Sunday, December 10, 2017

Advent 2: In the Wilderness, Prepare!

 Isaiah 40/Mark 1:1-8

            “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas … Everywhere you go”
            For a brief moment – late Thursday night and early Friday morning – I sort of felt like singing this song.
             It snowed! 
            Something I have been told NEVER happens here.
             It snowed, and it was a surprise, and one of my friends said she and her husband just drove up and down the streets near them because then they could see the snowflakes hitting the windshield. 
            Simple pleasures. 
            And in the morning there was this light coating of snow, and when my husband went to the store for a couple of things, he said that everyone was in good spirits there –talking and wishing each other a Merry Christmas!
            “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas ….. Everywhere you go….”
            It reminded me of preparing for Christmas when I was a little girl, and when my dad and I would go out to get the tree, and we’d drive in that snowy cold winter air like they have up north and we’d sing this song all the way to the Christmas tree lot. 
            Because for some reason or another, snow, a beautiful blanket of snow, said Christmas to us.
            It was part of the Christmas preparations, and we expected it, but we couldn’t make it happen.

            It’s beginning to look a lot like – Christmas.  
            Everywhere you go. 
            But what does “Christmas” look like?  
            The image that the prophet Isaiah paints is something else – not preparation for Christmas but preparation for the Kingdom of God .              “Prepare the way of the Lord”, the prophet says – and it’s a huge construction project.
            The valleys will be raised up and the mountains made low and the crooked places straight, because God is going to make an actual appearance. 
            Isaiah is speaking to people who have been in exile, who have been conquered by their enemies and sent away – people who may feel both hopeless and desperate – but also perhaps – feel the weight of their own unfaithfulness. 
            They had turned away from God. 
            But now – now they were living far away from their home and they were dislocated from the things that made their faith real to them.            The temple was gone.  Had God left them too? 
            They were like people who associated snow with Christmas – living in a land of no snow. 
            They were refugees looking for a place to worship – a place that looked like home. 
            And the prophet was saying to them – God is going to make an actual appearance.  Prepare the way of the Lord. 

            It’s a big construction project because the people know that they need a big construction project. 
            They need God to come to them.   
            They need an actual appearance by God.    And In Isaiah, God promises that they will get it. 
            God is coming to them.  Prepare the way.

            But Isaiah says something more than that.  He doesn’t just say, “Prepare.”  He says, “in the wilderness prepare….”  And I have been wondering about this lately. 
            In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.   
            Is this important? 
            What does it mean?  Why prepare in the wilderness?  It’s the place where the people wandered for 40 years before entering the promised land.
             It’s the place where Jesus went to be tempted for 40 days.  The wilderness can be beautiful but it can be barren and it is dangerous. 

            And it is where we are.

            Aren’t we?  I can’t help thinking this.
             I’m seeing pictures of fires burning in Los Angeles.  I hear stories of refugees with no place to go.
             I remember the devastation of flooding in Houston, in the Caribbean, in Puerto Rico. 
            People celebrating at a concert in Las Vegas are murdered, and people worshipping at a church in Sutherland Springs. 
            And more and more, I hear the language of “them and us” … if we disagree with each other, we use the language of contempt.   It seems like the wilderness to me.

            And then there are the small and individual stories I hear about:  the woman who asks me to pray for her husband, who has depression.  The teenage boy dying of cancer.   The woman grieving the loss of her sister.   

            In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, the prophet says.  Because that is where we are. 
            God is going to make an actual appearance – where we are, in the wilderness.

            I will tell you now that one of the hard things this summer was finally moving out of our home in Minnesota. 
            Not because I didn’t want to move, but because – well – moving is just hard work, even when you know it’s hard, it turns out to be even harder.
             And while we were moving I found out that there was a new member of the family – my great-niece was born – and I desperately wanted to meet that little baby. 
            But it was all moving all the time, and there wasn’t time to go and see her.
             I remember one night thinking if I wasn’t so tired, I would just like to meet that little baby, but not having the energy to do anything about it, and my nephew sent a little video of her. 
            And you know, it wasn’t the same, it wasn’t an Actual Appearance – but it was something.

            And finally, when we were back this week, they all came over to my mom’s house, they all came over for supper, and I got to meet her. Lyric is her name.  Like the song. 
            And I got to hold her.  And sing to her.  “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas… everywhere you go.” 

            Not because of the snow.  Because of a child.

            In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, the prophet says to us.
             Because that is where we are.  He is coming to us there.  He’s coming to bring life.  He’s coming to bring peace.  He’s coming to bring love.

            And he says, “Repent.” 
            Which means a lot of things, but one thing is “turn around.” 
            Turn around because we are always looking in the wrong places for God, and we’re looking in the wrong places for salvation. 
            We’re looking inside ourselves, we’re looking at powerful people.  But God is coming to us in the wilderness, God is coming to us where it’s cold, and where we are vulnerable, and where we are grieving. 
            God is coming to us in weakness, in a baby in a manger, in the cross where we crucified him.   
            God is coming to us not in power, but in weakness, not in revenge but in love. 

            Prepare the way of the Lord. 
            Turn around and open your arms, and your heart.
            Turn to your neighbor, turn to the stranger.
            Let it be true:
            For you. 
            Because you see it.  Because you bring it.
            It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.  Everywhere you go.

            Let every heart prepare him room.




Monday, December 4, 2017

Sermon for Advent 1: "Stay Awake"

Mark 13:24-37

            I remember Christmas Eve in our house when I was young. 
            We would have the gift exchange with our extended family, and then come home all excited that Santa Claus would be arriving over night.  
            My sister and I shared a room back then, and we had a hard time going to sleep on Christmas Eve. 
            We’d turn off the lights and whisper to one another, waiting for night to be past.  Our parents had the room just across the hall, so we tried really hard to be quiet. 
            We tried to sleep, too.  We counted to 100 several times, and thought that it must be getting close to morning (100 is a big number right?). 
            One year  it was so hard to sleep that we decided to try to pass the time by playing the new “Twister” game that we had gotten from our grandmother. 
            It was a great idea, we thought, and so we quietly took the game out, and started to play. 
            Things were going pretty well, until our mother was standing in the doorway.
            “Santa Claus has not come yet,” she said.  “And he won’t come unless you GO TO SLEEP.”
            I guess we weren’t as quiet as we thought.
            “Stay awake!”  Jesus says to his disciples as we begin the advent season.
             It makes me remember that time when anticipation made it hard to sleep, because I was waiting…. Waiting…. For Christmas to come. 
            It was so easy then – it was harder to fall asleep – because we were so convinced of the good things to come.

            Today -- It’s the beginning of the Advent season for us – which means we are lighting the candles and preparing for Christmas
             – in so many ways. 
            It’s a time when many of us are busy too – busy getting all the things ready – the Christmas programs and the feasts and the presents and the company… and so these particular words in the gospel of Mark might seem odd to us. 
            There’s a sense of foreboding and a sense of warning that we might not associate with the Christmas season – with the joy of children – with the tinsel and the carols and all of the good things of the season.         But these words are a reminder – they are a reminder to us that we are not just waiting for Christmas. 
            We are waiting for Christ.  Not the Christ of Bethlehem, but the Christ who comes on the clouds.   

            “Stay awake!”  Jesus commands, for the stars are about to fall, and God’s chosen ones will be gathered to him.  He is coming – again. 
            And it could be awhile, it’s true – but it could be any minute now. 

            Jesus’ second coming – that is what we are waiting for as we begin this season. 
            Not just the baby in the manger, although we are surely waiting for that day – but we know the time and date for that.
             We are waiting for the day and time we do not know, when he will come again.   
            And I will confess to having – at times – some ambivalence about that
            – because the second coming of Jesus has been associated in my mind with fear and destruction and suffering – with “the end of the world”
            – and – when I first heard the term – as a teenager – “the end of the world”  -- I didn’t want the world to end. 
            It was a beautiful world  out there were I wanted to be a part of it.           
I loved Jesus, don’t get me wrong – but I just didn’t want the world to end. 

            And what about now? 
            Stay awake, Jesus tells us, because I am coming soon. 
            And I will tell you that some days – I am awake, but I’m not sure that it is in the way that Jesus means.
             I am awake because of the things I see in the world, because of worries and fears, some small, some big.
             I am awake because of rumors of wars, and because of violence, even in churches, and because I love the children so much but I worry about their safety and their future
            – all of them, in all of their beautiful diversity.  
            And so it’s sometimes hard to sleep, but I don’t think that’s what Jesus means by “Stay awake.” 

            And this as well. 
            Sometimes I’m awake because of the weight.  The weight of responsibilitiy. 
            The weight of things to do. 
            The weight of all the suffering.  Sometimes it’s small things that keep me up, like trying to make a perfect Christmas, and sometimes they are big things.
             How to do the right things.  What are the right things to do.  
            What can I do?   What can I do?   To make the world a better place.           These things keep me up at night sometimes, but I don’t think that is what Jesus means by “Stay awake” either. 
            Not exactly.

            The day after that terrible church shooting in November, I stopped over to the school. 
            I stopped into a class of three year olds. 
            I don’t have them in chapel yet, so I don’t know them as well.  it was great to have some time to talk to them, and their teacher, and find out what they are learning. 
            We talked about how they are feeding their brains as well as their tummies, and learning numbers and the alphabets. 
            They had so many colorful things on the walls – all of the things they are learning.
             And – their teacher told me. 
            They are learning about God, too. 
            They are learning to look for God.  They are learning to look for God – everywhere. 

            I remembered thinking that it was hard sometimes – and maybe just because of the day it was
            – the day after – but I didn’t say anything, and the teacher told me how the children see God in the birds and in their families, and in everything around them.   
             The birds say, “Praise God!” – you can hear it if you really listen – and so do the trees. 

            And I think that this – this – is something like what Jesus means by “Stay awake!” 
            Look for God.  Look for God. 
            When it’s easy.  And when it’s hard. 
            When there is joy – and suffering. 
            In the songs of the birds, and the leaves of the fig trees, there are signs of his coming.
             Be on the lookout always – Jesus is telling his disciples, for I am coming to you.  I am coming to you to heal the world, to bring peace, to make the world right.  
            Stay awake!
             Be on the lookout – and not only that – be on the lookout – for the ways we can be there for the people who need the grace, the peace, the healing that he brings. 
            Stay awake for the sake of the children who wait for him with pure hearts.
             Stay awake for the sake of the hungry and the stranger – stay awake and look for him there.

            He’s coming – and we don’t know exactly when – but, like the children on Christmas eve – we know that he is bringing good things, good things for the world. 

            But not only that – stay awake – because he is here now today.
             He is coming in glory that’s for sure, but he is among us now, in small and hidden ways. 
            And if we can see him now – in ordinary people and things – in bread and wine, in hands outstretched, on a cross,
            in small acts of grace and love
             – we will have a better chance of seeing him in his glory when he comes.

            Come Lord Jesus be our guest
            Let these gifts to us be blest
            Wake us up that we may be
            Signs of love and grace from thee.



Saturday, November 25, 2017

What the World Needs Now

There's a moment from yesterday that I keep coming back to.  I'm not sure exactly why.

We were going on a short break after Thanksgiving.  Most of our vacation this year was taken up with moving out of our home in Minnesota.  The first time I went back, we made sure to see a few people but by the beginning of July it was clear that we would not get things done unless we put blinders on and worked non-stop.

So yesterday, we decided to take a one-night overnight, a real although short get-away out of town.  Friends from our congregation agreed to take care of our dog, Scout, for one night while we were gone.

And this moment -- it's not from the time away -- not exactly -- but we were on the way to the church to drop Scout off with our friends, who would meet us there.

When we got to the church, the door to the sanctuary was open, and they were both inside, getting some things ready for Sunday.  Scout saw them right away.  I let go of her leash and she ran down the middle aisle, where the husband greeted, and petted and patted and scratched her ears.

There was my twelve-year-old dog, who stumbles sometimes now on walks, running like a puppy.

I keep coming back to this moment.

And what I see is Joy.

My dog isn't perfect, as everyone who knows her will attest.  She has taken to destroying books lately, something that breaks our hearts, a little (or a lot, depending on the book).  The latest book of mine to be marred is one that my father gave me while I was living in Japan.  Usually I just throw the book away but with this one, I have kept it (so far) even though I'm not sure it's salvageable.

Lately when we come home and open the door, we wonder what we will find.  Sometimes everything is fine.  Sometimes there is a book with its cover ripped off and teeth marks and the spine destroyed.

Truthfully I can't hate her.  I know that what is happening has as much to do as our own early deficiencies in training as it does with her quirks in personality.  It's complicated.

But here's what is not complicated:  watching my old dog run down the center aisle of the sanctuary.


It doesn't fix anything, but it's necessary, you know?  It's necessary.  In the midst of hard work, and fear, and changing what you can change, and figuring out what you can't -- there's Joy.

There is a lot that is not joy in the world, but it's there if you look for it, it's there:  a child opening a small gift and waving it in the air.  There's the joy of hearing an old song after a long time, or the joy of seeing someone you love, who loves you, despite everything.  There's a lightness in joy, a feeling that perhaps you could leap up, even fly.

I remember from last year now -- a Sunday when a little girl came into church while I was standing and giving the announcements.  She ran up to me and hugged my legs.  And I don't know what she was feeling, but I felt Joy.

There is serious work to be done in the world.

And then there's joy.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Shining in the Gift of Service/Thanksgiving

Matthew 25:14-30

            It’s been many years ago now but I remember going to the high school basketball games in my first communities – and how much I enjoyed them – and how good they were some years!  In fact one year, one of our tiny towns was on the way to the State Championship. 
            And I decided to go up to one of the play off games to cheer for them
             Usually I would find people from my churches to sit with, but the gym was just packed and I ended up by myself, but with two gentlemen sitting behind me who provided running commentary and their own advice for the players. 
            It was a close game all the way through – the two high school teams trading one or two point leads – and at the very end – we were ahead, but maybe just by 2 or even one point. 
            Every second counts in basketball and there were just a couple of seconds to spare when our team had the ball and was at center court.        One of the high school girls was there – getting ready to try for a three point basket.
            “Don’t do it!  Don’t do it!”  the two men behind me advised. 
            She didn’t hear them.  She took the shot anyway.
            And …. She made it!  The crowd was wild!  We won!
            “She shouldn’t have done it!”  the men behind me said.

            Well.  They knew.  Right?  She should have played it safe.  That was their opinion.  Play it safe.  Because if she had missed – the other team would have gotten an opportunity, and we might have lost.

            Don’t do it.  Play it safe. 

            That’s what I think about when I think of that third slave in the parable today – the parable of the talents. 
            Don’t do it.  Play it safe. 
            That’s what he wanted to do.  Because – he might lose everything.  So he buried the talent in the ground
            I’ve thought a lot about what this parable means, over the years.  Ever since I was a teenager, actually. 
            Maybe it was that word, “talent” – that got me going.  Because I wanted to be talented at something.
            And I wasn’t sure what that was. 
            This worried me.
            Maybe it was the scary judgment at the end. 
            Because, like Luther, I feared God’s judgment – I feared that if I had a talent, even just one, I might squander it somehow. 
            I was sure I was the third servant, because if I had a talent, I only had one.  I was sure. 
            Other people might have a lot, but not me.  I just had one little talent. 

            I used to think that this parable was about talents – the gifts we have – and about the judgment of not using them for God.  But now I am thinking that this parable is more about what kind of God you believe in – what kind of God you trust – or don’t trust.  

            For one thing, I learned that the word “talent” really was a unit of money.   
             And even though I still think that it’s important to use my talents for God (whatever they are), it’s important to know that a talent is money and here’s why:  a talent is a lot of money. 
            Even one. 
            So it’s not a case of the first and second servants getting a lot and the third servant getting a measly amount. 
            A talent was worth about 15 or 20 years wages.  It was a ridiculous amount of money.  For ALL the servants.

            So the first thing to notice in the parable is abundance – there is abundance given to all the servants. 
            There is no scarcity anywhere.   What the landowner gives is not “measly.”  
            This makes it a good story for Thanksgiving, which we are celebrating this week – and today with the huge pot luck meal after our worship service.   
            Thanksgiving is about this abundance – that God has given to us – and how we share it. 
            The reading from Deuteronomy makes it clear that one of the pitfalls of wealth is forgetting where it came from – forgetting where YOU came from. 
            Your story.  It’s a story about God’s goodness to you, about how God led you through the wilderness and gave you this good land, how God has provided and provides abundance for you.  Who are we?  What’s our story? 
            Our “talents” – whether we mean talents to be actual literal money – or the things we are good at – our talents --are abundant, whether we’ve been given five, or two, or one.
            And they are given to us to share

            But the next thing I notice in the parable is that third servant – and what he believes about God. 
            The first two servants – we don’t know about them, except that – they just go out and multiply their talent. 
            But the third servant – we know he’s worried about losing what he has. 
            He’s worried about “not making the basket.”  He’s worried about what his master will do to him if he loses it.  He KNOWS that the master is a harsh master who will punish him. 
            And it is what he believes about the master that causes him to bury his talent.   He believes in the master, but he doesn’t trust him. 

            There’s one scenario that we don’t know about because it doesn’t exist.  What if one of the three servants risked what the master gave them, and lost it all? 
            What if they blew the wad …. And failed?  What if that young woman took the shot – and missed? 
            What would happen then?
            We don’t know. 
            But what if losing it all isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you?  What if losing the game isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you?  What if even losing your life – isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you? 
            The third servant believes in a master who is harsh and unforgiving – and that’s just what he gets. 
            But is that what we believe about God --?   
            Do we believe in a God who is just waiting for us to fail? 
            Do we believe in a God who is like Lucy in the old Peanuts cartoon – holding the football for us to kick and then – just at the last minute – pulling it away just when we were getting ready to kick? 
            Do we believe in a God who is harsh and unforgiving?

            Or do we believe in a God who led us out of slavery into the promised land? 
            Do we believe in a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love? 
            Do we believe in a God who forgave his enemies – who raised Jesus from the dead
            Do we trust that God will – even and especially if we fail – will raise us up again and again to new life? 

            Today we are celebrating Thanksgiving here – which is to say we are remembering our story, and the abundance of God. 
            And we will sit around tables together after church and we will feast – which is a part of giving thanks. 
            But what if a part of giving thanks is also this:  to take what God has given us – and throw it up in the air like that basketball – take a risk that God will use it – will use us – no matter us
            Maybe we’ll make that basket – maybe not – but either way – either way – trust that God will use our lives for his glory. 
            Trust that God will use this congregation – for his Glory. 
            Trust that God will use our hands our feet, our songs, our quilts, our muscles, everything – even our failures…. For his glory. 

            And give thanks.  Give thanks for the abundance of God.  Give thanks for the promise of the gospel.   Live the Grace of God.

            Let your light so shine before others
            That they may see your good works
            And give glory to your father in heaven.