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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

October 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

October 11, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

October 4, 2015

Gospel: Mark 10:2-16 
1st Reading: Genesis 2:18-24
2nd Reading: Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12

Nick and I celebrated our 20th Anniversary this year. We met in our teens and, in a way, grew up together. I was 20 and Nick was 21 when we were married. The year we were married, I went through a terrible depression. Until a couple of years ago, I thought it was the adjustment of married life. I moved out of my parents' house and was still in college. Nick worked graveyard shifts at a home for developmentally disabled adults. He worked 4 nights and then had to turn his schedule around to the daytime for Thursday meetings. It was only a couple of years ago that I realized that I was probably so low because that was also the year my parents got a divorce. 

The thought never crossed my mind that it was my parents' divorce that caused me such grief, because I was so relieved when they got divorced. It was not unexpected. They had been to marriage counseling year after year. I encouraged my mom to leave my dad. But I don't know if I fully expected her to go through with it, and they had just bought a new minivan—made a major purchase that made me think they were going to try to work it out again. I knew that they were unhappy, but I couldn't anticipate what life would be like if they were apart. We had to work out, where we would go for Thanksgiving and Christmas. There was the splitting up of the household. And then there was the complication I hadn't anticipated. My mom found a new relationship almost right away and a strange man moved into the house where I grew up. 

Would it have been better if my parents had heeded Jesus' teaching about divorce? That's doubtful. 20 years later, they are both much better off, but at the time it was very difficult for all of us, especially for my brother and sister who stilled lived at home. During that time, the church was helpful to my mom. Our congregation had been her support system for a long time. She had many friends and activities there. Still, I doubt she looks forward to church on the day this reading comes up. Maybe some of you can relate. 

My dad had a very different experience. He came to worship a couple of times a year. He did coach the church softball team and so was somewhat connected. He only joined the church so he could vote on the Sunday the congregation was voting to call a new pastor. In the divorce, he felt that the congregation took sides against him and felt bitter that no one called or came by to see how he was doing. 

Those of you who know the pain of divorce, may have had this scripture used as a weapon against you. Why did Jesus say something that seems so unloving and unforgiving against divorced people? In some ways it just doesn't sound like something he would say.

Let me give you a little context for this. The word for divorce used here has nothing to do with marriage, but simply means, “to send away.” Divorce was not a mutual parting, but a situation in which a man could shirk his responsibilities to his wife and children—the children went with their mother. At the time Jesus lived, a man was the only one who could get a divorce. A woman was considered property—she had no rights, could not divorce anyone. On her own, a woman no way of making a living, and no honor or dignity, having been sent away from her husband. At this time, there were two Rabbis with different schools of thought about divorce. The one Rabbi believed that a man could send his wife away for any reason, whatsoever—even burning his dinner. The other Rabbi said that husbands had more responsibilities toward their wives, that they must give them a certificate saying it wasn't her fault and restoring some of the honor she would be lacking so maybe she'd have a chance to marry again. So here is Jesus' teaching on divorce. He takes a stronger stance. “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” Sending your wife away was not allowed. A husband's responsibility to his wife was so strong it might as well be his own flesh that was on the line. He should treat her as his own flesh, as he would treat himself. So this was a very empowering step that Jesus was offering, a big step forward in women's rights. For Jesus, it was unacceptable to cast off, to send away the most vulnerable, helpless people in society. And that's why he takes this little child in his lap in the next paragraph. Actually this teaching about divorce is sandwiched between little child stories. It is making the point about the ones who suffer most when wives are cast off.

In those days the primary role of the family was to be fruitful and multiply, to bear and raise children. And even the Pope can't deny that many kinds of families do a wonderful job at that. We've multiplied until this earth can barely support us. The weekend Sterling was born, world population hit 7 billion. We no longer have to worry about whether human population is high enough to sustain itself. We have to worry about if human population is too high to sustain itself and whether we are encroaching on God's commandment to the other animals to “Be fruitful and multiply.”

There are lots of kinds of families. In Jesus' times there were mostly arranged marriages, and that is still the norm in parts of the world, today. There are some families in which two people are monogamous with each other their whole lives, although they are more rare. There are families that are mixed. When my sister announced that she would be having her fourth child, her older children were less than excited. They already found it tedious to explain to their friends how their sister had different grandparents than they did. She has 5 children with 4 different dads, but the children are loved and they make it work. There are, of course, families with two moms or two dads. I provided childcare, when I was in seminary, for one couple who had adopted two children from China. One parent was called Daddy and the other Papa. I always had trouble remembering which was which. 

One thing that hasn't changed since this reading from Genesis, is that it isn't any good for any of us to be alone. We need each other. Families need each other. Single people need deep friendships. And gay and lesbian people shouldn't have to be alone. It wasn't even good that God should be alone. Instead God created animals and people to be in relationship with, to work together with, to find fulfillment with, to argue with, and to love. There are animal families, as well, that we should respect. They play their part in this world. Families of bees ensure that we eat by pollinating crops. Coyote families keep the mice population under control. Families of trees help hold each other up, strengthening root systems and protecting each other in wind storms. Even families of bacteria play their part breaking down organic matter. In some ways, we are all family. We came from the same stardust and elements that all other creatures, animal, vegetable, or mineral on our planet. All life probably emerged from a single celled organism. We are all related and interrelated. We need each other.

And to these families, whether traditional families, or adoptive families, or dysfunctional families, Jesus says we can't abandon or throw away the helpless and vulnerable ones, whoever they may be. Sometimes it is women and children, sometimes it is puppies and kitties, sometimes it is the air we breathe or the river we live next to, or the tree we live under. When we see to the welfare of the most vulnerable and helpless, all other life benefits as well. 

This is where many of us with the shooting in Roseburg this week. It is our nature to rush to blame and rush to answers to avoid the fear and pain that this kind of event brings up in us. God is with us in all our emotions. Rather than lead us to finger-pointing, may it lead us to embrace one another and to find out who are the vulnerable ones and how can we look out for each other so no one falls through the cracks. Who are the vulnerable ones and how do we stick with them so they aren't alone?

The truth is, we are powerful. God made us a little lower than the angels. We have what we need to survive and much more. We are so rich in this country. And whatever material wealth we do or don't have, we in this congregation are wealthy in connections. We know and care for each other. It is not good for us to be alone. No one worshipping here today, need feel alone. We are one. We come from one God. Our voices join. We share a faith. We value love. We are grateful. We are powerful. We use our power then to help those who need it most. We are responsible not to walk away from those who need us. That is what church is about. That is what the pantry is about. That is what this pet blessing is about. Our pets are maybe the best ones to teach us about being reliable companions. They are the ones who would never abandon us. They teach us about God's faithfulness. They are helpless and vulnerable, and by sticking with them, they don't drag us down, they lift us up and are a blessing and gift to us.

So I'm not saying that divorce doesn't matter. It is a painful subject that is never easy to navigate. How long do you stay in a bad relationship before giving up on it? How hard do you work on it, when the other person isn't interested in working on it at all? Can you learn to trust again after repeated infidelity or after abuse? None of us knows what goes on in another relationship. None of us in a position to judge. Our job is to remember that relationships are hard work, to be supportive of other people's relationships, and not to abandon anyone when they are at their lowest and most vulnerable and helpless points. It is our job to remember that Jesus loved us, when were little children, with nothing to offer him. That even when we denied and betrayed him, and hung him on a cross to die, he offered forgiveness and love. And then he came back to us, not to chastise and punish us, but to welcome us and give us eternal life. Now, we do the same to others around us, creating one big web, a safety net that no one slips through, until we call all brothers and sisters, and live in proper relationship with all that God has made.