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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

January 25, 2015

Gospel: Mark 1:14-20        
1st Reading: Johah 3:1-5, 10
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

     It is amazing how many little kid books talk about running away.  We’d like to skip out on reading books like that to our toddler, but it seems to be a topic that’s hard to avoid.  One favorite book is by Mercer Mayer, called “I was so mad.”  You may have read this book before.  The kid wants to do any number of things he’s not supposed to such as keep frogs in the bathtub, tickle the goldfish, prune the rose bush, juggle with eggs, and so forth and no one will let him, and so he gets so mad.  It has been a good book for us to read so that our son can name one of his strongest emotions and know he isn’t alone.  The problem is this kid threatens to run away from home.  I’d rather wait until it occurs to Sterling or his school friends tell him that there is such a thing as running away.  It is something many kids consider in their young lives, but I don’t like to think put ideas in his head.  Maybe it is funny when little kids threaten it or attempt it, but bigger kids can pull it off and I can’t imagine the anguish of their parents until those kids come home.

     In the scriptures for today, God is calling various people.  Some come quickly when called and others run the other way.

     We all have callings.  We all have vocations.  Some of our callings are in our work.  Martin Luther talked about God calling all people.  I went looking for Luther’s famous quote about how the woman who sweeps does God’s work as much as the monk who prays, but I’m sorry to tell you that there is no evidence that he ever said this.  Furthermore the quote is more about works righteousness than it is about calling.  It seems to say that God likes people to work hard and it is the quality of the work that gives glory to God.  Luther’s doctrine of vocation is more about God calling us to work and service on behalf of our neighbor.  God likes grocery clerks because the neighbor needs food.  God likes teachers, because the neighbor needs an education.  You get the idea.

     We all have vocations and callings in our families, too.  Some are called as aunts or uncles, parents, children of aging parents, brothers, sisters, and so forth.
     God is always calling us.  God calls us from our old realities and traps and falsehoods, into new life.  God is calling us to bring us from a long-distance relationship into accord with God’s Kingdom, a relationship of presence and nearness and hope.

     Jonah was called to preach to the people of Nineveh.  Like the little critter from Sterling’s book, he ran away.  We know what happened next to Jonah.  He was thrown overboard, swallowed by a whale, and given three days to think about his refusal.  This morning’s story picks up there.  The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time.  I doubt he was happy to hear from God again.  I can just hear him declaring how mad he is.  He’s mad at the people of Nineveh.  He’s mad at God.  He’s just plain grouchy.  But he tried to run away and found himself in the belly of a big fish and spewed out on the shore.  There would be no running away.  He just hoped it was all a co-incidence.  But no, now God is telling him again to go to Nineveh.  

     Nineveh was a Gentile nation.  Why should they listen to Jonah or Yahweh?  Nineveh was a very violent city.  Certainly Jonah feared for his life.  I doubt any of us would have accepted the assignment the first time around.  We probably would have run away, too.  And at times we have all run away from what we knew was right, what we knew was our calling.  Sometimes we’ve been corrected, either by our nagging conscience, or by someone who could see the situation more clearly than we could.  Sometimes we’ve corrected our course.  Other times we’ve just continued running.

     Contrast this with the disciples.  They immediately dropped their nets and followed Jesus.  What was so different about them?  Did they know Jesus from before?  Was his personality just so magnetic that they couldn’t help themselves?  Or maybe they were fed up and dissatisfied with being fishermen, maybe they had no hopes for their future, that when they heard someone articulating the vision that did hold hope and a future, they were just ready to go.  They were tired of God far away and ready for God coming near.  They were ready to fish for people.  

     The Corinthians were a mixture of Jonah and the Disciples.  Sometimes they are running to follow God and sometimes they were running the other way.  Paul urges them to run toward God and not all the temptations of the world.  For him there was an urgency to the running, God’s Kingdom is now, it is present, we had all better listen to God’s calling.  Furthermore, the world was dangerous and threatening.  Christians were being persecuted.  They were misunderstanding the Gospel and leading each other into temptation.  They were forgetting what Paul had taught them.  They were forgetting their calling and vocation.  So Paul reminds them.  He urges them to live in the moment—not to be too concerned with the past or preparing for the future. In this threatening world, all you had was today.  You didn’t know what tomorrow would bring and you couldn’t control that anyway. All we have is today.  This reminds me of people who get a diagnosis of a life-threatening disease.  Sometimes they have a sense of life that leads them to appreciate the moment.  You can’t tell someone to live this way, in the moment.  But sometimes we are given the gift of living in the moment.  I remember feeling this way when Sterling was born.  I’m hoping to recapture it a bit in my sabbatical.  Sometimes we can live this way when we take a vacation or by practicing mindfulness techniques such as an alarm that reminds you to focus on the moment or daily devotions or even service projects and volunteering.

     We are like the Disciples.  We are usually somewhere on the continuum between running completely in the other direction when God calls us and running straight into God’s loving arms.  And I think it depends on how comfortable we are verses how fed up we are, which direction we run because when we run to God we are eager and open for the new life God is offering. When we run the other way, it is often because we are benefitting from the status quo and we don’t want anything to change.  We tend to live lives of privilege and comfort and because of that we often run the other direction.  But we also know times of hardship and pain and we get fed up with this world and ready for the new life God offers.

     In what ways are we fed up?  In what ways are we ready for God’s reign?

     Every time we have the pantry, I know I feel fed up.  I get fed up with a world where people can’t find meaningful work, where the elderly and disabled fall through the cracks, where children are suffering because we don’t see food as a basic human right, and where nutrition is absent in the most affordable foods, and that it is so much about money and so little about giving life.  It makes me feel that the work of the pantry is so important, plus the fact that it breaks down the barriers between the congregations that serve, it breaks down barriers between insiders and outsiders for our church, and I always learn something about myself and am challenged in my assumptions.  As a result of the feeling of being fed up, many of us throw ourselves more into the work of the pantry.  Others have been thinking more about advocacy or expanding our work in the areas of nutrition, maybe having some cooking and canning classes.  In a couple of weeks four of us are traveling to Salem to talk to our legislators about the needs in our community and to hear what we can do that can help make the change this neighborhood needs.  Any of you would be welcome to come to Ecumenical Advocacy Day.  Talk to me if you want to know more.  
     I am not exactly fed up, but my body and my mind are dead tired as I try to plan for the 11th time Christmas, Lent, Easter—what will help people connect with God, what will wake them up, what will help them give and receive from this community, what can I say that I haven’t already said, how can I say what needs to be said in a way it can be heard?  If I don’t take the time to listen to the Spirit, how can I expect to hear God in a new way and how can I expect you to take the time to listen to God.  So I have this sabbatical planned.  It will be a lot less talking and a lot more listening.  And I hope you, too, get fed up with the same style and the same examples, the same mannerisms and embrace some new ones of a new leader for a little while.  It’s ok to take a little break to listen to God and see what God might be saying differently through a different person.  

     If we’re fed up and accepting the call, God invites us to change the world, to see that the Kingdom of God is so close by and to make it close by for all who suffer because it seems remote when our systems oppress and hurt people.  If we’re running the other way, God invites us to live in the moment and to witness what other people are going through.

     Jonah was a big grump.  But I don’t think the story really ends with him pouting by the fig tree because the people of Nineveh repented and God didn’t destroy them. Jonah spent three days walking through that city.  I think his heart began to soften.  He would think of the people of that city every singe day from then on.  They became a part of him.  He saw them and started to feel compassion.  More than changing the Ninevites, God changed Jonah and changes us every time we are stubborn or pouting or running away by putting us in the midst of real people with real lives, Jesus Christ in the poor, the hungry, the weary, the grieving and so forth, until our heartstrings get pulled and we stop running from the one trying to give us life.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

January 18, 2015 Gospel: John 1:43-51 1st Reading: 1 Samuel 3:1-20
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

“The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” This made me wonder about these days. Is the word of the LORD common or rare? Where and when do we hear it? How do we know it is God's word?

Are God's words and voice sometimes more prevalent and other times absent? The word for “rare” here is “precious” or “exceptional” but still gives the feeling of being infrequent. Maybe it has more to do with selective hearing, or our willingness or ability to listen. Yet certainly God's presence would have been everywhere and could be noted in nature and in blessings to give thanks for and in the different kinds of people you'd meet, if you were open to seeing it. It seems that dreams and visions can be interpreted in light of God's action, or those actions can be ignored and we can choose to find other meaning in them.

So if the word of God is always present and it depends on us listening, when are we better listeners? I think it is likely when we are in desperate need or when we understand that there is something in it for us if we do listen. For each of us then, the word of God is rare when we think we've got it covered, when we put our trust in our selves, when we are comfortable and confident, and when we are distracted by the temptations of this world, the idolatry in which we put our trust in ourselves or our money or our power. But we quickly tune our stations back into God's word when we're in trouble, when we remember who and what is most important, and when we realize we can't do it all ourselves.

The word of the LORD was rare with Eli. He and his sons were comfortable. In fact his sons had been insulting God with their words and probably their actions. But God doesn't give up on them. God finds someone who can listen, young Samuel, to tell the message that Eli and his sons couldn't otherwise hear. Then Samuel spends his life listening to God and being a trustworthy prophet of the LORD, telling others what they otherwise couldn't hear and bearing witness to God's saving power through his words and actions.

The Corinthians have received the Good News of Jesus Christ through Paul himself, but they have gone back to listening only to their own desires and not what is best for the community. The have selective hearing, taking to heart the part about grace, but forgetting they are to have a changed life. They have found freedom in God's grace and forgiveness, but they are abusing that grace, by sinning all the more. In particular some of them are visiting prostitutes and then coming to the community to brag about it.

We might chuckle to ourselves a little bit with this second reading. They were sure hung up on fornication. What does that have to do with us? I'm second generation after the sexual revolution. Our parents couldn't advise us to wait until marriage because they didn't. These days it is important to many couples to know they are sexually compatible before they commit themselves to one another for life.

But the word translated here as fornication means something more like debauchery. It doesn't just refer to the sin of an individual or a couple. It is also about being unfaithful to God, not listening to God. We've been learning in our Wednesday Bible Study that the Apostle Paul, who wrote these letters to the Corinthians was quite concerned about the body and what we do with our bodies. Some folks had the idea that it wasn't really Jesus' body on the cross—that he was somehow absent at the crucifixion. But Paul wanted to stress that the body is important or God wouldn't have ever come in the flesh. He wanted to stress that Jesus really did suffer, otherwise how could we identify with him in our sufferings. Paul wanted to stress that what we do with our bodies does matter, because God is present with us both in this life and the next and with our bodies and our five senses we can connect to God, or we can reject God and feed our own desires and pleasures and damage our bodies.

In addition, the body refers to the community, the body of Christ. So it isn't just what we do with our individual bodies that can harm or help us, but it what we do with the body of Christ, our community that can harm or help us and our neighbors. For instance in the Corinthian Christian community, their gatherings were usually a meal. Those who were more wealthy got off work earlier and would come to the meal and eat all the food and drink all the wine. And those working swing shift, who were more in need, would come and all the food would be gone. Imagine if at communion, the wealthy were invited up first and they took all the bread and wine and when the poorest came to the table, there was nothing left. The idea is that some were being selfish and damaging the whole community as well as their own health and well-being.

When we are part of a community we must listen. We listen to ourselves and our own needs. We listen to each other and get feedback and support and education. We listen to God. Often God speaks through other people, especially marginalized people we don't usually want to listen to. God can speak through visions and dreams, when we are quiet and pay attention to God's Spirit speaking within us. It takes a lot of listening.

Sometimes it is hard to listen when we think we know all the answers. That's one life skill we will probably all be working on our whole lives long. How do we listen without just sticking to our own agenda? How can we listen with openness to other points of view and those on other paths? How can we listen without at the same time forming our response for rebuttal?

Christians have been known to be pushy, as some have felt that there is one path to God. We don't know how to do evangelism in a way that doesn't alienate people or disrespect the spiritual path they are on. So we have abandoned evangelism. In fact we don't even want to talk about our faith at all so we won't get mixed up with more fundamentalist, pushy Christians. But I think listening is the key. We can be listeners in our families and neighborhoods and groups of friends and be doing what God is teaching us to do—just be open and in that way minister to one another and allow ourselves to be affected and changed by what we see and hear.

Let me give a couple of examples. A few years ago a friend of mine just dropped out of my life altogether. It was kind of weird. I saw on facebook she had gotten a horse. I think I was a little jealous of this horse. I didn't like her path at all. But I opened myself up and listened and I figured out that with this horse, she was having a religious experience. She was experiencing something transcendent and beautiful and it had changed her. She was like a new convert to a religion, completely swept up in it and I couldn't resent that anymore. I had to respect her path.

Here's another example. The year I was confirmed, one of the young men in my Confirmation class decided not to be confirmed. I remember Ryan had his appendix burst on the ball field and my pastor took the whole class (of 6 others) to the hospital to visit him. It was a couple of weeks before Confirmation day and he told us that he wasn't going to be confirmed. My pastor wasn't pushy. He accepted it, he listened, he respected Ryan's path. And I've heard recently that Ryan's wife has brought his children to church because they suddenly are interested and want to be involved.

We respected his path, because none of us could judge him or take the place of God who in Jesus this morning simply says, “Follow me” and “Come and see.” It was a simple invitation to move forward, not knowing the particular path. We also respected Ryan's path because he wasn't just going through with what was expected of him, but he thought about it deeply enough to know if his heart wasn't in it that he shouldn't do it.

Follow me—it isn't like Jesus had a particular straight and easy spiritual path to follow. He was going all sorts of unexpected places. Folks had an idea of the kind of Messiah the would receive from God, and Jesus was not it. He wasn't rich. He wasn't powerful. He had all kinds of friends his parents and pastor wouldn't approve of. He didn't spend all his days in the temple or synagogue. He was out there among the people, sleeping in the dirt, and eating whatever was shared. He was arrested and executed, too. Our Messiah was a felon on death row. His path was unexpected. When we follow Jesus, we listen and we go unexpected places to unexpected people. There is no right path, but only following and not with GPS, but one foot after the other, one day at a time, not knowing what each day will bring, only that we have God's presence with us.

Come and see—it is an invitation. Come and listen. We open ourselves to discovery, to have the path and picture in our mind of what our spiritual path will be or someone else's, and then come and experience, take a look, find out if we will find something worth pursuing. And that's what we get to do for others, not dictate their path, but to live lives that are inviting to others, that are open to curiosity, that cause someone to ask about our path because they might be looking for a path too, or not sure what a path looks like, or who might be on a similar journey. May God teach us to listen, as Samuel did, and when we can't seem to listen, give us people to help open our ears. And as we listen, may we hear and extend the invitation to come and see, going where our Savior leads us, into new life.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

January 11, 2015

Gospel: Mark 1:4-11
1st Reading: Genesis 1:1-5
2nd Reading: Acts 19:1-7

“In the beginning...” Where to begin? A given story has any number of places you can begin. You can tell a story a thousand times and never begin it the same way. What is the beginning of your story? Do you start with the day you were born, or with your parents meeting, or on some day that everything changed for you and you started becoming the person you eventually became?

Any of us could start our story with this reading from Genesis. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. At that moment of the big bang, all the elements were formed that would eventually come together to make us, our bodies and our world. Our story is the story of the formation of the stars and universe. We are made of stardust. Of course if you start there, you are going to have a very thick book.

Some of us might start with the day of our birth. What kind of a day was it? What happened that day? Who were the key players? What were those first moments, that first day of life like?

And some of us might start with our baptism day. It is a day of beginnings. God has always been with us, even before we were ourselves, even at the creation of all the elements and particles that would become us. God has been with our families before us and forming us in the womb, and there in the miracle of our birth and in our life. But we so easily forget. We have a million distractions. We have a lot of learning to do. We have people to keep up with. We have all of the temptations of life. We have trouble to get into, mistakes to make, in all our learning and growing. So we need a day in which we are named by God, in which we touch the water or the water touches us, in which the community surrounds us and reminds us that we are not alone, that we belong, that there are people there support us and care for us and are responsible for our upbringing and agree to be examples to us and help answer our questions and say hello and look out for us. We need a day to remember God's promises to always love us, to provide for us and adopt us. We need a day to hear the words from God, “You are my beloved Child! With you I am well pleased.” We need a day to mark the beginning of new life in Christ.

This is a day that offers us strength, forgiveness, and a reminder of who we are. It is a day to remember a new beginning and all the new beginnings God offers us.
Children baptized in this church receive a banner. It hangs here for a year to remind the newly baptized that they are a part of this church, this community. It hangs there to name the child and to remind all of us of our responsibilities and to ensure that they child knows how important they are. The butterfly signifies the new life that is developing and growing, like a chrysalis becoming a butterfly. Then after a year these banners go home with the child. It is a visual reminder at home of this special day. It is a reminder there of the community to which the child belongs. It is a reminder of that date, so it can be celebrated and marked each year. Recent reports from some children of the congregation tell us that some of these banners are hanging on bedroom walls well into their teens and some as young adults, reminding them of who they are and the love God has for them.

Some of us can remember our baptism day. Others of us were infants. We may or may not have people to tell us what happened that day. Whether we can remember our baptism or not, we are encouraged to “remember our baptism” every day and especially on Sunday. Every day is a new day, a beginning of sorts. God's forgiveness and the chance to start again, to try again to live in a life-giving way for ourselves and others, comes daily, hourly, every minute, every second. We are invited as we start each day to give thanks for the new life the comes with a new day. Some may focus on showering or washing one's face as a good time to remember their baptism, or maybe when walking out of the house in the Oregon rain. Some people do morning devotions to help remind them, or keep a prayer near their bedside so that God's promises are the first thing they see when they wake up. Some may remember their baptism as they pass a church on their way to work or school. Some remember their baptism in prayers at mealtimes. Some may remember it primarily on Sunday, when walking into the church and seeing the font. Sunday is the first day of the week, a good day for new beginnings. Some may even dip a finger into the water and retrace the cross on their forehead that the pastor traced with oil on the day of their baptism when these words were spoken, “You are sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” And some may mark their baptismal anniversary by lighting their baptismal candle and discuss that day and what it meant with family.

The question about beginnings is this, “The beginning of what?” “Where is this going?” The answer is that we don't entirely know. We believe it is the beginning of something good, that recognition of a relationship with God. But we let go of outcomes. We don't know if the newly baptized will ever fully realize the gifts God has given them. I mean, who of us really does? Or maybe that person totally gets it from the beginning and new life is apparent from then on. Some drop away from faith for a while. Some seem to never return, although we can't know what all the Holy Spirit might be doing. It might not look like faith in the way we'd expect it to show itself. We let go of knowing the particular journey of faith that will follow. We trust that God is with this person and we are with this person, through our commitments that we make today. And we trust that God will draw this person home with God in eternal life on the last day.

We let go of outcomes. We pray God's presence and we let go. There have been a couple of bishops in the news lately, one recently and another a year or so ago, each involved in a hit and run. I think of the trajectory of their lives, baptized, lives of faith, entering the ministry, becoming a bishop, their lives seeming so holy and blessed, then this mistake in the blink of an eye, bad decisions to flee the scene, the guilt and pain of taking a life, facing prison, yet baptized and beloved in the eyes of God. We are all a mixture of joy and sorrow, good and bad choices, and the accidents of life both positive and negative. Through it all we know God is present and loving, calling us by name, never leaving us, guiding us and teaching us, forgiving us and helping us to forgive others and ourselves.

The writer of the Gospel of Mark saw Jesus' baptism as the beginning of the good news. Some of the other Gospel writers started with his birth, but Mark goes to beginning of Jesus' ministry, to his baptism when he is named by God and is beginning to reveal himself and all that his ministry is about. We needed a little background on who is baptizing him, John. And Mark tells us very quickly that Jesus didn't just come out of nowhere. We've been expecting him. The prophets have been anticipating this for a long time and John is here pointing to Jesus and preparing the way for him to live among us. The part about the heavens torn apart, refers to the barrier between heaven and earth being destroyed, so that now we have full access to God, nothing comes between us anymore. That's the beginning of the good news. No barriers. No walls or drapes between us.

For those of us who know Damon, who will be baptized this morning, we might see the beginning of his story as starting with John and Cathy, or maybe Tova and Didrik's wedding day, or we may think of the day of his birth. I think of the first time they boys came to Bible School, clinging to their mother. How did they get from there to this point in which this congregation is theirs, too, in which Damon notices this font, asks about the water, is interested enough that he keeps coming back to it and wondering what it has to do with new beginnings for him? Who knows where his life might take him or what new beginnings he might encounter, but as I imagine, I jump 60 years and place him where John is today, the grandfather he's named after. Maybe he, too, will have the joy of journeying in faith with a grandchild of his own, the two of them with the same twist of an eyebrow thinking over the questions that life throws at us, and not knowing all the answers but pondering with the assurance that we are God's beloved children, that God has always been a part of who we are and always will be, and that new beginnings are not only possible, but happening all around us. We may call it new life, forgiveness, one day at a time, love, being in the moment.

And we also thank Damon and his family for this new beginning for our congregation because it was the feedback from the boys that led us start a children's activity during the sermon which was the beginning of this influx of children. We let go of any outcomes of what this is going to mean, but are thankful each day for all new beginnings and try to learn and grow from their presence among us as God remakes us daily into God's precious children.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

January 4, 2015

Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
1st Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
2nd Reading: Ephesians 3:1-12

In 1999 I did my internship in Oakland, California, at Resurrection Lutheran Church. I met a lot of new people there, almost daily. This church did a lot of community organizing and I remember one of the organizers asking me, “Where's home?” This was a confusing question for me. He meant, “Where are you from?” but to me it went a lot deeper than that. My mom had just sold the home I grew up in and moved to Eastern Oregon. My parents had been divorced about 4 years by then, but, although I encouraged it, it hadn't entirely sunk in. Berkeley wasn't exactly home at that point. We lived in a tiny little seminary apartment that absorbed all the light. It was like a dark cave in there. Internship was going well, but I wasn't exactly comfortable there. I couldn't have told you where home was in that instant so I made some awkward paragraph-long answer to a very simple question. I finally settled on the notion that home was where my husband was.

Where's home? That might be a question that the wise ones heard again and again on their journey. They were wise. They were wealthy. They had resources to travel. They had comforts. They had a home in the east. Yet, somehow it wasn't enough. There was something more they were seeking. Their readings of the stars told them that something amazing was happening that they wouldn't want to miss, something that might redefine home, so they set out from all their books and friends and charts and telescopes to find this new king.

For Jesus, home was also hard to define. As his family traveled to Egypt to escape King Herod, they were probably asked this question many times. Were they afraid to answer for fear they would be found? Did their travels early in Jesus' life affect him as an adult, make him the traveling Messiah that he became? Where was home? Was it in Nazareth, Bethlehem, or Egypt? During Jesus' ministry was it Galilee, Capurnaum, or Jerusalem?

A home for a king ought to be in a castle, right? That's what the wise ones were thinking. So they went to Herod's castle to find the King of the Jews. Instead they found Herod, placed there by the Emperor, to do the Emperor's bidding, to keep control. Herod directs his scribes to comb the scriptures for hints about where the Messiah will be born. They find it in the book of Micah. Bethlehem is the answer. Bethlehem doesn't seem like a likely place for a king to be born, when you'd expect him to come from the castle, nearby in Jerusalem. Bethlehem is humble and quiet. It is a place where shepherds are born. It seems unexpected for a king to be born there, but it did happen once before. King David was also born in Bethlehem and chosen there from amongst his brothers, although he was the youngest, to shepherd the people of Israel. It makes me wonder if the cave or barn in which Jesus was born was one that David had been in. Maybe the shepherds who saw and heard the angel's announcement on Christmas were in one of the same fields that David used to frequent as a shepherd.

David knew what it was like to be without a home, camping in the outdoors, keeping watch over the sheep. He knew what it was like to lose all sense of home, having offended God by taking Bathsheba as his wife after sending her husband to the front lines to die. And he tried to establish a home for God, building a temple to worship, a place he could reliably find God. Which made it very difficult when the temple was destroyed. Where was God's home then? The whole book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament is devoted to that topic. Ezekiel saw a vision of a burning wheel with eyes all over it. It was a vision of a mobile God, still with the people even though they were far from home and even though God's home had been destroyed. Where was home for the exiles? Where was home for God?

And where is home for us, these days? Families live increasingly apart. We move much more frequently than we did 50 years ago. We change jobs a lot. We relocate. Just before Christmas I visited several homebound members whose family members rarely visit them. It was apparent they had to move from their own homes, but some were moved halfway across the US to be near to their children. They have left all their friends behind. They have almost no one, aside from a few caregivers. Where is home for them? Where is home for any of us?

I have been in some pretty fancy houses that didn't feel very comfortable. It made me wonder if it ever felt like home. And I've camped out in the woods and felt very much at home. Maybe home is less of a place and more of a state of mind. Maybe we could think of home as an experience of the presence of God.

The wise ones had their own religion, their own way of life, yet everything they were reading in the stars pointed them toward something more. They were having an experience of God, there in their own country, in the east. But they wanted to come see for themselves the source of this wonder and joy they were experiencing. God was at once everywhere and in a specific place, in a specific person, this child to which the star led them. They were having an experience of God back home, but God had more to show them than they could see and experience at home. They gathered provisions for a long journey. I doubt travel by camel is very comfortable. They certainly encountered many different kinds of people on their way. Some were likely kind and generous. Others were probably not so friendly. They put themselves at great risk on this journey. Maybe it taught them more about relying on God. Maybe they encountered God each day in the different people they met, in beggars, and fellow travelers, refugees, and so forth. Maybe they noticed the presence of God more because they were out of their ordinary day to day routines. Sometimes you have to leave home to find it.

The Israelites found repentance and a reclaiming of their story during the time they were captive in Babylon, when Ezekiel was writing. They made a home in their new land and then found their home again when they returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt. David found his home again as he kept up his relationship with God, as he repented and continued to converse with God and worship God, even though he was ashamed of his previous behavior, even though he would rather have hid away. He found that even though he made mistakes, God was still with him, guiding and loving him and blessing him and correcting him.

Jesus seemed never to stay in one place for long. This is a testament to the availability and mobility of God. He didn't have a home in the sense of having a house, but he made his home among the people, and not the rich and powerful but ordinary everyday people, the poor and sick, women and children, tax collectors, fishermen, and so on. Our home, the presence of God in Jesus, traveled around in this world, even going beyond the grave to be with those who died, and then going on to the heavenly realm where we will all someday be united in the full presence of God.

For us now, home as the presence of God is anywhere the hungry are fed, where the sick find healing, where the lonely are visited, where malaria nets or warm quilts are distributed, where we share all we have, where we are kind and loving and generous, where all are included despite differences. Home isn't a place where we go, it is a place we make when we get out of our comfort zones, when we interact with people different from us, when we take a risk, we volunteer our talents and gifts, when we do something unexpected, when we let go of our own ideas of how thing should go, when we follow God's light and shining star despite the unlikelihood that anything good could ever be found by its glow.

Today we celebrate Epiphany, a festival day in the church calendar. The word epiphany means “Showing forth.” We may associate the word with an “ah-ha!” moment, the moment we finally get it. Today the star is illuminating the way to the infant Jesus, to the Messiah for the wise-ones, the foreigners. At the moment, we may or may not get it. But God is here just the same, illuminating our lives, showing us a better way. The presence of God is here. It always has been and always will be. That hasn't changed. But maybe something in us will change as we leave our homes, our comforts and possessions and strike out in search of something more, the state of mind that shows us that God is our home, that we are always welcome, and then help prepare that home to welcome others on an similar search.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Christmas Eve 2014

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

“In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God,” begins the Gospel according to John. His account links the story of Jesus to the beginning of Creation. In the beginning, God spoke and all creation came into being, God's every word coming to life, the planets and stars, the sun and moon, the land and sea, the animals and all creeping things bursting forth through God's imagination and creative power. Finally God created humankind in God's image, someone who would be aware of God, someone that God could talk to. We all know that God was not done creating in 6 days, nor is God done creating, yet.

The scriptures tell us, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.” God has a heart for this world and for all the people who have walked in darkness. God's love grows and grows. It isn't a kind of love that makes sense. The people hurt each other. They turn their back on God, on their values, on who they are, but still God's love grows. And God tries to show that love in so many ways. God tries guiding the people, speaking through prophets, granting kings to rule, giving a home, rescuing them, punishing them, teaching them, and so on. Some of this love is noticed and received and reciprocated, but much of it goes unnoticed. Still God has this love for the people, a heart bursting with love. God knows if the people knew they were so loved, they wouldn't treat each other so poorly, they'd value themselves, they would live loving lives. Finally God's love grows so strong, that it is literally born into this world. From God's heart comes this child, this human with a heart beating with love for all of us.

One of the most anticipated times for a couple who is pregnant, is hearing the heartbeat of the fetus for the first time. That fast-paced whooshing is hardly what we expected, especially after such a long search for the sound. It turned out our child was 3 weeks younger than they thought—a heartbeat much more difficult to find. Yet there it was. And it became reassuring each time we went in for exams leading up to our child's birth. And yet more reassuring after I took a fall in my 8th month and sat listening to that sound for 4 hours straight in the hospital. And finally listening to that sound on the day I gave birth, as they monitored us, a sound that gave me the strength to push with all my might to bring my baby into this world.

The heartbeat of one child was a miracle to us. They didn't have stethoscopes in Jesus' day, but I have watched, “Call the Midwife” and they did have something that they may very well have had in Jesus' time, a kind of cone shaped device that the nurse puts up to the enlarged belly of the mother through which they can hear the baby's heartbeat. The beating heart of God has been developing within the Christ child, a quick whooshing, sending blood and mother's nutrients from the umbilical cord throughout the body. These nutrients passed by the beating of the mother's heart to her child, the same mother's heart who pondered the announcement of the angel 9 months before, the same mother's heart which is pondering the words of the shepherd, the same mother's heart who will cradle this child close, the same mother's heart which will break when the world treats her son so cruelly. The fetal Jesus hears her heart beating, as he grows in the womb, and when he is born it will be one of the things that will calm him, as she holds the infant Christ to her chest, because of his familiarity with that reassuring sound.

I was curious to see, when I went shopping at Barnes and Noble for my 14 year old niece, a pen that you give to a child that will read the book to them in your voice. This would be the perfect gift if a parent has to be away for a long period of time, incarcerated or called up in the armed services or if grandma lives far away. I hope parents don't get lazy and let the pen read for them. I am all about reading and sometimes I get tired of reading “And the Cow Said Moo” to my child because I don't have to even look at the pages anymore, I've got it memorized, but there is something so miraculous about sitting down together with a book, reading, laughing, pointing out pictures, asking questions, and snuggling, holding a child close to our heart. I hope that this pen would only be used in emergencies. And I realize what a miracle it is that I live in a place and time when I am literate, that books are common and available to me, and that I have the time and resources to own hundreds of them and a happy, healthy child who still wants to sit and read with me. So rather than berate others, I will give thanks that I get to hold my child close and read to him, even if we are going to read, “And the cow said moo.” There is nothing like being there in person, and that is what God had in mind when God came to earth in Jesus Christ.

In person, God holds us close. We are God's children, and we are comforted by the sound of God's beating heart. To come as a child, to sneak into our hearts, to bring God's heart so close to us, to interact with us, to teach us, to laugh with us, to suffer with us, it is a miracle. We find ourselves close to the heart of God, listening to it beat with love for us and for all God's children and Creation, sharing stories together, interacting, loving, learning values, beating hearts affecting each other and growing in love.

When we really listen, we might realize that God still has a broken heart because God loves so deeply. God's heart is broken because there God's children are going hungry, because they live in slavery and fear, because their beating hearts are not valued, because we get so wrapped up in the beating of our own heart and whether it skips for joy because we own the latest gadget, or a new car, or fancy jewelry that we forget that our brothers and sisters need us and that their hearts beat with the love of God, too. God's heart breaks for every heart in Ferguson, for members of ISIS and their victims, for every drug lord and heroin addict, for every abusive parent and battered child, for all who walk in darkness, for a great light has shined, the light of Christ for every child of God, according to our Titus reading, “bringing salvation to all.”

It may seem that each of us has a heart that serves just one person. One heart for each body, but as God holds us close, may we remember the heart that God gave us, one that nourishes us, a miracle in itself, but also one that was open to others who are different, that felt compassion for those in need, and especially that was willing to quit beating out of great love for all Creation. God didn't come into this world with a beating heart to keep God's own heart beating, but so that ours would beat again with the familiar sound of God's heart, the sound of justice, the sound of joy, the sound of praise, the sound of love. Maybe we get so used to hearing it that we tune it out, and only notice it when it is absent, that quiet that sounds so loud after Jesus breathed his last. But Jesus' death didn't mean that God's love was gone, but only that it expanded to include all who had gone before and all who had died for all time.

So let us take a moment in this busy season to turn off the Christmas music, to stop moving for even an instant, to listen not for jingling bells but for the heartbeat of God. God is holding us close to God's own heart to tell us how much God loves us, to show us how much God loves all our brothers and sisters, how much God loves this beautiful world, and to give us the courage and strength and peace to glorify and praise God with every beat of our heart, until all have a chance to experience the heart of God and be enfolded in God's love.