“Guide Our Feet”

August 6, 2017                                                                         

Psalm 42:1-8, Luke 1:68-79

“Guide Our Feet”

 

As we read the Psalm in text study this week, we heard the Psalmist’s deep longing for God. Both the Psalm and Luke were written in turbulent times. The speakers in each case are acknowledging the difficult times and turning to God for help. The Psalmist turns to God by relying on memories of times when the connection to God has been strong. It is a beautiful reclaiming of all the paths walked with God and the reading ends by remembering that God’s love is indeed available every day. Sometimes the way to find God right now is by remembering how God has been present in the past.

 

Zechariah’s powerful song of faith comes after many months of silence. He questioned the angel Gabriel’s prophecy that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son named John in their old age. Gabriel silenced him because he didn’t trust the prophecy. The text you just heard are the first words he speaks after his son is born.

 

Zechariah sings that God is sending Jesus to bring hope and healing to the world. Zechariah recognizes God is calling us to join in this work of service and justice. He turns his song to his newborn son, John, and tells him that he is to prepare the way for Jesus in the world. The final lines of this song recall God’s forgiveness and mercy in each day. Just as God is bringing light to those in darkness, God is guiding our feet into the way of peace.

 

I preached on this text in November and said that this text is much deeper than a call to smooth things over and move on. “Instead we get a glimpse of where we must stand now: between life and death, hope and despair, fear and courage, violence and peace. This is the place where life happens. We get into trouble when we convince ourselves that it is an either or.” (Sermon November 20, 2016)

 

There is a profound call to peace here and it is not just a call to kiss and make up. Instead it is a call to cultivate deep peace within ourselves so that we can extend that peace into the world. God is guiding our feet in the way of peace even while there are places of deep unrest in our world.

 

Some of the most powerful voices at General Synod this summer were the voices of the youth. There were youth delegates from every conference. Often, when we remember to try and make room for younger people, we do so asking them to be our helpers. But these youth were full delegates. They looked at all the Synod resolutions and decided to devote their energy to studying gun violence.

 

The resolution was not about gun control, but asking congress to designate money to study gun violence. 15,000 people were killed by guns in 2016. The CDC estimates that gun violence is one of the top five causes of death for people under 65, but efforts to study this have been blocked by Congress for the last 16 years. The youth came to the microphone and told stories. A sixteen-year-old girl has lost three people in her life to gun violence. A teenage boy was playing football in a park with friends, when a car drove by and began shooting. The kids dove to the ground to avoid the bullets. The youth explained that this issue affects their daily lives.

 

Can you hear Zechariah saying, “Guide our feet in the way of peace?”

 

John Lennon, whose life was cut short by gun violence, wrote a song called “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” and in it he said, “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.”

 

We talked in text study this week about that phenomenon of having life interrupted by an illness, an injury, a loss, or something unexpected and what we do when the way we have known our self changes as a result. Congregations can be interrupted as well. We don’t have guarantees about the circumstances of our lives, but we are guaranteed that God will be present in all of it. It will likely mean some struggling when circumstances knock us off our center of gravity.

 

My friend Jan Richardson wrote an essay called “The Wrestling is Where the Blessing Begins.” She reflects on the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis 32 and reminds us that blessing emerges from that encounter. They wrestle all night. When dawn breaks, the angel asks Jacob to let him go, but Jacob replies, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” He is given a new name by the angel and he walks away with a limp. Jan asks when an experience of wrestling with God helped us know who we are and which way to go. She writes about Jacob’s blessing saying:

 

JACOB'S BLESSING

If this blessing were easy,
anyone could claim it.
As it is,
I am here to tell you
that it will take some work.

This is the blessing
that visits you
in the struggling,
in the wrestling,
in the striving.

This is the blessing
that comes
after you have left
everything behind,
after you have stepped out,
after you have crossed
into that realm
beyond every landmark
you have known.

This is the blessing
that takes all night
to find.

It’s not that this blessing
is so difficult,
as if it were not filled
with grace
or with the love
that lives
in every line.

It’s simply that
it requires you
to want it,
to ask for it,
to place yourself
in its path.
It demands that you
stand to meet it
when it arrives,
that you stretch yourself
in ways you didn’t know
you could move,
that you agree
to not give up.

So when this blessing comes,
borne in the hands
of the difficult angel
who has chosen you,
do not let go.
Give yourself
into its grip.

It will wound you,
but I tell you
there will come a day
when what felt to you
like limping

was something more
like dancing
as you moved into
the cadence
of your new
and blessed name.

(from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief)

And so we pray for the stamina to wrestle with God, for the ability to be silent and listen to God, for the capacity to remember the ways God has been present with us when we are longing to experience God with us now. And then may we allow God to guide our feet in the way of peace.

“The View from Here”

July 30, 2017                                                                           

Psalm 104:5-9, 19-23, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

“The View from Here”

 

When I moved to Albuquerque, I was told there are four seasons: wind, rain, sun, and snow.

 

Each year around this time, I hear lots of complaining that summer needs to end soon. The heat is a source of discomfort and yet there are gifts in the summer. I love early morning sunlight and all the fresh fruit. When fall arrives, many rejoice at the cooler days, the smell of green chile, and the beauty of leaves as they turn. As winter approaches, some are happy that the season to hibernate has arrived and they welcome the quiet. Then spring emerges and there is a sense of hope as bulbs push through the earth and the light returns. Each season has blessing and each season has pain or disappointment.

 

We have seasons in the church year beginning with Advent as we prepare for the birth of Christ, then Epiphany, the season of light following the birth. Next comes Lent and the time of reflection. Easter follows and resurrection is the theme. Pentecost comes bringing the Spirit into the community. You may remember that the story of Pentecost is not peaceful. In fact, it is chaotic when the spirit blows into the people who are gathered. They are unnerved by the sound of so many languages spoken at once and tongues of fire. They are disoriented and afraid because they cannot comprehend what is happening. Peter addresses them and tells them this is a gift from God. This isn’t the first time in the Bible people are told they are receiving a gift from God, but they are not feeling very good about the gift. In the Pentecost story, they are getting what they asked for, but they are not feeling good about it at all. The season of Pentecost continues for more than twenty weeks and is called Ordinary Time. It is the time where the community picks up those chaotic pieces and figures out how to go on together.

 

That is where we are today. This is the aftermath of a chaotic, disorienting experience for our community. We gather in this room to ask God to show us the way forward. Do you remember the way forward for the early Christians? It was gathering around tables to talk, to listen, to eat, and to pray.

 

Last Sunday, we gathered for three hours after worship to consider what it means to offer sanctuary. We heard many voices. It was hot in the room. We were hungry. We listened. There were many things expressed – pain, fear, urgency, faith, frustration, and hope.

 

It was long and it was hard. The congregation voted to reflect and study further on whether to offer sanctuary and then we voted to offer sanctuary to Kadhim. Some were unhappy with the process. Some were unhappy about things that were said. Some were unhappy with the results. Some left. Some are relieved. Some decided this is a community they want to join.

 

On Wednesday, the text study group gathered. They meet every week to talk about the scriptures for the following Sunday. There are as many opinions as there are people each week, sometimes more. They have a long history of respectfully listening to one another and openly expressing their viewpoints. They learn from each other and argue with each other and laugh with each other and pray for one another. We talked about our experience last Sunday and we listened and we prayed. I looked at each person around the table and I thought “we are going to be ok.” I didn’t think that because everyone felt the same way. I thought it because we showed up for each other and honored each other and we will continue to do that.

 

Our community is trying to discern how to faithfully respond to a broken immigration system. There is nothing easy about this. When we are faced with injustice, the way forward is not easy. But we take a step and then another and then another. We don’t give up.

 

I am terribly sad that we have lost members. I am staying in relationship and praying for each person. I know that all of us are held by God as we navigate the pain and turbulence. God will heal the places that are broken.

 

Our scripture readings are about seasons. God is in each of those seasons. God is in this season in the life of our community. Ecclesiastes goes on to say there is a right time for everything, but only God can know it. (3:11 paraphrase) We like to have more control in each of the seasons of our lives. There are seasons that we choose – we get married, we begin a new job, we welcome children into our family. There are seasons where something happens to us and we respond – we receive a terrifying diagnosis, we lose someone we love, we lose a job. Sometimes the last thing we want launches us into a new season. As we make our way through the seasons, we discover that we are not alone and there is healing along the way.

 

I have been thinking about two who endured suffering and the lessons they can teach us. Etty Hillesum was a Dutch Jew who was killed at Auschwitz. Her diaries were later published in a book called An Interrupted Life.

 

She says, “And the English radio has reported that 700,000 Jews perished last year alone, in Germany and the occupied territories. And even if we stay alive, we shall carry the wounds with us throughout our lives. And yet I don’t think life is meaningless. And God is not accountable to us for the senseless harm we cause one another. We are accountable to [God]! I have already died a thousand deaths in a thousand concentration camps. I know about everything and am no longer appalled by the latest reports. In one way or another I know it all. And yet I find life beautiful and meaningful. From minute to minute.” (June 29, 1942, p. 150)

 

She went on to say that “I have looked our destruction, our miserable end, which has already begun in so many small ways in our daily life, straight in the eye, and my love of life has not been diminished.” (p.189)

Etty challenges us to see that exterior changes in the world will come about only as each one of us does our own inner work. To choose that inner work is to choose each other and to choose a different reality. In the last line of her diary, she says, “We should be willing to act as balm for all wounds.” (p. 231)

She was writing in a horrific season of history. Her words are important in this time in history as well.

The other person I have been thinking about is Job. Job’s story is difficult and we have to be careful theologically or we will simplify it into something it is not. Job endures terrific suffering and his friends try to help by explaining that it is his fault and he needs to apologize to God. Job knows he didn’t cause the pain so he insists for chapter after chapter that he should have his day in court with God. When God shows up, there is no hearing. Instead of a trial which will vindicate Job, he is given something else—perspective.

God asks questions about Job’s ability to create a sunrise, or creatures, or thunder and lightning. Job realizes that his view of things was just that – his view. After his encounter with God, he realizes that there is a much greater viewpoint than his. Sometimes it is good to be reminded that we cannot see everything.

Things have unfolded quickly in the last several weeks. There are reactions and emotions and all of us have a limited view point. This is one season of our life together as a church and God is in this season. God was in the season before and all the ones before that. God is in the seasons to come. We may not be able to see the big picture, but we can trust that God is in this with us. This Celtic Blessing series reminds us that a blessing is a way of invoking God’s presence into all of life. And so we pray,

         “Bless the tears,

         Bless the grief,

         Bless the despair,

         Bless the dying.

 

         Bless the hope,

         Bless the love,

         Bless the life,

         Bless the light.

 

         Come, Emmanuel, God with us,

         And bring us light.”

         (from Christ Beside Me, Christ Within Me by Beth A. Richardson, p. 56)

 

“All of It”

July 16, 2017   

Psalm 113, Matthew 6:11

“All of It”

 

One day near the end of seminary, my friend Jan Richardson told me she wanted to write a book. My young adult self thought, “Can you do that??” I wondered how someone in her early 20’s had enough wisdom to write a book. Fortunately, whatever came out of my mouth was more supportive than that. Jan is both a writer and an artist. Jan wrote a book, and then another, and then another. She writes books and blogs. She makes beautiful art. But the thing about Jan that captivates me most is the blessings that she writes. When I saw her a few years ago, she said she had been asked to compile the blessings into a book. A much older, wiser me was able to say, “Yes, Jan! Please write that book. We need it.” In her introduction to Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons, she talks about how she began writing blessings.

 

She was studying the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and it came to her that “the most profound blessings we will ever know are those that meet us in the place of our deepest loss and inspire us to choose to live again.” She said, “I found myself enchanted and compelled by the power of blessing: how, in the space of a few lines, the stuff of pain, grief, and death becomes the very substance of hope. I wanted to know more about that place; I wanted to live there.” (pp. xiii, xiv) She goes on to say that she suspects that one of the primary reasons she writes blessings is because she is in such need of them herself. (p. xix)

 

We live in such an either/or world. Things are good or bad. They are black or white. They are interesting or boring. They are fast or slow. They are smart or dumb. We are for or against an issue or a candidate.

 

But the real world is not either/or. We are not good or bad. We are both. We are living and dying at the same time. And God is in it all. It is easier to see God in the goodness. If I ask where you see God, most will say you see God in something beautiful or good or hopeful. I would do the same. And yet, God continues to show up in the broken and the painful. It is certainly in the most difficult times that I “pray without ceasing.” It is in those times that I know how much I need God.

 

Jan Richardson’s husband, Gary, died unexpectedly. They had been married less than four years. In what they thought would be a routine surgery for a brain aneurysm, Gary had a massive stroke and he never recovered. She wrote blessings learning that they helped her to “keep breathing—to abide this moment, and the next moment, and the one after that…A blessing helps us recognize and receive the help of the One who created us in love and encompasses us when we are at our most broken.” (from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief, p. xv)

 

Today we are beginning a series called “Bless to Me.” This series takes us into the Celtic world. I first discovered the Celts on a trip to England and Scotland 20 years ago. I am fascinated by these early Christians. They were deeply grounded in the world and so tuned-in to the holy in all things. They didn’t separate heaven and earth. They talked about thin places. A thin place is where the distance between heaven and earth is indistinguishable. I experienced this on the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. Holiness permeated everything. It wasn’t like there were holy places and unholy places. God was in all of it.

 

When we decided to do this series months ago, I could not have anticipated what the first week would look like. An Iraqi man who was staying in our church basement received a notice from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to Report for Removal on Thursday. This week has been a flurry of activity in response. I have seen blessing over and over in it. It is astonishing how many in the community have shown up to support Kadhim. They have volunteered for hours at a time.

 

In the midst of the fear and pain, there have been so many beautiful moments. A close friend shared a dream that was full of hope. Three hundred people showed up to support Kadhim Thursday morning. Kadhim has expressed deep gratitude for our congregation and said that no matter what happens we will always be “brothers.” I sat with the family as they told stories, and I saw their love for one another. Somehow in less than a week, my life was profoundly changed by this man and his family. In the midst of their fear and devastation, they have been so gracious.

 

The Psalm that Frances read earlier is a call to praise or bless God in all things. At the same time, it calls us to join God in caring for the most vulnerable in the world. There are two important reminders in this text – don’t leave God out and don’t believe everything is up to you. There is a beautiful weaving of relationship. We need God and God needs us to care for one another.

 

This same thread is found in “Give us this day our daily bread.” That one line is a recognition of our dependence on God for sustenance and our commitment that all will be fed. Notice the word US in the prayer. We pray that all will have bread, that all will have shelter, that all will be free from harm or violence.

 

We are reminded again that life is not an either/or. It is brokenness AND it is blessing. It is pain AND it is hope. It is fear AND it is courage. This is so important for each of us, and it is deeply important for our community. We are in this together. We do not always agree or see things from the same set of lenses, but we can be in relationship with one another. We can recognize God’s goodness and we can reach out to those on the margins. Relationship is at the heart of the gospel and it is the heart of the Celtic way of being. Jesus calls us to love God, neighbors, and ourselves.

 

The Celts were profoundly shaped by the Trinity. They believed that the trinity meant God is community. We are made in the image of God and we find our fulfillment in community.

 

God is in our relationships. When we struggle or are alienated, God calls us to reconciliation. It is clear that no matter what the circumstances, we do not do this alone.

 

When we ask hard questions like the question of becoming a Sanctuary church, we do so out of a deep commitment to be in relationship with one another and the world. Blessing is when we discover how intricately our lives are woven together.

 

I had the privilege of seeing the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. – all six floors of it. As I walked through that museum and tried to view the world out of a lens other than my own privilege, I realized over and over again that things only change in our world when we begin to stand up and say no to injustice. There was an interactive lunch counter where we could imagine ourselves sitting as people spit on us and poured ketchup on us. I am astounded at the people who showed up for the sit-ins and endured that treatment. They were afraid, but they were also courageous, and they showed up and things began to change. I am not trying to simplify this. There were thousands who stood up to an unjust society in so many ways. But what I kept experiencing that day in the museum is that things only changed because people stood up and said “NO.”

 

We are compelled to do the same for all; for those who are undocumented, for those who are hungry, for those who are losing their healthcare, for those who are abused, for those who are afraid, and the list goes on and on…

 

We do that because we recognize God’s goodness. Caring for the least of these is the way we praise God. God blesses us when we bless others. It is not an either/or. Blessing is not linear. It is a circle and it flows in all of life. It flows through the privileged and those in pain. God is in it all of it. God is in all of us.




 

“Holy Time Out”

July 9, 2017   

Matthew 11:28-30

“Holy Time Out”

 

How many of you grew up keeping the Sabbath? Do you remember when stores were closed on Sundays? I’m not ready to advocate that everything should close on Sunday because Christians call it Sabbath, but I’m aware that times have changed and very few places close on Sundays any more. Even the post office is delivering packages on Sundays now.

 

I’ve just returned from a trip to New York City, often called The City that Never Sleeps. From there, I went to the United Church of Christ General Synod. We began each morning at 6:30 am gathering with delegates from other Western conferences. Most days we finished at 10 pm. I loved both places and I was grateful to experience New York and General Synod for the first time. But I didn’t come home rested. I came home tired.

 

How often do we ask people how they are doing and hear “I am so busy.” Or “I am tired.” We wear that in our culture like some kind of badge of honor. Busy and tired are not things I aspire to. I may live that way sometimes, but I’m not proud of it.

 

Several years ago, I came across a book by Wayne Muller called Sabbath. I was leading a young adult Bible study at the time and the group was very interested in practicing Sabbath. It was so counter to what they normally did. We made a commitment to observe Sabbath each week during Lent. We did not script what Sabbath would look like for each person but we checked in weekly and heard how group members had practiced Sabbath. We did it with varying degrees of success and varying amounts of time each week. But we were eager to experience the renewal that can only come from a “spiritual time out”.

 

How often do we hear Jesus calling us to do one more thing? The call to take care of those on the margins is nonstop and there are needs in front of us every day. We can’t ignore those who struggling, but we also need to be able to be present to them. That really does mean taking time to rest and renew our souls. Some of us get this and create time for rest in our routines. Others might think it is important, but we can’t seem to make it happen unless we are sick. Then we end up resenting the sickness for taking us away from our lives.

 

“One morning, a few years ago, Harvard President Neil Rudenstine overslept. For this perfectionist in the midst of a major fund-raising campaign, it was cause for alarm. After years of non-stop toil in an atmosphere that rewarded frantic overwork, Rudenstine collapsed. “My sense was that I was exhausted,” he told reporters. His doctor agreed. Only after a three-month sabbatical…was Rudenstine able to return to his post. That week his picture was on the cover of Newsweek magazine beside the banner headline “Exhausted!” http://www.waynemuller.com/cool_stuff/wednesdays/whatever_happened_to_sunday

 

Muller says that because we do not rest, we lose our way. I think he is right. As a congregation, we are constantly responding to the needs in our community and in our world. I am not suggesting for a minute that we do anything less than that, but I am suggesting that we build in space for rest, renewal, and deeper prayer in the midst of all that we do.

 

We often act like the work we are doing in our meetings is the most important thing we can do. It isn’t. Listen to Jesus’ call to come, rest, and share the yoke. We need to steep ourselves in God in everything we do. To do good work, to be in ministry with others, we must be in good shape ourselves.

 

“Roger is a gifted, thoughtful physician. Physicians are trained to work when they’re exhausted, required to perform when they are sleep-deprived, hurried, and overloaded. “I discovered in medical school that the more exhausted I was, the more tests I would order. I was too tired to see precisely what was going on with my patients. I could recognize their symptoms and formulate possible diagnoses, but I couldn’t hear precisely how it fit together. So I would order tests to give me what I was missing. But when I was rested—if I had an opportunity to get some sleep, or meditate, or go for a quiet walk—I could rely on my intuition and experience to tell me what was needed. If there was any uncertainty, I would order a specific test to confirm my diagnosis. But when I was rested and could listen and be present, I was almost always right.” http://www.waynemuller.com/cool_stuff/wednesdays/whatever_happened_to_sunday

 

We have a man staying with us because of a broken immigration system. General Synod passed legislation to become an Immigrant Welcoming Church. We must do everything we can to create a system that is just and merciful to all God’s people. AND we must rest along the way to do this work well.

 

The work of peace and justice is hard work. It is exhausting. We cannot give up and we must stay in relationship with the one who call us to rest. The words “come to me” are an invitation to relationship with Jesus who meets us in our weariness. Jesus gave and gave of himself and then he would retreat and rest so that he could return and minister with his whole self. We must do the same.

 

I have so much to tell you about General Synod. The call to justice was present from beginning to end. We have adopted a new vision statement for the United Church of Christ – a just world for all. Over the next few years we are focusing on the three great loves – love of neighbor, children, and creation. We have so much work to do and we must give it all we have. But remember that Jesus calls us to share a yoke that is called easy and light. That doesn’t mean that the work we do is easy, but it means that we are seeking justice and peace alongside Jesus. We are doing God’s work in the world and that work will ask that we give our all. Jesus will meet us when we are most weary and carry the load with us.

 

My friend Wayne Muller says that we can “change society by beginning a quiet revolution of change in ourselves and our families. Let us take a collective breath, rest, pray, meditate, walk, sing, eat, and take time to share the unhurried company of those we love. Let us for just one day, cease our desperate striving for more, and instead taste the blessings we have already been given, and give thanks. Religious traditions agree on this: God does not want us to be exhausted; God wants us to be happy.” http://www.waynemuller.com/cool_stuff/wednesdays/whatever_happened_to_sunday

 

From the beginning of creation, rest and renewal have been included into the fabric of humanity. Rest is called good. It seems that God knew we would struggle with this one and so it was included in the ten commandments alongside the words “do not kill.” The words are “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” It is a matter of life or death. Choosing to rest is choosing life. We are called to give our lives for God’s work in the world – that means holy time outs too. Do this and you will find rest for your souls.

 

“Trust Me”

June 18, 2017                                                                          

Genesis 18:1-15, Matthew 9:35-10:15

“Trust Me”

 

We are leaving for two trips this week – a family vacation and the UCC General Synod.

I am already thinking about what to pack. They will be two different trips, but they are back to back so I have to pack for both trips. I will never be known as someone who packs lightly. I want to be prepared. Weather can change. I was horrified to see how much heavier my suitcase was than everyone else who went on the border trip, but I felt secure having all my stuff with me. I am not only careful about packing clothes, I make sure to pack snacks, books to read and chargers for every electronic device. I don’t want to rely on anyone else.

 

I don’t think Jesus would be impressed with my packing. In fact, I think he would probably tell me that if I need all that stuff, I should probably stay home. Jesus calls the disciples to respond to the human need he saw around him. The scripture says that he had compassion on the crowds because they were harassed and helpless. As he realizes the magnitude of the need, he calls his disciples to help. He tells them not to take any money or credit cards, no suitcases, and no extra clothes. I would never survive packing Jesus’ style!

 

He tells the disciples to trust the hospitality of others they travel. Someone will feed them and care for them. I have experienced some of that hospitality and it always astonishes me. When I traveled to Bolivia among some of the poorest people I have ever known, they all wanted to feed us (and we were a large group). Our border immersion team has told you about being fed by Aurelia who learned to make tamales to sell so she could pay the coyotes to bring her husband home from Mexico when he was not allowed to re-enter. Aurelia had all twelve of us in her home, told us her story, and then fed us wonderful tamales!

 

Jesus call to trust the goodness of others is not very American. Our culture is more geared toward taking care of yourself. Jesus is sending the disciples out to take care of people and at the same time he is calling them to let others take care of them.

 

In the reading from Genesis, God tells Abraham and Sarah they will bear a child in their old age. God has promised them an heir, but childbearing years passed them by so Abraham had a son with Hagar, his servant. So when God shows up again and says, “You are going to have a child. No, really.” Sarah laughs. That’s fair. She was around 90 and Abraham 100. How do you trust a promise like that?

 

I’ve been thinking about the call to trust in God. I’ve been thinking about how hard it is to trust. I’ve been thinking about how much we trust anyway.

 

o   Every time we get in the car, we trust that we will make it to our destination unharmed.

o   We trust that the bridge won’t collapse as we cross over it.

o   We trust that the surgeon will be successful.

o   We trust that the food we eat and water we drink won’t make us sick.

o   When we pledge what we will give to the church, we trust that we will be able to follow through on our commitment.

o   You trust that the minister will show up and the musicians will be here each Sunday.

 

We trust from the time we wake up in the morning until we go to bed at night.

 

Both texts call us to ultimately trust in God, but there is a call to trust in each other as well. Some of you have heard me describe my first outdoor adventure when I was in college. It was a three-week class where we backpacked, biked, camped, and canoed. I had no outdoor experience and fell in love immediately with the outdoors. I was in a canoe with Joey. Joey was in the back and knew something about what he was doing. It was my first time and I was in the front. At one point, a rock lodged underneath the middle of our canoe. We were stuck and there was no moving. Joey tried a few things and nothing worked. He finally told me that I would have to go to the back of the canoe with him and we were just going to pop that canoe off the rock and be on our way. I was having none of that! I explained that there was no way that would work. I honestly didn’t know if it would work, I just knew that was too scary a solution so I was not at all interested. We spent a long time negotiating and discussing it. I waited it out as long as I could and we didn’t magically find ourselves moving along the river again. I finally gave up and in desperation, went to the back of the canoe with Joey. It took two easy seconds to pop the canoe off the rock and we were on our way down the river. I wasted a lot of time not trusting Joey.

 

When you look at these texts, there is trust going on all over the place. God is trusting two elderly people with a child. Jesus is trusting the disciples to accomplish his mission to heal and care for people. He didn’t wait around for them to become perfect. He trusted that they could continue the work he was doing even in their imperfection. He called them to trust in return.

 

Matthew Laney described Jesus calling the disciples in all their imperfections and then he said, “Jesus won't wait for you to be perfect before calling you to follow him. Not even Jesus has that much time. In fact, it would be just like Jesus to call when you are caught red-handed, when you are doing your worst, when you don't have time to clean up your act, when you feel totally unfit and undeserving. That's when grace prefers to make her move.” (In an essay called “Caught” from http://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional)

 

Our congregation has taken the call to serve the “harassed and the helpless” seriously since our origins. There is a fine line between good planning and stepping out trusting that God will give us what we need. I am in favor of both. Right now we are trusting in God as we prepare to serve the immigrants and refugees in our community. We are gathering information and listening to stories and listening for God’s call to us. We are doing the same as we prepare to hire a children, youth, and family staff person. Both will require us to trust in God and one another.

 

If you have ever stepped out with no net beneath you, you know about trusting in God. When something big asks us to trust, we wonder if we can do it. But here is what we need to remember. We trust every day. We trust in other people and we trust in God. We may not recognize that is what we are doing, but we are. We are building our trust muscle hundreds of times each day. We do that and when something big comes up and we don’t know if we can trust, I will tell you that we can. We have been building that muscle for a long time and it is strong and it is ready. I know that God is asking us to care for the vulnerable in our society and I know that when we do, we will find ourselves in uncomfortable places. I know that I may not get to pack the suitcase with all my belongings that make me feel secure. I know we will wonder where the money is coming from when we take on new ministry. I know that we will have to rely on each other and we will trust that God is leading us when we cannot see the way ahead. We don’t always believe that we can trust God, but when we keep going anyway, that is exactly what we are doing.

 

Nadia Bolz-Weber reminds us that “God’s ability to get things right is always more powerful than our ability to get things wrong.” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2014/09/a-sermon-on-who-to-trust-us-or-jesus/)

 

We know all too well that we can mess things up so it seems that we just need to be reminded from time to time that it isn’t all up to us. In fact, God has our backs. God is breathing life and hope and goodness into everything we do and we can trust that. We don’t give up when we can’t see where we are going. We trust that God is with us even in the most ludicrous situations. Sarah having a baby at age 90 is pretty ridiculous and it just reminds us that God will never be bound by our limited understanding of what makes sense. In fact, if what we feel called to do seems foolish, it may very well be God’s call. We don’t have to understand everything and we don’t have to know how we will arrive. We can trust that with God we will get where we need to go and it will be amazing!

 

 

 

 

“In the Beginning Was the Gift”

June 11, 2017                                                                          

Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8

“In the Beginning Was the Gift”

 

One of the easiest places to find God is in creation. How many of you have experienced God in nature? There are so many ways to do that – by seeing the sunrise or the multitude of stars at night, by hearing the birds singing in the morning, by tasting the first tomato from the garden, by feeling the breeze on your skin, by smelling the flowers in bloom. God is everywhere and shows up for us in so many ways. I spend as much time outside as I can because it keeps me grounded in God. I love seeing God in the hawk that lives in our neighborhood or hearing the hummingbird buzz as it makes it way to the trumpet vine for nectar. I love watching the sky change colors as the sun prepares to set. I love the smell of rain during monsoon season. I love the sweet taste of fresh watermelon. I love the warmth of the sun on my skin.

 

What would you add to the list of things you love about creation?

The readings today focus on God, creation, and our place in it. The opening chapters of Genesis have been called a Confession of Faith. They are a call to see the story not as a scientific description, but a theological affirmation. In other words, Genesis doesn’t exist to help us understand the science behind creation. The question for us today wouldn’t be did it happen this way, but what does it mean? What does the story of creation teach us about God?

One of my favorite creation poems was written by James Weldon Johnson in 1927. When I was a sophomore in high school, I memorized this poem and acted it out for my English class. It begins like this:

                       “And God stepped out on space,

                       And [he] looked around and said:

                       I’m lonely—

                       I’ll make me a world.

 

                       And far as the eye of God could see

                       Darkness covered everything,

                       Blacker than a hundred midnights

                       Down in a cypress swamp.

 

                       Then God smiled,

                       And the light broke,

                       And the darkness rolled up on one side,

                       And the light stood shining on the other,

                       And God said: That’s good!”

 

The story begins in blessing. It is full of goodness and every part of creation is celebrated. It is also very clear that God entrusted us to care for creation. We are told that we are created in God’s image and we are called to care for the earth. The implication is clear that we will care for it as God does. What do we do with the many threats to our earth? We step up like never before. We do not wait for someone else to step up and care for creation. We do it. The Paris Agreement continues and we each have a responsibility to take care of our planet. We do that because we are God’s people in the world. We treat the earth like the precious gift that it is. We take no more than we need. When we recognize the goodness in creation, we cannot help but treat it with dignity.

How often do you see litter? I see it in our parking lot every day. I was visiting my mother last month and there is a bird refuge in the complex where she lives. There are many beautiful species of birds and there was so much trash in the water. I have watched people roll down their windows and throw their trash and their cigarette butts out and I am sad when the earth is treated as a dumping ground.

Later this summer, we will do a worship series on Celtic blessings. You will have the opportunity to participate in a book group and forums to learn more about the Celtic way of living faith. The Celts were ancient Christians who believed there are two sacred texts: scripture and nature. Creation was at the heart of the Celtic way of life.

One important Celtic tradition was blessing. Notice the way blessing is woven into creation in our texts today. God blesses everything as it is created. God has given us life and blessed it. How can we do any less?

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The miracle is not to walk on water but on the earth.” What a beautiful spiritual practice! I have to admit that walking on water would be really cool, but to really walk on the earth – to see, to hear, to taste, to smell, to feel God’s goodness in our steps – would ground us in the goodness of creation and help us claim our place in it.

Meister Eckhart is a 14th century German mystic who said:

“Apprehend God in all things,
for God is in all things.

Every single creature is full of God
and is a book about God.

Every creature is a word of God.

If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature–
even a caterpillar–
I would never have to prepare a sermon.  So full of God
is every creature.”

We are God’s stewards of creation. It is a rather enormous task. But God has placed the earth in our care and calls us to step up and love it as if we are God. We are mirrors of God in the world. Pay attention. Before walking out to your car today, walk over to the butterfly garden and savor the goodness blooming there. As you drive home, don’t focus on the music in your sound system, notice the vast sky above our heads. When you see litter, pick it up and throw it away. Stop and breathe in this goodness every day. Eat fresh fruits and vegetables and know that you are tasting the bounty of creation. Listen for the sounds of the birds and the frogs. You are a part of this planet. Give it all the love you’ve got!

 

 

 

“Church on Fire!”

June 4, 2017                                                                            

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

“Church on Fire!”

 

Sometimes when we hear the Pentecost story, it sounds like something long ago and far away. But I don’t think it is. In fact, I think we are much like the people who gathered after Jesus ascended. They waited around in a room for their assignment. I’m guessing they were hoping it would be easy. “I’ll do anything. Just don’t ask me to talk to those people. Really, I want to know what you want us to do next. Please don’t ask me to give any of my hard-earned money. We are looking for some direction here, but don’t make us pray out loud.” Suddenly the Spirit blew among them and they were talking to “those” people. They were giving all their money. They were praying out loud.

 

Is that so different from us? Is it some ancient text? Or is it a story of a group of people gathered in this sanctuary in 2017?

 

Here we are asking what we should do about our future: Is our future in this building? If so, what does it look like?

 

What ARE we supposed to do for immigrants? Please don’t make us do something risky.

 

How do we hire the new staff person? Are we going to have to GIVE more to make that happen?

 

Does being a good neighbor mean investing MORE of our time?

 

How do we support our preschool? How do we help our children and youth grow in the faith when we have questions of our own? Can we teach Sunday School if we aren’t sure what we believe?

 

Pentecost is a beautiful story of followers who WANT to know what is next, but are terrified at having to continue without Jesus around to tell them what to do next. How are they supposed to know what to do? This may be one of those “be careful what you pray for” situations.

 

Here is something beautiful about Pentecost: EVERYONE is given the power to be God’s people in the world. That is an awesome thing! If you find that unbelievable, look at the Pentecost poster child: Peter. Peter was the eager follower who always asked the wrong question. Peter was the one who said, “You can count on me, Jesus. I am there for you no matter what.” After Jesus was killed, someone asked Peter, “Aren’t you one of the people who followed Jesus?” Peter replied, “I don’t know what you are talking about. I don’t know anyone named Jesus.” Peter seemed to be the biggest failure of all.

 

Look at what happened to him. The people gather and the Spirit blows among them and they start speaking AND hearing so that they can understand each other EVEN though they are from different countries and don’t speak the same language. It’s a very confusing scene and the first to speak up are the critics who say they must be drunk.

 

Who is the one to explain what is happening? Who is the courageous one to respond to the confused and the critical? PETER stands up and says, “This is God’s Spirit poured out on all of you. God’s Spirit is not just for the rich, or the righteous, or the ordained, or the educated. God’s Spirit is for ALL – the young, the old, the respected, the marginalized. God’s Spirit is for ALL – that means YOU!

 

If Peter can go from being the one who messes up every time to the bold spokesperson for God, WE can go from whatever limitations that hold us back to being God’s courageous followers too…ALL of us. Don’t start making your list of excuses – they don’t work here. Here you receive the get out of the jail of your excuses card. Here you receive EVERYTHING you need to be God’s people in the world. Last week Jesus promised the disciples that they would be given the Spirit’s power. This week, they are. So are YOU!

 

If I asked you if you have ever experienced the Spirit, some would tell me a story of doing something you never thought you could do. Some would say you have never experienced the Spirit. But if you kept talking, I think I would hear the Spirit at work in your life. The Spirit doesn’t choose some and exclude others. The Spirit is breathing in YOU.

 

That Spirit is empowering you to live boldly as Jesus’ follower in the world. The Spirit is there when you volunteer to lead something new. The Spirit is there when you give more than you usually do. The Spirit is there when you share your story in a group. The Spirit is there when the group treats your story as a sacred trust. The Spirit is there when you speak on behalf of someone on the margins. The Spirit is there when you show up even though you would rather stay home. The Spirit is there when you pray out loud even though you would rather melt into the floor.

 

We have these ideas that keep us in little boxes. Only the minister can pray out loud. I would just sound ridiculous if I did it.  I can’t share that story. No one would respect me if they knew. I can’t feed a homeless family dinner. What would I say to them? I can’t talk to someone who has been in prison. What if I insult them? I can’t tutor a middle school student. What if they don’t like me? I can’t help at Pride. What do I know about being gay? I can’t stand up for injustice. Someone else can do it better than me.

That’s where Pentecost comes in…you CAN pray out loud. You CAN share that story. You CAN feed a homeless family. You CAN talk to someone who has been in prison. You CAN tutor a middle school student. You CAN help at Pride. You CAN stand up for injustice. You can do these things not because of who you are, but because of who GOD is.

CS Lewis said, “after they had been formed into a little society or community, they found God inside them as well: directing them, making them do things they could never do before.” From Mere Christianity p. 127

I went on the Border Immersion trip because I felt called to hear the stories of immigrants. I went because I wanted to understand the obstacles they face. I went because I wanted to know how I could respond and how our Church can help. One of the things I struggle with is that I never learned to speak Spanish. I find myself stepping back in a room where I can’t follow what is being said. I am embarrassed at my inability to communicate. I feel off balance and insecure. It may be that it has taken me years to go on this trip because of my insecurity. But the trip was never about my feeling secure and balanced. It was about touching the pain and vulnerability of the people we met. How am I to do that if I am unwilling to tap into my own vulnerability?

Part of the beauty in that place was relying on people. I didn’t understand the language. I didn’t have any expertise about the border regulations. I learned to listen with everything I had because I didn’t bring anything but an open heart. That is where God works – in our vulnerability. The power that the Spirit gives us isn’t a power to be the expert or to take charge, but to offer ourselves and trust that we will be used in a way that we never could on our own.

God is inside each of us. God is inside our community helping us do things we never thought we could do before. It requires that we show up. It means that we will probably be uncomfortable. It is in those places that God shows up and gives us what we need. It is there that we are enabled to be bold in a way that we never imagined on our own. Today the Spirit moves among our smoldering coals of fear and insecurity and sets us on fire.

 

 

 

“That Awkward In Between Phase”

May 28, 2017                                                                            

Acts 1:6-14, John 17:1-11

“That Awkward In Between Phase”

 

There is an old joke about a preacher who found three little boys sitting on a curb playing hooky from school. “Don’t you want to go to heaven?” he admonished them. “I sure do,” two of the boys answered, but the third replied, “No sir.” “What’s the matter? You mean you don’t want to go to heaven when you die?” “Oh, when I die!” exclaimed the youngster. “Of course I do, when I die. I thought you were getting up a crowd to go now.”

 

Our scriptures today place us squarely in that awkward in between phase. There were the initial resurrection encounters, but those have faded. The church has not yet been established and you can feel the anxiety in the disciples as they ask, “What do we do now?” In the text from John, Jesus is eating his last meal with the disciples and he launches into the longest prayer attributed to him in the Bible. Our text study group really wrestled with this prayer this week. For one, the language is convoluted. We couldn’t figure out what to do with his words. It feels to me like he is having a conversation with God for the benefit of the disciples. It is easy to get lost in this prayer, but he ends with something very clear – a prayer for unity.

 

We can’t argue with Jesus’ longing for us to be one. Yet too often we focus so much on our differences and miss the places we can come together. The United Church of Christ motto is “that they may all be one” and it comes from this prayer. The UCC isn’t suggesting that we all think alike or do everything the same way. There is a saying attributed to John Wesley that elaborates on this beautifully: "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” I love the call to unity in the essentials and charity in all things.

 

Let’s hold that prayer for unity as we step into the reading from Acts. It will serve us well. Let’s be honest, the reading from Acts is weird! If you are thinking of inviting your friends to church, you might not pick Ascension Sunday. The disciples are talking with Jesus and asking if he is going to establish the God’s reign now and he tells them they don’t get to know when that will happen, but not to worry, they will be given the power to witness to the ends of the earth. Then he just floats up in the air into the clouds. Where do we even begin to make sense of this?

 

The next scene feels a bit like a comedy show to me. While Jesus is riding up on that cloud, Luke tells us that “suddenly two men in white robes stood by” his followers and asked why they were looking up toward heaven?

 

Are you kidding?!? Where else would they be looking? One minute they are having a conversation and the next minute, Jesus is floating up to heaven. Of course, they are standing there with their mouths hanging open! These white robed figures show up at the strangest times and ask questions that are less than helpful. At the empty tomb, they ask, “why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He has risen. Go and tell the disciples.”

 

Talk about awkward! Jesus floats up and the disciples stand there unsure what to do next. Most of us know something about that awkward in between place:

 

o   Our graduates can tell you about no longer being in high school, but not yet in college.

o   Talk to recent retirees who are trying to figure out what this phase of life will look like.

o   Undocumented immigrants are living in terror as they wonder if they will be deported.

o   I met a man this week who left his hometown in Texas because he had done some awful stuff. He wants to go home, but he is afraid.

 

Our church is in that awkward in between phase. We have outgrown our current staffing. That is a beautiful thing! But we have not yet hired a new person to join us as we seek to be God’s people in the world. How do we live in these in between times?

 

Let’s go back to Acts. These followers go to the Upper Room and join the others who are praying together. Here we are given the simplest, yet profound formula for that awkward in between phase. Show up with your community and pray. In Acts, every major event is preceded by prayer. The Bible is full of helpful tools for us to live. If we want to know how to be the church, Acts is the place to go. Acts tells the story of the fledgling beginning of the church to an explosive movement that changed the lives of people everywhere. Remember Jesus’ last words before he ascended: “you will receive power.” He promised them that the Holy Spirit will breathe life into them and give them what they need to be God’s people in the world. That’s exactly how it went.

 

Luke makes a point of naming those who are gathered in that upper room. The disciples are there, the women are there, and Jesus’ family is there. We are given a glimpse of the unity that he prayed for in all the early followers (no matter what gender they were) coming together to pray. Last week I talked about our diversity as a community. Today, I am pondering a Spirit that moves among us and calls us together in all essential things.

 

We move through this in between time by praying together. We get out of the way and make room for God to move among us. We actively wait on God’s Spirit to show us our next steps and we can trust that the Spirit will empower us to act. I know this is true and I know how powerful it is to show up with this community each week to pray. When the shootings happened in Charleston and then Orlando, I walked into this room with you all and felt such relief to pray with my beloved community.

 

Prayer is our strongest tool as a faith community. Theologian Karl Barth said, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” We need to use this tool as we seek to be God’s people in the world. It will empower us to stand with immigrants. It will give us courage to feed the world. It is prayer that strengthens our ability to act. It is prayer that enables us to live God’s love, justice, and inclusion.

 

As a community of faith, we need to remember that prayer shapes our life together. Peter Marshall once began a Senate session with this prayer, "O Lord, forgive us for thinking that prayer is a waste of time, and help us to see that without prayer our work is a waste of time."

 

Next Sunday, we will hear the story of Pentecost where all these followers are gathered and praying to know what to do next. Then the Holy Spirit blows in and turns them from insecure, passive people to active followers whose movement spreads like wildfire as lives are changed.

 

And so, my friends, that awkward in between place is not a bad thing. During times like this, we recognize our need for the Spirit to show us the way. We are unified as we gather in this room to wait and to pray. Jesus’ promise is real for us today: we will be given the power we need to be God’s people in the world. We’ve got this. Bring on the awkward. We will step in boldly and God will show us the way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Benediction:

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)

Christ Has No Body

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

“Got God?”

May 21, 2017                                                                            

Acts 17:22-31

“Got God?”

 

One of the things I love about this congregation is our diversity! We have practiced as Catholics, Baptists, Mormons, Wiccan’s, Jews, Lutherans, Quakers, Lakotas, Mennonites, Methodists, lifelong Congregationalists, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, Metropolitan Community Church…help me…what am I forgetting?

 

Every time we gather, there is a richness that is powerful. For years, people referred to the United States as a Melting Pot, but I don’t think that is something to aspire to. Why would we want to just melt into one homogenous way of thinking and being in the world? In fact, I think it is beautiful when Allen can help us pray to the directions out of his Lakota experience. It is powerful to hear all those with Catholic background praying the hail Mary. Danny brings Matzah for communion at Easter. We don’t have communion in worship each Sunday, but AO, Sharon, and Tom are offering it after worship from their MCC and Disciples traditions that emphasize communion. Marjorie’s Mennonite connections got the sign that says, “No matter where you are from, we are glad you are our neighbor.” Those are just a few examples of how rich we are together.

 

We have traveled different paths, but somehow we are all together at this time on this path. No matter how we may be different, at our core, we share something powerful in common – our hunger for God.

 

Poet Anne Sexton said, “I cannot walk an inch without trying to walk to God.”

 

World religion scholar Huston Smith once compared the five world religions to the fingers on a hand. If we look at each on the surface, we see the gap between them, but if we go to the core of each (the pad of our hand), we find that they have much in common. The same is true of us as human beings. We can look at the surface and it seems that we are very different. Then there is this strange temptation to decide which different is better. We do it with everything.

 

Some of us will only drink a particular kind of coffee.

Some will only cheer for a certain team.

Some believe one kind of car is superior to all the others.

Heck, some of us even believe some fonts are superior to others.

 

When you think about it, it’s all rather strange. But it doesn’t stop us from believing certain things are better than others. The same is true for churches. Ok, I will admit that I believe we are pretty awesome, but I would like to justify my choice by saying that we are open to a whole variety of people and experiences. In text study when several differing opinions show up at the table, we have enough room for them. At the same time, I believe that it is important to have many faith communities so that we can find a way to continue on our path that is authentic and life-giving to us.

 

In the reading from Acts, Paul shows up in Athens which was the gathering place of intellectuals. Everywhere he looks, he sees tributes to various gods. Rather than criticizing them and telling them they are doing it wrong, he says, “it is clear you are hungry to know God. Let me tell you about this God.” He wants them to understand how close God is to them and then he quotes poets to try and describe the mystery we call God. He says, “in God we live and move and have our being” and calls us “God’s offspring.” I have always loved that line “in God we live and move and have our being.” It touches the deep hunger I have to know and be known by God. It is interesting to me that Paul responds to the deepest hunger of the people with poetry.

 

When I reached midlife and everything that had made sense to me seem to come unraveled, I turned to poetry. I didn’t have much to do with poetry before that. I always assumed it was too esoteric. Suddenly, the beauty and language were just what I needed to hold the big impossible truths of my life. I directed a spiritual renewal program for clergy for ten years that addressed our deep hunger for God. I used some scripture, but I watched the clergy treat scripture as something to preach. They seemed to know how to do scripture as a public exercise, but they weren’t as comfortable with it as a private devotional. That is when I turned to poetry with them. I wanted them to have a container that was large enough to hold their hunger. Scripture has that capacity, but it was familiar and I wanted them to allow it to speak to them in a new way. Poetry seemed to awaken their senses.

 

To address our deep hunger for God, today I will follow Paul’s lead and turn to poets.

 

Mary Oliver calls poetry a “life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

 

Christian Wiman is a poet who grew up in a small town in West Texas. He was shaped in a Baptist Church. He rejected the church and later found his way into a UCC where he began to claim his hunger for God. Christian lives with an incurable cancer and wrote a book called My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. He talks about this speech of Paul as an attempt “to see the life of Christ as not merely a point in time but as a portal to eternity.” Paul wants us to understand that “God is in fact always near us if we will simply learn to look.” (p. 165)

 

Kathleen Norris says, “I take refuge in God’s transcendence, continually giving thanks that God’s ways are not my own. God has a better imagination, for one thing.” She goes on to say her favorite name for God is the one God gives to Moses when calling him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. God chooses Moses who is a wanted man because he murdered someone. Moses can’t believe God is calling him so he asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt?” God responds, “I will be with you.” That was helpful!

 

This God will be known not through a dictionary but through a relationship. This God demands a great willingness to trust and take risks. Moses knows that the people will want to know God’s name so he asks, “What is your name?” to which God replies, “I am who I am.” Moses might as well have asked, “Who’s on first?”

 

Norris says the rest of the Pentateuch is an elaboration on God’s answer. “God appears in the scriptures as a rock, woman in labor, an eagle, a warrior, a creator and destroyer, listener and proclaimer, lover and judge—the Great “I am”. The God we worship is not a noun but a verb. The-God-Who-Is.” (Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, pp. 109-111)

 

What we do as people of faith is acknowledge the depth of our hunger. We are honest that we desire God and then we show up. We practice faith in a multitude of ways. We pray. We listen. We talk. We serve. We welcome others. We allow ourselves to be led into uncomfortable places. We do not give up. Well, sometimes we give up. But then we show up again.

 

While we are doing this, we need to be reminded that God goes before us calling us into deeper relationship. God is the one who holds us. God is the one who will not let go. We are God’s beloved offspring. We are beautiful and perfect and God is there. We make a holy mess of things and God is there.

 

I am not trying to make this sound easy. It is hard to show up for God every day. It is hard to make room to address the deepest hunger we carry. In fact, a friend and I made an agreement to show up every day because we were tired of making excuses and struggling to find time. It’s ironic that we struggle to make room for the thing we desire deeply. But we can be assured that our life is in God. In fact, God is life itself. So, come and drink deeply of God’s goodness. There is more than enough for everyone.

 

“Who are You?”

May 14, 2017                                                                            

I Peter 2:2-10 and John 14:1-14

“Who are You?”

 

In the 1970’s, a group called The Who recorded a song that asked, “Who are you?” Just last week, I attended an anti-racism training and they asked us to introduce ourselves by answering the question “who are you?” Most of us did that by naming our roles – wife, mother, minister. But it made me wonder who am I? How would I answer that question without the roles that I use to define myself? Our scriptures invite us to dig deeper into our identity. Who are we?

 

There are many ways to identify – we might be extraverted or introverted. We could be organized or unorganized. We may be morning people or late night people. We may be vegetarian or carnivore. We may be a spender or a saver. We may be a do it yourselfer or someone who depends on others to take care of projects.

 

I stopped to take an online quiz that was supposed to tell me who I am. It asked if I used nail polish, if I like to tan, if I like to eat corn on the cob, and it had me choose a Pixar character. The results came back that I am a balding man in my mid-fifties. If you are on Facebook, you know that these silly quizzes are on there all the time and using a strange assortment of questions and pictures they tell us something about who we are…supposedly.

 

Both of our texts today have been used to push an exclusive Christian agenda, but neither are intended for that. I am grateful for our text study group that helped me dig deeper with these scriptures this week. We read I Peter and someone compared the people who had been rejected but are called chosen, to the people who fill our pews who have been rejected or told they cannot be a Christian because they identify as lgbt. I loved that! I hope each person sitting here today hears that you are chosen by God. Peter is calling us to allow ourselves to be made into a spiritual dwelling place by feasting on God’s goodness. Jesus will be the cornerstone. We have an important role to play in God’s world. There is a beautiful reminder that we are holy and that being holy comes with a call to live that holiness in the world. We are blessed to be God’s beloved people and we are called to share God’s goodness.

 

Then we dug into John. Again, I thank the folks in the text study group who wrestle with the scriptures every week. The text from John is often heard at memorial services. It is comforting. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” “I will come and take you to myself.” It’s quite lovely until we hit the heart of this text. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to God except through me.” We have heard those words used to say that Christianity is the ONLY way. It is proof that we are God’s favorite. If that makes you uncomfortable, good. That is NOT what John is saying. This text is a kind of confession of faith. John wanted people to understand what it means to follow Jesus. He was not criticizing other religions. How many times have we heard people quote this text as a way of saying God loves Christians and no one else? John wanted to explain what the incarnation means to those now call themselves Christian.

 

This is where things got interesting in text study this week. Someone asked about the use of articles in the Greek. In other words, could it be that Jesus said, “I am A way, A truth, A life?” That changes the meaning quite a bit. It led a few of our members to do some research and one discovered that In New Testament Greek, there is only one type of article. Therefore, it is up to the translator whether to use "the" or "a" in the translation. Wow! After all these years of being told this meant Jesus is the ONLY way to God, we learn that isn’t the meaning here at all.

 

In fact, it is a call for us who follow Jesus to deepen our understanding of who he is. This is about us digging deeper to know who we are as followers of Christ. That is important work for us to do. Who are you? We are part of a larger world. It is rich and varied and beautiful. Seekers take the form of many religions and many paths. Those of us who have called ourselves Christian have chosen a particular path. It is a beautiful and terribly difficult path.

 

I moved to Albuquerque from Corvallis, Oregon home of Oregon State University where Marcus Borg taught for many years. Marcus Borg was a man of deep faith who wasn’t afraid to ask big hard questions about Jesus and God. Marcus found a way to engage scripture and theology and then wrote about it in a way that opened the door for many to rediscover their faith. One book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, had people realizing that there was more to following Jesus than the simple platitudes they had been given. Marcus hosted two conferences as the year 2,000 approached. They were called “Jesus at 2,000” and “God at 2,000.” He invited amazing theologians who represented a wide variety of faith perspectives to speak at these events.

 

One of those was a Jewish Rabbi called Lawrence Kushner. Lawrence captivated me with his stories. He told a story that I carry with me everywhere I go. I won’t get the details right, but I will give you the gist of the story.

 

Imagine that God is at the top of a mountain. All the religions of the world want to get to God. Followers of each religion begin to climb the mountain to God from where they are. The mountain is so big that it spans many continents. Imagine that the Christians are in a tropical region. They get ready to climb the mountain and they dress for the climb. Because they are in the tropics, they put on their sandals and shorts and maybe a hat to keep the sun out of their eyes. They start climbing. Imagine that the Hindus are in an artic region. They dress for their climb by putting on long underwear, heavy boots, a parka, and thick gloves. As they climb, they begin to get warm. Eventually, they shed their heavy winter gear and continue the climb. But the Christians are discovering that the air is thinner as they climb so they must add some layers because they are getting chilly. Eventually everyone gets to the top of the massive mountain where they will find God. They look around and discover they are dressed alike.

 

But what if they began the climb on the ground by arguing what to wear – the Christians trying to convince the Hindus not to wear the winter gear and the Hindu’s telling the Christians that they were going to freeze in their summer clothing. If they started by focusing on what the other religions were wearing, they would never have started the climb up the mountain.

 

God is available to all of us and is way too big to be limited by our own understanding and experience. Being people of faith is not about having all the answers, but it is about growing in our relationship with the one we follow. It is good for us to consider who we are and where we are on this path. It helps us to continue to seek what we need to grow. One of the great heroes in this congregation reads more theology books than I ever will. Health limitations do not keep her from growing. She continues to ask hard questions and inspires me to do the same.

 

Let’s try the question again. “Who are you?” I am a child of God. I am on a path toward God and I follow Jesus on that path. Jesus calls me to have compassion, to practice justice, and to show love to each person I meet. I have to confess that I mess up frequently. Too often, I focus on myself and ask if I have energy to respond to the need in front of me. But Jesus continues to walk with me and show me opportunities to be merciful. He reminds me of the mercy God shows to me and he calls me to show mercy to others. You see, Jesus is using each of us as living stones to build a beautiful temple that will reflect God’s love and light to the world.

 

Now it’s your turn. Who are you?

“The Church of the Holy Potluck”

May 7, 2017                                                                             

Acts 2:42-47 and John 10:1-10

“The Church of the Holy Potluck”

 

If someone asked you to draw a picture of church, what would you draw? Perhaps the sanctuary and the stained-glass windows? The rainbow doors that face Lomas? The fellowship hall? The Sunday School rooms? The kitchen? Perhaps you would draw our members serving homeless people at Project Share. Maybe you would draw some of our members spending the night at Family Promise. It could be you would draw a potluck. You might draw a small group. What about a committee gathered around a table planning together? It could be a picture of a beautiful free store downstairs for Jefferson Middle School families. Maybe taking a meal to our Hope House neighbors or a picture of the choir practicing. It’s funny that when we think of church, it is tempting to think of a building, but the building is not the church. It is the container where we practice being God’s people in the world.

 

In the reading from Acts, we get a glimpse of the early church. It is kind of dreamy to go from 0 to 3,000 members after just one sermon and more joining every day! What I love about this text is it gives a picture of what the church looks like: people come together to study, to pray, to eat, and to share what they have and they are growing like crazy!

 

I have no idea how many books have been written about church growth, but it’s kind of funny when the formula is right here. We just need to come together and eat and pray and study and share what we have. Being the church means giving to those in need.

 

So, we practice coming together. We practice eating together. We practice praying together. We practice studying together. We practice feeding others. We practice sharing our resources. We practice caring for those who are vulnerable.

 

Rachel Held Evans reminds us that “The first thing the world knew about Christians was that they ate together. At the beginning of each week they gathered—rich and poor, slaves and free, Jews and Gentiles, women and men—to celebrate the day the whole world changed, to toast to resurrection.” (Searching for Sunday, p. 125)

 

Meals define us. Every church and denomination I know likes to define itself as the church that eats. We all like to claim we have the corner on the potluck market. This is in our DNA. There are numerous stories of Jesus eating with people. In the reading from Luke last week, Jesus walked with followers who had no idea who he was until he picked up a loaf of bread at dinner, gave thanks, broke it and served it to them. Fred Craddock says that “church exists when God’s people break bread.” It is in the breaking of bread that God is made known to us.

 

“Jesus did not give [his followers] something to think about when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do…that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself… ‘Do this,’ he said—not believe this but do this—in remembrance of me.’” (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, p. 45)

 

The sacrament of communion is the way we remember Jesus. Today, you are invited to this table where you will be given bread and that bread is an invitation for you to go out into the world and feed one another. St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn, New York central act is to gather around a meal. They are practicing how they want to be out in the world. It’s a table where they learn to feed one another and be fed. It’s a table where they learn to be open to God’s presence in their lives. It teaches them to be Christ to one another. They finish the service by cleaning up the dishes together. They began the service as strangers and they finish as friends. (http://stlydias.org/about/)

 

I saw this at our Maundy Thursday service. We gathered around tables in the chapel. We heard Mary talk about buying expensive oil to anoint Jesus and then we anointed one another and called each other beloved. We heard Peter talk about Jesus washing his feet and then we washed one another’s hands around the table. We blessed the bread and cup and then fed one another. It was church. Christ was present and it was so beautiful.

 

After worship today, you are invited to a potluck where we share our stories with one another. I want to invite you to practice being church by bringing your plate to the library and hear the story of my friend Michael. Michael will tell you his story and as you hear his story, you may wonder how we can continue to widen our welcome. You see, that is what the table looks like. It is always making room for more.

 

Who is not yet at our table? How can we widen our welcome to make room?  Be warned: it was that very thing that got Jesus into trouble over and over again. There were rules about who was allowed at the table and Jesus kept stepping over the rules to invite those who were not welcome. We must do the same. Following Jesus means creating more room at our table. It means sharing everything we have – not the leftovers, but the very heart of who we are. It means listening with our full attention. It means reaching out to show compassion and love to one another. It means seeing Christ in one another. It means treating everyone with kindness – even when we dislike or disagree with them. It means remembering that we are all created in God’s image.

 

Michael Curry is the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. He tells the story of a young woman who became an Episcopalian in the 1940s. One Sunday she invited the man she had been dating to join her at morning services. Both were African American, but the church they attended that day was all white, and right in the heart of Segregated America. The young man waited in the pews while the congregation went forward to receive communion, anxious because he noticed that everyone in the congregation was drinking from the chalice. He had never seen black people and white people drink from the same water fountain, much less the same cup. His eye stayed on his girlfriend as, after receiving the bread, she waited for the cup. Finally, the priest lowered it to her lips and said, as he had to the others, ‘The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.’ The man decided any church where black and white drank from the same cup had discovered something powerful, something he wanted to be part of. The couple was Bishop Curry’s parents.” (Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday p. 151)

 

Two weeks ago, a group of us traveled to El Paso and Juarez for a border immersion experience. We practiced these very things. We sat at tables together. We ate together. We listened. We prayed. We talked about the scripture that calls us to be salt and light for the world. The generous people we met shared their resources with us. And we felt called to share ours as well. Together we were being the church and I kept thinking about that quote “When you have more than you need build a longer table, not a higher fence.” There is room at Christ’s table for all.

 

Let us be that church. May our table be long and wide. May we share what we have. May we listen and study and pray and sing. May we care for those who are often ignored or despised. May we welcome those who are undocumented, who struggle with mental illness, who fight with addiction, who are grieving, or who have no place to sleep tonight. We may think we are just going to bring a dish and put it on the table, but what we are creating here is holy. What we are doing is making space for God to show up. What we are doing is seeing Christ in one another. What we are doing is feasting and allowing the Spirit to guide us out to feed our hungry world. Welcome to the church of the holy potluck!

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”

April 30, 2017                                                                           

Luke 24:13-35

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”

 

Karl Barth, one of the twentieth century's most famous theologians, was on a streetcar one day in Basel, Switzerland, where he lived and lectured. A tourist to the city climbed on the streetcar and sat down next to Barth. The two men started chatting with each other. "Are you new to the city?" Barth inquired.


"Yes," said the tourist.


"Is there anything you would particularly like to see in this city?" asked Barth.


"Yes," he said, "I'd love to meet the famous theologian Karl Barth. Do you know him?"


Barth replied, "Well as a matter of fact, I do. I give him a shave every morning."


The tourist got off the streetcar quite delighted. He went back to his hotel saying to himself, "I met Karl Barth's barber today."

 

The walk to Emmaus story is one that many of us love. I wonder if has something to do with Jesus showing up in the ordinary – walking, talking, and eating. Throughout the year, we hear many extraordinary things about Jesus – being transfigured on a mountain, bringing Lazarus back to life, rising from the dead – and we may find ourselves distancing a bit from these. It’s difficult to relate to Jesus suddenly shining on the top of a mountain, but taking a walk or eating a meal make sense to us.

 

It may not occur to us that Jesus can come to us in a plain old ordinary day. We may be looking around for something profound to knock us over. It worked for Paul. He was knocked down in his conversion. Whatever it is, we assume it will be big and bold or it must not have happened yet. If someone asked if we have seen Jesus, we would probably tell them no.

 

But look at each encounter with Jesus since the resurrection. In Matthew, the women nearly bump into him as they run away from the tomb. He simply appears and greets them. There is no fanfare. In John, he just shows up in a room where the disciples are gathered. In the reading from Luke today, he meets two followers as they walk along. There are no fireworks here. There is no brass band. He quietly encounters people as they try and figure out what to do next. He just shows up and starts walking beside them. And they have no idea it is him.

 

Doesn’t this story make you wonder how many times have you been walking right beside Jesus and not even known it? Obviously, you can’t count them if you didn’t even know he was there. It’s a little disconcerting to think that you could have been chatting away or completely ignoring Jesus and not even know it.

 

Watch the progression of this story. The followers are walking lost in their grief when Jesus shows up and walks with them. He wants to know what they are talking about. They wonder what planet he could be from to not know what is going on but they tell him. Then he starts explaining to the scriptures all the way back to Moses. They still have no idea who he is. As evening nears, he starts to walk away, but they ask him to stay for dinner. They sit down at the table. He picks up the bread and gives thanks. A glimmer. He breaks it. A recognition. He gives it to them. They know! It is Jesus! “We thought it was over, but you are here. You are alive! You are feeding us just as you did so many times before. We thought we were going to feed a stranger dinner and here you are feeding us again.”

 

Meals are important in Luke. Meals are important. Period. When we want to spend quality time with someone, we often do it over a meal. We eat a meal together each month and it is an important part of our life together.

 

One of the things I have experienced is the power of eating with those who have very little. Many years ago, I traveled to Bolivia with a team of women. Our job there was to support women’s groups as we traveled around the country. Everywhere we went, they wanted to feed us. They lived in such poverty, but they fed us and we connected despite the many barriers that could have separated us.

 

Last weekend, I traveled to the border with a team sponsored by the New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice. We didn’t walk, but traveled in an old van and we encountered people who have endured very difficult situations. We would get back in the van and meet people who provide refuge and healing for those who are undocumented and those living in terrible poverty. Then we would get into that rickety van and drive to the wall that separates two countries.

 

I wonder now if Jesus was riding with us in that van as we left Albuquerque to drive to El Paso. I wonder if he was listening as we told one another stories and learned what we share in common. I wonder if he was there as drove down a dusty road to a home where a family lives with no running water. Was he there in the busy streets of El Paso as we drove to a shelter? Perhaps he was in the van as we crossed easily into Juarez and bounced along the terrible roads with big holes in them. I think he was there as we walked into a clinic and a library and heard the stories of the people who are serving others. He must have been there as we got out and stood at this towering wall. He must have been with us as we waited in line to be allowed back into the United States.

 

Did we know he was there? Were we paying attention? Or were we so absorbed in all that we were seeing and hearing to even notice him? I will let our team members answer that question as they tell you their stories in the coming weeks. But I will tell you this:

 

On Friday, we drove that old van to the home of Argelia and Rafael. It was down a dusty road in an area of El Paso called the Colonias. They didn’t have running water. Argelia told us their story. Rafael’s mother became very ill in 2011. He went to Mexico to see her and was not allowed back into the United States. They wanted to hire a coyote to bring him back, but they had no money so Argelia decided to learn to make tamales. She tried them on her community and they would give her feedback – need more salt, overcooked, etc. She kept at it until she became good at it and then she sold them to make money to hire a coyote to bring Rafael home. She paid $1500 on two different occasions. Do you have any idea how many tamales that must be? There were several failed attempts to bring him home including one that landed him in jail.

 

Argelia talked about her faith as she endured this. Her three children were growing up without their father and it was terribly hard on all of them. Throughout the ordeal of several years, Argelia prayed that God would make Rafael invisible so that he could get past the guards and join his family here. Eventually, Rafael crossed with another woman who had some contacts in El Paso. They landed on a pecan farm and didn’t know what to do next, but Rafael remembered the story of Ruth and they pretended to be workers on the farm and picked up branches. Another woman who worked on the farm took care of them. This woman knew Rafael’s family from the village he came from in Mexico. She drove them to Rafael and Argelia’s church. That morning Argelia stood to face the congregation and she saw Rafael walking toward her. Rafael had walked past the guards unrecognized.  

 

After she told us her story, Argelia fed us tamales. They were delicious! Jesus was sitting in that room with us as we listened and then ate together. It is important for us to remember that Jesus is with us in our ordinary lives. When we feel like we might as well give up, he is there. When we are lost and cannot figure out what to do next, he is there. When we are completely overwhelmed, he is there. When we are in the place of despair, the place called Emmaus, he is there. He comes and walks with us. He is there whether we know it or not. He listens to us and at the table he serves us. And as he serves us he teaches us to be bread for one another.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Easter is in the Details”

April 16, 2017                                                                           

Matthew 28:1-10

“Easter is in the Details”

 

Easter is the day we celebrate the impossible and we do everything we can to make it memorable. We pay attention to the details on this day. Some of us dress in our finest. Some of us prepare special dinners. Our worship includes brass and butterflies and flowers. We fill the sanctuary because this is not just any day. This is the day that we celebrate the risen Christ. It isn’t just some moment in history – it is a reminder that God takes our breath away over and over and calls us to pay attention. God will not be confined by anything…not even death. On this day we are not recalling an historical event, but we are professing our faith in God who is breathing hope into our weary world this very minute. The power of this story is found in God’s capacity to bring new life and hope again and again.

 

Easter happens in the details and Matthew is a master when it comes to details. He is a great storyteller. He realizes that those details are what brings the story to life. He’s not leaving much to the imagination, but filling us in on how this amazing resurrection came to be. The details are so vivid that I can imagine sitting around the campfire as someone tells the story:

 

It begins in darkness as Mary Magdelene and the other Mary go to see the tomb. Imagine going down in history as the “other” Mary. In the other gospels, the women are going to anoint Jesus, but here they are just going to see the tomb.

 

The story gets interesting right away. There is an earthquake as an angel rolls

back the stone and sits on it. That must have been some powerful angel. This angel is wearing clothing that is white as snow and his appearance is like lightning. I’m not sure what it means to look like lightning, but it sure gets our attention.

 

The guards are so afraid that they “shook and became like dead men”. The root word here is the same as the one for earthquake. How ironic that the ones

who are supposed to be guarding the dead man are “like” dead men and the one who is supposed to be dead is alive.

 

The angel invites the women inside to see the empty tomb and sends them out with a message for the disciples. Jesus will meet them in Galilee. The women take off running with fear and great joy. That combination of fear and joy make sense. They thought they were going to see Jesus’ tomb and instead they find that he is alive!

 

They run into Jesus who greets them and they fall and worship him. Matthew says they “took hold of his feet.” Jesus sends them on to the disciples with the same message: he will see them in Galilee.

 

I love this version of the story! It would make a great movie with special effects! Earthquakes, guards shaking and becoming like dead men, the women grabbing Jesus’ feet when they see him…this story has so much to capture our imaginations.

 

How many of you have ever experienced an earthquake? When I moved to Oregon from Georgia, I went to get insurance and was asked if I wanted earthquake insurance. I thought the agent was kidding. I laughed and said no. One week later, I was sitting on the floor upstairs in my house and I felt the shocks from an earthquake several hours south of us. I started rethinking that insurance! Earthquakes happen all the time, but we don’t get too excited by them anymore. Did you know there have already been over 3,000 recorded in 2017? Earthquakes are responsible for the death of fifty-nine people this year already.

 

Why do you think Matthew would add an earthquake to this story? Perhaps it is a way of saying that this story is too big to be entrusted to humans alone. This story of God’s power to bring new life where there is none is given to all of creation to proclaim as well. On this holiest of days, the Easter message is everywhere. It is in our music, in our flower garden, in the butterflies, it is in the tables as we gather and it comes alive when we pay attention.

 

The details teach us that God is calling us forward. This Easter earthquake shook the world. The disciples thought they would go home to things as they had been before. But the women know EVERYTHING has changed. That is the message of the resurrection. Jesus will not go back into the tomb. He is moving ahead to Galilee where he will meet his followers and point them toward the future. He meets us here to point us to the place of hope. He will not be confined by our lack of imagination. He will not be limited by our small expectations.

 

MIT physics professor Max Tegmark wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times in which he reported on what he calls “the bombshell announcement of the discovery of cosmology’s holy grail: telltale signature of ripples in the very fabric of space [from] our cosmic origins.

“If this discovery holds up,” he goes on to say, “it will go down as one of the greatest in the history of science.

“It teaches us humans that we need to think big,” he says, “because we are the masters of underestimation.”

 

The story of the resurrection is the story of thinking big, of God breaking into our ordinary lives and calling us into powerful new beginnings. The transformation of the disciples proves the power of the resurrection. Those disciples ran away from Jesus when the crowds turned against him. They went home and hid in fear. They stayed there until they learned that Jesus was alive and then they came to life too. They became courageous leaders.

 

Easter is the story of hope becoming incarnate. It takes flesh in the form of Jesus and then it is spread as others encounter this impossible reality. We know the story of Easter is true because hope is alive.

 

Jim Wallis calls hope unbelieved nonsense, but he says, “hope believed is history in the process of being changed. The nonsense of the resurrection became the hope that shook the Roman Empire and established the Christian movement. The nonsense of slave songs in Egypt and Mississippi became the hope that let the oppressed go free. The nonsense of a bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala, became the hope that transformed a nation.” He calls hope “a choice, a decision, an action based on faith.”

(https://sojo.net/articles/while-men-were-hiding-women-delivered-greatest-news-world-has-ever-known)

 

There is so much to be discouraged about and so many people, places, and systems in need of healing and transformation. Remember where the story today begins…in the time before daylight. It begins in grief and despair as the women make their way to the tomb. Then there is an earthquake and there is life. Easter comes to us before the morning hours greet us. It meets us in our despair and shows us that Jesus is alive. Easter is hope breaking into the most hopeless places. Easter is all of creation shouting the glory of God. Easter is “music despite everything.” (a line from Jack Gilbert’s poem “A Brief for the Defense.”) We celebrate this day in the details. Pay attention. Hope is alive. Christ is Risen!

 

 

 

“This Day”

April 9, 2017                                                                            

Matthew 21:1-11

“This Day”

 

Here we are. We started this Lenten journey several weeks ago. We have gone through the Dark Wood and tried to keep our eyes on Jesus as we traveled.  Some of us gave up something for Lent. Some of us took something on. Some of us made a commitment and promptly forgot all about it. Some of us followed the Practicing Lent booklet. Some of us just want it to all be over. Let’s have Easter already and be done with this gloom and doom season. Others of us are not ready for the joy and celebration of Easter. Today is a crossroads. It is a strange mix – a parade, albeit an unusual one, and a protest.

 

It had the typical parade elements – a crowd pushing for a better view, shouting, waving things, and all eyes on the one making his way on the path. But the person in the center is riding a donkey and a colt, not some majestic animal. The people are shouting “save us” not hallelujah. They are throwing their clothes in the dusty path. There is more confusion than excitement. The people are cheering less for Jesus and more for what they hope he will do for them…overthrow the Romans.

 

One of the exercises often done in Bible Studies is imagining ourselves in the story. We can visualize ourselves as the crowd. What are we feeling and thinking as Jesus comes riding in on that colt and donkey? He’s awfully big for those vulnerable animals. What is he saying to us? What do we shout back to him? We tend to confuse the word Hosanna as some kind of joyful praise, when in fact the word means “save us.” As Jesus rode into town, a massive crowd gathered not to glorify Jesus, but to protest the Roman empire. This crowd was hoping that Jesus would overthrow the Romans and make their lives better. If we are the crowd, what do we hope Jesus will save us from? We may have hopes of being saved from political leaders. We may wish to be saved from an illness that plagues us. We might want to be saved from something that causes us stress – finances, addiction, or a difficult person. Imagine yourself in that crowd. What are you feeling as you stand there and watch Jesus ride by? What are you hoping?

 

What if you are one of the Roman leaders? You know Jesus is a threat to you. He doesn’t glorify your way of leading. He gets the crowds worked up and somehow together they could dismantle your power. This is not good news. What are you thinking as you witness his impact on these crowds? What are you hoping?

 

Then there is the donkey and colt. (The other gospels only mention a donkey. Matthew adds the colt.) Of course, we don’t think to identify with them. But Mary Oliver wrote a poem reflecting on the donkey. In it, she imagines the donkey doesn’t give much thought to this whole event, but he puts one foot in front of the other and does what he is born to do. Perhaps you can identify with simply being led to the next moment without much reflection. Notice the donkey plays a key role in this story. The donkey is center stage without choosing that and faithfully doing what is expected.

 

Last Sunday, I went to the dinner at Congregation Albert and heard the director of the ACLU speak about what is happening and how the ACLU is responding. He said more than once, “We were made for this. We are ready. This is what we do.” Rather than sounding overwhelmed or daunted by the many tasks at hand, he spoke confidently about simply doing what they are made to do. That is a great message for the church. Sometimes we make things too complicated. It is easy to be overwhelmed with all the tasks at hand, but if we can simply do what it is front of us to do, we are being faithful.

 

We can also identify with Jesus. I’m guessing we would prefer to not go there. “I couldn’t possibly be Jesus.” Give it a try. Imagine what it must have been for him. It is so complex. It is when we allow ourselves to step into his sandals that we may glimpse the complexity of this story. Because we hear this story each year, we may think it is somewhat straightforward. We know what comes next. But this story has many layers. Jesus stands here looking into his last days (not weeks, months, or years). He knows that this is the end. He chooses to participate in an event with the crowd gathered. It was customary for dignitaries to enter a city on a majestic horse. Jesus chooses a vulnerable animal and rides through the crowd. He makes no speech here. Rather than using words, Jesus speaks with his actions. He is making a powerful statement. Note how he spends his last days.

 

He rides a vulnerable animal into a crowd that is begging him to save them. He does save, but not in the way they imagine. He doesn’t overthrow a Roman government. In fact he shows up and allows himself to be killed. He saves by offering an alternative. He saves by calling people to God’s mercy. He saves by serving.

 

I know it is difficult to imagine yourself as Jesus, but this does make me wonder how I would spend the last days I have. Would I choose the path of service as he does? Would I listen to the people around me? Would I eat a meal with my closest friends (even the one who will betray me)? Would I pray all night? What is Jesus hoping for as he rides into town and hears the crowd shouting at him?

 

I encourage you to take advantage of the confusion of this day. Sit with the mixed messages of victory and death. Allow the story to invite you into these final days. This season is an opportunity to explore the depth of our faith and our humanity. This final week of Lent is that same opportunity we have had for this liturgical season concentrated into days rather than weeks. We can ponder what our humanity teaches us. We can allow Jesus to enter the fullness of our humanity just as he did his own. We can look to Jesus about how to focus in the coming days.

 

Today we heard some of Psalm 118. We will hear some of this same Psalm again next Sunday. Some of the words are often used to call churches to worship. “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” What if we just took a piece of that as our guide this week – “This is the day”? This is the day that we have. What will we do with it? How will we spend it? This is the ONLY day we have.

 

This isn’t new. How many times have you heard “Live each day as if it were your last?” It sounds easy enough. But we spend so much of our psychic energy on what has already happened or what will happen. It is much harder to be present to the moment in front of us that one would think. Following Jesus means keeping our eyes on him. He got in trouble for doing things in the moment, which often meant he healed the person in front of him even when it was the Sabbath.  

 

Let us do what we are born to do. We can plan which isn’t a bad thing. But we can also respond to the moment in front of us. This moment is ours. The coming week will bring many opportunities. In the coming days, Jesus will be anointed, he will wash his followers’ feet, he will eat dinner with his friends including the one who will betray him, he will stay up and pray, he will be the victim of a similar crowd calling for his death, and he will be killed. It is hard not to jump ahead because we know how the story goes. But let us practice living each day. Let us practice focusing our energy on Jesus. Let us practice doing what we were born to do.

 

 

“The Closer”

April 2, 2017                                                                            

John 11:1-45, Ezekiel 37:1-14

“The Closer”

 

Three friends were discussing death and one of them asked, “What would you like people to say about you at your funeral?”

 

The first of the friends said, “I would like them to say he was a great humanitarian who cared about his community.”

 

The second said, “He was a great husband and father, who was an example for many to follow.”

 

The third friend said, “I would like them to say, ‘Look, he’s moving!!’”

 

I am guessing that the stories you just heard from Ezekiel and John evoke mixed feelings in you. On the one hand, it gives us hope to hear of God’s power to breathe life into places that are long dead. On the other hand, it is hard to know what to do with such strange stories. If someone asked what happened at church today, it would be embarrassing to just casually say, “Oh, we heard some stories about God breathing life into a bunch of dry bones and Jesus bringing a dead man back to life. That’s all.”

 

Lent has been a time for us to explore the Dark Wood together. We have been reminded that God is at work in the most hopeless of places. Lent is a season of returning to the one who breathed life into us and acknowledging our human limits. But Lent is not a season that lets us off the hook – not for a second. In Lent we are reminded that we must stay on this path even when it is difficult. In Lent we are given examples of people who have persisted when it might have been easier to give up. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night perhaps out of fear of being discovered. But he showed up after Jesus died and buried him, no longer afraid of being outed as a follower! The woman at the well came in the middle of the day because her community shunned her. After her encounter with Jesus, she returned to become the first evangelist bringing her community to follow him. A man who had been blind since birth was healed by Jesus and when the religious leaders questioned him, criticized him, and even tossed him out of the synagogue, he grew in his faith.

 

None of these people had it easy. Jesus met them in their pain and difficulty and each of them became courageous followers. Today we experience a God who breathes life into dry bones and Jesus who calls a dead man from the grave. Maybe those places in us that seem to be beyond life can be restored by God’s powerful spirit. It is good for us to know that nothing is beyond the reach of God’s healing breath. We need to be reminded of this when we feel overwhelmed by climate change, a broken immigration system, children who have no safe place to go, gun violence that is out of control, and food thrown away by some while others are digging in dumpsters for scraps to eat.

 

These are stories of God’s power to bring life into lifeless situations and hope into places that seem to be well beyond hope. I am grateful to hear stories of God who does the impossible.

 

But there is another element in these stories that I cannot ignore. God comes to Ezekiel and asks if the bones can live. I wonder if he was thinking it was some kind of trick question. He answered, “O God, you know.” Ezekiel is noncommittal, putting the ball back in God’s court. So God picks it up and lobs it back to Ezekiel. “Tell these bones they will live, Ezekiel.” Rather than standing there embarrassed by God’s silly request, Ezekiel speaks God’s words to the bones and then watches as God’s breath fills them and they become a huge multitude of living, breathing people!

 

Imagine what it must have been to hear this story. Israel is in exile. The Babylonians have taken their land and they have suffered for so long that God seems to be a distant memory. They are death and destruction and they cannot imagine anything else. They are a valley of dry bones, long forgotten and hopeless. Into this, comes God breathing life and restoring hope.

 

In John, we hear that Jesus loves Lazarus and his sisters. We don’t know why he didn’t rush to Lazarus when he hears he is gravely ill. He waited until Lazarus died to go. Both Mary and Martha encounter him and in their grief they say that if he had been there, Lazarus would not have died. Jesus goes to the grave and weeps for the friend that he loves. He tells them to remove the stone from the grave. Then he calls Lazarus to come out. I have always imagined Lazarus like some kind of robot as if Jesus just hits the remote control and Lazarus comes walking out. My friend Jan Richardson reminds me that no one goes in and gets Lazarus and in her estimation, he had to decide if he was coming out or not. (http://paintedprayerbook.com/2011/04/03/lent-5-learning-the-lazarus-blessing/)

He had already crossed over to the other side and now Jesus was calling him back. I can’t imagine that it was an easy decision.

 

He gets up and walks out of the grave. He is still wearing the grave clothes. It is here that Jesus turns to the people gathered and calls them to finish this resurrection story. He says clearly, “Unbind him and let him go.”

 

That is where these stories get real for me. In both cases humans are called on to finish what God and Jesus have started. These stories are incomplete without the people who speak words of life to death and who remove the bindings to allow a man to walk back into the world.

 

That is what we do. God sets this in motion. God breathes life into death, but then God counts on us to step up and speak of God’s power, to remove the bindings and set one another free. That is the church being the church.

 

It is important for us to remember that nothing is beyond God’s life-giving breath. The world is dying to hear that God is not done. We are needed now to be God’s voice, to be Jesus’ freeing agents, to witness the Spirit blowing among us. As Ezekiel scholar, Kathryn Pfisterer Darr says, “fulfilling life is only one breath away.” Our world needs to know that these bones can live again. We need to know that together, we can release the grave clothes that bind people.

 

This morning, we come to a table where we are reminded that a small piece of bread and a taste of juice feed hungers we didn’t know we had. When we walk away from this table, we have the power to feed our hungry neighbors. We are in the business of unbinding people. We speak of God’s power to give life and life appears. Come and feast here today and then go forth to continue God’s restoration of the world. God is counting on us. The world is counting on us. God’s work has begun. The next move is ours.

 

 

 

“What You See is What You Get”

March 26, 2017                                                                         

John 9:1-41

“What You See is What You Get”

 

A plane was flying from San Francisco to Los Angeles. There was a 45-minute delay and people were unhappy. The plane stopped unexpectedly in Sacramento and passengers were told there would be another 45-minute delay. They were allowed to exit the plane and reboard in 30 minutes.

 

Everyone got off the plane except one man who was blind. His seeing eye dog lay quietly underneath the seat. The man had flown this flight before and the pilot approached him and said, “Keith, we’re in Sacramento for almost an hour. Would you like to get off and stretch your legs?” Keith replied, “No thanks, but maybe my dog would like to stretch his legs.”

 

All the people in the gate area were shocked to see the pilot (who happened to be wearing sunglasses) exit the plane with the seeing eye dog! They quickly started scattering to try and change not only planes, but also airlines!

 

Seeing is important for lots of reasons. We think that if we see it we get it, but that isn’t always the case. On first glance, the reading from John appears to be about a man who was blind and now sees. But this is more than just a healing story. The healing happens in the first few verses. Then there are thirty plus verses of controversy. The more we read, the more it seems that those who think they can see are blind to what matters most.

 

This is a story of God who transforms people. In this story, blindness is the avenue for that to happen. Look at the people in this story and pay attention to who sees what:

 

         Jesus is walking along and refuses to ignore the blind man in front of him. Even

                  when religious leaders get riled up, Jesus continues to appear and walk

                  with the man who grows in faith throughout the story.

 

         The disciples see the blind man begging and ask who sinned to cause blindness.

                  Their question sets the rest of the story in motion as Jesus shows them

                  that God can do amazing things in situations that seem impossible.      

 

The man was blind since birth. Jesus heals him and every time he tells the

         story of being healed, his faith grows. He doesn’t know who Jesus is

         at first, but by the end of the story he is worshiping him.

 

The neighbors see the man after he is healed and begin to argue about

         whether he is the same man who used to be blind. It seems that they

         only know him as a blind man and nothing else. When they aren’t

         satisfied, they bring the…

 

Pharisees in to assess the situation. This story is an example of why the

         Pharisees have a bad reputation. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “they

         are so sure about everything – that God did not work on Sunday, that

         Moses was God’s only spokesperson, that anyone was born blind was a

         sinner and ditto for anyone who healed on the Sabbath, that God didn’t

         work through sinners, and that no one could teach them anything.”

         (Home By Another Way, p. 77) The Pharisees are so convinced that this

         can’t be true, that they call in the man’s…

 

Parents who throw him under the bus. This story was written in a time when

         followers of Jesus were cast out of the church and the parents were

         afraid of losing their place in the community. Rather than standing with

         their son, they feign ignorance and say, “Ask our son. He can speak for

         himself.”

 

In case you got lost in the drama (it’s easy to do!), a miracle has happened! A man who was blind since birth can see. Did you notice that 1) No one expects miracles to happen, and 2) No one celebrates when they do?

 

Why isn’t anyone saying, “Wow! That is amazing! Look what God can do! I want to follow this man Jesus! He does things we didn’t realize were possible.” That is why the church exists. We are the ones who celebrate the impossible works of God. We gather here to worship a God who can do anything. We come to see and hear God transforming one person at a time.

 

It never entered their minds that the man could be healed. He was blind. Period. The church in this story is the very church that people today don’t want to be part of – the church that doesn’t allow change. This is the church that lives on the seven last words “we’ve never done it that way before.” Why bother having a church…why bother coming to church if you don’t expect God to do anything here?

 

In this story one man gains his sight and everyone else loses theirs. As John Shelby Spong says, “they make a virtue of closed minds.” (The Fourth Gospel, p. 150) It seems that we may not only be born blind, but we also have the capacity to become blind. I’m not talking about macular degeneration. I am talking about refusing to recognize what God is doing in our midst. It is strange but true that good news has enemies.

 

My seminary professor told us that the gospel exists to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. There are many uncomfortable people in this story. Things are happening that are out of their control. Things are not playing out as they intend. That is not good news for the religious leaders in this story!

 

There is a clear message here about seeing. It isn’t a physical thing at all. It is a spiritual practice that involves using the lens that God uses and seeing the world through the eyes of Jesus. It means we will allow the Spirit to work in ways we don’t expect and we will be astonished. It means we will celebrate God’s amazing power to transform people and situations. It means we will trust what we cannot see.

 

Let us be the people who believe in God’s power to do the impossible. Let us be the people who see what others say does not exist. One of my favorite poems is called “Monet Refuses the Operation”:

 

Doctor, you say there are no haloes

around the streetlights in Paris

and what I see is an aberration

caused by old age, an affliction.

I tell you it has taken me all my life

to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,

to soften and blur and finally banish

the edges you regret I don’t see,

to learn that the line I called the horizon

does not exist and sky and water,

so long apart, are the same state of being…

Doctor,

if only you could see

how heaven pulls earth into its arms

and infinitely the heart expands

to claim this world, blue vapor without end.”

-       by Lisel Mueller

 

Seeing is a choice. Again, I am not talking about our physical condition. I am talking about the ability to see God at work in the world. I am talking about choosing to follow Jesus who does things we cannot even imagine. I am talking about celebrating the power of the Spirit to move among us and lead us into new ways of being God’s people in the world. It really is simple. What we see is what we get.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

        

 

“Water for All”

March 19, 2017                                                                         

John 4:5-42, Exodus 17:1-7

“Water for All”

 

For ten years, I directed Called Back to the Well, a spiritual renewal program for clergy and congregations. Most of our retreats were held at the Norbertine Center in the South Valley. In the gathering area outside the sanctuary is a large rock. The monks found this rock and wanted it to be a fountain so they got someone to drill a hole through it. Every retreat I led began and ended at this water rock. Every retreat began with the story of the woman at the well that you just heard. We opened with the question, “For what do you thirst?” We talk about water a great deal in the desert. We can’t forget that water is not to be taken for granted. When I lived in Oregon, I didn’t think much about how precious water is. It seemed as if we had more than enough water.

 

I drink a lot of water. I almost always have a glass or bottle of water with me. Nothing satisfies me like water does. It doesn’t occur to me to consider what would happen if I were thirsty and I didn’t have water readily available. When my family takes road trips, I make sure we each have water bottles and plenty of water to refill them. When I hike with my dog, I bring water for both of us.

 

I have been thinking about immigrants and refugees. I know I have much to learn. I grew up in a comfortable home with access to food, water, education, and extra-curricular activities. I have never feared that I would lose my life because of violence in my neighborhood. I have always found jobs to support my family and myself. I have traveled and seen amazing things. I want to learn what life is like for someone who has had to flee violence or who couldn’t feed a family and left everything, including children, to find work.

 

As we read the scriptures in text study, I noticed that everyone is thirsty – the Israelites are thirsty, Moses is thirsty, Jesus is thirsty, the Samaritan woman is thirsty. On the surface, these people have little in common. One thing they all have in common is thirst. Thirst does not limit itself to straight people or gay people or trans people, it doesn’t choose black over white over brown, and it doesn’t seek only women while sparing men. Thirst is universal. It belongs to all of us. We cannot live without water. Over 3,000 people have died in the Arizona desert since 1999. I’ve been reading a book called Enrique’s Journey. It tells of a 17-year-old boy whose mother left Honduras eleven years earlier to create a better life for her family. Enrique misses her terribly and decides he will come and find her in the United States. He is beaten, robbed, arrested, deported several times, wounded as jumps on and off the train, and he is thirsty, so thirsty.

 

No matter how different my life has been from someone coming to this country from Honduras or Syria or Somalia or Mexico; we all thirst. The United Church of Santa Fe is taking their confirmation class to the Arizona border next month to provide water for those seeking refuge in this country. Jesus is very clear that we are called to offer water to one another (Matthew 10:42) and he reminds us that when we offer water to someone, we are giving water to him. (Matthew 25:35) In last week’s gospel reading, Jesus told Nicodemus that we must be born of water and the spirit. (John 3:5) Water shows up in scripture over and over as a powerful reminder of God’s presence.

Jesus and the Samaritan woman could not be more different. Jesus is a Jewish male and by engaging a woman from Samaria, he makes it clear that God’s message of love and healing is for all people. Jesus will not restrict God’s love to a privileged few.

 

That’s where this story comes home for me today. God’s living water is for all, not just the ones who were born in the United States. It is not just for people with white skin, or advanced degrees, or money. Our job as followers of Jesus is to break down the barriers that separate us and make us believe that we are different and that different means that we are better.

 

Prejudice and division isn’t a new phenomenon. The division between Samaria and Jerusalem went back as far as the death of Solomon in 920 BCE. Samaria was established to rival Jerusalem. They had once been a single nation. After Samaria was created, the rivalry grew which led to war and deep hatred. John Shelby Spong says that this is a metaphorical story illustrating the deep animosity between Jews and Samaritans. The woman represents all of Samaria and Jesus represents the Jews. This conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman teaches us that divisions in the human family can be overcome in Jesus’ new human consciousness. Jesus is saying that, “Samaria will be part of a new Israel where no one is excluded. This story is not about sexual immorality; it is about faithfulness to God who draws us beyond human barriers, human divides, and human prejudices.” (The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, pp. 100-105)

 

Spong goes on to say, “The woman leaves her water pot to become an evangelist, just as John and James had earlier left their fishing nets to follow Jesus. The mission to the Samaritans is now in the hands of a woman, meaning that another barrier in the human family is being overcome. Jesus is a barrier-breaker. Before him falls the human division first between Jews and Samaritans and then between women and men. A vision of ‘the realm of God’ begins to come into view.” (106)

 

That is our job – to be barrier-breakers. Jesus continually draws the circle wider to accept those who have previously been excluded. We must do the same. When I asked who the Samaritans are today, folks in text study first named those who are undocumented. That is where we begin. We will meet after worship today to discuss how we break barriers that separate us from immigrants.

 

This fall, our youth and adults did a study together on White Privilege. They recognized the truth in Maya Angelou’s words: “Prejudice is a burden which confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.” (All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, p. 155) We must face our prejudices and then break down the barriers that separate us. There is a scene in the movie Hidden Figures where the white woman supervisor, Vivian Michael looks at Dorothy Vaughan, a black woman who has served as supervisor to other women, but not received compensation or recognition for her work. Vivian has continually talked down to Dorothy and treated her as insignificant. In a moment of seeming humanity, Vivian says to Dorothy, “Despite what you think, I don’t have anything against y’all.” Dorothy looks at her and replies, “I know you probably believe that.” When we are the people of privilege, it is easy to pretend we treat everyone the same, but let’s be honest…don’t we choose to not look homeless people in the eye sometimes?

 

“Remember that God came to the Samaritan woman in the form of someone against whom she was deeply prejudiced. God may come to us in the same way. If we are to experience Jesus, we will have to look into the eyes and into the face of an individual or group against whom we harbor prejudice.” (http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/4784/slow-to-believe)

 

We like to imagine that Jesus looks like us and maybe even thinks like us and acts like us. We like to believe that Jesus would be offended by the same things we are. Our current administration talks about the need for a wall that will separate us from others. Jesus came to take down walls. When his disciples return to find him talking to a Samaritan woman, he tells them to look around at all the fields that are ripe for harvesting. Everywhere he looks he sees people to be included in God’s realm. He asks us to look around at those who have been rejected by society and he tells us in no uncertain terms that they are us and we are them. He tells us to give them water and he reminds us that when we give water to them, we are quenching his thirst at the same time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Season of Failure”

March 12, 2017                                                                         

John 3:1-17, Genesis 12:1-4

“The Season of Failure”

 

Last week we attended the Stepping Up ceremony for Juniors and Seniors at Amy Biehl High School. This annual event is a time for seniors to pass the mantle on to the juniors. There are awards and speeches…lots of speeches. One would expect an event like this to be all about success, but I was surprised at how often the word failure was used. Speakers praised failure as a way to learn and grow. The evening celebrated success, while calling students to hang in there and not give up when things don’t go the way we want them to. Failure is something I have grown to appreciate…at least intellectually. I can’t say I like the way failure feels. I can’t say I want the disappointment that comes along with it, but I see that it is important to be able to go on when things fall apart. A good friend had surgery this week and she is looking at the possibility that she will not walk again in the near future. She is very clear that her life is not over, but her mobility is changing and she will adapt.

 

If Easter is the season of success, Lent is the season of failure. It is a time for us to embrace our mortality and our imperfection. Our texts today focus on two spiritual heroes. Many criticize Nicodemus for not getting what Jesus was saying. They don’t write him off, but they want to talk about him and understand his place in the story.

 

Christians, Jews, and Muslims claim Abraham as their patron saint. Abraham got it right…most of the time. Eric Elnes talks about saints in Gifts of the Dark Wood. He says, “…you don’t have to be a saint to find your place in this world! You don’t even have to be “above average.” All you really need to be is struggling.

 

“Incidentally, even the great saints of old experienced significant doubts and struggled with imperfections. They did not become saints by moving from uncertainty to clarity. The moved, rather, from uncertainty to trust, which requires the ongoing presence of uncertainty. Likewise many saints experienced small and large victories over the course of their lives, they moved not from failure to success, but from failure to faithfulness, which requires the ongoing possibility of failure.” (p. 8)

 

In Genesis, Abram is being told to leave everything he knows and set out for who knows where? God tells him to go to a land that “I will show you.” He was 75 when he left for this unknown place. God promises to bless him and intends for Abram to bless others. Sometimes we hear people talking about being blessed as if it were some kind of possession. Being blessed is something that should be poured through us and passed on to others. We are channels of God’s blessing for the world. Abram has no idea what blessing will mean. He has no idea where he is going, but he goes and has to practice trusting in God over and over.

 

Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. This is a story for night owls who have deep thoughts long after everyone else has gone to sleep. Their best thinking happens in darkness. Spring flowers are popping up all over reminding us that darkness is where things grow. How many biblical figures were called in the night? Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Many have speculated about why this might be. Perhaps he’s not comfortable being seen talking to Jesus or perhaps it is the only time they could get together. Whatever the reason is, it seems to be an important element of this story. We may not know why he did, but we can be assured that something is happening. Nicodemus doesn’t have some magical conversion. In fact, he is so focused on understanding Jesus’ literal words, that he appears to miss the meaning altogether.

 

But what if he got it? What if he is still chewing on the conversation as he walks away? What if he understands that what Jesus is asking him is big and he knows he is not quite ready? Faith is a lifetime journey. Nicodemus appears later in the gospel when he comes to bury Jesus. While he may not have been ready to follow him that night, he came later and publicly claimed his faith in Jesus.

 

Mark Twain said, “It’s not the things I don’t understand in the Bible that worry me, it’s the things I understand perfectly clear that worry me.” It makes me wonder if Nicodemus did understand the depth of Jesus’ words and was stalling because he wasn’t ready to set aside his successful place in society to be reshaped by this radical man before him. Jesus used language of being born by water and spirit, of not knowing where the wind comes from or goes, of belief and eternal life. Maybe Nicodemus knew Jesus was not calling him to believe certain things, but to live his faith. Faith is risky. It is hard. It means allowing ourselves to be guided by a spirit who calls us into places we never intended to go.

 

Years ago a church used a call to worship that said, “We know that God is here. How do we know? Because we have been called into those places that we did not intend to go.” Abram had no intention of leaving his homeland. Being blessed may have sounded nice, but it meant giving up life as he knew it.

 

There are people who want to argue that they are not Christian because they do not believe certain things. Where do we get the idea that being a Christian means we believe things? When people asked Jesus about following him, he did not tell them to make sure they believed everything on his list. Instead, he told them how to act. He called them to love. He didn’t call them to think about love, but to DO love. When God calls people, they are not called to success, but faithfulness.

 

This is true for churches as well. We aren’t called to get everything right, but allow ourselves to be shaped and molded by the one we follow. We do this together, messing up and starting over again. We do it by paying attention to the world and realizing that we can best respond to the needs of the world as a body. It is why we worship together each Sunday. We gather to receive sustenance to be God’s people in the world. We pray, we sing, we eat together and then we go out to pour God’s blessing on the people we meet.

 

When new members join, rather than ask them what they believe, we ask them to live their faith along with us. We ask them to follow Jesus with us. We ask them to practice God’s love, justice, and inclusion with us.

 

We have no idea what Abram’s credentials were. God just asks him to go and he goes. Going requires that we rely on God. God is not looking for a PhD in leadership. God is looking for a yes.

 

We are called to let the Spirit guide us. It will mean stepping up and leaving the comfortable world we have created for ourselves while trusting we will be shown the way forward. Next Sunday, we will meet to consider how to respond to the needs of immigrants. Scripture is clear about our call to care for those who are different. “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

 

There is no question that responding to the needs of immigrants in our community will change us. Saying yes to God’s spirit is saying yes to being shaped in ways we can’t yet imagine. Saying yes will mean stumbling and falling. Saying yes also means getting up again knowing that God will show us the way. This season of failure is a season to remind us that it is not about us, but it is about the one we follow. Failure reminds us that it is not all up to us. Failure means relying on God like never before.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Get Out of the Boat”

March 5, 2017                                                                          

Matthew 4:1-11, Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

“Get Out of the Boat”

 

When I was growing up, I felt sorry for my poor Catholic friends. I didn’t understand why they had to suffer during Lent by giving up something they loved. My church didn’t tell us to do anything like that. In fact, my Methodist church didn’t mention Lent at all. We just coasted along until Easter. Easter was the day where we wore special clothing and got chocolate bunnies. The story of Jesus’ resurrection always seemed supernatural and it wasn’t grounded in any context. The seasons of the church year give us context. Easter does not exist in a vacuum but emerges from Lent, a season of reflection and preparation.

 

The season of Lent begins with ashes and temptation…every year. We might think we will just skip that part because it’s so repetitive after all. But it seems we need reminders of our mortality as well as the hard questions about what tempts us. We might prefer to make light of temptation because both stories border on the ridiculous – can you imagine having a conversation with a snake? Or would you really go without food alone in the desert for forty days then debate with some figure with a pitchfork? Very unlikely. It’s easy to write off snakes and pitchforks. But that doesn’t mean we should stop looking for the message in these texts today.

 

Most of us will own that we are tempted by something – sugar, alcohol, television, you name it. After swimming in the shallow water of that admission, we may be ready to step out of the pool and change the subject. But wait, there are deeper waters waiting for us. I haven’t been thinking about snakes and pitchforks this week. I’m trying to swim toward the deeper water and it looks like this…

 

         I will put my toe in the water and admit that I’m very tempted by sugar. In

         fact, I have a chocolate drawer in my desk and I learned how many times a day

         I reach for this drawer when I gave up sugar for a week for a mindfulness class.

 

         Swimming out a bit farther, I struggle mightily with the temptation to be busy.

         I tell myself that I really don’t WANT to fill up my calendar, but I continue to

         do it. The only time I DON’T fill up my calendar, is when I am on vacation.

 

         This takes me into deeper waters where I acknowledge the temptation to

         pretend that I’ve got my life under control. I fill my calendar as if I don’t

         need to make space for God. If I am perfectly honest, I will admit that I am

tempted to believe I don’t need God. 

 

When we read the stories of Adam, Eve, and Jesus, it becomes clear that they are all tempted to believe they don’t need God. Adam and Eve fall for it, but Jesus doesn’t. He may be hungry, but he knows that bread will not fill him if he abandons God.

 

I wonder if that is the real temptation – to believe that we don’t need God. We may not admit it, but don’t we often live as if we’ve got this life under control? Of course, sooner or later something will come along to remind us that is a lie. The stories we heard today remind us that our lives are to be steeped in God.

 

At our Ash Wednesday service, we heard a temptation story of Jesus walking on water. In that story, Peter sees him and wants to do that too. He thinks it must be awfully cool so Jesus tells him to get out of the boat and start walking. With his eyes on Jesus, Peter does it. It’s going along just fine until he looks down and realizes he’s walking on water and he has no idea how to do that. In that moment, he sinks. It is when he thinks it is up to him to walk on water that he sinks. I had never thought of this as a temptation story, but the more I reflect on it, the more I think we need to pay attention to the lessons in it.

 

Eric Elnes says, “Jesus seems to want to build his church on a sinking rock… Sometimes you need to lose your way in order to discover the grandeur, mystery, and freedom of the world that awaits you. Sometimes, even, you need to step away from the security of your boat onto the stormy sea of your own awakening to discover that a sinking stone is a far firmer foundation than you have imagined.” (Gifts of the Dark Wood, p. 5)

 

Elnes describes the dark wood as something we all wish to avoid, but he maintains that the “Dark Wood is where you meet God… In the Dark Wood you bring all your shortcomings with you, not in order to purge them or be judged by them, but to embrace them in such a way that your struggles contribute meaningfully to the central conversation God is inviting you to have with life.” (p. 7)

 

Lent is a season to enter that conversation with an open heart. It is why we often give up something or take on something for this season. It can be a vehicle to allow us to more deeply enter the conversation. I can go from saying, “of course I am tempted by sugar” to “my real temptation is believing that I don’t need God.” But all we have to do is look down and realize that we can’t walk on water. It is in that moment of deep vulnerability that we turn to the one who can walk on water and remember that we need to keep our eye on the one we follow.

 

You don’t have to be a big sports buff to know that trouble begins when we take our eye off the ball. The lesson of discipleship is the lesson of keeping our eye on Jesus who calls us to get out of the boat and walk toward him. It is what we were born to do. From the risky act of leaving the womb, we are called beyond places of comfort. But it is important to remember that we are never alone.

 

The season of Lent is a season of stepping out and keeping our eyes on the One who will show us the way. This is a time to be reminded yet again, “God is God and we are not.” One of the ways we remember is by coming to the table to taste Christ’s brokenness and in doing so, we remember our own. We taste the cup of blessing and we remember that there is more than enough for all.

In the 4th Century St. Augustine of Hippo said, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.” That is what this season is about; stopping to admit that what we are really longing for is God. We give up things or take on things to help us find our way to God. Lent is a time for us to fix our gaze on Jesus and step out of the boat.

 

“Listen”

February 26, 2017                                                                     

Matthew 17:1-9, Exodus 24:12-18

“Listen”

 

Today we finish the season of Epiphany with the story of the transfiguration. This strange story bridges Epiphany and Lent every year. Those of us who grew up seeing Clark Kent become Superman may not find this story so strange. Jesus is a mix of human and divine. Yet we aren’t always sure how to move between those two dimensions. His followers were used to seeing the earthy part of him and they certainly witnessed Jesus doing things that seemed otherworldly – walking on water, healing people who seemed to be beyond healing, turning water into wine, bringing dead people back to life. I wonder how they processed all that they experienced with this man. They must have had some interesting late night conversations!

 

Matthew, Mark and Luke each tell this story of Jesus taking his followers on a hike to the top of a mountain. Then things start to get weird. Jesus was transfigured. If you want to know what that means, Matthew describes it as his face shining like the sun and his clothes dazzling white – that must have been quite a feat for his dusty clothes to look like they had just been soaked in Clorox after a long hike! Before they can process this, Moses and Elijah join the group. Moses has been dead for 1200 years and Elijah for 800. It sounds like something out of a movie! If that wasn’t enough, Peter is ready to take action and says, “We should build three buildings to celebrate.” But he is interrupted by a talking cloud that says, “This is my Son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” We have heard that before…at Jesus’ baptism, God speaks from the clouds and tells everyone that Jesus is the beloved Son. This time, a line is added, “listen to him.”

 

That is more than the followers can take; they fall to the ground in fear. Jesus reaches down and touches them, telling them they don’t need to be afraid. When they get up the cloud is quiet, Moses and Elijah are gone and they have to decide what to do next. Jesus tells them not to tell anyone. Maybe they wonder if it really happened. What in the world do they do with an experience like this one?

 

As I read this text, I keep hearing the call to listen. We may not think of listening as action. In fact, few people have the patience to listen because they are too busy trying to get things done. But what if we understood that one powerful action we can take is listening? When is the last time you really listened to someone?

 

Yesterday, a large group from around the city gathered for a forum on immigration. We listened to the story of a man named Daniel. Daniel came with his family at age 9 from Mexico. He didn’t want to come to the United States. After arriving here, he had to stay inside for many years. It was sad to think of this boy who left his home to come to a strange place and then having to stay inside. Now this is his home. He loves it here. His story reminded us how important it is to listen to the stories of those who are coming to the United States. One thing we all share is a longing for home.

 

I am thinking about listening as we prepare for the season of Lent. I am thinking about listening for the voice of God. I am thinking about listening to one another…it is how we become a community. I am thinking about listening to those who are different. It is how we grow. Today I want to honor one of the best teachers I have had – a man who taught me about listening.

 

In January of 2004, I came to Albuquerque from Oregon to interview for a job at the Samaritan Counseling Center directing a spiritual renewal program for clergy and congregations. I stayed at the Norbertine Center in the south valley and was taken on a tour by the Joel, the prior and Fran. Fran was a contemplative priest and Fran would be the co-leader on the retreats I led for the next several years. The word tour conjures images of souvenir t-shirts, snapping lots of photos, and ice cream. But that wasn’t what this tour was. It was an introduction to the place that would be my spiritual home for the next ten years. Every piece of art had a story. The architecture was very intentional. It is a beautiful place with many spaces to listen for God.

 

There was something about Fran. I felt like I had met a holy man. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but in Fran, I could feel God. In the context of the story today, I can hear God saying to me in that moment, “listen to him.” Fran led our retreats using a meditative writing process. People would follow Fran’s prompts and write from their heart. Then they were invited to read their writing aloud. Fran could listen to them read several paragraphs and then he would say, “I heard a mantra in your writing.” He would repeat the seven syllables and I would count on my fingers to check if it was really seven. I never could figure out how out of all that he had heard, he could single out seven syllables. Fran listened and because of his ability to hear the soulful expression underneath the words, many people experienced healing on those retreats. Fran is in his last days. I am deeply grateful for him and for all the lives he has touched with his listening heart.

 

When something amazing happens and we wonder what to do next, it may be that the next right answer is to listen. When something devastating happens, perhaps we should listen. When we feel stuck or lost, listening can show us the way forward. Next Sunday, we begin groups for the season of Lent. We are using Eric Elnes book Gifts of the Dark Wood. I believe that groups are vital for congregations and one of the primary reasons is to the chance to listen – to God, to one another, and to what is most true in each of us. I hope you will sign up for a group and listen for the things that connect us to one another.

 

I keep thinking of feminist theologian Nelle Morton who coined the phrase “hearing into speech.” In my feminist theology class in seminary, we practiced that method by talking in small groups and making space for each voice to be heard. It was in that setting that I realized how valuable it was to make room for voices and to listen until all are heard. One of the most beautiful things I do is listen to your stories. One of the most important things we do as a community is listen.

 

Listening has taken me from Texas to Louisiana to Georgia to Oregon to New Mexico. Listening brought us together three years ago. I realized as I prepared for this sermon that these are the same texts I preached on for my first sermon here in 2014. March 1st is our 3rd anniversary together. I read that sermon again and I want to finish today with some of the things I said to you then:

 

“I’ve been thinking about our life together. You have a long rich history – some of you remember decades of that and others remember weeks of it. We are beginning a new chapter together. I imagine us climbing the mountain together. I have no idea what we will find. Perhaps there will be clouds and voices. Perhaps some of us will glow. We may build some things. We may be afraid sometimes. We will most certainly come down the mountain into the ordinariness of our life together. We will surely face painful moments – the loss of beloved friends, tragedy that strikes unexpectedly, a financial crisis. There is so much on our horizon together, so much that we can’t yet see. I am excited to make this journey with you. I am eager to walk with you and hear your stories. I am happy to serve the community with you and live our mission and be surprised along the way when we glance up and find God is in our midst.

One interesting observation in the story is that we glimpse two sides of God. We encounter this magnificent, mind-blowing, cloud speaking, glowing God. God is vast and amazing and beyond comprehension. But we also witness Jesus reaching out and touching the disciples who were terrified. They have fallen to the ground and he touches them. This same God comes to us in the most intimate, compassionate ways and says, “I am with you. I am with you in beauty. I am with you in pain. I am with you when you are afraid. You are never alone.” This God meets us and walks with us in all things.

Today, we climb the mountain and witness the mystery of God and know that we will come down off the mountain. My commitment to you is that I will journey with you in all things. I will climb the mountain and stay curious about what we will discover together. I will stop and breathe in the goodness and mystery with you. I will be with you in the pain and suffering. I will be open to whatever God calls us to do and with you, I will trust even when I am afraid.

In the text study group this week, it was noted that Moses went up the mountain alone, but Jesus took disciples with him. I like that. I am grateful that we do this together and we do it knowing that God is with us every step of the way.”