Monday, November 28, 2016

Knitting in Advent

I have started knitting again.

I haven't been knitting that much, since moving to Texas last year.  For one thing, I felt overwhelmed at first.  For another thing, people kept telling me that I would never need those warm socks and footies that I loved knitting.  And when it's 100 degrees out, and it plummets to about 85 at night -- well, it just doesn't seem like knitting weather.

But, the temperature has been dipping down a little lower lately.  Also, it is Advent now, just barely.  So I got out my trusty knitting needles and threw caution to the wind.  I started knitting a pair of footies.

It is not a bad way to spend Advent.

One of the first words we hear in Advent is "Wait."  Wait, because it is God who is coming to us, and not the other way around.  And we can pray for God to come quickly (and sometimes we even do), but there is not one thing we can do to MAKE God come.  This one is on God.  Salvation is on God, not us.

I don't know about you, but waiting drives me crazy.  And that waiting when it is clear that what you are waiting for is on the other person -- that drives me the craziest.  Waiting in the doctor's office, so that the doctor can tell me what is wrong and how to fix it, and then give the right medicine -- waiting for the electrician to come and re-wire the basement -- waiting for the plumber to come and fix the leak -- that is the hardest thing.

So I think that waiting in Advent may be in part to remind us about the things that we can do, and the things we can't do.  As it turns out, only God can save us.  Only God can heal us what is ultimately wrong.   Only God can bring the kind of light we need, and place that light within our hearts.  Only God can bring the living water, so that we will never be thirsty.  Only God can knit our hearts back together, only God can knit us together with him, so that we are joined unbreakably to love and to life   and to hope and to peace.

Only God can do it.  And he has.  And he does.  And he will, again.

But in the meantime, we wait.  But while we wait, we are reminded that there are things we can do.  They won't make Jesus come more quickly.  But they are things that testify to our hope.

So many of us light the candles.  One a week.  And as the light of the candle grows, we remember that he is coming to us, he is coming to us -- that he walks among us, inhabits our world, our lives, and even our bodies.  Our hands.

So we light the candles.  There are so many ways to light the candles:  by giving away bread, by sharing a cup of water, by holding the hands of the dying, by standing up for the vulnerable, by welcoming the stranger.

As for me, today I will knit.  And I will consider the one who, by his grace, inhabits even my hands, even our hands, and who has knit us all together by his love.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

What Makes Us Great

It is Thanksgiving Day.  It is a couple of weeks after a bitter national election.  I have been thinking about both of these things.  I can't avoid the sight of the red caps which read, "Make America Great Again."  It may be an occupational hazard, but it can't help thinking about them, and wondering about it.  What makes us great?  How do we define it?  how do we know when we get there?  Is it a place we stay or do we just catch a glimpse of it?  What makes us great?

For my former congregation, formed just after World War II, one of the things that made us great was winning World War II.  After that, America was a undisputed superpower.  We also had nuclear weapons, with all of the power and responsibility that they carried.  We had prosperity (we also had very, very high taxes, because we had to pay for the war, but that is beside the point).  We had new, labor-saving devices.  We had all of these women who had gone to work during the war, leaving the work force.  We had all of these soldiers, coming back to their families.

But I learned another narrative of greatness from some of my World War II parish members; I learned about the Marshall Plan, and how the United States and the allies had helped restore their enemies' countries, after the war.  I don't know why we did that.  After World War I, the world had punished the losers, rather than helping them rebuild.  But after World War II, we bound up wounds.  I don't know why.  Maybe the Depression made people more aware of suffering.  Bread lines.  Hunger.

What makes us great?

When I think of my own work as a pastor, and the work of my congregation, I ask the same question: What makes us great?  I want something that I can point to, perhaps a point of pride.  What makes us great?

Since the election, I have been spending more time than usual visiting people.  It is not because of the election.  It has just happened that way.  One woman and her daughter have returned to our congregation after being away for awhile.  We are planning a congregational celebration of her daughter's 15th birthday, and also beginning confirmation instruction.  A new member of the congregation wants to start a mens' group.  Another new member is passionate about prayer.

I have also been visiting with communion, more than usual, or so it seems.   One to one, with people in the hospital, at home, who come to church.  I open the Bible, the communion kit, search around for the right words.  Yesterday, I took my communion kit again to a woman who had just returned from the hospital.  After the service, she said that the only thing missing was a song.  I promised we would sing, next time.

There is something about sitting down with a Bible, bread and wine, and words of prayer that brings ministry down to its most basic level.  This is who I am:  a servant, sharing bread, reminding people or their common hunger.

What makes us great?

Bread and wine, the words of promise.  Water poured, the water of life.  A song at the right time.  Acts of compassion, even for enemies.

On this Thanksgiving Day:  I am thankful for bread, and the hands that receive it.  I am thankful for prayer, given and received.  I am thankful for people who listen, who serve, and who are ready for the greatness God is calling us to, which is love.


Sunday, November 6, 2016

Reading the Bible in Church

Today was All Saints Sunday in Church.  We did many things in church.  We sang, we prayed, I preached.  We opened our hands and received communion.  We even said, "Christ is risen!"  We lit candles to remember those in our lives who had been saints to us, who had reflected the light of Christ to us.

And, we read from the Bible.

We read from the Bible every Sunday at church.

But today it felt different.

I felt the weight of the appointed Gospel, from Jesus' Sermon on the Plain.  It is appointed for All Saints Sunday, but this year I didn't preach on the gospel.  I preached on being a saint, and I preached on being a witness, but I didn't preach on these particular words.

But I read them, because they were the words of the appointed gospel for today.

Two days before our National Election, I read the blessings and the woes.  Blessed are you who are poor.  Woe to you who are rich.  Blessed are you when you are reviled, and people speak ill of you.

And then, three little words:

Love your enemies

I don't know what my congregation heard when I said these words.  I felt time slow down while I said them.  "Love your enemies,  and do good to those who persecute you."

I felt like Jesus was speaking them directly to me.

They were words not just for the election, but for how to live afterwards.  I am not sure that it is possible, but I am certain that it is necessary.   Love your enemies.  I don't think that means, "Let your enemies walk all over you."  It also doesn't mean, "Let your enemies get away with evil."  It also doesn't mean "Show contempt for your enemies."

"Love your enemies."

I opened the Bible and the words of Jesus exploded in my face.

They made me consider again what it will mean, and what it might cost to be a follower of Jesus, in such a time as this.


Saturday, November 5, 2016

Witnesses

Tomorrow is All Saints Sunday in my congregation.  I love this Sunday, for many reasons.  I love lighting the candles.  I love remembering.  I love saying the names and knowing some of the stories of the particular saints in my own congregation.

I don't know why it has never occurred to me before how close All Saints is to Election Day.  But on Sunday I will be naming names and lighting candles and talking about the hope and witness of the saints.  On Tuesday it will be Election Day.  Many have already cast their vote, or will cast their vote.      

To be perfectly honest, this election feels different for me.  There have always been negative ads.  There has always been passion.  There have always been both hope and fear.  But it feels different this time.  Fear seems to have the edge over hope.  We are witnesses, but what are we witnessing?

Maybe a better question is this:  What do we hope for?

Tomorrow is All Saints Sunday, and as I light the candles, I will think of the hope of the saints.  I will consider the hope of the saints as the hope for a better city, a place of abundance, where the table is set, where all will be fed, where all will recognize the beauty and value of the children of God.

But the hope of the saints is not limited to that better city.  That hope lights my way right now, even when fear grips me.  The hope means that whatever happens on Tuesday, I will live hoping for a world where the poor are blessed, where the weak are protected, where there is enough for the hungry.  I will live looking for ways to provide shelter for the homeless and for the refugee.

Tomorrow I will light the candles.  And remember that I am a witness too:  I am a witness not to any particular political candidate, but to the love of God.  Every candle is a witness:  against fear, but mostly -- for the victory of God.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

This Little Light

Every Wednesday I arrive early, so that I can be ready to lead the pre-school chapel that morning.  I come early because in the summer I need to make sure the air conditioning is functioning.  Sometimes I need to make sure I have my soft globe, or a stuffed animal, or some smooth stones (that David used to kill Goliath), a baby doll or construction paper hearts.

Sometimes I don't want to get up early.  There are weeks when I am not sure what I should do for chapel, with the fifty or so children who gather.  What should we sing?  How should I tell the story?

There are some routines that we have settled into every week, though.  Every week I begin with the same song, an old song that I may have learned in my pre-school Sunday School Days.  "Into My Heart, Into my Heart, Come into my Heart, Lord Jesus," I sing.  They sing along.  We sing two or three more songs and then I ask them what we do next.

"Light the candles!"  They all shout.  So I light the candles on the altar, and tell them the same thing every week, that we light the candles to remind us that God is here, that Jesus is alive, that Jesus is the light of the world.  And then I tell them that that light shines in them, too, and we sing, "This little light of mine."

After that, I ask them what we do next, and they all shout, "Pray!"  And so we pray a simple prayer.

After that we sing a couple more songs (with or without hand motions).  I tell a story.  I sometimes ask them who or what they want to pray for.  They all have prayer requests.  We pray and then say the Lord's prayer together.

And we often sing once more.

This is our simple liturgy, although I don't use the word.  But that is what it is.  It is the same thing, week after week, and they don't seem to mind.  In fact, when I ask them what we do next, they shout it out, "Light the candles!"  they say.  There are times that remembering their voices, saying those words, comforts me.

"Light the candles!" I hear them say, and I remember that Jesus is the light of the world, again, which is something I admit I need to remember more often than not.  Sometimes it is this election season, falling to new lows, that does it.  It is the way we are treating one another.  It is the way fears and hatreds are being stirred up.  Sometimes it is other news of the world, local and world tragedies, that cause me to lose heart.  And then I hear the children shout, "Light the candles!", and I remember again the promise of Jesus to be with us always.

That's a promise, but it's a challenge too.  There are some days I don't remember that I am called to be a bearer of the light.  There are some days that I don't remember that Jesus is here not just to make me feel safe, but to walk through danger with me.  And then I hear the children say their simple liturgy, "Light the candles!"  and I remember.

That's what liturgy is for, after all.  The things we hear and the things we say in liturgy are not supposed to be mindless repetition.  They are supposed to be the children's shouts, "Light the Candles!"  They are supposed to be words getting so deep down inside us that we become what they are:  "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit."   They are supposed to make us light, bursting into flames.




Friday, October 28, 2016

Not Your Average Reformation Sermon

This Sunday is Reformation Sunday.  I am preaching.  We are also in the middle of Stewardship season here, and coincidentally, it is the Sunday that we will receive our congregation's Estimates of Giving.

My first thought upon considering this was to have receive our congregation's Estimates of Giving on Another Sunday.

But, I did the math, looked at the calendar, and Reformation Sunday it was.  I could do not other.

My second thought was a sort of perverse one:  that financial stewardship and the Reformation are like oil and water, the Reformation being kicked off by a sort-of fund-raising event of sorts.  Those indulgences were sold in order to renovate the Cathedral of St. Peter in Rome.  So yeah.  It feels weird to talk about financial stewardship on Reformation Sunday, the Sunday on which you make sure that everyone knows that God's love is a FREE GIFT.

So, we don't want to sell indulgences for financial stewardship.  We don't want to manipulate people into giving.  We also don't want people to give to "the church's budget."  We want people to give freely, understanding that everything they have has first been given freely to them.   Everything you have is on loan from God anyway.  That's the stewardship message.  The tithe is not a requirement, but it is a discipline, like daily exercise, and although it hurts sometimes, in the end, it is good for you.  You loosen your grip on material things and find the place where true life begins.  That's the way it is supposed to work.

But sometimes, even though it's true, it still feels manipulative to me.  Give!  It's good for you!  I say. It's true.  Everything you have is on loan from God anyway.

But since this Sunday is Reformation Sunday, and I'm thinking about Martin Luther, I started thinking about it another way.  One of Luther's most famous essays is called "The Freedom of a Christian".  Its simple premise is that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are free.  We are free from the requirements of 'the law.'  There is nothing that we have to earn.  Salvation has been given to us.  There is NOTHING that we have to do.  There is nothing that we HAVE to do.

Luther applied this thinking to 'good works', those things that medieval Christians were compelled to do.  He said that God doesn't need your good works.  But then he said something else.

He said, Your neighbor does.

I think that this applies to giving as well.  God doesn't need our offerings.   But our neighbor does.  The church does.  Not for itself, but for sharing the mission of God with our neighbors.  And some of our neighbors are sitting right next to us in church, and some of our neighbors are down the street, and some of our neighbors are around the world.

Make no mistake, God loves it when we give.  Not just because he loves us, and knows that when we give, our money will lose some of its power over us.  But just also because God loves our neighbor, and wants them to be fed, and sheltered, and know they are loved.  

And when we offer up our tithes and our offerings to God in worship, what we are really doing is offering ourselves, and what we are really saying is this:  God -- use these gifts -- use us -- to make your love known -- to shine light in the darkness -- to be instruments of peace.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Why Read the Bible

I am reading a book right now about faith practices, and it is making me think about my faith practices.  The book is about deepening faith commitment, and it makes the case for 'stepping up' with greater resolve in several areas of our lives, including, prayer, Bible reading, worship and witness.

But even though I believe in deepening our faith commitments, and even though I think it is positive to resolve to spend more time in the prayer, Bible reading, worship and witness, I do, on occasion, find myself talking back to this book.

Take, for example, reading the Bible.  I am all for reading the Bible more often, just as the the author of this book commends.  There is a wonderful opening story in this book about a successful mountain climber who happens to be blind.  He is successful because he has learn to listen.

So, listening.  Reading the Bible is listening to God.  So far, so good.

But, when we listen to the Bible, what do we hear?  What do we expect to hear?  That's my question.

The writer of the book sounds as if he believes that by reading the Bible, he will find wisdom to help him live a Better Life.  He will find commandments to obey, he will find Good Advice.  And it's true, he will find these things.  He can read the Ten Commandments and the Book of Proverbs and James, and find what he is looking for.

But I have to say:  that's not the main reason that I read the Bible.

Why read the Bible?  I mean, really:  it's a huge book with small print, and many kinds of writing.  There are stories and laws and advice and genealogies.  There is history and there is prophecy.  Some of it is exciting and some of it is puzzling and some of it is downright troubling, if you are honest.  Reading the Bible is all kinds of comforting sometimes, but it also opens you up to all kinds of questions.

I have heard the Bible in church since I was a little girl.  I also learned wonderful stories in Sunday School:  David and Goliath, Abraham and Sarah, Noah's ark.  I learned how Jesus fed 5,000 people, how Moses led the people out of slavery, how Jesus healed those who were blind or deaf or lame.  I heard the stories of the prodigal son and the good shepherd.

The first time I tried to read the Bible without help, I was in high school.  Church camp had made of me an enthusiastic believer, so I cracked open my Bible and resolved to read the whole thing, starting with Genesis.  By the middle of Leviticus I had given up, disappointed in myself.

Why read the Bible?  It's a huge book with small print, and if you are honest at all, it is going to raise as many questions as it answers.  You are going to find out about the Walls of Jericho, and how they came tumbling down, but you are also going to find out about how the armies went in and killed every single person after that.  You are going to learn about how Jesus fed 5,000 people, but somewhere along the line you might wonder about all of the people who are hungry now.  You are going to hear words like:  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son," (John 3:16), and you are going to hear words like "Love your enemy, and do good to those who persecute you."

Why read the Bible?  Why listen to these words, these stories, even this advice?

It's not a self-improvement project, at least not for me.

The Bible is this great big book, and it's about God, and it's about us.   It's about a God so in love with us, God's people, that he is willing to do anything -- including, in the end, to come and be among us.

Inside the Word, this complicated, messy, confusing book -- is the Word, Jesus.  The heart of God.   The one who tells us who we are.