This image of a tree in the first chapter of the Psalms is a unifying image – it is a grand metaphor for life. The psalms are song lyrics passed down from generation to generation that captured the range of emotions found while people wrestled in relationship with God. The psalms contain every emotion known to humankind. Anger, despair, delight, hope, fear, love, hate... you name it, it's in there.
This first psalm sets the tone for the entire book – it also gives a rather black and white choice. Either we follow the advice of the wicked or we delight in the law of the Lord. Uh… I choose option B.
And then it says – those who choose option B are like trees planted…
So, let's take a journey with this tree – a tree planted perhaps planted by another tree – an acorn here or there, a pine cone, or a seed carried along the wind.
It's planted by moving water – the rise and fall of the tide - reaching its roots deep into the soil. Finding its nourishment as needed. This tree is not only planted by streams of water but it yields its fruit in season. Takes the raw nutrients of water, soil and sun and transforms it into roots and branches and leaves. Its trunk grows thicker and stronger. It yields its fruit not early, not late – in season. And that fruit of course is for the growth of something or someone else. Right, an acorn to make another tree or an apple for anothers' meal.
Are you still following the metaphor? This tree is not only planted by streams of water, it not only yields its fruit in season, but its leaves do not wither. Have you ever watched leaves before a rain storm? They turn upside down in expectation of the rainfall. Getting ready for a drink – to keep from withering.
The psalms begin with this rich, detailed, picturesque metaphor for life. Content are those who are like this tree. Noting again that the lyrics speak to a plural understanding of the world. The Hebrew people would have no notion of an individual trying to do all of this on their own. The tree is an image for the community. They are like a tree, one solid, strong tree.
Contented then are they. Contentment is the mental or emotional satisfaction with the way things are. Contentment is assenting to or willing to accept circumstances. Contentment is peace of mind. But contentment is not immovability. Right? Contentment is actually the realization that movement is inevitable. Movement, change, modification is a thing of life.
A tree is not immovable. Contented are those who like a tree – seek nourishment, grow deep and wide, adjust to the surroundings, spread out and produce fruit. There's nothing immovable or stagnant about that. In fact, that's a fairly active life.
This tree is as a wonderful metaphor for spiritual growth. We’re still growing. And they don’t just mean outwardly in new programs or missions or in members – they mean internally as well. So like a tree – how do we adjust to our surroundings? How do we find a way to continue growing amidst life? What if the water dries up? Well, we dig a little deeper. What if we can’t sustain ourselves? Maybe a larger modification is needed, or maybe a season has ended. Death is part of the life cycle too. What if the water rises and floods us out of worse yet – causes us to mold or rot? What do we do if a snowstorm robs us of the fruit that we’ve grown? How do we respond when things outside of our control break us in half? How do we accept or embrace our pruning?
This first psalm is about ethics and lifestyle and choices. We will make a thousand little decisions all the days of our lives. Those choices grow us spiritually.
They've come to a mountainous ridge east of the city - made of chalky earth and flint. The ground is not useful for building and so it has become a burial ground – tombs and caves, surrounded by olive groves – they call it the Mount of Olives. Jesus' parade begins amidst graves and olives. Ancestors and history, generations of occupied Judeans and small green fruit, still growing on the vine, not ready to be picked but containing potential.
At the same time, the imperial guard has come in from their western coastal homes, traveling in their motorcade of armored SUV's. When they get to the edge of the city, the secret service will walk the perimeter while Pontius Pilate and his wife and perhaps others in his staff will get out of the cars. Dressed in their very best – the newest fashion designers having competed for Pontius Pilate's wife's wardrobe. They begin the walk into town.
The people have gathered to watch, to see. There are street vendors selling falafel and balloon animals for the children. Mothers and fathers are pointing for their children to see – look who has come to town. Who has come to town? Those who keep the peace... the power and control and government regulation has come to town. The folks whose role it is to serve and to protect. Who has come to town? Well, honestly if anyone is paying attention – if the media is choosing to call a spade a spade then who has come to town? the peacekeepers. After all with all of these Judeans coming to town to worship, we must be on our guard for an uprising. They might disturb the peace And so from the west we have a parade of peace keepers.
But back in the east – Jesus had instructed a friend to go get a colt and while they wait, the villagers begin to gather I imagine, as they always do when word of Jesus' presence gets out. Who knows, maybe a couple kids were playing in the cemetery and they notice Jesus. They go home and tell their mom. Next thing you know we've got crowd gathered. This crowd is unannounced and seemingly unplanned – there is no secret service to secure the parade route here. There are no falafel vendors. Instead there is a makeshift pageantry, with almost playfulness. Jesus on a colt. Or if we were to modernize it – perhaps someone finds Jesus a pickup. And one says, wait don't sit in the back – you'll get all dirty. Here, sit on my cloak. Oh, you can have mine too. Mine too. And the back of the pick up is lined with people's clothing, colorful and mismatched – certainly not from a famous designer. Can you see them smiling as they make up their own pomp and circumstance? Another friend grabs a palm branch from the side of the dusty road – begins to wave it. And the procession begins. Jesus riding in the back of a pick up and his friends traveling along its side or trailing behind.
The crowd has begun to grow organically and there are people lining the street laughing at what they know to be imitation – even poking fun - at the official parade on the other side of town. But here too we have mothers and fathers pointing for their children to see – look who has come to town. Who has come to town? Why it's the man who heals people, the teacher of the law who is not like the other teachers of the law. The crazy man named Jesus and his rogue followers.
Look at them, making a mock parade today. Have they no shame. “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ And Jesus' answer – surrounded by the mountainous region of chalk like rock and flint says, Come on now, even if these were silent, the stones would shout. 'Teacher, order them to stop. They're making a mockery of the government. They're drawing too much attention to the systems around us.
And there is a crowd – don't you see. We're drawing a crowd, Jesus. Tell them to stop. Surely, this will cause us harm. This kind of blatant commentary on our current circumstance. At this point, one of the pharisees has jumped into the back of the pickup with Jesus trying desperately to get him to listen to reason. 'Teacher – on the other side of town there are extra military forces gathered for this very purpose – they want to keep the peace during the festivities.
Jesus responds, "What peace? Where is this peace? You think there's peace amidst occupation? You think surrounded by Roman rule, we live in peace. Is this what you call peace? Please – tell me, where is there peace? On the other side of town, they come keeping peace but we come making peace. Look around – if we don't shout, the stones will shout for us." He points to the stones in the distance from the graves in the mount of olives. And the stones of the mountainous region. And the stones under their feet all the while the crowd is shouting, "save us!”
"There are some that come keeping the peace; we come making peace."
Unclean food and an unclean spirit. Both of these passages seem distant at the first reading to me. And I'll be honest, my context is screaming loudly on the sidelines as I read both passages. We're beginning a ministry for people with special needs. People who are often treated as though they are unclean. Oh sure, we don't use that word. We use words like disruptive, difficult, dangerous. And so I can't help but imagine Jesus in the synagogue when, let's say a person with a developmental disability who is prone to speaking out of turn says to Jesus, "What have you to do with us? I know who you are - but what have you to do with us?" Then Jesus turns to this person and uses the word unclean for that which is tormenting him or her.
The question seems reasonable - what had Jesus to do with people suffer with chronic illnesses, or people who live with mental illnesses? What had Jesus to do with so many things we now understand but in the time when these scriptures were penned were lumped into the category of "unclean?" It's this word that causes me to stumble not the actions of Jesus.
Whether it be people with leprosy or people with physical disabilities or people who were blind, Jesus sought to share the kingdom primarily with those on the margins of society. And so when Jesus commanded the unclean spirit to come out of him or her, I wonder what happened to this person. What of their condition was unclean - what changed - the physical, the emotional or the spiritual? Was the developmental disability removed? What was the future like for this person? And how did the community adjust in order to assist the change that happened?
Isn't that the question for this community in Corinth? One's freedoms have gotten in the way of showing love to another. The community is needing to adjust in order to create comfort for another. One's knowledge of the grace of God in regards to idols has created a stumbling block for another who does not have the same understanding of the grace of God. And so Paul is asking - would you consider not eating at the restaurant down the street that serves meat sacrificed to idols because your brother or sister doesn't feel comfortable doing that at this time? A colleague of mine recently put the question this way, "Are you willing to be 25% uncomfortable in order to make another person comfortable?" That's what this is really about. Am I able to adjust what I want to do or what I find reasonable and admissible in order to accommodate another in the kingdom of God?
I can hear Paul's community and even our contemporary context arguing, "If I'm willing to be 25% uncomfortable in order for "them" to feel comfortable why can't "they" be 25% uncomfortable in order to make me feel comfortable too?" The margins of the kingdom are always going to be uncomfortable, aren't they?
Read this week's text, Jonah 3:1-10.
Several weeks ago, my facebook wall erupted with posts about the children who were massacred in a Pakistani school. On one friend's wall, I noticed a comment, "Signs of the end times." I sat stunned, wondering how that could be this person's first response to such a horrific incident. Of course it's not the first time I've heard such reductionist thinking. But I don't travel in Christian circles of this kind much anymore and so I was stunned to silence. Until now.
When I read that comment all I heard was a white flag. Surrender to the hate and hurt that can happen in our world. When I read that comment, I heard a shaking of our head in disgust without any chance of making a difference in the world. I heard a person of faith who had given up faith in God's power to prevail in goodness. Now it's possible that I heard it wrong. I concede to often misunderstanding people's comments - we've all been there I'm sure. Social media provides great connection and community and it can also provide grand misunderstanding and hurt feelings. Yet, this is how I heard the comment. And I've been silent until now.
Until this week when I hear a similar resignation in Jonah. Although the text we've got is the third chapter, after the first two where Jonah actively says no to God's command. Jonah provides what might be the worst sermon in the scriptures, "40 days and Ninevah will be no more." I like to say 40 days means "as long as it takes or when the time is right." He's walking through the streets seeing the activity that makes for sinfulness. What kind of sinfulness was true of Ninevah?
Was it greed? Gluttony? Envy? Sloth perhaps? Or maybe pride? What was this grand sinfulness that has moved God's grace to send Jonah? And what was it in Jonah that had given up on Ninevah? What did Jonah see in them and their lifestyle, their values that caused him to believe they were beyond the grace of God? Too defiant to be saved. It's just how it is over in Ninevah. What can we do about it? Beyond help. It'll be what it'll be. Ninevah is what Ninevah is. I dare say it is we who put up walls or fences, not God.
Whatever it is that Jonah saw is not what God saw. God saw a people who would repent, who would turn from wickedness and trust in God. God saw a humble people. God saw people who feared God and wanted righteousness.
Now again I could have understood the comment on facebook incorrectly. But here I am this morning thinking about how I see terrible trauma in our world today and wondering how differently God might see those same occurrences. Where I see defiant hate, does God see humble fear? Where I see corrupt exhibition of power, does God see willingness to repent? Where I might be giving up the fight for goodness or kindness or peace, is God waiting for me to go claim goodness, kindness and peace?
Ninevah wasn't a lost cause. The rest of the story speaks of repentance on a grand scale - even the animals were to fast! The rest of the story tells about the irresistible grace of God. Nothing is beyond God's reach. No one is beyond God's grace. God changed God's mind with Ninevah. God's grace is the strongest force we know. It is not God's judgment, but God's grace that is the power of our faith.
Read this week's text, Psalm 139.
The text begins with an understanding that God has searched us and it ends with a plea for God to search us again. Search us and know us, find our wicked thoughts. See if there is any offensive, hurtful way in us. The psalmist is confident in introspection and confession because the psalmist understands God's vast love for us, God's intricate involvement in who we are.
The lectionary suggests we omit the "problematic" section about enemies and hating those who God hates. I can't imagine omitting that section given the talk of enemies in our world these days. And on Martin Luther King weekend, a conversation about enemies seems more than appropriate. Who and what are our enemies?
How do we name the enemies in our world? Are they other faiths? Other nations? Other armies? Other ideals?
Do we understand enemies over and against the rights we have come to enjoy? Rights like freedom of speech or freedom of religion or privacy? Or do we realize that our enemies are that which keep the Spirit from moving in our lives and our world? The enemy of peace or joy or love or patience or kindness?
We have plenty of ways to illustrate the difficulty in defining "the enemy." The incident in Paris, the constant unrest between Israel and Palestine, the rise of fundamentalism and its relationship with the other expressions of its own religion, the relationship between community and law enforcement, the broken working relationship between the executive branch and the legislative branch of government. Do we dare have a conversation about enemies?
This conversation that the psalmist was having with God was not about naming the enemy over there, it was about recognizing the enemy over here. Because of God's love for us, the psalmist is more than willing to be vulnerable in front of God. Search me. How I hate those who hate you. But Search me - know me - try me. See my hidden faults. Lead me in the everlasting way. Are we willing to be searched like that?
Read this week's text, John 1:1-18.
There aren't many times where we share what God is doing in our lives, or where we share what we are learning or where we share our joys or concerns at any length publicly. Except this Sunday, Epiphany Sunday. Last year, we each received an "epiphany star" - a star cut out of cardstock with a random word written on it. The instructions that go along with the star is fairly simple - live with this word for the year and see what God might teach you through it.
John 1 is a poetic telling of God's revelation, God's coming out into the world. "The word was made flesh."" That first word of creation, the creative force of the universe as the Greek's would've understood it, wrapped flesh around itself and publicly entered the world. Light came into the world and "the darkness did not overcome it" or in some translations the "darkness did not comprehend it". Well of course it wasn't understood! It's incredibly difficult to discern what God is doing in our world. We all lack understanding when it comes to parsing God's work and action in the world around us, in our human world!
"This light was in the world, and the world came into being through it; yet the world did not know it. It came to what was its own, and its own people did not accept it. (verse 10-11)" Light, epiphany, understanding, wisdom comes to us all the time and so often we do not understand it, accept it, see it, or know it.
On this second and final Sunday of Christmastide, we realize that finding the light of the world - in our world - is not as easy as the quaint story of shepherds responding to the call of angels or magi following the star to find a toddler named Jesus. . Finding the light of the world takes practice, and more importantly practicing with others. Finding the light of the world in the world requires focus and reflection, time and imagination. The light has come - now we are to look for its the that which it illuminates and find that on which it casts shadows.
Read this week's text, Luke 2:22-40
This year I added two figurines to our church creche - Simeon and Anna. Our creche is filled simple wood cut outs and a woman in the congregation does wood working so I asked her to cut out another male and another female figure. We've been adding new people to the scene each week and I can't wait to add the two of them this coming Sunday.
I'm tempted to sing to the tune of Rudolph the Red nosed Reindeer -
You know Mary and Joseph and Jesus and donkeys,
Angels and Shepherds and sheep and wise men,
but do you recall the oldest members of them all?
Simeon and Anna at the temple
had waited very long for the Messiah...
I'm gonna stop there because I'm mostly revealing how punchy I am as we count down to Christmas Eve services but you get the idea. We have these two fantastic characters that we talk about almost every year. A Grandfather and Grandmother type figure sometimes to us but what were they really like? I've read they represent the poor, the devout, the patient ones, wanting and longing. In the story, they are the first to recognize Jesus without angelic or celestial help.
I'm reminded of the verse from John 20, "Blessed are those who believe and have not seen." Although Simeon and Anna have "seen" the Messiah, they recognize him on their own. In Luke's gospel, the Holy Spirit has not yet come; they don't have the benefit like we do of having the indwelling of God yet. Their recognition comes from waiting and watching. Waiting and watching.
Even after the baby is born, we have yet another message about waiting and watching. Longing for peace, believing it will come. Hoping for salvation, trusting in God's mercy.
I assume there were others at the temple that day. Did Jesus and his family go unnoticed by others who longed for peace? Did this Messiah go unrecognized by others who hoped for salvation? And when we say Come Lord Jesus, are we waiting but not watching? Does Jesus and his proverbial family go unnoticed by us? Does the Messiah come and go without recognition on our watch?
Unlike the other figures in the creche, Simeon and Anna didn't get an angelic announcement nor did they receive celestial navigation. They had their heart and their mind and their faith and their eyes - just like us.
Read this week's text, Luke 1:39-56 here.
My soul magnifies.
What is it that my soul magnifies? And what exactly is my soul? I learned most of what I understand about the soul by Thomas Moore in his book The Care of the Soul. He begins by saying "the great malady of the 20th century... is the loss of soul. When soul is neglected, it doesn't just go away; it apears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning."
As far as defining the soul. Moore says and I agree, souls prefer to imagine rather than define. Our soul is tied to things rather than defined by things. Our souls are tied to good friends, good food, meaningful conversation, honesty, trust, love, joy. And when our souls become untethered, we complain of "emptiness, meaninglessness, vague depression, disillusionment about marriage and family, a loss of values, a yearning for personal fulfillment and a hunger for spirituality." Sound familiar?
As a pastor, I hear complaints of things like this all the time. And we, me included, want to look at each of these feelings individually; we want to fix each of them systematically. And as a pastor, I remind myself all the time to dive for something deeper. Don't go after the presenting complaint. Dive deeper, find the soul, magnify the state of the soul.
Mary says my soul magnifies. My Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
This right here is why this woman is so beloved. If we were to magnify my soul, I imagine that we might here is magnifying the problems before us as a society, or my soul might magnify the last unanswered problem I encountered. But is that really my soul - or are they the presenting complaints of the day? How do I dive deeper to find what it is that my soul might magnify?
How on this 4th Sunday of Advent, when there are three shopping days left until Christmas, when we need to go grocery shopping and make up the guest rooms and write sermons and make phone calls and do the laundry, how can we dive deep enough to find our soul? And how can we stay with her along enough to magnify what she might say or do?
Might I suggest a good long silence this Sunday when you are worshiping with your safe community? Might I suggest a longer than usual pause - to find stillness, to find the center of our being, to feel the spacer that is at our core. And linger there. Linger. Linger. Breathe into it, fill it with the gift of life, say hello to your soul. And then, magnify.
I smile just thinking what we might find there.
Read the text from Isaiah 61 here.
There is a lot of mourning going on in our world today. And the Spirit of the Lord is upon us to provide for those who mourn. To bring a garland instead of ashes, to anoint with oil to soothe mourning, to offer praise that lifts the heaviness." The Spirit of the Lord is upon us.
The Spirit of the Lord was upon the prophet and then Jesus claimed the same Spirit of the Lord to be upon him and we believe we have been given this same Spirit of the Lord, the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. She blew through the halls of the waiting disciples at Pentecost. She transformed their communication to strangers. And she continues to sustain us today as the Body of Christ in the world. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us to comfort all who mourn. There is a lot of mourning going on in our world today.
The British journalist killed in Yemen.
The Somali security personnel killed by a car bomb meant for a United Nations convoy
The 36 innocent workers executed in Kenya
The Arab-Jewish school that was set on fire
Hospitals and Funerals and Illness and Divorce and the list goes on. There is a lot of mourning going on in our world. The one thing that remains a constant in comforting those who mourn is listening. Listening to stories. Listening to tears. Listening to silence together. The main ingredient in comfort is presence. Our presence amidst grief, brokenness, hurt, tears, fear, or mistrust is the balm for those who mourn. Our presence is what hosts the Spirit of the Lord. Our presence is what enacts the Body of Christ. Our presence is what God had in mind when sending Jesus into the world. Our presence has become God's presence through the work and power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us.
This week's reading - Isaiah 40:1-11
I've only seen the desert of the western United States. In college, I took a trip to the national parks. I remember my first sight of the Rocky mountains, they just seemed to appear on the road. They seemed so close also - and in between me and the mountains were all of these odd looking dots that I was told were brush. Turns out the mountains were a good eight hours away with miles and miles of desert between us. And on the other side was more brush, more desert.
If we read this text to say that the great Rocky mountains are to be made low, the lowlands lifted up and the path made straight, what would we say then? Would we have an inkling of how something that impossible could ever happen. I'll be honest, the idea is so unrealistic that it seems silly.
And yet the prophet speaks hope to this silly idea. He seems delusional. And John the Baptist in the Mark text doesn't seem any more sane. The task is too big. The cynicism too grand. The bitterness beyond repair.
The more sober among us understand that our mountains are too big. The terrain is too dry. The workers too few. The vision is unrealistic. Justice in not attainable this side of heaven.
And yet the call to justice remains - prepare a way in the desert. Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.
Now? Now is when we must heed this call to prepare a way. Now, in the current political climate? There is no way our government can level the playing field and work together.
Now? The kingdom of God is at hand now? There is no way the kingdom of God is at hand in the middle east right now. There is no way through that. Not now. And probably not ever.
Now? The kingdom of God is hand now? Have you seen the bitterness in our families? Have you seen the level of deep seeded animosity?
And can we really believe that making a way, working on justice will ever really do anything to those who rely on food stamps? The system is too large. The desert too wide to ever make the tumultuous life of poverty smoothed out in any way.
The market is too unstable. Those in power abuse it and those without will remain without it. The systems of our world do not make for a good home for the kingdom of God. If we plant the kingdom of God, I'm not sure it will grow here.
But that's the thing, the kingdom of God has already been planted. If we don't it growing, we can do something about it. It's planted in us, the people of God. It's on us to figure out how to grow life in the desert. It's on us to tend to the seeds and the plants even if they are odd looking brush that goes on for miles. It's on us to pull out the roots that are keeping other roots from growing. It's on us to clear out the rocks and care tenderly for the life that we see.
It's on us to push aside the cynicism and despair, the hopelessness and apathy to make way for the kingdom of God here in the desert.
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