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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

December 14, 2014

1st Reading: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Psalm: Luke 1:46-55
2nd Reading: Romans 16:25-27

Last year at the our gathering of Oregon Lutherans, one of the speakers used the image of the finger play we all learned as kids: Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people. He changed it to be this: Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and send out the people. If you would have asked me when I was a kid where is God's house, I would have said it was church, but I hope if we asked the kids or any of us today, we would point out into the world, to people who are in prison or suffering from Ebola or neglected children or our neighbor in need. That is God's house, within people all around us.

When King David wondered where God's house was, he pictured a beautiful house of cedar, with grand architecture and large stones and carvings. He pictured what would eventually become the temple. He was naturally grateful for all that God had done for him: Taken him from the pasture to make him a prince, been present with him throughout his life, cut off all his enemies, and made for him a great name. God had taken him from a nobody and made him a great king. Now David wants to thank him and his gift is to make him a dwelling, a fancy house, a grand mansion. God quickly dismisses the notion and then changes the subject, turns it back to David and what God has done for David.

Mary, too, was a nobody that God lavished with grace and favor. We assume that there was something really special about Mary that would make God approach her with this assignment to bear God's only Son. There isn't anything in the reading that indicates anything special about her. In fact it may be that like King David, it was her lowliness that got her the job. Now she will be a house for God until Jesus is born and a shelter for him during his childhood.

She doesn't have any cedar to offer to build God a house. All she can do is say, “Thank you!” and stand there dumbfounded and wonder at the mystery of God coming in this unexpected way. Some have said that Mary gave her affirmation—her yes. And yet, when the reading says “servant” the word is really “slave.” Instead of calling herself God's servant, she calls herself God's slave. This shows that this isn't really about her will, but God's. This is God's action, not Mary's, to be born into this world. She does give her affirmation, but that was just icing on the cake. That she gave it was a response to what God is doing in this world, and also it was an affirmation without all the information about what this would mean for her or for her son or for any of us.

God is so active and Mary so passive. But even King David was pretty passive when it came to being chosen by God to lead. Every time he does get active, he does something stupid that gets him in trouble. What does go well for each of these chosen lowly people is that the lines of communication are kept open between them and God and a dialogue goes on in which God is present and they try to understand what God is doing and respond to it appropriately. God keeps on acting despite their imperfection and keeps the plan of love on track.

Now, after Mary has had some time to think about what's going on with her, we get today's psalm, Mary's song to Elizabeth when she arrives at her home to find that what the angel has told her is true. Elizabeth, although she is pretty old, has conceived a child. Mary is pregnant. She's found a relative willing to take her in and care for her during her pregnancy. This is just the beginning of what the angel has been saying, that nothing is impossible with God.

Nothing is impossible. It is possible that the lowliest will be chosen for the most important jobs. It is possible that God would break into human existence. It is possible that a virgin and an old lady would become pregnant. It is possible that prayers uttered year after year would finally be answered. It is possible that God's relationship with people is challenging and compassionate. It is possible that Jesus won't have a house in which to be born or a house to minister from or lay his head, but that will make his ministry even better. It is possible that God doesn't need a cedar house or any building, but must be free to move about and be available for everyone. It is possible that he would show us how to feed and heal and love and do so for us, too. It is possible that we would put God to death and inflict such suffering upon Jesus that he would die. And it is possible that he would rise to forgive us and give us new life.

God doesn't need a house. God doesn't need protection. God needs to be free and available. It turns out that the buildings we make to glorify God, say more about us than about God. They are walls that make us feel safe. They are walls that create insiders and outsiders. They are monuments to ourselves and a show of our wealth. That God does something good from them is another indication that nothing is impossible with God. I've loved seeing the downstairs transformed to accommodate the pantry. For years that closet was full of useless papers and old equipment. What fun to dig through and make it relevant, useful space that actually gives glory to God, not because it is big or fancy, but because it enables food to move through our church and out to hungry people.

God's ideal house is not big or fancy, but it is utilitarian, made to serve and welcome people in need. And furthermore, God is promising David another kind of house. “You want to build me a house, David? I'll show you a house. This will be the kind of house that really lasts for all ages.” Not like the temple which has already been destroyed when Luke's Gospel was written. This is house in the sense of family and lineage, a family of misfits that God is building, starting with David and expanding to all outsiders and aliens and gentiles. This is a house built out of love and compassion, a house that will be made sure forever because of Jesus and the life that he gives to all of us. In God's house, those in power keep their mouths shut and get out of the way and the smallest and shyest are empowered to be front and center, take the most important roles and receive the most attention. As they gain in power, they get to pass that privilege and favor on to the new lowliest ones, until all share power and God is able to work through each one and be present to each one and make each one a home for God's love.

God's ideal house is not one where people sit around and sing praises to God, the way I used to think of church. It is a heart open, a people going out to find God in unexpected places, it is in fields of sheep, it is in a barren womb, it is within the young and the old, it is in us even when we don't get it. The think about David and about Mary is that they could have been any of us, that they are us. God is taking what is humble and undeveloped and fresh and raw within all of us and doing what God does best, breaking into our world, surprising us, turning our systems of power and strength on their heads, and leaving us speechless and completely dumbfounded.

As messed up as this world is, God is active and breaking in. 150 families were fed through the pantry with a Christmas ham, homemade cookies, and many other extras to make it special and when one family lost their ham voucher, a man with compassion gave his away. There is the amazing miracle of giving and thinking of others that happens this time of year, with food and gifts for kids and meals, and kindness. A family who has been trying for a pregnancy finds out twins are on the way. A child asks to be baptized. New friendships are formed. A country has a difficult conversation about race. Someone gives up driving their car for a week, a month, a year. Under the soil, seeds wait until conditions are right to grow. Someone learns to read. Someone plays beautiful music. Someone visits a sick relative. Someone apologizes for a wrong from long ago. Someone seeks healing in a broken relationship. God is breaking in. God is being born. Love is developing and is the size of a pineapple this week, the right size to sneak in to all our Christmas preparations, but growing and bringing light and newness.

We don't always respond appropriately. Sometimes we want to build a structure to box that in and capture it for a lifetime. Sometimes we don't know what to say. But our hearts are bursting with thanks and sometimes that's all we can say. And once it soaks in that really all things are possible with God, we may find our emotions need expression either in words or a song or an action or two that helps someone, or in a changed life, oriented toward going out and finding God on the absolute margins, among the weakest, the least refined, the most lowly. May you find God active in the world around you and in your life. May you let that love wash over you and affect you. May you respond in whatever way you do, letting God make something of that imperfect response and break down the walls of the temple, our church, our homes and our hearts, until we all know that we are in God's family, and that God's house is big enough for all of us.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

December 7, 2014

1st Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11
Gospel: Mark 1:1-8

There's old news and there's good news. Here's the old news: An army takes a country by force, overtaxes it, controls it with arms, oppresses its people. That was the situation in Israel when Jesus was born. More old news: A people are dragged off to a foreign land and kept there for 200 years. That was the situation of our reading in Isaiah, the Israelites taken into slavery in Babylon. More old news: Unarmed black men are killed by white police officers and grand juries don't bring criminal charges against the officers. That's our situation in the US over the past couple of weeks. It isn't old news in that it is boring, but old news in that we've heard it before, experienced it before, and it is part of an old order and system that keeps some people in power and others powerless.

But God is promising something completely new—new life, comfort for those who have been wronged, and justice for those who have hurt others, a whole new start, a chance to heal and to have relationship, good news. But the pathway from the old news to the good news seems so long and full of potholes. It seems almost impossible to get from where we are now, with all the injustice and inequality and prejudice and fear and anger, to a place of peacemaking, and healing, of new life and the Kingdom of God.

Thankfully, it doesn't depend on us, because we are like withering flowers and blades of tender grass on a hot day. We wilt and fail. But whether the Kingdom of God, God's reign of justice and peace and love, comes and when, doesn't depend on us, thankfully. That is something guaranteed by God and dependent upon God who stands forever, reliable, and powerful.

This partly sounds like old news. God is powerful and mighty, starting a huge highway project so he can have his grand parade, ruling with might. Yet there is something unexpected and brand new. God is also gentle and tender. These verses are so beautiful, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” There is an old news view of God, vengeful, angry, violent. Yet, here is the good news, a different view of God, powerful, yet gentle and very patient.

We are watching the old news unfold on TV and hearing it on the radio and reading about it in the newspaper and online, racial mistrust and divides in our country. People are dying. People are protesting. People are afraid of each other. How will we ever find our way from the old news of fighting and hurting each other to the good news of justice and peace?

When I was growing up the “N” word was used in my house almost every day. It was used in an often repeated joke that my dad would say, and that I still don't understand, to this day. My mom did daycare. My dad had to quit saying that word when my mom started babysitting little Andrew, who was a mixed race kid. We saw the before and after picture, the old news, the old way dad talked and acted, and we saw that wasn't the way it was supposed to be when he had to quit doing it. My parents told me they moved to Oregon so we wouldn't have to go to school with children of other races and that they wouldn't allow us to ever date someone of a different race because that person wouldn't have the same values that we did, of caring for family. They also sent me a mixed message because they said I was lucky to be born a white girl in the United States. To me this meant that I could have been born with any color skin from anywhere in the world. It meant that I could be a person of any race and I should treat others how I would want to be treated. That could be me.

It was a strange picture I got growing up: old news-racism, lack of understanding, and prejudice combined with this mixed-up good news of a different perspective, something new possible, a connection between me and all the other people of the world, and an awareness of my privilege, something I had that other people didn't have, that I shouldn't ever take for granted, and that I could use to help people with less privilege than I had, often by getting out of the way.

What do I mean by privilege? I don't get pulled over all the time by cops and when I do they let me off with a warning. No one follows me around in the store expecting me to shoplift. Nobody expects me to be carrying a gun or to be a threat of any kind. That is all because of an accident of birth, something completely out of my control—my race. That's old news, the way people are treated differently because of the color of their skin.

Also old news is the reaction that a lot of white people have when others talk about their experiences as a person of color. We often dismiss it. We often get defensive, as if the other person is asking us to fix it and take responsibility for every person of our race who has ever been prejudiced.

It is hard to listen to these painful stories. We want to take away the pain. We want to fix it. We want it not to be true. But the telling of these stories is what is going to take us from the old news to the good news. The good news is that if we can let ourselves hear these stories and internalize them, if we can recognize and honor the pain, then we will be changed and new life will spring up. Then we will speak up if we hear someone say something rude to someone else just because of race or gender or age or sexuality. Then we will stand up to bullies in our midst. Then we will question those stereotypes in our heads about other people. We will venture to make friends with people of different races. And the world will be changed because we are sick and tired of the old news and ready for the Kingdom of God to break in and transform us.

This is part of what it means that the hills be made low and the valleys lifted up. Hills and valleys are the barriers of inequality that keep some people from seeing and experiencing God's kingdom, the good things in life that we all hope for our friends and family. If someone is in a valley, they won't be able to see and hear what is going on on the mountain. If there is a hill or mountain, it can block the view of those below to able to see the goodness of God. If you've ever been to Holden Village, you may have noticed that it is perched between mountain peaks. It is my understanding that there are many days in the winter that the sun doesn't fall on Holden Village because of its placement there. In the same way, the hills and valleys, the inequalities of life keep the sun from falling on people we know and love, our friends of different races and skin colors.

We have become accustomed to dismantling the hills and valleys for the genders and in discussing and listening to stories of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. We need to open ourselves to hearing the stories of our friends and neighbors and sons-in-law and daughters-in-law and fellow church members who have experienced discrimination because of race.

When I hear those stories of prejudice and pain, I have been learning to listen and to go to that place within myself that has experienced something similar. Although I am privileged, I have been met with laughter when I have said I am a pastor. There were many who doubted that I would be able to do it, including people in my own family. We've all had times of struggle that we can tap into when someone shares their experience, either in person or even in a news story. We all know what it is like to be put into a category and be labeled and to be treated differently because of it. I think of my poor boy and the pressures put on boys to fight each other and be a man and not show their emotions. It breaks my heart to think that someday other people will try to tell him who he is and how he ought to act if he is going to be a man. Our own story of struggle, rather than making us say to another to quit whining, ought to open our heart to hear what they've been through and to vow not to let that happen anymore. We know our world isn't as it should be, isn't how God envisions it. Are we going to put up more mountains and valleys and make things harder for our brothers and sisters, or are we going to listen, let those stories affect us, and do something about it so that our world is a little bit better for all of us.

The chasms between people seem so huge—how can we ever make peace between us? God is building a road. He says, “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill made low, and uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” “Prepare the way of the Lord.” This is the road that Jesus will use to march straight into human life, into our lives. It will become the road of Joseph and Mary on the way to Bethlehem, the birth canal that Jesus passes through as he is born, the road that he walks as he carries his cross. It is a road that links two places together that seem completely divided—a road between races and genders and ages and sexualities—it is the road of love and we're always invited on it to love and be loved as God loves.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

November 30, 2014

Gospel: Mark 13:24-37
1st Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

I was truly thinking of tossing the readings for today, on this day of celebration, the baptism of two young children and two adults and the day we receive two other new members. Family and friends in attendance—we want to make a good impression. “All our deeds are like a filthy cloth,”--it just doesn't have the happy Christian feeling that we all want to impress on everyone today, guest and longtime member alike. But being Christian is about telling the truth and these readings tell the truth, not just about the difficulties in life, but also about the joy of the fellowship of God's Son, Jesus Christ. These readings don't gloss over the challenges that life brings, but also celebrate that we are all God's people.

The reading from Isaiah doesn't say that we are all filthy rags—it says our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth and we have become like one who is unclean. However the reading also affirms that we are all God's children made good from the very beginning. “We are all the work of your hand.” And “God works for those who wait for him.” God made us all good and sees us as good.

But let's be real—this world is rough and we are part of it. I started reading an article about how people aren't completely domesticated. Dogs started to be domesticated much earlier than cats, and that's why your dog wants to please you and your cat couldn't care less. People have not always been civilized. We haven't always lived together in groups in which we had rules to order us and help us take care of each other. Sometimes our animal nature makes us more cat-like than dog-like, less caring of what other people think, less friendly, less able to follow directions, more likely to go off and do what we want to without a thought for anyone else. In other words we get off track. God made us and loves us and still loves us when we screw up, but we do screw up and this world leads us astray and teaches us bad manners. And when we do good, too often it is only to get what we want, so that even our motivations are impure and our righteous acts can be filthy rags, full of holes and dirt.

Thinking of Kasen and Kamryn and all the kids in the congregation, we don't want our children to know how difficult life can be, or at least we want to tell them in an age-appropriate way, a little at a time. We warn them of stranger danger and help them understand what to do if they get lost. We explain, in simplified terms, news stories they overhear or ask about, that reveal how people are hurting and hungry. We try to help them respond with compassion. We praise their good behavior and explain how their naughty behavior makes mommy cry. But we don't want them to live their lives in fear of us or God or life. Right now it is all about curiosity and exploration and taking in information and learning and celebrating who they are and who God made them to be.

These references to God coming back and the stars falling and being ready can invoke a feeling of fear, of anxiety. But in this waiting of Advent, are we waiting for someone or something that we fear, or are we waiting for something good to come into our midst? When all the smoke clears, we find ourselves looking in a manger at a little newborn baby. If you've had a newborn baby, you know the element of fear that can come into play—the fear of being responsible for something so helpless, the pure vulnerability of a human being at the beginning of life and through childhood and all the way through life for that matter, the fear of a changed life and not knowing what that will mean.

But usually the joy and hope and even the exhaustion overcomes that fear, and you find a way to do what seems impossible, raise a child, with the help of many many other people. And you aren't afraid that this baby will hurt you. It is a helpless child, full of peace in the quiet moments and full of need at other moments. We look in the manger, and we have nothing to fear from God who would come this way, the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This Advent we find ourselves preparing—are we preparing for something we fear? We've got every reason to be anxious. This congregation has been through all kinds of anxiety-provoking situations over the years, from difficulties paying the bills, to expensive repairs being needed on the building, to pastoral leadership making poor decisions, to falling numbers of members and so on. However, because of these troubles, you all know what is most important and how reliable and faithful God is. Because no matter what the trouble, you've never been alone. God has been in your midst, reminding you why your here and keeping you faithful and focussed and awake and continuing to call you into the fellowship of Jesus Christ.

One of the anxieties this congregation has faced has been the absence of children—a problem which we do not have today, and haven't had for the last three months. It was almost a year ago that the Sandness family started coming here. I think it was last summer, I asked Jamie, wouldn't they rather go to a church that has more kids. I didn't want to gloss over the truth—I wasn't saying anything she wasn't aware of. I had laid aside my anxiety about our aging congregation and decided that if God was going to keep giving us seniors, then it was seniors we would minister to. I think many others had let it go, as well. And Jamie in her non-anxious way said something to this effect, “No. We want to be here and we're planning to stay. When the next family comes along they will see another young family here and be more inclined to stay.” And now with the help of some of the other young families that had been on the sidelines and another few who have recently started coming, something new is happening here.

This is about hope in action. Here is a family that had let go of future outcomes, and was content with how things were going. Yet they also had a vision of what could be—not only their own vision of their kids mixing with other kids, but a vision for other families that might come and what they might experience when they met another young family. And they actively worked to make it happen. They could have stayed home and waited until those other families came. Instead they were faithful and let these children teach the congregation how to expand our welcome for little people, by learning their names, by coming to expect their noises, by reaching down for a little hand at the sharing of the peace, and so forth.

It is a healthy balance of letting go and letting what happens happen, of hope and vision, and of working toward that vision. The readings are all about letting go—letting go of expectation of what will happen when, and letting go of control—you are our potter and we are your clay. There are some things we don't know and can't know, so we let go of that. We don't need to know. But not knowing, doesn't mean that we don't do anything. “Keep awake” the Gospel says. Be prepared. Keep watch. Watch for what? Are we watching for some awful outcome, like the collapse of society and and escalation of violence or for our church to peter away? When we look for that, do we bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy? Or do we look for signs of life, for Jesus Christ in our guests and in the stranger and in all those unexpected places? And when we set ourselves up to see that, don't we treat each other with greater respect and create a better church and neighborhood and world?

You know this sudden appearance of families and younger people is not our savior. They will not make or break our church. Some will come and some will go. These children will grow up into adults—and most likely into elderly people. They will struggle to stay awake and to let go of what they can't control and not to be too anxious. But whether they are 3 or 5 or 35 or 60 or 80, God is saying to them and to us, “You are all my people, the work of my hand.” It isn't about who we used to be or who we will be, but the celebration of who we are right now, God's own precious children. And most of all, it is a celebration of our Lord Jesus Christ, who reminded us that it is all out of our hands, to let go of what we can't control. But also that doesn't mean we sit back and do nothing. In faithfulness, we move forward in hope, knowing that the fulfillment of all our hopes is about to be born in our midst, has already been born, and given his life to show us how best to live, putting others before ourselves, and making this world more loving and just.

What a gift for this Savior to be born among us. We think we are going to pass on our values to another generation, but children pass their values on to us of creativity and spontaneity and living in the moment and celebrating life. Let us serve these little ones and strangers in our midst, and by doing so serve Jesus and let them change us to more reflect the love of God.