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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

February 23, 2014

Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48
1st Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Last week at my pastor’s text study, we had just finished discussing all these readings. I went to the kitchen to wash out my bowl from lunch. I saw there that one of my beloved colleagues had left his dirty bowl in the sink to soak. I decided to wash his bowl for him. As I stood there feeling really good about myself, and congratulating myself on my kindness, all of a sudden this reading came back to me: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? … I say, love your enemies.” Even slime balls do kind and loving things for people they like. I wasn’t really doing anything special at all!

What if this had been the bowl of one of the pastors I don’t like very much? I probably would have said to myself, “What a slob!” and left it there.

The values of this world teach us to love our neighbor and hate our enemy. We didn’t hear it from the Bible, but we hear it and see it in those around us and in the internalized values we hold. Even our own hearts usually tell us this is the way to be. But God’s values are different. If we are just going to keep living under the world’s value system, what is the use of believing in God and of having faith? We are called to be God’s children and to take upon us the values of God, not just to follow the rules but to make life better for ourselves and others. God’s values are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. God’s values are not hating anyone, being kind to those who are unkind to us.

What would have happened if that bowl had been my enemy’s bowl and I had washed it? I think there is about a 20% chance that he would have noticed and then been nicer to me in the future because of this small kindness I had paid. When I am kind to my enemy there is no guarantee that my act will change him. So why do it?

As I washed that bowl, how long would I be able to continue that story I keep telling myself about my enemy? You know the loop: the one that rehashes every wrong he’s ever committed, the one that makes him out to be uncaring, unfeeling, and hurtful. As I washed that bowl, could that act begin to change me? In that bowl, I might begin to see that he’s flesh and blood like me. He’s got concerns like I do about food and drink. He’s got insecurities just like I do. He is fragile and vulnerable and needy, just like me. He’s got fears, and that’s probably why he acts like he does. He, too, probably lays awake inventing clever rebuttals to his perceived enemy’s onslaughts. There is not this huge chasm between us. We are the same.

As I stood there washing my enemy’s bowl, I might begin to think of his mother washing his bowl as a child. I might begin to feel some tenderness toward my enemy that his mother once felt. Could this small act of kindness begin to soften my hard heart against my enemy?

And would it be such a leap to think of God creating him, with hands and a mouth and digestive system for eating—to think of all the complex cells and bacteria and muscles that go into eating, the reason this bowl is here in this sink. And would it be so hard to see this person through God’s eyes, facing life troubles and crying out to God for help, suffering injuries and experiencing God’s healing, being hungry and God providing? Might I be changed by this little loving act?

Usually in life when we are faced with anger or violence or conflict, we either react with violence ourselves or we let people walk all over us. Jesus is asking us to consider God’s way, instead, which is a kind of creative resistance. It is resistance to powers of violence in our world, both outside of us and within us that keep us from wholeness, that make our lives less than what they could be.

To turn the other cheek, is creative resistance. Here someone has acted in anger and violence and slapped you. To some, turning the other cheek might seem like a doormat response and sadly this scripture has kept some women in abusive situations. To turn the other cheek is to challenge the other person. It may shame them into seeing what they’ve done. When you turn the other cheek, maybe you would see what it is that is so threatening to this person. Maybe you’d see the little child having a tantrum and not having the tools to calm themselves and think rationally. Maybe you’d start to feel sorry for the other person instead of violent in return.

To go the extra mile is creative resistance. During Jesus’ time, his country was occupied by the Romans. A Roman Soldier could make any person carry their pack one mile, but no more. To offer to carry it another, would have been embarrassing to the soldier. They would be in violation of their orders. There is a chance that they might see what a violation it already was to make you carry it one mile. They might begin to see, as the two of you get to know each other, walking along together that you are a person and that even his presence there is an act of violence on ordinary peaceful people. Maybe as you carried that pack, you’d start to think about the baggage this soldier carried around, everyday—the guilt of all the lives and livelihoods he’d destroyed, the family he missed back home, the failures he’d faced. Maybe a relationship could be forged and two people who are so completely different could work together to see that they are really the same, with the same needs, the same fears, and the same hopes and joys.

Jesus’ whole ministry is one of creative resistance. He doesn’t act out in violence. Instead he feeds people, he teaches them, he builds relationships with all kinds of people, he is inviting, he heals them from physical, social, and spiritual illnesses. This kind of healing relationship was very threatening to people who liked the power they had to control others through violence, through threats, through hunger and disease. And because we think we have a right to hate our enemies, we put Jesus to death on the cross. We took his cloak and shirt. We made him carry our pack, our sins. We struck him on the cheek and more. He didn’t lash out. But he didn’t acquiesce either. He took our violence upon his body and he died. In doing so, he shined a light on our violent ways, on systems of oppression that rob people of their livelihoods, that leave the earth dead and lifeless, that leave millions of people hungry.

Jesus didn’t just rise again, but in an act of creative resistance, rose again to take away the power of death. Those who die in the Lord will rise to eternal life. The physical death is meaningless to us now. It isn’t a real death. The only real death we can die is in this life—we can die to our violent ways and die to all the ways we take life from others and from ourselves. We can die to our selfish desires so that others might have the opportunity to live today in God’s Kingdom on earth. We can die so that we quit wasting our time resisting the new life God is trying to give us and those around us.

In the end, we can’t be perfect or holy like the scripture suggests. Only God is holy and perfect. But we are made in God’s image and God is revealing God’s own holiness and perfection through us. If we think of things that way, we might start to regard that bowl in the sink a little differently—that annoying person, that terrible driver, that trying family member--they belong to God—they are God’s precious children and it isn’t up to us to punish them or reform them. And remember that we belong to God—it isn’t our decision to use violence. God forbids it. Instead, take a step back and ask ourselves—what would it mean to use creative resistance here? What would it mean to go the extra mile, carry the pack, or turn the other cheek? How might that change the enemy and how might that change me?

Most of what I’ve said so far is about times when we are on the receiving end of violence and hatred. But we must also ask ourselves, how are we sometimes the one striking with a hand, taking the cloaks of others, and dumping our heavy burdens on others to carry? Often we don’t think before we act or we don’t have enough information and sometimes we are so isolated from one another that we don’t see the violence we have done. I have to admit that I am starting to see how I perpetrate violence upon this earth every day and that violence has a ripple effect that means that other people have a more difficult life and are exposed to the violence of hunger and drought and war because of me, because of us. I am, unthinkingly, leaving my dirty bowl in the sink for someone else to clean up, and they are stuck with my mess.

It is a controversial point of view, but I have started to see driving my car with the emissions that it releases into the atmosphere as an act of violence. We are in the midst of a massive species die-off caused by humankind. I am part of the problem. I haven’t decided yet, what to do, but the first step is to admit what I have done and what I am doing. I am in the midst of a lot of pain regarding my part in all this. I am trying to stay in that pain for a while because when we are faced with a crisis like this we go into fight or flight mode in which we lash out in anger or run away in fear. To stay with the reality for a while and to face the pain will help me change my death-dealing ways. To face the pain now, might mean less pain for future generations. It might move me to a place where, rather than dump the burden of my trash on this earth and slap it around because I want to go where I want when I want and have every kind of new device that comes along, instead I can appreciate the world around me and share life in a more equal exchange I want to live so that the vulnerable people of this earth doesn’t just wash my bowl, but I do my share to also care for and wash this bowl that is the world we live in.

I guess in the end, God is the dishwasher and we are all the dishes. If we are, then we can play our part in the feeding, tending, caring for all of God’s people and all God’s creation. God can use us to make this a balanced and life-giving world. God can work with us and through us to make this the Kingdom of God in which love and relationship and creativity are the center so that all may have abundant life.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

February 16, 2014

Gospel: Matthew 5:13-20
1st Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 2:1-16

Good morning salt! Good to see you, light! I’m so glad you are here your saltiness! Hear the words of Jesus, this morning: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Jesus is talking to some guys a couple of thousand years ago, but he is also talking to us, his current day followers, Disciples. I think most of us would ask in response, “I am?” This is a wonderful affirmation of who we are in God’s view. This is how God sees us. Will we be able to see ourselves and our potential the way God sees us?

In what ways are we like salt and light? In some ways salt and light are very common. We need them and use them every day. In Jesus’ time, they were also precious. You mostly relied on daylight in those days. You woke up and went to sleep based on the sun. There were fires and lamps and candles, but the fuel was limited, so they weren’t used very much. I remember when we visited Nicaragua, where electricity is scarce and we relied on candles when we visited a small village where fair trade coffee is grown. One candle lit a whole room. It is set on a mirror to double its light. The evening conversation lasted as long as the candle did, and they were pretty skinny candles. Yet, the stars shone so bright.

We all need salt to live. We probably all know people who have suffered from a sodium deficiency and some of you have even suffered from that yourselves. They get dizzy and fall and get confused. They get all out of whack. Salt is important for everyone. In our time, salt is very cheap and available everywhere you go. In fact, they have all these fancy salts now, pink ones and smoked ones that you can buy for $15 a pound or more. That’s how cheap salt is, that they have to fancy it up in order to charge us more for it. And isn’t that part of the lure? “There must be something special about it if it costs so much. I must try it!” Salt was more rare in Jesus’ time. It wasn’t so easy to make. It was used sparingly, but it only takes a little to make a big difference, so it was effective.

“You are light. You are salt.” What do you think Jesus meant by that? I know we can make some pretty amazing soups. I know of several of you can light up a room. Maybe he meant that we are in some ways common, ordinary. Certainly he meant that we affect others around us, like salt does a soup or like a candle does a room. We are useful. A little bit goes a long way. I also think he meant that we are powerful. We have something to offer that is helpful, tasty and bright. Salt is powerful. Taste it by itself and you will agree. Toss it in a bland soup and you will agree. Try to live without it and you will agree. Light is powerful. It draws the eye. It illumines what is otherwise impossible to see. Apparently the human eye can see a single flame from as far away as 10 miles. Our eye is drawn to it. Light gives the power of sight. It shows us things we couldn’t see before. It gives us the ability to get around. It gives us warmth. It is powerful.

We might argue with Jesus and ask whether we are really powerful or not. I think a lot of us would like to deny our power. I hear people say, “I’m not a leader.” Maybe we think Jesus is saying that about the future, “You will be salt and light.” Maybe he will make us into these powerful things a very long time from now.

Jesus is using the present tense, though. He says we already are right now salt and light. We already have the power to affect other people, no matter how common we are, no matter if there is only a little bit of us. We have the potential to make a difference. The question is what are we going to do with our power?

We can hide it under a bushel basket. We can pretend that we aren’t powerful. That is certainly one option and we’ve tried that one. It usually ends up burning down the basket but hopefully not the whole house with it. We can hide away our power, not challenge ourselves to use it, not develop it. And what’s the point in being a light if you’re just going to cover it up? What’s the point of being salt, if you’re just going to sit in the shaker?

We can use our power to make our own lives more salty and full of light. We can say to ourselves, “God made me this way so that I can please myself.” We make our lives more salty with more adventures, with more gadgets, with everything our hearts desire. We fill ourselves with so much light, that we leave lights on in rooms that no one is using. We fill ourselves with so much salt that we are suffering from increased blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. And we all know our bodies and taste buds can only take so much salt and it doesn’t do us any good anymore. We can use our power just to improve our own lives and serve ourselves.

We can use our salt and light, our powers to put band-aids on problems. We can throw money at the problems of this world. We can bring an extra can of food that we will never miss to donate. We can help people pay their power bills rather than asking how things got this bad and how we can keep the same people from needing to make a hundred tearful phone calls again next month hoping there will be someone with some discretionary money left to help people like this. All of these responses have their time and place. They are each valuable in their own way.

Let us remember where our power, our saltiness and brightness comes from. It is a gift from God, for the life of the world. You are not just salt, but you are the salt of the earth. Your salt is not for you, but for the earth, all people and all creation. You are not just light, but you are the light of the world. Your light does not belong to you, but it is for the good of the world. God gives it to us for us to pour out for others, use up for others. That’s what Jesus came to show us, how to pour out our salt and light for others. One man, albeit God in human flesh, came with enough salt and light to season and warm and illumine and entire world. This salt and light he shares with us, not to hide, hoard, or squander, but to give away freely, to pour out, to share, like Jesus did for us.

Yes, we are going to use it to salt our own food and light our own rooms. Yes, we are going to hide it sometimes. Yes, we are going to use it to put band-aids on problems. But God also has more in mind, and that is to transform our lives and the lives of those around us. He’s saying maybe a little less salt needs to be kept for ourselves, much less of it stored and hidden away, and maybe not as much will be needed to put band-aids on problems, if we would use it to transform our world. Our power and energy is the power and energy of God to put a world all out of balance back into balance.

We have done this before. We’ve gone and testified before the Clackamas County Commissioners about addictions and the need for housing and we got the housing we were asking for and then some. We’ve helped to start 5 homes for Domestic Violence Survivors to break the cycle of violence.

We have the chance to transform our world even more. We can go with a group like Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon to lobby at the state capitol. We can call or write our legislator. We can get to know someone who is hungry or homeless so that is no longer “those people” but someone just like me. We can limit ourselves to try to live on the average amount of foodstamps for a day or a week so we know how it feels. We can become a church that is open to officiating at the blessing or marriage of any loving couple. We can become part of an effort to balance the power of the energy companies who charge poor people fees for being unable to pay their heating bill. We can make choices for our congregation that respect the earth and pour ourselves out to see that future generations know the blessings that we know of having enough, of enjoying this earth, and they in turn have abundant life to pour out for the sake of others.

Jesus wants more for us than just to follow the rules. He wants more for us than the scribes and Pharisees were interested in at his time. He wants more than for the light to be hidden. He wants our light to shine and to transform this world. He wants our salt to season this world. He’s realistic that we’re small. But he knows that a few can make a difference for so many. He’s asking us to go beyond ourselves and our wants and needs to be a part of something bigger in bringing new life to a dark and hopeless world. In sharing our salt and light, we will find ourselves fulfilled and we’ll find the Kingdom of God taking shape all around us. We’ll find ourselves transformed by the love of God and the use of our power on behalf of others.

February 2, 2014

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
Old Testament Reading: Micah 6:1-8

Folk singer songwriter, Pete Seeger died this week. At our house, when a musician dies, and we own their record, my husband puts on the album. All week long I’ve had the song, “Little Boxes” in my head. Pete Seeger didn’t write this song, but he collected songs from all over the US and made this one famous in 1963. It was written by his friend Malvina Reynolds and goes something like this… “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky. Little boxes on the hillside and they all look just the same.” To me, it is a song about conformity, the falseness of it, the cheapness of it.

These houses in the song, were meant to provide inexpensive, high density housing to meet people’s needs. To make them affordable, I imagine they all have same floor plan, are painted one of four colors, and are squished pretty close together, so they resemble boxes on the hillside. The problem is, they were poorly constructed and poorly planned. The song extends the cookie-cutter analogy to the people that live in the houses, that they all go to summer camp and then to the university and they are just the same as the houses, looking for satisfaction in being like everyone else, rather than thinking for themselves, or being true to their own sense of self.

At various times in our lives, we may try being more true to ourselves and at other times we try to make ourselves fit in. And there are times in our lives when we expect others to conform to our ideas of how a person should look and think and behave, and other times when we are more open to other ways of being in the world. Today’s Gospel includes some words of Jesus in his inaugural sermon, called the Beatitudes. Jesus’ Beatitudes express God’s values—that God honors the meek, peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for their faith. If we wrote a Beatitudes of the world’s values, of the people that we think of living in those little boxes on the hillside, we would say, blessed are they who are happy, blessed are they who are thin, blessed are they who have their course in life all plotted out, blessed are they who have what everybody else has, blessed are the young, the strong, the pretty, the settled.

For me, the Beatitudes are about the real people, when you get to know them. If you walked into one of those little houses, because this song is about a real housing development, and met the people living there, you would find a much different picture than what appears on the outside. The reference to the “ticky-tacky” alludes to this. That something isn’t right in this picture that we are all the same or should be. You’d meet people who are mourning. You’d meet people who had disabled children. You’d meet alcoholics and drug addicts. You’d meet shy people and people who didn’t graduate from high school, unwed mothers and grandparents raising their grandchildren. Jesus said this is who is really blessed by God. This is where God is truly present, in times of difficulty and pain.

I think we sometimes make assumptions about other people’s lives, that they have it easy. We believe that because we don’t know them or their story. We just see the surface. But the people we know and care about, we know the mountains they’ve had to climb, the hardships, the tragedies.

When I first read this lesson, I thought of having you stand up in each of these categories and then honoring you in some way. But of course nobody is going to stand up when I ask who is meek and who are the pure in heart. Not that you aren’t those things, but that you’re also modest. Plus it just seemed cruel to make you stand up if you are grieving.
Think about these categories and who falls into them. Blessed are those who mourn. There are the obvious ones who have just lost close family members or friends. In a month or a year they will still be grieving. After a year has gone by they will still be grieving, but would others see them that way? How soon do we forget that another has a broken heart? You could talk to anyone in this room, I suspect, and find grief—someone they love who has died, maybe many years ago, but that pain is still there on a daily basis. We wouldn’t normally think that grief or mourning makes them blessed. But God promises to be there in that pain. God knows what it means to mourn. And God has made more compassionate people out of us, through the pain that we’ve experienced. We are able to be a blessing to others because of what we’ve been through. You who are mourning losses both fresh and of long ago, we honor you. God honors you. God’s blessing be with you.

I thought of having the peacemakers stand, but I am not sure they know who they are, or maybe they know all too well. Some play this role in families, having learned it from running back and forth between arguing parents. Sometimes middle children play this role in families, drawing siblings together who are very different. In our society we often value those who hold firm. I think of the recent impasse in the government over extending the debt ceiling. Some of our leaders thought it was time to stand their ground and their approval ratings fell. In the end it was compromise that seemed to work the best, for now. Jesus was a peacemaker. He didn’t force everyone to follow his way. He showed us the way to be gentle with each other and invitational and he gave us life, rather than resort to violence to try to change this world. In our congregation, I’ve really felt blessed by the peacemakers. There are some in this congregation who will do this very well. They help people find the common ground. They are able to see both sides. It may be the whole congregation against the one, but those peacemakers take the part of the one. Most of us probably would not consider ourselves peacemakers, but there is a peacemaking part to all of us, or we’d never tolerate being in a community with other people, who have different opinions and tastes. We have to compromise to be here. To all you peacemakers, we honor you, we value you, God loves you. God bless you.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for justice and goodness. There are some in this congregation who are more apt to get involved in politics and community service, who get more riled up by injustice in our world. These folks help us quit dreaming about a heaven after we die and help us start ushering in God’s way of life today, so that everyone could be fed, creation respected, balance restored. We all have this hunger at different levels. We all have our dissatisfactions with this world and how it is set up to benefit a few at the expense of the many. We all know this world is messed up. That’s partly why we come here—to see a vision of a world the way God intended it and to be empowered to help make our world that way in whatever little way we can. You who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for goodness, for balance, we honor you. May you feel that blessing of God pronounced this day and know God values your passion and the work you do.

Much of this world is so focused on values of greed and physical beauty and fame that there isn’t room for God’s values. We fill every space in our homes with stuff, every moment of our lives with entertainment. But the Beatitudes here express a kind of emptiness that the world fears. When you are mourning, you are missing someone you love. There is an emptiness. When you hunger and thirst for righteousness, you are empty of those things and longing for them. If we are peacemakers, we are lacking certainty that makes us feel secure. If there is an empty moment, what will we discover about ourselves? Will we feel that dissatisfaction? Will we feel helpless? Will we come face to face with ourselves and our complicity in making a mess of this world? How can we look for God, unless we are able to make space for God or recognize the space that only God can fill?

This reminds me of my 5th grade science class. Our teacher made a model showing us how the lungs work. Here are the lungs represented by these two balloons. This bottle represents our chest cavity. And this part here represents our diaphragm. When our diaphragm pulls down, the balloons open up to receive the air. There are certain things in our life that make us open up, like these lungs. They act like the diaphragm here, pulling on the lungs. Things like a loss, an illness, or people bullying you or persecuting you will cause that reaction of the diaphragm pulling back. When you are starving for justice and peace, when you are longing for mercy, when you lacking in forcefulness, you have room in your lungs, in your heart. And because God is everywhere, in all, surrounding all, God rushes into those places of openness and fills them with God’s breath and life, God’s Holy Spirit. And that is what blessing is, the presence of God. God walks in all our places of emptiness and we’re not alone. God has told us that God will be in those places in the Bible. God has shown God will be in those places in the life of Jesus Christ. This speech to the disciples was giving them a heads up about where they were going and what was coming. They were following Jesus to be among the meek, the peacemakers, those hungry for righteousness, the pure in heart, the poor in spirit and to be all those things, themselves—to practice meekness and purity of heart, making peace, and grieving. Jesus knew that they would find blessing in those places of emptiness, the Holy Spirit rushing in to give them strength and hope when they weren’t sure how they would go on.

I invite you to look for God in those places of emptiness and space in your lives, to look for blessing there, to seek out those who fit this description of who is blessed and honor them. And remember when you are going through any of this that God is with you. May you find strength and courage from this blessing of God.