Unexpected Life

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We hear these words of Isaiah promising a beautiful future, one where predators and prey will befriend one another, but we must put this into context if we are to hear the fullness of this vision. It did not come to Israel during calm periods of peace, but during interesting times. It came to Israel during times when alliances with outside forces threatened the sovereignty of the state. It came to Israel during times when the economic systems promoted the wealthy and devastated the poor. It came to Israel at a time when, as Isaiah put it, “Your hands are full of blood” and there was no justice for the oppressed, poor and marginalized. It came to Israel during dark and frightening times.

 

I wonder if it might almost be heard as a parent comforting a child about to undergo surgery, yes honey, this will hurt, but one day you will walk again, one day you will play again, but yes, it will hurt. Our lectionary this year is insistent that we look at the darkness and brokenness within us. It’s terribly difficult to do and honestly, I was looking for a more upbeat and inspiring message today. One that would fill us all with hope, love and joy, But first, our scripture tells us, repent. The scripture from our lectionary that I didn’t read today was the one with John the Baptist yelling at the pharisees, repent you brood of vipers. I really wanted something more upbeat than that, but here it is again, Isaiah only a few chapters from yelling at Israel saying, God hates your worship, God won’t listen to your prayers, not when your hands are full of blood. We are reminded that advent is not only a time of anticipation but of preparation. Be gentle with yourselves this advent, but be persistent too. Take up your cross and be a part of the healing that this nation, this time, all of us, so need. We are the people who have been called to this moment, to be peace in the world, to bring healing, to speak the gospel word.

 

Oh, it’s a hard word today! A few days ago someone asked me how there can be so much darkness, so much pain in the world. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who became famous for documenting the stages of grief, once toured concentration camps in Germany. She was met there by survivors who had returned to the camp to tell their stories. Stories not only of loss, despair and death, but stories of redemption, of finding meaning and purpose in caring for one another, of finding hope in the midst of this most painful situation. As she toured the camp she began to notice that there were images of butterflies carved and scrawled in corners and over beds, in midst of these horrible living conditions, images of butterflies and she asked her tour guide about this. Her guide responded, “We knew we were in hell, that all we knew was gone and that everything was falling apart. Some of us believed that God was still at work in the midst of this, that God would triumph, even if we didn’t know how. We believed that God was remaking us and that in the end, God would be triumphant.”

 

So we turn to the hope, the promise, yes, the chrysalis looks like death, but something new is being born and we must stay faithful and stay present to this. Reverend Yolanda Norton, an assistant professor at San Francisco Theological, described it this way: “In Isaiah 11:1-10, the prophet finds himself in a season of despair. He writes in the interstitial space between destruction; a time that has seen and is anticipating devastation at the hand of the Assyrian empire. And yet, the prophetic speech of Isaiah is filled with a persistent hope that God will bring peace, order, and love in the midst of chaos and ruin.”

 

She goes on to remind us that while Isaiah is promising us that the end is secure and that God will not now nor ever abandon us, God does work through us and insists we participate in the healing of the nation. This is not a suggestion that God will magically make everything better even if we persist in tearing things down. Isaiah spoke truth to power, and that power was involved in tearing things down, in oppressing and hurting people. Get right with God, he said, do it now, but to the people he spoke words of peace, of promise.

 

This is the promise, that we have a savior and he will judge with righteousness, and his justice is restorative. Even the most venomous among us will be made whole, will be made well. Nature, red in tooth and claw, will become peaceful and a new paradigm will reign. And we are called to participate in this transformation. In the first chapter of Isaiah we are told what this will look like, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

 

Christ is constant, God’s mercy and justice are constant, but we are not. So in the season of Advent we are called again to the paths of righteousness and of hope, of mercy to those who are vulnerable and justice for those who are oppressed. We are called to be a living witness to the hope we find in Jesus Christ. To live each day with the intention of lifting up those who are beaten down by life, who struggle and who are hurting. We are called to stay present to all the pain and loss in the world and to see it through eyes of compassion and not grow weary but abide in the promise, gain sustenance from the love and mercy of God.

 

Viktor Frankl was a psychologist who was interned at the concentration camps. He stayed present, he observed, and he noted what it was that made a difference, what it was that helped some survive while others, seemingly strong and healthy succumbed. He said later that what made the difference was the act of reaching out to others with love and compassion. In a vivid example of this a survivor recounts how, as a young man he and most of his neighbors were herded into a cattle car to be transported and on the way the cattle car was left on the side of the tracks in bitter, freezing cold. He noticed that one of his neighbors, an older man, was shivering violently and he went to him. He sat with this man all night, rubbing his freezing feet, holding him, keeping him warm and alive. When the dawn broke only the two of them were left alive, their act of solidarity, of keeping one another warm through the bitter night had saved them.

 

We are called to just such acts of solidarity. We are called to the audacious hope and conviction that even when things seem to be at their darkest, that God is still working a great good in us. We are called to righteousness, yes, but also a stubborn faith that even when the world seems to be tottering on its axis that God is in control, that God has good in mind for us and not evil. So we step bravely into this future, this incredible belief that we can stay present to the pain of the world, that we can have compassion for one another, and that love will win.

Embracing Joy

 

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Matthew 24:36-44

36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

 

 

Decide now how you will live your life. What matters most to you. Where do you want to put your energy. Make that decision now. You don’t have much time. You think you have time, but you don’t, so decide now, act now, be the person you want to be now. You don’t have much time, don’t be fooled, don’t put it off. Be who you want to be right now.

 

If the word apocalypse literally means removing the veil of all our illusions, of coming face to face with the truth, then perhaps we can live an apocalyptic life every day, shredding our illusions and facing the reality, the difficult truths, the beautiful truths, every day. It’s odd, though, isn’t it? that our lectionary has this apocalyptic warning for the first Sunday of advent. Advent is that time of waiting, of anticipating, it’s a pregnant time, dark and hidden, waiting for new light, new birth, new life, the hope of a new future and kingdom here on earth, and the whole world groans for this, we long for redemption, for this new thing to come, for justice to come down like a cleansing rain, washing away all injury, all wounds cleansed and healed, we long for this!

 

But fear does drive us now and then, it causes us to pull back from our dreams, our best intentions and asks us to live a life that is small and safe. It insists we can try and live out our dreams another day, another time, but not now, not yet, we’re not ready, and so we play it small. If the owner of the house had known when the thief was coming, he might have realized the thief is the fear that lives in his own heart insisting that he lock all the doors, put up a fence and keep a safe distance from anyone who might want his things. The thief is the promise that he can make it alone and doesn’t need anyone so why take a risk? Why answer the door and risk meeting someone who might hurt your heart, disappoint you, abandon you.

 

“We want to love people who won’t hurt us, let us down, or betray us, but there are no other people.” Everyone we meet is fighting a battle with their own wounds, their own brokenness and sometimes it spills over and we get caught in it; the closer we are to that person, the more we feel, the more likely we are to be hurt, but the alternative, shutting down, closing our hearts, pulling away from love, is far more painful. Fear says it’s not worth the risk, love says we are strong enough to take it all in stride, feel the pain of our best intentions falling flat, our expectations unmet, failure to communicate, and still love. Love says we have plenty of room and lots to give and we can live our lives out loud.

 

CS Lewis said that, ““To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

 

And so a part of us wants to avoid living fully, loving fully. We want to lock ourselves away from any vulnerability or risk, but we cannot live that way. Brene Brown is a researcher based in Houston Texas and a several years ago she began researching whole heartedness. She wanted to know how it is that some people are able to live these rich, full lives, lives that we all look at with a little envy. In her now famous TED talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability#t-9445) Brene admitted that when she discovered that the difference between these whole hearted, delightful folk and those who lived much more cautiously and fearfully was accepting vulnerability she experienced a bit of an existential crisis. She had been looking for the perfect life hack, how to have it all, to win at the game of life, and the answer came back, be vulnerable, accept that you will be hurt, you will lose, and decide to love anyway.

 

I’m with Brene in that deep down desire to find an easier way! And there is a big part of me that wants to put my life on hold until this better way shows up. I want promises and certainty, but our text reminds us vividly today that only one thing is certain, we aren’t promised tomorrow. We are not given the perfect life hack, but invited to consider how we are living with what is. Are we keeping our lights lit, our lamps full of oil as we wait for the bridegroom? Are we saying the things we most need to say, the I love you’s, the I forgive you’s? Are we offering our hearts and our full attention to those we love the most? Or are we withdrawing and distracting, promising that another time, another place we’ll show up more fully.

 

The hospice caregiver Stephen Levine participated in a one year thought experiment which he documented in his book A Year to Live. He decided to live one year with the thought that this year might very well be his last. He wanted to get that incredible benefit which he saw many of the dying people he accompanied receiving as they approached their death. Why wait, he thought, until the diagnosis was for real. Tomorrow is never promised us, he figured, so why not assume that I will not be here next year. Every time he began to disengage with life, he would remind himself that this was his last experience of this day. He practiced embracing each and every day, each and every experience. It is not that he had not known that he ought to be fully open, fully present, but knowing this and actually practicing it are two different things.

 

So we begin our period of advent, this pregnant time, with the reminder that this is precious, precious time. This is one more incredible opportunity to open our hearts, to stay present with all that pains us, to forgive, to love, to worship, to create space in our every day busy-ness for joy.

 

Jack Kornfield:

“In the end
these things matter most:
How well did you love?
How fully did you live?
How deeply did you let go?” 

 

So having gotten just this far into my sermon I was personally confronted by the fact that I have not been living this way. I know the importance of being present in each moment, cherishing each relationship, but doing it, actually putting these thoughts into practice isn’t something I’ve been very good at. I get busy, just like all of you and I get tired and it always seems like there will be another day, another time.

 

In June of this year I drove through Minneapolis, anxious to get here I failed to make adequate preparations to connect with people there whom I dearly love. I told myself that there will always be time, I could come back up later, but six months down the road I just never had. It’s hard to convey simply how important these people are to me; people who helped me find courage and conviction when it would have been easier to simply quit. People who offered me many and various ways to participate in the life of the church and encouraged me. People who had become a new family to me, yet I had gotten busy and failed to connect.

 

Short story long, I was in Minneapolis by 1:30, eating tomato basil soup at Turtle Bread Bakery, relishing the sights, the tastes, the sounds of a city that had been home to me for four years. At 4:30 I was sitting on the steps of Lake Nokomis Presbyterian watching members of my church family begin to filter in. I hadn’t been there in nearly four years, Bill has a full beard now, I almost didn’t recognize him. Lisa has lost weight and was looking all fine and trim. The Root kids had grown! Oh my gosh, but Owen is as tall as I am now! My two Sue’s and Kara, women who have been like sisters to me, were all there.

 

Yesterday I stopped denying myself the joy of reconnecting with these lovely and beloved people. Yesterday, a few of us gathered around a table and shared a meal. Yesterday I was able to wrap my arms around dear friends and give them long overdue hugs! Yesterday I remembered that I am not promised any more time; I am not promised second chances or second Christmases,

 

How well do you love, how fully do you live, how well do you let go of things not meant for you? The problem is, we think we have time and we put off our joy, we tell ourselves that we can connect with loved ones later, we can say the words that we long to say, later, we can find joy, later.

 

Do not wait, my friends, we are not promised later. We have the incredible gift of now. Do not withhold yourself from joy. Cherish each relationship, treasure your conversations, give yourself fully to each moment, for tomorrow isn’t promised. Two will go into the field, but only one will come back; so love and live as fully as you can, cherishing this moment, this time, this person with you now, and do not withhold yourself from joy.

 

Transformed by Gratitude

 

Jesus Cleanses Ten Lepers

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus[d] was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers[e] approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show your selves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’[f] feet and thanked him. He was a Samaritan.17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Were none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

 

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Gratitude is an act of appreciation, of awareness, it is a choice. We choose to dwell in love, in active thanksgiving, celebrating the gifts we have received, the abundance that surrounds us. There are so many voices surrounding us these days, telling us to be afraid, telling us we don’t have enough, telling us we aren’t good enough, and to be fair, these voices are pretty persistent and loud, but we have another voice, that still, quiet voice which is always present to us, which reminds us that we are wholly loved and cherished, that we need not be afraid, that we have enough and we are enough.

 

We can choose to dwell in gratitude, to deny those voices which insist we do anything other than this. A grateful heart is a peaceful heart, is a loving heart; living a life of gratitude is an act of holy appreciation. It is to continually look and see all the wonderful things that God has done for us. We are invited to stand in awe of the immensity of God’s love and providence. Today is a gift none of us have earned or deserve, Life itself is a gift. Today we stand, or sit, surrounded by the incredible beauty of this community, a loving, kind, and gracious community. A community which reaches out and enfolds the lost, the hurting, the lonely, a community which feeds the hungry and accompanies the sick and dying with love and grace.

 

We can choose to dwell in gratitude through this act of holy appreciation. We choose to dwell in gratitude when we notice the care and affection given us every single day. The hot cup of coffee, the warm dinner, the lighting of a fire place, the hand which reaches out to hold our hand, each act a simple gesture of love, of care, of being seen, which we are invited to appreciate. ‘a grateful heart is a peaceful heart, is a loving heart’ holy appreciation is a deliberate act, a choice to see all the gifts and love around us. , it is an invitation to raise our eyes from the hard work, from any grief or loss that weighs on us, and see the light of love and grace in our daily life. To stay awake and woke to the beauty and the light of God pouring down on us like sunlight breaking through the clouds on a cold day.

 

 

Perfect love casts our fear, and it frees us to be more wholly who we were created to be. Voices of scarcity and fear will tell us that we are only hungry for the next new thing, or that we need to be better than we are, or that we will never have enough. That still, small voice within reminds us that we are children of God, created in God’s very image, that we are enough, and we have enough. What we are really hungry for is meaning and purpose, we hunger for what we are not giving. We have a need to give, to know that our life has meaning and purpose. We hunger to know that our lives are being lived with integrity and that we are living faithful lives. We think sometimes that we are hungry for what we do not have, that we always need one more thing, but the need we are trying to fill is that of meaning and purpose, that of expressing our love and care, our creativity and gifts. We long to live into our God given identities, a longing that God has written into our very heart and soul. We were created in community for community and we long for this interconnectedness.

 

If the first blessing, the first gift that Jesus gave to the lepers was that of physical healing, the second, which only the tenth received, was that of abiding in and dwelling in deep love and gratitude. It was to be moved from suspicion to trust, from isolation to connection, from enslavement to an imposed self reliance to the reality of interdependence and community. We are all part of the body of Christ. I will not be well while my brother, while my sister is not well and realizing this, my heart is opened, my life transformed. Gratitude is the great gesture of this passage, this transformation.

 

And this gesture of passage unites us. It unites us as human beings, for we realize that in this whole passing universe we humans are the ones who pass and know that we pass. There lies our human dignity. There lies our human task. The task of entering into the meaning of this passage (the passage which is our whole life), of celebrating its meaning through the gesture of thanksgiving.” Of deep abiding gratitude.
– Br. David Steindl-Rast

 

 

 

 

The tenth leper was so overwhelmed he moved completely out of fear, he did not rush off hoping his good fortune wouldn’t be taken from him, his faith was so firm he never even considered that his good fortune, this gift of healing, could be lost. He simply rejoiced. He exulted in this moment of joy, of healing. He withheld nothing of himself held not one shred of doubt, can this be real, but simply let go with exuberant joy.

 

I imagine that some of the others might have rushed off, thinking, “a man who can heal so easily must be incredibly powerful, imagine what else he might do. With all that power, he could be dangerous,” and so they scurried away, in fear.

 

Another might have thought, “Oh wow! I’m healed! But….is it for real? Will it last? I’d better see a priest as quick as I can before it goes away. How long do you think it will last?” he might have wondered as he rushed to the temple, fear driving him.

 

All of these lepers had at one time, been a part of the community they were hoping to return to. Families they hadn’t seen or interacted with for years. Friends they could no longer hang out with. How often had they dreamt of healing, of being home again, of seeing old friends or attending celebrations, the weddings of their children, Passover, harvest, all the traditional gatherings.

 

How long had they been standing on the edge of society, having to warn off passersby, calling out, “unclean, unclean,” bearing the shame of having somehow failed or simply not being good enough, but not being able to do anything about it.

 

And now it was within their grasp. Yet only one was able to accept this grace fully, only one was able to fully enter the moment, to leave off all fearful doubts and simply rejoice. Now, I know that I am one of those who often struggle to accept good things. I probably would have been one of the 9 lepers who ran off, not trusting that all this grace and goodness could be real, or could really be for me.

 

But if we can really feel our blessing, wake up to the enfolding love of God, the full embrace of this loving and gracious community, our whole lives will be changed, transformed, made new.

 

We are those who live in the middle of blessing so rich that we are like fish in water, wondering what it might be like to really swim. We are a blessed and loving community, healed and made whole through the love of Jesus Christ and today we have this incredible invitation to move into gratitude and let it shift and change our hearts.

 

It’s a new way of being, this act of letting go of all anxiety and fear, of letting oneself be overwhelmed by love and gratitude. We may lose our way, time and again. Old memories may reassert themselves. The voices that tell us we are not good enough or we don’t have enough will continue to shout, and we may fall into fear and anxiety again. The antidote to fear and anxiety is love and to experience love fully is to find one’s self suffused with gratitude and if we let that gratitude suffuse our whole being, we may well find ourselves dancing, or kneeling, praying or singing, and nothing will be the same again.

 

 

A New Land, A New Time

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Isaiah 65

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;[e]
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.

I had the good fortune to find some time to walk around Madison yesterday afternoon. As I met one smiling face after another, watched children ride their bikes down suburban streets, saw people helping each other, their kids racing from one house to another I was reminded again and again that people are basically good and kind. I was reminded that we all bear the image of God and the love of God just shines right on through us like sunlight through a stained glass window.

It was a reminder that, although our country feels so very divided right now, we share a goal that goes way beyond the election. We share the goal of a country in which all people can live with great hope and joy, with meaningful work and justice for all. And as I thought about the fact that not only have we just had a contentious election, but that Friday was veteran’s day and I, like so many of you, have such deep, deep gratitude for our veterans and all that they have done for us. All that they have given to help us attain these greater goals of freedom, equality, and a bright future. We all hold those things in common, values and goals we cherish.

We are in a new land today. Let that sink in. We are in a whole new place and we aren’t certain what will happen, how we should live. It’s just really shaky and uncertain. And that’s exactly where the people who third Isaiah was speaking to were at. It’s interesting to hold Isaiah 65 right next to Isaiah 66 because they parallel one another, the first written to those who had not been faithful-but ending with a promise anyway, and the second written to those who had been faithful, also ending with a promise.

Let me be honest and clear with you. I’m really hurting from the results of our recent election. I don’t dislike Trump as a man. I’ve known many men like him, and I want to be clear that I am not saying that anyone here who voted for him is in favor of the racism, misogyny and abuse that is raising its head right now. I do not believe anyone here wanted to see the Klan marching in victory.

My heart is with those who are now fearing that this means half of America doesn’t value them, doesn’t believe they have a right to safety, or hope, or a future. I hear their fear, I hear their dismay, and I can’t ignore it. I have been left wanting to comfort the women and young girls around me with the knowledge that even though we have elected a man who sees them as nothing more than objects to rated, used, and abused, their sacred, intrinsic worth, remains.

So please understand that I recognize that most people who voted in this election, regardless of who they voted for, are good, decent people, who don’t want anyone to be hurt or scared. They certainly don’t condone violence even as violence against women and minorities immediately escalated following this election. Please know, that I understand that no matter who won this election, some of us would be hurting.

We as a church have not done a very good job of acknowledging trauma and I want to acknowledge that there are those among us who have experienced sexual violence, it’s an unseen, often unacknowledged trauma. if you are one who feels your abuse and trauma have been dismissed and disregarded, if you feel unsafe then these next words are for you:

Hold onto your anger with tight fists and don’t let it go! Your anger is a holy fire lit by God within you, reminding you that you are a child of God! A child of the most high and any abuse or violence against your being that you have suffered is so very, very wrong! Don’t let go of that!

Even if there is only one person here who has experienced abuse or sexual assault present here today, hear me clearly: you deserve better than this.

So please hear me now, listen with every fiber of your soul, especially if you are one of those,

You are so deeply loved and cared for, God weeps with you for every violation of your beautiful tender soul. You are beloved, chosen, called, you are seen wholly and completely in every aspect of you being, broken and whole, and loved completely. The breaking, broken parts of your life, are continually washed clean in the tears of God. You are stronger than you ever thought you could be, and those times when you don’t feel strong enough, that’s why we are here, that’s why God gave you us, because it’s okay not to be strong enough. Everyone has their breaking point, and those times when you can’t quite make it, it’s okay.

And again, I want to be clear that I am not saying everyone who voted for Trump approved of his behavior or the interpretation that others are putting on it. I want to acknowledge that there must be incredible frustration and hurt in being wrongly labeled and categorized.

We are called to wrestle and engage with all that is happening, and refuse to let it go, refuse to numb out, or accept violence as politics as usual. So hold onto your pain until it blesses you, until it leads you to treasure, until it brings you to the thing you love the most. Pain is the red flag saying this is important, this is important, this is important.

Trust that God is at work in this process. God is the one who shifts our painful experiences from pointless and painful to transformative. Who uses them to open our hearts and souls to those around us. It is God who shifts our pain from meaningless to redemptive.

We are incredibly divided in our nation right now. Incidents of violence have increased, students are protesting, protests are becoming riots, and it’s all very frightening. To extricate the people from despondency, to attach meaning to their past and present misery, was the task that the prophet and God had in common.

We find ourselves in a new land, where we are called to hold aloft the light of Christ and remember who we are and whose we are.

The exiles in Isaiah, having returned to the promised land also had some faithful and some not-so-faithful responses. The first half of Isaiah 65 lists some of these faults, forsaking the worship of the God of Israel for those super fun worship ceremonies on the hill, defiling oneself, doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord.

We, like the exiles returning to Jerusalem, have been through a sea-change, in fact it’s still going on. And we, just like they did, get to choose how we will respond and most likely, just as it was with them, it will be a mixed choice, a little back and forth, because it’s hard to be all in, all the time. But we do get to choose, and the good news is, that we were born for just such a time. We are a gracious, loving community; we are a community committed to dialogue and to learning, to building bridges across divides. We are a people who know we are called to love justice, to walk with the oppressed, to be humble, and to welcome all people to the love and grace we have received in Jesus Christ.

Now that doesn’t mean we won’t slip once in a while. We won’t necessarily argue or be hurt or angry. We will have different views and perspectives, but we are committed to the way of peace, we are committed to the path of healing, we are committed to one another, we are committed to following Jesus.

We are a wrestling people, not a walking away people. For I remember the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to abandon you.

And that brings us to the second part of Isaiah 65. The part that we take refuge in during hard and difficult times;

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.

Violence is loud, but Love is more pervasive. We are in process, this is not over yet.

This is the promise we hold onto. That centering our lives on God, living faithfully, we will be participants in creating a new heaven and new earth. That God will delight in us, that every tear will be wiped, every wound will be healed. That in this new kingdom the fruit of one’s labor will not be stolen, that health and wellbeing will be the prospect of all people, not only the wealthy, that we will not fear for the future of our children, but see them live blessed and joyful lives. This is the promise we hold onto.

Now we don’t get to this promise without going through the rest of it. It’s a process, not instant gratification. And this process involves a lot of healing, a lot of looking at the places where we’ve gone wrong, but the promise remains. So we need to actively disavow racism, misogyny, and violence- no matter who you voted for, these things don’t represent who we are. We need to create a safe place for all the children of God to gather, to know they are wholly and completely welcome. And we need to be vocal about doing this. We must witness to the world that we walk the path that Jesus taught us to.

We are in need of deep healing. We urgently need to see the love of God made visible in our world today and we are uniquely empowered to be that love made visible. We are needed right now. This we know. We are healers, caretakers, visionaries, we are worker bees and community organizers. Our message to the world is one of love and grace, not because we are so great but because God is. Not because we are the most forgiving, but because God is. Not because we are the most inclusive, but because God is.

We are all tasked with choosing love over hate, faith in God over despair, and we are all tasked with making these choices visible so that others may see them and take heart. We are called to be love in action, love determined to make a difference, love working to change and transform a life, a culture, a world. It is this love in action that brought Jesus to the cross. It is this love in action that we are called to bring to the world. Take up your cross is not a passive directive! God who entered into the messiness of life and the cruelty of death to be with us, invites us to do the same for each other.

We are not responsible for fixing everything, for healing the world, that’s God’s work. But we are responsible for the piece of the world within our reach. So today my friends, seek out and find that piece of the world near you that needs healing, needs love. Be that healing and that love, let your light shine brightly so that others may see it and take hope, so that others may see it and discover the reason for your hope.

I invite you to consider one solid, concrete way of being the love and healing that the world needs so much right now. Wear a safety pin so people will know you are committed to being a safe person. Sit next to the woman in the hijab, confront hateful talk when you hear it, pray for those who you are afraid of or who anger you. Find at least one concrete way you can be the peace and healing we so need in the world, for the world needs you today. And don’t let go of hope. Choose to rejoice in God especially when things seem dark and hard.

Once, when I was working in the rehab, a place where we didn’t even use the word God, a young man asked if he could close group using the Lord’s prayer. With the rest of the group’s consent he did so. Now I was confused by this because I knew he wasn’t a Christian, that he had recently expressed an interest in Buddhism, so I stopped him after group and asked him what that was about. He said, “when I was running drugs and I had to go through the park where the other dealers were hanging out, and I would get scared, I would say that prayer under my breath the whole way. It helped me feel safe.” We don’t have to begin with perfect faith or any faith. God hears us. This is why we worship, especially when things are difficult, uncertain and scary, because we need it. It changes us, it works in us. So don’t let go of the struggle until it blesses you. Don’t stop halfway through and reside in the pain, praise God always

Psalm 98

O sing to the Lord a new song,

For the Beloved has done marvelous things!

By the strength of your Indwelling Presence,

We, too, are called to do great things;

We are set free through Love’s forgiveness and truth.

Yes, your steadfast love and faithfulness

Are an ever-present gift

In all our lives.

All the ends of the earth have seen

The glory of Love’s Eternal Flame.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord your God,

All the earth;

Break forth into grateful song

And sing praises!

Yes, sing songs of praise extolling

Love’s way;

Let the melody be

Gratitude and joy!

Let the voices of all people

Blend in harmony,

In unity let the people

Magnify the Lord!

Let the sea laugh and all that

Fills it;

The land and those who

Dwell upon it;

Let the waters clap their hands;

Let the hills ring out with joy,

Before the Holy One, who radiates Love

To all the earth.

For Love reigns over the world

With truth and justice,

Bringing order and balance

To all of creation!

Bearing Good Fruit

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I have been very preoccupied this week with the news coming out of South Dakota of the Standing Rock protest. Those of you who are not on my Facebook feed or who have not seen it in the news, the Standing Rock protest is the largest group of Native Americans who have gathered in the history of the United States and they have gathered to protest the placement of an oil pipeline through their lands and to protect the waters of the Missouri which provides clean drinking water to thousands of people.

 

I have been aching to do something, to give, to participate to be a part of and support the brave men and women who are fighting for the health of our nation. I believe that those who call themselves water protectors are fighting for the spiritual health of our nation just as much as they are fighting for our physical health, our environmental health so it is no accident that the tools they are using are song and prayer, and it is no accident that they are confronting worldly powers, powers which threaten them with physical harm, with shame and humiliation, which seeks to break their spirit with unwarranted strip searches and physical violence.

 

I want to stand beside them and acknowledge that I, like the rest of America, am addicted to oil and gas and I know it isn’t good for me, it isn’t good for us. Our dealers, those big oil CEO’s and big oil companies might punish us for supporting Standing Rock and raise the price of gas, but in my heart of hearts I feel called, impelled to give to Standing Rock, to support them in any way I can. I want to send them warm blankets and cold weather gear because I know the cold of winter they will face in their tents and tipis. ,I want to visit and stand with them if only for a few days. I want to purchase water filters so they will always have access to clean drinking water, and when those who serve and protect big oil come at them with weapons and mace, I want to stand in front of them.

 

I am a little fired up and impassioned about this. So it is no accident that I feel called to give and to be in action. The fruit I long to see ripen in my lifetime is one of justice and equality. It is one which will lead a cultural shift away from consumerism and our addictive lifestyle to a life of purpose and meaning. Recently at a Madison’s pastors gathering I listened as one pastor expressed a longing to bring community to all of those young professionals living in their high rise condos who struggle with finding any meaning or purpose in their lives beyond consumerism. I could hear how fired up and passionate he was about reaching those people, how called he felt to give of himself, his time, his energy and resources. The fruit he was longing for was healing, was meaning and purpose in shared community.

 

The fruit we want to ripen in our life, what we want for our life, can’t be bought in a store, no matter how often consumerism promises us it can. We are a very addicted society and our addictions tell us that we don’t have to give anything up or work hard to get what we want, that there are quick fixes out there, but in our heart of hearts, we know better. In our heart of hearts we know that we must dig deep and prepare the soil, we must plant the seeds and tend them with loving care, we must nurture the crop through all the seasons if we want the fruit. We don’t get to jump ahead and forgo the work, and still get the fruit. It just doesn’t work that way, not that we don’t tend to try. We cannot reap what we do not sow, no matter how much we might want it.

 

The question I want to ask you today, is what fruit is your soul longing for, burning for, calling out for? What injustice, pain, lack of connection, poverty, loss, is pulling at your heart, pulling you into action and into outrageous acts of love and giving? Is it nearby? Very close even, perhaps in the loneliness of elders at nursing homes, those who are feeling forgotten and who so need a visitor, who so need to know that they are loved even when they can’t do anything for you? Is it the youth who we keep so preoccupied with one activity after another who you long to see find purpose and meaning in their lives? Who you long to see grow spiritually? Are you called by those who have little opportunity, who live in poverty or who lack schools, such as the young people of the Yucatan? Or the young people in Kokomo? What fruit is your soul longing for? Is it justice? Is it peace? Is it community?

 

God will not leave us alone, but continues to extend these invitations to our heart’s longing. We are not forced to give of ourselves, we are not required to give, but we are not free from the consequences of not giving. We are not free from the bitterness and hardness that results when we close ourselves off and God wants so much more for us! God urges us to be generous not because God wants something from us, but because God wants something for us. God takes even the smallest gift we give and uses it to transform our lives. God calls us into deeper, fuller, richer lives, resplendent with healthy relationships and freedom from fear and addiction.

 

I hope that you aren’t hearing me say that I am not as involved in systems of addiction and consumerism as anyone else. Every time I contemplate my giving I have to face how much I want to be comfortable, how much I want the next newest thing, and I love, I really love my truck! I love hopping in it and being able to go anywhere I want at any given moment. I love being able to haul what I need from point a to point b and sometimes it makes me feel that I am able to contribute more so I tend to justify having a truck and driving myself instead of carpooling.

 

I know that standing with the people of Standing Rock might impact my driving around and the freedom I feel in being able to do that relatively cheaply. If I really want change, if I want spiritual fruits to bloom in my life, I must see how I am implicated in the very systems that would prevent it. I must see how I am captured by sinful systems, systems of addiction and consumerism, systems that promise me comfort if I would only, please, not challenge them. “Bow before me and I will grant all your wishes,” This is the invitation Satan gave Jesus and which is still proffered to us.

 

I, like everyone else, will reap what I sow. And I, like everyone else, am a total mixed bag of good and bad and I wish I could be better and I’m really trying to work up the effort and courage to do so. Please understand that a significant part of my stewardship process myself is becoming aware of what a grasping, frightened person I can be and discovering that healthy, good stewardship is a journey of increasing freedom as I go. I’m not there yet, but I’m on the path, just like all of you.

 

What fruit do you want to see in your life? What seeds are you planting? The good news is that God takes even our meager gifts, our messy efforts and makes great things happen through them.

 

Being freed from the flesh, from worldly concerns, frees us to recognize the connection we share with one another, it frees us to live for God and live lives of love and freely giving of ourselves and our things without regard for what the world thinks, without regard for our social standing and our keeping up with the Joneses.

 

We don’t have to accomplish this freedom from fear all by ourselves. We don’t have to transform and can’t, by ourselves, but God will work with us, to the extent that we are able to step forward in faith, God moves us further than our own efforts can.

 

God does not force us, but does extend an invitation, an invitation to a broader, richer, fuller life than we can possibly imagine! It is God who turns the tiniest seed planted in the largesse of trees which give shelter to birds and animals, which bear fruit in abundance.

 

If we live our lives in fear and in grasping for ourselves we come to see others as rivals for limited resources, hence the grasping and biting, the fighting one another off, the getting while the getting is good. But we are called to so much more! We are called to a greater freedom!

 

We are called to be freed from a center of gravity around our needs, wants, desires, freed for community. Our text today is not about a personal salvation, a solitary, individual sense of salvation, but about a community. It is about who we are together and how we can live out lives of love and promise right here, right now!

 

The vices and virtues that Paul lists in this letter are those that impact the community. It is not about the self but about us. This is about God’s Spirit that creates community, that is pentecostal. We were created in relationship for relationship. We belong to one another, and trusting in this we are moved body and spirit, our hearts are pulled, and we give because we long for the fruit of the spirit.

 

In our text today flesh is our insecurity through which we are led astray. It is our anxiety and our indulgence. It is our tendency to go through life half asleep and unseeing. What is our ultimate good? Imagine a different kind of living out of a freedom to love and serve others for the good of the whole body of Christ

Those whose way of life is characterized by these the vices Paul lists are inherently separated from the way of God. They are not evil, they are separated from love, from community, from God. And to a certain extent all of us feel this separation ourselves and it is for this reason that we are called to give of ourselves and all that we are. We give to be a blessing to others, in order to grow spiritually which is God’s delight.

 

This is not about flesh-spirit dualism, remember we have a faith that was brought to us by God being incarnated, God enfleshed. We do not have a God who hates the

flesh but one who lived into it. Flesh, in this instance, is that urge to self preservation, that urge to get mine even at the expense of your wellbeing.

 

What marvelous seeds we have been given to sow, and how sad it would be to see our future compromised by our caution. We have stories to tell, seeds to sow, stories of a God who has called us into this beloved community, that draws us into the lives of people all around the world, that fills our hearts to overflowing with love, with compassion! We have stories of a church which welcomes all people, which shares community and reaches out to others, which is an abundant expression of love.

 

If we do not plant seed, we will have no growth, but if we do plant the seed God has given us, it will grow, inch by inch—mustard seed becomes a tree.

 

Giving sparingly, whether out of fear or any other cause, results in spare growth. We are asked to give faithfully, trusting that God will use what we give. If we do not plant seed, there will be no growth, but if we sow what we have generously, it will grow and God will do great things with it.

 

We are freed from requirements of the law and I do not want to place any new requirements on you. God asks that we give not as a requirement that we be loved or be worthy, but that we can experience even greater freedom. Some of you might be thinking what more can I give? I’m tapped out!

 

But we can give, and we need to give! We need to give if this means dedicating 15 minutes a day to earnest prayer. We need to give if it means joining a committee and holding that committee to prayerfully fulfilling its purpose. We need to give if this means finding one person in this community or another community and supporting them with friendship, love, and compassion. We need to give because our soul needs it. God doesn’t need it and God won’t love us any less if we don’t give. We need it. We need it because we need to be freed from our addictions and our consumerism, from our anxieties and our fears.

 

God invites us to give of ourselves that we might know freedom, that we might be released from anxiety and fear, that we might be transformed and made new. God does not ask us to give for God’s sake, but for ours. We are freed to a new way of life, don’t pick up the old, imagine new, great possibilities, and live into them!

Pruning

harvest-1

Sunday’s sermon was interrupted by a health problem and the audio contains the prayer regarding that.

 

I want to do something different today. I want to let the poetry of our scripture surround us, surround the message, let the poetry of scripture challenge us, change us, shape us. David Whyte once said that poetry is the language for which we have no defense. It permeates our souls, it soaks into our psyche. I suspect that Jesus spoke in parables, stories and poetic images because he knew that our intellect, of which we are so proud, can keep our hearts sheltered, armored, and untouched, but poetry transcends our intellect, it reaches into those places where we tremble to stand with God, into those spaces where we fear that if God really touches us, really shows up, everything will be changed and we both long for that and fear it.

 

So I am not going to give you some intellectual rationale behind vines and vineyards, instead, listen to the poetry of the heart, of God’s heart, of God’s love for you;

 

The Vine and the Branches

15 1-3 “I am the true Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken.

 

Ah, but the pruning hurts, doesn’t it? We cling to outmoded ways of being, we invest ourselves in a certain way of being, or growth and we don’t want to let it go, no matter what. We cling to it as if it were the only way, the only thing, we do not fear change as much as we fear loss, still the words whisper a deeper invitation

 

Live in me as I live in the Father. You were built for connection, for relationship, so don’t try to go it alone. Don’t injure your soul, letting it become dry and brittle. You were created for a full, rich, juicy life, one filled with sweat and blood, with tears and cries of joy and sorrow. Don’t withhold yourself from me, take the leap, jump into life with both feet and dare to dream great, big, incredible dreams. Don’t stay frozen on the sidelines, but join the game, dance the dance, and let your heart be broken open a hundred, a thousand times.

 

“Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me.

 

Make your home in God. Abide in God, dwell in God and let everything be colored and conditioned by this act,this choice. Let God touch your heart knowing it will change everything; that it may send you into the streets of Calcutta or Africa, into the streets of Philadelphia, Portland, or even those narrow streets close by, the ones we don’t look into too deeply, but rather avert our eyes as we pass on by. Make your home in God knowing that when God lives in you fear will be driven out and with that fear gone common sense may leave too! Know that when God lives in you, your heart will be torn apart with love of neighbors you don’t even know and you may find yourself walking into places you’ve not yet heard of with the simple message that God loves you and I know you just needed to hear that today.

 

You may find yourself sharing from your store of wealth, lifting others out of poverty, changing their lives, giving their children a chance, an opportunity, restoring to them the justice that they have cried out for in the dark of their night. And all of this might be scary, it might be frightening, but when God lives in you and you in God there aren’t any limits to what you might do or where you might go, so take heart and do it anyway.

 

5-8 “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.

 

God, our source and our sustenance, feeding us from within, filling us with all good things and helping us raise our face toward the light. Intimate and organic, deep and personal, this relationship which lives in us, which feeds us as a mother feeds her child, organic and intimate. All that is cut off becomes dried and brittle,a false start, a wrong path, misguided growth that soon withers and falls, soon to be forgotten as blooms form and

 

Be grafted on to the true vine, sink your roots deep within and know that you are kept, sustained, and the harvest will be abundant and neither do you need to hold on to it. Just as a vine does not produce grapes for its own benefit, seeking to feed itself off itself, so we are not called to produce a harvest which we will store and keep for ourselves, but to feed the next generation, to plant seeds in good soil. Know that your sustenance comes from God and trust in that.

 

9-10 “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.

 

Know that you are loved, wholly and completely and have faith in that; let that love drive out all fear and bring all that is within you to fruition. But keep to the way of Jesus, keep yourself rooted and grounded in love, in gratitude, in compassion. Do not withhold even the smallest part of yourself, but let yourself surrender wholly and completely to God. Let yourself, your life, be pruned so that there is gracious room for God to live within you. Do not let yourself be so overcome with details and cares of the day that you do not have time for God, cut away all that would distract you so that you may come home, at last, to God, come home again, and again, every day come home. Carve out that space in your busy, busy life,

 

11-15 “I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.

 

Because you are loved, so deeply loved and God’s desire for you is joy, full, abundant, mature joy. The way to this joy is love, to abide in love, to commit to love, to love in difficult and good times. Stay with one another in love through the most difficult times. This will change you, this will draw out of you the deepest beauty, the most exquisite rapture. It won’t be easy, love is not that simple. But do it because God has become flesh, moved in beside you and called you to this love, because God insists on love. We are done with secrets but there is no end to the depths of God’s love, so let that mystery engage you.

 

Allow yourself and your life to be pruned and shaped not for some abstract idea of what is good or pure, but rather that joy and love might live in you, might flourish in you. All day long the stresses of life will pull you by the hand, drag you this way and that, saying this is important, this needs your attention, you must get this done and this and this…there is no joy and no love in being so overgrown and over scheduled and over occupied, carve yourself a space in which to dwell and abide in God.

 

We prune to create space, to keep the overgrown brush from killing out the more tender shoot, to allow space for something new to come, to allow the shape and beautiful form of what is growing to be revealed.

 

 

16 “You didn’t choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won’t spoil. As fruit bearers, whatever you ask the Father in relation to me, he gives you.

17 “But remember the root command: Love one another.

 

 

Abiding in God, resting in God, even a moment of being touched by God, knocked off your horse or lifted in a moment of glorious contact, changes everything. It’s dangerous it swells in your heart and your head and you might find yourself wandering through foreign lands preaching or healing. You might end up in Calcutta or Africa, you might find yourself in the downtown streets of Boston living with the homeless, or you might find yourself standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter or the Standing Rock Tribe as they oppose a pipeline being installed right through their sacred land. It might, in other words, disrupt your cozy life which is fine and beautiful and set you off on a crazy, scary, wild adventure. I think sometimes, that there is a part of us that wants to believe those days are over. The days of radical proselytizing and carrying the love of God into dangerous places and we can therefore reside in our cozy homes (I so love a cozy home!) especially in the fall when the air is crisp and I just want to sit by the fire with a cup of tea and a good book. and just know that everything is okay.

But we are rooted and grounded in love and with all things there are times when we are called to take a rest, we are called to Sabbath as well, but we are rooted and grounded in love and anything that deviates from it withers and dies. So be rooted and grounded in love, rest when you need to but know you are called to be out in the world, bringing good fruit, bringing all that you are. How incredible that God looked at the world and said it needs one of you, and you. How incredible. Be rooted and grounded in love. Grow from that. Let your life be fruitful, in all times and in all places.