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Monday, March 26, 2018

Palm Sunday 2018

John 12:12-16                     
Isaiah 50:4-9a                     
Philippians 2:5-11
                Have you ever received a compliment from someone that you just couldn’t quite accept?  Maybe it was the look in their eye that made you suspicious.  Maybe it was the tone of their voice.  Maybe you couldn’t quite put your finger on it, but sure enough in the next sentence here it comes, the word “but.”  I really wanted to thank you for doing such and such, but…”  Oh here it comes.  Or may be the compliment is followed then by an ask.  You get all buttered up and find out the person really just wants something from you.”
                Today Jesus experiences both.  He’s heading into to Jerusalem along with the crowd going up for the Passover, and he finds the people cheering for him, waving their palm branches, and hailing their king.  And in the same sentence they cry out, “Hosanna!” or “Lord save us.”  They are already laying out their demands, their expectations, and their “but” doesn’t come until the following week, when they turn on him and cry out for his crucifixion.
                It seemed that Jesus was expecting this parade, because in the other 3 Gospels he sends his disciples to get the donkey that he rides on.  I have to wonder how he experienced this event.  He and disciples were simply walking to Jerusalem and they were in this huge crowd also going up to celebrate the Passover.  The population of Jerusalem would quadruple for this festival week, so many people were on the road.  Was the crowd simply swept along?  Did some of them recognize him from his miracles of healing or feeding?  What got this crowd so fired up? 
                We celebrate this holiday and probably think that its nice that Jesus is finally getting recognized, getting praised, getting thanked, but maybe this was just the same mob mentality that comes into play at the crucifixion, a sad commentary on how easily we humans are swayed by popularity contests and vicious attacks.  Jesus, of course, was aware of people trying to butter him up to get what they wanted, as well as those who lost interest as soon as they had what they wanted from him.  And he was used to disappointing people when he didn’t meet their expectations.  He always kept his mission in mind no matter what kind of pressure he received to do what people wanted him to do.
                Although the people may have thought that Jesus was finally going to step forward and seize power in the way they thought he should, Jesus was illustrating another kind of power, power with and among, rather than power over.  He was holding up a mirror to the power on display on the other side of town. 
                On this day, we actually have two parades coming toward each other.
                The one from the East was the Imperial Procession of Pontius Pilate, made every year so that the Jewish people would know that Rome was more powerful and important than their religious holidays.   It was a military parade of the leader coming into the city in case their was a riot among the Jews.   It was a parade with cavalry and foot soldiers, weapons and armor, wagons and banners, finery and feathers, a band, marching feet, and lots emotion: Fear, pride, curiosity, awe, and resentment.
                And here was Jesus coming from the West, on a donkey with her nursing colt beside her, in plain worn clothing, with palms instead of swords, cloaks spread on the ground, a fulfillment of scripture from long ago, a nothing group of people who were nonviolent, unarmed, and unassuming. 
                “Hosanna,” they cried.  Lord save us!
                The reason the Jewish people may find this a good time to riot and rebel, is that they are celebrating the Passover, remembering how God led them to freedom when they had been oppressed in Egypt.  And here they are oppressed under Rome, remember how God wants them to be free, and likely to rise up to overthrow their oppressors as they did once before.  “Hosanna,” they cried.  Lord save us!
Lord save us from slavery and oppression. Lord save us from sin. Lord save us from fighting and killing.  Save us from bullying and enforcing our way!  Lord save us from arrogance, from needing to be important.  Lord save us from imposing our philosophy on others.  Lord save us from judging others based on their rank or possessions or wealth.  Lord save us from believing that people get what they deserve.  Lord save us from putting up barriers between ourselves and others.  Lord save us from using our power to scare people who are different from us.  Lord save us from wasting our time and resources honoring those we’re afraid of.  Lord save us from self-indulgence.  Lord save us from ourselves.
Lord save us for humility.  Save us for relationship and understanding.  Lord save us for peacemaking.  Lord save us for elevating the needs of those who suffer the most.  Lord save us for deep listening.  Lord save us for sharing our gifts and resources.  Lord save us for sharing the truth of who we are and the experiences we’ve had.  Lord save us for tearing down walls between us.  Lord save us for building power with those around us to make a difference in our community.  Lord save us for standing up to the powers that crush and abuse.  Lord save us for the transformation of our unjust systems.  Lord save us for good stewardship of our time and money and gifts.  Lord save us to glorify you.  Lord save us for the good of the whole community of creation.
Pilate’s parade was an expression of his values, of war, of fear, of conquering one’s foes, of might.  Jesus’ parade, his triumphal entry, was an expression of his values, of peace, of hope, of relationship, of community, of love.  These two parades are coming at each other and will find themselves face to face by the end of the week.  And Pilate with slaughter Jesus, just as a military power would, based on their methodology and belief about winning.  And Jesus will suffer, and bleed, and die as countless millions have under the powers of this world.  But those powers run counter to God’s values and since God created all this, God knows what the true powers are that last and give life, the powers that will win the day. 
So at the beginning of next week, Jesus will be risen.  Jesus will forgive those who denied and betrayed and mocked and killed him.  His values will prevail and life will prevail, despite the fickle crowd, despite possessing nothing, despite being completely vulnerable and open to attack.  This parade is a protest march against the values of empire.  It holds up a mirror to the imperial procession, how completely ridiculous and contrary to God it is, how it is actually an act of fear and weakness to have to put on a display like this to keep people under control.  Jesus’ parade makes a mockery of Pilate’s parade, and don’t think Pilate doesn’t consider this when he hands him over to be crucified.  Today, we joined the protest march.  It was outside our comfort zone.  We weren’t sure we were supposed to be there.  We didn’t like certain parts of it.  It made us squirm and for good reason.  That parade is a bunch of nobodies, singing pretty poorly, carrying on about who knows what, following a story about a man who people say is God but who was completely defenseless, who cared for people nobody cares about, and who died in complete weakness and scorn.  And we gather here and vow to follow him, even though every day we walk in that other parade with Pilate.  Walking in Jesus’ parade comes with a cost, a challenge to our own values, but it also comes with a reward, which is eternal life and one we don’t have to die to claim.  Jesus promises that we can live, not the way we have been living, but in a simpler, more humble, more loving, cooperative way.
Save us Lord, from ourselves.  Save us Lord, for each other, for life, and for you. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

March 18, 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34            
Hebrews 5:5-10                 
John 12:20-33
                I have in my hand a seed.  It has a seed coat to protect it.  This little dot is called the micropyle, a little hole through which water can enter.  Inside there is almost everything the plant needs to begin growing.  There is a little embryo root and embryo shoot, and the cotyledons, the little first leaves that appear that have some nutrients in them to begin the plant growing.  Finally, there is the DNA within each cell that tells which cells when to reproduce where and how to organize themselves.
                On a seed packet there are many bits of information.  Of course, it indicates what kind of plant the seeds come from and should produce.  There are instructions for how deep in the ground to plant the seed and how far apart, when to plant it.  Also, you may see some information about germination rate.  That is how many seeds are apt to germinate and grow out of 100.  Not all seeds become plants, after all.  Conditions must be right:  Seeds shouldn’t sit around your house for years and years, they need water, light, soil, and conditions free from being trampled, eaten, or attacked by disease.
                The people of Israel had been growing a healthy garden.  Their seeds had been developed over years in the wilderness, watered and fed by God, nourished with the commandments and their experiences together.  They had grown strong.  So when they came to the rich soil of Canaan, they were very excited.  But they got greedy and they forgot the commandments.  People were not caring for each other.  They lost faith in God.   They forgot to trust God.  So their crops began to fail, their seeds weren’t germinating.  It wasn’t that God was punishing them, but because the commandments were actually rules to grow a lush garden, and when they stopped following those rules, their garden went to ruin.  So when the Babylonian thorns came marching in, the Israelite garden was vulnerable and the people were carted off to other lands to live in captivity.  The garden was covered over with rocks, and the rain didn’t fall, and the seeds languished beneath the soil, waiting and wondering if they would ever grow again.
                During this time of captivity, after the Babylonians had conquered them and taken them as prisoners, the Israelites reflected on why they were not growing as they used to, how they found themselves in this situation.  They wanted to remember their history, so they started to write it down.  They started to reflect on how they had come to this point.  They started thinking of how God might have been feeling about their previous actions.  They felt sorry for what they’d done.  And they also started to feel hopeful.  They reflected on when their own children went astray and how tenderly they felt toward them.  They knew that God was the most loving parent, so God must be heartbroken and hopeful for a restored relationship.  They started to feel the soil warming and sense the presence of moisture.  And they felt God renewing the covenant.  They remembered God and that God had never abandoned them.
                The people thought of the law, the gardening rules God had given them to help them to grow.  They had always thought of those as burdensome, an imposition from the outside, pushed upon them, written on their seed coat, like the booth at the State Fair where you can get your name written on a grain of rice.  But the people realized during the captivity how good the commandments had been for them, and looked forward to a time when the people would internalize the commandments, when it would be part of their DNA, what makes them who they are.  They realized that God was looking forward to that time, as well, when it would be automatic, second nature to be connected through the covenant, one family, with one set of values internalized by the community.
                As the community of the Hebrews tried to figure out who Jesus was for them, in the second reading, they realized that he was both a king and a priest.  Priest-Kings were few and far between, but there was one example from long ago in the Psalms, Melchizedek, whose name means King of Righteousness.  To be a king is to give the rules.  To be a priest is to examine and affect the deepest values held by a community.  One is to affect the outer conditions, the soil, the light, the water, the nutrients.  The other is to affect what is inside the seed, the health of the little root, the little leaves, the strength of the stem, and so forth inside the seed coat.  So Jesus came in the order of Melchizedek to affect us both on the outside and the inside and to come to us as God from afar, Creator of all living things, but to live among us and know intimately the struggles of growth and of life and of death.
                Jesus speaks in the Gospel of the seed, the grain of wheat falling to the earth and dying, so that it can do so much more than just be a grain of wheat.  He was already producing fruit, as evidenced by the Greeks coming to him and wanting to see him.  He was already drawing people to him from far outside the approved garden gate.  As the logos, the word spoken at Creation, Jesus already had to let go of so much to come and live among us with limits.  He gave up all his powers to be a little old seed in the garden with the rest of us.  He gave up any rights he might have had, any privileges, to be a humble guy who talked to children, and fallen women, and people who were sick, and people who were full of themselves and thought they knew everything.  He talked to people who had seed coats as hard as nails, who weren’t going to let anything in, because they were everything they wanted to be, and thought they ever could be.  But Jesus knew there is more to the story, because God is writing the story, not us.  Jesus knew that life is more than we imagine it to be.  He knows that for humans, just like for plants, death is not the end, but we go on, not just individuals, but communities. 
                He knows we get stuck in one part of the life cycle and we want to bask in the sun forever.  But that is not our purpose.  Our purpose is to follow Jesus through the cycle of life, to serve Jesus, to let go of all we have known so that we can take hold of eternal life.  Our purpose is to give glory to God.  It is our temptation to believe that we are self-contained, that we can bloom all day long, a single flower high up on a stalk.  But Jesus reminds us that we must let go as a community to ideas that we will be glorified, that will be independent, that we will live in perpetuity the way we always have.  Because when we refuse to let go, we cannot take on the new vision, the new life, the abundant life that Jesus has in mind, and we refuse to share the life that Christ shares with us with the whole community.
                This seed I hold is us.  We think we ought to be blooming.  We think we must live the same way we always have.  We don’t want to be a humble, boring seed.  We don’t want to be buried in the soil.  We don’t want to fall to the earth. We don’t want to follow Jesus.  But we will.  We will fall.  We will lie in the darkness.  But we won’t be alone and we won’t be there forever, because Jesus is there with us, and he knows our full potential, he knows what and who we are better than we are.  God has it written all over us this beautiful relationship of God and people, of forgiveness and communication, of the life that really is life.
                We live in a garden.  It is a garden where tall weeds shade out parts, where disease runs rampant, where little plants are trampled, where gates and fences keep us separated from each other, where. 
God has a vision of a garden where all the parts are interconnected and symbiotic, in which plants that supply the nutrients that other plants need will be planted together, where the soil is rich, the light plentiful, the full variety of plants co-exist, and the water isn’t wasted but shared.  It is a garden that by its very existence gives praise to God by its colors, its flavors, its scents, the insect life it supports.  It’s leaves face the sun, wherever it moves.  Its blossoms bring joy.  Its seeds fall, rest, germinate, and grow again, in a dance that gives glory to God.  May we find joy in the dance, in the garden, in the palm of God’s hand, in the growing, in the dying, in the reaching and the living.  And may we be drawn to Jesus, our farmer, with all the others in this garden to give praise to the one that gives life to all.

Monday, March 12, 2018

March 11, 2018

John 3:14-21               Numbers 21:4-9          Ephesians 2:1-10

            My name is Nicodemus.  I am a Pharisee.  Sorry to get all political, but that is my party.  Pharisee means “separated.”  We keep ourselves separated from Gentiles and from less observant Jews than ourselves.  That’s the reason I went to Jesus by night.  I didn’t want the other Pharisees to see that I was going out to meet Jesus.
            I was curious about him, after the commotion he caused in the temple, when he overturned the tables of the money changers and chased the sheep and cattle out.  That was a pretty bold and dramatic act, but one I thought might be warranted.  I’d participated in things I knew weren’t right, even though I say I keep myself separated.  That’s just the way things were.  But I had seen people getting cheated in the Temple.  I was less than pleased that coins that bore the image of the emperor were being exchanged and that these coins said right on them that he was the Son of God.  It troubled me to participate in this temple system.  So when I saw this man, Jesus, take a stand, I was impressed, and a little afraid.  What alternate system would come in its place?  How would people in power respond to this disruption?  Was this a one-time event, or would this man continue to disrupt? 
            So I went to see Jesus.  It was late as I made my way to the place where he was staying.  My little lamp barely shown enough to get me through the streets.  The moon offered no assistance—it was barely a sliver.  That’s partly why I chose this night.  I didn’t want to be seen.  Every time I thought I heard someone near me, I ducked out of site.  It was very quiet, for the most part.  Every once in a while a dog barked or a sheep bleated.  Other than that, all I heard was the sound of my own footsteps and breathing.
            I thought about what I would say as I walked.  I wanted to draw him into my confidence, if I could.  I wanted to be sure not to offend him or frighten him.  I rehearsed a number of different openings, hoping he wouldn’t take something I said the wrong way and chase me out like the sheep.  I was so nervous when I finally got there, I barely sat down across from him when I blurted, “I know you are of God.  The things you do are not like any human I’ve ever met.”  He said to me something about how to see the Kingdom of God.  I wasn’t sure right then if I was seeing glimpses of it, or missing it entirely.  But I wanted to know more, so I asked some follow up question.  Jesus told me about another way of seeing and another kind of birth, a re-birth to eternal life.  Being a Pharisee, I was all about eternal life, but another birth was confusing to me. 
            Then Jesus started talking to me about the light and the dark.  Of course I felt ashamed that I had come in the dark.  He knew I cared more about what the other Pharisees thought, than what he thought.  He didn’t really have a lot of reason to trust me.  But he still he spoke to me with patience and tried to help me understand.  I understood the kind of darkness that existed in the temple, that secrets kept people in power and made people wealthier at the expense of the poor.  And I rather welcomed the light, exposing those who had hurt others, and even my own transgressions that were eating me up when I let myself think of them.
            At first when he spoke of rebirth, I was thinking literally.  But as he spoke, I thought of the process of birth, going from the darkness of the womb, into the light.  Of course the womb is a place of protection and nourishment, but it is a place of preparation, not a place one could stay.  It is not the point of life to stay safe and in the dark.  Was that what Jesus thought of us Pharisees.  Safe and in the dark?  Immature?  But maybe some of us were ready for new life, a whole new reality.
            He mentioned Moses and the people of Israel complaining against God, in total anxiety and despair after the death of Aaron, Moses’ brother.  Having taken a look into the promised land and deciding that they were too afraid of what they saw there to enter it, being bitten by snakes and dying from the venom.  I thought of what God might be trying to give to us that we were too afraid to take hold of, and how much more desert wandering we would subject ourselves to before we were finally faithful enough to trust God to lead us to something new and life-giving.  Maybe you wonder that, too.  What are we afraid of, that we stick with what we know, even though it is dark and puts up a barrier between us and God, or us and abundant life.  What was it that was killing them?  Was it the poison of the snakes, or the poison in their hearts?  So what was eating at my heart?  What was keeping me from truly living and contributing to the life of others?  Was it something outside of myself, or was it something poisonous within me?
But in that story of the snakebites, God provides a cure and the people apologize for their lack of faith.  They look upon the iron casting of the snake upon the pole and their life is restored.  Somehow when they looked upon the serpent, the remembered something that brought them healing.  Maybe they remembered to be grateful that God was leading them to freedom.  Was I grateful that God was leading me to freedom?  Maybe looking upon that snake reminded them of their sin, got it out into the light, so they wouldn’t live in that kind of captivity again.  What errors of mine did I need to get out and really face, so that I could move beyond them?
As I sat there in the dark, I realized I was sitting with the one who was bringing light into the world.  It was a light that would expose the evil that we all participate in, but not to condemn us, in order that we might have new life.  It was not going to be comfortable to be exposed, but I had to face what I’d done and what my political party was doing.  I hoped that in the future I would stand in the light, that I would speak against evil, that I would do the kind thing, the loving thing.  I walked home wondering who I was and who I would be.  Would I take hold of new life, or resist it?
So when I heard he had been arrested and was sentenced to crucifixion, I ran those same streets I had walked that night.  I was in a complete panic.  How could someone so full of light, who spoke so patiently with me, who brought God’s love so close, be treated so cruelly?  And as I stood beneath the cross and looked up at him, I remembered the serpent on the pole bringing healing to the snakebitten people.  I heard him say, “Forgive them Father.”  Then I knew that somehow this man on this pole would bring healing and new life.  I didn’t know how, but the light was already dawning, the new birth had already begun.  There was no going back.

Monday, March 5, 2018

March 4, 2018

John 2:13-22                       
Exodus 20:1-17
             For this sermon I wove a tapestry.  See the picture at the end of the sermon.
             I have here one thread, the thread uniting heaven and earth, the thread of love and relationship.  Throughout time, God has been reaching out to communicate with and relate with human beings:
21 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,
God said let there be light,
Let the land be separated from the waters,
Let there be animals, fish, birds, cattle, creeping things
Let us make humankind in our image
Let us make a covenant never to again destroy the earth
Through Abraham, all the families of the earth will be blessed by God
God said, “Let my people go,”
God led the people through the sea and desert
God fed the people manna in the desert
God walked with the people in the desert as a pillar of fire
God spoke through the prophets
God came to us in human form

When God was working to connect heaven and earth, God had the bigger picture in mind of the world, the universe, the Kingdom God was trying to create.  God gave us commandments to help us work well together, but God doesn’t control us.  We decide how to relate to each other.  This pile of rags represents all our relationships with each other.
                We are fruitful and multiply
                We have strong feelings toward each other sometimes
                We build up our communities
                We form congregations
                We relate to the earth
                We volunteer and help each other
                We are generous and giving
                We honor father and mother
                We honor life and do not take it
                We honor our relationships and are faithful
                We do not take what does not belong to us
                We tell the truth
                We interpret one another’s actions in the best possible light
                We are content with what we have

So you see this tapestry taking shape, the interrelatedness of God’s world, messy, but balanced and with a certain kind of beauty.  And I’ll add two more of the vertical pieces, the connections between heaven and earth, the commandments, You shall have no other gods, and You shall not make wrongful use of God’s name, say that God said anything that God didn’t or hurt or deceive someone using God’s name.

And finally, in the middle, the central commandment, remember the sabbath day to keep it Holy.  A way of honoring God, by setting aside a day to pray and remember who provides for us every good thing, a way of relating to ourselves, in that we have a day to just be, a day not defined by what we do or what we consume, but a day of rest, and a way of relating to our neighbor, or children, or the help, or the immigrant, or the grocer or anyone, since our actions won’t make them work either.

So you can see why Jesus flew off the handle in the Gospel today.  God had been weaving this tapestry, connecting all things and people, and someone was trying to sell this tapestry, to make money, to cheat poor people, in God’s house.  It was an accepted practice to defraud people right under God’s nose, mere feet from the Holy of Holies where the ark of the covenant rested, from the mercy seat where heaven and earth touch each other.  Jesus is upset, angry.  But he’s angry because of zeal, passion, love.  His love for God’s vision makes him disgusted at this vision in the Gospel, so he sends the tables crashing to the floor, the sheep and goats running for the door, the money skittering across the floor into a jumbled mess, the money changers disrupted, and the people being cheated, maybe they were grateful, but probably they were buying into this system, they were probably upset, too.
If Jesus walked in her right now, what would he most appreciate as adding to the tapestry of God’s vision at King of Kings?
What might Jesus be upset about?  What tables in our church might Jesus be pushing over for us today?
Lack of diversity
                Exclusivity of English language
                Over-reliance on words
                Adult-centered worship
                Hearts not in it
                Expecting people to come to us
                Lack of honesty about what is troubling us
So no we decide, do we just pick up the pieces of what Jesus destroyed and set up shop once more, or do we decide to do things in a different way and take hold of the vision, the tapestry that God is weaving, submit to God’s laws connecting us with heaven and each other, and which tell us the truth about who we are and who God is.