Sunday, December 18, 2016

God in Our Thin Rejoicing

For the folks here in our part of the kingdom, we have had a wave of significant losses, and struggles. Since October we have walked with the sadness of overdose death, and then the death of men in their 40's and 50's leaving behind high school students, those same men being the only child of their parents. The unexpected diagnosis of  a mom of two girls, the leukemia diagnosis of a five year old. The sudden loss of a beloved teacher at the middle school, and a mom of a young girl our kids know-faces in our small community. The loss of young and old, and yesterday evening, the loss of one of our church musicians whose unexpected entry into the church triumphant I had to announce at the beginning of worship. The flu was too much for her heart. Having held the hand of a faithful saint and singing "Beautiful Savior" as her heart stopped. And then coming home late last night and deciding to shorten and adjust the gospel for the wounded and weary flock I knew would be present.  
Where normally "Joy to the World" and lighting the Chrismon tree are anticipated. This sermon was for our early service folks, since at our late service we had the kids' Christmas program. But for all who find themselves in a weary world, may this be a word from God:

"There are times when we experience thin rejoicing. We sing and hear “rejoice!” But it feels thin at best. The places where we have experienced the unexpected, felt like the rug has been pulled out from under us, where it has felt like burden upon burden.  In the gospel of Matthew, we get this deeper glimpse into the journey of Joseph. Though across the years our songs sweetly rejoice about that trek to the little town of Bethlehem,  just then in real time…Joseph could barely manage the weight of Caesar’s decree and his wife’s condition. From where he stood, Joseph’s situation as it happened seemed like an exercise in hopelessness.And a word from an angel was at best thin rejoicing. 
To the extent that we allow the craziness of the holiday season to distract us and encourage us to denial, we waste the opportunity the gospel gives to engage the hard truths that gave the birth of Jesus and experience its deepest meaning that God with us in the flesh brings hope. But to know it truly, “Hope and courage begin with honesty.” (Diana Butler Bass) That God is with us in our real lives.
This is the season to embrace both the joy hoped for but also the difficult truths of our lives, to acknowledge the darker side of the holiday we can experience. Where there lies a weight. Where we don’t  need to look far to see that  the shadow of the cross falls upon the manger. We know. The gospel seen through the eyes of Joseph and Mary and this life invites a courageous truth telling. 
Advent’s  waiting is not the simply like the child’s wishful waiting for Santa, but a more difficult waiting- waiting for that which we cannot yet see. Or even imagine.” (Sam Portaro)
The good news in the story of Joseph and Mary is that “God worked through real people with real challenges. He didn’t choose a fairy-tale princess to bear the savior, but rather an unwed peasant girl. He didn’t choose a political or business success story to name and care for Jesus, but rather a man with his own doubts and questions who wanted to do the right thing but needed angelic guidance to accomplish it.
In beloved hymns  it’s easy to forget that Joseph and Mary were real people. In our imagination, Jesus never cried, Mary looked more like a blushing young bride than someone who had just given birth, and Joseph is calm, protective, and paternal. 
If we give a little more attention to their real story it can speak hope to places of burden and heartache we feel in real life.
It starts with the engagement. Joseph has been given his young bride to be in a legal contract, binding in every respect. Essentially be to married yet without having consummated that marriage or as yet living together. When Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant, he can only conclude that she has been unfaithful to him. And we can imagine the pain, shame, and sense of betrayal that any of us would have felt at such a devastating revelation.
Joseph is faced with two options. He could either publicly declare his injury, in which case Mary would likely have been stoned, or he could divorce her- dismiss her  quietly. He chooses at first to dismiss her.
Now imagine Mary-the unexpected pain her pregnancy caused and, given the likely consequences,  having great cause for concern for herself. 
It takes a visit from an angel to calm all this down and orient Joseph to God’s intentions. Angels usually get involved in the biblical story only when heavy-lifting is involved. Joseph responds to the angel and yet I think it’s safe to say that the months leading up to Christ’s birth was not one blissful baby-shower after another but were fraught with anxiety and concern and emotion. And they have no idea what the future holds. Just as we ourselves often feel.  Neither Mary nor Joseph could’ve anticipated the fullness of their child’s life, much less its enduring power in our own lives. 
And yet that child changed the future for us all. 
The human hopes and fears met in Bethlehem’s manger were more than we  could’ve imagined- what God was accomplishing—would accomplish— much less how and in whom.
The gospel calls us to  lean into our faith unafraid of our truth and steadfast in trust in our God with us. To let go our own fantasies of a future of our own desires and designs. To open a space ready to receive God’s surprise, the life promised us. 
We’ve no idea what awaits us in the darkness of that scary not knowing, and yet the light of Advent shines. 
So we take our places with Joseph and Mary at the center of that wearying trip-
A trip of burden and uncertainty, where we journey to find ourselves at a stable, staring into the face of a baby whose future is as unknown as every child’s.” (Portaro)
We have – each of us – experienced similar upheavals, weariness and burdens. Times when we are struggling to hold it all together even harder while at church. 
What we’re called to, what we come to, in this and every Advent is the wonder Is that it is into THIS WORLD a new life is being born. 
And we hold fast to the assurance of that “God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” 
We come to see the “Emmanuel” of Matthew and Isaiah- “God with us.”  “God REALLY with us.” 
God coming to be with us as we are. 
Not as we know we should be, or are trying to be, or have promised to be, or will be some day, but with us as we are now…today…in this moment. Still. 
And the promise is that as God came before to be with, use, accept, and hallow Joseph and Mary at the birth of Christ, so also God comes to us in Christ to be with us, use us for good, accept us as we are, and hallow us. Still. 
As we prepare to journey to the manger this year- this is what we can celebrate
God is really with us. 
God is with us, really and truly as we are. 
Christ  is our Emmanuel. So Come Lord Jesus, Come Emmanuel, we pray. Come again and always. And however you find us, and however thin it seems, we Rejoice to be here. (Lose)

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Freedom and Love

Today we observed Veterans Day in a long standing tradition of the parish to host the Hazleton Liberty Band, playing and Armed Forces Salute, America the Beautfiul and more. This band dates back to the time of the Civil War and in fact played at the surrender at Appamattox. We had worship that included folks bringing pictures of veterans. And special lessons-
Our lessons were from Deuteronomy 10:12-14, 17-31, Psalm 46, Galatians 5:13-18 and the Gospel of Luke 21:5-19. Portions of our liturgy came from the Armed Services Prayerbook and other resources from the ELCA and some self created.
Our bulletin opened with these words:
When we assemble for worship, it is as citizens of God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ. We gather
as those who give thanks first for our freedom in Christ. We also are grateful for freedoms
won and secured by those who have served and are serving for bring peace in the world. As
Lutherans we celebrate that we are each given a vocation, a calling, to serve the gospel.
Today we give thanks for veterans- those who have been called to serve in the military, and
for their families. We also give thanks that God is our refuge and strength and we remember
that our God calls us to continue to work for peace in our world and to care for those in any need.

Here is my message:
You’d be hard pressed to find people who have a greater understanding of “God is our refuge and strength” than our veterans. Through crisis, disaster and separation from home and loved ones. Through morally and physically challenging missions,  the sacrifice of time, and more often than we’d like, sacrifices of physical and emotional wellbeing. Our veterans and families know it well. The cost of freedom is high. Today we remember those who have served, living and in the church triumphant. I remember the service of my Father and uncle Jack during the Cold War era. Dad was in the Army and Jack was in the Marines, so probably a little rivalry there. My Dad served in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. They had taught him Russian and he listened to Soviet transmissions in to see what the Russians were up to- 12 hours on and 12 off. Lots of coffee and cigarettes while you worked and maybe some beverages to power down. Out there at the end of our country on an island. Friday I was standing at the World War II memorial in Sybertsville, and saw the names of members of this congregation, and all of Helen Roth’s work for the adding of names. I thought of all here who served. Michael’s uncles served in World War II.  Like Henry, who was “D Day plus 4.” He never spoke of it. Came home, married, had a family, went to work and never spoke of what he undoubtedly saw. But when he went down to the basement to listen to the Phillies, you let him go. He was still fighting the war.

Long before our wars abroad, there was a different war in this country. Michael and I both have relatives that fought. On different sides. And a couple fell in love, across different sides. Northerners fighting for the Union married Southerners. Imagine that.

Our Civil War was not only a time of  sacrifice but  the challenge of being country. Friends and family were on both sides of those fighting and those at home. The songs we play and sing as our national story, are stories of  bravery, and service, but also what it means to be free. Scripture tells us that the truest expressions of freedom are expressions of love, even when doing so is absolutely against other feelings or interest, and even one’s own safety.

During the Civil War, following a battle, two Confederate soldiers were carrying a wounded friend through the darkness when they were challenged by a sentry who demanded identification. "We are two men of the Twelfth Georgia, carrying a wounded comrade to the hospital," they shouted back, only to learn they had accidentally crossed into Federal lines. To their surprise, they heard,"Go to your right,"directing the men back toward the Southern lines. "Man, you’ve got a heart in you," they hollered back.

Countless episodes of enemy soldiers helping each other occurred. In 1864, a ground fire threatened wounded Northern soldiers lying between the lines – until a Confederate officer stood up, exposing himself to enemy fire, and shouted, "We won’t fire a gun until you get them away." An impromptu cease-fire followed while Federal troops removed their wounded.

Our friends with the Liberty Band today, ( a group which dates back to the Civil War and played at the surrender at Appomattox) will appreciate that when the opposing lines were close enough, and the shooting had temporarily stopped, army musicians sometimes engaged in battles of the bands. Near Fredericksburg, Southern soldiers listened admiringly to a Northern band performance during the winter of 1862. When it concluded, a Johnny Reb called out, "Now give us some of ours" – and the Yankee band obliged with a rendition of "Dixie." When the band concluded, soldiers from both sides broke into a melancholy chorus of "Home, Sweet Home."

One man wrote, that they concluded, that the war was the real enemy, and not each other.
“My friend, the enemy,” was a phrase veterans of the war came to call each other at places like Gettysburg where they gathered and remembered – with the understanding that, Northern or Southern, they were Americans all. And all free.
All free.
The gaping wounds of conflict take long to heal, we know, but those who have faced battle head on know best how important it is that we do so. Freedom is precious. And for all of us, God desires we know freedom.
Paul writes “You all are chosen for freedom.” “For freedom Christ has freed us. Stand fast.”

Stand fast.
Don’t let yourself be shackled to the ideas that rob us of that freedom.
You are freed from the results that are the consequence of life lived apart from God.
And Paul urges us to see others not as rivals but as children of God.
No matter who we are, we are freed children of God
Because Jesus has set us free to love.
How do we live as the free?
Love is the answer.
But in truth, it’s an answer with many questions.

This day we lift up those who shown us love, because they have answered the call, the vocation, the work of serving in our military in war and in peace to protect our freedom. Our military personnel past and present carry out the calling of freedom. And we who are free are called to love. How do we love them? Our songs are great, but is in more.

We who are free can love by being as dedicated to serving our military personnel and their families when they come home as we are dedicated to sending them to serve.
To provide real access to care for those who are wounded. To provide for the needs of military chaplains who show God’s love to those in active service. And for those who come home fractured and still fighting the trauma and stress, we must support, lobby for and and fund the resources to give our men and women the chance to know freedom from their challenges and to be able to receive the mental health and substance abuse support they need for wholeness. We cannot meet sacrificial living on their part with empty promises on ours. We simply cannot.

Paul writes, we are called into a freedom that mirrors God’s life- dedicated to serving others in love.
God’s vision is that the human way of being- is love.
True freedom is expressed in love.
This is not as an ideal or a virtue. Love is care for others expressed in concrete acts of unselfishness. Freedom and love have a cost that we are called to share.
Our faith working through love means not living for oneself.
We cannot allow ourselves to say that our budgets don’t allow for more dollars for our veterans and their families. We must challenge this limit upon love. We must be prepared to meet sacrifice with sacrifice.

And we must expect more from ourselves as a society when we speak and act as the free.  Some imagine that freedom is the freedom to live out whatever we desire, to say whatever we want, to do whatever we want, to know no limits or controls. Lately and on all sides, this living without a filter has led to hateful speech and actions that are a misuse of freedom. When we are using our will in opposition to liberation of the human spirit of others, we misunderstand freedom.
Freedom in this sense leads to the enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions and envy Paul warns against in Galatians. Sound familiar?
We try to shape a world of self interest, and it is tempting to buy into the notion of counteracting this with a different expression of “now I want MY way.”
This is why Paul will go on in Galatians to urge we remember the fruits of the Spirit, and perhaps most of all, self control.

The gifts of self control and other fruits of the Spirit are not laws but characteristics.
The fruits of the Holy Spirit are what God gives us to help us balance many questions we have as we try to live as a community of those who are free and those called to love. God in Christ continues to love and free us in the work of the cross and to guide and empower us to live out freedom and love.

Sisters and brothers there is much before us as we ponder how to be free together. How to love one another.
Paul tells us “Keep walking in the Spirit.”

May we avail ourselves of God’s gift in Christ and the fruit of the Spirit, not tapping into the feel good now, consequences be damned response. We must resist threats from within and without that encourage us to flaunt what we think is freedom but will lead to what the world looks like when we ignore the calling and nature God has given us.

May we continue to give thanks to God for all who secure our freedoms. If we truly want to honor their legacy and God’s freedom given,  may we rest in the freedom that God’s love in Christ is our true refuge and strength and respond to others in love.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Extra Step of Mercy

At events like this one, Nancy was known for her Famous Chipped Ham and Cheese Ball. She didn’t share the recipe and she certainly didn’t just make it for anyone. When I showed up as the new pastor, Nancy had only known me for mere weeks before my ordination which was being held at the church with a reception to follow. And it was a great thing I know when the church secretary gleefully announced that Nancy decided to make her Famous Chipped Ham and Cheese Ball for my reception. I thought there might be a little overselling about this cheese ball, but more importantly, she was taking this step for me, someone who was still a stranger, who was “not from here” and we all know what that means. And after all, I was a new pastor and you never know what you’re going to get. How could she be sure she would want to do this? If she thought it through, she might change her mind. But Nancy, not known for being spontaneous, took that extra step believing we shared something. The extra step.

That’s what Jesus is talking about when he’s asked what someone has to do to be saved, to have life. Of course we know the answer-we know the words: Love God ( say it with me) with all your Heart, and Soul and Mind and Strength. And Love Your Neighbor -As Yourself. We know the words.
But right away comes the question- the limit, the least common denominator- well, who exactly do you mean when you say “Neighbor,” Jesus?
It’s the question of low expectations.
Rather than answer, Jesus opens, as he often does, with a story.
One we know well. About the man who is attacked and left for dead in a ditch. And how two, possible of “his own,”  two people just like him, see him… And Pass on by.
Choosing to not get involved, not get dirty. They’d rather not. They pass on by.
But someone no one expected, stopped-The Samaritan. Who is called “Good” In our telling ( not Jesus’). Called “Good” because the audience of the victim never thought anything good about Samaritans. And this belief had formed over centuries, of land grabbing, and punishment, and violence and mistrust, and slurs lived out. And arguing over who worshipped God correctly. And well, more hatred than we have time for today. Yet THIS man, the Samaritan- he didn’t honor the least common denominator, he didn’t fulfill the low expectation.

He saw a need for healing and help and he had compassion.
More than pity- deep in his gut he was moved- his heart was touched.
And he showed mercy.
Mercy is the extra step.
It’s the step that turns that word “love” into real life.
He took that extra step, or probably a few, over to the ditch, and stooped down to meet the man, not just see from a distance.
Then he took the extra steps to walk back to his donkey and get his wine and oil, to cleanse the wounds and begin the healing.
And he probably took the steps to perhaps tear his own clothing to bandage the man’s wounds.
He took more, probably heavy steps, to heave the man, that felt like deadweight, onto the donkey. The donkey that was helping him get where he needed to go easily and quickly. He had somewhere else to go.
But now all those extra steps to walk alongside that donkey carrying the man, to the inn.
And the extra steps to carry the man into the inn, and up the stairs to sleep.
He took the extra steps to reach into his money bag and give the coins to the innkeeper, money destined for his own family. The family who later probably asked him- you did what? For who? Why?
That was our money you gave away!
I imagine him trudging back up to stay with the man and watch all night.
And the next day he promised even more steps- to come back and pay whatever it took.
All those steps- concrete acts of compassion-showed mercy and love without conditions.
Mercy is what can heal and give life beyond mere words.
By the end of the story, Jesus has flipped the man’s question – it is not about “who is my neighbor.
Jesus’ question asks- which man BECAME a neighbor?
Who lived into being a neighbor? With more than words
This is the question of what to expect of love with real flesh and bones.
It’s the question that has the power to shape our lives together in all our relationships.
And it's the question that demands an answer the headline of our paper yesterday read “DO ANY LIVES MATTER?”
And when CNN asks- HOW WILL WE HEAL?

It won’t happen with just more words or some new program.
It takes more than that and more than just us continuing on our way.
Christ is our example. He traveled all the steps it took to save us and give us life. In all the places where left to our own devices, we’d be in ditches of our own devising. All the places where we pass on by because we’d rather not see, places of mistrust. Places where we are fractured and need of healing. There is not a heart unbroken lately.
Christ came to save all of this and we don’t earn this life- all we can do it receive it. Receive God’s mercy like the man in the ditch and give thanks that it is for us. And be so grateful that we can think of nothing else to do but share God’s limitless love.
By making it real.
By something as simple as really seeing someone and reaching out. Or by seeing someone reaching out to us and receiving them.
We’re called to be a part of the unexpected grace not low expectations.
So I invite you to do something unexpected. Please stand as you are able and reach out both hands. Now make an effort to reach someone with your left hand and your right hand. Until everyone is holding every other hand. And not one hand is reaching out, empty.
 As long as it takes and as many steps as it needs.
NOW…now we have become neighbors. Keep holding on. This feels different!
Even in small unexpected moments we can more truly become neighbors.
Henri Nouwen wrote-
“Those who choose, even on a small scale,
To love in the midst of hatred and fear
Are the people who offer hope to our world.”
God’s love and mercy are hope for the world
Shown in even one extra step.
Sometimes we are reaching, and sometimes we are receiving
Both are part of truly being neighbors.
Recognizing what others have to give is just as important.
Recognizing that lives matter. AND that healing is not only necessary, it is achievable-
When we reach beyond ourselves. In mercy.
We must take these steps believing we share something.
Because we do- we are all children of God.
Now more than ever, our lives together must be truly lived together
In the belief that in Christ there is hope for God’s world.
We CAN truly become neighbors- let us no longer allow anyone to undersell the power of Christ in this.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Of Snowstorms and Communion and Being the Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's a bread and milk snow frenzy meme:

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Wow, Jesus Was Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Let's Not Contain This

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

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

The Sermon-“Let’s Not Contain This”

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