Martin Luther described the Holy Bible as the "cradle of Christ"...in other words: The Manger.
Not only at the Christmas stable, but all year-round,
God's people are fed at this Holy Cradle.
We are nourished at this Holy Table.
We are watered at this Holy Font.

This blog is a virtual gathering space where sermons from Bethlehem Lutheran Church (ELCA) and conversation around those weekly Scripture texts may be shared.

We use the Revised Common Lectionary so you can see what readings will be coming up, and know that we are joining with Christians around the globe "eating" the same texts each Sunday.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

September 15 -- Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Friends in Christ — 
God’s love for you is real.  Know that this day.  

Whether your the one who’s lost like a sheep or grumbling like a Pharisee that it’s not fair, God’s love for you is real.  

We have a gospel text this morning that cuts through the static, gets back to the basics, and centers us on the most important thing:  that Christ always comes looking for you, with arms full of mercy and forgiveness for you.  Christ always makes the first move, and comes to find you.  

Imagine a literal, lost sheep just for a moment:  What is so unique about the lost sheep image is that she’s not this rebellious teenager (like the prodigal son).  She didn’t make this conscious effort to reject it all and head off on her own. Rather, she just got lost somewhere, somehow.  Maybe she got distracted by something momentarily and wandered off.  Maybe a sound or a storm prevented her from hearing and following the rest of the herd.  Or maybe she just couldn’t keep up.

And because that little sheep is lost and alone now, she is vulnerable.  Wolves, vultures, rocky terrain, shortage of food.  She is frightened, she is in danger.

Jesus plants this image deeply in the minds of both the tax collectors & sinners AND the pharisees & scribes.  I’m not sure who he’s talking to, actually — we’re all lost sheep.  

Somehow we just get off track.  We lose the faithful, beloved community.  We get distracted.  Or maybe a storm in our lives prevents us from hearing and sticking with the community.  Or maybe we just can’t keep up.  

But Jesus comes to find you this day, whether you identify more with the grumbling Pharisees, the depressed tax collectors or hopeless sinners [pause].  Christ comes to find you, leaving the 99 just to find you —  to lift you up and shoulder you, to bandage up your wounds and reconnect you to the community.

And just to drive the point home a little more —because sometimes we don’t believe or don’t hear that this God loves and seeks us out — Jesus gives another image.  The image of a sweeping woman.  How’s that for an image of God?  (Sweeping Woman Lutheran Church?  We have Good Shepherd.)  Sweating, frantically searching for that one lost coin, even while she has nine others.  

Franticness is something we know all too well, when we’ve lost something so very important.  Have you been there?  (cell phone)  Tap into that franticness, as you imagine these stories.

God searches with that same franticness for you and for me, and for all who are lost or confused...or grumbly.  (I’m not sure if Jesus was talking to the Pharisees or the tax collectors.)  God’s care and concern for you, God’s single-mindedness — you know how when you lose something it’s all you care about until it’s found again? — is that great, God will not stop until you’re found.  And when God finds you, there is forgiveness and mercy, and there’s something else.  

In both stories today — both the lost coin and the lost sheep — and by the way the third of these stories is the parable of the two lost sons (the bitter son, and the reckless, prodigal son) — in all three of these vivid and varying stories, there is something in common, right?  

Once the lost have been found, there is a party thrown in/for the community to celebrate.  The Good Shepherd calls together friends and neighbors and says, “Rejoice with me!”  The Sweeping Woman calls together her friends and neighbors and says, “Rejoice with me!”  And do you remember what that loving father says to his seething and bitter son, who didn’t understand why he had just slaughtered the fatted calf for his reckless, stupid, selfish younger brother?  “Come celebrate!”

“So it is with us,” Jesus says to us.  That’s the kind of party we have when the lost are found.  

And that’s actually what worship is, every Sunday!  [pause] 

It’s a mini-party for the lost being found.  That’s what we celebrate every single Sunday — lost found, dead come to life...in Christ!  It might not always feel or look like a party (sometimes not even a smile is cracked in a worship).  I always chuckle at the irony of droning, even dignified, but passionless Lutheran worshipers:  [non-emotive] “Alleluia, Lord to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life.  Alleluia.”  
Difference in serving at St. Marks in South Chicago…
Moving to Bethel in suburban St. Louis...
This is the Gospel of the Lord:  [un-phased] “Praise to you, O Christ.”  :)

And that’s OK; we don’t have to force/fake it; we don’t have to force the smile.  Sometimes life’s burdens are too great...or worship is too somber.  

But the reality is, friends in Christ, that worship this day and every Sunday is a party, even if the world is falling apart around us.  This is a place and a God who, no matter what, welcomes the lost, goes out to find hopeless, the frightened, the outsider, the lagger behind, the one who wandered of or slipped away — this is a place and a God who celebrates, and beckons us to do the same.  “Mine is the church, where everybody’s welcome,” we’ve sung before: this is what God says to us.  

We enact the story of God’s love come to find the lost, each time we worship, each time we gather around this holy book and this holy table, and this holy bath.  We are the community of friends and neighbors that gathers together and responds to the invitation of God, “Rejoice with me!”  This is a foretaste of the feast to come, where there is joy in all of heaven!  

Christ’s love for you is real, God’s forgiveness for you is real...and here...and now.  Let us rejoice together.  Let us rejoice with God, who throws the party.  Let us, sinner-saints, rejoice with each other...for We. Are. Found.  AMEN.

Monday, September 9, 2019

September 8 -- Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Grace to you and peace…from God who creates and connects us, from Jesus who invites and re-connects us, and from the Holy Spirit who challenges and dis-connects us from all that would knock us out of sync with our Triune God.  AMEN.

“Truly I tell you, whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, brother and sister, yes even life itself cannot be my disciple,” Jesus says.  Yikes!  

Let’s get a word out there, that I think might distract us from what Jesus is really trying to say here: “hate”.

Scholar Gene Peterson translates it “refuses to let go of.”  I would put it like this: If anything or anyone is stopping you from being a follower of Jesus—not just a believer or an admirer or a lover of Jesus, but a follower—then we’re called to “reject those relationships, those things, those people as NOT life-giving, not resurrection affirming, not Gospel-centric, justice-seeking, unconditional-love-sharing...” We care called today to let go of all those things and people, just like we reject “sin and the devil, all the forces that defy God,” as we say in baptism.  In other words, if your relationships, your possessions, your daily habits are preventing you from living more fully into that person that God is calling you to be (in Luke = that means part of a faithful community actively practicing mercy and justice), then let the Holy Spirit sever those ties!    

Hear this on many levels; it is not simple.  We are engaged in all kinds of relationships — some with aging and increasingly debilitated parents, some with spouses who are terminally ill, some brothers who drain our resources in their seemingly endless battles with addictions.  Friends that are good and so called “Facebook friends” — that are kind to your face and online, but they’ won’t show up when the going gets tough... Maybe, God forbid, they’d even speak ill of you behind your back.  Think of all the relationships you’re in.  I’m just naming a few examples… 

I wonder if you’ve got members in your own family who are deeply hurtful and cruel to you even though they say they love you?  Are we to sever those ties?

I think the question is, “Are those relationships life giving?  Is that relationship what you believe God is calling you to stay in?  If not, are you able to name it as harmful?”

I heard an NPR interview about a year ago, where a neuroscientist was promoting her new book, about severing ties with family, citing brain research—that the brains of people who were victims of serious and/or chronic emotional and psychological abuse actually had brain damage, destroyed neural pathways and loss of brain cells.  Abuse causes brain damage!  So this scientist was actually promoting the severing of ties with one’s toxic sources, over and against endless attempts to reconcile and accommodate.  Very thought-provoking.

I’m not saying this is Jesus’ call playing out in modern science, but I do think it challenges us to imagine who and what are our “toxic sources.”  And might we simply name them as such?  Can we at least say, this person or this habit or this thing is not life-giving, it’s not orienting me in the direction of God’s call for me, it’s preventing me from picking up the cross and following Jesus, and so I’m going to sever ties with it, with him, with her.  I’m going to let go of that toxicity...

That’s interesting because it’s not unheard-of for people, particularly pastors/priests to name those “toxic sources” precisely as “one’s cross to bear.”  There are cases — and I pray that you’re not one of them, but I know people who have experienced this: a pastor/priest has told women I’ve known who are being abused by their husbands, “Well, we all have our crosses to bear, let me pray for you as you bear yours.”  Bearing a cross has nothing to do with being abused or surviving a toxic relationship.  

Bearing a cross is what happens when we are able to put down those things – and that might just mean to name them as not life-giving (stop rationalizing or justifying or sugar-coating or making excuses, just call them what they are: toxic) – and then, choose instead pick up, to ingest what Christ is offering here.  The cross of discipleship.  We can do this, by the way, only with the help of God and with our community of faith, but we can do this, from all kinds of places…  

See, I’m not just talking about dropping everything and everyone and suddenly, jumping into all kinds of radical global outreach efforts (of course, that would be good...but not sure how many are going to fly to the Bahamas today to help out) – but friends, we can pick our crosses and follow Jesus in all kinds of ways and from all kinds of places:  even as we are homebound, bed-ridden, locked up in prison, or in a hospital:  How?  We can pray fervently for the needs of the world, urge forgiveness and mercy, like Paul did with Philemon.  Paul was in prison, bearing a cross!  We can speak words or write letters of encouragement (Val yesterday).

What if you got a letter from one of our homebound members, just greeting you lovingly and encouraging you to forgive someone who’s wronged you?  What a gift, someone picked up their cross and you were the recipient of their faithfulness to Christ!  

Friends, we can pick up our crosses and follow Jesus, even as our family or professional lives are stretched in every direction.  Name the toxic thing for what it is, offer it up, maybe give it up – but at least name it – and then pray for God to take you and mold you anew. 

God today invites us, in fact demands of us (in Lukan Jesus’ characteristic sharp way), wholeness and authenticity (which means suffering, cross-bearing), and not everybody is willing to go there.  A large crowd was following Jesus, and he wasn’t exactly thrilled with this.   Jesus didn’t want big numbers; he wanted people who were serious followers, willing to lay down their lives for the Gospel.  In short, and in the parlance of our times, Jesus is asking, “ARE YOU FOR REAL?”  

And we say, “Yes, Lord.” (Will you pray with me?)

“We say yes, Lord, to your call to discipleship, but we need your help.  The way of the cross is frightening.  It means sacrificing.  And changing.  Starting over.  And severing some ties.  And forgiving.  That’s some robust activity, God.  And we’ve got a lot of baggage, some that’s just distracting us, and some that actually holding us back from being your disciples to our fullest potential.  Help us God.  Help us shed our baggage, help us sever our ties with all that is harmful to ourselves and to your mission.  

“And thank you for making our wellness a part of your mission.  Thank you for valuing our bodies and our minds.  Thank you for valuing our life.  Thank you for marking us with your cross, calling us your children.  And help us to spread your Good News to others.  Help us to share and be humble.  Give us direction and clarity of vision.  AMEN.”     

Monday, September 2, 2019

September 1 -- Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus says when you go to a banquet or a dinner party, don’t sit at the best spot, take the path of humility.

Well frankly, I find such command hard to strike a chord for us at here Bethlehem.  Because we at Bethlehem are mostly coming from backgrounds, steeped in the virtues of modesty, humility, if-you-can’t-say-something-nice-don’t-say-anything-at-all, the virtues of self-sacrifice, never pushing your way to the front.   

“After you, please.”  — “Oh no, I’m OK.  Thank you.  How are you?” — “No, no, no.  You first, I insist.” — It’s how I was raised, as a little boy, and I imagine (and have noticed), in general, it’s been even more intensified for little girls.  Soft-spokenness is esteemed.  It’s even seen as a virtue.     

In fact, I would even venture to say that asserting oneself too much in lots of circles would really be looked down upon.  Making bold requests, or offering your solid, unbiased opinion, or speaking out of turn.  You can do that here in our midst, because no one will stop you — everybody wants to be nice — but many of us probably won’t look favorably on it, might even talk about you behind your back afterwards.  Right?  “Wasn’t he pushy?”

So when “YOU FIRST” is about the only thing many of us Christians are assertive about, wouldn’t it seem we’ve got this Gospel lesson covered?  Of course we’d give up the best seat...  Is there really a guiding word here for us?  Can we check this Gospel lesson off the list? “Yep, got it covered.”

As I was reflecting on this with some colleagues, however, a wise friend pointed out, “But isn’t our modesty/humility, and willingness to flip the conversation or the attention so quickly on another, a way of taking the place of honor?” 

Because by letting ourselves be passed over, we are essentially saying, “I don’t need any help.”  Let all the eyes go on to the poor, the lame, the blind -- the misfits -- not on me.  “I DON’T NEED ANYONE’S HELP.   Let others be vulnerable.  I’ll sit right here, thank you very much.”  Could we be placing ourselves in a place of honor when we say that?  When we assert our independence and tell everyone ‘I don’t need your/any help’?  

Friends in Christ, this is a text again about hospitality and community formation, on all kinds of levels.  Welcoming the stranger among us, and welcoming us among our strangeness.  There is an important place for you at this banquet!  And for everyone!...

The truth is, the reign of God looks a lot more like the Department of Motor Vehicles than our congregations.  Everybody’s there!  What did Martin Luther King, Jr. say?  “Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.”  We are called always to extend God’s wide welcome to everyone we meet.  Jesus couldn’t be more explicit here.  

We are invited again today into Jesus’ radical (last week I said) “holy flipping.”  That’s very Lukan: Jesus is always flipping things around, changing perspectives.  Bringing the haughty and the rich down, and raising up the poor, sick, bent over, outcasts.  The last first, the first last.  In fact, let’s just try something, as a way of getting into this text a bit…  

New perspective!  You probably sit where you do because it’s the best seat in the house...for you.  And now you’ve given that up for the opposite.  Worship in your new seat for the rest of the service today.  And in your processing afterwards, while your having lunch with family or driving home, the question is not “Did you like it, the different perspective today?” but rather “What do you notice from your new place?”  

Today we have again a glimpse of God’s original intention of radical diversity.  And of course that includes you, that includes us.  God’s welcome most definitely includes you, but not just you and me and all those who look and dress and live and worship like we do:  It also those who look, and dress, and live and worship very differently.  God always includes the outsiders.  For God, diversity, strangeness, difference is not a problem that creeps into our neighborhoods and our churches.  It’s God’s original intention!  Look at the creation story or the Pentecost event, when the church was born:  
     God creates a bunch of creatures, gathers a bunch of people, blesses ‘em, promises to stay with ‘em, and frees ‘em to go -- it happens in Genesis, in Acts, and it happens today.  

Our farmers and scientists warn us of the dangers of mono-cultures and extol the virtues of cross-pollinating.  That’s what this text is really all about: CROSS-POLLINATING!  Mixing it up.

Yeah! The reign of God is like a lush and colorful garden with all kinds of different smells, bees moving from here to there.  The top seat to the low seat to the middle seat -- seating doesn’t even matter.  What matters is all the mixing, the learning from one another’s different perspectives, the celebrating, and welcoming.  AND EATING.  (just a glimpse of that on Friday’s Summer Pictures and Stories!) God’s banquet is a feast of rich foods and drinks.  Laughter, children, stories, and songs, and dessert.  Do you see?!  Cross-pollinating.  CROSS pollinating.  CROSS pollinating.  

This is the moment of our church body, by the way.  The ELCA. We are starting to break down as a mono-(bi-tri-)cultural church.  And we are in fact starting to cross-pollinate.  The ELCA publishes an African American hymnal -- did you know that?   We’ve got one in Spanish too!   We’ve got a joint declaration of justification with our Roman Catholic siblings, we’ve got the Call to Common Mission with Episcopalians, pulpit and table sharing, agreements and joint statements and ongoing dialogues with Methodists, Presbyterians, Moravians, interfaith dialogues and relationships and education materials committed to honoring our Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu neighbors.  Mixing, mingling, cross-pollinating...not because diversity is some PC goal for the future, that’s the original state of God’s creation way back at the beginning!  And isn’t it interesting, as we do this, how the ELCA’s budget and head count is shrinking? Similar dynamic on a smaller scale too, right?  Many have reached their limit of cross-pollinating.  “OK, with that group — I WILL NOT come along.”  We all do this.  We all reach our limit.  Where can the conversation stop for you?  And where is God nudging you to grow?  Could that be Jesus asking you to take a different seat?  (for some, that’s letting yourself be served!)  A new perspective?  God’s welcome and embrace is always larger than ours...And friends, God’s mission goes on, despite our cut-offs, and limits.  The welcome of God extends always, with or without our participation or permission.      

This is tough work.  Hospitality is tricky — it’s tricky just with our friends and family.  It’s a lot of work cross-pollinating, learning to live with strangers.  But it’s right work.  It’s good.  

Friends in Christ, let’s keep working together as a community of faith at our hospitality.  Let’s stick together as we reach out, struggling to give that person — who is the most challenging for you — a top seat at the table...because like it or not, God already has!  And God gives you a place too.  Thanks be to God for new perspectives, new opportunities both to serve...and to be served (for those of us who might glory in our upstanding humility).  Today’s a new day of grace!  So let’s celebrate: let’s eat, let’s party, let’s sing!  The banquet is here and now!  AMEN.


HoD — ‘Vamos todos al banquete’  #523 — English or Spanish

Monday, August 26, 2019

August 25 -- Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

[Chloe, submissive, ashamed, cowering at our “No-o-o-o.]

It’s a powerful image this week as we gather around the story of the woman who was bent down, pushed down for 18 years.  

The text says it was a physical ailment, but the people of that time and the many people today too, believe that our physical ailments can be manifestations of much deeper spiritual ailments — stress, pent-up anger, bitterness, shame…

And the way those religious leaders were used doing business, there’s no question in my mind that they spoke to the people in tones similar to how we would sometimes speak to Chloe when she had misbehaved:  “No-o-o-o.”  And that woman cowered physically for 18 long years (half a lifetime for most in those days).  Can you imagine?  

We religious ones — we church people — had better be careful how we speak to those who are not in and of this religious establishment...because that imposition of shame, I’m afraid, is not outdated.  (Pew Research study about a few years ago: top words associated with the word “Christian” — judgmental, hypocritical, anti-gay).  Ever experienced church shaming...if you haven’t been to church in a long time, or don’t believe the right way, or break church rules?  Have the Pharisees ever pressed down on you or someone you know?  (Please don’t ask someone, upon return from a long absence from church: “Where have you been?”)

As soon as we get up on our high horses about church or spirituality or religious practices or the non-religious, and push others down — the one we follow and call Jesus has no time for that.  We see it in our Gospel here.  We can do the same thing with the Sabbath...

There’s an amazing reversal in this Gospel from Luke — very characteristic of Luke.  Holy flipping.  Jesus takes the poor and the lowly, sick and the sorrowing, the outcast and the stranger, the weak and the bent down...and Jesus raises them up, reverses their status.  Think of poor, young Mary; the 10 lepers; the Samaritan.  Jesus takes them and raises them up, does a holy flipping of their place in the community.

And Jesus takes the proud and the strong, the rich and the showy, the arrogant and the judgmental…and he brings them down.  The text today says, “he puts them to shame.”  The one who’s ashamed is lifted up, and the one who is used to shaming others is brought down.

In other words, Jesus has no time for compassion to go by the wayside.  Whenever mercy is not being shown, Jesus steps in.  Our God is a God of mercy and compassion — showering down on us and on this world like an ever-flowing stream.  And woe be to the one who’s getting caught up in judging and shaming others, especially the weak and the lowly, the sick and the forgotten.  It’s like Jesus has this radar for judgmental and powerful types.  And he hones right in on them, and he eats with them, and he teaches them.  He stays with them.  
I think we all have our moments in both camps, don’t we?  Sometimes we are pressed down with shame and pain, including in our self-obsession, unable to stand up straight and look around to see our neighbors in need.  (Luther’s definition of sin: self curved inward.)  Can’t see anyone else...

And other times, oh, we can see others just fine: We can see them mis-behaving, we can see them being lazy or irresponsible, or not going to church, or not being Christian enough — basically not being as good of people as we are.  

Yeah, we’re not curved inward, we’re out and up in everyone else’s business.  And failing to take a deeper look at our own lives and souls.  I think we all have moments in both camps.
And that’s where Jesus moves in.  He levels us when we’re full of ourselves, pious, hard-working, little “holier than thou’s”.  He says, “Hey, cool it, let it go, come down here with us.”  

Maybe there’s someone in your life for whom your good judgment on them seems perfectly appropriate, but your anger and frustration with them is so overwhelming, you’re so high up on your horse, you’re so right...That’s when Jesus steps in and says: “Hey, breathe; come down here with me.”  

Jesus brings the temple leaders down, he shames them, and in so doing perhaps there’s even a hidden gift there.  “You guys are getting so obsessed with the law — the Sabbath, in this case — that you’re starting to use it as a weapon.”  Remember: they were only defending the Sabbath.  Nothing wrong with that.  (We’ve just finished a whole book here in Adult Ed, which defends the Sabbath.)  Author talks about it there too, actually:  How we can skew the Sabbath (and actually miss the absolute gift that’s there).  When the keeping the Sabbath becomes a weapon or a burden and not a gift, Christ steps in.  When the Bible is used as a weapon, not a gift, Christ steps in, and says, “Where is mercy, where is compassion, where is the radical welcome I proclaim?”  I wonder if there’s any way Jesus was actually giving a gift to those high-and-mighty religious leaders, even if they failed to see it right away.  And Jesus brings us down too — has no patience for our lack of compassion and mercy-showing toward our neighbor.  Jesus steps in to crush our pride, to lift up those we have hurt, and to restore community.  This text about the woman’s ailment, about the Sabbath, is about restoring community.  (The 10 C’s are about community!)

Thank God.  There is forgiveness for the sinner, for the proud and the arrogant, and the rich, and the nosey; there is forgiveness for the judgmental and the cruel.  Thank God, because I can live up there sometimes.

And there is hope for us when we’re pressed down.  When we’re bent so low by life.  Burdened by sorrow and pain, spiritually crippled, physically pressured, hurting and longing for a better day.  Jesus steps in and gives us healing and peace.  Jesus steps in and calls us, names us, what we are:  “Daughter of Abraham, son of Sarah, child of God, stand up straight.  Look around.  You are set free of what ails you.”  

Jesus comes to you this day, friends in Christ, Jesus arrives in this place in wheat and wine, water and Word, and offers us new life, a new day.  The resurrection is real.  You have been raised up with Christ, buried with him and therefore raised with him — not just after you die, but right now.  God has turned the world on its head, through Christ Jesus!  We are given new life this day, and even you are free of your ailments — free to live in hope, free to live in trust that God is with us, that God forgives us, and that nothing can separate us from the love that God has for us.  We no longer have to shame others or cower (like Chloe) in fear, for we are children of God, released to live as the people that God has molded us to be in this world, for this world.  Alleluia!  AMEN.  

Monday, August 19, 2019

August 18 -- Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

I never cease to be challenged by the divisiveness of Jesus.  On one hand, so much language and imagery about how he’s my friend, our friend, like the old hymn -- “What a friend we have in Jesus.”  I’ve sung this together with the family of faith in their last days, as well as that great Gospel song, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me…”  It’s wonderful to have a God who is a friend, someone waiting for and walking with us even now.  Someone who takes us by the hand.  But if we who are not yet on our deathbeds, who have (God-willing) plenty of time and health left to share some things on this earth…if we who are actively living, have only a picture of this gentle, sweet Jesus, then we’ve traded our Bibles for just a few of our favorite songs and images!

There was a book few years ago by Kendra Creasy Dean entitled “Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church”.  She argues, that our young people, studies are showing, are emerging and drifting away from our churches, with not much more than an image of a God who is simply “nice.”  The fancy term is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  Let’s just call it “Nice God Up in the Sky” religion.  This “Nice God Up In the Sky” religion, as she describes, has made its nest in the hair of Christianity, and is in fact sucking the life out of the church of Jesus Christ, living off of the complicated cross-and-resurrection core of our faith, like a parasite.  If the “Nice God Up in the Sky” religion had a creed, these would be the 5 pillars, acc. to Dean and her colleagues.  See if this sounds familiar:  “1) Sure God exists, whatever, and God watches over us from way above, 2) God wants us to be good and nice and fair like the Bible says.  3) We should also all be happy, and feel good about ourselves.  4) God’s not really involved in our lives, except when we need God to solve a problem.  And 5) if we’re good, when we die, we’ll go to heaven.”  Maybe these ideas don’t sound too off base, but know that Christian theologians, and martyrs, and scholars and saints down through the centuries — would call this creed profane and lazy.  “Nice God Up in the Sky” religion is not scaring our young people away, running for their lives, terrified of the church — there’s really nothing scary about it — it’s just not interesting, it’s not captivating or challenging, it’s not life-giving — it’s boring. It’s slowly but surely “life-draining”...like a parasite. 

I’m afraid, in many ways we could be responsible for teaching this to our kids (I certainly could be guilty as charged) — maybe because “a nice God” teaching is a reaction to the “mean, wrathful God” teaching (like Zeus with a lightning bolt) that some of us grew up with…

But this easy, nice, sweet, friend Jesus preaching-and-teaching is slowly-but-surely eroding the church, rounding out the edges, watering it down, making it harder and harder for us to even hear Jesus’ challenge today.  (I imagine preachers this Sunday — I know some — who are either irritated that this text was coming up again or make jokes about how this is a good week to go on vacation or preach on something different.  I myself joked with Marie, “Good thing so many are traveling right now.  Who wants to hear this text about Jesus bringing a sword?!”)  

But, but friends, Jesus speaks anyway, thank God!      

“What did you expect?”  Jesus asks us today, in less-than-sweet tones.  “Did you expect me to come and affirm your status quo?  Did you expect me bring you just gentle words of encouragement?  Did you expect me to take a look at how you’re treating one another and this earth, how you hoard your money, and your gifts, how you exclude one another and trample one another, how you fail to forgive, how you hurt, and judge, and ridicule, and attack one another, and simply say, well, you’re doing the best you can?  Good for you.”   
Friends in Christ, Jesus loves us too much to let us off the hook that easy, and Jesus is too alive in our world today to stop speaking to us, even if it might be hard for us to hear — with the buzzing nest of “Nice God” religion in our hair.
Just because we might be drifting in these late days in summer, doesn’t mean God is drifting.  Just in case you’re feeling drowsy, or distracted, or lost, or cynical these days…about life, about church, about the world, Jesus does not get drowsy, or distracted, or lost, or cynical — thank God! 
We are shaken to the core by this powerful text, wrenched back to life by a God who is teeming with energy and life, “Did you think I came to bring peace?”  Jesus, for one thing pulls out that “Nice God Up in the Sky” nest, rips it to pieces and sets it ablaze.  Jesus arrives onto our scenes TODAY, and rips us apart from our social circles, our family circles, our cultural circles, our political and economic circles — which can give us some sense of identity and security.  But if those circles fail to align with his agenda, then “wake up!” he cries.  
My welcome is bigger than you can imagine, my love is wider, my forgiveness wraps around this…universe, my embrace has no end.”
And that’s going to upset a lot of people.  Jesus’ mercy is everlasting, his embrace is all-encompassing, his agenda is to set the captives free, recovery of sight, peace to the oppressed (1st 12 chapters of Luke!), but what he doesn’t have time for, is those who stand in the way of that mission.  All are forgiven, yes.  Grace abounds, yes.  But if you refuse the path of discipleship — that difficult road of sacrificial giving and loving your enemy — then move aside.  Thank God: Christ’s realm arrives with or without our permission or our participation.  But we are nudged again this week to get on board!  Thank God.
I’ve learned and experienced in my ministry of 13+ years...that the more welcoming we get as a church, the more mission-minded we become, the more justice-seeking we act, the more we get on board — the more we upset.  At one time, it was just welcoming people of different nationalities (Norwegians and Germans mixing) — and divisions formed. Then different skin colors (black and white and brown) — and you know divisions formed.  Then in the 70’s the church worked on welcoming more explicitly women and divorcees into leadership — and divisions formed (and we’re not all the way past these historic struggles).  Now we’re working on welcoming even more explicitly the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual+ communities, and look how that’s going for us, as a church, as a nation.  The more welcoming you get, the more people you upset.  
“Did you think I came to bring peace?  What did you expect?  You know that clouds in the west mean rain…”    
What about caring for and welcoming the undocumented  immigrants into God’s embrace and into our sanctuaries? 
Or people of different socio-economic brackets, ages or abilities? What about people who don’t take care of “our” church?  Or the non-human members of this planetary society?  The more that Christ is understood as “cosmic” (as he is throughout the New Testament btw), the more divisions will ensue.  

And yet, AND YET, the mission goes on, the embrace extends, the compassion and mercy of our God reigns down on us still, and still on all those with whom we share this universe.  And despite the division that will inevitably occur when we join along side the One who first joined along side us, we will be alright.  Even in the division that our welcome may cause, even among ourselves, our congregations, we will be alright.  

We press on, friends in Christ, not because we have an agenda, not because we want to “change the world,” or the church or the city or ourselves.  We press on as Christians because of God’s agenda.  God has an agenda of freedom and grace and justice and mercy and compassion, and that has captivated us.   

That freedom locks us down ironically, it binds us together — and we can’t help but continue to be faithful, to continue in the covenant of our baptisms — that is, living among other faithful ones, hearing and tasting the Word, following Christ out into the world, striving for justice.  

WE-WILL-BE-ALRIGHT, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, following in the shadow of a God who is rich and complex, gentle and provocative, human and divine, so-much-more-than-just-nice-and-far-away, a God who is both peaceful and divisive.  Let us go now, renewed and strengthened, centered and bold.  In Jesus name. AMEN.

Monday, August 5, 2019

August 5 -- Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Two brothers fighting it out.  [whining] “Tell my brother to give me that.”  But these are not little boys fighting and whining.  They’re grown men.  And they’re not fighting over a toy; they’re fighting over the family inheritance.”  Trying to draw Jesus into it.  (Remember triangulation with the two sisters?)

There are many things that are instructive about this Gospel text today, but what occurs to me is that the one who’s getting treated unfairly, the one who actually has a case, I think, the one who’s getting none of the family inheritance, is the one who prompts Jesus‘ parable.  The corrective story is for the brother who’s getting the raw end of the deal!  

I think you and I could figure out some ways we are that brother, the one getting cheated.  

Think about it for a moment:  How many ways are you getting the short end of the stick in this life?  How have you been sucker punched in the economic, social, familial, professional, federal, psychological boxing ring of this life?  

I don’t know about you, but my prayer to God can sometimes sound a lot like this brother who’s getting stiffed.  “God, tell them [whoever the them is] to give me my fair share!”  Housing market, job market, family life, church life, retirement, vacation, kids…”God tell them to stop jacking up the prices on gas and groceries.”  “Why don’t we get the kind of beautiful weather everyone on our trip to paradise?”

Can we be as whiny in our prayer life as this brother who simply wants his fair share...and who goes to the source to ask for it?  I mean, we can say some pretty articulate and eloquent prayers, but can the content be just as whiny?

And again, Jesus doesn’t get roped into arbitration, triangulation.  He seizes upon the bigger picture.  
When this man and (if we’re honest) you and me are caught up in this act, in this lifestyle of pining and whining for what we don’t have, for what’s owed to us, for how we got wronged and how others deserve a shaming and more, then we are getting caught in what Ecclesiastes calls the “unhappy business” of life (vanity)...then we are no longer “on guard,” as Jesus would warn, “against all kin‘a greed.”  

“Your life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” Jesus reminds us again today.  Your life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. “Beware of storing up treasures.”

And here’s the good news:  God through Jesus has freed us in the life hereafter and even in this life, even today — God through Christ has freed us from the “unhappy business” of pining and whining...because we have been promised something much greater in our baptism:  richness toward God — faith.

Faith is a gift given to us in baptism.  It’s nothing you have to buy, it’s nothing you have to earn.  It’s just given freely to you and to me...at the very beginning  And this is an antibody against the virus of greed and vanity:  FAITH.  This will protect us from pining and whining, faith in Christ!  

This “word of God, word of life” today is like finding a most precious letter in the attic, or the closet, or the top shelf of the garage hidden among all the junk.  Colossians: You have been buried and raised with Christ, so you don’t have to keep living in a state of fear and scarcity and sadness and bitterness and clenching on so tightly to what you have, even if you have very little.  Because you have been buried (first) and then raised with Christ, this long-lost letter says:
You have been given this greatest treasure that is faith, and you are renewed this day, free to live in the image of God who created you!  
[Our former presiding bishop Mark Hanson, used to vividly describe the old coffin-shaped fonts, meant to drive this reality home…]

We die to the old [pining and whining]...and are born to the new in baptism [faith].  

How do we we live into that reality?  How do we cultivate fields of gratitude, when there are fields and fields of “pining and whining” all around us?  How, friends in Christ, can we be even better farmers of thanksgiving?  (I say ‘even better’ because there is so much generosity in this place.)  It’s not that we’re not already farmers of thanksgiving, cultivating fields and lives of generosity and seeing the abundance even when times are lean.  But this text is calling us back, again, and challenging us even more in our generosity, that is, in our “joyful releasing”.  [‘sweet spot’ story]  How can we even better share our gifts, our treasures, our inheritances, our possessions…rather than locking so much up in our barns...like that man with lots of money in the parable?  Bigger barns, more houses, more money, more things.  And what are ways that we can remain generous, gracious and thankful even when that same generosity and fairness doesn’t seem to be extended to us by the world? 

[slowly] Friends, Jesus frees us to let go...of our possessions.  
They were never ours in the first place.  And if you died tomorrow — which could happen to any of us — if you died tomorrow, would you have shared your things in this life in a way that reflects the God who loves and creates you anew?  Jesus frees us from greed.  And fear.  Jesus‘ gift of faith, given freely in baptism, is the antidote to our anger and our bitterness. 

Author Tod Bolsinger offers a few suggestions on his blog for cultivating generosity:  “Hang out with generous people.  It will rub off on you.”  I suppose that implies the opposite then too:  
Keep an emotional distance from those who are not farmers of thanksgiving.  I’ve noticed that bitter people can rub off on me also.  Hang out with generous people.  (Looks like you’re in the right place!)  
Bolsinger also suggests practicing generosity.  (Fake it ‘til you make it, I suppose.  Studies tell us this works with self-confidence...how about generosity?)  He writes: “Leave a big tip when you go out to dinner.  Buy [fair trade coffee] and give it to your neighbors.  Buy a struggling young [professional] a new suit or offer to pay the rent for someone who needs a helping hand.  And then thank them.  Tell them that you are doing it for yourself, and that they are doing you a favor.  Then find something that you are hanging on to a little too tight and just give it to someone.  Give away your [porcelain doll collection, or your baseball cards, or favorite shirt], or whatever.  Empty your wallet in the offering plate just for the experience of doing so.  Write the biggest check you can ever imagine to some work of God in the world, and watch how there is still food on your table.  And don’t ask for any recognition for it, because this is helping you.  Reorganize your finances so that the first tenth of every bit of income that comes in your door goes to the work of God.  I mean really tithe.  Look at it as a whole lot better deal than the rich [landlord, in our text] got.” (Which was, of course, poverty in God.)   

How is all this setting with you?  It’s hard for me, in a way, to even read these suggestions...because I can be kind of stingy.  But I’m trying to trust in the gift that’s been given to me (and you) — faith, “richness toward God”.  

Let’s stick together, siblings in Christ, let’s encourage one another, inspire one another, and keep practicing generosity together, knowing that God stays with us through it all, and that we have been freely given the riches of faith!  AMEN.

Monday, July 22, 2019

July 21 -- Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Grace to you and peace…from Jesus, who is with us.  Amen.

Friends in Christ, we are distracted by many things.  Often times when this text comes up or this story is told, we are invited to think about whether we are Mary’s — sitting at the feet of Jesus, or Martha’s — worried and distracted by many things.  [It’s true, we can be both Mary and Martha at different times in our lives.]  But today, for the sake of this sermon, I’m going to just assume that we’re all Martha’s — worried and distracted by many things.  Yes, there’s a little Mary in each one of us too, but in this day-in-age, we are almost programmed to pick up and respond to distractions...  

I’d like to just take a moment and ask you to jot down about 10 things things that are distracting you right now…in this place and in your life.  

Are we relating to Martha yet?  (Distractions in the world, in your life, in the news, in the community...) And how when we’re busy/serving, it’s easy to be judgmental of those who aren’t?  “Huh, must be nice to go on vacation.”  “Huh, maybe someone ought to work a little harder.”  And then Martha pulls a classic triangulation with Jesus.  Do you know what triangulation is?  Concept introduced by Dr. Murray Bowen.  (We see this all the time in the church:  Instead of going directly to the person with whom we’ve got a problem, we go to someone else, and try to rope them into our conflict and get them on our side… For example, if I’ve got a problem with another pastor in the area, instead of talking face-to-face with my brother or sister, I go to the bishop: “Tell him to behave...but don’t tell them..”  Another example: Husband and wife:  She’s very frustrated by her husband’s work habits:  long hours, time away from the children.  But instead of talking to him, she calls her sister, and tells her, but tells her not to say anything because she doesn’t want to damage her relationship with her husband.  Is triangulation a healthy way of communicating?)

Kacy Brown of the Well Counseling Center (just one of many resources out there) suggests some ways to avoid triangulation:  1) Go directly to the person with whom you have the conflict.  2) Avoid trying to draw others in and get them on your side behind the scenes.  3) And try as much as you can to de-triangulate...stay out of triangles.  Encourage others who are venting to you to go directly to the person with whom they have the conflict.  

This little side note on triangulation may be an unintended gift of this gospel text for us today, helping us communicate better with one another and reminding us of some unhealthy pitfalls in our communication styles, to which we’re all susceptible.

So, poor Martha.  Poor you and me.  Not only is she getting nicked just for being busy, but also for being a poor communicator.  Yep.

But here’s where Jesus gives her a gift:  “Martha, Martha, stop, sit down, breathe.”  Rather than getting hooked into the triangle Martha is trying to form, Jesus offers her a path out of bitterness: to stop.  To breathe.  (Probably doesn’t help that he uses her sister as the example, but we do get an image of the human being from Mary...as opposed to the human doing.)   “Stop, sit down, breathe.”

How we too can be distracted by so many things in our lives, in our world, even as we sit here in the sanctuary on Sunday.    How we in the church can be all about church all the time, and yet never truly worship...even when we’re in worship.  
    [conversations about Martha’s bitterness: another distraction from Jesus’ point?]
How is Jesus inviting you to stop, sit down and breathe?
This, Christ says, is the “better part”.  There is so much here that relates to us today.  We are called to listen, more than talk; to watch and wait, rather than run, run, run all the time.

Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: "Divine rest on the seventh day of creation has made clear (a) that YHWH is not a workaholic, (b) that YHWH is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and (c) that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work."  

Christ invites us to rest this day.  To stop.  To center.  To listen.  And to know that God is God.  We are human beings, not human doings.  And Christ makes us that this day, Christ redeems us from our incessant doing-ness — making us fully human being.  We are made to sit at Jesus’ feet.  (pillows in the sanctuary)  In our busyness, in our fallen communication styles, in our running around we can almost loose a piece of our humanity, becoming like robots knocking tasks off our lists.  I heard a story recently about “a mother who coached, drove her kids around and volunteered for every school committee.  She was a supermom.  She loved her kids. Thing is, one of the kids [at church youth group], confided in [her pastor] that she hardly ever saw her mom. Her mom was so busy coaching, leading, volunteering ‘for her kids’, she was too busy to spend time with them.  This is a phenomenal lesson for those who are leaders in the church. We can become so obsessed with doing ‘God’s’ work, we lose track of God.” 

But Christ redeems us today.  Our humanity is restored, and we are offered a place and a time to center, and breathe and refocus.  Prayer, listening, centering — it’s precisely when we say we don’t have time for these things, that we know we need them.  It’s not that we shouldn’t serve, of course.  It’s that centering and listening, sitting at the feet of Jesus like 
Mary, must come before the serving so that we don’t loose sight of the vision.  (scrubbing the deck of the ship, but not at the wheel, so the ship crashes)

Jesus speaks gently to you this day.  Calls you by name.  Invites you to slow down for a change.  “There is need of only one thing,” Christ instructs us.  God is love.  In Christ, is our hope.  We are gathered this day back to the center, the ultimate concern.  And here at the center, we are forgiven and we are fed.  The time will come to go and serve.  But not before sitting at Christ’s feet, receiving God’s gifts at the table, the manger, which are poured out for you in abundance.  

God’s forgiveness washes over you in this time.  God’s peace shines upon you.  God’s presence fills every fiber of your being.   And in a moment God’s very body, the bread of life, will fill your body, Christ’s own blood, will co-mingle with yours.  Stop, listen, watch, breath.  Christ’s own gifts are being poured out for you and for many.  There is peace and grace to go around, that never runs dry.  Come and rest, here at the wellspring of hope.  Here at the center.   Here at the feet of Jesus.  AMEN.    

Hymn of the Day is “Will you let me be your servant” #659 which might seem counter intuitive to this Gospel text today. But I chose it because of the second half of the first and last verses: “Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.”  ...which may be our greatest challenge: to sit and receive and breathe.