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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

December 24, 2015

Gospel: Luke 2:1-20 
1st Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7
2nd Reading: Titus 2:11-14

I didn't have much of a tradition of watching Christmas specials when I was a kid, but it was important to Nick, so now we've introduced some of these to our child. One of my favorites is “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Apparently this show almost never made it to television. It used real children to voice the characters, something that just wasn't done. And it was too depressing! Those are two big reasons I love the show. If you haven't seen it recently, Charlie Brown just isn't in the Christmas spirit. It made it on the air because, the network paid up front for Charles Schulz to make the special, so they went ahead and aired it, even though they didn't like it. Of course, it turned out to be a huge success. It resonated with people.

We all like the story of an underdog, and that's why we like Charlie Brown. He can't do anything right. His friends are always picking on him. His dog is always outshining him. People give him rocks instead of candy to put in his Halloween bucket. His kite inevitably gets eaten by a tree. And he is often scowling or in a bad mood. Charlie Brown makes it ok to be grouchy at the holidays or any time, really. 

But Charlie Brown is also complex. He has his friends over for Thanksgiving dinner and he and Snoopy feed them popcorn and toast, the only two things they know how to cook. He gets picked to direct the Christmas play. He usually gets picked up on the shoulders of his friends and celebrated at the end of the show. He's a regular guy who has a lot of ordinary days, some bad days that he makes worse with his bad attitude, and some moments of pure joy. He is a hero that we can all relate to.

There had been a lot of hubbub the last week or so about Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” that he is inseparable from his blanket during the whole show. But when he gets to deliver his line in the Christmas play, “But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid, for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord,” for this line he drops his blanket. He doesn't need it anymore. Because of the good news of the Christmas angel, he is not afraid. This is truly good news that gives him confidence to deliver his line, but also to stand on his own without his security blanket for a moment. At a moment when most of us would be very afraid, during public speaking, Linus finds himself comforted by the good news of Christmas.

There are several profound moments in this special. The other, more famous one, is the choosing of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Charlie Brown is sent to get the Christmas tree for the Christmas play. Why they sent him, I have no idea. You'd think they'd know what to expect from him! Of course he goes and picks the most pathetic, needle dropping tree you've ever seen that bends to the ground when an ornament is placed on it. 

I love the symbolism. Charlie Brown, the underdog, chooses the underdog tree. He sees value in the unloved, the forgotten, the pathetic, and he brings it for the Christmas play, to redeem it and give it a place of importance. 

The one thing I hadn't noticed before when I watched it this year, is that Charlie Brown goes to choose a tree and they are all pink aluminum trees. That's what the Peanuts gang has sent him to get. Charlie Brown and Linus knock on the trees and they give that hollow thump with a bit of an echo, like the tin man when Dorothy thumps on his chest. Charlie Brown doesn't choose his little, pathetic tree from among many green and stately ones, he chooses the only “real” tree in the place. 

God could have chosen brighter and shinier, tidier and more grand, the more expensive and modern, and that's what everyone expected from the Messiah—that the Son of God would live in a castle and be protected and wear fine clothes and eat rich food. Instead, he was a real person, like us. Maybe that's the part of Christmas that really gets us. Jesus was found instead in a manger, a feeding trough among the animals, born in a stable. The Gospel says, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Another word for sign in the Gospels is miracle. In the book of John, Chapter 20, verse 30 it says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples.” He performed miracles, in other words. “This will be a miracle for you, that you will find the child lying in a manger.” It was a miracle to find a child in a manger. The shepherds would have no doubt which child it was. Children don't belong in mangers. Even more of a miracle is that the Son of God would be found in a manger. Maybe to us it sounds cute and cozy, but truly this would have been a pathetic place to try to bring a child into the world, a pathetic place to be born, but very real, and very down to earth, an indication of where Jesus would be found throughout his whole life. 

Jesus was often found where he wasn't expected to be, in the synagogue teaching at 12, at the Jordan River expecting to be baptized by John, among the lepers, among women and children, among the pathetic and small, among nobodies, among criminals, among the dead. He was seldom where he was expected to be and the same goes for this age, too. We find him in the pay it forward shops and soup kitchens. We find him wearing rags and sleeping in the elements. We hear him on the phone, he lost his job, his kid is sick, would we happen to have some extra food for his family. We think of him, far from home this holiday, suffering from grief this time of year, thrown out by his family after coming out of the closet, small and discounted, weak and tormented. But this is exactly who Jesus came to be and came to be among and within.

There was no room for him in the inn, in the fancy, warm, dry place of hubbub and privilege. So he finds the places where there is room. That is the miracle of Christmas. However busy we are, however little we have room for this pathetic, poor, bedraggled one, he is among us, a miracle right under our nose, waiting until we have room, until we are the one out in the cold or grieving, or until we realize that much of what use to fill our lives is much like those aluminum Christmas trees, fake and hollow, though glitzy. I think many of us realize it now, but we are just so afraid to let go of all that and stand vulnerable with our arms open to receive what God is offering, something real, something small, something meaningful, something living. And maybe he isn't even going to wait until we are prepared or ready, he is going to surprise us with his presence, ready or not, because we, too, are lost and hungry, feeling small and insignificant, weary of the consumerism, weary of the injustice, and maybe just looking for Jesus to surprise us and interrupt our very predictable lives with good news of great joy.

December 20, 2015

Gospel: Luke 1:39-55 
1st Reading: Micah 5:2-5a
2nd Reading: Hebrews 10:5-10

An unwed mother goes to wait our her pregnancy far away from wagging tongues and accusing eyes. An older woman find herself pregnant after years of infertility. A baby leaps in a womb. Two women with vastly different experiences find commonalities. Two women sing together. Two people bless each other. Two people know what it is like to be outsiders, embrace each other and support each other. A person with more experience and power defers to someone with less. These are completely ordinary occurrences. And yet we see in them hope and new life.

A family sits down to a Christmas feast. Two people who have argued talk it out like adults. Someone finds healing in Alcoholics Anonymous. Someone drives someone to a doctor appointment. Someone gives a gift to someone who might not otherwise receive a gift. Someone listens to a child. People sing together at a nursing home. New family members are welcomed. People share. These are completely ordinary occurrences and yet we can see in them hope and new life.

Each year at Advent and Christmas time, I follow a very similar routine. At some point I take down the orange of Thanksgiving and go to the basement for my three boxes of Christmas decorations. We exchange Christmas lists. I bake spritz cookies. I gather gifts and wrap them. We go get a tree or put up our artificial tree. I go to the post office to mail gifts. We open Christmas cards and get news of the year from family and friends. We listen to the same Christmas album that I have ever year since I was born. Maybe I even heard it in the womb—the Ray Coniff singers. Who knows if it is any good—it is tradition and it isn't Christmas without it. We go to grandma's for a Christmas celebration with her and all the cousins. We try to get together with Nick's side of the family and we always have to reschedule at least once due to illness. We struggle through holiday traffic. We exchange gifts. We eat food. We snuggle warm indoors. We have church. We sing “Joy to the World!” and “Silent Night.” I go home to celebrate with my family. Christmas is basically the same every year. In a way it is very ordinary.

And yet, there is something new happening, something hopeful and alive. There is something about this season that takes us back to childhood, that links us to the promises of God's presence coming among us, and that makes us look forward to a future of peace and joy so much that we want to act to make it so, so much that we do act to bring peace and joy on earth.

Maybe the most ordinary thing of all is the singing. We sang part of the Gospel this morning that Mary sang. As Pastor Hiller taught us last week in our Sunday morning Bible 101 class, often in the Bible when we see the text take the form of poetry, that's because the Bible scholars figure the speaker was singing. 

Even though singing, especially group singing, is becoming a lost art, it is so basic to who we are. Some scholars believe that before humans ever spoke, we sang, and that speaking evolved from that. Hearing my son make up new songs several times a week, makes me believe that more and more. Singing seems such a part of our nature. It can capture a depth of feeling that simply speaking cannot. It commits thoughts to memory—how often can you remember exactly what a person said, but you go home from church singing the choir anthem or a new hymn that you only just heard for the first time? 

Church is one of the few places where folks still expect to sing together. Sometimes the chanting of the communion setting in church seems so old fashioned and strange, but when we think of ages gone by when there weren't microphones to amplify the voice, singing provided a way for the sound to travel and the vowel sounds to be elongated so that words could be understood, even way in the back of the church.

This is one time of year when we still expect people to come together and sing in groups. Of course I'm talking about Christmas Caroling. It isn't a surprise to see a group singing in the mall or walking down the sidewalk. Singing together is a very ancient practice, it was one of the few types of entertainment that families had at their disposal before television was invented. 

But singing is not just ordinary or common. Singing is revolutionary. It is words that get to the heart. Singing changes us.

When the Berlin Wall came down, the report was that groups gathered there to sing. It started small, with a thousand or so in Leipzig and grew to 300,000 people gathered singing songs of justice and resistance. When the guards were asked why they didn't do something about it, why they didn't defend the wall, they said, “We had no contingency plan for song.” 

In times of American Slavery, slaves sang those songs of resistance to find hope, to build community, to remember who they were. Imagine what they thought as they sang the magnificat. God came to Mary, a person of little importance, and brought forth God's child, God's presence on earth through her. Jesus came to even everything out, to make everything right, to crush the proud and lift up the humble and downtrodden. What an incredible song of hope.

The folks in the readings for this day are in dark times. They don't have much reason to find God's presence in their midst. There is some debate about when this was written, but it was a good summary of how people felt in a number of instances when it seemed all hope was lost, when people weren't even sure if they would see the next day, let alone live secure. For Mary, she had every reason fear—fear that Joseph would release her and that she'd be shunned. For Elizabeth, she had given up a long time ago that she would ever bear a child. Earlier in the Gospel of Luke she talks about the disgrace she has endured among her people, that she was looked down upon by family and neighbors, that she and others felt her lacking as a woman that she had been unable to have a child. 

It is from this place of darkness, lack of hope, of despair and disgrace, that all these stories move toward the light and can receive the light, that they begin to expect the light, they are more prepared for the light and love and blessing of God.

Maybe we even sing our Advent hymns as an act of resistance. Some pastors, I know, feel pressured by their congregations to introduce Christmas hymns during the season of Advent. The hymns are playing all over the radio and then of course the day after Christmas they are gone. But we are waiting. We are full of expectation, we are watching, on the edge of our seat for the contractions to begin. Waiting is an art. It is something we get better at when we practice it together. We are waiting for Christmas, for the birth of Christ on Christmas Eve. And we are waiting for fullness of Christ's presence, for God's love and peace to be known by everyone, on whatever day of the year of fleeting moment or whatever that would look like. And we don't just wait by sitting in our armchair. We prepare. We take those ordinary moments and we look for the extraordinary presence of Christ in them. We take that ordinary trip to the store as an opportunity to help someone else, whether it is carrying their groceries, or grabbing extra cans of food for backpack buddies, or bringing someone along with us who can't get to the store on their own. We prepare by taking the chance to give a gift to someone who is forgotten or invite over a neighbor who might be lonely or by singing with someone in a nursing home. We are preparing for the love of Christmas to change us and thus change our world. That's when something ordinary becomes something transformative, when God is magnified and we see God's presence and love more clearly, and God magnifies those who are forgotten and despairing.

In the Gospel, Elizabeth blesses Mary. Elizabeth knows what it is like to have people talk about you behind your back and reject you. She knows a little bit of what Mary is facing. She turns her experience into blessing. She is the more powerful woman, and should expect Mary to respect her and dote on her. Instead she is honored by her cousin's visit and uses it as an opportunity to bless Mary and give her all the attention. And then she steps aside and lets Mary have the greater song. We can take a hint from Elizabeth, that when we are in the position of power, when we are the older, the more educated, the more wealthy, that is our opportunity to bless someone else, give them our attention, and let them be the one to shine. 

My prayer is that we would be expectant, that we would be on the lookout for the extraordinary in the ordinary, on the lookout for God's presence in ordinary moments. My prayer is that we would see God, not far away, but coming among us to empower us, and that our lives would be ones of blessing.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

December 13, 2015

Gospel: Luke 3:7-18 
1st Reading: Zephaniah 3:14-20
2nd Reading: Philippians 4:4-7

“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice.” Today is the Sunday of Joy in the Advent Season. When the whole world is telling us to be afraid, we come here to rejoice. The days are getting literally darker and shorter. The waters are rising. The winds are howling. The forces of nature are telling us to be afraid in these dark days. And the darkening days are mirrored by the news. Be afraid and stay inside, don't get together with your neighbor because you might get hurt, don't help someone in need because they won't appreciate it, don't do anything but sit safely and watch this fearful news cycle and watch these commercials that cause more fear.

We want to do something, so today we turn to John the Baptist. He's the latest new craze, someone telling the truth even if it sounds a little harsh. We want something to change. We don't want to be afraid anymore, but we're not sure where to turn. 

He takes one look at us and says, “You brood of vipers!” Oh man, he's on to us. He tells us we're part of the problem. He challenges us to see if we're going to run away at his fiery speech or if we're desperate enough that we really do want change. He tells us that it isn't going to be enough to be in team Abraham or to join team John the Baptist or to get a little water thrown around and pay lip service to making change. “Change is coming!” he tell us. Get ready for the real change, God coming with fire and breath, Spirit, love. 

We, along, with the crowd, ask him, “What should we do?”

Even, tax collectors, lawyers, and used car salesmen, pimps, and IRS workers, insurance salesmen and billionaires came to John and asked, “What should we do?”

Soldiers and FBI, traffic cops, and investigators, spies, and all in the weapons industry also asked him, “What should we do?”

We hear of ISIS and we ask, “What should we do? What can we do?”

We read about the Climate talks in France and we ask, “What should we do?”

We look at the Christmas ads and drive in frantic holiday traffic and ask, “What should we do?”
John replies, “God is coming. I'm no one compared to him. He will separate the wheat the from the chaff. He will help us to understand what is wheat, what is lasting and satisfying, what is life-giving and hopeful and essential. And he will help us to understand what is chaff, what is expendable, temporary, trash that will be blown away by the wind and the Holy Spirit.

Pastor Sara was talking this week about roasting your own coffee this week in Text Study. Coffee beans have chaff, part of the seed coat that needs to burn off or be blown off or get picked off. She roasts hers in an air popper so that most of the chaff is blown off. But then she sits and picks through all the beans for any remaining chaff, because if it gets in the coffee it will make it bitter and disgusting.

We tend to think that some of us are wheat and some are chaff and boy is it easy to pick out those chaff kind of folk that don't make the cut. John doesn't separate the people by who is good and who is bad. He doesn't say soldiers over here and merchants over here, or rich people over here and poor over here. He doesn't say team Abraham over here and everyone else get out. He didn't say Muslims over here and Christians over here. We all have chaff. We all have something that is expendable and bitter that needs to be burned off or blown away or hacked off with an axe. We have it as individuals and as a group. And we all have a kernel of wheat, something valuable and beautiful and nutritious and lasting. According to John, it is God who separates these from each other and does this work. So then we ask, “What should we do? What is our part in all this?”

He says to do something that matters, that is constructive, that is wheat-like. 

Share. We learned in Bible Study about a man born in 1380, Bernadino of Sienna. He became a Franciscan Friar and one of the most popular preachers in Italy. He said that the poor give value to the life of the rich, because they give the rich someone to share with. Without the poor, there would be no reason to have rich people around, no way rich people could say their lives were valuable or meaningful. It thought that was an interesting perspective. Sharing gives our lives value, and don't we find that anyone can share, no matter what their bank account balance. We do share money and material possessions, but we also share love, and recipes, and the work load, and our problems and advice and love and so many things that you can't put a value on. We would call those priceless. Even if you only have one more than you need, share it—food, coats, dollars, pets, blankets, socks, shoes, whatever it is! It builds relationships between people. It simplifies our life. It can strengthen another that they have what they need. What should we do? Share. 

But that's not all. What should we do? Be honest. Collect no more than than the amount prescribed for you. No matter what anyone else does, don't take more than you need. When we are honest, we build trust in our community. We are reliable and we set an example for others to follow. We are full of fear and we want our world to be different, “What should we do?” Be honest.

But that's not all. What should we do? Be thankful. When it is so tempting to complain, to focus on what we don't have, to be fearful, there is one thing we can do and that is to be thankful—start counting our blessings. When everyone else wants the new car, the latest phone, the vacation house, the perfect eyebrows, the hover board, be satisfied with the blessings and gifts that we have. We are anxious and afraid, “What should we do?” “Be thankful.”

If we don't like things the way they are, if we don't want to see so much suffering, if we don't want to argue in our families so much, if we don't want to be afraid anymore, if we want our world to change, we can't just ask others to change. We have to be willing to change. We have to let God change us. We have to be willing to change our from the chaff to the wheat. We have to let God change our habits to what is temporary to what is lasting and satisfying.

I heard a quote this week, “Feeling afraid is different from being afraid.” From time to time we will feel afraid, and for good reason. There are dangers in this world that we are trying to warn each other about, legitimate things to be concerned about that we can do something about. However, we can become afraid as a habit, as a constant state of anxiety when we hear bad news story after bad news story, when we see the red ticker going across the bottom of the screen on the news, when we get on Facebook and see downed trees and flooded homes and shootings and lit candles in remembrance and arguments about gun control or banning Muslims. It is too easy to become afraid, for that feeling to become a lasting state of mind that we are acting from and getting ulcers from. 

“What can we do?” Don't feed it. Don't pay any more attention to it. Turn to something constructive, help someone else. Don't just feel generous, be generous. Don't just feel grateful, be grateful, don't just feel honest, be honest. Be the change you want to see, not because you are going to save the world or because you feel guilty, but out of thanksgiving for all God has done, trusting that God will separate the wheat from the chaff in your own life and in the life of your community. I enjoyed reading a sermon by Pastor Nadia Boltz-Weber this week. It was for Christ the King Sunday, but she was pointing out what really lasts and matters, what is wheat, and what ends up being merely a footnote, the chaff that gets blown away. 

This is what she wrote:
“So my prayer this week when I just didn’t know what to pray was simple. I named every single thing and person that seems so powerful right now as to feel inescapable – rulers, tyrants, my own sins, societal forces etc. and I named them and then said “footnote”. Pontias Pilate – footnote, The Islamic state – footnote, My own participation in the things I say I don’t believe in – footnote, The gun lobby – footnote, Your depression – footnote, Your boss – footnote, Student Loans – footnote, Xenophobic violence – footnote
Don’t mistake me – all of these things are very real and the horrible effect they have on us and on the world is also very real. But in the big picture I defiantly believe that God can redeem it. All of it. Our God will be victorious turning swords into plough-shares and anxiety into hope. I will cling to the promise that ALL flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Monday, November 30, 2015

2015 Sabbatical Pictures

Please click the link to see my sabbatical pics from May 2015.

November 29, 2015

Gospel: Luke 21:25-36 
1st Reading: Jeremiah 33:14-16
2nd Reading: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” It seems like every generation has its beliefs about the destruction and end of the world. It seems we can always find a reason to faint from fear. 

In Jesus' time, in this prediction in the Gospel, he may have been referring to his own death. He was trying to prepare his disciples for his crucifixion, with the earthquake and eclipse, the days of uncertainty and fear when they would find themselves huddled in the upper room trying to figure out what to do next. He may have even been preparing them for the earth-shattering news that he is risen and that life is completely changed.

For the Gospel writer Luke, his audience was concerned with the destruction of the temple. For Jews, the temple is the center of the universe. If the temple falls, then the whole cosmos is at risk. Luke's readers had seen that destruction and now they were very afraid. It looked like the end of the world to them. They were very afraid.

In the 50s it was the threat of nuclear war. In our time it is the fear that we will change our climate so dramatically that we won't survive. Every generation has its fears about the end of the world.

Watching the news about the ISIS attacks in France a couple of weeks ago, brings up a lot of fears for us. Is it safe to go to public places this Christmas season? Should our country accept refugees? Who can keep us safe? 

In the face of such hatred and violence, including the violence our own country has done to those less powerful than us, to innocent people, it is easy to get discouraged. It is scary and overwhelming. Our faith gives us the strength not to let the fearful situation, whatever it is, dictate who we are. When the whole world is telling us to be fearful, we know how to find hope.

We have a choice about how we respond. As Christians, we have some tools in our toolbox to help us in times like this. One is the scriptures, stories of hope in the face of fear, which promise the presence and love and new life of God, no matter the circumstances. They tell us of Jesus who endured what any of us do and worse. We are not alone. Death is not the end. We have so much to be grateful for. We have a cosmic story to explain where sin and brokenness comes from, assurance of forgiveness and freedom, how to stand up and raise our heads when we are oppressed or afraid, and how God is ultimately the one with power. We know fear and death won't be the end of the story, that love is the real power in our world.

In Jesus' time, the disciples were afraid. But he did not leave them to shake and shiver in their room. He came and gave them the fire and boldness of the Holy Spirit, God's spirit with them for new life. Sure enough, they were able to go out from there, overcome their weaknesses and spread the good news.  We can choose love instead. Love can be our motivating factor, and when it is, the Kingdom of God is near and we are near to one another.

In Luke's time, the temple was destroyed, however people were learning that the location of God didn't depend on human buildings. Jesus located the temple in his body, he was God's presence here on earth, and when he introduced the Holy Spirit each person became a dwelling place for God. I have a quote from Archbishop Oscar Romero to share with you. “Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister that we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ. Then it would not be possible to rob them, to cheat them, to deny them their rights. They are Christ, and whatever is done to them Christ will take as done to himself. This is what Advent is: Christ living among us.” This is partly about Christ being born in Bethlehem or into our lives, and partly how Christ dwells in each one of us in love and how to recognize that and honor that. 
I don't know if you saw the youtube clip of the little French boy a couple of days after the Paris attacks. This kid is probably about 4 or 5 years old. He tells the reporter they will have to move away because of the bad guys. His dad says, no, they are not moving. There would be bad guys no matter where they lived. The boy and his dad are placing flowers at a memorial that day. He explains to his son that yes, the bad guys have guns, but the boy and his dad have flowers. He explains to his little boy that flowers are stronger than guns, that they are more powerful. He's talking about love and hope being more powerful than fear and hate, and even though hate kills, this father reassures his boy that love will win the day. It is a very moving conversation.

I remember in the hours after Sterling was born, my mind was racing. Images kept flashing across my mind—scary images of all the bad things that could happen to him. My hormone levels were changing fast in those first hours, as they do for all new moms. Thankfully, I had the support I needed, and I had some experience battling worry and negative thoughts in the past. I had to force myself to imagine all the wonderful things that would happen to him in his life. I pictured him learning and playing, discovering and appreciating, giving and receiving hugs and kisses, meeting family and friends, graduating, growing up, falling in love, having children, eating countless delicious meals, watching the clouds, feeling the breeze and on and on until I had retrained my brain in a new direction. I was anticipating the blessings that would likely come. Yes, bad things happen, too, but it doesn't do me any good to immerse myself in my fears. I knew I didn't want to raise a fearful child. I didn't want to be the anxious parent that my parents had been. 
It is easy for our heads to be filled with fearful images, worry, and anxiety. But is that really who we want to be? What good will it do? Is this what we want to define us? We have so much reason to have hope.

We have a couple of other tools in our toolbox. One, we practiced this week, gratefulness. We can give thanks. We can practice thanksgiving. When worries overtake us, one of the best things we can do is start thinking of everything we are grateful for. 
The second thing we can do is practice generosity. When we give to others, we forget our fears, we remember our blessings, we don't have time to feel sorry for ourselves. When we volunteer, when we wrap gifts for The Angel Tree Project, as we carry groceries for someone or help our neighbor rake her leaves, our fears don't seem so scary. 
There is another form of generosity we sometimes forget, we can be generous about how we interpret another person's actions. We can see the best in others. When we think of Syrian refugees, do we picture people who can do us harm and will take something away from us? We have a choice. I saw on the news a picture of refugees in the US serving homeless veterans on Thanksgiving. There is a positive image of people who are being vilified. Can we visualize all the good that can come from refugees—all that we will learn, all that we can gain?

Think of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, walking from place to place looking for shelter and a place to safely deliver the Christ Child. Maybe some did see them and think, there's no way we're letting those people in here. She looks like she's about to pop. The fear, the risk, the noise, the mess of a baby born there in their home. Maybe that's why they ended up out there with the animals. When God comes knocking on our door in whatever the form, whether it be a refugee, or a veteran with PTSD, or a kid with a juice stain on his upper lip, we have a choice. We can worry about what we will lose. We can slam that door and decide it isn't worth the mess or the time, and we will miss out on Christ in our midst. Or we can picture some good coming out of it, healing, relationship, love, hope, growth, and let Christ in.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

November 22, 2015, 50th Anniversary Sermon

Gospel: John 18:33-37 
1st Reading: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
2nd Reading: Revelation 1:4b-8

A couple of us were joking the other day about changing the name of our church. Don't worry, we're not serious, but the word “king” is so removed from most people's experience that it can be hard to relate to, and then we've got it twice! We don't have kings, so we don't know much about living in a kingdom. Most of what I have gleaned about kings has come from fairy tales or Shakespeare plays. So far I've learned they are either really good or really bad, lots of times regular peasants are smarter than they are, and they are concerned about gold and who their daughter is going to marry. Is that what people think when they see our church sign or look at our website? It's a pretty male-centric name for a church in which women have such an important role. I do like that our name is focussed on the positive, that it is focussed on God. And I'm really glad, no offense to anyone else, that we aren't named First Lutheran or English Lutheran or something really stuffy. Our language has limits and it can be hard to find words that stand the test of time and convey what we're really about and who God really is.

There are actually many names for Jesus in the reading from Revelation this morning, because the writer was trying to make a long enough list that there would be something we could connect with, that would make sense. Some of these names are more Hellenistic, others are more from the Hebrew tradition. The writer covers a lot of bases with the various names for God offered here. We could be Faithful Witness Lutheran Church, Firstborn of the Dead Lutheran Church, Ruler of Kings Lutheran Church, Alpha and Omega Lutheran Church, or Almighty Lutheran Church. All of them have their limitations, don't they! And don't even get me started on how limiting and misunderstood the term “Lutheran” is! 

So here we are at Christ the King Sunday, and our 50th Anniversary, still asking who God is and who we are. And we get to look over the whole history of this congregation, share memories with guests from over the years, and experience a worship service that was similar to the first one ever, and read these ancient scriptures about what it means that Jesus is not only a king but the king of kings. What does it mean that we pray every week, “Thy Kingdom come?” What does it mean to live in and long for the Kingdom of God.

People are hungry in our neighborhood. 117 families came here this month to get food. We live in a world where at least a third of our food gets wasted from the farm, to grocery stores, to our refrigerators and cupboards, to our plates. We waste all this food and there are people who could really use it. Thy Kingdom come!

We had all these families come through this church this month, sitting in a warm environment, building community, helping each other. One long-time client came in to the office with an offer to put out the signs that we place in the parking lot on distribution days to make sure that our volunteers who have a harder time walking have a place to park near the building. He shared that he's lost about 50 lbs. He's on the last possible chemotherapy and he will probably die from it. We talked and shared each other's pain. We prayed. And then as people went to pick up their turkeys that were provided through the generous gift of one of our volunteers, they thanked us over and over, saying how much this meant to them. God's Kingdom is here.

We are destroying our planet, using it as a dump, stripping it of natural resources, ruining habitats, burning fossil fuels, and changing our climate. Storms are getting stronger. The ocean is rising. Coral reefs are dying. People are getting sick from pollution. We're in a mass extinction. Thy Kingdom come.

And people are getting together to make a change. Some are taking the pledge not to use pesticides in their yards. As a Master Gardener it is part of my responsibility to make people aware of the dangers of pesticide use and what the alternatives are. Some are using solar or wind power. Some are doing beach and waterways cleanups. Some are downsizing their households or going to only one car in their household. Some are dangling from bridges to see that oil exploration vessels can't pass. Some are planting gardens and trees. Others are riding their bicycles or taking mass transit. I was grateful the other day, when I had an appointment downtown, to park at the end of the Orange line and let the Max take me to my destination. God's kingdom is here.

We are a small church. Sometimes we get insecure about our future. Our average age is getting up there. We don't have Sunday School. We don't have a lot of money. Thy Kingdom come.

Yet, we're not alone. Look at all the lives we've influenced and have influenced us. We're much bigger than just who comes here on Sundays. You all are out there visiting the sick and homebound. This congregation more than tithes to other ministries, such as Backpack Buddies, the Pantry, and Lutheran World Relief. People here really care about each other. We're in partnership with other churches. And we're not just existing and making sure we survive, but we are listening to Jesus and responding to the needs of our neighbors. God's kingdom is here.

We're watching our presidential candidates duke it out on TV every other week to try to gain power and influence. They are blinded, sometimes by greed, sometimes by fear, and other times by pride or hubris. Sometimes they tell us what we want to hear. Sometimes they are so hateful and angry. Not many of us see anyone we can relate to or respect. Thy kingdom come!

Grassroots organizations are working together to make changes in our neighborhoods. Neighbors are helping each other. And we're all rolling our eyes at these candidates. We know by now that none of them can save us. But we have power to make a difference when we know each other and work together. So that's where we're going to put our energy. We have a new Social Justice Committee. Through MACG, we are looking into ways we can work together with the young moms from Madonna's Center down the street to make policy changes so they can get housing for themselves and their new babies, even if they aren't 18, yet. God's Kingdom is here.

God's Kingdom come! God's Kingdom is here. This is the already and not yet of the scriptures, God with us and God's reign not fully realized. It is frustrating and confusing to live in the in-between, but it also is a better way of thinking about our complex situation than saying it is all or nothing.

The word King doesn't cover it all, by any means. But it does come from the same root as the word “kin,” like family. And some have replaced the word Kingdom with Kindom in Christian prayers, to say that it isn't about a male person who happens to inherit a throne, but about a family of people who care for each other and make sure that each person is valued and loved. That's the good news for this morning. Wherever we worship, however we serve, we are in God's family, created good and loved and given abundant life. So maybe Kin Lutheran Church might be appropriate. Or I was suggesting Servant of Servants Lutheran Church, then at least we would be SOS instead of KOK. I think we'll stick with our name for now. Our community knows us by that name. And it is not just about us, but about the 50 years of servants that have gathered under this name.

About two weeks ago, a van pulled up in front of our house and a couple of women were standing on the sidewalk, looking up at our tree and talking quite excitedly. We were just pulling in the driveway and getting our groceries into the house. They were visiting from out of town. They lived in our house as little girls. Nick showed them the backyard and they talked about climbing a cherry tree that used to grow there. Thankfully I had done two loads of dishes that morning, so I could feel mostly comfortable inviting them in. They were so surprised and delighted. They were so polite, they never would have asked to come in. They talked about hiding in the cupboard and falling out of their bunk bed. They walked around the house reliving their memories and taking pictures to show their ailing mom back home. I had always wondered who lived there, and now I know one more piece of the puzzle. 

Well, others have lived here, and these are our guests who have come to look around and share memories and worship God together. I have sometimes wondered how the charter members or the other names I see written in the registry thought of this place and what were the expectations and how did it strengthened or frustrated them, and how God spoke to people here, over the years. And now you are here. Welcome. Your very presence shows that you were touched by this place and maybe you are curious who is living in your old house. Well, the one thing that has stayed the same is that Jesus is here. Not that he's not other places as well, but he is the one this house belongs to, he is the one we thank, he is the one who has remained the same. He is the one who has continued to be alive and to rule and to serve. Whatever good has come from this place is because of Jesus and because of love. Through us or despite us, at the same time, God has shared abundant life here. We don't know what the future brings, but only that Jesus walks among us empowering us, challenging us, and loving us, and when this place is no longer here and long after we are gone from this earth, Jesus will continue to reign, our King of Kings, our example of servanthood, bringing abundant life until his reign is fully realized.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

November 15, 2015

Gospel: Mark 13:1-8 
1st Reading: Daniel 12:1-3 
2nd Reading Hebrews 10:11-25

I've had a song stuck in my head all week. It's part of the opening credits to a show I like called “The Leftovers” about a bunch of people left behind after a mysterious, rapture-like disappearance of millions of people from the earth. The song was written by Iris Dement in 1993 and it goes like this:

Everybody's wonderin' what and where they all came from.
Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go when the whole thing's done.
But no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.

Some say once you're gone you're gone forever, and some say you're gonna come back.
Some say you rest in the arms of the Savior if in sinful ways you lack.
Some say that they're comin' back in a garden, bunch of carrots and little sweet peas.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.

It isn't always easy to let the mystery be. We humans are curious by nature. We want to know how things work and how they are going to turn out. The people in the book of Daniel were getting frustrated. They were in a time of great persecution—Judaism had been outlawed, the temple desecrated, and their leaders co-opted. But they didn't see the people who were hurting them get what was coming to them. They noticed that life wasn't fair. Good things happened to bad people and bad things happen to good people and it didn't make any sense. So this is the first time that people were thinking of an afterlife. If it doesn't happen in this life that people get what they deserve, then maybe it is in the next life that people are rewarded or punished in heaven or hell. 

Maybe it sounds like they aren't letting the mystery be as the song suggests. They are actually imagining one possible end to this terrible situation they are in that might work for them.

Sterling has nightmares a few times a month. One person suggested to me that it might be helpful to have him imagine another possible ending to the dream than the scary one he experienced. He is finally old enough now that he can do that. Maybe the Jewish people here can bear their situation by imagining some outcomes that they can live with. Maybe their vision of another outcome would be enough to give them hope to go on. How can they not let the political situation of that time derail their faith and make them give up? How can they not let the injustice distract them from their focus on serving and loving God? They don't just picture the demise of their enemies, but they picture their guardian angel, Michael, looking over them, as well as the wise shining brightly and being recognized, and those who lead many to righteousness shining like the stars. In those days, folks thought the stars were angels in the sky. The heavens, the realm of God, seemed so far away, yet visible, accessible. Many people I know today, still look up at the stars and see their loved one who has passed away watching over them. Some even have a particular star they associate with their loved one. This brings those who seem far away, near enough to feel the comfort of their presence. The shining of the righteous ones is a beautiful outcome and alternate story to the nightmare they were living.

The people that the Gospel writer Mark was writing to also were in some scary times. Probably the temple had been destroyed. There were wars and rumors of wars. There were earthquakes and famines. They could picture one possible outcome to all of this—everything they new would be destroyed and their faith would falter. But Jesus offers them a hopeful picture. He tells them another ending to their story to give them hope and preserve them in faith. He says not to put their hope in things that are temporary, even impressive buildings. And he tells them that all these scary things are not an end, but a beginning. They are “but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Something new is being born. Even though it is a scary time, this is also a hopeful time. He doesn't tell them exactly what will be born. He leaves that to their imaginations, so each can take the story where God leads them, but they know it will be different from what has been going on, those who persecute them won't be in power anymore, God's good purpose will be fulfilled, something new will be born that will be good.

This week, we celebrated Veterans Day. I can't imagine the nightmare that soldiers experience in war. I am sure that they must hold a vision of a different future than the violent one they see before them in order to endure. I have heard that soldiers hold first in their minds their brothers and sisters in arms. They give their all for the well-being of the soldiers fighting beside them. Certainly, they hold in mind the welfare of their loved ones back home. And finally, they picture their country, free and bold, caring for all within our borders, protecting those in need, providing meaningful work and progress, as well as the beauty of our nation, the mountains and forests, rivers and fields. What a beautiful vision to give hope, an ending to this nightmare that they could live with and even thrive in.

And as we all watched the news all weekend, it makes us feel helpless and afraid. Maybe we picture our enemies being destroyed, but more than that I think God tells us not to lose hope, that justice will be served, and that one day we'll all sit down together at one table, understand and value each other, and live in peace and unity. It seems impossible right now. There is a lot of grieving to do, a lot yet to be sorted out. But God is with all of us as hurting people, whatever country we are from, or whatever our religion. 

Even the reading from Hebrews helps people envision a different future. Have you ever been disappointed by your priest and wondered why you keep coming to worship week after week when nothing ever seems to change and people are hypocritical? Are there times you've felt unworthy of God's love? Do you sometimes feel that nothing lasts? Do you get frustrated by all the injustice and hate all around us? We're not going to gloss over it and pretend that its all right. We're going to find a way to hold fast to hope and that is to look to Jesus Christ.

Let Jesus be your hope. Let him offer an alternate ending to the story that causes the paralyzing fear that we constantly live with. Christ is the one who always has been and always will be, the reliable one. Christ is one who judges and forgives, who invites us into his family, who knows what we're going through, who gave it all up for us. Christ is the powerful one, who is the source of all creativity, who is the breath of God moving in this world, who brings life out of death. Christ is our hope. He always fulfills his promises. He is always present with us. He is compassionate and loving.

The temptation is not to let the mystery be or to let God's alternate vision guide us, but to decide who is at fault and what all the answers are, right away. In our fear, we sometimes think that violence is the answer, swift and strong. Sometimes we move so quickly to blaming that we never look at our own complacency or our own country's roll in training killers or making weapons that destroy. It is hard to let the mystery be and say, “I just don't know. I don't know why someone would do this. I don't know the proper response that won't just make things worse. I don't know. But I do hurt, and not just for the people of France who look more like me, but the people of Kenya and Syria and Baghdad where this kind of violence is more commonplace.” And when we do watch the footage of people running in fear, that we also have in mind God's vision where there will be no more crying, where the wolf will lie down with the lamb, where all will be fed and loved.

The point is not to get distracted from our journey of faith by fearful visions and nightmares that lead us astray. Instead, if we can let ourselves picture that goal of what the Kingdom of God looks like, we won't lose our way. We'll be able to enter the sanctuary with confidence, not because of anything we've done, but because of who Jesus is and the welcome he offers. We'll be able to hold fast to our confession of hope instead of getting led astray by those who promise to save us with false promises and fancy buildings. We'll be able to provoke each other to good deeds, inspire one another to keep going, to try to make a difference. And we'll be able to encourage one another and ourselves in the process. God has a beautiful vision which God is bringing into being. We can catch glimpses of it, as God Kingdom comes, breaks into our world. It is a vision of peace and love and it isn't just a dream, but it is a promised reality that is yet to fully become, but we can catch glimpses of it. We see it when people help each other, when people share something of themselves and connect with one another. Jesus is our most clear glimpse of God's Kingdom, always inviting, giving of himself, staying connected, offering healing, offering relationship, and never blaming or resorting to violence. Instead he lived God's love until it was more than people could stand. And when we killed him, he did not come back to give us what we deserved, but loved us and claimed us God's precious children.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

November 8, 2015

Gospel: Mark 12:38-44
1st Reading: 1 Kings 17:8-16
2nd Reading: Hebrews 9:24-28

“As Jesus taught, he said, 'Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses.'” The truth of this teaching of Jesus always brings up a lot of emotions for me. First, I always think of some of the televangelists from the '70s and '80s who were very rich, with mansions and limos, pleading and crying and reading scripture to manipulate poor widows at home to send them their last dime. This makes me so angry. But I also feel ashamed, because I as a pastor get lumped in with these thieves, and I know that's what some people think of when they think of religion or church—religious leaders swindling people out of what little they have to line their own pockets. Now, thankfully we have safeguards in our congregation and in our larger church structure to make sure that donations actually go where we say they do and that people are not shamed or manipulated into giving. There is transparency to our budget and a congregational discussion and vote about where the money goes that each of you donates. I am quite proud of the amount of money this congregation gives away to those in need, both the pantry and in a tithe to the Oregon Synod and national church, who feed the poor, fund ministry grants, give scholarships and camperships, provide mosquito nets and emergency relief from natural disasters. Lutheran World Relief consistently receives the highest marks for the greatest percentage of gifts going to help people in need. They keep their administrative costs low and work through partner agencies on the ground in the particular area experiencing the need to make sure that the local culture is honored and actual needs met during a particular crisis.

The other thing this reading brings to mind is income disparity and the gap between the poor and the rich—the way the rich control more and more of the world's wealth. The economy is set up this way, to benefit a few. It wasn't always this way. The early years of this nation's capitalistic economy was balanced by our moral values, of caring for the poor and making sure that widows and all those in need were cared for. Churches and synagogues played an important part in making sure that we remembered these values when we voted and as we went about our day and our business. But as our churches have lost power and religion is viewed with more skepticism, we've lost that influence and story that our lives aren't just about amassing money and things, but that we need to care for the most vulnerable. We've lost the story that we are all connected, and that my wellbeing has anything to do with that widow's wellbeing. In some ways the church's losing influence and power is our fault—a few leaders abused their power, they abused their parishioners, they lied and stole. Many more of us pointed the finger at other people instead of taking the stick out of our own eye, so now religion is seen as judgmental. Other parts of the story are shaped by outside influences—the story that we deserve what we earn, that people who don't have much are just lazy, and that we need more and more things to keep us happy. These are stories cultivated by our consumer culture. 

The scribes had lost the story of their faith in Jesus' time, too. Their scriptures told them feed the poor and care for widows and orphans. However, they were more interested in their own power and influence. They had forgotten that we are all connected and that the widow had anything to do with them. They were telling themselves a new story, a lie, that they needed more and more and more and they deserved it and God was blessing them because they were special, or that God wasn't paying much attention at all. In the meantime, they were missing God right there in their midst, in Jesus and in the widow. And they were missing a greater connection, a greater peace. Instead of peace, they experienced this uneasiness and insecurity and fear that they would be found out for what they really were, that they could lose everything and no one would care. Any of us could become the widow at any time, alone and helpless.

Finally, environmental degradation comes to mind, as it often does, for me. In order to provide for the desires of the rich, it is the poor who suffer the environmental consequences. In order for me to have my I-phone, poor people mine dangerous chemicals deep in the earth, ruining their health, and destroying the land that should sustain them. Trash incinerating facilities are consistently built in poor neighborhoods, leading to asthma in people who can't afford to move away from there or take time off work to protest. Those of us rich enough to drive and fly places we like to go are burning up the oil, adding to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and heating things up. The people most adversely affected are those who rely on fishing for their livelihood, who live near the sea where levels are rising, those who rely on the land or the forest as topsoil degrades and trees are burned. 

To keep the priests in fine robes, to keep all of us in the latest styles of clothes and technology, the poorest people pay the price. Rather than gaining in prosperity, most of them find themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty and even their ability to grow their own food or live on the land their family has lived on for centuries is no longer an option as the land is poisoned or water becomes scarce in times of prolonged drought in the new climate we are experiencing. We will end up destroying ourselves if we don't change our direction by changing our story, if we don't quit lying to ourselves.
Thankfully, we haven't fully lost the true story. We live in a culture that is telling us lies. Sometimes we believe those lies, in fact a lot of times. Still we know there is something more, there has to be something better. So we come here to be reminded of our story—the story of what God values, the story of what really matters in the long run, the story of sacrifice, the story of new and abundant life. I've bombarded you with bad news, here comes the good news.

We have an important story. It is the story of a world created good and balanced for the thriving of all life. It is a story in which humans make mistakes and learn from them, in the presence of God who loves and forgives. It is a story of the interconnectedness of us all, plants, animals, humankind, rich and poor. It is a story of sharing and healing, brokenness and connectedness. We know this story deep inside us and it is a story the world needs to hear, in order to heal, to come to a point where we can change the course of where we're headed. The Gospel is clear that a small group can make a difference—it only takes a little salt to season a whole dish, if we can get our light out from under the bushel basket, it will light up the room, a tiny bit of yeast raises the whole loaf, the one sacrifice of Jesus is sufficient to give us new life.

These are some of the values that we must lift up from the Bible, that will help. Participation—everyone is empowered to have a voice, to use their gifts, to have a say. We've seen this value lifted up in the story from a couple of weeks ago, when Jesus Disciples were complaining to him that some people were casting out demons and healing people without permission from Jesus. Jesus said, “If they are not against us, they are for us.” Let them do God's work. You don't need special permission to participate.

Another value is sufficiency—this is about basic needs. The widow's needs are more important than the scribes. The scribes don't need a thing, but they take, take, take. The widow has nothing to live on. Her needs must come first.

Another is equity—fairness. When I think of equity, I think of the scripture from Galatians chapter 3, “There is no Jew or Greek, male or female.” There is another from several scriptures, “God shows no partiality.”

Another is accountability—transparency, people know how decisions are made and there are structures and procedures for hold decision-makers accountable. We might think of the shalom process from Matthew in which when you have a quarrel with your neighbor, go to him or her and work it out alone. But if that person won't listen, bring someone with you. If that doesn't work, take it to the elders, and then finally if it can't be resolved, someone may have to be removed from the community. We don't ignore problems, but there is a process and procedure to help us make a better community and world.

Then there is simplicity—having fewer possessions. Remember the rich man who was greatly grieved when Jesus told him to give up all he owned and follow him? Remember Lent when we simplify our lives to focus more on God's love.

Then there is responsibility—the fact that there are consequences for our actions. The consequences for the scribes actions of having to have fancy clothes and the places of honor, is that poor people don't have enough. The consequences of our use of biofuel, means that people who have corn as their staple food can't afford it anymore. 

Finally, there is something called subsidiary, in which the people who get to make the decisions are those who are most affected. For example, those who get to decide whether a tree is cut down might be the immediate neighbors, and might even be the creatures who live in that tree. We see this in the Bible when Jesus interacts with people who don't usually have a voice, where those who are sick are the ones to decide to seek a cure in Jesus presence, and actively participate in their own health. Or remember Naaman who is told to go wash in the river Jordan? He almost refuses, but with the encouragement of others who are affected by his disease, he does it and his leprosy is healed.

According to one definition, sin is wild arrogance, and grace is setting limits. For instance, we know by now that if we eat the whole package of Oreos in one sitting we will get sick. We know that because at one time or another we ate too many cookies in a moment of selfishness and uncontrolled desire. Eat one or two, and there is something beautiful. Refuse to eat them all yourself and share some with others and you're building community. That is what grace looks like. Even better if we share something nutritious and life-giving! To set a limit is to combine your trips, to set the timer for your shower, to walk or ride your bicycle, to eat less meat, to live in a smaller house or apartment. To set limits, is to experience grace, God with us when we have less and more to share with others. One example I have from riding my bicycle. I was just wanting to ride my bicycle for fitness and to try to use less gasoline. However, I have found that when I am not in my car, it makes it easier to greet people and make eye contact. The other day at the library, a homeless man was on his bicycle, too, and we made eye contact and greeted one another and Sterling remarked on that nice man who smiled at him. We made a connection. We experienced grace.

I want to caution us about the story of these two widows , that we don't decide if we are poor to give away all we have, or if we are rich to decide we don't have to help the poor because God will take care of that by a miracle. The story is an inspiration to us who are rich, to give more and to take care of those who need our help, like the widow gives away her last coin or her last biscuit. It is no less a miracle that we help one another and make sure that no one has an empty cupboard or frig. In fact, what a gift to be part of the miracle!

It is God's love and grace that make sure there is enough food and basic necessities to go around. God created this world for life, this earth shares with us and we share with each other. We know we can limit ourselves, because of the inspiration of our Savior who limited himself from being all knowing and all powerful to being a human with all our aches and pains and worries limitations. We know to limit our impact on this earth, despite it being inconvenient for us, so that it can continue to provide a bounty for all inhabitants. We know how to share because God showed us how to share through the life and death of Jesus Christ. Jesus is finally the widow, the one no one cares about, who gives his last coin to save us all and to make us his family. He lives to show us how to live the values that are life-giving and empowering. He dies to show us how to let go. He rises again to show us that isn't the end of the story. God can turn this world around, working through us, a miracle of sharing, a miracle of caring for one another, a miracle of abundant life.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

October 18, 2015

Gospel: Mark 10:35-45 
1st Reading: Isaiah 53:4-12 
Hebrews 5:1-10

Today we welcome several new members and receive Everly Shae Brown in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. We call it a “Holy Spirit Moment” when the baptism date chosen for when the godparents could be present includes long-ago-chosen Bible readings about baptism. 

On this day, Everly takes her place next to Jesus, in his family. She has nothing to offer him. She is a helpless little baby. She has no idea where she's come from. We have no idea what her life will be like. She is not able to agree to be baptized or to accept Jesus as her personal Lord and Savior. It will be many years before she is able to understand God's promises to her, today, and maybe not even then. Thankfully it is not up to her or our understanding or acceptance. Jesus accepts Everly on this day, as helpless as she is, tiny as she is. In fact, she is an example for us. For the past several weeks, Jesus has been lifting up children as the ones who inherit the Kingdom of God. They are the ones we must emulate. They are the ones we look up to. The rich man wanted to be assured of eternal life—become like this child, who owns nothing in this world. The Disciples were arguing over which of them is the greatest—Jesus says, look at this child. She doesn't care if you're rich or powerful or drive the right kind of car or talk fancy or how you dress or if you have a college degree. Become like a little child, is his advice to us. Sometimes we think it is because of Original Sin that we baptize babies in our church. It is because of Original Blessing. We are acknowledging the blessing that we are participating in, in the life of this child. We are giving thanks for her life and what she teaches us, and surrounding her in a loving community at the earliest possible moment.

When her parents came to me a few weeks ago, I was ready to ask them what Baptism means to them, and how they planned to raise their child in the faith. Before I ever said a word, they shared about their son's journey of faith, from baptism in this congregation eight years ago, to finding that he had autism, like his brother, and that he also suffered hearing loss. The Browns shared with me that it was such an uncertain time in their lives, raising two young children with such challenges, and what hope baptism offered. They said it was a bright spot on their journey of parenthood. They moved away to Alaska for a few years and when they returned to the area, Hayden started attending the Roman Catholic Church with his grandparents. He benefits from the structure and friendships in his classes. He is growing in faith and closer to Christ and is warmly loved in his faith community. He knows that Jesus is his friend. 

Now this child comes to us at the beginning of her journey of faith and God blesses her in our midst, and we bless her by our promises, she blesses us by teaching us how to be vulnerable and helpless, we share a little of what it means to be a follower of Jesus in this life of faith. If we are following Jesus, we don't always find that an easy path. The reading from Isaiah makes that clear. It is the last of the four “Songs of the Suffering Servant” sometimes thought to refer to the nation of Israel and sometimes to a particular king. Later, Christians considered it a prophecy for the coming Messiah—for Jesus. This is more Good Friday than baptism. Still, I think it is appropriate, no matter how much it makes us squirm. Yes, it is about suffering, but it helps us realize that we are not alone in our suffering. When we find ourselves suffering from diseases and infirmities, when we are bruised, when life isn't fair, when justice is perverted, when we are a helpless child, God is there with us. God knows what it is like to suffer. We are not alone. That's the reason we include baptism as part of our Sunday worship service. When we are surrounded by the people and servants of God, we are surrounded by people who have known suffering and still known the presence and peace of God. And we are surrounded by people who have seen joy and light despite their struggles. 

At baptism we are recognizing our place in the priesthood of all believers. The reading from Hebrews shares a little bit about expectations of priests. It isn't just me that is a priest, but all of you become priests at your baptism. We all have responsibility for passing on the faith, and for living faithful lives and for guiding each other. And we are all subject to weaknesses. Thankfully, we have Jesus as high priest, because none of us can be perfect. But he is the one gave his life that we would have eternal life, and in this age share life with those around us. 

Finally, in the Gospel we also learn what Jesus is not here to do, and that is to grant our every wish. It is human nature to think that we are entitled to an easy life or a good life or a front-row seat. But we're not here to glorify ourselves or to win trophies or to get our wishes granted and Jesus wasn't here for that either. He came to serve. More specifically, he came to serve God. Without knowing that, you might ask if Jesus came to serve, why doesn't he do what the Disciples ask of him and place them on either side? But he's not there to serve our whims. He is there to serve God. God, like this baby doesn't care about your power or wealth or education, but only the love and kindness that you share with others.

When we are baptized we are acknowledging that we are Jesus' Disciples. The Disciples in this Gospel story want to follow Jesus in his glory, but Jesus lets them know that they don't just pick the parts of the journey they like. Living is a risk. Living the life of a Disciple is a risk. And it isn't just the likelihood that they will suffer, but the assurance of it. The way they phrase their request, “to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left,” brings to mind those crucified next to him, on the cross. The Disciples don't know what they are asking, yet they claim to, and as it turns out, eventually they are able and they do make the ultimate sacrifice. Whatever they suffer, they also know the presence and blessing of God. 

Everly, too, as much as we'd like to protect her, will know pain and challenge. But she will always have the story of this day to strengthen her and give her hope. Her grandparents and parents will tell her of God's love for her. They will tell her about the water of life. They will tell her about the Holy Spirit. They will tell her that her's is a baptism like Jesus' in which God called her a beloved daughter. They will tell her about the promise of the community to love and support her and teach her. And Everly will have much joy in her life, too, so she'll know who to thank. She won't take it for granted or take all the credit for it. 

To be baptized into Christ's baptism, is to acknowledge that we receive the Holy Spirit, God's presence with us. And it is to hear the words that Jesus heard at his baptism, “This is my beloved Child. I am well pleased.” Everly, today is claimed as God's beloved child just as she is. God is pleased. And God gives her new life, from the first breath she ever took, through all of her life in God's service, and into eternal life when she is joined in unity with all creation. And we recognize again the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of this brother and these sisters who join our congregation, today.

Because of the gift of the Holy Spirit and all God's gifts we live a life of thankfulness. It is because of God's love for each of us that we gather together to sing God's praises, and we serve the poor and hungry during the week, and we simplify our lives so that our possessions are not our focus, and we join in prayer as we make an estimate for the coming year of our giving. We don't earn God's love by giving, but we give because we have been claimed in baptism, because we are grateful for all God has given us—everything, and because we want to respond to God's love by trying to make this world a little bit better, which is what our offerings are intended to do. 

Today is Everly's baptism day, but it is also a day in which we celebrate our own baptism. You were each created by God and called by God into the priesthood of all believers. God called you by name and blessed you and claimed. God has walked with you in times of joy and sorrow. God has shown you what it means to be a servant of God. I invite you, today, as you go to communion or return, or as you leave this place, to dip your finger into the baptismal font and make the mark of the cross on your forehead like the pastor did the day you were baptized. Picture your friends and family surrounding you, Jesus at your side, the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, and picture God's presence coming to all in need, allowing them to sit on his left and right, comforting the sick, visiting the lonely, spending time with the imprisoned, and giving the water of life to all who are thirsty. Envision our world healed through small but powerful acts of love. Envision the body of Christ, all who have gone before and those yet unborn, all of God's creation, linked together in his love, working together peacefully. This is what God sees and what God plans for our world. Let this vision give us hope and motivate and mobilize us to make the Kingdom real for all who suffer and are vulnerable. May God bless Everly, may God bless Tony, Rita, and Elaine, may God bless each of you, and may each of you be a blessing to others until all know God's peace.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

October 11, 2015

Gospel: Mark 10:17-31 
1st Reading: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
2nd Reading: Hebrews 4:12-16

During my sabbatical, I have mentioned, Sterling and I were able to visit other churches. Each Saturday evening I would explain what was the plan for the next day. We would get up and get dressed, eat breakfast, and then we would go to another church, but it wouldn't be King of Kings. It would be a different church. Sterling would ask me lots of questions. Do they have fans? Will we sing songs. Can I bring my Magnadoodle? About the third week I was explaining all this to him he asks, “Mom, are we going to visit ALL the other churches?” Then on the way there he said, “Mom, are you Pastor Aimee?” It was a question I struggled to answer. I wasn't preaching and teaching. I wasn't visiting the sick or taking phone calls from people asking for help paying bills. I wasn't really listening to anyone's story of faith. At that time I said, “Not right now, but I'll go back to being Pastor Aimee in the Fall.” That seemed to satisfy him. About the second week back here, I came to wake him up Sunday morning to get him ready for church and I was wearing my clerical collar and he said, “Mom, you're Pastor Aimee again!” He was pretty excited. 

It is interesting to think about how we define ourselves. Sometimes we don't realize it until it's gone. Retirement can bring up all sorts of identity questions as folks try to figure out who they are how they want to spend their time now that they aren't at work all the time. Losing a spouse can mean redefining ourselves. Some may not have realized how deeply they had internalized that role of husband or wife or caretaker. Sometimes giving up the keys or downsizing to move to assisted living means some of us are evaluating again what do we really need to live. What gives my life meaning? What defines me? What can I live without? 

This week I heard another version of the Gospel that goes like this: As Jesus was going on a journey a man ran up to him and said, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus looked on him with love and said, "Go and give up your partisan worldview, your self-righteousness when it comes to Biblical interpretation, your contempt for those politically and theologically different from you, and give yourself to those you find difficult to live with." The man went away crestfallen, for he had great love for his correctness in all these things, and great love for his partisan identity. 

Here's this man in the Gospel of Mark. He runs up to Jesus. His first step is to assume how Jesus defines himself. He calls him, “Good,” maybe to butter him up. Well, Jesus is self-assured, he doesn't need anybody's compliments. Jesus makes it clear that he isn't there to promote his own goodness, but to direct people to the goodness of God.

It seems that this guy is pretty sure that he's satisfied all the requirements. You shall not murder. Check! You shall not commit adultery. Check! You shall not bear false witness. Check! You shall not steal. Check! You shall not defraud. Check! Honor your father and mother. Check! Oh, the Ten Commandments, that's a cinch! Check! Here this guy has done all this, but something brought him to Jesus. Somehow, something was missing. Was it Jesus' final pronouncement that he needed, telling him he passed the test? Was it some struggle within him that didn't quite sit right? Something brought him there. There was something still missing.

Maybe he was asking the wrong question. He said, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Maybe what he should have asked is, “What must we do to inherit eternal life?” 

In the German language, there is the word for you—du, and there is the word for you plural—sie, meaning all you all. In English you is the same for one or for many so sometimes we miss the subtleties in German or in the Biblical languages. In the reading for Amos today, it says, “Seek good and not evil, that you may live.” We tend to take this personally, “I should seek good so that I may live.” But it really says, “Seek good and not evil, that all you all may live.” This isn't about any individual, but about the whole group. If you don't live, I don't live. I can't fully live until my neighbor does. I can't fully live until that prostitute down on 82nd fully lives. I can't live until people don't have to fear their power is going to be turned off, until people have enough nutritious food to eat, until the trees are no longer suffering in the drought, until the salmon can find their way safely upriver again. Our lives are all tied up together.

Jesus turns this man from the “I” to the “we.” He focuses on his relationship with other people. That's what the commandments help us do. What is my relationship with my neighbor? How do I relate to those around us. But the commandments are not a checklist, or a game you can win. They are a journey of relationship. Honoring our parents is a continuum. Sometimes we do it more, sometimes less. Sometimes we honor them by doing things differently than they would. Even murder, adultery, and stealing are a continuum that Jesus says you are on if it even crosses your mind to do any of those things. Our whole lives we are trying to figure out how to live in a way that is true to us and true to the whole of all those God has made. How do we live in respectful way to everyone? How do we seek the LORD? How do we seek what God seeks? How do we journey with other people also on a journey?

Because our journey of faith isn't a checklist, there is always one more thing we could do. Since the man asked for extra credit, so he can be assured of eternal life, Jesus is going to give him an assignment that will make him question whether God and the welfare of his neighbor are central to his life, or whether his things are defining him. The man who has it all is told he lacks one thing. He doesn't have it all after all! “What is it?,” he wants to know! I must have that, too, to add to my collection. That thing is not something he can own. It is something permanent, unlike all those other things he's got. His assignment is to let go of his possessions and quit letting them define him and take his focus, money, attention, and care. “Go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”

The truth is, most of us are not willing to do this. It would be irresponsible if we did. Others would be left with the burden of caring for our needs. We would be less able to visit the sick or distribute food or knit warm hats. 

I read a review this week on the New York Times website for a book called “Strangers Drowning: Grappling With Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help.” This book is a series of profiles of extreme do-gooders, people who put themselves on a very restrictive budget so they can give most of their money to the poor, who forgo small pleasures, measuring their cost in the number of malaria nets or school kits that could be purchased with that money. The book is getting great reviews and maybe I'll find time to read it this year. The reviews seem to point out that serving others doesn't always mean selflessness, but can become a contest to win or a test to pass. Serving can be a selfish act, their acts of goodness held over the heads of friends and family. That doesn't mean they aren't doing great good, but made me think of how we define ourselves and if we don't sometimes make ourselves the savior instead of Jesus.

Does it have to be all or nothing? If we were Jesus, we would give it all up and suffer and die. But we aren't. But we value the one who did. He did it for us. He wasn't here to make himself comfortable or to party down. He was here to give life and to help us realize what life is really all about. So when the time came that we lost everything we ever owned, when our parents or spouse or children died, when our friends abandoned us, we would still have hope. And we do. You meet people all the time who have lost it all, and far from being bitter, they are often grateful. People I know who suffered a miscarriage, are grateful for the children they were able to carry to term or the child they were able to adopt or their nieces and nephews they were able to care for, or the school children they were able to mentor. People who have moved into assisted living realize they didn't need all that stuff. The only thing they want is a visit from someone who cares about them. When people have lost a home to a fire, they are just glad that no one was hurt. When people make it through a car accident or surgery, they seem to have a real sense of what matters in life. 

“Go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” When we are anxious and afraid, when we are not sure who we are and are searching, Jesus directs us to look to others, and change our mindset from me to we. And I am going to congratulate you all on this. I see you doing this in your volunteer work here and in the neighborhood. Many of you do so many things throughout the week to help those in need. We do this every time we work on quilts that go to local nursing homes, when we work on a house for Habitat for Humanity, when we stock the shelves or go shopping for the pantry, when we participate in cleanup day here at church, when we take in a rescue animal, when we write a letter to our legislators. We are taking our time, which is precious and putting our treasure not for ourselves, but for others. And that is heaven for us—it is peace of mind, it is tangible hope. And it is heaven for the other person—if one parent is educated about why a baby is crying and a baby is spared shaking, if a person is wrapped in a warm quilt, if a child finds food the weekend in his backpack and a warm hat at Christmastime, that is heaven in that moment, a piece of abundant eternal life. Not many of us are going to give it all up on purpose, but together we can have the effect as if many people had given up all they own. Then our lives are not all about me, me, me, but instead about us, us, us.

I hope you will find yourselves encouraged this week by Jesus words, rather than going away grieving. On our own, we can't give up everything and be Jesus. There is only one Jesus and he lived and died to give us life. In thanks to him, we give away our time and money and skills to help others. In response to him, we try to keep our priorities straight. And because we know the love and peace of Christ, when the time comes and we lose it all, we are still at peace because we belong to Christ and rest securely in his love, and no one can take that away from us. 

I like to think that this grieving was not the last word for this fellow who spoke to Jesus in the Gospel. It touched him deeply. Surely he looked at his possessions differently from that day forward. Perhaps he stood at the foot of the cross not long after this. But even if nothing changed, Jesus looked at him and loved him and that's what God does for us. What seems impossible, that we would put God first, may be possible in that God loves us and put us before himself. Somehow we find ourselves standing next to Jesus with our checklist and he crumples it up and says, “Let me love you. Give me a hug.” And in that moment, nothing else matters. It isn't long before we have a deeper joy and we don't need the latest thing and we can live more simply and we can live with Christ's love being shared in a free exchange.

I don't know about you, but I can't bear the burden of the world. When I let in all the world's pain, I get overwhelmed and afraid. But Jesus bore that pain. He could do it, because he was there from the beginning to see how things got this way, and he could see the end of the story, how God's love would unite us all and bring peace. So I have to let Jesus carry that pain, and to allow in as much of it as I can take without going into despair, knowing Jesus can bear that with me and that we all bear that together, and that God is working through all of us to bring peace and new life to us all.