Sunday, October 23, 2016

Finding Jesus in the Basket of Deplorables

October 23, 2016
Luke 18:9-14
 I‘m guessing we can probably all agree that this election seems to have brought our country to a time of crisis, though we might disagree about what makes it that way.  For me, it is almost unimaginable that a candidate for president of the United States excuses boasting about sexual assault with “locker room talk.”  But that’s really just the straw that broke the camel’s back.  We have become so polarized, and not just on the usual political issues, but on gender and race and religion and ethnicity.  It has been hard to watch us fall apart.   

Given all that’s brewing in the world, at our monthly local Episcopal clergy lunch, someone asked how we were talking about this election in our congregations.  Several clergy spoke about how carefully they were balancing their words to speak about civility and love so as to reach but not offend Trump supporters in their congregations.  I was surprised.  Because, as I told this group at lunch, while I know (and love) plenty of Republicans, and while I know (and love) plenty of people who dislike Hillary, I don’t actually think I know any gung-ho Trump supporters. 
One colleague responded, “Maybe you need to get to know more people.”

My initial reaction was that I really don’t want to know any of the people that openly support Trump.  Why would I want to spend time with those people?  
 But as I sat with that response, it occurred to me that the way I’ve been thinking about Trump supporters isn’t exactly loving my neighbor as myself.  It isn’t exactly seeking to serve Christ in all persons.  It isn’t exactly respecting the dignity of every human being.  Maybe rather than living up to my baptismal promises, I’ve been insulating myself from people that disagree with me.  Why is it that I don’t know anyone that feels so hurt by the system, so angry, so scared about possible cultural changes that they would support someone like Trump?

And so I need Jesus to tap me on my back, or maybe wave his arms frantically in front of my face to get my attention focused back on him as he begins this story from Luke’s Gospel.  At the start we are told that Jesus tells “this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  In other words, Jesus tells this story to me, and (I’m sorry to say) probably you, along with the twelve disciples sitting next to him that day.  The ones who, like me, are feeling pretty confident about how well we understand Jesus, and pretty certain we can speak for him.  We’ve got the inside scoop.  We are part of the good guys.  We are on God’s side.  And they (whoever They are for us) clearly are not.

Like I said, if we are being honest, Jesus is looking straight at us when he tells this story.
“Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a Tax Collector….”

Now, imagine you don’t already know how this story comes out and try to see those two characters as they would have looked during Jesus’ day.
In the old days, when they first joined Jesus, the disciples and others who listened to Jesus would have been fooled by this story.  Back then, they’d have expected that the Tax Collector was being set up as the Bad Guy in this story.  The Tax Collector who collaborated with the hated Roman Empire, paying a set amount for the privilege of squeezing money from his neighbors through threats and schemes and bribes.  The Tax Collector was despised.  This person should be shunned from the holy places.  How dare he defile the temple by entering?  That is what they would have thought before.  

And the Pharisee.  The respected, prayerful, Jewish religious leader.  The spiritual guide for those who sought to follow God’s law faithfully.  The one that they can count on to show the way.  To remind them of the law and keep them from straying into uncertain territory.  This is someone to follow.  The disciples wouldn’t have been surprised when the Pharisee entered the temple and thanked God that he was not like that despised and feared tax collector.  This is the Good Guy in the story.  That is what they would have thought before.  

And if we didn’t already know the rest of the story, we’d have thought that same thing.  Most of us probably align fairly well with this Pharisee.  We are generally decent people, trying to do the right thing, wanting to be in right relationship with God.   Like the Pharisee, we are thankful that we are not like the people in the world that use and abuse and manipulate and hurt.  We are thankful not to be among the basket of deplorables.  

Oops.  I definitely needed to hear this story, because that can’t be the right choice, can it?

Luckily, like the disciples, we’ve hung out with Jesus long enough to know that when there’s a tax collector and a Pharisee, a cautionary moral tale is coming.  We used to be fooled by these stories, but not anymore.  We know how this story is going to play out.  We’ve known Jesus long enough to know that Matthew, one of Jesus’ most trusted friends, was a tax collector.  
And we all saw wee little tax collector Zaccheus come down from that sycamore tree and bring Jesus home for dinner.  
And so we already know that the Tax Collector is going to be the “surprise” character.  The underdog.  The one we expect to hate but who is going to turn it all around.  He’s rough-around-the-edges but ultimately repentant and humble. We know the Tax Collector will end up the hero of this story.

And the Pharisee!  The Pharisee is going to be cast as disapproving, stuck in his holy box, thinking he’s got it all right and understood when really he is just touching the surface.  We’re going to see that the Pharisee is the one that sets himself up to be respected and get the rest of us working so hard to be holy that we miss the loving presence of God that Jesus has introduced us to.  

And sure enough, the Pharisee’s prayer is almost a caricature: “Thank you God, that I am not like other men.”  Not exactly a propitious way to start, obviously.  Meanwhile, the Tax Collector prays: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  This is where the Jesus Prayer comes from - the orthodox prayer without ceasing from The Way of a Pilgrim: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  It’s hard to imagine words more humble.

Now don’t get me wrong.  There’s a lot to learn from this story even if we’ve heard it before and already know the outcome.  The one who looks righteous is depending too much on himself, and the one who admits his need for God will be scooped up with love and forgiveness.  Clearly, there’s a right and a wrong approach here.  And so, we (humbly, of course) will choose to align ourselves with the Tax Collector, acknowledging our brokenness and imperfection and thankful not to be among the hypocrites.  

Oops - it just happened again!  Picking that side doesn’t seem to work either.  There’s no way to win, is there?  No matter which side we align ourselves with, we somehow end up on the wrong side.  

So I wonder what happens to this story if the main characters aren’t the Tax Collector and the Pharisee.  What if, in telling this story, Jesus was really looking past them to his disciples, us included.  The ones who think we’ve got it all figured out.  The ones who think we understand how God works and so feel free to stand back and judge other people.  The ones who are so busy picking sides and assigning blame for the crisis that we forget to get to know and care for the people mired in the crisis.

We humans tend to put people into boxes to make them easier to understand and to keep ourselves feeling safe.  We do this even more during election seasons.  We have boxes based on Gender and Race and Sexual preference and Education Level.  Decided or Undecided.  This year we’ve even reached a new low of Redeemable or Unredeemable.  And I think we try to put God into a box too, so that we can more easily imagine ourselves to be on God’s side.  So that we can safely separate our relationship with God from our relationship with the people around us.

So maybe the point of this story isn’t to pick a winner and a loser in the Pharisee versus Tax Collector contest.  In fact, maybe this parable shows us that anytime we draw a line between winners and losers, anytime we start drawing those boxes, we’ll probably find God on the other side.  Maybe this parable is about learning to see as God sees.  To see that all of us have foibles and shortcomings.  All of us are in some way in the basket of deplorables, and all of us are in some ways hypocrites.  All of us are Tax Collectors and all of us are Pharisees in our own ways.  But none of us are stuck in whatever roles we occupy because wherever God is, reversal of expectations is sure to be right around the corner.  God’s dream is to erase those lines that separate us.

In less than three weeks, we’ll be heading out to vote.  (And I hope all of you who are eligible will be going out to vote!  It’s ok to pick winners and losers there.)  But I fear that, even after the election, we are coming swiftly to a place where, if we can’t figure out how to move beyond our boxes, what we think is a crisis now will look small in comparison to what comes next.  A place where pointing and blaming and ugliness and mistrust will be all that we see and hear.  

 But in some ways, it also seems like there is an opportunity here.  An opportunity to talk about issues like race and sexual assault and ethnicity that we are so often too afraid to bring up.  An opportunity to care for people that are scared and hurt and angry.

And maybe the Church can have an important role to play in that. 

Maybe the Church can be a place where we model what it might look like to see all people as within the breadth of God’s love and mercy, Pharisee and Tax Collector alike.  Maybe the Church can be a place where we can safely share what our hopes and dreams are, and why those leads us to our beliefs, political or otherwise, without putting other people down.  Maybe we as the Church can be people that show how closely related the love of God and the love of neighbor really are (and not just the neighbor I choose and like, but all my neighbors).  When we get God, we get each other.  And when we get each other, we get God.

So, grab a prayer book and turn to page 305, about midway through our baptismal service - we’ll start with the second question from the top:

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
I will, with God's help.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? 
I will, with God's help.

May God help us all.  Amen.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Crazy Christianity

Today we’re celebrating the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.  
Usually our annual celebration of Francis takes place during a short, outdoor pet blessing in the afternoon, 
but I’d been longing to try having the pets included in the Church service instead, like the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City where they bring in animals from the Central Park Zoo to bless every year.  
No camels or kangaroos here, but still pretty exciting.  Luckily for these pets, we’re used to a little wildness and restlessness with our small human animals at this service, so they stand a good chance of fitting in.
It’s a crazy idea, bringing animals into the church.  Much less bringing them in for a regular service.  There’s no telling what will happen.  The dogs might start barking at each other, or terrorizing the cats.  One of them might try to escape.  The poor kids like mine with no pets of their own might freak out.  Someone with allergies might start some wild unstoppable sneezing.  Really and truly, this morning it feels like we are on the outskirts of chaos.  But maybe that’s a great reminder.  Because, truth be told, this whole enterprise of Christianity is absolute craziness.  
Which is a very fitting thing to remember today.  I’m guessing most of us think of Francis of Assisi in terms of those concrete statues we see in gardens and front lawns.  Francis stands calmly, a cross held reverently over his heart, trusting animals at his side.  
Francis has become for us sort of the 12th century version of Dr. Doolittle, admirable and kind.  But even though Francis of Assisi is most famously known as being the patron saint of animals and nature, he’s really the patron saint of crazy.
People thought Francis was crazy when he preached to the birds and said they lived out the Gospel better than people did; when he sought out a wolf who was attacking villagers and convinced it to live in peace; when he called the animal creatures “brothers and sisters.”
They thought he was outrageous when he created the first live nativity scene, bringing in real animals so the Christmas worshipers could imagine Jesus’ birth, and using a straw-filled manger as an altar for the Eucharist.
They thought he was out of his mind when he stripped naked in the town square and laid everything he had at his rich and disapproving father’s feet.
They thought he was mad when he walked away from the established and comfortable religious orders and founded his own monastery in which the brothers owned nothing and lived only off what they received from begging.
They thought he was a lunatic when during prayer one day he experienced the figure of Jesus on a crucifix coming to life and telling him to rebuild the church.
They thought he was insane when he kissed the lepers that everyone else regarded with fear and disgust and bathed their sores with his bare hands.
They thought he was off his rocker when he developed a relationship with the leader of the Muslim world during the crusades, acknowledging his faithfulness and trying to make peace.
They thought he was a fanatic when he brazenly confronted both Church and State, railing against the corruption and excess of his day and refusing to participate in a system that allowed the rich to get richer while the poor got poorer. 
Francis was crazy.  Like the prophets of old, and John the Baptist, and Jesus himself (though we often try to forget that).  And, as with the rest of them, if we really listen to Francis and follow his lead, we could find our lives altered.
Francis said: “If God can work through me, God can work through anyone.”  What if we really lived as though God is in some way working through every single person that we meet?
Francis said: “All the darkness of the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”  What if we really lived as if the love and light of God were stronger than the fears and darkness of the world?
Francis said: “Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that have received--only what you have given.”  What if we really lived as though the things of this world that we grasp so tightly — money, success, control — were nothing and only love and relationship mattered?
Francis said: “Do not forget your purpose and destiny as God's creature.”  What if we really believed and lived into the promise that we are each unique and beloved children of God, with purpose and calling?
Francis said: “Blessed is the servant who loves his brother as much when he is sick and useless as when he is well and can be of service. And blessed is he who loves his brother as well when he is far off as when he is by his side, and who would say nothing behind his back he might not, in love, say before his face.”  What if we really lived as if the value of other people was innate and not a product of what they produced or owned or offered?
Francis said (or he may have said — this one is a little iffy): “Preach the Gospel, using words when necessary.”  What if our faith was so evident in the way we lived that people really knew that we were Christians by our love?
And finally Francis said: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”  I wonder where each one of us might be called to live into Francis’ kind of crazy Christianity today?

Sunday, September 18, 2016


September 18, 2016
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

There was a choice of psalms today.  One was Psalm 113 - a very pretty psalm, full of joy and promise and thanks and praise for God.  And then there was Psalm 79, the one we read a little bit ago.  You might have noticed that it was not so pretty and joyful.  It was full of anger and pain and violence and questioning.  Our tradition at St. Aidan’s is that the preacher gets to pick if there is a choice of readings.  No question!  I told Eileen “definitely Psalm 113 - the other one is dreadful!”
And then I started delving into our reading from Jeremiah.  Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet.”  He was teaching and preaching during a time when the Israelites were in exile.  Their enemies were destroying them.  They were far from the security of Jerusalem and the majesty of the temple and they were constantly tempted to give up on God and each other.
And so our reading is heavy.  Painfully oozing with the suffering of the people of God.  The suffering of the prophet Jeremiah.  And the suffering of God.  This reading is a lament, through and through.  
Hear pieces from a modern translation:  “I drown in grief….  I’m heartsick….  I weep, seized by grief….  Why can’t something be done…? I wish my head were a well of water and my eyes fountains of tears so I could weep day and night….”
This week I gathered with some friends that hadn’t been together for a while.  As we caught up, there was a lot of joy to share — summer vacations, kid stories, exciting things happening at work, good spiritual growth, but what struck me more was the hardship, the sadness.  Someone in the process of adoption and waiting heartsick to be approved to gather their matched child.  Someone dealing with a particularly ugly divorce and the ensuing child tug-of-war.  Someone dealing with job loss and the existential questions of vocation and worth.  Someone coping with a child’s anxiety over too many transitions.  Someone feeling roles reversed as they are faced with care of a suddenly ailing parent, and another coping with the huge hole left by the loss of a parent.  All of us looked so put together, and yet right there, simmering at a low boil just under the surface, was so much heartache.
And that doesn’t even begin to touch all the reasons for grief and suffering in the larger world.  Endless wars and refugee crises.  Horrifying acts of extremist terrorism and gun violence.  Natural disasters and global warming.  Racial and political divisiveness.  Poverty and over-incarceration, addiction and mental illness.  Every day the world groans and the people cry.  It is all so big and so impossible.
And so, as hard as they are to read, as hard as they are to hear, sometimes the lament readings like Jeremiah and the angry, questioning psalms like Psalm 79 are exactly where we are and the only thing that makes sense.  We need to know that we can shout out at God with our anger and disappointment and questions.  We need to know that God hears our cries and our despair.  And maybe most important of all we need to recognize that God’s despair and anger joins our own.  
I don’t think lament is usually our first instinct, though.  
This summer my daughter Sophia was reading one of those popular dystopian series.  One of the ones where the whole world as we know it has fallen apart and we see some small group (usually of young people) trying to reach for a better world.  I’d been hearing a lot about this series, called Divergent, and so I read the books too.  The construct is that society has so destroyed itself that it has decided that the only way to safely go forward is to group everyone into five factions that they live, eat, and work with and pledge their allegiance to.  But I think these 5 factions might also represent ways that we deal with the pain and grief in our lives and in our world. 
There is Erudite, the group that believes that knowledge is everything.  Anytime there is a problem, they work to understand it using facts and figures and brainpower.  If faced with pain we hear in our reading from Jeremiah, Erudite would investigate the causes, debate the theology, and not rest until they found a satisfactory answer. 
Then there is Amity, the group that believes in happiness and peace above all.  Anytime there is a problem, they sing songs and smile.  Amity would have avoided Jeremiah and picked the happy psalm to read this morning.
There is Candor, who believe in truth above all.  Whenever something goes wrong, are sure to loudly assign blame to all responsible parties.  Candor wouldn’t hesitate to let Jeremiah, God and the people know exactly where they all went wrong.
And there is Abnegation, the passive group that selflessly denies themselves to serve others.  They wouldn’t want to “burden” someone else with their sorrow and pain.  Abnegation would suggest the people of God make themselves so busy that they had no time to feel.  
And finally there is Dauntless, always brave in the face of any danger.  If the people of God were Dauntless, they would either assert themselves too strong to suffer, or would walk headlong into their suffering to get as quickly as possible to the other side.
I’m sure we’ve found ourselves inside all of those factions at some time or another.  And there is a time and place for all of those approaches.  But in the hardest of times, sometimes we just need to lament.  Sometimes we just need to cry or scream or pound things.  Sometimes we just need to grieve.  And Jeremiah is a model of how to do that. 
In Jeremiah, the people despair their impending doom and question God’s presence.  Jeremiah sees the wounded people and feels powerless.  God grieves the unfaithfulness of the people, and that it has all come to this.  Everyone laments, everyone cries, everyone is heartbroken.  
They are full of questions, just as we are in the midst of suffering.  Why did this happen?  How could You, God, let this happen?  What kind of future can we possibly have now?  Their questions are raw and honest.  This is what we humans do when we struggle with loss and heartache.  And there seem to be no answers, no easy fixes.  All that can be done is to weep over the wrongness of the world.  But as Elie Wiesel explained in Night, his book about the Holocaust, “every question possesses a power that is lost in the answer.”  Our anguished questions show that we care enough to take what feels unfair and unjust to God.  That we long for a time when the wrongs are righted, every tear wiped away.  Our lament - our unsilenced grief - our wrestling with God - our demand for answers even when we know there aren’t answers to be had - those are acts of faith in this broken, in-between, world.  We don’t need to edit our anguish before God.  Lament is a spiritual practice just as surely as contemplative prayer or labyrinth walking .
Jeremiah is hard to read because there is so much angst and no closure, no neat happy ending.  But it is also promising, not just in it’s welcome of our honest grief before God, but in the inclusion of God’s voice in the chorus of grief.
It’s very hard to tell in this reading which heartbroken questions and cries of anguish come from the people and which come from the prophet Jeremiah and which come from God.  God identifies so closely with the people, loves them so much, that their wounds, their brokenness, are God’s wounds, God’s brokenness.  The longing of the prophet and the people for healing and peace are also the longing of God.  God is present in their suffering, even as they feel themselves God-forsaken.  

When you find yourself, as we all will in this imperfect world, heartsick, drowning in grief, wishing your head were a well of water and my eyes fountains of tears so you could weep day and night, try joining your voice with those of Jeremiah and the Israelites and bring your lament to God.  Not only can God take it, but you might hear God’s own lament echoing through the universe.  Amen.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Diving through waves, and other perspective-changing endeavors

August 21, 2016
Luke 13:10-17

We came home yesterday from a week at the beach in Delaware and the theme of the week for me was perspective.

It began the very first night, when I took the kids down to play at the beach.  Holden had to drive separately, so it was just me.  3 kids, 1 adult, lifeguard off duty, and a whole lot of waves.  That was when I realized two things about waves.  Number 1 - Apparently waves look much bigger and scarier to parents than they do to kids.  I remember when I was a kid and the bigger the wave, the better.  I'd ride them to shore, sometimes getting swooped but just getting back up again and running back into the waves.  Now, as a parent, the waves just keep rolling in and all I can think is that every single wave is a potential drowner of my children.  Parents and children have a different perspective on waves.  And Number 2 - when you look out into the vastness of the ocean, It is very hard to tell the actual size of a wave.  I would see these gargantuan waves in the distance and yell “Watch out! It’s a big one!” gesturing madly at the wave about to crash behind them.  And pretty much every time a few seconds later the wave proved itself to be not much more than a ripple.  And then when I thought everything looked calm and safe, suddenly there would be a wave twice my tallest child's height menacing behind them.  
It’s hard to get perspective at the ocean.  

  The theme of perspective continued the next day.  The kids are good swimmers, but Maya hadn’t yet learned how to dive through the waves in order to make it safely through a sudden big one.  And so I began to teach her, starting with the little ones until just a little while later she was diving through the bigger ones like a champ.  She learned that even though it feels counterintuitive at the time, if you dive into what feels like an overwhelming wave, you can flow through that roaring energy rather than being toppled and crushed by it.  Learning to dive through waves changes your perspective of the ocean - it helps you to look at the ocean with respect rather than fear. 

I guess since the idea was already on my mind, the importance of perspective was what stood out most strongly with our Gospel reading from Luke too.  And so I want us to experience the perspective of this woman in our story together just for a moment.  

We’re going to take a little walk around the church.  But a few instructions first.  We’re going to try walking like the woman in our story for today.  So as you walk, I want you to hunch your back over and put your head down as much as possible and keep your eyes down.  As you walk quietly, pay attention to what you see and how you feel.
 After circling, we talked about what we noticed.  Dust and imperfections on the concrete floor.  Only feet all around us.  We felt isolated.  We couldn’t tell who other people were.  We felt vulnerable, not sure what might be just out of our small circle of sight.  We felt discomfort and pain.

Now circle around again, but this time with your back straight and your head up, feel free to look around and look at the people around you.  Again, as you walk quietly, pay attention to what you see and how you feel.
After this walk, what we noticed was very different.  We felt more positive, we saw the leaves blowing in the breeze and the sunlight shining through the windows.  We felt like part of a community.  We were laughing and having fun.
Now you can sit down.

We were bent over for just a minute.  Just imagine what it must have been like for this woman, bent over and unable to see beyond the floor in front of her for 18 years.  For 18 years, straining and twisting to avoid possible dangers in her path.  Probably in incredible pain.  Seeing only the dust and dirt beneath her feet.  Unable to look up at the stars or watch the leaves rustle in the trees.  Unable to look into the faces of the people around her.  Unable to play with the children in her life.  Unable to help as much as she’d like with things that needed doing.  Everyone either staring at her in horror or pity or fear, or else just completely avoiding her.  Marginalized and devalued.  Invisible.

And then Jesus saw her.  He didn’t just notice her in the corner of his eye, or look at her with sympathy.  Jesus saw her whole being, not just her outward disfigurement.  Jesus saw her with love and compassion and invited her over.  Invited her … whom no one wanted to see or touch.  Her … whom everyone avoided like a leper.  Jesus affirmed her as a daughter of Abraham, part of God’s very own beloved creation, and put his hands on her.  Something that maybe no one had done in love for more than a decade.

And her perspective changed completely.  After 18 years of pain and loneliness, she had stopped imagining healing was possible.  Had stopped even hoping for a kind word or a loving touch.  She was resigned to her miserable plight.  But suddenly she straightens up, her eyes meet Jesus and she knows that she has seen God.  She feels known and valued.  She sees the beauty of the world again, feels a part of the community again.  And she is overcome with joy and thankfulness.

And she wasn’t the only one with a new perspective.  When Jesus disrupted her status quo, it surprised everyone.  The community that had ignored and belittled her for 18 years, now was able to see her as well.  And they rejoiced right along with her.  Together, they’d had a taste of how things can be in the Kingdom of God.  No one broken or unseen or excluded.  The world repaired.  They’d all gotten a new perspective, a God’s eye view.

I wonder how our perspective could stand to change?  Maybe we have been standing hunched over in some way, isolating ourselves from God and the people around us and we need to lift our head just a bit.  Or maybe there are people in our lives that we are devaluing or walking past and we need to learn to see them differently.  Or maybe we need to look out into the waves in our lives and began to see them as they really are.  Or maybe there really is a huge, scary wave in front of us and we need to learn how to dive into it and see how we come out on the other side rather than running from it in fear and anxiety. Maybe a change of perspective could transform everything. 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Flipping through God's photo album

July 31, 2016
Hosea 11:1-11

My dad and stepmom are in the early stages of organizing in order to downsize from my childhood 
It’s a good decision for them and will make their lives simpler, but I’ve found myself getting a little sad thinking about that place no longer being part of my life.  No longer having a connection to the spot where so much of my formation happened and where so many memories were made.  My bedroom where I had sleepovers and listened to music and talked on the phone for hours.  The porch where I’d go to read with my mom under the fan in the summer.  The family room where I’d spread out with the funny pages and throw Christmas wrapping paper into the fire.  The kitchen where my sister and I did dishes together.  The dining room where we had so many family discussions and debates.  The basement where I learned how to do 14 double-unders in a row so I could get on the travel jumprope team. 
Probably because of the rising up of those bittersweet memories, yesterday I found myself with a photo album of pictures that span my time in that place. 
 I think I wanted to be reminded of all that happened there and be comforted that those memories were still safe.  And as I looked through the pictures, I realized that while that house is definitely an important location in my family story, at the end of the day, it’s just a background to the relationships that happened there.  The closeness and love and humor and understanding are what shine through the pictures, no matter where they take place.  If you looked through the album wondering what my family was like, I hope those would be the things you would come away with.
And so I am particularly thankful right now for the hard work my husband puts into creating a photo book every year with our important family memories.  We have a stack of these beautiful books that show our family’s life together, beginning from the year we got married in 2001.  
Sometimes we sit down and look at them all and get a overview of the years.  There are beautiful moments I never want to forget, like each kid’s birth, holiday celebrations, and family vacations.  But there are also reminders of some rough times.  I have trouble opening the 2002 book that shows my mom’s physical decline so starkly.  And there are photos that bring me back to times of kids’ misbehavior.  Like the one of 2 year old Maya with her face painted in sparkly magenta paint that she’d sneakily discovered when she was supposed to be napping.  When I look at that, I remember the shock of turning the corner and finding her, and everything around her, covered and thinking at first that some horrible accident had happened.  The albums show how our family has made it through good and bad, changing and maturing as we go.  When I look through them I’m filled with love for my kids in each stage of their lives.  And I hope that someday, if my kids or my grandkids look through these books wondering what our family was like, what will shine through will be the love and humor and understanding that we’ve shared, even in the times when things weren’t particularly smooth or easy.
It seems like something similar is happening in our Old Testament reading.  Hosea lays out God’s memories of life with the people of God — the good and the bad — like a family photo album.  
We flip through a few pages and it is so heart-warming.  So full of promise, just like the garden of Eden.  There’s God the loving parent, completely engrossed in the vulnerable children, self-giving and adoring.  Turn the page and see God holding the children and lifting them to God’s cheek.  Turn again….  There’s God teaching the children to walk.  And look there, God squatting in front of them feeding them.
But we’ve read this story before, right?  We know what comes next.  A big clue comes from the fact that it’s set in the context of a parent-child metaphor, and all of us, either from being children or parents ourselves, know that that relationship can be both incredibly loving and fulfilling — and also incredibly demanding and fraught.  
And sure enough, turn the page again and we see the children in their terrible twos, wayward and unappreciative.  God remains tender and patient, but it sure looks like God is taking deep breaths and trying to remember that the children are too little to understand what they’re doing.  Keep flipping ahead and we see the children become surly and unruly teenagers, completely disloyal to God, rejecting God’s love and care.  We see God beginning to look frustrated and exhausted, beginning to wonder if there is anything more God can give, if God can bear any more grief.  The people are scheming and militaristic and bent on turning away.  God is miserable because of their betrayal, and because of the catastrophe that has befallen them.  God wonders if maybe tough love is need.  Maybe it’s time to stop answering when the people call so that they have to face the consequences of their actions.
And then comes what I think is the most interesting page of the photo album.  The one where we see God pause and ask agonizingly, “How can I give you up?  How can I hand you over?  How can I treat you badly?”  This is God’s inward conversation here.  We’ve caught God in the most private of moments - a moment of reflection as God struggles over the people’s future. 
And it’s a moment that we’ve probably all found ourselves in to some degree, when we’ve been overcome body and mind by our anger and disappointment and are just about to make a horrible, relationship-ending decision.  
But instead of writing off the people of God, we turn the page again and see a new look in God’s eye.  God is replaying those moments of closeness and love with the people and is reminded of the great depth of relationship and commitment God has for them.  God has flipped through those old photos and remembers who God is: I am a warm and tender parent; “I am God and no mortal.”  And the outcome of this remembering is compassion.  Continued reaching out in love and forgiveness despite the behavior of the people.  The outcome is nothing but grace.
There has been no change in the people; they continue to act badly and refuse God.  They have taken no initiative to be reconciled with God.  The change is completely within the heart of God.
I think maybe that is the answer to the question we had in the back of our minds when we started flipping through the photo album.  The same question that might be brewing when we come to church, or when we venture in prayer, or when we look out at the world around us and wonder: “What is God really like?”
And the answer Hosea gives is this: Our God is one who never gives up on us.  God doesn’t wait to embrace us only when we realize how wrong we’ve been and seek forgiveness.  Instead, the photo album tells the story of a fiercely loving God who, despite heartbreak and anguish and rejection, resolves to continue seeking out the people.  Over and over from the beginning God has kept reaching out even when the people — even when we — can’t be counted on to notice or understand or reciprocate. 

And in just a minute, we’ll add another memory into the photo album that depicts the ongoing relationship of God with the people as Landon is baptized.  Today Landon joins the throng of faithful that have made our vows to be the people of God and have been dunked into the waters of God’s creation and marked as Christ’s own forever.  Today we claim Landon as one of the people of the God-who-never-gives-up.  Amen.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The biggest and best sermon prop of all

July 3, 2016
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

If you know my great love for sermon props, you can thank me later for not bringing in snakes and scorpions this morning for us all to tread on.  
Instead, the prop today is either completely intangible, or maybe the most utterly tangible thing possible, depending on how we look at it and whether we are paying attention: the Kingdom of God.
In our story from Luke today, Jesus sends out ambassadors far and wide.  We are told he appoints 70 of them to prepare the way, but that is really intended not so much as a descriptive number as it is a reminder of the 70 descendants of Noah’s sons listed in the book of Genesis.  In Genesis, we get an exhaustive and largely unpronounceable list of the descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth, and are told that “from these, the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.”  
So the number 70 is Luke’s way of telling us that all of humanity is represented in Jesus’ choice of messengers, and that the message Jesus is sending about the Kingdom is meant for all the world.
And what is the message?  Don’t get lost in all the talk of wolves, snakes and scorpions.  The message is simple:  The kingdom of God has come near!
This is the word Jesus wants his people to spread:  “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’”  In that context it is a beautiful and assuring promise.  The kingdom of God is right here! 
But the message is the same even when the people refuse to listen:  “Whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you.  Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’”  In that context it sounds more like a foreboding warning.  The kingdom of God is right here and you missed it!
But maybe in both instances it’s just a statement of reality.  God’s kingdom is right on our doorstep, a gift so close we can touch it, glimmering with promise and possibility.  And every once in a while, we have the great joy of noticing it.  But even when we don’t, it’s still there all the same.
Jesus’ disciples all had their moments of noticing.  Nathaniel understanding himself to be truly known by God when he heard that Jesus had seen him under the fig tree.  Simon Peter recognizing the abundance of God’s love in a huge catch of fish.  Matthew the outcast tax collector recognizing the radical inclusion of God when Jesus called even him.  
The Kingdom of God came near them.  And they noticed.  And the Kingdom of God continued coming near holy people.  And holy people continued noticing.
I love the story of how Dorothy Day noticed it.  
Dorothy Day, recognized as a saint by the Episcopal Church, was a social activist and one of the founders of the Catholic Worker movement, seeking to care for the poor and homeless during the Great Depression and beyond.  But her work stemmed from something that happened when she was 8 years old.  She was living in Oakland, California, during the huge earthquake in 1906. There was destruction and death everywhere.  But what struck her was the way the adults around her reached out to each other — speaking with kindness, helping take care of each other, sharing food and water, aiding emergency workers and clearing rubble.  Dorothy said the spontaneous selflessness was a shocking revelation since she was accustomed to busy and distracted self-interest from the adults around her.  “They’ve known how to do this all along!” her 8-year old self realized.   And she wondered why they couldn’t live this way all the time.  For Dorothy Day, the kingdom of God came near in that time of crisis.  And she noticed.  And she was forever transformed.
The Kingdom of God continues coming near us regular people too.  And every once in a while, we notice.  
The other day I was sitting in my office, surrounded by carefully constructed stacks of things I needed to work on.  One for my sermon, one for youth group, one for Godly Play, one for EYOA, one for youth group, one for Kay Brill’s funeral, one for acolytes, one for liturgy ideas, one for our Shrine Mont parish retreat.  You get the idea.  I couldn’t figure out where to start and was feeling a little overwhelmed.  And then I looked out my window.  I used to look out pretty much at just the parking lot.  But then Peg Bartel planted some things around the mailbox and has been expanding it ever since.  She plants with an eye toward butterflies and birds, and so there are lots of beautiful colors.  But what caught my eye at this moment was the gorgeous goldfinch perch on top of the coneflowers.  Tiny and bright yellow and patiently sitting on a flower while it worked to get to the seeds.  
And it was a reminder to me that the stacks on my desk represent the wonderful, bountiful gifts of God that are my ministry in this moment.  That each one of them is worthwhile and good.  And that it is ok to choose one at this moment to perch atop and work through.  A small thing, I know.  But a glimpse of the kingdom of God coming near, nonetheless.

Now it’s your turn.  Where have you have seen the kingdom of God come near you recently?  Or maybe, can you look back and see in retrospect where you might have missed it coming near?  It doesn’t need to be big; God works in ways big and small.  

    The kingdom of God has come near!  Thanks be to God.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Eyerolls and rebukes

June 26, 2016
Luke 9:51-62

Early on in my parenting ventures, I discovered that kids tend to see things as white or black, yes or no, good or evil.  And so I would often find myself trying to soften their play.  When games involved killing bad guys, I suggested that instead of execution we find ways to redeem the offenders. When sticks became weapons, I suggested that instead of shooting out fatal bullets or lasers we could send out bubbles of love that would surround the intended recipient.  
As you might guess, there is a fair amount of eye-rolling that results from such parental suggestions.
But when I look at the news  - the mass shooting in Orlando, wars and refugee crises, the Brexit vote, vitriol and inaction in American politics - I can’t help but wish I could employ my imaginary love-producing weapons pretty much everywhere. 
But recently, I was reminded of my own tendency to assign labels of good and bad, right and wrong, when I was brought to a screeching halt by my own failure to employ bubbles of love rather than bullets.
It all started in the course of defending my kid.  I heard that one of my children was mistreated by another student at school. 
That’s usually how these things start.  With some instance of wrong done against us or someone we love, either real or perceived.  And that’s where it begins for Jesus and his disciples in our story this morning too.  Jesus has sent messengers to go ahead of the rest of the crowd to a Samaritan village and the Samaritans do not receive Jesus.  We aren’t told exactly what happened.  Maybe the Samaritans slammed the door in the faces of Jesus’ representatives.  Maybe they insulted them or denigrated Jesus.  Maybe they even forcefully repelled them from the village.  All we know is that, at least from James and John’s perspectives, it was uncalled for and unjust.
And so, James and John, like little children sword fighting with sticks, react with fervor and righteousness.  “Let’s command fire to come down from heaven and consume them!”  
Wow!  They’ve turned in their sticks for nuclear weapons!
Even Jesus’ closest friends don’t seem to be buying what Jesus is selling.  James and John have been right next to Jesus hearing him talk about love and forgiveness.   They’ve been sent out by Jesus to preach the kingdom of God — to heal the sick and provide hope for the hopeless.  And the first thing they think of when their leader is slighted is payback.
But they aren’t alone in that very human instinct.  
When my kid was mistreated, I was broken-hearted.  I couldn’t stand seeing my child so sad — afraid that this would happen again, not wanting to go back to school.  But I was also angry.  This could not be allowed to happen!  This could not happen again!  It didn’t help that it had been one of those stressful, schlepping days that wear me out and that Holden was out of town so I had no one to vent to.  And so my mama bear instincts came out in full force and I jumped into our Gospel story this morning, and not in a positive way.  I sent an email (which definitely has potential to be a destructive weapon) to the parents of the other student.  It was not, I am sorry to say, an email asking for their help with the situation or seeking understanding.  It was righteous and accusatory.  Maybe not quite consuming fire, but awfully close.
And so, unsurprisingly, I got an email back that was equally righteous and accusatory.  Because that is how these things tend to go.  But this email also accused me of being unchristian and mean-spirited.
This email rebuked me, just like Jesus did with James and John.  
This word “rebuke” means to express sharp disapproval or criticism of someone because of their behavior or actions.  The Greek word also includes a sense of the authority of the rebuker to bring to light something that has, or is about to, go terribly wrong. 
I wish we knew more about how Jesus rebuked James and John.  I’d love to know what Jesus said to them, and I think even more I’d love to know what they were thinking and feeling afterwards. Whatever the exchange, it made James and John go silent.  That was the end of their stick waving, at least on that front.
When I got my rebuke from the other parents, my first instinct was to react again.  To continue escalating.  But that “unchristian” part of the email had really landed on my heart.  And so for several days, I was a little bit paralyzed.  I kept going back over what had happened, justifying myself.  But I finally realized that while maybe I had been “justified” or even “right”, I had not been kind or loving.  And so I finally couldn’t stand it anymore.  I got out a note card and wrote to the parents, in longhand this time — no more email for me.  

It went something like this: “… Please forgive my rash email.  I was reacting as a parent to the hurt of my child, and it sounds like you can relate to that as well.  Please accept my apologies….”  As soon as I stuck a stamp on the letter and put it in the mailbox, the weight lifted from my heart.  I had no idea if my letter would be read or appreciated on the other end, I had no idea if my kid would be free from another bad experience, but at least I had recovered from my own slide into ugliness.  And a few days later, I got an email from the other parents, thanking me for my letter and offering their own apology for their harsh response.  We were all just parents, loving and protecting our kids, in pursuit of what we thought was “right” and “just”, but going too far out of fear and pain.
And who knows what was going on in the minds of the Samaritans that wouldn’t receive Jesus.  Maybe they distrusted people like Jesus because of the way they’d been mistreated in the past.  Maybe they were afraid of opening their hearts to something new.  Maybe they had lost their generous spirit because of scarcity and fear. 
It reminds me of a wise quote that has been attributed to several people, among them an ancient bishop, Philo of Alexandria: “Be kind, for everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle.”
We are all capable of acting and reacting out of fear and anger and despair.  We are all fighting our own battles — big and small, known and unknown.  Which is exactly why understanding matters.  Open hearts matter.  Listening matters.  Forgiveness matters.  About small things, like issues with our kids.  And about bigger things, like how we treat people that are different from us, how we help people in crisis, how we share resources, how we listen to others, and even how we vote.
Jesus exemplifies understanding, open-hearted, forgiving love in the midst of his own pain and struggle.  
Here he is: marching headlong toward the betrayal and torture and death that he knows await him.  And yet, Jesus continues encouraging the people who gather around him to love even those who hate them, to turn the other cheek, to forgive not just 7 times but 70 times 7.  Soon enough, even on the cross Jesus will call on God to forgive everyone involved in his execution.  Jesus consistently makes clear that judgment and wrath are not in our human purview and that the Kingdom of God has no room for revenge.  Like James and John, our purpose as Jesus’ disciples is to bring life and healing, not death and judgment.  
After this episode, Jesus and his disciples went on to another village.  The pain of what had happened in Samaria subsided.  The instinct for vengeance was gone.  James and John were able to put down their sticks and continue in the life-long venture of learning to follow Jesus, step by step.

This is a long haul, being disciples of Jesus.  With more opportunities that we’d probably like to learn how to act, and react, out of love in the midst of heartbreak and wrongdoing.  May we all find the courage and strength of mind to put down our sticks and learn instead how to employ the ultimately undefeatable weapon of love.  Amen.