9/24/17

Exodus 16:2-15

Matthew 20:1-16

“The Kingdom of heaven is like” …this quote always means two things: listen up and hold on tight!

Listen up because Jesus is about to drop some wisdom about who God is and what our role as believers compels us to do.

Hold on tight because you are about to have your ideas about the world turned upside and you are going to want to either squirm in your seat at the awareness of the ways you are falling short of God’s kingdom vision or/ and, you will sit there tightly grasping your assumptions that Jesus is obviously talking to the other people in the room, you’re good.

Any of these thoughts sound familiar?

Any cringes in the congregation?

I have always been fascinated by the way the Kingdom of Heaven puts us in opposition to the economics of our world.

Jesus constantly calls into question some of the most basic ideas we have about money, wealth, and equity.

His original audience was no more immune this shock value than we are.

In fact, this is the second story in a row that ends with the same counter-cultural lesson, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”

In chapter 19, we read about the difficulty of wealth existing within the Kingdom.  About the seemingly impossible maneuvering it would take for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of heaven, like a camel going through the eye of a needle.

And in today’s passage we hear from wage earners about their ideas of how money is earned and what fair pay looks like.

It begins with a man hiring workers in the morning, negotiating their contract and then sending them out to the work.

This we understand.

This makes good sense.

This follows the common sense of our adages like, “the early bird gets the worm” and “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” and other phrases that have been handed down through the generations.

Then it is 9:00am, and the landowner goes out for more workers.

I am still okay with this.

I mean, 9 to 5 is a respectable work day.

They are still getting in on the ground level and really earning their pay this day.

Then, fast forward, almost the entire day occurs, marked subsequent trips by the landowner to the marketplace. Even at 5:00, one hour before the end of the work day he is hiring more workers.

He asks those still gathered in the marketplace at 5:00 why they are not working and hears that they have not been able to find work on this particular day.

And, here is where I would love to know more than the story tells us.  I want to know what was going through the landowner’s mind.

Did he wonder what it was about these workers that prevented his neighbors and others in town from hiring them?

Did he give them a once over to assess their ability to do the work required in his vineyards?

But, we don’t get this information.  We don’t have any idea what business model this man is running or what sort of employer he is going to turn out to be.

The end of the day soon arrives and the workers are called in from the vineyards, beginning with those 5:00ers.

At this point, they had put in some work, there may have been a little sweat on their brow, but with their late start, who knows how much they were expecting to get paid.

They were handed the wages for a full day and again, I want more character development.

Did any of them say anything?  Ask any questions?

Remind the landowner that they had been part of the 5:00pm group, in case he had them confused for one of the early risers?

Somehow, those who had been working since morning heard about the wages going to these 5:00ers and began thinking, “jackpot!  If these people who just worked a short amount of time are being paid for an entire day, just think how much he owes us for our work!

I bet we get double that!

I may not even have to work tomorrow with the bonus we are about to get!”

So they come in from the vineyard, tired, drenched in sweat from the work and the scorching sun, but full of anticipation about the extra-large pay check they are about to take.

But then.

But then, they are handed a regular day’s wage.

That’s right, the exact same amount that those 5:00-ers got.  The.

Same.

Amount.

Can you imagine?

Can you put yourself in their shoes for just a minute and really feel all the range of emotions they must have experienced?

Since I am in school to be a therapist, we are going to spend a minute naming some of those emotions.

Anger.

Exhaustion.

Shock.

Disbelief.

Frustration.

Underappreciated.

Taken advantage of.

Enraged.

I mean, it goes against everything we are taught.

It is completely unfair.

How could a one measly hour of work ever earn the same amount as an entire day toiling under the sun?

If you have ever been around a pre-school aged child, you are probably imagining the same scrunched-up, reddened, big eyed look that accompanies the screams of “NOT FAIR!  NOT FAIR!!”

And if we look honestly enough at our own lives, I am sure we can all come up with recent moments where all we wanted to do was scrunch up our face, go red in the cheeks and open our wide mouths to yell out about the unfairness of the world.

Maybe this feeling also comes up when you are watching the news.

Hearing about all the terrible things going on in our community, our nation, and the world.

Hearing about how your taxes are being used to help pay for medical treatments for people you will never meet or for international aid for some nation you would have a hard time locating on a map.

Do you ever want to pull another classic preschooler move and stick your fingers in your ears to block the unfairness of the world?

What hope is there if there is not fairness?

What good news comes in a world where we cannot trust that good, hard working people get the rewards of their hard work?

Ah, but then, this parable has more characters we need to examine.

There are people who began this day at a disadvantage.  Unhired.

Worried about their ability to support themselves and their families if no work comes in.

Those 5:00ers.

They make me think more about those people around the world who we may only think about when their tragedy enters the safety of our homes on our TVs or through our Facebook feed.

And even about the faces we see splashed on the TV as the leaders of our nation fight over who deserves affordable healthcare and what pre-existing conditions should eliminate a person’s ability to be able to get the care they need.

These people that we push to the margins, Jesus, in his loving kindness makes an extra effort to draw our attention, and more importantly, our compassion towards.

We know so little about these workers.

Why were they still in the market at 5:00?

Had they been there all day and just not picked up?

Did they not arrive until after the other people left?

Did they have a valid excuse for their tardiness?

If they were qualified and capable of timely work, surely someone else would have hired them.

If they were valuable, surely someone else could have found them respectable work in the morning.

But, alas, that is not how the story goes.

Any lesson filled with these notions of capitalism and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, every person for themselves, or “getting exactly what you work for and earning it all on your own” are economically never the lessons of the gospel.

Not the moral of Christ’s teachings.

You see, it doesn’t matter the reason why some worked since dawn and others began their work close to supper time, the landowner, the holder of the power and the resources, rewarded everyone with a day’s wage, with fair pay.

Fairness needs a different definition to help us understand this story and in reality, all of Christ’s teachings.  I offer this one from my childhood:

When my brother and I were children and fighting over whatever it was that seemed unfair to us on any given day, we heard from our mother, “Fair does not mean equal.”

Fair does not mean equal.

When the landowner paid the workers, he looked past equal and everything being the same, and looked forward to fairness and the justice of making sure people have what they need to survive and thrive in this world.

Maybe he knew the circumstances that left some of the workers waiting until 5:00 for a job.

Maybe he knew their families and their narratives.

Maybe not.

But, whether or not he knew their stories, he saw them as whole people, not just laborers that he could take advantage of or get a “good deal” on, like he was shopping the endcaps at Target.

He valued their humanity and their work.

He treated them fairly and paid them for their work.

He used the abundance of his vineyard to give people a living, fair wage.

If we look back to our reading from Exodus, we see a similar pattern.

The people are in need.

The entire traveling group of Israelites were all like the 5:00ers, worried about food and not having any sort of way to earn or buy or trade.

They are trying their best to follow God on this liberating journey from slavery into the Promised Land, but they were humans.

They were tired,

they were hungry,

they were thirsty,

and they were beginning to lose hope as the journey seemed unmanageably long.

So, God provided Manna.

God gifted the people food in the desert and a renewed hope.

God gave the people what they needed to survive, their daily bread.

God didn’t make a chore chart for the Israelites to earn their quail and their manna.

There was not a ranking order where the harder workers got more or the more important people got better choices.

All were fed, all was fair.

 

Luckily for all of us, God who placed the manna and the quail in the desert is the same one who provides for the early morning laborers and those who don’t begin the work until closer to closing time.

God redefines fairness in a way that ensures everyone has a day of Manna or a full day of wages.  When people in this world go hungry for bread, or isolated from opportunities because of oppression and systemic racism or sexism or any of the other isms of our time, that is the work of our sinfulness, not the work of God’s kingdom we read about today.

God’s concern for our well-being is gracious, we are given more than we could ever earn, no matter what time we begin our work days and how scorching the sun is, God’s wages of love, community, and the forgiveness of our sins is a wage beyond our comprehension.

And that is good news.

What we do with this good news is our response to God’s love.

We keep doing good work, but always check our motivations.

What are we working towards?

Whom are we working for?

Are we gracious with our blessings or are we looking over our shoulder to see who has more than us?

Are we working to learn about God’s definition of fair and how we can move our world to be more like that Kingdom of Heaven  or are we counting to make sure we have just as much (and hoping for more) than our brother or sister?

As we go out into the world today and this week, may we examine the work we are doing in our homes, offices and school.

And may we seek in all that we do to be arbiters of this gospel vineyard,

land where there is Manna for all

and the labor of all people is fully appreciated and put to the mission of God’s peaceable Kingdom.

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9/29/17

Isaiah 43:18-25

Luke 5:17-26

“We have seen strange things today.”  For some reason this summer, on the 1000 time I have heard or read this story I heard this final phrase for the first time.

Maybe because the lectionary does not include Luke’s telling of this story, it uses the version found in Mark.

Maybe because when this story was taught to me as a child or when I read it out loud for my youth to act out, we stopped before this moment, thinking the real message came before this last thought.

Maybe because after five straight years of Presbyterian theological education, I have heard and read so many sermons that my mind searches each Biblical story I encounter for something new to preach/blog/exegete/theologically reflect upon.

Maybe because the moment I heard this story this summer, my world had never felt so strange, and in my lifetime, our shared world had never felt so strange,

and the reaction of the crowd seemed like the most honest words I had ever heard.

Strange.

But, it is true.

In a way, this story is strange from the offset.

An itinerant teacher with a large following comes to town,

But not just any traveling Rabbi, this one comes with a following of people calling him the Messiah.

This one carries with him the story of a humble birth,

a Baptism complete with an appearance from the voice of God,

a mishmash group of fishermen as his closest friends,

and most recently in Luke’s recounting of the story, the power to heal revealed through not just anyone,

but a leper,

a person that he probably wasn’t even supposed to be close to, much less touch him.

Then consider the strangeness of the gathered crowd itself.

As a child of a college town, I know the strangeness of that first week of classes,

the week where our sleepy little town fills with cars always needing to turn left where there is no left turn lane

and students who cross the street wherever they want, no matter how far away they are from an actual crosswalk they are or what color the traffic light is where they want to cross.

You can ask my grandparents; it turns our familiar little town into a strange little city.

It is only here, in the strangeness of the crowd and in the presence of this new miracle-working Rabbi, that the strangeness of the healing takes place.

Four men walk through the crowd with their friend on bed.

The excitement of the crowd, the people standing shoulder to shoulder, children and dogs milling about between people’s legs, there’s no room,

no space for this caravan of friends to break through,

especially not while carrying a bed with them.

I almost hear one of them say to the others,

“Hey, I know this sounds like a strange idea but what if we…”

and then their plan was hatched.

Then, how freaked out were the people in the house with Jesus when this man began descending from their roof.

At this point, this may have even been a strange sight to Jesus himself.

It was at least enough to grab his attention.

It was enough for him to notice, in this sea of people, this one man and his friends.

Can you imagine how strange it was for all the people gathered, especially those four friends,

possibly still up on the roof looking down on this scene,

to see the man, the one they had known to be unable to walk,

the one they may have given up hope on-but never gave up caring for and supporting-

to see him get up, and carry the mat out of the door, through the crowds.

Doing independently the work that the four of them had labored through together on this day, and in all probability, many days before that.

Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe saying, “We have seen strange things today.”

As someone elbows deep in my search process, with my PIF sent to my CPM and my committee liaison emailing me daily to say, it should just be one more day until you can upload it to the CLC (translations for this sentence can be provided after the service—or by the Presbyterian student sitting closest to you),

I read this story as a wonderful statement of vocation.

It isn’t as clearly laid out as a call story like the one at the beginning of the chapter with Jesus calling his first disciples, but I argue, it is possibly more like the call stories of this modern world.

It is less of a response and more of a reaction.

A reaction to the strangeness in the world AND the strangeness of things we are taught as facts in this world in being turned on their heads by the good news of God’s redeeming love.

A reaction that leaves all of our brains trying to catch up and understand while our mouths mutter something like the people gathered that day,

“whoa, that was strange.”

Or, “What just happened?”

It is how we respond to glory of God once the everything we thought we knew somehow doesn’t fit anymore.

It is the resilient belief in something strange and amazing and the curiosity that keeps us wanting to know more.

It is that strange feeling that your life could have been extremely different if you hadn’t been in this place at this exact moment.

And for me, in this moment, that strangeness is good news.

In the history of our faith and God’s work creating and recreating the world and God’s people, these strange moments are important to watch because

with this strangeness and this newness

comes a better and stronger understanding of who God is

and how God’s people are supposed to respond.

In the passage from Isaiah that aJourney read this morning, we are offered part of a great declaration of the wonderfully strange things that God is doing both in that moment in history and, it is my belief, in our world today.

God is about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

Do we perceive it?

Do we see the strange and wonderful things God is doing in our world every day?

Isaiah’s message speaks to hope and a future that seemed strange and far away to a people experiencing exile and dreaming, but maybe not daring to hope for a return home.

Luke’s Gospel includes this strange story of four men carrying their friend to Jesus, traveling for who knows how long to meet with this newish teacher hoping against all odds for a miracle.

And in our world today, it seems naïve at times to believe in a different world.

To believe in a world where people are treated with equality, much less the equity it takes to ensure that each has the abundant life we hang our theological hats on.

It is hard to imagine that any new thing, any new idea, any new community can make a dent in the evils in our world.

Then again, it seemed impossible for four people carrying a fifth person on a bed to get through the crowds

And I bet it seemed impossible to those gathered that Jesus could forgive  sins much less heal a man who was paralyzed.

Not to mention how impossible it must have seemed for a man, after being paralyzed, to immediately pick up his bed and walk out of this crowded house that moments earlier he couldn’t get into to save his life.

The good news is strange news.

It is news of healing in the face of paralysis.

It is news of water in the desert.

It is the news of people gathering together to hear the teachings of Christ

and then making room for the miracles to go out into the world.

A world so in need of miracles.

It is the news of hope for the exiled,

hope for those in the literal and metaphorical barren lands.

It is news of a table being filled

and a community being gathered to remember the story of a strange moment in the middle of what would have otherwise been a normal meal with friends.

A moment where the future was told, filled with both grief and new life, and it was too strange for those gathered to believe until they saw it unfold.

It is the affirmation we make as we share in this meal today, too amazing and strange for us to understand until the prophecy is fulfilled and Christ returns.

So, revel in the strangeness of it all.

Let it keep you on your feet,

searching for answers,

but also searching for brand new questions.

Don’t let the strangeness deter your journey,

let the strangeness guide you.

For in these moments of strange,

there is often something amazing that may just readjust your path in ways you could never imagine.

God may be about to do a strange new thing.

Amen

Children’s Sermons (Advent 2015)

Advent 1: Isaiah 43:1-13

Main idea: New things are scary.  It is okay to be scared, but the new thing could be amazing, so it’s okay to be scared.  God is with us.

Who here has been scared to try something new?

Maybe you were scared while you were learning to ride your bike?

Maybe you were scared when your family moved or you started a new school?

Are there any other times when you have been scared to try something new?

(pause if the children have other answers…the goal is to talk about new experiences, not so much fears like room monsters, so use guiding answers like “That does sound scary, can you think of any scary times that were around doing a new activity or being in a new place?)

After the children have had a chance to answer, continue:

Sometimes, when we have these nervous, scary, new times, there is someone around to offer us words of comfort.  Maybe a parent, a teacher, or a friend is there that we can talk to when we are scared.  Have you ever thought about talking to God when you are scared, when you are standing right on the edge of doing something new, exciting, and a little scary?

Today, Pastor L is going to read from the book of Isaiah.  This book was written for people when they were in a scary place.  God had made promises to them about how wonderful their life would be and all the amazing things in store for them, but when for this group, they were far away from home and scared.  If you listen to the reading, count the number of times you hear the words, “do not fear”.  

God knows we get scared sometimes.  But, sometimes, to have an adventure, to try a new thing, to grow up, we have to be afraid and keep going.  When we are afraid, we can talk to God and receive God’s comforting words, “do not fear”.  And then we can keep looking for the wonderful new lessons and adventures God has in store for us.

Let us pray.

God who is with us always,

Sometimes we are afraid.  Sometimes we are brave.  Always, you are with us.  Always you are giving us comfort and encouragement to grow and learn.  When we are afraid, remind us of your love and presence.  When others are afraid, help us remind them they are not alone.

Amen.

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Advent 2: Esther 4

What time is it?

When is the last time you asked that question?  Was it on a long car ride?  Or when you were waiting for your favorite TV show to come on?  Or maybe it was almost time for recess at school and you looked up at the clock 1000 times in five minutes.  

What time is it?

Is it time for school?  For church?  Is it time to go play outside or to come in and get ready for dinner?

There are other reasons to ask about what time it is.  Questions that are less about the clock on the wall and more about being ready.

Is it time to ask for help on your homework? Or time to help a classmate once your homework is finished? Is it time to go and sit with the kid in class that other people pick on?  Is it time to buy a new coat or maybe look through your closet for last year’s coat that you can donate to a coat drive because it is now too small for you?

Being ready to help others, to use what you have, from coats you have outgrown to sitting with a lonely classmate takes courage.  It takes willing being willing to step out and take a risk.  It may be scary, but it may also have wonderful results.  It takes courage.

Today, we are going to hear about Esther.  Esther was a queen and when her family was in danger, she bravely stood up to the king to protect them.  She stood up against his bullying.  It was a dangerous job to do, but she knew that it was time, this was her moment to stand up and be courageous.  God was with her and she was brave.

Let us pray:

God who is with us always,

Sometimes we are afraid.  Sometimes we are brave.  Always, you are with us.  Always you are giving us comfort and encouragement to grow and learn.  When we are afraid, remind us of your love and presence.  Even when we are afraid, help us to know when it is our time to be courageous.

Amen.

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Advent 3: Genesis 2

Did you know that you all have a superpower?  In fact, everyone has this superpower.  It is your breathing.  Maybe it doesn’t sound super because you do it all the time without even thinking about it.  But it really is like a super power.  When you take depth breaths, you can run faster, sing clearer, or even smell cookies sooner while they are baking.  You can even control some of your feelings with your breathing.  Next time you are angry or scared, trying breathing in and out slowly, even counting 1-2-3-4 as you breath in and 1-2-3-4 as you breath out.  You will be amazed how much breathing can help.

So, as amazing as our super power breathing is, can you imagine how super and amazing God’s breathing is?  Today in church we are going to hear about how God created our whole.  Can you guess how our world was created?  God’s breath.  God breathed and a wind came over the chaos and the whole world came into being.  God created with a big breath, but we create a new moment with each breath we take, big or little, happy or angry, scared and brave. God is in each breath we take and each moment we experience.

Prayer:

Emmanuel,

Sometimes we are afraid.  Sometimes we are brave.  When we breath in, you are with us.  When we breath out, you give us comfort and encouragement to grow and learn.  When we are afraid, remind us of your love and presence.  When others are afraid, help us remind them they are not alone.

Amen.

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Advent 4: Luke 5:1-10

How many of you have played Simon Says before?  Let’s try a little: “Simon says pat your head.  Simon says hop on one foot.  Simon says clap your hands three times.” (If the children are purists, you may have to tell them that Simon says to stop all of those actions, they may just stop when you say the next thing. Try to get them back to sitting however you can, whether you need to tell them that Simon says to sit down or not.) In today’s Bible story, Jesus gives two commands, just like Simon says.  Jesus has come to the house of a man Jairus.  To the grown ups in the house, Jesus says, “Do not fear!”  To the child in the house, a little girl who was so sick in her bed that some people thought she had died, Jesus took her hand and said, “Get up!”  Jesus heals her and she has a brand new chance to live her life.  This story is a miracle, but it also seems like really good advice for our church today.  Jesus, like Simon, says two major commands, “Do not fear!” and “Get up!”  So, let’s practice, Jesus says to the little girl, “Get up!” and she got up and started walking around so let’s stand up and walk in place.  Jesus tells the adults, “Do not fear!”  So let’s say that to our adults, say it with me “Do not fear!” (Maybe do this a couple times if the kids are not loud the first time).  Now, as we are standing, and while we walk in place, we are going to do another thing Jesus teaches us and say a prayer.

 

Emmanuel,

Sometimes we are afraid.  Sometimes we are brave.  You are always with us.  You are always there to tell us to “get up” and not to be afraid.  You fill our days with possibilities to live and to show your love in our world.  You created this wonderful world and you created each of us.  Help us to get up go out into the world without fear, sharing your love and your stories.  Amen

Candle Prayer (a reflective peace after a class trip to Guatemala in 2013)

East: (Red)

Like the sun and the cycles in nature, we begin our prayer looking towards the east.  We thank God for the sun that brings hope and life with it as it appears each morning.  We ask blessing for people at the beginning of new life.  For babies, new to this world, and the families who are learning alongside them as they grow.  For people who have been given a new chance at life after disease, addiction, depression, or anything else that had prohibited growth and health.  We thank you, oh Lord, for the very blood that flows throughout our veins, circulating life through us.

For the presence of God at the time of beginnings

Lord, hear our prayers.

West: (Black)

As we turn to the west, we pray for those who are at the sunset of their lives.  For people who have recently died and for the ones mourning the loss.  We pray for peace and comfort for the people in this world who are near death.  May they have the strength and the faith in you, God, to face death as another stage in life and may your comforting arms embrace them as well as the ones they are leaving behind.  If we try to reject death, we fool ourselves, and we rob ourselves of the true beauty that can be found in life.

For the presence of God at the time of endings

Lord, hear our prayers.

North: (White)

From the north comes the ruach, the breath of life, the wind that scatters the seeds across the fields, giving life.  God, we pray for your breath of life to be upon us, and your children in every nation, breathing out peace where there has been violence, exhaling justice where there is tyranny and persecution.  Sustain this world as we sigh, waiting for your kingdom.

For the presence of God as felt through the life-giving wind

Lord, hear our prayers

South: (Yellow)

From the south comes the seed.  Without seeds, without the cycles of growth, there would be chaos.  We all come from and are sustained by seeds.  Let us pray to God, giving thanks for that which sustains us, and praying for those who still seek the sustenance essential to life.  For those who are hungry for food and thirsty for water, along with those whose hunger is for justice and thirst is for recognition of rights.

For the presence of God in the seeds that will one day grow into the plants, animals, and people of this world

Lord, hear our prayers

Center: (Green, nature and material energy) (Blue, spiritual energy)

In the center, we recognize the undividable nature of the spiritual and the physical worlds.  Of the Heavens and the Earth, tied together and unified.  Even though they are represented by two candles, the blue of the spirits and the green of nature and material energy are together, connecting the heavens and the earth as Christ did.  Let us pray together for the unification of the heavens of the earth and the time of the Kingdom of God to come and make us connected fully to the spiritual and the physical of this world.

For the presence of God in the struggle to unify the spiritual and physical world we live in and in the pursuit of a unified Kingdom of God

Lord, hear our prayers

 

*This poem is found as a resource in by Dr. Paul Galbreath (Leading Into the World, 2014)

July 24, 2016

Prayer.  Persistent Prayer.  That is the theme of this week’s texts.  These verses take the call to Pray without Ceasing (1 Thessalonians) seriously.  

I don’t know about y’all, but I have been going to God in conversation about the world more this summer than in a long time.

When I turn the news on, I am often filled with fear and sadness over domestic and international terrorism and politics, so I try to stop and pray.  

In my current school program, I sit with clients for several hours a week. To lower my anxiety and try to center myself before each session, I often turn to prayer, asking God to grant me wisdom and the ability to offer a small amount of comfort and support to each client.  

In my Louisville neighborhood, there are signs protesting a new school being built.  With everything going on in the world, I get mad that traffic flow is important enough for these people to put dozens of lawn signs up and down our street.  So, I pray for patience and understanding.

Those are the prayers I say for myself.  

They center me.  

They remind of who I am

and how I am supposed to be and act as a child of God.  

At the beginning of this chapter in Luke, we are witness to a Prayer 101 class taught by Jesus himself.  

Unlike the prayer that we normally say (found in Matthew during the Sermon on the Mount), Luke’s prayer lesson is a bit more condensed.  

It is chockfull of requests that we can make for how we could be fed, judged, and forgiven.  

Jesus teaches us to engage with God and name what it is that we need.  But, of course, that cannot be the whole story.  

Our requests to God, Jesus teaches in this passage, are to be integrated with challenges.  

Our hope is in the Kingdom of God and it’s coming, but we have to give up control that we can bring that kingdom about on our own and that we can be in charge of what that kingdom looks like.  

That takes trust beyond measure and hope beyond expectation…we better add those spiritual practices to our prayer list.

Also included in the prayer Jesus taught us,

reconciliation with our neighbor.

Our forgiveness is tied in our forgiving the debts of others.  

While my car payment would love for that to be a reality, total forgiveness of debts (financial, social, or emotional) may seem like an impossible task.  

To forgive debts, to not hold grudges, to offer forgiveness and seek reconciliation over vengeance or good ole fashion getting even.  

I cannot pray that my neighbors have a change in heart and support all kinds of education in our community.  

All I can really do is work to forgive them in my heart for the, to me, almost unforgivable sin of trying to deny children their best possible education.

And if we keep reading past the first few verses of Luke 11, we have to be honest with the fact that praying all day and night alone in the safety of our homes and churches doesn’t really cut it.

Luke makes it abundantly clear that how we pray for others must be a process that matches words with actions.

In Luke, the call to and lesson in prayer is followed by a parable of sorts.  It offers two images.  One where we, the reader, are put in the role of the person seeking assistance from a neighbor and the other where we are suddenly the one with the choice to make about giving and offering hospitality.

The first of these two stories, deals with hospitality (a big theme of not only the Gospels but throughout the whole Old and New Testament).

To not be able to provide food and lodging for visiting guests has, throughout the history of our faith, been seen as something shameful.  

To not reach out to those in need, then seem most clearly in orphans, widows, and those passing through,

you were denying them the very grace and hospitality that God offered the Hebrew people when they were chosen and set apart as God’s own.  

It goes against the hospitality sought by Mary, Joseph and Jesus at the time of his birth,

and against the lessons taught to Mary and Martha which caused them to choose two different ways to welcome Jesus into their home.  

And, as Southerners, we all understand the importance of hospitality still today.  

We open our houses and cover our tables until strangers become neighbors and friends begin to feel like family.

So, you can imagine the sheer panic that must be going through the storyteller’s mind.

Here comes out of town company and there is no bread in the pantry.  

The journey takes our protagonist to a neighbor’s house.  

He knocks on the door and yells his request in to the neighbor.

Apparently he asked and asked and asked and asked.  

It is his persistence that gets him what he needs.  

It is his willingness to knock, ask, and seek that ultimately leads him to get what he needs from his neighbor.  

This persistence echoes back to the story we read this morning  from Genesis.  

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not one we usually march out in polite company, but the verses we read today are a perfect example of persistence.  

This time, instead of a request for food from a neighbor,

Abraham is requesting protection and forgiveness from an angry God.  

Abraham gets word that the entire city where his cousin lives is going to be destroyed and all the people are going to be killed.

This town has a wicked reputation and the verdict from God has come down on it.  

It is not good news.  

Abraham’s story is filled with persistence and pushing back when he feels like God is not pulling the weight of the divine covenant with Abraham and his descendants.  

He prays and keeps hope for children,

he prays and keeps hopes for the land and prestige God promised.  

His life and ministry do not come without faults and moments of failure,

but his persistence is something to be admired.

“What if there are only 50 good people? 10? 5? One good family?”  

These are the consistent knocks that Abraham goes to God with.  

Persistence.  

Some might say nagging persistence.  

Knocking, seeking, asking.  

It took Abraham knowing the generous, loving nature of God and just naming before God some of creation that was in danger.  

It wasn’t about the goodness or badness of the people,

it was about one person standing up and speaking for his sisters and brothers.  Rallying around their suffering and protesting on their behalf,

not just on the corner to passing cars and pedestrians,

but a protest,

a calling out of names,

that is intended to just one listener,

the same listener who is he, and their, creator.  

 

Abraham, in this moment, was an activist.  

He was an ally.  

And, like Jesus promises in Luke,

the door was opened and Abraham’s questions and requests were answered with grace and a second chance for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.  

Abraham’s stubborn persistence, like a child negotiating for that one more cookie before dinner time, saved the lives of his cousin’s family and gave the people of that town another chance to turn their lives around and seek forgiveness from God.

Ask and it shall be given unto you.

Seek and you shall find.

Knock and the doors shall be opened unto you.

So, persistently, taking into account our needs for food, our desire for forgiveness, our hope in the Kingdom of God.  

That is the how we pray.  

The possibility of God’s grace and forgiveness and

the attempt to build a stronger relationship with God and neighbor,

that seems like a decent why.  

But, what.  

What do we pray?  What do we say?  

What words can we use?  Are words enough?

What comes first?  

What gets named?  Who gets named?  

What gets confessed?  What do we ask God to help us forgive?

Maybe it is best to think of our prayers as small works of art, imitation of the great works of grace, forgiveness, communication, and creation we are shown by God.

We name our needs.  

Food, shelter, water, community.

We thank God for the ways our needs have been met in abundance.  

For this community and others around this town and this world we call community and hold dear.  

For the homes with clean water, electricity, cable, internet, maybe even a back porch.  

For the meals our stomachs are rumbling for right now and the knowledge that we have what we need to feed our stomachs not just at lunch but throughout the coming week.  

We can take this to God in prayer.

Maybe we have sins that need to be forgiven or debts that we need offering forgiveness for.  

We can take that to God in prayer.

Maybe our prayer is lament.  

This summer has been filled with lament across our nation and world.  

Cancers, Alzheimer’s, Heart Disease, and countless other illnesses changes our lives and the lives of people we know and love.  

Gun violence takes lives too early and wars across the world keep families apart and sends refugees fleeing by land and sea.  

We can take this to God.  

We can say the names of those people most affected by the violence and hate this world seems so willing to spiral into.  

I have been struck this summer by the power that comes with saying the names of people I will never meet but for whom I offer prayers of grief to God.

I have stood on street corners and marched down this streets this summer yelling petitions to God and anyone near enough to hear that the lives of my black brothers and sisters matter

and that we as a group will publicly grieve and offers shouts of prayer over  the travesty of so many deaths to gun violence.  

Our voices, and our feet, show our prayerful persistence.  

Persistent Prayer talking and walking.

Abraham spoke to God as walking to dwell amongst those he prayed for.  

Jesus’s lesson in Luke puts the seeker right alongside the giver, hand to hand passing bread, keeping safe the child and protecting her from animals that can cause her harm.  

Our ministry often puts us in the path to be with our neighbor’s in prayer and in companionship.

So, keep praying.

Please keep praying.  

As someone who has felt the presence and persistence of prayers from this congregation for many years now, I beg you to keep praying.  

Keep up your thanksgivings and your confessions, your requests for what you need, and your prayers that what you have God will use to bring about the peaceable Kingdom.  

Be persistent in your lament when the world is struck with terror and death and persistent in your rejoicing over new life and new hope.  

And as we pray, as we work to make our small marks of peace and reconciliation in this world, stay persistent and keep faith that what we do, even in our best intentions, is but a speck of the great and wonderful work God is doing to bring peace and reconciliation to this world and all of the people in it.

Litany of Biblical Sisterhood

Written Feb 2017

We laugh with our sister Sarah, overwhelmed by God’s greatness and timing.

We quake in fear with our unnamed sister in Judges, knowing that so many women’s bodies are controlled by others while their lives are protected by none.

We pray with our sister Mary, hope and fear mingling magnificently in our songs of joy.

We carry multilayered lives like our sister in Proverbs, we move in juggle many roles in order to get the job done.

We reach out to try to shield our sisters Tamar, Bathsheba, Dinah, and all our who are raped, we seek to protect their bodies and guard their names from cruel and needless shaming.

We sing with our sister Miriam, for we know who has brought us safe thus far.

We weep with our sisters in exile, for as they mourned their lost children on the banks of Babylon, we too know mourning and the pain of displacement.

We witness with our sister Anna, we seek to see the Holy and are willing to make it our life’s calling.

We are brave like our sister Rahab, rising above our circumstances and become part of the narrative of the faithful.

We challenge the powers like our sister from Syro-Phoenicia, creatively working to get what we need, standing in opposition to those who stop us from providing.

We resist prejudice and murder our sisters Shiprah and Puah, standing up against the powerful few, saying no to laws based on the –isms of the culture.

We rise to the occasion with our sister Esther, being prepared for “such a time as this” when called to work to protect our people

We reach out and insist on being seen like our unnamed sister who bled for 12 years, advocating for the healthcare that we deserve.

We cry tears that heal and anoint like our sister who cried at the feet of Jesus, knowing that human touch can be more healing and powerful than any number of words.

We recognize the divine within the other like our sister Elizabeth, we bless our sisters and provide space for them to grow and develop in comfort and safety

We use our great wisdom like our sister Deborah, we lead from the front lines, not sending people into battles we wouldn’t go with them into.

We are gathered together by God our mother, creator, redeemer and Breath of fire in this world, in whose womb we were all formed.  Let us worship God

Sermon from April 12, 2015

Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, the doors at the house where the disciples had met were locked in fear”.  Our Gospel lesson this week begins with a gathering of scared folks, and I am adding grieving, angry, disappointed, and lost to the emotions that must have been in that locked room.  We have to remember, the disciples didn’t get an Easter Sunday yet.  They were living in an extended Good Friday.  All the hopes and dreams they had pinned on Jesus were disappearing around them. I am struck by the poignancy of this gathering.  Less than a week before, they had also been gathered in a room together.  They gathered there with their teacher, their friend, the man they thought was their Savior.  They gathered for a meal with him and he washed their feet, offered them a meal, and then said that before the dawn, they would betray him.  They would not just be witnesses to his death, but they would be characters in his demise.  So, yeah, let’s add guilt to the slew of emotions in the room.  The pain must have been palpable.  But they were together.  In their darkest moments, they sought refuge with each other.  They circled the wagons and took time to mourn and be together.  This to me is a reflection of one of the greatest gifts of the church, gathering.  It is when we offer a safe place for people to come and dwell and feel all their feelings, have all of the misgivings, and still be surrounded and grounded by their community.

The first strand of hope must have come in as Mary Magdalene rushed to their gathering place and told them the story of what she had seen.  She recounted to them her testimony.  She explained to them how the risen Christ spoke to her, called her by name, and she recognized him.  Her spirits soaring, she breathed a new breath of life into the room.  They may have even dared to hope for the first time since they had watched Jesus’s life leave his body.  But, would the testimony of one woman be enough to remind them of the role that Jesus had given them to be out in the world healing, teaching, and preaching?  Well, apparently not yet.  They stayed gathered together, they stayed locked away, they stayed in fear.

Then Jesus appears, through the wall no less and stands among them.  He offers them a blessing and proof: a blessing of peace and assurance that their authority in forgiving and retaining the sins of people is well intact and visual proof (in case appearing through a locked door wasn’t enough) that he was the one they were waiting for and the stories he had told about his death and new life were true.  They had heard from Mary what they had seen, but now their senses were full of Christ’s presence.  Their eyes saw him enter the room and then they saw the wounds that they had watched occur.  Their ears heard the blessings that Jesus offered them.  Their ears and spirits received his peace.  Theirs ears and senses of calling heard his promise that the sins they forgave would be forgiven and the sins they retained would be retained.  And, as I imagine it, their very flesh goose bumped and they felt a shiver of excitement when his breath landed upon them.  I can feel the shift in the mood of the room as I read this passage.  I can feel their Spirits lifting and their faith being reinforced.  They are in the midst of a mountaintop experience.  In those moments, faith and group connection are at an all time high, but so is the risk of excluding those who do not have the same, shared experience.  You see, while the lock they used kept them safe and connected with each other, what message did it send to the rest of the world?  In an attempt to not be alone, who have they left out?  Who is left out in the cold as the breath of Jesus is upon those gathered in that locked room?

Well, we know one person.  Thomas.  Not even one of those they feared, Thomas was left out.  Thomas, the twin, has been cropped out of this group memory.  He comes back after Jesus has gone and they begin to tell him what they had seen.  As they share this group memory, Thomas is unintentionally pushed to the outer bounds of the group.  Their retelling of their first interactions with the risen Christ would not have been a dry and boring story.  What we read now, the narrative that was written after generations of story telling, is still exciting.  Jesus has no need for the boundaries presented by walls, doors and locks, the disciples receive the Holy Sprit and were commissioned into their vocations.  More than all of that though, they were reconnected, reintroduced, put in new relationship with their teacher, the one who death had grasped mere days before.  Their faith hadn’t been in vain.  Their teacher wasn’t a phony.  Their beliefs weren’t in vain.  They told Thomas, just like Mary had told them.  He was the first person they evangelized.  It did not go as they planned.  Thomas wasn’t convinced.  Thomas wanted the tactile, visual, auditory proof that they had received.  Thomas just wanted what the others had gotten.  So, Thomas named his needs.

And Jesus answers his need with grace.  When Mary is weeping in the garden, searching for the body, begging information from a stranger, Jesus offers her an answer.  For her, the answer comes in his simply saying her name.  As he calls her by name, she understands and believes.  When he comes to the room where many of his disciples are gathered, he greets them with his peace, shows them his wounds, and gifts them with the Holy Spirit.  In those words and actions, they too understand and believe.  None of them believed without seeing.  They were offered first hand interactions with the risen Christ.  And so was Thomas.  It may have been a week later (and my guess is that it was one of toughest weeks of Thomas’s life, wondering, questioning, and trying to reconcile a desire to believe his friends and the isolation that he felt from his uncertainty and from missing such an important group memory.  But then Jesus shows up.  And, in true ironic Jesus form, he shows up in the same room under the same circumstances as before.  The story repeats itself here.,  “A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’”.  Thomas is greeted with the peace of Christ and then given the same opportunity to physically experience Jesus in his resurrection form.  Honestly, for the purpose of this sermon and life, I wish that the story ended right here.  I wish that the repetition of scenes continued: Thomas getting a blessing, Thomas believing, Thomas being affirmed in his call and then everyone being together, no longer to mourn, but now to celebrate.  Then, when another person comes along, the whole story is repeated again and again.  Wouldn’t that be nice?  Wouldn’t it be convenient if Jesus himself in the flesh, offered us glimpses and touches, called us by name, and gave us exactly whatever it is that we need to believe? Repeatedly met our doubts with abounding grace?

Maybe the answer isn’t in the shortening of the chapter, but in the elongating of the story.  If we look to the next chapter, the last chapter in John, the disciples are offered some pretty detailed instructions for what life is going to be like after he has ascended into heaven.  He offers them instructions to care for he sheep and lambs like he did as their great shepherd.  He reminds them that their job is to serve and not to seek privilege and glory for their work.  And then, at the end of the entire gospel of John, the author leaves us with a note, “25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”  If it sounds familiar, you may be matching it to the ending of out reading from today, “30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But 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.”  The last two chapters of John’s Gospel, the two chapters in which we encounter the physical body of the resurrected Lord, we are reminded that the story we hear is just part of the story.  So why include this one?

If Jesus came and went in the time between his resurrection and his ascension, why were we just offered this story?  This story of questions and doubts, this story of inclusion and exclusion?  This story of a disciple, again, seeming to miss the point?  A story that repeats itself but ends up taking a different path? I think it is because this is the story that we need to hear.  We need to hear the disciples and Thomas receiving tactile proof of God.  We need to hear Thomas naming his doubts and not just blindly believing because of what the others had seen.  We need Jesus to be willing to offer Thomas the proof he needs, because we need Jesus to offer us the proof we need.  We need to believe in tactile signs of the resurrection.  Do you remember where we began this story?  In a locked room, scared.  Isolated, circling the wagons, hoping beyond all hope that this story Mary shared about the Messiah was true.  Hoping that her vision wasn’t blurry and her belief wasn’t unsupported.  We began this story in fear and mourning.  That may seem like a very familiar place to many of you.  Fear.  Grief.  A need to isolate from a world that is so dangerous.  A world that includes people being shot as they flee, a world that includes teen after teen taking their lives when the world turns their backs or raises their fists to them once they are living into their true selves, a world where children are abducted, elders are abused, and those singing hymns to the God we praise are in their next breaths spitting out messages of hate.  Fear.  Grief.  A need to circle the wagons and find refuge in each other.

Thanks be to God for spaces, like that upper room, like the homes of family and friends, and like this church where we can gather.  Where we can mourn.  Where we can question the promises Jesus proclaimed before he was killed.  And thanks be to God our story doesn’t end in that room.  The disciples knew that their job was to tell others the good news.  Mary knew her job was to tell others the good news.  The trick is going out into that scary world.  The trick is to create safe spaces without using locks.  Jesus wasn’t kept out of the moment by the locks on the door, but one of their brothers was.  Their haven, their safe space, became their hiding place.

This is as good a time as any to tell you that I have seen the Sound of Music more times in my life than I can keep track of.  As a child, it was my sick movie.  That meant, whenever I was sick, my parents would set me up on the couch in the living room with tissues, soup, hot tea and pop The Sound of Music into the VHS player.  If any of you remember the VHS version of the Sound of Music, you will remember that it took a cassette change in the middle of the movie.  The time it took to rewind the first tape before beginning the second was how I in my childhood defined infinite.  I must also confess that I did a lot of fast forwarding through the “boring parts”.  By that I mean mostly the nun singing and the kissing.  I have, however, stopped that habit and thankfully so.  At one moment in the movie, right before the Mother Abbess is about the sing her song about climbing mountains (which childhood Beth never understood as a metaphor and just assumed she was promoting the beautiful landscapes of Austria), she says, with her wisest expression and tone of voice, “Maria, these walls were not meant to shut out problems. You have to face them. You have to live the life you were born to live.”  She recognizes that Maria has sought shelter in the safe space of her church when the world has become scary and she no longer understands her place in it.  She is given a time of refuge in the church, and then she is sent back out.  She is sent back out to live her life, not as she had planned it, but as God had intended it.

The disciples were gathered together after everything went wrong.  They came together for safety.  Then, they were comforted and sent back out.  When their first attempt at evangelism didn’t work, they were brought back for a repeat of blessing and sending.  Each week when we gather here in this space, we are offered a safe space, and thanks be to God for that safety, may it be for all people who come through these doors.  Then we are sent back into our lives.  But, like Maria, like Mary, like the disciples gathered in that room on the night of that first day of Christ’s resurrection, like Thomas a week later, we are not sent out in the same state we gathered.  We are sent out with the Peace of Christ, we are sent out with the Holy Spirit, and we are sent out with a reminder, a push, a calling to live out in the scary world with the comfort of God who made us, who loves us enough to die and rise from the dead, and who calls us by name and shows us physical signs of the power of resurrection and the grace of divine presence.  Remember, these miraculous things were going on all the time, the ones we read in this chapter are just the few that were written down so that we may believe.