Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Brighter the Light...The darker the night? Mathew 2:13-23

        Here we are in the Midst of Christmas and it seems to be all love and light. We have had bon fires, and sweets and carol sings and Gift exchanges and
        we have retold and told again the wonderful story of the Birth of our savior … (sigh) it is all so wonderful.
        Do we even notice that the whole story involves intrigue and suspicion besides awe and wonder? I mean we have Mary, who is engaged to Joseph turns out
        to be pregnant in Mathew’s version, and he decides to divorce her quietly but an angel appears in a dream telling to him not to fear but Marry Mary. In
        Marks gospel there is no mention of the Birth of Christ it jumps right into the ministry of John.
        Luke’s Gospel start with the Angel to Zachariah foretelling of Johns birth, Zachariah asks a legitimate question …How is this Possible , he gets struck
        dumb! Then Gabriel heads of to Nazareth and visits Mary after Mary hears that she will be pregnant she rushes of to see her cousin then when she gets
        home Joseph and her must leave for Jerusalem because of a census here she and Joseph are married and there is no speaking of Josephs doubt. But this is
        where she has a simple Birth but out in the fields angels appear to shepherds terrifying them. Luke is also very concerned with Jesus fulfilling the
        law and so he speaks of the naming on the 8th day along with the circumcision and then, forty days after the birth, Joseph and Mary go to
        the temple for a purification ritual.
        John’s gospel offers a sacred poem. In the beginning was the word…in the word was life and that life was humanities light-
        A light that shines in the darkness, A light that the darkness has never overtaken.
        It is within that darkness that today’s tale is observed. Most people read this and the visions in the mind are one of horror, fear and massacre,
        something that we are all too familiar with these days.
        We live in dark days too often we see Images of children leaving their school with hands over their head weeping and searching for their parents
        because there has just been a shooting at the school. In researching school shootings there were 20 different school shootings in just a ten year
        period…between 1900 and 1910 it has been on an increase ever since culminating in 19 this year alone.
        Bret younger relays a sermon in ministry matters, an online magazine and resource; I want to use part of his personal story and commentary here. I will
        relay this in his words in the first person. His story goes like this; “Twenty-seven Christmases ago I was the new pastor of a Baptist church in
        Indiana. I decided we would have a Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion service—the first ever. I wanted everything to be perfect. It almost was. Snow
        fell that afternoon. A junior in high school, Melody, played “What Child Is This” on the flute. Three generations—a grandmother, her daughter, and
        granddaughter—lit the Advent candles. We sang the carols “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Away in a Manger,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” We read the
story—Mary, Joseph, the baby, and the manger. I remember thinking: This is a Hallmark card of a worship service.        This is as picture-perfect a Christmas moment as any church has ever known.
        That’s when Danny’s beeper went off. Danny was a member of the volunteer fire department. When his beeper sounded—as it often did— Danny ran out of the
        sanctuary. We had gotten used to it, but it was still disconcerting. Then we started singing “Silent Night.” As we got to “Wondrous Star, lend thy
        light,” Danny ran back in and shouted that church member Bob’s mother’s house was on fire. Bob’s family ran after Danny. Danny’s wife got up and left.
        Everyone had to choose between listening to the preacher’s sermon or slipping out one by one and going to a big fire. By the time I got Mary and Joseph
        to Bethlehem, the crowd— and I use that term loosely—was made up of those who were waiting for a ride home and those who had fallen asleep. That’s not
        how Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion services are supposed to turn out. Tragedies should wait until January, because they don’t fit our ideas about
        That’s why King Herod doesn’t fit the Christmas story. The horrifying sequence of events in Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t feel like it belongs in the
        Christmas story. The most difficult part to cast in the Christmas pageant is King Herod. Walmart sells a variety of plastic Nativity scenes for the
        yard, but there are no glow-in-the-dark King Herods. No Christmas card has this verse from Matthew on the front: “A voice was heard in Ramah, / wailing
        and loud lamentation” (Matthew 2:18). This part of the story may not seem to fit, but we need to hear it. Like a lot of stories, we have to hear the
whole story or we get the story wrong.        [1]
        Yes we have wonderful Christmas stories filled with magic, wonder and awe. We have the story of a wonderful life in which a whole town comes together
in response to all one man did just because he lived. We see what magic can happen when one puts a little faith in a Macy’s Santa in miracle on 34        th
        street. We have the beloved tale of the Miser scrooge who doesn’t fit Christmas at all and thus must be transformed in time for Christmas so we can all
        Yet all these stories and many more also reflect a dark part of society. They reveal the hatred, despair, loneliness and pain that can linger, even if
        only in the background at Christmas time. Sobering thoughts as we are in the holiday season...It is important to remember that not everyone is
        surrounded by large wonderful families.
        Some people have problems during the holidays and sometimes are overcome with great sadness. Some are remembering the loved ones who are not with us
        especially those who lost loved ones this year the first Christmas can be the hardest.. And many people have no one to spend these times with and are
        besieged by loneliness.
        So we take time to give a little extra food or toys to the drives. We make scarves and collect socks. Why does it seem more pertinent at this time of
        year than any other? Maybe it is because we are keener…more aware of what lies around us at this time of year. Christ, the light of the world, has come
        to dwell among us. We Light candles; put up brightly decorated trees and in the midst of all that…maybe because of all that the darkness seems a bit
        darker. You see light serves no purpose if it wasn’t for the dark.
        Interesting side note here; it is actually believed that Herod never did order the execution of the innocent. Mathew uses the story, probably based
        upon Herod’s execution of his own Children, to move the holy family from Jerusalem to Egypt. He uses the story to mirror “those of the Pharaoh who
        oppressed the Israelites in Egypt (Exodus 1:15-22). In both stories, innocent children die, but the designs of the tyrant are foiled by the
preservation of the one destined to be the instrument of his people’s redemption (exodus 2:1-10; Matt 2:12-18). “        [2] Mathew is looking for
        Christ to be the fulfillment of the old testament to the point that the story mirrors Israel’s journey into and back out of Egypt.
        There are no carols to the innocent Children…no hymns are sung for those gone and not forgotten. No laments for the poor, homeless, the hungry.
        Actually that is not true one of the most beautiful hymns ever written is a lament for the children.
        Actually that’s not true; the Coventry carol is a lament for the children
        Let us listen to the Lyrics;
        “O sisters too, how may we do for to preserve this day?
        The poor youngling for whom we sing
        Herod the King in his raging , charged he hath this day
        His men of might, in his own sight, all young children to slay!
        Then woe is me, poor child for thee, and ever mourns and say,
For thy parting nor say or sing by by lully lullay.”        [3]
        It is such a beautiful carol that is often heard as a lullaby but in a reality it is a lament for the children who passed as a result of Herod’s rage.
        There are many such songs and stories such as the little match girl, the Christmas shoes or one of my favorites is the Ballad of the Harp weaver
        written by Edna St. Vincent Millay as performed by the late Johnny Cash. If you get a chance look it up. He performs it so well.
        So why do we have these sad songs, heart retching stories not all with happy endings at Christmas?
        Brett Younger goes on to remind us; “Every true story admits that even in the midst of blinking decorations and flickering candles, darkness threatens
        the light. Ignoring the darkness is ignoring reality. We leave King Herod out of the Christmas story because we think we’re supposed to keep the
hardships of the real world away from Christmas. Matthew says that Christmas came in the days of King Herod.”        [4]
        You see I think we forget no matter how much pain, hunger, and suffering there is in the world you can’t stop God. You can’t stop Jesus from coming.
        God breaks in; in the middle of the darkest month, in the center of a city that is occupied by Romans, in a time of war and financial hardship God
        breaks in.
        Many times one will hear and I am sure you all heard it at one time or another when some sort of catastrophe befalls anyone at this time of year it
        seems so sad and out of place. Not that there is a good time for anything bad but when it happens at Christmas we tend to notice it more. We wish that
        if it had to happen it would happen at another time…Not at Christmas.
        Yet maybe just maybe there isn’t a better time for something bad to happen than at Christmas. You ever notice people tend to reach out more; people
        tend to give a little more. That light that is the light of Christ that is in the world always just seems to work a bit better at this time. People
        find their inner light a little easier and are a little less reticent about sharing it.
        The center of most of the sad stories is often about those who are the outcast, the hated, and the unseen. Scrooge the lender and collector of debts,
        the little match girl is a story that was often told at this time of year about the homeless girl who wants to be warm and in the warmth sees wonder
        things. Even The Ghost of Christmas present lifts his cloak to reveal the hidden part of Christmas that is always with him, those thin poor children
        named Ignorance and want
        There is a story of a man who once had fame and fortune for his music but eventually his style fell out of popularity. He became broke and living from
        hand to mouth. He had gone from playing the palaces of Europe to nothing in a very quick time.
        “In August 1742, a letter arrived written by a man many deemed crazy. Yet as Charles Jennens was one of the few friends Handel had left in the world,
        he carefully opened the envelope and read Jennens’s suggestion for a new oratorio. Over the course of the next three weeks, the composer wrote a
        musical that he was sure would never find an audience. He’d just finished it when another friend asked Handel to help with a charity concert raising
        money for a hospital serving the poorest of the poor. Handel took his new music with him and presented it at that concert for the very first time.
        Handel’s Messiah initially raised a huge sum of money for the charity and then revived the popularity of the oratorio style of music and the composer
        who wrote them better than anyone. Handel was once again on top of the world.
        There is a great lesson in the story behind this incredible piece of music. That lesson goes beyond the fragility of worldly fame. It involves God
        using people whom others have written off as having no value. Handel was one of these. Supposedly his day was past. Then there was Charles Jennens, a
        man everyone thought was, at the least, eccentric and, at the most, insane. God was able to use Jennens to rescue Handel. And then Handel was able to
employ the idea Jennens gave him to create a musical piece that generated gifts for a charity that served people just like him. Since that time,Messiah has raised more money for “the least of these” than any other music ever written.”        [5]
        It is in this time of Christmas that the least of these is used again and again to bring light to the darkness to extend joy in the middle of sorrow. A
        poor baby born in the middle of an occupied country amid centurions and swords a baby causes a shift. It is in this time when shepherds in the field,
        the uneducated, the unwashed, the outcast can come into town and proclaim the news, the Good news the news we celebrate every year and every Sunday. It
        is an unpopular poor composer then takes that news and changes it into one of the most acclaimed pieces in history… “For unto us a child is Born!”
        In the midst of pain and Darkness there is a Light that shines, a light that the darkness has never overtaken. May that be the light in your hearts
        today and let it guide you to seek out the dark spaces and bring it those who need it most. May it lighten your days and overflow to touch all those
        you care about and all those around you. Amen.



            Brett younger, let’s keep Herod in Christmas, (accessed December
            17, 2013).

            Beverly Roberts Gaventa , and David Petersen, eds., The New Interpreter's Bible One-volume Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010),

            ed, Two Coventry Corpus Christi Plays: 1. The Shearmen and Taylors' Pageant, 2d ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1957).

            Brett younger, Let's keep Herod in Christmas, (accessed December
            17, 2013).

            Ace Collins, Hellelujah Chorus,
            (accessed December 17, 2013).

Monday, November 25, 2013


Centering prayer

Wisdom is bright and does not grow dim . . . and is found by those who look for her. — Wisdom 6:13 Fr. Richard Rohr reminds us : "Wisdom is not the gathering of more facts and information, as if that would eventually coalesce into truth. Wisdom is a new, different way of seeing and knowing the 'ten thousand things'. I suggest that wisdom is precisely the freedom to be truly present to what is right in front of you. Presence is wisdom! People who are fully present know how to see fully, rightly, and truthfully. Presence is the one thing necessary for wisdom, and in many ways, it is the hardest thing of all. Just try to keep (1) your heart space open, (2) your mind without division or resistance, and (3) your body not somewhere else—and all at the same time! Most religions just decided it was easier to believe doctrines and obey often arbitrary laws than the truly converting work of being present. Those who can be present will know what they need to know, and in a wisdom way."1

A prayer for openness by Joyce Rupp

"Remember the holy one is with you…Bring to mind this loving presence within you and around you."2 Now breath deep…Feel yourself grounded….sense the texture of the seat beneath you…. Breathe deep…pay attention to the sounds around….become aware of your space…the sacred space which envelopes you at this moment….Breathe Deep… "Touch your finger tips to your forehead saying : Open my mind to remember your presence. Touch your fingertips to your mouth saying: Open my mouth to speak your wisdom. Hold both hands out, open, palms up, saying: Open my hands to serve you generously. Holding both arms wide open, saying: Open my whole being to you.

Make a deep bow to the loving presence in you"3


Anthem Sometimes alleluia by Chuck Girard

Today is …well it is today… we are here and now. What does that mean?? Life is a journey and we are taken many places. We tend to be very busy running from this meeting to that meeting to this event and that event. So today’s reading from Ecclesiastes 3-8 reflects this in many ways. It says there is a time for everything and it also says everything is time…Born, die, plant, harvest, hurt, heal, tear down, build up, cry , laugh, mourn and dance, all these things are movements from one place and time to another. It sometimes seems as if there is little left for anything else.

I want you now to listen to a gospel reading ok singing... “Gospel” Is coming from a little know singer yet something tells me you might recognize her voice I just ask that you listen to the words center yourself..Still yourself and listen...

“But in the meantime Doin' nothin' sure is a-worryin' me”

Why does doing nothing worry us so? What is so wrong with being in a an in-between time? Why do we always seem to rush on to the next thing? Why do we always worry what’s next? A long time ago I became curios where I came from…you see I was adopted. So I set out on this exhaustive and thorough search of my heritage. I signed up on websites, I studied how searches were done, I acquired my birth certificate..well attempted to I don’t have one to legally obtain I have a certificate of adoption. From that I found out I was baptized at a certain church. By calling them I learned my birth name and received my baptism certificate which had been redacted and my “adoptive” parents names, I am sorry but they are my parents adoptive or not. But it had the real witnesses to my baptism listed...One was my birth mothers brother..I called him which led me to her which led me to my father’s family…which led to a day of phone calls from relatives half brothers and sisters aunts and uncles which then led to….nothing.

,P.There was nothing left to do…I had spent a year of research and scheming and planning to get all the documentation I could, to find out who these people were. It was all playing cloak and dagger investigative reporter and then…it was done. There was no next thing…there was no more to be done…I had to take some time…some meantime and rest…and ponder…and decide what it all meant to me and then…and only then…could I move on to the next thing.

So here we are on this Sunday and it marks the end of the liturgical year and yet we already are looking to what’s next….we have thanksgiving and then we need to decorate the church and then…what? Then we are in the midst of advent.

Let me give you a little background on what has led me to this inquisitive moment if you will. As a congregation we have voted to dual affiliate with the UCC. You have been aware that Bob and I and Megan took their polity and history class which covered material from before the pilgrims up to modern day. We as a congregation have explored their ministries and their relationships their concept of congregational church and all that goes with being in a covenantal relationship.

I have decided not to renew my credentials with the MCC but move to be completely affiliated with the UCC, something that has been on my heart for quite a while. Well this week I informed MCC of my Intention and well they basically said blessing and we accept your resignation. So now I am in a meantime. I will go before an ecclesiastical council, which is a fancy word for a group of very friendly and caring representatives of the southern CA. Nevada conference and ask to be approved for “privilege of call”. Privilege of call is when an ordained minister of another denomination wishes to enter the ordained ministry of the UCC, he or she applies for Privilege of Call to the Association with whose bounds he/she resides. This will be in March.

So you see I am in one kind of in between time. Advent is another in between time…we have Just finished ordinary time. The new liturgical year lies before us and we are standing in anticipation, waiting for the Christ child to arrive. We have four weeks. Four weeks to decorate the church, get the shopping done, decorate our homes, send cards, wrap presents, feed the dog and whatever else may be on a list that the world has told us we must do!

We must hurry. We must move from point A to Point B. As the coffee mug or t-shirt says Jesus is coming look busy!

You know what I am going to tell you…Right? You know what is on my heart? Take the time to slow down. Be present!

Again I will remind you of what Fr. Richard Rohr said for our centering Meditation.

Fr. Richard Rohr reminds us : “Wisdom is not the gathering of more facts and information, as if that would eventually coalesce into truth. Wisdom is a new, different way of seeing and knowing the ‘ten thousand things’. I suggest that wisdom is precisely the freedom to be truly present to what is right in front of you. Presence is wisdom! People who are fully present know how to see fully, rightly, and truthfully."4

To be truly present takes, Patience and Understanding and prayer. It doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen when you want it too even after years of practice. It is a constant and steady practice that allows for Grace to enter into our lives and reveal moments….flashes…of being truly present when the world is brighter than it has ever been. When the awe and wonder of being alive just vibrates and catches you so off guard you have to stop and Hold your breath.

You know there is a Christmas story that does that for me. It is about a church in Austria.

A group of Actors were traveling about performing a play based on the Christmas story of Luke and John but because the organ of the Church was out of commission the actors; “presented their Christmas drama in a private home. That Christmas presentation of the events in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke put assistant pastor Josef Mohr in a meditative mood. Instead of walking straight to his house that night, Mohr took a longer way home. The longer path took him up over a hill overlooking the village.

From that hilltop, Mohr looked down on the peaceful snow-covered village. Reveling in majestic silence of the wintry night, Mohr gazed down at the glowing Christmas-card like scene. His thoughts about the Christmas play he had just seen made him remember a poem he had written a couple of years before. That poem was about the night when angels announced the birth of the long-awaited Messiah to shepherds on a hillside. Mohr decided those words might make a good carol for his congregation the following evening at their Christmas eve service.”5

That Pastor had literally stopped in his normal routing to take some meantime. Walk a little further, take a different path with a story he knew but for some reason hit him different that day. He became totally present to an event that happened some 1800 years before. As a result we have the most beloved Christmas carol in the world…Silent Night. Today we stand with an invitation to slow down. Enter into a sacred stillness…a sacred and grace filled meantime, a sacred in-between time to be present to the Holy that is in everyday.

Take some time for prayer. Take some time for meditation. Take some time to read the ancient story of the Christmas season. Take some time for God outside of Sunday. For those interested we have a beautiful companion for the season that daily incorporates prayer, meditation and, if you have access to the internet, music.

If that does excite you find your own way. Seek out Richard Rohr’s daily meditations. Find some of his books or Joyce Rupp’s book that was today’s meditation from doorways. Sit down in a quiet corner light a candle and just invite the stillness. Amen!

1 Richard Rohr, e-mail message to Joseph Shore-Goss, 11/17/2013.

2 Joyce Rupp, Open the Door: A Journey to the True Self (Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press, 2008), 13.

3 Ibid

4 Rohr, e-mail message to Joseph Shore-Goss, 11/17/2013.

5 Howard Culbertson, The Story behind Silent Night, (accessed November 20, 2013).

Monday, November 11, 2013

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

How do we Pray? Luke 18:9-14

It must have been difficult to be an apostle.  Here you are walking around from village to village and believing you are following a wise and great teacher and then he goes and takes what society deems as normal and acceptable and throws it back in their face and not just the face of the everyday people but the leaders, the lawmakers and the high holy men of the day.
You know I picture moments when the disciples standing across from Jesus as he starts into a parable and as soon as they hear the word Pharisee or lawmaker or land owner they start giving the cut off signal, stop, quiet, someone will hear you please.
Oddly enough today’s story comes in the biblical sequence before the story of Zachaeus.  Was Jesus maybe preparing the disciples for the encounter in Jericho?  This story could have been to help start softening the hearts of those around him.  This is a story of how all should be with God and each other.
Let’s review the role of the tax collector also known as publicans;
“In the eyes of Rome the provinces were to carry the heavy weight of administering the Empire. Judea was in the province of Syria and every man was to pay 1% of his annual income for income tax. But that was not all, there were also import and export taxes, crop taxes (1/10 of grain crop and 1/5 of wine, fruit, and olive oil), sales tax, property tax, emergency tax, and on and on. It was actually a Roman official (censor) who was ultimately responsible to Rome for collecting the revenue of the province, but he sold the rights to extort tax to the highest bidders.”[1]
These highest bidders were people from the region in which the taxes were to be collected.  Thus in Judea it was from the Jewish community from which the collectors were recruited.  This is kind of smart for your hatred of the collector is not turned directly to Rome but right there within your own society.  They were looked upon as traitors and sinners as Bob pointed out last week.
So what were their true expectations as far as the religious community was concerned?

According to Rabbinism there was no hope for a tax collector. They were excluded from all religious fellowship including the Temple and Synagogue. Their money was considered tainted and it defiled anyone who accepted it. They could not serve as a witness in any court in Israel. The Rabbis had no word to describe any sort of help for the tax collector, because they expected him to externally conform to the law in order to be justified before God. [2]
The ancient rabbis even wrote on how one should look upon these men, the bible history on line quotes some of them;
 "As one robber disgraced his whole family, so one publican in a family; promises were not to be kept with murderers, thieves and publicans" -Nedar 3:4

"The synagogue alms box and the temple corban must not receive their alms" -Baba Kama 10:1

"It was not lawful to use riches received from them, as gotten by rapine; nor could they judge or give testimony in court -Sanhedr. 25, sec. 2[3]

So just by these ancient voices one can imagine the shock and dismay when Jesus tells the story of the tax collector in the temple.  Yes one expects a Pharisee to head up to the temple and pray but a tax collector…they probably wouldn’t even had been allowed within the walls.  They were considered to be of the same caste as harlots, murders and thieves.
Jesus in a series of parables really isn’t talking about just the boundaries of society but also how we perceive ourselves, the other and how we pray.  It says he told this parable to those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (Luke 18:9)
I want you to listen to this story from a different translation.  This is from the Message remixed….
The Story of the Tax Man and the Pharisee
He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves, over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: "Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this, 'Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people-robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’
"Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’”
Jesus commented, "This tax man, not the other went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you're going to end up flat on your face but if you're content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”[4]

I like the Message; Eugene Peterson seems to get the concept of this parable, at least for me he does.  This isn’t about a power play.  There is a role reversal; Christ even refers to the righteous one in both versions, the reading used to day and this one, as “The other”.  Again he takes what is assumed to be the norm and marginalizes it and casts it out, at the same time the one that is truly the other in society goes home justified before God.

But for me today this story brings up a larger question for me …How do you pray?  What are the correct words?  Jesus has several examples of the persistent prayer, praying the same thing over and over again till what you ask for is manifested here on earth. Yet this again was not meant to be literal.  I believe the more literal part of that was being constant in prayer,  keeping those lines of communication with God open whether you believe God hears you or not.  Just as a persistent and annoying child …

Eventually even a preoccupied parent will notice….Doesn’t mean you will get what you ask for but God will hear you.

        Yet this parable is about coming before God humbly.  What is a humble approach?

I think this is a gentle reminder that we are not God…okay we come before God often with requests…we do that here every Sunday we pray for prayers spoken and unspoken but…. But we must remember the most important part…Thy will be done….

“Thy will be done Lord”, wow that’s hard…I know what’s best for me….I know my life will go soo much better if …Just if, you will grant me this one little prayer.  Well isn’t that saying I know better what is good for my future and I know God’s plan for me?  This is the mentality that leads to I didn’t pray hard enough,  I am not good enough to receive the blessing of God…this is basically the theory behind what is called prosperity theology…if I have just enough faith God will bless me with abundance… well that’s not how it works.

Prayer is about entering into a loving, trusting relationship, in which we come before God as a child might enter into the arms of a loving parent, knowing there is safety and comfort there and then we stop, slow down, and listen….Just listen….Take a deep breath….let it out slowly and listen…

Father Basil Pennington reminds us in his book Lectio Divina that “Each of us is a certain listening, a certain openness to being, to reality, to communication.  Everything that has been a part of our lives since the moment of our creation has had a role in shaping the listening that we are.”[5]

We each have a unique way of hearing God’s voice and we are each attuned to hear that voice just for us.  Some of us are not the sit still and quiet and listen for God in a contemplative style but there are other ways.  There are many other ways of stilling the mind and the soul to be receptive to what God wants to bring to your heart. 

When you are looming a scarf, with each loop and each slip off what if you just prayed a simple prayer…come Holy Spirit…still me soul…come Holy Spirit…still my soul.  Just as the practice of the loom becomes routine so does the prayer.  As you work and pray you are inviting God into your life so that you may better understand, hear, and see what God has for you.  You also end up with a project that is blessed, consecrated with prayer.

Once during lent I decided to take up a spiritual practice for the forty days as opposed to giving up something.  I was working in Hospice at the time serving Los Angeles and orange counties.  I decided to seek out god visually.  To be aware of God around me in the city and the suburbs and try to capture that as it spoke to me.  I thought I would end up with 40 Pictures one for each day. I ended up with 194 Pictures.
I found god in Natural beauty and in man made things like the sunset over the mountain,
the reflection in a still lake,
the contrast of a man made fence cutting through a natural range speaking to me of infinity and borders at the same time
…or the amazing beauty in man made architecture
.  Each hit me as something of the magnificence, the silence, the stillness of God.

Christine Valters Painter reminds us that

“The graced eye can glimpse beauty everywhere, seeing the Divine at work in the hidden depths of things. It is so easy to let our senses be dulled and to settle for the ordinary. Often, life seems to be just what it offers on the surface; as Ecclesiastes puts it, "there is nothing new under the sun" (1:9). The technology, speed, and busyness so prized by our Western culture foster a habit of blindness. For all the bustle, a dreary sameness comes to mark the places where we live. We forget that there is a vast depth beneath the apparent surfaces of things.
The eye of aesthetic spirituality sees more than other eyes”.[6]

God can speak to us through many form and practices some people us prayer beads, some use music, some use meditation and others use dance, walking, or the labyrinth.  Some may express their prayer through poetry and others through reading of inspirational lives.  Some find God in Nature and others in the bustle of the city but the key to this…to all of this, the key to prayer and entering into a deeper relationship with God is finding the path for you.

Being intentional, being patient with yourself and know that not all things work for all people you must find your own way.  Some people find having a companion on the path helps.  Now I am not talking about us here every Sunday though it does help.  Sunday is a starting point.  But sometimes it helps to find a spiritual exploration group a Lectio davina group, a taize group as we offer here or a spiritual Director/companion.

A spiritual companion, as I wrote in Queering Christianity; is one who notices “things along the path that a traveler may have missed, overlooked, or did not pay close enough attention too.  We simply ask a spiritual traveler to stop, take a moment, and perhaps, if they choose, notice and explore what God has placed along the path.”[7]  No matter how hard we try we get caught up in our own intentions, in the lives and the life happening around us and we do not always see what god is placing before us.  Even the most intentional, mystical person in the world benefits from spiritual companionship.

So in all this I want to get back to how do we pray???  There is no one answer…Christ says come humbly before God and for each of us that is different. We must find our own way.  There are books; there are spiritual companions, there are practices, some are offered here monthly.  If you take regular time for God… you will discover that God has always had time for you.


[1] Bible History Online, Ancient Tax Collector, (accessed October 22, 2013).
[2] Bible History online, Tax collectors over view, (accessed October 22, 2013).
[3] Ibid.
[4] Eugene H. Peterson, The Message// Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress, 2003), 1906.
[5] M. Basil Pennington, Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures (New York: Crossroad Pub., 1998).
[6] Christine Valters Paintner, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (Notre Dame, Ind.: Sorin Books, 2013), 13.
[7] Robert E. Shore-Goss et al., eds., Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians, 383.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The One who Has Been Named Luke 16::19-31

A pastor Named William Turner reminds me and now us that “it's the stories we remember ... the stories from history, from our families, from the Bible, from the ministry of Jesus. Long after they've forgotten my sermons, people will say, "I remember a story you told one Sunday...."
Our lives and our values and our convictions get shaped by the stories we believe ... probably because they have the sound and feel of life and reality about them. We can identify with them. In my lifetime, I've been, at different times, the prodigal son, the older brother, and the waiting father. So have many of you. You've been the man in the ditch, the busy priest and Levite, and, hopefully, the Good Samaritan -- in various circumstances. So have I. Then, there's this story about Lazarus and the rich man. I don't have a single purple and linen outfit, but I'm the rich man all right, compared to three-fourths of the world. I don't eat gourmet foods every day, and I'm a glutton just every now and then ... but I live in luxury, compared to three-fourths of the world.”[1]
Today’s Parable is quite an interesting one to pick apart and just see Christ’s sarcasm and playfulness.  Bob pointed out last week’s parable was sarcastic and anyone in that community at that time would have heard at such and would have rejoiced in it.  What was not included was the reaction of those it was intended for.  Luke 16:14states that “the Pharisees, a money –obsessed bunch, heard him say these things they rolled their eyes, dismissing him as hopelessly out of touch.”[2] So Jesus downright admonishes them contradicting the world as they perceive then goes on to give this parable.
Jesus really wants to show the hypocrisies of the ruling class and so lays down this story which turned many things upside down.  First Christ names the poor man, Lazarus.  No other person in all of Jesus’ parables has a name, yet this one, the poorest of the poor the one who is to represent the nameless ones, the ultimate outcasts of society has a name.  Not only does he have a name but his name has meaning it means “God has helped”.
Meanwhile the rich man is nameless. You may have heard this rich man referred to by the name of Dives, but dives is simply the Latin word for "rich." In regular society by his description everyone would know his name and probably why there is an attempt to name him. Yet this man is made the nameless one.  The man who has the most expensive line of clothing to wear, the man who deems himself so well off he dresses as a high priest wearing linen robes.  I am not making an assumption here the priests wore linen robes and a plain white sash while that of the high priest work a sash embroidered in purple.  Purple was also the color of royalty so we know this rich man thought high of himself and Jesus is tying him to the leaders of the time.
The story goes on to tell us not only did this guy dress well he at sumptuously every day, every day, not just on some rare celebratory occasion but every day! Sumptuous, according to Miriam/Webster is “extremely costly, rich, luxurious, or magnificent.”[3] This means well he had the finest of meats and seafood and wine, 7 course meals at every turn. 
To make matter even more impressive he had his complex gated.  This was not normal except for the very rich and those in high power who might have needed protection from the common person.  Today we see even middle class homes have gates and walls but this was a huge added expense back then. Of course the question that is often asked today is just as true then was the gate to keep the world out or keep him locked in.
It is often said that one would be happy to just have the scraps off the table, or just a scrap of bread.  Well this is just what Lazarus waited for.  You see in those days the rich did not have napkins and fancy utensils they used their hands to eat and would wipe the grease off in bread which they would toss aside.  Lazarus was waiting just for that a scrap of bread.
Lazarus sat outside the gate of the rich man.  Outside the gate of the one who makes important decisions. Outside the Gate of one who may choose to notice him or not, outside the gate of general society and all the luxuries…and even the basic needs it can provide for.  Lazarus sat outside the gate of the unnamed rich man and was passed by daily as part of the rich man’s routine unnoticed, unseen, uncared for.  His only companions the dogs that cared for him as best they could.
Then Lazarus dies.  He is taken to heaven and placed on Abraham’s chest.  Meanwhile the nameless one dies as well and he goes to Hell.  Literally the word used is Hades as opposed to Sheol which was commonly known as the land of the dead.  Nope he gets the big time you’re going to suffer award.
The nameless one beseeches Abraham himself to ask Lazarus to get him just a drop of water.  I find this interesting here this guy dies, is buried, (By the way it is more than Lazarus had as a beggar he was probably just dumped on the trash pile outside the city) is suffering in Hades and still expects to address father Abraham himself and ask to be served by the one he considered not even worth y of his attention. He is still a touch arrogant even in his own suffering.
Here Abraham tells him simply the same message as the beatitudes.  Lazarus suffered on earth and is rewarded in heaven.  The rich man, the nameless one, had all his rewards on earth and now he must suffer.  But it is not just that he is suffering, there is this huge gap between them so, even though they may wish to offer comfort, they cannot.
Now I may be adding a level to this but we often say that sin is missing the target,, but here we have a man who never took aim.  His whole life was about him and he was totally separated from God and now in the afterlife of this story he remains totally separated from the realm that is God.
He goes on then to plead to send Lazarus to go warn his brothers at his father’s house. There is humor here as well for he again is asking Lazarus to perform a service, the man who received no service or care from the rich man.  Wouldn’t it had made more sense to say let me go warn my brothers of their ways?  Maybe I am just thinking too much but to me his request seems rude, arrogant and absurd. This unnamed rich man Just doesn’t get it!  Who is going to listen to a dead stranger?
Abraham points out that it really doesn’t matter who he sends for all the teachings they needed they all ready have.  If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets “they won’t be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:31), a little foreshadowing?   If they are not interested in Faith and the lessons already given why would they hear them after one rises?
There is a lot of metaphor, innuendo, downright sarcasm in this story but what does it mean for us today.  You know when the rich man asks for just a drop of water all I can think of is who has water and who doesn’t and was he concerned about that?  Are we concerned about that? You know that “At this point, approximately 40 percent of the entire population of the planet has little or no access to clean water and it is being projected that by 2025 two-thirds of humanity will live in "water-stressed" areas.”[4]
Most people cannot go 3 days without water before succumbing to dehydration.
The food that Lazarus never saw made me look into the food situation in the world today.  There is a book and a new exhibition entitled hungry planet. Peter Menzel traveled the world to look at consumption around the Planet.  He looked at what a family spent and what they considered to be favorite foods. A family of 5 in Germany spends about 532 Dollars a week on food Favorite foods: salads, shrimp, buttered vegetables, sweet rice with cinnamon and sugar, pasta, meanwhile; the Aboubakar family of Breidjing Camp, a family of 6 their food expenditure for one week: $1.23. Favorite foods: soup with fresh sheep meat.

Read more:

Read more:

When I think of scraps from the table, the House of Representatives wants to cut billions from food stamps.  A program that offers $5 a day to feed people.  They cannot see Lazarus outside their gate.
We have a program here and what we do is but a drop in the bucket, to feed the homeless in the park.  We help the food pantry who feeds hundreds, thousands of people a year.  There are nearly 60000 homeless people in Los Angeles County.  Worse than that, according to the united way, in Los Angeles county there are 250,000 millionaires and 1.4 million poor[5], and most of the poor are the working poor.  This means in spite of work, sometimes two or 3 incomes the household is still below the poverty level. Lazarus at the gate.

I am not saying we can feed every hungry person or clothe all those who need it but if you see someone who is asking for help…even if you cannot do anything at that moment, just by saying I am sorry I can’t help right now, you are seeing Lazarus, when you help even with a quarter to the feeding programs or by using your Ralphs card, you see Lazarus.  When you drop of items in the collection box on the corner or you leave meds at my door for the hospice in Mexico …you see Lazarus.
This is all today’s story is asking.  Not that you solve everything but that you at least see and try, for every time you reach out in any way shape or form you are reach out towards God.  Every time you see Lazarus, you see Christ.  Every time you noticed the unnamed, the outcast the hungry, the homeless, the poor.  You know that Christ took time to name the poor, the outcast, and all that is asked of us is to take notice and try and to remember they are  worthy of notice.
May we see Christ in each and every person we meet and know that they have a name and I pray that we may all strive to continue to make this world a better place for all.  Amen.

[1] William L. Turner, World Hunger: Beggars at the Gate Luke 16:19-31, (accessed September 24, 2013).
[2] Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress, 2003), 1902.
[3] Merriam-Webster, Sumptous, (accessed September 24, 2013).
[4] Michael Snyder, 30 Facts About The Coming Water Crisis That Will Change The Lives Of Every Person On The Planet, (accessed September 24, 2013).
[5] United Way, United Way Reports Growing Poverty in Los Angeles, (accessed September 24, 2013).

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

We are all Prodigals

The story of the Prodigal son has many, many levels to it.  There are different approaches and for each person in this room there is a different perspective.  Even when looking up resources I found that the story is known by different titles. The Prodigal Son, also known as Two SonsLost Son and the Running Father, the Dutiful son, the Forgiving father …just by those titles alone there seems to be different foci.
A story of a prodigal by definition is of one who spends money recklessly.
Henri Nouwen renowned spiritual writer engages this story so deeply that he ended up writing a whole book on it.  Henri describes his first encounter of Rembrandt’s interpretation of this passage and what led him to ponder this story.
“When I first saw the prodigal son, I had just finished an exhausting six-week lecturing trip through the united states, calling Christian communities to do anything they possibly could to prevent violence and war in Central America.  I was dead tired, so much so that I could barely walk.  I was anxious, lonely, restless, and very needy….It was in this condition I first encountered Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son on the door of Simone’s office.  My heart leapt when I saw it.  After my long self-exposing journey, the tender embrace of father and son expressed everything I desired at that moment.  I was indeed, the son exhausted from long travels; I wanted to be embraced; I was looking for a home where I could feel safe.  The son-come-home was all I was and all I wanted to be.  For so long I had been going from place to place: confronting, beseeching, admonishing, and consoling.  Now I desired only to rest safely in a place where I could feel a sense of belonging, a place where I could feel at home.”[1]
Have you ever felt that way?  Ever feel like you have been fighting for, working for, striving for something for so long that you are just exhausted…tired of fighting, striving…you just wanted a place that is safe, warm and welcoming…a place that says come into my arms and rest your struggle is done, relax, you are safe here.  It doesn’t matter how you got here, it doesn’t matter what you did right or what you may have done wrong this is about rest in the journey.
This is a story of a homecoming, this is a story of a young person’s search and discovery, this is a story of a loving fathers longing for a complete family and this is a story of a brother who gets a little green when it comes to parity. I wonder who each of you is in this story.  I wonder where the mother is, is there a mother?
I know for me in this story I can identify with the prodigal.  I was raised a young good catholic.  I went to church every Sunday, I excelled at Sunday school, I was an altar boy and I dreamt of being a missionary priest.  In high school I worked with the worship committee and volunteer student services and was in a Christian rock band.
Sure I had my moments of trouble.  I even ran away for a weekend not so much cause things were bad at home more seeking the opportunity for travel.  When I was a kid I was nick named Charlie brown especially because of my luck with kites but as I became a teenager and into young adult hood I think I became more like huckleberry Finn with a deep yearning for travel and adventure.
After coming into my true self as a Gay man I sought out Dignity Detroit.  I so wanted to remain a good catholic though who I was existed in direct opposition to the clerical hierarchy of the Church.  When the church finally asked that Dignity meet anywhere besides a catholic church, though dignity Detroit remained in their original home for years, I left.  The order was enough to tell me I was not welcome any more.
So I took my inheritance and I left the church.  It is interesting to note that when the prodigal asks his father for his share of his inheritance the father divides up the property and a few days later the son is on his way.  This is so matter of fact, there is no complaint no bargaining it is just;  “well here you go have fun…”  I can’t help but in my mind’s eye see the father turn around give a slight smile and say to himself he’ll be back in a day or so.
So what was my inheritance?  What had the Catholic Church gave me to take with me as I left?  Well it had taught me to ask questions thanks to some very liberal teachers in high school.  It had given me a sense of spirituality and spiritual practice.  It had allowed me to seek what God and a relationship with the divine meant for me and as I walked away that is what I carried with me.
In Luke it explains after everything was spent a great famine broke out.  The prodigal spends his inheritance, it doesn’t say he spent it foolishly, it doesn’t say he spent it wisely.  It just says “everything was spent”, exhausted, beat, beaten, burned-out, bushed, dead, and done.  Those are just a few of the synonyms.  Now who hasn’t felt that way?  I mean in just the day to day of trying to get by, who hasn’t felt completely spent?
I think that description matches me.  I left Detroit for Chicago for a weekend with a friend…after the weekend came to an end I was like; “I have a friend in Long beach!”  I don’t know why but I had packed nothing where my friend packed all he had…he had no intention of returning to Detroit.
Spent about two months in Long beach searching for a job…Finally had a job interview and there was a sign on the door…”went to Disney!”…only in California, I swear.
I had my ups and downs.  I had good times and bad.  At one point I had been kicked out of what had been my home with my bags literally outside the door and I had to sue to gain some of my other belongings and some semblance of retribution for three years of work.
I had to get emergency housing and was put in a hotel that leaked as it rained a cold winter desert rain.  I ended up sleeping on couches and floors for several weeks and eating a lot of sandwiches as I waited for assistance to come through so that I could find a place to live. The Famine had hit
I was exhausted…I was beaten down …I was hungry spiritually for some sort of strength…I returned to the Church.  A place I knew as home.  I quietly walked in and I sat in the very back row. I returned as a prodigal, beaten and exhausted tired of fighting for scraps.
Now the Minister didn’t see me coming from a long way off and run out to greet me.  No and yet looking back…God did.
You see all the time I was seeking, searching, surviving, living, partying, fund raising, educating…no matter what I was doing my inheritance,  that deep down spiritual life and connection to God was still there informing my every move.  When I felt it was entirely spent God came running out to greet me.  I can’t tell you what was said, what was sung, or how the service even went that day.  I can tell you I cried.
I cried out that exhaustion, I cried out my frustration, I left what was bitterness and pain in the church that day.  God had come running out to greet me.
It is interesting that in the story the son comes seeking forgiveness, seeking to be made the lowest in his father’s house, seeking nothing but some semblance of a life.  Yet just as he is barely in sight his Father see’s him and is moved.  That is what the story says; “While still a long way off the father caught site of the child and was deeply moved.”
I know I am playing with synonyms today but let’s go there…to be moved is a visceral reaction, it is to be fired up, to excite, impassion, to stimulate or enflame.  This is strong, do you hear it?  This is a once in a lifetime type of reaction so much so that the father doesn’t hear the sons plea of forgiveness but throws his arms around him, kisses him , gives him rings and robes and throws a party!
Why such a visceral reaction?  Why was it so strong? Well remember in my version the Father walks away with a grin on his face thinking oh he’ll be back?  I hear further the father thinking; I have been there and done that he needs to learn his lesson.  But then he doesn’t come back right away.  The son stays gone till he has spent his inheritance.  Taking in consideration what the father has when the son returns, I suspect, that was a pretty good inheritance.  Therefore, no matter how he chooses to spend it, it took a while to spend.
I know this is a story to display God’s love and welcoming back into the flock of a sinner. But it is using humans as an example, which makes sense if we are created in the image, not exactly like and not perfect, but the image of God.  Gods own behavior might resemble some of ours. 
So the father is smug at first.  Let me give my son a taste of the real world, a taste of freedom and he will be back quickly for the world is nothing as he imagines.  But then that day turns into a few days, then weeks and months.  Soon it has been a long time with no word and no sign of his son.  Is he doing well, or has he fallen in with a bad crowd.  What if he is in jail?  What if he is sick or worse yet dead?
The longer the time apart the more worried the father becomes, the longer apart the greater the possibility of no return. Yet, I believe, if it was one day or 1000 days the greeting would be the same.  En impassioned joyous welcome home.  You see the Father in this story, just as god doesn’t really want to let us go.  But that is what free will is about…it is in Gods nature to let us go.
Henri Nouwen speaks of it this way…

How much would he have liked to pull them back with his fatherly authority and hold them close to himself so that they would not get hurt?
     But his love is too great to do any of that. It cannot constrain, push, or pull.  It offers the freedom to reject that love or to love in return. It is precisely the immensity of the divine love that is the source of the divine suffering. God, creator of heaven and earth, has chosen to be, first and foremost a father.[2]

God has chosen to be a parent, a parent who sometimes must set us free to allow us to do what we must do to become who we are. I mean how many times have any one of us looked back on our lives and said I would not be where I am now if I had not gone through what I did. I actually could not write what I write today, or any day for that matter had I not gone through and lived all that I lived.  Yes I often wonder about the what ifs, but if I were given an opportunity to go through it all again…I would for it has brought me here in front of you all today.
God the parent, grieves when we separate ourselves for the love that is extended and yet as soon as we start to walk back, God comes running out to greet us…no need for confession there is no concern there…That is what we hold against ourselves not God.
“There is no lust, greed, anger, resentment, jealousy, or vengeance in his (God’s) lost children that have not caused immense grief to his (God’s) heart…From the deep inner place where love embraces all human grief, the Father (creator) reaches out to His (the) children.  The touch of His (God’s) hands radiating inner light only seeks to heal.”[3] This is the lesson of the moment of assurance we have here every Sunday.  There is nothing you can do, nothing you can say, think or pray that will separate you from the love of God.
But yet God goes further…God Goes over the top…Isn’t that what this parable portrays?  Henri Nouwen goes on to comment; “I realize that I am not used to the image of God throwing a big party.”[4]  Well now isn’t that an understatement.  I mean we all have this image of God that is all commanding, Judging, Powerful and dead serious.  Where did that come from?  I mean as followers of Christ there isn’t much of this “judginses” going on in Christ’s teachings.  I mean if Christ is any example are we surprised when the Loving parent throws a huge party at the return of the son.
As in this parable, and many others, God is waiting …just waiting to throw this big feast.  Not only is the invitation there, the party will start without you until you arrive.  Yet, as in another Parable, it doesn’t matter when you show up; just show up for the last will receive just the same as the very first. “Celebration belongs to God’s Kingdom. God not only offers forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing, but wants to lift up these gifts as a source of joy for all who witness them.”[5] Guess what…we get the honor of witnessing it here every week, heck any day you walk in here.  This is the place where you are welcome as part of the creators loving family.  We witness it every Sunday when it is proclaimed that this is not our table it is God’s and there is nothing…nothing that can prevent you from participating in the little banquet.  Yes I called the communion here the little banquet for the feat the creator has set aside for us is so much greater than we can even imagine.
So you see, you are allowed to walk away…you are allowed to spend your inheritance…you are allowed to come back home tired, broke, spent and the loving parent that is God will be waiting to clothe you, heal you and give you respite.  The loving parent is ready to throw you a feast; a party to allow you to sing and dance.  I truly enjoy the way Carey Landry expressed this in a song; “and the creator shall dance as on a day of Joy God will exalt over you and renew you with God’s love.” All of this is so that when you are ready you can step boldly and proclaim that you are a child of God. Amen.

[1] Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 4.
[2] Henry J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (New York: Continuum, 1995), 95.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 113.
[5] Ibid.