Monday, December 24, 2018

Come all you - curious

The shepherds came, saying “Let’s go see this thing that has taken place.”  
And the magi came, following a star, to see what was under it.  
And, knowing people, folks from the neighborhood would also have come,  drawn to the place where something unusual seemed to be happening.

They came because they were curious.  The shepherds were curious to see what the angels were going on about.  The magi were curious to learn if the star really was the sign of an ancient prophecy being fulfilled.  And the neighbors, well, you know neighbors.  They were just curious.

It’s different now.  Now we know what the angels were going on about.  We know that the ancient prophecy was fulfilled in the birth of that child.  We know that the neighbors would have seen what seemed to be a perfectly ordinary father and mother and infant, who were, in fact, quite extra-ordinary.  So we sing, “O Come all you faithful,” because tonight and tomorrow all the faithful will come to churches all over the world to celebrate the birth of that extraordinary Child.  We come together to fill the air with songs of praise and adoration, just as the angels did on that darkly beautiful night so long ago.   We come because we are the faithful.

Or, perhaps you are here with your families because it’s Christmas Eve and that’s what your family does on Christmas Eve.  Or maybe you are here because you know the music is going to be amazing.  Or maybe you are here because you are curious.  

You know, the early Christians used to go out and care for the neighbors, even the ones who weren’t believers.  They brought food to the hungry and helped the sick.  They comforted the grieving.  They brought clothing to the naked.  And the people of the neighborhood became curious.  They asked themselves, “What makes these Jesus followers so different?  Why are they so caring and compassionate, even to strangers?”  And because they were curious, they came, and when they heard the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness, they stayed.  And the Good News was spread from  house to house and from person to person.  

I would hope, if you are here because you are curious, it’s because someone from a church told you that church is ok, and non-threatening.  That’s what I needed to hear in the days when I was becoming curious.   And then I met someone who told me that church is simply a collection of like minded people who come together to worship God.  And that got me more curious.  And because I was curious, I found a church, and I went to see what it was like, and I kept going back.   

Maybe you are curious because this is an absolutely beautiful building and you want to know what goes on in here.  Or maybe you have met someone who told you how much they love this congregation and invited you to come sometime.  Maybe you have been served by our folks at a food pantry or Christian Cafe dinner and you want to know if we are all so giving and caring.  Or maybe you have heard that in this place we say that all are welcome, and all means ALL - everyone.  No matter who you are.   We welcome everyone just as Jesus welcomes us.  The shepherds and the Magi and the neighbors.  The faithful, and the curious.

On this Christmas Eve, on this night when we celebrate the coming of the Christ Child into the world, we lift up our hearts and our voices in lavish praise of our Lord.  And when we leave this place, when we walk back out into the darkness, may we carry the light of his love in our hearts.  And may that love, poured out from us upon others, light a spark in someone’s life, and make them curious.   Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Share the Love

Scripture Luke 1:39-55 The Message

39-45 Mary didn’t waste a minute. She got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,
You’re so blessed among women,
    and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
And why am I so blessed that
    the mother of my Lord visits me?
The moment the sound of your
    greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb
    skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
Blessed woman, who believed what God said,
    believed every word would come true!

46-55 And Mary said,
I’m bursting with God-news;
    I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
    I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
    the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
    on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
    scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
    pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
    the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
    he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
    beginning with Abraham and right up to now.


This is more like it!   You know, the last couple of weeks the scripture reading and the designation for that particular Sunday in Advent haven’t even come close to matching.   Peace and Joy are really not words we associate with John the Baptist.  But this passage, Mary and Elizabeth responding to the gift of God’s love for the people, made manifest in the birth of Mary’s child, this is all about love!    

The Bible doesn’t name a lot of women.   Men have names, but more often than not, women are simply called the wife of this one or the daughter of that one, or given some other descriptor, like the woman at the well.  When they are named, you know there is something important about them. Chances are good that they will do something that changes the course of history for their people.   Rahab let the Hebrews into Jericho.  Deborah led Israel’s armies into war.  Jael saved Israel by killing the great general Sisera.   Esther saved her people from genocide.  These were women of substance.  And then there were the women bore sons when it was thought impossible for them to do so.  Samson’s mother was barren until a messenger of the Lord came and told her she would have a son.  Sarah, wife of Abraham, became pregnant with Isaac at a very advanced age, thus becoming the foremother of all the tribes of Israel.  Hannah, barren but greatly loved by her husband, had her womb opened by God and bore Samuel, who would name both Saul and David to be kings of Israel.    

So - Mary and Elizabeth.   Elizabeth was old, way too old to have a child.  She and her husband Zechariah had been childless all their lives.  And then God’s messenger, the Angel Gabriel came and told Zechariah that his wife would have a son, whom they must name John.  There was the usual disbelief, which in this case resulted in Zechariah losing the ability to speak until the child was born.   When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, the angel Gabriel went to Mary and told her that she would bear a child, a holy child, who would be called God’s Son.   Her disbelief was easily dispelled, and she accepted the charge laid upon her.  Then she went to see her cousin, Elizabeth, who was quite probably the only person who would believe what had happened to her.

Mary was a different case from all the other women in scripture who bore special sons.  She didn’t fit the profile.  She was neither barren nor old.  She was young and unmarried. She was betrothed to Joseph, which means her father and his father had agreed on a marriage contract and exchanged money and goods.  So the couple was considered as good as married, but the wedding hadn’t happened yet.  And she was young, according to historians probably around 14.  Now, some people have a problem with that.  Last year I read a pretty good blog post about Mary. I liked the perspective the author brought to Mary’s story.  Until I got to the end, when the writer said something like, “But she wasn’t 14.  God is not a paedafile.”   Thing is, Mary’s was a different world entirely from the one we live in.    We think of a 14 year old female as a child, but that’s a relatively new development in the history of the world.  Especially when you consider that for most women for most of history, their entire purpose in the life was to bear children, as many as possible.  Once a girl was old enough to get pregnant, she was marriageable.   

So Mary goes to Elizabeth, who greets Mary with great joy.  You’re so blessed among women! The moment the sound of your greeting entered my ears, the babe in my womb skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.  Mary’s response, known as the Magnificat, has been immortalized in music by such composers as Bach and Mozart.  And I am so not used to seeing or hearing it any way but that traditional way.  But we used the Message again today, so when I read the passage I saw it  in a new way.    

That’s what happens, you know, when you do something in a different way instead of “the way we’ve always done it.”  Like adding a new spice to an old recipe, or singing new words to an old tune, or putting pineapple on pizza, that thing we’ve always done becomes new.  There’s enough of the familiar there to be comfortable, but there’s that new flavor that adds something quite unexpected.    When I read the words this time,  I read beyond the celebration of what God had done for Mary, and beyond the way she spoke in the past tense about things that God did for God’s people.  I looked beyond her words about what God had done to what God is doing and what God will do.  She said, “It’s exactly what he promised,  beginning with Abraham and right up to now.  Suddenly, the “right up till now” part resonated in a way it hadn’t before. I stopped reading this as Mary’s celebration of God’s past actions and started reading it as prophecy.   

According to Merriam-Webster the Word of the Year for 2018 is “Justice,” the dictionary publisher said the word was looked up on its website 74 percent more this year than last year.  Among the other definitions of Justice I found when I looked it up - in the Merriam-Webster dictionary were these:  the quality of being just, impartial, or fair  the principle or ideal of just dealing or right actionconformity to this principle or ideal righteousness.”  (   And what Mary describes in her song of celebration is God doing justice, righting wrongs.  
He scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
    pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
    the callous rich were left out in the cold
Our world is very different from Mary’s world.  And yet, somehow the same.  We see the poor getting poorer, and the rich getting richer.  There are wars and rumors of wars, acts genocide, people starving,  people dying of treatable illnesses, and even slavery in the world.  There are some 6.3 million refugees in the world, people fleeing from war and danger in their home countries.  We see people oppressed, even here in our country because of their race or religion or gender identity.  According to the FBI, hate crimes are up for the third year in a row.   On any given night 554,000 people, 17% of the US population, are unhoused.   The numbers of homeless persons is increasing across the country, but the highest rate of homelessness is here, in California.   
There are those who, looking at all of this are asking “Where is God? Why does God allow these things?”   There are others who say God doesn’t interfere or take a direct hand in human affairs today. That the days for miracles and seeing God work are past.   I disagree.  
I believe God is working in our world.   You see, what God has always done is send a prophet, a person, who speaks God’s Words to the people, who changes hearts and minds.  And today God has sent, not just one prophet, but many.  People who speak out for the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless, people who work tirelessly toward change.  We see righteous people working toward justice for all persons.   Disciples minister Sandhya Jha, Director of the Oakland Peace Center, teaching anti-racism, working toward a world where all persons are truly considered equal in value.  Disciples Minister Dr. William Barber has taken up the leadership of the Poor People’s Campaign begun by Dr. Martin Luther King, and has made a National Cal for Moral Revival.  These are just two, but there are many others, some in this congregation even, who are working tirelessly  toward justice - God’s version of justice - for all persons.  Because God’s  "mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him. . .  he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.”   
God’s love calls us to love him, to celebrate the Good News God News, to dance the song of our savior.  God calls us to share the love, to let mercy flow out upon those who suffer, who hunger, who are cold and tired.  Just as God chose Mary to bear the Christ, so God choses us,  to do this work in the world, to follow the path our Lord Jesus has set before us, to be God’s hands and feet.  Because what God has done for us can never be forgotten.  The God whose very name is holy, gave Mary a child, and that child is our Christ, our Lord, our Savior.  That child, that Christ Child, calls upon us daily to share the love with one another, and with all the people in the world. 
So go from this place today, to celebrate our God, and to share the Love.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Find Joy

Scripture Luke 3:7-20 The Message (MSG) 

7-9 When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do, John exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin. And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father.’ Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there—children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”

10 The crowd asked him, “Then what are we supposed to do?”
11 “If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the same with your food.”
12 Tax men also came to be baptized and said, “Teacher, what should we do?”
13 He told them, “No more extortion—collect only what is required by law.”
14 Soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He told them, “No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be content with your rations.”
15 The interest of the people by now was building. They were all beginning to wonder, “Could this John be the Messiah?”

16-17 But John intervened: “I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”

18-20 There was a lot more of this—words that gave strength to the people, words that put heart in them. The Message!  But Herod, the ruler, stung by John’s rebuke in the matter of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, capped his long string of evil deeds with this outrage: He put John in jail.


It’s the 3rd Sunday of Advent - Joy Sunday.  But this passage is anything but joyful.  John calls people snakes!  He tells them that they can be replaced. He thunders in the desert!   And it ends with Herod being about as evil as it gets!  One might be hard put to find the joy in this passage!

At this time of year it is often difficult to find joy.   It is the darkest time of the year… days are shorter, nights are longer, every one is overly busy and stressed.    Trying to get everything done before Christmas, before the end of the semester, before the end of the calendar year.   And the church calendar says “Be Joyful!”   Seriously?

On top of that, this passage doesn’t tell the story the way we are used to hearing it.  We are used to John saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  But what we hear in this version - the Message version - is really different: “The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out.  We’re not entirely certain whether he is talking about Jesus or George Clooney.    

But, you know, sometimes we need to look at very familiar things from a different perspective, from someone else’s point of view.   We might need a different viewpoint in order to get a fuller picture of an event - like the police asking for statements from many witnesses at the scene of an accident or a crime.  Or we might need to shake up our complacency.  Look at what John says to the crowd.  “. . .don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father.’”  The Jewish people know themselves to be God’s Chosen People, the people he chose to be his own.  This is a cause for a bit of arrogance.  “We’re better than you are because our God picked us!  We are the descendants of Abraham, whom he claimed for his own.  No matter what, God will always come to our rescue.  Just look at our history!”  But John reminds them that they are not the only children of Abraham. “Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there—children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants.”   And he has a significant point, because the Judeans were only one of the tribes descended from Abraham - the others had been scattered and not rescued.  And then there were the children of Hagar and Abraham - there were at least as many of those, because God promised Hagar to make a great nation of Ishmael's children.  And so the people, having been made to look at themselves from a new perspective say, What shall we do?  John said, “Change your lives.

John told all of the people in that crowd just what they needed to do to be real children of God - be generous with what you have.  Be honest in your dealings with others.   Treat everyone justly.

We don’t usually look at this part of this passage, because we tend to focus on John’s announcement of Jesus’ imminent arrival on the scene.  Yet John is saying much the same thing that Jesus will say later . . . Don’t be restricted by what the Law says.  John, like Jesus, and like the prophets before him, wanted the people to understand that the body of the Law was only a guide to how people should live with each other.   Being too focused on doing exactly what the Law said, no more and no less, wasn’t what God had intended.  If people were so focused on what was lawful and what was not that it kept them from obeying the love commandment, then they were’t getting the point.   

 Yes, John told them, I know that you only are required to tithe 10%, but do more than that. If you have two coats, give one to someone in need.  Tax collectors, even though Rome allows you to take as much as you can squeeze from anyone, don’t do it.  Only take what is owed from each person.  Soldiers, don’t oppress the innocent.  Only arrest true wrongdoers, and don’t supplement your income with bribes and blackmail.   Change.  Change your lives.   

If we bring this passage forward to now, to us, perhaps we hear John saying, “Just being a Christian is neither here nor there - Christians are a dime a dozen. . . What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.  I’m pretty sure each of us can think of someone we know who says they’re Christian, but whose understanding of being Christian doesn’t line up very well with ours.   For example, in 2016 79% of Americans claimed religious affiliation, but only 55% went to church.   Some of us may believe that if you don’t go to church you cannot claim to be Christian.  Others feel strongly that if you do not understand scripture the way they do and follow the same rules they do, you cannot be Christian.  In some peoples’ minds, the fact that this church has a woman pastor means this whole congregation isn’t Christian.   But I think that none of these things are what John was talking about.  His concern was not in how well the people obeyed the 613 Laws of Moses, or the laws of Rome, or the laws of King Herod, but in how well the people cared for each other.  How well they loved one another.  How justly they treated one another.   

Yesterday there was a news story about Pastor John Grey, an associate pastor at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, who bought his wife a $200,000 Lamborghini for their 8th wedding anniversary.   He defended his purchase saying it wasn’t a pastor buying the car, but a husband.  And that he wasn’t using money from the church, but from his book sale profits.   And I wonder how much of his book profits he has used to help the hungry and homeless . . . because “If you have two coats, give one away.”  

"What counts is your life.  John said.  Is it green and blossoming?   

 John told the people that the one who was coming “will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.    And the people were encouraged and strengthened by his words.    Someone was coming,  to bring change, to liberate them.  And John was there to help them prepare, to help them understand how their lives needed to change in order to live in God’s kingdom.   

And there was joy.  There was joy in the hearts of the people, knowing that God had not forgotten them.  There was joy as people walked into the Jordan to be baptized, so that they might start their lives afresh and be ready when the Messiah appeared.   They may have still had the wrong idea about what the Messiah was coming to do, but knowing he was coming brought joy and hope.  Knowing that the Messiah was coming, and coming soon, strengthened them to continue with their lives, to become better people.  To throw away the dead wood in their hearts and souls, and open their hearts to hear Jesus’ message when he came.

And so it is with us.  At this time of year, when we prepare for the birth of the Christ Child, and look ahead to the return of the Son of God, joy fills our hearts at the knowledge that God loves us.  God loves us so much he sent his son to heal the entire world.   God loves us so much that no matter what we are going through in our lives, we can be assured he is with us.  Especially in the dark times, in the times when we are tempted to feel alone and abandoned, God is with us.  John and the other prophets before him made it clear, that we would be liberated from our sins and pain would be wiped away by the coming Messiah.  That we would be granted freedom, and release from the oppression of the spirit. 

When we go forth from this place today, let us spread joy to all we encounter,  for the God of Israel has set us free.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Speak of Peace

Scripture   Luke 3:1-6  The Message

3 1-6 In the fifteenth year of the rule of Caesar Tiberius—it was while Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea; Herod, ruler of Galilee; his brother Philip, ruler of Iturea and Trachonitis; Lysanias, ruler of Abilene; during the Chief-Priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas—John, Zachariah’s son, out in the desert at the time, received a message from God. He went all through the country around the Jordan River preaching a baptism of life-change leading to forgiveness of sins, as described in the words of Isaiah the prophet:
Thunder in the desert!
“Prepare God’s arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!
Every ditch will be filled in,
Every bump smoothed out,
The detours straightened out,
All the ruts paved over.
Everyone will be there to see
The parade of God’s salvation.”

You know, on Peace Sunday, the images typically used to illustrate the message are pretty angels or doves or peace signs, or even a peace sign on a Christmas Tree with a dove on top  . . . not a thunderstorm in the desert. I mean, that’s a pretty radical image for Peace Sunday.  Typically, of course, I select a more conventional translation of the scripture.  But this Advent I am using The Message, and the imagery it brings to mind has nothing to do with peace signs or doves or angels.  Nothing peaceful at all, in fact. 

“Thunder in the desert!”   That line, that image, fascinated me, because the usual translations are along the lines of “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”  as if Isaiah is speaking sort of generally.  “There will be a voice, a person, who speaks about the coming Messiah and prepares the world for his arrival.”  It’s not really specific or anything.  But this, “Thunder in the desert!  Prepare God’s arrival!”   It is as if Isaiah is speaking directly to John, as if these are not simply a prophesy of something that will happen, but a direct order.   “Thunder in the desert.”  And John did.  He thundered.   He preached “a baptism of life-change leading to forgiveness of sins.”  Not, be baptized and your sins will be forgiven.  But change your life, repent what you have done wrong against God and against your neighbor, and you will be forgiven.  He spoke out against the immorality of the leaders of his time.   He seriously thundered!  

It was the fifteenth year of the rule of Caesar Tiberius  . . . that would be around the year 29 AD, making John (and Jesus) around 33.   There was a lot going on.  It was far from a peaceful time in the province the Romans called  Palestine, the country that had been a united Israel under King David.   It wasn’t one country anymore, and hadn’t been for a long time, but three - Galilee, Samaria, and Judea.   Herod was the king of Galilee, serving at the pleasure of the Emperor.  Pilate was governor of Judea, which included Samaria.  No one liked the Romans.  No one liked Herod, king of the Jews but only nominally Jewish.  There was constant unrest.  Bandits making travel unsafe.  Zealots trying to foment armed rebellion against Rome.   A heavy burden of taxes on the poor.  Soldiers doing whatever they wanted to the people of the land - dragging them out of their fields and workplaces to carry burdens, raping the women and casting them aside, taking whatever they wanted from whomever they wanted.  It was a bad time, a hard time - unless you happened to be rich or powerful.    It was not a peaceful time. Oh, there was the Pax Romana - Roman Peace.  But that was “peace” imposed by the might of the Roman Legions.  That was order imposed by occupying forces on an oppressed population, not actual peace.  

So, what is peace? 

 Jane Addams is known as the Mother of Social Work, and recognized as the founder of the social work profession in the United States.   In 1889 she opened Hull House, the first settlement house - like a community center in a poor neighborhood where volunteers lived, and where opportunities for education, exposure to the arts, and so on were made available to the local residents who wouldn’t otherwise have access to these things.  Agencies like All Peoples Community Center in LA and the Oakland Peace Center are pretty much direct descendents of Hull House.  She fought for justice for all people - for women’s right to vote, for poor people’s rights to an education, for access to health care, and the needs of children.  She helped found the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1920s, and in 1931 was the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  She was a force of nature.  And she said “True Peace is not the absence of war, it is the presence of justice.”  

Many other people have made similar statements.  A Google search for the phrase “peace is not the absence of war” yields 50,300,000 results with quotes attributed to everyone from Pope John Paul II to Albert Schweitzer to Harrison Ford.   The original source was probably the 17th century philosopher Spinoza.  But Jane Addams spent her entire life working for justice, for an end to oppression, and for equity.  Her goad at Hull House was “to practice social democracy, that is, egalitarian social relations across class lines.”   Justice is everyone being treated fairly - equally - under the law.  Money and social standing should not make a difference in having access to education, health care, and legal representation.   

Yesterday I was blessed with the opportunity to spend the morning registering families for the Reality Tour at Selma High School.  It is a drug prevention event  for youth and their parents that is really quite “in your face.”   I was working alongside Selma School district teachers and administrators and listening to their stories about kids and parents and equity.  Because, you see, registration for this event was online.  And a lot of the kids these teachers and administrators were talking about don’t have access to computers.  They don’t have smart phones.  They don’t have email.  These are the kids who don’t get breakfast at home, and don’t have coats when it’s cold.   It’s easy for an event organizer to say, “If we do it on line we won’t miss anyone.  Everyone has access.”  Except everyone doesn’t.  One of the teachers said, “it’s an equity issue.”  And the conversation turned to “How do we make the playing field level?  How do we give those kids access to events like this?”   No one would suggest that every kid be given an iPhone, but making computer access available at the schools is doable (said the folks I was listening to) - and equitable.  

Issues of equity are justice issues.  Issues of equity are loving the neighbor issues.  Because if I love my neighbor, I want her to have the same opportunities I have, regardless of class or race or religion or whatever.  There is a difference between equality and equity.   It’s illustrated in a cartoon where there are three kids of different heights standing at a fence, and on the other side of the fence is a baseball game.  None of them can see over, so they each get an identical box to stand on.  That’s equality.  But two of the kids still can’t see over the fence.  So each kid is given a box that makes them the right height to see over.  That’s equity.  That’s what Jane Addams fought for.  That’s what Jesus preached.  That’s what John was preparing the way for.

You know, I could take the rest of that Isaiah quote and make it about equality. “Every bump smoothed out, the detours straightened out, all the ruts paved over.”   Except I think that’s a bit simplistic.  Because neither John nor Jesus nor anyone else preached that life was going to be a smooth ride all the way from beginning to end.  There will be dips and bumps, and detours and ruts.     Justice is making sure everyone can get past the dips and bumps.  Justice is making sure there are signs clearly indicating where to go for that detour.  Justice is working together to fill in the ruts in the road, so that everyone can travel along it.   Working toward a just world means working toward a world where all those kids’ families can get on the internet to register for events that could make a real difference in their lives.  Working toward a just world means working toward a world where everyone has access to healthy food.  Some people will still get steak and lobster while others get chicken or beans and rice. But everyone gets fed.  Everyone gets to eat.  

Peace is the presence of Justice.  Peace is not the absence of war, but it might be the absence of oppression.  So go from here, my sisters and brothers, to do as John did.  Thunder in the desert of oppression.  Continue to work and speak for justice for all God’s people.  Comfort God’s people, as John did, with the Good News, that Jesus is coming, and has come, and will come again, to heal our world, to pour justice out upon it, and bring peace to every heart.  

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Do Not Despair

Scripture  Luke 21:25-36  The Message   

25-26 “It will seem like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking.

27-28 “And then—then!—they’ll see the Son of Man welcomed in grand style—a glorious welcome! When all this starts to happen, up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!”

29-33 He told them a story. “Look at a fig tree. Any tree for that matter. When the leaves begin to show, one look tells you that summer is right around the corner. The same here—when you see these things happen, you know God’s kingdom is about here. Don’t brush this off: I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for this one, too—these things will happen. Sky and earth will wear out; my words won’t wear out.

34-36 “But be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise, spring on you suddenly like a trap, for it’s going to come on everyone, everywhere, at once. So, whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at the switch. Pray constantly that you will have the strength and wits to make it through everything that’s coming and end up on your feet before the Son of Man.”

I saw a diagram on Facebook the other day showing the difference between Bible translations.   

John 20:17  
From the Greek:    He said to her, Jesus, “not me you touch or cling to.”
New Revised Standard Version:   Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me.” 
Dynamic Interpretation:   Jesus said to her, “You can’t touch this.”

Ok, that’s kind of a joke, but not entirely.   Most of you know that I prefer Bible translations that are more like the second one, scholarly and as accurately translated into English as possible.   But sometimes looking at things a little differently helps us understand them better.   So this year, for the whole of Advent, we will be using The Message for our scripture readings.  

In today’s passage, Jesus warns of the dangers of distraction, of hard times to come, of the very real possibility that we will lose our strength and faith when the world around seems to be falling apart.  It is so easy to all into depression, to think there is nothing we can do to change things, that all of the anger and evil that surrounds us is all there is.  That the end, in fact, is near.  Or, alternatively, that we will be so distracted by our daily lives that we won’t see what’s right in front of us.  

But look at a fig tree - or any tree for that matter.

How do I know there’s a God?  I asked.  Who knew (at age 13) that this was not a good question to ask in my Wednesday night religious education class?   The nun in charge went immediately to get the priest, who chastised me severely and made it very clear that there was to be no questioning of such things. I must simply believe.

You may not know this, but I’m really not good at being told what I must do, or think, or say, or believe.   I wanted to quit going, but I knew Mother would never allow it.    So when I went home I told my father what had happened.  My father, being a very wise man, shook his head, grumbled about bad teachers, and took me outside.  To look at a tree.  We looked at the leaves, with all the veins running through so the sap can bring nutrients.  And we looked at how the bark protects the inside of the trunk and branches from bugs and cold and all sorts of damage.  And we looked at the root system, how it reaches down into the earth searching for every last drop of water the tree needs to grow.  Then he asked me if I thought that these things could all simply happen randomly, or if someone had to have created this tree.   And if someone greater than a human had to have created the tree, the what about all of the other amazing and intricately detailed life forms?   Including humans.   And then he told me that only God could do these things.  And that I would have been much better off being taught by Jesuits, who understood the importance of asking questions.   

When I was in seminary, the apartment downstairs from mine was reserved for students from foreign countries.  During my four years there I had neighbors from Brazil and South Africa and Kenya.  My Kenyan neighbor didn’t understand winter at all.   Well, none of them did.  But with most of them, we just talked about the need to wear hats in extremely cold weather, and the dangers of ice on the sidewalks and road that lurks under snow, and whatever you do, do not turn off the heat when you go away for Christmas break!  (Frozen pipes are bad!)   But my Kenyan neighbor and I had a theological conversation about winter.   We were walking to class one morning and he asked why the seminary didn’t cut down the dead trees on campus.  Where he lived, he said, all of those trees would be firewood by now.   I realized that he was looking at all the trees that had lost their leaves in the Fall and were now dormant until Spring, so we talked about the nature of deciduous trees, the way they only seem to be dead but that in the spring they would be resurrected.   It’s what I grew up with, of course, but coming from Kenya, this was a foreign concept.  Not the resurrection, of course.  He was a Christian.  He believes in the resurrection. But that trees can also reflect the life of Christ, and be used to teach theology - this was new.   To him.

Because using a tree to teach theology was not a new thing.  My father taught me how to do it, but he learned it from Jesus.   And Jesus’ message was this, just as the fig tree gives clear signs of the changing season, so the things happening in the world around us will make it clear that it is almost time for the Son of Man to return.   The disciples believed it would happen in their life times.  It didn’t.  Since that time, the end of days has been predicted over and over again.  People would look at omens, like those we read in today’s scripture, and say “This is it!  All of these things are happening now!  Repent!  For the end is near!  Jesus is coming back next week!”    Specific Dates were set for the Last Day.  Expectations ran high among those who believed the prophets of doom.  People even sold all they owned and wandered off to pray on a mountaintop or something.  Then that day would come, and go, and nothing of any great note would happen.   *sigh*   And the people who had believed would come back from their mountaintop and wonder what to do now.  

Jesus said, “Be on your guard.  Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation be dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise, spring on you suddenly like a trap, for it’s going to come on everyone, everywhere, at once. So, whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at the switch. Pray constantly that you will have the strength and wits to make it through everything that’s coming and end up on your feet before the Son of Man.”   

This particular piece seems highly appropriate for December, when people start celebrating and running around shopping and worrying about what to give all of their friends and neighbors and family members.  Pretty much the last thing on most minds is that this might really be the End of Days.  But that’s what Advent is - it’s the time when we wait for the return of the King.  Yes, we will celebrate the birth of the Child four weeks from now, but Advent is when we wait with bated breath for the return of the Christ to earth - the end of days.  This year, with fires and floods and famines and wars and refugees all over the earth - it even kind of feels like the end times to me, and I am not much of a “repent, for the end is near” kind of person.  I’m more of a “Try to live every day as if it was your last day on earth” kind of person.  

And I believe that is what Jesus is saying in this passage.   Not so much “get busy preparing for the end of time because it’s coming next week.”  But “stay vigilant in every season.  Whether you are in a season of celebration or a season of despair, know that I am near.  Know that I will be there, no matter what is going on.  And that all you have to do is keep the faith, and you will make it through.”

My article in The Caller this month was about a package I had ordered and how it seemed like it was never going to arrive.  It left Oregon November 6, went to LA, then San Francisco, where it languished for a week, then to Chicago! Then Elk Grove Village, IL for a few days, and then to San Jose.   I had emailed the company and a woman named Jill kept encouraging me to be patient, that surely the package would arrive.  (It did, by the way.  On Thursday.)    I had to think how appropriate her words are to this time of year, when we are waiting both for the birth of the Child and the return of the King.   How appropriate to this time in history, when it “ … seem[s] like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking.”  It would be so easy to give in to despair, to decide that the world is going to hell in a hand basket and there is nothing we can do about it.   

But Jesus says, “Help is on the way.  And I say, help is already here.  Because even if it is not the end of days, Jesus is with us.  Isaiah 9:6 tells us that “authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”   And because he is all those things to us, he is always here with us.  His words are in front of us every day.  His teachings are in our hearts every day.  His example on how to live through every situation is right here - in this book, and also in our minds and hearts.  Because we know the stories.  And we know that he was fully divine but also fully human - that he laughed and ate and drank, and suffered and bled and cried, just as we do.  And therefore we can get through any situation, as he did.  Because even when he could have given in to despair, even when he knew that the end of his time on earth was near, he had faith that God, his father, would be with him no matter what happened.  So he kept doing the things he knew needed to be done - feeding the hungry, casting out evil spirits, healing the sick, comforting the comfortless - for as long as he could.  And then he passed the baton to his disciples, to us.   And so we go on doing the work he left us, pouring Christ’s love out on our neighbors, walking forward in hope, working to make our world a better place, a more loving place, a place where Jesus lives.  

Have faith, for he is coming.   Do not despair, for he is with us.  Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, is Emmanuel - God with us.  

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Accepting Christ as King

Scripture Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14  (NRSV)

9 As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
    and an Ancient One took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
    and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
    and its wheels were burning fire.
10 A stream of fire issued
    and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousands served him,
    and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
    and the books were opened.
13 As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
    coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
    and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion
    and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
    should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
    that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
    that shall never be destroyed.

It is still November, still gratitude month, and we are continuing our series on how to show our gratitude to God.   We have looked at obedience to God’s Law, and imitating God’s good works in the world.  Today, we look at how we show our gratitude to God by accepting his son, Jesus the Christ, as King.

In our hymns and prayers we often speak of Jesus as King.  Today is the Sunday celebrated as Christ the King Sunday in many Christian traditions.  It is not listed in my Disciples of Christ calendar of church holidays.  Probably because we are a homegrown American denomination, and Americans don’t really do “kings”.  We don’t really even know what King means, except perhaps in chess or checkers.  The kings and queens that some European nations have seem more ceremonial than anything.  And of course, there was that whole Revolutionary War thing -  intended to liberate us from kings for all time.   We were going to be self determining and self governing!  And that’s been working pretty well for us for the last 240 years.  

So when we talk about Jesus we tend to prefer the word Lord over King.  But that’s us, and that’s now.   But then  . . .

When the people of Israel demanded a king, Samuel tried to talk them out of it, telling them about taxes and involuntary servitude and being drafted into the army - things that a kingless people didn’t have to deal with.   All the other countries had kings, and even though they could see what that meant for their neighbors, still they insisted.  They wanted a king, so they were given one, and everything Samuel warned them about came to pass.  Kings, it was believed, served at the will of God, ordained and anointed by God to be his representative on earth.  And because it was God’s will that whoever was king, that king had total and complete power over his people.  He could tell them what work to do, where to live, what to wear, even.  People married whomever they were told to marry.  They could be sent off to war, forced into the king’s bed, killed or enslaved at the whim of the king.   The king was to be obeyed in every thing, and the consequences for disobedience could be severe.     Yes, there were good kings and bad kings, strong kings and weak kings, but even the most beloved and compassionate of kings still had the power of life and death over all in the land.  To be king was to have all the power.  Refusing an order, or even an invitation, from the king could get you killed!  

Are you King of the Jews?  When Pilate asked that question, he was trying to determine whether Jesus was a threat to the Roman Empire.  Because the King of the Jews was Herod, appointed to that position by the Roman Emperor and answerable to him.  Anything or anyone who was a threat to that state of affairs was a problem for which the solution was death.   But Jesus wasn’t claiming Herod’s throne, and Pilate couldn’t find any reason to execute him - except that for some reason this man seemed to have the Temple leadership very upset.  As far as Pilate could tell it was an internal, religious issue, and he really didn’t want to get involved in an internal, religious matter.  But in order to avoid a riot in the city he was responsible for, he ordered Jesus’ execution anyway.  And on the way, his soldiers crowned Jesus with a crown of thorns, to represent his kinghood.  They thought they were mocking him, but in fact, they were proclaiming the truth.  

Daniel said, “I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.
  To him was given dominion and glory and kingship.  And the people were not to “believe in him” or “worship him.”  All peoples are to “serve him.”  As the kings of Daniel’s time were served.  Remember, Daniel was hostage to a king who had no problem tossing disobedient Hebrews into a furnace because they insisted on worshiping their own God instead of him!  When Daniel said king, this is the kind of king he meant.   A king whose word was to be obeyed in all things.  A king whose power was second only to that of God.  

The centurion whose servant Jesus healed in Matthew chapter 8 understood the kind of power that Jesus had and from whence it came.   When Jesus offered to come and heal his servant, the centurion said to him, ““Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.     

Jesus as king is no mere figurehead, as are so many European royals, with a Parlaiment to make laws and approve his budget.  Nor is he like the king on a chessboard, whose moves are restricted and who must be protected from attack by all the other pieces.   Jesus has the power, given to him by God.  He needs no knights or pawns, bishops or queens to protect him,.   When he moves, he changes lives.   When we accept him as our King, whose words are to be obeyed, our lives can be changed.

I need to point out that there is a very significant difference between Christ as King and all of those other kings - Saul, David, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod.   Their rule is about power, their power over other humans.  They are obeyed out of fear for the consequences.  Their kingdoms are on and of the world.  Jesus’ rule is based about love.  His rule is about compassion and mercy, in justice.  He is obeyed out of love for him, and for God the Creator.    According to John 18:36, when Jesus responds to Pilate, he says “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  Jesus’ reign is over our hearts and souls.  Which doesn’t mean there is any less obligation to be obedient.  It simply means that obeying Jesus is a very different matter from obeying the laws of our nation.  When we disobey Jesus, the consequence is not a jail term, or a fine, or community service as might be the case for disobedience to the laws of the land.  When we disobey Jesus, the consequence is a soul deep pain, a knowledge that we have done that which saddens our Lord and our Savior.  When we disobey Christ the King, we have fallen short in our love for God, for ourselves, and for our neighbors, the two commandments that Jesus has told us are most important.  When we disobey Christ the King, it is because we have allowed the ways of the world or our own selfishness to come between us and our God.   

If w are to show gratitude to God for all that we have received, we will obey the king he has sent us.  The kings of the world last but a short time, the laws that they put in place can be changed as soon as they are gone.  In some cases, evidence of their very existence can be eradicated, as was attempted with some of the pharaohs of Egypt.  But the reign of our King, Christ the King, “is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.  We, as Christians, show our gratitude to God for the gift of his love when we accept Jesus, the Christ, as our King.

I know that it’s fairly easy to say “I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior.  There are people coming forward at altar calls in churches all over the world probably right this minute proclaiming that very thing.   But when we say that, what do we mean?   Do we mean “I believe and now I will go to heaven”?  Or do we mean, “I am ready to change my life entirely and do my best to do what I believe Jesus would have me do in every situation.”?    What does it mean to accept Jesus the Christ as King, the kind of King that Daniel saw in his vision?   

It means that we will put Christ’s law before the laws of the land.  It means that we will seek justice for all persons. It means that we will treat other humans with love and compassion.  It means that we will seek to determine what it is that Jesus would have us do.  It means that we will listen for his voice in the scriptures, in the voices of others, and in the silence.   

The Good News, my brothers and sisters, is that we can choose to accept Christ as King over and over again.  We can fall short, and receive forgiveness.  For the Christ, the King of the world, is a merciful and grace-filled king, whose throne comes from a God whose steadfast love endures forever.   As the people of God, let us rejoice in the reign of Christ.  Let us stand and sing together “Rejoice, the Lord is King!” 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Imitating the Lord

Scripture Psalm 146 NRSV   

1 Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
2 I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
    I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
3 Do not put your trust in princes,
    in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
    on that very day their plans perish.
5 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God,
6 who made heaven and earth,
    the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
7  who executes justice for the oppressed;
    who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
8  the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
    the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the strangers;
    he upholds the orphan and the widow,
    but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10 The Lord will reign forever,
    your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!


It has been a difficult, extremely emotional week even for someone like me who does not watch TV news, so I have not been bombarded with images of the fires and the aftermath of the shooting.  But I do follow print media, and the various newspapers I read keep sending updates and breaking news headlines.   13 dead in a mass shooting.  At least 25 dead in fires.  Paradise is lost.   So yesterday I was at an anti-racism training and toward the end someone said how hard it was going to be to preach hope today with all the terrible things happening.  Someone else pointed out that today the Gospel reading is the story of the widow’s mite.  Our trainer, Sandhya Jha, said “Not me!  I’m preaching on Psalm 146!  That’s going to be hard.”  And I agreed, because that’s what I had chosen, too.  Many of you know that I select the scripture reading weeks or even months in advance.  Back when I chose to do a series on Gratitude in November, and selected the scriptures to preach on, I had no way of knowing what this month was going to be like.   The scripture reading I’m preaching on says “Praise the Lord!” and I sat at my computer feeling more like, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

And yet - you know that gratitude list I do every day?  Ok, almost every day?  A friend sent me a text yesterday saying “I found out yesterday that I have termites. I was really frustrated. Then saw the news about Paradise. I'm grateful to have a home to have termites.”   And then she began looking for ways she could help the victims of the fires.   Gratitude tends to make us want to do something to express that gratitude.  And in case you missed the announcements - Donations to Week of Compassion for “fires in California” or gift cards in any amount will be helpful.  Some congregations are making hygiene kits to send.   First Christian Church in Chico is an evacuation center and will be happy for any help they can get. 

If I were to give today’s message its full title, instead of what will fit on the top of my blog page, it would be “Ways we show our gratitude to God Part 2:  Imitating the Lord.”   I was kind of thinking along the lines of imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, and flattery is what we do when we find someone attractive in one way or another.  So if we are really attracted to the work of Father Greg Boyle in LA, we might go out and work with gang members.  Or if we are really attracted to the work of Rev. William Barber we might join the Poor Peoples Campaign.  Some of you all worked on political campaigns over the last weeks because you admired a particular person’s stance on issues that are important to you. People who have overcome addictions often work with addicts to help others the way they were helped - showing   So if we are to imitate God because we are grateful for all that, then this is what we have to do:

execute justice for the oppressed;
give food to the hungry.
set the prisoners free;
open the eyes of the blind.
lift up those who are bowed down;
love the righteous.
watch over the strangers;
uphold the orphan and the widow,
bring to ruin the way of the wicked.

Some of those seem pretty easy.  We do feed the hungry at the SMART Center and at Christian Cafe.   We try to help those who are down.  We donate money to  causes that will help the poor.  We collect tomatoes for Selma Cares - to feed families - and hygiene products for the patients in the Selma Convalescent Hospital, who have very little indeed.  We do what we can.  But there are other things we can do, things that aren’t quite so linear as feeding the hungry or singing money to help widows and orphans.  Opening the eyes of the blind, for example, means more than just fixing someone’s eyes.

Ian David Long was 28 years old.  A Marine Corps veteran who had served in Afghanistan.  On Wednesday night he walked up to a bar in Thousand Oaks, California and shot the security guard at the door, then the woman working the desk inside the bar, then 10 more people including a deputy who responded to the call. Then himself.   And the news told us the police went to his house a couple of months back because he was acting out, but not so badly that he had to be sent for psychiatric evaluation.  Some people said, “I don’t understand.  He was such a nice guy.” while others said, “Yeah, he was trouble in high school.”  Some said, ‘Well, obviously he had PTSD and it made him crazy.”  But Thomas Burke, a pastor who served with Long in the same US Marine Corps regiment, which had experienced heavy fighting during their tours of duty, warned against too quickly blaming Long's actions on trauma experienced during war.  "PTSD doesn't create homicidal ideation," Burke said. "We train a generation to be as violent as possible, then we expect them to come home and be OK. It's not mental illness. It's that we're doing something to a generation, and we're not responding to the needs they have.”    (

It’s not mental illness.  It is something we are doing to a generation . . . and we have done it to every generation who has gone to war for us.  We take perfectly nice young people, turn them into killing machines, and ask them to forget all that when they get back without any kind of help at all from the people who trained them in the first place.  I mean, when we “rescue” people from cults there are folks who specialize in de-programming them, so we know it can be done.   If we are to imitate God, we will open the eyes of those who are blind to what’s happening.  We will free the prisoners from the programming that they have been subjected to.  There are agencies trying to help, but so much more is needed.   We celebrate our Veterans one day a year, but how much do we really do to return them to the way they were before, before they were taught to forget about loving each other?  If we are to imitate God, we will find a way to change that. We will lift up our voices to bring to ruin the ways of the wicked until these, our veterans, receive the care they need.  Because it is wicked to take all these nice young people, change them, and then turn them loose to try to make their way back to normalcy on their own.  And if we are not part of the solution, then we are responsible for the problem.

Similarly, in the anti-racism training yesterday, we looked at the various ways even our church by-laws are upholding systemic racism or classism, yet most of us were completely blind to that.  I can tell you, it was not a comfortable feeling to  become aware that white supremacy is alive and well even in the founding documents of our churches.   

If we are truly grateful for what we have received from God, we will imitate the ways of our Lord.  Imitating Christ is not easy.  He did, after all, poke the bear.  He challenged the powers that be to see themselves clearly.  Worse, he spoke revolutionary ideas to the masses and challenged them to see the powers that be clearly.  He looked at the way things were, and saw the way things could be.   If we would imitate our Lord, we would do these things too.  I can pretty much promise that will upset some folks.   Trust me, the clergy folks sitting around looking at our congregational by-laws and the founding documents of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) were quite upset at what we were seeing.   We must take off the blinders.  We must speak truth to power - even to ourselves! - because we, ourselves, are the oppressors when we abide by  documents that relegate some to lesser participation in Christ’s family.

If we are grateful, we will imitate our Lord, whose second greatest commandment was to love our neighbors - all our neighbors - as we love ourselves. The victims and the shooters.  The rabble rousers and the oppressors.  The military/industrial complex and the veterans.  Our Lord commanded us to love everyone, just as he, himself, rejected no one.  All are welcome to come to our Lord.  All are welcome to give themselves to him.  All are offered a place at his table.   It is for us to reach out and make sure that offer of unconditional love, is made known to all.