Saturday, October 28, 2017

Homily of the Repose of the Soul of Ruth Dana Rasmussen 1939-2017

Today we gather to say goodbye to Ruth Dana Rasmussen – or to her sisters Ruthy May.  Also known as wife, mom, sister, grandmother, grandma great or as she preferred G.G., aunt and friend.  A life well lived and for us that remain a life gone too soon.  But this service is not about our grief but about new life.  We are a peculiar people in the church.  The service today is an Easter Service because we believe that life does not end but changes.  And we know that mom is now no longer suffering and is in that place where there is neither sorrow nor crying but life everlasting.

That doesn’t mean our grief is not real or should be ignored.  Grief is a journey.  I am not one to subscribe to a set number of steps for grief.  Grief hits us in many ways and the length of the journey is different for each every one of us.  So we should honor the grief and the mourning as we move forward.  We should embrace that fact that it is out of deep love that our mourning comes – it is not out of weakness but out of love.

I choose the readings for the service today because in many ways I think they epitomized my mom.  As in the reading from the book of Ecclesiastes mom saw things in seasons.  She experienced the joys of childbirth and also the soul wrenching death during birth of her first born child.  Mom loved her family, both biological and the expanded family of in-laws and friends and friends of her children and so many people she met.  Mom was quick to smile and loved to tell stories.

Mom loved the different seasons and would decorate the house and her apartment – as much as she could get away with!  In Benicia mom was known by the neighborhood kids as the bag lady because she made special bags of treats for Halloween for every kid who came to the door.  Mom loved to decorate for Christmas and host family and friends for the hang-town oyster breakfast on Christmas morning for many years.

For years my parents hosted a huge fourth of July party for their friends and anyone who showed up.  We literally had at least a hundred-people come through the back yard!  And I should know as I was the under aged bartender – which we could get away with in those days!  We had so many of the locals at the party that one of the local bar owners said the only reason he stayed open was to give directions to our house!

Mom and Dad loved to travel – particularly if it didn’t include an airplane!  Mom was never all that convinced that we were meant to fly!  Although in later years she loved her trips to Hawaii and their wonderful trip to New Zealand where they rented a motorhome to explore the island for a month.

One of my memories of growing up was the frequent camping trips.  We started out with a small second-hand camper and a huge orange canvas tent for the kids and eventually – after the kids all left – mom and dad bought a motor home.  We loved to go anywhere we could fish – or get crabs or abalone.  We frequently had anywhere from one to four extra kids – our friends – camping with us.  Along with mom and dad’s friends.  Mom and dad’s camping adventures led them several times up to Alaska – with their mini-poodle Dobbie, where they would travel, dad would fish, and mom would buy ivory. Dad said recently that mom loved the drive up to Alaska as much as she loved their summers in Alaska.

On one of those Alaska trips dad had been down at the Kenai River fishing for Salmon in the morning and when he returned he took Dobbie the poodle out for a walk.  Mom realized she was low on fizzy water so went out to get more form under the tarp where they kept extra supplies that the bears wouldn’t bother.  Soon my mom heard the motorhome door slam and she walked back – hands full of water and said thru the door “That was a quick walk” to which my dad replied there was a bear in the campground.  Mom asked where and dad looked up and said, “right behind you”.  Mom said she had thought she couldn’t run any more after the hip replacements or perhaps she just levitated but she found her way quickly into the motor home.

Like the reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians mom embraced the notion that the greatest gift is love.  She strove to lead a life full of faith, hope and love and from my biased opinion did a mighty fine job of it.  She loved my father for some sixty years – through good times and not so good times.  There may have been moments in their marriage where they didn’t like each other that much but the love never left.  Mom’s love was limitless that she loved to take in strays – which started when she was a small child dragging home stray animals which she hopped to keep,  to adopting stray kids and friends and giving them a place at the table.

The neighborhood kids all loved my mom.  In fact, sometimes they would come to the door to see if mom could play because mom would let them help her bake or do whatever else she was up to.  Mom loved having kids around and would babysit or just enjoy all of our friends who would hang out at the house.  She even took time to be a den mother when I was in cub scouts so that she could end up with even more kids to love – and she continued to be a den mother for several years after I graduated to the boy scouts.  One time mom commented that she would never be a sex symbol but she made one hell of a mother goose!

Which brings me to the reading from the gospel of John.  Jesus said he was going to build many dwelling places, or rooms or mansions – depending on the translation.  And that we would know the way.  One thing that I am convinced of is that Jesus was trying to get his followers to adopt a different kind of economy and a different way of living.  God’s economy is different than man’s economy and God’s dream is for us to initiate a society that has love and mercy at its core.  One that doesn’t wait until some future place but where there is a place of mercy and love on this earth.  In our own homes and in how we interact with other people.

Mom lived that life in many ways.  She would make homes or dwelling for anyone who needed it.  When one of my Aunts had a serious illness my mom and dad took in my cousins so that we had nine kids under the age of nine living in a 3 bedroom, one bathroom house for a period of time. While the house was small there were many dwelling places in my mom’s heart.  I am still not sure how we managed that time but I do remember walking up to the local market - a block or so form our home with an envelope of money and a list of what we needed – at the age of eight.  The shopkeepers would be alerted by phone that I was on my way and they would wait to walk me across the main street, fill the order, make change, and send me back home. 

Mom welcomed several of my sister’s and brother’s friends into the house to the point where they may as well have been siblings.  One of my sister’s friends was there so frequently and it seemed we had an extra sister.  Lori was so funny that she would get us all laughing so hard that we were gasping for air.  Mom loved the levity and the joy that a house of happy kids brought.

In more recent years she has enjoyed watching her grand-kinds grow up to be fine adults starting families of their own.  When I look back at pictures of mom she is always the happiest when she is holding one of her children, grandchildren or great grandchildren.  Or any child for that matter.

When I left home for college and then for a career – or is it four careers – I came to realize that in monetary ways we were not very well off.  But we were rich in what counted.  We were rich in love and in experiences.  Mom made sure we had great meals on the table and even let me loose in the kitchen to cook starting at a young age – which my sisters hated because they swear to this day that I used every pot in the house when I cooked and they had clean-up duty.

There are so many stories that could be told.  About growing up with mom.  About mom and her beloved poodles.  About all of the camping trips – and the notorious exit from the back of a camper after four to six or more kids where – well -  being kids and siblings – you know the kind where the older brother is annoying his younger siblings.  I could tell stories of mom and the school district and how when Prop 13 passed she managed to buy a year’s worth of supplies so that the district didn’t lose the money. There are so many stories and activities that will call us up short over and over again as we remember them.  Many times we will remember Ruth with a smile and perhaps a tear.  Mom will continue to live with us in our memories and in our hearts.

After the service, during the reception which will be here in the church, I invite anyone who wishes to tell a story about mom to do so.  We will have a slide show and some music.  After the music we will have a microphone on the floor in front of the lectern on my right for those who might want to share a short story or memory of mom.

As I started this homily we are a peculiar people in the church.  We grieve for Ruth – and part of that grieving involves telling these stories.  But we also give thanks that she no longer is putting up with a body that was betraying her.  We give thanks that she is now in that place where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.  We believe that Ruth has gone to a better place.  Another good friend Stephanie, the daughter of mom’s best friend commented that mom and Jeannie, her mother, can be in a place where they can shop at a heavenly Nordstrom’s without a limit and without sore feet and the other things that limited them!  We believe that mom’s perishable body is being replaced with an imperishable body.  As our opening anthem said that even at the grave, even in the midst of our grief, we make our hymn Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!  For death does not have dominion over us but life everlasting.

Let us celebrate and give thanks, the life of Ruth Dana Rasmussen. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

It's a Trap!

Sermon for October 22, 2017

Proper 24A – RCL – Track 1 

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperors.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

When I read the Gospel for today I had multiple reactions that ranged from great!  This is a gift to a preacher during this time that our church is focusing on stewardship and the theological practice of giving from our time, talent and treasures to the church. To dread!  What can I do with this text that will break it open anew.  If not for you all then for me.  One of the joys I have in preaching is that I frequently gain new insights or see new facets of the lessons as I approach them with the intent of using them for preaching.  And I always hope that the Holy Spirit will enrich the texts for all of us. 

So what is going on in this text?  The Herodians – think of them as the secular group – and the Pharisees – the religious group -  have created an unlikely alliance to rid them of this meddlesome and tiresome itinerate rabbi, preacher, and healer.  Jesus is making waves and they want him gone. 

This lesson takes place during what we now call Holy Week – that period of time between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion.  So the alliance decide to set a clever trap that will either make Jesus loose his followers or get him in trouble with the Roman authorities.  If he upholds the unpopular poll tax that funds the Roman occupation he will certainly loose his street cred and the alliance will see Jesus’ followers melt away effectively silencing him.  Or if he speaks against the unpopular tax Jesus will be accused of inciting revolution and be in trouble with the authorities – which will likely get him arrested and crucified since the Roman’s did not have much patience with potential insurrection.

It is a no win situation.  It is a trap.  How often do we run into such traps?  How often do we worship an idol of absolutism?  I certainly read it in the papers and in social media – from both sides of the aisle.  If a politician is not adhering to the various litmus tests – and we can all name a whole slew of them from all sides be it tax cuts and cuts to social safety net programs or universal health care and increasing funding for social services.

I am not without political opinion so the temptation would be to tell you that my way is God’s way.  After all I have the collar and had a bishop and a whole bunch of other priests lay hands on me.  But I am willing to admit that there are problems with all sides of these debates and that no political stance is really perfect.

Jesus’ response is clever.  A response that managed to condemn both sides – because the observant Pharisee was quick to bring out a coin that not only bore the image of the emperor but also the inscription proclaiming the emperor as God – and thus on a strict reading breaking a couple of commandments about worshiping idols.  And for the secularists not endorsing an unpopular tax but in a reading the could actually be read as a condemnation of their secularism too.

One could also read Jesus response to his accusers as a perfect separation of church and state comment.  Give to the state that which belongs to the state and give to God that which belongs to God.  But the problem with that is we say that all things have been given to us from God and all things belong to God.

All things belong to God and that includes us.  Jesus has spent the last several chapters of Matthew trying to tell the people about God using parables.  Parables that purport to tell us what the kingdom of God is like.  Parables that never seem to end the way we think they should – because how can the kingdom of God be like the vineyard owner?  Unless Jesus is telling us that we are tending to God’s kingdom and then we can hear how we dash the God’s dream of mercy by our actions.

If Jesus is telling us to give to God the things that are God’s it means that we need to give ourselves to God because we are of God.  As we can read in Genesis we are created in God’s image.  Which means that we need to look at all of our actions as flowing from our god-likeness.  And that entails looking at both our actions in church and in the public square through a lens of striving for mercy and justice not striving for judgment and condemnation.

In the heated rhetoric all around us it is all too easy to descend into judgment.  It is easy to disparage those who disagree with us.  It is easy to put people into bins with labels of our own making.  Left, right, center.  Gay, Lesbian, bisexual, Transgendered, Straight. Homeless, addict, slacker.  We want to categorize everything and everyone as good or bad. But what if, just what if, we stopped for a moment and asked ourselves how does being created in the image of the creator influence our actions?

I have come to hate the hashtag (which I think predates hashtags) of WWJD – what would Jesus do? I hate it not for the sentiment but because it seems that some who espouse such hashtags then want to tell me what Jesus would do.  And I am afraid that in many cases I can’t see those actions squaring with the gospels.  Instead I sometimes see those actions squaring with a reading of the parable from last Sunday where we play God and throw the one with the wrong clothes into that place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

So how do we give to God our whole selves.  I think Jesus gave us a big clue back in Matthew chapter 9 when Jesus said … “go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” And since that Chapter Jesus has been telling his disciples, the crowds- and us -  just what it means to desire mercy.  Jesus has been telling how God works on a different economy then us.  That God will pay the workers a living wage no matter how long they work.  That God’s economy is like the crazy farmer that spreads seed everywhere instead of only on the good ground.  That God’s economy is upside down from what we think much of the time because we, as a general rule, seem to be a people that require judgment.

Giving to God what is God’s requires us to look and act through a different lens.  To seek mercy.  To see the people around us as also being created in God’s image.  And then to treat them that way.  Not as labels but as beloved children of God.  If we are made in the image of the creator then we need to extend our vision outward as well as inward.  It means that when we look at our environment we need to take actions as a creator and not as a destructor of the environment. 

When we see ourselves and others in the image of God then perhaps we will truly work to bring God’s dream of mercy and love to our hurting earth.  If we give our whole selves perhaps we can help find ways to provide to those who much of society has discarded.

It is not a question of choosing God’s way or man’s way.  It is not a question of separating our actions into secular actions and sacred actions.  Because all of our actions are accountable to our God.  All of our actions are really sacred in nature – even when we act in the public square.

Karolyn Lewis from Luther seminary said, “… at the heart of Jesus’ response to those who would test his loyalties is a rather simple but subversive sermon -- God’s sovereignty is not a choice but a truth. It is not a question of loyalty, but a statement of reality.”[1]

As we approach the end of our church year – and as we head at what seems like breakneck speed to me into the new calendar year we need to ask ourselves how do we give back to God.  How do we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those is prison?  How do we as a church and as individuals build up and value those who society would ignore or worse would, like last week’s parable, bind hand and foot and relegate to that place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

There are no easy answers.  But one way is to give our time talent and treasures to those things that desire mercy.  To support institutions like St. Paul’s that strives to be a haven of peace and comfort to those who have no peace or comfort.  (and I bet some of you were just waiting to see when the stewardship part of the sermon would happen – after all it is a perfect setup.) 

All you have to do is hang around this corner of 15th and J streets to see both the need and the incredible treasure that passes by everyday.  And I pray that this place will continue to strive and desire mercy and not sacrifice.  I pray that we will continue to strive to see all of God’s creation as good.  That we will work to create a society that is right side up when so much of it seems to be upside down.  And I pray that we will work to see all of our fellow travelers on this planet as also being created in the likeness of the creator and as such worthy of respect and to be seen as beloved children of God – without labels. 

Oh… and one little warning.  Creation is messy and being co-creators is likely to mean that ministry will likely entail messiness.  But many times it is joy and beauty that is born of the messiness.  The joy of seeing a young homeless person at ease in sitting in the church.  The joy of feeding people who are hungry – hungry both for food but also for companionship and spiritual food.  The Joy of doing God’s work in this space.