"How Can This Be?"

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage

4th Sunday in Advent—PEACE

Ephesians 2:14-20
Luke 1:26-38

“It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.” It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born. Today is winter solstice, the shortest day, the longest night, of our year. When we most need light. As we tell and retell the Christmas story in the sing-song rhymes and soul soothing familiar carols, read of the Magi following a star in Matthew and shepherds tending their flocks in Luke, seek out Christmas concerts and adjust travel plans to the snow, it seems to me this sentence by Wendell Berry sums it up. “It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.”

The Prince of Peace, Emmanuel, God With Us, this One for whom we wait and watch, is coming into the world. Soon, now… It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.

Today we light the Peace candle. Today we read from Ephesians and from Luke. “For Christ is our peace.” Jesus is coming, Jesus the one who breaks down diving walls and reconciles hostilities between us, who creates a new humanity, and enables a new intimacy with the Divine. Making peace, reconciling those who remain stubbornly divided. “So,” we read in this epistle lesson, “Jesus comes to proclaim peace to those far off and peace to those who were near, so that no one, anywhere, will be strangers or aliens.” No border fence or hardened heart, no war machine or deep despair can thwart this one who is being born. It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.

The Holy One, birthed in a manger in the Middle East. And, given the task, how poignant, the birth place of this Prince of Peace. How fitting, the dark skin, the Arab ethnicity, of this Middle Eastern messiah, born to save us, to bless us when we are peacemakers, to break down barriers and reconcile hostilities. It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.

It is all a bit absurd, isn’t it? Our God, the Holy One of power and majesty, born in a barn? The Prince of Peace, coming to the world at the very site of decades of bitter hostility, terror and warfare, exile and division and violence? The one who we worship, coming to us in the form of utter vulnerability, depending on us, us!, to make room in the world, room in our hearts? At least to me, it’s all a little bit absurd. How can this be?

“Holiness,” writes Anne Lamott, “Has often been revealed to me in the exquisite pun of the first syllable, in holes—in not enough help, in brokenness, mess. High holy places, with ethereal sounds and stained glass, can massage my illusion of holiness, but in holes and lostness I can pick up the light of small ordinary progress, newly made moments flecked like pepper into the slog and the disruptions.” Newly made moments flecked like pepper into the slog and the disruptions. It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.

Yesterday I sat in the very last pew of the sanctuary at Our Saviors Lutheran for Shawn Berg’s funeral. Even having never met Shawn, I wept as his friend Al spoke of Shawn’s love for his daughters, his devotion to his three girls, Elizabeth, Isabel, and Payton. I wept for their unimaginable loss, their unfathomable grief. Al shared a quote Shawn had valued, a quote, I am learning, reflected how he lived and died. “Like is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” Give peace to every heart, God, even when, especially when, peace seems impossible. It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.

In the sixth month, God sends Gabriel to visit Mary. “Greetings, blessed one! The Lord is with you!” Mary is perplexed. God, with her? And, because Mary is Mary and not me, she doesn’t brush this off as absurd. She ponders these words in her heart. She prays. “Do not be afraid,” the angel tries to reassure her. “You are going to bear a child. Name him Jesus. This baby is going to be very, very special, Mary. He will be called the Child of the Most High, and he will create a new kind of kingdom, one without end. This child will be holy.” “How can this be?” asks Mary, glimpsing the absurd. Not only is she pregnant, without participating in the due process, she is pregnant with the child of God. “Oh, you know, the Holy Spirit,” says Gabriel. “For nothing is impossible with God.”

And, unlike Abram, Moses, Samuel, Jonah, the list goes on and on of those who question God, who give a big fat No, at least initially, to God’s sacred callings. Mary does not cry, “You’re crazy! Nor, I cannot. I am not worthy,” nor, “I’m not strong enough or good enough or ready enough or…” Mary says simply, “How can this be?” And then, with courage and faith and deep deep peace, after only a few sentences from the strange angel in her midst, she replies, “Here am I, the servant of God; let it be with me according to your word.” Even though she will be shamed. Even though people will talk. Even though there will be whispers and glances and frowns when she walks down the street or into a room or perhaps even into her place of worship... Even though she is young, and unmarried. Even though, even though, even though. “Here am I. Let it be…” she says.

God invites the unimaginable, offers the unfathomable. And Mary says, simply, “"Let it be.' I will participate in this sacred story."

The Prince of Peace, born to a world at war. It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born. “So, Jesus comes to proclaim peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near…so then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but members of the household of God.”

Members of this community of the household of God have gathered on Thursday evenings this Advent season for a time of prayer, scripture, spiritual practice, and song. Many of the songs we have sung are from the Taize community in France, a Christian lay monastic community committed to the belief that contemplative practice—simply praying and singing in community—can birth God’s justice and peace in the world. By inviting God into our hearts and our lives, by taking time out, carving time out, by gathering together when it is cold, lighting candles in the darkness, we celebrate Jesus’ birth. In preparing ourselves to meet God, we prepare the world for God’s work, and enter the process of welcoming the Prince of Peace into this world so desperately in need.

Each Thursday, we have lit candles and prayed for the people and places in need of Peace, in need of God’s tender care. In a few moments, these same candles will be lit. As we offer up the prayers of our hearts, name in silence and aloud in community, the people and places waiting for the Coming Care of Jesus.

And, in doing so, we welcome the Prince of Peace into the world. In the midst of it all, in the mess of it all. The Holy One, coming into the holes and cracks in our hearts and lives and world. How can it be? It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born. May it be so. Amen, and amen.

"carbonated holiness"

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
December 14, 2008

3rd Sunday of Advent—JOY

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Luke 1:46b-55

I want to begin by sharing one of my favorite poems with you, written by one of my favorite poets. If you are comfortable doing so, I invite you to close your eyes as you listen. “Magnificat,” by Christina Hutchins.

What shall I do
with this quiet joy?
It calls forth the expanse
of my soul, calls
it forth to go singing
through the world,
calls it forth
to rock the cradles of death
and without fear,
to collect the rain
in my spread hands
and spill it
like laughter,
calls it forth
to touch and carry
her suffering, his age
our dense flesh,
to bear into this world
a place
where light will glisten
the edge of every wing
and blade of grass,
shine along every hair on every head,
gleam among the turnings of every wave,
the turning open of each life,
each human hand.

What shall we do with this quiet joy, calling forth the expanse of our souls, calling us forth to go singing through the world?

Let us pray: Come, Holy Spirit, come. Come as the fire and burn, come as the wind and cleanse, come as the dew and refresh, come as the light and reveal. Convict, convert, consecrate, until we are, wholly thine…

Writer Anne Lamott has written one four word sentence I have remembered since first stumbling upon it, about four years ago. “Laughter,” she writes, “is carbonated holiness.” Laughter is carbonated holiness. When we give into laughter, when we stop taking ourselves so seriously, when we allow for interruptions of joy, the Spirit bubbles up, the Sacred flows and overflows.

Laughter is carbonated holiness. In our joy, we meet God. In our laughter, God meets us.

Today we light the Advent candle of Joy. And today, we gather to celebrate and learn from the children of this community. And today, we read two of my very favorite passages of scripture.

From Isaiah, where the Spirit of a living God is revealed. God who anoints the prophet to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. To comfort all who mourn. It is God’s desire, the Holy One’s dream, to replace ashes with garlands, and mourning with gladness.

What shall we do with this quiet joy, calling forth the expanse of our souls, calling us forth to go singing through the world?

And from Luke, Mary’s Song of joyful praise, the Magnificat. Two pregnant women, dear friends, greet each other, and the child Elizabeth is carrying leaps for joy.

Another short sentence from Anne Lamott: “Gratitude is the secret to joy.”

In the midst of oppression, broken heartedness, captivity, imprisonment, and mourning, Isaiah proclaims the coming of the one who will bring good news, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, and comfort all who mourn. Gratitude, giving way to joy.

And Mary, her future unknown, her faith tested. Mary, an unwed woman, waiting for a child, waiting for God. Her life turned upside down, her soul centered in God. “My soul magnifies God, and my spirit rejoices in God,” Mary sings. Gratitude, giving way to joy.

I want to close with another story, this one told by Carol Stigger.

“At the Christmas Eve church service, I sat with my two boisterous grandchildren, ages three and five. Their parents sat in front of the church to present a nativity reading titled "Silent Night." They had warned the children to behave. I had warned the children to behave. With scrubbed angelic faces and Christmas wonder in their eyes, they looked like model children posing for a magazine holiday spread. I indulged myself in a few moments of pride.

Alec pinched Aubrey. I was grateful that the organ thundered into the first hymn just then, drowning out her yelp. I grabbed her hand before she could return the pinch. During the Lord's Prayer, Aubrey shredded the program I had given her to color on. The crayons had already rolled under the pew. I watched bits of paper fall on the carpet like snow. I would help her pick it up later, but for now the naughtiness I was allowing kept her occupied and her brother quietly admiring. We were enjoying an uneasy truce when their parents stood to deliver the reading. "Mommy!" Alec yelled. She frowned, and he sat back in his seat.

"Silence," my son said to the congregation. "Think for a moment what that word means to you." My daughter-in-law signed his words. Earlier that year, she began to use her new signing skills for the benefit of the few hearing-impaired members of our church. Alec said a naughty word, thankfully too low for many to hear. I scowled at him, shaking my finger and my head. Aubrey grinned. Then she proclaimed, every syllable enunciated perfectly, in a clear voice that carried to far corners of the sanctuary, "Alec is a potty mouth!" Everyone stared. I was too stunned to speak. My son and his wife looked at each other. But instead of anger, I saw surprise. My son set aside his script and told another story. He told about their daughter being born profoundly deaf. He talked about four years of hearing aids and speech therapy with no guarantee she would ever learn to speak plainly. He talked about the rugged faith that kept the family praying she would have a normal life. He said Aubrey's outburst was an answer to prayer: the first perfectly enunciated sentence she had ever spoken. From the back of the room, a lone voice sang the last line of a beloved Christmas Carol: Hark! The herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn king. While the congregation sang four verses of the unscheduled hymn, my two little angels wiggled in their parents' arms, adding laughter and giggles to the joyful Christmas noise.”

Gratitude, giving way to joy. Laughter as carbonated holiness. Children, interrupting us that we might meet God. What shall we do with this quiet joy, calling forth the expanse of our souls, calling us forth to go singing through the world?

Amen, and amen.

"what shall I cry?"

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
December 7, 2008

2nd Sunday of Advent, HOPE

Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8

Last week I was at Faith Home, visiting with Phyllis Watson. A member of this faith community for over 50 years. Her three children, baptized and confirmed here. Her husband and oldest son, laid to rest here. Now Phyllis is transitioning to Hospice Care, living her final months of life here on earth. In the ways dementia and death work, Phyllis is residing in a liminal space, a thin space some theologians call it, where the past blends with the present, becoming part of the future. Thin because the boundaries become blurred, between life and death, past and present, love and loss, grace and grief, earthly and eternal—cease to be separate, cycle and smudge into each other. Where we have been, where we are, where we are going, entering into each other.

Then, on Friday, I met with Phyllis’ daughter Joan. Nurtured in this church, Joan is now returning regularly to spend time with her mom, sit with her, support her, celebrate her. As Joan and I sifted through the layers of grief and loss, we also laughed. Our conversation centered on hope. What will be, what might be, ushered in through what has been and what is.

Poet Emily Dickenson wrote, “Hope for the future is hidden in the present.” Hope for the future is hidden in the present.
And, like a star shining in the sky, a light illuminating the dark, a Christ child born in a barn, we are invited by God, we are called by our faith, to search for this hope, hidden even here, even now.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer.

“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says God. So begins this morning’s scriptural text, so begins this passage from Isaiah. If you attended the services for either Beda Dodge or Jo Ann Squier, you know I typically read this scripture at funerals. Our story begins, the story begins, in the midst of great suffering, and in the midst of it, God’s desire for comfort, hope, given.

This text was written by an anonymous prophet, one we have come to call Isaiah, in the 4th century BCE. About 600 years before Jesus’ birth. Judah and Jerusalem are under constant threat by Empire, living in fear of destruction by the powerful and power hungry Babylonians. It is a hard time to hope, for the Israelites. Their homes have been destroyed by war, their community torn apart by terror and violence. The economy has crashed and there is no bail out package to be given. The Israelites are deported, sent to Babylon in exile. In this text, we meet a people not too different from ourselves—scared, feeling forgotten and forsaken by God, searching hard for a glimmer of hope. And we meet a God not too far from us—who is working in the world to bring them home.

The prophet pleads with the people—Don’t give up! Don’t forget God’s faithfulness, not now! Remember God’s promise, made long ago, a promise of the past, known in the present, a promise which will usher us into an unknown future? Recall the hope! Prepare a way in the wilderness for God to do God’s work. In doing so, we participate in God’s work. God with us, Emmanuel.

It is a thin place, this exile, this wilderness wandering, where hunger meets hope, loneliness meets love, bitterness meets blessing.

In his letter to the Romans, so many centuries later, Paul writes: We do not hope for what we already see. What kind of hope is this? We hope for what we cannot see, what is yet to be and become.

“Hope for the future is hidden in the present.”

Look! Can you see it? It is there, it is here, to be found! Listen for the lone voice, crying out in the wilderness, look for a star shining in the night sky, listen for the Christ child, crying out!

Theologian and Biblical scholar Ken Stone writes, “Christians confess both that Christ has already come and yet Christ is still coming. Old things have passed away; all things have become new; yet in many respects we continue to groan with creation, for a redemption that is still arriving.”

Comfort, O comfort my people. Cry Out!

Yesterday, I attended an Advent brunch at Our Saviors Lutheran Church. Many of you were there. Kris Meyer, the guest speaker told many stories. One of them has especially stayed with me.

A church not so different from this one was preparing for its annual Christmas program. The Sunday School teacher directing the program faced the daunting task of assigning roles to the children for the nativity drama. I imagine Brenda, Rozanne, and Angie can especially commiserate! There was one boy, named Jack, who was difficult to cast. Previous years’ programs had proven Jack could rarely remember his lines. When he did, he failed to deliver them with any enthusiasm or umph. His smile was never quite as bright, his voice never as clear, his performance never as, well, cute as the others’.

So Jack was cast as the Innkeeper. All he had to do, thought the teacher, was say, “No!” “No,” was all Jack had to remember. The day of the program came, and Mary and Joseph made their way across the stage. “Is there any room at your Inn?” a four foot Joseph implored? Silence. Joseph prodded, “See, she is pregnant. Due any day now. Is there a room at your Inn?” Silence. “Any room at all?” Still silence. Young Jack the Innkeeper said nothing. From side stage, the teachers and other children tried to help Jack along. “Just say no, Jack! No! No room! No room at the Inn! Jack, just say no!”

After a long time, long enough for people to start shifting in their pews, long enough for Jack’s parents to look embarrassed, long enough for the Sunday School teachers to wonder why on earth they have agreed to do the program one more year, long enough for all to seem lost…Finally, Jack grinned. Jack grinned, and he cried out, “Yes! Yes! I can make room!”

And, hidden in a mixed up, messed up present, a program planned and prepared, hope for the future is born. A lone voice, crying out in the wilderness, creating chaos in the plans, making a way for God.

Cry out, says a voice, and I ask, “What shall I cry?”

Chaos is breaking out—the valleys are lifted up, the mountains and hills made low. The uneven ground level, the hills made a plain. Cry out! A word of welcome, an unexpected, unanticipated space made, for Emmanuel, God With Us. A word of hope, rooted not in people’s strength or goodness or bounty, but in God’s faithful presence making all things new. In God’s promise of liberation—from death, from exile, from meaninglessness, from loneliness, from hopelessness. Hope for the future, hidden in the present.

600 years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet told of one who would come, one who would restore hope, rekindle love, resurrect an ethic of justice and peace. 60 years after Jesus’ birth, Mark tells the good news of Jesus, shares with us the glad tidings we are to tell, speaks of the liberation we are to live into. And now, two thousand years after his death, we are still called to listen for a lone voice, still led into and through and out of wilderness wandering, still commanded to Cry Out! A lone voice, in spite of it all, crying “Yes! Yes! I can make room!” And hope for the future is born. Amen, and amen.

advent blessing

may peace and hope and joy and love break into our lives and crack through the chaos in spite of it all and because of it all and in the midst of in all

may we look up, look out, look in, to find a star shining.

may we look for ways of being Love Incarnate. may we be open to receive Love Incarnate from God and those around us.

o come, o come, Emmanuel...

"wake up!"

anna blaedel
first umc, osage
november 30, 2008

first sunday of advent
sunday of LIGHT

Isaiah 64:1-9
Mark 13:24-37

Let us pray: Have thine own way, God, have thine own way. Thou are the potter, we are the clay. Mold us and make us, after thy will, while we are waiting, silent and still.

On Thanksgiving eve—violent attacks consumed Mumbai, formerly called Bombay, India—at least 150 dead, over 370 wounded—machine gun and grenade assaults—hotels, a train station, a Jewish center, a hospital and movie theater—the places we go for shelter, safety, security. Ripped open.

Written in the New York Times “Even by the standards of terrorism in India, which has suffered a rising number of attacks this year, the assaults were particularly brazen in scale and execution.” A life where terrorist attacks are becoming common place, where terror tears through our ability to relate, to see God among us.

Sajjad Karim, a British member of the European Parliament, told Sky News: “A gunman just stood there spraying bullets around, right next to me.” Before his phone went dead, Mr. Karim added: “I managed to turn away and I ran into the hotel kitchen and then we were shunted into a restaurant in the basement. We are now in the dark in this room, and we have barricaded all the doors. It’s really bad.”

Mumbai—13 ½ million people—place of culture and community—a public library built in 1833—the birthplace of India cinema—government funded art exhibits open to the public—a national park—economic opportunity—coffeehouses and exquisite restaurants—places of worship centuries old—churches and temples and mosques.
And darkness, despair, devastation, death.

“In those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light and the stars will be falling from heaven and the powers of heaven will be shaken,” cries the gospel.

Lest we think we are far removed from this violence—I e-mailed another United Methodist clergy member who I see at various conferences and denominational meetings. He is from Mumbai. He lives and ministers in the US. His family is still in Mumbai. He cannot get in contact with them. Does not know whether they are alive or dead. Knows they are terrified, in the middle of darkness, despair, devastation, death.

“I can do nothing but pray,” he said. “And wait. I am waiting for God’s light to flicker in this darkness.”
We are a world, and we live in a world, desperately in need of a coming light.

People, look East, the time is near…

O come, O come, Emmanuel, in ransom captive Israel…

Advent…today the liturgical season shifts from Ordinary Time, to the Extraordinary time of Christmas…God becoming Flesh, to dwell among us. Advent, a time of prayer and preparation…preparing our lives and homes and world for God’s coming, Christ’s birth into our lives, Christ’s light shining into our desperation and despair.

Advent invites us again, now, to receive the Christ child anew. In our hearts. In the places we least expect to find light, the places we need it most.

Keep awake, implores the gospel writer. “Beware. Keep alert. You do not know when he will come.”

We don’t know the exact moment. Unlike Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day of the year, where a promised opening at midnight, 4 am, or 6 am has people lining up for hours to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need in a global economy that can’t sustain it and an environment that can’t take more packaging and plastic, let alone discarded purchases from last years spending fury.

On Black Friday, a Walmart employee was trampled to death by the mobs of people hungry to consume and wanting to buy. Trampled to death. By greed. Unwillingness to wait. Single regard for stuff. Black Friday, indeed.

In Advent, we are not promised a time. We have to wait. And prepare. Left longing, in darkness, desperate for a light to shine the way.

Advent. A star shines, lighting our way to God. If a star shone in our sky, lighting the way to the Christ child, would we notice? It is far too rare, I’m afraid, that I take the time, make the time, to look up, to look out, to look in, for God’s light shining.

Could we even see the star amidst the mega watt billboards about borrowing and buying, the big screen and flat screen tvs isolating us in our homes and feeding the lie that the latest gadget or newest show or flashiest fad will sustain us?

Is a star shining in our sky, lighting the way to the Christ child? Stop. Turn off our computers and tvs. Look.

The prophet Isaiah cries out—“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you…”

O Come, O Come, God with Us… Will we call on your name? Attempt to find you in this season of frenzy and chaos? Allow you to find us?

Light the candle, for the waiting has begun… We have started on our way…Candle, candle, burning bright, shining in the cold winter night; candle, candle burning bright, fill our hearts with Christmas light…

The gospel reading this morning is an apocalyptic text. About the end times. There is so much suffering everywhere. Devastation, destruction, death and despair. The world must be ending, what else could be possible?

It’s hard to find a flickering light. It’s almost easier to adjust to the darkness, become accustomed to destruction. To ignore the devastation in Mumbai. To forget the violence in Fallujah. To tame down the terror in Afghanistan. To overlook pain or poverty in Osage. To turn away from or numb down the pain and fear and anxiety in our own hearts. “But in those days,” proclaims the gospel, “after that suffering, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” And then.

And then. And then… When hope has almost left us. When suffering seems solidly to stay. A light will flicker. And then the longing, the preparation, the anticipation, has begun…

And then, in it all, the good news. “Yet,” says Isaiah. In spite of all of this…In the midst of all of this. You are our God. We are the clay, and you are the potter. You form us and shape us and breathe life into us and light our path for us. Not only do you create us, you then come to us. You find us when we fail or forget to look for you. You declare us your people, and then come to dwell among us and fill our lives with your light.

A flickering light does not eliminate darkness. But, neither can darkness eliminate the light.

When we lead lives of opulence and safety, we have only illusions of who we are.

And when we create illusions of opulence and safety, we forget who and whose we are.

And when we forget who and whose we are, we become unable to love and be loved.

Because we are scared. Because we are preoccupied. Because we are addicted. Because we are isolated. Because we isolate ourselves. Because because because. But. And.

As people of faith, we are promised: Isolation does not have the final word. Fear does not have the final word. Economic crisis does not have the final word. War does not have the final word. Darkness does not have the final word. “Keep awake! Keep alert! You do not know when the time will come. But know, the time is coming!”

God is being born, anew. God is choosing, once again, to become flesh. Choosing to enter this world to offer hope. To come into the darkness of death and despair, and shine, shine, shine, a light to guide our way. A flickering light to restore our faith in God’s eternal flame. Beware! Keep alert.

A light is shining. Do you see it? Wake up! Look!

Light the Advent candle, one: Now the waiting has begun; we have started on our way…

Our preparation has begun. Our anticipation has begun. Hanging lights and finding wreaths and trimming trees. Sending cards and remembering traditions and creating memories. And. Each week, here at church, an invitation each Wednesday from 5:30-6:30 to share a meal, practice fruitfulness, and prepare for our faith community’s future. An invitation each Thursday from 6-6:30 to prepare spiritually, a service of contemplative prayer, meditation, music, and scripture.

Stop, and sink into this season. Look into the turbulence, the terror, in our hearts and in our world, and then dare to search for that flickering flame. Wait, not passively, but with longing. Prepare a way for Christ in this world so desperately in need. Wake up! Stay alert! God is coming! Love and Light Incarnate being birthed into our lives, anew. Amen, and amen.

"sheep, goats, and children of god"

anna blaedel
first umc, osage
november 23, 2008

psalm 100
matthew 25:31-46
stewardship sunday

I hate asking people for money. And I am not inclined to preach about God’s judgment. But. And. It is Stewardship Sunday, and our lectionary text from Matthew is the story of God’s final judgment, and I am your pastor, your preacher. So, I am stuck. And so are you. Let us pray. O God, may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable and pleasing in your sight, O God our Strength and our Redeemer.

Last Thursday, I locked myself out of the parsonage. For the second time in two weeks. The first time I found an unlocked window and crawled right on in. If there are rumors of a shadowy, lurking stranger at the parsonage, fear not. It was me. Then I carefully locked all my windows, and popped the screen back . So, Thursday, there was no way in. I was cold. I was hungry. I was tired. I was mad at myself. I had a sermon to write. And you helped me. You left your own baked potato waiting, you set aside your work, you came into the cold, you gathered your crowbars and cordless electric screwdrivers. And you helped me. You got me inside, you made me smile and feel a little less alone, a little less stupid. You even made me spare keys so it might not happen again. You saw my need, and you responded.

Just as you do this to the least of these, you do it to me, says Jesus.

Giving all you have and all you are, for the good of the community, for the glory of God.

Anthony Robinson writes, “Goodness is not planned. It is not a heroic decision or clever calculation. It is an expression of who we are.” Stewardship. Faith. Doing good. Responding to human need. Expressions of who we are, and whose we are.
Many of you who have celebrated birthdays since September 1 when I arrived in Osage have heard me repeat Henri Nouwen’s call to celebrate. Nouwen writes: “Birthday’s need to be celebrated. I think it is more important to celebrate a birthday than a successful exam, a promotion, or a victory. Because to celebrate a birthday means to say to someone: “Thank you for being you.” Celebrating a birthday is exalting life and being glad for it. On a birthday we do not say: “Thanks for what you did, or said, or accomplished.” No, we say: “Thank you for being born and being among us.”

If you notice the strange faces here up front, you will know I am gifted by people who have traveled and gathered and slept on floors to feed me, surround me and celebrate my birthday. I am grateful. Birthdays need to be celebrated.
We all need reminded that simply being is a gift from God, that each and every one of us is created by God, blessed by God, called good by God, invited by God to do good in the world, to live out of our blessings and blessedness. Thank you, for being born and being among us. This is what stewardship is about. This is what the gospel story is about. And it is how well we participate in this practice, by which our faith will be judged.

When John Wesley was initiating the early Methodist movement in 17th century England, things did not look good. Fast and furious economic development in urban areas was draining the resources of rural people. Farming families were pushed closer to poverty, isolated socially and economically. Young people left their small communities in search of money and opportunity in the cities. The church was so concerned about its own well being and wealth that it was forgetting—about people in the community, people hungering for food, for faith, and for meaning. Things did not look good for Wesley, or his followers.

Someone asked him if he was afraid of the Methodist movement dying out. Hear Wesley’s response: “I’m not afraid of the Methodist movement dying out. I’m afraid of us becoming a dead sect, keeping the form but losing the power.” Keeping the form, but losing the power.

This is the warning Matthew sends out with this morning’s Gospel story.

In the 25th chapter of Matthew, in the story this community chose at Charge Conference to be our story, Jesus reminds us of our power, cautions us against keeping the mere form of faith. In speaking of the final judgment, the last days, Jesus did not ask, “Have you been born again? Or, how strong is your faith, really? Or, what hymns do you sing in worship? Or, what is your church’s operating budget? Or, what is your membership roll? Or, what awards have you received? What committees have you sat on? What influential people have you known? What amount did you commit on your stewardship commitment card?”

Jesus asks, “What did you do? Did you feel the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned?” Did you do everything you could? Did you give all you are and all you have? Then the good news: “Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked, ignored, or forgotten, that was me—you did it to me.”

Then he separates the people, much to their own surprise. The sheep: those who hear God’s word and then DO God’s work. The goats: those who hear the word, but don’t respond. And the sheep are as surprised to learn they are sheep as the goats are to find they are goats. They have not done heroic deeds, they have not singlehandedly eradicated poverty or cured cancer. They have done what they can. Responded to need through an expression of who they are and whose they are.

You are sick? We will visit. In prison? We will come inside the walled, guarded gates. Hungry? Sit. Let’s eat. Thirsty? Here’s water to refresh you. Locked outside in the cold? We’ll come and help. Strange? Alone? Outcast? Ignored? Welcome! It’s good to have you here! Welcome!

Celebrating God and each other, simply for being, for being born and being among us. We are beautiful and blessed. And we are broken. We are God’s beloved, and we are the least and the lost. We can offer Christ’s compassion to those we meet. And we are in need of receiving Christ’s compassion from those we encounter. We are called to be sheep, hearing God’s call and responding by doing God’s work of offering hospitality and building the community of God. And, we are expected to welcome the goats among us.

We are not expected to save others. We are called to connect. God saves. And Jesus sets the example. He did not ask people to volunteer, or sign their names on the dotted line of a sign up sheet. Jesus invited people to become disciples, for the transformation of the world. To build relationships and connections. Jesus saw the deep need in beautiful, broken people, and then sat at table to eat together. Pray together. Mourn together. Grow together. And he asks all who follow him to go out and do the same. Jesus knew, sign up sheets stay filled and commitment cards are turned in, when people seek ways to serve God and serve each other. Not as a requirement, but as a response.

And in doing so, we are told, we will meet God. Here. And in prison. Where there is hunger and need and isolation and neglect. We care called to feed the hungry not because there is overwhelming poverty, but because people are hungry. People need to eat. We need to eat. Again, hear the wisdom of Henri Nouwen, a pastor and priest and sheep, in his own right. “When I went to Peru for the first time I was strongly motivated by the burning issues of Latin America. I had heard and read about illiteracy, malnutrition, poor health, infant mortality, and many other problems. I wanted to do something to alleviate the suffering of my fellow human beings. But when I arrived in to Peru and began living there, what I came to know first of all were not issues but people: Sofia, who struggled with back pain; Pablo, who lost his job over and over again; Maria, who dreamed about having her own doll; Pablito, who wanted to go to the library and read books; and Juanita, who loved playing practical jokes on me. They certainly suffered from poverty, oppression, and exploration, but what they asked of me more than anything was not to solve their many problems, but to become their friend, share my life with them, mourn with them in their sadness, and celebrate with them in their gladness.”

“When you do it with the least of these, you do it with me.” Finding the form, without losing the power.
The form: Building the church. Being the church. Building the reign of God, here, now. The power: God’s grace, filling and forming our lives; Learning from Jesus to see the broken places in and around us, the needs and pains and tender buds of possibility, and then respond. The form: An annual stewardship drive. The power: Giving all we have and all we are, as a grateful response to all that God gives us.

"When we preach a grace which saves us without changing us, we have the form without the power." (noted from a sermon written and preached by Janet Wolf at the Bishop's Preaching Academy, 2008)

When we feed the hungry but forget that we too, need fed, we have the form without the power.

When we give to the church because we fear judgment and forget we are blessed, we have the form without the power.
Stewardship Sunday. Prayerfully committing ourselves to envisioning and creating the kingdom of God, the community of Christ here, now. Responding to God’s abundance by offering back all that we have and all that we are.

We are not nor need we become a dead sect. Remember our power, and respond to the needs we see by saying “Yes!” This is Stewardship. This is practicing our salvation, a salvation Jesus shows us, starts today. This is practicing goodness by expressing who we are as beloved children of God, to a world beloved by God. You know something about being sheep. I see the signs of salvation in our midst.

Form: Writing a check, turning in your commitment card. Power: Committing what you have to create new life, invest in faith, do ministry, practice hope, and build community.

Form: Serving as a trustee. Power: Caring for where our community gathers, how and where we worship and gather at table, where we learn and teach and practice the stories of Jesus, the story of our faith.

Form: Gathering as a worship committee. Power: Envisioning experiences of worshipping an awesome God, inviting opportunities to refill spiritually and reconnect with the sacred, creating sensory encounters with the divine—taste at table, sound and sight through passion-filled music and art.

Form: Saying “yes” to a slot on SPPRC. Power: Prayerfully assessing and attempting to meet the spiritual needs of the community. Offering leadership for building relationships with God and with each other.

Form: Renovating another room for another nursery. Power: Practicing radical hospitality to the babies, children, and parents of this community. Building a welcoming space for those who might become part of this church.

You know something of the form of faith. You also practice and participate in it’s power. When you bake cookies for the Hanging of the Greens advent festival, when you peel potatoes and cook beef and do dishes for the Roast Beef Dinner, when you donate to the women’s shelter, and sing in the choir and serve coffee for fellowship and play bingo at the county home, you are practicing stewardship, practicing discipleship, building the community of God on earth. And when you look to see who is left out, who is left alone, who is pushed away, placed on the periphery, when you reach out to the least, last, and lost, someone in pain, someone struggling, someone in need, someone who doesn’t know where else to turn, you are reaching out to God, responding to God with a faith-filled, life-giving, good-news embodying, hope-producing, grateful-giving “YES!”
“When you did this for the least of these,” says Jesus, “You did it to me.”

The form of faith, with the power of being created, blessed, and beloved of God. Committing all that we are and all that we have. Celebrating God and each other for being born and being among us. Thanks be to God! Amen, and amen.

it is raining, and gray.

i want to stay in bed, all day.

"beloved, let us once more praise the rain" by conrad aiken

Beloved, let us once more praise the rain.
Let us discover some new alphabet,
For this, the often praised; and be ourselves,
The rain, the chickweed, and the burdock leaf,
The green-white privet flower, the spotted stone,
And all that welcomes the rain; the sparrow too,—
Who watches with a hard eye from seclusion,
Beneath the elm-tree bough, till rain is done.
There is an oriole who, upside down,
Hangs at his nest, and flicks an orange wing,—
Under a tree as dead and still as lead;
There is a single leaf, in all this heaven
Of leaves, which rain has loosened from its twig:
The stem breaks, and it falls, but it is caught
Upon a sister leaf, and thus she hangs;
There is an acorn cup, beside a mushroom
Which catches three drops from the stooping cloud.
The timid bee goes back to the hive; the fly
Under the broad leaf of the hollyhock
Perpends stupid with cold; the raindark snail
Surveys the wet world from a watery stone...
And still the syllables of water whisper:
The wheel of cloud whirs slowly: while we wait
In the dark room; and in your heart I find
One silver raindrop,—on a hawthorn leaf,—
Orion in a cobweb, and the World.

What Are We Waiting For?

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
November 9, 2008
Psalm 78:1-7
Matthew 25: 1-13

My mom happens to be here in worship this morning. So, now I don’t have to talk about her behind her back. This morning’s gospel reading first took on meaning in my life, first became the Living Word, the good news to guide my life, because of my mom. She takes this text seriously. She wants, always, to have oil in her lamps. And she orders her life around this spiritual practice of preparation. She orders her life around being ready for God’s unexpected visits. She, more than maybe anyone I know, is open to receiving uninvited visitors, unexpected interruptions, unanticipated events, as a sacred gift from God, an invitation into God’s grace-filled living, an opportunity to experience and serve and praise God. Let us pray: O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable and pleasing to you, our strength and our redeemer.

This is not an easy text to hear, to live, or to preach. Anna Carter Florence, a preaching professor, has these words about this text: “The story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids is not a text for the faint-hearted. It’s scary and damning and irrevocable, as stories about the end of the world have a tendency to be. In it, Jesus is the gate-keeping troll.” Scary. Damning. Irrevocable.

This story is about the coming reign of God. The inbreaking of God’s kingdom here on this earth.

I heard a story about a high school science teacher in Nashville who takes great pleasure in slamming the classroom door as soon as the bell rings, and then saying with relish to every late student knocking on the door, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you!” I promise I will not take up this practice here at church! The response of this teacher is true to the text, but not, I believe, true to it’s meaning. True to the letter, not the spirit. God does not call us, Christ does not teach us, to be gate-keeping trolls. So what does this story offer?

Perhaps we are to take from it a reminder of God’s grace, the oil for our lamps, which is offered us in abundant supply, if only we take the time to stop. To fill and refill. To carry this oil, this blessing, with us as we journey.

Perhaps we are to take from this story a warning, to wake up, to look around us. To look at the pain and injustice in the world, to refuse to ignore what is hard to see, and then to respond in love and faith. For it is the broken places, we are taught, where God will visit first, and will pour out God’s blessing.

Perhaps we are to take from this story the invitation to prepare, now, for meeting God, in the people God sends into our lives. Like Frances Morse keeping homemade pies in her freezer to welcome guests. Like my mom, with big tubs of flour and bundles of yeast for baking delicious bread whenever, or keeping dozens of eggs and almost as many cake keepers so that every birthday is celebrated, everyone born lifted up as a child of God, a gift from God, or choosing her new car with the conditions that it fit up to six birthday cakes and a pot of soup and a loaf of bread for Wednesday night church soup suppers, and that it fit her friends, disabilities and walkers and wheelchairs and baggage and all, when they need a ride. Keeping oil in her lamps. Preparing herself for God, and God’s inbreaking in her life every day.

Perhaps this text can help assess our own reserve of life and light giving oil, can help us see clearly, as children of God, our own expectation, preparation, and creation of the Kindom of God here, now.

Perhaps it can warn us, if our oil is running dangerously low.

This text is about God’s unexpected visit, God coming not when we are scrubbed clean and sitting, shining, in our pews on Sunday morning, but God coming when we least expect it to judge and to bless, to assess our situation and our faithfulness. The word foolish in this story can also be translated, lukewarm. Not quite cold, but not really ready.

What if we waited, watched, for this coming with the same attention and eagerness with which we watched the electoral numbers coming in last Tuesday night? What if we spent the time and money and energy and prayer of these past campaigns, complete with yard signs and bumper stickers and commercial spots and Saturday Night Live spoofs, what if our collective conversation carried on past the election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States, and into how we can participate in creating the Kingdom, in this community, this country, this world.. How we can be part of the change this country and world needs? Ending poverty. Loving our neighbor. Welcoming the outcast. Visiting those in prison. Sharing the good news of God’s love not just with those we love, but with those God loves. Each and every one.

Jesus and Matthew are always warning about those who attach themselves to the Church, but fail to do God’s work. Cautioning against speaking the language of faith, but forgetting or failing to follow through. Proclaiming our part in the Kingdom of God but acting in ways that would leave Jesus wondering, “Who are you? Do I know you?”

When, O God, are you coming? How shall we meet you? How shall we greet you?

This text begins the 25th chapter of Matthew, and paves the way for the story this church chose at Charge Conference to guide and reflect our ministry as a faith community. Matthew 25. When, God, did we welcome you or feed you or clothe you or visit you? When did we have these opportunities? And Jesus replies, “When you did it to the least of these, the lost and the last, you did this to me.” Oil in our lamps. Being ready to meet God.

This text may be scary and damning and irrevocable. It is exciting. Invitating. Again, from Anna Carter Florence. “I think preachers who use this parable as a way to scare us all straight are missing the point. God doesn’t want us to fill our lamps because we’re afraid we’re going to get locked out of the Kingdom. We aren’t to stockpile oil because then we can turn everybody else away. No. We are to stop and fill, and take it with us. Fill our lamps with joy. With eager anticipation. This is the biblical price of oil: the desire to meet Jesus when he comes. Which he will and which he does. Soon. Now.”

As we gathered, we sang: “This is the day God has made! Let us rejoice, and be glad!” Did we mean it? We say we want to serve God, to follow Christ. To make disciples and to transform the world. Are we ready to follow through?

Remember the words from the psalmist: “Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from our children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deed of God, and the wonders God has done.”

God gives us the oil we need. No further drilling, required. Our lives are lamps, offered to light the way to God and for God. For ourselves and for others. Will we remember to take our lamps with us? Will we be faithful to refueling and refilling? Will we watch, attentive and eager, for the unexpected arrival of God in our midst? What are we ready for? What are we waiting for?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

united methodist bishops write a letter praising obama's call for a more just and peaceful world.

With tears, hymns and prayers, a jubilant United Methodist Council of Bishops celebrated the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president, while affirming his vision of change for the nation "based on hope for all the people, especially those who are disinherited and disenfranchised."

During their semiannual meeting in St. Simons Island, the clergy leaders hugged and many cried in their opening worship on Nov. 5, one day after Obama became the first African American elected to the top government office in the United States.

Holding hands, they sang "My Lord, What a Morning" and the Negro anthem "Lift Every Voice and Sing," while many chanted "Yes, we did!," the phrase echoed during Obama's acceptance speech the night before.

The new president-elect symbolizes and magnifies part of our common life that hasn't been brought to fore in this way.
"The election of any president in a democracy is a great day," said Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the Council of Bishops and himself an African American. "The new president-elect symbolizes and magnifies part of our common life that hasn't been brought to fore in this way."

The council, including 69 active and 91 retired bishops, is the top clergy body of the 11.5 million-member worldwide United Methodist Church, the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States. The council represents bishops from the United States, Africa, Europe and the Philippines. It helps set the direction of the denomination and its mission across the globe.

The council's officers quickly signed a letter of congratulations to the new president. "The Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church is pleased to join with the chorus of United States citizens and international partners in congratulating you on your election as the 44th President of the United States of America," the letter opened.

"We applaud your willingness to articulate a vision of change for the United States that is based on hope for all the people, especially those who are disinherited and disenfranchised. We are also encouraged by your desire to construct a landscape for the United States that is inclusive of all people. We affirm your desire for a more peaceful and just world."

The bishops also signed two Bibles to be presented to Obama and the future first lady, Michelle Obama. The bishops asked in their letter to meet the couple during the council's meeting next May in Washington, D.C.

"A visit with the president by representatives of the Council of Bishops is a tradition that dates back to our first bishop, Francis Asbury, who visited with President George Washington," the letter pointed out.

'A new day'

The election's outcome brought moving and emotional reactions from bishops from across the world.

Today makes the week I spent in jail in Mississippi in 1963 really meaningful.

Retired Bishop Herbert Skeete recalled how he spent a week in jail in Mississippi in 1963 for attempting to help integrate a Methodist church in Jackson and open its doors for African Americans to worship.

"Today makes the week I spent in jail in Mississippi in 1963 really meaningful," said Skeete, himself black. "It is certainly a blessing for us all, for the country and the world. We are entering a new day."

Retired Bishop Beverly Shamana agreed. "In my heart, I did not think that I would be able to see this day,” she said. “I am just overwhelmed. The impact that this is going to have on the world is just unimaginable, but we know that it is going to make such a huge difference in the hearts and minds of people."

Shamana said the election made her think of other African Americans, both old and young. "I think about those older than me, like my father, who never would have thought that he would see this day, and of my biracial nephew, who has a new sense of who he is because of the president-elect,” she said. “My heart is warmed and I am so happy."

For Bishop Donald Ott, executive secretary of the council, Obama's election represents "a marvelous seismic shift" and proves that people want change and a new image for the United States in the world. "The face of President Obama and his message will bring that," he said. "I am personally pleased because of the articulation of many things in his voice and his record that indicate alignment with the values that are in the Christian faith."

This was a historic landmark election for the life of this country.

Bishop Susan Hassneger, who represents United Methodists in the area around Albany, N.Y., said Obama's election brought Isaiah 43:19 to mind, declaring that "a new thing has sprung forth."

Newly elected Bishop Grant Hagiya, an Asian American who leads the church's Seattle Area, called Obama "a symbol of diversity" that signifies change. He said changing the guard should lead to greater safety in the United States, as well as an improved perception of the United States in the world.

"This was a historic landmark election for the life of this country," said Bishop Emilio De Carvalho, a retired bishop of Angola. "It makes a change in relationships not only among U.S. citizens but also nations of the whole world. We congratulate the American people for this election."

Bishop John Innis of Liberia was elated that an African American will lead the United States. "Our God is great and to see what [God] has done in the world … by electing the first black man as president of this great nation is historic," he said. "A new day has come."

Rosemary Wenner, bishop of Germany, also congratulated the United States. "The people in Germany celebrate with you,” she said. “We all know that struggle of racism throughout the world."

This article was written by United Methodist News Service writer Linda Green, who is based in Nashville.

words from winker: jim winkler speaks of obama and hope

Hope survived
By Jim Winkler, General Secretary, General Board of Church & Society
I was present at the meeting of the Council of Bishops on Nov. 4. There was great enthusiasm and delight at the news Barack Obama has been elected president. All present are aware we are witnesses to history.

In days immediately following the election, thousands of people lined up at the offices of newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times to seek copies of the editions announcing Obama’s election. People will remember where they were on election day just as they remember other historic moments such as Sept. 11, 2001, and Nov. 22, 1963.

His election raises my hopes we can see progress towards peace and social and economic justice.

What more is there to say? Countless columns have been written already by people attempting to ascertain the significance of Obama’s election. I’ll simply add that his election raises my hopes we can see progress towards peace and social and economic justice during the Obama administration.

President-elect Obama is not the savior, nor does he claim to be. In fact, some of his proposed policies are at odds with stances expressed this past spring by our denomination’s highest policy-making body, the General Conference.

There does at least appear to be room for discussion with the new administration, though. Quite frankly, this was almost wholly absent these past eight years during the administration of a president who happened to be United Methodist.

There will be plenty of time in the future to discuss policy issues, though. Now is a time to celebrate a remarkable accomplishment. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said he envisioned a black man as the President of the United States by 1988. While the wheels of change move ever so slowly and Dr. King’s vision wasn’t realized until 2008, nonetheless a significant milestone has been achieved.

It is difficult, if not impossible, for many of us to comprehend the hope this milestone represents for a people whose roots in the “land of the free” began in slavery. This moment demands reverent reflection. Change was the mantra of this election, and that was true on many levels. Mostly, though, it was about hope, and this time, hope survived, perhaps to a magnitude that has never before been known. Thanks be to God!

"Blessed Are..."

Anna Blaedel
November 2, 2008
Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37
Matthew 5:1-12

Celebrating All Saints Day and Communion

I want to tell you about one of God’s saints. A couple of you might even know him. His name is Bob Farr. Bob is still with us, still living life on earth into his 80s. Bob began his ministry as a Methodist pastor in 1948, 20 years before, in fact, there even was a United Methodist Church. Bob would never call himself a saint, but I do every time I e-mail him, just about every week. Bob, you dear saint, I always begin… Bob returns this blessing with every e-mail. Anna, my joy, he always begins… We bless each other, with every e-mail. He would never call himself a saint. In fact, when I asked if I could mention him in this sermon, he had this response: “I still say I am not a Christian, one who follows and shows Christ. I am a redeemed sinner, whom Christ is finding. I pray I live long enough to become a Christian.”

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed is Bob, for he is well on his way indeed, to living the life of Christ’s mercy, compassion, and love. Let us pray… O God, may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable and pleasing in your sight, our Strength and our Redeemer.

Bob Farr is a voracious reader and scholar, and blesses me by passing on the bits of wisdom from saints and prophets he discovers. His rich life of study and prayer is a shared blessing between us. Friday morning he e-mailed after rediscovering Tyndale, a 16th century Christian who has impacted each of us and our faith practice, more than you might know. In England in 1409, owning or reading an English version of the Bible was punishable by death. Tyndale believed, and told the Bishop of London, that the boy at the plow could know more about scripture than the Bishop. The boy at the plow was as blessed as the bishop. Tyndale took recent editions of the Greek NT and started translating. The religious authorities, bent on protecting their hold on Biblical truth, found him and chased him out of town. The Bible, especially the Beatitudes, was dangerous reading material. It offers, after all, hope to those with no hope. Within its pages we learn a rich man won’t make it into heaven until a camel can make it through the eye of a needle. But the poor are God’s beloved, blessed by God. Good news for the communion of saints. Bad news for those in power, for those wielding their power against others. So.

Tyndale learned Hebrew in Germany, and published a number of books of the Christian Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, before a fellow English church member turned him in, again, to the authorities. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The church imprisoned him for almost a year, and then burnt him at the stake. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely…The charge, heresy. To claim the Bible as divine in any other language than Latin, heretical.

It was Tyndale the heretic who first translated the Bible into understandable English. He received in reading the Bible a blessing from God, and wanted to share this blessing with others. As Karl Barth said, and Bob Farr reminded: “The Bible is a window through which God shines through to us. Worship the Light. Not the window.” The same could be said for the church, a place where God’s blessing might flow and overflow. Give thanks for the blessing, not the building.

This morning’s gospel reading is the first part of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. The beatitudes. Or translated, The Blessings. When Jesus preached this sermon, it was designed to shock the audience. Wake them up a little. A deliberate inversion of standard values, these Blessings from Jesus. Their bite, their blessing, their umph, is often lost today due to the familiarity of these words. Hear this blessing again.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad!”

In this series of blessings, Jesus names the community of saints, those who should lead us, those whose leadership we need to recognize. Those whose leadership we need to step into. Not the emperors, conquerors, governors, or priests…no. Blessed is the common communion. The poor. The persecuted. The peacemakers.

We who have known grief, who hunger and thirst for a new and renewed world. Those who are building beloved community, becoming the reign of God, not trickled down from the top but birthed from the bottom and shared. Blessing: an inward contentedness and joy not fully determined by the surrounding circumstances. Blessed, not because there is no war, but when we dare to work for peace in the midst of war. Blessed, not because there is nothing to mourn, but because we mourn loss and grieve injustice and seek to comfort each other in the midst of it all.

Etty Hillesum died in Auschwitz when she was 29 years old. In the midst of unimaginable mourning, surrounded by horrendous violence and disregard for humanity’s shared sacred worth, Etty wrote: “Our human vocation, our spiritual calling, is to safeguard that little piece of God that is found in each of us—to make a safe dwelling place for God to be at home in the world.” Our vocation—not to chase down, finally, a blessing from God, but to receive, glimpse by glimpse until finally and fully, the blessing God has already, always, offered us. And to return that blessing to others. Make space for God and God’s blessing in our lives, and then work in the world to make space for God. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the merciful.

Rejoice! You are blessed! When we work for peace in the midst of warring madness, we are blessed, children of God! When we summon the courage to seek justice, rather than secure our own self interest, we are blessed! When we vote because we want to end poverty, care for and sustain creation, provide health care and education and safe spaces for all our children, all God’s children, we are blessed!

O that we might receive the blessing of this text, more than receive the familiar litany. We are blessed and through our living we can bless others. When we live into our blessedness, we participate in the work of the Kindom. When we build relationships of blessing, we will find relationships of awe, of passion and compassion, love and justice for our earth and all her people.

What would your life be like, you communion of saints, you, if you believed, deep down in your bones, that you are blessed, beloved by God? That you are called and invited to be a blessing? Sit with that. What would be different? What would you do differently?

What would our life together be like if we believed, deep down in our collective bones, that we are blessed, beloved by God, and invited and called to bring God’s blessing to the people we meet?

The communion of saints calls us to remember. The Beatitudes bless us into recalling. May we allow Christ to find us through these blessings. If we live the beatitudes, live our blessing, God’s light shines through us. We become a living blessing, and through our hands and hearts and lips God’s blessing might flow and overflow this world. This morning, may we receive the blessing, not just the text. May we receive God’s light, not just the window. Amen, and amen.

"a charge to keep"

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
October 26, 2008

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
Matthew 22:34-46

About nine hours ago, I returned from Washington DC from our fall meeting of the General Board of Church and Society, of the United Methodist Church. Have you heard of the work and witness of this part of our church? I invite you—Google it. Ask me about it. Talk to the members of this community who have been to annual conference, or who know about it. I have served on this board for four years, and was re-elected to continue this work and ministry for the coming four years. Don’t worry, they cover all the financial costs! A great privilege, a great responsibility. Being on this board is exhilarating. Exhausting. Essential in my life and my faith and my ministry.

In this morning’s gospel text from Matthew, one of the followers approaches Jesus: Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Let us pray: O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable and pleasing to you, our strength and our redeemer.

The stated purpose of the General Board of Church and Society is to relate the gospel of Jesus Christ to the members of the Church and to the persons and structures of the communities and world in which they live. A mouthful, I know. Or, to connect the good news of the love and justice of Jesus our Christ in our daily lives. To help us know better how to love our neighbors, even those we have never met. Or, to discern how the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to live in our local community, local church. AND, how the gospel calls us to connect within our global community, because as United Methodists, we are a global church, we worship a God of all the nations, we are citizens, first, of the kingdom of God. Our charter states, “This board shall seek to bring the whole of human life, activities, possessions, use of resources, and community and world relationships into conformity with the will of God.” Quite a charge to keep! All of who we are, what we have, what we do, what we believe…all our hearts, our minds, our souls, our strength…all opportunities to more fully conform ourselves and our lives to the will of God.

We are a connectional church. We are called to connect with each other. We learn in the sacred scriptures that how we connect with each other reflects and enables how we connect with God.

On these two commandments, teaches Jesus, hang all the law and the prophets—Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. On this, our Lord was crystal clear. Together, this is the great commandment. Love God. How do we do this? By loving our neighbor. Not just with what is left over, what is easily given, what we won’t miss anyway, what we can easily do without. With all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds, all our strength. All of who we are, and all of what we have. This is the plumbline of our faith, and should be the plumbline of ordering our lives.

After all is said and done, teaches Jesus, our very salvation hangs on this, the state of our very souls depends on this. Love the Lord our God. And love our neighbors. With this commandment, Christ calls us to build the kingdom of God here on earth. Our sacred calling, our holy tasking, to be kingdom builders, prophets of justice, love and hope. What God requires of us—doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

Exhilarating! Exhausting… Essential to our shared faith and faithfulness.

From John Wesley, the founder of Methodism—Three simple rules for faithful living. First, Do No Harm. Second, Do Good. Third, Stay in Love With God. Wesley charged this denomination, Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the people you can, in all the places you can, by all the means you can, for as long as you can. Love God. Love your neighbor. And by doing this, bring the whole of our human lives, activities, possessions, use of resources, and community and world relationships into conformity with the will of God.

Jesus embodied, Wesley remembered, we are taught: By loving and serving our neighbors, far and near, we love and serve God.

I will not try to share all the stories I heard from fellow board members and staff these past four days. From United Methodist Bishops in Angola and Liberia, Pennsylvania and North Dakota, from pastors serving United Methodist Churches in the Philippines and New York, Texas and Sweden, California and Congo, from delegates, lay members in churches, just like you, from Zimbabwe and Switzerland and Kenya and North Carolina and Puerto Rico and Nebraska. We sat at table together, and ate. We visited congressional offices. We laughed together. We cried together. We worshiped together, oh did we worship together. We shared our personal stories of faith, shared our deep need for God’s love and justice and hope in our communities, shared ways we might be prophets of this love and justice and hope.

In my work area alone, we are tasked by the people of the United Methodist Church through General Conference to be kingdom builders around issues of immigration, torture, the death penalty, HIV and AIDS, domestic violence, family planning and reproductive health, child marriage and human trafficking, human sexuality, bioethics, and more. A steep learning curve for us all…To bring the whole of human life, activities, possessions, use of resources, and community and world relationships into conformity with the will of God. Love. Justice. Hope. Looking at and learning about the world around us through new eyes. This is the practice of incarnation!

In the last 36 hours or so, I was invited to face very difficult realities which call for faithful, for faith filled response:

Did you know—over 70% of the chocolate we will hand out this Halloween is made with coco harvested under slave conditions, often by children?

Did you know—Equal Exchange works with the United Methodist Church to provide Fair Trade chocolate, available to you, so that we might enjoy pleasure without causing others to suffer?

Did you know—over 10,000 non combatant people every year are killed or maimed by landmines, and that the US is one of a small group of countries, along with Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Burma, China, and Saudi Arabia, who has refused to ratify the Mine Ban Treaty?

Do you know where your elected officials stand on this ban? Do you know whether the presidential candidate you will vote for in 9 days is willing to save lives and sign this treaty?

Did you know—1 in 4 women experience domestic violence, and 1 in 5 young women will experience sexual assault between the ages of 18-24 years old?

Did you know—far too many people, sometimes batterers, sometimes pastors, use the Bible to justify or excuse this violence?

Did you know—in a comprehensive poll in 2006, 37% of men in the US admitted to committing one or more acts of physical or sexual violence in the past 12 months?

Did you know—states which practice the death penalty have a 40% higher murder rate than states which do not?

Did you know—about 930,000 people in the US are currently living with AIDS?

Did you know—worldwide, almost 40 million are living with AIDS, and that 600,000 children are infected each year?

Did you know, that study after study after study and story after story after story has shown that abstinence only sex education is ineffective in addressing this global health crisis?

Did you know—the United Methodist Church is working, through our connectional system and apportionment giving, on educating and advocating and ministering to the real people and lives behind these statistics?

Did you know—part of being a United Methodist church is participating in ministries of love and justice for our neighbors through our apportioned giving, and through our prayers, presence and service?

Did you know that this church, 1st United Methodist Church of Osage, has only paid 44% of our apportioned giving, 44% of our connectional commitment to these ministries we cannot possibly do on our own, these ministries which also impact people within this church, within this community?

All in 36 hours, or so. I left DC utterly exhausted. This work is overwhelming. These statistics are overwhelming. The need is wide. Our call runs deep. But. And. I left renewed. Because, God’s grace is wide, and Jesus’ love runs deep, too. Our connection with each other is sacred, and carries us through. We are called. As Christians, we are commanded. To be prophets of God’s love and justice and hope. To bring the good news of Jesus Christ to a world desperately needing good news. To be disciples and to make disciples for the transformation of the world.

And, because we are human, we do grow weary in this work of faith, cry out with the suffering we see when we dare to look in our lives, or the lives of our neighbors. Hear this reminder from the psalmist. “How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prepare for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands!”

As deeply as we are afflicted, so deep can be our joy. As pervasive the forces of evil, so pervasive can be our just and loving response. Hear again the words we sung together this morning written in the 9th century, over a thousand years ago: where charity and love prevail, there God is ever found; brought here together by Christ’s love, by love we are thus bound.
In a few moments, from Together We Serve: Together we serve in Spirit and truth, remembering love is the strength of our song.

From our closing hymn, our benediction to each other: We share each other’s woes, our mutual burdens bear.

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets, all the faithful work and witness and service our faith charges us to keep: Love the Lord our God with all our hearts and all our lives and all our souls and all our minds and all our strength. Love our neighbors. This is our charge to keep. May it be so. Amen, and amen.

out of the chaos...

... an apology for the mixed up dating of the sermon order.

"who let the riffraff in?" by anna blaedel

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Matthew 21:23-32
September 28, 2008

I need to begin this morning’s sermon with a confession. You know the age-old adage, “Do as I say, not as I do?” This past Friday, my day off, I started my morning meditating on the 46th Psalm, “Be still, and know that I am God.” I prayed that God might slow me down, might help me place prayer and prayerful work at the center of my day, and slip slide the stacked schedule away. Slow down. Be still. Breathe. See the people and world and beauty and brokenness around me, rather than rush forward, frenzied, to the next to do list task. This was, about, 8am. By 2pm, I was rushing down 218 towards Iowa City, late to pick up my sister, late for our planned and eagerly anticipated afternoon together picking apples at Wilson’s orchard, late to sit together and ask, “How is it with your soul?” I am sorry to say it was the flashing lights of the State Trooper behind me, not my morning prayer that managed to slow me down. So, before you read it in the newspaper, hear it from me. Sometimes words are not enough.

As a religious leader, an elder in the church, a pastor commissioned to preach the Word of God and help lead the people of God, I mess up. I forget what grounds me. I fail to find ways in my daily life to live God’s welcome, to witness to God’s love. I forget who I am, and whose I am. Oh, how I wish I could hide behind the disclaimer, “Do as I say, not as I do.” In this morning’s gospel lesson from Matthew, Jesus reminds us, reminds me, why this doesn’t cut it. Sometimes words are just not enough. Faith that doesn’t result in faithful action is just talk. Faith that doesn’t result in faithful action is just talk.

This is a terrifying truth for a preacher. This was a terrifying truth for those to whom Jesus directed this morning’s gospel parable. It is important, when reading this story, to remember that it follows right after Jesus has stormed into the Temple, and, so disgusted by the greed and hypocrisy he finds in this house of worship, throws over the money changer’s tables. Now he dares to show his face again. It is also important to remember that John the Baptist has just been beheaded. Jesus is treading through dangerous political territory. Community tensions are high. Perhaps even higher than in an election season, in a church where Republicans and Democrats worship side by side. The Jesus we meet in this story is not what those in power might call a respectable person, not a nice, Midwestern, people-pleasing sort of guy who goes out of his way not to offend anyone or make waves or cause a ruckus. Jesus confronts them. And it ain’t pretty.

The respectable characters in the story are, without doubt, the chief priests and elders. They are the religious leaders, those who have invested in the community, those who preserve order and smooth over disagreements and minimize disturbances in the status quo. Respectable, we are about to learn, does not always equal faithful.

“Just who do you think you are?” they ask Jesus. “By whose authority do you say such things?” So, in typical Jesus fashion, Jesus responds with a parable. Refuses to offer an easy answer, and instead makes them, makes us, work a little, wrestle a bit, to figure out a faithful response.

A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not;” but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir;” but did not go. “Which one is obedient? Which one responds faithfully?” asks Jesus. The one who says the right thing and fails to follow through, or the one who messes up the initial response, but then shows up in body and spirit to do God’s work? The one who speaks the language of faith, who can quote scripture and never misses a Sunday, but is caught up in pretence and power and prestige, or the one who fumbles through the Lord’s prayer, maybe doesn’t even know one gospel story from another, but works in the world to build the kingdom of God on earth, to do daily what the Lord requires, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God?

Whew. The chief priests and elders know they are in trouble now. Perhaps felt a bit like I did when the flashing lights pulled up behind me. Caught.

And Jesus doesn’t stop there. “Truly I tell you, “ says Jesus, “The tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.” Jesus doesn’t even have the decency to say the repentant tax collectors and prostitutes, those who have cleaned their act, put themselves together a bit, smoothed off the rough edges? Nor does Jesus stop at saying the riffraff have a place in the Kingdom of God. The first shall be last, and the last first.

Scathing. Scandalous. Jesus speaks an unpopular truth to power and places the riffraff closer to God than religious and political leaders of Holy Jerusalem. Jesus not only lets the riffraff in, he welcomes them.

He says that we can only build the Kingdom of God, only be the Kingdom of God, to the extent that we welcome the riffraff. This is in direct conflict with religious law and political policy and social standards. The riffraff. Those who are unclean, unworthy, unaccepted and unacceptable. The outsiders. The poor. The undocumented workers, the single mothers, the non-Christians, the gays and lesbians, those in prison…Who else are the riffraff of our time? And then Jesus goes even further. Claims it is God who ordains such behavior. God who welcomes the riffraff. God who makes a special place for “those people.” The chief priests’ response no longer seems so outlandish, does it? “Just who do you think you are? By what authority do you say such things?”

My mind was still stuck on this perplexing story, my soul trembling at the thought of preaching on it, as I watched Friday’s presidential debate. Both McCain and Obama have hinged their campaigns upon change. Given our current economic crisis, or our environmental crisis, or our educational crisis, to say nothing of foreign policy, it really should come as no surprise that “change” is a necessary hallmark of this election season, on both sides of the aisle. Before and during and after the debate, words flew, some of them eloquent and convincing and even convicting. But, sometimes words are not enough. One commentator concluded, after Obama and McCain finished, that the debate had been little more than an exchange of banalities. “Politicians can come together,” he remarked, “to borrow almost a trillion dollars we don’t have to help people who don’t need it for reasons we don’t quite know.” What are we saying, what are we doing, when we cut government assistance for the poor, but allow for billions of dollars of corporate bailout? What are we saying, when we arrest Postville workers but give amnesty to wall street billionaires? What are we saying, when we commit to worshipping and serving a Savior born a Palestinian Jew, but believe higher walls and tougher borders offer us security? What are we saying when we call ourselves Christians, but wonder who on earth, who in heaven, let the riffraff in?

This is a hard story for us religious leaders to hear. It is a hard story for people in the pews to hear. It was hard for the chief priests and the elders to hear. This is why, Jesus told it. This radical, startling Kingdom of God is the central theme of Jesus’ preaching, the central theme of God’s Good News. And building it, living into it, becoming it, is the central theme of our task as Christian community.

As we move into the final stretches of this election season, you will not hear me preach partisan from this pulpit. I do hope, however, that we might wrestle together, talk with each other, about what kind of changes we want to see, what kind of changes we need to be a part of, to help order our lives and communities around the gospel of Jesus Christ. What does it mean, to respond faithfully? What kind of changes do we need, as a community of faith within these walls, and as citizens of this nation, in order to practice what we preach? Faith that does not result in faithful action is just talk. And, sometimes words just aren’t enough. Amen.

"have we grown tired of God?" by anna blaedel

Exodus 33:12-33
Matthew 22:15-22
October 19, 2008

Last Wednesday, the youth in this community chose to make another trip to Mason City to hear John Bul Dau, one of the almost 30,000 Lost Boys of Sudan, share and speak to the violence, struggle, and hope woven into his life’s story. The week before, we viewed the film "God Grew Tired of Us," featuring John Bul Dau and other Lost Boys. Torn from his home and family by the civil war and atrocity in Sudan, John spoke of his life as a living story, a living testimony. His story, he said, and our stories, are living because they come from others, from humans we will never meet, are brought into our lives and then flow from us to others through our own living stories. His life is shadowed by a depth of inhumanity, and also shines with the power of God and power of people who are doing God’s work of love and justice in the world. Depth of suffering, depth of connection. Both, and, together in complex relationship. In the midst of violence I cannot begin to comprehend, hunger and poverty I can only imagine, John Bul Dau found his faith, his theology pushed to the brink, crying out, “Surely God has grown tired of us!” A tricky question born of deep despair, and because cried out to God in prayer, deep hope. Both, and.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable to you, O God our Strength and our Redeemer.

The officers of the temple and officers of the Roman Empire came to Jesus in this morning’s gospel story, and tried to trip him with their own tricky question. A no-win, only-lose question. Either his religious leadership is discredited. Or he is caught advocating breaking the Roman law. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Either faithful, or lawful. Either, or. Yes, or… (thanks to Rev. Odette Lockwood Stewart for this original insight and idea she preached at Epworth UMC, in Berkeley)

Jesus found, Jesus offered, another way. Yes, and. Both, and. He asked them for a Roman coin they used to pay taxes. He pointed to the emperor’s image on it. And he said, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, but then, he added, AND give to God the things that are God’s. Essentially, you decide. Jesus turns the tricky question, the dilemma of ethics and morality and faith back onto the people.

What belongs to empire? What belongs to God?

He invites these tricksters, or hypocrites as he calls them, invites his followers, invites us, to enter into this living story, to reach deep into our moral compass, to remember who we are and remember whose we are. If you recall, not rules, but relationships, guide our life of faith.

Who belongs to empire? Who belongs to God?

This story invites us, each day invites us, to remember that we belong to God. All of us. That all we are and all we have, all we do and all we imagine, belongs to God. Is given by God. To be returned to God.

On our way back from Mason City last Wednesday night, the youth riding with me shared songs from their iPod play lists, music which speaks to them, and the stories of their lives. Now, I admit I had to listen carefully to “scream rock” ??? I believe it’s called genre of the band 10 Years, to hear the message. One of the refrains they especially wanted me to hear, especially wanted to share, is a message I needed to hear. These are the lyrics of the refrain: “Brace yourselves and give into the moment, you’ve got nothing to lose so what is your excuse?” From another song by the same band, these words, “I pray to be inspired.”

This morning’s text from Exodus reveals the mystery of God, the nature and being of this God to whom we belong. Moses asks, “Who are you?” Or, “Who shall I say sent me?” God replies, “Tell Pharaoh that “I AM” sent you.” Or, perhaps a better translation of the Hebrew, “I AM WHO I WILL BE.” God, revealing God’s self as a Future Tense Verb. God, becoming in relation to and with our becoming. God, a living story woven together with our living stories. The glory of this mysterious unfolding far too great for us to behold or believe fully in any one moment. Revealed in glimpses, offered in invitations.

As I have sat with the living story of John Bul Dau, connected his story with my story, prayed about how I might respond in my life, how we might respond through the life of this community, I have wondered if a more appropriate question, more accurate one for me is less, “Has God grown tired of me?” and more, “Have I grown tired of God?” “Have we grown tired of God?” Have we forgotten to pray to be inspired?

Howard Ikemoto, an artist and art teacher who grew up in a Japanese internment camp in California during WWII shares this story: When my daughter was seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college—that my job was to teach people how to draw. She stared back at me, incredulous, and said, “You mean they forgot?”
We forget. We learn to forget we are creative. We forget we are called to create beauty and peace and love in our lives and communities. We learn to forget we are beautiful, beloved, created and claimed by God. We forget others are beloved, too, created and claimed by God in all God’s mystery and glory. And, we forget to return to God what is God’s, our creativity, our love, our lives.

Each of us stands with Moses, needing to see God’s face, only to discover that God will remain a mystery. Each of us stands with Jesus, torn by this world, needing more time, more energy, more money, only to discover that God has already given us what we need to do the work God calls us to do. Tricky and complex to figure out how to rebalance, perhaps. Have we grown tired of God? I look out at you, you who are teaching children how to pray and how to love, you who are organizing collections for the women’s shelter, you who are birthing ideas for new growth in this community, you who are mowing my lawn and tending my flowers, you who coordinate roast beef dinners, you who visit the nursing homes, you who share music on Wednesdays and on Sundays, you who play BINGO at the Community Care Facility, you who donate your time and your money and yourselves to the work and witness of the living story of this community…When I see these parts of our living story, it is clear to me that you have not grown tired of God, and have not forgotten God. And God has not grown tired of us. How might we give to God what is God’s?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

"remember who you are" by anna blaedel

Mark 9:38-50
First UMC, Osage

I want to share something I read in this month’s Upper Room, something my mom read, and called to remind me, “Perhaps we think the spiritual life would be easier if there were clear rules about behavior in every situation. But Jesus tells us always that the spiritual life is not about rules; it is about relationship.”

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable to you, O God, our strength and our redeemer.

When I was 15, my pastor Scott Grotewold preached a sermon that, try as I might, I have never been able to escape. Nor have I been able to forget. I admit that the details of the sermon have faded, as sermons tend to do. My pastor told of his grandma, her deep care and concern for him, their shared relationship. Her efforts to protect him, and his efforts to escape her constant attention. Now, he was a good kid. Not prone to getting into trouble, not one to push the limits too far. It’s not that he needed more rules, or even needed to follow more closely the rules already laid out. I believe every parent probably knows, deep down, that rules aren’t a fail safe against trouble, let alone hurt or heartbreak. So, every time he opened the door to leave, no matter how he tip toed, he would hear his grandma call out, “Remember who you are!” Half warning, half blessing. No attempt at an endless listing of prohibitions or commands. “Remember who you are.” Safety and sanctuary and safekeeping and security in relationship, not rules.

And, after that sermon, every time I opened the door to leave, every time I tried to tip toe around or silently slide past my own mom’s protective attention, I too heard this half warning, half blessing. “Remember who you are.” My pastor’s grandmother knew, my own mother knew, that mere restrictions rarely ensure our safety, let alone our happiness. Remember who you are. Remember whose you are. Responsibility to relationships, not to rules.

This morning’s gospel reading calls us to remember who we are. Mark writes, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Or, in Matthew’s perhaps more familiar version, “You are salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can it be restored?” Or, in Eugene Pederson’s translation, The Message, “You are to be the salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness?”

Remember, in the 1st century, salt was a precious commodity, serving a crucial purpose. It added flavor and zest, yes. But in the arid climate of Palestine, salt was indispensible for the preservation of food. Salt losing its saltiness meant the people would go hungry. The phrase “Worth your salt” comes from this context. The Romans gave salt out to their soldiers and civil servants as salary. “Not worth your salt” meant that you weren’t worth your wages. Didn’t measure up, didn’t meet expectations, weren’t of value. If salt has lost its saltiness, how can it be restored?

Remember who you are. You are the salt of the earth. Precious. Valuable. Or, as the congregation responds to every baptism at a colleague’s church, “Beloved, Precious Child of God, Beautiful to Behold.”

Remember, too, that Jesus is not saying this to a select few, the pre-screened favorites, those who are well dressed, well behaved, easy to like and fun to be around. Following relationship, not rules. Just a couple of verses before this morning’s story, the disciples have been fighting mightily amongst themselves, shouting and arguing and making a spectacle. They are vying for the title of “Greatest,” vying for power and prestige. Jesus tells a parable about the many stumbling blocks to living faithfully in community. Stop worrying about who is better than whom. Stop fighting about who is in and who is out. Stop clamoring to prove yourselves. Why? Because God already sees you as precious. So precious. Invaluable. Of sacred worth. Each and every one of you! Salt of the earth! Don’t forget your saltiness! Remember who you are! Beloved, Precious Child of God, Beautiful to Behold.

Or, as the stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote, “You bear God within you, poor wretch, and know it not.”
Remember who you are. Remember whose you are.

World Communion Sunday. A day when Christians around the world remember the relationships binding us together. When love is easy. When hate is easier. When it is clear we are cut from the same cloth. When we can find nothing but difference. When we respond to the other with kindness and compassion. When we respond to the other with suspicion and distrust. When we are at war with each other. When we are at peace with each other.

Remember who you are. And remember that this identity is shared. Each and every one of us here, and each and every one throughout this world. Beloved, Precious Children of God, Beautiful to Behold.

Do this, invites Jesus, in remembrance of me.

Do this, invites Jesus, each of you, all of you, all of us, in remembrance of me.

When we forget, what good are we? You bear God within you, poor wretch, and know it not!

Be in union with God, and in communion with each other. Beloved, Precious Children of God, Beautiful to behold. Not some of us, or even most of us. Not just the Americans or United Methodists. All of us.

At the heart of the spiritual life, teaches Jesus, is the call to relationship. With each other and with God. Because we are all created by God, and God calls it good.

Remember who you are. Thanks be to God! Amen.