Sunday, January 15, 2023

Ordinary Miracles and Ongoing Epiphany

 



Adoration of the Magi, Andrea Mantegna, c. 1495-1505.

When Epiphany dawns, the swaddling clothes have long been packed away in the attic of the peaceful little home, with room for a workshop that Joseph had rented them in Bethlehem, not too far from THE stable, actually, but near enough to town that he got a little business, enough to keep food on the table. 

And to be honest, since the night when the shepherds and angels and everyone showed up in a wild blur of glory and honor, life has been kind of quiet. Mary and Joseph are far from the people and place they’d call home, no grandparents pitching in or aunties around offering advice through Jesus’ first fever, first tooth, first words, first steps. Leaning on their new community for connection and support.  This was not how they imagined their family life would start- not even once they rearranged their imaginings to include God-incarnate crawling across the living room floor.  Other than that one time Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Zechariah came to visit, commiserating over sleepless nights and nursing woes while the babies gurgled together on a blanket on the floor, it has mostly been just the three of them, mama, dada and Jesus, getting to know each other, gently becoming a family.  Week to week, season to season, it’s an ordinary life. 

 

Until the pagans show up and call their kid the king of the Jews.  

 

Just when the story begins to lose its hard edges, when the nostalgia starts to descend and the lens begins to soften, when this baby has begun to feel like he is theirs, a reminder that he is not arrives in the form of sages from a far-off land, astrologers, scientist mystic-scholars who had been watching the skies for signs of God.  

Surprising, perhaps, that those with no personal stake in the story generational anticipation of a Messiah, or claim to Yahweh’s promises to the people claimed by Yahweh, are the ones Yahweh involves next. Their arrival bursts the domestic bubble and exposes the light to all the world.  

 

Epiphany, we call this day. Enlightenment. Aha!  When the scene is illuminated what was familiar and known one second look completely other and utterly amazing the next, often because you suddenly see things with a broader perspective, or through the eyes of another. 

The Christmas moment speaks God WITH US, Epiphany says GOD with us.  


Attention! Sweet and cuddly though he is, folks, this isn’t your own private Messiah.  He belongs to the whole earth! And all who live upon it belong to this little one who has settled himself contentedly here in your lap.  You are recipients of this miracle as much as the next person, of course, but with just as little sense of what it all means as the rest of us, maybe even less, actually, than these astonishing strangers who have arrived on your doorstep seem to grasp.

 

After this great entourage of exotic travelers that have flooded this quiet, provincial town exchange greetings with his parents and bestow their gifts on the child (and there were certainly many of them, of course; what a silly modern assumption that there were just three, because one gift a piece), after the camels have been tended to and bedded down, the tents erected and the strangers washed up and unpacked, I love the crazy, cozy image of lamps lit, table set, Mary and Joseph and their surprise visitors all crowded around an unexpected potluck of fragrant dishes. Wall to wall humans, who look different and smell different and wear different clothing and speak different languages, and whose paths never, ever should have crossed on this planet in any conceivable way, breaking bread together, drinking wine together, sharing together what used to be mostly their own private secret that nobody else could relate to. Perhaps tomorrow they’ll invite the shepherds back over for breakfast.

 

These travelers, who have journeyed over desert and mountains, through seasons and struggles, countless freezing nights and endless scortching day, driven by a quest through unknown to arrive at the very source. And then, from the moment they lay eyes on the child, and Mary and Joseph lay eyes on them, the cosmic cat is out of the bag, so to speak.

 

The ego-maniacal King Herod is now chomping at the bit to stamp out this newly discovered threat to his power, and the news is out, things are not business as usual; God has really come, the world is topsy-turvy and strangers from a strange land are visiting that nice couple down the street, normal as you please.  And it’s as though that one lone star now shatters into a trillion pieces, filling the sky with bright mess, scattering shards of radiance from one end of the globe to the other.

 

Of course they stayed a while, these unexpected guests.  After all, it took many months, maybe years, to get there, they’re not just spending one night and leaving.  So what was it like, adjusting to being next to the miracle for a while?  Was it all the more miraculous for its ordinariness? 


How did it feel to go from a distant star and a lifelong, theoretical quest for truth to a flesh and blood child who threw bawling toddler tantrums when he needed a nap, smeared hummus on the dog, and belly-laughed when daddy tickled him with his beard?  

Because here’s a truth, miracles are almost never as sexy in person as they’re built up to be.  

 

What was it like for Mary and the strangers from the East to fall into some daily patterns together, to have almost nothing humanly in common and yet get one another at a cellular level, sharing in a reality nobody else on earth yet sees, representing to each other by their presence that this really is realGod has really come; the world is being redeemed.  This wonky little collection of folk are now church, if church means, and I think it does, the people gathered around Jesus wondering together who God is, and watching together what ,God is up to. But also, maybe, getting annoyed because they load the dishwasher wrong and forget to take their shoes off in the house?

 

And then after the long visit, and the dreamt warning not to go back to Herod, and the Magi bypassing Jerusalem to return home by another road - (Oh, wasn’t Herod steaming mad when then never swung back by the palace! Didn’t he pace on his balcony with his eyes on the horizon day after day, the realization slowing dawning after one week, two, three, that they were NOT coming back, and there wasn’t a darn thing he could do about it!) - Just after the hugs and blessings and goodbyes, the little family turns back inside, sighing, and expecting, perhaps, that life might return to normal: normal is redefined again. 

Epiphany keeps going, you see.  It doesn’t actually let you turn back. 

By its very nature Epiphany’s path is almost always that of another road.

 

The new road is revealed when, three years after the one who told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, an angel messenger invades Joseph’s dreams, saying, Take the child and his mother and flea, right now, go to Egypt. Get up! NOW.  And it’s your turn, Joseph, to be the strangers from a foreign land.

God-with-us, who was born in a stable is now transient and homeless, and you along with him, foreigners in a foreign land.  

 

Some traditions hold that the little family settled in Egypt with the Ishmaelites, that they were received warmly by the way other side of the family tree, way back before Egypt became the land of captivity, the place from which Yahweh delivered the Israelites from slavery, back from the time when it was all the same trunk, the roots, the beginning. Father Abraham - father of us all, descendants as numerous as the stars.

 

It’s like baby God is on a sightseeing tour of the greatest hits. 

I have been at this project for quite some time, you see…

 

So to the land of Egypt they went, (part of the Roman Empire at the time), seeking safety and welcome in the hospitality, hearts and homes of strangers, who are all part of the whole great story anyway, while back home among the children of Israel, the so-called “King of the Jews” Herod’s terrible wrath and fear ordered the deaths of all male children under two in an effort to stamp out the light of the world before the flame caught and spread.

 

Then it was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

 

And I hate that part of the story and will never understand it, and don’t have a whole lot to say about it, except to notice both that God’s love doesn’t keep madness from happening but suffers it with us, coming as a homeless, transient peasant child, whose identity is revealed to nameless sheep-herders and pagan foreigners and NOT to the powers that be, no matter how loudly they rattle their sabers and fiercely they demand to be in on the secret, and also that as sweeping and awful as Herod’s act of terrible evil was, it seemed not to make a dent whatsoever in the God-with-us project. And while Herod himself is long dead and gone, love endures forever, profoundly and mightily, and every single day God-with-us is with us, transforming our shared life, bringing belonging and hope, redemptive kindness and healing care, and continuing to break through the darkness with light, every moment of every day.


After Herod’s death the little family finally journeys to Galilee, where they settle down at home amid grandparents and lifelong neighbors, to raise their first-grader in Nazareth, where he will run through the same streets, swim in the same streams, sit in the same school and participate in the same synagogue they did, in the tiny familiar world that had cradled and shaped them before their lives were ripped open by the light of the world.  

 

How was little Jesus shaped by those early wanderings, I wonder? 

What did he absorb from the Magi and the Egyptians, from the journeys and the dreams, and then from those who shaped his sense of home?  How did Epiphany bend his path?

 

And what about those Magi? The journeyers, soul friends and miracle sharers who brought epiphany onto the scene as much as they received it themselves?  What became of their lives after their encounter with the light of the world? How were they drawn into a lifetime of attunement to epiphany?

 

Epiphany keeps going, friends. The light of the world shimmers in our very own lives. And nobody gets to own this story – this story holds us all. It can’t be domesticated. What God is doing is always bigger, always more, always beyond us, and also right here next to us, in the minutia of our very ordinary lives. It pierces the darkness, the horrors, the loneliness, the wandering. It shares the awkward and unknown, the familiar and the comforting, the strange and the new, the death and the life, drawing us out into worlds we can’t imagine, bringing us home by roads we can’t foresee. 

 

Today we get star words. They are not magic. But they are a chance to lift our heads and look beyond ourselves with hearts open to however Christ might encounter us, attentive to wherever God might lead us this year. God is with us, transforming the world. 

So, arise, shine, beloved, your light has come. 

Happy Epiphany.

 



 

Saturday, December 24, 2022

God completely With Us

  


Luke 2:1-20

Would it be utterly tactless to admit on Christmas Eve that I am a teensy bit sick of Christmas? For the past month the soundtrack in our house, and car, and on vacation, and during dinner, has been Christmas classics. And while Bing and Ella and Frank and Mariah and are great, there’s a point when it all turns stale. 

 

And because Christmas classics are playing all the time, we’ve naturally had many conversations picking apart the origins and meaning of everything from the culturally shifting read of “Baby, it’s cold outside,” to the weirdly morbid lyrics of “Frosty the Snowman,” to the sketchy relationship dynamics in “last Christmas I gave you my heart but the very next day you gave it away” to the debatably patronizing misunderstanding in “I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus.”  Interspersed among these empty, sugary treats are the delicious and filling songs we’re singing here tonight, telling a story of mystery and wonder, of love and joy. But it’s all mixed up together, the deep and the stupid, and it’s relentless. 

 

But I am not here to rail against the commercialization of Christmas, which I happily join in every year. Instead, I want to invite us into that story of mystery and wonder by being here in the presence of God and each other.

 

The truth is, I am not really sick of Christmas, so much as I am craving to know the truth of it, to feel the real of it, to be drawn back to the hope of it. I want to peel back the shiny paper and see Christmas for what it is, not a dreamy, cheery, fix-everything event that makes us feel all warm and cozy and ends all strife and strain. 

 

The birth of Christ is untidy and uncomfortable, and at least here, tonight, we need not pretend it’s anything else. The actual Christmas moment is just like the rest of life: it’s awkward and messy, tiring and scary, a little exciting, a little confusing.  

 

And that’s how God wanted it. God wanted to be human, so God came human -  vulnerable, needy, loveable and infuriating – to humans, into the arms of ordinary, conflicted people struggling to do the right thing and wondering even what that is.  

 

God trusted ordinary people to welcome him in and care for him like one of our own. Love came in to be loved. This is the beginning of the story of Jesus Christ, and it’s the new beginning for the whole earth and everyone in it.   

 

God chooses to be with us, as we are, in this life, as it is.  And so this Christmas, like every day, our sadness is as welcome as our happiness, our anger is a gift that points us to truth, and no matter what we do, even when we lose sight of what’s real and bury it in layers of false cheer, even when we hurt others or ourselves, even when we’re drowning in regret, desperate for forgiveness, or numb with fatigue, nothing can separate us from the love of God, who heals what’s sick and mends what’s broken and welcomes home what’s lost.  

 

This little baby Jesus will die, that guaranteed when he draws his first human breath and cries his first tiny tear. God takes all suffering and death into God’s own self. Addiction, estrangement, illness, pain, injustice, cruelty and loneliness, there is nothing God does not bear with us, nothing can be greater than divine love coming in. The cross is there, in the manger. So is the empty tomb, so that, even now as we celebrate his birth, we can say with confidence, No death, no matter how big or small, gets to define who we are, or decide where all this is going. In Christ Jesus, we are forgiven, connected and made whole. You and I, the earth and everything in it, this whole story from beginning to end, belongs to God. 

 

No wonder the angels busted the sky open with joy, and the shepherds’ fervent words caused awe and amazement in all who heard them, and Mary eternally ponders these things in her heart.  

 

God took on flesh and God crept in beside us. Suddenly the ordinary is miraculous. This human living, astonishing. Every breath we take, a gift.  Bodies that grow, and learn, and smell, and taste, and sweat, and break down and need tending, minds that solve complex problems, imaginations that conceive breathtaking art, hearts that discover little ways to make each other laugh, and uncover just what will comfort another, all of it, miraculous. All things God is utterly delighted by. All things God wanted to know from the inside. 

 

Christmas invites us to be present, then.  Not to have answers, or have it all together, or to be cheerful or even introspective. Simply to receive the presence of God, right here, in these ordinary, miraculous lives we’re given, and to receive these lives too, with all our limitations and misdirections and all our mystery and wonder, love and joy, our beloved, holy, ordinary lives as conflicted people struggling to do the right thing and wondering even what that is, called to be here in this gorgeous world God is always making new.

 

And honestly, God loves us so much, I think God probably finds it cute when we make such a big, fancy, obnoxious to-do out of stuff, inevitably mixing up together the deep and the stupid,even so much that we sometimes lose sight of the treasure underneath. No matter, because when this turbo-charged season ends we remain forever inside the story of Christmas, of God-with-us nevertheless, fully, always leading everything eternally toward life and love.  

 

Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Advent in 300 Words: The Prophets, Joseph, Mary, The Angels

 ADVENT 300 WORD REFLECTIONS


THE PROPHETS (11/26) - by Kara K Root

The prophets, with their vivid eschatological imaginations, lead us into Advent.  Off the grid, out of the empire folks with fantastic stories, absurd confrontations and wild encounters, the prophets criticize and energize. They shake the façade keeping everyone content and accepting the unacceptable. God uses prophets to hold before God’s people a vision of who they really are and who God really is, because they keep forgetting. 
 
The prophets reveal God’s future breaking in now. They anticipate God’s coming, teach us how to watch for it, and show us how to live now from what will be.  In their own lives, they didn’t get to taste the fulfillment they spent their lives promising.  But their holy imagination, ruthless honesty and deep trust shaped our ancestors, our faith, and continue to stir us today.  
 
The prophet Isaiah speaks to a people living in exile, whose imaginations have shrunk to their captivity. Terrible things have happened to them, and they’ve made terrible choices. They’re stuck. Their life is small, their hope is dead. The end.
 
But if it’s not ok, then it’s not the end.  
 
Isaiah paints a poetic image of a new beginning, tender green shoot from the dead ground. Like a whisper, a stirring, a savior comes. Instead of division and striving, self-protection and fear, the savior ushers in a new reality: In the reign of God, all people, all creatures in all the world will live freely, fully, unafraid, connected in peace. Hope is the energy of peace, the anticipation of what is coming, the fuel of our faithful living now.  

May hope grow our eschatological imaginations. With holy imagination, ruthless honesty, and deep trust we wait, with and for each other and for the world, for the coming of Christ.  

We hope with the anticipation of the prophets.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

The kind of people who participate

Jean-Marie Pirot (aka Arcabas) The angel of the Lord speaks to Joseph in a Dream


 Matthew 1:18-25

His fiancé is pregnant with someone else’s baby. Joseph’s been made to look a fool. A righteous man, we’re told, with an impressive pedigree, Joseph seems a worthy candidate to parent the Messiah. And let’s be clear. God could’ve easily waited a few months until Mary and Joseph were properly married and saved everyone a lot of trouble.
 
Instead, God puts Joseph in a moral quandary. Heartbroken and betrayed, good guy Joseph will do the right thing – he’ll dismiss Mary quietly, cause as little embarrassment for her as possible, while preserving his own dignity and honor. 
 
Have you noticed how none of our ancestors in faith are ideal applicants for the job descriptions they end up filling?  And the ones who start out looking promising, like Joseph, end up losing something, or everything, for their role.
 
But if our biblical siblings appeared beyond reproach, we might think it was their inherent goodness that qualified them to participate in God’s plans. We might believe God prefers exemplary, upright, heroic types that make God look good.  
And if that were true, then we might presume that humanity is a graded on a scale, and one’s place in God’s good graces can be earned or lost. We might strive instead of rest, compare instead of cooperate, worry more about the virtue of our own souls than the well-being of others, and be tempted to take on God’s role by assuming it’s our job to fix what’s broken in the world. 
 
So, because the way of God is not about us and what we do but about who God is and what God is up to, the cast of characters that populate our scriptures and the great cloud of witnesses watching over us is necessarily comprised mostly of misfits, screw-ups, and the impossibly unqualified – like overlooked youngest sons and ignored foreign women and those with barren, ancient or virgin wombs, incapacitating stutters and colorful rap sheets, all of whom find in their brokenness a new identity as participants with God in healing and redeeming the world. 
 
Gone is Joseph the upstanding, competent, ethical exemplar who holds the reins of his life. This little crisis has ended that guy.  His good-person-ness torn away, Joseph will receive instead the grace of God who claims us nevertheless. When he awakens from his dream, he will be Joseph, misunderstood and misjudged, unable to control his own life or narrative, but claimed by grace, guided by love, brave to trust, and faithful—right up against his doubt, close to his fears, ready to accept what God is giving him and follow where God is leading him.  Joseph will agree to appear to be something that he is not – this child’s father, but he will claim him nevertheless, and in so doing, he will become his father after all.  
 
And so Joseph trades what was for what will be; he will anticipate the future of God by accepting his role in it now.  And Joseph will live a life characterized by grace unearned and forgiveness unmerited, where everybody belongs and nobody is dismissed, quietly or otherwise. 
 
The savior of the world belongs to us all, and first, Joseph, he will belong to you. The angel whispers in his dream. So do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Love her. Name the child Jesus. Love him.  
 
And the child Joseph will raise will not become an upstanding, good citizen, respected in society and honored in the community, upholding his father’s good name and bolstering the commendable, but a vagabond and a subversive, who dines with sinners, prostitutes and outcasts, confronts corruption and evil, and refuses to totalize or dismiss anyone.  He will be a Savior who rests, and trusts, and lives fully connected to God and to every other human.  And Jesus will open up to us all a reality of redemption, forgiveness and freedom, everlasting belonging that will set the world free.
 
Dear little Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church: for 100 years now, people have been gathering on this spot in the name and presence of Christ, to worship God together, to seek the way of Jesus and be guided by the Holy Spirit, to pray and sing, and listen and respond. To grieve and to celebrate. To raise each other’s kids in love, and bury each other’s loved ones with gentleness. To pour love into the community and welcome in the world’s pain and joy. To learn and to change alongside one another, to mess up and practicing forgiving, to reach out and practice receiving, to take the baton from those gone before and pass it on to those who come next. 

And so for 100 years this little congregation has had our own rotating cast of unlikely characters, misfits and oddballs, flawed people living broken, honest and real lives, trusting right up against our doubt, watching for the in-breaking of God around us, sharing the presence of Christ by being with and for others, faithfully accepting what God is giving us and following where God is leading us.  
That is something to celebrate.
 
Today we lit an Advent Candle for Peace. So this week, we will be watching for, praying for, and living toward peace. The Hebrew word for Peace, Shalom, means “fullness” or “completion.”  So when people greet one another or say goodbye, with Shalom, what they are really saying is, “May you be completed.”  Whenever we join in God’s bringing wholeness and fullness for others, whenever our words or actions say, “May you be completed,” we are making peace. We can literally share in the substance of God’s life, here and now.  We can contribute to others’ fullness, fullness in the world around us, and fullness between us.  
We can trade what is for what will be. 

But only if we have our ideas about what it means to live a good life torn away, and receive instead the grace of God who claims us nevertheless.  

God’s love comes to and through imperfect people in ordinary ways, and we are drawn in by God’s mercy and grace, to receive the love of God without qualifications or preconditions. God plunges into this world in the person of Christ Jesus, and by the Spirit pours grace and love through us that feels like courage to forgive, and willingness to listen, and an inclination toward wonder, joy, gratitude and generosity.

 This savior ruins people for respectable, mind-your-own-business living, and pulls us head over heels into a life of trusting, and resting, and hoping, that practices our unbreakable belonging to God and each other, and join in the healing and shalom that God is always bringing into the world. So, like those gone before us, both our predecessors here, and all the faithful from every place and time, we too anticipate the future of God by accepting our role in it now.  
Amen.
 

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Present and Thankful



 "Rejoice" is a pretty churchy, peppy word. When you google “rejoice” you mostly get silhouette images of people with their arms raised to the sky against a sunset or mountain backdrop. If you were an alien doing research on our planet you would think that rejoice meant walking around at dusk with your hands up.  But we Christians know it means just feeling enthusiastically cheerful and thankful all the time, with the hands of our hearts raised in permanent gratefulness. Just kidding. Paul wrote this in prison. Sitting on a filthy floor in chains is the image you don’t see when you google “rejoice!”   

I’m not going to lie, I have my own photo of my 23 year old self silhouetted against a spectacular Fijian sunset with my arms raised.  But even so, when the Sunday school poster or Christian bookmark tells me to Rejoice! I recoil.  I don’t like being told what to do or how to feel.  And that’s pretty much how this verse has been used.  When this passage says, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” I can remember the exact place I was sitting in my cousins’ living room, when my aunt walked in, turned off whatever spicy scene was on the TV, and quoted that verse at us.
 
Being told to rejoice, be thankful, have gratitude, focus your mind on what’s true, can feel like some kind of Miss Manners advice, Christian behavior modification, or politeness training.  
Apologize for hitting your brother. 
Tell your sister you forgive her.  
Count your blessings.
Say Thank you to Grandma for the present.  
Leave a generous tip.
Rejoice and give thanks to God always.
 
And it’s too bad. Because while things like apologies, confessions and gratitude can be coerced or disingenuous, they are also some of the most authentic and important stuff of relationships. When we genuinely apologize, or truthfully confess, or say Thank you and actually mean it, we are at our most honest, present, vulnerable and aware. We are living our humanity and interconnectedness. We are receiving the gift of this life, the gift of the other person, and the gift of our own living and breathing self.
 
God made the world good. Goodness is all around us, even in the midst of what’s bad, and gratitude invites us to notice.  To rejoice in the good doesn't deny the evil or the brokenness, it doesn’t ignore struggle or suffering. Giving thanks acknowledge the goodness that is also, always here, because in Christ God is always here. Gratitude stills and quiets us us to pay attention with wonder and reverence, and then points that awe right to its source. And so gratitude is one of the shortcuts out of the way of fear and back to the way of God, whereas cheerfulness, platitudes and politeness are not.
 
When Paul writes “rejoice always!” from his prison cell, he is not giving the Philippians an attitude pep talk or a lesson in etiquette. He’s touching something really deep that can’t be captured on the front of a greeting card and can’t be crushed by chains or hardship either.
 
At all times, rejoice in union with God, Paul says. The Lord is here. Don’t be anxious about anything, but let God know everything that is on your heart, with both longing and thanksgiving, tell God know what you need. And God’s peace, which defeats all human logic and comprehension, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
 
That’s something. 
 
Gratitude is powerful. And it is prayer -whether we acknowledge it or not. When thanksgiving rises up within us, we are enacting our connection to God, even if we aren’t aware in the moment that’s what we’re doing, even if we are not believers in God. We are praying. To be grateful we must be present. We are constantly departing the present moment by actively regretting the past or persistently anticipating future. Gratitude overrides this. In the moment of gratefulness we are present in the very presence of God who is always here with us. And that is prayer.
 
The truth is, while we need reminders sometimes, and structure too, we don’t actually have to work that hard at feeling thankful.  Because we’re hardwired for this. Gratitude is a basic human need, a natural human and deeply spiritual response that arises, unprompted, when we are paying attention.

And Paul gives us a way to pay attention.  
Whatever is good, he says, whatever is true and just and honorable and pure, think on these things.  What we look for, we will find. If we look for division and hate, injustice and pain, we will find it. It is there. We spend a lot of time and energy practicing looking for what’s wrong.  
 
And if we look for hope and love and sacrifice and generosity we will find it. Because that’s here too.  If we live open to delight and wonder, beauty and awe, that is what we will receive.  Even in the midst of what is broken, redemption is breaking forth.  We can practice looking for life.
 
Someday time will be wiped away, and we will exist in the suspended joy of being alive, of being in God’s full presence and being wholly, truly, fully alive.  Gratitude lets us see the kingdom of God now.  When we pause in gratitude, we live in a moment out of time. We get a sample-sized taste, a foreshadowing of God’s future, a future that comes not from the present but from the promise. Instead of a future filled with the consequences of past choices or the impossibilities of human limitations, gratefulness dips us into the future beyond time, when what remains is the eternal moment of gratitude.
 
We don’t come together in worship to be polite to God, we come to be reoriented again to the Kingdom of God breaking into this world. We are not here to get a lesson on saying thank you, or pressure about how grateful we should all be.  We come to be awakened to what’s real – to be reminded of our belonging to God and each other because we are practicing it together and that will help us practice when we are apart.
 
So today, instead of any more discussing gratitude, we are going to experience it. This is not going to be a dress rehearsal for the “What are you thankful for?” conversations around the table on Thursday.  (Though, it may help). We are going to practice paying attention to what is good and true and beautiful and wonderful. We are going to let ourselves be present, in this moment, with God.
 
Reader - you are invited to do this practice we did in worship. Set aside 10 minutes. Grab a pen and paper. You won't regret it.

A PRACTICE OF GRATITUDE
For the next few minutes, you are invited to simply be present here, and be willing to notice. Read each phrase and you're invited to write down the first things that come to mind. Don’t edit or force or direct – just let whatever wants to come spill out.
 
Begin with a moment of silence. 
 
In this moment, in this place, with these people, I am thankful for…
When I think of the people I call mine, I am thankful for… 
When I consider the connections I have in the world, friends, neighbors, coworkers, I am thankful for…
When I think of my body, I am thankful for…
When I reflect on my life in the past few months, I am thankful for… 
When I think of things this year that have been painful or challenging, I am thankful for…
When I think of this world, I am thankful for…
When I think of God, I am thankful for…

Is there a category you wished would’ve been mentioned? Something that you felt gratitude for during this time? Take a moment now to jot down anything else you would like to express thanks for…
 
Now read back over your list. 
 Let yourself feel what you’ve written down.  
Let yourself receive the gratitude. 

 
Amen.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

A Prayer for Election Day


A PRAYER FOR ELECTION DAY

We belong
first and foremost
to you, Lord.
God of heaven and earth,
eternity and the moment,
ever and always.

Then we belong to the whole of creation;
the living, the dead,
the yet to become, and the reborn,
the ongoing cycle of earth and life
with its glorious array of ever-expanding participants:
mountains and trees and oceans and valleys,
gazelles and robins and rivers and earthworms,
all.

Next we belong to the human family,
all humanity in every corner of the vast globe,
all languages, creeds, cultures, skin tones, religions, beliefs, experiences, 
hopes, celebrations, losses, goals, 
vocations, technologies and connections,
in grief and wonder and anger and happiness and confusion and sadness and joy.
Whatever happens, and no matter what,
we belong to them all, all, all.
And they all
belong to us.

After this we are grouped - 
some arbitrarily and some by choice - 
into land masses and geographic regions.
We develop identifying accents, clothing preferences and regional tastebuds
which is to say,
we gather our experiences into ourselves
alongside others
who are gathering into themselves experiences
alongside us.

We call our places of belonging towns, counties, villages and cities,
tribes, nations, countries, continents and coalitions;
these countless designations simply mean that
we live nearby
and agree to certain codes of living with one another
that, in one way or another, uphold our greater belonging - 
to the whole human family,
the living and the dead of all creation,
and the Lord of all.

Next we have the smaller groups in which we learn
and the people there who teach us,
the neighbors, musicians, coaches and collaborators,
the members of our faith, our teams, our clans.
We have hobbies we cultivate with people who practice them alongside us,
passions we pursue and those whom they impact,
jobs we end up in and those who end up there too,
whose lives intertwine with our own.

And then there are those specific people from whom we come,
the ones whose being and belonging
shape our own being and belonging most directly,
I mean, of course,
our ancestors and grandparents,
aunts and uncles, cousins and kin,
parents and siblings.
We may have the partner with whom we share our life,
and the children whom we shape and watch become,
and the pets we assemble into our homes,
and the gardens we tend,
and the friendships we cultivate,
and the places we grow our roots,
deep, strong and sure,
with and for those to whom we give our hearts,
who will one day be buried in the ground alongside everyone and everything else,
to which we already and always belong.

So on this day when our Democracy is Verbed,
and we exercise our right and responsibility to participate together
in shaping the future of our shared home,
we give thanks for all the belongings that hold us,
both created and innate.

We give thanks for the communities into which we pour our lives,
and for all those in our communities that pour their lives into us.
We give thanks for the earth that nurtures all life,
and all those who nurture the earth.

On this day that shapes our nation,
in our collective belonging called The United States of America
we give thanks for all that is good and wise and kind,
all that upholds our humanity,
both individual and shared.
Thank you, God.

And in our collective belonging called The United States of America
we confess all that is evil, foolish and divisive,
all that damages our soul,
both individual and shared.
Forgive us, Lord.

And when this day of national weighing in
has come to an end
and whatever comes next 
begins,
it remains
that beyond country, beyond kin,
beyond borders and beliefs,
beyond any and all boundaries,
whether natural or unnatural,
is the Great Belonging,
that is,
to one another, all,
and to you, Lord of all.

For this, today,
we give thanks.

Amen.

- Kara Root, A Prayer for Election Day

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Nevertheless, We Persist

Luke 18:1-8

I don’t think we can grasp what Jesus’s parables were like to hear in person. We treat them like they belong in a dry, dusty old book, but I feel like this one was a Renaissance Fair skit. 
Jesus begins, ‘In a “certain city” (dramatic pause so they could fill in which city they thought he must be thinking of) there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 
In creeps a vaudevillian character in a long black cloakwith a twisty malevolent mustache. 
 
In” that city” there was a widow (out pops a sympathetic grandmother type) who kept coming to him and saying, (she turns to the audience and pipes up) “Grant me justice against my opponent.” 

For a while he refused; but nevertheless, she persisted! Finally, he said to himself, (the judge turns to the audience and remarks, finger on his chin), “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow (pointing at her) keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming!" 
(Waves his magic justice fairy wand. End scene).
 
All that to say, there was a playfulness to Jesus’s storytelling.  And the scenarios and characters in his parables are often exaggerated to make a point.  And thankfully for us, the point is said right up front here. “He told them a story so they would pray always and not lose heart.” 
 
And friends, I feel like not losing heart is a good goal.  
I feel how easy it could be to lose heart. This week I heard someone quote a scientist who said, “The three biggest environmental issues facing us today are selfishness, apathy and greed. And scientists can’t do anything about those.”  That’s one thing that could make me lose heart, for example.  
 
And Jesus tells this story of this persistent widow, which is to say – this person without power or voice who refuses to stop asking the person with power, but no character, for justice against her opponent. We don’t know anything about this opponent or, what they have done, or whether her claim is stronger than her opponent’s, or what justice would even look like.  All we are told of is her persistence. And how her persistence ultimately persuaded the jerk holding all the power, who sees no authority above himself and cares about nobody, to rule in her favor. That’s how persistent she was!

And won’t God, Jesus asks, God – who is actually just, who actually love us, who is actually already moving everything toward wholeness and healing – won’t God be far more responsive when we cry out for wrongs to be made right? 
 
Justice means for wrongs to be made right
Unfortunately, try as we might, we can’t actually make wrongs right.  We can punish, and we can enact revenge, and we can correct imbalances, and we can change laws so things are better in the future. We can acknowledge how wrong things actually are. But we can’t make wrongs right.  Humans are affected by what we do and say to each other and stuck with the consequences of our actions.  And while of course, society needs order and rules, nothing can undo what has been done. 
 
I heard an interview this week with someone who was wrongly convicted at 20 years old, spent 17 years in prison, and was finally released.  He was given $50,000 for each year he was in prison, and the interviewer asked how that money had helped. He responded that it can’t make up for being kidnapped for 17 years, can’t give him back the college education he was ripped out of, or provide a career’s worth of job skills that he didn’t get to acquire.  He has filed a hefty civil suit against the detectives who investigated the case.  When asked what that money would mean, besides the practical implications, he answered, “It would be justice.”  
 
But no amount of money can give back the life that was taken from him. It can only win him public acknowledgement of just how wrong it all was, which seems like about the best we can hope for. Making Alex Jones pay nearly a billion dollars to a group of Sandy Hook parents doesn’t take back the horrifying damage his words have done and will continue to do. Even more to the point, it can’t bring them back.  
 
The gaping losses we experience, the hurt we cause and the hurt we absorb, the terrible disparity we operate within, everyday unfairnesses and the brutality of sheer evil, these are wrong. They are not as life should be. Can any human mechanism we can wield actually make what’s wrong right?  
 
So, this persistent widow is our model, then. We are to come again and again, crying out for wrongs to be made right. We are to persist in demanding this and not let up.  And actually, this is the way to not lose heart. Because we are joining our hearts with God’s heart that beats for justice, God’s reality that holds the promise of all wrongs being made right.  
 
Along with our good intentions, we are also filled with selfishness, apathy and greed, and generally human beings are unimaginative when it comes to hope. We don’t really believe wrongs can be made right. Maybe this is what Jesus means when he ends his story with one of those head-shaking, hypothetical questions lifted to the sky: But when the Son of Man comes back will he even find any faith on earth? 
 
We go by what we can see and do, not by what God does. 
We aim for retribution, but God delivers resurrection. 
We are limited by the confines of this life, barricaded in by death, and we lose sight of the reality that there is life beyond all confines and barriers, beyond what our limited imaginations can conceive of, pulsing always underneath it all. God’s justice is for now and for what is to be.  
God is not an unjust judge, and faith is not a means to an end. 
God is the source of all life, and the energy of love that pours into us and calls us back to what life is meant to be for all.  
 
But we don’t get to be the powerful one in the story. 
We’re the ones who come in our weakness like the persistent widow, the very weakness God took on and shared with us in Christ. 
By the world’s standards, God’s tools in our hands are unimpressive. They are things like forgiveness, listening, shared suffering, steady presence and hope-filled persistence. They are being, and seeing, and welcoming, instead of winning, or proving, or declaring.  
In fact, these tools of faith have no power in themselves at all. Instead they are gateways to eternity, portals to love and reconciliation, doorways to hope and promise. Because despite what we all fear, death is not the end.

The author of Hebrews calls faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” (Heb. 11:1). And the way to back to this assurance is to pray.  
 
Praying is not relentlessly begging a disinterested, selfish, and apathetic power-monger for acknowledgment of wrongs committed or retribution against an enemy.  Praying is turning our hearts to the Beloved, surrendering to the magnetic pull back to the source of all life, letting ourselves come in honesty and longing, again and again, to One in whom wrongs are made right.  
 
And when we do that, we will not lose heart. 
What we will begin to lose is our selfishness, our apathy and our greed. We will begin to see our lives shaped toward the justice we long for, the justice that is promised.   And we will begin to grow into a robust eschatological imagination that lives joyfully and ever more confidently into what is coming.  
 
And so, now we will do what Jesus told us to. We will be persistent and we will pray.
 
God, things are not ok.  
Life feel precarious and frightening.  
The earth feels fragile and on the brink of collapse. 
Progress toward equity slips, 
unity feels elusive, 
those on the margins bear the brunt, 
and those with wealth and power hold the reigns. 
 
Right now, war is raging, 
democracy seems wounded and flailing, 
lies are sold as truth and people we love believe them, 
vengeance masquerades as justice,
and hatred has become justified, 
and, God, if we’re honest,
we’re so weary of it, so exhausted and saddened by it all,
 that apathy beckons to us as sweet relief.  
It sometimes feels like not caring 
might be the only thing that saves us.
 
SUNG REFRAIN: 
But if it's not ok,
then it is not the end.
And this is not ok, so I know
this is not
this is not the end.

 
God, we are not ok.  
There is so much depression, 
so much anxiety, so much despondency, 
so much worry, so much fear.
and we want to fix it and can’t.
We forget that we all just went through the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters. 
We forget that the whole human family has been through a massive shared trauma. 
We forget that all of life as we know it was suddenly turned upside down 
and shaken up for nearly two years,
and it’s not even in the rearview mirror.
Effects linger, the impact reverberates, 
the shock hasn’t worn off.
We are scrambling to find a new normal, 
but don’t even know where to begin.
And we’re tired.  
God, everything takes energy that we don’t have.
 
SUNG REFRAIN: 
But if it's not ok,
then it is not the end.
And this is not ok, so I know
this is not
this is not the end.

 
God, we long for things to be ok,
but our senses are dulled
to the beauty, the interconnectedness,
the hope, 
the promise always lurking inside every interaction,
every silence, the laughter and tears, the hugs and hands touching,
the gentle gaze and friendly voice,
the shared quiet and sudden delight.
We’re generally numb to the thrilling potential for resurrection 
lingering around every corner.
 
Our hope is stunted; our faith is weak.
We aim for sustainable; you call us to life-giving.
We aim for tolerance; you call us to belonging.
We aim for stability, you call us to transformation.
We aim for parity, you call us to abundance.
We surrender our puny aspirations
and our paltry goals, Lord.  
We let them go.
 
SUNG REFRAIN: 
But if it's not ok,
then it is not the end.
And this is not ok, so I know
this is not
this is not the end.

 
You are God. 
You were here yesterday, you’re here today 
and you will be here tomorrow.
There is nothing that is, 
or has been, or will be
that is outside of, or apart from, your love.
We are not alone.
 
So we ask, Lord, give us your heart
that can’t be lost.
Deliver us from selfishness,
cleanse us from apathy, 
free us from greed,
and release us from fear. 
Restore us to love - root us and ground us 
deep and secure in the love that will not let us go,
will not let this world go, will never let go.
 
SUNG REFRAIN: 
But if it's not ok,
then it is not the end.
And this is not ok, so I know
this is not
this is not the end.

 
God, right here, in the midst of everything that is not ok, 
and everything that is ok too,
point our faces toward the further horizon,
point our lives toward the unimaginable, 
assure us of what can’t be seen, 
make us to know in our bones what surpasses knowledge: 
this “overwhelming, never-ending reckless” love of God 
made ours in Christ, that is saving the world. 
 
The Kingdom of God is breaking in upon the earth
and evil will not prevail.  
Only love remains.
You are already doing this. 
You are always doing this.
In you we all belong, 
to you we all belong.
Our weary souls and longing hearts belong in you, 
and the energy of your Spirit is what will move us. 
 
Help us, then, to trust in you. 
Help us, God, to rest in you. 
Help us, Jesus Christ, 
to persist, and not lose heart.

SUNG REFRAIN: 
But if it's not ok,
then it is not the end.
And this is not ok, so I know
this is not
this is not the end.


Amen.

(Sung refrain from Fool's Gold, by Sandra McCracken)

Ordinary Miracles and Ongoing Epiphany

  Adoration of the Magi,  Andrea Mantegna , c. 1495-1505. When Epiphany dawns, the swaddling clothes have long been packed away in the attic...