Sunday, March 29, 2015

What's Next? Mark 15:1-47

Mark 15:1-47  Common English Bible

15 At daybreak, the chief priests—with the elders, legal experts, and the whole Sanhedrin—formed a plan. They bound Jesus, led him away, and turned him over to Pilate. 2 Pilate questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus replied, “That’s what you say.” 3 The chief priests were accusing him of many things.
4 Pilate asked him again, “Aren’t you going to answer? What about all these accusations?” 5 But Jesus gave no more answers, so that Pilate marveled.

6 During the festival, Pilate released one prisoner to them, whomever they requested. 7 A man named Barabbas was locked up with the rebels who had committed murder during an uprising. 8 The crowd pushed forward and asked Pilate to release someone, as he regularly did. 9 Pilate answered them, “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” 10 He knew that the chief priests had handed him over because of jealousy. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas to them instead. 12 Pilate replied, “Then what do you want me to do with the one you call king of the Jews?”
13 They shouted back, “Crucify him!”
14 Pilate said to them, “Why? What wrong has he done?”
They shouted even louder, “Crucify him!”
15 Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd, so he released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus whipped, then handed him over to be crucified.

16 The soldiers led Jesus away into the courtyard of the palace known as the governor’s headquarters,[a] and they called together the whole company of soldiers.[b] 17 They dressed him up in a purple robe and twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on him. 18 They saluted him, “Hey! King of the Jews!” 19 Again and again, they struck his head with a stick. They spit on him and knelt before him to honor him. 20 When they finished mocking him, they stripped him of the purple robe and put his own clothes back on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.   21 Simon, a man from Cyrene, Alexander and Rufus’ father, was coming in from the countryside. They forced him to carry his cross.

22 They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha, which means Skull Place. 23 They tried to give him wine mixed with myrrh, but he didn’t take it. 24 They crucified him. They divided up his clothes, drawing lots for them to determine who would take what. 25 It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The notice of the formal charge against him was written, “The king of the Jews.” 27 They crucified two outlaws with him, one on his right and one on his left.[c]

29 People walking by insulted him, shaking their heads and saying, “Ha! So you were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, were you? 30 Save yourself and come down from that cross!”

31 In the same way, the chief priests were making fun of him among themselves, together with the legal experts. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself. 32 Let the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from the cross. Then we’ll see and believe.” Even those who had been crucified with Jesus insulted him.
33 From noon until three in the afternoon the whole earth was dark. 34 At three, Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you left me?”

35 After hearing him, some standing there said, “Look! He’s calling Elijah!” 36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, and put it on a pole. He offered it to Jesus to drink, saying, “Let’s see if Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 But Jesus let out a loud cry and died.

38 The curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 When the centurion, who stood facing Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “This man was certainly God’s Son.”

40 Some women were watching from a distance, including Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (the younger one) and Joses, and Salome. 41 When Jesus was in Galilee, these women had followed and supported him, along with many other women who had come to Jerusalem with him.

42 Since it was late in the afternoon on Preparation Day, just before the Sabbath, 43 Joseph from Arimathea dared to approach Pilate and ask for Jesus’ body. (Joseph was a prominent council member who also eagerly anticipated the coming of God’s kingdom.) 44 Pilate wondered if Jesus was already dead. He called the centurion and asked him whether Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that Jesus was dead, Pilate gave the dead body to Joseph. 46 He bought a linen cloth, took Jesus down from the cross, wrapped him in the cloth, and laid him in a tomb that had been carved out of rock. He rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was buried.
Imagine that we are there . . .  in Jerusalem.  We’ve watched Jesus enter the city.  We’ve waved our palms and lined the street with them, singing hosannah, shouting and laughing - so excited that Jesus has come into Jerusalem. Surely now he will declare himself - he will rise up at the head of an angelic army and defeat Rome.  Surely now everyone will recognize him!  Forget Herod and Tiberius - Jesus is the true King of the Jews! 

And when the parade was over we all wandered off to have Passover dinner with our families.  Life went on as usual for us.  After all, we’re just folks.  Jesus and his followers, they’ll be doing all that king-making stuff . . .  We’ll be happy to celebrate when the time comes . . .

and then . . . Wait . . .What???   He was arrested?  He is a blasphemer?  The Temple police have him?  He’s been crucified?  What happened?  He’s dead??!!  It’s over, then.  Our hopes are dead with him. . . .

Guess we just have to wait for the next Messiah to come along. . . because there have been dozens of them rise up in the last couple of decades.  We must have been mistaken again.   And most of us will give up, mourn a bit, mostly for ourselves, and go back to our pre-Jesus lives.

What we don’t know . . . what no one seemed to know . . . even though he had told them . . . is that in a few days, he won’t be dead any more.  He won’t be dead anymore and he will live for ever.   But we don’t know that yet . . . we don’t understand at all.

When I was in seminary in Indiana I had a classmate from Kenya.  We walked to class together one snowy February day and I asked him what he was doing outside without a hat.  He replied that he was toughening himself for the cold.  He thought it was something he could get used to.  I explained to him that he needed to cover his head because his body heat would escape quickly though his scalp and that wasn’t just uncomfortable, it was potentially deadly.  There is no such thing as toughening yourself to withstand the cold.  You simply have to cover up.  We talked a bit about winter.  He said, “I really just can’t get used to the way everything looks so dead here in the winter.  At home, if we saw trees that looked like these do - no leaves, no green, nothing that even looks a little bit alive - we would cut it for firewood.  Because clearly, it is dead.”   So I explained Spring.  And because we were in seminary it was really easy to make it a theological conversation, centering around the  resurrection and our hope for new and eternal life.  

I do understand that many of the people sitting in front of me here don’t know about winter snows and the hope that comes with tiny, seemingly suicidal crocus flowers breaking through the snow on the ground.  We do have some trees here that lose their leaves in the winter.  We do have some Spring blossoms, like flowering almond trees and nectarines.  But that despair that strikes so many in mid-winter after months of grey skies, that really-hard-to-dismiss feeling that everything is dead and hopeless and it will never be Spring . . . that’s not part of our reality in Southern California.  

Boxer is an adorable little dog who belongs to friends of mine.  When I visit the first one to greet me at the door is almost always Boxer, wagging his entire body and holding a toy in his mouth.  He loves to chase his toys so much that sometimes he could be distracted from whatever was on my dinner plate by a carefully timed toy-throw.  Then, on St. Patrick’s Day I heard that Boxer had been rushed to the vet with a slipped disc. They tried a laser treatment but the prognosis was grim.  Boxer was paralyzed from the waist down.  He would never walk again without really expensive surgery!  The vet thought it would be better to just put him to sleep so he wouldn’t suffer.  My friends took him home to think and pray and try to figure out ways to pay for the surgery . . . They asked all of their friends on Facebook to pray for solutions. . . .  and the strangest things began to happen.  On March 19th my friend said, “He is paralyzed in his back legs and he still moves just as fast around the house, he still whines annoyingly to play with his ball, and he even wagged his tail when I got home!!!”  One day he figured out a way to “walk” on his knees,  then he learned to lock one of his legs and swing it around to “walk” better.  Boxer doesn’t know he is broken.  My friends are talking about maybe finding one of those little wheeled carts for him.  He’s still broken, but his life isn’t over.  It is simply different.  He is a miracle.  

I have long felt the power of the resurrection in this congregation.  Even when it seems like everything is dying, when we don’t have enough money to do what we really would like to be able to do with our ministry, when we don’t have the bodies we need to do the work of the church that we would like to be able to do . . . I have felt the power of the resurrection.  Like a crocus barely peeking its head through the snow . . . .when you see one you just sort of pray that the cold won’t kill it, that this one will survive to blossom.  I’ve felt a little like Bullwinkle the Moose, who is trying once again to pull a rabbit out of his hat, saying “This time for sure!”   I have felt that power moving and swirling, like the sap in trees as they get ready for that break in the weather.. . and then kind of flowing back, as if to say, “Not just yet.”  

Holy Week has begun.  It is a week for reflection, for introspection, for looking forward to what comes next, for hope …. that incredible, hope-against-hope for a miracle kind of hope.  It is a week to look toward the grave . . . and then beyond, beyond the grey skies, beyond the brokenness, beyond the sorrow and pain . . . to that new life we believe will come, that we have faith will come, because it always has come and it always will come . . .  If we will trust in God to guide us.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Connected 1 John 3:16-24

1 John 3:16-24 CEB 16 This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 But if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care—how can the love of God remain in him? 18 Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth. 19 This is how we will know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts in God’s presence.20 Even if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things.21 Dear friends, if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have confidence in relationship to God.22 We receive whatever we ask from him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love each other as he commanded us. 24 The person who keeps his commandments remains in God and God remains in him; and this is how we know that he remains in us, because of the Spirit that he has given to us. 

 Today is Earth Stewardship Sunday. The other day someone asked me, “What’s the difference between Earth Day and Earth Stewardship Sunday?” Frankly, I don’t know. All I know for sure is that on my official Disciples worship planning calendar last Sunday was called Earth Day and this Sunday is called Earth Stewardship Sunday. Perhaps it’s that Earth Day is always April 22 so the fourth Sunday of April was simply chosen as the day we officially celebrate it in our worship services and this year Earth Day just happened to fall on a Sunday. Or perhaps it’s this way so preachers get to talk about the glories of God’s creation two weeks in a row. Either way, as Guillermo said in an email this week, “YAY! Green again!!”

 I’m always happy when I have to chance to bring out the Tree of Life wall hanging. I especially love the Celtic style tree of life, drawn with one unbroken line, a line with no beginning and no end through which everything connected to everything else. It is so perfectly representative of the way the world truly is. It’s perfectly representative of the way God is - God has always existed and will always exist, with no beginning and no end, and is the thing by which every thing and every creature in the universe is connected to each other. In the book of Job God reminds Job just exactly where all the good stuff Job had accumulated in his life came from, saying “But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In [God's] hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.” (Job 12:7-10)

 That unbroken line connecting everything to everything is also perfectly representative of the way the love of God is supposed to work. God loves us, we love God, and because we love God and God loves us we love all of God’s creatures in the same way as we love God and ourselves. Everyone loving and being loved. Everyone caring for and about each other. All problems solved, all injustice cured, all oppression ended, endangered animals saved from extinction, rain forests returned to their intended glory. No more hunger, no more dying, no more fighting, no more crying. Kum ba yah.

 That’s the way the love of God is supposed to work. That’s what the kingdom looks like. We all know that just isn’t the way it is.

 John reminds us here that loving means more than just expressing a feeling. “Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth.  This is how we will know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts in God’s presence.”

 Jesus laid his life down for us, we lay ours down for our brothers and sisters. God provided great bounty for us, we share that great bounty with our brothers and sisters. We all know just how fruitful the earth is. If you don’t know, just plant some zucchini seeds. Before long you will have enough zucchini to feed the neighborhood. For some reason zucchini seem to be especially prolific and there’s really only so much you can do with squash. You will want to share this bounty with everyone you know. So, before long you’ll be bringing bags full of zucchini to church on Sunday mornings hoping people will want to take them home. You’ll be begging all your friends and neighbors to take some. People will start hiding when they see you carrying a bag. Seriously.

 Unfortunately, not every place overproduces the way our backyards do. We know that parts of the world over-produce while other regions produce very little because of drought or war or some kind of plague affecting food crops. Even here in this country we know that many people, many children, go to bed hungry every night while others throw away enough leftover food to feed a family. Grocery stores toss out produce that’s just a bit past the “best by” date. During the depression, citrus farmers piled up their produce and burned all that fruit because they couldn’t sell it. Today farmers are paid not to grow certain crops. And yet, food banks around the country have closed because they simply can’t get the donations they need to continue feeding the hungry. This is not good stewardship of the earth. This is not the way God’s love is supposed to work.

 It’s hard to reconcile over production and under nourishment going on in the same country at the same time, especially in a country that so many claim is a Christian country. If we were a Christian country in truth, a country governed by the rule of God’s love we wouldn’t have so many of our own citizens suffering from hunger and homelessness. “17 ... if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care—how can the love of God remain in him?” It’s equally hard for me to understand how some of our leaders think it’s a good idea to cut medical benefits, food stamps and educational assistance for the poor while untaxed corporations are making truly obscene profits and the extremely wealthy pay income tax at a lower percentage rate than the people who work for them. I don’t object to profit. I applaud anyone who manages through hard work and dedication to improve their way of living. I just think it is more loving, more just to tax a corporation or a billionaire than to let children go hungry or die for lack of medical care.

 When it comes to care of the earth, we humans have created a lot of environmental problems. Deserts are growing, water supplies are dwindling, crazy weather is everywhere. Much of this has to do with climate change, which is surely not entirely attributable to human action, but we do have to claim a part in it. Many of those same leaders are opposed to regulations that help stop air and water pollution, or protect endangered ecosystems and endangered animals, or keep our food supply safe, or really any kind of restrictive environmental laws, because those restrictions cut into profit. These leaders claim to believe that we can continue to abuse the earth as we will, and that the earth will heal itself. To them I would speak these words Ezekiel spoke to the leaders of Israel, 18 Is feeding in good pasture or drinking clear water such a trivial thing that you should trample and muddy what is left with your feet? (Ezekiel 34:18) These laws, these regulations protecting and cleaning up our environment, are part of good stewardship of the earth.

 This week one of those leaders was taken to task by the Roman Catholic Church, who said that the policies he promoted were not in keeping with his faith or with the teachings of the Church. He replied that he believed in God’s preferential option for the poor. He just didn’t believe it had anything to do with the way government works. This is one of the people who claims we live in a Christian country. He seems to believe that good stewardship means caring about money and people with money more than caring about the least of our brothers and sisters or the earth we live upon.

 Caring for the earth and all its creatures.

 Loving our brothers and sisters. 

These are the same thing.

 We cannot separate one from the other.

 These are part of the tree of life and the single unbroken line that connects them all is God, creator and sustainer of life. We cannot separate any part from any other part, because God cares about them all. Make no mistake, everything that exists belongs to God, not to us. Remember that bit from Job?

 If we are to love God as God loves us, each of us will find a way to use our gifts and talents to care for God’s earth and God’s people. First, we will pray for guidance to see how we can best serve. And then we may find our place in actively working to clean up an empty lot, signing petitions, donating money to causes, campaigning for or against particular laws, letting our political representatives know how we feel. At the very least we should spend time researching the positions of politicians before elections, to make sure that each of us votes for the persons who best represent our positions and our beliefs. Those positions and beliefs will be different for each of us, but we have to keep in mind that, if we understand all of life as interconnected through God, then we will also understand that we cannot separate our religious beliefs and our political action.

 Our God is an awesome God. The same God who separated the earth from the water, hung the lights in the sky, created all the creatures and breathed life into A’dam, that same God gave the earth and everything in it into the care of humanity. That same God spoke to us through Jesus Christ and continues to speak to us today in so many ways. If you would hear God, then go look at what God has done. Go outside and look north at the mountains. Look at the flowers right outside the door. Look at the child sitting near you. If you would hear God, feel the warmth of the sun flowing over you. Taste the cool of the water. God’s voice can be heard in everything that has been created - every creature, every star, every planet, every speck of dust, every breath of wind. God speaks to us through each of these, when we open our hearts to hear.

 Let us go out from this place to love the world, in word and action and prayer. Let us go out giving thanks and praise to our Creator, the God of the fertile fields.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

What's Behind Door Number 3?

This message is a lead-in to the congregational retreat and pot luck lunch we're having right after the Lord's Supper today.

John 12:12-16 Common English Bible (CEB)
 12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him. They shouted,
Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 
   Blessings on the king of Israel!”
 14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written,
 15 Don’t be afraid, Daughter Zion. 
      Look! Your king is coming, 
         sitting on a donkey’s colt.
 16 His disciples didn’t understand these things at first. After he was glorified, they remembered that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.

Contestants on Let’s Make a Deal get to make choices - to gamble if you will. They have to decide which of two choices is better and they have NO CLUE what one of those choices is. They know what they have in their hand right that minute, maybe a computer or a beautiful necklace. Do they want to trade it for some unknown item behind one of the three doors on the stage? They might win a fabulous vacation or a New Car! or they might get a bucket of smelly dead fish. There’s no way to be sure. The contestant is dancing from one foot to the other. The audience is yelling out advice. The host is asking for a decision right now. Taking a deep breath, the contestant shouts out her choice. The host says, “Let’s see what’s behind Door Number Three!” and the door slowly opens on the prize. The contestant stands there, hands clasped, eyes wide, heart beating like a wild thing . . .

Jesus’ disciples didn’t know what lay ahead. Jesus had told them, but they really didn’t understand. They were expecting a glorious victory of the kind King David used to deliver! Rome cowed and defeated. Oppressors brought low. Liberation from the oppressors. They saw all the palm branches and they just knew that this is what it’s going to be like from now on. Their rabbi is being lauded as the Messiah! To be completely fair, Jesus had told them about things to come that were so far outside of their realm of understanding that it would have been a huge surprise if they did get it. The Son of Man would leave them for a time, but would return. A new kingdom would be established. The temple would be destroyed and restored in three days. Temple worship would be purified and returned to the way it used to be. They heard these things but they heard them according to the way the world was at that time, the way the world had always been. They had no idea that Jesus was talking about something completely new and different than the way they had always experienced the world. They saw the miracles he performed - driving out evil spirits, restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, health to the leper, providing food for multitudes - and they thought that these God-given powers would be used to transform the social political structure of the land.

Today they celebrate the triumphal entry into Jerusalem that the prophets wrote about. They are planning a meal, a passover meal to celebrate the liberation of the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt, expecting that this meal will also be a celebration of the very bright future they believe is ahead. But we know that in the next seven days their world will be turned upside down. They will find themselves lost and alone and frightened, hanging on to each other for dear life, not quite sure what just happened, asking each other, “How did we get to this place? Everything was going so well . . . .”

We are also looking ahead, with equal parts fear and hope. I’m not sure about the rest of you, but sometimes I look around and I only see who’s missing. I miss the saints and pillars of our congregation who have passed on. And while I know that this is a good thing for them, I’m not so sure about what it means for us. There are these things that we always used to do and now . . . who’s going to do them? Or are we even going to continue doing those things? On those days I wonder, “How did we get to this place? Everything was going so well . . .” Then I look around again and I see new faces, young faces, hope-filled faces, the faces of leaders, the faces of the future. I hear children laughing and crying and running around the sanctuary, and I take delight in all those sounds.

Today we will share a meal and engage in conversation about our dreams and making those dreams become reality. In this week that began with celebration, moved to deep despair and fear and ended with the resurrection, we look toward the future, poised to make choices that will determine who we are going forward, just as the disciples did. It feels almost as if we are standing on that stage, dancing from foot to foot, heart beating like a wild thing, wondering to ourselves, “What’s behind door number three?,” with the audience shouting out suggestions and Wayne Brady asking us to make a decision. Soon we will choose one of those doors, we will determine how we will serve God, how we will employ our tongues and talents going forward into the future. For now, let us sing.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Forgiveness is the Main Event

Common English Bible (CEB)
 31 The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant with me even though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 No, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the LORD. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “Know the LORD!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD; for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.

Jeremiah spoke these words to the people as together they struggled with the consequences of Israel’s disobedience to the law of God. The consequence was this - the overthrow and loss of their nation, the destruction of the Temple, the Ark of the Covenant and all the other sacred objects carried off to Babylon, along with the priests, the nobles and all the other leaders - anyone who those who were left behind might rally behind. The situation was not good. All they could see was a future in exile. All they could see was what they had lost. Jeremiah didn’t make it easy for them. He didn’t let them off the hook. He laid the blame for all of these things right at their feet for their disobedience. Then, he brought them the words of hope God had given him. He told them about the new covenant God would make with the people of Israel in time to come.

I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “Know the LORD!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord;
If only. If only that was truly the case. If only we all acted as if God’s instructions were engraved on every heart from birth onwards. If only we all knew God in that way, and lived as if we knew that each and every other person also had God in their hearts. If only there was no need to teach our children to know God because they would see only loving obedience in all the people around them.

If you follow political news at all you are probably aware of the battles raging right now over women’s health, care for the poor, who gets the right to vote and other critically important issues. I find it especially disturbing that Christianity is being used as a reason for divesting women and minorities of their hard won rights. If you follow the national news right now you will probably have seen stories on the young man in Florida who was executed on a residential Florida street for the crime of walking while being black. The outrage over his killing, however, isn’t just because the shooting appears to have been racially motivated, although that is certainly reason for outrage. The outcry is because the admitted shooter, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, was not arrested or even taken in for questioning, and he was allowed to keep his gun. The admitted shooter told 911 that he thought the young man walking home from the mini-mart with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea looked threatening because he was black and wearing a hoodie. He then told them he was following the young man and was told by the 911 operator not to do that. A few minutes later, Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old honor student visiting his father for the weekend, lay dead. George Zimmerman claimed self defense.
TV personality Geraldo said that parents of young men of color should tell their sons not to ever wear a hoodie - that wearing a hoodie is what got Trayvon shot. Really? That’s right up there with claiming that short skirts and tight blue jeans cause rape. Today to protest that mind set, preachers all over the country are wearing hoodies. At the Ecumenical Advocacy event in DC a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea were placed on the communion table, and that too is happening in congregations across our land. Meanwhile, Black preachers are speaking out from their own life experience.
Dr. Preston T. Adams, III, Pastor of Amazing Grace CC (DOC)) in Indianapolis said: “As we ponder and respond to the Trayvon Martin tragedy, I'd also like us to consider the following: In my hometown of Chicago, 60 people were shot over the past weekend. Many of them were kids and several died including a child under age 8. Where is the national outrage for this? In the city I call home now (Indianapolis), a 16 year old allegedly shot 5 other teens in a gang related incident downtown using a .40 caliber weapon. Where is the outrage over this? I agree that we should be outraged over the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, but it can't stop there”.

Dr. Jack Sullivan, Regional Minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Pennsylvania said: “Twice in my adult life, while out engaging in ministry and service, and breaking no laws, I was stopped and questioned by law enforcement officers for no reason other than the color of my skin. One wonders where I would be today had I made a movement considered by those officers as suspicious. While the vast majority of officers and guards are fair and practice restraint, clearly many are misguided by racist stereotypes. Racial profiling is a clear and present societal danger that must be stopped.”

Racism, racial profiling, the hatred of the other caused by fear are all part of this tragedy. But I think that we need to consider that this is much more than a racial issue. It’s a human issue, a societal issue. The idea that any person can be killed by any other person because that other thinks they look threatening - the fact that there are laws supporting that - is just wrong. It frightens me that an independent group has offered a $10,000 reward for information on whereabouts of the shooter, whose family says is in hiding for fear of retribution. Because the law in Florida covering what constitutes self defense is so loose, I can easily imagine someone finding and shooting George Zimmerman in retribution, then claiming he looked threatening.
I am reminded of the shooting in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Do you remember that one? On October 2, 2006, a shooting occurred at the West Nickel Mines School, an Amish one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County. Charles Roberts took hostages and shot ten girls aged 6–13, killing five of them, before committing turning the gun on himself in the schoolhouse. It was a horrific, brutal, terrifying event.

And yet - On the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls was heard warning some young relatives not to hate the killer, saying, "We must not think evil of this man." Another Amish father noted, "He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he's standing before a just God." A member of the Brethren community living near the Amish in Lancaster County, explained: "I don't think there's anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts."

An Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them. Amish community members visited and comforted Roberts' widow, parents, and parents-in-law. One Amish man held Roberts' sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for as long as an hour, to comfort him. The Amish also set up a charitable fund for the family of the shooter. About 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts' funeral, and Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims.

It would be wrong to think that the Amish parents weren’t angry about what happened. I’m sure they were. It’s just that forgiveness and reconciliation are important parts of their faith. They did what they believe Jesus would want them to do: to forgive those who injured them and to offer comfort to others who were also hurt by the events of the day. It seems to me that the families of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania acted as if they do have God’s law written on their hearts.

And if Charles Roberts had lived to go to trial, I expect that the parents of the murdered girls would have done the same thing that Erricka Bridgeford did just a few days ago. She argued against the death penalty for her brother’s slayer, saying that justice for the 2007 murder of her brother won’t come by lethal injection. “It’s not justice to me to have another dead body in place of my brother’s dead body,” she said.

Some outside the Amish community were critical of this quick forgiveness, arguing that forgiveness is inappropriate when no remorse has been expressed, and that such an attitude runs the risk of denying the existence of evil. Really? I can’t find the place where it is written that there must be remorse before forgiveness can happen. Jesus said to forgive seventy times seven times, but doesn’t say anything about first find making sure the other is properly repentant before forgiving him. Forgiveness doesn’t really have anything to do with the person who sinned, rather, it is all about the person who is sinned against. Reconciliation is not about forgetting the past, rather it is about choosing to walk into the future together regardless of what has happened in the past.

Jeremiah gave the people comfort and hope when he told them that God was going to start over again with Israel, forming a new covenant to replace the one they had broken so many times in their history. They will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD; for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.

For God, forgiveness is the main event. God’s greatest desire and delight is to see us all reconcile ourselves with God. It is in this reconciliation that the world becomes new. That is what Easter is about. With the death of Jesus, sin is buried. With his resurrection, we are reborn, we are made new, we are changed, we have the law written on our hearts in the new covenant. This is what we celebrate every Sunday at the Lord’s Table; reconciliation between all of humanity and God.
We come together at the Table in remembrance of the life and death and resurrection of the Christ. We come together at the Table to share the love of God. We come together at the Table to offer ourselves to God’s service. We come to share the Lord.

Title of this message taken from a sermon by Gage Church, pastor of Congregational UCC in Ogden, UT

Monday, December 12, 2011

Choose Joy! 3rd Sunday of Advent

Scripture Reading
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 NRSV
1 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

8 For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. 10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

As I read this passage I tried to imagine what it might feel like to be a person in exile, still grieving the loss of my home and everything dear to me, knowing that my ancestors were among the leaders, the wealthiest, the 1% if you will and that therefore their actions or lack thereof were at least partly responsible for Israel ending up in this situation. I am convinced that if I had the chance they had I surely wouldn’t make the same mistakes. I feel forsaken by my God. Is God not paying attention to our pain, our suffering, our fears? Then I imagine that I have heard Isaiah, who was truly the voice crying out in the wilderness of exile and pain, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s Favor. I heard him calling upon me to be joyous, to exult in my God, for I am of Israel. I am of a people whom the Lord has blessed.

Frankly, if I am one of the exiles in Babylon, I don’t feel all that blessed. Mostly I feel tired of waiting for God to swoop in and rescue us. I mean, can’t he hear our cries? Can’t he see the suffering of his people? Always before God has sent someone to lead Israel out of whatever mess she’d gotten herself into, but it’s been a long long time in exile. There’s no indication of a leader rising from among the people. Yet here is the prophet saying “Rejoice! You are going to bring healing to your land and your people. God has promised this and it is going to happen – soon!” I want to believe him. I surely hope he’s right. It’s just that it has been a long time so I’m really not sure what there is to rejoice about.

And yet, it happened just as Isaiah said it would. Cyrus the Great defeated Babylon, sent the exiles home and even helped rebuild the cities and the temple. From that time forward Cyrus was celebrated by Israel as a messiah, anointed of the Lord.

Six hundred or so years later the heavy foot of Rome is upon the land and has been for quite some time. Jesus has come and gone. He preached and died and was resurrected and arose into heaven, promising to return to us. The apostles told everyone that he was coming back, that he was coming into his kingdom, and that it would happen soon! Within the lifetimes of those who knew him. In the city of Thessalonica the people aren’t feeling very joyful. They’re tired of waiting. It’s been 20 years, half a lifetime since he ascended into heaven and he isn’t back yet. I imagine what it must have been like to be in that congregation, to be in the early church anywhere, wondering when Jesus will come, when the old ways will disappear and God’s kingdom will be established upon the earth.

Oh right. I really don’t have to imagine what that feels like, do I? Nearly 2,000 years have passed now. And still we wait. Each year we celebrate Advent – we wait. We tell ourselves he is coming! Emmanuel will come. The Messiah will come. It has been promised to us and we believe it is true. And yet we wonder, as did the church in Thessalonica, when is he coming? Can’t he hear the suffering? Can’t he see the pain of his people? When is he going to swoop in and save all of us?

Paul knew what the people were feeling. He felt it himself! He’d been so sure – they were all so sure that they would see Jesus return, coming down from the sky the very same way he left. But it’s been way longer than they expected. Paul starts to wonder if maybe they were mistaken in the way they interpreted Jesus’ words. Nevertheless, he knows his savior lives. He is confident that the kingdom of God will become a reality on the earth.

And so he tells the people, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “5:16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil. 23May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”

Rejoice always! Not the easiest thing to do when life is not going well. The words of Psalm 137 keep coming back to me. How do we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land? How do we rejoice when we can see so much pain and suffering in the world; in Kenya and California, in Darfur and Detroit, in Bosnia and Boston.

Give thanks in all circumstances! Really, Paul? I mean, I can see giving thanks for the things I have that are good. I have a job. I can pay my bills. I have a home to live in. There is food on my table. I’m pretty healthy right now and I have health insurance. I have a loving husband. I have friends I care about and who care about me. I am part of a caring, giving, doing community here at Delhaven Christian Church. I can give thanks for these and many other blessings. But giving thanks in all circumstances? How would that work, exactly?

Let’s see. I had that inflamed joint and it hurt a lot! But it forced me to allow others to help me. OK, I can give thanks for the injury. Our church secretary bought a home in Santa Cruz and is moving there next weekend. This is wonderful and I am really happy for her, but it leaves the church without a secretary and we lack the funds to hire another. Looking for something to be thankful for . . . ah yes, at least one person has volunteered to spend time in the church office every week so there will be someone here to give food to the hungry. Volunteering gives people an opportunity to serve the way Jesus directed us to serve, so I am thankful for that. Clearly, in many cases there is something for which I can be thankful.

Sometimes, however, there are circumstances that don’t seem to have a positive side. I thought of so many examples of terrible things that exist in our world, but I don’t have to list them for you. You know what the world is like today. The exiles in Babylon asked Isaiah and the Christians in Thessalonica asked Paul and we also ask: How do we rejoice in suffering? How do we give thanks in the face of tragedy? In light of all the terrible things that are going on in our lives and in our world how do we continue to wait for the coming of the Lord?

and both of them answered saying, Rejoice! Give thanks! For the Lord is faithful.

That’s it. It’s not things for which we are to be thankful. We aren’t being asked to rejoice over the bad things in our lives or even in spite of them. We are being reminded to rejoice in the Lord! We are being directed to give thanks to God for the love, compassion and forgiveness he showers upon us even, especially when we have done absolutely nothing to deserve it. We are being told, again, that our focus is always to be on God first and foremost, before any other consideration.

Paul said to rejoice always, give thanks for everything, pray unceasingly for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you... . hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.

It is not that we are to rejoice and be thankful about the circumstances we find ourselves in, but that we are to rejoice and be thankful for God in us. In every circumstance, in every event of our lives, no matter where we find ourselves or how we feel about what’s happening in our lives and in our world, rejoice in the Lord! Every moment of every day, remember that we serve a living savior who is with us every moment of every day, who we can rely on to help us hold on when we feel ourselves slipping, and be thankful.

I got to this point in my writing and all I could think of were the words to hymns.
Joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of Love.
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king!

Paul said, do not quench the Spirit.
Do not allow the world to drag your heart down into despair and sin. Rejoice!
Rejoice, for ours is the God of love and light.
Rejoice, for God in Christ is always with us.
Rejoice, for God’s kingdom is coming.
We don’t know when.
We don’t know how.
But we do know that we can loudly proclaim,
Christians All Your Lord is Coming

Monday, December 05, 2011

Is this the way it's supposed to be?


Isaiah 40:1-11 NRSV
1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." 6 A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!" 10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

In Bible Study this week we read chapters 22-24 in Exodus. Among many other things God told the people of Israel these things, which are re-stated over and over again throughout the Old Testament: 21Don't mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt. 22Don't treat any widow orphan badly. 23If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I'll hear their cry. 24I'll be furious, and I'll kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows, and your children will be orphans.
25If you lend money to my people who are poor among you, don't be a creditor and charge them interest. 26If you take a piece of clothing from someone as a security deposit, you should return it before the sun goes down. 27His clothing may well be his only blanket to cover himself. What else will that person have to sleep in? And if he cries out to me, I'll listen, because I'm compassionate.

In those same passages it becomes clear that individuals can only prosper as long as the community is stable and working in balance. The laws allow for restitution, not retribution. There was no such thing as a giant lawsuit – the value of any item, injury or damage was known in advance.

In Exodus 22, in the middle of this list of laws and punishments God promises the people of Israel what sounds like the ultimate peace of heart. “25If you worship the LORD your God, the LORD will bless your bread and your water. I'll take sickness away from you, 26and no woman will miscarry or be infertile in your land. I'll let you live a full, long life.“ If you worship me, if you obey me, this is the peace of heart that will come again upon the people of Israel. Long healthy lives. Healthy babies and many of them. No enemies to worry about.

But . . .the leaders of Israel ignored those laws and because they did, because greed and the lust for power replaced the kind of balanced community the laws provided for, the entire nation was lost. They didn’t simply suffer military defeat as they had every other time they’d “done what was evil in the sight of God.” This time their temple was destroyed, the crops were burned in the fields, all the wealth of the nation was taken away and the leadership – the nobles and priests – were taken away into captivity. Their children are taken away and raised as Babylonians. Those who were left behind had to scratch out a living as best they could, for the bulk of their wealth – their crops, their herds, the very fish from the waters of Israel – went to support their overlords. All went to Babylon.

Israel has been punished for their pride and their disobedience. They have lost far more than just their wealth and power, status and prestige. They have lost their homeland and their children. They fear the loss of their language, their culture, their very identity as a people. They had lost hope. Psalm 137 makes their feelings very clear,

“By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked us for mirth,
saying “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

There was no peace in their hearts.

And now God says to Isaiah, “Comfort my people. Tell them the time of their imprisonment is over. Tell them to have peace in their hearts. Tell them they need have no more worries or concerns.” They will be returned to their home. They will liberated, even as they were liberated from slavery in Egypt. They will be returned to the land promised to their ancestors.

In a recent Christian Century magazine, Bill Goettler, assistant dean of ministerial studies at Yale Divinity School and co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church of New Haven told a story about a homeless man he has known for a couple of years. Danny slept in the doorway of a local business, careful to leave before anyone arrived for work in the morning so he didn’t frighten them. He could be seen around town selling newspapers, washing windows and collecting things to recycle. He worked hard to get the few dollars he needed for food. Sometimes he’d come around to the church asking for a bus pass or a few dollars or some food. And whenever he saw Goettler, he’d say “Reverend, Is this the way it’s supposed to be?”

The short answer is NO! It’s not supposed to be this way. It’s only this way when the leaders forget in whose name they are leading, who put them in positions of power and trust. It’s only this way when society becomes unbalanced. When it becomes clear to everyone that “winning” is more important than fairness or compassion or mercy or what’s good for the community. When a candidate for president claims that people who are poor and jobless have only themselves to blame. When the most popular TV shows feature groups of people placed in a difficult environment and, rather than being told to create the best community they can, are encouraged to manipulate each other, to lie, cheat and steal in order to win a large sum of money.

There is no peace when people have no place to sleep, no job or hope of one, no way to support themselves or their families. There is no peace when the wealthy have the power of life and death over the poor.

When Israel behaved this way God paid attention. God promised Israel more than just peace of heart if they worshipped their Lord. God promised destruction if they oppressed the powerless among them. “23If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I'll hear their cry. 24I'll be furious, and I'll kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows, and your children will be orphans.”

I think God means it. And I think God’s promise to bring destruction upon those who oppress the powerless is beginning to come true here. Maybe destruction won’t come at the point of a sword but when I look at the news I am beginning to see an upswelling of rebellion against that lack of compassion and mercy that is a plague upon our nation. There’s the non-violent Occupy movement, of course, but there are other examples of civil disobedience that are as wonderful as they are unexpected.

In Atlanta this week, Chase Bank foreclosed upon a home and deputies were sent with a moving van and a writ of eviction. This is never an easy job for the police When they arrived and saw the homeowners they called their supervisor and said, “We’re not going to do this.” They could not in good conscience remove 103 year old Vida Lee Hall and her 83 year old daughter from the house they had called home for over 50 years. Their call was passed all the way up the chain of command to Sheriff Jackson, who backed them up in their refusal to obey the writ of eviction and called them back to their station. I first saw this story Wednesday on MSNBC, where Laurence O’Donnell said “Laws alone cannot make a Just society Laws must be tempered with mercy. We have a more just society because Sheriff Jackson of Atlanta followed his conscience instead of the law.” I think it is only right that Sheriff Jackson and his deputies chose to protect the powerless instead of serving the wealthy. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that those deputies went home that night with peace in their hearts.

Marine Corps Lance Corporal Scott Olson, a veteran of two tours in Iraq, appeared on the Rachel Maddow show on Thursday. You may know that he is the man who suffered a serious head injury at Occupy Oakland when the police were trying to move the protestors from their location. His story became the motivating force that reinvigorated the movement around the country and inspired even more people to actively participate. During that interview he said, “I want more than anything to see more people get involved. You can't effect change sitting at home. The occupy movement is about coming together and learning each others stories and creating community.”

And did you know that the Occupy movement is changing focus? As more cities are moving the Occupiers out of parks and other pubic spaces, people are now occupying properties where, for example, a single mother and her children are about to be evicted because, as in so many other cases, the bank wouldn’t negotiate her mortgage payments. Instead of occupying public property for all the 99%, they are occupying private property to help individual members of the community. This isn’t new. Communities did the same thing during the Great Depression, standing with their neighbors against the bankers.

When the people of Israel behaved as community, when they obeyed the laws that were intended to keep their society in balance, when they cared for the powerless among them with mercy and compassion, they had peace. Not just political and military peace, but peace that comes from within. When the people of Israel had this peace of heart, the kind of peace that is one of the blessings showered upon them by God, then they were free.

A friend of mine recently shared this quote from the Dalai Lama: “The basic foundation of humanity is compassion and love. This is why, if even a few individuals simply try to create mental peace and happiness within themselves and act responsibly and kind-heartedly towards others, they will have a positive influence in their community.”

Author and Holocaust Survivor Eli Wiesel said, “Peace is our gift to each other.”

The deputies in Georgia gave peace when they chose compassion over blind obedience to the law. The Occupiers seek peace by bringing international attention to the plight of the powerless, calling for the kind of economic justice that is rooted in compassion and mercy. As Christians we are required to love our neighbor, to bring that peace that surpasses all understanding into the lives we touch as we go about our daily business. This love, this peace-giving, is the form of worship that the prophet Micah declared God most desires of us, more than thousands of rams or rivers of oil or clouds of incense, but rather to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. Blessed be the God of Israel!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gratitude Month

It's November. In November people's thoughts tend to turn toward gratitude. We are, after all, about to indulge in America's annual Thanksgiving feast. This year I think I will do something really different. I will try to just enjoy the holiday instead of feeling compelled to explain about the genocidal nature of the first such officially declared thanksgiving feast and all the other Grinch-ish info that people don't really want to hear. I suspect that my friends and parishioners will be grateful. They probably feel they have heard it enough over the 20+ years of my marriage to a Navajo. :-)

One of my Facebook friends is asking all her friends to post something on her page that they are grateful for every single day. That's pretty cool. Many 12 Step meetings this month will focus on gratitude as the discussion topic.

I'm going to use Thanksgiving Sunday as opportunity to prepare a stewardship sermon while everyone's focus is on gratitude. I know. Pastors generally hate to preach on stewardship. Since I am not a volunteer pastor, it feels a bit self-serving to ask people for generous contributions to my salary. I know there's all that other stuff, the stuff that makes it possible for our church to serve the community. But still, it always does feel just a bit selfish, but ...

The thing is, I learned a long time ago that Gratitude is a verb - an action word. If I am grateful for the blessings in my life then I need to say Thank You in a concrete manner. Simply saying, "I'm thankful for rainbows" is not a true expression of gratitude. Showing my gratitude by sharing the beauty of a rainbow with someone else, on the other hand, shows my gratitude because that action brings joy into their day. It's not enough to say "I'm grateful we live in a beautiful world." A true act of gratitude for the beauty of the earth could take the form of recycling or saving water or planting a tree or whatever your choice might be.

Therefore, if I am grateful for the blessings I have received because of the things I have learned as a Christian then it is incumbent upon me to return those blessings in a tangible manner. If the church gave me safe shelter from a harsh world, even in the mere fact of welcoming me into the arms of the congregation on Sunday morning then I am going to want to express my gratitude by making sure the church is there to help someone else.

Likewise, if the lessons I have taken from the readings and messages and hymns have had a positive influence on my life; if I have learned how to be a better person by trying to live according to the example set for me by Jesus and all the saints of the church who have come before, then it is important that I share that Good News so that others can enjoy the same kind of blessings that I have received.

So this Sunday I will expand on Paul's expression of thanks to the church in Ephesus by preaching on faithful stewardship and generous giving as an inevitable expression of true gratitude for the blessings we daily receive. And my post today on my friend's Facebook page will be, "I am grateful that it is my job to teach others how to live in active gratitude for all the blessings we receive."