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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

June 22, 2014

Gospel: Matthew 10:24-39
1st Reading: Jeremiah 20:7-13
2nd Reading: Romans 6:1b-11

I have to say that once I read these scriptures I honestly thought about not preaching this Sunday and doing something else entirely. This is one of those Sundays when it is hard to say, “This is the Gospel of the Lord” and “Thanks be to God.” The readings cover themes of terror and abandonment, weariness, death, sin, slavery, fear, hell, foes, loss, and unworthiness. Maybe an evangelical preacher would be looking forward to a Sunday like this, but I have a tough time. Sometimes, when I struggle with a reading, I wonder to myself if Jesus really said this stuff. But this is one of those times I am pretty certain he did. I also don’t want to gloss over all the trouble in the Bible and just make it a nice, gentle, easy book to read. We are challenged in the Bible. We are challenged by Jesus. Part of the reason we are here at church is to be challenged. If we are going to be Christians, we are saying we want to follow Jesus. This means a change of direction, so we are going to have a changed life, we are going to encounter difficulties.

The Gospel, especially, this morning, challenges our sense of entitlement. We think that kids today feel entitled—they are lazy, they want to be handed everything, they are spoiled. But before we start pointing fingers at their sense of entitlement, we have to ask ourselves about the ways we feel entitled. I know I have felt a lot of frustration that I couldn’t work hard all summer and afford my college education on my income. The generation before me could do that. I have felt entitled to the same or more compensation than the previous generation. I feel entitled to my good health. I am young. I go to the gym and try to eat right. I take my health for granted and when I get sick, I actually get angry about it, especially when my toddler brings home an illness a month for 7 months in a row. Most of us probably feel entitled to having loving family relationships. We think we’re entitled to our possessions, as many as our neighbors and friends have. We think we’re entitled to a car for each driver. We may feel, now that we have a paid custodian, that we don’t have to pick up after ourselves here at church. We may feel that since we’ve been coming to this church for a long time that we should be entitled to the kind of music and bulletin and worship and coffee treats that we’re used to. And we may think that because we are good people, that we are faithful people, that we are entitled to an easier life, with as little suffering as possible.

But Jesus tells us this morning that life is hard. That’s the bad news. But we already know the bad news. We’ve already found out that life isn’t fair. We’ve been sick. We’ve lost loved ones. We’ve endured family arguments and the silent treatment. We’ve had friends abandon us and talk behind our back. We’ve endured abuse and divorce and adultery. We’ve had children and grandchildren with mental illness, drug addiction, disability and at times experienced it ourselves. But what Jesus is talking about is even more than that.

We call ourselves Christians. We are followers of Jesus Christ. We want to be like the teacher or at least associated with him. Now Jesus is telling his Disciples that their life of devotion may not be rewarded in the short term. To follow Jesus isn’t just to act in ways that he would, but is also to endure the consequences that he did, to face the cross. It is no longer WWJD, “What would Jesus do?” but WWHTJ, “What would happen to Jesus?” That’s what we could expect would happen to us. When we are followers of Christ, we challenge the power structures in place. We challenge the usual way of things. God’s Kingdom world collides with the unjust world we live in and there is direct conflict. Jesus promises that we will be on the front lines of that.

Jesus is teaching the disciples, preparing them for ministry. They know about healing and feeding people. So far, they have followed him and learned from him. Now, is the next step in their learning. They are going to try out what they’ve learned and they are going to do this ministry. Jesus tells them a few paragraphs earlier in this chapter, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” And in case their next question regards their hourly pay or yearly salary, he says, “You received without payment, give without payment.” Then he tells them not to take anything extra with them. Finally, he tells them that not only will they not get paid, they will suffer and experience hardship because of Christ and their faithfulness. Christ’s Disciples will follow him to the cross. They are not entitled to anything special, just God’s love and a place in God’s family forever.

This is about letting go of any sense of entitlement. This is about growing up. This is about getting a thicker skin. This is about developing self-differentiation, basically the idea that you know who you are and that no matter what others say about you or what they do to you, you stand firm by your values and act on them. This is about maturing in faith.

I am reminded of the song, “I will Survive.” This is a song about someone who has made herself vulnerable, given her love to someone, and experienced betrayal. Yet, a stronger sense of self emerges. The singer can let the experience drag her down and crush her. Or she can stand up and sing this “in-your-face” song about the person she’s become out of this hardship. She says, “As long as I know how to love, I know I’ll be alive.” Instead of feeling entitled to the love of the other person or entitled not to be hurt, instead of blaming the other person, instead of feeling fear and shame because her expectations haven’t been met, she sees what a strong person she is. She is a survivor. She has new life and new meaning. She is living in the resurrection.

There is good news here in these readings. When all these bad things are happening, when our faith leads us to the cross and we find ourselves betrayed and suffering, when we’ve lost everything, Jesus says do not fear. You do not need to fear because someday this tiny movement will grow and become much louder and stronger—“what you hear whispered, proclaim from the rooftops.” What is secret now, will someday be revealed and people will know what is really important. What is a small movement now will catch on and have a big effect on this world.

You do not need to fear because we are more than bodies and cannot be ultimately destroyed. Although people were being imprisoned and killed for their faith, God would never forsake them. Although we may face many hardships and challenges, God will be with us. God gives new life whether it is here on earth or in God’s realm and even in the memory and life of the community that learned and appreciated the sacrifice of each martyr.

Finally, we do not need to fear because God cares about us. Even if we never mattered to anyone else, we matter to God. And we matter to our community of faith. God is keeping track of us. God hurts when we hurt. God is adopting us into God’s family. We belong to God. One of our greatest fears is not to matter, but Jesus assures us that we do. We are all important. We all have gifts. God put energy and intention into making us the person we are and giving us new life.

When we lose our life for Christ’s sake, that is how life is experienced and truly discovered. How many times have you seen this at work? Maybe there was a time you quit worrying about what others thought and find yourself truly free to be yourself. Maybe there was a time when you realized you had a drinking problem and you had to let go of your pride and get some help, but you got a whole new life out of it. Maybe there was a time when you had to let your kids make their own mistakes and it hurt to see them suffering, but they eventually came through stronger. Maybe there was a time you thought you could do something all yourself, and you had to ask for help, and you realized that we are all connected and we need each other.

Sometimes as a person of faith, we are walking this path, following Jesus and wonder if it makes any difference at all. If I do the right thing, if I am kind, if I am loving, if I forgive, if I care for God’s good creation, what difference does it make? Paul puts it this way in Romans, “Should we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” In other words, “Shall I just keep going the way I have been because I can’t see it is making any difference?” He answers himself and those to whom he is writing, “By no means!” “No way!” he says. So what if you can’t see the immediate good results of your actions. You are not entitled to see that. God has a trajectory for this world and God’s way of love will win in the end. Will you let God’s way of love rule in your life and your decisions no matter whether the outcome is good or bad, less or more suffering for yourself? It is up to us to say that we will, because in the long-run it will mean newness of life for us and for others. Maybe only God will ever see what a difference it made. We have to let go of the outcome. In the face of suffering, “You will survive! As long as you know how to love, you’ll know you’ll be alive.” So let yourself love and come alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

June 15, 2014

Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20
1st Reading: Genesis 1:1-2:4a
2nd Reading: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Look around you. What a beautiful setting we have to worship God! I think those who designed this church were so wise to put in windows so we could see the marvelous works of God all around us. We’ve got a view of Mt. Hood if we want. We can see so many trees. Birds and squirrels make their home on this property. Listen to the birds singing. Just last week at coffee hour a deer walked across the churchyard. I hope you paid attention to the beauty of this place that we live as you made your way here this morning. I love the smell of the morning air and when I drive up here, I am greeted by flowers and trees and green and wildlife. I would agree this is good. God’s good creation is all around us revealing to us who God is and what God wants for us.

Over the years some pastors and theologians have put a barrier between believers and God’s good creation because they feared we would practice pagan religion and start worshipping the trees and deer and birds and sun. And I am not that fond of the idea of “Spiritual but not Religious” as if all that matters is me out in a forest or near a stream. I think that community matters a lot, to provide checks and balances, to show that it isn’t all about me, and to provide support when life is difficult. But I do believe that we can find God in Creation and know God through our experiences with Creation, including the other humans God made. Creation is one of God’s primary revelations to us, God’s way of showing us how much God loves us, God’s way of showing us what it means to have responsibility and care for one another.

Creation shows us just how big and majestic God is. When we see that mountain, with snow lit by the sun, we stand in awe of God who made this universe, who stood watch as the plates of the earth shifted and a volcano was born and grew into this mountain. When we drive along the Columbia River Gorge, we stand in awe of God who brings this water down from the mountains, all this melted snow and rain gathering to flow so wide and deep through our land, giving life to salmon and sea lions and people and mosquitoes. It is amazing and huge to behold. What a system of flowing life! What a way of distributing water to all who need it without prejudice!

Creation shows us how God pays attention to the smallest detail and forms each and every creature with love and care. At Synod Assembly this year, I was feeling all cooped up. So when we had a break, I took a walk around the hotel. As I walked along, I saw a little caterpillar going along the pavement in the parking lot. I stopped and picked up a leaf, put it in front of the caterpillar and eventually got it to crawl up on the leaf. Then I transferred the caterpillar to the relative safety and comfort of the bushes. Here we were gathered at the Assembly, listening to reports, having discussions, eating together, making decision, and yet all the while, here was this caterpillar living its life, trying to survive, to make it to safer ground. It was something small, but I could see the hand of God in it. Its legs all moved together. It was covered in orange hairs. It’s markings were as beautiful as any of the quilts or artwork displayed in the assembly. The Bible tells us that God knows the number of hairs on our heads and not only our heads, but this caterpillar’s body as well.

Each part of God’s creation is noticed by God and called “good.” Each part has intrinsic value on its own, before it ever had use for humans. The light on its own was good. The balance of night and day is good for our planet, for our growing cycles, for creatures who need times of activity as well as rest. The water and the dry land were both good. The balance between them was important for the development of life, for the diversity of creatures that God had in mind. The distribution of the water was good for the flourishing of all living things. The plants of all kinds were good. Some produced fruit, others shade, others homes for little creatures. The sun and the moon were good to give light and seasons and the pull of the tides and cycles of fertility. The balance of the two kinds of light offered some guidance and safety during the night, but the ability to rest, while giving us the full benefits of the sun to give warmth and energy, to give us vitamins, to evaporate water and melt snow. And all the kinds of creatures were called good. We’re still discovering new species. Each has a purpose and a job to do. Bees pollinate, birds carry seeds, predators keep rodent populations under control. And all these animals were given the actual first commandment, to be fruitful and multiply. And finally God created humankind.

Now some say that humans are the pinnacle of God’s creation, that all before was made for us. But each thing is called good on its own, before humans came on the scene. I would say that we are the most recent addition and as relative latecomers we should be respectful of all which came before. God blessed the birds and sea creatures, just as God did humankind. They have their own blessing from God apart from us.

Some say that we, as humans, can do what we want with plants and animals because God gave us dominion in the Bible and because we are bigger and stronger and smarter than they are. Yet, the kind of dominion God gives is not domination, but a caretaker roll of the good creation God made, to keep the balance and the good system that God put into place.

When I look at creation, I think of an artists’ masterpiece. It can tell you to a certain extent about the artist who made it—what is important to the artist, what is the message he or she wants to convey, what is his or her nature.

This account of Creation tells us that God has made this world and it belongs to God. It tells us that it is good in its own right. It tells us that God made balance and order for the good of us all. It tells us that God is concerned with the big picture as well as the smallest detail. It tells us that we have responsibility to help God keep it in balance. It reveals to us what we know from scripture and experience, that God is love and life. And if we received the gift of a fine work of art, we would want to put it in a place of respect in our home, display it and care for it and appreciate it. We wouldn’t want the artist to come looking for it one day and find it in tatters and ruined because we hadn’t managed it well. And finally, let us remember that we are but one part of God’s good creation, that our well-being is tied to the earth’s well being. We are part of the balance that God created and when we take more than our share of resources or think of ourselves first and foremost others suffer and humankind, future generations, vulnerable populations will suffer more and we may even end up destroying ourselves.

How incredible that God made all this beauty and balance! How incredible that God can be revealed in every mountain and tree, in every person, in every caterpillar or flea, in the sound of the rushing wind or the stillness of a meadow! How incredible that this amazing God came to take on our flesh and live a human life, fully in tune with God’s wondrous creation, without prejudice or preference, showing us how to let go of our selfishness to be bearers of God’s love to all God’s creation from the greatest to the smallest! How incredible that he died as we all must, but through that death he brings us to eternal life and connection and the ultimate purpose of God, to restore us all to right relationship and balance, give the fullness of life to all creatures, and to draw all Creation to God’s self.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

June 8, 2014

Gospel: John 20:19-23
1st Reading: Acts 2:1-21
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

When I was Graduating from High School, our class song was “It’s the End of the World as we Know It (And I feel fine).” It is basically a stream of consciousness list until you get to the chorus, which is just the title of the song repeated over and over. That song has been running through my head.

The theme of “Endings and Beginnings” has been with me all week. It started with the news that Auntie Mae had passed away. I remember her from the day I came to this church, sitting downstairs with the sewers, sitting in the back pew, laughing and visiting with friends here. Beginnings and endings come to mind as I am anticipating Mildred’s death as she is placed on hospice. She’s a charter member here, part of King of Kings for almost 50 years, since the very beginning. I think of where she sat. She went to the second service because she didn’t like to get up too early. The way she always expressed appreciation, always noticed and thanked people for the things they did whether big or little. I also attended my nephew’s graduation on Friday. I was there at his birth, so amazed to see a person come into this world. I played with him as a baby, looked after him the day his sister was born, listened to him tell me how to drive when he was 4 years old, watched him grow up into this young man, trumpet player, valedictorian. Beginnings and endings. It is the theme of the week.

In the Acts Reading this morning, it is the ending of 50 days. Pentecost has the word “pente” meaning 5, like pentagram has 5 points. It is the end of Jesus’ physical time on earth. He is about to ascend to heaven and leave the Disciples. It is also the end of the tower of Babel story that you might remember from Bible School, that explained how we all got speaking different languages and couldn’t understand each other anymore. It was part of the “last days” prophecy from Joel. This was a time when everything the followers of Jesus knew would change.

In 1 Corinthians, this is the end of divisions. This is the end of selfishness and individualism. This is the end of hierarchy and holding power one over the other. This is the end of pride, because only God gets the credit for giving everyone gifts that are good for the whole group.

In the Gospel, this is the beginning of the end of the paralyzing fear of the disciples. This is the end of death. This is all about ending.

With all endings, there is grief. There is letting go. There is the unknown toward which we step. There is pain, anticipation, reviewing life up to that point, assessing next steps, discerning where to go from here. There is relief. There is release.

When something ends, there is a release of energy. All the time and effort and energy that went into the old, is then freed up to be put to use in a new way.

Sometimes we make that transition smoothly from the end of one thing to the beginning of another. Sometimes it is clear where to put that energy and time. Sometimes the transition is messier. It would seem God does not have a problem with messy.

In Acts, the new energy released went first to the Disciples. It gave them the ability to communicate with people of all nationalities and languages. These people caught the energy of the Holy Spirit, too. The promise was that it would go out even further, to family members not present, to the next generation, to elderly people, to the lower classes, and even to slaves. Everyone would receive this fire, this energy, this life. Everyone would have the chance to hear about God’s deeds of power and experience them, first hand. Everyone would be saved, that is everyone would have the experience of the health and wholeness that God offers.

The transition, this beginning wasn’t just for the Disciples, it was for all people and all creation. It was energy and warmth and light and life for all people, all nations, all genders, all economic groups. It was the beginning of hope. It was the beginning of true community. It was the beginning of understanding each other and communicating with each other. And it was windy and it was loud and it was dramatic.

Not everybody liked it. Some scoffed. Some sneered. They were probably scared. Or maybe they were just jealous.

Today we celebrate the Birthday of the church, when the Holy Spirit came among us so that we could become the body of Christ for the world. Do you take your Birthday as an opportunity to reflect? We look back at all our endings and beginnings, those first steps of the early church, the mistakes Christians have made throughout our history, our dismay at what some of the members of the body still do that causes damage, the times we have responded well to emergencies and human need, all that we’ve learned, the times of rapid growth and other times when we’ve felt our advanced age. We ask ourselves what we need to let go of, as a congregation, as a church, as a Christian. What needs to end to free up new life and energy to begin something else? What needs to die so that something wild and unknown can be born, so that the Spirit can be released and freed to move in new ways? Do we have the faith to let go and place our future in God’s hands to guide us through our transitions to new life?

After meeting with Auntie Mae’s daughter on Wednesday, I came back to the church with 3 coats for JOIN, several Bibles to give away, and a hymnal. She is no longer walking with us on this part of the journey, but some of her things were released back into the neighborhood to help other people. The stories of her life give us energy and motivation to follow our life path of faith through good times and difficult ones. She never expected to outlive her nieces Judith, or Darelyn, or Jackie. She didn’t expect that she would have to give up cooking, or gardening, or pinochle or the other things she loved. Yet she held on to her faith, praying for people around her and ministering to them the best she could. And Mildred: She reminds me to thank people. She had a thank you note or a compliment to give every single week she was here—and there were years she never missed church. The way she cared for her sister will always remind us to help and care for people in need. What seems like an ending, is only another beginning of new life for them and a chance to look over what has been so far, let go of what we don’t need to cling to anymore, reassess the future, and take leap of faith, knowing that the power of the Holy Spirit and the power of God will take us places we didn’t expect, but places of blessing, and healing and wholeness and power. My nephew will start at Pacific University this fall, a new chapter, a new beginning in a young life.

Daily, hourly, every moment, something is ending. Daily, hourly, something is beginning. May we learn individually what needs to die and to end, what we need to let go of. May we as a church let go of what has to die that Christ’s love and grace may be shared and experienced. May we stand in those transitions and let the wind of the Holy Spirit blow, as messy and fiery as it is, until God shows us how to proceed.

May new life spring up for us as it did for Christ. May we know the power of the resurrection, daily and may the power of the Holy Spirit envelop the whole world so that new life my flourish for all.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

June 1, 2014

Gospel: John 17:1-11
1st Reading: Acts 1:6-14
2nd Reading: 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11

Here’s a joke about stress and anxiety to start us off this morning: Man goes to doctor. Says he's anxious. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world. Doctor says the treatment is simple. The great clown Terrifini is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up. Man bursts into tears: "But doctor . . . I am Terrifini.”

“Cast all your anxiety on God, for God cares for you.” This text from 1 Peter doesn’t say we don’t have anything to worry about. It simply says to place them in God’s hands and quit worrying so much. It also says it might not be that easy to let go of our worries, that it is a discipline.

Let’s start with the worries. People seem to have always worried. I guess it is the curse of having a memory. Even dogs and cats worry, sometimes. In the book of Acts, the Disciples are worried about Jesus leaving them and ascending up to heaven. They are worried about being alone. They are worried about the political situation of their occupied country. They are worried about being powerless. In 1 Peter the people are going through a fiery ordeal. They feel alone. They are threatened and enslaved. They are far away from friends and loved ones. In the Gospel of John, the Disciples are worried about all that they will face once Jesus has physically left their side.

Worry can serve a positive function in our lives. It can help us to take a good long look at our problems and take positive steps toward overcoming them and avoiding negative outcomes. On the other hand, worry can take over our lives and make us sick. All over the Bible, we are reminded not to be afraid. Worry and anxiety can keep us from living life fully, from experiencing the restoration, support, strength, and establishment of God.

We worry about a lot of different things, but underneath, our worries are probably not so different from the worries of the Disciples. We might be worried about our own health. We get worried about changes in our culture or world. We worry about the happiness of our children and grandchildren. We worry about what other people think about us. Underneath all this, we are really worried about being powerless and alone. We are worried about losing control. We are worried about whether our lives are meaningful.

When anxiety becomes the threat or the excuse, God reminds us of who God is. Yes, God is powerful and mighty. God has been and always will be. God is there to challenge and guide us. But we are assured, whatever else we fear, we don’t have to be anxious about God. We don’t have to hide from God. We don’t have to be anxious about whether we are acceptable to God. We can be in awe of God and impressed with God, but God says, the angels say, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news.”

Think of who God is. God created balance and order in this world for our own good and the good of all living things. God brings us back into relationship every time we wander off. God creates covenants with us to give us a transformed life, to make better people out of us, to give life to our communities. In Christ Jesus, we see even more clearly that God heals, feeds, mends, embraces, teaches, builds up, encourages, restores. God is so determined to give us this new life, that God gave the only Son, gave up everything, became completely vulnerable in our threatening world and showed us that there really is nothing to be afraid of. “The Lord is my strength, whom shall I fear?” Whether we live or we die, we are the Lord’s.

The command not to fear or be anxious is not law, it is Gospel. It is not a rule, it is an invitation. If we are afraid of God’s wrath then we will only worry more. But instead God frees us from having to be anxious. It is an invitation to let go, to place our troubles in God’s hands, and to move forward free from anxiety and fear.

So how do we discipline ourselves to cast all our anxiety on God and let it go? How do we return our focus to be able to see the power and love of God everywhere we look and everywhere we go?

The first step might be to confront those fears. Write them all down where you can get a good look at them. Which of them do you have any control over? You might as well cross off the ones you don’t. How might you take reasonable steps to work through the fears and anxieties you can do something about? A community can be a good place to bring your fears. Discussing them with another person can help you get perspective on them and possible solutions that you haven’t thought of. Some things that tend to decrease worry that you might think are unrelated are taking good care of yourself, eating right, getting enough sleep, exercising, and getting plenty of positive human interaction, including touch.

It is so easy to dwell on the negative. Think of all the chemicals our bodies make and distribute. The ones that are sent out for worry and anxiety day after day can make us sick. But we can turn our minds to focus on the positive and our body chemistry changes. I am easily prone to anxiety. It is easy for me to picture all the things that are wrong with my world, my family, the earth, my church, and on and on. It begins to paint a picture in my mind of suffering and cruelty. All I feel when I see this picture is despair and hopelessness. I go over and over in my mind all the things that are wrong, dig those trenches deeper and deeper. The pathways of the mind get ruts in them. We get used to certain thought patterns and we get stuck in these loops.

The Disciples also got stuck in their sense of loss and despair. When Jesus departed, they stood there looking up for a very long time. Maybe they would have stayed there forever if a couple of angels hadn’t come by and asked them what they were looking for. These angels reminded the disciples that this was a temporary situation, that Jesus would be back, in fact Jesus was all around them especially in the community that had come to surround them and give them hope, who are named at the end of that reading.

When we are anxious, once we’ve faced our fears, Jesus invites us to look in another direction. Take some time to count your blessings. That helps construct a consciousness in our minds of all that is good in the world, our families, the earth, the church, and on and on. It is about acting to bring that neighborhood, world, or yourself more in keeping with the good world you can envision. That beautiful amazing place is the way that God sees the world and God is working through us and other people to help form the world more the way God sees it, where there is enough food to go around, where people share all things in common, where life is respected, where health and balance is restored, where folks are restored, supported, strengthened, and established.

I think that is what we wanted with our Reconciling in Christ statement. There are forces of fear in this world that would fear and discriminate against people we dearly love, who we know have value in God’s eyes, and who have added a richness to our lives. We could let those fears overwhelm us. But there are people who had a vision. It wasn’t just something they made up, but they took to heart the Biblical teaching that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and that God so loved the world that he gave his only son that we might have eternal life. They could see this vision of a place where absolutely everyone was welcome to participate in community and worship God and serve God in safety and acceptance. And while the rest of the world might not be there and yes, it may be a work in progress which we have not fully reached, we are working toward God’s vision in this church which we know to be God’s church, which is a safe place for all who experience discrimination based on any differences between people. Let us leave fear and anxiety behind and live God’s vision in this church.

Look around at the different people here with different experiences and opinions and lives. All have worried. All have loved. All are seeking God. God brings us together to be strengthened, to be welcomed, to let go of our fears and anxieties, to live fully in the love of Christ, sharing that with our neighbors.