Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The message

As I have been planning Christmas gifts, I have used phone calls, emails, and text messages to determine the best gift for each family and grandchild. Since it costs so much to mail a package, I have sent electronic gift certificates to some of the distant family members. They do the same for us, too.
Most of the time, when I was working on this particular aspect of Christmas shopping, I got the message that my purchase was successful. However, one granddaughter wanted a specific gift card. I tried for an hour to find a way to send her one. No matter what I tried, I kept getting error messages. I finally chose another product, which gave me no trouble, and a message that my purchase had been successful. We all like messages bearing good news.

It strikes me how often in Luke a story is told about someone receiving a message. This message comes frequently, but not always, from an angel. Luke’s gospel begins with the angel Gabriel giving Zechariah the message that he was going to be a father, and that Elizabeth would bear a son named John who would himself be a messenger. I would love to have been in the room when Zechariah gave Elizabeth this message!
Then, a few months later Gabriel gives Mary the message that she will be the mother of the Messiah. Once she believes it herself, she has to share the angel’s message with Joseph, and I’m sure, with her mother and father.
When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, the unborn child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy. John is already announcing the coming of the messiah.
In tonight’s gospel reading, angels give shepherds the message that the messiah has been born. Wouldn’t you love to have been out there with the shepherds? The shepherds gave Mary and Joseph the message that they had been sent by angels to see the baby.
After they have visited the family, the shepherds return to the fields, praising God, and most likely, telling everyone the message that they had some amazing news.
All of the messages point to this one message: I bring you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
Tonight, we hear this message once more, just as many of us have heard it every year for all our lives. To us, gathered here for worship, there is good news which brings us great joy. A savior has been born who is the messiah, our Lord.
In Luke, the angel tells Mary the baby is to be named Jesus, which in Hebrew means savior, deliver, rescuer. Jesus comes to preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and the recovery of sight to the blind. We all need this message of good news, that our present situation will not last forever.
In Matthew, the angel tells Joseph that the baby is to be called Emmanuel, which means God is with us. No matter how crummy things are in my life, Jesus is here with me.
I count on Emmanuel a lot. I reason that since God came to us as Jesus, God-with-skin-on, God knows what it is like to be human. God knows how hard it is to earn a living; God knows how hard it is to battle a life-threatening or chronic illness; God knows what it feels like when someone we love dies. When I take time to sit or walk in silence, I know that God is there, too.
While sometimes God seems like a distant, powerful, punishing deity, with Jesus God is a close, forgiving, loving friend. Our image of God takes on a new shape each year when we reach out for the cuddly infant born tonight, and 2,000 years ago.
We do not fear this God; we do revere Jesus, and honor him as our God.
We trust this God to provide the best for us, even though God may not give us what we ask for.
We praise this God, for finding new ways to reach us and to prove that we are beloved children of a forgiving God.
We follow this God who sacrificed all in order to demonstrate to us how deeply God cares for us. Jesus said, “The greatest love is to give up your life for someone else.”
We love this God who came among us to teach us how to truly love each other.
The message of Jesus is love; cute, cuddly baby love; wise teen in the temple love; healing love; sometimes tough, challenging love; always present love.
The message of the baby on this night is: “I love you. I love you more than you can ever know. Yes, I love even you.”

 Please pray with me. We are amazed, God, every year, that you would choose to come to us as a little child. Yet, we need this reminder to love each other with your amazing love. We need this reminder that you love us as much as you love this tiny child. Help us to believe and then share this simple message – that you love us beyond our imagining. Amen

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Wearing black, seeking justice

John 1:6-8, 19-28

This week, I asked Barb to send out an email asking you all to participate in sending a message to put an end to targeting Black men in the US. The letter asked you all to wear black today as a symbol of standing up against injustice. I want to start by sharing a few observations from my own life.

·         I was born on the south side of Chicago, and lived in an apartment building in a neighborhood that was mostly European immigrants. I had lots of Swedish relatives in the area.
·         By the time I was four, African Americans were beginning to move to our neighborhood, and my parents did what many other white families did; we moved to the suburbs.
·         The black population in my high school was about 20%. There were a few – a very few – black kids in my college prep classes. I knew there were black students I enjoyed being with, and white kids I prefered to avoid. My mother said to me, “You can date a black boy, but don’t you ever plan to marry him!”
·         While my sons were in school, there was an expensive legal battle to prevent the school district from annexing a section of mostly white students away from a mostly black school district. The people in the white district had wanted better schools for their children.
·         The world administrative headquarters of Whirlpool is in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Executives there earn big bucks. However, in the days before black families were shown very different housing opportunities than were white families.
·         After my divorce, I bought a house I could afford in a mixed neighborhood. Next to me on one side was a single gay man with a beautiful yard and two cats. On the other side was a black family. Two years later, I sold the house so I could move to seminary. A school teacher who lived across the street asked me, “Do you know if the buyer is white?”
·         I have shared with you before my concern when I was nearing a corner in Chicago near the seminary. I crossed the street in the middle of the block in order to avoid a group of young black men.
·         In my first congregation, I was delighted when a black woman married to a white man joined the church. She had some much-needed gifts and skills, and he was a delightful person. Suddenly, they were missing, with no notice. There was a rumor that one of the church members had said something offensive to the woman, apparently a racial slur. We never saw her again.
·         Some of our grandchildren are black, adopted intentionally because their parents wanted to make a difference in the lives of a few children. Their parents have experienced prejudice when in public places with their children.
While we like to pretend that racism has ended, it still exists. I have tried for several weeks to tiptoe around the issue of justice and injustice as regards the recent killing of black men by white police officers. I have said I want justice for all, and similar statements. Yet such statements really whitewash what I have been thinking.
The simple yet powerful symbol of many people wearing black during worship on Sunday sends a message to our black friends that we agree that excessive violence is unjust. It is unjust whenever and wherever it occurs, in the arrest and shooting of a suspect, as well as in the riotous burning of neighborhoods.
We point at the justice system in this country and say the laws provide for fairness for all people. But the laws are enforced mostly by imperfect people, imperfect police officers, imperfect lawyers, imperfect jury members, and imperfect “regular” citizens.
It does not make sense to us that white police officers would take their commitment to protect and serve, and then answer the call to stop crime by shooting to kill unarmed men. It does not make sense that a police officer would continue to use a chokehold – a forbidden move that the officer calls a legal head lock – even after the offender cries repeatedly that he can’t breathe. Excessive violence leads to death.
I also agree that it does not make sense that riots cause the destruction of shops and businesses that serve the very community where these men live. This violent response is equally excessive. Sometimes, of course, these shops are owned by predatory white people, charging unjust prices for basics like food. Black people are frustrated, tired of being victimized, tired of the status quo. Conditions in the hood must change.
Policing in the “hood” – the neighborhood -- is dangerous business. Black and white officers alike put their lives at risk every time they enter the hood. Some of the black men who have been killed by police officers have been suspects, even known criminals. They deserve to be arrested. They are not innocent victims. They have been involved in crimes and know they are disobeying the law. In some cases they have been killed while violently resisting arrest. In contrast, however, white men carrying a gun and resisting arrest are less likely to be killed by a police officer.
Prosecution rates tell an important story. Almost half of the men in prison in the US are black, even though blacks make up only 14% of the US population. There are some sociological reasons for this statistic: poverty, single parenting, teen pregnancy, the pressure to join gangs; despair that life will never get better. People living in the “hood” are often living in deeper darkness than we white folks can ever know about.
I remember a black mother in Chicago telling me that her son told her that he did not expect to live to be 21. She had already buried two other sons. The “hood” is a violent place to live, and a scary place for police officers to serve.  
For many years – decades, actually -- black churches have been standing up against such conditions, such violence, such racism. We remember and honor Martin Luther King and many others for their witness to us. White churches are beginning to join them in protesting the injustice of black men being singled out as violent criminals.
Our youth ‘get it.’ Last week I asked this question. If Jesus was going to be born today, where would it be? Their answer: “The Hood.” Jesus would be born where we least expect to see him. Jesus would be born to a young, single, black woman, living on food stamps, trying to stay in school so she can earn enough money to get out of the hood. She can’t even work at McDonald’s, because there are no McDonald’s in her neighborhood.
… John the Baptist stood at the river’s edge, baptizing and calling people to pay attention.  In John’s gospel, baptism is not the big deal it is in the other gospels. In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist points at Jesus. He refutes repeatedly claims that he is the Messiah. “No, I am not the messiah. No, I am not Elijah. No, I am not the prophet. But, I can point to the one who is the Messiah. He is right here, in our mist, today. You think I am great, but I am nothing compared to him.” John points to Jesus and away from himself.
John called the people to see that light was about to break into their darkness. It was light such as had never been seen before. It was light that shone into the dark places of the world and changed everything.
In days such as this in America, do we not need more light? Do we not need more truth, more exposure of the darker aspects of our society? Do we not really need Jesus to help us shine the light more strongly right now?
Jesus’ light shines through us. Are you willing to let the light we claim shine through you? Are you willing to be among those who stand up and say that we have had enough of this violence? Are you willing to seek ways right here in Citrus and Marion counties to expose the darkness of violence and change it by the very act of exposing and objecting to it?
As we choose to stand up against violence, we point to what we believe.  We point to Jesus who can help us change the world by shining his light into the darkest corners in our community.
To do this in our part of the world, we will need to partner with other congregations and organizations. This is a benefit of being part of Christians United in Christ. We already know a lot of potential partners. At minimum, we can participate in King Day celebrations in January. We can do more, but it will require the commitment of all of us, and the intentional work of a few willing to explore deeper relationships – in this case with our Black sisters and brothers who have much more experience with this than we do.
As we prepare for Jesus’ coming into our midst once more as an infant, let’s consider where his light needs to shine more brightly. How will you let Jesus’ light shine through you? In what ways do you resist its movement in your life?

Please pray with me. Lord of Light, John pointed to you and your coming ministry. You shine your holy light into all parts of our world, including the darkest corners. Help us to point to you always and bring your light with us wherever we go. Amen 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

New beginnings, same story

December 7, 2014
Isaiah 40:1-11; Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

I have always been struck by the opening line of Mark’s gospel: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ This week I read that Mark may have intended it to be the title of the book. That makes sense to me. So the first verse of the book is really the quote from Isaiah: ‘see I am sending my messenger to prepare the way.’ John is the messenger promised by Isaiah, and he is announcing that Jesus, the Son of God, brings good news.
There are three different endings to Mark’s gospel. One ends with the empty tomb and the women who ran away, terrified. The second ends with the women telling Peter about the empty tomb and Jesus sending the disciples out to share the good news. The third includes Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene and to two disciples walking in the countryside, a commissioning by Jesus to share the good news, and Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
It is believed that the first ending – with the women running away terrified and saying nothing – is the authentic ending. The others were added by later scribes who thought the original ending was not sufficient.
But the first ending is perfect if we remember the first words: the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. There is no ending … the story goes on and on and on, throughout history and beyond us to the next generations.
This is a typical story-telling style for that time. Cyclical stories have a beginning, a middle, and an ending that draws the reader back to the beginning. Our three lectionary cycle serves the same purpose: each year we begin with preparing for Jesus’ coming as a child, and soon after his birth we are preparing for his death and resurrection. For six months we learn of his teaching, healing, and preaching ministry. Toward the end of the lectionary year, we reflect on the coming of the reign of God and the time when he will come again in glory... which leads us back to preparing for his coming as an infant.
For today, the story is about John in the wilderness preaching, calling for repentance, much as Isaiah and Elijah did 500 and 1,000 years before him. Prepare your hearts to receive the one who is to come!
John is here at the beginning, though he doesn’t make it to the end – Herod takes care of that. Yet, every year, at the beginning of the church year, we are called to repentance, because once in a lifetime isn’t enough. Each time we repent, we claim a new beginning. And each new beginning feels fresh and exciting and comforting, and makes us believe that there is good news in our future.
There are plenty of places in our lives that need repentance.
·         The way we talk to each other or think about each other as “less than”
·         The way we treat our bodies as immortal receptacles which can handle whatever we do to them
·         The way we find it easy to put God in the background of our lives
·         The way we think about the poor as deserving to be poor
·         The way we resort to violence instead of the harder work of seeking solutions together
·         The way what we want as individuals is more important than the needs of the whole group
·         The way we are afraid to tell others about our Jesus, because we are afraid we will seem pushy and we don’t want to offend anyone

There are plenty of ways in which we need to repent and begin again. The good news that John proclaimed is that repentance is not the end. The good news is that with repentance, there is forgiveness.
Those of us who grew up with chalkboards, either green or black, know that erasers rarely removed all the writing from the board. By the end of the day, the board could be hard to read, but the teacher could use a clean chamois on the board and clean it to near perfection, ready for a new day.
Repentance and forgiveness is as if our sins were written on a chalkboard and God wiped them clean with an eraser. Most of the writing is gone, but some of the chalk remains. The chalk dust that remains on the chalkboard is the consequences of our sin, traces of the past that are harder to remove. The chalk dust is our old habits, which are hard to break, even though we know the consequences of them.
We need to be persistent in our repenting and beginning again. With enough practice at repenting and making changes, God can take a new chamois and wipe the board clean, with almost no traces of our sin remaining.
This is the promise of the one who is to come, the one promised by Isaiah and by John. God readily grants forgiveness, erases our sins, removes the need for guilty feelings, and frees us to focus on making the changes in our lives that will forever remove the need for repentance. God’s forgiveness brings new beginnings.
Last night I watched one of my favorite movies, It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey believed his life was so terrible, he would do everyone a favor by dying. So, he planned to jump into the freezing river. Clarence the angel came along and helped him see all the people whom he had helped. Clarence led George to accept the love of the whole town, and symbolically, God’s forgiveness. George found a new beginning for his life.
We have heard this good news of Jesus’ forgiveness over and over. We have to work hard at times to believe it and accept it. Yet there are many people who believe in God but can’t understand how what they have done can be forgiven. That’s where we come in. We who believe in and depend on God’s grace have been given the task of telling and showing other people that grace is available for them, too. People who experience forgiveness, who discover it is even for them, also discover a new beginning.  
Let’s not be afraid to examine our lives for the things we need to repent. Forgiveness is readily available for us, if we claim it, over and over again. We can all use a new beginning.  Let’s claim that, too, over and over again.
The joy of Christmas is in admitting that we are not perfect, that we need to repent, and that Jesus, the Son of God, came into our midst bringing forgiveness and new beginnings.
Please pray with me. We are your people, Lord Jesus, imperfect as we are. Lead us to confess, to repent, and then to accept your forgiveness each day. Send us out to demonstrate your love and forgiveness to those who need to know you better. Amen

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Under construction, again and still

Isaiah 40:1-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24

This year, Hope is using the theme for Advent called, “Prepare the Royal Highway.” Tonight’s topic is ‘Highway under construction.’ The prophet Isaiah charges us to build a highway for our God; make a straight pathway through the wilderness.
This can be taken literally. The area of Israel surrounding Jerusalem is hilly – low mountains abound. For example, when Jesus travels from the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives, he goes downhill and up again. When he is in the Mount of Olives, he can see straight across the Kidron Valley to the city. Not far from the city is the wilderness, a hilly, rocky, barren land, where straight, level roads are not possible without major construction equipment.
As I shared earlier, this worship service itself is a highway under construction. Long ago, I learned this saying: Blessed are the flexible, for they will not get bent out of shape. It’s a good thing to remember, since we also remember that “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray.”
Any time there is a construction project, whether it’s a remodeling of the church kitchen, adding a new church sign, or the building of a road, there are always surprises and delays and cost over-runs. We are not always happy to see barrels and barricades, yet, we all need to be flexible.
I am involved in an Eagle Scout project this weekend, blessing some replacement headstones in an abandoned cemetery in Floral City. The young man shared with me that when the railroad was built through that part of Florida, the crew simply dug up the graves and threw the caskets aside. This actually happened twice to the same cemetery. The second time, the families posted guards to ensure that nothing more would happen to their loved-ones’ remains.
You and I exclaim against such construction practices. We know we would be more careful and respectful with the remains, even in an abandoned cemetery. If we take literally the charge to build a highway for our God, we must be careful to do it God’s way.
… We can think about this call from Isaiah as meaning to literally build a new road, with all its permits and barrels and mess. However, I think this call to build a highway for our God is meant to be a spiritual highway. How do we make a highway in our hearts for God to come to us? How do we take time in December, amid all the shopping and baking and cleaning and decorating for the celebrations we plan for Christmas? What else takes our time and attention this time of year? _____
Cyber Monday helps us at least with our shopping lists. We can shop at midnight in our pajamas and have our gifts wrapped and delivered to far-away places, if we want to. We can close doors on the clutter and dust so our guests can’t see that we have been too busy to clean everything.
But even this is not what God wants. God wants us to be available to notice the glory of the Lord. God wants us to clear our calendars enough that we have time to worship, and to really enjoy the gatherings with our family and friends.
In other words, we are to clear a pathway in our hearts for God’s presence to be revealed and recognized and bring us to rejoicing. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians give us some pretty clear blueprints for how to construct a spiritual pathway to God.
Paul urges the folks to do just what we are gathered her tonight to do. Be at peace with one another. Be patient with one another. Repay evil with good. Rejoice, pray, give thanks. Do not quench the Spirit.
On nights such as this, and in many other times and places, we give the Spirit the space in which to move and construct new pathways among and within us. On nights such as this, the Spirit is able to join us as we rejoice in each other’s presence. On nights such as this, we are able to celebrate the gifts God has given us and encourage each other in using those gifts.
Let’s build a highway with many exits: some Lutheran exits, some Baptist exits, some Church of God exits, some African Methodist Episcopal exits, some Assembly of God exits, some Written in Heaven exits, some Roman Catholic exits, some Presbyterian exits. Whose exit did I miss? ___
Let’s show the community that more unites us than divides us. Together we can work to make way for Jesus to be plainly visible on all the highways and boulevards and dirt roads in our community. When we feed hungry people, when we support people in financial and emotional crisis, when we stand up against injustice, we make a highway for our God to travel on. 
Let’s go from here and remember how the Spirit moves among us to share that same Spirit with the world around us. Let’s make a pathway in our community for our God so more people can find God, can know how much Jesus loves and cares for them, and is calling for them to follow him on the pathway.
Such a pathway will always be under construction. That’s OK. Jesus knows we will always need new and different pathways if he is going to reach those he wants to reach.
What new roads will we construct this year as we wait for Jesus coming to us as an infant? Will we open our hearts wider to receive him and all that he came to teach us? Will we welcome folks we used to reject and exclude? Will we reach out to folks who think religion is a waste of their time, folks who realize they are being called to something, but they don’t know what?
Life, even a life of faithful obedience to Jesus, often causes us to construct new roads. We can be secure in the knowledge that Jesus has walked this way before, and walks ahead of us as we travel. Jesus may even be holding the shovel for us to use.

Please pray with me. Lord Jesus, Son of the God we all worship and adore, we ask you to join us on our life journeys. We ask you to rejoice with us as we prepare for your coming again as a child. And we ask that you guide us in constructing new pathways and new highways so we can reach out to those who do not yet know you love them with your whole heart. Amen 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Waiting and watching in the already, not yet times

Mark 13: 24-37

It seems to me, and to many others, that in this gospel passage Mark has stitched together three almost opposite thoughts.
The first thought is that at some time in the future, something amazing is going to happen. This is an apocalyptic image, of Jesus coming to earth in glory and gathering in the faithful ones.
The second thought is that such a coming is imminent, as near as next spring, before those who are alive now die. Somehow, even though heaven and earth pass away, Jesus’ words will live on.
The third thought is that no one knows when all this will happen, not the angels, not Jesus, only God the Father.
So, something huge will happen, it may be soon, but no one can know when it will be. In the meantime, therefore, keep watch so you don’t miss it.
This passage in Mark is called the little apocalypse. It reflects the beliefs of the Jewish people of the time, that things were so bad, God had better come soon and fix things. When life is really hard, we want God to come and make it better. When life is really hard, we want to escape it and go somewhere else.
As a young mother of two boys, I remember occasionally wanting to change my name to anything but Mommy, and to run away to a hotel for a few days. I was so overwhelmed with the demands of parenthood that I wished I could run away from it all. Of course, one hug changed all that, and I was ready to stay home with the boys for years and years.
The gospel passage repeats the warning, keep watch, stay alert, stay awake. Watch for simple signs such as new leaves in the spring. Those new leaves bring the promise of good things to come: warmer weather, rains to water the new growth, fruit, and seed.
For Christians, the new season brings in God’s kingdom/reign. We have a choice, based on this gospel text. We can go about our lives in despair at the way conditions are, waiting for God to come and fix it, or we can look with hope for signs of the reign of God already here.
We live in an already-not yet time. Jesus has already returned, he has risen from the grave, and sent the Holy Spirit to be his on-going presence on earth. And the best is yet to come. We want to describe it, to explain what it will be like, but we need to remember God loves to surprise us. Whatever we are expecting, we can count on God to have a different response to our needs.
Instead, while we are waiting for Jesus to come to us in glory, let’s work on being alert to the signs of the reign of God that is already here among and within us.
On a recent episode of the TV show Blue Bloods, there was a young man who seems to have been wrongly accused of a crime. The squad tries to resolve the situation, but the community is very resistant to what appears to be the truth. They organize a series of protests. Toward the end of the show, Police Commissioner Frank Reagan goes into the community to talk with a woman he believes to have been an eyewitness.
She claims she doesn’t know anything. When Frank presses her, she tells him about her life in that community. She has three sons, now in their late teens and early twenties. They are good boys, good students. They never do drugs, have never been involved in any trouble. Yet, they have all been stopped numerous times by the police and questioned. Local police treat all the residents of the community the same, as if they are all guilty. Frank shares a story that helps the woman see a fuller version of the situation, and agrees to be a witness.
In communities all over America, there are communities like this. There are signs of the reign of God breaking in through folks like Frank who want all people to be treated fairly and justly. Justice is already available, but not yet available in equal amounts for all people.
Bullying is a hot topic in our culture lately. We have begun to recognize its prevalence and its many forms. It happens in school and in the playgrounds. Bullying happens on the internet and in the office. It happens in churches and in prisons. It happens in families and in nursing homes.
For centuries, even millennia, the prevailing method for child-rearing was spare the rod and spoil the child. Spanking, whipping, caning, ridiculing and shaming, were all considered appropriate methods for teaching children right from wrong. These practices were handed down through the generations. Today, we have begun to stand up against bullying wherever we find it and to identify more and more forms of it in our society. This is another sign of the reign of God in our midst already but not yet fulfilled.
The reign of God is not just for people but for all of creation. Here in the Nature Coast, some folks complain that they have to drive their boats slowly. They get tired of watching out for manatees and other critters in the rivers. But God loves even the manatees and wants us to care for them as well as we care for our children. This struggle between human desires -- to do what we want to do when we want to do it – and the desire to honor God by caring well for God’s creation is another sign of the reign of God in our midst already, but not yet complete.
The reign of God is present already in so many smaller and larger ways. We just have to look for it.
In a time when it is not popular to attend worship and give money and time to God through a specific congregation, here we are doing just that.
We do our bit in saving animals by adopting one or two abandoned pets from the shelter.
We make quilts and fill shoeboxes so that those who need to know they are loved by God can hear the message.
We feed the hungry as we participate more and more in SOS, by filling the food basket, by making cash donations, by volunteering our time, and lately by exploring whether we should be a satellite site for SOS.
We make Christmas happy for several needy families by purchasing and wrapping gifts, and we find it easier to notice those who are in need.
In the planning for the Christians United gathering on Tuesday, I tried to put together an email list. I sent out a trial message to the group. One congregation asked to be removed from the group, since they had no wish to be involved. Other churches are eager to join together as Christians from different traditions. We are already one in Christ, but not all of us want to be reminded of it.
As last week I reminded us to not take for granted what we have, this week we are reminded to be constantly on the look-out for the reign of God among us already, but not yet complete. Be aware of signs of God’s love and justice and care for creation in your midst. Look not just for signs of Jesus coming in power and glory, but also for signs of Jesus coming in the minutiae of your day to day lives.

Please pray with me. God of glory and God of the tiny signs of love in our midst, be with us this Advent as we wait once again for your coming. Amen 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Noticing God’s generosity

Matthew 17:11-19

This text from Luke’s Gospel is often used to make us feel guilty, telling us we haven’t been as thankful as we should have been. I much prefer encouragement to blame as a way to influence folks, so this comment by Jesus troubles me.
So, how do we think about this text, when Jesus is clearly trying to make the nine healed lepers feel guilty? First, let’s put the story into modern terms so we can connect with it better.
On a tour of Western Africa, Jesus stopped near a village where ten Ebola patients were being treated. They kept their distance from him, as they called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the doctors.” They were not healed immediately, but by the time they reached the edge of town, they noticed that they had been made well. One of them, when he saw that he was healed, ran back to Jesus, knelt at his feet and thanked him. And he was a Muslim.
Then Jesus asked, “Didn’t I heal ten people? Where are the other nine? Was this Muslim the only one who took the time to praise God for his healing?” Then he said to him, “Your faith has made you whole. Go on your way.”
In the original version and in my modern adaptation, the outsiders are praised. Good Jews avoided Samaritan territory whenever possible. Jews and Samaritans shared some aspects of faith, and had Moses as a common ancestor in the faith, but they mostly saw each other as too different to have cordial relationships with each other.
Today, while we recognize that Christians, Jews and Muslims have Abraham as our common ancestor, we are often suspicious of each other. Since all three faiths have extremists, we don’t know if we can trust each other.
It’s only through the circumstance of disease that the ten men (or men and women?) are stuck together in exile from their communities.
We notice that Jesus comments to the outsider that his faith had made him whole. While this could mean that only the outsider’s faith had made him whole, we should not assume that the faith of the other nine was not strong. After all, they all called out to Jesus as master, and they all believed that he could heal him.
Where we see the difference is in the giving of thanks. We are shocked to realize that it was only the outsider – the Samaritan, the Muslim -- who took the time and effort to return and give thanks for his healing. The others appear to have taken the healing for granted.
They were so excited about being healed that they headed directly to the priest/ doctor, so they could be declared clean. Once officially declared healed, they were able to hug their families and get back to making a living, get back to normal lives. So, while they may have been grateful to be healed, they were more focused on what came next. In the process, they neglect taking time out to give thanks. In so doing, they take the healer – God – for granted.
How often do we take God for granted? How often are we so focused on what comes next that we neglect to take time to give thanks for what we have been given?
Let’s make a list of some things for which we can be grateful, but which we often take for granted.
We woke up today.
We woke up today in a house, on a bed, with blankets, and heat and air conditioning.
We live here in the Nature Coast of Florida, where we have God’s beautiful creation right outside our doors.
We have beautiful sunsets.
We have family and friends to love and care for.
We have enough to eat and drink, with a variety of foods and flavors.
We have food our ancestors never ate, and we have seasonal foods all year ‘round.
We are relatively healthy. If we are not as healthy as we could be, we have medications and therapies to control our un-health.
While we may complain about the relative cold, we don’t have snow to shovel.
We have many ways of communicating with each other, from face to face, to landline phones to cell phones and computers and tablets.
We create beauty, with gardens and cut flowers, with paintings, with carvings and wood-working, with fabric, with colored stones, and much more.
We have jobs, or retirement income from jobs.
We have cars to get around, or we have friends who are willing to provide transportation.
We have stores nearby – maybe not the stores we want, but at least we can get what we need nearby. We can order what is not available locally from the internet and have it delivered in a few days.
These are some of the matters of just living that we often take for granted.
As Americans, we may take for granted the ability to worship as we wish, as often as we wish. But after my time in Eastern Europe in 1987, I realized how valuable our freedom of religion is. In some places in the Arab world, and the communist world, it is, even today, difficult for Christians to worship.
We even take for granted that we have been born American, and not Chinese or Russian, or Egyptian.
As Lutherans, we focus on the grace of God, on the gift of freedom in Christ to care for one another. We take for granted this freedom which means we need not strive to be perfect, since we are made perfect through Jesus Christ.
We believe that God created all that exists, including the world that surrounds us, and our very selves. We believe that Jesus is the Son of God, who lived and died to prove to us how much God loves us and how readily God forgive us. We believe that through the Holy Spirit, God communicates with us and connects us to each other.
We have Jesus’ promise that death is not the final word in our lives, that our relationship with God continues even after we die.
In our day-to-day living, we tend to take much of what we have and what we do for granted. I encourage you this week to examine your lives and notice how much you take for granted. Take time, right then, to give thanks.
We believe that all we have was given to us by God. Yes, we have worked hard to purchase what we own, and we have scrimped and saved money to improve the conditions of our lives. But at the beginning, it all comes from God.
So, let us give thanks to God for our health, our wealth, our location, our loved ones, and the countless ways in which God blesses our lives every single day.

Please pray with me. Generous God, we give you thanks for everything you give to us. Forgive us when we forget that you are the source of all we have. Remind us to give thanks to you, and to strive to be as generous as you are. Amen

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Images of God

Matthew 25: 14-30

Today, we have another of Matthew’s end-time parables. They all seem to tell us to shape up or ship out. But Jesus’ parables are not intended to be so easily understood, or understood as giving just one message, especially 2,000 years after the telling, and in print form without any oral storytelling clues to aid us in our interpretation of the story’s intent.
In today’s text, a master, who is about to be gone for a lengthy period, gives three of his servants some money. I’m intentionally using the word servant instead of slave, because we have in the US a different view of slaves than is intended in this parable. While not treated exactly as equals, the master respects them for their abilities, and trusts them with managing large amounts of his money.
For simplicity, let’s say he gave them $50,000, $20,000 and $10,000. The master does not give them any instructions, other than the sense that they were to take care of his property. The first two servants invested the money and doubled it by the time the master returned. The third servant had the perception that the master was a harsh man, who would punish him if he lost the money. So he buried it to be sure he could hand it all back to the master whenever he returned.
The master does eventually return and the first two servants are pleased to tell him that they have doubled his money. He invites them to enter into the joy of their master. In other words, they have made him very happy.
The third servant believed the master to be harsh, punishing. He meekly confesses that instead of risking the loss of the treasure entrusted to him, he buried it to keep it safe. The master is furious.
“You could have at least invested the money in the bank and I could have had the interest on it as income. But since you perceive of me as harsh and punishing, I will take from you the $10,000 I gave you and give it to the first servant as a reward for his faithfulness. You, on the other hand, will be cast out, so you can serve as an example to all who believe like you do.”
One of the things we have to resolve when we study a parable of Jesus is “Who is the God figure in the story?” We assume that the God figure in this parable is the master. He has the money, he has the power.
The next thing we can figure out is, “What is the image of God that is portrayed in the parable?” First, we see a master/God who is willing to share his property with the servants. He gave them the property according to their ability. He trusts the servants to not simply run away with his money, and he trusts their ability to get him some sort of increase.
We don’t know any more about the master until he returns and talks to the third servant. The third servant has an impression of the master as a harsh man, expecting his servants to produce more than is reasonable. We have no idea where he got this image of the master. It may be true; it may not be true. We all make judgments about other people that may or may not represent the truth about them.
I think that since the first two servants felt they could trust the master to treat them fairly, they felt they were free to risk investing the amount he gave them. I also feel that if they had invested the money and lost it all in a stock market crash, it would not have mattered to the master.
So the third servant was unnecessarily afraid. Then, if the image of God held by the first two servants is that of a trusting, forgiving, God, what does that say about the third servant? What has happened to him to lead him to not trust the master/ God?
And, what is our image of God? Is our image of God that of a loving, forgiving, trusting and trustworthy being? … Or is our image of God that of an angry, punishing, being, whom we should fear? … How does our image of God impact the way we live and serve?
Some people like the image of a God who makes sure that those who have hurt us get their due punishment. Some folks firmly believe that, “They should burn in hell for what they have done.” And we can assume that one aspect of these end-time parables at the end of Matthew is the desire for those who do not measure up to be “cast into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Our human sense of judgment requires an eye for an eye, even though our Jesus preached grace and forgiveness and love, and turning the other cheek. I much prefer a God who gives me wings, who makes me believe I can do all things, because Jesus has my back and will catch me when I fall.
Which master would you rather serve, one who gives you the freedom to try things and fail, or one who punishes your failures, making you fearful of trying new things? I know I’d prefer the first kind.
Here in Florida, and indeed in much of the US, the Bible-Belt mentality has power. I recognize that I am stereotyping and summarizing here, but I want to connect it to the image of God held by the third servant.
There is a strong belief in the Bible-Belt mentality that God punishes wrong-doing, so we should try to be perfect in our behaviors and activities. We should not drink alcohol, we should not dance, we should not doubt God’s existence. In order to protect ourselves from those who do not measure up to our standards of perfection, we should avoid contact with them. And, when we do come into contact with them, we should work hard to convince them to simply pray the prayer that changes lives, accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and never sin again.
Lutheranism provides a contrast to those aspects of Bible-Belt Christianity. Lutherans believe that God does not expect us to be perfect. Lutherans believe we are freed in Christ to make mistakes as we follow Jesus, because God will not punish us for making mistakes. We are sinners and saints in the same body, the same spirit. Lutherans believe that sin affects our lives, and causes us to make mistakes. We get divorced; our children are not perfect; money will not fall into our bank accounts just because we go to church three times a week and pray for it daily.
Lutherans believe that we should go where the not-so-perfect people are, because there are people who need Jesus in those places. Lutherans believe we can boldly share Jesus because the Holy Spirit will put words in our mouths and in the hearts of those we share him with. Lutherans believe that Jesus gives us the power to do anything he calls us to do, with the help of the Holy Spirit.
So, now, I ask you, what kind of a God do you believe in? Do you believe in a harsh God who will punish you and throw you into the outer darkness? Or do you believe in a God who will love you, forgive you, empower you, encourage you, praise you, and invite you to enter into the joy of the kingdom/reign of God?

Please pray with me: Joy-giving God, help us to see you as you really are. Forgiving God, lift us from our knees of confession and grant us your grace. Calling God, send us out to use the gifts and talents you gave us in service to you and to those you put in our life paths. Amen

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Waiting and watching

Amos 5 18:24; 2 Thessalonians 4: 13-18; Matthew 25: 1-13

I can honestly say that I looked at all the texts today, trying to find one to talk about other than the Gospel text. But, after our conversation at the Tuesday evening Bible Study, I found a way to talk about it that did not make me scream, “What about grace?” I’m not alone. On a Facebook page for ELCA clergy, a pastor wrote, “Will someone please tell me where the gospel is in Sunday’s gospel reading?”
I finally figured out that the best way to talk about this parable is to solidly locate it in Matthew’s community at the time of the writing of this book. Let’s begin with some dates. Jesus died in about 30 CE. It is estimated that this Gospel was written in about 85-90 CE, 60 years after he died and was raised.
Life expectancy at that time was 35 or so, unless you had money, which gave you access to good nutrition and medical care. If the disciples were the same age as Jesus or even a bit younger, say 20-25, they would have been dead by the year 45, 50 at the latest. By the time the Gospel of Matthew was written in 85 or 90 or so, two or even three or four generations have heard of him, have come to believe in him, and have waited for him to return. It’s beginning to look like his promise to return is not going to be fulfilled.
Most of us are not good at waiting. We want what we want when we want it, and we want it now, thank you very much! The early Christians have been patient, despite the challenges of following Jesus in a Jewish and Roman society. The longer they wait, the harder it gets to remain faithful. They are worried that they have chosen to believe in something that is never going to happen. Why, then, should they continue to believe in Jesus?
To encourage the folks to continue to be patient, to continue to be faithful, Matthew has Jesus tell this parable in this way. He uses the very familiar image of God as Bridegroom and the people as Bride. This image is as familiar to the people of that time as the cross is to us.
The bridesmaids are waiting to greet the groom and accompany the bride and groom to their new home. But, for some unexplained reason, the groom is delayed. He shows up, but long after they had expected him to arrive. In an age before electricity, everyone had oil lamps to light the way, much as we today would use flashlights if we are out after dark. Their lamps/flashlights have gone out from waiting so long. Just in case, some of the bridesmaids have spare oil/batteries, but some of them do not have a back-up plan.
Those without light run off to the all-night oil store – or the nearest convenience store  – to get more supplies. By the time they return, the party has commenced inside and the doors are locked. They are too late to join the party.
The story seems to be about those who wait patiently and attentively for Jesus’ return, and about those who are going along just for the party, but are unprepared to wait as long as necessary for it to begin. It reminds us of the wedding feast where the invited guests refused to come, so others were invited in. They all came, but one person was not wearing a wedding garment. He was kicked out of the banquet hall.
The parable seems to be saying, “If you have not made a complete commitment to be part of the group, don’t bother hanging around waiting for the party.” So, for me, the point of the parable is the need to make a commitment, no matter how long it takes, and how hard it is to stay committed.
Some things happen in the blink of an eye: a car swerves into our lane, and we just barely avoid a collision. The ladder loses its footing in the ground, and we grab the roof just in time to right ourselves. The oil spills over the pan and catches on fire; fortunately, we have an extinguisher handy. Such accidents cause our hearts to beat faster, and to remember how lucky we are.
We thank God that nothing serious happened to us. And for the next week or two, we are more closely connected to God. But after a time, we forget. God takes a back seat again. We forget that we are waiting and watching for God’s presence and activity in our lives. We have neglected to bring extra oil/ batteries in case we have to wait longer than we thought we would.
Twenty or so years after Jesus died, Paul was starting churches and keeping in touch with them through letters. The people in the church in Thessalonica were beginning to worry. They thought Jesus was coming soon, any day now, and they were tired of waiting. The first believers were dying before Jesus could come for them. “What is going to happen to them?” they wonder.
Paul writes to assure them that they have not been forgotten. They will be raised from their tombs along with all other believers who have died waiting for Jesus’ return. They will be gathered together with those believers who are still alive and taken to be with Jesus forever. None will be forgotten, none will be left behind by Jesus.
Of course, 2,000 years later, we are still waiting for Jesus to return in triumph. Millions of believers have lived and died, patiently serving, faithfully waiting for that day. We have filled and refilled our oil lamps and bought hundreds of fresh batteries, and the end has not come. Are we waiting in vain, do you think?
No, God’s promises will be fulfilled, in God’s time, and in God’s way. We make assumptions about what Jesus’ return will look like, but in truth, we don’t know. Some think it will look like the Day of the Lord that the folks of Amos’ time were hoping for: a powerful, cataclysmic event to prove that Israel was righteous in God’s eyes. Yet, Amos prophesied that the Day of the Lord was going to be disastrous for the people, not a joyful occasion, because they were far from righteous.
We must remember that God likes surprises. The ancient Jews were waiting for a Messiah, to gather an army and crush the Romans. Instead, Jesus came, and was crushed by them. No one – NO ONE – was looking for a Messiah who would get himself killed before he had begun. No one – NO ONE – was looking for an empty tomb.
As we wait today, let’s remember that God likes surprises, and keep our lamps lit so we can see God in our midst wherever and however God shows up. Let’s remember that the Holy Spirit waits with us, and will help us see God’s activity, if we are open to such surprises. Let’s wait faithfully, patiently, and attentively, so we don’t miss out on any of the fun.  This week, keep your flashlights handy, to help you see where God is and what God is doing, because I promise you that God WILL show up, if you are looking for God.
Please pray with me. God of surprises, we try to wait and watch for you, but it is easy to let our lamps go out and to get distracted by life. Forgive us when we fail to see you. Make us more watchful so we can enjoy your presence with us. And help us show you to those who are afraid that they are waiting for you in vain. Amen