Monday, December 29, 2008
The Word is a squiggly little baby; the Word is a child whose enthusiasm cannot be contained. The Word is a messy encounter. The Word made flesh meets us in the flesh. I lament that this occasion has been so commercialized certainly because of the greed that accompanies it, but mostly because commercialization causes us to forget the grittiness, the messiness, the pain of this particular birth. John writes, he was in the world, the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him, his own people did not accept him. It amazes me how those words continue to be true today.
The Word is living and breathing. The Word is crying and laughing. The Word is. Sometimes we confuse the words on the page with The Word becoming flesh. And when we do that, we are captured by words in a time and place that makes little sense.
Remember history class. Remember memorizing the list of dates and people and battles as if that was history? I so enjoy watching the History channel because history there is stories, stories about people who lived and loved and laughed and cried. The word is not the lists of dates and places and battles, it’s not the genealogies or the history lessons. The Word is cool, clear water at the well, the Word is in the aroma of a fresh baked loaf of bread, broken and shared among friends and enemies alike, the Word is showing people how to love by telling stories of sowing seeds. The Word is in this amazing creation.
And yet, the words are important. They tell and show us the story of God’s activity in the lives of God’s people. The words show us how creation is related to the creator, how creation comes to be, and is blessed. The words show us how throughout history we have turned our backs on our creator, the author of life, and how God called us back. This is the story that we read in scripture, and what makes it true is that we know the story is alive and well today. It is the story that each one of us experiences. It is our story of creation, of blessing, of pain and suffering, of rebirth and resurrection. It is the story that shows us that hope is born again in us, that on the other side of suffering and death there is new life, because the Word became flesh to meet us in the flesh.
Today we meet the Word that becomes flesh in baptism. Today, hope is born again. Baptism is the ultimate expression of hope. These parents bring these children here today to meet the Word, and to enter the waters that at the same time give life and take life. The waters of baptism represent the power that is the Word. Our symbolic action of baptism has been reduced to pouring water, but in the early church folks were fully immersed into the water. In fact, they would walk down into the waters, be immersed three times, in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit, each time rising from near death to gasp for the breath that gives life. Entering the waters that are the same as entering the tomb with Jesus, to walk out the other side a new creation, born again.
We pour oil on these children today, an abundance of oil. This is the oil of anointing, the oil of healing. This recalls for us the fragrant and expensive oil that anointed Jesus’ feet at the table by the woman who is nameless, and the oil that anointed Jesus’ body in death. We give to these children and their parents and godparents the light that shines in the darkness, the light that the darkness cannot overcome. We baptize because hope and grace abound. We baptize because in baptism we meet the Word made flesh in the flesh.
We baptize in this gathering so that you and I have another chance to meet the Word made flesh in the flesh. Remember when baptism was private? I sure hope there’s not many of you who do remember that. We forgot that the Word made flesh meets us in the flesh, in the flesh and blood of those who gather to experience one another, in the flesh and blood of those who gather to break bread together, in the flesh and blood of those who love one another.
Every time we baptize, we have another opportunity to renew our own baptismal promises. We have another opportunity to say, I will, with God’s help, to those practices that open our eyes and demand that we see the Word made flesh. Today, as we meet the Word in the flesh, and as we welcome these children into the household of God, and as we give thanks for the light that will not be overcome by the darkness, we pray
Alleluia! To us a child is born: Come let us adore him. Alleluia!
Christmas comes and I am reminded of the Who’s in Whoville, from the Grinch story. No matter what the Grinch did, Christmas would come anyway. Because Christmas is not presents and trees and lights and cookies, Christmas is incarnation, and incarnation happens with or without the rest of it. I’ve had so many people ask me this year if I’m ready for Christmas. My status on my Facebook page says Kathy thinks she may be ready for Christmas. But it seems that this year like or unlike other years, I am completely reminded that Christmas, God’s inbreaking in our world, happens, whether or not we’re ready.
Imagine yourself living in the dark days of the oppressive rule of
But tonight we celebrate the Good News. We celebrate the light crashing into the darkness. We celebrate whether or not we are ready. This is not a celebration of sentimentality and nostalgia. It is not a celebration of wealth or power, It’s not a celebration about who is at the head of the table, who is able to give the most, the biggest, the best, gifts. Especially not this year.
Jesus has come among us. The Light has come into the world; darkness has not, is not, and shall not prevail. God’s glory is revealed! If we choose to stay awake, to pay attention, to prepare, to follow the signs.
We’ve been identifying signs of God among us all during Advent. What do those signs look like today? A child, wrapped in ordinary cloth and lying in a manger. A peasant girl, narrowly spared from being stoned to death by her village after her husband-to-be found her to be pregnant with a child that wasn’t his. An overwhelmed father, doing his best to find shelter for his family on a night when they are homeless and friendless. A gathering of shepherds, among the lowest of laborers.
You see, the signs show us that the world doesn’t have to be made perfect before it is made new. You and I do not have to be perfect before we are made new. That’s what’s so amazing about God with us. God comes to us in the midst of the chaos, in the midst of the darkness. God comes to be with us in the midst of our isolation, in the midst of the muck of the stable, and the pain of a Roman cross.
This is an extravagant love, an abundant love, poured out for each one of us as if each one of us was the only one in existence; poured out for all of us in unlimited supply. This abundant love is offered without reservation or regard for what you have and haven’t done, or how many Christmas cookies you make, or how many Christmas presents you give, or how many lights are on your house.
The prophets of the Old Testament testified to this love, but the love that God has for creation is beyond comprehension. That is why God came into our midst, to shed light on this love. You see, Jesus is more than a teacher who can help us understand the words in scripture. Jesus is the Word made flesh, living and breathing. We don’t have to have it all figured out; we experience it in by being in relationship.
God with us, God in our midst, the light that has come into the world is the power and the hope of Christmas. And this isn’t just something that has happened, or that happens to us, we are not a passive observer. This is a relationship in which we participate. You and I are part of it; we are constituents, part of a community that is the body of Christ. The Word made flesh meets us in the Flesh. We are not acted upon by a “big guy up there.”
That’s what this is all about. God came to be with us, and God comes to be with us, and God will be with us, and therefore we are invited into a relationship with God and with one another. And we don’t have to be perfect in this relationship. In fact, it is into the midst of our brokenness that God comes.
One way we express this participation is when we gather together and the Word is present in our midst, and we are re-membered in the Body and Blood of Christ, just as we are doing right now.
Another way we participate in a relationship with God is to carry the light into the world. You see, God’s work is not contained inside a church. We participate in God’s work, and are nourished and fortified to do God’s work, but most of that work takes place out there, it takes place in your work and in your play, in your school. We are to be the light that illuminates God, we are to be the light that shines on people and shows them the way to God.
It’s a new life. It’s a new world. Right here, right now, we are invited to experience the Incarnation we celebrate in Christmas by living and loving as Christ’s body in the world. That’s the light we walk in, that shines all the more brightly in the darkness that cannot overcome it. That’s the hope that sustains us, the peace that keeps us centered amidst life’s turmoil, the joy that makes eternal and abundant life present in the here and now.
Alleluia. To us a child is born: Come let us adore him. Alleluia.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
When I close my eyes and try to imagine this scene, I see Mary. Some of the artwork I have seen depicts her in a room, in beautiful blue robes, sitting demurely, while the angel floats above. Now, although these are beautiful paintings, it works a little differently in my head.
In my imagination, Mary is a very young girl, and yet very excited to be a woman, and ready to be married to Joseph. Mary is a Jewish girl; she knows well the stories of God’s activity in the life of her people. She has lived her whole life in this community of faith. Mary has lived her whole life in the community of people who believe there is a special relationship between God and them. They believe that their story, the story of this community, day in and day out, through slavery, wilderness, kingdoms, and exile, is the story of God’s working through them to accomplish the divine purposes on earth.
God is trusting God’s people to have raised Mary in the right way, to have taught her the story of faith, taught her to recognize God’s hand at work in her life. Gabriel has made the proposition. The great archangel has announced God’s purpose, the heavenly messenger has posed the question, and the girl is clearly troubled.
Mary is perplexed. Perplexed in Greek leans much more towards “to be in doubt” or “not to know how to decide or what to do.” In my imagination, this is much closer to how I see Mary responding. Mary must have been terrified. She must have doubted herself; she must have doubted her own capability to be the God bearer. Any young girl would. What must have gone through her mind?
“Not me, no way, I can’t do that. Don’t ask such a thing of me, I’m only a girl. You’ve got the wrong person. The God bearer should be royal, a person of honor, it can’t be me.”
And Gabriel responds, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Mary, you are the one. Gabriel goes on to remind Mary of the story she already knows, the story of her people, and who this son is to be. Mary wants to know how this can be, since she is so young and yet a virgin. Mary voices the question each of us has as we hear this story.
How can this be? This is unreasonable. This doesn’t make sense. Gabriel explains that the Holy Spirit will take care of it, and then gives her evidence of the possibility, her old, barren cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant, nothing will be impossible with God.
How can this be? How can Mary get pregnant by God? Is all of Christianity founded on this unreasonable possibility? I ask this question, because this question has been asked of me, by adults and children alike, by your children, by my children. I turn to one of my favorite writers, Madeleine L’Engle when I ponder these things. She writes in a book called Bright Evening Star, “It is not that in believing the story of Jesus we skip reason, but that sometimes we have to go beyond it, take leaps with our imagination, push our brains further than the normally used parts of them are used to going.” She goes on to write “I had to let go all my prejudices and demands for proof and open myself to the wonder of love. Faith is not reasonable because it wasn’t for reason, but for love that Jesus came.”
It is for love that Jesus came. And so, for love, Mary says yes. She actually says “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary says yes. And it is in love that we light the fourth candle on the advent wreath today.
Do you think Mary considered the implications of her yes? Of course there is the question, “What will people think?” But how does this particular baby change her, how does this particular baby change everything?
Today, I ask the question, what does Mary’s yes to the love of God, have to do with us? Mary’s active, engaged yes, empowers each of us to say yes to the possibility of God in our midst. Mary’s yes can be our yes. The angel Gabriel announced to Mary, “Hail favored one, the Lord is with you.” The Lord is with you, these are not just words spoken to Mary, these are words spoken to each of us and to all of us. Mary said yes, God waits for each of us to say yes.
The terrifying part of Gabriel’s invitation is what will happen if we say yes? What does God-bearing look like? Mary didn’t know, she risked everything when she said yes; she risked everything on the promise that God was with her. All we know is that saying yes to God changes everything and risks everything we have.
When we say yes to God, no longer are we the central character in the story. The story is about God and God’s love for us. It’s about the promise God made to Mary and God makes to us to bring us out of a life of greed and why not me, into a life that bears hope and promise. The real world is the world in which Mary said yes to God, and the world in which each of us says yes to God. It is living fully and completely, it is feeling pain and joy, it is giving and receiving, it is life, and it is death. This world is messy and confusing. A world into which God is born in a dirty barn, so that love could burst forth. It is a world in which we enter into relationships with one another, where we see each other face to face, it is a world in which how God created us is wonderful, it is a world in which we understand the sacred in each of us and treat each other as if we were all God-bearers.
“Fear not, here comes God.” We may be terrified, and reassured at the very same time that our yes brings Christ into this world. We Christians have been taught to look for the Christ in everyone we meet, to practice a radical hospitality to serve the Christ in each other, for in serving them we are serving Christ himself. What do we -- each of us -- have to offer the Christ this year? Where do we see the signs that Christ has been born among us?
Mary’s yes didn’t just happen all those years ago, Mary’s yes happens everyday you and I bear love ourselves. God is still up to something. God continues to burst forth in our lives.
Keep awake, pay attention, prepare, fear not!
Our King and Savior now draws near: Come let us adore him.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
The way we prepare is to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, giving thanks in all circumstances. I don’t know about you, but that sure isn’t the way I hear the Christmas message coming from my TV, or the newspaper, or Time magazine. The Christmas message that I’m getting is that the key to Christmas this year is to buy all my presents with cash; at least I won’t be in debt.
We are in a place and a time where this message; rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, the one who calls you is faithful, couldn’t be more appropriate. Here is where hope lies. Today we light the third candle on our advent wreath. We are filled with hope in the one who is faithful, the one who is to come, the one who has come, the one who will come again. We positively burst with excitement at the possibility and the reality of the light coming into our dark world.
The hope that we look at today is not to be confused with wishing. That often happens, wishing gets confused with hope. We misuse hope all the time when we say, hopefully, things will change, or I hope I get a new iphone for Christmas, or I hope those Vikings can win the Super Bowl this time. Those are all wishes. We can wish for much, but it still isn’t hope. Christmas as we see it presented in the marketplace is all about wishes, but not about hope.
Hope lives in the reality of God with us, hope lives in the reality of the incarnation and in the resurrection. Hope is in the faithfulness of the one who calls your name. Listen to this Good News carefully. Hope is in the faithfulness of the one who calls your name. For me this is truly good news, hope is not in my ability to have enough faith, or any faith at all, those things live much more in the realm of wish, sometimes I may say to myself, I wish I had more faith. Hope is not in my ability to earn more money and buy more things; hope is not in the stock market. And wishing all that won’t make it true. What is true is that the one who calls you and me is faithful. The one who calls you and me is trustworthy, reliable, devoted. This is the one in who hope lives. This is the one who has made you and me new creations; this is the one who delights in us. This is the one who we prepare our hearts and our minds and our souls to receive into our lives now, this is the one who came 2000 years ago, and this is the one who will come again.
Joy is a result of this hope. Hope is similar to joy as wishing is similar to happiness. Happiness is something that the marketplace wishes to fulfill. You will be happy if you build a bigger house, you will be happy if you buy a nicer car, you will be happy if you make a lot of money, none of this has anything to do with joy. Joy lives in the reality of being the beloved of the one who created us, joy lives in the incarnational wonder of the one who created us.
Hope and joy are the realities of Immanuel, God with us. The response to hope and joy is to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is a compelling reminder of the faithful response of a community that celebrates God’s saving actions in Jesus Christ. How can we faithfully witness to the joy of God’s delight in us? And how might our actions and responses move us away from a climate of complaint to the creation of a climate of rejoicing? As I have contemplated this question I have also been reading a book that my son Tom gave me to read about writing. The image the author of this book on writing uses is composting. She says you need to practice writing by writing all the time, including all the stuff that you may eventually throw away, and then your writing will begin to be the fertile ground that your stories grow out of. I think that is the same as how rejoicing always, praying without ceasing, and giving thanks in all circumstances is the will of God. When we are always in the posture of praise and thanksgiving, hope and joy can take root, and give rise to our witness to God’s incarnation.
And then we are in the posture to see and hear God signs. We are able to see God incarnate, God in our midst, Immanuel. Your God sign stories are important to us. Your God sign stories show us the reality of hope and joy. I’ve asked you to think about and share your God signs. This is my most recent God sign.
A few weeks ago, just before the passing of the peace, at the time I usually invite folks who are celebrating birthdays and anniversaries for a blessing, lately I’ve been adding “and anything else anybody needs.” A young father came forward with his nearly two year old son, who was have surgery the next day, asking for prayers. Well, that 8 o’clock congregation prayed for that little boy and his family, and was quite touched that his father had the courage to ask for the prayers. On their way out that day, some wise folk gave them a prayer shawl, and sent them off with not only our prayers but also the shawl that envelopes one in our love as well. The baby had successful surgery, and two weeks later, at the same time in the service, his mom brought him to the front of the congregation and thanked them for all their prayers and their love. She told me that that blanket had become his favorite, and he never let it go.
There is so many reasons why this is a God sign. I’ll leave you to wonder about that.
Keep awake, pay attention, prepare, watch for God with us.
Our King and Savior now draws near: Come let us adore him.
Saturday, December 6, 2008
One of my favorite stories to tell in Sunday school is the story about how the church tells time. The church tells time differently than the way our culture tells time. I’m reminded of a very old song by Chicago, the lyrics are, “As I was walking down the street one day, A man came up to me and asked me what the time was that was on my watch, And I said, Does anybody really know what time it is, Does anybody really care, If so I can’t imagine why, We’ve all got time enough to cry.” And then, “I was walking down the street one day, Being pushed and shoved by people trying to beat the clock, And I said, People runnin everywhere, Don’t know where to go, Don’t know where I am, Can’t see past the next step, Don’t have time to think past the last mile, Have no time to look around, Just run around, run around and think why.”
When we tell time the church’s way our year begins with the first Sunday of Advent, and our year begins in quiet waiting rather than loud revelry. Telling time the church’s way causes us to stay awake and to prepare for this amazing thing that God does in Jesus Christ. Telling time the church’s way causes us to take time to be present to ourselves, to one another, and to God. Telling time the church’s way helps us to live fully, and not to run around in circles, always wondering why we are alone, always wondering why we never get anywhere.
In Isaiah we hear that all of creation is getting ready, the wilderness prepares the way of the Lord, every valley is lifted up, every mountain and hill are made low, everything is getting rearranged for the day when it can be shouted, Here is your God! And in second Peter, one day with the Lord is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like one day. Does anybody really know what time it is, does anybody really care?
Advent not only marks the beginning of time, it also marks the beginning of the end of time. We begin the year again, we wait patiently for and prepare for birth, the coming of God into our world, and at the very same time, we wait patiently for and prepare for our Lord coming into our world again, the end of time as we experience it. Does anybody really know what time it is, does anybody really care?
John the baptizer knows something about time. In fact I think he really does know what time it is, and he really does care what time it is. John knows that to live fully in the present, it’s time to repent; it’s time to be forgiven. It’s time to be prepared for the One who is to come. All creation is getting ready; it’s time for us to be ready. How are we to be fully present to God who is with us, and how are we to get ready for the One who is to come?
I’m not sure that the season our culture experiences as Christmas has much to do with repentance and forgiveness. I’m not sure that the season our culture experiences as Christmas has much to do with being fully present to God in our midst. I’m not sure that the season our culture experiences as Christmas has much to do with being ready for the One who is to come at all. But if it really is time for repentance and forgiveness, we’d better get around to it. lf it is time for repentance and forgiveness, what is it that we need to turn away from? Where is it that we miss the mark? Not only individually, but collectively. How do we even know where the mark is? I think we can find the mark in our baptismal covenant. Seeing as this story from Mark is a story of baptism, maybe it is good to look at our baptismal promises as the mark.
As we live fully present to God in our midst and as we prepare for the One who is to come, we may measure ourselves against this: we are to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers; we are to persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord; we are to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; we are to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; we are to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
This is the mark to which we point ourselves. And when we miss the mark, when we fall short, we repent and ask for forgiveness, and we try again. Does anybody really know what time it is? According to John the Baptist, it is time to repent and seek forgiveness.
As we live fully present to God in our midst and as we prepare for the One who is to come, we may also look for those signs that show us the way, those signs that tell us that this is Advent, the time of preparation for Immanuel, God with us. We like to call these God signs. The things, the people, the circumstances that call us to be fully present to God with us. What wakes us up and causes us to say, hummm, that was a God sign. There are God signs all around us, signs of God with us, signs that help us to know what time it is, signs that may even cause us to see how we miss the mark.
I encourage you to spend some time this advent being fully present to God with us, I encourage you to spend this new year fully awake and aware of God with us. I encourage you to share with one another the God signs in your life. Around the church you’ll begin to see some signposts. They are there to help us identify God with us, God signs. You can go ahead and add your own God signs to them.
Our King and Savior now draws near: Come let us adore him.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Not only does this story tell us about people for whom treating others with dignity and respect is just part of who they are, it also tells us about this king and the relationship this king has with this people. The relationship this king has with the people is one of dignity and respect. Christ the King is not at all a king of worldly consecration. Christ the King is not a king of power, but a king of empowerment. Christ the king is not a king of lordship over subjects, but a king of raising up ordinary people to be extraordinary. Christ the king is not a king who forces subjugation, but a king who inspires loyalty and emulation. Christ the king is not a king who puts his subjects in harm’s way to protect himself, but a king who willingly puts himself into the midst of pain and suffering, right next to the people he loves.
Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. How do we honor a king for whom all this pomp and circumstance would have been out of place, who was born in a barn to parents of modest means? How do we honor a king who put himself in our place, who took all of human pain and suffering on himself, so that you and I could live in freedom, so that you and I could have new and abundant life? I think we honor that king by doing as he did, treating all people with dignity and respect, and by loving as he loves, without boundaries.
This story of the sheep and the goats is not a story about doing good deeds so you can live happily ever after. It is not a story about doing the right things so that you get your reward in heaven. It is not just about figuring out if we are a sheep or a goat. It is so much more than that. It is a story about who the king is, and who we are not. It is about what that king has done, and continues to do for the people he loves so much.
First and foremost, it is not you or I who sit in the judgment seat. People’s sheepness or goatness is not up to us. What a relief that is. This good news is truly freeing. It’s not up to you to judge, we’re not really any good at it anyway, and so we may as well just give it up. Giving up judgment is really hard when of course you know you are right and you really do think everyone else must measure up to your standards, Some would suggest that it’s not personal standards that people must measure up to, some would suggest that there are absolute biblical standards to which we all must measure up. Either you measure up and are judged a sheep by those standards, or you don’t and are judged a goat, in which case you may as well give up now and live a gluttonous and hedonous life. Although this may be a safe and comfortable way to live one’s life, there is no clear and concise list to live by that goes by the title, This is the list everyone will be judged by. In Matthew’s gospel today, the king is concerned with how people are treated, not about a list of do’s and don’ts.
However, there are many people who are concerned about being a sheep or a goat. Jan Laitos asked that question all the time. He really wanted to be a sheep; he really wanted to be at the right hand of God. We assured Jan that he would, because of God’s grace, and I am confident that Jan’s fulfillment is in that very place.
So what is really the difference between the sheep and the goats? Sheep and goats look a lot alike. What they represent does not. Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the stranger, clothing the naked, helping the sick and visiting the imprisoned are corporal and spiritual works of mercy, really rather simple actions, and it is surprising that that is all that is asked. But what they are not is indifference or violence, cheating or stealing, they are not narcissism they are not greed, even when it is hard to differentiate those things. Part of the difference in being a sheep or a goat is in living our lives as if we really thought that we are created in God’s image.
There is judgment in this passage from Matthew. So what is judgment really about? One of the images that informs our understanding of who God is, is the relationship of parent and child. Sometimes our relationships with our parents or our children leave a lot to be desired, and yet, as a parent, which one of your children will you condemn to eternal punishment? Which one of your children would you judge unworthy of love? Would you not choose to give your own life so that your child could be spared? Would you not give of yourself so that your child could have new life? This is what God has already done for us. Jesus stands in our place, so that we may have eternal life. I am reminded again of the story I spoke of last week, God on Trial. In that story of Jewish men in Auschwitz, when the time came for the men to go to their deaths, it was a son that was to go, and the father stepped into his son’s place, much like Jesus steps into our place even in the face of cruelty and tragedy.
Matthew’s parable is really about God’s abundant and real grace. This story is really about a king who puts himself in the place of danger, the place of pain and suffering for the love of the people. And this story is really about our response to this amazing thing that God has done. God accompanies us on this journey of human life; God brings us to the fulfillment of God’s deepest desire for each of us, to be with God for all of eternity. It is in response to God’s love, God’s grace, God’s willingness to take on our pain and suffering, that we in turn treat others with dignity and respect. In response to God’s love and God’s grace, in response to God’s willingness to be here in this world with us, we treat others as they truly are “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Dear goats, let the abundance of God’s love for you transform you so that you may be judged as one who feeds the hungry, gives drink to the thirsty, shelters the stranger, clothes the naked, and visits the sick and imprisoned. Dear sheep, let the abundance of God’s love for you transform you so that you may know that God’s love includes everyone.
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: Come let us adore him.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Our actions in dark times say who we are. Some would say we are living through some dark times. Some would say the election we all just experienced is hopeful, others, like the letter writer in Thursday’s paper, say all our freedoms have just come to an end. I think the truth can be found somewhere in saying that no matter what, we must change. We must examine our consumerism and our consumption and we must learn to use less. We must examine our impact upon our Mother Earth, and we must learn to live with less of an impact. We must examine our relationships with our neighbors and learn to love them. Our actions in dark times say who we are.
Our actions in dark times say who we are. So, who are we? We are people of hope. We are people of joy. We are stewards. We are God’s children, and God has poured out God’s abundance upon us. We are people who do not give in to fear. We are people who like our relatives the Jews, pray, and come humbly before our God. We are people who take risks for the kingdom, not for ourselves, but for the Kingdom. That is what the parable in Matthew shows us today. This story shows us that fear only limits our capacity to be the children that God has created us to be. This story shows us that fear only limits our capacity to participate in the mission and ministry that God has called us to. This story shows us that fear only limits our capacity to be the new creations that God has made us. This story shows us that we are people of hope, and that we must move from fear to hope.
Many things have been said about the third servant in Matthew’s story. I say that servant was living out of fear, and that fear limited his ability to be the disciple God had created him to be. He focused all his energy on preserving things as they are, and missed God’s abundance. Fear caused him to be unable to experience God’s abundance. Fear caused him to be unable to risk living fully as a new creation. Fear caused him to be unable to see that he was created in God’s image. When we live out of fear, when we do not risk experiencing God’s abundance, we are much like that servant. Not only do we lose sight of God’s abundance, but we begin to lose the gifts that God has given us as well. Fear keeps us from claiming God’s abundance.
Moving from fear to hope seems like folly to many in our culture. But the rules of God’s economy are quite different than the rules of the marketplace. In God’s economy, as Matthew shows us, everyone is abundantly gifted, everyone has value and worth. In God’s economy, to risk is to claim God’s abundance. In God’s economy, being a steward is a given, the choice is between being a good steward or not. In God’s economy, to risk losing what our culture counts as valuable is to gain everything. Well-done, good and trustworthy servant. If these are indeed dark times, our actions say who we are. We are God’s creation, and we are stewards of that creation. The question remains, as we move from fear to hope, what kind of a steward do you want to be?
Find a way to be generous; there is so much need in our community. We are well fed, people are hungry. The shelves at the food bank are empty, our cash can fill them.
The group of pastors I meet with on Wednesday mornings have been talking about forming a new Tuesday crew for Habitat for Humanity. Most of you read in the Rapid City Journal at the beginning of September about the Thursday crew, and the Saturday group. Chuck Mickel volunteers his time regularly for the Habitat builds. The hope is that a new Tuesday crew can begin an ecumenical build on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. It is our hope that we can provide the impetus for continuous construction of Habitat homes. The need for affordable housing seems to be growing, not lessening. Our actions in dark times say who we are. If you want to be part of the new Tuesday crew, just show up at the Restore on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving at by 9am. Habitat for Humanity is all about God’s economy. Habitat for Humanity International is about the fourth largest mortgage provider, and charges no interest. Talk about folly, Black Hills Habitat has built 53 houses since it’s inception, and only one has been repossessed.
I ask you today to be a bold steward. I ask you today to put your trust in God’s economy. I ask you today to move to action. I remind you today of our hope in Jesus Christ. In these dark and fearful times, I ask you to be generous, not only to our St. Andrew’s budget, not only to the mission and ministry we can do here together, but to just be generous for the sake of the Kingdom and the sake of God’s economy. Our actions in dark times say who we are. We must respond in hope, say your prayers and act humbly before your God.
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: Come let us adore him.
Saturday, November 1, 2008
So today I’ll tell a couple stories of ministry. First, Bernice’s ministry. I remember calling folks one time, not here, but at another church I served, asking them to participate in a particular ministry. I heard back pretty clearly “been there done that.” You never hear that from Bernice. She may say no, but not because she’s finished. Bernice is never finished. She comes to Bible study, she reads books and periodicals, she gives me the Anglican church magazine when she’s finished reading it. She keeps the checkbook for the Episcopal Church Women, and keeps track of the Church Response food certificates, and collects the Family Thrift Receipts, and then adds them all up until we reach $100,000.00 and can turn them in for $1000.00. Did I mention she’s 97? But the thing about Bernice is that she lives her baptismal covenant. Especially the one about respecting the dignity of every human being. Bernice has reminded me that every person is created in God’s image, and Bernice treats every person as God’s image. I have seen Bernice saddened because people can’t seem to understand that basic understanding of our humanity. On this celebration of All Saints, I am blessed by Bernice’s ministry.
Ruth Schutz’s ministry is astounding. Now, many in our culture would look at Ruth and feel that her life is diminished by her set of wheels. But not Ruth. I think Ruth especially lives the baptismal promise about seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving her neighbor as herself. Ruth gets up each morning looking forward to who she can love each day; she contributes to her community at Meadowbrook by being a loving presence, sometimes needing to speak the truth in love. She calls us to live our lives fully and completely every moment we are on this earth. I am blessed by Ruth’s ministry.
Jaden Heintzman and his family attend Wednesday @ St. Andrew’s. Jaden is full of energy and vitality, oftentimes a handful for his family. But Jaden lives his ministry with no fear. On Wednesday nights for communion we are relaxed and casual, and we usually pass the bread and the wine around the circle and offer it to one another. One night, Jaden took the bread to each one of us, and offered each of us the body of Christ. Jaden reminds me that serving people doesn’t have to be about order and appropriateness, serving people is about offering Christ in all the ways we can. I am blessed by Jaden’s ministry.
All of you have stories to tell about the ministry that has been shared with you, and ministry you have witnessed others share. There is a great cloud of witnesses here at St. Andrew’s, all those who have gone before us, all of us who are here today, and all those who will come after us. I am blessed by your witness and by your ministry.
The Lord is glorious in his saints: Come let us adore him.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Wednesday night we had the privilege of hosting Gerard Baker, the superintendent from Mt. Rushmore, here at St. Andrew’s. It was a gift to listen to him. He told us the creation story, he told us where he came from, he told us about his people. We sat mesmerized for almost two hours, listening to his stories. I don’t think anyone who was there even looked at their watch; we could have listened all night.
Knowing our story, knowing where we came from, knowing to whom we belong gives us value and worth. Being created in God’s image is where love is located. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind is about the truth of the story that constitutes us. God’s love for us is not about how we feel on any given day or at any given time. God’s love for us is the in the pattern of action that is the story that tells us who we are. I have told you this story before, you have heard and read this story many times. It is the story of creation, of blessing, of separation and independence from God, of repentance, reconciliation, and resurrection. In this story, God who is the creator of the universe, comes to be one of us, Jesus, lives, loves suffers and dies, and is raised to absolutely new life.
But we usually don’t see the whole story all the time. We catch glimpses of ourselves in the story. It is when we come out of suffering and sadness with hope and joy that we really can experience the love that God has for us. That is a sign of new life. Sometimes, when we listen carefully, we can actually hear God’s love for us in the voices of the people whom we encounter, especially at times of deepest sorrow or quiet joy.
How do you know about love if you don’t know where you come from and who created you? I suppose to many that seems an odd question. Many in our culture would look at me like I have two heads. Love is all about what we watch on TV, and see in the movies. Love is all about sexual attraction. Love is all about excitement. Love can even be about revenge and passion, if you really love someone you have to prove that somehow.
But love in the bible has nothing to do with how we feel. Love in the first-century Mediterranean world was not a vague warm feeling toward someone, but a pattern of action -- attachment to a person backed up with behavior. The two commandments Jesus gives demand nothing less than heart, soul, and mind -- in other words, every part of a person capable of valuing something -- and that those capacities be devoted to God and to every neighbor. There is no one exempt from the category of neighbor, the Parable of the Good Samaritan shows us that.
So what we read today is a continuation of what we read last week. Last week we heard that everything comes from and belongs to God. Everything. This continuation of that reading demands nothing less than everything, heart, soul and mind. Jesus' call will compel each one of his followers to take the fullest extent of God's love to the furthest reach of that love, to every person whom God made. As God has first loved us, we will love others.
This is Jesus’ call to us to ministry. Everything comes from God and belongs to God, and that demands a pattern of action, love God with everything you are, and love your neighbor; remembering that love is not how we feel, but a decision we make, a pattern of action. Love is a pattern of action. The pattern of action that God shows forth is, creation, blessing, dependence on God, forgiveness, and new life. This is how we are to love our neighbors, and our neighbors are everyone, the outcasts and the sinners, you and me.
So what does that look like? We have another clue as to what that looks like earlier in Deuteronomy. We’ve already talked about the first two clues, no other Gods, only me, and no idols, after that comes, keep Sabbath. Keeping Sabbath means that every seven days, every seven hours, every seven minutes maybe, we should stop what we are doing and rest, maybe even pray, “thank you lord for your abundant love and blessings, thank you for this moment to give you glory and praise.” We are to respect the people to whom we are related, and we are all related, we are to not murder, we are not to be promiscuous, we are not to steal, we are not to lie about our neighbor, and we are not to be greedy. These are the actions of love.
The results of all these actions of love are right relationships, and the results of these actions of love are a posture of forgiveness. Because as we all know, we are not perfect, but we are forgiven. This brings us full circle. The original question the Pharisees ask Jesus is which commandment in the law is the greatest? Jesus answers not with law, but with the pattern of action that is love. You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: Come let us adore him.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
What we have in Matthew’s gospel this morning is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Entrapment. That’s what the Pharisees are about in this story, pure and simple. They know very well the Jewish law against creating images. We read all about that last week in Exodus. The Israelites took all the gold from their ears, their sons’ ears, and their daughters ears, melted it down and made an idol out of it. Not making and worshiping idols is the commandment second only to loving God. The Pharisees know what they ask of Jesus creates what we today call cognitive dissonance. You can’t act one way without compromising your morals; it’s the slippery slope. We go about rationalizing these things all the time. I do it on a smaller practical scale all the time, should I eat that doughnut, or should I eat that apple? I want the doughnut because I believe it will make me feel good, because I like it, because I deserve it, because it’s fun… But I eat the apple because I believe it’s good for me, because it tastes good, because I need the vitamins, because it will help me in the long run. What we do has to do with the priorities we choose for our lives. If you’re a list maker, you’d list the pros in one column, the cons in another, and make your choice.
But the Pharisees are trying to entrap Jesus, if Jesus says we don’t pay taxes to the emperor he’s guilty of sedition, but if Jesus says we use these coins with an image on them to pay taxes to the emperor, he’s guilty of breaking the commandment. Caesar or God? This is not just a slippery slope, it is a no win situation.
But Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees question, as is his answer each time they ask him questions about wealth is really simple. It’s all God’s. It’s all God’s. There is no hierarchy, there is no priority list, and there are no top ten things that belong to God. It is all God’s. You see, there is nothing that is the emperor’s. All wealth comes from God. And wealth includes so much more than money.
So this is up to you to figure out. All wealth comes from God, you live in a land in which order is kept by a mutual agreement that everyone shares in the responsibility of government and infrastructure and protection. Therefore you pay your share. But all you have still comes from God. The story that informs us and transforms us is that we are created by God in God’s image, and we are related to all of creation. God’s abundance in creation is already bestowed upon us. Our job is to hold it in trust, and to care for it. This then becomes what we call stewardship. God’s abundance, give to God the things that are God’s, and everything is God’s.
Many people I know have been reading a book called The Shack, by William Young. I commend it to you, in fact, I think it is required reading. It is a story that suggests an understanding of the Trinity that is creative, dependent, and joyous. Maybe I’ll preach on that come Trinity Sunday, but today I bring it up because I think the author’s understanding of the first sin, the original sin, bears on our understanding of God’s abundance and wealth. The author contends that what Adam did at the very beginning was to seek independence from God, rather than participation in the interdependence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Our North American religiosity is informed by the concepts of independence and autonomy. We are in fact proud of our independence rather than in our participation in the interdependence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The understanding of wealth in the bible has nothing to do with individual portfolios. It is not about acquisition, and it is anathema to greed. No wonder we have so much trouble talking about money, we hardly know the words to use. The understanding of wealth in the bible has everything to do with God’s abundance, with interdependence and relationship.
So if wealth has everything to do with God’s abundance, with interdependence with relationship and with all of creation, what does that mean for us?
Events in the world around us have been making many nervous lately. The stock market, the housing market, the price of gas. I don’t know what it all means, but I’m sure many of you are feeling much anxiety. So a passage like this, telling us in no uncertain terms, that none of our wealth belongs to us anyway, that we are interdependent, that God’s abundance is clear, may make you more nervous, or it may give you the freedom you need. You see, the real measure of our wealth is how much we'd be worth if we lost all our money.
Consider Richard Semmler:
Semmler, a 59-year-old mathematician, teaches calculus and algebra at Northern Virginia Community College. He can explain how to find the derivative of a polynomial and all sorts of complicated equations. But in his private life, Semmler has reduced his existence to the simplest equation. In the last 35 years, by working part-time jobs and forgoing such everyday comforts as a home telephone and vacations, by living in an efficiency apartment and driving an old car, Semmler has donated as much as half of his annual income or more to charity. His goal: $1 million before he retires.
Semmler said ‘If I didn't do all of the things I was doing, I would probably have a new car every two years and I would have a huge house with a huge pool,’ Semmler donated $100,000 to build a Habitat for Humanity house, which he also worked on himself to build.
Percentage-wise, Semmler's generosity is exceedingly rare among the middle-class -- or the rich, for that matter, say those who study philanthropy. Each year, U.S. households give away an average of 2 percent of their income to nonprofit and religious organizations, according to Giving USA, which tracks donation trends. A household with Semmler's annual income, $100,000, donates an average of $2,000 annually to charity. Last year, Semmler gave away $60,000. Semmler believes life isn't always about multiplying what you get, sometimes it's about subtraction.*
Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. It’s all God’s.
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: Come let us adore him.
*Jacqueline L. Salmon. “The Washington Post.” Professor Finds Fulfillment in Emptying His Pockets. Saturday, June 11, 2005.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
In my life, the invitation to a party is an exciting thing. Part of the fun of a party is the expectation, the anticipation. Part of the fun of a party is being included, belonging. The “save the date” postcard I received for my nephew’s wedding went on my refrigerator door; the date went on my calendar. As soon as I received the actual invitation, I replace the postcard, I looked at it often, imagining the fun, imagining the family gathered, imagining the celebration we would have at the very first wedding of any of my mother’s grandchildren. It’s a bit unlike the response of the people in our story from Matthew today, they made light of the invitation, and even killed the messengers who delivered the invitation. The king may have shrugged and said, well then, if the chosen are not interested in the wedding celebration, then go and invite any one you want, they went to the outer reaches of the kingdom, they went to the margins, and those who came to the celebration were honored to be there.
The God of abundance has made a great offer, come to the feast. The God of abundance has set the table, has prepared a wonderful banquet. The thing about an invitation is that we can choose to come, or not. The thing about this relationship with God is that we can choose to be in it or not, we are never compelled.
As all these people arrived, people from all over the kingdom, people who were honored to be there; the ones who were tattooed and pierced, the ones who were curious and doubtful, the ones who were questionable and the one who were upstanding, the ones who loved and hated, but all people who respected the king and the occasion for which they gathered, these people received a wedding garment, a robe. The people gathered for this wedding banquet mostly were the people gathered from the margins, they were the people who responded yes to the great offer made to them. They put on the wedding garment with honor and respect to the King.
Except the one in our story. He won’t put on the wedding garment. Not putting on the wedding garment is the very same thing as not saying yes to this relationship into which he was being invited. The outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, is of his own choosing.
Putting on the wedding garment, putting on the robe, reveals a willingness to respond to the abundant banquet that is available to us now, and available to us at the fulfillment of time. When I reread this story, I was reminded of the garment each of us puts on at baptism, figuratively and literally. I have here today a baptismal garment, a garment that has been worn by generations of babies. It is a garment that re-presents to us that new creation we become when Jesus calls us over the tumult of our life’s wild restless sea, day by day his clear voice sounds, saying “Christian, follow me.” We are dressed as one ready, ready to follow, ready to be a voice in the cacophony, ready to dive into the relationship that is offered to us by the one who prepares the banquet of abundance, the one whose hearts desire is to be in relationship with us.
When we put on the wedding garment, or the baptismal garment, it does not signify that we are finished, that we have arrived, or that we are perfected or done, because we are only beginning. We are saying yes to the abundant and amazing love that waits for us. We are saying yes to the journey of life and yes to the knowledge that the journey is not by ourselves, but with the one who creates us, the one who reconciles us, the one who revives us. Life is not a journey that should be taken by oneself; it is a hard and treacherous journey, as well as a joyful and exciting journey. It is a journey of love and forgiveness; it is a journey of grace and mercy. And it is a journey that our creator God desperately wants to accompany us on. So much so, that God came into this time and space, to be just like you, just like me, with all the joys and hopes, all the pain and the suffering, that human life has to offer. And so much love, that Jesus was willing to put himself in our place, to offer himself to suffering and death, so that you and I are not condemned to pain and sadness and tragedy for ever.
This abundant banquet is there for the taking. Nothing is held over our heads, no strings attached. The love that provides the banquet flows in and through and among us, and we have the opportunity to respond. We have the opportunity to pay that love forward. We have the opportunity to show forth the love that has been offered to us, and to be people of love and forgiveness ourselves. The response to this abundance that God offers to us through God’s son Jesus, is to offer that same love and forgiveness to others. It is not to hoard, it is not to keep to ourselves. It is to offer ourselves, as Jesus offers his life to us, we offer this love to others. The hard part is that Jesus offers this love to everyone, sinners included. Thank God for that, because that means you and I have a place in this amazing kingdom too.
And equally exciting is the abundant banquet that is in store for us at the fulfillment of time. We get a foretaste of that banquet in the bread and the wine that we share together each Sunday we gather. We get glimpses of grace, and those glimpses are powerful. One of those glimpses of grace is that everyone is included. You and I are included, the liar and the cheat are included, the tax collector and the sinner are included.
I think what is hard for us is that we come to believe that the abundance is the reward for right behavior, so that those whose behavior is not up to a particular standard can’t be part of the banquet. But that’s not the way it works. It’s the invitation that changes us. It’s the abundance that transforms us. It’s the anticipation and the expectation of seeing our friends and our loved ones that causes us great joy. Once we put on that wedding garment, or baptismal garment, we are not the same. We are made new, God’s love, God’s power, God’s abundance changes us. We can love others, we can forgive others. We no longer live for ourselves, or for greed, or for power. We no longer live for ourselves, but we live in relationship, and in relationship we find joy and peace.
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: Come let us adore him.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority? Even the tax collectors and the prostitutes know something about this authority. Following this question, comes a series of parables, parables, we know, are about describing the inbreaking kingdom of God; they are about showing people what this inbreaking kingdom looks like. We don’t know much, but what we do know is that it looks nothing like what anyone is used to. It is something absolutely new, something no one has any experience with, that’s why there are parables, they make us and the original hearers think in ways not before imagined. This new kingdom is nothing like what had come before.
The chief priests and elders were concerned, understandably so, because if they went along with Jesus, who is doing something – they’re not quite sure what - with an authority they can’t identify, the chief priests and elders also may be brought up on charges of sedition. They too may be tried for misaligned loyalty. They could be held liable for the damage Jesus has done in the temple throwing things around and turning the tables over.
By whose authority? By God’s authority, but this authority is new, it is not the same old story, it’s a new story, a new thing that God is doing in the life of God’s people. It is formed and shaped by the Exodus, by wandering in the wilderness, by the freedom that grows from wandering, but it is still a new thing, nothing anyone has seen, heard, smelled, previously. This new thing is the inbreaking kingdom, and we get a description of it in the gospels, we get a glimpse of it in our community of faith, and we are nourished by it in communion. We are made new ourselves by it in baptism. Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom before you, because they get it. They understand this kingdom, they understand it to be something they had never experienced, because they were never included at the table previously, and now they are, they are brought from the margins into community. Something entirely new is happening. What does that have to do with us?
The Great Emergence is the title of the lectures I was just at at the Seminary of the Southwest. And the Great Emergence describes what we are feeling right now, in this time and place, the feeling of unease for many, the brink of a new age of virtual living, of artificial intelligence. But the question being asked is the same question asked about every 500 years or so, by whose authority? And where does this authority come from?
Five hundred years ago, in the Great Reformation, that question was answered with Sola Scriptura, or as our Lutheran brothers and sisters learned, scripture alone. All authority rests in scripture, and up until the enlightenment, that was a commonly held belief. Then science and reason began to answer questions, which called into question, where is the authority? The Anglicans answered it with scripture, reason and tradition. Some continue to answer with sola scriptura, but as our world changes, and these are changes that are happening at warp speed, the question of authority is being asked again. The Great Emergence raises the question of authority, it is the same question that is asked in Matthew, and with it who are we, whose are we, and to whom are we related?
This is not just an academic question; it is not just the stuff of classrooms and theological debates. It is the stuff that you and I are immersed in every day. In a world where you can go to your computer and find whole other worlds, where you can create yourself anew, where you can make up anything you want, where you can interact on a screen with others who have created an alternative persona, avatars that are not connected to a physical place, how then do we continue to make sense of corporeal community? How do we continue to be in relationship that is all about the experience of body and blood, bread and wine, people that you can touch and feel, and in whom we profess lives the very divinity of our Lord? How do we continue to make sense of authority?
The question of authority is the fundamental question when we talk about the issues that are in front of us every day. I think it is why we sometimes feel so overwhelmed and confused, it is why some seem to be so absolutely sure, it is why others don’t seem to care, and why some seem perfectly happy living in the grey area with the questions. The question of authority is the question that forms and informs the abortion debate. It is the question that forms and informs our talk about homosexuality and what we say we believe about marriage. It is why we Christians find ourselves so divided over so much.
And in this particular place in which we find ourselves in human history, the question of authority is open for debate. I believe we Anglicans are postured in a good place for addressing the question of authority; we have something to say that is helpful and fruitful to the discussion. And what we have to say changes lives.
What we have to say is that transformation is found in the truth of the story that God comes into our world to live and love, to suffer and die as one of us. The truth is in the story of creation, of blessing, of sin, of our creator God loving us so much that God is willing to live this life as one of us, of forgiveness and reconciliation. The truth is found in the story of death and resurrection, your story of death and resurrection. We know this story is true, because each and every one of us attests to it; each and every one of us lives death and resurrection all the time. The truth is found in the story that reminds us that we are God’s beloved, the delight of God’s life.
We gather together to experience the awesomeness of this God in the bread and the wine, the mystery that makes us whole. We gather together to experience the awesomeness of this God in the midst of our humanity; in the forgiveness of the hurt we’ve caused ourselves and others.
By whose authority? By the author’s authority. The one whose love calls us into being and blesses us. The one whose Word lives among us, in us, and through us. The one whose love forgives us when we are greedy and full of ourselves. The one whose story reminds us that we are all related, and we are related to the earth from which we are born and to which we shall return.
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: Come let us adore him.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
This is a great story. In the verses that follow these we just heard God instructs them to gather up what they need for themselves and their families. Each family got just what they needed, no more, no less. Then Moses instructed them not to save any of it, don’t leave any until morning he told them. Well, some didn’t listen to Moses, and hoarded the food that God had provided for them, and it got wormy and smelled bad. So not only do they not seem to want what God has provided for them, they go ahead and eat it anyway, and then save some up for later, only for it to go bad on them.
Lord, lord, lord, give us something to eat, give us something better to eat, we don’t like what you’ve given us, but even though we don’t like it we’ll save it for later and risk losing what is right here in front of us.
God provides, God provides enough. Even when it doesn’t look good. It’s all God’s anyway.
Matthew’s gospel is paired with this story from Exodus and it carries the theme even farther. Matthew’s story always seems so topsy-turvy. The day laborers that show up at the end of the day get paid the same as those who showed up early to work, and work or no work, everyone gets paid the same. The kingdom is not business as usual. Remember, kingdom parables serve to show us that God is doing this absolutely new thing, there is no business as usual. In this kingdom everything is re-ordered. It’s not even as simple as the last will be first, and the first shall be last. God coming into our midst, living, loving, suffering, dieing, and being raised from the dead makes this absolutely new.
So this kingdom parable didn’t sit well with those who heard it centuries ago, and it doesn’t sit well with us.
We are trained to believe there is a reward. The simplest statement of that is if we live a good life, we’ll get our reward in heaven. That’s not biblical. This parable refutes that conventional wisdom. Our wages are paid at the baptismal font, not at the grave. The new life that God has affected is available from the beginning. We live our whole lives loved by God, the delight of God’s life. The Christian life is not about earning our wage, our reward in heaven. The Christian life is about responding to God’s amazing and abundant love, about receiving God’s grace, right here, right now.
The Christian life is about the fruit of our baptism; the Christian life is about responding to the joys and challenges of our lives in ways that show forth the grace that God has given us. The Christian life is not easy nor is it clear, it is not about finding Jesus, it’s about being found by God’s love. The Christian life is about grace and forgiveness, the grace and forgiveness that God offers us, and the grace and forgiveness that we offer one another as we love our neighbors as ourselves.
So when did we get so greedy? When did we begin to hoard what we have? These stories we hear today remind or maybe even teach us that we’ve got all we need, and there’s enough for everyone.
This past week when we had our pastor’s bible study, we had the executive director from Habitat for Humanity come and study with us. He also told us about the possibility of an Apostles build, twelve churches getting together to build a house, I hope we are one of those churches by the way. We were reflecting on these readings, and on the reality of the mortgage problems, and we learned an amazing piece of information. Habitat for Humanity is one of the top mortgage lenders in the world, and now possibly one of the top five, and Habitat for Humanity does not charge interest. Habitat for Humanity is about providing the opportunity for people to have what they need, no more, no less.
Yesterday we had the first of our Sonshine Saturdays. It was fabulous. Dave told the story of Moses, and we got as far as the ten commandments, but not all the way to the promised land. Moses relayed those ten commandments to the Hebrews as they wandered in the wilderness. “God spoke all these words: I am God, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of a life of slavery. No other gods, only me.” No other gods, only me, the Hebrew people, like us, had so much trouble accepting God’s gift of enough. God asks us for our undivided attention, and God gives us all we need. The Hebrew people couldn’t accept God’s gift of enough, and instead made their own god out of the gold they had and found. They got greedy.
We get greedy, and we are encouraged in our greediness by a culture that constantly encourages us to buy more, and bigger, regardless of our ability to do so, regardless of need.
Now, as much as the Hebrew people needed to hear “no other gods, only me,” and as much as the Jews of the first century needed to hear the inbreaking of God’s kingdom re-orders all that they knew to be true, we, in the 21st century need to hear this message that we are sought and we are found. Our wages are paid at the baptismal font, we are new creations.
This is good news indeed. Good news in a world that needs good news. Good news that this life isn’t just about you, but it is about how you, and me, and every one of us is loved, and how you in turn love one another. It is about how you are the delight of God’s life, and about how you pay that forward. It is about how God transformed the world with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and how God continues to transform us and the world as each of us goes out into the world to do the work we are called to do, to love and serve God as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.
Alleluia! The mercy of the Lord is everlasting: Come let us adore him. Alleluia!
Saturday, September 13, 2008
Forgiveness and reconciliation have been the themes of the gospel reading from Matthew for the last few weeks. But this one stretches us further than any other. You must continue to forgive until you think you have forgiven all, and then you must forgive some more. It seems impossible.
This is our life in Christ. The fruit of forgiveness is joy, the fruit of forgiveness is freedom. The other is a tortured, bitter and resentful heart. Why do we choose not to forgive? We do so because we believe it is more important to be right than to forgive. It seems so simple, and yet so impossible. Needing to be right has resulted in loping off heads and burning at the stake. At least we don’t do that anymore. Now we just throw out insults, call each other names, leave churches and families and stop talking to one another.
In our families we hold on to resentment and bitterness until it eats us up, and then our brother or sister, mother or father dies, and we never were reconciled. Not forgiving holds us captive, forgiving sets us free. I often wonder why we do this, why we hold on so tightly to not forgiving, why we hold on so tightly to our bitterness and resentment.
I just finished a book, The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd. It’s a story about a young girl who must learn to forgive. As the young girl gets up the courage to tell her story and let herself be loved, she thinks, “In a weird way I must have loved my little collection of hurts and wounds. They provided me with some real nice sympathy, with the feeling I was exceptional.”
I wonder if that’s why we hang on to our bitterness and resentment, and even anger, and not even know that we are doing it. Because we come to believe that we’re exceptional, that we’re somehow different from others, or better than others, or right, because everyone else most definitely must be wrong. Maybe we come to believe that our personal pain is unique, a pain unlike any other. A pain that no one can understand, a pain that causes our heart to turn to stone. Our personal pain may be ours, but it is not exceptional, and it is not isolated. Our personal pain is not an excuse to not forgive, and it is not an excuse not to ask for forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a gift that we have been given, it is the grace that goes with not being perfect. It is the grace that goes with being human. It is the grace that goes with this God who loves us so much and who is willing to be in our midst to feel the same pain that you and I feel. It is the grace that goes with being chosen and marked by God’s love, being the delight of God’s life.
The reality of forgiveness is that we don’t do it just once and then are done with it. The young girl in the story as she thinks about her mother says, “I guess I have forgiven us both, although sometimes in the night my dreams will take me back to the sadness, and I have to wake up and forgive us again.”
Sometimes I wonder what all this really has to do with our lives as we live out there in the world, out at our jobs, and in our schools, in the grocery line, or while waiting to fill our tanks with gas. What does God in Jesus Christ have to do with all that? Forgiveness is at the heart of who we are as we go about the minute to minute living of our lives. Forgiveness is the quintessential not about me thing. It is about my pain, or your pain not being exceptional. Forgiveness I think is impossible without the reality of God coming into our lives. Why would I forgive otherwise? Why would I not just hold on to the hardness of heart, the bitterness, the resentment, and let that power take hold of me. Why would I admit my own imperfection, my own shortcomings, if I didn’t think there was some greater love that enfolds me. It is God’s love that transforms me, that melts my heart, that bears my bitterness and resentment and imperfection no matter what.
It is God’s love that holds us when we cry, that never rejects or abandons us, and that gives us another chance. It is when we feel like the end is near, when we are in the midst of suffering and death, loneliness and alienation, like there is no hope, like we could lay down and die, that God transforms our life into something absolutely new.
Alleluia! The mercy of the Lord is everlasting: Come let us adore him. Alleluia!
Sunday, September 7, 2008
My family lived in a valley on the inland point of the Nordfjord, in a place called Stryn. Once upon a time in the Nesdahl valley there was a great avalanche that collapsed the sod hut in which the family lived. Marta died in that avalanche, and later, Jacob, my great great grandfather, decided to come to America. He came and settled in Adams, North Dakota. He married Anna, and they had 11 children, Nelbert, my grandfather was the oldest.
Nelbert married Inga, and eventually they settled near Glenwood, Minnesota. Nelbert and Inga had five children, including my father, Juel. One of those children died in an accident as a teenager, and Inga died when my father was a small child. Nelbert married again, and he and Lucille had three daughters together, and Nelbert was killed in a farm accident. Lucille married Guy, and together they had one daughter. This all resulted in many children that I call cousins.
When I was 23 years old, I went on an European adventure, part of that adventure was to visit my Norwegian relatives. I arrived in Stryn, Norway, after having taken a ship across the North Sea from England, a steamer up the shoreline of Norway, and a bus inland along the Nordfjord, to Stryn.
I arrived on a very rainy day, without exact directions or even contact phone numbers. Unsure of what to do next, after getting off the bus, I went into the business that was right there, it was like a AAA, some sort of travel store. I must have looked like something the cat dragged in, and I asked the young woman across the counter for help, in English of course, as far as I had gotten with my Norwegian was “tussen tak.” She answered me, in beautiful English of course, and I told her my story. She just happened to be neighbors to the relatives I was looking for, so we got in her car and went straight to the family farm. She ended up being my interpreter for the time I spent with my uncle and aunt.
My uncle took me on an excursion through the countryside, and in the best English he could muster, he told me the very same story I had heard over and over at each of our family reunions for all those years.
The point of all this is that this story, of course there are many more details I’ve skipped over in this telling, contitutues us as a family, it tells us who we are. Over the years it has been added to as we have learned more about our grandfather Nelbert, and as all these cousins have had families of our own. It is a story of heartache, of survival, and of tragedy, and it is our story. And yet it is not unlike many stories of Scandinavian immigrants.
The story of the Exodus that we have been hearing, and that we will continue to hear is like my story. It is a story that contitutes Israel as a people, and it is a story that remembers who they are. Today’s portion of the story almost reads like a recipe, and yet it is a call to remembrance. It says this is who we are and what we do together, and who we worship. It calls Israel to remember. It too is a story of survival, of tragedy, of heartache, and of hope. It says, if we can hang together, we can make it. In the gospel of Matthew today our family story tells us about how we are to be Christians together. The writer of this gospel couldn’t have known that a church would be founded around his rabbi, Jesus, so we can’t say that these are instructions for the church. But what we do have is some very practical advice on forgiveness and reconciliation.
You see, as Christians we believe Christ is reconciling the whole world and each of us in it to God and to one another. In the teachings in our prayer book, on page 855, it says that the mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. Reconciliation is all about making whole what is broken. Reconciliation is about being transformed by God’s amazing and abundant love.
When Christians take conflict as an opportunity to practice reconciliation, what they do can stand as a visible sign for the whole world of what we believe Christ is doing in the world. An outward and visible sign of a grace that we believe is happening in a broader and more mysterious way in the world. And that is the definition of sacrament, handling conflict well can be sacramental, the way we handle conflict can be a sign to the world that Christ is in fact working in our world.
Conflict is a reality in our lives and in our church and in our families. In fact, when we meet someone who is really difficult, inside and outside our families, we can rejoice and be glad in that day, because we get to love them, and in the process we get a sense of how much God loves each and every one of us. When folks look at you and see that you handle conflict in this sacramental way, they’ll see that you mean what you say.
But we are witnesses to the rhetoric of revenge often on our nightly news and in our newspapers. The news reports about folks whose loved one has been terribly hurt or died at the hands of a monster. The family member calls for revenge, for more blood. Reconciliation, unity with Christ, and forgiveness are not at all what any one of them wants to hear. But maybe it is what is called for.
We are at a place in our politics that calls for reconciliation. The divisiveness of our political parties, the hatefulness in our language when we address one another, the lack of civility in our public conversation result only in a breakdown of public discourse. If we were to approach one another like Matthew exhorts us to approach one another, if we can point to ways in which our own behavior has contributed negatively to the situation, if we approach one another with the goal of reconciliation, real conversation can take place.
And we are at a place in the greater church that calls for reconciliation, a place where the family story must be remembered and told again, to remind us who we are and who we are related to. What we really have to do is stand as a visible sign for the whole world of what we believe Christ is doing in the world. We need to be that outward and visible sign of grace that we believe is happening in a broader and more mysterious way in the world.
As we enact forgiveness and reconciliation we are the agents of new life and resurrection that God calls us to be. We become the carriers of grace and God’s abundant and amazing love. We remember who and whose we are, we tell the story of God’s activity in the life’s of God’s people, we tell the story of God who loves us so much that God came and continues to come into this world, we tell the story of how that love suffered and died, and rose again, and hope is made real.
Alleluia! The mercy of the Lord is everlasting:
Come let us adore him. Alleluia!
Saturday, August 23, 2008
Jesus affirms Peter’s recognition, but I don’t think Jesus affirms the conventional meaning or understanding of King or kingship. The gospel shows us that Jesus is not the kind of King that was hoped for, not the King who comes with power to hold it over people, but the King who comes with power to empower people. Jesus is a King whose sovereignty rests in giving life to the people, in raising up those who are at the bottom, in bringing to the center those who are on the margins. Jesus is a self-sacrificing King, whose kingship only has meaning as it gives its life for the people.
We know this is the kind of King Jesus is because the gospel writer Matthew shows us how citizens of this kingdom can really live. Jesus’ teaching is to love your enemies, to come before God in prayer in worship, to forgive one another, and that Jesus’ life will be given for ours. This is the kingship in which the God who created the heavens and the earth inaugurates this new creation. And even the ancient story of Moses shows us that what we do matters to God.
Who do you say that Jesus is? This question is more important than any answer and it presupposes that what we believe about Jesus matters. It matters to you and to me, it matters to our church, and most importantly it matters to the world. It also assumes a relationship; there is no way to begin to say who Jesus is without the relationship. And in this relationship with Jesus, we learn who we really are. In response to Peter’s naming Jesus, Jesus tells Peter who he really is.
You are Peter, a rock. In this relationship, Jesus knows who we really are, we are named and marked as Christ’s own forever, you are my beloved, the delight of God’s life.
I think this is the most important part of this story. Not the right answer to the question who do you say that Jesus is, but the relationship the question presupposes, you are the delight of God’s life. We can’t answer the question with words, but we can begin to show the world that Jesus matters, that this relationship with Jesus matters.
That brings us to the image that is presented in Romans, we, who are many, are one body in Christ. This is an amazingly counter cultural image,
one body, with different graceful gifts. This new creation that God inaugurates in Jesus is all about a completely new way to live on this earth. We live not for ourselves, but for the greater good of God’s creation. Do not be conformed to this world, but transformed by the amazing and abundant love that God has for you.
How do we live in the world as the body of Christ? How do we live in the world as the delight of God’s life? How do we live in the world as people to whom Jesus matters? How do we live in the world as agents of new creation? How do we live in the world as a people transformed by God’s love? I think we do that by showing forth love not only for those it is easy to love, but for our enemies as well. I think we do that by empowering those without power. I think we do that by showing forgiveness and reconciliation. I think we do that by caring for God’s creation.
One of the things that is very important to me as your rector here at St. Andrew’s, is that in the community we be a witness to the diversity of the body of Christ. What that means is that we stay in the conversation, we stay at the table with people who hold very different views about God than we do. This is not to say that everyone here at St. Andrew’s has the same view and understanding about God, in fact it is to say that here at St. Andrew’s we may have very different views, and that is exactly who we are. We witness the diversity of the body of Christ.
So by staying in the conversation, staying at the table, even when that is challenging, difficult, and sometimes infuriating, the whole body shows forth. And by staying in the conversation, the whole body is transformed. We all begin to see with transformed eyes and hear with transformed ears, and love with transformed hearts. We are better able to respect the dignity of every human being; we are able to show forth the love that God has for us.
An example of this is our involvement in Hills Alive. Hills Alive is the Christian music concert put on by the Christian music radio station each July. Hills Alive is outside of the box for many of us, but for us to stay away from Hills Alive because it is not our cup of tea, is to silence us, it is to lose our voice, it is to go hungry because we have removed ourselves from the table. It is also to lessen the body of Christ in this community, because the wholeness of the body is not represented. Those from St. Andrew’s who have chosen to be involved in Hills Alive have not necessarily found it easy, but they have found bridges to be built, relationships that cause everyone to expand how they may answer the question, who do you say I am?
The same is true on the congregational level. We stay in the relationship, we stay around the table, no matter our disagreements, because we are the body of Christ, and the body is lessened when we don’t show up. The question then, who do you say I am, may be answered by our presence, by our showing up at the table, by our showing up for the conversation, by our showing that we love one another because we are all of God’s creations.
Peter is the rock. Peter is in this relationship with Jesus and is named, he is called the rock. You and I are in this relationship with Jesus and we are named also. We are named beloved, delight of God’s life. We are named forgiven.
Who do you say that Jesus is?
Alleluia. The Spirit of the Lord renews the face of the earth:
Come let us adore him. Alleluia.