Sermon for May 20, 2012 – Defying Gravity

John 15: 5-10
“I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.

“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love.

John 17: 13-19
Now I’m returning to you.
I’m saying these things in the world’s hearing
So my people can experience
My joy completed in them.
I gave them your word;
The godless world hated them because of it,
Because they didn’t join the world’s ways,
Just as I didn’t join the world’s ways.
I’m not asking that you take them out of the world
But that you guard them from the Evil One.
They are no more defined by the world
Than I am defined by the world.
Make them holy—consecrated—with the truth;
Your word is consecrating truth.
In the same way that you gave me a mission in the world,
I give them a mission in the world.
I’m consecrating myself for their sakes
So they’ll be truth-consecrated in their mission.

This past Thursday, the Church around the world observed Ascension Day, commemorating Jesus’ ascension to heaven. Jesus spent his life defying all convention, including religious institutions, political institutions, social norms, death, and finally, gravity.

The premise of the book (and musical) WIcked is that Elphaba, known as the Wicked Witch of the West, has been maligned in history by her detractors because she was actually a political activist fighting for the rights of animals to speak and have full citizenship in Oz. She was born with mysterious green skin and had an aversion to water. She was different, but she fought for something she believed in, going against conventional wisdom and being killed in the process.

In the musical, at the end of Act 1, she comes to a critical decision on whether or not to join the Wizard and try to work from within the system or go underground and fight. She chooses to go underground and performs the powerful song, “Defying Gravity.”

In the passages today, Jesus speaks of the importance of being connected to God and lets his followers know that when we pursue that connection, we will be hated by the world.

Who is the world?
I think in the context of these passages, the “world” is any person, group or institution that values themselves and their interests above themselves and God’s interests.

Why was Jesus hated?
Jesus was hated because he pointed out the thinly veiled motives of the religious people & institutions to put themselves in place of power and control rather than allowing God to be incontrol. Jesus was certainly hated by those people. They killed him. We’re probably not going to be hated to that degree today in the US.

In our context, “hate” looks like oppression, slander in person and on the internets, being told that what we are called to do is impossible, foolish, not worth it. It can also include people we love and respect actively working against us fulfilling our calling.

Right now there’s a prevailing thought in conservative Christian circles that Christians are being persecuted in the US. I disagree with this statement, especially given the fact that actual persecutions of Christians around the world is at an all-time high.

In my opinion, these folks are upset because they are being forced to allow other voices to be at the table. They are no longer the sole voice of religious perspective, so they’re crying “persecution.” I don’t believe this is what Jesus was talking about when he said we’d be hated. Being forced to be respectful of other people’s views doesn’t equal hatred.

I think, if anything, those are the people we should seek to be hated by – it would be a compliment. Sometimes, I even think we should seek to be hated by our own denomination, as long as what we’re doing is in line with what God is calling us to do.

What do we do that causes people to notice us?
The Food Pantry is an amazing ministry. What more can we do? It’s not ok for some folks to be involved and others, who have passions and gifts, to say, “Well, we have a food pantry. We’re doing our part.” The people who started & work with that ministry are awesome and powerful and gifted and an example to the rest of us of what we can do. It doesn’t have to be as large as that. I think Dene did a great job of coming up with the parents’ night out and executing that. Jeanette is passionate about our childcare is working on putting a safety plan in place. Pete has done a film night. Katie & Tammie have rocked pastoral care. We’ve done a lot both internally and externally. What else can we do?

How do we make the kind of difference that upsets norms?

What are some things that prevent us from doing what God calls us to do?

If money were no object, what kinds of things would you do in the community?

Do we think God has the power to call us and then provide for us?

I’d like us to do a meditation exercise on the John 15 passage. I’m going to read the passage several times with an extended period of silence in between. After each reading, I’m going to ask you to respond or discuss in groups your thoughts and impressions of the passage.

1. Use this reading to settle in, quiet your mind and tune in to the passage
2. Listen for and then share words or phrases that jumped out at you
3. Put yourself in the passage, see with whom or what you identify. Share that in the group around you
4. Listen for what God is saying to you and our community through the passage

During our meditation time, you will have the opportunity to add to the vine drawings at the front and back of the room. Watch each branch grow under your pen. Note that no branch is more important than another. Each branch is dependent on the main stem. Let your vine do what vines are supposed to do, and draw some fruit growing from the branch. Remember, the purpose of the fruit is to make the nutrients from the vine available to anyone who wants to partake of it. As a community moving forward into our next phase with a new pastor, keep in mind the kind of fruit you want to provide to the Excelsior and to San Francisco, and remember – we are not bound by convention, denomination or even gravity.

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What We Will Be – Sermon for 4/22/12

1 John 3:1-7

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

We are in the season of Easter, the time in the gospels when Jesus appeared post-resurrection many times to his disciples and others who followed him. Most of the time they were afraid, but each time Jesus showed them how what was happening was what they had predicted. Even though they had heard about it, though, their brains couldn’t comprehend. Most of the time, when someone goes around telling people they will die and rise again, we hospitalize them. These folks were witness to this amazing event and were given the great privilege of telling others about what had happened. Jesus had turned everything upside down. But as people, we are generally uncomfortable with upside down. We like things right side up. Some of us more than others. Many of us have clear views of how things should be, how they work best, how they should be done.

Not 50 years after the resurrection, an institution began to crop up around the teachings of Jesus. Soon, there were factions who said people had to become Jews before they could be Christians. No, others said, there is special knowledge that comes from God and only WE have it, not you. There was Paul v. Peter in the ministry wars. Paul v. Barnabas in the compassion wars. Paul v. a lot of people because he was a tough guy to get along with. But things became very controlled and contained as time passed and people began to control the message of the gospel

Susan Russell, an Episcopal priest in Pasadena, quoted Verna Dozier from her book “The Dream of God”:

“The people of the resurrection made the incomprehensible gift of grace into a structure. [Rejecting] the frighteningly free gift of God to go be a new thing in the world – a witness that all of life could be different for everybody – this gift was harnessed by an institution that established a hierarchy of those who “know” above the great mass of those who must be told.” [pg. 4]

Susan went on to say:
“And so — for generations – those of us who “must be told”
were told all kinds of things about what Jesus’ life and death and resurrection meant.

And a great many of them bore little or no resemblance to the actual life and witness of the one the church claims to follow –of the Jesus …
· who put table fellowship at the center of his life,
· who ate with outcasts,
· who welcomed sinners,
· who proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor,
· who was so centered in God’s abundant love that he was willing to speak truth to power from that first sermon that almost got him thrown off the cliff by his irate Nazarene homies to his last cross-examination by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.

Instead we were given
Doctrines we were supposed to digest and not delve into,
Creeds we were supposed to recite and not question,
Scriptures we were supposed to memorize and not contextualize.
It’s no wonder that the church is considered irrelevant.”

Last night I was caught up in a Wikipedia wormhole and I discovered an article on a list of the world’s largest shopping malls. Naturally, I was intrigued. At the top of the list was the New South China Mall in the south eastern part of China. The mall is about 7.1 million square feet. That is ridiculous. It has space for more than 2,300 stores, and has seven zones modeled on different international cities and locations – Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, Venice, Egypt, the Caribbean and California. We made the list! It has an 82 foot replica of the Arc de Triomphe, a replica of St. Mark’s Bell Tower in Venice, a 1.3 mile canal with gondolas, and an indoor roller coaster. Take a guess at what percent of the mall is occupied. WIth all that going on, it’s got to be a pretty hoppin’ place, no?

No. The mall has 47 stores. 47. Why? There are many flaws to the mall’s location. The mall is located in the suburbs of Dongguan, where it is practically accessible only by car or bus, rendering it unreachable to a large percentage of the public. Dongguan does not have an airport, nor are there highways adjacent to the mall’s location. It was conceived and designed by someone who was so excited about the possibility of an enticing and imposing structure that he didn’t take into account the community it was supposed to service. What’s more, the building of this monstrosity took away the livelihoods of many of the local people because it was built on what used to be farm land.

I feel like this is what happened with the church. Not long after the joy of Easter and the empowerment of Pentecost that the ways of the world started to leak back into the infant church. It wasn’t very long before others stepped in where Pilate and the chief priests had left off and began to “spin the story” to preserve the power of a developing institutional church rather than to empower the propagation of incarnational love.

Jesus’ ministry had everything to do with wholeness, with restoring creation to the fullness of the peace and justice; the truth and love that God intended –with challenging those who followed him to the high calling of loving their neighbors as themselves.

The challenge to follow Jesus is a challenge that required turning virtually everything the world says about life and death –about power and control – upside down. And it’s an even bigger challenge to stay “upside down” when the world around you is pointing in the opposite direction.

I bring all of this up to remind us that when we invite people into our community, we’re inviting them into something that’s inherently broken. We didn’t break it, necessarily, but it was somewhat doomed from the start. But God uses us and our broken institutions anyway. God says in Isaiah 43:

16 This is what the LORD says—
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
17 who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
18 “Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.

In order for us to live into the reality of Easter, this upside-down reality where death is defeated by life and love, we must be able to recognize when God wants to do a new thing and be willing to throw out the old things that make us feel comfortable and in control. We have to listen to the wiser voices when they tell us there’s no way that people will be able to get to that mall. We have to follow the example of the One who lived out God’s perfect love when he spent time with the people who matter most to God.

There’s a phrase in the passage from 1 John 3 that just stopped me when I was reading and I have hung on to it: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” What we will be has not yet been revealed. Think about that phrase for a moment and tell me what it feels to you to know that what you and I and our community will be has not yet been revealed. I am from the desert of Arizona and one of the things I miss about living there is how big the sky is. If you’ve ever been to Southern Arizona, New Mexico or west Texas, you’ve seen that huge sky where there’s nothing blocking your view and you feel like you could see forever. That’s what I think of when I hear the phrase “what we will be has not yet been revealed.”

While we don’t yet know what we will be, the life of Christ shows us what we can be, up to and including the miracle of resurrection. Let’s become those people. Let’s not blindly accept structure, doctrine and pattern. Let’s not be lulled into a place where we feel we have all the answers. Let’s be people of the upside down reality of the love of God that brings healing, justice and compassion to the world.

Fast Food – Sermon for 3/18/12

Isaiah 58

Your Prayers Won’t Get Off the Ground

1-3 “Shout! A full-throated shout! Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout!
Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives,
face my family Jacob with their sins!
They’re busy, busy, busy at worship,
and love studying all about me.
To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people—
law-abiding, God-honoring.
They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’
and love having me on their side.
But they also complain,
‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way?
Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’

3-5″Well, here’s why:
“The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit.
You drive your employees much too hard.
You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.
You fast, but you swing a mean fist.
The kind of fasting you do
won’t get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:
a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face
and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting,
a fast day that I, God, would like?
6-9″This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on,
and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
The God of glory will secure your passage.
Then when you pray, God will answer.
You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’

Matthew 6:16-18
16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

James 2:14-26
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”[e] and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that people are justified by what they do and not by faith alone.
25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

Cleanses & fasts are huge right now in the dietary world. There’s that crazy lemonade fast with the maple syrup & cayenne pepper. There’s the cabbage soup diet, juice fasts, Isagenix cleanses, and all kinds of things out there to make you healthy & thin. However fasting in scripture is more often a spiritual practice that is intended to align our minds and hearts with God’s intentions for our communities.

While there is a lot said in the Bible regarding fasting, there’s not a lot of popular discussion of or writing about it. In fact, between 1851 & 1954 there was not a single book published on the subject. Mentions, sure, but no whole books. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, during the Middle Ages, fasting was practiced to an extreme, with the most rigorous regulations and extreme self-flagellation. That type of extreme fasting is devoid of true spiritual power which is replaced by the false sense of security given by strict legalism. Second, we are told in our culture that if we don’t satisfy every appetite we might starve, do without or, worse, be UNCOOL.

There is a difference between fasting and hunger striking, which is intended to draw attention to a cause or gain political power. In the bible, fasting focuses on spiritual purposes, which will be our discussion today. Most biblical fasting pertains to abstaining from food. There are 3 types of fasts in the Bible: 1) the normal fast; 2) the partial fast; 3) the absolute fast. The normal fast is abstaining from food, but not water. The partial fast is a restricted diet, but consists of some food and water. The absolute fast means abstaining from both food and water. Most of the time in scripture, fasts are a personal observance but there are occasions for corporate, community fasts as well.

The Isaiah passage is accusing Israel of being a people of champagne talk and kool-aid action. They are observing all the religious rituals but they are not behaving differently in their lives outside the temple. They are participating in the rituals, following the rules, and yet outside of their observances they are cheating people in business, neglecting their care of the poor and looking away when they see injustice. Because of this, God has allowed them to go into captivity and be separated from their land and their homes. And the people are shocked by this. They can’t believe that they could do all the right things and still get in trouble. God goes so far to say that their prayers don’t get further than the ceiling because the disconnect between their words and their practices is so profound. The issue is, their exercising of spiritual practices was completely external, not at all part of a true spiritual practice. The external observances are supposed to be an outward expression of a inward transformation.

In Matthew 6, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ teachings on fasting flow right out of a discussion on prayer and financial giving. They all three have something in common – secrecy. How many times have you heard “OMG – i’m doing this juice fast and I’m STARVING.” Fine, it’s not really for spiritual purposes. But how many times have we (myself included) said, “OMG – I’ve given up _______ for Lent and I’m DYING for it!” Kinda the same thing. I feel I can say this because, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I can be a bit of a drama queen. Whenever we’re engaging in a spiritual practice with the end goal of true spiritual transformation, the results should be seen in our actions: the combination of faith and works. We are most like Jesus when we serve, but the energy, passion and desire for service should come from inside us, when we are truly on a path of pursuing God in our everyday lives.

I liken this to Tebowing. I am a big fan of football, but not a fan of Tim Tebow’s public displays of his faith. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, and all the anecdotal evidence I’ve read says that he’s really a great guy in real life. His stock went way up to me when he declined an invitation to go on a date with Kim Kardashian. However, the whole Tebowing thing- not a fan. I have yet to see him do his move when the Broncos lose. If he were to do that after he got sacked or after they missed a field goal, I’d be all for it. But it’s bad theology to only be open about praising God when things go well, and it’s not very Sermon on the Mount to make such public displays of your personal practices.

Another thing I notice about this passage is the way Jesus opens the conversation – “when you fast.” There’s an assumption that there will be fasting. However, it’s not a command. Because of the context of this passage, I think Jesus is telling us that prayer, fasting and generosity are all part of a healthy spiritual practice.

I can only think of one time when I’ve fasted based on a spiritual practice and it was only half a day. This was many years ago when I worked at my grad school’s library. I very distinctly heard God tell me not to pack a lunch that day because food would be provided for me. Lest you think I belong on a 24-hour Christian Network, I hasten to add that this isn’t something that happens often. But I have also learned that when God goes to the trouble to say something so directly, it’s best not to question and just go with it. I didn’t say anything, didn’t pack any food, just went to work. I started to get hungry, just kept going, drank water, etc. Around 1ish I begin to think this was crazy, and that I was imagining it and I was just going to grab something before the cafe closed, when one of the students came to my desk and said, here’s the rest of my lunch – some fruit and yogurt. I’m not hungry anymore so you can have it. I never told her what was going on, before or after she gave me her food, but I always go back to that experience to remind myself that God has always taken care of me, even in the most mundane of circumstances.

Another popular trend in the food industry, and something we all love is “comfort food”. What is your go-to comfort food? I like to make things my mom made. Last week I did a chicken/broccoli/curry thing she used to do and the week before it was liver & onions with mashed potatoes. I love liver & onions. Food just makes us feel better and I think that’s normal. However, any time anything that’s not God, becomes your consistent go-to comforter,it can get in the way of a genuine connection to God. Jesus tells us to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness and all these things will be added. Things that we use to comfort us are not always food. Are there things in which you find security that you use to center yourself?

Fasting doesn’t have to be from food. Fasting is about removing obstacles that keep us from connecting to God and acknowledging our dependence on God’s protection and provision. We started our Lenten discussion with Moses’ removal of his shoes as something that aren’t bad in an of themselves but were, at that moment, blocking his full experience of God. I’d like to challenge you to spend some time this week thinking about things that might come between you and your full experience of God and maybe think about a fast from them. See what the difference is in your relationship to your families, co-workers and friends. Open yourself to the possibilities of how much bigger God can be in your everyday lives and see what a difference it can make.

Turning Aside

This is my sermon for today to kick off the Lenten season.

Exodus 3 (New Revised Standard)

1 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4 When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. 7 Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey,

As many of us here do, I work in downtown San Francisco. I’ve pretty much seen it all. I’ve seen (and smelled) a lot of daylight weed smoking, a woman carrying a live chicken in a plastic grocery bag, a woman walking around with a parakeet on her finger, people yelling at each other, or themselves or no one in particular. Usually when I see someone who appears to be talking to themselves I play a little game I like to call “blue tooth or crazy?” Homeless people, discarded objects, wealthy people, garbage, animals, clowns and street preachers. One thing I’ve never seen is a tree that’s on fire but not being burnt up. That I haven’t seen. However, the world in which I work and move every day is blazing with God’s activity and every day I walk by, nonchalantly, and miss the whole thing.

In today’s passage we see Moses heading off to work, watching his father-in-law’s sheep, and he sees what is described as a flame of fire out of a bush. He makes the intentional decision to turn aside and see what’s going on. I wonder if he was the first person to see this. Moses’ father-in-law was a local priest with a lot of assets and there were a lot of people roaming around, including servants and extended family. Someone else may have seen it, we don’t know, but Moses is the one the story is about because he turned aside and took note of this extraordinary thing. God likes to intervene in the world and change things, sometimes in big ways and sometimes in smaller ways. Yes, a bush that is on fire w/o being burned is kind of a big deal, but God could have really rocked it by setting afire the entire mountain. He just needed one person to see and act on what he was about to do.

Next, he is asked to take off his shoes because he was standing on holy ground. I really pray that this is not saying that there is something bad about shoes, because we all know how much I love my shoes. Fortunately, I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. I think that the shoes weren’t bad at all, but rather a momentary impediment to the full experience of God. At that moment, the ground around the bush that held the presence of God was sacred, and Moses needed to soak up every bit of God to be able to do what he was about to be asked to do.

Finally, once Moses had turned aside and removed the obstacles, God revealed Godself in a new way and gave him a job to free God’s people from slavery. Whenever God does something new, God often involved unlikely people, people who are frequently quite surprised and alarmed that they have been chosen. Later in this passage, Moses comes up with all kinds of excuses why he can’t do this, and God deals with every one of them. God asked Moses, and God asks us to trust God in new ways, to put aside our natural reactions, to listen humbly for a fresh word and to act on it without knowing exactly how it’s going to work out. That is what God is asking us to do this Lent. Seeking to encounter God without thinking we know what God is going to say requires humility. We have to put on hold our initial reactions be prepared to hear new words, think new thoughts, and live them out. We come to our relationship with God with our own sorrows & frustrations, our own baggage. God will deal with them in God’s own way, but God does so as part of a much larger and deeper purpose. Who knows what could happen if even a few of us were prepared to listen to God in a new way, finding ourselves open to new thoughts and caught up in God’s rescue operation?

Today I’m setting us up for the time of year known as Lent. On Wednesday, we gathered and shared some time considering things that burden us and keep us from our experience of God. What is your experience of Lent? What is a typical Lenten practice for you?

I didn’t grow up observing Lent, so I came to the practice as an adult. Over the years, I’ve taken a few different views of Lenten disciplines. Sometimes I’ve given things up, sometimes I’ve taken on a new practice, and sometimes I’ve done nothing at all. Either way. these all were about me, not about God. Spiritual practices aren’t about the things we do for God, but rather about acknowledging our need for God’s provision and protection for us.

This season, all of us who are sharing the word with you will be focusing on different spiritual practices. I will be posing on our facebook page some suggestions for practices and for readings. Feel free to contribute your own thoughts and ideas.

What I want to encourage us to do here is to see God’s activity in the world during this season and we’re going to take time in each of our gatherings for you to share something from the week that showed you something God is up to in the world. It could be something small like seeing the cherry trees blossom to a significant conversation with a friend or stranger. Either way, I want us to get into the practice of seeing God at work in our every day lives. Let’s approach this season with humility and reverence as we seek to see what God is up to in the world. Amen.

Seeing God’s Capacity

The Christmas truce was a series of widespread unofficial ceasefires that took place along the Western Front around Christmas of 1914, during the First World War. Through the week leading up to Christmas, parties of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches; on occasion, the tension was reduced to the point that individuals would walk across to talk to their opposite numbers bearing gifts. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many soldiers from both sides independently ventured into “No man’s land”, where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. As well as joint burial ceremonies, several meetings ended in carol-singing. Troops from both sides had also been so friendly as to play games of soccer with one another.That was an extraordinary moment in history where a greater vision of humanity trumped the conflict of the moment. Unfortunately, the war continued on for several more years. But there was a moment of transcendence in that conflict that is beautiful and inspiring.

Conflict of all scopes and dimensions rages in and around all of us. The passage from Isaiah we read today was written in the context of exile and enslavement. The people of Israel, after generations of disobedience, lost the land that God had given them and the prophet who wrote this passage is asking God to act on their behalf. The writer is recalling the times when God did big, visible things and God’s presence was obvious to the people, and hoping that if it happened again, the people would all turn back to God.

There are many of us who grew up in church hearing stories of God acting in the world but as we have grown into adulthood our view of God has not grown with us and we retain a Sunday School view of God and God’s activity. Whether or not you believe that all those stories actually happened, do you believe that God is capable of those miracles?

We know from the reading of stories in the Bible that God displayed a lot of power and “bigness” and still the people of Israel broke their covenant with God and lost their land. When Jesus came, he did all kinds of miracles and yet most of his followers ran away at the time of his trial and execution. Big displays of power don’t necessarily persuade us to believe in God’s ability to handle the world’s situations.

1. Peace must be found within.
Last night I was at Lowe’s buying the stuff for our prayer station and when I came back to my car this flyer was on it. Miss Savana claims to give instant relief to all types of issues, and can identify those issues before you even say a word. You know there are people who are going to call this number, otherwise they wouldn’t put it on cars. I promise you that Miss Savana cannot bring long-term peace. The only way to lasting peace that passes understanding is to allow your God-view to grow and your self-view to diminish.

When you are a ball of stress, and things look too big to work, what are some things you do to center yourself?

Practical ways of centering

  1. Centering Prayer

Centering prayer is a popular method of contemplative prayer or Christian meditation, placing a strong emphasis on interior silence. Though most authors trace its roots to the contemplative prayer of the Desert Fathers of early Christian monasticism, to the Lectio Divina tradition of Benedictine monasticism, and to works like The Cloud of Unknowing and the writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, its origins as part of the “Centering Prayer” movement in modern Catholicism and Christianity can be traced to several books published by three Trappist monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts in the 1970s: Fr. William Meninger, Fr. M. Basil Pennington and Abbot Thomas Keating.

Basil Pennington, one of the best known proponents of the centering prayer technique, has delineated the guidelines for centering prayer:

  • Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, relax, and quiet yourself. Be in love and faith to God.
  • Choose a sacred word that best supports your sincere intention to be in the Lord’s presence and open to His divine action within you (i.e. “Jesus”, “Lord,” “God,” “Savior,” “Abba,” “Divine,” “Shalom,” “Spirit,” “Love,” etc.).
  • Let that word be gently present as your symbol of your sincere intention to be in the Lord’s presence and open to His divine action within you. (Thomas Keating advises that the word remain unspoken.)
  • Whenever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations, etc.), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor.
  1. The Jesus Prayer  – an Eastern Orthodox tradition. Repeat “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
  2. Breathing
  3. Yoga/Body Prayer
2. Peace isn’t something you have, it’s something you do
Peace is a choice that requires action. The soldiers in Europe made choices to lay down their weapons, walk across No Man’s Land and offer food and gifts to the people who were supposed to be their enemies. Just like love, hope and joy, it’s not a noun, it’s a verb.
“Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures.”  John F. Kennedy3. Peace is infinitely more difficult that conflict

This weekend I saw the film “The Descendants.” The story follows a fractured family immediately after the mother has had a boating accident and lies comatose in a hospital. The father, Matt King, learns while his wife is in a coma, that she has been unfaithful to him. He spends the film trying to forge a relationship with his two daughters and learning his place in his family, both immediate and as a descendant of Hawaiian royalty. There is a scene toward the end of the film when they are saying goodbye to the mother and her father is there and telling Matt how great his daughter was and how Matt didn’t deserve her. Matt holds his tongue knowing that he could share the truth but that it would permanently damage the future relationship between his daughters and their grandfather, and so he holds his tongue. That is a difficult act of peacemaking. Small. Not earth shattering, but peaceful just the same.

Materials: Paper, Permanent Markers, Big Bucket, Sand, 8 x 8 x 4 Glass Blocks

Imagining God’s capacity to provide promise, find 5 words describing what limits your God-view – bury them deep in the sand, out of sight. Find 5 words to describe what enlarges your God-view – place them within the stronghold, to form part of God’s promise offered.

God’s Shiny Back Side

Exodus 33:12-25

12 Moses said to the LORD, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ 13 If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”

14 The LORD replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

15 Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”

17 And the LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”

18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

19 And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

21 Then the LORD said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

Several years ago I was at a workshop on prayer and the woman who led it talked to us about how often our prayer is more like a monologue than a conversation. She taught us a way of praying that had us spend time in silence listening to God and then praying back the things God says to us. Then we got into small groups with complete strangers and prayed for each other this way. It was very interesting how the things we prayed for each other were spot on to what we needed to hear in that moment.

“Prayer is engaging God, an engaging that is seldom accomplished by a murmured greeting and a conventional handshake. The engagement at least in its initial stages, is more like a quarrel than a greeting, more like a wrestling than a warm embrace.” Eugene Peterson

This passage is a picture of the type of interactions God had with Moses. It’s an interesting detour in the context of the story because the previous chapter is the story of Moses going up to Mount Sinai and getting the Law from God. Moses was gone for so long that the people became restless, and, believing Moses & God had abandoned them, began to pressure Moses’ brother Aaron to get them something else to worship. Aaron caved and collected everyone’s jewelry and make a calf for them to worship. God was pretty ticked off and sent Moses down to deal with it. Right in the middle of this, the writer of Exodus takes a chapter off of the narrative to explain Moses & God’s relationship.

Moses was combative and demanding. He began by wanting to know the plan and at the end he asked to see God. He asked for more and more and he got all of it. He started with frustration about not having the support God promised to lead the people. We all have a lot going on and sometimes it’s easy to feel abandoned by God or to feel that God isn’t delivering what God promised. There’s also a bit of ego in there. He asks God – how will everyone else know that these people are chosen and I am their leader if you don’t go with us? Valid question. What is God’s answer? God reiterates God’s promise of presence and protection. Moses’ defenses seem to melt and he gets what’s going on. He asks to see God’s glory instead.

The entire goal of our life with God is to know God. The things that seem so large to us are distractions from the real purpose of life with God. God can handle the things we thing are massive. We are called to trust God’s character to handle the daily things that we face and focus on building that relationship. The previous passage tells us that God spoke to Moses face-to-face, as one speaks to a friend. I think this is in here to let us all know what is possible. I think we can all get to the place where we speak to God face to face as a friend – it what God wants more than anything.

We need to get rid of the assumption that we are in control of the relationship. Most of us would never admit to consciously thinking that but our behavior suggests otherwise. We ask for things, but we rarely take time and space to listen. Listen to what Eugene Peterson has to say on the world that praying leads us to:

“This world, this reality, revealed by God speaking to us, is not the kind of world to which we are accustomed. It is not a neat and tidy world in which we are in control – there is mystery everywhere that takes considerable getting used to, and until we do it scares us. It is not a predictable, cause-effect world in which we can plan our careers and secure our futures – there is miracle everywhere that upsets us to no end, except for the occasions when the miracle is in our favor. It is not a dream world in which everything works out according to our adolescent expectations – there is suffering and poverty and abuse at which we cry out in pain and indignation, “You can’t let this happen!” For most of us it takes years and years and years to exchange our dream world for the real world of grace and mercy, sacrifice and love, freedom and joy.”

The life of a prayerful person is a life of uncertainty and adventure. It will never be an easy life but it is the most blessed life because it is the life of someone who truly knows God.

Benediction from the Breastplate Prayer of St. Fursa:

May the yoke of the Law of God
be upon your shoulders
the coming of the Holy Spirit
on your head
the sign of Christ
on your forehead
the hearing of the Holy Spirit
in your ears
the smelling of the Holy Spirit
in your nose
the vision of hte people of heaven
in your eyes
the speech of the people of heaven
in your mouth,
the work of the Church of God
in your hands,
the good of God and of neighbor
in your feet
May God dwell in your heart
and my you belong entirely to God the Creator
Amen

I’m A Presbyterian Elder, Suckas!

Not just an Elder, a RULING Elder. How you like me now…

BITCHES!?!?

Kidding. This is just part of the process of me becoming a commissioned lay pastor for our church during this interim time and possibly to continue if I get on with the new pastor.

Our church is very casual and fun but I feel like we strike a good balance between taking things seriously when we need to an not being too precious about things that really don’t warrant it. I found ways to answer the questions put to me other than “I do” because I will NOT use those 2 words at the front of a church, for fear I’d break out in hives. I committed to growing the church, reaching out to the community, promoting peace and, apparently, being Reformed. (flashing to social justice scene in West Side Story – “I’m depraved on account-a I’m DEPRIVED!”). I was really glad we sang “Better Is One Day” tonight because I’ve always loved Psalm 84:10 – “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.”

This is a step in a larger process for me. It’s been a number of years since I felt called to be a pastor and I always told God that God would have to make that happen. As is typical with God, it’s been a slow process, but perfectly timed. I’ve written a lot on here about how my current job is very pastoral and how fortunate I was to learn from my previous pastor. While I’m not super reverent about much of anything, I do really take this seriously. I’ve begun regularly praying in earnest for our community. We have such great, loving, intelligent people who have a passion for changing our city for good and I’m really proud to be part of that. I know that I have much to learn but I feel like this community is learning with me, and it seems that the expectations are realistic. I really do love these folks and I’m glad that they’re letting me be part of their number for this time.