Thursday, November 21, 2019

Proper 28C

"So make up your minds NOT to prepare your defense in advance; 
for I will give you words and a wisdom 
that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict." 
(Luke 21:5-19)

I'll let you into one of my nightmares,
because that is exactly what you want right this minute.
I am an introvert 
and the idea of getting up before a crowd, a judge, even standing here now,
without anything prepared to say,
is terrifying to me.
Down right terrifying.

When I was in high school I was terrified of public speaking. 
I remember my first public speaking class, 
when I wasn't able to complete a short speech 
because I thought I was going to throw up. 
At the time I knew I wanted to become a priest 
and I knew from watching the priests of the church I went to, 
that I was going to have to speak in public someday 
and that I needed to work on it. 
I asked God for help 
and God provided opportunities and coaches and mentors 
to help me learn how to get up here on a weekly basis and speak, 
in a very open and public way. 
And I certainly cannot take credit for all the Words I speak. 
God gives me more words and phrases than I could ever imagine. 
I have spoken eloquently in ways I could not imagine coming out of my own mouth. 
I swear, sometimes things come out of my mouth and inside I say,
wow, that actually sounds pretty good, where did that come from?
Or, even better,
Whoa, I didn't know I knew that...
thank you God!
Thursday Eucharists are the best. 
I pray for something to say, I listen to the readings, 
and God works miracles every week. 
I used to get really nervous
and worry that I was going to stand up here and look like a fool. 
Sometimes I do think I stand up here and look like a fool, 
I have decided that for the sake of Jesus, for the sake of God, 
I'm okay with looking like a fool. 
I'd rather look foolish for the Gospel than look all calm cool and collected 
and feel dead inside.

In the gospel passage for today,
Jesus in Luke tells his disciples that all sorts of crazy things are going to happen 
before the end of time.
Persecution, wars, siege, earthquakes, famines, plagues,
In the combined book of Luke-Acts,
we see all these things.
Paul ends up in jail multiple times,
the early Christians were persecuted,
there were wars going on,
famines across the land,
all of this is stuff Luke knows is coming in the second part of his book.
He makes sure to have Jesus tell the community,
its going to be okay.
God will be with us.

Thankfully today, 
we aren't plagued so much by people who persecute and oppose us, 
the Church is more in danger from those who have no clue about it, 
those who feel they don't need the church, 
those who are indifferent to the Church's word for their lives. 
Our defense does not need to be for our lives, but for the church's life. 
It is not in defense, but in inviting in others.

The part that always gets me though,
is that part about not needing to prepare ourselves ahead of time.
I know some of the things written in this passage
are truly terrible,
and for some of you might be more terrifying.
But for me, its this line about testifying about Jesus,
being a witness to Christ,
without any prepared speech. 

However, I can also witness to the fact 
that we don't need to prepare and practice our elevator speeches,
when we trust in God to give us the words we need 
to talk to the person in front of us,
God gives us better words than we could ever write.
God knows how to approach them, 
God knows them better than we could ever. 
If we pray for the ability to talk to others about Jesus, 
God will give us more words and wisdom about it than we can ever imagine.
God gives us the promise 
that no matter what happens,
God will be with us
and God will see us through. 
Even if we end up looking like a fool for Jesus.

We are going to do an activity today. 
None of you have anything prepared at the moment,
so this is perfect timing. 

We are going to pray first together, 
and then you're going to take a look at the insert in today's bulletin.

Let us pray,
Eternal God, who created the universe and all that is in it with your Word, help us to speak your love and truth in this world, help us to reach out to those around us, trusting in you to supply our words and actions, knowing you know their hearts better than we ever could. Help us to speak your invitation into relationship, we pray this through Jesus Christ our Savior, Amen. 

So now I want you to take a moment,
think of the answers to these three questions
on the insert in the bulletin.
What special knowledge do you have? That's your head.
What are you good at? That's your hands.
What are you passionate about? That's your heart.

I want everyone to stand up and find someone else in the room 
you don't particularly know well or at all
and I want you to introduce yourself like this:
"Hi, I'm Elizabeth, I'm know a lot about bicycles and penguins, I am good at cross stitching, and I am passionate about spiritual practices. How are you doing today?"
So, go ahead, I'll give you a couple of minutes
(watch them start conversations)

Before I'll let you sit down again, I want you to invite this person to church.
I know, I know, you all are already here in church! 
This is practice.
Remember an invitation needs to be specific: 
where: St. John's, 
when: 8/10 am on Sunday, 
what: a church service 

Its okay if they say no. Its great if they say yes.
Either way, we have planted a seed
and God will take care of watering it and making it grow.

How quickly we can get into conversations with other people when we know a little bit about them?
Did any of you find new connections?
I hope so. I hope some of you will continue your conversations later too. 

Thankfully, even when our witness falls on deaf ears
or our witness gets us in trouble
or changes our community, 
God promises to be with us and to help us
To give us the words to say, to give us the courage to speak,
to comfort us in the tough and occasionally awkward moments. 

As Paul says, the church is made up of many members and many different talents,
not all of us are called to be evangelists,
but all of us can invite others into our community,
all of us are called to work towards the building up of the kingdom of God.
Learning and practicing gives the Holy Spirit the invitation to come into our lives
and open us up to new opportunities
so that when the time comes, we can open our mouths with the words God gives to us
and speak eloquently for the good news of Jesus Christ.


Proper 27C

"In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?"

Why do they need to know whose wife this poor woman will be?
Hasn't she gone through enough hassle already?
Seven husbands???
Give the poor woman a break!

Jesus was such a storyteller
its not often we hear him going through the paces with 
legal logistical argumentative proofs.
However, if you remember your ancient Greek rhetoric at all
(which I totally understand if you don't...)
you'll notice what the Sadducees are doing 
and how Jesus responds in kind.

The Sadducees who speak to Jesus
are using a case study to prove that there is no resurrection.
The Sadducees were a group who didn't believe in resurrection,
they didn't believe in an afterlife.
Yet, they know Jesus does believe in resurrection,
he keeps teaching and preaching about the kingdom of God.
So they decide to take him on in some old style debating. 
They offer a proof that there can be no resurrection.
And Jesus comes right back at them with a proof,
using their same source of authority, Moses,
that resurrection is real. 

It goes like this:
The Sadducees say, Moses wrote in the law
that if a man dies while leaving a wife but no children,
then the man's brother must marry the wife and have a child for the man,
to carry on the family line. 
However, a woman can only have one husband,
therefore if a situation in which a woman goes through multiple husbands
without any children exists,
then there cannot be resurrection, because then she would have multiple husbands
which she cannot have.

So Jesus answers back with another Moses story. 
You know the story of Moses and the burning bush, right?
Moses, searching after a supposedly 'lost sheep'
(God loves using lost sheep, lost keys, lost moments to call out to us in our lives...)
anyway, Moses in search of a lost sheep
finds a bush on the mountain which is burning but not being consumed.
As he gets closer to the bush, a voice comes from the flame
which tells him he is standing on holy ground and to take off his sandals
the voice tells him to go back to Egypt, a land in which he is doubly an outcast
and set free the people of the Israelites, who have been in slavery for a couple of generations
When Moses goes, um, who are you?
(as one naturally inquires when talking with a burning bush...)
the voice identifies itself as God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of his people
All in the present tense.
Which is what Jesus is referring to.
God identifies himself as the God of people who should be dead, 
but God speaks of them as in the present tense,
as if they were still alive.
Its a subtle play on words.
But one the legalistic detail oriented Sadducees would have appreciated.
Jesus answered their logical proof with his own logical proof,
using the same source of authority, Moses. 

Thankfully, this logical debate is not all we hear from Jesus on this subject.
Jesus speaks very freely, not only in Luke, but in all the Gospel accounts,
about the resurrection,
about the kingdom of God.
He talks about how different the resurrection is,
there is no need for marriage
there is no need for death,
indeed there is life and quite abundantly.

This is one of the most interesting things about our view of the Scriptures
we can see throughout the Bible 
a slow change and progression of understanding about the afterlife
In the beginning of the Jewish tradition 
there wasn't much in the way of understanding about any afterlife
They developed an understanding of Sheol, 
a grey shadowy dark place cut off from everything else,
kind of how present day Catholics understand limbo.
Nothing happens there. 
There is nothing there. 
That was it.
As we move through the scriptures 
and through the centuries of religious and theological debate among the Jewish people
people start to have other ideas about the afterlife
and by the time of Jesus in the first century,
we have some solidified camps,
those who believe in a resurrection and afterlife
and those who don't.

And we can see them theologically struggling to figure this out 
in the passage we have from Luke today. 
Of course, today, we have Jesus.
We have resurrection stories from Jesus
We have teachings from Paul, Peter, John, Luke, Matthew
Christians authors throughout the centuries
all about what the kingdom of heaven is like 
and how resurrection life is different than what we are living now
We still don't get it.

It's not something we can give up on though.
The resurrection is a deep matter for the foundations of Christianity
we believe in a risen Christ
Jesus who conquered death in his resurrection.
If we don't believe in resurrection
than we are missing a key foundational piece.
Resurrection is at the heart of our tradition and theology
And it is at the heart of our continuing journey with God.
Without resurrection, we have no hope,
no chance of something different, something better, something new.

It is still going on today, our struggle with resurrection
Our struggle here at St. John's and Grace with resurrection is still continuing on.
We may have celebrated 10 years together
living in the same buildings and doing ministry together
but our lives together are still in need of death and resurrection
in order to become the beloved community we are called to be.
There are issues, anxieties, questions
which need to be set into the light
and reminded of the great Love of God
and the hope we have in resurrection.

Our congregations are still in need of resurrection. 
We have come to this time and place and we need to grow, 
we need to experience spring in the midst of all the current winter. 
We are a resurrection people. 
We need to believe in resurrection, 
not only at the end of our days into the kingdom of God, 
but here and now
breaking into the present
and changing the entire scope of the future.

Without resurrection we are simply on a path of death.
Without God we go through our lives and then they end.
With God, we experience new life, resurrection, 
not only after we die
but here and now.
Each of us experiences our own cycles of death and resurrection
and we can be a part of St. John's and Grace's resurrection
we can give our time in asking others to join our community
we can share our stories of why we love the community we are a part of with others.
The world is full of lonely people, 
they are looking for new life in community
they are looking for resurrection in their own lives,
and we can be a place and a part of that glorious new life.

Where is God working resurrection in your life right now?

In my life, I feel that God is still working on the death part right now.
I have a couple of things I am trying to let die,
in my own life and in my ministry
so that new life can happen.
I am waiting and hoping for resurrection,
even though some of the process is painful. 
I have faith that God is working, even though I don't always see it very well,
and wish sometimes it would happen faster,
even when I am the one holding myself back.

Thankfully, God promises to never leave us alone.
Which doesn't always feel like a promise we want God to keep,
God can be rather pushy 
(and if you need an example of that, read the book of Jonah,
God kept pushing Jonah),
but we know, when God leads us in a new direction
when God is working on and in us,
resurrection is coming. 
A new dawn is arisin'. 
(Like the dawn in the Resurrection window over there)

May we give thanks for all the deaths in our lives,
because they mean new life, new Love
through the work of our never-giving-up, unfailing Loving God.


Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Proper 25C

I want you to picture in your mind
our local drug dealer.
Every town has one or two
and by the way the local news talks about the drug crises
we have more than one or two in Franklin.
I want you to try to picture our local drug dealer,
wandering down Buffalo Street, thinking about his business,
when he stops and looks up at St. John's doors.
For some reason, he decides to walk in
and say a prayer.
He says, Hey God, to you, I'm messed up. Forgive me, will ya?
Also in the church at that time is one of our long time faithful regulars,
This long time member is giving thanks for something going really well in their life.

Then Jesus walks in with a bunch of people and points to the two people praying.
He says that the drug dealer is in better standing with God at that moment
than the long time faithful member.


Its a confusing and shocking and harsh parable.
What can Jesus possibly mean?

Interestingly, this parable only occurs in Luke,
so the question can also be asked, what is Luke trying to say?

After last weeks' parable about the unjust judge and the widow,
where Jesus is in the midst of teaching his followers about prayer,
we could easily see this parable as another admonishment about how to pray.
That is the most common interpretation of this passage.
And we do need to learn humility,
not only in our prayers,
but also in other aspects of our lives.

But there is more going on in this parable than simply reminding people to be humble before God.
You know how what I say about parables,
there is never just one interpretation.

Lets start with the first verse.
"Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:"
Well, there is a lesson here about humility
but also two others,
one about salvation and another one about our relationships with others.
Being righteous in the Jewish tradition at that time
meant following all the rituals and observances,
giving alms, praying at certain times a day, and if you were a man,
spending time learning Torah every week.
We can already see from this description,
that there was some understanding that doing all these things
meant that you were saved,
as long as you kept doing them.
In this way, they trusted in themselves and not God.
As such they also found it hard to have grace in their hearts
for those who couldn't live up to those standards.
They had contempt for those who couldn't keep all the rituals and observances.
But here, unlike in some of the other gospels, Luke doesn't call out the Pharisees
right away.
Unlike the gospel stories of Matthew and John, where the authors are against the Pharisees,
Luke has nothing against the group
and doesn't immediately identify those who trust in themselves
as the Pharisees.
In fact, I'm sure, the group of people trusting in themselves is much bigger and not exclusive of the Pharisees.
Luke is much more accepting than Matthew or John of the Pharisees
and he shows Jesus eating with them and speaking with them
not always throwing them under the bus, so to speak.

So knowing all that, we go into the parable itself
"Two men went up to the temple to pray,"
nothing too remarkable about that,
men were always going into the temple to pray.
"one a Pharisee"
in a literary sense, Luke sets up the parable to surprise those listening,
he introduces the Pharisee first, as the good guy in the story.
Naturally the Pharisee will be going to pray, they do that regularly.
then, "and the other a tax collector."
Cue the dun dun duhnnn music...
You can hear the audience start to boo...

Tax collectors in ancient Israel were traitors
working with the Roman rulers to take money out of the hands of the Jewish people
and put it to work for the Roman government.
They were Jews themselves, but instead of placing that identity first,
like good family members,
they put their own good first.
Not only were they working with the oppressors and enemies,
they also were skimming off the top,
taking more than required so that they could pay themselves
Embezzlement, fraud, extortion, traitor.

We have to remember that Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi
trying to reform the Jewish faith at that time.
Both the prayers which follow, 
the one said by the Pharisee and the one said by the tax collector
follow typical Jewish formats at that time,
they use the same Jewish prayer language
all the people in the audience would have said as well.

"The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus,
'God, I thank you that I am not like other people:
thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.'"

The Pharisee sets himself apart
in order to help himself stand out.
He has bought into the idea of making yourself righteous in the sight of God,
the pulling yourself up by your bootstraps mentality.
He isn't like others, he does more than the rituals command 
by fasting twice a week,
and he does as he is supposed to by tithing his income,
giving a tenth back to the temple.
He holds other in contempt for their actions and their failures,
and he doesn't mention any of his own.
The Pharisee gives himself away, he doesn't love all his neighbors.
He separates himself from the rest of the community.

Then we come to the tax collector's prayer,
"standing far off,
would not even look up to heaven,
but was beating his breast and saying,
'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'"
Here we have the traitor,
acknowledging that he isn't doing the right thing.
We don't see that he is going to change his life,
but he at least knows he isn't doing it right.
He has also separated himself from the others in the room,
but because he feels himself too much of a sinner,
too much of a mess-up to belong with the community.
His prayer is seen better by God
because he isn't trying to save himself.
He is asking for mercy,
he recognizes that he cannot be good on his own.

Naturally, to end the passage, Jesus chimes back in.
"I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other;
for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

We get a 'first shall be last and the last shall be first' moment here.
The end of the parable sees the justification, the exultation, the flip flop
of who is on top and who is on bottom.

It is those who trust in God to save them
who are in better relationship with God
than those who trust themselves.
This idea is one of the biggest points Jesus makes throughout his ministry.
We are not supposed to try to save ourselves.
We don't have to try to save ourselves.
We are never going to be able to save ourselves.
God has already taken care of saving us through Jesus.

It doesn't matter what we have done in our lives.
Traitor, collaborator, embezzler, drug dealer,
adulterer, thieves, rogues, fornicators, murderers,
worst mom ever, unemployed,
it doesn't matter what mistakes you have made
or what you have messed up in your life,
God has already forgiven and saved us through Jesus.
As we pray and recognize that we need God's help in our lives,
we are saved by grace
and we can let go of all the burdens we carry.

Loving God means recognizing God has our savior
recognizing that we cannot save ourselves
Loving God means loving our neighbors,
loving all those in the community.
Loving God means recognizing our humility 
in the face of God's mercy and grace.

As we stand today together to pray, which are you?
The Pharisee, trying so hard to be righteous and save himself,
or the tax collector, recognizing its all up to God?


Thursday, October 24, 2019

Proper 24C

"My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone."

This is one of Thomas Merton's famous prayers,
and an extremely useful one for daily life. 
Though my favorite Thomas Merton prayer 
is one about tulips. 
One of the lines says, "Up with the revolution of tulips!"
We live in a world full of wonder and amazing gifts from God
such as bounteous beauty.
We should pray for the roses and the tulips and the pigeons.

I counted this week and I have more than a dozen prayer books.
Not counting books about prayer, just books of prayers.
People have written prayer books for everything,
because we are to pray in everything, for everything,
in all our life situations.
Jesus told his disciples to pray without ceasing
and it can be hard to think up words in all situations,
so people write their words down and share them with others,
so that others can pray for that situation as well. 

I have a prayer book in the Celtic tradition, 
it has prayers for many daily tasks. 
A prayer for slicing bread in the morning. 
A prayer for pouring tea.
As a teenager, I was given a prayer book with prayers specifically for teens,
prayers for good... and bad... grades at school. 
A prayer for getting your driver's license.
A prayer when your parents are getting divorced 
and one for moving, one for graduating, and another for standing up to a friend.
All situations where the words can be hard to find, 
but having something written down is helpful in starting to pray about it.
As a teen, I was also given a prayer book, one of my favorite of all time,
written by this interesting Catholic priest, Edward Hays, 
called Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim.
In this book, there are prayers for 
cleaning the house, writing letters, making phone calls, before and after working,
even using the bathroom, 
or for when recognizing signs of aging.
I also have one for little children
which includes a prayer for potty training. 
It is a big deal for a little child.

For some of you, it may seem a little silly to start praying 
for your morning cup of tea or coffee,
though with all the pressure to help us out in our lives, 
I think maybe we should be praying for our coffee,
or to pray when you use the restroom,
but learning how to pray for our daily activities
teaches us to pray throughout our lives
and builds up our faith in a God who hears us and responds.

The Gospel passage from Luke this morning 
starts with the context in which we are supposed to hear the parable.
"Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always 
and not to lose heart."

Do you ever stop praying?
Do you ever lose heart?
Yes, yes.
Check, the parable is for me too. 

In the parable there is an unjust judge, who knows it,
and a widow in some kind of trouble situation. 
We don't know what the situation is, but we know that it hasn't been solved.
The widow keeps going to the unjust judge to advocate for herself.
For a while the judge does nothing,
But after her persistence,
He decides to grant the widow justice.

This parable is not a metaphor or allegory 
for our relationship with God.
God isn't the unjust judge
and we are not the widow being persistent in our prayers.
Sometimes indeed, I tend to think it might be the other way around.
We are the unjust judges and God is the one being persistent in our lives
getting us to do the right thing, 
and we give in because of the constant annoyance. 

However, God is so much better than the unjust judge. 
This real understanding of the story comes 
with the questions Jesus asks the disciples after the story
"And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?
Will he delay long in helping them? 
I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.
And yet,
when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

There is no question that when people are persistent in their prayers
when people cry out to God, pray to God regularly,
God will indeed grant them justice.
Of course, God's justice and our ideas about justice are not always the same.
The real question is the last one,
"when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

Hold up,
we said at the beginning of the sermon
that the context and set up of this parable was
the need to pray always
and not lose heart.
What does that have to do with faith?

Faith and prayer go together so strongly it is hard to talk about one without the other.
We need to have faith in order to make our prayers.
But then, prayer is the active basis of our relationship with God.
Relationships require interaction and our interaction with God is through prayer.
We have to have faith in order to start praying, but prayer can also grow our faith.
Praying more can strengthen our faith and help us trust in God deeper.
The walk of faith is a marathon, not a sprint. 
We are talking about a cross country road trip here, not a drive to Cranberry.
And prayer is what keeps us moving on the journey.

Throughout the gospel stories, 
we are always seeing Jesus wandering off by himself to pray, 
to take time in relationship with God. 
He needed that and so do we.
This is why the Celtic tradition teaches prayers for slicing bread,
if you can remember to pray while slicing bread,
you'll remember to pray during the situations in life 
which are much harder. 
Both as a community and as individuals, 
learning to trust our prayers and to continually say them, 
knowing that God hears them and is working in our lives
can be hard,
but is one of the most important steps of our faith journey.

As a community, the most powerful thing we can do is pray together.
This is part of the reason Paul admonishes his churches 
not to fail to meet together.
As a community, our prayers and our faith
are the glue which holds us together.
Our prayer together changes our lives in ways we cannot even imagine.
Together, we can pray about the hard situations in our lives
where some of us do not have words,
but we can learn together how to pray for those parts of our lives. 

You may have noticed the new addition of the Stewardship prayer 
at the beginning of the service.
We are putting our faith in action as prayer,
focusing on what God is calling us to do as Stewardship,
not just what we want ourselves.
When our Stewardship Campaign is over we are going to change that prayer
so that we will be praying 
for new growth in our community. 
We are going to be starting with praying about inviting people to come to St. John's. Because we need the help with that, 
and if we pray, God will help us learn and do so.

We are called as the people of God,
the followers of Jesus
to make a difference in this world.
We cannot do so without faith and prayer.
Jesus teaches us to pray always,
to be persistent in our prayers
and to trust that God will hear our prayers.

Let us pray,
Eternal God, you know what is in our hearts before we ask,
help us to learn to ask and to listen for your answers.
Help us to pray to you always,
knowing our relationship as an intimate one,
so that we may know your heart and will,
through your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.