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Sunday, December 25, 2016

December 24, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

December 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 5, 2016

December 4, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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