Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Difference in the World

This week when I was at the seminary I saw that they have their seeds started for their community garden. How many of you have started seeds for this year’s garden? 
Every year gardening is leap of faith that out of devastation of fall and winter and maybe even last year’s mistakes, new life will grow. 
In Embracing the Seasons- Memories of a Country Garden, Gunilla Norris  laments the rapid growth of poison ivy which she says 
is often “the most luxurious crop on this property.” 
“I have learned to respect it and watch out for it…
Some people handle what is poison with poison.
They spray year after year, and eventually some parts of the garden are free of the vines.
I do not feel comfortable with this method,” she writes, “for I do not know what other effects I would be causing. But I do not feel comfortable doing nothing.”
There’s the challenge- do everything, or do nothing, only seeing the poison. 
She goes on to reflect
“I notice however that wherever there is a great deal of poison ivy, there is also a bounty of jewel weed. From jewelweed can be made an anti itching salve. Things are often paired like this in nature. They balance each other...
Poison ivy and jewelweed. 
Over time it is never just one or the other
How often do we think about being absolutely right about something and in being adamant we lose the fabric of relatedness and the situation becomes all wrong.
We keep forgetting that events are in relationship to each other.
Living with such tension is very hard
We will always be right and wrong
Safe and in danger
Strong and weak
Loving and uncaring
I know this as I walk here and despair over the profusion of poisonous leaves
Too much to ever get rid of 
These vines are here like the poison ivy aspects inside of me
I pray to have jewelweed inside me too.”

Seeing the jewelweed, is a way of seeing difference in the world. 
Jesus is talking to the disciples, whom he has just taken away and reminded that they are blessed to God.   Now he tells them what comes next.
Be salt and be light. Be the difference.

Salt preserves things, heals things, and as most of us know, it brings out the flavor in things in life. 
The world can’t endure without it, Jesus says. 
You are salt- you are no less essential for the well being of the earth. 
If your saltiness has washed out, or become diluted, what use is that?
Unsalty salt doesn’t have anything to contribute. 
Salt is a metaphor for wisdom. 
Elsewhere we hear in Colossians, “let your speech be gracious and seasoned with salt. So that you should know how to answer everyone.” 

Wisdom, holding on to God’s kingdom view, is essential. In a world where people can be tasteless, we are to be distinctive. 
Retaining the effect of wisdom is a hallmark of following Jesus. 
The gospel asks: Are we distinctive or just fitting in and allowing God’s word and kingdom vision to be diluted?
Are we responding to one kind of tastelessness with another? 
Be salt. 
It makes a difference.

Be Light- a light to the nations- Jesus
The world needs that  light- we the disciples are the way it is made visible
We are called to shine in the world
That light has to be seen. 
If we hide behind accommodation of the common world view, for whatever reason, we are hiding the light of Christ.
Why would you hide a light under a basket when the whole point is for it to be seen?

Look at our cross outside. You can see it from anywhere in the valley now.
So it should be for us as disciples- not personal private holiness, the witness of public exposure.
Our distinctive lifestyle should be visible

“But Jesus is specific here- it’s not so that we just improve or enlighten society, or that others see us and applaud our good works
It is for glorifying God to those beyond our doors. To show that  we are in a distinctive relationship with God through Christ and we are subjects of God’s kingdom first."
This view of the world is by all accounts distinctive. 

So much so that the prophets talked over and over about it, and Jesus and the apostles talked over and over about it. And maybe perhaps some of you are saying, “here she goes again,”
but sisters and brothers, “Our faith is not an abstract theory-
It reveals the difference that God’s grace makes in the real world.”
To live in the world that says “someone should” and hear Jesus saying- “you are the someone.” 
Christ’s words about the kingdom are about life together. The church is the story of God lived in a way that makes the kingdom visible
(Stanley Hauerwas) We must be a clear sign “of a people who have learned to be at peace with themselves, one another, the stranger, and most of all, God.” Of people trying to live more faithfully to God’s story. The church is where the stories of Israel and Jesus are told, and heard and enacted. There is literally nothing more important we can do as a response to God’s grace.
We embody the story- God and God’s love are not just something to be told and put back upon the shelf. 
We are to work to embody in our habits this story, in our worship, in our living.” 
 Well, what might that mean? 
Isaiah had a lot of words for us today. Words that lifts up an indictment of behaviors we see around us and truthfully sometimes in us. 
And calls us to fast from them. 
Instead of thinking that worship is a sanctuary and the rest of the week we just feed our fears.
What if we fasted from being malicious, dominating, pointing the finger, oppressing?
What if we stopped trying to kill the poison and started showing how distinctive it is to live in the kingdom of Christ?
To build up the devastated places 
To restore things
To live a well watered life
To share light where we can in the darkness.
To sprinkle the salt of wisdom in the midst of turmoil?
To be that jewelweed that is the antidote.
Isaiah tells us-
 If you do away with the yoke of oppression and the pointing finger and malicious talk
If you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry
And satisfy the needs of the oppressed

THEN, then… your light will rise in the darkness
The Lord will guide you always
He will satisfy your needs in a sun scorched land
And strengthen your frame
You (all of you) will be like a well watered garden
Like a spring whose resource never runs out
Your will rebuild the ruins
And raise up the foundations
You will be called the Repairer of Broken Walls
Restorers of Streets where people can live.

From the world’s perspective this may seem to contribute little to the cause of Justice, yet this is our conviction as Christ’s church:
that unless we take time to care for others, neither the world nor we can know what justice and peace look like. 
The world includes us when we choose not to make the story of God their story. 
The “world” in us refuses to affirm that this is God’s world, that we have a loving Lord, and that God’s care for creation is greater than our illusion of control. 
In a world of fake news
The church serves the world by giving the world the means to see itself truthfully. 
To ask what is going on and to stand within the world witnessing to the peaceable kingdom. If we and the world are to hear the story truthfully, it means that we must never cease being a a community of peace and truth in a world of fear. 
We can never let the world set the agenda.
A church of peace and Justice must set its own agenda. 
It begins with having patience amidst injustice and the violence in this world, to care for the widow, the poor and the orphan. 
Where we do this, and there are many ways we do-to God be the glory!
We also must ever look for where It is easy to fall into the poison ivy mode- we all have the ability to do so
God is calling us to place our faith in the God who is forming a new kingdom- our task is to point to this God 
and to the difference that grace makes in the world. 

To be the jewelweed amidst the poison, the salt that brings out new possibility, the light shining in the darkness. Instead of pointing to the poison, the tasteless and the darkness, point to another view- the view of the Kingdom of God
and the difference it makes that we serve a loving and saving Lord. 

As Madeleine L’Engle writes, 
 “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, 
but by showing them a light that is so lovely
that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
May it be so.  

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Blessed in the Kingdom

“When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:
“You’re blessed…”‬‬ (Eugene Peterson, Message translation MSG)

The crowds, growing larger and larger and the needs being greater and greater, Jesus takes those learning to be like him and willing to be his companions. They have committed themselves to his inner circle, even though I suspect they said yes without having any real idea what they signed up for. He takes them away from the crowds to a quiet place and speaks to them as his companions. 
The gospel of Matthew tells us what it was like there on the ground by the time they follow him up the hill. Here’s end of the preceding chapter:
 “Jesus… went all over Galilee…Word got around the entire Roman province of Syria. People brought anybody with an ailment, whether mental, emotional, or physical. 
Anybody and everybody. 
And Jesus healed them, one and all. 
Momentum gathered  as crowds came from the “Ten Towns” across the lake, 
Ten towns’ worth of people and then on top of that, 
others up from Jerusalem and Judea, still others from across the Jordan.” (MSG)
Try to envision it- all of those people- their longing, desperations, and anxiousness. 
Hungry, thirsty, needing. 
Imagine the sound, the smells, the sight of a mass of mentally, physically and emotionally unwell people. This wave of humanity, insistent and pushing in. 

Imagine having to try to manage that scene, for those learning to be like the Teacher. Imagine them wondering why on earth had they just followed him without knowing what it would mean? Who on earth can sustain this?
And it’s all a little much because Jesus never puts up a limitation.

I think Jesus knows how his followers are feeling and leads them to take a moment out of the noise of the crowds, perhaps well aware they are ready to break.
Because he has a word for them. 
A word for those who are perhaps themselves feeling poor in spirit, 
Maybe they’ve been berated for failing to produce the messiah soon enough for somebody.Traveling from place to place in the churn and drain. And the sacrifice. 
“How much can we really endure? How can we be expected to care for so many?”

You see, in surge of the crowd, it’s hard to remember the message- the one that Jesus proclaimed as soon as he began his ministry- Reorient your view. 
The kingdom of God is here. NOW

I think that's why when Jesus took his followers who were committed but weary away, the first thing he said to them, when perhaps they were wondering if they were going to be lectured was, "You're blessed.”
They hear what they need to hear
Before they go on to hear about being salt and light
Before “Go and Do Likewise,” 
They need one thing:
“Blessed are you”
“When you feel at the end of your rope
When you feel that you have given up way too much that you hold dear”

Jesus speaks first not to what we do but who we are. It’s part pep talk and part revelation.Because Jesus knows we embrace what we hear most. 

When we’re surrounded by voices saying we should be at the end of our rope or shouldn't have to give so much. That we are too little or it’s all too much. When we only focus on this, what we look for is someone that will level the playing field, settle the score or find the answer elsewhere. 
Jesus knows and  isn’t just throwing around a cheap phrase in this blessing- he’s not ignoring the stresses and strains of his followers. He’s naming and claiming the things they suffer with and through. 
Naming them and claiming God’s greater authority over them.
Jesus is not ignoring suffering, or weariness, or grief or struggle. 
He’s showing us that God’s kingdom comes to re-shape the view and to give power to change and strength to resist the temptation to focus upon what we struggle to see. 
When you feel there’s nothing left- Blessed are you. 
“when there is less of you there is more of God’s rule.
You’re embraced by the one who holds you dear.” (MSG)

What makes this blessing so beautiful is that it is spoken without conditions.
What grace!
“God's grace can be hard to recognize perhaps because we know ourselves too well to feel worthy of that grace…(in) our faults and limitations, our insecurities and failures. Knowing that God knows us even better we may find it hard to believe God loves us unconditionally.”(Lose)
I imagine at least one of those disciples had just been dismissive or insulting to one of the many needy looking for healing. Thinking they are going to hear a correction, met instead with 
“you are blessed.”
As hard as it might be to imagine now hear that God loves others and blesses others we struggle with unconditionally too. 
But wait, that’s not how it works. “We're used to paying for our mistakes, paving our own way, toeing the line and reaping the consequences when we don't, and so it may not only be unexpected, but downright unsettling and nearly inconceivable to imagine- that God behaves differently, 
desiring to shower one and all with blessing apart from anything any of us has done, earned, or deserved.
The gospel of Matthew is quite clear -- Jesus isn't setting up conditions or terms, he’s just plain blessing people. All kinds of people. All kinds of down-and-out, extremely vulnerable, and at the bottom of the ladder people. 
To proclaim that God regularly shows up in mercy and blessing just where you least expect God to be -- with the poor rather than the rich, those who are mourning rather than celebrating, the meek and the peacemakers rather than the strong and victorious. (With those on the other side of whatever limit we want to create). This is not where citizens of the ancient world look for God and, quite frankly, it's not we in our own world do either. (Until we soak in this blessing, what we don’t see is Jesus, or the changed view of the kingdom drawn near). 
Kingdom vision is hard to sustain. Only when we hear “you’re blessed” can we  take up the invitation to continue as Jesus’ companions in all the struggles to come, including when others will put us down for the ridiculous idea of blessing any and everyone. I'm sure the disciples wanted to make it more manageable and the needy feared they had to make sure they got what they came for. Surely these people can wait. 
Jesus healed them, one and all and said "Blessed are you. You have a place in the kingdom." 
And ‘(Since) God shows up here, blessing the weak and the vulnerable, then God will be everywhere, showering all creation and its inhabitants with blessing.’” (David Lose)
“Blessed are you” is also an invitation to continue the journey of Jesus. 
To be who God calls us to be, resting in the power of the giver of the blessing.
Let that blessing spill over and flow for you and beyond you. 
Because God is in the blessing business. We need to hear this often. 
You are blessed.
It’s hard not to not fall back into the voices of the crowd
So we gather here. We absolutely need the hear the gospel over and over again. 
So we can then continue with Jesus- as companions in all of the hills and valleys.
Full of the blessing- Eugene Peterson writes, 
“When you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.” AND…
“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.” (MSG)
Blessed sisters and brothers, this is God’s kingdom come. Where all have a place. May we be companions with Jesus to make it so. 

Cultivate a Life in Common

When I was still a young newlywed, someone gave me this picture called “House Rules.”
If you sleep on it, make it up.
If you wear it, hang it up.
If you drop it, pick it up.
If you eat out of it, wash it.
If you spill it, wipe it up.
If you open it, close it.
If you empty it, fill it up.
These are basically the “pick up your mess” rules the ones most parents say over and again. Upon reflection Michael and I don’t think that sign had any effect at our house.
Then come the last three phrases:
If it rings, answer it.
If it howls, feed it.
If it cries, love it.
These rules probably most need to be posted because often our tendency is to act in our own self interest. These three are not “deal with your own mess” rules. These are love rules for a life together.
The kind of thing that Jesus is talking about when he tells people to repent- or specifically in the gospel of Matthew- reorient your world view.
To reflect and reveal God- who is light and salvation, not fear.

When the kingdom draws near, the view should change.

Separation should end.
Because God’s world view is broad.
By the time the apostle Paul is building churches, it seems people still struggle with God’s world view. I guess we all do.
Paul writes to a group of very divided people, attempting to counsel a community  trying to navigate political divisions and quarrels. Within the church they were arguing about who was the most authoritative or best suited to be the leader of the Church. Much of this conflict could be traced to divisions over  politics, cultures, languages and by the gap between wealth and poverty. Where what was once Greece was now Greeks and Romans and many others from around the Mediterranean. Caesar was God. and the majority of people worshipped the idols of power and might and getting ahead was utmost. With all kinds of groups of people, languages, laws and customs and a “get ahead” mentality,  Corinth was a dog-eat-dog world, in perpetual competition.
The Church had come to reflect the city itself.  In Paul’s view, they had lost sight of the gospel message that he had first preached to them. He claims that their conduct showed that they were still living by the measure of Rome.
Their divisions are growing.
Paul writes- I appeal to you-
grow differently.
Christ calls us to cultivate a life in common. Because we share this life.
While I don’t think we need this message in our life in this building, I do think there is a word for us as church in the world.
The message of the empire is often the total opposite of  Christ’s message. And it can become easy to let some other force or worldview govern our actions and life, instead of  God.

Paul warns that divisiveness will rip the house apart. We can grow together or fall apart. At this beginning of new government in our country and a time of many world concerns, Christ has a word for us as we live as church in the world.

Grow differently. Cultivate a life together.

Someone shared this image recently- that we can be tumbleweeds that dry up and blow around, never rooted.  Or we can be redwoods. The redwoods roots are not deep but they grow out and intertwine. That's how redwoods stand tall and live long. Not by dividing but putting it all in together. In all we face as people in Christ's kingdom, we should  cultivate that kind of life in common. That with Christ as our center we can risk being redwoods.

I think the only way we can remember this being rooted together, whenever things around us become so divided is by remembering our baptism (1:17).
In baptism, we become a part of God’s house, through Christ’s resurrected body. By remembering our baptism, we remember our death to one reality and inauguration into another—we remember that we, in truth, belong to God and GOD’S kingdom view.

This is what really unites us and what we should reflect. Our one-ness in the death and resurrection that we experience with Christ in our baptism. The same one-ness that tells us to cast out that net wide to look for those who need the gospel, including all those calling out, howling or crying who long to be heard and answered, fed and loved.
And this looks like foolishness.

“Paul emphasizes this foolishness to combat the social norms the Corinthians and all of us have been conditioned to believe are ultimate. He juxtaposes the cross against that world view saying  “remember everything you built your life around? Those … values of  wealth, and power? Forget all of that.”
Paul calls the church to die completely to the dominant values that surround them, and, embrace the radical reality ushered in by Christ. And live in the unity of Christ.

The gospel is  the radical good news that God in Christ has freed us all from what society demands we be;
it’s about figuring out how to live together as a community in light and in this life-altering message;
and it is about spreading that good news to others.
That everyone is a part of  the beautiful unity of difference which can happen in Christ.

Yet, unity in Christ also means that certain things are non-negotiable.
We are to condemn as Christ did the forces of oppression and injustice.
Being united in these instances means fighting and struggling alongside those struggling in the darkness, just as Christ did long ago. The Corinthians were trying to play by the same rules and operate under the same values as the rest of the world that pardoned the exploitation, discrimination, violence, and oppression of people who were different.

In contrast to these divisive values, Paul writes, we are to be united in the foolishness of the cross—that same foolishness Jesus embraced each day on earth as he sat with the poor and ate with the despised of society. To cultivate this view of living is work. To cultivate our life in common we need God’s help to continually pull out the weeds of prejudice and mistrust, fear and stubbornness that breed division.
We need God’s help to nurture others and not  simply telling them “everything will be OK” or to "get over it." To say instead- I am here.

Cultivating this life requires uprooting the stones of assuming the worst, it requires trusting others we see as in different groups also belong in God’s house as children that God desires to grow. And it calls for disrupting the practice of sowing the salt of discord and chaos that kill life. And to live instead in a new life. Because when the kingdom draws near, the view should change.

And through baptism, we are God’s priests in this world- living among God’s faithful people; hearing the word of God and sharing in the Lord’s Supper; proclaiming the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; serving all people following the example of Jesus; and striving for justice and peace in all the earth. And we are called to claim our sisters and brothers in God’s world and treat them as family. My prayer for our nation and our world is that we will together see this is a time to forget “us and them”, and start being “we.” To cultivate growing in a life in common.

Wherever and with whomever this seems hardest, may our prayers start there.

Let us pray:
Lord of all nations, a new President governs in this country. Legislators and others at all levels begin to work anew. And we, your people are walking into a new chapter in this part of your kingdom. Bless them. For some this is a time of great celebration, for others it is a time of great uncertainty. Guide us. Help us to remember that amid all the changes, your love is steadfast and your strength never fails. Turn our eyes to you and guide this nation by your Spirit to go forward in justice and freedom, so we may work to provide all your people the blessings of well being and harmony.
Almighty God, we lift before you all who govern. May those who hold power understand that it is a trust from you to be used, not for personal glory or profit, but for the service of all people. Empower us to defend our liberty and fill us with wisdom to work together for justice and peace. Where there is good help us to affirm it. Where there is wrong, give us courage to address it knowing that you will provide us with the wisdom we need.
God of all, you have created us in such wonderful diversity. Free us from prejudices, guard us from serving our fears. Help us to see you in the face of all people. Help us to break down the walls that separate us and teach us to work to accomplish your purposes- to affirm the dignity of all and to work to protect the most vulnerable. This is not the work of a day, or the work of only a few, or for only a few. This is our common purpose. Drive us from cynicism, selfishness and corruption and give us the grace to live together and to work together for unity and peace.

And in all things help us to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with you. May we work to bring forth your kingdom and give you alone the glory. Amen.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Horizon of Possibility

At some time we’ve all felt it- that moment that feels like we’ve reached the limit, we’ve hit a wall, we’re at the edge. The people in Isaiah knew it- in exile, long suffering, looking for some sign. They  feel like the words we hear- crushed reeds- once strong, now bruised, bent, trampled, at the breaking point. They should be able to stand but they might not. Some people who felt like dim wicks- this is the acolyte story- you light the candle and it might light- they’re trying with all their might to shine and be a light. But they might be Sputtering. They should glow, but they just might not. And The people on the coastlands, there at the edge, are hanging on and waiting for God to give a word. Please.
And the prophet tells them- “Here comes my chosen, my delight, the bearer of my Spirit, the bringer of justice, who will not falter, nor be discouraged. Here is my servant.”
And there in the midst of God’s declaration of freedom, and light and release and the new thing God is now declaring. There right in the middle of this awesome announcement is the reality-The coastlands await his teaching. At the edges people wait.
And here God declares that the edge we see in front of us, is not the end.
It is instead the horizon of possibility.
New things I declare, says the Lord.
The same God who declared creation into existence, who spoke the heavens into being and who breathed life into what looked like just dust. God speaks a radiant and glorious word.  And in the midst of this- the coastlands await his teaching. Those who feel distant are waiting for God’s word to be revealed.

The people in Jesus’ day were at their limits too and willing to trek out through the wilderness to a river in the hope that this man John had the words they longed for that would change things. Then Jesus shows up there at the edge with them and begins to redefine the limits. Showing that what we see as a boundary to be accepted, put up with even, God sees as a barrier to remove-
and it is divine necessity to do so.
Jesus immerses himself here- to bring a new vision where none had been seen possible.
Jesus shows us at the edge of the Jordan River. Having been born into and walked through the same hot, dusty, exhausting way of all who have been coming to see John the Baptizer. Jesus comes to be baptized in the same way as those who are waiting to be taught, those to whom John has called out- Repent! Be changed, be cleansed! And Jesus doesn’t need to do this.
It’s the limit too far, John cries out- NO!
And John is as right as he is righteous-
Jesus in our eyes does not need to be baptized- there is no sin from which he must be cleansed.
But in God’s eyes it is a divine necessity.
Because in order to fully immerse himself in our world as “God with us” there must be no edge, no limit, no person or place too far from God saving us fully.

Jesus shows the way by showing up at the edge with all the dirty, bruised, bent over, trampled, breaking “Crushed reeds” people. With all who ‘struggle to shine or even hold a spark in life” people. In the midst of people like us. And Jesus immerses himself completely in our existence and wears it.
When I was growing up down South we used to head to a swimming hole. On a hot day you need a swimmin’ hole. We’d head down the red clay road, through the weeds in the field, over the fence past the bull we needed to avoid to the cool water.
And when we came home we’d try to convince the adults that we didn’t need a bath that day because “we had already been in the water.”
But of course, as you know, we were covered with all the dust of red clay road we traveled, all the silt stirred up in our splashing and the field we walked through. We wore it all.
At the Jordan river, people had made their dusty trek, and they were dirty and splashing, and animals were trampling and the water was anything but pure. Mud oozing at the edges, silt rising.
Jesus immerses himself here.
In this place full of the dirt of creation’s existence. And I imagine that he rises up out of the water, he is dripping with the drops of the Jordan, clinging to him, full of all that dirt on his skin. He wears our existence.
But he’s also filled with the Holy Spirit on the inside.

And he carries both- as he heads into places of temptation, and the labors of ministry, to the place where he will wash the dirty feet of his followers and to the place where he’ll bear the crushing weight of the cross. And the place where it seems like the end has been reached.
But there too he will open up possibility in the new thing of resurrection declared by God.
We who share in baptism share in all of this.
Walking into the world- in places of temptation, labors of ministry. We carry the drops of the mark of the cross that declares God’s new life and we walk filled with the Holy Spirit
Even when we feel like crushed reeds, or dim wicks, covered with the weight and dirt of struggles, and surrounded by limits. When we are waiting for a word.
Jesus shows up and calls us to be immersed.
Because the people on the edge are waiting and hoping it will be a good word.
And we need to hear that they are at the edges because of other people’s limits.
It’s always a challenge.
People can get caught up in crying out frustrations, or shouting out  complaints about the world. Perhaps like John insisting upon what we are certain cannot be.Or like leaders in the gospel, certain about the step that is too far to take-that person is too distant or to broken to be our concern. The cost is too great; the energy too demanding.

Maybe this is when we should ask if we have considered lately what it takes to crush a reed or dim a wick.

We, this side of the cross see Isaiah’s prophecy as pointing to Christ the Servant, and it does, however,
it is not to be forgotten that the people in the time of Isaiah interpreted this prophecy as speaking to them- the people of Israel as it is defined in the Hebrew Scripture. That the servant is THEM as the community. If we open our horizon of possibility, the servant is both.
Tempting as it may be to think that the edge of whatever is right in front of us is the limit, perhaps a new thing Jesus declares even now is that what we see as the limit is God’s horizon of possibility.

Because we have been fully immersed in God’s vision for the world declared by Christ.
And we are empowered by the Spirit
To live as Martin Luther suggested. Even on his darkest days in the world, he could be sustained by declaring- “I’m baptized!”
It reminded him of grace and salvation,
and that the dirt of life is not permanent.
And it gave him strength to look for God’s work in the world and to declare it no matter what the world’s limits might suggest. It’s powerful!
In baptism God says of us too- you’re my chosen, my delight, the bearer of my Spirit, the bringer of justice. Don’t be discouraged. You are my servant.

May we live this new life-
to declare to all at the edges of existence,
A glorious word-
That in Christ, where others see limits,
And build barriers,
We see the horizon of possibility being revealed
That Christ is the only real power and truth in this world
Who has come for us all.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

God in Our Thin Rejoicing

For the folks here in our part of the kingdom, we have had a wave of significant losses, and struggles. Since October we have walked with the sadness of overdose death, and then the death of men in their 40's and 50's leaving behind high school students, those same men being the only child of their parents. The unexpected diagnosis of  a mom of two girls, the leukemia diagnosis of a five year old. The sudden loss of a beloved teacher at the middle school, and a mom of a young girl our kids know-faces in our small community. The loss of young and old, and yesterday evening, the loss of one of our church musicians whose unexpected entry into the church triumphant I had to announce at the beginning of worship. The flu was too much for her heart. Having held the hand of a faithful saint and singing "Beautiful Savior" as her heart stopped. And then coming home late last night and deciding to shorten and adjust the gospel for the wounded and weary flock I knew would be present.  
Where normally "Joy to the World" and lighting the Chrismon tree are anticipated. This sermon was for our early service folks, since at our late service we had the kids' Christmas program. But for all who find themselves in a weary world, may this be a word from God:

"There are times when we experience thin rejoicing. We sing and hear “rejoice!” But it feels thin at best. The places where we have experienced the unexpected, felt like the rug has been pulled out from under us, where it has felt like burden upon burden.  In the gospel of Matthew, we get this deeper glimpse into the journey of Joseph. Though across the years our songs sweetly rejoice about that trek to the little town of Bethlehem,  just then in real time…Joseph could barely manage the weight of Caesar’s decree and his wife’s condition. From where he stood, Joseph’s situation as it happened seemed like an exercise in hopelessness.And a word from an angel was at best thin rejoicing. 
To the extent that we allow the craziness of the holiday season to distract us and encourage us to denial, we waste the opportunity the gospel gives to engage the hard truths that gave the birth of Jesus and experience its deepest meaning that God with us in the flesh brings hope. But to know it truly, “Hope and courage begin with honesty.” (Diana Butler Bass) That God is with us in our real lives.
This is the season to embrace both the joy hoped for but also the difficult truths of our lives, to acknowledge the darker side of the holiday we can experience. Where there lies a weight. Where we don’t  need to look far to see that  the shadow of the cross falls upon the manger. We know. The gospel seen through the eyes of Joseph and Mary and this life invites a courageous truth telling. 
Advent’s  waiting is not the simply like the child’s wishful waiting for Santa, but a more difficult waiting- waiting for that which we cannot yet see. Or even imagine.” (Sam Portaro)
The good news in the story of Joseph and Mary is that “God worked through real people with real challenges. He didn’t choose a fairy-tale princess to bear the savior, but rather an unwed peasant girl. He didn’t choose a political or business success story to name and care for Jesus, but rather a man with his own doubts and questions who wanted to do the right thing but needed angelic guidance to accomplish it.
In beloved hymns  it’s easy to forget that Joseph and Mary were real people. In our imagination, Jesus never cried, Mary looked more like a blushing young bride than someone who had just given birth, and Joseph is calm, protective, and paternal. 
If we give a little more attention to their real story it can speak hope to places of burden and heartache we feel in real life.
It starts with the engagement. Joseph has been given his young bride to be in a legal contract, binding in every respect. Essentially be to married yet without having consummated that marriage or as yet living together. When Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant, he can only conclude that she has been unfaithful to him. And we can imagine the pain, shame, and sense of betrayal that any of us would have felt at such a devastating revelation.
Joseph is faced with two options. He could either publicly declare his injury, in which case Mary would likely have been stoned, or he could divorce her- dismiss her  quietly. He chooses at first to dismiss her.
Now imagine Mary-the unexpected pain her pregnancy caused and, given the likely consequences,  having great cause for concern for herself. 
It takes a visit from an angel to calm all this down and orient Joseph to God’s intentions. Angels usually get involved in the biblical story only when heavy-lifting is involved. Joseph responds to the angel and yet I think it’s safe to say that the months leading up to Christ’s birth was not one blissful baby-shower after another but were fraught with anxiety and concern and emotion. And they have no idea what the future holds. Just as we ourselves often feel.  Neither Mary nor Joseph could’ve anticipated the fullness of their child’s life, much less its enduring power in our own lives. 
And yet that child changed the future for us all. 
The human hopes and fears met in Bethlehem’s manger were more than we  could’ve imagined- what God was accomplishing—would accomplish— much less how and in whom.
The gospel calls us to  lean into our faith unafraid of our truth and steadfast in trust in our God with us. To let go our own fantasies of a future of our own desires and designs. To open a space ready to receive God’s surprise, the life promised us. 
We’ve no idea what awaits us in the darkness of that scary not knowing, and yet the light of Advent shines. 
So we take our places with Joseph and Mary at the center of that wearying trip-
A trip of burden and uncertainty, where we journey to find ourselves at a stable, staring into the face of a baby whose future is as unknown as every child’s.” (Portaro)
We have – each of us – experienced similar upheavals, weariness and burdens. Times when we are struggling to hold it all together even harder while at church. 
What we’re called to, what we come to, in this and every Advent is the wonder Is that it is into THIS WORLD a new life is being born. 
And we hold fast to the assurance of that “God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” 
We come to see the “Emmanuel” of Matthew and Isaiah- “God with us.”  “God REALLY with us.” 
God coming to be with us as we are. 
Not as we know we should be, or are trying to be, or have promised to be, or will be some day, but with us as we are now…today…in this moment. Still. 
And the promise is that as God came before to be with, use, accept, and hallow Joseph and Mary at the birth of Christ, so also God comes to us in Christ to be with us, use us for good, accept us as we are, and hallow us. Still. 
As we prepare to journey to the manger this year- this is what we can celebrate
God is really with us. 
God is with us, really and truly as we are. 
Christ  is our Emmanuel. So Come Lord Jesus, Come Emmanuel, we pray. Come again and always. And however you find us, and however thin it seems, we Rejoice to be here. (Lose)

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Freedom and Love

Today we observed Veterans Day in a long standing tradition of the parish to host the Hazleton Liberty Band, playing and Armed Forces Salute, America the Beautfiul and more. This band dates back to the time of the Civil War and in fact played at the surrender at Appamattox. We had worship that included folks bringing pictures of veterans. And special lessons-
Our lessons were from Deuteronomy 10:12-14, 17-31, Psalm 46, Galatians 5:13-18 and the Gospel of Luke 21:5-19. Portions of our liturgy came from the Armed Services Prayerbook and other resources from the ELCA and some self created.
Our bulletin opened with these words:
When we assemble for worship, it is as citizens of God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ. We gather
as those who give thanks first for our freedom in Christ. We also are grateful for freedoms
won and secured by those who have served and are serving for bring peace in the world. As
Lutherans we celebrate that we are each given a vocation, a calling, to serve the gospel.
Today we give thanks for veterans- those who have been called to serve in the military, and
for their families. We also give thanks that God is our refuge and strength and we remember
that our God calls us to continue to work for peace in our world and to care for those in any need.

Here is my message:
You’d be hard pressed to find people who have a greater understanding of “God is our refuge and strength” than our veterans. Through crisis, disaster and separation from home and loved ones. Through morally and physically challenging missions,  the sacrifice of time, and more often than we’d like, sacrifices of physical and emotional wellbeing. Our veterans and families know it well. The cost of freedom is high. Today we remember those who have served, living and in the church triumphant. I remember the service of my Father and uncle Jack during the Cold War era. Dad was in the Army and Jack was in the Marines, so probably a little rivalry there. My Dad served in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. They had taught him Russian and he listened to Soviet transmissions in to see what the Russians were up to- 12 hours on and 12 off. Lots of coffee and cigarettes while you worked and maybe some beverages to power down. Out there at the end of our country on an island. Friday I was standing at the World War II memorial in Sybertsville, and saw the names of members of this congregation, and all of Helen Roth’s work for the adding of names. I thought of all here who served. Michael’s uncles served in World War II.  Like Henry, who was “D Day plus 4.” He never spoke of it. Came home, married, had a family, went to work and never spoke of what he undoubtedly saw. But when he went down to the basement to listen to the Phillies, you let him go. He was still fighting the war.

Long before our wars abroad, there was a different war in this country. Michael and I both have relatives that fought. On different sides. And a couple fell in love, across different sides. Northerners fighting for the Union married Southerners. Imagine that.

Our Civil War was not only a time of  sacrifice but  the challenge of being country. Friends and family were on both sides of those fighting and those at home. The songs we play and sing as our national story, are stories of  bravery, and service, but also what it means to be free. Scripture tells us that the truest expressions of freedom are expressions of love, even when doing so is absolutely against other feelings or interest, and even one’s own safety.

During the Civil War, following a battle, two Confederate soldiers were carrying a wounded friend through the darkness when they were challenged by a sentry who demanded identification. "We are two men of the Twelfth Georgia, carrying a wounded comrade to the hospital," they shouted back, only to learn they had accidentally crossed into Federal lines. To their surprise, they heard,"Go to your right,"directing the men back toward the Southern lines. "Man, you’ve got a heart in you," they hollered back.

Countless episodes of enemy soldiers helping each other occurred. In 1864, a ground fire threatened wounded Northern soldiers lying between the lines – until a Confederate officer stood up, exposing himself to enemy fire, and shouted, "We won’t fire a gun until you get them away." An impromptu cease-fire followed while Federal troops removed their wounded.

Our friends with the Liberty Band today, ( a group which dates back to the Civil War and played at the surrender at Appomattox) will appreciate that when the opposing lines were close enough, and the shooting had temporarily stopped, army musicians sometimes engaged in battles of the bands. Near Fredericksburg, Southern soldiers listened admiringly to a Northern band performance during the winter of 1862. When it concluded, a Johnny Reb called out, "Now give us some of ours" – and the Yankee band obliged with a rendition of "Dixie." When the band concluded, soldiers from both sides broke into a melancholy chorus of "Home, Sweet Home."

One man wrote, that they concluded, that the war was the real enemy, and not each other.
“My friend, the enemy,” was a phrase veterans of the war came to call each other at places like Gettysburg where they gathered and remembered – with the understanding that, Northern or Southern, they were Americans all. And all free.
All free.
The gaping wounds of conflict take long to heal, we know, but those who have faced battle head on know best how important it is that we do so. Freedom is precious. And for all of us, God desires we know freedom.
Paul writes “You all are chosen for freedom.” “For freedom Christ has freed us. Stand fast.”

Stand fast.
Don’t let yourself be shackled to the ideas that rob us of that freedom.
You are freed from the results that are the consequence of life lived apart from God.
And Paul urges us to see others not as rivals but as children of God.
No matter who we are, we are freed children of God
Because Jesus has set us free to love.
How do we live as the free?
Love is the answer.
But in truth, it’s an answer with many questions.

This day we lift up those who shown us love, because they have answered the call, the vocation, the work of serving in our military in war and in peace to protect our freedom. Our military personnel past and present carry out the calling of freedom. And we who are free are called to love. How do we love them? Our songs are great, but is in more.

We who are free can love by being as dedicated to serving our military personnel and their families when they come home as we are dedicated to sending them to serve.
To provide real access to care for those who are wounded. To provide for the needs of military chaplains who show God’s love to those in active service. And for those who come home fractured and still fighting the trauma and stress, we must support, lobby for and and fund the resources to give our men and women the chance to know freedom from their challenges and to be able to receive the mental health and substance abuse support they need for wholeness. We cannot meet sacrificial living on their part with empty promises on ours. We simply cannot.

Paul writes, we are called into a freedom that mirrors God’s life- dedicated to serving others in love.
God’s vision is that the human way of being- is love.
True freedom is expressed in love.
This is not as an ideal or a virtue. Love is care for others expressed in concrete acts of unselfishness. Freedom and love have a cost that we are called to share.
Our faith working through love means not living for oneself.
We cannot allow ourselves to say that our budgets don’t allow for more dollars for our veterans and their families. We must challenge this limit upon love. We must be prepared to meet sacrifice with sacrifice.

And we must expect more from ourselves as a society when we speak and act as the free.  Some imagine that freedom is the freedom to live out whatever we desire, to say whatever we want, to do whatever we want, to know no limits or controls. Lately and on all sides, this living without a filter has led to hateful speech and actions that are a misuse of freedom. When we are using our will in opposition to liberation of the human spirit of others, we misunderstand freedom.
Freedom in this sense leads to the enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions and envy Paul warns against in Galatians. Sound familiar?
We try to shape a world of self interest, and it is tempting to buy into the notion of counteracting this with a different expression of “now I want MY way.”
This is why Paul will go on in Galatians to urge we remember the fruits of the Spirit, and perhaps most of all, self control.

The gifts of self control and other fruits of the Spirit are not laws but characteristics.
The fruits of the Holy Spirit are what God gives us to help us balance many questions we have as we try to live as a community of those who are free and those called to love. God in Christ continues to love and free us in the work of the cross and to guide and empower us to live out freedom and love.

Sisters and brothers there is much before us as we ponder how to be free together. How to love one another.
Paul tells us “Keep walking in the Spirit.”

May we avail ourselves of God’s gift in Christ and the fruit of the Spirit, not tapping into the feel good now, consequences be damned response. We must resist threats from within and without that encourage us to flaunt what we think is freedom but will lead to what the world looks like when we ignore the calling and nature God has given us.

May we continue to give thanks to God for all who secure our freedoms. If we truly want to honor their legacy and God’s freedom given,  may we rest in the freedom that God’s love in Christ is our true refuge and strength and respond to others in love.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Extra Step of Mercy

At events like this one, Nancy was known for her Famous Chipped Ham and Cheese Ball. She didn’t share the recipe and she certainly didn’t just make it for anyone. When I showed up as the new pastor, Nancy had only known me for mere weeks before my ordination which was being held at the church with a reception to follow. And it was a great thing I know when the church secretary gleefully announced that Nancy decided to make her Famous Chipped Ham and Cheese Ball for my reception. I thought there might be a little overselling about this cheese ball, but more importantly, she was taking this step for me, someone who was still a stranger, who was “not from here” and we all know what that means. And after all, I was a new pastor and you never know what you’re going to get. How could she be sure she would want to do this? If she thought it through, she might change her mind. But Nancy, not known for being spontaneous, took that extra step believing we shared something. The extra step.

That’s what Jesus is talking about when he’s asked what someone has to do to be saved, to have life. Of course we know the answer-we know the words: Love God ( say it with me) with all your Heart, and Soul and Mind and Strength. And Love Your Neighbor -As Yourself. We know the words.
But right away comes the question- the limit, the least common denominator- well, who exactly do you mean when you say “Neighbor,” Jesus?
It’s the question of low expectations.
Rather than answer, Jesus opens, as he often does, with a story.
One we know well. About the man who is attacked and left for dead in a ditch. And how two, possible of “his own,”  two people just like him, see him… And Pass on by.
Choosing to not get involved, not get dirty. They’d rather not. They pass on by.
But someone no one expected, stopped-The Samaritan. Who is called “Good” In our telling ( not Jesus’). Called “Good” because the audience of the victim never thought anything good about Samaritans. And this belief had formed over centuries, of land grabbing, and punishment, and violence and mistrust, and slurs lived out. And arguing over who worshipped God correctly. And well, more hatred than we have time for today. Yet THIS man, the Samaritan- he didn’t honor the least common denominator, he didn’t fulfill the low expectation.

He saw a need for healing and help and he had compassion.
More than pity- deep in his gut he was moved- his heart was touched.
And he showed mercy.
Mercy is the extra step.
It’s the step that turns that word “love” into real life.
He took that extra step, or probably a few, over to the ditch, and stooped down to meet the man, not just see from a distance.
Then he took the extra steps to walk back to his donkey and get his wine and oil, to cleanse the wounds and begin the healing.
And he probably took the steps to perhaps tear his own clothing to bandage the man’s wounds.
He took more, probably heavy steps, to heave the man, that felt like deadweight, onto the donkey. The donkey that was helping him get where he needed to go easily and quickly. He had somewhere else to go.
But now all those extra steps to walk alongside that donkey carrying the man, to the inn.
And the extra steps to carry the man into the inn, and up the stairs to sleep.
He took the extra steps to reach into his money bag and give the coins to the innkeeper, money destined for his own family. The family who later probably asked him- you did what? For who? Why?
That was our money you gave away!
I imagine him trudging back up to stay with the man and watch all night.
And the next day he promised even more steps- to come back and pay whatever it took.
All those steps- concrete acts of compassion-showed mercy and love without conditions.
Mercy is what can heal and give life beyond mere words.
By the end of the story, Jesus has flipped the man’s question – it is not about “who is my neighbor.
Jesus’ question asks- which man BECAME a neighbor?
Who lived into being a neighbor? With more than words
This is the question of what to expect of love with real flesh and bones.
It’s the question that has the power to shape our lives together in all our relationships.
And it's the question that demands an answer the headline of our paper yesterday read “DO ANY LIVES MATTER?”
And when CNN asks- HOW WILL WE HEAL?

It won’t happen with just more words or some new program.
It takes more than that and more than just us continuing on our way.
Christ is our example. He traveled all the steps it took to save us and give us life. In all the places where left to our own devices, we’d be in ditches of our own devising. All the places where we pass on by because we’d rather not see, places of mistrust. Places where we are fractured and need of healing. There is not a heart unbroken lately.
Christ came to save all of this and we don’t earn this life- all we can do it receive it. Receive God’s mercy like the man in the ditch and give thanks that it is for us. And be so grateful that we can think of nothing else to do but share God’s limitless love.
By making it real.
By something as simple as really seeing someone and reaching out. Or by seeing someone reaching out to us and receiving them.
We’re called to be a part of the unexpected grace not low expectations.
So I invite you to do something unexpected. Please stand as you are able and reach out both hands. Now make an effort to reach someone with your left hand and your right hand. Until everyone is holding every other hand. And not one hand is reaching out, empty.
 As long as it takes and as many steps as it needs.
NOW…now we have become neighbors. Keep holding on. This feels different!
Even in small unexpected moments we can more truly become neighbors.
Henri Nouwen wrote-
“Those who choose, even on a small scale,
To love in the midst of hatred and fear
Are the people who offer hope to our world.”
God’s love and mercy are hope for the world
Shown in even one extra step.
Sometimes we are reaching, and sometimes we are receiving
Both are part of truly being neighbors.
Recognizing what others have to give is just as important.
Recognizing that lives matter. AND that healing is not only necessary, it is achievable-
When we reach beyond ourselves. In mercy.
We must take these steps believing we share something.
Because we do- we are all children of God.
Now more than ever, our lives together must be truly lived together
In the belief that in Christ there is hope for God’s world.
We CAN truly become neighbors- let us no longer allow anyone to undersell the power of Christ in this.