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Monday, July 16, 2018

July 15, 2018

Mark 6:14-29                      
Amos 7:7-15                       
Ephesians 1:3-14
                I know several of you watch “Dancing with the Stars” religiously, rush home to see the latest episode or record it to watch later.  I have watched it enough to understand the appeal.  I thought of it when I read today’s Bible reading, with Herodias’ bewitching dance, her beautiful, convincing dance.
                When I was in college, I was required to take an arts sequence for the Honor’s Program I was enrolled in.  As part of that I had an improvisational dance class.  There is nowhere I felt more out of place, but there we were a group of nerdy honors students, moving our bodies with another person, responding to music and touch and gravity and story and emotion and imagination.  Like other art forms, it was one in which I lost my sense of time and of self.  Thankfully in that class there was no audience and there was no performance.
                Unlike today’s Gospel reading which has quite an audience of very important people.  With the performance, we add lights and costumes and then the attitude and experience and expectation of each audience member.  Dance can express any emotion.  We may think of it expressing joy and hope, but it can express anger, fear, lust, and even hatred.  Those last emotions must have been well hidden in Herodius.
                Herod had likely taken John the Baptist into protective custody, to save him from an “accident” that his wife Herodias might have ordered against him as he wandered about baptizing in the wilderness and challenging Kings and governors and all in authority who didn’t live up to God’s laws.  Some take this reading to mean that we should point out to others their sexual sins—that they are especially egregious.  However, I think it is more that Herod has taken his brother’s wife to hurt his brother, out of jealousy or hatred.  That is the damaging part to Herod.  His hatred and fear show that he is vulnerable, weak, susceptible to circumstances such as these in which he is embarrassed and shamed into doing something he regrets, something like beheading John, something extreme and evil. 
Herod took John into protective custody because there was something in Herod that responded to John’s honesty and integrity.  It says in the scripture, “When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him.”  I suppose most of the people who talked to Herod were not up front with him.  The likely told him what he wanted to hear whether or not it was the truth.  Also, most people likely wanted something from Herod, so they could never have a real conversation.  It would always be about how he could use his power to help them and never about who Herod was or what life was all about.  So I can easily see how Herod would be puzzled as well as intrigued, interested in conversation with John who refused to treat him special or different, but would give him the truth with no thought about John’s own head.
                This Gospel is absolutely Shakespearian.  It starts out by saying that Herod is disturbed by his guilt and fear at having John beheaded, he is haunted by the thought that John has come back to accuse him of murder, but really it is Jesus who is reminding him of John.  Then we flash back to this story which Herod must have replayed again and again.  He must have asked himself how this dance had so mesmerized him.  He must have asked how he came to boast and pledge before everyone, how he could have so misjudged this innocent young Herodias, and how much hatred his wife and daughter had toward him to choose to destroy this relationship he held with John.  He must have asked himself over and over how he had come to sell his soul, to give up what was most precious and important to him, and how he had fallen so low, embarrassed himself, and ruined his Birthday and probably all parties from then on.  I say that, because who wants to go to a party in which the one who invites you is so unpredictable as to promise anything to the entertainment?  Who wants to go to a party of someone who might on a whim serve up any one of his guests’ heads on a platter?  Who wants to go to a party of someone whose party went from this high of an enchanting dance, to the low of the beheading of a prophet?  I don’t think Herod’s parties were too well attended after that.
                Some dance is intended to express the beauty and truth of life, the preciousness of life.  Consider the rescue of the boys’ soccer team in Thailand.  What a dance of cooperation, of timeliness, of equipment, setting, costumes, drama, lighting.  We all understood the dance, no matter our language or country.  We all felt the fear, the danger, the guilt, the forgiveness.  And we all felt the rush of emotion when we heard the boys were out of the cave. 
                We do a kind of dance here, each Sunday.   We have the music.  We have participants, different dancers expressing the moves brought to us through time.  Some is improvisation and some is choreographed.  Some is ancient and some is modern.  And each week Jesus makes an appearance and we dance the supper dance, even getting up to move forward, to receive, to ponder, to be nourished.  And we dance from this room to our separate dances, sometimes joyful, sometimes painful, some a routine we’ve been working on for years.  And next week we dance back here again to participate in a new dance, based on a very old dance that has inspired dancers through the ages and given hope and new life to a scraggly group of followers dancing in the footsteps of our King.
                Some dances distract us from what matters, some mesmerize us and seduce us.  There is a popular dance that tells a story that we are powerless, that we can’t do anything in the face of injustice.  That is a lie that distracts us from the truth that whatever we do for the least of these is noted and matters to God.  There is a popular dance that tells a story that we are alone, that no one can understand us.  This is a seductive lie that we get mesmerized by.  There is a greater truth, a dance we can join with others, even though they might not dance exactly how we do, together we can express something beautiful and truthful and perplexing.  There is a popular dance that tells a story that it matters most what other people think of us.  That is a lie.  There is a greater purpose, a greater law, a bigger dance that we are part of, and we must forsake the distracting lying dances of this world and listen to our choreographer.  We must look to our neighbor to our left and right, we must listen to the inspiring music and respond to the voice of God in order to effectively join this dance.  Yet everyone is forgiven our missteps and invited to try again when we fall.
                We practice together, week after week, so that when our dance requires leaps of courage and hope, and when our dance requires acrobatics and strength we didn’t know we had, when we must stand up straight like a plumb line, or get up when we fall, we have the faith to try and try again, and so we have the courage to fail.  God does not call us to perfection, God calls us to dance.  I read the thing about the plumb line and I panicked.  I cannot be perfect as much as I would like.  I don’t measure up and God has a strict measurement.  But God does not require perfection.  But God does require us to keep measuring ourselves and making course corrections when we aren’t making the mark, because God doesn’t want us making crumbling walls, or wasting our time building up if we aren’t going to try to make something sound and strong.  Finally, God does call us to fall and crumble.  When we dance Jesus’ dance, we end up ridiculed, executed, failing.  We end up like John, interesting but beheaded, a failure.  Herodias in this story is a success.  She dances beautifully.  She gets what she wants.  She takes down a powerful man.  There is more to life and dancing than success.  There is failure, and Jesus goes there and God asks us to go there, because we’re going to learn more from going there, we will be strengthened going there, we will recognize our need for God and each other going there, and we won’t be praising ourselves or selling our souls to get there.  Christians are failures by all the world’s standards: We give away our money, we listen to each other, we do works of charity, we fast, we make sacrfices, we die for what we believe in.  We hold ourselves up to the plumb line of love.  Love is weak, it doesn’t cost anything, anyone can have access to it.  But love is our law, it is our dance, it is our life, and even if we fall on our face, we are not alone, and we will continue dancing until everyone finds themselves dancing the dance of love.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

June 24, 2018

Mark 4:35-41                      
Job 38:1-11                          
2 Corinthians 6:1-13

                This is a good Gospel reading for an outdoor service, I only hope the wind and the river continue to obey him! 
                We might have thought this story of the Disciples on the lake would be one that they would be at home and comfortable, since several of them were fisherman and they were probably in one of their own boats.  But they usually stuck very close to the side of the lake, and very close to their own side of the lake.  I say “Their own side of the lake,” because the other side was Samaritan territory.  It was a different country.
                Job had stayed on the safe side of his lake, too.  He had been faithful and followed all the commandments.  He was close to God, but stayed in calm, safe waters.  He had no idea what was right around the corner.
                We like our safety, too.  Who could blame the disciples?  We like our little church, and our friends, and our familiar hymns.  We frequent the same stores and cook the same food and like our peaceful lives.  We are close to people like ourselves, same culture, same race, same age, same socio-economic status.
                But sometimes our little boat gets pushed out into the middle of the lake.  Sometimes we find ourselves with a serious illness, or a close family member is ill.  Sometimes we lose everything in a fire, or lose our job.  Sometimes our kids take away the car keys or invite us to move halfway across the country to a place we’ve never known.  We find ourselves very far from the shore we have known so well.  Suddenly we don’t feel very safe.  We don’t have control over the forces and powers around us.  We might start to feel afraid as the storm whips up, as chaos swirls around us, as our boat starts filling with water.  We don’t know if we will live another day.  We don’t know how we will live, how we will get across to the other side.
                God is not afraid or absent in the storm.  God loves crossing over.  I especially think of when God crossed over the lake that is the division between God and humankind.  Those waters of the womb surrounded the little Jesus and when those waves crashed, he came into this world.  It must have been a stormy beginning for a stormy little guy, that turned into a stormy man, who crossed every river and lake to engage every kind of person in the vision and work of God’s Kingdom.  God’s work is about crossing boundaries, coming together, and riding out the storms together.
                The Israelites found themselves out in the storm.  They’d left a bad situation, enslavement in Egypt.  Now they were out in the wilderness, in the chaos, afraid, feeling powerless, and ready to exchange this storm for the misery that they had known before.  They actually showed up at the land that God was leading them to within a year or two from when they left Egypt, but they got scared after sending in a group of scouts, and ended up doubling back and spending 40 years wandering until they finally learned to trust God and begin the new life God was offering them.  And then their trust and faithfulness was short-lived, very much like our own.
                Job found God speaking out of the whirlwind, storm.  We might think that storm was him losing everything and everyone he loved.  Actually, that storm was his friends who come along and instead of simply accompanying him and holding him in his pain after the deaths of everyone in his family and the loss of everything he owned, tried to explain that he deserved it and tried to theologize his situation and pontificate until he’d just had it.  Out of that storm, God speaks.  God actually invites Job, who is crumpled on the ground, defeated, defenseless, hopeless, God invites Job to stand up and have a conversation between equals, to look each other in the eye and talk and listen and relate.  And God shows Job what God sees, the bigger picture, the power of God, the accompaniment and boundary-crossing of God.
                In the same way, the disciples in their storm, at first feel abandoned.  They wake Jesus up, who is asleep in the boat because he’s completely exhausted from healing and being chased by the crowds like the Beatles in Hard Day’s Night.  I’ve seen these paintings of Jesus in the boat calming the storm.  He always looks so powerful, regal, awake.  This time when I read the story, I pictured him rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.  I bet he was sleeping there, the disciples woke him up accusing him of not caring, he sits up all sleepy like, then with a flick of his hand and a loud voice says, “Silence.  Be still.” He accuses the disciples of being afraid and having no faith.  Then immediately he returns to sleeping.  This is the reason I think he goes back to sleeping, because he exits the conversation and where is he going to go in the boat.  The disciples start talking about him like he’s not even there, “Who is this, that even the wind and seas obey him?”
                If we are sailing in still waters near the shore, if we are safe and comfortable, if we are in our patterns, hanging out with people like us, God says that is not abundant life.  That is living in fear, clinging to our side of the lake.  Even if it feels good, it is not working for someone else who is out on that lake or waiting on the other side, in need of connection with us.  If it is working for us, it is not sustainable.  Do we cling desperately to the shore, or do we have the faith to go forth with Jesus to see what else this world has to offer?
                On the other shore of the lake is the Kingdom of God, relating with people who are different, a view of our life that reveals more truth, a wider view of what is most important and life-giving.  In between there might be a storm or two, but it is nothing compared to the power and glory of God.
                God invites us to cross the borders, all the time.  We are to cross when we see someone in need.  We are to cross when we are comfortable.  We are to cross when God calls us to new life.  We are to cross to stand up against unjust laws.  Crossing is scary and dangerous.  But we can’t stay where we are, and in the crossing we learn faith, practice faith, realize we can’t do it ourselves and that we’ve never done it ourselves.  That’s where we learn we are powerless and God is powerful, relationship is powerful, we are more powerful together.
                The Bible is full of stories of crossing over.  Can you name some?  Go ahead.  The wise men.  The shepherds visiting Jesus.  The exodus.  The woman at the well.  Jesus with the children.  The 23rd Psalm.  We have countless stories of those who have gone before to inspire us and keep us going.
                If we are already out on the waters and the storm is threatening to sink the boat, God is with us.  God has been on many sinking boats, including the arrest, and crucifixion of his own Son.  God does not abandon sinking boats, but goes down with the ship.  But God also promises there is more than the shore of this life.  There is another shore, which is new life and connection and peace.
                This congregation has had so many stories of crossing over boundaries and lakes.  When pastors have misbehaved or left, you have sometimes found yourselves in stormy seas, and I know you found God there with you, and you crossed to the other side.  But you didn’t stay there.  God asked you to cross again, and you did.  And each time, your faith grew.  You crossed when you couldn’t pay the bills and you sold some property and began to look to ministries outside yourselves and had enough faith to tithe to synod ministries and needs.  You went out into stormy seas when you started the food pantry.  Sometimes those 2nd and 4th Thursdays still feel pretty stormy.  But we know God is with us and with our friends and partners in all those other boats all around us.  You have faced storms when you left the safety of your shore and had a frank conversation with someone you were struggling with.  And you even left the safety our cozy little church, to worship in the chaotic outdoors, to feel God’s presence, to see God at work outside our walls, to sing and praise without a building, to go out and meet God in the forest, in the world, to sing along with the birds and learn from their example, to take a risk, to let go of knowing and being comfortable to open yourselves to God’s vision, to the new life that happens on the other side of the lake.  And we still haven’t arrived.  We are not done crossing through the storms.  Jesus isn’t just going to snap his fingers.  But we do know that he is the one with the power to bring us through to new life.  And if the wind and sea obey him, wouldn’t it be amazing for us to do so, too?!
                God doesn’t call us to be a harmonius, calm little community by the shore.  God calls us to something more.  It is absolutely not smooth sailing.  However, it grows our faith, brings us together, and is meaningful, hopeful, abundant, connecting, and exhilarating.  It is the only thing worth doing, crossing, crossing again, and meeting Jesus in the storm.

Monday, June 18, 2018

June 17, 2018

Mark 4:26-34                      
Ezekiel 17:22-24                
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Faith Conversation:  Where do you find hope growing in your life, in this neighborhood, and in this world?
                Every year when I was in grade school, I planted a sunflower in a little dixie cup and set it in the classroom window.  Every year, I took that sprout home when it was about 2 inches tall, and within an hour, I had broken it.  I was too curious about my plant.  I wanted to touch it, to discover everything I could about it.  I wanted to understand how it stood so straight and supported 2 little leaves.  I wanted to know how that little seed I had planted had become this new creation.  I wanted to know everything about this little plant and I destroyed it in the process.  Now I realize, they should have had us plant two of them, one for poking and prodding and the other for planting and leaving the heck alone.
                “Jesus said, ‘The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, she does not know how.’”  I was so curious about my plant that I couldn’t do the sleeping part.  I couldn’t let go of it to let the plant be itself and grow into something even more amazing.  I never actually grew a sunflower until Sterling said two years ago that he’d like to plant a sunflower.  Now there’s a plant that can support birds!  I love seeing the birds landing on a full headed sunflower, the large head swaying back and forth, the bird holding on for dear life, all for the chance to pluck a seed from it and be fed.
                The Kingdom of God, the realm of God, the sphere of influence of God, the presidency of God, the place, the time, the situation, in which God’s values and vision are being realized—God’s values and vision of shalom: love, trust, hope, wholeness, peace.  God wants us to share that vision.  God wants to bring in the vision through us.  God wants us to recognize places and times and situations in which that vision emerges or breaks in.
                God wants us to share God’s vision of love, trust, hope, wholeness, and peace.  If we only have this world as is, we are in despair, because what is there to hope for?  We are always looking ahead to what might be.  We remain hopeful.  That is the seed.  In the seed there is possibility.  We know not all seeds germinate, however within a seed is everything needed to make a new plant.  Add a couple of other ingredients, add favorable conditions and the seed will sprout and grow.  New life is possible.  Maybe it will produce fruit that we can eat.  Maybe it will provide shelter for us or for insects and birds.  No seed is too small.  No possibility of new life is too insignificant to matter to God.
                God wants to bring the vision in through us.  God wants to include us in the work of bringing the Kingdom into being.  Are we the sewer, tossing the seed, sleeping and waking and not knowing how it takes root and grows?  That sounds like us, in some ways.  We have our active part to play.  We have our seeds to plant, conversations to have, actions to take.  Then we have to let go of what we have no control over.  God is the one who knows how the seed begins to sprout and gives sunshine and rain in proper quantities that new life can grow, and if not here, perhaps nearby.  If not this year, perhaps next year.  But we could also be the seed, that God created and makes to grow.  None of us is too small to matter.  We can all make a difference to someone.  We can shelter a bird and by doing so, give glory to God.  We can all write a letter to connect.  We can all show up and protest the brutal treatment of families that cross our borders.  We can all contact our senator or representative.  We can all contribute.  We can all bring hope to someone.
                God wants us to recognize when and where the vision is taking root.  Sometimes we look at this world and we feel trapped.  We feel small.  We don’t know if things are getting better or worse.  Sometimes that vision overwhelms us of a world in which people don’t have enough to eat, children are being torn from their parents’ arms, corporations develop seeds which they copyright so no one else can plant them, war drives millions from their homes, natural disasters take the lives of people and animals.  Simultaneously, the Kingdom vision is near.  Children learn one another’s languages, habitat is restored for endangered animals and plants, someone comforts a neighbor who is grieving, people speak out against oppressive regimes.  Despite the sin and despair, there is hope, because God has given us a promise and a story of a people who live by this promise.
                Through our faith, we know a story of love that reminds us in our darkest moments that death and despair will not have the last word, that there is reason to hope, that there is reason to act and make sacrifices and suffer for what we believe in.  We know this is a story of a people long ago, whom God brought from slavery into freedom.  We know this is a story of Jesus, who taught people to be free of religious authorities, who used principles of nonviolence to oppose the powers of the world that destroy and demean.  We know this is a story of us, being liberated from our idols and our comforts and our despair, to cross over a point of no return, to learn to trust, to live our values, to begin to sprout and flourish as part of a new creation.  This is a story of us standing up to the Pharaohs and the Pontius Pilates and the Herods and saying, “No more.”  This is a story of God using us to bring liberation to the oppressed and a place to nest and be comforted for the least of these.
                I find hope in the parable of the mustard seed.  I could never be a cedar.  But I can be a mustard shrub.  I think Jesus told this parable with a twinkle in his eye.  It’s like saying that the Kingdom of God is like a pigeon, when you’d be expecting and eagle.  It’s like saying the Kingdom of God is like a dandelion, when you might expect a rose bush.  The 2nd reading for today, says, “We regard nothing from a human point of view.”  When we use our human point of view, we want the grand, the beautiful, the regal.  But when we regard life from God’s point of view, the cedar is no better than the mustard seed.  They both are a new creation.  They both provide shelter for birds.  They are both God’s good creation.  And they can both be inspiring to us.  When we see the world through God’s point of view, we are honest about the broken parts of creation, the pain and the sin that separates us from God and each other, and we also never lose the vision.  In fact, we see that vision, that Kingdom breaking in all the time.  We see it in a cedar.  We see it in a pigeon, we see it in art, we see it in a drug addict, we know it is in the prisons, we know it is among the poor, we pray that it would come among us and that we would be liberated from our complacency, our fear, our comforts to see it, name it, and be part of it.  God’s Kingdom is all around us.  New life is all around us. 
                I challenge you.  Wherever you see oppression and hopelessness, look at it with God’s eyes.  Let yourself get angry at the injustice.  Let your anger spur you to action.  Then picture the gates swinging open, picture the families reunited.  Participate in new life all around you.  Be part of the liberation of our neighbors.  Plant your seeds, no matter how small, and trust that God will make them flourish.  Wake and sleep and let them be, until every bird has a place to rest, until every family is reunited.  Look for and name new life around you.  Notice it.  Give thanks to God for it.  Say to yourself and others, “I am so grateful for…”  This is one good way of planting seeds.  Not only will you grow spiritually, the Kingdom of God will be furthered as others around you are affected by your gratefulness and start to see new life, too, and increase their gratitude.  The sunflowers are growing, despite us, and God is breaking in with nourishment, beauty, shelter, community, justice, and hope

Monday, June 11, 2018

June 10, 2017

Mark 3:20-35                      
Genesis 3:8-15                   
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1    

                Once upon a time, God created two human beings.  These people fulfilled a need for God to be in relationship.  These people trusted God.  They had long conversations about life and meaning.  They walked together through the garden.  They created and named the animals together.  The people trusted God with all their secrets and felt safe with God.  God made a decision early on that these people would make their own decisions.  God would not use God’s powers to control them.
                Things were going well until one day, temptation entered the picture.  Was it a snake who made the suggestion, or a thought that flitted through the mind of one of the people?  So far the people had respected the limits that God had put before them, for their own safety.  But people will be curious and the person wondered what it would be like to know more, to understand more of the world, to be like God.  So these two people made a decision to trespass a boundary drawn by God for their own safety and health and happiness. 
                The people found it sweet to know more, but they also began to feel ashamed to be fully known.  They feared that if they were honest, God would see them for who they were and reject them.  They felt exposed.  They felt naked.  They felt self-conscious.  They felt separate.  So they covered their physical nakedness as best they could and they started to avoid God.  Their new knowledge took them from enjoying the moment to opening their eyes to all that could be through their power and they wanted more than what this simple garden could give them. 
                God came to have one of their usual conversations, and found two people shivering and shaking, hiding from God, looking at God with fear in their eyes and mistrust.  Something had changed, so God asked them where they were, what had separated them from God.  One of the people named his fear, which had separated him, fear of being seen, fear of consequences of breaking the rules, fear of God’s power.  When God asked a follow up question one person blamed another person creating a distance and damaged relationship there, and that person blamed the snake named temptation. 
                God sighed with compassion and sadness that the people were growing up and growing apart from God.  But God knew that nothing could break the bond between God and God’s children.  However, it was time to let these children grow up, face the consequences of their actions, and be truly free to make their own mistakes and learn from them.  So God sent them out into the world to practice using their knowledge and independence and decide who they would become.
                Once upon a time, a family came to be.  They were happy and healthy and shared with each other and had adventures and helped those in need.  They trusted each other with their secrets and relied on each other in times of need.  But people have free-will and people grow up, and need space to figure out who they are.  So they went their separate ways.  It was sad in some ways because something beautiful was coming to an end, but a new creation was coming into being, no one knew what would happen next, but God was involved in that stage of life, too, and in time it would grow to be beautiful in its own way.
                Once upon a time, a church came to be.  They shared everything in common.  They took offerings for the poor.  They served those in need.  They welcomed everyone.  They were creative.  They related to one another and the community.  They completely trusted Jesus.  They had a lot of fun.
                But they got stuck in a single way of doing things.  They liked what they were doing so much they started to worship themselves.  They became defensive of their way of observance.  It seemed the congregation would come to an end.  They hid from God.  They didn’t let themselves be completely seen.  They weren’t always completely honest about themselves like they had been before.
                But still God was in relationship with them.  God walked with them as they learned from their mistakes, as they tried new things, as they failed and succeeded, and as they grew into God’s new creation.  They were no longer innocent and trusting as they had been, but they were growing in awareness and they moved from focus on God, to focus on themselves, to focus on their neighbor.  They started making new connections, seeing the world and themselves in new ways, and they started to be creative, co-creating with God relationships and projects of beauty that glorified God and connected with and empowered those in need.
                Once there was a child named Jesus.  He followed all the rules of his household.  He followed all the rules of his religion.  He studied his scripture and demonstrated great faith.  He trusted his parents, he trusted God, he trusted the religious leaders.  He shared his every thought with his parents and brothers and sisters.  He obeyed everything his parents told him to do.
                As Jesus grew up, he started to see the injustice in the world.  He started to see the inconsistencies and double-standards in his parents.  He started to see them as the imperfect humans they were.  But Jesus had a clear vision of God’s intention for the world, and that was for healing, love, and abundant life.  So many of the rules he had always obeyed did not themselves obey this law of love.  Instead these rules hurt people.  So Jesus started breaking those rules.
                People were very upset by this.  They believed the rules were helpful.  They worshipped the rules.  But Jesus worshipped God and God’s vision of new life.  So these two powers were clashing, the authority and power and vision that Jesus held up to measure all rules, and these people all around him who wanted to keep him in line for his own safety and for the preservation of the structures in place including their own family name.
                His family knows if you break the rules, you might be jailed, you might be committed to an asylum, you might be thrown out of the community, you might embarrass your family.  The religious authorities enforced the rules because they benefitted from them, kept people in their place, and gave order to a world in chaos.  The rules set the Jews apart as Holy for God.
                But Jesus knew that it wasn’t the rules that made the people holy or different.  It was the focus on what was life-giving that the rules pointed to, but imperfectly represented.  So instead of following these rules, Jesus broke them when they hurt people and so he began to be seen as a threat to those around him and their power and authority. 
                His family and the authorities accused him of being possessed by a demon.  They tried to discredit him, explain his powers by linking them with something malevolent.  But Jesus revealed the fault in their thinking.   He is the one who is consistent.  The religious leaders said they worked for God and yet they stood in the way of healing and justice.  Their house was divided and would fall.  Jesus was the only one who is consistently on the side of love and life.  And Jesus went on to threaten them with a violent image of a robbery, insinuating that his ministry was about tying up the strong man, whether that be Satan or the religious leaders, in order to rob them of what they thought was theirs.  Jesus was coming to take the riches and respect and the followers of these leaders and set them free to serve God.
                The leaders might have called it self-defense, but they jailed this Jesus and hurt him.  He died because of the rules he broke, the powers of oppression that he challenged, the life he offered the lowliest of his brothers and sisters and mothers.  But life and love have the last word, and Jesus rose from the dead and offered forgiveness for his attackers and betrayers, all of us.  So we find that we are challenged to look at our assumptions and rules and ways of doing things and see if they match the vision God intends of abundant life.  If they don’t, we are encouraged to break them to follow a deeper loyalty.
                Jesus went on to talk about an eternal sin, to show how serious it is when we misrepresent God to serve our own needs or to imprison someone.  Since there are other scriptures that contradict this one, we may prefer the scripture, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.”  However, this reading suggests more than strongly we should be careful about how we use God’s name.  His name is to be used to set people free, not to hurt them.
                Family is precious to us all and it is precious to Jesus.  But more precious is the love and life God is offering.  Jesus doesn’t say his family is not his family, but they find themselves as outsiders sending messages to Jesus through the crowd.  Jesus expands the definition of family, based on God’s view, that we are family and related by how we respond to God.  Biological Family can be freeing and life-giving and family can also be life-taking or simply too far away to be of help.  Jesus seems to be saying not to let the concept of family limit us, but to expand our support network, find others who share the vision God offers of abundant life, and partner with them to take action.
                We could stay obedient and innocent in the garden, but it is time to grow up.  We are going to make mistakes.  We are going to experiment with our own powers and decision-making.  This will help us to figure out who we are.  God doesn’t abandon us or our congregations, but walks with us on the path toward new life.  Grow, become, question, experiment.  God is bringing in God’s Kingdom among, with, and around us.

Monday, June 4, 2018

June 3, 2018

Mark 2:23-3:6                    
Deuteronomy 5:12-15
                Relational Question: Turn to someone near you and share a story from your experience about how you practice sabbath rest.
Raise your hand if you are more of a rule-follower.  Now raise your hand if you are more of a free-spirit.
For the Jewish people the Sabbath was something that set them apart from others.  It made them different.  “Sabbath” means “7.”  It was on the 7th day that God rested after God finished creating the heavens and the earth.  When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, they never had a day off.  They couldn’t be whole people, who God made them to be while they were slaves.  Why would God free them just to have them work 24/7 just like before?  God wanted to give them a greater freedom, so keeping the Sabbath became the third commandment after worshipping no other gods and not making wrongful use of God’s name.  It was rest not only for oneself, but also one’s children, one’s servants, and one’s animals.  There was even a command to let the land lie fallow in the 7th year to allow it to rest, and to forgive all debts every 49 years, which is 7 times 7.  Rest is part of life. 
To rest is also to trust.  We easily make idols of our hard work.  We think if we work hard we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and make enough money to live our dreams.  But when we rest, we limit our productivity on purpose and we leave room for God to do something in our life.  When we work, work, work, we act like that is the answer to everything, we begin to worship our work, to look to our work for all the answers, to make an idol of it.  To refrain from work for just one day out of 7 is a way to put our trust in God to make things happen even when we don’t work.  It reminds us that life is more than productivity and money.  It is a shift of focus ourselves to God.
Sabbath is for enjoying all that God has done.  On the 7th day God rested, and looked at all that God had made and reveled in it, enjoyed it.  We get to do the same, to stop, to notice God’s work, to enjoy God’s Creation.
Finally, Sabbath is a day of remembering.  It is a day of remembering who we are and who God is.  It is a day of remembering and appreciating all that God has done.  It is a good day to remember our proper place in the whole, that the work we do makes work for other people and may deny them rest, that we don’t work in a vacuum, but that we are part of something greater.  Our lives require more than just our work, but the work others do.  Our cheap goods may require others to be in slavery or in conditions that never allow them a day off or to be a whole person.  We remember who we are, who God is, and who our neighbor is.  The word remember has the prefix “re” which means again, of course, and the second part is “member” which is the parts.  So when we remember, we come back together, we return to the way things should be, were created and intended to be.  Rest is essential to who we are.  Sabbath is good for us and the whole earth and all its creatures.
After Jesus came, Jews and non-Jews came together in his name, and they had to decide, will we keep our Jewish laws or not.  So we have this story from Mark.  Jesus plucked grain on the Sabbath.  He did work.  And he did it when the Pharisees were looking.  And he healed on the sabbath.  This was not an urgent situation.  The man could live with a withered hand another day.  Why couldn’t Jesus respect the Sabbath and wait until tomorrow?  This reading seems to say the Sabbath is optional.  So we’ve basically thrown it out.
This is hard for me, because I like a good rule.  I need a good rule.  And I am starved for rest.  I’m not good at rest, and I don’t know that many people who are good at it.  Especially women, especially moms of young children, especially my age.  When I sit still and do nothing, when I go read in the backyard, when I sit and visit with a friend, I feel lazy.  There is so much to do.  There are dirty socks all over the floor, a sink full of dishes.  When I sit quietly and pray, I feel lazy.  There are parishioners to visit, phone calls to make, emails to respond to, people to train, classes to prepare for. 
But I don’t think Jesus is throwing out the Sabbath.  He is simply reminding the rule-followers that it isn’t about the rule, but it is about the blessing that the rule is meant to bring.  Sabbath is for healing.  Sabbath is for liberation, freedom.  Sabbath is to keep us truly human instead of slaves to our work.  Sabbath is for interrupting our productivity for reflection, processing, and appreciation.
How many of you find that you have a good balance of work and play and rest and prayer?  How many of you have too much sabbath rest?  How many of you have too little?  How many of you feel like your habits have gotten better over the years?
We can so easily allow ourselves to get lost in the details of Sabbath, that we wear ourselves out and defeat the purpose.  Is it on Saturday or on Sunday?  Does it have to be a whole day?  Does it have to be the same day as others?  What is considered work?  What if the cow needs to be milked?  That’s one of the things that Jesus was reacting against.  Don’t get all stressed out about it.  The other thing Jesus points out was the fact that King David breaks a rule and no one bats an eye.  But these lowly disciples break the rule and the Pharisees freak out.  Jesus is upset because the rules are enforced differently depending on one’s social status.  And he’s angry because the rules which are meant to be a blessing are used to hurt the very people who need the freedom they offer the most, like the hungry disciples, like the man with the withered hand.  Jesus is saying healing and freedom can’t wait!  This is urgent!  He’s unwilling to wait to bring wholeness.  He’s not going to wait another day to give Sabbath freedom to this man with a withered hand.  Freedom and abundant life is God’s intention for Creation now.  Thy Kingdom come!
I invite to you to observe Sabbath.  If you need it to be a command, then go ahead and hear it that way.  If  you need it to be a suggestion, then hear it that way.  It could be a day or an hour or whatever you need it to be.  One person I know leaves town for 48 hours every other month for prayer and renewal.  Consider what for you is a healthy balance of work, play, rest, prayer, and service.  It may take some experimentation.  What are some signals your body sends you when you need to do some self-care.  I offer you some tools—some devotion books and some scheduling helps are out on the table, some get out of work free cards may be found in your bulletin, because unless we’re intentional about it and try a new practice for a couple of weeks, we will keep on ignoring the blessing God is trying to give us.
In the case of Sabbath, we can be both rule-followers and free spirits, because this rule of rest is meant to free us from slavery.  I encourage you to find the healthy place for you between throwing the Sabbath out and using it as a stick to beat yourself and others up with.  Let rest and Sabbath time free you to be a whole person in relationship with God, other people, and God’s good creation.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

May 27, 2018

Mark 12:28-37   
Isaiah 6:1-8         
Romans 8:12-17
Where have you seen God this week?
I saw God today.  I wasn’t expecting to.  Our King recently died and our whole country is in chaos.  We don’t know what is next for us.  I had been in despair lately, afraid, feeling sorry for myself, feeling inadequate.  I had been fasting and praying, waiting for some sign from God who seemed so silent and far away.
Suddenly I felt this powerful presence with me.  A brightness filled the room where I was.  I saw angels and heard their heavenly singing.  The earth began to shake and my room began to shudder and I felt weak in the knees with fear and awe.  The angels sang of God who was so different from human beings, so powerful, so much more than we could imagine.  Their voices touched me so deeply I began to shed tears. 
I felt inadequate, small and I said so.  I felt unworthy and unprepared.  So I just blurted it, that I am a man of unclean lips, that I have said things I regretted, that I have told lies, that I have participated in gossip, that I didn’t have the words to express my feelings at that moment, that I didn’t have the words to express all the wrong things I’d said.  And I went on that I am not the exception.  This is the same for the community I live in, none of us is known for our eloquence or truth-speaking.  It really surprised me to get a glimpse of God, even though I am small and full of sin.
My encounter with God didn’t leave me unchanged.  An angel flew to me, a seraph, which means “fiery one.”  The fiery one brought a burning coal from the sacrificial fire on the altar and touched it to my lips.  I was not afraid.  I knew that fire was cleansing.  Sure enough, after that my lips burned only to tell the people what God had to say.  After that, I stayed quiet enough to hear what God was saying.  After that, I chose my words carefully, knowing that what I said reflected on the Holy One.  My words could give God glory and lift me up, as well, or it could blaspheme God and hurt the people, including myself. I had to tell the truth after that and tell it bluntly.  This was my call, this is what God sent me to do, and I could do nothing else.
We saw God today.  We weren’t expecting to.  We were afraid.  We were living like slaves to our passions.  We were focused on our daily needs, making enough money to live, eating, partying, impressing each other.  Some of us felt we were better than others. We kept putting each other down to make ourselves feel better.
But we gathered in the community of believers and we were singing and praying.  We read again the story of the Israelites as slaves in Egypt, and we realized that we were not only freed then, but we were being freed now, to see each other as fully human.  We were to participate in the freeing of our brothers and sisters that we had enslaved in our own ideas of who was good enough for God to love.  We finally started to get it, that God has enough love to free all of us, and that we are all adopted into God’s family.  We saw each other with new eyes.  We saw a vision of all God’s people, all God’s creation coming together, freed, loved, and empowered for service.  We also saw this wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, that we not only inherit God’s glory and all the good things about being a beloved child of God, but we also inherit a share of suffering.  It wouldn’t be easy going forward.  We would take risks.  We would upset the order of things and be made to suffer for breaking the rules of this world.  But that’s exactly what Jesus freed us to do, and we could do nothing else.
I saw God today.  I wasn’t expecting to.  I thought to be a good Jew, I just needed to follow the rules or to understand better.  I thought I could intellectualize it.  So I went to see Jesus, because I was curious about his miracles and some of the things it had been reported that he said.  Some of the other Pharisees were complaining about him and making threats against him.  But I had been feeling unsettled.  My religious rituals weren’t giving me any satisfaction anymore.  I felt like something important was missing.  I felt like a hypocrite.  I felt lost.  So I went looking.  I hoped that Jesus would perform a miracle for me.  I thought it might help me believe more strongly.  I wanted a sign, something I could see and experience to convince me.  But Jesus said that in order to see we had be born anew.  That just sounded weird to me.  I didn’t want to start over.  Who would want to be a little kid again?  I guess I must have misunderstood, because he explained he meant to look in a different way and live in a different way, start fresh with new eyes for what is holy and loving and life-giving in this world and beyond. 
He spoke of God’s Spirit, moving and powerful, brushing up against us, pushing us, and bringing us God’s word, indicating God’s presence, a true miracle of power in our midst.  That God would come to someone as dense and afraid and small as me, it’s true, it was a miracle.  And that God would not come to tell us how bad we are, to condemn us, but to set us free, to be in relationship with God, Creator, Jesus, one of us, and the Holy Spirit, our advocate, the breath of God, Sophia Wisdom. 
And for God to set us free to be in relationship with each other!  I didn’t realize until later when I stood at the foot of the cross where he hung dying, I, a Pharisee, important and knowledgeable, found myself equal to the women there at the cross, loved, forgiven, clueless, afraid.  We were his friends and family, although we were unworthy.  Still he gave himself for us.
When I went to Jesus at night, I thought I was taking the risk.  I thought someone might find out and turn me in.  But later I realized that he was taking the real risk.  He didn’t have to meet me for a conversation.  He didn’t have to come into this world.  But there was no other way to communicate the mystery of God, so far away and glorious and powerful, and yet right here, accessible, conversing in quiet, patience late into the evening.  And not just teaching, but lovingly explaining, and finally sending out.  Now that you know how much God loves you, how will your life be different?  Now that you know that God’s Spirit is shared with you, how will you live God’s vision?  How will you use the power God has given you?  How will you live the freedom you have been given? 
I saw God today.  I didn’t expect to.  I met with someone who is sick and homebound, yet she knows that life is more than our bodies.  She hopes and longs for and works for the vision God has lifted up.  She supports neighbors that are hurting.  She makes phone calls and sends cards to people who are sick.  She keeps up the connections.  I saw God in her, suffering, yet moving with the Spirit.  I was changed, inspired, shaken, and I had to lay aside my complaining and short-sightedness and open my eyes to God all around us and within us and I had to go and be different.  I had to get to work on the Kingdom. I could do nothing else.
We saw God today, soldiers on the battlefield looked into each other’s eyes and wondered why we can’t live in peace.
We saw God today, as we picked up litter and shook our heads at our warming planet.
We saw God today, when we attempted to communicate with someone who’s language is different from our own and found we are all just people trying to understand and be understood.
We saw God today, when we sat in silence and listened to our heart, and let our wounds connect us with others.
We saw God today, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or any of the other names you could use to describe the undescribeable who is in every breath, every relationship, who is love, who is all hope, who is around and within and between, alpha and omega, God most high and most near.  We are changed.  We are sent out in freedom.  We heard God ask who would go to those who are trapped.  We said, “Here we are, send us.”

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.