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Thursday, October 19, 2017

October 15, 2017         

Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14           
1st Reading: Isaiah 25:1-9
2nd Reading: Philippians 4:1-9
                I remember when I was a kid, the excitement of being invited to a party, the anticipation, the expectation.  Now that I have Sterling, I relive that time.  The last 2 Sundays I’ve had to keep him from announcing and inviting you all to his upcoming Birthday party, he’s so excited and he loves you all so much.  You’re his family in a way.
                At my age, I’m not as excited about parties.  I know it takes a lot of preparation and some expense.  I have to see what other events are important in our schedule.  I know that one must understand expectations about how one dresses, is it casual or dressy and how dressy.  I sometimes worry about who I will talk to, or what gift I will bring for the host.  We have to figure out transportation and babysitter and whether we will be out late on a school night or on a Saturday when I have to get up somewhat early the next day and feel somewhat rested.  Parties can be a pain.
                But when Sterling invites you to his party, he has no expectations.  He only wants to celebrate with you and express his love for you.  He has no expectation for anyone to bring a gift.  He has no idea how many cupcakes or cartons of ice cream that is.  He doesn’t care what you wear, except of course that you come dressed like a robot and be willing to join in on the fun!
                Matthew’s story of the wedding banquet has its share of expectations, and violence, and a troubling temper-tantrum.  I have to think that the king in this story is more Matthew than God.  Matthew has done so much inviting and there is only so much rejection he can take, especially when he’s just trying to give people something good, the Good News of Jesus’ love.  And then even when they come to the party, even then a few refuse to get fully invested and wear the robe!
                But there are some parts of the Kingdom of God that are revealed, through Matthew’s anger.  One is that there is a celebration feast.  It is a marriage feast, the joining of two families, two groups.  Is this the marriage of heaven and earth, in which the two are joined in one vision, hopeful and beautiful?    Is this the marriage of the church to Jesus, the groom?  Is this the joining of all people into one family so that everyone realizes we’re all related and have to take care of each other? 
Next, it is a celebration, a party!  Sometimes we think we have to be somber and sad and serious to be a Christian.  But Jesus loved a party and he’s inviting us to his party.  It is not about having the right friends or being good or bad.  The invitation goes out to absolutely everyone.  God’s love, God’s Kingdom is available to all.   You are invited to the party and yes, you can bring your plus one or plus twenty.  Yes, your crying baby can come and your grandma with dementia.  There are ramps for the disabled, and gluten free cake for those who need it.  No presents are necessary.  Come as you are, no matter who you are.  You don’t have to answer questions about what you do for a living or how you know the bride or groom.  Just come and have fun.
The next thing to remember is that the party is happening now.  The feast is ready.  The decorations are on the table.  The King is waiting.  We have a chance to set down whatever tedious boring ridiculous task we were focused on and head to the party.  For us, too, the Kingdom of God is here.  We are invited to participate in it.  We can dawdle.  We can hem and haw about whether to go.  We can keep on doing what we always do, but what are we missing?  We miss out on participating in what is happening, what God is bringing, the feasting, the music, the community, the love.
The next thing to remember is that this feast and party is costly.  God is the one who prepared it, put in the time and the expense setting it all up for us.  It wasn’t just a snap of the fingers, easy peasy, but it took time to imagine what it would be like, and God put effort into it, all the time imagining all of us children showing up and getting along and being part of something wonderful.  So it isn’t hard to imagine that there isn’t at least disappointment when refuse the invitation or when we take our time getting there.
Finally, we might see ourselves as the ones who have accepted the invitation and might find ourselves judging those we don’t see as having accepted it.  However, in case we get smug, Matthew invites us to take one more look at ourselves.  Even those within the banquet need to be sure they are continuing to participate in the Kingdom work.  Are we willing to wear the wedding garment?  Do we continue to evaluate ourselves, to keep learning, to keep stretching our faith, to keep reaching out, to keep loving others, and to keep studying God’s word and keep living in community, relating to people different from us?
One thing that is hard about accepting an invitation to the party.  It is undignified.  People make fools of themselves at parties.  At home, you know what to expect.  At a party, the chance that you’ll forget someone’s name or say the wrong thing or drink too much and talk too loud, goes up considerably.  It is risky.  Also at a party you admit that you need recreation, play, laughter.  That isn’t very dignified, but it is very life-giving.  By going to a party, you also admit that you are not self-contained, that you can’t do it all yourself, that you need other people. 
I heard a story on the radio the other day about how people show other people they are important.  It used to be a Gucci bag or fancy car.  Now it is by how packed their calendar is.  When someone tells you they have one half hour slot to fit you in their schedule, they are saying they are too important, because of course if that person is important enough to you, you would clear your schedule, correct?  We fill our lives with appointments sometimes, and forget that our relationships with each other are important to God and to the building up of the Kingdom.
You are invited to the most amazing wedding dinner.  Come on over!  It is ready right now!  No need to bring a gift unless you want to!  There is plenty of room for everyone!  The menu is simple, bread and wine, and Jesus.  The guest list has been written and revised.  There might be some people you know and approve of, but there are some you might not expect, loud or quiet, low-hanging pants or velour leisure suits, gang tattoos or freckles, green hair or white hair or no hair, ex-cons, undocumented, young, middle-aged and old as the hills, people whose every other word is an expletive, people who say the wrong thing, wear the wrong thing, people with PhDs and who are illiterate, those who have never broken a bone and those whose skin is covered with sores.  And we find ourselves, despite all our shortcomings and all the invitations we’ve slipped into the round file, here we are invited again to be with this strange and beautiful mob.  And we’re invited to go whole hog, to dance, to sing, to share, to let go, to love and to allow ourselves to be loved.  This beautiful wedding banquet made more beautiful by the utter joy on people’s faces who have never been invited to anything, by the lack of expectation that people will do anything other than be themselves, by the lack of judging and shaming, by the welcome.
We’re all here and there are so many competing priorities in our lives.  However there is only one who gives life and gives it abundantly.  So we’d do well to drop some of our areas of focus and let God bring us that life.  It has already been prepared for us to experience and share, we might as well open ourselves to receiving it.  We’ll have to admit we can’t do it all for ourselves and that we are lacking, but come on, everyone already knows, what’s the use pretending? 

October 8, 2017    

Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46         
1st Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7
2nd Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14

                In our Wednesday morning Bible Study group we’ve just started on the book of Deuteronomy.  We just finished Moses first sermon of 3, where he is handing out the parts of the promised land to the twelve tribes of Israel, and griping a lot because he can’t enter the promised land with them.  Every tribe has their allotment.  The land is all claimed, shared as equally as possible so that all may prosper and find abundant life.

                The people enter the promised land, a people who have only known desert wandering.  What a shock for them to even begin thinking about putting down roots and living in community in a whole new way.  Everything they learned in the desert has prepared them for this moment.  They’ve learned to rely on God.  They’ve learned not to stockpile the manna.  They’ve been learning to live in freedom and what their freedom is for—the abundant life of the community.

                Fast forward to the Isaiah reading for this morning.  This love-song is a sad song that God is singing because people forgot what their freedom was for.  They began adding house to house and field to field.  They have stolen from the poor and abandoned the orphan and the widow.  In Isaiah’s time, real-estate developers were squeezing the poor.  They were making loans to poor farmers and when there was a bad year, they would take their farms and turn those farmers in to tenant farmers.  God’s anger in Isaiah was about folks forgetting that the point of it all is the thriving of the whole community, not one’s personal prosperity.  God is reminding them that God gave them the land, and now they are claiming it as their own, or taking it from others through laws the rich set up to take from the poor.  God made plants to grow on it to feed each person and now the rich are saying they want the land to produce to line their own pockets.  God drew the boundary around it, and shared it generously tribe by tribe and now the rich tear down the boundary and say it all is theirs.  God did all these things for the good of God’s people and expected grapes, a beautiful community full of life and sharing.  Instead, God got sour-grapes, that set God’s teeth on edge, leave a bad taste in God’s mouth, something useless and divisive.  Something destructive and violent.

                The Social Justice Committee has been working on housing issues in Clackamas County for over a year, and we’ve been doing some research on landlords and tenants.  There are many landlords who know that the point is healthy community and thriving people, some even in this congregation, who haven’t raised their rents even though they knew the market would bear it.  People who have resisted the temptation to try to bring in more money, people who may have endured scorn and mocking for doing the right thing by their tenants.  Some in this congregation have been faithful and sold their home for a good enough price instead of waiting for the bid that was $20,000-$50,000 above asking price.  This is because they know the point is community, not money, and because God has been so generous to them.  But there are also a lot of landlords, many from out of state that do not have an investment in the community, who are doing violence to the poor, taking food from the mouths of children, displacing seniors from their support systems, putting people on the streets, in order to add field to field. 

                But we’re not going to give up making changes to state and local laws to protect the poor and vulnerable.  We’ve run up against the landlord lobby, which is very rich and afraid to let go of any power.  But we’re not giving up, on the social justice committee and we’d love to have you join us as we figure out how to shape our communities into ones that give life instead of take it away.

                So now we come to the Gospel.  It is a parable, but notice it never says this is what the Kingdom of God is like, like so many other parables do.  This is a story of tenants and the landlord.  To us maybe who have been trained to associate the landlord with God, it seems the landlord is entirely innocent, so we read this and we think it is about how God has let us borrow this land and we shouldn’t abuse the gift God has given us.  That’s a good take-away.  But it is problematic to think that God is putting those wretches to a miserable death and other not-so-Godlike things.  So we try to look a little deeper.  Jesus’ listeners were the tenants and landlords of his time, some of them chief priests and elders who had been adding farm to farm and field to field and trampling widows, taking people’s livelihood and dignity.  When they all heard Jesus’ opening sentence this morning, they would all have thought of Isaiah and known that it was about this behavior, the destruction of the beloved community, the stealing of land by perfectly legal means.  Jesus is calling the priests and elders out for the violence they were doing in the community. 

We might wonder about the mistaken logic of the tenants who think that if they can kill the son they will inherit the land.  However, in that day and age, if tenants press their claim for 3 years in a row, they may have a chance of converting the tenancy back to ownership in court.  We might shake our finger at the tenants who seem to think that 2 wrongs make a right, that violence is also ok, who beat and kill the messengers.  However, let me point out that they are defending their right to feed their families.  They are thinking that if they lose this fight, their whole family will starve without the land to feed them.  Remember all the land had been handed out.  There was no where else for them to go except to be under the thumb of a landlord who may or may not care if they had enough to eat.  So if these tenants so mistreated the messengers, why would the landlord send the son in the third year?  It was because the landlord needed a representative in court to defend his interests.  Why would the tenants kill the son, thinking the land would become theirs?  Because maybe the landlord has already given the son his inheritance, and if so the land would go back to them.

However, everyone knows what is going to happen when the landowner finds out—put those wretches to a miserable death.  In other words, violence begets violence.  When we act violently, when we tear the society apart by taking from another person their means of survival, when we attack those who have taken from us, no one benefits.  Insurrections almost always fail because the rich and powerful have weapons and army and the poor will be crushed.

Both of these stories are inviting us to firstly put the needs of the community before our own and to remember why we’re here and what our freedom is for—for the thriving of the community.  Secondly, these stories are reminding us that when we meet violence, instead of responding by escalating, to be creative in our response.  It is an appeal to us and it is an appeal to God who may or may not be acting violently in the Isaiah text as God pledges to tear down the wall and hedge of the vineyard and make it a waste.

But maybe it is an example of one creative way of responding to the violence of the Israelites who are destroying the poor.  Maybe it is death and resurrection.  That land will be stripped bare, but for how long.  Soon enough, something will be growing.  The seeds lie dormant in the soil waiting.  New life is waiting to grow. 

This week we have been grieving with Las Vegas in the violent attack there.  I have seen examples of people responding creatively to violence.  Some shielded others from the shots.  Some helped people from the venue.  Some have stood in line for hours to give blood.  Some offered free counseling services for the victims and families.  Some have written to their senators and representatives.  Some have called someone they know who is lonely.  Some have turned off the TV and gone out to volunteer.  Some have attended forums to better understand the issues.

In the same way, God’s son didn’t respond to violence with violence.  Someone was violent to a woman who had committed adultery and Jesus was creative in pointing out that we all have failures.  He held up a mirror to all who would condemn.  He stood up to the violence of the community against lepers by forgiving and healing them and ordering them back to community life.  And he didn’t defend himself when he was handed over to be killed.  Instead, he used that as an opportunity to join with all the suffering who have ever lived and show them that God does not abandon us even when there is silence when we cry out.  God is there.

Humanity has often used violence to control and keep power, to add field to field, garage to garage.  We’ve often rejected the way of love and shalom, wholeness, thriving, community.  We were so threatened by Jesus’ refusal to live within our violent system that we put him to death.  We let our greed become the god, instead of building the beloved community, the Kingdom of God.

We thought we knew the goal, to gain wealth and power, have the most people in church, the nicest car, the biggest pay check.  But them we met Jesus and saw how he let go of everything in order to share abundant life with those who were willing to follow his way.  He invited us to set down our fancy stuff and go to work in the vineyard, to work on something that mattered and gave life to everyone, the Kingdom of God.  So we stand here, afraid to set down our stuff.  Afraid that the emptiness of our arms will feel like failure.  But if we don’t all we’ll feel in our hearts is emptiness and brokenness as we perpetuate and escalate the violence.  We know the old system isn’t working, isn’t healthy for anyone, but we’re not sure yet of where God is leading us.  We want assurances.  We want a map.  We don’t want to look like fools, like we don’t know what we’re doing.  Will we forsake our violent ways?  Will we use this holy creativity, God has given us?  Will we let Jesus lead us to empty ourselves?  Will we let go of death and find our arms not empty, but filled with the love of God?

I pray that as we consider our gifts, our estimates of giving and of our time, we will remember that it all comes from God.  God made the vineyard, put the hedge around it etc.  Remember that God has a vision for creativity, that we don’t just give and volunteer for the continuation of all our favorite things, but for the new ministries that God is spurring us toward.  Remember to give of time and money out of love and generosity rather than out of fear. 

September 24, 2017   

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16      
1st Reading: Jonah 3:10-4:11
2nd Reading: Philippians 1:21-30

            “Amazing grace how sweet the sound.”  It is a pretty sweet sound when it rewards me, when it confirms that I am a good person deserving of God’s grace, when it rewards people like me who work hard, when it keeps track of every Sunday I’ve been in church and every door I’ve held open, every smile I’ve shared with someone at the checkout stand, every dollar I’ve given to charity, every coat I’ve donated to the poor, every prayer I’ve said at dinner. 

            “That saved a wretch like me.”  That part’s not so sweet.  I don’t want to sing that in church.  There’s already so many with poor self-esteem.  What good will it do to call ourselves wretches.  Doesn’t that just heap on the guilt and shame?  But when I lay awake at night, and there is no one to impress, I know it’s true.  My shortcomings flash in front of my eyes, what I said that I shouldn’t have said, what I didn’t say that I should have, my own helplessness watching the news while they pull children from a collapsed school in Mexico City, my own contribution to the world’s misery from what I buy and how I live and where I drive and what I wear, and what I should have done but didn’t get to, who I alienated, who I favored and why, and on and on.  But at least Jesus forgives and loves me.  Maybe there’s a chance I can forgive and love myself.  Maybe there’s a chance I can change and do better next week, and then I never do, even though I know exactly what I should do.

            Amazing Grace.  This is the song that Jonah sang when he went running away from God’s call.  He was happy with what God had done for him and the Israelites.  He liked being in the special group of graced people.  He was glad God was generous to him, but that was where it was going to stop.

            The Disciples were enjoying their place of privilege next to Jesus.  They were also reveling in God’s amazing grace.  They accepted the call.  They walked by his side.  The learned from him.  The shared the good news.  The touched his hand and side.  They heard his words.  They gave up everything to be with him.  And their lives were threatened because of their proximity to him.  What grace to stand in God’s presence.  What grace for a wretch like me, they all thought, knowing their shortcomings, their lack of education, their propensity for sticking their foot in their mouths, their inability to get it, the way they kept shooing off people Jesus valued.  They knew they were struggling numbskulls, but they were doing the work and they were earlier to the harvest, so they wanted to make sure Jesus was keeping track, that their ledger was full of all the reasons why they deserved God’s grace.

            Except that’s not grace at all.  Grace is God’s mercy to undeserving people.  We’re all undeserving.  So now we’ve got people vying for the spot of least undeserving. 

We could say that the Old Testament was a time when God was keeping tabs and trying to help people obey the law and find their salvation that way.  I tend to think that may have been the human understanding of what was happening.  But you can’t record everything on a ledger sheet.  You can keep track of numbers and values, but you can’t record the quality of interactions and relationships.  You can’t keep track of history and conversations.  Even if humans thought that was the point from the beginning, two things.  One is that there never was a righteous person, not a single one could keep the whole law.  Secondly, if accounting could save the world we wouldn’t need Jesus, because Moses would have been the savior, or we would all have been our own saviors and done it all ourselves! 

            Throughout the Old Testament, God uses the refrain we get this morning from grumpy old Jonah, God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”  God has always been this way, even under the law.  But some people only thought it applied to them, namely the Israelites, even though we have a ton of examples where foreigners are included in this.

            Now Jonah is singing another song, “Offensive grace, how awful the sound the saved a wretch like them!”  He cannot stand that God shows grace to the people of Ninevah!  These people are not deserving!  How long will it be until they screw up again!  They’ve only been faithful one minute and that’s good enough for God?!  Ridiculous!

            Paul is concerned that the Philippians will fear that he is getting what he deserved because he is in prison and he doesn’t know whether he will eventually be executed or go free.  He’s showing them that God’s grace doesn’t always look like a usual reward in this life looks.  Paul is afraid they will be ashamed of him, that they will assume God has abandoned him.  But he points out that his imprisonment may actually be helping spread the Gospel because people see what he is willing to give up because of his faith.  They can see he truly believes what he is saying, or he’d have recanted it all by now.  This grace is offensive, because the one who should be most rewarded doesn’t appear to be, at least not in the ways we expect in this world.  Paul’s a laborer who has been in the field all day, yet his wages, his pay is a prison sentence.  It just isn’t right.  But he doesn’t mind, because he is experiencing another kind of reward.

            The Vineyard workers who worked all day are also singing about offensive grace, or maybe they are too mad to sing.  They were glad to get hired, glad to participate in the harvest—they who were out there early, who had transportation to the market, who had child care so they could get away, who had able bodies, who weren’t lazy, who weren’t hungover.  They were getting what they deserved.  What they were paid, showed what they were worth.

            So along come these lazy drunks, these late-comers, undocumented, pierced, lazy losers, and they all get paid the same.  “You have made them equal to us, who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 

            That’s the problem.  Paying them more than they are worth.  Making everyone equal.  I had a barbecue I needed to get rid of.  I put a free sign on it and it sat there for two days.  Then I put a sign on it $10 and it was gone the next day.  Until I put a dollar figure on it, people thought my barbecue was worthless.  Too bad we value ourselves and one another by dollar figures, too—how much money we make and what job we have.  We even say refer to people by how much they’re worth, that is how much money they have.

            The problem is, when we keep ledgers, we assume everyone starts at zero.  That’s not so when the vineyard owner is God.  In this case, we start out owing him everything.  What do we owe that God gave us life, this earth, food, shelter, family, opportunities to learn, everything we have.  If we want to keep tabs we’re so far in debt, we can never repay God’s generosity. 

            For us and for the undeserving lazy slob, occasionally the same person, God wipes it all away.  Because God knows you can’t earn enough to pay God back.  You can’t follow the rules enough to pass the test of godliness.  You can’t earn your way into a family.  You can’t earn eternal, abundant life.  Only God can give us that, the true generous gift of grace, for all of us undeserving jerks.

            So why would anyone ever go to work a whole day in the vineyard, if they know they can get paid the same for a single hour of work?  I’ll tell you why.  Think of the volunteering you do here.  You don’t make a dime.  So why do you do it?  It’s the community you’re building.  It is because of the friends you are making and the friendships you maintain.  It is the satisfaction of doing something worthwhile.  It is the chance to learn and grow your gifts.  It is the chance to spend time in God’s presence and to learn from the vineyard owner.  It is the chance to be equal to each other—no one is better than anyone else, we can all move chairs around, we can all hold someone who is in tears, we can all plunge a toilet.

            If we feel offended when those we see God’s generosity to the undeserving or startled about others being equal to us, let’s remember that Jesus invites us to be adopted into God’s family.  We are made equal with him.  We don’t deserve it, but that’s not the point.  God wants the family to be together, so God is drawing us together.  Now is our chance to appreciate that our flawed system of ledgers is thrown out the window, cancelled by God, and that instead of keeping tabs, we are part of the Kingdom where we leave our resentments and jealousy behind, where we realize that what is good for our neighbor means good things for us all, and where we realize there isn’t a limited amount of God’s grace, so someone else getting some doesn’t need to be a threat to us. 

            God is throwing a party.  We’re all invited.  The guest list is all losers and wretches like us.  But God is elevating us to sons and daughters, every last one of us.  Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved brothers and sisters period.  I hope we’ll accept the invitation and not be too concerned about the rif raff on the guest list, and just be glad that even rif raff like us have a place in God’s Kingdom.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

September 17, 2017  

Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35          
1st Reading: Genesis 50:15-21
2nd Reading: Romans 14:1-12

                When I was 4 or 5 years old, my babysitter refused to play my favorite board game, Babar The Elephant, with me because I was a sore loser.  If I didn’t win, I would burst into tears.  She was probably 13 or 14 years old, so she didn’t know you were supposed to let the little kid win.  And I didn’t know that it wasn’t about winning.  It was about the playing of the game, the spinning of the spinner, the counting of the moves, and the conversation that happened in between that mattered.  I didn’t realize until I was an adult and lost in Chinese Checkers my mom, as she relished the victory, that I came by my competitiveness naturally, either by genetics or learning or both, from her. 

                In our house we don’t make that big a deal out of winning.  Maybe it is a flaw in our thinking that everyone can win.  But win or lose, we can always take something from the experience.  The problems is that so often we think winning is the point, when actually it is learning from the experience that is most important.

                For Joseph’s brothers, winning was most important.  They were bigger than him, so they should win.  He was getting too big for his britches, having dreams about them bowing to him, and that’s the reason they sold him to the Egyptians.  So then when they end up in Egypt during the famine, having to beg for food and assistance, they are surprised at how much Joseph has been winning and how he doesn’t punish them for what they did to him.  Now that their father has died, you’d think they’d be mourning and caring for each other in their grief.  But they still think the game is about winning and they are afraid Joseph will crush them—punish them for what they did, give them what they deserve. 

                Joseph knows that it isn’t about winning, it is all about relationships.  Maybe he knows this because he’s been at every point in life.  He’s been the favorite son.  He’s been at the bottom of a pit his brothers dug for him.  He’s been separated from his family.  He’s built a new family.  He’s been a slave.  He’s been a trusted advisor to the Pharaoh.  He’s had dreams that got him in trouble.  He’s had dreams that helped him.  And he’s had dreams that helped a nation prepare for famine.  Through everything, God brought good out of hardship.  Joseph knows his brothers wronged him on purpose.  They could never repay him for what they did—the time with his father that he missed out on, especially.  But Joseph knows that it would bring him no pleasure to ruin their lives.  So they weep together like the family they are, out of sadness for what was lost, out of relief for the mercy that Joseph shows, out of joy at having found each other, at the new life they will have together going forward.

                For the Romans, too, it was hard to believe life wasn’t about winning.  These are the folks that bring us the Olympic games, and the marathon.  They are competitive.  So now there are a whole bunch of them trying to live this new religion where they are all equal and they share things in common.  Some of them have different customs around eating.  For a community that centers itself around a table and eating, Holy Communion, this is difficult.  This isn’t really vegetarians verses meat-eaters, like it sounds.  In their day, some didn’t eat meat, because most of the meat when it was butchered, was offered to idols first.  So, unless you slaughtered it yourself, you couldn’t be sure it hadn’t been offered to idols.  And if someone saw you eating meat offered to idols, they might think you worshipped that idol.  It’s something that’s hard to relate to today, but it was a key problem in the early Christian community. 

So there are different customs around food, including the Jewish dietary rules.  There are different holidays celebrated.  One isn’t more right than the other.  You can’t win enough points by following laws to make God love you.  God already loves you.  Instead, whatever rituals you follow, do it in a way that honors God.  Remember to be faithful to God in whatever you do.  Don’t use it as a wedge to divide you and make winners and losers.  Instead may your rituals and holidays join you to God and each other in the body of Christ.

                Peter, too, was trying to figure out winning and losing in this Kingdom of God that was coming.  How many times should he forgive?  How should he keep score against someone in the community, a brother or sister in Christ?  How would he know he had won the forgiveness award? 

                So Jesus told a story about keeping score.  The first slave was losing big time.  He owed millions of dollars—more than he could have ever repaid.  His owner had every right to sell him and his family to recoup some of his expenses.  But he is merciful.  He lets this be a learning experience.  However, the slave doesn’t learn from it.  Someone else owes him ten bucks.  Instead of being merciful, he threw him into prison. He was home free, but when he threw the other slave in prison, he got himself thrown in prison.  It is almost as if the act of not forgiving holds us in a kind of prison.  We let it eat at us.  We can’t seem to let it go.

The unforgiving slave used his power to hurt someone else.  He thought he made himself the winner.  But he was playing the wrong game.  He thought the point was to be more powerful, but instead the point of the game was to get along with others, to be kind, to treat others how he wanted to be treated, to build community.  The point of the game was to forgive.

                It is true, we owe everything to God.  If we were to try to pay God back all that we owe, we’d never repay the debt.  If we ever tried to make up for all the wrong we’ve done, we’d never pay the bill.  But Jesus is merciful and he says our debt is paid.  Now, how can we ever demand payment from anyone.  Because of the forgiveness we’ve received, it is our job to forgive.  In fact, this week I heard someone call church a “forgiveness factory.”  In this place we let people know they are forgiven, and we inspire one another to forgive, and we live in community where we must forgive one another from our hearts in order to be the body of Christ.

                There’s been a lot of talk about the boy who lit the gorge on fire.  People are sad about the damage to some of our sacred Oregon sites, places of beauty and peace, ruined for our lifetimes.  People are angry about what he did.  No matter how much he paid, he could never undo the damage he did.  There is no number of dollars that one can place on what has been lost.  There is no amount of community service or replanting he could do to make up for that mistake.

                Some have accused stupid teenagers.  Some have said, “He’s not one of us, he’s from Washington State.”  We have said, “In my day, kids didn’t run wild like that.”  We’ve said a lot to separate ourselves from him, to say he’s not like us.  But that boy is one of us.  He needs us and we need him.  He is part of our human community.  We’ve done stupid things in our lives.  We’ve done dangerous things.  And we’ve all contributed to the dry conditions in the gorge with all our burning of fossil fuels that are changing the climate.  He is a child of God.  We are children of God.  And we’ve all got the rest of our lives to learn from this.  God has already made it clear, we all owe God everything and our debt is paid.  We are forgiven by God.  So how do we forgive this boy?  How do we forgive ourselves?  And how do we learn from this experience?  How do we go on in a new way?  How does accountability and judgment fit into all this? 

                Since I’ve become a mother, I’ve often thought of God’s perspective.  I could keep score of every diaper change, every meal cooked, every nightmare where I got up to rock my child back to sleep, every time I said “Eat your dinner,” every item of laundry, every trip to the doctor, every dollar spent and so on.  But that’s not the game we’re playing.  We’re learning.  We’re growing.  We’re making memories.  We’re building each other up, because we belong to God who is loving.  Because God made us to be loving rather than winning.  When my son grows up, whether he lights a fire in the gorge or wins the semester achievement award or both, we can be forgiven and forgiving, part of the human family, part of the body of Christ.

                God has given us everything, every mountain and tree, every blue and smoky sky, every good or bad night’s rest, every memory with family, every meal, every moment.  We could waste it all trying to win.  Or we can enjoy each other.  We can and must forgive to set ourselves free.  God has set the example and done the most forgiving.  Now let us look at each other as brothers and sisters and find new life in a new way, the Kingdom way.


August 27, 2017    

Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20    
1st Reading: Isaiah 51:1-6       
2nd Reading: Romans 12:1-8

            Ok, pop-quiz everyone, Jesus announces, “Who do people say that I am?”  The Disciples who were nervous, sigh with relief when they realize they will only have to regurgitate what other people have been saying.  Yay, it’s an open-book test! Peter, the teacher’s pet, who can’t seem to keep his mouth shut, raises his hand.  “Pick me! Pick me!”  He carefully leaves out the most offensive of what people are saying and picks the ones he think might please Jesus a little.  He goes with the safe responses.  “John the Baptist.  Elijah. Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”      Then Jesus asks a follow up question, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter’s face falls.  His blood drains from his head.  His head beats loudly in his chest.  He swallows with a cartoonish, “Gulp!”  I can just see him hesitate, flip through all the possibilities in his mind, and the words leaving his mouth.  Did he even know what he was about to say?  It is like the spelling bee when the kid spells the word like it’s a question and by their lack of confidence you know they are going to spell it wrong, and they get it right.  Peter says it.  Does he say it like this, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”  Or like this, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God?”  Is he asking or telling.  Unfortunately, we can’t hear it, but St. Peter is supposed to be the first one we meet at the pearly gates, so I think I’ll ask him when I get the chance.
             Knowing who Jesus is, means knowing who we are.  Partly because it means knowing who our relatives are.  The reading from Isaiah is about a people who are forgetting who they are.  They are listening to all sorts of messages.  They are anxious and afraid as they have returned from captivity, and it was their parents or grandparents who were the ones who were carried off.  They don’t know this land.  They don’t know this religion.  They don’t know how to relate to the people who never left.  They don’t know who God is.  So Isaiah is telling them the first thing to do is listen.  Shut up and listen.  Don’t ask questions.  Don’t worry.  Don’t argue.  Just listen.  Listen to stories of your ancestors Abraham and Sarah.  Listen to stories of where you come from and why God made you.  Listen to stories about your proper place in God’s Creation.  Listen to God’s plans for you.  You’re not alone. You matter to God. There is reason to hope and that is that many things in this life are temporary, like gnats which is good, and people which may or may not be good, depending on your point of view.  Even heaven and earth are temporary.  However there are some things that last and the main one is God’s salvation, in other words, healing, and God’s deliverance.  Knowing Jesus means knowing that we are blessed and that God made us to be a blessing to all the families of the earth, as God explained to Abraham.
            Knowing who Jesus is means knowing who we are.  We are part of the body of Christ.  If we are the body, then it would be good to know who the head is and where Jesus is directing us.  Because we are the body of Christ, we depend on each other, we work together, we have the same values, we aren’t jealous of each other, we are part of something good, our gifts are to be shared.  To be part of the body of Christ, we are fully involved in what Jesus is involved in.
            I wonder what we would say if we were called upon in a pop-quiz to answer who Jesus is to us.  And I wonder what our actions say about who Jesus is.  Because our actions reveal what we really think, what our true priorities are.  They speak volumes about who Jesus is.  If we believe that Jesus is our great Physician, we focus on healing on many levels.  If we believe that Jesus welcomes us all to the table, we make sure that food is distributed to all in need so that all may experience Jesus.  If we believe that Jesus is the living God, we let him live and love and move in our lives, transforming us, making us see what we didn’t see before, helping us to live in new ways, generous ways. 
            Peter’s declaration of faith, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God, “ becomes an example to us who are trying to put our faith into words and express it in our actions.  Jesus then says, “On this rock I will build my church.”  Some have said that rock is Peter himself, whose name means rock and this and the keys to the kingdom stuff somehow means a pope.  But Jesus is more likely saying the rock he is building his church, or gathering on, is this confession of faith, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God."  How can we make this confession with our both our lips and our lives?
            Whether we pass or fail Jesus’ pop-quiz, whether we are teacher’s pet or in detention, Jesus passes the test.  He knows who he is, first of all, that he isn’t here to do things the way we do things, to treat rich people better than poor or to follow rules that benefit and few and hurt many.  He remains who he is through the misunderstandings of all his disciples, betrayals and challenges, even on the cross.  And he passes the test of really knowing who we are.  The world may tell us we aren’t enough.  “Who do people say that I am?” the message is the world says we are not young enough, smart enough, good-looking enough, important enough.  But Jesus sees the true value in us.  When we ask Jesus what he sees in us, he says, “You are my beloved child and nothing can ever separate you from my love.”  And not only the singular you, but also the lot of you.  As a whole we belong to Jesus our Savior, and he makes us into his body, and he is bringing in the Kingdom of God through us.
            Knowing who Jesus is gives us hope.  It gives us hope that God will comfort us and all who are anxious. It gives us hope that God will transform the places in our lives that are desolate.  It gives us hope that justice and light will go out to all people.  It gives us hope that we will claim what is healthy and life giving and loose what is hurtful.  It gives us hope that God’s Kingdom will one day be fully realized