Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Parables You Only Think You Know

1 Kings 3:5-12
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-49a

The kingdom of heaven exists wherever God is King.
You have been waiting for God, Jesus said, while God has been 
waiting for you. No wonder nothing is happening. You want God’s 
intervention, he said, while God wants your collaboration. God’s 
kingdom is here, but only insofar as you accept it, enter it, live it, and 
thereby establish it.1
 —John Dominic Crossan

Establishing God’s kingdom is always a work in progress and it requires the ongoing discernment of God’s people. In our first reading today, Solomon, an earthly king, asked God for wisdom to govern the people. Governing is not easy. 

There are good ideas, great ideas, ideas that look good at the time, ideas that are self-serving, ideas that serve some by exploiting others, ideas based on good research, ideas based on noble ideals, ideas firmly grounded in history, ideas that are new and unconventional. If it were easy to tell a good idea from an evil idea, we wouldn’t make mistakes. What turns out to be evil, often looks good at the beginning. If it’s hard to tell good from evil (remember the parable of the weeds sown among the seeds), how much harder is it to tell good from adequate, but flawed? The ability to discern wisely is an absolutely essential skill for people of God. It is a gift we should all ask from God, and a skill we should develop in community.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus tells a few seemingly simple parables about the kingdom of God. I learned what they meant as a child in Sunday school. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.” I had a mustard seed bracelet as a child to remind me of how tiny faith can grow big like a tree—big enough for the birds to build their nests. Except, if I were a farmer, why would I want a tree to grow in the middle of my field where birds could build their nests? Wouldn’t they eat the seed that I planted and the grain or fruit I grew? Jesus just told about seed being lost to birds because it fell on a path. How many scarecrows would I need to keep the hungry birds from eating my crop? Hmmm. . . .why would a farmer plant a mustard seed in the middle of his field? In fact, mustard is only supposed to grow to be the size of a shrub—how on earth did it become a tree big enough to house birds and their nests? 

While the farmers are scratching their beards and shaking their heads, Jesus tells a parable for the women. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until it was leavened.” Did you think three cups? Me too! But three measures is almost ten gallons of flour—enough to make over 100 loaves of bread—enough to feed a small village. Jesus says that the woman hid the yeast in the flour—the original text says “hid” not “mixed.” She hid yeast in three measures of flour. The women’s minds are spinning. Three measures—hidden yeast! Every year at Passover these women threw out their yeast as a symbol for sin. They swept their houses and even dusted with feathers to make sure all the yeast was gone so that their homes could be pure and “sinless” for Passover. Another time Jesus warned the disciples to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees.” Hmmm. . . .hidden yeast that somehow spreads through ten gallons of flour, enough for a whole village.

Ready for another parable? “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Think about this one. A man finds a wonderful treasure. It’s his! But to keep it from being stolen (or perhaps claimed by its rightful owner), he buries it in a field that belongs to someone else, then sells everything he has and buys the field in which he has buried his treasure. Is this so that he can claim that the treasure legitimately belongs to him? I think I’ve seen 
this plot in a number of crime dramas. 

“Again,” Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Finally, a straightforward parable. At least I think it is. Here’s what I’ve discovered about this story in my own life. The call to ministry is my pearl of great price—oh, yes, seminary costs many thousands of dollars. So we sold our house, borrowed even more than would look reasonable or even sane, and now I am an ordained minister. But remember in the parable, the man is a merchant—a person who buys and sells. He only owned the pearl to pass it on to someone else. 

All his means of living had been spent in the procurement. Without selling it, he would starve. The pearl is to be passed on. Ministry involves sharing the love of God, not keeping the love of God.

One more parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” The original Greek says that the good fish are put into baskets, but the rotten fish are thrown out—not bad fish, not dead fish, but rotten fish. At the end of the age, the angels will separate the righteous from the rotten. Not now. At the end of the age. Not your job to judge, the angels will do that. You’d think we could tell good fish from rotten fish. Jesus says that’s not our job, even when it looks like a no brainer.

Then Jesus says, “Have you understood all this?” And the disciples answered, “Yes.” Who are they kidding? They didn’t understand the easy parable of the sower and the seeds. I wonder how Solomon would have fared with these parables. How are you doing with them? Have I thoroughly confused you? My take—and remember good discernment belongs in the community so that all our prayerful consideration can be combined as we listen for the Spirit together—my take is this:

~ In the community of the people of God, sometimes the condiment, something meant only as flavoring, can take over and become the whole meal. Some minutia of meaning can overshadow the gospel and attract those who make their home in the church and use it to meet their own needs, gobbling up the seeds of good news before they can sprout and grow and produce a good harvest. 
~ In the community of the beloved, some bit of gossip, or dissention, or some small bit of self-righteousness can spread through the whole community until the whole community is puffed up. The laws can be increased with interpretation upon interpretation until no one can feel safe in God’s love. Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees.
~ In the community of the beloved, someone may take the glorious good news of God’s radical love and claim the right to interpret it as they choose—to set the rules for acceptance into the community, to determine what is good and what is evil, what is pure and what is defiled, who is in and who is out, who is a prophet and teacher and who is a blasphemer.
~ In the community of the beloved, the great treasure will cost all that you have, and it won’t belong to you. It must be shared and not hoarded.
~ In the community of the beloved, everyone is caught, and only God or God’s angels decide if anyone doesn’t belong—and that won’t be until the end of the age. So for now, everyone belongs in the net. Everyone. Do you understand?

Let the conversation begin, and may we pray for wisdom to learn to discern together wisely. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

What is Dying to Be Born or You Have to Wash a Lot of Potatoes -- Guest Sermon by Rev. Terri Stewart

Hi! I’m Rev. Terri Stewart and I work with kids affected by incarceration. That is young people who are locked up. These are kids that society has already given up on. From the age of 11 or earlier, they are entering into secure detention after years of acting-out in their schools and homes. When I think of a suffering, voiceless population, I think of these children. Children who don’t know how to articulate their problems, who don’t have power to change their situation, and children abandoned with their own parents often being incarcerated themselves. One of my dear friends, a former chaplain named Joe Cotton, used to say, “These aren’t kids with a crime problem, they are kids with a trauma problem.” That is too true. 

In March, I was watching television and heard about a shooting on the news. I hate when these 
events happen. My first instinct is to wonder if I knew anybody involved. This time, the answer 
was yes. It was a young man I knew from the work that I do. He was sitting in the backseat of 
a car, when the driver stopped at a gas station to fill up. The driver got into an argument with 
some kids at a bus stop, and when they drove off, one of the kids at the bus stop shot at the car. The bullet went into the back taillight and hit Ruben Kastillo in the back. Ruben had his life 
taken away in an instant. It is tragic. Or, as the Poet Dorothy Parker said, “This wasn’t just plain 
terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.”

Now, don’t imagine that Ruben was an angel who got caught in a terrible mischance. He wasn’t. He was gang involved and pretty high up in the hierarchy of teenage gangsters. When we met and talked, he was quiet and self-possessed. The question always comes up in detention, “How do you tell a gangster from a wanna-be?” The answer is that the “wanna-be’s” wear all the bling and sag their pants as low as possible but the real gangsters are self-possessed and quiet. They don’t need loud bluster to get respect. In gang culture, they have already earned it. Ruben was really gangster.

What must happen in a teenager’s life for him to already be a leader in a gang by the age 17? What suffering, disappointment and frustration has he experienced?For example, there is the story of Joseph. Joseph was the biggest 15-year-old you will ever meet. The problem with being a large 15-year-old is that you don’t get treated your own age. If you look 20, people treat you like you’re 20. Joseph was gang-involved and was what we would call “muscle.” But his biggest problem was his addiction to alcohol.

I talked to Joseph a lot over the 9 months he was in juvenile detention. We met for at least once a week during that time. I asked him how he started in the gangs. He told me that he first became affiliated with the gang when he was in first grade. He lived within walking distance of his elementary school, but that was unfortunately, gang territory. So in order to get from his home to the school safely, he started walking with some boys who were gang bangers. Over time, his involvement grew and they became the safety net that he needed. 

He also was abandoned by his father and he was from a family that had alcohol in the home at an early age, fueling his use and addiction to alcohol. And then, it was not helped by our justice system. He was charged with robbery in the first degree, that’s robbery while using a weapon, for stealing a six pack of beer and throwing one of the beer cans at the store clerk when he was trying to get away. 

This was a kid who suffered in his life and did not hold out much hope for his own future. In those cases, I think it is my job, the job of the chaplain, to hold hope for the youth.

While the Apostle Paul was not exactly dealing with modern day gangs in the Roman community, he did understand what it meant to suffer and what brings hope. In today’s scripture, he articulates the process by which creation will be saved. 

1. Paul’s starting point is that creation is suffering. 

2. He then tells us that creation is waiting for God’s sons and daughters to be revealed so 

that frustration will be eased.

3. Then he tells us that creation is not only suffering, but it is in pain! Labor pains! Hoping 

for a new birth.

4. And last, creation is saved by hope.

Before we can even get into this list, I would like to briefly go over a couple terms that Paul uses that I don’t think we use quite in the same way that Paul did.

First, the word creation. Scholar NT Wright says, “Paul believes himself to be living in a story, the real story of the real world, which stretches back to creation, and comes forward, through Abraham, the exodus, the monarchy, the prophets, to the exile, which in the political and theological sense has continued to his own day. He believes that the real return from exile, which is also the new ‘exodus’, has taken place in Jesus the Messiah, and that this has brought to birth the ‘new age’, the ‘age to come’, by freeing God’s people from ‘the present evil age’.” 

Creation encompasses the very beginnings of the cosmos and stretches all the way to the hope that can be found in the resurrection of Jesus. Creation includes everything and everyone. 

Typically, when we say creation, we don’t include ourselves. Paul very much includes people. That is a bit more expansive than the way we use the term “creation.” The other term to grapple with is what Paul means by being children of God. Throughout his letters, Paul talks about being God’s children through adoption. During the time of Paul and in Roman society, families held a much broader meaning than they do today. Typically, when we say family, we are referring to our immediate family—mother, father, children. The ancient Romans would include the extended family. And then, if there were people that had tragedy, perhaps the father died, they would be “adopted” into another family. Adoption was a wide-spread practice in the Roman aristocracy and vital to children and adults who were found in more tragic circumstances. Paul talks about being children of God through adoption. And what enables the adoption is the Spirit that cries with us, “Abba!” Then, Paul explains in an earlier verse, we are God’s children, and if we are God’s children, we are God’s heirs. And we are fellow heirs with Christ. Adoption through the spirit and being a child of God is very important to Paul. And it is huge! The magnitude of being an heir of God and fellow heir with Christ almost seems heretical! We rarely think of ourselves as being that close to God and that close to Christ. 

Creation. And Children of God through adoption. Now for the list. Creation is suffering. Can I get a big groan or something? That is a given. All we have to do is hear the story I told you of the incarcerated youth and you know that suffering is in the world. Children suffer, wildfires burning, war waging, people starving, the earth is groaning. That one is self-evident. 

But this is where we come in! We are the hope of the world. While creation moans and groans as if in labor, God’s sons and daughters are called into action to do what? Provide hope for a new creation that is unseen. Paul defines what we, as children of God, are called to, in Acts 17:30. He tells us that we are called to a changed heart and life—belief and action.

What would happen to the world, all of creation and everything and everyone, if we as Christians all acted with a changed heart and life to embody the call that Jesus gave us to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and to visit the imprisoned? It would be amazing! And creation is waiting for us to transform the world by such acts of loving kindness.

I don’t know about you, but the acts of loving kindness that I can achieve, seem pretty small compared with the overwhelming suffering that is experienced in creation. We have to trust that God has a way to bring it all together. And you know what? There is a way. God gives us evidence of the way that “bringing it together” actually works. The evidence is in creation.

Here’s a story from biologist, Rupert Sheldrake about the Japanese monkey, Macaca Fuscata.

The original story appears in Lyall Watson's book Lifetide, where he describes research on Japanese macaque monkeys, which have been studied intensively for more than four decades in a number of wild colonies. In 1952, a researcher first provided monkeys in one colony on the island of Koshima with sweet potatoes, which were thrown onto the beach and hence were covered with sand. One of the monkeys, an 18-month-old female, called Imo, solved the problem of the sand on the potatoes by carrying them down to a stream and washing them before feeding. This new form of behaviour spread through the colony. By 1958 all the juveniles were washing dirty food and some of the adults learned to do so by imitating their children.

Watson goes on to say: "Then something extraordinary took place. The details up to this point in the study are clear, but one has to gather the rest of the story from personal anecdotes and bits of folklore among primate researchers, because most of them are still not quite sure what happened. ..... I am forced to improvise the details, but as near as I can tell, this is what seems to have happened." Watson then tells the original version of the 100th monkey story, making it clear that this is not literally what happened but a kind of dramatisation of it:

In the autumn of that year [1958] an unspecified number of monkeys on Koshima were washing sweet potatoes in the sea, because Imo had made the further discovery that salt water not only cleaned the food but gave it an interesting new flavour. Let us say, for arguments sake, that the number was 99 and that at eleven o'clock on the Tuesday morning, one further convert was added to the fold in the usual way. But the addition of the 100th monkey apparently carried the number across some sort of threshold, pushing it through a kind of critical mass, because by that evening almost everyone in the colony was doing it. Not only that, but the habit seems to have jumped natural barriers to have appeared spontaneously, like glycerine crystals in sealed laboratory jars, in colonies in other islands and on the mainland in a troop at Takasakiama.

By doing small solitary acts towards a better world, even a better monkey world, more monkeys joined in until an entire society was transformed and then that transformation jumped outward from one society to others. Transforming the world.

I work with a young woman named Amy. She is incarcerated in a state institution and recently had a baby. She is just 16, in prison, from an impoverished area, and miles and miles away from her family. I met her and our plan was to do a program that I run called the “MAP” program. MAP is “My Action Planning.” It helps youth create action plans so that they can have more successful transitions. After learning about who she is, what her plans are, what her desires were, I thought, “She doesn’t need this program, she just needs to be loved. What if we had a baby shower so she could see love in action?” Well, what I meant by baby shower was that I was going to contact my Facebook friends and we were going to throw her a virtual baby shower! 

I put it on Facebook and my friends responded. People dropped by my house leaving boxes of diapers and cute little things. Boxes arrived. Quilting groups sent blankets. It was a bonanza of baby presents!

I filled up my little VW Beetle and drove to Yakima. She was asleep when I went in. The group home bought decorations and I brought a cake. We fixed the whole place up. She woke from her nap and thought I had not showed up. That I was just another adult that had let her down. But guess what happened when she walked into the kitchen? She was confronted with a pile of gifts and beautiful things given to her by people she does not know. But by people, the church, that loved her regardless. All those people that joined together to create a loving experience for this young lady transformed her life with loving kindness. For each one, it was not a huge act, but all together, it was monumental. It gave her love and hope for a new future.

I want you to take a moment and think of someone that you have offered loving kindness to and not known the results. Someone you helped and have no idea what happened. But whose name is still engraved on your heart. I’m going to ask for it in a minute. This is your fair warning!

We don’t know what will happen in Amy’s life any more than I know what happened in Joseph’s life. But that does not stop the hope. Paul tells us that hope is in those things that we do not see. We cannot see the consequence of loving kindness. It is like all the monkeys up to the 100thmonkey. It is unremarkable when a slow change occurs. And that is the reality that most of us live in.

We are called to ministry of washing sweet potatoes. A potato here named Joseph. A potato here named Amy. A potato here named Ruben. Are you ready! What is the name on the potato that you would wash today? Take a moment, say their name out loud, and give them up and over to the community of God, setting them free. 

Creating a transformational movement is hard work. You have to wash a lot of potatoes! But getting in there and doing the work is the beginning of what will bring new life to a dying world.


Monday, July 7, 2014

High Hopes and Realistic Expectations

Isaiah 55:1-5, 10-13
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

          Many years ago, when I was a lay member of a congregation, I remember sitting on the curb in front of the sanctuary of my church talking with my pastor.  He was wise and practical after a lifetime of ministry.  We were discussing why people stopped coming to church.  I was really concerned because I was missing several people who had worked on Vacation Bible School the year before, but hadn’t been in worship for a while.  My pastor reminded me that Jesus told us that people would fall away from the church and that we should expect it and not be too concerned.  Then he told me the parable that Carol just read for you.  I was shocked!  Weren’t we supposed to follow up on people and keep caring for them, even find out what we needed to change to make them happy?  “Not according to Jesus,” my wise pastor said.  “There are all kinds of things that get in the way of people becoming deeply committed disciples.  We just have to work with the ones that stick—that’s where our fruit comes from.” 
          I’ve taken all kinds of classes on how to become a sticky congregation, how to attract and integrate new people into the life of the congregation.  All of that really is necessary because Jesus tells us in his parable that our God is a prodigal sower.  Prodigal means lavish, extravagant, even wastefully extravagant.  God throws seeds everywhere—on every kind of surface, in every kind of heart.  We’ve all seen the improbable plant growing in a crack in a rock, or a tree growing sideways out of a cliff.  Those are the remarkable exceptions—the miracle of seed that lands in inhospitable soil and somehow takes root and grows.  It happens.  But most often, seed that’s scattered on the road gets eaten by birds.  And seed that lands in rocky or sandy soil doesn’t produce enough of a root system to survive hot, dry weather.  Seeds that fall in or near a blackberry bramble don’t stand a chance.  The blackberries will win.  Only the seed that falls in good earth produces fruit.  So if God, the prodigal sower, throws seed everywhere, God must have high hopes that some seed will find good soil and some may even thrive against all odds.  And if we follow God’s example, we also need to scatter seed as far and wide as we can, with high hopes and, Jesus tells us, realistic expectations.  We’re going to get a return of about 25 percent.  We invite, invite, invite, and welcome, welcome, welcome, and some will stick around and become disciples.  We need to have high hopes and realistic expectations.  We can’t waste time and energy trying to keep people engaged in the life of the church that have already moved on.  Ouch!  It’s way easier to talk about plants than about people that we love.
          Let’s go back to plants then.  I do not have a green thumb and I was raised in the desert where anything that is willing to grow even a little bit is treasured—even weeds.  As long as a houseplant has a single leaf clinging to a branch, I will water it, spray it, and try to figure out how to make it live and bloom.  I have a very ugly little indoor garden in my kitchen window.  My friend Deanna has an amazing green thumb and a lush, beautiful garden.  She finally shared her secret with me.  She tosses plants that don’t thrive and replaces them with new healthy plants.  Healthy plants respond to her nurture, but she knows she can’t revive a dry stick with one leaf—so she doesn’t try.  Those of you with beautiful gardens already know this.  But churches don’t.  We hang on to people long after they quit hanging out with us.  People get busy with other things or they don’t find value in the gospel message at this point in their lives and they stop coming.  Sometimes they just prefer the way another church worships or believes.  If Jesus is right, about 3 out of 4 are not going to stick and Jesus seems to think that’s okay, because God is such a prodigal sower.  There may be another time in people’s lives that the gospel will make more sense, or be more comforting or compelling.  We’re only in charge of our own soil and keeping it rich and fertilized and aerated.  Churches look a little sad and desperate when they hang on to people who already quit hanging out with them.  And they waste valuable time and energy trying to shape ministry to please people who simply aren’t interested.
          So this is what I take away from this parable and our reading from Isaiah.  God is in charge of God’s word and God is a prodigal sower, sowing grace and love everywhere all the time.  I need to do the same.  We need to do the same.  We need to invite, invite, invite, and welcome, welcome, welcome.  We need to sow seeds of grace and love with acts of justice and mercy everywhere, all the time.  We need to provide opportunities for spiritual growth that appeal to us so that we are becoming ever more deeply committed Christians so that we bear fruit—abundant fruit.  And we need to lower our expectations.  We can expect about 1 in 4 of those seeds or acts of mercy and justice to land in a good place/good soil today.  We need to quit hanging on to people who have quit hanging around with us.  We can bless them on their way, knowing that God is still sowing in their lives, even if they don’t know it.  Just because someone joined the church years ago, it does not mean they are still a member if they have moved on, if they don’t attend, and they don’t support the church financially.  Members promise to support the church with their prayers, their presence, their gifts, and their service.  Membership assumes an obligation to care for one another and our shared ministry.  So we need to focus our ministry on nurturing discipleship among those who are here and praying to be open to and welcoming to those whom God will send our way. 
Let me tell you two quick stories.  The last church that I served had no children, but they prayed that God would send them children.  They built a big toy similar to yours.  And they jumped on every young family with children who walked through their doors.  But none of those families stuck because there weren’t any other children.  They even sent invitational postcards to 10,000 of their neighbors—not the neighbors around the church, but to their own neighbors, one or two zip codes away from the church.  They refreshed their nursery with paint and new carpet.  Then God sent four preteen boys with skate boards and scooters from the neighborhood to coffee hour one day, and to their credit, the church welcomed them like they were Jesus—offering extra cookies and juice.  Those boys never brought their parents, but they invited their friends, and the church invested in making the church building a destination with games, a half pipe and a theater.  It was hard to paint over the wall that had the names of all the kids who had graduated a long time ago and no longer attended.  It was hard to paint over some beloved murals painted by a woman who got disinterested and left the church before she finished painting.  It was hard to be loving to kids whose parents weren’t interested in church and who had trouble following rules.  Now that church has a youth group with 50 at risk children, a ministry to foster parents and children in their nursery.
My colleague serves a church where there was a family with two older teens who had attended the church for ten years and been active in everything.  The mother was the only Sunday school teacher the church has in the six years my colleague has been there.  But when the church held a heritage Sunday event and decorated with photos of church members, there was not one photo that included any member of that very active family.  They were too new to catch the eye of the photographers.  Most of the photos in the video presentation that day were of people my colleague had never met and little children that were now young adults.  My colleague feels like she is serving two churches—the one people remember and the one that shows up on Sunday—and it’s exhausting. 
It’s natural to miss folks who are no longer here and to remember another time when we enjoyed this great program or that fun event.  But we won’t find Jesus in the past.  Jesus is always out ahead of us calling us to new adventures with people we may not know yet.  Some of those people are already here, waiting for a chance to share their stories, passions and interests.  So I’m curious.  Who are we right now as the Body of Christ?  What passion for ministry is fueled by our discipleship?  What will we give our energy and resources to?  What excites you?  Where is our fruit going to come from?  For instance, how is it that this church sends somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 quilts to Children’s Hospital each year and almost 100 sweaters to Knit for Kids?  No one needs to fan the flames under these ministries—you couldn’t get them to stop because people are doing what they love to do to benefit someone else.  That’s fruit—30, 60, 100 fold!  What is your passion? 

I’m going to ask you to take the blank card out of your bulletin.  Draw a line across the middle.  On the top, write down one or two of your passions—what gives you bliss when you do it:  gardening, running, teaching, working with wood, cooking, quilting, knitting, music, acting, dancing, organizing—whatever it is.  On the bottom write down who or what you believe God is calling you to serve, who or what you have a heart for:  children, the environment, seniors, the homeless or poor, families, returning vets, immigrants, teens or tweens, young adults.  We’re going to pray over these cards.  Then, when the offering baskets come by in a few minutes, put your card in the offering basket so that the Council on Ministries can assess where we have the most energy for ministry.  I’m going to ask you to commit to praying for what is on your card for the next year.  Let’s see who God sends our way because we have asked to share in God’s sowing and have prepared our hearts and church as fertile ground.

The Transitive Power of Welcome

Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Matthew 10:40-42

Welcome is one of the basic tenets of Judaism and Christianity.  Jesus tells us that welcome and genuine hospitality are given as if we are welcoming the One whom we serve.  Welcoming prophets has always been the beginning of revival in Judaism and in Christianity.  But prophets do not always find a welcome as Jesus knew well.  His parable of the tenant in the vineyard illustrated the reality of persecution that the prophets who came before him faced and foreshadowed his own death. 
          Our gospel lesson today says that those who welcome a prophet in the name of a prophet, will receive a prophet’s reward.  I understand prophesy to be speaking the word of God that challenges, convicts, and renews right relationship with God and between people.  Prophesy is not easy to hear because it hits us where we live.  In the black church that has a tradition of congregational responses like “Amen,” “Hallelujah,” and “Preach it!” a message that hits too close to home can be greeted with “Now you’re meddling, Preacher!”  I know pastors that have been asked to leave because their gospel message made people too uncomfortable.  I also know that churches that welcome prophetic preaching take the same risk as pastors.  They may lose members who disagree with the message or they may find new energy and a sense of purpose that propels them into fruitful ministry that attracts new people—or they may lose members and find their way into life-giving ministry.  The prophet’s call is to speak truth to power, to be the voice of those who have no voice, and to work for justice and mercy.  Those who welcome the prophet and his or her message receive the reward of the prophet—the power to revive and transform the faith and the world.  When we welcome the prophet, we welcome Jesus.  And when we welcome Jesus, the prophet, we welcome God and, as Eugene Peterson says in The Message, God moves into the neighborhood. 

I take welcoming righteousness to mean ministry that is always concerned with the well-being of the congregant or the congregation.  Just as in medicine, the first rule of ministry is to do no harm.   So our relationships with each other need to be healthy.   We covenant together to love and serve each other, respect and honor each other, not necessarily to agree with each other or see eye to eye.  We strive toward right relationship.  One of my former students, Tandi Rogers, just spoke at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly Association of Membership Professionals and a portion of her speech is catching fire on Facebook: 

We are the people of covenant. We practice covenant. And I say practice, because do we ever perfect it? No. Those mistakes, those steps away from right relations are actually blessed opportunities for faith formation.
I’m not interested in a pretty covenant with all the right words that sits dusty on a shelf. Give me a covenant with smudge marks, and coffee stains, and marked out words and added words and tear stains. Give me a covenant that makes us stretch for a lifetime and into the next generation. 

Living in a covenant community built on right relationship demands attention to good practices, creating safety—physical, spiritual, and emotional safety in which people can find healing—and accepting one another’s gifts.  Those who welcome those who seek to live in right relationship receive the reward of righteousness.  Churches that seek to live in covenant to honor and respect one another live into the joy of Jesus who told his disciples:
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.  This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.   (John 15:10-12)
That’s the transitive power of love and joy.  When we love each other and covenant to live in right relationship, we share Jesus’ love.  When we share Jesus’ love, we live in God’s love and share God’s joy.

Welcome is so powerful that Jesus equates the one who welcomes with the one who is welcomed.  We become like the One we welcome.  We, therefore have the power to bless.  We have access to the riches of the Kingdom of God.  Therefore, even those of us who have little in the way of earthly riches can offer the simplest gift of life.  If you’ve spent any time in the desert, you know the life-giving, life-saving power of a cup of cold water.  Each of us, as faithful disciples of the One who is the river of life, has the power to offer a cup of cold water in a disciple’s name.  Our reward is being part of the Kingdom of God, part of what God is already doing to bless the world.  “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”  Who is the disciple who led you into a life of faith and ministry?  Whose are the shoulders on which you stand?  Who modeled discipleship for you?  Let us give thanks for each of these disciples who came before us in the faith.

And who will see and experience your discipleship and follow in your footsteps?  That’s your reward—to be a link from the past to the future, to pass on what you have received.  If the Church is not growing, is it because we are not offering that cup of cold water?  What does a cup of cold water look like on Vashon?  Is it a word of grace?  I remember paying for my groceries late one afternoon at Thriftway, fumbling in my purse and apologizing for not finding my debit card quickly enough when the cashier offered me a cup of cold water by saying, “Stop.  You don’t need to apologize for anything.  You are just fine the way God made you.”  I left feeling refreshed.  An act of kindness, a word of forgiveness, an offer to help, the gift of hospitality, an invitation to worship—all cups of cold water for the soul.  The river of life is flowing through us.  Who will you offer a cup of cold water to today?