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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

July 27, 2014

Gospel: Matthew 31-33, 44-52
1st Reading: 1 Kings 3:5-12
2nd Reading: Romans 8:26-39

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing. End of story. I could just end my sermon there.

But don’t our minds attach conditions to that? Don’t we start making exceptions? Don’t we start drawing lines?

We sometimes draw lines at religion. This week there was a headline from a conservative Christian pastor who stated definitively that aliens from outer space would go to hell because they never heard of Jesus and therefore hadn’t been saved. I guess he hadn’t read this scripture. The Bible says God is love. If God is love, we can know God through a number of religions and possibly all religions. We are all made by God. We all belong to God. When we are loving, we are participating in God’s presence. Who cares what you call God in our limited human language? What can separate us from the love of God? Nothing! Therefore, our religion, our language, our nationality, our location in the universe can’t separate us from the love of God.

Some have said that suicide can separate us from the love of God.
Traditionally, a person who takes their own life cannot be buried in some cemeteries. Some have said that a person who takes their own life must have given up on God, must have lost their faith, must have lost their way. For that reason, they cannot be buried in holy ground and can expect to go to hell. Yet all the people I know who have taken their own life, were tormented by mental illness, depression so heavy they could barely function, in fact could not bear to go on another day. Would Jesus abandon the sick and despairing in their time of need? Jesus is a great healer. He came especially for those suffering and abandoned. What can separate us from the love of God? Nothing! Therefore depression and suicide can’t separate us from the love of God.

Some have said that being gay can separate us from the love of God. They have said that being gay or lesbian is a life choice, that it is lustful and selfish and against God’s laws. Yet, how many gay or lesbian people do you know that have struggled to change their orientation and would gladly be straight if they could, yet to no avail? What is the most loving thing to do, pretend to be something we’re not? Does God want us to lie to ourselves and our friends and family? Does God want us to be in pain every day, hiding who we are? God has come to free us to be who we truly are. Gay or straight, God doesn’t want us acting in ways that hurt ourselves or others. God wants us to express our sexuality in healthy ways for our own good and for the good of this world. Finally, who of us hasn’t ever been lustful or selfish, broken God’s laws, or made poor choices. We all have. Jesus gave his life for all of us sinners. What can separate us from the love of God? Nothing! Therefore our sexuality cannot separate us from the love of God.

Some have said that being small can separate us from the love of God. We have wondered if God could use someone as inept, as plain, as bumbling, as insignificant as we are. The Bible is full of stories to show us that yes, God can use those who are poor, small, or unusual. King Solomon was just a little boy when he came to power. He recognized that he knew nothing and was powerless. So he was humble, and he asked God for help. He looked beyond himself for the wisdom to rule. And God helped him. The mustard seed is a parable about the smallest little seed. Drop it in a field and in a few years you have a whole field full of these mustard shrubs. Take the example of the yeast. I have been using a recipe called no-work bread. It is for lazy people, or maybe just busy people who don’t have time to knead the bread. It takes a half a teaspoon of yeast with about 4 cups of flour. You mix four ingredients, flour, water, yeast, and salt, let it sit in a bowl for about 18 hours. When you come back, the transformation is amazing. It has risen to the top of the bowl with just a little yeast. What was small has transformed everything, made all the difference. The same is true for us. We may be small. We may have very little power. We may be completely ordinary and uninteresting. What can separate us from the love of God? Nothing. Not even being small and helpless and insignificant can separate us from the love of God.

But what about the parable of the fish net? When the net is drawn in, the good is put into the baskets and the bad is thrown out? Doesn’t that indicate that some will be drawn to God in the Kingdom of Heaven and some will be separated from the love of God and thrown into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth? There is evil in this world and someday it will be destroyed. People are good at their core, made in the image of God. God sees the value in us, the pearl, the treasure hidden in the field. Yet we hurt each other sometimes, we get greedy, we get selfish. That all gets thrown out and destroyed, while allowing us our proper place with God. What can separate us from the love of God? Nothing! Not even our sins can separate us from the love of God.

If we could do it on our own, be good enough, we wouldn’t have needed Jesus to come show us how it is done. All fall short of the glory of God. Yet he loves us, claims us, and adopts us. When the parable tells of weeping and gnashing of teeth, some have said that’s what Jesus did for us. We may deserve to be tossed into the fire, but Jesus came and took our sins upon himself and died on the cross for our sake. It was Jesus who experienced the furnace of fire for our sake. Yet, the love he had to share and to teach us could not be destroyed by crucifixion or fire or anything else. What could separate us from the love of God? Nothing! Not even death could separate us. So Jesus rose again to new life and invited us to die to all the ways we draw lines and try to separate ourselves from one another, try to make ourselves look better than others, try to earn more money or get more recognition than others. Instead we are called to take down all the separations, quit judging, embrace one another, and allow ourselves to be embraced by God, into the kingdom that God is trying to show us each day.

At communion, the children are given a blessing. “Jesus loves you and will always be your friend.” Maybe we should start giving it to adults, too. Children hear, “I love you” all the time. As adults we can think of all the reasons we aren’t loveable, but God is our Father, and will always see what is loveable about us. So today I invite you to turn to someone near you and say these or similar words , “Jesus loves you and will always be your friend.” This is a true statement, a positive way of saying that nothing will separate us from the love of God. Try it during your week. Say it to yourself. Say it to your enemy. Say it to random people, out loud or in your mind and see what a difference it makes.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

July 20, 2014

Gospel: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
1st Reading: Isaiah 44:6-8
2nd Reading: Romans 8:12-25

I can just hear the Disciples asking Jesus, “If God is good, why is there so much bad in this world?” It is a question asked in many ways throughout the generations. Sometimes it is asked like this, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

For the Romans, during Jesus’ time, the explanation came down to all the different gods they worshipped. From their perspective, different gods have different ideas of what is good and sometimes one wins and other times another one does. Some of the gods want what his good and others want what is evil. But we believe in God who created everything good, who is love and all goodness. We believe God is all powerful and all knowing, so when it comes down to the bad things in this world, sometimes we wonder if God allows suffering, or causes it.

Jesus didn’t answer the question right out, but instead he did one of his favorite things and told a parable. Maybe they were sitting right out there in a field while he was telling this story and could see the wheat growing up all around them, hear the wind blowing through it, see the weeds in the midst of it. Jesus told the story of a benevolent farmer who sewed what was good, wheat.

But there are forces of evil in this world. Chock it up to free will, or greed, or idols, or people worshipping their own power and working to increase it. Jesus doesn’t explain where this enemy came from who sewed the weeds where the wheat was sewn. An enemy can be anyone or anything that is against God’s intention. God wanted good things to grow that would be nourishing and life-giving. Sometimes we don’t want what God wants, what is good for people. Sometimes we don’t think they deserve it. Sometimes we won’t accept the good things that God is offering us, because we think we know better, or we don’t think we deserve it. Maybe it doesn’t matter where this enemy comes from. When I plant my garden, weeds grow, and I don’t have anyone to blame. When I am out there pulling weeds, I might curse some enemy, but it is going to be soil or the wind or the birds. Who would intentionally come and put weeds everywhere? That is the nature of weeds. They show up where they aren’t wanted, they get in the way, they take from the plants I am intentionally growing and have lovingly planted, and sometimes I pull them up and sometimes I let them grow. That is the nature of life. God created everything good, but we sure can get in the way sometimes and mess it all up. We can sometimes be the enemy blowing dandelion seeds all over God’s good field.

There is a lot of good wheat in this world, good plants that bring nourishment. There are good people. Good things happen all the time. We enjoy good health, we bear happy healthy children, our kids grow up without knowing hunger or homelessness, we celebrate Birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, we live very comfortable lives that are full of joy. It is good to remember that much that is good in life is from God.

And there are weeds in life. The troubles come and there are things that are really messed up about this world. There are illnesses and injuries, addictions, rebelliousness, misunderstandings, wars, famines, and so forth. But God isn’t throwing those things in there to trick us or test us. Those things are contrary to God’s intention for us. However, that doesn’t mean that God can’t use those things or work through them to bring about good.

The servants are rushing to pull out the weeds, but God stops them. I think we can equate this to our feeling sometimes that we can tell who or what is a weed and what is wheat and our temptation to rush to judgment. The master advises the servants to let everything grow up together, so that some of the wheat doesn’t get ripped out with the weeds.

It reminds me of a cousin of mine, Melinda. She had a rough time as a teenager and young adult. She was out drinking every night. She was rebellious, dropped out of school. She got pregnant from a one-night-stand. Everyone was thinking she was a weed, a lost-cause. But then, practically overnight, Melinda seemed to finally get it. I don’t know if it was her newfound responsibility as a mother, or what, but she suddenly focused. She decided what she wanted to do with her life, went back to school, married her baby’s father, and became a nurse. She developed into wheat, after all. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t make mistakes or have problems. She got a divorce, after all that, and like all of us makes mistakes every day. But she is a good mother, a productive member of society, using her skills to help people.

In the wheat fields, there is a weed that grows that looks very much like wheat. But if you let it grow into maturity, the wheat begins to lean and the weeds stand up tall, making them easier to tell apart. It isn’t always easy to tell which is which. I remember working on the line at National Frozen Foods as a teenager, looking at peas going past me on the conveyor belt. Sometimes there was nightshade in the peas, a dangerous weed whose fruit looks almost exactly like peas. I remember concentrating so hard to see which is which so that nightshade didn’t end up in someone’s supper. It isn’t easy for us to tell which is which.

And aren’t we all a combination of weeds and wheat? Are we sometimes the peas, and sometimes the nightshade, or are we more like a conveyor belt of peas and nightshade mixed? God made each of us good and very good, in God’s own image. We are amazing creatures with amazing abilities. We can do so much good in this world. We are capable of great compassion, great generosity, and even sacrifice to benefit other people. And boy have we got some weeds growing within each one of us. We have our own selfish desires. We mix up God’s will and our own. We are greedy. We act in fear. We make a lot of mistakes. Even when we try to do good, have good intentions, try to be generous and loving, it doesn’t always work that way.

Thankfully, it isn’t up to us. God is the first and the last, the one with the big picture view of what’s what. We are in the field. We can’t see what’s going on. Only God knows what is lasting and what will be thrown into the fire. The Good news for this morning is that although all fall short of the glory of God (we are weeds) God adopts us into God’s family and makes wheat out of us. God sent the only son to live as the only stalk of wheat in a field of weeds and to throw good seeds out there in our midst. God sees the best in us, cross pollinated, hybrids of wheat and weeds that we are, invites us into God’s family and causes us to bear good fruit. We have nothing to fear. God made us and loves us. I take some comfort in knowing that God will sort it all out, so I don’t have to and in the thought that all that is broken and greedy and fearful and miserable in me, will someday be destroyed and that something good will remain, that is the person God made me to be, shining with God’s love. I like thinking of all of you that way, too. God made us well and sees the best in us. That goodness from God is lasting.

The reading from Romans this morning depicts the creation as pregnant. Something is growing and forming that is amazing and beautiful. Abundant life is being organized and formed. Many of you know that pregnancy and labor is not always beautiful. There are definitely some difficult things about it and there is going to be pain. But pregnancy is a temporary situation. Pain does not mean we are being punished or that something bad is happening. It is a part of life and part of the process of bringing life into the world. God is bringing forth abundant new life.

The seed of abundant life has been sewn in the field by God and is ripening. The field is pregnant with new life. There are difficulties in this labor, fears about the uncertainty of what will be born and what the process will be like. But God promises something, the glory of which will overshadow the labor pains and fears and weeds and the suffering that has come before. Because this is God, the beginning and the end, we know it is going to be good. God created us good and God is taking us toward something good. God sewed us in love and harvests us in love.

When we are expecting something terrible, we live in fear and become paralyzed. But when we are hopeful, we prepare with joy. When we are hopeful we have a vision, a picture in our mind of what we are looking forward to. A farmer pictures the field full of beautiful ripe wheat. Parents picture themselves holding a healthy beautiful baby. We might picture people of different backgrounds worshiping God together. We might picture a world where the air is clean, where everyone has enough to eat, and everyone shares power in decision-making. Then hope kicks in and we find ourselves preparing for that glorious future that we can picture. We tend those fields, we make space for a new baby, we make our church easy to connect with. We share our food, give voice to each person, and tend and care for this earth. We hope for what we do not see with our physical eyes, but with the eyes of our hearts and we act with hope when we begin to transform our world into the vision that God has given us so that God’s love can be born and new life can flourish. So let us go forth in hope of what God is doing within us and through us and through this world.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

July 13, 2014

Gospel: Matthew 13:1-9
1st Reading: Isaiah 55:10-13
2nd Reading: Romans 8:1-11

Parables are so much fun because they have so many possible meanings. I think that is one reason Jesus told them. They make us think. He could have come right out and said what he meant, but isn’t it easier to swallow if we think about what parts apply to us and to find the many possible meanings on our own or in discussion?

One of the main questions which probably comes to mind when we read this parable, is about who we might be in the story. First, we probably think of ourselves as the plants, themselves. In this case, the parables tell us why some people have a strong faith and others are flakes. Yet, what good does it do us to judge each other? “Oh, she’s just a seed that fell on the path. No wonder she didn’t stick around and follow Jesus as well as I did.” We’re not in that other person’s position and it isn’t for us to judge or know whether their seed is growing into a healthy plant with a high yield or drying up.

A second possibility is that we are the seed that God is throwing out, little pods of possibility with the total information needed to grow something new and full of life. If the good news that God has given us, falls in a good place to grow, then it will sprout and grow. If it doesn’t, then it might whither up. In this case the parable explains why the good we try to do sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t or the people we try to help sometimes are helped and given new life and sometimes nothing happens at all.

A third possibility is that we are the kinds of soil. Some of us are the path. We try to make ourselves smooth and easier to get along with, pointing in a particular direction, knowing where we’re going in life. But we don’t make a good place for seeds to grow. Some of us are the rocky soil, with lots of conflicts and hard places, unresolved grief, places within ourselves that we keep bumping up against that keep growth from happening. Or we’re the thorns, a person so full of anger that nothing can grow there. And a few of us are the good soil, where God’s love can take root and grow.

Is anything really that cut and dried, though? Some pastors and scholars have proposed that we’re all the soils. Sometimes we’re thorny and grouchy, other times we might be full of rocks and our faults so obvious to us, but we don’t have the strength to remove them. Other times we’re shallow and we want to develop a new skill or we think we’re getting it, and then we get completely sidelined by some setback or distraction that sends our faith withering. And once in a while, we have a moment in which something changes in us and the seed of God’s love is clearly growing and new life is taking root.

Still, what are we supposed to do about that? What soil can change its own composition, or yield more or less fruit? Maybe the point of this last part is to be aware that we aren’t going to get it every time and not to be so hard on ourselves when we fail. That isn’t the totality of who we are.

In fact, this parable probably isn’t really about us at all. Whatever kind of soil or seed or plant we are, God is still this ridiculous farmer, casting seeds absolutely everywhere, willy-nilly, persistent, generous, joyful, overflowing. God never runs out of seeds, which I would say represent love and flourishing life. God provides absolutely everything needed for growth—, ways for plants to combine their traits, ways for them to adapt and to spread, soil, water, light, insects, animals, wind, etc. Whatever mistakes we make, the growth that doesn’t happen, the blossom end rot that ruins our precious fruit, the hard surfaces we fall on, the rocks in our soil, God just keeps throwing that seed of love out there until it grows and has a high yield.

This is partly what Paul is talking about in Romans when he talks about walking according to the flesh or according to the Spirit. Sometimes we look at things according to the flesh and it just looks hopeless. There are so many barriers, so many things wrong with us and this world, so many forces of evil and greed working in this world. It just feels like death is the only possibility. Even 75% of the garden isn’t hospitable to God’s loving seeds and those seeds die and are devoured. What percentage of ourselves are open to God’s seed of love growing what percentage of the time? Most of the time we don’t get it. But we don’t live according to the flesh anymore. God doesn’t see us according to our failures, but as filled with God’s life-giving Spirit. So that what seemed only dead and hopeless is now full of life, growing into plants and even producing more seed and casting it willy-nilly about until it, too, takes root and spreads.

God’s love can grow in surprising places. We don’t have to look any further than the patio right out front. There is a path leading to the church, and there are horsetails growing there in the cracks. God’s love is so strong that even a path can’t keep it from growing. There is a rock in Montana, a huge boulder, that has a huge tree growing right out of it. If we were to sew seeds, a boulder would be the last place we would plant a tree, yet there it grows. Even a huge stone isn’t enough to keep God’s love from growing. Living in Oregon, we have an abundance of thorns, but that doesn’t mean they don’t bear good fruit. Oregon blackberries will soon be abundant and ripe on the vines. My arms and legs will be covered in scratches and my fingers will be purple, but it will all be worth it when we have blackberry pie and homemade blackberry ice cream and blackberries in our cereal every morning. Finally, those seeds that are eaten don’t go to waste, they feed the birds, and sometimes come out the other end in better shape to take root or make fertilizer for new plants. Those plants that whither and die early, become nutrients in the soil so that later that soil can be nourishing for a plant to grow there. God’s love grows strong and sure, and wherever it is cast it makes a difference. Knowing that God is willing to try again with us, to send that love and hope it takes root. This view of God doesn’t show God angry or sad about the seed not growing, it doesn’t show God punishing seeds that don’t grow. Instead this is a view of God, joyful and hopeful, casting out that seed every which way, knowing that some will grow and that love will flourish.

God has a vision of abundant life. Sometimes all we can see are the obstacles, the thorns, the birds, the sizzling desert sun. But where we see trouble, God sees possibilities. Where we see a brier, God sees a myrtle. Where we see a thorn God sees a cypress. God sees those possibilities in us. Now we get to train our eye to see the best in ourselves, too, and to see God working in our lives, when it just seems like a fruitless mess to us. God sees possibilities where we see impossibilities. We may think that to invest our time or money in some people or situations is a waste of time. We calculate the risk and we aren’t going there. God doesn’t see things like we do, at all. God just goes on happily casting seeds and letting them fall where they may, taking root where they may, and growing where they may. God isn’t taking it personally that some don’t grow. But when something does grow, God is celebrating it and taking joy in it. What it would be like if we adopted the kind of joy that God does, trying new things without fear, dancing through life, generous with the seeds of love and just pouring them all over everyone? When they don’t take root, who cares! Move on. We didn’t lose anything in the effort. And when they do take root and grow, what opportunity for celebration!

So let us go forth in the Spirit, without fear. Let us share our love freely, let it fall where it may. If it doesn’t take root, no biggie. If it does, let us celebrate, going forth in joy and being led back in peace until all people and trees and mountains and hills clap their hands and burst forth in a song of praise and flourishing life in honor of God, fulfilling God’s vision for what this world truly can be, a life-giving place for all God’s creatures.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

July 6, 2014

Gospel: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
1st Reading: Zechariah 9:9-12
2nd Reading: Romans 7:15-25a

This week, as we do every year, we had a 4th of July barbecue at our house. We invite our friends, make oodles of food, borrow chairs from the church, and relax with a few beers and some vegan sausages, and watch the fireworks from all over the neighborhood. The barbecue is a lot of work to put on. We have to clean up the yard and the house. This year we were smart and started a month in advance. I listed our old tires on Craigslist and they were scooped up the same day. Nick sawed up the long tree branches that I had trimmed from our Hawthorne tree. We mowed and weed-whacked the yard. I pulled some weeds I had been meaning to get to. We did the recycling, scrubbed the bathroom top to bottom, and chased away the fruit flies.

It was a lot of work, and yet the burden was light. Nick and I both chipped in. I let Sterling think he was helping me clean the bathroom. Nick got me to take care of some of his pet peeves around the yard—like the set of tires that had been stacked by the bush for over a year. I got him to take care of some of projects—I pruned the tree, why should I have to cut up all the branches, too? If it was up to me, I was getting out the circular saw for those big branches, but he used a hand saw and pure muscle to make it happen. We worked together and we didn’t even get on each other’s nerves that bad.

The yard and the house and the barbecue were burdens, but we chose them. The barbecue may even have partially been an excuse to get the other things done in a spirit of cooperation and fun. And we both enjoyed the company of our friends and the chance to offer hospitality to them.

I don’t think we can overestimate the heavy burdens that people are carrying. Many in my generation carry overwhelming debt, that’s enough to turn our hair gray. There are many people you would never know who are carrying heavy grief, live in pain or illness, or live in constant worry for a relative who is sick either physically or mentally.

Does being a Christian add to that burden or relieve it? Many would say it has added to their burden. Sometimes church adds guilt and shame, a long list of “shoulds” about dress and language and proper behavior and praying and reading the Bible and serving others and never thinking of yourself. Sometimes church becomes another place where the burdens are heaped upon us.

Paul, the writer of the book of Romans that we read from this morning, sometimes felt that burden. He wanted to do right, but he just found himself doing wrong. I’m sure any of us could relate to his statement, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” He has good intentions but doesn’t always follow through. Paul had a lot of burdens. He was imprisoned. He was ill. He suffered from some thorn in the flesh that he doesn’t ever directly name. And he was the chief persecutor of Christians. He always carried the memory of those he had tortured and killed.

But Paul didn’t live as if he was burdened with guilt and shame. He didn’t hide away and shrivel up. Instead, he put himself out there, traveled all around the land telling the Good News of Jesus, that even after all the evil he had done and the people he had hurt, God came to him and welcomed him and forgave him and gave him a job to do transforming this world. Not only did God forgive and welcome him, but God’s people did, too. The very people he had hurt, took him in, nursed him back to health and put their trust in him. They made him a leader and helped him use his gifts to get the word out of who Jesus is and what Jesus’ message and purpose is.

We could say, “That’s all well and good for Paul. God loved him because he changed his life. That’s why God took away his burdens. I could never do what Paul did.” But God loved Paul, even when he was persecuting people. God cared about Paul and valued Paul’s gifts and was planting the seeds that would eventually give Paul what he needed to share the Good News and plant Christian churches all over the place. Also notice that even after Paul’s conversion, here he is admitting the struggle between good and evil that was still going on within him. He wasn’t evil in the past and now he is cured of that and that’s why his burdens are lifted. His life was always a struggle between good and bad in the past and also after his conversion. The thing that has changed as he writes what we read this morning, is that he knows God’s love. In the past he used to “know” that he was good with God, because, in his mind, he followed the letter of the law. Now, he still knows God’s love, but on a much deeper level. He knows that sometimes he does what is right. When that happens he gives credit to God, who is the only one who can do good through us. And he admits that sometimes he does what is evil. When that happens only he is to blame. Yet, God always loves and forgives and accepts him and walks with him in that struggle, as does his community of faith.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens.” We all are carrying heavy burdens. We’ve all done things that are wrong, even when we knew the right thing to do. We all could have done more to help others. Because of this, we might be inclined to hide from God. But like a loving parent, God invites us to come to God with all that we carry, with our struggle to do what is right, because God wants us to give those burdens to God and to get some rest. God wants us to let go of the struggle of trying always to do right, and just know that we are loved no matter what. God wants us to yoke ourselves to God and to a loving community we can work together with. God wants to free us from guilt and shame and always having to measure up. God loves us as God’s own children. So we are free to try new things, to make mistakes, to screw up royally, never doubting God’s love. We are free to get on with the important work of transforming this world more into the vision that God has in mind. Or rather God can get on with transforming this world through us. God is transforming this world so that everyone has enough and no one has too much, so that jealousy and backbiting have no place, so that all are empowered to use their gifts to contribute to the good of everyone, so that leaders look out for the good of all people instead of just trying to increase their own power, and that we share each other’s burdens and make the burden lighter for all who struggle.

When we have our 4th of July barbecue, when we come here on Sundays, when we visit the sick and imprisoned, when we lay down our weapons, the Kingdom of God is at hand, it is coming close. We all carry burdens, but we don’t have to do so alone. When we gather together, we share those burdens, in the prayers, in the sharing of the peace, in Holy Communion. We yoke ourselves with others so we know we aren’t alone. Community is a place we can practice the forgiveness and love we know from God. It may add extra burdens, in that we all have to contribute something, and sometimes put up with people and situations we might not choose, but doesn’t that lighten our burden to let go of control and receive the gifts that God offers through all these other people laying down their burdens and reaching out with now empty hands to embrace and to give.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

June 29, 2014

Gospel: Matthew 10:40-42
1st Reading: Jeremiah 28:5-9
2nd Reading: Romans 6:12-23

The themes of today’s readings are about welcome. I have had the chance to visit a variety of other churches during my vacation days over the years. I have been welcomed in many ways and really enjoyed the chance to sit and listen to the sermon, sit with my little boy, and sing hymns that are new to me, yet hold much meaning in their tunes and words.

I have felt the whole range of welcome, and I know I am privileged in that. When I go into a church, I dress appropriately, I know where to sit, I know how to find my way around a hymnal and bulletin, I know when to stand up and sit down, I speak the language, sing the hymns and communion setting really loud, and usually have a young child with me. I am welcomed and I wonder sometimes if that is because I fit in and I fit an ideal that a congregation expects and wants to fill its own needs. But am I welcomed for me? Does anyone care or want to know what would fulfill my needs and make my life easier even for just that one Sunday or that one week? Would I be welcomed if I was different, if I called out “Alleluia!” or “Amen” throughout the service, if I dressed in short shorts, or my kid had a kool aid mustache or ran around in circles during church? How would I be welcomed differently if I spoke Russian or Spanish? Would I be as welcomed if I somehow declared from the very beginning that I am just on vacation and I won’t be returning?

I don’t have the chance to visit King of Kings anonymously, and neither do any of you, to see what kind of welcome we offer and to whom. Those who stay usually say they have experienced us as welcoming and a few who haven’t, let us know in what ways they didn’t feel welcome. I wonder sometimes about who stays and who doesn’t return. I don’t usually take it personally. There are a lot of reasons that people might come or go and I’m glad we have lots of kinds of churches to fulfill the various kinds of needs that exist in this world. We are not a church for everyone, even though we would welcome just about anyone.

We see ourselves as welcoming here, yet I know there is more we can do. A few years back, one couple decided to try sitting in different pews. I hope they found themselves relating to different people, seeing things from different perspectives, and stretched and challenged in their usual way of thinking. It might be a fun thing to try during coffee hour. It becomes easy to sit with friends, but maybe each of us could challenge ourselves, even it if it was just once. Jesus welcomes us, and we get to welcome each other and especially welcome those who are new or different.

Welcome is the glue that holds a community together. We can add more glue to our existing relationships, but what about the new pieces that are trying to stick? They need some glue to get them going. They need some places to attach themselves. I remember another time when a couple invited other couples over to their home to get to know them. Bonds were formed and glue was applied that is still sticking to this day.

Think of the sharing of the peace. It is easy to greet those we know. But I love to see Kasen’s example, finding the person farthest from him in the sanctuary and going up with a hand extended. Here is a sight, this short little guy, looking up and confidently welcoming some tall, grown person. He is welcoming others as he has been welcomed. He is forming glue between him and other people. And when he goes to Karen to have a little lesson on the piano or organ after church, maybe he is mostly thinking of himself, but he is showing interest in another person and the gifts she offers and I love to see the smile on her face when she’s demonstrating her passion to him. It is a glue between the generations, between musicians, across a divide that we don’t normally get to cross in daily life. It is a true welcome, warm and beautiful.

I’ve been reading this article in the Women of the ELCA newsletter by Valora K Starr, Director of Discipleship for WELCA about hospitality. She talks about the usual way we see hospitality. It is all about the hostess and how she buys matching napkins and makes everything look pretty. The focus is on being the perfect hostess. But shouldn’t the welcome be about the other person and what they need? The guests are the most important part of the welcoming process. Without them, there is no welcoming to do. The author says, “Hospitality changes our hearts and actions so that we are available to meet the needs of others.” This kind of hospitality switches the focus from the hostess to the Holy Spirit as the one guiding the relationship and gluing us together in community.

The first step in hospitality is to make room, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually for the other. We’ve made physical room in the sanctuary for guests with walkers and wheelchairs by moving the pews around a little bit. We’ve tried to make the bulletin easier to follow by putting all the words there. What if we each came to church on Sunday expecting to meet someone new, maybe even to sit with them and show them the way through the service? What if we made room at our table at coffee hour and invited a newcomer to sit there? What if we made room in our week to connect with someone we don’t know very well to get some glue going in the relationship?

The next step in hospitality is to make ready. We prepare ourselves to both serve the guest and receive the gifts the guest has to offer. We will want to engage a conversation with the guest to find out what is going on in his or her life, ways we might be able to help. But it isn’t about charity either. We have to be willing to receive the gifts the other person offers and that means being ready to share a little more deeply about ourselves.

Finally when we practice hospitality, we want to be available. We need to be ready to be fully present with the other person—engaged. That’s why I am so thankful to all of you, that on Sunday morning my boy can be flitting all around the social hall and you are his family looking out for him, scolding him if he is naughty and helping him if he needs more of something. That frees me up to focus on the needs of someone instead of constantly distracted looking for my child. Hospitality offers attention and focus.

The next frontier of welcome is in the larger community. Most people will never come through the doors of this church, but we know Christ is present in them, too. How do we extend hospitality out to a world that really needs it?

A few people from our church are volunteering with the summer lunch program at some of the area elementary schools. What an exciting way to take our ministry of feeding the hungry out into the neighborhoods! There are kids to meet and other volunteers to connect with. These relationships are the glue that connects our community in Milwaukie.

Lonnie and Karen are in Estonia connecting on a huge level in hospitality, both giving and receiving it, as they lead the Unistus choir in a choir of tens of thousands of people, and with a banner sewn by our own Susan Brooks who has provided many of our banners, here at church. They are both welcoming and being welcomed, providing a world-wide glue that can help bring the peace that the prophet Jeremiah tells of.

Christ welcomed us by becoming one of us, making himself available and present, spending time and focus with those in most need, and giving of himself in an ongoing relationship. He even opened himself to receiving from us. May we welcome one another as Christ welcomed us, in this church, in our homes, and in our neighborhoods.