Monday, December 22, 2008

Ordinary People- Extraordinary God (Sermon 12/21)

2 SAMUEL 7:1-11, 16; LUKE 1:46B-55; ROMANS 16:25-27; LUKE 1:26-38

Do you ever think much about David and Mary having anything in common? David is that king of Israel, whose story we know so well, better than, say, Zerubbal and Jehosophat. Mary is the woman who bears the Son of God. Many years separate them and, technically, they are not related since Joseph is the descendant of David, not Mary.

But in today’s readings, chosen by the lectionary elves for this last Sunday before Christmas, are combined to highlight David and Mary together. The goal of the readings, however, isn’t to shine the light on these two as examples of faith. The goal is that the light of God’s promise of Christ and in Christ would shine through them, through them and onto us.

At the beginning of his life, David was a shepherd. He had, perhaps, an enviable life of watching sheep, fighting clear enemies and composing praise songs to God. Until Samuel appeared and anointed him, David’s life was ordinary, particularly for a youngest son at that time.

Then his life became filled with extraordinary circumstances. He killed a giant Philistine, he was named the successor of Israel’s first king, Saul, and he rescued the Ark of the Covenant. And David’s life also remained ordinary, almost painfully so. He loved and lost his best friend, Jonathan, he made decisions that were wise, marrying Abigail and he made decisions that were bad, lusting after Bathsheba.

Toward the end of his life, David has an ordinary desire born out of his extraordinary circumstances. He has a beautiful house and he wants to build one for the Lord as well. He would like to see God’s presence have a permanent home. However, through the prophet Nathan, David discovers that is not his call. God neither desires nor needs a house. His presence is not and cannot be tethered. However, the Lord comforts David by telling him that the Lord, that God, will build David’s house.

In Hebrew, the word “bayit” means house, as in dwelling, but it also means dynasty. God is telling David the building of a dynasty- the everlasting mark of David’s faith will be God’s work. And David will not get to see it. But God compels him to accept on faith the truth of his promise. David’s house will be built, for God and by God.

And what about Mary? At best, she’s in her mid-teens and engaged. This means she spending a year in her parents’ house, preparing for the day when Joseph, her betrothed, will come to get her. They will be married and she will move into the house of his family, the family of David. Their betrothal is significant because it means if he dies during the year, Mary will be considered a widow and will be offered the protections and treatment that go with that status.

So believing the death of her fiancé is probably the worst thing that can happen to her, here comes an angel. There was a folk story that was popular at the time about a jealous angel who visited brides on their wedding nights and killed the grooms. So Mary was probably more than a little intimidated, to say the least.

What the angel tells her, though, is almost worse. It’s certainly more scandalous. The angel isn’t there to take her husband. He is there to take her life, her life as she knows it. From normal Jewish girl to social pariah and family burden, Mary remained the ordinary girl she was, but suddenly she found herself in extraordinary circumstances. God’s favor does not look like anything we’d particularly like to court when we examine Mary’s story and what it must have done to her life. And yet she is able to utter the words, “Let it be with me according to your word.”

The Holy Spirit did come over and helped her to utter the words that she needed to say. Suddenly, she moves from passive bystander to actively moving in the stream of God’s justice and action. And we know from the gospels that the rest of her life, from that moment on, could not have been easy. However, she was able to pray the Magnificat to and with her cousin Elizabeth. Though the path wasn’t what she would have picked for herself, the grace of being chosen by God settled in her heart and created praise within her.

For David and for Mary, there is an understanding of obedience that comes with blessing. God’s blessing is extended, through them to Christ, to us as well. And we too are called to obedience within that blessing. Yet, like Mary and David, we cannot know God’s promises apart from the risks that a faithful response brings. When we want to go out and build, when we’re ready to act- it’s hard to wait and look both ways to see if it is God’s desire. When we want simplicity and no pain, it’s hard to say, “Let it be with me according to your Word.”

The king and the young woman probably looked at themselves in reflecting pools and said, “How did I get here?” And we’ve all asked that question. Teachers, carpenters, paint salesmen, lawyers, engineers, outdoorsmen, doctors, nurses, parents, single people, married people, widows and widowers, all of us have asked that question in our hearts and in the responding silence, we see the scope of grace in our lives. Grace that has been sufficient for all our needs. Grace that has carried us by inches and feet through darkness and light, through cold and warmth, through ordinary and extraordinary.

We know the foundation of the house of David, Jesus, the Son of Mary. Yet we know in that ordinary man, Jesus, there was an extraordinary God. A God who, through Christ, still comes to us in extraordinary ways.

That “bayit”- house is also said, “bet”, though we would say “beth”. And at Christmas we say it frequently, “beth- lehem”. Lehem means bread. The dynasty of David is fulfilled in the streets of the House of Bread. The Son of Mary comes into the world in the House of Bread. And the legacy of extraordinary encounters with God continues at this table with the Bread of Life who was born in Bethlehem, the House of Bread. Nothing more ordinary than bread. Nothing more extraordinary than the Body of Christ.

In our humanness, there is nothing more miraculous than being ordinary. God doesn’t need extraordinary. Mary wasn’t. David wasn’t. You aren’t. I’m not. But God is and God uses the ordinary for the extraordinary. We are called, by God, to respond obediently to the gift of favor and the gift of faith, to be like David and to be like Mary. To hunger for the Bread of Life and to share it with all those in our lives who also long for it.

May God give us all the grace to respond in patience and faithful obedience to His call to us. And, especially in this season, may our eyes be opened to see our extraordinary God in the most ordinary of places.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Essential Passage #8 (Romans 5:1-5)

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained accessto this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)Link

I've been thinking recently about Blue Christmas services. I wish I had early enough to have held on at my church- a service for people who want to, or need to, acknowledge the pain in their lives, losses they've experienced, their struggle to find or feel joy. A Blue Christmas service is one where the cross shines all the more brightly through the straw of the manger. A Blue Christmas service is a reminder, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that only the suffering God can help.

This leads me to this passage from Romans, one of my personal favorites. I have a sermon on suffering here, but there is something to be said here about the nature of suffering and the difference between optimism and hope.

Think of the oft mentioned story of the little boy digging his way through the pile of horse manure, certain that there's a pony in there somewhere. That's optimistic, true, but not realistic and not hopeful.

Hope is a different creature. Hope says this is a pile of horse manure. And it stinks. It doesn't dress it up. It doesn't say it is there for a reason. It acknowledges the presence of the horse manure. However, hope also looks ahead to a time when the horse manure may be gone or lessened in stench and to the continued possibility of a pony.

Christians are not called to ignore suffering in the world nor to rationalize it. We must speak the truth about suffering and about sin. They stink. They obscure joy. They are confusing and best and faith-destroying at worst. In the midst of infant deaths, accidents, abuse, theft and spiritual assault, we often find ourselves standing with someone (or standing alone) waist deep in horse manure, with nary a whinny within earshot.

Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us. I don't know about you, but I would have been (and would be) glad to suffer a little less at the cost of being less of a character or having a little less character (however you read that sentence). Yet if that were so, I would not have the hope that I have now. That God does not abandon us in our hour of need. That we do not walk alone. That, though we may not now or ever understand why we are experiencing what is happening in our lives, there is a light shining in and on our darkness.

The point of a Blue Christmas service is not to wallow in misery, but to remember that bright and shiny does not cover real dull, numbing pain. In this season, of all seasons, we must remember that our suffering does not have any redemptive value. Not for us. Not for anyone. But Christ's suffering does.

Sometimes we wade through the manure and find not a pony, but the cross. And that is the hope, the only hope, that does not disappoint us.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday Five: The Eyes have it

The Friday Five questions come from here.

1. What color are your beautiful eyes? Did you inherit them from or pass them on to anyone in your family?

Due to my maternal-side Eastern European heritage and a genetic tendency on my paternal side, I have abnormally dark brown eyes for my complexion. When I was an infant, people consistently asked my parents if I had been adopted [from Asia] because of my dark eyes. Because they are deep-set (another genetic trait), they aren't as obvious now.

2. What color eyes would you choose if you could change them?

I always like green eyes and if I had to change, I might go to that bright color. However, I'm partial to my own eyes (at least their color, if not their level of sightedness).

3. Do you wear glasses or contacts? What kind? Like 'em or hate 'em?

I wear glasses. I've worn glasses since I was five and it became obvious that I could not see the school bus headed up the street toward my house... until it was practically in front of me. Both my parents wear glasses and they deeply lamented how long it took them to realize that I couldn't see. At 11, I got bifocals (frustrating and embarrassing), but wearing such a strong prescription helped my eyes improve to reading glasses level by the time I was 14.
I wanted contacts for a time, but my astigmatism prevented that. Now it wouldn't be a problem, but I've developed a fear of things coming toward my eyes (no eyeliner for me!). I go back and forth on the Lasik surgery. It would be great to be able to go hunting without worrying about the scope hitting my glasses, but eye surgery (?)... we'll see. (rim shot!)

4. Ever had, or contemplated, laser surgery? Happy with the results?

I go back and forth on the Lasik surgery. It would be great to be able to go hunting without worrying about the scope hitting my glasses, but eye surgery (?)... we'll see. (rim shot!) I'm glad to hear opinions on this.

5. Do you like to look people in the eye, or are you more eye-shy?

I look people in the eye, unless I'm thinking. Then I seem to look off to the left. In general, people on my left in a group probably get more eye contact that people on my right.

Bonus question: Share a poem, song, or prayer that relates to eyes and seeing.

Dust in the Eyes- Robert Frost
If, as they say, some dust thrown in my eyes
Will keep my talk from getting overwise,
I'm not the one for putting off the proof.
Let it be overwhelming, off a roof
And round a corner, blizzard snow for dust,
And blind me to a standstill if it must.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Essential Passage #7- Genesis 1:1-2

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Genesis 1:1-2 (NRSV)

This is an essential passage of Scripture for me because of the nature of God that is revealed here. In contrast to what we are able to do, God is able to bring about creation out of nothing, in fact, out of a void. The Hebrew word for that void stirs my imagination.

Hebrew: tohu wabohu (TOE-hoo vah-VOE-hoo or wah- BOE-hoo)

Tohu - root word (unused) meaning to lie waste
- “formlessness, confusion, unreality, emptiness”, “place of chaos”, “vanity”
- Reference: Job 26:7

Bohu - “from unused root meaning to be empty”
- emptiness, void, waste

Though other citations point to the use of the words empty or void, the passages do not convey the same absolute emptiness that seems to be implied by the writer of Gen. 1. Tohu wabohu, used specifically here from typically unused roots, create a feeling of a deeper emptiness than simple non-existence (if such a thing were simple). This void speaks to something deeper than what might have been before humans were and points to the reality of God and the reality of the felt absence of God. The “deep” is not even really the ocean, in the sense that we think of the great blue deep, but is a deep darkness- something that stirs in our subconscious and tweaks at our ultimate concerns. In that tohu wabohu are all our fears: “What will happen to me? Why am I here? What is beyond me?”

The possible translation of tohu as “vanity” can be related to Ecclesiastes 1:1- where all is vanity. The comparison between what God’s hand can bring about and what human hands can leaves nothing but vapor or vanity. The comprehension of that void is the most punishing part of the law (which is not always punishing) in that we are forced to realize the world came about neither through our bidding nor our doing. Rather the Spirit of God moved over an absence and brought everything into being. This creation story answers the others of its time by making God the prime mover and shaker- there is no sun (and thus no Sun god) or sea (and thus no water gods). There is nothing but tohu wabohu until God brings it into existence- in creation, in faith, in living.

In each step of the creation, God notices what has been made is good. We might consider the work of our hands good, but such blatant approval of our own works can lead to vanity, self-centeredness and, ultimately, emptiness. Tohu wabohu demonstrates that the void- without God- is vanity and because God creates out of a void, is not tohu wabohu, God is not empty or vain.

In God’s act of creation, we are able to see God as the opposite of tohu wabohu and the bringer about of creation. What we [vainly] put our hands to always seem to turn to chaos until we recognize the One who is truly in control. Only the God who can bring wholeness through suffering, creation from a void, hope from hopelessness, can bring peace.

Preparing for a Visit (Sermon 12/7)

Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. There are no shepherds, no angels, no manger, no silent night and no verbs. Yes, verbs- action words. In this first sentence of Mark, there are no verbs. So, where is the action?

Is this the start of the story of the ministry of Jesus the Christ, starting with the proclamation of John the Baptizer? Or does the story begin with the prophesy in Isaiah, when Israel is still in exile in Babylon and God says, “Well, they are just not getting my message. I’m going to have to try something different.”

In the Isaiah text, we hear the call to prepare a way in the wilderness, a way for the Lord. So, through Isaiah’s words, the people were called to get ready for a royal visit. What comes with a royal visit? Well, what comes with having guests over to your house? Countertops are suddenly exposed to daylight, bathrooms get fresh towels, corners are vacuumed, minor repairs are made, and new food is purchased. And that’s not even for royalty.

A royal visit promises new and improved infrastructure. The countryside must be ready for the whole entourage to come in and settle for the duration. Buildings are upgraded, food storage is increased, and roads are improved, widened and smoothed. Everyone looks forward to the gifts that will come with a royal visit.

But preparing for that visit costs everything. Everything a town or city might have. All the other plans that have been made completely bypass the back burner and are taken completely off the stove. A royal visit takes all the money, all the time, all the energy and all the vision that can be mustered. But it’s all given because of the promise that comes with the event: the knowledge that a royal visit will be a physical, significant and transforming occasion.

That’s the action that John the Baptizer points to at the side of the Jordan. “Come,” he says. “Come and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins. Get ready for the one who is to come. Level the mountains of your sin. Smooth the highways of your understanding. Get ready. He is coming! And, oh, what gifts he will bring!!”

We are further out in scope than John now. We see, through faith, to whom John was pointing. We know the nature of that royal visit, of the coming of the Son of God, so that we might have life. But sometimes we still get lost in the preparations. Just like you can get tired of getting ready for guests and lose sight of the excitement of their coming, so too has the Church, have we, forgotten the excitement of Christ’s visit.

In anticipation of his return, we also forget the joy of his presence with us still. For our God does not follow rules. For Israel, God was not going to abandon them in exile or because of their failure to keep their end of the covenant. God spoke through the prophets and said, “I am with you and I am coming!” And God still says to us today, through the Spirit, “I am with you and I am coming. Get ready for me and the changes I will bring. Pay attention to what I am already changing.”

Each of the readings today points to that reality in the life of faith: that God is approaching and God is here. If it were any other way, all the preparations, all the action, all the initiating would be on us. But God has sent his Spirit into the world, from the time of creation until now, so that we would not prepare alone and we would not be lost.

In our Advent time, even now, God is with us- giving us patience, giving us hope, granting us salvation within the wilderness of our lives. In our wildernesses of grief, of pain, of worry, of anxiety… the Spirit lifts us up so that we can hear the voice that cries, “Here is your God.” Get ready for a royal visit. Confess your sins. Prepare to celebrate.

Where is the action in “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”? It is in God. And it is in you. “Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” How that may be is a mystery, but so is this: the Lord is with us and the Lord is coming. We live in and with that mystery.

We are called to prepare ourselves, to prepare one another and all those around us for the royal visit, but those preparations only happen through the One who remains with us- in the wilderness and in civilization, in sorrow and in joy, in the manger and at the cross. We are ready for a royal visit through God’s grace that we encounter at the table, in the water and in one another.

In a season of too many to-dos, do not ignore this one fact, beloved, the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is in you, today.


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Strange and new

I've been reading many conversations lately among church leaders (clergy and lay) and scholars centered around the questions, "Why does church matter?" and "How does church matter?" In a world that constantly harps on "change" (with very little seeming to actually do so), how can a two-thousand year old institution still offer something that people need?

To answer this question for myself, I have been looking for something to read to stir my imagination. Granted, God's word does this for me all the time. But part of encountering the Living Word, for me, involves going into the Bible with a guide (the Holy Spirit) and a partner (some other theologian- living or dead, clergy or lay).

My newest hunting partner is G.K. Chesterton. While I would not say that G.K. and I will become best buddies- he's a good hunting partner with sharp spiritual eyes, stirring me to looking for new signs and shapes of God's work in the world. So I have begun reading his book The Everlasting Man.

I'm not terribly far into it, but I'm already thinking of so many new things. He particularly stresses in his introduction the need for the Church of Christ (and its people) to look at the Church from a different, even foreign, perspective so that the significance of the Church can be grasped. While Chesterton eventually became a Catholic, here he is emphasizing the nature of the whole Church as the body of Christ- less the institution, than the embodiment of the Real Presence.

He says this: [The] Church, being a highly practical thing for working and for fighting, is necessarily a thing for [adults] and not merely a thing for children. There must be in it for working purposes a great deal of tradition, of familiarity, and even of routine. So long as its fundamentals are sincerely felt, this may be the saner condition. But when its fundamentals are doubted, as at present, we must try to recover the candor and wonder of the child; the unspoilt realism and objectivity of innocence. Or if we cannot do that, we must try at least to shake off the cloud of mere custom and see the thing as new, if only by seeing it as unnatural. Things that may well be familiar so long as familiarity breeds affection had much better become unfamiliar when familiarity breeds contempt. (Ignatius Press, 2008, 14)

In the season of Christmas, we are full of things we "always" do because of their tradition and symbolism. Yet is the symbolism what has become meaningful to us... the symbolism more than what is actually celebrated?

We are entering the season of the church year when we see many people in the pews who have been missing in the intervening months since Easter (or maybe since last Christmas). Why is that? Because they're busy? Perhaps. Or maybe it is because we (pastors, regular churchgoers, bishops, etc) have failed to make the majesty, the grace, the awe of God known throughout the year. Church is more than tradition: Sundays, Wednesday, Christmas, Easter.

It is a strange and alien institution, formed by an alien righteousness. (Romans 3- all of it) The righteousness of Christ covers all our sins, so that we might be made right with God. The familiar shapes and sounds of Christmas- Mary, shepherds, fumbled microphones in Christmas pageants, Silent Night, green and red- consume the shocking event that we are celebrating... GOD AMONG US!!!!!! LIKE US!!!! BUT GOD!!!!

Consider this verse from Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Mild he lays his glory by
Born that we no more may die
Born to raise us from the earth
Born to give us second birth

That's no regular baby (no regular birth story either). Familiarity hasn't necessarily, yet, bred contempt, but is it still breeding affection, in the words of Chesterton? In this season of overworked metaphors, let yourself be stunned by the miracle of Christmas- a pregnant virgin, angels everywhere, an accepting fiance, God present on earth in human form (yet retaining full divinity).

May God water the seeds of your contemplation, so that they may bloom forth in good works toward your neighbor and your family.

Church still matters. It is in the Body of Christ, God's church, that we experience together the provoking wonder of the greatest story ever told.

December Newsletter Article

“Comfort, oh comfort my people, says your God… A voice cries out: “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah 40:1, 3

“Of one hundred men, one will read the Bible; the [other] ninety-nine will read the Christian.” Dwight Moody, American evangelist and theologian

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, unless you’re on a budget, you’ve lost your job, you’re lonely, your diet is restricted, you’re over-obligated…How is it that in October- a simple Christmas sounds wonderful, but comes November 1st, we’re in a race to “survive” the season?

The thing is, even though we all know the story of Christmas, we forget the feeling of Christmas. Somewhere in the shopping, the hurrying, the traditions… we lose sight God’s call to us.

We are not called, at this time of the year, to point to the manger and say, “Hey, that’s what this is really all about.” We’re called to stop at the manger and linger. Think of the shepherds, trembling at the presence of a holy being among them. Think of Mary, carrying the person of God within her. Consider Joseph, walking in faith despite what people must have said about his fiancĂ©e. Remember the wise men, who believed the signs they saw and sought out the new King.

We live in a stressed and anxious time. People are afraid, not only people “out there”, but people in our own faith family. We are people of Hope… living with the hope of what God promises through Jesus and living with the faith of what God has delivered in Him as well.

People are watching us, you and me, to see if we retain our joy, if our steps reflect the hope we say we have. So consider the words of Isaiah and offer comfort to those around you- through your actions and your words.

For many people, this is one of the few times a year that they come to church or they think about faith. They look to people they know who are “faithful people” for examples and for leadership. That’s us. When we look to the manger, the world looks to us.

So, in this season of busy-ness, take a moment. Look at the manger. Look at it, ponder it in your heart, until you can look away and reflect the light of love that lies there to those around you. The baby that lies in the straw holds the hope and promise of God’s love and mercy for the whole world.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Waiting (Sermon- Advent 1)

Advent is certainly a season of waiting. Waiting in lines, waiting online, waiting on hold, waiting to go to the airport, waiting at the airport, waiting to start eating, waiting to see if someone else will volunteer, waiting to really sing Christmas carols (instead of humming them under your breath because you know it’s really Advent and we have 23 days before Christmas carols are appropriate).

All this anticipation, build-up and then… Easter has a nice big finish, an empty cross, an echoing tomb and Jesus in the garden, speaking to Mary Magdalene. Advent winds us up and then drops us, gently, but drops us… into the soft light of the manger, where we crowd in with shepherds, animals and everyone else who wants to see what the fuss is about.

We wait. We wait. We wait.

When people ask me what it is like to be a pastor, I usually figure out some way to relate it to work they understand- it’s teaching, public speaking, counseling, things like that. I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, to preaching, teaching, pastoral care, and all the other things that just happen as part of this job. But in truth, I’m a professional waiter.

All the other tasks I do are placeholders, important tasks, but not as important as the waiting I do with you. When you call in the night, when you are grieving, when you are waiting for good news, when you anticipate bad news, when you go through life and wonder, “How did God allow this to happen? Why doesn’t God make that happen?” I wait with you.

I wait with you. For I have my own questions I long to have answered, my own life events that I worry about, my own desires I would like to see fulfilled.

But when I read, “Comfort, o comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to my people that their penalty is paid. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain.” When I read those words, I get a kind of holy heart burn. And I long to bring comfort to you, notes of grace and hope in our time of stress and anxiety.

And when you read them, you too may feel that kind of burn, the push from the Spirit. For just like I think of you when I hear these words, you are called to be a pastor to the people around you- to offer them comfort- a message of hope.

What comfort can we offer? Waiting is our most human condition. We wait always, constantly, without ceasing. And it grinds on us, wearing us down, until we enter the numb monotony of constant motion and busy-ness. We even grow tired of waiting. So, how can we explain to others why faith matters when year after year passes without the return of the Christ?

Here is where the manger answers the longing of Advent with a boom. In the manger lies an infant who is fully human and fully divine. A baby who grow to be a man who will wait for his disciples to get the point, who will wait for his friend Lazarus to breath again, who will wait for children to come to him, who will wait for everyone to be fed, who will wait, in fear, to die for sins he did not commit.

God waited, through the time of the patriarchs and the time of the prophets, and then realized we could not wait any longer. So Jesus the Christ came to show us the face of God, the love of God, the nature of God and the patience of God.

When we wait in Advent during the church year, we’re actually speaking about the waiting that is our life. We bring the waiting and its attendant anxiety to the surface, our frustration with the delay, our fear of the day of the Lord, our gratitude for grace, our desperate inability to accept that grace.

We come to the manger and we breathe a sigh of relief. The celebration of Christmas stirs up the feel of liberation that can only come from knowing God’s sheer gift in His Son. The gift of light, love, peace, and mercy. The grace of the manger is the only thing that makes the grace of the cross possible. That’s what we hold too. That’s why our faith matters. We believe that God’s grace is sometimes all that helps us put one foot in front of the other as we wait.

And that grace is the comfort that we can offer the world. We are waiting for Christ to return, but in the meantime… we haven’t finished celebrating the first time he came. Come celebrate. Come celebrate with joy and anticipation. Celebrate with the whole church. Be comforted by faith in presence of the risen Christ in the world. Christ is with us. And we will continue to wait and celebrate, with Him through the Holy Spirit, until He comes again. Amen.

Monday, Monday....

My spirit, apparently, was so excited about my sabbath day today that it woke me up at 4:30 am. I tried my usual middle of the night routine, praying for people I know and trying to relax tight muscles. While it was good to pray for people, I've now been awake for nearly 3.5 hours.

So now I'm sitting in a coffee shop. I have six letters to write, a journal to write in, this book and this book to start reading and thousand of blog ideas in my mind. It IS my day off... so I try to diminish the level of work-related things I deal with or think about, but sometimes it's unavoidable. Mondays, in general, tend to be a day of active prayer and contemplation for me.

So, I have some hot apple cider now and a toasted bagel. Monday, Monday... here I go...!

Saturday, November 29, 2008


Thursday, 27 November, was Thanksgiving. I had two friends over to my house, plus my husband and I. It was the year of the slow-cooking turkey. We discovered our oven was about 50 degrees off, so the turkey took about 5 hours to cook. We ended up eating all the side dishes and then playing a game and then having turkey and dessert. It was good time.

In place of my usual Friday Five, I'm making a list of things that I am thankful for this year. It's not a definitive list, but a list of the top things for which I feel extremely grateful.

1. I'm grateful for my husband, Rob. He's such an amazing person, caring, smart and fun to be with all the time. This year is our first whole year together ever. Between school and Iraq, we've spent a lot of time apart, but we've finished 12 consecutive months (what would be the first months together in our marriage). There were some adjustments, but I'm so glad to have him in my life and I'm grateful for every day we have together.

2. I'm thankful for my ordination and my work. This year marked the culmination of all my theological training and I could still be waiting to see what would happen next. But due to the work of the Holy Spirit, a sensitive bishop and a church in need, I was called to the Lutheran Church of Hope. Once you have a call (in the ELCA), then you can be ordained. In a way, it was like getting married all over... but I'm very grateful for the chance LCOH took on me and for all that I am learning here. I enjoy my work in so many different ways and I am grateful, continually, for the privilege of what I do.

3. I'm grateful for my friends, Gloria, gena, Sonia, Rebecca... Their enthusiasm and laughter keeps me going. We share so much and even though we don't see each other as much as we would like... we do have good times.

4. I'm grateful for Ivan, my dog. He's a mess, but his smiling eyes, his waggy otter tail, his "crazies" and his snuggles are the closest thing to sheer grace in my life. Even if I have to leave him in the spare bedroom while I go to work, there is instantaneous forgiveness when I come home. Thanks be to God for dogs (and other pets).

5. I'm thankful for good health. I am able to use all my limb and I feel well most of the time. I had a pinched nerve in my back this year and it gave me a tiny glimpse of what constant pain must be like. I'm healed now and I am grateful, daily, for all that I can enjoy because of wellness.

There are so many more things... but suffice it to say.... I'm thankful!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Essential Passage #6 (Psalm 137)

Psalm 137 (NRSV)

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

Oh, Psalm 137... so long neglected, so terrifying, so full of (real) human emotions. In the midst of the psalms of praise and psalms of lament, there are tucked a few psalms of anger and revenge. These psalms are usually edited for use in the lectionary or left out all together. My denomination's last hymnal, Lutheran Book of Worship, went from Psalm 136 to Psalm 138, without so much of hint of what is between them. (All the more reason for Bibles in the pews.) The new hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, includes all 150... in their joyful, sorrowful, angry, pleading glory.

So, Psalm 137, you are one of the truest reflections of how we feel at different times in our lives. You are frightening in your truth. And you scare us in ways that are hard to name. You are not pretty and comforting, like your cousin 23. You are not soaring in praising like your close neighbor, 139. You are not creative and expressive in your praise for God's deliverance, like your brother, 124. You are harsh and abrasive.

Psalm 137 pulls us in with the familiarity of its early stanza lament. Most of us can relate to the cries of captivity. Though we may not have been snatched from our homeland into slavery elsewhere, we may well have found ourselves wandering the unfamiliar landscape of depression, loneliness, doubt or despair and we feel enslaved. Our cries are full of longing. We pray for deliverance.

When we slide into the request for God to punish our enemies, it is still familiar territory (in a way). Certainly we might never ask God to kill the children of our enemies, but we have surely ground our teeth against someone who has opposed us, who angers us, whose way has overturned our wishes.

The thing is, we often think of the psalm as sample prayer, offered by people whose relationship with God was higher and better than ours. When we pray, say 23, we are using the ancient words in a hope that God will recognize the sentiment we offer... in connection to our faith ancestor long gone to a reward.

When we start to talk about dashing babies against rocks, there is a whole new and frightening dimension. Is this the kind of prayer we want God to answer? Is this the kind of prayer that comes from the Bible (that alleged book of peace)?

God does answer your prayer of anger, as God did for the psalmist. However, God may not always do what you ask. Prayer isn't about submitting a wishlist (bless them, smite them, and something shiny for me would be nice); it's about the conversation and the relationship with God.

So angry you could spit at someone... God can handle what you have say. Better to say it in prayer first, than to risk damaging a relationship or saying words you can't take back. God already knows how you feel and speaking your angry to God (even if you're angry with God) is the kind of prayer that the life of faith demands. It's honest communication with your Creator, the one who actually does know you better than you know yourself.

If Jesus, who actually was God and man, can ask for a change of plans in the garden of Gethsemane, surely God can handle it if we express our deep frustration and hurt with our enemies or even with those we love.

The psalms are for everyone, in all times and places. Worried about death, there's a psalm for it! Looking for how to praise God, there's a psalm for it! Longing to see some revenge and to express anger, there's a psalm for it!

Thanks be to God for a book that recognizes our humanness and affirms God's love for us and relationship to us no matter what.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Mix and Stir Friday Five

Songbird from Revgalblogpals writes, "In a minor domestic crisis, my food processor, or more precisely the part you use for almost everything for which I use a food processor, picked the eve of the festive season of the year to give up the ghost. A crack in the lid expanded such that a batch of squash soup had to be liberated via that column shaped thing that sticks up on top."

Can you tell this is not my area of strength?

Next week, I'm hosting Thanksgiving. I need your help. Please answer the following kitchen-related questions:

1) Do you have a food processor? Can you recommend it? Which is to say, do you actually use it?

I do own a Kitchenaid mixer with food processing attachments, similar to the one below, but in white. My now- husband got it for me the very first Christmas that we were dating. We lived in Nome and he had to make a trip into Anchorage for his job. He had heard me coveting (!) another woman's and so he thoughtfully bought one for me and brought it back, in its huge box, on the plane. He gave it to me early so I could make Christmas treats with it. I was thrilled and he assured me that he wouldn't always give me household related presents, unless I really, really wanted them.

Yes, yes, yes- I do use it. And, in a side note, it's tough! My sister just inherited my grandmother's. Mine has flown from Nome to Anchorage, from Nome to North Carolina and Connecticut to Eagle River. In luggage. It's still ticking. (Is ticking bad for a mixer? Just kidding.)

2) And if so, do you use the fancy things on it? (Mine came with a mini-blender (used a lot and long ago broken) and these scary disks you used to julienne things (used once).)

I have the meat grinder attachment (use a lot), the food slicer attachment (used twice) and the pasta maker attachment (long to use, but remains untouched). I do use all the standard attachments as well (the mixing blade, the whisk and the dough hook).

3) Do you use a standing mixer? Or one of the hand-held varieties?

See above.

4) How about a blender? Do you have one? Use it much?

I do have a blender. It makes a lot of frozen drinks and smoothies. I have not yet integrated it into the cooking/ food preparation portion of the kitchen activity (except inasmuch as I need a frozen drink during food prep).

5) Finally, what old-fashioned, non-electric kitchen tool do you enjoy using the most?

I have the Wilton rings to make checkerboard cakes that look like this.
It's much easier to do that you think it would be. No electronics are required. This is probably the biggest bang for the buck dessert I can make (other than trifle, but that never looks as impressive).

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Essential Passage #5 (Mark 9:14-29)

This basis for the Essential Passages series is here. (Click the red word)

Mark 9: 14- 29 (New King James Version)

And when He came to the disciples, He saw a great multitude around them, and scribes disputing with them. Immediately, when they saw Him, all the people were greatly amazed, and running to Him, greeted Him. And He asked the scribes, “What are you discussing with them?”

Then one of the crowd answered and said, “Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.”

He answered him and said, “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me.” Then they brought him to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth.

So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?”
And he said, “From childhood. And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!” Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him. And he became as one dead, so that many said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.

And when He had come into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?”

So He said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer [and fasting].”

It would be good for you to keep in mind now that the Essential Passages are based on things I think about! What's essential for me might not be for you. That being said, I cannot say enough about this passage from Mark.

The cry of the father is one of the most poignant prayers in Scripture, "I believe, forgive my unbelief." I love it in the older English: "I believe, forgivest thou my unbelief." This is one of the best example of how the Holy Spirit intercedes in our prayers, simultaneously helping us with confession and in faith. None of us are able to believe as we ought on this side of the life of faith, but we are called to live into the faith God gifts to us.

Even when we feel faithless and lost, that faith remains active within us. Getting up from day to day requires supreme acts of faith, though we do not often see it that way. That's the case for most of us. Yet, even for those who struggle with darkness and depression, opening one's eyes for a moment requires the faith to believe that the world is still there.

With each breath, from day to day, the believer sighs, "I believe, forgive my unbelief." How can we not, when we look at the world and wonder where God is, what God does and to whom God appears?

Secondly, the demon came out through prayer and fasting- meaning Jesus was prepared to handle the situation, but the disciples weren't. Now, was Jesus able to (regardless of prayer and fasting) because He was the Son of God, but for the disciples-extra devotion was needed? I'm not sure, but there are other details here to examine as well.

It is important, crucial in fact, to understand that this was a spiritual demon- that the boy was experiencing the real presence of a force that opposed God. This demon had physical effects on the boy. We have no way of knowing if this was something we would recognize as a mental or physical disorder. Many, many people (especially children) are harmed or killed each year because well-meanig people try to cast demons out of them to cure them from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism and other organic illnesses. Prayer is certainly needed in these cases, but we are called by God to embrace medical and scientific treatments that improve the quality of life for people who suffer in this way.

That being said, how often do we fast and pray for a situation we wish to see improved? During the election season? For a sick friend? During a time of crisis? In so doing, we may not receive the answer we seek, but we may (may!!!) come closer to understanding the will of God.

We probably would not read about this story in Mark if the boy had not been healed. This is not to say that we only get the stories where Jesus was "successful", but we read the stories where people, like you and me, understood that something greater was at work than just a miracle worker.

The cry of the father and the frustration of the disciples (who were usually able to heal) are examples to us in the life of faith- calls to embrace our own limitations and to recognize how God makes up those limitations. We believe, forgive our unbelief. We act, forgive our inaction. We love, forgive our hatred. We accept your grace, forgive our resistance.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Use Your Talents (Sermon 11/16)

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

History and church tradition tells us that Matthew, the writer of today’s gospel, was a tax collector. It’s hard not to wonder if he didn’t receive some kind of kickback or bonus from the 1st-century equivalent of the dental industry. Matthew’s phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” appears six times in the gospel, usually combined with someone being thrown into the outer darkness.

When this phrase occurs, it seems to overshadow everything else. We no longer hear the phrase “enter into the joy of your Master”. We forget Paul’s comfort to the Thessalonians, “God has destined us not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation…” With the story of the wedding feast, the bridesmaids and the talents, everyone immediately asks, like the disciples on the night of the Last Supper, “Is it me? Lord, is it me?”

Am I the one without the robe? Would I be a foolish bridesmaid, out of oil and out of luck? Am I the servant who buried the talent in fear? Will I be gnashing my teeth and wailing in the outer darkness?

For gospel, for good news, Matthew can certainly inspire fear in our hearts. This is hardly a time in world history when we need additional fear. Think for a moment about the servant with the one talent. A talent was equivalent to the wages of a day laborer for 15 years. That servant held in his hand all that he could hope to earn for the majority of his wage earning years. For a person in our time, working for $5.75 an hour, forty hours a week, fifty weeks a year for fifteen years, the equivalent sum would be $172, 500.

So the man received this huge amount of money and buried it. Out of fear of his master, maybe out of fear of losing the money- he couldn’t even bring himself to make a minimum savings plan and get a little interest. He did what he thought was the very safest thing and he was able to return to his master exactly what he was given.

But that wasn’t what the Master wanted. The two servants who were able to double their money entered into the joy of their master, but the other servant has his talent taken and then he is sent away.
The frustration of the master is not that this servant did not double the money, like the others, nor is it about not receiving even minimum interest. The master is angry because the servant did not risk anything. The servant was entrusted with a great sum of money, with a great responsibility and he sat on it.

For us, right now, this parable is not about money or about our gifts. It’s about fear. What are we afraid of? Because we too, like the servant, have been given a great responsibility. We have been given the task of bringing the gospel to the world, bearing Christ’s light to all people. We have heard the message of hope that comes to the world through Jesus- that our sins are forgiven and we are freed from the fear of death.

But still that fear lingers. And then it multiplies. In that fear, as Martin Luther would say, exists the old Satanic foe. But Luther also said this, “If grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe in Christ more boldly still. For he is victorious over sin, death and the world.”

God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Do we have any fictitious sinners here today? So then, we have all, at one time or another, taken our talent and buried it. We didn’t make the phone call we intended to, the donation we should have, the prayer we were asked for. We forget, we are afraid and sometimes we just do the opposite.

But God doesn’t. God has done exactly what was promised. We have been saved through no work of our own. As Paul says, “We are the children of light and children of the day…God has destined us… for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we may live with him.”

So the love of God compels us to take our talents, whatever we have, and carry them into the world. The talents are multiplied through what we do in our daily lives, when we first remember, always, that we are true sinners and our God offers true grace. The work of the Holy Spirit moves through us- making our work holy as we do the things that we have been gifted to do.

And if what if we do sin? Then we will be forgiven. As quickly as you are able to think “Is it me, Lord?” when you hear about weeping and gnashing of teeth, you should just as quickly remember, “Nothing can separate me from the love of God.”

The parable of the talents reminds all of us that we have been entrusted with great gifts, the gifts of grace, forgiveness and truth. And there is a needy world around us, longing for all of those things. God’s work happens through our hands. How will that work of justice, healing and power get done? Through sinners. Like me. Like you.

So do not be afraid. Enter into the joy of your Master. Use your talents- all of them. In so doing, you will mess up, you will be a sinner, and so sin boldly. But believe more boldly still in Christ, in the power of the cross and in the truth that you are a child of God. And the children of God, sinners though they be, always have a place in Son. S-O-N. So says Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Martin Luther… even Zephaniah.

But most importantly, so says Jesus.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday Five- Remembrance Day

The Friday Five prompts come from this website.

Earlier this week the U.S. celebrated Veterans' Day (11/11), known in many other countries as Remembrance Day. At this time last year I was commuting to a postdoc in Canada, and I was moved by the many red poppies that showed up there on people's lapels in honor of the observance. The poppies simply honor the sacrifice and dedication of those who have followed their consciences by serving--sometimes dying--in the military.

This week's Friday Five invites reflection on the theme of remembrance, which is also present in the feasts of All Saints, celebrated in many liturgical churches on November 1, and All Souls--known in Latin@ cultures as the Day of the Dead--celebrated in some the following day.

1. Did your church have any special celebrations for All Saints/All Soul's Day?

My congregation had a special liturgy for All Saints and we lit candles in the front of the sanctuary, remembering those who have died. The number of candles was amazing because they serve as a reminder that loss occurs beyond our community and the way that we know each other. There were many candles.

2. How about Veterans' Day?

We did not have a special service on Veteran's Day. I was out of town on a clergy retreat. We had scheduled a special service for Sunday, 9 November (a healing service) and I regret, deeply, that within that service- we did not take a moment to recognize veterans. I think we shall remedy that this coming Sunday.

3. Did you and your family have a holiday for Veterans' Day/Remembrance Day? If so, how did you take advantage of the break?

Again, I was out of town on Tuesday. My husband did have the day off from work and, I think, if we had been together- we would have spent the day enjoying each other's company.

4. Is there a veteran in your life, living or dead, whose dedication you remember and celebrate? Or perhaps a loved one presently serving in the armed forces?

My husband is in the National Guard. He's both a federal employee of the Guard (he works for them during the week) and in the Guard (the one weekend a month and two weeks a year). He flies cargo planes (C-23s). He spent 6 months last year in Iraq and we expect he will be re-deployed to the same location next year. He was a veteran before that deployment because of his time in the Army and locations in which he had previously served.

5. Do you have any personal rituals which help you remember and connect with loved ones who have passed on?

I have recently started wearing my paternal grandmother's engagement ring. She died in September 2006 and I have missed her terribly. She was able to come to my wedding and gave me a pearl necklace to wear that day, which my grandfather had given her. She left me her engagement ring. For my own engagement ring, I picked something I could wear all the time and never worry about (no stone). Also, I have some political feelings about diamonds. However, I began to think about this ring recently and, having lost my other grandmother at the end of August, I was looking for something that would help me with how much I missed both of them.

I live in Alaska and all of my grandparents are buried on the East Coast. Occasionally, I think of them and I wonder if, wherever they are, they are thinking of me. At my ordination and installation as a pastor, I strongly felt the presence of both my grandmothers (neither of whom, on the surface, were fans of women pastors) strongly rooting for me. I know they are at the head of my cloud of witnesses.

Friday Five bonus (from me!): When I was in England, I was stunned when on 11/11 at 11:11 am, everything stopped for 2 minutes of silence. I was studying in a bookstore and the announcement came over the intercom that we would have two minutes of silence in honor of Remembrance Day (commemorating the signing of the armistice to end the First World War) and for all who sacrificed (and continue to do so). I was amazed and really moved at how still everyone became. I wish we would observe the occasion with the same solemnity in the United States. Veteran's Day/ Remembrance Day is not political- it's emotional. It's about honoring the men and women who gave of themselves so that our lives could continue- without fear.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Don't mind if I do

I just got back from a clergy retreat in this peaceful location. It was a very short retreat (or it felt that way), but I got some much needed rest and refreshment. I allowed my mind to wander and travel some paths it usually misses in my hurried daily mental jogging down the same roads most of the time.

A few weeks ago, a woman in my congregation with some developmental difficulties gave a great response when the bread was offered to her during Holy Communion. As I extended the Body of Christ to her and said, "The body of Christ, given for you." She smiled and took the piece and said, "Don't mind if I do."

This response made me smile at the time, but it brings ever more joy to my heart when I think about it. As hard as I might work (as do those around me), there are times for holy rest. Not just the occasional retreat, but also in our day to day lives- Christ waits for us to come out of the pig pens (see the Prodigal Son story) of our stress and hurry and run down the road to His waiting arms. Yet He is with us in the stress, even when we feel alone.

The life of faith calls us to revel in the lightness of being forgiven and the gift that grace is truly meant to be. Salvation is ours, through Christ Jesus, and we don't have to earn it or perfect it with our own power. Jesus says, "Come to me, all you who are weary, and I will give you rest."

Don't mind if I do.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Essential Passage #4 (Genesis 32:22-32)

Genesis 32:22-32 (NRSV)

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,* for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel,* saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

This is probably my favorite passage involving one of the patriarchs. In this section of Genesis, Jacob is fleeing/leaving the company of his father-in-law Laban, but also coming closer to his brother Esau. Despite Esau's own less-than-sharp thinking under pressure, Jacob has every reason to worried about encountering Esau after many years.

So Jacob send his wives, children and maidservants across the river and tries to sleep. In that sleep, he wrestles with an angel, who may well be Y*HW*H. In this wrestling, Jacob forces a blessing and carries the mark of that wrestling for the rest of his life. It even affects generations that come after him.

This passages gives me hope because, first, no matter how big a scoundrel we are... God still finds us and pulls us into a relationship. Whether we are active in that wrestling or passive, God is there- longing for us to wrest out the blessing He desires to give. And the blessing we receive through our encounter with God can have a profound affect on our lives and on all those around us.

The grace and glory of a Living God is that encounters are possible, yea, PROBABLE- each and every day. In our travels, our work and even our dreams, God comes to us, calling us and wrestling us in relationship with Him. God's grace, in its entirety, will pen you to the mat- but you won't limp away without a blessing.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Essential Passage #3 (John 20:19-31)

The third passage in my "50 essential passages" is John 20:19-31. This is the first Bible passage I ever preached on, but there are so many treasures here... possibly a thousand sermons could be written about this and enough would not have been said.

Here's the passage from The Message translation:

19-20Later on that day, the disciples had gathered together, but, fearful of the Jews, had locked all the doors in the house. Jesus entered, stood among them, and said, "Peace to you." Then he showed them his hands and side.
20-21The disciples, seeing the Master with their own eyes, were exuberant. Jesus repeated his greeting: "Peace to you. Just as the Father sent me, I send you."
22-23Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them. "Receive the Holy Spirit," he said. "If you forgive someone's sins, they're gone for good. If you don't forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?"
24-25But Thomas, sometimes called the Twin, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, "We saw the Master."
But he said, "Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won't believe it."
26Eight days later, his disciples were again in the room. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came through the locked doors, stood among them, and said, "Peace to you."
27Then he focused his attention on Thomas. "Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don't be unbelieving. Believe."
28Thomas said, "My Master! My God!"
29Jesus said, "So, you believe because you've seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing."
30-31Jesus provided far more God-revealing signs than are written down in this book. These are written down so you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it.

I think the access we have to the lives of the apostles is very interesting. Other than the tiny bit we know about Phillip and Nathaniel, we generally hear the stories of the ones who either couldn't get Jesus' message or struggled with discipleship. The stories of Peter, James, John and Thomas give me hope for my own life of faith.

Here Thomas has gone out from the Upper Room. Though everyone was hiding in fear, he decides he needs to get out of there. Maybe he needed a little air, he went for food, he wanted to get a feel for how the town was reacting to the situation. Whatever he was doing, he missed Jesus coming back to the apostles. And (!) he missed the bestowal of the the Holy Spirit.

Here, the Holy Spirit is sent into the apostles, not for faith, but so they might be able to do the work of discipleship. You must forgive one another. Why do you think Jesus thought that was the most important issue? Don't you imagine they were all closed in that room and began to bicker about who could have prevented the crucifixion? Maybe they were steeped in anger at Judas. Jesus comes among them and gives the gift of the Spirit, so that they might forgive each other and know that they have been forgiven. They are not going to be able to fully comprehend the joy of the resurrection and Christ-among-them if they are not able to understand what it means not only for their relationship with God, but also for their relationship with one another.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch of doubt, Thomas comes back and it seems the whole group had a sincere of the risen Christ and HE MISSED IT!! Of course (!) his reaction is: "Yeah, right." But Jesus returns and Thomas is confronted with the reality of the risen Savior. What a moment!

Yet Jesus promises that the blessings of faith will be even greater for those who believe without seeing. That's us! Though we may understand ourselves to have encountered Christ, through other people, in sacramental life, we have not had the privilege of touching the wounds, of knowing what Thomas knows and sees.

Yet we are blessed. Faith is not the absence of doubt, it is action in spite of doubt. Though we struggle in the life of faith, Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to us so that we may believe God's work continues through us, with us and for us. And, someday, we will be in the company of Thomas and others, in a place where we will be able to see and believe.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Essential Passage #2 (Judges 9:7-15)

In my post on 11/3, I speculated on what I might choose as the 50 most essential passages of the Bible. I'm going to attempt to choose my 50. Today's passage is Judges 9:7-15 (NRSV)

When it was told to Jotham, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim, and cried aloud and said to them, “Listen to me, you lords of Shechem, so that God may listen to you. The trees once went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’ The olive tree answered them, ‘Shall I stop producing my rich oil by which gods and mortals are honored, and go to sway over the trees?’ Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.’ But the fig tree answered them, ‘Shall I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, and go to sway over the trees?’ Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and reign over us.’ But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I stop producing my wine that cheers gods and mortals, and go to sway over the trees?’ So all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us.’ And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’"

I know this seems like a strange passage to be "essential", but it is interesting in its context and outside of it. (Incidentally, the book of Judges, while a little violent, is an interesting book, telling the story that leads to Israel's desire for a king.)

In context, the judge Jotham is speaking to the people, using this parable of the trees to remind people how they ruined good leaders and then did even worse with bad leaders. Many people have died and many rulers are being killed, and still people clamor for more solid leadership (something other than the system of judges that existed). By not accepting the judge system, the people are saying, essentially, that they want a king, just like everyone else. It's not good enough to be a people set apart, they want to be the same as their neighbors. (Presumably, if their neighbors jumped off bridges...)

This story, outside of Judges, is also interesting. Notice how the trees and plants that seem to have "real" gifts (something tangible) don't want to give that up to be the leader of the trees. Clearly, the power isn't a strong enough incentive, compared to what they know they already offer and how those gifts are used.

I think it behooves us to consider this "essential" passage on Election Day (US) and in general, when we consider those who seek power. What happened to a system of reluctant leaders who sought to lead for the good of others, who would feel torn about losing (for any amount of time) the opportunity to do the very thing for which they have been created? Here we see trees finally electing a bramble (or a tumbleweed in some translations) because the bramble doesn't have anything else to do.

In our leaders, we might consider the difference between the career politician and the person who is willing to offer their gifts for a time of need. Perhaps we need to overhaul our own system. Once we were a country set apart, but now, with nearly continuous campaigning, we're not special. What would bring back that sense of specialness and wise leadership?

Something to ponder.

Monday, November 3, 2008

All Saints Sermon (11/2)

One of the most difficult things about coming in as a new pastor is realizing all the people that I did not get to meet. I hear great stories about the people who were in this congregation, how they shaped the life of this church, how they shaped your lives. Now they have gone on to their great reward and I do not get to meet them. The people who come to Hope now do not get to meet them.

But their stories are here and their work lives on, the work of Nina Morris, Robert Jester, Bernice Means, Audrey Stafford, Mae Peterson, Dave Bristol, Sarah Pennewell and Frank Wince continues in the efforts we make to become the church God calls us to be. We hear God’s call not only through the Word, but also through the people who taught us about the Word, through whom the Word was revealed to us.

However All Saints Day is not only a memorial day, a day in which we recall the beloved of God who are no longer physically in our midst. This is also a day when we are challenged to continue in the race that has been set before us, even as we believe in the great cloud of witnesses who cheer us on in our work.

And what is that work?

In the beautiful passage from Revelation we heard today, the author witnesses a multitude of people standing around the throne of God- praising and worshipping God. This multitude is in addition to the 144,000 you usually hear mentioned from Revelation. That number represents God’s promise to the children of Israel, but the multitude is even greater than that. Larger even than John, the author of Revelation, can comprehend.

This multitude has survived the persecution by the Roman empire, and others, and now embraces the task of eternal praise and worship. The goal of the book of Revelation is to remind the disciples of the early church, and us, that praise and worship is always our work, in good times and in bad. Our God is the God who is the beginning and the end, regardless of who becomes president, I mean, emperor. So a portion of our work is worshipping God and we do so with the host of heaven, some of whom are represented here by these flames.

What about when we cannot worship because of our pain or hurt? What if the circumstances of our lives, of the church or in the world leave us without a song in our hearts? Then, according to 1st John, we live in hope. Hope becomes our work.

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” Even when we feel hopeless, God’s work holds out hope to us. We have the gift of faith so that we are able to grasp the promises of God to us through Jesus. We have hope in Jesus’ statement of the mansion in the Father’s house with many rooms. We also have hope in God’s promises of salvation for us and for those who are God’s children. It is our great privilege to have a tiny glimpse of the feast to come, here at table together, and to commune not only with one another, but also with all who have partaken of this meal before us. In that mystic and sweet communion, our hope is anchored to the day and place when we shall feast together with them. A portion of our work is continuing on in hope.

But what about the Beatitudes, that list of teachings from Matthew? Is part of our work- to mourn, to be poor in spirit, or to be persecuted? No. The Beatitudes are descriptive; they describe things that happen to us in the course of the life of faith. No one wants to mourn or to be poor in spirit. No one wants to be meek and there are very few people who are easily pure in heart. So, how are these things part of our work?

We are called to be with one another during these times. We are called to sit with mourners, to struggle with those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, to help others show mercy. We are called to bless the ones around us who are struggling and they, in turn, will bless us with their gifts when we are down. Our work is the ministering to the people all around us, in here and out there, who live in these situations. That’s what Jesus is explaining to the disciples when he takes them up the mountain, away from the crowd. That’s what Jesus is calling us to do- today and all days. Our work is blessing- like Abraham, we are blessed so that we may bless.

On All Saints’ Day, we honor the people of this church and in our lives who moved the ball forward- who advanced the cause of Christ and the life of the church. Yet it is more than that, All Saints is a chance to look at people, not only through our eyes of longing and mourning, but also through the eyes of God. When we look, even briefly, through God’s eyes- we know that those who are beloved to us are also beloved to God. And we know too, deep in our hearts, that we are also God’s beloveds.
We too are among the saints of God. We are made right with God through Christ Jesus and those who have gone to be with God do not enjoy any more special standing than we do. The only difference is that their work here is finished. Their sainthood is continual worship. Our sainthood lies in active perseverance in the life of faith. Our continued effort to do what is right, to worship, to hope and to bless, makes us saints in the eyes of God.

And God’s own perseverance makes our work possible. God continues to call to us, to pursue us, to reform us and to purify us in our hope. The God who wept for his friend Lazarus, who knew the grieving of the woman at the well and who cried out from the cross knows our efforts, knows our longings and knows our work. And, still, that God, our God, loves us. That love alone makes it possible for us to continue in our work.

The work of worship, hope and blessing flows from us, because of the path set before us- trod by the saints who have gone ahead. But the path was cleared, as Hebrews says, by the pioneer of our faith, Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, we are able to be called saints of God and it is through Jesus that we will one day be reunited with the saints of our own lives.

We worship the God whose grace makes our lives possible. We live in hope for the day when we will be reunited with the ones we love, when our questions will be answered and when the answers won’t really matter any more. We bless those around us with the gifts we have been given. On All Saints’ Day, we hold in our hearts the day when God will wipe every tear from our eyes. And, until that time, we believe that Nina, Bob, Bernice, Audrey, Mae, Dave, Sarah and Frank are cheering us on in the work we have to do.


50 Most Essential Bible Passages

I recently purchased an album called "The 50 Most Essential Pieces of Classical Music". While I'm sure there are many who would argue what makes the cut in that list, I began to think (while listening to some essential classical) about the 50 most Essential Bible passages.

Of course, that's a highly subjective list. And what makes a Bible "passage"? A verse? More than one verse, but less than a chapter? What makes a passage essential? A mention of Christ? Law and gospel? And 50? Is that limiting or too expansive?

In the coming weeks, I think I will try to list what are my 50 essential Bible passages and give some details. I encourage you to try to do the same, even if you don't write them down- ponder them in your heart.

1. Romans 8:31-39 (All of Romans 8 is fantastic, rhetorically, theologically, fantastic. Seriously, I read it and weep!)

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What's not to like about this passage? The heart and soul of this passage is that God, the one Triune God, is the one who saves... us and all people. Anything in this life that seeks to separate us from that salvation cannot, because God is the beginning and the end. And, indeed, though the old Satanic foe does seek to work us woe (A Mighty Fortress), when God is for us, who can be against us? To even begin to hold this passage in our hearts is the essence of true faith and what we strive for through our hope in the Spirit.

Someone in my congregation recently commented that this must be my favorite Bible passage because I refer to it all the time. It's not my favorite so much because I like what it says (though I do), but because my life of faith is, daily, to try to hold this passage in my heart. I want to believe this, but when I stop and consider what I do all the time: I am afraid, I get nervous and I feel (slightly) overwhelmed by my weakness. I can't even say I sin boldly. I long to sin boldly. I long to embrace the out-loud living to which this Romans passage points.

The hope in this passage is that my timidity does not separate me from God's love. Neither would boldness in service, bravery in preaching, firmness in conviction. I believe this; may God forgive my unbelief.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Friday Five- The "Fried" Edition

(The Friday Five source is here- a webring of bloggers to which I belong.)

As I zip around the webring it is quite clear that we are getting BUSY. "Tis the season" when clergy and laypeople alike walk the highwire from Fall programming to Christmas carrying their balancing pole with family/rest on the one side and turkey shelters/advent wreaths on the other.

And so I offer this Friday Five with 5 quick hit questions... and a bonus:

1) Your work day is done and the brain is fried, what do you do?
When my brain is fried, I like to do what my friend Anne would call "cook it out". I usually will go home and bake something or make a large pot of some kind of soup, even if I'm not hungry. I can always freeze it or give it away and the mindless chopping, stirring and tasting uses new sections of my brain. I also am an avid penpaller- so I almost always have letters to write. If I'm too tired to write letters, I will decorate envelopes or write some postcards. Sometimes I do a little internet trolling and just read from Wikipedia article to Wikipedia article.

2) Your work week is done and the brain is fried (for some Friday, others Sunday afternoon), what do you do?
I generally consider my work week from Tuesday to Sunday, with a (sometimes) short Saturday break in there. Monday is my day. I like to sleep in (ooooh, 8 am!!) and then make a "luxurious" work-out decision... But when my brain is fried on Sunday night (and fried it usually is), I come home from Confirmation, brush my husband, kiss my dog and pet my teeth and fall into bed. (Or some combination of those verbs and nouns.)

3) Like most of us, I often keep myself busy even while programs are on the tv. I stop to watch The Office and 30 Rock on Thursday nights. Do you have 'stop everything' tv programming or books or events or projects that are totally 'for you' moments?
I don't have television, though I do enjoy a few DVDs from Netflix. I looooooooove to read, so I'm usually involved in a book. A new book from Tony Horwitz, Celia Rivenbark or J. Maarten Troost will usually find me hiding in the bathtub and turning pages as quickly as I can read them. I also have a couple penpals whose letters I answer almost always on the day I receive them. It's fun to read their letters and equally pleasurable to write back. I haven't had a cross-stitch project that totally absorbed me in a couple years. Usually, it's a book. With me, almost always a book.

4) When was the last time you laughed, really laughed? What was so funny?
This is a hard one for me. Not because I don't like to laugh, but I usually find that people laugh at what I say. It's hard, therefore, to remember when I laughed and laughed at something. My favorite laughter moment of all time is the first time I read (there's that theme again) Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs. I had tears pouring down my face. I love that book and it makes me giggle even to think about it. The first time I read it, I was at a sushi restaurant, sitting at the bar. I really should have gone home because I was making such a spectacle of myself, laughing and laughing. The evening culminated in me reading a portion of the book to the sushi chefs and all of us joining in on the chorus of "Knock Three Times (On the Ceiling if You Want Me)". Aaaah, good times!

5) What is a fairly common item that some people are willing to go cheap on, but you are not.
Socks. Not fancy, serviceable- just not cheap.

Bonus: It's become trite but is also true that we often benefit the most when we give. Go ahead, toot your own horn. When was the last time you gave until it felt good?
I got the time of a woman's surgery wrong recently and I appeared at the hospital half an hour before she did... at 5:30 am. Whoops.
Seeing the look on her face when I was there to spend a few minutes and pray with her so early in the morning was great for me. I knew it would help her go into her surgery in a good frame of mind and that's all I needed to not think again, all day, about what time I woke up and drove to the hospital. It's moments like that when I feel closest to the understanding of my call and I feel the most privileged to do what I do.

Beatitudes (The Message-Style)

Eugene Peterson's Message Translation usually can give me something to think about, even if I continue to prefer the NRSV or another translation. In working with Matthew 5 for this coming Sunday (All Saints'), I read Peterson's version of these well-known verses for the first time. As always... there's plenty to consider in here.

Matthew 5

You're Blessed
1-2 When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:

3"You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

4"You're blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

5"You're blessed when you're content with just who you are—no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought.

6"You're blessed when you've worked up a good appetite for God. He's food and drink in the best meal you'll ever eat.

7"You're blessed when you care. At the moment of being 'care-full,' you find yourselves cared for.

8"You're blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

9"You're blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That's when you discover who you really are, and your place in God's family.

10"You're blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God's kingdom.

11-12"Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don't like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.