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Monday, March 19, 2018

March 18, 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34            
Hebrews 5:5-10                 
John 12:20-33
                I have in my hand a seed.  It has a seed coat to protect it.  This little dot is called the micropyle, a little hole through which water can enter.  Inside there is almost everything the plant needs to begin growing.  There is a little embryo root and embryo shoot, and the cotyledons, the little first leaves that appear that have some nutrients in them to begin the plant growing.  Finally, there is the DNA within each cell that tells which cells when to reproduce where and how to organize themselves.
                On a seed packet there are many bits of information.  Of course, it indicates what kind of plant the seeds come from and should produce.  There are instructions for how deep in the ground to plant the seed and how far apart, when to plant it.  Also, you may see some information about germination rate.  That is how many seeds are apt to germinate and grow out of 100.  Not all seeds become plants, after all.  Conditions must be right:  Seeds shouldn’t sit around your house for years and years, they need water, light, soil, and conditions free from being trampled, eaten, or attacked by disease.
                The people of Israel had been growing a healthy garden.  Their seeds had been developed over years in the wilderness, watered and fed by God, nourished with the commandments and their experiences together.  They had grown strong.  So when they came to the rich soil of Canaan, they were very excited.  But they got greedy and they forgot the commandments.  People were not caring for each other.  They lost faith in God.   They forgot to trust God.  So their crops began to fail, their seeds weren’t germinating.  It wasn’t that God was punishing them, but because the commandments were actually rules to grow a lush garden, and when they stopped following those rules, their garden went to ruin.  So when the Babylonian thorns came marching in, the Israelite garden was vulnerable and the people were carted off to other lands to live in captivity.  The garden was covered over with rocks, and the rain didn’t fall, and the seeds languished beneath the soil, waiting and wondering if they would ever grow again.
                During this time of captivity, after the Babylonians had conquered them and taken them as prisoners, the Israelites reflected on why they were not growing as they used to, how they found themselves in this situation.  They wanted to remember their history, so they started to write it down.  They started to reflect on how they had come to this point.  They started thinking of how God might have been feeling about their previous actions.  They felt sorry for what they’d done.  And they also started to feel hopeful.  They reflected on when their own children went astray and how tenderly they felt toward them.  They knew that God was the most loving parent, so God must be heartbroken and hopeful for a restored relationship.  They started to feel the soil warming and sense the presence of moisture.  And they felt God renewing the covenant.  They remembered God and that God had never abandoned them.
                The people thought of the law, the gardening rules God had given them to help them to grow.  They had always thought of those as burdensome, an imposition from the outside, pushed upon them, written on their seed coat, like the booth at the State Fair where you can get your name written on a grain of rice.  But the people realized during the captivity how good the commandments had been for them, and looked forward to a time when the people would internalize the commandments, when it would be part of their DNA, what makes them who they are.  They realized that God was looking forward to that time, as well, when it would be automatic, second nature to be connected through the covenant, one family, with one set of values internalized by the community.
                As the community of the Hebrews tried to figure out who Jesus was for them, in the second reading, they realized that he was both a king and a priest.  Priest-Kings were few and far between, but there was one example from long ago in the Psalms, Melchizedek, whose name means King of Righteousness.  To be a king is to give the rules.  To be a priest is to examine and affect the deepest values held by a community.  One is to affect the outer conditions, the soil, the light, the water, the nutrients.  The other is to affect what is inside the seed, the health of the little root, the little leaves, the strength of the stem, and so forth inside the seed coat.  So Jesus came in the order of Melchizedek to affect us both on the outside and the inside and to come to us as God from afar, Creator of all living things, but to live among us and know intimately the struggles of growth and of life and of death.
                Jesus speaks in the Gospel of the seed, the grain of wheat falling to the earth and dying, so that it can do so much more than just be a grain of wheat.  He was already producing fruit, as evidenced by the Greeks coming to him and wanting to see him.  He was already drawing people to him from far outside the approved garden gate.  As the logos, the word spoken at Creation, Jesus already had to let go of so much to come and live among us with limits.  He gave up all his powers to be a little old seed in the garden with the rest of us.  He gave up any rights he might have had, any privileges, to be a humble guy who talked to children, and fallen women, and people who were sick, and people who were full of themselves and thought they knew everything.  He talked to people who had seed coats as hard as nails, who weren’t going to let anything in, because they were everything they wanted to be, and thought they ever could be.  But Jesus knew there is more to the story, because God is writing the story, not us.  Jesus knew that life is more than we imagine it to be.  He knows that for humans, just like for plants, death is not the end, but we go on, not just individuals, but communities. 
                He knows we get stuck in one part of the life cycle and we want to bask in the sun forever.  But that is not our purpose.  Our purpose is to follow Jesus through the cycle of life, to serve Jesus, to let go of all we have known so that we can take hold of eternal life.  Our purpose is to give glory to God.  It is our temptation to believe that we are self-contained, that we can bloom all day long, a single flower high up on a stalk.  But Jesus reminds us that we must let go as a community to ideas that we will be glorified, that will be independent, that we will live in perpetuity the way we always have.  Because when we refuse to let go, we cannot take on the new vision, the new life, the abundant life that Jesus has in mind, and we refuse to share the life that Christ shares with us with the whole community.
                This seed I hold is us.  We think we ought to be blooming.  We think we must live the same way we always have.  We don’t want to be a humble, boring seed.  We don’t want to be buried in the soil.  We don’t want to fall to the earth. We don’t want to follow Jesus.  But we will.  We will fall.  We will lie in the darkness.  But we won’t be alone and we won’t be there forever, because Jesus is there with us, and he knows our full potential, he knows what and who we are better than we are.  God has it written all over us this beautiful relationship of God and people, of forgiveness and communication, of the life that really is life.
                We live in a garden.  It is a garden where tall weeds shade out parts, where disease runs rampant, where little plants are trampled, where gates and fences keep us separated from each other, where. 
God has a vision of a garden where all the parts are interconnected and symbiotic, in which plants that supply the nutrients that other plants need will be planted together, where the soil is rich, the light plentiful, the full variety of plants co-exist, and the water isn’t wasted but shared.  It is a garden that by its very existence gives praise to God by its colors, its flavors, its scents, the insect life it supports.  It’s leaves face the sun, wherever it moves.  Its blossoms bring joy.  Its seeds fall, rest, germinate, and grow again, in a dance that gives glory to God.  May we find joy in the dance, in the garden, in the palm of God’s hand, in the growing, in the dying, in the reaching and the living.  And may we be drawn to Jesus, our farmer, with all the others in this garden to give praise to the one that gives life to all.

Monday, March 12, 2018

March 11, 2018

John 3:14-21               Numbers 21:4-9          Ephesians 2:1-10

            My name is Nicodemus.  I am a Pharisee.  Sorry to get all political, but that is my party.  Pharisee means “separated.”  We keep ourselves separated from Gentiles and from less observant Jews than ourselves.  That’s the reason I went to Jesus by night.  I didn’t want the other Pharisees to see that I was going out to meet Jesus.
            I was curious about him, after the commotion he caused in the temple, when he overturned the tables of the money changers and chased the sheep and cattle out.  That was a pretty bold and dramatic act, but one I thought might be warranted.  I’d participated in things I knew weren’t right, even though I say I keep myself separated.  That’s just the way things were.  But I had seen people getting cheated in the Temple.  I was less than pleased that coins that bore the image of the emperor were being exchanged and that these coins said right on them that he was the Son of God.  It troubled me to participate in this temple system.  So when I saw this man, Jesus, take a stand, I was impressed, and a little afraid.  What alternate system would come in its place?  How would people in power respond to this disruption?  Was this a one-time event, or would this man continue to disrupt? 
            So I went to see Jesus.  It was late as I made my way to the place where he was staying.  My little lamp barely shown enough to get me through the streets.  The moon offered no assistance—it was barely a sliver.  That’s partly why I chose this night.  I didn’t want to be seen.  Every time I thought I heard someone near me, I ducked out of site.  It was very quiet, for the most part.  Every once in a while a dog barked or a sheep bleated.  Other than that, all I heard was the sound of my own footsteps and breathing.
            I thought about what I would say as I walked.  I wanted to draw him into my confidence, if I could.  I wanted to be sure not to offend him or frighten him.  I rehearsed a number of different openings, hoping he wouldn’t take something I said the wrong way and chase me out like the sheep.  I was so nervous when I finally got there, I barely sat down across from him when I blurted, “I know you are of God.  The things you do are not like any human I’ve ever met.”  He said to me something about how to see the Kingdom of God.  I wasn’t sure right then if I was seeing glimpses of it, or missing it entirely.  But I wanted to know more, so I asked some follow up question.  Jesus told me about another way of seeing and another kind of birth, a re-birth to eternal life.  Being a Pharisee, I was all about eternal life, but another birth was confusing to me. 
            Then Jesus started talking to me about the light and the dark.  Of course I felt ashamed that I had come in the dark.  He knew I cared more about what the other Pharisees thought, than what he thought.  He didn’t really have a lot of reason to trust me.  But he still he spoke to me with patience and tried to help me understand.  I understood the kind of darkness that existed in the temple, that secrets kept people in power and made people wealthier at the expense of the poor.  And I rather welcomed the light, exposing those who had hurt others, and even my own transgressions that were eating me up when I let myself think of them.
            At first when he spoke of rebirth, I was thinking literally.  But as he spoke, I thought of the process of birth, going from the darkness of the womb, into the light.  Of course the womb is a place of protection and nourishment, but it is a place of preparation, not a place one could stay.  It is not the point of life to stay safe and in the dark.  Was that what Jesus thought of us Pharisees.  Safe and in the dark?  Immature?  But maybe some of us were ready for new life, a whole new reality.
            He mentioned Moses and the people of Israel complaining against God, in total anxiety and despair after the death of Aaron, Moses’ brother.  Having taken a look into the promised land and deciding that they were too afraid of what they saw there to enter it, being bitten by snakes and dying from the venom.  I thought of what God might be trying to give to us that we were too afraid to take hold of, and how much more desert wandering we would subject ourselves to before we were finally faithful enough to trust God to lead us to something new and life-giving.  Maybe you wonder that, too.  What are we afraid of, that we stick with what we know, even though it is dark and puts up a barrier between us and God, or us and abundant life.  What was it that was killing them?  Was it the poison of the snakes, or the poison in their hearts?  So what was eating at my heart?  What was keeping me from truly living and contributing to the life of others?  Was it something outside of myself, or was it something poisonous within me?
But in that story of the snakebites, God provides a cure and the people apologize for their lack of faith.  They look upon the iron casting of the snake upon the pole and their life is restored.  Somehow when they looked upon the serpent, the remembered something that brought them healing.  Maybe they remembered to be grateful that God was leading them to freedom.  Was I grateful that God was leading me to freedom?  Maybe looking upon that snake reminded them of their sin, got it out into the light, so they wouldn’t live in that kind of captivity again.  What errors of mine did I need to get out and really face, so that I could move beyond them?
As I sat there in the dark, I realized I was sitting with the one who was bringing light into the world.  It was a light that would expose the evil that we all participate in, but not to condemn us, in order that we might have new life.  It was not going to be comfortable to be exposed, but I had to face what I’d done and what my political party was doing.  I hoped that in the future I would stand in the light, that I would speak against evil, that I would do the kind thing, the loving thing.  I walked home wondering who I was and who I would be.  Would I take hold of new life, or resist it?
So when I heard he had been arrested and was sentenced to crucifixion, I ran those same streets I had walked that night.  I was in a complete panic.  How could someone so full of light, who spoke so patiently with me, who brought God’s love so close, be treated so cruelly?  And as I stood beneath the cross and looked up at him, I remembered the serpent on the pole bringing healing to the snakebitten people.  I heard him say, “Forgive them Father.”  Then I knew that somehow this man on this pole would bring healing and new life.  I didn’t know how, but the light was already dawning, the new birth had already begun.  There was no going back.

Monday, March 5, 2018

March 4, 2018

John 2:13-22                       
Exodus 20:1-17
             For this sermon I wove a tapestry.  See the picture at the end of the sermon.
             I have here one thread, the thread uniting heaven and earth, the thread of love and relationship.  Throughout time, God has been reaching out to communicate with and relate with human beings:
21 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,
God said let there be light,
Let the land be separated from the waters,
Let there be animals, fish, birds, cattle, creeping things
Let us make humankind in our image
Let us make a covenant never to again destroy the earth
Through Abraham, all the families of the earth will be blessed by God
God said, “Let my people go,”
God led the people through the sea and desert
God fed the people manna in the desert
God walked with the people in the desert as a pillar of fire
God spoke through the prophets
God came to us in human form

When God was working to connect heaven and earth, God had the bigger picture in mind of the world, the universe, the Kingdom God was trying to create.  God gave us commandments to help us work well together, but God doesn’t control us.  We decide how to relate to each other.  This pile of rags represents all our relationships with each other.
                We are fruitful and multiply
                We have strong feelings toward each other sometimes
                We build up our communities
                We form congregations
                We relate to the earth
                We volunteer and help each other
                We are generous and giving
                We honor father and mother
                We honor life and do not take it
                We honor our relationships and are faithful
                We do not take what does not belong to us
                We tell the truth
                We interpret one another’s actions in the best possible light
                We are content with what we have

So you see this tapestry taking shape, the interrelatedness of God’s world, messy, but balanced and with a certain kind of beauty.  And I’ll add two more of the vertical pieces, the connections between heaven and earth, the commandments, You shall have no other gods, and You shall not make wrongful use of God’s name, say that God said anything that God didn’t or hurt or deceive someone using God’s name.

And finally, in the middle, the central commandment, remember the sabbath day to keep it Holy.  A way of honoring God, by setting aside a day to pray and remember who provides for us every good thing, a way of relating to ourselves, in that we have a day to just be, a day not defined by what we do or what we consume, but a day of rest, and a way of relating to our neighbor, or children, or the help, or the immigrant, or the grocer or anyone, since our actions won’t make them work either.

So you can see why Jesus flew off the handle in the Gospel today.  God had been weaving this tapestry, connecting all things and people, and someone was trying to sell this tapestry, to make money, to cheat poor people, in God’s house.  It was an accepted practice to defraud people right under God’s nose, mere feet from the Holy of Holies where the ark of the covenant rested, from the mercy seat where heaven and earth touch each other.  Jesus is upset, angry.  But he’s angry because of zeal, passion, love.  His love for God’s vision makes him disgusted at this vision in the Gospel, so he sends the tables crashing to the floor, the sheep and goats running for the door, the money skittering across the floor into a jumbled mess, the money changers disrupted, and the people being cheated, maybe they were grateful, but probably they were buying into this system, they were probably upset, too.
If Jesus walked in her right now, what would he most appreciate as adding to the tapestry of God’s vision at King of Kings?
What might Jesus be upset about?  What tables in our church might Jesus be pushing over for us today?
Lack of diversity
                Exclusivity of English language
                Over-reliance on words
                Adult-centered worship
                Hearts not in it
                Expecting people to come to us
                Lack of honesty about what is troubling us
So no we decide, do we just pick up the pieces of what Jesus destroyed and set up shop once more, or do we decide to do things in a different way and take hold of the vision, the tapestry that God is weaving, submit to God’s laws connecting us with heaven and each other, and which tell us the truth about who we are and who God is.

Monday, February 26, 2018

February 25, 2018

Mark 8:31-38                      
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16                     
Romans 4:13-25

“You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Jesus says.  No kidding.  I wake up in the morning and my cat is meowing.  I feed her then I read the news while I eat my oatmeal.  I get my kid up and start getting him ready for school.  We’re in battle mode again about toothbrushing and whether he will or he won’t and what way I can convince him to do it.  I walk him to school, come home, and pull out of my driveway, ready to head to the church, and have my first thought of the day about God.  I am focused on human things.  I have shaped my life to be focused on human things, human priorities.  So why am I surprised when I come to church and find we are focused on human things, building repairs, serving on committees, worship planning, complaining about being overcommitted. 
Abram had his mind on human things.  His wife was barren.  He was old.  They didn’t know who would care for them in their old age.  Maybe because Abram was starting to realize that there was no going back and that this way of living was not going to work going forward, he dared to look up for a moment from the drudgery and isolation and shame of his life.  There he saw the saw the stars which pulled at him and told him a greater story of himself.  In that moment God spoke to him and showed him a vision beyond his little cares of this world, a vision that would blow his mind of relationship and God’s intention for God’s people. 
The Disciples had their minds on human things.  Before they met Jesus, they were focused on making a living, fishing, and tending to their families.  Somehow, they let go of that layer of human things.  Maybe they realized the futility of their labor, although I doubt it because they go right back to fishing after Jesus is crucified.  Maybe they caught in Jesus a sense of hope that things could be different, so they opened their eyes to new possibilities and followed him.  But old habits and ways of seeing the world are hard to break, and as they journeyed with Jesus, they fell back into their old patterns.  Who would sit next to Jesus when he ascended on his throne?  Who would be his best friend?  Who would get the most awards?  Who would have the most money?  Where would they eat or sleep as they traveled?  Who sinned this blind man or his parents? 
Here in the Gospel we meet Jesus, who was present at creation, knowing the purpose and balance of all that God has made, in the middle of God’s creation destroying itself.  How his heart must have been breaking every day. So he’s having this conversation with his disciples about what they see when they see him and what others say when they see him.  He’s trying to compare the vision he has, with that of his followers.  How did the Divine vision and the human vision become so different from each other?
Others see prophets of old or John the Baptist in Jesus.  Peter sees the Messiah.  Some can only see Jesus by what they can compare him to, the prophets that came before and told the truth about God’s vision, that at times led the people forward and other times were attacked and killed by the people for telling them the truth, but also were honored and revered.  Sometimes we can only expect what we’ve already seen.  Peter seems to move beyond the idea of a prophet like those who have gone before.  He correctly declares that Jesus is the Messiah.  I am picturing a prophet to the tenth degree.  Jesus then tells him more what it means to be the Messiah, which would make sense if he is the Messiah.  Wouldn’t he know more about who he is and how he would be treated?  He tells them that it has nothing to do with fame or honor in this life, instead he will be mocked and killed.  But Peter has his mind on human things, like thrones and scepters and castles and edicts and swords and chariots and riches.  Although he calls Jesus the correct title, his vision is completely skewed by the expectations of the Messiah held by the world, held by religion.  He is so wrapped up in what is important to humans, and what humans value, that he misses God’s vision of wholeness, God’s values of vulnerability and love.  So Jesus tells him to get out of the way.  He calls him the tempter—Satan.  Peter stands against God’s vision.
I’ve read a little news here and there about the survivors of the shooting in Parkland, Florida.  They are bold in speaking out.  It seems to me, they are making even more of an impact on the conversation than the parents of the children killed at Sandyhook. I’ve been wondering what is it about them?  First of all, they have a vision they have stated clearly—Not One More.  No one else will be killed by gun violence in schools.  It is a bold vision.  Certainly we all believe in that ideal, however impossible it sounds, though we may disagree with the methods of getting there.  Schools should be a place free of fear and violence.  Not only should they be, but these kids believe they will be with hard work and pressure.  They are vowing to work until this is the reality in our nation.  The parents of the children who died at Sandyhook believe that.  I believe that.  You believe that.  So what is the difference this time?  Certainly, the survivors are motivated.  They’ve just witnessed their friends killed before their eyes.  They’ve just hid in closets for hours until the swat teams came and cleared them to leave the building.  They still have texts on their phones telling their parents they love them, in case they didn’t make it out.  That may be part of it, but I think the main part is that they haven’t run up against all the systems of this world, yet, that stand against their vision.  I have to say, for me, I watch fight after fight in the legislature, I watch billions of dollars exchanged, I see who gets elected and I just give up.  That’s my sin.  These kids have something on their side, naivete, innocence.  They don’t know how this world is supposed to work based on experience, so they tackle this disgusting mess we’ve made of this world, with their clear vision and their power, they are almost voters, and they push this world more toward God’s vision of peace and wholeness.
When I consider our congregation and the state of religion in our country and I wonder in what ways are we standing against the vision of Jesus of wholeness and balance for this world.  In what ways to we decide that God’s vision can’t be, so we just give up. When we sit around in meetings all day, when we just want to sit in our comfortable sanctuaries and sing our favorite hymn, when someone complains to me about a kid being noisy in church, when our favorite pet church activity is coffee hour, we can hear Jesus say to us, get out of the way!  God’s bold vision, coming through.  And the sad thing is, I know I stand in the way of God’s vision, even though I have glimpses of it.  I stand in the way of creative, visionary people in our own congregation and I say, “This congregation is not ready for this yet.  Give them time.”  I am Peter.  I am Satan.  And I know better.  Because every day, my heart is breaking that we are not in many significant ways following our hearts, following Jesus in taking risks for a better world for anyone.  Forgive me God, for standing in your way. 
It is no wonder our churches are in decline.  We refuse to take real risks to follow Jesus, to let go of anything we like, in order to take hold of Jesus’ bold dream for us.  We refuse to see human things for what they are, temporary, wicked, selfish, vain, in order to see divine things, which are good for those who are unloved and discounted.  Because of our human view, we crucify Jesus every single day, when we let by complacency or otherwise the values of this world continue to rule our lives.  We crucify Jesus when we accept that children will be killed at school, that the elderly will go hungry and homeless, that people will die of easily preventable diseases, that the best we can hope for is for families to sleep in their cars and please let it be that other church that lets them do it in their parking lot. 
I know that you wouldn’t be here, if you didn’t see the wickedness of this world, too, and even your own participation in it.  I know you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t see in Jesus a chance to turn this ship around.  So how can we get out of our own way?  How can we risk being changed by people different from us?  How can we look not to build up our own congregation, but build up the body of Christ?  How can we move beyond loving ourselves to loving the whole world?  How can we let Jesus move us toward his vision and values?  I believe we can.  But we have to face what we have done and change our ways.  We have to build real connections, speak the truth to each other in love, use our power together with other voices to tell the truth to this world.  We have to believe.  We have to take a step in faith and another and another, not knowing everything, but following our savior.  And certainly we will be crucified, but crucified for a good cause, God’s vision of wholeness, a better world for generations to come.  Our own wants and needs may be crucified, and we may be hated by our own family and friends.  And we will be resurrected in new abundant life living Jesus’ vision.  New life is a promise, for those who have faith.
First let’s get out of the way.  Get moving.  Do something.  Volunteer at a warming center, where people on the streets go to stay alive, and where privileged people go to realize how much they take for granted.  Bring a meal to the program Sheltering Our Neighbors that meets at different churches during the winter.  Hear there someone’s story of escaping abuse, of children who can’t sleep because they have no stability in their lives, of losing everything in order to start all over again.  Come and worship at Church of God of Prophecy.  Learn what it is like to give hope and education to your children by leaving your home and family and traveling to a hostile land.  Come with me to visit Coffee Creek Correctional Institution and choke back tears as you watch an incarcerated mother hug her child for the first time all month.  Come and visit someone who is homebound and know that someday you too will have difficult choices, but you won’t be alone, because you have a community that loves you.  There are countless ways to break us out of our human values and vision, but we have to be willing to let go of our assumptions and patterns. 
We have to occasionally look up and see the same stars that Abraham saw, and know that when he saw those stars, he saw us, and it gave him hope and courage to leave everything to follow God in faithfulness.  When we look up, do we see ourselves included in the promise?  Do we see the future generations that God is blessing through us, we don’t know how?  Are we going to listen when Jesus says not only Get behind me Satan, and out of the way, but also, on this rock I build my church?  Will we let Jesus be the cornerstone of a vision that is promised and coming to be?  Will we live that vision in faith?  Please tell me the answer is yes and how I can help you, how I can get out of your way.  Please tell me God’s Kingdom is coming.

Monday, February 19, 2018

February 18, 2018

Mark 1:9-15        
Genesis 9:8-17                   
1 Peter: 3:18-22

                Our baptismal waters still wash us, though we may have been baptized long ago.  That covenant in which we emerge from the waters of chaos is still in effect and God’s voice and promises still hang in the air as does that of the community and our own.  That longing for a changed life and the chance to be washed clean, to die to the old self and be born to eternal life still pulls at our hearts and still directs us.  We emerge from those waters like the Israelites from the Red Sea, the sea torn apart and the heavens torn apart in much the same way, to make way for the meeting of God and God’s people.  So we stand there on the shore, dripping from our baptism, God’s words of love claiming us still echo all around us.  What are we expecting next?  Maybe we are hoping for a party or some clarity about God’s direction.  Maybe we expect peace or joy or certainty. 
                But instead we are suddenly flung out into the wilderness, by that so-called gentle dove, the Holy Spirit.  It happens so fast, we don’t even realize what’s happened.  We’ve got whiplash.  Suddenly, the landscape has changed.  The air has changed.  The light has changed.  The company has changed.  Everything has changed.  Whereas before it was lush and green, here it is dry and bare and empty.  Occasional rocks dot the landscape.  A single dead tree stands at some distance.  Animal bones are strewn about, and a skin of a snake lies partially buried under some sand.  Whereas before there were the musical sounds of water and songbirds, here are the sounds of insects and birds of prey and shifting sand.  Whereas before shade and cool breezes offered comfort, now blazing heat beats down and radiates from the sand and rocks and the hot wind whips at us.  There is nowhere to take shelter.
                For some of us the desert is one of grief, in which we face the pain of loss, the emptiness, the despair.  For some of us the desert is one of illness, in which we face the unknown, the treatments, the endless looks of pity, the loss of independence.  For some of us, the desert is one of depression, a feeling of being flung someplace desolate and hostile, a feeling of being alone and sinking deeper and deeper into the sand.  For some of us the desert is one of poverty, uncertainty about where our next meal is coming from, fear of the car breaking down or another large expense that can take away our ability to afford heat or food.  The desert is addiction or it is a loveless marriage.  For some of us, this week, the desert is the helpless feeling of watching the grieving parents on the news, fearing for our country, and being locked in conflict with those we love about steps forward to address the violence in our schools and neighborhoods.
                This is not what we expected the Christian life to be, once we were washed and claimed.  We want answers, not more questions, we want solutions, not more difficult conversations.  We stand confused in the desert and wonder what’s next.  We think of Noah as he stepped off the ark into the empty world.  What questions must have been going through his mind?  How did he decide where to start?  We think of the Israelites as they made those first steps out of the sea bed onto land and began their trek, one foot in front of the other, across the sand, further and further from everything they had ever known, learning what it meant to be free, complaining, learning how to trust God.  How did they find the strength to break camp and go on?  We think of Jesus, flung out in the wilderness, alone.  What did he think about those 40 days?  How did that experience change him?
We start to walk, which is difficult as the sand gives way beneath our feet with each step.  The methodical crunching, the dry heat beating down on us, the wind blowing sand and debris in our eyes from time to time.  We look for a way forward, but it looks about the same in any direction.  We look to go back, but it isn’t clear where we’ve come from.  So we just start walking—it is better than just standing around.  With each step we doubt.  Are we getting anywhere?  Are we just moving further from our goal, our place of relief, our destination?  How will we find water?  How will find nourishment?  How will we find life?
We see something move off in the distance—or was it our imagination?  Was it a snake?   A bird?  A wildcat?  We begin to sense danger all around.  Will we die here in the desert and be eaten by the wild animals?  We picture ourselves the meal of jackals and scorpions and vultures, no one ever knowing what became of us.  By now we are thirsty and hungry.  Our lips are dry and split.  Our stomachs moan.  We feel weak.  We wonder what we’re made of.  Will we make it through?  And we feel so alone.  Wouldn’t it be nice just to have someone to talk to or to sing a little song with?  Wouldn’t it be nice to share memories with someone or to walk with a great story teller?  Wouldn’t the time go by so much faster? 
                We’ve been walking for some time.  Hours, maybe days, we’re in a fog from thirst and exhaustion, but we suddenly become aware of a distant sound.  Then we realize that it is right next to us, the crunch crunch crunch of footsteps right next to us, and we look to our left and there is a dear friend of ours.  This is someone who has been to the desert before, passed through it and continued in ministry.  He smiles.  He doesn’t have a water bottle.  He isn’t going to change any stones into loaves of bread.  He isn’t going to tell us what direction to walk in to make things easier.  He isn’t going to lift us up and take us out of our difficult desert, but he is going to walk beside us.  Just knowing we aren’t alone, gives us some confidence, some hope.  And we suddenly have a sense of peace, knowing that new, abundant life isn’t something that can be taken away from us.  Life and love will ultimate prevail, whatever happens in our little life.
                Jesus tells us a story.  It is the story of the ark, which we see intersecting with Jesus’ own story of coming out of the waters to a vision of a dove.   It is a story of wilderness experiences long past, of those of Noah, those of Moses and the Israelites, those of his own time in the wild.   It is the story of the Israelites in the wilderness, which we see intersecting with his own time in the wilderness in temptation and testing.  It is a story of the Israelites crossing into the promised land, which we see intersecting with his own story of dying and rising to bring a new vision into reality, of the promised land, new lifeHe tells a story of God who created all the earth, who loves every creature, who made humankind in God’s own image, who continually walks with the people, who gives us new life, who invites us into a new vision of abundant life, who utterly loves us and calls us family. 
                As we walk, we feel a glimmer of hope, a tiny little flutter against the heaviness.  We start to think of what life will be like when we are no longer in the desert.  We first think of all the water we will drink and all the different foods we will wolf down.  But we begin to think of how we will always have this desert experience with us.  How we will look at our family and friends differently, what it will be like to see their faces again and tell them, show them how much we appreciate them.  We think of how we will live differently going forward, and what we will say when we meet people who are in their own desert experience. 
                And we start to see the vision of the waters of life flowing for each one, of every person and animal having enough to eat, of putting the basic needs of others before our own desires, of living in peace, of living a loving existence of cooperation.  It is a vision of health and wellness and wholeness.  It is a vision of balance and finding our proper place.  It is a vision of everyone’s gifts being appreciated and used.  It is a vision of the community of all creation as God intended it.  It is a vision of peace, each person putting down the objects of violence as God put away the bow, the deadly weapon of war, to embrace covenant and promise and life.
                And beneath our feet, the sound of the crunching sand gets softer, until we look down and see a little green plant.  We see a tree in the distance with some foliage.  It is alive.  We detect a scent of rain in the air, and watch the sky darken with clouds.  A drop falls, cold and sweet.  Then another and another, cool, fresh, hopeful.  Jesus hands us a bit of bread and something to wash it down with, his very self, broken and poured out.  We suddenly see that we have been surrounded this whole time with others going through pain and hardship.  We know we are part of something, that we are not alone or abandoned, but part of a communion of love, part of the great “I am,” people shaped by desert but attended by angels, people who are loved who are made for loving, Jesus own body, born, blessed, tested, generous, broken, and risen to bring life to the world.

Monday, February 12, 2018

February 11, 2018

Gospel: Mark 9:2-9          
1st Reading: 2 Kings 2:1-12           
2nd Reading: 2nd Corinthians 4:3-6

                The other day I was explaining to my son how to complete the less pleasant tasks in life and get them out of the way and then you have plenty of time to do the things that you like to do.  For instance, I said, “If I need to clean up the living room, then I do that first.  Then I get out my puzzle and do that.”  He said, “Yeah, like if you had to eat spiders, you’d do that first, then you’d go outside and play.”  I said, “Exactly.”  That’s how I do many things in life.  I always eat the foods I like the least first, in order, worst to best.  I savor that last bite.  It is the last taste in my mouth, the last satisfying bite that can stay with me. 
Savoring the moment:  That’s what I see happening in the readings for this morning.  Elijah and Elisha have been constant companions as prophets to the people of Israel.  They have relied on each other through all sorts of trouble.  They have built so many memories together.  But Elijah is about to die, or ascend.  His time on earth is short.  He’s on this last trek.  He’s trying to make his separation from Elisha easier on his friend.  But Elisha is savoring the moment.  He’s not ready to let go.  So he continues with Elijah onward.  And he certainly doesn’t want this moment ruined by a big company of prophets trying to tell him how to let go or how to grieve or how to move on.  He is in the moment.
In the Gospel reading, Peter and James and John are also on a trek with their teacher, Jesus.  They are loving this time alone with Jesus.  They are feeling pretty special to be handpicked and get this quality time with Jesus.  So they climb this mountain, maybe about as tall as Mt. Scott, and they are talking and soaking up Jesus' teachings and attention. And then they get to the top and are glorying in their accomplishment and all of a sudden they have a mystical experience.  They see Jesus, glowing.  They see Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus.  They are stunned.  They want to savor the moment.  They want it to last.  So Peter puts his foot in his mouth and suggests putting up infrastructure to support the hanging on to this moment as long as possible.  He suggests putting up some dwellings, tents, for the honored guests and for their glowing teacher.  Who could blame him?  He’s trying to be inviting, welcoming.  He’s trying to think of what would be the best way to respond to this moment. There is no precedent to know what to do when the greatest of the dead prophets and leaders suddenly appear before you.  You can't look it up in Emily Post to find the proper protocol.
Think of how Peter must have felt.  Here he was seeing not only his friend Jesus in all this magnificence, as he should always be, but the heroes of their faith standing there before them.  Think if we saw John F. Kennedy and Martin and Katie Luther or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Tupac Shakur standing right here having a conversation in front of us.  How would we feel?  How would we respond?  We would want to savor the moment.   They were people we can learn from and whose legacy goes on, but not who we can cling to or keep in a tent on a mountain.  They are people whose spirit cannot be contained in a tent or kept on a mountain.  The intensity of a mystical experience cannot go on indefinitely, or be contained in a tent or a cabin or even a mansion.
Then God speaks a command to guide the disciples into a better way of responding to the moment.  “Listen!”  That sounds so easy, but oh is that difficult!  “Listen to Jesus.”  It is especially difficult for Peter to listen to Jesus, because what Jesus has been saying all along this journey, is that he will die and rise again.  We can tell by the surprise of the Disciples when they encounter the risen Lord that they hadn’t been listening to him when he predicted his death and resurrection so many times.  Maybe they thought it would be a metaphorical rising.  Maybe it was so impossible that they couldn’t even imagine what he could possibly be talking about.  Maybe they were in denial that Jesus would be crucified.  I know I wouldn’t want to believe it.  And then how could they possibly reconcile this mountaintop experience, of Jesus in all his glory, with Jesus who would be stripped and mocked and killed and then rise again? 
What Peter was missing as he tried to savor this moment, was firstly that this was the eternal light of God.  This was a light that always had been and always would be.  This wasn’t a light that you could blink and miss it.  This was a light that was always shining.  We often miss the light because we aren’t looking for it, but it is there.  Some people are better at noticing it than others.  Children notice it, because they haven’t been conditioned to expect not to see it.  Sometimes we find ourselves noticing the light when something takes us by surprise, when we don’t have our defenses up, our sunglasses on.  For instance many of us became aware of the light, the Sunday when Seth called the baptismal water “God’s Water.”  It was like a moment of clarity and we all saw Seth in a new way, the light that always shines there that we miss sometimes because we’re not expecting it to come through him.  Sometimes we notice the light reflected through another person’s example, when someone has been loving to someone that we have difficulty loving.  Sometimes we notice the light through art or music that can get past our armor and penetrate our hearts.  I know many of us feel that way about the gifts of this choir or the music that Karen plays during Holy Communion or before or after the worship service.  Sometimes we notice the light when we go someplace new, as the Disciples did.  Sometimes it comes through a teacher, like Elijah.  Sometimes we notice the light because the reality of death or separation wakes us up on that moment to appreciate and savor what is going on right now.  So we can look for that light on mountaintops, but we can also look for it in all people and places and situations.  The light is always shining. God’s power is always and forever.  So rather than try to capture that in one moment when it hits us over the head, let us open our eyes to the light of Christ in all situations.
Another thing that Peter was missing, and we miss it, too, sometimes is what this light is for.  This is not the kind of light we can lay out in to get a tan.  This isn’t for us to soak up.  This light energizes us to go out.  This light empowers us to do the work that Christ does, bind up the broken hearted, visit the imprisoned, minister to the poor.  The light shines through Christ and we reflect it to the world.  So when Peter wanted to stay up on that mountain, he was completely missing the point.  When we focus only on wanting our neighbors to come to our church, we miss the point that Jesus sends us out into the world to bring the light of Christ.  And we miss the point that the light of Christ is already out in the world and maybe we have a thing or two to learn from people who we discount about how clearly the light shines in terribly dark and troubled times.
Finally, I get concerned that we Lutherans are too good at keeping quiet.  In this Gospel, Jesus asks the disciples not to tell anyone what they’ve experienced until after Jesus is risen from the dead.  There is time for silence and listening and time for proclaiming the good news.  Last time I checked, Jesus is risen, right?  We should not neglect the part where we share with others the effect that Jesus has had on us and our vision of his glory.  People long for the kind of hope that Jesus offers.  People long for community, where people are real with each other and are empowered for real relationships and chances to bring love to the world.  People need to know they are created good, loved by their creator, and that they aren’t alone in their struggles.  So, empowered by this vision of Jesus’ glory, may we stop and listen, may we experience the power of God, and then may we go out as Jesus did and love and welcome and find ourselves loved and welcomed.  Let us savor all the moments of Jesus brilliant light:  This one and this one and this one.

Monday, February 5, 2018

February 4, 2018

Gospel: Mark 1:29-39      
Old Testament reading: Isaiah 40:21-31
                The last couple of years, I’ve been baking my own bread.  Homemade bread, to me, is one of the great pleasures in life.  I have a sweet tooth, but I will choose bread over ice cream or pie, my favorite desserts.  My grandma used to bake bread and she had a tiny little loaf pan she would give to me.  Side by side we would knead our dough.  I can still smell that bread baking.  When I first started baking on my own, I had some pretty bad failures.  If any one part isn’t right, you don’t achieve the rise you need to give the bread the sponginess.  If the dough is too dry, if the flour isn’t glutenous enough, if the place where the bread is rising isn’t warm enough, the dough just won’t be lifted up.
                In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus lifts up Simon’s mother-in-law, raises her.  When we say on Easter morning, “Christ is risen!” we use this same word.  Simon’s mother is risen!  She is resurrected!
                Of course she had been very sick, with a fever.  And not only her, but the whole city has been suffering from illness.  Maybe they never asked because they already knew the answer the question, “Why is everyone so sick?”  Maybe they assumed that was just the way it was.  Or maybe they knew there are powers in this world that keep people sick, that keep them from the nutrition they need to be well, that control the water, that make them work so long and so hard that their bodies fall apart, that greedily collect all the money and land for themselves so that regular people can’t get adequate shelter to stay healthy.
                Certainly they weren’t sick because God created the world this way!  God created a world to give health and wholeness, gave rules to give balance and rest.  If God created this world good, how had it come to grind people up, like Simon’s mother-in-law, and leave her sick and deflated and unable to serve or participate in the family or community?
                Like the forces that stand against my rising bread, there are many reasons, and multiple ways that life and rising can be taken from people.  We’ve both experienced them ourselves, and we’ve participated in them, taking the breath right out of someone.  We’ve found ourselves sick, although it isn’t always easy to say it was because of some missing vitamin or a pollutant in the air or because of mold in our house or apartment.  Sometimes it is easier to see if it was the greed to the folks selling us things that are bad for us, although we accept some of the blame ourselves for participating in the vice in the first place.  Sometimes it is easier to figure out what is keeping us sick, if we can’t afford to go to the doctor or pay our medical bills, so we forgo the preventive checkups and diseases spread before we ever know they are there.
It is harder, sometimes to accept the part we play on deflating others and keeping them from their rise.  It turns out I have a child who is as stubborn as I am.  We struggle with each other and I am starting to see myself through his eyes.  He is going to remember these struggles.  He truly sees me when I am not acting like an adult.  So, God help me, I am trying not to deflate, but to help him rise to meet whatever challenge it is.  I am trying to back off on the pressure and help him find the motivation.  It is an art-form I wish I had a recipe book for, but instead it is full experimentation, learning from each struggle.  Inhibiting rising bread can happen in so many ways.  People we will never meet suffer to provide cheap clothing and food for our families.  People suffer for our convenience—that we drive everywhere we want to go, even that we have a church that is so difficult to walk to.  If we were faithful, wouldn’t we ask you to find a church near you that you can walk to and join that church?  We are enslaved to convenience, to the forces that deflate, that make people sick.
Now Jesus enters the story.  He takes Simon’s mother in law by the hand and lifts her up.  The Gospel of Mark is said to be telling the story of a new exodus, that Jesus is leading the people out of the slavery of illness and death, into a new direction in the wilderness, where they/we will be learning a new way of following God and receiving new life.  Jesus is taking us by the hand, and raising us up, to walk in a new way, to live in a new way, in relationship, in abundance. 
The Israelites were deflated in exile.  They complained against God.  This reading from Isaiah is God’s response through the prophet.  It is perfectly obvious that God knows what is going on and loves the people, according to Isaiah.  Just because this rising is taking a little time, doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening.  What seems like forever to ordinary people, the length of time a corrupt leader governs, or the number of years a people are enslaved, is just a blip to God.  It is temporary.  These powers of oppression do not have the kind of power God has.  God is created everything and knows their name, knows their nature.  God’s got their number, you might say.  So even though people are oppressed, God has not forgotten them.  God empowers them with God’s own strength, like eagles.  They will be given God’s strength and God’s endurance and God’s patience and God’s power.  God will lift them, they will rise with wings like eagles.  They will experience resurrection life.
Jesus raises Simon’s mother in law, heals many in the city, and casts out demons, but the people still want more from him.  They want to own him.  They want Jesus to be their personal healer.  However, Jesus goes out while it is still dark to pray.  I actually take some comfort in knowing that Jesus sometimes had trouble sleeping.  He woke up really early and he couldn’t sleep.  He was shaken by the amount of need all around him.  Maybe he wondered if he would be enough.  Maybe he was worried he would let people down.  But he went out to pray and there he was reminded of what he was there to do.  He did some healing and some raising, but he needed to get out and get people ready for the second exodus, to help them turn in a new direction, to prepare to follow a new way of relationship and health and service and the sharing of life.
It was like Jesus was a bit of yeast and he needed to be stirred around the dough.  He didn’t come to one little place.  He came for the life of the whole world.  So he starts out in Galilee and begins to preach the good news, breathes a little holy spirit life into this dense dough.  He raises Simon’s mother in law, he begins raising others in the city.  It was like concentric circles.  He goes out from there throughout all of Galilee and then out even further.  His ministry was then multiplied in those he raised.  Simon’s mother in law then takes up the ministry of lifting people up through her own service.  She begins to serve Jesus and the Disciples, one imagines through cooking for them, but come on, why do we hold her back just because she’s a woman.  It is likely that she went out and preached the good news of what happened to her, maybe she took a few hands and Jesus healed people and lifted them up through her.  There are several times groups of unnamed women ministering in the Gospel of Mark, maybe she is there among them, serving God, lifting up, learning Jesus’ way of new life. 
Jesus raises up so many people in the Gospel, not so they can return to their old, oppressed and oppressive, disconnected life, but so that they would be empowered by the same Holy Spirit that he had to bring healing and connection and new life, so they would be empowered by the holy spirit to serve God, and live abundantly a kingdom life. 
You may or may not remember that the Gospel of Mark ends with an empty tomb and no Jesus.  We are left hanging about what happened to Jesus.  Some scholars have argued that the Gospel of Mark is so full of resurrection stories, stories of being lifted up, that having read the Gospel and coming to the end, we know what happened to him.  Jesus is one who continually lifts up and resurrects.  So it only makes sense that this resurrection life continues and that Jesus is risen indeed.
When Jesus ascends into the heavens, he then leaves this ministry of lifting up with the Disciples and with us, to continue that work of lifting up.  Not that we do it by our own power, but he leaves the Holy Spirit with us to empower us, to work through us to lift up those who are sick or hurting.
Simon comes to Jesus who has been praying alone and he says, “Everyone is searching for you.”  Jesus knew what they wanted.  They wanted him to be their personal physician.  They wanted healing for a few, they wanted a procedure, they wanted something temporary.  But Jesus knew that he came to be the great healer.  To bring a kind of healing of all creation, more like wholeness, or shalom.  This healing is for all creation, is a new way of life, it is something in which we can all actively participate, and it is forever.  Jesus couldn’t let himself be distracted by these individual healings, and keep himself from the larger goal of wholeness.  And he couldn’t let himself take away the power we all have for healing by doing it all himself.  But I hear this statement on another level, “Everyone is searching for you.”  Everyone is searching for short-term healing, the easy fix.  But under all that is a deeper hope for meaningful connection to everything, for love and forgiveness, for learning a new way of life and a new direction, one in which we all rise to greater heights of love and service to God and lift each other up and find ourselves embraced by wholeness.