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, November 11, 2018

November 11 -- 25th after Pentecost

Grace to you and peace…

“For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, I would venture to say that none of us can truly put ourselves in the shoes of the widow.  I could be wrong about that, and if you offered your last two coins to God recently, I stand corrected.  But I would venture to say that all of us — even the most trusting-in-God among us — contribute, as Jesus pointed out, from our abundance.  

I even wrote those silly lyrics in the giving song we sang for the last month.  “So if you got 10, give 1 to God and keep the rest.  How ‘bout 30?  Well that 3 for JC, 27 for me!  And a 1000...dollars, well that’s 100, you could, you’re still looking pretty good.  You see offering is fun, in thanks for God’s lovin’ everyone…”  But the widow doesn’t have 10 or 30 or 1000, she’s got 2 and she offers those last 2 up to God.  

So where’s that leave us?  It leaves us with a challenge.  It leaves us on a journey.  It leaves us with Christ watching.  

I actually like that.  Jesus is watching us: what we do, what we say, and what we give — not ready to punish us or pounce, like some kind of angry God.  No we confess that God is a God of grace.  And so this Jesus “sitting opposite the treasury” is a loving God.  What do we say to our kids — most of us — when or if they’re getting frantic and anxious about being perfect or winning it all or performing seamlessly?  “Honey, I just want you to do your best, and I’ll love you no matter what.”

That’s what we’re dealing with here today.  Are we doing our best?  Giving our all?

Are we “leaving it all on the field,” as a good coach would say?  And I hope you know I’m not just talking about money.  Our relationship to money is very important to God, we can’t deny that.  Money can help identify our own personal and collective idols, and releasing it in church, with no strings attached, has been called an ‘exorcism’!  But this is about our actions and our words and our thoughts — our time and our talents, too.  Are we “leaving it all on the field”?

What does it look like to “put in everything [we] have, all [we] have to live on”?  

This isn’t a guilt thing!  Please, hear me.  This text is an invitation, a chance to re-evaluate and recommit.  I know the world doesn’t hit the new year’s reset button until January, but the Christian calendar is actually about to turn over on December 2, with a new liturgical year, First Sunday of Advent.  And what a gift a new year can be.  

What does Christ see, sitting across from you...and me...as we bring our whole selves forward to the altar?  Is there some resetting that we might do?  A little more we might offer?  A confession we might need to shed and entrust to God’s forgiving grace?  “Honey, I just want you to do your best.” 

Jesus sees us, friends.  He is looking at us, and that’s a good thing.  You don’t watch what you don’t like; you watch what you love!  Christ watches us...and therefore loves us into lives of deeper commitment, fuller generosity, bolder action, and more expansive welcome.  What a blessing to even start to live that way, to even take steps in that direction...this new year!
On the other hand, when we toss out just a bit out from our stashes, our gross abundance, we are ultimately missing out.  I sense a tone of mourning in Jesus’ voice, as he looks at those who aren’t giving in a deeper, more prayerful and trusting way.  They’re still “in control,” and yet there’s pain in that failing to offer their whole selves back to God.

My dad graphically likes to say: “Not giving [regularly, freely, joyfully] is spiritual constipation.  We get backed up.”  When we hang on to what we have so tightly, it stops being a gift.  Remember when we did that exercise with our hands — clenching vs. open?  If not giving is getting backed up, then giving...is a healthy, easy, joyful “movement.”  And there’s nothing better than that!

True story:  pastor friend back in California, who was making house calls during stewardship season.  (Ever happened here?  I’ve never.)  He was going around...and next on his list to visit, was dear old Doris, who had been a member for years, tithed generously all that time.  They visited for a while...

“Pastor, aren’t you going to talk to me about money?”
“Oh Doris, you’re good…we don’t need to go there.”
“Don’t you do that, Pastor.  Don’t let me off the hook, don’t deprive me from the gift of trusting in God more!”

None of us is truly the widow in this text, I’m guessing.  And that’s ok.  What Jesus is inviting us into — always — is better digestion!  Grace comes freely.  Time, talents, treasures shower our lives, our church, our souls.  We enjoy it all, we revel and frolic in God’s abundance.  And then we let it go freely and joyfully.  

That movement is what discipleship looks like.  And everyone should get that chance.  That’s what discipleship looks like.

The poor widow got it.  The others were suffering.

Now there are all kinds of justice issues we can talking about — why she’s poor, what kinds of systems of discrimination and  oppression and greed and just plain tragedy in her life might have forced her into that place of poverty...  
But this is about faithful discipleship!

It’s all the more powerful, actually, that even with all that, she still gets discipleship, she’s not deprived of that!  Nothing — not tragedy, not poverty, not injustice (not even constipation) can exclude us from following Jesus!

This is what Christ longs for, for us:  Peace in our hearts.  Trust in grace to abound.  Joy and hope in knowing that we can bring our whole lives forward, offer our whole selves to God, rich or poor, young or old, with all our blemishes and brokenness…

Friends, God takes us as we are.  God forgives our faults — even and especially the big ones.  God longs for us to stop clenching, and open our hands to this bread of life, this cup of mercy.  It is shed for you and for all...so that a new day, a new year might begin, even right now!  

There is no poverty in God’s grace and peace and welcome!  It is abundant, it is for everyone!  It is for you, this day and always.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

November 4 -- All Saints Sunday

Grace to you and peace from God who is our peace, even and especially as we find ourselves in the mix of the mix. 

Here on this All Saints Sunday, as we celebrate and give thanks, as we bring our pledges forward in a sign of our trust and joyful thanksgiving for God and all of the blessings of this life, as we brace ourselves for a big election week and all the division that comes with it, as we move into the hectic holiday season, as we sustain all the changes all around, with work and school and family and news...here in the mix of the mix, God meets us again, and Christ speaks peace, calling us back to the center:  Love God, love neighbor. What if we measured every word that came out of our mouth, every thought in our head, every tap of the keypad or phone screen, every action from our bodies on these two core commandments?  Love God. Love neighbor.  (I read these as equated...loving God = loving your neighbor.)  What a simplifying gift that might be!

Today in the thick of it all, and in light of this text from Mark’s Gospel, I’d like to share a bit about 2 saints in my life.  They are not pictured up here, but I can certainly see them here with all the rest.  All Saints Sunday is a day when we remember that the dearly departed saints are looking down on us saints still here, cheering us on.  Lining the balconies of our churches and our world, rooting us on...like Ann’s team at the marathon.

Well, first illumination on this text comes from a dearly departed member of the last congregation I served, Lois Hellberg.  Lois was a saint from the beginning, a passionate advocate for those who were overlooked — always the poor, the immigrant (she and her husband set up a library in Mexico and when everyone else was screaming about the dangers of crossing the border, she would take Saturdays to go down to Tijuana and deliver books to the library, visit with the families, and then sometimes she’d race back to host a fellowship event for church at her lovely, modest, peaceful home.  Her hosting always included strong coffee and singing.  Anyway, in my visits with Lois, as health problems accelerated toward the end, one time she told me a parable as we were talking: 
“Two able-bodied men were walking along the beach in San Diego,” she paints a picture for me. “And suddenly, they both hear the screams of a little boy drowning and struggling in the undertow, out in the water!  
“The first man drops to his knees in the sand and starts praying:  ‘Dear God, please don’t let that boy drown.  Please don’t let that boy drown.”  
“The second man looks around incredulous that no one is doing anything.  ‘Goddamnit, that boy is drowning!’ he shouts and goes running out to rescue him...even with bad knees.
“Now,” says Lois like a rabbi, “which of these two men took the Lord’s name in vain?”

Wearing our Christianity on our sleeve is one thing.  But Christ is about something else:  “Show me your discipleship by your actions,” Scripture calls us back again today, “by the decisions you make, by how you spend your time...and your money...and your able-body.  Don’t tell how faithful you are.  Show it.  Love God by showing me how you love your neighbor,” Christ nudges us again today.

In this text, Jesus is not actually arguing with the scribe.  He’s agreeing with him.  The scribe gets it, the scribe is the one who says all this, and so Jesus commends his deep wisdom and says to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  In other words, you got it!  Love is not about right doctrines and showy sacrifices, but rather about faithfulness, humility, trust and grace.
In a moment, we come forward and place our pledges on the altar.  That’s not a showy sacrifice ritual, like the scribe was describing: “Hey, everyone, look how great I am!”  Rather, physically coming forward at the Offering time on pledge Sunday is ritually ‘getting our bodies’, i.e. our whole lives, into our giving.  In other words, we’re running out into the waves!  Bringing our whole being up to the altar, and of course that includes our money.  We bring our whole lives before God, right past our beloved saints, gathered cheering us on.  As broken or crude or lost as we might be, bad knees and all, here we are, God! Where we’ve been, what we’ve done, doesn’t matter; God is calling us now.

My prayer in this pledge campaign this past month, has always been that every BLC member participates and pledges something.  Wouldn’t that be awesome?  Everyone according to their ability brings something forward.

All ages, all levels of income, give from the top of our baskets, first fruits, proportional to all we have, weekly, in a way that stretches us, and most importantly, we pledge joyfully.  We all come forward and bring what we can because it’s a reflection of how much we trust in and love God.  We’re not “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” we’re running into the waves.  Love God, love neighbor, you see?

The second saint I want to tell you about is my Grandpa Roschke, my dad’s dad.  Grandpa was a loving pastor for more than 60 years! [cross] He served so faithfully.  Sidenote:  As the churches Grandpa served grew, every 7 years, he would gather the leadership together and say, “OK, as I say every Sunday from the pulpit, we are called to go outward and spread this Gospel.  So who’s going to go?”  Can you imagine?  
No one ever wanted to “run out into the waves” at first, they were liked where they were.  But he Grandpa would pastor them...and new churches were born all over Kansas City.  Just a glimpse into his evangelical, i.e. good-news-sharing spirit.

After Grandpa died a few years ago, my dad discovered these laminated cards in his files:  John 12:21. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  You see, Grandpa would put these in every pulpit he ever preached from.  It was a reminder to himself and all preachers to ‘get out of the way’.  All preaching is meant to point to Jesus.  “Love God, love neighbor,” you see?  Stay to the side.  This isn’t about you!  In all our preaching and teaching, in our giving and sharing of our resources, in all our living, this world needs to see Jesus.  We knew Grandpa prayerfully liked to install these cards.  What we didn’t realize, was that he lived with the hope and vision of preaching so much more, of sharing so much more Good News of God’s love, so many more pulpits to go...

I’m growing to love this pulpit off to the side.  Altar center.

Friends in Christ, God shines through in the mix of the mix.  And it’s the saints of God, both those looking down on us and you...you are all saints too!  Ye watchers and ye holy ones — it’s the saints of God that get out of the way, and run into the waves to serve a world with everything we’ve got!  All Saints bear witness to the mighty works of the One who is deeply alive and abiding among us.   All Saints bear witness to the One who forgives us and challenges us.  All saints bear witness to the one who sends us now back out to love and serve in peace.  ALL SAINTS bear witness to Christ Jesus, who lives and reigns, this day and forever more.  AMEN.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Five Pillars of Biblical Giving

I wrote this song for Stewardship Season at Bethlehem, October 7 - November 4, 2018, 
rolling out a new verse each week, during the Children's Talk...


It’s the five pillars of biblical giving  C   G
Giving is living  C
And living is giving  G  C

1) First are the fruits,   C
So strap on your boots  F  C
And take from the top   C   
the very best that you’ve got! — FIRST!     G   C

2) Then comes proportion              C      
It’s quite a contortion F  C
Our gifts will reflect C   
The total in the deck… G     C

So if if you got 10, C
Give 1 God, and keep the rest       G    C

How ‘bout thir-tee? C
Well that’s 3 for JC, 27 for me!     G     C

And a $1000? C
Well that’s a 100, you could… C   G 
You’re still lookin’ pretty good!   C 

You see offering is fun [slow] C
In thanks for God’s loving everyone!     G    C

3) Next is giving regularly,                                  C
Like sleeping at night or your afternoon tea        F     C
When we’re just the groove,                                     C
The Spirit really starts to mo-o-o-o-o-o-ove.        G    C

4) Now it time to flex your wit,                                          C
When you’re giving to God, it could hurt a little bit,     F       C
Sacrificial giving is always                                           C
bold and risky living.                                                  G      C

5) Well the last is the best,                         C
It soars above the rest,                           F      C
Our favorite part of this -- O Boy! —           C
is that giving’s simply a JOY!!!!  [ditty]     G     C

Sunday, October 28, 2018

October 28 -- Reformation Sunday

I’ve never been there, but I understand that the road to and from Jericho was fraught with peril.  You dare not travel it alone.  And always, in the nooks and crannies of dangerous places, are the poor, those who can’t afford to get out.  Not everyone is wielding a weapon.  And those who can’t buy better places, better means of travel, better ways through, are stuck along the Jericho way.

Our text on this Reformation Sunday begins from a place of fear and sorrow — the Jericho road.  Dry, dumpy, and dangerous.  No real joy and hope to be found there.  No beauty.  Only a blind beggar, and outcast.  No life, only death, terror, fear and sorrow.

This is where the man in Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable got jumped too, remember.  Everyone knew that when you’re talking about the road to/from Jericho, you were talking about trouble.  Pain, sorrow, danger and death.  That’s where our text begins.

Which is fitting given our state of things.  With another shooting this week in a Pittsburgh sanctuary, and so many lives thrown again into chaos, terror, fear and indescribable sorrow.  With trouble in our own lives — loneliness, fear about the future, a barrage medical/health issues, with struggles at work and struggles at home, struggles in the family and struggles in the neighborhood — friends, we are no strangers to the Jericho road.
This week, downtown at First Trinity Lutheran, was the bi-annual Bishop’s Convocation.  Pastors and rostered leaders around the synod were invited to gather for a day of fellowship, networking, education and prayer.  (We are part of a really cool synod!)
Our guest lecture was The Rev. Dr. Francisco Padilla who now works with the ELCA Churchwide Offices in Chicago, but is originally and truly a pastor in Puerto Rico.  He came to share with us a word about preaching...before, during, and after a hurricane.  Hope — real hope — abides even with destruction all around.  “We danced through it all,” he said.

...Which doesn’t mean they didn’t suffer the greatest suffering and destruction of their lifetimes.  It doesn’t mean they didn’t lament.  In fact, their dancing came directly out of their tears.

Dr. Padilla told us about a flower that grows in Puerto Rico:  morivivi.  “Death life.”  It’s a tiny leafy plant that grows just about anywhere, like on gravel and dust, and trash.  
It’s blossoming along the Jericho road.  Life out of death.

This is the setting for Jesus’ healing blind Bartimeaus on this Re-formation Sunday.  This is our story!
Martin Luther too: how he suffered!  Terrorized by a God who was angry always.  Punishing any who stepped out of line, demanding the sacrifices of the faithful, keeping tally of good words, actions, thoughts — like the children’s Santa Claus song, which frankly is terrible (and wrong): “Better watch out, better not cry, better not pout...he knows if you’ve been bad or good.”  Apparently, Luther knew more about Santa Claus than he did about God!  He too “once was blind”!

...as we all can be:  I don’t know about you, but so easily I can wander out onto that Jericho road [pause] where death and despair, and fear and anger and sorrow rule the day.  [pause]

But our text on this Reformation Sunday, begins with Jesus heading out onto that road as well!
Only Jesus doesn’t fall victim to it.  Jesus doesn’t get carried away by the Jericho road.  Jesus stands over and against all that the “Jericho road” represents.  Like a mamma grizzly standing in the rapids, protecting her little ones.

Everyone else tries to get off that road, out of that current, as soon as possible.  But I’m struck, in this passage, how Jesus again stops and stays.  Verse 49: upon hearing the blind man’s plea for mercy, Jesus stops.  It says Jesus “stood still.”

There’s this image of the Jericho road as this rapid flowing, uncaring, reckless, and self-centered  highway, where you either move with it, or get run over, even killed...a real eat-or-be-eaten kind of existence (can you think of any places like that around here?)

And that’s exactly where Jesus not only shows up, but stops!  Christ is no victim of the Jericho road.  Christ stands over and against it, right in the middle of it, and in that powerful pause, there comes healing.  In that defiance of fear and anger and anxiety and sorrow, a blind beggar is freed.   Not even death itself can has a place now.  And the blind man is raised to new life!  Re-formed to be a follower of Jesus!   Mori...vivi!

This is our God.

This is the God who Luther discovered in the pages of Romans.  Not a God who is vengeful and violent, but a God who is grace and peace.  That grace and peace rests, it stops and stays, with us today.  It stands still here, [pause] amid all the terror and troubles that rush all around.  Christ takes hold of us and heals us.  And we too hear Jesus’ voice:  “Go, your faith — not your works, not your words, not your thoughts, not your resum├ęs — your faith has saved you.”
In the pause of Jesus, in the pause of our Sunday morning worship, in the pause of the Divine break-in — nothing we ever gave permission for; God breaks into our world — in the pause that is here, in the words of Jesus, we are healed.

We too regain our sight — that somehow got lost in the race, washed away in the fury, blocked and blurred by the Jericho way — but we too regain our sight and now can’t help, like the man who was once blind, “follow Jesus on the way.”  Jesus stays the course, Jesus “stays the Jericho road” — the places of violence and sorrow, Jesus is there.  He goes there and stays.  But we now — having been restored to sight — stand with him, no longer victims of fear, but rather “here we stand” as witnesses to God’s mighty works, reflections of this one Jesus Christ, who healed the sick and raised the dead.

We reflect that power in all we do and say...we can’t help it, having been healed ourselves!

It is in Christ, that we live and move, and pray, and have our being...and hold our ground for the sake of the poor, it is in Christ, that we journey down this Jericho way, it is in Christ that we live, it is in Christ that we die, it is in Christ that we are raised up...on this day, this RE-formation Day and always.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

Monday, October 22, 2018

October 21 -- Twenty-Second after Pentecost

Grace to you and peace from God who created us from the clay of the earth, from Jesus who brings us back from our sin and brokenness and into new life, and from the Holy Spirit who comforts and challenges us even now.  AMEN.

First of all:  You.  Are.  Here.  For whatever reason — maybe you’re here because you’re a regular and you can’t imagine your week without coming to Bethlehem on Sunday, maybe you’re here because you haven’t been and you feel bad, maybe you’re here against your will and someone is making you come this morning, maybe you’re new here and found us by word-of-mouth, or internet, or just drove by...Whatever way got here this morning, friends, I believe that God has brought you to this place!  In Exodus, when the Israelites are backed up to the Red Sea or wandering in the wilderness, time and time again, God is reminding the people, because they’re always forgetting -- especially when they panic, when they’re afraid, when they start to lose hope -- “Hey remember, I brought you this far, and I’ll bring you through!”  That’s true for us all today too, even as we just begin to know each other, God has brought us to this place.  And I give thanks that our paths have crossed this morning!  

Our Good Word today comes from the Gospel of Mark, where the disciples are backed into a place of wanting-to-be-the-best (James and John) and then the others into a place of anger.   

Sometimes, our need-to-be-the-best and our anger can lead to our demise, could be the death of us.  And yet -- here’s what I love -- Jesus, just holds them through it, and calls them out of it.  “Teacher,” they say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  Hey Jesus, make me the best one in this room.  Make me the smartest, the most successful, the most holy, the most spiritual, the most humble (which is a little ironic -- but I think that’s the one us church folk can fall into the most).  Anyway, Jesus make me the best!  We all have that drive at some level, I think.  

When pastors get together and share what’s up, I’ve always felt a little twinge of jealousy at all the cool things the other churches are doing (BLC is no exception—part of what drew me here).  I can’t speak for the others, but I’ve got this internal voice that needs to be better, that needs to sit by Jesus and get glory.  Maybe you too?  James and John are not alone, they weren’t bad guys — but they wanted to be the best and they wanted to be known for it — “Teacher, give us whatever we want,” they demand.  

Sometimes we talk to God like this too:  “God give me whatever I want.  Make me great.  Make us great here at BLC!”

And here’s what I love -- Jesus just holds them/us through that demanding phase, like a child’s demanding phase.  And what does he say, “You don’t know what you’re asking.”  You don’t get it.  

A few years ago, we caught Micah singing a song he had heard on the loud speaker at a Padres game:  “I’m sexy and I know it.” When we asked him about it, it’s clear he just didn’t understand yet.  “Daddy! You know, it means ‘you know it...it means you know something other people don’t know.’” Sexy = I know it.  Innocent and sweet, right?

Sisters and brothers in Christ, our misunderstanding of Christ’s call is almost innocent and even sweet.  Our wanting to be the best, our wanting to get the glory, our wanting to be seated in places of honor and respect, is like a child not getting it and being held anyway.  

Sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus holds us in our brokenness.  “You do not know what you are asking,” he tells us too.  “This isn’t about being the best, this isn’t about giving so that you get all the glory.  This isn’t about getting what we want out of the church or the pastor or the council.  This isn’t about pulling strings and being lord over others...  

This is about being a servant.  This is about making sacrifices.  To use a great biblical image: this is about foot-washing.  This is about giving ourselves away for the sake of the world.”  That’s what it means to be Christ-ian.  That’s what Christ has instructed us to do:  wash each other’s feet, “just like I’ve done for you,” Jesus says.  We do that with our money too.
And this is a gift!  Jesus calls us to freedom through our percentage giving.  Jesus invites us to joyfully release that with which we’ve been entrusted.  It’s all God’s anyway.  It’s just been entrusted to us for this short life.  We joyfully release just a percentage of it, as a way of thanking God for bringing us through, holding us, loving us all along.  Let it go.  (Always thought that’d be a good song for a stewardship campaign.) 

“When the disciples heard these things, they became angry.”  They became jealous.  Even scared.  When we are invited to joyfully release just a portion, just a percentage of God’s gifts to us, we too can become angry and scared.   Maybe some of you have gone through that in this or previous stewardship campaigns?  I did a big campaign back in San Diego, a couple years ago...and it was such a joy, but it wasn’t without some struggle.  I remember some of our members telling stories about their fears and even angers at being asked to participate.  Asked to give to the church -- any church -- and we cry out:  But I don’t like what the church is doing!!  Every one of us can say that about something going on at church.  I’m not giving to that!!  I’m not voting for that with my money because I don’t like what they’re doing.  Jesus holds us through this.  “You don’t know what you are saying.”  (Only place in the world...) Biblical stewardship -- i.e. first fruits, proportional, regular, sacrificial and yet joyful giving -- is not about others and who gets “your” money, it’s not about church budgets and deficits and bills and salaries, it’s about you.  It’s an invitation to go deeper in your own faith.  Jesus holds us through our fears and angers, through our concerns about the future and our bitterness about the past.  

And when we’re finished with our rants, with our anger.  When we’re finished trying to be the best all the time, promoting ourselves, having to have the last word, trying to always beat out the others and prove our righteousness next to Jesus...Jesus offers us the final word:  “Dear ones,” he says to us even today, “It’s not about being the best.  I’m about serving, friends.  I’m about loving.  I’m about giving.”  

Sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus serves us, loves us, and gives himself away for us.  To be at Jesus’ side, actually means to kneel at the feet of our neighbors and tend to their needs.  Jesus turns everything on its head!  There is no throne, disciples.  There’s a wash basin and a towel.  That’s where we find the real glory...and it makes no sense to the world.  Being Christian is not about fighting for our own rights, for our own spot, the best spot….it’s about tending to the rights and needs of others, particularly those who are left out in the cold and the rain.  To sit at Jesus’ side is to give yourself away.  Not out of guilt or compulsion, but out of joy and thanksgiving for what God has first done for us.  We get caught up in the current of grace.

We offer our gifts, not out of guilt or compulsion, but rather out of joy and thanksgiving for what Christ has done for us: Christ has forgiven us, for all our anger and jealousy and need to be on top, especially at the expense of others.  Done!  Forgiven!  And Christ now holds us/you in grace and peace.  When we are taken with that kind of hope and redemption, we can’t help but respond with our time, talents and treasures, we can’t help but respond with our whole lives.    

Let me conclude with an image:  
When we were little -- I grew up in Houston, Texas -- we spent most of our childhood in swimming pools to survive the heat.  And I remember how we used to create whirlpools in my friend’s backyard pool, going around and around in a circle in that small pool.  Then we’d take turns hopping out, and then jumping back in, only to be caught in the current.  It was so much fun, and we couldn’t help ourselves but to keep that current going so the next one could jump in and keep experiencing that joy of being carried by that same current.  

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God creates the current.  As we bring our gifts forward—our time our talents and our money—as we live this life of faith, as we participate with our church family in all the ways that we “discover, celebrate and share,” it’s like we’re caught in the current of God’s grace!  And when we’re caught, we can’t help but continue to move, continue to give and grow, continue to participate, continue to go in peace and serve our Lord.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Monday, October 15, 2018

October 14 -- Twenty-First After Pentecost

Grace to you and peace from God, our only Source and Ground.  AMEN.

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” Ouch!  In one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

“Easier for a camel…than for a wealthy person...” How would you explain this...say, to children?  How do you explain it to yourself?  (Actually saw the eye of a needle in a museum in Rome…but, not much help...)  What’s Jesus really getting at here?  This is worth our reflection, and we’ve gotta wrestle with this.   But let’s start by acknowledging “Jesus loved him” (vs. 21).  In fact, that’s the only instance in all of Mark... 
A couple years ago, I participated in a Gathering confession, like we here at the beginning. But these words, I’ve never been able to forget: “God, we hang on to and save up our money and our possessions as if you didn’t even exist.  We cling to our riches and our earthly things as if you’re not even real.”   

I think what Jesus is saying to the rich man in the story -- and to us who have money and things too -- that’s it’s even harder for us because we can fool ourselves into thinking that we can really secure and protect ourselves.  With pension plans, and insurance, with airbags, and security alarms, with a strong military and police force, with trusted financial advisors and back-up plans, and investments and security cameras, with brilliant doctors and nurses, plenty of warm and rainproof clothes and roofs over our heads…[pause] and with a clean record to our name: “I’ve kept all the commandments, never broken the law, if I did it was so minor and wasn’t even a big deal.  I pay my taxes, and I even go to church.” 

So, I really think I deserve all this...that I’ve worked for!   I can at least totally justify why it’s OK for me to have it all…

“With all our stuff, with all our money and privilege, who even needs God (except as maybe a sweet grandpa in the sky, who benignly loves us and throws a few reminders at us once in a while about how we better behave)?”  The poor and sick need God, they’ve got nothing else.  But the healthy and the wealthy?  “Who even cares if God’s even real or not?”  Are you getting the energy around this confession?

“God, we hang on to and save up our money and our possessions as if you didn’t even exist.”   
And today we hear Jesus sigh: “How hard it will be for those of us with wealth to enter the kingdom of God.”

Our possessions and our money become like a blanket that shields us from the deep truth that all we have and are comes from God, belongs to God, and returns to God at the last.  

Truly trusting in God is even harder when we’re wealthy (and I’d add in healthy).  This is what Christ was getting at:  Entrusting ourselves to our Source and Ground, even now...  

So what might this all look like for you, as you use and share and spend money?  As you make decisions about the future?  How are you doing these days with trusting in God?  Does your bank statement reflect that too?  “Lord, I’ve kept all the commandments!”  He’s fishing for that pat on the back.

But Jesus doesn’t give it so easily.  Jesus doesn’t let him off the hook.  The rich man in the story went away sad.  And he didn’t get to hear what Jesus said next…

We do:  Jesus sighs and comments for a moment on how hard it is for people how have a lot of stuff now to trust God.  Then the disciples — namely Peter — takes his turn at fishing for a pat on the back.  “We’ve left everything and followed you!”  Nope.  He doesn’t get it either:
Finally, we can’t rescue ourselves... 

Friends in Christ, this is about God doing the rescuing.  God being the final provider of shelter, security and eternal safety...even now.  God’s the ultimate security guard, security system, God’s the ultimate nurse and doctor and advisor, the true back-up.  For us it’s impossible, but for God, sisters and brothers, even we can be saved.  Even we can live free.  Open and trusting.  Peaceful and honest.  Naked before God.

Luther’s definition of sin was the self turned inward.  Suspicious, anxious, scared, protective, paranoid...and then all the behaviors that come as a result of that deep-seeded fear.  

I love to compare that with our little lab-mutt, Chloe.  She embodies trust.  Chloe rolls over on her back, fully exposed, naked and entrusts her whole little life to me!  For a while there, we had an issue with peeing on the floor, and we have a dear friend who is our personal dog-whisperer.  Andrea, told us that especially with her breed, these accidents are actually communication:  her way of telling us that we have her absolute submission, “I’m all yours, here’s everything I have.  I am literally emptying myself for you.”  [too much?]  

How would that look for us?  What if that was a metaphor for how we worshipped God and served our neighbor?  Go in peace, serve the Lord…[empty]!  What would that look like?  

“How hard it is” even to imagine, right?  I mean we’re so much more guarded and controlled than Chloe.  So much more turned-inward and blanketed with stuff, I’m afraid, too.  

[open hands]  “God, how can we trust you with the same self-emptying as a sweet, loving and submissive dog?  Help us to use and release money and handle our affairs as if you really did exist, as if you really are real!”  That’s our prayer. 

And sisters and brothers in Christ, I hope you know — and if you don’t, I’m going to tell you now — I hope you know that God does love us and forgive us, even us wealthy ones!  Just as we love and will do everything we can to protect and shelter and save our little Chloe, so God loves us even more!  You know that, right?  

God loves us and grieves to watch us live all clenched and curled up.  God graciously waits for us to roll over, even today, and entrust ourselves, into Christ’s everlasting providence and forgiveness.  Because the sooner we do that, the happier we’ll be: that’s when we enter the kingdom!  It can happen even in this life, even on this earth, even amid these headlines and developments and struggles.  That kind of love, that kind of grace, that kind of rescue, can only come from God -- who is for you, who forgives you even when you struggle to surrender, even when you’re ashamed to be naked, even when you can’t let go or roll over, even if you go home sad.  Remember, Jesus looked and the rich man, and loved him.  He loved him...and then invites him to trust even more.  

Our journey continues, friends in Christ, and we are not alone.  Our journey continues together, and through it all, God stays with us...always.  Peace amid the storms.  AMEN.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

October 7 -- 20th Sunday after Pentecost

Harsh words today from Jesus on divorce.  Harsh?  Or are they rooted in compassion and actually packed with grace?  Let us pray…
“God may the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight for you are our strength and our redeemer.” 
Have you ever been trapped?  Maybe in an argument, maybe in a game, maybe in a situation?  If you go one way, they’ll get you.  If you go the other, something else bad will happen.  It’s a terrible place to be.  Sometimes we’re trapped in our relationships:  Say we have a dear friend who is really in trouble…we want to help them and have all the best intentions, but that means saying some things, telling our truth in a way that can truly upset our friend.  If we don’t, we’ll continue to watch them flounder.  If we do, we risk hurting or alienating, maybe even losing our friend.  Trapped.  Telling our truth is hard, being honest with ourselves and with our loved ones is hard.  It’s much easier to avoid the difficult conversations, it’s much easier to keep the peace, the status quo, the superficial harmony.  But even then we’re trapped.  
The question of divorce that comes up so directly in this text today, we have to understand, is an attempt by the Pharisees to TRAP Jesus.  They’re trying to back him into a corner.  The Pharisees aren’t asking Jesus about divorce with the best intentions.  They’re not dealing with their own issues at home, in their own marriages, and looking to their friend to help them sort through the Law of Moses, in order to do what is right.  They’re trying to trap Jesus.  
We are in a totally different place than the Pharisees when we ask difficult questions about divorce and marriage.  We’re wondering what the right thing to do is, the right way to think…
Marriage in Jesus’ day was nothing like marriage today in the United States.  Back then, you didn’t meet someone, date, fall in love, get down on one knee, have your favorite song as a first dance, and plan to live happily ever after.  Marriage was a business agreement between men: the father of the bride and the potential husband.  Romance had very little to do with it.  Lust maybe.  As the years passed, a married couple might begin to fall in love.  But at the outset, the woman was seen as property, an asset gained.  I’ve been at a few synod assemblies, namely a couple years back (before 2009), where a resolution would inevitably come to the assembly floor that we “uphold the biblical understanding of marriage.”  I think I know what the authors of these resolutions were trying to say, but I would always vote against such resolutions that seek to link marriage to a “biblical understanding”... if for now other reason but...a biblical understanding of marriage is a cold, calculated contract, where women and their voices are completely devalued.  Now certainly there were exceptions, but we have to make note of how marriage was seen in the days of Jesus and the Pharisees.
The good thing about marriage for women in that day, was that it meant—not romance and companionship—but protection, legal protection, financial protection, (in some ways) physical protection.  It meant safety at one level; another word for that is salvation.  You know this: she was the responsibility of her father until a certain age where the father is looking to “marry her off” well.  Once she’s married she’s no longer the father’s responsibility.  She literally belongs as property to the husband. So a divorce would literally put her out in the cold. [pause] (Today, if a couple gets divorced, either of them could feasibly go back and seek shelter in the arms and the homes of their parents—not so back then.)  She can’t go back to her father, because he no longer owns her.   
It would be like if you took back a car you sold years ago, and started making payments on it again. [pause]
Harsh, right?  Talk about being trapped.  So, in that very different context and understanding of marriage and divorce, look at what Jesus does here:  First he brings up for the Pharisees the issue of people’s “hardness of heart.”  There’s a lesson and a challenge in that for all of us—married or single, straight or gay, old or young, Christian or non.  Jesus calls people, especially those in power, to soften their hearts.  In our relationships, in our dealings, even in how we look at ourselves.  Spark Story Bible... “Love is easy going, love is kind.”  Jesus calls us today through this text to be easy going with our love and our treatment of each other—what a wonderful contrast to a stiff, calcified heart.   I’ve certainly experienced softness of heart in this community: In our neighborhood, as people show up and speak out and share support in the midst of all this vandalism and racist graffiti and terror.  What would it look like to embrace “Christ’s soft-heart initiative” in the coming days — in all our dealings and our relationships and our thoughts?
And then Jesus calls us to responsibilities and back into relationship.  He (and Genesis) remind us that we were all created in order to be in relationship.  “It’s not good to be alone.”  For some, that means we are called into the covenant of marriage.  For others: life-long friendships, partnerships, family connections. God’s original intention for us is that we be together. The human being, is the human being-together with another—be it a spouse, a child, a friend, a parent, a pet.  All of these—I don’t have to tell you this— are literally life-giving, science has shown.  That’s how God intended it.  Some congregations are doing a blessing of the animals today: October 4, St. Francis.  Next year?  
Really what that is, is a celebration of a relationship, a companionship that God has given us with all creation, and a call to be about the work of soft-hearted protection, like a good marriage contract was intended to be back then, creating safe spaces, safe forests, protected deserts and oceans, joyf-illed homes with pets where we’re not always sure who’s taking care of who, right?  This is what Jesus is seeking to re-affirm!  The blessing of the animals: “May you enjoy life together, as God intended.”
And finally, look at what Jesus does for women, in that brutal context—first, he empowers women to divorce as well, giving them some degree of dignity and power, which they didn’t have.  Now women are more free to divorce their husbands, and sometimes that’s definitely the best thing.  But not so back then, and Jesus’ mention of it is radical and liberating.  And then ultimately he comes down hard on men who divorce their wives, for to do so in that time was to cast another “human being-together” out into the cold alone.  Jesus is passionately invested in bringing all people to the center.  No one in God’s vision is to be cast out—not women, not children.  And Jesus reminds us again of that in the final scene here in our text, where he brings the children to the center and holds them in his arms — it’s a visible image for everyone of God’s inclusivity, God’s soft-heart, God’s freedom and love and joy and peace!  
To take this Gospel lesson seriously, is to understand that you are included in the center, in God’s loving embrace, everyone is included in God’s loving embrace!   
We are all trapped...in a good way.  We are all trapped, you could say, in God’s arms.  We are all trapped in our faith, we can never divorce that, because once God has gotten hold of us as God does at the very beginning, we can never break free.  And yet we are trapped in freedom — in the freedom that is ours through Christ’s love.  Trapped in the promise of the Holy Spirit’s ever-presence, trapped in grasp of grace, this day and for evermore.  AMEN.   

Sunday, September 30, 2018

September 30 -- Nineteenth after Pentecost

These “amputation metaphors” are tough.  

I’m just going to go there:   There are other things in this passage like welcoming the ministry of others who are not like us, and keeping things good and salty.  But when Jesus says “when your eye causes you to sin, cut it out...” it’s hard, at first, to notice or focus on much else.  So let’s talk about this...

“Amputation metaphors” were certainly common in Jesus’ day and his hearers would have certainly been attuned to their teacher’s hyperbole and known that they were just that — metaphors — and they would have heard clearly what Christ was really saying: 

If something is preventing you from following me, from trusting in me, from living in me — if something is preventing you, causing you to stumble, deep down at your core, that thing needs to be cut off and cut out, even if it’s highly “valuable”.  (Colleague talks about the Offering as an exorcism.  “Are you ready for an exorcism?” he says, as the ushers prepare to come forward for the plates!)

Coming into October, friends in Christ, we are being asked too:  what does a “sin-ectomy” look like for us?  What do we need to cut out and cut off?  

Let’s just think for a minute about our hands our feet and our eyes, because Jesus talks about them:  It’s not about literally cutting them out and off, but how are they causing us to sin?  (Let me say too, the word sin in the Greek: hamartia = “missing the mark.”)  How are we missing the mark, the mark of our baptism, the mark of the cross, the mark of Christ?

Where are the places we’re going, the investments of time and resources we’re making...that might be causing us to miss the mark of Christ?  What do our credit card statements and internet search histories, and if there was a record of our conversations this past week that we could  listen back to, how are we stumbling?  What needs to be cut off and cut out?

You might do a little inventory this week.  Think about your hands, as Jesus does: what are things that your hands have done, that should stop?  Have your hands been used for violence against others or against yourself?  Our hands can be used for typing...words and ideas that hurt others.  Our hands can be used to signal terrible things...  [pointing sharply]   Or our feet?  Where have they taken us?  To places that build up or places that drain life, hurting others and earth...[pause]  Or your eyes, what have you been feasting your eyes on?  Things, people, self-serving dreams and wishes? 

There are things we all need to work on, yes?  Things to ponder and pray over, things to confess, things that only we as individuals (in the quiet presence of God) can truly know simply need to go, must be cut off.  Addiction in its many forms is a powerful force.  And it’s not just substances or material things that hook us:  some of us are addicted to the chase, or to receiving praise and recognition, or to making sure everyone else is doing it right (disciples in the text), or to securing certainty, or to out-doing everyone else, and looking humble and calm all the while.  Right?   

(Last week: clenched fists)  And let’s be honest: so much of this has to do with money — Ivan the Terrible’s troops baptized with swords out of the water: our wallets?

An interesting thing happens with this text, doesn’t it?  At first, it seems so medieval and out of touch — chopping off of body parts and all... But when we move through, slow down and “pray these scripture words of Jesus”, it gets intensely personal.  And in the grip of these stumbling blocks, we might just be experiencing a certain hell, a certain and painful distancing from God, from the peace and the joy of God.  

We all, if we’re honest need a “sin-ectomy”.  We all need Christ to come and surgically remove that which is holding us back, tying us down, clenching our fists...like they’re wrapped into a clench.  We need God to come and cut this binding!
How did we plead earlier at the font?
“We confess that we have not allowed your grace to set us free.  We fear that we are not good enough.  We hear your word of love freely given to us, and yet we expect others to earn it...”
Here’s what I know: we need Christ.  This world needs Christ!  We are indeed, in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.

And sisters and brothers in Christ, God comes to the rescue.  Christ is here.  Jesus is our surgeon who scrubs in...and cuts out all that is causing us to stumble.  Today is the day of surgery.  And Christ operates with divine precision.  Removing what needs to go — not pain free — so that we can now use our hands and our feet and our eyes and our ears, our tongues and our brains and our backs and our fingers to love and serve both inside this church community and beyond!

And Christ’s successful operation leaves us with everything we need to be God’s people.  AMEN?

Even now.  Even here, we have everything we need to be the people that God has created, called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified us to be!

Forgiven or our sin, surgically removed of it, all of it, as we heard and celebrated and trust that we are, over there at the font — right at the very beginning of our worship service! (thought it was just another Sunday…) — to have had a successful “sin-ectomy” flings wide open the doors of the church and the doors of our hearts and minds to live in faith and love and joy together, reaching out.  

Or as Jesus said in the last verse of our passage for today, to “be at peace with one another.”  

May that peace of God which passes all human understanding, keep your hearts and minds in faith in that Christ Jesus, this day and forever.  Amen.