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Monday, February 29, 2016

February 28, 2016

Gospel: Luke 13:1-9 
1st Reading: Isaiah 55:1-9
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

“Multnomah County Master Gardeners, how may I help you?”

“I have a fig tree that hasn't bloomed or produced fruit in 3 years. What can I spray on it to make it better?”

“I would recommend chopping it down and starting over again. Have a nice day.”
It is hard to get fired as a volunteer, but giving this answer too many times, just might do the trick. Yet that is exactly what is happening in the Gospel reading. The tree isn't producing so the landowner is ready to chop it down.

We tend to identify the landowner with God in most parables, but I'm not always convinced that is safe to do. They are parables to make us think, for us to place different people into the different roles in our minds, to place ourselves in the roles of the different characters. When am I the landowner, when the gardener, and when the tree? What if we place God in each of these roles? How about our neighbor? 

As a Master Gardener, to diagnose plant problems the path would be a line of questioning that would helpfully lead to some answers as to why this is happening. Is it really the kind of plant that the caller believes it is? Maybe the person recently bought the property and just thinks it is a fig tree.  How mature is the tree? Maybe the tree is too young to expect figs.  Where is it located? When did it last fruit? How was that yield? Has anything changed in the past three years, like weather patterns or nearby plants added or removed? Do you see any sign of insects or animals that might be attacking the tree? What other signs and symptoms do you see—yellowing leaves, lesions on the trunk or branches, leaf drop, dead branches? If you dig up a root can you see signs of trouble there? How have you been caring for the tree—pruning, amending the soil, etc. Often operator error is the problem. Certainly you can't blame the tree. The fact that it isn't producing fruit can be a sign that the tree needs help and there are possible routes to take to help a tree, like this.

In a lot of ways a tree is a lot like a person. When there is stress on a tree, the first thing that often happens is that it doesn't bear fruit. All the resources of the tree go into keeping it alive, or fighting off the insect or disease. The tree just doesn't have what it takes to make fruit, if it is too stressed. The equivalent in our lives is that when we are stressed, we often drop what it most peripheral. If someone in our family gets sick, we might not have time to volunteer at the library or mow the lawn or go over and welcome the new family that just moved into the neighborhood. Those peripheral things, farthest out on the branch of our priorities, get pruned back and we focus on keeping the trunk and branches healthy so the family can survive, so the most essential activities can go on.

Churches do this, too. When churches are stressed, they tend to circle the wagons and start holding back, just trying to care for the trunk and branches and forget about outreach and bearing fruit. And that's why I just love the story of when this congregation was struggling to pay the bills, but that was a time to start to give to others, to start tithing to the Synod, to reach out and show some faith. It was a laugh in the face of death, which no doubt would have been forthcoming, if something had not changed. It was a leap of faith to say we aren't going to do the usual holding back and going into survival mode.  We're Jesus people and what we do is to love and be generous and be a part of something bigger. We're going to keep producing fruit, despite the feeling that we might be slipping away. Even if we end up closing, at least we've given of ourselves and made a difference in the world on our way out. That was enough to begin a transformation to sustainability and creativity in this place. There might have been some that were ready to cut the tree down, but I have a hard time picturing God being so harsh, lacking any mercy.

Many times we see ourselves as the tree. For pastors, it is hard to count our fruit. Are we bringing believers into the flock? Can we measure our success by how many people we baptize or by worship attendance? Actually, I would say most who are baptized here are brought in not by anything I did, but by family and friends, and anyone who stays, stays because of the culture of welcome in this place and finding meaning here through many relationships. I can't take credit for the fruits that grow on this tree and I can't blame myself when the fruits are falling off the tree either, although that is sometimes a temptation I fall into. Maybe it isn't up to me to be counting my fruit or getting worried about the lack thereof. Then we become both the gardener and the tree. We are sometimes too eager to cut down the tree when we fail, when we don't see the production matching our expectations. 

Probably, you, too have trouble counting your fruit. Do you count it by your income, by how much time or money you can give to charity, by how many friends you have, by how many Lifepax you hand out to homeless people on the street, by your church attendance, by your general feeling of wholeness or wellbeing? But then what happens when you're feeling crummy or sick or grieving? Does that mean we're not bearing fruit? What is fruit anyway?

I think we are quickest to cut ourselves off, to criticize ourselves, to think we're not good enough, that we aren't deserving of another chance. It is all too easy to get into a cycle of despair or fear or anger. We forget that time and a little manure in our life can mean the difference between a failure and a learning experience. Self-forgiveness and compassion for ourselves is one of the hardest things to learn. I think all we can do is to listen to God, to take up the water and nourishment God provides, and to reach out—to take the risk to spread out our roots and spread out our branches and take in the sun, to bask in the generosity of God. 

Other times, we play the role of the landowner. We try to control our world and when something isn't working out, we might feel tempted to bring out the axe, in frustration, in fear of wasting the soil, wasting our time, wasting our resources. If a friend offends us, we might cut off that relationship. If we have a difference of opinion with someone, we might write them off. All too often we cut each other down. We forget that people have bad days, like we have bad days, and that forgiveness and mercy are what God prescribes in our relationships.

We cut down those trees out of fear of a lack of resources. What are we wasting on these people around us? The landowner fears wasting the soil. We don't feel we have enough to go around—enough time, enough creativity, enough money, enough energy. Yet none of the gifts needed to grow a tree come from humans. We know trees grew plentifully on this planet long before people were here. The seed comes from God—we can't make a seed on our own. The rain comes from God—we can't make it rain, although a watering can or a sprinkler can really help sometimes. We can't make the sun shine or the seasons change. None of it comes from us. God's gifts are plentiful. God is overflowing with new life to share, with gifts of creativity, gifts of healing and forgiveness. God certainly isn't going to run out of that and neither are we.

This beautiful, rich soil simply grows plants—it will grow plants almost everywhere and anywhere, just not the plants we want. In order to grow the plants that benefit us the most, we make conditions favorable for the plants we like, by weeding, watering, amending the soil, basically coddling fruit trees and garden vegetables that have less of a chance of making it on their own. We give to them, because they give to us.

Now, we have a gardener who is merciful. He comes and takes a look at our life and he knows we could bear more fruit. He suggests trying something. In this case it is manure, not some fancy expensive new technology or the latest trend, not something pretty, not some special skill that only a few people have, that might help this tree. Jesus goes back to the very basics, the waste products of earth creatures, broken down, dark and dirty, the unwanted, unneeded manure. That is what has value for the tree. 

Did you read the story this week of the scientist who worked on the Challenger space launch?  He warned his colleagues that there might be a problem with the space shuttle and they shouldn't go through with the launch, but his plea was ignored.  All these years he's suffered terrible guilt that he didn't do enough to prevent the deaths of all those astronauts.  His story was only recently published, how tormented he has been all these years. As soon as people heard his story, they started writing to him, telling him it wasn't his fault, that he tried, that he did all he could.  Even his superiors at NASA called him, those who had ignored him before.  Even they told him it wasn't his burden to carry.  It was them that caused all that loss, because they wouldn't listen.  This scientist was ready to bring out the axe for himself.  He couldn't forgive himself.  But it was others around him that that reassured him that his life had meaning.  They had mercy on him and helped him finally to forgive himself.  He says that now a burden has been lifted, that he can concentrate living out the rest of his life, that he has moments of peace now, where there was none.

When Jesus saw the plight of his orchard of humanity, languishing, suffering, afraid and not fruiting, he came to be planted among us. He grew alongside us in the heat and the cold, enduring the onslaught of animals and insects and diseases. His tree grew tall and strong and others found it threatening. So they took the axe to Jesus' tree and he gave up his life. That tree became mulch that was spread on the other trees. From that mulch and organic matter, the soil was enriched and new life began to emerge. Trees began to bud and flower, a leaf appeared here and there and new growth took off. A small group of Christians began feeding each other and caring for each other and telling the story of Jesus and the tree, and embodying love. Some of those trees, too, were chopped down, but the orchard could not be destroyed and that mulch, too, enriched the soil for the others who spread their branches and protected the vulnerable, produced food to feed the hungry, and gave their lives that others might live.  May we look to Jesus, the tree of life.  May we find ourselves, branches on his tree.  May we find mercy for ourselves when we aren't producing as expected.  May we have mercy on one another and not cut each other off too soon.  May we have patience and plenty of manure so the tree can grow strong and share life with many.

“This is the Master Gardeners calling you back. I hope you haven't chopped that tree down yet. I did some research about your fig tree and I would recommend putting some manure around it and giving it another year. Call us back next year and let us know whether that works. If not we may be able to offer something else you can try, then. I know it takes a lot of patience, but it is worth it when you bite into those juicy figs!”

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

February 21, 2016

Gospel: Luke 13:31-35 
1st Reading: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
2nd Reading: Philippians 3:17-4:1
The Apostle Paul says this morning in his letter to the Philippians, "Our citizenship is in heaven."  I remember as a little girl, learning what it meant to be an American Citizen—the privileges and responsibilities. I remember saying the Pledge of Allegiance each day in school, standing by my desk with my hand over my heart. I remember my parents telling me about the history of this country, how our family came here, and about the freedoms we enjoy. I remember going down to my elementary school with my mom after the last of the daycare children she watched during the day had been picked up and standing there in the voting booth with her as she cast her ballot behind that curtain. I remember feeling proud to stand for the National Anthem at sporting events, looking around at all the people's serious faces, the men taking off their caps out of respect, and feeling part of something big.

Going to Germany this summer brought up many questions for me of what citizenship means.  I am an American citizen, but I was traveling to the place of my birth, the place where my family comes from, the place where my denomination started, and the place that defines my professional life in a big way.  When I was growing up, I remember my dad saying that any of my siblings could become President of the United States, except me.  I was born in Germany.  Now we know from some of the Presidential candidates that might not be true, since my dad was in the military and I am an American Citizen born abroad.  The point is, I always knew there was something different about me.  We couldn't drive past the hospital where I was born, like we did Lebanon General Hospital where my siblings were all born.  I felt disconnected from my beginnings.  So it was a strange feeling going to Germany.  When we arrived in Hanover, they of course could see by my passport that I was born in Germany.  I was treated well there.  The rental car company even gave us a fancy car upgrade to a Mercedes.  Maybe it is because of my passport.  Maybe it is because I spoke German with them, or tried very hard.  Or maybe they had a car left over they were trying to get rid of.  I wondered how I would feel about Germany.  Would it feel familiar in any way?  I only lived there a year and a half.  But that is where I learned to walk, where I spoke my first words, the first trees and birds and houses and lights I ever saw were there, and first people I ever met were there, peeking into my baby carriage.  Certainly Nick and I did feel at home in Hanover.  Germany has a very similar climate to Oregon, with fields and forests and mountains.  We're about on the same longitude.  We loved much of what we saw in Hanover--the neighborhoods bunched together, the solar panels and wind turbines, the fields and forests, the cultural activities, the public transportation system, and food.  We felt at home.  Yet in Oberenzenn, the place where my parents and I lived when I was born, I felt anything but welcome and at home.  I felt the same thing my parents felt, unwelcome, and that was probably due to the American Army base just outside of town.  I walked into the same bakery, the same little store my mother had wheeled me into as a baby and I received the same unwelcome response she had 40 years before.  On our last night in Germany, we ate and drank in Munich at Hofbrauhaus, a famous landmark there where both Hitler and JFK had separately visited, among many others.  We sat with a German couple.  The first thing they said to us was, "Germany isn't all bad," because their perception was that all Americans know about Germany is about the holocaust.  Then the man went on to explain that he and his wife wanted to move to the United States.  They were ready to give up Germany and move to Florida, if their names were chosen in a lottery.  He was unhappy with some of the laws and tax system in Germany.  This couple, too, were thinking of what citizenship means and where they might feel at home, where they might belong.

What does it mean to be a citizen of a place? What allegiance and thanks do we owe for all the benefits we receive? What is our responsibility to try to make it a better place by challenging it when it doesn't live up to its promise for us and for others around us?

Abram was a citizen of nowhere. He was rich, with flocks and possessions and slaves. But he had no home. He lived here and there. He had no place to belong. He would settle someplace for a while and then move on. His father brought him part way to the land of Canaan. Then God called him the rest of the way there, but there was a famine, so he ended up going to Egypt for a while. Finally, Abram and Sarai ended up coming back to Canaan. Then he went off to war for a while to retrieve his nephew Lot who had been captured. He returns again, and then God speaks to him and says all that we read this morning and more. 
God reminds him that he does belong, that God is his shield and protected him during all these close calls and in battle. His citizenship is with God. That's his family. That's his nation. That's where he belongs. He's been told this several times over by now. But Abram's anxious. “As long as we're having this conversation, God, what about that promise you made to me that my offspring would number as the stars.” God reassures him that God will keep those promises. God is trying to teach Abram what it means to have citizenship in heaven, that God is trustworthy. They are building their relationship with one another. 
Once God promises Abram again that his descendants will number as the stars, the reading tells us that Abram believed God and God reckoned it to him as righteousness. I don't know if it is a little tongue in cheek, to say that Abram believed. Abram had a hard time trusting. He was looking at the promises of God and he was looking at his current reality and he was seeing a disconnect. So he asked God again. He continues to act like he doesn't believe. He takes matters into his own hands and has a baby, Ishmael, with the slave woman, Hagar. Later, when God promises Abram a son through Sarai, Abram, he laughs at the prospect that two elderly people will be able to bear a child. Even after Abram and Sarai receive new names and Isaac is born, Abraham has trouble believing in the promises and goes up to sacrifice his son. Of course, God provides a ram instead. And we see this morning that moments after believing that he will have offspring, Abram disbelieves that God will give him the land to possess. God goes through this strange elaborate ritual to prove it, a ritual whose meaning is lost on us, but might remind us of the pillar of fire, the way God appears to the Israelites, leading them in the wilderness by night. 
In Paul's letter to the Philippians, he is teaching them what it means to have citizenship in heaven. It is like being a resident alien in this land. To be Christian is to speak another language, have a different set of priorities, to have a different lifestyle, not to fit into this world very well. While we do, as Christians have our feet firmly planted here on earth, we stand firm in our values, in God's values. We may not feel like we belong, and that is for good reason. We belong to the Kingdom of God. As Kingdom Citizens, we don't abandon this world, but we bring God's values to transform this world to reflect the glory of God. As Christians we see the promises of God and we look at this world we live in and see this chasm. Something doesn't match very well here.  Every tear will be wiped away?  Every mouth will be fed?  Widows and orphans will be cared for?  Maybe we wonder, like Abram, will the Kingdom of God come to this place? This answer is yes, God keeps God's promises. 
The Kingdom of God is very near, and already here, at the same time. I just received a flier last week about Laundry Love Milwaukie, a place for low-income people to come and do laundry for free. Of course I emailed them right away and I got an email back that they have use for my homemade laundry detergent that I make for pennies a load. The Kingdom of God is here. It is with kids in clean clothes, feeling more like they can fit in at school, able to concentrate on their schoolwork, feeling good about themselves, knowing they are valued. The Kingdom of God is here in a basket of clean laundry.  The Kingdom of God is here on earth in a pit bull named Jonny, one of Michael Vick's fighting dogs, rehabilitated and now is part of a reading program at a library in San Francisco. He is a dog for kids to practice reading to—a nonjudgmental listener, who gives them his full attention.You know many other examples, I'm sure. 
Now to one who really felt out of place, Jesus. He knew he didn't belong here, and yet all of us belong to him in his family. He keenly felt the disconnect between the promises and glory of God and this messed-up world. He was really feeling it in the Gospel reading. He's doing God's work, healing and casting out demons. Now the Pharisees tell him Herod wants to kill him. He's in Jerusalem, the place where the temple is, supposedly closest to God, and Jerusalem isn't a place of peace and blessing (PS salem in the word Jerusalem means peace). Instead Jerusalem is a place that kills prophets and scatters people. Jesus so longs for family and gathering and life, and all he sees around him is destruction and an unwillingness to work together, and the fox-like characteristics of its leaders. Foxes are especially known for preying on the young of other animals and Herod here is called a fox. Jesus identifies himself as a hen.  Hens are especially known for gathering and protecting their young. Wouldn't we rather have a fox for our leader? No, because we are citizens of heaven where violence doesn't have any place. Jesus tells us in the verses just preceding these in the Gospel this morning that “Some who are first will be last and some that are last shall be first.” Maybe that's why Herod and the Pharisees get so riled up--they heard Jesus put them down and say they will be last. We have a chicken/fox reversal here. The chicken is going to win out and be first in the only time a chicken got the better of a fox outside of a fairy tale. The chicken in this case will die, but it won't stop God's Kingdom from coming and it won't keep God from gathering the brood under those motherly wings.

Now back to our citizenship.  We are citizens of heaven, of the Kingdom of God.  Is our heart with God.  Do we value love and sharing and compassion, or have we become to assimilated into this world and its values?  Have we given up trying to bring those values with us and maintaining our kingdom citizenship and become too much tied up in the values of this world?  On the other hand, sometimes we are so wrapped up in our Kingdom Citizenship that we say to heck with this world and trying to change it to reflect kingdom values!  Why should I care about the people of this world?  I'll just wait to die and go to heaven and then I'll have it all.  Heaven or hell is right here.  Hell is when people go hungry, are disregarded, are hurting, afraid, and scattered.  Heaven is when we are gathered under the wings of our mother hen, when we find connection, when we know safety and security, when we provide safety and security for others.  And heaven and hell both have open borders, anyone can become a citizen.  When we look around, do we see hell--the terrible circumstances people are in, their suffering and pain?  When we look around, do we see the Kingdom of God, wonderful beauty and love and hope and generosity?  I think the answer to both questions is yes.  How do we reconcile these two worlds we live in?  Do we wait for God to make it better, when things are bad, or do we let God work through us to bring in the Kingdom?  I think sometimes we do wait for someone else to make it better, especially if we are comfortable ourselves, or if we don't feel empowered to do anything about it.  But we must remember that those are our brothers and sisters under the protection of Jesus the mother hen, with us.  If they don't know peace, our family is in turmoil--our family is incomplete.  Even if we feel as helpless as a chicken, and all the foxes in the world are after us, all the powers of this world out to destroy us, Jesus stands firm and we stand because of him between those powers and those brothers and sisters who need us most.  We wonder, will God keep those promises, like he did for Abraham.  It might not look very promising.  However, new life is the promise, not just for after we die, but right now--life out of death, the last being first and the first and strongest at the back of the line. 

It was rather unreal, standing at the Berlin wall, broken, with re-bar sticking out every which way.  I watched films about getting past that wall when it was so strong--the people killed trying to cross, the families split up.  I watched that wall come down in German class in high school.  Tell that fox, tell all that seems strong and divisive, that Jesus the hen is here, gathering, healing, casting out what is destructive and damaging.  You make think you're having chicken and dumplings for dinner tonight.  This hen will lay down her life but her values will go on and new life will go on, walls will come down, children will be gathered and it will be through the most unlikely, nonviolent citizens that the greatest love will grow until this world, this hell for so many people, will become the Kingdom of Heaven.  We could never do it by our own power, but it is love, it is God and the strength of God's promises that make it an absolute certainty.

February 14, 2016

Gospel: Luke 4:1-13 
1st Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1-11
2nd Reading: Romans 10:8b-13

When I used to watch Saturday morning cartoons as a kid, I remember a common theme was a character who had a choice to make. On one shoulder would be an angel, telling him to do the right thing, encouraging him, and rooting for him. On the other shoulder would be a devil, a little red guy with a pitchfork and a forked tail, urging him to do the wrong thing. If I remember right, it seems that the character often chose to do what the little devil told him to do. I don't know if that is because that is what many of us usually do, or maybe it just makes a much more interesting story when a person does the wrong thing and then we get to see the consequences of their actions. We get to learn through them what not to do, and it can be funny when somebody gets what they deserve, especially if it is just a cartoon character. 

Jesus, today, is led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. I imagine the Holy Spirit, or a dove, perched on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Did he actually see either of these folks, or were they voices he heard, or simply a tug in his heart as he imagined the possibilities of what it meant to be the Son of God. We'll probably never know, except for our own experiences of temptation. Sometimes there are two people representing our two choices and other times it is an internal battle.

I want to talk a little bit about wilderness. Picture a desert, where there is no living thing, as far as the eye can see. The heat of the sun is intense. It is deafeningly silent. The wilderness is a place that is so quiet and empty, we can hear both the angel and devil. Maybe it isn't an actual wilderness for most of us, although I did have a friend who after the breakup of a 9 year relationship took a solo bicycle trip for a month through the Olympic Peninsula and then back down to Oregon. She talked about how cleansing it was to spend that time with her thoughts, to sort through who she was without him and what her own dreams were for the future. That was the wilderness for her. I guess the Olympic Peninsula is the actual wilderness, but the wilderness for her was also the breakup. Other wildernesses might be the death of someone close to us or an illness or simply unrest within us urging us to change. The deafening silence is a time when we might entertain thoughts that come from the Holy Spirit and some from the devil, and sometimes we might not be able to tell the difference. 

I guess some people might feel uncomfortable thinking of Jesus tempted by the devil. Maybe they'd rather think of Jesus being so pure as to never feel a tug in the wrong direction. Another way to look at this is as a story telling us who Jesus is and and who he is not. Temptation is simply the result of having choices.

Jesus, of course, passes the test. But passing the test is a rare thing. First of all, Jesus is the Son of God—so we have just heard at his baptism and so the devil reminds him in today's Gospel. We would think that being the Son of God would give the certainty that he would pass the test. However, there was one other called the son of God and only in the chapter before this in the Gospel of Luke. That is in the genealogy tracing the lineage of Jesus all the way back to Adam. Adam is also called son of God. But we all know he failed when he was tempted. God told Adam not to eat from the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, and he did, and then he blamed “that woman” for it. 

These temptations would have also brought to mind temptations that the Israelites experienced in the wilderness when they were wandering over 40 years before they came to the promised land. The first temptation is about changing a stone into a loaf of bread. Jesus quotes what Moses says to the Israelites when they were hungry in the wilderness. “One does not live by bread alone.” The manna God provided wasn't the point. Filling their tummies was not the point. The point was where the bread comes from, that God provides it. The manna in the wilderness taught the Israelites to trust God. Jesus knows it is God who feeds him and it isn't up to him to make bread for himself. We know he is perfectly able to make bread, or at least we assume that is how the 5000 are fed, later in Jesus' ministry, but he doesn't use his gifts to please himself. That's not what they are for. They are for the good of the whole.

The second temptation is to political power. This is a temptation the Israelites were also familiar with. They wanted to be like their neighbors. The wanted to worship the gods of the other countries who they felt would deliver better for them. They also wanted a king like other countries. They wanted military might. As it turned out, most of the Israelite kings were not so good at resisting temptation, and ended up seeking not the good of the people of the kingdom, but only to build themselves up. 

The third temptation is to see if Jesus can get a reaction from God by leaping from a high place. In a very tricky move, the devil quotes the Bible. Simply being able to quote the Bible is not proof that one is faithful. I think Lutherans have always been suspicious if anyone other than the pastor quotes the Bible very often, because we've seen the Bible used in ways that hurt people more than we've seen used to comfort or show love. Jesus again quotes Moses in the Old Testament. He says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Moses said this when the people were thirsty in the wilderness. The people asked, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” In other words, “Prove to us that God is real by giving us what we want. We won't believe if you don't do what we ask.” Of course the Israelites failed test after test in the wilderness. But God is faithful and brings them through. 

Some say that Jesus was free of tests after this—that the more opportune time only came in the garden of Gethsemane when he prayed that this cup would be taken from him. But others argue that the tests continued in his ministry. I am more inclined to believe he continued to be tested. I can better identify with a more human Jesus. But also we see evidence that he was still tested. His disciples were constantly confused, and sometimes Jesus' seems genuinely fed up with them. Demons were still inhabiting people and causing them great distress. People were still ill—evidence that the devil is still out there wreaking havoc. And people were always asking questions that seemed to rile Jesus up, like, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind.” I can imagine, now and then, Jesus felt temptation, even for a moment, to throw up his hands and give up. 

The Israelites were definitely still tempted, and that's why we have this reading from Deuteronomy. The temptation is to believe that this land is theirs, that they earned it, that they don't owe anything to anyone, and it is for them alone. However, Moses gives them some steps so they won't go down this path. Every spring, when they harvest the grain, they take the first part of it, the first of all the fruit, and bring it to the priest. They are to remember the story of where this grain came from, where they came from, how they got here. They are to remember the story of how God continues to be generous—or they'd never have these fruits to bring. They are to remember how they aren't self-sufficient, how they suffered and wandered, and how they called out to God, helpless, and God answered them, delivered them, fed them with food and with words of justice and sharing and unity and love. Then take that offering and share it among you—not some of you, but all of you—and celebrate God's generosity together.

Sometimes I wonder about the land my house is built on. What did it look there 100 years ago or 1000 years ago? Who lived there, human and animal? What kinds of plants grew there? Some of you tell me about the land just below the church, how people grew Christmas trees there and radishes, as few as 50 years ago. I love looking at old pictures to see what places used to be like. That was one thing about Germany—the houses were so old in most cases that it was like peering into the past. I think of my family coming over from Germany, and finding a place to call home, they definitely gave credit to God. But that land was once populated by the Native People of this land. My great-great grandmother was Native American. I wonder about the parts of me—how my European ancestors pushed out my Native ancestors, but how the two came together to have children and here I am. None of us can claim we did it on our own, and that's the temptation. If we did it on our own, we don't credit God who made all of us. If we follow that path of temptation, I don't think of God abandoning us, but I think we find ourselves feeling all alone, in that wilderness, wondering who we are and where we're going. I know God is in that wilderness with us, but can we see God there beside us? We may at times find ourselves in the wilderness feeling alone, either that we did it all ourselves or that everyone has abandoned us, however we also have the opportunity to look around and see all that we are connected to. 

That is the chance to remember our story, that on the night when he was most feeling alone and in the wilderness, Jesus took bread, first fruits of the earth, and shared it with his friends and enemies, and asked them to remember to love and care for the poor, to wash one another and feed one another, because none of us is ever really alone. Jesus asked them to be the body of Christ, to re-member him, to stay connected in order to share his message and his love. He took the wine, and shared it with all of them, and asked them gather and share his blood and remember him. None of us is alone. God is here with us. And we share with all and celebrate with all the fact that God meets us in the wilderness in all our temptations and sends the Holy Spirit to guide us and bring us through to everlasting, abundant life.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Ash Wednesday 2016

Our relationship with God's Creation is primary. God as Creator made us and this beautiful world. The first commandment isn't “You shall have no other gods before me.” It is “Be fruitful and multiply” and it wasn't given to us first, but to all the animals God created. When we damage other animals' survival and threaten their existence, we break a commandment. Some have argued that God's Creation is the main way God reveals God's self to us. In other words we can know about God most through all that God has created, through mountains and stars and slugs and squid and flowers and grass and bugs. 

God's creation reveals who God is. The creation reveals that God is joyful and humorous. The creation reveals to us that God values diversity and working together. The creation reveals that God values cooperation and balance. The creation reveals that God brings new life out of death. 

Each creature has gifts and qualities, parts to play in a whole that only God understands. So when we mess with it, to try to get creation to benefit us, the whole system gets out of whack. There are countless examples. The accidental introduction of non-native species, knocks out other species, like red-rock crab. The crab competes with the dungeness crab, and makes it difficult for the native species to survive. Look at the rise in mercury levels in the sea. For years boats changing the batteries for lights on buoys simply dropped them into the ocean. The little sea creatures became contaminated with a little mercury. Then the bigger fish ate a whole lot of the little creatures and they became more contaminated. The largest fish of all suffered the most. Look also at the effects of DDT—not used for almost 40 years still persists in the environment, and can still be found in the human body, causing who knows what diseases and problems. We try to make our lives easier and we end up making it hard for the rest of God's creation, and it finally comes full circle to make our lives harder, because that isn't how God intended it to be. We are creatures who exceed the limits God placed on us, and destroy so many good things, often unintentionally. 

Some scientists are looking at the times in which we live as the undoing of God's creation story, a great dying of species, the creation story backwards until all that exists is that formless void from Genesis 1. If we could relate better to God's good creation, we would relate better to each other, we would live in balance, we would live in peace. But often we don't know where to start. 

During Lent, we search our hearts. We open ourselves to God's corrective. We read the scriptures. We look for God's revelation in the creation. We pray. We focus. We turn. We turn from focus on ourselves and our own wants, from the distractions and fears that separate us from each other and from God. We turn from whatever doesn't give us life, whatever doesn't give life to the whole of God's good creation and we turn to the Holy One who made us and everything else and who gave up everything to show us love embodied in Jesus Christ. 

During our Wednesday Morning Bible Study last week, we've been watching videos about great Christians and their example to us. We've learned a lot about history and faith. The presenter described many people of our time believing in “God of the gaps.” In other words, we use God to explain what we don't know how to explain, like when someone dies or something mysterious happens. However, with science increasing our understanding of the universe, that gap narrows significantly, and what happens when there is no more room for God because we think we understand everything? Shouldn't God, however, be God of every part of our lives. If we believe that God created us, made us who we are, then wouldn't we want to live by the limits God imposed on us to make our lives better—limits like honoring all life (thou shalt not murder), loving our neighbor and seeking the good of our neighbor—even to the point of praying for our enemies and assuming the best of them. If we believe that God is good and God is love, wouldn't we want that to be part of all our actions, all our decisions, all of our desires? During Lent, we turn toward love, we turn toward life. We work a little more intently on making God the focus of each breath, seeing God around us in each other, in the creation, letting love be our focus, practicing works of love, giving of gifts, listening to God's word, and opening ourselves to being changed so that the world can be changed into the Kingdom of God, a whole and loving place where all can thrive and live in love. Then God isn't in the shrinking gaps, but in every connection, every relationship, binding us together, and growing the love in each of us until God takes over the world and we all live in balance and wholeness.

Monday, February 1, 2016

January 31, 2016

Gospel: Luke 4:21-30 
1st Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-10
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

King's Cupboard Food Pantry is a well-stocked, organized place for our neighbors in need to get food. There are plenty of desserts and meats, a good selection of produce and canned goods and other items. There is always plenty of food. At the dessert table, some big fancy desserts are even held in the kitchen until later in the afternoon, so that there is an even distribution through the day of different kinds of desserts. And that is why it is so hard for me to understand why people come and line up for the pantry. These days, the line might start at 11 or 12, with the pantry open at 3. On nicer summer days, the line might start at 9:30 or 10, with little or no benefit to coming early and waiting. But the clients who come, have very strong feelings about it. They invest their time in waiting, so woe to the one who tries to cut in line.

Some try to cut, with a language barrier making it difficult to explain the rules. Some children cut with the excuse that they innocent and don't know any better. Others cut and laugh it off, as if it doesn't matter. There have been times that we've thought it might come to a fist-fight and many times we've discussed strategies such as having a lottery system in which clients pick a random number that places them in that position in the line, so they wouldn't necessarily go first if they arrived first, so they have no incentive to come so early. So far we have dismissed that plan, afraid of the chaos and mutiny it might cause.

All of this is leading to Jesus' reading of the Bible in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. People are feeling generally good about this. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” They like Jesus. They like what he has to say. But for Jesus, he seems to hear or see something there that we may have missed. Maybe it was a look they gave him, or maybe it was their tone of voice. When they say, “Isn't this Joseph's son?” what does Jesus hear? Does he hear, “Isn't this Joseph's son, who does he think he is?” Maybe he hears, “Isn't this Joseph's son who owes us something because we are close to him and related to him?” 

Jesus seems to hear that they want something from him. “Doubtless you will quote me this parable 'Doctor, cure yourself.'” I'm not exactly sure what this means, but it does remind me of the comments when Jesus was on the cross, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” Now that Jesus has this power—the power to heal, to feed, to share words that inspire—people are asking who is this power for? When he was in the wilderness, he was tempted to use it for his own gain, to get God's attention, to acquire land and kingdoms, to feed himself. This is like a continuation of the temptations. Now that you have these powers, doctor, use them to cure yourself, first. Make your life easy. Make yourself great. And while you're at it, throw some of that our direction.

Jesus' friends and family and next door neighbors want to be first in line. They think they are entitled to be first in line, because they know him or are related to him. They think Jesus owes them or that they own him, that he is theirs to heal them and feed them and do their bidding.

Sometimes we feel entitled to Jesus and try to keep him for ourselves, too. Sometimes we think we've been waiting in line the longest, attended church so faithfully, fed the poor and volunteered so well, he should be ours, do things the way we want him to, cater to us. I remember one time my grandma talking about a young man who had died in a car accident. She said, “And he was such a fine Christian boy!” We all bit our tongues to try to be polite, but we knew that being Christian doesn't mean your life is any easier, or that your life means more than someone else's, or that you have any special protection. Being Christian doesn't put us at the front of the line. It doesn't mean we own Jesus or that he owes us healing or anything else. He isn't our tool to use for those we find deserving.

The widows in Israel at the time of the famine, might be assumed to be at the front of the line. They were God's chosen people, blessed and faithful. But there is no story of Elijah going to them. Jesus points out that Elijah went, instead, to a foreigner, a Gentile. It was she who prepared her last bit of flour for him and because of her generosity, her flour jar did not give out until after the famine was over. 

The lepers in Israel would probably think they would be first in line for God to heal them, because of their special relationship with God. Instead, God sent Elisha to someone who wasn't even in line at all, a Syrian named Naaman, another Gentile.

Jesus is saying to all those who think they are first in line, that they are entitled to a special life, to have a monopoly on healing and the power and blessing of God, that God has other plans in mind. Maybe it is that the ones we least expect it will be more receptive to God's blessing, or that there are people in more need than these people from Nazareth, or that there will be no special treatment, they will all be given a random number in line, but I don't think it is just random. Again and again, God chooses the ones at the back of the line, the one who didn't even know there was a line. There is Abraham from long ago, who is childless and old, who God promises will be the father of many nations. There is Mary chosen to bear God's son, a young woman, poor and humble. There is the Centurion, a Gentile, whose daughter Jesus brings back to life. There is the donkey Jesus rides upon on palm Sunday, not much of a noble steed. There is the criminal crucified next to Jesus who hears the words, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” 

I went to a lunch put on by Lutheran Community Services about how our congregations can help settle Syrian refugees. One pastor shared this story from when his church helped out a refugee family last year. One of the members of his congregation had shared with a friend what the congregation was doing. The friend said, “That is so nice of you to help settle a Christian from the Middle East. Have they joined your church, yet?” The church member said, “Oh, no. This is a Muslim family. We have helped them connect with the local mosque so they can worship God with their community.” The friend said, “Why would your church help them if they aren't Christian?” The church member simply said, “Because they are in need.” Jesus came to help the ones in need. We are here to help those in need, not to make sure we and those who are most like us get first in line.

For some, who see themselves as being first in line, this can cause some anger, like it did Jesus' family and friend in Nazareth. “Why have I been wasting my time in this line? I have been waiting so long! I deserve more! Why don't we do things the way I like them to be done in this church—I give more money, I volunteer more! I've been part of this church longer.” 

Maybe we see ourselves as being in a line, some being closer or further away in relationship to God. But I think God sees us more as a family, a group of people all related to one another, all bearing the light of Christ to one another. That's where the reading from 1 Corinthians comes in. It is all about love. God is love. We are here to love one another. Like the song says, “They'll know we are Christians by our love.”

This reading is heard most often at weddings, but it is not about erotic love. It is about agape love. Agape is about self-sacrificing love, giving something up for someone else. It is about an active love that doesn't expect anything in return. It seeks the best for the other person. In fact, we are all called in our baptism, like the prophet Jeremiah is called in the Old Testament reading this morning. We are all named and claimed by God in our baptism, fully known and given the fullness of agape love. And we are called, not to be first in line, but to minister to all God's people, all God's creation, which is a bigger group than we ever thought. And it isn't just to love when things are easy. Paul writes this letter to the church in Corinth because they are arguing. The call to agape love extends even to our enemies, especially to those we can't get along with or understand. Maybe our first reaction to our call from God, like Jeremiah is to run the other way, to make up excuses, to downplay our gifts. But the truth is, God has continued to love us, even when we draw lines, even when we run away, even when we are combative and divisive. And it isn't by our own power that we love, God is doing it through us. It is the power of God's love that will reach our hearts and soften them until we can see the whole family of God's creation as being related to us. God will surprise us with the agape love that will pour out of us when we recognize in ourselves someone unworthy of that sacrifice that Jesus made, yet a recipient of God's grace all the same, and when we can be open to God sharing that agape love with others who are unworthy, yet also in great need.

Sterling often asks me, “Mom, why do you love me?” I think he mostly wants to hear again how much I do love him. I can't seem to give him a satisfactory answer. Sometimes I say, “Because you're my son” or “Because you're lovable.” Sometimes he asks me, “Why do you love everybody in the whole world?” That is a baffling question to me. Sometimes I say in answer to that, “Well, I try to love everybody, but I don't always succeed.” He doesn't like that answer. Sometimes I say, “I love them because they are all God's children.” Maybe he's just trying to throw a million questions at me and stump me, but he's asked this so many times, it makes me think. How can I be loving to everybody in the whole world? Can God work through me to see value in each person, to try to connect with each person, to try to be a loving shoulder to cry on or someone you can bounce ideas off of and I'll try to be honest and kind. Even if I don't succeed, it is an ideal to work toward. It is worth opening ourselves to God's love and rather than bottling it up and giving it only to those we think deserve it or who we know, but to trust that it will abide and there will be enough so that if we let it flow through us, it could mean a more loving world, and more people will know the love of God face to face.