“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.




 

“Holy Time Out”

July 9, 2017   

Matthew 11:28-30

“Holy Time Out”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Trust Me”

June 18, 2017                                                                          

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

“Trust Me”

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

o   We trust that the surgeon will be successful.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

“In the Beginning Was the Gift”

June 11, 2017                                                                          

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

“In the Beginning Was the Gift”

 

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

 

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

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

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

                       “And God stepped out on space,

                       And [he] looked around and said:

                       I’m lonely—

                       I’ll make me a world.

 

                       And far as the eye of God could see

                       Darkness covered everything,

                       Blacker than a hundred midnights

                       Down in a cypress swamp.

 

                       Then God smiled,

                       And the light broke,

                       And the darkness rolled up on one side,

                       And the light stood shining on the other,

                       And God said: That’s good!”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every creature is a word of God.

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

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

 

 

 

“Church on Fire!”

June 4, 2017                                                                            

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

“Church on Fire!”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

“That Awkward In Between Phase”

May 28, 2017                                                                            

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

“That Awkward In Between Phase”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Benediction:

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)

Christ Has No Body

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

“Got God?”

May 21, 2017                                                                            

Acts 17:22-31

“Got God?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Some will only cheer for a certain team.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Who are You?”

May 14, 2017                                                                            

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

“Who are You?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Now it’s your turn. Who are you?

“The Church of the Holy Potluck”

May 7, 2017                                                                             

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

“The Church of the Holy Potluck”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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