Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Last Thursday

I am thinking about last Thursday, which seems like such a long time ago now.  Years ago.  But really, this is just Tuesday evening, and Thursday was not so long ago.

We slept in our new house for the first time Wednesday night.  We had moved in a lot of things (but not everything) the weekend before.  It was extremely hot and I was so grateful for the help of many people from our church.  We moved a few more things (but not everything) and Wednesday we stayed at our house for the first time.  We didn't have our bed yet, or our kitchen table, or our washer and dryer, but we had enough.

So on Thursday morning I had a funeral.  It was a funeral for some Lutherans I didn't know before, who didn't have a church, but needed a pastor.  I had met with them the week before, and apologized for being disorganized because I was in the middle of moving.  A week later, I was still in the middle of moving.  The plan was to finish off on the weekend.  You know, Friday and Saturday.  But there were these rumblings about a disturbance called "Harvey" which might become a hurricane.

On Thursday morning I had a funeral for a woman named Geneva, who was not terribly old.  She was in her sixties and she died of heart disease, leaving a husband and two grown children.  It was a small memorial service, and people were sort of murmuring about Harvey, and people were telling me that I need to be prepared, to make sure (for example) that I had enough water and food for if we lost power.  One of the funeral director assistants was pretty adamant that I should take this seriously.  She could tell I wasn't from there.

At the funeral I noticed a few people who wore butterflies on their lapels.  I said something to one gentleman, something like "I like your butterfly pin."  And he said to me, "Geneva told me, last time I saw her, 'Next time you see me, I'll be a butterfly.'"  And I thought, "I am the resurrection and the life.  Even though we die, yet we shall live."

And I thought, is this what transformation looks like?

Last Thursday, I came home from the funeral, feeling like I had done something that I am good at:  I spoke words of hope at a funeral.  And I also came home feeling like I had listened and learned something about the hope of the person whose family I had ministered to.  The hope did not go in only one direction.

Last Thursday, I came home from the funeral, and took off my funeral clothes and put on my "moving out of my apartment clothes."  I was thinking about what I would say in my sermon on Sunday, but between moving and the funeral and what I was saying about hurricane Harvey, I was finding it hard to concentrate.  I wasn't that I was terribly afraid; I just felt scattered in all directions.  People came to help move more things from our apartment to our home.  And we stayed in our apartment for the second night, trying to believe that this was now our home.

And last Friday, someone from my church came one more time over to our apartment.  We knew that Harvey was coming.  No one was whispering any more.  One of our neighbors got us more water, and brought us a casserole.  We also were the proud recipients of leftover Mexican food.  We brought a couple more loads of our possessions from our apartment to our house.  There were boxes everywhere.

And Last Friday night we sat down and waited for Harvey, not really knowing what to expect.  I have been through my share of blizzards, a couple of them scary.  I get blizzards.  I am smart about blizzards.  I am not smart about hurricanes.  I admit it.   But I have heard stories of people who knew just what to do:  offering shelter, helping evacuate neighbors, bringing food.

And now it is Tuesday night.  We are fine.  Houston is not fine.  Just south of us.

Last Thursday.  And now.

The world looks so different.  Transformed by water, devastation, mud -- and mercy.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Built On A Rock

Just earlier this week, when I was still unaware that there was an imminent Hurricane threat, I was walking through my new neighborhood and doing something I usually do:  looking around for things I could possibly use for a children's message on Sunday.  I had read a couple of sample children's message books and I was thinking about the Gospel reading, the one where Jesus asks his disciples "Who do people say that I am?" and the disciples give all sorts of answers, and then Jesus asks them, "But who do YOU say that I am?" and Peter jumps up and says, "I know the answer!  You are the MESSIAH!"  And then Jesus calls him the ROCK, just because he said that, and says he's going to build his church on that ROCK.

So, I'm thinking about ROCKS.  I'm thinking, what if I can get a great big ROCK to bring to church on Sunday morning, not just a little stone and not a medium-sized Rock, but a great big mighty ROCK?  (Would that be even practical?  Could I lift it?  Would I be able to pick it up?)

And while I am walking with my dog and thinking these thoughts, I see that there are some big rocks in people's yards.  Not every yard, but a few yards have big rocks in them.  And I think: YES!  That's just what I am thinking about!

Then I look more carefully, and I think:  That Rock isn't going anywhere.  That Rock is deeply embedded in the ground.  It's part of the property.

So, I don't have a huge rock to use as a visual aid for my children's message tomorrow.  In fact, in the way of things, I don't have a children's message and we won't be having worship tomorrow morning.   We are on the edges of Hurricane Harvey and we decided it would be better if everyone worshipped at home tomorrow morning.

And I think about that big immovable rock, and about Peter's confession, "You are the Messiah!" and about how Jesus called him a Rock, or at least his confession is rock-solid.  But I'm thinking about Harvey now, and about all that is uncertain in the world, and all the things that God doesn't guarantee, and the thing that Jesus does promise, in the midst of it:  He is not going anywhere.  He is embedded so firmly in our lives, in the pain and the joy and the suffering and the love, he cannot be moved.

There is so much we can't control in life.  But God will not be uprooted from us.   He will not be moved.  He's in this world.  He's in our lives.  He's in our communities, loving us, dying for us, living in us.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Doorkeeper in the House of the Lord

Today I got up earlier than I usually do, even earlier than I get up on a Sunday morning.  It was still dark when I went out to walk the dog, put on a fresh skirt and clerical collar and drive over to the church and pre-school where I work.

It was the first day of school year, and children with their parents were arriving for the very first time.

I remembered that two years ago I was the new pastor at the school.  I came over early that morning too, and got to shake hands and meet many of the parents.  That year there was a registration table, and I also got to help check in parents and children, and make sure everyone had complete information.  Since then, I thought it was important that I come early on the first day of school, that my presence was important.

It started raining almost as soon as I got in the car:  torrential, blinding rain.  Not a great start to the new school year, I thought.  It was raining hard when I arrived, but it was a slow trickle of parents and small children, some infants-in-arms (we offer infant care through Kindergarten.)

This year there was not a registration table.  To be truthful, I wasn't sure what I should do.

Then, I saw a mother struggling with an umbrella, a toddler, and an armful of equipment.  I opened the door wide to let them in, and called out, "Welcome!  welcome to Grace!"  The little family scurried in and found their way to their class.

That's what I ended up doing this morning:  holding open the door for moms and dads and children and grandparents, helping with their umbrellas and their rest mats and (once or twice) helping them find the right teacher.

For an hour and a half, I held the door open and said to everyone, "Welcome!  Welcome to Grace!  Welcome back!  It's good to see you!"  I admired raincoats and new tennis shoes and fancy umbrellas.  I heard about baby brothers and birthdays.  I remembered a few names and learned a couple of new ones.  I probably didn't need to go to seminary and get a Master of Divinity to do this work, but it was good to be there.

At one point I thought about that one line, near the end of Psalm 84, and wondered if this was what it was like, to be a "doorkeeper in the house of the Lord."  "Better to be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than to live in the tents of wickedness," says the Psalmist.  I've never thought that much about that line, focussing instead on the lovely introduction, "How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!"  

I'm not sure if the "doorkeeper" is a real job, or if the contrast is that even to stand at the entry of God's house is better than being on the inside, if the place you are inside of is the 'tents of wickedness."  Just let me be near the door.  I don't have to come all the way inside.  I don't need much.  Just let me  be near the door.

But today I thought about the being the doorkeeper in a different way.  It's a kind of grace, to be the one who gets to open the door and say, "Welcome!"  It is a grace to open the door as wide as you can, so that the umbrellas and the children and the parents can scurry out of the rain.

It is not a hard job, being the doorkeeper.  It is harder to be the director, or a teacher, or even a cook who makes sure the children have nutritious food.  I would be honored to have any one of those jobs, to share grace with the children in one of those ways.

But I will take the job I have:  just let me be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord.  Let me be the one who says "Welcome!  Welcome to Grace!"  Let me be the one who tells people first of all that they are beloved and that they belong, that nothing can separate them from the love of God.  Let me be the one to tell them that their worth is based on God, and not on anything the world can give them.

Just let me be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sermon for Pentecost 9: "The Parable of the 5 Loaves and 2 Fish"

Based on Matthew 14:13-22

            The Kingdom of heaven is like…. – How would YOU complete this sentence?
            Think about it.
            For the last few weeks here we have been completing this sentence in different ways.
            Three weeks ago the Kingdom of heaven was like seeds, thrown all over the place, and like the soil where they landed.
            Two weeks ago the kingdom of heaven was like a field of wheat and weeds growing together.
            And last week the kingdom of heaven was like… well, any number of things… like a mustard seed growing in a large… Bush…
            Or like treasure hidden in a field, or like a little bit of yeast in a large amount of bread dough.
            All common, everyday things.  “the kingdom of heaven is like…”
            So many common everyday things just might remind you of the kingdom of heaven.
            Look around you.
            Do anything you see remind you of the kingdom of heaven?
            Really… look around…(I’ll give you time)
            Once, a long time ago, when I was still a young person
            Our church had a large backyard, and some of us children were out in back playing….
            We liked to play a lot of games out there, like soft ball and tree tag ….
            But for this particular game we were all given an index card with a set of instructions on it.  The instructions were all different, until the last one. 
            For example… take three giant steps forward, take 5 baby steps to your left, take one step backward, etc… but the last instruction was always the same…
            Find something that reminds you of the kingdom of heaven.

            So we did.  We found things and we brought them back, if we could.   Something that reminded us of the kingdom.

            What do you think?
            Is there anything here, in this room, or out in the yard, that might remind you of the kingdom of heaven?
            How about this window (stained glass above)?  What about the magnolia tree outside?
            What about the back door?  Or the microphone?
            You never know when you will meet a parable?

            And so today, after three weeks worth of Jesus’ parables, I just can’t help it
            -- I can’t help reading the gospel story today and thinking….”
            “The Kingdom of heaven is like…
            5 loaves and 2 fishes broke and shared.
            OR, the kingdom of heaven is like dinner for 5,000 not counting women and children, with amazing leftovers.
            OR, the kingdom of heaven is like a man who went out to a lonely place to grieve a friend, but ended up hosting dinner for 5,000.
            It just seems like a parable to me.
            Maybe it just that I got used to all those other parables, or maybe it’s something else.

            What’s a parable?
            A story – it can be short or it can be long.
            Last week’s were so short that they are barely stories, but they still are.
            The yeast is hidden in the flour, and it expands.
            The treasure is hidden in the field, found, and buried again.
            A parable can be short, but it says a lot – often times more than you think when you hear it first.  It’s often puzzling.
            And the thing is:  the story of the feeding of the 5,000 seems a lot like a parable to me.

            Now I know that it really ISN’T a parable, not technically.
            It’s not something Jesus said, but something Jesus DID.
            Jesus took bread and fish and blessed them an divided them, and somehow they became enough – and more.
            But if you think of it as a parable – something reveals God and what God is up to in the world – and you include the things that Jesus DID in that category
            Then parables might be happening all around us, in the world, we you just look around.
            Also – think about this story the way you think about a parable – ask the question – what is God up to?
            What does it mean?
            What is Jesus trying to get us to realize?
            There’s all this speculation these days about whether this was REALLY a miracle, whether Jesus really literally made more bread and fish out of just a little
            Or whether there was another thing going on.
            Some people think well – maybe –
            All of the people brought food and no one was willing to share.
            But when Jesus broke the bread and divided up the fish, something broke in people’s hearts, and they began to share.

            But perhaps that’s missing the point.
            In the parable of the five loaves and two fish, maybe Jesus is trying to teach us something about what God is up to in the world.
            Maybe even more than one thing.  That’s how parables work, after all.
            There is rarely only one meaning for a parable.
            Maybe Jesus is trying to teach us that, like the mustard seed, out of something really tiny, God can work great things.
            Or that, in the midst of loneliness and grieving, God is still making abundance.
            Or that God can use even US, and even when we doubt, to do the work God wants to do in the world.
            OR that God wants hungry people to be fed.
            In the kingdom of heaven, hungry people will be fed.

            Now there’s a risk in seeing this as a parable.
            And that risk is what we often do with the stories of Jesus anyway
            -- to spiritualize them, to make them about something loftly and heavenly but not having to do with our ordinary lives right now.
            So it’s easy to think about the bread and then think about Jesus as the bread of life (not wrong by the way), and how Jesus fills us in our spiritual hunger
            But then forget that there is real physical hunger in the world.
            There are people whose stomachs are really growling
            And some of them are not far away from us
            Some of them are children who go to school in Montgomery county –
            We fill their backpacks with food so they won’t go hungry on the weekend
            Some of them are people who come to stay with us when we host “Family Promise.”
            And we make them delicious dinners and breakfasts, and pray with them, and play with their children.
            Maybe one of the points of the parable actually is that God wants hungry people to be fed.
            People are spiritually hungry – and people are also really hungry and really thirsty – right in our neighborhood.
            And when we share food with them – real food – whether at Family Promise or other places and times –we are telling them something about the kingdom of heaven, too.
            Maybe more than one thing.  When we sit down and eat with hungry people what do you think we are saying to people?  (anyone have an idea?)

            And if the story of the feeding of the 5,000 can be a parable, our lives can be a parable too.
            A parable can be a true story, a story about your life, and my life – a story about the kingdom of heaven, about what God is doing in the world.
            And you can be a parable for someone else….
            The kingdom of heaven is like… Five loaves and two fish, broken, blessed and multiplied…
            Used to feed the world.

            Used to love the world.
Used to save the world.  

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Earthquake, Wind, and Fire

I don't preach on the Old Testament as often as I should.  I have reasons (some good, some not-so-good) for this.  I think one reason is that I naturally go where I think there is a good story, and I love the gospel stories.  But this week I am preaching on one of the Old Testament stories:  Elijah on the mountain with God, and the earthquake, wind, and fire.

This story has everything:  drama, danger, sound effects!  But then there's this small detail:  the Lord did not appear in the earthquake, wind, and fire.  The Lord appeared in the "still, small voice:" afterwards.  Or, in other translations, the Lord appeared in a sound of "sheer silence."

I feel like I have known this story most of my life, and I know what it means.  And I agree with what it means.

It means that God is not necessarily present in the big dramatic moments, the places where you expect God to show up.  It means that God is actually more present in those small moments, the places where you have to listen carefully, or watch carefully.  It means that that God is present in those teeny flowers on cacti in the middle of the desert, where everything seems barren, but it isn't.  It means that God doesn't use a megaphone.

I think that it's convenient that the Holy Scriptures agree with me, so I'm a little suspicious.  This is a great lesson, and I think that it's true, but it conveniently wrests a small part of the story of Elijah out of the rest of its context.  What is Elijah doing on the mountain, after all?  What happened first?  What happens next?

Interestingly, God asks Elijah the question:  "What are you doing here, Elijah?"  It seems to invite me to cast my net wider than just a few select verses that agree with me.  What IS Elijah doing here?  Aside from the fact that God actually told him to stand on the mountain, what is Elijah doing in a cave in the wilderness?

He has just had a spectacular success, actually.  If you know the story of Elijah, you know that Israel was in the midst of a famine.  You also know that King Ahab and Queen Jezebel had introduced worship of Baal to Israel, and it appears that at least some of the people of Israel had enthusiastically acquiesced.  So Elijah and the prophets of Baal had a contest to see which god was the strongest:  they were each going to offer a burnt offering to their god and (just to make the contest most interesting) the god who sent down fire to burn up the offering would be the winner.

The prophets of Baal prayed and prayed and prayed.  Nothing happened.  Then Elijah prayed.  But before he prayed, he poured water over his offering.  Just to make it more interesting.  And as you might have expected (or maybe you did not), The Lord, Yahweh, came down and consumed Elijah's offering.

It was a great victory. Yahweh and Elijah won. But what did Elijah do? 

He ran away.  Queen Jezebel was after him, and despite the victory, he never felt more alone.  The adrenaline rush he may have experienced from beating Baal was so short-lived.  The prophet who had confidently poured water on his sacrifice, who had seen fire come down from heaven, was suddenly afraid.

No wonder God asks him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"

And yet it makes sense to me, a human being.  This is possibly because I haven't seen fire come down from heaven.  If I have been any contests with Baal, and won them, they have been much more -- subtle.  I know that there are contests out there all the time, there are temptations to go with the idols and not to worship Yahweh, but to be perfectly honest with you -- the signs of victory are as well -- much more subtle.  They are much more like the "still small voice" than they are the earthquake, wind, or fire.

God asks Elijah, "What are you doing here?" and here is what Elijah answers.  He tells God that his enemies are after him, and that he is afraid, and that he is the only one left.  That's how he feels.  But God reminds him that this isn't true.  There are plenty of others who have not worshipped Baal.

You know what I like about this?  God doesn't say, "Hey!  I burned up your sacrifice and defeated the prophets of Baal for you, didn't I?  What's the matter with you?  Short memory?"  No -- instead he says, "Elijah, you are not alone."

To me, this is the real antidote to fear, to know that we are not alone, to know that God has given us to one another, every day, in the challenges we face as disciples of Jesus.  We seek the face of God, but we find it in one another -- not perfectly, but we do.  That's what he promises.