Wednesday, May 01, 2013

What is He doing here? by Chris Shade


Do you like a good cliffhanger? Do you like the anticipation of not knowing how the leading characters are going to escape their sticky situation? Ugh! I hate them. They stress me out. And it is always at these tense moments that television shows opt to break for commercial. I remember being a big Dukes of Hazzard fan when I was a kid. Any other Duke boys fans in the audience? They were always getting a gun pointed at them, or having to make an impossible jump in the General Lee (that was their supped up Dodge Duster). And right at the tensest moment, they would freeze the frame and go to commercial. The absolute worst though is when the show would be getting toward the end and the resolution was nowhere in sight. The killer was nowhere close to being found. Or the kids were not going to make it out of the cave in time. Or Brenda and Dylan were still on their way to the prom. For a second you wonder how they are going to wrap it all up and still have time for the closing credits. Then three simple words spell out your answer...”to be continued...” Guess you will just have to come back next week.
We are going to see one of those “to be continued...” moments in our story today. But first I have to fill you in on last week. If this were a TV show, it might go something like: “Previously on The Sermon.” We heard a story about a wonderful homecoming. It goes like this: A man had two sons and the younger son wants his inheritance early. His father gives it to him and he leaves. Soon after we find him penniless as he spent all of his inheritance on loose living. He gets a lowly job feeding pigs. And as he sits with filthy pigs wishing that he could eat their food, he comes to himself and decides to return home and beg his father to hire him as a worker.
But when his father sees him coming, he runs out to meet him. He tells his servants to put a robe on him, a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet. He tells them to kill the fattened calf and have a feast in his honor. For he says “This son of mine was dead and now he is alive; he was lost and now he is found.”
Now we could end it here. It certainly seems like a nice capper to the story. It is a tale of extravagant welcome and forgiveness. It is a lesson for us as a people and as a church of being warm and accepting. If you were here last week, you heard that lesson. But there is more to the story. At the end of the episode if you look past the party guests and out the window you would see a disgruntled man standing in a field. The older son! What is his beef? Find out next week on The Sermon.
Lucky for you, next week is today.
We pick up right where we left off. The father goes out to the older son to plead with him. The older son wastes no time with niceties or a respectful greeting to his father. He starts right in. “Listen!” he says “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
Essentially the older son is saying, “What is HE doing here!?!” This is a bold statement. The bile and judgment comes right through. The older brother is mad. But can you really blame him? After all, he has a point, right? Why should this younger brother get the king’s treatment? After all, he has done nothing but squander everything that he has been given whereas the older son has been nothing but faithful and true.
To understand why Jesus put this reaction in the parable we have to go back a bit. Back before the sermon last week to look at the beginning of this chapter of Luke. This parable comes as a capper to a trio of parables about finding lost things. There is the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and finally this one which could easily be called the parable of the lost son. They are teachings about how much celebration there is in heaven when a sinner is repentant and changes their sinful ways.
These parables are not being told out of the blue. They are all in response to the Pharisees. Now who are the Pharisees? The Pharisees were powerful religious leaders that were entrusted with the task of making sure all of the Jewish religious laws were being followed. The text says that they were grumbling about Jesus eating with quote “sinners” unquote. These sinners had not earned their space at the table. They were unclean, not the blessed people, the ones that God truly loved and admired. No. The Pharisees thought that the grace of God must be earned, and they had earned it, not these sinners. If this Jesus, this Son of God, should be eating with anyone, it should be them. In essence they felt like the older son.
This is exactly why Jesus introduces the character of the older son into the story. It would have been hard for Jesus to illustrate this concept of jealousy with sheep or coins. But here we have an older son that is upset that his younger brother is being doted on by his father after squandering his money. That is something that hits home. This is quite obviously intended at the Pharisees who are looking down their noses at Jesus and his merry band of sinners.
The story does not hide the idea that the two sons are opposite contrasts of one another. The younger son does everything wrong. Everything about him is dirty, except...his heart. His heart is humble. His heart is willing. He is filled with rediscovered love for his father and for his family. He just wants to be a part of it, if only in small way.
By contrast his brother, the older one, does everything right. He is perfect in every way except...his heart. His heart is full of hate and resentment. He resents his father. He resents his father’s actions. And he clearly resents his brother, the one who devoured his father’s property. In essence Jesus is claiming that hearts of these Pharisees are no better than the sinners with whom he dines. In fact, they might be worse.
It is likely that we have all felt like the older son at one point or another in our lives. Perhaps you have resented others for the actions that they have taken. Maybe you have felt unfairly treated or even hurt. Or you have wished that others would just go away. Certainly this is the easy response. But this parable gives us an alternative in the actions of the father. When the world says to forget about others, this parable says to run to them with open arms. When the world says that you should cut those people off, this parable says that we should reach out with grace. When the world says that we should only look out for ourselves, this parable says that we should be abundant with forgiveness. Resentment will only breed isolation. But acceptance will foster togetherness.
It is only fitting then, that the father, the example of the love of God, should have one more thing to say. “Son,” he says. “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
         There are two important details about this response.
         The first is that the Greek word that we translate as “son” is teknon, which is a very special word for son that denotes affection and intimacy. There is a great deal of love in that word. There is a great deal of love that the father has for his older son. He does not exchange malice for malice. He does not respond with resentment, but with love. The same kind of love that he had extended earlier to the younger son.
         The second detail is the equality in the statement. “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Certainly we can read this as a monetary promise. After all the older son remains such and will receive all that comes with that title. But it is about more than money. Remember, this is a parable. The older son is not just an older son, but a thinly veiled characterization of the Pharisees. So when Jesus as the father says “All that I have is yours” what he is saying is that the Pharisees are not going to be removed from their post, but rather that the Kingdom of God is available to them. They can share in this joy. They can be a part of all that God is doing in the world at that moment.
         And with that he repeats what he said earlier. What was dead has come to life. The lost son, like the sheep and the coin before him has been found.
And then, the text ends. But I would argue that the story doesn’t. I think that there is an invisible “to be continued...” at the end of this story.
The Bible scholar Dr. Ken Bailey’s does too. Dr. Bailey analyzed this parable in comparison to Hebrew story structure and concludes the parable cuts off too early. To complete the structure there should be a final response from the older brother, but there is none. Why? According to Dr. Bailey the last part was for the Pharisees to fill in on their own. If the term “to be continued...” existed in Jesus’ time, he might have directed it right at the Pharisees. Remember, it was the Pharisees who looked down on Jesus for dining with sinners and the unclean. But Jesus called them out. He uses the story to show the true nature of their hearts in comparison to God’s love. The next move is on them.
So Jesus leaves it up to the Pharisees. Do they want to continue to stand on the outskirts looking in with disdain and judgment at this new thing that God is doing? Or do they want to cast off their pride and join in the party? Whether or not they do, God’s grace and love is still going to be abundant. To saints and sinners alike.
So in this day, as we gather in this place, as we take part in this worship, the question of response is not directed at the Pharisees, but rather directed at us. The “to be continued...” phrase is aimed at our lives. How are we going to act?
A few months ago, we started asking these kinds of questions. Who is our neighbor? How will we respond? What will get us talking? It is a tough process and one that we certainly can not complete in twelve short summer weeks. But along this process we have to ask ourselves, “What will our response be if and when we do start making connections?” After all, we are not called to reach out to those who are doing great, but rather those who, like the younger son, are in need of a place to feel at home. And I will be honest: some of these people can make us uncomfortable at first. So how will we respond?
Will we be like the father and give ourselves over to welcome and acceptance making this a safe haven for the lost and the broken, for all of God’s children? Or will we be like the Pharisees who prefer to have order and comfortability and keep things the way that they have always been.
Maybe a better way to put it is, “What does your love look like?” Is like the father’s love in the story or by parallel God’s love? Does it flow abundantly through you? Does it overcome being wronged, being left, being forgotten? Does it seethe with resentment or does it offer forgiveness? Does it lift others up or break others down? Does it extend to the least of these? Does your love shine even in times of embarrassment, awkwardness, and uncomfortably?  
So when we check in again on the next episode, will we find yourself ourselves alone in the field like the older son with only our pride and stubbornness to keep us company or will we be inside, at the party, sitting at the table of grace? Well, if Luke is correct, you know where Jesus will be, sitting down with a loaf of bread in one hand and a sinner in the next, trying to figure out how to make something of this community. People of God, people of love, go and do likewise. Amen.

Ooooh, the Humanity... by Chris Shade


There are two kinds of people in the comic book loving world. There are Superman people and there are Batman people. What side are you on? If you are not sure let me give you a bit of back story. Superman people love the super powers of their comic book hero. They like that he can deflect bullets with his bare chest, that he can shoot heat rays out of his eyes, and he can fly! He can fly!
Now Batman people don’t go for all of that super power kind of stuff. See Batman is just a regular human. He can’t fly. He can’t shoot lasers. He is not even that strong. He is just your average guy, well, if your average guy was a highly intelligent billionaire with an arsenal of weapons and decades of combat training. Okay, so he is not all that average, but he is mortal; he is human.  
         Now why am I telling you this? Well, I want to come right out and say it. I want to confess on this day in this pulpit: I am a Batman person. I identify with the character who gets his powers from within.  I like the harsh reality that Batman has to face on a daily basis and knowing he could die. In short, I like the humanity.
         So, it is with this kind of knowledge that I come to this story of the Transfiguration that Nancy read for us this morning. I have to say that this story always perturbed me. I have always felt that it is a bit out of place in the grand narrative of Jesus. Here is why: Jesus is a guy who is walking the earth, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, questioning authority...and then, seemingly out of the blue, he takes a minute out of his day to walk up a mountain and have a glorious apocalyptic moment with Elijah and Moses. It just seems a bit out of place to me. But maybe it is because I am looking at it like a Superman story and not a Batman story. Maybe I am missing the humanity that is present in the story. So I invite you to come with me this morning and see if we can find a place for us in the Transfiguration. If we find it, we might just be prompted to utter the title of the sermon: Ohhhh, (delivered like someone who came to a realization, not in anguish) the Humanity.
         Well right off of the bat it says that Jesus went up to the mountain to pray. In fact it was during his prayer that the Transfiguration happened. I can identify with this – this need to get away, this need to go and just have a moment of peace. Are you with me? How many times in your busy stressful day have you thought, boy, I wish I could just get away. I wish I could take a trip to someplace that is quiet, a place that is peaceful. Wouldn’t that be nice? Jesus no doubt had many reasons to want to take a moment to himself. There were the insistent crowds, the clueless disciples, and let’s not forget the powerful authorities that wanted to kill him. Talk about stress.
         But I don’t know if this is the best place to find the humanity in the story. After all, Jesus was the son of God, so his prayer must have been on a whole other level. When we pray, do we pray like Jesus? Can we pray like Jesus? We can certainly pray as Jesus taught us, but is that the same?  I mean he went up to a mountain top and was surrounded by a cloud. Is that humanity? I am not sure. Perhaps we should keep looking.
         Perhaps there is humanity in the connection with the Creator. God’s presence was certainly felt on that day. Even God’s voice came down and spoke. “This is my Son, Listen to Him.” At it is God’s presence that brings about the transformation. It says that Jesus’ face was changed and his clothes became a dazzling white. On the surface this might sound like the toughest place in the story to find humanity, what with all of the theatrics. But I do not think that it is impossible.
At it’s heart, the transfiguration is about change, and as humans, we have the capacity for great change. We have the gift of choice and we can use that gift to make remarkable changes in our lives and in our world. Maybe you have made the transition from addiction to recovery. Maybe you have mended a relationship that you though would never be reconciled. Maybe you have simply begun a new exercise regime. Whatever the case, it is our capacity for change, for transformation that makes us human. And it is the presence of God in this story and in our lives that can inspire that change to happen.
         But if I am to be really honest, I think that our changes, no matter how significant just don’t quite measure up to the power of this story. It says that Jesus’ whole face changed. Even his clothes became new. In all of His glory, I think that we lose a bit of the humanity.
         Perhaps we are focusing too much on Jesus. Maybe we can find connections with other characters in the story. Maybe the humanity lies in one of Jesus’ companions. The scripture says that Jesus was joined by Moses and Elijah, not angels, but humans. Humans that had struggles, humans that wanted to run from their callings. Moses told God he was not worthy of the task God gave him. Elijah ran away when things got too heated in his life.
So, can we see some humanity in these folks? Have you ever been in a situation that you did not want to face? Have you feared failure, rejection, or the stresses of leadership? Have you ever felt like staring God in the eye and just saying, “No.” Well then you might identify with these two characters.
But to be honest, they are clearly not in this story because of their human faults. They are in this story because of what they accomplished. Both encountered God on a mountain top, both went on to do great things for their people and both are revered. They are the equivalent of Jewish super heroes: Moses representing the law and Elijah representing the prophets, two pillars of Jewish faith and teaching. And they show up in this story as a way to link Jesus’ life to theirs, to link a traditional faith to a new revelation.  
So that leaves us with Peter. Poor, naive Peter. He sees this miraculous event and proclaims, “It is good to be up here. We should build some dwellings. Let’s make three houses. One for you, Jesus, and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Now we can certainly feel for Peter. I mean which of us would really know how to handle that situation? Historical figures that have been dead for thousands of years just show up one day on a mountain. What would you do? He was just trying to be helpful. Now there is humanity here, but Peter’s character definitely leaves something to be desired. Thankfully the story does not end there.
         At the end of the day Jesus came down off of that mountain top. And do you know what he did? He got to work. And this is where I think our best glimpse of humanity lies. Jesus did not ascend into heaven on Elijah’s chariot. He did not stay up on that mountain and set up camp. No, he came down. For though it is His connection with God that makes Him divine, it is his connection with the earth that makes Him human. So He comes back and He gets back to work. In the very next story He heals a boy and restores a family. So maybe the humanity is not on the mountain top, but in coming down off of the mountain and getting back to work.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think that mountain moments are crucial. They are essential in our lives and in our work. Taking time to be alone. Taking time to pray. Being available to have encounters with our God that renew us and change us: they all vitally important. But we cannot stay there. Just as Jesus came down and got back to work, so should we.
         And what a load of work there is to do. I feel like we can have a wheel of issues and just spin it and see what comes up. Take your pick. How about feeding the hungry? According to the U.S. census, in 2011 over 6 million people in California alone are below the poverty line. 6 million! That’s more than any other state. And 1 in 5 kids live in a household that struggles to put food on the table.
You want to talk environment? 2012 was the hottest year ever in the United States and experts say that this decade is no doubt going to be the hottest. You hear about the loss of crops, the wildlife being displaced, and don’t forget the weather patterns like hurricane Sandy.
You can take gun control, human trafficking, health reform, the prevalence of corporate influence in our government. The list goes on and on.
Now I am not just here to spout doom and gloom and throw a bunch of statistics at you. I am merely pointing out that there is work to do. A lot of work to do. And who better to do it than us. What better time that now? And we have made progress. This church has raised over $2000 for the Habitat for Humanity build in Walnut Creek and we are sending five workers to give their time and talent to help further. We contribute time, food, and money to our local food bank. The youth collected $165 here last week. We inform ourselves about the issues and stay informed.
But there is more work to be done and we can only stand up on the mountain for so long before we have to follow the lead of Jesus and get back to work.
Now you know that I am a Batman person, right, but I found this story of Superman that seems particularly appropriate to end on. It’s called Superman: Grounded. It begins after a long series of events that lead the people of the U.S. to feel like Superman has lost touch. He has been away for so long he no longer understands what life is really like in their world. So Superman agrees to come out of the skies and walk. He walks from one end of the country to the other. He does not fly. He barely uses his powers. He just walks and sees what is around him. He looks at the joy and tragedy of everyday life. In the end, he finds his humanity.  
So I invite you to do something this week. Take a walk. Not just a figurative walk down from the mountain top but an actual walk. In your neighborhood. Investigate your surroundings. See where the need is immediately around you. And if you can’t find it, keep walking. Keep looking. For though our connection with God may renew us and invigorate us, it is our connection to this earth that makes us human. And the people said...Amen

Where is my Manna? by Chris Shade


Today we are talking about finding grace in providence. But what is providence? Well here are some quick facts about providence to help clarify.
·      Providence is the capital of Rhode Island and is the 37th largest city in America.
·      It is known largely for its silverware and jewelry industry.
·      It was ranked by Travel and Leisure in 2012 as the best food city in the U.S.
·      So if you want to find grace, pack your bags, because it exactly 3065 miles to Providence.
Seriously though, Providence RI is an important city in the history of the American Baptists. Roger Williams, a Baptist, founded Providence and the oldest Baptist church in America. He named it in honor of "God's merciful Providence" which he believed was responsible for revealing such a haven to him and his followers. And that is the kind of providence, God’s merciful Providence, that we are talking about today.

But I am going to take you back before Roger Williams, before our parable even, all the way back to the time of Joshua.

Imagine this: You are a member of the Hebrew people thousands of years ago. You have left Egypt and are traveling to the promised land. Every day is the same. You wake up and you go out and collect manna. Now you are not quite sure what manna is. All that you know is that it shows up every morning, it is tasty, it is nourishing, and oh yeah, it comes from God. It is physical, touchable, palpable proof of God’s providence. It is proof that God is caring from you and protecting you from starvation. And every day is the same. You get up, you collect manna, you eat it, and you go to bed. Every day.
         Until one day. That fateful day. You get up, you go out, and there is no more manna. You think to yourself, where is my manna? Has God abandoned me? Maybe my neighbors have manna. So you go ask them. But they do not have manna either. There isn’t any anywhere. Has God abandoned everyone? Where is the manna, you wonder. You think back to previous days. Perhaps you all have done something to anger God, to fall out of God’s favor. What could it be? You had just finished celebrating the Passover, remembering the glorious deliverance from Egypt. You celebrated by eating unleavened cakes to remind you of the food that your ancestors ate when they left Egypt. They had to flee is such a hurry that they did not have time to wait for the bread to rise. You also celebrated by eating the produce that you had gotten from the land. Could that be it? Was God angry that you helped yourself? Oh, how you long for some good ole fashioned manna.
         This was the case of the Hebrews in the scripture that Emrys read for us today. It is a bit of a strange isolated text thrown in the middle of Joshua between a circumcision story and the battle of Jericho (no joke, I could not make this up if I wanted to.) One day, the manna just stopped and the people ate from the earth from then on. It makes one wonder if anyone felt slighted by God. After all they had this very tangible, real physical proof of God’s providence and then it vanished. I would not be surprised if some of the Hebrews felt abandoned by God and felt a longing for God’s care.
         If the Hebrew Scriptures are any indication, the Hebrew people have had a history of longing for God’s presence. You need to look no further than the psalms.
Psalm 63 that we read together last week.
You, God, are my God,  
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
    my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
    where there is no water.
Psalm 42
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
This sense of longing is present in the psalms and the prophets and carries into the time of Jesus. Jesus tells the parable that we read this morning, not out of the blue, but because his audience would understand the plight of the younger brother. 
         Like the Hebrews who were blessed with manna, the younger brother in this story was blessed as well. He never wanted for anything. But, he was curious. He wanted to see what it was like in the big city. So he left. He wanted to live life to the fullest and experience all that the world had to offer. Rich food. Strong drink. The company of women. But pretty soon, his reliance on himself lost its luster. Once the money was gone, the great life went with it. The rich food – eaten; the strong drink – drunk; and the women – gone. He finds himself in the lowest of the low: feeding pigs, unclean, sacrilegious pigs. He is hungry. He is tired. He thought that he could do it on his own, but he came up short. And he longs for the time when he was awash in providence. Like the Hebrews longing to have back their manna, he longs for the time when he was under his father’s care. His longing is all that fills his belly. He wants to go home.
         I understand this journey. As a fresh faced 18 year-old I felt the call of the big city. I moved from my modest house in the suburbs of San Jose to the Big Apple, New York City...sight unseen...by myself. Though I did not have the same kind of agenda as the brother in our story, I was young and na├»ve. I was foolish enough to think that I could make this kind of jump on my own and that I did not need anyone. And like the brother, I discovered that I was wrong. Now, I did not end up in squalor feeding pigs, but I did end up feeling a sense of longing.
It was not that I did not love living in New York, because I did. And it was not that I was simply homesick, though I was. No this longing was much deeper. Back in California I had a church family and a support system, and religious practices and closeness with God. And in New York I did not have that. I did not belong to a church. I had left my spiritual disciplines at home in California. And I missed it. I missed the closeness that I felt with God. I missed the blessing of God’s providence, the feeling that God was caring for me and protecting me. To use the metaphor from earlier, I missed the manna.
         So one Sunday morning I left my apartment and took a walk. I had intended to walk down about 20 blocks to a church I knew. I made it a block and a half when I came across Madison Avenue Baptist Church. From the moment I sat down, I knew that I was home. They welcomed me with open arms, with genuine kindness, and with joy and laughter. I was home.
         The brother in our parable today had a similar experience. As he sat there in the mud with the pigs feeling as low as a human can feel, he remembered that his father’s workers fared better than he was doing now. Maybe he could go back and convince his father to let him just work on the property. Maybe he could get back a tiny portion of the life that he once knew. So he got up and left. And as we all know, the father runs out to meet him. He hikes up his robe to move faster, and when he gets to the younger brother he throws his arms around him. He welcomes him gladly. The brother is home.
         At this point we must question why is Jesus telling this parable? What does his audience have to gain by hearing it? Well remember, this is the same crowd that also has heard of the story of the manna being taken away. They have heard of the psalms of longing. Not to mention, they have been overcome by the Romans. They are defeated. They are occupied. They long for God’s presence with them, for God’s protection. They long for God’s providence. Jesus is telling them that God’s providence is there. It has always been there. All they need do is look for it. And it is not just present. It is abundant. The parable says that the father held a giant feast for the returned son. He killed the fattened calf. He gave him a robe and a ring and made him a part of the family again.
         (SLOWLY) But what does this parable mean for us? Well, are we so different from the audience of Jesus? Have you ever wanted to feel the presence and the providence of God? Have you ever strayed from home spiritually? Gotten lost? Wondered if God was still there? Have you ever felt the sense of longing that is present in our stories today? Have you ever looked to the sky and wondered, where is my manna?
         The good news of the message today is that it is not too late. God’s presence, God’s care, God’s providence is available to us. It is always available. And it is abundant. Like the father, God waits for us to return with welcome and open arms. Picture it like this: We are like trapeze artists swinging back and forth, dangling upside down, wondering where to go next. If we would only look up, we would see that God has been swinging in front of us this whole time, arms outstretched, waiting for us to grab on. We only need to reach out, offer our hand, and God will bring us home.  And the people sad Amen

The hymn, Precious Lord, is one that comes from the kind of place that we have been talking about this morning. It is a hymn of longing and of need. And it speaks of God’s ever present grace. As we enter into a time of prayer, let us sing together hymn number 472 Precious Lord, Take My Hand. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Grace in Ourselves, by Pastor Greg


If you know me very well, you know that I am a sucker for a good night sky ... a starry, starry night. There’s little I love more than laying on my back and watching the dark and silent sky ... and watching and waiting for those magical streaks of light ... tiny bits of space debris entering earth’s atmosphere and creating little blazing streaks against the speckled blackness of the night sky. Once I begin my vigil, it’s hard for me to give it up and go to bed until I’ve seen at least one meteor ... at least one “falling star”. It affirms something within me that needs affirming ... it jangles a note within that tells me that I am not alone in the midst of the enormity of space and time. I’ve noted the kinship I feel with the psalmist who said: “The heavens are telling the glory of God ...” The streaking lights in the heavens somehow let me know of God’s presence amidst the seeming emptiness of outer space ... and the vast stretches of inner space, as well. It’s only a hint, but it’s enough of a hint for me ... enough of a hint of God’s presence ... God’s love ... God’s grace.
We’re talking about grace these first weeks of fall and here’s the working definition we’ve been using: God’s “grace” is the living goodness of God’s being and God’s power and God’s love that is offered to the world and its people without cost, without condition, without limit.
Frederick Buechner is a Christian writer and preacher who has meant a great deal to my faith and ministry over the years. He was a distant neighbor of mine in Vermont, though I’ve only met him once (in Berkeley, of all places). I like how Buechner describes grace. He says: “Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There's no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace.
Buechner goes on to say: "A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There's nothing you have to do. There's nothing you have to do. There's nothing you have to do. The grace of God means something like: 'Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you I created the universe. I love you.'
"There's only one catch” Buechner finally says. “Like any other gift, the gift of grace can only be yours if you'll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”
These first weeks of October are a time of considering our stewardship as Christians ... our loving and responsible care and use of all that has been given to us ... all that has been entrusted to us by the loving Creator of all that is and the giver of all good gifts. We have been guided this year by these intriguing words written by the author of First Peter who said to his readers that they were to serve as “good stewards of the manifold grace of God”. Stewards of God’s grace. Stewards of Grace.
That’s us. That’s who we are. That’s what we do. It’s in our spiritual DNA ... it’s in the bloodstream of our faith. We are not only called to be “Stewards of Grace” ... we ARE Stewards of Grace. As children of God and followers of Jesus, it’s simply who we are. In other words, we are inheritors and vessels of God’s being and God’s power and God’s love. We contain these things ... these gifts ... this essential goodness. We may only be “earthen vessels” ... as St. Paul noted ... just “clay pots” with a few cracks ... but we are still being filled up constantly with God’s grace—if we aren’t too full of ourselves or too full of the debris of life and the world. If we are at all open to God’s goodness and grace, God will fill us to overflowing ... and that overflowing is for the world that God so loves.
One of our members here likes to tell the story about the battered and leaky bucket that was carried by a young girl who trekked each day all the way down to the village water pump to gather the family water. At one time the bucket had been new and strong and carried its contents proudly and securely. But now the bucket was old, cracked and worn and leaked profusely. And it broke the bucket’s heart that each day’s trek to the water pump ended with only half of the precious liquid within ... much had dribbled out. One day the bucket cried out to the God of all beings and things in its weariness and frustration, and God said to the bucket, “Do you not notice the beautiful flowers that grow and bring color and joy to the girl that carries you and brings delight to her neighbors because of the water that trickles from you as she carries you home.”
Sometimes simply “showing up” and being open to grace may be all that is asked of some of us, cracked pots and leaky buckets that we may be. God supplies the treasure ... we merely need to be open to its coming, its indwelling in order to be stewards of that treasure.
Two weeks ago we spoke of some of the ways God’s goodness and grace are at work through us in the world both far and near: Hands on mission projects of a variety of kinds ... walking and working for a variety of needs ... supporting missionaries with prayer and money ... extending ourselves to our homeless neighbors and some many others in need. God’s grace is given legs and wings through our “ditty bags” and our “dirty hands” and our “dollars and dimes”.
You may have noticed that this year’s “stewardship campaign” has come around a month early this year. It’s because during the weeks we’d normally hold the campaign, we’re going to be welcoming homeless families to our church who will make our sanctuary their home for the next two weeks. It’s one of the ways we dribble the grace that has been poured into us onto the dry ground that is all around us.
Last week we talked about Grace in the Church ... there’s another cracked and leaky bucket if ever there was one. Sometimes it’s only the flaws of the foibled church that we can sense and see. And we’ll admit it’s true in many ways. However hallowed an identity the church may have—or think it has, it’s also a terribly “human” institution with all of the warts and scabs and scars that are a part of any other human gathering. And yet God still works wonders in and through the local church as some of our humble ministries will attest. And God’s grace is at work among us, seeking to bind us together in love, seeking to mend broken souls and torn relationships, seeking to fill the empty wells of being with blessings and peace, seeking to empower us as a people and a community.
I’m thinking of particular occasions of grace in our church during the past summer and this fall ... occasions where we have paused in our busy-ness, and taken the time and the care to minister to the children among us ... particularly during Vacation Bible School and Logos. If you played a hands-on part in either of these wonderful ministries, you’ll know the grace that oozed and dribbled and showered down in abundance during these times working with our marvelous kids.
This fall I am privileged to lead our Logos kids—our “Magic Penny” kids—in the part of the Logos day called “Worship Skills”. We learn about worship and practice readings and songs in preparation for Sunday mornings. And I must say: singing with these precious and beautiful parts of God’s creation is like bathing in grace. These young “earthen vessels” carry far more of God’s gentle and loving grace within than they may ever know.  I may come to Worship Skills with bruises and burdens, but by the end of our time, as the kids sit in a closing circle with Sandy and offer up their joys and concerns in prayer, I feel like grace has taken a cleansing journey through me, the bruises partly mended and the burdens partly lifted.
You see, God’s grace is not only at work in the world and in the church. God’s grace is also at work in us ... in me ... and in you. God’s grace is not just “for the world” and “for the church”, it is also for you and me. The psalmist reminds us that we are the sheep of God’s hand, the sheep of God’s care, the sheep of God’s tender keeping. God’s care and keeping offers to us release from our fears, healing for our hurts, and resurrection and rebirth from even our greatest failings. Our “Song of Grace” that we have been singing during these weeks of stewardship expresses God’s tender care of us each:
Grace like a stream, flows gently on.
Wash over me until my fear is gone.
Gentle healing grace, show to me your face.
Wash over me until my fear is gone.

God of our hearts, burdened with care.
Help us to feel your love in humble prayer.
Gentle whisp’ring grace, flow within this place.
Help us to feel your love in humble prayer.

Gentle your touch, upon my soul,
Mold all my being ‘til you’ve made me whole.
Gentle saving grace, show upon my face.
Mold all my being ‘til you’ve made me whole.

Dear friends, know and trust we are the sheep of God’s hand, the sheep of God’s care, the sheep of God’s tender keeping. We are the children of God’s good grace.
I said earlier that I love to star-gaze and love to search for meteors ... that somehow the immensity of space, when streaked with bits of light, strangely warms me and reminds me of God’s presence and care: God’s grace. This morning I was up very, very early—even earlier than usual as there was a special occurrence in the sky that I didn’t want to miss. Each year the earth, in its solar orbit, passes through the extreme end of the tail of Halley’s Comet which won’t re-appear in its full glory until 2061. I’ll be 103. Some of you will be even older. J The resulting meteor shower is called the “Orionid Shower” because the entry point for the meteors is in the place where the constellation Orion hangs in the sky.
I sat out in the back yard very early this morning under a beautifully starry night, a blanket over me and a cup of freshly brewed coffee in hand. A light breeze rustled the neighbor’s palm tree. And I watched as tiny streaks of light graced the dark sky. The Orionid meteors can occur anywhere in the sky, but if you trace the path of each meteor back, the paths all converge in one point near Orion’s belt—they all originate from the same place.
I think it’s a marvelous metaphor for the grace of God ... grace manifest in so many places, in so many ways. Grace expressed beyond us and within us, grace worked out through us and sometimes in spite of us, grace sparkling brightly in times and places where all light seems to have dimmed and perhaps disappeared altogether. But all grace, all good gifts, all healing mercies and emerging hope originate from one place, one source and that is the loving heart of the Creator of All. And it is the night sky that hints at that loving heart, and it is also the children of Logos, and it also is your silent and supportive prayer, and it is also your gifts of time and energy and self and substance, among so many other things, that give me and gives us all life-giving and life-saving hints of the wideness of God’s mercy and the Amazing Grace and Goodness of the one who loves and cares for us all ... and even loves and cares for you ... and for me.
We have been loved and served and saved for a purpose: that we might manifest and make tangible and real the grace of God; that we might make tangible and real the living goodness of God’s being and God’s power and God’s love that is offered to the world and its people without cost, without condition, without limit. We have been loved and served and saved that might be Stewards of God’s Good and Amazing Grace.
Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Grace in the Church, by Pastor Greg


Ann Lamott is a Bay Area native and a writer of both fiction as well as earthy essays on faith. She can be laugh out loud funny and she can move you to copious tears. She grew up in Marin County during a time when the phrase “only in Marin” came to be coined. It was the 60’s and early 70’s. It was a chaotic time to grow up when lives and values and families and children were sort of tossed in the air only to land God knows where. Lamott describes her coming to faith as less a leap than a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place after another. As a child she possessed a belief in God that defied her arrogantly atheistic surroundings. Describing that child-like faith, she says: “I bowed my head and prayed, because I believed ... in someone listening, someone who heard. I do not understand how that came to be; I just know I always believed ....”
A crash course through broken relationships and addictions left Lamott in a place of nearly suicidal desperation. She describes a dark afternoon where she felt at the end of her rope. A vestige of the old belief still clung to her, but she says: “I felt that the odds of my living long enough to get into heaven were almost nil. They couldn’t possibly take you in the shape I was in. I could no longer imagine how God could love me.”
In a moment of desperation, she went to a nearby church and spoke to the new pastor who struck her as being tenderhearted. When she poured out to him that she didn’t think God could possibly love her, broken and stained and tortured and suicidal as she was, he said: “God has to love you. That’s God’s job.”
It would be wonderful to report that in that one conversation Lamott was “wash-clean” and set free. But the path to new life and health and “salvation” is often not so easy ... so quick ... so painless. She was bumping around the bottom and the top was still a long ways off.
It was the first of the glimmers of grace that began to penetrate her soul, her life, her brokenness. She says: “Slowly I came back to life. I’d been like one of those people Ezekiel comes upon in the valley of dry bones—people who had really given up, who were lifeless and without hope. But because of Ezekiel’s presence, breath comes upon them; spirit and kindness revive them.”
Breath and spirit and kindness were reviving Anne Lamott, and they were coming to her through the breath and spirit and kindness of a skinny, white, middle-aged mediator of God’s grace. But she still had a long, long way to go.
By tumbles and turns, she found herself in a church one day, so hung-over, she says that she could barely stand up for the songs. But she stayed until the end and says that the last song was so deep and raw and pure that she could not escape. She says it was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful  at the same time. She says: “I felt like their voice or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to the feeling—and it washed over me.”
She went into recovery, she was baptized at the little church, she had a baby who was also baptized, and she lost her best friend to cancer. And throughout it all there was the steady and faithful presence of the little church that had offered grace to her in their words and songs and silences and actions. She says that she and her baby son, Sam, have missed church maybe ten times in twelve years. She describes the church as a wonderful old worn pair of pants. And it was home. Home. The pastor, who is still there, who became the perfect fit for that “old worn pair of pants of a home” told a story from her childhood. “When she was about seven, her best friend got lost one day. The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn’t find a single landmark. She was very frightened. Finally a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in the passenger seat of his car, and they frove around until she finally saw her church. She pointed it out to the policeman, and then she told him firmly, “You could let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.”

Lamott says: “And that is why I have stayed so close to mine – because no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church, and hear their tawny voices, I can always find my way home.”

I don’t know if the Biblical writers of old struggled with addictions or hangovers or how to clean hair out of the hot tub, but I do know they knew what it felt like to be lost and lonely and frightened and in need of a home ... a home where grace was offered without cost or condition. Home, for the writers of our Bible, was the place where the dispenser of Grace could be found ... located ... leaned upon. Home was wherever God landed and dwelled among the people whom God loved and led through the wilderness and into the promised places.
In the desert, God was found in the “tent of meeting” ... it was a portable, traveling temple of a fashion ... wherever the tent was, God was. Once the people settled in the promised land, however, a Temple of hewn stone was built and this became God’s home ... it was here that God dwelled amidst the “holy of holies.” But it was never a comfortable home for God ... it led the worshippers of God to think that God was somehow captive to the home ... restricted to that home ... limited to that home. It took the destruction of the Temple and the scattering of the people and exiles of many years and many kinds to teach the people that God’s truest home was not in a building of stone or a building of any kind. God’s throne was the trusting and humble human heart, and God’s dwelling was any place and time where trusting and humble human hearts gathered and worshiped and broke bread and shared the cup and did the work of God’s own Spirit.
This is the glimpse of the “home” of God that we see in the readings this morning from the book of Acts and the Epistle to the Colossians. We think of the church as being born at Pentecost: the coming of the Spirit of God that touched and filled the followers of Jesus and gathered them into a community of worship and mission. But the church was also filled with the Grace of the One who had called them together and empowered them to be the church. These passages from Acts and Colossians give evidence of that grace ... God’s grace that is to flow into and out of every gathering of believers, into and out of every time of worship, every time of fellowship, every time of working out the continuing ministry of Jesus and God’s work of Shalom.
ACTS 2All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
ACTS 4Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great gracewas upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
For the writer of Acts, the church is a community of “one heart and soul” ... a community of “glad and generous hearts ... a community of “goodwill” ... and a community of “great grace” and growth in spirit and numbers. And the reading from the letter to the church in Colossae gives flesh and garments to these bones:
Colossians 3As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God ... through him.
For Anne Lamott, the church in which she found her life again fit profoundly the descriptions we have heard in Acts and Colossians. And if there is a single word that fit what flowed into and out of the New Testament Church and that “old worn pants of a church” in Marin City, the word is GRACE. Amazing grace. Grace that is unearned, unmerited, unconditional and unlimited. Grace upon grace and grace abounding.
Lamott tells a story that has always touched me and expresses well the grace that is rightly the possession and the gift of every church in every place and time.
One of our newer members, a man named Ken Nelson, is dying of AIDS, disintegrating before our very eyes.  He came in a year ago with a Jewish woman who comes every week to be with us, although she does not believe in Jesus.  Shortly after the man with AIDS started coming, his partner died of the disease.  A few weeks later Ken told us that right after Brandon died, Jesus had slid into the hole in his heart that Brandon’s loss had left, and had been there ever since.  Ken has a totally lopsided face, ravaged and emaciated, but when he smiles, he is radiant.  He looks like God’s crazy nephew Phil.  He says that he would gladly pay any price for what he has now, which is Jesus, and us.
There’s a woman in the choir named Ranola, who is large and beautiful and jovial and black and a devout a can be, who has been a little standoffish toward Ken.  She has always looked at him with confusion, when she looks at him at all.  Or she looks at him sideways, as if she wouldn’t have to quite see him if she didn’t look at him head on.  She was raised in the South by Baptists who taught her that his way of life—that he—was an abomination.  It is hard for her to break through this.  I think she and a few other women at church are, on the most visceral level, a little afraid of catching the disease.  But Kenny has come to church almost every week for the last year, and won almost everyone over.  He finally missed a few Sunday’s when he got too weak, and then a month ago he was back, weighing almost no pounds, his face even more lopsided, as if he’d had a stroke.  Still, during the prayers of the people, he talked joyously of his life and his decline of grace and redemption, of how safe and happy he feels these days. 
So on this particular Sunday, for the first hymn, the so-called Morning hymn, we sang “Jacob’s Ladder”, which goes, “every rung goes higher, higher,” while ironically Kenny couldn’t even stand up.  But he sang away sitting down, with the hymnal in his lap.  And then when it came time for the second hymn, the Fellowship Hymn, we were to sing “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”  The pianist was playing and the whole congregation had risen--only Ken remained seated, holding the hymnal in his lap—and we began to sing, “Why should I feel discouraged? Why do the shadows fall?”  And Ranola watched Ken rather skeptically for a moment, and then her face began to melt and contort like his, and he went to his side and bent down to lift him up—lifted up this white rag doll, this scarecrow.  She held him next to her, draped over and against her like a child while they sang.  And it pierced me.
God’s grace ... God’s grace ... through the earthen vessel that is the church and the individual members of the church ... God’s grace ... offered without cost ... without condition ... and without limit. God’s grace ... that can pierce us and make us whole and give us back the lives we thought we’d perhaps lost forever.
Let us be persons and a people of God’s grace ... for a church built on God’s grace, will always stand, will always serve, will always save, will always have the strength to sing: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a soul like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”
Amen.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Grace in the World, by Pastor Greg


Amazing grace how sweet the sound ...
Grace ... what is grace? It’s a word that gets bandied about a lot by people like us. And it’s a lively question for us this month as the word and the notionof grace are at the heart of our thinking about stewardship. Grace is at the heart what it means to offer our all in support of God’s good work in and around and beyond us.
So here’s a working definition of grace: God’s “grace” is the living goodness of God’s being and God’s power and God’s love that is offered to the world and its people without cost, without condition, without limit. (repeat)
Perhaps you can be thinking or searching for your own definition of grace in the days ahead.
For Paul writing in his epistles—his letters to the churches, grace was all about “salvation”—God’s gift of an unbreakable bond created between the heart of a human being and the heart of God and the eternity of God. But grace and salvation are not to be thought of as some kind of private transaction in which you escape with your hide and “devil may care” about the hides around you. That modern saint, Dorothy Day, was fond of saying: “None are saved until all are saved.” If Christians are only concerned for saving their own skin, their own souls, only concerned with locking up theirown “private path to heaven,” they’ve completely missed the wideness of God’s mercy, and the intended “all-ness” of God’s gift.
And let’s give up the thinking that would suggest that “grace and salvation” are strictly “spiritual” matters ... concerned only with the spirit and the soul—the ephemeral and the eternal, but not the material or the physical. Grace and salvation are also interested in other matters like health and poverty and opportunity and oppression— Grace and salvation are also interested in the neighbor in need. When hunger causes your ribs to show, when disease stalks you and takes your children, when war robs you of your neighbors and your livelihood, it’s hard to care too much about the “eternal security” of your soul. And it’s equally hard to imagine that anyone calling themselves “Christian” could ignore the “neighbor’s” plight while yet thinking of themselves as “saved” and beneficiaries of the “grace of God.”
If “grace” is particular, it is also “universal”. If it is a gift intended for “me”, it is also a gift intended for “us” and the two are inseparable. God’s gift of life and grace and salvation—in the broadest, deepest and richest sense of those terms, is intended for one and for all. To hoard them, protect them, or privatize them is to destroy them.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. ... This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.
One of the things we feel we know to say about grace is that it comes to us through God’s gift of Jesus: God in the flesh, God incarnate, God upon this earth as one of us, uniquely human, yet divine. For us, Jesus is the way to God’s grace. So let’s combine that thought with the familiar words of the 16thcentury Spanish mystic, St. Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks in
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Fellow “stewards of God’s grace”, we are partners in the “dispensing” and “enacting” of God’s grace. It is the living out of the interrelatedness and the mutuality of God’s grace for one and all, in tangible and compassionate action, that God’s grace becomes realized and made manifest.
Today is Worldwide Communion Sunday. This is a day when we symbolically break bread and share the cup with Christians the world over ... in every place and every condition. On this day of communion and grace, I would simply note three ways that we help dispense and enact God’s living and tangible grace in this world that God so loves.
ONE: Seafarer’s “ditty bags” ...
TWO: I’m thinking of the work that we support in Haiti ... and especially the work of our missionaries there, Nzunga Mabudiga and Kihomi Ngwemi, a husband and wife team who are natives to the Congo.
Nzunga and Kihomi serve as a vital link between International Ministries and the Haitian Baptist Convention. Nzunga teaches theology at the Christian University of Northern Haiti, trains assistant professors in teaching and writing books, administers a scholarship program, and visits and preaches in churches. He also administers the "Kids for Kids" goat project that provides needed school and personal supplies for children and university students.Kihomi works with families in the areas of counseling, family planning, and women's health issues. She also coordinates and advises the women's association of the Haitian Baptist Convention, representing women of all the Baptist denominations of Haiti at international conferences.
Nzunga and Kihomi are also deeply concerned about the merciful medical ministry of the hospital we support in Limbe: “The Hospital of the Good Samaritan.” Several years ago we, as a church, gave a significant gift toward the purchase a new generator that would help supply the hospital with a reliable source of electricity so they wouldn’t have to rely only on the unreliable local power “grid”—if it could even be called that. It was a huge boost to the hospital’s care they offer to their neighbors in need.
THREE: Heifer ... a gift that keeps on giving (as opposed to guilt ... Keillor)
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
At this time I invite us to begin to draw near to the table that is laden with rich hints of God’s goodness and grace: bread and the juice of grapes. The bread and the cup symbolize the world’s physical hunger and its satisfaction. We may not be able to “live by bread alone”, but without bread, we cannot live at all. The bread and the cup symbolize the sustenance and nutrition all beings need to live. And they also symbolize the deeper sustenance and nutrition without which we also have no real being: the sustenance of our souls, our hearts, our dreams, our spirits, our purpose, our living, our humanity. God is also concerned with these things and all things—with the “allness” of all people—and God promises to feed all who come together in love to this love feast with that which satisfies and fulfills our bodies and minds, hearts and spirits.
So let us come and join together with the children of God’s heart the world over in partaking of this food, this meal, this grace.

 Christ invites us all to this Holy Feast.
  As we gather this morning,
            we remember our sisters and brothers
            from above and below the equator,
            from the North and from Down Under,
            from every time zone around the globe.
  As today's sunlight inches across land and sea
  Christians gather to celebrate their place
in God's family.
  All are invited and all are welcome.
  Come, for the meal is ready!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Creating Diversity, by Chris


Let me ask you something. What do a corpse flower, a blob fish and a star nosed mole have in common? Well to answer that question we have to go back. Way back. Way way way way back to the beginning. To creation.
         In the beginning it says the earth was dark and formless, like the middle of the ocean on a pitch black night. And God moved along the waters and saw that it was very...dull.  A Dark formless void is not the most exciting place around. Why? Because it is all the same. So God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light. Now suddenly the elements had doubled. There was light and darkness. Twice as much as before. The first dichotomy of the universe.
It is interesting that this story begins with the creation of light. Do you remember the story I told last year about Jenny the Jellyfish. Jellyfish were the first creatures to develop a sense of sight, and they did that by being able to distinguish light from dark. It is the first, but the most primitive way to see the world. Light and Dark.
         And there was morning and there was evening, the first day.
         On the second day, God was surveying the waters. God could see them better now with all the light. Lots of waters. Miles and miles of water. It was calm and peaceful. Never moving. Never going anywhere. And God saw that it was...dull. Lifeless. This calm body of water was fine for a while (like a day maybe) but then God came to realize that it just sat there. Boring. So God separated the waters. God took the waters and created a dome that rose above the oceans below. And God called this dome, sky.
         Now the Bible stops there, but we, with the benefit of science and history, can read a bit deeper into the story. What God really created on the second day was...anyone...weather. By separating the water, God created what we now call an atmosphere. By making water vapor God created the clouds that move across the sky. With the atmosphere there could now be wind to blow across the water. Wind, which we use as one of the symbols of Spirit. By moving the water into the sky, God also created rain which we use to symbolize cleansing, renewal, and life-giving nourishment. And let’s not forget fog. If you are an East Bay or San Francisco resident, fog is a constant companion this time of year.
         Water separated. Weather created. And there was morning, and there was evening, the second day.
         So on the third day, you would think that God would be happy with everything. God made tons of different kinds of water. But God looked at the clouds in the sky, the sea swirling below and God thought, “It’s all just water. Sometimes its light, sometimes is dark, but it is always just water. It is so insubstantial. I need another element.”
         So, the Bible says, God gathered all of the water into one place and made land appear. A whole new element was created. Earth. Rock. Formed. Solid. Not like formless water. This was something new. Something different. It is interesting to note that the water was gathered and the land arose not to replace the water, but to compliment it. And what a compliment it was. God did not create just one kind of landscape. Oh no. There was much diversity. Giant rising mountains with deep dank caves growing inside them. Large rolling hills, flat sweeping plains, massive erupting volcanoes, and far reaching deserts.
         And God looked upon this land and decided it needed a little decoration. Something to, you know, spruce up the place. So God created “plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it.” And sure this included oak trees and apple trees and grape vines and the lovely green grass in your yard. But it also included the corpse flower. “What is a corpse flower?” you ask. “Known by its scientific name, Rafflesia arnoldii, this parasitic plant has no visible leaves, stems, or roots. But it does boast the world's largest single bloom that can grow over three feet across and has a hole in the center that holds six or seven quarts of water. It gets its name from its smell which reeks of, you guessed it, rotting meat. But it is this smell which attracts insects that it relies on to pollinate. Gardeners, you may want to consider this next season. Just one of several amazing diverse plants.
         If the corpse plant does not do it for you (I personally find it fascinating) then just think of all of the different kinds of fruit that you can taste at the supermarket. Think of all of the color of flowers to see. Do you know that there are over 100 species of roses alone? Truly God was getting this diversity thing down. What stated as nothingness has now erupted into color. Land. Vegetation. Diversity had sprung. And there was morning and there was evening the third day.
         Fourth Day. God looked away from the little blue dome for a second and into the universe. Probably because all of those plants needed some time to grow. God looked into space and decided that it needed some energy. And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. 
         There are two interesting things at work here. One is that God created something to nurture life on Earth. The sun it says rules the day, while the moon rules the night. They are reminders that God is taking care of us.
         Secondly, God effectively creates a way to mark time. Debates about creation versus evolution aside, it is amazing how much value this story gives to the creation of time. A whole day. The sun and the moon are signs to mark the seasons, signs to mark the days and the years. These are the first measurements, the first markers of order in the universe. Another way that God takes care of us, but giving us order.
         And there was morning and there was evening on the fourth day.
         So fifth day we are back on earth. God saw that the earth was teeming with life. Vegetation and fruits of all kinds. But then God took a look at the waters, and saw that they had been neglected while all of this gardening was happening. The land was beautifully decorated. By contrast the waters both on the bottom and in the sky looked so empty and boring. So God filled them. God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’         
Now God was on a diversity kick. After creating all of the strange, colorful and interesting plants, God turned that same kind of attention onto the birds and fish. There are 10,000 different species of birds. 10,000! Any bird watchers here? Have you made it to 10,000 yet?
And there are fish of all kinds. Weird stuff too. If you do not believe me, just go home and do a Google image search for weird fish. If you do you might come across this guy, the blobfish. The blobfish are found off the coasts of Australia and Tasmania. They live in deep ocean and are rarely seen. To move, the blobfish spreads out its blob-like body and floats right above the see floor. It needs neither oxygen nor muscle power to move. It eats whatever floats into its mouth. It survives because it has no known predators. I mean, would you want to eat this?
So the blobfish, the 10,000 species of birds, and the rest are all part of the wonderful creation that was morning and evening on the fifth day.
On the sixth day, God must have gotten up early. I imagine that God was up all night trying to think of all of the ways that the great success with the air and ocean could be applied to land. God probably looked at all of the vegetation and thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was something or someone here to enjoy all of this?” So God got to work. God created animals to appreciate the tallest trees. Here is a giraffe. Now many think of a giraffe as a majestic animal. Personally I think it is a bit goofy looking. But God made the giraffe to appreciate the tall trees.
However, God also made the star nosed mole. Whereas the giraffe explores the high vegetation, the star nosed mole prefers the land underground. Now you can see how it gets its name. But this odd looking feature is extremely important in this creature’s underground habitat. In addition to keeping dirt out of its nose, the mole’s 22 tentacles are extremely sensitive to touch and to electrical impulses and allow the moles to find their invertebrate prey without using sight. So after six days of creation God makes something to live in and appreciate the darkness in the whole thing started. Fascinating.
But after the mole and the giraffe and all of the other land creature were made, God was still not done. Though God had made everything in the world, there was nothing that could truly appreciate creation and its scope the way that God does. So God decided to create humans. God created them in God’s image. Now many people think that this means that God looks like us. Others think that it means that humans have a soul like God separating them from the other creatures. But you want to know what I think? I think that it means that we are blessed with the ability to create. Now many animals can create things; this is true. Just look at a spider’s web or a birds nest and you can see evidence of this. But humans are the only creature with the kind of tremendous foresight it takes to create murals, gardens or architecture. We are the only ones that can think ahead to make something that will be used and seen for generations to come. And it is with this ability to create that we can appreciate creation. God gave us the blessing of being able to look at this planet and be awestruck by its diversity. We can look on it and see that it is good, the same way God saw that it was good.
And there was evening and there was morning the sixth day.
So how do we take this charge that is given to us by our creator? How do we learn to appreciate diversity? Diversity in our world? Diversity in each other? It reminds me of a joke. A violinist gets into a cab in New York City and asks the cab driver, “Do you know how to get to Carnegie Hall?” The cabbie responds, “Practice practice practice.” And that is what we have to do. To fully appreciate others we have to practice.
So what keeps us from practicing? For some it might be fear. Fear of difference can be a very powerful force. Just ask anyone who fought for civil right in the 60’s, or any Muslim American in the wake of 9/11 or anyone who identifies as gay, or transgendered, or any other sexual minority that has faced persecution because of who they are. Fear of what is different is only one step away from ridding the world of difference. But that is the opposite of what we have learned in this beautiful creation story. We are not creatures of destruction. We are creatures of creation. We are not products of limited diversity. We are products of flourishing diversity. It is time to start living like it.
Our outreach challenge this week is to have a conversation with someone who comes from a different culture than you, or has a different way of life than you live.  I invite you to open your minds up to meeting new people, seeing things in a different way, and being changed. I invite you this week to appreciate this diversity in others the way that God appreciates the diversity in all of creation.
I started this sermon with a question. What do a corpse flower, a blobfish, and a star nosed mole have in common? The answer is that they are all part of a diverse and wonderful creation. As am I. As are you.
And the people said...Amen