Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Luke 2:1-20, Christmas Eve

In many families, a new Christmas tradition is the Elf on a Shelf. (This little guy is similar. Thanks Kim.) The elf is one of Santa’s helpers. Every morning, he appears in a new place in the house. At night he returns to Santa to report on the children in the house. It’s the Elf’s job to let Santa know if the children have been naughty or nice.
Each day, the children hunt through the house to find the elf. He might be in the kitchen on the sugar canister, or in the living room watching TV, or in the bathroom in the tissue box. For most children, it’s a fun game.
For others, the Elf on the Shelf is scary. For these children, it seems that the Elf is Santa’s spy, watching every move. Instead of fun, the Elf becomes a terrifying presence, who is tasked with making sure the children are obedient every second of every day.
Some people have this same idea about God. They think, I have to be perfect or else God won’t love me. They are convinced, God won’t forgive me for what I’ve done. They believe, I am not obedient enough to be God’s beloved child.
Because we all tend to think that way sometimes, Jesus came to tell us God is not like the elf, or even like Santa.
… The coming of Jesus started with an act of obedience to God, which meant disobeying the cultural rules of the day. Young women did not get pregnant before getting married. Those who did risked being ridiculed, shunned, possibly even stoned to death.
Yet, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she was going to give birth to the Messiah, the Savior of his people, she didn’t hesitate. She trusted the angel, and was willing to obey God instead of the rules of her society.
When Mary told her fiancĂ© Joseph what was happening, he didn’t believe her. He didn’t want to make a big scene, so he offered to quietly break the engagement.  But then he had a dream, with a visitation by an angel. The angel told him that his beloved Mary would give birth to the Savior, and he should not be afraid to marry her. Joseph obeyed, accepting the angel’s promise. He and Mary got married, and made plans to raise their baby, God’s own Son.
I can’t imagine being 9 months pregnant and traveling 50 miles on foot, up-hill and down, but Mary did just that. Reluctantly, I’m sure, Mary and Joseph headed for Bethlehem, obeying the Roman proclamation that they needed to be there to register for the census. So, they were in their crowded ancestral hometown when the baby was born.
That same night, God’s angels visited some shepherds as they were watching their sheep in the fields near where the baby was born. The angels told the shepherds about the good news of the messiah’s birth, and told them to go look for him. They obeyed the angels and went to see the newborn, and returned to their flock praising God.
Later, the magi would arrive from distant lands, obeying the call of the star which led them to the home of Mary and Joseph. There, they gave honor to Jesus as they would to any king. They also obeyed the angels’ warning to not return to Herod to tell him where they found Jesus.
… We don’t have angels or stars telling us how to obey God today. We do have Jesus’ own life of obedience to God. We do have Jesus as a role model for how to live obediently, loving, kindly, forgivingly, the way God wants us to.
When you think of obeying God, don’t think about the Elf watching your every move. Think about giving God your obedient love and sharing it with all of God’s children.
For example; last weekend Mike and I watched a TV show honoring the Marines’ Toys for Tots program. One of the commercials had me in tears of joy.
There was a Marine standing guard, as still and watchful as he could be. A child of about 6 approached him with a piece of paper in his hand. The child said, “Are you Santa Claus. People told me that you are Santa Claus. If you are Santa, would you read my list?”
They stood there silent for a moment, the boy holding out the list, and the soldier as still as he could possibly be. Finally, the Marine made a small movement, opening his hand for the list. The boy broke out in a grin of amazement. “He is Santa Claus! He is Santa Claus!”
The Marine could have obeyed his orders to remain still. Instead he obeyed his heart, God’s call, and the mission to serve as well as protect. He accepted the list from the boy, and helped him believe in Santa, and love, and the goodness of people.
… Even when we know what God wants from us, we will not be perfectly obedient – we are human, after all. We are created, sinful, children of God. It is not possible for us to be perfect. God knows that. It’s for this very reason that Jesus came to earth, first as a cute, cuddly baby, then as a traveling teacher with radical lessons, and then as the crucified and risen Savior.
Because of Jesus, we do not need to be perfectly obedient. We do not need to fear the consequences of our sin. We do not need to be afraid of the elf reporting to God if we have been naughty or nice.

Instead, we can be free to live, love, share, and enjoy life. When we disobey along the way, we know we are forgiven, through the love of Jesus. This is good news for all of us. This is news worth passing on. So, go from here in joy, and share that joy with someone else this week. If it helps, talk about the elf. Amen 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Sharing the story

Isaiah 35:1-10; Luke 1:46b-55; Matthew 11:2-11

The coming of Jesus changed the world, forever. Isaiah described a new world. So did Mary. The world they describe is one of peace, of a balance within nature, of balanced power among humanity. God’s mercy brings happiness and joy.  Instead of a military revolution, the coming of the messiah was – and is -- intended to usher in a time of peace and harmony. Mary and Isaiah both shared the story, so we know it today.  
Last week John the Baptist was predicting destruction for all who did not repent and follow Jesus. His was a swashbuckler approach to faith. Repent or die, is what John threatened. Jesus’ message of healing, acceptance and forgiveness is not at all what John proclaimed.
In today’s reading, John is wondering if he may have been wrong. He has been hearing about Jesus, while he, John, is in Herod’s prison. So, he sends a disciple to Jesus. “Tell me, are you the one who was promised, or are we to wait for someone else?”
Jesus does not answer the question directly. Instead, he asks another question. What do you see? Then he calls attention to what he has been doing.
I asked the Confirmation class to assist with the message today, to help visualize what Jesus is talking about. … Jesus says to John:
The lame walk (wheelchair) D
The blind see (blindfold) K
The deaf hear (pin drop) E
Those with skin diseases have clean skin (bandage) S
The dead are raised (no props needed) J

Can you imagine what it would have been like in those days? It was a time of very simple medical skills and herbal medicines. Disease and disability were caused by superstition, sin, and demons. Fake healers abounded. They might bring about some temporary relief, but the problem would return. When Jesus healed people, they were really healed.
And they shared their story, so more people could hear about Jesus and perhaps be healed as well. The stories were shared, and shared, and shared. It was through the sharing of these stories that the new of Jesus as the messiah spread around the world.  In today’s language, the stories went viral, like in internet video.
Westjet Airlines uses fun videos to get the message about their company across to current and potential customers. This year’s video has gone viral, with over 23 million views so far, since the video first aired a few days ago That means over 23 million people have seen the video. In November, the 200 or so passengers on a flight had an opportunity to tell a video Santa what they wanted for Christmas. They scanned their boarding pass so the crew behind the scenes knew who each passenger was.
Some folks said they wanted something simple, like socks or a tie. Others mentioned video games, specific toys, a new cell phone. One man said he wanted a new wide screen TV. At the destination airport, a crew was taking notes and went shopping. They wrapped the packages, got them through security, and on the luggage belt just as the passengers were arriving. A team of blue suited Santa’s helpers greeted them with a “merry Christmas” as they opened their gifts. Some people were in tears as they saw what “Santa” had given them.
In producing this video, they did a great kindness for a handful of people. They helped children and doubters believe in Santa Claus. They brought joy and peace to about 200 people, and through the video to millions of people around the world as one person shares it with their friends, and their friends share it with their friends, and so on. This marketing plan spread the news about the company a lot faster and with a lot less expense than a TV commercial.
You and I can do the same thing with our relationship with Jesus. We know he is our messiah, our God. We all have stories about how he has been present in our lives in difficult times. We all have stories about healings that seem impossible. We all have stories about the kindness of strangers who helped us. And we all have stories about how we have helped those in need.
For example, we can share the story of our angel tree. We are Santa to two families this year. The delight we see on the faces, the hugs we get, as the parents pick up the gifts for their children is all the thanks I need to keep me shopping again next year. The older children know what we do for them, and remember that we believe in Jesus, so they believe in him, too.
We can share the story of SOS, the food pantry. The hundred or more people who receive food each week at the food pantry know that without our help they would go hungry. They know it is because of Jesus that we give what we give.
We can share the story of how Hope likes to gather for a meal, for a concert, for a few games of Bingo, for an auction, and how we love a great party in Jesus’ honor.
We can share the story of how many shoeboxes our little congregation puts together each year, to the delight of children around the world.
We can share the story of how well we welcome visitors. Lots of congregations say they are welcoming. Ours usually outdoes others in the hospitality department. Our visitors tell me so!
We can share the stories about how our widows and widowers help and support each other with caring words, with invitations to a meal, with making sure they feel included and useful despite their new single status.
We can share the stories about what our money does. When we contribute to our congregation, to our synod, to the ELCA, to Lutheran World Relief, we help Jesus heal people around the world. We help the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and those with skin diseases have clean skin. We spread the good news that the dead will be raised to new life through our various ministries in the US and around the world.
When we share these stories with our friends, we help the good news of Jesus spread like a video virus. All it takes is for us to open our mouths and hearts and tell the stories of what Jesus is doing in our lives and at Hope.
This week, look for an opportunity to tell a story about what Jesus is doing in your life and at Hope. Don’t be afraid; trust in the Holy Spirit to put the right words in your mouth and in the listener’s ears and heart.
Please pray with me. Jesus, our Messiah and our God, we are so grateful for your presence in our lives. Help us to tell your stories, and to tell our stories, so those who need to hear them can know you, too. Amen

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Jesus is in the building

Isaiah 11:1–10; Romans 15:4–13; Matthew 3:1–12

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Instead of guiding us through four weeks of preparing for the birth of the baby, our texts lead us to examine the results of Jesus’ coming. Our texts today tell stories of a new world order, a peaceable kingdom.
Isaiah describes the ideal ruler for God’s people. The ruler will be a descendant of King David, and will be guided by God’s Spirit in all that he does. He will rule with God’s justice and fairness. There will be so much peace in the kingdom, wolf and sheep will sleep together without hunger or fear. These images have come to be known as the peaceable kingdom. In the new world order, the ruler’s reign will be glorious!
John the Baptist uses another image from Isaiah, that of a new path through the wilderness. Along this new path, this new way, the ideal leader will appear. John makes no friends when he declares that the current leaders are a pack of snakes, worthy of being trampled underfoot, as the satan was in Genesis 3. The new leader will judge with God’s justice, and sort out those who deserve to be saved from those who deserve to be condemned.
The new world order John imagines is far from Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom. The wrath of God takes care of those who do not offer God’s justice. Yet, John offers baptism as the way to make oneself right with God. Repent and change your ways, repent and change your life! In John’s new world order, those who change their ways will be saved.
In Paul’s vision of a new world order, all people will praise Jesus because all people belong to him. The image of the peaceable kingdom returns, as Paul imagines all people living in harmony and glorifying God. This is the kind of world we seek, the kind of world we hope to live in.
As we look around, it sure seems like the peaceable kingdom is as far from us as it seemed to John the Baptist. There are still wars, unjust political systems, poor people, prisoners, sick people.
Yet there are times and places when we know the world is worthy of Jesus; there are times and places when Jesus is in the building; there are times and places when we can see the peaceable kingdom.
Last Tuesday evening was one of those times. My vision for the Christians United worship event was to gather leaders that represented all of God’s people. It worked pretty well, I think. We had white people and black people as leaders. We had women and men as leaders. We had hearing people and hearing-challenged people. We had people from liturgical traditions, non-liturgical traditions, and Pentecostal traditions here. We sang and prayed with one voice. We hugged each other, filled with the joy of praising Jesus together. Jesus was definitely in the building, and we could clearly see the peaceable kingdom.
The whole world, well, most of the world, is saddened by the death of Nelson Mandela. He committed his life to creating a peaceable kingdom in South Africa. Speaking, gathering folks, demonstrating against the laws that separated white people from black people and people of color, slowly, and then suddenly, apartheid ended. In the meantime, Mandela spent 21 years in prison for his beliefs. But, instead of hating those who imprisoned him, he intentionally forgave them. He knew that to continue the hatred would keep him in prison, even though he was free. Soon, he was elected president of South Africa, and helped the country establish and implement just laws. Jesus is in the country, and as the country grieves Mandela’s death, they all have a sense of being together in a peaceable kingdom.
I viewed a short video the other day. Imagine mannequins in a store window. Perfectly shaped bodies, long arms and legs, just the right amount of plumpness in just the right places. We compare ourselves to the mannequins and see that we are taller or shorter, fatter or skinnier than they are.
Now imagine how the physically deformed persons feel comparing themselves to the mannequins. The video showed the development of mannequins to match the physical deformities of several models. There was a man with a prosthetic leg, a man in a wheel chair whose whole body was small, and a woman with spina bifida, which caused her body to be unnaturally twisted.
Measurements were taken, forms recast, until finally, there were mannequins to match the shapes of the people. The mannequins were dressed and placed in the store windows. In the last scenes, we see the models looking at their mannequins, and really seeing themselves in the clothing. Instead of noticing how their bodies were so different from the perfection of the mannequin, they saw the perfection of themselves. Jesus was in the store window, and the models had a sense of living in a peaceable kingdom.
I hope we have all given something to disaster relief for the Philippines. Leonora has five children. As the storm approached, the family took shelter in a house that was stronger than their own, and survived the typhoon. Their home was severely damaged, and Leonora’s business of selling dried fish has faltered. Too many people cannot afford to buy her fish. The oldest daughter has moved to a larger city to work as a housekeeper.
Lutheran World Relief has made emergency shelter a priority. They have given Leonora and 5,000 more families plywood, lumber, corrugated sheets, nails, hammers, and saws so they can repair their houses. With our help, Leonora will not be homeless for long, her business will recover, and her family will be together under one roof again.
As the Filipinos rebuild their homes and their lives with our help, they know that Jesus is in the rebuilding, and they can see a bit of the peaceable kingdom God intended for them.
This week, think about how Jesus has been in the building with you. Where and when have you experienced God’s peaceable kingdom? In what ways is God leading you to repent?

Please pray with me. Give us your forgiveness, Lord, as we discover our need for repentance. Give us your eyes, Lord, to see what you are doing in our lives, in our places, every day. Give us your heart, Lord, to feel your presence, your peaceable kingdom, wherever you reign. Amen 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Be ready!

After two weeks with others preaching for our stewardship program, I'm back.

Isaiah 2:1–5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11–14; Matthew 24:36–44

Some days I wish we had the capability of showing images during worship, but we don’t. You’ll just have to use your imagination as I paint some pictures for your mind.
Near the end of his life, Jesus is in Jerusalem, challenging the leaders, publicly condemning their unjust practices. Late in the day, he gathers the disciples in the olive grove on the hill opposite the temple in Jerusalem. He has been talking a lot lately about the destruction of the temple, and about a time when he will leave them. He also assures them that he will return to them.
Like all of us, the disciples are puzzled, confused. They want to know the facts; they ask Jesus when all this will happen. But, Jesus says, he doesn’t know. No one knows, only God knows. In the meantime, his followers should be ready.
Paul urges the Roman believers to be ready for the new world. We hear his words as good advice for us today. Be ready to put on the Lord Jesus Christ as our armor; be ready to follow Jesus wherever he leads us; be ready to see him again. Be ready.
Once a week, on his show, Steve Harvey honors a hero, someone who has made a real difference in the lives of others. This week, the hero was California Highway Patrol Sergeant Kevin Briggs, who is nicknamed the Guardian of the Golden Gate. He sees a lot of desperate people as he drives over the bridge, and he has learned to always be ready. Since 1994,Sgt Briggs has saved more than 200 people, convincing them to not jump from the bridge. His compassionate listening skills help the desperate folks realize that someone does care about them, that there is a reason they are alive, and that the pain they are feeling will not last forever. Sgt Briggs helps them develop a plan for tomorrow, and stops them from ending their lives. Be ready to save a life.
The Prophet Isaiah imagined a day when swords would be recast as plows, and spears reshaped into pruning hooks. Today’s weapons are different, bombs and bullets and drones have replaced swords and spears and boulders, but the goal of ending war remains.
Civil Wars ravaged the country of Liberia from 1989-2003. Jonathan Worlobah found a new use for the used bullet shells that littered his country. He reshaped them into crosses. Crafting and selling the bullet crosses provided an income for himself and his family, and gave hope to those who work to restore order to his country. Be ready to change swords into plowshares.
John T Young turns parts of decommissioned nuclear submarines into art. A friend of his told him the navy was trying to get rid of some material that was impossible to recycle. John looked at the pieces and knew instantly what to do with them. The horizontal fins – like tails on a submarine – look like dorsal fins of orca whales when planted in the ground. Together, the dozen or so fins looks like a whole pod of whales. Be ready to have a new vision.
Hazel is a patient at Children’s Hospital enduring 18 months of treatment for a cancer in her belly. One day, she wrote on her window – or had someone write – “send pizza, room 4112”. Someone saw the message, and sent pizza. They also took a picture and posted it on the internet, so lots of people saw the message. Suddenly, there was so much pizza, Hazel and her roommate shared it with all the kids on the floor. Finally, Hazel’s mother had to call the pizza shops and tell them to stop sending pizza. Be ready to send pizza to sick little girls.
Jeff was a chef in a restaurant with $40 entrees. He was earning over $100,000 a year when he went through a divorce. In the process of reshaping his life, he realized that he was empty spiritually. When he saw an advertisement for a job as a cook at the local Salvation Army soup kitchen, he applied. Now, he earns about $30,000 a year. Using donated food, fresh fruits and vegetables, and his own creative skills he has reduced the cost of meals to about $.60. He has also revived his faith in Jesus. Be ready to change your life.  
Tony Rohr had worked for Pizza Hut for 10 years. Until a few days ago, he was a manager at his store. When his boss told him the Pizza Hut would be open on Thanksgiving Day, Tony resisted. It wouldn’t be the boss who had to work; it would be the lowest paid employees who had to give up their time off. In a conversation with his boss, Tony was asked to resign, and refused. His boss fired him. Be ready to stand up for what is right. Be ready to stand up for the poorest folks.
A group of folks who love video games meets together about twice a year. They bring their own laptops and play games, eat, and party for several days. They met in Portland, Oregon about a week before Thanksgiving, and were given the instructions to bring non-perishable food to share with the hungry. Their gifts totaled about 37,500 pounds. Be ready to feed the hungry.
100,000 homes is a movement to get the chronically poor and medically challenged off the streets and into safe, inexpensive housing. The Housing First program has shown that when homeless people are given a place to live, most of the other problems disappear. Yes, there are exceptions, and yes, it doesn’t work for everyone, but the movement is proving it works for most folks. Together with other goals: know who is homeless, and improve local systems, the goal is to get 100,000 people off the streets.
These are just facts and numbers and ideals until we see the video of photos – faces, names, and locations of people who used to be homeless. Ed: Skid Row. Fey: Santa Monica. Cato: San Diego. James: Phoenix. 100,000 Homes sees the homeless as individuals with potential, not as throw-away people who should be shunned. Be ready to see the people behind the statistics. Be ready to give homes to those without a place to live.    
Be ready, Jesus and Paul say. Be ready to see Jesus in each other, and in our neighbors, including the ones we don’t like. Be ready to be Jesus’s hands, feet, and heart. Be ready to make a difference. Be ready, because it is through us that Jesus has indeed already returned.
Let all God’s people say, “Amen!”

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The silver is mine, the gold is mine

Haggai 1:15b—2:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:1–5, 13–17; Luke 20:27–38
In our creeds, we state that we believe in the resurrection of the body. We might wonder what our bodies will be like. Will Mike’s resurrected body have his old knee, or the knee that the doctor installed a couple of months ago? Will our resurrected bodies still be able to enjoy chocolate? Will our resurrected bodies still play golf, or the piano, or mahjong? … Does it really matter what our resurrected body will look like? Are these not rather preposterous questions?
In today’s Gospel, the Sadducees ask Jesus a preposterous question. Usually, the Gospels report Jesus’ interactions with the Scribes and the Pharisees. In this story, it’s the Sadducees who ask the questions. The Pharisees include the Torah – the first five books of the Bible – as well as the Prophets and the Psalms among their sacred writings. The Sadducees claim only the Torah as sacred writing. Because there is no reference to resurrection in the Torah, they deny that resurrection is possible.  
The Sadducees create a preposterous question to ask Jesus, to see how he will respond. Their question is based on a law in Leviticus, describing how widows will be cared for, and how a man will have children even if he dies. The rule is this: If a man dies and his wife survives, but they don’t have any sons, the man’s brother must marry the woman. This law is designed to take care of the widow by giving her a home and a family. The first son born to the widow is the son of the deceased man when it comes to dividing the property.
The Sadducees use this law to provoke Jesus. “Suppose,” they say, “a man dies before having children, and his brother marries the widow. Seven times this happens. When the woman dies, who will her husband be in the resurrection?”
 Jesus replies that they don’t understand resurrected life. Life after resurrection will be different than life we know it on earth. After death, those who believe will be like angels, and they are children of God.
This is just about the only thing Jesus says about life after death that is not a parable. It will be good; it is something to look forward to. This promise gives us hope. Giving us this glimpse of life after death is one way in which God takes care of us. Creating laws to protect widows and laws regarding fair distribution of property are more ways in which God cares for us.
We can turn the image around, and see how we care for what God gives us. Five hundred years before Jesus, the Jews had returned to Jerusalem after the exile. They were slow in rebuilding the temple. They were busy building their own lives and businesses and weren’t really worried about the temple. Few, if any, of the folks remembered the temple in its former glory. By the time they returned from Babylon, the temple was a pile of rubble, huge stones piled one on top of another. The gold that once adorned the temple was gone, melted in the fires of the destruction 50 years before.   
The Lord said to Haggai, let’s get the folks back to work on the temple. Go speak to the leaders and tell them that the Lord wants the temple rebuilt, and will help make it happen. Say to them for me, “I am the same Lord who led you out of slavery and I promise to help you today and in the future. I will make the other nations bring you gold and silver so the temple will glow with my glory once again.”
Haggai makes it clear to the people that the gold and silver they will receive is not theirs to own, but God’s to distribute. I am struck by this verse, where God says, “The silver is mine and gold is mine.” There is no doubt about the owner of what we have. What we have comes from God, and we are to use it in ways that please God.
… I heard a story the other day. John’s salary was just enough, until one day, for six weeks, it dropped drastically. John and his wife had a baby, and their biggest need was baby food in jars. They didn’t know what they were going to do, but they decided to pray about it.
The next day a neighbor approached him with a puzzled look. I’m not sure why I have this, but someone just gave me a bunch of jars of baby food. I don’t have a baby, but I know that you do. Can you use it?
Of course, John was delighted to receive the food. For some reason, every week, for six weeks, until his salary went back to normal, the neighbor brought him a bag of baby food. As soon as John’s salary was restored, the baby food stopped coming. There was no explanation for why the neighbor had the baby food, but it was clear in his mind that it was his to give away.
When we don’t have enough, God does notice. We have what we have for our own use, and to give glory to God as we use it. We give glory to God when we help others in need.
… Many years ago, I was in Chicago during a poverty immersion experience. I remember hearing that the people of the Garfield neighborhood tithed, giving 10% of whatever they had. These were people who barely could feed and house themselves. They depended on the Bethel New Life Ministry for its soup kitchen and health clinic. Yet, every person there gave generously to the ministry, because they knew without a doubt that there were people who were worse off than themselves.
… Haggai and the other prophets called the people to pay attention to God and to those in need, like the widows in their midst. In Haggai’s time and place the folks were more interested in taking care of themselves than in taking care of the neighbor, and giving honor and glory to God. Rebuilding the temple took the focus off themselves and back onto God where it belonged.
The Scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees were more interested in honoring God by paying attention to the letter of the law than they were in caring for those in need. They resented Jesus because he called attention to their sin, and they naturally resisted it.
Even with all their resistance, even from the cross, Jesus called all to repentance and acceptance of him. He called on God to forgive even those who put him to death. The gift of resurrection is offered to all people. Those who share what they have, who remember that the gold and the silver they have belongs to God, those are the folks who welcome the promise of the resurrection. In a community where all have enough, we experience a bit of the resurrected life on earth.
The people helped by New Life Ministry trust God to give them enough, even though they give a significant portion of what they have away. John and his wife prayed for God’s help, and suddenly, they had baby food. They are already experiencing resurrection life.
… So, why do you have what you have? Do you have it because you earned it? Do you have it to make your own life better? Do you have it to make someone else’s life better? Do you have it to give glory to God? Do you have it so you can experience some of the resurrected life today? Do you trust God to make sure you have enough?
This week, as you pray about how much you will give to Hope next year, remember that what you have is really God’s. Your silver is God’s, your gold is God’s, your paycheck is God’s, your retirement check is God’s, your Social Security check is God’s, your allowance is God’s. Consider how what you offer will give glory to God through Hope’s ministries.
Please pray with me. God of mercy, you give us what we need, and more. Teach us to share as generously as you do. Give us a glimpse of life in the resurrection here on earth, and give us the assurance of resurrected life with you when we die. Amen

Saturday, November 2, 2013

All Saints Sunday - Blessed to be a blessing

Ephesians 1:11–23; Luke 6:20–31

Luke’s Beatitudes are intended to shock the listener and the reader. These are not gentle statements, these Lukan Beatitudes. Jesus begins, blessed are the poor. Not the poor in spirit, as in Matthew.
The Greek work for poor is ptochoi. It’s where we get the cartoon word ptooey, for spit. So, in Luke, Jesus says, blessed are the spit-upon. Blessed are the ones who can’t find work; who stand at street corners begging for a dollar or two; who live in the woods or in homeless shelters. The spit-upon are hungry, and they weep because of all they do not have, and because of the injustice that has kept them from having it.
Luke goes further, turning the tables. Woe to us who have whatever we need, and whatever we want. The sense is that if we don’t help those who are spit upon, WE will be the ones who are spit-upon.
This was a radical idea in Jesus’ time, because the belief was that if you had what you needed, you were blessed. If you were the poor, the spit-upon, you or someone in your family must have done something wrong. God was withholding blessings from you. Once more, Jesus’ listeners would have gasped in horror at what Jesus was saying. It was the opposite of what they had been taught, and the opposite of what they wanted to hear.
We are not so happy hearing it, either. I know people who don’t give God credit for what they have. They believe that everything they have is the result of their own hard work. When something happens, like the great recession we have just gone through, they just work harder.
… In contrast, we, the people of Hope, recognize that what we have comes from God. We know that we are blessed in order to bless others. As we celebrate today the lives of those who have gone before us, what we often remember about them is how they blessed others with what they had. We remember today those who died in the last year: Delbert Banks, Teofilo Diaz, “Bud” Drew, John Laning, and Helga Whitler.
I remember Del’s care for Irma as he brought her to worship and made sure she was safe in her home until she needed professional care in her last weeks.
Teo loved his wife and his family, especially his grandchildren. He loved baseball, watching it as much as he could. And he enjoyed his coffee, “tepidissimo”, very tepid, cool enough to drink in one long gulp. He loved helping me remember Spanish, as I loved taking communion to him, and encouraged me as I read the familiar words in Spanish. When I said, “Oremos, Let us pray”, he launched into his own prayer, which included his family and me, his pastora.  
Bud was an example for all of us how physical disability was no reason to not live a full and happy life. His love and care for his wife Irene was evident. He greeted everyone with a big smile, and gave me that same smile as I brought communion to him.
 John was one of our snowbirds, who had a great sense of humor and a joy of helping where he could. He and Margaret often attended the noon Advent and Lent services, and thanked me for offering them.
It’s Helga whom I knew the best, because she was the most active. Her love of her family is famous, and her love of crafting hand-made cards and gifts is just as famous. Martha circle dearly misses her love, her joy, and her passion for giving to others. Unlike many folks her age who shun the computer, she kept in touch with family and friends on Facebook and by email. In her eyes, everyone else was more important. She actively shared her blessings with others, giving all she had to others.
My brother-in-law Dennis, Mike’s brother, died a week ago after a long life managing heart disease. He lived life the way he wanted to. As an artist, he wanted to paint only for the joy of painting, not to sell lots of prints and make lots of money from the same image. He passionately loved his wife Jane and his daughter Sylvia. Until he was no longer physically able to get there, he had coffee every morning with a group of friends, many of whom were painters. He had strong opinions about everything, and would share them with everyone, at length. He also had a great sense of humor, especially a love of puns, which he also shared with everyone.  
… It doesn’t matter what gifts God has given us, we are made by God to share them. We often consider gifts to be performance art, like singing, playing an instrument, dancing, and so forth. But God intentionally gives us all different gifts, because if we all were singers or dancers or pianists, who would be the listeners and watchers? Who would repair the instruments? Who would make up the programs and invitations?
Those we remember today offered joy, smiles, love of family, love of life and church. These seem like simple, unimportant gifts to offer, but think about how these folks made you feel. A ready smile and warm welcome is no simple gift after all.
As we sit here today, we have many gifts represented. We have story tellers, teachers, organizers, people who visit, handy men and women, financial people, lawn mowers and trimmers, communicators, gardeners, quilters, shoebox fillers, decorators, cooks, dish washers, bulletin stuffers, altar servers, ushers, acolytes, greeters, singers, readers, musicians, food-bringers, offering-givers, prayers, welcomers. I’m sure I missed some. What would you add? …
No gift is too small or unimportant. Together, the gifts we share make it possible for us to do ministry right here at Hope, in our immediate and surrounding communities, and around the nation and the world.
One of my favorite living saints is Casey. She learned about the need for volunteers at SOS, the food pantry we support. She has joined the crew and goes to hand out food and other needs at the weekly food distribution. The people she serves are the ptochoi – the poor, the spit-upon – in Citrus County. In addition, she encourages us to share what we have with those who need our help. Casey regularly reminds us that we are blessed to be a blessing to others.
Casey will shrug this off, and say, it’s no big deal. But it IS a big deal. She is a witness to us that at least some of us should be there in body as well as in donations.  
Today, as we remember the saints in our lives, remember the lessons they have taught us. This month, as you decide how much support you will put in the offering plate next year, pray about being as faithful as the saints who have gone before you. Count your financial blessings. And count the ways in which you share those blessings with others. Count your blessings of time and talent, too. Count the ways in which you can share them with others. Consider, are you happy with the balance between what you have and what you give? Is there anything you need to change?

Please pray with me. Good and gracious God, you give us so much. You give us each other -- people to love and learn from. You give us things – houses, cars, jobs, talents, time. You give us things to do, ministry, work, leisure. You give us your Son, who models for us extreme servanthood. And you give us the promise of life with you, today, and after our earthly life has ended. Thank you for all this. Amen 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

We are free

 Romans 3:19–28; John 8:31–36
Yesterday, I was watching a movie in which a small story line was about a little girl who seemed to have a secret. Over and over again, she ran away instead of revealing her secret. Finally, she told another girl. Her secret was that she had trouble reading. Once her secret was out, she was freer to have good friends and more honest relationships. She also got help learning to read.
In our Gospel text, Jesus is speaking to some Jews who believed in him, but didn’t completely understand what he meant when he spoke in metaphors. Jesus speaks about freedom, and his listeners automatically assume he is talking about political freedom. They claim that they have never been slaves; we wonder why they have forgotten that they were once slaves in Egypt; they might as well have been slaves during the exile in Babylon; and they were under the control of the Romans in Jesus’ time. Even though they were not called slaves, they were still not free. How could they forget?
I have been in places where the people were not free. In 1987 I was with a group of women in East Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union. The Iron Curtain was still hanging in place, but it had begun to rust.
The people my group met with knew that they were not politically free. For example: we had been in Germany for a few days, and I had been feeling sorry for the people I met. The sacrifices Christians made under communism were huge; they were limited in career choices, in housing choices, in income potential, and in the ability to leave the country.
One evening after a long day including a tour of Auschwitz, we were the guests at a concert at a church. The pastor of the church began by saying, “I have heard about your day. Tonight we will minister to you.” I began to cry. In my arrogance, I assumed that because they were Christians in a communist country, they needed our help, and that we were there to minister to them in their need. However, these Christians knew that even though they were the slaves in the communist regime, they were free in their hearts because they had Jesus.
It took Luther years to figure this out. He was so caught up in confessing all of his sins that he found no peace in being Christian. Once he began to read the scriptures looking for God’s grace, he found it everywhere, especially in Paul’s letters. One of the first places where he found grace was in this passage from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome.
Paul declares we are made righteous in God’s eyes because of God’s love for us, not because of anything we do. As a result, when we don’t have to worry about doing all the right things and not doing any of the wrong things, we are free to love all people as God’s children. We are free to live as Jesus’ disciples and share the good news of God’s grace, God’s undeserved forgiveness.
After his discovery of God’s grace, Luther’s robust life was filled with joy even though he faced conflict after conflict with the powerful Roman Catholic Church leaders. He found freedom in his faith in Jesus.
Martin Luther King also found freedom in Jesus. Compelled to work to end racism and its effects on people of color in the US, King preached and marched and organized peaceful resistance to the laws that separate people based on the color of their skin. Even in jail, he felt free to act in Jesus’ name. Even knowing there was a target on his back because of his mission to free all people from the slavery of racism, he continued. In his heart he was free to follow Jesus into the dangerous territory of challenging the powers that be.
Like the Jews who were with Jesus, we can be enslaved without knowing it. We are slaves to anything that prevents us from living fully as Jesus’ people. We are slaves to worry about lots of things. We are slaves to tradition, and the feeling that we always have to do certain things in a certain way. We are slaves to the past and our memories which control how we live today. We are slaves to our belongings and the need to maintain and protect them.
In contrast to these things that enslave us, we can be free. Freedom for us today means that we can focus on our relationship with Jesus first. It means that when we put God first in our lives, all the rest falls into place. It means that we are free from worrying about doing things the right way. It means that we can live in the present without fear of the future. It means we don’t need to worry if we are saved or not, because we are. It means we are free to attend Bible studies that open our minds to a deeper understanding of who God is.
Freedom for us today means that we can focus on sharing Jesus with others. We are free to experiment with new ministries, knowing that if the experiment fails, we have not disappointed God. We are free to invite our neighbors to join us in worship and other activities because God will put words in our mouths and open our neighbors’ ears.
This week, ponder what enslaves you, and why. Consider what frees you from your those things that enslave you. And give thanks for God’s grace, shown so powerfully through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension to power.

Please pray with me. God of love, shower your grace upon us so that we feel truly free to be your people. Amen 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Talk to the hand!

Luke 18:1-8

Today, the Gospel text is about prayer, persistent prayer. What are some ways God answers prayers? Yes, no, wait, I’ve got something better in mind, I’ll help you do it

When Jesus tells a parable, he doesn’t often tell us what it means. In this case, he tells us what it means right up front. He says, Pray continuously (or persistently) and don’t be discouraged.

In the parable, there is a widow who has a legal concern, and judge who refuses to grant her a hearing, much less give her justice. Probably, the widow had an issue about some land, or at least some place to live. For example, it’s possible that a relative had allowed her to live in a house he owned, and now was evicting her. She was about to be homeless.

The judge is so wrapped up in himself and his own importance that he pays no attention to God or to the people of his town. He doesn’t care that justice is denied to a lot of people as long as he maintains his own status.

I chose the image for this week’s worship booklet cover. It’s such a simple drawing, of a woman and the judge who refuses to pay any attention to her. The way he holds his hand up to her says a lot. Don’t bother me! Go away! In the language of young people, it says, Talk to the hand!

The widow pesters and pesters him, everywhere she sees him, until he finally agrees to her demand just to get rid of her.

As I read this parable, I see two strong contrasts. The judge is an obvious contrast to God, who is always willing to hear our concerns and grant us justice.

The other contrast is the widow. We forget, when we read about this widow, that women are third class citizens in ancient society. They are never to speak directly to men outside their families. They have few rights, despite frequent reminders in scripture that they should be taken care of. The usual image of them is of silent, at-risk women. Naomi, who calls herself bitter, quietly arranges a second marriage for Ruth. The widow at the offering box puts in her last two coins. The widow loses a coin and searches for it with lamp and broom.

This widow, however, steps out of the usual mold. She speaks up, to this man who is not a family member, because he is the only one who can give her what she needs. She never stops asking for what she needs. She is persistent. In the same way, Jesus says, we, too, are to be persistent in asking God for what we need.

Of course, God would never raise a hand to us and say, Go away, don’t bother me! In contrast, all over Israel, and in some parts of the Muslim world, is the image of a hand. This hand symbol was everywhere in Israel. It was printed on T-shirts, sold as jewelry and wall decorations, sun-catchers, bookmarks and stickers.

You have a bulletin insert with two pictures of the hand, called hamsa or hamesh. There are many symbols on the hand, often some Hebrew letters and an eye.

The Hebrew letters are pronounced heh [hay], which means five, as in five fingers. Heh is also one way of referring to God, as part of God’s holy name.

The eye is a talisman against the evil eye, but I like to think of it as God watching over us. We receive good things from God’s hands. The hamsa hand symbolizes all that is good about God.

So, instead of God putting up a hand to get rid of us, God holds out a hand of invitation and welcome. Jesus tells us to pray continuously, asking for what we need, and to not get discouraged. God welcomes our prayers, and encourages us to pray persistently.

Praying may change God. More often it changes us. Perhaps it was prayer that turned a widow from an invisible woman into a persistent beggar for justice.

When we pray for a long time for something, and it seems like God is not answering us, is anything happening? Perhaps God is simply telling us to wait until the time is right. Perhaps God is telling us to ask for something else, or to ask for it in another way.  Perhaps God is telling us we can do something to help ourselves.

My father had glaucoma, and lost his eyesight because of it. He prayed and prayed for God to restore his eyesight, but that never happened. I think he should have prayed also for God to help him accept his new circumstances and learn to enjoy life anyway. If time and circumstances were different, I’d have taken him to Blind Americans and let Bob put him to work building something with his hands.

This week, I invite you to pray persistently, with your whole heart. If you are already praying for something persistently with no response, I suggest you look for a different way to pray about it. Perhaps God is trying to change you through your prayers. Perhaps God is challenging you to do something instead of hoping God will give it to you with no effort on your part.

Please pray with me. Lord, you hold out your hand in welcome, inviting us to pray, and to pray persistently. We pray, asking for justice, knowing you will grant it, even if human justice isn’t always just. We pray, hoping for miracles, and yet we know not all prayers are answered with miracles. Keep us from feeling discouraged. We pray, and pray, and pray, and discover that we have been changed, and our prayers are answered through the changes inside of us. Give us the wisdom to know how our prayers have already been answered. Amen 

The word “hamsa” or “hamesh” means five. There are five digits on the hamsa hand, but the number five has additional symbolic meaning in the Jewish and Islamic traditions. Five (hamesh in Hebrew) represents the five books of the Torah for Jews. It also symbolizes the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, "Heh", which represents one of God’s holy names. It symbolizes the Five Pillars of Islam for Sunnis, and the Five People of the Cloak for Shi'ites.
In the Jewish religion, the Jewish hamsa hand also symbolizes the Hand of God. Many Jews believe the hamsa pendant symbolizes the Hand of Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron. In the Islamic faith, the hamsa hand symbolizes The Hand of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Mohammed.

Many Jews believe that the five fingers of the hamsa hand remind its wearer to use their five senses to praise God. Hamsa hands often contain an eye symbol, which is a powerful talisman against the evil eye. It is most often worn as a hamsa necklace, but can be found as a decorative element in houses, on key chains, on other jewelry items, and is quickly gaining popularity as an amulet in baby carriages. In addition to averting the gaze of the evil eye, it brings its wearer or owner happiness, luck, health, and good fortune.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

You have enough faith!

Lamentations 1:1–6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1–14; Luke 17:5–10

What are some bad things that happen in our lives? …
I think it’s a common experience. Something really bad happens in our lives, and we feel like we don’t have enough faith to get through it.
Jesus has an answer for us. We DO have enough faith. We have all the faith we need, even if our faith seems as small as a mustard seed. The size of our faith is not up to us, anyway. Our faith is planted and watered and made to grow by the Holy Spirit. Of course, it is the tough times that help our faith increase in size, as we learn the hard way that it is our faith, large or small, that gets us through whatever is going on, along with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Faith is a theme of all four of our texts today. Jesus sets the standard in the Gospel. How much faith we have is not important. It’s as matter-of-fact as doing the job we are supposed to do.
In the text from Lamentations, the timing is after the fall of Jerusalem. The whole city was destroyed, including the temple. Jeremiah the prophet is lamenting the loss of their home and all that was familiar.
There is real pain, grief, sadness in this text. The people are being exported to Babylon, walking 1,000 miles to their new home. There are no options, other than death. There is no way of knowing if they will ever return, and there is nothing left to return to, anyway. They are afraid their children and grandchildren will not know the joys of Jerusalem.
In this text, Jeremiah weeps for all the people, expressing what they are all feeling. As bad as conditions are, the majority of the exiles held onto their faith, finding ways to be Jewish in secret, and hoping for a return to the homeland. As it turns out, the Jews will live in Babylonian exile for over 40 years.
The Psalm is an appropriate response to Lamentations. Once in Babylon, the reality of the exile hit the folks hard. Their captors taunted them: “Sing one of your religious songs. We know how much you love to sing!” Of course they don’t feel like singing! They feel a lot more like bashing the heads of the enemies’ infants against a rock! Even so, their faith remains strong, begging God to help them remember their Lord by remembering the city and faith the Lord gave them.
 In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he is writing with words of encouragement in the current situation. When we look back to the first letter, we discover that Pastor Timothy is dealing with some folks who believe Jesus is coming very soon. They figure they can just sit and wait for Jesus, and let other people take care of them in the meantime. Timothy has been trying to correct this belief and running into conflict with the members. It has challenged his faith. But Paul assures him he has plenty of faith.
It’s interesting to note that Timothy is a third generation believer – brought to faith by his mother and grandmother. He can rely on the memory of these family members to strengthen his own confidence, because God gives us courage, not cowardice. So, Timothy should boldly proclaim the Gospel as Paul and his mother and grandmother taught it to him, and have no fear. The Holy Spirit has his back, as we might say today.
… Today, as we face cancer, surgery, aging, loss of a loved one, loss of memory, conflict, financial challenges, relationship challenges, we pray that we have what it takes to get through them. And Jesus reminds us that we have enough faith, AND we have the help of the Holy Spirit. The Holy spirit has our back, too.
We have enough faith to know that Jesus is always with us in the presence of the Holy Spirit. We have enough faith to receive the gift of love and friendship of our friends as we live through the current crisis. We have faith enough to forgive, even if the deed seems unforgivable. We have enough faith to heal, to allow ourselves to be healed.
We also have enough faith to try new things for the sake of Jesus. We can try new worship services. We can try new schedules. We can try a new Bible study class. We can try to reach our neighbors in new ways.
… The Mower Guys have enough faith. They realized that the city of Detroit did not have money for mowing the grass on city parks. They began taking care of a few of the parks, concentrating on the ones with playground equipment, so kids could play there. They began with a few guys, and a few tractor mowers and weed trimmers. They go out every other Wednesday and take care of a few parks. A few businesses and individuals support them with equipment donations, and volunteers show up to help.
When they began, they weren’t sure it would work. Detroit isn’t the safest place, after all. But the donations include bullet-proof vests, and they pack enough heat to ward off attacks.
Good things are happening as a result of their mowing. Local folks are forming groups and reclaiming their neighborhoods. They contact the mower guys and partner with them in cleaning up the closest park. Although lots of folks have left Detroit, those who remain are beginning to take back the city, beat back the blight, and seek the hope Jesus promised them. They are learning they have enough faith to make their city livable again.
… Hope does lots of things to bring hope to others: food for the food pantry, bags of food for children on weekends, shoeboxes, quilts, diapers, cash. We have faith that the small and larger ways we are able to help will have great impact.
We try new things, and have faith that God will prosper us, even if it takes a while. We may squabble with each other, but at the same time we have faith that God is leading Hope into a great future.
Please pray with me. Lord, some days we feel like we don’t have much faith to get through the tough days in our lives. Help us know we have faith enough for whatever happens to us. And, Lord, we ask that you will grant us the wisdom and courage to go forward in ministry, reaching out more and more to those who seek you. Amen

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Angels and Humans

Michael and All Angels
Daniel 10:10–14; 12:1–3; Psalm 103:1–5, 20–22; Revelation 12:7–12; Luke 10:17–20

Today, we celebrate angels, regular angels and the archangels Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael. Many people doubt the existence of angels, but even the Bible tells us they are real, mostly invisible beings.
Before we get to today’s texts about angels, let’s talk about angels in popular culture. Our culture tells us angels appear to us in human form with divine power; they are helpful, teachers, help lead to God.
Name some TV shows and movies about angels, or where angels play a large part. Touched by an Angel; Highway to Heaven; It’s a Wonderful Life; Angels in the Outfield. …
What else do people believe about angels from the culture? Guardian angels; we become angels when we die; angel on one shoulder, devil on the other; angel of death guides us into next life.
We hear stories about angels pulling people out of crushed cars, flying next to airplanes, appearing out of nowhere to save human lives. Guideposts magazine includes lots of these stories.
… Let’s compare these cultural images with the images we find in scripture, in today’s texts, and a few more. The first image I want to use comes from Genesis. Abraham and Sarah offer hospitality to three visitors who are later identified as the Lord and two angels. The visitors promise Sarah that within a year she will have a baby.
Daniel is in exile in Babylon, struggling to find his way as a Jew in a Gentile culture. Things get tough, and he wonders how he will manage. Suddenly, a heavenly being appears and touches him. The angel speaks: ‘I have been with the angel prince of Persia, who detained me for three weeks, or I would have been here sooner. Finally, Michael, an angel prince, came to help me, so I could come to you. I bring you good news about the future of your people, Israel. You will be delivered, and those who are faithful will shine like stars in God’s book of life.’ (Pastor Lynn’s paraphrase)
In the Psalm, angels are described as mighty ones, who do God’s bidding, who obey the Lord. We should join the angels in blessing and praising God.
In Revelation, the angels are engaged in cosmic warfare against the evil one and his angels. God’s angels are victorious, the text claims, because of the blood of the Lamb – in other words -- because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This battle happens outside of the human realm, in God’s heavenly sphere.
At Jesus’ birth the angels sing as they share the news with the shepherds. At the tomb, there is an angel, or several angels depending on the Gospel, who give the message to Mary and the other women that Jesus is not there, he has been raised.
So, angels in scripture are messengers between God and humans, and cosmic warriors against evil powers. They are heavenly, spiritual beings, who do God’s bidding. They are above us humans in rank, or put differently, we are a little lower than them.
… The image of angels in our Gospel text is different. The disciples have just returned from their mission trip, when they were send out two-by-two. They are excited to tell Jesus and the other disciples about their experiences of healing the ill and casting out demons. The disciples return from their mission trip amazed that they have access to such power.
It is from this text that we get the image of Satan as a fallen angel, although Satan is not called an angel. Jesus says, ‘I saw Satan falling like a flash of lightning.’ The Greek verb tense for falling gives the sense that Satan was falling over and over again in the same way that lightning flashes again and again. While in the cosmic sense, Satan has been defeated, in the human realm, Satan’s evil powers continue to plague and deceive us. Satan needs to be defeated again and again.
It’s in the gospel text that we get the answer to the “So what?” question. After this brief exploration of angels, “so what” does it mean for us that angels exist? The disciples return from their mission trip excited about the power they have experienced to heal. Yet, Jesus cautions them to rejoice, not in the power, but that their names are written in heaven.
The “so what” for us is that we should not spend a lot of time looking for angels, but that we should focus on allowing God’s power to flow through us to reach others. Today, we can be the angel messengers, bringing God’s message of hope to those who need some hope. We can tell others about Jesus’ love for them, trusting that God’s Holy Spirit will help us speak, and will also help them listen to our words.
Watch for times this week to be an angel to someone in need, appearing in unexpected ways at unexpected times, to share God’s love. You may save a life or change the world they live in, just by daring to be their angel for a moment.
Please pray with me. Almighty God, your angels fight against evil, empowered by the blood of the Lamb. Your angels appear out of nowhere to bring words of hope and mercy to us and all who need it. Show us when we can be like angels and give good news and hope to your people. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen