Monday, December 23, 2013

Yesterday's Sermon - Visions of What is to Come

We are given each year at this time of year, this incredible and beautiful story of Jesus’ birth. We are given a glimpse, an understanding of what has happened, of what has come to pass that has defined who we are as a people, as a church, as a community of faith.  Each year we have the opportunity to celebrate, to remember, and to share in this awesome and wondrous story.
For many people it remains a story of what has happened in the past.  We remember.  Kind of like at a memorial service where we celebrate and remember a loved one who has died, Advent and Christmas, for many, are celebrations of what has gone on before, what happened, the memory of that loved one we call Jesus.
But the story we read today, just like the passage from Isaiah, is not a story of the past.  It is a story of the present and a story of the future.  In this story we are given a vision of what is to come…. A vision of God coming to be with us in the most scandalous and unusual circumstances.  A vision of God’s love being so great and so full that God would come in person to share in life with us, to speak to us in a language we understand, to touch us with a physical touch, to challenge and to comfort us with words and healings and presence and an example of who and how we should be.    It is also a vision of what we are called to do and be in this world.  Yes, God came to us in Jesus.  But God’s love doesn’t and didn’t END there.  That was the beginning, and each time we retell the story, we should not simply be remembering that this has happened, but celebrating that we still have this God who loves us enough to come in person to be with us, teach us, guide us, heal us, SAVE us in this way.
I’ve read a lot of wonderful sayings this week talking about exactly who and what Jesus was…about Jesus’ coming to be among us.  Some of these we might not recognize as being about Jesus, but I want to throw a few out there anyway because they speak to the very nature of God, and in doing so, call us into that vision – not only of what has passed but of what God continues to do now and what we can look for in the future as well.
“To be like God, we do not need to place ourselves above others, but come down, come down and serve them, become small among the small and poor among the poor.”  (Pope Francis) Yes, that’s what Jesus did.
“Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check.  But that is not what I have found.  I have found that it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” (Gandalf)    Jesus was born, as we are told today amongst the real people, the “small” people, not the royal people, not those of whom power and greatness is expected.  And that is not just something for us to celebrate, but a call to us and reminder to us as well.  We, too, are called to bring about the light.  And none of us can use the excuse of being without power as we respond to that call.
        “Hold on to what is good even if it is a handful of earth. Hold on to what you believe even if it is a tree which stands by itself.  Hold on to what you must do even if it is a long way from here.  Hold on to life even when it is easier to let go and hold on to my hand even when I have gone away from you.”  Pueblo Verse.  God calls us into that close relationship with God-self that will bring gratitude and inspire gratitude in others.  We are called to follow the good, as Jesus did, and as we look for God’s coming to be with us again.
As always, it is hard to hold on to the message of what we are called to be in the face of Jesus’ coming to be with us.  We struggle with what it means for us to be Christian, to be followers of this Christ who is so unlike any other king and unlike any expectation for what it is to be a king.  I read an article the other day that was talking about the new pope.  And it said, “I hear accolades of wonder and amazement every time we see the pope reaching out to the poor, washing feet of addicts, maintaining his vow of poverty, or telling us that the church should be more welcoming and forgiving….it bothers me…Pope Francis bothers me, but not because of what we see him doing in his acts of compassion with others.  What he is doing is not great at all.  Each Christian is expected to do just as much.  The fact that we see these acts as a great achievement is troubling.  It is a signal that something is very wrong in the world.  Pope Francis is showing us not only what love looks like, but he is showing us just how unloving the world has become.”
         Gandhi put it in an even more condemning way when he said, "I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."
         We lament the diminishing of our churches.  And yet, the condemnation of words such as Gandhi’s can leave us in little doubt as to why, on a national level, our churches are in decline.  If all Christians were to show the face of Christ to those around them, all the time, our churches would look very differently today.  If we were to live as if Jesus’ birth were here now…or just about to come…in this amazing and unexpected way, what impact would our lives have on the faith and commitment of others?  Living in that way calls us into a vision that is different from any we’ve had before.  Looking for Jesus’ birth, for “God with us” as a present event, calls us to look with different eyes.
         I shared this little test in a newsletter article a few years back and thought it might be helpful to share again this morning.  There was a question on a job application that read as the following:
You are driving down the road in your car on a wild, stormy night, when you pass by a bus stop and you see three people waiting for the bus:
1. An old lady who looks as if she is about to die.
2. An old friend who once saved your life.
3. The perfect partner you have been dreaming about.
Which one would you choose to offer a ride to, knowing that there could only be one passenger in your car?
You could pick up the old lady, because she is going to die, and thus you should save her first. Or you could take the old friend because he once saved your life, and this would be the perfect chance to pay him back. However, you may never be able to find your perfect mate again.
The candidate who was hired (out of 200 applicants) had no trouble coming up with his answer. He simply answered: 'I would give the car keys to my old friend and let him take the lady to the hospital. I would stay behind and wait for the bus with the partner of my dreams.'

     Again, finding an answer like that requires a different vision, a vision that goes beyond our normal ways of looking at life.  It requires a vision outside the box, which is what God has given us through the story of Jesus’ birth.  How unexpected was it to have God born as a baby in poor circumstances to an unwed mother?  Extremely!  And only those who could see beyond the expectations, who could open their eyes to the unexpected and unusual would be able to see it, WERE able to see it.
       Mister Rogers put it this way…"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world."   His mother had the vision beyond what we normally see.
         I think about Gandhi’s saying that he didn’t like Christians.  And I think that this, too, was short-sighted.  Where did he look for those Christians?  Did he, too, look for them among the powerful and rich?  Did he look for them among the preachers?  Those who earn money off of "serving" God and God's people?  Did he, too, look for them where we might “expect” to see, and fail to open his eyes more fully to where God and God’s people surprise us?  I wonder, if he were to have had the vision that we are called to have in looking for Christ, if he might not have seen with more depth and vision as well.  Because just as Christ’s coming was unexpectedly among the poor and those considered without power, there are many Christians out there – people really following the law of love in the least expected places as well.  Just as Jesus came in an unexpected place and way, Christians come often in small, unpowerful, unexpected places. And they can be just as amazing and just as wondrous.  Pope Francis is a surprise because he is acting in a Christian way even though he has the choice to choose power and wealth.  But there are others…many who quietly go about the work of Christ, feeding the hungry, caring for displaced children, watching over the widows, visiting the sick…and some of them are right here in this place.
What are we called to be and do, especially as we vision the Christ coming again?  We are called to see Christ’s coming as a present thing…to look for God in the now…and then to follow.  We are given this gift every year.  Not of remembering, but of anticipating…watching, waiting, seeing.
“While life can be understood by looking backwards, it must be lived by looking forwards.”  So look back at the coming of Jesus as a way to help us understand God, God then, God today and God always.  But don’t stop with the memories.  Don’t stop with the “memorial” of celebrating what did happen and what has come to pass.  Don’t stop with the focus on what God has done.  Instead, keep looking for what God is DOING, and where God is coming now and in the future.  Allow the vision to be for the present, as we wait again, for Jesus’ birth among us.  Amen.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Today's Sermon - Turning it all on it's head

Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

      The message that Jesus sent to John was that those who were blind are able to see,  Those with severe disabilities are able to walk, those with disease are cleansed, those who are deaf now hear, those who are dead now live, and the poor hear the good news.  What is interesting about all of these words in Greek is that while they do have the literal meanings of seeing, being disabled, being unclean, hearing, etc….there is also a choice in the use of these Greek words.  There are other words for sight in Greek, for example that just mean physical sight.  But the word that is chosen here means more “perception”.  The perceptions are named as false – the perceptions that what matter are material things, and royalty, and men in refined clothing (to quote vs. 8).  Jesus first reassures John and then confronts a crowd who have many in it who still cannot see.  Why are they there?  What have they come to experience and see?  Did they come to see the famous?  The wealthy?  Those with power on earth?  If so, if they have come to be part of the glorious of this world, they are in the wrong place.  But, as Jesus said to John, those who are perceiving wrong are being challenged and changed.  Their perceptions will be cleared and they will finally see and understand what is really important.  Those who cannot see the truth will finally see – wealth, popularity, earthly power – these things are not what matters, they are not what God is about.  And the deaf, those who have failed to hear the Good News that God comes to be with us not, again, as a mighty kind, but as a helpless baby who will find himself crucified on a cross, and who, when he rises, will not use that power to “punish” his enemies or to overthrow the governments, but instead will continue to preach love and peace and forgiveness – those who have been deaf will finally hear this.  And those who have been bent over with shame and pain and humiliation, they will finally find the strength to stand up for what matters and to be part of ushering that in.  And those who have been isolated by diseases that cause them to be unclean will take their place in society and refuse to allow the judgments and condemnations of others hold them back.  And those who are dead, who fail to live, who fail to find joy or meaning or purpose in this life – they will finally live, they will get that the things they thought would bring life meant nothing.
      Jesus has declared this good news.  He has declared that it is here, it is happening.  With his coming, our perceptions and our choices are changing.  Why?  What changes us?  What brings us to a new perception?  I know that there are people even today who follow Jesus who are still waiting for him to return as a mighty king who will overthrow governments and come in wealth and splendor.  Who will bring us wealth and splendor.  Have they not heard?  Have they not seen?  What will open their eyes?  What will cause any of our visions to be different, any of our visions to be opened and expanded into real sight?
     I found myself reading a great deal about Nelson Mandela this last week again.  And one of the things I found most interesting was that it was in prison that he developed his non-violent and reconciliation stance.  People were waiting for him to emerge from prison and lead them in a bloody revolution.  They expected him to lead them in fighting and to bring about change through violence.  But he came out different than that.  He came out from a living hell into the sun and preached forgiveness.  He came out claiming that he would be staying in his own prison to stay in anger or to act from a place of seeking revenge.  Mandela was changed in the least likely place in the least likely way.  Why?  Through time in prayer, meditation, prayer, study, prayer, reflection, he was changed into a person who was able to bring out a complete change in South Africa because he approached the conflict with a deeper vision of reconciliation, forgiveness and love for ALL people.  What changed him?  Prayer, study, meditation.
      Jasmyn reminded me yesterday of this line from Charles Dickens’ “a Christmas Carol” during which the Ghost of Christmas present is showing Scrooge a conversation that Bob Cratchit is having with his wife.  Mrs. Cratchit asks how little Tim behaved.  “As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better.  Somehow he gets thoughtful sitting by himself so much and thinks the strangest things you ever heard.  He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”  Is that what we would think?  Or would we wonder why the person who made lame beggars walk and blind folk see had not given Tim healing as well?  Would we find ourselves hoping that maybe through prayer Tim would be changed eventually?  Or would we step up and claim that a people whom God has led into sight, hearing and life, that we are called to help Tim walk ourselves?  And would we see that in so many ways, Tim was already walking with far more strength of purpose and love than we yet have learned to do?
What can change our perceptions?  What can open our eyes to see the God who turns it all around? who cures, and feeds and heals and brings good things to all people?  What can change that perception?
     God does.  And encounter with God.  That is the only thing that can change our perception.  But that encounter, as we read each advent and Christmas, will never be what we expect, when we expect it, or how we expect it.  What changed the people we talked about today?  The shock of a genuine encounter with God.  It was the shock of encountering God in the most disabled child calling for a blessing on the most closed hearted people.  The shock of encountering God in a prison after being placed there for trying to set people free.  The shock of God coming to us as a poor baby to a young mother, and declaring that the blind can see, the lame can walk.  The shock of encountering God as we see Jesus’ declarations actually take place before our very eyes…that those who once had nothing, no legs to stand on, no resources to support them, no eyes that could see are those who now see or ears that could hear now do hear, see, and stand tall, living lives of depth and meaning.  The shock of encountering God when our lives are turned on their heads.  Jesus.  God in Jesus.  God with us, Emmanuel.  That is what changes us.  And that is what God calls us to this Advent.
In today’s gospel, John is asking if Jesus is the one.  He asks as he, himself, sits in prison, wasting, suffering.  He asks because he needs the joy that only that shocking encounter of God’s reversals in life can give us…..the joy that says, life is not about what we think it’s about.  Life is not about the comforts of now, it is about the blessings of God which are eternal.  Life is not about the material wealth of now, but the grace of God that is for always.  In Jesus message, despite John’s suffering, Joy is to be found.
The message is the same for us.  In our hardest times, in our times of the deepest struggle, God says, that in this, there is sight for our hurting and lost perceptions.  There is healing for our aches, though it may look different than what we have thought or hoped for.  There is renewal and grace and vision.  There is Jesus.  And with Jesus everything is new, everything is different, everything can begin again.

 Peace be with you.  Amen.

Friday, December 13, 2013

an inaccurate summary of Wednesday's message on Waiting...

Matthew 11:28-30, Isaiah 40:25-31
We are told a couple of things in today’s passages.  The first is that the yoke of Jesus is easy and light.  What is a yoke?  What do you think about that?
It doesn’t really look so easy does it? or comfortable?
Another translation of “easy” here is “well fitting” – in other words, the yoke of God fits us…it is a fit that makes all of life easier and more comfortable.
I’m sure most or all of you have heard the story of the man who once met a boy carrying a smaller disabled boy on his back. "That's a heavy load you are carrying there," exclaimed the man. "He ain't heavy; he's my brother!" responded the boy.
The point is that no burden is too heavy when it's given in love and carried in love. When we yoke our lives with Jesus, he also carries our burdens with us and gives us his strength to follow in his way of love.  When Jesus yokes us to him, which he always invites, we, too, help care for the world.  But if we are doing it for the right reasons – because we love God and love God’s people, then these burdens, too will feel light for us as well.
The thing is, I think it can be hard for all of us to do God’s work always for the right reasons.  In one congregation that I served years ago, there was a woman there who did absolutely everything for the church.  She volunteered to do it all, no one asked her to.  She felt she could do it better and wanted it done right and that it was her job to do it.  But at the same time she felt resentful that she had to do everything.  She was doing it because she wanted to be appreciated.  She wasn’t doing it because she loved to serve God and God’s people in this way.  We can never earn enough appreciation for all that we do.  So if that is why we are doing something, we will become resentful.  But the truth is that we will all have times like this.  Or times when we are tired, or times when it just feels like too much.  Times when, like the second scripture tells us, even the young men will run out of energy.
And then, we are told, we will find strength in WAITING for God.
This, too, seems to be a contradiction.  Usually waiting is not easy.  It doesn’t renew us.  It feels like a waste of time and space.  It, too, can lead to feelings of rage and frustration.  Especially when we are overworked, waiting for God – to lift the burden, to give us clarify in discernment, to give us that thing we think we really need, or that healing or that relationship or whatever it is…waiting can be frustrating.
But in today’s passages we are told that taking the time to wait for God renews us, gives us strength.  That while God knows everything about us and sees our pain and our strength waning or even failing at times, when we take the time to wait for God, we are told we will find inexhaustible stores of strength.
Advent is a time of waiting.  Or rather, it’s supposed to be.  And by that “waiting” scripture doesn’t mean standing in line at the department stores waiting to purchase the gifts for our loved ones.  It doesn’t mean anxiously counting the days before Christmas, either.  That “waiting” is the waiting that we are least used to, especially during the business of Advent.  This “waiting” means spending time, quietly, with God.  Taking the time to listen, to be, to sit and wait for what God has to tell us, where God needs to lead us, what God wants for us to “have” or be.
I don’t need to tell you about all the studies that show that meditation actually leads to increased health, happiness, peace, and an overall sense of health.  I don’t need to tell you all that because it’s all over the newspapers all the time.  We, in the Christian faith, take it a step further.  It isn’t just meditating.  It is sitting with God.  And that improves our spiritual health as well.  We do gain strength.  We do feel the lightness of God carrying our burdens with us through the yoke.  We are lifted up with wings like eagles, we run and find that we are not weary, we will walk and find that we do not faint.   Amen.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Wednesday's Sermon: Invisible and Unexpected Gifts

Matthew 1:18-23
Joseph discovered Mary pregnant and wanted to call off their engagement.  Maybe the specifics of this are hard for us to understand these days. But I do think that there are times when someone does something that we just can’t accept.  We can’t accept what they have done and we then have to make a decision…do we end the relationship all together, or do we figure out a way to accept, live with and grow from our experience of disappointment, or humiliation, or hurt?
The thing is, people will always disappoint us.   I was talking with someone this week who was sharing with me about their daughter who has become a born-again Christian and how difficult it is to be in relationship with someone who is constantly telling him that he is going to hell.  Still, he chooses the relationship, though it appears the daughter may stop after awhile.  We hear of stories of people who discover they have a child who is gay or lesbian and they have a hard time handling it.  What are some of the things you have a hard time handling?  Personally, I have a really hard time handling lying.  And yet, everyone exaggerates on occasion, or stretches the truth or tells a white lie.  What lie is too big?  What lie is too much?
I’m reminded of Fiddler on the Roof.  Reb Tevye is faced with the challenge of choosing between deeply held values and his relationships with his daughters.  His first daughter wants to marry a man within the tradition, but one whom she has picked out for herself, challenging the tradition of the use of the yenta.  The second daughter decides who she will marry and her fiancĂ© does not even ask for Tevye’s permission.  This, too, he accepts.  For the first two of his children he chooses his daughters, letting go, though it is ever so painful for him, of needing them to follow, agree and support his beliefs and values.  But for the third one he cannot do the same.  When the third daughter elopes with a man who is not Jewish, he cuts her off.  The challenge to his beliefs and values pushes him too far.  And in the face of his choice between those beliefs and values and even his daughter, he chooses his values.
For us, too, we may come to a point where we feel pushed too far.  What values do we hold that go beyond the possibility of reconciliation, healing, and even the possibility of loving the other?
We all have these.  We all have “conditions” on our love, on our commitment to our relationships.  And yet, that is not the way of God, it is not the way of Christ.  We are called to choose love again and again, despite our hurts, despite our anger, despite our disappointments.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for actions, but it does mean that we still have to choose to do what is most loving, for everyone involved, in the face of our values, our decisions, and our experiences.
I think about Joseph in today’s story.  He had strong values.  We are told he was a “righteous” man.  Because of those values he almost chose to dismiss Mary from their engagement.  We know that his judgment, his thinking about leaving Mary was based on a misunderstanding, but I’m not sure it matters too much.  He had values, and it appeared that she did not meet those values.  He had a tough decision to make in the light of that.
But he was also a man who was open to listening, hearing and responding to the Spirit.  And the Spirit had a different word for him.  An angel came to him in a dream and told him that he did not understand the situation, and that he was called to do something different than would usually be done.   He was called to put aside his usual understandings, his usual vision, the obvious vision, and to take a different path.  As a result he chose a path that did not leave Mary destitute, did not leave him without a wife, allowed him to father Jesus, opened a path for him that without the listening and following he would never have known.
We are constantly invited into gifts that are not what we expect, not what we could imagine for ourselves or for others.   And as always, the goal, the gift, the challenge, is to keep our eyes open for God’s coming among us through those gifts.  That is especially true during Advent when we are called to wait and to watch.  Wait and watch.  Wait for God’s coming.  Watch where God will come to you today.  Where is God today?  Where is God showing up in your life today?  In whom do you see God’s face this evening as you look around?  What gifts surround you, even in the challenges, even in the struggles, that God is giving you?
A friend sent me a song this week that I want to play for you.  I don’t usually like rap music, and I apologize that it is, in part, a rap song, but I invite you to listen to the words.

When we open our hearts with gratitude, we open our eyes to see.  Let us give thanks this day and everyday for God’s coming to be with us.  Amen.

Entitlement gone wild

I flew on an airplane this week.  As I always do, I chose a window seat, which is normally not an issue.  I'm a fairly small person, and the window seat allows me to look out the window (obvious, I realize), which I thoroughly enjoy.  However, this particular day, after I sat in my seat, a man sat down in the aisle seat next to me (this was a puddle hopper, so only 2 seats next to each other).  He was not a large man, but he put his arm on the arm rest between us in such a way that his elbow was actually poking into "my" space, he sat spread legged, with one of his feet under the seat in front of ME, and basically, my alternatives were to be in constant physical contact with this obnoxious stranger, or to squish myself into as small a ball as possible in the corner of my seat.  I chose the latter.  A few minutes later, one of the flight attendants came by and informed him that he had to put his bag under the seat in front of him, not keeping it just on the ground between his spread-eagle legs.  He said, "oh, okay!"  And made a movement to put the bag under his seat.  But as soon as the flight attendant then moved on to go sit down in her own seat for take-off, he stopped attempting to stow his bag and went back to just keeping it between his legs.

I took a second flight.  We were told that we needed to put all of our phones in airplane mode, and again, the person next to me continued to ignore the flight attendants and just kept on texting.  The flight attendant came by and asked my seat-mate to put her phone in flight mode.  She, too, said, "oh, okay", made it look like she was going to, and then continued to email and text on her phone for the duration of the flight, simply hiding her phone whenever a flight attendant came by.

Entitlement.  Why is it that there is this so much entitlement in our culture?  People feel that they deserve to take up whatever space they can.  People believe they are the exceptions to the rules and don't have to follow them.  People feel that they "deserve" whatever it is and our ads and commercials help emphasise that misconception..."you deserve that chocolate."  "you deserve that $100,000 car." "you deserve that $10,000 vacation to Hawaii."  No, we don't deserve these things.  They are amazing gifts when we have them, but we don't deserve them.  I can't think of anything anyone has done to deserve having that kind of luxury while there are others in the world who are starving to death.  They don't deserve to starve, and we don't deserve to spend that kind of money on ourselves while others suffer so intensely.

This sense of entitlement injures not only those around us, whose rights and sometimes very existence are threatened because of our choices to spoil ourselves, but that sense of entitlement also deeply injures our own selves.  First of all, it takes from us a sense of wonder and gratitude for the amazing gifts and blessings that surround us each day.  If we feel they are "no more than we deserve" then we fail to look with eyes that see that every breath is a gift, every bite of food is nothing less than a blessing, every smile from a stranger is a kiss from an angel.  That sense of wonder, of gratitude, can carry us so deeply into the vision and heart of God!  A failure to recognize those gifts can carry us only further into a sense of entitlement, and resentment when those things we believe we "deserve" do not come to us in the way or time that we expect.  Second, I think that sense of entitlement desensitizes us to the needs of others.  We start to mistakenly believe that we have what we have because we deserve those things.  Therefore, what others fail to have (even basic necessities like food, shelter, health care) that they therefore don't have them because they don't deserve them.   We stop seeing that our wealth is "luck of the draw" - where we were born, who raised us, where we went to school, even our intelligence and talents and creativity are gifts we were given at birth, not things we can develop or earn.  We didn't "pick" our parents or our life situations.  All are gifts that have been GIVEN to us that may allow us to accumulate more than others.  None of it, therefore, is ours - all is lent to us by God.  Luke 12:48, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked."  Or to put it in non-religious terms, "along with privilege comes responsibility".  But when we start feeling entitled to what we have, we lose the larger vision that says that because we have so much, we have a responsibility to give back - to our communities, to those who have less, to creation and the world.

We injure ourselves through our lack of entitlement.  A friend shared with me this video that I think is really relevant here:

I am not immune to the irony in this.  I started this whole blog post, in a sense, by complaining about my own plane trips...  But I think it just illustrates my point once more.  All of us, ALL of us are so used to certain rights and expectations (in my case, the right to having the space in the airplane that my ticket paid for), that we fail to see the greater gifts - I was able to travel quickly, easily and comfortably across a large area of space in the air.  That IS amazing.  And that should have been the focus for me, too.  But our feelings of entitlement creep in, they are so part of our culture and our understanding that we focus on things that seem to impinge on that, rather than on the gifts.  Today I strive to take this to heart.  I hope that you can, too.  Because the gifts in learning to see the blessings around us, rather than focusing so much on broken expectations of entitlements we assume, can bring us joy, wonder, and the sense of the amazing well-being that fills our lives this day and every day.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Sermon

John 6:24-35
      Thanksgiving.  This is one of the most important days of the year for me…it is also a day that should actually be EVERY day.  I showed you a video a couple months back about a study that had been done on gratitude.  This study showed us that those who actually take the time to express gratitude…gratitude to loved ones, to family, to friends, to God, to ANYONE are actually much, much happier. There was also an article this week written in SFgate that shows that expressions of gratitude, taking the time to realize all that we have to be grateful for contributes significantly to physical well-being as well. And I'm struck by the deep truth, once again, that the things that God calls us to do are not because GOD needs us to be grateful, or because God needs to know that we recognize the blessings that fill our lives.  God calls us into gratitude for our own souls, for our own happiness, for our own wholeness, for our own well-being.
      And yet, gratitude can sometimes remain elusive to us.  In today’s scripture, Jesus says, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you”.  But, by trusting in other things besides God, wanting signs and proofs and reassurance other than our faith, by focusing on our needs and wants and security rather than on gratitude for the gifts of today, we are doing exactly that – working for food that spoils.  These other things won’t last.  They don’t last.
     People trusted in Moses, they trusted in their leaders for the food, the manna.  But at the same time, we know people can’t be trusted completely, so even while they trusted, they tried to “collect” and “preserve” and save the manna, not trusting that it would come the next day.  They forgot to trust in God. People turned to Jesus’ signs.  They sought him out because they were fed, but also because the signs they had seen of healing and the feeding they had experienced didn’t feel like enough.  They continued to ask for more proof, as we read today, constantly asking for reassurances that everything would be okay.  I wrote a blog article about happiness awhile back.  Sometimes people try to trust in happiness, but it too can’t be counted on.  This is a paragraph from what I wrote:  “ I find it very hard to "trust" happiness because it is fleeting.  It is a fickle friend.  And as such, it cannot be relied upon to stay for long, or to return when summoned, or to come when needed. Sometimes it is there constantly, every day making repeated calls, sending constant "texts" and stopping by to visit and stay.  And then, just as suddenly as it came, it can disappear and stay away for weeks at a time, not responding to calls for help, no matter how desperate and needy they are. When it comes it is incredible and wonderful and we find ourselves hoping that it will stay as constant, as helpful, as faithful, as hopeful, and as intense as it sometimes is, filling us with a sense of well-being and of being loved, causing us to laugh and play and feel young and alive.  But it never does.  It comes and goes of its own accord, when and where it will, and therefore truly can't be trusted.”
     Whatever it is that you are trusting that is not God, Jesus challenges.  No, we are not made whole, we are not made alive, we are not “okay” because of our leaders, or because of the signs that reassure us, or because we are fed today.  We don’t find wholeness in an hour’s happiness or a day or even a week or month.   We are okay, we are whole, we are on the “way” with God when we can trust, when we can live in that trust and faith, without the signs, without the proofs, without trusting in flawed and broken humans, emotions, objects or anything else that is not God.
And again, one of the easiest, most fulfilling and best ways to renew our faith, our trust and our commitment to God is by taking the time to remember our blessings and to offer gratitude, again and again.
    Still, in our society, this remains a challenge.  And this year, perhaps, more than others.
Matt Walsh at HuffingtonPost wrote the following (see whole article here) in response to black Friday actually expanding into Thanksgiving Day itself: “How appropriate, then, that a holiday created by our ancestors as an occasion to give thanks for what they had, now morphs into a frenzied consumerist ritual where we descend upon shopping malls to accumulate more things we don't need. Our great grandparents enjoyed a meal and praised the Lord for the food on the table and the friends and family gathered around it. We, having slightly altered the tradition, instead elect to bum-rush elderly women and trample over children to get our hands on cheap TVs.  For a while, Black Friday and Thanksgiving coexisted. We thanked God for His blessings on Thursday, and then jumped into the consumer mosh pit at Best Buy on Friday. But this Black Friday-Thanksgiving marriage was tenuous and rocky from the start. It was doomed to fail. Thanksgiving offers tradition, family and contentment; Black Friday offers smart phones at drastically reduced prices. In America, we all know who wins that battle. So Black Friday, like a black hole, violently expanded; it absorbed the light that surrounded it and sucked everything into its terrifying abyss, where all substance is torn to shreds and obliterated. Black Friday could not be contained to a mere 24 hours. It is Consumerism. It wants more. It always wants more. Nothing is sacred to it; nothing is valuable. So, now, Black Friday has eaten Thanksgiving alive. Thanksgiving let out a desperate cry as Black Friday devoured its soul, but we barely noticed. It's hard to hear anything when you're wrestling 4,000 other people for buy one get one free cargo shorts at Old Navy…..Will the Black Thanksgiving shopper carve a moment or two out of their busy bargain hunting schedule to break bread with their family and friends? Will they make it all the way through grace before dashing out the door, trading in tradition and merriment for cheap electronics and kitchen appliances? "Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts yada yada -- gotta go, Walmart opens in 10 minutes!..... But even if I stumbled into some demented parallel dimension where the prospect of shuffling like a dead-eyed zombie through Target on Thanksgiving suddenly seemed appealing to me, I'd still pass. If for no other reason, this reason is reason enough: I'm not going to force some single mom to ring up my worthless purchases instead of enjoying Thanksgiving with her children….Capitalism is great, but some things are greater. Family is greater. Yes, these folks choose to work at these stores. Yes, they likely knew when they signed up that they'd be sacrificing their Thanksgivings. Yes, at least they have jobs. Yes, sure, and so what? If that's enough in your mind to justify participating in the destruction of a great American tradition -- good for you. But you COULD wait until Friday, couldn't you? And if you did wait until Friday, and if everyone waited until Friday, no store would ever open on Thanksgiving again, right? So you COULD take steps to protect Thanksgiving from the decay of materialism and consumerism, and, while you're at it, give this wonderful holiday back to the customer service representatives who have been forced to abandon it and cater to the stampeding throngs, right? Right, but then again, those skirts at JC Penney ARE super cheap. Oh Lord, if you don't go on Thursday to buy stuff, there might be slightly less stuff available on Friday! Think of the stuff! We must get all the stuff! The stuff must be purchased! Family can take a backseat. Tradition can wait. These employees should just be grateful for the opportunity to stand behind a cash register for 14 hours while the rest of us eat our pies and drink our wine. Thanksgiving is just a holiday. But stuff, things, toys, gadgets -- these are what life is all about. Why give thanks for what you have when there's so much you don't have? That's the new meaning of Thanksgiving: count your blessings, and then buy some more blessings and count them again.”
     No.  No, and no.  God calls us this day to be thankful, not to be trying to get “more and more and more”.  God calls us this day not to look at what we don’t have, but to stop and give thanks for what we do have.  God calls us this day to trust that even if we aren’t out getting “more and more and more” that God is with us and that God is really all we need.  God calls us this day, as every day, to be grateful.  For it is in the vision that sees the gifts around us, it is in the vision that sees how God blesses us with every breath we take, it is in the vision of our hearts that sees the beauty of the snow and the warmth of human hugs and the strong presence of God and can do nothing else but cry out from our hearts, “THAnk you!  Thank you!  Thank you!”, it is in all of that that we find joy, hope, love, LIFE, GOD.
      Janet posted on facebook today a quote that said, “There is always, always, ALWAYS something to be thankful for!”  That should be our thanksgiving day focus.  On Thanksgiving, and on every day!  Amen.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Today's Sermon - Christ the King

Jeremiah 23:1-6, Luke 23:33-43

     On Christ the King Sunday we celebrate and remember that Christ had many roles and functions, and that one of them is as King, King of us, King of creation, King of all.  But the question, as always, is, Who is this Christ?  Who is this king?
     When we think of royalty, when we think about rulers of any kind, we have certain visions in our minds.  We have certain understandings of the kind of strength, power, and authority that it takes to lead a world, a country, a state, a city.
     But always, ALWAYS, when it comes to God, when it comes to Christ, we are handed a vision and understanding that does not, CANNOT be anything like what we think.   In order to understand THIS king, I think it can be helpful to return to our original Biblical stories of what a ruler and king are.
     The Hebrew people were told, from the beginning, that God was their God.  They were told that because of who God is, God’s strong presence in their lives, God’s overarching leadership and most of all, God’s amazing and faithful love, that the Hebrew people needed no other ruler, no other guide.     But the Israelites were scared.  They were scared to be a nation without a clear leadership who could defend them, lead them into battle, show them as a united and strong people.  They insisted, they asked for a ruler.  God gave them judges, people who could help them make decisions and interpret right from wrong.  But again, these were not what the people wanted.  They were afraid.       They didn’t believe they could rely on God alone against other nations.  We hear the rest of this story in the book of 1st Samuel, chapter 8.   “Now when Samuel got old, he appointed his sons to serve as Israel’s judges. 2 The name of his oldest son was Joel; the name of the second was Abijah. They served as judges in Beer-sheba. 3 But Samuel’s sons didn’t follow in his footsteps. They tried to turn a profit, they accepted bribes, and they perverted justice. 4 So all the Israelite elders got together and went to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “Listen. You are old now, and your sons don’t follow in your footsteps. So appoint us a king to judge us like all the other nations have.” 6 It seemed very bad to Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us,” so he prayed to the Lord. 7 The Lord answered Samuel, “Comply with the people’s request—everything they ask of you—because they haven’t rejected you. No, they’ve rejected me as king over them. 8 They are doing to you only what they’ve been doing to me[a] from the day I brought them out of Egypt to this very minute, abandoning me and worshipping other gods. 9 So comply with their request, but give them a clear warning, telling them how the king will rule over them.”[b]10 Then Samuel explained everything the Lord had said to the people who were asking for a king. 11 “This is how the king will rule over you,” Samuel said: “He will take your sons, and will use them for his chariots and his cavalry and as runners for his chariot. 12 He will use them as his commanders of troops of one thousand and troops of fifty, or to do his plowing and his harvesting, or to make his weapons or parts for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, or bakers. 14 He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves and give them to his servants. 15 He will give one-tenth of your grain and your vineyards to his officials and servants. 16 He will take your male and female servants, along with the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys, and make them do his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and then you yourselves will become his slaves! 18 When that day comes, you will cry out because of the king you chose for yourselves, but on that day the Lord won’t answer you.”  19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel and said, “No! There must be a king over us 20 so we can be like all the other nations. Our king will judge us and lead us and fight our battles.”  21 Samuel listened to everything the people said and repeated it directly to the Lord. 22 Then the Lord said to Samuel, “Comply with their request. Give them a king.”
     So the people were given kings.  And we’ve had those kings as models for us ever since.  We have come to expect that rulers are people who give us a certain stability or protection, but that do so at a very high price.  We expect this.  No matter where you stand politically, or who you support or what kind of government you value, we all know that there are costs we’d rather not pay to having human leadership, human rulers.
     And yet, God continues to show us another way.  God continues to show us God’s way.  And God’s way is different.  And when we could not see it from what the judges had to say, and when we could not accept it based on what the prophets had to say, and when we could not live it based on what God said to us through scriptures and stories and people and history, God finally sent God’s son to us.  God sent Jesus to show us this other way, this different way.  Jesus came, the real king, the ultimate king, who acts nothing like we expect or understand rulers or leaders to behave.  He doesn’t walk around with body guards protecting his every step.  He doesn’t insist on taking from us to feed his profession or the services he offers us.  He doesn’t build a strong defense system or any other kinds of large government operations or organizations.  Instead, instead he shows us something very, VERY different.  He feeds anyone who comes to him hungry.  He heals anyone who comes to him sick (and sometimes even dead such as Talitha and Lazurus).  He listens and allows even the most rejected, the least “acceptable”, the least “worthy” to physically touch him.  He includes children, women, people of different nationalities and backgrounds such as the Serophoenician and the Samaritans, he includes tax collectors and prostitutes.  He doesn’t reject them because they aren’t “the chosen ones” or part of his nation, or part of what we deem acceptable.  He doesn’t take their wealth and live in a big mansion.  He lives poorly, simply, and asks for nothing in return.  He relies on the kindness of strangers and does not worry about his own survival or well-being.  He leads with TRUTH rather than threats or negotiations.
     And when THIS king, this king that we cannot understand, this king who acts completely differently from what we want or expect or demand from our human rulers, when this king is killed, as of course he would inevitably be, this king still, on the cross, in his dying moments, behaves completely differently from any king we can imagine.  He doesn’t send for his troops to rescue him.  He doesn’t call for a start of war or revenge.  He doesn’t threaten the end to those who did this to him.  He doesn’t shout out “you will be sorry”, and he doesn’t fight back in any way.
     Instead, as he hangs there on the cross, as he dies, as he suffers the deepest pain,  he continues to think about others, others who are suffering.  And again, it isn’t the “good” people he worries about in that moment.  It is anyone, anyone at all who is suffering.  He is hanging on the cross next to two people who have done wrong, who are being killed as criminals for some atrocity or another.  Maybe they were both murderers.  Maybe they killed children.  We aren’t told.  What we are told is that in that moment Jesus doesn’t ask.  He doesn’t care what they have done.  What he cares about is that they are scared and suffering.  And in that moment, this king, who does not “rescue” them or himself, even when he is goaded on to do so, instead, in that moment, as he suffers, hanging on the cross – he offers to the criminal crucified next to him the promise of paradise.  He reaches out with the strength of knowledge and love that goes beyond any personal suffering, and he offers life, real life, to the scared and dying person next to him.
      This is the KING that we are given, the REAL king, the savior, our God.  He does not jump off the cross to save himself, despite the pain, and the inevitable death that he faces.  He does not “negotiate” or play politics.  He lives life following God to the fullest, and he pays for it with death, a death he accepts even while he loves and cares for those around him, even those whom, like this criminal next to him, we would probably not deem worthy of that love or care.
     Walter Brueggermann said it this way – “Every (government) regime is frightened…..  It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures to the single one the (earthly) king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.”  Well, again, the king that we see, the king that Jesus presents is not this kind of king.  This is the king who IS the prophet, who IS the artist…who takes all of our understandings of rulers and leadership and what it is to command people, and he turns them on their head.
     This week is Thanksgiving.  And then we begin Advent.  And all of them, Christ the King, Thanksgiving, and Advent connect… all are about seeing God in the unexpected places, being grateful because we have seen God, and expecting that God, Christ, King, Jesus as a baby – will not be what we expect.
     I struggled with the sermon this week.  I struggled to write it because I am saying the same thing that is being said across the country on this Christ the King Sunday.  That Christ the King is nothing at all like the kings and leaders we think we need.  That instead Christ the King is the King GOD wants us to have – a king of love, compassion, service, selflessness, faithfulness – God wants us to have nothing else but God for our king, our leader, our ruler.  What is new in that?  What new word can I bring that you have not heard every year on this Sunday?  What stories can I possibly tell you to illustrate this reality?  But then I thought, the thing is, we need to hear this every year.  Because we are still, STILL looking for that earthly king to lead us.  We still are.  And that is not the king God calls us to have lead us.
     So how will we recognize this Christ?  How do we recognize this King?  As we enter Advent, as we come to God with thanksgiving in our hearts for all we have been given, how do we know our loyalty is to the right king?  How do we know we have found Christ again?
We will know him, as we always do, by his love.   Amen.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Intimacy with God - Wednesday homily recap

(usually I preach on Wednesdays more extemporaneously - ie, I don't write out my sermons.  So this is an attempt to write out what I said - HA!)

Scripture: Psalm 63:1-8

What does it mean to really be close to God?  What does it mean to be close to anyone?  What creates intimacy?

Sharing deeply - both the good and bad stuff, being willing to admit our wrongs and things we struggle with, hearing the other, listening and getting to know a person for their good and bad.  Acceptance of the other: all of these things create and demonstrate intimacy.  But one of the other things that also can create genuine intimacy is when we speak the truth to the other about things that hurt us or that anger us.  When we have the trust, courage and strength to say, "you have hurt me." or "I am angry with you", it does several things.  First, it clears us to hear their version of the story.  It helps us let go of our feelings to speak them, and then we can be open to really understand what the other is saying.  Also, when we speak, usually it invites the other to speak in turn.  When we hear from the other, we grow in our understanding of who they are, why they do what they do, why something happened the way it did...and that deeper understanding means a deeper intimacy. Also, it expresses a deep caring and trust to take the risk of speaking your truth.  Showing that trust, that depth of caring, usually increases intimacy too.

Well, the same is true with God.  But sometimes I think we are afraid of intimacy with God.  We know that God knows us, fully and completely.  But that is a uni-directional or one-dimensional relationship.  Do we really know God?  Are there things in the Bible that describe God that make us uneasy or uncomfortable?  Are we uneasy thinking of God, for example, as angry?  or jealous?  Both of these are descriptions of God in our scriptures.  Do we push these descriptions aside?  What about a God who forgives everyone?  We want God to be "just" in our understanding of justice.  We want a God who will punish those who hurt us and rescue us from their wrath and vengeance.  So when we read that God loves everyone, sometimes we don't like it.  That is not the God we want to know.  So how often do we just accept a one-sided intimacy with God because we don't want to really know God?

I am reminded of this quote from the book, The Alchemist (p.16) by Paulo Coelho, "When someone sees the same people every day, as had happened with him at the seminary, they wind up becoming a part of that person's life.  And then they want the person to change.  If someone isn't what others want them to be, the others become angry.  Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own."

Do we do this with God?  Do we avoid getting to really know God because we'd rather create God in our own image?

Regina Brett wrote this amazing article that is published in her book, God Never Blinks.  It is lesson 8, "It's okay to get angry with God.  He can take it".  I won't put the whole essay here, but if you get the chance to read it, it is really worth the read.  The point of it is that when we finally are able to speak "truth" to God - whether it be anger or pain or frustration or whatever it is, God grants us peace.

Following up on that, I would say even more that speaking our "truth" to God - especially those uncomfortable feelings we'd rather NOT share with God, is an exercise in intimacy.  We don't really understand God.  But we often do not really KNOW other people either until we are open with them first.

Like in the book of Job, Job tried to avoid expressing anger or frustration to God.  Job felt it was not okay, it was not acceptable to speak those feelings.  But finally he snapped and spoke, saying all that he felt and feared and wanted said.  God's response?  God's response was to show up!!!  God's response was to return the communication and talk back to Job.  God also revealed more of who God really is to Job in response to Job's honest and open communication about who Job really was.  God said to Job and Job's friends that no, sometimes bad things do happen to good people and the assumption that God is Santa Claus - giving good to the good and bad to the bad is a complete misunderstanding.  They might not have liked that answer, but it invited them to know the true God more fully, more deeply, more honestly.  God then said to Job that Job simply didn't understand..."think about creation" God said.  And that, too, opened up for Job a different and DEEPER understanding of who God is.  God is a God we just have a little glimpse of understanding, but who will give us more of God-self every time we ask, every time we seek, every time we choose genuine, honest, real, open relationship with God.

Personally, there are times I, too, don't really want God to be the way God is.  There are moments when I try to create God in my image, when I want God to be different.  I sometimes don't like that God is not more active, for example, in "fixing" things.  Why doesn't God just take away the pain and the problems and not allow God's children suffer?  But when I actually take the risk, the time, and trust to tell God I'm upset and struggling, God shows up for me as well.  And I hear, very clearly, "This challenge that you are facing is not for Me, your God, to fix.  This challenge is here as a gift to you to learn things, to grow, to become closer to me.  This challenge is a blessing to you - an opportunity for depth and intimacy.  I am here with you in it, but it is yours, not mine, to face and walk through."  At times I may not like this answer, but at the same time I find great comfort and truth in it.  God is with me through it all.  And because God wants the best for me, God won't just take away the struggles.  Our paths towards wholeness and intimacy with God, these are not ever going to be comfortable journeys.  But they are paths towards true deepening, wholeness and intimacy with God.  God wants that for us.  As Rick Warren says it, "God is more interested in your character than your comfort."  And that is a blessing indeed.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Yesterday's Sermon - Who Are We?

2 Timothy 4:6-18
Luke 18:9-14

In the passage we heard today from Timothy, we hear the struggles and pain of a person abandoned by friends, by peers, by everyone.  We hear the suffering of a person who is alone, trying desperately to connect and get what he needs in the midst of the pain he is feeling.  He is alone, at the mercy of those who would and did attack him and imprison him.  He is also human.  And as a human, he feels the sting, the hurt, the deep pain of their betrayal and abandonment.  But even in the midst of that, even in the midst of that, he returns again and again to a deeper understanding of who he is.  And that deeper understanding is that he is a child of God, a God who loves him, who will stand by him, who will justify him, who will not abandon or betray him.  That is what he returns to each time.  Who is he?  A child of God.  Who are we?  Children of God.

The Luke passage is, in a way, a set up for all of us.  Do we find ourselves feeling like the tax collector or like the Pharisee?  If we are the Pharisee, we are condemned by Jesus for judging the tax collectors and others.  If we see ourselves like the tax collector and others, then we have put ourselves once again in the position of the judge – this time condemning the Pharisee.  No, the only way to understand this parable is to see ourselves once again by different definitions.  We cannot be defined by human definitions.  Perhaps in some ways we are both tax collector and Pharisee, and several commentaries I read emphasized this – that we must recognize that we are both people who strive to be good, and people who fail to be completely good at all times.  We are both people who at times recognize our failure and at other times people who are grateful that we haven’t fallen as far as others – and in that gratitude become people who judge and do the opposite of what Jesus calls us to do.  But, again, I think the greater truth, the truth of both of these passages is slightly different.  We are not “tax collector.”  We are not “Pharisee”.  We are not judge and judged.  Who we are, at our deepest level is, once again, that which is sometimes hardest to feel and find.  We are children of God.

I know and understand that all of us have had times of feeling hurt, devastated even, by betrayal or the rejection of others.  That’s part of the human condition, all of us experience disloyalty, treachery, and dismissal from people we love, we all experience these kinds of losses in our lives.  We all have, we all do.  But if we can separate our identity from what other people think, or say, or do to us…if we can live instead in the hope and joy of being God’s children, then we can face anything.  We can stand strong in the face of pain and loss, we can rest secure knowing we are loved and held no matter what.   That doesn’t mean we won’t feel the pain.  Does it still hurt to feel alone?  To feel inadequate?  To feel judged and/or to judge others?  All these things still hurt.  As we saw, the Pauline author of Timothy felt the pain, too.  We know of his deep and abiding faith.  And yet he still hurts and struggles.  That is human.  But he SURVIVES and has meaning and joy and life and love because of who he is at the deepest level – he is one who belongs to God.  For us, too, in those times of loss and pain, rejection and betrayal, we don’t have to lose our sense of self, our sense of value, the joy and meaning we find in life – because we belong to God.  And being God’s children gives us joy, gives us meaning, gives us love even when we are not getting it from other humans.

In the book The Life of Pi, Pi says, “Faith in God is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love – but sometimes it was so hard to love.  Sometimes my heart was sinking so fast with anger, desolation and weariness, I was afraid it would sink to the very bottom of the Pacific and I would not be able to lift it back up….Despair was a heavy blackness that let no light in or out.  It was a hell beyond expression.  I thank God it always passed…The blackness would stir and eventually go away, and God would remain, a shining point of light in my heart.  I would go on loving.” (p209)
God offers us that.  God offers that constantly and faithfully – connection, love, light, meaning, joy.  But the challenge for us is to take the personal time to connect with it, even when it is hard, even when there are pressures not to, even when we feel despair.

Mitch Albom described it this way, “The (Rabbi) puttered from room to room in quiet contemplation.  Having survived the Great Depression and two world wars, he was no longer thrown by headline events.  He kept the outside world at bay by keeping the inside world at hand.  He prayed.  He chatted with God.  He watched the snow out the window.  And he cherished the simple rituals of his day: the prayers, the oatmeal with cereal, the grandkids, the car trips with (his wife), the phone call to old congregants."(p 223)

I'm reminded of the joke about the man who complained that he wasn't able to reach his pastor by phone one day; when the clergy replied that it was his/her day off, the man snarled:  well, the Devil never takes a day off.  To which the wise pastor smiled and said:  true enough and if I don't take a day off I would be just like him.

And why would he be like him?  I think the slope into evil starts with a feeling that we lack love.  If we feel unloved, we stop caring enough to love in return, despite the rejection.  My kids and I have been watching Star Trek the Next Generation episodes.  And we saw an episode yesterday in which the crew encountered something that defined itself as a “skin of evil”.  It quickly became clear that this “skin of evil” defined itself this way and fed off of others’ pain because of its own hurt and feeling of being abandoned.  It self-defined as something that got joy out of others’ suffering because of its rage at having been left, rejected, abandoned.  Humans need love to live.  They need love to survive.  We know this from studies.   And when they don’t have enough of it, or when they are damaged by rejection and abandonment, that is when they can turn to evil.  But the truth is that no one is ever without it, not really.  Because God offers it constantly.  And if we can remember that we are loved, if we can turn to that love even when human love fails us (and it will because none of us is perfect – we all make mistakes and we all suffer from them and from the mistakes of others), then we do not have to sink, we do not have to give up, we do not have to become bitter or jaded or revengeful or torn apart by rage.

Paul’s faith continued with him to the end and so even at the end, his life had meaning and grace.  When we recognize, in reading stories like the one we heard about the Pharisees and tax collectors, that none of what we do or feel – for good or for bad defines us, we, too, can hold on to that meaning.  Who are we?  We are God’s children.  That is your identity.  That is what gives you value, worth, and the blessings of this day.  That is what defines who you are.  You are God's and ultimately, nothing else matters.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Happiness (which is different from joy)

       I am happy today.  Really, truly happy today.  I know that we are like a train on two tracks - one that is full of blessings and joy and the other which is full of challenges and "learning opportunities".  For the last three years, my "learning opportunities" have far outweighed the happy times.  But today I am not only filled with God's joy (which can come even when we are sad), but also with happiness. And it scares me.
      I find it very hard to "trust" happiness because it is fleeting.  It is a fickle friend.  And as such, it cannot be relied upon to stay for long, or to return when summoned, or to come when needed. Sometimes it is there constantly, every day making repeated calls, sending constant "texts" and stopping by to visit and stay.  And then, just as suddenly as it came, it can disappear and stay away for weeks at a time, not responding to calls for help, no matter how desperate and needy they are. When it comes it is incredible and wonderful and we find ourselves hoping that it will stay as constant, as helpful, as faithful, as hopeful, and as intense as it sometimes is, filling us with a sense of well-being and of being loved, causing us to laugh and play and feel young and alive.  But it never does.  It comes and goes of its own accord, when and where it will, and therefore truly can't be trusted.
      Most of us don't like friends that can't be trusted.  We don't invest in friends who can't be depended on to stick around, to be there when needed or to respond when called upon.  We can't waste our love and commitments on those who come and go on a whim without any warning at all.  So how do we relate to happiness?  Is it possible to simply appreciate the time one has with this friend called happiness, without resenting it when it goes?  Is it possible to enjoy the times when happiness makes a visit, without looking for and fearing the next time it will leave?  I don't know.  But I think that is the goal of living in the present...staying with happiness when it comes without fear of tomorrow, facing the challenges of the day without worrying about when we might next encounter happiness again, being at peace with whatever feelings we awaken to each day, and embracing whatever life offers us today with hope, welcome and trust that it will be what we will need that day, even if it is not that most favorite of friends called happiness.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Connecting with Others

       Relationships are funny things.  Relationships of all kinds are funny things.  They ebb, they flow, they grow close, they distance, they become one thing and then another and then another.  The only thing consistent about relationships is that they aren't static but are constantly changing. I must admit I find all of this very confusing.  This is another area of growth for me as it remains clear to me that there is still so much I just don't understand.  It seems there are as many ways to be in relationship with others as there are people, and each one is a new puzzle to figure out.  But I also see that it isn't just me. It continuously surprises me how often there are misunderstandings between other people as well, ie how little we communicate what we are actually intending to say, and how often we seem to communicate things we are not intending at all.  Some examples:
1.  I was organist and music director during seminary at a Missouri Synod Lutheran church.  While theologically different, I really enjoyed the people and especially the choir members.  I worked there for three years.  When I graduated from Seminary, I resigned from my job to take a pastor position, and was replaced with another young seminary student.  About three months after she had been there, I received phone calls both from the pastor and from this student expressing serious communication problems.  The student felt that the pastor's wife "hated" her.  The pastor's wife felt nothing of the kind.  She just was being herself with her particular demeanor and presentation.  But nothing I said could convince the new organist that she wasn't hated and despised by the pastor's wife.  I offered to meet with them both together, and did so.  Still, they could not understand each other.  One continued to feel hated, and the other continued to feel confused and hurt that her demeanor was understood as negative and threatening.  I see this happening often - someone's normal facial expression is seen as angry or judging.  The way someone expresses themselves is seen as sharp or critical.  But the person isn't intending these things, they are just being misunderstood in this way.
2.  I hear people say things that sound to me like they are apologizing and offering reconciliation, and then someone else who was at the same conversation will tell me they have been hurt and offended by what the first person said.  Both parties, to me, expressed themselves in the situation with grace and humility.  But neither heard the other doing that.
3.  I have had people come to me so upset and hurt by another person and when I ask why, I simply cannot understand what it is that has hurt them.  Sometimes people get hurt by differences of opinion on matters that are theoretical, hypothetical or so distant that it doesn't actually touch the lives of either person.  Why is it hurtful to disagree with another?  Aren't those disagreements opportunities to learn from each other?  To explore ideas from new perspectives?
4.  My children often get offended by one another over things, again, that I cannot begin to comprehend at all.  "She looked at me!" one will complain.  "AND?" I ask.  "Well, tell her to stop it!"  Huh.
5.  Sometimes we take offense at advice (I admit, this is something I'm guilty of!), when another person is simply trying to be helpful because they care about us.  Advice to me somehow feels like a judgment on my ability to solve problems and come up with solutions on my own.  But really, again, it is a sign of another person's caring and wanting to help.
       It is easy to misunderstand.  And it is easy to be misunderstood.  I wish this wasn't the case, but it is.
       But what fascinates me is that in the midst of all of this, there is such a deep need and desire to connect with others.  I think there is nothing in this life that I enjoy so much as making a new friend.  I love meeting new people, getting to know them and see what makes them tick.  I love encountering the differences that make us each unique and working to understand them and connect both beyond and through those differences.  That doesn't mean that it is easy for me to do that.  How do you approach someone and say, "Hey, I'd like to be your friend.  Are you interested?" but because it is so important to me, I find myself doing exactly that with more and more success.  Even when we've been deeply, deeply hurt by other people, our need and desire to connect are stronger than our fears.  We hope, we reach out, and we search for those new connections.    Why?
       I think we are created to be in community.  This, to me, is the profound truth of the trinity.  God is one in community.  God is in community with God-self, and in being in community becomes one.  Complex. And difficult to explain.  But in this way, we are made in God's image.  We become more whole, I am convinced, as we are in community with one another.  We grow and expand as we allow the different, the "other" into our hearts and souls.  As we learn to love that which is not us and maybe even that which is not like us, we become more than we were before.  And in becoming more, we come closer to seeing, understanding and becoming ONE.  We become more united with each other, and more united with God.  Yes, we keep our individuality, and yet, we are bigger and more whole and more united at the same time.
       It truly is the greatest joy to grow deeper in relationship with God, self and others. And I thank God that we were created to do exactly that.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Other Side of Forgiveness - Some questions about Being Forgiven

     Matthew 5:23-24:  “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift."  But what if your brother or sister is not open to reconciliation?

Matthew 1815-  : “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.  But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  But again, what if the other person will not listen and instead responds with anger or vengeance?

1 Corinthians 11:27-28   So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.  Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.  For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.  So, if we have said we are sorry, asked for forgiveness, but it is not granted to us (ie, again, there is no reconciliation), should we refrain from taking communion?  Common wisdom says that when we cannot forgive others, we should refrain from taking communion...using a fast from communion to empower us to focus our hearts instead on forgiveness, what that means, how to do it, asking God's help to let go and see the other with compassion rather than anger or hatred.  But what if we have forgiven, but are not forgiven in return? Not everyone is willing to reconcile, even people who consider themselves Christians.

John 20:23   If you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.  So again, if another person of faith declares you to be unforgivable, does this mean you actually are?

Next blog post I may give some of my answers to these questions...but I would really like to hear your thoughts in the mean time.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Today's Sermon - Breaking Bread Together

2 Tim. 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

Today is world communion Sunday, a day in which we focus on the part of our call that is feeding each other, feeding the needy, feeding the world.  It is a day that we celebrate that God is with us when we eat together and feed one another, because it is God who is actually doing the feeding.  Sarah Miles, in her book Take this Bread, put it this way, “it’s the really hungry who can smell fresh bread a mile away.  For those who know their need, God is immediate – not an idea, not a theory, but life, food, air for the stifled spirit and the beaten, despised, exploited body.”  That is what is offered in communion, in this last supper in the sacrament of this meal.  We are offered food, yes, but more we are offered life, we are offered Jesus himself – his body, his blood, his presence here in this meal.  Sarah Miles continued, “What Jesus offered was a radical…love that accompanied people in the most ordinary actions – eating, drinking, walking, and stayed with them, through fear, even past death.”  She connects all of this with Jesus’ call and command to Peter…She said, “I couldn’t stop thinking about another (Biblical) story: Jesus instructing his beloved, fallible disciple Peter exactly how to love him:  ‘Feed my sheep.’  Jesus asked, “Do you love me?”  Peter fussed, “Of course I love you.’  “Feed my sheep.”  Peter fussed some more.  “Do you love me?” asked Jesus again.  “Then feed my sheep.”  It seemed pretty clear.  If I wanted to see God, I could feed people.”
Sara Miles was actually converted to faith – she came to know the living Christ through the experience to taking communion.  When we read about Jesus feeding the 5000, my guess is that this was the conversion moment for many of them as well.  In the taking of food that God has given us, the food of Christ, the body of the Word, we experience God.  We are converted and reconverted to God.  When we feed others, when we offer them the bread of life, literally, we invite them to experience God as well.  Sara walked into a church one day an atheist on an anthropological mission to understand what people saw and experienced in church.  But she was invited to take communion that day.  She described her experience this way.  She wrote, “And then we gathered around that table.  And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of the fresh crumbly bread in my hands, saying ‘the body of Christ,’ and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ,’ and then something outrageous and terrifying happened.  Jesus happened to me.  I still can’t explain my first communion. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb, or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening—I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happening—the piece of bread was the “body” of “Christ,” a patently untrue, or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happening—God, named “Christ” or “Jesus,” was real, and in my mouth—utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry.... that impossible word, "Jesus," lodged in me like a crumb. I said it over and over to myself, as if repetition would help me understand. I had no idea what it meant, I didn’t know what to do with it. But it was realer than any thought of mine, or even any subjective emotion: it was as real as the actual taste of the bread and the wine. And the word was indisputably in my body now, as if I'd swallowed a radioactive pellet that would outlive my own flesh."  (quote from book p.58 of Take This Bread).
     Sara’s belief in the meal, the feast of communion as an honest to goodness feeding of people led Sara Miles to begin a soup kitchen in San Francisco that now feeds thousands of people every week.  Her soup kitchen is based on her understanding of communion…volunteers and guests eat together, commune together, with prayer, in a sacred space – in their sanctuary because it is for her where communion should take place.   It is a feast – and it is a feeding of the thousands again and again.  As such, it has also become a place of conversion for many – a place of deep renewal and recognition of Christ, of Jesus among them in the meal.
I’d like to play for you a song written and sung by David Bailey that echoes this understanding of communion, called Big Joe.
(I could not find a way to insert this here, but here are the words):
It was just another Sunday at the big church down on main. He was just another homeless man, Big Joe was his name. She was just a kitchen helper, Miss Betty mild and meek, who prepared the sacred elements, every single week.  Well the prayers had all been said, the hymns had all been sung.  The pastor set the table, invited everyone. Big Joe heard the music, he took a step inside.  He saw a bunch of well dressed folks who looked like they were trying to hide.  He saw a man in fancy robes hold up a loaf of bread, tear it into pieces.  And Big Joe thought he said, “All ye who are hungry…”  Joe thought, “That’s me!”  So he walked on down the aisle, hoping it was free. Well the pastor looked uneasy, not sure what to do. But the usher held the plate out and said “broken just for you.” Big Joe felt pretty lucky, then they handed him some wine. The cups were pretty small but it tasted pretty fine
 Then he said to the usher, “That bread was good. Could I have a little more? Do you think I could?”   Now the usher looked uneasy, looked a bit confused.  Then he said “I'm sorry sir.  That's not how this bread is used.” Joe said “I'd like to talk to the master of this meal.  I'd really like to know just exactly how he feels. 'Cause up there on the table I can see it plain as day: You got a half a loaf left over  - you’re gonna throw that away.  Cause I got a bunch of friends – they’re sleeping in the street - right outside your door and they could use a bite to eat.”  Well the ushers got to talking, then began to shout. Then before you know it, a fight had broken out.  Meanwhile miss Betty slipped away, to the kitchen she did go, filled a basket up with bread.  She brought it back to Joe.   She said “Take this to your friends and you come on back next week”.  Joe said “As you've done to them - you've done to me!” That's how it all got started at the big church down on Main, where people come from miles away to break bread in His name! Hallelujah!

     When Jesus began the last supper, he said, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.”  He ate a real meal with his disciples.  Yes, it was a ritual, it was Passover, but it was a ritual meal – one where there was talking, laughter, sharing…not the serious contemplative quiet taking of a tiny bite, but real and genuine fellowship and communion.  He was eager to share in this meal with his disciples, not only because he recognized that it would be his last Passover meal in this realm with them, but also because of all that it meant to him to eat with his disciples.  It was fellowship.  It was food.  It was community and deep communion.  It was a teaching time in which he shared with them that he would remain with them in this meal even beyond his death.  It was an invitation to be in communion with God.  It was prayer.  It was being together with Christ at every level.  We are called to do the same.  For me, our coffee hour and the meals we share – these are communion for us as the body of Christ.  The times when we eat with people at Bethany or at the Community meal, when we give lunches to the children over the summer or provide food bags for the families over the long weekends – when we share food with those who need it – this is the communion of Jesus feeding the 5000.  And today we share in the meal with people all over the world, celebrating Christ with one another, inviting the Word into our bodies in a concrete, tangible, and real way, inviting a deeper relationship with Christ and with one another.
     I have one more song I would like to share with you.  I ask you to pay close attention to the words that appear at the bottom of the pictures regularly.

Standing with one another around the world – standing by one another around the world …that is also another way to celebrate world communion Sunday.  To be in fellowship together…to work together to build something international – namely the body of Christ…to eat together.  That is world communion Sunday.  That is what we do this day.  As we prepare to take communion, I invite you to remember our unity, to remember that Jesus fed anyone who came and invited everyone to the table, to remember that we are Christ’s body – not just the body of our respective churches – but the body of Christ: united in our love for him and for God, united by this meal, this music, this fellowship – this is communion.  Amen.

Monday, September 30, 2013

It's what you choose to see...

       I have written before about re-framing, and once again find myself called to write about it again. I shared some hard realities in my sermon yesterday about our experiences visiting down at the prison.  The point of my sharing was to say that we often fail to see those who do not have the same privileges or rights that we are given.  We don't see their need, we don't see how we contribute to their suffering, we don't see how we use (or abuse) our privileges, we walk with a sense of entitlement and are unaware of it, unaware of how we place ourselves above others in unjust ways.  We are unaware...until we are put into a situation in which we are forced to open our eyes, forced to see things in a new way, forced to face those who simply do not have the privileges we take for granted, or when we are put in situations in which our own privileges are revoked for a time and our sense of entitlement does not get us the things we think we deserve (such as basic human respect).  That was the point I was trying to make yesterday.
       But I fear that I may, instead, just have given my hearers more reasons to worry about the difficulties we are facing each day.   So I'd like to put these things in perspective as well, and try to describe, once more, how I see events in my life, how I am choosing to look at or frame my life events, and how I therefore move through each day, with the hope that those who read this might also find ways to see their own struggles in a different light.
       Simply put, I see the struggles and challenges in my life as blessings - as opportunities to grow and learn and become closer to God and to God's people.  I've said this before.  It isn't something new.  And as amazing as that may be, it continues to be the truth.  The challenges are blessings, blessings for which I am, most of the time, grateful.
       As I've also said before, that doesn't mean there aren't limits.  Last week I hit one of those days when I thought I was at my limit.  My son continues to struggle, which means that all of us struggle; the situation with the prison is difficult, to say the least; being alone, single, and on my own to raise three children, one with special needs, while working more than full time and taking care of the house and new kittens (who are sick) and a car that keeps breaking down, etc, etc, etc can be, at moments, overwhelming.  There was a moment on Friday when I really thought I had reached that limit, after another incident with my son, there was a moment when I thought God had simply entrusted me with too much and that the struggles of life had finally reached the point to which I could not continue to endure them.
       BUT, I did go on.  With the help of God and God's people, I went on.  And so, while for that moment I felt overwhelmed and at my limit, that moment passed.  It passed with prayer, friendship and support.  And the gifts that have come from it, are coming from it, continue to come from it are numerous.
      To name a few:
      First, and the biggest blessing - Jonah made a breakthrough after all of this and was finally able to tell his father, on the phone, how hurt and angry he is with him.  That is HUGE!!!!  It has been almost a year and a half since his daddy went away.  And Jonah has been afraid to express his anger to the one person to whom it really should be directed.  He expresses it to everyone else, instead, which, as we know is dangerous (and ended up with him first being in the hospital and then being suspended!!).  Sometimes we really do need to "hit bottom" to change.  Jonah hit that bottom, and was able to do something different, to take a new step, to move forward.  The rest of the weekend was so much better with compassionate, sweet, caring boy was back.  The angry boy only appeared for a few minutes here and there, and when he did, the anger passed quickly.  I am grateful, grateful beyond words that he was able to say, to name, that he was angry, and why and with whom.
       Second, I have heard from dear friends and family these last few days whom I have not talked to in years who reached out to offer support and care through this crisis.  Friends and family who to me represent and show God's love to me.  Of course, my daily and weekly companions also reached out.  To all of them, I am so deeply grateful.  I hear God's voice in their voices, I see God's face in their faces, I know God's presence through their presence.  And for that I am incredibly grateful.
       Third, I am learning.  I continue to learn.  And this, too, I don't take as a small blessing in any way.  One of my life lessons continues to be to not judge.  Whenever I do judge, I end up in the place of the person I judged.  This isn't a fun lesson.  But it is a real lesson that I have to learn again and again.  I admit, before I had kids I had some judgments on the parents of difficult kids.  I did not take the time to see that kids go through intolerable stressors and that kids with special needs are sometimes born with those special needs, or have events that happen to them (sometimes even in-utero) that effect them so greatly..  I did not offer the compassion to understand that there really are "invisible disabilities" (such as ADHD, sensory integration disorder, Asperger's, depression, etc.) that we cannot see but that limit and affect children as much as a visible difference does. It isn't easy to have a special needs child.  But I choose to be grateful for the lessons it has taught me, and to use them to become a better pastor, parent and person.
      I have also learned a great deal about the prison system that again, I won't share here (at this point), but that I feel has deepened my vision, understanding and compassion.  I know what it is to be privileged now in a way I did not and could not understand before.  I also know what it is to be in a place where one has no power at all, and has to make choices between evils rather than choices between good things.  And this, too, deepens my ministry and care for others.  
     I have learned about myself through my life events.  Some things I learned were hard to learn.  For example, I didn't like learning that I have blind spots - even about things that go on in my own home.  I didn't like learning that what I thought I knew about individual people and the world could be wrong.  But there are also good things.  I have learned that I am so much stronger than I ever thought I was.  That I can and do walk through these things and come out on the other side.  I let go of anger and pain so much more quickly now, I forgive so much more quickly now.  And I don't hold things in any more because there isn't room inside to do that.  I am learning to speak my truth directly and with love, to ask questions when I think I might have been slighted, rather than make assumptions.  Mostly, I am learning to see the good in the most difficult of situations.  I am learning to see God in the most difficult times and places and people.  And those are lessons one just can't learn without walking through the fires.
       I spent my weekend with people, connecting with people, praying, meditating, listening, journalling.  I spent my weekend connecting to God, self and others.  I am renewed to face, again, whatever challenges may come.  I can't say I look forward to them always, but I can say that I am grateful for the lessons I learn after they come.
       It's all how you frame it.  Am I living in a very painful, difficult time?  Or am I living in an exciting time of learning, growing, strengthening, and becoming more a person of love, compassion and hope?  I think it is mostly the latter.  I choose to see it as the latter.  I choose to look for God, to look for good, to look for love, and to celebrate that.