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Monday, May 21, 2018

May 20, 2018 Pentecost

John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15                
Acts 2:1-21          
Romans 8:22-27
                Today we celebrate the power of God.  God used God’s power of creativity and energy to create the universe, a powerful interactive system of planets and stars that pull on one another with power and force.  God used and uses God’s power of creativity and energy to create this world with its seasons and plants and animals, interdependent, sharing power, exchanging power.  The sun emits heat, power that the plants absorb and use to grow, that share their power with animals who eat them and live in them, including us humans. 
God shares God’s power with the creation.  The power of the plants and animals and heavenly bodies is displayed in the reading from Acts.  The Sun conveys the power of God through an eclipse.  The moon shows God’s power through its different phases and colors.  The earth will display the power God has shared with it through weather and natural disasters.  In the reading from Romans, the creation groans.  It is almost like creation is a person.  Creation waits.  Creation longs for the fulfillment of God’s vision.  Creation groans.  Creation is active because of the power of God.
God shares God’s power with humankind.  Yes, we are part of creation, but in case we wondered how we fit in, Paul writes in Romans that we ourselves see God’s vision because God has empowered us to, and that we groan as we wait for the fulfillment, the full realization of that vision of health and peace and wholeness. 
This exchange of power, this sharing of power can be frightening.  To have power is to have the ability to act.  It is have energy propelling us.  It is to be alive.  But power can be used for good or ill.  It can lead us into situations that are dangerous.  Power means that things aren’t going to stay the same.  There is movement and with movement there is risk.
I am in a many years long process of sharing power with my child.  I give him the power of knowledge as he learns.  I give him the power of responsibilities and practicing putting away his clothes.  I help give him the power of language to express himself.  I give him the power of independence.  This power is exciting for him.  He likes having power, having choices, having independence.  I know he needs a safe time to experiment with using his power in ways that promote life for him.  Yet I am very aware that sharing power means a risk.  He can use that power to reach his dreams and go the distance.  And he can use that power to cause harm to himself and others.  And harm will come to him, hopefully in small manageable amounts that we can learn from.  Hopefully those situations will better help him use his power in the future.
The prophet Joel saw evidence of God’s power-sharing with creation, the moon turned to blood, the eclipse, the fire and smoky mist, and he was afraid.  This was a warning that God was powerful and could crush anyone who went against him.  It was a sign of power over.  But here, Luke who wrote the book of Acts, sees this as an image of power-sharing, of empowerment, of God’s saving power.  That all flesh will have God’s Spirit means that God’s power will be shared among all people, that people will see God’s vision and God’s dreams vividly, that they will communicate these dreams to each other, that Creation will be communicating with us as well and that we will all be participating in God’s dream, acting for justice, acting in love.  For Joel, maybe these dreams were bad dreams of coming destruction.  But for Luke, they are hopeful dreams.  Even in the Old Testament when God warns people, they often repent and it comes out hopeful anyway.
In the Acts reading this power sharing is loud, it’s bright, it is everywhere at once.  It is first among the Disciples in wind, flame, language.  Others were attracted to it.  There was a great crowd in Jerusalem celebrating the great harvest festival of Pentecost.  Did you realize it wasn’t just a Christian holiday?  We share it with the Jewish faith, or rather they shared it with us.  So all these Jewish people from many nations are in town giving their first fruits of the spring harvest, probably barley, and sacrificing it on the altar and giving thanks to God for the harvest, and anticipating the fruitful year where their needs will being met.  God has shared power with them to grow food.  Now they share power back with their gratefulness and focus on God’s goodness.  Jews from every nation are gathered there for the celebration that was a required pilgrimage at least once on one’s lifetime.  So they hear this noisy wind and see all this fire, and they go surging toward this sound and they hear in their own language the good news of God’s power.  Notice they aren’t required to learn or take on the dominant language, but the disciples are speaking their languages so these outsiders can understand.  And they are empowered by their connection with the disciples.  They are empowered by the story of Jesus. 
Some choose not to be empowered.  They accuse the disciples of being drunk.  Maybe they are afraid of the power shift that might take place of this story of Jesus is true.  If all that call on the name of the Lord shall be saved, that would mean even undeserving people shall be saved, even people I don’t like, even foreigners, even Muslims, even lazy people.  Pretty soon we’ll have nobodies thinking they are somebody and that is going to be chaos! 
But others were empowered.  Think of all these travelers going home, and they tell the story of
what happened to them in Jerusalem, “You won’t believe what happened to me in Jerusalem!  I was making my offering and I heard this sound.  It’s so hard to describe, and I found myself swept along with the crowd and I heard these people speaking my language.  They told me this story about a man named Jesus, but he was more than a man, and he shared his power with children and women and people with AIDS and even people who had died, he raised them from the dead.  He came to tell us that God is sharing God’s power in order that we might have abundant life, abundant power, and share that power with each other, especially people like us that have been rejected and seen as outsiders. And I suddenly saw a vision of relationship and connection and common language between not only people, but between us and this creation, with the trees and the animals, and the insects, and the mountains.  I feel changed and I want you to know the peace and joy and energy I do!”  Don’t you think this moment probably was a great beginning to Christianity? 
God’s power was released and shared in very strong way with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  This was God’s way of connecting and sharing power with people once God’s presence was not there in the person of Jesus anymore.  And to those, like us, centuries removed from the historical Jesus, we have this assurance in the Gospel that God’s power still flows to us through the Holy Spirit, the Advocate that John writes about.  In fact we have an advantage, it says in verse 7, the Advocate the Holy Spirit, to connect us with God’s power.
Let’s be clear though that God’s kind of power is different from the world’s power.  The world’s power is for making people behave under threats.  The world’s power is for benefitting some and not others.  The world says if you have money or possessions you have power.  The world lies about power.  But God’s power exposes those lies, because it is for everyone.  It is accessible.  It is free.  It can’t be hoarded.  It must be shared.  God’s power is that of life and love.  We are not truly empowered if someone among us is disempowered, because our power is in the health and life of the whole community and not just of people but of creation.
I am full of hope this Pentecost because I hear that wind blowing and I see that fire burning.  It’s giving me goosebumps!  There is such power among you and loose in the world.  Yes, the news if full of terrible atrocities and you share your struggles and pains.  They are all very real.  But they don’t have the last word.  God is in the midst of transforming us, re-creating us, sharing power with us, building that vision, birthing that vision of new life and abundant love and radical relationship.  With every push its getting closer.  There are a lot of unknowns, but we trust the powerful one, we have hope, we use our power to empower others.  We try to get out of the way.  God’s Kingdom will be born in our midst.  Alleluia, amen.

Monday, May 14, 2018

May 13, 2018

John 17:6-19       
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26          
1 John 5:9-13
                Anybody else start to feel their eyes roll up in their heads in the midst of the Gospel reading this morning?  I know I did.  I just want to shout, “John, just stop!”  I mentioned last week that Jesus has been giving his very long farewell discourse to his disciples.  I was wrong, it isn’t quite half the book, but it is 4 chapters and this prayer is right at the end, right before Jesus is arrested.  Jesus is trying to make sure his Disciples feel equipped to be without him.  We get to overhear this because we need to be equipped to be without Jesus and yet live as his body in the world, as the church, believers who gather in community.
            Picture a mom as she bids farewell to his child who is leaving for college.  The kid is sitting in the car piled high with clothes and supplies for this next stage of the journey.  And mom is running beside the car as it pulls out of the driveway, “Don’t forget to test the smoke alarm!  Call if you need anything.  I can be there in an hour!  You’ve got this kiddo!  Did you remember to pack the popcorn popper?” and on and on. 
            Like a caring mother saying goodbye for now, Jesus wants to make sure we are equipped to be without him.  Are you interested to know what Jesus wanted us to know?  Are you interested in being equipped? 
            Jesus was aware that this world is full of dangers and temptations.  Mom would say, “Don’t drink too much at parties.  If your friend jumped off a bridge, would you?  Be sure to wear protection.”  Jesus prays to God with his Disciples listening, “I ask you to protect them from the evil one.”  Jesus prays especially about the world.  Yes, there are many joys in this world and much beauty, but that’s not what Jesus is talking about.  This concept of world is mentioned over and over again this morning.  It refers to whatever is at odds with God or rejects Jesus and his values.  Jesus stands against the values of this world, like greed and might makes right and division and a limited view.  The world’s values and power can easily tempt us, like they did Judas, and we can succumb to the pressures of this world and reject the life that Jesus is trying to give us. 
This world is dangerous, so Jesus prays for God’s protection.  This isn’t protection from pain or injury or even death, this is protection from temptation that may cause us to stray from values that give us life.
But even though the world is hostile, Jesus doesn’t hate the world or want to destroy it.  Remember John 3:16 “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son… that we may not perish but have eternal life.”  The world is hostile and life-taking, but God created the world—it got way off track.  So God came into the world as Jesus to show love, to show another way, to redeem the world.  Just a few sentences before our Gospel reading for today, Jesus says, “Take courage; I have conquered the world!”  By dying and rising again to give life to the world, he’s shown the powers of the world are nothing.  They won’t have the last word.   By the way he’s lived his life, he’s exposed the hypocrisy of the world.  By his death on the cross he’s shown the cruelty of the world.  He’s conquered the world, but not to destroy it.  He’s conquered the world in order to give the world new life.
Mom says, “Call when you get there so I know you’ve arrived safely.  Be sure to call if you need anything.”  Jesus says, “All mine are yours and yours are mine … may they be one as we are one.”  Through this prayer, Jesus is affirming that even though he won’t be there in person, God and the apostles will still be connected.  God will still reveal God’s word to them.  They will have all the powers that Jesus has.  They will have all their belief and faith that guides and motivates them.  They will have a sense of belonging, a relationship with God that will sustain them.
Part of this is reflected in the reading from Acts.  There the apostles are trying to move forward.  There had been 12 of them and there is this empty space left by Judas.  It is making them feel deficient.  Maybe they wonder if they should have done something different to prevent Judas hurting Jesus.  Maybe they point the finger at each other for what happened with Judas.  But 11 isn’t a number that is working for them.  They want to fill that slot, not only to move on, but to honor the number that Jesus picked which corresponded with the 12 tribes of Israel.  12 is a number that means complete and they wanted to make sure no one was left behind as Jesus’ ministry went forward.  They pick a new guy to help them feel they have a solid number of apostles to stay in connection with God who will sustain them.
Funny thing is, God agrees about leaving no out, so keeps picking more and more apostles to keep the community connected.  Matthias is chosen to make sure all 12 tribes are represented.  Mary Magdalene is nearby and we know she does the work of the apostles, sharing the good news.  The Gentiles need to know they are included in the next steps and so Paul becomes an apostle, and you and I are appointed to be part of this crew of people who are so connected with Jesus that we are living life in a countercultural way.
So on to my next point, the values and direction of the world are so destructive and hostile to Jesus’ values and here we are trying to live those values of Jesus.  It is like we are aliens in a foreign land (the world), speaking a different language, having different customs and rituals, and living in a completely different way than the world around us.  Mom says, “Don’t forget who you are.”  Jesus says, “I have given them your word and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world just as I do not belong to the world.”  The world is full of division and hurt and greed.  The world tempts us to value money and possessions and late night parties and fleeting pleasure.  That is the culture we live in in the world.  But that is not the culture we have in our hearts.  That is not who we are.  Jesus is asking that we would remain true to our values and identity as citizens of the Kingdom of God, of forgiveness, generosity, love, truth-telling, and standing up for the poor and forgotten.
And the final point.  Mom says, “Have fun!”  Jesus says, “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”  This is a little more than “Have fun.”  Fun is a momentary, fleeting feeling, but joy is a deeper satisfaction, a more lasting contentment not based on outside happenstance.  The whole point of the protection and the staying connected and the focus on the values of God’s Kingdom is that we would have joy and that joy would come to the whole community and the world.  The whole point is joy. 
So in a little while we won’t see each other, but I encourage you to stay connected, act on your values, remember who you are, and be joyful.  We come here each week, like a college student, to do our laundry and be washed clean, to speak our native language of forgiveness, generosity, and love, to be strengthened against the temptations of this world, to stay connected with our heavenly Mother and our family, and to experience joy.  And lets not forget that we eat together the food that nourishes and sustains us and connects us to our story and what is true.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

May 6, 2018

John 15:9-17       
1 John 5:1-6
                These past few weeks we’ve been reading parts of Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples.  It seems he takes his time saying goodbye.  Partly, that is because he needs them to know that just because he will be out of their sight, doesn’t mean they won’t be connected and they won’t be friends.  Quite the contrary, since they will be continuing the work that he started, they will remain his friends and continue to receive power from him in a loving relationship.  How do we stay connected with one whom we cannot see?  It is not only a question for the Disciples of Jesus’ day, but it is a great question for us to explore who have never seen him in the flesh, yet we feel we are part of something greater.
            Today we are commanded to bear fruit.  Last week we heard that we are the branches and Jesus is the vine and that we are to bear fruit, which we cannot do apart from the vine.  So I thought we’d build ourselves a tree.  This is a love tree, since love is the fruit we are to bear. 
            We’ll start with the roots.  These roots are rooted in the Earth, this planet of which we are a part.  This earth holds us steady, connects us to nutrients we need to grow, and is made up of the decomposed leaves and fruits of bygone seasons and other trees.  It reminds us that we do not stand alone, but we are part of something.  This earth also has flowing within it the waters of life that nourish us and make life and love possible.  Already this tree is rooted lovingly, is related in a loving, life-giving relationship with the earth and the creatures around us that make life possible.
            Then we have the trunk, or the vine.  This is Jesus.  This is love.  Jesus holds us upright, and joins us all together into one.  Jesus is the path of transport for all the water and nutrients from the roots as well as all the sugars made in the leaves in the process of photosynthesis.  Jesus connects all the parts of the tree and remains strong and steady, even as the rest of the tree changes through the seasosn.
            Now we have the branches.  I thought at first one branch might be Lutherans and another Roman Catholics and another Presbyterian, but that is a very weird way to divide people, and a false way.  I think a better way to think of the branches is by spiritual paths.  We all come to be connected with the Divine in different ways.  For some it might be more intellectual, for others through prayer and devotion, for others through service or justice work, and for others through giving or receiving generosity, some might be connected through following rules or laws, and others might be connected through raising their awareness of the Divine in all of life.  Of course some branches fall off and others spring up, which is like our spiritual lives.  The branch that once connected us, because of our experiences and perspectives, doesn’t seem to bring us life anymore.  Maybe a another spiritual practice is a better fit, so a new branch grows and we are connected in a different way.  As branches we are always reaching out for warmth and life and energy.
            One of the neighboring pastors told a story about her grandchild when he was about 3 years old, winter came around and he said, “Grandma! The trees broke!”  He didn’t remember the previous year when the leaves fell.  But he knew something was wrong that the trees didn’t have leaves.  Leaves are critical for gathering energy from the sun to feed the plant.  Some plants have leaves all year—evergreens, including fir and pine trees as well as my awful laurel hedge.  Some plants drop their leaves in the fall and winter.  Some plants have leaves that feed us.  What are some of your favorite leafy vegetables?  Some have leaves that spice up our lives like sage, bay leaf, oregano, mint, and rosemary.  Sometimes we think of leaves as being only green, but when we look around we see a true diversity of colors from purple, to yellow, to even blue or red.
            There would be no tree without first a seed, and so now we come to the flower and the fruit.  The tree flowers, sometimes it is barely noticeable, and sometimes it seems the whole tree has turned pink.  If conditions are right and the flower is pollinated, the correct nutrients assembled, enough energy exists in the tree, the tree produces a fruit, a seed surrounded by all kinds of nutrients, so when it hits the ground, it will rot and make a lovely fertilizer to grow the seed in.
            We’re supposed to bear fruit.  We’ve been appointed for it.  Sometimes we think the fruit refers to how many people to invite to church.  That’s a fine interpretation.  Go ahead and do that.  But it is also about the why we would invite them.  If we invite them because we love God and we experience the love of God through our church, they will know that is why, as opposed to if we invite them because we feel guilty that we haven’t produced any fruit lately.  And if we invite them and we haven’t been otherwise loving to them, they will see through that, too.  Bearing fruit is loving action, it is passing on the love we’ve found in God and in community.  What the next person does with it is up to them, but as branches we keep passing on the loving energy, we continue to be in loving relationship with this whole tree all around us.  And that’s the only way that fruit lasts, right?  It isn’t made to hold up.  Its made to fall and rot in a matter of weeks or days.  But a fruit that lasts, adapts.  It falls, it rots, the seeds take root, a new tree grows up, with leaves and branches, and eventually fruit that again falls.  Fruit that lasts goes through many stages and never stops developing.  That’s the challenge for us.  How can we remain connected with God and each other, being used to a certain way of doing things, be ready for the challenges of life, adapt and grow, and continue to reach for the light and love and energy for the good of the whole?  How do we as individuals do that?  How do we as a congregation do that?  Or maybe knowing our place as part of the tree of love, we would simply reach and trust, and find ourselves conveying that love of God, just by being open to it.
            We’d of course have no tree without the sun.  This sun is the source of all life, so the sun symbolizes God’s energy and warmth and love going out to the cosmos.  And lets not forget the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is the springs of water under the earth, washing us clean in baptism, refreshing us, and enlivening us, and the Holy Spirit is the wind, breathing into this tree, this system, shaking up this tree so it is never standing still.
            As branches of the tree of love, we would never use God as a wishing well to just fulfill our own needs, but instead would be interested in the same thing God is, that we would always be asking for the power to love, the power to stay connected, the interest in the common good and vitality of the whole tree, the whole family of God.  Then may our joy be complete, not when one leaf or branch is alive, or one root flourishing, but when the whole system works together, exchanging life, passing on water and sugars and nutrients, and oxygen and nitrogen and sap and water, and when it does then joy may be called complete because all participate in it and all give glory and credit to God.  The trees participate in this system and exchange without ever seeing any of it or knowing what else is going on, yet, each plays its part and finds life in the relationship.  And so may we.
            Relational Question:  Turn to someone near you and share: What ways have you found to stay connected to the source of life and love and/or what would you like to try to stay connected to connected to God and community?

Sunday, April 29, 2018

April 29, 2018

 John 15:1-8                        
Acts 8:26-40                        
1 John 4:7-21
My sister used to be in love with John Denver when she was between the ages of 3 and 8.  Even if it was after our bedtime and he was on TV, my parents would come and get my sister to get i[ and see his performance.  Yes, I was jealous!  I called her the day he died to express my condolences and she had forgotten all about that.  The readings today reminded me of a song of his, Take Me Home Country Roads, “Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong, West Virginia, mountain mama, Take me home, country roads.” 
The readings this morning from the Bible are about roads and points of connection and about going home.  They are about a longing for a place of belonging, a connection to place, to people, to something greater.
The Reading from Acts begins with Philip.  He is somehow open to communication from God that asks him to go places without explanation or maps or anything.  This is a relationship of profound trust that puts him on the country road, the wilderness road.  The roads we travel lead us not only to a destination, but bring us together with others on the road and that’s exactly what happens between Philip and another child of God, the Ethiopian eunuch.  Incidentally, the word “Synod” which we use in the Lutheran Church to designate groupings of Lutheran Churches means “On the road together.”
This man from Ethiopia had some roads opened to him and others closed as he entered the courts of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.  Being a eunuch meant he was castrated.  That meant he could be controlled, that certain distractions would be removed.  But it also meant that he could serve in a high position, a court official, the Head Treasurer.  His trusted position meant that he had some freedom to move about, enough time off for a vacation to Jerusalem, enough money to purchase a scroll of Isaiah, and enough freedom to pursue his unusual spiritual and religious path.  It meant he learned to read, which gave him tremendous power to think for himself and to seek to understand.
His spiritual path led him to this road.  He was on his way home from a spiritual pilgrimage.  He was going home to Ethiopia, wondering how to interpret this scroll, wondering how not to lose this connection he was feeling.  It turns out his journey is just beginning, because just then he meets Philip on the country road.
It is likely this man was interested in this particular passage from Isaiah for a reason. I think he could identify with what he was reading.  Like the person referred to in the story, he has been sheared and gone under the knife.  He was damaged goods.  He was humiliated and yet he couldn’t open his mouth—he was powerless to do anything about it.  So he was drawn to the one referred to in Isaiah, he wanted to know him.  He wanted to know that someone else experienced suffering like he did and could understand his journey.  He asks and Philip explains the good news about Jesus to him.  Immediately, the man sees how their stories are joined and wants to be grafted into the vine. 
Here is water!  What is there to prevent me from being baptized, to finding the place I belong, from being grafted to the true vine.  He had a longing in him and he finally found a connection that felt like home, so he wanted to take an action, have the experience of baptism to wash him clean of all that had gone before and signify his path on a new road to home in Jesus.
I imagine Philip was baffled.  He would have been baffled by this man’s faith.  In one moment he went from not understanding it, to getting it better than Jesus’ own disciples. This man didn’t fit the preconceived ideas of who would respond to the Good news. It was years that Christians argued who could be baptized.  Did they have to be circumcised?  Did they have to be Jewish first?  And still we ask these questions about how to accept and welcome gender non-conforming people into the fellowship and love of Christ.  This is what this eunuch was.  He was neither male nor female.  He was different.  He didn’t fit into most people’s categories.  Philip was certainly baffled by this.  Which box do I check when I enter his baptism into the records?  What is to prevent me?—in human terms, everything.  In God’s terms, nothing.  This man was another valued branch on the vine and surprise! Philip and all of us, we don’t have a say, nor should we, about who is on this vine with us.  God made each one, loves each one, and prunes each one.  We’re all on this country road together and God is calling us home.
1 John urges us to love one another.  To love is to stay connected.  It is to put aside any fears we have of people who are different from us, to put aside our fears of God, and stand in boldness on the road, remain in boldness connected to the vine.  This is good for us, because we often live in fear and shame.  We are not good enough to be connected to the vine.  We don’t know enough.  We’re not wise enough.  We’re too sinful.  We don’t fit into the categories.  But it is God who is our Savior.  We don’t save ourselves.  It is God’s love that flows through us like sap, that nourishes our faith and brings us in connection with God and all the other branches.
The road and vine are very similar images.  Both connect us.  Both convey something, or provide a means to move along a path.  So here is Jesus in another of the “I am” proclamations (“I am the bread of life, I am the gate, I am the good shepherd.”)  This “I am” statement links Jesus with God’s utterance to Moses at the burning bush when Moses asks God’s name and God answers, “I am who I am.”  “I am the true vine,” Jesus says.  God is the vinegrower.  We are branches that are connected to God.  We get pruned.  Even if we bear fruit, we get pruned to bear more fruit.  I don’t think this means that people are cut off of that God takes them away from us to teach us a lesson or get something from us.  Rather we get pruned of every part of us that gets too far from our life-source, from our true vine, Jesus, and from God the vine-grower.  We get pruned of our fears, of our distractions, of our selfishness, of our materialism, of our prejudices, of our limited views.  Those parts of us that are unloving, that are asleep, that keep us from seeing the truth, those things are pruned. 
They are pruned that we may abide, that we may remain, that we would stay connected with source of our life and power, that would love our siblings on the vine with us, that we would be part of something greater
At the risk of ruining both a John Denver song and scripture, I’ve written words to Country Roads.  “True Vine, nourish us, keep us in your love, prune us gently, bring your Kingdom, Lead us home, True Vine.”

Monday, April 23, 2018

April 22, 2018

 John 10:11-18     
Acts 4:5-12          
1 John 3:16-24
     I got a call on Tuesday morning.  A student from George Fox. University wanted to interview me as a church leader for a paper he was writing for a religion class he was taking.  He lived near the church, so it would be convenient to come by.  The paper was due that day, so we made arrangements to meet after I got back from text study, where I do some of my sermon prep with the other pastors.  The professor had asked them attend a service or interview a pastor and address the meaning of our rituals.  He told me he knew a little about Lutheranism, after all, he was nondenominational Christian, which was also protestant.  He said he knew a little about Lutheranism from his class, that Martin Luther had posted the theses to the door of the Roman Catholic Church and translated the Bible into the common language so that we could have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
     It's probably never a good idea to try to explain to someone who they are and what they believe because it won't ever be quite right.  But I thought, this is an opportunity to help him understand something about the way Lutherans think and maybe stretch him to see the Bible and faith from a different perspective.  That was part of the point of the assignment, anyway, right.  So I took a deep breath and I said something like, "For Lutherans, having a personal relationship with Jesus is not what it is all about.  Of course we believe in reading the Bible and doing devotions and serving God in your vocation, but the worshiping community is absolutely necessary as a means of experiencing God's presence.  The Christian community, the church, must be there to challenge you to grow in faith, to teach the stories, to help you in hard times, and to make sure you don't go off on your own little tangent and misuse the Gospel and misinterpret the Bible to serve your own needs."  He said to me, "Sure, the Bible says, don't neglect to meet together  in the Lord's name."  I said, "It is more than that.  It is that the community, the church, is the body of Christ in the world.  If a person is going to be in relationship with Jesus, we're going to be in relationship with his body, the community.
     The Lord is my shepherd.  This Psalm threatens to support us in our "Me and Jesus" wish to have him all to ourselves, to create him in our image and make him like the same we do and only comfort us but never challenge us.  Me and Jesus is an idolatry and I want to make sure we are seeing all that is in the 23rd Psalm so we don't misuse it and miss out on the richness it has to offer.  In this Psalm, we're never just alone with Jesus.  Jesus is not my shepherd, he's our shepherd, because we're always sharing him with the flock and with Creation in a way that is life-giving for us and for the other sheep and for the earth.  We're moving from pasture to pasture because that is what is good for all of us.  We need fresh food, and the grass needs a break from our grazing to thrive.  We're going beside the still waters so we don't foul it with our dirty hooves.  What is good for the waterways is good for us, is good for the fish, is good for the birds, and so on.  The well-being and restoration of my soul does not just depend on me and Jesus, it depends on our relationship with all creation that God made and which is very good in its own right, before we were ever created, apart from what it can do for us.  The creation the way God made it is good in itself and good for us, sharing its life with us and we with it as we go on our way, with our caretaking, our respect, and our fertilizer, our gifts in mutual blessing to the earth.
     Jesus says, "I am the Good Shepherd," one of many "I am" statements in the Gospel of John (I am the bread of life, I am the gate, etc.)  He is reflecting the great "I am" God's name given to Moses at the burning bush.  When Jesus is the Good Shepherd, we are the flock.  You never see a shepherd with just one sheep.  There is something greater, and not only this neighbor next to me in the flock, but there are multiple flocks, other flocks that Jesus speaks of that we don't know about, because one thing to know about sheep and flocks is that they don't see the bigger picture and that's why they need someone like the shepherd to lead them.
     On this Earth Day we have this comforting image of God healing, protecting, guiding, and nourishing.  And we have a challenge to be in relationship with the flock and with this Creation this world the plants the animals the air the water the land, this word God spoke which came into being in a relationship of love.  So this psalm reminds us that we can't have Jesus all to ourself, that it is never me and Jesus.  I always depend on others to share the stories of faith.  I always depend on others to see the bigger picture.  I always depend on others to grow my food, make my clothes, bring energy to my house.  It is never me and Jesus, it is me and the body of Christ in the world.  This Psalm is the most recognized scripture in the Bible, claimed by many, but it doesn't belong to me.
     And who is my shepherd, that the most powerful being in the universe, who made everything, who knows all and sees all, decided to make this flock, and decided to come among us, not to control or rule or demand, not to fix everything, but to be our shepherd, what a use of power, to empower others, to walk along side us in the mud and the dark valley, to sleep in the presence of wolves, to risk everything, to take all that power and to us it to love us, the one with the broken heart trying to hand it to us, every single day, until we're embarrassed, this is what the 9th week he's been trying to hand us his broken heart.  He's the shepherd standing there among us, hurting with us, counting the missing, his eyes peeled for danger.  And there are other flocks.  He stands there hurting with the animals who are hurt or missing, his scars mirroring the cuts we've made in the earth, his labored breathing matching that of a child with asthma, our shepherd suffering with us, our shepherd offering us new life.
      The 23rd Psalm is one that has brought comfort to people for thousands of years, a scripture most people would recognize whether or not they have ever read the Bible.  It is one of profound power-with, of leadership, of guidance, of understanding, of healing, of kindness.  It is a tender relationship between a powerful being of love and care, and a pretty vulnerable, oblivious, limited creature.  It is comforting to think that despite our limitations, we are valued and truly known, and we aren’t entirely clueless, we know the voice of our shepherd.  We know who to trust.
      The 23rd Psalm, like any other scripture, is one we can always learn more about.  This week I learned that instead of the word “follow” the Hebrew word there actually means “Pursue.”  Instead of “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” kind of a wandering, indifferent, slow action, but “Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life,” a very active, persistent, focused action.  Also the word dwell may not have the same meaning we’ve always thought.  Instead it can be a kind of returning.  Instead of “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” it is more of this, “And I shall return to the house of the Lord forever.”  A returning is a homecoming.  It is a warm embrace from a place and family we have always known and belonged to.
     God is our shepherd, whether we are the vulnerable sheep or the hired hand.  We shall not be in want, but we shall not be in excess, either.  God makes us lie down in green pastures, and leads us beside still waters. God uses God’s power of love, power-with to guide us and give us abundant life.  That might mean leading us to peaceful situations of abundance, and it might mean challenging us to let other creatures approach places of abundance and peace.  God restores our soul—that we would be whole, part of a complex web of interrelatedness, accountable, sharing.  God leads us in right paths, not letting us trample or be trampled.  Although we all walk through times and places of danger, we are not alone.  Fear need not direct us.  God is the ultimate power, even over the darkest valley, our lowest point.  God’s rod and staff are ready, the rod to fight off the powers that threaten to destroy us and the staff to reach out to us and redirect us back to the safety of the flock and shepherd.  God prepares this table before us, a table for all God’s children, all God’s flocks, and we find ourselves at the table with friend and enemy alike and realize that we are one and that our differences are immaterial when we use our power for love.  God anoints our heads with oil, a healing ointment, moisturizer, salve.  Our cup is completely full.  We have more than what we need.  Our cup overflows to all those around  us, until all cups are full.  Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue us all the days of our lives, shall be part of each and every day.  And we will return to the house of the Lord, we shall find ourselves coming home to God’s house, God’s kingdom, God’s bosom, relationship of love. 
     God uses God’s power for love.  The King of Love my shepherd is.  When will we learn to follow our shepherd and do the same?  What is one loving thing you can do this week to share power, to share love with someone who could especially use it?

Monday, April 16, 2018

April 8, 2018 The 2nd Sunday of Easter

John 20:19-31     
Acts 4:32-35       
1 John 1:1-2:2
Turn to someone near you and share the following:
What wounds do you carry?  How/Where do you find healing?
Easter is a new beginning, so we celebrate with images of newborn chicks and blooming flowers.  But this new beginning doesn’t erase what comes before, it transforms it.  So maybe a better image for the Easter Season is a scar.
We are taught to cover our scars.  We treat them with Vitamin E so they will fade away and no one will know that we were ever hurt.  We pretend they don’t exist.  That is part of our culture of denial.  It is part of the way we present ourselves as young, pretty or handsome, as whole, brave, strong, healthy, righteous, and happy, which is a lie.  And at church even more, we propagate the myth that if you know Christ you are happy, so we hide away our hurts and put on a lie.  But the only one we’re deceiving is ourselves!
This lie keeps us from connecting to others because they can’t relate to someone who is not human.  This lie keeps us from connecting to God.  This lie sends the message to both God and our neighbors and friends, “I don’t need you.  I have it all under control.”  God knows it is a lie, although not malicious, because God knows our struggles.  And other people know our lie, too, because everyone tells the same lie.
What would it take to allow ourselves to be seen as the hurting humans we are?  I think someone has to be willing to be first, and that person is our Savior Jesus.  He willingly put himself in harm’s way, by meeting people in their hurts and failures, people who could no longer hide that they were hungry, divorced, ostracized, mocked, and excluded.  By meeting with them, he made himself unclean according to religious rules, and he upset the order that says you have to pretend to have it together.  So people plotted to kill him to stop his behavior, to stop him connecting with and empowering imperfect people.  The authorities were upset that he was exposing the lie in all of us.  And then Jesus publicly didn’t have it together, as he was arrested and tortured and hung on the cross to die.  He was so fully human that maybe we too can accept that we are human.  And after his resurrection, he still didn’t hide his wounds, his hurts.  He let them be seen.  Is this enough that we could admit that we have scars, wounds, and let them be seen and touched and tended?  What will it take for us to admit we are hurting?  What would it take to admit we’ve made mistakes and hurt others?  What will it take to name our regrets and our fears and our doubts? Do we hide them because we think God can’t take them, or use them?
This Gospel story, is hardly a happy Easter story for the second Sunday of Easter.  All these things are present: fear, wounds, guilt, shame, uncertainty.  And none of them upsets Jesus in the least.  The Disciples are afraid—so afraid they don’t leave their locked room for at least a week.  Jesus is present with his wounds, showing them to everyone.  The Disciples are wrestling with their guilt for having failed Jesus.  The Disciples are stuck in uncertainty—they know the good news, but they don’t know what to do about it.  Thomas is there with his doubt.  And we are in this story, too.  Did you hear the part about us?  Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  That’s us.  Not that we simply believed, but that we have come to believe—a process, or that we are coming to believe, with doubt as a part of that belief.  We are present with our doubts, our wounds, with our fears and our failings and our uncertainty and paralysis. 
We find Jesus still coming to us Disciples still locked in the upper room.  Just as we know the disciples found a way to unlock the door, to get past the lie, to admit their fear and anxiety, to admit their human wounds, we know that future generations depend on us overcoming our fears so they, too, can hear the story of how it is ok to be human, in fact it is blessed to be human, because it is blessed to love and be loved, to be honest, to be seen and heard, to be a child of God, to be in relationship with others who struggle in a similar way.
So what is finally going to unlock us from this room, where we’ve been holed up in fear?  What will finally open the door?  Will it be a word of peace, of shalom, wholeness?—a word that admits that we are a whole person despite our wounds and scars and failings, a word that implies connectedness and relationship, wholeness can only be achieved in relationship to God, each other, this earth, and the truth.  Will it be a word of forgiveness from someone we’ve gravely wronged, or a word of forgiveness from our own mouth to one who has gravely wronged us, remembering the peace that Jesus offered to those who betrayed and denied him, and to us who do the same?
Will it be reaching out to touch Jesus’ hands and side, his flesh and blood in Holy Communion and hearing the words, “All our welcome at this table.  Even you.”?
Will it be seeing and touching the wounds of someone Jesus has put on our path?  Will it be treating the wounds of a child or an animal, holding the hand of a person who is dying, washing someone who cannot care for themselves, listening to the painful stories of those who have left their homeland and been mistreated in our communities, listening to the stories of those who have been abused?  What wounds will we see and touch before we recognize Jesus standing in our midst, before we come to believe, before we realize his love is even for someone wounded and struggling like me?
You are invited to write your wound on a post-it and bring it up and place it on the cross.  It is holy.  It makes you who you are.  Jesus isn’t afraid of your wounds.  Let’s stop hiding them, get them out there where we can take a look at them, and remember that Jesus also had wounds and scars and he bears them with us.  We are not alone.  And the community bears them together.  That our wounds and scars can be a blessing when we let them connect us with each other, when they open us to God’s love.

Let us pray: God I ask you to see our wounds and bless us despite them and through them.  Help us to be real with one another about all that troubles us, and help our wounds and doubts and fears connect us to one another and to our Savior Jesus.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Easter 2018

John 20:1-18                       
Isaiah 25:6-9                       
Acts 10:34-43
                April Fools Day and Easter all wrapped up into one.  This should be fun.  Of all the April Fools Jokes, switching salt with sugar, putting a rubber band on the sprayer at the sink so when the faucet is turned on it sprays all over the person, putting whoopee cushions on chairs, frogs in your bed and pepper in your tea, I thought maybe the best one for today might be coming in and doing the service from back to front, starting us out with “Go in peace, serve the Lord!” and you all responding “Thanks be to God.”  Much to my surprise, the Easter story lends itself to that joke, except it isn’t a joke, its what the story and Jesus demand that we do.  Get the heck out of here, pronto.  Jesus is not in the tomb, but among the living.  Christ is risen!
                This morning, Mary comes to the tomb with a certain amount of expectation.  She goes to anoint Jesus’ body, a ritual that hasn’t been performed because he died at the Passover, on the sabbath.  This is the funeral he never had, put off because of a holiday.  But immediately something isn’t right.  The stone is rolled away, already, and she must have peeked in, because what she sees or doesn’t see, sends her running the other direction.  Mary is asking the only question she could have asked based on her experience, “Where have they laid him?”  Jesus’ body isn’t there.  Someone must have moved it.  Where is his body?  Mary asked the only question she could have asked, not realizing that everything had changed.  Not realizing that Jesus wasn’t in the tomb, that love is more powerful than death, not realizing that Christ is Risen!
                We, too, find the tomb empty, this morning.  We come to the place we are taught to expect to find Jesus, and we don’t find him.  He is not here.  So we ask questions like Mary, “Where is he?  Who took him?  Who carried him out?”  We ask those questions because we don’t realize that everything has changed and we don’t know what questions to ask.  We don’t know how to open our eyes and our minds to find out where Jesus is.  We stand in this sanctuary, and we find signs that Jesus has been here.  Here is some bread and wine.  He must have left in the middle of dinner and left everything out on the table.  I can hear his voice echoing around us, speaking words of peace, words of challenge.  The sound of our name still echoes from when Jesus called it at our baptism, on the stormy lake, in the garden.  His linen wrappings lie there where he left them, but he is not here.  I am telling you, to go in peace, serve the Lord.  If you want to find Jesus, get out there and look for him out in the world.
                For thousands of years the churches proclaimed that Jesus is here and only here, that you must come here to find him, and that you can’t see Jesus without the permission of priests and religious authorities, and you can’t see Jesus without rituals and special words.  The truth is, the world called BS on us, on priests and churches, and said, “Like hell, I can’t!” and so churches have been abandoned in droves while people sought an accessible and loving spirit elsewhere.  I confirm what you already know, we have no monopoly on Jesus or the Holy Spirit in this place.  He is risen, and no walls, no church can contain him.  He has gone to all who are hurting, alone, abandoned, hungry.  If we want to meet him, we have to go there, too.  The Spirit of Christ is free in the world.
                The trouble is, the churches came with the only question we knew how to ask, “How can we become more powerful, richer, more influential?”  We asked this question because we had people we were accountable to, who were measuring our ministry according to numbers of those who came into the tombs of our churches and stayed and gave of their money.  To you, I confess the sin of the church, who has been greedy, used fear to scare people, and who tried to entomb our savior Jesus and dole him out in little bits and pieces according to our own judgments.
                In our lives, too, we often ask the only questions we know to ask, even when the old questions we had been asking don’t fit the situation we find ourselves in, don’t comfort us.  We stand on the brink of war, more divided than ever, in the midst of a mass extinction.  We go to the place of death, the tomb, to carry out our rituals, to do the only thing we know to do, to anoint the body, to bid farewell to hope. 
We get to the entrance to the tomb, and stop.  Something is amiss.  We don’t find what we were expecting.  So we ask, where is the body.  How can I do what I need to do?  We find there others like us who have come seeking Jesus, not necessarily wanting something from him, but just there to honor him and thank him.  We find some that are a little further along the process, who are starting to see the change that is taking place, know the old questions don’t work anymore, but aren’t sure what the new questions are.  We find others there that are putting on a brave face, putting on a Pollyanna attitude, rushing to the answers.  We find some there who are in despair.  But at least we find we are not alone in our confusion of where to go from here or what questions to ask.
                And I don’t have any answers for you.  Beware of anyone who does.  Beware of anyone who wants to shortchange the process, because what we thought we wanted, success, winning, answers, are not what give satisfaction, or life, or hope.  Jesus comes not to give us those things, Jesus comes to transform us.  Jesus comes to transform us from death to life, from enslaved to free, from despair to hope.  Transformation is a process.  It is messy.  It involves making mistakes and looking stupid.  It involves asking different questions than we’ve ever asked before and not having a clue about how to go about asking or answering them.
                God entered our world as Jesus to transform us and our world.  We didn’t like the questions he was asking.  We didn’t appreciate that he wanted to change us.  But I think we’re getting closer to being open to his call to transformation.  Are you heartsick about the way we use and abuse this Earth—God’s good Creation and reflection of God’s own self?  Are you pained at the camps of refugees, millions upon millions of people who God loves, who have fled warfare and violence?  Are you ashamed at the number of kids in our own community that go hungry every day?  We need to change the questions we’re asking, so that God is able transform us and this world into one that is just and peaceful and life-giving.  Instead of asking the usual question, how I can get more and protect myself, we need to ask, what do I need to give up in order for God to transform me? 
                I was very inspired by the news of this French Police officer who offered himself in place of a hostage.  Here is a man who put someone else first.  Instead of asking, how can I win, he redefined winning and gave his life that someone else might live.  Instead of worrying about myself, what would be the most life-giving thing to do in this situation.  He put all fear aside.  He was killed.  His casket was paraded through the streets in France.  Some would say his death means he did the wrong thing.  You might ask, what good is he now that he is dead.  His life is over.  But it isn’t.  New life goes out from him.  People are transformed, inspired by his sacrifice to consider asking a new question.  What does love look like? 
                So we proclaim this morning Christ is Risen!  No tomb, no human institution, no building, no religion could contain him, because the one who is all love and compassion cannot be contained.  He wasn’t a winner.  He had no possessions.  But he asked what does love look like, and he lived that way, and we’re still talking about him.  We’re still asking what he would do. 
                I said today that Christ is not here.  If you want to find him go out there and look.  Hold someone in their heartbreak and find him alive.  Walk amongst the old growth forest and find him alive.  Visit someone who is lonely and find him alive.  Challenge yourself to have a conversation with someone you consider an enemy and find him alive.  Turn off your television, put down your phone and you will find him alive.  We might even find that as messed up as churches can be, still Jesus cannot be told where to go or not to, and every once in a while he shows up in our midst, and blesses us, and offers us transformation, to live the story of his life, death, and resurrection with him until that day when he has built the Kingdom of God, every tear is dried, every stomach satisfied, all shrouds swallowed up, and we’re all rejoicing in God’s love and life.
                April Fools!  He is not here!  Christ is among you!  Get out there and look for him, and listen for him calling your name, calling you to abundant life, to new questions, to transformation.  Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!