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Monday, December 4, 2017

November 29, 2017

Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46      
1st Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-24
2nd Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23
                 People seek a King: Help wanted.  Must be strong and handsome, able to win wars and secure land, bring prosperity, help us to grow strong families, bring us through trouble, feed us good food, heal all our maladies, organize all the people and govern with wisdom.  Must be healthy, have a great wardrobe, eat the most luscious food every day, live in a fancy castle, and live a life among the rich and famous.  Must make us the envy of our neighbors, destroy all who stand in our way, allow us to amass wealth, and reward the rich with power while the poor get what they deserve for being lazy.  This King should be somewhat distant, letting us govern ourselves and make decisions that benefit us, staying out of our way and not changing us.  We are a people who easily forget.  So don’t make us remember that we were ever slaves in Egypt or that we ever wandered the wilderness, lost.  Make of us a great nation, better than other nations, and then let us defeat them and take everything that is theirs.  We like wealth and shiny things.  We like to be powerful and we like to win.  Give us those things, and you can be our King.
                King seeking people: Help wanted.  King seeks people who have been mistreated and scorned, enslaved and beaten.  Must want to be free and willing to learn that freedom means caring for one another and complete focus on Kingdom values of sharing and not hoarding, of being willing to wander and seek rather than know all the answers, of learning to trust the King rather than themselves, of treating one another with equity regardless of social status, of commitment to each other and the kingdom.  The people must be poor and lost, the underdogs, weak and scrappy, faithful and focused, generous and thankful.  Give me some people who are open to this kind of King and I will shape them into my people.  I will bring my Kingdom among them.  We will learn to be King and people together.  Through them I will bring my blessing to all the earth.  Through them the world will know me and learn my Kingdom values and find peace, cooperation, love, and abundance.  My gifts include being willing to live among my people, working side by side with them, not compelling them to do things my way but allowing them to make decisions for themselves.  In addition, I am a hard-worker, have been around since the beginning of time, and have a vision of a peaceful and equitable world that I will carry out with or without the people’s help.
                Christ the King Sunday: What does it mean to us whose main concept of a king comes from fairy tales?  What does it mean to a congregation that is named King of Kings?  What is King in our lives?  What matters most to us?  What are our priorities?  In a religion that has been so misused to intimidate and take away power from people who are suffering, in a religion that has been used to point to people on the margins, who are sick or in prison or in the way of a hurricane, and say, “You deserve what you get!” how does our view of our King make a difference in our response to our neighbors?
                In our reading from Ezekiel today, we get an image of a King who is seeking us out, all who have been scattered, who have been hurt and betrayed and damaged by the value system of this world—the greed, the blaming of the poor and weak, the favoritism of the powerful.  We are a people who don’t know what we’re looking for.  We might not even know we’re looking.  But we are aware that we are afraid, overwhelmed by the powers of this world.  We have hurt our neighbors, trampled them as we fled for safety.  We had been betrayed by shepherds, abandoned and left alone for the wolves.  Our ways  have not been serving us.  They are not working well.  They are not bringing about life for us or anyone else.  Into our woundedness and pain, comes a king like none we’ve ever encountered.   This King is muddy.  He’s been searching.  He’s covered in scratches from the thorns along the path.  He’s desperate and calling to us.  He’s gathering us together.  He helps us up.  He’s not afraid to touch us.  He notices our wounds and binds them up.  He lies down at the gate of the sheepfold to protect us.  He learns our names.  He knows our fears and our habits.  He leads us to abundant pastures and keeps our hooves from polluting the waters of life. He is a king we follow because he is reliable, he is there, and we are slowly learning to trust.  When we get out of line, when we start to think we are better than others, this shepherd King puts us in our place.  We realize that we are in his presence, not because we deserve to be, but because our King is one of life and love.  We realize that there is more than enough of that love and pasture to go around, so we can stop being anxious and afraid and get on to the task of living, not just for ourselves but in community, in the flock.
                The King we believe in is described in our reading from Ephesians.  This is a King who showed his power in his willingness to let go of power, one who drew all kinds of people to himself, not just the right kind of people.  This is a King who gives hope to us not in the temporary, material things of this world, but a permanent relationship of love, adoption into a family, responsibilities, powers, and a new vision of what really matters.  This is a King who, because of the people he talked to and empowered, and because of the Kings he defied, the values he was not willing to live under, was handed over to death.  He was so threatening to the values that rule this world, that he was put to death.  People thought they could kill his vision, that they could kill those values, that they could kill the hope that people had in a new and refreshing value system.  But that vision had already been passed on to a small, scrappy group of disciples, who were forever changed by their encounter with this King, and they found that King was still with them, and that the spirit of the King was stronger than ever, giving them courage to go forth and tell the good news, the vision, the love, the community, the empowerment available, the alternative view, the vision of truth that turned the world upside down.
                In our world, kings and law makers are far away, rich, inaccessible.  They seek to serve the very rich, the ones who line their pockets with donations.  They make rules that benefit themselves.  They don’t know us and they don’t care about us, except that we make them look good.  So here is the alternative view—that we have access to our King, we can be in his presence, seek it out      and we are constantly being heard.  The cries of the hungry reach the ears of this King.  He knows their stories.  He knows their names.  He sits at their tables.  He feels their wants. Here is a king who went about having dinner with people who didn’t matter to any King or even mayor before him, who knew the pain of hunger himself.  Here is a King who was a stranger, born a bastard child, with no where to lay his head, in an occupied country, a refugee in Egypt, a wanted man from boyhood, who has known scorn, an enigma to his own disciples, rejected and hated.  Here is a King who was stripped of his clothing, naked upon the cross.  Here is a King who said on the cross, “I thirst.”  Here is a King was sick and imprisoned, betrayed, arrested, denied, mocked, and killed.  This is a King we can meet everyday, everywhere people are hungry or thirsty, naked, alone, afraid, sick, or imprisoned.  This is a King of all of us.  When we are doing well, our own desires become our King.  We make King the value system of this world that says we get what we deserve.  But we all find ourselves in need and that does not mean our King has abandoned us, but that he loves us and is with us.  How do we serve this King, even when we’re doing ok, when we are tempted by the gods of prosperity and belief that we can do it ourselves?  How do we get in the sheep line rather than the goat line?  How do we make Christ our King?
                I really struggle with this, because often times I shape my work week by keeping my sermon writing time and time for meetings pretty firm, and then I see how many hospital or prison visits I can fit around all that.  I only serve at the pantry, if I have all my other work done.  If I have time, I’ll spend those Thursdays with hungry people.  I’m starting to think I’ve got it backward.  How do we make our encounter with Jesus in the sick and hungry the priority?  How do we change our priorities to make this vision in the Gospel the focus?  This is what we are each here to do: visit the sick and imprisoned, give clothing food and water, meet Jesus in the poor and lonely, welcome the stranger.  How do we open our eyes to see Jesus?  How do we make room in our lives to meet him in people around us?
                Thankfully we operate in a system of love and grace.  Jesus welcomes us, feeds and clothes us, leads us beside still waters, puts us back in the sheep line when we wander off, makes a community of us, encourages us, loves us, and reigns as our King.  We don’t need to be afraid that we’ll end up in the goat line, but only trusting Jesus to keep seeking us out.  And we don’t need to look at others and decide they are among the goats, because Christ is King, and this King keeps seeking us until all are in the sheep line, safe in the fold.  Just keep looking to the King and listening for his voice, accept his healing, and tend to him among the wounded and weak.  This vision of an abundant pasture with a shepherd leading us is assured.  And we shall dwell in the house of the Lord, forever. 

November 19, 2017

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30
1st Reading: Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
2nd Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
                A great debate erupted among the pastors at text study this week.  It was quite exciting.  We were pretty evenly split.  Was this a Gospel reading in which the Master represents God or not?  Today, I’m going to give you both sides of the story, because I think both have value.
                The one, we’ve heard many times and it bears repeating.  Some say this parable is about how God gives us so many gifts and talents.  Please note here that a talent is a ridiculous amount of money.  We’ll call it a million dollars.  People receive different amounts and kinds of talents.  Some use them to increase the Kingdom of God.  Other people are afraid of doing it wrong and bury it and miss out on getting to do God’s work.  The message here is this:  Use the incredible gifts God gives you to increase God’s Kingdom.
                Here’s the other way of looking at the parable.  In the time and place this was written, it was widely held that one could not increase one’s wealth without taking it from someone else.  So the first two slaves would be taking from someone else to increase their investment so much and hurting that person or people.  They would likely target someone with little power, and taking someone from a miserable situation to one of dire straits.  It was against the law to charge interest, taking advantage of people’s need, and yet the people did it.  There was a common practice of buying out poor farms and making indentured servants of the previous owners and squeezing them so they couldn’t even feed their own families.  It was common not to pay a living wage.  It was common to tamper with scales, so you wouldn’t be giving someone as much product as they bought.  It was common to pay workers different amounts to divide them.  Certainly, all over the Bible are warnings against treating the poor in this way.  So this may be a tale about a mobster Master and his cronies, who is cheating people.  The first two slaves go along with it.  The last one refuses to participate in an economy that hurts people and takes advantage of vulnerable people and speaks truth to power, telling off the Master.  The message here is this: Resist evil.  Don’t participate in an unjust system.
                I don’t think these two interpretations cancel each other out.  We have a lot of blessings, a lot of talents.  We have a lot of gifts from God, an abundance.  And God wants us to use them well.  We are not to be complacent, as it says in the Zephaniah reading for this morning.  We are not to rest on our dregs, which is literally leaving the wine in the barrel too long so that it gets a funny taste to it.  Don’t just let it sit there.  Do something with what you’ve been given.
                But also, don’t think that God doesn’t care what you do with it.  God cares greatly, which is why we have this diatribe in Zephaniah.  God is very angry in this reading!
In Kindergarten, the kids are learning about emotions and corresponding colors, like the colors of fire danger.  Blue is sad. Green is calm or joyful.  Yellow is starting to get upset.  And red is exploding anger.  The kids learn the physical reactions of each emotion, like when your face gets flushed, or muscles tense when we’re upset.  And they learn strategies for calming themselves or moving through the emotions, like taking a deep breath or taking a moment to yourself. 
So here is God, in the red zone, blowing God’s top, unleashing all this anger.  The reason God is mad is that people are abusing the poor.  This is God’s judgment against dehumanization.  God is angry because God’s children are injuring each other, and especially that the stronger is beating up on the weaker.  The more powerful are taking advantage of the poor and making them poorer.  God has strong feelings about this kind of behavior.  God has tried to reason with the people, encouraging them to share and protect each other.  God has given warnings when people started to go astray.  And now God has had it.  That’s enough!
God is angry, in the red zone.  This behavior must stop!  People need to hear how angry God is when we hurt each other.  The powerful need to hear God’s judgment against what they’re doing, so they stop and choose another way.  And the poor need to hear God cares about them, to be encouraged and hopeful.  And just like Kindergarteners don’t stay in the red zone forever, God doesn’t stay in the red zone forever.  Zephaniah isn’t a very long book, and by the end of it, there is a chance for reconciliation, a chance for restoration, to begin a new behavior, to live by God’s values of love, to care for the weak and poor. 
So now it is a matter of using what we have been given to love and serve God and our neighbor according to one interpretation of the reading and avoid participating in the systems of evil according to another.  It isn’t always an easy line to walk.  Almost everything we do has the potential to benefit the evil and corrupt systems of this world.  How do we avoid being so afraid of doing the wrong thing that we are paralyzed?  How do we boldly use our gifts to serve God?
If we aren’t to participate in the death-dealing, evil economy of this world, what is the kind of economy that God is supporting?  God’s economy is based on abundance, not scarcity.  For God there is always enough, in fact, more than enough.  There is enough food for everyone, enough shelter and clothing for everyone.  There is enough time for everyone to get their work in, as well as time to rest.  And there is enough community for everyone, a support system for those who don’t have anybody else.  In God’s economy we don’t have more than we need.  We have just enough, and we share with those who don’t have enough. 
The greatest power in God’s economy is not money, but love, and love never runs out.  The more we share love, the more there is of it.  Love is something that everyone has access to, rich or poor, young or old.  Love is a power that can change everything, by connecting everything.
And love is the power that is behind our work for justice.  When we love the poor and all who are hurting, as God does, we confront those who are hurting God’s little ones, and challenge them to try another way, the Kingdom way.  We speak up, even when we are risking our own security, when we might be persecuted or imprisoned for speaking up, when we might be thrown into the outer darkness of society and our family and friends avoid us.
This is what Jesus did for us.  He had great riches, many gifts from God, but he didn’t hide them and he didn’t just use them to benefit himself.  He used those gifts to speak out on behalf of the poor and rejected, widows and orphans, and against all the societal norms that put up barriers to these people having access to life.  He spoke up, at great risk to himself, and he paid with his life.  But still he worked within God’s economy, offering abundant life to all who would follow his way, and bringing God’s Kingdom near to confront the powers of this world.  This is what Jesus did for us and this is what Jesus does through us!
Another thought about this reading, and that is that these slaves probably don’t represent individuals, but congregations or communities.  As a community, we can get so busy focused on ourselves and our fears that we forget to use our gifts or speak out on behalf of the poor.  We bury our treasure.  We bury our voices.  However, God brings the Kingdom either with or without us.  What an opportunity to participate in something hopeful and life-giving.
This is one more link between the stories, risk-taking.  In the first interpretation, the ones who increase their talents take great risks to increase their master’s wealth.  They could easily loose it all, but they don’t let that fear stop them, and they are commended by their master.  In the second interpretation, the last slave takes a great risk by speaking up and telling the truth.  He risks his own safety when he tells it like it is, and he pays the price.  We too sometimes pay the price for standing up for what is right, but that is a risk God asks us to take, in order to shape this world more into God’s Kingdom. 
I believe that God is asking us as a church to take some risks, to let go of our fears and take bold steps toward God’s Kingdom, steps that help us make connections within our own congregation and with our neighbors.  That’s why your council members are reaching out to you to have a relational meeting.  Connecting is risky, but it is also Kingdom building.  Connecting bears fruit after a while, the fruit of strong community and the ability to speak up together so that no one is risking alone.  Please take a risk and accept an invitation, or extend an invitation to relate to another person within the congregation or in the neighborhood.  God promises to be there helping us to see and tell the truth and bear the fruit of the Kingdom.

November 5, 2017

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12   
1st Reading: Revelation 7:9-17
2nd Reading: 1 John 3:1-3
                Welcome to All Saints Day, a day when we remember and celebrate all who have died and remember that we, too, are saints, through our baptism and participating in the body of Christ.  I definitely have some mixed emotions on this day, especially this year, because I experienced some significant deaths of loved ones in my life this year.  It is a weird point to be 6 months from their deaths, because this time last year, they were living, making memories, making plans, going about their day.  They were moving and breathing.  It was such a short time ago and our hearts ache for them, to see them again, to hear them again, to know they are enjoying life, to write them a letter, or call them on the phone, or stop by to say hello.  They were just here, and now it feels like a there is a huge chasm, an empty place, a great distance between us.
                I was at grandma’s house in September, sorting through grandma’s fabric with my mom and aunt.  I hadn’t remembered that grandma’s house had a smell.  It has a cedar scent to it.  In that moment when I walked in, I thought to myself, “I may never smell grandma’s house again.”  That smell has so many memories for me and they flash through my mind, one after the other.
                Grandma and Macey are gone.  They died.  God promises new life.  So how should I picture them?  Where should I picture them?  What is this place they have gone?  What does new life look like?  Is it enough to believe that their memories live on through us?  Or do I picture them among green hills, running like in The Sound of Music?  How do we honor their memory?  What is this new life they are called to and are we called to it only in death, or in this life as well?
                The Book of Revelation is a word painting for suffering Christians.  It was written for those persecuted by Nero to have a vision of hope, in which God and the Lamb, Christ are in the center, surrounded by the saints and martyrs, singing and worshiping God, with God’s love and light extending from that central place and rippling out in concentric circles to the farthest corners of the heavenly realm and breaking into our world. 
                Macey and grandma and Carrie and Drew and Aileen and all these saints we honor today already stand in that inner circle in the light of God’s presence.  They live in the Kingdom fully, where there is no hunger or pain, sheltered by God, comforted by God, guided and shepherded by God, and living the new life God promises.  They live this vision of Revelation.
                And we get glimpses of it.  Did you recognize any of the words this morning in that reading?  We enact this scene, or try to every Sunday morning at Church.   We place God and the lamb, Jesus, at the center, and we gather together as many as come, although all are welcome.  There is no distinction, but all worship together from any nation, all tribes, and peoples and languages.  I wear the white robe for all the rest of you.  It is like a uniform that the saints wear, so that no one’s clothes are better than any other or a distraction for the saints.  We sing this song, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”  Sound familiar?  We sing these words from Revelation as we enact this scene, as the Kingdom of God breaks in, living this vision of what is to come.  We don’t just sing by ourselves, but our voices join with the saints gathered around the throne, collapsing the distance between us and them, between our world and the Kingdom of God.
                And it isn’t just in our singing that these realms come near, but anywhere and anytime that people have enough to eat and drink, where there is shelter and protection, when compassion and tenderness is shared.  This is fully the reality in the heavenly realm, and there are points where it breaks into our world when God’s love touches our hearts and brings the Kingdom through us to others in need.
                Never does the heavenly realm see so far away from this world than in the values that matter to God and the values that are lived in this world.  That’s where the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew come in.  In this world, we think someone is blessed if they are confident, don’t know the pain of loss, are full of good food and all kinds of treasures, are merciless, are smart, refuse to compromise, and don’t endure any suffering.  That’s when a person can say they are blessed.  Those are the people we tend to admire.
                However, that is not what God admires or values.  When we are so full of ourselves, how will we ever have room for God?  When we have all the comforts of life, what would cause us to open our eyes and look for something more, for a Kingdom and a realm of misfits?  If we can do it all ourselves, why would we need each other or God? 
To be blessed is to have room for each other.  To be blessed is to have room for God.  To be blessed is to look for God.  To be blessed is to realize that we all are broken and we all need healing.  To be blessed is to be honest about ourselves and our imperfections and shortcomings.  To be blessed is to be ready to receive.
I remember working as a chaplain, I found patients at the hospital were open to talking about their spirituality, more so than most people I met who were healthy.  I found my patients were blessing me with their openness to God’s presence.  Much of the time, I think we go about our day and don’t give God’s vision a single thought.  But when we mourn or feel helpless, we find ourselves remembering what is most important, and putting our hope in God, instead of our own power.  That’s when the Kingdom of God is breaking through and giving us new life. 
In the Beatitudes, God lays out God’s values.  Jesus begins with an unexpected blessing, for the poor in spirit, the merciful, etc.  This is a current reality that someone is living.  They didn’t choose this mode, it is the way things are.  Then Jesus offers a vision of a future reality that is God’s vision, of comfort, inheritance, fulfillment, mercy, vision, adoption.  This is the promised future.  This is the Kingdom of God which the martyrs know fully, and which is breaking into this world. 
Two times in the Beatitudes it isn’t a future reality, but a present reality.  For both the poor in Spirit and the persecuted, Jesus says, “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  This is a present reality more than the others.  They have access to it now.  They are part of it now.  It is theirs.  It is not far away, but here on earth, God wiping away the tears, these folks focused on what matters, living God’s values, open to God’s presence, upheld in community, shining with God’s light and love.
Every Sunday we also pray that God’s Kingdom come and it does come regardless.  The saints and martyrs are in that reality even now.  But we also pray it comes among us, that it breaks through in our world in our words and actions.  And we pray that we would open our eyes to see it in the hungry and homeless and ill around us and reach out to them as Christ in our midst.  “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called Children of God; and that is what we are.”  And that is what our neighbor is.  “Beloved, we are God’s children now.”  And this gives us hope for the future that God is revealing to us.

May you have hope in more than your own comfort and stability.  May you find the broken places in your life, spaces that God dwells and shines a brilliant light.  May you look for God’s Kingdom coming into the world and participate in it.  May you know blessing in pain.  May you know God’s presence and share it.  May God’s future Kingdom promise be collapsed into your everyday reality.  May you let go of what is distracting you, and live in the values of the Kingdom.

Monday, October 30, 2017

October 29, 2017    

Gospel: John 8:31-36                      
1st Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34  
2nd Reading: Romans 3:19-28
                Today we commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  Because of the reformation, we focus on God’s word in scripture as a primary way God reveals God’s self to us. 
Today the word that has been jumping out at me from the scriptures is “heart.”  In the reading from Jeremiah for this morning, God is going to write God’s law on the hearts of the people.  And in the reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart.
Both of these scriptures involve an ideal that God has in mind, a vision of what someday will be, a realm of peace and beauty, of community and love and belonging.  It will be something we won’t even have to think about.  Instead we’ll automatically know we belong to God and what we are for, which is to love. When Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, and he tells them to love God and neighbor, he is laying out his vision of the peaceable Kingdom, the beloved Community, a picture of heaven itself.  This is a vision of balanced priorities and focus, it is a vision of selflessness and sharing, it is a vision of love and belonging.
500 years ago Dr. Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses for debate, because he saw a major way the church was not matching with the vision of love that God puts forth in these scriptures.  His act began a questioning of church authority and motives.  So eventually the Lutheran Church was born from this struggle and the world was changed.
However, today we are having a commemoration of the Reformation, rather than a Celebration of it, for a couple of reasons.  One is that the Reformation was not all good.  People used violence against one another as they began to react against the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.  And Martin Luther later wrote and preached against Jewish people, not as a race, but in frustration that they didn’t convert once he had corrected the errors in the Roman Catholic Church.  Later these writings were used by the Nazi Party in persecution of the Jews.  In fact I only recently learned that Kristall Nacht (the night of broken glass) in which Jewish businesses throughout Germany were attacked in 1938, was carried out purposely on Martin Luther’s Birthday to make the connection between what he wrote and the Nazi’s murder of millions of Jews. 
Another reason this is a Commemoration more than a Celebration is that we haven’t yet arrived at God’s vision of unity and peace.  Our reality is still very, very far from the loving community that Jesus articulated.  The Protestant Reformation has changed the world and the church, however God is not done with us yet.  The reformation is not a one-time event, but ongoing.  We are always turning away from God and God’s vision, but God is always turning us back toward God. 
The problem is, we always forget is that we are the apple of God’s eye, that God made us in God’s own image, names us, claims us, redeems us.  We forget how much God loves us.  And we forget how much God loves our neighbor. 
The heart is the symbol of love.  It implies longing, connectedness, attachment, focus.  I’d like to propose today that maybe the heart is the part of us that is most in the image of God.  We are made in God’s image, but what does that mean.  There is such variation among people, in personality and appearance.  Maybe it is our hearts that are like God’s, if we would just listen to our hearts.
Our hearts, like God’s cause us to dream, to envision, to hope for what might be.  God’s dream is to create a universe in harmony and peace, to create a being to relate to, to let love reign above every other value.  Martin Luther had a dream, even though I don’t know that he ever articulated it that way.  He dreamed of a church that took away barriers between people and God.  He dreamed of a life free from fear of an authoritarian father and angry God.  I don’t know that he really fully connected to this dream, until he had been excommunicated, gone through all the religious courts, the reading of his works banned, and hidden away in Wartburg Castle.  It was only through the severing of all ties that he was able to fully see what might be.  In other words, he couldn’t see the dream or allow himself to fully dream until he had nothing to lose.  And he had lots of time which he chose to spend with God’s word in Scripture, translating it, and hearing it again as if for the first time, absorbing it, putting it into his own words, imagining how it would sound in people’s ears hearing it for the first time, seeing how completely different God’s vision was from the reality of the Roman Catholic Church and many priests at that time.  He had a lot of time to dream and for his dream to connect to God’s dream.  It was no longer about indulgences.  And Luther began putting out one treatise after another against the hypocrisy and greed of the Church.
God gave us hearts to dream, too.  When we’re invested in the current reality, it is hard to let ourselves hope for something so disturbing to our own comfort.  But our hearts must dream.  There has to be more than this!  And not just a little more.  We are assured our dreams are not in vain, that God is powerful and will bring that dream of peace and love to reality.
God gave us hearts to connect.  God would not go on alone, so God created humankind to relate to, to talk with, to listen to, to co-create with.  Our hearts produce a longing in us that won’t let us go on alone.  We seek community.  We seek communion.  We need each other.  Together we are the body of Christ.
God gave us hearts to break.  I think of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz.   He finally gets his heart, only to have it breaking as Dorothy is leaving.  Certainly God’s heart breaks.  Reading the scriptures we can hear it breaking.  We can hear it breaking in our Old Testament reading for this morning when God talks about the people breaking the covenant, “a covenant which they broke, though I was their husband.”  It sounds like a pout, but it is an expression of a broken heart, of unrequited love, of that feeling when the reality doesn’t match the dream.
And God gave us hearts to break, as well.  It’s called compassion.  Our hearts break when we really let our eyes see our own brokenness and sin, and the injustice in this world.  Our hearts break when death seems to win the day.  The pain we feel motivates us to do something about it, so that we or someone else don’t have to go through that kind of pain again.
                Jesus loved a party, so I think it’s ok to go ahead and celebrate this Reformation Day.  There are certainly things to be proud of, and which do lead humanity in a good direction, namely peace and love.  Let these be the hallmarks of being a Lutheran rather than the Liturgy which Martin Luther fought against establishing because he was afraid people might think it was the only way to worship God, and rather than Lutefisk and Lefse which the rest of the world is baffled about, since our denomination is not one race or ethnicity.  Let love and grace be our hallmark.  Let Jesus’ heart be transplanted in us.
                And let us continue reforming.  I think we have operated under the myth that the church was reformed 500 years ago and we’ve arrived, however Jesus is offering new life each day.  Let’s be honest about where we are not matching God’s dream for us.  Wouldn’t it make sense to be in constant reformation, to have a process of evaluation and accountability so we quit making the same mistakes, of building deeper relationships so that we can be honest and forthright?  Wouldn’t it do us good to always be letting go of what is selfish and sinful—barriers for our neighbors to worship with us?  Wouldn’t it do us good to be dying each day with Christ to our own comfort and interests and rise again to new life to serve our neighbor in love?  Jesus modeled it for us, by dying and rising again.  We say we believe in death and resurrection, but do we live as if we believed it?  Are we willing to let go, to die with Christ so that he might raise us to new life, to that vision of the Peaceable Kingdom where love is at the center? Maybe it is time to act on our beliefs and let God reform us again and again and again. 
                That’s one exciting thing about these anniversaries—500 years since the Reformation began.  It is a chance to look back and give thanks for the Reformers and all who have come before, to evaluate where we’ve been and where we’re going.  It is a chance to listen to our hearts, the deepest longings within each of us and in our neighbors. It is a chance to dream again the dream of God and look with hope to where God is leading us.  It is a chance to remember who we have been and be honest about the good and bad of it.  And it is a chance to consider who we want to be and to let God shape us into what this world needs for the reforms that are yet to come. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

October 22, 2017

Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22
1st Reading: Isaiah 45:1-7
2nd Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
   This morning's Gospel is very pertinent to some of the discussions we've been having lately about kneeling during the national anthem.  The question I think our nation is discussing, along with a lot of help by some Russians stirring up the pot, is how to express our patriotism or what makes a good patriot.  Jesus was asked this very question.  He was being tested about whether he was a good patriot or not, whether he loved his country more or his religion more. The question that was going to reveal that answer was whether one should pay taxes or not.  It was of course a trick question.  If Jesus said not to pay the tax, he would have been committing treason and could have been arrested by the Romans before he had a chance to complete his ministry.  If Jesus had said to pay the tax, he would have alienated his audience, because he would have been saying that he supported their oppressor, Rome, who was demanding the tax.  This tax was specifically used to control and oppress the Jewish people.  He would have been saying that he approved of this oppression.
    Jesus did not give a clear answer.  Not because he was trying to be evasive and protect himself, but to hold up a mirror to the people asking him and to the society.  He wanted to get a discussion started rather than answering and closing debate.  No matter where they stood on this matter, they could have interpreted Jesus' words in any way they liked.  They went away confused and amazed. I like when Jesus doesn't give us the answer, but makes us think for ourselves.  And we are always faced with choices, where there is no clear or right answer, or sinless answer, but only shades of gray and confusion and traps in every direction, unless you're Jesus and you're not.
    We received our property tax bill yesterday in the mail.  I opened it with trepidation, because I'd heard from my neighbors on Facebook that I was going be shocked by how much it went up.  I don't know what kind of mansions my neighbors live in, but I was pleasantly surprised.  It was a very small increase.  I understand if you're on a fixed income that any increase might hurt, but I was feeling like we're getting a pretty good deal.  I explained to Sterling that the taxes we paid funded his school and that I was happy to pay them, because look how much he's already learned after 6 weeks of kindergarten.  I'm a good patriot when my taxes match my values and my faith.  But I don't feel that way about all my taxes.  When I write my check for my federal taxes, I play a game with myself.  I imagine the money going to things I care about, like WIC or FEMA or SNAP.  I pretend that I am not writing a check that will result in someone's death or the destruction of this beautiful planet, even though I know that so much of our federal budget goes to military and weapons.  I feel complicit.  I am part of something terrifying, the military power of the United States, secretly used for air strikes and to secure the financial gain of corporations.  I know I am accountable for my actions, for paying for this.  I am doing something I disagree with, that is against my values.  Yet, what choice do I have?  Could I possibly make any difference?  If not me, then who?  What should we do when God and Ceasar are both calling for our allegiance?
    At the same time, I am keenly aware and appreciative of all this country has given me.  I was born in a military hospital.  I think my parents paid less than  $20 out of pocket for me to be born, and my mother was flown in a helicopter from the army base in Illisheim to Nuremberg, because there was a woman who had a previous C-section who had also gone into labor, who was in quite a hurry to get to the hospital, so my parents rode along, and good thing they did because my mom said I was crowning about the point they put her in the wheelchair at the hospital in Nuremberg.  So add free helicopter ride to the cost of a birth.  I got a free, public education.  My family received WIC, food stamps, free lunch, a veteran's loan to purchase our home. My undergraduate education was free because of Pell Grants and scholarships.  I have received privileges all my life that have taken me from poverty to the middle class.  Maybe I sound ungrateful for all I've received.  Maybe I should just look at my taxes as repaying all those benefits our family received.  But it is because of my love for my country that I want to make it better, and because my values, many of which come from my faith, inform my life and don't always match with those of my country. 
    If we are honest with ourselves as Americans we will admit that sometimes the greatest patriots among us have been those who, out of loyalty to a higher calling, have refused to be silenced by the repressive laws of our own land. Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., the guard at Abu-Graib who broke silence regarding the torture of Iraqi prisoners--all were true patriots, because they believed deep down that there was a more God-like way in which to treat human beings.  They are role models who we can look to when our faith/values and our patriotism are at odds, when Caesar and God are not in alignment.
    I don't know how often we consider the name of our church:  King of Kings. It has a nice ring to it, invokes the royalty and loyalty.  It puts Jesus in his rightful place above the kings of this earth.  It reminds us who we owe allegiance to.  And it reminds us of why we need a king over the kings of this earth, the Caesars, the Obamas, the Trumps, the Clintons, the Merkels, the Putins, the Gates, the Kochs, etc.  There is some overlap in the good that human governments provide, and God's Kingdom, but there are a heck of a lot of differences.  If there weren't so many differences, we wouldn't need God, and sometimes we conflate the two and make a god of our nation, believing people owe ultimate loyalty, without criticism or honest assessment.  Caesar and the governments of this world use weapons and war and fear to show their power.  Jesus never even defended himself, when people came to kill him.  Caesar used power over to make people do what he wanted.  God uses power with, to empower us as the Body of Christ to participate together in sharing all that is good.  Ceasar declared himself a god.  Jesus became flesh and lived among us full of grace and truth.  Caesar received taxes.  Jesus gave up everything. God listened to the people's complaints and incorporated their suggestions, Caesar killed those who questioned him.
    Caesar put his image on a gold coin to show how important he was--a sign of how desperate he was to be worshiped and recognized.  God was assured of God's place and authority--God created it all, us all, new our names.  In the Isaiah reading, God is clear, "I am the LORD, and there is no other."  God, who is self-assured, strictly forbade any graven image be made of him or anyone else.  God didn't need that--was aware that images might become a way to exploit weakness, might confuse.  Furthermore, just as Caesar put his image on that coin, lifeless, and cold, God created humankind in God's image, living and full of love.  We are all people of worth, in the likeness of God, bearing God's image, not the image of greed and hate and destruction which is a heck of a lot of what we see in this world. Remember that when you look in the mirror--here is God's likeness, someone beloved by God, made by God, who is known by God, who calls us by name.  And when we meet others, lets not be concerned with their social status or riches or eloquence, but here is a person, beloved by God, made by God, named, known, treasured.  When we throw each other away, that's when we really render unto Caesar that which is God's.
    When I thought of this story this time, I pictured Jesus flipping the coin, the anticipation to see which side he would choose, God or patriotism.  I picture the Herodians and Pharisees leaning forward in anticipation.  But instead he polishes it and holds it up.  They see their own reflection, a mirror to their own trap.  In their fear and power-grabbing, they were so threatened and afraid of losing power that they missed the Messiah right in front of them.  They had their chance to talk to Jesus, to hear his teaching first hand, to see God in him.  I have to wonder how often we get distracted by these false choices and miss the Messiah right in front of us.  Furthermore, we miss the whole point, which is not who we choose, but who chooses us.  God chose humankind to reflect God's likeness and God chose humankind to reveal God's saving power, not because we deserved it, not because we chose correctly Republican or Democrat, Herodian or Pharisee, but to reveal to us God's love and mercy that God freely bestows.  God chooses each of us as God's children and calls us by name.  Whether we kneel or salute, we are the Lord's.  Whether we are soldiers or conscientious objectors.  Whether we are gun owners or pacifists.  Whether we are important or expendable.  Whether we are Puerto Rican, or North Korean. There is one God and King of us all who knows us all by name, calls us all beloved children and invites us to live in newness of life.

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.