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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

November 17, 2013

Gospel: Luke 21:5-19
1st Reading: Malachi 4:1-2a
2nd Reading: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

The first time I walked into this sanctuary, I felt right at home. I was here interviewing in the summer of 2004. The same artist who carved all this beautiful wood, also carved the wood in the sanctuary of my home congregation. Maybe it was a sign that it was meant to be, or maybe it was a co-incidence. That evening, I met the call committee and found a group of faithful people, trying to do God’s work and listen to God’s voice. Then when I was called here to be your pastor, I found the same. And I have seen God at work in you ever since.

First I saw the building. Then I saw the representatives of the congregation. Then I met each of you. Then I saw God through you.

“Some were speaking about the Temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God.” These carvings are beautiful in their own right. They create a warmth in this space. They sometimes seem to glow from within because of the kind of wood and stain used to make them. Yet, there is more to them—they call to mind our faith, remind us of the kind of God we have, and who we are in relationship to God and each other. Jesus has his arms open in invitation. He is on a cross of sorts, but he is also raising to new life. The wounds on his hands, feet and sides, aren’t just gorey marks of suffering, but they are marked with a cross—a holy sign of God’s love and presence and sacrifice. The pulpit is carved with words reminding us of who God is and who we are in relationship to God. They are words of encouragement and empowerment for us and all who enter this space, because we need that strength and hope to move forward, because we are God’s messengers and workers doing what needs to be done. The wood around the sanctuary forms a cross on either side, as well as a kind of crown for our true King of Kings, the head of us, the people, the body of Christ.

I have heard many people say how lovely they find our sanctuary, and a few who have a few issues with it, but mainly compliments. Yet, we all know that the building isn’t what it is all about. This is a tool to do God’s work. It is a gift to be used up in service to God’s people.

How can we both honor the building--make it warm and inviting, and use it up for God’s work. We want the church yard to look nice, so that it is inviting, yet, realistically there is only so much we can do. I remember once many years ago, a retired pastor visited our congregation. On his way out, he pointed out the moss growing on the curbs. I thanked him, bewildered. Who cares how much moss is growing, as long as the people are doing God’s work! That’s how I feel about it! I have prayed for that man many times since. Yet, I understand he was trying to be helpful and at the next cleanup day the moss was cleaned up. How much different I would have felt about this visitor if he had first paid us a compliment on something we got right—there must have been something—joined the church and then volunteered to clean up the moss or have it cleaned. Or how would I have felt differently if he had showed as much concern about a ministry we were involved in that could possibly help someone, rather than something so trivial as moss?

We have been having more wear and tear on the building in the past 6 years because it is getting used by the pantry and many different groups that share the space and we may find that an increasing trend. There are fingerprints on the windows, drawings on the offering envelopes, cigarette butts in the outdoor ash tray, debris tracked in on the carpet. Is this a reason for shame or despair? This is reason to give thanks! The space is being used for God’s ministry. It is part of the order of things that sooner or later even stones fall. In the past few years we’ve replaced some carpet that was worn out and stained. Patty and her family painted the social hall because the walls were scratched.

For a time those stains on the floor recieved a lot of attention. Do those marks send a message that we are disorganized, too poor to fix them, or otherwise deficient somehow? Do they represent the wear and tear and disinterest and lack of concern of “those people” using our building? Or do they reflect the natural order of things that this carpet covered this floor for over 12 years, saw how many thousands of feet come through, supported the feet of members and nonmembers, those rejoicing and those grieving, the well-fed and the hungry? That carpet did the work of God without a grumble or a distinction between people. Why then do we try to distinguish—who did this? Children of God did this and it is a beautiful thing that the carpet was used to give glory to God and help people who needed it most.

The marks on the walls were for some a critique of the pantry and tables scraping the walls. But for others they were marks of how many fewer people were going hungry in our neighborhood. They were marks of how many volunteers were coming through these doors, more satisfied, more connected, more hopeful. They were a marking of time reminding us of how long it had been since Tova was married—the reason those walls were painted the last time. They had seen the happiness at that wedding and others. They had seen the tears flowing at many funerals. They had seen laughter. They had been covered for Bible School in fish decorations making the whole social hall into an ocean scene and transforming the entire feel of the room, even inspiring some to say we should paint a mural on our colorless walls. For ten years that paint served God and it slowly wore out.

Who was to blame? Who scratched those walls? Was it those people who don’t care about our walls? Those marks were inevitable—paint scratches. They were beautiful because they were earned, like the wrinkles on all our faces. They were the marks of servanthood. I would imagine that in 10-12 more years you’re going to need to replace the carpet and paint the social hall again, and if it is sooner than that, it won’t be because the space was abused, but because it was used for the glory of God and should be something to celebrate.

Jesus hung there on the cross, broken and bleeding. This beautiful man’s body had been destroyed. Whose fault was it? Was it those Romans or those Jews? Or had he simply given himself away for ministry? Was it in any way a beautiful thing, what he gave up for us? Jesus’ ministry wasn’t about his body, or his survival. It was about the Kingdom of God and our relationship to God. In order to solidify that relationship, God gave the Son, not to be kept pristine and pretty, but to be used up for the sake of the poor, the needy, the lost, the misguided—for us.

When we encounter messes and disasters, earthquakes, famines, ruined temples and churches burnt to ashes, famines and plagues, and even personal attacks, how will we react? Do we react by blaming? Do we feel despair? Do we get distracted and led away by charismatic leaders or latest fad in self help?

Jesus says that these are actually occasions for hope. He reminds us of God’s bigger plan. He reminds us of the natural order of things—that buildings and institutions and kingdoms rise and fall. But that God is in charge and that will never change. Some of these things must fall that are not serving God, but have become distractions and excuses to take advantage of the poor. When they fall that is a good thing. Aren’t there days when it might be good news if the US legislature was just leveled and we had to start all over again?
Someday, this church won’t be here anymore. It will be a heap of rubble or maybe something else will be built in its place. Is this cause for alarm, or hope? Jesus says to remain hopeful. God will still be the one in charge. Someday all our bodies will wear out and we will die. Is this cause for alarm? Or is a chance to rejoice and give thanks to God, as Jesus says? Whether we live or die we are the Lord’s. Someday this country will be no more. Is this an occasion for despair? Or will we see the renewal that Jesus has in mind for all of creation? Do we really believe in resurrection or do we get stuck staring at the heap of stones and beautiful jewels?

Our church building will continue to need maintenance. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have replaced the carpet or painted the social hall. It was time. But next time, let’s celebrate the work that God is doing in this place, that God is wearing this place out with love and foot traffic and relationship. Let us do our work quietly. Let us stop admiring the wood and stone and paint that won’t last, and start admiring God who brings new life and hope when it doesn’t look or feel pretty.

November 10, 2013

Gospel: Luke 20:27-38 1st Reading: Job 19:23-27a
2nd Reading: 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

We’re starting to give some thought to Thanksgiving. We were planning to do it on our own, but now Nick’s Oma is planning to be there from Northern California and she and Sterling haven’t met, yet. So now we are going to Nick’s sister’s house.

Thanksgiving dinners at our house growing up meant grandmas and grandpas, aunts, uncles and cousins. It meant the entire day before devoted to making pies, tearing apart bread for stuffing, thawing the turkey, washing table cloths and the good china, and making sure there would be enough chairs. I remember baking pies with my mom with the pumpkin from our Halloween Jack-o-lanterns and saving aside the giblets from the turkey for the stuffing or gravy. I remember our homemade centerpieces—usually something we had put together at school. I remember being both thrifty and lavish at the same time.

The past 17 Thanksgivings we've made our own traditions. When we first moved away to go to seminary, we spent those holidays on our own. We tried our parent's traditions. I remember one year making a whole turkey. It was a little overwhelming for two people. That year I even boiled the bones to make broth. We ate leftovers and froze them and ate them for months. Other years we joined with friends in their Thanksgivings. One year we had friends over who were vegan. We made a wonderful vegan pumpkin cheesecake that we've actually made a couple more times. I remember one year bringing one of our favorite sides—stir fried peppered snake beans to a friends to contribute to the dinner. And since we've been back in Oregon, we've planned Thanksgivings with our families, but every single year for 9 years one of us has been sick on Thanksgiving.

This year it is going to be different! This year I am determined to wash my hands and stay away from sickies and not work myself sick so that we can go see Oma on Thanksgiving. Still, it won't be all the same family traditions. They will certainly do their Thanksgiving. But we're vegetarian, and we have new traditions that we have created. Maybe we’ll bring pumpkin vegan cheesecake or stir fried peppered snake beans. The reading from 2 Thessalonians says to “hold fast to the traditions that you were taught.” This makes me a little bit nervous, because we've departed from the traditions of our families and made our own traditions in our family. And I get nervous because sometimes traditions can be distractions from the will of God for churches instead of helping to bring us closer to God. The truth is, traditions can be both good and bad.

The best of our traditions give us an anchor to the past and all that was good about it. They give us a memory of our history and a link to the ones we've loved both living and living in the next life. They remind us of why we're here. And they give us something to do when we otherwise might not know what to do. When we were living away from family and friends, we tried those traditions and sometimes they just made us more homesick, but other times they connected us in meaningful ways. It was a tradition to call home on any holiday—a chance to reconnect and say, “I love you.” I think of our traditions around death—sending sympathy cards, bringing food, praying, remembering. Those traditions bring so much comfort and closure, help the living to find peace, find meaning in life and death and suffering and grief, bring people together so they know they aren't alone, and eventually move forward with hope.

The worst of our traditions has us stuck in the past, rigid, thinking this is the only way to do things, feeling lost if the ritual isn't quite done the way we expected, and disconnected or angry at people who have different traditions. In the Gospel for today, the Sadducees ask about a tradition, marriage. They don't really care about the answer to their question—they are just trying to pull a gotcha on Jesus. It doesn't fit with these traditions that Paul is saying are so important. Of course Jesus isn't shaken. He points out that marriage is a tradition that is for this age. It is to help order society, to protect women and children, and so baby daddies can make sure those are their genes they are passing on. Jesus is saying that that our traditions serve a purpose and that is to make sure all are cared for. It's a kind of buddy system to make sure we are all safe. It is a system to make sure that all have life abundant. That's what resurrection is for, too. It is to ensure life abundant for all. In the age to come, we'll all be living in resurrection, so we don't need this imperfect institution of marriage to make sure that all have life, because we all will by definition.

What is this resurrection life that Jesus is talking about? Do we have to die to experience resurrection? No. We can experience it to a certain extent in marriage. When marriage really works like it is supposed to, it honors and protects all involved. And we are invited to live resurrection more fully in all our relationships. Jesus has ushered in this new age where we are all related to each other—where we are all brothers and sisters, as responsible for one another's welfare as if they were our own families. So does this mean we just throw away our old traditions? No. They still can help guide us. They can help us not spread ourselves too thin. They help dictate who we relate to, because we can't relate to everyone. We start with those in our immediate vicinity. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

I don’t know if it is a tradition yet that we gather food for Backpack Buddies at Milwaukie Elementary. But it is certainly a tradition to feed and care for the hungry. They are our neighbor kids. Their well-being closely relates to our well being and the well being of our communities. But since Jesus is ushering in a new era where everyone is our neighbor, we also write to our legislators about continuing to fund food stamps and our church sends offerings for hungry children around the world and we carry a granola bar and some clean socks to hand to people begging at the corner when we're about to get on the freeway. Resurrection life can be lived in so many ways. There is no one right way to do it. Different situations call for different ways of living it. It is the resurrection life that is the tradition that we are to hold fast to, rather than getting caught up in the specifics. Some might give to Backpack buddies, some might sing in the choir, some might go vegetarian, some might give up their car. There are just so many options in the tradition of living the resurrection life that Jesus offers us.

Resurrection life gives us the benefit of the past and all that we’ve learned and been raised with without getting stuck to it, always looking back to better days. And Resurrection life keeps us hopeful about the future without getting into all the specifics of what it will be like in this life or the next, which we just can’t know and don’t need to. Resurrection life is living right now with what we’ve got, honoring our traditions to be self-sacrificing, generous, grateful, loving, unafraid, and alive.

Jesus gives us resurrection life right now, not just after we die. It is an opportunity for the living. Jesus gives us all this life in the present moment so that all our Thanksgivings can be appreciation of all that God has given us. And even when we do get stuck in the past or future, or forget to thank God, or get dragged down in the minutiae of the place settings or recipes or in an argument over the football game or who is coming and who isn’t, still God loves us and sends the Son to show us that love and to welcome us to God’s Thanksgiving dinner so that we can welcome others and make sure that all are fed and have access to resurrection life today.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

November 3, 2013

Gospel: Luke 6:20-31
1st Reading: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
2nd Reading: Ephesians 1:11-23

When I read the Beatitudes this week, I was reminded of the bumper sticker, “Wag more, bark less.” To me another way of saying that is, “more blessing, less woe.” I think we’re probably all more comfortable with Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes. He leaves out the woes for one thing. Why does Luke have to be so negative? And Matthew spiritualizes the blessings so that those of us who are actually wealthy have a way of accessing God’s blessing. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” That way you don’t actually have to be materially poor to know God’s blessing. And he says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” That way we don’t really have to be hungry to feel included in this blessing.

It is easy to feel guilty or excluded when we read Luke’s version and stomp off and pout, but I think it is worth sticking with and looking into, because Jesus really rejects our priorities and shows us a whole new way of looking at the world that has plenty of blessing for everyone. The first thing to remember is that this is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. Matthew has a sermon on the Mount to link Jesus with Moses, who got the Ten Commandments from the mountain. Luke’s equivalent is the Sermon on the Plain. This location says something about leveling the playing field and making everyone equal. The Sermon on the Plain, like the Sermon on the Mount, is Jesus’ inaugural address. This is the place where he lays out his agenda, which also God’s agenda. He’s giving a heads-up about the ministry he is about to undertake. It isn’t going to have the same values that most people do. It is going to turn the order of things on its head. It is going to be unexpected and shocking.

Next, we should note that Jesus is addressing his Disciples. He really wants them to know what they are getting into. And he’s affirming all that they will face. They have already given everything up—they are poor. They shouldn’t see that as a sign of woe, but know that God favors them and is looking out for them. They will weep—especially they will weep for Jesus when he is hung on the tree and they will wonder if all they do meant anything at all. Jesus is telling them not to despair. They will be hungry. That isn’t a sign to give up. God will not forget them. They will definitely be hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed. And not only these Disciples, but all these things have happened to the community that Luke is writing to. They have gone through every hardship for the sake of the Gospel. They must be feeling utterly defeated and maybe even ready to give up. But then Luke shares this speech of Jesus’ with them in the hopes that it will lift their spirits and help them continue to do God’s work.

We all understand these blessings, to a certain level. On a page of “Wag more, bark less” T-shirts was another with an excited dog that said, “Happy is the new rich.” We know it is better to be happy than rich and that some poor people we know are some of the most generous people we know.

When I think of times that I have been in mourning, the whole world looks different. I don’t think it is the world that has changed, but me. You know when you are mourning, and you wonder how people can just go on with life as if nothing has changed, when everything has changed for you. It is the one time you look around and wonder who else is mourning a loss. It is hard to believe the idle chatter on the radio, in the grocery store, at work, and among your friends. It reminds us of what is important. It helps us tune in to other’s grief. It makes us see the world in a different way. That is the blessing of weeping. It opens our eyes. It helps us to be more compassionate. We are assured of God’s blessing and presence when we are weeping.

So now we come to the hard part—the woes. Even if I am not rich, full, laughing, or respected and loved, I want to be. Those are the goals. That is what success looks like. Much of the time, I am all those things. Jesus reminds us that those states are not the point of life. First, those states are temporary. Circumstances change. When we come to rely on our wealth, our full cupboards and bellies, the praise that others heap on us, we will find they don’t hold up. Sooner or later we will be hungry, we will be sad, we won’t please someone, and then where will we be? Jesus reminds us that to be rich is a choice. The poor can’t just decide to be rich. But the rich do have a choice and could give it away to help other people and live simply. The poor have no choice but to rely on God. The rich can pretend to be self-sufficient. The woes of the rich, the full, the laughing, and those that are spoken well of, is the pitfalls and temptations that come with them. We can so easily get used to those states, think that we deserve these states, put all our efforts into maintaining these states, and forget God’s priorities which are absolutely the opposite of ours.

Think of all Jesus represented. He could have come as rich and powerful and always laughing and everyone wanting to be with him. He wasn’t any of those things. People like that are a dime a dozen He came because of people like that who have no compassion for others, and whose priorities don’t help the world become a better place for everyone. He came to spread blessing far and wide and to reduce the woes that people face in hunger and inequality and suffering. And Jesus’ priorities and way of doing things is further explained in the rest of the reading. He says to love your enemies—love needs to beyond our own social circle, beyond those who do good to us. God has done this for us, continually. We made ourselves into God’s enemies when we hurt others and neglect those who need our help, yet God comes to us and forgives us and gives us new life and another chance to serve and to be in God’s loving family. Of course, Jesus was struck on the cheek. He turned the other cheek—not as a doormat asking to be hit again, but that he wouldn’t back down, and he wouldn’t resort to violence, either. He gave his life for those who rejected him and raised us all to new life. Now we live with new priorities of sharing that new life and blessing with others.

How do we pass on the blessing we’ve received rather than increase people’s woes? Each Sunday when we leave church, we receive a blessing, “The LORD bless you and keep you.” What does it mean for us to share blessing with others. It means sharing material wealth. It means sharing time in building relationships. It means giving permission and approval for others to find their own path. It means showing appreciation for what others do and who others are in our lives. It means having compassion for others and weeping with them. It means making sacrifices so that others can know what it is like to laugh and be full and be consoled. It means doing unto others, not as they have done to us, but as we would have them do to us. It means barking less, complaining less, feeling sorry for ourselves less, and being violent less. It means wagging more, giving approval more, loving more, and sharing more.

October 27, 2013

Gospel: John 8:31-36
1st Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
2nd Reading: Romans 3:19-28

What should we have for dinner? That’s the question that faces us every night. Sometimes we’re smart enough to plan out a menu ahead of time. Sometimes we’re just trying to get ourselves fed as quickly as possible from the ingredients we have on hand. Each of us considers the question from our own perspective. We look at the available ingredients and time as well as what our cravings are saying to us. Everyone shares their point of view and enters into a dialogue. We make the best decision we can for all of us, and then we get to cooking and eventually eating. Then we start again the next day.

The Reformation started with a question, as well: What is God’s will or purpose for the church? Maybe this question seems far removed from what to have for dinner, but we’re asking how to nourish our bodies and how to nourish the body of Christ. It kind of reminds me of the scene in “Oliver” when he asks for more. There were those who found the question threatening. The Roman Catholic Church had been creating the menu for years and forcing people to cook and eat what they wanted people to swallow. But there were many more who were already asking the question behind the scene. They were hungry for a new way of doing church. Many people were already considering the question from many perspectives, considering the resources, looking at all the options. Many people shared their point of view and entered into the dialogue. People started trying their own recipes. Martin Luther ended up writing his own recipe book. It included many old favorites, but with new twists, and especially empowering people to think and cook for themselves and decide what worked for their families. Out of the Reformation came many different meal options, new ingredients and preparation techniques. Of course, we aren’t still using all the same recipes that came from that time. The Reformation is ongoing. We must ask the question in every generation, in every context: What is God’s will or purpose for the church? We ask each other. We ask God. We all decide together what makes sense. We worship with the tools and knowledge skills and faith that we have available in this time and place. Then we do it all again the next week.

We are still asking that question about God’s purpose for our church. You’ve asked it before in the congregations you came from. You asked it before in this congregation over 10 years ago. You ate that dish and were nourished by it for many years. Now, new ingredients are available, new tastes, new cooks. So we sit with the question again: What is God’s purpose for our church, our congregation? We listen to our church and our community again. We listen to God again. Maybe God will share with us the same recipe that we’ve been using all this time. And maybe God will say something that we haven’t heard in quite the same way before. Maybe new ears hear something a little bit different. Maybe we have new language to understand and express God’s purpose for our community, but we’ll never know unless we stop and listen to God once more and listen to each other once more, which is what we’ve been doing in our Mission Statement Process in the past month. You are invited to participate in the Mission Statement process. Last month a group of us met on a Saturday and prayed and read the Bible and had a discussion about God’s purpose for our community. Our Mission Statement team has been praying and studying those responses to come up with a draft statement. If you didn’t get a chance to come to the retreat, you are invited to take home a Bible Study page to complete and return to the church to be considered as we shape our drafts.

We weren’t anticipating asking any questions about the space downstairs, until the preschool moved on. Now we have an opening and a question. How can we use the space downstairs to serve God? The council was considering placing an add, but we realized that this gives us a chance to listen to the Holy Spirit. It is a chance to ask the question, pray, consider the resources, have a dialogue, and decide together. So far, people have had such great ideas. It could be a day-use retreat space for groups to meet. It could be used for tutoring. It could be used for a parent-toddler play group. It could be used for a musical group to practice. You are invited to pray, to read scripture, to discuss, and to make a suggestion about how the space could be used to do God’s work in the community. The Holy Spirit speaks to every one of us and when we listen to each other we have a much richer and tastier menu and are nourished more fully.

God keeps on asking the question about how to show us love and help us to love each other. At times we haven’t been so wild about that question. We’ve been too distracted by our fears and our greed and our other priorities. But God keeps posing that question in every age. God doesn’t just give us questions, but gives us resources to help us find our way. God gives us our relationship with God as an example of what love can look like. God gives us prophets to help point us in a direction that is helpful. God gives us all the people we meet to help challenge us and help us grow. God gives us this amazing world we live in as a gift that we are stewards of. And God gives us endless chances to try again when we fail and to improve on our recipes.

This is partly what we mean when we talk about being simultaneously saint and sinner, slave and free, like the scriptures point out this morning. Maybe saint and sinner language is too loaded for us, these days. We either get too humble—“I’m no saint,” or defensive, “What do you mean, I’m continually sinning!? I do the best I can.” But the slave and free way of saying it may be more helpful. We can see how at any moment we are bound, in a kind of slavery. We are bound by our life circumstances. We are unable to see the options before us. We get stuck in our patterns. We get comfortable with where we are. And we make lots and lots of choices that distance us from others and hurt us an others. We are slaves to sin.

And yet that isn’t the end of the story. Jesus frees us, continually, with the gift of God’s love. Jesus reminds us that fear and guilt are not the end of the story. We don’t have to spend our days beating ourselves up for all the mistakes we’ve made. We are beloved children of God. We are adopted into God’s family. The Son has welcomed us. We can move from that place of slavery and being stuck. We can approach God for help. We can ask the Holy Spirit for guidance. We can expect another day of God’s grace to ask the questions. We can come together again in community with all these other imperfect beloved children of God and decide together. Our cookbook of life is open. We are free to use the amazing gifts and ingredients that God gives us to make something new and beautiful and delicious. We are free to ask the question, “What’s for dinner?” and listen to all the possible responses in the body of Christ. We are free to be nourished and fed at God’s table. And we are freed to take God’s love out to all we meet so that someday everyone will be fed in body and spirit. Someday all will be freed in body and spirit.

October 20, 2013

Gospel: Luke 18:1-8
1st Reading: Genesis 32:22-31
2nd Reading: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

Wrestling with God: What comes to mind is some of these cute videos you can watch online on lion cubs wrestling with their great big lion daddies. Wrestling for lions and humans is an important part of development. It builds trust. It builds physical skill. It teaches about winning and losing. It teaches about letting go. Those tiny lion cubs seem to have no idea how small they are. They are just curious and feisty and in play they practice important skills that will help them hunt and attack prey someday. And those great big lions have so much patience. All it would take would be one swipe of the paw or one crunch of those powerful jaws and it would all be over. Yet they seem to know that this is part of cub development, and they show patience. They give just enough challenge to keep the little cubs learning and coming back for more.

Jacob was quite the wrestler. He had wrestled with his twin brother in his mother’s womb. Remember he was clenching the foot of his brother, Esau, when he was born. He wrestled with his parents for the role of the favorite child. After he took his brother’s birthright, he wrestled with guilt and he wrestled with being estranged from the brother he had been so close to. And now he is about to meet with his brother for the first time in over 20 years, for the first time since he cheated him. Some say he is a bit of a wimp—he sends the women and children first, ahead of himself across the river to where his brother will be meeting him. Maybe he just needed some time to think.

That night, the scripture says, he wrestles. He wrestles with himself. He is thinking of all the things his brother might say to him about him cheating him and ruining his life and so forth. And his brother would be justified saying all that. His brother would have the right to strike him or worse. You can imagine him going through every possible scenario, preparing himself for each rebuke from his brother.

While he is wrestling in hi s mind, a man comes and wrestles with him there by the river. Is it a man? Is it God? Is it an angel? Who is this nameless wrestler? By the end of the story, Jacob is convinced it is God. He says, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life is preserved.” It reminds me of the lion cub and the big father lion. Certainly, God could have prevailed and pummeled Jacob instantly. But that’s not who God our Father is. Wrestling teaches us. It is practice. Wrestling teaches perseverance, it teaches about playing fair (which is a lesson Jacob needs to learn), it teaches about strength, it teaches about tenderness, it teaches about forgiveness, and it teaches about blessing.

Do we ever wrestle with God? Are we afraid to approach God, waste God’s time, or pick a fight? Yet God is so approachable and accessible. Why not? That’s what dads are for. What kind of things do you wrestle with God about? Who usually wins? How do you know when you’ve seen God face to face?

The second reading today mentions wrestling with God in scripture. Reading from the Bible can become a good habit to get into. But don’t just read it. Ask the burning questions that come to mind. Use scripture to wrestle with God. It is God’s word, after all. Order a devotional book that can help you read it, or find some questions online that help you delve deeper into the text, to understand what the Bible is really saying. You don’t need a master’s degree at a religious institution to read the Bible and get something from it and to be challenged by it. But it also takes practice.

Like the cubs wrestling with the big lion, you have to start somewhere, and the learning grows with practice. Think of those little cubs. At first they are so weak and small. They might notice the flick of the tail and pounce. As they progress, they start batting at the big lion. Soon they are climbing up and knawing on dad’s ear. Eventually they are tumbling around in the dirt with him. It takes practice and patience. As we read the Bible, we might start by sitting back and watching. But with practice and bravery, we begin to approach and delve deeper. We let those questions surface. What is this Bible passage saying about God? What is it saying about me and my life? Is that really the kind of God I believe in? What exactly do I believe about God and why? How is that going to affect my life?

God can take it. God can take all our questions. God can take our critical thinking. God can take our challenges. God knows patience and tenderness. God wrestles with us and stays in the game and even blesses us through this wrestling.

In the Gospel reading for today, prayer is considered a kind of wrestling with God and with ourselves. Prayer takes practice. You might try a little prayer and it feels awkward. It is all about baby steps. Keep coming back to God and trying again. Try written prayers. Try sitting in silence. Try praying as you work. Try writing poetry as a prayer. Try gardening as prayer. Try golfing as prayer. Soon, you’ll be just like this loud widow, wearing God out.

God is like the lion, powerful, protective, observant, and a great teacher. When we go to wrestle with God, we are really working through our own stuff. Usually, we are trying to figure something out—what we should do, what is wrong and right, how to make amends for our wrongs, how to relate to other people and things like that.

Since we survive and grow by wrestling with God, through prayer or through reading the Bible, we soon learn what we need to know to take on the powers in our world. The cubs don’t wrestle with dad forever. They grow up and hunt their own food and raise their own families. Their wrestling progresses until it is a well-refined skill that they use everyday.

This widow doesn’t just sit home and practice wrestling. She is going public with it. She’s going to make sure everyone knows how she has been wronged. She learns the place to go to get justice. It isn’t just that she pleads and complains. It is that she goes to the powers that be, tells her truth and her story, and demands justice. She wrestles with those powers and she doesn’t give up until she gets what is right. Our faith encourages us to wrestle with God, wrestle in prayer, wrestle with scripture, wrestle within ourselves, and then to take action and wrestle with the unjust laws and unjust powers in our world. And not just to nip at the tail, but to continue wrestling, to climb that injustice and take it by the ear, to knock it to the ground so that the prayers of those who are wronged by injustice—the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, and the neglected, get the justice they have been praying for.

God pleaded with us and wrestled with us over the years. God came to us in scriptures, through angels, through the very world we live in. And then God sent us a wrestling partner just like us. Jesus wrestled with the religious authorities, with the Roman Oppressors, with people who were self-righteous. And Jesus wrestled with us to show us how to play fair, how to be tender and compassionate, and when to stand up for what is right. Jesus, like the father lion, could have crushed his opponents, but instead he let them, let us win and it put him in the grave. He showed that he was willing to die for justice, to win our hearts, and to show us that winning isn’t everything. And he rose to new life to show us that even when we lose, God has ultimate authority and power, that there is a bigger story that we are part of.

Do you know what happens next after Jacob crosses to meet the brother he wronged so many years ago? He confesses to his brother the wrong that he committed. Much to his surprise he finds a brother full of love and tenderness for him, who embraces him wholeheartedly and welcomes him and his family as if there had never been a rift. That is what God does for us. We come limping across the river after a lifetime of hurts and of wrongs and we find Jesus our brother with open arms and an open heart ready to embrace us.

October 13, 2013

Gospel: Luke 17:11-19
1st Reading: 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
2nd Reading: 2 Timothy 2:8-15

Today, I’m going to give away the ending at the beginning. We can do everything God asks us to do, and still not get it, still not be transformed, still not be made new. And maybe that’s why we, as Lutherans, know that we will not be saved by our works, by our deeds. It is God’s grace alone that can save. The question is this: Will we be able to accept God’s grace and give thanks to God it?

The lepers did everything they were supposed to do. Society dictated that everywhere they went, they cried out, “Unclean.” Society dictated that, as beggars, they should say, “Have mercy,” just like we say many Sundays at church. Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priests, and they did and were made clean. They did everything they were supposed to do. But don’t you get the feeling that most of the lepers missed something?

Naaman, commander of the army of the King of Aram, did everything he was supposed to do. He was an important guy. He had a right to expect a lot of hocus pocus and hand waving and a big deal to be made over him. He expected to have to wash himself in the Parphar River or at least the Abana. He was ok with that. He was perfectly willing. But God was offering him something more than healing that was just skin deep. He was doing more than one could reasonably expect, but was still missing something.

When Paul was doing what the religious authorities said was right, what was right in his culture—spying on people, having them dragged from their homes for questioning, torturing them, he enjoyed the luxuries of life. He was well-respected, rich, and secure. But even though he was doing what he thought was right, he was still missing something. In fact he was missing everything.

God asks more of us, than just to do what our religion or government or conscience, tells us. God wants a changed life for us. God wants a grateful heart for us. God wants us to humble ourselves. God wants changed priorities for us.

Naaman wanted his skin to be healed and that was it. He wanted the rest of his life to be the same. He did not want to be inconvenienced. But God wanted more for Naaman. Naaman had everything he could ever want, or so he thought, but something was still wrong. He had a skin condition and some other disconnect in his life—maybe it was pride, maybe it was entitlement. God wanted to heal both the leprosy and that condition of the heart. God wouldn’t be able to heal both conditions by doing things Naaman’s way. God needed to wake Naaman up. So God brought Naaman a message through the most unlikely person—a slave of his wife’s. Naaman showed a lot of willingness, even listening to his wife. Most important men would have immediately dismissed this possibility—that the direction toward a cure could come from this slave girl. He had to humble himself to go to his king and tell him that he was listening to a little girl slave and ask for the king to write a letter to the king of Israel. He, then traveled to Israel, to see about the cure, which could not have been easy. He must have been embarrassed and crushed when the King told him there was nothing he could do to help him. And then to have the prophet Elisha summon him and go all the way to his house and not have the prophet even meet with him, but instead send him on another errand. He’s just had it, so he throws a fit and starts heading home. But God humbles him again, through his servant who takes a risk to correct his behavior. His slave reasons with him, gets him to do what he needs to do to be healed in both body and spirit.

I think it was the journey that healed him, more than the final step of washing in the Jordan River. Yes, when he emerged, he had brand new skin, but the journey taught him to pay attention to people that don’t matter to others, like the slave girl, the prophet’s messenger, and his servant. It taught him not to take his privilege for granted—he had to jump through many hoops on his journey to healing. It taught him to persevere. He was the kind of person that riches and women just fell at his feet. He wasn’t used to working for anything. But this was something he truly wanted and needed, and he eventually saw it through, finished what he started with wonderful results. Don’t you think he went home a changed man? We don’t know what happened to him, except what we read in the rest of that chapter, that he would worship God alone from that time on. Did he release his Israelite slaves? Did he stop going on conquests? We don’t know much, except that he was thankful to God. We don’t know how his gratefulness and new awareness played out in his life.

The lepers were all cleansed that day by Jesus. So why was one affected differently than the other 9? Was it something in his upbringing? Was it something to do with his life experience? Maybe it was an accident that he suddenly turned and saw Jesus and decided to thank him. The other 9 did exactly as Jesus told them, but they didn’t express their gratitude to Jesus, if they had any. Maybe it was that this man was a Samaritan. He was used to be on the sidelines. He knew he had no right to healing. Whereas others might have felt entitled, he knew he had done nothing to deserve this precious gift. The Samaritan couldn’t go to the temple to see the priest. He wasn’t welcome there because of his race and religion. Where else did he have to turn? So he gave thanks to Jesus, right there. His life was completely changed. It wasn’t just skin-deep. He shared his gratitude right there in public. His heart was open. He saw what others couldn’t see, God’s actions right there for healing of bodies and hearts. We don’t know the rest of his story and how his life might have been changed more than that of his fellow lepers. Did he give thanks daily for the rest of his life? Did his encounter with Jesus affect the way he interacted with people on a daily basis? Did he appreciate what he had more? Did he share what he had more? We don’t know how his gratefulness played out in his daily life after that.

Paul’s life was changed when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. He was chief of sinners, yet Jesus came to him and loved him, healed him, claimed him, and put him to work. And even though before that he had every comfort and freedom, he was much more comfortable and free when he was locked up for sharing the good news of God’s love and grace. He was right in his heart. He was grateful for all that God had done for him.

What all do we take for granted in our lives? Do we want the healing that Jesus offers without transformation, or do we want a changed life? Do we want to just do what we’re supposed to do, or can we take it to another level? Can we live a life of gratefulness, returning to Jesus again and again in appreciation?

Can you build gratefulness? Can you manufacture the transformation of a life? That’s what we’re talking about when we use the word “discipleship.” When we are a follower or disciple of Jesus, we are hanging on his every word, we are thankful for every gift that he gives us. Even if we aren’t naturally grateful, we can cultivate it. Many of you made your children sit down and write thank you notes. How about sitting down and writing one thank you note every day. You can even program your smart phone or e-calendar to remind you. How about praying for all the things you are thankful for each morning and evening? You can train your heart to give thanks. And believe me, it will change the way you see the world. It may not give you the skin of a baby, but it will give you the heart of a child, full of wonder, aware of the gift of this life, and ready to share it willingly with others.

I think we are really all 10 lepers. 9 times out of 10 times we forget to give thanks. But occasionally our eyes are opened to see God’s action in our lives and we turn in gratefulness to God for all God has done for us.