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Sunday, December 25, 2016

December 24, 2016

Gospel: Luke 2:1-20 
1st Reading: Isiah 9:2-7
2nd Reading: Titus11-14

When people in church get asked what is most distracting to them when they are trying to worship, they mention cell phones, or vehicles going past, problems with the microphone, and things like that. But more often than any of those, they mention children. Children are distracting, and most distracting for the parents and grandparents who are trying to hear and worship. Our own kids and grandkids sound a hundred times louder to us, don't they? I remember a couple of times my sister has attended worship when I've been preaching and I've crafted a sermon with her in mind, because I believe there is good news of great joy for her. Of course, she didn't hear a word of it, because she was tending to her kids. Now, I get to be the one interrupted. But isn't that what I wanted when I decided to have a child?

The Christmas story is one of a child interrupting our lives. Mary had plans. She was about to be married. She was about to leave her family home. And an angel comes to her with these words of interruption, “Greetings, favored one! I bring you good news of great joy!” The amazing thing is, Mary agrees to be interrupted, even though she could hardly anticipate the other interruptions that would go along with bearing this child, the Son of God.

The baby Jesus interrupts the life of Joseph. He had other plans. He planned to be married and join his life and Mary's. He certainly planned to continue his carpenter's business. He planned participate in the life of their community. But God interrupted his plans. Mary interrupts his tidy picture of marriage with her announcement of her pregnancy. Then he is interrupted by a dream, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for she is with child from the Holy Spirit.” 

Joseph and Mary are interrupted. This baby came at an unexpected moment, before they were ready for him. Because of him and his timing, tongues surely wagged, perhaps his family members were ashamed. Because of him and his timing and the fact that he was born to a poor family, there was no room for them to give birth in a comfortable place, an acceptable place. 

This newborn King was an interruption to Herod, who thought he was secure in his power. Now he finds out a baby is trying to take his place, to usurp his throne. Because of Herod's threat, the Holy family fled to Egypt—another interruption to their plans, to ensure the safety of their son. 

This baby was an interruption to the shepherds, watching their flocks by night. Only this was a welcome interruption to those who had never received a birth announcement before, let alone, one of this grandeur and magnitude. No one cared what they thought. No one had the time for them. However, that's who the angels sang to that blessed night. They were glad of the interruption! And they didn't waste any time going to the side of their king, who would become the Good Shepherd, tending his own flock gently and lovingly, but also being one that everyone discounted.

Our lives can be thought of as a series of interruptions. We make plans, but we are interrupted by traffic, the phone, other people, mishaps, etc. 

There are also many interruptions on a larger scale. Lives for countless refugees are interrupted as they flee from terror in Allepo and other places around the world. Children's growth is interrupted by malnutrition. Their education is interrupted by the bombing. The climate patterns we have grown accustomed to are being interrupted, because of all the carbon we burn. This change in climate interrupts the lives of plants and animals in a chain reaction we may never recover from and which our species might not survive. 

For some of us this evening is an interruption, albeit a smaller one.  Christmas eve service can sometimes feel like an interruption to family time, to gift-giving, and even to getting needed rest before tomorrow.  It took an effort for most of us to be here tonight, an effort that interrupted pajama time and more.  But for some, I hope it is a welcome interruption.  We pause from all our preparations and stresses to remember why we do all this--the reason for the season so to speak.  We interrupt our consumerism, our frenzy of activity, to take a breath. God interrupts our stress to say, "I love you.  I am going to show up myself.  Not in riches and honor and might, not in AK-47s or wearing Versace and not elected by the popular vote or electoral collage.  I can't even lift my head up, I'm such a weak and helpless creature.  But I will teach you how to love and where to find me and where to focus.  It will interrupt every assumption you ever had about what matters, but it will lead you to new life."

For those of us who are comfortable, an interruption is annoying and tiresome.  But for the poor and suffering, an interruption is exactly what needs to happen.  A ceasefire in Alleppo--a chance for people to flee, to get the sick and injured out, to get food and supplies in--that is an interruption that the powerless need to even survive.  The powerful could scarcely allow it to happen.  At Interfaith Advocacy Day in Salem in February, several of us will go to advocate for an interruption to greed and call for an end to no cause evictions in our state as well as a cap on how much rents can be raised.  For the good landlords, this is not an interruption.  They will go on as they have, with the interests of their tenants balanced with their own interests of keeping up a home or apartments in good repair and safety.  But for greedy landlords, we hope we can interrupt the system which is evicting the poor and the vulnerable to live in their cars or couch surf.  

We have a choice to interrupt our own comfort to interrupt the cycle of destruction.  Some are wearing safety pins of solidarity with vulnerable people and find themselves stepping up and intervening when a slur is hurled or an ignorant statement is made.  Some are biking or taking public transportation, small interruptions in our lives of convenience and comfort to begin to interrupt the burning of fossil fuels.  A colleague of mine interrupted his week a couple of months ago to stand with the people of Standing Rock, to protest the oil pipeline headed for sacred lands of indigenous people, and found himself in the midst of a sacred worship action that lasted for months an months in which nonviolent resistance and forgiveness were the center.

If we are rich and powerful, an interruption is something to be resisted, because things are like we want them to be.  But if we are poor and suffering, an interruption is exactly what we need, to stop the powers of destruction from continuing on this path.  I suspect if you are here, you have enough comfort to get yourself here.  You are comfortable enough to be literate and fed.  However, your heart breaks when you open your eyes to the pain of this world.  You let your comfortable lives be interrupted by the awareness that all over the world people are suffering, even in our own neighborhoods kids are hungry and cold, and won't wake up to gifts in the morning.  You know this world is not as it should be and could be, and you want to be part of a great interruption.  You are saying, “Take my comforts, my car, my gifts, and instead bring the gift of peace on earth, of every mouth being fed and every tear being dried.  None of my stuff means anything, in fact it is a burden. Interrupt our comfortable lives, little child, shivering in the cold.  Interrupt our lives, God in the flesh on death row.  Interrupt our comforts so that we may be your hands and feet interrupting the powers of death in this world, so that your Kingdom will come and your reign of peace may truly begin.” 

Jesus came to interrupt. He interrupted the blind to give them sight. He interrupted the hungry to feed them. He interrupted to the sinner to give them forgiveness. He interrupted the sick to heal them. He still does all these things today.

But he also interrupts those in with riches and power to show them they put their faith in something that doesn't last. He interrupts the religious leaders who like to show off to tell them that God is watching. He interrupts systems of oppression, to bring justice. 

And when we couldn't handle his interruptions and tried to interrupt his life by hanging him on a tree, he interrupted our false notions of what life and death is, by his resurrection. So he interrupts Mary in the Garden that Easter morning with an appearance and the reminder again not to fear. Then he interrupts death for all of us, by making us his brothers and sisters, and giving us new life, eternal life.

The powers of darkness are real and scary. However they will not stand against the powers of life and goodness that God brings in Jesus Christ. A baby is interrupting us one more time. But this time we will see we needed to be interrupted with God's love and light.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

December 11, 2016

Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11    
1st Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10    
2nd Reading: James 5:7-10

I invite you to consider for a moment.  When you were growing up, was one parent a disciplinarian and the other more freely showing affection or love?  Was one parent more fun and the other more strict?  Or maybe one parent played both roles.

In today's readings we have John the Baptist and Jesus.  John is more the strict disciplinarian, fiery, warning people, telling them to shape up.  And Jesus is the merciful one who is healing everyone and being more gentle. Maybe we need both sides of this coin to help us reflect on our lives and make changes for the better, but also the love that accepts us for who we are and gives us the confidence to act without fear.

Like I said, John the Baptist is a fiery guy.  Last week he blasted the scribes and pharisees, basically the pastors and bishops of that time and place.  Ouch!  When they come out to see what he's all about in the wilderness, so they can keep him under control, he says, "Who told you to flee from the wrath to come?  Live lives worthy of the Gospel!  Repent!  Change your ways!"  John calls us all out about the self-righteous part of us, the complacent part of all of us.  He doesn't want us sitting idly by thinking we have made it.  He is the prophet Jesus is talking about in today's Gospel.  He addresses their expectations three times--"What did you come out to see?  What did you expect?"  Did you expect someone shaky who would bend in fear of your influence or your criticism?  Far from it.  John had the confidence of a Prophet, because he is one.  Did you expect soft robes?  Did you think John would be concerned about his own comfort?  No!  He's not interested in his own comfort or ours.  He's going to say the things God is asking him to say, because he's a prophet.  He's going to live the life he preaches, so even his robes which are scratchy are a constant reminder to stay alert and work for something greater than our individual comfort.  Did you expect a prophet--someone who stands up to those in power, who speaks on behalf of the poor and oppressed regardless of the consequences he will face?  Yes, Jesus says, "He is a prophet and more.  He is the forerunner, preparing all of you for the Messiah, for God in your midst, for your own transformation and repentance."  John was not what people were expecting.  He was different from other people.  Israel hadn't seen a prophet in a long time.  They were reading about them in their scriptures, but it is another thing entirely to encounter this in a person and try to figure out, what is their motivation, is this person crazy or sharing a counter-cultural message from God, or maybe a little of both.  

Jesus addresses the crowds expectations about John, but John had expectations of Jesus and the Messiah that aren't matching up.  In some ways Jesus is saying to John, "What did you go out to see?"  "What were you expecting?"  John is unsure if Jesus is the one, so he sends a message to Jesus, "Are you the one we've been waiting for or are we still waiting for another?"  I think John was in shock.  His faith may have even been shaken. He had probably been an Essene, part of a group of religious people who spent time in isolation, who removed themselves from this world and lived in the desert wasteland, in order to pray and not be tempted to participate in the evil systems of this world.  John is used to wide-open spaces and lots of quiet.  Now he finds himself imprisoned.  Can you imagine the shock of going from being out in the desert, seeing the sun rise and set every day, connected with the land, feeling the wind, eating what the earth provides, having very little contact with anyone, to this dark prison, with confining walls, in close proximity with lots of other people, no time to himself.  Both places, both the wilderness and the prison, were places of suffering, but one suffering he was used to and had taken on voluntarily and the other was completely foreign to him and antithetical to how he normally connected with God.  So from this prison he addresses Jesus, "Are you really the one, Jesus, or are we still waiting?"  

Jesus gives this answer, basically judge for yourself. The words of the prophets are coming true, their predictions about the Messiah, that the blind would receive their sight, the lame would walk, the deaf would hear, etc.  But what he doesn't say is the part of the prediction that says, "The prisoner will be set free."  I think John is asking, "Where's mine?  If you're doing all these things for everyone else, why am I languishing in prison?  Why do I live every day not knowing if I will be released or executed?  If you really are the one, shouldn't you be breaking me out of this jail, Jesus?"  Of course we all know that it won't be long and John the Baptist's head will be served up on a platter.  He's not going to make it out alive.  John, is more than a prophet.  Of course prophets had often been executed for speaking up against powerful rulers without regard to their own safety, but if we thought that Jesus would have it any easier, that he would live through this and avoid the prophet's fate, what happens to John the Baptist gives us a heads up for where Jesus is headed, and where we are all headed as his followers.

John the Baptist, the disciplinarian, calling people on the mat, saying it like it is, not cutting anyone any slack, calling for repentance.  He's fiery, he's direct, and he's not afraid of anyone. As an Essene, self-discipline would have been his preferred path to God, and he calls on all of us to follow that path and repent.

Jesus is the gentle one. I had to chuckle when first read, "Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."  I thought, "That's a pretty low bar."  Jesus is freely handing out blessings.  He's not making anyone jump through any hoops to get these blessings.  He's healing anyone and everyone.  They don't have to pass any test of righteousness or change their life (although I would hope they do).  In fact maybe what was sometimes so offensive about Jesus is how freely he gives love and bestows mercy and brings healing.  People were offended because his love was so widespread and easily accessible and went out to people they didn't see as deserving.

In the reading from James, we get the gentle Jesus, as well.  Be patient, be kind, God is near, it will all work itself out in due time.

However, only the paragraph before this is such fire and condemnation.  Normally I don't get to preach on this because it is too fiery for the lectionary, but it isn't too fiery for the Bible, so here's the John the Baptist paragraph. " Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you."  

Ouch! This scathing condemnation is meant to alert us the dangers of the direction we're headed. We're not getting off the hook. We've put our faith in our things, all the wrong places. But it isn't too late. We can change our focus and look to Jesus and the way of life he offers, of caring for the poor, and visiting the imprisoned, and loving our enemies.

Maybe like two parents or like one parent playing two roles, we need both John the Baptist and Jesus.  Maybe we need the condemnation and wake up call that John provides for us, the awareness of how far we are from the Kingdom Jesus is bringing and how we need to shape up. And we definitely need the love and mercy and free blessing and free gift of God’s grace that Jesus offers, the low bar, the accessibility to God and the Kingdom and God’s love.  That’s what it means to be both saint and sinner as Martin Luther pointed out.  We are convicted by the law that we cannot keep, all the rules that we fail to follow, which turns us toward Jesus for forgiveness and love.  Jesus makes us his brothers and sisters and we respond with lives of thanksgiving in which we do good works out of gratefulness for God’s mercy and love.

We've got these two viewpoints about how to approach God's Kingdom, but Jesus always has the final word. He is the one who adopts us into his family, who died to take away our sin, who invites us to the table of grace. He is the one who is God with us, Emanuel. He is the one who gives us new life. So love and grace have the final word.

Monday, December 5, 2016

December 4, 2016

Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12 
1st Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10
2nd Reading: Romans 15:4-13

I invite the kids to come and help me with the sermon today.  Today I need your help with this project. If you find you have the wiggles, I invite you to play with these animals here, ok? In our Bible readings for today, we hear about the world we live in. This world has some problems. Some trees got cut down and there are some stumps around, some kids got stung by a bee, and a wolf attacked a heard of sheep. Some people weren't very nice to each other. Stuff like that. 

But God promises it won't always be this way. God's friend John the Baptist comes and says that God's Kingdom is near. In God's Kingdom, all the animals get along together. Can you show me what that would look like with your play animals, there? That's right. In God's Kingdom, snakes don't bite people, new trees grow up where there were stumps, kids like you lead the adults, people are kind to each other, everyone has enough to eat.

I wondered if you would help me fill in my project here. I talked about the world we live in having some problems. What are some of the problems you have or some things that make you sad or mad. Let's also get some from the congregation. Either call them out or write them on your little sticky note and hold them up and a kid will come get it from you and we'll attach it to our chart. Ok so now we have some up here about the sorrows and pains of this world.

Some difficulties of this world that were named:  My brother wakes me up, I have too much homework, hunger and homelessness, illness.
Now, let's get some ideas from people about God's Kingdom and what it will be like. What would a good world look like to you. What brings you joy and happiness in life? Let's put some of those up here. How about from the congregation?

Some joys and kingdom of God moments were named:  a flame that never goes out and a stream that never runs dry, people having enough to eat.

It seems like a long way between the world as it is and the Kingdom of God, doesn't it? How do we get from here to there? What are some ways we can help bring in God's Kingdom? Let's build a road between the two so we can get there. What are some things we can do to help people and be kind to help the Kingdom of God come? We'll get some help from the congregation, too.

Some ideas to build a road to the Kingdom of God from this world included: donating food, giving a hug, caring for animals, singing, going to a concert, giving a compliment, donating toys.  

But with all we came up with, our road didn't reach the Kingdom.  We can't do it all ourselves. 

The Bible says that actually God is bringing the Kingdom of God nearer to us. Do you remember why we celebrate Christmas? That's right, the baby Jesus is born. In our Bible stories, Jesus is about to be born. Jesus is God and Jesus is human. He is the world as it is and the Kingdom of God coming together. He is God come to earth. We don't take a walk along this road we've built, God brings the Kingdom to us. We can show what really happens by moving this Kingdom part over to this part where we put all the troubles of this world.  God's Kingdom comes to us.

How about this road we've built, is it any good anymore? It is! It shows us how to open our eyes and see God's Kingdom right here with us. When we share our food, we can see the joy it brings and see kids growing up strong because they are fed, and that's what God's Kingdom looks like. Now we can see it happening! When two people get along, they are respecting each other, they are seeing someone God loves in the other person, they are seeing the Kingdom that God has brought near.

Thank you all for your help.  Let's have a prayer. Dear God, we thank you for bringing your Kingdom close to us. Help us to see it. And we give you thanks for Jesus who will always love us and always be our friend. Amen.

November 27, 2016

Gospel: Matthew 24:36-44 
1st Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5
2nd Reading: Romans 13:11-14

One night last week, in the middle of the night, I found myself standing in the laundry room. I didn't know who I was or where I was or what I was doing. I was halfway between sleeping and wakefulness. I knew I had heard a noise and as the fog started to clear, I realized that it was the sound of the buzzer that signals that the clothes are done washing. We don't leave our buzzer on most of the time, but occasionally Nick turns it back on so he is sure to remember to change over the clothes, and he doesn't turn it back off again. I threw the clothes in the dryer and turned it on and headed back to bed. 

“Keep awake,” the Gospel reading tells us, alarms and buzzers going off all over the house. “Wake from sleep,” says Paul in his letter to the Romans. Both Paul and the Gospel writer were dealing with congregations who were waiting for the second coming of Christ and were losing focus, dozing off, because Christ's return wasn't as imminent as they thought it would be. The Romans were partying, getting drunk and arguing. Matthew's people were also lacking in faithfulness, hence his warning about Noah and the flood. Remember what happened to the faithless people who didn't make it onto the ark! 

Matthew is telling his people that no one knows when Christ will return, when the Kingdom will fully come. He seems to argue that if we don't know, then it isn't very wise to put off preparations. We know from earthquake preparedness, that if people don't know when something is going to happen, it is “out of sight, out of mind.” However, each day that passes, we are one day closer to the event. Out of sight, out of mind, is a common attitude toward climate change, too. We don't feel very motivated to change our behavior because we can't see what's coming or how changing our behavior might help. It is hard to prepare for something when we're not sure what it will be like and not sure when it is coming. So we sit here in this fog, somewhere between sleepwalking and starting to wake up and wondering who we are and what the heck we're doing here.

It isn't exactly that we don't know where we are. We are in a very contentious world, uncertain about our future, arguing with our relatives and neighbors, jealous of others who have nicer stuff than we do or speak more eloquently than we do, oblivious to how we contribute to the world's problems. We are in a world that is sitting idly by while civilians are bombed in Aleppo. We see news stories of native peoples being sprayed with water cannons in freezing temperatures. We hear about incidents of racially-based attacks going up. We know this isn't the way things should be, but we get overwhelmed. We aren't sure where to start. We get acclimated to living in this world. We get numb.

When Jesus first came among us, the Kingdom of God started to break into our world. However, the Kingdom of God isn't fully realized yet. We are somewhere in between the two worlds, the world where we are now and the coming Kingdom. We are beginning to wake up, but we are not fully awake. 

The world God promises has started to break in but isn't fully realized. We get glimpses of God's Kingdom in the reading from Isaiah. “The mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains....He will teach us his ways....They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks..., neither shall they learn war any more.” Do you have a vision of the peaceable kingdom? What would a perfect world be, in your view? What would it mean to walk in God's paths?

So we live in two worlds, the world as it is now—unjust, violent, and divisive and the Kingdom God promises of peace and balance. The thing about living in an in-between state, is that we don't have energy and resources to do both. For Isaiah, he was speaking on behalf of those who went hungry during times of war. There literally wasn't enough metal that people could mine and refine with the tools they had to have both plows and swords. During war time, plows would be melted down into swords, so agriculture wouldn't be able to continue in the same way, and men went to war and died in war, so there weren't enough workers to tend the fields. But during times of peace, the swords would be melted together to make plow tips. We can have agriculture or we can have war. We can't have both.

It reminds me of the saying from Jesus, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” There are times when we find we can't straddle the fence, when we can't have it both ways, and when Jesus is asking us to wake up, he is saying not to be oblivious, blinded by the priorities of this world, distracted from the vision that God offers us of a Kingdom of peace. If we're putting our efforts into the priorities of this world, we don't have the energy and resources left to work for the Kingdom. We're either supporting one or the other, by our actions, where we put our energy, etc.

The world is always pulling us in that direction, toward sleepiness, lack of awareness, arguing and divisions. So how do we keep awake and move toward the Kingdom? 

We open our eyes. We open our eyes to the damage this world does to people. We listen to people's stories. We get clear on our own stories, where we come from and what makes us tick. We acknowledge our part in hurting others. We make confession.

Then we open our eyes further. We get clear on our values and vision. We read God's word to help us see our place in the larger story of our faith. We learn the values that God has in mind. We begin to see things from God's long-term perspective. We gather with others who share our faith, to get their perspectives and to practice forgiveness and to see other perspectives. 

We set priorities. We can't do everything at once, but we ask ourselves what we have the energy and time for, or what we can make energy and time for, and where we can get the biggest bang for our buck, so to speak, where we can make the most difference with what we've got. For instance, with the housing crisis, we've been working on Tiny Houses. We know people without shelter. We know this isn't how it should be. Since it takes years for the county to build affordable housing, we are looking at Tiny Houses to fill a gap in the meantime. That is something that will help people quickly and cheaply. Churches often have property that goes unused and could be supportive places to place these tiny houses. For me, personally, the priority is to get down to Salem to work on ending no-cause evictions and getting a cap on how much rent can be raised each year. We can build all the affordable housing in the world and it won't mean anything if we don't get some rent control and stop people from losing their apartments in the first place. If landlords can raise the rent to whatever they want it to be and as long as Oregon is a popular place to move, people will continue to lose their apartments because they can't afford the rent increases. To get at some of the root causes of houselessness is my first priority. Others may have different priorities based on their gifts and viewpoint.

Once we open our eyes and set priorities, we act. We do something to move in the direction of the Kingdom that Jesus is bringing in, to move toward the vision he lays out. Action is work. The swords aren't beaten into plowshares and then just set in the shed. The idea then is that there is still a lot of hard work to do, planting, weeding, and harvesting, but the results are worth it because there is feasting and joy at the end of it all and the benefit of a better world, with better nutrition and abundant life, a world that more resembles the vision of hope that God gives us, a world that begins to match what God had in mind with the well being of all creatures in mind.

After we act, we reflect. We learn from our mistakes. We decide what was helpful about our action and what could have been better. We incorporate our learnings into further action so we can be even more effective next time.

Only 2 chapters after this Gospel reading, Jesus asks the Disciples to keep awake with him in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prays just before he is arrested. His Disciples fail him and fall asleep and we fail him, too. But what is more important than anything we do, is what God does. God is the one taking us from this messed up, contentious, quarreling, destructive existence, to the vision of peace and compassion that God offers. God is waking us up to see what a mess we're in. God is waking us up to see God's own vision of this world and how this world will be a life-giving place for all creatures. That is God's promise. And God is forming us into participants in bringing that Kingdom. God is waking us up, making us more aware and alive, receptive and hopeful, to see where the Kingdom is already breaking in and how we can live as Kingdom people.

We are standing here blinking through the sleepy fog, half awake in the laundry room. The alarms and buzzers are going off, telling us we're not quite there yet. God's Kingdom is very near, so let's wake up and welcome it, welcome Jesus here to work to transform us and our world into a vision of joy and peace.

Monday, November 21, 2016

November 20, 2016 Christ the King Sunday

Gospel: Luke 23:33-43 
1st Reading: Jeremiah 23:1-6
2nd Reading: Colossians 1:11-20

We were talking about how busy families are these days, and one of the neighboring pastors told us a little story. He was visiting one of those busy families and they had five calendars stuck to their refrigerator. One schedule for the mom and one for the dad and one each for the two children. In the center of all four was the church calendar. The pastor was really touched. This was a family they saw at some church activity about once a month, but they had placed that calendar in the center so they could remember they were part of something bigger than themselves and to remind themselves of priorities and their church family.

That got me to wondering what God's calendar looks like. There are some who want God's calendar to be full of things like “Smite my enemies,” or “Find me a parking spot."

However, God's leadership model seems to be more like a shepherd's calendar, like in the first reading for this morning. Guide the sheep to green pastures, keep watch for wolves, clean and bind any wounds on the sheep, stay near the flock. The Israelites wanted a king, begged God for a king. They wanted someone to further their interests, to give them military power, and to lead them to greatness. They wanted a strong leader. Their calendar was full of efforts to this end.

However, God was trying to talk them out of it. Like we tried to explain to Sterling when he begged and begged us to buy him Magic Tracks, it is a cheap toy that doesn't last very long. It breaks easily. Same with the King. It usually doesn't go very well. And as sure as most of the Israelite Kings were crooks which needed to be returned to the store, I found myself in Walmart, exchanging Magic Tracks within one week, because the gears of the car were broken. 

It turns out that God's interests and priorities are very different from human interests and priorities. God has little interest in strength and might where people force others to do what they want them to. God is interested in all God's creation and the well being of each creature, so is more interested in sharing power and making sure each one is cared for and receiving basic needs for abundant life.

The last thing the Israelites expected to see on their Messiah's calendar was “Get arrested,” “Be mocked,” or “Die on the cross.” The leaders stood there mocking him, saying, “He saved others, let him save himself.” They thought saving himself would be a priority on Jesus' calendar. 

But Jesus showed us from the very beginning of his ministry that wasn't the kind of leader he would be. Do you remember when he was tempted in the wilderness after his baptism? He hadn't eaten a bite in 40 days and Satan encouraged him to make bread out of stones. But Jesus pointed out that one doesn't live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Jesus didn't put it on his calendar to save himself or avoid suffering, however if there was a crowd to feed, he put that on his calendar more than once. 

Sometimes Christians believe that to be Christian is to avoid suffering, that we should be spared pain, and even that God promises that to us. We know that God promises us life everlasting and abundant life. We may picture any number of wonders and pleasures in heaven, in the Paradise that Jesus promises to the thief on the cross. 

However, Jesus' life teaches us that we don't get special treatment or an easier life because we are Christian. Jesus is our example. He was born in a stable, he didn't have a fancy cradle. He was a traveling preacher, having nowhere to lay his head, often frustrated with his disciples, unconcerned about earthly comforts or riches or power. He didn't need to be treated as more important than other people, maybe because he was fully aware of who he was as the Son of God. We don't need that either. We are God's people—will always be children of God. That doesn't give us any special status or guarantee us an easier life. It does mean we have the comfort of knowing that God is with us even when we find ourselves suffering.

The danger of believing that we should have it easier, if God loves us, is that when we see someone else suffering, we might be tempted to believe they are getting what they deserve. Jesus helped point out again and again the falsehood of that kind of thinking. Remember when someone asked him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus replied, “Neither this man's sin or that of his parents caused this.” Instead think of this is an opportunity to behold the glory of God, and then Jesus heals the man of his blindness.

Jesus didn't just suffer for suffering's sake. He faced pain because he spoke out against the injustices in his day. He spoke up because the rules against picking even a single stalk of wheat on the sabbath were hurting people who were hungry. He spoke up because people were ready to throw stones at a woman, when they had all committed similar sins. He spoke up when children were pushed aside, when the word of God was misused to keep people down, and when people were rejected by society for arbitrary reasons. He spoke up and he paid the price for crossing those in power. However, the pain he faced on the cross was nothing compared to the pain he felt every time he encountered injustice. Because he was so uncomfortable with the world as it was, the way the powers of this world benefitted some at the expense of others, the way the powers of this world crushed vulnerable people, made their lives miserable and cut their lives short, because of this he had to speak up. This speaking up made him a target, by those who wanted to keep the system benefitting a few, and so he was tortured and executed to try to shut him up. 

This is the kind of King Jesus is for us. As one who created this world, he was in pain seeing this world misused, so far from the vision he had for it from the beginning. He could not remain silent or removed. He walked alongside all those whom this world rejected and he paid dearly with his life. The way he was killed was meant to intimidate anyone else threatening the powers of this world—this is what is in store for you, too, if you stand up and express the pain this world brings and stand with those who are hurting and oppressed and dare to say, “This isn't right!” Many of this world's injustices do benefit you and me. We are so removed from the pain we benefit from that often we are unaware. That is why it is important for us to walk side by side with people who are less powerful than we are and to understand their lives and what they go through. 

Pain isn't the only thing on our calendar, though. Pain isn't where we stay. Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Paradise—it sounds so good. When the Israelites were asking for a King, paradise was what they wanted to create for themselves—a realm where their interests were furthered, where peace reigned for them, where they would prosper and grow. When Jesus promises paradise, he pictures the Garden of Eden. Paradise is the original view of creation—all creatures in balance, God walking with people, everything created beautiful and good, relationships flourishing, all creatures fruitful and multiplying. But as humans grasped at power, like Adam and Eve in the garden eating of the tree to gain power for themselves, like the kings using force to gain power to further their own interests, like any of us trying to get our way at the expense of someone else, we fell into sin and brokenness and this world was not like the one God created in a lot of ways.

So here's Jesus. Paradise, in his mind, isn't for the few. On the last day of his calendar, he has a vision coming true for all of us. It is abundant life and the interests of all God's creation, and the flourishing of all life. And so pain isn't the vision we're left with, it is part of the path that Jesus walks to bring us Paradise, and the path we walk as Jesus followers as he brings justice and peace and paradise to all that he has created. In some ways, God is still creating us, making us a new people whose priorities are not just ourself anymore, but closer match God's own priorities.

According to my calendar, it is Christ the King Sunday. Christ is our King, not President Obama, not President elect Trump, not fear, not any other ruler but Christ. So pull out your calendars, and put there some opportunities to speak against the powers of death in this world that crush people. Come and volunteer at the pantry. Stand side by side with people who are hungry and hear their stories of pain. Come to our next Social Justice meeting December 13 at 3 pm or our next Clackamas Housing team meeting December 15 at 2 pm at Milwaukie Lutheran, find yourself a soup kitchen to volunteer at, or head down to the senior center and sit with someone who is lonely, visit someone with me this month who is homebound from our congregation. You will find pain there, but you will also find joy and paradise and love and understanding. You will find the Kingdom of God because Jesus' reign has begun.

Monday, November 14, 2016

November 13, 2016

Gospel: Luke 21:5-19 
1st Reading: Malachi 4:1-2a
2nd Reading: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

I've mentioned before that I'm not so good at transitions, at changing gears. I have learned the same is true of young children. We give a ten minute warning before we go anywhere. We give a ten minute warning before we expect toys to start to be cleaned up. We give a ten minute warning before meals, before bathtime, and so on, so our guy can adjust to what is coming next.

And at the end of the day, we transition. On an ideal night, usually while we get pajamas on, we spend some time talking about lessons learned, people we met, what was fun and what was difficult. We take some time for appreciations. I try to tell Sterling that I was proud when he took some action or another, or when he was kind. I thank him for good behavior. I am sure to tell him he is loved. And then we talk about what tomorrow will bring. What kind of a day will it be? Will it be a preschool day or mommy/Sterling day or mommy/daddy/Sterling day, or church day? Will we be going anywhere in particular, or need to get up early? Should we lay some clothes out or make any other preparations?

In our country, we are at a transition. Some of us would be more comfortable if tomorrow didn't look so different from today, and some of us are rejoicing that tomorrow will be different from today. Some of us are afraid the sun is setting on compassion, a stable economy, and respect. Others of us are pleased the sun is setting on government insiders and entitlements. We have some major changes ahead. 

The reading from the Old Testament, this morning talks about the coming day. The sun is setting on evildoers and the arrogant. The Israelites are in Babylon, in exile. They want the sun to set on their current chapter, but it also means the sun setting on almost everything they've ever known. A generation has passed, and they are there in Babylon, so integrated that they use imagery of the Babylonian god, a solar disk with wings, when they picture the next chapter of their lives, “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”

“The day is surely coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all the evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up.” The temptation is to put everyone who disagrees with us in this category of arrogant evildoers. However, I had to think during my post election shock, that maybe I had been the arrogant one. I hadn't prepared myself for this outcome. All of us do evil. All of us are arrogant in various amounts. But the good news here is that evil won't last. That part of us will have to go away. It will be removed by life experience, by falling, by unexpected turns of events. That part of us that does evil and hurts those around us will not last. The sun will set on that part of all of us. But the sun doesn't set without rising again. The sun of righteousness shall rise. In the Old Testament reading, they use the imagery of the rising sun to talk about God and the healing God offers. When the sun comes up, it is a new day. New possibilities emerge, hope continues. Isn't that gorgeous imagery of the sun of righteousness, God, rising with healing in its wings, soaring, inspiring, flying free?

In the reading from 2 Thessalonians, the sun is setting on idleness. The people of that time and place thought the second coming would be any day now, so some of them were just waiting it out, sitting around. But they were missing out on contributing toward Kingdom work, bringing God's Kingdom in by their actions. They were missing out on a key experience of the body of Christ, Christian community, when they were sitting around. Community is built in shared experiences, and some were refusing to participate. 

“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” In some ways, I feel like the election was trying to affirm this value. It seemed to be a reaction against undocumented immigration, and welfare, and foodstamps, so-called free-loaders. The ones who were sitting idle in the Thessalonians reading, though, were the rich. They weren't used to doing work. They had servants for that. They thought it was below them. Paul knew they had something to learn by working and to share the burden of the cost but also the work. When we work, when stand side by side ladling soup into a bowl for the homeless families served by the SON network, or with pruners on church cleanup day, or sharing the bread and wine on Sunday morning, or with a clean pair of socks, washing the feet of someone who is unloved, we are joined in Christ's body in a new way, and healing does rise on those wings of the sun of righteousness.

“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Children are idle, should they not eat? The elderly are occasionally idle, should they not eat? Would we not feed our pets, because they do not work? No one would be so cruel. Some people have given up on looking for a job, because no one will consider them, and are idle because they are discouraged. I talk to Janis, there is no housing in her price range, not even as far away as Vernonia. She hasn't given up yet, but she sure feels like it. To all these, Jesus says, “Come to the table of mercy and share my body and blood.” The truth is, we are all free-loaders. We all benefit from workers being paid less than what they need to live. We benefit from undocumented workers picking our fruits and vegetables and nuts and yet we send them a strong message they aren't welcome here by our votes, and perhaps now we will see what our country is like without them. 

We are all free-loaders, since we are created by God. Did any of us make ourselves? We are all here by the grace of God. We are all children of God, we are all loved by God. And we are free-loaders, as Christians. We don't get God's love by working. We didn't die for our own sins or each others. God did all the work of creating this world. We are doing all the work of destroying it. Jesus did all the work of giving us an example of God's love embodied and lived. Jesus did all the work of dying on the cross. We all sit idle at the foot of the cross, because ultimately we are helpless. But that is good news, too. Christ loves us helpless ones and claims us all as God's children.

Finally we come to the Gospel. Here is the temple—so inspiring, so beautiful. But Jesus only sees a pile of stones. He doesn't see why people are so proud. This is a temporary structure and doesn't matter compared to everything else. He knows that temple was built on the backs of everyday people. He knows the earth was torn apart to make it. He knows what bodies were crushed under stones to move them to that location. He was there when the rocks were formed. He is not impressed. He says, “Big deal!” You're focussed on the wrong things! Look around you at the people God is making God's temple. Treat them as well as you do this pile of rocks. This is where you find God, in one another, and especially in those you've disregarded. Of course, Luke wrote this after the temple was destroyed. Jesus is reassuring the early Christians Luke was addressing everyone that the end of the temple is not the end of God's reign or God's love. And he's reminding us not to put our trust in buildings. That's not what God's church is about, not what God's love is about.

Both sides in this election have been saying, “If the other candidate wins, that's going to be the end of the world.” These readings fall at the end of the church year (did you know we are in a transition in the church year, too. The beginning of the church year is in 2 weeks), and point to the end times which will herald Jesus' return. We are at an end, the sun is setting on something. Something is ending—maybe just the current Presidential coming to the end of his term, maybe more. Something is rising—and I won't let it be hatred and fear, for me. The first thing we did Wednesday morning before Bible Study was to pray together. Maybe the sun is rising on our own penitence, turning us in prayer toward God, opening our eyes and hearts in devotion.

What is surely rising is God's love and healing. That is the promised outcome. I am standing here in the rubble, the stones have fallen of the temples I have built to my own ideas. God never needed those stacks of rocks. God just wants to love us and to bring in the Kingdom so that everyone would experience God's love. Whatever is coming next, I hereby re-commit myself to working for the Kingdom. Where there is hatred, I will strive to be loving. Where vulnerable people are insulted and attacked, I will stand up for them. Where our planet is being pillaged, I will work to build up. Where families are torn apart, I will shelter them. Where people are told they are nobodies, I will remind each one, you are a child of God, loved by God, claimed and valued, you are part of the body of Christ, one with us and with Christ who is rising with healing in his wings. But not just me, but our congregation, our neighbors, all those who believe in the power of love and the power of God. 

At this transition, let us look back on lessons learned. Let us show appreciation to one another. And let us look ahead with hope, prepared to act on behalf of the poor and neglected, as Jesus would.

So, we turn now, to a remembrance of baptism, to remind ourselves who we are, children of God, and to remember that we don't belong to one party or nation or race, but we are one in Christ Jesus, our Savior.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

All Saints Day 2016

All our lives people try to tell us what really matters, what is most important.
Sometimes they say what is most important is having lots of money.
Sometimes they say what is most important is having lots of really yummy food.
Sometimes they say what is most important is having lots of nice clothes.
Sometimes they say what is most important is people saying lots of nice things about you.
All of those things are nice to have, but God says they are not most important.

In fact they can get in the way of our faith in God.
If we have lots of great stuff, we may think that we don't need God, that we can get what we want all by ourselves. We might run out of places to put things. We might not have in mind other people's needs who don't have enough food. We might be so busy trying to impress other people that we forget what impresses God.

God isn't impressed by money or food or clothes because God knows they don't last. Food gets eaten or rots, money gets spent and people aren't any happier, and we outgrow our clothes. 

Do you know the one thing we never outgrow? God's love. God has always loved you and always will. Love is the one thing that lasts, that we never outgrow, that everyone has.

God asks us be loving, too. That's why we say that God lives in our hearts, because that is where we say our loving comes from.

What are some ways to be loving? To share, to take turns, to let someone else have a chance to shine
(Share a way we've seen each child being loving.)

Sometimes people tell us that what is most important is being strong. Sometimes another child might hurt others on the playground, or hit someone to show their strength. Jesus tells us that isn't most important either. Remember God loves you and you don't deserve to be treated like that. Jesus asks to be loving, but also doesn't say to let them keep attacking us.

I wonder if we could think of some loving ways to respond to someone who hits us or tries to hurt us.

Tell an adult. When someone hurts you, I want you to be sure to tell an adult that you trust, like your teacher or your parents. That is loving because an adult might be able to teach the child a better way to communicate.

Find a way to be safe. Maybe spending time with different friends who treat you better. That is loving to yourself and that's good too.

Stay calm and confident, if you can. Maybe the most shocking thing to a bully is to let them know they don't scare you. Remember, you have what is most important and that is God's love. Don't let them ruin your day.

Today is All Saints Day. All of you are Saints. Saints are the people in our lives who have helped to teach us about what is most important, God's love. There are saints who are living, right here in this room, but there are also saints who have died who are with God. We can't see them anymore, but they are in our hearts whenever we remember them. I invite some folks in the congregation to share a little something they've learned from one of the saints they love. 

Each person who shares receives a paper heart. This is a reminder that the saints remain in our hearts and of God's love for all of God's children.

Reformation Day 2016

Gospel: John 8:31-36 
1st Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
2nd Reading: Romans 3:19-28

Reform us, O God, reform us.

You made us very good, O God, in your image, generous and caring and compassionate, a beautiful creation working together with every other part. And you created us to be in relationship with you. But you also did not make us robots. You gave us free will, so we would be free to make our own choices. This freedom sometimes causes us great joy and sometimes causes us great harm. We give you thanks O God that we have minds of our own, that life is more interesting because it could go any number of directions, and that you stay in relationship with us, even when we wander away.

You made this beautiful child, Pepper. She reminds us of more innocent times, when life was simpler. She is certainly in your image, O God, good and loving and curious and creative, but as she moves through life, we teach her our bad habits. Her choices are currently mostly about getting her own needs met, which she needs to survive. She also already shows compassion and forgiveness to family and friends and acquaintances and strangers. We will try to guide her by being good examples, by teaching her our values of love and forgiveness, by reading to her stories from the Bible and helping her to understand the faith journey of those who have gone before and sharing the love of Jesus with her. Yet she will see that we make compromises, that we break your laws, that we are hypocrites. She will decide for herself, as she grows, which paths to take. She will bump up against decisions that don't have a right answer, in which someone will get hurt either way. She will take paths when the consequences aren't clear, otherwise she will be choosing to be paralyzed, which is a damaging path all on its own. She is beautiful and made in your image and will experience great joy in life and hopefully even change the world for the better, and she will bump up against people who will hurt her feelings, whose waste of resources make her life harder, who tempt her to go against her values, and she will sin and she will fall and she will have wounds and brokenness and eventually she will die. This is the path of all of us. But you will never abandon her, O God. That's your promise. You never abandon us. You continue to write your love upon our hearts and be our God, no matter how many times we go astray or ignore you or break your covenant. 

We pray to you, whatever stage we are in life, to make a new covenant with us and reform us, O God, reform us.

You made your church, O God, of people—came among us as Jesus to be the head of the church. It started out a bunch of bumbling Disciples, people who knew your Son, people who wanted to hand down the stories so people would know your love for us through the life and death of Jesus. Sometimes the church was on track and sometimes it was not revealing your love and life. We give you thanks for the reformer Martin Luther, who spoke out against injustice in his time, the sin of the church which was charging people for salvation, taking the free gift of God's love and grace, and making people pay to spring their loved ones from purgatory into heaven. The church was not reflecting your love—it was too busy building fancy cathedrals, elevating corrupt clergy, and keeping the poor and illiterate afraid and ignorant. So at great risk to himself, because he couldn't participate in a system like this without endangering his soul or misusing the Gospel, Martin Luther spoke up. He tried to start a dialog. Many priests, several kings and princes, and many regular folks joined him in the dialogue. The Pope and those in power tried to squelch the conversation, excommunicated him, and called for his execution. 

Today, we are proud of our history, but we cannot boast. It is excluded. We all fall short. You call us to repentance, again and again, to turn around, to be aware of our sins and errors, and to follow your Gospel way. Your servant, Martin Luther said that we must always be reforming, finding the injustices that we all participate in, the way we enslave and injure one another, the ways we deny the Gospel by our actions, and we must reform to better reflect your love and speak it clearly in our context to those who need it most.

Our congregation doesn't purposely injure anyone, but we are a long way from what you taught us. We have rooms downstairs in this building that sit empty, not serving those in need. We use language in worship that isn't straight-forward to people of our time. We use energy to heat this building that pollutes the earth and makes people sick. We expect people to come to us to hear the Gospel, when you told us to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” We worship our own comfort, our money, our nice cars and clothes, our cupboards full of food. We mistake these for salvation and signs of your favor. Reform us, O God, reform us.

God, you created the heavens and earth beautiful and very good. This part of the world is especially beautiful to us—the green hills, the mountains, the rivers, the birds, the fish. And yet we lament the death of hundreds of species a day because of our carelessness and selfishness. We lament the pouring of poisons into our air and water. We lament the depletion of the soil, the handing over of power over our crops to a few corporations who do not have the best interest of your planet in mind. The poor bear the brunt of our ruin of your good creation, while the rich can move places that are cleaner and dump their waste far away. We lament our indifference, our helplessness, our unwillingness to be inconvenienced in order to renew creation so that life may abound, so that our children won't have to fight each other for the few resources that are left, so that Pepper can live in freedom and hope.
Reform us, O God, reform us.

God, you created us and the church and this world, this universe good. Yet, we all have sinned and fall short of your glory. And so our mouths are silenced, every mouth. What can we say, when we have broken the covenant, when we have betrayed your trust, when we have divorced you in order to follow others? We have no excuse. We have nothing to boast about.

Into this silence, God finally gets a word in edgewise. God says to us, “I will make a new covenant with you. I will be your God, and you will be my people, and I will forgive you and love you.”

In Romans God says to us that God doesn't give us the commandments so that we can brag that we fulfilled them all, but so that we realize how helpless we are and turn to God for help. All have fallen short, all have sinned, all are wounded. So all are granted a free gift, God's love, God's forgiveness, relationship with God. All fall short: all are justified by God's grace as a gift. “Justified” is an unfamiliar word. In this case, it means to declare innocent or guiltless; absolve; acquit. We are acquitted because of God's grace. 

We all fall short. No one can brag or say they are better than anyone else. We all are acquitted, so we can't put anybody down. All are acquitted, not only the person who sinned worse than you sitting here in this room, or the other Christians who are mean and ruin it for the rest of us. All these are now justified, acquitted, but also included are Muslims and Jewish people, agnostics and athiests and Humanists, the rich and poor, the old and young, Republicans, Democrats, Green Party, Libertarians, and Independents. We know Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and we know that even they are justified by God's grace as a gift. God claims absolutely everyone. Some say those other groups are left out because the Bible says here this is through faith in Jesus Christ, so it depends on our faith. However, verse 22 can also be translated this way, “through the faith of Jesus Christ.” Therefore it might not be our faith that does it, which we know waivers and isn't that reliable, and it seems more likely to me that it is the faith of Jesus Christ, which is strong and true which assures our place in God's family.

When we read this scripture, we are reminded that none of us can earn God's love, and that we all fall short. We find out that he loves, forgives, and accepts us as his own. Then we learn that everyone else is in the same boat, so when we meet other people on the journey of life, we would do well to see them as our equal, rather than boast or put them down. We are invited instead to see them as a child of God, just like we are.

We have been slaves to sin and all this bad news. Sometimes we see it, sometimes we don't. A lot of times we are blind to our own slavery. We are often blind to sin of humanity, the church, and toward the creation. We often don't see how we are enslaved to our busy schedules, or to keeping up appearances, or to our possessions, worshiping them, focusing on them. God opens our eyes to our sin, not to make us feel bad and paralyze us, but to free us to act in the best interest of this broken world. We are freed from slavery to sin, freed from repeating the mistakes of trying to earn God's love. We are freed, not to do whatever we want, but to serve this broken and hurting world, and to be reformed again and again into God's image.
Reform us, O God, reform us!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

October 23, 2016

Gospel: Luke 18:9-14 
 1st Reading: Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
2nd Reading: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

In our Sunday morning Gospel readings, we're in a section about prayer. Luke talks a lot about prayer—Jesus praying, Jesus teaching his Disciples to pray the Lord's Prayer, and Jesus telling Parables about praying. Last week, we had the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, which Jesus told to encourage people to pray and not lose heart. That story ends with the question, “But when the son of man returns, will he find faith on earth?” That was a cliffhanger, to this Gospel story.

This Gospel is about what faith looks like and what prayer is. It begins to explore the question of whether God will find faith on earth, and if so faith in whom. It is especially directed at those who trusted in themselves, had faith in their own abilities, that they were righteous, and regarded others with contempt. And it shows us something unexpected, that people who are aware of their mistakes and shortcomings, who might seem like they don't get it or that their faith isn't as strong, are actually the ones who are more tuned into God's love and mercy and compassion. It tells us that when we are humble and we don't feel very strong or faithful, we may be more open to God's love for us.

Last week we learned to be persistent in prayer and not lose heart, to have hope in God's justice, and to pray for God's justice, God's vision for this world, and to let our prayers be active, working for God's vision of justice. This week, we have two examples of people praying. God hears both their prayers. I am relieved that God even hears my self-centered, judgmental prayers. Maybe these two prayers are two ends of a continuum, between humble and proud. Maybe they are two parts of the same prayer. 

I remember reading Goofus and Gallant in HiLights Magazine as a kid. The formula was always the the same. I just knew what each would do. Poor Goofus, never tucking in his shirt, always getting dirty, being rude, such a mess. And good old Gallant. He dressed well. He was always polite. He ate his food with his utensils. He was a model citizen. So here in the Gospel we've got Goofus and Gallant, and we know the formula—we know what to expect and we get a surprise. 

Gallant dressed well. He had success in life. He was educated and well-liked. He always did the right thing. And then we've got Goofus, always screwing up, universally despised, rude, greedy, and untidy. And in the temple they go to pray and just like that, they switch places. Gallant opens his mouth, and we think we know which way its going to go. He starts the way we expect him to, “Thank you!” Oh good old Gallant, always being thankful. He's so aware of what God has done for him! But then it takes a turn. “I'm so glad I'm not like Goofus! What a loser! I always tie my shoes in a double knot and eat everything on my plate and say please and thank you and go to church every Sunday! Not like him!” And in contrast, there stands Goofus in the temple, frustrated, desperate, aware of his shortcomings, pleading, begging for God to hear him and love him and we hear Jesus say that Goofus is closer to God, that day. They have always fit in their categories of clueless, forgetful, idiot and conscientious, friendly, well-behaved golden boy. 

Goofus and Gallant are actually two extremes on a continuum. None of us is completely one or the other. But we expect certain things from one and certain things from the other and it is surprising when someone we have known to do things right not to be commended and the one who is always screwing up to receive praise from Jesus. We forget, the Kingdom of God is not like this world. God doesn't see people based on expectations, or surface indications of right and wrong, but God knows our hearts. Every prayer is another chance for interaction with God, for us to reveal what is truly in our hearts, and for God to show love and mercy. Even when we are good, there are traps we fall into, such as becoming self-centered and worshipping ourselves, and when we can't seem to do anything right, that is when we know we most need God and we come to God in humility. 

In this story, the pharisee in his prayer shows faith in himself and all that he can do. The tax collector shows faith in God. It's pretty clear to him that he's not where he should be. In fact it is almost as if the pharisee prays to himself. What does he need God for, if he can do it all?

The Messiah was expected to be Gallant—rich, well-dressed, a king, someone who would have the right friends. Instead, here comes Jesus, a bastard child, born in a stable, hanging out with all kinds of riff raff, homeless, arrested, weak, and eventually dead. This is proof that what often matters to us, doesn't matter to God. It is not about outward appearances, but orientation to God's priorities—justice, love, forgiveness.

God doesn't love Goofus or Gallant more, just like their mother doesn't love one more than the other. The part of the Gospel that says, “This man went down to his home justified rather than other,” can also be translated this way, “This man went down to his home justified as well as the other.” God doesn't leave either out in the cold. What God seems to want here is honesty, self-awareness, an openness to being changed for the better, and not putting others down to build ourselves up. God wants that because it is good for us and it is good for our brothers and sisters. It is about building up the Kingdom of God and working toward the vision God has for this world. If we think we're already perfect, we don't see the need for change. We are done. But if we see where we fall short and see this as an opportunity for growth, we are more open to God's action in our life. This reading also reminds us that none of us is in a vacuum. We affect those around us, and if we have a heart like God's, that heart will break when we know of the suffering of people around us. We cannot possibly be whole while others are hurting, because we are part of one another. The things we say and do have an effect on others. 

I was always suspicious of Gallant, because I was Gallant. On the surface, I did what my parents asked me to, was polite, and cleaned up after myself. But inside I always wondered if I could keep up appearances, or if people would abandon me if I let my grades slip or started dressing Goth. And inside I was jealous of the Goofuses around me, who were living a more free life, making their own decisions based on their own consciences rather than some outward, outdated, and superficial rules that didn't really reveal whether someone was a good person or not. I was Gallant, relying on my own tenuous control and it was kind of miserable.

I have come to accept the Goofus in myself. I am more free to make mistakes, stick my foot in my mouth, every couple of weeks, just to keep me humble, and to be forgiven by those around me. I think I am more relatable when I am Goofus, not trying to better than anyone or good enough, but just another human being bumbling through.

In the Old Testament reading for this morning, there is no question that the Israelites are aware the they are Goofus. There is no more pretending. God is at the end of God's rope. Yet, there is hope. Where there is awareness and confession, there can be healing, and instead of giving up on them, God frees them and brings them home.

It might seem at first that Paul, in 2 Timothy is boasting in his own works, however, he gives all the credit to God. His faith is not in himself. His prayer is not to make himself better than others, but to lift up his life story as an example of how God never abandons us, even when the world doesn't appreciate the gifts God has given us.

Gallant, drop your resume of all the great things you do, and instead be honest about where you can improve. Stop comparing yourself to others and live an authentic life. God loves you and wants you to focus on what matters to God, God's vision of justice and love, not some arbitrary standards of appearance and manners and success.

Goofus, God loves you, too, and will never forget you or forsake you. Keep being honest about your shortcomings. Keep working on yourself. Keep focussed on what God wants for you. Keep worshipping God rather than yourself. 

Remember our Goofus Savior Christ offers mercy and compassion to all of us, forgiveness and love, and rose from the dead to bring us new life. Whether we are Goofus or Gallant or somewhere in between, we are children of God who always hears our prayers.

Monday, October 17, 2016

October 16, 2016

Gospel: Luke 18:1-8 
 1st Reading: Genesis 32:22-31
2nd Reading: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

God has a generous vision for us, that we read about in the scriptures, the Bible, a vision that we would look out for the most vulnerable among us, that we would share all things in common, that we would have enough but not be greedy, that every tear would be wiped away.
Jacob wasn't that confident in God's generous vision. He stole his brother's birthright and spent the next 20 years running from his brother. Jacob's name means heal grabber, because he was born clutching his twin brother's heal, and also trickster. When we get to this story, he has not only tricked his brother, but he has more recently tried to trick his father in law and leave without telling him goodbye or letting him tell his daughters and grandchildren goodbye. Jacob is headed back toward his brother, when he encounters this man? Angel? God? And wrestles with him there at the crossroads, the ford of the Jabbok.

Jacob is wrestling with a lot of things. He's wrestling with his guilt and shame at having tricked his brother out of his birthright years before, with the help of his mother impersonating his brother and receiving the family blessing and inheritance. He's wrestling with the relationship with his father-in-law who tricked him into marrying his older daughter Leah when he was promised Rachel, and then having to work 7 more years on top of the 7 he already worked for Leah before he could marry Rachel. Then he wrestled with the rivalry between his wives and finally with his father-in-law who he tricked into giving him most of his flocks. Now, he's about to see the brother he hasn't seen in 20 years. The last time he saw him, his twin brother Esau was threatening to kill him. Now, Jacob sends his wives and children and flocks ahead of him like a coward, and hangs back, maybe to spend some time in quiet thought, maybe to see how things would play out between Esau and his family, maybe to pray.

So on the river bank he wrestles. He's all in knots. He's a mess. But when the day breaks, it is clear that he's had an encounter with God. Where this sparring partner comes from is unclear. His identity is a big question mark. The two “men” seem to recognize each other's strength. Jacob asks for a blessing and receives a new name, Israel, which means “striven with God.” At that point, if Jacob didn't know before, he now knows this is God that he's been wrestling with. God who doesn't tell Jacob God's name, has revealed it in another way, by renaming Jacob. And Jacob passes by two places named “the face of God,” Peniel and Penuel, probably the same place. 

Jacob seems to always be wrestling. His wrestling does not go unnoticed by God, who meets him there by the crossroads, which is what Jabbok means. And like a father wrestling with his young son, God goes easy on him. God knows that Jacob needs to work a few things out, and God lets him win, while still leaving him with a limp, a little reminder of their encounter to carry with him throughout his life. 

We wrestle with plenty ourselves. We wrestle with personal relationships. We wrestle with the right thing to do in certain situations. We wrestle with God, wondering about some of the big questions about life and death and meaning. We wrestle with our society, that this world often doesn't reflect values of love and sharing and compassion and care for the poor.

God doesn't leave us alone, but joins us in the wrestling, helping us work through all these things. And God encourages us to take our wrestling moves to our society to make it more just, more equitable, especially for those who usually get left out.

This story of Jacob continues after this: He crosses the river to meet his brother. Instead of finding someone who hates him, he finds his brother embracing him, loving him, forgiving him. And Jacob says again, “Truly to see your face, Esau, is like seeing the face of God.” There it is again, the face of God, Peniel, Penuel.

What do we see when we see God's face? We find generosity, forgiveness, love.

One very important way to see God's face for us, is to read the Bible, the scriptures. We look there for God's face revealed in the words that have come down to us from the earliest believers and those who knew Jesus. 2 Timothy invites us to look there for instruction, teaching, and training in righteousness, to get equipped to wrestle with whatever is on our minds, and equipped to wrestle with the powers of this world that do not fit God's vision of justice.

It is easy, when we are wrestling with the powers of this world to give up, when we are wrestling for justice, because sometimes it seems no progress is being made. But I have to admire this widow in the Gospel reading. She is powerless, seemingly, except for two things, she is arguing for justice, for what is right, for God's vision for this world, and secondly she is persistent. She shows up every day in court. She follows this judge to the grocery store and the opera and every other place he goes. It makes me wonder if she physically follows him, or if maybe like Jacob wrestling on the banks of the Jabbok river, it is his conscience eating away at him, her memory haunting him. In any case, she makes him, the last person in the world to care about someone like her, wrestle with doing the right thing, just to get her off his back.

Sometimes it seems God made us to wrestle, to struggle, to work things out. And it isn't a bad thing. We wrestle with ourselves over the right thing to do. We have choices to make and not many of them are clear black and white. They all have consequences, both good and bad, and God doesn't make those decisions for us, but gives us free will to wrestle with them and make our own decision. 

We also wrestle with God. Isn't this an apt description of prayer? Prayer is relationship. Prayer is listening, thanking, pleading. It is communication with God. It shapes us and our desires, hopefully to align more with God's vision for us, but also the Bible shows us that prayer shapes God, too. God cares about us, intensely, and hears our prayers. And God grants justice. When we see justice being done, that is God's action, God's Kingdom entering our world.

People of faith ought to also wrestle with the powers of this world. We have voice and influence. We have power. When we pray, we place our concerns in God's hands, not so that God will take care of them for us, but on the one hand to let go of what we have no control over, but also to take up what we do have the power to do, to lift up our voices to speak to those in power on behalf of the widows, and first of all to listen to their concerns and know them, so they aren't going alone to the unjust judges of our world.

The Social Justice Group, in cooperation with Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good, have been investigating how to help the homeless in our congregation. Shelters and tiny houses are some possible stop-gap measures until affordable housing can be built. But we want to be sure to hold our leaders accountable in the meantime and not let them think that churches will take care of the problem and they can focus elsewhere. We don't want them to think they can drop the ball on making our neighborhoods more equitable and liveable. We don't want them to think that just because some churches might be able to shelter some people for a while that they don't have to get busy building a lot of affordable housing. Many of us are already planning times to go down to Salem and talk to our representatives and state senators about justice issues, about greed, about laws that protect the most vulnerable. We'll bring stories from members of our congregations and stories from pantry clients, and we'll be there following them to the grocery store and the opera if we have to, until justice is done. I hope you'll join those efforts in the coming year. We'll give you lots of notice that they are coming up.

I read an interesting take on this Gospel reading yesterday, and that is that maybe God is the widow and we are the unjust judge. Maybe God is appealing to us day and night to do the right thing and grant justice and we have no fear of God nor respect for people. Maybe we have the power to grant justice but instead we mostly ignore those in need. However God is not going to give up on us and will nag us until we relent. How different God is, quickly granting justice to those who cry out in need.

When we go to God with our justice concerns, we know God is listening and surely will ensure justice is done. And when the poor and hungry go to God with their justice concerns, God will surely hear their cries and bring justice, not with a magic wand, but with the persistence and power of God's people who see that vision, who know what is right and what isn't, and who speak up and use our power to change this world to better match God's vision.

In the Gospel lesson this morning we read, "Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart."  Just before communion each Sunday we say these words: Lift up your hearts, we lift them to the Lord. Lifting our hearts is continuing to have hope, continuing to pray in hopes for healing and life. When we lift our hearts, they are vulnerable and open, helpless, but also brave and ready to do what needs to be done. When we lift our hearts, we are ready to face whatever powers stand in the way of God's vision, and lift our voices and our power in the service of God's vision, and ensure God's blessing goes out to all who all who wrestle.