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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

September 27, 2015

 Gospel: Mark 9:38-50 
1st Reading: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
2nd Reading: James 5:13-20

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth....God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” God blessed them, animals of every kind and humankind, as well. Each received God's spirit, as it moved over the waters and called them forth. Each was created good to be a blessing to one another.

When I think of the whole of this Earth, and how each plant and animal is balanced with all the other ones, how each environment is uniquely suited for specific species, the symbiotic relationships between plants and animals, how they help each other out, it just boggles my mind. Plants provide shelter and food. Animals carry the seeds and provide fertilizer. Insects break up the waste to ensure that roots of plants have access to what they need. And then there is the geography of the land, how the water evaporates and the clouds are pushed higher in the sky where they make rain or snow and how the snow accumulates and then melts to provide moisture through all the seasons in a steady supply for the life of all the plants and animals, including humans. What an amazing world we live in! No matter how much we study and try to understand all the interrelationships and how everything works together, we will never know all the ways that each plant or insect or animal or mountain or stream is a blessing, or even how we are blessed by them. We will never fully know the fullness of the Spirit and power of God in each of its manifestations, in each of God's creatures. 

The Earth has, at times, been called an organism, because no one living being could exist on its own, not even the cockroach. Each relies on the other as a living, breathing, system of interrelated parts.

“Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!” Well, folks, God did put God's spirit on all people, and not only that, on all Creation and blessed them. Why don't we know it and see it? I think, at times, we do. A new baby is born, and we know it. But a baby is innocent and helpless. It can't argue with you. It is easy to love a baby. Somehow, when people grow up, it seems easier to find fault with them and write them off or deny their Spirit. 

There might be a couple of reasons we don't see the Spirit so easily in others. One is that the world is always telling us that some have Spirit and some don't. The world tells us that folks have spirit and value if they are young, wealthy, hip, and clean. Another reason we don't see the Spirit in ourselves or others is that we see ourselves differently if we think of ourselves that way. If we have God's Spirit, then we have responsibility.

That's where the Israelites are, this morning. They don't see they have Spirit, or power to do anything about the situation they are in, so they are complaining and blaming others for their predicament. We always laugh when we read this lesson, because it is so familiar. We can hear ourselves whining like that. We can hear our friends, kids, and family whining like that. “I'm sick of this food! This is disgusting! I want melon!” They blame Moses. Moses blames God. Pretty soon everyone is mad at everyone else. 

Instead, God reminds people that they do have the Spirit, that Moses isn't the only one with gifts, and they are all capable and responsible for the welfare of the people. The reading actually cuts out the part where God gets mad and basically promises, “You want meat? I'll give you meat! You'll have meat until you can't stand another bite.” But just like when a mother gets frustrated and shouts at an ungrateful child, God comes around to be level-headed again and remembers that punishment doesn't work very well, it is the empowering of the child, whether he is 3 or however old Moses is, that is going to help. It is the encouraging of the sharing of the load, the sharing of the Spirit that is going to help, to inspire the imagination.

All the people could think about was the past. Oh, there were some good meals to be had in Egypt. But is that all there is of life? You eat three meals a day, but when you live in slavery, that is a barrier to the Spirit. The people needed to be free. They needed to be free of Pharaoh and that oppression, but they were also in Wilderness School, as Dan Erlander likes to call it, in his book “Manna and Mercy.” The people were learning what it meant to be free, to recognize the Spirit in each of them, to work together in community, to handle things as mature adults, and to take responsibility for their part. 

So God appointed 70 elders and God reminded them, they have the gift of prophecy. God gathered them around and asked them to tap into their dreams for the future. What were their hopes for their new land? What would it be like there? How would it be to live in freedom? I doubt it was very hard for those elders to go there. They just needed to be reminded to let their hopes and imaginations work. Then their anxiety and living in the past melted away, for that moment, and the community was able to move forward. But it wasn't just the 70 official elders that were accessing their hopes and dreams. Here come Eldad and Medad. Can't you just imagine these identical twin hoodlums—the rhyming names just add another level of humor to this story! Moses says, “I'll take all the help I can get! Are there any more Eldad's and Medad's out there? Find your Spirit! It is in there! Find your hope, your creativity and share it with the community! It isn't food we're in short supply of, it is imagination.”

And God is saying that to each of us, today. You have the Spirit. It was promised in your baptism and it is still there, no less effective than that blessed day. And you know what, I am going out on a limb to say that even those who aren't baptized have that Spirit, too. God created us each one, breathed God's Spirit into us, and blessed us. Of course people are out there doing God's work that have nothing to do with the church, but God is working through them all the same, and maybe even more effectively than some of us who feel we need permission to prophesy or dream.

You know that dream you have. It isn't about something shallow, but it is a bigger dream about the interconnectedness of all Creation. It is about wholeness. It is hopeful. I invite you to let God reveal that dream to you. I invite you to let yourself dream it. 

I heard a story last week that really inspired me. It is about a boy in Malawi in 2002. There was a drought and his family's farm failed. They could no longer afford to send him to school. I'm sure he felt distressed. I'm sure he felt like giving up. Like the Israelites, surely he complained. But God's dream did not go away from him. He did not lose sight of his goal or what might be possible. Each day, he went to the library to teach himself. And as he read, he got an idea. From scraps of wood, bicycle parts, and other parts from the dump and he made a windmill that his family was able to use to power their home and appliances. It seemed like he had lost everything, but he didn't forget God's Spirit was in him. He moved past the despair, kept the bigger picture in mind, and accomplished something that helped him and his family. Compared to him, we've had everything handed to us, but we still experience despair from time to time. Do we let it deflate us, or do we look to the bigger picture and God's inspiration to help us make a difference.

So now we come to the Gospel reading about cutting off hands and feet. Not a favorite reading for most preachers. This is where I am this week. The Israelites were in despair, and in their despair they were particularly shortsighted. All they could think of was the food they wanted to eat. They would have sold themselves back into slavery, sold their bodies, their children, their wives and mothers and fathers back into slavery for some tasty leeks. They would have cut off their freedom for a cheap price. 

The Disciples were jealous. They had just failed at casting out demons. Now there were these other guys, who didn't even know them, who hadn't been through the training that were successful. The Disciples are so shortsighted. Their own egos are getting in the way.

So Jesus says something to point out just how shortsighted they are being. It is absurd, to get their attention. Very similar to when a kid scrapes his knee and we say, “Shall we amputate?” In that moment the pain and the wounded pride are all on the kid's mind. But when we say, “Shall we amputate?” it is a reminder of the greater good of that leg. In the same way, Jesus says, “Shall we amputate?” If we start cutting off each other and deciding who is in and who is out, we start cutting off the body of Christ. Recall the reading, “The hand can't say to the eye, 'I have no need of you.” “Whoever is not against us is for us.” We are all one. We can't afford to cut each other off. Since each carries God's Spirit, we can't afford to do without each other, just as we can't afford to live without an appendage. We need each other.

Possibly the other reason we don't dream is that we're afraid. If I open myself to this dream, what will it mean for my life? How will it change me? How will I be different? God is changing us. God is lifting our eyes from our own troubles and scrapes, to see that we are not alone, to acknowledge the Spirit in ourselves and others, and to see the bigger picture of a world thriving in God's living Spirit.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

September 20, 2015

Gospel: Mark 9:30-37 1st Reading: Jeremiah 11:18-20
2nd Reading: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

When I was on sabbatical, I had the chance to attend some other churches in the area. I commend anyone who has had the bravery to walk into a new church setting recently. I was really nervous. Sometimes I had Sterling with me. Sometimes I was all alone and awkward. I forget how comfortable it is for me to come here, and how uncomfortable is not to know what is going to happen. I did my research to find out what was close to my house, what time their services were, and what their philosophy was. The most important question that I couldn't ever find out from a website was how long the service would be. Would I be able to make it to my next engagement on time? Now I know, when people call asking more details about church services, this is probably what they are asking. 

I have to admit, I found myself being judgmental as I did my research. One website had a couple of typographical errors, one being that an “s” to make a plural had an apostrophe, making it possessive. This is a pet peeve of mine. I didn't end up going to that church. Other churches, I would read their pastor's welcome statement or part of a sermon, and I would get so put off by the tone, I would decide that wasn't the place for me. The first 4 churches I went to had female pastors. For some reason that was easier for me. I couldn't picture myself in a setting with an authoritarian male pastor, who in my imagination would try to be our buddy, or like a dad lecturing us on with too many easy answers. That fourth church I went to, we had a confession about who we are unwilling to accept and who we discount, so I had to admit to myself, I was having some hang up about male pastors. I had to confess that maybe God had something to say to me through one of these pastors, and maybe I was closing myself off. The next church I went to was Episcopal, and had a male priest. They ended up having a wonderful community garden that I asked about and also a couple of hospital chaplains that I connected with at coffee hour. Then I realized it wasn't men at all. I prefer gentle people. I like humble pastors. I like pastors who are open and kind. It had been so long since I got to pick my pastor, that I didn't even realize what I was looking for. And then of course it got me reflecting on what kind of pastor I am and how people see me.

I was comparing myself to other people. I was trying to figure out who was the greatest. I was measuring myself and others. And in the end, at the church I felt the most at home, the pastor was away that day and they had a supply preacher. It was the community, it was the warmth, it was their unequivocal welcome of my son, who I could hear shrieking in delight from downstairs at children's time. It was about the welcome. And I felt inspired by the music and the preaching and the prayers. God spoke to me.

I was so nervous about going into all of those churches, even with all the research I did. I made sure they were welcoming of all people and had a formal welcome statement. I went to only mainline churches, so I knew something of what to expect. But being the stranger, I knew I was not just judging, but I was being judged. Would I dress more formally or less formally than the other people? Would I know when to stand up and sit down? Would my kid behave more or less how you'd expect? Would anyone speak to me? Would folks be too eager for me to join their church since I was well dressed, can sing, and have a small, delightful child? I could feel going into these churches, the sizing up, the measuring, both that I was doing and from them toward me. In most places, it certainly wasn't a time of peaceful meditation, but it ended up opening my eyes a little bit about comfort and welcome and I did feel quite close to God in my fear of the unknown.

Most of the time, church isn't about being comforted. Ok, maybe occasionally a little comfort is ok. When you're weary, feeling small, when you're grieving, hurting, lost, alone, then church is for comfort. When you're a kid or someone else everyone discounts, church is for comfort. When you're in transition, ok, we'll offer you some comfort. 

But every week we come here and we listen this uncomfortable story. We don't hear about Jesus in the easy chair, sipping margaritas. Whatever else we hear, we hear this story of the night before his death, and about blood poured out and body broken. It is uncomfortable. It makes us squirm—the pain of rejection, the pain of the Disciples misunderstanding, the pain of death, the kind of people Jesus talked to, the judgment from the Disciples, the measuring of greatness in Jesus' time reflected in our own situation, and Jesus' refusal to use usual human measurements to crown the greatest, the self-confident, attractive, strong, wealthy person with the nice house and car, with kids that never get into trouble, like we expect. 

These human measurements of greatness are the ones that often take central place in our minds. We deny it, but our actions speak louder than our words. We say we don't care about things like that, but we pretend to have it all together. We wear nice clothes. We want a nice car. We are proud of our nice house. We eat rich food. We can buy almost anything we want. We can go almost anywhere we want, and no one would bat an eye. We are accepted and acceptable.

But Jesus constantly puts the person in the limelight and sets people before us that don't fit our standards for greatness. In fact, he chooses the very most unlikely to be the example and to represent him. Here's a leper, be like a sick person. Here's a child, welcome her. Here's someone of a different faith, welcome him. Here's someone who is an undocumented immigrant who doesn't speak your language, welcome her and you welcome Jesus. It is all about the other person's comfort, not my own.

When I come to my own church and sit where I always do and do the things I always do and see the people I always see, it can easily become about my own comfort. When I went to those other places I could see the comfort of those who already knew where they would sit and what the Gospel response was, etc. And still because I could say to them, “I am a pastor on sabbatical,” I found that I was quite easily accepted and relatively more comfortable than most other visitors. It was my discomfort that probably helped me grow the most, that made me more aware of what people go through when they visit or when they are sick or feel alone or when everyone ignores them.

When we are uncomfortable, it can be easy to fall into the mindset in the Old Testament Reading. We might feel persecuted or personally rejected Everyone is out to get me, like in Jeremiah. God knows what that is like, to have everyone scheming against you, and certainly hears our cries. And we don't live in that space, forever. As I have watched the Syrian refugees, babies in life jackets held above their heads on crowded boats, all thoughts of “poor me” are banished. We are all so blessed. We remember the friends we do have. We remember the privileges and comforts we do have. And we use that experience to drive us to compassion, that is to suffer with, those who are truly being destroyed. When we say to ourselves that it doesn't feel very good to be in this experience or we feel alone or uncomfortable, then we can ask ourselves, who says this about us, what we read in Jeremiah? Who are the recipients of our schemes and our destruction? Who is complaining to God us about us, this morning? What is it that we think we need that we don't have and what have we been willing to do to get it? Who have I looked right past in my effort to put myself first and be the greatest? I'm not really that bad, am I God? Please tell me that I'm good enough! 

The Gospel is challenging before it is comforting. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and be killed.” Humans will fail Jesus and kill him. Humans fail one another and kill each other every day. Each of us is failing that little child, that person who is lonely or ill, that mentally ill guy on the street corner, and so forth. And we are failing our planet, our Mother Earth, that God made to sustain life. We are failing future generations, burning up all this oil and putting poison back into the air that the Earth once filtered out and sequestered so that human kind could safely walk this earth. If we think we are innocent of Jesus' blood or of the blood of innocent people, we are wrong. In our quest for greatness, of having what we don't have and have it cheaply, we step all over people we never even see and cause them great suffering. 

Jesus' eyes go to the little child and our eyes go there, too. Look at what you're doing. Look at what you're teaching this child has value—a car, rich food, the latest phone, the latest style, that the eyebrows and finger nails have to look perfect. Instead of acting like children and fighting over what doesn't matter and what doesn't last, lets turn our focus and look at each other and see in each other the little child, so full of potential, so innocent and helpless, so pure. Let us look to that child to learn something about being open and curious, about being vulnerable and so often in situations where they don't know what to expect or how to dress or act, about seeing people as people instead of putting everyone into categories. 

Ask a child who is the greatest and it is the person who is funny, or who has a dog, or who has a fan to turn on and off. Sometimes I take Sterling with me to visit people who are homebound and he always asks me, “Does she have a fan?” And there is one woman, in particular, he always cheers and boisterously exclaims, “She has a fan! Is it spinning?” He doesn't think she is old and bed bound and sometimes grouchy and abandoned by her family. He knows she has value because we take the time to sit with her and show by our presence that she has value. You should see him when we go to pray with her. He sits right up on her bed and takes her hand. She is someone who could complain and has complained that nobody loves her and everyone is out to get her. But in that moment, she who has endured many evil deeds, and has suffered greatly, is comforted, is part of something, is that one that Jesus puts in the center.

“Submit yourselves therefore to God,” we read in James this morning. Our lives are not about wanting what we don't have and getting stuff for ourselves. It isn't about us. “Submit yourselves therefore to God,” we read in James this morning. I doubt anybody likes this language. It sounds so much like wives submit to your husbands, which we gave up a long time ago. What the scripture is saying is to trust God. It is a lack of trust in God that leads to wanting what we don't have and getting in fights and conflicts and arguing about who is the greatest and stepping all over the little people that God cares about. Trust God. Don't be afraid to ask him your question, like the Disciples were, but just know that God might answer a different question than the one you're answering. If we're asking why all these people are out to get us, God might turn that around to cause us to think about who is asking that question about us. If we are asking why we can't have that new car or jet ski or trip to Disneyland, God might be reminding us all the things we have to be grateful for. If we are asking why me, why am I sick, why am I struggling with finances, God does have compassion and teaches us then to have compassion for others who are worse off. 

If we stand around waiting for our due, for people to appreciate us and all our hard work, we may be waiting an awful long time. The Disciples are sure that they deserve something as a reward for their good work. Instead a child gets rewarded, singled out as a focus. Give others the very basic of human respect, a welcome, because that is something we've already received from God, and there is one sure way that God's welcome gets spread among all those whom God loves and that is to welcome them ourselves. 

I am interested in the Syrian refugees that will be coming to our area. I was watching the news last night and Lutheran Community Services was mentioned many times because they help place refugees all the time. We are going to get a chance to test this welcome and extend it as far as possible. This may not be popular among many Americans, receiving Syrians in our midst, but here are people who have suffered, some of them children who probably looked very much like this kid Jesus took in his arms. These Syrians have risked life and lost everything, but they will stand here at long last and give thanks to God for saving them and taking a new opportunity not to ask why is everyone out to get me, but thank you God that I am alive and my child is alive. Now how can we give back? May we learn from the Syrians and from the children that God is the greatest who came as a servant and what our taking a role of a servant can do to open our hard hearts and change our focus from what is trivial to what really matters, which is the outpouring of love that brings the flourishing of life.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

September 13, 2015

Gospel: Mark 27-37 1st Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a 2nd Reading: James 3:1-12

Last week on our camping trip, we woke in the middle of the night to pouring down rain. We were prepared with our tarp over our tent and our food and utensils packed safely in the car. In the morning it was still pouring, so we went out to breakfast and then to the 70 millimeter film The Sound of Music. I've seen the Sound of Music 8 or 10 times and I know most of the words to the songs. But it really wasn't until I saw it this time that I connected with a deeper message of the film. You probably all noticed this a long time ago, but sometimes it takes me a while to catch on. What I noticed was pull in Baron VonTrapp between the values of this world as represented by Baroness Schrader and higher godly values as represented by Maria. The Baroness was so attractive and rich. She is who everyone would expect he would marry. She was powerful. But she was cold and unloving. She was planning to send the kids to boarding school.

Maria, on the other hand, represented God's values. She had learned as a postulant in the Abbey to “Find out the will of God, and to do it.” She was poor in money and fashion, but she was focused on God's will and values, and had a lot of love to give and she told the truth, even when the truth was hard to hear. She told the Baron about his own children and reunited the family into a good balance where they began to enjoy each other's company and to communicate. She would not have been the expected choice for him to marry.

This struggle of the Baron's was one he was fighting in his political life, as well. Should he do what everyone else expected him to and follow the violent values of this world or should he follow his own heart and his own values? In the end we can see that if he had married the Baroness, perhaps he would have turned his back on his own values and become an officer in the Nazi military, but because he married Maria, because she was always strong and outspoken and true to her values, he knew he had to be as well, so, of course, they fled Austria. 

Maria was not known for holding her tongue, if you remember the film. She often got herself in trouble because she was so outspoken. Our readings for today, are all about the power of speech and the words we say, but also the difficulty in controlling our words. 

Speech is powerful. Words can hurt us so deeply—scar us for life. Things our parents said to us or that children said to us when we were young still echo through our minds. We remember the sting of criticism or the elation when we were praised. One can “sustain the weary with a word,” according to Isaiah. But also a rumor can spread like a forest fire, according to James, and cause mass destruction. Worse than anything that has ever been said to me, is the memory of things I have said without thinking. I once told another pastor who had just started to grow a beard that he looked like a homeless person. He didn't choose to take this with humor. I once asked a person how far along she was, when she wasn't pregnant. But the same thing has happened to me, and I was standing in a donut shop, so I have to forgive myself this human mistake, and it was a long time before we got donut again! 

I am proud to be an introvert. I process my thoughts internally in quiet. I enjoy being by myself and having time to think things through. I get in less trouble that way. When I was a kid, I was so introverted, when I had to make a phone call, I would write down everything I needed to say, and really psych myself up, because it was so overwhelming to me. I still sometimes write out whole scripts of what I need to say when I am stressed, so that I feel prepared and don't just shut down. Although I am an introvert, I have entered a profession where I have to do quite a bit of public speaking and be social. Maybe that is part of what attracted me to being a pastor, is that I have to force myself to interact more and I do get a lot out of meeting people and hearing their stories. Of course, introversion and extroversion are more of a continuum than all or nothing. As the pastor, with a seminary education, with a visible leadership role, people sometimes look to me to tell them what to think or say or believe. I might have some context for some reading from the Bible that might be helpful, and I try to offer that, when I do. But for me, I see my role more as helping people learn to express what they think and believe and to discuss that with each other. As I look around a room, say at Bible Study or a meeting, I am figuring out who has more power in the room and who has less, who has spoken the most and who the least, who might have a story to share that we haven't heard yet. Usually, I am one of the most powerful in the room, so it isn't time for me to share more. I get tired of my own stories, I want to hear from someone else. As a more powerful member of the group, it is a better use of my power to keep quiet and let other people talk.

In the Sound of Music, Maria ends up talking a lot and Baron Von Trapp very little. My guess is that this is a reversal of what the Baron was expecting. He was used to giving orders and being in charge. He was the most powerful. But Maria had a rudder that was directing her. She was heading toward stormy seas by butting heads with the Baron, but she had values that needed to be upheld and she knew they would lead to a happier household if she held firm. She went through that storm and came out the other side. She said what needed to be said, the truth, and she let the family decide how that would affect them. The Baron could have chosen to stay the course, but he let her affect him. The more powerful one stayed silent as the less powerful one spoke on behalf of those who had no voice at all, the children. And because of that, a household covered in a shroud of grief, emerged with new life and new relationships and new communication in which love was shared and life flourished.

How can we tame our tongues? If we have a truth that needs to be told, how can we tame our tongues to tell it and how can we tell it, so it can be heard? If we talk too much, how do we know and how can we shut our mouths? If we are introverts, how can we get ourselves to share a little bit more? If we like to gossip, how do we keep that in check? If we tear down other people with our words but worship God, how do we get our mouths and hearts to be consistent? How can we waken our ears to be better listeners?

Maybe the confession of who Jesus is will remind us of who we are. Maybe when we are more grounded in who we are as children of God and know that we are safe within that framework, we don't have to be afraid, which is where a lot of forest fires of gossip and misunderstanding start. Maybe if we understand communication better, we can use it better to listen to those who never get a chance to share their story. Maybe practice makes perfect and that's why we keep on coming here to practice each week. Sometimes we offend each other. Sometimes we have completely different styles. Sometimes we keep the communication superficial. Sometimes we just can't seem to work together. But we keep working on it. And we keep practicing listening. We hold periods of silence within worship to provide time to listen. We listen to different pieces of music by the choir or Karen. We listen to each other's prayers. We try to respond in helpful ways. And we try to tame our tongues to match what God has placed in our hearts, so that what we say matches our values, and use our power to give voice to the voiceless.

Peter is walking with Jesus in Caesarea. There are some ominous clouds on the horizon. The authorities are trying to trap Jesus. He's already in a lot of trouble. But Peter is starting to get it. Jesus is the Messiah. Peter finally says it. He looks at Jesus to see if it is true. It is. Peter has confessed what he knew in his heart. He stands in the presence of God. But Peter doesn't understand about God's values. God is not going to try convincing everyone with words or violent strength or even self-defense of who God is. God is showing in vulnerability who God is. God's values are in sharing power and love and life, not destruction and weapons and force. Those must be our values, too. When we are powerful, we must share that power by listening. When we are less powerful, we must share our stories of being persecuted and suffering, not to whine, but so that the world knows we are all out of synch with God's values and the world can change for the good of everyone.

When I was in Nicaragua, I remember one Sunday School lesson with the kids, they were asked, “What is prayer?” And these elementary school kids answered, quite profoundly, “Communication with God.” I don't know that I could have summed it up so simply. To pray is to communicate with God, both talking and listening. When we communicate with each other, we know that God is with us, listening. Our communication with one another might be characterized as prayer, especially when we share something deep and profound and real. Some have argued that the Earth is God manifesting God's self to us in all God's complexity. And some have said that Earth is now trying to communicate something urgent to us. That is, that Earth is ill and her illness is caused by human action. There are things we can do to provide healing, not only for Earth and the creatures that are dying off, but for human kind, the Earth creature that God made on the 6th day that suffers greatly because of the ill health of our home planet. Perhaps the cry and groan of the earth is a kind a prayer, a communication with God, asking for our most deep listening yet, to hard truths about death and resurrection, about giving something up for the sake of the healing and thriving of all life on Earth. Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed, the powerful one sharing power with us and showing us how to share power with others so that all might thrive, teaching us to bite our tongues so that others can tell their stories and remake ourselves and this world more in line with God's values of life and love for all.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

August 23, 2015

August 23, 2015 Gospel: John 6:56-69 1st Reading: Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
2nd Reading: Ephesians 6:10-20

What did you have for breakfast this morning? If you're like me, you ate it absent-mindedly. I like to read the internet while I eat. Nick is likes to sleep in as long as he can most mornings. He often urges me to be quiet with my bowl and spoon. He calls it the “bell bowl” because of the sound the spoon makes against the bowl while I am absent-mindedly eating my breakfast. 

Every once in a while I try to eat a meal with more intention. It makes even plain old oatmeal so much more interesting to let my imagination wander through the millions of years it took for oatmeal to develop, from the exploding stars in space that provided the elements and atoms that now come together in this food, to the formation of the earth and the gathering and organization of those elements and atoms, water gathering on earth, life appearing, plants appearing, natural selection determining which survive and which don't, separating the grasses from the broad leaf plants, becoming just attractive enough for animals to use them to get around, but not so attractive as to be completely destroyed. And God, the author of life, overseeing it all—this beautiful dance of creation leading up to this moment, when all these billions of years of creativity become a bite in my mouth, and not stopping there. This plant, a product of God's life-giving power, being gnawed upon by a jaw and teeth developed over hundreds of millions of years through many kinds of creatures ancestors of mine over the ages, then swallowed, and digested by still other creatures with their own DNA and purpose, the pieces of this plant absorbed into the bloodstream and traveling through the body to be used by the cells, transformed into energy to be used. Through the sacrifice of this grain of oatmeal I lift my arm, my body stays warm, I live and act. I am a part of something from the past billions of years up until now, and I go on, move forward into the future, part of a community of people and creatures that continue to work together to make sure that life flourishes and that all are empowered to be the amazing creatures God designs them to be.

But sometimes fear stops me from fully being the creature God designed me to be. I dwell a little too long on my powerlessness. I might be more easily persuaded to eat something that doesn't give me as much life as oatmeal. I might believe what the commercials tell me about Special K—how I'll be more attractive and thinner and better if I eat that food. Or maybe I'll just eat a donut because I don't consider my self worth food with actual vitamins and fiber and life in it, or to take the time to cook myself a bowl of oatmeal or I forget that eating right is important enough to risk waking my husband up with my bowl and spoon. Or maybe oatmeal just gets a little too difficult for me—I have to prepare it—cook it, chew it, digest it. Maybe I just don't have time for that anymore, so I give up. 

But I always find that if I eat something other than oatmeal, it just isn't as satisfying. I get hungry before lunch time or I feel worse physically. There's a reason they call it the most important meal of the day.

Jesus Disciples were feeding on his word. They were hanging on his words. They were following him around, having several daily meals of Jesus and his words. Many of them recognized that before Jesus, they just hadn't been satisfied. They didn't feel connected. In fact they felt powerless and hopeless. Now they are chewing this food daily and Jesus was pointing out to them what it meant to eat this food. It meant always being connected to Israel's history of needing God, of not being self-sufficient, of not being able to do it themselves, and of finding God faithful and loving and saving and leading them forward into new life and new relationships, and of God expecting certain things of them and that was to honor the connectedness of life and the sacredness of life and the flourishing of life—the continuity of life of which we are all apart and which God placed responsibility upon us to see that it continues. This kind of connected life meant remembering the history of the people and of this sacred earth, the kind of story told in our Old Testament Reading for this morning. This history shows the sacredness of all creation. It meant remembering those who are not usually valued for the life they have in them, but only for what they can do for others. It meant honoring those whose life seems insignificant. For God, the measure of a life was not riches or power or strength or armor, but vulnerability and connectedness and love and acceptance of each one of their place within a larger connected web, a part of what has gone before, and humbly thankful of being connected for the flourishing of life into the future. 

But some of Jesus' followers thought this was too difficult and they took off. They don't want to admit that they need nourishment of body and soul and that others grow and pick their food and get it to their table or that others are necessary for the nourishment of their inner life, their spiritual life. They don't want to think of the deeper story of their food or anything else that gives them life. Instead of admitting we are all connected, all people and all creation, it felt easier to them to throw in the towel and they didn't go around with Jesus anymore. So Jesus asked the other Disciples if they would also like to hit the road. But even though they don't really get what it means for Jesus to be the Holy One of God and to gnaw on his flesh and rely on God and to take up their cross and to follow him, they are willing to keep gnawing on his words and see where this leads, because so far they are beginning to feel connected, feeling challenged, using parts of their brains and lives that they had never expected to, and seeing a little bit of a different world, a better world.

Everywhere they went, they would have seen the Roman Army in their shields and belts and boots and breastplates, bringing fear to those they ruled, breaking down the connections between all forms of life, contributing to the destruction of all that God had created, rather than the flourishing of life of all creatures. But Jesus' way was an alternative that was working for them, leaving them satisfied. And they didn't just have their own satisfaction in mind. They saw those who were without anyone to care for them or love them or share life with them, like those who were sick or blind or helpless, Jesus was sharing life and power with them, and the disciples could participate in that, too. Now suddenly life is flourishing where it was a desert, where no one dared to go, now there was praise and worship, joy, hope, giving, sharing, connectedness.

I'm sure Jesus' Disciples were tempted to take up arms and put on armor because the destructive powers of that day were so strong and real and certainly they were afraid for their lives and wanted to protect themselves and their loved ones. And the destructive powers of our own day are also very real and we want to protect ourselves and our loved ones from them. We've got mental illness and depression, hunger, mass extinction, addiction, loneliness and isolation, distractions. Sometimes we just say, this is too difficult, I give up. We feel alone, we get tired, we can't see that we're making any difference. We've all given up on Jesus, failed Jesus, abandoned him. And still he abides. Jesus has the sticking power, the gumption, the thick skin. Maybe not today, but by the end, when it came to the cross, every last Disciple has answered his question, “Do you also wish to go away?” with the same answer--”Heck, yeah. I'm out of here. I don't want to die! I don't want to hurt. I don't want to be challenged this much. I am afraid. This is too hard.” We expect Jesus to reject us, but he has a thick skin. He doesn't take it personally. He just says, “No one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” It is up to God. And Jesus continues on his mission to bring life to all and connection to all. 

Jesus takes off every defense, lays down any arms, his shield and boots and belt are taken from him, and he goes vulnerable and naked, beaten and mocked to the cross to die. The Romans knew he had power or they wouldn't have taken the trouble to try to destroy him. They would not have crucified him if they didn't think he was a threat to their kind of power over and a power to break connections. So there he hung, dying at their hands and as his flesh suffered and his blood was shed, he did not lose his power, because his power was in relationships and connections which went deeper even than his own breath or pulse. His power was in the truth that everything is connected, it was in his righteousness as he valued all that God gave life to, it was in his faith that helped him choose what was life-giving to all creatures, it was in his love. Jesus was there at the beginning of creation, the Word spoken over the waters that brought everything into existence. He knew the truth of the flourishing of life, that we need each other, and we are all related. He was part of those atoms exploding and elements forming. He saw the water bring forth life and the earth bring forth creatures
and plants of every kind. He was there as the oat plant changed over millions of years and as animals and humankind discovered the life it shared. And he came to be among us to show us the interconnectedness of everything, that we don't just rely on ourselves, but that we need each other, we are not alone. As it turned out, it was granted by the Father that we should all come to him and become children of God and eat him and eat with him, and be gnawed on.

The most important meal of the day for the flesh may be breakfast, but the most important meal of the day for our spirit is Jesus, which we physically eat each Sunday when we gather and which we constantly experience in our daily lives. We live because of him and we share life, love, and connectedness because of him. When we realize our place in this amazing creation, where we've come from and where we're going, the flourishing of life that makes our life possible, the sacrifice that Jesus makes when he takes a human place in this world, even plain old oatmeal becomes exciting, even ordinary bread and wine, even ordinary trees and grass. We come from a flourishing of life-giving power, and now we get to share that flourishing of life, make choices that contribute to the flourishing of life, and accept the challenging task of accepting Jesus' presence and power and life with us. 

Truly, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” There is nowhere we can flee from God's presence, for God is with us, even when we turn our backs. In every star, in every animal, in every person, in every voice, we find God's words of eternal life, flourishing life, life valued and shared and risked and treasured until every fiber of our being says thanks and opens to the life and love God is offering.

August 30, 2015

August 30, 2015 Gospel Mark:7:1-8, 21-23 1st Reading: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
2nd Reading: James 1:17-27

We're very into rules at our house, these days. We're trying to turn our toddler into a little boy or our neandrathal into a modern human. We're trying to help him understand what is appropriate when and where and it is very complicated. We pretty much spent the whole summer on the rule that potty humor is not allowed at the kitchen table or at meals. This is a fun rule, because sometimes Sterling isn't the only one to violate it and he gets to catch one of the adults. It is also fun because it really has bigger implications—that certain things can be said in certain places and times but not others. We're basically trying to master this to avoid big public embarrassment at a restaurant or at a friend's house. But the bigger picture is to raise a child who can get around in the world and make decisions for himself.

I have had the thought, several times, that I wish they offered a Master Parenting class similar to what I have had with gardening—researched based information to help people who really need it. Parenting, to me, is a lot like gardening. You get the best information you can from reliable sources that you trust, you do the basics like feeding and bathing, but with everything else there are so many variables you experiment until something works and then repeat.

In our Master Gardener class, the very first day, they tell us to test the soil. Send our soil into a lab and pay the $35 to find out what we we've got, what nutrients and minerals we are short on, and what is the pH. We are given the research, the basics of soil, water, and sun, the temperature of the soil, and the disease resistant varieties of plants. We are told how to amend the soil, how to know when to plant, how to know how much to water, and what insects are good and which are not. Then we go out to our own garden and try to apply what we've learned.

Early this year I dumped everything from my compost pile on the garden, trying to enrich the soil and get some organic matter in there. It isn't completely composted. There is a corn cob or two in there, some avacado skins that haven't decomposed, and so forth. Then I went to Zenger Farm where I have been volunteering and they asked me to put all the compost through a screen to get the lumps out. The same week, I read in a trusted gardening book about building a screen and not putting solid pieces that haven't composted into the garden. So I was trying to think of what kind of screen I'd like to build. Then I went to my advanced gardening class and the instructor told us that he just dumps it all on there, like I did—as long as the piece of plant can be snapped apart with your fingers, it can go in the garden. It provides nice aeration and he notices no difference from when he was putting his compost through a screen. He saves himself a lot of work. So we get the commandment, the rule from the class and the book, and we go to our own garden and we find what works in the real world that we are living in.

The same is true about the Bible and the Commandments—there are over 600 of them in there. They were written for a certain time and place and situation, in fact different parts were written for different times and places and situations. That's why the Bible doesn't always agree with itself. Some of these commandments were developed when the Israelites were traveling through the wilderness, living in tents, and barely surviving, some once they settled. So we've got these rules we learn in the Good Book—research based information that seems to work in community, everything from how and when to wash, to how to punish crimes, what food to eat, where to sit, who to marry, when to make love, what to wear, and on and on. And as time goes by, these rules get tested in real communities to see if they work and how they work. Sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn't seem to fit very well. Our first reading today, seems to threaten anyone who adds or takes away from the commandments. However, this threat is addressed to those of this time and place, and the threat isn't that God will punish them, but that these are the rules that seem to mean better life for a community of people in this certain time and place, and when we shape the rules just to benefit us, or we throw the rules away because we don't like them, it can mean less life all around. 

Jesus and his Disciples are seemingly breaking this commandment about washing hands. They have supposedly taken away from God's commandments. But Jesus tells them to quit worshipping the commandments and start worshipping God again. They have become so wrapped up in the rules, that they won't go near widows and orphans, they won't get their hands dirty with grubby little brats and cursed old women. Everyone was washing their hands religiously, but they were missing the main point that you have to get your hands dirty, mix with some people who are different from you, who are in terrible poverty and need, who might have head lice or fleas. That's what makes the washing necessary, later. You have to get your hands dirty, trying to change the world and shape it and make it better. Yes, some dirt is bound to get on you. Some people will doubt your motives. Others will lump you in with the undesirable types. Even Jesus got called a drunk party-animal because he liked to hang out with the wrong crowd. Once we take the chance to shape our world and make a difference and spread some of that life around, we are bound to have dirty hands. Then it would be a good thing to have a ritual washing rule or habit to keep illness and disease away.

“You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” How do we know which commandments are human commandments and which ones are from God? 

All the rules and commandments are there supporting the very basic rule at the center of it all—love. In James it is summed up this way, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” It all has to be about doing the loving thing for those who are helpless and alone, who have nobody, and no power. Jesus says it another way, that the greatest commandment is to, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” 

It isn't just that you wash you hands, but you do so with your neighbor in mind. If you just wash your hands to keep yourself from getting sick, it can become idolatry, selfishness. But wash your hands with your neighbor in mind, the one with the compromised immune system, the little baby, the older person who can't survive another cough turning into pneumonia. If you bring food to the panty, don't just think of yourself and what you'd like to get rid of off your shelf, although we will take that, too, but think of what people need most, or might enjoy as something a little bit special. God wants to change us, to get under our skin and in our hearts, not just be in some list of rules that we try to follow because we're afraid of punishment. God wants love to be in our hearts and for us to think of other people instead of always just about ourselves and our own needs. God wants us to see ourselves as a part of community, because that is the only way we can find fulfillment and life. We need each other, we need God, and the flip side is that others need us, so it can't just be all about me. God wants to transform our world through us into a place where life flourishes. God wants to make us doers, partners who remember who we are, children of God, remember who God is, one who is giving life and love to the whole community of creation, who our neighbor is (anyone affected by our actions), and that our children and children's children depend on our actions today.

God gives us the rules, the basics, love. We go out and try it. We share some food, we wash our hands, we take some Sabbath time, we try to honor our parents, we mix a little of this and a little of that, and we find what brings life to those who most need it. We have flown from the nest and it is time for us to make some decisions. God isn't going to have a hard and fast rule for every occasion, but we get to try to decide as a community how to proceed in a life-giving way. We have to decide whether to get our hands dirty, when to intervene, and when to step away. We have to decide what to wash our hands of. And God is there for us, bringing generosity and courage into our hearts, second chances when we don't quite get it right, another chance to put someone else before ourselves.

We are looking at this world, with limited time and energy and we are prioritizing. The stained and apathetic world is telling us to help people who can reciprocate—who can give back to us, who will join our church, who will contribute with money or time. Don't sink your resources into a losing battle. It is telling us that we aren't enough. We can't make a difference.

But our scriptures give us another story, another picture. Love and transformation is the gift of the power of God, unlimited and unchanging, singularly focused on bringing life and love and growing it and spreading it. Feel that power of God surrounding you, motivating you, energizing you, making you see the world in a different way, making you notice what you never did before. Picture this power filling you with gratefulness and generosity, filling your heart with love, your ears with the ability to listen better, clearing your schedule so you have time to sit with someone, taking away all your anger and jealousy and fear, and filling you with warmth and compassion, the love of God. That warmth and light goes out from you to those nearby, your neighbors living next door, the people who are driving or cycling down the street, the teenager with his pants sagging, the guy selling fruit by the side of the road, the prostitutes and drug dealers over at Your Host Hotel on McGloughlin, the lady who has no visitors at Milwaukie Convalescent, the geese crossing 224, the trees and animals affected by the wildfires, the salmon in the Willamette River, that warmth spreading out, big enough to encompass all of God's good creation, and then not just being a feeling of compassion, but actions in keeping with that compassion, that love of God interested in the flourishing of even the orphan, the widow, the cleansing waters, enough life for everyone.

The best way to teach my son what is important isn't telling him rules, but following them myself. I have to remember to sit up to the table, give him my attention when he's talking, wash my hands at appropriate times, and stick to certain subject matters at the table. That's really how he will learn.

The best thing about Jesus, he wasn't just a hearer of the word who went about telling people what to do and how to do it. He was The Doer of the word, the one whose actions reflected his words, who even gave his life because of his priorities. Because of Jesus, we have life. That life was not meant to stop with us, but for us to pass it on, to be transformed, to be changed because of his sacrifice, and to help change our world to better reflect God's generosity and care for all whom God has created.