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Thursday, September 26, 2013

September 22, 2013

Gospel: Luke 16:1-13
1st Reading: Amos 8:4-7
2nd Reading: 1 Timothy 2:1-7

Welcome to one of the most confusing Gospel readings in the whole Bible! What are we going to learn from this one? Thankfully, I have a whole week to study these things and help untangle them. This is where I am at.

We’ve got people. We create situations of isolation and alienation. We argue. We are selfish. We are greedy. We can’t get along. It is in the Old Testament reading: we disregard each other, we take advantage of people, we cheat people, we are greedy. We can read that and say, “That’s not me.” But that wouldn’t be being honest with ourselves. We like to buy our groceries cheap. Therefore the farm workers aren’t going to be paid well and their working conditions aren’t going to be good. Sometimes people who work in grocery stores or department stores don’t get paid well because we don’t want to pay a higher price. We saw what happened when that garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh. That day, I looked in my closet and wondered whether something I owned was made in that place, handled by one of those people who now lay beneath a sheet or still lost in the rubble. We can say, “That’s not me,” only because we are so removed from where our food and clothing comes from that we don’t know who suffers because of what we have and what we consume.

In the reading from 1 Timothy, there is a situation of isolation and alienation. People are separated from each other by a lack of a quiet and peaceable life and by social status and rank, like Kings are removed from the people.

In the Gospel, the manager is isolated and separated. He’s not one of the merchants who purchase the olive oil and wheat on credit. He’s got a manager’s position, so he has power over them and helps to set prices that determine whether they can do business or not. He’s not like the rich man—the rich man needs him to keep him rich. He’s all alone in his middle management position. Now he’s fired. He’s in big trouble and he sees it is only going to get worse. He has no marketable skills. He has no friends. He has no safety net. He is completely alone and if he doesn’t act fast, he will die

We, too, find ourselves isolated and afraid. We don’t know our neighbors. We often live far from family and friends. We sit in front of our computers and televisions instead of building relationships. We feel alone and there is no one we can talk to about it because we don’t have close enough friends to bear our hearts to and find some connection and comfort. We even sometimes feel distant from God and alone in our troubles.

The good news for this morning is that we aren’t alone. God hears our prayers and feels the ache of our hearts. God is right there with us in our suffering. This isn’t the way it is supposed to be and something can be done about it. God desires everyone to be saved from this place of isolation and embraced in the warmth of God’s love, and as one of my study commentaries said, “Doesn’t God get what God wants?”

God is a safety net. God will be there for us no matter what. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. God will never leave us or forsake us. “There is one God, one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” We all belong to God.

However, that doesn’t mean we won’t have trouble in our lives. God gives us the opportunity to be a safety net for each other. That’s where prayer comes in. Prayer is meant to be a first step in building a safety net. To pray is to communicate with God. And it is to turn our hearts and attention toward those who need it. When someone offers a prayer, here, in church, our ears prick up. We look for the connections with our own lives. We might jot down a name. We begin to feel compassion for that person like God does. Sometimes that is enough. Usually, we ask later and follow up with how the situation is going with the person who prayed. We might offer our own experience and offer support. Sometimes we get to help with physical assistance, material donations, or money. Sometimes we get to offer moral support and encouragement.

My cousin Curtis was recently in a terrible accident. Even though I was on vacation, it was a comfort to me to know that you were all praying. It wasn’t just a comfort to me, but to my mom who called the prayer request in, and to Curtis’ wife, siblings, mom, and dad. They were feeling so alone, but it lifted their spirits and helped them get out of bed every day, knowing they really weren’t alone.

When I got back from vacation, many of you asked me about him and how he was doing. It was good to tell his story, even though it was one of despair and pain. My cousin was driving drunk. But because of him, all my aunts and uncles have been having talks with all the cousins and maybe history will not have to repeat itself in our family that seems to carry the alcoholic gene.

Now my cousin, who was considered brain dead and a hopeless case, has awakened from his coma. He talks and understands and remembers some. He is blind. He has been released to a rehab center for months and maybe years of physical therapy. I am sure some days he feels alone, but he is a newlywed and has two beautiful young children to live for. I hope that prayer will continue to buoy his spirits. And when I see him next time, it won’t be like the last 5 years when we’ve seen each other—we’ll have something to talk about. I know more of his story and I can share a part of mine, that our community of faith prayed for him and uttered his name with compassion and care in our hearts.

Prayer is communication with God. It is a refusal to accept what our minds and culture and situation try to tell us everyday, which is this, “You are alone.” We are acting with faith that we are not alone and that we have God who listens. We are reaching out to find out and inevitably God is there and people are there who care and willing to help. To pray is to make an initial attempt at contact. Prayer asks, “Is anybody there?”

In the first reading, the rich trample on the needy, pretend like they are the only ones that matter and cheat others to increase their wealth. But sooner or later they are going to be made aware that their wealth cannot befriend them or bring them comfort in their time of need. We all need to be building relationships with others around us to have a fulfilling life.

In 1 Timothy, we are urged to pray for everyone—not just believers, not just in our circle of friends, not just those in our social class or political party. We are asked to reach out in every direction. We might just make a connection that we weren’t expecting. We might find compassion in our hearts for a leader that seems like an idiot, but might actually have something to offer that we might have missed.

In the Parable of the Shrewd Manager, in desperation the manager reaches out to those around him. The 50% and 20% he writes off their bill was probably his cut. He forgoes his profit in order to invest in what really is going to carry him through. His money will run out, but friends offer a more lasting and secure safety net. Maybe through them he can get a new job or a recommendation.

When we reach out in prayer, we have to admit to ourselves that we are in need. We can’t fulfill our own every need. We reach out for connection because we can’t do it all ourselves. We need each other. That is what Christian community is about. Today we welcome Tyana and Patricio and Khalea and Grace and Julia. We are saying to them, we need you. We are not all we could be without you. We need you to teach us what it means to see through your eyes and experiences. We need you to teach us about your lives and your places where connections and safety nets could be stronger. We need to hear your stories. They are saying to us, we need you, King of Kings, to help us raise our kids in the faith, to help our family remember how important it is to be active in the community in partnership with so many others.

Maybe it seems silly in a world where we are supposed to be so independent. But rather than independent we feel alone, and faith community is a place that challenges that and says, “Let’s work together.” Baptism is a sacrament in which God says, “Let’s work together.” In Holy Communion, God says to us and we say to God, “Let’s work together.” And it doesn’t stop here. We reach out beyond our walls, because even as a church we can’t do it ourselves, nor should we and we say to God’s community in our neighborhood, “Let’s work together.” “Let’s work together” to feed hungry people. “Let’s work together,” to care for the earth. “Let’s work together,” to make sure people have enough to live on. “Let’s work together,” to find resources for people in our community in need. “Let’s work together.”

September 15, 2013

Gospel: Luke 15:1-10
1st Reading: Exodus 32:7-14
2nd Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17

I have to admit, I’m not that great at keeping my house clean. It is a lot cleaner since we have a child, now, and have to keep our chaos under control or risk harm to our child. Still I struggle with keeping house. My mom vacuumed our house every morning and every night when I was growing up because she did daycare out of our home and needed to keep it up for her business. But it hasn’t always been my priority. A year after we moved into our house, we pulled up the carpets and refinished the wood floor. With carpet, you just don’t know that your house is clean, especially with three cats, as we had at the time. We were so happy to find a beautiful hardwood there, beautiful pecan floors in pretty good shape. So, I do a lot of sweeping, as you can imagine. That’s the way to get the dirt off of a wood floor along with an occasional scrub. Often I sweep when I get to sneezing—when there is so much dust and cat hair that it triggers my allergies, or when we are having company over, or when I’m mad. It helps me sort out my thoughts. An organized house, an organized mind. I can sort out my frustrations and I’ll have a wonderful result in the end.

These days, I can only sweep when Sterling is napping or after he’s gone to bed, otherwise I have a helper. The other day, my husband swept the kitchen and got distracted. He left the piles, and pretty soon, here was Sterling with the broom, sweeping those piles all over the kitchen again. The other thing that happens when I try to sweep when he’s awake, is that he sees something of value there and tries to eat all the Cheerios he’s rejected that end up in my pile.

Here’s God, who for all these years has been trying to tell the people how to keep their house in order and how to sweep, is now coming in to show people how it’s done. Jesus swept into this world, practically unnoticed. Some angels sang and some shepherds showed up. Maybe the stable he was born in could have used a sweeping. Maybe some people would have liked to sweep his mother under the rug—an unwed mother! He grew up knowing manual labor. He probably swept Joseph’s carpenter shop every day—not a very glamorous job for God our Creator.

When Jesus came on the scene, his cousin, John the Baptist, was ecstatic. Here’s the guy who is going to clear God’s threshing floor. Here is the one who will separate the grain from the chaff—get rid of everyone and everyone getting in the way of God’s rules and God’s reign. Next thing you know, Herod has swept John right out of existence.

When the Pharisees saw Jesus sweeping across the land, they were probably happy at first. Here’s a guy who likes to keep things nice and neat, they thought. He’s going to keep out the riff raff. He’s going to tidy up the temple and keep it the way we like it. He’s going to make sure the temple system that has gone on this long continues, promote the right kind of people to positions of power, make sure the poor stay that way.

Only God has a different idea of sweeping and of riff raff and of the value of people. Our systems don’t make sense to God. Since we are all God’s children, God sees value in all of us. When I sweep up my pile, I see different things of value than my little son sees. I’ve got to get those discarded Cheerios out of sight, and fast before they’re claimed again by little fingers. I’ve sometimes reflected that in some places in the world, those would be of value to people. But I can go get another box of cereal for $3 or so, which is pretty much meaningless to me. Many people in the world make $3 a day and have to support their families on that. I usually do take a quick look at my pile and make sure there isn’t something I do value. Sometimes I find a rubber band, or a straight pin for sewing, or a safety pin. Sometimes I find a dime or a penny. I usually sort that stuff out. I have a ton of rubber bands piling up, so I might be more inclined to throw that away. What has value and what doesn’t, is in the eye of the sweeper.

When God is the sweeper, all people are valued. We are all in that dirt pile of sin, of confusion, of compromises, of anger. That’s what the religious people didn’t see. They thought they were better than others, due to some accident of birth that gave them access to riches and education and position and power. But God was there when they were born, knew their dirt pile of greedy, fearful thoughts, and brought them into the fold. God only hoped they would do the same for others. Instead they used their position to keep others out. So God came among us as Jesus to show how to sweep up. Sweeping became a collection process for finding the value, not just a way of getting rid of unwanted dirt.

Paul, for one, was glad that Jesus did the sweeping. Under any kind of common sense, he should have paid for his crimes. Probably many others were suspicious of his confession that came so late. Was it sincere, or a result of finding himself blind and vulnerable in the hands of some Jewish followers of Jesus? Well Jesus swept him up all right. I’ll bet there were a lot people who would have been glad to see Paul thrown in the trash. But even in him, a blasphemer, a man of violence, and a persecutor, God saw value. God picked him up and showed him that there are better places to be than the dirt pile—that God had more in mind for him. God was going to put him to work in God’s service.

For the Israelites, God found the people in a heap of dirt, the Egyptians holding them in slavery. But God saw the value and potential in them and sorted them out of that dirt pile. Like little kids, they seemed to keep getting back in it, like we all do. At one, point, it seems God was ready to give up. That’s where this morning’s Old Testament reading comes in. God finds the Israelites worshiping other gods and being unfaithful and not following God’s rules. But Moses pleads with God to see the value in the people. We find that God isn’t willing to abandon people, even when they abandon God. God is completely faithful, although that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t occur to God to just forget the whole thing. God, by nature, is love, so no matter how many times God sweeps us up, God is happy to see us and let everyone know how glad God is that we are back in the purse or the fold or family.

So now that God has swept us up and polished us up, the question is whether we will then begrudge God for doing that for others. Or will we work to see the value in every other person. Maybe we don’t even need to see the evidence of their value, but can just trust that God values them, so they are of value. And then we get to learn what it means to treat every other person as having value. Can we value people with opinions that are different from ours, who live on the other side of the world, who think different than we do? And then the question is this, “What does it mean to value other people?” or “What does it mean to value God’s creation?”

It starts by cleaning our own house. We can sweep up the dirt of prejudice and ignorance right where we live. We examine that pile of dirt and recognize it for what it is. And we sort out from it what has value and what doesn’t and throw away the dirt and keep the rest.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

September 8, 2013

Gospel: Luke 14:25-33
1st Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-30
2nd Reading: Philemon 1:1-21

Well, do we have any takers? Is anyone here willing to give up family and all possessions to follow Jesus? Me neither! I’m kind of glad that you don’t all weigh the cost, because we wouldn’t have a congregation, if you did. I’ve asked many people to join the church and they tell me, no—that there is no way they could tithe or be at church every week or go to meetings all the time. And that’s when I get to tell them the good news of God’s grace. Joining the church is making it public what we already know is true, that you are a part of this community and we are a part of your life and ministry. We have exactly no requirements for being a member. If you want to be a voting member, that’s another story—you need to either take communion or give an offering that can be traced back to you in the previous year. A lot of people might be glad to miss the congregational meeting in which they can vote on a very exciting budget and a new batch of council members. Maybe we make it too easy to be a member here. I think we probably do. I’d rather err on the side of grace than upset or exclude someone. On the other hand, with no requirements at all, does it have any meaning to be a member of this congregation? I guess it means what you decide it means. Only you can decide your level of involvement—whether you want to truly be a part of this community, a family member deeply known and a part of something, or whether you’d prefer to keep it more distant, but always knowing we’re here if you need us. Of course, even if you’re not a member, we do try to be there for those who need us.

Well, Jesus isn’t talking about being a member of King of Kings or a Lutheran. He’s talking about those who want to be his disciple—who want to follow him. This is heavy stuff. You might be surprised, that to be a Lutheran, you don’t have to want to follow Jesus. You can be a Lutheran in name only and sit in a pew every Sunday, never read a Bible during the week, never help another person or care about anybody else, but I don’t think you’d be getting the most out of your faith. And that is what Jesus is talking about. I would hope that you would want to be a Lutheran and follow Jesus, too—be his disciple, too. If only we could do it without giving up everything we love!

Jesus really wants to get our attention in the Gospel this morning. That’s why he uses such strong language. We’re not going to be able to just sit here, and think to ourselves, “How nice of Jesus to say all that! What a sweet and gentle man!” He says to us here in our comfortable padded pews, having driven here in our comfortable cars, about to go eat a spread of fruit and crackers and cookies and coffee--He’s saying there is more to life than our comfort. He wants to invite us into something radical. So he tells us to hate our life. Oh it is so hard to hate my soft bed and my delicious food and my happy job. I will flat our refuse to hate my delicious child and my husband who is my best friend and my siblings who are, at times, annoying, but I am still far from hating. The word for hate used here doesn’t carry the emotion that our word does, but he’s still trying to get our attention. He’s inviting us along on this trip he’s taking, but it isn’t to the Bahamas or something. He wants us to know what we’re getting into. This isn’t like just joining the church—it is a lot of work and sacrifice. But he’s saying that it will be worth it in the end, because new life is going to take the place of the old life we’re leaving behind. This word for hate is more about priorities and what we are willing to give up. Still, I don’t think there are many of us who would be willing to give up our families and all that.

I wonder if God estimated the cost when he decided to throw in the hat with us. Some of the scriptures, with God lamenting the people’s idiocy and faithlessness, makes me wonder. But even after all that, God sent the Son, Jesus. God must have had a pretty good idea then how it would all turn out. So God gave up everything to be here with us. When we estimate the cost, maybe it is the cost to God, of what it took. For us to give up family and friends and possessions would be nothing compared to what God gave up. God, the author of life, the all-powerful, all-wise, all-knowing, gave all of that up—took on limits to be with us, to be us, and to give us life. When we consider that cost, doesn’t it make you a little less clingy to your stuff? If God could give up that view of the stars and the universe every day, give up that throne so high above, give up knowing and seeing everything all at once, maybe we could give something up to serve that God, especially because it means that our life takes on new meaning that is deeper, and so much more fulfilling than the one we have based around possessions.

The truth is that we will all, eventually, give up father, mother, spouse and children, brothers and sisters, all our possessions and even life itself. For some, it happens sooner than others. Our parents get sick, our spouse dies, we lose our children to addiction. We learn the art of letting go every day. The things we thought were most important change. We may have put the ultimate value in our work. Then we retire and we have to find new meaning in our lives. We might have put the ultimate value in raising our children, but the years fly by and we experience an empty nest. Then we have to find new meaning in our lives. We may have put all our faith in self-reliance, and suddenly we realize we can’t do all the things for ourselves that we used. We may find ourselves having that conversation with our kids about giving up driving or moving to assisted living. As we move from our homes to apartments, to a rehab center, we give up our possessions one by one. And of course, we all eventually give everything up, even our lives, when we die. But life is so much more than the things we have and even our family. And Jesus wants to give us that life, now, and for all eternity.

Jesus is saying that God is a part of that letting go. God knows what it is like to let go and it isn’t easy. God knows what it is like to suffer, because God did so in Jesus in life and on the cross. Even Jesus asked that the cup be taken from him. He may have estimated the cost, but when the time came, he found himself overwhelmed. Yet, he put his purpose first. He was not willing to compromise on his generous welcome and his critique of humanity, and that’s what got him killed.

What Jesus is saying is that there is one place you can put your energies that is completely reliable and that is to put your faith in God and your energies into following God. For Jesus, he did so completely. For us, it is a matter of degrees. We are somewhat committed to God. We are probably more committed to our family and friends. When forced to choose, we’d probably more often choose our family, friends, possessions, and comfort over our service to God. But not always. When we give our offerings, we make a small sacrifice in order to serve God. When we give our time, we are showing commitment to God. With practice, we can train ourselves to follow a little more boldly. When we do, I think we find ourselves, not hating our family and friends, but loving them in a new way—letting them be themselves and live their lives and make their own decisions. When we follow Jesus, we may not necessarily hate our possessions, but we are aware that they are temporary, we don’t spend all our time and energy protecting them. Instead, we use them in service to God, to help other people.

I think of two times when people in this congregation, took people into their homes who were in danger of becoming homeless. Both times, their families really struggled with it. They put someone else and their needs before the desires of family. Both times they estimated the cost, and both times it paid off. The risk was worth the outcome. But when you’re serving God, or doing anything really, you don’t know all the possible outcomes. An estimate is only an estimate. There are often unforeseen costs

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

September 1, 2013

Gospel: Luke 14:1, 7-14
1st Reading: Proverbs
2nd Reading: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Based on the Gospel, I thought about handing out a seating chart this morning, but I didn't want to be looking for work, come Monday morning. I suppose throwing you off with worshiping outside is already pushing my luck! It is pretty amazing how some of us can get so attached to a particular spot and others can be so flexible able to adjust to something so simple as a new seat.

We might not realize, but where we sit says something about who we are and where we fit in. Think of the first time you walked into the sanctuary. How did you decide where to sit? How did you end up where you are now? Do you normally sit on the aisle or mid-pew? Do you sit in the back or near the front? Have you ever ended up stuck on a hump between the pews—very uncomfortable! What are your sight lines? Can you hear? What are the distractions around you?

There is a spot near the back where many times no one sits. I've been told the last three people who sat there died and now the people in entire back row are protecting the rest of us. Of course a seat doesn't kill you. It is partly a reminder of those who have gone. We haven't forgotten them. In a way we are saving a seat for them in our hearts. It is a way to remind others of those we have cared together about and continue to share stories and memories about them. If they let you sit there, I guess you know they don't mind if you're the next to go!

You can tell a lot about someone's position in life by their location. We live in the US where people tend to be on the wealthy side compared to a lot of countries. We live in Oregon, so we are awesome, of course! You can tell something about someone's social status by what neighborhood they live in, what stores they shop at, and where they work.

It gets more subtle when you start talking about where someone sits at the table. The more power you have, the more choices you have about where you sit. Once the most powerful has chosen, then it is up to everyone else to decide where they fit in the
power structure. Sitting close to the person with the most power shows you are friends and have influence with them. It means you share their values and views. You know when someone makes a seating arrangement for a dinner party or wedding reception, you don't put two people next to each other who are going to argue.

So here is Jesus at this dinner party. I'm not sure I'd want to invite him to a barbecue at my house. He's kind of a lose cannon. He’s looking at this group and he’s critiquing it. While everyone is standing around, watching Jesus to see where he’ll sit, watching each other, to see where they will sit, Jesus is watching them. Even though he’s among all these important people, he’d rather be somewhere else. This isn’t his scene. He’d rather be out preaching on the mountain or the field. He’d rather be among the poor, who don’t waste all this time trying to decide where to sit or whose the greatest, but plop down wherever they are and take in Jesus’ generosity, pull out whatever food they have tucked in their pocket and share it with their neighbor. They don’t look as good or smell as good. They are just regular people and they are starving for his teaching, his attention, his food and aren’t ashamed to admit it. They don’t care who they sit next to, as long as they get a chance to be near Jesus.

So Jesus just lets these important people have it. “You think you’re hot stuff! What a waste of time! Take a good look at yourselves! Quit trying to be more important than you are.” He’s insulted every guest. Then he goes on to insult the host. “You’ve got your guest list all wrong. You just invite people who can reciprocate. How about inviting people just because of their value as people instead of what they can do for you.” Jesus doesn’t like to play the games we play of where to sit and giving the most attention to the most powerful. He knows that God is the only one that’s truly good. The rest of us fall short. The rest of us are all even. We think we’re better because we’ve got more money or drive a better car or can afford to get our teeth fixed or got an education or don’t smoke or are healthy or whatever. The truth is, wealth, health, age, mental faculties, all that is temporary. And the truth is, we have all fallen far short, we’ve all been self-serving, we haven’t valued every person for who they are, we’ve all invited people because of what they could do for us. There is God way up here. Then there’s the rest of us—none are better are worse. We’ve all fallen short. No one is better than anyone else or worse.

That’s one of my favorite things about church. When I was growing up, I didn’t have new clothes. My mom might have put $5 in the offering a week and that was truly all she could afford. No one in my family had been to college. We didn’t know what fork to start with. We came in a dirty, white one-ton van with seats my dad made himself and we occasionally snagged our nylons on. Yet, we were truly a part of that community. Nobody judged us or the runs in our stockings. That church was family to us and we were to them.

During my vacation, I got to go back to my home congregation for the first time in many years. It was like coming home—seeing all those people who had given me summer jobs and encouraged me and prayed for me. I could have been trapped in a life of boredom and worked at National Frozen Food for the rest of my life, but because this group took me under their wing and believed in me, I learned there were other possibilities. Because of them, I was inspired to go to college and then Seminary. Because of them, I’ve seen something of the world. I’ve been invited into people’s lives in good times and bad. I’ve had the chance to begin live up to my potential and found myself pretty fulfilled and definitely challenged and often delighted!

This is the Kingdom of God, to me, when those who aren’t valued much in the world get some attention and care and it lifts them to their potential. The important people, who normally wouldn’t be bothered with these little guys, don’t differentiate, but stoop to make support networks and families with those who are different from them and lift them up to new levels. Actually both groups benefit from associating with each other. Our whole world is made better. Someday even those in upper classes with all their ducks in a row are going to find themselves in the lower position, needing someone with power and influence to help them. Hopefully, we all build relationships among many different groups so that we can be that support to each other in different times in our lives.

There are so many people that we run into each day. It is a matter of whether we will see each other with fear or with interest and hope. When we are fearful or don’t know any better, we try to position ourselves in a better place and be more powerful and important. But as we go through life, we realize that is temporary and that people can have value beyond their money or attractiveness or job or car. There are some people in life who have a natural positive attitude about other people. When they see other people, they are hopeful. They see the angel in each person. They see the potential. They invest in all kinds of people generously without regard for superficial, temporary traits. They get a lot out of life. Yes, sometimes people take advantage of them and they get hurt. But more often than not, people come through and show a side of themselves that might have been unexpected. May we all keep our eyes open for the angels among us. And who knows someone might then see an angel in us.

August 25, 2013

Gospel: Luke 13:10-17
1st Reading: Isaiah 58:9b-14
2nd Reading: Hebrews 12:18-29

I’ve heard this phrase a lot lately, “Getting old ain’t for sissies!” I can appreciate that, since I have my own aches and pains. I’m not complaining, mind you. I’m just exhausted most days, in a good way!

In the Gospel, we meet a woman who knows about aches and pains of body and spirit. Who is this woman who is bent over and crippled for 18 years? We don’t know very much about her. She is completely silent at the beginning of this story—but still Jesus notices her. She doesn’t complain to anyone about her illness. She doesn’t ask to be healed on the Sabbath or any other time. She doesn’t say anything at all until we hear that she began praising God. Even after she’s healed, she doesn’t get into the debate between Jesus and the leader of the Synagogue.

We can know from the history and culture of that time that she wouldn’t have been allowed to be a full member of society. We can assume that she was probably blamed for her illness and that people probably avoided her. It is likely that she wasn’t even supposed to be there in the synagogue that day, let alone close enough to this holy man that he would have noticed her.

In some ways the reading leaves it open for us to interpret who is this bent woman. I think of our churches, bent over budgets, bent out of shape about who is included and who isn’t, bent up looking backward about the good old days and what we’re doing wrong that we aren’t growing, bent up with fear about the future, bent toward holding fast to what we’re used to, bent over with low self esteem. Some of this is about the larger church and all the stories that send us in a fearful spiral about how the church is shrinking and we’ve gotta change or die, --stories that either make us cling to the newest fad to try to hang on a little longer or hold fast to old traditions that we don’t know why we like them but we do.

Thankfully, I have found in this congregation, while yes, a little bent with age and a teeny bit of anxiety here and there and with past hurts, actually more than a little flexibility that I really appreciate. We may be bent, but part of that is out of necessity—we’ve had to learn to bend with some of the difficulties with leaders, pastors, with budgets, with loss and grieving many members over the years whether they died or moved on. So I know I’ve found this to be a place of grace, although bent a little here and there.

You’ve been pretty open to different ideas. For instance, next week we’ll be worshiping outside. It is a little inconvenient moving chairs and trying to speak loud enough that folks can be heard outdoors. But we do it because it reminds us that God is not just here in our building, but in the world. And we find ourselves seeing God in different ways. The outdoor service can be a good time to invite friends and family who don’t feel as comfortable in our sanctuary, and many of you often do. I appreciate your willingness to stretch and invite and bend a little to experience God in a new way.

You’ve been flexible about the pantry, about partnering with Church of God of Prophecy, about different groups using the building, and to different ways of worshiping, celebrating, and working together. I want to encourage you and remind you to keep up the good work. There is always more that we can do to bend and adapt and be relevant. We can do even better to be welcoming and open and encouraging to all. We’re pretty good at this, but everyone makes mistakes. I’ve overheard little side comments very similar to this complaint by the synagogue leader about what is proper and what isn’t. I’ve seen sideways glances. I’ve occasionally participated in a lack of welcome, too. There are ways that we could be more flexible while still being grounded in what’s most important, our Savior Jesus Christ and his love and grace. To get grounded, we read the Bible, we have prayer practices, we worship and sing God’s praises, and remind ourselves of how he’s welcomed us completely, and now we get to bend to make sure that others are welcomed as fully as we have been.

Being bent isn’t all that bad. It shows adaptability. If you look at reeds, you can see the little joints, the places that hold the stalk together and allow for movement in the wind. I love laying on the ground and watching trees sway in the wind. They have the ability to be strong, but also the give to move a little and give a little. Our big tree in front of our house even makes a wonderful creaking sound. I like to think of that as its praising of God, like this bent over woman in the Gospel.

Think of the people bent in and around this congregation. Some are facing serious illness. Others are aging. Some are grieving. People come to the church crippled with hunger for food and a friend. Our friends with Church of God of Prophecy had been crippled, held back from growing because their meeting space was inadequate until now. We have all at times been bent by rejection, by fear, had our hopes crushed.

For our congregation, for us as individuals, for our neighbors and friends, even for the trees and reeds, Jesus comes with healing, renewal, repair, and restoration. He comes with joy and daring. And to our embarrassment, he comes on the wrong day! He is going to get the powers that be in a tizzy. He is healing and feeding the wrong people on the wrong day in the wrong way. He is healing and rebuilding the church in the wrong way on the wrong day. We’ve got our ideas of what healing should look like and how it should happen, and he’s throwing healing around willy nilly. He doesn’t line people up from most deserving to least or hardest working to laziest.

But for Jesus, this is what Sabbath is for. Yes it is about rest. Yes it is about focus on God. But God’s focus is healing and restoration and freeing people, all people, all creation, every single day, especially on the Lord’s day. God wants to free congregations from anxiety and shame and being stuck. God wants to free people from hunger and disease and burdens. God wants to free neighbors from isolation. God wants to free us all from arbitrary social conventions (like what day healing can and can’t take place) that don’t help us but only make life harder.

God is about healing and freeing. Love is about healing and freeing. Jesus not only healed that crippling disease, but also took that upon himself. He allowed himself to be bent over with all the burdens of life that we face. He knew the burdens of hunger. He was bent with shame, with pain, with abandonment. He didn’t shun being bent. Instead he embraced it, so that in our bent state, we could stand tall. We could stand up straight and tall whether we are from a large congregation or small one, whether we could afford a part-time or full-time pastor, whether we had pews or chairs, whether we were young or old. Jesus came so that we could stand tall whether we were sick or well, gay or straight, divorced, widowed, or married, no matter what we wore or how many pearcings or tattoos we have or don’t have, how much ear hair we have, or what devotional practices we might have, or any other differences between people. Being freed, ourselves, to stand up straight, we have to be careful then not to be hypocrites and apply another set of rules to others. We can then free others to stand up and be their fullest selves.

We are the bent woman. We have known difficulty in life. We find ourselves somehow in Jesus’ presence. Jesus sees us and all we have been going through. We may or may not ask for the help we need, but Jesus brings us healing and renewal nonetheless. It is a scandal that he does it. We didn’t do anything to deserve that healing. There are people in more need, who are worse off. He does something scandalous. He offers himself for our healing and hangs naked and exposed, humiliated and accused, bent and broken for the healing of all. And what can we do, but give thanks and praise, stand up tall, and minister to others so they know the freedom and welcome that we do!

July 21, 2013

Gospel: Luke 10:38-42
1st Reading: Genesis 18:1-10
Second Reading: Colossians 1:15-28

Since my husband is an independent filmmaker, he pays close attention to the film industry. We don’t always watch the Academy Awards, but we did a couple of years ago when Kathryn Biggelo was up for best director for the film “Hurt Locker.” Female directors don’t get nominated very often and up to that point none had won in that category. She did win that year, but it still doesn’t change the fact that men write the vast majority of screenplays, direct most of the movies, have many of the best film roles, and are the movie executives who decide which films get to be made. In all of Nick’s film classes, it was rare that he even had a woman classmate at all. I know I sometimes find it hard to relate to female characters in films. Could it be because of the lack of female representation in the film industry?

Luke ensures women equal footing with men in his Gospel. He gets that his message is for everyone, and so for every story he tells with a male hero, he tells another with a female heroine. Last week, we heard about the Good Samaritan, who helped a stranger in need and saved his life. There were men all over that story, asking questions, trying to justify themselves, beating people up, falling in ditches, being important, passing by, and coming to the rescue. This morning we get the counterpart story of Mary and Martha—a story for women about women—it is the Lifetime Network of the Gospels.

Remember the question for last week was, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?” We’ll start with the first question about life.

Mary and Martha are practicing hospitality, like Abraham in the Old Testament story. They are welcoming Jesus into their midst. They clean house. They cook food. They sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him. But only one of them is really living.

I think it is understood that in our church we have a lot of “doers”—people willing to pitch in and help, bring things, come to the rescue of someone in need, welcome visitors, etc. That’s one of the things that makes this church pretty amazing—all the people working together to keep this the welcoming place that it is. I know a lot of people who claim to be a “Martha.” Hard work is really valued in churches, families, communities, and the Kingdom of God. After all, we just heard a hero story of the Good Samaritan who came to help. Aren’t we supposed to be doing? So why is Jesus being so hard on Martha?

The problem is that Martha is making herself so unhappy in her serving. She is worried that the food won’t turn out right. She is angry at her sister for not helping her. She is distracted by all her tasks that she has to do. She is complaining to the very one she is trying to welcome. The only way you can be a Martha is to complain all the time—so sorry, I can’t let any of you claim that, anymore. Martha is serving Jesus. She may prepare the most wonderful meals, but it doesn’t bring her joy. She isn’t really living, as long as she does these tasks out of obligation.

This story is really groundbreaking. In Martha’s time, there would have been very few paths open to her if she wanted to serve Jesus. Her place is the home. Her hospitality comes through food—not by choice, but because her culture decided for her. For Mary to have the chance to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen would have been unheard of. Mary is breaking through all convention, and acting as a man, at Jesus’ feet. Yet, this is what gives her life. This is what brings her joy. Jesus is saying we don’t have to fit the expectations set down for us.

Why are we here? Society would say it is to fit in a certain category and do certain tasks so that everything gets done. But the question from the lawyer last week seems to indicate that we are actually here to inherit eternal life, to inherit unlimited life, to live fully. Mary takes the risk to try something new and she loves it. Martha is unhappy, but she doesn’t change anything about how she behaves. Instead she tries to change her sister—or she tries to get Jesus to change her sister. She tries to put her sister back in that box.

I love that Jesus tells Martha that Mary has taken the better part. He knows if everyone sits at Jesus’ feet, he’s not going to get anything to eat. On the other hand, if he gets hungry enough, he knows how to catch and barbecue some delicious fish. When I was growing up, my grandma woke at 5 am to make breakfast for my grandpa. I’m not even sure he could make a sandwich. He never had to, as far as I know. In my house, my husband and I take turns cooking the meals. We both take care of our child. We both mow the lawn. We both work outside the home. So who has taken the better part—me or my grandma? It is about a balance of listening and doing, rest and action. It is about finding what gives life to ourselves and others. But if we find ourselves in the same old rut, feeling put out by our roles and chores and complaining to our guests, it is probably a good time to consider whether what we’re doing gives us life, or if we need to try something else. Thankfully, different things give different people life at different times, so if we all did what truly gives us life, we would presumably find the balance and the different gifts that make for a healthy society.

We’re getting somewhere with the question about living fully and eternal life. But what about, “Who is my neighbor?” Remember, the lawyer quotes the scripture that says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Sometimes we forget that we are commanded to love ourselves. Mary is loving herself. She’s doing what gives her life. It must have made Jesus happy to have someone listen to him with such interest. Martha is not doing the loving thing for herself or her sister or Jesus. She’s just making everyone miserable. Even if her food is delicious, who will be able to enjoy it, with all the tension and complaining going on?

Who is my neighbor? Because of Jesus we get to look for God in places we never expected. In Genesis, these strangers show up and Abraham treats them with such respect. He sees that they represent God. He gives them the best of what he and his wife and servants have to offer, both food and attention. Yahweh, God, appeared to him as three strangers who came for lunch. Yet, Abraham’s hunger, his deepest need, is also being met. A stranger brought news from the outside world. Abraham needed company, he needed connection, he needed community, and that day he found it in those three strangers, he found it in God. His love of God, himself, and his neighbor were all wrapped up into one. In Colossians, Paul writes that one of the biggest mysteries is “Christ in you.” God is not far away, but within the people we know, strangers, foreigners, even within ourselves, and in every creature under heaven. It is Christ who holds all things together, not us. We can let go of our usual roles and it won’t all fall apart. It is in God’s hands. God is the director and the screenwriter and the key player of all the parts. And Mary and Martha experienced Jesus in their own house—one was too upset to enjoy it, and the other loved herself enough to take the chance to sit and listen to him, to hang on his every word. If God is with in you and you and you and in that wide circle I tried to draw last week with my pirouette, how do we respond? Who are we going to feed? Who are we going to listen to? What will be our attitude when we do those things? God’s hope for us is that we would find joy, that we would both listen and serve, and that we would see and honor God in ourselves, the stranger, and our sister at the same time.