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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Sermon for June 17, 2012

June 17, 2012
Gospel: Mark 4:26-34
1st Reading: Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
2nd Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:6-17

We all love a good story about how the underdog overcomes adversity, don’t we? The Little Engine that Could, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Bad News Bears. We root for the little Charlie Brown Christmas tree because we identify with that feeling of being small and sad, but hoping that we are wanted and that we can still be useful somehow, that someone would see something beautiful in us and take us home to shine. We love these stories of the small but mighty.

The Mustard Seed is that underdog story once again. The ancient Israelites identified with that story. They had started small, just Abraham looking up at the night sky, childless, alone, an underdog that God befriended and promised a turnaround to. God promised offspring as plentiful as the stars. These stories are all over in the Bible. The Israelites became oppressed by the Egyptians. They were the little guys, and yet somehow, with God’s help they escaped and made their way through the sea, while the Egyptian army drowned. This little band of nomads wound their way through the wilderness and time and again overcame adversity to prevail. And they marched on Jericho around the walls and against all odds this small but mighty band blew their horns and the walls fell. And little David, the youngest and smallest of all his brothers was chosen to become King—small but mighty. When the people of Isreal and Judah were taken into captivity by the Babylonians they eventually made their way home, a small but mighty group to rebuild the temple and begin repairing their relationship with God. And when Jesus came, he was a baby, so small, yet feared by Herod, and he grew up to do mighty miracles and healings. As he hung there on the cross he must have seemed so small again, and as he breathed his last and died, he must have seemed very small and weak indeed. How could such a mighty God, creator of the universe, walk in a temporary body of flesh and bones, aches and pains, all kinds of limits? How could that God give himself over, accept all that human life brings, and willingly die? Of course we know that he was raised in the most incredible miracle yet and came back to forgive those who betrayed him and draw all creation to himself. What was big is small and what was small is mighty.

This small but mighty description can also be used for this congregation, and has been. Our attendance numbers are small and our age numbers are big! This congregation has been through plenty of difficulties over the years: at least one flood, plenty of losses of pastors and members, difficulties paying the bills, low self-esteem, declines in children, arguments of different kinds.

Yet we don’t dwell on the negative here. There is more good that has gone on over the years—deep friendships have been built, children have been born and now grandchildren, ministry has thrived—the Westwood Guest House served homeless families under this roof for years, the pantry serves record numbers of families and empowers them with more than just food but with hope and friendship and love, people have grown in leadership, they have rested when they needed to, people have responded to the community needs in our neighborhood. Just because we’re a small congregation, doesn’t mean that God can’t work through us. In fact maybe it is just the opposite. Maybe because we are small, we have certain gifts that God can use to do ministry through us.

Because we are small, many of us know each other. We have a tight knit community. Because we are small, every person’s gifts are important. We’re calling every last one of you to get your time and talent survey completed because we can’t do our ministry without you. You are necessary in God’s plan! No one is left out. Because we are small, we can identify with the vulnerable and weak and small groups in our neighborhood that really need help. We can notice them because they are like us and we can value them because we know God has a plan to work through them, too.

So here we are, small and mighty. If there is one pitfall to look out for, I see it in the first reading. It says in verse 24, “I will bring low the high tree, and I make high the low tree.” So far this reversal works in our favor. But we want to make sure we don’t get on our high horse, that we don’t get high and mighty about who we are, that we don’t begin to worship ourselves instead of God, that we don’t decide we’ve arrived and doing everything right because we’re small but mighty. “Pride comes before the fall,” right?

That kind of thing is all over in scripture, too. As Israel grows, people start forgetting about the widow and the orphan. They get too caught up in their military conquests. They get too proud, and they are brought low as army after army crushes them until they become small again and remember how much they need God. King David gets pretty high and mighty and decides he should get whatever he wants and that doesn’t end well, although he repents and asks God’s forgiveness and he and God continue to have a good relationship. In the New Testament the Pharisees start to get too full of themselves and decide they’ve got it right so they miss the Messiah right under their noses.

All over the Bible, God is raising up the lowly and bringing low the mighty. Think of the Virgin Mary’s famous song The Magnificat, “You have cast the mighty down from their thrones and uplifted the humble of heart.” Isaiah says, “Prepare the way of the LORD, make his path’s straight. Every valley shall be lifted up and the mountains made low.” In seminary we learn that “God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” But aren’t we a mixture of these two things at all times and bouncing back and forth on a continuum.

I think the way to stay on the right track is to remember what we’re here for. God tells Abraham in Genesis that he will bless him and give him numerous offspring so that he will be a blessing to others. The sprout of the cedar tree grows up in order to bear fruit and in order for the birds to have a nice shady place to congregate and live. And the tiny mustard seed grows and spreads and puts forth large branches, not for its own sake but to shelter others, to house others, to protect others.

So whatever we do in this small but mighty church, we need to always be asking ourselves, is this for others? Does this give glory to God? Is this what God would have us do? Does this help someone? Will this make a difference in someone’s life? Will this enrich our neighborhood? How can we be the blessing God made us to be?

I got a survey call the other day and since Nick was at work, the baby was sleeping, and I was just cleaning kitchen cupboards anyway, I took the survey as I scrubbed. They asked what I thought of the American Dream. Did I believe in it? Did I think that if you worked hard enough you could have the good life? Did I think that my generation would live longer and make more money than our parents? No, no, and no. I’ve seen too many people working hard that got pretty much nowhere. My dad worked as hard as anyone I knew and didn’t make enough to keep his family off food stamps and then he’d come home and roof the house! My generation is the first that won’t live as long as our parents and many of whom still live at home, not for lack of trying but because there is nothing out there work-wise. I like the story of the underdog rising to the challenge and making it to the top, but I think it is more of the exception. Those of us who are small but mighty can use our gifts from God to help lift those who are small and staying small, to lift them to greater possibilities, that God would work through us to make high the low tree and help others achieve the small but mighty designation we’ve enjoyed so much.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Sermon for June 10, 2012

June 10, 2012
Gospel: Mark 3:20-35
1st Reading: Genesis 3:8-15
Psalm 130
2nd Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

The favorite game at our house these days is, of course, peek-a-boo. We play “This little piggy,” and I just pulled “Wiggle fingers, wiggles toes” out of my dusty memory bank. We’re trying to think of all the little toddler games we can, to save the adults from boredom. But even if we never played another game, Sterling would be perfectly happy with peek-a-boo. We have a lot of variations of it. We play it behind our hands, behind appliances and doors, and from beneath the high chair tray. We play it with blankets and clothes. Even the puppets play it with the baby.

Peek-a-boo can be found in cultures around the world, a game of hiding and reappearing to show that something isn’t gone forever just because it is out of sight. I would even say that we have a game of peek-a-boo in the Bible here, maybe the first game of peek-a-boo.

The human is hiding in the garden behind some trees. This isn’t a game for amusement. I suppose that Adam thinks if he is out of sight, maybe God won’t remember that he exists. Maybe God won’t ask him what he’s been up to. Maybe God won’t see what he’s done or how vulnerable and naked he is. Adam hopes that out of sight is out of mind for God.

But God, like many parents, knows that it is too quiet in the garden. When the humans get too quiet something is going on. So God goes walking in the garden, looking for them, calling for them, and asking, “Where are you?”

Adam can’t resist answering. He doesn’t really say where he is. He’s not very sophisticated at giving excuses. “I was hiding because I was afraid of you, God,” He says. “I just realized I don’t have any clothes on and that was embarrassing.”

God knows exactly what has happened, that Adam has done exactly what God told him not to. It creates a rift between Adam and God. Adam is hiding from his loving creator and is afraid of God. Adam is not approaching God as someone trustworthy, like a loving father. Adam and Eve have a rift between them. Adam has blamed his wife. She’s not going to trust him, again. He’s thrown her under the bus. Humankind and the animals have a rift between them. Eve blames the serpent. “The snake made me do it!” What was once in harmony and balance is now broken and one break makes another and another until it all is unraveling. Now not only are Adam and Eve out of balance with God and creation, but their children will be, too!

What a mess! Here is the fall of human kind in a few short paragraphs, the explanation of when it all started to go wrong and why it can never be right again. Here we are, about 6000 years later, broken from each other, families divided, unfaithful to God, destroying nature.

This is supposed to be the story that backs up the church’s teaching on original sin. This is the teaching that we as human beings are inherently sinful from birth. It isn’t that we sin as babies, but that we are by nature sinful and that as part of the human family we are broken or imperfect. I see it more as that we are born into a sinful society. We will be taught to sin as part of our training as human beings and none of us escapes it.

Betsy has told me many times as she gazes at my little baby, and even before he was born or was ever thought of, that she doesn’t believe in original sin, but she prefers to believe in original grace.

That we are all born in a state of grace seems pretty obvious to me. When God created us, God called us “very good.” All of creation is good. We are made in God’s image and likeness. We are God’s precious children. We are amazing miracles—how our parents’ DNA came together to form us, how our cells divided, that we survived the womb, that we were born and live at this time in a particular place, how we developed completely unique from any other, all that we accomplished and all that we are, that we love, that we give, that we bear children and that they bear grandchildren, that they love, that they create, that they help others. It is extending grace, straight from God, to family, to friends, then to neighbors, and enemies. It is original grace and it is expanding.

But original grace doesn’t mean that it is always easy or happy. We have to admit doing things we regret. We have to admit the general broken nature of our society and world. We have to admit hiding from God. Or maybe we don’t have to admit anything and like Adam or Eve, we just blame someone else for everything that we did to bring shame on ourselves, for all our unjust acts, for all our hiding, for all our misunderstandings and hurts. Whether we accept it or deny it, we have deep wounds and separations from God, one another, and nature. This is what I call sin. Not sins or individual acts of wrong, but sin, a state of separation and division.

Even Jesus felt this separation. He felt it with his family who misunderstood him and thought he was crazy. They didn’t get him. It must have really hurt to have them come to get him and try to whisk him away, to try to undo all his hard work. In their minds they were being helpful. They were trying to protect him.

Jesus felt this separation from those who accused him of having a demon. He tried to explain it logically. Yet people continued to demonize him. They discredited everything he said by attributing it to a demon. It was an easy way to get him dismissed so no one would believe him.

It seems that humans have a fascination with eternal sins. The Roman Catholic Church has named the seven deadly sins. Like the dwarves, I can almost never name them all. Stuff like murder and gluttony gets put in a special category, even though it isn’t Biblical. Maybe we’re like teenagers who want to know if there is one thing we could do to get our parents to stop loving us. Maybe we want to know where that line is so we can push it to find out just how much our parents love us, or how much God loves us.

So here we have it, according to the Gospel, there is only one deadly sin and this is the only Gospel to mention it, which makes it suspect in my mind whether Jesus really said it or not. But it is here nonetheless—the one thing Jesus ever said we could do that would be unforgivable, and that is to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. Do we even know what it is that he’s talking about so that we would be sure not to do it? It seems that calling something of God something of the devil since that is what these scribes seem to have done. What Jesus is doing is good and of God. They say it is of the devil or Satan.

Jesus makes it clear that all our sins are deadly. That even our thoughts will be counted against us. But we all sin and fall short of the glory of God, and God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the entire world might be saved through him. I am imagining that Mark’s community was experiencing some people being pretty judgmental and dictating what was of God and what was of Satan in an unhelpful way. He wants us to take special care when we judge and maybe not judge at all. What is of the Spirit might not be obvious. It might not be what we expect it to be. We should reserve judgment and not rush to label something good or evil. Instead we can stop and try to see the good in someone else.

So can we all agree that we are created good? And can we all agree that we have sin, or brokenness in our lives? And we, like Adam, hide and blame, and try to wriggle out of it. We are ashamed. We are hurting. We hurt others trying to hide and avoid responsibility for our actions.

And God comes walking in the garden. I love the detail about the time of the evening breeze. And God calls out to us and asks us, “Where are you?” God is still seeking us, wanting to be in relationship with us. God wants us to approach him even though we’ve done wrong. God wants to welcome us into God’s family even with all our flaws.

Jesus meant what he said when he called us all family, mother, and brothers, and sisters. He loved us so much that he gave his life, that instead of hiding behind a tree, he hung there naked upon one, and suffered the consequences of all our sin and brokenness, put it out there for us all to see. But he wasn’t ashamed of us. He didn’t put us out of sight and abandon us as would have been his right based on how we treated him and each other and God’s creation. We thought he was gone forever in the grave, but God raised him up to give us new life and to show us that family is forever, that though we hide, God will search for us and find us, that God’s love will find us, wherever we are.

Sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday 2012

June 3, 2012
Gospel: John 3:1-17
1st Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29
2nd Reading: Romans 8:12-17

In this sermon I take on the perspective of Nicodemus who visits Jesus in the Gospel for this morning.

I am Nicodemus and I am an important, religious man. I always knew I would be a Pharisee like my father. We were getting tired of the Saducees. They were the priests who lorded over everyone, who spoke long prayers in the marketplaces to be noticed, and wore fine clothes and sat at the best tables. They were rich and used religion to get richer. We, Pharisees, were from a poor class. We were more flexible in our understanding of scripture—more understanding and merciful. We felt we were getting it right—or at least more right than others around us.

I had experienced God often. I spent much of my time praying at the temple and conducting meetings there. I always made my sacrifices and said my prayers. My family and I kept the Sabbath. We remembered the stories of how God had chosen our people, rescued us and brought us through the wilderness. We remembered how God saved us from the Babylonians and helped us get back on track as a people, worshiping God alone. We felt God with our people leading us forward, giving us laws to order our community, and helping us to be compassionate.

My grandfathers had known God in the house churches in Babylon, where they yearned for home, living among the pagans. They kept the faith strong. Many times, God was present when others said it was impossible away from the temple. But God was there, speaking through prophets and teachers, giving my family food and everything we needed. We lost many people we loved, but we always had God with us. God always keeps his promises and he led us back home again.

In the temple, I also experienced God, so majestic I almost can’t describe. Those tall pillars give the person praying a sense of being so small. The arc of the covenant was kept in its own secret room, behind many layers of curtains. That was to protect us from the power of God. If we were to behold God’s majesty we would be destroyed just by the intensity of it. Many times as I worshiped, I could almost feel that room pulsating with energy and life. So mysterious, so large, so far away—God the creator of the universe right here in our midst, and we bringing our feeble voices to pray and praise and offering a little gold, or a lamb or ox, a handful of grain or a flask of oil. Here we were coming together, heaven and earth, in one place, God and humankind in this temple. We came together, infinitely large and infinitesimal itty-bitty. We came together, the wise all-powerful creator and the cringing dim-wit. It was so humbling.

I’d watch the torches reflecting on the walls and think of the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites through the night. I thought of the fires that have cooked our food. I heard the crackle and wondered what kind of crackle the burning bush made as Moses stood before it, barefoot and bewildered, explaining to the great “I AM” that his speech impediment wouldn’t allow him to address the Pharaoh and that the people would never listen to him.

I heard the prayers and thought of how God’s mighty voice boomed over the waters of creation and spoke each star into being, every river, every plant, the sun and moon, the animals, and finally humankind. What are our little voices next to the creating voice of God?

I had experienced the power of God, and yet something was still missing. I was curious when I heard of Jesus. He and I studied in the same kind of schools. I heard of his miracles. But unlike many of the others, he did the miracles for others. He didn’t make a big deal of himself. He used his powers to help other people besides himself. That really made me curious. I wanted to be like that. I wanted to help other people.

I didn’t think my buddies would approve of my curiosity. They were pretty comfortable with the status quo. So I went by myself. And why make a scene, so I went in the evening.

I started out by buttering him up. “You’re pretty amazing,” I said. “You must be from God, you’re that amazing.” Jesus said something then that was confusing. He said we can’t experience God’s kingdom without being born in a different way. Well this sounded like the Babylonian cult goddess of fertility. A God giving birth? Yahweh was the creator of everything and in that way had given birth to all that we know, but he had done it through words and breath. This talk about giving birth was kind of embarrassing to me and seemed like women’s talk. So I asked him, “What are you talking about? Old people don’t grow in wombs and get pushed out into this world all wet and crying.”

But he said, “Birth can take many forms. There is always something being born in us. We are always learning and growing. God is always creating something new with us. Let God create something new with you. Let God give birth to you.”

I am not proud, but I said, “What are you talking about, Jesus?” I just didn’t have a clue. I wasn’t expecting to have this conversation. I was going to ask where he studied. I was going to pick his brain. But instead he puzzled me with words I haven’t stopped thinking about since.

He said I was stuck in the concrete world, but there is more to life than that. There is eternal life and that God wanted to give that to all of us—the people, the animals, the water and plants, the planets and moon and stars. God sent a messenger, his son, to gather it all together for eternity.

I didn’t know what to say, but I knew I couldn’t take much more in. So I went away to ponder Jesus’ words. I slowly started to put some of the pieces together like clues in a great mystery. People were saying Jesus was God’s son. And when I heard that he had been crucified, I remembered that he said there was more to life than this concrete world. And so I went with Joseph of Arimethea to claim his body, to see what more there might be. Jesus had been tortured and he had been pierced in the side, and blood and water had flowed from this wound. And I thought of how he said we must be born from water and the spirit. How he must have suffered! Was it all for nothing or was something new to be born from this horrible death?

In my life I have known the presence of a majestic God, creator of the universe. When I met Jesus, did I meet God treating me like a brother, giving me so much to think about and encouragement to find new meaning and new birth? Did I sit and have a conversation with God, no big pillars needed or smoke or sacrifices? And does the Holy Spirit of God breathe new life in me, creating me anew everyday, making me a part of community with all of creation? God holy and majestic, so far away. God my brother, one who challenged me by his words, the kind of life he lived, and the death he died. God as close as my breath, within me and around me, in everyone I meet. Yet not three Gods but one, with different functions, offering different experiences to this beloved creation.

Maybe I will never understand and the Pharisee in me wants to understand. Maybe I can live in the mystery of this mult-faceted, mult-layered, interesting God and use my life to give him glory so that many can know rebirth and new life and God’s kingdom.