Sunday, July 15, 2018

But I promised!


Scripture   Mark 6:14-29

6:14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.”  15 But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”  16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised."

6:17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.

6:21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23 And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24 She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer.” 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.

6:27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.  29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.


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If you remember from last week, Jesus had been going around the countryside preaching, teaching, healing the sick, casting out demons, even raising the dead.   And King Herod heard about it.  So this part of the story is a flashback.  Because Herod, hearing about Jesus’ works of power, is looking back over what he has done and getting a bit scared about consequences.    “Oh no.  This must be John the Baptizer, raised from the dead.”   Not a zombie.   But the actual person, returned to life by God.  And he was totally worried, because he had done something that he knew at the time he did it was a serious mistake.  He had made an open ended promise.

If we were watching a movie or reading a book, and one character said to another, “I will do this thing for you, but sometime in the future you will owe me a favor.” we would be jumping up and down saying, “Don’t do it!  It’s a trap!”   Part of the reason we feel that way is because of this story.   Herod made a very unwise promise, because he really wasn’t thinking of all the possibilities.   I mean, realistically, what would a typical young woman of the time ask for?   A new chariot, clothes, jewels, a handsome husband.  You know.  Stuff.  The kind of stuff a wealthy king could easily provide.  But Salome wasn’t a typical young woman.  

Salome was the daughter of Herodias and her first husband Herod II, son of Herod the Great (the King Herod from the stories about Jesus’ birth) and half-brother of Herod Antipas, (the King Herod in this story).   So, Salome was both Herod’s niece and his step-daughter.  When she married Herod II, he was in line for the throne.  But his mother had been involved in a plot to poison Herod the Great, so she was executed and her son was kicked out of the succession.  Our Herod was next in line.   The two met and fell in love in Rome, where Herod was getting the Emperor’s approval to take the throne.  Because, you know, Rome pretty much owned the world, so no one could inherit a throne without the Emperor’s approval.  While in Rome Herod and Herodias both divorced their current spouses and married.  This all made the Roman Emperor happy, but did not endear Herod to his people, the Jews of Galilee.  And John preached loudly against this breaking of the Law, because Herodias remarried while her previous husband was still alive.  Anyway . . .  So, Salome had been raised in households filled with political intrigue.  Instead of asking for those things that make a typical young woman’s heart sing (like shoes!), she thought in terms of political power, and asked her mother what would be the best request.   And her mother, who really did not like the things John said about her, asked for his head on a platter.

Sometimes, like Herod, we promise things unwisely.  And then his pride wouldn’t allow him to go back on that promise in front of all his guests.   His wife knew that, and took advantage of his pride - his weakness.   He might have backed out if he hadn’t had a house full of people - diplomats and merchants, wealthy nobles, probably some Romans.  People he had to impress, because if word got back to the Emperor that he was wishy-washy, his life could be over.  Literally.  

That usually isn’t the case with us.   Pride, yes.  Wanting to impress others.  Yes.   Being in fear for our lives if we don’t keep our promise.  Probably not.   But keeping a promise when it goes against your principles and/or your beliefs, that’s not good.  And that is what Herod did.  If ever a promise should have been broken, this is one.  Because he enjoyed his conversations with John.  He knew John was a holy and righteous man.  He really didn’t want to kill him.  But because he made a promise in front of all his guests, he did a thing he knew was wrong, a thing he didn’t even want to do.  

We tend to think that the worst thing we can do is promise something we don’t intend to do.  I used to do that all the time.  I would find myself in some sort of trouble and say, “Oh God, if you just get me out of this one I swear I will never do it again.”   And I pretty much always did it again.  Haven’t had to do that in a long time, for which I am grateful daily.

What is worse is to swear by God’s name that a lie is true.  That one even has a commandment against it.  “You shall not take the Lord your God’s name in vain” means you will not use God’s name to swear to a lie.   So perjury, lying under oath in court, has pretty significant consequences.  Our Quaker brothers and sisters will not swear by God’s name, ever, because they believe that if they swear to something and it turns out that they are mistaken in what they have said, in what they believed to be true, that would be acting against the commandment.  So they will affirm their word in court or when taking an oath of office, but they will not swear on a Bible.    

But worst of all is to make and keep a promise that goes against our ethics and our faith.  These are the promises that should be broken.  Even the oath taken by soldiers specifies they are required to disobey an order, if they are ordered to commit a crime.  “I was just obeying orders.” turns out not to have been a good defense for soldiers who have been convicted of war crimes - like Pfc. Lynndie England in Iraq and Lt. William Calley in Vietnam.  

The most important promise to keep is the one we made to God at the time of our baptism - our promise to renounce evil.   This is greater than any other promise we might make at any time.     It is the one to which we are bound at all times, in every thing we do.   We are sworn to make a determination whether any given thing we might do or say is good or evil, and then to avoid - renounce - the evil, and do the good.    Any word or action that would cause another person to suffer needlessly is most likely evil.  Any word or action that would cause someone to be treated unjustly is most likely evil.  Things like racism, sexism, ageism, homophobism - these are among the many evils to be renounced - in ourselves and in our society.  When we hear people hating on other people, or bullying other people, we need to renounce it.  When we see people treating others unfairly or unjustly for no reason other than skin color or accent, or religion, or perceived orientation, we need to renounce it.  We need always renounce evil when we become aware of it, so that we may be true to the promise we have made to God and to each other.

It is easier to be silent, and not to speak out against evil.  But the promise we each made at our baptism is to renounce evil, to be true to God and to one another.  This takes courage and strength.  It takes determination and faith.  

So when we go from this place let us go filled with strength and courage to do the right thing, always.  Let us go out and be true to the Lord our God, and to our faith.  Let us go out remembering the promise we have made,  in Jesus’ name.   Amen.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Two by Two


Scripture  Mark 6:1-13

6:1 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 6:2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 6:3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him.

6:4 Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 6:5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6:6 And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching.

6:7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 6:8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 6:9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 6:10 He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 6:11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 

6:12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 6:13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

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This really seems like two separate stories, deserving of two separate messages.   And yet, maybe not.   Maybe they do work together.  Let’s see.  

Familiarity breeds contempt.  We all know that one.  Maybe we have experienced it.   In seminary one of the things we were cautioned against ever doing was go back to the church that sent us out as their pastor.  And this passage was used as the reason for that advice.  “It will be hard for them to respect you as their pastor if they remember changing your diapers.  Even if you haven’t been there your entire life, they remember when you left for college, and they heard your first (terrible) sermons.  They aren’t going to appreciate your growth any more than your mother appreciates you are a fully grown, independent adult.  Even Jesus couldn’t go home again.”   Naturally, a few of my classmates and friends decided this sage advice did not apply to them.   I probably don’t have to tell you that 100% of them crashed and burned, and left their home church for their next call sadder and wiser.   The thing about those old sayings, and proverbs and such, is that they pretty much tend to be true.  That’s why they keep being repeated.  

So Jesus has been preaching and doing all kinds of signs and wonders, and healing the sick and casting out demons.  Everywhere, crowds gather to hear him.   Everyone who comes to him for healing goes away well.  He even brought a girl back to life, and healed a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years!  He commanded a storm on the sea to stop, and it did!  Then he goes back to his home congregation in Galilee and preaches, and the folks from his hometown are all like, “Uh, isn’t this Jesus?  We know Jesus.  He’s the carpenter’s kid.  His brothers and sisters are sitting right over there!  He never went to study the Law, so how can he possibly know what he’s talking about?  We never saw him cure anybody, so these must be stories he’s telling to make himself seem like somebody.  We notice he’s still on foot, wearing ordinary clothes, all dusty and everything.  And all these guys with him are no better than he is - fisherman and such.  Why would we listen to him?”   And he can’t heal anyone in that place, except for just a few sick people.  Because no one had faith in him.  No one believed he had the power.   They knew him too well, you see.  And when you think you know someone, it’s hard to change your mind about what you think you know.  Familiarity breeds contempt.  

So he left that place, and went to teach in the villages around there.  But because   he loved his home, and he knew they needed to hear the Good News as much as anyone else, he sent his disciples out to teach the folks who wouldn’t listen to him.    He sent them out two by two.  He told them not to take anything with them.   If people wanted to hear their message, they would be fed and sheltered.  And if people didn’t want to hear them, they should go on to the next place.  Not push themselves or the Gospel on people with closed minds.  Not insist that people had to listen to them.  Just go on to the next place, where they might get a better reception.  And so they did.  They proclaimed the Good News of God’s forgiveness, and that everyone must repent of their sins to be reconciled with God.   They laid their hands on the demon afflicted and cast out the demons.  They anointed the sick with oil and made them well.  All the things that Jesus could not do in that place, others - strangers - could.  

Go out in pairs.  Preach repentance.  Cast out evil.  Lay healing hands upon the sick.  Pray for spiritual and emotional wellness in those  you meet.  And if they don’t want to listen to you, don’t push it.  Don’t insist they must listen.  Go away, and pray that someone else will be able to get through.  

There’s a lot of focus on doing things in pairs in scripture.  God created humans as a pair.  Noah rescued animals in pairs.  Even Moses was given Aaron as a helper.  Only the greatest prophets went out by themselves to speak God’s truth to the people and do deeds of power - Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah.  In the New Testament, also, the apostles and evangelists typically went around two by two.   And those who didn’t often landed in serious trouble.  Again, the martyrdom of Stephen comes to mind.  As far as we know, he was alone out there, preaching to people who did not want to hear it.  Which is not what Jesus told his disciples to do.  Go in pairs.  If they don’t want to hear you, leave.  Even Paul always had companions with him.  We aren’t given specific reasons for doing things two by two, but sometimes we hear hints of those reasons in Paul’s letters.  If two people are together preaching the Good News, maybe they won’t wander off into questionable theology as they might were they alone and unchecked.  In his letters, Paul often cautions his churches against individuals who come behind him and preach and bring different understandings of who Jesus is and what it means to be Church.  And of course, there’s safety in numbers.   

Going out in pairs and groups is still a matter of safety.   One person alone with no witnesses as to what occurred in private, might be accused of crossing boundaries.  And that’s a big deal, especially in this time when people are becoming more willing to say, “Me, Too”.  As a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) I am required to take classes every  year about boundary issues of all kinds - sexual, social media, financial, cultural sensitivity, racism - to help keep any of these things from becoming an issue here. This is why I don’t want anything to do with the church’s money.   And it’s why my office door stays open, why I very rarely meet privately with anyone I don’t know really well unless others are nearby.   In many congregations, pastor and elders alike are encouraged to visit in pairs, not alone.   For when there are two or more together, even if one of them is misunderstood, the other is there to witness what actually happened.  It keeps both the visitor and the person being visited safe.  We are the Church.  The safety of everyone we come in contact with - physical, emotional, and spiritual - is important.  Far too many have been abused in one way or another by their church - by their pastor or by others in the congregation - and that should never happen.  But when it does happen, it should not be tolerated.    

We are Christ’s disciples, sent out to heal, and to carry the Good News.  We know that there are many who have contempt for the church, because what they know of Church is that they have been hurt, or people they love have been hurt.  If we are to heal those people, we need to be able to demonstrate that we are not the thing they are familiar with, that they are contemptuous of.  We need to be able to show them not just by our words, but by the way we live our lives, that we have faith that the God who created them, and us, loves each person equally.    If we are to carry the Good News to them, we need to be able to show that we also love them, as we love ourselves.  That we believe God can heal them of the injuries that have been done to them, of the heartsickness that afflicts them, if they will let Him.  When we go out from this place, let us be the Good News.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

Matching Gifts


Scripture   2 Corinthians 8:7-15   

8:7 Now as you excel in everything--in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you--so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.  I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

10 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.  For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has--not according to what one does not have.

13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.  As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little."

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It was about the year 50.  The church in Jerusalem was experiencing extreme persecution.   Many had scattered, getting far away from the city, but others remained.  We don’t know for sure what it was like, but we can assume that life was pretty difficult for Christians in Jerusalem.  If they were known to be Christ-followers they were considered blasphemers, and in Jerusalem, blasphemy could get you stoned to death.  The Church was kind of underground at that point, and known Christians needed to keep their heads down, because those who didn’t  - well, the martyrdom of Stephen comes to mind.   Christians in Jerusalem were living in poverty, and Paul wanted his churches in Asia to help.   Even though they were far away from Jerusalem - some 1,250 miles, about a 3 month walk - Paul wanted the Christians in Corinth and in the other cities where he had started churches, to take up collections for the poor of Jerusalem which he would then deliver.     He didn’t say, “Let’s go to the Dollar Tree and gather things they will need because they are poor.”  He didn’t say, “Gather up your extra stuff and give it to me so I can take it to them.”   He didn’t say, “Make a collection of all the non-perishable food items you can find, and I will make sure they get food.”  He didn’t even say, “Let us send our brothers and sisters in Jerusalem our thoughts and prayers.”  He said, “Give money.  There is a great need for money.” 

He said, don’t give so much as to impoverish yourself.  Because then they would have to take up a collection for you, and that’s pretty much not what we are aiming for.  But give what you can afford, over and above what you are already giving to your congregation.  If you are eager to give, and I know you are eager to give,  let your giving match your eagerness, out of what you have, not out of what you do not have.   Let your giving match your eagerness . . . let your eagerness to help and your money be matching gifts.  

No one told Paul he had to take up a collection for Jerusalem.  He didn’t get a directive from the church leaders back in Jerusalem.  He just thought it would be the right thing to do. Maybe because he had been an instrument of their persecution himself at one time.  Although that would really only be a compelling reason for him to give personally, and not applicable to all the Asian churches.  According to some scholars, the idea of the Gentiles supporting the Jewish Christians, the people who had sent Paul to them in the first place, not as clients, but as equals in God’s eyes, was pretty radical.  In those days, gifts tended to be either sort of required tribute from client to patron or rewards from patron to client - both of which would be made very pubic.  The idea of sending a gift without expectation of reward or some concrete sign of approval was totally counter cultural.  Sort of like Job’s faith in our message last week.  He freely gave God the gift of his faith even without reward, even when everything was going wrong - which is not at all what was expected of him - except by God, of course.  God expected this, because God knew Job’s heart.  He accepted Job’s faith as an act of worship.  

In Paul’s mind, the act of giving is an act of worship.  When you give, when you help someone who needs your help, then you are worshiping God.  The offering we receive on Sundays is not simply one of the many ritual things we do during worship, like lighting candles and singing.  According to Paul it is one of the necessary aspects of worshipping God, a heartfelt human response to God’s grace and blessing.

A heartfelt human response to God’s grace and blessing.  It is what happens in your heart when you hear of a family losing everything in a fire, or a city being destroyed by a hurricane, and you say, “How can I help?”  Even if you don’t have much yourself, you still want to know, “How can I help?”

If you are on Facebook you may have seen a post about financial difficulties in this church.  Just so you know, this week the budget team met, and said  “We have no savings left.   Sunday offerings are lower than we had hoped.  Payday is Friday, and we can’t pay our staff. And even if we come up with the money for this paycheck, we won’t make the next one.  What shall we do?”    We started throwing ideas around of ways to raise money and ways to save money.  If we have your email address you’ll get an email soon with the list of fundraising ideas and a request to either help out with one or more of those, or to give us your ideas.   A list of recommendations will be given to the Board at the next meeting which include some staff cuts.  If the Board agrees, two paid positions will become volunteer positions, and two will have their hours cut in half.  If you are on Facebook, you may have already heard some of this.   Meanwhile, this payday, one person declined their paycheck, and two others are holding theirs until after today’s offering is deposited in the bank.   

So can we talk about churches going through difficult times?  Can we talk seriously about money without y’all going all, “They only ever ask us for money” on me?   One of the reasons that we are in the current situation is that maybe we don’t ask for money as intentionally as we should.   Yes, we have a stewardship moment every Sunday, and I spend all of October preaching about stewardship, and all those messages usually goes something like “It is good to give of your time and talents and money.”   And it is good to give of your time and talents.  Most of the work of the Church is done by volunteers - people who give of their time and energy and creativity to feed the hungry, rescue dogs, help the homeless, decorate the sanctuary, take care of church business by serving on Boards and committees, praying with those who need prayer, visiting the sick, teaching our children, taking meals to shut ins, singing in the choir, presiding at worship, repairing things that need to be repaired . . . all of the oh so many things that are part of the mission and ministry of the church are done by people who give unstintingly of their time and abilities.  We use supplies which can be donated by anyone - copy paper and toilet paper and soaps and candles.  

If we were a house church, like the churches in Corinth and Antioch and Rome and Jerusalem, that would be all we needed - time and talents and some donated items.   But we’re not a house church.  I don’t know anyone in this congregation with a house big enough to fit all of us on a Sunday.  So we have a big, beautiful building.  And along with that building come PG&E and CalWater and Waste Management and property taxes and insurance and business licenses . . . and salaries.   And those things require cash money.   PG&E doesn’t barter.  CalWater does not accept thoughts and prayers.  Donations of food won’t pay my student loans.  There is a great need for money.

We, as a congregation, are facing some hard times and hard questions.   We want to build a new building - a wonderful new building where everyone will be able to come in and worship, where we can open our doors to all kinds of people and help agencies, where we can truly be Christ’s hands and feet, making the Good News more accessible to everyone.  But first, we have to get through our current difficulties, and finding the best way to do that may be harder than we like.  There will almost certainly be sacrifices to be made. So we need to pray, all of us, for discernment going forward.

One of the things I have said before - and that Paul said way before me - is that your giving should not make it harder for you to pay your own bills, and buy your own food.  Some of you really don’t have any money to give.  Again I say, you can only give out of what you have, not out of what you don’t have.  Let your eagerness to help go toward helping out at fundraisers, or encouraging others.  The time will come when you can, and that is all we can ask.

But if you can increase your giving by even one dollar a week - that one dollar really would make a difference.  It’s a roll of stamps or a case of copy paper.  If you typically give only when you attend and you aren’t going to be here one week, consider putting aside the money you would give if you were here, and bring it with you next time.  Consider making your church offering part of your monthly bills - and when you write the check or money order or whatever for PG&E, write one for First Christian Church at the same time.   Whatever you give, let your eagerness to help match your giving, so that your gift is an act of worship, a heartfelt response to God’s grace.  Let your eagerness to help and your money be matching gifts.  

My brothers and sisters, never forget that everything we have belongs to God.  The gifts and talents that we use when we volunteer to do God’s work in the world come from God.  The education and abilities that we use to earn the money to live on come from God.   Even the faith that we have, that all will be well, that with God all things are possible - even our faith comes as a gift from God.  So when we give, no matter what we give, we are simply giving back what already belongs to God.   Let us stand and sing together, We Give Thee But Thine Own.


Sunday, June 24, 2018

Who do you think you are?



Scripture Job 38:1-11

38:1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
38:2 "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  38:3 Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
38:4 "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.

38:5 Who determined its measurements--surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?  38:6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone  38:7 when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?  38:8 "Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?—  38:9 when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band,  38:10 and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors,  38:11 and said, 'Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped'?

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When everything was going wrong - I’d lost my job, I was getting evicted, I had no where to go - I cried out to God and said, “Why me?  What have I done wrong this time?  I’m really trying to do all the right things.”  People said to me, “Read these very uplifting Psalms.  They will help.”  So I tried that, and the nice uplifting Psalms people suggested just made me more angry and more upset.  I wasn’t in the mood to listen to people saying how wonderful God was when I was in the depths of depression and despair.   I told my pastor and she said, “Read Job.”   So I did.  And OMG - Job was exactly what I needed.  I mean, compared to Job, I was doing very well indeed.  My problems were nothing, compared to his.

All those terrible things happened to him.  He lost everything - worldly possessions, family, health - even though he hadn’t done anything wrong.  And his friends all decided he must have been guilty of something or all these awful things wouldn’t be happening to him. They, of course, had no way of knowing that this was a test - because Satan didn’t think anyone would remain faithful to God unless they received rewards for their fidelity.   He was wrong.   In chapter 26, Job had finally had enough of his friends’ assumption that he must be guilty of something and he began to defend himself.  He listed all the possible sins and his innocence of each and every one.  He boasted of his generosity to the poor, of his care for the oppressed and the afflicted.  He spoke proudly of his devotion God and to his family.  When he finished (6 chapters later), having made it pretty clear that he believed himself to be totally righteous and blameless in every way, and never, by the way, blaming God in any way for his current situation, his friends had nothing to say, but another man, a younger one named Eliju, did.  He had sat there silently, listening respectfully, as his elders spoke, but when they were silent in the face of Job’s words, he called Job to account for having such pride in his own righteousness, exalting himself instead of God.  

And when Eliju was done God spoke, out of a whirlwind that suddenly appeared before the men, saying:
Just who do you think you are, Job?   You think you know so much about me and what I will and won’t  and can and can’t do  . . tell me, how did I contain the oceans?   And where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?   Was it you who caused the stars to sing, and the residents of heaven to shout out with joy?    I don’t think so.   You sit here bragging about your righteousness, about how good you are, about your obedience to the Law, as if it’s a big deal, somehow.  You brag about how faithful you are to me, your God, and I appreciate your fidelity, I really do, but let me tell you something, Job.  You are only doing what everyone is supposed to do - you are not all that and a bag of chips.    

There has been a great deal of uproar lately over the separation of children from their families when the family has been caught crossing our southern border illegally.   There have been demonstrations resulting in many arrests, including a number of my friends and colleagues here in the Northern California region and around the country.  There have been horrible things said on Facebook and other social media, and lots of “fake news” coming from both directions.  The cages holding children we have seen pictured are not in use by Immigration anywhere - they were pictures taken at a demonstration and then mis-used on Facebook.  The 2,000+ children being held in detention facilities have not all been kidnapped to help criminals cross the border.  Anyone trying to point out a middle path in the argument gets attacked from both sides of the issue - as has happened to me.  I have been called a hate monger from the right and a defender of immorality from the left, mainly because people made assumptions not backed up by the actual words I used.  This, by the way, is why I mostly just post cat pictures.  The middle position is rarely appreciated.  Both sides are happy to use scripture to make their points.   And I find myself wondering where “love one another”  fits in.  

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a lifetime United Methodist, a Sunday School teacher and leader in his local United Methodist congregation, and some years back even a delegate to the General Conference.  This week over 600 United Methodist clergy and laypersons have signed a letter charging him with: child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination, for his implementation of these policies, and “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the standards of doctrine of the United Methodist Church” for his citation of Romans 13.   I will point out that it is usually a bad idea to use one sentence which appears one time in one of Paul’s letters to defend anything. This is called proof texting and has been used to defend everything from slavery to the internment of the Japanese to jailing people for being gay.  It is an especially bad idea if you happen to be a Sunday School teacher, because you should know better.  For although Paul did say “obey your government” once (and not without some limitations as to what that obedience entailed), God said ‘take care of the widow and orphan and alien among you” repeatedly.  

Deuteronomy 27:19 says “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”

Jeremiah 22:3 Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.  
Exodus 22:21 You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

And yes, there is a difference between a resident alien and someone just arriving.   I think that detail may have been overlooked by some.  

Regardless - I believe it is wrong to separate children from their parents.  I have seen what happens to children here in the US who are removed from their parents and end up in the system for whatever reason.  Most of them end up in much better situations than those the immigrant children are living in right now. But no matter how good the living situation in foster care or whatever, they are still adversely affected by that separation for the rest of their lives.   I don’t have any solutions.  I’m not really sure why families without documentation can’t simply be returned back over the border when they are caught.  I’m not sure why the courts decided that it was unlawful to detain families together, as they did when the previous administration implemented that particular policy.  I’m certain  there are reasons I don’t understand, and may never understand.  I’m not sure what the absolute right way to go forward might be - right for the people seeking a new life, and right for the United States.  I’m simply going to pray for a solution that doesn’t include lifetime psychological and spiritual damage to the children involved.  And that doesn’t force women and children to return to situations where their lives are at risk daily.  I’m going to continue writing letters asking our leaders to find that solution - quickly.  

One thing I am sure of is that God will walk with us toward the solution, if we let him.  If we don’t decide we know more than God does. If we don’t decide that God loves some of us more than others.   If we don’t draw a line in the sand that makes coming together to find the best way forward impossible.   I am afraid we are really close to that point - the point where conversation is impossible, where listening to one another is impossible, where we have no interest in anything but defending our own rightness and our own righteousness . .  like Job.   And we know what God said to Job.  

I believe that we will find a solution if we work together, if we use our eyes and hearts to see Jesus in every person - not just the people we love, not just the immigrant children and their families, not just the people who agree with us.  But also those with whom we disagree, especially those in leadership, who themselves may well be hurting in these situations but see no other way forward.  We do not know what is in the hearts of others, but we do know that our Lord is present in each and every one of us.  

My brothers and sisters, please stand with me and sing:  "Open Our Eyes, Lord"  
Open our eyes, Lord. We want to see Jesus
to reach out and touch him, and say that we love him.
Open our ears, Lord, and help us to listen.
Open our eyes, Lord.  We want to see Jesus.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

I didn't do it!


Genesis 3:8-15 NRSV

3:8 They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.  3:9 But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?"

10 He said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself."

11 He said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?"

12 The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate."

3:13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent tricked me, and I ate."

3:14 The LORD God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.  3:15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel."

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When I was little, I was the good girl.  Not because I was so well behaved, but because I was really pretty good at getting my sister to do the thing.  For example, when I wanted a cookie I would talk my little sister into climbing up on the counter to get to the cabinet where Mother hid the cookies.  We invariably got caught - we weren’t exactly cat burglars - and my mother would be quite sure that I was involved, but it was always Patty who literally had her hand in the cookie jar.  Sometimes we would just try to look innocent when Mother discovered some mischief or other - like the time she walked into the kitchen and we were both covered in flour - but that pretty much never worked, because she knew us.  She knew that bag of flour didn’t just fall off the counter while she was on the phone.  Sometimes we hid, because we knew we were going to be in trouble, but she always found us.  And if one of us tattled on the other, that one got punished for tattling while the other got punished for the thing, so it didn’t really do a whole lot of good to try to blame each other for whatever.   

In today’s passage, God says, “Why did you do this?”  Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake.  “It wasn’t me - I didn’t do it! It was their fault.”  Well, Adam, yes.  You did do it.  And Eve, you did it, too.  The snake talked you into it, but you still did it.   God had been hoping that these two would be obedient, and satisfied with everything they already had.  I mean, they were in Eden!  Food fell off trees into their hands.  Nothing threatened them.  There were no dangers.  Only beauty surrounded them.  All they had to do was avoid the fruit of one tree.  But they decided that listening to the snake was a good idea, and so they ate.  They did the one thing they were’t supposed to do.  And then, they didn’t want to take responsibility for their behavior.  They wanted to shift the blame onto someone else.  So Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the snake.  And God punished them all - because they were all responsible.

A lot of bad theology has come out of this passage.  When I was growing up I was taught that women are inherently sinful - more sinful than men - because Eve was the first sinner and she tempted her husband to sin along with her.   He would have been fine if she hadn’t tempted him, so Adam’s sin is all Eve’s fault.  There’s a problem with this way of thinking.  For one thing, it takes all the responsibility away from Adam.  For another, this way of thinking allows people to  blame the victim in crimes such as rape.  “She must have tempted him somehow.  It’s the woman’s fault. It’s always the woman’s fault.”  The man’s unacceptable behavior is overlooked, while the woman has to defend herself.  We are still dealing with this in our justice system and in the way we talk about victims of abuse and sexual assault. It is changing, slowly, but we are still dealing with it. That is not what happens in this passage, mind you.  But it is a mind set that has arisen out of it.  

This passage is all about personal responsibility.    The snake said, “Hey, do this thing you aren’t allowed to do.” and they said, “Oh, ok.”  They could have said no.  They should have said no.  But they said yes, and then tried to put the blame for that first sin they committed somewhere else.  And I suspect that their punishment in part resulted from their second sin - the hiding and the blaming others.

And because they did this thing, because they ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we know the difference between those two things.   We know what is right and what is wrong.   We might not be born knowing these things, but we are taught the difference.  We learn from our families, from our teachers in school, and from church folks, what is the right way to live.  “Don’t bite your sister.”  (Yes, yes, I did.  While we were in the bathtub.  And I got spanked.  Never did it again.)  “Don’t take things that aren’t yours.”  “Be nice to other people.”   “Help others.”  

Zoe Thompson, you are about to be baptized.  As of today this knowledge of Good and Evil will become even more important to you.   In a few minutes I am going to ask you if you repent, really repent, of all the things you have done so far that you are not supposed to do.  I am going to ask you if you will renounce evil - if you will say no when someone wants you to do something that you know is wrong.  From this day forward, you are responsible for keeping those promises. From this day forward, you will be responsible for your own behavior - not blaming anyone else, but taking full responsibility for every thing that you do.   
Baptism doesn’t change us into different people.   It doesn’t make us perfect.  It doesn’t take away  What it is, is a commitment to do the right, be like Jesus as best we can, and take responsibility for actions.    We’re not going to be perfect, because we are human and we are prone to error. We are going to do things that are wrong, even things that we know are wrong.  And we will be forgiven - as long as we are honest with God, confessing whatever we have done wrong and making amends for our mistakes. 

Today, Zoe, you are making a commitment to God, to  yourself, and to this congregation, to be a Christian in every way - to dedicate yourself to Jesus and to the love of all of your brothers and sisters.  Today you become an adult in God’s eyes, and in the eyes of the church, for you are taking the biggest, most important step that we, Disciples of Christ, ever take - you are stepping into that baptistry a child and coming back out of the water a Christian, dedicated to living your life in Christ from today forward.   Come with me now, to prepare for your baptism, while the congregation sings “Standing in the Need of Prayer” from their hymnals page 579.

 (Disciples of Christ baptize by immersion.  A video of Zoe's baptism may be available on selmadisciples.com. later today.)

Sunday, June 3, 2018

But I'm too busy!



Deuteronomy 5:12-15 NRSV

5:12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. 

5:13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  5:14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 

5:15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.


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Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you.    

We know that observing the Sabbath day is important.  Our very first example of Sabbath observance comes in the book of Genesis, when “God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.”  We really do think that Sabbath is important.   And yet, we don’t really observe it.  So, let’s talk about keeping Sabbath.

Sabbath (Shabbat in Hebrew) is Saturday, the seventh day of the week.   The Jewish people were really serious about doing no work on the Sabbath - many still are.  Even today rabbis continue to study and determine which things are and are no the kind of work one may not do on Shabbat.  Turning on electric lights, for example, is like lighting a flame, so that may not be done.  Putting in false teeth is still being debated.  (Leaving them in overnight is the preferred option.) There have been times when I was talking with my orthodox Jewish friend in Jerusalem early on a Friday morning and he will suddenly say, “I have to get off the phone.  Shabbat begins in 5 minutes.” Which means it’s about to be sunset in Jerusalem and he has to make sure whatever lights need to be turned on are on before the sun goes down, and that computers, phones and tv are all turned off.  His wife will have all the cooking for Friday night and Saturday done before sunset.  Saturday morning, he and his family will walk to shul (synagogue), which is no further than 2,000 steps or 2/3 mile from their home.  When they get back home, they might read Torah or play games with the children, but none that require work, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle or writing down scores.  They are serious about observing Sabbath.  

We don’t actually observe the Sabbath.  Rather, we worship on Sunday, which is called the Lord’s Day, because it is the day the women came and found the tomb empty - the day of the resurrection.  The earliest disciples went to Temple on the Sabbath, and gathered together on the 1st day, the Lord’s Day, to learn about Jesus and share a meal.  As the decades passed and more Gentiles joined the church, it simply became the norm for Christians to worship on the Lord’s Day.  So worship day and Sabbath aren’t really the same thing for most Christians - although our Seventh Day Adventist brothers and sisters do worship on the actual Sabbath.    What has happened, though, is we have kind of shifted what we mean by Sabbath.   There are a lot of people who believe that Sunday is the Sabbath.  It’s not.  But it is the day we, Christians, worship God.

There was a time in this country, not all that long ago, when churches had morning and evening services and everyone went to both.  When Sunday was dedicated to worship and rest and family time, and the acceptable recreations for Sundays including reading edifying books, family dinners, and playing games.   Most stores and businesses weren’t open on Sundays, although many restaurants were.  I remember when 7-11 stores were the only places open on Sundays.  Today, of course, malls and stores are open on Sunday, kids soccer leagues play on Sundays, and of course, major league sports of all kinds fill the airways. And that is partly because fewer people actually go to church today than did, say, in the 1950s.  And it’s partly why fewer people go to church than they did, say, in the 1950s.  I both love and hate that malls and stores are open on Sundays, because it’s convenient for me (after worship), but it also means that in many cases, people who might want to be in worship today can’t be, because they have to work.   (That whole soccer thing . . . I have a friend, a pastor, married to another pastor, whose daughter played soccer on Sundays instead of going to church.  I know, right?  But there wasn’t any other day to play, and she was really good.)  

I get my hair done at Urban Cuts, the new barber shop over on High Street, and the owner is very proud of the fact that he works 7 days a week.  He goes to the gym most days, and works the shop from open to close.   He’s about to get busier because he’s opening a new shop in the Hanford Mall, and he’ll be running back and forth between the two.  I keep telling him he needs to take some time to himself.  He says “I’m too busy to take time off.”  He’s young and fit.  He can do it, but still.    Even God needed a day off!

For you students, the ones who are heading off to college or graduate school, or who have jobs lined up and are ready to begin your career . . . take some time for yourself.  And before you say, “I’m too busy to take time off!” . . . I get it, I do.  Because I’ve been in college and grad school and holding down jobs while studying and writing papers and serving a church and coming home to a husband to cook and clean for and all of that. I graduated from seminary on a Saturday, was ordained the next day, and was on my way to my first church two days after that.  I did not rest in between (because I don’t think driving across country is restful), so I know it’s not easy.  But even God needed a day off. 

So many of you, here in this room, as so busy that maybe the only restful time you get is the hour or so you spend here on Sundays.  You have jobs and family obligations and volunteer responsibilities.  You spend all of your time and energy taking care of others, and when I ask you about taking some time for yourself, you tell me, “Pastor, I’m too busy.  I just don’t have time to rest.” But dang, people.   Even God needed a day off!

And then there are my clergy brothers and sisters, who work in the Lord’s vineyard every day, from before sunrise until they are ready to drop at night.  There is so much to do, so many to minister to, hungry to feed, naked to clothe, prisoners to comfort, so much suffering to help with, so many who need to hear the word of God at the lowest times of their lives.  They work and they work, and they never rest.  I admire them greatly, but I also confront them about their own health and well being.  “Take some time off,”  I say.  “When do you rest?” I ask.  They say, “I can’t take a vacation.  I’m too busy to take off even a day!” And they  tell me they have to work all the time, because Satan never rests.   And they ask me, when I tell them I am taking a day off, or going on vacation, how I can take time away from the Lord’s work.  My answer to them is twofold.  One, if they’re taking the devil as their model they are looking in the wrong direction.  And two, even God needed a day off!  God told us to rest, to take time from our work, even church work.  

God said, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  5:14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.”  

It feels a bit awkward to read those words while acknowledging that I don’t follow this commandment, and that we would all probably find it way too difficult to spend an entire day every week doing no work, nor causing anyone else to work. (Like people working in stores and restaurants, for example - including internet shopping.)  I mean, I am the one who is supposed to tell you all to obey the Commandments.  But our world is so different today.  I know you don’t have a whole entire day to read the Bible and pray and meditate, listening for God’s words in response to your prayers.  I don’t have that, and those things are kind of in my job description.  But on my day off, like yours, there’s still laundry and shopping and doctor’s appointments and all of those other things to do.  (Of course, my friend in Jerusalem and many other Jews around the world, including the US, do manage it. . . )  

However, I can usually find an hour in my day.  Just one hour.  And maybe you can too.  And maybe during that hour you can take the One Hour Sabbath suggestion attached to your worship bulletin and do those things.  Christopher McCauley, who wrote that, is a spiritual director and was one of my teachers when I was studying Spiritual Direction.  I admire him greatly.   Keep in mind, though, that he is a contemplative.  His suggestions may not suit you.  And if they don’t, that’s ok.  Don’t try to do a form of Sabbath rest that isn’t restful for you.  If the suggestions there don’t work for you, maybe you can just turn everything off for an hour.  Read a book.  Go for a walk.  Play with your kids, or pets.  Do whatever brings you peace.  Whatever allows you to really rest.   Whatever allows you to find a closeness with God.  Take Sabbath time, keep it holy.  Don’t say, “I’m too busy.”  Because even God needed a day off.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Who will go?


Isaiah 6:1-8 NRSV

6:1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.  6:2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.  6:3 And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”   6:4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

6:5 And I said: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”  6:6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.  6:7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out."

6:8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!”
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Many are called - 

From 1940 until 1973, during both peacetime and periods of conflict, men were drafted to fill vacancies in the United States Armed Forces that could not be filled through voluntary means.  To put that in historical context, the draft began in August 1940, when America was not yet involved in the 1-year old Second World War, because President Roosevelt considered it a prudent step to train American men for military service, just in case.  It continued through the Korean War and ended in January, 1973, a few months before direct U.S. military involvement in Vietnam ended.  During that time period roughly 13,500,000 draftees entered the Armed Forces.  There were also many volunteers, many of them men who had received their draft notice and preferred to serve in a different branch of the military than the Army.   Many were called, indeed.  And most answered that call, serving with honor and distinction.   Today our military is once again all volunteers, men and women who have heard and answered the call to serve our nation in uniform.  However, registration for the Draft through Selective Service is still required of all men ages 18-25 - both citizens and immigrants living in the U.S.   This weekend, we honor those men and women who answered their nation’s call, and served and have died.  We remember them with dignity and with all the honor they deserve.  

People are called to all sorts of different work.  We often think of teachers, doctors, dentists, fire fighters, police, social workers, community organizers, and others whose lives are dedicated to helping others as having a calling, or vocation.  Ministers.  Even attorneys and politicians - I know.  I know all the jokes about attorneys and politicians.  But truthfully, many serve because they sincerely want to be of service to their community.   One young person I know went to law school so he could help protect the environment.  Another so she could help protect those who can’t help  themselves.  Many of these who know they are called to a particular field have gifts that make this a obvious choice for them.  For others, however . . . 

Something Gary Woods said in his message last week struck me.  He said that if we simply use our gifts in God’s service then it’s all about us, not about God.  I disagree, in that it was God who gave us those gifts in the first place. But there’s also the matter of God sending us places where we have to call on gifts we didn’t know we had.  For example - When I got to college, I really didn’t like math. And I was willing to swear that my dislike of math stemmed from the fact that I was in Mr. Hornberger’s Algebra class when we were told that President Kennedy had been shot.  So when I got to college and had to take a math class I found something called Math for Non-Math Majors, which was like a Math Sampler.  There were the usual algebra, calculus, and geometry, but also fractals and logic and number systems and optical illusions.  It was cool.  But the coolest thing was the instructor.  She was not your typical Math teacher.  She told us that her calling in life was to help those of us with Math Phobia get over it. And she told us why.  You see, she hated math.   She was a dancer, who majored in Dance in college.  And in her college, Dance majors did not have to take math!  But after graduation, discovering that it is difficult to make a living as a dancer, she started substitute teaching, where she discovered that the most urgent need by far was for math teachers.  So she bit the bullet, went back to school, and became a math teacher.  And discovered the joy of opening the eyes of students to the beauty of Math.  She went back to school again so she could teach math at the college level.  Math was not her gift - dancing was.  But she received a call to do something she really didn’t want to do, and thus improved the lives of many - including me.  We really never know what God has in store for us.  But we do know that no matter what God calls us to do, the gifts and talents we need will be provided.  

And then there’s me. I was a secretary.  I was good at it.  I liked being a secretary.  I liked having someone  else in the position of authority.   I disliked being the person in charge.  I was terrified of speaking in front of people.  Then one Sunday in church, while Pastor Betsy was preaching, God said, “You need to be doing this for me.”  A few weeks later, when I was talking to women in the County Jail about changing their lives so they didn’t have to keep going back to jail, God said, “You need to be doing this for me.”  I did not want to be a minister. I kept not wanting to all through college and a year or two into seminary.  Oh, I was willing to do what God said, but I didn’t have to like it.  Likewise, after leaving Chapman University, as much as I loved Chapman, I did not love California, and I swore I would never come back.  And so, here I am.  In Selma, California, serving as your pastor.  Not where I thought my gifts and talents would take me.  Certainly not my plan for my life.  But it is, apparently, God’s plan for my life.  And I wouldn’t change a thing.  I love what I do.  I can’t imagine doing anything else.  

Last Friday afternoon a colleague of mine was on his way to work when he ran into a police roadblock. Later he would write about his experience. 
 As I sat on the highway, the radio announcer shared there was an active shooter. Soon, our daughter Emily sent me a text. Suddenly I realized I was stopped on the highway because the crime scene was growing and traffic had been stopped. I was within a mile of the school, looking behind, and realizing, that they were diverting traffic away from the area.  [A little later]  The police who had stopped the traffic were … going from car to car, asking where those of us who ended up within the blocked area were heading, so that they could then direct which way to go.
When the sheriff's deputy had me roll down my window, he asked, "Are you a parent?"
I replied, "No, I'm a hospice chaplain on my way to visit a patient."
He then looked at me and said, "We could sure use you at the Junior High."
I didn't hesitate. I said, "Sure, where do I need to go?” 
His boss would share later that day, "God had a divine plan." What's the chance of a hospice chaplain being in a line of cars in front of a school where death seemed to be everywhere?

Todd Williams could have gone to work, to comfort the dying in their homes and hospitals. That is his calling, after all, and his job.  Instead, he went where God called him that day.  The folks in hospice care needed him.  But not in quite the same, immediate way that he was needed at the High School in Santa Fe, Texas.

We never know when God is going to call us to drop whatever we thought we were supposed to be doing and go someplace else entirely.   We never know when someone is going to say to us, “We could really use you over there.”  

Isaiah was very sure he was not worthy of being where he was, seeing what he was seeing, and hearing what he was hearing.  But God found him worthy, and acceptable, and just exactly the right person to send.  His doubts were removed, his sins were forgiven, and he stood before God saying, “Here am I.  Send me.”  Let us be like Isaiah.  When we are called, even though we may be quite sure that we are not gifted in the ways that this call requires, let us trust God to know us better than we know ourselves. Let us trust God to know where we are needed. Let us hear that call, and answer that call saying, “Here am I.  Send me.”