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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

January 29, 2017

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12    
1st Reading: Micah 6:1-8
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

A great heresy has arisen in the past 15 years.  It has probably existed for hundreds or thousands of years, but nowadays many books are written on the subject and many false preachers try to snag people into believing it.  It is called the "Prosperity Gospel" and teaches that if you please God, you will be rich, you will get a lot of money.  Many of these false preachers have many fancy houses and cars, and have deluded themselves into thinking they deserve it, that God favors them so makes them rich, and they tell their followers if only God loved them more, they too could be rich.  In doing so they dupe their followers into giving them more and more, widows into giving their last dime, not using their offerings to do good in their communities or to make poor people's lives better, but instead making the poor poorer and lining their own pockets.    Wikipedia puts it this way "the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, or the gospel of success) is a religious belief among some Christians, who hold that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one's material wealth. Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, God will deliver security and prosperity."  We don't teach the prosperity Gospel in our church, however it is a common belief and value that most of us live with every day.  We see the poor and we wonder what they did wrong, we wonder if they do drugs, or are lazy.  We live in our secure houses and feel that we did everything right and deserve to have the nice juicer and counter tops, etc. I grew up poor and I remember seeing people worse off than us and wondering what they did wrong, my parents blaming them for bringing more children into the world than they could care for, all the while in our family of 6 enjoying foodstamps and free lunch at school. Even when we were poor we blamed those who were poorer than us for their condition.

Our readings for today tear down every argument for the Prosperity Gospel and I'm going to take you through them one by one.

In the Micah reading, God and humans are arguing.  Human values and God's values are not matching up.  God reminds the people of what God has done for them.  None of it is about wealth or riches.  It is all about relationship and experiences.  God has done many saving acts, delivered them out of slavery in Egypt, led them to a place of safety, given them leaders both male and female who would lead them.  The story about Balak and Balaam is about a curse being put on the Israelites, but how God acted pre-emptively to turn it into a blessing, instead.  Countless times in the scriptures, God takes what was meant for ill and turns it into something good.  Joseph's brothers selling him into slavery so he could predict the famine and save many from starvation.  The people of Israel respond to God's complaint, with trying to give God wealth and riches.  God says, "How many times do I have to tell you what I want from you? I don't want your stuff. I want your hearts. I want you to be focussed on the same things I am, to value the same things I do, to love who and what I love.” What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God?

If anyone ever said that wealth was important to God, they can read this scripture, as the Israelites try to buy God's forgiveness with food and cattle and rams and jars of oil and even to offer a child to God, as if all these things didn't already belong to God.  God doesn't care about things.  They are meaningless.  They are temporary.  God cares about relationship that is lasting and real.  God wants something from us.  We know we aren't meeting the requirements.  So we give what we value, money and things.  But what God wants is a new focus on what God cares about, lovingkindness, justice, humility, and relationship, priceless, valuable beyond measure to build the Kingdom of God.  

Paul's letter to the Corinthians points out that what is wise to humans is foolishness to God.  What is valuable to humans are things like nobility, wealth, being smart, miracles, power to get things done.  To us today, I would add that this world values youth, beauty, an education, being able to express yourself well.  However, God chooses Disciples in Paul's time and not many of them have money or smarts or looks, not many are in the middle or upper class, and not many are held in high regard. However, that is just the kind of people that God chooses to work through so that we humans don't start to think that God values what most humans value.  God doesn't value appearances of having it all together.  God wants real people and chooses to work through people who are ordinary and imperfect and foolish to get things done.

So if we think God works through money, or rewards people with riches for doing good works, we know it isn't true.  God shows God doesn't value what we value, and works through the foolishness of the cross to reveal the foolishness of our human values.  The cross was a symbol of human power, the power of the Roman Empire over the most powerless, hopeless people.  It represented breaking people's bodies, breaking their spirits so that all who witnessed and feared would obey.  It meant publicly humiliating people who had crossed the powers of this world.  It represented the powers of this world to control those who are less powerful. The cross is the instrument that God used to say the powers of this world are meaningless and foolish, when God raised Jesus after his death on just such an instrument of the powers of this world to take away life of anyone who stood in the way of the Roman Empire or gave an alternative view of power.

Finally Paul talks about boasting.  No one can boast in any earthly powers, not strength, not brains, not money, not possessions, not positions, not good works, nothing.  The only thing that we can claim, is the foolish cross and the wisdom of God who made the ridiculous gesture of claiming us all through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.  If anyone tells you your wealth means God loves you and has blessed you and you are meant to have it because of divine will, this scripture tells you no.  No boasting in the stuff you have or the wealth.  The only only only thing you can boast in is God's love.  It is the only thing that lasts, the only thing that means anything.

Finally, Jesus begins his ministry by saying what is most important.  He's just been inaugurated and now he's giving his first State of the Union address, laying out what is important under his rule, in his administration.  This is what God values.  This is who God is blessing: the poor, the meek, the grieving, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the naive, those who make peace, those who get picked on and hurt because of their faith and commitment to God.  

We hear the Beatitudes so often, it is hard to hear them in a fresh way that breaks through to our hearts.  According to the dictionary, blessing means God's favor and protection.  God favors and protects those who are mourning, who are hungry and thirsty, who are grieving.  Some have said that these are the be-attitudes, that this is the way we should live, however we really can't change our situation to make sure we are grieving or meek.  This isn't a checklist to pass or fail.  It is a way of looking at people around us and who we are charged with protecting.  It is a word of encouragement and reassurance for those who are already feeling like failures because of their situation and the values of this world that say if you're poor, you don't matter, if you're merciful, you are weak, if you are hungry and thirsty,  you must have done something to deserve it.  

Here are my fresh beatitudes for you, God honors those who take the bus, for they will see and hear people everyone rejects, God favors those who receive SNAP benefits, for they have a different perspective about nutrition and money, blessed are those who cry themselves to sleep at night, for God is with them, God protects the undocumented through people like me and you for we were once immigrants and outsiders, too, God forgives those who can't forgive themselves, and offers them new life. If ever the values of God and the values of this world are shown to be at odds, here it is in Jesus' executive orders of who and what God values and who and what we should value.  This world values power and money and having it all together.  Not God!  God is with the powerless and abandoned and broken and bumbling.  

Take Jesus, God's son. He shows what matters most to God.  Not money, not strength, not security, not political power.  What matters to God is relationship, love, mercy, humility, lovingkindness.  These are what matters to God and what matter to us, the Disciples that are being taught the company mission and values, and beginning our training to bring in the Kingdom.  We are invited to look at the world differently than we ever have before.  What the world taught us to value, is not what matters to God.  Now we see through God's eyes and we honor those who suffer and are in need.  Because of that we will suffer, too, but it will be nothing compared to the joy we know from relationship with God and realizing the vision of a world built on love, equity, and justice.

Believe me I hesitated when writing this sermon about the values of this world and greedy pastors on this day when we vote on a budget. Talking about money is a very uncomfortable subject for me. However, when we talk about our values, we see where each other is coming from and it doesn't have to be so scary. This is God's church and you vote here based on the insights that God has given you. I hope you will feel encouraged to speak up, to let love fill your hearts for one another and for God and God's values. And in our daily lives, may we stand up for those most rejected, because the one most rejected is Jesus himself. He is here and we have the chance to honor the one willing to be foolish for us and give his life for foolish, undeserving people, because relationship and love mean everything.

Monday, January 23, 2017

January 22, 2017

Gospel: Matthew 4:12-23 
1st Reading: Isaiah 9:1-4
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

We have this morning in two readings an inauguration announcement. One is from Isaiah regarding the birth of a King, perhaps King David. The other in the Gospel of Matthew, about the reign and ministry of Jesus.

Times of transition of power can be times of anxiety and times of hope. They often bring about mixed feelings. In the case of these two kings, however there was a lot of hope, because things couldn't get much worse.

People had walked in great darkness. Literally walking in darkness can be very dangerous, as many of us have experienced just getting up to get a drink of water in the night without turning the lights on. You risk running into something and hurting yourself. If you are outside in the dark, you risk falling into a ditch. There is no light to see what wild animals might be lurking. In the darkness, there are a lot of unknowns.

For Israel, in both Jesus' time and at the time of the writing of Isaiah, there was a lot of darkness. The poor and the needy were being ignored. The rich were actively taking over the farms of the poor and making them their slaves. There had been many bad kings, only interested in their own power, who worshipped false gods. There had been other threatening nations—in Jesus' time, Israel was occupied by Rome. Israel had endured humiliations, one after the other. And the religious authorities were keeping people in the dark, reducing access to God, and increasing their own power.

Some might argue we have been in darkness as well. Some of us have enjoyed prosperity, recently, as jobs begin to come back. And some who have not shared in the prosperity have begun to accuse us of ignoring those who are poor and oppressed. This year was a terrible one in our world for people fleeing war and violence, with millions of refugees displaced. Housing prices are making it more difficult for people to afford to live in their neighborhoods in our area. I know of several families sleeping in their car and one without a car about to lose their apartment. Pollution is causing climate change, and snowstorms have killed our neighbors who have nowhere to sleep except the streets. Illness, both mental and physical have caused great harm. And we've felt angry and alienated from one another for over a year because of this election, with no end in sight.

I know I feel like I am in the dark. I can't see what's coming next, and it's frightening.
Into this darkness comes a sudden burst of light. With King David, it was about military power and the power of God coming together to bring Israel glory, to take away all oppression, and to bring about a triumph and disarmament by the victors. 

With Jesus, it is the power of God being revealed in a person. God had always walked among the people and been accessible, but people weren't aware of it. Now that we see Jesus doing his ministry, this presence of God is apparent. The sudden burst of light reveals what was hidden, and what was hidden wasn't some danger, but something very good. Jesus will dismantle oppression, but not military oppression. Instead he will tear down the oppression of blindness, both physical and the kind of blindness that makes us fail to see one another as fully human. Jesus will disrupt the oppression of hunger, of poverty, and finally of death.

Paul warns us against divisions and factions. During times of transition, some of us might divide ourselves based on whether we think the darkness is getting darker, or whether we believe the light is coming. We divide ourselves up by whether to give into despair because things are just getting worse and worse, or whether we have hope and are rejoicing. We couldn't have a more appropriate reading for this morning, when we find ourselves so divided by political party we can barely look each other in the eye, let alone sit down with someone who feels differently than we do and have an actual conversation with them, treating them like a human being. 

Whether we feel that we are darkness moving toward light, or that things are getting darker and scarier, we are a people of faith. That means a couple of things. It means we have faith, we have hope. Not in the powers of this world, but the ultimate power in Jesus Christ of love and forgiveness. Whether things are getting better or worse, we have a promise from God who has ultimate power and authority. So we know as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” In other words we may go forward and back, but ultimately, because of the power of God, God is moving us toward justice and peace, not for a few but for the whole of us. That we are people of faith, means that we have unity in Christ. 

Factions and divisions distract us from what is central, that is Jesus, that is love. We are co-workers in the Kingdom of God, no matter how different we are. We have to honor one another's humanity and see each other as worthy of God's love and our time and energy. Church should be a safe place to express ourselves, be curious about other people's experiences, to disagree without being disagreeable, and to love and forgive and try and fail and try again to express our diversity of gifts within the unity of the body of Christ that we belong to. 

Sometimes we think that unity in the body of Christ, means that we all have to think the same way. Not at all. Jesus told the truth, even when it was hard. We, too, are called to tell the truth. Unity, doesn't mean uniformity. It doesn't mean we have to think alike or that we have to keep our opinions to ourselves if we feel differently than someone else. Unity in Christ means that we can share our differences of opinions truthfully, because we know it isn't going to divide us to do so. Sharing different perspectives together makes us stronger, gives us a greater sense of the big picture, brings a variety of gifts and experiences together, and increases our power to bring in God's Kingdom. 

A time of transition of power is a perfect opportunity, not to be fearful, but to be hopeful, to invite conversation about what is most important and what is central, and what are our values as Christians, what are we working for together. In the end, we know God is in charge, and that love wins the day, and new life is given to us through Jesus, a light shines in the darkness and brings a new day.

Jesus is on the shore calling to us. Change is afoot. An inauguration is taking place, as Jesus ministers to all in need. We can keep on fishing as we always have been, or we can go in a new direction, toward experiences that are new to us, but open us to see God working in the world and participate in that life-giving work. We can ignore that summons as we have many times, or we can take that step out of the darkness into the light, being willing to walk among those who are in need.

The Disciples heard Jesus calling them from the shore. How long did he call before they followed? Why did Jesus call these particular disciples?  What does Jesus calling these disciples say about the kind of work that Jesus would be doing?

These are fishermen. They are used to working in the chaos.  Bodies of water are unpredictable and dangerous.  Similar to the people and crowds they would soon be ministering to. They were used to hard work.  They did the smelliest, dirtiest work, with few rewards. They were some of the lowest class.  They would almost never ask, is this person worthy of my time or Jesus'--except for women, children, and an occasional blind person.  Most surprising is that those who came to Jesus for help were not put off by the Disciples and I can't recall anyone asking if they were worthy to heal them and minister to them. These disciples were used to disappointment.  When they cast their nets, they didn't know if they would get in quite a haul, or come up empty.  The same is true for sewing seeds for God's Kingdom.  Sometimes there was a great harvest, sometimes nothing even sprouted.  There was no one to blame.  That's the nature of their work. We too can be ready for chaos, for unpredictability, for putting away our judgments, and for doing hard work.

Jesus called the first disciples and now calls to us. Jesus calls us to complete focus on God.  Following Jesus means letting go of everything that came before, all our security, all our family relationships, our previous work, and placing our whole focus and identity on God.  Jesus calls us to repent. Repent means turn in a completely new direction, leaving some things behind and facing a new direction.  Jesus is central.  Love is central.  We get to ask ourselves, what does love look like in this situation?

Jesus has been shouting from the Lakeshore at me for a while.  Things were going pretty well for me and I thought improving for people around me, so I ignored him.  He called to me when Trayvon Martin and Philando Castile were murdered and I stayed in my comfortable boat.  He called me when when 5 polices officers were ambushed and murdered in Dallas and I stayed in my boat. He called to me when immigrants were being deported in record numbers and I stayed in my comfortable boat.  He called to me when Native leaders were sprayed with water cannons in subzero temperatures and I stayed in my boat.  Sometimes I might throw him a fish or a glance.  But now I have to get oriented in a new direction, toward Jesus, toward God.  I am repenting.  I can see the goal and it is love and it is beautiful and chaotic and scary and hopeful.  It is the only direction.  

When God came to earth as Jesus, his focus was not on himself.  From the moment he begins his ministry he is focused on love.  We see where it got him, torture and death, but we see where it got us, new life--that is the new life we are called into right now.  Jesus is inaugurating some Disciples. It's our turn turn to get out of your boat, repent and focus on love, and let Jesus give you new life.

January 1, 2017

Gospel: Matthew 1:18-25    
1st Reading: Isaiah 7:10-16 
2nd Reading: Romans 1:1-7

The summer of 1995 I visited the seminary campus  in Berkeley, California to see if I felt like the school was a good fit.  While I was there, I called home on the pay phone, and my parents told me the news that my younger sister was pregnant.  I don't know if I have ever cried so hard.  She was 16 years old and unmarried.  I grieved her childhood, that she wouldn't go to prom, that she wouldn't have opportunities that other people would have, that this would follow her.  She wouldn't graduate.  She would be stuck.  This would keep her from achieving so many of her dreams.  I was alone on the campus of Pacific School of Religion where I was taking a one-week class.  I remember just walking and walking as I cried.  It was raining off and on, and it was dark, and the sidewalks were covered with snails.  Every few minutes one would crunch under my feet.

I blamed myself that I hadn't done all I could to make sure she knew about birth control.  I think my dad never thought this could happen to them.  He always made fun of anyone on our class who got pregnant before they graduated.  I guess he thought that would be enough to deter us.  My mom wondered what the neighbors would think.  And we scarcely acknowledged a pattern in our family--my mom and grandma both married in their teens and had their first child before they turned 20, and one of my earliest memories was riding in the back of a truck with my uncles who were threatening my Aunt's fiance.  I didn't know at the time, she was pregnant before she was married.  For the longest time, I was confused about why people cried at weddings.  I thought it had something to do with those strong emotions I was witnessing from my uncles in the back of that pickup truck.  Because of my sister's teen pregnancy, I remember thinking that I was not going to stand by and let this happen in our family again, and before I left to attend seminary, I embarrassed my 15 year old brother by giving him a box of condoms and telling him to practice putting them on.  I never saw someone turn so red.  He turned out to be a Mormon, an upstanding man and wonderful father of 5 (so far), after getting married.

Joseph, son of Jacob, named for the Joseph of the Old Testament, also son of Jacob, who had the coat of many colors, who dreamed vivid dreams and couldn't keep them to himself.  Joseph of the Hebrew Bible was gifted with dreams that made his brothers hate him (remember he dreamed that his brothers bowed to him and had to blab that all to them so that they ended up selling him into slavery to get rid of him.)  But eventually his dreams meant that the Pharaoh stored up food in preparation for a seven year famine.  Joseph said, what people meant for evil, God meant for good. Many lives were saved, and when Joseph's brothers came to the Pharaoh to ask for food assistance, there was Joseph to receive them and forgive them, and eventually to be gifted with the best land so that the Israelites could grow and prosper.  

Joseph in today's Gospel, is a man of dreams, named after that Joseph in the Old Testament and just as dreamy.  Who knows what dreams he had in mind when he became engaged to Mary.  He perhaps dreamed that his family line would continue, that he would have sons to honor him.  So what must he think when Mary tells him she is pregnant?  He is thinking that she's untrustworthy.  He's thinking this child isn't related to him.  He's thinking of what everyone will say.  He probably felt angry, betrayed.  However, he is a righteous man, so he doesn't want to make her life any harder than it will already be.  He has every right to drag her through the mud.  But he is righteous.  He is not the kind of righteous that is better than other people, or who only follows the rules.  The word "righteous" also involves being merciful, treating others as one would want to be treated.  So he decides to dismiss her quietly.  

However, he has a dream and he believes in dreams.  Dreams often have many possible interpretations.  I often tell Sterling that his dreams happen when his brain is trying to work something out.  Joseph's brain was trying to work something out.  He likely was having quite an emotional reaction to his situation.  He seems to get a pretty clear directive, a very different approach to the one he had planned to take, yet even more merciful.  He likely wondered, is this just me, or was this really an angel?  If he married her, he was basically admitting the child was his and that he had done something he shouldn't have.  Either that or he was a wimp, letting his wife have relations with someone else and taking on a kid that wasn't his.  I'm sure people were talking and I'm sure they were looking to see whether this child looked like him or not.  However, he seemed settled—at peace with his decision.  He was a dreamer, now locked on to a bigger dream, God's dream.  He was charged with protecting God's Son, as he grew up. As we know, that ended up being more complicated than he could have known, as soon the family would be traveling to Egypt, like the first Joseph, fleeing Herod who wanted to destroy any threat to his throne, no matter how young.

What can we learn from Joseph, this man we know so little about? We learn to wake up. Joseph is aware. He has been made aware that Mary is pregnant. But he's also aware of the state of his world, that people are hurting and in need. And he's aware of a promise of a different future, promised by God, in which a Messiah, a Savior, will bring in a new Kingdom of justice and equity.

We, too, can wake up. We can be aware of our situation, our power and our gifts, as well as the choices we have to affect other people. We can wake up to the world around us, to open our eyes to who has power and how they use it and who doesn't have power and is injured, ignored, and discounted because of it.

Next, we can listen to our dreams, like Joseph. We have two kinds of dreams. We have personal hopes and dreams and we also have bigger dreams for the wellbeing of all, for the common good. These second kind of dreams tap into God's dreams and these are the ones to pay attention to.

Like Joseph we can take action. We can lay aside personal comfort and convenience and do something to move toward that dream of God's. We are not here to enforce the rules or judge anyone. Instead we are invited to be merciful and to be as merciful as God is to us, to consider one another's actions in the best possible light, to treat each other with lovingkindness.

In Joseph's case, he takes Mary as his wife and becomes the protector of and provider for Jesus.  Joseph didn't need to call attention to himself. He didn't need to be the center of attention. We know so little about Joseph, probably because he simply and humbly walked in God's ways. Maybe that is another part of what it means to be righteous, or maybe that was just Joseph's way. Joseph didn't need anyone to think he was important or to notice him. He was there so that we might all have a savior, who is Christ the Lord. We, too, can get out of the way and point, not to ourselves, but to the one who gives us life.

My nephew was born 3 days before my Birthday. I was there at his birth. If you've ever witnessed a birth, you've been present at the most amazing miracle. Once a week, I spent an evening at my sister's playing with my nephew. He was incredible. I cried almost as hard when I learned my sister and her husband would be divorced after only 2 years, leaving 2 tiny kids in the care of my brother in law. However, both of those kids have turned out to be incredible kids. Both valedictorians of their class. Both studying hard and having their hearts in the right place. God and God's helpers brought those kids so many opportunities so that they can have big dreams that tap into the bigger picture of equity and justice and compassion.

God is here, coming among us to show us mercy and to help us show mercy and compassion to others. We don't have to look through Joseph's eyes to see the Christ child. We don't have put ourselves in the story to know God's presence. Because of the gift of Jesus, we can meet him in the poor and grieving, in the weary, in the injured and starving, the unwanted. That babe is still shivering in the cold today, and we can meet him when we venture out of our comfortable warmth, when we welcome the one we didn't think we wanted. We can begin to participate in God's dream when we cross boundaries and open our eyes to one another's pain. May we dream like Joseph dreams, and believe in the dream God has for us and this world.