“Are We There Yet?”

December 10, 2017                                                                        

Mark 1:1-8, Isaiah 40:1-11

“Are We There Yet?”

 

A priest and a rabbi from local parishes were standing by the side of the road holding up signs. The rabbi’s sign read, “The End is Near!”

The priest, on the other side of the road, held up a sign which read, “Turn before it’s too late!” They planned to hold up their signs to each passing car.

“Get a job,” The first driver yelled at them when he saw the sign.

The second driver, immediately behind the first, yelled, “Leave us alone, you religious freaks!”

Shortly, from around the curve, the two clergy heard screeching tires and a splash followed by more screeching tires and another splash. The rabbi looked over at the priest and said, “Do you think we should try a different sign?”

The priest responded thoughtfully, “Perhaps our signs ought to say simply ‘Bridge Out.’”

We have arrived at the second Sunday of Advent. Every year on this Sunday, John the Baptist shows up and tells us to prepare for the one who is coming after him. John is a fiery, unconventional character with a strange sense of fashion and an even stranger diet. He always seems a little off putting and his message isn’t easy to hear. Yet huge crowds trekked into the wilderness to hear his message of repentance. They responded to this message by confessing their sins and being baptized. It is tempting to soften this a bit in the retelling. None of us want someone else to tell us we should repent (even if they are right).

In reading some sermons this week about John, I was surprised to hear that John shows up to tell us what we already know. He’s telling us to practice what we believe. I had never thought of that before, but it made so much sense to me. It is not like it is a secret that we should treat others with compassion and kindness. It’s no secret that we need forgiveness and we need to forgive others. It is no secret that we need to speak up for justice. Even though we may understand intellectually that the way to peace is to clear out the clutter in our minds and hearts, we often add more clutter instead. We continue to think mean things or judge others. We can’t let go of bad feelings toward someone who has wronged us. We may be too busy to do what we know is right. John comes along every year to remind us that the way to Jesus involves some inner work on our part. Today, we lit the candle of peace and we said we would live peace this week. That doesn’t just happen. Living peace is a choice we will make many times in the coming week and it is much harder than it sounds.

When I think about peace in the world, I think of all the hostility and resentment that must be cleared for peace to inhabit that space. The same is true in our own lives. We carry our own resentments. Both Isaiah and Mark (who quotes Isaiah) talk about preparing a way/a road for God. Isaiah calls people grass as a reminder that we are impermanent. Sometimes we need to be reminded that God is forever and we are not. Maybe peace is possible when we know that ultimately, the world is in God’s hands.

The God in Isaiah is a God of strength and tenderness. This God pours out compassion on our suffering. The first words in the reading from Isaiah today are “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” (40:1) So many need to hear those words of comfort today. My prayer is that the people of Aztec, New Mexico are hearing them this morning.

The shooting in Aztec reminds us that we need to hold the words of comfort alongside the words of repentance. This week in text study we asked why someone like John would be followed by so many people. It is interesting that he spoke in the wilderness, far from any temple. Clearly his difficult, but truthful message struck a chord with people. Yet, he was not welcome in the mainstream religious world. With so many competing voices, how do we know who to listen to? One of the measures I learned a long time ago was that the gospel exists to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Maybe that was part of his success. He spoke a truth that went deep and people recognized their need to clear out the baggage they carried so that something new and beautiful could be born in them.

We have four different gospels and very few things show up in all four, but one thing all four agree on is that the way to Jesus is through John. John does make us uncomfortable but he reminds us that we really do want to clear out that closet full of resentment and that we do want to sweep out the disappointment we have carried for too long. He knows that when we stop and clear a path, there is something waiting to be born in our lives and in our world. Sometimes that means telling a truth that has been silenced for too long.

In a very unusual move, Time Magazine announced its person of the year this week, only it isn’t a person, it’s a movement called #MeToo. Time is recognizing the ones who have broken the silence and come forward with stories of sexual harassment and assault. The story begins with actress Ashley Judd who tells of the head of Miramax studios and the maker of many movie stars trying to coerce her into bed. She escaped and later learned that he is known for that behavior. The article says, “When movie stars don't know where to go, what hope is there for the rest of us? What hope is there for the janitor who's being harassed by a co-worker but remains silent out of fear she'll lose the job she needs to support her children? For the administrative assistant who repeatedly fends off a superior who won't take no for an answer? For the hotel housekeeper who never knows, as she goes about replacing towels and cleaning toilets, if a guest is going to corner her in a room she can't escape?”

According to a 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 47% of transgender people report being sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, both in and out of the workplace. (http://time.com/time-person-of-the-year-2017-silence-breakers/)

 

John the Baptist calls us to bring painful truths to light. There are others who are doing this, other unusual prophets in our midst. One might be Lady Gaga. My first impression of this singer was simply that she wore outrageous outfits. I didn’t know at the time that she sings a powerful message and is striking a chord in people. She has been a healing balm for people who have been outcast. Her latest album is called Joanne after her aunt who died of lupus. At a concert this week, she said, “Pain is an equalizer. I ask you to go back down the rabbit hole to that pain...for me, that pain has just one name, and that's Joanne. However you choose to deal with it, that belongs to you, all that pain makes us the same.” (https://www.timeout.com/austin/news/lady-gaga-brought-all-the-feels-to-tuesday-nights-emotional-concert-120617)

 

Perhaps it is no coincidence that John the Baptist shows up in our service in the same week that the #MeToo movement is recognized and Lady Gaga calls us to acknowledge our shared pain. Peace is found on the other side of incredible pain. The way to peace is through not around. On Saturday, we will offer a Service of Loss to acknowledge that this time of year is difficult for many of us. The service is one of the ways we prepare for Christ to come. In January, we will offer a Passages group to name some of the losses we carry and to find deep support in community.

 

In this season, we prepare for Christ’s coming when we acknowledge the obstacles to peace in our own lives and in our world. When we are in pain, God is near to comfort us. When we are too comfortable, we find God comes to us and calls us to difficult work. It is that difficult work that helps us prepare a space for Christ to be born in our midst once again. Our task in the coming week is to prepare peaceful places in our lives and in our community. In the words of Jan Richardson, “May we be the road Christ takes.”*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*May the path

that Christ walks

to bring justice

upon the earth,

to bring light

to those who sit

in darkness,

to bring out those

who live in bondage,

to bring new things

to all creation:

 

may this path

run through our life.

May we be

the road Christ takes.

 

~ written by Jan L. Richardson posted on http://paintedprayerbook.com/

“Searching the Shadows”

December 3, 2017                                                                         

Mark 13:24-37, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

“Searching the Shadows”

 

What are the words we most need to hear when we are in crisis? I’m guessing none of us would choose words about end times or what we often call the apocalypse. Both the Psalm and Mark were written for a people in crisis. The people in Mark have been shaken to the core by the Roman occupation and destruction of the Jewish temple. The temple was the heart of the world for the Jews. Marks’ gospel is a message of hope proclaimed in the midst of catastrophe. “To really hear it, we have to listen from a position of desolation, chaos, and bewilderment; we have to listen alongside the traumatized soldier, the displaced refugee, the pregnant teenager, the heartbroken addict. This is where Mark lives; these are the depths from which he proclaims his good news.”  (http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2017/11/27/keep-awake-lectionary-commentary-advent-week-one)

 

Knowing that background, it is still true that Jesus has a strange way of comforting people. He doesn’t say, “There, there. It will be ok.” Instead he says, “You are miserable?? It’s going to get worse before it gets better. You have one job until then – keep awake!”

 

It is funny to me that we read these words in this season where the days are shorter. Does anyone else find yourself sleepy when it gets dark outside – even if that is super early? Why would Jesus tell us to keep awake in a season that it is difficult to keep our eyes open? Keep awake is a way of telling us that hope is more than a quick fix for any of the issues we face today. What God has in mind is much more cosmic than we can even imagine.  

 

A disciple asked, “Is there was anything I can do to ensure enlightenment?”

The master answered, “No more than you can make the sun rise in the morning.”

The disciple asked, “Then what is the use of all these spiritual exercises you prescribe?”

The master replied, “To make sure you’re not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”

 

Following Christ may mean many things, but today’s scripture boils it down to one thing: keep awake. This may be the simplest (yet most difficult) set of instructions we will ever receive. On the one hand, we can be relieved that it isn’t some long list of things we will never be able to remember.

 

Just last week, we were given a list that was quite a bit longer: feed people, give them something to drink, welcome them, give them clothing, take care of them when they are sick, visit them in prison. It is easy to worry that we might not be able to do all of those things. But look again – there is only one message in that text as well – pay attention. Because if we are paying attention, that is, REALLY paying attention, we will see Christ in each person we meet and THEN we will know how to respond to them. In essence, the reading from last week is much like the one today. Jesus was telling us to watch for him in each person and then we will know what to do.

 

Today, we are given a very simple mantra for Advent: keep awake.

 

I have to say that “keep awake” is a whole lot easier to remember than buy presents, decorate, bake, go to parties, give to charitable organizations, sing carols, and all the other things we do in this season.

 

Let’s be honest. We don’t live every day as if Jesus might show up any minute. What if we did?

 

While on a South Pole expedition, British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton left a few men on Elephant Island, promising that he would return. Later, when he tried to go back, huge icebergs blocked the way. But suddenly, as if by a miracle, an avenue opened in the ice and Shackleton was able to get through. His men, ready and waiting, quickly scrambled aboard. No sooner had the ship cleared the island than the ice crashed together behind them. Contemplating their narrow escape, the explorer said to his men, "It was fortunate you were all packed and ready to go!" They replied, "We never gave up hope. Whenever the sea was clear of ice, we rolled up our sleeping bags and reminded each other, 'He may come today.'"

 

That is what this season is about – living with hope because he may come today. Some will say that it isn’t going to happen today because our calendar says he shows up as an infant later this month. But the message to us here is that he can show up anytime and while we wait we have one job to do – keep awake.

 

My friend Jan Richardson wrote a beautiful book of devotions called Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas. In this season, we are searching the shadows, peeking into the darkness and reflecting the light wherever we can. Today we lit this candle of hope as a profound act of defiance in the face of all the forces that cause despair. We often treat advent candle lighting as a sweet little action when in fact it is really countercultural to say that in this season when we cannot see what comes next, we will trust in the light of God to lead us through.

 

Sue Monk Kidd tells about when her daughter was small and got the dubious part of the Bethlehem star in a Christmas play. After her first rehearsal, she burst through the door with her costume, a five-pointed star lined in shiny gold tinsel designed to drape over her like a sandwich board. "What exactly will you be doing in the play?" her mother asked her.

 

"I just stand there and shine," her daughter answered. Sue Monk Kidd says she has never forgotten that response...

 

The refrain “let your face shine, that we may be saved” happens several times in Psalm 80. That is what we are searching for in the shadows in this Advent season, the shine of God’s reflection in our midst…the light that shows us the next right step.

 

If we can stay awake and focused on the light of God, we can reflect that light to the world. Jesus is clear in his call to keep awake and watch for the next step. We have to trust that when we take that step, the next one will be given. Everything we do is an act of faith. There are no guarantees.

 

In the middle of the night, while many were sleeping, the Senate passed a tax bill. We don’t yet know all the ramifications of the bill, but we worry about those Jesus called us to care for – the ones on the margins, the poor, the unemployed. We worry about those who will be hurt by cuts to social security, Medicare, and Medicaid. We worry about the future of public education.

 

This week, we announced the Ministry Leadership Team and Finance Committee recommendation to close the preschool at the end of this school year. We will vote on this recommendation at our January Annual meeting.

 

On Friday evening, a young woman asked Rosa Johnson about the times in which we live and Rosa reminded us all that these times are not new. Hope is found in God who has sustained us for generations.

 

We live in uncertain times, but we are not the first to do so. We can trust that God is in the shadows and will show us the next step. We are called to keep awake in the coming months. God will be with us with each step we take.

 

In the Advent season, we light candles. We wait and we watch. God is in the midst of it all. During World War II, a Jew imprisoned in a concentration camp inscribed these words on a wall of a cellar in Cologne:

 

"I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining. 

"I believe in love, even though I don't feel it. 

"I believe in God, even when [God] is silent."

 

God is with us in the waiting. God is here even when we cannot see what comes next. Christ may come today. Our job in this season is to keep awake. 

 

 

 

 

 

“Whose Hands?”

November 26, 2017                                                                       

Matthew 25:31-46, Ephesians 1:15-23

“Whose Hands?”

 

Christians are often accused of being hypocrites by people who see our actions being incompatible with what we say it means to be Christian. Dr. Robert Kopp, a pastor in Pennsylvania, was driving through traffic one day when he spotted a cheery bumper sticker on the car ahead of him that read, "Honk if you love Jesus!" Dr. Kopp honked and the driver responded with an obscene gesture. ("God is Love, But He Hates..." by Dr. Robert R. Kopp Feb. 18, 1996)

 

We talk about created in the image of God and that says so very little about our looks and so very much about our way of being in the world. Our actions are a way that we reflect God every day if we choose to do so. There is a line from the Ephesians text that says, “I pray that God will enlighten the eyes of your mind so that you can see the hope God’s call holds for you.” (1:18 paraphrase) When we talk about being made in the image of God, it means being given eyes to see the world as God sees it. Each person in front of us gives us a chance to respond in the same way we would to Jesus.

 

Kathleen Norris tells a story in her book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography of a seasoned monk, long accustomed to welcoming all guests as Christ, saying to a young monk, “I have finally learned to accept people as they are. Whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me. But sometimes,” the monk continued, “I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?’”

 

The gospel reading from Matthew is a story of judgment. We tend to cast the word judgment as a negative, but it really means bringing to light what is true. The people in this story are being called to account for the choices they made to respond to people in need or to ignore those needs. Fred Craddock says, “The question that will measure our lives is ‘how did you respond to human need?’” (The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, p. 95)

 

We talked in text study this week about the guilty feelings we have when we don’t think we are doing enough for others (for some of us, that is most of the time). I don’t think this is a text intended to make us feel guilty but rather to take an honest look at our lives and ask ourselves if we have fed those who are hungry, did we visit those who are lonely, did we share our resources with others who needed them?

 

One exercise that people may find helpful is writing our own obituary or the words we might want on our tombstone as a way of naming the life we feel called to live. If we start there, we can live toward that. Catherine Grandia died this week. Catherine was 97 and was very clear that the scripture that has guided her life is Micah 6:8 “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” She tried to live those words every day.

 

In the reading from Matthew, Jesus is telling us clearly how to live. He is telling us to treat every person as if it were him. That sounds so easy until someone cuts us off in traffic, or rudely asks for help.

 

I read a sermon this week by King Duncan (“Hungry for Bread”) that talked about the importance of credibility and it said that the church should be especially concerned with credibility since we represent God. The sermon went on to say that one area where the church’s credibility gap is most evident is in our lack of compassion for the poor and hurting. In 1982, New York City was facing a budget crisis. Winter was approaching, and the city's social service agencies were unable to care for all the homeless citizens who needed help. Mayor Ed Koch called upon Manhattan's religious institutions to help care for 36,000 homeless men and women who would "fall through the cracks" that winter. If every one of the city's 3500 churches and synagogues would help out 10 homeless people, the problem would be solved. According to an investigative piece in The New York Times, the churches and synagogues didn't exactly jump at the idea. The article quoted one Protestant minister who said, "The mayor never mentioned this to me. Nobody in his office apprized me of this." The Catholic spokesman sidestepped the question, and a leading Jewish rabbi said, "We haven't money to heat the building for this extra service." (Bruce Larson, Living out the Book of Acts, p. 80)

 

I don’t believe that there is a big credibility gap at First Congregational. We are feeding the hungry, caring for vulnerable children and youth, providing for those who have been in prison, offering sanctuary to Kadhim, supporting organizations in our community that serve homeless families and immigrants and care for creation. I am just getting started. I think we work hard here to live God’s love, justice, and inclusion, but it is good for all of us to have Jesus set this story down before us from time to time and consider how we are doing.

 

Honestly, I am blown away by the multitude of ways you all give of yourselves so I hope you see the light reflecting what you ARE doing instead of finding you a failure because you aren’t doing enough. That said, we have a chance every day to respond to someone through the lens of God’s love. We aren’t always feeling that love, but we can act in loving ways until the feelings follow.

 

We can also allow others to open the door for us to serve in a way that we might not choose to otherwise.

 

During the war in the Balkens, a Catholic nun in Croatia found a unique way to get help for the war refugees. Dressed in her nun's habit, she would go to a door and plead with those who answered her knock, "I have no place to stay. I'm hungry. Can you take me in?" Croatia is a deeply Catholic country, so the answer to the nun's plea was almost always, "Of course, Sister." Then the nun would step back to let the real refugees with her be seen. They were usually taken in by the family. (From Plough magazine, cited in Salt, as quoted in "Sisters of Mercy," Connections, 20th Sunday OT, Year A, Aug. 1993)

 

 

Then there are times that we just need to be reminded of the powerful words from Teresa of Avila:

 

“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…”

In Germany after World War II, some American soldiers were cleaning up a large cathedral which had been hit by a bomb. It was the task of one soldier to gather all the fragmented pieces of statues into a pile. He found a beautiful statue of Jesus that was completely intact except the hands were missing. He searched all through the rubble but could not find the missing hands. Finally he placed the handless statue on the altar and put a sign in front of it. The sign read as if Jesus were saying, "Your hands are my hands."

 

As the days get colder and more human needs present themselves to us, may these words serve as a reminder that we have the opportunity to be Christ in the world every single day.

 

 

 

 

“Return on God’s Investment”

November 19, 2017                                                                       

Matthew 25:14-30, Judges 5:1-10

“Return on God’s Investment”

 

Our readings today are about people who are given the opportunity to do something for God. The reading from Judges only comes around once every three years. The book of Judges contains the largest number of women characters of any book in the Bible. There are nineteen women in Judges. The song Frances read is about one of those women, Deborah, who was put in a position of leadership at a bad time in Israel’s history. One of the refrains in the book of Judges is “Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” The pattern in this book is Israel turning their backs on God, suffering mightily, crying out to God, and God sending them a judge (someone to arbitrate disputes) to lead them back to safety. The reading today is a song after one of those cycles and Deborah is the judge who is chosen to return the people to God. She leaves the safety of the tree where she is helping people navigate their disputes and goes to the center of the conflict where she reminds the people that God is out in front of them. Being chosen by God to lead did not exempt her from risk. In fact, she had to lead from the front lines, the riskiest place of all.

 

This is not just a nice story about Israel being restored to God. In fact, it is a terribly violent story of many lives lost and terrific suffering. We hear stories of violence and suffering every day. Who will step up in these violent times and help us find a peaceful way of being together in the world? How can each of us be part of creating peace in our world? This week, many people will gather around tables and give thanks. What will we thank God for? I’m guessing we will thank God for food, loved ones, and some of the other things that make our lives good.

 

What if we gave thanks for our lives and then we each set out to live in such a way that acknowledges the investment God has made in us? Cesar Chavez said, “When we are really honest with ourselves, we must admit that our lives are really all that belong to us. So it is how we use our lives that determines what kind of people we are.”

 

In stewardship season, we start asking how much are we supposed to give? How much of our resources belong to God? I don’t think that is the right question. I believe that everything belongs to God. If our lives are God’s investment in us, how will we live?

 

We tend to get hung up on the three people in Matthew’s gospel and wonder why some got more talents than others. This isn’t a story about making money. It is about how we will live our lives. Look at the story again – everyone got something. The amounts were not the same, but the owner in the story has invested something in each person.

 

I can make a long list of all the gifts I didn’t get. It would be so easy to focus on what I can’t do and use that as an excuse to stay on the sidelines of life. But I do have a gift that I can use and when I use it, I know the world is better.

 

Tony Campolo told of meeting a woman who is confined to a wheelchair. Although Nancy had a handicapping condition, she developed a unique ministry to people who are lonely and hurting. Nancy ran ads in the personals section of the newspaper that read: 

"If you are lonely or have a problem call me. I am in a wheelchair and seldom get out. We can share our problems with each other. Just call. I'd love to talk." 

From that simple ad the results were truly amazing. Nancy receives at least thirty calls each week from persons who need someone to talk to and listen to their pain. Nancy spends most of her day comforting and counseling people. She has become someone for hundreds of people with problems to lean on. 

Campolo asked her how she became handicapped. Nancy's answer surprised, even shocked him. "By trying to commit suicide," she said. Nancy went on to explain, "I was living alone. I had no friends. I hated my job, and I was constantly depressed." Nancy decided to jump from the window of her apartment to end it all. But instead of being killed, she ended up in the hospital paralyzed from the waist down. While she was in the hospital, Nancy said, "Jesus appeared to me and told me that I'd had a healthy body and a crippled soul but from then on I would have a crippled body and a healthy soul. I gave my life to Christ right there and then," she said. "When I got out of the hospital, I tried to think of how a woman like me in a wheel chair could do some good, and I came up with the idea of putting the ad in the newspaper." (Wake Up America! pp. 87-88)

 

God has invested something in every community of faith. What will we do with that investment? If Jesus showed up today, he wouldn’t want to know that we carefully kept everything as it was when he left, he would want to hear what we are doing with his investment in us. Three years ago, we were struggling financially and had a meeting after church to talk about our challenges. It was clear to me that God was not calling us to bury what we have in the ground and close our eyes hoping that everything would be safe. Instead, I believed then and I still do today, that we were being called to some risky places as a congregation. God didn’t give us a big safety net to move into the future. God simply placed the talents into our hands and called us to step out into the world. We were exploring the sanctuary movement that fall and preparing to come together as a congregation to make a decision. The need diminished in early 2015 and returned this year. We have spent the last several months exploring our role in caring for immigrants. If one talent can have a tremendous impact so can one person.

 

I wonder how many risks this congregation has taken in 137 years. It is rather ironic that the way to life is to risk offering what God has entrusted to us. The way to death is to play it safe and try and bury what we have been given in hopes that we will not lose it. God has given us great resources to be light and hope to the world. Look around the room and notice all that we have here. We can do so much together.

 

When Christ comes, he doesn’t want us to say, “Look, everything is just as it was when you left.” What do we do with the treasure entrusted to us? In a small Oklahoma town, oil was struck on church land. The church had a congregational meeting to decide what to do with the proceeds from the oil. They voted to pay off church debts, make some needed improvements to the church building, put a small nest egg in the bank, and then divide the remainder among the church members. As soon as that last decision was made, one of the members jumped up and yelled, “I move that we don’t take in any new members!”

 

If we feel like it is up to us alone, it is tempting to simply bury whatever we have in the ground and keep our head down. But it isn’t up to any one person. It is what we do together. Mark Nepo said, “We are here to love the light out of each other.” (The Endless Practice: Becoming Who You Were Born to Be, p. 257)

 

We may need to do some digging to get all those talents up, but they are worth more than gold. One talent was more than 15 years wages. When we start loving the light out of each other, we can make a profound impact. God has given each of us a beautiful life. May we live each day as an expression of our gratitude.

 

 

 

 

“Multiple Choice”

November 12, 2017                                                                       

Matthew 25:1-13, Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

“Multiple Choice”

 

This week, I asked for a little help from my friends. I asked them to tell me about a wedding disaster. They had some good ones. There were two ring bearers who got into a pillow fight at the front of the aisle. There was a bride whose underwear slid down her legs under her floor length dress during the ceremony at the Justice of the Peace office. She finally stepped out of it and kicked it under the desk. A bride brought her cat and left it in the minister’s office during the ceremony. The cat started howling to get out in the middle of the prayer. At an outdoor Texas wedding, an armadillo came up to sniff around between the couple and the minister. There was a maid of honor at a wedding at a nudist colony! She said the bride hadn’t realized how awkward it would be to meet her in-laws naked. She also said when it came time for pictures, everyone was vying for the back row! Worst of all, there was poison oak!

 

Weddings are stressful. At the rehearsal, I always tell those gathered to take a breath and think of ALL the details that went into the wedding and to expect something to go wrong. Someone will trip going down the aisle. We may stumble over our words. The cake may fall. I like to think it helps to know in advance that something will likely go wrong so that we can remember that it doesn’t detract from the love that is bringing the couple together. It is a small thing compared to the vows they are taking and the life they are beginning together.

 

Our gospel lesson is about being prepared for the bridegroom to show up for a wedding. This is a story about Jesus’ delayed return. His followers had been waiting and as time went by, it was hard to be positively prepared. The message seems to undermine the lesson throughout scripture that there is more than enough for all. In this case some of the bridesmaids were prepared with enough oil when the bridegroom was delayed and some were not. It is easy to get hung up on the ones who were prepared not sharing their oil with the unprepared ones. What kind of message is that? As we wrestled with it in text study this week, it was suggested that because this is a parable/allegory, the story may be one about our relationship with God. It is not something that others can do for us. We are the only ones who can fill the metaphorical lamp that will connect us to God. You may give so much loving attention to your relationship that it spills over and inspires me to grow in mine, but you cannot be responsible for my relationship.

 

There are so many competing claims for our time and energy. There are so many reasons that we may not be cultivating our relationship with God. Joshua talks about the many gods that the Israelites have to choose from. They have traveled a long way and finally arrived in the Promised Land. Joshua tells them that it is now time to choose which God they will serve. The people say they want to serve the God who brought them there, but Joshua argues with them. It may be that he sees best of all how many temptations there are that can pull us away from God. So he calls them out and tells them to “choose this day whom they will serve.”

 

It seems that the wise bridesmaids have chosen to serve God. The foolish ones have found something else more enticing. Perhaps they are binge watching “Stranger Things” or “This is Us.” Perhaps they are checking Facebook. Maybe they are shopping online to get a head start on Christmas presents. Whatever they are doing, they are missing the opportunity to connect with God.

 

How many times do we think we are going to really give our lives to God (even just for a day) only to find ourselves caught up in something else and the day is soon gone? Friday is my day off and I often think I am going to do something like a retreat on that day only to look up and realize it is dinner time and I never started my prayerful retreat.

 

Every day we make so many choices that impact our relationship with God. It is something no one can do for us. Every one of those days matters. Many of them, we miss an opportunity (or several opportunities) to move closer to God. Each day is kind of a multiple choice experience.

 

Joel Henderson was asked how he wrote all those books. He replied that he’d never written a book – all he did was write a page a day. When the year was up, he had a 365 page book. (Weavings July/August 1994 “Commitment” p. 23)

 

The scriptures we hear on Sunday come around every three years in a cycle called The Lectionary. Three years ago we were struggling with a budget with a massive deficit. Our rental property had been empty for way too long. Here is what I said in that sermon “I am most alive when I am offering my gifts in a local congregation even when things are hard. My commitment to you is deep. We stand on the shoulders of many people who have gone before us and we have so much potential. As we address the financial struggles that plague us, I am clear that there is one way and that is through. There is life beyond every issue we will face. I choose to serve God together with you. I choose to say yes to the opportunities before us. I choose to face the struggles with you. I ask you to choose with me. Here is what I know…making this choice will set us free. God has already chosen us. God says yes to us everyday. Now we have the opportunity to say yes to God. In our yes is freedom. In our yes is the way through.”

 

We said yes together and we have grown. We still struggle with a deficit budget, but it isn’t as big as it once was. The rental property has been occupied by Crossroads for Women for two years and it is a beautiful partnership. We have just hired a wonderful Director of Children, Youth, and Family Ministries. We had a difficult summer as we considered offering sanctuary without the time we wanted to prepare for such a big decision. It was painful and we lost beloved members. But we said we would offer sanctuary to Kadhim and we kept showing up for one another. Today we meet to talk about where we are as a congregation. We continue to welcome new people each week. We have received financial support from individuals and churches. We have welcomed nineteen new members.

 

Faith is a lifetime proposition. It doesn’t happen all at once. One does not fully become a spouse at a wedding. It is something we grow into over time. We don’t fully become a parent or a Christian or anything in an instant. It happens with the choices we make each day. I want to repeat the commitment I made three years ago. I choose you. I choose to walk toward God with all of you.

 

We will mess up. We will hurt one another. But we will keep showing up and lighting our candles for one another and for the world. The book of Matthew calls us to be light for the world. We do that as we recognize the importance of keeping the flame lit from within. And as we tend the flame of God within us, we become hope for the world.

 

I believe in us. I believe in what God is doing through us. Every choice we make is an opportunity for our light to shine more brightly in the world.

 

 

 

“O Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble!”

November 5, 2017                                                                         

Matthew 23:1-12, Joshua 3:7-17

“O Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble!”

 

How many of you remember a moment when you were humbled? You may use the word humiliated instead, but you know what I mean. When I was in college, I worked with a church youth group who took a water skiing trip each year to a lake. Several members had boats and the group spent the weekend swimming and skiing. I had never water skied before and I love the water so I was excited. I think I assumed I would be a natural. I am not sure why, there is nothing natural about me in the water, but I have always harbored fantasies of myself doing amazing feats in the water. When it was my turn, I took my place behind the boat while everyone on the boat yelled at me to bend my knees and keep my arms straight so of course, I bent my arms and kept my legs straight. I fell over and over and over. They yelled the same instructions and I fell over EVERY SINGLE TIME. Finally one of the high school boys got into the water next to me. We sat side by side on the water and he talked me through one step at a time. We very slowly stood up together. It was glorious! I was doing it! I was skiing! I was so proud! They drove the boat past the shore where the rest of the group gathered. In my pride, I lifted my arm to wave, the group cheered, and I crashed into the water! Water skiing doesn’t work so well when one is proud. It requires some humility…some time crouched down before gently standing up. It also requires some focus when one is standing.

 

Jesus and the disciples have an ongoing conversation (i.e. debate) about who goes where in the line of importance. The disciples are always vying for the spots next to Jesus. “I call shot gun!” “I call the seat next to Jesus!” There are stories of dinners where people come in and sit in the important seats only to be demoted to the less important seats while others are promoted to the places of honor. We hear that and like to think it is all a bit silly. Is it?

 

Jesus tells us that the way to God is on the ground. If you trace the word humility to its roots in Latin and Greek it comes from the root word humus, or of the earth. Jesus is calling us to ground ourselves in God. Graham Standish says that “Humility does not mean becoming feeble. Instead, it means bringing an attitude of radical openness to God…that allows us to become conduits of the Holy Spirit.” (Humble Leadership, p. xiii)

 

There are more than 2400 references to humility in the Bible. It is good to be reminded that we are not being called to be doormats, but to open ourselves to God. The times that is the easiest for me to do is when I am in over my head. When I find myself in a situation that I know I cannot control, I lean back and find that God is there.

 

That is what is happening in the reading from Joshua today. The people have followed God through the wilderness. They have survived not from their own power and skillfulness, but by relying on God. Now they are almost there…they are standing on the edge of the Jordan River. They just have to cross into the land where they will build a life together. God explains to them, “It’s simple, really. Just step into the water with that ark of the covenant. The water that is overflowing the banks will stand still and let you cross, but not until you actually step into it.” Oh my! God isn’t going to part the water and wait for them to cross. They have to step in and then God will still the water for them.

 

Once again, God is saying, “This is not about you. This is what I will do through you, BUT you have to be open to my working through you. If you keep believing that you’ve got this, you aren’t going to get it. Following me means checking your ego, your resume, your everything at the door, and trusting that I’ve got you. And I do.”

 

Somehow they were able to trust and step into the rushing water. Perhaps their experience with manna, water from a rock, and the many ways God had shown up for them in the wilderness carrying them and feeding them and loving them gave them the courage or maybe they did it because they had no other choice. Either way, they stepped into the raging river and God stilled the water for them so that they could cross into the beautiful land that awaited them.

 

One act of humility we observe together is coming to the front to receive a tiny piece of bread. Somehow we trust that with that little piece of bread and that bit of juice, we are being fed to do big things. We aren’t being fed to flex our muscles in the world, but to allow God to work through us especially when we are in over our heads. If we are willing to put our feet into the overflowing water, God can still it so that we can move across. It is good to be reminded that it is not about what we can do, but what we will allow God to do through us.

 

That is why I work hard to stay in relationship with each of you. We need each other. It is why I keep the Nob Hill clergy connected. It is why I drove several hours to Tucson this week for the Southwest Conference Clergy retreat. It is why we have ministry teams. We need each other and we need to be reminded that we are not alone in this. Sometimes we don’t discover that until we are desperate.

 

“John Buchanan served one summer as pastor of a small parish church in a village in the Western Highlands of Scotland. The Church of Scotland minister in the neighboring parish, Johnny Dunlop, reached out to him. John tells the story this way: 

‘He came to see me. We sat in the little manse study, had a cup of coffee and good long conversation. The next Sunday was Communion Sunday, and Johnny told me a story he said he recalled every time he presided at the Lord’s Table and a story I remember every time I am privileged to stand behind the Lord’s Table and break the bread and share the cup.

Johnny was in the infantry in the British Army in World War II. His unit was surrounded, and he was captured and ended up in a prisoner of war camp in Poland. It was dreadful: cold, wet, filthy, and worst of all, there was almost no food, just a bowl of thin soup and a scrap of bread once a day. Prisoners lost weight, until they were skin and bones, contracted diseases, and began to die. The war was not going very well for the Allies, and there didn’t seem to be any reason for hope. As the tide began to turn and Germany’s fortunes diminished, the conditions in the prisoner of war camp became worse, until some prisoners didn’t want to go on living. One easy way to end it all, he told me, was to throw yourself against the barbed wire fence as if trying to escape and be shot instantly by the guards. Johnny said that one night, deeply discouraged, depressed, and sick with despair and hunger, he slipped out of the barracks and walked toward the fence, not quite sure whether he ought simply to end it all. He sat down on the bare ground thinking. He sensed movement in the dark on the other side of the barbed wire. It was a Polish farmer. He had half a potato in his hand. He thrust the potato through the barbed wire. As Johnny Dunlop took it, the man said, in heavily accented English, ‘The Body of Christ.’” (John Buchanan, “In Remembrance of Him,” 02 October 2011, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, Illinois, www.fourthchurch.org).

We often talk about what we can do for others. It is important to offer what we have. Perhaps we are the ones offering a potato that looks like life and hope to someone else. There are times when we find we are the ones who open our hands to accept the life and hope someone is giving to us. Opening our hands is a way of receiving what we cannot do for ourselves. It requires great humility to allow someone to meet us in our vulnerability. It is hard to be humble. But it may be that in our humility, we discover God is waiting to take our hand and lead us into that next beautiful place…a place we cannot reach on our own.

 

“Famous Last Words”

October 29, 2017   

Matthew 22:34-46, Deuteronomy 34:1-12

“Famous Last Words”

 

Do you ever think about what you want your last words to be? If you need some ideas, here are some that are recorded by famous people:

 

“Love one another.” George Harrison

“I feel something that is not of this earth.” Mozart

“This is no way to live!” Groucho Marx

“Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” Steve Jobs

“Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.” Pancho Villa

“Lord help my poor soul.” Edgar Allen Poe

“Back in no time.” William S. Burroughs

“Money can’t buy life.” Bob Marley

“It is very beautiful out there.” Thomas Edison

 

I went to visit Don Bush two days before he died. He wanted to tell me what to say at his memorial service. He told me about his life and the things he had done. He summed it up by saying, “I’ve had a wonderful life.”

 

Both texts today are encounters with men at the end of their lives. Moses has lived a long life. He has led the people through the wilderness and today he is given the opportunity to see the promised land even though he will not be allowed to go there. What a poignant picture of a man who has given his life and will not see the promised land after all. We heard this in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech the night before he was assassinated:

 

“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

 

And so I'm happy, tonight.

I'm not worried about anything.

I'm not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”

(from I've Been to the Mountaintop delivered 3 April 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee)

 

King is echoing Moses and acknowledging that God will go with the people the rest of the way.

   

 

In the reading from Matthew, Jesus is in his last days and he is being tested yet again. This time the test is to pick the number one commandment. In some ways, Jesus is being asked what his last words will be. So, he says, “It all boils down to this. Love God and love your neighbor.”

 

It is a test because the Pharisees believed that if Ten Commandments were good, twenty commandments were even better. The rabbis searched the Scriptures for every word of God that could be taken as law and come up with 613 – 248 positive commands and 365 negative commands; a ‘Thou shalt not’ for every day of the year.” (Lectionary Homiletics, October 2002, p. 12) So one of them asks Jesus to pick one. It feels a little bit like asking a teacher or a parent to pick their favorite child.

 

Jesus doesn’t seem to struggle. There is no flipping a coin, rock, paper, scissors or any other method to choose when there is more than one answer. Jesus just zeroes in on the heart of everything. Love God. Loving God means loving everyone. We can’t love God and not love others. Jesus seems to be telling them that the real test of the law is love.

 

On this day as we remember those who have gone before us, we can ask how they loved. We answer that question in stories and memories and examples of lives lived in love. In the Broadway musical Rent, many of the characters have been cast out of the families and communities because of their sexuality or gender identity. They form a loving, supportive community during the peak of the AIDS epidemic. As their friends are dying left and write they ask in a song:

 

“How do you measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles
In laughter, in strife

In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life

How about love?
Measure in love
Seasons of love”

 

Yes, there are many ways we can measure a life. But Jesus suggests only one. Measure in love.

 

Perhaps we get there by measuring each day in love. What if we begin our days with the question, “How will I love today?” and then we end them with, “How did I love today?” Each day we begin again and live the greatest commandment to love God the best way we can.

 

The pictures on the table represent many different lives with many different stories. I know very few of them, but the thread that runs through them all is love. These faces reflect the love of God. They are people we love and they are ones who have loved us. Our lives are forever impacted by that love.

 

This morning we offer gifts to reflect our love of God and one another. We call it an estimate of giving. It is a way of saying how we will allow God’s love to flow through us into the world. We will come forward and these beautiful saints will be gathered around as we offer our gifts. Giving is a tangible way of expressing our love for God. Our gifts are a way of saying thank you today and an investment in the future. We commit ourselves yet again to live God’s love, justice, and inclusion.

 

What will be our last words?













 

“Learning to be Human”

October 22, 2017                                                                      

Matthew 22:15-22, Exodus 33:12-23

“Learning to be Human”

 

In a Bible study with James Fowler, one of my seminary professors, I complained about the way God often seems so angry in the Old Testament. He replied that the Old Testament is the story of God learning to be God. I had never thought of it that way before and it calmed me a bit as I realized that God created people and gave them autonomy and was constantly having to respond when they didn’t act according to plan. It certainly fits my experience of parenting. Many times, I have asked “Why did he or she do…?” Anne Marie has reminded me just as many (or more) times that Why? is not always a helpful question. I can’t help but wonder if God has asked that about human beings. If God is learning to be God, we must be learning to be human. We learn to be human the way we learn to do anything…trial and error and practice.

 

We have cruised through the Exodus story, but today we are coming to an ending. Moses is near the end of his life. He knows he will not go into the promised land with the people. He is having an intimate conversation with God in this passage and Moses is asking God to promise to travel with them all the way. He is asking for assurance once again. Do you remember the words of assurance God gives Moses when calling him to lead the people out of slavery? They are very simple, “I will be with you.” Clearly, God has been with them. God parted the Red Sea when the Egyptians were on their tail. God gave them manna when they were hungry. God gave them water when they were thirsty. God gave them commandments (rules to live by) when they were all over the place and needed direction. Now Moses is asking again, “Are you going with us, God? Are you? Will you go with them after I am gone? Will you?” You can hear the anxiety. And God says, “I will. I will be with you…no matter what.”

 

Then Moses responds that he just needs a little proof. How about a glimpse? Moses asks for God’s glory and God promises goodness, grace, and mercy. Then God gives him a glimpse. God has been faithful to the promise to be with them every step of the way. When I pray, I pray that God will be with us every step of the way. What I am really praying is that we will trust that God is with us every step of the way.

 

How much of our lives do we spend looking for resonance between our inner and outer selves? What will it take for us to really know we belong to God and God is always with us? If we really believe it, what will it take to live like it?

 

The text from Matthew is two enemy factions – the Herodians and the Pharisees – teaming up against Jesus. They try and trap him with a seemingly innocent question “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The Herodians were in favor of the tax, but the Pharisees were opposed to anything that might make the king appear to have more authority than God. A yes or no answer would trap Jesus with one of the factions, but he won’t bite. Instead he lobs it back to those who ask it. He calls them hypocrites for pretending to ask an innocent question. He takes the coin and tells them to fulfill their obligations as citizens AND to be disciples. The authorities were into either/or thinking. Is it God or country? Our country seems to be divided into

 an either/or place. We seem to have little, if any, room for both/and. Yet, Jesus says they are both citizens and God’s beloved disciples. There are times when being a citizen puts us in direct conflict with being disciples. At that point, we have to determine whom will our actions reflect. This is not easy. I think that is why Jesus delivered it to them in the form of a question. He knew they needed to wrestle with it. He knew that finding deep resonance as a citizen and a person of faith requires hard work on our part.

 

Either/or thinking keeps us from digging deeper. It allows us to avoid the hard work of being human. We so easily buy false dichotomies. We are convinced that one cannot possibly be _______ (you fill in the blank) and be Christian. Two women who were walking around a somewhat overcrowded English country churchyard, and came upon a tombstone on which was the inscription: "Here lies John Smith, a politician and an honest man." "Good heavens!" one exclaimed, "isn't it awful that they had to put two people in the same grave."

Remember the words God gave Moses? Goodness, grace, and mercy. We are the bearers of God’s image. We are created by God and our lives are intended to reflect God’s goodness, grace, and mercy.

 

I think I get the answer to the question, “What belongs to the emperor?” I find the question, “What belongs to God?” more difficult. The answer is that everything belongs to God. If I am a walking reflection of God, how will I live? How will I give?

 

A monk found a very precious gemstone. He put it in his knapsack and carried it with him. One day he met a traveler in need who asked the monk to share some of his provisions with him. The monk opened his knapsack to share his food, when his fingers found the gem. So he lifted out the stone and gave it to the traveler.

 

Overjoyed by his good fortune in the valuable stone, the traveler went on his way. A few days later, however, the traveler caught up with the monk. He begged him again: “Please, give me something more precious than this stone.” He said, Please give me that which prompted you to give the stone to me.”

 

What I seek as a follower of Jesus is that deep resonance that allows God to flow through me. I don’t just want God to exist on the outside. I want to trust God so deeply that my life flows out of that trust and into this big, beautiful, troubled world that we inhabit.

 

And if that doesn’t happen easily, then I perhaps I can act my way into that way of thinking. Perhaps I can act in a way that says I am trusting God with my whole being until I am actually able to do that. Perhaps I can give the precious gemstone and find myself converted from the outside in. Did I mention that this is not an either/or operation?

 

The late Danny Thomas lost his life savings of $600.00 at a time when he was out of work. He and his wife, Rosie, had a baby on the way, and they needed money. Danny worked at part-time jobs so Rosie could buy groceries. He also borrowed money from friends. It was a tough time in his life. A week before the baby was born, Danny had the grand total of seven dollars and eighty-five cents to his name. What would he do? “My despair led me to my first exposure to the powers of faith,” Danny would later recall.

On Sunday morning Danny went to church. When the offering plate was passed, he put in his “usual one dollar.” But something unexpected happened that day. A special missions offering was taken. The priest explained where the mission offering would go, and Danny felt he had to give something. “I got carried away,” Danny said, “and ended up giving my seven dollars.” He had given away all his money that Sunday. What in the world had he done? He walked up to the altar rail, got on his knees and prayed aloud. “Look, I’ve given my last seven bucks,” he prayed. “I need it back tenfold because I’ve got a kid on the way, and I have to pay the hospital bill.” He went home with a mere eighty-five cents in his pocket--all the money he had in the world. “You won’t believe this,” Danny Thomas later wrote, “but the next morning the phone rang in the rooming house hall.” It was a job offer. He was offered a part in a commercial. The job wasn’t much but the pay was good--seventy-five dollars. “I literally dropped the telephone receiver,” Danny remembered. “First I whooped with joy; then an eerie feeling came over me.” He remembered what he had prayed at church the day before. “The seventy-five-dollar fee,” he said, “unheard of for me at that time, was almost exactly ten times the amount of money I had donated to the church.”

I am not advocating belief in magic, but I am advocating for living a life that is so deeply rooted in trust that we allow ourselves to live as if everything belongs to God. Let us live lives that practice trusting in God. Let us live our lives in a way that allows God to grow from in the inside out or the outside in each day. Let us learn how to be human as we offer our whole selves to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“What are You Going to Wear?”

October 15, 2017                                                                      

Matthew 22:1-14, Exodus 32:1-14

“What are You Going to Wear?”

 

On our refrigerator, we have a magnet with two nuns wearing habits. One says to the other, “What are you wearing tomorrow?” It is interesting how much energy we can spend on wearing the right clothes even though in the gospel of Luke Jesus tells us specifically not to worry about what we will wear. That seems to be in direct contrast to the reading from Matthew.

 

There always seems to be a line that jumps out of scripture for me. This week, I got stuck on the guy who didn’t wear the right clothes and is cast out into some terrible place. I grew up in a place where it mattered what you wore to church. I still have some residue of that, but I honestly don’t care what you wear to church. I just care what I wear to church. Tuesday I wore jeans, hiking boots, and a Church baseball cap to work at the balloon fiesta to raise money for the church. We got out late and I didn’t have time to go home and change clothes like I had planned. I came to church dressed like that. I went to visit a family dressed like that. I felt like I needed to apologize all day. I don’t think anyone cared but me, but I had read the scripture for this morning and I knew the guy got cast out for wearing the wrong clothing. I think it got under my skin a little bit.

 

What could possibly be the point of being cast out for wearing the wrong outfit?? I’m guessing the part about welcoming more and more people at the table when the original people invited snubbed the wedding isn’t too hard to grasp. We know God wants us to widen our welcome. That isn’t news. But what’s with all the violence? Not only did those invited chose to not to come to the wedding, they killed the messengers. Then the king becomes enraged and burns their city. Assuming the king is supposed to represent God, what in the world can this story teach us?

 

Let’s back up a bit. In the Exodus story, Moses has been gone for too long and the people give up on him. They don’t know if he’s coming back and they decide they need to take matters into their own hands. They conspire with Aaron who takes all their gold and makes them a calf to worship. Now God is mad! What is the number one commandment? One God. Period. No golden calves. Forget the other commandments. They can’t even get the first one. God is tired of them. They just complain and disobey and don’t even TRY to observe the one commandment. So God tells Moses that they will be destroyed. Moses implores God to give up this plan and it works. God’s mind is changed.

 

How many of you think of God as one whose mind is changed? That isn’t typically the first thing we think about God. But here is God who is over the top angry and ready to obliterate these disrespectful people being convinced to give up that plan after all.

 

You and I know that it is not easy to change. Have you ever tried to change a habit? Have you gone on a diet and found yourself at a party with wonderful food? Tried to give up smoking, but couldn’t stop thinking about cigarettes? Did you try and drive the speed limit only to look down and find that you are going too fast? Did you give up swearing until you smashed your thumb? Did you try and stop watching so much tv, but found yourself in front of the screen the following evening because the new show was too good to miss? Did you give up something for Lent and find that you had already forgotten by the second day? Did you decide to pray every day only to find yourself too busy to actually do it?

 

We know it is hard to change. We know the desire to change and we know that it is simply easier NOT to change. Yet, the story from Exodus is the story of God being fed up with the people, ready to write them off, and then changing. I find that powerful. If God can change, and we are made in the image of God, then we have the potential to change. As I continued to read about the man cast out in Matthew, I realized that it wasn’t about his outfit, it was about his refusal to change. He refused to be shaped and molded by God. Yes, he showed up and ate the food, but he wouldn’t allow himself to be changed.

 

Several years ago, I read Stephanie Spellers book Radical Welcome: Embracing God, the Other, and the Spirit of Transformation. She talked about the tendency in the church to welcome people to come in and be like us. She describes radical welcome as inviting people to come and change the community by their presence. True welcome means more than you can come here. It means you can bring your whole self here and we will allow ourselves to be changed by you.

 

I think that message is in this story. We have the opportunity to say, “We don’t just want God to show up here. We will allow ourselves to be changed by God.”

 

Leonard Sweet preached a sermon on this text in which he talked about Woody Allen’s famous quote “Eighty percent of life is just showing up.” He said Allen is wrong because eighty percent of life is what we do AFTER we show up. He’s right about that. Standing at an altar and taking vows is not a marriage. It is the beginning of a marriage, but a real marriage happens in the ups and downs and ordinary and extraordinary moments AFTER taking vows. G. K. Chesterton used to say that “Just going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car.” (https://www.sermons.com/sermon/god-enjoys-and-enjoins-us/1456984)

 

We are being challenged NOT to have the right wardrobe, but to have the right heart. We are called to open our hearts to be changed by God. We are called to leave differently than we came. We are called to allow God to grow in us. I still think you can wear what you want, but we need to allow God to change us from the inside out.

 

Shirley MacLaine starred in a movie called “The Last Word.” She plays Harriet, a controlling, lonely, wealthy woman who decides to pay Anne, the obituary writer for the local newspaper to write her obituary so she can approve it before her death. Harriet has burned every bridge she ever crossed. She gives Anne a long list of names to get quotes and Anne cannot find one person to say anything nice about Harriet. Harriet realizes she will have to do something if she is going to get the obituary she wants so she sets out to mentor a young girl named Brenda. She becomes a disc jockey at the local radio station. She takes a road trip to see her estranged daughter. She may be doing these things for the wrong reasons, but she is changed by her relationship with Anne and Brenda. She takes an honest look at herself and along the way (maybe accidentally), she discovers her heart opening in ways that surprise everyone, including Harriet.

 

When we hear the gospel reading today, it sounds like the story of a vindictive God who casts us out when we don’t conform. But what if the message is that refusing to allow ourselves to be changed by God or one another results in our being alienated from the community?

 

Some of us will say that it is just too hard. We may find ourselves stretched beyond our comfort zone (usually a good sign that God is involved somehow). We may wish to just stand on the edge and watch. But God invites us to enter life with our whole being with a guarantee that it will be messy and difficult. But there are treasures to be found in the transformation.

 

You are invited to participate in a Living Room Conversation in the next few weeks. It is easy to be too busy to come. It is also possible that we don’t want to talk at a heart level about immigration, but I believe it can be really healing for us to listen to one another. There is no agenda to change anyone’s mind. It is to really hear where we are on this issue. In listening to one another, we may find our own hearts opening a bit. I believe that is God’s desire for us. I don’t think God cares what you wear, but I do think that God cares that our community be open to transformation.

 

I spent some time this week with one of our longtime members who told me that she loved our church because it changed with the times and moved on rather than retreating into a corner and building a wall. She had some advice for us: listen. Listen. Listen.

 

If we can listen with open hearts, we can be sure that God is with us. We may not always be comfortable, but we will find ourselves becoming more like Jesus. Don’t worry about what clothes you will wear.

 

“I Dare You!”

October 8, 2017                                                                            

Matthew 21:33-46, Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

“I Dare You!”

 

I hear many people say that they just can’t watch the news these days. It is too hard. It feels like blow after blow after blow as we watch devastation caused by hurricanes, earthquakes, horrific gun violence, and racist demonstrations. If you find yourself thinking that way, you may wonder how coming to church is any better than watching the news after hearing the gospel lesson this morning. As we read it together on Wednesday in text study, I wondered aloud if the tenants in the reading from Matthew had broken nearly all of the ten commandments that we had just read in Exodus. This is not an uplifting text. It really seems to show humanity at its worst. We could say the same as we watched the news from Las Vegas this week.

 

Both of the texts today show us the relationship between God and human beings. It could be that we would function well with just one commandment. God comes first. Period. That is so much harder than it sounds.

 

The gospel lesson is an allegory. God is the landowner. The downfall of the people in the story was their own greed, their own failure to give to God rather than take for themselves. I have wondered if this text is about the gift humans were given in the beginning – a beautiful earth to call home, to tend and care for as if it belonged to us, but never forgetting that it in fact belongs to God. The problem comes with our memory. We begin to believe that it is ours to do as we wish and forget the first commandment.

 

When we stand back and take the long view, it seems strange that we should need to be reminded that God is first and the earth we inhabit belongs to God. There are reminders all around us. We hear of species disappearing – possibly as many as 690 per week. (http://www.businessinsider.com/species-are-disappearing-from-earth-2014-12)

 

Our greed causes us to give up protected lands for mining, logging, and other development. I heard Kevin Fedarko speak at the Kimo a few weeks ago about hiking the entire Grand Canyon (more than 700 miles). He was inspiring. He was funny. He reminded us what a treasure this park is not only to those of us who peer over the edges, but to the Native people who have been there for generations. He told us about developers who want to build a tram at the confluence of rivers that our Native brothers and sisters call sacred. One could make the case that even more people would value this amazing land if they were allowed easy access. Yet he showed us some of the impact of hundreds of helicopters flying into the canyon each day and the uranium mining that may be contaminating the waters the Grand Canyon. Fedarko says, “Since it entered the American consciousness, the Grand Canyon has provoked two major reactions: the urge to protect it, and the temptation to make a whopping pile of money from it.” (http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/09/grand-canyon-development-hiking-national-parks/)

 

I felt sick as I watched the developer’s plans and wondered “haven’t we taken enough from the Native Americans? Where do we get the idea that it is all for us? Roger Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust said, “Human beings are tiny in relation to the forces that have shaped this planet…we are not the center of the world.”

 

I think that maybe God is trying to remind us that we are not the center of the world. In fact, we are God’s trusted caretakers.

 

Every week in text study we talk about what the “takeaway” might be from the texts that day. Here is mine from this week: reflecting on the story from Matthew, one person wondered if God is saying to us, “I dare you to do the right thing.”  

 

That line has stuck with me all week. I immediately reflected on my childhood. The words “I dare you” in those days were accompanied with bad things – “I dare you to steal from that convenience store. I dare you to throw eggs on that person’s house. I dare you to race while driving down Main Street. I dare you to skip school.” I dare you meant “I dare you to do this thing that can risk getting you in big trouble.” Oh the pressure!! Did I take some of those dares? You bet I did. Did you?

 

What about a God who creates us with the capacity to do so much good and so much harm, and then dares us to do as much good as we can? After many blunders and bad choices, God tried something else. It seemed that human beings just didn’t get it so God sent Jesus to show us how to take great risks by daring to do good. Then God says to us, “follow him. Do it that way. I dare you!”

 

In this story, Jesus shows the capacity people have to do harm. They beat, kill, and stone others. But he is daring us to do it differently.

 

It is easy to think “I have never beaten, stoned, or killed someone so what would Jesus be saying to me?” Instead of waiting for the next story of gun violence or racism or greed, what if we dare each other to be leaders in the story of healing, of hope, of generosity?

 

Once upon a time at a church meeting a wealthy member of the church rose to tell the rest of those present about his Christian faith.

"I'm a millionaire," he said, "and I attribute my wealth to the blessings of God in my life." He went on to recall the turning point in his relationship with God. As a young man, he had just earned his first dollar and he went to a church meeting that night. The speaker at that meeting was a missionary who told about his work in the mission field. Before the offering plate was passed around, the preacher told everyone that everything that was collected that night would be given to this missionary to help fund his work on behalf of the church. The wealthy man wanted to give to support mission work, but he knew he couldn't make change from the offering plate. He knew he either had to give all he had or nothing at all. At that moment, he decided to give all that he had to God. Looking back, he said he knew that God had blessed that decision and had made him wealthy.

When he finished, there was silence in the room. As he returned to the pew and sat down, an elderly lady seated behind him leaned forward and said, "I dare you to do it again."

 

Part of my commitment to a faith community is the way it dares me to do something that matters. I find that dare possible because I am doing it with all of you. Every time I walk into this sanctuary, I feel the possibilities before us when we take God up on the dare to do something good. One of the organizations I am proud we support is Crossroads for Women. The women they serve have blown it and served time for their mistakes. The women they serve are taking the dare to do something good with their lives. They inspire me with their courage and their commitment to transform their lives. They work hard. They support one another and while they haven’t told me this, I bet that every day they dare one another to do some good. Our partnership with them inspires me to take God’s dare to do something good, to be generous, and to trust God’s guidance.

 

Our lives are a gift from God. We can use them in so many beautiful ways. Let us use them so that we reflect God’s love and generosity. I dare you!

 

“Actions Speak Louder”

October 1, 2017                                                                        

Matthew 21:23-32, Exodus 17:1-7

“Actions Speak Louder”

 

When we hear a scripture that confounds us, it is often a good idea to read what comes before and what comes after it. Context is everything. This strange story is preceded by Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey and going to the temple where he overturned the tables of the money changers, and then cursing a fig tree until it withered. It makes sense that this country rabbi would arouse suspicion in the respected religious authorities with his radical behavior. They want to know who Jesus thinks he is. Rather than answering their question, he asks them a question and then follows with a story of a man who asks his two sons to work on the family farm. One says he will do it, but doesn’t. The other says he won’t and then he goes and works. Jesus wants to know which one is the example to follow. The answer is easy, the one who acted despite his words.

 

For several weeks, Jesus has been holding a mirror to his followers and to us in this series of readings. Today we confront that part of us that wants to do the right thing and thinks we are doing the right thing, but sometimes we just miss it. Jesus isn’t interested in what we think as much as he cares about what we do.

 

We know about good intentions and we know where the saying tells us that road leads. How many times have we thought we would take care of something, but didn’t? How many times have we promised ourselves or someone else that we would do something and then we didn’t? It is natural for us to do that. Jesus seems to be asking us to consider our follow through.

 

It may be that Jesus tells the story to ask the religious leaders not what they think about faith, but what they are actually doing to live out their faith. It is a good question and well worth reflecting on. If someone saw us in action, would it be clear that we are followers of Jesus? Or do we count on our words to tell others who we are?

 

Last week I asked what we do with a generous God. The answer is not what we THINK about a generous God, but what we DO with a generous God. I am convinced that God is incredibly generous, but if that is not always transferred into my actions, I become the son who said I would help and didn’t. If I say that God is generous and I am not, then I am the one Jesus is addressing in this story.

 

I honestly can’t figure out why being generous is a struggle for me. I deeply believe that God is generous beyond my capacity to comprehend and yet I struggle with questions like, “Do I really have to tip this person? If so, how much do I need to tip?” It is time to fill out my estimate of giving for next year and I wonder if I can afford to give more. Then I stand up and preach about a God who is generous. I think Jesus was speaking to me in a Stewardship meeting several weeks ago.

 

One of our team members said, “The only way to have enough is to be generous. I have never been without anything as a result of being generous.” That stopped me up short. “I HAVE NEVER BEEN WITHOUT ANYTHING AS A RESULT OF BEING GENEROUS.” I was really in awe of that and YET when I prepared my estimate of giving this week, I wondered what I can afford to do. I need to tattoo those words on myself so I don’t forget that being generous will never mean I go without something.

 

There is the part of the story where we look at what we think vs. what we do. Then there is the part where Jesus is asking us to consider another’s context rather than judge them. He tells the religious leaders that the parade to God’s reign puts the most despised ahead of them. Perhaps they need to rethink their opinions of tax collectors and prostitutes.

 

A young minister graduated from seminary just before World War I and he was appointed to a church in a very small town. He had been there only a couple of weeks when he received the call every new minister dreads -- the call to do his first funeral. The person who had died was not a member of his church. She was, in fact, a woman with a very bad reputation. Her husband was a railroad engineer who was away from home much of the time. She had rented rooms in their house to men who worked on the railroad and rumor had it that she rented more than just rooms when her husband was away. The young preacher, faced with his first funeral, found no one who had a good word to say about this woman, until he entered the small old-fashioned grocery store on the day before the funeral. He began to talk to the store owner about his sadness that the first person he would bury would be someone about which nothing good could be said. The store owner didn't reply at first and then he took out his store ledger and laid it on the counter between him and the preacher. He opened the ledger at random and, covering the names in the left-hand column, he pointed to grocery bills written in red - groceries that people had bought on credit -- and then the column that showed the bill had been paid.

He said, "Every month, that woman would come in and ask me who was behind in their grocery bills. It was usually some family who had sickness or death -- or some poor woman trying to feed her kids when her husband drank up the money. She would pay their bill and she made me swear never to tell. But, I figure now that she is dead, people ought to know -- especially those who benefited from her charity who have been most critical of her."

 

Why do we find it so easy to judge others? Why do we form conclusions about people without knowing their story? There is a ton of judgment happening over NFL players who kneel during the National Anthem. It is ironic that people of faith consider kneeling a sign of deep respect. I read a story this week about the president of a Catholic school where some of the football players wanted to kneel. The president’s requirement was that they talk it over with their teammates. They then spoke at a school assembly about their reasons for wanting to kneel. They were surprised at how respectful the conversations were and how well people heard each other. (http://www.ministrymatters.com/reach/entry/8437/kneeling-at-nfl-liturgies?spMailingID=747846&spUserID=Mzk4NjgyNTUyS0&spJobID=380396849&spReportId=MzgwMzk2ODQ5S0)

 

It is disturbing that we are so quick to judge people, but WAY TOO SLOW to listen to them. When people stop by the church needing help during the week, I find myself having to decide quickly what to do. We don’t offer money. Sometimes we have gas vouchers, bus passes, or snacks. People don’t show up at convenient times. They just show up and I often stop what I am doing to respond to them. What I RARELY do is take the time to listen to their whole story. I don’t often hear the story behind the story that brought them to the church to ask for help. I go back to what I was doing before I was interrupted, but I often wonder what happened to the person to make her or him come by asking for help.

 

We are all more than we appear on the surface. We are all carrying a lifetime of experiences. We are all woefully inadequate and exceedingly beautiful. It is good to be reminded that is true of each person we encounter and just as true of those we try and avoid.

 

The communion table is the place that we are invited to come with our whole selves. It is a place of healing and forgiveness and it is for everyone. One of the reasons I love the text study group so much is that we show up and we speak our truth and we listen. We disagree. Our hearts are opened. We hear something new. Sometimes we are judgmental, but I think we learn and confront that in ourselves.

 

Jesus calls us to act with love and compassion. He doesn’t care as much about what we think as about what we do. So let us swing the door open a little wider to make room for those we would rather not include. Let us gather at this table of love and forgiveness and let us act in ways that extend that love and forgiveness to others.



 

“Late to Work”

September 24, 2017                                                                       

Matthew 20:1-16, Exodus 16:2-15

“Late to Work”

 

A monk joined a monastic order that practiced silence. Every ten years each monk would be allowed to say two words. After the first ten years, the monk met with the abbot and said, “Bed hard.” Ten years later they met again and he said, “Food cold.” After thirty years, the monk’s two words were, “I quit.” “Well, I’m not surprised,” replied the abbot. “You’ve done nothing but complain since you got here!”

 

Do you think that it is written into the human DNA that we will complain? It seems to go back to the beginning of humanity. The reading from Exodus is the story of slaves who have been set free and now they are hungry. They complain and God feeds them. It’s important to note some things in that story.

 

1.    God responds to their hunger. God listens and feeds them.

2.    God gives them enough manna for each day. The story goes on to say that God tells them to eat it and not store it for later, but they don’t listen. The manna that they try and save for later goes bad and cannot be eaten. And so, they are taught that

3.    God will take care of their needs. It is not up to them. They can trust God’s generosity.

 

Hold that thought as we look at the gospel lesson. A group of workers stand around hoping someone will hire them for the day. They are hungry. Their families are hungry and they are desperate for work. When the first group is hired, and told they will get a day’s wage, they must feel like they have hit the jackpot! Such a relief! They will have enough to feed their family this evening. And so, they work anticipating that day’s wage. Listen to the rest of the story again.

 

A few hours later, the landowner hires a group of workers and promises to pay them “what is right.” Thank God! They have found work and they know not to take it for granted. The same thing happens again at noon and at three o’clock. They are also told they will be paid “what is right.” At five o’clock, the landowner found workers who had waited all day to be hired. He asked why they were not working and they told him that no one had hired them. He sent them to the vineyard. What must they have felt after standing around all day? They didn’t give up. They waited and they got to work for an hour.

 

At the end of the day, the landowner calls the ones who came last and pays them the day’s wage that the first workers were promised. The first workers see that and think that they must be getting a HUGE amount if the last workers got a full day’s pay for an hour of work! They get their wage only to find out it is exactly what they were promised. That day’s wage that looked great this morning, but now it looks like they have been cheated.

 

The landowners’ reply to the disgruntled workers gets me every time: “Are you envious because I am generous?” Ouch. Why do we spend so much energy comparing ourselves to others? Why do we worry about what others are getting? Just as I was preparing to write this sermon, a woman in Costco almost pushed her cart ahead of me and I WAS FIRST!!! How sad that I spent a few minutes mad that she ALMOST cut in line. Yes, I seriously got worked up about a shopping cart going in front of me when it was MY TURN! That is how petty we can be and all the while Jesus is calling us back and saying, “God loves you. It is more than enough. You don’t need to worry about how much God loves someone else. Stop wasting your energy on what others deserve. Let me be clear in every way I know how to say it, GOD IS NOT FAIR!” How many times do we hear Jesus say, “the last shall be first?” Even though others try and help Jesus understand that people should get what they deserve, he continues to disregard that way of thinking. And still, we look around to see who is getting what. And we complain. Did I mention the woman who ALMOST cut in front of me in the line at Costco??

 

A company chartered a ship for its top sales people. These sales people swarmed aboard and headed for their cabins. Minutes later one of them was on the deck demanding to see the captain. One of the officers asked if he could help. “My friend has a much better cabin!” the sales man said. “I did as good a job as he did and I want a cabin just like his.”

 

“Sir,” the officer replied, “The cabins are identical.”

 

“Yeah,” said the man, “but his cabin looks out on the ocean and my cabin looks out on the old dock.”

 

What view will this man have when the ship leaves the dock and they are on the ocean? Why is it that we are content with what we have until we see what someone else has?

 

God tries to say to us over and over “I am not fair. I don’t care what you deserve. I am generous no matter what.”

 

Each week we pray “Give US this day our daily bread.” Note that we are not praying, “Give me this day MY daily bread.” Today, when we pray that prayer, let’s stop and let those words sink in. We really are praying for daily bread for all, not just some. We are praying for those who deserve it and for those who don’t.

 

Here is another piece of irony in this story. Why do we assume that we are the ones who have worked all day? Why doesn’t it occur to us that we could be the ones who worked the last hour and got the same pay?

 

That could be the place where we turn our thinking around. If we could see ourselves as the ones who waited all day to be given the privilege of work and then were given the opportunity to work for an hour. If we could see ourselves encountering God who pays us as if we had worked all day, would it change things? This is a story about the grace of God. It is a story about getting what we don’t deserve.

 

Perhaps it is time to retire the words “fair” and “deserve” from our vocabulary. They don’t seem to exist in God’s vocabulary. We make ourselves miserable when we spend energy comparing our lives, our stuff, our experience with others. And yet we can’t seem to stop.

 

In text study, I asked more than once, “What do we do with this generous God?” We struggled with it and talked some more about what is fair. But that question won’t leave me alone. What do we do with this generous God?

 

It is hard to complain when we are overwhelmed with God’s goodness. Perhaps that is where we need to place ourselves – in the center of God’s generosity because that is where we reside. We simply need to note that we didn’t get here on our own. We didn’t get here because we deserve to be here. We are here because God is too generous to be fair.

 

“Forgiveness Is Our Only Hope”

September 17, 2017                                                                       

Matthew 18:21-35, Exodus 14:19-31

“Forgiveness Is Our Only Hope”

 

In a cartoon, Jesus is telling the disciples “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” One of the disciples puts his face in his hand and says, “Great! Not only do I have to forgive my brother, now I have to do math!” The caption says, “Forgive. Because it’s easier than math. Math is hard.”

 

Several years ago, I was hurt and betrayed by some people. There were other casualties, but the hurtful action was directed at me. In the middle of the worst of it, I talked with someone I trust. I told her about the experience and she agreed that I had been wronged. She was kind and sympathetic. She listened and then she offered to drop some books at my house that she thought might be helpful. Always one to turn to books for the answer, I agreed. I came home to find a stack of books on the topic of forgiveness. These were not the books I was anticipating. I did not find the idea of forgiveness the least bit enticing at that point. Yet even then, I knew that my own healing was completely dependent on my willingness to forgive those who had hurt me. I also knew I was not there yet. I really wanted to nurse my hurt and anger for awhile. There came a time when I knew that nursing my hurt and anger was only hurting me and I realized that I was ready to forgive. I needed to move on and not be stuck in the place of disappointment and betrayal.

 

Poet David Whyte says “forgiveness is a heartache and difficult to achieve because strangely, it not only refuses to eliminate the original wound, but actually draws us closer to its source. To approach forgiveness is to close in on the nature of the hurt itself, the only remedy being, as we approach its raw center, to imagine our relation to it.”

 

I think the reason I didn’t want to forgive the ones who hurt me is that I knew I would have to move toward the events that caused the pain. I knew that the ones who caused the hurt felt no responsibility, so my healing would not depend on any movement on their part. My healing was completely up to me. It isn’t fair, but it is true. I wanted to move as far away from the painful events as possible, but they seemed to follow me around asking me to show up and work through it.

 

I am not a huge fan of forgiveness. It is hard work. It requires that we connect with pain. Who wants to do that? And yet, I know that the cost of not forgiving is too great. Jesus isn’t interested in subjecting us to moral platitudes, but he understands that we are the ones who suffer when we cannot forgive.

 

Jewish tradition says that you should forgive three times. When the disciples suggest seven times, they are being more than generous. Seven is also a number that represents wholeness. But Jesus says we should forgive as many times as we are hurt. He then tells a story of a king who calls his slave to pay a debt which was something like a million dollars. The slave begs forgiveness and promises to pay every penny even though that would be impossible. The king has mercy and forgives the debt entirely. That is astonishing. Clearly there is some disconnect at that point. The slave goes out and sees another slave who owes him something like one hundred dollars and grabs him by the throat and responds to the plea for patience by throwing him in prison. What happened here? The one who has just received an extraordinary amount of mercy has responded with extraordinary cruelty to another.

 

The king is supposed to represent God who forgives us beyond measure and then asks us to do the same or assumes that we will do the same. How can we not? How is that we forget? The story gets even more difficult when fellow slaves tell the king about the slave who refused to forgive the debt. The king gets angry and turns him over to be tortured and assures that all who do not forgive from the heart will experience the same fate. Theologically, we are on shaky ground at this point. I honestly cannot imagine God inflicting torture on us for refusing to forgive. What I CAN see, is that refusing to forgive is a way we inflict torture on ourselves.

 

And so, the story leaves us with a profoundly simple and profoundly difficult message: you have received the forgiving grace of God; pass it on. I hear that and I think, “of course.” And then someone hurts me or wrongs me and I remember that it is not that easy. Forgiveness is not simple. It is hard work. It is not once and for all. It is a choice we make throughout our lives. We are given many opportunities to practice.

 

I keep hearing the words that we pray EVERY week in worship together “Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Today, when we say those words together, let’s stop and let them ring in our ears and in our hearts for a bit rather than just racing through without paying attention to what we are saying. Listen to the words “AS WE forgive” and notice that forgiveness is not one way. It is a circle that begins with God forgiving us and then we forgive one another and then God forgives us and then we forgive one another and so on. It sounds almost as if God’s forgiveness depends on ours.

 

John Shelby Spong says, “Matthew has Jesus see the kingdom of heaven as like unto the final accounting, in which forgiveness is our only hope. Forgiving another allows forgiveness to pass to the forgiving one. It is an ever-flowing stream. If one stops the flow of forgiveness, then one can no longer receive it.” (Biblical Literalism: A Gentle Heresy p. 275)

 

Lest you hear otherwise, I am going to repeat FORGIVENESS IS NOT EASY. I am not trying to suggest that we just pretend everything is ok. Instead, I am asking all of us to do the hard work David Whyte suggests. He says forgiveness means centering in on the hurt and imagining our relation to it. This isn’t just a simple mental exercise. It is difficult. It requires us to show up and open our hearts and allow another chapter in the story to be written. The next chapter is not just a rehashing of what has happened, but a rebuilding of relationship and reimagining ourselves in the story. We can do this hard thing.

 

“While all of the world’s major religions teach about the necessity of forgiveness, it has been only recently that the medical and scientific world has also begun to delve into the importance of forgiveness for health and well-being. It is now widely known that unforgiveness, or holding on to past hurts and resentments, deeply affects our emotional and physical health. Jesus speaks to the necessity of forgiveness because he knows the effects unforgiveness has on individuals and communities. (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 68)

 

Let’s be clear that forgiveness in no way means denying our hurt or minimizing what has happened. It is instead deciding that it will not have the last word. If you can’t get there spiritually, perhaps you can treat it more like spinach and launch down that path because it is good for you. You may just find that choosing to forgive for health reasons, may bring spiritual healing as well.

 

We have been through some hard things in the last few months. Some painful things have been said. Some people have felt judged. Some have felt diminished. Some have felt unsafe. It would be a relief to erase it all, but instead we are called to the hard work of forgiveness. We are living in a time in our country where people are writing one another off instead of seeking to honor our shared humanity. When we deny the humanity of others, we do great damage.

 

“After serving in World War II, Will Campbell served as Director of Religious life at Ole Miss but left after two years because his controversial views on race attracted death threats. In 1957, Campbell was one of four people who escorted the nine black students who integrated Little Rock's Central High School; and he was the only white person to attend the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The hate mail poured in.

 

As he matured, Campbell was self-aware enough to realize that he hated those bigots who hated him and who hated African-Americans. It occurred to him how much he enjoyed thinking that God hated all the same people that he hated. Anne Lamott would later offer a similar insight: “You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Campbell realized that he had created God in his own image, and after his own political likeness. Acting upon these convictions, he started developing relationships with the Ku Klux Klan. He did their funerals and weddings, visited them when they were sick, and even befriended the Grand Dragon of North Carolina, J.R. "Bob" Jones. Campbell said things like, “With the same love that it is commanded to shower upon the innocent victim of his frustration and hostility, the church must love the racist.” “You love one, you got to love ‘em all,” Will Campbell said. (*Thanks to Brent Beasley for these reflections on Will Campbell.)

 

We don’t forgive because it is easy. We forgive because we are created in God’s image and God has forgiven us. Forgiveness will set us free. But it doesn’t happen overnight. It requires that we do some hard work. I am committed to this. It is the path forward for our community. John Spong was right – “Forgiveness is our only hope.

“Building Bridges”

September 10, 2017                                                                       

Matthew 18:15-20, Exodus 3:1-15

“Building Bridges”

 

Today and in the coming weeks, our scriptures that will help us grapple with what it means to be a community of faith or to use the words of Paul, the body of Christ. The Exodus reading allows us to witness Moses’ profound encounter with God. We talk about Moses as a Biblical hero, but remember he had a record. He murdered a man and fled. It is good to remember that so many of the people in the Bible that we regard highly did some bad stuff. Yet, God chose them. We talked in text study about being qualified for leadership positions. Moses’ qualifications were lacking. Not only was he a murderer, he stuttered. He would not be counted on for inspiring speeches. When people like Moses questioned God’s judgment for choosing them, God replied by saying more or less, “I didn’t choose you for your impressive resume or your flawless character. In fact, this isn’t about you at all. It’s about what I am going to do through you. I need you to say yes and show up and I’ll take it from there.”

 

The story from Exodus will take a turn in the coming weeks. Moses will be present throughout the difficult journey through the wilderness, but our focus will shift to the community who don’t cope so well with adversity and with God who shows up for them when they want to quit. Footnote - it is hard to quit once they set out. They may want to quit, but you can’t just quit the wilderness.

 

How many times in our lives have we said yes to something only to realize it wasn’t what we signed up for, and then we have to decide what to do next?

 

On July 23rd, we voted to provide sanctuary to Kadhim. There have been many comments and feelings expressed throughout the process. It has challenged us all. I have heard the comment more than once in the last few months from all sides of the decision that “this isn’t the church I thought it was” or something like that. What we have seen is the other side of human beings and that has not always been easy.

 

This happens to us. We are in a friendship, a marriage, a work relationship and we think things are going well. Then something happens and we encounter the other side of someone. It rocks our foundations and forces us to look at things again. One of the things I have learned in my life is that I want to be in relationship more than I want to be right.

 

The reading from Matthew today teaches us how to be in relationship as a community. Jesus says that when someone sins against you, you should go and talk with them about it. That is not our first choice. Why should the one who has been hurt have to take the initiative? Why do we have to talk to the one who hurt us?

 

Notice that Jesus just assumes there will be conflict. He assumes there will be hurt and anger. The absence of conflict is not a sign that we are Christian. Christians fight and hurt one another. The question is how we heal and resolve our conflicts. The question for me now is how we move forward and how we show up for one another when we are struggling. Jesus is asking that we do show up for one another.

 

In his book The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis, draws a stark picture of hell. Hell is like a great, vast city, Lewis says, a city inhabited only at its outer edges, with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle. These houses in the middle are empty because everyone who once lived there has quarreled with the neighbors and moved. Then, they quarreled with the new neighbors and moved again, leaving the streets and the houses of their old neighborhoods empty and barren.

That, Lewis says, is how hell has gotten so large. It is empty at its center and inhabited only at the outer edges, because everyone chose distance instead of honest confrontation when it came to dealing with their relationships.

 

Jesus ends with the promise that he is with us when we gather. When we show up for one another, Jesus is there. I want to ask you to make that commitment: to show up for each other. Jesus keeps calling us outside ourselves into relationship with each other and with the people on the margins.

 

Parker Palmer defines community as that place where the person you least want to live with always lives. We are a community that values our diversity. We don’t all think the same way and that is not our goal. Let us take great care to not let our diverse thoughts keep us from being a community.

 

The text goes on to say that if our efforts don’t work out, to treat those who have sinned against us as Gentiles or tax collectors. It is easy to trip up on the words Gentile and tax collector, but remember who said the words. Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors as people to be welcomed in and he didn’t give up on them even when others did. It sounds like he is telling us not to give up on each other. We continue to hold the door open and care for each other.
 

Once upon a time, two brothers who lived on adjoining farms fell into conflict. It was the first serious rift in their 40 years of working together. It began with a small misunderstanding and grew into a major difference. Eventually, the disagreement exploded into an exchange of bitter words, followed by weeks of silence.

One morning, there was a knock on the older brother’s door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter's toolbox. "I'm looking for a few days' work," he said. "Perhaps you would have some small jobs here and there that I could help with?”

“Yes," said the older brother. "As a matter of fact, I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That's my younger brother’s place. Last week, there was a meadow between us, but he took his bulldozer and dug a small river there. Well, I'm going to do him one better. See that pile of old lumber? I want you to build an 8-foot-high fence between our properties. Then I won't need to see his place or his face anymore."
The carpenter said, "Show me the nails and the tools, and I'll do a good job for you."

The older brother had business in town, so he left for the day, and the carpenter went to work.  At sunset, when the brother returned, he went out to check the progress on the fence, but his jaw dropped in surprise at what he saw. There was no fence there at all.  Instead, the carpenter had built a bridge that stretched from one side of the river to the other, complete with handrails and all!

The younger brother was coming across the bridge toward them, his hand outstretched. "You're quite the guy," he said to his brother, "after all I've said and done."

The two brothers met in the middle, shook hands, and then embraced. When they turned to speak to the carpenter, they saw that he was leaving.

"No, wait!” said the older brother.  “Stay a few days. I've got a lot of other projects for you."

"I'd love to," the carpenter said, "but I have many more bridges to build."

 

Jesus is calling us to be bridge builders. If this sounds too hard, it may be. The good news is that we can look to Moses and know that it isn’t about what we are capable of doing; it is about what we are willing to allow God to do through us. Jesus calls us to do hard things, but he also promises to be with us. We don’t have to do this alone. In the coming weeks, you are invited to participate in small group conversations. I am inviting you into conversation with me and with each other. Let us listen our way through this. Our work is before us. Let’s start building bridges.

 

“Higher Math”

August 20, 2017                                                                             

Psalm 31:1-5, 21-24, II Corinthians 4:7-10

“Higher Math”

 

How many of you are good at math? Sometimes I wonder about God’s ability to do math. I mean, it is clear that God made things fit together in astounding ways. But there is another kind of math from God that doesn’t just doesn’t make much sense. This is what I mean…Jesus continues his sermon on the mount from last week with the following admonitions:

 

“You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth,’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well…You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (from Matthew 5:38-46)

 

When asked about forgiveness, Jesus tells them about a new math: you are forgiven so it is your responsibility to forgive others. His followers assumed he would give them a number of times to forgive and they thought seven sounded pretty good. Instead, Jesus told them they were to forgive seventy times seven and if they did not, it would not go well for them. We tend to interpret that as hellfire and brimstone and dismiss it, but I think Jesus meant it more like the saying that refusing to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

 

The math Jesus gives us is not the kind where we count who is in and who is out or who deserves help and who doesn’t. Jesus tells us instead to look each person in the eye and treat them all as human beings, as children of God. It makes me think of the poet Wendell Berry who said,

         

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it…

Practice Resurrection

from “Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

 

Psalm 31 teaches us to do things that don’t compute. It reminds me of the story of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was under house arrest while Jerusalem was under siege. The king of Babylon was destroying everything in sight. God comes to Jeremiah and tells him to buy land in Anathoth. Anathoth was right in the middle of the war zone. There is nothing about this that makes sense, but Jeremiah buys the land. Do the math. Who would buy a field in the middle of a war zone?

 

God’s promise is that people will again buy land in Anathoth. God promises that healing will happen in this war-torn region and God calls Jeremiah to invest in it now. Can you imagine God calling you to buy land in Afghanistan or Somalia right now? It makes no sense. It may be a bargain price, but that doesn’t mean the math adds up.

 

We like things to make sense. We like outcomes that are clean and we like it when people get what they deserve. But God meets us in the mess and says, “It isn’t going to go that way. Trust me. Love anyway. Forgive. Show up for one another. Don’t quit now. I am here no matter what. I am not leaving you now.”

 

We watched with horror last weekend as the events in Charlottesville, Virginia unfolded. How could this be? This is not what our country is about and we wonder how we can possibly make sense of it. Where is God when people are carrying torches and screaming hatred? The reading from Corinthians reminds us that power will come from God. We may be afflicted, but we will not be crushed. We may be perplexed, but not driven to despair. We may be persecuted, but not forsaken. We may be struck down, but not destroyed. God has the last word. That last word may not add up. It may not make sense, but that word comes from God.

 

Psalm 31 is the song of one who has endured suffering and realized what is important in living and dying in suffering and joy is trusting in God. We do it when it makes sense and we do it when it doesn’t. This Psalm teaches us how to die and how to live. It teaches us to trust in God in all things. This Psalm speaks to our world today. It acknowledges “terror all around” (v. 13) and says that God’s faithfulness and love makes is possible for us to “be strong, take courage, and wait for God.” (v. 24) We need to hear these words today.

 

The church has too often been silent in the face of racism, violence, and oppression. We can no longer ignore the blatant disregard for human dignity. This week, I traveled with a group to tour the Cibola Detention facility in Grants. It is in a Federal prison facility where undocumented immigrants are detained. It houses the only transgender pod in the country. I spent an hour talking with transgender women from different countries and hearing their stories. They are not allowed to interact with any of the other immigrants to protect them, but that means they are not allowed to go to chapel. Everything has been taken away from them and they aren’t even allowed to pray with the community. Sometimes I hear the suffering of people and wonder what I can possibly do. That day, I knew one tiny thing I could do. I prayed with the women before I left. I am continuing to pray for them.

 

I read a story this week about a group of UCC women in Washington who drive an hour one Sunday a month to support the families of immigrants in detention. They bring food and listen to stories of the families. They recognize the terror these families are facing and they support them by showing up. Ruth Shearer is one of the organizers. She says, “I was an R.N. before going to graduate school and earning a Ph.D. in molecular genetics. Now I'm 87 and just an old woman who still cares about people.”

 

 

http://www.ucc.org/news_washington_women_offer_love_and_listen_during_ice_detention_center_vigils_08162017?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+UnitedChurchOfChrist+%28United+Church+of+Christ+News%29

 

There are many ways we show compassion for those who are oppressed. We don’t often talk about our prayer shawl ministry. There is a group of women who meet twice a month to knit prayer shawls. They have been doing this for ten years. They do a lot of counting as they knit. They tell stories and support one another as they knit tangible signs of God’s love for people who are sick, grieving, moving, or for new babies.

 

William Barber was in town this week. He is leading a Poor People’s Campaign fifty years after Martin Luther King, Jr. Four years ago, Barber began Moral Monday to seek justice for issues that are not partisan, but moral issues. Barber called on us to fight four evils: systemic racism, poverty, a war economy, and ecological devastation. We were reminded of the words Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in 1967:

“There is nothing wrong with a traffic law which says you have to stop for a red light. But when a fire is raging, the fire truck goes right through that red light, and normal traffic had better get out of its way. Or, when a man is bleeding to death, the ambulance goes through those red lights at top speed.

There is a fire raging now for the Negroes and the poor of this society. They are living in tragic conditions because of the terrible economic injustices that keep them locked in as an “underclass,” as the sociologists are now calling it. Disinherited people all over the world are bleeding to death from deep social and economic wounds. They need brigades of ambulance drivers who will have to ignore the red lights of the present system until the emergency is solved.” (http://www.thekinglegacy.org/books/trumpet-conscience)

God’s math calls us to overwhelm evil with good. I have never been on the front lines of social justice, but the more I see, the more I feel compelled to act. The issues of racism, immigration, and poverty are deeply embedded in the fabric of our country and we must call out the sin of injustice. We must engage in tangible acts of justice. We must bring healing to the pain and terror in our world. A quote about new math has been floating around: “equal rights for others does not mean less rights for you. It’s not pie.” God gives more than enough love for all. God has created a world where no one should be hungry. God created all human beings to be treated with dignity. And yet, many are hungry, many are discriminated against every day. The scriptures today tell us to act without counting what it will cost. We are called be strong and take courage knowing that power will come from God. It is time for us to practice a higher math.

 

“Option B”

August 13, 2017                                                                             

Psalm 103:1-18, Matthew 5:1-12

“Option B”

 

I just read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Option B. Sheryl’s husband, Dave, died unexpectedly in his late 40’s. Option B tells about how she began living again. A few weeks after Dave’s death, Sheryl was preparing for a father-child activity. She cried to her friend Phil, “I want Dave.” Phil said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the [snot] out of Option B.” Her grief is raw and yet each day she chooses life in some way.

 

In a chapter called “Finding Strength Together”, she begins with a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr: “We are caught in an inescapable network for mutality, tied in a garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

 

Do you hear those words as you see what is happening in Charlottesville, Virginia or North Korea, Venezuela, Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan or Nigeria? Hatred and violence, racism and famine are not what God intends. We are all in this together and we watch helplessly as violence and starvation escalate. What are we to do? We can begin where we are. We can extend blessing and peace to those in our city, in our neighborhood, in our church basement.

 

The Psalm you heard today blesses God for mercy, grace, and forgiveness. The second reading from Matthew is called the Beatitudes. Jesus names those who are called blessed by God. Listen to who they are not: they are not the super heroes. They are not the powerful. They are not the ones who have everything going for them. Instead, they are the vulnerable. They are the poor in spirit – the ones who have nothing to give. They are meek. They are merciful. They are peacemakers. They are hungering and thirsting for righteousness. They are persecuted. These are the ones called blessed.

 

Jesus is not saying that it is great to be vulnerable, but he is acknowledging that vulnerability is not the last word. In fact, there something powerful when we can find some blessing in our vulnerability and then pass it on to others. Steven Czifra started at the University of California, Berkeley at age thirty-eight. Growing up in an abusive household, he started smoking crack at age ten. He landed in prison where he fought with an inmate and spit on a guard. He was sent to solitary confinement for four years. After he was released from prison, he entered a twelve-step program and got his GED. He went to community college before Berkeley. Even though he earned his entrance to Berkeley, he felt out of place, until he met Danny Murillo. They discovered that they had both spent time in solitary confinement. Together they began to help others who had been incarcerated. Their time in deepest isolation made them come together as a community. (Option B, pp. 136-137)

 

Mother Emanuel is the name of the church in Charleston, South Carolina that endured the murder of nine beloved members in 2015. Relatives of the victims went to court to address Dylann Roof, the gunman who had murdered their loved ones. Nadine Collier’s mother was killed. She said to him, “You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you and have mercy on your soul…You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.” Instead of being consumed by hatred, the church members chose forgiveness, which allowed them to come together and stand against racism and violence. Four days after the shooting, the church doors opened for regular Sunday service. (pp. 136-137 Option B)

 

Blessing does not mean sweetness and light. In these texts, blessing is spoken of in the midst of suffering, disease, iniquity, and oppression. Sheryl’s book reminds me that life is option b. In fact, that is what we call faith. It is what we do when life does not go as planned or when we are thrown a curveball or when we are knocked to our knees by unforeseen circumstances. We must figure out how to be in the face of situations we did not choose. Even in those circumstances, we have the opportunity to be bearers of blessing to others. We can show mercy even when we don’t feel like it.

 

The Celtic way blesses the world. It does not wait for all to be well. It does not wait for things to be easy. We begin where we are and we pray that as we receive blessing, we pass it on no matter where we find ourselves. That is God at work in all things. That is God bringing healing where it is needed most.

 

And so we pray in the words of the ancient Celts:

          “Bless, O Christ, my face,

                   Let my face bless everything;

          Bless, O Christ, my eye,

                   Let my eye bless all it sees.”

-      Carmina Gadelica, III, 267

 

One of my spiritual heroes has known vulnerability in the form of drug addiction. She fell in love with a Lutheran seminarian and later became ordained in the Lutheran Church. You have heard me quote Nadia Bolz-Weber numerous times. She names faith and life in the most honest, earthy way. She doesn’t shy away from pain and suffering. She sees blessing in the midst of it all. In a sermon called Some Modern Beatitudes, she imagined Jesus standing among us saying:

 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are the agnostics.

Blessed are they who doubt. Those who aren’t sure, who can still be surprised.

Blessed are they who are spiritually impoverished and therefore not so certain about everything that they no longer take in new information.

Blessed are those who have nothing to offer.Blessed are they for whom nothing seems to be working. Blessed are the poor in spirit. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction.Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears are as real as an ocean. Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like.

Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried.

Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else.

Blessed are the motherless, the alone, the ones from whom so much has been taken. Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.”

Blessed are those who mourn. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle- school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex-workers and the night-shift street sweepers.

Blessed are the losers and the babies and the parts of ourselves that are so small.

The parts of ourselves that don’t want to make eye contact with a world that only loves the winners.

Blessed are the forgotten.

Blessed are the closeted. Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive.

Blessed are the teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms.

Blessed are the meek. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break, the ones for whom life is hard — for they are those with whom Jesus chose to surround himself.

Blessed are those without documentation.

Blessed are the ones without lobbyists.

Blessed are foster kids and trophy kids and special ed kids and every other kid who just wants to feel safe and loved and never does.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Blessed are they who know there has to be more than this. Because they are right. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the burnt-out social workers and the over worked teachers and the pro-bono case takers.

Blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak.

Blessed are they who delete hateful, homophobic comments off their friend’s Facebook page.

Blessed is everyone who has ever forgiven me when I didn’t deserve it. Blessed are the merciful for they totally get it.”

By Rev. Glenna Shepherd, based on a sermon by Nadia Bolz Weber. © worshipdesignstudio.com. Used by permission.

 

“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.