Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thanksgiving

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.

Amen.

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.

Amen

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.