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.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Of Snowstorms and Communion and Being the Body

There’s a funny thing that happens during the lead up to snow storms and the hours of flakes falling. And it’s a split-brained experience. Part of it looks like frenzied “milk and bread” crazies.

And part of it looks like this post from the Bangor Maine Police Facebook:
“Dear Mid-Atlantic of these United States of America.

I think we all knew it could happen. Every year when you pack up your well tanned family and head back home from our tiny piece of paradise, you look back and see us raking up our leaves and putting our snow shovels by the door. You always sigh, knowing that we will be dealing with winter in a far different way than you will.
Listen, this storm is going to miss us. This is not typical and we want to share a little advice of how to make it through an epic "snow event" unscathed. We want you to come back next year. Here are a few tips.

1. Don't panic. It's just frozen rain. It does go away so don't try to move too much at one time.
2. Don't shovel too early and don't wait too long. Pace yourself. Go out every few hours and move a little at a time. It can hurt your back, arms and legs. You always wonder why we all walk funny. It is not because of the clam chowder.
3. Heart attacks in big snow storms are rather common. Help out your neighbor who is older, out of shape or that has known health problems. Helping them move some snow (better yet, let your offspring do it) is better than calling EMS while you are doing CPR. Seriously.

7. Toilets flush without electricity. If you fill your tub with water, you can use it for all kinds of things, including flushing the toilet. Also, to wash cereal bowls.
8. Fill your car up with gas. If you get stuck somewhere and have to run the car, make sure you clean out around the tail pipe and do not fall asleep with the car running. We need you to come back next summer.

Most of all, take care of each other. Be nice and invite neighbors to hole up at one location. Hide expensive things, but help them. (that's the cop talking).

You will be fine. We drink lots of coffee and complain when we get hit like this storm. It works ok. It makes us grouchy but that's why you come here in the summer. To hear stories from grumpy Mainers who sell lobster traps. Now, you will have some of your own to share with us when you get back.

Be safe and well... The men and women of the Bangor Police Department are rooting for you. You got this.”
Behind all the snarky tone though is one part of what our reading from 1 Corinthians is about.

Here’s the reading:
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.

In weather storms we seem to get the body.  But in life storms not as much.
When I was growing up, I had a Sunday School teacher who had an accident while mowing the lawn. She had lost her footing and ended up losing two toes. And as it turns out the toe you need most is the smallest one- it’s the one that brings balance. While she lived on without the two smallest toes on one foot, her body didn't move as easily, or pain free as it would otherwise. And so it is with is.
We all need each other and are in fact created for being a body. Which means that the frenzied fear, or the hierarchy of need and want we can create is in fact, not the better way.
We belong together. Eating together, drinking together, laboring together and rejoicing together.

While much of the news magnifies self sufficiency, and building walls and divisions. While much of our rhetoric speaks of who we don’t need or want, there is a deeper and far more magnificent movement at work.
It is seen in the rejoicing of a group of Finnish Lutherans who were offered Holy Communion by priests at a mass held in St. Peter's Basilica following a meeting with Pope Francis on January 15. After the personal audience with the pope, the delegation was present at a celebration of the Catholic mass. According to Bishop Salmi, at the time of communion the non-Catholics placed their right hands on their left shoulders, a traditional way of indicating that they were ineligible to receive the Eucharist. However, the celebrating priests insisted on giving them communion.
Despite the body language, the body of the church experienced something different than walking awkwardly and in pain. The body experienced the celebration of wholeness.
As news of this has manifested itself, the ripples of joy I have seen make my heart glad. The stories of people who long to commune with their family, who long to be accepted in the body.
No more fighting over bread. At the table or in the world.
It sounds so simple, and yet just as challenging to sustain as being willing to listen to the local boy made good in Nazareth. Jesus finds the crowds think the fulfillment of scripture in him is impossible, and are ready to fight.
How much harder for us, then?
Frederick Buechner  wrote in Peculiar Treasures:
When you came right down to it, what was God up to, for God's sweet sake, sending them all out-prophets, apostles, evangelists, teachers, the whole tattered bunch - to beat their gums and work themselves into an early grave?
God was making a body for Christ, Paul said. Christ didn't have a regular body any more so God was making him one out of anybody he could find who looked as if he might just possibly do. He was using other people's hands to be Christ's hands and other people's feet to be Christ's feet, and when there was some place where Christ was needed in a hurry and needed bad, he put the finger on some maybe-not-all-that-innocent bystander and got him to go and be Christ in that place himself for lack of anybody better.
And how long was the whole great circus to last? Paul said…until we all make it to where we're like him, he said-"to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:11-13). Christs to each other, Christs to God. All of us. Finally. It was just as easy, and just as hard, as that.

And so it is still. The good news is that we will always be invited into being a whole body centered in that greater way.

Here's a bread and milk snow frenzy meme:

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Wow, Jesus Was Here

One of my favorite pictures circulating is a photograph of a supermarket clearly not in PA because there is alcohol being sold. But it shows a shelf where the sign above it says “Water” but on the shelf are endless bottles of wine. And the caption of the picture is “Jesus was here.”

It’s tempting today to focus upon the mechanics of how the water becomes wine. Or even just that this story reveals Jesus’ power to perform this miracle, which it does. But here, in the gospel of John, it’s helpful to remember that after the opening of telling us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, we hear that Jesus has come to show us “grace upon grace.” One gracious gift after another. That beyond the gift of the law, Jesus has come to make the fullness of God known. And  after calling disciples, the first place we see Jesus is at a wedding.

Most of you know that I am planning our daughter’s wedding. Weddings can be a  huge social event that calls everyone to be there. And I for one would like to return to Jesus’ day where it was the GROOM’S family that hosts the party.
The tradition was not that you invited your closest. You invited everyone. Imagine having to host this whole Valley. According to tradition in Jesus’ day the family is to provide enough food and beverage for everyone, EVERYone- for a week. Imagine hosting this whole Valley for a week.

But here we are the disaster strikes as the wine is running out. So what happens? Has the family planned poorly? Tradition says the guests were supposed to send wine ahead for the feast. Have the guests been stingy? We hear that many alre already drunk from the steward. Have some been overindulging without thinking of others? Then again, maybe Jesus has something to do with the problem.
Jesus has only a couple days before called Nathanael and Andrew and Simon Peter and Phillip. And yes, they were invited but you know how sometimes you hear of last minute people you have to invite even if you didn’t want to? Maybe Jesus was supposed to be a solo guest or maybe a “plus one” but then he met Andrew and Simon and Phillip and Nathanael and they ALL went to the wedding. He clearly exceeded his “plus one?” Maybe Mary is telling Jesus, “Now LOOK!” Well, we don’t know.

What we DO know is that when the glasses are empty, the party’s over.
Imagine the groom’s family announcing that it is unexpectedly “last call.” They will be ashamed, perhaps even angry. They have the taste of bitterness in their mouths. And the servants are flustered and scared. They know the taste of fear. And the taste that will stay in everyone’s mouth will be disappointment and shame.

Then imagine the commotion of filling those jars, each the size of this trash can, but stone. Not with a water faucet but filling buckets at the well and hauling them up and hauling those jars back and trying to do it quickly- how exhausting! And what if this is all just a mess? How many times on the way to the well, and with each bucket and hauling these ridiculously heavy jars back do you think the servants thought, “are you out of your ever lovin’ mind?!” Can’t we just do a couple jars?

Kind of like how we might feel sometimes somewhere between listening to God and the end result. A couple jars ought to be enough, you know? I mean, really. And in the midst of those thoughts of shame and anger, bitterness, fear- is division.

What happens next demonstrates certainly Jesus’ power, but even more I think it shows a deeper glimpse again of God’s heart. Extravagant, abundant, joyous.
In the face of the prospect of no more shouts of “here’s to the bride and groom!” Just when it looks like devastation- celebration! Unifying joy!
Did you notice that after the water becomes wine there are no divisions?
Grace- Exceeding all hopes- not just some average cheap wine, the best! Not just enough for this day or even this wedding, but for weeks! Imagine the reputation of the family who goes from the brink of shame to the family that blessed the whole Valley this way! The bitter taste of humiliation and anger and shame and fear becomes the sweetness of celebration and blessing beyond compare.The exhaustion of the effort melts away.
Grace upon grace.

Each gospel begins with some moment of Jesus’ ministry- the gospel of John opens with this wedding. The gospel has begun by proclaiming that from God’s fullness we ALL receive “one gracious gift after another.” Grace upon grace. Abundant, extravagant, joyous grace.
And here is the first sign of this God- Jesus at the wedding. With grace flowing freely for everyone, EVERYONE! No portion control, no guest list. EVERYONE.
The best feast EVER!
Grace- a sign so we might come to believe.

Interestingly enough the last sign Jesus shared with his disciples comes after the resurrection is the same. The disciples have seen Jesus and received the Holy Spirit, yet they have gone their ways, and the guys are back to fishing. And they are there and all night they caught nothing. Jesus, in the midst of their frustration, and perhaps fear and humiliation- no fish in sight- tells them to put the net in again. And they do what he says. Perhaps thinking- Are you out of your ever lovin’mind?! But they listen and before they know it they can barely haul it in. Grace upon grace. And they remember how he makes them one.
And there will all that fish,  then  he tells them to feed and care for others like that.
To bring grace into the world so that others might know Christ and know our extravagant, abundant and joyous God.
Jesus’ shows us that this grace transforms the world as we think we see it .
Changes people as we think we know them.
That just when you think it is too big of an “ask” or that we’re not up to the task, grace intervenes.
Just when you feel overwhelmed, grace intervenes
Just when you think You are not enough or there is nothing more, grace intervenes.
And each time, God uses people like ordinary people those servants at the wedding, like the disciples, like you and I.  And when we listen, extraordinary life changing happens.
How might God be calling you and me, each of us to “grace” the world around us?
What signs might God show through us?
May the Spirit guide us so that when we have been somewhere on God’s command,  people might see grace and say, “Wow, Jesus was here!”

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Let's Not Contain This

Today's lessons: Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Children’s message: today I handed out “Hello My Name Is” stick on nametags and next to the space for the name I had drawn a cross. We talked about having worn a name tag like this for class or maybe somewhere we have been. And I sort of joked with the whole congregation about how those name tags don’t always stay where they belong- they end up on shoulders or pants, but then I talked about how in Isaiah, God tells the people “I call you my name, you are mine.” The name tag can remind us as we put our name on it, that God calls us, knows us by name. And is with us. Then we talked about what day it is- Baptism of our Lord. And I asked why I put that cross on the nametag. When else do hear our name and there is a cross. And we came to baptism – where God says, I call you by name and you are mine. When Jesus was baptized God called him “Beloved.” God say- “I love you!”  The cross reminds us how God tells us- “ I know you by name, you are mine and I love you.”

The Sermon-“Let’s Not Contain This”

Today I am right here in the midst of you because it seems a little odd to me that I would preach about God in the midst of the people while standing way over there. Our lessons today lift up that God is with us in our lives. The people who heard Isaiah were in exile. They were not at home, not comfortable in their own skin, longing for a different world. And they hear- “ You are mine and I will be with you and rescue you.” And yet, in this strange place, and in a troubling world, it was pretty hard to believe when it seems like God is at a distance. Maybe sometimes we have felt that way, that God is at a distance. And so it seems that to God is was time to make God’s presence more visible and known, and into our midst Jesus is born. Today we hear that Jesus is baptized. And in Luke, we don’t get all the debate between John the Baptist and Jesus about whether John could baptize Jesus or should. For once, Luke is not so wordy. Instead, Jesus just shows up at the river Jordan. Yes, John has been preaching of one who is to come, but there is no special fanfare, Jesus just slips on in with the people being baptized. Right there in the middle of it.
If you’ve ever played in a stream or at the river’s edge, you know what happens when lots of people are splashing around- it stirs up all the mud and the stuff on the bottom we don’t really want to know about. But there Jesus is, right in the middle of our real lives in all the muck and mud. Showing us that God chooses to immerse God’s self where we really are.
And as if that’s not enough, the heavens open and God speaks. It’s one of the moments in Scripture I most wish I had seen as it happened. The heavens opened. And while I don’t know what that really looked like, I know that people hearing that who believed that God was somehow contained in the heavens would see that the final barrier that seems to separate us is gone and we hear God not only say this is God’s Son, but “I am REALLY PLEASED” by what is happening here. And then, as if THAT is not enough, as Jesus is praying, the Spirit descends and I imagine it’s not just a fluttering down, but the Spirit dives- right into Jesus, right in our midst, right in the middle of God’s world.
God’s initiative, and choice is to echo what we hear in Isaiah, that God will go to the four corners of the world and in all things to bring us together. And that is the baptism of Jesus. God immersed, holding nothing back. It’s powerful and it's the gospel for us.
And it’s different than our ways of being immersed. When I think of being immersed I am reminded of this ad from many years ago where a woman has finally gotten the kids out of her hair and away from her work and she closes the bathroom door and there is a bathtub and she sinks in and says,” Calgon, take me away!” In real life I have tried that but by the time I get to that tub, the water is cold, and it never quite worked like TV says it should. That’s one way of being immersed- take me away.
The other is what I see as we look around at our world. And it’s a pretty frightening place. Lots of things to make us afraid, or angry, or bitter. Lots of things we wish someone would save us from. And these days there is a lot of speech and a lot of promises people try to make about how they will save us. And most of them involve containing or restricting. As we are immersed in all of the rhetoric, what we really say to others is “go away.” One way or another we want to restrain what distresses us. Take me away, or go away.
That’s not God’s way.
God shows us that God is all in, holding nothing back in the birth, and the baptism and ultimately the cross of Jesus. Because Jesus knows that there in all our muddy water we will begin the way to the cross. That’s what God’s love will do to save us, to rescue us and to show us God’s love.
And just like that water, it can’t really be completely contained. Have you ever noticed how hard it is to contain water? There’s always drips here and there. God’s work in that water can’t be fully contained. In fact it’s expansive. Much bigger than we imagine. Immersed to save and rescue all of us. Even those who we find it the hardest to imagine.
God in Christ’s baptism shows us what it means to be fully immersed in our real world.
We who listen as Jesus says,” Follow me” and live the life of the baptized share in God’s initiative.
We are called to live a life of being immersed in the world. Not cut off, immersed.
Not caught up looking for other saviors, but confident that it is only our God who saves.
And who gives us the power to stay immersed in the world-
No matter that it may seem like the water is up to our nose, no matter how chaotic, God is immersed with us in it all.
And gives us the power to share what has been shared with us- “You are mine. I Love you. I have saved you.”
We are called to live among the world where all need to hear this word, trusting in faith that God is with us all.
Saying, “You are mine. I Love you. It pleases me that we are together-let’s not contain this.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Sermon for Thanksgiving Eve

Grace and peace to you, my sisters and brothers in the name of God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I am grateful to be in your presence this night. This time last year I was preparing to move here. It is a blessing to be in your midst.
Tomorrow we journey to our older daughter, Catherine’s apartment- she is cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the first time. She is, I assure you, not listening to the gospel. She is indeed fussing about the table, considering the bird and concerned about appearances. At least based upon the many conversations we have had. And between now and next September we have a lot of wedding planning to do. These words feel very different in this season of our lives and  of busy ness and preparations for Thanksgiving into Christmas and  beyond. It could be easy time as a  frenzied slide of days and expectations. Perhaps some of us here tonight are thinking about all those preparations in our own lives. In the midst of whatever is filling your head, rest assured I will not preach as long as Jesus did the day he uttered these words. In the midst of the sermon on the Mount where he talked long enough people probably were  wondering about dinner.
We gather here on this eve of the holiday in our country called THANKSGIVING. And I can’t help but think it is misnamed. In part because I think it frequently is framed in the category- of thanking God for lots of food,  where we roll out the door of homes and restaurants, stuffed. Our thank you at times feels perfunctory- or just the expected thing to say. “Thanks!” can be superficial. I hope what we really approach God with is gratitude.
I was reading this past week, what someone wrote- “I believe gratitude doesn’t come to the front door all dressed up and bearing Thanksgiving pies- rather, it slips in through the kitchen door like the plumber did when the pipes were clogged just before my daughter’s  wedding that was to happen at our home... You never know what gratitude the sound of a flushing toilet can bring until you’ve seen one overflow three times during the week of your daughter’s wedding.” That plumber was a life changer.  An agent of gratitude.

“ My deeper  point is that gratitude is not the same thing as giving thanks (for us in our culture). It comes from a deeper place that knows the story could have ended up differently, and often does. Gratitude is surviving the worst thing you can imagine  and realizing that you are still standing.”
Many of us with more than a few miles on the car in our lives have had these moments. The ones where we get out of our head and what we consider our worries, because we have seen the profound place of gratitude. Where we can stop, pay attention, and deliberately behold and appreciate what comes to us only as gift and grace from God.
Given the history of those Pilgrims who were devastated by winter, disease, famine, conflicts and shock, being alive was not just about
 “ thankful,”  it was about gratitude.  Overshadowed by economic development,  a day of Thanksgiving was not a national day until, after years of petitioning Sarah Josepha Hale, at age 74, convinced then President Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, to declare a National day of Thanksgiving. A day to recognize blessings in aftermath of a bloody battle at Gettysburg and the despair that the war raged on.

In October of 1863, Lincoln issued a proclamation beginning with these words:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields ad healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God…” he goes on to list blessings in the midst of adversity.
To speak these words in the midst of turmoil and fears,  is indeed a statement of gratitude. Yes there was turmoil and unrest, but look at blessings still.  The prophet Joel has just finished speaking to people who are asking where God is in their distress, only to hear in the midst of it, don’t be afraid- the Lord has done great things. And what they hear is that pastures will become green, trees will bear fruit, and life will have richness, not because it looks that way in its fullness today, but because the Lord who has been faithful and provided, will continue to do so.
While personally and in our world, we may have worries, it is right to stop and give thanks and behold moments of gratitude first to praise God for them. Those things that only God could have brought forth, and we remember them so that when we are tempted to worry we are reassured of who God is with us and for us and will be. A God who not only provides material things, but shows us more. Both in the the love and  grace and mercy of Christ. And in the things brought forth by God through the gift of community- in both celebration and consolation.
Tomorrow regardless of the world's worries or the state of the mashed potatoes, I will be grateful that after a year of travel abroad, our younger daughter is back in the States, my husband is recovered from significant surgery and our older daughter is making her way in the world. Joys indeed amidst life changing stories.
 And yet Christ, in the gospel, wants to draw us deeper. Into remembering that the God who provides these moments, is so trustworthy, that we can devote our energy not to worry, but to living lives of praise. Being people  whom God uses to bring moments of gratitude and life changing stories for  others. Right before this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has told the people they cannot serve two masters- they cannot put their wants first  and place God first. It is here that he tells them not to worry- since God will provide, seek God’s kingdom first. We can’t tend the relationships with God and others when worries distract us. Don’t worry-  Show love and  grace and mercy to others. Show the gift of community to others. This is the kingdom that God desires for all God’s children.
 At the beginning of  his sermon, Jesus said that the downhearted would experience God’s kingdom; the mourners would be comforted; the meek would have a place; the hungry would be filled. Mercy would be shown, God would be made known and the peace would be lifted up.
At the beginning of my message, I said that “Gratitude comes from a deeper place that knows the story could have ended up differently, and often does.” Gratitude for God’s blessings hopefully leads us to know that the story can end up differently and should for those who are struggling.

 It doesn’t have to be grand, just come from the heart- It can be offering a word of encouragement; a phone call to someone you haven’t talked to or seen in awhile;  feeding the hungry with good things; making peace with someone, maybe simply giving time to really be present with someone and thank them for what they mean to you.
As one new to the community here this past year, I am grateful to God  for you and pray that  God bless you this day and always. As you gather in  gratitude for the immeasurable blessings we are shown by God’s hand,  I encourage you to pause and reflect on how God has been at work in your story. Then  ask God to show you how you can be an agent of gratitude so others can experience the kingdom- God’s life changing story.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Sermon for Christ the King Sunday, 2015

Usually on this Sunday I am trying to figure out how "King" is a term with relevance but this year as our world has had a lot to say.  These end times readings ring out differently. One person wrote this past week, " There’s a war going on, in case you haven’t noticed.  There is the war “out there”–the one with bombs and guns and blood and death.  But there is also a different kind of war going on that is also deadly.” ( Jill Clignan- Practicing Families)
  It's true- A clash in our interactions that makes everything be about polar opposites- Hate versus love.  Strife versus peace.  Fear versus courage. And no in between.
That’s our world talking.

“ while it would be so easy for me right now to sweep my arms grandly across the landscape of this shattered world and declare that the sky is falling and the world is ending, I choose, instead, to stubbornly look with hope at the life right before me, to believe that God has not yet given up on His will being done on earth, as it already is in heaven."
That’s kingdom talk.

And that’s when  I remember what Jesus says to Pilate- "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were my followers would fight. My kingdom is from another place."
Earlier in the gospel of John, we hear the disciples say, "you talk about your place Jesus, but we have no idea how to get there."
That's us a lot- we don’t know how to get to the kingdom.
And Jesus’ response is – "you do know, because you know me. You know what I have been about, and you know God’s will."
 But knowing his disciples and how hard it is to follow,  elsewhere in the gospels, he tells them that  no matter what life brings, no matter how impossible it seems, here’s a prayer- pray like this.
And he taught them the Lord’s Prayer. I can rattle it off in three different versions almost without thought. And sometimes it’s just rote. Sometimes that’s a comfort that I have it internalized, but other times, I suspect I rattle it off quickly  because when I slow it down I remember- "your kingdom come, and your will be done" is not addressed to my desires, but to the King.
Our King and Lord.
I can pray for the kingdom to come, but here on earth, that’s an awfully tall order.
That’s probably why later on the prayer says,
"Lord,  lead us not to be tempted otherwise. Because YOURS is the kingdom."
 Christ is the ruler of the universe and the kingdom IS. Not will be, but IS now.

 And that’s what Jesus tells Pilate that he came to testify to this truth- God’s truth. THE ONE THAT DOESN’T LOOK LIKE THE TRUTH OUR WORLD DISHES OUT that sucks us in to playing the game of fear, and mistrust and hate. The one that tempts us to believe that  fear and mistrust and hate and struggle are what  it takes to rule.
If I am being honest, this week, and I am,  I cannot easily stand here and profess that I see Christ as the ruler of the universe, and the kingdom breaking forth.
I suspect that  it is so hard to see so often because we fall into the pattern of our world, the pattern  we all have a lot more experience with.

I tell you this not because I am now going to dissect and pontificate about the actions of others. This really is a confession and maybe it's yours too.  Because I don’t follow our King as I should.
 I wish I could more deeply live out what I pray when  I say Christ is the King- the ruler of the universe. That I want Christ's kingdom to come.
And that Christ's truth would meet the truth of my life and it would be obvious that I get that Christ’s kingdom rises above this world.

 We all get caught up in the fight between hate and love, and struggle and peace. And the biggest thing of all I am fighting isn’t evil, in the end, but fear.
Fear of others.
And fear that I know I am not living as one who acknowledges Christ on that throne.
Fear of what I would sacrifice or face if I lived that truth of that place that is not this world.
Maybe that’s why there are 365 places in the Bible where God’s people hear, “Do not fear.”

We are called to practice the truth of Christ and walk in the light. But, truly, sometimes the darkness is so attractive. But what really has me thinking and worried is when we say we cannot help one group of people because another group needs it more, but then we don’t help them either. And there’s nothing stopping us.

We find ourselves at odds and fighting in so many ways.

But you know what Jesus’ opponents hated was when he helped the wrong people. When he raised the dead, when he healed the sick, when he freed the captive, and prioritized the needs of the least. When he promised paradise to the criminal and food for the hungry. And salvation for all. Yes, all.

And when he commanded, yes commanded- our king commanded one thing of us- LOVE.
Love your neighbor as yourself. By the way, everyone is your neighbor. Love them enough to share daily bread, and forgiveness, and the life of the kingdom.
And he promised that the Spirit would give us the truth to prove the WORLD wrong and would give us the power and wisdom to do so.
So that our faith and what propels our actions and beliefs would be based upon this. That we would enact the kingdom of Christ.
Jesus our king and Lord, the ruler of the universe commands we love one another.
And the hardest part of all, is that there are no disclaimers, no fine print, no exceptions. No exceptions about Christ’s love nor about his power.

 This is the hardest part of all- swearing my allegiance to this gospel with no exceptions. And believing that Christ really is the ruler of the universe- no exceptions.
And  our king,  showed power in a cross. And keeps trying to set us free even as we keep holding on to rulers and kingdoms that deal death and pain and destruction. With Christ  telling us to take courage – he has conquered the world. And we are no longer of that world. We don’t have to be in that world- What a beautiful thought!
No exceptions. We don’t have to get sucked into the world’s talk and even better- because one more thing has  no exceptions- grace.
In the face of all of my shortcomings- I get to keep my citizenship in Christ’s kingdom. We all do
Because Christ our King is a gracious king.
And this kingdom that rises above our world  is for real.

Christ IS the king. We have a place in his kingdom, thank God.
And our King calls us to kingdom living.
What should the kingdom look like?
I’ve been asking people
And here’s what I have heard from some of you.
The shelves at the food pantry would never be bare- we’d feed the hungry all the time no exceptions
We wouldn’t only remember certain people at the holidays- we’d care about them all the time- no exceptions
People who are sick would be able to be cared for and not jump through so many gosh-darned hoops- no exceptions
We wouldn’t use one group’s needs as a reason not to help others- we'd help them all!
And  the poor, and the sick, and the elderly, and the oppressed, the veterans, the homeless and any one with any needs would be our business.
There’s a lot to think about there
 And it’s the work before us as workers in the kingdom of God.
A lot of people will say that our world today isn’t the same. One person said to me in fact, "we don’t live in Jesus’ world." But we do! It was scary then and is scary now.
But the truth and good news is that we do- it is a challenge but also a blessing.
And while it challenges us to try to live out our king’s command and what it would do to our economy and business as usual, guess what?  If we did so,
In the extreme, doing the business of  Christ’s kingdom would put the other one of our world out of business.
 Imagine despair, and suffering and injustice and struggle put out of business!

And so this day  while it would be so easy for me right now to sweep my arms grandly across the landscape of this shattered world and declare that the sky is falling and the world is ending, I choose, instead, to stubbornly look with hope at the life right before me, to believe that God has not yet given up on His will being done on earth, as it already is in heaven."
 Because Christ’s power shines brightest in our dark places. That cross shows power in places we think it can’t be possible.
And you are my co-workers.
And our only job is LOVE- that’s speaking the kingdom and lifting high the cross as we lift others to life.
 May the Spirit guide us, reassure us and  help us to  commit ourselves again to honoring Christ the King- our  Lord and Savior of the universe, with our lives.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Long and Winding Road

Tomorrow a year ago began what seems like a whole different life. It had already been a turbulent time of emotions as my family and I discerned that it was time for a new call in ministry, with it's attendant mixed emotions of beginnings and endings. It was already a time of great excitement for a new opportunity and sadness of having to announce I was leaving a place, especially since I detest goodbyes. I thought that was the hard thing- having preached and been called to a new congregation on Sunday and having to announce our departure on Monday. But then Tuesday happened.
On Tuesday morning the phone rang and a woman speaking a mile a minute said things like "ambulance" "hospital" and "collapse." Speaking so quickly and repeating it rapid fire that by the third time I interrupted to ask who she was and why she was calling. "Oh, your husband, it's your husband."
Fumbling in numbness I threw myself together and actually beat the ambulance to the hospital. So when I asked in the ER reception area and they told me there was no one here by that name, my chaplain brain kicked in and I assumed that if there was no live patient with his name that meant only one thing. A chaplain was going to call me with news I did not want to hear.
As I repeated where the ambulance was coming from, they found him, but then my clergy ID was insufficient to go to the ER. I was told I had to walk back outside and through security. Even the security guys were saying it was not necessary but they made me leave and walk outside and around to another entrance and then wait for a visitor sticker. So much for that encrypted clergy tag.
I made it back into the unit and they were bringing him back from tests. It had been so hard to be lost and separated and told I couldn't go past a simple door.
After awhile they decided that because his blood pressure was coming down and he had no chest pain they were sending him home for an outpatient stress test. But as I listened to him describe his symptoms they suddenly rang a bell " my legs felt like concrete" was exactly what his mother said before her heart attack that ended in a quadruple bypass. And the advocacy training of law school kicked in. If his condition might me genetic, so could the symptoms. And I learned how hard it is to be heard.
Apparently I was persistent enough without being irritating.
They ran more tests. One test result, and only one was enough to keep him longer.
And run a test again.
And when that one thing still seemed odd, they decided not to send us home.
That is why my husband did not die at home.
So they decided to perform a heart catheterization the next day.
It took longer than expected.
And when the cardiologist came out he looked astounded.
As "this is is the worst case of coronary artery disease in someone so young" spilled out like a tsunami, followed by " he should have died on your recent vacation with all that hiking." And then- scheduled for surgery followed by- we are keeping him alive until then with a ballon pump.
Time sure feels different when keeping someone alive is at stake
And staying the night was not helpful.
To this day I thank God that our neighbors who happened to work for the cardiologist, swooped in. And our other neighbors mobilized.
It all felt like all I did was ride the wave.
I let family know and deputized people to tell others. There are only so many calls you can make.
And they all feel like it's not real
Having been somewhat self sufficient and used to being the care giver, I realized I simply had to let go. And when a pastor colleague asked what she could do, "Be my pastor" spilled out.
God bless Eileen for sitting with me all day and praying with Michael and I.
In the days and weeks that followed where a steady stream of people and demands emerged, I was always exhausted but also always provided for.
Both by our new church and our neighbors especially. Even people who barely knew us, sustained us- you sustain the weary with a word- has forever changed meaning for me.
Our new congregation could not have been more gracious- from packing and moving us to feeding us and helping at every turn. How odd to show up as the shepherd for others yet needing such shepherding.
Here is the part that followed- the grief part. Yes, Michael survived. Thanks be to God! And yes, we are very happy! But I can tell you that it took a full eight months for me to begin to feel like I wasn't in a fog. Simple things felt gargantuan.
The simplest task like measuring and hanging curtains was a mess. Trying to put rooms together- something I love, felt almost impossible.
And perhaps most of all, taking care of myself, which initially was put on hold, suffered as we waded through adjusting not only to a new place, but a new life.
Of sorting out meds, and falls in the night. Of facing depression and naming griefs.
While both having careers dependent upon poise and focus.
And having to navigate what it takes to move from survive to thrive.
A few months ago I actually sat myself down and pronounced that taking care of my physical and spiritual health needed to happen and made steps to do it.
Reconnecting with my spiritual director, making retreat. Attending to all those appointments- mine, not his. And getting back to the gym.
I have never been a coordinated sort, but after finally getting in decent shape it had all fallen away over most of the year.
It was very hard to stop feeling guilty and sad about how all my hard work had evaporated and the 20 pounds had crept on.
And at 51, going on 52, no small feat.
I give thanks for my mutual ministry committee for gently encouraging me and for my trainer, Lisa who has been willing to work with a person who already had a curve in my spine, and war wounds of fitness in a knee and shoulders. And who would work with someone who will not be the "buff gym success story."
She helped me get over myself and just start working back. And I give thanks for Betsy who bugged me when I did not show up for spin class. She spins to get over losing a son. I could surely get over getting to keep a husband. Boy is grief a powerful thing.
When I got to walk "energetically" with Michael in a 5k for Betsy's son, it was victory!
I have farther to go to get back to the me I was a year ago. And yet in some ways I am infinitely wiser and stronger. Maybe the me I was has been resurrected- and born anew!
Not the least of which is realizing it was my back that needed to be stronger in my training. For years I was always in pain even after training and told myself I just needed to work harder. That was how my ministry felt sometimes too. Work harder.
Turns out I didn't need to work so hard- I just needed to let others guide me.
Maybe this is a story about managing grief, or about accepting who I am. Maybe it's about telling that no matter who you are or what you face, you can work through it with faith and patience with yourself.
Probably most of all it's about seeing how much God carries us through others- not to show our weakness but to demonstrate how God strengthens us. I cannot even imagine how we would have carried on without God in so many people.
I finally am getting the last of the parsonage together- 11 months later. The old me would be horrified. The new me is just grateful that so many people have shepherded us on the long and winding road. We absolutely knew God has called us here. We give thanks and hope there is much more of the road together to come.