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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

April 24, 2016

Gospel: John 13:31-35 
1st Reading: Acts 11:1-18
2nd Reading: Revelation 21:1-6

This morning in our book of Acts, Peter receives a vision from God which helps orient him from what he was used to, to be able to see the Holy Spirit at work in all sorts of places and people he never could before. In the book of Revelation, John too had a vision which gave him hope. He lived in a divided world, a dangerous world for Christians, a world that destroyed people and families. His vision gave him hope that God would make all things new. After all he had been through, he could see what that would look like when God brought the New Jerusalem to the people who were all comforted, who were all part of the same kingdom, and who were no longer in pain or mourning. Finally, in the book of John, Jesus lays out a vision, the very most basic message of the Gospel, “love one another.” 

Some of you may know that I am among you today because I received a vision—I had an intense experience of God's love and light. If I had never received this vision, I seriously doubt that I would be a pastor today. I was twelve years old. I found little reason for hope. I felt that nothing lasts, everyone dies, we all have flaws. My parents didn't get along. They had a lot of struggles. My home was a place of anger and confusion. I was in a deep depression—the deepest darkness I have ever felt. I could blame it on puberty, on hormones, on middle school and all the pressure and emotion that is stirred up there. But all I know is that I felt what I felt very deeply, and I can tell you that it hurt to be alive. Every step was heavy. Every day it felt like I was moving in slow motion.

It was a spring day almost like this. I was the acolyte that Sunday morning. After lighting the candles, I sat on a bench or pew to the side of the altar all by myself. Behind this bench was a stained glass window made up of rectangles of color. Most of them were yellow or orange, with a few red ones thrown in here or there. That morning, the sun was shining through that window warming my back. I don't know how the songs we sang that day or the scriptures or the sermon might have affected me, but something shifted in me and suddenly I knew that there was something lasting and permanent. I knew I was part of a congregation of people who cared. I knew that God loved me. God, who had been distant and inaccessible, came near to me. I had a reason to live. And I wept, for joy, for relief—my emotions overflowed. 

That was almost 30 years ago, but I am instantly transported there when I start thinking about it. My vision of the Kingdom of God still impacts my call. It impacts how I see our congregation and what I feel our purpose is. I know that people still live in deep darkness, that we have experiences all the time that hurt us and keep us from God's vision for us. But I also know that a congregation can be a place where light shines, where hope is found, where relationships are meaningful, and where everyone's gifts are appreciated. This vision has driven my ministry my whole life long.

Peter had received the light of Christ, but part of it was confusing and dark for him. Gentiles were coming to believe in Christ, but it was a lot to ask that grown men be circumcised, or that they change their diet to live in accordance with Jewish law. He spent a lot of time among the Gentiles, who shared their stories of the impact that faith in Christ was having on their lives. And he was looking at all these ancient laws and asking himself what made sense for these Gentiles to follow? Should they be expected to keep all of the laws, numbering into the hundreds? Did these laws make sense in different contexts that the Gentiles were living in? Did they have access to Kosher meat, slaughtered in a very particular way? Did they have access to food that had not been sacrificed to idols? This was very difficult because everything offered in the marketplace would have first been offered to idols. Peter had not himself kept all the laws. He had even denied Jesus three times. If Jesus had offered him new life, and the Holy Spirit was falling on people, it was slowly dawning on him, who was he to hinder the Spirit, to stand in the way of God's call? Were they any less deserving than he? So as he struggles with this, he receives a vision and in case he missed it or it isn't sinking in, it repeats three times. The kind of food you eat isn't what defines you as a child of God. Do not draw lines of who is in and who is out based on nonessentials like what one eats. Don't let cultural differences come between you. Certainly God doesn't hold us to human rituals and cultures. Instead, God asks us to love one another.

And it's a good thing Peter made this leap, or we might never have received the good news of Jesus. It would have become just another Jewish sect and died off like many others. Instead, Gentiles were welcomed. 

The Gospel today does define what makes a Christian. If it isn't circumcision and it isn't food laws or Old Testament laws, it is love. And in case we don't get it, he also repeats it three times, “Love one another.” That's what it all boils down to. That was the gist of all the Old Testament laws, people trying to define what God's love and life looked like in a particular context. 

So if it all boils down to loving one another, what does that mean? If you remember, there are three kinds of love in the Bible, filia (brotherly love), eros (passionate sexual love), and agape (self-sacrificial love.) Agape one another. Agape is not liking someone, necessarily. It is relating to someone we might not choose to relate to, except that God agapes us, and relates to us and gives generously to us, whether we deserve it or not, whether we are particularly lovable or not. Agape is the kind of love which is more than being nice to each other. It is love through which we can challenge one another and hold each other accountable. It is a deep kind of love in which we know and respect one another and we also respect ourselves. 

Sometimes in church we think we have to be nice at all costs. We think that if we feel hurt we should keep it to ourselves or we risk rocking the boat or weakening the community. We are sometimes afraid to offend anyone by stating our needs or limits, saying no. This is not Agape love. This ends up making a weaker community because we get out of the habit of building relationships that are real and deep. 

Sometimes at church we think we can't talk about controversial or taboo topics like money or intimacy or money or politics or the painful parts of our lives that we might be ashamed of. We censor ourselves to fit in and not rock the boat. Maybe we forget, this is the body of Christ. If one part hurts, it affects the rest of the body. We all depend on one another and need each other. It is so easy to assume that someone else's life is going along smoothly if we never share what is bothering us and hurting us. It is easy to say, “I'm fine,” when I'm not. It is easy to be superficial. It is easy to be strangers.

Agape love is being real with one another, honest about what is hurting us and those around us. Once we are honest and find, instead of being rejected, that we have a deeper bond because we know and are fully known, we find our congregation and community strengthened. We find ourselves sharing a vision of how things could be better, how our church could be more of a light to those who walk in darkness. We find our which of our customs keep people at a distance, like Peter was learning about the food and circumcision laws, and how to be a connection place for those who desperately need the good news of God's love.

The council is going to be inviting you to go deeper and be real with one another. We all love this church. We all love God. To be loving is to be willing to get to know someone and really listen to them and their vision and where this world is falling short in protecting those who are vulnerable so that we can better shape our ministry to fit Jesus' new commandment, love one another. We're going to be practicing a more relational way, to strengthen our congregation, to build relationships with our neighbors and the community so that we can be the body of Christ together, serving God and growing in faith.

Jesus had a vision of what would be, the unity of all that God has made, God pitching God's tent among us and being in real relationship with us, wiping our tears from our eyes and offering springs of living water to give life to all. Jesus lived a dark reality and walked with people who suffered and were left out of God's life-giving vision because of human rules and humans trying to put limits on God's love. So Jesus defied those laws and built real relationships with God's people on the margins. He listened to their stories, where they were hurting, where they had been rejected, what their hopes and dreams might be. And he took all those hurts and rejections upon himself there upon the cross. He took all those divisions with him to the cross. Even violence and death were weak and helpless against this new life he was bringing. They didn't stand a chance. Jesus rose to new life, and then spent the next 2 months (the season of Easter) passing on his ministry to us. He let them know he would soon be ascending to heaven so now we would have the chance to remove divisions between us, listen to each other, feed each other, be real with each other, and get out of the way of the Holy Spirit, who was weaving us together, ready or not. Now it would be up to us to share where we are hurting or in need, our places of darkness and pain, so that we would know we aren't alone, so that as a congregation we could begin to address them together to shape our neighborhood more into what God has in mind, and to share our piece of the vision of the Holy City, of the Kingdom of God, of King of Kings Lutheran Church, of the New Milwaukie until it begins to match God's vision and hope, until we do really know and love one another.

Monday, April 18, 2016

April 17, 2016

Gospel: John 10:22-30 
1st Reading: Acts 9:36-43 Psalm 23
2nd Reading: Revelation 7:9-17

Family members and friends of martyrs receive a vision of comfort they have been longing for. A woman dies and is raised to new life. Some who have not heard Jesus' voice are given another chance to follow their shepherd. In this morning's readings we have a gap between what is, the current reality people are living in, and the Kingdom of God that God has promised, the vision that God lays out for the people to look forward to. The gap is between the experience and suffering of the martyrs and the vision Revelation offers in which every tear will wiped away, between the death of Tabitha and her resurrection, and between the voice of the shepherd and the lost sheep who can't hear his voice. But Jesus isn't going to leave us in the gap and tension between the two, but instead leads us through to new and abundant life.

We recently experienced a closing of the gap here at King of Kings, in Kamryn's Tea Party.  One of the gaps it helped close is that children at Milwaukie Elementary have been going hungry, but God's vision is that we will all have enough food.  Like the vision in Revelation where the saints and martyrs are all dressed in white, Kamryn as well had a vision for how the saints would be dressed for the tea party which would close that gap and feed hungry children—we were to dress fancy.  There was a sense of beauty she was reaching for, that everyone would dress their best and that somehow that might bring out the best in us.  I knew that Kamryn was also trying to bridge a gap between her church friends and family members and friends who might not be connected with a congregation or faith community.  The tea party became a place these two groups could mix, like the vision of Diversity in Revelation in which people from nations, trives, peoples, and languages would be gathered.  And finally, the tea party bridged a gap between the generations.  It became a conversation about traditions of the past--what is a tea party?  What did that teapot mean to grandma who passed it down to us?  

I was personally linked to memories of my past, as I was able to use a teacup from my mom's piano teacher Sybil who also played piano for my wedding.  I have never used that cup.  It sat in my sideboard for 20 years.  I shared with my mom that we used it at the party and she and I talked about Sybil and what she meant to us.  The tea party allowed me to get out the cup, to wash it carefully and dry it, all the while going over 100 little memories of weeding in Sybil's garden, which is how my mom earned her piano lessons since she couldn't afford them, of visiting Sybil in the nursing home after so much had changed, of listening to my mom practice piano as I fell asleep each night, since that was the only time she had to practice, and how meaningful the sound of the piano still is to my ears.  

Kamryn didn't know she was helping to close gaps or bring in God's Kingdom.  She had a vision of what could be, people coming together from the various corners of her life and meeting each other, good food, and children being fed from Milwaukie Elementary.  Jesus said a little child shall lead them.  Thankfully, the congregation caught the vision and her family caught the vision and for a while we lived the vision, we lived in the Kingdom of God.

We all experience gaps in our individual lives.  At my retreat week before last, we looked at how we balance work and prayer and play.  I had a taste of the Kingdom of God, here, too, when I went on Sabbatical.  But I haven't entirely been able to incorporate my sabbatical learnings into my life now that I am back serving you.  I am keenly aware that at this point in my life, I am never alone--or almost never.  This is very difficult for me, an introvert.  This is very hard on my prayer life.  So, I'm learning to close that gap, to use the little alone time I have, about 30 minutes in the morning after I wake up, when no one else is awake.  This week I began using that as devotion time.  But I also am going to work out a possible childcare exchange that can give me an hour or two during the week to myself.  There is a gap between how I am currently allocating my time and the Kingdom of God, and I just can't keep up the current pattern--it isn't healthy for me to keep up the current pattern.  But it is going to mean taking a risk to bridge that gap, to try something new, to ask for help.  I'll keep you posted.

We all feel the gaps in congregational life.  You tell me about them.  You each see them in different places.  I felt them especially during our congregational meeting this year.  I didn't feel like I communicated well.  We didn't communicate especially well with each other.  We got a bit riled up and then we ended the meeting without accomplishing a couple of things that were on the agenda.  What this tells me as I have reflected on it over the past few months, is that there is a gap between us as people.  We don't really know each others' concerns and passions.  Some people who have been here a long time don't know some of the newer people and vice versa.  Some of us stick to our comfortable group and might not take the risk to talk to someone we don't know as well. Our relationships aren't as deep and strong as we might like to think so that we can take the risk together have difficult conversations and come through that to a fuller experience of God's Kingdom.  We've had difficult conversations before and done beautifully, but building relationships is an ongoing discipline that we have an opportunity to work on.  Please pray for those on your council who will be meeting in retreat this Saturday to develop a plan to do just that.  We don't know exactly what that will lead to, except that as we grow closer and know one another more deeply, God's Kingdom will be revealed. We each have a piece of the puzzle, part of the vision of the Kingdom.  We will be able to risk sharing it with one another if we trust one another, if we really know one another.

Psalm 23 has been a favorite of many people, whether they believed in God or not.  As I reflected on it this week, maybe part of the reason is that it helps to close the gaps.  We are most familiar with it as a comfort to those in times of mourning.  When our lives are in turmoil, when someone that we love is gone from us, it can feel like chaos.  All we can picture is their suffering.  All we can feel is their absence, this huge gulf.  But when we say the 23rd Psalm, it brings a sense of peace.  It paints a picture of our loved one cared for and sheltered and being led.  It gives a sense that we are being led by our kind shepherd.  And we do get vision of the Kingdom, an empty cup being filled, a table set with good food, the sound of water moving over rocks, protection, dwelling in God's house forever--being in God's presence.  This Psalm is good for bridging any kind of gap.  It is a Psalm about a journey--it takes us from one place to another, from whatever place we are right now, past fields, through mud, along streams, through the valley of the shadow of death--whether that is actual death or dying daily to temptation or letting go of something or fear or taking a risk.  But the implication is, we are not alone. The one who loved us and made us cares about our journey and is with us and the outcome is assured--every tear will be wiped away, no one will hunger or thirst, there will be community, we will be at peace, God will help us cross that gap.  The Kingdom will come to this earth through people like us and it will mean the well-being of all creatures.  

The gap was never so clear and wide to anyone like it was to Jesus.  He knew God's vision for the Kingdom so well.  He had actually seen it.  So Jesus' heart was broken when he saw people hungry and hurting, blaming each other for their diseases, living in fear.  He walked in this world, in the gaps with ordinary people, in ordinary struggles. But he lived the Kingdom reality, he brought the Kingdom everywhere he went when he bridged those gaps, when he talked to people in need, on the fringes, when he ate with people in need, when he hung next to criminals on the cross, when he forgave those who betrayed him, who betrayed God's vision.  And today, he's eating with us.  He's relating to us.  He's showing us his vision of a table where everyone is welcome.  He's showing us the vision of a wide diversity of people coming together to sing praises and experience community.  He's looking to enter the gaps with us, help us to name them, and then live the Kingdom vision through us.  

Let us pray.  Help us God to name the gaps between our reality and your Kingdom.  Help us to see your vision of what will be.  Live in us and give us hope and walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death until with you we experience and share that Kingdom reality with all your creatures.  Amen.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Easter 2016

Gospel: Luke 24:1-12 
1st Reading: Isaiah 65:17-25
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

So many flowers, so many people dressed up, so many alleluias. Why are we here celebrating today? What is it that we hope to take with us today? We're here this morning to experience a story that brings meaning to our own story and helps us make sense out of life and death. This is a story of closed doors and the way God opens them back up again to give us life.

On my trip to Germany in May, I had many encounters with doors. For one thing, I didn't know the words for push and pull in German, so every door I approached having no clue which action to take. I had several wrestling matches over the course of 10 days. PS, the door always wins. We found a place of mostly open doors in Germany. Berlin was especially open, because they had the wall for so long and had been the sight of so much oppression and murder of Jews. It seemed that Germany learned from having so many closed doors to be a place open to Syrian refugees. I wonder at the changes in the past 6 months or so and how Germany is different now than it was this time last year. In the US I hardly even notice doors, but in a foreign country, I paid attention to everything in a different way. Some doors I found open there, and others I found closed, but all of them opened doors in my mind and heart that will remain open.

The last thing we hear on Good Friday, the day Jesus suffers on the cross and dies, is the sound of the large stone being rolled over the entrance to the tomb, the door closing. Since Jesus died on a Friday, the Sabbath was beginning and so no body could be prepared with spices for burial until the first day of the week. Traditions closed the door on that activity, that farewell gift, until the sabbath was over. Jesus' death was another closed door, on the relationships he'd built, on the healing he provided, and even on the new Kingdom he was ushering in, the new way of being community and caring for those no one else cared for. It must have seemed that all the doors were closing.

But that didn't stop the women from coming to the tomb to complete the ritual. They expected a sealed tomb, to experience a barrier to ministry, between them and Jesus' body. They expected another closed door, but they were used to doors closed to them, limited access to that which gives life, challenges to be overcome. 

Closed doors, darkness, barriers. We know this reality all too well. It seems like the powers of this world are out to shut all our doors, to trap us in, to keep us disconnected from each other, to keep us from sharing life. Divisions of political party, religion, age, and class are like huge walls that keep us from connecting with each other. Advertisements try to convince us that there is a difference between people who eat a certain kind of food or use a certain kind of beauty product and those who don't. All these losed doors seem to stand between us.

Scripture offers us a different story, and that is what we come today to hear. It is the story of life out of death, hope where there is despair, closed doors being opened. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” the angels ask the women at the tomb this morning. Do we start expecting closed doors in our day to day lives, in our spiritual life, in our political lives, in relationship to others? Do we look for the living among the dead? Are we looking for Jesus, the Christ spirit embodied in our world and if so where do we seek him, among dead stones and closed doors, or do we see him as one who breaks down barriers, removes boundaries, and crosses borders?

The story of closed doors and darkness begins in Genesis. There is darkness, chaos, the face of the deep. Next thing you know, God's voice is moving over the waters and calling the universe into existence. Where there was chaos, now we find order. Where there was only darkness, we find light, and soon we find life growing from the soil, teeming from the waters, and walking upon the land, commanded to be fruitful and multiply. Where there was nothing, now we find relationship, of animals to plants, of people to the rest of creation, and of the Creator to us all.

The stories of closed and locked doors being opened go on—Abraham is afraid he will never have any offspring, a closed door, but God gives him Ishmael and Isaac and makes him the father of many nations. The Israelites are enslaved in Egypt, a closed door, and God delivers them—life out of death, a new way of living as God's people. King David the shepherd, writes of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, a closed door, but emerging, the stone rolled away and his cup overflowing. Daniel in the lion's den, as good as dead, but saved by the power of God. And aren't the people of God called to share life, as the prophets remind us to care for the widow and the orphan and to feed the hungry and visit those in prison, to look out for the foreigner in our midst, to share life in community, to look out for those on the fringes so that life might be abundant for all? Doesn't God ask us to open the doors between us so that light can shine and life be shared?

Jesus was all too familiar with closed doors, only he didn't leave them that way. Whenever he encountered them, he flung them wide open. Most obviously, he opened the closed door of death and brought eternal life, in his sacrifice and resurrection, but the way he died was a continuation of the way he lived. He was always opening doors other people preferred to keep closed, freeing those who had been trapped, and sharing life with those considered as good as dead. Touching those with leprosy, giving sight to the blind, and healing many, sharing food with crowds of people, and even raising the dead. Where there is death and hopelessness, a closed door, Jesus is there bringing life, looking for the living among the dead, bringing God's presence, God's Kingdom reality to this earth, flinging open the door so that people are not trapped, but fully in relationship to one another.

Our eyes are wide open to the closed doors around us, the problems facing this world. We saw the images of the terrorist attacks in Brussels this week. We heard the despicable rhetoric, the blaming and the closing of doors that went on between people arguing and explaining, rather than opening the door and taking in the pain and feeling the despair. We are aware of the suffering of this earth, the pollution and damage that has already taken place and wonder are we too late? We know of people living in their cars, who don't know how to feed their kids. We know people whose lives are destroyed by drugs or mental illness. We see a lot of closed doors and we further close them sometimes because we are afraid and the problems seem to big to start looking behind each door.

But in this big, dark hallway, we stand, like the women outside the tomb. They went there anyway. They went because it was part of their job—to honor the dead and treat them with respect, to remember them. They had faced many closed doors in their lives. Because of their experiences, they also had confidence, having faced challenges daily in their lives and ministry that they would overcome their challenges with God's help, and they would find a way in, a way to say their final goodbye, to anoint Jesus' body. To them, a heavy stone was nothing. They had brought children into this world. They had held the hands of the dying. They had held grieving mothers. They had dealt with bitter in laws and others who would tear them down. A stone was nothing to them. A closed door, even a locked one, might as well be a curtain. They had a job to do and that was to remember. Closed doors separate. Open doors re-member—put back together. 

Remembering is what Jesus asked them to do at the Last Supper. Remembering is what the angels asked them to do at the tomb. “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galiliee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they did remember. They had been separated by death, by closed doors, by rules of their culture, but they found themselves remembering, coming back together as community—community with a story to tell. The men weren't ready to remember. They called it an idle tale. They didn't want to associate themselves with emotional, unrealistic women. They did not want to be community with them. And that's where we stand today. Is this an idle tale? Do we still insist on being behind closed doors, untouched by the resurrection, unwilling to take it in, or look for it behind the closed doors that we encounter all the time? Or are we ready to remember, to be part of the light and peace and challenge that Jesus offers? Do we have hearts of stone, or do we let Jesus roll away the stone and join us to community, however imperfect? Do we let God do the amazing work of bringing new life to those who most need it, so that God can build us into community that can make a difference in people's lives, that can share about the pantry and how hunger is a closed door between people and the fullness of life, who can work together across generations and classes and nationalities and religions. 

God is rolling away the stone this morning, all those closed doors. May we be open to remembering the Kingdom and coming together to be the Risen body of Christ, feeding, healing, and embodying hope.