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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.