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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

December 16, 2018

Luke 3:7-18         
Zephaniah 3:14-20           
Philippians 4:4-7
Rejoice!  Celebrate!  Dance around!  Smile!  Hoot and holler!  God’s Kingdom is right here!  Rejoice in the face of fear!  Fear comes from Empire trying to control you.  Fear comes when the powerful are keeping more for themselves and trampling over everyone else.  Fear comes when people are living under oppression, when they have so many rules they are crushed by them, when people are disconnected from each other, divided.  Fear comes when corrupt leaders make their agenda, the agenda, when they only follow their own interests, when the poor are silenced.  Defy the fear and empire which causes it, the systems that perpetuate it.  Instead, rejoice!
Rejoice that you are no longer in danger from your enemies that were pursuing you.  Were you pursued by hunger or insecurity, were you pursued by robbers or by debts, were you pursued by illnesses, were there people out to get you?  Rejoice, you have nothing to fear.
Rejoice O God!  Rejoice that the people are not acting as your enemies anymore, but that we are one family, reunited. 
Rejoice O church of Philippi!  Their teacher, Paul, was far away.  He was imprisoned.  But God is actually near.  That is a reason to celebrate!  Paul gave thanks for the church in Philippi.  They had sent a gift to Paul, and he sent this letter back, rejoicing over them.  He gave thanks to God for them and he warned them not to participate in the fear-causing empire.  Instead, rejoice!
Rejoice, John, that the crowds have come to be baptized.  This is new life!  This is a new start.  People have left the cities, departed Jerusalem and the seats of power and wandered out to the desert.  They are looking for power in new places.  They are opening themselves to new experiences.  They are open to new teaching.  They are asking questions and they are interested in the answers.  They are not afraid of being called snakes.  Here they come, to the river, to humble themselves, to join in a community, to be washed clean, to show they are vulnerable and searching because their empire lives have not been giving them the answers they were looking for.
Rejoice in the desert, a place so ancient and expansive and powerful that even empire can’t crush it.  Come out to the wilderness, the place of unexpected silence and unexpected new life. 
Rejoice you brood of vipers, you baby snakes!  Rejoice, all sinners, fleeing from the cities and the halls of power to experience something new, to listen to God’s voice, to open yourselves to a new life.  Rejoice that your reptile brain doesn’t have to rule your life, that you can make room for deeper thought and for one another.
Rejoice, crowds, that even when it seems all is lost, that new life emerges.  Rejoice that even when trees are cut down, still a righteous branch can spring up, the branch of Jesse’s family line.  Even when the tree doesn’t bear fruit and it is pruned or chopped down, even when it seems it is too late, even when the branches have burned, there may be just below the surface, a glimmer of life.  God is able out of dead trees, to bring life.  God is able, out of stones, to raise up children.  God is able to take dry bones and breathe new life into them.  Even when our empire life, our crushing, slaving life, our earth-killing life destroys all that we have known, even when we die, still it is not too late for God to do a new thing.  That is worth rejoicing over.
Rejoice!  Rejoice that we have enough to share.  I have two coats, there is even something I can do.  Rejoice that we have clothing.  Rejoice that we have an income.  Rejoice that we have food.  Rejoice that we have power.  And how can we express this rejoicing and thanksgiving?  Give it away.  Our food is not for storing, but for eating.  Our coats are taking up too much space, anyway—give them away.  Our power is not for hoarding or using just for us—share it.  Anything we have is a burden to carry, but rejoice!  There is a solution—share!
Those who have nothing, rejoice, and be filled with expectation, because soon those coats and that food that were languishing in closets and cupboards, will be flowing to all those in need, to you!  Rejoice, soon everyone will have something to eat and will experience the goodness of God.
Rejoice, because when God washes away our sin and sends us forward in a Kingdom life, there will be no more bullying or extortion or high interest rates.  No one will discriminate against anyone else based on religion or gender or race or class.  Rejoice because we are truly one and when we walk in the Kingdom way, we will act like it!
Rejoice, because the Powerful One is coming!  This one is more poweful than all the powers of this world, the crushing powers, the greedy powers, the enslaving, dividing powers.  The all-powerful one is coming, the one who uses power for  the good of all, the one who shares power, the one who lets go of power to die and empower everyone.  The all-powerful one is coming and we have been adopted into his family.  We are good creation, the beloved children, inheritors of eternal life.  Rejoice!
Rejoice, because God is coming in judgment!  We usually shrink from judgment, but judgment just means that we will be seen as we are.  God already knows what is in our hearts.  God already knows where we fall short.  God already knows our selfish, fearful thoughts.  But God also knows when we are generous, and that we long to do better.  God knows our longing to be near to God.  God knows when we take the time with someone who doesn’t have anyone else.  God knows that we’ve shared our food and our coats.  God knows when we’ve sat by the bed of someone who is sick, or visited someone who is lonely, or sent a care package to someone deployed overseas, or taken in an orphan or a foster child or an exchange student, or a stray cat or dog.  God sees when we reuse what we have or use our gifts to create something.  God sees when we look someone in the eye and tell them a difficult truth.  God sees when we make use of what we have.  God knows when we humble ourselves and ask forgiveness.  God hears our prayers.  God knows us.  We don’t have to be afraid of God’s judgment, because we know God already loves us, and that God is merciful.  Rejoice in the judgment, because then we can put aside our act, our pretense, and just rest in the arms of the one who loves us unconditionally, and has come to set things right. 
Rejoice in the runaway truck ramp.  This broken world sometimes seems like a truck careening down the hill without breaks, out of control, powerful and dangerous, on a path of destruction.  It seems unstoppable.  However, God has put safeguards in place.  See this runaway truck ramp sign.  We need not fear the out of control powers of this world.  They will not go on indefinitely.  They will not take out everything in their path.  There are ways to slow everything down, and get it reversed in another direction, a way to stop and make repairs and start over.  Advent is a good time to bring to a halt the powers that seek to destroy.  Advent is a good time for self-reflection, “Is this what life is all about, or am I on a careening path about to crash?”  “What powers of this world are out of control and who is in the way that needs protection?”  John says, “Repent.”  There is a way to put a stop to this dangerous path: Reflection, baptism, repentance, sharing, being content with what you have, standing up against injustice and greed.
Rejoice in the removal of the chaff.  The chaff is the protective outer layer of the seed.  It is good for protecting seeds, keeping them dry, keeping out mold and rot.  However, the chaff is temporary.  It is meant to break off and let the seed grow or provide nutrients.  The chaff may be burned or crushed off, but it eventually separates from the seed.  We all have a protective layer—sometimes it is two coats or even 5 or 6 coats, to make sure we don’t go without.  Sometimes it is extra food to keep us safe from hunger.  Sometimes it is a savings account.  Sometimes it is our favorite pew.  Sometimes it is doing things the way we always have.  Sometimes it is our pretenses.  But today, the chaff, the protective layer is being thrown into the fire, and we are left here vulnerable, in need of God’s protection, exposed.  And we find that fear isn’t going to help us.  Instead, we find ourselves rejoicing, because we are seen and known, because that protective layer wasn’t serving us anymore, because now we can spread out and grow with the new life that God is giving us. 
Rejoice O little congregation, that God is working through you, that you are connected to neighbors and other churches that will help you and that you can lend a hand to.  Rejoice that you have God’s abundance, over 50 years of history of God’s faithfulness here, bringing you through difficult times and never abandoning you.  Rejoice that you have the strength of leaders, that everyone shares their gifts and talents.  Rejoice in the ministry that we have done together and that will still go on.  Rejoice in one another, your connections, your encouragement, your prayer for one another. 
And rejoice in the coming of Christ!  None of us are alone.  We belong to the one who made us and sustains us.  We belong to the one who saved us, our Good Shepherd, our King of Kings.  Rejoice in him at our center, and rejoice by serving him.  Thank God by continuing in faithfulness, volunteering, stepping up, sharing our food and clothing and money with all in need. 
Today I am rejoicing because of all of you and because of the faithfulness of our Savior Jesus.  May you find yourselves rejoicing, too, and the rejoicing will go on because God is near.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

December 9, 2018

Luke 3:1-6                            
Malachi 3:1-4                     
Philippians 1:3-11
                In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, the 20th month of the Presidency of Donald J. Trump, when Kate Brown was Governor of Oregon, Mark Gamba was the Mayor of Milwaukie, during the high priesthood of Franklin Graham we knew who had the power and who made the decisions.  We knew the game that had to be played.  We paid our taxes.  We bought bigger houses and more cars.  We watched TV.  We believed the news.  We voted for the richest candidates.  We voted for laws that benefitted those in power.  We never questioned that those with money and power deserved it.  And we thought life would always be that way.
                And then came a disruption.  It started out quiet.  It came from out of left field.  We thought we heard something, but we ignored it.  We drowned it out with other noises.  We went about our lives, business as usual.  Then it started to get louder.  We recognized it was a human voice.  It seemed to come from the margins, from far away.  Or did it come from within us?  Something, someone was crying out.  It was disruptive.  We tried to continue to focus on the usual.  But it kept pulling us, bothering us, until we paid more attention to it, until we had no choice but to turn and see what all the fuss was about.
                It was a messenger.  We were delighted at first.  An angel!  We expected to be comforted, to hear a beautiful song, or find ourselves filled with joy.  But we found ourselves confronted, shaken.  This messenger was bringing a word of judgment that all the sin, all the contradictions and untruths we live will be scrubbed off or burned away.  This was a messenger not just telling us to change, but changing us, turning us around from all our wandering, and getting us all cleaned up for new life, a just life, a Kingdom life.
                Our rulers seemed to be locked in place.  It seemed like things will never change.  We’re going through our Christmas preparation rituals, but we’re preparing ourselves for the same old thing.  We’re preparing for a newborn child, innocent and tender in the manger.  But that Christ child has already come.  The one who is coming again is all grown up.  What we are preparing for is the second coming of Christ.  I don’t know if I believe the trumpets will blast and the heavens part with all these angels in the sky, but I do believe that Christ comes to us again, daily.  And Christ doesn’t just come as a little baby that is so cute.  Christ comes as a disruptive challenge.  He’s not mean about it, but life as it is, isn’t working for very many people.  Even people who are gaining in wealth and power aren’t finding any more life satisfaction or fulfillment.  Jesus is coming to scrub us clean.  It is a process that is difficult.  We’ll be letting go of some things, maybe even a lot.  We will mourn.  It will not be easy.  But the end result can’t be denied: New life!
                God started something long ago, new life, salvation for all flesh.  It is a project that goes on, year-round, that opens our eyes, removes the barriers, heals the wounds, knits us together, gives us a sense of servanthood, humbles us, directs us, prunes us, refines us into righteous dudes, just creatures, compassionate people, the body of Christ.
                So we come to today’s signs.  These signs tell us how close God is and give us direction: 
                The first is “Road Work Ahead.”  That’s not one we look forward to seeing!  Maybe we’re groaning.  We’re going to be stuck in traffic.  Things are going to slow down.  They are going to be inconvenient.  We feel our blood pressure rising.  We clench our fists on the steering wheel, but then we remember we’ve been here before and it isn’t the end of the world.  First, this isn’t going to be forever.  The road construction goes on for a little while, so that things can be better in the future, especially for people who have been left out and ignored.  Second, this is God’s highway project.  The Bible says that every valley shall be filled and the crooked made straight.  It isn’t up to us to decide what highway to build or what road to smooth out.  The burden doesn’t fall on us.  It isn’t our project to start or finish, it is God’s.  However, while we are stuck in traffic, we might be invited to move some cones around, or jump in the cab of a backhoe and get digging.  Maybe we can be a flagger and promote safety.  It is God’s project, but we may find God inviting us into the project to play our part, to participate, to get a glimpse of what God is up to. 
                Here’s another sign.  This one has a bunch of arrows.  I love this, because there are so many ways to go!  The way John the Baptist and Malachi are advocating is a full u-turn.  We’re going completely the wrong direction, but here’s a sign to get us back on track.  We can make the full turn, or we can get distracted halfway through and just take a left or a right!  We are invited to fully turn around from running from God and come near.  We are invited to change our ways, not just a little bit.  A full u-turn seems pretty drastic, and when you have a car with a wide turn radius, it can be a real pain.  When you are used to going one direction and just head there automatically, it is hard to find your way on new roads.  We find ourselves lost.  We feel disoriented. 
This place of wandering and disorientation is our wilderness.  So  here is the sign here for John the Baptist Wilderness Area.  The wilderness was the place the Israelites went after they fled slavery in Egypt.  It was a barren desert.  It was completely different than the life they knew.  The wilderness was a place of stripping away most comforts, most possessions, all the ideas of who was powerful and important.  It was a place to learn trust.  It was a place of encounter with God.
We have many wildernesses.  When we face illness, we have to let go of what we knew before and it can be a kind of wilderness.  When we go through divorce, or any kind of grief, when the kids leave home, when we have to move, or change pastors, when we give up driving, even when we retire, we find ourselves in the wilderness.  This is another image for the fuller’s soap or the refiner’s fire. The landscape has changed.  We’re uncomfortable.  We’re disoriented.  We’re disrupted.  But we’re learning and growing.  We’re hearing God’s voice.  We’re challenged to see things we never saw before and try new things.  We’re encountering new life even when it doesn’t seem like it.  That’s the thing about the desert, when you first look you don’t see a lot of life, but if you look a little closer, there are birds of prey circling, there are snakes and insects and wildlife.  If you look closer, life is happening and when that desert rain comes, the plants bloom almost overnight.  The seeds were there, just waiting for that life-giving water, just waiting to grow and to bloom.
It seems drastic, for God to send us to the wilderness and require a u-turn, yet it is still us.  Signs and wonders is our theme.  This is the wonder.  God hasn’t given up on us.  God hasn’t traded us in for another.  God doesn’t give up on us.  God is bringing salvation, healing to us all.  God is still able to work through us as messed up as we are.
That’s the hope.  God has promised to bring to completion this plan for salvation.  No one will be left behind.  It is a project for all flesh.  We will find our offerings pleasing to God—offerings not of sacrificed animals or a few coins, but the offering of our full selves to be in relationship with each other and with God.  We have the hope and confidence that God fulfills God’s promises, that God has the picture in mind of the Kingdom and that God will bring it about, no matter how far we seem from that vision now.  We have hope in the overflowing love—something that can’t be controlled or monetized or reduced.  This love comes from God, to all flesh, and overflows our cup to others, until all know the blessing of God.  It is not a love that lets us stay the same.  It changes us and challenges us.  It tells us the truth about what matters and what is lasting.  It connects us no matter where we are, so that the body of Christ in all times and places is united in the roadwork of the Kingdom.  It is a love that upends the power structures in place and is revealed as the true power for new life.
This wilderness is devastating.  It is painful.  I don’t want to be here.  But I am here.  We are here.  We thought we knew what things would be like.  We were fine to be comfortable.  But now things have changed.  I’m going to moving away at the end of January.  I’ll miss you.  Things are changing.  Except the love of God has not changed.  We’re not alone.  We’re growing in faith and trust.  We’ll see things we never saw before.  We’ll be called to leadership we never thought we could handle.  We will stand.  We will fall.  We will live.  It’s going to be ok.  I don’t like it, but it is going to be ok.  I hold you in my heart and I know you do the same for me, so lets keep up this Gospel work so God’s love can grow and be known, so justice can take root, so valleys can be filled, so new life can flourish.

December 2, 2018

Luke 21:25-36                     
Jeremiah 33:14-16            
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
                Our theme for Advent is “Signs and Wonders.”  The scriptures over the next 4 weeks leading up to Christmas are full of communication from God about the thing that is about to take place, God is about to enter our world in human form and likeness, Jesus is about to be born.  This doesn’t just affect us humans, but is about God’s salvation for all Creation, God’s saving power for everything God has made.  So everything that God has made is reacting. 
In today’s Bible readings, the stars are lining up.  The trees are blooming.  The seas are crashing.  The moon is changing colors.  The sun is having an eclipse.  The earth is reacting to the coming of Christ and people are trying to interpret the reactions of the earth.  What are they communicating?  What can we learn from them?  The moon and stars, the heavens are acting differently, and the earth is acting differently.  What does this mean for us?
The first thing we can know is that something very powerful is happening.  If just the plants were reacting, people would know something smaller and more local was occurring.  If it was just the plants and the seas, then there might be a bit more concern because of the bigger scope, but we’d know it was localized on earth.  But this is affecting the stars, the sun, and the moon.  This is a cosmic event that his happening.  This is something really big.
So is this something bad or something good?  Is this a Tsunami warning?  Or is this a “Congratulations!” sign?  Should we be afraid or excited?
The Gospel says that many people will be afraid, and many of us are when we think of earthquakes or drought and even more so when we think of meteors and cosmic collisions.  However, since we know that God created the heavens and the earth, we know that God who is loving and merciful is in charge over the sun and planets, we know that these signs must be communicating something that is consistent with our loving God.  These signs are something to welcome rather than dread.
These are signs helping us to pay attention and stay on track.  Sometimes life can be distracting.  We get caught up in things that don’t matter.  We get lazy or we overwork ourselves.  We lose perspective.  However, these signs are communicating that it won’t be much longer until we find humanity united under God’s reign.  It won’t be long until the baby Jesus will be born in Bethlehem.  It won’t be long until the poor are fed and there is justice for the oppressed.  Even when it seems like God’s reign is far away, when the earth is shaking and the sky is dark, those are times to pay attention, to look up, to look around. 
This is what I saw last week when I came to church. It is dark and cold, but I saw children playing together, adults greeting each other.  I heard a flute practicing and a choir practicing.  I saw people sharing out of their abundance.  I saw people being generous.  I saw the Kingdom of God.  I saw it again yesterday, when the boyscouts brought in bag after bag after box of food for the pantry. And I will look for it again, on the freeway, in the grocery store, reading my to my child at bedtime, while I am sewing, cooking, cleaning.  Simply paying attention to the signs of the nearness of the Kingdom of God, causes us to look up and see it, and see it more often, and soon welcome it, participate in it.
These are signs of encouragement.  The road can be long.  The way can be difficult.  It may be hard to see where we’re going.  There is rough terrain.  The signs along the way give us the courage to keep going.  They let us know we’re on the right track.  The one we seek is powerful.  The one we seek is loving.  The one we seek wants to be found.  The one we seek is walking right here beside us.  The one we seek has been with us all along.
These are signs to stand up.  When we become aware of how near Christ is, our first reaction might be to slink back into the shadows.  But the scriptures say to stand up tall.  Stand up and take courage.  Stand up and be seen.  Stand up and speak up for all those who have been neglected and suffered injustice.  Stand up for the orphan, for the foster child.  Stand up for the wrongly-evicted.  Stand up for the one who lost a job because of illness or greed.  Stand up against the powers of this world, because the one who is all-powerful is coming to set the world right.  We’re asked to be like Zacchaeus, and not only stand up, but climb up the tree.  Salvation is coming!  I want to see what this is going to look like!
I mentioned that our theme is “Signs and wonders.”  Next, we come to the wonders.
I wonder what’s up ahead.  I like to know what’s going to happen.  I don’t like surprises.  But I have to let go of control and put my faith in God, trust the one who is all-powerful and all-loving.  When I wonder what’s up ahead, it can be easy to think of the inevitable difficulties.  I want to prepare myself for the worst.  But because of Jesus, I can have hope, too.  God’s promised reign gives me hope.  What I want to be careful about is false hopes.  I might hope for a new gadget to make my life easier, or that my family will all be healthy, or that everything will stay just like it is, but those are temporary wishes, not true hopes that last.  Hope is about love and relationship, it is about courage and vision, it is about being open to being surprised by God, and it can also be about sacrifice, when our branches get pruned that aren’t doing us any good or that could contribute to new growth if we lopped them off.
Another thing I wonder is about thankfulness.  How did Paul keep up his faith and gratefulness to God?  Paul or one of his disciples was thanking God, even while imprisoned, even while separated from the Thessalonians, even as the Christians were being persecuted.  He found a way to be grateful, even when it seemed the sky was falling.  Thankfulness is such a good habit to cultivate.  When we are joyful, give thanks!  When we are afraid, count our blessings!  Even when we are angry, find something to thank God for!  There is nothing like gratitude to transform us, and to open our eyes to see the reign of God right here, being born in our midst.  Some people have a thankfulness journal where they write down everything they are thankful for.  Some use prayer, like we started doing here in our prayers of the people.  Some pray in the morning or evening or another set time to focus themselves on what God has done.  How do you practice gratefulness?
Another wonder of mine is that God doesn’t wait until we’re ready.  We haven’t got ourselves together.  We push and pull and we can’t make Christ’s reign come.  We can’t focus.  We wander in circles.  We make the same mistakes again and again.  Yet Christ brings that reign to us.  You’d think he’d go running the other direction when he sees what a mess we’ve made of everything.  But here he is, born in our midst, bringing us through the waters, keeping is close in relationship, admonishing us, turning us around again and again to see the beauty and love that is all around us.  We are not ready, but he is coming, he is here, and he’s got this covered.
Another word for “signs” is miracles.  I guess it depends on your perspective whether you see the miracle or are fearful.  For those of us who have it easier, who have more privileges like money or light skin, it’s like there are ramps and elevators to get us over the rough terrain and take us places we want to be.  But a lot of people have been picking their way among the boulders, trying to get their footing, the hungry, the undocumented, the prisoner, so these signs that something is changing is good news for them.  The branch pulls them to safety.  The waves smooth out the road.  The earthquake topples the buildings where people experience injustice.  What has been going on until now is coming  to an end.  This is quite the shakeup.  But it is a shakeup that results in abundant life for all.  Stand tall, lift your heads, and receive your king.

November 25, 2018

John 18:33-37                     
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14        
Revelation 1:4b-8
                Long live the King!  Long live the King!  It’s Christ the King Sunday, King of Kings Lutheran Church’s 54th Anniversary.  As much as I’ve lamented the name of this church, so patriarchal, so unrelatable (This country was founded on people who wanted to rid themselves of a king’s rule), as much as I’ve tried to rename this church, Servant of Servants or Queen of Queens, on days like this I am grateful.  This is a church whose very name places at the center the reign of Christ. 
                From the time the Israelites first asked God for a King and God gave in, God still reigned supreme.  Whoever the kings were, they had to answer to God, God’s priorities, God’s power, God’s love.  A few ruled well, and were faithful to God and to God’s priorities, the widows, the orphans, the hungry.  Most misused their powers, second-guessed God’s priorities, and tried to gather more power for themselves.  They were unfaithful, untrustworthy to God and God’s priorities.  The same is true of our earthly rulers today.  A few are faithful and many are corrupt.
                For the Hebrew people in the book of Daniel, they were in captivity in Babylon.  When they tried to explain to themselves why this terrible thing had happened that they were defeated and dragged off to another country, they reasoned that their kings had not been faithful to God, so God allowed them to be kidnapped to another country.  They felt afraid.  They felt far from God since they were far from the Temple where God was believed to reside.  They felt regret.  Now they were under the rule of the King of Babylon, and yet another when Babylon was captured by yet another king.  These other kings were all about amassing power for themselves and worshipping other gods with other priorities.
                In the midst of this, Daniel has visions.  He envisions all these thrones.  He is sorting out who is in charge.  He finds, God, the Ancient One on his throne, powerful with blinding light and fiery flames.  Daniel pictures fire, like the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the wilderness, God’s presence with them, making a faithful community out of them.  Daniel pictures the power of God, flowing out so that it touched the lives and people all around.  This was a shared power.  It was moving power, available.  God’s power and authority are affirmed by the numbers of those who served him and attended him, ten thousand times ten thousand, more than can be counted.
                David’s vision, his dream, his prophecy goes on.  One like a human being comes before the Ancient One.  Is he the anointed, the Christ, the Messiah?  He seems like an intermediary between heaven and earth, standing in the presence of the Ancient one, but having a human form, and coming on the clouds of heaven.  He is given kingship and glory and all peoples would serve him. 
                Not only were the kings of Babylon not in charge, but neither were the kings of Israel.  It must have been a really difficult vision for Daniel to take in, the difference between the reality they were living and the view, the promise of this dream, which was the actual truth, the reality, that God is nearby, God is accessible, God has heard the cries of the people, and that God is the one with authority and power.
                In Revelation, the people were in desperate need of some good news.  Nero was emperor of Rome.  The Christians were persecuted, hauled off to be killed, rumors spread about them that made their own family members disown them.  The Temple had been destroyed, a Jewish insurrection had been quashed, and Christians were wondering if Jesus would come back before all the Christians were wiped out.
                Into this chaos and gross misuse of power, when kings and rulers were more corrupt every day, John the Revelator had a vision.  His vision of what true leadership is, stood in great contrast to the hellish worldly reality that the people were living under.  He wrote his vision to give hope to the Christian Churches that were just hanging on.  His was a vision of a different kind of king, a different use of power.  He names God as eternal, the one who exists now, has always existed, and always will exist.  God is named the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, and everything in between.  God created everything that exists and is part of every interrelationship.  And God is called “Almighty,” referring to God’s power.
                Jesus is also named.  There was a tradition of piling on names of important people or gods.  So Jesus is called in Revelation, faithful witness (another word for witness is martyr), the firstborn of the dead (since he rose in the resurrection), and ruler of the kings of the earth (King of Kings).  Each week in Advent we’ll sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and a different name for Jesus will be lifted up, first Emmanuel or “God with us.”  “Key of David,” meaning King David’s descendant, “Dayspring” meaning dawn or new day, referring to new life.  Each name lifts up an aspect of Jesus’ character, where he comes from and what his life is about. 
                At Jesus’ crucifixion, we have Jesus arrested being interrogated by Pilate.  These two representatives of power, one of the power of this earth and the other Divine powerPilate has the authority and power given by this world.  He can make judgments or set people free.  He can take away life or he can let someone keep his life.  But right away, we see how tenuous his power is, how flimsy.  First of all, he is only in Jerusalem because of the Passover.  Not because he is devout, but because of other people’s expectations of him.  He doesn’t live in Jerusalem, even though that’s where his headquarters are, because Jerusalem is a tinderbox, a place of high emotion, where revolt and insurrection are imminent.  The chaos of Jerusalem is threatening to Pilate, so he lives in a more peaceful place when he can.  However, he doesn’t really control his comings and goings.  He’s not that powerful, because here he is compelled to, first, come to Jerusalem, and second, to hear this trial of a nobody, Jesus.  Secondly, Pilate is walking in and out of his headquarters.  You’d think if he was powerful, he’d make people come to him.  However, the religious authorities need to remain clean.  If they enter his chambers they won’t be able to participate in the Passover celebrations.  So the religious authorities are standing outside and making him walk back and forth and do their bidding against Jesus.  Pilate isn’t in control at all.
                This reading also highlights the hypocrisy of the religious authorities.  They are trying to stay ritually clean, however in their hearts they plot and plan to take the life of the Divine one.  What use is it to pay lip service to religion and not live by its tenants, when our actions don’t match what we profess in our faith, when we don’t live by God’s values.
                Instead Jesus is revealed to be King.  He pokes holes in Pilate’s power.  Any leader of this world comes in contact with limits of that power, things they can’t make happen, no matter how they try.  So here is Pilate.  He’d rather be resting, but his power is limited and he has people he has to please, so here he is.  Jesus points out the faith that Pilate and many leaders put in violence and fighting.  But this kind of power also has limits, because all it takes is a bigger or smarter army, and that power is over.
                We may not have a king, but we have many kings, many priorities of this world that are different from God’s priorities.  We have as king our nation’s military, however we meet our limit when we rack up debt that we can never repay.  We have as king our entertainment, our sports and movie stars.  We track their movements, celebrate their weddings, cry at their divorces, and are shocked or not at their flaws.  We worship as king our comforts, our house, our clothes, our vacations.  We worship as King our money, our capitalist system, we can’t picture any other way.  We worship as King our church, the way we’re used to worshipping, our building, our position, the respect people give us, our pew, our relationship with the pastor, how important we feel when we find justification for continuing to live our lives just as we do.  We worship violence as we view it in movies and on TV and as our country’s military budget soars above all others.  We put our faith in democracy and borders to keep us safe and help us keep what is “ours.”  We worship ourselves.
                But sooner or later all these kings fail.  They are not forever.  They are not free of corruption.  They cannot give us the satisfaction and hope that God can.  They can’t give us the love and forgiveness and new life that God can.  God reigns and Jesus is our king of kings.  We are subject to his judgment.  We are subject to his laws.  We are subject to his love and new life.  Put aside your other kings and focus on the one who gives us life.  There is no border to his Kingdom.  We are all brothers and sisters.  There is no violence, no greed, no consumers.  There is only loving relationship, inclusion, welcome, forgiveness, hope.  There is new life in this new kingdom which is coming into the world.  
                Joy to the world!  Let earth receive our King!  This king is not dressed in jewels and fine fabrics.  This king comes in rags and sandals.  This king is not found in a castle, but in the slums.  This king stoops to wash our feet.  This king feeds us with his body and blood.  This king goes out searching for every last one of us when we are lost.  This king rejoices when he finds us.  This king is not full of self-importance, but love and compassion and mercy.
                Let not only the name of our church be King of Kings, but may the King of Kings rule in our hearts and help us set our priorities.  May we follow the King of Kings in works of charity and justice, seeing the world’s power for what it is, weak and temporary and an illusion, and looking to God’s kind of power, in vulnerability, in poverty, the truth of the love that lasts and unites this world under the reign of the only one who is trustworthy and genuinely concerned for all life, Jesus Christ, our King of Kings.

Monday, November 19, 2018

November 18, 2018

Mark 13:1-8    
Daniel 12:1-3  
Hebrews 10:11-25
            We are coming up to the end of the church year.  This Sunday is the next to last Sunday before we start at the beginning again in Advent.  So the readings are about endings—the end of the world, the end times, the end of empire.  So I thought I’d give you some quotes about endings to start us off.
            The first I thought of was “All good things must come to an end,” a proverb by Chaucer from 1374.  The word “good” was actually added much later.
“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.” ― Frank Herbert, American science fiction writer, wrote Dune and its sequels.
“It is always important to know when something has reached its end. Closing circles, shutting doors, finishing chapters, it doesn't matter what we call it; what matters is to leave in the past those moments in life that are over.” ― Brazilian novelist and lyricist Paulo Coelho in his 2005 novelThe Zahir,
“Ends are not bad things, they just mean that something else is about to begin. And there are many things that don't really end, anyway, they just begin again in a new way. Ends are not bad and many ends aren't really an ending.” ― C. JoyBell C.  author of the Sun is Snowing and other spiritual works
“There’s a trick to the 'graceful exit.' It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over — and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry.” ― Ellen Goodman Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist and syndicated columnist speaker and commentator.
            Endings, transitions, a time to look back on what has happened up until now, an opportunity to reflect on lessons learned, a chance to decide what to take forward and what to leave behind.  Everyday we experience endings.  When we go to bed at night we experience the end of the day.  Sometimes it is a relief to finally climb in bed and close our eyes and sometimes we lay awake going over our thoughts that just won’t end.  I drop Sterling off at school and that is an end to our morning.  I pick him up and it is the end of his school day.  I sit down at the end of the day and breathe.  Sometimes I want to think about what happened that day, sometimes I can’t stop thinking about it, and sometimes I just want to veg out and let my worries get swept away as I ponder the worries of my favorite movie or TV characters.  And sometimes I sit at my sewing machine and reflect.  Every seam has its end and at that point you backstitch over the last 4-5 stitches you’ve just completed to secure the seam, to anchor it.  At the end of the day, how do we make a healthy transition, and backstitch over what we’ve just done to secure it in place?  And then we start a new seam until the garment is sewn.  How do we anchor our memories, our learnings, the gifts of this moment so that we can honor them and move forward in hope?
            Sometimes an ending is a bad thing.  When we’ve had it good, it is so hard to let it go.  The end of a family Birthday party when I haven’t had the chance to visit with each person, I often feel a little bit sad.  Times when we’ve moved, I have felt sad.  These past few months with the deaths of 2 Betsy’s and Margaret and Phyllis I’ve definitely felt sad.  It isn’t that they had bad endings, but that its so hard to say goodbye to people who mean so much. 
            These wildfires and floods are bad endings, whole towns wiped out by disasters.  These mass shootings are devastating to whole communities.  Whenever a church burns down or a Synagogue is defaced with slurs, so much pain is uncovered.  And we shouldn’t deny our pain.  We hurt for people.  We believe in the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people, of all creatures.  The endings hurt and we can honor that hurt by allowing ourselves to feel it.  We may feel helpless or angry or sad or weary.  There are things we can do that help us put our feelings into actions, because feelings are messages, telling us what’s important, and if something important is happening, it makes sense that we take action, that our actions match our values, our feelings.
What can we do when we are at a difficult ending?  For one thing, we can pray.  We can center ourselves, take a breath or two or three.  We can stop and reflect on what is most important and enduring, what we want to take away from the experience.  As it says in the book of Hebrews, “hold fast to the confession of our hope”—to cling to what is hopeful, that Jesus is our King of Kings, our ruler and maker who loves us.  When we pray, we remember who we are, who made us and for what, who gives us purpose, who guides us, who comforts us.  When we pray, we remember the story we are part of, people struggling and oppressed, freed by God’s grace to become a people who trust God and live in community and love.
What else can we do?  As it says in Hebrews, “Provoke one another to love and good deeds.”  We can let God work through us to build the Kingdom.  We can do unto others as we would have them do to us.  We can use our time in service to others.  We can build something of use.  We can create something of use.  We can share our time, our money, our skills.  We can teach someone something we know and they are interested in.  We can invest our time in someone who could use a friend.  We can take our energy and emotion and allow it to motivate us to do something that matters, that creates community, that is loving, that brings hope to us and others.
Endings can also be good.  When oppressive forces come to an end, that’s good.  In our reading for today from the Hebrew Bible, the end of the world has something good to offer, there will be a sorting that will clear things up.  Those who have led a righteous and good life will finally get the recognition and reward they deserve.  The rulers of this world won’t control the future.  The end of their oppressive rule is good for everyone, even those rulers, though they may not recognize it at the time. 
The New Testament reading for today mentions an end to the futile sacrifices made my priests, the end of sin, the end of lawless deeds, the end of God’s enemies, the end of broken covenants.  These are all things to celebrate and give thanks for.
And the Gospel reading mentions the end of the Temple rule, the end of these large buildings.  It seems sad that this beautiful architecture should come to an end, but this temple was built to establish the place of religious power, so that humans could claim it and say where God is and where God isn’t.  This temple was a place of oppression for so many, where they heard the bad news that they didn’t matter because they couldn’t afford the sacrifice, or because they didn’t fit the “clean’ category.  Since the temple was already knocked down by the time Mark wrote his Gospel, he might as well say something good about the fact that it was no more.  There was a new temple in its place, not made of stones that could be knocked down, but in the person of Jesus Christ, and in the people of God as his body, a loving, moving temple, available, going to the places it is needed most.
The end can be scary.  It can make people anxious as they try to anticipate when and be prepared to survive.  There are all kinds of terrible things that can happen that are out of our control.  What use is it to be afraid and anxious?  We should pay attention when people try to make us afraid, because people do try to take advantage of people when they are scared and sell them cure-alls or give them assurances.  But Jesus is saying to keep the faith.  We can be led astray in fear to put faith in our buildings, our religious practices, our sacrifices, our possessions, or leaders who seem to have all the answers.  But Jesus is saying, “Keep the faith in God.  Stay calm.  Be the people of God who worship God alone and who value the smallest and weakest and who support each other in community.  Stay focus on what matters and live your life with the love of God for one another.”
God has the bigger picture in mind.  Our end is not God’s end.  God has an ending planned in which everyone will be valued, fed, and loved.  God has an ending in which all will be one.  God has an ending in mind in which all will be drawn together, no one will weep or mourn, no one will be hungry or afraid.  The ending will be a new beginning of new life, abundant life.
So as we come to this end and all the others we face, we must honor where we’ve come from and been through and take forward whatever we’ve learned.  We can have hope in what is to come.  Betsy Belles has died, but from her possessions come these amazing banners, and we remember her and share our thoughts about what she’s meant to us.  This year comes to an end.  We have known happiness and loss, growing pains, and been challenged.  Our building is tired, our furnaces are getting old, but we don’t put our faith in what doesn’t last.  This whole place could fall apart all around us and God would still be Lord of Heaven and Earth, we would still have the forgiveness and love of God, we would still be God’s people who God is working through to bring good news to those nearby and far away.
It is the end of one thing, and the beginning of another.  To be continued…

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

November 11, 2018

Mark 12:38-44                   
1 Kings 17:8-16                  
Hebrews 9:24-28
                There was no reason that the prophet Elijah should know or be concerned about a Gentile widow from over the mountains.  They couldn’t have been more different, Elijah and the widow of Zaraphath—different races, different cultures, different religions, different genders.
                But God commanded Elijah to go to her.  Why?  He had the people of Israel to instruct, to grow, to bless.  I think Elijah was instructed to go to her because she had something to teach him about faith and something to teach all of us who get to hear this story, thousands of years later.  God commanded her.  She didn’t know God, yet she listened to God, and was obedient.  She used the last of her resources, flour and oil, and the skill she had to make that something edible, and she made it and shared it.  I admire this widow*.  I admire her resourcefulness, the way she keeps going despite the growing knowledge that she’s going to run out.  I look in my cupboard and if I’m missing one ingredient, I’m in a tizzy.  It must be time for take out.  But over these weeks, she rations what she has, stretches it, and finally on the last day, as she shakes out the last whisper of flour from her jar and after leaving her oil container upside down all day, she hopes she has a teaspoon full, enough to make a last meal for her and her son.  She is teaching us to value every little bit, and isn’t this last bit the most valuable of all, a last supper, a family communion that they will remember until they fade away from hunger and are no more.  She is this flour, this oil.  She is the forgotten, the nothing at the bottom of the jar.  Her neighbors don’t know or care, or maybe they also hunger because of a famine upon the land.
Now, along comes a stranger, Elijah, a prophet of God.  Elijah has stood in God’s presences, suffered persecution from God’s people, brought difficult, challenging words to God’s people, a food they just couldn’t swallow, something that would have nourished them, if they hadn’t been so distracted with their own self-importance.  So here he comes to a nobody according to what this world values.  However, she is more faithful than any of the widows in Israel.  So Jesus says when he almost gets himself killed in his hometown of Nazareth.  She listens to God.  She cooks this meal for Elijah.  She treats him like her own son, better than her own son.  She teaches us and Elijah about family, how to ask for help, how to tell the truth about our own need, how to come together in community and work together, who to trust when we cannot trust the powers of this world to feed the hungry, who to look to for resourcefulness and faith and obedience. 
There was no reason that the Scribes at the Temple would see the woman put in her last 2 coins, but there they stood not 10 yards from each other.  He was strutting around, making sure everyone was listening to him, seeing him, blessing him.  She went unnoticed, as she put in her 2 coins and a prayer.  He would take those 2 coins and it would mean nothing to him, even though it meant everything to her.  Would she, like the widow of Zarapheth, go home and cook her last meal and starve unnoticed?  What would the scribe do, when he got home?  Would he eat his fill and still feel empty?  God brings these contrasting people together to teach each other something.  They are a few feet away from each other, but they may as well be on different planets.  They don’t know the same people.  They don’t live by the same truths.  They don’t have the same priorities.  And yet they affect each other.  He affects her because he devours her last 2 coins, all she has to live on.  He doesn’t seem to be affected by her, because what she offers seems so small compared to everything else he has.  However, Jesus says, he will eternally be affected by how he has treated her.  He receives the greater condemnation.
The other contrast that the Scribe and widow teach us, is about acting out of fear and acting out of faith.  Why is he strutting around like this?  It is because he is afraid that he isn’t enough.  He’s put his faith in his position, and his wealth, and his importance, and it isn’t fulfilling him.  If he doesn’t have the reassurance and recognition that he gets from long prayers and even longer robes, he is afraid he isn’t enough.  He is acting out of fear.  She is acting out of faith.  She has put her faith in God.  She knows that robes and recognition don’t give satisfaction.  You’re always going to need more.  But she gives her last 2 coins, knowing that money isn’t everything, having experienced miracles before and knowing that God can make something out of nothing, trusting that her coins will be valued, if not by the scribes, then by God.  And she’s right.  She knows God made us good.  She knows that God values every contribution no matter how small.  She gives out of her faith, rather than her fear, and she becomes an example to us.
There was no reason that a poor family, driving an old white Ford 1-ton van the mom a childcare worker and the dad an insulation installer would fit in at the local Lutheran congregation full of teachers and nurses and doctors.  But that’s where we found ourselves.  My mom with 4 kids, dad staying at home.  We did our best to fit in, but I know we stuck out.  They gave us their hand-me-downs, and we were thrilled to get them.  We shared our friendliness.  My mom took on the Sunday school superintendent job.  We couldn’t afford $10 apiece for the Mother/Daughter banquet, that would have been $40, more than my mom made in 2 days work.  We stood up and said it was unjust.  We were heard.  We changed our community.  And we were changed by our community.  They were examples of professionals, of how life could have many choices with an education, so they helped me with my college applications, and paid for my books in seminary.  They changed me.  Mom took piano lessons, started a mom’s group, started a support group for people struggling with depression.  Two groups of people who should never have come together, did for the betterment of both.
A little babe is born on a cold night in a barn.  His cry pierces the night.  God made flesh, come to us.  So many unlikely combinations: The Christ child and the shepherds, the son of God and the magi, the shepherds and the angels, God and humans together, Jesus and the lepers, Jesus and the Samaritan woman, Jesus and the Roman Soldier, Mary and Elizabeth.
There is no reason that God should come here to us, people of no importance, who struggle, who are weak, yet Jesus came to share our experience and know us, and to give himself as a living sacrifice that we might have life abundant in communion with him and the whole people of God and all of Creation.  He came to us to make us family, to make us strong, to heal the world.
A little Spanish-speaking church is looking for space.  A little bigger Lutheran Congregation finds an opening as a preschool vacates the building.  There is no reason that we should come together, but 5 years later here we are, friends, working side by side for the Gospel.
There is no reason that any of us should be here, except we felt the pull of the Spirit calling to us, inviting us at different times from different places, to participate in something messy but beautiful and at times frustrating, but to be part of something bigger than ourselves and our needs.
There is no reason to think that a church is needed or welcome out there in our county offices, testifying at city hall, or relating to neighbors, but somehow God keeps bringing us together to teach us something about ourselves and to help us open our ideas of who we are and who matters in God’s Kingdom wider until we truly all are one.
And I can’t help but wonder what unlikely pairings and combinations of people we will find ourselves in in the coming weeks and months, how we will be challenged and stretched as we reach out to our neighbors, how we might be surprised by the person or people that God places in our hands, that when we thought we were the ones helping, we find ourselves helped, stretched, learning, growing, valuing life differently, seeing people instead of problems, awed by the complexity of our systems that keep people down.  There are neighbors right next door that we don’t even know their names even though they’ve lived there 10 years or more.  God has placed them here not for us to overlook the or assume we don’t have anything to offer each other, but to show us that we are all related, we need each other, and everyone has something to offer, gifts from God for the good of the whole and that we are stronger together.