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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

December 15, 2013

Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11
1st Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10
2nd Reading: James 5:7-10

What are we waiting for? What are we expecting? Are we expecting the same ol’, same ‘ol? What are John and Jesus preparing us to expect? Finally, what are we going to do about it? What are we waiting for? Let’s get moving!

Are we expecting that some things never change? Sterling has come to expect certain patterns. We turn on our block and he shouts, “Our house!” He has come to expect “Farmer’s market,” “Grocery Outlet,” and “Fred Meyer.” He has come to expect daddy home from work at a certain hour and watches the door expectantly at that time of the evening. He has come to expect Susan and Betsy and Marlene and Don and Harry and Gene and Mary at church. We said the Lord’s Prayer at our Advent service the other night and he turned to me and said, “Bread.” He knows to expect communion directly following the Lord’s Prayer.

But this season, we are also preparing him for what is new. We point out the Christmas lights. We explain about Santa and show him pictures so hopefully he won’t be scared out of his mind if he sees Santa in person this season. I talk to him about the star and baby Jesus and bells and Christmas lights and trees and stockings and soup. We’re preparing him to expect something a little different from what he’s used to.

We don’t just expect it, we help bring it about. We put a can in the food barrel together. We go and see the Christmas lights. We decorate our house. We share the stories from the Bible. We gather with family. We wrap gifts and talk about God’s gifts to us. Who knows how much he can understand, but we find he’s paying more attention and soaking up more than we think. Last week he suddenly said, “I’m two years old,” and held up two fingers. For months, we were preparing him, saying that to him with no response, hoping by the time he’s four, he will be able to let people know. Next thing you know, he’s got the complete sentence and the hand motion together.

In these Bible readings for today, people are expecting things to be the same as it ever was. Are you expecting to see a reed shaken by the wind? Are you expecting a leader who bends to every wind of opinion, that is influenced by the powers of this world, who gives easily to a tiny breeze of pressure from those in power? Are you expecting someone dressed in soft robes? Are you expecting someone whose interest is in keeping himself comfortable, who amasses wealth and pretty things to make himself look good? Why shouldn’t they expect those things? That’s all they had ever seen. Why should this be any different?

Well, it is different, because God has come to intervene personally. John and Jesus are telling them to expect something different. This is no minor tweak. This is a matter of turning the world upside down.

Are you expecting to see the blind remain blind and the deaf remain deaf and people be unable to walk? Why would we expect any different? We’re so fortunate to live in the times that we do, that many people can be healed. We’ve had many people going blind who received their sight through cataract surgery. Raise your hand if you’ve personally experienced this miracle. Both Ed and Susan have had sight restored after tears in their retina. Greg walks up for communion after several back surgeries. Folks formerly homeless find themselves serving the homeless and sharing with those who are less fortunate.

In Jesus’ time, if you were born blind or deaf, you could expect to remain that way. People were blamed for their disability or their parents were, even up to a couple of hundred years ago and even sometimes today. But the strange thing is, many diseases were preventable, as they are today. With clean water, good hand washing, proper sanitation, safe food handling, many diseases and problems could be prevented. The Roman Empire had the technology and ability to provide these services, yet because of greed, the focus on acquiring and controlling people, they only provided it to the elite who could do something for them, not the regular little person. In fact, by not providing these services the Roman Empire ensured that the poor would remain sick and powerless. It was a way of controlling the little people. If you’re always sick, you don’t have time or energy to spend fighting the empire or making your voice heard.

Unfortunately, that is still the value system of those in power. They bow to the rich and keep giving favors and good conditions to the rich, but to the poor and inconsequential, they don’t do squat. It keeps some people using all their energy just to feed their families, so they have no time to work for justice. The rich have access to all the best everything, write off multiple homes off their taxes, and are protected. The poor are left on their own, food stamps cut while corporations get bigger and bigger tax breaks, access to the worst health care if any at all, lying awake at night wondering how to get by.

One of the worst offenses in my mind, is the power companies. People get behind in their payments. If they could pay it, they would. These are the poorest of the poor. They are choosing between eating and paying to heat their homes. They call me with their shutoff notice. They have exhausted their options with payment plans and one-time only grace periods. If it gets shut off, they pay hundreds of dollars in fees, when it doesn’t cost the power company one cent to shut it off. They do it electronically. So the poorest of the poor are paying these huge fees and they couldn’t even pay their bill to begin with. In some other states, this has been declared illegal and I think we need to make this happen in Oregon. If you can pay your bills, you’d never know about this. But if you are poor, more is heaped on you until you’re completely overwhelmed. It is completely unacceptable.

We could expect everything to stay the same. Except Jesus is coming into our world and turning it upside down. He is saying that his value system isn’t about profits, money, or greed and ours doesn’t have to be either. The blind are seeing. The deaf are hearing. The lame are walking. Not just physically, but spiritually too. That he would bring this kind of healing and wholeness, was directly challenging the Roman instrument of death and control that kept people sick. It was telling the Romans they couldn’t keep the little people down. And it was about opening the eyes of those who could only see a value system which puts the self and the pocket book first at the expense of others. It was about opening the ears of those who could only hear the wealthy, to listen to the stories of the poor and forgotten—to hear how they got to that point, that systems were built to keep them down and despite making every effort, they still found themselves destitute. And it was about helping people walk those places they never walked before—to ask the question about what it would feel like to live this way as some of you did many years ago when you took the homeless immersion and slept on the streets of Portland for a weekend.

Whether we are waiting for history to repeat itself over and over endlessly and nothing to change, or whether we are waiting for God to turn the whole world around, the question, “What are we waiting for?” is a rhetorical one that means of course, we’re not waiting any longer. We’re going to live this new value system of God’s and not the world’s death-dealing one anymore. We’re going to do something about it. There is no need to wait for anything.

When we come to this place and gather and treat every last person with the same love and welcome, we are living in God’s new value system. When we not only feed the hungry, but share in conversation and make connections with them, we are living in God’s new value system. When we don’t ask or judge who is deserving, but share generously of all we have, we are living God’s new value system. When we pack lunches for backpack buddies, write letters to our legislators, let people cut in line ahead of us, sit with someone who is alone, we are living God’s new value system.

I’m not a big fan of patience. The reading for today speaks of patience. However, this is not a lot of sitting around waiting helplessly for something to happen. This is active patience, that doesn’t get discouraged because other people are sitting on their hands. This is patience where you follow through on God’s value system and aren’t using the excuse that no one else is. This is long-suffering patience, like the prophets, where they did what God asked of them, despite the scowls, the imprisonments, and the disapproval of the community that was still holding on the to the me-first value system that is business as usual. Don’t give up. God’s value system will win the day. We just have to decide whether we are going to stand in the way of it, or be a part of it.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

December 1, 2013

Advent 1
Gospel: 24:36-44
1st Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5
2nd Reading: Romans 13: 11-14

This scripture has excited the minds of many Christians who have invented the word “rapture” and decided that this scripture combined with a couple of verses from Revelation means that when Christ returns, those people who are good enough will just disappear, as God “raptures” them to heaven. From what I understand it is kind of like beaming someone up in Star Trek. So you see the bumper sticker: “In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned.” A whole series of books and movies have come out of this whole idea of who will be “Left Behind” and what will happen to those people.

I don’t think we need a bunch of fictional books to wonder what it is like to be left behind and what happens when we are left behind. We have it right here. We have widows and widowers, orphans, parents who’ve lost children, those who have had a sibling die. Why do some die, while others are spared? In a typhoon or hurricane, some family members survive and others are swept into the sea. In a car accident, one might die and another survive. In war some make it home and others come home in a casket. And in life some live long healthy lives and others die much too soon. We already know what it is like when some are taken and some are left behind.

My grandparents were married 65 years when my grandpa passed away. My grandma was left behind for another 5 years. She had a really hard time going on without him and spent a lot of time wishing she could be with him. She was waiting expectantly to be reunited with him in the next life.

Grief: What can I say about it that you don’t already know? It is that painful loss. It is that slight relief. It is guilt. It is anger. It is complicated. And the world wants us to move through it and get back to business as usual as quickly as possible, because each loss is a reminder of other griefs and reminds others that sooner or later we all get left behind. That’s very uncomfortable to think about.

Those who have died are already at peace, bathed in God’s glorious light and presence. They live in the reality that Isaiah is talking about in which peace reigns, the focus is on God, and God’s light illuminates everything. Those of us who are left behind are in another reality altogether—the reality of loss and broken hearts and no appetite and depression.
What do the rest of us do while we are left behind? The first thing is to let yourself grieve. You can’t push it away. You can’t avoid it. You just have to go through it. Don’t let anyone tell you to get over it or let you think that a year or two years or even more is too long to grieve. In some ways, we would probably like to move on sooner and put our life back together. But in that loss, part of you is here in this place, on this earth, and part of you is with the person who has died. You become a bridge between heaven and earth—alert and awake to the ways God’s reality is breaking into our reality.

When you lose someone so close to you, that person is always there in your mind. The veil between heaven and earth is very thin. You’ve got a foot in both worlds. Sometimes that person seems so close by. The memories are so vivid. The dreams can be so real.

Grandma wanted to die, so that she could cross that veil, that barrier, and be with grandpa again. But the truth is, heaven is breaking into our world. She didn’t have to go anywhere to experience God’s Kingdom. It was coming to her all along. God’s Kingdom is coming here—that’s why we say, “Thy Kingdom come.” That’s what Isaiah is talking about when he says that God will be established on the highest mountain and all the nations will flow toward it and we’ll all learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths. That’s what Jesus talks about in the very next chapter of Matthew when he says, “Just as you did this to the least of these my brothers and sisters, fed, clothed, visited, tended, you did it unto me.” Jesus’ reign is extended to the earth when these things happen and we visit or feed or love others.

We’ve got two realities, here. There is the reality we live in with suffering and violence and war and hunger. Then we’ve got God’s reality, a promise of what will be, where there is peace and plenty and acknowledgment of God’s authority and agriculture. It may seem like those are light years away from each other, but God is telling us to look around and see how near they are to each other. They are as close as a glass of water if we would extend that to another person or accept it from them. They are as close as a warm coat, if we would share it with someone or accept it from someone. They are as close as the person sitting next to us if we would take the time to get to know them better.

God is shining a light –the light of the LORD that Isaiah talks about—to show us how near God’s kingdom really is, so that we can be on the lookout for it, in the so-called co-incidences that occur right in front of our eyes, showing us God’s Kingdom, in the eager eyes of a child, in the pleading hands of people who are alone at the holidays, in the beauty of this earth.

These two worlds are very close together, ours and God’s. These newspapers around the room represent our everyday world with all its suffering and celebration, colliding with our spiritual world, God’s reality, that we recognize and celebrate in our church. Today we are going to extend our prayers to include the concerns and values and focus of our world. You are invited to walk around the room and read headlines or stories or ads and pray for people and situations that you see there. You’ve got some pens that you may use. Feel free to underline names or words or phrases that you are holding in prayer or to write prayers in the margins or over the news stories expressing your prayers, your hopes, your communication with God.

What do we do when we are left behind and God’s Kingdom is coming? We’ve got a few choices.

1. Fear: When we hear of wars and rumors of wars we can panic. We can be dreading the thief coming in the night and never get any sleep. We can turn in ourselves and get so afraid of loss that we never open ourselves to another person again.

2. Denial: We can go on with business as usual and turn a blind eye to the those who need help. We can keep on with the world’s value system of building bigger and bigger weapons, using resources that could feed and educate people to kill and destroy.

But God’s light is shining on these paths and we can see that they lead nowhere. They are not God’s path.

So God is shining a light on another path. It is to help tear down that veil between heaven and earth, so that God’s reality becomes our reality, so that the peace that our loved ones already know also reigns here on earth, so that hungry bellies are no longer rumbling, so that people have access to basic needs for their health like mosquito nets and water wells, so that the food that agriculture produces is not wasted but shared and used to bring nutrition and health. When we are left behind, it is our job to make sure others aren’t left behind but that God’s reality is extended from the greatest to the least.

Jesus reminds us that none of us are left behind forever. Jesus came that we all might be claimed into God’s family and know peace and spread peace. We can bridge that divide between heaven and earth, between God’s reality and the world’s reality, between those in eternal life and those of us living this life, when we are awake and watching for those tears in the veil, those places of heaven on earth, and when we participate in bringing more of them to people who need them most.

November 24, 2013

Gospel: Luke 23:33-43
1st Reading: Jeremiah 23:1-6
2nd Reading: Colossians 1:11-20

Happy Birthday King of Kings! Today our congregation is 48 years old. And on this joyous occasion, we read the Scriptures for Christ the King Sunday, and it doesn’t leave us very joyous. Here is Christ on the cross, naked, beaten, betrayed, and dying, in the midst of criminals, being mocked and derided. It isn’t much of a Birthday celebration for our congregation, or our true King of Kings, Jesus.

Sometimes on a Birthday we take time to remember how we got to this point, events over the past year or in the life of the person that were meaningful and important. The readings today cover Jesus’ actions over the course of human existence and show a trajectory of true kingly behavior leading to this cross, another kind of throne lifting him up for him to complete his kingly work of saving the people and putting our needs before himself. The readings give us a chance to review where we’ve been so far.

The readings paint a picture of Jesus there at creation, the word bringing everything into being, holding all things together, heading it up. Something happens between then and the reading from Jeremiah, where kings and leaders, who are supposed to be shepherds have scattered the flock and driven them away. These rulers have been destructive, greedy, selfish, and neglectful. But God has a plan to bring everything back into balance, to gather the remnant and make sure that the flock flourishes under God’s care. A good king is like a good shepherd, and a good shepherd will lay down his life for the flock.

Now we come to Jesus on the cross. This is not a place for a king. A king should be comfortable, protected, honored, and loved. The cry is always, “Long live the king!” Here he is not living but dying. Instead of fine clothes, he has been stripped. Instead of a crown of gold, he wears a crown of thorns. Instead of sitting on a throne, he hangs on a cross. Instead of glory and power, he is weak and powerless.

Or is he? Was it a more powerful act to stay on the cross and not use his power for his own gain, but to show power in vulnerability and remain there to save us all? Jesus had the power, the ability to act, to remove himself from the cross. But he chose not to, because he was the only good king, the King of Kings, showing all of us how to use our powers to benefit other people rather than ourselves.

So, now we come to our congregation. We are named for our King of Kings, not to be confused with him. By choosing this name, we are meant to remember who it is this church represents and whose value system we go by and whose life we follow. There have been times when leaders of this congregation have been good shepherds and times we’ve been bad ones. There are times this church has been afraid and other times it has been courageous. There are times this church has been selfish and other times selfless. We are on a journey to follow Jesus and sometimes it seems Jesus is getting through to us and sometimes we miss entirely. Yet, Jesus died to give us the example to follow and the chance to try again when we fail and the chance to give God credit when it goes well.

Despite any shortcomings we’ve had, this is a day when we can truly celebrate what Jesus has done for us and through us. This year we celebrated several wonderful baptisms, the wedding of Howard and Pat, and the lives of some wonderful members including Wilma Raymond and Larry Sparrow and Dina Black. This year I have wonderful memories of special music that you offered during the summer and when Patty’s brother came and played for us this fall. We’ve had so many people come through our doors and walk out with bags of food and smiles on their faces. Sometimes the kids can’t even wait to get to the car, but stand there eating an apple or banana. We changed out the carpet in the entryway. We began our partnership with Church of God of Prophecy and worked together on church cleanup day and got to know each other. We had such a fun time with our rummage sale with different people contributing and picking up items and working together to make it a success. We shared our joys and pains, came to one another's aid, and worked together to be a welcoming presence in our community.

It seems the story is going to end with Jesus on the cross, but one of those crucified with him see that there is going to be more to this story. Maybe he hears Jesus say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Maybe he perceives that this forgiveness may even extend to him. He takes responsibility for his crime when he states that he deserves what he is getting. He sees that Jesus has done nothing wrong, and in fact is doing everything right. He is offering forgiveness to those who are hurting him. This man wants to be remembered by Jesus. Where others only see a devastating and tragic end, he sees a future, a beginning, an Advent. This story goes on. We know Jesus will rise. We know that we all share in the resurrection and that new life starts immediately, today, in the kind of lives we will live, in the way we will use power to benefit others, in the way we will give ourselves away for the sake of others. Although this reading is depressing and would be shocking if we hadn’t heard it a lot of times, it holds a promise of new life for everyone. Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” In fact, paradise is the word for garden. It is as if the readings are taking us full circle from the creation of God’s perfect universe, through sin and brokenness, to God’s intervention and humankind’s efforts to destroy God, to the cross, and finally back to paradise again, where we are one with God and this beautiful world God made.

So, I’ve reviewed a little of the past year. Now, in the hope of the resurrection, I invite you to state your hopes for King of Kings in the coming year.