Sunday, December 18, 2011

Joseph Finch

Matthew 1: 18-25

You know, he didn’t have to.

From everything we have in the Bible, and little enough it is, Joseph didn’t have to stick around. Until he was visited by the angel, Joseph was going to do what any man of that time would do, when presented with the fact that the woman he was engaged to be married to, a marriage that was probably arranged, or at least strongly approved of my both families, was pregnant. He was even expecting to do it in a very tasteful way, not by dragging her into the square and condemning her publicly. He was just going to quietly “dismiss” her.

Then an angel shows up. Well, not in the way that an angel shows up for Mary, but for Joseph, the angel shows up in a dream. “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, the angel says, because she’s been given this special job, the baby is no ordinary baby, but she’s going to need support.

Remember, we talk about how Mary was a teenager.

In those days, life was different; people grew up faster, and lived a lot shorter than we do now. Teenager in the sense we understand it now was a lot different than then. When you turned twelve or thirteen back then, you weren’t just considered an adult as a rite of passage, you really were an adult. You’d only live till your forties or fifties anyway. But thirteen is still thirteen, whether society understands adolescence ending at thirteen, or whether it ends at thirty, which it seems to do these days.

When you combine that with the much reduced role women had in society compared with our day, the reality of that, then as now, is that Mary was going to need help, protection, care, and everything else as a new mother. I am not sure where we get the idea the Joseph was significantly older than she was, and frankly, I don’t think it matters. Mary was about to have a baby before she was married. To do it as a single mom would have been impossible in that society,

Plus there’s the thing that is needed, so much so that both Luke and Matthew make it a priority to name-the baby, the son of God, God with us, has to come out of the line of David. Matthew spends almost all of chapter 1 covering the genealogy of Joseph, and Luke makes sure we know that Joseph’s proper census place isn’t Nazareth, where he lives, but Bethlehem, which is the ancient seat of his family, the family of David.

Joseph accepts the angel’s authority, and does not dismiss Mary, but stays with her to give the baby safety, support, and most importantly for the gospel writers, his name.

When we think about manhood these days, there are a lot of images that pull at us. There’s the old John Wayne image, where the man acts on behalf of a code, and moves about untethered by attachments to community, romance or duty. He has his own code, and his sense of right and wrong are often simple and starkly defined.

We have about us as well the image of a man as the supreme shark, and the mark of a man’s virility is how much money he can make or how successful he is on a field, pitch, court or course, how ruthless he can be in pursuit of his goals, and his leadership is the kind of leadership that keeps score. When he wins, you lose, and that’s the way it is supposed to be.

Joseph, holds up for us another style of manhood, one that we don’t see often, but in comparison I often compare to the character of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Here is a man who is a leader in the community, and is known for his wisdom and his gentleness, his attention to duty and his competency, as well as his ability to stand for what is right and wrong.

We don’t know about Joseph other than these two short passages in the beginning of only two gospels. There is no birth story in John, or in Mark. Joseph doesn’t appear again after Jesus going missing when he’s twelve, the story of them finding him listening and talking in temple. Joseph is not present at the crucifixion, as Mary is. It seems Joseph’s importance was primarily to be Jesus’ protector, which includes taking him to Egypt when Herod commands that all boy babies in Galilee under the age of two be killed.

That and to make sure that Jesus is adopted into the line of David.

Here’s to all the men who do the right thing, like Joseph. Who listen to the angels and to God, and sometimes do what isn’t expected, but act in the name of love and devotion. Who, in an age where God is foreign to so many, recognize that the approval of society is sometimes not the best way to go, especially when God calls on you to do something else.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pink Candle

Luke 1: 47-55

Some advent candle sets are just four purple candles. Some, in an effort to separate Advent from its sister season, Lent, have changed to blue candles and paraments. But most traditional Advent wreaths have three purple candles, and one pink one. The pink one is lit on the Third Sunday, and it is there so that, in the rush to get to Christmas, we stop even for a minute and remember the one who gave birth to Jesus.

This Sunday is the Sunday of Mary. Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Mary the unwed, minority teenage mother, the one who said yes, knowing what it would do to her standing in the community. In the short term.

Mary didn’t have to do what she did. When Gabriel visits her, he doesn’t say “and now you will be impregnated by God”, and boom, it happened; No. We serve a God who asks first, even though God doesn’t have to. God has the power to do what God wants, and even has the power to make us like it, but that’s not how God works. God asks. God wants us to choose service, not be made into slaves. Adam and Eve were created to be a companion to God, not a toy, and God has been acting as if it will come true ever since. God has faith in us, and in Mary, his faith is justified. She says “Here am I, Lord.”

In the Protestant Bible, there is a gap of about 400 years between the last prophet, Malachi, and the beginning of the Gospel story. Other Bibles are a little different, but not much. I don’t know whether God had gone completely silent (which I doubt), the voices and writings of the prophets of those middle years are lost, or were somehow deemed to be not worthy of being made into scripture.

But something changed. The last voices we hear are of Nehemiah, and all of the prophets, which all seem to have come about roughly the same time, and around the building and completion of the Temple and the city walls of Jerusalem. To the people of God then, perhaps the last act of God was the restoration of the Temple, and the temple cult. Indeed, for any story teller, that would indeed be a great and happy ending to the story.

But human life is not tie-able into neat bows, is it? The end of the story is not the end of human existence. Even in the texts we have, the people are already showing signs of faltering, falling short of the promises they made to Ezra at the rededication of the Temple, the public reading of the Scriptures of God.

As the story ends, Jerusalem is re-inhabited by the people of God, under the care and watchful eye of the Persian Empire.

But yet, 400 years later, when the Gospels open, Jerusalem and the Temple are now subject to the rule of the Roman Empire, not the Persian. Persian officials seeking the re-flowering of the Jewish culture under caring and interested Jews like Ezra and Nehemiah, and called to account by various prophets, are replaced by soldiers and tax collectors. That story of history is far too long to be covered here, but what was once thriving and focused on God is now, 400 years later, silent and occupied (and not in a good way!).

This is the climate that first hears a voice crying in the wilderness, which is as much a spiritual wilderness as it is John living and baptizing out in the boondocks.

When God acts, in God’s time, God does so in God’s own way. God does not act to take his land back from the Romans, land is not God’s concern. God acts to call God’s people back.

And who does God use to begin that calling? A crazy hermit in the desert and an unwed, minority teenage mother. If these two kinds of people were who God used to call us back, I’m afraid of how many of us would fail to hear that call.

Michael Slaughter, who is pastor of a very successful congregation in Ohio, wrote this week that God chose an adolescent girl to give birth to the Message of Love because she had a proactive faith. Mary said yes, when she didn’t have to. I think what he means is that she was open to whatever it was that God would have planned, and to God’s purpose.

I could ask here what you think God’s purpose is for your life, but I think that would be a mistake. We all know God’s purpose for our lives. Whatever our choices, whatever our situations, whatever our responsibilities, it is simply stated, and often over-thought. We lose the forest for the trees. God’s purpose for our lives is to show and teach and live the love of God in the world. To give birth to it every day, in a sense. To say yes to God, to carry the love of God, to give birth to God, to give the love of God to the world.

That is the call on our lives. It’s that simple. To do what Mary did. To say yes to God, and to care for the love of God within us, nurturing it, feeding it, protecting it, until it bursts forth into the world, and it is our responsibility, like a good parent, to let it go freely into the world. And to do it again. And again.

This is why we have a pink candle in our advent wreath. To remind us of the unwed, minority teenage mother who gave birth to the Love of God, and raised that Love to be given freely to the world.

And to remind us that we can, too.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Lament of the Weary and the Wounded

Mark 1: 1-8

Consider me in the lineage of Ebenezer Scrooge. He is my spiritual brother, my role model, my Polaris. He signifies every thing I feel at the beginning of Advent. Christmas is a season of unmitigated consumerism, egged on by the vast multinational corporations that seem to rule our lives. Even the ones I like, such as Barnes and Noble and Starbucks, have special items and events that they wait for Christmas to release on the public-a full third of the Barnes and Noble store up at the Arana Hub has been given over to games and puzzles, and the Christianity and Spirituality sections have been folded into the self help and “relationships”.

Bah Humbug.

And the church? Humph. Everyone wants to talk about the coming of Christ, and that Advent is the time of waiting and Expectation. Waiting for what? For the son of God, they say. Well, I’m kinda sure that he was born about 2011 years ago. What are we waiting for? It’s a metaphor that just isn’t working for me at all. I’m not waiting. I just don’t have the time to wait. Waiting for something that has already come? Foolishness.

Heaven help me.

Then there are those people who insist of keeping Christ in Christmas. Somehow, the month of December is to be completely reserved for those who claim Christ as their lord and savior, as if the rest of the world has no right to celebrate their own traditions. Or, maybe they can, but just not here in America, thank you very much. In America, no matter what the Constitution says, you really shouldn’t acknowledge that you might not celebrate Christmas, and the neighborly thing to say when you really don’t know someone, Happy Holidays, is somehow offensive to people who seem to be properly insulted by the creeping consumerism we all live with. Right intent, wrong action. Right ammo, wrong deer.

For many of us, this time of year is not a time of gladness, and it is not a time of joyful tidings. It brings up old pains, and fresh wounds, just now beginning to scab over, feel like they get opened afresh, just a little bit. We remember people we love who aren’t with us, for whatever reason; they live too far away from us to see often, and regular contact has fallen off. Some people are separated by some of fight or resentment, and they may live close to each other, but haven’t talked to each other for years. Some miss loved ones who have died, whether it be recently or years ago.

This poem, by Ann Weems, sums it up well:
In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,
there is a deafening alleluia
rising from the souls of those who weep,
and of those who weep with those who weep.
If you watch, you will see
the hand of God
putting the stars back in their skies
one by one
Yesterday’s Pain
Some of us walk in Advent
tethered to our unresolved yesterdays
the pain still stabbing
the hurt still throbbing.
It’s not that we don’t know better;
it’s just that we can’t stand up anymore by ourselves.
On the way of Bethlehem, will you give us a hand?
--Ann Weems

Will you give us a hand? Lord, Who is our creator, will you send your love to us, so that we may feel you with us? Help us to climb out of this mire of rampant consumerism? Of lines at the Walmart that form at 9:00 on Thanksgiving night? Of people pepper spraying others to eliminate them from competition for the perfect toy? Of stores playing Christmas music the day after Halloween?

Will You give us a hand? Lord, who is our sustainer by the Holy Spirit, would you send your love to us, so that we might be able to love our neighbor? That we might find it in our hearts to wish all of those around us well, even those who do not believe as we do? Help us Lord, to be more secure in your love, so that we are not threatened by the beliefs of others, and that we might be people of good will to all, whether they celebrate Hanukah or Ashura?

Will you give us a hand? Lord, who is our redeemer in the person of Jesus Christ, will you send your love to us, so that we might be able to relieve the pain this season gives us? That we might be able to concentrate on the joy that the memories of those we love give us, and not focus so much on the pain of their departure, or separation from us?

Will you give us a hand? Lord, who is our Lord, will you send your love to us?

Will you send your love to us?


You already have. Two Thousand and eleven years ago. And the sending of your love is what we celebrate every year at this time.

God sent us God’s love in Jesus Christ. Through Christ, as an adult, and even in the circumstances of his birth, God showed his love for all people. From every other baby who ever was laid in a stinky, flea ridden, cold manger because their parents couldn’t afford decent lodgings, all the way up to babies with silver spoons.

God loved us so much that god sent his son. God did send a hand.
God did send God’s love.

Lord, help us find it again. Lord, help me find it again.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Oh, Yeah, That IS What He Said...

Preached in the Center Moreland Charge on Nov. 20, 2011

Matthew 25: 31-46

This morning’s gospel reading may seem familiar to some of us. But it may also be new to some of us.

This scripture is traditionally read on this Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Sunday before the first Sunday of Advent. It is the last teaching he gives to the people, to his disciples. Matthew’s version has it happening two days before the Passover, and the authorities have started plotting, He goes to Bethany, and is anointed by “a woman”, who is unnamed in Mathew’s version. He calls it his anointing for burial. Judas makes his agreement. The Passover with his disciples occurs, within which he institutes the Lord’s Supper. He goes to the garden of Gethsemane, and then is arrested.

These words today are, in Matthew, the last things he teaches to his people. And what does he teach? God’s judgment is coming, and you won’t know what you’re going to be judged by. The righteous won’t make it, and the rich will have plenty of problems, no matter how much they donate to the faith.

You won’t know, because you judge on the wrong things. Your synagogue attendance doesn’t matter. The volume of your prayers is irrelevant. How loud you wail at a funeral isn’t going to change the balance.

Instead, you will be judged on your generosity, rich or poor, and not just your material generosity. You will be judged on your generosity of heart. Your patience with people, your conduct when you disagree with someone, whether you stay engaged and mature of huff off when you don’t get your way.

What he is saying, as his last statement is this: if you want to know about my Kingdom, the one that is coming, listen to how the path to salvation is to be structured; by helping, be assisting; by serving. You’ll never know when you might run across someone who will actually be Jesus, so you must treat everyone like Jesus. Everyone.

And here is the irony, or the design: if you treat everyone like Jesus, then everyone will see Jesus in your actions.

Your way to the Lord has been mapped out- it is not in power accrued, but in power given away. Not in accumulation, but in generosity.

According to Toys R Us, it was Christmas A week before Thanksgiving. Joe and I went into the store up on Kidder Street this week to buy a birthday present for his cousin, my nephew. And the music we walked in on was that song by John Lennon and Yoko Ono called War is Over, which is a song you ONLY hear at Christmas.

So, since it is Christmas, let me remind you about the story by Charles Dickens. The point of the story, the visits of all the ghosts, and Scrooge’s change of heart on Christmas morning is to move him to a greater heart, a more generous spirit. The Grinch learns the same lesson.

It’s an enlightenment that these characters achieve, a realization, an a-ha moment. In Ephesians, Paul writes about an enlightenment of the eyes of the heart. With an enlightened heart, we understand that the riches are in the inheritance we have received, to become one of the saints of God. That inheritance gives us the hope that God wishes on us all, the awareness of God’s power. Scrooge and the Grinch, it might be said, both become enlightened when they realize that true power lies not in money and the keeping and hoarding of it, not (in the Grinch’s case) the baubles, the trees, the tinsel, and the roast beast, but instead in the generosity and the spirit. The kids playing in the street in front of Scrooge’s house, the Whos in Whoville standing around the last tree, the one in the square, singing.

There’s a power in having the enlightenment of knowing your place in this world, your inheritance as one of God’s children, the hope that comes from knowing you are a child of God. You are not so important that you must solve all the problems of society- your money will only go so far, your physical energy will only keep you working for so many hours, and then you need rest. Then you need to recharge. Then you need to move over and let someone else work. We are just not important in that way. We are not indispensable.

But neither are we irrelevant.

T many of the people of Jerusalem, This is the last public thing that Jesus says. The next time they see him in public, two or three days later, he is being beaten and being prepared for crucifixion. Maybe a privileged few would see him on trial, but all he says there is that “from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

When most people see him again, they are screaming for his blood.

They are shouting for his death because of his preaching the kingdom of God, and threatening the powers of earth. For teaching love and generosity. In Matthew, Jesus’ last words to them are that they will be judged by God for their spirit and their generosity.

Do you think they might have had the words “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me…” ringing in their ears as they call out of his crucifixion?

May those words ring in your ears this week, and this season of Christmas. And may you heed them better than the first people who heard it.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Matthew 25: 14-30

Speaking literally, a talent is 15 years’ worth of a laborers’ daily wage, according to several sources. So, let’s begin with a little math. Imagine your current monthly income from work, or your monthly social Security check. Lert’s choose a nice round number: $2500 a month. Multiply that by 12, giving you your year’s income: that’s $30,000, and then multiply that by 15. $450,000. That’s one talent.

It’s a pretty big chunk of money, no matter what you start with.

This is the amount of money that the third servant starts with. The second servant starts with twice that amount, or $900,000, and the first servant starts with five times that amount, or $2,250,000. Jesus is making a point here, in his way of telling parables that get your attention: his hearers would be blown away with the amounts of money he’s using, and what’s really interesting, is that the audience is thinking that the third guy is the prudent one.

Think about it-if you were given fifteen times your yearly income in one check, what would you do with it?

Pay bills, right? Maybe buy a treat or two for the ones you love? Get a decent piece of land and build a house? Buy a new car, or pay for your kids or grandkids to go to college, if they’re so inclined? And of course, invest most of it.

Problem is, at the end of the parable, this money isn’t given to the servants to be used for their own needs. Apparently this huge amount was given to them so that they would be useful with it.

What is true about all of that is that you would be taking that money and exposing it to some sort of risk, wouldn’t you?

Which is why it is so fantastic that the first and second servants both double the amount of money they are given. Imagine thirty times your yearly wage. That’s how much they give back. But that involved quite a bit of risk, and as they are returning the money they were given, the implication is that they were not to keep it.

So, that being true, this is why the third servant may have been seen as the prudent one. He did not submit that money to any risk at all, and returned it whole to the master.

Shockingly, however, he’s the one who failed.

Speaking literally, then, Jesus is saying that the talents we are given are not to be kept safe, but to be used for the glory of the kingdom.

Now, we all have talents. I know that there are some of you who say that you really don’t have anything to give to the kingdom, you just want to live your simple life, keep things uncomplicated, come to church, go to work, see family and friends, volunteer, and not get involved in the pain of the world.

Speaking metaphorically, however, Jesus tells this story in order that we might now just how highly the Kingdom of God values our talents. Not the money we make, not just that. But God sees what he has given us as talents, gifts, and graces, the things we do well, as equal to the wealth of fifteen years of wages in one check.

And in the story, the one guy who plays it safe with his talents is the one who is punished.

So, frankly, the lesson is this; not giving of yourself to the church and the world is a punishable offense. Gently put, it is a sin.

This is what Jesus is teaching. We are put onto this earth to risk. We are put onto this earth to find out what we do well, to nurture it so we can then do it better, then put it in service to the world. Staying home with our talents is how we find out what weeping and gnashing of teeth means.

Sometimes we don’t even know what it is that we are good at. We’ve spent lives of comfort and fear, not venturing out of our comfortable houses, relationships, things we’ve always known, people we’ve always known. Perhaps for some of us the last risk we took was the person we married. Perhaps the last risk we took was the house we bought.

As the people of God, we are called to risk more. We are called to risk everything. We are called to be, as Martin Luther called us, little Christs.

Thomas Merton said that often, what the desire of our hearts is, the thing that we idly daydream about when we think of serving God, when we think about the world’s needs, that thing we see ourselves doing is what we are really called to do. God has placed his call on our hearts before we have even begun to think of it.

What is that idle daydream for you?

Go and invest your talents, as God has sent you to do.

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Undiscovered Country

1 John 3: 1-3

It has been a struggle to formulate this message, this week. An All Saints’ sermon is never easy, because so much of what we want to talk about is unknown. Most weeks, we can talk about a parable, or a story from the Hebrew testament, and it’s often true that what happened to them in the story is relatable to us in our time and place. But how do we relate our lives to death and loss? We are, some of us, able to reach into feelings of loss, but none of us truly know what death feels like. It is unrelatable. It is, to quote Shakespeare by way of Star Trek, “The Undiscovered Country”.

I have to think that the author of 1 John does not know what death feels like, either, and what happens after we die, not from a first hand account. His or her writings might be inspired, but they are still suppositions, they are still approximations, they are still guesses. They are honest about that, too. “What we will be has not yet been revealed.”

But I’d like to think they are good guesses. They are based solidly in the faith they were building about 60 years after Jesus’ death, and our belief now, 2000 years later, are informed and built on what they wrote.

I want to believe what they wrote because what they say is that after we die, we become like Jesus. A lifetime of seeking after Jesus’ image, a lifetime of imitating Christ, becomes fulfilled in death. “We will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

For those of us who have suffered the loss of a loved one in death, this is comforting, because this means that the people we have lost have gone on to greater things-they have indeed finished the race.

I have a friend who just ran a marathon two weeks ago, and it brought back to me the goals of running, which I am trying to get back to myself. Those people who run marathons, the vast majority of them anyway, find that the challenge of the marathon is not to come in first, but to finish. They also hope to finish well, in form, and with a decent personal time. It is a personal challenge, a test of strength and discipline, but it is hardly ever a race in which the goal is to finish faster than everyone else.

A life disciplined in God, is the same-we want to be able to run well, we do not need to be the best. We do not need to run perfectly. We can see perfection, we know the goal, but we forgive ourselves for not reaching that goal, and push on doing the best we can. We just want to finish.
We all can remember aspects of our loved ones that approximated Jesus while they lived: caring, kindness, hospitality, self-sacrifice, courage, bravery, wisdom, strength. These aspects of Christ are the ways they ran the race of life with good form. We have our own aspects of Jesus, too. They are harder to see sometimes, because we are still running the race. We are still living.

1 John tells us that in death, our loved ones have become like Christ because they are able to see Christ. Whatever else heaven may be, cherubs playing harps on clouds, or some sort of pearly gate with a lectern out front, or whatever, heaven is the place where we see Jesus clearly. We see God “not through a glass darkly”, but clearly. And the aspects of those people that we miss that resembled Jesus now are highlighted, and the rest have grown. They have become even better images of themselves than they were here. Their beauty is magnified. The pain they felt on earth is taken from them, and though they may still carry scars, though Jesus may still carry his scars, their internal beauty, their physical beauty has become perfect in God’s love.

Once a year, we take the time to remember and recognize as a congregation the ones among us who have died during the past year. We also take the time to remember all of those people who have died in past year in our lives, and we naturally wonder where they are now, what it looks like, what they’re doing. We wonder if they are, now. We don’t know. But our faith tells us that they are in God, and with Christ. That, in the end, has to be enough. We have that hope, and as the author of 1 John says, all who have this hope purify themselves, just as Jesus is pure. Our hope of being with God after death purifies us, and in living life in that hope, we become more like Christ while living.

We begin to wear the clothes and sing the songs of that undiscovered country, even though we’ve never seen it. And this makes us more like Christ.

May we always seek the things of that undiscovered country.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Yeah, But...

Matthew 22:34-46

Preached Sunday, October 23, 2011 in Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow United Methodist Churches

Sometimes I distrust the lectionary designers. I will grant that it must be quite a task to be able to fit four gospels, all of the epistles and the rest of the new testament, the Psalms, and about 60% of the Old testament into three years worth of Sundays, say about 156 Sundays, and have some set aside for 3 Christmases, 3 Advent seasons, 3 Lenten seasons, and 3 Easters. Frankly, they have done an excellent job of providing access to the breadth and depth of the Biblical witness, but…

Some Sundays I do wonder what they were thinking. Like this Sunday-what do these two stories possibly have in common? They seem like two completely different ideas, and somehow Matthew or the later editors have decided that they need to be put next to each other. Perhaps it would be better to just preach one of them.

And then I started reading the commentaries, and realized that there was a reason; there was an idea.

The first chunk is verses 34-40, and what has happened just before is that Jesus has answered the Sadducees’ questions so succinctly and cleverly that they are now silent. So, here come the Pharisees, looking both the get at Jesus, and show up their theological rivals. The representative guy asks Jesus which commandment is the greatest. He might be thinking about the Decalogue, the first ten laws that Moses brought down from the mountain, what we know as the Ten Commandments, or they may be asking him which of the 613 laws that are listed in Leviticus and Deuteronomy are the most important.

Jesus’ response doesn’t actually even come from the Ten Commandments, or the 613 laws; he answers them from the central prayer of belief for their culture, time and place, the one that Pharisees, Sadducees, Jesus and his followers, John the Baptist and his followers, and everybody up to Herod himself agrees to; The first and strongest thing we believe is that you shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Then he adds to it, And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

He has answered the question, and has even used the texts, Deuteronomy and Leviticus, that the Pharisees would have expected. But he has not chosen his favorite-he has summarized the whole law in a way that reminds them that they have perhaps missed the boat on the laws.

Next, he has a question for them. It’s a funny little puzzle, but gets to the point of the issue that both the Pharisees and the Sadducees have with this guy.
“Whose son is the messiah?” that’s easy for these guys. It’s like asking a Christian what the name of the Book is that we read from every week. They probably even hesitate a minute, thinking it is some sort of trick question. But here is only one right answer, that the messiah comes out of the line of one of their most heroic Kings, David.

“so,” he says, “in Psalm 110, which we all believe were written by King David” ( which he doesn’t say, but everybody listening knows), “ how come it says that our Lord God says to the Lord, the Messiah, come sit at my right hand? Why is the author of the Psalm calling one of his descendants, a great grand child maybe, his Lord. Why does he subordinate himself?

Now, Jesus could be making several points here, but what I think might be happening is that the Pharisees and Sadducees are feeling a little high and mighty in their time and place, and Jesus has reminded them that the guy they all say is coming is going to be a guy with the lineage they want, but even David acknowledges that the messiah will be greater than he. It must be that he is seeing these religious leaders looking to themselves for their spiritual leadership, to their interpretations of Scripture, to their own ideas as normative for their culture.

And Jesus is telling them, hard on the heels of synthesizing the whole of the law and the prophets through the prism of God’s love, that the messiah will be the best of them all, and will unify them in a way that their beliefs cannot maintain their divisions against.

He doesn’t explicitly claim that he is that Messiah. He doesn’t have to. This is Jerusalem during Passover week, it’s already in the air, these leaders are already aware, and they also know that he’s a Bethlehem boy, born in David’s line.

What is the lesson here for us? We Methodists who sit here on Sunday mornings, instead of down at the Baptists, or back in the woods in someone's barn, at some other church, find something in what we find here to keep us coming. But does that something get in the waqy of seeing God as for us all? Does that something block us from being able to see Jesus for Jesus’ sake, and everything else a matter of taste and style?

It’s a matter of cutting through the “yeah, buts.” I do not believe that Jesus saves us for all time merely by us being baptized once, and we can do no wrong after that. I don’t believe that salvation for God’s people lies in membership in the right group, having said the right words. But I can acknowledge that when the perspective is proper, these are both ways of discussion how we respond to God’s love, which is the point of church, I think. And we all respond to love in different ways, don’t we?

So, what are the “Yeah, buts” that keep you from truly, clearly, and simply saying that prayer from Deuteronomy? I will love the Lord with all my heart soul mind and strength? And what about the prayer from Leviticus: I will love my neighbor as myself?” As one commentator says, “Jesus is a faithful Jew, yet he bursts the bonds of custom that limited God’s concern to faithful Jews.” “Those who Love God must love all God’s creatures, even at great cost to themselves and their own privileges.”

What privileges, either earthly or spiritually, do you hold more dear than the love of God? These are your stumbling blocks. These are your “yeah, buts”.

May you learn some day to get rid of them all, and simply be in the love of God for all of the world.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Don't Be "That Guy"

Matthew 22: 1-14

A few years ago, I was invited to a wedding, two of my friends from the undergraduate Wesley Foundation I was a member of were getting married, and I had flown all the way back to DE from Texas to attend. But I had packed badly. I had forgotten a tie, and an undershirt, and the dress shirt I had at that time depended on an undershirt to not be rather see-thru. I had had a wonderful time with the group the night before, a regular mini-reunion, but when it came time for the wedding, I found myself ill-prepared for such an event. Because I couldn’t wear the dress shirt by itself, and there was no store near to the hotel to grab such items last minute, I ended up wearing a red plaid button-down shirt with an open collar.

I felt really self-conscious the whole time, especially around all the men who were wearing high class suits and women who were dressed to the nines. I would try to explain myself to everyone I met, because I felt so out of place. Yes, I was one of “those” guys. I’m sure I had sweat rings under my arms, my hair was too long and not brushed, and I had food in my teeth, and yet I spoke too loudly and laughed too loudly. If I didn’t literally do all that, that’s how out of place I felt. I did not have the proper wedding attire on, and I am thankful to this day that they did not cast me into the outer darkness of a hotel parking lot in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

There was a time in which God’s call to the world was heard in very separated ways. The Israelites were called to be God’s people, over and against the tribes that surrounded them. When Israel fell, first the north to the Assyrians and then the south to the Babylonians, it was seen as divine punishment for untold generations’ failure to follow the laws that God had send down on Sinai by Moses. And yet God kept relationship with them in their exile, and eventually Persia conquered both Assyria and Babylonia, and sent Israel back home.

So Israel tried to put things back together, and to be God’s people again in the land that God had given them. But it didn’t work, and God’s laws again became misused-over thought out, this time, which perhaps was understandable; perhaps in a response against making the same mistakes twice, disappointing god again. The laws soon had laws and they had laws, and once again, the people of God lost the thread.

So God sent Jesus, to give the laws flesh and blood. And the invitation to be in relationship with God was made to all, not just to those who had the law.

This is the meaning of the metaphor. That those who are so richly invited will sometimes take it for granted, and sometimes, even when everyone is invited, there are still going to be a few who don’t get it. They will do nothing with it, and it’s like they are dressed inappropriately for the poshest of wedding banquets.

There are dangers when you send out an invitation to everyone. You never know who you’re going to get. This last week, during the new documentary about prohibition by Ken Burns on PBS, they make mention of the fact that the hours after President Andrew Jackson was inaugurated in 1833, there were so many drunk people in the White House messing up the place (access was a lot freer then) that they booted everyone out of the house and onto the lawn, “so the furniture wouldn’t get messed up”.

But the invitation to relationship with God is addressed to all. The invitation is sent far and wide, both to people who know what to do with it, and those who don’t.

The thing is, we are invitees to the banquet. We are not the bouncers. We are not the doormen who run, as they say in the club scene, “the velvet rope”. We are just invited to come and be at the party, and to celebrate.

Think about a relationship with God. What would you want? How would you want to conduct that relationship? What would you do to be the best at it you could be? In other words, how would you dress?

Hopefully not in a red plaid shirt when everyone else is wearing suits.

God does not want our rules, our style, our politics, our opinions. God is not a Republican or a Democrat. God is somewhere both in the Occupy Wall Street folks and in the Tea Party.

God wants us to know God.
To pray.
To learn about God by reading the Bible and talking about it with others.
To be in a community.

Each time we seek God in fellowship, or prayer, or in mission and charity, we are learning about how to treat the rest of God’s people, and it is then that we are putting on the proper wedding clothes. The guy who didn’t wear the right clothes, didn’t pack his suitcase properly, even knowing he was going to a wedding for people he loved, in the posh part of town? He’s the guy who says he’s a believer in God, but doesn’t do anything about it, doesn’t work on it, doesn’t try to grow and learn. He’s “that guy.”
I invite you to not be “that guy.” Work on your relationship with God. Identify for yourself what your prayers, presents, gifts, service and witness are and do them to the best of your ability. Read your Bible and find ways to talk about what you read.

Put on the wedding clothes, so that you may enjoy the party without being self-conscious!

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Relationship Advice

Exodus 20:1-20

Most preachers, me included, come to the weeks that the Ten Commandments appear in the lectionary, that guided journey through Scripture, and groan. What new can we possibly say about this, what new angle could we possibly find to teach this? After all, not every part of the Bible has its own movie, right?

So, here’s the background: Moses and the nation of Israel has left the Promised land behind, and has entered the desert. After about three months, they come to Mount Sinai, and Moses goes up onto the mountain of Sinai, and God speaks to him, saying “go back down, tell everyone to wash up, and consecrate themselves. I will come then, when everyone is ready.” So Moses does, and on that third day,. When they look up, they see the top of the mountain obscured by clouds and lightning, and they hear the loud blast of a trumpet. Then, with the whole nation wearing their Sunday best and focused on God, they “make their stand” at the foot of the mountain. Moses goes up, and he’s told to go back down and tell Israel to stay off the mountain (which means, I guess, that some folks had started trying to steak up the mountain themselves). So Moses does, and when he goes back up the Mountain, he is ordered to take Aaron with him, and that is where the scripture I read this morning starts.

What I read is the first twenty verses of Chapter 20. These are called the Ten Commandments, but they are really the first of many laws that God gives to Moses, all the way out to Chapter 31, and it is in Chapter 24 that we hear the idea of stone tablets. It is while Moses is up receiving these laws that the people get restless, and ask Aaron, (who went down the mountain at some point) to create for them the Golden Calf.

So, there’s your context, that’s how the laws come to the people. But what we concentrate on, for better or for worse, are the first ten laws set down by God. I think we get the idea of them on stone tablets out of the Jewish tradition, five on one, five on another. I think we get the idea of Moses carrying down two stone tablets from the mountain from Cecil B. DeMille, and some folks just know that Moses looks like Burt Lancaster!

These are laws passed down to God’s people by God. God’s chosen people receive them. Paul calls us adopted into God’s family, chosen by virtue of our belief in Jesus, so these laws in some ways still apply to us.

So what do we have before us? The first ten things God mentions to Moses about how to live within the boundary of being the children of God.
Well, let’s look at them individually.
1. You shall have no other God’s before me
2. You shall not make for yourself an idol
3. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of God
4. Remember the Sabbath Day.

The first four laws are all about relationship to God, aren’t they?

What are the rest?
1. Honor your father and mother.
2. You shall not murder
3. you shall not commit adultery
4. you shall not steal
5. you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (in other words, you shall not lie)
6. you shall not covet anything your neighbor has, including spouse, house, land or property.

How you would characterize all of these laws? Aren’t they all ways to preserve relationship with others?

So what we have is a marked focus by God- there are two things that God concerns Godself with, overall, thus they are the leading statements. God’s primary concern is with relationship to God and to humanity.

So, does this sound familiar? It does to me-I hear in these words given to Moses the words of Jesus, when he is asked which of the commandments are the most important. Do you remember what he says?

Right. “Love the Lord with all your heart, mind soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

I also hear these two primary concerns, both relationships, in the words Jesus uses to lead us into prayer:
Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name;
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

There’s the God part. Then comes the human part:
Give is this daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

And then back to God again:
For thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory, forever and ever, Amen.
Whenever we are given summary statement from God in the Bible, there are these two overarching ideas, and they are both relationships.

Relationship with God.
Relationship with each other.

It seems to me to be true then, that if we will be judged on anything, we will be judged on how we are in relationship with God, as well as those around us. Family, friends, colleagues, co-workers, neighbors, as well as those on this earth who are hungry and suffering, in Tunkhannock, in PA, as well as in Bangladesh and Sudan.

How you doin’?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Imago Christi

Philippians 2: 1-13

Humility. What is it? Is it the ability to self-deprecate, which means to downplay your own achievements, as if they do not mean much? Is humility a low opinion of yourself, in relation to others?

It seems to me that there are two poles of humility. The first pole is that there are some people in the world who think that they are the best at everything they do, and while they may sometimes indeed be very good at something, they don’t always have such a realistic view of themselves.

The other pole is the complete self-negation of someone who thinks they are worthless. They’ve always been told that they are worthless, and now it has seeped into their mind, into their heart, into even their bones.

True humility, I think is the ability to be realistic about one’s talents, gifts, and graces, to be able to accept correction from others. To have pride in yourself is ok, because pride, in moderation, rather than swell someone’s head, can also drive you to be excellent.

True humility, also, is the ability to place one’s gifts and talents into the service of others, and not to always have it be used only for gain and fame and fortune.

But humility is a slippery slope. St. Benedict, in teaching monks to be better Christians fifteen hundred years ago, used the image of a ladder, by which you can only climb to heaven by seeking to minimize yourself in the eyes of God. By looking to God more, and to ourselves less, we become more like the image of Christ. It is easy, when doing this, to think that you are worthless, and that is the quickest way to heaven, but it’s not true. If you think that there is nothing that you can give to the world, nothing to offer, then you are withholding what you can offer, and that is a sin. There is no quicker or slower way to heaven, anyway-there is only your path through life and your daily relationship with God.

Benedict’s key is that humility is the ability to look to God in thanks for our gifts, and to learn how to look to God for leadership in how to use those gifts. The more we are able to consciously serve God, the more we imitate Christ in our lives, the more we approach true humility.

Let me say again-humility is not thinking of oneself as worthless-humility is not accepting the judgment of those who are mean and evil and call us useless, worthless, and trash. We all have something to offer this world, God has placed within us some gifts and talents with which we can provide grace to this world. All of us. Acknowledging what we are good at is the first step, ironically, toward humility. Placing it in God’s service are the rest of the steps toward imitating Christ.

This idea of placing gifts in the service of God comes directly from verses 5 to 11 in today’s scripture. Jesus is our model. Paul writes that Jesus was in the form of God, and equal to God. Yet, in service to God, he emptied himself, he gave away everything that made him supernatural, and submitted to the chains of a mortal life. Freely. Not because he thought he was worthless, but instead, he was the one of most worth, the only one for the job. Once here, with a stomach that growled when he was hungry, a body that needed sleep, that felt cold, that needed washing periodically, that could suffer pain and ultimately, death, but with the knowledge that he was here serving God, he submitted himself further, even to accepting death, even a death that was the most humiliating type that the Roman Empire could muster. Not because he felt worthless, but indeed because he knew that his death would demonstrate in the purest way the love of God. It was the whole reason for coming, the whole point of the exercise.

Why? Because he loved us. Because God loved us, and our ancestors had forgotten. And God knew that every generation would forget. So the story carries forward everywhere, that God loved us so much that he gave us Jesus, and when they killed him, as every generation most likely would have, God did not retaliate in anger, but responded in love, while still showing God’s ultimate power, in resurrecting him.

I am struck by the lyrics to the hymn “Trust and Obey”, specifically verses three and four, as they are in the United Methodist Hymnal:

But we never can prove the delights of his love, until all on the altar we lay;
For the favor he shows, for the joy he bestows, are for them who will trust and obey.

Then in fellowship sweet we will sit at his feet, or we’ll walk by his side on the way;
What he says we will do, where he sends we will go; never fear, only trust and obey.

True humility isn’t minimizing one’s own spirit in fear of being thought haughty or bold by our family and friends, our husbands and wives or parents. True humility is being realistic about our gifts and graces, given to us by God, and choosing to put them into the service of God. When we do this, we imitate Christ, which, after all, is the point of living Christian life.

May we all imitate Christ this week, and the rest of our lives. Amen.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Olly Olly Oxen Free

Matthew 20: 1-16

Often, when we hear the parables of Jesus, we want to make a straight and strict similarity, one to one, between what he says and our lives. When we hear the story of the prodigal son, we want the father to be God, and we either cast ourselves as the younger wayward brother or the resentful, dutiful older brother.

The thing about parables is that making strict equivalences is a mistake. Some similarities between some of the characters and our own lives are to be expected, but the stories of Jesus are not journalism, just like the rest of the Bible is rarely factual reportage of historical facts.

The point of a parable is to tell a story where the point of the story is something about God. A characteristic about God that Jesus wanted to highlight.

When we read this parable this morning, I wanted to make a straight equivalence-the people who haven’t gone and helped flood victims yet are just as eligible for the love of God as the ones who were filling sandbags a week ago Thursday. But that was the wrong way to go.

One of you said to me last week when I was asking for names of volunteers, “I don’t know what I‘ll be able to do, but I‘ll put my name down anyway”, knowing that they couldn’t do paneling stripping, or sludge shoveling, or other suchlike work. But sure enough, the first need I heard about was the sorting and folding of clothes at one of the drop-off points, and that person, who thought she wouldn’t be able to do anything, was the first one called to help.

We all have work, and we all have responsibilities. We are not always able to respond to emergencies the way that we want to. We’d love to help, but we’re not always ready to. I called around for a team to go help someone else later in the week last week, and many of you understandably could not go help because of previous plans, working, etc., and it feels bad, knowing you’d put your name on a list to help, and then not being able to follow through when the call comes. I know.

This parable is a comfort to those of us in that predicament, because it’s point is that the time we arrive, the time we’re called isn’t important. God’s grace, god’s equal wage, is available to us all.

The last church I served in Texas was in a little town called Commerce, where I was a campus minister for the local university. There was a spot in the town where day laborers, mostly Central Americans, would gather to be hired, and where employers would know to go to find them. It was probably illegal to hire them, some of them were probably undocumented workers, but it is a time honored and practical system that seemed to work pretty much the same way in Jesus’ time.

So a guy would come by, and he would talk to a few of them men there, if he knew Spanish. If he didn’t, he would just hold up his hand, and however many fingers he held up, that was how many workers he’d need. They’d climb up into the back of the pickup, and off they’d go. I don’t remember seeing any negotiation about wages, I don’t know how they agreed on the pay for the day. Maybe the workers got whatever they could. But off they went.

So, imagine if a guy came up in his pickup truck and needed workers in his cotton patch. He goes at daybreak, he goes at nine AM, noon, three, and five, and they all work until dark, getting his cotton in. It’s understandable for all the workers to think that the early ones would get paid the most, and the 5:00 ones the least. But the owner of the cotton field pays the five-o’clockers the living wage that was customarily paid to the guys who’d been bent over in the hot sun for 14 hours. It’s perfectly understandable that the early guys would start to think they’d hit the mother lode, right? But then they get the same wage as the late guys.

In the world run by humans, you’d understandably be ticked, right?

Well, that’s where the parable bit comes in. Jesus is not making a point about living wages, or the unfairness of migrant work, or the racism of taking advantage of undocumented workers to pay them less, or the need for a farm workers union.

Jesus’ point is this: God’s love and salvation is available to everyone, whether they were born into faith, came to it early middle or late. When I was a little kid, and it was time for all of us on the street to go into our houses and take our baths before bed, we’d end the game of Hide and Seek by yelling Olly Olly Oxen Free, and everyone who was still hidden could safely come out without getting tagged. God’s grace is like that, God’s love and grace is available to us all.

Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, and Episcopal priest and spiritual director, writes it this way in her commentary on this passage;
• God loves me and all of creation deeply and profoundly.
• I and all others are made in the image of God.
• God’s generosity is beyond our wildest imagination.
• There is nothing I can do to earn or deserve God’s generosity.

There is no room for grudges in this worldview. God does not harbor ill will, everyone is a child of God, and everyone is created in the image of God.

This is what this parable is about.
This is what Jesus is about.

This is what we should be about.

How we doing with sharing the unlimited love of God?

Anyone you’d rather not include in that love? Yeah, me too. But God’s living wage goes to all, whether we like it or not.

Olly, Olly Oxen Free.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Footprints in the Mud

Psalm 77

You know how they say that God laughs at the plans we make? I don’t think that is true, but since God is the supreme improviser, able to make good out of anything we throw at God, being able to sense the need for flexibility in our own lives is a gift of the Spirit.

So it was this week. I was all set to bring a word to you all about Paul’s graciousness in allowing Christians of different flavors to worship and think as they will, according to their own culture and understandings, out of Romans 14.

Then it wouldn’t stop raining. And then the waters began to rise. Then my thought about Sept. 11, 2001 became a little more focused, and I realized that something needed to be said, more than the pro-forma observance I had planned. I currently have a house full of M. Div Degrees, with my friend Alison staying with us, and her friends Elizabeth and Ray getting stopped here on their way to Owego. Elizabeth is due to be ordained in the Presbyterian church today, but with the flooding it will not be at her home church, it is now in Ithaca. I had planned on a wonderful round table discussion about how to acknowledge such a confluence of difficult moments, both current and in memory.

Then my stomach started hurting.

So, laying in bed, my stomach rumbly and sharp, thinking about my pain and the pain of all the people who had been flooded, an the remembered pain of that day ten years ago, I began to ask God what the answer was. I have many friends who were evacuated out of the Valley, as we all did. Tunkhannock, Meshoppen, Noxen and other areas along the river and the feeder creeks were also very hard hit, and the roads are in some case, still impassible. Andrew had to come home from Dickson City by way of Pittsburgh, it seemed.

What word is there to give to the people of God as we pass through these simultaneous misfortunes? What could I possibly say with the voice of the God of love?

The same things that have been said to the people of God in every time in place since they were written, three thousand years ago. The Psalms.

Specifically, Psalm 77. It has a word for us today. Yes, now is the time for us to gather our resources, of food and excess clothing and send them into the fray of recovery. Yes, now is the time to take up work gloves, hammers and bottles of bleach, and renew, fix, and wash the houses and property of our neighbors. Opportunity will be plentiful soon. But first we must think about how to cure ourselves of our own paralysis in the face of such large problems.

First we must place ourselves, dip ourselves, throw ourselves into the healing stream of memory, and remember that we’ve seen this before, we’ve dealt with this before, and God most certainly does know that we know how to do it!

The author of the psalm lays on his bed, also remembering the bad things, the times when it seemed God was far away. But then the author remembers that the times when that feeling was strong, it was always temporary. The author remembers those times when God did appear, and then wonders were worked, God’s power was shown, and the situation was put into its proper perspective, as well as our place in it.

And when the time came to be led by God, it was not God who led, but the people who could hear God the best, who led the way forward, who were God’s feet, hands, mind and heart. It was not God’s footprints in the floor of the Red sea, it was Moses and Aaron’s.

September 11 was ten years ago. It is fitting to be reminded of the events, but it is also fitting to be reminded of the mistakes we made, the prejudice against Arab-Americans that was not justified and caused even more pain where it was not needed, and perhaps most of us have realized that even the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. It is also good of us to remember the responsibility we now have to help Afghanistan toward a peaceful co-existence, cleaning up the mess we started there. And in God we can find our footsteps deep in the mud of a red sea of our own, bringing peace where we had brought war.

This has now been called the worst flood on record. The gauges that were broken by the waters hid that face from us for a while, but now we know. And what is the response of the people of God? What then will we do? How will we put our feet into the fresh mud of that river so recently receding, and have those footprints be God’s?

Opportunities will be offered over the next few weeks. For now, I ask that everyone go home today and go through their closets, and pull out all of the clothes that are in good repair, and that you don’t wear much. Business suits, women’s work suits, as well as the clothes your kids have outgrown. Wash them, and bring them down to the church this week, I’ll make sure that they get to the proper hands.

Also, I am sending around a list, and if you are willing to work on a cleaning crew, put your name, home phone number, and if you have one, an e-mail and a cell phone number, and also let me know if you text. Doesn’t matter when you are free, just if you are willing.

Let us put our feet in the mud of this receding river, and have those footprints, like Moses and Aaron in the Red Sea, have those footprints be those of God.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Armor of Light

Romans 13:8-14

It is good to be back with you this week, though it seems I missed a lot of excitement! A bit of irony to share with you-when I heard that the east coast had had an earthquake, I was visiting my friend Lisa, who lives in the “east Bay”, or the area across the bay from San Francisco. That area is crisscrossed with a large number of fault lines, and, thinking about earthquakes, is one of the most dangerous areas in the world. And I was standing right in the middle of it reading about the earthquake that evacuated the White House and the Capitol and put people in Wilkes Barre out in the street.

While I was visiting California, reconnecting with old friends and making a few new ones, I had the opportunity to attend church in two different UM churches. And I have been thinking a lot about the different ways church is done.

I don’t say this as a way of comparison, as if one is better and the other worse. Every community does it the best they can, I believe, and takes on the character of the environment they live in. One church’s prayer concerns were largely about world hunger, social justice, and peace, naming Somalia and Darfur specifically, and was enriched by a homeless man, one of many the congregation has relationship with, speaking in a language all his own in the midst of the sermon. The pastor acknowledged it, and the congregation accepted it as worship in the world. Another church had a large rainbow flag, signifying their support of people who are homosexual, hanging in their fellowship hall, but in every other way would have had much in common with what we do here.

All churches, and indeed all Christians, live in a weird space between the here and now, the “who” we are; and the who we’re supposed to be. Sometimes we succeed in being the face of Christ to someone. Sometimes, like the nuclear elements that are created in those 30 mile radius super-colliders, the existence of which only lasts milliseconds, we are fully able to reflect the spirit and the strength of God. Other times, we fall short of being fully human-we fall prey to petty jealousies, to nursing resentments and hurts, we unfairly judge people for their mistakes, we do not forgive, and do not acknowledge our own shortcomings.

We are given the gift of knowing the personality, humanity, the image we are trying to attain, that of Christ. Sometimes I think this is God’s greatest gift to us. In Christ, we have the goal set before us, and we spend a lifetime seeking to grow into a Christlike, fully human being. At least that’s what we should be doing.

Paul, writing to the Roman church, tells us in this passage, that if we are to project the face of Christ into the world around us, if we are to share the good news of God that is entrusted to us to share, the secret ingredient to it all is love. It is love that is at the root of the law. If you love your neighbor you will not murder them. If you love your neighbor, you will not commit adultery with their spouse; if you love, you will celebrate what they have, you will not be jealous of it, and crave it. Love, as Paul says, “is the fulfilling of the Law.”

He writes that we are to “live honorably as in the day.” This implies that there is a way of life that we live apart from the day, or from the light. We sometimes live another way, as in the night. What is it that we do under cover of darkness, in secret, away from prying eyes, something we do not wish people to know? What attitudes, prejudices, and opinions do we not share because we know they are not part of the light of the love of God? Paul specifically goes to the examples of drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness (which I think we can safely define as sexual promiscuity and loss of self control), and I think these examples are obvious in that they are clearly separate from the image of Christ we are seeking to copy.

But then Paul jumps from that to specifically calling out “quarreling and jealousy”. This is entirely another kettle of fish, isn’t it? It’s one thing to judge those people who go to dance clubs and wear very little as they dance suggestively on the floor as not being Christian, however we may define it, and however little we know about them. It is something else to purse your lips at someone who has just bought a spiffy new car, or shake your head at some relative who is trying to change the patterns of their life, ones that they inherited from your common family system. It’s easy to be angry at or dismissive of the person who has different politics or business practices from you. But I think it very interesting that jealousy and quarreling, of which gossip and rush to judgment are usually a part, is judged to be equal in the eyes of the Apostle Paul to drunkenness and promiscuity.

Is it because they cause the same amount of damage to the body of Christ?

How then, as Christians, are we called to refrain from causing that damage? How are we supposed to live in the world?

Both kinds of sin here feel good. But both are empty pleasures. Loving is hard, and loving someone who we disagree with, or even don’t like very much, is even harder. It’s much easier to distance ourselves from them, and see them as somehow falling short. We may even use the language of the church to assist us in causing pain to them, in enabling us to separate ourselves from them. To stand with someone in love can sometimes give us wounds, too, when the community around that person is angry.

But this, nonetheless, is our call. To accept that homeless guy who interrupts our sermon. To love that person who loves to tear down people of authority. To loving address the shortcomings of the ones whom God has put in our path, while acknowledging our own.

This is to lay aside the works of darkness. This is to put on the armor of light.

This is to be the body of Christ.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Good From Evil

Genesis 45: 1-12

Last week, I used the beginning of this story as my preaching text, and heard from a few people that this story was new to them. So this week I thought it would be appropriate to finish the story.

When we last left our hero, he had been sold into slavery by his brothers, and the slavers had taken him into Egypt. (Last week I said that Potiphar, the person who bought him, was Pharaoh, but I was wrong. Potiphar is the captain of the Pharaoh’s guard.)

Joseph does well as a slave to Potiphar, and is eventually given management of all of Potiphar’s lands and properties. And as it says, Potiphar “had no concern but the food that he ate.”

The scripture says that Joseph was a pretty good looking guy, and he caught the eye of Potiphar’s wife. She pursues him for extramarital relations, and he resists. She finally catches him when they are alone in the house and he slips out of a cloak rather than give in. She takes that cloask and uses it as evidence against him, accusing him of wht he had always resisted, and Potiphar tosses him into jail.

In jail, Joseph begins to interpret dreams for prisoners, and, when one prisoners’ fortunes are restored, he eventually remembers Joseph when Pharaoh has a hard dream. Joseph is brought up from prison, and interprets the dream for Pharaoh-seven years of good harvests, followed by seven years of famine. He suggests that Pharaoh put some of the good harvests aside for the lean years, and Pharaoh does so. Not only that, but he also raises Joseph to the role of manager of this plan, and gives him the symbols of Pharaohs’ second-in-command. So when the dream comes true, and there is a worldwide famine, Egypt has food for it’s people, and even sells to the other countries around them.

One of those countries that is starving is the country of Joseph’s father and brothers, and they are starving, too. They come to Egypt, and Joseph sees them. He puts them in prison, then tells them that they must go bring their youngest brother to him (they don’t know this, but he is asking to see his full brother Benjamin, who is the youngest of them all.) They go home with grain, and unbenknownst to them, Joseph has also put their money back into their sacks-he has given them grain.

They go back when the grain they were given runs out, and take Benjamin with them. Joseph sees them, and sees Benjamin with them. He prepares a meal for them, and eats with them (still not revealing who he is to them), at one point needing to leave because of how emotional he becomes at seeing Benjamin.

As they prepare to leave, Joseph decided to play with them again, and has a valuable cup put into Benjamin’s sack

The “theft is discovered, and Benjamin is detained. Judah, the brother who so long a go was the lead guy planning to sell Joseph to the slavers, steps up and makes a speech asking for Benjamin back, even using the language that Joseph had predicted they would use, when he was a boy and had the dream about them all kneeling before him. And here they are, just as he had seen.

So he finally gives up the game, and reveals himself to them. They are of course astonished, and more than a little afraid of him-he is now very powerful, and they are weak and hungry, and they remember they have already been in prison once by his decree.

But Joseph, in grace and in love, tells them to bring Jacob their father with them down to Egypt, and the family shall have the land of Goshen, and live prosperously.

And this is how the nation of Israel became part of Egypt. The slavery part came later, under a different pharaoh, and that is a different story for another day.

What do we do with this story? What can we glean from it about the loving hand of God? What can we see about the character of God, something that we see that is similar to the character of God we see in Jesus?

Joseph says it: What the brothers meant for Evil, God has turned it to the good.

There is power in forgiveness. Joseph could have easily sent his famil7y back to Canaan hungry, could have finally enslaved them as they did him, could have had them all thrown into the Nile, and no one would have thought much about it. Revenge is the usual way, after all, even now. But it is not God’s way.

There’s a sense in the world that God has our lives planned out. So many times people would say to me about Donna’s illness : “it is God’s plan.” Never once did I believe that. But I do believe that God makes good from evil. God can take the mistakes that we make, the things that happen to us and to our loved ones, and turn them to the good. I am a different person from whom I used to be, and I think somehow better. My relationship with Josiah is much different now than it used to be and much much better.

We must have faith and patience, not that God has a plan for all of this or that, but that God, in God’s infinite wisdom and power, can make a plan that will land us on our feet- will fall us forward.

If we listen.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

From the Frying Pan into the Fire

With great thanks, and permission given by Rev. Alison Hendley, San Rafael UMC, San Rafael CA., for the use of her text and ideas.

Genesis 37: 12-28
Matthew 14: 22-33

Have you ever been in a situation where things are bad… you know the kind of bad where you think they can’t get any worse? Yet, almost as soon as you think this, they do.

A cancer diagnosis followed by notice from your insurance company that your treatment is not covered.

A car dies on you, followed by an irreparable computer crash, maxing out your credit card and making your bank account overdrawn.

A child gets stomach flu, and just as he is in the worst of the illness the next child, your husband and you begin to feel the symptoms crashing down.

You think a budget has been reached and then the economy takes another dive.

Sometimes life throws us from the frying pan into the fire, from one situation to another that seems even worse. The pit Joseph was tossed into was bad enough, but then being hauled out and sold to slave traders: humiliating and scary for anyone. For Joseph it was, I imagine, a big blow to his large ego. Here is a young man who has never had to work as hard as his brothers, the spoilt favored child of Jacob, showered with expensive gifts and love. And a bragger to boot, telling his brothers how he is going to rule over them and they will have to bow down before him. He is beaten and thrown into a dark pit, his life spared, but barely, and his future uncertain. I wonder if he feels a flutter of hope as his brothers pull him out, hope that proves to be short lived, as he soon sees the slave train he is to join as he is led off to land unknown. Does he fall into despair? Curse his brothers? Withdraw into himself and deny his gifts?

Joseph is taken to Egypt and soon lands on his feet as the favored slave or servant of the Pharaoh. But he is also the favored object of the Pharaoh’s wife, who tries to make him sleep with her. When he refuses she frames him for the crime anyway and he is thrown into jail. Soon he is the favored inmate, given privileges and tasks that other prisoners envy. He begins to interpret dreams of the other prisoners, and is eventually released to a new Pharaoh to interpret his dreams, and becomes the favored one once more, saving Egypt and the Pharaoh from famine.

Now, contrast Joseph, who seems so confident, beyond arrogant in his younger days, in relationship to his brothers, to Peter, who in the Gospel story is tentative, timid, unsure of everything.

It seems like these two men have very different temperaments: Joseph is sure of himself and somewhat cocky. Peter is filled with uncertainty about himself. Joseph keeps landing on his feet. Peter finds himself in hot water (or cold sea water)! Joseph lands in the right place at the right time. Peter follows. Yet these two continue to listen to God wherever they find themselves. In Joseph’s interpreting of the dreams he is able to save thousands of people from death, and eventually sees and forgives his brothers who come asking for food, and is reunited with his family.

So, even though certain personality traits stay strong throughout their lives, God works in these men helping them to grow into who God intends them to be. Each time they make the same mistakes or face the same situations I believe they change, sometimes in ways that are not perceptible to us on the outside, but change is happening. By their willingness to continue to follow God, God works in their hearts and minds, maturing them, shaping them to their fullness.

John Wesley's interpretation of Peter's wavering isn't the sort of moral scolding one might have come to expect from some evangelical preachers in our day. He doesn't take Jesus' question, “Why did you doubt?” as an accusation. Instead, he wrote, "He was afraid - Though he had been used to the sea, and was a skilful swimmer. But so it frequently is. When grace begins to act, the natural courage and strength are withdrawn." Wesley sees "Little-faith" not as a negative, but a positive. It's not that Peter has only a little faith, but that he in fact does have a little bit of faith and exercises it, steps forward onto the water and walks, even in the windstorm. It’s not that he failed- it’s that he did, for am moment resemble Christ.

This is the task we have for today… to listen to where we are being led, to follow, to step out of the boat, to be bold enough to step into the stormy seas, or into this broken world of ours, and to allow transformation to happen. To put ourselves, for just a moment into the position of resembling Christ, even for just a moment.

There’s a way of life written some 1700 years ago by a man named Benedict, who lived near Nursia in Italy. It’s called the Rule of St. Benedict, and it is the basis for most of the covenants people make together these days when they pledge to live together in Christian Community. It is the rule that is at the center of the community I am a member of.

It begins with the word LISTEN:
Listen carefully, my child,
and incline the ear of your heart.
Receive willingly and carry out effectively
God’s advice,
that by the labor of obedience
you may return to God
from whom you had departed.

Joseph and Peter both kept listening and stepping forward, not hiding who they were, at times, not seeming to ‘get’ it, but discerning the call and taking the step.
And so, this morning, I invite us to reflect for a few minutes, what we are being called to, in our individual lives, in our relationships with ourselves, our relationship with God, our relationship with others and our relationship with the community. Listen. And hear where God is inviting you to follow. Listen, and see the characteristics that you keep showing and how they are slowly helping to bring about transformation. Listen, and incline the ear of your heart, to be open to the ministries God may be setting before you. Listen for the step you, or we as a community, are being asked to have the courage to take. Listen for where the brokenness in the world is showing itself to you and ask how you can help. Listen.


As a further, bolstering of our faith, and courage to step off the boat onto the water, I offer us a blessing as written by a fellow member, a sister in that Christian Community I told you about named Jan Richardson, called
Blessing on the Waves:

I cannot promise
that this blessing
will keep you afloat
as if by lashing these words
to your arms,
your ankles,
you could stop yourself
from going under.

The most this blessing
can do, perhaps,
is to stand beside you
in the boat,
place its hand
in the small of your back,
and push.

Be assured that
though this blessing
is eager to set you
in motion,
it will not
leave you forsaken,
will not compel you
to leap
where it has not already
stepped out.

These words
will go with you
across the waves.
These words
will accompany you
across the waters.

And if you
find yourself
this blessing
will breathe itself
into you,
will breathe itself
through you

until you are
borne up
by the hands
that reach toward you,
the voice that
calls your name.


Sunday, July 31, 2011

Pile Driver

Genesis 32:22-32

So, he was worthy, in the end.

Jacob is coming home, but he is very nervous about it. The circumstances of his departure, when he stole the blessing of his father Isaac from his brother Esau, was in the past. Jacob has been to Laban and back, married two wives, Rachel and Leah. At least Seven years have passed, and Jacob has become rich, although he has done so at his father in law and clansman’s expense—all this is in the previous chapters, beginning at Chapter 27.

The night before the meeting or reunion with his brother, whom he has not seen in years and when he did last see him, he had defrauded him from the customary older son’s blessing. He has sent ahead of him a huge gift of some 500 head of livestock, but he has also split his camp into two parts, so that Esau will not destroy everything if that is his intention.

Jacob is coming home, and he is very nervous about it. He has set Rachel and Leah, their two maids, and their 11 children and sent them back across the river. So, the night before he meets his brother, full or fear and probably finally regret for what he has done, he is in his camp alone.

And the scripture says a man comes and wrestles with him until daybreak. No greeting, the scripture doesn’t say who it is, just that “a man wrestled with him.”

It’s apparently an epic wrestling match, one that lasts all night, there next to the river.

In the end, Jacob at least wrestles the man to a draw, or might even, after all those hours, be winning, so that, as the sun comes up, the man, who doesn’t want to be seen in daylight, touches Jacob’s hip, dislocating it. Jacob still has him in his grip, though, so he asks Jacob to release him, and Jacob says that he won’t unless the man blesses him, because Jacob has figured out that this man is no ordinary guy perhaps looking to pilfer the camp. There’s something supernatural about this man. Something divine. Nobody just touches a hip and dislocates it. So Jacob, showing again his quick mind and disregard for proper boundaries, asks for a blessing.

And, boy, what a blessing. Ever since Abraham, God has been promising that the descendants of this family will one day be a great nation. Abraham received the promise, as did Sarah. Isaac received it, as did Rebekah. And now Jacob has received it, but after three generations, the nation has been named. Jacob is no longer Jacob, but Israel. In Everett Fox’s translation of the Torah called The First Five Books Of Moses, it becomes plain; “Not as Yaakov/Heel Sneak shall your name be henceforth uttered, but rather as Yisrael/God Fighter.”

Jacob, as is his character, asks the man his name, but the man refuses, and says goodbye.

And as the sun comes up, Jacob/ Israel is walking by this amazing site in the desert, changed and perhaps a little less nervous. When he sees Esau coming to meet him, he puts his children with each of their mothers, and walks ahead of them. One would think that he might hide behind them before. So there has been a change.

At some point in all our lives, there is a wrestling match with God. Circumstances conspire to take away all of our support systems, and we are alone, and it is then that we have our moment to wrestle. If you can’t think of the moment when it has happened to you, perhaps by a diagnosis of cancer for you or a loved one, or a divorce, or the death of a child or spouse, or the loss of a job, it hasn’t happened yet. It is coming. We all wrestle with the divine. Sometimes, we can name multiple times we have met the man in the desert, alone. And have been changed by the contact.

At least one hopes we are changed, because if you are able to wrestle with God, be in contact with God in that way, full contact-knock-down drag-out-pile-driving-half-nelson, it is the most honest time of your life. We ask why this event has happened, and that is the first grapple. And off we go.

We want to know why. We want to know why us. We want to take God and, not even using the rules of polite wrestling, like Olympic wrestling, we want to throw chairs, stand up on a corner stanchion and fly into God with our elbows in God’s stomach, swing God into the ropes and clothesline him as he bounces off.

And he lets us.

And then, when we are worn out with all our exertions, and we realize we’re really wrestling with someone who has submitted to us willingly, who has had the power to bend us like a pretzel and chosen not to, we begin to realize the grace that has been shown. And if we’re smart, like Jacob, we start asking for blessings. God has let us beat up on him all night long, but we are right back where we started. And we are graced by it. A limping Jacob is a different man the next morning. He is now Israel. It is his children who will make up the twelve tribes. The long time blessing promised to his forefathers is starting to take shape, in him. He puts himself at the head of his family facing his brother, rather than behind the wives and children, as if to say “ don’t kill me, look at all these beautiful children and these wives, these maids, who will all be penniless and bereft if I’m dead.” He stands ahead of them.

So, in the end, he was worthy. He was made worthy by wrestling with the divine, and allowing himself to be changed by that contact.

Opening ourselves to be honest with God is scary, and may even feel improper, somehow. Certainly not respectful. But without it, we cannot grow in relationship with God. We may not no the answers when we’ve finished, but we will be changed, better than we were. If we choose to accept that blessing.

So that in the end, we may be worthy, after all. As God sees us.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Kingdom of God is Like . . .

Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

We continue this week in our tour through the parables of Jesus as found in Matthew. Verses 34 to 43, the bits we skipped, are partly Jesus’ explanation of the use of parables, which is from Psalm 78, and the rest is part o last weeks’ reading, Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the weeds and wheat.

Today, we have no less than five parables thrown at us. Now, it might be wise in some years to take each parable one by one, and each Sunday talk about mustard seeds, and yeast, and treasure, and pearls, or fish.

But it seemed to me that there might be some value in looking at all five parables together, and seeing what, together, each parable tells us about the character of God through Jesus Christ.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. . . “

Yesterday, I planted that box that last week was full of weeds- or as I preferred to say last week, plants in undesirable locations. I generally planted petunias, because they’re bright and can live in full sun. but I also scattered some California Poppy seeds that had been given to my mom by a friend of hers in one of the boxes, the one facing the house, so that mom can see them when she’s sitting at the couch, looking out the window. California Poppy seeds are tiny, about like a mustard seed , and it never fails to impress me how something so small becomes so different and so much larger. And these seeds just become wildflowers. If you left a mustard shoot to grow from a seed not much bigger than those poppy seeds for a few years, the resulting bush, just as Jesus describes it, becomes a large bush or small tree, (depending on your perspective, kind of like the difference between a stream and a creek). Internet pictures of mustard bushes that I saw when looking for bulletin cover art were sometimes taller than a person, and wider than a car. All from a little tiny seed.

I believe that this parable teaches us about the abundance of God’s Kingdom.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast. . . “

In reading this parable, of course I want to know how much a Measure of flour is. There’s a similar parable to this in Luke, in which the woman works the dough until the yeast is worked all through. That seems reasonable, since you want the dough to rise evenly. But when I looked up how much a measure was, it told me it roughly was only a cup. So if you add yeast to three measures of flour, it is roughly the amount needed for a loaf of bread. Again we have a symbol of something very small affecting a much larger body around it, similar to the mustard seed, so it could be abundance, but I hear another attribute of the Kingdom of God, here-power. Something as small as a wee beastie like yeast, who are kind of animals, after all, can take three cups of flour and some water and transform it from a paste into a large loaf of bread, given enough time.

I believe that this parable teaches is that the Kingdom of God has the power to transform and the power to change, and the power to make that which seems useless into something useful.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure . . . “

This is sometimes hard to understand this one, because the story of the love of God, Christ’s choosing to die for us, is a story that needs to be told in as many ways as our creativity permits. Why would you go hide it? And then why would you go and doubly own it; not just being the person who knows where it’s hidden, but being the guy who owns the land where it is hidden? That doesn’t sound like sharing to me. But I don’t think keeping it secret is Jesus’ point, here. I think he is trying to communicate that the feeling that a person has about something valuable, that they want to keep it safe, how highly they value that object, is how highly we should value the Kingdom. Take care with it. Tell the story accurately, with all the love and respect you can muster. Don’t fall prey to easy explanations, don’t just parrot what you’ve been taught, retelling the story without your own connection to it.

I believe that this parable teaches us to take care with the great value of the story of the Kingdom.

“The Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant . . . “ Not like a pearl. Like a merchant. The Kingdom of god is an active place, a place that is willing to sell all it has to claim one great pearl. And that attitude, the valuing of something above all else, is how I think the Kingdom sees us. We are that one great pearl, and the Kingdom of God is willing to expend all it has to make sure we are included.

I believe this parable teaches us that the Kingdom of God Values us far more than we can understand and believe.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a net. . . “

Jesus tells a parable about the end of the world here, and how there will be a process of separating the good from the bad. I don’t really hear this as a prophecy of the end times, in anyway that we hear it in Cultural Christianity today. The Psalms are full of separations, separating the people of God from their enemies, individually and collectively as the nation of Israel. For a people who are oppressed, the language of good and evil is clear—we will be redeemed, by God’s hand. They will be punished for doing this to us, by God’s hand. It is not so clear to us, in a first world country, the most powerful nation on earth, how we can think we are oppressed, because in the main, we are not. There are individual oppressions; women abused by husbands, children abused by their parents-there are economic oppressions, when people must work under duress and for less than a fair wage; but as a whole, we are not oppressed. We are not occupied by a foreign power, we are not being invaded, most outrage that we see these days is based not in justice, but in selfishness. To the people listening to Jesus, it is clear that the bad fish that they are caught up in the net with are Romans and the people who have cast their lot with them. There is nothing here about the saved and the unsaved.

I believe that this parable teaches us that the Kingdom of God is for the people who act justly, with compassion and humility, and sensitivity to situations in the world.

So, the Kingdom of God is described 5 ways here; abundant like a mustard seed; powerful like yeast; valuable to us like a treasure; places great value on us like a pearl merchant with a pearl, and discerning with who it includes.

There is much to think about here. And perhaps a lot to decide about how we fit into that Kingdom.