Thursday, March 7, 2019

After Ash Wednesday (A Letter to Pastors)

Hey, Pastor Friends,

I've been thinking about you lately. 

You know how you have these visions in your mind of how the church will transform your community?  The visions that God placed there to keep you going each day?  The visions that God has every intention of bringing about, even if it is infuriatingly slowly?

You are doing it, pastor. You are doing it.

I know that there are times that you wish you could be one of the pastors at those churches that always seem to be so successful.  The ones where they can turn out dozens, or even hundreds of people for an evening worship in Lent.  The ones where volunteers appear to be in abundance and money seems to be no problem.  I know.

I know there are times that it seems like you must be doing something wrong because the people just aren't interested in the work.  They think the vision God has given them is beautiful, but their lives are just too overwhelming for them to make it happen.  I know you think you should fix that, and you don't know how.  You aren't doing anything wrong.

It is so easy to believe the lie that pastors bear the burden of making a church successful.  But we don't, friends, we don't.

You and I both know who does.  Only God.  God bears that burden for us. 

So this Lent, I have something for you to consider giving up.  Even if you aren't in the kind of tradition that likes the idea of 'giving up' stuff.   Try it with me.

Let's try giving up the burden of success.  Let's try laying it at the feet of the cross.  Let's try letting God take the wheel.

I know, cheesy, right?  But here's something else I know.  I know I want to fix it for my church.  I want to make things happen.  I want a magic wand, who doesn't?  I want to be the supreme ruler of the unvierse that can take control and drive that church into the perfect vision of money, members and mission.  But I also know I can't.  (And yes, I know it would be blasphemy if I thought I could).

Only God can.

So let's try giving up the burden of being God.  Let's give up the responsibility of the so-called success or failure of the church.  Let's be free in the fact that God is moving, God is loving, God is inspiring, and will continue to move, love and inspire God's people until the end of time. 

Even if this church can't find a way to listen.  Even if this church can't find a way to redefine success as following Jesus, and keeps getting caught in the trap of money, members and the perfect mission project. 

Because you know it already.  I do too.  I just keep forgetting.  Just as if I am one of God's people!  Those forgetful people of God who can't for the life of them remember what God is trying to do.  Those wandering arameans that keep going in circles looking for butts and dollars, forgetting what God has sent them for.

God isn't trying to make your church grow into financial stability.  God is gathering together a people who love God and can use that love to witness to the rest of the world the power in that love.

God is doing that.  And you are a part of it.  You are a Major Part of it because you are loving God's people.  Just simply because you are living with them, being in relationship with them.  Your very presence is God's way of reminding them what love looks like, even when you do it imperfectly!

So take heart, friend. 

You are doing it, pastor. You are doing it.

You are loving them. And remembering with them.  And showing them the vision God put in your head of how beautiful it is when we preach the Good News of God's love!  How beautiful that community will be one day when God calls us all together.  How beautiful it will be when they get to participate in that, whether it is in this church building or in a neighbor's home or even if they worship right there out on the street, singing God's praises, binding one another's wounds and sharing our lives. 

You are doing it, Pastor.  You are doing just what you are called to do. 

Do not be afraid.  Rest.  Let it go.  Lay the burden of "success" at the foot of the cross.

Rest in the knowledge that God has the wheel, and your little (or big) church might be dying, the ashes are already marked on our faces, heck, the whole thing might burn to the ground, but God's kingdom has already overcome death.  And the rising will come.  Is coming. Has come.

God bless you, friend.
God bless your pastoring.

In Christ's Love,

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Advent Apocalyse

Jeremiah 1:4-10; 7:1-11

Grace to you and Peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

This week I sang that song to Renate Lowy, a member of this congregation who is struggling with dementia.  She lives in a nursing home and only speaks to me in German.  I do not speak German.  But I can sing it.  And so I did.  I sang Silent Night to her, and she closed her eyes, and quietly, peacefully listened to the music in her childhood language.

Renate is not going to get better.  She is God’s child, she is beloved.  And she is trapped inside her own mind.  It is a situation many of us dread. Some might call Renate’s situation hopeless.  Some might be tempted to abandon her to the care of paid professionals.  She doesn’t know who I am, she may not even recognize her children any more.  She lives in the darkness of disease.

Darkness is all around.  This is the time in our year, the rhythm of our lives as a church that we have descended into darkness.  The days are shorter, the light eludes us.  Our awareness of darkness all around is heightened, we see what is happening in Jerusalem and on our border and for the people in Yemen and war about to break out around the globe.

In the midst of this darkness, we find ourselves in the book of Habakkuk today.  A book I am guessing most of you have never heard of.  We are in the midst of our so-called “minor” prophets… prophets who are called by God to speak into the darkness.  Prophets name the darkness, giving voice to the deep chasm between us and God.  Putting words to the distance in our relationship to God.  To our longing for spiritual vitality, to the longing we may not even recognize yet as longing.  Prophets speak into darkness…into that deep darkness, where all might seem lost, Habakkuk points to the hope… he delivers the message that God will bring justice and a whole different kind of world than what we are living in now. God will bring us what we long for.

In Habakkuk’s world we find ourselves in a cinematic scene of destruction and despair.  This is the Exile.  The lives of the people in Habakkuk’s world have been turned upside down and torn apart.  We stand with him at the end of an Armageddon movie, next to the man with his arms raised to the sky asking God, “Why?” We find ourselves in the flashing darkness of explosions and separation.  Children torn from their parents arms.  Tear gas spraying.  Hospitals incapacitated.  Starvation on the brink. Wars brewing.

In the midst of this, scene, there stands a man.  Lamenting.  Despairing.  And Defiant.  Demanding of God for help, for answers, for intervention, for hope.   

This is how we enter Advent.

We stand with that man.  The man of lament, despair, defiance.

You and Me.  We are standing in the midst of that apocalypse, that end of everything, and we raise our hands to God above. 

In the midst of this scene, I stand behind this table of bread and wine and offer it to you. 
In the midst of this scene, you ask “Where is God?”

In the midst of this, we stand together.  Stand defiantly in hope, in anticipation, with all expectation that the God we know shows up.  That the God we know never abandons those who are in darkness.  The God we know is present where we are overwhelmed.  The God we know comes to feed the hungry with his very own body! 

This Advent we stand in witness in this church as a light in the darkness.  We stand in the dark and cold with scene those who need coats and visit Holy Trinity for the coat closet.  We stand in the dark and cold with those who need clothes and seek a new place for Bethlehem’s closet.  We stand in the darkest days of hunger and no heat and no rent and not enough food in the fridge and anyone who shows up at St. Vincent de Paul and we say in defiance… there IS ENOUGH.  We stand with the guests at St. Luke’s who have no homes and say in defiance…there IS ENOUGH.  We stand with the patients at Augusta Victoria hospital in East Jerusalem and say in defiance…there IS ENOUGH. We stand with the children in Yemen and on the border and around the world and say in defiance… there IS ENOUGH.

For the darkness is full of lies.  Lies about resources.  Lies about who we are.  Lies about the threat of the stranger. 

But we know the truth.  We know there IS ENOUGH.  We know that God shows up in the darkness.  We know that God gives richly.  We know that God gives everything to us, even his very body to feed us! For the darkness has an insatiable hunger, it devours “widows, orphans and strangers” and it is coming for us.  But we stand in defiance and say… there IS ENOUGH.  There is enough to clothe the naked.  There is enough to shelter the homeless.  There is enough to feed the hungry.  There IS ENOUGH for us all.

We join Habakkuk first in lament, and then in defiance of the darkness.  For this is the call on our lives that Habakkuk reveals.  To live a life of faith.  This is living an Advent faith, our time of longing.  Longing for what God will do, living the life God has promised, defiantly claiming the hope that God gives us in the midst of darkness. 

Renate’s daughter, Barbara, visits Renate every day, twice a day, in fact, to feed her.  Renate eats best for Barbara, standing by her chair, lovingly suggesting this food and that. Barbara knows this will not take away the pain of Renate’s entrapment.  It will not take away the pain for Renate or for Barbara.  But Barbara, by the grace of God, is being a witness to Renate’s pain, and is being with her in it in the best way she knows how.  This is the life of faith.  By lovingly feeding her.  Barbara gives her the bread of life.  Food for the hungry. Barbara stands with her.  I sang with her – representing you.  We stand and sing together, simply as a witness to the love of God, in defiance of the disease.  In defiance of the darkness we stand where we know God is already, in faith and hope for Renate’s future wholeness with God.  We won’t get to see it in this life, and yet we witness to the defiant hope of it, together.

It is in this reality.  In seeing the pain and struggle of the world, the unfairness and injustice of it all and still holding tightly to the truth that God has promised us more than this.  God is in this pain and is working to transform it. And God uses us, God’s most amazing and flawed creation, in God’s work of transformation.  Starting with us standing, in defiance of the darkness, feeding in defiance of the hunger, and in so doing…proclaiming the truth of God’s presence, movement and power. 

So let us stand and sing today.  For this is our defiant witness.  Whether we sing quietly in the halls of a nursing home or shout our song in the halls of justice.  This is the faith we live by. That, though we live in a mess of a world, this pain and destruction of our own making…it is God who will transform it. 


Will you sing with me?  We can sing in English this time.  Hymn 723 in your Red Hymnal, Canticle of the Turning:
My heart will sing of the day you bring, let the fires of your justice burn.  
Wipe away all tears for the dawn draws near and the world is about to turn. 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

David's Repentance

2 Samuel 11:1-5, 26-27; 12:1-9

Grace to you and Peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Let’s just ignore this story and talk about Stewardship. 
This might be the one week when I am tempted to preach about anything that is NOT scripture. 
I mean, the questions this texts poses are so painful that it would be easier to lay out all my own personal financial history and practices and foibles and successes with money over the last 20 years than to deal with God has put in front of us today.
But I guess that’s not what you came here for.  Nor is it what I am called to do.
This is a stewardship text – it’s a case study of poor stewardship of David in how he uses his power and resources.
So… it is time for me to point out to you the good news and the bad news of this text.  The liberating gospel and the convicting law. 
Let’s start with Bathsheba:
What do you think she thought and felt when King David’s servant showed up at her door?
I have a message for you!  King David requests your presence at his home.  Now.
Did she feel excited? Honored? Curious? Worried?  Sick to her stomache? Did she know why she was being summoned there?  D
How do you think she felt when she was in King David’s presence? 
Do you think he tried to seduce her?  Was she ready to leap into his arms, having been alone a long time with her husband at war?
Did she wonder why the king was in town?  Wasn’t there a battle being fought?  Was she a bit offended that her king would be summoning women – her – while her husband fought on the battlefield?
Did she have any time to think?  Was she left alone in a room – maybe a bedroom – and wonder what on earth the king wanted with her?  Or did she know.  Did she know what was coming next?  Whether she wanted it to or not.
What was running through her mind when she realized she was pregnant?
Did she fear for her own life? 
Did she want to stop her pregnancy? 
Was she, being a lawful Hebrew (we know this because she was following the purity law), trying to find some honorable way out when she told the king?  Was she appealing to his mercy, knowing her pregnancy could lawfully result in her stoning? (Not the man’s, mind you, just hers).
How did she feel when she realized her husband had come home, but had slept outside rather than stay in their bed?
What did she think when the message came he had died? 
Did she know it was coming? 
Did she know there was no other way out for her?  Did she wish she had died in his place?
In what kind of situation did she find herself, once in David’s household? 
Was she isolated?  Did the other wives accept her?
Was she his favored wife?  Was she an embarrassment to him?
We won’t know.  The story doesn’t tell us. 
The story expects us to read it, over and over and over again, to glean what we can about who God is. 
And what do we learn about how little we know of Bathsheba’s thoughts, feelings and voice?
We know God is with her.
But that sure is small comfort when the child she bears dies.  Even if she was in the torturous position of having been raped and being forced to carry a child that was, through no fault of it’s own, a baby she would struggle to care for with the full love she would want to care for any child. Even this child.
We know God is with that baby too. Even though that baby dies at God’s very hand, as the story says.
Because this story is not about the baby or Bathsheba… obviously.
This story is about David. 
Why didn’t David go out to that battle? He was a great warrior with many successes under his belt. 
What possessed David when he saw a woman to believe he could just take her?  From another spouse at that!  Had his power gone to his head?  Did he believe he deserved everything he wanted at this point in his life?
How could David possibly forget God’s law when David was the one who was chosen by God to be God’s chosen king?  The one through whom God promised to fulfill God’s covenant.  Once again.
Why did David’s righteous anger take so long to come forth… how did he act so blindly?  So selfishly?  So brutally, at least to Uriah, without a shred of remorse, it appears… until Nathan told him a story?
And then Nathan.
This story isn’t really about him either.  But he plays the role of God’s mouthpiece. 
That sweet story, that sweet little lamb, the object of one man’s affection, taken, eaten, devoured really… by another man. 
And Nathan gets to do what I want to do in the story… what likely any woman reading this, and probably all the men too, want to say to David. 
You Are The Man.
You are the man who devoured the lamb.
You are the man who ignored God’s law.
You are the man who stole another man’s wife, using your power and privilege to damage her with unimaginable trauma and loss of her own body, her offspring, her spouse, her life.
You are the man who killed, so that you could have what you wanted. 
That is the law of this story—the driving conviction God makes of David and of anyone who uses their power and resources to abuse others.  And the law does just what the law is supposed to do—it brings about a change in David.
And David repents.
It’s almost anticlimactic.  There is no raging David at the end of this story defending his actions and his right to take what he wants.
David repents.
And the baby dies.
And God sticks with David.  I wouldn’t.    
But God uses even the scum of the earth if that is what God has to work with.
Just imagine what God has in store to do with you.
And me.  And all those with me who would have preferred to see God abandon David.  
But that is not our God. 
This is the good news – the gospel that liberates us… while we might choose to stay in a place of judgement and condemnation of David; God moves the instant David repents.
Our God demands repentance.  And our God accepts repentance. 
Our God loves us beyond and through absolutely anything we do to each other. 
And God demands we do better.
And God gives us the power to transform.
Because it wasn’t by his own power David repented.  It was only by the power of the Holy Spirit… leading him, guiding him, insisting that he grow beyond this terrible, unredeemable action.  Because while the action is absolutely unredeemable, the man is a different story.
This story. 
This sacred, holy story.  Of a man who repents, at God’s prompting.
And I wonder over what must have happened between him and Bathsheba after this … that his repentance includes a transformation in his relationship with Bathsheba.  That she is no longer his object, but a human with whom he relates, hopefully, even loves.  Those details are not exactly in the story either.
But that must be true.  For it is through these two people that Solomon is born.  And down the troubled line of this family that Jesus comes to us.
Jesus.  God in flesh who came to redeem the David’s and the Bathsheba’s of the world.
And you and me.
Jesus who left this world to hand it over to the Spirit.  The spirit that gifts us with so many redeemable qualities.  Aspects of ourselves that God would love to use, and does, often in spite of us, but maybe we will want to participate.  Hey, maybe you even want to come to the spiritual gifts inventory today and learn more about what God might be working in you right now.
The God who made you gifted, shows you how to love and redeems you from everything, is here, with us, breathing his Spirit right here in our midst. May you feel God’s outpouring love today.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

People with a Purpose

Joshua 24:1-15

Grace to you and Peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

All the people are gathered there at Shechem, the holy mountain, the leaders, the elders, and all the people.  They are gathered there to present themselves to God.  Make and offering.  Worship, Thank God for bringing them to this point in their story.  Gathered much like we are gathered here today.  Gathered as People with a Purpose by God, for God, with God.  Understanding ourselves as part of God’s Sacred Story.  God’s holy People.

·        God started this church June 1, 1984 by gathering us together in the conference room at Crabapple’s restaurant…making us into the Body of Christ right here in Sturbridge!

·        On March 3, 1985, God led sixty-six persons to commit to the Membership Charter of Bethlehem Lutheran Church. The charter reads, in part:

We come together as a community that publicly and joyfully

confesses the reality of Jesus the Christ.

We willfully and gladly accept the responsibility that such public announcement carries and commit ourselves to the task of its fulfillment.

…We believe that Bethlehem Lutheran Church shall go forth

actively engaged in this mighty task empowered by the Holy Spirit

in this place and all places, at this time and at all times.

·        From the beginning, God provided gifts to birth this congregation.  God gave us a cross, hymnals and a recorded musical accompaniment through Zion Lutheran in Oxford.

·        God used the various expressions of the Lutheran church to pay for our worship resources, and to care for the needs of our mission developers and pastors and made it possible to apply for a charter as a congregation in June 1985.

·        God grew the small group quickly to 35 or more and God provided us with a place to worship at a diorama called “Bethlehem in Sturbridge” owned by George Duqette.  From here the name Bethlehem Lutheran Church was adopted.  God provided other locations too as we found our way, a small church in Brimfield, Kitty Cline’s "Barn."

·          In 1993 God gave us a house on Simpson St!  This became the parsonage and church offices.

·        God gave us incredible ecumenical relationships!  For the first 15 years, many congregations in the area hosted us for our annual meetings and other events.

·        In 1994 God inspired our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters to walk alongside us in covenant - the first ever covenant between a Catholic Church and a Lutheran Church in New England, signed by Father Donald Espinosa and Pastor Mary Barnes (Iverson).  God gave us a worshipping home in their historic building for 12 years while we planned our own ministry outpost – and God gave us ministry to do together, most significantly the Southbridge Interfaith Hospitality Network (SIHN) – where we began providing hospitality to our brothers and sisters in need of homes.

·        In 1994 God used Klaus Tittel to craft the cross behind me out of the old pews from Saint Anne's.  It testifies to us that we would not be here with the Cross of Christ – without God’s work to partner us with St. Anne’s and so many other congregations – without God’s inspiration of us towards sharing generously for God’s work here at 345 Main Street!

·        Through ups and downs and twists and turns of changing pastors, and financial challenges, God built this building.  Right here.

·        God used us to build this building – and our beloved family members: Bob Piehl, Kitty Cline, Wolf Fuchs, Bill MacDonald, Paul Merritt, Mike Shocik.

·        God pushed us to seek wisdom and understanding of our call here.  God challenged us to a life in service to him and a building in service to him.  With each challenge we have encountered, we became stronger in our faith.

·        In 2002 we dedicated this building and re-dedicated ourselves and all our work to God’s purposes.

·        God used this building to serve SIHN families.

·        God used our hands to cook food for SIHN and for our community.

·        God used our resources to bring about Grace House, a local shelter.  And God worked, even when Grace House struggled, to inspire in us a love for those who do not have homes.

·        In 2012 God called us into a new mission identity. God decided to use our fundraising efforts and turn them into ministry providing affordable clothes.

·        God used Saint John Paul II Parish and their flea market to make clothing ministry happen, through us!  God used the TJX Corporation to turn our clothing sale tables into Bethlehem’s Closet.

·        God used US to clothe the naked.

·        God inspired us to a new Mission: to Welcome all through the light of Christ by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and being a place of shelter.

·        In 2015-16 God used Karen Bodamer and a partnership with Holy Trinity Episcopal church to plant a community garden to grow our mission!

·        God has inspired this church.  God has given this congregation the desire, the longing, to work together in ministry for the good of all.  Just a few more of the people God used are Irene Lee, Barbara Jensen and Melany Gronski, to whom God gave the love for children and for forming their faith.  And they did it mightily!

o   Faith Formation at every age.

·        God gave this congregation Carol DeBeradinis, a faithful servant in leading music for 14 years, voluntarily.

·        God gave this congregation Ginger Piehl, a sacrificial servant in administration for 12+ years, voluntarily.

·        God gave this congregation many other wonderful musicians, faith formers, leaders, stewards and pastors.  If you will stay for several hours, I will be happy to name many of them and their specific gifts for you.

·        God gave this congregation and place, a calling, a passion, a love for Christ… God has given this congregation Everything we have!  Every. Single. Thing.

·        And God continues to give, and will give us a renewed mission this day.  A renewed covenant, just as God did with the people at Joshua’s hand.

Now, if we are faithful to Joshua, we have reviewed this history.  We understand that our gifts and resources are entirely a gift of God.  And not just that.  God give us all these things FOR A PURPOSE.

God gives us all these astounding blessings so that we might bless the world.  So that we might life as People with a Purpose, with transformed hearts and minds, conformed to God’s will and God’s ways.

And so, Joshua the prophet asks us the age-old question.  It resounds from the valleys and hills of our lives and our story.  It bounces off our blessings and multiplies with echos across all our experience.

Who will you serve?

Choose this day.

“Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Choose, says Joshua.

And we have a major advantage over Joshua.  We already know that we have already been saved.  While Joshua posed an ultimatum, we look at this scripture with our Christ-lenses on and know… Oh… God is going to save them.  God already has saved them.  And God will save them again and again and again.

And you.  And me.  God has saved us.

And we are part of this story.

We are in this story.

We ARE these people with a purpose.

For we too have been blessed, just like them.

We too are God’s beloved who have been chosen to bless the world.

We too are bound up in this community of people – the community that attributes absolutely every good thing to God.  The community who lives differently from everyone around us.  We are a covenanting today to build a community that serves the Lord.

This is the covenant we live under: God will save us.  And we will serve God’s purposes.

There is no half-hearted, oh, that’s such a nice story – and I can be a nice person sometimes so sure, I’ll put my name on the list… No.

You have to give up those other gods.  There is no worshipping the almighty dollar or political power or at the altar of busy-ness if you commit to God.

This covenant is about showing up.  It is about doing the work. The work God has for us to do right here and right now.

The work of serving at Bethlehem’s Closet, or fully utilizing our community gardens.  The work of engaging with the community, intentionally building relationships  - for we must know one another to know what kind of powerful Work God is up to among us!  The work of showing up at newcomer dinners to welcome and to be welcomed.  The work of showing up to bless your animals, like Victor and Aly did last week, so that the community folks that show up will see there is a church here that cares for them and their lives!  The work of Loving our Neighbor!

So, will you join Joshua?

I will. 

For me, and my family, we will serve the Lord.

Not perfectly, but we will give ourselves over for God to use.  Just like the saints at Bethlehem have for 38 years.  Just like the saints of the church have for 2000 years.  Just like the Hebrew people have for millennia.

Come, discover your spiritual gifts today.  And pray this week about how God is right here, ready to use you, your gifts, and all your resources to bless the world.


Sunday, October 7, 2018

Covenant & Commandments

Exodus 19:3-7, 20:1-17

Grace to you and Peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Since September 9th we have begun at the beginning, hearing the good news (and the bad) of our genesis as God’s people: God’s beautiful creation, and recreation in the flood, God’s promises to us that we are People with a Purpose, God’s intention to use US to bless the world.  Then last week we moved into our family story of exodus – the sacred story of how God goes about saving us from the most vile, the most unholy, the most wretched of evil found on earth… using even everything God has: creativity, creation itself, US, including our good faith effort and our mistakes, and even the very Evil Itself!  All this God uses to bring about Our redemption, our salvation, just like God did when God liberated us from the evil of slavery and tyranny in Egypt. 
Now, this week, we take a step back to view the big picture and notice what God is up to.  How God has consistently moved to partner with us as humanity for the blessing of the world.  This partnership is called God’s Covenant with us.  Now, covenants were, and are, things that humans do – we partner with each other in marriage, between congregations, like Bethlehem and New Hope or Bethlehem and St. Anne’s – and in the historical period of the Exodus, there were covenants between nations.  Agreements.  Deals.  Where one nation agreed to do something for the other nation and would get something in return.  We still do this today, we just don’t usually call them covenants. 
The word Covenant brings with it a holy connotation.  A sense of solemnity and purpose.  Even calling.  When we enter into a covenant it is intended to be a trust, like between pastor and people.  I don’t get to serve you unless we have some agreements, but calling it a “deal” is too crass for most of us.  This agreement of serving alongside one another is a holy endeavor, one where we expect God to guide us and weave us together, a bit like the most common and possibly the most holy of human covenants, Marriage. 
So as we reflect upon Covenant and what it means for us, and what God is up to bothering with making covenants with humans, we are going to watch a 5 minute video from The Bible Project.  …watch with me…
The Sacred Story tells us that this broken partnership is why we are stuck in a world of corruption and injustice and pain.  We have dropped our end of the Bargain.  But God… God didn’t need us to begin with. Just like the covenant with Noah, God has every intention of fulfilling her/his end of the Covenant whether we fulfill our end or not.  You saw it in the video: God fulfills the covenant, regardless of what we do. 
Now, don’t hear me wrong.  If we do partner with God…if we stop refusing to enter into God’s ways and God’s life.  WOW.  That’s where the life IS that we want to live!  Suddenly the gift of eternal life is something we live Right Now, not just wait for some future day… it is true… that the corruption and pain of the world is something we can Endure together.  The broken world is one where we still see hope, because we see what God is up to!  We see where New Life is happening, we Are the Resurrection People!  In God’s covenant, we are given each other, we are made into the Body of Christ, we are a community that stands for justice and peace, for healing and wholeness.  And we are never, ever alone.
So when you reflect on the Ten Commandments, when you hear someone arguing about whether they should be posted in public or whether they are the foundation of our US justice system or our expectation of ethics.  I invite you to reflect on what the Ten Commandments are really about.  These commandments are the framework for our side of the agreement with God.  God will save us.  Unconditionally.  And if we want to participate… here is how we do it. 
These commandments are the cornerstone of God’s offering to us.  These ten laws are a vehicle.  They help us to see the Life God gives.  The Life of Freedom from slavery and oppression and injustice.  These Ten Commandments re-present the entire covenant work that God is doing, has done and promises to continue forever and ever.  God is using these commandments as a sign of the Covenant, the covenant that gives us the gift of Life. 
And not just us… God gives the gift of Life to his covenant family… for the whole world.  Today we hear that in our piece of the Sacred Story for today…
You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.
Noah heard it, Abraham heard it, Now the whole Family hears it… God’s will is for the world to be saved from itself.  God’s way is for the world to be blessed by humans God has chosen.  And it turns out, we are those humans.  We are blessed to be a blessing, chosen to be a priestly nation (that is, a mediator between God and creation), we are People with a Purpose. 
[So now, you may be wondering… how do we do that? And it comes down to you.  To each one of us!  We participate as the Body of Christ together.  Our purpose is to bless others with the tools God has given us!  Individually and as a congregation. 
Over the next two weeks, Ellie Kraner and Melany Gronski will be helping us all to participate in a gifts assessment.  The council is inviting us to prayerfully consider what tools God has given us for work in God’s kingdom – for our work to bless the world.  Please mark your calendars to stay after worship either on the 14th or the 21st.  We are trusting the Spirit to move you and hoping you will respond with 100% participation.  If you can prioritize being here one of these two days, you will take an assessment of your spiritual gifts, and then talk about how to use these gifts for God’s purposes to bless the world. ]
Let us pray…
Purposeful God,  You have shaped this congregation with gifts that are designed to serve your purposes in the world.  You have made US into People with a Purpose!  And I find this astounding!  God, continue to work on us and in us.  Bring us together the next three Sundays as we pray together, listening for your voice in the gifts you have given us and in how you would have us use them.  Move us to act on your will and to live in your ways.  We are so grateful for this community and for the new life you have given us!  Let us not waste or reject it, but show our love for you and your love for our neighbors. 
Thank you, Lord.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Peter's Story

John 21:15-19
Listen Here.

We heard in acts how Peter is the rock, the Petra, the lead witness to what Jesus has done for us.  This week, As I imagined Peter's encounter with Jesus on that beach…I began to hear this story from his perspective…[Read the rest as the character of Peter].

Three times I had denied him.  Three times.
I could not let it go.  I will never forget what it felt like to be warming my hands by the fire and feel my insides go ice cold.  Three times.
There we were, waiting to know his fate.  Confused.  He clearly did not want us to fight.  And now that we were in Pilates court, surrounded by guards, that would have been foolish in every way.  We would have had 12 dead men, not just one.
By that fire the girl asked me.  The one who was the servant of the high priest.  Surely, she had seen me before, she had heard the conversations of the religious authorities.  Surely she had heard the list of our names more than once.  The one who were being watched.  Being followed, lest we be ready to take up arms to fight.  That’s what they were afraid of.
Or something.
That we would do something to disturb the Pax Romana that the authorities worked so hard to keep in place.  They say they didn’t want another slaughter of the innocents, but there they were, ready to slaughter an innocent man.  A man who is God in flesh among us.  Our Savior.
They had no idea what they were doing.
And neither did I.
What was I supposed to do?  I stood by that fire, awaiting his fate.  I felt so completely helpless and hopeless.  What would happen?  He had said he would go away… go to the father.  That he would come back to us.  That he would send the holy spirit… that he did all this on behalf of the Father… on his authority, by the Father’s will.
Is this what the Father’s authority would finally look like… death?
He said that the ruler of this world would come… and come that powerful ruler did.  The world’s power was heavy in that place, around that fire.
And what were we supposed to do, his faithful followers.  We had listened, we had strived to learn.  We had seen his power, felt it brush by when we baptized, when we gathered that abundant bread, when we felt his hand on our feet.
“Love one another, Love one another, this is my new commandment for you, love one another,” he had said.  That night before.  Around that table.  And here I was, unable to love Jesus, unable to even admit I knew him, paralyzed by fear.  Paralyzed by the earthly rulers power – so palpable in the night, in the crowd, in the courts, near that fire.
I couldn’t shake the memory of that night.
And then I found myself standing around another fire.
Jesus had shown up again – a third time after he was raised from the dead.  The three times I denied him were still haunting me.  I longed to change the past.
What was I supposed to do?  I stood by that fire, awaiting my fate.  I felt so completely helpless and hopeless.  What would happen? 
Three times he asked me, Do you love me?
And three times, I answered.
It was strange at first, I didn’t really understand what was going on.  You know how sometimes you don’t put together the meaning of things until you step back and reflect on them?  It dawned on my later, much like he dawned on us with the Sun – shining on that beach like a beacon of hope for my weary spirit.
Do I love Jesus?  Of course! Of Course!  Of Course!  Lord, You know that I love you!
And yet it wasn’t even just about my love.  It wasn’t just about loving one another in the sense of him and me and the disciples around that table.  It wasn’t just about being a caring community for one another… In that moment he connected the dots.
Feed my sheep.
Each time I said I loved him.  He didn’t challenge me.  Except it felt like a challenge, to just be asked three times.  Standing around that fire that reminded me of that night.  Only by asking three time did he remind me of my three denials.  He reminded me what loving him is all about.
Feed my sheep.
And it all came flooding back…
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes[a] it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
He is the good shepherd.
He has sheep I don’t even know about yet.
He wants me to feed them.
With his promises.
His Word.
His Truth.
He is the Good shepherd.  He is the bread of life.  He is the light of the world.  He IS.
The one who was and is and is to come.
The one who shows us what it is to love, and does not ask us, “Are you doing enough?” or “What are you doing?”  No.  He asks, “Do you love me?”
As I stood by that fire for the second time, Jesus looked at me and did not seek out my report card. He sought out my heart. My desire to love Jesus and his way. My desire to love and be loved.  He sought out that place in me that God seeks to fill with pure, absolute, unconditional love.
For that’s all it means to love Jesus, to feed his sheep.  To look into the face of another sheep, another neighbor, any neighbor, even the neighbor who hates you, and look at them with the unrepentant, forgiving, absolute love of God.
There he was.  Standing next to me by that fire, proclaiming one more time that even my messed up denial was nothing to his claim on me.
“Feed my sheep,” he said,
“Follow me.”

P: Alleluia! Christ is Risen!  C: He is risen Indeed! Alleluia!