Wednesday, December 25, 2013

It's a Family Service

Christ is born for you! And yesterday almost 200 folk experienced this. For that to happen- the experience (not the birth), God birthed many other things for which I give thanks:

The fact I found slightly “vintage” costumes in closets that became shepherds and wisemen, Mary and Joseph. That old confirmation gowns became angels. That Burger King gives crowns and some craft store magic became angels’ wings and a star. That sheep and cow hand puppets and stuffed animals appeared.

That our new church musician wrote two songs for kids to learn.

That even though we did not learn all the verses, we learned one of each.

That there are jingle bell wrist bands for little ones who are too young to be in the telling of the story and that spontaneous ringing happens.

That the Gospel of Luke is so beautiful and that there is always a high school person willing and able to read it. That this same gospel, (together with a couple teaser verses of Matthew) is enough to allow kids to live out a story without having to learn lines. The story itself is enough.

That 17 kids came out on their first day off from school to practice for an hour and then came Christmas Eve as instructed.

That this year, there were three mamas, a grandmother and a kind soul willing to help “shepherd” the flock.

That just before we began church- those same people all bowed heads with me and prayed and gave thanks for the gift of Jesus.

That over half of the people at the “Family service” were not members of the congregation. And that of those people more than half were from the afterschool ministry.

Even better- our own volunteers had personally invited beyond our printed invitation.

That those same people added to my instructions of hospitality and convinced people it was OK to come for communion, or let me know the mom with a new baby could not come up so I could go to her.

That everyone saw the energy of jingle bells during hymns, of pausing after the nativity and last song for pictures, and the glowsticks for Silent Night as joy for the birth of God with us.

That seasoned saints had smiles to see kids- and could dream dreams. That some stayed for both worship services (imagine it!)

That one Mom came to me and shared she had not been in church since her mom died, and we cried and hugged as she told me it was her son’s enthusiasm that made her stretch but she was glad she had.

That a new family shared they had moved away and were now back and that he was once Baby Jesus in this place when he was 2 months old.

That kids helped tias and abuelas and mamas meet La Pastora.

That we almost ran out of bread.

That the ornaments on the tree were Chrismons made by young hands barely able and old hands longing and others made by the kids in the service. And that someone commented not only were they beautiful, they said- “this place is real.”

That someone saw a young couple who has been struggling and slipped the pastor an extravagant amount of money and said to give it to them anonymously. And that when they received it they were moved to tears and all I could do was say that this is what the love of Christ does when hearts are touched.

That people struggling came out of the dark into the light to hear that Christ was born for them.

That even the stodgiest skeptic exclaimed it was fantastic, and the best ever time of really being one with our neighbors.

Someone said recently that the Family Service suggests if you do not have a family, don’t come. NOT true. I know that "family" can be complicated.
Here's what we mean- It suggests God makes us family where we are always meeting distant relations who draw close with us in the mystery and the joy.

Christ is born for this!

Good news indeed!


The Star is the Light

Earlier tonite we had over a hundred people here for our Family Service, and one of the features of it is that the kids of our congregation and our afterschool program, the Doves Nest, help us tell the nativity story in real life. I found costumes and even animals, this year including sheep and cow hand puppets. This year as we were planning for the Family Service and our acting out of the story of the birth of Jesus, one of our youth insisted he did not want a role in any way. Which was kind of understandable because he is a high school student surrounded by little kids. I pondered for a moment as he and his family were there-what to do for someone who doesn’t feel part of this if he doesn’t want to be a shepherd, or a wise man or really anything. But yet he came to practice. And then, Shazam!

“You can be the star!”  I exclaimed excitedly, which of course got the most confused, skeptical, even irritated look.  After all he had just said he did NOT want a role. “The star,” I said again, gesturing and holding my hands above my head to demonstrate. “We need someone to hold the star over the holy family.”  This received a crinkly but growing and even grateful smile. And after a moment kind of a look of pride that he could as the tallest, and seemingly awkwardest one have a place in the story after all.

At home, my daughter and I set about trying to make a star, and after a lot of cutting and glue and glitter and hope, turned some discarded cardboard into a mighty fine but not audacious star. And I imagined him standing there in this unexpected joy that had replaced his expectation of disappointment.

That star led me to the focus I want to share tonight-The star is the Light.

Not just literally because stars, glowing orbs fiery gas shine in our night sky. More to the point- in the face of all our striving to make Christmas perfect to overcome our disappointments. In our longing to be stars for a just a moment-

into this world of ours, comes the real star-The Light. The star of this night and our whole lives is the Word- Jesus Christ who brings light to the world.

As we look around we can see just how much we all long for the light. In today’s paper on the front page were two stories of this side by side. The one on the left is about a man who has been working since mid-October to string 60,000 lights and synchronized music. Competing in a national TV contest to win $50,000. And he won! The quote in the paper from his wife is that since he was never athletic she was glad he could finally say he won something. Wow.

The second story was of a woman whose mental health and financial troubles led to her electricity being turned off in October, and until members of her church found out she had no light, no heat, nothing. One person is immersing himself in lights and another wondering if she really would just be in the darkness. And there it is.

I wonder if our profusion of lights and inflatables and the escalation of getting more, faster, suggests we long for the chance to overcome he dark places we know all too well. Then imagine that first night when the star was the light. There was no display of fine things. It was not beautiful. Or even light. And perhaps Mary like poor women still in the world, gave birth in the dark, perhaps without any light at all. Lonely and scared just hoping it would be OK. Yet-this is how and where God chose to enter. Not to encourage us to ignore the dark, to meet us in it and help us walk into the light.

This night we came here to step out of dark places and into the light. Each with our own stories, to Christmas- knowing we all strive to create those star moments. Perhaps ones where we hope the light will hide our lives so we can be our best selves, if just for a moment. Maybe it’s the first Christmas without a loved one, or another week without a job. Or Mom’s dementia is worse, or the medication isn’t working. Or you walk with a secret or wonder where everyone has gone.

The poet Wendell Berry says that “it gets darker and darker and darker-

and then Jesus comes.”

Jesus has come. Somehow the light comes. It is quiet but wondrous news that God comes to remind us again that we don’t have to be stars. We don’t have to be stars to receive Christ.  

We the people who walk in darkness are shown the light. It’s not overwhelming, or domineering. It’s also not artificial or temporary. It just IS. Light for us.

It’s what I think moves us to tears when we sing Silent Night in the candlelight. That flickering yet hopeful moment. It almost seems fragile. Yet we realize how powerful God is in the stillness with the light and the birth of a baby.

We silence the noise, as God shows us the holy and reminds us that we all really do have a place after all. In the light.

To grasp that who we are for real is exactly who God seeks out to love and to save. And that is wondrous news! It’s not about us and how we Christmas.

God’s life dwelling among us invites us to see the real star and to point to that light. God in Christ with us-not only in this night but in all the days to come. We don’t know how, but it is so.

I close with words of blessing from Jan Richardson:

I cannot tell you how the light comes.

What I know is that it is more ancient than imagining.

That it travels across an astounding expanse to reach us.

That it loves searching out

What is hidden, What is lost, What is forgotten Or in peril or in pain.

That it has a fondness for the body

For finding its way toward the flesh

For tracing the edges of form

For shining forth through the eye, the hand, the heart.

I cannot tell you how the light comes, but that it does.

That it will.

That it works its way into the deepest dark that enfolds you

Though it may seem long ages in coming

Or arrive in a shape you did not foresee.

And so may we this (night) turn toward it.

May we lift our faces to let it find us.

May we bend our bodies To follow the arc it makes.

May we open

And open more

And open still

                                 To the blessed light that comes


Sisters and brothers-Rejoice in the light! And may the light of Christ born for us shine in our hearts and in our lives! Amen

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Where We See Exit, God Enters

“If you think God does that, get out!”  That seems to be the theme of most of the talking heads on TV and the internet- there’s the War on Christmas, arguments over whether Jesus must be white, and the recent words now under attack by one of the personalities from Duck Dynasty about who God is rejecting. I suspect people have spent more time analyzing all of these words than any actual words from Scripture. Everyone poised to win the argument. At the same time this week as the frenzy over who won Powerball began, everyone in our national media began to obsess about what it took to win.  At one point, a reporter, who had nothing concrete to say blurted out-“This is what the winning ticket looks like!” And he held up a generic lottery ticket. As though by seeing that ticket people could be believe there was a winner. Like it was a sign. That in the midst of statistical improbability, we’d get a piece of something that made those words be real. Show us something that will help us believe what seems impossible- what winning looks like. And so I kind of wonder in such as world as ours, what people would make of the family tree of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew that is made up of prostitutes and drunkards and lots of other people many would call offensive or even losers. Come to the adult discussion class to hear more. Not to mention the scandal surrounding Joseph and Mary. Today we hear about God’s improbability in the face of our certainty.  Where we see EXIT, God enters to be GOD WITH US and show what winning really looks like.

In Isaiah, for instance, we see Ahaz, King of Jerusalem meeting the prophet. Syria and Israel have come to attack Jerusalem. Ahaz is certain this attack will end badly, probably pondering an exit strategy. Isaiah instead says-though odds look pretty overwhelming, this will end and your world will not fall. The end of your distress will happen soon.  Because Emmanuel comes. Emmanuel- GOD WITH US- in this and where you see fear and war, there will be peace. I would want a sign. What’s amazing is Ahaz should ask for a sign- that’s what you do with a prophet. But he does not. And by not asking it seems that Isaiah wonders if Ahaz really believes what God will do.

I can’t decide whether Ahaz can’t see beyond himself or whether he knew he might ask for the wrong sign. Because when you’re under attack what you want is a fellow warrior, power in the form of some kind of weaponized sidekick. And time would pass in a nanosecond. God will use a baby? And it will be awhile? That’s your idea?

When you’re in the middle of conflict, you want it to end. You want to know where you stand. It was so unimaginable.  Even though Ahaz is skeptical, God determines to give a sign and to act. And the promise came true for Ahaz. Even though he fumbled with how to receive it. Where Ahaz saw EXIT, God entered to be GOD WITH US and show what winning really looks like. Then, Isaiah’s words became words so powerful, people believed they could come true again. They wrote them down and held onto them. Because however improbable, they might not just be once and done. And God’s story went on.

Fast forward to Joseph and Mary. Today’s reality TV has nothing on the back story of the birth of Christ. In Matthew, it’s not all graceful pondering-it’s fear and drama. Because Mary is pregnant, and the scandal is deep and her alibi is shaky. As we glimpse Joseph behind the scenes it isn’t pretty. He isn’t looking for a sign, unless it says “Exit.” He’s trying to take charge and manage his righteous image. And frankly anything other than getting out means he has to live in this dysfunctional life. But where Joseph sees EXIT God entered to show what GOD WITH US looks like. Where you see confusion and pain, there will be love and healing. What seems impossible is not. Signs and wonders even though Joseph fumbled with how to receive the power and presence of God. And God’s story went on.

And so too for us. “The Lord God will give you a sign” are words still for us- even when we give up looking for any signs beyond those we can make ourselves. When we wait for a Warrior God to fix our world full of people who we’re sure are wrong or who need to be defeated. GOD WITH US in all the places we fall into the trap of believing God should be like us, only bigger. And in the times we envision God as vengeful in a world obsessed with getting even. Where we point to the EXIT sign, God enters with the still unexpected vision of winning. God enters to be God WITH US.

This is the sign- A baby born to the scared and confused, in a messed up and fighting world. To people who continue to fumble the God we receive. Jesus, Emmanuel enters still to remind us that in all our fears, longings and needs, God’s love wins.And these words live. This is the sign.

One writer says, “Unless we see the sign of the child it is all too easy to turn “Immanuel, God-with-us” into a call to defeat our enemies.  God’s sign of a child surprised a king and an unwed father named Joseph. This sign matters in a world that continues to worship a vengeful God who can crush our enemies. Seeing the child as sign of God-with-us paints a different picture, (one our world needs far more than our battle to be right): The Word comes as a child who can be received and cannot hurt us; a Word that does not make us afraid. What is so amazing is that when God does come among us, whatever God’s hurt or indignation, God comes not with violence, but as a child, vulnerable to our further hurt that we might receive rather than fear him.”  It’s an odd way of winning, but it is salvation for all of us. On this last Sunday of Advent, as we ponder the improbable reality of Emmanuel, Jesus born to save all people and to be God with Us, I share with you these words Barbara Lundblad used to write a new verse of “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” :

O come, dear child of Mary, come,

God’s Word made flesh within our earthly home;

Love stir within the womb of night,

Revenge and hatred put to flight.

Rejoice, rejoice! Take heart and do not fear,

God’s chosen one, Immanuel, draws near.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Tell Me Again

At home I was told- “look it’s 10 days to Christmas, just tell good news.” Which is kind of ironic since earlier this week at our pastor’s Bible study we were talking about this week and what we were preaching and a couple of us talked about how this year we had committed to preaching Isaiah. And one person kind of lamented that decision, saying that this week’s reading is pretty much just a repeat of last week. Peaceable kingdom, things growing where once things were barren, hope and peace for God’s children. BLAH, BLAH, BLAH. Won’t that sound kind of cliché and repetitive?

Which got me to thinking. That the real irony is that we’ll listen to the same bad news- death, violence, destruction, anxiety and hopelessness-over and over and over again. And seemingly never tire of it. Two weeks in a row of good news?

Well then the news of the week happened- and again I stand before you to proclaim good news in a world that cannot fathom yet another school shooting, much less frankly the rest of the news of violence and despair. We think we are living in an ever changing advancing world, but we are actually just doing variations on the same unholy theme.

Why do we just keep singing the same old song? Aren’t we finding it kind of lifeless?

Tell me again, why do we do that?

Tell me again.

If you’ve ever watched TV shows or movies, there is a dramatic move called “tell me again.” Like when two people are shown in a car headed somewhere and the passenger turns to the driver and says something like, “tell me again why we’re doing this?” As they drive into the storm. It functions for the character to say out loud what everyone else is thinking- and helps the audience know where the story is going.

Tell me again. This is what John the Baptist is asking. Some people think this is about John wanting to make sure he’s not wasting his time. But John is in prison and he knows his life is likely to be at risk. He’s asking Jesus to tell him again to be reassured. Tell me again- are you really the ONE? Tell me you’ve got this.

That was what was on my mind this week- and maybe yours too. As I am frankly impatient with God. I have a holy longing. Today again we light that pink candle and share words of rejoicing, knowing they are dulled by violence and darkness, we talk of being cared for but are nursing a hunger in moments of doubt and desolation. Tell me again, Jesus.

And so I imagine John there in prison- it’s dark, and foreboding, and he’s separated from the energy of the movement he helped prepare. And he’s said all those prophetic words, but had to be weighed down with disillusionment over the world as it was, and his state. Stuck waiting, not really living and facing death. Will it really be as you say, Jesus?

And Jesus tells him the prophecy is being made true. And I imagine all the imagery of Isaiah dancing in his head perhaps- that suddenly a parched desert will be watered and life on hold will burst forth. And what seems treacherous will be made safe. That the way that has been prepared is being further prepared- healing and wholeness are beginning.

Many of us know that when we have doubts and sorrows, we find it almost impossible to believe there will again be joy, that sorrow will be followed again by gladness. Just like when the seasons bring dormant times, it can seem like they will never change. And if you stand in the desert when it is dry and parched, unless you saw pictures and heard stories of the blanket of riotous flowers you’d never believe it would happen. But it does.

Especially in the desert where it seems God knows that cacti need to have not just a flower, but a riot of color to prove it. That after months of nothing, it seems it suddenly blooms. Just like my mother-in-law’s Christmas cactus. After months of tending it, she’ll invariably say- tell me again why I tend this thing?  Wondering but one day you walk in and there’s the first hot pink bloom. And then within days- a shower of flowers spill forth. Sometimes not even for Christmas at all, but in November or March. Proof that you never know when, you just know to look for it. And that one time of blooming may not be enough. Truth is we never tire of it no matter how often it breaks forth.

It’s like God’s good news for us. Breaking forth in the word and meal to reassure us, and meet us in our waiting and longing. Where we find ourselves saying- tell me again. And God is found in our stories of where healing happens, when rejoicing comes, and how new life emerges. God present as we remind ourselves of the places we can only explain by saying God has been at work on the way. You are the one we wait for, O God. And it’s happening even though we do not see it in its fullness. Help us keep with you on the holy way, knowing you’ve got  this. That’s why we keep telling the same good news. To be met by Christ who knows we struggle to rejoice and believe but meets us with words of hope and good news. And so we look and we work and we pray- Tell us again and help us find your way. Amen.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Jesus Re-member Us

Jesus, remember me. Remembering has been on my mind a lot, with the large scale historic events of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and the anniversary of JFK's assassination. Closer to here and now, the church secretary, Donna, and I took a 96 year old saint to lunch who lives alone. She loves the Olive Garden. Her regular dining companion and driver died last year. Increasingly she wonders if she is remembered. I’d promised to take her to lunch awhile ago. This was the week. Being remembered brought joy. At the restaurant, the longtime waitress remembered her too which just tickled her. Over lunch we heard it was time to type out her pretzel gift list for the holidays, (on a real typewriter-remember those?), as she remembered being a secretary for 30 years. Dorothy is a positive person but she says, “I think I’m living too long perhaps.” Even so, that bright spot of remembering and reconnecting is one image of “Jesus, remember me” that empowers us and reminds us of the kingdom. Where, as Colossians puts it, Christ is the “one in whom all things hold together.”  If 'remembering' is powerful enough here and now as part of the flock, how much more meaningful is it when remembering happens in the mind and heart of Jesus? As we hear forgiveness spoken even for those who haven't asked for it, who may not even know they need it and the willingness of Jesus to truly see those in his presence, and then see beyond a brokenness. To remember and reconnect.

This is Christ as King, in charge and encompassing it all. We hear of glory and power, but it’s Paradise from one dying on the cross. Of gathering sheep amidst chaos and scattering. Of giving thanks with joy while enduring suffering. Seeing destruction in the world but hearing of the city of God. That too was remembering this week. Proclaiming God in what shakes us. One afternoon, a girl from the Doves Nest showed up grieving the murder of her uncle.

We went to the Chapel, a quiet peaceful place. I asked if she could tell me about him. At first she said it’d been awhile since she’d seen him. But then she remembered, telling of trips to the pool, and his buying the BEST Christmas presents as only an uncle can do. And she began to smile and cry.

It all changed when he was in a car accident, and he lost his memory. He wasn’t who he’d been before. Now even later, he was gone.

In the Chapel is a window, a beautiful window, through which even when the room seems dark, the colors stream in rays that create tiny places of beauty. We sat there in those little scattered but persistent rays.  Looking at the center of the window-Jesus, the shepherd. I asked what she saw in Jesus’ face. “Love…his eyes are love.” And what about that sheep Jesus is holding- what do you see? “That sheep is clean, and well fed, and peaceful. That sheep, pastor did you notice? It’s smiling. That sheep has a smile on its face! That sheep knows it’s got it good.”

Well, if you’ve ever seen a real live sheep, they’re smelly, and dirty, with junk stuck to them. They often make really bad decisions and get pretty banged up. Her uncle experienced that part of being a sheep in the world. Truth is that he became really broken. No longer the man she remembered nor the person God created him to be. Imagine a whole flock of that- that’s pretty much us in the world. It’s no wonder there’s such a contrast between paradise and daily existence. We see a story of failed leadership and scattering, where those who survive simply cannot create a new chapter. And while we want to just race to the hopeful verses, the starkness of our reality must be seen- like that man on the cross who knows what he deserves as far as the world sees it and anything different can only come from the work of God. God doing the opposite.

Gathering, not scattering. Bringing a promised future and a chance to thrive for all. A promise far different from our current world where failures have led to depletion and scattering that has reached “exile” levels. Jesus, remember me. Re-member us. Hold us together with you. It’s not yet here in its fullness. For the simple reason is that our failed leadership continues to contest God’s announced future and in the process continues to scatter and do evil. It makes us want to plead “Thy Kingdom Come!” But here is the promise- it has begun.

While we wait, what is needed is not a race to a greeting card cliché for the day, but remembering words of that new reality in our midst. As we sat in the Chapel, light streaming through the window, and our tears, downstairs you could hear the noisiness of the Doves Nest in full swing, but at the same time notice the peace of Christ. And that is how it is. And we remembered together that Jesus’ promises are true. For her uncle it means that now, he’s no longer broken, or struggling. He’s THAT smiling sheep. Loved, cared for, whole, at peace. That sheep with the smile. God’s power and love are at work. Simply and only because God has both the power and the desire to make it so. For him and for us.

When we are overcome and when we know in our hearts just who we’ve been. We can remember the good news that God’s judgment- God’s assessment of the situation- leads to God’s re-membering. Putting us together again and holding us. Remembering and reconnecting to Christ as God with us and for us. Christ refusing to let the results of “evil doings” be the last word. With us, even when the world around us might seem to be falling apart and unpredictable.

In chaos and in isolation, the voice of God can still be heard, a ray of light found. Jesus as the Lord of all uses his power to gather back, to re-member all things, everywhere. Putting us together and holding us in peace and reconciliation. This is the sign of the kingdom of God in Jesus. "The gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven."

And this is what the faithful remember and praise. It might be a busted up and tattered flock and faith but it’s there. Just like when Jesus was on the cross, surrounded by mourners, followers, family, women and others- there at the cross not quite sure. But they showed up.  As one writer suggests, maybe this is what Luke means when he talks about expecting the Kingdom of God. It’s about the ultimate, but until that ultimate event actually takes place, it’s about being people of the kingdom who show up and remember-

helping, repenting, waiting, and  watching. Learning, supporting, and sometimes just showing up to mourn. But showing up- to look for and pray for the kingdom. Believing that when life seems hard, the world seems dark, or the race feels long, we can hold on to the good promises of God. Made strong and given joyful patience.

Problems may not go away, but we can keep on because…we are not alone. We are remembered and redeemed. Gathered to pray as ever-Jesus, remember me, re-member us in your kingdom. Teach us to pray believing your kingdom can be, and is so, in us. AMEN

Let us pray- Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine IS the kingdom and the power and the glory. Forever and ever. Amen.

(I have to say that Dancing with the Word, Working Preacher, Edge of Enclosure, and Ministry Matters are all really fine sites- please support them in their efforts)

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Grinch, the Temple and Jesus

Today I read from the Message translation of Luke 21- the whole chapter. And then…

So, today I am thinking about Christmas, after all everyone else is. Especially with Thanksgiving just around the corner. And the Reading holiday Parade and Christmas tree lighting are next weekend, even before Thanksgiving. My neighbors are putting up Christmas lights and there are snarky “don’t hate me decorating” posts on Facebook. No worries, friends. I am thinking about Christmas but more specifically about “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”, a now classic Dr. Seuss tale that has been a TV special and a movie. I was significantly depressed to learn that it was first broadcast in 1966 and that I was alive. Well, you might wonder what The Grinch Who Stole Christmas has to do with Jesus and the Temple of the people of Israel. In the Grinch story, the Grinch is a very unhappy creature who can’t stand the happiness and celebrating of the Whos in Whoville, especially at Christmas. They wake up and open presents and then all come outside and stand around the big Christmas tree and sing and then there is feasting on the Who Roast Beast. It seem this is the center of life. The Grinch finds it all so irritating and can’t stand how this galvanizes people and gives them joy. So, he sets about bringing it to an end. He devises a plan believing that if he takes away all the trappings of the day, there will be nothing to celebrate. Because it’s about the stuff.

In Jesus’ day, the temple was the center of it all- It was huge and stunning. The outer court alone could hold 400,000 people, and at festival times, like for those gathering in Luke, it frequently held crowds nearly that large. It was intended to honor God, but it was not breathtakingly beautiful because the people made it so. It had been Herod, a Roman ruler who wanted to be powerful who spent massive amounts of money making it beautiful.  Taking the Temple intended to testify to God’s unique majesty, and making it beautiful to bring glory to himself. The place intended to reflect where God touched the earth and held it still and safe had become something very different to many. So in all those people and all that beauty, one insignificant woman, faithful but widowed could be impoverished and unnoticed, as she has thrown her whole life away to preserve God’s house. Because others are so bedazzled by the beauty of the building. Its beauty and not holiness, had become the center.

Jesus, who has already been poking sticks at religious leaders, speaks prophetically of it all being leveled. Not one stone on another on the eve of the big festival. Scandalous talk that the beautiful temple was temporary. That even something so concretely placed in people’s minds could be gone. What would life mean? How would life go on?

For those hearing the Gospel of Luke for the first time, this was reality. The temple had in fact been brought down about 30 years before, by the Romans determined to leave no stone standing. Just like the Grinch in his efforts to take away all of Christmas from the Whos in Whoville. In a calculated way to guarantee that everything that shapes their identity will be gone. The Romans didn’t quite succeed. One wall is left, which we now call the Western wall, or the Wailing Wall.

Suzanne Richardson, whose work can be found online at Edge of Enclosure writes that while reflecting upon Jesus prediction of the destruction of the Second Temple, the Grinch comes to mind. Particularly the scene involving the moment the Grinch pauses to hear the moaning of the Whos in Whoville after he has stolen everything related to the village Christmas celebration. "That's a noise," grinned the Grinch, "That I simply must hear!" So he paused. And the Grinch put a hand to his ear. “And he did hear a sound rising over the snow. It started out low. Then it started to grow... But the sound wasn't sad! Why, this sound sounded merry! It couldn't be so! But it WAS merry! VERY! He stared down at Who-ville! The Grinch popped his eyes! Then he shook! What he saw was a shocking surprise! Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, Was singing!

Without any presents at all! He HADN'T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME! Somehow or other, it came just the same!” There stand the Whos in a circle around where the tree had been. They lift their heads and now instead was a glowing star rising over them-light for the world. They live anew! Transformed. They don’t just endure, they live anew. Because it’s not about the tree or the presents or even the Roast Beast.

Our gospel reading at first sounds more like what the Grinch expects-destruction, chaos, rejection, family-shattering, betrayals. And Richard Swanson suggests, it might seem that what we take from this is that the calm individual is the center of the world, (and) that Christian endurance is the point of Jesus’ message. It’s actually greater than that-its’ not just about endurance but survival.” And by survival, I don’t mean “hunker down.” I mean continued new life. That's the question we all ask when something happens that rips the very fabric of our existence apart, or the roadmap we’ve been using is gone. When divorce comes out of nowhere, when illness changes everything, when addiction tramples and terrorizes, when family strife breaks out. Or when church doesn’t look like it used to. When the universe is shaken to the core, how will we live?

Even in world-destroying catastrophe, Jesus says, God’s faithful people should lift their heads and expect resurrection, redemption, and rescue. Life.
It takes life together looking for God at work. And moving beyond what stymies the Grinch. The Whos find a way to live and share joy that is not at all about stuff. For us, that living doesn’t come from this sanctuary as a beautiful place as it is. These windows, the memorial gifts are not the source for living.
It comes from the God we encounter in the midst of them. God who enters the world, in the flesh, and rises beyond everything we imagine. Coming into a world waiting for life to be what it should be, bringing resurrection and faithful hope. To people just like us.
And this is why I say thank God it’s not about a building. 
But here then are deeper questions that I hope empower our living here.

Do we recognize this place as one where we sense and connect with God? When we are here, is it holy?

Do we sense that we are in the presence of the Divine?  

Do we glimpse Jesus present in our midst?

Do we feel Christ literally taken into us in communion, dwelling in us?

Do we notice that power- that we bear this sacred and holy into a suffering world-
where people don’t see beauty or joy or new life?

Are we raising our heads to look for resurrection?
Or do we just see people and stuff?

All our words in worship are centered around helping us experience resurrection.
We can't explain it but that's the power of God in this place.
Luke goes on to tell of faithful rising day after day to listen to Jesus. Words heard by people who only see the charred remnants of a ruin and disappointment. Trying to lift up their heads and look for the promised resurrection in the midst of what seems like anything but.
That is what our life as Christians often feels like- trying to see and point to God’s life in what seems like anything but.
This is why we are here to be God’s people- together.
To encounter resurrection and to show it to others in the kingdom.
Because we know-in our world, endurance is just not enough, not even close.
When it really matters, and everything feels like its falling away
only resurrection will do.
But to steal the phrase from Dr. Seuss-
“they can’t stop Jesus from coming.
Somehow or other, he comes just the same!”

Thanks be to God. AMEN

Monday, November 11, 2013

Entering the Larger Life of God

Today the Sadducees are getting a bad rap in the gospel. It’s the first thing we hear-they don’t believe in the resurrection! But I got to wondering, how about us?
What do WE mean when we say we believe in resurrection? I asked a lot of people this week.
One friend says it simply means God promises life after death. Another said-life never ends, even if it seems like it from a human viewpoint. God's life-giving power will always be more powerful than death and destruction. The crucified and risen Christ is the ultimate promise of redemption and new life for all of creation.
Someone else said-It means that the fundamental character of God is to bring life from death. We receive that promise through Christ and we can depend on it throughout our life and beyond. It doesn't mean that life doesn't pass away. It means that we can depend on God's character to bring life from death…and it's a promise that all can trust in. As a Christian it means that I've been given the Spirit in order to participate in God's action.
Another friend shared-God is constantly creating and recreating. Now. And in the future. We see new life everywhere. Isn’t that resurrection?

Then I talked to our afterschool kids who told me that God's new life comes in how God gives us blessings in this life and promises more to come. Probably with lots of gold and fluffy clouds. "After all Pastor, the Bible says there's a lot of gold!"
And others told me about pets in the afterlife, and I starting imagining My Little Pony. But who’s to say?
I was struck though-all of the answers I got focused upon Life more than death. While many adults focused on the life to come, our kids whose lives are just as complicated think it matters where God is giving life now, even as some of them are still actively mourning the killing in our neighborhood of their friend Wilberto a few months ago.
My seminary President chimed in on Facebook and shared that he has a friend who is an Episcopal priest who always announced a death saying, "Jane/John has moved on into the larger life of God." I love that image! But I would expand it- it’s not only about the great hereafter. We gather here and say that gathered in the name of Christ we can experience this earthy and earthly life as a foretaste of the feast to come. Moments where the larger life of God come to us now. Resurrection starts now and resurrection extends beyond our horizon. But you know, I am also struck by the notion in the gospel today that as much as God desires us to live in this altered reality, God is not making us believe in resurrection. The Sadducees weren’t buying it.

On Wednesday night when we talked about this week’s gospel and right away the question was-just who were those Sadducees?  They were a small group within Judaism in Jesus’ day who had a particular view. Just like lots of people claim to be Christians but the message can be different, so too in Jesus’ day there were different viewpoints in Judaism. The Sadducees believed that even though there were more scrolls others considered to to the Hebrew Scripture, for them,only the first five books mattered- Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Numbers and Leviticus. That’s it. Most others felt God had more to say; they did not. The rest of the words on the scrolls were helping many develop a belief in life after death by the power of God-resurrection. But not the Sadducees. They also only believed that God was in the one temple in Jerusalem- and that’s where they were, so much so it kind of felt like “their” house. So when Jesus has come to Jerusalem and gone straight to the temple and set up shop day after day, it’s like he has occupied “Their” house. They’re miffed. So they come and ask him the question we hear today about an idea they don’t even believe in-resurrection. They can’t imagine even if there is more after this life, that it will look any different than their expectation. Instread they think the way you live on is that your name is carried on by your children- literally your seed lives. That’s why all those barren women matter. People are only children of our earthly creators. Even if there was an afterlife, for that poor woman, afterlife would mean continuing to try to produce that child-hardly paradise. Then Jesus shakes them up by quoting about Moses back to them- God is bringing life out of what seems like death, and the barrenness of the childless but it’s a whole different world. Larger than their vision.

It’s larger but we don’t know much. What will resurrection of the body and that next life be like? Over time this has generated tons of questions. During the Crusades and times of war when people lost hands or feet or heads and whole bodies could not be returned, people worried about how their body would be resurrected if not all of it had been buried. Some people literally went around worried about fingernails! Others worried about what if the ashes blew away, how would that work? How could God fix that? In our data gathering world, if we can’t have proof, we aren’t so sure. Perhaps a modern day version of what we will accept versus not. It’s why books about what heaven will be like are popular. It’s only natural we want to know. And for those missing dear departed saints we just named last week, it’s fresh. How will we know them? What will we look like? Us, only better? Or what it will look like- our favorite time? Who will be there? What about people we don’t want there, who we don’t want to see? We hope Jesus knows how to arrange our next house when he says that there are many dwelling places. When we say we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting week after week what do we know? Whatever the concern, we all worry how God will do it, or sometimes wonder if God even can.

Kind of like the Sadducees- we can fall victim to relying only on our vision, not trusting in the larger life of God. The God who says- you see all this? I created it. You can trust in what seems beyond your full vision. For the Sadducees, life came to a dramatic halt when their temple was destroyed 70 AD- since that was the only place God was, and it was gone, they just couldn’t go on. If, like the Sadducees, we limit our vision to imagine God’s love or power, that smaller view will not bring life for us either. It’s true we don’t know much, but we know God is powerful, God keeps promises and we will be with Jesus.

Now I come back again to what words people shared about resurrection- here’s what I see-all those responses were not so much about death but life. Life! That’s the mysterious good news. God who gave us life, gives life. And the promise that more lies beyond this life.  And in the meantime, we live in this life, and we should live! And it’s life with God! God who is in our beginnings and endings is in all of the in between as well, both the glorious and the frightening. Inviting us to live as those given promises, and power-resurrection now. This is the larger life of God. Where is it found? In all those new life moments-when we remember we are already God’s children claimed in baptism at this font. When we hear that we are freed from our failures and struggles to live anew each Sunday to start worship. When we hear that Jesus Christ is love and food and healing for us each time we gather at this table. When we get that second chance in relationships, or that new lease on life in some part of our lives. Moments of peace we didn’t expect that helps us carry on-resurrection. Given by a God who even more than life is love. That’s this cross for us. God loving us into life after all the kinds of death we experience.

In the end, this is what all the words we say when we gather remind us of-  In Christ, this life and love proclaim we are children of God forever. Children again this day invited even deeper into the larger life of God.


Sunday, November 3, 2013

For All the Saints' Life Songs

Today is All Saints Day when we remember and give thanks for all of those saints in God's church and in our lives who have blessed the world with their faith witness. We'll sing "For all the Saints" but we could just as easily sing a song by the contemporary Christian group Casting Crowns-entitled “Life Song” with a refrain- “let my lifesong sing to you.”  In the purest sense, this is what a truly saintly life looks life- a life song sung to God by a person who loves God and loves people the way God loves. Some saints are martyrs for their faith-Most are not. Some are held up as examples for the whole church. Most are not. Most are ordinary, anonymous men and women. Today we give thanks for them all.  The people depicted in these stained glass windows, people for whom we will ring a bell, and people whose name doesn’t ring a bell. Those whose earthly journey is completed and are now called “the saints triumphant.” Today we remember them all. And hopefully sharing their life songs guides us in ours.

I give thanks for my grandmothers- for Margaret who always made sure to freeze strawberries from the garden for me to eat since I would not be there "in season" and for Marie who shared her love for art with me as we took in a Chagall exhibit in Philadelphia. Neither of them was much for the church, and both struggled mightily in life. But they loved as they could and still are a part of God's saints. And I remember people I met in church-Pat whose sharp tongue was matched by her fierce devotion to God and family. She once told me cancer was a gift because it brought her closer to God. Her last earthly communion was just a bit on the end of a spoon as she told me she knew she was bald but she was beautiful. And she knew God thought so. Virginia encouraged me to be a person of faith. Henri showed me true sacrificial servanthood. And Ray. Ray told me when he first met me he didn't think I got what it was all about, but later what a great pastor I would be. But then he quickly added- "It has nothing to do with your own doing of course. Only the Holy Spirit could make it so." Yes- and I have not forgotten. All Saints now triumphant.

In this life we are saints too- saints militant. When I mentioned this at Table Church I watched faces crinkle up at that word "militant." Why such a war like term? Well, I think if we are honest, we know that the tension between living as faithful Christians and succumbing to other influences can be fierce. We are sinners and life is a struggle. Each of the saints I named and many others I did not, knew this challenge. Sometimes we have to fight to remain in the path of discipleship. The presence of sin in the world means we are often more sinner than saint. It takes being militant. Across our lives as Christians there are times when we will knowingly or not bless the world with our witness and will love people the way God loves. And other times we will not. But thank God we are not responsible to “saint” ourselves. We don't "saint" ourselves. God's love and promises do.  It starts in what we celebrated again last week- baptism. Where we receive the gift of faith, and that Holy Spirit working in us. And we receive something else as well-each other in communion here. Intended to be just a glimpse of a more perfect communion with the saints triumphant. So then what to make of the gospel this day? One scholar notes that some might try to translate Jesus’ teaching into a set of guidelines, as if they amount to a “to-do” list for potential saints. But to do so suggests we just follow the blessings and curses as “how-to” instructions. But since we do not “saint” ourselves, the blessings and curses create something different- a set of values that shapes how we are to understand God, ourselves and the world. It doesn’t make sense to hear, “Blessed are you who weep now,” and then find ways to make ourselves sad. It does make sense to ask, “In what kind of world does God’s blessing seek out those who are hurting?” And make our lifesong be about bringing that glimpse of kingdom. And Jesus’ teaching invites us to stretch our imaginations concerning the saints regarding who are blessed by God. The “saints” include not only spiritual superstars who attain exceptional virtue and the average. The saints include people who are vulnerable, those society routinely forgets about – or worse, takes advantage of.

The neglected, the isolated, those in poverty. Those who crave simply the gift of connection with others, and life with meaning. Who have no one to sing with, no communion to share. How are we connected to these saints? Now hear-Woe to those who keep their riches and enjoyment to themselves! Then the glimpse of God’s feast to come eludes us all. Jesus reminds us not only of how we are to respond but where God’s blessing shows up. Shaine Claiborne shares how he encountered a woman as she struggled through a crowd to get a meal from a late-night food van. Asked if the meal was worth the effort, she replied, “Oh yes, but I don’t eat them myself. I get them for a homeless lady, an elderly woman around the corner who can’t fight for a meal.” Saints militant.

Jesus’ words don’t create a set of policies for looking after others, nor do they amount to a list of demands that his followers must obey. Instead, Jesus’ words and our storytelling shape our values and our imaginations. Where we may see poverty, infirmity, or loneliness, Jesus pronounces God’s blessing and presence. Where we keep accounts regarding who deserves assistance, Jesus seeks disciples who would do for others what we desire done for us. Working for a world in which God is present everywhere, building communities of care and support. It’s a joyful, blessed world. We’re invited to inhabit it and to make our life’s song sing to our God who blesses like that. This is why God gives us a church. Communion with fellow saints in this life. In all its glory and frailty. Together we share love, and celebration, and pain and hurt and challenge. We hug, we laugh and sometimes we tell the necessary word of correction.  And we remember that in all of our glory and frailty God claimed those gone before and claims us- honoring promises, and saint-ing us, empowering us for blessing. So let’s celebrate God's work in those we miss and in those God is placing before us now. And sing a song for all these saints.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Jumping Into God's Promise

Awhile ago I was asked to be a part of an interfaith marriage of sorts. Between a man raised Lutheran ( who in fact was the fourth generation of men to have Luther as a part of their name) and a woman who had been baptized in my congregation but over the next 50 years was never in this place and had in fact embraced pagan earth bound spirituality. He has joined our congregation and she is seeking, trying to make meaning of the baptism she received but the faith formation she missed.
In any event, she asked if they could jump the broom as a part of their ceremony. After speaking with her I learned that this is not just an African American tradition ( my only understanding of it before now) but was Celtic as well. And for her it symbolized jumping into a new chapter of life, leaving old negativity behind. And in her understanding this would happen at the very end of worship.
I offered to think about how this would be incorporated in a Christian ceremony, and realized first that of course we as the church have coopted and incorporated many pagan traditions. And that this is a new chapter of life. But logically jumping the broom after the ceremony would kind of be like jumping away from what happened at the altar.
So I met again with the couple and suggested that at the end of the procession, they jump the broom into the space where they declare their intention to be wed. Jumping to and not away from the altar space.
Bingo. We planned the service and to my delight they wanted vows that invoked the Trinity, not just simple words. They had looked for Scripture and settled upon a passage from Song of Solomon- arise and come away my love. And also the familiar two becoming one, but also 1 John which speaks of perfect love while also offering a word about fear and lying and imperfect love. Given the fact this is not a first marriage very appropriate. And so we gathered and I chose to fully integrate that broom into the homily for the occasion.

Eric and Brenda we have traveled an interesting road to here. We met first in cold and blustery days. And it gives me great joy to have the honor of sharing today in celebration. And to be a part of a tradition I had never experienced before, the jumping of the broom. I remember when we first talked about it and the symbolism of leaping out of negativity and the past and into new life together. Jumping that broom into the declaration of love began your wedding today. Knowing your story and this symbolism, it is altogether fitting that our first reading spoke words that fit this day- arise, come, winter is past, storms are gone. Let us enter into a season of singing and flowers and beauty and abundance. Whenever there is a wedding everyone here is in some way reminiscing about, celebrating or hoping for love. And it is obvious to me and I think to everyone else who is delighted over your happiness, that you guys kind of radiate that love- like that light shining before us. Your light reminds us that your love reflects God’s love for all of us. That is powerful indeed.
And we are celebrating God’s gift of your love with bold and beautiful words. Love has been perfected. And love casts out fear. You have been through days of winter and storms, and are happy. There is much to celebrate!

And we hope today is a day to remember. Of course, we could be celebrating this marriage anywhere. Yet, you chose this place, God’s house. Jumping the broom is also a symbol. Of moving into a new chapter in your life of faith. Happening because of what God has been revealing to you. The story of a God whose very being is a love that has brought you into this new chapter of your lives.
And now we are here for the new chapter. But while you are leaving some things behind, we are also connecting the role God has had to the role God should and will have in your lives together. Those bold words we read are not just words of beauty, they are words of faith. Even the ones that sounded a little out of tune. As rich as those words from Song of Solomon, love poetry in the Bible are, the words from 1 John are almost a buzzkill. Words about fear and hate and lies. Who on earth wants to hear that? We want to hear about love. But they remind us I think as jumping the broom does, that every day beyond this one is a leap of faith.

As much as we want to believe that jumping that broom is the perfect talisman, every day to follow will be a day where you make decisions about what it means to love, to comfort, to honor, care for, and sacrifice for each other. As you know there will be days of loving and days where one or both of you are kind of unlovable. It’s true. Because while we want to believe we will be perfect in love, God knows we will not quite get there.

So what can we offer for the journey? First, remember that God brought you together- into each other’s lives-God has been working. Giving you not only love, but perspective. God’s deepest desire for you is continued happiness together.
Second, remember that we all made promises too. Last night we joked about tripping over that broom. But in seriousness, today we promised to pick you up and care for you and for your life together. And we promised to love you as a sister and brother. And to bless your journey together. God gives you this group of friends and family.

God also gives you this church. With people who have been praying for you whether you knew it or not. And who long to know you better, celebrate with you and share the light of Christ with you. You never have to go it alone. Some days your light will be the one guiding us, other days, we will be the ones guiding you.
Do not become a stranger to this place, or to those who have this day said they are walking with you. Our lives are woven with yours just like the ribbons on that broom.  And even more, our lives are woven with the eternal message of Jesus and the cross-that God will continue to love us, forgive us, restore us and encourage us to try again. Unconditionally and forever.

That relationship of love all started on another day in a church that you don’t remember- your baptism. The day God began the perfect loving relationship and lifelong journey with you. Where each day, God’s grace gives us forgiveness and new life. In fact it’s not a stretch to believe that every day we wake up jumping that broom into God’s promise and opportunity for the day.
Think of it, every day a chance to say thanks for what has given glory to God, and forgiveness for the rest.

You’ve now entered the journey together surrounded and embraced by the gift of this love, and these loved ones and the love of God in Christ. It’s beautiful and powerful and worth celebrating indeed! May these things grace your love and journey from this day forth and forevermore.



Monday, October 28, 2013

Though Life be Wrenched Away

It was inevitable really. In spite of all of my training, there are the ones that get to you. Lately there has been so much to celebrate with new life and new faces and ministry popping with vitality. Yesterday was one of those standing on the top of the world days where everything just seemed to be right. The baby being baptized did not cry, she was adorable. The young boy being baptized was beaming. The people who have not been in worship for awhile seemed to be there. And there were lots of visitors too. The organ soared and we sang those great favorites with tears in the eyes of elders and new music that brought delight. And it was almost like people hated to let go of it all.
But as I moved to the back of the church in the last hymn ( A Mighty Fortress, of course), there sitting in the corner crying was one of my parishioners. One of my new parishioners. Who had jumped in whole hog with Wednesday nights. And was so excited. A couple months ago she was not feeling well, and after a lot of tests, I had been with her on the day they told her a diagnosis. Because she had no one else.
But then things were moving forward with treatment options and she had a positive surge of energy and hope. But then, yesterday came. And she shared that her most recent results were not good, in fact they were very frightening. And there are four sites. And it all seems more than tenuous. And she is bereft and terrified, as the congregation is still singing its heart out. We hug for a long time but she needs to go, and as I turn to be ready for the post worship throng I realize we are in that last stanza and I cannot sing it. I lost my voice at "though life be wrenched away..."
And as I have thought about why that is, there is of course my affinity for this person, and the sadness of where the journey has brought her. But there is also a part of me that grieves the fact that so many of my people just can't catch a break. And that those great words of "the kingdom's ours forever" seem at times so elusive. And if I am being honest there is even that little part of me that says- if they all keep dying, how long will this live? It's selfish, I know.
And in truth, I have no idea where the road will go in my own life, in ministry, but I do believe God is in it and that joy and sorrow dance together.
And then I found myself thinking that I sure needed everything that happened before that moment- when it all really did feel real.
Because of everywhere we will go next- and the fact I will wrestle with boundaries- how much to do for someone who has no one. Knowing that another person wants to come and tell me about their funeral this week because they are unwell. And that I have not one but many parishioners in their 90's, but I also minister with many who are much younger but for whom disability, cancer and poverty coalesce. And I mourn their losses. As I try to be present with the person who thought God would cure them, or strength would return, or time would not be cruel.
And while I try to approach everyone with equanimity, there are some who just burrow in deeper. And I know God will give what I need for this journey but I also know that to not speak of my own sorrow would only increase it. So here are the words of Barlow Girl, using words in part found on a wall at Auschwitz

How long will my prayers seem unanswered?
Is there still faith in me to reach the end?
I'm feeling doubt I'm losing faith
But giving up would cost me everything
So I'll stand in the pain and the silence
And I'll speak to the dark night

I believe in the sun even when it's not shining
I believe in love even when I don't feel it
And I believe in God even when He is silent
And I, I believe

Though I can't see my stories ending
That doesn't mean the dark night has no end
It's only here that I find faith
And learn to trust the one who writes my days
So I'll stand in the pain and the silence
And I'll speak to the dark night I believe in the sun even when it's not shining
I believe in love even when I don't feel it
And I believe in God even when He is silent

No dark can consume Light
No death greater than this life
We are not forgotten
Hope is found when we say
Even when He is silent

I believe in the sun even when it's not shining
I believe in love even when I don't feel it
And I believe in God even when He is silent
And I believe.