Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Being "fools" for Christ.

For those of us who take seriously the words as ascribed to Jesus in our scriptures, there is a definite belief that love conquers all.  There are the words "do not resist an evildoer but turn the other cheek" and "you have heard it said, love your friends, but I say, love your enemies".  There is definitely something "unrealistic" or "impractical" about all of it, and yet, we are called to believe in it, to fight for it, to created the world of love, to "bring the kingdom to earth as it is in heaven" (whatever it is you believe heaven to be).  We are not called to fight hate with hate, but to fight it with love.  We are not called to seek revenge or even to punish an evildoer.  Instead we are told to not judge and to love the unlovable.  This isn't what our current politics espouse in any form, but these are the words of Jesus.  For those who say they are Christian and yet espouse hatred, fear and self-protection at the cost of harming ANYONE else, I can only say you either haven't actually read the gospels, or you just plain don't take it with any seriousness.  There isn't room to be "practical" or to fight hatred with killing, to self protect with violence, fear, or anger.  There isn't room for revenge or even punishment. Those things we are supposed to leave up to God.  Is this easy?  Of course not.  Are we expected to fail sometimes?  Of course.  But to claim that violence, killing, hatred are ever Christian responses is to utterly fail to understand the gospels.

I will, again, admit that those who say that these practices aren't "practical" are right at some level. Even our scriptures tell us to be "fools" for our faith, believing, hoping, trusting, and choosing love even in the face of hate where there is no sign that these will get us what we want.  The very fact that scripture calls us to be fools for believing in these values shows them to be different than what many who look for practical will find.  Our idealists who espoused these values (whether Christian or not) worked to change the world, and I believe they have - MLK, Carter, Kennedy, Ghandi, etc. They were idealists.  And while their policies may not have been practical they changed the world, and they did it without violence, without hate, without killing. Ultimately, we do create the world we want.  But unfortunately, it is equally true that those who work to keep the world practical, and who therefore fight against the belief that love conquers all also have a hand in creating the world and they fight hard, refusing to believe in the possibility of a world where love genuinely and completely wipes out fear, hatred and darkness.

I find I have no comprehension for those who claim to be Christian and yet who espouse violent reactions to things they don't like. I simply don't understand if they have failed to read the scriptures they claim to believe or if they simply don't take them seriously. They sometimes quote scripture, but it is always Old Testament or occasionally Paul's writings.  It is never Jesus.  EVER.  So if you don't believe in the words of Jesus, stop saying you are Christian.  Just own that you aren't. Stop dragging the name "Christian" through the mud of hatred, fear, violence and killing when that is so very antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.  Just STOP.

Unfortunately, there are too many of those folk out there right now.  There are just too many who live by fear and hate and call it practical (many even dare to call it Christian. Again, have they actually READ the gospels?).  There just don't seem to be enough who are brave enough and faithful enough to choose to live by love at whatever cost.

And I have to admit, it breaks my heart, on a daily basis.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Yesterday's Sermon - Finding Hope, Peace, Joy and Love in our midst

Micah 5:1-5
Luke 1:39-56

     As I've said before, I don't think life was meant to be easy or even necessarily happy.  We are meant to grow, learn, love, live life fully, and perhaps to pursue happiness. But I'm not sure the American belief that it's all about happiness is accurate and I think believing that it is all about being happy makes it hard  both to appreciate the good times, but also it  becomes very hard when we are struggling and can't quite make it to "happy".  None the less, in a society where we live much longer than people used to, working hard to survive the challenges of each day over weeks, months, years, decades, can be just plain exhausting.  There’s a lovely Peter Garbriel song called, In Your Eyes that has the line - "I get so tired of working so hard for our survival".  And there are times when I hear it that I find myself pausing,
And thinking,
 Me too. 
My guess is that many of us feel this way at one time or another.  The song continues, "… I get so lost sometimes.  Days pass and this emptiness fills my heart.  When I want to run away, I drive off in my car..."  Do you ever feel like that?  As you listen to what is going on in the world, or when you have struggles at work, or when you make mistakes – wherever and whatever they may be, do you then have times when you would just like to drive away, to leave it, to go elsewhere?
        But the truth of it is, where would we go?  Where would you go?  Wherever you go, there you are.  And no matter how far we go, we take our struggles and our challenges with us. We each struggle with something.  Currently I'm truly and deeply struggling with where our world seems to be heading, with the increasing hatred and the fear mongering that seem to have become so popular. Sometimes I’d like to drive to Canada or Denmark (if that were possible).  Just away. There are other times I struggle with more personal anxieties, worries and difficulties. But lately there are times it is hard to hold onto hope in the midst of what I’m hearing in the news: the killing, the vandalism, the attacks on others. Especially when things are happening in the world that I don't feel I can stop.  I feel helpless in the face of what is going on.  I can speak out, I can talk about love rather than fear or hate, I can promote ideas and suggestions for how to be proactive, I can sign petitions, join gatherings, conversations, marches.... But it doesn't feel like enough.  My influence in the world is small, and today I feel that smallness. I am worried for the world.  I am worried for my kids and what kind of a world they are growing into.  When I was back in Ohio and would feel this way, I often went for a quick walk in the Metroparks, which would center me for awhile.  In nature I felt renewed.  And when I saw this Wendel Berry poem posted on a friend's page, I had to post it as well to our church page because it is true for me, too: 
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grow in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.  I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.  For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

      There are times and days when getting to nature is not possible.  But I think there is a deeper truth in this which is that we really do need times of rest, of retreat from what is hard and challenging and demanding.  Rest is necessary for all of us.  Times away from work are crucial to our wholeness, to being able to process through what happens in our lives, for being able to continue to be grateful and creative and positive.  Our Bible requires us to keep a Sabbath day.  This isn't optional, it's listed as one of the big 10 things that we are supposed to do.  But for some reason, this is the one of the ten commandments that I think we have the hardest time following, the hardest time taking seriously.  How many of us actually take a day off to rest each week?  Even our weekends get so busy with errands and other activities.  Perhaps especially during advent it is hard, with all of our Christmas preparation, to find rest time.  And yet, it is exactly during times like Advent, when we are called to wait and to watch that we need to set aside that time. 
               Today we heard the magnificat, Mary’s singing out of joy and praise to the God who has brought her this child.  We hear that her joy begins with gratitude for what God has done. And we hear what we discussed two weeks ago, that once again God’s coming to be among us is an even-ing up of the playing fields, a raising up of those who have not had, and a lowering down of those who have had. Most of the time when we read this passage I focus on the beauty and call of her song of praise.  But there is a small line in this text that we usually ignore and that is the very last sentence, “she stayed with her cousin Elizabeth for about three months.”  No sentence in here is accidental.  So what is the message in that one sentence?  Why tell us that she stayed with Elizabeth for three months?  It is a comment again about taking time away.
               In the midst of the challenge of being a pregnant teenager, she did not just keep pushing through what was hard.  She stayed. With her cousin.  For three months.  Two pregnant females, supporting each other, nurturing each other, caring for each other.  And, no doubt, resting, as is often necessary for pregnant women to do.  They supported one another with love, they expressed joy, and they found peace together.
               Both were doing amazing work, and would continue to do that for many years – carrying, birthing and raising the two boys who would become John the Baptist and Jesus.  But before they continued the work, they took time out, to be with one another.  To renew, to refresh, to strengthen for what was to come.
               As a people of faith, as people who are on the way, as followers of Christ, we have work to do.  We are called to be actively working for justice, for change, for empowerment.  We are called to actively stand up for the voiceless, for those towards whom hatred, fear and condemnation is being espoused.  We are called to care for people in concrete, real ways and to lift people up out of their poverty and oppression.  But once again, Advent, and Moses through the ten commandments remind us that this work must start with God.  That means taking time to pray, to rest, to listen, to strengthen up for the work that is to come. 
               Christmas is right around the corner.  And we may feel we just don’t have time to pray, or rest.  But Martin Luther is famous for commenting, "I have so much to do today that I'm going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to be able to get it all done." We must learn to see prayer as the most powerful and efficient use of our time.  It is not a waste of time.  It is time that centers us so that we can do what needs to be done.  By prayer in this context I also don’t just mean blabbering to God.  I  mean talking, yes, but also taking time to listen, to focus, to be led by what God calls us to do in this moment and at this time.
               This week we will celebrate Christmas.  And like many of the signs and posters and memes out there, it is true that as a culture we have taken the Christ out of Christmas in many ways.  When Christmas comes we will need to be about the work of Christ – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, forgiving the guilty, welcoming the stranger and the unwanted child, caring for the sick, loving our enemies.  We will need to be about that because that is the Christ we are called to follow and called to serve.  Doing Christmas is welcoming Christ in all of those people who make us uneasy, in all of those whom we would rather not see, in all of those whom we fear.  But we are not at Christmas yet.  And while Advent can be incredibly busy, it is NOW that we are called to take time to wait, to watch, to center our hearts, to pray, to listen.  It is through that time of prayer, waiting, watching that we will find hope, peace, joy and love in our midst. 

               There was a man who complained that he wasn't able to reach his pastor by phone one day.  When the clergy replied that it had been her day off, the man snarled: “well, the Devil never takes a day off.”  The wise pastor smiled and replied, “true enough and if I don't take a day off I will be just like him.”  Take that to heart.  Take time.  Wait, Watch, Pray.  And rest in God.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Rules Over People? Again?

I went to the DMV today to get my daughter her driving permit. After the prerequisite standing in line, filling out forms, standing in more lines (even with an appointment), finally we were sent into the room where Jasmyn would take her written exam.  The line was so long for this that it wound through the room and out the door.  While the line was quite long, there was one lone worker inside who was setting people up for the exams and taking pictures.  After about 5 minutes another worker came and told us we couldn't stand in the doorway.  She proceeded to direct us into a weird snaking line that meant anyone else who wanted to be in the line was confused and had no idea where to go.  But we dutifully complied, even after being yelled at by this woman with her interesting line design.  Eventually Jasmyn and I made it to the front of the line and Jasmyn was sent one direction to have her picture taken and to take her permit test.  I was told to leave the room, but like the over-protective hovering helicopter parent I sometimes can be, I waited near the door because I wanted to make sure she could get onto the computer okay to take her exam.  While waiting there I noticed that the much older couple (had to be in their 90s) that had been ahead of us in line was struggling with their computer.  The woman was supposed to be taking the exam but they couldn't get into the computer.  The man went to the second worker who was just standing around telling people how to form a line and asked for help.  The worker said, "Oh, it's self-explanatory.  Just go over to the computer and it will tell you what to do."  He tried to explain that they'd been struggling with it for some time, but she tuned him out and went back to directing people how to stand in line.  I watched this couple struggle for a minute more with the computer and then I went over to help.  The screen had been asking for her birthday and she had typed in the month, the date and the last two numbers of the year.  The computer wanted all four numbers of the year and so it kept booting out her request to take the exam.  I explained this to them and they asked me if I could help by typing in the birth date for her.  Suddenly we were swarmed with 4 officials barking at me, "You can't take the test for her!  We are going to have to ask you to leave!"  "I'm not taking the test for her, I'm putting in her birth date so she can take the test herself!"  "We have officials here to help with any difficulties!  You are not to help!"  "Yeah?  Well, your 'officials' weren't helping!  This couple had asked for help, and were told 'no'.  Those who were supposed to help weren't, so I was!"  Her husband and I were "escorted" out of the room while the husband loudly complained that his wife needed help walking and that he needed to be with her.  We kept being told over and over that that's what the workers were for - to help, though none of them did help.  Instead, all of them went back to what they had been doing before, and this poor woman was left sitting, staring at the computer screen, still not into the system, still not able to even take the test, still not able to get up or go home either since she needed her husband to help her walk.  Her husband began to cry once we were out of the room.  All I could do was stay with him, which I did, while I waited for Jasmyn to finish her test.  I stayed with him, and told him that there were people who cared, even if they weren't those working here at the DMV.

Is this woman who can't figure out how to put her birth date into the computer someone who should be driving?  Perhaps not.  I understand the reason why there are rules and policies.  I understand that these tests are to determine who should be on the road and who should not.  I'm certain that they will not be reissuing her her driver's license.  I am also certain that losing your ability to drive, your independence, your ability to get yourself where you need to be is a very traumatic thing to have happen to you, and that having your license taken away by people who don't care enough to even respond when you ask for help, and who make sure others also can't help you is not just lacking in kindness.  It is just plain MEAN.

We sometimes put rules, put regulations, put red-tape, bureaucracy and our belief about how things "should" be done above real people.  This isn't a new problem.  Jesus had this same problem when he was condemned for healing on the Sabbath, when he was criticized and rejected for letting his disciples "pick grain" on the sabbath, when he and his disciples were put down for failing to wash their hands properly.  And his response to all of that?  "The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath."  To put it into more modern language, "Our rules are here to help people, people are not here for the purpose of following the rules."  But we, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, sometimes make idols of our rules, our policies, our procedures to the point that we would rather harm people than even bend a rule to fit the needs of those actually affected by it.  This is a problem.  It's a problem Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi and others who saw injustices written into the rules and who said, "no!" tried to confront again and again and it is a problem that has not gone away.  But I would challenge any of us who are stuck in our rules to the point where we stop seeing and helping and caring for real people and real individuals to think better of it.  We are called to love.  Loving is messy.  It just very simply does not fit into a nice neat box of "how tos".  It just doesn't.  The rules and policies and procedures are supposed to help us to care for one another better, to be kinder to each other even when we feel more selfish, to get along well, to function and work together.  That is their purpose.  Sometimes they fail to do that.  But as someone once said, "When you have to choose between being right and being kind, choose being kind."

Oh, and yes, Jasmyn got her permit.  Look out world!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Judging it really as necessary as we think?

      It's true, we are surrounded by judgments.  Every day I see and hear more judgments about others. These are not opinions about differences of ideology, thought or even practice.  These are judgments on people themselves, nastiness disguised as "opinion" (and sometimes science) but meant to attack, hurt, and place "the other" into a category that is different from oneself, a category which we then wholeheartedly dismiss or condemn as unworthy of our time, attention or care.  Sometimes we dismiss a whole group of people as evil or bad, a judgment on a group that I just have never found to be accurate when applied to actual individual people. Despite what our gospels tell us about not judging others, even people who use the name "Christian" seem to judge others more and more. (And as they do this, not unexpectedly, "Christianity" is also judged more and  Funny how that works.)  They think less about the very great difference between disagreeing with someone's thought and attacking another human being, even to the point of advocating things that would damage, kill or destroy other people. I saw it again today on two different friends' posts.  I don't need to go into the details, but the short version was that in one, most of us were called 'stupid'.  Rather than just saying, "I don't like it when you do x" or "I disagree with y", we were all called stupid.  The other categorized an entire group of people as evil, again not recognizing that there are many, many differences between people and to group a whole people as evil is not only failing to "not judge" but is also just plain inaccurate.  These judgments also stir up more anger, hostility, polarization, fear and hatred than anything else could do.  In other words, they contribute nothing positive, nothing good, nothing of value to the world.  Hatred leads to more hatred.  Judgment leads to more judgment. Killing leads to more killing.  Fear leads to anger, which leads to hatred, which leads to suffering (Yoda again).  And yet here we are.
       Both of these friends who posted these outrageously hurtful things are not usually unkind. The anonymity of the internet allows us to do that, to express fear and rage in indirect but more deeply hurtful and personally attacking (as well as inaccurate) ways than just talking directly to someone about specific things we disagree with.  But it's not just through the internet. When people get together they often are judging others as well.  "So and so is such a blank and such". As things become more tense, this inclination to attack persons rather than ideas or practices increases.
       I'll admit that until about two years ago I thought that this judging of others was what all people did, to one degree or another; that we just ARE judgmental as part of our nature. I thought that we all thought up and named for ourselves things that we didn't like about other people that we knew. I thought that when people were with friends, this was to be an expected part of what they did: talked about, judged, condemned other people, often condescendingly, always judgmentally.  I thought this - until I met David.
      David is the least "catty" person that I know.  He was divorced thirteen years ago.  And while he can tell me what happened in his marriage, he has never once bad-mouthed his ex-wife.  He talks about actions, but he names them for what they were, without judgment or condemnation but with compassion.  He also challenges me.  When I get into a "catty" place, he usually just gets very quiet and gives me "that look".  "That look" from David is simply a compassionate but concerned look that lets me know I'm acting out in non-helpful ways.  Occasionally when he hears the kids talk badly about others, he will challenge them to try to be more respectful.
      His behavior, his choice to look for and focus on and see the good in others challenges me to do the same.  And I've found it amazingly freeing.  When I can just be with someone and appreciate who they are, what they are, without feeling the need to find their "flaws" and their areas that I don't like, I tend to be more positive and appreciative about everything.  It changes my whole outlook. It also makes me kinder and more grateful for everyone I encounter.  I am looking for the good, not the bad.  I can delight in the differences between people, without needing to judge them or rank them or decide one way of being is better than another.
      The truth is, whenever I hear other people saying bad things about others, I always wonder what they say about me.  I know that people who would badmouth others to me are no doubt badmouthing me to others.  I have become increasingly uneasy with that. (In a similar vein, when people break confidences to me I become less willing to trust that they will respect the confidences I share with them, too.  If I am aware of someone treating others one way, I do not expect them to treat me differently.) But once I identified David as a person who just doesn't do that, I found that there were others, too, who focused more on the good, who choose not to judge people even as they are willing to engage ideas.  And those are the people I most want to be around.  They are people who truly look for and see the good in others.  They walk and live with compassion, grace, empathy and kindness.  And being around them encourages me to do the same.
      And in terms of judging, condemning, hating large groups of people who just believe differently than we do?  We need to be very careful about this.  Just from a faith perspective, we are told, again, not only to avoid judging, but also to love our enemies. There is no room in that for this kind of fear or hatred. No room at all. Once you love someone, they are your enemy no longer.  So even the label enemy becomes a problem.  We also need to be careful about being silent in the face of such anger, hatred and condemnation.  Once again I also find myself thinking about the Martin Niemoller's poem - 
"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."
      As I said above, it is amazingly freeing to find I don't need to judge others, just appreciate what is beautiful and good about them.  Thank you, again, David, for giving me the gift of modeling this kind of compassion, care and respect for others.  In this time of such fear, anger, hatred and polarization you model for me peace.  I can rest in that.  Thank you.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Sunday's Sermon - Preparing for the Unknown

Mal. 3:1-4
Luke 3:1-6

            How many of you have seen the movie “French Kiss?”  The movie begins with Meg Ryan’s character, Kate, acting as a typical middle class person, saving money, planning for the future, working hard to make the dreams of many a typical middle class person come true.  She is engaged to a Doctor, and living in a home away from home, which for her is Canada, hoping to become a Canadian citizen.  She has saved enough money to buy a wonderful house and she is dreaming and planning for the family and kids she hopes to have.  She seems happy and excited about her life and the only clue we are given that things are not all that they seem is that she is terrified of flying.  So when her fiancé invites her to go with him to France, she declines, despite all his urgings.  The crisis in the movie comes just a few minutes later when her fiancé calls from France to tell her that he has met a “Godesse” in France and that he will not be returning to her.  She feels the secure walls of her life begin to crumble and she pushes herself to fly to France, despite her terror, in a desperate attempt to “get him back!”   When she arrives in France, she is met by a number of people who block her attempts to connect with her fiancé and finally everything she has is stolen from her.  She finds herself across the world from her home, without fiancé, without possessions, without security, “without my vitamins!!” as she declares, and on top of that because she left Canada to fly to France before her resident visa was approved, neither Canada nor the United States will give her a new visa.  She has in the span of a day, gone from being a complete “has” to being a total “has not.” 
            At first she is devastated.  But as she later explains, “I thought, there is no way that everything I was building for would be destroyed ... and so I bought a plane ticket, got on the plane, somehow made it over the big blue ocean,... and then the most extraordinary thing happened.  Everything went wrong.  I was wandering the streets of Paris, penniless, without a hope in the world.  And let me tell you, you can do a lot of soul searching in a time like that and I realized that I spent most of my adult life trying to protect myself from exactly this situation.  And you can’t do it.  There is no home safe enough, there is no country nice enough, there’s no relationship secure enough.  You’re just setting yourself up for an even bigger fall and having an incredibly boring time in the process.”
            Throughout the movie Kate learns to let go of her fear, to the point that towards the end of the movie she gives away her life savings to someone she expects to never see again - out of love - just because.
            The lesson in the story is pretty clear.  Out of our fear of losing the security, the wealth, the status that we have, we sometimes fail to appreciate the most important thing of all: the gift of life that God has given us. We fail to really live that life, but instead are controlled by our need for security. Still, most of us are not put into the situation where we are forced to reevaluate and reexamine our priorities, our fears, and our use of resources....
            Unless, of course, we are Christians who take seriously that this is a part of God’s call for our lives.  Especially during times like advent and lent, times of preparing, we are called to reexamine our lives, and to make some significant changes.
            Today’s passage in Luke tells us that we are to prepare for Christ’s coming.  More than that it tells us HOW we are to prepare.  John, we are told, was proclaiming a baptism of repentance.  We are to prepare for Christ’s coming by repenting.  Repenting does not mean being sorry for something you’ve done.  It does not mean wallowing in guilt or shame.  It literally means turning the other way, choosing a new direction.  It means committing to a radical change and then doing it, living out that change.  This passage in Luke details what that path is to look like.  We are told to make straight the paths for God’s coming.  In other words, we are called to repent, or rather, to really look at our ways, look at our actions and our behaviors, and then change them, being focused and direct in our behaviors, no longer taking roads to the right or left that are distractions and are all over the map.  The rest of the passage from Luke also helps explain this.  Luke continues, quoting Isaiah, by telling us what God’s coming will be about.  God will raise the valleys and bring low the mountains.  Raising up the valleys and bringing the mountains low: what is that all about? 
            This passage is talking about systemic change.  It is talking about even-ing out of the playing field.  It’s about confronting and not allowing suffering; lifting up the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, bringing them into physical, emotional, societal ... complete relief. We are all for that.  Of course we are.  As people of faith, we want the oppressed and those suffering to be okay.  However, he doesn’t just talk about raising up the valleys.  He also talks about bringing down the mountains.  It is also about bringing low the high and mighty: liberating the famous from their burden of constant attention, the powerful from their total control, and liberating the rich from their excess stuff.  And while we may not be powerful or famous, we are, in comparison to the rest of the world, very, very rich.  And while I know it sounds funny to talk about liberating the famous, powerful and rich, the reality is that God is about that, too.  These things that we seek after imprison people.  The famous really do loose their privacy, and sometimes their sense of self, because the person everyone sees and adores (or hates) is not the real person whom it takes time and intimacy to know.  The powerful carry the burden of huge responsibility and what it means to choose life for some, and often death or poverty for others.  And the rich, well the more people have, the more they fear to lose.  They end up becoming owned by their stuff, controlled by their fear of losing that stuff.  Now they have to have an alarm system or systems to protect their stuff.  Now every stranger is a potential danger.  And we live in fear of not having a high enough paying job, of something happening that will cost us more than we “can afford” if we want to maintain the style of living to which we are accustomed.  We’ve talked before about how the poorest people in Central America, for example, a family with six kids who live in a one room house with dirt floors, will give you their only chicken as a meal: will serve you truly the best they have, and they will feel honored, happy, proud in the best sense to have been able to offer that kind of hospitality.  In contrast a person living in a million dollar home here will begrudge a poor homeless person a dollar for something to eat.  We may feel we own our stuff, but it is at least a mutual owning and often times I think our stuff has ultimate control.  So in this passage from Luke we are told that God is about redeeming all people: the poor will have more than one chicken to share, the oppressed will regain their dignity and respect.  The powerful will be relieved of their burdens, and the rich will no longer have so much that they live in the fear of losing it.  ALL flesh, as it says here, will see the salvation of God.
            We then prepare for God’s coming in two ways.  First, we are called as part of our repentance to understand our part both in the current situation of haves and have-nots, but also in the new creation that we are told God will bring.  Even those of us who are “poor” in this room are richer than most of the world.  We are called to repent our having at the cost of others who have not.  And we are called to look at the promise God makes to bring the hills low and raise the valleys, recognizing that even-ing out for most of us will mean we have less.  We will be liberated from our nice cars, from our fancy computers and phones, from all of our electronic toys. The good news for us is there really will be freedom in that, no matter what our current fears.  Not easy to see from where we sit.  But remember God wants us to be as whole as we can be and this will be part of that wholeness.
            Second, this passage says we are called to prepare for Christ’s coming by making the way straight.  Making the way straight, preparing for God’s coming looks like choosing to be part of that world where all have enough, because we are not so rich anymore. It is a call to us for just action on our part.  We make the way straight by no longer bending the road to the distractions of that luxury over there, or this status over here or that entertainment over there.   In other words, we make the way straight by being part of bringing that justice to the world.   We are called to prepare for Christ’s coming by caring for one another, at the deepest level.
            This is more than charity. Because sometimes charity keeps the needy needing.  Charity keeps some as givers and some as receivers.  It doesn’t ultimately raise the valleys and bring low the mountains.  I’m not saying that charity isn’t important.  It is a good start.  Teaching a person to fish is pointless if their stomach is so empty they can’t see the fishing pole.  But this passage calls us to something much more than charity.  It calls for systemic change in the way we treat one another, in the way we see one another, in the way we interact with one another.  That person who is poor is your BROTHER.  That woman who is crazy and angry and even violent is your SISTER.  And we are called to LOVE HER with respect and care.
            Part of what keeps our preparations for Christ’s coming less in the realm of total change and more in the area of shopping and baking cookies, is that when we prepare for Christ’s coming at Christmas, we tend to be imagining Christ as the Christmas stories show us: as a baby. 
            That is important and good.  There is a great gift in seeing God enter the world helpless, in innocence, in vulnerability, in humility.  There is incredible joy and peace in seeing Christ as a baby, someone we cannot help but love and adore, someone who depends on our care for survival and who is therefore everything good that a baby can be.
            But the passage we read today from Malachi calls us to something different.  This passage from Malachi says that God’s coming will be as unlike a baby as we might imagine.  Malachi describes God’s coming how?  Like a refiner’s fire: a fire used to purify metals like gold and silver: very hot, very true, very intense.  Malachi also says that it will be like fuller’s soap, which is a very harsh soap: it cleans deeply and purely, but not without pain or cost.
            God comes to us then in different ways.  Yes, as a baby.  But also as one who calls us, commands us even, to act with justice and love towards our enemies.  And God comes as the one who will clean us into the righteous behavior, into that love, sometimes in uncomfortable ways.  There are many ways God comes to us. Preparing for God is always, then, preparing for the unexpected.
            One evening about eight years ago, my family and I were sitting around the dinner table talking about our experiences of the day.  We were feeling down and were talking about some of the terrible things we had heard in the news that day.  Natural disasters, violence, war.  Closer to home, another parishioner was seriously ill, there was a conflict in the church with a neighbor, road rage was getting all of us down.  It was a lot to hear and experience in one day.  I found myself sitting there feeling helpless, wondering what we were supposed to do, how we were supposed to be God’s voice in the world in the midst of the pain and chaos, when Jasmyn, then only three years old, suddenly piped up, “I heard God talk to me today.”  I’ve shared with you before about Jasmyn’s conversations with God, and this was one of them.  As I’ve said before, when it comes to children hearing God’s voice I do not doubt this reality.  Call me superstitious if you will, but I deeply believe that children have a connection to the Divine that many of us have lost.  So when Jasmyn told me she heard God’s voice, there was no doubt in my mind that she actually had. And I wondered what God’s message to her, and perhaps to all of us present might be.  So I turned and said, “Yes, Jasmyn?  And what did God say to you?”
Her eyes opened really wide and she leaned forward and said in an intense whisper, “This is my World.”  “This is my world.”  This is God’s World.
            God appears to us sometimes as one convicting us of failing to love one another fully.  Other times God appears to us as a baby, newly born, dependent on our love and care, trusting us, reaching out to us.  And sometimes God just shows up in the unexpected moments of our grumpiness, in our helplessness, in our fear or pain or joy or confusion.  We need to keep our eyes open.  For God is there, calling us to care completely with all that is ours.  For this is God’s world, and we are called by that to act with justice, to act with humility, and to look for God’s coming in unexpected and amazing places, to make the paths straight. 
            I invite you this Advent to prepare by looking at the ways in which we support the system of haves and have-nots.  I invite you to look at your life and scrutinize the ways in which we fail to bring the mountains low and raise the valleys up.  I invite you to see in what ways that failure is holding you back from becoming the whole person God calls you to be.  And then I encourage you to change, to repent, not out of guilt, but out of a recognition that we are called to be part of making the paths straight for God’s coming.

            God does come, God will come, in wonderful, glorious, awesome ways.  God’s coming will, no doubt, be surprising.  God’s coming will, no doubt, happen, again and again.  So prepare for it, through repentance, through justice, through peace, through love.  In Christ’s name we pray.  Amen.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

A Moment to Pause in Gratitude

It may seem strange, in the midst of all that is horrible and awful in the world right now to take a moment to pause in gratitude.  But I find that gratitude grounds me.  It helps me gain the peace and strength back to stand up to what is hard and unjust in the world.  In the midst of pain, taking time to remember that there are still good and beautiful things centers me.  It reminds me to see all of life, not just those things that are hard.  It helps me to recall me that the world is worth fighting for, that life is worth fighting for.  Gratitude reminds me that in every moment there is more to be thankful for than to fear, more good to be found and lived than we can imagine.  It puts me back into this moment.  Now.  Not what has happened and not what will happen, but this moment.  For it is in this moment that we find God, and with God, we can step forward into anything.

So it is from this place that I choose today to take a moment to pause in gratitude.  The first thing that I am grateful for is the beautiful trees I see from my office window:

I am grateful to be "home".  While I miss many people and places in Ohio, there is something about being home, seeing the familiar hills, the familiar trees, being with the people I've loved for decades and whom I love still.  There is something wonderful about driving the familiar highways, about the hills and evergreen trees, about the sunshine the way it is in this place which feels almost miraculous.  I missed this place, and I am incredibly grateful to be here once again.  I have not yet remembered how to take the everyday sun for granted.  I have not yet remembered how to underappreciate the unique smell and feel of the air here.  When I drive out here I feel a sense of peace and "home" like I experience no where else.  For this I am truly, deeply thankful.

I am grateful for the connections I made in Ohio.  Some of those people are "forever friends" and for them I am intensely appreciative.  They saw me through the hardest time in my life, and I will never forget that or take that for granted.  I was not my best while I was there.  A crisis like we went through can, and at times does, bring out the worst in us.  And for those who understood that and were able to stand by me at my worse, who never wavered in their care, who put aside judgment in favor of love, who knew that sometimes all we need is a smile or a hug, I am unbelievably and eternally thankful.

I am grateful for the folk at Bethel.  You all continue to be my extended family.  I love you all so very much.  It makes me happy to be able to go out and sing with a few folk the last few weeks and visit with a few others and just be in that space and feel that even though I am no longer working there, that it is still a home for me.  For Sarah, who mentors me and supports me and for all the Bethel folk, thank you!

I am grateful for the people at Clayton Valley.  You have embraced me and my family with such fullness. We feel we are "home" here, and that, too, is an amazing gift.  You are still coming to know us and yet you have shared yourselves and your trust and your faith with us.  It is an amazing honor and privilege to be working with you!

I am grateful to my family-by-marriage who adopted me and support me despite the fact that I am no longer married to your son.  I appreciate each of you - Don, Pat, Cathy, Scott, Veronica, Lassen - for being who you are and for continuing to be family.  I am grateful for your words of wisdom, comfort, support, for your care for my kids, for the love that you give to one another and the care I see you live for the world.  I have been so blessed to be part of your family, and for that I will always be thankful.

I am grateful to my family-of-birth which supports me in physical as well as emotional ways.  For the time, energy, work, presence, care that you all give, I am grateful.  You have your challenges, and yet you find time to support me in mine.  Cindy, I am truly gifted to have you as my sister.

For the friends I have returned to, I am deeply grateful. I am tempted to name you all, but out of fear that I would forget to mention someone, know that as I write this you each go through my mind.  I again am so deeply thankful to those who put aside judgment in favor of friendship.  You are amazing and I appreciate each of you.  I will say that in this moment I am especially thinking of and grateful for Rich, Anneke and Kirsten.

For the friends farther away, around the country and around the world with whom I interact on facebook or on the phone more than in any other way, I am so grateful for your continuing faithfulness in the face of distance and time.  I know it takes time out of your life to connect with me and I feel blessed everytime you do!  Leslie and John, you are especially in my thoughts today.

I am grateful for moments of reconciliation. This last year has provided some very unexpected reconnections and moments of healing for me, and for those I am so deeply thankful.  A relationship that had burned and died 20 years ago was healed in an unexpected encounter last spring. And my gratitude about that is beyond words. Thank you, Tom, for reaching out and taking the time to talk with me. It was pure grace for me.

I am thankful for the wise and gracefilled people with whom I am blessed to interact.  Today I am especially thankful again for Sarah, but also for Jack, Charie, Will, and yes, Mark.  The grace each of you shows in adversity, the wisdom and strength each of you demonstrate daily, the modelling you do for me about how to walk in this world - for all of that I am grateful.

I am thankful for facebook connections, and today especially I am thankful for those connections to people I have not met in person or whom I have had only limited personal contact with, but whom I am growing to know. I love when you are brave and share yourselves with me. You give me the courage to do the same.

Finally, for today, I cannot go without giving a very personal thank you to David.  Thank you for loving us enough to follow us out to California.  Thank you for helping me care for my children and for loving them as you do.  Thank you for your affection, for your affirmations, for your faithfulness and steadfast loyalty.  Thank you for your generosity, the little surprises you bring to me in the form of mochas and flowers, etc. I am grateful for you.

On this day of gratitude, I find I am also grateful for the challenges life has thrown my way. They have helped me grow.  They continue to help me grow and deepen, so that I can be a better pastor, better friend, better parent and better partner.   My list could go on.  But for now I just want to say thank you.  On this hard, hard day, I am grateful.

And now, as one of my benedictions says: You have fed us, God, now send us forth, to do your will, to bring justice, grace and compassion, to make the world the place you would have it be.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

What will we do with what we are handed?

       I've found myself thinking lately about how we are affected by what life hands us.  We have control over a limited piece of our lives because we simply can't control the behavior of the people that surround us.  We also have little to no control over things like natural disasters or diseases or accidents.  Despite the pop psychology fads that tell us we can control the world with our thinking, this just isn't true.  People choose their own paths and we cannot make them do what we want. Stuff happens in nature and as individuals we have little control over it.  Our bodies get sick, despite all we might do to prevent it. The result is that unexpected stuff comes our way on a daily basis. Most of the challenges we face are small, perhaps, but others are big, life-changing events.  What we can control is how those things affect us.  How we allow them to alter our perceptions, our reactions, our outlook on life, our interactions with others, the very way we walk in the world - these are things over which we have more control.
     I've found myself thinking about this as I've watched what life is doing and has done to many of those I love and to other people around me.  I've found myself thinking about this as I've watched the decline in our society, the increasing violence and hatred and anger and fear.
     I watched a woman I deeply cared about many years ago become bitter, cynical and angry after her husband left her to run off with a woman 25 years her junior.  I watched that decline, I experienced it as little things would set her off and lead her to make nasty comments.  She didn't seem to be in control of anything anymore, but was just rageful and nasty to a world that she felt had so deeply injured her.
     I watched a man I deeply cared about withdraw from the world after being put through a bureaucratic hell after he stood up to an injustice.  I watched that and experienced it as it became harder and harder to connect with him.  Phone calls were no longer returned, he went to live in isolation from everyone and everything.
     We read in the news story after story of people who act out in extreme violence, either alone or in groups.  These are people who've also experienced tragedies and injustice and they have responded to it by inflicting damage on others.  Big damage.  Serious damange.  Life-ending damage.
       And then on the other hand, all the people I most admire and look up to are people who have survived unspeakable crises and tragedies and who have come out the other side as people of peace, promoting love, forgiveness, and a vision of a world in which these horrible things don't happen anymore.  They act out the belief that we create the world we want and they choose to turn their suffering into wisdom, into compassion, into grace and into a deeper love for the world and for others.  Many are the typical people we honor and respect: Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi, Jesus.  Others are less well known - Corrie Ten Boom, Maya Angelou.  Still others are people I've been blessed to know personally and to interact with.  Ben Weir is one of those people for me.  He was taken hostage in Lebanon (by another extremist Muslim group) and held in captivity for 16 months. And yet, he wrote and spoke and preached and taught nothing but understanding, forgiveness and peace.  I have been blessed to know him personally, to call him "friend".  But he's always been more than that for me.  He has been a model for how to walk in the world, not allowing the pain and suffering to injure one's soul, to damage one's spirit.  He still advocates for conversation and understanding between people of different faith traditions, and he still treats each individual as just that - a person, a child of God, a person on the way.
      I am in contact with a prisoner who, when we talk, shares with me stories of joy in the midst of living in hell.  He boosts my spirits more than I boost his, often, because he chooses to focus on the good, even in terrible circumstances.  He told me today that he takes the bread he is given for breakfast each day and feeds the birds with it; that he finds amazing grace and joy in being able to care for the animals around him in this way.  It means he eats less...he is given a set amount and he chooses to use it in this way.  But he has found that the joy of feeding others (even birds) is more important sometimes than eating a full meal himself.
     The choices that both of these men and so many others make; that choice to see and choose good; to see and choose peace, forgiveness, joy, LOVE in the midst of horrific circumstances, it calls me to task.  It calls me to task every single day.
     I complain about little things.  I get upset over things that really don't matter in the big scheme. And then I think about these folk.  I think about what others go through and have gone through.  And I realize that if they can choose to allow their hardships to make them better rather than bitter, to teach them forgiveness rather than revenge, to make them graceful rather than angry, to soften them rather than make them cynical and violent, what excuse do I have for not choosing the same?
     I'll admit, I worked hard to move the big crises in our lives into a place where they softened me, deepened me, made me more whole, more grace-filled, more compassionate.  But there has been other "damage" sent my way that has not gone to this place in me.  I look back, and some of these things were big and some were small, some were intentional, some were not.  But I have allowed my soul to be damaged by certain folk, by certain actions, by certain choices others have made.  Even as I write this I feel that anger tugging in me again, calling me to wish bad for those who have hurt me, to choose to fight back rather than to forgive. I think about what I lost, what I gave up to those people and those situations.  And then I remember that allowing another to damage me is a choice I make.  Whatever their intentions, I make the choice about where it goes in me.  I cannot change what they did.  I cannot change how others were impacted by their behavior.  I cannot change their actions, thoughts, feelings or intentions.  But I can change how it affects ME.
     One day at a time I choose to seek peace and forgiveness rather than anger and revenge.  One day at a time I choose to breathe in life rather than breathing out rage.  One day at a time I choose to call on the spirit of peace rather than the spirit of violence.  One moment at a time I choose gratitude for the gifts that surround me this day rather than bitterness at the brambles that have crossed my path.
     I am not as gifted as my heroes and models at choosing love over fear or anger.  But I am working on it.  And I begin that path towards shalom, towards wholeness, with gratitude for those who do model a way for peace for me.  Thank you God for these souls who choose a different way.  They give me daily hope that this is a path I can learn as well.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Sunday's sermon - Reading the Signs and Thanksgiving

Reading the Signs
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Luke 21:25-36

In today’s lesson from Luke, Jesus is talking about a new day coming.  He is announcing what that will look like when the new earth begins.  But the pictures that he draws are not pretty.  “On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea.   People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”  These catastrophes, these crises, these traumas, they are the sign of the new world coming, a new life coming.  They are the sign that things are changing. 
Do we experience these things now?  Of course we do, as did the Israelites in their time as well.  People are scared, people are angry.  We hear a lot about fear, anger, and hate.  At some level this happens in all times, but right now it seems particularly acute once again.  And the scriptural message to us is two things.  First, when horrible things are happening, these are invitations for us to rely more fully on God, to trust in God knowing that God is with us in these changes, in these challenges.  And second, these difficult signs and hard times are actually fertile ground for new birth, for new life, for a resurrection that comes again and again, and again.  These hard times provide an opportunity to approach life differently, to do it again, right this time, to truly seek to live in LOVE rather than fear or hate.  To work towards good rather than towards polarization and enmity.  Again, to live as we are called to do, in gratitude, hope, and love rather than in anger and fear.
Today we begin the new church year.  Today is our New Year’s day in the church.  And we begin the new church year with anticipation of the new life that is coming, as we look towards Jesus being born anew into our lives.  We remember that out of whatever chaos we have and do experience, new life will come.  And yet, Advent is not the time when that new birth has happened.  It is a time of waiting for the birth of Christ.  We wait for God’s presence to show us how to live and what to do.  We wait for God to come anew among us.  We wait for the new thing God is doing.
Waiting is hard.  We aren’t a people who wait easily.  In our instant gratification society, it is especially hard to wait.  We don’t want to wait for food so we get “fast food”.  We don’t want to wait for the mail, so we do our correspondence instantly through email, or even faster through texts.  And yet, advent calls us to do exactly that.  We start the year by doing the thing that is hardest for us to do – to wait.
I can’t think of a more appropriate thing to do when the world is in chaos.  I know we want answers now, we want solutions NOW.  We want it fixed now.  But wisdom does not come instantly.  The beginning of the church year teaches us, right off the bat, that there is great learning to be done and great gifts to be found in being patient, in waiting for God to come, as God does – at Christmas in the form of a baby, but among us as well, in many, many forms.  Waiting does more than this as well.
Jack Shriver shared with us at lectionary group this last week that according to Buddhism there are really only two emotions and we have to choose which one we go with.  There is fear, and there is love.  There is a reason that throughout the bible God’s angels say, “do not be afraid” again and again and again.  It is in our scriptures over 100 times, and  out of Jesus’ mouth over 20 times.  Why?  Because when we are in fear, we cannot love.  We cannot have compassion.  We move towards anger, which moves towards hate, which causes suffering, as Yoda would say.  But when we are in love, we see with eyes of compassion, of grace, we see with an effort to understand the other rather than judge the other.  We see with eyes that move towards wisdom and deep solutions. 
When we are in fear mode we tend to be reactive.  Psychology tells us that when we are afraid or angry, certain parts of our brains, in particular the higher thinking, actually get shut off.  There was an article out about that just this week of a study done at Bangor University that showed this to be the case.  Do you not experience this yourselves?  The stupid things we say tend to only be said when we are angry or afraid.  The really dumb things we’ve done tend to be done in times of fear and anger.  As a side note, for some reason this doesn’t come up in conversations about easy access to weapons and it should.  It isn’t just mental illness that causes people to react in violence.  There was a story out this week about a waitress shot to death after asking a man to not smoke in the Waffle House.  He got angry. And when people become fearful or angry, those higher processes that say, “don’t do this really stupid thing” - they literally turn off.  The angrier or more afraid we become, the more fully they turn off – for ALL of us! Obviously we all need to work some on anger and fear management, but we will get angry, we will become afraid.  And in those times our higher thinking will shut down.  That is not where we want to be when we are making the difficult decisions about how to deal with crises like we are facing as a world today.  But those feelings of fear and anger cannot be turned off immediately when we are in crisis.  It takes time, and often prayer and meditation, or quiet listening, to still our hearts and minds to the point where we can move more towards love and from there make good decisions.  In other words, waiting, the call of Advent to WAIT, allows us to move out of our fear and into the more rational, logical, helpful, loving and wise parts of our brains.
There is an old Cherokee story in which a man told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all.  One is Evil.  It is anger, it is hatred, under all of that it is fear, and from those places it does evil.  The other is Good.  It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, compassion and truth. and from those places does good.”  The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”  The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”  Waiting is taking the time before feeding either wolf to listen for God, to be led by wisdom, to watch and hope. 
I like very much that Advent follows immediately after Thanksgiving.  Because I think that wisdom and waiting also have to begin with gratitude.  Being grateful, focusing on the good, remembering that God has blessed us with so very much in every day also quiets the heart and mind and stills the fear. 
            Some of you, I know, have begun gratitude journals.  These take different forms.  In one gratitude practice, at the end of each day you are asked to list 5 things for which you are grateful.  In another there are specific areas you look at each day over 30 days in which you name something for which you are grateful.  It doesn’t matter how you do this.  A recent study showed that taking time each day to be grateful improves our overall outlook.  It improves our sense of well-being.  It makes us calmer in the face of crises.  It lifts depression.  And it increases our ability to make good decisions rather than panicked, fearful decisions.
            It also reminds us to live in hope.  We don’t just wait.  We watch and we hope. 
            The God we wait for, the Jesus that we anticipate coming came to give us LIFE so we could LIVE.  He called us not to live in fear, but to aim for love in all things.  Gratitude helps us to wait, to watch, to be hopeful.
            Psalm 140, translated by Nan C. Merrill reads like this:
Deliver me, O Giver of Breath and Life, 
from the fears that beset me; 
help me confront the inner shadows 
that hold me in bondage, like a prisoner 
who knows not freedom. 
They distract me from all 
that I yearn to be, 
and hinder the awakening of 
hidden gifts 
that I long to share with others.
For are we not called to make Love 
conscious in our lives? 
You are the Light of those 
imprisoned in darkness. 
Surely You will guide us 
into the new dawn, 
that we may live as co-creators 
with You.
        Jesus was born into a chaotic and broken world as a baby, helpless, innocent, gentle.  But we are not at the birth yet.  As we begin our new year, I invite all of us to begin again, and to begin again by being still, by waiting, by watching for what God is doing and where God is leading us.  I invite us all to start with gratitude and remember all the good that God has done in each of our lives.  We can trust in those blessings, that they are there every day for us, that they will come every day.  We can have the wisdom to not live in fear, but to live in love.  We can take the time to wait for wisdom to come, as God comes all the time, as Jesus came to us at Christmas.  We can watch for where God is coming now, and we can being the year with Hope. It is, after all, what we are called to do on this the first Sunday of Advent.  

Monday, November 23, 2015

Yesterday's Sermon - Giving from our Need

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
               Mark 12:38-44

There once was a very poor man who found himself in desperation making a deal with God before a priest and several parishioners.  “I promise, God, if you let me make some money, I will give you a dollar for every ten I make.”  Sure enough after a time he found a ten dollar bill, and just as he promised, he gave one of those ten to God. The man’s riches began to grow.  After a while he found himself making $1000 a month, and still he kept to his word, giving $100 to God, just like he promised.  His riches grew even more and in time he was making $100,000 a year.  This meant though that he was giving $10,000 a year back to God.  This began to feel like a whole lot of money that he was giving up.  He did it, but much more grudgingly.  By the time he made $1,000,000 he became very uncomfortable about giving $100,000 of that to God.  He went back to the priest and asked if there was any way he could get out of his deal with God.  The priest thought about it for a minute and finally replied, “I don’t think so, but if you would prefer to go back to giving only a dollar, I’m sure God would be happy to reduce your income back to 10!”      
Isn’t it easier to give more when you have less?  Statistics prove this out – that the poorest people give a much greater percentage of their incomes to charities, especially the church, than wealthier folk.  But we can see it for ourselves, sometimes in incredibly profound ways.  Jack Shriver told me about his mission work on the border handing out food, water and medicines to those crossing into the United States.  He said that the volunteers who were trying to help avoid more deaths and dying, especially in the children, would call out announcing that they had food and medicine and water to share and that sometimes people would come, though many times, out of fear, they would stay hidden.  One time, however, those hearing the group calling, “food, water, medicine”, came timidly out, with their tiny bags of belongings.  They had misunderstood the call “food, water, medicine” as a cry for help.  And they came out with the little amounts they had, the tiny amounts they had, apologetically offering everything they had left, while knowing that if they gave away the little they had, they might not survive the journey.  Even so, assuming that the group that had come down to help was in fact in need, they offered what they had.  Even in the face of the tiny amount they had to survive, they offered it to those they believed were also in need. 
I experienced the same thing when I was with a group touring Guatemala and Nicaragua.  We met some of the poorest of the poor -  people who lived bunched together in homes put together from what they could find; people who struggled daily just to live.  None the less, these people would gather whatever food resources they had to offer us, wealthy Americans, the best food that they had, food they could not afford, but that they gave from their hearts, just because we were there to hear them, to meet them, to be with them. 
This doesn’t just happen in other cultures either.  There have been several videos circulating recently that have looked at some of the behaviors of the homeless in our own culture.  In one video a man, well dressed, clean, clearly with resources, was asking people on the street for hugs.  Not money, not anything except a hug.  But as he passed all the people heading to shop or to work or to wherever they were going, no one passing would give him a hug.  Not one person.  They were afraid or they were wary.  Whatever it was, they avoided him, said no, walked (ran) away.  So he approached a bunch of homeless people.  And in contrast, not one of them turned him away.  They don’t have resources, but they still had care and affection to give. 
In another video, a man approached a homeless man and gave him a $10 bill.  The homeless man was taken aback and asked him why he had done this.  The first man said he just thought the homeless man could use the money.  The homeless man stared at him for a minute and then said, “Please, sit down for a minute.  Just a minute!  I’ll be right back!”  The first man sat, not knowing what to expect, but in a minute the homeless man returned, with two lunches that he had bought at the nearby store, one of which he gave to the first man.  The first man now was the one who was stunned.  He said, “Why did you do this?  You could have saved that money to spend on a second lunch tomorrow!”  But the homeless man said, “Well, you see, I could.  I had the money and I would like to share this meal with you.”  Out of the little he had, he gave half to someone who wasn’t even asking for it, just because he could. 
In the book, “Richistan”, the author, Robert Frank discussed several studies which showed that no matter how much money a person earned, no matter how much, whether it was $10,000 a year or $10 billion a year, most people felt that if they only made exactly twice what they were making now they would be okay.  Most people, regardless of their income, felt that they just didn’t have nearly enough.  This points to the reality that as humans we NEVER are satisfied, we never feel we have enough, we always think we need more.   The book also showed that actually making more money did not increase happiness, having more money did not increase a sense of well-being.  Money does not in fact make us happier.  It does, however, increase our sense of what we need.  What we perceive to be our needs often grows beyond our incomes, no matter what they are.  We can see it happening in our lives and in the lives of those around us, but it is hard to stop it.  In contrast to the stories I have just told about poor people around the world, a person I know whom I will call “Sally” has an income that exceeds mine by over five times.  Sally spends a great deal of time and energy worrying about her money, and is right now in a place where she absolutely finds it impossible to be generous with time, talents or money.  She is often found lamenting how trapped she feels, how tight things are financially.  She is often found complaining that she doesn’t know how the bills will be paid next month.  And the truth is that she isn’t making this up.  She really does struggle to keep up her expected standard of living.  Her investment properties, her cars, her get away homes, the time she spends with friends of like economic status at vacation spots, expensive restaurants, her home remodel – all of these things do take every bit of the income that she brings in as well as every extra minute of her time.  Of course, for those of us who don’t live like that, it is easy to see the other side.  How much of that is necessary spending?  How much is luxury?  But this is what Sally is used to, what she knows, what she has come to believe is necessary. 
She has forgotten the bigger picture…the picture that says that none of her resources are actually her own.  They are all God’s and therefore should be used for the good of all rather than the good of just Sally.  She has lost touch with the fact that one of the meals she eats out in a month at these luxurious restaurants could feed a family overseas for six months and that this is a better use of God’s resources.  Sally has become owned by her possessions and lost in her material wealth.  And she is poorer because of it.  We do the same.  If each of us were to commit to eating out one less time a month, or giving our coffee money for one week of every month to those who really need it, we could make an amazing difference in the world.  But we stop seeing these things as luxuries.  We forget that we don’t NEED these things.  And we forget that all of these resources are God’s, entrusted to us for the good of the world.
But the reality is that I don’t actually want to guilt you into giving money to the church.  Because we are not called to give out of guilt.  We are not called to give out of guilt.  We are called to give out of gratitude.  Everything we have has been given to us from a God who loves us beyond our imagining.  And that is cause for giving and for celebration.
In today’s scripture the poor widow put more in than all the rest.  She put in everything that she had.  I don’t think she was sitting there calculating what percentage of her things she was contributing to God.  I don’t think she put that money in out of guilt or even a sense of obligation.  She gave all that she had because she loved God, because her faith is what made her rich, not her money.  She was grateful for that day in her life, for the blessings that she had, though others might see them as few, and so she returned to God what she had been given.  How powerful is that?  How faithful is that to return to God all that you have, knowing that God will use that gift – that gift of all of you – for the good of all people?
We are called to lift up our joys every week as a way of remembering the blessings God has given us.  We are called to serve God with everything we do – choosing work that empowers God’s people and takes care of God’s creation.  We are called in every interaction to be loving and caring and warm.  We are called to give back from our talents, from our resources, from our money, from our gifts – not because it is “the right thing to do” (though it is), but because we remember that God has blessed us and continues to bless us in every moment and because of that insight, because of the wealth that our love of God gives to us, we are grateful, we are so grateful, that we can hold nothing back.  It is all God’s and so we are given the opportunity to give it back. 
At a church meeting a very wealthy man rose to tell the rest of those present about his Christian faith. "I'm a millionaire," he said, "and I attribute it all to the rich blessings of God in my life. I remember that turning point in my faith. I had just earned my first dollar and I went to a church meeting that night. The speaker was a missionary who told about his work. I knew that I only had a dollar bill and had to either give it all to God's work or nothing at all. So at that moment I decided to give my whole dollar to God. I believe that God blessed that decision, and that is why I am a rich man today."
He finished and there was an awed silence at his testimony as he moved toward his seat. As he sat down a little old lady sitting in the same pew leaned over and said to him: "I dare you to do it again."

That dare, that challenge applies to us as well.  But not out of guilt.  God has blessed us and we are in gratitude and love given the gift of being able to offer it back.  That is a joy.  And it is a privilege.  Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Today's Sermon - What to do now?

Matthew 5:38-48

Today is supposed to be the day that I preach on Stewardship, or giving to the church.  I had the sermon written and prepared.  It was an acceptable stewardship sermon, full of examples and stories – perhaps you will hear it next week.  You know the point of it anyway, the church can’t survive without you.  You are the church, and therefore we need all of who you are.  Blah Blah Blah.  Important stuff?  Of course.
But it isn’t what is important today.  So last night after being glued to Facebook on and off throughout the day, to friends’ posts about the news and to news sources themselves I realized the sermon I’d written had to be tossed, or at least postponed.  Because that’s not what we need today.  That’s not where we are today as a people.  We are instead on Friday the 13th, 2015.  As I understand it, within a 24 hour period we had terrorist attacks in Paris, an earthquake in Japan, a funeral bombed in Baghdad, Suicide bombings in Beirut and another earthquake in Mexico.  Through these events and these events alone in a 24 hour period it is guesstimated that we lost 115,200 human lives.  In 24 hours.  And that does not count the murders and suicides and deaths to hunger, starvation, dehydration, kidnapping, spousal abuse, or natural disasters around the world other than the two mentioned that went on yesterday.  It does not count the violence, the pain, the suffering that went on in the world that just permanently damaged individuals and communities around the world.  It does not count those lost to disease and car accidents and SIDS and old age.  There was suffering in that 24 hour period.  And beyond that I understand there was an attack on a university in Kenya that ended with 147 dead, also from a fundamentalist group similar to Isis called Al Shabab.  It goes on.  And on.  And the result is real suffering.  Great suffering.
      And not just in isolated pockets.  There is a poem out by Warsan Shire, “later that night I held an atlas in my lap, ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered, “where does it hurt?”  It answered, “everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.”
      In the midst of all of that, what are we to do?  How are we to feel and act and live?  How are we supposed to respond?  How are we supposed to get up each morning like the world is normal and fine and God’s beautiful creation?  And then, and then, the passage our pastor decides to read to us is about loving our enemies!  Is she nuts?  Is she crazy?  That is not where we are right now!  That is not how we feel right now!
      And the truth is, I’m with you on that.  The truth is that feelings like sorrow, like forgiveness, like loving those who hurt us – those things feel weak in the face of what the world is experiencing. How is love a realistic response to what went on in Paris, Baghdad, Beirut, Kenya?!  We know what happens to those who practice love in the face of stuff like this!!  Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, JFK, Jesus!  Look what happened to them?  They ended up dead!  Killed.  All of them. Dead.  And if it was just our lives on the line, maybe that would feel okay.  But what about when it is our children?  My children?  My family?  My community?  Aren’t we supposed to defend the week and oppressed and downtrodden?  Aren’t we supposed to do something?  And mustn’t that something be violent so the point is made?  Mustn’t that something be so huge and dramatically vengeful that we get the attention of those lousy Isis people and make them stop??!!  They need to suffer as we have suffered.  We want them punished.  Anger feels strong!  Vengeance feels strong!  Retaliation feels strong!  Those aren’t the weak emotions of grief, of sorrow, or of love!  Right?

      I found myself reading article after article written by people I respect, admire, value.  I read argument after argument about the “correct” responses to all of this.  All sorts of ideas are being expressed, as they always are.  David is a Marine.  And he admitted that that part of him fires up in the face of all of this.  But he’s also now very close to a person who takes very seriously Jesus' call to turn the other cheek – I take it so seriously that I pretty much consider myself a pacifist.  I agree with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr when he said “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  But what do we do with either of those philosophies when what is really under them all is simply raw pain.  Grief.  Loss. Incomprehension about what is happening to our world, in our world, around our world.  In our communities, with our friends.  With those we love….
      Anne Lamott wrote this, “So where do we find grace and light? If you mean right now, the answer is Nowhere. It's like after a child dies. Grace always does bat last, and the light always overcomes the darkness--always, historically. But not necessarily later the same day, or tomorrow, after lunch. Wendell Berry told me 25 years ago, in Advent, the darkest shortest days of winter, "It gets darker and darker and darker, and then Jesus is born." But it is only November 13! It gets even darker. What is the answer? Gandhi is almost always the answer. Jesus's love for the poor and refugees is the answer. Adding a bit of light and warmth to these cold dark days doesn't hurt. Candles are beautiful and bring a soupçon of solace to our souls. People living on the streets could really use your old blankets and jackets.  Grace will always show up in the helpers, as Mr. Rogers' mother used to tell him in times of tragedy. But today, right now, if you have a nice bumper sticker that explains or makes sense of what happened in Paris, it's probably best if you keep that to yourself”
       Frankly, I was tempted to read to you her whole article instead of my sermon because her writing is so profound and beautiful and right on.  But I realized that that would also not be helpful.  Because in the midst of all this, in the midst of tragedy, and pain, and loss, and confusion, what we need most is each other.  What we need most is to be together, to stand with one another, to support and love one another.  And while distant writers and not so distant writers can help us, can be part of the guides that help us through this time, what we need is immediate, is here, is now.  At a time when there is pain, and loss, and tragedy, “distant” is the opposite of what we need.
      If there is any truth to the words of Jesus and Martin Luther King, then we have to start with love. And that love has to start with those we know.  If you are a visitor, that love has to start with those right in front of you, too, from us to you, and hopefully you will feel surrounded by that in this place.  We learn through loving and being loved by those in our midst how to love those who are not in our midst.  We learn by loving and being loved by those we like how to take a chance and maybe, just maybe, love those we don’t like.  We learn from loving and being loved by those we don’t like, the first steps in loving our enemies.  But that, too, is jumping way ahead.
     For today I don’t want to argue about the best way to both love our enemies and defend the powerless.  Today I don’t want to explore what to do about what is happening to our world.  For today, for today, I believe our call is simply to begin by being together, supporting each other, loving each other and those around the world.  And I want to start by telling you that whatever you are feeling about what is happening in the world is okay.  Feelings are just feelings.  Those, too, are gifts from God, that help us know something is wrong, and help us move forward and into solutions at some point.  We don’t grieve by pushing those feelings away.  And we don’t move forward by denying them or deciding they are wrong.  If you feel angry, that’s understandable.  If you feel rage-ful, that’s okay.  If you feel sad, that is absolutely normal.  If you feel lost, or scared, or alone or confused – all of those feelings in the face of these tragedies make sense.  And we are here for you, for each other.
      And God?  Where is God in the midst of all of this?  I’m reminded of another passage.  Matthew 2: 16- 18: When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. 17 This fulfilled the word spoken through Jeremiah the prophet: A voice was heard in Ramah,
    weeping and much grieving.
        Rachel weeping for her children,
            and she did not want to be comforted,
                because they were no more.

     Where is God in this?  It is God who is weeping, not just Rachel.  It is God’s children who have been killed.  It is God’s children who are suffering.  Where is God when we are suffering?  Right with us.  Suffering as well.
      Yes, we are called to move forward, to do something, to work this through.  But today, for today, we are called to just be with our feelings, with one another, and with the God who is grieving too.