Saturday, December 31, 2011

My first Wedding Sermon

Carol and John, I have to be honest with you, I know I told you that you were my first wedding but actually there was a wedding before yours.  I’ve walked another couple through their vows. But you are my first wedding as a pastor. But here’s what happened. Friends of ours were getting married and they had hired a district justice. They had chosen an unusual place to be married- in a green house. The flowers were amazing but we had to create the aisle by moving the Burpee seed displays. The district justice was supposed to come but he never appeared. A call to his house revealed he was on vacation. Now before I became a pastor, I was a lawyer so I asked them where the marriage license was. They told me that they had met with him and he had signed it and told them he’d put it in the mail on Friday so it would already be on the way. What that meant was they were already legally married. So anyone could walk them through the rest. So someone jumped on a moped and went to the groom’s house and printed off the vows, and there next to the Burpee seeds I helped them say their vows.  So far today we’ve avoided that kind of chaos.

And I want to congratulate you for your wisdom in avoiding two other things that can potentially send any well planned wedding into chaos- using very small children or dogs in the wedding party. When my husband and I got married, we had his three year old niece and five year old nephew as our flower girl and ring bearer. We practiced everything with them, but in truth we had so little faith they would make it, we had fake rings sewed on the ring pillow, and we had my maid of honor walk in behind them so she could alternatively nudge, pull or walk alongside them to get them from point A to point B. Sure enough, part way through the flower girl pulled off her garland and threw the basket on the floor and announced she was DONE! She was NOT going on. And my best friend Janet faithfully picked everything up, put it together and schussed them down the aisle to the end. It was crazy but in pictures they were adorable.

I know you have a dog you love and we talked about a dog in the wedding, but If you look on the internet I am sure there are wedding blooper videos of what happens when someone decides to use Fluffy as a ring bearer, only to have the dog stop and scratch or lick, or try to eat the pillow, or run off leash and off course. You have wisely avoided this.

You also have the benefit of avoiding the inexperience of youth. I hope I am not offending anyone when I say that with the exception of your matron of honor, Althea, none of us can do bbetter than to claim we are “young at heart.” And you know what that means when we put it that way. When we’re young, our inexperience leads us places we later see differently. In one of my favorite movies, “Keeping the Faith,” the character who plays Ben Stiller’s mom is showing her wedding photos to someone who’s admiring how beautiful and hopeful they looked. His mom ecxclaims, “Oh my God- we were such idiots! It took us 10 years to figure it out! We were so young.” You are older and wiser. And you have wisely chosen each other.

So what wisdom can I offer to you this day? Long after the finish on your rings is no longer perfect, when the little scratches and nicks start to appear, the pattern of the jewelry you have chosen to exchange will not be the most important thing. The pattern of how you live out your relationship will be what matters most. Wear your rings with pride and joy, but know that wearing the loyalty and faithfulness we hear of in Proverbs and loving as Jesus teaches is how your marriage will succeed. In the Book of Proverbs we hear we should wear loyalty and faithfulness around our necks. Luckily it’s not like having them tattooed there, but it conjures up the image of wearing something around our necks as a way of being led. Not unlike our pets, perhaps it’s almost like a leash. Let’s not get too literal, but we know that a leash is how we shape our pet’s behavior. It may not sit well with us to think we need to be led, but we need to learn patterns of behavior so we can learn what to do in expected and unexpected situations. In marriage there will expected and unexpected things. And we’ll need to learn how to respond to what love will demand of us. Love will demand a lot. And there will be times we don’t wanna do or say or listen to what love will ask of us. So the question is HOW will we be able to live this out?

The Book of Proverbs is a collection of sayings intended as a guide for living. I’ve put together a few more updated words from myself and others as suggestions for your journey together:

Blessed are you when you have little stumbles, it might save you from a big fall. (Hallmark)
Whether you stumble or fall, in love be the one to pick the other up and help them on the way.

All you really need is love, but a little chocolate every once in a while never hurt. (Lucy, in “Peanuts”)
Be the one to offer a sweet or unexpected surprise.

As important as it is to know the right thing to say at the right time, it is even more important to leave unsaid the wrong thing at a tempting moment. (Ben Franklin)
You don’t always have to have the last word. And if you think you REALLY DO, consider whether that word should be “Sorry.”

God will use all kinds of circumstances to communicate in your relationship- humor, tears, a hug or a look. Knowing which of any of this to choose will require tending another relationship – the one you have with God. God has given you this love- in this relationship, and in your family and friends. And God has given an even greater love in his Son, Jesus Christ who gave us and shows us grace and mercy and forgiveness. Which by the way are all things we will need to give and receive in marriage. God has also given you faith and the tools to deepen faith. God will come to you in prayer, in Scripture and in a community of faith- all ways you can remember what you need and be met by those who can tell you- “I’ve been there too and here’s what worked for me.“ As you prepare to continue this new part of your journey together, know that whether it requires nudging, or pulling or walking alongside of you, everyone here is with you and more importantly, God is with you each step of the way. May each day be blessed. AMEN

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Unsettling the World

We all have our favorite ways to celebrate what this night is about. Favorite hymns, lighting candles, manger scenes. Some churches like to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord in the historically accurate way, with live outdoor nativity scenes giving us some idea of what that First Night was like. Meant to connect us to an event that happened long ago, But the people and animals have had the benefit of being cleaned up, just showing up for the gig. Not having labored to journey there on foot over weeks, or as a woman in her last weeks of pregnancy trudging along when all she really wants to do is put her feet up and relax. When Catherine was about 4 months old we got a phone call from the local Methodist church.  They put on a drive-by living Nativity each year, but that year they were short on babies and they had heard that the Lutherans had 15 babies that year, and would we let them use our daughter for their production? They shared with me a schedule of available nights and times, and I selected a mutually convenient date for her two hour appearance there. But that day there was an ice storm.  And being a good mother I assumed it would be expected that no baby should be out in that so we didn’t go. Well, I got an irate phone call the next day. The Nativity HAD gone on, being accurate and all. They had to use a baby doll for Jesus since I had not brought our daughter to play God’s Son. I had somehow ruined the “authentic” scene they were creating to the glory of God. Our enactments of the birth of Christ are places painstakingly planned, with expectations, and well publicized so we know when to come, making sure the people we want to be there have been told. Everything was planned and I unsettled it.  It was all a little ironic.
The arrival of our Lord was so different. Born in a nowhere place, to an unknown girl, in circumstances that seemed frankly scandalous. Perhaps that’s why there was a birth on the road in the first place. Mary didn’t actually need to be counted in the census. She could’ve stayed with family. Yet it seems it was safer for her and her child to NOT be seen in Nazareth, even though this was an unsettling journey. And whether he was born in a barn, or a stable or a cave- none of those are the sanitized places we depict. They don’t provide the dignity we wish for. And it’s shocking that this birth, of little consequence in the world’s eyes, was seemingly randomly heralded to of all people, migrant workers in a field at night, against the sensibilities of the community. To top it all off, the One who will be the Almighty Messiah still has to “grow up.” I don’t really believe that Jesus was the perfect baby and every night was a silent night. He was nursed, bathed and changed by a first time parent who probably wasn’t all pulled together and serene. Living in a family just getting by in a world that was living in peace, but peace that came with a cost of submission. A fearful peace.  Being born into this world would hardly be the way we wish it had been or would be today.
 We want perfect, powerful and majestic but such interpretations of this night are miles away from reality. Why do we domesticate the humility, simplicity and servanthood of Christ’s Incarnation?   I think it’s because we don’t want to confront our place in a world of pain, waste, blood, and tears. We of the ordered liturgy hope to avoid the chaotic. Don’t show us a world where later Jesus will be on a “Wanted” poster.  It’s unsettling. We want it all ordered, but in truth, our humanity is unsettled, not domesticated. Our crèche and this space look pretty different from our own world.  And even though the angels say,” Don’t be afraid” often we are. The birth of Christ began God’s unsettling of this world.
 Our celebration is a chance to step away from our work, our worries and our world into this space of our inner hopes and dreams. Again this night, we gather here in a special place that we’ve planned and prepared for so that everything is “just so.” But as we pull in close to sing and hold onto the light and get teary eyed about a silent night where all is calm and bright and comfortable, we should remember God didn’t come to save us from this.
The good news is that it’s our real world that God enters. Living and breathing and moving with us as we long for a peace and justice that we cannot see, and for an abundance and comfort we wish we really knew. God comes into THIS WORLD knowing that beyond all of our trappings, we can’t clean it up and we really shouldn’t be favored. Yet unto US a child is born.  God in a tiny vulnerable baby embraced who we really are. What a mystery it remains that Divine God stooped to become one of us, for no earthly reason, but only out of God’s love. To show that God chooses to redeem and save us.  This is the story we can really connect to.
As we proclaim this wondrous event tonite, may we be unsettled from all of our efforts to manage our manger.
Remembering that God’s appearance came first as good news to the un-pulled together. So if you feel like you made it here tonite solely by the grace of God, hear this amazing good news! If you feel it’s an overwhelming struggle to hold it all together, know God’s power and mercy are all we need. And what we receive in Christ. The reason we can know silent nights or joy or peace or hope. This is the good news of Christ!
 And it’s not just for some of us. The heavenly choir and response of the shepherds show this is such good news, it goes way beyond our carefully constructed lists. It’s good news to proclaim with abandon. Tell it far and wide, Come and See! Telling those who GOD favors and wants to hear. This is how we praise God’s glory and power and mercy over all the earth, a goodness that really is as wonderful as the gospel tells. Let’s unsettle the world with this glorious news! And authentically celebrate the coming of Christ by living as those who believe He is indeed the source of great joy for our world, and the One who makes real peace possible- for you, for me, forever.  AMEN

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Declaration of Possibility

Sometimes we fall into patterns of speaking for God. We’re sure we know what God wants and what God needs, what God will and won’t do. This affects who we hear popular Scripture verses- we’ve heard it before-we know. Mary’s words are well known. But today let’s slow down and let God speak anew, and hear them in the midst of the bigger story. In Samuel, we hear people are sure God needs a special house, the best that money can buy, no expense to be spared to make the place where God meets us perfect. This is the top priority. We need to make this happen for God to be here in the right way. But what do we hear from God?


In a different way this happened for Zechariah, a priest who was sure he knew what God was about. His story happens just before Mary’s. He’s in the temple, in the holy of holies, a place that MAYBE in their lifetime a priest would get one shot to being the one who enters there. Each year they drew lots for who could enter. This year, it was Zechariah. But If it’d been by popular vote, it wouldn’t have been him. Because he and Elizabeth never had any children. Years passed, prayers seemed unanswered. What was wrong with them, people asked? They must be out of favor with God. So I wonder if it felt like odd for him-go in and offer the usual worship in the usual way at the usual time with the usual trappings. He knows how this goes, what’s expected. It’s supposed to be most sacred space, but when you look around, it’s empty-just fading smoke of the incense and silence. No visible new possibilities. And maybe you’re not sure if God REALLY IS here. But then the angel Gabriel shows up. Now when you’re in THE place where you say God dwells, it shouldn’t surprise you that God’s messenger appears. But when you’ve been going through the motions all these years, maybe that’s asking a lot. When Gabriel reveals that FINALLY Elizabeth is going to have a child, chosen to receive God’s grace, Zechariah asks a question. HOW CAN I BE SURE THAT WHAT YOU’RE TELLING ME IS REAL? How will I know? After a lifetime of dedicated worship he has a crisis of faith. “If I can’t comprehend it, it must not be true.” Zechariah offers a proclamation of impossibility.

When we wrestle with our doubts, fears and questions, sometimes we too try to predetermine God’s plan and make God manageable. But as we try to make God be our size, it’s usually too small. And what we long for we never find. We’re sure we know and don’t expect God to throw us a curve ball. When what we want shows up in unexpected ways it can throw us. We wonder whether it’s real. How can we be sure? We need proof. Because we’ve got God figured out. And certain things are just NOT possible. Certain things seem too big to be changed. These are the places where we have a crisis of faith- where our proclamation of impossibility overshadows us. Whatever is troubling you and giving you no peace, whatever is overshadowing you- don’t be afraid! Hear again the story of Mary.

Gabriel, God's angel of revelation was sent by God to a tiny, insignificant place to a young woman engaged to be married to a man named Joseph. She was probably 12 or 13 years old and certainly too young to know much- her name was Mary. Coming to her, the angel said- Greetings, gracified girl! You’ve been chosen to receive God's grace. The Lord is with you!"

Mary was awfully confused, even troubled by his words and began to wonder what kind of greeting this was. What did it mean? The angel said- "Listen! You will become pregnant and will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus. His name will mean "God saves!"This one, he will be Great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor, David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end!" This will begin to happen NOW.

As hard as never expecting change is, THIS is radically life altering stuff. But Mary doesn’t ask, “How can I be sure that what you’re saying is true?” or how CAN this be? Mary said - How WILL this be?

She starts from a very different perspective.

And it’s not about whether it will happen but how. Her question isn’t about whether she thinks it’s possible.

She focuses on God’s power.

The angel replied, "the Holy Spirit will come and the power and glorious presence of God will overshadow you.”

God will overshadow you.

As I pondered these words, I’m struck by how small Mary is at this moment.

And she grasps her smallness and its impossibility.

But she also grasps what the priests in Samuel don’t get until God bellows and what Zechariah and older, wiser men dismiss.

She gets the equation. God is unfathomably large. And she proclaims this greatness.

Her very life was threatened by this news but she proclaimed God’s greatness in the face of confusion.

That’s more than accepting the words she hears, she’s trusting who God is and what God can and will do.

And she then hears of God’s rhema.

Rhema is a Greek word that can mean “word”, or “thing.” But it can also mean enactment. None of God’s rhema will be impossible.

This is a proclamation of possibility. God’s possibility.

None of God's words, will be impossible.

None of the things promised will be unable to happen

None of what God enacts into being will fail.

These words move fear into hope and re-establish the equation. God has chosen to act with favor. Not because of who Mary or any of us are. We’re favored because God says so. This is God’s word for us too. And our response shouldn’t be “how will we know?”

We called to live in faith and say-may what you will be so, Lord. Trusting in God’s power but also God’s reasons- that every action of the God who overshadows us is about grace. We too are “gracified.”

We receive this grace from a God who isn’t distant, but reaching out and acting toward us in love. Choosing to be more fully known in the center of our world and struggles, and reminding us God’s power overshadows all our fears and doubts. Giving us faith to believe it is so even when it looks different than we expect.

This is what Jesus brings into all of our places of longing and wonder.

Peace and life, hope and joy to us.

Not just words, but God’ possibility happening TO US.


Let it be according to your will O Lord!


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Light I can scarcely hold

I confess this is kind of an odd ramble as I am preparing for the overwhelming and breathtaking task of proclaiming the event and the meaning of the nativity of our Lord. I am in awe.

There are lots of things that take my breath away each day as I fathom the fact that I am an ordained pastor. I wonder at times how it can be that I, of all people, get to lead God's people in worship. That I, of all people, proclaim God's words of grace and mercy, forgiveness and love. That I, of all people, am given the task of reminding us of why God matters and how God matters, and how some things we think matter really aren't as important to God as we think.

But there are other places that take my breath away because I get to proclaim God as the light in the wilderness, in the darkness and in the storm. In visits and phone calls, in the hospital, at funerals, and in so many wilderness places. And each time I do so I remember my own places of wilderness and darkness and storm. And a light I can scarcely hold.

One of the experiences that I had way back in CPE was that people always wanted to show me their scars. I would come back and speak of this and be met with bewilderment from my team. You're not all seeing this? No- just you, they'd say somewhat gratefully. In the rest of my time as a chaplain and now in parish ministry this continues. Let me show you my scars, my wounds, my true self. I am never sure why I am trusted in this way, except that it feels beyond me. Like the way some people tell me my eyes are beautiful in these moments. Or that they are bright or piercing. And I know it is not me they see. It really is not me they see.

Last week I led a Blue Christmas service which was a new experience for our parish and though I have been to one before, a new experience for me. There was a time where people could come forward and light candles in the shadow of a less than perfect cross, or say or leave a paper with the name of a loved one. And then be anointed for healing, and wrapped in the embrace of a prayer shawl. Tears, hugs, words of grace and light.

I made an odd decision, for me. I decided after all of the thoughtful planning of the worship space and the worship itself, that I would not write a homily ahead of time. I would see who was there and speak by the Spirit from that moment. As people came, and more than I expected, I looked and saw those who had lost loved ones to cancer, perinatal loss, chronic conditions, and a family who recently began the scorched earth journey that accompanies a suicide. And I realized that hard as those experiences are, I had also been in each of those places. Places where we wonder what to pray for- comfort or release, places of no answers, only questions. Places where others' discomfort and questions leave us even more unsettled. Places where we want to pray but our words end up in piles on the floor. Places where we look for the light but in truth can't see it.
I remember part of what I said, but most of it was too ethereal an experience for me. I sat with all of my losses and all of the others. In the meditative spaces I felt in awe of the colossal task of naming losses and claiming the light of Christ.
But afterwards, in our fellowship time, I again heard about the beauty of the light of the space and about the piercing light in my eyes. It takes my breath away.

How it is that God uses me for this purpose is a mystery of faith that I feel too clumsy to hold.

Lately as one who wears a collar, the needs where I am are so profound. Too profound some days for me. But as I have dared to ask others for things they likely would not do or give, as I look people in the eyes, for the sake of the overburdened, the answers have been "yes." This too seems too precious a consequence for me to be handling and I can be afraid of it.

In the gospel of Luke all of the opening messages delivered from God begin with an angel saying- "Don't be afraid" or "fear not" depending upon your reading. Until the incarnation.
And then everywhere Jesus goes where people are unsettled, in the wildernesses and darkness, and storm- the words "fear not" can also be translated- "Stop fearing." And we can- because Jesus is here. This is the message I have the privilege of bearing. "You can stop fearing- Look! Jesus is here with us."

As we prepare to hear again a story that's thousands of years old and that we're sure we know by heart, maybe our heart needs to begin to grasp again just how profound this message is- in all those places that seem ready to overwhelm us. To see that the tears, the embraces, the anointing, the prayers, the words, the meal all bring this grace of  "God with us" in a way perhaps we feel too clumsy to receive and to share, but where we're given the light to hold anyway. By the grace of God , we get the light to hold and to share.
Christ, be our light.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Fireweed stories

I‘d like you to close your bulletins and look at the picture on the front cover. Years ago, driving through Canada, we saw acres of trees that had been ravaged by forest fire. A once proud and beautiful stand of evergreens, reduced to charred remains.  It was hard to imagine it before the fire, in the reality of the present. It seemed lost forever.  Then we came around the bend and interspersed in some of the skeletons of trees were flashes of pink. Exuberant spiky flowers defiantly poking their heads out from among the devastation. They’re called fireweed. It’s the first plant to show up in the aftermath of forest fires. Popping up in places where it seems nothing could grow. Here and there. When people see fireweed they can believe that the forest can still have life.  It turns out that what fireweed does to the soil where it grows is to restore it so other things can grow too. I was sharing this story at the meeting of the Reading Lutheran Parish Bible study, a funny thing happened. As I talked about it, others started smiling and began sharing stories of seeing the flowers of fireweed in Montana, in Alaska, and other places. Hope in hard places. Stories that shared joy. You’ve gotta love a God that gives us fireweed, and stories of hope and restoration. This is the theme of our lessons this day. God’s promise of restoration and new life and reasons to rejoice!   But these passages also speak to remembering that it hasn’t always been joyful. Our rejoicing is shaped by coming out of places of devastation, into God’s hope and restoration and promise. The power of God’s promises ,on any given day, can be easier or harder to see.
One way we hold onto believing in God’s promises is to share our stories of rejoicing, of seeing the fireweed, if you will. Since I’ve come here I’ve heard these stories in visiting our homebound. Of people being orphaned and sent away to a place for people like you. Of going off to serve your country in war and coming home with only half of one hand and another 70 plus years to live that way. Hard desolate places to recover from. These are a just couple stories of God’s people here, people who went on to lead lives that shared joy. People drawn here by the promise of restoration, new life, and a home. God’s promises gave them gladness instead of mourning, and they could wear that mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They connected with this message and each other. I’ve seen the pictures of these lives, heard these stories of rejoicing in God’s work!

But it’s different now, right? Here in the land of Act 47, where we hope to be delivered out of bankruptcy, but know we still come out to a mess. Rejoice?? We feel older and more tired, our health is failing, the money is gone, that life is a thing of the past. Rejoice? Like the people of Israel, it’s not how we hoped in this land. We’re not just poor in spirit, we’re staring at a physical reality that’s downright depressing some days. Rejoice? Easier said than done.

Maybe it’s hard to imagine restoration and re-building when it’s easier to see what looks more like wreckage than life. A world where we’re surrounded by a world of “instant” products that lead us to want a big event, but God gives us fireweed. Just little flashes. Real restoration takes time.

True, we know the good news of Jesus Christ- we know more than the people of Isaiah did. The one everyone was waiting for has come. He has a name: Jesus. But fuller restoration takes time. God’s revelation has begun in Jesus Christ, but it’s a story of ongoing transformation. Not always found in big obvious events. And yet perhaps we can remember the birth we’ll celebrate was like this too- In the middle of the darkness, to immigrants of little consequence in a backwater place where most did not see or know. John tells us, there’s one in our midst who we do not know. Perhaps like those in Bethlehem, our lack of knowledge comes because we’re not looking in the places where God’s signs show up.

Real restoration happens in lots of little ways. Our ‘fireweed stories” proclaim God’s promise and work in these ways in the meantime. Like God’s people of old, recalling God’s work seen encourages us to look for and expect to see this now. Not just in some ultimately glorious day, but in little flashes we should rejoice in now! God’s church didn’t grow in one big event. It was lots of little flashes of life. Sometimes bright but also sometimes faint. But ever present. And this is the how people here testified to each other, to you, about Christ. You helped each other believe there was life beyond the devastation of a World War world, and other dark places. Pastor Radcliffe was one who helped people see this possibility. He was an amazing servant of God. But he wasn’t the only one. The people of this place told the story too. And the world that emerged revolved not around them but around God at work in this place. As great as any of these people have been, the real message has never been about them. Their words and lives testified to the light and life of the One greater than all of us. This is the gospel for us.

We help each other see the life and light of Christ when we rejoice in stories of our history that help us believe that we can still see these unexpected flashes of God at work. So I come to testify to this light and life here. In the child who comes and wants to light the candles and prays she is tall enough, telling her friends to come and see brings rejoicing! The homebound person who stills calls others to brighten their day even when she can’t leave her apartment brings light! The person who delivered flowers to the hospital to a woman, but who never knew that that woman cried tears of joy because she remembered God hadn’t left her alone and forgotten, brought hope! The person who brings a man transitioning from prison to testify that there is life and a home here brings restoration! I could go on and on- everyday I see this. Glimpses of Christ. I see it and rejoice! It transforms me each day! Look around you, where have you seen God at work? Rejoice, be transformed and testify to the power of the One whose promise of light and life and restoration lives on. AMEN

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Good News From the Wilderness

It’s that time of year. Time for my favorite Christmas special -“Merry Christmas Charlie Brown.” Charlie Brown’s directing the school Christmas pageant, but no one’s listening. Everyone’s caught up in details, of their costumes, who got the bigger part, their naturally curly hair. They’re distracted. They don’t seem to get it’s really all about. Here in the neighborhood lots of houses remind me of the show’s depiction of Snoopy’s doghouse with the lights and the blowup Santas and the head bobbing lit reindeer. Mind you, I’m not being judgmental- I love the lights too. But as I listen to people in their decorating, I hear that we race to get out more and more decorations to cheer us up. And some people don’t put them all up at once so their neighbor can’t outdo them. It happens in church too- we need bigger and better stuff to get the party started, and it’s not enough, we need more. NOW. Charlie Brown’s high hopes leave him disillusioned and then we hear Linus’ simple speech on an empty stage that brings good news that another strand of Christmas lights can’t. He walks alone onto the empty stage, with his blanket, stands in a single spotlight, recounting the opening of the Gospel of Luke we’ve all come to know, in response to Charlie Brown’s question of “what’s the true meaning of Christmas?”

 Like Charlie Brown I wonder- I wonder if we lose sight that we’re not focusing on what really matters. Even with the Christmas story. Even the other Gospels give us what we’ve come to expect about the story of Jesus in the buildup to Christmas. The Gospel of Mark is well… a little under-whelming. It’s not the “more” we need to “get us in the holiday mood.”  You can’t decorate with the Gospel of Mark. There are no shepherds in the fields, or three kings from afar. No guiding star. No manger scene with cows and the donkey. No heavenly chorus in the skies. No little baby for us to cuddle.  We get Jesus in his 30’s, beginning his ministry with an opening line so sparse we can simply rattle it off as the necessary intro to get the story moving: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” In the face of all of the buildup in commercial Christmas, and even the other gospels, when we hear the words in Mark it feels like someone suddenly pulled the plug on the lights and we’re left with a deflated blow up Santa in a heap on the ground. And at the end of commercial Christmas decoration season that’s all we’ll have when we pull the plug.  There has to be something more.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” feels a little sparse. Maybe we could simply leap over these words, and at least get to John the Baptist in his funky camel hair outfit, and those locusts. What IF in this first of the gospels shared with the early believers, we don’t hear all the flashy stuff because it could distract us from THE thing?

The opening words are a statement of faith about God’s good news that shaped the whole Gospel of Mark. To force us to see that what it’s all about is that Jesus’ arrival is how God’s good news happens and Jesus is God’s good news happening. Good news! Mark talks about good news a lot. So today we’re going to learn a little Greek- euangelion. It means “good news!” This is the beginning word and it’s where words like “evangelism” and the “evangelical” come from. Something to think about when we get worried that people see “evangelical” in our name as the Evangelical Lutheran Church and wonder if we’re THOSE kind of Christians. Buried under all the other meanings- the real way the gospel means it, evangelical Christians are: followers of Christ who bear the good news.

Marks’ gospel says, “This is how the good news of what happened in Jesus started, before we even knew what was happening.” Then the people listening heard words of the prophets they knew well- including Isaiah- Remember what Isaiah said?” He said there’d be good news! 23 times. It must really be true.

Quoting Isaiah means that NOW is when hopes and dreams are being fulfilled. We’re not just telling a story again and longing. God’s bringing something more powerful NOW. Even John the Baptist’s clothing says this. Ever wonder why he’s the guy wearing the camel skin and belt? Early listeners would have known- He’s dressed like Elijah, one of THE prophets!” A little Bible trivia. The point is-God’s plan for salvation really IS breaking forth NOW. And it’s good news!

The good news is Jesus Christ. The REAL story is always about “the good news of Jesus Christ.” And we should really call Him “Jesus the Christ.” Because Christ isn’t just a name, Christ isn’t Jesus’ last name, it’s a title. it’s how Jesus carries out the good news. “Christ” means “anointed by God, chosen for this purpose-to free, redeem and save us. Jesus is this, but it won’t look like we expect. Because God loves us enough that we don’t just get another baby born, or another prophet, or another great man. We get God with skin. This is the story of how Jesus= the good news. Jesus embodies the same love God showed when God led Israel out of exile and wilderness to freedom and life. But better! Jesus=salvation.

And we need to be prepared for this new reality.

John the baptizer says make the way straight and we hear about repentance. What he’s saying is “radically reorient your focus around the truth of Jesus the Christ.” We don’t get tips for surviving in the wilderness, but how to be brought out of it and into life. Open up, prepare, clear out the distractions and make room for this good news to enter.

Wherever your wilderness places are, the ones you’re trying to feed in some other way, maybe even another strand of lights-hear the good news! God is near. Jesus says, “turn back and believe this good news!” “Respond to this good news, it gives life! “ And don’t just hold onto it. Jesus will tell all who listen and follow-“this good news must be preached to all nations, lived and proclaimed to the whole world!” And it’s just beginning!

We’re not just hearing a story, we’re in it! Part of God’s ongoing good news, as those baptized not only by water but the Holy Spirit. Called to channel our energy around God’s vision.

Last Sunday was one example. For those far from home, far from familiar faces, life can feel like a wilderness existence. God and community seem distant. When God’s love breaks through, it’s good news! God’s good news and love will come to those who receive the 45 bags we prepared last Sunday. We shared good news with the homebound, stressed out college kids and people serving in real wildernesses in military deployment. Those gifts will proclaim Christ-life, love, hope and “salvation from the wilderness.”

When we do these things, we’re getting a little evangelical. We really are THOSE kind of Christians- who speak and live the good news of Jesus the Christ. But we’re not focusing on what WE do, but what God in Christ has done and is doing. God doesn’t need us to spruce it up. Instead God wants to re-shape our lives around the only and ultimate fact we need. That in “the beginning of the good news, of Jesus, the Christ, the anointed and our Savior- God acted.”

And God is still acting. This is the real meaning of it all. And it’s the real power that brings us back from our wilderness places and the message we share with others in theirs. We’re caught up in the middle of God’s unending and loving plan for salvation. It’s a power that goes on and on. That’s not just good news, it’s the best news. AMEN

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Finding the Story of Hope

This past week, on Tuesday, a woman and her 8 yr old set up a tent in the parking lot of one of the Big stores. It was them against the world, waiting for the opening of Black Friday sales. The ad had a really great teaser price for a toy everyone wants but only a couple will get. Hundreds of people lined up in hope even though it’s dangerous to be first in line, with crowd stampedes in stores, or this year someone decided to pepper spray everyone who might get the toy first. Every year we hear about people actively committed, vigilant, waiting for the clerk to come and open the door, so they can get the thing they hope will make it all better, til the next fad. We all tell their stories. And every year we hear stories about nailing down the timeline for the fate of the world. I think it’s no surprise there are more predictions this year- we’re increasingly disheartened and nervous in the world. This week brought another Mayan calendar discovery. We anticipate these stories, sharing the news that at least will distract us from our lives. But our time isn’t unique. It was a troubled and confused world Jesus was born into. A world hoping that something or someone powerful would come make it better.

Today we begin the season of Advent which places us at odds with our world. While everyone’s hoping to get the right stuff that will bring happiness, we’re called to focus in a different way and to tell a different story. To light a candle and tell God’s story. Calling to God- Stir up your power and Come! This candle tells the story of hope. We remember the waiting- what happens that leads to Jesus’ birth. But also what happens after Jesus’ death. In the midst of the season of manufactured joy, today’s gospel speaks Jesus’ last words to the disciples before the cross- Stay awake and aware. Stay focused. But how can we? In an onslaught of ads telling us to buy happiness, and people telling us we should because all this God stuff is just a pipedream? Now more than ever maybe we identify not only with the gospel, but with the words of Isaiah – as people who feel alienated, stunned by their experience, who tell God-“Hey, no one is speaking your name. No one takes hold of you, Lord. Don’t be mad at us, it’s hard to be in this place.”

And this is the point of Jesus’ words to the disciples. They’re intended to be words of hope, because God knows the world we live in. But, lots of people look at today’s gospel and get frustrated. We still want hope in the form of a real timeline. Instead we get planets and weather and a fig tree. So people try to look for signs, or hidden meaning and then lump it together with Armageddon and power. Next thing you know it’s negative and frightening and judgmental. Words of hope become words of fear as we cringe and wonder about what we see. Then “Keep awake” sounds like we need a 5 Hour Energy Drink, and if we do fall asleep, it better be at the right time. But remember these words of Jesus to the disciples are words of hope. If we begin reading just two verses earlier, I think it helps us frame our perspective. Jesus tells them and tells us:

“There’ll be lots of fake prophets and fake saviors.” He’s preparing his followers for the world after the cross. People struggling to know the real truth about Jesus and God’s vision. Where so many things will be said and done in Jesus’ name we’d need help to clarify and preserve the truth. People will rise up against the powers that be, then claim this revolt would usher in the return of Christ- Lots of misunderstandings. So Jesus says “keep focused on what you can rely on- My words. Focus your belief and actions on what is real.” We all face those times when we say, “We’re looking for you, Jesus but we can’t see you. Where are you? Is our hope real? We’re surrounded by unbelieving, sinful people.” The generation we hear of, I think is made up of all the people living on earth til the return of Christ, of those who won’t believe, who will hurt others, and bring destruction. Who will sidetrack us with predictions of what we can’t know-use up our energy that could better be spent elsewhere. Or who tell us that none of that matters, so do what you feel ‘cause it’s all temporary. All of this can lead us away from our focus- what it means that Christ was born AND died AND has risen AND will return. This is what we as disciples have been given to preach and teach about as we make disciples. So Jesus reminds, “When I return it will be unmistakable. But you can’t know the time or compel it. Lots of people will tell you otherwise- But stay focused and resist this, and the fear it brings. Live in my hope.”

How do we live in this hope when we need something to hold onto? We tell God’s story in the birth of Jesus.

In Advent we remember and celebrate the birth, how God has acted in this promise that speaks hope. We remember the waiting and then the joy. But we also tell God’s story in the Cross. We aren’t just remembering “Baby Jesus,” but Christ of the Cross. God acted in this promise too, in waiting and then joy. We wait for the return of a Crucified and Risen Christ where there will then be joy. The ongoing story of God fulfilling promises, bringing hope. Telling this story we can live in hope that God is still at work. Then keeping awake isn’t about looking for predictions but proclaiming God’s power, focused on God’s Word for us. There will be times we confess, “Lord, we couldn’t see you and we stopped speaking your name, we stopped taking hold of you. “ But the stories remind us that then God really does take us and form us anew, we’re not forsaken. The distance from the resurrection to God’s ultimate promise is unknown but when we gather and tell the story, we share Christ with us, for ourselves and for other.

And so we tell the story again- We light the darkness and remember what God has already done and hold onto where God is going. Yes, Baby Jesus in the manger matters, but the real reason we have hope is also about everywhere Jesus goes after the manger- fulfilling God’s hope and salvation. While lots of other people and ideas will come and go, these are the words that are constant. That give us hope so can again call, “Stir up your power, Lord and COME! “ And believe.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Meeting our Master in Neediness

As the new girl in town I was blessed to preach the Thanksgiving Eve ecumenical service- what a blessing!

I’d like to start out by asking a question: How many of you are planning on flinging yourself on the ground, with your face in the dust as the way of saying thank you tomorrow at your Thanksgiving meal? Any takers? No, me either. It’s not exactly our way of giving thanks. It doesn’t seem like us. Yet in a lot of ways we’ve made being thankful fit our needs. From turning to Hallmark to find the right words for us to funding research to show being thankful is worth it. Studies show that being thankful improves our health, and relationships, and business success. So we can feel good. And Lord you know we’re busy,it’s hard to find time to be thankful. So we hope it’s OK to offer perfunctory words to a God who’s just pleased we say thanks, who just wants a minute of our time. Right?

The leper’s response is fundamentally different, profound and worshipful. Heartfelt. Many of us will say thanks tomorrow, many of us have a usual prayer. I confess I too am not agonizing over the prayer nearly as long as the preparations for the meal. We’ve been busy trying to outdo ourselves. Making sure we get it right. Have the meal at a time that allows me to go to yours AND the other side of the family too. To do the expected things. But we are hurrying to meet our schedule and of course, football. With the table groaning with the weight of the food and we remember Wait! Someone should say grace, but Hurry up while it’s all hot. Hurry before it conflicts with our scheduled lives. When I was gorwing up I remember years when grace sounded like this: “Blessusolordforthesethygiftswhichweareabouttoreceivethroughyour bountyinchristsnameamen.” 48 years of living have shown me a few Thanksgivings like that. Thanks that’s not too deep or needy.

The lepers were needy. That’s not a word we like. We don’t like to think about neediness. Their community was built on neediness. The disease they had in common drew them together. But all of the really important relationships had been cut off. Then they meet Jesus, who tells them it’s all changing and go and do what restores you. Seeing the priests would restore them to community and more importantly, from God’s perspective, to worship. But I wonder was their first thought was about being glad to worship in the temple or about their other rights and privileges-to eat and drink and socialize? I’m not sure, but for nine former lepers, they could now wake up and say the expected morning prayer of thanks they used to:” I give you thanks God, that I am not one of THEM!” I’m chosen.

For nine this works.

But for the tenth, the Samaritan, he’s one of those people the other nine will resume giving thanks they are NOT. Going back to this status quo doesn’t work. Going back to the way it was is still being left out. Going home meant picking up the same old labels, limits, violence and prejudice. It would after all, be expected. To stand with a different idea would take more than faith in the status quo. Yet, he’s been healed by a man who should never have had anything to do with him even if he weren’t a leper. So who would do this? And why? It must mean something more. Who is this man for whom distinctions don’t matter? It has to be about something more that liberates and restores in a larger way than the status quo. That’s not just healing that’s salvation. He ponders this I think because what Jesus does and brings forth is a game changer.

For most of us being able to gather together and eat tomorrow is expected, not a game changer. Most of us will thank God for blessings of loved ones and family and the mashed potatoes. I doubt we’ll sit down and speak of our neediness and of being saved from the status quo by Christ. I doubt we’ll sit down to dinner and think about THAT when we say the words of thanks we call “grace.”

That would be a real leap of faith. Our holiday of Thanksgiving began after a gut wrenching time in this country, nail-biting existence. A community galvanized by fundamental neediness who realized the status quo had not been enough. That was true in the later 1700’s and again in 1863 when Abraham Lincolnn issued the proclamation on our bulletins. But that’s all been co-opted in our world, both on the official day and in daily living. But turn on the news again today and see than in this world, this country and this city as we look at the collapse of the status quos and people’s general dis-ease today, perhaps we really are called to stop and ponder more deeply.

It really is about something more. What happens in the Gospel BEFORE this story of the ten lepers is that the disciples have asked Jesus to increase their faith. Not to give them faith, but to deepen it.

Jesus first asks them if a servant should be thanked for getting his master a meal. “Of course not!

The servant is just doing his job.” Doing what is expected. That’s not a deep concept.

This is when we hear of Jesus and the ten lepers. Nine saw they were healed and responded with what was expected. The tenth, responded with deeper faith, beyond his condition, with insight into a glimpse of the power of Christ. He wasn’t just healed, he was saved. Which is not about fixing our status quo, or keeping it. The key to understanding how Jesus is about more than this is the word the lepers call him- “Master.” Every time we hear it, something profound happens. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, when someone cries out Master, here is what happens:

When we’ve tried every strategy, used all of our energy, and all of our time, we’re exhausted and we think there is nothing more to be expected-. “Master!” And Jesus tells the skeptical – “try again. Put in the net the way I say” It defies our methods, but the result is beyond comprehension. When things seem dangerously choppy, and perilous, and we feel alone in the churning and uncertainty-“Master!” Out of chaos, Jesus stills the storm. When we think something is too big to be changed, too overwhelming to be reversed, and there is nothing we can do“ Master!” And Jesus brings healing. When we think we know how the world is structured-our Master brings reversal. None of these seem easy or possible and by our hand they are not. That’s right- they’re NOT. This is what the words from our reading from Deuteronomy tell us. No matter how much intellect, or desire or strength we have. Saying “Thank you for ourselves and our status quo” isn’t deepening faith. It’s about seeing ourselves in our neediness and where Jesus meets us. We are all needy.

It takes strength to see our neediness and to respond with more than complacency or civic gratitude. It’s a challenge to see God as Master and go beyond approaching God superficially. But this is where Jesus calls us go- deeper into our hearts. To seek greater understanding of who Jesus is. Jesus is the Master. This is blessing and it’s a challenge because this gospel, this good news, will call us to do more than decry the systems that cause oppression and pain. And calls us to do more than brag about how those problems don't happen in our neighborhood, or in our churches. To see that they do. And to turn to the Master for guidance to do something about it. This gospel calls us to worship and live lives of praise that respond in true recognition of the needs of all us and to respond in true gratitude for God’s power and reversal. It’s a distinct and new way of living. That begins with the realization that only in faith and through Jesus Christ can our world receive what we really need.

To hold in our hearts this profound truth-Our Master changes lives. This is worthy of our thanks and praise!

It’s a struggle to follow Christ in the face of a culture built upon industry and ingenuity as the source and where people tell us systems can’t be changed. Grasping the in-breaking of Christ allows us to proclaim that that there’s no chance for growth and new life if all we are about is token thanks and falling back on our systems. Instead to embrace and proclaim this we really will need the Master. Thanks be to God this is where Jesus meets us, in our need, just like the lepers. Tomorrow when you gather may your heartfelt thanks to the Master be a prayer rooted in this grace.

I close with a prayer for all of us from the Masai people in Tanzania. Let us pray:

For your blessing we thank you, God: faith in you.

Increase it we beg, so that we no longer doubt.

Drive out our miserliness, so that we do not refuse you anything.

Increase our faith, for the sake of those without faith.

Make us instruments of your faith, for those with only a little.

Fill our bodies with your faith, our bodies that work for you all our days.

Help us to avoid the enemies of our faith, or to overcome them.

You are with us in confrontations, this we believe.

In your hands we place ourselves and are secure.

Make haste to enter our hearts, make haste.


“Make us Instruments of your Faith” from An African Prayer Book, by
Desmond Tutu, p.  94.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Words for Beginning Being Bound Together

Another one of the September sermons- sorry they are out of order. This was the first sermon I preached as the newly called pastor on September 4, 2011. My goal was to connect this week's sermon to the followibg week which was September 11th. At the end of the two weeks, we incorporated the Litany for Healing and Forgiveness which allowed us to begin important work together while honoring emotions of the transition :

Here we are on our first “official” Sunday together in ministry. God has bound us together. This is exactly the sense of binding of the community that Matthew is speaking of. Both this week’s lesson and next week’s offer us teaching that fits together as we hear God’s words about living as a bound community of believers amongst ourselves and in the world. As we wrestle with the desire to have community, to be with others, we also know that community can be a funny thing. It seems so simple to say we’re all here because of the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I don’t really want to take my first Sunday with you to talk about “cutting loose.” But I know that in our collective lives together it doesn’t take long for us to be on different pages about what it means to be God’s people and how the community should act. Somewhere along the line, though God has brought us together, we will find ourselves at odds. Yet being those who follow Jesus’ words about fellowship challenges us to a new discipline of caring for each other even when we are injured or offended, and being trained to binding and loosing ourselves to repent and to forgive through Christ. Since our journey is just beginning I’m not aware of any tension between us. This may be the best time to talk about how we might respond- a time when we are not feeling tense.

In every community, there will be occasions for tension. Perhaps in times when God is challenging us in new ways that test our limits, or places where we have to wrestle with what faithful living will mean. Moments when we are asking ourselves. “What do we hold onto and what do we let go?” In these moments, there will be potential for conflict. Just saying that word can make us uncomfortable. In our lesson, Jesus speaks of those places we need to address sin, repentance, and reconciliation. Conflict is not sin. Conflict in and of itself is simply that co-existence of two ideas that are not in agreement. Conflict is not sin.

Our responses to conflict however often are. Today we hear Jesus’ teaching on the notion of how to resolve the pain that behaviors cause in the community. And the starting point to keep in mind is that everything each of us does affects our community. This is countercultural. Our world says “Have it your way.” Jesus calls us to consider that what we do and say is about more than our individual wills. Then we’re called to live out our life in relationships with God and each other in all of the messiness. And to always strive to reconcile. When someone feels wronged we’re encouraged to embrace a series of steps. But first, here is what we do not hear-

We do not hear, "when you are wronged, talk about it with others while excluding the person who has caused the hurt."

We do not hear, "ignore what has happened."

We do not hear, "try to solve it for someone else using the indirect model. "

None of these leads to reconciliation.

Reconciliation is about our collective and perpetual re-establishing of community as the Body of Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book, Life Together, notes that being the Body of Christ means not only being with those whom we consider devout and earnest and worthy, but also with those who are decidedly the OTHER- those with whom we don’t want to be community. Reaching out, drawing back together and binding these as well. Walk toward that person, and if your own words do not bring reconciliation, take other believers to be there as the witness of what God desires. Even in the worst case scenario where we find ourselves unable to reconnect, the words we hear next have a different meaning and focus than our world would give. “Treat that person as a tax collector, or a Gentile.” These are negative labels. The world would interpret this to say,”cut that person loose. Kick them off of the island, walk away and don’t look back.” But Jesus says, this person is now your mission- you'll have to start over from scratch, confront him or her with the need for repentance, and offer again God's forgiving love" . As one of my seminary professors has said, this approach doesn't deny the reality of sin or minimize the differences we actually have, but it does remind us as Christians, that our core principle is unity based on God's love, not exclusion based on someone else's sin.

The three steps of Jesus teaching are about helping the person who feels wronged to be directly connected to a process of re-connecting, repentance and forgiveness. And while repentance is a necessary component, its goal is not about wanting to wield the hammer of divine law, but to open up the possibility of divine forgiveness to those who Jesus called the lost sheep worth going to the ends of the earth to restore. SO while in our life together we may at times need to let go of ideas, we are not asked to let go of people. We’re told to banish the strife, wounding and pain that lead to death, by naming it and then breaking open God’s grace in its place. We have been brought out of death into life through grace, to be God’s instruments of this grace for God’s ultimate purpose-proclaiming salvation and bringing love.

In all of our living together the center of our existence when we are gathered is not ourselves, but Christ. Christ redeemed us, delivered from our sin, and called us to faith and eternal life. Christ continues to be the center and the mediator of our lives. Christ is the only way we can live in peace. And centered in Christ is the only way we stay bound to each other in the life God intends. Christ is who we meet in prayer to be our guide for all our days.

When we gather in His name, in prayer and community, THERE is the power of God’s love for our lives and our world. When we can acknowledge that this love is what we have in common, it might not only be a good step for us in our life together a community of believers, it is indeed what we will need to work for a more peaceable and just world for all. AMEN

(seminary professor quote: Rick Carlson)

God's Vineyard is Not the Marketplace

Playing a little catchup at this end of the Church year. Being the new Pastor, showing up on the eve of the stewardship time was a challenge. Rather than just talk about Money, which I think limits our view anyway, I talked about stewardship of relationships, of worship and how our discipleship journey informs the decisions we make on many levels.
here is the sermon from September 16, 2011 with the Workers in the Vineyard on the Sunday of the week that Reading was named the "Poorest City in the US."

Trinity Church on Wall Street, New York City hosts an annual conference “Trinity Institute,” where they bring together religious and economic leaders to talk about how the church and the world intersect. A recent topic was entitled,” Building an Ethical Economy.” Just hearing ethics and economics together is probably challenging, especially as we experience jobs going offshore, and those who have jobs being stretched farther and farther, and financial wrongdoing. One of the Institute speakers was Dr. Kathryn Tanner who talked about our behaviors in the marketplace- we want to get our fair share of money and resources. We carve out our turf quickly because there’s not enough to go around, and some of us deserve it more than others. She asked what would happen if we saw the money and resources of our marketplace the way we see grace. I can have God’s grace and so can you and you and you. And there’s still enough to go around the world and across time. We can relax, quit competing so hard and trust in God’s arrangement of grace and providing. When I first heard her, I thought “Wow, what a radical idea!” Yet there’s this problem. I’m not so sure we see God’s grace that way. In fact I think sometimes we drag our marketplace perspective into our churches. We start deciding who should have a share, or a say. Who’s been here longer, or worked harder. Who’s earned it. We decide how God should be generous. It’s hard to embrace new faces or ideas because we already know how we do things, who does things and who ought to be included like it’s a payroll.

I’d like to ask us to look at our parable today as the Parable of The Unchosen and contemplate those left behind workers in the marketplace as people not numbers. And see God’s actions from their perspective. Anyone who’s ever lost a job or wondered if they will find one knows this feeling. We stand and look around at others and find ourselves saying it’s just NOT FAIR that we’re left out or passed over. The marketplace is a place that decides who’s worth it and what they’re worth. It uses terms like “planned obsolescence,” “depreciation,” “Past their prime” and “downsizing.” All ways of saying things and people become un-chosen. We might hear the parable as workers left out who were just lazy, our own lives tell us otherwise. Especially here in Reading-many who were chosen are feeling unchosen- when they’re too old, when the company moves because other workers are cheaper. And we live with the label –DISTRESSED CITY. Perhaps sadly we know the sinking feeling that we don’t feel like the chosen ones. You’d think we’d be able to keep the marketplace mentality out of our churches. But at times we rely on our history, and past performance. We know who’re the deserving ones. Here are a couple examples of what this might look like:
A young woman joined a church and she wanted to be involved. She saw they needed teachers for Sunday School so she signed up to help. But no one called. Those in charge continued to ask for help so she called the person in charge and offered again. She was brushed off. “Thanks, we have people who handle this and we’ll let you know.” But they didn’t. The young woman persisted- “You need help and I am willing.” “Well, dear you don’t seem like the teacher type.” It’s not fair. Sometimes we don’t want to share with the newcomer. But for that woman it meant she was the UNCHOSEN, standing in the marketplace with those left behind workers. Idle and wondering -Will anyone pick me? Or will they pass me by?

A group of older adults had met for fifty years for mid-day worship, Bible study and lunch. They used to number over 150. Now there were 18. Some people thought that if only 18 were left, maybe the time had come to say it wasn’t worth it. Their time had passed. And people were ready to cast them back into that marketplace with the un-chosen. For some it’s unfair to dedicate resources to such an insignificant group. But the Bible study group felt the sting of being seen as UNCHOSEN and outdated. It’s unfair and it’s a shame. When we turn God’s grace into a commodity that some can have and others cannot, it causes pain.

Can we identify with these struggles? Of being ones who haven’t been picked, or passed by? In our neighborhood and here at Holy Spirit, I hear some wondering about the future-and on a bad day perhaps asking if we still have a purpose, or value, or whether it’s too late. To those who wonder-God has three things to share this day- we can’t tell God how to be generous, we don’t know what time it is in God’s plan, and none of us decides who God chooses.

Here at Holy Spirit, we’ve been chosen in this part of God’s vineyard. The vineyard is not and SHOULD not be the marketplace. The vineyard’s a place where there’s a different vision of work, and worth and where there is something to be shared. Jesus says it’s never too late and keeps seeking out our co-workers and there is enough for all. God’s not done with this place or with us. While at times this will challenge us to see that other ideas or new faces are a part of God’s workforce, they will also be ways God will bring life and generosity to all of us. We don’t have to compete to be chosen. Because no one has to be the UNCHOSEN. We don’t have to live in that mentality. God’s grace is abundant and surprising.

My ordination here yesterday is God’s bold proclamation that it’s not too late in the day, and no matter whether you are young or old, a life longer or a newcomer, God has need of each of us. God has room for each of us. And each of us is worth it to God. This is good news! So come! It will take all of our hands, and those of our neighbors, but God’s got work for all of us and the harvest will amaze us. Let’s join together in trust and by the grace of God, let’s show the world that God and not the marketplace has the last word. We are rich indeed! AMEN

Sunday, November 20, 2011

From Stranger to Family

"When you're here you're family" It’s ironic to me that this is what the Olive Garden restaurant advertizes on TV.Amazing food and happy people. Come! They encourage us to come because when you’re here, “you’re family.” But then if you go, you know the drill- give us one name, take a pager and they tell you a number- how long you have to wait to be “family.”  If you’re like me you‘re known by a lot of numbers. Customer number, Social Security number, drivers license number, insurance number.  Our news is about numbers too - the number of unemployed, uninsured, incarcerated, below the poverty line, over 65. Now some Super Committee is supposed to find the magic numbers that will save us.
Even in our ministry we talk in numbers- how many people who came, how many bags of food, how many tortilla chips to make a serving for one person. It’s disheartening to be seen as a number. Categorized, prioritized and sorted. This is how we read today’s words- it’s about sorting and labels and ultimate fate. How many will we be with Jesus? The saddest thing is that while we long for caring and connection, all our behaviors and numbers reinforce keeping each other strangers. So even when we approach Jesus’ commandments of love, fear of risk leads us to domesticate hospitality and caring to safe numbers. People we identify with we will care for. Blind to everyone else who’s still just a number or a label.  We think all these numbers are a part of life, but their rule of over us brings the opposite. Suddenly we’re all strangers to someone. Good thing Jesus doesn’t tell us what we tell kids- “don’t’ talk to strangers.”

Our Ruler and Shepherd has a different vision. And it’s personal.  Good news for all feeling swallowed up in the crowd. God took on flesh and challenged all our assumptions, seeking out lost, helpless, scattered and neglected. Through Christ, sheep were sought and restored. God is still seeking us out, bringing us back from scattered places, giving us the food and strength, healing and hope we really need. Drawing us into God’s family and into true life. Christ alone has the power to do this. Christ alone has the heart to shepherd us to this new place beyond numbers and strangers. This is what we celebrate again this day.  Our worship and sacraments remind us of God’s power and love. They start with something different. We’re not sinner number 5437. We’re Jane, Michael, Nancy and Zach. The world wants to treat us as statistics, God speaks our name. Others say we’re ineligible or unqualified. God claims us. And makes us new family. Teaching a new way of being that worships Jesus and not our numbers brings salvation. And we’re called to praise and live Christ’s power and love in ways that are personal and continue challenge our assumptions.  To go beyond statements about others that start with “I didn’t realize.”
To tell others beyond here, they’re family too.
This is what happened to a woman in Seattle. Her church decided to help host a homeless tent city. Seattle lacked enough shelter housing but required the homeless to move every few weeks. Churches took on the project of offering space. They signed up for doing their Christian duty.
But many worried and calculated the cost of water, trash, risk, inconvenience.  They felt obligated to help “the least,” but their identity and the cost were uncomfortable. Numbers and labels.  This is how the woman felt too, but after awhile, she decided to bake bread and take it out to them. She liked to bake. Her warm bread began conversations. She found she enjoyed talking to some of “them.” They liked her bread. She felt good. Then one day it happened- she recognized a familiar face- and realized this “homeless man” was a long lost cousin. His “issues” had scattered him away from family. Everything changed. He wasn’t some “needy poor soul”- he was family. It re-shaped her whole understanding.  Her needs and his were healed. Transformed, she pursued offering worship, then Communion and real hospitality, then advocating for things she saw with new eyes.
Maybe that’s what the disciples mean when they say- when did we do what you asked Jesus? When she went out she knew she was trying to live faithfully, but she didn’t fully realize she was bearing Christ or that she would meet Christ. But it happened. Real love and hospitality happened in an unexpected, untamed way. Bringing restoration and community and life to many.  A small gesture grew into an encounter with Christ’s embodiment of true hospitality. Beyond social obligation, needs, labels and numbers, seeing people with names and stories, all needing to hear and see again Christ’s life-changing power and love. When we embody this vision in our living and being, God brings an end to effects of “nameless and faceless.” It starts with feeding and clothing, visiting the sick and imprisoned, but they’re more than a list or a social obligation. They are brothers and sisters.

When we meet them, we can expect that in Christ and by Christ we and they will be shaped and transformed. Becoming more than a babysitting service or a meal plan, or a polite smile. More than just a social service agency handling our share of the numbers. Because while it starts with everyday things, what we proclaim with these things is the power and hope of Christ. We proclaim that through Christ we will all be transformed. Bags of food, Kleenex, note cards, microwave popcorn, Advil, budgets for spending and rooms in this building- reflect the power and hope we seek and find in Christ.  Our living and being are the out-flowing of who we become in Christ. Bearers of the love of Christ who are taken to the places of others’ deepest needs where we’re reminded by Christ of our own needs.  Then we realize others aren’t so strange after all. They are us. We’re family: Weak and vulnerable, with wants and fears as our common story. YET met by the true source of grace and power-Christ.  Christ continues to shepherd us to cross that distance from “stranger” to kin, from death to life, reminding us that through Him we all hear- “Come, God has prepared this for you. You’re not a stranger. You’re family.” AMEN 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Playing it Safe Isn't the Answer

There are so many things going on in the life of the parish and in our world. It is our Harvest Home Sunday. People will bring and have been bringing pantry items. I am delighted they share. I am fascinated that most of what is offered is generic not branded items yet I know that in our homes we buy something better for ourselves. Yet how do we make ends meet?
I will also have my first baptism as a pastor :)
And certainly both the global economic news and the local news about what happens when people play it safe rather than risk their world is on minds with the events at Penn State and the Second Mile program which has had an event in Reading. So, quite a stew pot of items this week.

My grandmother lived through The Great Depression. So she saved everything and hid money in places like the freezer, and the underwear drawer. She was playing it safe. We think we found it all after she died, but if it was in the garden, it’s probably still there. I used to think it was ridiculous to squirrel away money like that, but as economies around the world teeter on the brink, it’s tempting. Actually, in Jesus’ day, digging a hole in the ground and hiding money was the safe and virtuous thing to do. It was the one way you could protect money entrusted to you. Bury it for another day because banks were unreliable. Conventional wisdom said “Play It Safe.” The man given one talent was doing just that. After all, he’d been given money worth fifteen years of a working man’s wages. A modern equivalent of $450,000-$500,000. Lots of money. But the servant given 5 talents was given more than a lifetime. He got a legacy. To risk such a thing was all but insane. What could be so sure that you’d risk like that? “Play it safe.” Conventional wisdom offered a pretty good survival strategy. The one-talent servant’s description of his master was also conventional wisdom.  Rich landowners of Galilee were generally corrupt. They took what wasn’t theirs and took advantage of the market. Everybody in Jesus' audiences would have gotten that this. What if how the other servants acted isn’t the point? What if WHY they acted matters? They acted like the Master. They were sure they could fly in the face of conventional wisdom because of what they believed about the Master. Then the expectation of the guy who played it safe wasn’t justified. It was about more than just holding on to it all. You’d have to really be sure to risk. But they trusted their Master more than other voices.

And here we are. In a shaky economy, wondering how long we can hold on unless we hold on tight. We want to give and share but our world jostles us back and forth between “invest in the market” and calls to live cautiously in the safety of established patterns. Both ways feel unfulfilling. We haven’t found a formula for success, and we hope at least for a formula for avoiding failure. This is a pretty dim view about money and our world. So we think we need to play it safe and protect the legacy for another day in case. What do WE make of the shocking reversal in the story where the master enacts that dim view and casts the poor guy into the outer darkness? Is this level of anger and animosity what playing it safe deserves? Is this what will happen to us? Rather than making it literal , let’s see this lesson as a teaching tool designed to shock. So we grasp that in the kingdom of God, God doesn’t play by the world’s rule book.  
This is a story to reveal God and to challenge how we see God. This imagery is used first to show the feeling God has when we view God like we view the men and women of our world. Remember that in the story the servant tells the master how he thinks the master acts. The response from the master is- you REALLY think that’s me? WHY the servant acted matters. It’s a question of attitude. Do we really think that God will be that way?  What IF God lived up to our expectations? It’s easy to forget- the nature of God is different. Yet when we play it safe, we turn in on ourselves and away from God and others. And people suffer. This is not the joy and the life God intends. When security becomes the overwhelming consideration, this is living death. (Randy Read).
Focusing on playing it safe actually creates a world of utmost insecurity. (Dag Hammerskjold). We don’t find growth or joy.  Instead we create what we hope to avoid. Lack of trust in God and failing to invest in this relationship and God’s gifts, can lead to loss. All we need to do is read the news to see. Those who cling to only their own devices, or who try hide and protect their world, find that they create a world where even what they have will be taken away. The real place of outer darkness is being buried in loneliness, isolation, and regret. This is true not only with money but with the ways we choose to act on behalf of others- the poor, the immigrant, the victims, the outcast.

The goal is not be found holding onto what is given but risking it for the sake of the Kingdom.  The challenge for us day in and day out is to avoid becoming cynical, expecting nothing more from God than we do the chairman of Bank of America or anyone else in power who fails us. We struggle to be confident about God and all that life and abundance. But we shouldn’t let our attitudes about our world color our understanding of God. Instead we are encouraged to respond to God’s kingdom by trusting God is ushering in something different. Because we believe our Master is different. While we wait for the full story, it’s hard to hold onto that in the face of the world where news of scarcity and fear is abundant. Let US again this day be taught:
We receive a lifetime of wealth that starts in our baptism, and the gifting of the Spirit. It’s a moment we celebrate this day. God invites us to enter into the life, light and joy. We receive the blessing of spiritual gifts- love, forgiveness, faith, hope, trust, and compassion. We’re reminded that our fortunes are reversed. So we can risk the ultimate reversal of behavior-throwing it all in- what the other two servants do. “Throw it all in” is God’s call to us to live out our identity. God wants to call all God’s children to life and light and joy. To abandon conventional wisdom in response to God’s faithful providing. To open ourselves to embracing a lifetime of loving God and God’s world with abandon. Daring to share. Believing we will be even more abundantly and unexpectedly blessed. Placing our faith in something and someone more than ourselves. Risking it all, because of who we trust that God is: The One who has faithfully provided a legacy and continues to provide.  Come and enter the kingdom, invest it all for this vision. Jesus calls: Come and enter God’s joy!