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Monday, January 25, 2016

January 24, 2016

Gospel: Luke 4:14-21 
1st Reading: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Earlier this month when we had the ice storm, we lost power in our home for about 5 hours. Nick was doing some dinner preparation about 4:30 in the afternoon and suddenly the lights went out. We gathered our candles and our flashlights. We had one or two working flashlights, so I changed the batteries in the remaining two flashlights. Then Sterling and I spent about the next hour cuddled under a blanket on the couch reading by flashlight while we waited to see if the lights would come back on or not in time to finish dinner. We could see on our smartphones when the utility company thought power would be restored, but that time kept getting later and later, until we finally decided to venture out in the snow and go out to dinner.

This was fascinating to Sterling. Until then, he had taken electricity for granted. Now he wanted to know what ran on batteries and what was connected to the power grid. We tested our ceiling fan probably a dozen times so he could see that it wouldn't turn on. He went to bed that night with two lights that ran on batteries, a toy turtle he has that plays music and a flashlight. Even now that his nightlight is working, he still keeps those other two nearby, maybe as security in his mind in case the power goes out again. It was at that moment when the power went out that he started being more curious about everything and asking so many questions about how things work and why.

Probably many of us take it for granted things like electricity and power and what makes things work. And many of us who have been part of this church for a long time have our ideas of how things get done and why they are the way they are. That's why it is so nice to have new people come along now and then and ask why and how so we can evaluate whether that is the best way and how to have enough flashlights full of batteries just in case, a backup plan for when the usual patterns of power don't work or aren't serving the people they are supposed to.

In the Old Testament Reading for this morning, it would have been a new concept for words written in a book or scroll to have power, but clearly they do. They have the power to command people's attention. They have the power to move people to strong emotion. And you get the feeling that things are going to change, that people will be motivated to act because of these words. It isn't just the words, but that they come from God, who knows them completely. They hear their lives reflected in what they hear read and interpreted. They find themselves convicted by words of truth. They know things are not working well. They are ready to listen to another way. And they hear a word of love, joy, and forgiveness that helps them let go of how things have been and want to start a new way. And they hear a word of celebration and sharing.

In Paul's letter to the Corinthians this morning, there is power in diversity. It is like the different power sources in our home, the power grid and the battery powered flashlights and the candles. Together all these power sources come together to give us light. Maybe they seem redundant most of the time and maybe they clutter up the house and are inefficient, but they are important just the same and essential when the time comes that one source fails.

This is hard for humans sometimes. We look for friends who think the same way we do. We watch news that confirms our own point of view. We like the comfort of our routine. We think we like conformity. It is just easier if people fit a certain kind of mold. That's the way we run our factories, to make thousands and thousands of exactly the same item. That is efficiency. 

That is the way we like to run our ecology, too. One example I learned about this summer is about people's lawns. I know this can be a sensitive subject, but a lot of people have this view that their lawn should be uniform. It should be one kind of grass, even in color and mowed to just the right height. Well nature, AKA God, made nature love diversity. As soon as you plant that uniform lawn, nature, or God is moving in with other plants that want to live there, too. And there is good reason this happens. That is because if something happens to the uniform lawn that is systemic, not just a bug eating a blade of grass or you putting on too much fertilizer or herbicide on one little spot, the whole thing is going to fail. Having a diversity of plants in your lawn, means better survival rate. I was glad to know that my lawn is indeed considered a lawn. It has clover, it has crab grass, it has dandelions and faux dandelions that I try to remove, it has these cute little flowers that are light blue and few that are salmon colored and it has moss. When the dry summers come, the grass gets brown, but the clover looks really good. The clover doesn't grow as high as the blades of grass so it doesn't look as bad if I don't mow for a long time. And the clover supplies nutrients to the soil like nitrogen that is good for the grass and soil. It is good to have diversity, according to God who set up all of nature, even if it drives humans crazy. There is power in diversity because each has its own gifts. Even if two people have the same gift, if one fails or gets sick, another can come fill in and the body of Christ continues to work and serve. The body of Christ is powerful because of the diversity and redundancy, the fact that several people can do the same job in different ways.

So now we come to the Gospel. In the Gospel of John, Jesus' first act after calling his disciples is changing the water into wine at the wedding at Cana that we talked about last week. Each Gospel writer has their own perspective about who they think Jesus is and part of the way they reveal their perspective is in Jesus' first act in each of their Gospels. For Luke, this is Jesus' first act after being baptized and given the Holy Spirit and coming back from being tempted in the wilderness. So here he is. This isn't quite as dramatic as in the Gospel of John. Jesus goes home to Nazareth. He reads from a scroll in the synagogue, like he has probably done many times before. He is in the presence of his friends and family, the people he grew up with. He is getting some positive feedback, some interest, some good reviews—I'd call it cautiously optimistic.

So this is what Jesus chooses to read after being filled by the power of the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” This is what Jesus chooses to read, his mission statement, his billboard, his bumper sticker. I hope it sounds somewhat familiar. It sounds very similar to his mother's magnificat that she sang with her cousin Elizabeth before Jesus was born. “You have cast the mighty down from their thrones and uplifted the humble of heart, you have filled the hungry with wondrous things. How you favored the weak and lowly ones.” Jesus' first song of his ministry is the song of his mother, but also his father. This is God's song that God sang through the prophets way back when. Jesus is reading from the Prophet Isaiah. He is aligning himself with a person and a story from a long time ago, but also the power of God that has always been in the world. The people in the congregation listening to Jesus would have heard this before. They knew about their history of God's Spirit leading them through the desert to freedom from slavery to the Egyptians. They had experienced God bringing them out of exile in Babylon. They may have had mixed emotions, though, when they heard this because they were currently under Roman occupation and oppression. They looked around at their situation and felt the need to again be freed.

But then Jesus said these words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is reading it first person. He is claiming that he is the one the Spirit has empowered to do all these things. He's basically saying that he's the one that will cure the blind and free the captive and make all these good things happen. We'll see next week that his family and hometown buddies don't respond well to this statement. Maybe they think he's arrogant. Maybe bragging. Maybe they felt sorry for him that he was so naive as to think it would be so simple. But we know he does have the power and he does carry through both in his ministry and in his sacrifice, even if it isn't the way people expected it to happen.

So now we are the body of Christ, all of us together, and aren't we filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, too? Aren't we empowered by God? Isn't God working through us to release the captives, heal the blind, heal this earth, be united in love? Are we really moved or changed or empowered by hearing the hope and possibility in God's word, the scriptures read to us this morning? How would we do things differently if we really did let these words of God touch our hearts or if we really felt empowered and filled by the Holy Spirit? 

We often see our power as limited, likely to flicker at any time or growing dim. Sometimes we spend so much energy trying to make sure the lights stay on that we forget the share the light with others or forget that our power supply is unlimited because it is from the Holy Spirit. What might we do differently if we really lived by the Power of the Holy Spirit? How can we let the Spirit bring us joy? What would the world look like if we recognized that we run on Spirit Power? God is powerful and active and will transform our world through us and despite us, bringing release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and Jubilee for all of us, ready or not.

Nick and I crawled into bed about 10 pm that night that the power went out, for warmth as much as anything. We lay there talking about our day for a moment or two. Suddenly, the lights in our room came back on again. God's power can be surprising and unexpected. Ready or not, God's light is shining for all who have experienced darkness.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

January 17, 2016

Gospel: John 2:1-11 
1st Reading: Isaiah 62:1-5 
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

I hope no one is alarmed by this revelation: I am not a big fan of wine. So 180 gallons of it doesn't excite me as much as it might some people. Now if the story was changing water into beer, I could probably get behind that, although that is a lot of beer to drink before it goes flat. 

Christians have argued about whether one can drink alcohol and be a Christian, and I have to refer to this scripture. Jesus changed water into wine—it can't be all bad. It doesn't say here that he drank any of it, but he certainly did at the last supper. Some folks have been concerned enough to ask me whether wine or beer could be brought into the sanctuary for fundraising events, and I appreciate being asked. I have to reply that we have wine in the sanctuary every week for Holy Communion. There is a difference to me, though, between enjoying ourselves and throwing a big drunken party and there may be a time and place for each. Some have difficulty setting that line for themselves, so we offer the grape juice as well for Communion. And I suppose we might have to ask someone to leave if they got out of control for a fundraising event. But a little drinking doesn't bother me. I don't mind drinking and have been known to have a beer from time to time, although I don't tend to drink with my flock because I don't want to be impaired at work and I don't drink and drive, even one beer. I also appreciate and have great respect for those who have recognized their addiction and taken steps to avoid alcohol, knowing how it can destroy them and their relationships. I do think this Gospel story shows that God isn't made of stone or all serious, but someone who appreciates a celebration and brings people together in praise and thanksgiving and new life. 

This is Jesus' first miracle in the Gospel of John—apparently there are 7, a number meaning wholeness. It seems important that this first miracle doesn't heal anyone or feed anyone. Maybe the family is poor and that is why they ran out of wine. Certainly Jesus saves them from embarrassment by providing not just wine, but good wine. This gift of wine ensures the celebration goes on—when the wine runs out, that's when everyone goes home. Jesus makes sure that they stay and build relationships together. When people apologize for being late to church, I always say, “You made it for the most important part, Holy Communion.” They made it to God's table, and to me that is the central event of Sunday morning.

I don't think this miracle was a once and for all kind of thing—a one time event a long time ago. It is a miracle that I have seen repeated many times in my life. There is nothing wrong with water. It is refreshing. It is cleansing. It is necessary for life. It is also without taste or color. It is very basic. Many times the recipe calls for water. I hope we drink it more than we drink anything else. We'd be healthier if we did. Yet, sometimes the occasion calls for something a little more festive.

I heard a wonderful sermon many years ago at a wedding about God turning the water of our lives and relationships from the odorless, colorless, plainness of water, into something beautiful and colorful and celebratory of marriage. This couple was very sweet. The woman had come from Burundi in Africa. She had experienced horrors of war and hunger. The man had an earlier failed marriage. They were bringing the water of their lives together, filling all the stone water jars with the water to the brim and trusting that Jesus would make something of it that would be beautiful, something to celebrate and bind them closer in relationship. It isn't that this couple wouldn't have to work at their relationship and Jesus would do all the work, but that each one would contribute and trust and work together and that Jesus would change their water into wine.

Those of us who have been married a long time—yes I'm counting my 20 years—don't have stars in our eyes anymore. We are looking with eyes wide open at all these jars, either drained empty or leaking and maybe it seems impossible that Jesus would be able to do anything about it. When we know what to expect year after year, it is hard to be ready for a miracle, for anything new at all. I don't think this analogy of water into wine is only for newlyweds. There is still a chance for closeness and romance and turning toward each other again. There is still a chance to learn to trust again, to learn to love again, for the blah water to become the deep sweet red of wine. Some encounter it simply by surprise, turning toward each other during a crisis or pain. Some attend a workshop together to strengthen their marriage. Some see a counsellor. Some read a book together. One of my favorites is “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.” It is a very realistic way of looking at marriage. It isn't called “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Fun,” but it does offer some steps to turn back toward each other even after a long period of growing apart. Jesus is still turning our water into wine.

We celebrate Martin Luther King Day tomorrow. Could we consider the Civil Rights Movement as God working through Brother Martin to make wine into water? This is a whole large group of people who were told they could have water and maybe even stagnant water, but no right to live full lives, never to taste the good wine of celebration and relationship. But these activists were unwilling to accept life as second-class citizens, and their actions helped make the water of our nation more into wine, although that transformation is still occurring as we struggle as a nation about how we treat people with darker skin color.

We will be talking briefly on the 31st at our Annual Meeting about the use of our church property. We have this land that has been like water to us. You've changed it into wine a couple of times. One was when you put in the parking lot and made it safer and easier to get in and out of and more beautiful. The other was when you sold the property down below and were able to pay off some bills. Now those streets are full of happy children and families making a life for themselves. Yet there is more we can do to make wine out of water. I explored community gardens on my sabbatical. Is there a way to grow food on this land to feed hungry people? There are so many possibilities of what we can do with this beautiful gift that God has given us.

Jesus whole ministry was one of changing water into wine. This miracle really indicates the kind of Messiah he will be. In this miracle, he took the stone vessels of purification that were used to wash people and make them holy enough to be in God's presence or to be in community. He took the ritual washing vessels and filled them with wine. It would be like filling the baptismal font with wine. Probably if that happened here we would be shocked. Some might be pretty offended. Jesus was never afraid to offend people's sense of what was religiously proper. He healed on the Sabbath. He touched lepers and sick people. He overturned the tables of the money changers. He told off men of great religious power. If there is something we are holding closer to our hearts than God, something we see as sacred, Jesus destroys it—it doesn't belong there. We don't need any holy water to be in God's presence. We can't let our human rules keep us from bringing healing and hope to people in despair. His use of the water for purification also shows us that it isn't our rituals that cleanse us, but the blood of Christ. 

Many of our human rules keep us from enjoying the wine. Some of us have strong feelings about regularly using a screen. That isn't holy. That is for those other churches. However, we had a member here for a couple of years who was deaf. A deaf person sings with their hands. But if she is holding a hymnal, she won't be able to sing. What might it have meant to her to be able to have her hands free to be able sing in sign language as she looked at the words up on the screen? How much paper could we save if we didn't have to have so many words in the bulletin and could put them up where people could see them? How would it be to look up and out while in worship instead of in and down? What is sacred is not how we've always done things, but making Jesus' love more accessible to people, bringing real benefit and life to others. Certainly there were some people offended at Jesus' actions in the Gospel. When we are offended do we wonder what is wrong with the person who offended us, or do we look within to find out what it is we hold closest to our hearts and why do we feel that way? Is there room for Jesus amongst all the clutter of our rituals and traditions?

Jesus isn't waiting to see. He's here offending us, partying down with the wedding guests and he's saying to join him in the celebration of all of life, join him in relationship with sinners of all kinds, loosen up, smile, give thanks. 

In his death on the cross, Jesus poured out his blood of salvation that we drink this morning. He didn't do that to make us miserable and always focused on his suffering. The reason I know that is that his Disciples came to him after he had been raised and they felt terrible. He said that he did what he did to give us life and the best way for us to thank him was to share that life with others no matter who is offended.

Turning water into wine isn't simply a matter of taking lemons and making lemon aid. Here in Holy Communion we take the wine, the blood of Jesus. The people of Israel didn't know a whole lot about anatomy and the science of how the body worked, but they did know that blood is life. Jesus poured himself out for us, to give us abundant life now and eternal life. Jesus' miracles are about the abundance of life, the sharing of life, the celebration of life, and so that miracle goes on and on.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

January 10, 2016

Gospel: Luke 3:15-17 1st Reading: Isaiah 43:1-7
2nd Reading: Acts 8:14-17

His parents and grandparents were filled with expectation and his cousins were questioning in their hearts concerning Miles. His brother and sister were questioning who he would be in this new family that was forming. Would he be the peacemaker or the serious one, would he be the trouble-maker or the class clown? Would he be studious or lazy or observant? Would he be quiet or talkative? 

And his brothers and sisters in Christ were gathered round, wondering who he would be for the family of God, for the family of believers. Would he be one to run up quickly to the children's message or hang behind? Would he like to bring food for hungry neighbors or help them carry the donations to the car? Would he serve on council or visit those in nursing homes? Would he sing the hymns loudly or quietly ponder their meaning? Would he like the way things had always been done or would he suggest creative adjustments to make worship more meaningful for a new generation? Would he hear the voice of God clearly or search for the still small voice directing him in his choices?

Maybe Miles, too, in his own way wonders about us. “Who are all these people and why are they all looking at me? What is the meaning of all this singing? Why am I not running all over the place with my cousins, right now? Why do we have to be quiet? Are these people going to be helpful to me or make my life harder? What is the meaning of these banners and these carvings? What are these people going to do to me? Why do I keep hearing my name?”

All these questions and all this uncertainty could cause any of us some anxiety. Miles' parents are soothing him. They hold him close so he won't be afraid. The scriptures are soothing us, too. They tell us not to be afraid so we can calmly hear the rest of the story. But also I think all the possibilities open before us create some excitement and anticipation of all the wonderful things God could do through Miles or any of us to whom God is giving new life. 

When trying to figure out who any of us is, we can start with an origin story. We might tell the story of the day someone was born, or a story about a parent or a grandparent. These scriptures this morning go back to the very beginning. They remind us of God's faithfulness and God's role as the one who created and loves us and protects us. Such a tender lullaby of comfort and love we find in Isaiah! It is very reassuring. If we are to know who we are, it is important to know who is the one who made us and gives our lives meaning.

However, the scriptures don't stop at the beginning. They don't gloss over the fact that life will be hard. We will pass through the waters. We will encounter fire and flame. We will have troubles. But that won't be what defines us or destroys us, and we'll never be alone when we face hardships. 

Miles, too, has no promise of an easy life. He will face fire and rain. He will face heartaches and ailments. He will face disappointments. Even his community of faith will disappoint him and fail him. However, this won't be what defines Miles. He will have many joys in his life and much to celebrate. No matter what happens, he will always belong to God, having been created by God, formed by God, called by God, redeemed by God, and accompanied by God. He will never be alone, because has a loving family, he has a family of faith charged with raising him to know who God is and who he is, and because he now has the whole history of people of faith to look to for inspiration and guidance when he feels lost, real examples of people who tried and failed but who are also loved and claimed by God. 

We use water and flame at the baptismal service, elements mentioned in the scriptures today. Water sprinkled on Miles is a tangible sign of all the overwhelming waters he will face, the times he will feel he is drowning and not know what to do. But he will come through these waters like Jesus at his baptism and like Jesus at his death, when he was raised to new life. These waters will also refresh him and clean him and give life to him. He will be given a lit candle, a reminder of the fire of the Holy Spirit that descended upon the heads of the Disciples at Pentecost, but also using the words about letting his light shine. Fire has the power to destroy but also the ability to provide warmth and cook food and provide light to see.

I mention this about the community of faith letting him down, because I think that is part of what is meant by original sin. It isn't that something is wrong with this baby that he has to be cleansed, but that this world is full of problems, full of sin, and he is going to be affected by it. When we let him down, he's going to need to know where he comes from, that he was created God by a loving God. He's going to need to learn about forgiveness—forgiving himself, God's forgiveness, forgiving others. What better place than a community of faith, where we have the example of Jesus forgiving all who betrayed him and one of our main jobs is forgiveness. Some have called the church, the community of faith a “Forgiveness Laboratory.” This isn't a place we presume to be better than others. This is a place where we know and love each other enough that we can admit our mistakes and failures to each other, knowing that we can learn and grow from them and that we will be forgiven and given another chance to try again. And this is a place where we can let someone know if they have upset us or hurt us and where we can let ourselves love and trust again, we can let go and forgive and go on loving. Forgiveness is one of the most powerful tools we cultivate in our community of faith, and one of the most beautiful things we can experience in life whether we are the giver or the receiver.

We wonder at this time who Miles will be, but the truth is, he is now a child of God. God knows and loves him now. Miles doesn't have to wait to know the presence and love of God. That's part of the reason we baptize infants in our church. Miles will likely have many opportunities in his life to seek God or run from God, to accept or reject God. He is simultaneously saint and sinner like all of us. But this day is about God's direction. God is always moving in Miles' direction, always moving toward God's children. Baptism is about God moving toward us, claiming us, reminding us who we belong to, reminding us to move toward each other in love. 

Look around at one another. We might think we know each other pretty well. However, we are given new life each day through our baptism. Each day is another chance to start again. Allow yourselves to wonder who are these people and who are they becoming? Take a look at your own life. Many of us are resigned to the fact that this is who we are and who we will be. This is what our life will be like. Nothing will ever change. We have as much possibility in our lives as a little child, because of God's love. God loves us as we are now. And God wants more for us. God is excited about all the possibilities—the people we will love, the help we will give others, the forgiveness we will find, the truth we will live. Those opportunities and choices are available to us now. New life is waiting for us—the new life that comes for us when we act on our beliefs and the new life that opens up for others when God works through us to make this world more just and loving toward all God's children.

My son has just entered a very curious stage. It isn't asking “Why?” a thousand times to drive us crazy, it is a genuine curiosity about this world and the way things work. I started writing some of them down yesterday. “Will I be taller than daddy when I am big enough to drive? Will our ceiling fan run out of batteries? Was I a baby when I was 2 years old? Why do babies have to grow up? What does the cat's nose smell like?” It went on and on and I was really enjoying it. Children teach us to be curious about what has always been that way and what we take for granted. They make us think about how the world works and why. It won't be long until Miles is articulating all these kind of questions. Questions don't need to make us anxious. Hopefully they bring us closer together as we try to understand ourselves and each other and this world God created. Maybe we, too, can learn to have the curiosity of a child, open to understanding this world but also open to new ways of living that help others to thrive.

God loves us as we are now. Yet God is with us in our becoming and in the coming of the Kingdom. Water washes us and gives us another chance to start again, to choose a path that is more live-giving. And fire burns within us when we see injustice, a powerful force to move us forward until the wheat and chaff are separated, until everything inessential and distracting is dismissed and all that is good and lasting and life-giving is gathered together in God's presence.