Monday, August 7, 2017

Doorkeeper in the House of the Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 6, 2017

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

Based on Matthew 14:13-22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Earthquake, Wind, and Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sermon for Pentecost 8: "God is For You"

A Sermon for the Confirmation of Victoria Shatro
            For most everyone here today, this is an ordinary Sunday morning, just like every other Sunday morning we come to church. 
            But for Torie – this is a special day – it is the day she will confirm her faith.  It is her confirmation day. 
            It is a day that means many different things – and just one.  Confirmation Day is a day when a young person, in some ways, becomes an adult in the eyes of the church.
             In that way, it is a little like your Quinceanera last March, Torie, because at that time you vowed that you would be a Christian young woman,
            you received encouragement and prayers from the people who gathered, and – I remember this – you changed from wearing flat shoes to wearing heels – a sign that you are growing up.

            Confirmation, too, is a sign of growing up. 
            Today you will make promises to be a follower of Jesus, to “confirm” the faith given to you when you were baptized, the faith so many people have shared with you throughout the years. 
            But confirmation isn’t JUST a sign of growing up. 
            And it’s not just a day to MAKE promises to God – but it’s a day to remember the promises God has given to us.

            Promises like this:  “the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness… because we don’t know how to pray but the Holy Spirit prays for us….”
            Promises like this… “All things work together for Good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
            Promises like this…. “If God is for us, who is against us?” 
            Or promises like this…. “Can anything separate us from the love of God?  No, I am convinced that neither life nor death, nor anything else in all creation can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
            Today these are promises for you, Torie, for this day when you will make promises of your own,
            promises to be faithful to God as God has already been faithful to you, promises to worship and serve and share and shine your light in the world…..

            The most important thing to remember is that God’s promises come before ours. 
            That everything we do and everything we are is a response to God who has given us such a firm foundation. 
            Nothing can ever separate us from God’s love.  Nothing. 
            God is for us.  God is for US,  and not because we’re so perfect, or have dotted all of the I’s or crossed all of the t’s. 
            God is for us, because the one who created us, sees beneath the flaws and the failures, the sees beneath the regrets and the sorrows, sees one for whom Christ lived, and died and rose.  
            God is for US – and God is FOR us – and I don’t mean that God will make sure that nothing bad ever happens to us, or that we will live a charmed life. 
            God is for us means that in the midst of everything that will happen to us – good and bad, success and failure, life and death – God will not desert you.  

            I remember once using this scripture reading at a funeral. 
            And the person who was to read brought a different version of the scripture, and when she read it, it made me sit up straight, because here is what she read,
            “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love?  Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?”  
            The answer to these questions is “No.”    
            Whatever happens to us, whatever our life looks like on the outside, whether we’re having hard times or good times:  God is for us.  God is for you. 
            Nothing in all creation can separate you from God’s love.

            You may not know this today, but you will experience it some days – that there are things in the world that try to separate us from the love of God.,
            try to convince you that God is NOT for you, that God doesn’t care about you. 
            I remember reading a memoir this past year, and there was this memorable little story in it. 
            The boy grew up up very poor in a sort of chaotic household. 
            And he relates a day that he turns to his grandmother, in the midst of some family crisis or another, and says to her, “Does God love us?”         That broke my heart.  The circumstances of his life caused him to doubt the love of God for him. 

            But that brings me to one other thing I want to say today. 
            We have this foundation, this unshakeable foundation – this gift of God’s love that never leaves us or fails us. 
            You have it Torie – you received it when you were baptized – and everyone else here has it too – but we also have a calling.  And this day is about both of those things – this gift and this calling. 

            And “God is for you” means that too. 
            God is for you means that God has called you to be his person in the world, that God has said, “I want Torie to be one of my people, not just to experience my gifts and my love.
            But also I want Torie to be one of my people to share that love with the world.    

            I remember the agony of getting chosen, or not getting chosen, for things when I was in high school.  Mostly sports. 
            We used to divide up the class into two teams to play softball, or basketball, and I always worried about whether I would be chosen, because I wasn’t very good. 
            And then one day I remember getting to be one of the first ones chosen – for basketball. 
            To this day I have no idea why my classmate chosen me – but you know what – I LOVE basketball. 

            I don’t know what God will call you to do, Torie –
            I know you have a heart for children, and a strong spirit.  I know that you are a pretty good public speaker. 
            Maybe someday you’ll help build a well in Africa.  Maybe you’ll advocate for those who are weak and vulnerable in the world. 
            Maybe you’ll tell a small boy somewhere, that God does too love him – and that Jesus died for him. 
            Maybe you’ll cook food for homeless people.  Maybe you’ll walk alongside people who are grieving. 
            Maybe you’ll bring communion to shut-ins. 
            Because God calls us in our whole life, not just one part of them, to know that God is for us.

            This is no ordinary day.  not just for Torie – but for all of us.
             It is the day of Torie’s confirmation, but it is also a day for us to re-affirm our faith, to stand on that firm foundation once again and put our trust in the one who promises to never leave us or forsake us.  
             It’s a day for all of us to delight in the grace of God, the gifts of God, and our calling to be an instrument of that love in the world.   

            Because nothing can separate us from the love of God. 
            Not the things you can imagine, and the things you can’t imagine.  Not the past, not the future.  Not poverty – or even riches. 
            Not grief or joy or struggle or success.  God is for you --- and has called you to live with him – not just in heaven, but in every day, and in everything you do.



Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sermon for Pentecost 7: "Wheat or Weeds?"

Dear friends in Christ, dear people of Grace, grace to you and peace from God our creator…

            I’ll confess – one of the things I love to do in a Bible study is to discover and point out the way God confounds our expectations
            – the ways that God acts totally differently than we would act.  So I love the parable of the sower which you heard last week, and how the sower sows seeds EVERYONE, even on the path and places where seeds can’t possibly sprout. 
            We would never do that, would we?
             It just shows how generous, how extravagant, God is.  So different than us….   “God’s ways are not our ways….”

            And I remember sitting down at a Bible study with today’s parable and a group of farmer’s wives one day. 
            We read the parable together and I said what I thought:  isn’t it weird that the farmer would tell the workers to leave the weeds alone?             We would pull the weeds wouldn’t we?  We would want to get RID of those evil weeds, because (I knew this from experience) if you didn’t pull the weeds they would take over the field.  
             This does not make any sense!  The ways of God – so different than ours.

            And my farmers wives told me that I was wrong.
             This made absolute sense to them.
             In fact, this was the way it was for farmers back before there were chemicals to kill the weeds. 
            You see – they told me patiently – unlike corn, wheat is not a row crop.  You can’t get between the rows and get rid of the weeds. 
            You had to sort it out at the harvest.  That was the way it was done.

            In the parable, the master is concerned that not one stalk of wheat be lost. 
            For some reason for the longest time I did not notice this.
             I was thinking about the weeds, and the idea that the weeds would endanger the field. 
            But the farmer is concerned that he might lose a few stalks of wheat if he pulls the weeds to early.  
            In our lives, there is such a thing as collateral damage.  It’s the idea that in the pursuit of good, sometimes we make mistakes and some people are hurt, even lost.  It’s inevitable. 
            Because we are human.  But in the kingdom of heaven.  No collateral damage.

            I think back to the prophet Isaiah, and one way he describes the Messiah, “A bruised weed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” 
            In other words, he’s going to protect the weak, and not throw away someone or something when it’s broken. 
            And lately I’ve been thinking – there’s one way that God is so much different than we are.

            Maybe this is because we are moving and we are doing so much sorting right now. 
            We have done so much sorting – which is really what this parable is about. 
            It’s not a huge statement about why there is evil in the world – although it’s true, there is evil in the world. 
            Also in the church.  The church is God’s creation, and yet with all of the grace and goodness and abundance, in the church there is also sin and grieving and conflict too.  We are God’s field, but there are weeds.     And sometimes we are tempting to do some sorting – who’s in and who’s out. 
            To try to figure out who and what has value and who doesn’t.

            That’s what we have been doing during the past couple of years, and even more so in the past couple of weeks, and it’s hard.
             I’m sure there have been a few times we have thrown out things that we will end up regretting, and there are times we will say ‘why did we keep this?” when we unload the truck.   

            There have been times we have found things that we thought we had lost – (I’m sure that’s another parable!), and there are times I have thrown away something just because it was broken It made the decision easier. 

            But God’s ways are not our ways, and God does not throw something away just because it’s broken. 
             God does not cut off the plant just because it’s weak.  God doesn’t want to lose even one precious stalk of wheat.   
            That’s one message of the parable.   God doesn’t want to lose any wheat.  At all.  Even if you’re bruised.  Even if you are broken.

            But what if you are not sure whether you are weed or whether you are wheat? 
            You know, sometimes, because of the things that have happened to us in life, or even because of the things we have done, we aren’t sure.  Am I one of the beloved ones, or am I a weed?
             In the parable the weed is a very specific one – it’s called ‘darnell’ and it actually resembles wheat, especially when it is young. 
            You can’t always tell by looking what is a useless weed and what is a useful stalk of wheat.  You really do have to wait

            Oh, sometimes you can tell..  Sometimes it’s obvious. 
            A few years ago I found this in my yard. 
            It’s very obvious that this did not belong there! 
            So, we cut it down.  Then we found out – who knows what this is?  It is milkweed – and even though the name says “weed” in it – it is a home to butterflies, not to be thrown away, but to be preserved and protected and valued.

            Like you.  Like me.

            God’s ways are not our ways. 
            We like to sort, and sometimes we think we know who is valuable and who is not, who to welcome and who to turn away. 
            But we don’t.  Only God knows. 
            And God does not want to lose even one of us.  God will not lose even one of us.
             I think that is one of the reasons that Grace put in our new mission statement that we welcome everyone, no exceptions.
             Because we know that, right?  God does not want to lose even one of us. 

            A few years ago I remember reading about the crisis with immigrant children coming here unaccompanied. 
            They were fleeing violence in their own countries, and some of their desperate parents were sending them on their own, which was creating all kinds of crises for us, too.
              What to do with them.  How we should treat them.  Who they even were.  And I remember reading that someone called them “refugees” and another person commented back:  “They are not refugees.  They are criminals.”
             And at the time, I wondered, “But how do you know?  How do you know?”

            God’s ways are not our ways.  We like to sort, and sometimes we think we know who is valuable and who is not.  But we don’t. 
            After all, it was us who put Jesus on trial, judged him and sentenced him to death. 
            But God said no, He was the  Holy one, the one through him we are all saved, all preserved, all named “worthy”, all saved.
            Thanks be to God.