbors cooperate and relate well, it is good for everyone. And you may remember when Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he gave the story of the good Samaritan, a story about a foreigner who was a good neighbor to a man attacked by robbers and left by the road to die. 

God's rules, unlike my father's rules, are not to be followed out of fear, but for our own good and for abundant life to be lived by each person. Not only does God require us in the commandments to consider our neighbor, but God has done them for us. In everything, God puts us first, even though we are often bad neighbors to God. It is God who makes the grapes grow and shares that bounty with us. We are the needy in God's eyes. Likewise, we are to share the gleanings with those in need. God tells us the truth and doesn't hide things from us. God doesn't take advantage of us or our disabilities to hurt us. Likewise, we don't do that to others. God judges with justice, without favoritism. That is how we are to behave toward each other. God is love. So we as God's people are loving, too. There is nothing that God asks of us, that God doesn't do for us, first, and in order for God's food, God's justice, God's love to reach all of God's children, we cannot be hoarding it and stealing it, we must let that love flow out to our neighbor. 

The times I treasured with my dad, were the times he modeled a life of love, generosity, fearlessness, and kindness. I treasured the times on the church softball team, when he was the coach, stretching himself to open the game in prayer, cheering on the players, and relating to our neighboring churches. I treasured the times our family, though needy, would put together a box of holiday surprises for some family worse off than us with food and presents and goodies, and we would all pile in the minivan. We kids would wait in the car down the block and here would come our parents running to hide so the person would never know who was so thoughtful and kind as to bring a little light into an otherwise dark time.

The softball team and the secret boxes of gifts were times when we looked beyond what was required and reveled in God's generosity to us. They were acts of resistance against all that divides us. In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus talks about the rules and laws. We have already read in Paul's letter to the church in Corinth that our rules and laws are foolish. Jesus takes those rules and laws and shows us what to do to resist foolish rules and laws. He names how things are done in in his time and he proposes an alternative that exposes the foolishness and lack of justice of the law in the first place.

Laws allow violence. In Jesus' time, they allowed taking from someone who took from someone else. In times more ancient than Jesus', a village might be burnt to the ground and all the people killed because someone insulted someone else. If you remember, in the Old Testament, when Joseph's sister Dinah was raped, Dinah's brothers told the family that if they were all circumcised then their sister would marry her attacker. If you remember, they agree to be circumcised, and while they are recovering, Joseph's brothers attacked and killed the whole family. When we read that story we never know what to be most horrified about, because the whole thing is disturbing. However, as time went on, people decided, “The punishment must fit the crime.” Let's make this proportional. If someone puts out an eye, then only an eye can be taken, not the death penalty, and not the whole village. That's what “An eye for an eye” meant then—an improvement.

There are rules. We may obey or disobey. When they are unjust or foolish, we often choos fight or flight. Now Jesus is suggesting another way. It is a shocking way. Jesus says, “Do not resist and evildoer.” Let me explain. It sounds like we should be doormats. However this word began to be translated this way with the King James version, because King James wanted the people to do whatever he told them and not resist. However the sentence really says, “Do not violently resist the evildoer.” Jesus is suggesting a nonviolent approach that is neither rolling over and accepting unjust laws, not taking up arms and fighting and killing to get our way. He suggests a third way. This is what it looks like.

If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. People hit with the right hand, in Jesus' day. The left hand is unclean. If you use it, you have 10 days of purification you have to go through. To hit someone on the right cheek with the right hand is to backhand someone. It still means the same thing today. It is an insult. If someone turns their cheek, it is cheeky. It is daring someone to hit them again. Only this time, it would have to be a hit with the front of the hand, which is a hit between equals. To turn the other cheek is to assert yourself as an equal and to defy the other person.

If someone makes you carry their pack a mile, which was the law, carry it two miles. Remember when Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry Jesus' cross as they walked up to Golgotha? That was an example of this rule. So Jesus says to carry it two miles. A soldier could ask for one mile, but any further than that, the soldier could be punished. Can you imagine the soldier on the side of the road begging for the return of his pack? To carry the pack further is an act of resistance that shows the foolishness of the original law.

These acts of nonviolent resistance are surprising—they aren't the usual reaction, so people will have to stop and think about how to best respond. And that's what God wants us to do, is not to take the rules for granted or go through the motions, but to question what is this law? Who does it benefit? Who does it hurt? Does it fit with the rules and laws that God gives us? Does this match how God treats us? 

Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. It isn't going to happen. But the word for “perfect” actually is “whole” or “complete.” We can't be whole or complete without each other, without our enemy, without the foreigner, without the one we reject, Jesus. But Jesus has chosen to knit us together into one body and we get to work together doing God's work, healing the world, loving, forgiving, and praying for our enemies, and resisting evil and injustice.

God resists our unjust rules. Our rules say that you have to be like us to fit in and belong. Jesus says all are God's children. Our rules say you have to earn your rewards. Jesus says we all fall short, but we all need food, shelter, and love. Our rules say you must have your papers to live in this country. Jesus says, “Love your neighbor.” God constantly reminds the Israelites, “You shall not oppress a foreigner. You know the heart of a foreigner, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” Exodus 23:9 “When a foreigner sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:33-34. Over and over, God reminds them of where they came from and gives them laws that put their neighbor's needs in front of them, because what is good for the neighbor and foreigner is good for everyone and means that God's love impartially reaches every last person, because we are all God's children.

When I think of all that God has done for us, how God has taken us from being broken, lost, sinners, who have been fearful and alone, to welcoming us into God's family and loves us as sons and daughters, even though we have done nothing deserving of that love, I feel called to open my heart, to share the gleanings from the great harvest. And when I think of all the forces that defy God and deny people their humanity in this world, I get very frustrated and angry. I go between wanting to give up and imagining myself using violence to get my way, even though I am a peace-loving person and I know that violence accomplishes nothing. Jesus invites us to be creative. Jesus invites us to find a third way to resist injustice, a way that reveals it for what it is. I don't know what that looks like and I know I won't discover it on my own. Only in community, in the body of Christ, do we find the whole. Our bodies can be easily crushed, but not the body of Christ. It was once crushed, but rose to new life. So we won't give up, but we'll work together to resist the evil forces of this world until everyone in God's family, and in God's creation, knows God's love.

I had a most heartbreaking relational meeting this week with the pastor of the Church of God of Prophecy, the church that uses this space and regarding whom the council is starting to use the language of “partner” rather than “renter.” We are partners in the body of Christ. We do this ministry in the community in two different languages, but we all love God and our unity is in Christ.

The Church of God of Prophecy consists mainly of undocumented immigrants who came to this country to give their children a better life. Our economy needed them. Now many of them have an uncertain future. This family has had direct experience of law enforcement putting a gun in the face of a child. Now several families fear deportation and being separated from their two young children who will not be permitted to go to Mexico because they are not Mexican citizens, but would be put up for adoption by strangers. I think of the law and I ask, is this how God treats us? Does God throw out the immigrant? Does God separate families? 

I asked Pastor Juan what we could do to help. He said he'd like a list of telephone numbers of people to call to pick up his kids if he is picked up by Immigration Enforcement Officers, someone who could look after the kids until guardians and friends can get there. I said I would talk to you about it. And I asked if we could have a prayer service together. Our unity is not based on the language we speak. It isn't based on the color of our skin. It isn't based on our documentation or place of birth, it is in our Savior Jesus, who died for us, who died for them that they might have new life, that no one should live in fear, that we would all be brothers and sisters despite our differences. Some might accuse me of being political. However, I don't think either party has offered us solid answers regarding immigration. We have a problem of families being ripped apart, of creating orphans when we can't support the foster kids we already have. So we get to consider, who is my brother and sister and I hope, like the Samaritan on the road, we find ourselves pulling people out of ditches instead of pushing them in. I think we may find ourselves being ministered to by the one we persecuted and could never have imagined coming to our aid. Pastor Juan said on Monday through his son Juan Jr., “Thank you for all you've done. From the beginning, you've all been very welcoming.” It was gratitude to you all, he was expressing. And he said, “We love this country. That hasn't changed.” 

Whether you think this is an unjust law or not, I hope you will consider the human laws that we live with and instead of taking them for granted to look and see who they benefit and whether they are foolish. And if they are, let us find a way to stand against them, as Jesus stood against the foolish powers of death and handed us new life as a free gift of God's grace.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

February 12, 2017


Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37 
1st Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

I went pretty much by the book with my baby boy when he was born, like a lot of first-time mothers are. I hear the first one, you go by the book, and after that you've learned more how to think for yourself and feel a little more free to experiment. Since my baby was growing properly and eating what I put before him, going by the book worked for me. It was 6 months of mother's milk only. He grew so fast I had wrist supports for a few months because my arms couldn't support his weight. On his six month birthday, he had his first food, ground up oats mixed into milk. After that he was introduced to one food at a time for a week, adding to what he already had tried, until he had all the food groups. All his food was organic, all was homemade. All went together to make a healthy bouncing baby boy.

But I didn't just give him that food to make him bigger. Some of it was to make him smarter. Most of it was to keep him healthy. And part of it was the experience of sitting down to a meal together, looking one another in the eye, communicating, and being a family.

God also likes feeding God's children. We begin with the food that is easier for us to digest. Life is given to us in more easily digestible terms. There are good guys and bad guys, certain rules to obey without question, and we're not expected to handle information we're not ready for. We accept what other people tell us, our parents and our pastor. We don't have a lot of choice about it.

But as we grow in faith, we try foods we've never tried before, we're encouraged to eat things we don't particularly like, and we start having to chew and use a utensil. As we mature, we learn more about our world, we find out that many things are shades of grey instead of being so clear cut, and we're expected to communicate with people we disagree with in other ways than hitting and yelling. We have a chance to question everything we held as true just because our parents taught us, and we are invited to examine the faith that was handed down to us and decide whether to make it our own.

Of course our faith journey is always on the move—what we could stomach before, we can't anymore, and what our bodies and minds once needed changes. We find that faith isn't just between me and God, but that we're part of something bigger than ourselves. It is both a pain in the neck and other key areas, because other followers don't do things the way I like, and it is a blessing because the gifts of others fills the gaps in my own gifts and we can do so much more together. As we grow in faith, we begin to see God in the struggles and blessings in the conflicts and find peace in the storm. And at times we go back to eating baby food. Sometimes a tall glass of milk just hits the spot. Sometimes there is nothing more satisfying than a bowl of Cheerios.

Moses has led his people out of slavery into the desert. They suffered under slavery, however they liked being spoon-fed. They long for the food they ate in Egypt. But God is leading them on a wilderness walk to teach them who they can trust to provide their food. The taste of freedom is new to them. They aren't sure they are ready for such a thing, because it requires them to think for themselves and to go through some trials. However God is feeding them and continues to offer it to them. God knows this wilderness experience will mature their faith and their relationship with God. God hopes that their wilderness experience will change their hearts. God gives them the commandments and ordinances and decrees not to control them, but to give them life,--long life, abundant life.

Paul is writing to the Corinthians. He brought this community into this world from infancy and fed them by hand. He loves this church in Corinth, these believers. But he has some new expectations of them, that they would grow up a little bit and act their age. Instead, they are breaking into factions and arguing and fighting. Paul is offering them some food that is a little challenging to their pallets and that is the reminder of who provides food for us all, God, and who we owe our allegiance to, God.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus is teaching the Disciples. They've tried the food that is the commandments. Many of them probably feel like they are doing ok on them. The commandments have become staples of their diet. However, Jesus is challenging them to try some new dishes. They will recognize some familiar ingredients, but God wants more for them. The commandments had become a way of justifying themselves, a checklist for people to say they were better than others. However, God wants more than a checklist. God wants a changed heart, a changed orientation, a focus away from showing what a good person I am, to putting God first, a change from worshipping myself and making idol of my works, to worshipping God and living a new abundant life. 

God wants to change our hearts so that we can receive new new life and live abundantly. We show what is in our hearts by our actions. God isn't interested in the actions alone, going through the motions of bringing gifts to the altar. Going and doing the mature thing, being reconciled to people you have hurt or disappointed, is what God wants to see. That is going to make for abundant life for you, more than coming to God with your gift of money or flocks or grains. 

I read the scripture about tearing your eye out or cutting off your arm, and I am often puzzled. It is such a violent image. At times I have heard people use this passage to say that if a member of the body of Christ sins then they should be cut off or shunned. However, because it is right next to this passage about going to your brother or sister who you have wronged and making amends, I can't believe that is what Jesus means. Also, that doesn't sound like Jesus, to me. 

This reading struck me in a different way, this time. How often do we cut off people who we disagree with? How often do we tear other people apart with no regard to how much God loves them? Why are we so hard on other people, violent even, with our words and actions? Why are we not appalled at the idea of cutting people off, at least as appalled as we are at the idea of tearing our own eye out. Instead, we have to grow up. We have to know that if we cut off one another, the same as if we cut off even a small part of our body, the whole body suffers. We have to stop cutting each other off just because we disagree. Our unity is in Christ, period. 

Instead of tearing one another apart and destroying the body of Christ, we are invited to do some self-reflection. When we feel self-justified, and that we've done everything right, we are invited to examine our thoughts, our hearts, and turn to God. When we feel like we have what we deserve, God reminds us that we all fall short, that none of us has a leg to stand on when we start to examine our hearts. We all stand on the same footing whether we have committed murder or just thought about it, whether we are divorced or have committed adultery in our imagination, whether we say the “F word” or “I swear!” None of us is innocent. We all need God's mercy and love and generosity. God reminds us that we don't create all the good things we have. God reminds us where all good things come from, not from what we deserve, but because of God's abundant grace. And God reminds us of what all these good gifts from God are for, and that is for sharing, not for hoarding or holding over someone's head. Let's all take the challenge and take a good long look at ourselves and how we can better reflect the light and love of Christ, throw out what doesn't reflect that and mature into the people of faith God is calling us to.

Today, we are all invited to sit down at the table together and eat the food God has prepared for us, and all be nourished. We are invited to grow up and sit down with others who are in the body of Christ with us. We are invited to enjoy the meal. We are invited to grow our faith. We are invited to look one another in the eye and have conversations and be curious and be honest. We have a lot to digest, a lot to absorb, and the biggest part is how loved each one of us is. And when we know there is enough love to go around, we can just sit back and enjoy the meal in the presence of God and all God's children.

Before us is a spread of delicious, nutritious, nourishing food. Beside us are our brothers and sisters and even some we might call enemies, co-workers with us. Around us shines the light of God. There is peace. There is life. There is hope. Blessings are shared. Faith grows. People act in mature ways. We look to God, not to ourselves. We remember what really matters. We put our faith and hope in what is good and what lasts. We examine our own lives and make changes for the better. We try things we've never tried and we find fulfillment. All are fed. All are loved. All have gifts to share. All belong to God. We don't have to wait until the next life to live in the Kingdom of God where every mouth is fed and everyone is invited to the table. This peaceable Kingdom is desperately needed here on earth, in fact Jesus came to bring it through each of us. 

Gather round the table of God. The dinner bell is ringing. All are invited to the meal of life. Receive God's nourishing love. Share your bread with others. Be nourished. Receive health. Take your place in the family and grow up in faith to welcome others to the table until all know God's love.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

February 5, 2017


Gospel: Matthew 5:13-20 Reading: Isaiah 58:1-9a

I invite the kids to act out:
Hungry
Cold
Afraid
Lonely
Sick
Fighting
Sad
Lost

Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” Jesus came to bring light and hope to people who are struggling and for us to share that light, too.

Act out the light shining. What might that look like?

It isn't just about actual light from the sun, but being the light is a way of life. The things we're good at and that we work really hard on are like a light giving hope to people, helping them, and bringing happiness to them.

There is a song I want to teach you called “This little Gospel light of mine.” Sing some of it for them and have them repeat it.

This little light of mine comes from the Bible reading we just read, “You are the light of the world.”

It became a song of the Civil Rights Movement. Some people were telling others they weren't as good as them because of the color of their skin, but lots of people knew that wasn't true and they sang this song to say, “God made us all, no matter our skin color. We all have gifts. We all have a light to shine, gifts to share, hope and love to give.” People sang that song to remind themselves that they are the light and to tell those who were being unkind that God loved and valued them and no one could take away that light.

This song has been sung many times over the years. It was sung again by an artist named Odetta, and along with her sang the Harlem Boys Choir, on television a couple of days after our country was attacked on September 11, 2001. Lots of people felt afraid and angry and were hurting, but those kids sang that song to say, “Nothing can stop God's light shining. We're going to sing. We're going to have hope and God's light will keep shining.”

It is always a good time to shine God's light, because there are always people who need it who are having problems. We shine a light when we help people who are hungry or cold or sad or alone or sick or afraid or lost or fighting. We have reason to hope because God's light never runs out of batteries and that's the light that shines through us.

When I was a little girl, my grandma had prisms hanging from candle holders on her dining room table and when the sun came in the window, they would make rainbows all over the room. I am giving you each a prism to remind you that God's light is shining and you are like a prism, when it shines through you, you make rainbows that bring joy and hope to others. You are shining with God's light when you sing, play, smile, share, learn, and just be you. Thank you for shining God's light and giving us hope.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

January 29, 2017


Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12    
1st Reading: Micah 6:1-8
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

A great heresy has arisen in the past 15 years.  It has probably existed for hundreds or thousands of years, but nowadays many books are written on the subject and many false preachers try to snag people into believing it.  It is called the "Prosperity Gospel" and teaches that if you please God, you will be rich, you will get a lot of money.  Many of these false preachers have many fancy houses and cars, and have deluded themselves into thinking they deserve it, that God favors them so makes them rich, and they tell their followers if only God loved them more, they too could be rich.  In doing so they dupe their followers into giving them more and more, widows into giving their last dime, not using their offerings to do good in their communities or to make poor people's lives better, but instead making the poor poorer and lining their own pockets.    Wikipedia puts it this way "the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, or the gospel of success) is a religious belief among some Christians, who hold that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one's material wealth. Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, God will deliver security and prosperity."  We don't teach the prosperity Gospel in our church, however it is a common belief and value that most of us live with every day.  We see the poor and we wonder what they did wrong, we wonder if they do drugs, or are lazy.  We live in our secure houses and feel that we did everything right and deserve to have the nice juicer and counter tops, etc. I grew up poor and I remember seeing people worse off than us and wondering what they did wrong, my parents blaming them for bringing more children into the world than they could care for, all the while in our family of 6 enjoying foodstamps and free lunch at school. Even when we were poor we blamed those who were poorer than us for their condition.

Our readings for today tear down every argument for the Prosperity Gospel and I'm going to take you through them one by one.

In the Micah reading, God and humans are arguing.  Human values and God's values are not matching up.  God reminds the people of what God has done for them.  None of it is about wealth or riches.  It is all about relationship and experiences.  God has done many saving acts, delivered them out of slavery in Egypt, led them to a place of safety, given them leaders both male and female who would lead them.  The story about Balak and Balaam is about a curse being put on the Israelites, but how God acted pre-emptively to turn it into a blessing, instead.  Countless times in the scriptures, God takes what was meant for ill and turns it into something good.  Joseph's brothers selling him into slavery so he could predict the famine and save many from starvation.  The people of Israel respond to God's complaint, with trying to give God wealth and riches.  God says, "How many times do I have to tell you what I want from you? I don't want your stuff. I want your hearts. I want you to be focussed on the same things I am, to value the same things I do, to love who and what I love.” What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God?

If anyone ever said that wealth was important to God, they can read this scripture, as the Israelites try to buy God's forgiveness with food and cattle and rams and jars of oil and even to offer a child to God, as if all these things didn't already belong to God.  God doesn't care about things.  They are meaningless.  They are temporary.  God cares about relationship that is lasting and real.  God wants something from us.  We know we aren't meeting the requirements.  So we give what we value, money and things.  But what God wants is a new focus on what God cares about, lovingkindness, justice, humility, and relationship, priceless, valuable beyond measure to build the Kingdom of God.  

Paul's letter to the Corinthians points out that what is wise to humans is foolishness to God.  What is valuable to humans are things like nobility, wealth, being smart, miracles, power to get things done.  To us today, I would add that this world values youth, beauty, an education, being able to express yourself well.  However, God chooses Disciples in Paul's time and not many of them have money or smarts or looks, not many are in the middle or upper class, and not many are held in high regard. However, that is just the kind of people that God chooses to work through so that we humans don't start to think that God values what most humans value.  God doesn't value appearances of having it all together.  God wants real people and chooses to work through people who are ordinary and imperfect and foolish to get things done.

So if we think God works through money, or rewards people with riches for doing good works, we know it isn't true.  God shows God doesn't value what we value, and works through the foolishness of the cross to reveal the foolishness of our human values.  The cross was a symbol of human power, the power of the Roman Empire over the most powerless, hopeless people.  It represented breaking people's bodies, breaking their spirits so that all who witnessed and feared would obey.  It meant publicly humiliating people who had crossed the powers of this world.  It represented the powers of this world to control those who are less powerful. The cross is the instrument that God used to say the powers of this world are meaningless and foolish, when God raised Jesus after his death on just such an instrument of the powers of this world to take away life of anyone who stood in the way of the Roman Empire or gave an alternative view of power.

Finally Paul talks about boasting.  No one can boast in any earthly powers, not strength, not brains, not money, not possessions, not positions, not good works, nothing.  The only thing that we can claim, is the foolish cross and the wisdom of God who made the ridiculous gesture of claiming us all through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.  If anyone tells you your wealth means God loves you and has blessed you and you are meant to have it because of divine will, this scripture tells you no.  No boasting in the stuff you have or the wealth.  The only only only thing you can boast in is God's love.  It is the only thing that lasts, the only thing that means anything.

Finally, Jesus begins his ministry by saying what is most important.  He's just been inaugurated and now he's giving his first State of the Union address, laying out what is important under his rule, in his administration.  This is what God values.  This is who God is blessing: the poor, the meek, the grieving, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the naive, those who make peace, those who get picked on and hurt because of their faith and commitment to God.  

We hear the Beatitudes so often, it is hard to hear them in a fresh way that breaks through to our hearts.  According to the dictionary, blessing means God's favor and protection.  God favors and protects those who are mourning, who are hungry and thirsty, who are grieving.  Some have said that these are the be-attitudes, that this is the way we should live, however we really can't change our situation to make sure we are grieving or meek.  This isn't a checklist to pass or fail.  It is a way of looking at people around us and who we are charged with protecting.  It is a word of encouragement and reassurance for those who are already feeling like failures because of their situation and the values of this world that say if you're poor, you don't matter, if you're merciful, you are weak, if you are hungry and thirsty,  you must have done something to deserve it.  

Here are my fresh beatitudes for you, God honors those who take the bus, for they will see and hear people everyone rejects, God favors those who receive SNAP benefits, for they have a different perspective about nutrition and money, blessed are those who cry themselves to sleep at night, for God is with them, God protects the undocumented through people like me and you for we were once immigrants and outsiders, too, God forgives those who can't forgive themselves, and offers them new life. If ever the values of God and the values of this world are shown to be at odds, here it is in Jesus' executive orders of who and what God values and who and what we should value.  This world values power and money and having it all together.  Not God!  God is with the powerless and abandoned and broken and bumbling.  

Take Jesus, God's son. He shows what matters most to God.  Not money, not strength, not security, not political power.  What matters to God is relationship, love, mercy, humility, lovingkindness.  These are what matters to God and what matter to us, the Disciples that are being taught the company mission and values, and beginning our training to bring in the Kingdom.  We are invited to look at the world differently than we ever have before.  What the world taught us to value, is not what matters to God.  Now we see through God's eyes and we honor those who suffer and are in need.  Because of that we will suffer, too, but it will be nothing compared to the joy we know from relationship with God and realizing the vision of a world built on love, equity, and justice.

Believe me I hesitated when writing this sermon about the values of this world and greedy pastors on this day when we vote on a budget. Talking about money is a very uncomfortable subject for me. However, when we talk about our values, we see where each other is coming from and it doesn't have to be so scary. This is God's church and you vote here based on the insights that God has given you. I hope you will feel encouraged to speak up, to let love fill your hearts for one another and for God and God's values. And in our daily lives, may we stand up for those most rejected, because the one most rejected is Jesus himself. He is here and we have the chance to honor the one willing to be foolish for us and give his life for foolish, undeserving people, because relationship and love mean everything.

Monday, January 23, 2017

January 22, 2017


Gospel: Matthew 4:12-23 
1st Reading: Isaiah 9:1-4
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

We have this morning in two readings an inauguration announcement. One is from Isaiah regarding the birth of a King, perhaps King David. The other in the Gospel of Matthew, about the reign and ministry of Jesus.

Times of transition of power can be times of anxiety and times of hope. They often bring about mixed feelings. In the case of these two kings, however there was a lot of hope, because things couldn't get much worse.

People had walked in great darkness. Literally walking in darkness can be very dangerous, as many of us have experienced just getting up to get a drink of water in the night without turning the lights on. You risk running into something and hurting yourself. If you are outside in the dark, you risk falling into a ditch. There is no light to see what wild animals might be lurking. In the darkness, there are a lot of unknowns.

For Israel, in both Jesus' time and at the time of the writing of Isaiah, there was a lot of darkness. The poor and the needy were being ignored. The rich were actively taking over the farms of the poor and making them their slaves. There had been many bad kings, only interested in their own power, who worshipped false gods. There had been other threatening nations—in Jesus' time, Israel was occupied by Rome. Israel had endured humiliations, one after the other. And the religious authorities were keeping people in the dark, reducing access to God, and increasing their own power.

Some might argue we have been in darkness as well. Some of us have enjoyed prosperity, recently, as jobs begin to come back. And some who have not shared in the prosperity have begun to accuse us of ignoring those who are poor and oppressed. This year was a terrible one in our world for people fleeing war and violence, with millions of refugees displaced. Housing prices are making it more difficult for people to afford to live in their neighborhoods in our area. I know of several families sleeping in their car and one without a car about to lose their apartment. Pollution is causing climate change, and snowstorms have killed our neighbors who have nowhere to sleep except the streets. Illness, both mental and physical have caused great harm. And we've felt angry and alienated from one another for over a year because of this election, with no end in sight.

I know I feel like I am in the dark. I can't see what's coming next, and it's frightening.
Into this darkness comes a sudden burst of light. With King David, it was about military power and the power of God coming together to bring Israel glory, to take away all oppression, and to bring about a triumph and disarmament by the victors. 

With Jesus, it is the power of God being revealed in a person. God had always walked among the people and been accessible, but people weren't aware of it. Now that we see Jesus doing his ministry, this presence of God is apparent. The sudden burst of light reveals what was hidden, and what was hidden wasn't some danger, but something very good. Jesus will dismantle oppression, but not military oppression. Instead he will tear down the oppression of blindness, both physical and the kind of blindness that makes us fail to see one another as fully human. Jesus will disrupt the oppression of hunger, of poverty, and finally of death.

Paul warns us against divisions and factions. During times of transition, some of us might divide ourselves based on whether we think the darkness is getting darker, or whether we believe the light is coming. We divide ourselves up by whether to give into despair because things are just getting worse and worse, or whether we have hope and are rejoicing. We couldn't have a more appropriate reading for this morning, when we find ourselves so divided by political party we can barely look each other in the eye, let alone sit down with someone who feels differently than we do and have an actual conversation with them, treating them like a human being. 

Whether we feel that we are darkness moving toward light, or that things are getting darker and scarier, we are a people of faith. That means a couple of things. It means we have faith, we have hope. Not in the powers of this world, but the ultimate power in Jesus Christ of love and forgiveness. Whether things are getting better or worse, we have a promise from God who has ultimate power and authority. So we know as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” In other words we may go forward and back, but ultimately, because of the power of God, God is moving us toward justice and peace, not for a few but for the whole of us. That we are people of faith, means that we have unity in Christ. 

Factions and divisions distract us from what is central, that is Jesus, that is love. We are co-workers in the Kingdom of God, no matter how different we are. We have to honor one another's humanity and see each other as worthy of God's love and our time and energy. Church should be a safe place to express ourselves, be curious about other people's experiences, to disagree without being disagreeable, and to love and forgive and try and fail and try again to express our diversity of gifts within the unity of the body of Christ that we belong to. 

Sometimes we think that unity in the body of Christ, means that we all have to think the same way. Not at all. Jesus told the truth, even when it was hard. We, too, are called to tell the truth. Unity, doesn't mean uniformity. It doesn't mean we have to think alike or that we have to keep our opinions to ourselves if we feel differently than someone else. Unity in Christ means that we can share our differences of opinions truthfully, because we know it isn't going to divide us to do so. Sharing different perspectives together makes us stronger, gives us a greater sense of the big picture, brings a variety of gifts and experiences together, and increases our power to bring in God's Kingdom. 

A time of transition of power is a perfect opportunity, not to be fearful, but to be hopeful, to invite conversation about what is most important and what is central, and what are our values as Christians, what are we working for together. In the end, we know God is in charge, and that love wins the day, and new life is given to us through Jesus, a light shines in the darkness and brings a new day.

Jesus is on the shore calling to us. Change is afoot. An inauguration is taking place, as Jesus ministers to all in need. We can keep on fishing as we always have been, or we can go in a new direction, toward experiences that are new to us, but open us to see God working in the world and participate in that life-giving work. We can ignore that summons as we have many times, or we can take that step out of the darkness into the light, being willing to walk among those who are in need.

The Disciples heard Jesus calling them from the shore. How long did he call before they followed? Why did Jesus call these particular disciples?  What does Jesus calling these disciples say about the kind of work that Jesus would be doing?

These are fishermen. They are used to working in the chaos.  Bodies of water are unpredictable and dangerous.  Similar to the people and crowds they would soon be ministering to. They were used to hard work.  They did the smelliest, dirtiest work, with few rewards. They were some of the lowest class.  They would almost never ask, is this person worthy of my time or Jesus'--except for women, children, and an occasional blind person.  Most surprising is that those who came to Jesus for help were not put off by the Disciples and I can't recall anyone asking if they were worthy to heal them and minister to them. These disciples were used to disappointment.  When they cast their nets, they didn't know if they would get in quite a haul, or come up empty.  The same is true for sewing seeds for God's Kingdom.  Sometimes there was a great harvest, sometimes nothing even sprouted.  There was no one to blame.  That's the nature of their work. We too can be ready for chaos, for unpredictability, for putting away our judgments, and for doing hard work.

Jesus called the first disciples and now calls to us. Jesus calls us to complete focus on God.  Following Jesus means letting go of everything that came before, all our security, all our family relationships, our previous work, and placing our whole focus and identity on God.  Jesus calls us to repent. Repent means turn in a completely new direction, leaving some things behind and facing a new direction.  Jesus is central.  Love is central.  We get to ask ourselves, what does love look like in this situation?

Jesus has been shouting from the Lakeshore at me for a while.  Things were going pretty well for me and I thought improving for people around me, so I ignored him.  He called to me when Trayvon Martin and Philando Castile were murdered and I stayed in my comfortable boat.  He called me when when 5 polices officers were ambushed and murdered in Dallas and I stayed in my boat. He called to me when immigrants were being deported in record numbers and I stayed in my comfortable boat.  He called to me when Native leaders were sprayed with water cannons in subzero temperatures and I stayed in my boat.  Sometimes I might throw him a fish or a glance.  But now I have to get oriented in a new direction, toward Jesus, toward God.  I am repenting.  I can see the goal and it is love and it is beautiful and chaotic and scary and hopeful.  It is the only direction.  

When God came to earth as Jesus, his focus was not on himself.  From the moment he begins his ministry he is focused on love.  We see where it got him, torture and death, but we see where it got us, new life--that is the new life we are called into right now.  Jesus is inaugurating some Disciples. It's our turn turn to get out of your boat, repent and focus on love, and let Jesus give you new life.

January 1, 2017


Gospel: Matthew 1:18-25    
1st Reading: Isaiah 7:10-16 
2nd Reading: Romans 1:1-7

The summer of 1995 I visited the seminary campus  in Berkeley, California to see if I felt like the school was a good fit.  While I was there, I called home on the pay phone, and my parents told me the news that my younger sister was pregnant.  I don't know if I have ever cried so hard.  She was 16 years old and unmarried.  I grieved her childhood, that she wouldn't go to prom, that she wouldn't have opportunities that other people would have, that this would follow her.  She wouldn't graduate.  She would be stuck.  This would keep her from achieving so many of her dreams.  I was alone on the campus of Pacific School of Religion where I was taking a one-week class.  I remember just walking and walking as I cried.  It was raining off and on, and it was dark, and the sidewalks were covered with snails.  Every few minutes one would crunch under my feet.

I blamed myself that I hadn't done all I could to make sure she knew about birth control.  I think my dad never thought this could happen to them.  He always made fun of anyone on our class who got pregnant before they graduated.  I guess he thought that would be enough to deter us.  My mom wondered what the neighbors would think.  And we scarcely acknowledged a pattern in our family--my mom and grandma both married in their teens and had their first child before they turned 20, and one of my earliest memories was riding in the back of a truck with my uncles who were threatening my Aunt's fiance.  I didn't know at the time, she was pregnant before she was married.  For the longest time, I was confused about why people cried at weddings.  I thought it had something to do with those strong emotions I was witnessing from my uncles in the back of that pickup truck.  Because of my sister's teen pregnancy, I remember thinking that I was not going to stand by and let this happen in our family again, and before I left to attend seminary, I embarrassed my 15 year old brother by giving him a box of condoms and telling him to practice putting them on.  I never saw someone turn so red.  He turned out to be a Mormon, an upstanding man and wonderful father of 5 (so far), after getting married.

Joseph, son of Jacob, named for the Joseph of the Old Testament, also son of Jacob, who had the coat of many colors, who dreamed vivid dreams and couldn't keep them to himself.  Joseph of the Hebrew Bible was gifted with dreams that made his brothers hate him (remember he dreamed that his brothers bowed to him and had to blab that all to them so that they ended up selling him into slavery to get rid of him.)  But eventually his dreams meant that the Pharaoh stored up food in preparation for a seven year famine.  Joseph said, what people meant for evil, God meant for good. Many lives were saved, and when Joseph's brothers came to the Pharaoh to ask for food assistance, there was Joseph to receive them and forgive them, and eventually to be gifted with the best land so that the Israelites could grow and prosper.  

Joseph in today's Gospel, is a man of dreams, named after that Joseph in the Old Testament and just as dreamy.  Who knows what dreams he had in mind when he became engaged to Mary.  He perhaps dreamed that his family line would continue, that he would have sons to honor him.  So what must he think when Mary tells him she is pregnant?  He is thinking that she's untrustworthy.  He's thinking this child isn't related to him.  He's thinking of what everyone will say.  He probably felt angry, betrayed.  However, he is a righteous man, so he doesn't want to make her life any harder than it will already be.  He has every right to drag her through the mud.  But he is righteous.  He is not the kind of righteous that is better than other people, or who only follows the rules.  The word "righteous" also involves being merciful, treating others as one would want to be treated.  So he decides to dismiss her quietly.  

However, he has a dream and he believes in dreams.  Dreams often have many possible interpretations.  I often tell Sterling that his dreams happen when his brain is trying to work something out.  Joseph's brain was trying to work something out.  He likely was having quite an emotional reaction to his situation.  He seems to get a pretty clear directive, a very different approach to the one he had planned to take, yet even more merciful.  He likely wondered, is this just me, or was this really an angel?  If he married her, he was basically admitting the child was his and that he had done something he shouldn't have.  Either that or he was a wimp, letting his wife have relations with someone else and taking on a kid that wasn't his.  I'm sure people were talking and I'm sure they were looking to see whether this child looked like him or not.  However, he seemed settled—at peace with his decision.  He was a dreamer, now locked on to a bigger dream, God's dream.  He was charged with protecting God's Son, as he grew up. As we know, that ended up being more complicated than he could have known, as soon the family would be traveling to Egypt, like the first Joseph, fleeing Herod who wanted to destroy any threat to his throne, no matter how young.

What can we learn from Joseph, this man we know so little about? We learn to wake up. Joseph is aware. He has been made aware that Mary is pregnant. But he's also aware of the state of his world, that people are hurting and in need. And he's aware of a promise of a different future, promised by God, in which a Messiah, a Savior, will bring in a new Kingdom of justice and equity.

We, too, can wake up. We can be aware of our situation, our power and our gifts, as well as the choices we have to affect other people. We can wake up to the world around us, to open our eyes to who has power and how they use it and who doesn't have power and is injured, ignored, and discounted because of it.

Next, we can listen to our dreams, like Joseph. We have two kinds of dreams. We have personal hopes and dreams and we also have bigger dreams for the wellbeing of all, for the common good. These second kind of dreams tap into God's dreams and these are the ones to pay attention to.

Like Joseph we can take action. We can lay aside personal comfort and convenience and do something to move toward that dream of God's. We are not here to enforce the rules or judge anyone. Instead we are invited to be merciful and to be as merciful as God is to us, to consider one another's actions in the best possible light, to treat each other with lovingkindness.

In Joseph's case, he takes Mary as his wife and becomes the protector of and provider for Jesus.  Joseph didn't need to call attention to himself. He didn't need to be the center of attention. We know so little about Joseph, probably because he simply and humbly walked in God's ways. Maybe that is another part of what it means to be righteous, or maybe that was just Joseph's way. Joseph didn't need anyone to think he was important or to notice him. He was there so that we might all have a savior, who is Christ the Lord. We, too, can get out of the way and point, not to ourselves, but to the one who gives us life.

My nephew was born 3 days before my Birthday. I was there at his birth. If you've ever witnessed a birth, you've been present at the most amazing miracle. Once a week, I spent an evening at my sister's playing with my nephew. He was incredible. I cried almost as hard when I learned my sister and her husband would be divorced after only 2 years, leaving 2 tiny kids in the care of my brother in law. However, both of those kids have turned out to be incredible kids. Both valedictorians of their class. Both studying hard and having their hearts in the right place. God and God's helpers brought those kids so many opportunities so that they can have big dreams that tap into the bigger picture of equity and justice and compassion.

God is here, coming among us to show us mercy and to help us show mercy and compassion to others. We don't have to look through Joseph's eyes to see the Christ child. We don't have put ourselves in the story to know God's presence. Because of the gift of Jesus, we can meet him in the poor and grieving, in the weary, in the injured and starving, the unwanted. That babe is still shivering in the cold today, and we can meet him when we venture out of our comfortable warmth, when we welcome the one we didn't think we wanted. We can begin to participate in God's dream when we cross boundaries and open our eyes to one another's pain. May we dream like Joseph dreams, and believe in the dream God has for us and this world.