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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

July 29, 2018

John 6:1-21         
2 Kings 4:42-44                  
Ephesians 3:14-21
                It is a troubling question, “If Jesus can do miracles, why didn’t Jesus do the miracle I asked for?  If God is so powerful as to feed thousands, why doesn’t God feed people who are starving right now?”  Today we get 3 miracles: The one in the Old Testament in which Elisha feeds 100 people with 20 loaves of barley and they ate and had some left, the feeding of the 5000 in the Gospel, and the stilling of the storm in the Gospel.
                These stories are about miracles, which are rare occurrences, and yet they lift up the abundance and overwhelming power of God, which is not at all rare.  But first, lets look at the word “miracle.”  According to Wikipedia, “miracle is an event not explicable by natural or scientific laws.  Theologians typically say that, with divine providence, God regularly works through nature yet, as a creator, is free to work without, above, or against it as well.”  However, the word in the Gospel reading for this morning in not “miracle.”  It is “sign.”  That’s the word I want to explore this morning.
                If these are signs, what are they telling us or pointing to? 
                They are signs pointing to God’s power for nutrition and healing of the hunger in our bodies as well as the deeper hungers within all of us for safety, growth, community, and fulfillment.  We find that feeding is a theme throughout the Bible—we’re about to experience 6 Sundays with a focus on bread.  Some pastors are a little bent out of shape having to preach on bread for so many Sundays in a row.  Some, like me, can’t get enough bread, so let’s get started.  God fed the Israelites in the wilderness with manna.  People had to learn to rely on God for the manna, which they baked into cakes and breads.  They had to learn not to collect more than they could use or it would become wormy.  And there are other stories of feeding.  A woman bakes her last flour into a cake for a prophet and she finds her flour replenished.  Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt because of a famine, and Joseph protects the Egyptians from the famine because of a dream.  People need to eat to be healthy and health is God’s intention for creation. 
These are signs telling us about God’s intention for Creation, for wholeness and new life.  Certainly God made the world in balance and order, with all creatures and plants and planets in relationship, in obedience, in health.  So when feeding or healing happens in the scriptures or in our lives we can see it as a returning to the way God intended things to be.  We know we’ll be hungry again and sick again and eventually die, because of the breakdown of our bodies and the effects of this world on us.  So we hold out the ultimate hope that in eternal life we will find ourselves fed and whole.  Another way to think of this kind of feeding and healing, is not that of individuals but for the whole. Yes, bodies break down and decay, but that creats a balance of creation.  In the proper order of things, our bodies would enrich the soil, plants would grow up from that, animals and people would feed on the new life, and life would be in balance, even though each of us cannot remain in good health all our lives or live forever on this earth.
They are signs helping us to trust Jesus or his power.  They are saying, Jesus is different.  Look to him not just for physical food, but spiritual food that really satisfies, for meaning life and the healing of relationships and creation.
They are signs telling us what or who is important to Jesus and God, his Father.  Although Jesus has retired to a place very remote to get some rest from the crowds, still they come to him.  Jesus could have refused them, however he makes these people a priority and he breaks bread with them.  He honors their contributions to this meal.  This little child who offers the 5 loaves and 2 fish has always been a key character for me since I read the little Arch book as a 6 year old.  This kid does not worry if his contribution matters or could make a difference.  The child simply offers it.  What a lesson we could learn to simply offer what we have no matter how insignificant.  Don’t worry if it will be enough, Jesus is enough, and if we keep that in mind, our fear falls away, our paralysis.  With the faith of a little child, we bring our one can of beans, or we offer our small voice, or our small intellect or our small amount of time.  We don’t have to conquer world hunger or feed every refugee, we can offer what little we have, and it matters to Jesus and it matters to the one or two we have fed, and it inspires others to help one or two more and before you know it 5000 people have been fed. 
It matters to Jesus that those of us who can gather and contribute.  He could have gone door to door, but he didn’t.  He brought community together and you know that community sat down together, spent time relating to each other, and shared with each other.  The story could have gone this way, that Jesus saw all the hungry people and fed them.  But no, it says someone identified a child with something to share and you know when people saw the faith of that child, they looked into their own lunchbox, and perhaps they were ashamed they had been hoarding all their bread to themselves, that they hadn’t been the one with enough faith to sacrifice what would fill their own bellies.  Or maybe they were inspired and saw the value of what they could contribute, too.  Next thing you know, there are enough loaves, plus leftovers, enough, more than enough, an abundance. 
This is why we come together as a church, because we need each other and we need to learn from each other and we need to share, to give of ourselves.  Finally, and most importantly, we need to gather around Jesus who is enough and reminds us we don’t need to be afraid.  We can let go, and not just of the excess, but of everything.  That child gave the whole lunch away, not 10%, and there are times we will find ourselves doing the same, in death and perhaps other times as well.  Let me point out one example.  My heart was full of joy this week, because more than once this week, people in this congregation responded in love, took initiative and visited people who are sick and dying, prayed and sang with them, and sat with someone who was waiting for their loved one in surgery.  These folks saw they had something to give, did not doubt their own gift, but stepped out in response to someone in need, asked themselves what would be helpful to them in a similar situation, asked what they could do that might be comforting, and gave all they had for a moment, a few hours.  And the Kingdom of God broke into this world.  These signs all pointed to God’s love and care and healing and feeding.
These events may be signs telling us who Jesus is, and who he is not.  Jesus is our bread.  We gather around this table and we are fed with his own body and blood.  Jesus is life.  Jesus is love.  Jesus is sharing.  Jesus is.
Jesus is not king.  We call him King of Kings here, but he refused to be put on a throne.  He refused to be taken from the midst of the people.  I think of Pope Francis, how he regularly walks among the people, rather than hiding behind bullet-proof glass.  Some Popes might find their role an excuse to remove themselves from the people, but Pope Francis is right there washing the feet of the poor, listening to the heartaches of children, in the midst of the people.  He understands if he is to be a follower of Jesus, he cannot be removed.  God came to us as Jesus to walk in our midst, not be protected, defined, whisked away to a throne room to be controlled, to charge admission, to become a fountain of bread or power or healing or control over storms.
It says in the reading that the crowd tried to carry Jesus off to make him king.  We try to crown kings all the time.  We find a success and we try to crown it king, to worship at its feet, to be blessed by it.  We find a food that is good and try to make it king, chia seeds, or the paleo diet, quinoa, or bottled water.  We try to make kings of sports figures and politicians or movie stars, of policies and regulations, but really we’re just trying to crown ourselves, make ourselves look good, give ourselves an easier life, because we are afraid we aren’t enough.  The same was true of this crowd.
It was not Jesus the people wanted to be king over them, or they would have deferred to him what his rulership would mean or look like.  Neither can we dictate that Jesus was someplace and not another based on who is fed and healed, or who has access to Jesus or who lives or dies.  He came, as he clearly states, so that none may be lost.  None of us so small or insignificant or crumby that we don’t matter.  Every single bit of us matters to Jesus and when we regard each other we can remember that each one matters to Jesus and to the whole of creation, so each one is treated with respect, as vital to the health and wholeness of all.  And Jesus is enough.  Let that fearful little voice, that feeling in the pit of your stomach of dread, know that Jesus is in our midst.  Jesus is enough.  Jesus is gathering us together.  Leave your preconceived ideas behind and let Jesus be Jesus, shepherd, healer, nearby, provider, powerful friend, ally of the poor, gatherer, enough.
Why do some get miracles and others not?  If we don’t see a sign, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus isn’t there.  We ask that we might open our eyes to signs around us and be the signs that point to God as King and Jesus as healer and the closeness of the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

July 22, 2018

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56        Jeremiah 23:1-6                Ephesians 2:11-22

                It was fun this week at Bible School watching a transformation that took less than 3 days.  Children arrived, shy and stand-offish, and gradually they came out of their shell, by the last day ran to greet their friends, and shared smiles and laughter with one another. 
                I enjoy hearing stories from people about who they used to be verses who they are now, and what it was that caused that transformation in them.  For instance, I related when someone told me this week, “I used to be so shy when I was younger, but now I just strike up these conversations.  I guess I just got used to it.”  She was telling me about all these random people she’s met lately, just standing in line, or waiting for an appointment and how she’s discovered these connections, several people who went to the same elementary school that she did.  What transformed her?  It is partly to do with community, coming together and taking a risk to engage with people.  Then each time a connection is made, it strengthens the drive to reach out again.
I definitely feel that way about how I’ve changed over the past 14 years since you called me to be your pastor.  I am very different from who I was when I arrived, and thanks to your care and nurturing and compassion, here I find myself more clear about who I am, more self-assured, more focused.  I am very different from who I was before I had my son.  I even feel different from who I was a month ago, since I started reading this very enlightening parenting book that is making me feel hopeful that maybe I can be an empowering parent and maybe even translate that learning to this congregation.  What transformed me?  I have to say it has been community: all of you, my colleagues, neighbors, and friends and let’s not forget God who is there when any two or three are gathered.
                The story in Jeremiah is one of transformation.  This world inevitably hurts us and we hurt each other.  We might call this original sin, or not.  Sometimes the shepherds we trust, lead us astray.  We get scattered.  We start to mistrust each other.  We become afraid.  In this reading the shepherds are the kings.  The very ones that are supposed to look out for the people misuse their power.  They hurt the people to get what they want.  They forget their role is to protect the flock.  But the scattered flock still has hope.
                We have a Good Shepherd, one who never forgets the purpose, who never forgets the people or the lost sheep.  This is the one who intervenes.  Because of the compassion of this shepherd, the flock will be gathered, healed, and fruitful.  No one will be afraid.  No one will be missing.  No one will even be dismayed!  Wow, I am dismayed every day.  But there is a promise, a transformation coming through God in which that dismay will be gone.  There will be safety.  There will be justice. 
                The story of the Gentiles in Ephesians was one of transformation.  They had been adrift, aliens and strangers, without hope, far away, hostile and recipients of hostility.  Yet Jesus has entered the picture.  His life and death have brought these outsiders in, and not just in, but members of the family.  Jesus has broken down the dividing walls, creating peace in the family of God, building a structure strong and lasting, a community for God to dwell in.  We were far away and now we are near.  We were hostile and now we have peace.  We were strangers and aliens and now we’re family.  We were nobodies, and now we are part of God’s own family, brothers and sisters with Jesus, eating at the table, making decisions, cooperating, caring, and building the Kingdom of God.
                Sometimes longtime church folk say we want to be transformed, but we really have in mind is the days long past when there were 50 kids in Sunday School, or when people put church first, when there was no sports on Sundays and Wednesday evening was church night.  It was a time when Christianity wasn’t a bad word.  It was a time of prosperity and community and comfort.  We are no longer in those times.  We are a little off kilter, feeling confused, and wondering what happened.  We want to be transformed.  However, transformation never goes backward.  What we were then is in the past.  What we are now is somewhat confused, but Jesus is right here with us, teaching us, transforming us, giving us new life.  What we will be, we don’t know, but that we will be part of something bigger than ourselves, that justice will be rolling down, that the hungry will be fed, those without a place to lay their heads will live in safety, and every tear will be wiped away.  Grave enemies will be best friends, and we won’t hurt each other anymore.  God was with us in the 50s and 60s and God is with us now, but the world has changed and we are learning to be transformed in this current context.
                Even the 23rd Psalm can be seen as a Psalm of transformation.  We were in want, we were lost and wandering, we were hungry, we were sick, we were pursued by our enemies, we walked through the valley of the shadow of death.  That was probably the point of transformation, the lowest point, the point of confusion.  But walking through those times can give us clarity, can help us focus on hope, can make us reach out to connect with those around us, can help us give of ourselves to others living in dark valleys.  So we come through, transformed, led by the shepherd, trusting, hopeful, fruitful, fed, and part of the flock, in community, in safety.
                Jesus’ disciples were being transformed.  They were afraid to go out and share the good news.  They failed at many of their attempts to heal.  They were always misunderstanding Jesus.  But finally, they have gone out and been witnessing God’s power for healing and community in this ministry.  They come back, full of stories and questions.  They are exhausted.  They need to process what they’ve been learning.  And they’ve missed each other.  They are in the midst of transformation, of seeing what the power of God can do through ordinary people like them.  But not only are they being transformed, so are all these people around them, and they are wanting a little more attention from Jesus.  There have been too many healings to count, the verses that are skipped we’ll pick up on in the coming weeks with the feeding of the 5000, so they also need teaching and food.  They just want to be close to him.
                And the good news is that there is enough of Jesus to go around.  He is available to the insiders.  He’s available to the outsiders.  He’s available to the sick, to the grieving, to the hungry, to those who are important, to those who are ordinary.  He has compassion on them and so he goes to them.  We are among the them.  Jesus knows we are tired, confused, hungry, wanting to tell him and ask him things, and he has time to be in our midst, he has compassion to listen and to share himself with us.  He shares his words with us in these readings.  He shares his body and blood with us in this meal.  He shares his power with us through the Holy Spirit and as part of community, working together to live the Kingdom vision and be Kingdom people.
                Maybe we are being transformed, and maybe we are simply opening our eyes.  We live in this world and we see brokenness and division and despair and dismay.  We see the way people hurt each other and misuse their power.  But there is another reality that Jesus holds before us, and if we open our eyes we can see it.  We can witness people speaking up for themselves and for other troubled people who have never done so before.  We can see the beauty of this earth.  We can live in the unity of community and work together with people we would ordinarily never encounter.  We can take a moment to talk to someone who is hurting.  We can visit someone who is dying and remember with joy all the memories and give thanks to God.  We can give thanks for the life of someone who has died, and even in our grief know we are joined to them and that healing can take so many forms.  We can live boldly and love fiercely and open our eyes to the reality God is creating among us and between us and within us.  We can cross to the other side, and realize the other side is not so far away, and instead of finding a stranger, find ourselves, find who God made us to be, find a wholeness we never thought possible.

Monday, July 16, 2018

July 15, 2018

Mark 6:14-29                      
Amos 7:7-15                       
Ephesians 1:3-14
                I know several of you watch “Dancing with the Stars” religiously, rush home to see the latest episode or record it to watch later.  I have watched it enough to understand the appeal.  I thought of it when I read today’s Bible reading, with Herodias’ bewitching dance, her beautiful, convincing dance.
                When I was in college, I was required to take an arts sequence for the Honor’s Program I was enrolled in.  As part of that I had an improvisational dance class.  There is nowhere I felt more out of place, but there we were a group of nerdy honors students, moving our bodies with another person, responding to music and touch and gravity and story and emotion and imagination.  Like other art forms, it was one in which I lost my sense of time and of self.  Thankfully in that class there was no audience and there was no performance.
                Unlike today’s Gospel reading which has quite an audience of very important people.  With the performance, we add lights and costumes and then the attitude and experience and expectation of each audience member.  Dance can express any emotion.  We may think of it expressing joy and hope, but it can express anger, fear, lust, and even hatred.  Those last emotions must have been well hidden in Herodius.
                Herod had likely taken John the Baptist into protective custody, to save him from an “accident” that his wife Herodias might have ordered against him as he wandered about baptizing in the wilderness and challenging Kings and governors and all in authority who didn’t live up to God’s laws.  Some take this reading to mean that we should point out to others their sexual sins—that they are especially egregious.  However, I think it is more that Herod has taken his brother’s wife to hurt his brother, out of jealousy or hatred.  That is the damaging part to Herod.  His hatred and fear show that he is vulnerable, weak, susceptible to circumstances such as these in which he is embarrassed and shamed into doing something he regrets, something like beheading John, something extreme and evil. 
Herod took John into protective custody because there was something in Herod that responded to John’s honesty and integrity.  It says in the scripture, “When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him.”  I suppose most of the people who talked to Herod were not up front with him.  The likely told him what he wanted to hear whether or not it was the truth.  Also, most people likely wanted something from Herod, so they could never have a real conversation.  It would always be about how he could use his power to help them and never about who Herod was or what life was all about.  So I can easily see how Herod would be puzzled as well as intrigued, interested in conversation with John who refused to treat him special or different, but would give him the truth with no thought about John’s own head.
                This Gospel is absolutely Shakespearian.  It starts out by saying that Herod is disturbed by his guilt and fear at having John beheaded, he is haunted by the thought that John has come back to accuse him of murder, but really it is Jesus who is reminding him of John.  Then we flash back to this story which Herod must have replayed again and again.  He must have asked himself how this dance had so mesmerized him.  He must have asked how he came to boast and pledge before everyone, how he could have so misjudged this innocent young Herodias, and how much hatred his wife and daughter had toward him to choose to destroy this relationship he held with John.  He must have asked himself over and over how he had come to sell his soul, to give up what was most precious and important to him, and how he had fallen so low, embarrassed himself, and ruined his Birthday and probably all parties from then on.  I say that, because who wants to go to a party in which the one who invites you is so unpredictable as to promise anything to the entertainment?  Who wants to go to a party of someone who might on a whim serve up any one of his guests’ heads on a platter?  Who wants to go to a party of someone whose party went from this high of an enchanting dance, to the low of the beheading of a prophet?  I don’t think Herod’s parties were too well attended after that.
                Some dance is intended to express the beauty and truth of life, the preciousness of life.  Consider the rescue of the boys’ soccer team in Thailand.  What a dance of cooperation, of timeliness, of equipment, setting, costumes, drama, lighting.  We all understood the dance, no matter our language or country.  We all felt the fear, the danger, the guilt, the forgiveness.  And we all felt the rush of emotion when we heard the boys were out of the cave. 
                We do a kind of dance here, each Sunday.   We have the music.  We have participants, different dancers expressing the moves brought to us through time.  Some is improvisation and some is choreographed.  Some is ancient and some is modern.  And each week Jesus makes an appearance and we dance the supper dance, even getting up to move forward, to receive, to ponder, to be nourished.  And we dance from this room to our separate dances, sometimes joyful, sometimes painful, some a routine we’ve been working on for years.  And next week we dance back here again to participate in a new dance, based on a very old dance that has inspired dancers through the ages and given hope and new life to a scraggly group of followers dancing in the footsteps of our King.
                Some dances distract us from what matters, some mesmerize us and seduce us.  There is a popular dance that tells a story that we are powerless, that we can’t do anything in the face of injustice.  That is a lie that distracts us from the truth that whatever we do for the least of these is noted and matters to God.  There is a popular dance that tells a story that we are alone, that no one can understand us.  This is a seductive lie that we get mesmerized by.  There is a greater truth, a dance we can join with others, even though they might not dance exactly how we do, together we can express something beautiful and truthful and perplexing.  There is a popular dance that tells a story that it matters most what other people think of us.  That is a lie.  There is a greater purpose, a greater law, a bigger dance that we are part of, and we must forsake the distracting lying dances of this world and listen to our choreographer.  We must look to our neighbor to our left and right, we must listen to the inspiring music and respond to the voice of God in order to effectively join this dance.  Yet everyone is forgiven our missteps and invited to try again when we fall.
                We practice together, week after week, so that when our dance requires leaps of courage and hope, and when our dance requires acrobatics and strength we didn’t know we had, when we must stand up straight like a plumb line, or get up when we fall, we have the faith to try and try again, and so we have the courage to fail.  God does not call us to perfection, God calls us to dance.  I read the thing about the plumb line and I panicked.  I cannot be perfect as much as I would like.  I don’t measure up and God has a strict measurement.  But God does not require perfection.  But God does require us to keep measuring ourselves and making course corrections when we aren’t making the mark, because God doesn’t want us making crumbling walls, or wasting our time building up if we aren’t going to try to make something sound and strong.  Finally, God does call us to fall and crumble.  When we dance Jesus’ dance, we end up ridiculed, executed, failing.  We end up like John, interesting but beheaded, a failure.  Herodias in this story is a success.  She dances beautifully.  She gets what she wants.  She takes down a powerful man.  There is more to life and dancing than success.  There is failure, and Jesus goes there and God asks us to go there, because we’re going to learn more from going there, we will be strengthened going there, we will recognize our need for God and each other going there, and we won’t be praising ourselves or selling our souls to get there.  Christians are failures by all the world’s standards: We give away our money, we listen to each other, we do works of charity, we fast, we make sacrfices, we die for what we believe in.  We hold ourselves up to the plumb line of love.  Love is weak, it doesn’t cost anything, anyone can have access to it.  But love is our law, it is our dance, it is our life, and even if we fall on our face, we are not alone, and we will continue dancing until everyone finds themselves dancing the dance of love.