kindred

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The kingdom is heaven is like...

This week’s sacred story comes from Matthew 13, where Jesus teaches through a series of three vivid stories, three parables of everyday life where the hearer is invited to draw conclusions for themselves. The parable of wheat and weeds, the mustard seed, and yeast. Read the full story here.

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This time last year my mom and I went out to raised garden beds outside our farmhouse. The beds are made from old railroad ties for the borders and fertile dirt from the edges of our pond.  We began to work to clear away old things that had been growing there and prepare the soil for something new. Then we started planting zinnia seeds and other wildflowers for harvest at my brothers wedding which would be that summer. We could envision the beautiful bouquets we would have in June. As weeks went on we’d go out and check on their progress and see how these little seedlings were emerging. Bright green shoots and leaves unfolded from the dark rich earth. And I remember furiously googling images of what zinnias seedlings look like so we could discern which seedlings we had intended and which others may have gotten into the mix, intending to remove whatever was taking up room we intended for something else. But it was nearly impossible to tell which leaves were which and so we just had to let them all grow up together.  We set a sprinkler that cast water over all the beds and we cared for each plant the same. When June came, we had a garden full of flowers, more than enough for . We had plenty of zinnias, and even a few surprise flowers that added a beautiful diversity that we hadn’t planned for. Even the long grasses that had no flowers at all, added something to the arrangements. And as all these filled the garden, I’ll tell you, the bees and the butterflies didn’t care which was which, but enjoyed the nectar of all the flowers.

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Jesus taught through stories which portray rich images and invite us the hearers to paint the picture. They invites us to imagine where we find ourselves in the story, to wonder together about what the parables reveal about God and ourselves? These parables draw on the everyday life of people working in fields, going to the market, and cooking in their homes. Jesus reveals truth through stories, where the meaning is made somewhere in between the word spoken and how we experience them, where the answers aren’t always clear, and there’s room left for mystery.  

So here are a few things that the original hearers would have known and understood, that might impact the way you hear the stories, these parables:

The weeds or tares, the mustard and the yeast would all be considered at the least....inconvenient, contaminants, undesirables, pollutants, invasive, an onslaught, ruinous.

First, let’s look at wheat and tares….the seedlings actually look so much alike you literally can’t tell the difference. Even adolescent plants look exactly the same. It isn’t until they mature that the wheat reveals its fruit, a full and lush head of grain, bowing under the weight of its produce, while the tare remains a light and hollow imitation with no real nutritional value. And fire, throughout the bible and Jewish tradition is not a means of destruction but of purification. It is always a refiners fire, skimming away the part which surrounds on the surface to reveal the central nature and value of a thing. And yet, in this parable, both wheat and tare are nurtured together side by side. Such is the kingdom of heaven.

As for mustard - it can either be considered a crop or an invasive species. When grown on purpose by farmers, it is brought to market either for its greens or for grinding down the seeds for seasoning. Either way, it would never be allowed to grow to the point where it becomes a full blown tree. And yet, as it is allowed to grow wild, the plant finds value not for what it can be sold for, not what it can produce, but for simply for being what it is. One plants a mustard seed because one would like to grow some mustard. Such an farmer would view birds as pests. And yet, in this parable, the greatest thing about the mustard seed is that it provides refuge for the very pests the planter wants to keep away. Such is the kingdom of heaven.

Yeast is an agent of growth, the leaven, the expansive force that transforms flour into what we enjoy as bread. It is also something foreign, something from outside the oil and water intentionally included in bread.  It’s essentially like a contaminant. Yeast didn’t come in yeast packets from the store, but from the air and environment and time. This yeast was a wild force of fermentation which cannot be contained to a carefully controlled portion of the flour, but changes all of it. Every household in the ancient world would have made bread every day. It was a staple food. But yeast is also an element forbidden from the Passover.  Faithful Jews were to remove every trace of it from their homes in preparation for rest. In this parable, yeast is uncontainable against traditions of holiness, hidden out of view and yet the kingdom of heaven is like it.

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So, knowing these things, how then do we hear these stories and make meaning from them? What do they tell us about God?  about ourselves? How would you tell a story that points toward that kind of meaning? What does this remind you of? What picture comes to mind?

Perhaps we are the wheat, waiting for the day when, even as we are cut down, we bear fruit that nourishes the world.  Perhaps we are the field, growing both that which nourishes and that which is hollow inside of us at the same time. Perhaps we are the slaves, clumsily suggesting what we think is helpful without fulling understanding what the master knows and yet still commissioned to care for the field so that all might flourish and grow, to bring life to all, to bring life without preconceptions of who deserves it or what such a life should look like. Perhaps we are the mustard trees, that grow beyond the boundaries the world would try to set for us, offering something of value just by being what we are. Perhaps we are the birds find a home in the wide branches, who finally allow ourselves to  find our home and our rest, and to nurture that space for a while. Perhaps we are the flour or the yeast, considered a staple to society or something to be hidden and yet both are joined together to rise and grow and create something new altogether, something delicious and nourishing. Perhaps we are the baker that, even in our attempts to control or appear perfect or put together, unknowingly contributes to something vivacious and expansive.

Perhaps the kingdom of heaven is like a family table, where homeless and housed, privileged and poor break bread together and aren’t always sure how to do that, how to trust one another, how to be generous with one another but also respect the dignity and boundaries of each, and yet...we are mixed together as flour and yeast, becoming intertwined so that we all are changed into a new thing altogether, bread that rises and grows and feeds. Perhaps the kingdom of heaven is not so far away.

If the kingdom of heaven is like a mixed bag of things we don’t always understand or agree on and yet somehow bears life, provides a nest, expands  and nourishes….then perhaps the kingdom of heaven is not so far away. Amen.

The Gospel according to Ice Cube

This week’s sacred story comes from Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29 where Jesus continues to preach on the intersection of faith and life. Read the full text here.

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Sometimes faith and life are thought of as opposing forces, like magnets pushing away from each other. Faith is over here, life is over there and we just hope that maybe, one day, with all our spiritual strength we can pull these two opposing forces together. But if that’s the way it is, then I’d give up on God and religion too, because that seems hopeless. I might be able to pull it off once or twice or for a little while, but I can’t sustain that kinda union with my own two hands. Jesus says something different.  Jesus says faith and life are already tied together, one reflects and informs the other. Jesus says you actually can’t separate the two, even if you wanted to. The Good News of Jesus isn’t just about heady ideals, but shapes our very being and thus our actions. The Gospel refuses to let us compartmentalize, it invites us to engage. If God really is over, with, and in all things, if every one of us is truly created in the image of God, declared blessed, and if nothing can take that away from us, if that Good News is true...then what does that mean for the way we live? How does that shape our our habits, our choices, our relationships, our understanding and practice of justice?

Jesus teaches, guides us in this way. So here we go, Jesus proclaims...“Judge not”….well, I can go ahead and sit down because I’ve already failed. Let’s be honest, I make some judgments. And while I do relish the gossipy self-righteous moments of judgment a little too much, that’s not actually what Jesus is talking about. Here, the word we read as judgment would actually be better translated as condemnation. Jesus cautions us…not to be so bold as to speak on behalf of God and make ULTIMATE judgments that declare people in or out of God’s love and mercy, and that doing so says more about us than those we cast judgement on. And thus says the Lord your God - “you better check yourself before you wreck yourself.”

Judgement is healthy and necessary; condemnation and condescension is where we get into trouble. I remember when I first took a Myers-Briggs personality test, I was so glad I didn’t have a strong J in my character. That J for judging held a negative connotation for me. “Judgement” was for sticks in the mud and people who need everything to be black and white. For me, judging was that thing that super-pompous jerks do to make themselves feel superior or reveals some narrow-minded worldview. But we make judgments every day - which car seat is best for my family, whether it is better for me to spend my time going on a walk or catching up on messages, whether I should continue a relationship that isn’t life-giving, whether I should get a hamburger or chicken nuggets for lunch. Judgement is healthy and necessary, so let’s not throw judgement out with the bathwater. BUT, in the kingdom of God that Jesus is preaching, CONDEMNATION is not a tool we get to use to edge others out of the God-market.

This past week, I was so disturbed. After the State of the Union address, I saw a relative post to Facebook “I can’t believe all of them so-called women allowing late term abortions. May they burn in hell.” See that’s not just judgement, that’s condemnation and it has no place among our life together as God’s people. And that is equally true of similar posts that mock a more conservative view and dismisses people as worthless and irredeemable. God has declared each one of us as precious and beloved, and no one has the authority to take that away from us, no matter what. And when we participate in condemning others, it doesn’t just hurt them, it eats away at our own souls as well. THAT’s why Jesus tells us, “do not condemn others, and you won’t end up condemning yourself in the process.”

But let’s talk about what this way of life ISN’T.  This isn’t a command to roll over in the name of nice, or getting along, or pretending not to care about the things God has given us a passion for.  

The church and the people of God have struggled in to find their place in the modern world not because we aren’t hip enough, or make enough Ice Cube references in our sermons, but because we lack clarity in what we’re about and why, or we don’t exhibit that clearly. Being wishy-washy is no way to live either. That doesn’t mean we can’t be open to multiple perspectives, but avoiding clarity on the pretense that it makes us more compassionate or enlightened...doesn’t pan out either. I think people leave the church and religion just as much as when we dance around subjects and wind up saying nothing of substance at all. Because people can smell the BS from a mile away and don’t need church for more of that as if we can’t readily find THAT gospel just about everywhere else.

Here’s what I think Jesus IS trying to say. If we hope to call ourselves followers of this Christ, we are called to the work of self-awareness, which brings us to humility, which leads us to mutuality. When we can look at ourselves honestly, without the fear of having to be justified on our own and so somehow perfect, we can see ourselves as God sees us - imperfect and flawed and yet beautiful and blessed. When we don’t have to spend so much energy hiding the log in our own eye because we think it will condemn us, we can actually go about the work of removing it as best as we can, usually with a community to help us.

This is where what is often called “The Golden Rule” can be problematic. “Do to others what you would have them do to you” is only good news if we would have others extend us grace, encouragement, and forgiveness. Unfortunately, we often would have others do shame and condemnation to us instead. How can we hope for others to treat us with kindnesses that we don’t offer ourselves? How can we treat others with kindnesses we don’t expect for ourselves? Yes, we should do to others what we would hope others would do for us in light of grace. But perhaps the Golden rule should also go on to clarify - do unto yourself what you would do for others - extend grace, encourage, forgive.

We all have logs in our eyes, things that make us blind or indifferent to the ways we hurt others - both individually and as a culture. When we recognize that we’re imperfect and yet still valuable to God and others, we have the humility to acknowledge God’s grace toward others who are also imperfect. We recognize that, in the eyes of God, we’re on the same playing field. We can work together to bear witness to God’s kingdom of mutuality, or reciprocal care and grace.

But mutuality and grace doesn’t mean I’m going to do your work for you. Part of doing the work of self-awareness is recognizing your boundaries and your limits. It is not your job to save the whole world. You can not single-handedly remove the log from someone else eye when they’ve got a death grip on that sucker. You can let that go. Don’t keep throwing good energy at something that will trample your spirit or maul your soul. That doesn’t mean you’re giving up or giving up hope, but you can take a break or let others take up that work for a while. It’s not up to you to save the whole world, that’s already been done.

Do you not know that every gate belongs to god, every place where walls are opened, whether narrow or wide? There is nowhere you or anyone else can go, that God is not also there alongside you, loving you, even when you follow destruction. So do not be discouraged or forlorn if you find yourself somewhere other than where you hoped you would be, God is still with you. It’s true, God make judgments over us and all of creation...and on our own merits, we fall short. But God does not condemn us because God sees us for more than our merits.  God sees us as her own beloved child, imperfectly flawed and yet perfectly loved. God lets the system of merits, of score-keeping, and all those systems of superiority go. On the cross, God shows that they would rather die than participate in our power games. In the resurrection. God proclaims that nothing can stop God’s love for us, not even death. God is the only one with the power to make ultimate judgments, to bless or condemn, and God chooses blessing for all of us, even with that giant log still stuck in our eyeballs. And if God doesn’t condemn, how could we dare? Let us go from here, knowing that we we have work to do, holy work. But also that God is with us in that work, blessing us in ways we don’t always know how to receive or echo, even while we’re still in the mess and glory of it all. Amen.

Letting Go of Performance Anxiety

This week’s sacred story comes from Matthew 6:7-21 where Jesus preaches about a bold and simple faith where we can rid of all the extra BS we layer on in order to put on a good performance for God, ourselves, and others . Read the full text here.

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Yesterday my daughter was at a birthday party for a friend. The invitation was decorated with balloons and a piñata, confetti and color. And there was a note from the girl’s parents requesting that we don’t bring a gift. I’m noticing this trend more in circles where children already have plenty, and I’m starting to see the appeal myself. Over the years, our kiddo has amassed no small amount of figurines and baubles, legos and craft supplies. She enjoys them…for a while…until the next new treasure comes along. Somehow we’ve allowed it to get to a place where she has so many toys, that nearly none of them actually hold value to her anymore.  She tires of them quickly and seeks novelty over something she might truly hold dear in any enduring way. And I can’t really point the finger. I do the same thing with my thrift store finds. And we all live in the same single-use society addicted to the disposable.

In this part of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, in his preaching and teaching to a wide community of all different kinds of listeners with all different kinds of religious backgrounds...the words of “consuming, heaping, and hoarding,” turns to “broken, rusted, and ruined.” Ironically, treating things in a preservationist way, trying to keep them perfect and private, actually destroys them and makes them disfigured/distorted. Things of beauty and joy are turned to obligation and pride.

This isn’t a “woe to you who have stuff” sermon, because excess comes in many forms. Our treasures take on many shapes. We treasure not just our money but our energy. We value our public persona and how we are thought of by others. We put our trust in ourselves above all else. And maybe you don’t expect a preacher to say this, but I think we should. We should care about and tend to all these treasures. But we should also be mindful of how much weight we give them to dictate our lives and our identity. Jesus stops the car so we can get out for a second and look around and wonder what those treasures are really about, wonder why we have the habits we do, and evaluate if they really embody what we hope.

I want to invite you to take a moment, take a few deep breaths, and reflect to yourself: What do you spend our time on? Look back at today or yesterday, and moment by moment, hour by hour, what did you spend your time doing? What do you invest your energy in? Not just what we ideally spend our time and energy and treasure on, but actually in reality.

Are you putting more stock in appearances or substance?  Appearances and our public expression matter, but is maintaining that side of the equation so consuming that it forces you to sacrifice substance? Do you worry more about crafting a pleasing personality or the illusion that everything is fine… OR the kind of relationship with yourself and others that can handle both the joy and the grit of life? Do you dwell in drama or in depth?  This isn’t a “woe to you who do frivolous things” sermon, because frivolity is needed on occasion. But it is an invitation to think about what we do and why, even the things that seem positive from the outside. Is it from the heart or what we think we SHOULD do?

Jesus seems to point out that what we think we SHOULD spend our time one can be just as distracting as anything else.  As religious folk, we can get caught up thinking we don’t pray as well as others or we’re not as good at faith as we should be, but God does not desire long-winded prayers or eloquent fluffy speech or ritual of any kind for their own sake. In Jesus’ time, the thinking was that a good prayer should go on and on or a good person should spend extensive amounts of time in prayer.  I think we still kinda think that But when it’s not from the heart, it’s still just fluff. It reminds me of when I had to write papers for school and I was still several hundred words short of what the teacher told us we had to write, so I’d just start adding adjectives in random places, or repeating the same ideas in ever-so-slightly different ways. But doing so didn’t add any real content to anything, because it came from a place where it was something I was told I HAD to do.

Jesus shows how being in relationship with God can be simple, without all the trappings of performance.  There are so many places in our lives where we feel like we have to perform, being this or that in order to be accepted or valued.  God knows, that I’m constantly burdened by the voices in my head, question, “am I doing this mom thing right? Am I juggling all of life with the grace an poise expected of me by culture?” And Jesus says, that’s not the way it is with God. God invites us to simplicity not because “less is more” is a pleasing design aesthetic, but because God doesn’t need all the extra fluff from us in order to love us. We don’t have to turn simplicity into one more obligation or idol (which happens), but we are freed from all SHOULD’s that someone told us we had to be and do in order to be loved. If God’s love and grace becomes one more thing to do or perform or hoard, then our heart gets hardened toward what is offered as a gift. But when we live into that simple truth of God’s unconditional love for us, we also see greater health in our heart and our souls. Jesus tells us we don’t need all the clutter and it’s not good for us anyway.

Science has shown that clutter causes stress, being surrounded by an excess of things makes us anxious. But I think we can follow the same reasoning to extend beyond our things and into our whole lives. They are often cluttered with the constant need to perform or put on a good face, or the right face, filling up our schedules until we frantically fear the loss of time or that our time will be stolen from us, even a few minutes. But God loves us and cares for us without the fuss we put on, without our having secured it and locked it away  for safe-keeping.

Jesus gives us a tool to remind us, to find our center when we get distracted, to bring us back to basics. Jesus gives us a prayer that reflects God’s intimate care and astounding glory. The prayer Jesus gives doesn’t need to be a script, but a model.  Bold and simple. It’s bold in the way we are empowered to claim intimacy and familiarity with the creator of the cosmos by relating to them as family. It is simple in that it doesn’t try to capture everything at once – it is simply a petition for God’s will to be done, for basic needs like food, for relationship through forgiveness, and for safety. This is one way for our hearts to be nurtured and for us to find healing and hope with God alongside us. But it’s not the only way to pray nor even the best way to pray, but it is a good way.

Perhaps when we find ourselves in need of grounding, when we’re overrun with stimuli or too many options or we’re fatigued from fussing, or we discover we’re losing a bit of ourselves in the performance of life or faith...this prayer or another practice of simplicity and boldness, can provide us with a place where we can clear away all the extra BS, bear our true selves and our true heart before God, and know that we are deeply loved just as we are. And knowing that, experiencing that...deep in our bones...changes that way we relate to ourselves and to others and to our stuff. It shows us a fullness of life that all the fluff could never deliver. May this moment of worship be a time and space where you can put down the facades and the defenses and experience the liberating truth of Christ, which is this: God hears you, God knows you, God sees you, God wants you, God loves you...right here, right now, just as you are.  Amen.

The Wilderness in Humanity

This week’s sacred story comes from Matthew 4:1-17 where, after being baptized, Jesus is drawn into wilderness and joins in the deeply human experience of temptation . Read the full text here.

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The wilderness is a dangerous place. There, you don't have the things that normally protect you. People can get lost there. The wilderness can also be a beautiful place, if you can learn to appreciate it for what it is, instead of resenting it for what it's not.  

The wild and isolated places in nature are a fair reflection of the vulnerable and solitary places in our own lives. When by choice or by circumstance, we find ourselves standing alone, in the midst of a world we cannot ultimately control.  But that does not mean we are doomed or helpless. Standing alone can also be brave and necessary. I saw an article this past week that talked about Mary Oliver as the poet who saw the wilderness in humanity. It reminded me that we are created in harmony with wildness. God has made us with the same resilience as the cedars that takes root on windy mountain tops, yet stand for 100s of years.  It's who we are. This is the nature of humanity. It's is a humanity that Jesus shares.

Immediately following his baptism, after it’s made public and clear that his identity is as one who is good and beloved in the eyes of God, immediately life gets hard. Jesus is alone in the wilderness and is brought face to face with a competing voice that wants to undermine those proclamations and promises.  

A life in God doesn't mean that everything will now magically be easy or that you'll be prosperous and perfect. And I know that I've personally heard that message a few times before, but I don't hear it's translation very often. Because if life with God doesn't mean that life will be easy, if even Jesus has a hard time...that also means that when my life is hard, it's not just because I'm just a crap person.


The Devil tries to reduce the comprehensive Word of God into sound bytes, which in turn, reduces the divine promises of life and love to a transactional God, a tit for tat system of redemption, and a formulaic faith.  This casts the contradictions of the Bible (which starts with Genesis 1 and 2), as a problem to distract us and a weapon to be wielded, rather than a testament to the wide range of God throughout time. The devil is all about tricking us into believing that things are smaller or less than than the fullness of what they really are. Jesus points to a bigger picture.

The temptations presented boil down to our most basic needs, and twisted to prey on our most elemental fears: our physical need twisted into a fear of scarcity, our need for safety twisted into a question of Gods fidelity, our desire for power and control twisted into a desire for acquisition and dominance.  The Devil tries to make claims about who Jesus is, who Gods is and how God is, that utilize half-truths (also known as lies) and then twists them to undermine the full truth of who we are created to be.

What are the claims you hear and experience that make you question and wrestle with who God has declared you to be as beloved? What is around you that contradicts God’s promise that you will be cared for, that God will never forsake you, and that you are already powerful?

What gives you strength/courage to stand up to and defy those claims? Those forces?

God isn't above temptation, watching from afar in order to test us. God, in Jesus, through the Spirit, is drawn right into the thick of the wilderness too. God knows what it is to question and be questioned in the ways that matter most, to feel utterly alone.

Temptation isn’t a test of faith where we have to prove ourselves good enough for God, or suffer in order to be loved. It is what it is. God loves us at our best and our worst, and bids us to remember that even in the wilderness...Love is the way, and the truth, and the life.

Jesus doesn't overcome this temptation by being so divine that he is immune, because at the same time he is just as deeply human as we are. He answers these half-truths of the Devil by sinking his hips deep into the full truth of who he is. And God says that this is who we are, too. We are beloved, we belong, and we are already powerful.  This was a guiding light for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who we remember this weekend, that we are indeed already powerful, that all people have dignity and agency and can make a powerful difference, but through nonviolence, through building bridge where there was division.

This is what Jesus is steeped in and comes to embrace as he begins the part of his life which we call public ministry, which changes the world. Imagine how the world will be changed as we sink into and embrace our identity as beloved and powerful? It is nothing particularly fancy or magical, but it is simple and true...which is both more difficult and more liberating.

Hear a final Word from Mary Oliver, through her poem, “Wild Geese”

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—

over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


Amen.




Perfectionists and Weirdos, Welcome

This week’s sacred story comes from Matthew 3:1-17 where John the Baptist is (surprise) baptizing people of every kind, including Jesus. Read the full story here.

Art by He Qi

Art by He Qi

I’m a pretty cynical, skeptical person in general. But I'm especially skeptical of any guy covered in animal pelts, snacking on bugs, and hollering, “repent! The end is near!” And the reason I'm so skeptical isn't just the weird factor, but because often those same people claim some kind of direct and exclusive connection to God - that they know some divine secret that they’re lording over others. Either that or they manipulate people with fear - they twist the message to say “repent...or else.” But I can't just write this one off because:

  1. Something seems just a little bit different about this one, and

  2. Jesus shows up. So that seems kinda important.

What’s different about what John is saying is that he isn’t preaching ”repent...or else.” John proclaims “the kingdom of God is near.” Perhaps the Kingdom of God is a kind of end, as it promises the world be set aright, and we are all too familiar with the ways it is currently wonky and broken. The good news that John preaches, that has attracted this large group of people to follow him and come down to the river, is a message and a world of hope and possibility and inclusion and healing.  The baptism he invites people into is one of cleansing and new life. THAT’s something people want to be a part of.

Meanwhile, The Pharisees and Sadducees - the religious leaders who are certain they have it all figured out and that they’re doing it all right (or at least they know all the right things to do and are getting better and better at doing them all the time) - are watching from the sidelines, making sure John doesn’t go off script or say anything that conflicts with the rules of the church. Yet, even as they stand guard in the name of all that’s “right,” they too draw near to the water to join in this baptismal promise. It has been my experience that those who cling most to the doing things right are most in need of freedom from those heavy expectations.

John is skeptical of their intentions and he doesn’t even try to hide it. “You brood of vipers!” he hurls at them. At the heart of this baptism isn’t just a superficial ritual that gets you “in” or functions as an insurance policy for an afterlife and John wants to make sure they and everyone in earshot, gets that. This baptism is about life-giving change.  Repentance doesn’t just mean being ashamed of how bad we are, it literally means to turn. It is a turn from the habits of heart and mind that lead to death, isolation, and fear. It is a turn toward a way of life that begets life - bearing fruit. It points to a fuller life that is on the way - one where we, the wheat, are no longer need of all our self-protective measures, the extra chaf we create around us. We are freed from all the extra things we do to try and be good and valuable on our own, and revealed to be something of value anyway.

This is the distinction John wants to emphasize. The distinction between the appearance of life in God, and the depth of life with God. It’s like the practice of tidying up - you can purge your things and get rid of all that clutters your space, but the real cleansing comes as we address why we accumulate, consume, cling to and hoard.  Or we can do okay at staying sober, for awhile, but it’s not the same as diving into why we self-medicate, dull or distract ourselves, reaching for fuller answers about what we are trying to cover up or fill? I’m not sure if the Pharisees or Sadducees understood or were ready for that kind of baptism. I’m not sure anyone else is either. And we don’t read anything in scripture that says that disqualifies them or prevents us from experiencing it anyway.  

Baptism is about being changed, not just on the outside, but entirely. And that’s not the same as being perfect. Jesus shows up and wants to be baptized too. Jesus has no need of an initiation ritual, of being made perfect, or a heavenly insurance policy. But we need Jesus to wade into the waters of life with us - to come over here with us - where its murky and swirling or stagnant. We need Jesus to transform our misplaced expectations and failed attempts at fixing everything ourselves. We need Jesus to turn us from our ways of death toward life-giving life.

Jesus enters the depths with us, and emerges to show us what it’s like when righteousness is fulfilled, when we and the whole world is set aright. It looks like the fullness of God on display- Creator, Savior, and Sustainer.  It sounds like being publicly named and claimed by God as beloved - when all the fluff is washed away and what remains is still declared as valuable and beautiful in the eyes of God. It feels like being a part of a community where there’s a place for everyone - an endless fabric woven together through water - where the perfectionists and the weirdos all are welcome.  It’s not just not just one moment or a single day, but an ongoing reality of being cleansed and embraced by God which defines and shapes us every day, turning us again and again and again toward life. THAT’S something that draws me in, or rather...that draws near to me. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Where God Appears

This week’s sacred story comes from Matthew 2:1-23 where Magi follow the wild star, defy a tyrant king, and the Holy Family flee as refugees. Read the full story here.

It’s a new year and perhaps some of you have been reflecting on what has passed and what lies before you, what has been a blessing to you, good for your health and your wholeness and what you hope for. This moment, moving between old and new, invites us to reflect on the world around us and the world within us. This moment both suspends and extends time, and offers us a chance to see its vastness which we often miss. This moment allows us to take a step back from the fray, and in doing so, to see ourselves with deep honesty. As I read and reflected on this sacred story and my place in it, I was brought to the honest admission that I’m more like Herod than I want to acknowledge.

We are alike in that we will tell ourselves and others whatever lies are needed to have our way above God’s way. These lies take all shapes: that I don’t have enough, that I am not enough, that “others” are a threat to me or the cause of all my suffering, that I must protect myself and the world from these “dangers” at all costs, and that this is the kind half-life God wants for me. All of these put me at the center and so even if they’re awful, I cling to them. Things can easily begin to escalate. As more and more power is invested in “our way”, the result can be proportionately brutal resistance to the Prince of Peace - to the point that even children become pawns in a game and collateral damage along the way.

And this messy reality is exactly what God steps into. God with us, taking on the fullness of the fragility and beauty of human life in Christ, doesn’t skip around the rough places. The birth of God isn’t just halos and singing angels. Before Jesus’ first birthday, he and the rest of the Holy Family become refugees - leaving everything, risking everything to escape the gang of Herod - to have even a chance at survival.

“Refugees: La Sagrada Familia” by Kelly Latimore - https://kellylatimoreicons.com/gallery/img_2361/

“Refugees: La Sagrada Familia” by Kelly Latimore - https://kellylatimoreicons.com/gallery/img_2361/

While the story we read unfolds over a matter of a few sentences and paragraphs, the lived experience takes place over weeks, and even years, and hundreds and hundreds of miles. First, they walk about 100 miles from Galilee to Bethlehem (while super pregnant) to be registered as a family. Then, a caravan of mystics and Astronomers who don’t share the same Jewish faith as Mary and Joseph, the ones we call Magi, journey from foreign lands, night after night after night after night after night, following their curiosity and questions, to see this mystery for themselves.  They come with gifts that represent a sacred life and death and the work in between. God has taken on skin and now these strangers risk their own skin, defying the direct orders of a tyrant, for the sake of truth and justice. Perceived (and rightly so) as a threat to the Roman Empire and its appointed rulers, politicians like Herod, the young parents and their new baby then flee and live maybe a few years as refugees in the foreign country of Egypt with different traditions, ethnicities and religion than their own. Eventually, regional politics allow this wandering family to walk hundreds of miles and miles and miles more to return to their hometown of Nazareth.  They’re “home” but they’re also different because of their lived experiences, the people they’ve met and the worlds they inhabit, and...there are still complications.

Clearly God isn’t about a quick fix, but in this for the long haul. Jesus spends his whole life traveling the range from the margins and fringes of society to the halls of power, back and forth, again and again. That’s a lot of layers of meaning and relationship and geography. Epiphany, is a moment for us to take a step back and take in the vastness of it all. From the beginning, God has experienced and connected to and been a part of the whole world as far as the gospel writer of Matthew knew it. God is political, God is trans-national, tran-ethnic, God is beyond even a single religion or tradition. Essentially, this holy scripture  (with all its messiness and drama) still reveals that there is no place, no people, no one outside of God’s redemption, not even Herod, not even me. Nothing remains untouched or unchanged by the Good News of God moving, suffering, loving, hoping, transforming...with us.

God appears in the midst of our mess. But God does not show up merely to show solidarity with our mess, but to transform it in radical ways and make us part of that transformation in ways that often surprise us. Here we witness a God who is clearly on the move. May we, like the wise ones of the world, follow our questions and curiosity toward the beauty of mystery. May God open our hearts and our minds to the ways in which this mysterious love enfolds us and changes us. May we reflect God’s shining light to all whom we encounter just as we recognize God’s light greeting us through them as well. Amen.

f J e O a Y r

This week’s sacred story comes from Isaiah 42:1-9. You can read the full text here. We also experience the story of the shepherds through Godly Play, watch it here. (Stop at 8:09 to leave a little mystery for future weeks).

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JOY in the midst of fear.

The weeks leading up to the mystery of Christmas are full of wonder - Not just the wide-eyed bushy-tailed adoring wonder of awe and delight, but also the wonder of questions, confusion, and chaos.  Through the prophet Isaiah, we see God’s promise to bring forth justice. In the story of Godly Play, the poor and outcast shepherds are invited to Bethlehem, to go and see a child who is changing everything.  It IS wonder-FUL. This season is mixed with many kinds of wonder. For each promise of joy, there is also a kind of loss…fear…grief. 

Bringing forth justice also means letting former things pass away. Going to Bethlehem means leaving the fields that are home. This changing reality disrupts our expectations and our plans.  Whether people or places or our situation changes for better or for worse, there is still an experience of grief.  We have lost something. The way we imagined things would be. We experience all kinds of loss – the loss of a person, the loss of an identity, the loss of a dream, the loss of a relationship, the loss of work or of meaningful work,  the loss of health, the loss of something so small we didn’t even realized we cared so much about it until it was no longer there.

The process of letting go, of letting former things be former things is difficult, and frightening, and long, and not a straight line of progress we can push through. When we’re in the midst of it, the promise of “new things” that God is doing? Seems vague, even hollow.  How could it be anything else when the ground seems to continually move underneath us? Sometimes even a song of joy, peace, and goodwill…sound frightening because it’s different than what we know or are experiencing.  Like the whole of life, in this season of Advent, joy and fear are all tangled up together.

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It’s like that jumbled pile of cords that…even once you’ve figured out which one is your headphones, which one is the power cord, which ones go to this or that, even once you’ve worked them free…it’s like a law of the universe that they’ll end up tangled again. And when I get so frustrated and hopeless with it all that I throw the ball of cords against the wall and vow to go off the grid and give up on everything, when my heart is beating so loudly it seems to be the only thing I can hear…another voice enters the conversation.  Scripture tells us that the angels proclaim to quivering souls, “do not be afraid.” But my heart hears, “I know. I know it’s frustrating and crazy and wild and impossible and painful and just all too much. I know…do not be afraid.”

Only when I feel like the one who speaks hope has actually heard and understood my sorrow and complexity, can I also hear and maybe even possibly understand this word of hope. Only then can I release a little bit of the former things in order to be open for a new thing, because I don’t feel like I holding the former thing by myself.  Only in this kind of sacred community which has space for both joy and pain, frustration and delight, can I begin to imagine that the light has not gone out, but is changing. 

So I wonder….which part of you or your life is marked by grief, loss, hurt or confusion? For what part of your soul, do you long to hear God’s voice declare, “I know. I know.” ?

And holding this in your mind and in your heart, I invite you to pray with me: O God of former things and new things, we ask you to make your presence known. Sit with us in our waiting and our wondering. Speak your word of comfort and of hope to us, remind us that we’re not alone. Guard and guide us as we encounter the tangles of life. Help us in our work along this way. Put a song of joy in the air, and help us to hear it.  Keep singing to us; sing good news of joy and peace and goodwill until the rhythm of our hearts take up the tune as well. We are restless, but we find rest in you. We pray in the name of the child born in Bethlehem, who is changing everything. Amen.

Prepare ye...for an arrival

This week’s sacred story comes from Esther 4:1-17. You can read the full story here.

We also experience the story of the Holy Family through Godly Play. Watch it here (stop at 5:42 to leave a little mystery for future weeks).



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Everything is changing.  This is the time to prepare.  This is the time to prepare for a transition.  This is the time to prepare for an arrival.

During this time many people are hosting guests and getting ready for other people to come into their sacred space. Friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, and plus ones are coming over. How do you get ready to welcome them? As my brother and his wife prepared for our arrival at Thanksgiving, they cleaned up space in the attic for us to stay, made sure they had food we liked (sugary cereals and fresh Brooklyn bagels), shifted their plans and schedules to make time to spend with us, and they checked in with us as made the journey. Sometimes there was a lot to physically and practically DO to get ready, and sometimes, the waiting was just…waiting.

As Mark and I prepared for the arrival of our baby, Marley, we were preparing to welcome a child into our home and into our family, but also preparing to become parents. Sometimes it seems it takes just as much if not more preparation to become pregnant. And even then, the road may take you to a different place than you thought. For us, along the way, this meant lots of checkups and the doctor’s office to tend to our health, gathering all the stuff a baby needs, and learning how it all works.  Seriously, it practically requires a training course to be able to set up and take down a pack-n-play crib. But it is even more subtle to try and learn how to respond to the all cries and colors and all the needs of an infant that you still don’t really know yet.

 As we prepare for an arrival, we prepare for something other- something different and distinct from ourselves to come into our midst. And that will certainly change our routines.

 Mary prepares for pregnancy, for travel, for birth, for motherhood. She may not have had google or a library or Target, but she had the wisdom and generosity of family, friends, elders, and even angels.

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Queen Esther is confronted by the cries of her uncle Mordecai and essentially the whole Hebrew people, who face genocide from a political rival who has successfully blamed them for every bad thing in the kingdom. I imagine Esther prepares by weighing her options and their potential for survival, then practicing her speech to the king - what she will wear, what she will say, evaluating what resources she has in relationship to make a difference.

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While Esther now has the title of queen, she’s still an ethnic minority, the daughter of a people who can’t go home, a foreigner, and…a woman in the ancient world.  Mary is an unwed mother without much money or an important family name to protect her. Esther and Mary are nobody special.  They are just names of people we would otherwise pass by. And yet, they are crucial to God’s work and word in the world.  We would not know divine liberation and we would not have Christmas without these women, and without the ways they wrestled with getting ready.

What’s unique about the story of Esther is that the name of God is virtually never mentioned, bringing us to ask, where is God in this story? But perhaps unlike other stories and experience, because this story is part of our sacred text, we expect to find God here, even in the in between moments.  We get ready to see God in between the lines here We prepare for God to arrive.

So I wonder, what if you saw your life as part for God’s sacred story? And expected God to show up? To be there, even in the middle parts between the bigger moments, even when you think you’re nobody special? I wonder how you prepare for the arrival of joy, of hope, of peace, of love – in others distinct and different from you.  But also, I wonder how you prepare for the arrival of joy, hope, peace, and love…not just outside and around you, but in you. I wonder how this changes your routine and your heart. Let it be. Amen.

Stop. Watch. Pay attention

This week’s sacred story comes from the prophet Habakkuk, specifically Habakkuk 1:1-7; 2:1-4; 3:[3b-6], 17-19. For the full story, read here. In addition to the scripture text, we experience the story of prophet through Godly Play. Watch it here (stop at 3:50 to leave a little mystery for future weeks).

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Prophets, like Habakkuk, are often described as messengers. A prophet usually rises from among an anxious and waiting people.  They often speak of an impending transition, a shift, a change – in thinking and in practice.

 

Sometimes, the word of a prophet can be considered as harsh, speaking critically to a people who have lost their way. But Jewish scholar, Abraham Heschel, reflected that it is not a world devoid of meaning that evokes the prophet’s consternation, but a world deaf to meaning. Again, it is not a world devoid of meaning that evokes the prophet’s consternation, but a world deaf to meaning. Stop. Watch. Pay attention.  Something incredible is going to happen here.

In these days, it seems as though our world is longing for something to change. 

 

We read, see, and hear

Violence, injustice, destruction

In our families, in our work, in our relationships

In tear gas, in discrimination, in the well-being of our climate

We long for a change, a transition something else, to peace, equality, and life.

Transitions are that time in between. The space between what was and what will be, between remembering, and grief, and lament…and hope…and fear.

I want to invite you to remember a time when you were in transition. If you feel you’re in transition now, think of another time in the past. Think of a time in between coming from something, and going to something else.  Perhaps it was something beyond your control. Maybe it was a “come to Jesus” moment. Maybe it was a time where you didn’t know what would come next or weren’t sure.

Got a memory in mind?

Now, I want you to reflect on…in what ways was God with you in that transition? 

In what ways was God pointing/leading you forward?

How does the recognition of God in your life then, help you to reflect on what God is doing in you now?

Tonight begins the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, the festival of lights, which remembers the time that the people only had enough oil in the temple lamps to last a single day, and they feared running out before the celebration was over. But the oil didn’t run out. There was enough to last.

The prophet Habakkuk remind us that when the promised new day seems to tarry, to take too damn long, we are reminded that it IS coming. And that we can release our worries for rejoicing, in a defiant hallelujah that refuses to be silenced.  Rejoice: to echo joy again. Because we do not live in a world devoid of joy, but one that is often blind to it. In these days we are reminded that when the night seems darkest, there is always enough light for today.

What do you want, God?

This week’s sacred story comes from the prophet Micah, specifically Micah [1:3-5]; 5:2-5a; 6:6-8 . For the full story, read here.

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Isn't it amazing how bargaining with God and bribery in general remains pretty much the same whether you're in the ancient Middle East or modern day Texas? As a parent, I am not 100% against bribery - a system of popsicle-based rewards has its place. And as a human, I am not immune to this habit of trying to make God exist on my terms. It starts of fairly reasonable. With what shall I come before God on high? Burnt offering and yearling livestock is pretty standard and actually a part of the ancient tradition. But when that hasn't made me feel good enough, things start to get desperate - more extreme and ultimately ridiculous? Thousands of rams? Who even has that? Rivers of oil? Ain't nobody in the world got that. Perhaps we even come to the point of trying to appease and/or control God with our bodies or the bodies of others. We wake up hungover from exhaustive attempts to be happy, or worthy, or in charge of it all and make offers that we still don't have the ability to keep.

You may not try offer God rivers of oil or your first born, but we try plenty of other things. Even if our head knows better, our broken hearts tell us that maybe….maybe we'd actually have value to God and the world if we just volunteered more, if we read the right articles, if we stayed sober longer, if we called our parents more, if we were nicer, if we put on a better show of how good we are.  

When we are subject to the world, the answer to salvation is that we can always be and do more, more, more. We transfer that system onto God and we expect that God must also want bigger and better from us in order for us to belong. The prophet Micah reminds the people what we always seem to forget - that God’s love and will for us is not up in some lofty far off place, but all around us, right in front of us. God’s way is not always grand and dramatic, it is most often simple and steady.  Like last week with Naaman - healing didn't happen with some over the top gesture or fancy quest, but simply to go and wash in the river. Micah tells us that in this same way of being - the child who will be born – the Christ, comes not from the biggest baddest tribe of Israel, but one of the smallest.

With so much happening in the world, ANOTHER mass shooting in Thousand Oaks when we’re still reeling for the one in Pittsburgh, and then whole towns destroyed by fires just up the road from there, remembering our veterans who take great risks in the name of the well being of others, who do not always come back whole, remembering the 89th anniversary of atrocities like Kristallnacht when hateful rhetoric and anti-Jewish legislation bubbled over into mass violence, killing, and destruction of Jewish life,  ...with all this, plus our own messes...

we want God do something, or tell us what to do...anything! And ideally, the magic solution to it all would also somehow also make us the heroes and the saviors of our own souls. What do you want from us God? Shall we solve global warming? cure all diseases? Find the solution to gun violence? Drive out every speck of racism? Fix every broken heart? Snap our fingers and end addiction?

In a world where we’re wrestling with the lines between truth and falsehoods, trying desperately to have a definition of what is good – here we already have an answer:

Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.

It's not grandiose, but simple.  and yet...not an easy path to follow. Justice is slow work, but the beat is steady over time.  Kindness isn’t dramatic, but is gently softens our own hearts and perhaps those around us. Humility with God doesn't necessarily  change what's around us, but perhaps it changes what's within us.

What is justice anyway? Where have you seen justice rising? What are some examples of kindness in action? Where have you been humbled? Where have you experienced the humility of someone else inspiring you?

The prophet Micah tell us that all this doesn't just happen on its own nor is it anything we do ourselves, but WITH God. I find that when I’m scattered, frustrated, overwhelmed, confused I’m also usually ignoring God. Micah reminds us to make sure that we are still clearing space to see our connection to God – in prayer, in silence, in community, but with intention.  It doesn't necessarily change our feelings, but I think it opens us up to new ones.

Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God isn't really an answer to how we fix everything. That's what the child born in Bethlehem is for. But it does guide us in how to keep going day by day. For those times when it all seems too much and you don't know where to start, it's that playlist gets you putting one foot in front of the other again. It's that steady beat like the voice of Mavis Staples belting out “keep your eyes on the prize, hold on”

Sources of Hebrew wisdom offer it this way, saying:

"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."

We won't save the world or ourselves.  We can't. We don't have to. God has already done that for us all. God declares us good from the beginning and shows us what good can do, day by day.  

A Disruptive Borderless God

The Sacred Story comes from 1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13 - a story of King Solomon’s misguided construction of a fabulous temple cage for God. Read the full story here.

We just celebrated my daughter’s 7th birthday yesterday. We…ok, I…envisioned this epic Double Dare theme.  I thought I could keep things simple and unfussy but still special. Preparations definitely started out that way, but then I remembered that given the opportunity I will fuss and fluff as much as there is time. So I scoured pinterest for activities and décor ideas, I ordered safety goggles for every single child to protect them from the buckets of slime I now had recipes for. Somehow our “simple celebration” required my husband and I to stay up late making a giant paper mache nose.  On the big day I got her flowers and filled her bed with balloons, because I do want her to know that this day is special and I want her to feel honored and cherished. And I think she did experience that through all the fanfare and fun. But our love for her is reflected best…not by lavish gifts or on a single special occasion, but in the daily minutia of living in love. She experiences my love even more profoundly when I put down my phone, look her in the eye, and listen to the drama of her day as we build legos together. Our relationship is honored and nourished when she gets to tell me about her friends, the people that she loves, when she gets to show me her discoveries, and we all get to spend quality time together.

King Solomon builds this grand temple which God is indeed worthy of, but misses the mark because he does so at the expense of real people and real relationship. In between these chapters we know the Solomon uses oppressive labor practices that are eerily similar to the Israelites bondage in Egypt.  The stunning temple is built on the backs of the underpaid working poor, and the priests and elders get all the glory in the end. While he makes a big show, Solomon stops really listening to God.

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We hear Solomon proclaim, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. 13 I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.” It’s as if Solomon thinks he has outdone God by finding a way to contain the uncontainable, the silver bullet for the divine, for with Solomon all things are possible. His motives are warped into an aim of making God proud, and he at least subconsciously holds the expectation that building a glorious temple would give him a bit of an edge in the market on God. Still, the Lord’s presence amidst the dark clouds re-asserts divine freedom, especially against the temptation to idolatry, which is another word for the human attempt to limit divine freedom and manage divine access.  God’s glory disrupts all activity in the temple because God cannot be housed by it, cannot truly live in it, nor be contained by it, let alone forever. God extends beyond these walls to inhabit the amorphous and unstructured, uncontainable cloud.”

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It’s a lesson that apparently we never quite learn. When the Lord our God gave the Church rest on every side, we set our sights on rebuilding St.Peter’s Basilica in Rome into the stunning structure it is today. I have walked the sacred halls of that place for myself and was indeed more inspired than I ever thought I would be.

But the oppressive cost of grandeur was again born by the most vulnerable. The temple would be financed, at least in part, by the sale of forgiveness which most affected the poor.  Construction began in 1506, and by 1517…tensions bubbled over. 501 years ago Martin Luther took a hammer and nail to the pretty temple doors in Wittenburg and posted his 95 Theses – 95 statements of faith, a list of 95 ways in which the church had deviated from its call to be a carrier of the Gospel and must now return to its true self, to re-focus the church on God.  In these statements, Luther reminds us of the limitations of people and priests to proffer salvation and lifts up the limitless grace of God.

Essentially Luther claims that no one can buy or sell forgiveness, no gold can achieve salvation, no grandeur can fully capture God, no one has a corner on the God market, and thus no human being can be denied direct access to the divine. This is true especially, ESPECIALLY as the means of grace are exploited and abused at the victimization of the most vulnerable, the poor. At its heart, the Reformation speaks against a containable and compartmentalized God and thus a compartmentalized faith.

God is boundless, borderless, and so is our way of being in God.  God’s loves for us extends to our whole selves and so we are wrapped up in a love, a faith that isn’t only on paper, not just in our heads, or only when we step inside a church building…it is how we live and move and have our being.  

How do the people around us know that God loves them? that the church wants to be a part of that love? Perhaps more than great music, big programs, or even dynamic preaching… is the day in and day out relationships.  Perhaps this holy love is best seen and experienced when we are thoughtful about our words and actions - how they might spread violence or support dignity. God’s promise of love for the world is revealed as true when speak up for even those who we disagree with politically. Divine love is known when people stand up for each other across race, and nationality, and religion. Without an awareness of this kind of love were are a clanging symbols, noisy gongs, desperate for the attention of the world and of God, but missing it all around us. If we are silent about this kind of love in the face of hurtful words, even ones we brush off as not a big deal to us, then we become a part of the same temple built on the suffering of the vulnerable.


From the splendor of Solomon in the Old Testament, to the temple veil being torn in two at Jesus’ crucifixion, to the affluence of the European Renaissance, and into our own time… God invites us to imagine that the temple is not the building, but Christ. Place matters, but it is not our center.  God is our center. The kingdom of God is not brick, but embodied. We can be a part of building a house for the lord our God, but it is built not of stone, but of people. God dwells not only among pillars or tablets, but in us and around us. Many church buildings look like fortresses, but the true stronghold resides not within walls, but in God. Our relationship with God in honored and nurtured by grace, not grandeur. God’s love is experienced not just on special occasions but in the day to day realities of life.

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The Reformation isn’t only a moment in history, but an ongoing movement that continues to shape us.  We are a resurrection people. Our identity is rooted in allowing the old things to pass away and in being made new every single day. It’s who we are.  It’s how we are. Because of God. Because of Christ. Luther felt compelled to speak up when it seemed as though the people of God placed all their eternal hopes on the Pope and on paper rather than the Gospel. For Luther, the way to re-center the church on Christ was to value scripture over tradition, faith over works, and grace over merit. We still miss the mark.  We forget our true foundation. What do we need to do to re-align ourselves again with Jesus? As individuals and as a church. It won’t ultimately save us, and it won’t give us the corner on the God-market, but perhaps it will reveal the ways in which the limitless love and pervasive presence of God dwells among us.

Queen Bathsheba Too

The Sacred Story comes from 2 Samuel 11:1-5, 26-27; 12:1-9 and Psalm 51:1-9. Clink the links to read the full story - a story of David and Bathsheba, of the abuse of power and God’s ongoing work of transformation.

The bible is not a series of disconnected stories, it is a single narrative that points to one person, to the One who is true and better.   These stories are our stories, as we point to one who is true and better than anything we can comprehend. These stories are about us, because God is about the lives of everyday people, but the true subject of these stories is God.  

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God uses all types of people to tell this story – people like David, Uriah, Bathsheba, and Nathan. God is present with David, who was thing gangly underdog of a boy who defeats giants, becomes a national hero and was known as a man after God’s own heart. David who nevertheless has his ego run away with him to the detriment and demise of real live people around him.  David, who objectifies Bathsheba and then tries to cover up his actions by sending her husband, Uriah, to the front lines of a war as a means of murder.


God is present in Uriah - a soldier betrayed by the leader he serves and is treated as disposable.

God is present in Bathsheba – who is at all not a seductress, but someone following the rules of ritual cleansing, someone who follows God’s laws of mourning, and yet still becomes a victim of the powerful.  She is a common woman of Israel, with no particular notoriety, she is a survivor, and a grieving widow. Bathsheba endures erasure as her name begins to disappear from the text after verse 5. So many victims are “disappeared” as their stories go untold and their pain is unrealized or ignored. Bathsheba as a woman in her society, was powerless to call David to account for what he had done to her. Bathsheba continues to be a victim and yet her situation is overlooked. At verse 26, her name is taken away and she is referred to simply as “the wife of Uriah.” But God knows her name and her story. Whether recorded or not, God saw what had been done to Bathsheba. She too was a child of God, with all the rights and privileges of God’s favor. The Story of God includes her story.

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God is present in Nathan – someone sent by God with the courage to confront a man he knew was capable of violence and murder.


This is God’s story.  These are God’s people.  This is our story.

What David did to Bathsheba was assault.  As king, someone with authority over Bathsheba and any person in Israel and as the one with power over anyone else in this situation, consent is simply impossible. I just want to be very clear that when we talk about David’s brokenness here, we’re not talking about what Bathsheba looked like or was wearing, we’re not talking about a “mistake,” and we’re not talking about adultery – we’re talking about violence. This isn’t about intimacy, it’s about power.  He abused his position of power. He did not consider the consequences of his actions, or he considered himself excused from those consequences. Even when we look at Nathan’s parable, the issue is that the rich man was not willing to give up his assumed privilege, but abused his authority to take what he thought he was entitled to.

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Like David, we find that it is easier to name the brokenness of others rather than our own. We desperately want to believe that this exists apart from us, and apart from our involvement.  It’s something that happens over there, amongst those bad apples.  Tsk tsk, what a shame. It also seems that it is even easier to name the brokenness of others when that “other” is someone we consider to be outside our tribe.  When someone’s abusive behaviors exposed, we get a twisted sense of glee or feel sense of betrayal that is dependent on whether or not they align with our politics, our worldview, or even our church denomination – someone we considered one “us”. Our feelings of how bad the offense is…may seem to shift whether the perpetrator is Bill O’Reilly, or our Olympic gymnastics staff, or clergy, or Matt Lauer, or Roger Ailes, or Kevin Spacey, or Garrison Keilor…

God speaks through Nathan to disrupt this toxic behavior. It’s not that David doesn’t know right from wrong, but he is blind to his part in it.  I’m not even going to address the problematic part of comparing women to livestock, but Nathan does speak God’s redemption to David.

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Redemption comes not because what happened wasn’t THAT bad, nor even because David says “I’m sorry.” David is only able to plead forgiveness, because another comes alongside him to help him understand the depth of what he’s done, and helps him recognize his identity as something other than this. In this sacred story and in our world today, I hear the question - how can there be healing and reconciliation after a violation? What does the road back look like for someone who has harmed others?

It turns out that honesty isn’t just a virtue; it is a catalyst for transformation.

What changes David isn’t shame, it’s love. That doesn’t mean he’s exempt from the consequences of his actions, but even guilt and punishment won’t transform him like love does. What changes him is his deep relationship with Nathan, who is able to reflect with him, in profound honesty.  I don’t even think I’d categorize this as tough love, it’s a liberating love, although it can certainly be confrontational and uncomfortable. But when we are deeply loved, we are also deeply known. In the midst of love we can be honest about ourselves and be released from the masks we keep up in order to seem valuable to the world. This is the truth in which God sees us, and even so God still loves us.  This is a divine truth! But more often it comes to us not as a voice from a cloud, but in the embrace of a friend as the house of cards comes tumbling down.

The prophet Nathan is someone that helps David to recognize for himself that his identity doesn’t rest on his power over others.

In the midst of the last several years of headlines, the growth of the “Me Too” movement, and the increasing entrenchment of political tribalism, there is a Word of redemption here for us too. This story highlights how women have been dealing with this for thousands and thousands of years, so it’s understable that patience and second chances are running low.  But what does redemption look like in this era?

Perhaps redemption looks like the courage of modern prophets to speak truth and confront people they are close to, especially men speaking to other men. Redemption calls us to speak up and say, “that joke isn’t funny,” “you keep interrupting her,” or “there’s absolutely no need to comment on what she’s wearing.”

Perhaps redemption is revealed when, in the clear light of day, those who have caused harm can confront their own brokenness, without dodging the consequences, and then begin to join the day in and day out work of proclaiming the dignity of all people.

Perhaps redemption comes as we pray for our leaders – that they may be wise and compassionate, aware of their influence and the vulnerability of others. And that we, the ones they are called to serve, hold them to account on behalf of the vulnerable.

Perhaps redemption looks like unearthing stories of hurt that we thought we had to hide until now. Perhaps it is most powerful in the assurance that our stories are already known and seen by God, whether or not anyone else acknowledges them.

Redemption is surely what God is still doing in these days and throughout time, and has already accomplished.  It is the promise that God, in Jesus, is a true and better David – a king and a leader that does not abuse their power, but lays it down for the sake of the powerless. This is the kind of world-altering redemption that has already changed the game and is yet unfurling still before our eyes. This is a kind of hope that doesn’t hinge on how well we can all get along, but yet invites us to discover a way forward in wholeness. Amen.

Not a Tame God

This week’s sacred story comes from Joshua 24:1-26 where the covenant between God and the people is renewed. Read the full story here. Or watch an 8.5 minute synopsis of the whole book of Joshua here.

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A whole generation has passed since God met with Moses on the mountain to give the people the 10 best ways to live. After breaking the covenant, renewing it, and wandering across the spiritual and physical desert for 40 years, Moses and the people who fled Egypt are gone. Joshua carried on. In his leadership and after their committing incredible violence, God brings the people to the land that was promised generations ago.  For this moment, the people don’t have to worry about fighting or how they go on.  In this particular moment they are safe and have all that they need.

It is the turning of the season. In these pivotal moments of our stories, the places where we know things are changing…we have a chance to think about what has been and what could be. On the cusp of transition, in order to step forward, we reflect.  We remember our stories, we remember the people and places who shape us.  Joshua reflects on what God has done.

It has made me stop for a moment, and think about what God has done, where God has been in my own life lately.

After several years of praying and searching, God has provided my husband with meaningful work that utilizes his gifts and fills him with life. Each day, God grants us safety, the health of our family, and food on our table. In these last few weeks which have been emotionally and physically exhausting, God has provided for me much-needed moments of rest, even if it’s just a couple hours in the wilderness that my soul craves for renewal.  God has connected me with a spiritual director who grounds me and yet something about that grounding is also a challenge, an act of resistance.   God has blessed me with a church family that cares enough to let me brag about my brilliant 1st grader and preach the bold Word that God has placed in my heart and on my tongue.

When I think on the story of +KINDRED, I think about how… when we needed our first dinner church meal; folks from Celebration Lutheran in Cypress drove into the heart of the city to take care of that for us. I think about how God through our friends in the community have invited us to join them in advocacy with the LGBTQ community, adding to the voices calling for the dignity of immigrants, and organizing for better justice and resources for the poor.  I think about how God has enabled us through the generosity of many to keep food on these tables. I think about this building we occupy. This past week someone mentioned to me that, “I don’t think anyone realizes how much happens here.”  I give thanks for a place of beauty to gather together – a place to keep us warm or cool, dry and safe – if only for an hour or two at a time. I give thanks for all the conversation that reveal deep relationship where we can let our guards down and be honest with one another about what is really going on in our lives.

I want to invite you to think about what God has done and where God has been for you…even just recently.  God promises to be with all of us, so I know there’s some way in which God is present and active in your life. If you struggle to think of how or where that is, think about - Where have you experienced love? Joy? Generosity? Hope?

Go ahead. If you’re reading this on your screen take a few deep breaths, close your eyes, and take a moment to just be.

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In remembrance of God’s work in our lives and in the world, what will we do?  Joshua asks the people, in light of where they have been and where they are now, who will they serve and how they will live. The people are quick to respond with their devotion to God. But Joshua follows up, essentially inviting them to stop and really think about who God is, who it is that they want to serve and follow.  Joshua reminds them that God isn’t a fluffy bunny, but is a God beyond their controlling. This reminds me of one of my favorite moments from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with its beautiful allegory of God.  Toward the beginning, as the children are just discovering this incredible world, they ask about who Aslan is:

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"..."Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”

Toward the end, as they have grown to love this Aslan and wonder what life will be like now, Mr. Beaver tells them:

“He'll be coming and going" he had said. "One day you'll see him and another you won't. He doesn't like being tied down--and of course he has other countries to attend to. It's quite all right. He'll often drop in. Only you mustn't press him. He's wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

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As the people profess their commitment to God, Joshua essentially asks them, “are you sure?” They respond with an enthusiastic yes, which I believe they whole heartedly believe.  But as for me and my house, I would say….

No, I’m not sure.  I’m not sure I fully understand who God is or what God is up to. There are many days where I’m not sure I want to be a part of it, whatever it is. And yet, I look back at my story, at God’s story, at the ways in which they are intertwined and I can’t shake the sense that I’m tied to the ship anyway.

This covenant with God seems to be something that is about an ongoing renewal. Like with baptism, this isn’t just an event that happens once, but is an ongoing thing – we die and rise anew each day. The covenant is renewed with each communion as we are reminded and reconnected with who God is for us and in us. In Christ, God establishes the covenant again – one which points to the new and greater Joshua, Yeshua, Jesu, Jesus - who wins the day not with violence, but with non-violence, and grants us not just temporary rest but rest eternal in which we are witnesses to the full glory of God. Amen.

 

A Covenant is Not a Contract

First, we read the sacred story of God giving the Ten Commandments to the newly liberated Israelites. Read the full story of Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17 here.

Then, we experience the story told through Godly Play as a story of the Ten Best Ways. Watch the story here.

I think when most of us think of the Ten Commandments, we think of them as rules, which is….only kind of true.  It seems the Commandments are less like the instruction booklet that comes with a board game, and more like the rule of life held by monastic communities.  Every order of monks and nuns has a Rule of Life which is like a handbook on what they value and what rhythms of life will allow them to hold those values…together. God shows them these 10 best ways in order  to guide and guard them as a people, to help them unlearn the habits of empire that were ingrained in them in Egypt. To help them find a new way that serves life and community rather than death and ego.

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When Jesus was asked to name the greatest commandment, he summarized them all as an extension of loving God above all else with our whole selves.  He said it is to love God with all your heart, and all you soul, and all you mind.  And what naturally follows is to love your neighbor as yourself. Love God. Love people.  All the other commandments hang on these two. These are the core values for this rule of life. Here God shows Moses and the people what that looks like in practice. We humans are gonna need specifics when it comes to how we practice love in concrete ways. Beyond even then 10 commandments, the people will eventually have as many as 613 commandments in the whole Torah to specify how to live together as God’s people.

But underneath it all, at the foundation, is a promise - a promise of liberation and a promise of relationship; a promise that God will never leave us and that no matter what…God loves us. At the root of it all is God’s big wide covenant, which extends to all of creation through Christ.

A covenant is different than a contract, it's the mutual binding of lives together. Rather than something that protects its own interest from the other, it builds a new thing alongside one another. A contract connects two things with a sense of obligation, a covenant not only connects but integrates them in love, care, and hope.

We can easily harbor bitterness toward God and religion for the feeling that we are being asked to live up to an impossible standard in order to earn God’s approval. Fair enough. This is too often the what we hear either explicitly or implicitly from churches and teachers. But it was never the law that saves, it was always the covenant. It has always been God’s faithfulness to us, even when we mess it up, even to the point of death, so that we would have life and life abundant.

The commandments are given, the covenant is made on stone, not because God looks at the people she freed and says “ok, now you owe me,” but as a gift that will allow them to experience freedom that isn’t just in name only, but in practice. These “best ways of living” are the scaffolding which supports and facilitates the promised freedom. It is the organizational foundation that allows for even greater creativity and more profound love. It brings our hope out of theory and into practice.

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If you were to receive the commandments for a community of faith, what would they be?

What are the things that you think would help a community live into God’s hope for us?  What really practical pieces are needed to support this life together? What do needs to be established as important for loving God? And for loving neighbor?


The Chaotic Roundabout Road to Liberation

This week’s sacred story comes from Exodus 14:5-7, 10-14, 21-29 - Read the full story here. The people of God have been “freed” from slavery in Egypt, but are then pursued with violence and find themselves trapped at the Red Sea.

Last week we left this story with Joseph stuck in prison.  As the story unfolds, God gives him visions and dreams that bring him out of this imprisonment, to become the right hand of Pharaoh and the one who would save the nation and its people, even the ones who betrayed him -  from famine, starvation, and death. But now, inevitably, time has passed and Joseph has been forgotten in the halls of power. The people of God are reduced to slaves – not of the most High, but of the Empire of Egypt.  This life wasn’t just hard, it was cruel.  It meant that Hebrew babies were taken from their mothers, their families, their communities. It meant that they were no longer considered people, but machines whose only value was to make bricks, to produce. The was no time for rest, no “off” button, no escape from the constant compulsion to do more and more and more and more and more.  Perhaps the people began to believe or just resign themselves to the lies that this was all they were good for, that it was ridiculous to even imagine things being different, this was simply the way the world was now. And yet a distant hope still flickered in their hearts. They cried out to God.  They gave voice to their pain and their heartbreak. And God heard them. God had not forgotten them.  God would not abandon them. God had made a promise, a covenant to their ancestors, a promise to always be with them and to lead them, throughout the generations to a place where life and love can grow.

From among them, God lifts up Moses – a stuttering, unsure, and unprepared murderer, to lead the people into liberation, true freedom – not just in body but in soul.  Moses goes to the most powerful person in the land, Pharaoh, with whom he was raised like a brother. From Pharaoh’s perspective, I’m sure this stings of betrayal. How could this person who was his playmate in childhood, who had enjoyed the benefits of power and wealth with him, now see him as the bad guy, as an enemy? The voice of God through Moses says, “enough.” Enough.  It seems a powerful word for both Pharaoh and the Israelites to hear. Enough.

It’s a jarring change. No one is quite sure what’s going on in the unfolding of this new reality. The rules of the game seem to change with each passing moment.  Everything is happening so quickly now. As it turns out, the road to liberation isn’t a smooth or straightforward one.  The people of God are taken the long way round.  Chapter 13, verses 17-18 tell us, “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness towards the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle.” The most direct path to the promised land isn’t where God leads them, but it is where they are promised to arrive.

First, God is leading them, going ahead of them and lighting the way in a pillar of fire and cloud.  Now, it has moved behind them.  First, they were walking toward life, now it seems they are running into death.  First, Moses tells them to keep still and watch.  Now, God is saying, “get moving and see.” It’s a mess. It’s chaos. It’s unnerving. The people of God are back to feeling trapped.  They have hit a wall….of water.

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When we come to a place of confusion and disappointment or fear, we question. In this moment, the flicker of hope seems to be drowned out.  We had hoped that this would be the one to save us.

Maybe we harbored a secret hope that this time things could or would be different.  But maybe we didn’t really allow ourselves to believe it would really happen. People who have been oppressed, abused, let down, and heartbroken (whether by political powers, by family, friends, by institutions, or by the church) often find it hard to believe that hope is really possible or that God actually cares. When we hit the wall, we remember all the times we’ve seen it go wrong. It hurts so bad and yet, there’s a strange sense of comfort or safety in the predictability of it. Even if we know in our brains that the ways of the  past are deadly, it seems better than where we’re at - stuck, trapped between the hurt of our past behind us and the wall of water in front of us. Because of the ways we’ve been hurt, we are often more willing to trust the lies about ourselves and/or our stories than trust the promises of truth about how much we are really loved and cared for.  We get used to and even somehow can appreciate systems that aren’t good for us, even when we know they’re not good for us or for the world. One commentator names it well, noting that: “it is difficult to sustain a revolution, because one loses all the benefits and safety of the old system well before there are any tangible benefits from what is promised.”

This middle space, isn’t just hard…it’s excruciating and confusing. It makes us want to turn back. And yet, God doesn’t abandon them and they don’t cease to be God’s beloved people when they express doubt. The covenant doesn’t dissolve when they lament and cry out. There’s chaos in the change as God seems to keep moving around. God moves from front to back, but in doing so always stands between us and that which would mean death for us.

 God creates a way out of no way.  God separates the waters from the waters and creates dry land. God is still doing the Genesis work of creation. Through the water, God creates more than a new world, God creates  a new people. The images from the beginning, reappear. I love it when the bible does that.  It shows us that this sacred text is not a series of disconnected stories, but a single narrative that points to the One.

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God has always created new life from the chaos of the cosmos.  This points us to a God, the Creator, who is still creating.  It points us to a new and greater Moses who liberates us not only from oppression, from a system of consumption, from a lesser identity, but from all things, from death itself. This liberation is not only for the Israelites, but intended for the nation of Egypt as well – scripture says “the Egyptians shall know that I am LORD, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers.” (14:18)

Many things about this journey, this way of life are hard, and scary, confusing, chaotic, and frustrating, exhausting. Next week we will hear about how God helps the people navigate those challenges and find a new rhythm with rest. But for now, we can look at our similar experiences and moments and know that we are in good company. That the people of God have wrestled with this for generations. And that God leads them through these moments to create something new and greater.

As we look at this community. As we look around us at these, our Kindred, with all our differences, sometimes I wonder – can the hope and the promised of the wide tent of God really be true?  Can it really work? Like the Israelites, I’m haunted by all the broken promises of before – experiencing churches only want me if I behave the right way, go to the right meetings, they don’t actually care about me. I’ve seen people and communities try to be kind before but it never works out.

People who didn’t grow up in church, people who still aren’t sure about this God-thing, people who know the songs by heart, people who experience God in the quiet, people who know God best in movement, people who struggle to get by, people who struggle with how to be faithful with all they have - how can we be one people? Can this be a place, a people where welcome truly means welcome and we can come as we are, all of us?  …

It seems a pipe dream, and it kinda is but that’s the promised land, the beloved community. It’s a new kind of kingdom, a new creation, a revolution. Life together is messy and chaotic and hard and The Israelites will still need to figure out how they’re going to do it, how they’re going to live together. Next week we’ll hear more about how that plays out.

The road from slavery to liberation is wrought with challenges – and not just in a trite “power of positive thinking” kind of way. The transformation of a people from a diminished existence to life-giving beloved community is honestly, still ongoing. You can take the people out of Egypt, but it’s a lot harder to take the Egypt out of the people. It’s hard to shift away from a society, from our habits and even our own sense of self, in which people were seen as objects and commodities in a culture of consumption, valued only for what they produce. We can look around and know that we want something to be different.  And now that we have the promise of hope, as tempting as it may seem…we know in our heads that we can never go back and live as if we had not hoped, as if we haven’t envisioned new possibilities.

God was with Joseph.  God was with there in Egypt. God is active in the story, protecting, guiding, and making a way out of no way. God leads, God defends, God liberates, God creates, God gives tired feet the spirit to dance. The ancient story is our story. The eternal hope is our hope. Amen.

Sexual Abuse, Power, and the Gospel

The sacred story comes from Genesis 39:1-23. Read the full story here.

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How did we get here? What on earth is going on? As Joseph sits in a desperate jail cell, I can only imagine the questions racing through his mind. How did we get here? Just a couple generations ago, Abraham and Sarah were declared the parents of the great family, rooted in a covenant with God. They had to leave their home, struggled to conceive but then used their slave’s sexuality for their needs. Their grandsons, Jacob and Esau, fought each other from the beginning, conspired and betrayed their own family. And now, Jacob’s children have conspired together to kill Joseph, but settled on selling him into human trafficking, only for him to end up the victim of sexual assault and thrown in a foreign jail cell. We don’t do ourselves or the gospel any favors by ignoring these issues, or quickly brushing past them to get to more comfortable things. If we can’t be honest about it as church, where can we be?

I thought being people of the covenant would look different. Promised lands, “being blessed to be a blessing”, God’s chosen and beloved people and all that – I mean, I knew it wouldn’t be easy or perfect, but I thought it would be a little rosier than…THIS. How did we get here? These are questions we may be asking ourselves about our own families, our communities, our own culture.

Joseph was once his father’s favorite, his beloved, with whom Jacob was well pleased. But he was betrayed by those closest to him, and was delivered unto death.  Even when Joseph rises within the house of Potiphar, he is betrayed by the powerful and condemned. It’s a pattern that defines us as CHRISTIANS, isn’t it? And yet, in the midst of the trauma, we still wonder…Where is God in all of it? What does God want from us?

What defines the WORLD is power. Power shapes society into what it is, for better or worse.  And unfortunately we know plenty of stories in which power is abused and misused.  Here, the household of the captain of the guard in the powerful nation of Egypt, uses their power to pressure Joseph, to use him as an object that serves their own desire and power, and then ultimately shame and condemn him, knowing they will never have to suffer the consequences. 

In this dynamic, Joseph is powerless. He is an Ethnic minority (which we hear clearly when he is referred to as…THIS Hebrew).  He is socially at the bottom of the heap as a slave. He becomes the victim as power is exerted for exploitation, and a position of authority is abused for sexual gain.

It can be tempting to view “power” as something distant from ourselves – as belonging to others, or to distance ourselves by saying that sort of power is so much more or different than what we have.  But power isn’t only held in titles and wealth, badges and bureaucrats. Power is also…knowing that your perspective will be believed and valued by others with power. It’s in knowing how the system works or having the resources either mentally, relationally, or financially to navigate that system with safety and benefit. And that kind of power is abused not only when it is intentionally exerted over and against someone else, but also when it’s neglected, when we fail to acknowledge it at all.

That’s hard to wrap our minds around. Maybe we expected power to look different.  Maybe we expected it to look like a shiny car, fancy suit, or a big house. Maybe we thought power came in the form of a bunch of followers on social media, when all it really means is access and influence.

Maybe this gets us to thinking power = evil, but power isn’t inherently bad.  God is powerful.  Jesus wields incredible power, power over the grave itself. Earthly power functions for the sake of itself. God shows us what power does for the sake of the Gospel, in the creation of a new kind of kingdom. 

Where is God, the almighty, in Joseph’s story? God, in power, goes and sits with the powerless, aligns itself with the vulnerable. What’s happening to Joseph is unfair. This isn’t right.  He is suffering. And yet, the bible tells us over and over - the LORD was with him, the LORD was with Joseph.  The scriptures highlight that God is particularly present and active alongside the victimized, the incarcerated, the vulnerable, the ethnic minority, the foreigner.

The question of “if the lord was with him, how could God let this happen?” is never answered. But what God does in the midst of all this is shown as the story continues.  Through all of it Gods finds a way to keep promises. Right now, we’re in the middle of the story. As it continues to unfold,  Joseph’s life is revealed to have deep meaning and he lives on to help save the people, both the nation that and its powerful that betray him here, and his family that betrayed him before. This  does not excuse abuses and harm, but it offers us a different kind of question, a shift in the way we look at these things.  When our world is in chaos, where can God take us from here?

Someone is betrayed to the point of death. And yet in that death and betrayal, God doesn’t give up on us. God gets to work to redeem even the betrayer. This is the shape of the cross, right here in Genesis - that when suffering happens, we can expect God to show up. This gospel is tough to hear when we are the one betrayed and hurt.  We want justice and we have ideas about what that justice should look like. God’s justice is to disrupt the things that led others to harm another in the first place and to make everyone involved whole in ways that ripple justice into the future.

So if God and the Gospel, the new world order, is mostly clearly present among the powerless, the victims…where are we in all this? As we’ve seen, it’s not that the powerful are over here without God and the powerless are over there.  God is power and in this Gospel truth, hope comes to bloom where the powerful and the powerless meet and are joined together, aligned with one another. So if we are those who have been exploited and hurt, how are we holding the powerful accountable? How are we pointing to God’s persistent presence and promise even in our struggle, offering hope when it seems unlikely?  And if we are those with access and influence, how is God inviting us to make use of these things in service to the vulnerable so that we all might experience God more fully? So that we all live into our already- accomplished redemption here and now? Thinking of our power in this way takes hard work.  I invite you to pray and reflect on this. What do you have access to that you maybe haven’t considered before? This building? Because space is valuable. Schools and knowing how to succeed in them? Because education deserves equity. Civic associations? Because local decisions still impact those who don’t have an advocate. Do you have experience and knowledge in how to start a business, finance a dream? Consider even the power of your voice – speaking up in solidarity with – knowing that your voice will be trusted and believed where others are not.

God is here.  God is with you. The Lord is with you, with all God’s power and promises from generation to generation. God has never left you and never will. Nor does God in the cross, leave us where we are, unchanged, but is continually bringing life out of death…for all of us…together. Amen.

PRACTICES: Discernment

The sacred story today comes from Luke 24:13-35. Read the full story here.

A sermon from Shannon Schaefer

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"Were not our hearts burning within us?" I wonder if you have ever asked a question like that?

I have to confess, when Pastor Ashley asked me to consider preaching on the spiritual practice of discernment a few months back, I thought, "Are you kidding?! Surely you must be!"

My life is a little crazy, you see. I rarely feel as if I have a solid sense of direction and every other week find myself in the midst of some minor existential crisis over any variety of things, ranging from life in community to living in Houston, to questions of jobs and vocation and calling, to parenting, and the list goes on.

So to talk about discernment - about decision making and hearing God, well, I imagine you should be hearing about all this from someone who's living their best life now, you know? And not the hot mess I am in daily life.

But once I settled down a little, I realized I do have something to say about discernment.

After all, my life this moment looks very different than it did a decade ago, and that kind of drastic change doesn't happen by accident.

And beyond questions of my own life, it's also true that I am someone others have often turned to for presence and for processing as they have made decisions and listened for God.

Some of those decisions have been the big ones - like which grad school to go to, or whether to leave ministry, whether to stay in Houston after Mission Year, whether to get married, or what to think about bodies.

Some of those decisions have been more daily - questions of how to eat, how to pray, where to spend time, how to navigate conflict, how to grow as a person.

I do know something about discernment and the practice of it. And as a practice, I think it's critical to the Christian life.

Discernment, if I were to define it, is simply an openness to the Spirit of God, a listening for the voice of God, and the willingness to be lead and act on God's leading.

Openness, listening, and willingness.

And while we can try these on our own, what I want to suggest tonight is that ultimately our practices of discernment are really bound up in practices of friendship and community - that we must submit our lives to others who see us, know us, and will discern with us.

The stories of Jesus's appearances after the resurrection are some of those most dear to me in scripture.

And this particular story, of the walk to Emmaus, highlights the role of community and friendship in discerning the presence of Jesus.

As these friends walk along the road, someone joins them. And he seems at first to not know about Jesus, about the crucifixion and events in Jerusalem.

They tell him about their community - the women who found the empty tomb, and other friends who went to check it out. They had hoped Jesus was the Messiah, but it seems like their hopes were dashed.

And then this stranger, who has listened, begins to explain how Jesus was the Messiah. He goes back to Moses and the prophets.

They end up inviting the stranger back to their place for dinner. And when he breaks bread, it dawns on them that the stranger is Jesus himself!

Together in wonder, they say, "Were not our hearts burning within us?"

"Our hearts," they say. They are together in discerning that this stranger is Jesus. With a solidarity of experience, they witness in one another's lives the miracle they have just experienced.

For tonight, there are three things I want to highlight in this story - three things that strike me as important for the practice of discernment. Here they are:

1. These two friends have paid attention to their hopes and desires.

2. They engage together the story of faith and remember together what they know.

3. They are part of a much larger web of friendships with those whose lives are aimed at ultimate questions and ways of being in the world.

Back to the first: They have paid attention to their hopes and desires.

As they lay out the recent events in Jerusalem, telling the stranger all that has happened, they say, "we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel."

They had hoped. They had desires about this particular man, Jesus, but also desires about how he had envisioned the world. In other words, they had bought into Jesus's imagination for reality.

They had glimpsed a new kingdom breaking in and they wanted to live within it.

So often, I have tended to think that if I want something, it must not be what God wants.
Have you ever felt that way?

Behind it is what I think is a faulty assumption first about God's heart for us, as if God of course opposes everything we want, and secondly about our own innate sinfulness or a propensity to want the wrong things.

But the truth is that often God uses our desires, our capacity to hope and long, in order to move us toward God and toward lives of faithfulness.

I once heard an old-timey preacher say that "when you want what God wants, you will want what God wants." In other words, to pray God's will be done means that in time, our desires begin to align with that will.

Or, there's a beautiful prayer by Thomas Merton which includes this line: "I believe that the desire to please you, O God, does in fact please you and I hope I have that desire in all I am doing."

These two traveling friends had a desire to see the kingdom of God as Jesus had envisioned it break in to reality, and had desires that their lives be shaped by his imagination.

These hopes, these desires, were good and Godly, and right.

Second, they engage together their shared story of faith, and remember what they know.

One the road, the stranger opens to them the scriptures, rehearsing what Moses and the prophets have said.

This is critical in our practices of discernment. So often the questions we have are about what comes next in the story for us.

Who will we become? What should we do or where should we go, and how will our character deepen and develop? And ultimately, where is God in any or all of this?

To know what comes next, we have to know where we are, remember the plot, locate ourselves and this moment in the story God is telling. We remember through reading scripture, and engaging the story in practices like communion. We can't do this alone.

Which leads me to the third aspect of our sacred story tonight, namely the importance of friendship and community. The traveling friends in our story are part of a much larger web of community with others whose lives are aimed at ultimate questions and ways of being in the world.

In telling the stranger what has happened, they refer to the women who discover the empty tomb and others who saw it. And after their eyes are opened, they process this experience together, of having discovered the stranger to be Jesus. And after this, they return to the rest of the disciples to relate what they have seen.

I would argue that without friendship and community, we cannot actually practice discernment.

Here I don't mean the Facebook friend kind of friendship.
I mean the kind of friendship where two people are running neck and neck hard toward the things of God.

These are people your life is wide open to, who you have given permission to know you deeply and even say hard things to you, who will hold you in the integrity of who you are, and call you up to belovedness.

They know who you are, the know who God is and what story we're in, and they're on the road with you, journeying in the same general direction. They hope with you, listen for God with you, interpret the story with you.

In my life, I have a group of very dear friends who have traveled with me these past years. Who are your traveling partners in your life?

If you aren't certain, then look around the table. At Kindred, we are hoping to be the kind of place where we journey together and name the presence of the risen Jesus in our midst. 

We hope to say together, "Were not our hearts burning within us?" and name that God was with us all along, is now, and ever will be. Amen.

PRACTICES: Prayer

This week's Sacred Story comes from Psalm 141:1-2, Romans 8:22-27, and Matthew 6:5-15

"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." - Romans 8:26-27

I wonder…What has your experience of prayer been? How has it been a part of
your life? How have you seen it as a part of other’s lives? What have you been
taught about prayer? What do you think about prayer? How do you feel about
prayer? What do you wish prayer could be for you?

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Has it been, for you, something that restores your soul? a source of comfort
when you didn’t know what else to do? Has it been a frustratingly silent and
feelingless practice? Is it something you had to memorize growing up, something
that was done before dinner at grandma’s house? Maybe it’s something you do
“just in case” there really is a God out there. Maybe there is a particular prayer
that functions more as a secret access code that once prayed gets you “in”?

We all come to the practice of prayer with our own baggage, both positive and
negative. Even if it seems as though it has never been a real part of our lives, we
get at least a taste of it second hand whether it’s the debate over the practice is
or isn’t a part of public schools or how it’s featured in films, praying to dear tiny
infant Jesus. We each have varying understanding, expectations, and practices
of prayer. And it appears that throughout the bible, there is room for a varied
expression of this holy practice.

It’s one of those things we can probably never fully understand. Some say prayer
is….relationship, conversation, or simply awareness – being attentive, being
open and attuned to God’s presence, voice, and movement. Mother Theresa was
once asked about her prayer life. The interviewer asked, “When you pray, what
do you say to God?” Mother Teresa replied, “I don’t talk, I simply listen.” Then the
interviewer asked, “Ah, then what is it that God says to you when you pray?”
Mother Teresa replied, “He also doesn’t talk. He also simply listens.”

Sometimes, we have particular things on our mind and in our hearts that we need
to say, questions we have to ask. Sometimes prayer feels like it exists during a
set time, other times it seems to go on and on without ceasing, taking place with
our every breath in, and every breath out. Sometimes, we lean on the expression
of others across time. There is prayer that comes with particular words, handed
down to us through tradition, including these teachings from Christ. Even those
who have been following him for a while now have to ask, want to know more
about the ways of prayer. Jesus teaches us to pray boldly – praising God for
their glory and not hesitating to ask for what is essential to body and soul. Jesus
also teaches us to pray humbly, simply. God shows us that prayer doesn’t have
to be fancy, it’s not a performance. The bold and simple words of what we now
call “The Lord’s Prayer” are often learned by heart, repeated over and over
throughout our lifetimes so much so that it is remembered not only by our minds
but in our very bodies. It becomes muscle memory in such a profound way that
even those who have lost the ability to remember much else, can still recall and
invoke this sacred prayer. Even as this particular form of prayer holds a special
place for us, it is not the only way.

I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s beautiful poem, “Thirst”:

“Praying
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
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Jesus would go on to pray in other ways throughout his life, praying in the
solitude of gardens and mountainsides, even praying in the midst of death on the
cross – “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” The only thing Jesus
has to say about there being a right way or a wrong way to prayer is in our
intentions. Are we looking to God? Or looking for attention, trying to perform? Is
our true desire to seek our own glory? Or that all might know the fullness of
God’s love? Do we expect to remain passive in prayer, or does it open us up to
God’s will, open us to being shaped into an active participant in God’s kingdom
come?

Mother Theresa reflected on how her practice of prayer had changed over time.
She said, “I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but
now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I'm supposed to do, what I can
do. I used to pray for answers, but now I'm praying for strength. I used to believe
that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we
change things.”

Sometimes words are a helpful tool to enter into prayer, into this relationship-
building conversation. Sometimes, words fall short or escape us. Sometimes we
find ourselves simply be-ing - hoping, waiting, crying, smiling. As Paul writes to
the Romans, this too is holy. These are the moments when we rely on the
promise that the Spirit of God is always beside us and within us. She joins us in
our wordless utterance. And as a pair of friend who have known each other their

whole lives, we can simply sit at the side of God, God sitting close to us, and just
be together even in silence.

While the bible shows us practices of prayer that boldly ask for our needs and the
needs of the world, these stories seem to point to an understanding of prayer that
is more than a divine suggestion box. Perhaps prayer isn’t about changing God,
or getting god to act a certain way or do what we want. Perhaps, rather, prayer
changes us - our hearts. It reminds us that we are not alone in our joys or our
cares. Prayer is not magic. God is not a genie. And yet there is something
mystical, something unexplainable about it. Studies in hospitals show that
patients heal faster when they know they’re being prayed for, and yet there are
also times when that healing doesn’t mean a cure, but perhaps peace.

So if prayer is about relationship and it isn’t a performance, it can reflect our
honest selves – it can be joyful, but it can also be sorrowful. You are absolutely
allowed to be angry with God, frustrated with the world, even yell and scream at
God in prayer. I promise it’s a lot better than bottling it up or blowing up and
taking it out on the people around you. God can handle it. When we are joined by
others, when we ask people how we can be praying with them….I have found
that prayer is also a practice in which we are most honest with each other, about
what’s really going on in our lives, what really matters to us.
Prayer is something you can practice at meal time, bedtime, sitting in traffic,
waiting in line at the store – basically all the times we are likely to turn to our
phones and start scrolling. Prayer can simply look like sitting on a park bench
watching the sun go down and somehow being drawn into something bigger,
something holy. Prayer is a practice as accessible as our very breath. Yet, it still
takes intention; we still have to make a point to make it a part of our lives of faith.
But God still loves us and welcomes us the same no matter how often or how
infrequently we come to this awareness.

Prayer holds a promise that is much greater than helping our team win or finding
a great parking spot. These sacred stories point to a bigger promise through
prayer. Prayer is about being heard, being known and advocated for, being
humble, being bold, BE-ing. It is a practice that proclaims the assurance that God
hears us, knows us in the depths of our being. That God cares. As in the
incarnation, Jesus, God becoming human, God joins in the midst of our world
and shares our being, our joys and our struggles. Prayer helps to proclaim this
promise to us even we’re not sure that anyone’s listening or that anyone is there.
The practice of being open and attentive to God, even when we don’t expect
anything to come of it, has a way of settling hope into our souls. In prayer, we
draw near to God and perhaps are surprised to find that God has always been
near to us. Amen.

As you explore this practice, here are a few tools you may find helpful:

“The Jesus Prayer” - Lord Jesus Christ, son of God. Have mercy on me, a sinner.
You can repeat these phrases over and over like a meditation.  Try saying the first sentence with your breathe in, and the second sentence as you breathe out.

A Pattern for Prayer - ACTS – Adoration/Praise, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication/Ask. Begin your prayer with a word of praise for who God is, then a confession of they ways in which you and the world have fallen short, followed by thanking God for your blessings, and then finally asking God for the needs of yourself and others.

Common Prayer App or Website - Pray the “office of hours” with specific patterns of prayer for morning, midday, evening, and night.  CommonPrayer.net or search “Book of Common Prayer” in iTunes or Google Play

Common Table Prayer - Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. Let this food to us be blest.  A prayer to use before meal time.

Body Prayer - Practice Yoga with mindfulness, practice prayerful doodling or art, go for a Walking Prayer, or sit silently in meditational prayer for 10-15 minutes.

PRACTICES: Reading the Bible

This week's sacred story comes from Deut 11:13-21 and

John 20:30-31
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. 

Christians are sometimes referred to as people of the book, but perhaps it is more accurate to say that we are people of story.  This summer we’ve been reflecting on the ways these divine stories shape us. First, that they are experienced – that we remember the oral origination of the scriptures and that before they were written down, they were lived and told in ways that more closely resemble telling family stories around the campfire (see what biblical storytelling can look like here). These stories are then sent, shared, they take on a second life in writers like Paul who build on  and connect them to new eras, new people and places. Now, we explore how they are practiced, how they come to life in us, how they are embodied in our ways of being. As it is important to discover and reflect on our family stories for what they have to reveal about where we come from and thus who we are, so it is essential that we engage scripture to…as the gospel of John puts it…shape what it is that we believe and explore how it is that we have life.

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So today I want us to think about the practice of reading the bible – how we might do this and why we would do this.  But first, we need to talk about what it is – what it is, what it isn’t, and what it’s about. Where does the bible come from and what is its purpose? This compilation of pages, these blots of ink – how did they come to be?  At some point the stories being told aloud and learned by heart became stories written down. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John circulated within their general regions, but it wasn’t until Centuries after Jesus lived, that these Gospels, and the Hebrew Torah, and other holy writings were then vetted and voted on by a room full of (pretty much white and cis-male) church leaders to decide what would be included in the Holy Bible and what would not.

So what you end up with is it a book that isn’t really a book, it’s a library. There are different genres like history and poetry and fable, and you don’t ready history books the same as you read poetry. You expect different things from them and their intention is different. It is a collection of stories, stories that are partly the story of God, but honestly more the story of people’s interaction and understanding and misunderstanding of god throughout time. Because the Bible is pieced together, there are parts of the Bible that contradict other parts, and we have to be honest about that and wrestle with that. So the bible is not an encyclopedia or an owner’s manual, it is an anthology of literature assembled across generations.

Now, if you’ve ever played a game of telephone, you know that it is virtually impossible for anything to go through that many human hands and processes to come out on the other end completely unchanged.  As Lutherans, we embrace the raw imperfection that is humanity. And thus, we also acknowledge that while we believe the bible is indeed the Word of God, it isn’t the straight dictation of God. As if God dropped a chunk of papyrus from the sky or possessed the minds and hands ancient scribes and controlled their every movement.

This is not to say that we don’t take God or God’s word seriously. It is about trying to direct our hearts to their proper point of worship.  We respect, but don’t worship Moses. We respect the Mother Mary, but do not worship her. We respect the bible, but we do not worship it as an idol of perfection in the same way that God the creator is perfect. The bible is a gift, but it’s still not God.

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The bible is the Word of God and it points to a kind of living word – the word made flesh, a word that comes alive and moves and speaks. It is a word not entirely contained by letters and sentences. It is a word that has a life of its own, a word that creates life - That speaks into being – that says “let there be light” and there was light. So the bible is the Word of God, but it is not the only thing that God ever said and it does not mean that God is done talking or creating.

One final word on what the bible is not.  If the bible is a gift, the bible is not a weapon. These words are written so that we may come to know God better, so that we may believe God’s promises as they are kept across time and place.  They were not written so that they could become the possession of a few in order to shame and hurt the rest. Any time we interpret these texts to think less of rather than love another, that is more about us than it is about the Word of God.

Ok, so what are we to do with this sacred library then? How are we called to engage these words?  The texts we’ve highlighted today show God imploring us to keep them close, to make them a regular part of our rhythm of life, to study them together, and to teach them to the next generation.  These are our stories, the story of our people, we should make every effort to know them. The more of it we know, the more connections we can make across its pages, the richer the stories become, the promises of God are even more pronounced. It is only within the past 500 years that we are lucky enough have these stories available to us in languages we can understand. We are lucky to live in a time and place, when the cost and availability of bibles make these words relatively easy to obtain.  Even a generation or two ago, it would be rare to have more than a single bible to share as a household.

All this is to say that if we are to be followers of Christ, we should be reading the sacred texts that point us toward God. Reading the bible regularly, whether daily or some other rotation, grounds us in this story that is so much bigger than us.  It creates for us a foundation a faith as it helps to reveal our true foundation in God. As we’re reading and as we seek to understand what we are reading, we have to keep a few things in mind. Every one of the books in this library has a context – it comes from a particular place and time and its author has a particular message they hope to communicate.  Imagine you’re watching a sitcom from 30 years ago. it will probably reference news headlines from that era, but looking back on it now you’d have to work to research the details of that news story to really “get it” and even then it’s never quite the same as having lived in the time of that story or watching the scene when it first aired. And as you watch it, you know that its intention is to present you with a mixture of truth and absurdity that make you laugh. But all that also depends on your own sense of humor and your own perspective. Likewise, we can not help but have some of our own biases in the mix when we read the Bible, even with our best efforts to remain impartial and informed. But we come back to the texts, again and again, to discover more and more

We grow in Christian maturity when we read these words often, but also when we read them with others.  Reading the bible in community helps us to see things we might otherwise have missed. Even when we think we fully understand a piece of scripture, we always have more to learn through what God is saying to us in the wisdom and perspective of others. When we read the bible on our own throughout the week, we have thoughts and questions we can reflect on when we come together in weekly worship.

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As we read the holy scriptures in this way, we practice a spirit of openness to how God is speaking the word still. We read with expectation, keeping a look out for what God is speaking into being now.  This is what the Word does. It creates, it becomes embodied, it activates us, it stirs us up. God, through the Word, does not leave us the same as before. When we read the bible we can ask ourselves, what is God saying to me here?  These stories aren't just folklore to be passed down they actively affect us. They shape us and our world. They give us and all of creation a holy hope in what was, what is, and what will be.

This is all well and good to talk about but when beginning a new practice, I need real tools to support me.  So I want to share with you a few things that you might find helpful to really make this a part of your rhythm of life.  How about this, make it a commint for at least week, and then you can extend your goals from there. Start with something achievable.

So here are some tools.  First, there's lots of digital tools to guide a regular reading of the bible.  There's an app called "Our Bible" which offers an LGBTQ affirming bible and progressive devotionals, you can sign up for email meditations from Father Richard Rohr on the website for the Center for Action and Contemplation. For analog tools you can hold and touch, you can print out and use this "read the bible in a year" plan if you want to really expand what your read as there are so parts of the Bible that don't normally get included in devotionals.

My invitation and challenge to you this week is to pick one of these to engage, commit to it for at least this week, and see what God does with that. As it is written in Colossians, let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the father through him.  Amen.

Tear Down That Wall

Our sacred story this week comes from Paul's letter to the Ephesians, speaking of God's promise to make a divided world into one people.  Read the full story here.

Do you remember your first day at a new school? You’re given a slip of paper with a room number to report to, but you have no idea where that is or how to get there, you’re not even sure who to ask for help without embarrassing yourself. You arrive at your desk and everyone starts pulling their supplies out of their backpacks, but you don’t have the same standardized name brand, wide ruled, 56 page composition book that everyone else seems to have.

Do you remember your first day at a new job? Your new boss guides you through the hallway giving you so many instructions you know you’ll forget, introducing you to people you’ve already forgotten the name of, putting you in charge of tasks that you kind of understand. At the same time, you want to do everything well and make a good impression, but maybe not too well or too good, so that you have room to improve instead of dissapoint. You head to the break room for lunch and you’ve packed your own because you weren’t sure what would be available, but everyone here apparently goes out for lunch and left before you had a chance to be invited.

Do you remember your first day in a new city? The streets all had names but they didn’t mean anything to you. As you rode through town, taking the place in through your window, everything was just a blur of stores and trees, and houses that looked a little different from where you came from.

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…..

Over time, the sights and sounds didn’t seem so strange. You came to know your neighbors, you made friends. People helped you find your way. You got the hang of things and you didn’t have to work so hard to just exist. You grew more and more comfortable and eventually you wonder how anyone could see this world as strange or scary.

I wonder, when did the newness of these people, places, and experiences wear off?  When did they begin to feel familiar? When did we start to glance over parts of them because we assumed we’d already seen that part before? When did we start to forget that all of it was once new? That we were once the awkward newbie trying to figure it all out while still looking cool as a cucumber? When did we start to forget that at one time the things we take for granted now were once terrifying? Exciting? Foreign?

We can get caught up in the alleluias and the joy of God, that we forget they once seemed impossible to us. Perhaps they feel impossible to you still. We get so wrapped up in it that we forget the joy and love of God is not ours alone, but shared - that we came to this place alongside others.

The early church, the first followers of Christ, had to wrestle with how they were a part of the good news they were hearing and how others were a part of it with them.  They had to think about what that meant when people understood and experienced the promises of God differently than they did. How could they be one body when they didn’t even truly understand how the these other people lived?  How could they even talk together, let alone be joined together as one new people? They had to confront how that good news could still be true for them, when it was also true for people that weren’t just strangers to them but people they looked down on and disliked, people they saw as barbaric. Not only that, but this good news of God’s love was true even for those who looked down on them and hurt them.  

When we are subject to the sin of forgetfulness, when we forget our deep sacred connection to others, the gap we have created between ourselves turns to hostility, resentment, judgement.  When we forget our connection, we are pushed away from each other, we are far away, and it becomes all too easy to fill in the space between us with assumptions. When you look at something from a distance it’s not quite clear and you take a guess at what it might be.  When we look at people from a distance, we start guessing that someone on the streets is probably an addict, that someone with a nice car only ever thinks of themselves, that someone with dark skin is dangerous, that someone with a handicap isn’t worth the trouble, that people who don’t share our political and ideological beliefs are dumb or downright . Ultimately the distance between us comes down to fear, fear of the unknown, fear that they could hurt us, or tarnish us, or slow us down . But we are not given a spirit of fear, but of power and love.

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Laying down our indifference about one another and our vitriol toward another is hard.  We like the feeling of superiority, we like the sense of protection and power it gives us even if it’s a ruse. We wear it like armor and we fear that what is left, if it were to be taken away, would be disastrous.  But what this text tell us is, that is not so. What is given in place of our vitriol and division is far better; it is peace, unity, harmony. It’s not the difference between us, but the distance between us that keeps us divided.

We forget that …. We need to be reminded.

I wonder if you remember your first time in church. Maybe it wasn’t physically at a church building, maybe you’re picturing a gathering at someone’s home or a bible study in a coffee shop, but your first time to be around these people called Christians.  They say strange words like “amen.” The have strange traditions like eating the body and blood of a person who lived 2000 years ago!?! They actually think that God can bring together a world as deeply divided as this one!?! Over time, these traditions and teachings were given meaning, and the people you met maybe from within the church, maybe people you met who had nothing to do with church - still  taught you about God’s love by their own generosity and warmth and imperfection.

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We come through the church building doors as individuals, maybe even at strangers, but in that space and time we are made one.  As the grains of wheat, once scattered on a hill, were gathered into one to become our bread, so may all God’s people, from all the ends of earth, be gathered into one in Christ.  We stumble through the awkward together,we risk relationship, until my worries become your worries and your joy becomes my joy- even when we’re unsure of what to say, even when we feel self-conscious about being accepted, even when we’re mad at each other, even when came in feeling hostile. And in the process of becoming one, our relationships find reconciliation and our hearts find peace and together we have hope. Together we become the dwelling place of God.  We experience God’s presence and promises in and through each other. Look at the person to your right, to your left, look at someone across the room who’s name maybe you can’t quite remember, think about someone you saw today at the store, who you passed by in traffic, who you passed by on the bench in the park, these are the many faces of the one Christ that you too are a part of.

And this holds true beyond this moment and time.  We come together to worship to be reminded as the Ephesians needed to be reminded...of who we are...together.  And who we are does not change when we leave these doors. On Tuesday, when that when someone posts something derogatory or unkind about another person, those are still people who are a part of you, a part of God.  When you find yourself in moments of woe at how deeply divided the world around you seems to be, may you be reminded that you are a part of God who knits together the far off and the nearby, into a beautiful patchwork of blessing.  May you know that the Spirit of Christ dwells within you...together. And may that inspire you to live boldly and graciously for each other. Amen.

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