Search This Blog

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

January 21, 2018

Gospel: Mark 1:14-20 
1st Reading: Jonah 3:1-10       
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
            Nineveh was the ISIS stronghold of its time.  Known for torturing people, beheadings, and using fear as a control tactic.  It was no wonder that Jonah didn’t want to go there.  Our reading today, of course, picks up as Jonah is sitting on the shoreline covered in fish saliva and smelling like death.  Only when he has no choice does he go to Nineveh and preach the most pathetic sermon of all, “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!”  First of all, there is no sense of urgency.  40 days means they’ve got plenty of time.  40 days and 40 nights of rain on Noah’s ark, 40 days of fasting in the wilderness for Jesus, 40 years wandering in the wilderness for the Israelites.  40 means too many to count.  I also wonder sometimes how he said it.  He was not happy to be there, so did he mumble it?  Did he shout it with false enthusiasm?  Did he pout the whole way?  
            I like to compare and contrast this story with another one in the Old Testament in which Abraham pleads with God to change God’s mind about the calamity that he has threatened against the town of Sodom for using violence and fear to control people.  Abraham responds to God’s threat by asking if 50 righteous people are found in the city will God spare the city.  God says God will.  How about 45?  How about 40?  How about 30?  How about 5?  And God shows a willingness to change God’s mind.  In this story in Jonah, we are supposed to be reminded of this story of the destruction of Sodom because the same word is used, “overthrown.”  But instead of pleading for the people, Jonah runs the other way, preaches a pathetic sermon, and then gets mad when God lets the Ninevites off the hook.  A further contrast between the two stories is that in Sodom, not even 5 righteous people can be found.  In Nineveh, every last person repents, believes, puts on sackcloth and fasts, including the king, including even the animals.  The people of Nineveh turn out to be more faithful even than Jonah himself, who continues to pout and be angry with God for sparing the people.  Jonah seems to believe that for God to be God, God must keep God’s word.  God promised to destroy the people.  Who would God be if he didn’t?  But what Jonah didn’t realize is that God is love, not rules.  The rules, the threats, lead to a change in the Ninevites, a more loving world, and that is the goal, not destruction or calamity.
People have different views of calamity.  Some take comfort in believing that God causes it, controls it.  Sometimes the Old Testament, these ancient stories of Isreal’s journey with God, seems to support that point of view.  But I don’t take any comfort in that at all.  I cannot believe that God would make hillsides slide and dump thousands of refugees into the sea, destroy people with addiction or disease or hunger or abuse.  In fact Jesus came to overturn systems that destroy and damage.  So the only calamity is to those who are benefitting from the system of abuse of power, whose comforts depend on the suffering of others.
God is coming into the world to change this world from one that crushes little people and grinds them down, to one that is loving and life-giving.  I don’t think God does that so much through earthquakes, although those kind of natural disasters can bring out the best in people who come to each other’s aid, and grow closer in community as they support one another.  The main way that God tries to change us is through relationship. 
That’s the reason Jonah had to go to Nineveh.  He hated the Ninevites.  They were simply a city worthy of destruction, a group to be wiped out, entertainment for Jonah as they cried out in their much-deserved misery.  But to God, they were children worthy of a second chance.  God wanted Jonah to see what God saw.  So God made Jonah walk in the midst of the city, to see the children, to smell the food, to hear the conversations, to see the Ninevites as people, like God saw them.  But God loved the Ninevites too much to let them keep trampling all over God’s beloved little people.  So God gave Jonah a message, a warning, a chance to change.  Jonah was to go to the people of Nineveh and speak truth to power.  He was to tell them of the pain they were causing others.  In addition, in Jonah, the Ninevites must have seen the people of Israel for the first time.  Here comes this pathetic, puke-smelling Israelite, taking his time, risking his life to bring a message to them, to help them.  Here are two people looking at each other face to face for the first time.  The surprising thing is that the supposed believer, Jonah, cannot see the humanity of the Ninevites, whereas the Ninevites, who are Gentiles thought to be far from God, see a brother, and recognize God.
We, too, have 40 days to repent, a long time.  We have lost our sense of urgency since the Messiah has not fully returned as promised.  God has been endlessly patient, merciful, compassionate, as we crush people we’ve never met in order to be able to buy cheap goods, and we torture and kill them with asthma, and our trash, our poisons so that we can have the convenience of driving whenever we feel like it, or having packaged fast-food.  In this 40 days, we are the Ninevites, invited to relationship. We are invited to truly see them those we have hurt as human, to let their stories penetrate our armor, to let their pain change us. 
And we are the Israelites, Jonah, because we’ve been hurt by this system, as well.  We are invited to speak the truth of the ways we are tortured and crushed in this system of death.  We are invited to speak truth to power, to tell the story of our pain, to make ourselves heard, cry out against the city.
This is why Jesus came among us.  God wanted to look us in the eye, get at eye-level with us, and show us in Jesus the eyes of every other person, the human of each one, and maybe not even just human eyes, but to make us look with compassion upon each creature and see there another one of God’s good Creation with value and pain and joy and hope.  God wanted to hear our story, live our story, live our pain.  And God wanted us to know the pain that God feels whenever one of the little ones is hurting.
This Godly way of relating to one another, and looking one another in the eye, is not an easy path.  For us, as for the first disciples, it will mean denial, betrayal, misunderstanding, crucifixion, death, change.  There is no question that the mention of John the Baptist’s arrest at the beginning of this Gospel reading is reminding us of the cost of this journey. The first disciples, somehow let go of what little power they had, their livelihood, to participate in a new reign.  They let go of their usual way of being to live the way described in 1 Corinthians—those who had wives began to live as though they had none, and those who mourned as if they were not in mourning.  They let go of their jobs and family and economic security, to lay hold of another kind of security.  We have to wonder how to live in these in-between times, when God promises a new reality, but we are still very much living in this world.  What do we let go of?  What do we take up?  How do we follow?
            First of all, are we even called?  I must affirm, yes!  That disquiet in your mind, in your heart that tells you that the pain and suffering in this world is wrong comes from God.  It is your call to follow.  In baptism, we make that call public as well as our intention to answer that call as a community together.  We state then our intention to drown the old self and let go of what stands against the life and love of God, and to look each other in the eye and look for the humanity, the value in each person, to enter into relationship, to speak the truth, and to listen to the truth.  To answer Jesus’ call to follow is to stand against the powers that divide us.  To see the humanity in another person.  To walk with them in calamity.
            Many of us read the story of Jesus calling the first Disciples as an evangelism reading.  Fishing for people is inviting them to church.  However, this is probably more about overturning the order of power and privilege.  These fish hooks are for ensnaring all who rich and powerful and bringing them to judgment.  Other scriptures point to this including this one from Jeremiah 16, in which I noticed also God asks Jeremiah to live very much like this 1 Corinthians reading without getting married or having children, etc. “then you shall say to them: It is because your ancestors have forsaken me, says the Lord, and have gone after other gods and have served and worshiped them, and have forsaken me and have not kept my law; 12 and because you have behaved worse than your ancestors, for here you are, every one of you, following your stubborn evil will, refusing to listen to me.  16 I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them; 17 For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight.” And from Amos 4: 1 "Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, "Bring something to drink!" 2 The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks."
            The fishing is to ensnare in judgment all who have disobeyed God, especially the rich and powerful, especially us.  We’re going to face the bitter truth of all that we’ve done and the pain we’ve caused.  Thankfully, God uses judgment to show us all a truth about ourselves that we had been struggling with, and now that it is out in the open, we can lift our eyes and look into the eyes of our brothers and sisters we’ve hurt and see them as human, and we can lift our eyes and look into the eyes of Jesus our brother and see love there, not so we can go back to hurting people, but so that we can live in newness of life, that we can live in a way that respects the life and dignity of others, so that God can transform this world, change us, and bring abundant life to all.

January 14, 2018

Gospel: Mark 1:4-11        
1st Reading: Genesis 1:1-5             
2nd Reading: Acts 19:1-7

                The formless void stretches out in front of us as we survey the face of the deep.  It is dark—so dark we can barely see our reflection there on the surface of the water.  We feel for a moment as if we could be below the water, rather than above it, we could be drawn into that darkness.  That deep chaos calls to us, invites us, coaxes us.  It tells us lies about who we are.  It lies and tells us we are powerless, that nothing we do can change the problems of this world, so why even try.  It lies and tells us that we don’t matter, that no one will remember us, that nothing we do will last.  It lies and tells us that we are not enough, that we aren’t influential enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, young enough, smart enough.  It lies and tells us that we are not important, that we are nobodies.  It keeps us divided from others around us, isolates us by making us fearful and suspicious of one another. 
                Sometimes we believe the face of the deep.  Sometimes we try to buy our way out of the deep void.  We try to prove by the things we surround ourselves with that we are good enough, important enough, powerful enough to matter.  But we find that we only increase the void and only see our reflection there more clearly, drawing us in.  Sometimes we try to run away from the suffering, watch happy movies, eat what isn’t good for us, hide behind a false image of ourselves, but we find that it follows us.
                It is so dark.  Aside from the last 2 days, the weather is dark and wet and dreary.  The divisions in our country and our world are so deep and dark.  The pollution, the suffering, the hunger, the illness, the grief—it is so overwhelming and upsetting, sometimes I feel like I’m being swallowed up by this void.  Sometimes I feel like giving up.  Sometimes I don’t see how I am making any difference.  Do you ever feel this way?
                I’ve felt this way many times in my life and if left to myself, I would surely throw in the towel. Noah probably felt this way as he floated on the ark with the all the animals and his small family.  He looked out to see water in every direction, and I’m sure he wondered about the seaworthiness of his vessel—how long it could hold out.  How long could the food hold out?  How long could the patience of the people and animals hold out?  Would this deep chaos swallow them up? 
                Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up in the face of the void that would tell him and a whole race of people that they were nobody.  He faced the evil of racism in every part of our society.  He resisted being drawn into it, or resorting to violence, and he was able to do that because of his faith.  He must have wondered if the chaos would win the day, especially as he and his family faced death threats and his house was firebombed with his 10 week old child and wife inside.  We can all feel overwhelmed by the formless void, the face of the deep, and many of us have good reason to be.
                In the midst of this overwhelming, chaotic, dark, deep, powerful sea, a little breeze picks up.  We see a ripple, then a wave, then wave after wave.  Instead of silence, we hear a far-away rushing sound.  We start to hear the waves against the shore, the splash of the water, the trickling sound that is like music.  The waves become strong and start to crash against each other.  It is a frightening power.  It is loud, but it is moving.
                In the midst of this dark, deep void, a pinprick of light appears on the horizon.  It is small, but it begins to grow.  The sky begins to get lighter.  The outlines of forms are visible.  Trees, plants, people, creation.  We are not alone.  The light illuminates all that was hidden, reveals all that was secret.  Colors start to play off the surface of the water.  We reach down and touch what was once so scary, and take a refreshing drink, splash our face.  We feel the cool water flow through our fingers and our lips, and feel more alive.  We immerse first our feet, then our legs in this water.  Then we plunge ourselves into it.  The waters cover us.  What was dragging us in, buoys us up and lovingly surrounds us.  We feel it on our eyes, dripping off our hair, under our feet.  We swim, we play, we float.  And then we burst out of these waters to stand on the shore, washed and new, ready for life.
                In the midst of this void, we see a bird, a dove, we see the Holy Spirit.  We see the dove fly across the waters, Noah waiting to find out if the world was fit for human habitation, if the bird would find a place for new life yet, if humans could begin again.  We see the heavens open and the Holy Spirit, alight on Jesus, a signal for us to know that this is where and how life can be found.  This is the new life God has been promising out of chaos from the beginning, to Noah, and Abraham and Sarah, and to the believers and disciples in Ephesus, and to John the Baptist, and to the saints and Martyrs, and to Martin Luther King, Jr., and to us.
                In the midst of this quiet, still, sea, we hear a voice.  It is a powerful voice, a comforting voice.  We hear a word.  “Light!”  We hear a word in our own language, tongues and prophecies.  We communicate, we hear and understand, and we know we are understood.  Into this quiet we hear a voice, the voice of the one who created us, spoke us into being, called us forth.  We hear the voice speak the word made flesh, the promise embodied in Jesus.  We meet him.  We find we are his sisters and brothers, part of Jesus’ family.  We are included in the saving power of his life, death, and resurrection.  We hear this loving voice name our brother, Jesus, “Beloved Son” and speak words of praise for him.
                But we feel pulled back to the formless void.  How could we ever measure up?  Jesus was very special, and look how far we are from that kind of perfection.  Why even try?  What would he ever want to do with any of us?
                But that word is for us—beloved.  Are we not created by God, God’s good creation? If we weren’t beloved, would God have tried so hard to help us?  It is because God calls us beloved that God created this beautiful world, that God called light into being, that God revealed our brokenness and brought us healing.  It is because we are beloved of God, that God sent the Holy Spirit to help us to connect with each other and with God, and so the most powerlessness among us would experience the power of God’s love, the only thing that can transform this chaotic void into the Kingdom of God. 
                This story is about the baptism and power of Jesus, his connection with the Father, God.  But it was never meant to stop there.  We are the body of Christ, together.  We were there at the baptism of Christ, as his body.  We were baptized with him.  God says to us, “This is my precious child, Beloved.”
                That deep calls to us, the chaos calls to us, and we are invited to enter those waters, to move toward what we are afraid of.  But we find we aren’t alone.  When I hear the story of Martin Luther King, Jr., I am inspired.  Here is a man who faced terrible hatred, but because of his faith, he moved toward those who hated him and engaged them in conversation.  He acted lovingly toward those who wanted to hurt him and his family and his friends and people who had already suffered so much.  When I hear his story, I feel that Holy Spirit Power.  I know none of us does the work of justice alone.  We have God leading us through that chaos to eternal abundant life for everyone.
                So walk in the power of the Holy Spirit, in this chaotic void, telling the truth about the deep and how very deep it is, but also exposing the lies this void tells us.  Walk in the light of God, opening our eyes to signs of God’s grace and love among us.  Swim in the waters of baptism, washed, refreshed, renewed, our old self drowned, new life promised.  Become reborn each day, each hour, each minute, hopeful, faithful, beloved, strong, and vibrant.  May God’s vision be written in our hearts, that all tears will be wiped away, that no one will know hunger or pain or need any longer, that nothing will divide us,  that we will find connection with each other and with God, that we will share all we have, that we will find ourselves grateful for all God’s gifts to us, that God will bring in the Kingdom through us, that God will reign.


Monday, January 8, 2018

Christimas Eve 2017

Gospel: Luke 2:1-20                         
1st Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7                
2nd Reading: Titus 2:11-14

                I met Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus this week.  It isn’t as glamourous as it sounds for me or them.  It was the icy Thursday morning.  I finally had a block of time I could work on my sermon.  Susan got the phone.  A young woman was crying.  It was Mary.  They have been staying at Budget Inn.  The are on the waiting list for the SON program. They have no car.  They have a 10 month old baby.  She was terrified that they’d have to stay outdoors in these freezing temperatures.  The owner of the hotel let them stay last night out of pity.  They owed last night and hoped to also get tonight’s room paid for.  $154.90 total.  She said, “You couldn’t possibly help with that much, could you?”  She’d been on the phone constantly the past few days trying to figure out what they were going to do.  She told me she and her husband had been two years clean and sober, from meth addiction.  “That’s something, isn’t it!”  She was ashamed and proud at the same time.  But she said they both have a criminal record, which makes it hard for them to find work.  Here they were doing what was right and it wasn’t enough.  I really knew they were desperate when she asked if we had any food.  They have a microwave and can opener and a few bowls at the hotel.
                I really didn’t want to write my sermon, so don’t think I’m trying to make myself the hero of this story.  It is thanks to you and the Boy Scouts and Maritime CafĂ©, the marijuana dispensary that collects and donates food for the pantry every year, it is thanks to this community, both the church and the neighborhood, that we had food downstairs that came after we were completely wiped out by our December distribution.  It is thanks to Barb who makes the time to get a check done and mailed from her office even in a busy holiday season.  I put together a box of food that could be cooked in a microwave and even a few little squeeze packets of baby food and drove it over to them along with a letter stating that we would pay the hotel costs.
                I talked to the owner to make sure they were legit, they really did have a baby and they were good customers.  I don’t want to become known as the gullible pastor who doesn’t check things out.  And then I went back to the car to get the boxe of food.  Mary came down the stairs and she was so grateful and worried all at the same time.  Would her little family have a place to lay their heads?  She wore a sweatshirt with holes in the sleeves.  She had nothing but her family and her sobriety and some small bit of hope.  Joseph came down to the car to get the box of food.  He was grateful and worried, too.  I gave Mary a card with all the warming centers and their telephone numbers on it.  She asked if she could give me a hug and I said “Of course.”  That hug was for all of you.  I told her to call me and give me an update.  She said she would. 
                On the drive back to church, I missed my turn onto Jennings because I was pondering all these things.  I thought of the money in my wallet.  I should have given it to her.  I wouldn’t miss it.  To her it might mean another night of warmth.  One more day she wouldn’t worry.  I thought of my family, my warm, growing boy who had never known a day of want, who had so many toys he couldn’t possibly play with them all.  I thought of my community, people who love me and help me and look after me and I take it for granted.  I thought of my problems—how will I fit in all my meetings and get my son from school and volunteer with the PTA and find time for relational meetings and reach out to people who aren’t very happy with how I am serving them or this church. 
                Here is Mary, far from home, beginning a new journey as a mother.  What are her hopes for her child?  Here is Joseph, ready to work and support his family, but all the odds are against him.  Here are all these houses sitting empty from foreclosure, two on my block—the third one was finally torn down, and here are families lacking housing.  Can no one do anything about it?  How many derelict houses did Mary and Joseph pass and stare at longingly as was starting to go into labor?  Here are the arbitrary temperatures that we say are inhumane to keep people indoors that we use to determine when warming centers are open.  When is it ever humane to let a baby sleep outside?  Yet here we have a story of Jesus, baby Jesus, sleeping outside as so many homeless and refugees do every single night.
                It is not very glamourous to see the world the way it is, with government used to count people in the census, not so they count, but so they can be abused and discounted.  It is not very glamourous to sit among the houseless at the warming center and see the toll of living on the streets.  It is not very glamourous to give birth in a cattle shed.  It is not very glamourous for your job to be watching over sheep.  I decided the modern-day equivalent would be gas-station attendant.  Lo, they were watching over their pumps by night, when behold an angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them.”   They wipe off their hands and straighten their vests and walk into town to see for themselves.
                It isn’t very glamourous for your baby’s first visitors to be a bunch of gas station attendants or smelly, dirty sheep herders, yet there they are  The shepherds are a very special kind of leader, who care for the sheep, bind up their wounds, know them by name, protect them from wolves.  These shepherds come to a cattle stall, a place they knew well.  This was their turf.  There they find the one who would become the good shepherd.  Finally a King who cares about everyone from the least to the greatest.  Here the baby Jesus was met by what he would become.  And the shepherds become more than shepherds, they become the ones entrusted with more than sheep, they are entrusted with the good news of great joy, and they tend it well.  I wonder about the shepherds after that.  They must have wondered what became of that baby, that Messiah, that promise.  Did they see in each child they met after that the potential Messiah?  Did they look for him among the children they encountered?
                We read the story and we might feel tempted to get sentimental.  But there are real-life holy families all around us.  Mary and Joseph still wander the city looking for a place to bring the Christ child into this world.  If we search our hearts, and ask ourselves whether we have room for a little one like this, most of us hesitate.  Is it safe?  Is it convenient?  Is it glamourous?  Is it fun?  The answer to all of these is no.   When I ask myself, do I love the Christ Child or my security and comfort more, I’m afraid of my answer.
                It is true that we have rejected the Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Wonderful Counselor.  We crucify him every day by leaving him in the cold, executing him in our prisons, taking away his access to health care, etc.  But the amazing thing is that this shepherd king, who sees us for who we are and knows us entirely, makes his home with us, gathers us at his table, gives us his very body, gives us his life.  We constantly reject him, yet the light is shining.  There is hope because that hope doesn’t depend on us.  It comes from God who is love and who we can count on.  Because of that love and hope our hearts begin to long for a different world than we participate in and support.  Because of love and hope, we might open our eyes to see Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus in the poor and hungry.  Because of that love and hope and grace, we let go of those things that distract us from God’s vision of peace and justice and make life harder for people already having a hard time, and take on the new life that God is leading us toward.
              I met Mary today.  She’s a mother with two teenagers, fleeing domestic violence.  She needs food for her family.  Her eyeliner was thick and there were bags under her eyes.  She talked too much.  But she is the one God has chosen to bear the good news, the Christ Child, and when Mary calls for help, I don’t want to be the innkeeper who turns her away.