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!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

It's about more than an Aisle

A couple weeks ago, here at the church the phone rang and a young woman began a tale of being baptized in our church, how her brother had been married here and her family had gone here. HAD.

And how important it was to reconnect with this church. Oh, and she is engaged.

After listening politely I asked if either she or her beloved currently were a part of the congregation. They are not. I thoughtfully explained the wish of the congregation that one of them be a part of the congregation. (Lovely church that we are we don't just offer the loveliness for hire). I asked if she and her beloved were thinking of becoming a part of our church. "We could" she said. Not a ringing endorsement, but I offered to meet with the two of them face to face to talk about it all. Told her of the times for worship and encouraged her/them to come and be a part of worship here.

And that was all that transpired til today. They arrived and we all settled in. I asked again about their situation and learned the woman's Mom lives a few blocks away. "Have I met her?" I wondered. No, I was told, because she doesn't get out much and doesn't come here anymore. I renewed exploration of whether the couple was intending to be connected with this church. Well, there was the issue that they live about 25 minutes away. And he has mandatory Sundays at work. When I asked about her schedule, he offered she did not work Sundays. And she quickly corrected him that she could have to and sometimes she did. Hmmm.

While recognizing the sentimental connection to this church I wondered aloud if maybe another church closer to them might offer them a faith community they could connect with.
Silence. If it had been night time I might have heard crickets.

Well, then, can you tell me why having a wedding in a church is important? After all, marriages can happen anywhere and lots of people can officiate. And she blurted out:


Well, there you have it.

I offered that there are many places which offer the chance to walk down an aisle. That the reason to be married in the church is that you believe that God is central to your life. That a religious ceremony offers- this is where the man chimes in- " God's blessing in your marriage." Exactly.

We really do offer more than an aisle or great pictures or a sentimental moment. We offer community. It starts when we meet for a few times and talk about the strengths of your relationship and the challenges you might face. And we offer people who will walk with you. And we offer help growing in what it means to be a follower of Christ and how that shapes our doing and being. It's not about being legalistic. It's about being centered in something and someone greater.

I can't make that be important to you. But I can tell you we believe it is important. So if you want to think about what's been said and discuss it, know that I am open to continuing to talk and explore all of these things but that takes getting together face to face because relationships deserve that.

SO she looks at him and says- "I don't know what do you think?" He defers and says that this is really her decision. "Oh fine, put it on me! That way when you don't like it, it was my idea!" OK. I encouraged them to take time and talk, when they can do it without me sitting there. Let me know. I am here.

I don't think we'll see each other again, but based upon my twenty minutes today, I really do hope they take their time. Because while I regret to inform them that we are about more than an aisle. So is marriage.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Can You Believe That You Are Blessed?

Here in America's poorest city the flock and I are continuing to get settled in. As I visit our oldest living saints in the parish they share with me the stories of the departed, the history of their time in the parish and wonderful photos of big days and events for them and their loved ones. In a parish that recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, I know that my 94 year old homebound member who grew up here really is a living history of the life of the parish. And they tell me of the day when on Sunday morning the sidewalks were full of people walking to church, of the great confirmation class with 100 confirmands. And there was a building designed to handle it all with German precision.

Of course, time has changed and in the shadow of that experience, other things pale in comparison, and it's easy to become dis-spirited. This is the sense of being "poor in spirit" that Jesus speaks of. To mourn not only loved ones but a way of life.

In my first three months, we will have added six new members, a confirmand and baptized a baby. I count the "yes" not the "no." And we have had a lot of celebrating for these events and our anniversary. We have had opportunities to have breakfast together and lunches together, some of which are the crazy new pastor's idea- let's have a potluck after late service and invite people to come. Because we're all going to eat lunch anyway, because it's budget friendly and it's an easy open thing.

These potlucks look a little out of kilter from structured worship as a couple people off of the street come, or the neighbors whose lifestyle might bother some, join us. Or as an adult child caregiver sits down grateful to feed Mom lunch here. Or the widow knows she doesn't have to eat alone. It's not all precision and polished. We don't need tablecloths or fancy stuff. Or designated servers. Just ourselves, a munchie if we can share one and an appetite. It's OK that everyone doesn't come. It's fine that there is no signup sheet. We don't have to have enormous leftovers to complain about distributing. We just have to have enough. And maybe it means the early ones to eat need to not heap their plate. Or we end up sitting with someone we had no intention of being with. But they are lively get togethers. A moment of chaotic blessing. They look fun.

But recently one of the members told me that maybe we were having too many celebrations. TOO MANY CELEBRATIONS. We should celebrate -less? When I arrived the concern was that maybe they will not make it as a congregation- they fear they will die off. I think it is hard to celebrate an anniversary when you wonder if you really can live up to honoring the legacy of those departed saints.
We need to figure out how to live. But then again, maybe it involves being open-to allow God to bless us even if it looks different. So while this Sunday I will chant the Litany of the Saints and the 20 names for the past year, this sermon is about exploring our faith statement about God and the saints and being blessed not only in the "Great Beyond" but here and now.

As you all know we’ve had a lot of celebrations here since August. Anniversary, new members, confirmation, and on the horizon, baptism and more new members. Lots to be excited by- God’s work in our midst. But someone recently said perhaps we’ve had too many celebrations. Maybe we’re trained to wait for the other shoe to drop. We shouldn’t think too much of ourselves. “Pride comes before the fall.” And we all know that pride is not a saintly quality. We who feel charged with the responsibility of carrying on in the faith are told to seek to live the godly life. To look to the saints. Some of them martyrs or apostles, but also those ordinary beloved we know. They too in death join the saints. Today we remember and celebrate the lives of all those who have lived and died in the faith. I wonder if we don’t sometimes in memory make them more saintly and less human. Forgetting that Saint Peter was quick to put his foot in his mouth and Saint Paul had a wicked temper. That our aunts, uncles, parents, and other loved ones were not cleaned up angelic models, but were saint and sinner all rolled into one when we knew them. Some of the best memories involve the times they were less saintly, in their shortcomings and flaws. The things that make us chuckle or shake our heads- the stories that start with- “remember the time when…?” Yet we this day proclaim in faith that God has blessed them anyway. The same thing happens in our churches- we look upon the saints of days gone by and gloss over the very real struggles and mis-steps. They seemed to get it right, we tell ourselves. And maybe even find ourselves saying- “if only they were here, it would be different.” And we aren’t so sure we can still be blessed.

And then we hear the Beautitudes- our lesson from Matthew. We’ve heard more than our share about these sayings-what could be new? Yet In our longings and doubts, I wonder if we fall into the trap of seeing these sayings like a contract with God-believing that Jesus is setting up the conditions of blessing, rather than actually blessing his hearers. As one writer put it- “ when I hear "Blessed are the pure in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," I tend to think, "Am I pure enough in spirit?" or "I should try to be more pure in spirit." Or, when I hear "blessed are the peacemakers...," I think, "Yes, I really should be more committed to making peace." At least with "blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted," I have the assurance of knowing that on those occasions when I am mourning I will be comforted. But, that's relatively small comfort because the truth is I don't want to have additional mourning to get added blessing.”  Honestly, if this was the case, no matter how much we love our loved ones, who among us can stand up to the “blessed” test?

Fortunately Jesus doesn’t say, “If you do this- THEN the kingdom will be yours.” Instead, Jesus is acknowledging the reality of the earliest listeners and our world today. We find ourselves DIS-SPIRITED- poor in spirit with nothing left to give. Harboring other feelings in our hearts. Feeling under attack; days we have no peace; facing losses that seem too large. Afraid to celebrate.

To all of these places in our lives, Jesus does not say- “wait for the afterlife, and it’ll be better.” Jesus doesn’t tell us it would be better if we had more faith, if we were more saintly. Jesus doesn’t say- “someday but not today, the kingdom will be.” Jesus says “THE KINGDOM IS. AND BLESSED ARE YOU. THE KINGDOM IS UNDERWAY. LIVE AS THE BLESSED.” God wants to bless us not just as saints in eternity but right now.

Are we as eager to be blessed as God is to bless us? Can we believe God wants to bless us or are we still hanging on to our childhood image of Old Testament God-as a stern, demanding law-giver?
Can we imagine God really intends to give the grace we claim in our statements of faith? We all have faults and limitations, insecurities and failings. Would God REALLY unconditionally bless this congregation- knowing who we really are today, knowing that we can’t perfectly hold onto the vision of our ancestors the way we thought?

Is it blessing if we didn’t plan it? Can it really be that God will bless us apart from anything we have done, earned, or deserve?

Can we still really expect celebrations?

David Lose says, “Jesus isn't setting up conditions but rather is just plain blessing people. All kinds of people. All kinds of down-and-out, extremely vulnerable, and at the bottom of the ladder people. Why? To proclaim that God regularly shows up in mercy and blessing just where you least expect God to be – with the poor not the rich, those who are sad not celebrating, the meek and the peacemakers rather than the strong and victorious. This isn’t how the world says it should be.

 But because God shows up blessing the weak and the vulnerable, then God will be everywhere. Showering all creation and its inhabitants with blessing. Unexpected, unsettling, nearly inconceivable, BLESSING.”

This good news means all of those who have gone before, just as imperfect, really ARE saints because in the cross, God loves and adores. This is good news for you and I, fellow saints, because God is STILL blessing as the kingdom continues to unfold. God wants the best and calls us worthy of blessing.  Even when we have a hard time believing it.

Today we’ll name each of those saints who departed their earthly life and proclaim them saints.

 But now I’d like you to look at the people closest to you and tell them now- “You are a blessed saint of God.”

YOU are blessed by God. Let’s open our ears and hearts to hear it, let it sink in. To be transformed for ourselves and our world. To be open to receiving God’s surprising blessings, and to be God’s blessing.

This is how the kingdom unfolds. Then mercy is shown, the downtrodden are uplifted, and peace breaks forth. Because the blessed begin to believe they really are.

 This is the story of God’s will and work in all of the saints across time.  This is where we can place our faith. Let us rejoice and be glad that God is a God who delights to create, bless, and redeem.

 “Come you that are blessed by God, let’s dare to really live in the kingdom that IS.”

+ note: the picture is from my trip to Greece last year-I pray for all that that country is now facing. I found the work of Brian Stoffregen and David Lose to be great resources!