Sunday, May 3, 2015

Love and Narratives that Divide

1 John 4:7-21

Over the next two weeks our texts lead us to talk about the timeless and ever relevant topic of love. This week - we are invited to look to the beginnings of love, and next week we will take a closer look at what love looks like.

Our text today comes from the book of 1 John. Not the gospel of John- though 1 John carries the same riddle like language and ideas- the book of 1 John is thought to have been written by the community of the gospel writer, about 10 years. Ten years has been just enough time to get into the messiness of life together in community that we all know well. They have faced a major conflict and division over right thinking, and right practice. 

While some have left the community; questioning, resentment, anger and fear remain.  

It is in this context that the author of 1 John invites the people to remember their beginnings.

It is often in times when conflict rises the the surface, or when deep change surrounds us that we begin to ask- “How did we get here?” “Where did this issue come from?” “Where did we come from?”

This is John’s sweet spot. 

The gospel of John begins with beginnings:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

So too, The author of 1st John begins with beginnings: 

“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, looked and and touched concerning the word of life.

And to chapter 4 verse 7- 

Out of this word and life of God- bring the beginnings of love. Love comes from God. God is love- and all who love are born of God share love—

Our beginning is in Love. 
The energy of Love, from God, radiates within us and passes through us- the great life force. Perfect love casts out fear and division and brings healing and life, thriving relationships and thriving communities. We know this love. 

1 John reminds the people in the midst of conflict to let go of divisions and return to love- because they are made of God’s love and are called to share that love- those who love God- must not hoard or control- but must let that love flow freely to all. 

—-

This is a timely message in a week fraught with division, fragmentation, violence and pain. My Facebook feed has been filled with on the ground stories of uprising in Baltimore- 

Uprising and riots across our country and here in Denver are bringing to the surface centuries of scars and open wounds. Youth are crying out as frustration and hopelessness leads to violence and anger. Mothers crying- conflicted in caring for their children- and wanting real justice, real opportunity. Safe communities, jobs that bring possibility, homes that create space for thriving. The complex realities of our broken system are unavoidable as buildings burn and peacemakers and protesters march arm in arm.

In this time of conflict- pundits, politicians, news reporters, blogger- and you and I— are reflecting on the beginnings of this crisis- this racial divide in the country and communities that we love. So it seems in my first week as your summer preacher- that we have no choice but to explore the light realities of racial division…

This week I attended a presentation by the author of a book called ‘Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. I gathered with people from diverse experiences to learn about the roots of racism in our society and political foundations as a country.

The thesis of the book and presentation is that racism hasn’t disappeared, but has rather adapted through coded language and assumptions. Words like thug, welfare, inner city, illegal alien, Sharia law, ’real America’ conjure images that we all know- without using blatant racism that would be  immediately called out.

This language and stereotyping is used by those in power to fuel division— as this division itself benefits those seeking money and power. The vast majority wind up making decisions, voting, and choosing our lifestyle in ways that eventually harm our own best interest- because we are so bought in - consciously and subconsciously - to the narratives of division and superiority.

Some may have thought the racial divide was in the past- that we live in a ‘post-race’ society… But it is clear that racism did not die- it has adapted. Policies seeped in racism have left some cities and neighborhood neglected and stripped of dignity, and others with excessive wealth. There is a vast divide in available resources, education, health and support.

I believe we are currently seeing a movement of the Spirit as people cry out again and say “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”


—-

We cry out again, because we all know that division is not a new narrative. Division is the sin of our earliest interactions. The sin we hear of in Bible story after Bible story from Adam and Eve’s turning away, to brokenness and division between the sons of Abraham, in the life of Isaac and Jacob and David. 

Us and Them thinking slips into story after story in our sacred texts and in our own family histories. The story of our country is grounded in taking advantage of and playing on our divisions. The earliest explorers deemed the people who lived on this land as ‘other’ ‘inferior’, less than ‘human’; unknowing of the love of God. Our country was built on the back of the sin of division as we exploited science and religion to say that some people weren’t actually people. We exploited whole people through the institution of slavery and have continued to propagate the same stereotypes- if more subtly.

—-

Somewhere along the way— again and again- we become trapped by myths of division.

We have bought into the false narrative that we are different from one another— that some qualities, some appearance, some level of education, some vocabulary, or skin tone actually makes one person better than another. 

Because the reality is- we love to divide ourselves. To lift ourselves up and push others down. Even us do-gooders like to be just a little bit better of a do-gooder than the person next to us. While we have the best intentions- we still operate in and propagate the system that divides and conquers. One of my favorite bumper stickers reads: “Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite”

The myth of superiority, of some deserving the hand they are dealt — is steeply ingrained. 

Superiority in multiple forms has infiltrated our thoughts and our society. And has taken shape in our material reality-- 
in ghettos and forgotten neighborhoods- 
in barios and border towns, 
and in high end shopping malls, 
in enclaves of generations of stored wealth, 
and gated isolated communities.

Our divides are deep and real and inherently intertwined in our personal lives and our communities, in our laws and our global relationships.


—— pause—-


But this is not how it has to be. Before we become paralyzed in despair- let us remember our beginnings. 

You are born of God. They are born of God. We are all born in love.

Now this is not when I will break out singing ‘all we need is love’ - or close with a simplified cliche’ plea that we should all just love each other and get along…

This is far deeper, far more powerful, more radical, and scary- because it requires us each to face the myths of division that are so a part of our reality. To challenge our own assumptions, to speak out when we see the flames of division being fanned by those in power- or even by our friends and family.

In the midst of the life long process of seeking to overcome divisions, 

We can find hope in the radical reality central to our faith- 
God is love. 

Love comes from God- and flows freely for all. 

Love is not a matter of  ‘getting connected’. 

It is a matter of seeing that we already are connected.

We are all made of the same dust, moving through time on the same planet, faced with our own problems, each with hopes and fears. 

Our core connection of God’s love makes all superficial divisions of skin color, age, gender, sexuality, looks, or money irrelevant.

This means we are to be like gardeners creating an environment that allows water to move freely from it’s source. 

We must make way for the free flowing connectedness of God’s love. By confronting and removing removing obstacles of fear, 

rooting out divisive language and stereotyping, 

working tirelessly to build just economies and fair laws.

We must let go of hurtful ways that block our awareness of our ultimate connection to one another through God’s love.

For when we do— everything changes. 

Remembering that Love comes from God, freely, to all is the first step to naming lifetimes of broken systems- false beliefs in superiority- false divisions based on fear and ego. 

Internalizing the call to love our brothers and sisters invites us to truly live into the interconnected web of life- grounded in God’s love for all. 

May it be so.

Amen.




Monday, March 16, 2015

Looking for Life

Numbers 21:4- 9


One of my favorite stories is an old Indian story. There was a young boy who had to move his elephants through the busy market each day to get to work. As he would walk the market the elephant’s unruly trunks would make trouble. As they would walk through their trunks would move to and fro- grabbing a bunch of bananas here, and a head of cabbage there from the cart of a vendor and dropping it into his mouth. As you can imagine this didn’t go over well with vendors who were having their merchandise stolen by the thoughtless elephants.


In looking for a solution, the boy discovered that if he gave the elephants a stick to hold onto- the trunks were then distracted and occupied - and they could walk through the market without stealing- and the boy could get to work without incident.


—-


The people of Israel were wandering- not through a market- but in the wilderness. They were restless, irritable- perhaps a little ‘hangry’ we all know that feeling..… All they can see in this moment is their misery. Enough time has passed that they no longer remember the days of brick without straw, of back breaking labor, and lives of slavery. All they know now is hunger and exhaustion. The past looks better than the present.


They are living in what I call their ‘monkey brain’ and can focus on nothing more than the misery in front of them. They have lost a wider perspective.


Their misery only gets worse when they find themselves overwhelmed by an infestation of poisonous fiery snakes- which they see as punishment for their complaining. They feel hopeless and stuck and see no way out.


Out of desperation they go back to Moses- who must feel a bit like an unappreciated mother at this point surrounded by whining children. The people ask Moses to help them out- the people are dying -   trapped in a land of hunger- and now of venomous snakes.
So Moses calls out to God.. and this is when I imagine God breaking out the snarky sarcastic voice…


Alright, alright let's try this… YHWH responds, "Make a Seraph, and put it on a pole so that any who are bitten can look at it and live.”


So this is exactly what Moses does- he makes a bronze viper- lifts it up on a pole. and Whenever the snakes bite someone, that person would look at the bronze viper and live".


——
Looking at the snake becomes an antidote - when the people who are bitten change their focus away from the snakes biting them- and look up at the bronze snake, and they live.


So how are we to understand this highly unusual text? We know from both the ten commandments, and from multiple incidents in the Hebrew Bible that God is not one for idol worship or magic- so we can eliminate these two understandings of this text. In fact later in 2 Kings the people are reprimanded for misunderstanding and beginning to worship this seraph - God reminds the people that the snake on the pole is not to become an idol to worship. Rather this snake on a pole is a tool- a distraction to call the people to point themselves toward life- to give them an alternative to the suffering they are trapped in- a life with hunger and fiery snakes. They change their focus to a way of life, and they live.


For us as Christians in the 21st century-- this somewhat bizarre text would not have such power for us- if it had not been later called upon in the book of John: and this is where this get’s really fascinating…


We all know John 3:16: For God so loved the world…


But do you know John 3:14?


“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”


Anyone who is "snakebit" has to look at the image and be healed. This is the episode that is called to mind before we are reminded of how much God loved the world.


Just as the snake is not meant to be magical- or an idol- neither is Jesus. Rather Jesus- like the snake- points toward a different way. Calls on the people to hold onto the ways of life rather than the ways of death.


For those trapped in systems that kill— the way of Jesus brings the way of life.


You see, in Jesus time people were trapped in broken systems. Trapped in the unjust economy of the Roman empire- 98 % lived in poverty. Those where were born with a disability were seen as ‘sinners’- relegated to a life of begging- - mental illness meant possession by demons and exclusion from community. Have and have nots was a life determining reality. Who’s in and who’s out were questions that permeated political, social and religious systems.
—-


This week- many people here at First Plymouth- including my family- participated in the SNAP challenge.. This is a challenge to live for a week on what those who use food stamps- or supplemental nutrition assistance live on— this amount is $4.14 a day per person in Colorado - which means no eating out- and no luxury items.. which my husband reminded me included the glass of wine I was drinking with my dinner Monday night- I blew it day one.


The purpose of this challenge is not to create opportunities for us to harass each other about our incompetence in following a simple challenge— or to recreate the whining and hunger of the Isrealites in the wilderness- though these were certainly side effects of the challenge in our home…


The intent of the challenge is to strengthen our ‘empathy muscles’ and to gain awareness and perspective on our broken food systems. To shake us a bit that we might begin to look up from the ways we have grown accustomed to.


Nearly 1 in 7 Coloradans struggle with hunger - facing times when there is not enough money to buy food for their families or themselves.


Nearly 1 in 5 Colorado kids may not know when or where they will get their next meal.


Nearly 1 in 7 Colorado seniors struggle with hunger, leading to choices between food and medication.


And - while these are difficult statistics- it doesn’t stop there.


Not only do we have a hunger issue in the dessert: We also have a snake issue.


We live in a broken system where hunger and food insecurity is but one symptom of deeper challenges. In our world- hunger is not an issue of a lack of food— rather it is an issue of a poor distribution of food and resources. There is deep injustice in how our food system works.


While 21,000 people in the world die each day from hunger related causes- 21,000 each day:  27 % of adults in the United States are obese.


We do not have a lack of food or resources.


These are symptoms of a broken system where income inequality has expanded exponentially in my lifetime, where an industrialized food system has manipulated food quality and price, and where 1 in 8 Coloradans live in poverty.


We are immersed in interconnected systems that benefit some and harm others. These systems have become all we know. We take part in them- even if we disagree with them-  Like the Israelites in the wilderness- it is the only reality we see. It’s all we know.


——


It was in a context of broken systems that Jesus came and called the people to a different reality.


A reality where life overcomes death.
Where equality wins against disparity.
Where full bellies replace hunger and poverty.
Where grace and faith overtake fear and condemnation.


These are the ways of life. When we hold onto - and work toward - love, and feeding, healing, justice, compassion and grace— as the elephant holds a stick- we can break through the suffering of the broken systems we are trapped in.


—-


Sometimes it takes something bizarre - like a bronze snake on a pole-  or something extreme like the crucifixion of one who stands for love- or something seemingly simple like an elephant holding a stick- to get our attention.


To remind us that there is another way than that which we are trapped in. To shake us from complacency and open our eyes to both the way things actually are, and the way things can be.


Standing in solidarity with those who struggle to put food on the table helps open our eyes to the deep brokenness in our way of life that creates such disparity between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. As we strengthen our ‘empathy muscles’ we begin to cry out like the israelites in the wilderness longing for a way out of this certain death we are trapped in. We cry out and are invited to look up- to see that Yes! Yes! there is another way.


In this lenten season we are reminded that Jesus was lifted up to show that there is another way - that the way of life overcomes the way of death. That the way to break down unjust systems is through solidarity, compassion, and speaking truth to power.


We are called to hold onto - and to walk toward- these ways of being — with focus and intent—


For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who looks away from the ways of brokenness- and looks toward the ways of life- may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might find life and thriving and justice forever for All - through him.


May it be so.
Amen.





Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Noosphere

Contemplation and Action. In my reading and study of mystics, contemporaries, biblical witness, and other sacred texts, I consistently return to a call for a balance of 'contemplation' and 'action'.

Of seeking justice, moving and speaking, and organizing (action)--

and of centering, and praying, reading, and sleeping (contemplation).

Of working, and relating, talking (action),

and of exploring, and wondering, and meditating (contemplation).

It seems I am in a constant quest to find balance- to let go of the guilt that I 'should be doing more', or the guilt that 'I should be praying more'...

To listen to the needs in my body, in my family, and in my community- to act when action is needed- and to contemplate when contemplation is needed.

This week- as we move toward the Winter Solstice, I find myself resting in 'contemplation'.. and letting go of the need for constant action.

Today it was the noosphere; that called. The Noosphere is a concept that was developed by my favorite philosopher/ paleontologist/ priest, Pierre Tielhard de Chardin. The noosphere is the world of thought that exists in our mind and being. The world that we each carry with us.

Inside each person is a world that is as vast, complex, and mysterious as the layers of earth, biosphere atmosphere, and beyond.

Chardin posed in the mid twentieth century that great scientific and human discoveries and convergence will come with greater exploration of our 'noosphere'...

As we each as individuals and as communities take time to sit in 'contemplation' (in a variety of forms) we will move to deeper understanding and cooperation as humanity. Contemplation is vital to action. Outer change requires inner transformation.

This morning I awoke feeling called to the mountains. So I drove and hiked and explored trees and mountains and valleys. Snow was plied on the wiry branches of evergreens.  Dormant winter branches made visible every crevice and hill of the land below.

I can't help but wonder- If this is what I can see-- what is hiding in my brain- in my heart - that I can't see. What is calling, seeking to be listened to? What does it look like when more people have the gift of time and space to explore the noosphere?

How do we invite a world - and communities- that find balance between inner and outer, action and contemplation?

In this 'busy' season- may we listen for the call of the inner world. May we take time to rest and play- and may this inter transformation lead to action that increases love and compassion and justice in the world around each of us.


Saturday, December 6, 2014

So This is Christmas



"Shall not Lebanon in a very little while
    become a fruitful field,
    and the fruitful field be regarded as a forest?
 On that day the deaf shall hear
    the words of a scroll,
and out of their gloom and darkness
    the eyes of the blind shall see.
 The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
    and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel."
~Isaiah 29:17-19

I have a confession. 

I struggle deeply with knowing when to speak out - even on things that I feel deeply passionate about. Even as a pastor- trained to 'speak out'.

As I've reflected on this- I see that there are three main reasons I don't speak out:

First: Fear

When it comes down to it- my defaults are 'pleaser' and 'conflict avoider'. There are many people I love who have radically different world views, religious views and political views than I do. So too often I remain silent, even when my heart is crying out. 

Second: Pessimism

Sometimes it seems like the shifts in collective conversation around the most pressing social issue can leave me with whiplash. There are so many needs in the world. So many injustices. And we often move as a society from one fire to the next very quickly. My pessimism and rebellious side keep me from wanting to be a 'bandwagon jumper'. I am cautious to assure that my support for the latest 'cause' is not comparable to my search for the latest style jeans: even if that 'cause' is something that is vitally important and I feel deeply about.

After a school shooting, we are all outraged over easy access to guns, our overly violent society, and the lack of mental health awareness and support. After the latest court ruling or public slur about immigration we all speak out and name our experiences and outrage over our broken immigration laws. Through social media each week things we never spoke of before are all of a sudden our lives passion: cancer, AIDS, marriage equality, environmental change, violence against women, homelessness and poverty- you understand, I'm sure.

While even if I totally agree with the need for support for each of these important issues- I can be hesitant to publicly speak out for fear of my support being 'bandwagon support'. 

Third: Privilege
The privileged place I hold in society keeps me from personally experiencing the consequences of so many of these injustices first hand- leaving me feeling unqualified to speak. My 'privilege' makes it easy for me to spend more time thinking about myself and less time thinking about others.

-----


So those are my confessions. And here's my wondering:

In this season of Advent, as I've been spending time praying and reflecting and waiting for "the in-breaking of Christ in the world",

I wonder- What if what seems like an ebb and flow of care and concern in our public conversation- a crescendo of tweets and Facebook posts and breaking news, and grocery store conversation, and late night TV comedic truth... 

What if this rise and fall of focus does not speak so much to the fickleness of our society- 

but rather, what if these rising and falling cries for justice are actually the rhythm of the 'kingdom of God' pulsating and pushing and trying to burst through?

What if the cries for justice and equality, in all of its various forms, are the cries of God's justice trying to be known in the world?

Perhaps the push for each 'cause' is rooted in the same guttural energy for freedom and equality, for peace and possibility and thriving for all people? 

What if this is the cosmic Christ trying to break into the world- working in people's lives one tweet, one headline, one heated Facebook conversation at a time?

With each wave- perhaps one person 
has eyes to see the realities of the brokenness 
has found a voice to cry out for justice
has decided to reach out and look at the statistics
has come to see their own role in the pain of another
has engaged in a conversation respectfully
has found the strength to march, to cry, to listen, to sit with one another.

----

Today racial injustice is fueling our collective conversation.

After countless very visible incidences of extraordinary unspeakable injustice and inequality- people are speaking out. 

The statistics around the inequity and racism in our criminal justice system are astounding: 
Prison Policy Initiative

The statistics and stories of 'police on black' violence are beyond shocking:
Criminal Enforcement Inequality

The stories are especially baffling for a 'white girl' like me who has certainly been given the benefit of the doubt in the criminal system. Here are some stories to show that:
#crimingwhilewhite

To keep up on the cutting edge thought around racial justice check out: 
Urban Cusp

As I watch and listen and stand in solidarity as people are marching, rioting, singing songs for liberation, expressing anger, and crying in heartbreak, 

I wonder,
What if this is God calling out from those most marginalized, maligned and oppressed? What if this is God calling from within our communities and our societies and our systems-
trying to enter the world- trying to be born-
So that all might experience life, equality, fullness, justice, freedom and healing?

"And his mercy is for those who fear him    from generation to generation.  He has shown strength with his arm;    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;  he has brought down the mighty from their thrones    and exalted those of humble estate;  he has filled the hungry with good things,    and the rich he has sent away empty." ~Luke 1:50-53
----

How does this reality allow my fear of speaking out fall away? How does this reality shape my pessimistic view of our public conversations? How does this call me to see and name the privilege that blocks my vision?

This morning as I watch and listen to those crying for their black sons, as I see images of college students 'dying in' to make visible the injustice of our systems, I can't help but see the face of God coming like a tidal wave, crying out so that life, healing, equality and justice may also be made visible in this world.

And I feel a new sense of hope- because though this moment may pass without the full justice we all want, and though the collective conversation may soon shift to the next 'cause'--

I trust that the rhythm of God is beating. I trust that people are listening. And with each wave of community outcry, the 'kingdom of God' may be little bit more 'on Earth as it is in Heaven.'

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. 
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. 
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. 
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.” ~Reinhold Niebuhr






Sunday, August 3, 2014

Struggle and Blessing

Genesis 32:24-31

Last week I started my sermon with a common phrase- “Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees”…
The next day I went up to the mountains to camp and hike and breathe a bit. On Monday I was near the end of a long hike- feeling a bit tired and hungry- when I came up a hill and around a bend and caught a view that took my breath away..
It seemed I could see for miles- it was so beautiful. Rock outcroppings, mountain peaks and valleys as far as I could see- blue sky, chirping birds, scampering chipmunks..
When suddenly I realized - the reason I could see so clearly- the reason the breathtaking beauty of the mountains and valleys and rocks was so apparent- was because this was a part of a former forest fire burn area. As I looked closer I could still see the charred sticks poking through the new growth.
I noticed in that moment that sometimes- it takes a fire to allow us to gain a new perspective. Sometimes it takes struggle and pain in order for the soil to be healed and nurtured- and ultimately for new growth to burst through.
—-
Todays text is a story of struggle and blessing.
Today we continue the epic tales of Genesis- we pick back up with Jacob- whom we last met a couple weeks ago, when I preached about his dream of the ladder to God. Jacob had been on the run after stealing his brothers blessing- and had stopped to rest when he dreamt of God - who blessed him and kept him safe.
Many years have passed since that fateful night- and through those years Jacob has retained his ‘trickster’ nature that he had from the start. After Jacob ran away to the house of his mother’s brother Laban- he found a way to gain not one wife- but two- Leah and Rachel, plus two servant wives- Bilhah, and Zilpah. He tricked his way to obtaining most of his uncles possessions- flocks of sheep and goats, camels, donkeys, and slaves. Jacob’s uncle Laban is beginning to realize that this man living in his household has tricked him into giving away all he had- and Jacob realizes it’s time to get away before his Uncle’s anger gets out of hand.
So Jacob and his wives gather up all of their belongings- animals and slaves- and they hit the road to head back to the home he had left many years before - back to the land of his father- Isaac- and his brother- Esau- the one whom he had wronged so many years ago.
In Genesis 32 Jacob sends scouts ahead to scope out his brother’s anger— it has been years and he wonders if he still wants to kill him for what he did.
Jacob hears that in fact his brother Esau is coming to meet him- and he’s bringing 400 men with him..
So- naturally Jacob is scared. He plots to split all of his possessions and people into two camps- so that if one gets taken out the other will be spared.
He sends an offering for forgiveness along to his brother in the form of flocks of animals - his servants are instructed to bring the animals to his brother.
And Jacob prays. Prays to God - and reminds God of the blessing God had given him- names his own shortcomings - and asks for mercy from his brother.
He sends all of his people and animals across the Jabbok river and he finds a place to rest for the night.
Dawn is near when we come to the heart of todays text- I bet you thought I’d never get there!
Please listen with me to the words of Genesis 32 24- 31:
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
——

In a moment when Jacob is alone and afraid and vulnerable - 
at daybreak- the perfect point for an epic conflict and transforming event- God comes in the midst of struggle and is revealed to Jacob.
And Jacob wrestles- engages and challenges— It’s an image that shakes our typical notions of God- who is often primarily protector and nurturer or guide - one to be submitted to and followed— 
It is hard to imagine this scene of locking horns and struggling with God..
But this is exactly what happens. Jacob steps up to the mat. For those of us who have experienced something of the world of wrestling- I imagine Jacob and God with those fancy wrestling shoes- head gear in place- mouth guard and singlet. Stepping into the circle and ready to fight for the pin.
They wrestle and struggle for what seems like hours- when God realizes Jacob won’t back down- so he grabs his thigh and injures him- marks him for life. And tells Jacob to let him go. Jacob refuses to step back until the man will give him what he has always wanted most- another blessing. 
The man asks Jacob his name and when he replies- “Jacob” - The man replies— “no longer.” 
You will no longer be called Jacob- the trickster— but you will now be Israel- the father of a new nation-  for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed. 
And the stranger gives Jacob the blessing he asked for. In this moment Jacob gains clarity and realizes this is no ordinary assailant- but this is God wrestling and challenging and transforming and marking. In this Jacob is changed.
Jacob experiences struggle and blessing.
Traces of the old Jacob will remain, but he has matured from the self centered youth he once was. He will eventually become the patriarch, one who faces his struggles, seeks reconciliation over violence with his enemies, and who, in his old age, leads his family down into Egypt and blesses Pharaoh himself. 
In the midst of struggle- God gives Jacob a new name, and a new identity, and he is changed ever after.
Jacob walks away from the struggle limping- and blessed. He has new perspective and understanding because he has seen the face of God.
—-
Too often we have this fairytale notion that all should be smooth sailing and ‘perfect’. Be it in our personal lives or our community, or our church. Obey God and all will be well. Keep moving along, don’t rock the boat- and you will find your treasure.
But even in fairytales, it is the struggle that builds the character. It is conflict that gives a plot it’s climax. 
From Lion King to Bambi, from Cinderella to Frozen- it is the conflict - the death of a parent (why do they always kill off the parents?), the trauma of a disaster or the threat of our ‘dark side’ that not only makes the story interesting— 
The struggle invites new life, imagination, and creativity. Conflict brings people closer to one another in the end and makes both the individuals and the whole stronger.
—-
The story of Jacob wrestling with God reminds us that struggle makes us stronger.
That blessing comes not only in moments of beauty- but in moments of pain.
Struggle allows us to name our shortcomings- to face our demons- to grow stronger and wiser- and to come closer to the face of God.
Jacob walks away limping. Just as the charred tree trunks poke through the new growth in the forest- we are marked by our conflict. Marked- but not broken. Limping- but still walking.
--
As I stood in that forest outcropping last monday I remembered that - Naturally occurring wildfires play an integral role in nature- in fact they are a necessary part of a healthy ecosystem. They return nutrients to the soil. They allow sunlight to reach the forest floor- which enables new seedlings and life to flourish.
While a forest fire can be heartbreaking and painful- they also shape our view- provide new insight and create room for growth.
They allow space for both struggle and blessing.
—-
In the life of our church we are certainly in a place of struggle. None of us hoped to have struggle- none of us would chose to be in the midst of a forest fire.
None of us are excited about stepping onto the mat with God.
And yet- we all know- from our deepest experiences- from the wisdom of our ancestors- 
that our struggles make us stronger. 
Our struggles create room for blessing.
So- As we move forward— 
May we walk through these next weeks and months with grace. 
May we reach out in love. May we name our pain and sadness, and our name for healing.
May we stay on the mat as we at times lock horns with God and with each other.
And may we be transformed as we seek reconciliation, and healing, and blessing.

Amen.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hope and Hopelessness

I guess it has been a while since I've posted anything!
Here is todays sermon... since I don't have audio... Our recorder walked away.

Here's todays words-

Matthew 13:31-46
31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 
33He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” 
44“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 
45“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 
—-
Jesus loves similes…
Sometimes it can be hard to see the forest through the trees. Sometimes it can be hard to remember that God is working when things seem to be falling apart around us. When our loved one is dying, when war and violence take the lives of thousands, when children are seen as political pawns rather than loved children of God, when the community we love is going through struggle and transition.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what God is doing in the world right now- let alone to understand what God is calling us to in the future.
In todays text, the crowd who is gathered has heard of this man who teaches and heals, and who breaks the rules in the name of love. They know he is a provocative guy- and they are curious and hungry to know more- to experience the new way of life he speaks of- and lives. 
The people come and they gather- to hear a word of hope in a time of hopelessness.
You see, this is life in the first century in the Roman empire— and the masses of people- 98 percent of the population- often find themselves hungry for hope. Their sick loved ones are cast aside.. those born with physical differences are dismissed as perpetuators of sin. In the Roman Empire a small number of people hold power and wield it ruthlessly. The world of who’s in and whose out- leaves countless people marginalized and oppressed. Have you seen the HBO series Rome from a few years back? This graphic show paints a troubling and realistic picture of the world when ‘slaves’ weren’t even considered human, and women were property and violence and hunger were norms.
It would have been easy to feel hopeless. It would have been difficult to imagine the kingdom of God.
It is in this context that Jesus came- a contradiction from the start- a king born in a manger- who lives on the outskirts of town and rides a donkey rather than a horse.
In todays text- halfway through the book of Matthew- Jesus relentlessly casts image after image to stir the imaginations of all who gather..
Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed planted in a field to grow- to grow from a shrub into a tree- a great tree that provides a home to birds and their babies”  
The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour- enough flour to make 150 loaves of bread..  until all of it was leavened- piles of leavened dough overflow from her little kitchen- enough to feed the whole village.
Now - it’s important to note that a mustard seed and yeast weren’t positive symbols in their time...A mustard seed is a teeny tiny seed that grows like a weed. An invasive weed that can take over a crop.. and yeast was associated with sin and corruption. 
So Jesus says that this weed seed- is like the kingdom of God- as it grows and becomes a tree- a symbol of power and strength- strong enough to support life. Jesus takes this symbol of sin and corruption and buries it in heaps of flour until the yeast has become a source of life and nourishment.
 The people who heard these parables heard them not as warm, fuzzy and comforting —but as subversive; Jesus speaks of a kingdom that is invasive, unstoppable, a nuisance, urgent, shocking, and abundant. 

The kingdom of God is like taking a little seed - like a dandelion blowing in the wind- and watching it grow into life and wonder- a home to birds. And like watching yeast - our brokenness and pain- be smothered with wheat until it grows to nourish many.
The “kingdom” spoken in a time of deep struggle and rampant injustice- looks like something entirely different from what they were expecting.
—-

When and where and how we least expect it, God’s justice, God’s peace, and God’s freedom break out in this world in unlikely ways and unlikely places.

God is working and stirring in places and ways we cannot even imagine.
There is hope in the midst of hopelessness.
This weekend at the church has been one of my favorite weekends of the year around here. More than 400 bands have filled the streets, and restaurants, and coffee shops and bars of the neighborhood. Every hour between 4 and midnight there have been different musicians and artists performing here in the sanctuary- people of all walks of life come in and sit down in these pews- some who haven’t been in a church like this for years- if ever.. and they watch and listen to incredible creative and inspiring music.
Some of the bands notice and name the ‘strangeness’ of playing in a church… For groups that are use to playing in bars- we are a dramatic change of scenery. One of the bands Friday night would stop at different points through their performance and throw out questions to the crowd.
They asked “How many of you believe in God?” As the pastor - and general nerd around all things God- sitting in the back of the room my ears perked up. I looked up to see a small handful of hands in the crowded sanctuary rise with this question. 
Too few feel little hope in the God they have been taught about - few believe in a heaven with pearly gates- an old guy on a throne, and angles standing like bouncers at the top of the stairs..
Few are interested in a notion of God that prioritizes doctrine over wonder and reinforces those same old notions of whose in and whose out that were so painful in Jesus’s time.
These ways of understanding the kingdom of God leave us feeling hopeless.
And Jesus comes - with his subversive imagination and speaks a story that is bigger- more mysterious- more abundant than we can imagine.
The way of God- while it may seem small- even un-see-able at first … is a disruptive, and pervasive in-breaking of creative life and freedom— 
And Jesus tells us that this is a way that is worth searching for- worth acting on. Jesus goes on in the parables to speak of treasure hidden in fields, fine pearls waiting to be found.. when we find this new way of being we discover that it  is so valuable it is worth letting go of that which holds us back and seeking the fullest most beautiful.. seeking justice, kindness, humility, and love- and letting go of all that keeps us from these things.
—-
At the first UMS I attended I heard Ian Cooke play.
As I watched him take this beautiful instrument- really an ordinary cello- made of wood and string- I saw the way he created music- with his voice and with this cello- that was unexpected. I heard a radical freedom.. a moving, grace filled and unexpected sound that reverberated in my chest and moved me to tears.
I asked him after- When did you let yourself break the rules in the name of creativity? When did you set aside the training of cords and rhythms- in order to play from a deeper place?
—-
The kingdom of God is disruptive. It turns the expected on it’s head.. and not to bring chaos- but to make room for beauty. To take our brokenness and turn it into bread. To take the weeds of our world and and turn them into trees that support life.
The kingdom of God is like an unexpected song.. that first stirs in our imagination- and then comes to life with a chord, a single note- a single pluck of the strings turns into a rhythm, a melody.. and a crescendo.
and then it grows and moves and stirs and evokes something you can’t even describe with words— -evokes something deeper- more freeing and liberating— a deep hope- you can feel in your gut—
fills you with joy or laughter or sadness- you can’t help but move… clap, or dance, or cry
— the way of God stirs life and grace and justice. 
Moves us to reach out in love and to sing a song of hope when all seems hopeless.
The way of God is beyond anything we can imagine… even when all we see are lowly seeds, or weeds, or a lump of yeast.. 
God is there stirring and moving and calling us to act for life, grace, and healing. 
To search- step out- to give up everything that holds us back.
May we see the kingdom of God in fresh ways. May we feel in our bones the presence of the one who creates and challenges and inspires us to love.
May we dance, and sing, and cry as we know God’s kingdom is bigger than we can imagine.
May we feel hope in times of hopelessness.

Amen.