Sunday, December 22, 2013

God Is With Us

a sermon to the people of Holy Cross Lutheran Church
in Lake Stevens, WA 
December 22, 2013

Pray with me.  May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

Stepparents get a bad rap.  Cinderella’s stepmother is malicious; Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother is selfish; Snow White’s stepmother is murderously vain; Hamlet’s stepfather was an adulterous, homicidal usurper.  Over and over again in movies and books and culture, stepparents are portrayed as heartless, as weary and overwhelmed, and as angry at bearing the burden of raising someone else’s “problem”.  They put up with “his” children or “her” children until they can devise a way to get rid of the little buggers…maybe permanently. 
I’m sure this sort of terrible, terribly selfish, and negligent or abusive-to-the-point-of-death stepparent must exist somewhere, or it wouldn’t be such a popular theme in literature and in Hollywood.  But honestly, most stepparents willingly accept one of the hardest jobs life has to offer.  Stepparents work to raise, provide for, and love a child who is neither biologically theirs nor planned.  No one grows up thinking, “I’ll have 3 kids when I grow up: a boy, a girl, and a stepson from my husband’s previous marriage.”  Stepparents accept these extra kids as a package deal along with their new spouse, and call them family for better or for worse.  As my former neighbor said to me, “this is my bonus child…I wasn’t expecting him, but I’m so glad he’s mine.”
In today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew matter-of-factly tells the story of another stepparent.  “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”  I imagine Joseph wasn’t so matter-of-fact about that!  Jewish custom in that time would have called the relationship between Mary and Joseph a betrothal…a sort of third step between engagement and marriage.  A betrothal was binding and could only be broken with an act of divorce.  If a betrothed woman became pregnant (regardless of paternity!), she was considered an adulteress.  The penalty for adultery for women was death. 
You can imagine the heartache and anger and sorrow Joseph must have felt when he discovered his betrothed was pregnant…with someone else’s child.  By law, he had every right to publically expose her as an adulteress and request her stoning.  But Joseph, who was a decent guy, decided to “dismiss her quietly”…or to divorce her quietly and send her out of town so as not to further disgrace either of them. 
And then, Joseph had a dream…a sort of communing with the divine…and God said through a messenger, “Hey, stay with Mary, she’s a good girl.  Don’t be scared.  Raise my boy and name him so that all might know that I am with you.”  And Joseph, who was an exceptional man, obeyed.
 Exceptional or not, we tend to ignore Joseph.  He’s a prop in the Christmas pageant, someone to guide the donkey, the guy who got duped into marrying a pregnant chick.  Quiet. Passive.  Maybe not very smart.  More likely a sucker.  And if we buy into cultural ideas of stepparenting, then we think, he was at best, disinterested in this kid who was not his.
But wait…we know that Joseph obeyed God.  Each time in the Gospel of Matthew that God asks something of Joseph, Joseph does it.  God asked Joseph to raise Emmanuel --Jesus-- as his own.  And as best we can tell, he did a beautiful job with this difficult task.  As a devout Jew, he raised his son according to Jewish law.  As a carpenter, he taught Jesus the family trade…how to handle a hammer and saw.  As a virtuous man, he modeled an obedient life.  Not because he had to, but because he chose to. 
Joseph was an exceedingly faithful man and a wonderful stepfather…  Which is all the more amazing because step-parenting is often a thankless task.  I know I drove my stepmother crazy from time to time…especially as a teenager.  I made her worry about my safety and my sanity and my loyalty to our family.  It wasn’t until I was much older that I ever thought to thank her for working so incredibly hard and sacrificing so terribly much to make my life comfortable and safe.  And heck, I don’t even thank her enough now that I’m old enough to know better!  Still, she loves me as her own, and my kids are her grandkids, and the word “step” isn’t even in our familial vocabulary. 
And she did and does all of that because she chooses to.
Families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.  Single parent, mom and dad, mom and mom, blended, adoptive, step, half, foster, or a “house of wayward children” such as the family my in-laws kept when James was growing up, where everyone was welcome and cared for and loved.  What a family looks like in a genealogy doesn’t matter very much.  What matters is the willingness to show one another through our words and our actions and our love for one another what the name of Jesus-Emmanuel means.  “God is with us.” 
What does your family look like?  Who loves you?  Who claims you and allows you to be as a child, as a treasured one, with them? 
Sometimes, you get lucky, and your family is in fact the group of people who raised you or grew up with you and who share your DNA.  But often family isn’t defined by blood, doesn’t look like “normal”.  But the word “family” is a way to talk about all of those people who love us unconditionally.   Who feeds you when you are ill?  Who holds your hand when you are worried or afraid?  Who doesn’t pass judgment when you share your deepest shame or worry or fear?  Who laughs with you and not at you?  Who cries with you?  Who lets you know when you are behaving badly but also lets you know your misbehavior doesn’t alter their acceptance of you?  Who would willingly accept your pain and suffering so that you don’t have to do it?  THAT person, THOSE people:  that is your family.  Those people who wander into your path and your life and your messy reality…those are the ones who are showing you Emmanuel.  “God is with us.”
God loves you and redeems you and sustains you.  God sacrificed himself for you.  And you are blessed with people who mirror that for you.  Who are those people?  Who are the people who wade into your mess because they choose to do it…not because they have to do it?
Maggie shows me the beauty of God with music.  Bill shows me kindness by offering a cup of coffee to me every Sunday without fail.  Lisa accepts and understands my youngest son in ways many people just can’t.  Pastor Susan has heard my heartache and frustration and stupidity and still brings soup to me when I’m sick.  Grandma Gerry and Deborah love my daughter in ways that allow her eyes to sparkle.  The Millers have given up an entire Saturday that I might have some sanity.  What a gift you all are to me.  What a gift you are to one another.  What an amazing family.  What a mirroring, a showing of Emmanuel:  God is with us.
GOD is with us.  God IS with us.  God is WITH us.

Thursday, November 28, 2013



My youngest boy offered a prayer of gratitude for all of us during our Thanksgiving service last night.

I am thankful for my family and my friends.  They are very important, not just to me, but to everyone, even on a primal level.  Humans literally cannot exist sanely without other human contact.  For this, but also for other reasons, I love my family.  They are exactly what I need, and whenever I am unhappy or worried or anything, they are there to help me.  For these reasons, I am thankful for my family and friends.
~Jackson Montgomery

My eldest was asked to give a short homily of sorts about what he is grateful for this Thanksgiving.  This is his work.  God has blessed me beyond measure through the words of these boys.  And for that, I am grateful.

I am most thankful for my loving family. 

          I am thankful for my Dad who earns the money we need for our household:  he keeps us supplied with food, clothing, pets and their needs, and fun stuff too.  He also goes out willingly and risks his life for our country to protect our rights and freedoms as Americans and to ensure the safety of our global community.

          I am thankful for Mom who goes out of her way to spoil us kids with gifts and love and who makes us feel good by comforting us when we are sad or sick or whenever we just need a hug. 

          I am thankful for all 6 of our pets who are there whenever you need to vent or to cuddle.  Whenever I feel sad or mad, the dogs come to me and sit on the couch so I can pet them, and I feel better.  The cat is a constant source of amusement, and at the end of the day, he’s always ready for some loving.

          I am thankful for all of my siblings who are (almost) always happy to do a puzzle or to wrestle or to play a video game…any number of things.  I get frustrated with them sometimes, but they always forgive me.  They understand that I am only human and that I make mistakes.  It is good to know that I will always have three close friends ready to help me throughout my life.

          I am not thankful so much for what my family gives me, rather I care the most that they will always be there for me loving me and supporting me.

          This year especially, thank you God for family.

 ~J Carter Montgomery

Monday, November 25, 2013

If Jesus is Lord

If Jesus is Lord
Luke 23:33-43
Christ the King Sunday

Pray with me.  May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock, my Redeemer, my Lord.  Amen.

This year especially, it seems the world has bypassed not only Advent but also Thanksgiving.  Carols are already on the radio, sales flyers are in our mailboxes, my Facebook feed is full of photographs of small children posed with mall Santas already on duty, and I don’t know about your families, but in ours, relatives have requested my children’s Christmas lists, and in one case, the gifts have already arrived…and we’ve been instructed to open some of them!  Bring on the holidays!!
But first…there is today.   
Those among us who are unaccustomed to the liturgical calendar or who just have terrible memories probably listened to the Gospel today and thought, “What??  We’re getting ready for the birth of Christ, and this crazy lady is killing him!” 
What an upside-down kind of celebration, right?
But I think today, as we head into the feasting, light, and joy of Thanksgiving and Advent and Christmas, it is particularly important that we hold close the Passion of Christ, because if we stop to think about it, Christmas just doesn’t matter without this story.  Without the crucifixion and resurrection, the coming of Jesus of Nazareth would be just the uneventful birth of an obscure infant whose name and existence would be lost to the passage of time.
Jesus has always been an upside-down kind of guy what with all that “the last shall be first and the first shall be last” talk, and today we celebrate that he is an upside-down kind of king.  We expect a king to be powerful, to be conquering, to be self-sufficient, and to be totally in control.  To be a knight-in-shining-armour kind of savior.   But in today’s Gospel lesson, we see someone completely different from the king we expect.  Jesus is weak. He has been mocked, beaten, dying, and mostly silent.  In fact, he only says two lines in the whole terrible scene.  “Forgive them.”  and  “Today you will be with me.”  Pitiful.  Fragile.  Pathetic.  How can we look at this man and see a savior?  How can we see a king?
“It is because of something the Jews introduced to the world, something that Jesus taught and lived out and died for, something that has become a part of our modern world; the idea that the true leader, the true king, is the one who serves, the one who suffers for the people.
The Jewish idea of a king was that the king ruled under God, not as a God, that the king was responsible to God as were the subjects.  This idea was taken further by the prophets, in particular Isaiah, who saw the king, the messiah as the one who suffers on behalf of the people, as a suffering servant.”
This is the King we celebrate.  This is the King we serve.  This upside-down, not what-we-were-looking-for but exactly-what-we-need, kind of king.  This is the King we worship.  The one who looks at our imperfections and our ugliness and our hateful behavior and yet still says, “I love you.  I even like you.  Follow me and today you will be with me in Paradise.  I’ll take your wretchedness and make you new and shiny and bright and beloved.”
          This is the King we celebrate today.
          Our celebration, Christ the King Sunday, “may well be the most counter-cultural festival on the entire church calendar.”  Well, thanks be to God.  I am grateful for a King who would seek me out.  Who would find me in my lowest places.  Who would understand how self-righteous and exclusionary and angry and just plain tired I can be.  Who chooses to love and to claim me anyway. 
So what does that mean for us as the turkey and tinsel, laughter and light creep closer?  It means that we stop and really think about what it means to proclaim that Jesus is Lord.  That Christ is King. 
“Think for a moment about all that we allow to be Lord.  And yet, the seminal confession of the church, “Jesus is Lord,” is also a renunciation of everything else that lays ultimate claim on our allegiance.
          Think for a moment.
If Jesus is Lord, then self-righteousness is not.
If Jesus is Lord, then exclusion is not.
If Jesus is Lord, then violence and anger are not.
If Jesus is Lord, then the nation is not.
If Jesus is Lord, then my stuff is not.
If Jesus is Lord, then I certainly am not.
          Think for a moment.
If Jesus is Lord, _________________________________


Credit must also be given to the good people at Occupy Advent and to the Right Reverend Delmer Chilton and his Lectionary Lab.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

 friends, you know, i am an empath.  and i am a Southern woman.  these things combined with some other things lead to an extraordinary burden of grief and shame for me on many many days. 

so, tonight i am telling myself that it is just okay to not know everything.  and that i cannot hold the world's grief and injustices all on my own:  Cherokee people enslaved blacks, and whites were (are) shitty to both of those cultures (and countless others) and that the only segment of society that it is still acceptable to persecute and make fun of is "poor white trash" or "rednecks".  that mental illness is just as real a sickness as cancer, but that the recovery rate is much much smaller and the stigma is staggering.  that straights are entitled...whether or not they choose to see it that way. that most of us don't know when our words wound others. that NONE of us are guiltless and that ALL OF US are broken and sinful and hateful and judgmental and self-righteous.  and damn it, Jesus assures us that God loves us anyway.

and i am telling you, my diverse friends, you who in one day alone on the internet railed against the injustice of the government reaction to the Dakota Sioux Uprising in 1862, railed against and applauded the tasteless "comedic" skit from the CMA's, who called the Affordable Healthcare Act "gay" (the irony that you who would refuse socialist healthcare to the poor and yet are a recipient of it yourself through your husband's military service was not lost on me...and, i hope, not lost on you either), and who urged the world on toward equality for the LGBTQI community, you are a wildly diverse group.  and the ONE thing upon which i pride myself is my ability to choose friends wisely.  SO, you are, in your eccentricities, your ignorance, your pride, your judgement, your hatred, your fear, you are wonderful, gifted people...and i know that all of us struggle with trying to be "good" and open and honest and loving and following the Creator...and whether we are Muslim or Protestant or Catholic or agnostic or atheist or Wicca or Jewish or Buddhist (am i leaving anyone out?  i hope not), we are not done.  we each of us have so very, very much to learn.  and it is okay that we don't know everything just yet.  what is important is that we are still willing to engage in respectful conversation with one another.

i am begging you (all of you) to let go of the assumption that you are right.  for i assure you that you do not have all the pieces of the puzzle.  no one does.  we were wonderfully made to live in community with one another, and we each have SO MUCH TO LEARN from the perspectives and stories of one another.

and when all of this is simply too much to wrap our puny little human brains around, we need to remember the prophet Micah 6:8 "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"  (whoa, atheists...there is some value you hold above all others...and for the purposes of this conversation, let this be your "god") and maybe we are too human, too weak, too ignorant, too hot-tempered to do this in a broad sense.  but perhaps we can be more intentional about doing it in the singular moment.  in the conversations that crop up in front of us.  in the opportunities we have to say, "that's not okay, but you are"  

and when we screw even that up (and i know we will) we need to remember that we are people.  that people make mistakes.  that forgiveness is bigger than we are.  that we are forgiven.  and that tomorrow we can try again.  amen.

Monday, October 21, 2013

You Are Enough

 After many, many conversations about faith and plenty over the last week and a half, I have decided to publish this sermon.  May you find it of value.  Grace and peace to you this day.  xo~anna 

You Are Enough (Luke17:5-10)
Sermon for the people of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Lake Stevens, WA
October 6, 2013

Pray with me.  “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”  Amen.

In this week’s Gospel lesson, the disciples are, once again, missing the point.  (These guys are so painfully human; it gives the rest of us hope, doesn’t it?)  In the verse before our text begins, Jesus has just informed them that they must be forgiving.  REALLY forgiving.  70 times 7 forgiving…and we know that’s not really a math lesson.  That’s Jesus saying we are to forgive and forgive and when we are just sick of forgiving, to do it again.
The disciples are overwhelmed by this instruction, and so they say, “Oh, Jesus, increase our faith!”  And Jesus gets irritated with them.  He tells them they have enough faith.  That even the tiniest amount of faith is enough.
I wonder if this is what the disciples really mean.  Are they concerned that they are lacking in faith?  Or are they concerned that they themselves are lacking?  Are they comparing themselves to an imaginary impossible standard and deciding that they just don’t measure up?
We do this often, you know.  We spend an excessive amount of time comparing ourselves to one another.  And somehow, we always decide that we are just not as smart, healthy, strong, competent, fast, creative, young, old, tall, available, dedicated, concerned, laid-back or whatever as the next guy.  And somehow this particular quality we decide we lack is the one that prevents us from doing the thing we proclaim we’d love to do.  For example, “if I were rich, I’d hire a sexton for Holy Cross so Pastor Susan wouldn’t have to play janitor all the time”.  Or, “if I weren’t so busy, I’d volunteer at the Salvation Army once a month”.  Or, “if I were younger, I’d get out there and weed around the church sign”. Or, “if I were older, I’d assist during worship.”  Or, “if I were smarter, I’d lead Sunday School”.  And there are a million examples of this in life outside the congregation, too.  Give yourself a minute…you’ll think of one.
The most dangerous of these “lacking qualities” is the one where we have convinced ourselves that we are unlovable.  Incapable of receiving God’s love and God’s grace.  Not whole enough to be called into leadership or servitude.  Not good enough.  Unlovable.  Worthless.
And this is where Jesus gets irritated with the disciples… and with us!  Because when we decide we are not good enough, we are choosing to shut God out.  We are declaring God’s creation “Worthless”.  We are losing our faith.  The moment we declare ourselves unlovable…worthless, we are declaring we know better than God does, we are shutting God out.  We are turning our backs.  We are saying that all the good things that we have and own and are are because we do them…because we are in control.
Here’s the thing about faith.  It’s not about us.  It’s about God.  It is about acknowledging that we are imperfect, but that that is okay because God is in control.  God is with us.  And when we hold on to the knowledge that God is there, even when we can’t see or feel it, God is able to work through us.  When we own our faith, we open our hearts to the good things God can do through and for us. 
Mother Teresa is arguably the most loving, faithful servant-leader of the 20th century.  She lived her life in absolute financial poverty and humility.  She devoted herself  to the “wholehearted and free service of the poorest of the poor” as she lived among the street people in the slums of Calcutta, India, and tended the “untouchables”…those whom society had cast out:  the poor, the sick, the uneducated, the lame, the orphans, the widows, the dying.  She said, “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for, and deserted by everybody.  The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference toward one’s neighbor.”   Mother Teresa became a powerful woman even as she shunned power, because the courage of her conviction and the abundant living out of her faith began to change the world…and presidents, kings, executives, and even the Pope began to hear her words and to listen. 
Yet, when she died, her personal letters were studied, and the world was stunned when they were published in 2007 in a book called Come Be My Light.  Mother Teresa lived the majority of her life in darkness of spirit as she confessed she could no longer “hear” Christ.   Once she began her work in Calcutta, she began to experience this deep spiritual dryness.  And yet, she came to understand through spiritual direction in the church that, “No one can long for God unless God is present in his/her heart.  Thus the only response to this trial is the total surrender to God and the acceptance of the darkness in union with Jesus.”  Mother Teresa began to feel a deep joy that “Jesus can’t go anymore through the agony—but that He wants to go through it in me.—More than ever I surrender myself to Him.—Yes—more than ever I will be at his disposal.”
This woman, this embodiment of love and pillar of strength, understood perfectly the overwhelming tasks to which we are called in our life with Christ.  She felt at times she lacked the faith to do the job, and she felt at times “not enough.”  But her willingness to open her heart and to allow God to use her completely to bring the light of Christ forth into the darkest of places, her willingness to reflect Christ into the bleakest of life’s situations enabled God to touch and to transform the lives of not only the people Mother Teresa touched with her hands, but also to transform the lives of people all over the globe…people Mother Teresa touched with her words and her example.  This woman, who struggled so violently with her faith on the inside, became the most visible and accessible example of a faith-filled life to the rest of the world.  Mother Teresa was certainly “enough.”
We are not all called to the kind of life Mother Teresa lived.  We are not all called to work in the church…but we are called to be the church.  We are called to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world, allowing God to use the gifts we have been given to bring forth the kingdom.  Perhaps not all around the globe, but certainly here in Lake Stevens, and in your own families, and with the lives that you touch every day.
If you aren’t wealthy, brilliant, young, older, creative, or whatever gift you see yourself lacking, what gifts do you possess?  What are you willing to use for the kingdom?  What are you willing to give back to God?  Instead of counting the ways we are lacking, we should honestly look at the love and grace God has bestowed upon us.  It is more than enough.  Because God has declared you “good”.  You, in all your flawed humanity with all the things you see wrong with yourself, God declares you “good’.  As part of Creation, God has declared you “very good”. 
So, perhaps instead of asking for bigger faith, we should be asking to have our hearts softened so that we can be more willing to be used by God.  So that we are willing to be open to our callings through our faith…that faith that shrinks to microscopic proportions sometimes. 
And, through our openness and our willingness to be loved, gifted, owned, and used by God, we will find our faith increased…because it was never about us in the first place.  It is about God’s abundant love and grace and willingness to claim us all. the. time.  Even when we feel we are lacking, God says, “You are enough.”