Tuesday, November 18, 2014

New Roads in God's Journey

Last night I shared with our congregation council news that I had accepted another call and would be ending our time together at Holy Spirit to begin a new call at Christ Lutheran in Conyngham, PA. Below is the letter that I shared with them and which has been mailed out to our members. I ask for your prayers for both congregations and for our family as we move into this new and very exciting time. While I am sad to leave great connections here in Centre Park and in the congregation, our family is also energized by the enthusiasm and joyful spirit of the folks in Conyngham who have embraced us so lovingly.

“I do not cease to give thanks for you when I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you spiritual wisdom and revelation in your growing knowledge of him…so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the greatness of his power toward us who believe..” Ephesians 1:16-18


Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

        In 2011, you took a chance on an untested Pastor straight out of seminary. In the years that followed we have shared much together, our joys and sorrows, hopes and fears. I thank God for each of your and for our time together as you have helped me grow. We have celebrated joys, mourned sorrows, and served the gospel together in worship, in fellowship, in our outreach efforts and the very vital afterschool ministry, The Dove’s Nest. You have taught me much and have blessed me by sharing life together. I firmly believe that the quality worship and vital community ministry and outreach must continue and I recognized that to take the long view required evaluating how that might be best accomplished.  

          It is with a mix of joy and sadness that I write to share news that I have accepted another call to serve as Pastor of Christ Lutheran Church, in Conyngham, PA. This has not been an easy decision. Michael and I have been praying and discerning for some time both about the future of Holy Spirit, and our future as well. As we look at the needs of our family and for this congregation, it seemed that it is the right time and right opportunity to relocate. We believe Christ Lutheran is a great fit for the continued development of my gifts and strengths in ministry and offers community and connections for Michael as well. At the same time we pray this transition offers Holy Spirit greater ability to explore and continue in vital partnerships and ministries here.

        With my departure my pastoral relationship with the members of Holy Spirit will come to an end. I treasure the privilege you have given me to serve as your pastor, but upon my departure, those responsibilities will belong to your interim and future leaders. While friendships may continue, it will no longer be appropriate for me to perform pastoral functions within the congregation or for its members. Therefore, however hard it may be, if you ask, I will say No.

This is because I have great respect for the integrity of the congregation and for the ministry of those who will serve you, as well as great love for the church. Sometimes the greatest challenge is to act with ethics rather than emotion but it is necessary for the health of the congregation. For these reasons, I shall decline invitations to preside or assist at weddings, baptisms, funerals or other congregational functions without the approval of the congregation council and bishop. My hope and request is that you as my former parishioners and future friends help me keep a healthy distance from the congregation. On the other hand, I would be honored to be invited as your friend to attend such events.                              
        My last Sunday leading worship as the Pastor of Holy Spirit will be December 28th. Michael, the girls and I then leave for Finland utilizing the last of my unused vacation. My last day of service will be January 10, 2015 as we move and I begin my new call on January 11, 2015.

        It is my hope and prayer that we can share in meaningful celebrations at God’s table, and in heartfelt farewells. In these weeks, I will be visiting our homebound and also putting things in order for the smoothest transition for you. It is also my hope and prayer that as we each respond to God’s call to new journeys that new conversation and opportunities will reveal God’s power and hope and guidance for you.

Yours in Christ, Pastor Carolyn


Monday, November 10, 2014

How Full is Your Lamp?

Just before worship started, I was talking with someone about the modern understanding of the word, “Gospel.” Oftentimes today it is interpreted as “good news” and it is, and yet that good news is seen as being words that affirm and uplift us and tell us we’re ok. Yet sometimes, the other function of the gospel is to speak truth- a truth perhaps we need to hear, spoken in love but not comforting. If you came to church today expecting warmth and comfort from the lessons- Sorry.

This past Wednesday I asked the folks at Table Church to sit and wait for a minute. I’d like us to do that as well.

You all did pretty well, but the truth is many of us don’t like to wait. Including your pastor who as you noticed checked her watch pretty often. On Wednesday, about halfway through many were starting to fidget, and at the end of the minute a couple kids commented on how hard waiting is, especially without Xbox or something. And I suspect a couple adults were wondering what would happen to that hot food if the pastor was going to make us wait. That minute felt long. Waiting can be hard.

"What will we do while we wait?” is the question Matthew’s gospel is addressing today. We’re waiting for Jesus to return- much longer than Matthew's original hearers.

SO what should we learn today? HAVE ENOUGH OIL.

While that seems like something to do, I want to suggest that it is not just about cornering the market on something. The oil is not the kind we watch the news to see if prices are up or down. Literally it’s Olive oil. Perhaps you hadn’t thought this but, literally, the answer to, "What shall we do while we wait?" is "Make sure you have enough oil for your lamps."

In an age of electricity, where we no longer need to put oil in lamps, what can that mean?

The five foolish bridesmaids ran out of it and the five wise ones had enough to go the distance. But what does the oil represent?

Martin Luther thought it represented faith- don’t run out of faith. I don’t agree with Luther. Because Faith comes from God- can you run out of faith if God is the provider?

Others think that the oil represents good works. Don’t stop doing good works.  But then what of grace? Imagine the frenzy of last minute good deeds- that seems to suggest if we do enough, we earn it. I’m not sure good works is quite right. Which speaks a word to lots of people today focused upon community service, especially young adults. Good works are good-and we all could use all we can get. At the same time, when the project is done, what is beyond it? What is the sustaining presence for all the other moments? The ones without projects?

Still someone else suggested the oil seems to be a generic reference to faithful and obedient discipleship as defined by the whole gospel. To be like the slave who elsewhere actively, faithfully, and obediently carries out what he has been instructed to do. It’s about trust. But where do we buy more trust?

Obviously there is something to being active in waiting, and in trusting, but maybe it’s not about doing those things as much as its about not running out of the power to do them.* We who are told to tend the light are also told to go and be light for the world. We need a power that produces good deeds- the power needed to produce light. Maybe this parable is using "oil" to be our relationship with God, who is the source and power behind our good deeds and our trusting.

And then maybe we can ask- how full is our lamp? Perhaps some of us are burning brightly this day, or perhaps some of us are sputtering out. But one thing is sure- the lamp needs to be tended. Like any relationship. Our relationship with God requires our attention.

To borrow yet another relationship phrase- does your relationship with God have a spark? If you walked into Jesus would you feel like you know each other? Or would you sense only a faintly distant connection?

When our girls were little they only saw my parents at holidays and the rest of the year we faced the challenge of helping them remember who these people who were so eager to see them and bring gifts were. We’d talk about how their grandparents were coming. We’d get the house ready for them. But it took other ways of being in touch while we were waiting to keep their relationship current. Phone calls, pictures, videos, telling those distant relatives what they’ve been doing. Even though those deeds weren’t the basis of the relationship, they were part of letting the grandparents know who their grandkids are and vice versa. To a certain degree as parents we mediated the relationship until it was strong on its own.

“If we understand "oil" as having a close relationship with God -- the power behind our lives -- the power that gives us a "glow" as shining witnesses in the world -- we must acknowledge that it is possible to let that relationship "run out". When the bridegroom comes, it (seems) too late to try and establish the relationship.” And in that context when we hear that those frenzied bridesmaids came back they found the door closed perhaps it’s important to note that although the door was closed, we don’t hear who closed it.

We just know it was closed. God gives us a relationship and faith and while God never closes the door, we can. And while our salvation is assured, we can in this life lose the power and strength we need and long for in this life. Our relationship with Jesus – being known by Jesus- can’t be mediated through other people who have it. I can’t do that for Jane, for example, nor she for me. This is why the other bridesmaids cannot share their oil. Our relationship with God needs us to keep glowing. And as we hear in Amos, it’s about more than just going through the motions of worship an hour a week.

It’s a relationship- God longs for and indeed kindles the spark of our faith for much more. Our deeds then are a response and even help fan the flame, but our works are not the relationship.

Being disciples in this way with God means we are tending that relationship and doing what God desires in an ongoing way. It doesn’t mean we cannot rest- after all , all the bridesmaids rested. But it does mean constantly tending our relationship with God so it has the power and meaning and support we need to avoid panic and chaos.
God wants to have a personal relationship- one where we share our hopes and fears, and where God invites us to share in a meal that reminds each of us- this is “for you.” And the door is open.

God is always striving to establish that personal relationship. One where today matters not just someday- for us and for the world. While we wait we can know the power of encountering Jesus, entering now, inviting us in to participate and celebrate the many comings of the Christ: Jesus' presence in the Word; in the Sacrament;  in the gathering together; in our going out to make disciples; as we minister to the "least of these." This is what we are given to do and to experience. And it’s a lot.

Yet, these are also the connections with Jesus that keep our "lights" empowered for witness and service and keeps our relationship burning brightly. The truth is that we all at times are foolish, and we fail to tend those lamps as we should.  What continually enables us is what God continually gives, summed up in this prayer from St Claude de Columbiere I invite you to join in now. Let us pray:

Jesus, I feel within me  a great desire to please you  but, at the same time,  I feel totally incapable of doing this  without your special light and help,  which I can expect only from you. Accomplish your will within me-- even in spite of me.   AMEN

* Brian Stoffregen, Crossmarks

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Communion of the Saints (that someday thin places might stay thin)

As we gather once again on this All Saints Sunday, we see the light of these candles and it reminds us of saints not only from this congregation but who have touched our lives. Those God has given us across time. They are on our minds today. Perhaps today more than ever we sense that presence of the communion of the saints. Today we hear words from Revelation, this last book in Scripture intended to be words of hope. At every funeral I preside over I read words from the book of Revelation and say that they are intended to be words of hope and at least half of the faces crinkle up like that is a strange statement. So many are caught up in things like imagining Armageddon, and the Rapture and who’s left behind and who will be in hell. But what we are really given is saints around the throne of God whose struggles are no more. Tears are wiped away and we’re drawn to God.

The Celtic people in Ireland speak of “thin places”- places where worlds come together- the world here and the world beyond. The barriers we normally experience are not there. There are sacred spaces where you can get that sense. There are also events that function that way and for me All Saint’s Sunday feels like that. Being drawn close to God and a longing to be together when all the struggles are done and all the tears are wiped away. And there’s a moment- that’s communion of the saints. Perhaps you experience it this day as well.

I think that’s what we experience at funerals- the thin place where people come who haven’t been here in a while, drawn closer not only by a life lived for which we give thanks to God, but often a time where people speak of a closer sense of God and what the church means- at least for a moment. We forget the things in life our loved one did that weren’t the best- they fall away and we remember the good of people and community. If only those thin places could stay thin and continue to be communion of the saints.

Yesterday I attended the funeral of a colleague, Sadie, who fought the good fight with cancer and we celebrated her life’s work, in particular, her commitment to criminal justice system ministry. Something I know some of you are connected to in different ways. Most recently she worked as a chaplain at a state correctional facility in Camp Hill where she labored tirelessly. But a mentor said she once called him with a question, in the midst of her labors, she aske- “why did some people respond to God and to help and others did not?"

Her mentor suggested that maybe some people are just broken beyond the point of being helped- their souls are just too broken. And at this point Sadie just laughed at him and said,” Why on earth would God give anyone a permanently broken soul?!” Why indeed.

And for her this was, I believe,  the vision of communion with God and the saints- a place much broader than our vision. A place where the thin place stayed thin.

That’s what Revelation points to this day. That’s what we say each week in our Creed- that the vision John speaks of is so different. The multitude around the throne- different languages, and races and lives lived- all there.

And it’s so captivating he doesn’t even stop to wonder- why are THOSE people there? He’s in awe of what God is doing, calling us all children of God with a place. It’s not about us and “our” beloved- it’s about God who God loves.

And the number continues to grow and grow and the communion gets ever larger because there are no permanently broken souls beyond help-truly. Communion of the saints means we are given this privilege by God. And we are given a purpose.

We are given this vision and we are given words of faith that include saying we believe in this communion of the saints. The words we say in our Creed- our statement of faith. After speaking of God our Creator, and Christ our Redeemer, and the power and work of the Spirit, we say more. That we believe the church is holy- may it be holy when we are here. We say is it catholic- which is a way of saying united and we say we believe in the communion of the saints. That we are in communion with God in Christ and with the saints who have died and for whom God’s promises are made known. And we are in communion here and now-we are each of us, saints. Sinners to be sure, but also saints claimed as God’s children in our baptism. Given communion- a community, and a promise and a purpose. This too is communion of the saints.

Which is why it makes complete sense that after the funeral of a saint committed to criminal justice ministry, I was meeting with a family whose lives are in another part of the system as their son works and indeed labors to make changes and to be reunited with his loved ones.

I asked him what keeps him focused and helps his work and he of course mentioned his family. But the first word was “God.” And he shared with me that he keeps a tiny Bible in his pocket because it reminds him that God is always with him. And he thinks of his family and of this church. And then he shared the work of one of our saints here who, on her own had asked for his address and without waiting to be asked or seeing if anyone else was doing so, sent him a card and a care package. He was in awe, and I was too.

He received a card of encouragement and support and candy that he could share. Candy that helped him make friends with other boys there- and I imagine them all around that box sharing- and while some might look at them and see a group of sinners- God saw communion of the saints.

The gathering of those in this life around God and community is what we are given now to give us hope. Because in this life we labor and struggle, all of us. But God in Christ Jesus gives us communion and community- may it be what we sense each time we are here. Until that day when the thin places stay thin. We’re given these things so we too can be in awe of what God is doing right now and to not rest until everyone knows it.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

It's not About What's In Your Wallet ( And it is)

How many of you remember the VISA credit card commercial “What’s in your wallet?” My favorites involved the marauding Vikings on holiday, but they all ended with a bellowing question- “What’s in YOUR wallet?” I think of it whenever I hear this gospel lesson. Because what’s in our wallets is close to us, and important to us. As the Pharisees are being tested by Jesus as much as they thought they were testing him. But what exactly is Jesus really getting at when he tells them to hand him a coin and then tells them to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s?

The short answer is “I don’t know for sure.” But I do think we have Caesars in our lives too.  And by that I mean whatever occupies us and controls us.

The Pharisees and God’s people lived in an occupied land. They were taken over by the Romans who brought their laws, their army and their money. Literally the answer to what’s in their wallet is money that had a picture of Caesar on it and proclaimed he was the Son of God. So much for the people who say they will have no other gods before the Lord. Claiming allegiance to the Lord was seemingly an impossible dilemma. They were allowed to worship their God as long as they also worshipped Caesar. And it seems they are caught and yet, they have no trouble even in the temple of handing Jesus that coin. The one they tell others they can’t have in the temple and must exchange for temple money for a price. They have a lot of those Caesar coins and they’re not sharing. And they have no trouble going to the occupying leaders about Jesus. Their words about God and their actions have gotten pretty disconnected. Frankly, they’ve spent an awful lot of time cozying up to the very thing that threatens them.

We are not occupied in the same way, but we are also living in a system that demands much it seems. However we answer the question of what occupies us affects our decision making, how we see the world, and tells where we place our hope. Often it is in our wallet. Even though our money boldly says “In God We Trust” on it.

But I wonder if anyone has looked at those words when you’re buying something, or before you spend money. Does anyone stop and look at those words “ In God We Trust” and ask if this decision lives that out? Anyone? Me neither.

With credit cards and electronic purchases becoming the norm kids today perhaps no longer will even see those words. They won’t even cross our minds.

We’re all far more likely to pay attention to the words of the brands we are loyal to. Now advertisers have gone beyond trying to convince us of a brand- it’s about creating a whole community. There are Nike people. And I-phone people. There are Weis shoppers and Redners shoppers. There are whole systems based upon these loyalties- there are even loyalty cards. And while some offer us a deal here and there, they are mainly just tracking what we buy to get us to buy more of what it seems we can’t do without. I keep waiting for my loyalty to Turkey Hill really give me the better gas discount. They tell me to keep spending. Getting us to cozy up to their system and treat the connections as real. To be the thing we want most. But they’re not real connections.

What’s in our wallet says a lot. It says not only what we are loyal to, but I think it says where we place our hope. That’s why retail therapy is a thing. For those of you who don’t know, that’s shopping at a favorite place to feel better. The next product is bound to make a difference until maybe we do realize that VISA really does own us. There’s even a spoof on the Viking commercial where the person realizes how much they owe and the Vikings come back and smash it all.

The truth in this is that there is an obvious tension in life between how to live a life of faith in the world and how to live in the culture of our world. How to live without letting the culture own us.

And I wonder if maybe the real question Jesus was asking the Pharisees and us is, whether we think the pull of the culture is so strong we don’t even try?

Maybe we begin to think it’s too much to ask how faith shapes our decisions in life about spending and saving and giving. That’s a place of no hope in the end. Yet Jesus says give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s.  Which may be a way of reminding us how our coins and our cards do not define us.

Because God does. We belong to God.

Jesus invites and even demands us to engage these words we say about God and ourselves- to speak of our Lord in terms of a real living relationship. And a source of hope. Because while God wants all of us, the good news is that God first says- you are mine. It’s a promise not a threat.

Words that are intended to reassure us that we are more than our money and don’t have to live in fear of having it all.

Perhaps now more than ever these are words of community and comfort and direction we need to hear. That our hope is not limited to what we can buy. That we can live in faith that God loves us, provides for us and saves us and we can believe there is a future and hope. Now more than ever as we look at our world and feel powerless we can be a community that continues to gather together around what is real- God’s love and promise today and forever in Christ’s work of the cross. That’s our hope. And it’s real.

In a few weeks, we will be gathering for our annual meeting, and voting upon a plan for how we will carry out ministry in the coming year. The time honored term is called a budget. And it often feels that our thoughts about bills and coins are the only way we see this process. But I want to suggest we view it as a statement of trust in God and as a statement of hope.

That the choices we make in our commitment will be based upon our trust in God so that we can support it financially. And that the choice we make in shaping ministry will be based upon what we believe God is calling us to do, not only what we feel used to doing.

Because we’re liberated by God from the weight of whatever feels like it occupies us. We are liberated! And our primary response is to say thank you! Thank God! And trust God’s providing as we carry out the gospel for others. So they can feel liberated and thankful too.

And this is who we CAN be because God claims us, loves us and empowers us to respond.


Let us pray- Lord God, sometimes we are unsure about how we can respond to your calling. Help us to surrender ourselves, and be thankful because we are yours, and to trust that you love us and provide for us, so that we can break free from what holds us back and share of ourselves for the sake of your world.

In Jesus’ name. Amen

 PS- here's the Vikings!


Monday, October 13, 2014

This is the Good Stuff

Grace and peace to you, my sisters and brothers in Christ, in the name of the Triune God. I bring you greetings from your sisters and brothers at Holy Spirit as we give thanks for the privilege of sharing in ministry with you for the sake of the gospel here in Reading. This afternoon we will share in the CROP walk for hunger, but today especially I want to lift up and share our gratitude for a way you support our ministry over the years that ties in to our readings for today.

At Holy Spirit, we have an afterschool ministry called the Doves Nest, which provides a free meal, tutoring, literacy assistance and fun for 40-80 kids three days a week. Most of the time we are grateful for the meals we receive from the Kids Café program of the Greater Berks Food Bank, but a few times a year we are blessed by a feast when members from here at Nativity lovingly prepare and deliver a special meal that takes the place of the usual food.

I can assure you, that when the kids, especially the older ones, get wind of the fact that a meal is coming from Nativity, that good news spreads like wildfire! Poor Shirleen has to plan her arrival so she’s not mobbed by the kids. News of a meal from Nativity is like the proclamation of a feast! The kids go around and make sure everyone knows the news- “you gotta be here- this is the GOOD stuff!”

While I am sure that no one is thinking of well aged wines (God forbid!) or fatted calves, it is indeed a great meal. One that invites our kids into something different- knowing that great preparations were made, for them, and the taste of that great meal lingers in their memories and speaks love. And for some of our kids this meal sustains them in the midst of places that don’t seem all that great or maybe even loving. And that’s where our readings come in.

Admittedly, it’s hard to overlook the intensity of the language in the gospel this day, which doesn’t seem all that loving either. But it’s helpful to remember this is a parable. A story told to show a truth. Not told to show that the story is fact.

And I’d like to suggest that at this point in the gospel as Jesus has been sparring with the leaders for some time about who he is and what he’s about and it’s helpful to see that the strong images are intended to get attention about a truth about God’s power and purpose. Because you don’t want to miss out on what God’s up to. It’s a message humanity often misses.

All our readings this day call to mind the tensions of the world but they also point to God’s providing in the midst of it. In exile and strife, and struggle and confusion, there are these meals. Spoken of to a people in exile, to a church in conflict, to those beset by enemies, and those who weren’t expected to be included. There are these great meals.

In different ways, we ourselves know what makes for a great meal in our lives. It can be a great meal just because the ingredients are exquisite and the chef talented. It can also be a great meal to be with family or a special day. Or maybe you’ve been hungry for a long time and you finally get to eat. Maybe you’ve been sick and unable to taste or take in food, but now you can. Maybe you’ve been in a place of dark shadows, of loneliness or loss, staring at an empty chair, but today an empty chair is filled with a dinner companion- and that’s a great meal. Perhaps you’ve been at odds with someone but now there is a peace at the table. All of those are great meals, are they not?

Even our psalm this day lifts up a feast, however unlikely.

Psalm 23 is the most well known passage of Scripture in much of the world. We probably all know it well. After we hear the Lord is our shepherd and we are led by still waters and to green pastures, but before forever with God, there it is. “You prepare a table before me even in the presence of my enemies.” Even when we’re surrounded by struggles whether they are people or emotions. This is gospel for us in all kinds of times and places.

I heard it this past week as one of my colleagues told a story as a Vietnam vet of being in a watchtower on a hill with a few guys, eating lots of C-rations, and being pretty isolated. But occasionally they’d get mail. And on Christmas Eve he got a package from his fiancée.

Inside was a canned pheasant. I didn’t even know you could put a pheasant in a can. Canned pheasant and mandarin oranges and popcorn. An odd feast. And way too much for one person but those cans had to be eaten as soon as opened. So he and his fellow soldiers there in that tower surrounded by shots most of the time, had a feast, one he still calls one the best ever- as the shots stopped for a awhile, and there was a feast on Christmas Eve.

From those cans came a feast that spoke of the love of his fiancée, the protection of God and the goodness of something unexpected and abundant.

This is what our Scripture shows us- not only the goodness and power of the food, but of the provider who continually prepares and invites. Our God continually lovingly prepares for and invites those who long for it, and those who don’t get it. Those who will savor it and those who will dismiss it. Even in places and times we can’t expect-God provides a feast, prepares a table and says “Come.”

And Jesus asks, “Do you really want to miss out on grace?”

God is feeding us too. Again this day-in the midst of our busy-ness and our challenges. Our frailties and doubts. Dark places and short-comings. There’s a great meal here that offers the power to sustain us today- it is a feast and celebration!

And so, we’re invited to take all those other things that fill our hearts and minds, and are maybe even distracting us now and STOP.

Stop what we’re about and be fed with good things. Good things that will be carried in our hearts and minds so we can so as Paul encourages- think on these things. Think on the truth and honor of what God offers, the pure grace and wonder worthy of praise-

the things God gives, that are stronger than enemies, and dark places and prison cells. Because the God of peace meets us in this meal and is with us. And it starts here.

In order to be the church that shares good news, I think we must first stand in that grace and take it in again. And the best part is that we’re invited!  To be lovingly fed by Christ and strengthened to walk in God’s world and to love others- to share as the kids would say, the news of the good stuff!

This is the invitation- so Come and be fed.  AMEN


Monday, October 6, 2014

Crazy Love

How many of you are familiar with Albert Einstein’s definition of “insanity?” Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. Our first dog helped us experience this. Every day when the postal carrier would come to deliver mail, the dog would go nuts, and bark her head off, and sounded like given the chance would have attacked the person just delivering messages through the mail slot. From the dog’s perspective she was a success- every day some stranger came and tried to put stuff in our door and she barked and the person left. That’s not insanity.

Insanity was what we did. Every day we would chastise the dog for that behavior and tell her not to do it. And it never changed. You’d think that since we provided her a safe and comfortable home and good food, and she always cornered the best spot in a nice fluffy bed. You would think that she’d listen. But every day, the postal carrier would appear, and the dog had the same response. Because to our dog, “This is MY HOUSE!” And she was in charge.

Our dog was not exhibiting insanity- we were. For thinking that on a different day or with a different person the result would be different. And we could have given up on the dog but we didn’t. Because we loved the dog. And thankfully she never “got” that person who came and shoved mail through the slot in our front door.

But insanity, that act of doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result is perhaps the best way I know to describe what we see in the vineyard lessons today. Stories of wild grapes and tenants run amok, and the actions of the owner of the vineyard. (Thanks David Lose!)

The owner has labored to create a vineyard, tilling soil, planting lovingly, setting everything in order for the best and most abundantly possible harvest, and then gives the care of the vineyard over to other. In Isaiah we hear that it all goes wild from there and the temptation is tear it all down. But in the gospel, we hear about the tenants in a different way. And as far as we know in most respects they have been good tenants and have cared for the place. They’ve been given a place to live and a job to do- bring in the harvest. And presumably they’ve been given a promise that some of the harvest will be theirs as their pay, but of course the rest goes to the one who owned the land and who created the vineyard. And the harvest has come!

But now they look around and they see that harvest and they just don’t want to share. They’ve worked hard day after day for an owner who isn’t really around. They’ve put themselves into it and it doesn’t seem right that most of this goes to someone else.

So when the landowner sends servants to collect, they don’t receive grapes of joy in the harvest. Instead, to borrow the phrase from John Steinbeck, they meet with grapes of wrath. In wrath and anger those poor servants are abused or killed. Because the tenants have decided that this is MY PLACE!

Here’s where the insanity starts.

The owner could do as we would at this point, send in police or soldiers and take this by force. But instead, the owner sends more servants! Who sadly meet the same result. And that’s crazy! Why would the owner put so much at stake to risk a different result? More grapes of wrath. And frankly now the tenants are feeling the battle surge.

So then it really gets crazy, because the owner says, “I’ll send my son. They’ll listen to him. They’ll show respect, and recognize his authority, after all they have had a job and a place and are getting cared for.”

And we know how it ends. More wrath and killing.

The question isn’t really so much why did the tenants act that way- we sadly expect it. The stories in our world and our lives tell us this.

The question is, “why did the owner act that way??”

Why would anyone try to live in the framework of a relationship over and over when it is clear that it’s so one-sided?

That’s just crazy.

Today’s parable was told by Jesus to the leaders of the temple to show them who they were- those who rejected over and over the messengers of God. And while it’s a story about them and about how they would go on to reject even the Son, none of us should be under the impression we would be any different.

When so often we find in our own lives, ways we reject God’s call upon us to care for the vineyard, for those who show up in it, or to listen to God. When it is easy to respond to others not with love but with wrath. To call upon force rather than tend relationships.

Our news and our own stories tell us this is true. And in the end so much of what we’re given we are sure is OURS, because we’ve been tending it, we hardly think at all about who else might have a stake.

We can do a fine job of serving up grapes of wrath. That’s not the gospel.

Sometimes we have to work harder to see what the good news is.

The bigger and more important part of the parable however is what we know of God. It’s the story of one who lovingly arranged a place for us to live and to work and to grow, and who despite all our rejections and possessiveness, and even our violence and spite, continues to send not only messengers but to send the Son.

This side of the cross we know just how crazy this love God has for us really is. Christ on the cross is the ultimate message, that takes our wrath and made of it, our salvation.

If God responded towards any of us as we deserve, there would be wrath and destruction indeed. How unexpectedly graciously instead,

God persists over and over in a relationship with us, however one-sided, and while it is indeed the height of insanity, it is the best demonstration of crazy love we’ll ever see.

The grapes in the end are not grapes of wrath, they are grapes of mercy and forgiveness and love.

And this day again we will taste them. We’ll come because God invites us and we’ll receive the body and blood of Christ who died at our hand, but for us. So today, maybe, we’ll taste these grapes and maybe linger over it, and savor that taste that for us is the taste of love and mercy for each of us and for all of us.

And then maybe remember that of all the things we clamor to possess, or to know, the sweetest and best is God’s crazy love for us all.

** thanks to David Lose, and Sharron Blezard for the inspiration



Sunday, September 14, 2014

Behold the Life Giving Cross

Growing up one of my favorite comic strips was “Peanuts.” Perhaps some of you remember sometimes that Lucy would play psychiatrist. She would set up shop with a sign proclaiming, “The Psychiatrist is IN.” Recently I was reminded how One day she says to Charlie Brown, “Discouraged again, eh, Charlie Brown?” “You know what your problem is? The whole trouble with you is you.” The whole trouble with you is you.

I’ve thought a lot about that this past week in the midst of the groundswell of response to the video of NFL player Ray Rice, seen physically assaulting a woman who is now his wife. First we wonder what the NFL knew and why they didn’t do more. And much condemnation of his behavior has been heard. But then his wife’s decision to stay and stand by him received just as much recrimination. Maybe even more. Why would she do such a thing? It’s foolish! Why are we so focused on chiding a victim?

Then again, I’ve thought about Lucy as we have another week of gun violence here in the city including the death of a man just blocks from here and the neighborhood concern about the shooting which seems to center around getting these people out of here more than concern for those caught in the midst of it. Shootings are bad, killing is wrong, but we can be quick to judge- I wonder if anyone has thought instead of judging, about how to help those caught in these places live?  

These kinds of violence seem to be always around us. The groundswell of opinions are just one example of how we approach problems in our world- we bounce between saying we need better laws or policies all the way to the other extreme which is we need victims to be stronger. We need better policies about guns or people, or we need more guns with the right people to be safe, or we need to uparmor police even in places like schools. I saw a picture this past week of an artillery vehicle repurposed for a school. Shocking.

Unfortunately the conversations we have are only about what people should stop doing or about doing better things. And while it is about us, somehow it’s not. It’s about issues and how to fix them. As though the issues and the people are separate. It’s not about life.

Today on this Holy Cross Sunday we ask what the cross means for us in this life in the world. And we first hear about the people in Numbers who are being plagued by a different kind of death- they’ve been traveling in the wilderness with Moses and serpents are biting people who are then dying. They beg Moses to do something and he goes to see God and begs for an answer.

God tells him to take a serpent and put it on a pole for the people to look at, but when they look at it they will live. The bitten will live. The image helps them see and live, but… it takes trusting in who’s behind what the image represents.

And then we fast forward to the gospel where we hear about Jesus on the cross, born into our humanity and put up on a pole for people to see. (Brian Stoffregen) One writer noticed that there is a parallel here. Serpents on the ground kill, serpent on the pole brings life. Jesus as human on the pole in our human world brings life. So what must the problem be?

Lucy is right. Jesus is on the cross because the problem with humans is humans. The problem with us is us.

So often we can see that there are problems like domestic abuse and gun violence but the way we address it is to separate the problem from people. Better policies or laws, or better victims might bring some kind of salvation-ish kind of thing. But that kind of salvation has nothing to do with Jesus. It either doesn’t need him or reduces him to a model of behavior. Yet so often we turn not to God or the cross but to these other avenues.

And we keep getting bitten by the same old problems because of who we are. We are sinful. Sin hurts. But the cross changes that conversation. And we really do need that cross.

Because just as those surrounded by biting serpents everywhere needed to be grounded to survive, so do we. What grounds us is not just the image of the cross, but a belief in the relationship it represents. That God is a God who is involved, and healing, and forgiving. The cross shows us a God who loving, and longs for us to seek life. But we have to believe.

We hear this is in the gospel- you must believe. But I want to be clear, I don’t mean in the sense of “believe or you are damned.” Though this is often how some interpret today’s gospel. That’s not what is being said.

Believe… because life giving starts now. In this cross and this relationship. There's real life.
Belief is a key concept in the gospel of John Over and over the stories flow forth “so that you might believe.” And in coming to believe might keep on believing in the God of the cross.

Believing in what and who the symbol represents.

If you’ve ever noticed the abundance of ribbons, and wristbands and slogans, it’s proof we will believe in a policy, slogan or symbol as the next great hope with very little proof.

Believing that the cross is more than that. It's a symbol that points to a real relationship and identity. And those words “to believe” are a continual invitation to keep on.

When we look at the cross our belief is renewed- it not only shows the cost Christ paid, but also the life giving promise Christ assures us. We’re reminded that relationship is forged in baptism when we join in what that cross made on our heads menas, and stays with us all the way to the end of this life’s journey and beyond. Not just at the beginning and end, but along the way.

And along the way, we are continually invited into life. To come to believe again and again so that we are not perishing, or condemned, or being judged or feeling separated.

The good news is that while the serpents in our world still want to judge us or have us judge others, we don’t have to buy in. We really don’t.

In fact, the cross shows exactly the opposite. The cross is the place that shows us that we cannot be our own salvation.

It’s also the place where Jesus turns to those who have killed, robbed, beaten, and denied and says, “You’re forgiven and today you are with me.” Forever. Not just for us, but for those we are sure are not us.

It’s foolish to believe but there it is.

Good news for all the places where the painful, the poisonous, and the life-taking things surround us. Holy Cross day reminds us to behold the life giving cross, to look upon Jesus and remember not only the cost but the promise God in Christ assures now and forever.

Again we are invited, “ Come, believe, and continue to live into believing the power of our God.”

 Because the cross is not just a symbol, it's a relationship.

Take it in and believe.

This is what we celebrate here. And what when we come here we help each other believe.

This is what we share when we lift that cross high in our world

So that when the next discouraged person comes along saying, “Ouch! I just got bit!” We don’t point in judgment and say “ How could you be so stupid to let that happen?”

But instead proclaim with all our heart, “ Let me help you see the One who will help you live.”