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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

October 23, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 17, 2016

October 16, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

October 9, 2016

Gospel: Luke 17:11-19 
1st Reading: 2 Kings 5:1-15
2nd Reading: 2 Timothy 2:8-15

I'm sorry to have tell you all this, but you've got leprosy. There is nothing more we can do for you. I know it is hard to digest, but here is a referral to a leper colony. Someone will collect your belongings for you. We can't risk you going back home and infecting your family and friends. From now on, you have to keep your distance from people. You're whole life will change, but you won't be alone. You'll be among your own kind. Grab your stuff. Let's go.

As far as I know, none of us has leprosy. We've made significant advances in managing it and understanding it in the past 50 years. Some of us have been on the receiving end of bad news related to our health or the health of a loved one. We've lived the burden of diseases of the body and mind just as debilitating and isolating as leprosy, both our own and of those we love and care for. We know the pain of addiction and depression, and we know our own diseases of anger, entitlement, selfishness, and greed. We struggle with these diseases that hurt us and others. We wonder is there a cure? How do we treat maladies like these?

We are Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram. We suffer from our own forms of leprosy, yet somehow we push through each day, we are high-functioning, we have everyone around us fooled. And yet deep inside we wonder—why? Did I do something wrong to deserve this? Is God punishing me? Do people avoid me because I am different—because of my disease? 

We are the 9 lepers who meet Jesus. We've been sick and isolated for a long time. Jesus brings us healing. We follow his instructions, to the letter and head off to the priest. Yet, is there something missing? Could God have more in mind for me than just going back to the way things were. 

We try everything to cure our leprosy. We go to endless doctor appointments and try every possible test, we try hypnotism, we try acupuncture, we try home remedies, all kinds of creams. We read every self-help book, change our diet, try different kinds of exercise, read up on WebMD. Nothing works.

Then a friend of ours suggests that God can heal this disease. Forgive me if I'm a little suspicious and jaded by this point. Forgive me if I don't get my hopes up. I'm willing to try, I guess, but it doesn't sound very likely. This cleansing involves something called baptism. You have to humble yourself to receive it—admit that you are human and hurting, admit your diseases, that you can't do it on your own. You die to your old self, be drowned in the waters of the Holy Spirit, and rise with new life in you. You become part of a community that teaches each other how to live a life of love and compassion. You become part of the body of Christ, responding to needs in this world. 

After your baptism, you don't feel any different, or at least the joy fades away after a time. Life is still frustrating. Your leprosy is still afflicting you, your depression, your grief, your anger. Some give up at this point, probably 9 out of 10. But some endure. Some endure out of habit. Some endure out of hope. Some endure because they know about delayed gratification and letting something new have a chance to work. 

Healing begins slowly for many. It isn't in the expected way. There is not usually a flash of light, or waving arms. There is no exact moment when you can say, “I am healed.” But bit by bit, you notice a difference. You notice yourself making connections with others in the community, in the body of Christ. You find yourself with more of an attitude of praise. You find yourself noticing the good qualities in those around you and eventually in yourself. You find opportunities to pitch in and make life better for someone else. You find yourself cultivating gratefulness in yourself. You find yourself thanking people. You find yourself thanking God. You find yourself falling at Jesus' feet. You find your life changing.

Jesus heals ten, he heals all. Where are the other 9? Where are the other 90%? Jesus will continue to heal each one, because that is what Jesus does. Jesus provides healing. Not always in the way we hope he will, but his area of expertise is restoration, love, and new life. He provides this for 100% of us. But he can't live that new life for us. He gives it to us and we decide whether upon finding ourselves healed we are comfortable enough with our old life, or whether we will go on in a new way and use what we've learned during our time of trouble and isolation to live a fuller life in gratefulness, in praise, in hopefulness.

The ten lepers were all cleansed. They were healed of their physical ailment. They were restored to their community. However, the Samaritan leper wouldn't be received by the priest. Jesus is the only priest who shows no partiality. He is the priest of us all, powerful in healing, powerful in inclusion, powerful in love. Jesus says to the healed Samaritan, “Your faith has made you well.” It actually should be translated this way, “Your faith has saved you.” He is not only healed physically, but he is saved, his life is saved, he has new life to live. It seems that at least this time, the other 9 missed out on a deeper healing in which their lives are saved and they go on to live in a different way than they did before.

Their highest hope is to go back to the way things were. They want nothing more than to go to the synagogue, be with their friends and family, eat together with friends, and get their old job back. But the Samaritan has never fit in, has never been welcome at the synagogue, has always been spit on by neighbors of other religions, isn't allow to hold the same job as others in the community, and has never received the same wages as others in the same position. The Samaritan has higher hopes than this. The Samaritan's faith is not in the old system, that he knows oppress and hurt people, it is in Jesus, whom he praises. He may very well not even have hoped that Jesus would offer him healing, too. He probably expected to be overlooked like so many times before. But even he receives Jesus' cleansing and blessing, and not only that but Jesus' commendation, Jesus' praise, because he comes back to say, “Thank you.”

It isn't that Jesus has such a fragile ego that he needs to be thanked. It is that Jesus recognizes new life springing up in this Samaritan. He knows that things will be different for him from here on out. He will be living a new life—one of gratefulness, one of hope, one of compassion. His leprosy was not caused by God, but the healing of it was, and the direction of his life from this point on will be shaped by this healing and this love and the fact that even he was included.

How do we cultivate gratefulness? How do we grow gratefulness in our lives? How do we come to better appreciate what God has done for us? There are many ways. One is to reflect each day on what you are thankful for. Keep a note by your bedside or wherever you plan to reflect so you don't forget. Thank others for the kind things they do for you or others. Be sure to include thanksgivings in your prayers—we started formally doing that in the prayers of the people at church every Sunday a couple of years back. Start a gratefulness jar in which you put pieces of paper marking all the things you are thankful for. Then each month, sit down with your jar and see how much God has done for you. Gratefulness is both good for the one who is thanked, but it is also good for us. It may be a key to healing and wholeness. Healing brings about gratefulness and gratefulness heals us, in a cycle that goes on and on.

Today we bless the Purple Hats. These hats have come out of a great tragedy, Shaken Baby Syndrome. They are reminder that babies cry sometimes for no reason, sometimes for hours on end, but that they grow out of it. They are a reminder for all of us to get the help we need when we are overwhelmed. These hats are made because babies have sustained brain damage and death and parents, as devastated as they were, had to move forward. There wasn't hope that things would go back to the way they were, because the children harmed would never be the same. The parents found an even greater hope than this, that other families would be prevented from going through the same tragedy, that awareness would be raised, that people would help each other when newborns screamed for hours. These parents had a vision of what could be. It wouldn't bring their child back, but it would ensure that others wouldn't know the heartache that they knew.

I'm sorry to have to tell you, our world has leprosy. It is messed up for the vast majority of people. 62 million refugees worldwide have fled violence in their home countries, Haiti has been devastated by Hurricane Matthew and before that the major earthquake a few years ago, children and the elderly are going hungry in our neighborhood, people can't afford their rents, we're polluting our earth, burning fossil fuels and heating our planet, depleting our soil, and we're in the midst of a mass extinction. We have leprosy.

Jesus is offering us healing, hope, love, even us!

We can't go back to the way things were. We have to hope in the new life that God offers. But he's not going to be able to live it for us. We must grasp for this greater hope, receive this greater vision of what would mean life and healing for all. The first step is to stop, turn to face the one who gives us this new life, and praise him, thank him, acknowledge him. Then, we don't head back to everything that made us comfortable, we go to those seeking comfort, whose leprosy afflicts them in every area of their lives, knowing we are not alone but Jesus is with us, and showing compassion to them. 

We are all on a journey of healing. Jesus heals us all in different ways. Sometimes we stop to thank him, sometimes we don't. If we are faithless, he remains faithful. He continues to heal us, hoping we will soon see beyond my own healing and what Jesus can do for me, to the vision he holds up of new life, and wonder what Jesus can do through us to bring healing and love to this leprous world. In the end it isn't my faith or your faith or all our faith that makes us well and saves us, it is Jesus' faith that saves us and brings us to wholeness and new life.