Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Sermon: The Year of Jubilee

Lev. 25, Luke 4:16-19

As you probably remember, one of the big ten commandments is to take a Sabbath day every week. While many of our commandments are hard, this one is not so much hard, as it is discounted.  I think that we don’t take it very seriously because, in this “protestant work ethic” culture, we don’t honestly see the value in rest. While a Sabbath sermon is really another conversation, the idea of Jubilee is deeply and closely related to Sabbath.  Sabbath is a day of rest every week.  Then, as we heard in today’s passage, the land is also supposed to rest every seven years for a year.  This, by the way, is where the idea of a Sabbatical also comes in.  Most pastors take a sabbatical every seven years, which is an extended period, usually three months, of break, study, family time, or rest.  I’ve never had one because the timing of switching jobs has never really allowed for it.  But I think that time of renewal and rest is usually very renewing for both pastors and congregations when it does take place.  And, frankly, there is biblical support for all of us having time of sabbatical, time of rest.
So that brings us to the third part of the Biblically mandated Sabbath - the year of Jubilee.  What do you know about the year of Jubilee? Was this passage surprising to you?  As you look at it now, what strikes you?
We go from having one day out of seven to rest, to having one year out of seven for the land to rest, for the forgiveness of debts, for the freedom of slaves, to finally, having one year every seven times seven years plus one - every fifty years, for a more complete renewal and regeneration of all that has come to pass.  Several things are to happen in this year of Jubilee.  Again, the freeing of all slaves, again the releasing of the debts, again, the resting of the land.  But also during this time, no land owner has exclusive claim to what is produced on their land: everyone can eat of the land regardless of who owns it.  Wildlife is to be given a chance to repopulate itself.  No interest is to be charged on money loaned: no one is to make money off of another’s need.  But then, if that wasn’t radical enough, we come to the even harder parts. All land is to return to those who owned it originally, and all people are to return to their place of origin.  Again, all land is to return to those who owned it originally, and all people are to return to their place of origin - to their family’s land, to their ancestral home.
The themes of freedom, and of trust are once again the focus of this jubilee year also.  It is a three fold freedom - liberty for the slaves and the imprisoned, liberty from the toil of cultivating the land, and liberty for the person who lost his inheritance and can now return to the land of his or her ancestors.  And again, trust: we trust that God will provide even though there are basically two fallow years in a row for the land (the 49th year, being seven times seven years of sabbatical followed by the fiftieth year, the year of jubilee), even though all debt is erased, even though all slaves are set free, even though everything is open to everyone: all food that grows in this year is open for use by anyone who needs it.
We don’t hear about too many of these jubilee years actually haven taken place over the course of history.  But in the passage from Luke, Biblical scholars believe that Jesus was declaring or re-instituting the year of Jubilee: the year of the Lord’s favor is a phrase that references and proclaims the jubilee year.  And the things Jesus includes to announce the coming of this year tell us much about his priorities for the year of jubilee as well.  Freedom for the imprisoned, sight for the blind, release to the oppressed.  In other words, all who are captive, including prisoners are to be set free.  All who are suffering physically will be freed from their ailments and physical problems.  All who are oppressed shall find justice and be brought into equality.  The releasing of debts and the returning of the land are ways to bring about that justice and equality as well.  Every fifty years, everything is to be forgiven, returned, set free, and allowed to rest.
What do you think practicing the year of jubilee would look like today?  What would we look like if we practiced this, as a country?  As a people?  As individuals?  First of all, if this was practiced at the beginning of the founding of our country, most of us would have needed to vacate the United States and return the land to the Native Americans a long time ago.  If we started the year of Jubilee today just returning to where we were fifty years ago, I wonder where we’d be? Where would you be?  Where was your family fifty years ago that you would need to return to?  Since we are an older congregation, many of us would probably still be here, actually, but if we were to actually practice this each fifty years, where would you have gone back to 100 years ago?  More, what would it mean for people to be completely debt free once every generation - all countries, all individuals, all families, everyone set back to ground zero - with no debts, and with no interest on loans.
But in the face of the reality that instituting the year of jubilee would probably be a big challenge for any of us, we are called to look more deeply at the reasons behind this command to keep a year of jubilee, to look at the purpose behind it and what the call to keep a year of jubilee means for each of us in a world that does not practice Jubilee.
The passage from Leviticus talks about the underlying belief of Jubilee, of the returning of  the land to the original owners.  It begins with a deep recognition that nothing here, nothing here really belongs to any of us - the land, the earth, and all that is on it belong to God.  God in turn has lent it to God’s people and while individuals or families may lose their piece for a while, it is God’s part to decide who the land goes to the end, where it serves, who it serves and how it serves. God doesn’t like a few people accumulating at the expense of the many.  That goes to the very heart of the year of jubilee and the deeper purpose behind it which is about justice: a basic justice which says that the rich should not be getting richer off of the backs of the poor.  Jubilee was an extension of the Sabbath - and began with the Day of Atonement: making amends.  And in the year of Jubilee, this amends is all about correcting the gain of a few at the expense of others. 
Our society is not set up like this. Small farmers are constantly losing their lands to the big corporations who are accumulating at the great cost to the poor. Small companies lose their business to bigger companies. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, especially in this country.  815 million people of the 7.6 billion people in the world, or 10.7%, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2016.  . In the United States, More than 13 million children in the United States live in "food insecure" homes.  In California, a Forbes study said 1/3 of all families here struggle to meet basic needs .  Poorer countries are often stuck in a vicious debt trap in which they cannot afford to repay their national debts without neglecting their people’s basic needs.  For instance, in 2005/06, Kenya’s budget for debt payments was as much as for water, health, agriculture, roads, transportation, and finance combined. 
At the same time as in our churches we ask people to tithe ten percent of their incomes - to give ten percent to the care of others, of the world, of creation, our federal budget gives less than one percent to the care of the poor.  Less than one percent.
In response to this need, and in response to the Biblical mandate to practice the year of Jubilee there has been a movement which many of you may be familiar with.  It focused originally on declaring the year 2000 as a year of jubilee. Since then, the debt of 20 small countries was relieved of debt, countries like Kenya which were being torn apart by the large debts which they had incurred. There is a foundation called Jubilee USA Network and its current grass roots organizer, Brian Swarts wrote in his blog, “God’s creative and redemptive acts are not limited to a single day or confined to “religious” activities or people. The biblical teachings on Sabbath have as much to say about everyday life issues like agriculture, economics and politics as they do about religion. Or more accurately, from a Sabbath perspective there is no distinction between religious practice, and ecological, political and economic practice. .....This redistribution limits… the monopolization of wealth… The Sabbath vision of economics was that each family would be assured enough to meet its needs, but it would discourage people from accumulating significantly more than they need. This, of course, is heretical in today’s economic system where the mantra is ‘more is better.’”
What is interesting about this is that current global research is showing that economic growth only brings us real satisfaction up to the point of meeting our basic needs (which costs about $50,000 a year in California). In other words, the people in this country who make a salary of billions a year are not any happier than those of us who just barely make ends meet.  Does this surprise you?  People deserve a living wage, adequate health care, and food security, but beyond this we spend most of our time working to acquire wealth that does not make us any happier.  What if in recognition of this fact we stopped trying to gain money to buy more for ourselves or our families but instead really put ourselves to the task of caring for the world with the money we make that is beyond providing for basic needs?  Just think what we could do!  It’s the idea of the manna all over again.  God said to the Israelites in the desert, only take what you need for today and tomorrow will be provided for.  Can we do that?
Brian Swarts continued, “Today, the Jubilee … movement is working to restore the vision of Sabbath to the global economic system. This is an international, faith‑inspired movement calling for a jubilee for the world’s most impoverished countries: a cancellation of debts and an end to economic practices tantamount to debt slavery!...In ancient Israel debt often became a vicious trap: The poor ..(would often) lose their land to wealthy creditors. In the end, their only option would be to sell themselves or their children into slavery.  The indefinite continuation of this process and the permanent enslavement of the poor is what jubilee was meant to address.”
Bono, the lead singer for the Christian rock group U2, at the 2006 National Prayer Breakfast spoke eloquently about the need for a year of jubilee, about debt relief and about our job as Christians to care for the poor in this very concrete way.  He told this story:
“A number of years ago, I met a wise man who changed my life. In countless ways, large and small, I was always seeking the Lord's blessing. I was saying, you know, I have a new song, look after it. I have a family, please look after them. I have this crazy idea...
“And this wise man said: ‘stop.’  He said, ‘stop asking God to bless what you're doing. Get involved in what God is doing ‑ because it's already blessed.’

 “Well, God, as I said, is with the poor. That, I believe, is what God is doing.  And that is what He's calling us to do....Look, whatever thoughts you have about God, who He is or if He exists, most will agree that if there is a God, He has a special place for the poor. In fact, the poor are where God lives. Check Judaism. Check Islam. Check pretty much anyone....The one thing we can all agree, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor.  God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them. ...It's not a coincidence that in the scriptures, poverty is mentioned more than 2,100 times. It's not an accident. That's a lot of air time, 2,100 mentions. (You know, the only time Christ is judgmental is on the subject of (our failing to care for) the poor.) 'As you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me' (Matthew 25:40).”
Bono also points out that we can and have made a large difference as churches to the debt relief programs. As he says, “when churches started demonstrating on debt, governments listened ‑ and acted. When churches starting organizing, petitioning, and even ‑ that most unholy of acts today, God forbid, lobbying...on AIDS and global health, governments listened ‑ and acted.”  But this is not easy.  He continues, “It's not about charity, it's about justice. And that's too bad.  Because we’re good at charity. Justice is a lot harder....It's annoying but justice and equality are mates. Aren't they? Justice always wants to hang out with equality. And equality is a real pain.  You know, think of those Jewish sheep‑herders going to meet the Pharaoh, mud on their shoes, and the Pharaoh says, 'Equal?' A preposterous idea: rich and poor are equal? And they say, 'Yeah, 'equal,' that's what it says here in this book. We're all made in the image of God." And eventually the Pharaoh says, "OK, I can accept that. I can accept the Jews ‑ but not the blacks.'  'Not the women. Not the gays. Not the Irish. No way, man.'...So on we go with our journey of equality. On we go in the pursuit of justice.  Preventing the poorest of the poor from selling their products while we sing the virtues of the free market...that's a justice issue. Holding children to ransom for the debts of their grandparents...that's a justice issue. Withholding life‑saving medicines out of deference to the Office of Patents...that's a justice issue.  And while the law is what we say it is, God is not silent on the subject.”

The Sabbath laws give us clear mandates, that sets before us very clear challenges. First, as a Sabbath day, we are seriously challenged to take a day of rest, prayer and time with your family.

Second, in answer to the call to a Sabbatical, we are called to reflect on debts you hold and to find ways to take a larger break from long term activities, focus some time on forgiving others and find ways to create Sabbath places for others, especially the poor and oppressed.

But when it comes to Jubilee, the call is to really reflect on ways we participate in the injustices in our world and to search for ways in which we can participate in a true Jubilee -freeing the oppressed, bringing sight to the blind, and returning God’s wealth to all God’s people.  Start by asking yourself the question, where did you come from?  How have you gotten to where you are today?  And how can you return the same grace God has given you throughout your life to all the people in God’s world?  Amen.

Monday, January 28, 2019

A truly awful week, personally.

This has been the week from hell.  Sorry, if it offends you to hear a pastor say that, but it's true.
          It started with my (very young in terms of maturity) 18 year old trying to get back to school and being stuck in Chicago for two and a half days, first because of storms on the coast, and second because Southwest then "lost" her new ticket.  They lost her ticket while we were trying to get working phones from ATT and had limited phone, text, and email access. That alone, trying to help my panicked daughter who, at 9:15 at night, the day after her flight was originally supposed to leave Chicago but at the time the new flight was supposed to take her, and who was lost as far as they were concerned,  while my phone, text and email access were completely limited, was unbelievably stressful for all of us.  When we finally had her scheduled for a new flight, the next day (which also meant she would miss her first day of school, something that was also stressful to my daughter since all of her classes had wait lists and she was afraid she would be dropped from them because she missed those classes), and finally figured out a way to get her from the airport then to the school (shuttles were no longer running at that point since all kids were supposed to be back in school already), then we were able to see that in the middle of all that chaos, while the ATT guy had said the phones would mean we would add $30 more to our bill each month, we had just received an email from ATT telling us that in fact our bill would jump $270 for the first month and then $170 per month after that.  Trying to call ATT to get their help, we were told all offices were closed for the day and we would have to call back in the morning.  Okay...
        The next day when I woke up my hearing was completely gone from my right ear and very minimal in my left ear.  It felt like both were completely stuffed with cotton.  I still tried to follow up with ATT who reassured me that their written email detailing the cost was wrong and that I should just trust what they had told me in the store and were now telling me on the phone.  "Can I get this in writing?"  "Well... no."  Okaaay… still waiting to see what the actual bill will be, but at that point it will be too late to go back to the store and demand a refund.  Hm.
       The next day I was on my way to the doctor to see what was going on with my ears when I received a text from my son's school saying the school was in lock down because of a gunman on campus.  I moved into full panic mode, completely unsure what to do except to try to text my son and see if he had his phone on and could give me any more information at all.  A half hour later, I did hear from him that all was okay and he'd been released but that he knew nothing else about what had happened.  In the mean time, the doctor told me (I think, because honestly, it was hard to hear him both because I can't hear and also because I was freaking out about my son) that it would take about a month for my hearing to return because I have blocked Eustachian tubes (due to a combination of a cold and TMJ.  Really?  Then why has this never happened before?) because it will take that long for the medication he's prescribing (which, by the way, makes me ill: I feel nauseated and exhausted all the time) to kick in.  Okaaay…
       I've been refinancing the house in order to buy out the church's portion since, with David's income now helping as well, it helps both the church and us for us to do this.  The church then no longer is paying off a loan, and we can build more equity on the house if we own the entire thing.  Also, it means we can work on it now without needing the church to pay for a fifth of any work we do, which would also put strain on the church.  Great.  Except the following day the final paper work came and it appeared that the title company did it wrong: We refinanced, but it still appears the church has title to the house.
       Add to all of this some crisis at church (par for the course, but this was more stressful and serious in many ways than is often the case).
       Then we come to this morning.  I was driving my youngest daughter to school when a big monster truck decides to ride my tail.  He was probably within a foot of my bumper on a 45 mile per hour road.  I was behind someone else, so this was not because I was going too slowly: there was no way I could have gone faster.  I also know I didn't cut him off since I didn't change any lanes.  It was actually really scary, so I pulled over to let him pass.  He drove as close to our car as he could, even clipping the mirror as he passed.  As he passed, I could see the anti-everybody bumper stickers on his car.  I pulled out and followed, keeping a safe distance, and saw that he was not repeating this treatment to the car now in front of him.  It turns out this was another parent at Aislynn's school: dropping off a child right in front of us.  The only thing I can think of why he was so awful is because he didn't like my "tolerance" bumper sticker.  And because he didn't like the sticker, he chose to terrify both Aislynn and I.  We were both shaking after he clipped the mirror.  This reinforces my feeling that our country is in a place of civil war.  The distance between political view points is growing, the lack of tolerance for difference is intensifying; the anger, rage and hate that gets acted out with this terrorizing car behavior (as well as much more serious acts of violence and aggression) is dangerous, is attacking, and none of us can avoid this.
      My week.
      How was yours?
      Usually I would follow a long complaining session with a reflection on our ability to choose to focus on the good instead of the difficult.  I can celebrate with great relief that the gunman scare at my son's school turned out to be a false alarm and that no-one was hurt.  I can focus on the amazing gift of having friends in Chicago who were able to help my daughter, house my daughter, for the two nights she had to stay there.  I can focus on the great learning experience it was for her to take a taxi for the first time, to trust strangers, to make new friends and to go through airport hassle in many ways alone.  I can focus on the fact that my hearing isn't permanently lost, and that ATT is promising that things will not be as expensive as the bill is saying.  I can rejoice that while this horrible truck bumped my mirror, they didn't take it off, none of us were hurt, and we are all living to see another day.  I could do that.  I could also look at the amazing good of the week: I had the opportunity to see a musical with a very good friend, I went for a wonderful hike with another very good friend, I had dinner and dessert with other friends, and have watched my eldest daughter begin her second semester with a lot more confidence and hope than her first semester. All of my kids are thriving in their own ways, they are healthy, smart, and truly kind people.  My new husband is awesome and supportive and loving and kind... All of that is really good stuff, and if I were a better person I could focus on all of the good and encourage us all to be grateful for each day and the gifts (and learning that comes with the challenges) that we are each given in every moment. But the reality of being deeply scared and worried this week for all three of my kids to different degrees, not having my hearing, and feeling sick all the time because of the medication makes it hard to just be Pollyanna-ish, or even faithfully grateful.  It was, in many ways, a bad week.  And I can only hope that this next one will be better.
       The thing about good times and bad times is that they all pass.  And they do.  The only thing we can count on is change.  What I experience now, in this moment, will not be what I experience in the next moments or hours or days or weeks.  When things are really good, that reality is hard.  When things are bad, the reality of change is a promise of better things to come.  I wish many times lately that we lived in a world that was kinder, more compassionate, more understanding, and more grace-filled.  I wish people understood that the people you hate are parts of you, as much as we are all parts of one another, and that loving all of them is still in each of our best interest.  I yearn for a world with less fear, less anger, less hatred and violence.  But we live now, in this world, with all of its beauty and all of its pain.  And the best we can do is to breathe through the bad, and delight in the good; to grow from the challenges, and to try to be in the world the way we would want the world to be.  So, despite the fact that I still can't hear, that I still feel sick, and that I am still worried about many things, I will put on my big-girl pants and keep stepping forward with intention and a commitment to be grace-full.  It's all I can do.  I pray it is enough.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

God's Gifts Extending Beyond Imagination

Isaiah 62:1-5

1 Corinthians 12:1-26

John 2:1-11

We limit God's gifts - we limit our understanding of what is a gift from God.  And we limit who we allow to express what gifts.

During the French Revolution, there were three Christians who were sentenced to die by the guillotine. One Christian had the gift of faith, the other had the gift of prophecy, the third had the gift of helping.

The Christian with the gift of faith was to be executed first. He said he was not afraid to die. "I have faith that God will deliver me!" he shouted bravely. He said a short prayer and waited confidently. The rope was pulled, but nothing happened. His executioners were amazed and, believing that this must have been an act of God, they freed the man.

The Christian with the gift of prophecy was next. "I predict that God will deliver me from this guillotine!" At that, the rope was pulled and again, nothing happened. Once, again the puzzled executioners assumed this must be a miracle of God, and they freed the man.

The third Christian, with the gift of helping, was next. The executioners were about to pull the rope when the man stopped them. "Hey wait a minute," he said. "I think I just found the problem with your guillotine."


I would like to invite you to think for a moment about what gifts God has given to you.  By gifts I am meaning talents or abilities.  In a moment I'm going to ask you to share what some of your gifts are.  I know this can be uncomfortable because we are also called to be humble.  But as Paul described today, we are as different parts of one body.  And as such, it is important for each of us to know the gifts/talents/purposes/functions that God has given to us.  If we do not know we have a gift for sight, how can we help the body see?  If we do not know we have the gift of hearing, how can we help the body to hear?  Being humble, walking humbly with God, is not about denying God's gifts to you.  Instead it is about recognizing that all talents are gifts from God and that one talent is not more worthy or more honored by God than another.  My gifts are not more valuable than yours, the gifts God has given me do not make me a better or more beloved person than anyone else's.  Each of our gifts are gifts God has given us for the purpose of serving God in the world.  As Paul explains, the feet are not less important than the eyes.  All jobs are needed, all gifts are needed.  That is humility.  When we deny God's gifts to us we are being ungrateful to the God who has gifted us with our talents. With that in mind, I invite you to share for a moment what gifts/talents/abilities God has given to you.  To make this a little easier, I ask you to turn to someone near you and share a gift that you have that your neighbor may not know about. 

What did you hear?  Did people share with you obvious or safe gifts?  Or did you learn something new about the person next to you?  Did anybody say anything surprising?  Now what I'd like you to do is to think for a minute at a different level.  Think about something about yourself that you don't usually think of as a gift- it may be something that you don't like about yourself such as stubbornness, or it may be something you've worked to change about yourself such as sensitivity - getting hurt by others easily.  I want you to think about something about yourself that you don't usually think of as a gift and consider for a moment whether or not that, too, might not be a gift from God.

            While you are doing that, I want to share with you about a person who was one of the members of another church in which I worked.  This is a person who was - well, annoying.  Some might have said he was abrasive.  But whatever you want to call it, he was a difficult person in the church.  He always questioned every idea that came forward, never satisfied with simple answers, never just saying "let's do it!"  He spoke his mind and when he didn't like something, he spoke out, which was often.  When he heard someone say something with which he disagreed, he challenged it right away.  He also came with his own ideas, but these ideas challenged the norm, challenged the status quo at every level.  "Let's try this kind of music."  "Hey, I'm going to start an anti-gang program here at the church.  Anyone want to join me?"  "I think we should go out every Friday evening with a big sign about our church and stand on the street corner at the mall talking to anyone who passes by about what we do here."  He didn't go through the right channels and he was always a pain in everyone's life.  Do you know people like that?  People who are part of your communities who irritate and cause your life to be difficult?

            Eventually "Jason" got called away to a job out of the area and he had to leave the church.  It was only after he had left that we realized the huge hole he had left in his leaving.  He had brought so many gifts to our congregation.  He had challenged us to grow and to expand our thinking.  He had challenged us to be clear in our explanations of the visions and ideas that we had.  He had called us to think through our positions and to be open to differences.  He had challenged us to be open to the movement of the Spirit in a new way, one that didn't go through the long chain of committees, but instead moved into ministry and action without fear and with a great deal of true and deep faith.  I don't know if Jason was aware of his gifts.  I don't know if he recognized that he was in so many ways the head of our body, thinking, dreaming, leading us forward.  I do know that he realized that for many of us he was a pill, he was a challenge.  I know he knew that he wasn't the most popular guy and that people hid when they saw him coming.  I can only hope that he also came to see that the things we all struggled with the most in him were the deepest gifts he had been given by God.  And that his sharing of those gifts brought all of us spiritually, and faithfully deeper and more genuine in our relationships with each other and with God.

            C.S. Lewis in the second book of his space Trilogy, Perelandra, wrote, "Don't imagine I've been selected for ...any task...because I'm anyone in particular.  One never can see, or not till long afterwards, why any one was selected for any calling.  And when one does, it is usually some reason that leaves no room for vanity.  Certainly it is never for what the ...person...themself would have regarded as their chief qualifications."

            We don't see all of the gifts God has given to each of us ourselves.  And we don't see all of the gifts God has given to those around us.  Sometimes we fail so completely to see those gifts that we limit how they can be expressed by others, how much good God can bring out of them, how much we allow others to help us grow in our spiritual journeys. 

            Tomorrow we celebrate the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr..  We look at the life of a man who had a big impact in helping to change our image of who African American persons are and what African American men and women can do in this world.  Not that the battle against prejudice is won.  We still deal with prejudice, racism and its affect on us, on our nation and on our world.  But Martin Luther King brought the conversation to a new level, to a more real level, to a more honest level.  While any people are enslaved, physically or metaphorically, while any people are seen as less than others, while any people are limited in their abilities to exercise fully their gifts and talents that God has given them; we, too are limited. 

            As Paul said in today's passage, "If one member of the body suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it."  We are limited in what we allow others to teach us, what we allow them to share with us, what we allow them to give us.  We are limited by what we allow others to teach the world, what we allow them to give the world.  We are all part of the same body.  But we bind our own feet when we say that some people are not allowed to do certain good and godly things in this world.  We blindfold our eyes when we say that certain types of people must be restricted from using the gifts God has given them.  We injure our own body, the body of Christ, when we fail to see that God has gifted us all with talents and abilities beyond what we can see or know or recognize.

            We can see how this has played out throughout history.  People of different backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures and races have all been given gifts, spiritual gifts, gifts to be used to the glory of God.  But when we limited their access to the world, we limited how they could use those gifts, and we were all lessened as a result.  For a long time women have been limited - and in many denominations and in many places they still are - with what they are allowed to do in the church and beyond.  And we continue to limit others for many reasons and in many ways.  As a result, we are injured.  But more than that.  When we limit what gifts God can use in others, when we decide what gifts God can or cannot give to certain people, when we limit what in ourselves we believe to be a talent or gift from God, we are also limiting God God-self.  We are limiting what God can teach us through these people, we are limiting how God can relate to us through different people, we are limiting how God can use us and our gifts, and we are limiting our very relationship with God.  God can do anything, and yet as a people, we insist that God can only do certain things with certain people.  We work hard to put boundaries around God's gifts and God's calling.  And we suffer as a result. 

            In today's gospel reading Jesus changed water into wine.  Today would we find this an acceptable use of the gifts and talents God gave to Jesus?  Would we be offended that Jesus wasn't using his gifts in that moment to heal or confront the system, but was instead only enabling people to party?  If we saw that some people became drunk on this wine, would it offend our sensibilities?  This was Jesus' first miracle recorded in the gospel of John.  Would we shrug it off as a learning time for Jesus?  Or would we be open to hearing that God calls all of us to take time to celebrate as well as to care for others?  Was his ability to turn water into wine something that we would recognize as a gift from God?

            I am not saying that we should ignore the obvious gifts we have and assume they aren't the "real" gifts from God.  As I said at the beginning, an awareness of the gifts God has blessed us with can enable us to serve more effectively and more faithfully our God and God's people.  But I'm also saying that we need to strive to be more open to what God does and can do with the things that we deny as gifts, in ourselves as well as in others.

Wind and Sun wanted to see who could be first to remove a man’s coat.  Wind blew hard, trying to force the coat off.  The cold man only pulled it tighter.  Sun smiled brightly to warm the air.  The hot man took off his coat.  “You see,” said the sun, “there is great strength in gentleness." 

            The wind knew its own gift - but it could not see that the gift of the sun was just as strong, just as meaningful, just as necessary.  What gifts are you not seeing? 


Monday, January 21, 2019

Deep Yearnings

         On Friday I had the gift of going on a mother-daughter day with number one child before she returns to college for the second semester of her first year.  We did one of our favorite trips: drove down to Monterey, went to the aquarium, ate clam chowder in sour dough bowls, drove along the coast to Carmel, where we went to the beach and then did some art gallery exploration and window shopping before returning home.  A full day.  A wonderful day.  We listened to books on tape for the drive up and back, had a lot of time to talk and walk, did some singing in the car together as well (which we love), and just enjoyed each other's company.  All of it was good.  My favorite part was the time we spent on the beach.  

           The beach was almost empty of people, the tide was out which created a hugely expansive beach, the sun was in a perfect location adding a touch of mystery and sheer beauty, the weather was absolutely perfect - not hot, not cold; the water was not too icy for walking barefoot through the waves, and I had the best company I could imagine.  We walked, we played in the sand, Jasmyn danced a bit, we gloried in the beauty of the day.  We saw interesting dogs running around, and interesting shells and rocks:

         I felt this deep sense of gratitude for the day, for the time, for the experience.  I still do.  It was, in so many ways, a perfect day.  I couldn't have ordered one better.  It was a day for us, which is a rare thing, and because of that, so much more deeply appreciated.  I breathed it in.  I still breathe it in with thanksgiving and with humility for the gift of the day.

         But underneath it all, I also felt this yearning, this restlessness, this … maybe it was grief.  Grief that the day would not last?  Grief that my daughter would soon be leaving again for her second semester of college?  Grief that everything is temporary, that everything passes, including the beautiful? At some level it was grief that this day pulled out of regular life is not one that everyone can experience, especially in this difficult time when there is so much extreme poverty (and increasingly this exists even here in the U.S.), so much war and chaos, so much pain and discrimination, so much fear and hatred.  It is also painful to me that those thoughts cross my mind when I am in the midst of beauty.  I would like to be able to put aside, just for a day, awareness of the pain in our world, the destruction of our environment, the inequality and inequities that are rampant around us, the acting out by building walls of hate, discrimination, prejudice and "us vs. them" thinking that are tearing our world apart.  But I don't seem able to do that.  Even to be present with my daughter, I can't put all of that aside.
      I read somewhere that our deepest yearnings are ultimately an ache for the divine.  And that the pain we feel is that sense of separation from that which is beyond and bigger and better than ourselves.  Partly true.  But I would say it goes even deeper than that.  As I have said before, I believe that we, all of us, are, ultimately, one.  What hurts you, hurts me: what hurts me, hurts you.  As I said in my sermon yesterday, we are one body (I didn't make this up, folks: it's in every sacred text ever written).  When the foot is injured, we limp.  When the eye is not allowed to see (because that eye is scary and might take something from me), then our vision is limited.  When we do not allow others to have the same quality of life that we have, the person who is damaged by that decision is ourselves.  The point?  That yearning is not just for the wholeness of God.  That yearning is for the health and wholeness of creation, of all of us, of the world.  And until we can create a world where we all have enough, and we are unafraid, and we can look at each other person with eyes of love and care and compassion - until we create such a world, all of us will have within us somewhere that restless yearning, that ache for what we can only imagine, that longing to be whole again, to be home again, to be right within ourselves and right with the world.  It is only through loving each other more fully that we do connect more deeply with God.  The reason we are only given two commandments: to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves is that they are the same thing.  We only love God as much as we love our enemies.  And we only connect to God as deeply as we can connect to those we fear the most.
        I am still grateful for the day I had with my daughter.  I think that time and those experiences strengthen me to keep going in the battle for all people.  I think that vision of what could be for all of us gives me the strength to work for everyone to have this, too.  At the same time, the yearning, the pain, the ache is as much a part of the memories of the day as all of the good.  And perhaps that is just as important as it also pushes me to keep stepping forward in a pro-active way.
        I wish our world were different: I wish it were kinder, gentler, more loving, more compassionate.  And those are things we have to keep working for.  At the same time, there is still a great deal of beauty out there; the times of connection with loved ones, the incredible beauty of nature, the smells of fresh air and salt water, opportunities to walk and learn and grow and be.  It's all part of what we are.  May the good strengthen us all for the work ahead.  May the yearnings be a call into action.  May our deep desires and the aches of our hearts that ultimately are a call to connect to the divine create within us a commitment to love all that God loves with fullness and without prejudice.  For it is in that loving that we will connect more fully and deeply with God and in that connection that, finally, our deep yearnings will find satisfaction.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Baptism of the Lord

Isaiah 42:1-9

Matthew 3:13-17

               What is baptism for you? 

               For me Baptism is several things, but it starts always with a recognition that God has called us before we can even respond, before we are even aware.  We honor God’s choosing us when we baptize our children, our babies who cannot choose it for themselves.  We also honor God’s choosing us when we say “yes” to our own baptisms and declare that we accept this calling from God. 

               Maybe the bigger question then is, does baptism change anything?

               I saw this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon this week…

               Unlike what Calvin says about change not being a positive, baptism is a declaration of choosing to follow God’s will for our lives and for our families.  That does involve change.  I love what Frederick Buechner says about Baptism.  He describes baptism in this way: “Baptism consists of getting dunked or sprinkled.  Which technique is used matters about as much as whether you pray kneeling or standing on your head.  Dunking is a better symbol, however.  Going under symbolizes the end of everything about your life that is less than human.  Coming up again symbolizes the beginning in you of something strange and new and hopeful.  You can breathe again.” (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC: New York: Harper and Row, 1973. p5).   I love this.  “the beginning in you of something strange and new and hopeful”.

On a daily basis, baptism should affect how we behave, what we say, what we do, how we interact with people who are mean to us, or those who at any moment act as “enemies”.  To love them, to strive to love even those we fear, we hate, we condemn: that has to involved constant change and growth.  Baptism is a commitment to follow in the ways of Christ, to care for each other, to love one another, and to study, pray, and listen for God’s direction for our lives.  If we take it seriously, it WILL make a change in our lives.  Baptism doesn’t change that God loves us.  It doesn’t change that God has called us.  But we hope that it will change how we respond to God.  We make a commitment through our baptisms, through the baptisms of our children and through the promises we make when anyone in our church is baptized, to live lives of grace, faith, compassion, but mostly of love.

               I see this in your lives, in the lives of those within this congregation.  I see that you are people of love and support and care.  I see that you are people committed to ministry as you minister to each other, to me, and to people beyond this congregation and beyond this community.  On Thanksgiving Sunday when I ask everyone who contributes in any way to stand and pretty much the entire congregation stands up, I see how much each and every one of you gives to this place and to the community beyond.  I see in those who are not necessarily serving in official capacities but who help with our many mission projects, who do the sanctuary flowers, who provide coffee hour, who write cards, who sing in the choir,  who come to Thursday adult ed, who help with the children on Sunday, who usher, serve communion, attend our programs or even those who just come Sunday mornings – I see in all of you a deep commitment to living out your baptism promises.  You are choosing to live out those baptism promises.  You are choosing to live faithful and committed lives.  You are choosing to be people renewed, reborn, re-committed as baptized children of God.

Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday.  It is a time of remembrance and renewal.  We remember that Jesus, too, had a time of renewal, a cleansing, a rebirth.  For Jesus in the book of Matthew, his baptism began his time of leadership in the church.  It was a changing point for him in which he took on full-force the commitment he made to serve God with all of his being, even to the point of being killed.  That deep commitment, the promise of that accepting of God’s call began with Jesus’ baptism as it may for us, too. 

As an aside, baptism, the embracing of new life, the deeper commitment to living lives of fullness in love and compassion and grace: this is NOT an invitation to beat ourselves up over the past.  I recently re-watched one of my favorite Star Trek the Next Generation episodes (Tapestry), in which Captain Picard was given the “glimpse” of seeing what his life might have been had he made a different choice than one he had deeply regretted making during his life time.  That one choice would have led him down a completely different path, one that ultimately had little value, little meaning.  Regrets are useful only in that they can inform us how to make different choices for the future.  But they are not useful in terms of wishes that we had chosen differently in the past because we would not be the people we are now if our paths had gone a different way.  After seeing the glimpse of what might have been, his comment requesting to return to his old life was profound: “I’d rather die as the man I was then live the life I just saw.” 

Our baptism invites us into change, but not into regret.

Jesus’ baptism was also a time for God to declare ‘this is my beloved child with whom I am well pleased.’  We recognize in our baptism the same declaration from God.  God has called us all God’s children, chosen us before we were even aware of our own existence, God has claimed us as God’s own.  We celebrate that, we remember that as we are baptized, as we baptize our children, as we make the promises of the congregation to support those baptized on their faith journeys.  Today I would also like us to remember that commitment and that promise of God’s love and God’s call that we received through baptism, through a renewal of our baptism vows.  This is a time for us to remember that God calls us before we are aware of our own existence, that God loves us before we are born, that God chooses us before we can even respond.  I am going to invite you in a moment to come forward at this time as you feel led, to be anointed with the oil and to remember that God calls you before you are able even to respond.  

“Remember that God loves you, has chosen you, and calls you into new life.  May you follow Christ in all you do!”


Sometimes what starts as a mistake, ends as a gift.

            Those of you who came to my wedding saw this... I forgot my bouquet (which a dear friend had made for me), so after going half way down the aisle in a non-traditional "processional" group of clergy, myself, David and the kids, I turned around and ran back out of the sanctuary to grab the flowers.  David ran after me; and we both came back in together, arm in arm, laughing, as those attending the service joined us in laughter, cheering and celebrating.  That began the wedding. And that "mistake" set the stage for a ceremony with a lot more laughter, joy, a mess of "real" as we moved around and tried to figure out what we were doing, where we were going, when we were to sit and stand, etc.  People have said to me it was the "funnest" wedding they've ever been to... probably because there was very little solemnity in it.  Of course our vows were serious... we both cried (and laughed) and told stories that were meaningful to us in terms of defining who we are together, how we came together, what it means for two extremely different people from different backgrounds and different value systems to partner in this way.  But it wasn't a "traditional" wedding.  For one thing, we refused to take ourselves very seriously.  And the result was, at least for the two of us, better than we had hoped for.
            I think about this in terms of the bigger picture as well.  Again, using our relationship as an example: our meeting was odd, was rough.  David invited me into conversation and I hesitated.  What I knew about him (very little) already showed us to be so different from one another that I wasn't sure I wanted to even talk with him.  But, due to a set of circumstances that basically meant I had nothing else to do in that moment, I joined him in conversation.  And by the end of an hour, an HOUR, we were "involved".  Again, a lot of that had to do with laughter... laughing at ourselves, laughing at our "mistakes" (I spilled mocha all over myself and David says that's when he knew I was the one for him), just being real in a culture that often values the superficial and appearances over what is inside.  Our mistakes, our flaws (I'm perpetually a bit clumsy with drinks), and even our differences set the stage for something deep, valuable, wonderful.
            It didn't stop there.  The first time we had a serious value conflict was only about a week after we'd met.  The subject of that conflict is immaterial.  What matters is that it was a big enough and important enough difference that for me, at least, I figured that was the end of it.  Why bother to invest more when some basic core values seemed to be in such conflict?  But it was actually because of the way David handled that conflict that we didn't end the short beginning but continued to stay engaged with one another.  David was unfailingly kind, even when confronted with such a radical difference of understanding.  He never became righteous, never insisted that his view was better or right, never became mean or sarcastic or catty.  He never attacked, just listened and asked me what I wanted to do in terms of moving forward.  He expressed care, and sadness about the conflict, but never in a blaming way.  He was respectful, understanding, and only wanted to know what I needed in that situation.  My response was one of "well, this person is really good friend quality at least.  So we can start there and see..."  Our conflict, or issue, or even "mistake" in having that conversation so early on actually led to a deeper respect on my part for the person that David is.
           When I facilitate couples counseling for those who come to me wanting to be married, one of the most important questions I always ask is how the couple navigates conflict.  And the only couple I ever chose not to marry was the one who told me they'd never had conflict.  If you don't know how your partner will deal with problems when they arise, you are missing really key information that you need to know before you step into a full blown commitment to them.  Also, the only way a couple can completely avoid conflict is by staying at such a shallow level with their partner that differences are never seen.  That's not a basis for a long term relationship.  Conflict is a gift that can deepen relationships if handled well, that helps us to see under values and beliefs and world views and into who the other really is at their core.  Mistakes, or errors that we make in our lives or in our relationships: these are opportunities to grow, learn and understand each other more fully.  If we can laugh at ourselves, if we can learn from mistakes, if we can let go of defensiveness and instead embrace the fullness of our humanity when we make mistakes, those mistakes can be launching places into depth, honesty and integrity.
          There is a story about a pastor who forgot to turn off his lapel mic when he went to the bathroom.  While his "business" was being broadcast to the entire congregation, he also cursed under his breath about the "damn women's guild".  When he discovered the mistake, he righteously and in a huff quit his job.  But the story ends with the wisdom that if he had been able to laugh at his own mistake with the congregation, admit his own frustration and need to just vent a little under his breath, if he'd been able to make a joke out of the fact that even pastors have to use the facilities once in a while and it isn't any more glamorous for them than for the rest of us, the relationship he had with his congregation might have deepened as they recognized his humanity, even as he pastored them, and as he claimed a bit of humility.  But because he was not able to get past his own humiliation, relationships were torn in a way that made healing for all parties very difficult.
         Today I am deeply grateful for the "mess" that we are, and for the opportunities to grow, learn and deepen from our mistakes.  Thank you all for being witnesses to my mess and loving me through it anyway.  I offer you the same gift.  Be real, and let us love you through it all!

Friday, January 11, 2019

For My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation

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 see, to learn, or 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?  I think these are often different: some things we are called to accomplish, some things we are called to learn. 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 each of us has a call, sometimes multiple calls, throughout our lives, reasons to be here. I think we have things we are supposed to learn and things we are supposed to do. Sometimes those reasons are things that carry us through a long life, sometimes it is something that we have to learn over and over again.  And sometimes we may learn and do things early on.

            Do you know what you are being called to do and called to learn 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 lessons, or something that I feel I’ve been called throughout my life to learn has been what I would describe as the call to be an adult.  While others appear 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, every time I ask God to make the decisions, I hear God calling me in turn in multiple ways and through many different forms, 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 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.   

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.  “Perhaps 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 walked now with many people at the end of their lives and I find it is very 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 (2014. New York: Harper Perennial).  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 were 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. It is to learn to embody and be and act and live that love out. 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 will make my life whole,” 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 had seen love incarnate.  He had seen it, recognized it, allowed it into his heart. He followed God in his call.  He had been given a task, and that task was 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 came for the one thing that would make each whole and 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.