Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Sunday's Sermon - For My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation

Isaiah 61:10 - 62:3, Luke 2:22-40

Simeon was a normal person who, after a long life, was able to see salvation, salvation given, as we are told in Luke, to ALL people.  And that salvation, holding that baby in his arms, finding the peace of knowing that salvation has come to the world and for the world, he now feels he has finished his tasks here on earth, completed what he came to do, and he asks God to then let him go, “you may now dismiss your servant in peace.”
As we approach New Year’s eve, I often think about what tasks we have yet to do, what we have yet to accomplish here in this life time that will then allow us to go, when it is our time, in peace, work completed, job done, accomplished, finished, a whole life, bookended with a call and a response, created in love and allowed to move forward in peace.  New Years is often a time of reflection.  We reflect on our past year, but we can also use it as a time to reflect on the whole of our lives.  What have been your life lessons?  What has been your life calling?  It usually is not just one thing, but I think God does call each of us to certain tasks in our lives.  I also think there are specific tasks for each life - they are not always the same for every person.  They are not always obvious, not always clear, but we have a call, or multiple calls, a reason to be here.  Sometimes that reason is something that carries us through a long life, sometimes it is something that we have to learn over and over again.  And sometimes it appears to be learned or accomplished and finished early on.
Do you know what you are being called to do in your life?  To help you think through this, let me give you some examples.  I think I've had several life lessons, or things that I have found myself called to do and learn.  One of my life calls has been to be an adult.  While others are called to learn to surrender to God, to let go of their egos and allow God to be the driver, I find that every time I pray for God to tell me what to do, I hear God calling me in turn to take some risks and chances and make my own decisions, some of which will be good and others which won’t, which I will just have to learn from.  I hear God telling me to trust that God will be with me in those choices, but that God will not make them for me.  I’ve had other callings or life lessons as well.  Such as facing my judgments.  Every time I have judged someone, it comes back at me, and I find I have to deal with that, face that, in my own life.  For example, I used to judge women who didn’t know what their husbands were up to.  We hear stories in the news about men who have several wives in different towns and I always judged them – “how can you not know what your husband is up to?”  Yeah. Thanks, God.  I don’t judge that anymore.  What are your life lessons?  They usually are not things that come easily, but they are deep calls to us to be the best and most whole we can be, for God, for others and for ourselves.
As people reach the end of their lives, I am often asked the question, “Why am I still here?  Why haven’t I been able to die?  Has God forgotten me? I feel done here, so why hasn’t God taken me?” My answer is always the same.  “There is something still left here for you to do.  Our job then is, with your time left, to figure out what that is.”  Often a person is not able to completely name what that is, what is left undone, what needs still to be done.  But I have watched people at the end of their lives and I find it is often an amazing time of coming to terms with their lives, of reconciling relationships, of making peace with what has been and with what is.
As I reflected on this, I thought of Thornton Wilder’s book, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”.  The book begins with these words, “On Friday noon, July the 20th, 1714 the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”  This collapse began an intense search into the “why” of that strange tragedy.  In particular, a monk was convinced that if we were to look at the five lives of those who died, we would see that each life was at a place where something had been concluded, that each life was “done” in some profound way, that God’s hand was in the bigger picture of the collapse because their callings, their purposes, their “jobs” here on earth was concluded and so it was simply time for God to call them home.  It is a question that many ponder.  Does everything happen for a reason?  Or at least, do we die at an appointed time?  Is there a bigger pattern and bigger picture that determines the very hour and even minute at which we will die?  Or does God call us home when our jobs here are done?  When we have finished our “tests” or our tasks and done what we are called to do, learned what we have been asked to learn?  In many ways, the story doesn’t actually answer the question about providence, destiny and fate.  In describing these lives and where they were at their final moment of death, the story causes the readers to explore more fully their own beliefs.  But it does so while leaving more questions than answers.  Towards the beginning of the book, Wilder says this about whether or not their fates, their lives and their deaths are determined, “Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God. “
       But more to the point of this sermon, the book ends with these words, “But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten.  But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them.  Even memory is not necessary for love.  There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
       Under all of our calls, under all of our life lessons, there is a bigger call, a deeper call.  It is to listen and follow God.  It is to follow Love, since that is what God is.  It is to bridge and reconcile and heal all of life with that Love.  Thomas Merton put it this way, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone."
          Sometimes the distinction between loving God for our own happiness and loving God for God is a subtle difference. “God, help me to find what it is you are calling me to do,” is really a question about me.  It is a question that invokes God, but it still is about me.  “God, how can I serve you?  Where would it be most helpful to you for me to be and what would serve you and your people and your world the most for me to do in that place?” is slightly, but profoundly different.  That difference, between turning to God to make our lives whole, and turning to God so that we might serve God and help God make the world whole, that is the difference between asking God to be with us, following us in our journeys, and following God.
         Simeon has seen love incarnate.  He has seen it, recognized it, allowed it into his heart. He followed God in his call.  He had been given a task, and that task is seeing, recognizing and proclaiming who Jesus was.  Anna, too, had that task.  Their proclamations were about love, were about Jesus.  And having finished their work, they were ready to depart.  They found their calling.  They did it.  And as Simeon declared, he was then made ready to cross that bridge of love and to be dismissed in peace.
          How are you called to follow the way of Love?  How are you called to serve God with eyes of love rather than fear?  As we enter the New Year, my hope for us all would be to move more fully into a commitment to loving God and serving God with our whole beings.  It is the call, the meaning, the resolution that matters most.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Peace

Today is Christmas Eve.  And I find myself anticipating...well - busyness, chaos, lots of singing, acting, music, eating, presents, noise, family, friends, joyful sounds, excitement, driving and, again, busyness.  Our sanctuary is filled with poinsettias and Christmas banners and nativity scenes, candles and words.  We will have 2 vocal choirs, 3 small music groups, bells, a brass choir, organ and piano solos as well as traditional Christmas carolling.  We will have preservice music, then a service, then more preservice music, and another service.  Two pastors, two congregations, two organists, two music directors, lots of volunteers, Santa, Jesus, children, adults, readers, singers, etc, etc, etc all joining together in joyful, planned, full worship.  And it will be glorious and fun.  We will end it all with candles and quiet, only to be awaken from that by a rousing postlude of "joy to the world".  It's the happiest time of the year.


Under it all, I find myself anticipating something else.  I strive to sit in quiet each day for at least fifteen minutes during all of this busyness.  It doesn't always happen, but that is my goal.  To sit.  To listen. To breathe.  And as I do that I find that underneath the anxiety, the stress, the worry, the joy, the planning, the activities and the anticipation of more movement and business, that there is something more. Something that is waiting.  When I am still I find myself waiting, watching, praying, and hoping.  I find myself searching for, and anticipating forgiveness, reconciliation, healing... peace.

I can't make those things happen.  But I know that God can.  And I know that God chooses those things as well.  God, too, wants forgiveness, reconciliation, healing within each person, between individuals, between communities, around the world.  Our Prince of Peace wants those things for all of us.  Often we can be part of creating those things, often we are necessary to be part of creating those things. But sometimes the most we can do is choose to enter the world with peace in our hearts, and choose to be open and offering at all times of those things to all we encounter, and even to the spirits of those we never meet face to face.  We can welcome into our hearts forgiveness, reconciliation, healing... peace.  And pray to embody those things in the world.

Sometimes these qualities are things I only strive for and not characteristics or ways of being in the world that I easily embody.

But this Christmas Eve I wait, watch, search for and anticipate their coming.  I trust that God is bringing them.  And I will look with eyes open for ways to be part of that, in my own life and in the world.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Today's Sermon - God is Doing a New Thing

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Luke 1:26-55

We are all familiar with the saying that the only two things you can count on in life are death and taxes.  But I think the reality is that the only thing we can REALLY count on happening in our lives is change.  Change includes death.  (I don’t, however, know about taxes.)  Yet as much as that is true – that change is the only thing we can count on occurring in our lives, it is also the thing that is hardest for us humans to bear.  We fight change, even when the changes are good changes.  We don’t want to let go of what is familiar even when it isn’t comfortable.
But the bigger thing we have to remember is that God is in that change.  It is God who is constantly doing a new thing.  In today’s passages, God brings life to an aging Elizabeth.  God brings Jesus to the young, unwed mother, Mary.  Mary proclaims God is raising up the valleys, bringing low the mountains, raising up the oppressed, bringing down the rich and powerful.  God is doing new things, big things, unexpected things, in these scriptures, but also all the time.  Change is hard.  Any kind of change is hard.  I think about the changes Elizabeth and Mary faced, though, and they seem huge.  Elizabeth caring for a new baby as an older mom.  Of course she wanted the baby, but that did not mean it would be easy.  I think about Mary, and the fears she had that Joseph might abandon her.  Poor, young mother, caring for this new baby.  And again, even though she welcomed the amazing gift of being Jesus’ mother, it doesn’t mean that change was easy.  I saw this wonderful quote a few weeks ago…

The thing we can count on is that God is with us through all the changes.  We are God’s beloved children and that means that the new things God is doing are for our good, for our wholeness, for us to be the most loving and God-filled people we can be.
Bob sent me the following story last week and I thought it was really appropriate for this morning.
>A seminary professor was vacationing with his wife in Gatlinburg, Tennessee . One morning, they were eating breakfast at a little restaurant, hoping to enjoy a quiet, family meal. While they were waiting for their food, they noticed a distinguished looking, white-haired man moving from table to table, visiting with the guests. The professor leaned over and whispered to his wife, “I hope he doesn't come over here.” But sure enough, the man did come over to their table. “Where are you folks from?” he asked in a friendly voice. “Oklahoma ,” they answered.  “Great to have you here in Tennessee ,” the stranger said... “What do you do for a living?” “I teach at a seminary,” he replied.
“Oh, so you teach preachers how to preach, do you? Well, I've got a really great story for you. ” And with that, the gentleman pulled up a chair and sat down at the table with the couple.  The professor groaned and thought to himself, “Great.. Just what we need.... Another preacher story!”
The man started, “See that mountain over there?" he said, pointing out the restaurant window. Not far from the base of that mountain, there was a boy born to an unwed mother. He had a hard time growing up, because every place he went, he was always asked the same question, 'Hey boy, who's your daddy?' Whether he was at school, in the grocery store or drug store, people would ask the same question, 'Who's your daddy?' He would hide at recess and lunch time from other students. He would avoid going in to stores because that question hurt him so badly. When he was about 12 years old, a new preacher came to his church. He would always go in late and slip out early to avoid hearing the question, 'Who's your daddy?'  But one day, the new preacher said the benediction so fast that he got caught and had to walk out with the crowd.  Just about the time he got to the back door, the new preacher, not knowing anything about him, put his hand on his shoulder and asked him, 'Son, who's your daddy?' The whole church got deathly quiet. He could feel every eye in the church was looking at him. Now everyone would finally know the answer to the question, 'Who's your daddy?'  This new preacher, though, sensed the situation around him and using discernment that only the Holy Spirit could give, said the following to that scared little boy. 'Wait a minute! I know who you are! I see the family resemblance now. You are a child of God.' With that he patted the boy on his shoulder and said, 'Boy, you've got a great inheritance. Go and claim it.'  The boy smiled for the first time in a long time and walked out the door a changed person. He was never the same again. Whenever anybody asked him, 'Who's your Daddy?' he'd just tell them, 'I'm a Child of God.'''  The distinguished gentleman got up from the table and said, “Isn't that a great story?” The professor responded that it really was a great story! As the man turned to leave, he said, “You know, if that new preacher hadn't told me that I was one of God's children, I probably never would have amounted to anything!” And he walked away. The seminary professor and his wife were stunned. He called the waitress over and asked her, "Do you know who that man was who just left that was sitting at our table?” The waitress grinned and said, “Of course. Everybody here knows him. That's Ben Hooper. He's governor of Tennessee!”
I don’t know if that story actually happened, but I know it is true, none the less.  We are God’s children and that is an amazing inheritance to claim, something that can change our lives if we allow it.  It doesn’t mean things will always be easy.  But it does mean that through the changes, through the new things that come our way constantly, that God is there, will be there, continues to be there.  God brings amazing wondrous things.  And as we approach Christmas, we remember the most wondrous new thing of them all – God coming to be with us as one of us.  That is a new thing worth celebrating this day and every day.  Amen.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Choosing to Give the Benefit of the Doubt

I was watching an old "Joan of Arcadia" episode the other day in which Joan was spying on her boyfriend and best friend and caught them "hugging".  She assumed, then, that they were having an affair, though the reality was that they had been talking about Joan and how much she meant to each of them.  Judith, her best friend said, "the thing about Joan is that even when you are pushing her away, she sticks with you.  Most people don't do that.  That makes her worth keeping."  But Joan didn't hear what Judith had been saying and she attacked her, physically, assuming she was trying to "steal" her boyfriend.

I've been thinking about this at two different levels.  First of all, I realized that I have been blessed with an absolutely amazing group of friends, people who "stick with you", no matter what.  I think Judith was right.  Most people don't do that.  When you are no longer serving them, when you've messed up, or for whatever reason, people move on, often, and quickly.  Again, I have an amazing group of friends who are still there, some for 30 or more years, and for that I am deeply, deeply grateful.  So, to all of you, my amazing friends, I want to say thank you.  Thank you for being steadfast and loving the imperfect being that is me, through thick and thin, for all these many, many years.

But the second reason this has been stuck in my head was Joan's assumptions about what she saw. Why do we see things the way we do?  What causes us to make assumptions one way or another about situations?  I think it can be very easy to assume that people are acting against us, talking bad about us, pulling away from us, acting maliciously, striking out.  I was at a gas station the other day and I saw a woman move away from her car and start yelling at a man in another car.  The man just looked bewildered.  Apparently, he had not seen a bag of groceries she had put in the road and he had almost hit it.  ALMOST.  He didn't see it.  It was on the ground where she'd put it down while trying to juggle another bag and a small child.  No one was at fault and nothing was actually damaged.  She could have focused on how lucky it was that the bag didn't get hit.  She could have focused on the not-so-great choice she made to put a bag down in the middle of the road.  But instead she chose anger.  She made assumptions about his behavior that led her to become attacking and even abusive towards this stranger.

Sometimes when someone doesn't respond to us it is because they are busy or overwhelmed or sick. But it can be easy to assume they are mad at us or pushing us away.  Sometimes when someone snaps at us it is because they've had a horrible day and are just at their wits end.  But it can be easy to assume they are a nasty person or mean or, again, pushing us away.  Sometimes when accidents happen, they are just accidents that happen.  But it can be easy to accuse a person of being stupid or malicious or worse.

I know a few amazingly peaceful people.  And it seems to me that part of that peaceful attitude is that they make positive assumptions about what is happening around them.  They don't tend to take things personally, or assume the worst about a situation.  They choose to assume the snappy person is having a bad day, that the stranger who almost hit their bag just truly was at such an angle in the car that they couldn't see it, that the person who hasn't responded to them is just overwhelmed.  If Joan had been in that mental position, she might have asked what was going on, or assumed the hug was just exactly what it was - a supportive hug.  Maybe that's optimistically naive.  But I've watched these peaceful people respond with those positive assumptions, and the result is amazing.  When they can respond with compassion to someone else's snappy-ness, when they can simply give space to another person who is failing to respond, not only does the person responding remain happier and calmer, but the one acting out usually calms down as well.  Even if the assumption is wrong, even if the other person really had malicious intent or was pushing or pulling away, choosing to respond with a positive assumption seems to either push the other to be honest and direct, or can help to simply dissipate a problem.

We can choose to not assume the worst.  Or at the very least, we can ask about our assumptions.  "Are you upset with me or is something else going on?"  But when we assume the worst, we set everyone up.  In the Joan of Arcadia episode Joan's assumptions almost cost her both her best friend and her boyfriend.  The lady in the gas station nearly missed an opportunity to connect positively with another person and potentially gave them both a bad morning.  Fortunately, the man she was yelling at appeared to be one of those peaceful people I'm talking about.  He got out of the car, talked quietly and with a slight smile.  He looked the bag over carefully to make sure it hadn't been hit, gently handed it to the woman with an apology and a kind smile.  He asked how old her child was and said that she seemed to be such a pretty little girl.  The yelling woman was taken aback.  And while at first she continued to rant and rave, she started stumbling over her words and finally started to cry.  The peaceful man reached out a hand, gently squeezed her shoulder, asked if there was anything he could do, and they ended up standing in the gas station while the woman cried and talked about all the stress she was experiencing over the holiday season.  The man's peaceful demeanor changed the conversation for both of them.  It was a gift to me to witness as well.

My prayer is that we might choose more often to give the benefit of the doubt.  And just see where that might lead us...

Monday, December 8, 2014

Sunday's Sermon - Advent II - Comfort, Comfort

Isaiah 40:1-8
Mark 1:1-8

     The poet, Clementine von Radics said this, “You silly little girl, you think you’ve survived so long that survival shouldn’t hurt anymore.  You keep trying to turn your body bullet proof.  You keep trying to turn your heart bomb shelter.  You silly thing.  You are soft and alive.  You bruise and heal.  Cherish it.  It is what you are born to do.”
Living is hard.  And so, it is no wonder that we have Isaiah’s words for us today…  “Comfort, O comfort my people.”  We are all looking for that comfort, for that reassurance in hard times.  We are all looking for a sense of peace in the face of adversity.  We are all looking for salvation from whatever we are struggling with.  I saw a post the other day, “If Comedy is tragedy plus time, I need more time.  But I would really settle for less tragedy to be honest with you.”
But even as we yearn, we want, we ask for comfort, Advent is also the time of waiting.  That comfort doesn’t come right away, we aren’t healed instantly, the resurrection comes in steps, over time, sometimes so slowly we don’t even see it.
The journal, “spirituality and practice” lists several things we can do during advent to signal our willingness to wait, our commitment to waiting during this Advent time.  These are:  Let God sit in the director's chair.  Give up your fantasy timetables and go with the flow. Do not try to push the river; all will happen in God's time.  Let go of any negative images you carry around about waiting. Have faith that all good things come to those who wait patiently.  Grow through periods of waiting that entail darkness and dread.  Work to reduce your anger and frustration about waiting.  Always be a person animated by hope.  Take time during periods of waiting to count the many gifts and good things in your lives.
These are great suggestions and yet, I admit from a personal perspective that I don’t wait well.  I get really impatient and easily frustrated.  Yesterday was a perfect example of this.  I’ve had my computer for over a year now, which is in itself an amazing thing since I seem to zap computers as well as other electronic devices, as many of you know.  But it has been a long time and so now my computer appears to be in full-collapse mode.  It runs extremely slowly, and it freezes up on a regular basis.  I’ve taken it to Geek Squad several times.  They “fix” it and usually it comes back with more problems than when it left.  Again, this is typical for me.  My electro-aura simply zaps anything and everything electronic, and since I use my computer a lot, it tends to develop problems quickly.  Being in a close relationship with an IT guy who specializes in these sorts of things is not actually helping either.  The computer works for him.  Just not for me.  Yesterday my computer developed a new issue.  I was working on my sermon and wanted to use some internet resources that I had bookmarked and set aside for this Sunday.  But as I tried to pull up those pages that I had bookmarked, they failed to load.  I sat and watched as my lap-top connected to the internet, disconnected from the internet, connected and disconnected itself in rapid succession.  I ran the “trouble-shooter”, which told me the problem was not with my computer but with the router.  But since we currently have a plethora of computers, smart phones and other devices that connect themselves to the internet and none of these were having issues, I knew that no, despite the computer’s desire to blame something else, the problem was once again with my lap-top.  I became extremely frustrated, impatient, did not want to wait until things could be fixed or redone or set up in a new way.  I did not want to borrow someone else’s computer since my sermon was partly written on my own already, I did not want to deal with the waiting.  I wanted things fixed NOW.
But, as with every challenge, when we have eyes to see, we can choose to look at everything that happens as blessings from God.  This, too, in this moment was a blessing because it did call me to sit still, to wait, and to think about the lessons in that waiting, for me, in that moment.  The article from Spirituality and Practice that talked about the commitments we can make to waiting during Advent also talked about the spiritual gifts that come from the practice of waiting.  These include developing patience, giving up of control and accepting what IS, learning to live in the present, compassion, gratitude, humility, and most of all, trust in God.
Our culture has become more and more an “instant gratification” culture.  There is very little opportunity for us to learn patience, to learn to give up control over our surroundings and the things that happen to us, to learn to be wholly present in the present, despite whatever we have or don’t have in each moment.  There is very little opportunity, as we depend on our things, and on our toys and on the internet and our instant access to information, communication, resources, etc to learn to trust God for what the next moments might hold for us.  With all of that, is it any surprise that people are not as interested in faith issues?  For those who have not experienced needing to rely solely on their trust of God, and finding that that trust really is enough to carry us through, that God really is with us, why would we trust God?  If we haven’t experienced it, why would we do it?
Waiting is hard.  But God gives us this gift, and we have the chance to grow from it.  John the Baptist came paving the way for Jesus, inviting the wait before Jesus’ began his ministry.  Isaiah proclaimed the coming of justice, of comfort, of release from oppression.  But none of these things were instantaneous.  They were coming.  These passages were and are calls to live into hope while we wait.  To trust in God, while we wait.  To let go of control, while we wait.  To learn patience while we wait.
I think we will find that there are gifts even beyond those listed above in our waiting.  I found this quote as well…

There is something deliciously wonderful in the anticipation of the good that is about to come.  There is something amazingly wonderful in the moments before you open that first Christmas present, in the moments before you see a new baby for the first time, in the moments before that visitor you’ve waited for has come.  There is something incredibly life-giving in the hope and anticipation of Advent.  Experience it, live it, enjoy it.  For it is a gift from God.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Sunday's Sermon - Keep Awake. #1 Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9
Mark 13:24-37

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. ..Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn.  If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.  What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and we are told, once again, to keep alert, to keep watch.  We need to be faithful, to not wait by sitting and doing nothing, but to actively prepare for the coming one by doing those things that create in us a space, first to see Jesus when he comes, second, to be ready to receive him in the most unlikely of places, and third to be ready for our lives to be changed quickly and completely by his presence.
Again, this does not mean failing to be active.  It does not mean sitting and waiting.  “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.”  It means watching from a place of being ready, of living fully, of being ready for the coming of Christ.
We just don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  I am reminded of the passage from Mitch Albom’s book, “for one more day” in which his characters have this dialogue,
“Life goes quickly, doesn’t it Charley?”
“Yeah” I mumbled.
“It’s such a shame to waste time.  We always think we have so much of it.”  I thought about the days I had handed over to a bottle.  The nights I couldn’t remember.  The mornings I slept through.  All that time spent running from myself.
We may struggle with different things, different issues, different situations.  But we all struggle with something.  If we knew that our life would end tomorrow, what would we do differently?  More to the point, if we knew that Jesus was coming tomorrow, what would we do differently?  If we knew that our world was about to turn on its head, that the prince of peace, our wonderful counselor, the alpha and omega, the God of love were coming tomorrow, what would we do differently?
During Advent we prepare by remembering that God came to us as a baby, helpless, little, innocent, new, and to an unexpected mother in an unexpected time and place.  We remember that those with eyes to see did see and were blessed in the seeing.  We remember that others were threatened, but mostly people just didn’t know, couldn’t comprehend that God would choose to come to us in this unusual way.  We prepare, we wait and watch, by remembering all of this.
But the thing is, God does come anew each day if we have eyes to see God.  Part of being ready to see God is being prepared to see God, is being open to seeing God.  Where is God moving today in your life?  Where is God showing up today in your life?  During Advent we are reminded to pray, to ask, to be able to see God’s presence, care, love, amazing grace when it comes each day.  And sometimes we do see it.   And what about when we can’t?
Father John Powell, a professor at Loyola University in Chicago, wrote this about a student in his Theology of Faith class named Tommy:
Some twelve years ago, I stood watching my university students file into the classroom for our first session in the Theology of Faith. That was the day I first saw Tommy. He was combing his long flaxen hair, which hung six inches below his shoulders.
It was the first time I had ever seen a boy with hair that long.
I guess it was just coming into fashion then. I know in my mind that it isn't what's on your head but what's in it that counts; but on that day. I was unprepared and my emotions flipped.
I immediately filed Tommy under "S" for strange... Very strange.
Tommy turned out to be the "atheist in residence" in my Theology of Faith course.
He constantly objected to, smirked at, or whined about the possibility of an unconditionally loving Parent God. We lived with each other in relative peace for one semester, although I admit he was for me at times a serious pain in the back pew.
When he came up at the end of the course to turn in his final exam, he asked in a cynical tone, "Do you think I'll ever find God?"
I decided instantly on a little shock therapy. "No!" I said very emphatically.
"Why not," he responded, "I thought that was the product you were pushing."
I let him get five steps from the classroom door and then I called out, "Tommy! I don't think you'll ever find (God), but I am absolutely certain that (God) will find you!" He shrugged a little and left my class and my life.
I felt slightly disappointed at the thought that he had missed my clever line – (God) will find you! At least I thought it was clever.
Later I heard that Tommy had graduated…Then a sad report came. I heard that Tommy had terminal cancer.  Before I could search him out, he came to see me.
When he walked into my office, his body was very badly wasted and the long hair had all fallen out as a result of chemotherapy. But his eyes were bright and his voice was firm, for the first time, I believe.
"Tommy, I've thought about you so often; I hear you are sick," I blurted out.
"Oh, yes, very sick. I have cancer in both lungs. It's a matter of weeks."
"Can you talk about it, Tom?" I asked.
"Sure, what would you like to know?" he replied.
"What's it like to be only twenty-four and dying?
"Well, it could be worse.
"Like what?”
"Well, like being fifty and having no values or ideals, like being fifty and thinking that booze, seducing women, and making money are the real biggies in life.”
I began to look through my mental file cabinet under "S" where I had filed Tommy as strange. (It seems as though everybody I try to reject by classification, God sends back into my life to educate me.)
"But what I really came to see you about," Tom said, "is something you said to me on the last day of class." (He remembered!) He continued, "I asked you if you thought I would ever find God and you said, 'No!' which surprised me. Then you said, 'But (God) will find you.’ I thought about that a lot, even though my search for God was hardly intense at that time… "But when the doctors removed a lump… and told me that it was malignant, that's when I got serious about locating God. And when the malignancy spread into my vital organs, I really began banging bloody fists against the bronze doors of heaven. But God did not come out. In fact, nothing happened. Did you ever try anything for a long time with great effort and with no success?
You get psychologically glutted, fed up with trying. And then you quit.
"Well, one day I woke up, and instead of throwing a few more futile appeals over that high brick wall to a God who may be or may not be there, I just quit. I decided that I didn't really care about God, about an afterlife, or anything like that. I decided to spend what time I had left doing something more profitable. I thought about you and your class and I remembered something else you had said:
'The essential sadness is to go through life without loving..’
But it would be almost equally sad to go through life and leave this world without ever telling those you loved that you had loved them.
"So, I began with the hardest one, my Dad. He was reading the newspaper when I approached him.
"Yes, what?" he asked without lowering the newspaper.
"Dad, I would like to talk with you."
"Well, talk.”
"I mean. It's really important."
The newspaper came down three slow inches. "What is it?"
"Dad, I love you, I just wanted you to know that." …
"The newspaper fluttered to the floor. Then my father did two things I could never remember him ever doing before. He cried and he hugged me. We talked all night, even though he had to go to work the next morning."
“It felt so good to be close to my father, to see his tears, to feel his hug, to hear him say that he loved me."
"It was easier with my mother and little brother. They cried with me, too, and we hugged each other, and started saying real nice things to each other. We shared the things we had been keeping secret for so many years."
"I was only sorry about one thing --- that I had waited so long."
"Here I was, just beginning to open up to all the people I had actually been close to..
"Then, one day I turned around and God was there.
"(God) didn't come to me when I pleaded with (God). I guess I was like an animal trainer holding out a hoop, 'C'mon, jump through. C'mon, I'll give you three days, three weeks."
Apparently God does things in (God’s) own way and at (God’s) own hour.
"But the important thing is that God was there. God found me! You were right. God found me even after I stopped looking..."

That’s the grace of Advent.  God comes even when we aren’t looking.  God shows up even when we don’t feel anything is different or anything has changed.  We are called especially during advent to prepare for that coming.  To wait, to watch, to look.  My prayer then for us all is that we have the eyes to see when God comes, each and every time.  Amen.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Sunday's Sermon - Christ the King

Ezek. 34:11-16, 20-24
Matthew 25:31-46

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the day we honor that Christ is our king, not the earthly kings that we are used to.  We know from the book of Samuel that the Israelites had asked for a human king repeatedly, against God’s wishes and against God’s will.  They had begged God for a king when God kept telling them the only king they needed was God.  And finally God gave into their demands but God did so with a warning, (from 1 Samuel 8:4-20):  “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.  Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants.  He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants.  Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, …”
     They didn’t want God for a King.  And yet today we celebrate that God, that Christ is and will be our king.  Still, I wonder what we actually mean by that when we say it?  What do we envision when we think of Christ returning as king?  Do we continue to envision the kind of king we think of when we think of earthly kings?  I believe many Christians do, at some level at least.
     When the Israelites were asking for a king, they were asking for something very specific.  From the same Samuel passage I quoted above, this is what they asked for, ““We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” In other words, when they asked for a king, they were mostly looking for someone to defend them against others.  When you think of kings, or government of any kind, what do you think of?
When you think of Jesus, what do you think of?
       No matter how much we may think that when it comes to Jesus we have let go of the images of “king” that we have based on our human leaders, there is evidence all around us that most people, even when they think of God as king, have in fact not let go of those images.  Starting in Jesus’ time, he was killed because the Jewish people were disappointed at the kind of kingship he brought – he disappointed them by not overthrowing the Roman Empire.  And at the same time he was a threat to the Roman leaders who were afraid that he still might have the agenda of overthrowing them.  Everyone recognized his kingship, but they could not grasp, could not begin to grasp, that it was completely different from what they thought a king was like or what they thought a king would do. Our hymns on this day hail Jesus.  But I wonder if that is what Jesus would be wanting us to do this day?  Is Jesus asking us to sing his praises?  Or is he asking us to feed his hungry people?  Is Jesus asking us to argue theology with each other?  Or is Jesus asking us to welcome the stranger, all strangers, any stranger?  Is Jesus asking us to sue those who would take from us, an “eye for an eye” or does he challenge that with the words, “You have heard it said an eye for an eye, but I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well.  When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too.  When they force you to go one mile, go with them two.  Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.”
     Instead of the earthly king who sits on a thrown and protects against enemies, we are given very different images of what and who Christ the King is through scripture.  “I will seek out my flock.  I will rescue them when they have scattered.  I will feed them.  I will bind up the wounded and strengthen the week.”  But then also, “the fat and strong I will destroy.”  Notice it isn’t “the enemies” whom he will destroy.  It isn’t “those other people”.  Instead, it is those who are doing well while others are hungry and lost and week and wounded.  Which are we?  Are we really sure we are prepared for this kind of king?
     This king expects different things from us than our earthly king expects.   Earthly government may take a percentage of our resources.  And earthly government does require, at some level, our allegiance.  But God the king expects us to share ALL of our money and resources.  ALL of it.  And God wants our allegiance in a complete way.  God the king expects different things from us than we are may be comfortable giving.  In today’s passage from Matthew, Jesus is not saying, “Worship me on Sunday mornings and then you will get into heaven.”  That’s not what he is asking us to do.  As a matter of fact, scriptures are pretty pointed about this not being the solution.  As Amos tells us, in Amos 5:21-24: I hate, I reject your festivals; I despise your joyous assemblies. If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals. Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  No, instead Jesus tells us what we are expected to do…  Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit those in prison.  Those are what we are called to do.       That's not to say that we are called to become the poor or needy - to become homeless ourselves or destitute.  But we are called to help, in any way we can, to make sure that others aren’t suffering either.
      Jesus is not the kind of king, as he states in today’s passage, who has guards who will fight for him and prevent him from being killed.  Instead Jesus is the kind of king who allows his subjects to kill him and who dies begging for his killers’ forgiveness.  He is the kind of king who then comes back from death to reassure and save the very people who killed him.  He is not the kind of king, as we hear repeatedly, who caters to the wealthy and powerful, but instead is the kind of king who reaches out to the marginalized and powerless, who condemns the wealthy and powerful.  He is not the kind of king who luxuriates in riches and in being served by others, but instead is the kind of king who serves others continually.  He is the kind of king who IS king simply because he IS.  And he is the kind of king who asks us to follow and do as he did, feeding, caring, loving, one another.  Amen.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Thoughts on Art and Artists

I saw a quote on facebook today: "When you buy something from an artist you're buying more than an object. You're buying hundreds of hours of error and experimentation.  You're buying years of frustration and moments of pure joy. You're not buying just one thing, you are buying a piece of a heart, a piece of a soul...a small piece of someone else's life."

This is a beautiful sentiment and I believe there is truth in it.  All of us who engage in any kind of art work hard to put ourselves into that art. When it is not honored, it feels like it is we, ourselves, who are not being honored. When it is not treated with reverence or value, it feels like we, ourselves, are being discarded, not valued. We fail to be seen in those moments and the hurt of that can be deep and lasting.

So, yes, I agree with the quote above.

And yet, I also believe that this thinking can be abused.  For example, Taylor Swift made a comment this last week that she is taking her music off of Spotify because artists should be paid for their work. Her millions aren't enough for her? And if so, why is that? Because a person's "art" makes them somehow a better human being and therefore more deserving of an indecent amount of luxury and wealth while others are starving in the world and unable to access art at all? I agree that true art lets us into a person's soul - whether that be visual arts, music, poetry, stories, sermons or other. It must be respected and honored. I also think it should be shared, and accessible to ALL people, but not because of the greed or personal self-interest of the artist. True art reflects not only the one who created it, but the Creator behind it all. It is a gift to all of humanity to witness, experience and have access to real and deep art. Should artists be able to earn enough to live on with their art? Of course. We all should be able to earn enough to live on with whatever talents (or even lack of talents) we use in our work.  But art is a gift given to us. Our talents and the opportunities we are given to share them, to use them, to make a living from them are not things we have somehow earned because we are better humans and therefore more deserving of wealth than the rest of the world. God loves us all the same.  God values us all the same. And those gifts of talent, art, ability - those are given to us by God for the service of God and God's people. They are not given to us so that we can declare ourselves innately better or more deserving than others.  They are not given to us so we can hoard the world's resources and leave others to suffer. They are not given to us to use selfishly for our own gain.

Most of our best artists never received the accolades or support of their art during their life times and that is a tragedy. Too many genius artists die poor and unrecognized. That is tragic because the gifts they gave have long lasting benefits for those who eventually have gotten to witness their arts. But I also wonder if that suffering didn't deepen their art at times. I'm not saying that is a justification or even a good thing. Tragedy is not a good thing. But it does deepen all of us. And while I would not wish awful things to happen to anyone, I find myself grateful for the events in my life that have deepened my soul, though they were hard to live through at the time. As a result, when I read about Taylor Swift's comment, I found myself feeling a sadness and compassion for any of those "artists" who never have the opportunities to deepen because their biggest challenge is whether they will earn only a million, as opposed to 20 or 100 or more, in profits this year. Will they ever have the chance to see themselves as children who are loved no more and no less than the homeless man they pass on the street? Will they ever have the opportunity to see that the money they make could change the world if used in the right way? Will they ever be given the experience of feeling genuine compassion for someone radically different from themselves? To look in the eyes of someone they normally wouldn't see at all and to see in that other person a brother, a sister, a person on the journey as they are?  Will they ever find that the art of those who remain undiscovered is sometimes just as amazing and incredible as their own?

Our artistic talents are gifts given to us out of grace for no other reason than because we are loved. What we do with them, how we share them, whom we allow access to that art and how we honor all of those others with their arts as well - that is a gift that we can give back.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Other People's Stories

For a few months now I've been attending our local "Warrior's Journey Home" group.  It is a group for vets who have served in any of our wars, and for those people who care about their experiences and want to be there to support them.  The vets who come do so in order to talk through their experiences, not with a professional, but just to be able to speak what they went through, what they continue to go through, as a result of their time serving, in the presence of people who will listen, care, and intentionally love and support them without judgment.  It is an awe-inspiring experience to be honored with their stories, with their trust, with their feelings about what they experienced and continue to experience as a result of their time spent in military service.  Everyone in the circle can share, can speak, without others offering advice or trying to "fix" them or argue or even discuss what has been said.  The rest of us are there to listen, and we take on that role with an awareness of the amazing gift it is to us to be included in their sharing.  Often even the people who have not served in a war share.  They share the experiences they've had with other vets.  Or they share how they have been impacted by the stories they are hearing.  Or they share something they have read or learned about what it is to serve in a war.  Their stories, experiences, thoughts, are also gifts to the rest of us who are present to listen.

But I realized last night as I listened that I have never once shared or spoken in this circle, except during the initial check in and the ending check out where we simply look one another in the eye and promise to be present in that place.

The people who know me know that it is not because I have nothing to say.  It is hard to get me to shut up in other situations.  I have opinions, and thoughts, and feelings about almost everything.  But as I sat there last night, I realized that I don't speak in that group because I am truly, deeply awed by what the people in that room have been through, what they have suffered, what many of them continue to suffer (because of PTSD, war injuries, etc.).  I say nothing because I am aware, during that time, in that space, that the traumas and tragedies I have experienced in my life time are so small and insignificant in comparison to what these vets have gone through.  I have not gone through what they have, so what is there for me to possibly say in that space?  I can only listen, and care, and support them by listening as they process through their histories.

Today I went to visit one of my parishioners who is very ill.  She was lying in her bed, as she is transitioning towards death, and she made the comment that she can not imagine going through everything that I have experienced.  She said that she feels she has nothing to say when she looks back at her life and compares it to what I have been through.  She named some of her own tragedies - divorce, loss of a second, beloved husband to death, the physical pain she sometimes now experiences as cancer takes over her body. But she felt that these experiences were small and insignificant when compared with the challenges I have faced.

As I listened to her I found myself wanting to argue with her.  "No!  Your experiences are every bit as significant!  They are your life - your journey, your lessons, your blessings, your gifts, your challenges, your opportunities to grow and learn and move and respond to what life has given you. Your experiences are different, but they are not less meaningful or less important.  We cannot compare suffering (or joy!) in this way, or somehow discount the things we have gone through as trivial simply because they are different and have impacted us differently."

And then as I found myself speaking these words, I remembered last night.  Ah.

Whatever the stories of other people, I am deeply blessed to hear them.  Whatever the struggles and traumas, or amazing wonderful experiences others have gone through or are going through, I see it as an awesome honor to listen, to be brought in on their journeys, to be trusted with those stories and to be welcomed into their thoughts and feelings.

But their stories really are about them.  They aren't about me.  They aren't invitations for me to compare my life and find it wanting or shallow - either in joys or in struggles.  They aren't judgments or condemnations that say my life has lacked courage or strength.  And when I find myself focusing on my own life in comparison, I am failing to listen and be fully present with them in that moment.

So for today, I accept my life for what it is.  And I continue to be grateful for what others choose to share with me.  I will endeavor to listen better, to be present more fully.  For that is my call in those moments.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Earning our Due

Exodus 16:2-15
Jonah 3:10-4:11
Matthew 20:1-16

            As a people we have a really hard time with grace.  Or rather, we have a really hard time accepting that God is gracious to those we feel do not deserve it.  At the same time, we do want that grace for ourselves. 
            I think about when I was a 19 year old working as a volunteer in mission in rural Alabama for a summer.  One night I was driving home very late to the house where I was staying. I was driving on abandoned, empty, quiet, dark rural roads.  Apparently though I ran a stop sign.  Suddenly out of no-where there were sirens and I was pulled over by a Sherriff.  He explained to me that I’d run a stop sign.  I told him, honestly, that I didn’t see the stop sign and wasn’t aware that I’d run it.  He still would have been absolutely within his rights to give me a ticket, but instead he offered me grace.  He let me off with a warning and sent me on my way.  That was the first time I had ever been pulled over, and I was deeply grateful that he had not given me a ticket.  It was grace, pure and simple.  I had not deserved that response, but he chose to give it anyway. 
            Still, despite the grace that was offered me that day, there are times when I see a car speeding down the highway, weaving in and out of traffic, often blaring music without regard for others, that I find myself wanting them to be pulled over and given a ticket.  I did not get a ticket I deserved, but it is still hard for me sometimes to want that same grace for those around me.  I find I can make assumptions about who they are, what their motives are.  I fail to see with God’s eyes, eyes of compassion and understanding and insight in those moments.  I want justice, and I forget about grace.
            The grace of God is so evident in all three of the scripture readings for today, as well as the human response to that grace.  In the passage from Exodus, we continue the story of the Israelites flight from Egypt.  They’ve been rescued by God from slavery, but now they are struggling against the difficulties of the wilderness.  They don’t think it’s fair.  They’ve been in the pain of slavery and now they are in the pain of being in the wilderness.  We might see it differently.  They’ve been led out of slavery and they are STILL complaining.  But God doesn’t have the same sense of justice as we might.  God listens to their complaints, listens to their whining and gives them what they ask for, providing for them again and again.  It is grace, pure and simple.  They haven’t earned that kind of care.  They haven’t deserved to have their every prayer and complaint answered.  But God provides it none the less.  Out of grace and out of love, God provides.
            Then we come to the story of Jonah, and I think Jonah’s reaction is so very, very human.  Jonah has been sent to warn his arch-enemies of God’s coming wrath.  Jonah doesn’t want to do it and we can understand why.  Nineveh was the capital of Israel's greatest enemy, Assyria. Nineveh's deliverance in Jonah's lifetime meant that Assyria would go on and destroy the northern kingdom and put all of Israel firmly under the thumb of Assyria as its vassal. God sending Jonah to Nineveh would almost be like sending a Jewish person into a Nazi camp with the message that God was going to punish them unless they changed.  It would have been terrifying, it would have put his life at risk, and for what purpose?  But he went.  God offered Jonah grace by seeking after him even when Jonah had said “no”.  God offered Jonah grace by rescuing Jonah from the storm in the belly of a fish.  God offered Jonah grace by providing a plant to give him shade.  God offered Jonah grace again and again and again.  But when, out of gratitude for that grace, Jonah does eventually do what God has asked and goes and confronts the people of Nineveh, they actually do listen and then God offers THEM grace.  And Jonah’s response?  To become angry, hurt, surly, defiant.  Jonah willingly accepted the grace that came to himself.  After all, God is a good God, a loving God, a God of the Israelites and Jonah is working FOR this God.  So of course God would not punish Jonah for his rejection of God’s call, of course God would not exact justice on Jonah for running away.  God would offer grace.  Of course.  But to the Ninevites?  That’s a whole other animal.  And Jonah becomes enraged.
            Finally, we come to the gospel lesson.  And we have workers on both sides who may have felt the situation was unfair.  We have those who have worked hard in the sun all day long.  And we have those who have waited and waited to be hired but weren’t hired until the end of the day.  Both sets of workers need to feed their families.  And in the end, God’s grace, the grace of the master in the parable, is extended to all of them.  All of them are given the wage that will feed them and their families for that day.  But inevitably someone was unhappy.  And declared in loud and strong voices that life just isn’t fair. 
            The truth is from a personal perspective, nothing is EVER fair.  When we fail to understand or have compassion or care for others, when we can only see from our own needs, our own experiences, then nothing is ever fair.  We don’t get what we think we deserve.  Others seem to get more than we think they deserve. 
As some of you know, when we lived in CA, Jasmyn attended a very elite private school in Oakland.   This was an amazing school academically that had a strong vision for social service and for caring for those in the community, and made it part of their curriculum for the kids to be involved in service to the less fortunate.  I loved that about her school. They valued giving opportunities to kids of all kinds, so Jasmyn was on full scholarship to attend this school, and I felt incredibly grateful that she had that opportunity.  At the same time, personally, I struggled on a daily basis with the decision to send Jasmyn to this school, because Jasmyn was surrounded at this school by others who had so much more than she had.  And instead of her realizing that we are incredibly wealthy when we look at the big picture, the world, and that we therefore have a huge responsibility to care for the world and to share our resources with those who have less, instead, she would come home with things like, “Sophia has her own little house in the back yard.  Why don’t I have my own house in our backyard?  Amanda has a hot tub and a swimming pool and a play room in her house.  Why don’t we have those things?  Julia lives in a five story castle.  Why don’t we live in a five story castle?”   She was walking away from her friends and playmates not with a sense of gratitude for the abundance that she had in her life, but with a sense of life not being fair, not treating her fair, of somehow being deprived in a world in which she felt, as a peer to these other children, entitled to have “more,” and what was of more concern, she began to devalue herself as somehow being a child that must not be as worthy as these other kids with all of their wealth.
How many of you have seen the movie, “the Gods Must be Crazy”?  In it there is a native group of bush people who are filmed and who act in the film.  After the film was made, an article was written by an anthropologist who had lived and worked with the bush people about the devastation that the filming had created for this bush tribe.  There are rules, good rules, mostly that require that when anyone does work, he or she is paid for it.  If a person isn’t paid, it is a kind of exploitation.  But what happened in this particular case was that not everyone in the tribe was in the film.  So before the film was made, everyone in the tribe had the exact same amount; everything was shared, everything was in common.  It was very little, people had almost no material possessions before this film was made.  But still, all the people in the tribe felt grateful, felt rich, felt they had more than enough.  But then the filming crew paid some of the tribe members for their participation in the film.  In so doing, they introduced inequity into the tribe.  And that inequity led to a sense of unfairness on the part of those who weren’t paid.  Now some had things that were just theirs, and others were lacking in those things.  People began to feel poor, and eventually the tribe began to fight within itself and the tribal culture for this one group at least, was utterly destroyed.  Ironically, the film that destroyed them included a story line that told it’s own story about this very inequity and about the dangers of “things” being introduced into these cultures.
The last church I served was near a mega-church that had several pastors and one of the pastors was bitterly complaining to Sarah, the other pastor with whom I worked, about the amount of pay she receives.  She was complaining because she received less than one of the other pastors at her church.  But the pastor who was complaining was making twice what Sarah made, four times what I was making, simply because her church had more money - though she worked no more than either of us.  It again was a matter of relative position, though I have to say it was very ironic that she chose to complain to a person who was making about half of her income.  It is easy to get on board the entitlement train.  It is easy to see in what ways we are not being cared for as others, rather than seeing how even more people have even less than we do.
            Again, it is a matter of perspective.  But the bottom line is that our sense of entitlement robs us of gratitude, and of being aware of the amazing grace that God gives us every week, every day, every moment.  I want to say that again.  Our sense of entitlement robs us of gratitude and an awareness of grace.  When we start feeling that life is unfair, that we don’t have what we deserve and that others are getting more than is “just” it becomes harder to see the riches and blessings in our lives, it becomes harder to connect with grace, it becomes harder to connect with God. 
            So in the face of this, my challenge to all of us is to recognize that we have a choice about how we deal with life.  Will we choose to focus on what feels unfair?  Will we focus on the hardships we face unfairly while others seem to have lives touched by undeserved rewards and grace?  Or will we choose to see the grace that is given to us, to celebrate it and to pass it forward to others?  To celebrate the times when others also receive that grace, even when it is undeserved? 
            I’ll admit, celebrating the grace, the second chances, the opportunities, the gifts that others receive when they don’t deserve it is not easy, at all, for any of us.  On a daily basis, I hear people stating what so and so deserves because of things they’ve done that were evil or bad or wrong.  We want to see people punished.  We want JUSTICE, again, at least for other people.  When we make mistakes, I think we want forgiveness and grace.  But it is rare, RARE to hear people celebrating the grace that others are given undeservedly, especially when that grace comes in the form of forgiveness or lack of punishment for misbehaviors.    

            We are not living in a gracious world.  But we are called to follow in God’s ways, in Jesus’ ways and be graceful.  We are called to celebrate God’s grace extended to all of us.  We are called to extend that grace ourselves.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sunday's Sermon - Risking it all for something better

Exodus 14:19-31
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

As I reflected on today’s lectionary scriptures, they all seem to me to be calling us to take risks, to reach out in trust and faith for that better thing, that wholeness, that new way of being that God calls us to.  Not easy.  Never easy.  But it is what I hear, in different ways, in all three of today’s scriptures.
The Israelites were called to risk everything in order to no longer be slaves in Egypt.  More, they were called to risk everything so that their children would no longer be slaves in Egypt.  For as we know, they were in the wilderness for 40 years, a generation and more passed before they came to their own place, their own home.  They risked everything so that their children might no longer be an enslaved people.  How scary for them!  How terrifying to leave everything they knew, everything they trusted, everything they experienced and understood and lived, for the risk of a better life for their kids.  Of course it was hard, horrible, and at times they expressed great anger at Moses, at Aaron, at GOD for leading them out, for encouraging such a rick.  There were many, many times when they felt, and said, and yelled that it would have been better to just stay slaves than to go through the painful, difficult transitions of risk, of change, not knowing for sure that they would have something better, but instead only hoping, trusting, having faith that they would.
Then we come to the passage in Romans.  And at first it does not seem to be talking about risk.  But it, too, is.  The new Christian community in Rome was called to take the risk of letting go of some of their principle ways and principle beliefs about what could be eaten, when and how.  Those who grew up as Jews had strong opinions, based on their Torah, our first five books of the Bible, about what was legal and okay to eat, when, and how.  But those who joined them from the Gentile community did not share those beliefs or practices.  This was very hard on many of the people who came from the Jewish tradition.  They felt that the writings of what we now consider the Old Testament were as important in this new community as they had been before.  The laws written in scripture about what could and couldn’t be eaten, they felt, must be upheld.  They were willing to fight for these laws, insisting that those who did not follow them were not true Christians, were not people who should be part of the church.  But Paul challenged that, saying that Christ was about Love and only about Love and that these laws about eating (and other things) that people held on to so strongly had to be released.  These new  Jewish Christians were called to let go of some of their ways, or at least let go of the judgments of others that accompanied these hard and fast beliefs.  They could continue to practice their eating laws and other laws, but they could no longer judge, attack, or exclude those who would come to the faith who did not practice these same laws and rules.  But what Paul was asking of these Jewish Christians was hard.  He was asking them to take a huge risk of letting go of judgment.  That might feel so small to us.  But for them it was huge.  HUGE.  It meant letting go of who they WERE at their core, letting go of being JEWISH in their veins, or at least of being part of a community in which everyone followed the same rules.  And again, many of them simply could not do it.  They heard and knew and understood that they were called to LOVE and not to judge.  But some couldn't do it.  It was simply too hard to take that risk. 
And then finally, lastly, we come to the gospel story for today.  And we are told to forgive and forgive and forgive.  And we are told, what’s more, that in the same way that we fail to forgive, so God will fail to forgive us.  This is calling us to a radical forgiveness.  And that, too, is an invitation to risk everything that we hold on to, to risk the anger and the judgments and the fear that we hold on to, to risk letting all of it go in the reach for a different way of being in the world. 
Can we do this?  We are not being asked to leave our country of origin.  We don’t have the same judgments about food.  But we still have beliefs and judgments and practices that God may be calling us to risk changing.  When Jesus calls us to love and to forgive, even our enemies, even people we fear, can we let go of judgment and risk loving?  Can we let God be in charge of holding people accountable? 
We hear the passage from Exodus and we can only imagine how absolutely terrifying it must have been for the Israelites to pack up their stuff and to leave their homes in search of something better.  We know that people throughout history have done the same, packed up everything, without a job waiting for them or a home already picked out, without a clear image of where they were going or if there would be a place for them, or a welcome, or food to find along the way.  And we know it must have terrifying.  Many of our ancestors came to this country in a similar way, escaping persecution and risking everything to start a new life.  If you are like me you think of those people as people of great courage and faith, being willing to leave behind a country that was their own in search of something better.  But my guess is that it is even harder to risk giving up our most deeply held beliefs, rituals, and practices, in search for something better – community, a new way of relating to God.
               I think about people who spend years in counseling, in therapy, and how hard it is to look at the old stuff, to work it through so that a new way of relating to the world might be found.  I think about the stories plastering the news this last week about Domestic Violence, and how hard it is for these beaten and abused people, mostly women, to leave their partners, their spouses, even when they are being beaten up regularly.  I volunteered for a time on a domestic violence hotline and it was the very, VERY rare victim who would find the courage to leave.  I think about people choosing to make friends and cross cultural, religious, ethnic, etc. boundaries with people who are different from them, people whom they normally judge.  All of this is hard, hard stuff to do.
               Paul Tillich said the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.  Usually I hear this quote as meaning that faith in God requires believing in something that can’t be proved either way.  But this week I heard this very differently.  I heard it being about everything else that we hold dear.  When we have faith, we are called to risk our certainty about how we see things, who we judge, how we do things, how we live, and we are called to instead rely on the faith that when God calls us forward into a new way of being, that God really does want and intend the best for us.  That no matter how hard it can be to take those risks, that is what faith calls us to do. 
               As I thought about this risk that we take, the movie the Spitfire Grill came to mind.  The movie is about a very young woman who has just come out of prison for manslaughter and is looking to start a new life.  She finds a small town where she is hired to work at the Spitfire Grill.  And while at first there is a lot of fear and judgment towards Percy, as people get to know her they come to see her and love her for who she is.  There is one exception in the movie, however.  Nahum is extremely protective of his aunt, for whom Percy works, his family and his town.  He sees Percy as a stranger, and as a threat.  He doesn’t want to know her story, or really anything about her.  He cannot take the risk of getting to know Percy or, as he fears, getting hoodwinked by her charm.  In the end, his failure to risk seeing her ends up in a terrible tragedy for the town.  I won’t give away what that is for those who haven’t seen the movie, but I will say that it is only after this irreversible tragedy that he can see his own failure to risk forgiveness, to risk love, to risk seeing this other person as a human being.  That failure to risk a new vision leads to the tragedy, a deep loss for everyone in the town. 
               Most of what we fail to miss by not having the faith to trust in love, in forgiveness, in God’s call to us to be open to both, most of the results of that are only personal.  We miss risking and living for something bigger and better, but it mostly only impacts ourselves.  Still, God calls us to something better.  But sometimes those risks are not just personal but communal as well.  I think about this in terms of Church.  As denominations and as the Christian Church on the whole, are we willing to take risks to be more what God calls us to be?  Are we willing to take stands to say, “we are God’s people and we will stand up for the oppressed, the mistreated, the outcast!”  Are we willing to risk praying, and listening and following God’s call even when it seems scary and threatening and open-ended; even when we cannot see where we are going or what God is leading us to?  Are we willing to take the risk, knowing that God wants the best for us, for our children, and for our communities? 
               I want to end this by simply inviting us into a period of silent listening.  I invite you to simply open yourself to hearing what God is calling you to do, calling US to do. 

               I pray we will have the hearts to risk it all for something better.  That something better is God’s kingdom.  Every week we pray that God’s Kingdom will come here as it is in heaven.  We help bring that about by being willing to risk listening to God’s call and God’s will, by being willing to forgive, no matter how hard that is, by being willing to LOVE.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sunday's Sermon - Codependency

Matthew 18: 15-18, 21-22
(The Giving Tree)

I would like to start by asking you a series of questions that I would like you to think about for a few minutes.

Do you feel responsible for other people--their feelings, thoughts, actions, choices, wants, needs, well-being and destiny?
Do you feel compelled to help people solve their problems or to try to take care of their feelings?
Do you find it easier to feel and express anger about injustices done to others than about injustices done to you?
Do you feel safest and most comfortable when you are giving to others?
Do you feel insecure and guilty when someone gives to you?
Do you feel empty, bored and worthless if you don't have someone else to take care of, a problem to solve, or a crisis to deal with?
Are you often unable to stop talking, thinking and worrying about other people and their problems?
Do you stay in relationships that don't work and tolerate abuse in order to keep people loving you?

These are a few of the classic questions of a group called CODA, a 12 step group that tries to identify and look at behaviors knows as co-dependency. While I don’t see a lot of what I would call classic co-dependent behavior in this congregation, I wanted to give you that list of questions to think about for a few minutes. We’ll return to this later.

In the mean time, I want to tell you the story of a friend of mine from a long time ago, who gave me permission to tell her story and whom, for the purposes of this sermon I will call Katy. Katy was one of the most loving, giving people that you would ever meet. She gave to any who would ask her, anything that they asked. If George needed a ride to church, Katy would give it. If the congregation needed food for a potluck or if anyone in the church was sick, she was sure to be there with a hot dish. When Dana needed someone to listen to her troubles, Katy was always around with an open ear. She sewed the costumes for the Christmas pageants, she held the women’s annual tea at her house and would not allow anyone else to bring anything to help. She ran the annual food drive, taught Sunday school, and was pretty much a fixture at the church. Whenever anyone needed anything, they knew they could count on Katy. It wasn’t just at church that she was so giving and caring, either. Although Katy had a fairly demanding job, she still found it possible to volunteer at the local soup kitchen, and serve on the PTA. And in these areas too, people knew that if they needed anything, they could count on Katy. At home, she was always in command with her caring. Her children lacked for nothing: their financial and emotional needs were always completely met, their rooms were always spotlessly maintained... by Katy, no household chore was ever left undone, because, as Katy stated, she wanted the children to be free to focus on their school work and on being children. Her husband, too was always cared for to the best of her ability. When he came home from work, he was free to put his feet up, to relax, because even though Katy also worked, she would tend to his every need, most of the time anticipating those needs before he even asked.  Everything seemed so perfect, so well maintained. And that was how Katy understood her Christian calling. She took the Shel Silverstein book, “The Giving Tree” as her model for how Christians should be, and she gave everything she had, everything she was, to the care of others.

There was only one flaw in this perfect scene of hers. Katy’s best friend at church and work, Samantha, occasionally drank a little too much. As Samantha explained it, her job was hard, her life was stressful and she just needed to unwind sometimes. Katy could understand that.  So she did her best to “help” Samantha by covering for her when she was hung-over some mornings and couldn’t get to work, by hiding the alcohol when she felt Samantha had had enough, by getting Sam’s kids out of the house when things started to get ugly. But what started as an occasional drinking binge began to be more and more frequent. Eventually Samantha lost her job and then her husband left her and took the kids. But Katy was there to the rescue even then. She took Samantha in to her own house, she tried to bolster Samantha’s self-esteem thinking that if she only felt better about herself, maybe she could get out and find a job; she took on more and more in her fight for her friend, in her efforts to continue to be ‘giving’ and supportive.

Samantha’s life was falling apart. Finally she began to realize it and decided she had to stop drinking. Samantha tried to stop, but in those first few days and the end of that first week she became so ugly to Katy, her kids and Katy’s family, that eventually Katy went out and bought her a bottle of wine herself just to “get her to normal up” as she said it.

At that point Katy’s husband Dan stepped in.  “Katy, Sam’s life is falling apart.  She has to stop drinking.”
“Yes, but she was acting horribly!”  Katy retorted.
“So, you’d rather have your friend’s life be a mess than to support her through this terrible time?” Dan asked incredulously
“But it’s not just for me,” Katy said. “I’m protecting you and the kids too.  She’s horrible to you, too, when she’s not drinking!”
“So let’s go away for a week or two. You know it will get better once the physical addiction is broken,” Dan said. “She is your friend!  She has to stop drinking!”

But Katy was so caught up in all of this that she could not see it. All she could see was that she had to support her friend. And at that moment “support” looked like providing the alcohol that seemed to calm and stabilize her. Katy’s life was also now spinning out of control.  And the life of her family was very closely following.

At church she found herself beginning to talk about Sam, even though Sam was also a member there. Of course Katy did. Katy needed someplace to process all of this. Who better to process with than those who also knew and were trying to support Sam. Katy talked about how Sam was “making her” take care of her in this terrible way that was destroying her own family. She talked about how Sam should just suffer the consequences of her own behavior. Katy talked and talked. But she did not change her own behavior towards Sam. She could not stop enabling Sam’s addiction. Katy could not say no. She could not set limits. She was sinking with Sam.  To use the book that Katy herself was so fond of, she was reduced to the stump of the Giving Tree, but was still trying to give.
What does this story about my friend have to do with today’s scripture lessons?

I want to start at the end of my story with Katy and work backward. While her behavior at church here may be the least of the problems, we have to start there, I believe, to get at the root of the issues. So let’s go back to Jesus words in Matthew. Jesus words here give us one of the few if not the only time that Jesus actually tells us how to treat each other within the walls of the church. Most of his words have to do with how we are to treat people who are not necessarily in the church: love your neighbor, especially the stranger, feed the hungry, visit those in prison, etc.  But here we have Jesus telling us how to treat each other within the fold, within the family. What did he say?
He says that if someone hurts us, or “sins against us,” we are to talk to that person DIRECTLY. Not to anyone else, but directly. If that doesn’t work, then what are we supposed to do? Bring a witness or two and talk to the friend DIRECTLY!!! If that doesn’t work, what are we supposed to do? Involve the church and talk to the friend, how?  DIRECTLY!!!

Are we supposed to process the situation with the witnesses before we go to talk to the friend? No. Are we supposed to let the church know what is going on before we go to talk to the friend? No. Here’s a harder question. Is there room here for processing with another church member? Of course, but in the company of the friend! There really might be times when we need to process more than this. Jesus doesn’t offer this, but I would suggest that a co-dependents anonymous group is a wonderful place to do this kind of processing. Processing with a counselor is also a good idea. Is it hard to talk to a person who has upset us directly? Very, very hard. I think most of us struggle with this at some point. It is so easy, so tempting, especially when we want to support each other by listening to each other, to talk to other people about someone in the church or something that has upset us. It is really hard to talk to a person directly about upsetting behavior. It is especially hard to talk to them directly without processing the information with others first. Can you imagine saying directly to a person who has really hurt you, or even just really bugged you, the things that when we are angry or hurt are so easy to say to someone else? Can you imagine having to process the hurt and pain directly with a person who has hurt you before you even talk through it? Sometimes we don’t talk to a person directly because we think we are making a mountain out of a mole hill. But if we find ourselves talking to someone else about it, then clearly some talking needs to be done and that talking should always be done with the person it involves. I think for the large majority of us, this is really hard.

The listeners at church also have a responsibility here. When someone approaches us to complain about another member of the church, should we allow them to process it through with us? I don’t really think there’s space for that in light of this passage from Luke. What we might perhaps do instead is to suggest that while we would love to listen to them, it would be better to have this conversation if the person being discussed were present. This is perhaps even harder to do than confronting in other situations.  It is very, very hard. But it is something we are called to strive for in our relationships with our church-mates.

I believe the main reason Jesus asks us to do this is very simply that talking to a person directly about something that has hurt or upset us is respectful of the person, our brother and sister, who has hurt us. If Jesus was about anything it was about giving dignity and respect to every individual no matter what they have done or failed to do. When we talk behind someone’s back, when we “process” a person and their issues, we are putting ourselves in the position of judge, in a position of power in which that individual, who doesn’t know we are talking about them, or isn’t there to hear directly what is said, has no way to defend themself. That’s one reason Jesus asks us to do this.

Another reason is what we discussed last week, that the church is supposed to be about the spiritual welfare of each individual. If we don’t confront people by telling them when they have hurt us, or, to use Biblical language, when they have sinned against us, we are missing an opportunity to be about supporting each other in our spiritual journeys. Spiritual growth, growth of any kind, requires change and sometimes we need each other to help point the way that we need to go. We confront each other lovingly to let go of our anger. We confront to grow and walk together in our spiritual journeys. We confront as a sign that we think that brother or sister is important enough to deserve direct, caring, loving communication, and even correction at times. We also confront directly as a way to make sure we are accountable for our own behavior. When we talk directly to a person it becomes much harder to hide our own choices that often contribute to a situation behind blame.

Jesus calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves. The key words for Katy and for us here today are “AS YOURSELF.” When we start loving others to the point that we are giving up ourselves; when, like the tree in the Giving Tree, we have given our fruit, our branches, our trunk, everything that can give life, when we give it all to another person, there is nothing left of us to give. God does not want you to give to the point where you are spent and can give no more.  Giving, loving - these are life time jobs. We are not asked to burn ourselves out to the point of destruction.

Sometimes in loving, like Jesus, like Martin Luther King Jr., like many saints and good people in history, sometimes in loving completely, we do lose our life. But our job is not to seek out death. Our job here is not to become martyrs. Our job is to love God, neighbor AND SELF to the best of our ability. Loving self starts with knowing our limits.

I’m not saying that we should not strive to give more to others. We should strive to give more.  Most of us tend to err on the side of not giving enough, materially as well as in our care for others. But when we get to the point of burnout, when we get to the point where we feel we need to process by talking behind someone’s back, we are not loving ourselves as our neighbor, or loving our neighbor as ourselves since we are forgetting Jesus’ directive to talk directly to those who hurt us.

Fortunately for my friend Katy, she finally did get help. She finally went to a group called Al-anon, which is a twelve step group for people with loved ones who are alcoholics, and later she joined a group called “CODA” or co-dependent’s anonymous- another twelve step group. While Al-anon and Coda are not affiliated with any particular religion, she told me later that the main lesson she learned in these twelve step groups was the lesson we read today in the Luke passage. In Katy’s case, she learned to love herself as her neighbor. Katy discovered that she had been trying to hold on to Samantha’s love at any cost, even the cost of Samantha’s broken life, and that was why she could not really help Samantha give up her drinking. Katy learned the hard lesson that all of her “care,” not just for Sam, but also for her children and many of the other people in her life, actually prevented those she loved from growing. While she thought she was caring for them, in fact she was enabling them to stay dependent, in the case of her children to fail to learn care for themselves, in the case of her husband, to fail to learn to carry his weight, and in the case of Samantha to stay addicted. She learned that this was not love.  Love was helping them to grow. Sometimes that meant saying “no” and letting the other suffer the consequences of their actions. Sometimes it meant saying “no” and forcing the other to learn to do things on their own. Sometimes it meant saying “no” just because she had to care for herself too. This was not easy. Sometimes the other became angry, even threatened to take away their love. But she also learned that love so easily lost was not love that she really had in the first place. As the CODA saying goes, “People don’t love or respect people they can use. They use people they can use.”

Katy has not stopped being a giving, loving person. If anything, she is more giving in that her care comes from a place of gratitude and genuine care, rather than trying to earn love or approval. She has stopped giving in such a way that it keeps those around her from growing, that it enables her family and friends to be stuck in addictions and lazy behavior, that she herself is in constant burn-out. She is learning, slowly but surely, her own limits. As a result, she is no longer resentful to those around her for using her. And she has found not only real love between friends and family members, but respect as well.  May we all continue to strive for respect, love and genuine caring for God, neighbor and self.  Amen.