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Some Assembly Required

Do you remember that apollo 8Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1968. That evening, the astronauts–Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders–held a live broadcast from lunar orbit, in which they showed pictures of the Earth and moon as seen from their spacecraft. They ended the broadcast with the crew taking turns reading from the book of Genesis.

(click to play video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ToHhQUhdyBY 

That year the Apollo 8 astronauts taught us a valuable Christmas lesson. That there is a thin place where heaven and earth seem to touch, where God is so near we can reach out and touch him.  That’s the promise and hope of Christmas—the one for whom we long has come to us as the Incarnate Christ.   God comes to us this very night, finds us and gives our restless hearts hope.

This year a lot has changed in my life and I confess that my mind has been wandering.  I’ve been reminiscing about the Christmases when my children were little.  And I found myself laughing that THIS Christmas Eve no longer includes assembling toys! 

Even though it’s been years since my children were small, I can vividly recall the exhaustion that came with the dreaded words “some assembly required.”

Today even my grandsons are all grown up and they now appreciate the more simple gifts, like IPhones and cash.

Remembering,  it occurred to me that that this assembly skill set could be a good thing.

The Apollo 8 crew knew that the world had assembled to listen to their historic broadcast.

Little did they know that reading the bible from space might cause a bit of an uproar.  I think God is ok with that. God certainly caused an uproar when he came down as a tiny baby.

So… tonight we are assembled in his name– assembled to welcome the Christ child.

And– it is here that we are invited to assemble our response to this good news.

This baby needs to be acknowledged, received, cared for and carried out into a world that could use some glad tidings, because frankly, the world feels very dark this year, full of unrest and disparity.  It would be easy to throw up our hands in defeat, however…

If Christmas teaches us anything it’s that we’re not alone in this broken world.

God came down and presto–the Word became flesh.

And in that fully human, fully divine act, God came to walk among us.   Whatever God hopes for this world, God promises to work in, with, and through us.

Our job is to assemble a response.  Our job is to allow this birth to change us, as it changed Mary, Joseph, and our early Christian siblings.

Faith doesn’t ask us to isolate ourselves in sanctuaries, going home with little or no thought for this world God loves. It’s why God assembled a plan to be in relationship with us.

Mary didn’t think too long before she assembled her own response to the angels message. She said yes because– she was literally open to carrying the good news.  I think that is the big question of Christmas.

How can we be open to carrying good news to God’s children?

This gift of the Christ child is not a gift to put back in the box until next year, but rather to share with people who need to know they are unconditionally loved and deserving of a life full of equity and unbridled hope.

So tonight, when you’ve put all the toys and bicycles together, take a little time to let your mind wander.  Ask God what about your life could use a little divine assembly.

Like Mary, treasure God’s word and ponder them in your hearts.

Living into God’s greatest imagination for your life will always come with the label “some assembly required.”

Merry Christmas to all. Joy to the World.  Amen.

 

It’s Complicated (a modern sermon on the Good Samaritan)

I‘ll admit it. I’m that person who gives money to people standing on freeway ramps or street corners.  My friends regularly disapprove saying “You know, you’re not really helping them when you do that. They might spend it on alcohol.”

Yes, they might and that is not my concern.  Here’s why I do it. There was a time when my son Jeremiah lived on the streets, I asked him how he survived out there.  He said while many people ignored him, many helped him with his next meal.  Those were the people who kept him alive and for that I will always be grateful.

But yes it’s complicated.

When you live in a large city like when I lived in San Francisco, you might never make it to your office on time if you stopped for every individual with a need. It’s OK to help if and when you can.  And its ok when you cannot.

The story of the Good Samaritan is likewise complicated. We so desperately hope to be that Samaritan and…we are too willing to judge others who are not.

Some commentators give the priest and Levites a pass citing their religious purity restrictions.  That my friends is a reason but it’s not an excuse to cross to the other side. The man in our story was naked and bleeding and no religion should keep you from helping.  Again, it’s complicated.

Thankfully the lawyer in our story sets us up by asking, ”What must I do to inherit the kingdom?  He was testing Jesus but it was a good question!

We all need regular reminders and constant instruction, of what it means to be a citizen in the Kin(g)dom of God.

Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary writes that, “Embodying the Gospel in the world [today] should be a daily calculation. We should, really, wake up each day and ask Jesus, pray fervently, where and how can I act out the Kingdom [today]?

And speaking for myself. I’m paying attention to those who are ignoring the needs that are right in front of them.  Those who are normalizing inaction for any reason.

Billionaire Jeffrey Epstein in Cambridge, MA on 9/8/04. 

This week we have watched people from both sides of the political aisle essentially cross to the other side of the road, failing to advocate for more than 40 young girls who were molested and raped by a man AND a system stacked against vulnerable women.

The legal case may be complicated but their response of looking the other way complicated what should have been simple.  You don’t prey on young girls. Period.

If the week weren’t already full of injustices, we cannot look away from the humanitarian crisis at our southern border.   As a result a group of nuns I know from Indiana traveled to witness the conditions first hand.  When they returned they spoke at the convent’s Justice Task Force. This is a group of lay women and women religious who work to educate and take action wherever they are needed. My Kathy is on that task force.  They stress that before anyone can be moved to action we must first put ourselves in the place of that vulnerable person- feel what they feel, understand their plight and then give voice to the voiceless. In other words have empathy or develop empathy through education and experience.

Moving back to our gospel, what made the Samaritans the ones that stepped forward was that they had empathy. They knew what being hated and dismissed felt like first hand. They were despised by their Jewish neighbors largely because when the northern and southern kingdoms of Judah separated, the Samaritans married foreign women from Mesopotamia and Syria. And by doing so had supposedly harmed the pure Jewish bloodline.

I find it heartbreaking and unthinkable how easily we can justify hatred over kindness, war over peace, justifying it all the way to the graveyards!

That’s why the Samaritans could NOT pass by the man in need.  They could not go silently to the other side of the road.  Inaction and silence always helps the oppressor, never the oppressed.

Martin Luther King Jr. had something to say about those times when we are silent. “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Today ICE agents are conducting raids all over the country, raids that will separate families, deporting a mother or a father while the children bang on the sides of vans as parents are driven away. I’ve seen an ICE raid first hand.  It is hauntingly painful and something you never forget…

Yes, it’s complicated. We need to address illegal immigration but we need to address it humanely.

To conclude, I invite you to imagine that you are the one who has been left for dead in a ditch.  How would you want to be treated?  How would Jesus treat you if he came upon your bleeding and broken body? Would Jesus dress your wounds and bring you to shelter?  Why?

Because it is our calling to finish the story– to go and do likewise, but also, to keep on asking Jesus what does it look like to follow him.

Be like Jesus. It’s not complicated.

Amen.

 

On this day of Resurrection Joy

Easter Sunday 2019women at tomb

Good morning church. On this day of resurrection joy I know that some of you may be distracted because you have an Easter ham cooking on low at home. And I know some of you have sugar highs from whatever you unwrapped this morning.

So for the next few minutes let’s try to think NOT of chocolate Reese’s. Let’s think about the risen Jesus!    One of the truths of Easter is that sometimes you find what you weren’t even looking for.

The disciples were looking for a national savior that would protect them from Roman oppression. Their view had limited their understanding that Jesus was THE Messiah.

There’s an old wisdom tale from the Middle East.  It goes like this.

A clever smuggler came to the border with a donkey. The donkey’s back was heavily laden with straw. The border official was suspicious and pulled apart the man’s bundles till there was straw everywhere, but not a valuable thing in the straw was found. “I’m certain you’re smuggling something!” the official said every time the man crossed the border.

In fact, each day for ten years the man came to the border with a donkey. And every time the official searched and searched the straw bundles on the donkey’s back, he never could find anything valuable.  Hold that thought if you would.

Easter is also more valuable than we’ve discovered. Maybe it’s because we observe it only once a year, that Easter is mistaken for a commemorative anniversary of a past event. I propose something larger. Easter isn’t something we remember. Easter is something we live and breathe.  Easter is a way of living. I hope that today you will be “Eastered.”

If you’re not sure what you believe, and aren’t sure what you’ve “found” when it comes to Easter, know that you are not alone. Even the disciples questioned what the women claimed they found that first Easter morning.

Scripture tells us it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told the apostles that Jesus was alive.  In the other gospels Mary comes face to face with Jesus, not recognizing him until he calls her name!  She believes him to be the gardener because she expects that anyone up that early in the morning must be the gardener.  And she doesn’t expect to see angels, but she does find men dressed in dazzling white.

It makes sense that her mind would have been distracted. After all she did not expect to find an empty grave. Graves don’t go empty. The dead stay dead and don’t walk out under their own power. The dead do not move. And if they do move it is because of grave robbers. That is how her grief stricken mind would have reconciled what was happening.

UNTIL Jesus calls her name, she is opened up and she rejoices!

Can we agree that Mary did not find what she was looking for? She found much more!

And then there are the men. The men were not expecting a risen Jesus! They were too busy hiding out for fear of the Jews.  So when Mary tells them Jesus is alive and that she has seen him, they discount her confession as an idle tale—or “Leros” in Greek, which means crap.  Ouch.

But just in case, the men run to the tomb to see for themselves, and the rest is history.

I think there’s something so human for us to take from that.  Maybe the central question of Easter is not “What happened to Jesus way back then?” but rather… “Where is Jesus NOW?”

When it comes right down to it, Easter becomes not a matter of our questioning the resurrection but of allowing the resurrection to question us. Who are we now, and what must we become, in the light of the risen Christ?

Resurrection is more than an idea we talk about or believe propositionally. It’s something we become, something we “prove” in the living of our lives.

Easter Sunday is the time to meet anew the One who changes everything.  And that’s difficult to do in our heads.  It requires our heart. It requires everything we’ve got!

Whether you believe in a literal resurrection or would say, “Jesus was alive and still lives!” Jesus is here– and here– and there, right this very moment.

It’s something that we celebrate every Sunday at the Lord’s Table. He is risen, alleluia!  That changes everything and if we let it, it changes us!  And changed people change the world. Alleluia!

Oh, but wait– would you’d like to know what happened to our smuggler and the border official?

Many years later, after the border official had retired, he happened to meet that same smuggler in a marketplace and said, “Please tell me, I beg you. Tell me, what were you smuggling?”

The smuggler smiled and said, “Donkeys.”

Amen. And Happy Easter.

Advent Hope (with a little help from Arlo)

Good morning. Today’s message got a big assist from my four year old buddy Arlo. Arlo just became a big brother and he’ll be a good one because Arlo is always thinking and is bound to be a good guy to come to for advice.

Last week he offered his theory about what happens when we die.  According to Arlo, when we die, we start over and become little again–just like his little brother.  So Arlo, we asked, “Is everyone little in heaven?”  “Yes, he confirmed.”

This is actually very helpful when trying to explain Advent.  Why would we welcome the new baby when we know he came a long time ago and has already died? Why would we repeat this every year?  Well duh, because according to Arlo’s theory. Jesus became a baby again!  Apparently he does this annually. And if you ask me, there’s a lot of hope in that. In fact…

The more I think about it,  hope is how most of us get through the day.  Hope keeps us going.  Hope gives us something to hold on to, especially when other things can feel like they’re slipping through our fingers.

Advent re-orients us back to a state of expectation and, well, pregnancy, as we wait, again, for Emmanuel God with us.  Its sweet don’t you think, that Advent reminds us again and again what we already know. That God is already with us.  That hope is real, and when we embrace hope, it can lead us to love, to peace, and to joy.  Every Advent we get to be pregnant with hope!

And while I think that is mostly certainly true, it’s important to also remember that hope is not an opioid prescribed to numb us to the realities of life around us.  Hope is not a false lens. It’s a way of living  life through the lens of the Christ child.

Entering Advent, we always begin with a gospel passage that grounds us in the stuff we try never to think about.  End of the world stuff is the scary.  Alaska just had a major earthquake.  California has had fires and now floods!  It’s been a very hard year for so many around the world and right here at home.

On this first Sunday of Advent, end-of-the-world-talk like this doesn’t sound very “Christmassy.” Or does it?  What was Luke trying to provoke in us?

Professor Karoline Lewis from Luther Seminary writes, “I have to believe that in saying these words, Jesus was not predicting our future but stating the truth of life as we know it. In that I take comfort and peace. Advent speaks to the tension between our reality and God’s vision for our future. Advent gives us a lens through which to see God at work when it seems only evil gets the spotlight. To assure us that God is always with us, breaking into our present.”

On this first Sunday of Advent, we are reminded that God shows up.  [Oh how I like that about God, don’t you?]  Advent is our annual, “Let’s review.” God shows up again and again because that’s who God is and what God does!

Rev. William Lamar writes, “In Luke’s Gospel, God shows up suspended in the amniotic fluid of an unwed teenage mother, and then again sleeping in a trough for livestock. A God like this is liable to show up anywhere!  And God does just that through the ministry and message of Jesus! In this week’s text, God shows up where we often expect God the least: in the temple, the church. Our Christmassy platitudes won’t bar the door. Today Jesus grabs the mic and thunders “apocalyptic words. If we listen, our numbness doesn’t stand a chance. “

Do you need to be reminded of all the things you forget when your focus slips from Jesus to the anxieties of life? I know I do! Jesus reorients everything! Jesus is present tense HOPE.

Today is my first Sunday in the St. John’s pulpit as your called pastor. I thank God and you for this new reality.  I hoped when I arrived a year ago that this would be a good experience for us all. I “hoped” you would like me and think I was doing a good job. I didn’t dare hope that this would be a relationship that would go much beyond a year. But God broke in, showing signs of hopes for us that were bigger.  God showed up and keeps showing up.  The paradox of a God like this is that we are continuously challenged by the realities of life and continuously promised that everything is alright. All is well. All manner of things are well. Even when they are not. Especially when they are not.

I think I’ll have to ask Arlo what he thinks of the words, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory!  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that 4 year old Arlo probably sees Jesus as a superhero, which makes us “disciples” his sidekicks.  So using Arlo’s logic, if we’re waiting for Jesus this Advent season, I think Jesus is also waiting for us!  Jesus is waiting for us to live into his greatest hope for the world.  And what is that kids?

(The kids of the church jump up to say what they say every Sunday at the end of service)

We are the body of Christ raised up for the world. Let’s go help Jesus!

Amen.

Pre-Eclipsea: Oh My God, Oh My God

Fred Espenak is known as an eclipse chaser. Like a storm chaser, Espenak has traveled to experience multiple partial solar eclipses.  He writes,Daylight suddenly changes to an eerie twilight in just a handful of seconds, and that’s dramatic enough. Then it tends to get quiet. The bright sun that was there just moments ago has vanished. It’s replaced by this black orb of the moon.

You hear some people saying: “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” and they just say it for three minutes. Others are totally speechless. Some people might even be praying. Others, just tears of joy running down their cheek.”

As the country readies for today’s eclipse, eclipsethe reactions even to its approach are varied. I heard one say,  “I don’t really care. After all, the Today Show will report on it tomorrow so I’m not really interested.”  Others are on pilgrimage road trips, posting their pre-eclipse meals, cool hotel stops, and camp sites.

We’re being reminded to wear our glasses and pay attention to our dogs. Cuz, even a dog knows not to look directly into the sun.

What is not being reported in main stream media is its spiritual significance.  Living in a time of national chaos when we feel a certain loss of personal control, an eclipse is the ultimate letting go.  We will watch in amazement because for 1-4 minutes, something larger than humanity is evident.  Whether you marvel at the magnitude of God’s creation or at nature pure and simple, this is not a small event. Nothing is small about God’s creation.

In astrology, eclipses are like a portal for exponential growth. Specifically, eclipses are a time of rapid change, either from internal or external circumstances. We are forced to face change in a way that might be uncomfortable, but that ultimately lead to maturity. Read more

I grew up near the ocean and now live in the Midwest.   You too may recognize feeling “off” until you can travel again to the coast to soak up a reboot of biorhythms. That reset centers my focus, spiritual and temporal.  I have no doubt that today’s eclipse will have a similar effect though significantly beyond proximity to the tidal rhythms of the ocean.  Conscious of it or not, we are spiritual beings living in a celestial universe.  From gravity’s effect to the sun’s solar flares, we are part of an incredible biosphere.

Spiritual friends are timidly posting “Is anyone else feeling it?”  And when it turns out they are, the discussion thread explodes.

My intention for today and the reason for this blog post is to encourage us to show up. Be aware of your awareness.  Feel your being.  Soak in the energy not only of the astronomical alignments but of our alignments with our celestial neighbors.

If you’re fortunate enough to be watching in community, today you will become a new kind of group soul. You will have experienced this event together, remembering that the event is not only the movement of the moon in front of the sun, but the movement of something larger, something tingle worthy!

Some of us will come away with increased faith. Some experience feeling part of something we hadn’t felt a part of before. Some of us who hold emotions in may find it impossible to hold it in for a minute longer.  So don’t.

What I hope none of us do is minimize the day and its potential to impact us. Name it as holy.

My prayer is that it fuels your sense of synchronicity with others and with the universe.  Grab a chair. Grab a patch of lawn.  Watch. Weep. Hug.

And then when it’s over, know that it’s only just begun. What will we do now that we’ve been recharged and renewed?

I’ll be paying attention with you.

Namaste.

 

Live Like IT Matters

(A message based on 2 Cor 8:1-15)

In 1988 the international fitness brand Nike launched the popular “Just Do It” campaign. The magazine Advertising Age selected the campaign as one of the top two taglines of the 20th century because IT was both “universal and intensely personal.” Using the word “IT” allows the listener to insert their personal “IT” into their hearing.  IT might be running, swimming, or hiking.  What might be YOUR IT?

And as the campaign took hold it became a way of silencing the anxiety that holds us back, giving us a psychological shove to, well, just DO it.

Other marketers seized on the idea.  The national boating association launched the “Wear It” campaign to encourage the wearing of life vests.  A coalition working for awareness of modern slavery launched the “End It” tagline.  Even Greenpeace took IT a step further with their “Cool IT” campaign calling on Information Technology (IT) companies to power technological solutions needed to fight climate change.

In the 90’s the California Health Department and the CDC hired my marketing agency to create prevention advertising to slow teen pregnancy and the incidence of sexually transmitted disease.  I won an award for my own “IT” campaign, using humor to call out the fact that even though kids couldn’t bring themselves to talk about IT, and parents were struggling to talk about IT with their kids, the kids were doing IT without protecting IT, thus transmitting IT.  And if they ended up pregnant they would have to take care of IT until IT was at least 18 years old.  Maybe they just didn’t get IT?

IT –is universal and IT is personal.  Our reading today from 2nd Corinthians lifted up a new seeing of an IT I hadn’t considered. Now I have an entirely new thesis about IT.

We could say that the original IT campaign was launched in the first century by none other than the apostle Paul.    NouwenDid you see IT?  He’s talking to the church at Corinth, lifting up the paradoxical generosity of the Macedonian church.  Grace filled generosity in the face of extreme challenge shouldn’t have been the overflowing reality but IT was exactly what took place.   IT seemed that God’s own overflowing love having been generously extended to them, was bringing about a natural and generous response. They could only respond to IT by doing likewise and living IT in their own lives.

As Paul tells them about the Macedonians he encourages them saying “ And in this matter I am giving my advice: IT is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something —now finish doing IT, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing IT according to YOUR means.”

(pregnant pause)  …Are you getting IT?  The IT is God’s love. God’s overflowing generosity. God’s extension of love for all.  The IT is grace.  The IT is hope.

And when they got IT, they got IT.  They were free then to respond to IT not out of obligation or force but out of loving reaction.  Paul understood IT this way.

That IT is a holy privilege. IT is an invitation to share in this ministry to the saints.

That the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich—this was an IT that was foundational to a new understanding of generosity.

Paul asked them to consider IT a generous undertaking of their community, that their own generosity (small or large) was how Christ’s community could share with fair balance thereby spreading the gospel of good news.  The gentile believers with perhaps more means were blessed to be able to help those with less.

2nd Corinthians is one of the most profound essays on holistic stewardship there is. Even stewardship’s IT has been reimagined.

IT isn’t and never was about what we have to do. IT is what we get to do, what we want to do because God first loved us.

IT is our holy response to that love that we are invited to share IT, in every way we as individuals and as a community can share IT.

In many ways the church has stumbled in how IT has tried to talk about the IT of stewardship.  It was never about the churches need to receive.  IT is about the givers need to give.

Giving, in whatever form IT takes, is always in proportion to our response to God’s love.

For the church Nike’s “Just Do IT” doesn’t capture IT.  I’d get at IT this way.

God’s Love:  Feel IT. Know IT. Share IT.

Become a Steward of IT. Seriously. That’s all there is to IT. And that’s a lot.  Then we will be free to live like IT Matters.

Amen.

 

 

Recurring Dreams

2 Corinthians 1:1-11

How many of you have had recurring dreams?  Dreams that appear to be more than dreams?

I had one that continued for some time. In the dream I lived in a large historic home, a home where I never went up the grand staircase into the upper floor, living in only part of the home. Eventually I did ascend the stairs and found that the previous owners had left beautiful furniture and all their belongings– which was always when I woke up.  But as the dream repeated I gradually explored all the rooms until finding myself even higher on a dreamcast4AAbeautiful rooftop terrace I didn’t even know I had. Eventually I understood this dream to be about breakthrough. Until I stopped being afraid of God’s greatest imagination for my life, I was stuck on the lower floors. When I figured that out and stopped being afraid is when the dreams stopped.    This wasn’t an ordinary dream. It was something more, something holy.

For some of us, the Holy Spirit might communicate through dreams or visions. And depending upon how open we are to such experiences, will determine if we recognize it and what we do with the phenomenon.

Each of us experience the Holy Spirit differently.  At times it may be a still small voice, a holy whisper through which a fully formed thought enters your mind.  Mothers might call it woman’s intuition, when we know something we wouldn’t otherwise know.

Other times the Spirit reminds us of something we’ve forgotten. Maybe we’ve begun to doubt ourselves and then, in an instant, we remember that we’ve got this. We know what to do. Or perhaps we’re going through something truly frightening but can’t deny that we also feel a peculiar peace that assures us everything will be ok. Have you had that experience?

Throughout the bible ordinary people experienced visions, dreams– promptings.  Mary did. Joseph did. Hannah. David. Samuel.  The prophets of old.  And…the apostle Paul.

His experience with Jesus on the Emmaus road was such a vision and it transformed him, forever opening him to the Spirit who pulled him along like a divine GPS.  The beautiful thing was that he trusted it. And he listened.

Apparently for Paul, when you know that you know, you want others to know what you know.  And so he told everyone he met about this man Jesus.

The book of Acts records that “During the night Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Paul didn’t assume it was a figment of his imagination. He paid attention.

As a result he started churches in the cities of Antioch, Corinth, and Ephesus and beyond.  And like the Spirit he kept in communication with those churches, giving them counsel as he had been counseled.

The letter we read today is the 4th letter he wrote to the church in Corinth. They were experiencing frayed and shattered relationships. Sharp words had been spoken and there was deep wounding.  They had forgotten they were Christian community.

Paul knew that even the healthiest communities can experience conflict. The Corinthian people were in dire need of getting un stuck.  He did not want their future to be defined by their past. He needed them to step back and review the gospel basics of how God was with them every step of the way.

In these letters he begins by focusing on what God can do that we cannot.

He reminds them that struggles happen telling them that as God comforts us in our troubles, we are to comfort others.  In other words we are blessed to be a blessing.

He reviews the gospel message that brought them together in the first place.  He talks about the God that raises the dead.  He reminds them that it was human conflict that led to the crucifixion of Christ.

He reminds them that God’s message of resurrection is a refusal to let human conflict set the terms for the future.  That resurrection always stands over and above the conflicts of life and man oh man do we all need that reminder.

It’s quite incredible really that God would bring the gospel to the world through deeply flawed human beings. We are each treasures in clay jars, fallible, breakable but FULL OF Godly potential.  Each of you are full of Godly potential.

That is God’s recurrent dream. That we will remember who and whose we are.

That we’ll remember we are children of Deity. Capable.  Loved. Supported.

Another one of my own recurring dreams also stopped when I yielded to the peace and not the fear. In the dream I’m crawling on all fours up the side of a grassy mountain. All around me people are sitting comfortably enjoying a spectacular view. Finally a guy taps me on the arm and says, “You CAN turn around now. You’re here. You’ve made it.”

And when I turn around there’s a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. The sky is a perfect blue. The air is clear.  And I realize he’s right. I’m OK. And I seat myself with the others to take it all in, my heart no longer troubled, no longer afraid.

Oh yes. I remember.  Children of Deity. Capable. Loved. Supported. Full of Godly potential.

Amen.

With all your heart, mind, soul and strength

(A sermon on 1st Corinthians 13:1-13)

“God is the force and the love that created, sustains and that transforms the universe, including you and me.”

Those are the words of Rev. Stephanie Spellers, an episcopal priest in New York.  That was her answer to being asked “Who is God to you?”

To Stephanie (and to me) I see God’s very nature as love.   God created the world through love. God sustains the world in love.  God does what God does BECAUSE of love.  Love is the essence. The main ingredient in Creation’s stew.  Love is the motivation for everything God is, does and hopes.

This God of love is the God that the apostle Paul tattoomet on the Emmaus road.  When Paul encountered God in Christ—he found himself turned upside down. When God’s love touched him, he could do no other than respond IN LOVE, serving the living, and loving the God he had encountered.  And thank God, he couldn’t stop. He had to tell everyone, be they Jew, Gentile, slave, free, male or female, gay, straight, black or white.

Which brings us to the familiar Corinthians 13 known as “the love chapter.” We read it at weddings and at funerals.  And I wonder if we’ve heard it so often that we barely pay attention.  Is it a simplistic affirmation of Christian love and unity?

Is it a Duh. A “so what.”  NO. It’s not.

That’s not what was happening when Paul spoke those words to the church at Corinth. He wasn’t affirming that they had love. He was calling them out because they lacked it. Today we have the opportunity to place Paul’s words back into their context, wrestling them away from their warm and fuzzy misunderstanding.

It’s likely that he spoke the words with love and exasperation in his tone.

Things were not going well in Corinth.

The Corinthian Church was not a happy and homogenous body. They were not a comfortable gathering where people fell into step with each other because they shared a belief in Jesus, OR fundamentally similar lives, or values, or experiences. Quite the contrary.

The Corinthian fellowship was a melting pot of backgrounds, gender, age, rank, status, and life situation. Most of its members were from the lower classes but some sat on the opposite side in rank and resources. There were slaves and free people in the community, as well as people with different skill sets and gifts.   The problem was, the diversity among the Corinthians had dissolved into discord and rivalry.

This was a community fragmented, rather than enriched, by difference. So Paul is introducing them to an ethic-a way of living, being and thinking, that is necessary if they are to survive the muddy waters of difference and disagreement.  Without love they would be doomed.  Without diversity they would be less than.

This topic of diversity and how communities can get sideways when they become divided has always fascinated me, especially within the church.

In fact the title of my doctoral dissertation was “Divine Diversity: The church’s challenge or God’s greatest imagination?”  God has built diversity into all of creation, human, animal, biological.  In biology diversity is a mark of health. When absent, that biological system is diseased.  Logic tells us that it’s the same in humanity even if we humans haven’t always caught up with God’s brilliant design for OUR optimum health.

I grew up in a culturally diverse neighborhood and an interreligious home. My home was half Methodist and half Serbian Orthodox.  We had a Jewish family across the street, Italian Catholics on both sides, a Lutheran family next to the Jewish family and another Catholic family next to them.  The Jewish family invited us to Seder dinners and Hanukkah celebrations.    Everyone invited everyone to church or synagogue.  My neighborhood was a successful experiment in Love. We were close—like Salem. We tried always to show love and live from love. Knowing ourselves loved by God was our universal unifier.

Knowing ourselves loved, we cannot help but live in love. It’s in our divine DNA. It’s how we’re wired.  Only from that place can we call each other beloved and only from that place can we serve one another other in love.

And while faith and hope are essential elements of faith, LOVE is the empowering gift of the three. It is the glue, the fuel, and the reason.

The God of Christ and of Paul keeps calling us back into that love.

WE never “have” love — Love has us! Grasped by a love that never ends, we are privileged to be channels for that same love.

And today I am not calling you out because you don’t get it. I am affirming you because you do. With all your heart, mind, soul and strength, thank you Salem for being who and whose you are, claimed by love and compelled to respond in that same love.  It’s what people feel when they encounter us.

I love you for that.

AMEN.

And What Do You Think about That?

A sermon on Mark 12:13-17

My friend Sue grew up with a favorite aunt, Aunt Jenny.  Aunt Jenny never told Sue what to think, however  by example she taught Sue how to think. Whenever they would discuss an issue Aunt Jenny would leave the conversation open ended by simply asking, “…and what do you think about that?”  What a marvelous way to teach critical thinking.

Reflecting on Mark’s gospel this week brought Sue’s stories of Aunt Jenny back to me. Frankly I’ve been relieved by the admission of several colleagues that we do not know what Jesus meant when he said, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” I do offer a thesis about what he didn’t mean.

The story opens with the arrival of representatives from two factions who together have come up with a render_to_caesartrick question for Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay money to the emperor?”

The first group is the Pharisees, a group resistant to paying the head tax to their Roman overlords, most likely because the emperor considered himself a deity making giving to him the same as idolatry.

The other group, the Herodians, advocated pragmatic collaboration with the Romans. We don’t know much about the Herodians but the name implies sympathy with a line of violent and irreligious kings who ruled in Judea at Rome’s behest and who were generally despised by pious, nationalistic Jews.

That these two opposing factions were in cahoots would have been the ancient version of working across the political aisle.

They were setting Jesus up when they asked if it was lawful to pay the tax to the emperor. Jesus knew if he said, “Yes. We should pay the tax,” the popular base that resonated with his anti-establishment preaching would complain that he was giving in to special interests.

But if he said “No,” he would be accused of sedition or in other words he’s be inciting people to rebel against the government.

And so he brilliantly asks to see a denarius, the Roman coin used in Israel in those days. Whose face is on the coin? The emperor! “Then…give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

Yay, Jesus! That settled it only if you lived in the first century. What about today?

Most biblical scholars agree that our modern separation of church and state is just that, modern. A devout Jew of the first century could never imagine separating their lives into political and religious spheres. To be Jewish is to fully integrate the ethics of your life with and because of your religion.  It should be the same for Christians.

Crediting Jesus with laying the foundation for the separation of church and state doesn’t make sense. Remember that the past few weeks Jesus has been telling us that the first should be last, and the last will be first. That the greatest are those who humble themselves and serve. That the rich man should sell all he had and give it to the poor. Jesus regularly inverted social values, teaching the disciples a better and more embodied way.

He was NOT advocating for state sponsored religion but I do believe he was advocating for us to likewise integrate our faith with the way we live out our lives.

Let me be clear here. America was founded by Christians but not exclusively FOR Christians. Our founders escaped the tyranny of state sponsored religion which is why we have separation of church and state in our government. 

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”

That said, as individuals I think Jesus invites us–actually demands of us–that we be thinking regularly and relentlessly about how all of our decisions (what we think, what we buy, who we vote for, where we spend our time) should be shaped by the confession that, indeed, the whole world is God’s and everything in it! Including us!

With that in mind our ushers are distributing sharpie markers. I’d like you to take out the debit or credit card you use most often and mark it with a small cross.  OK? Now, show me the money!

How does someone who belongs to God allocate their money? How will you make decisions of conscience about what you support and what you do not?

By all means, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.  This is more than a cute exercise. This is a way of being daily mindful about your choices, a way of being more integrated.  The way we spend our money as individuals and as a nation is a moral confession of who and whose you/we are.

This beautiful nation is made up of people who answered the call inscribed on the statue of liberty.  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” 

Yes, it is true that my colleagues don’t always know what Jesus means. Sometimes what is true is that we know what he did not mean. And that is equally important.

My name is Dr. Robyn Provis and I approved this message.

And what do you think about that?

Amen.

Jesus Loves Me Yes or No?

A Sermon on Mark 6: 1-29

“There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell but the mere pleasure of God. Therefore let everyone that is out of Christ now awake and fly from the wrath to come!”   On this “Throwback” Sunday, those are the words of Pastor Jonathan Edwards when he preached a sermon titled “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” That sermon from 1790 is still studied today-as a literary form and as an example of fire and brimstone preaching, preaching designed to emphasize hell as a real place.  Now before you run away screaming, give me a chance to redeem the theology behind such declarations.

In Edwards time the goal of preaching do-you-love-me-filteredwas in part to keep people scared enough of hell that they’d live a good life despite themselves. Such sermons were crafted to awaken an audience to the horror that awaits them should they continue life without devotion to Christ.  My opening words this morning were Edwards’s final ones—every Sunday. Yikes.

His words and approach do not represent the God of love that I follow, just like we don’t beat our children in the shed anymore. But there are times when we would be well served by being made a little uncomfortable.

Paraphrasing Brian McLaren, if your goal is to keep yourself untouched by the world, preserved in roses until you can arrive without blemish in the afterlife, you’ve missed the heart of the gospel. The gospel isn’t something you learn. It’s something you live. The gospel is a verb. And there is a certain heresy to playing it safe when it comes to your faith.

Jesus loves me, yes or no? If you’re not sure, maybe you’ve grown too comfortable with your faith and possibly with Jesus?

Today’s gospel reading is largely about rejection, beginning with Jesus’ own rejection in his hometown.  What if we are the ones rejecting Jesus…. maybe because Jesus is just so darn familiar to us in the church. We, the church, are Jesus’ hometown. We’ve known him since we first heard the Christmas story. We’ve grow up with him. He is our constant companion – so constant a companion that we hardly notice him anymore. He’s one of us, a good buddy, a comfortable presence. And when he acts in divine ways and calls us into that same work with him, we’re no better than the Pharisees saying – who is this guy anyway?

Jesus loves me, yes or no?  Is your belief mere intellectual assent or is your faith a radical get-off-your-couch-to-join-God-where God-is -working kind of belief?

Verse 6 reports Jesus “was amazed at their disbelief.”  Would anyone want to be in the number to whom Jesus referred? God, no!

Their disbelief was not only crippling their own lives, apparently it was crippling his! Save a few minor healings here and there, we’re told he could do no deeds of power. Think about that for a moment.  Despite or perhaps because of rejection he sends out the twelve to proclaim and heal. Sending out is always at the center—even of these bookended stories.

Next… Mark reminds us of Herod’s own rejection of the truth and how it resulted in John the Baptist’s death– his head on a platter. He couldn’t say yes to John OR yes to Jesus but he couldn’t say NO to his wacky wife!  Herodias’ problem was that she was offended because John the Baptist condemned her marriage to her brother in law.  And Herod didn’t want to acknowledge John’s indictment. To do so would diminish his power because the one who rules the king, rules the kingdom.  And did you catch that Herod was freaked out because he thought Jesus might be John the Baptist resurrected?

Resurrection was at the heart of Jewish faith. It was connected to hope and hope is one of the most dangerous things oppressed people can have.  As king, Herod couldn’t risk hope if he couldn’t be the one to deliver it. Jesus loves me, yes or no?  No matter. After all Herod might say. It’s my birthday.

When we follow the narrative arc of God’s unrelenting pursuit of us, how can we answer the question without absolute confidence? Jesus loves me, yes or no? Jesus loves me THIS I KNOW!

You and I are called to tell the story, not only to be prophetic to others, but to be prophetic to ourselves: to rediscover who this Jesus we think we know so well, really is. We don’t need fire and brimstone to live a good life. We need a reality check!

God came down in Jesus to: bring good news to the poor, free the oppressed, release the captives, and to recover sight to the blind. Even today, Jesus’ message of good news is often met with rejection. Where would Jesus stand on the issues of our day?

Justice isn’t about violence and retribution. Justice is what loves looks like in public!

Jesus came to confront us. See Mathew 23.

Jesus came to include us. See Luke 18.

Jesus came to challenge us. See Matthew 9.

Jesus came to call us into service. See Mark 6!

Jesus loves me yes or no? See the whole bible!  Frankly I’m tired of anyone using fear to sell a good life. Fear sells. But love transforms!  Don’t live the gospel because you’re afraid not to! Live it because God first loved you and now you’re crazy in love right back!

Today’s preaching is designed to call you off your couches to share that good news with the world.

As for hell. Hell isn’t a place. It’s an experience: Hell is what the families in Flint Michigan are going through.  Hell is a child going to bed hungry, their parents frantic and broken not knowing where their next meal is coming from.  Hell is hoping the war in the Middle East doesn’t claim more children-our children. Hell is standing at the border of an unfamiliar country, holding a sick child, only to be turned away.

Ask any gay person if there was a time when Hell was being afraid that the answer to Jesus loves me, yes or no– really was no!

Truth is, there is nothing that keeps the world at any one moment out of hell but the mere fact that God sends us to make sure that does not happen. It is silence and inaction that makes hell a possibility for any of us.  Let’s reform Edwards benediction saying therefore let everyone that is out of Christ now awake and fly towards the LOVE to come!

People of God, the world is waiting on our next move.

In Jesus name. Amen.