Sunday, April 30, 2006

Church Potluck

Psalm 145: 8-19; Acts 2: 42-47; Luke 24: 36b-48
******** United Church of Christ
April 30, 2006

Until a few months ago, I didn’t know I was a ‘foodie’. I thought I was just someone who loves to eat and eat well. I’m not quite as adventurous as some (I don’t go for things like squid and would never dream of tasting haggis unless offered to me by a native Scot), but I love Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese cuisine. I’m also a fan of Mediterranean foods: Armenian, Lebanese, Greek and Turkish. I’ve also tried Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Cuban, Spanish, Moroccan, and Ethiopian fare, and enjoyed each one. I’ve eaten local dishes while visiting the Bahamas, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Holland. In Ohio I would go with a church group to an annual Hungarian dinner at another church. My mother’s family is from the deep South (Mississippi), so running through my veins is a fondness for collard greens, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, shrimp gumbo, cornbread, and grits. Mexican food and anything barbecued also make my mouth water (how’s yours doing right now?).

But one of my favorite meals is the church potluck. Everyone usually prepares their beloved and best dish. And there are always some standard offerings: the ubiquitous lemon squares, broccoli salad, baked beans, green bean casserole, baked ziti (name your own preference). Worship is a lot like a potluck supper: some things you can count on; some surprises; some things you wouldn’t go near but someone likes it; some stuff doesn’t get touched at all; too much dessert or not enough, but it’s good just to be together and to have some nourishment, forget about business and put aside our differences for a while.

My husband and I had a potluck supper for our wedding reception. Some folks balked at the idea of having to bring a wedding present and a covered dish but we could not afford to pay for dinner for about 300 people: members of the church I worked at and the church where David was a member, scads of children, plus our family and friends. David and I provided shrimp cocktail for everyone plus a small army and at least four different sheet cakes. My church provided lemonade, iced tea, and coffee. And we ate and talked and danced and ate some more, under a tent on a beautiful June afternoon. It was like a piece of heaven.

I have often wished that there was a restaurant where everyone who came for dinner would bring a dish or dessert to share. All you’d have to pay for would be your beverage and an overhead charge. Every night it would be something different. Every night would be a different crowd, and the name of the restaurant would be “The Church Potluck” or “The Potluck Supper” so as to be non-sectarian. I know health codes wouldn’t allow such a thing but I’d like to think that such an enterprise could help change the world.

Jesus knew about this bond between food and community, how it seems you can’t have one without the other. Jesus made use of meals and food as a way of building community, that commonwealth known as the kingdom of God. In the feeding of the multitudes he demonstrated that there is more than enough for all. A mandate was also given: “You give them something to eat”. He ate with prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners and other outcasts, revealing God’s desire that all be welcome at the table. At the last supper Jesus illustrated with bread and wine that there is no greater love than this than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

In the reading from the gospel of Luke we enter into the middle of an Easter meal with Jesus and his followers. He has just shared the first course of bread with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Now he is taking part in some broiled fish. Bread and fish take us back to the feeding of the multitudes and other humble suppers where the presence of Jesus and God’s love brought new life to those present.

He eats this fish, and shows his scars once again, to give clear evidence of his resurrection. The disciples thought they were seeing a ghost, an experience of the dead rather than of the living. The good news here is that the incarnation did not end on the cross. The risen Christ is the Jesus who died. Jesus Christ is God’s love in living, breathing flesh and bone. We are also flesh and bone. The resurrection hallows our fleshy existence and restores us to the image in which we were created, despite what we may see in the mirror.

For some of us this is a thorny issue, that being in the flesh is a good thing. Some of us have real problems with food. Most of us have turned to food for comfort at one time or another. The term ‘comfort food’ doesn’t conjure up certain images in each of us for nothing. Other times we punish ourselves by denying particular foods or we try to bulk up our self-esteem by refraining from indulging our secret cravings. Some of us analyze every morsel that passes our lips while others of us don’t think twice, let alone remember what we ate. So for Jesus to make plain the resurrection through the flesh of his body and eating of food so as to build this budding faith community sounds problematic at best to us who feel torn whenever there is a church supper.

Sometimes when we eat, we want to satisfy a deeper hunger than the one in our bellies. And this is what Jesus is getting at. He has a poor man’s supper with the disciples but then he moves on to the meat of it all. He teaches them again the scriptures to show them the consistent faithfulness of God. God’s love shown through the resurrection should come as no surprise to them; it is part of the thread of grace that runs throughout the Bible. And it is this grace, this unconditional love, which fills our longing that has no name, our appetite for the ineffable.

Jesus doesn’t just convince of them the resurrection for the sake of believing but so that they would bind themselves together as a body resurrected from their grief, to remember all that they had been told, all that they had seen and heard so as to share it with others. Talking about faith over a good and simple meal is as good as it gets in my opinion. We are nourished in both body and spirit, fully satisfied by God’s good gifts.

Some of you know this in your ‘Dinners for 7’ program. I’ve been at two other churches with a similar series of dinners; it’s a wonderful way to get to know people on a more intimate basis. To me, it’s a way of practicing resurrection, of participating in new life with brothers and sisters in Christ, as is the shelter meal that you provide and other meals that you celebrate together. We celebrate Easter by eating together, creating new life and new joy whenever we join around a table, give thanks, pass the plates, and talk about our life together as the Body of Christ.

When was the last time you had a potluck supper after worship, when most folks would be able to stay? Do you make an effort to have healthy foods present when you gather? Jesus shows us just how ‘fleshy’, how real he is; how ‘fleshy’ is Jesus in this church? Is he a ghost or a real flesh and bone Jesus made alive in each of you and in your life together? How do you connect your “feeding of the hungry” with your own feeding at the Table? How does scripture nourish you and your faith? If we celebrate Easter with eating, how does that influence other meals, like the family dinner, the business lunch, the midnight snack, the guilty binge, the drive-through quick-fix, the commuting breakfast?

When we the Church realize how true and how deep the resurrection is, authentic community, life-sustaining, life-creating community comes into being. Jesus said “Love one another as I have loved you”, that love that is not a feeling or a good idea but action made in our flesh and bone. Jesus told Peter “Feed my sheep”, that we be fed and feed each other in such a way as to transform us and that church potluck into the heavenly banquet where all are welcomed, restored, nourished, accepted, resurrected. Amen.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Monday, April 24, 2006

Show Me Your Wounds

Psalm 133; John 20: 19-31
******** United Church of Christ
April 23, 2006

Did you know that this reading from the gospel of John about ‘Doubting Thomas’ is read the Sunday after Easter every year? It makes me wonder if there was some hidden agenda with those who decided what the lectionary readings would be and when they would be read. Perhaps these decision-makers were preachers or sympathetic to them, thinking that because a preacher has to be so eloquent and original Easter after Easter, that they could use the same sermon for the Sunday after, year after year. It’s one of the lowest attended services in the Christian year, so who would know? I know a retired pastor who has what he calls his “$1,000 sermon”; he’s preached it ten times, in ten different churches, and each time he got paid $100.

Or perhaps this was the not-so-hidden agenda: that having witnessed the resurrection year after year we would also need to examine our faith and our doubts about the resurrection as well. If it’s one thing I love about Easter and the resurrection, it’s that God does not take faith as something fait accompli, as a foregone conclusion. This Easter event wasn’t the very convincing magic show where God the Magnificent saws a man in half and then puts him back together again, the crowd “ooh-ing and ah-ing” over all the smoke and mirrors. God has just done one of the most wonderful things since creating the heavens and the earth but also one of the most frightening and unbelievable. We all need to catch our breath and figure out what all this resurrection business is about, not just for our own faith, but more importantly, what it means for us as a church.

The Sunday after Easter is the perfect time for all us doubters to come to church, hungrily seeking the truth after all that Easter hoopla. It is quieter and there is room for us to wonder and ask questions. But over the years it seems this passage has been misused to beat the heads of those who have doubts. We read this incident with the focus on Thomas and all of us who question the resurrection: “There’s always a dullard in the crowd, someone who just doesn’t get it. Boy, do I feel dull myself for not understanding this whole ‘Jesus raised from the dead’ thing”. We haven’t always gotten the message from this reading that it is okay to have doubts about our faith; that a church community can be a safe place to reveal the wounds we’ve received for loving and believing in that which we cannot see.

However, I don’t think Thomas was only expressing doubt. I think Thomas was grieving and feeling very much afraid, as we are when someone we have lived with, shared each other’s wounds, loved through good times and bad, dies. All the other disciples got to see Jesus except Thomas. All the other disciples received the Holy Spirit except him. Maybe he’s thinking he missed his only chance to ever see Jesus again and receive the Spirit’s power to forgive. How wounded can you get? Do his friends and fellow followers of Jesus kick him out of the house because of his declaration not to believe unless he sees and touches Jesus himself? No. Thomas is there with them the next time Jesus comes to them. This tiny, emerging community of faith cannot afford the luxury of conformity at the price of friendship and the witness of faith. They stick together, even though Thomas cannot accept the resurrection sight unseen.

But truly this story is not only about Thomas and the disciples; it’s not about us, really, either. As with all the stories in the gospels, it is more about Jesus and what he is willing to do, how far he is prepared to go to reveal to us God’s great love for all people.

What I love about this scripture lesson is how matter-of-fact Jesus is in showing his scars and wounds to the disciples and to Thomas. He’s not showing off, he’s not bashful about it, he just says “Here they are. Look at them. Touch them. Believe.” He is completely vulnerable with them, exposing his strength through his weakness. Jesus shows the disciples and Thomas the cost of extravagant love, what happens to us when we risk, when we believe, when we love: we will indeed be wounded but we will also be raised and healed. And we will not be the same as we were before. We will be transformed, still bearing the scars of love upon us.

Most folks would not be as straightforward as Jesus about revealing wounds as a result of love. Some of us may even deny that we are wounded. But if we have loved and been loved, we have hurt and have been wounded. Episcopal priest and theologian Margaret Guenther writes that “[most] of us present carefully prepared fa├žades. The self we offer to others is not the product of conscious deception, yet we want no one to disturb the meticulously maintained surface. The message is implicit: Don’t look at my wounds too closely.” The trouble is we may have difficulty seeing the resurrection when we keep our wounds hidden from one another.

But the remarkable thing about this church is that you don’t have a meticulously maintained surface—and hallelujah for that! Your surface is sometimes chaotic, unruly, unkempt. You’re come-as-you-are, not some carefully applied layer of what you wish you were. And that, to me, shows your reverence for Christ and for his spirit of extravagant love. The resurrection is very present in this church precisely because you have loved and been wounded and have been raised again, and you don’t try to hide it. I would advise you not to wear your wounds on your sleeve but if you do, wear them as stripes earned in your on-going mission to be the church.

Educational activist and author Parker Palmer writes, “The mission of the church is not to enlarge its membership, not to bring outsiders to accept its terms, but simply to love the world in every possible way—to love the world as God did and does.” Jesus models in his ministry what we are to do in our ministry: to love the world in every possible way, even by we the church exposing our wounds gained by loving, so that others would not doubt the possibility of the resurrection but come to know and to believe it to be very real and absolutely true.

By your wounds you are ordained and have been given gifts of the Holy Spirit that you might be the church in the world. What are your wounds, ******** United Church of Christ? How have you been scarred as a result of believing and loving in Christ’s name? When you look at your church in the mirror, what do you see, what do you feel? Jesus came to the disciples on the eighth day, the day of God’s new era, the kingdom of God; how do you experience this church as being a part that kingdom and building toward it? Jesus came back for Thomas, that no one would be excluded; who are the ones who are not here who may need you to extend yourselves in a new way?

Thanks be to God for doubt, grief, and fear shared in open, loving community and in the healing presence of Christ. Thanks be to God for the wounds gained by loving and believing in the resurrection of Jesus, that none would be excluded, that all would have life in his name. Thanks be to God for life lived in community, in all its chaotic, unkempt, glorious diversity, there to find life’s blessing—life forevermore. Thanks be to God for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who loves us in every possible way and call us, the Church, to do the same. Amen.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Can I get a witness?

Mark 16: 1-8
******** United Church of Christ

April 16, 2006 – Easter Sunday

Yes, that’s right; that’s all he wrote. The first gospel written, our first account of the resurrection story ends not with a reunion of the risen Christ and his disciples but with the women, the first witnesses to the resurrection, fleeing from the tomb in terror and amazement, saying nothing to anyone because they were afraid. Most scholars agree that the shorter and longer endings of Mark were added by writers and editors other than the original author of Mark. A few New Testament researchers think that the gospel had been longer but the ending had been torn off. However, most other academics accept that this was the original intent of author of Mark: to have a dangling participle of a gospel with seemingly no resolution. But whatever the case, this is the Easter story for us and for the Church this day.

Of all the resurrection texts, this seemingly abbreviated one from the gospel of Mark is my favorite. I like the fact that we don’t get to ‘see’ Jesus raised from the dead; none of God showing off to coerce us into believing. The musical “Godspell” ends in a similar fashion. Jesus is crucified, dies, and his disciples carry his body off the stage and through the crowd singing “Long live God” but no final scene starring the risen Jesus.

I like this text because it’s disturbing as well as comforting, filled with holy terror as well as reassurance. With our scientific knowledge and post-modern minds we may find it easy to be glib about the resurrection when we say “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” Are we embarrassed by this public witness, even amongst ourselves? Has the resurrection lost its’ power with us? Then perhaps Jesus was never really dead to us either. If we cannot experience Jesus as really and truly dead, then we can hardly experience him as really and truly resurrected and alive again. So I like a resurrection text that puts the burden of witness on us.

If this resurrection took place in our modern world, a group of forensic scientists would be called in to examine the ‘evidence’ pertaining to a missing body. The place where Jesus’ body had been laid and the cloth that had covered him would be tested for DNA and fingerprints. The surrounding grounds would be inspected for footprints to determine whether the body had been removed. But it is only in the past 20 years that DNA evidence has been given so much weight. Before DNA testing, investigating a death was conducted for thousands of years the old-fashioned way: witnesses would come forward and tell what had happened.

In this morning’s scripture reading we have witnesses, three eyewitnesses to this resurrection; the only problem is they aren’t talking. And frankly, I don’t want them to say anything. It’s too easy to let them do all the talking about seeing the stone rolled away and a young man dressed in a white robe telling that he, Jesus, is not here. Mark does not need a personal appearance of the risen Christ to confirm his faith. Like the lyric from Handel’s “Messiah”, Mark “knows that his redeemer liveth”.

But do we need the personal appearance of the risen Christ to affirm our faith? How is it we believe in the resurrection without actually having seen him ourselves? Do we simply trust the witness that has been given in other gospels and down through the ages? We cannot demand, like Thomas, that unless we see the mark of the nails and put our fingers in his side that we will not believe. What is the root of our Easter faith?

Somehow, somewhere in our lives we have had an experience of the resurrection, of Jesus being true for us in a very real way. Or we have heard someone give a powerful witness to their Easter faith as they have experienced it. This is what us Easter people call testimony.

Testimony is not something Congregationalists practice with any great ease, or at all, for that matter. Faith is considered a private affair, between believer and God. As the apostle Paul has preached to us, our faith is nothing for us to boast about. But there is a difference between boasting and witnessing, between calling attention to oneself and calling attention to the very real and saving presence of Jesus Christ. And as we are a part of the United Church of Christ, calling attention to Christ is exactly what we are about.

I hope that some of you have seen the new ad for the United Church of Christ; someone told me they saw it on the A&E channel. You can also go on
the church's website and see it there. This ad and the previous ‘bouncer’ ad are part of our church’s “Still Speaking Initiative”, which proclaims that the witness of the faithful and the revelation of God did not end with the Bible, that God still speaks fresh words, that we are to listen and to give witness to what we have heard and what we have seen at work among God’s people; and when I say ‘God’s people’ I mean all people.

This dangling end of the gospel of Mark seems to imply that we who read this gospel, this good news, are to be the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. We are to give testimony to what we have seen and heard of the resurrection in our own lives and in the life of the Church. We live in a world where everyone, and everything, dies; I’ve quoted this song before: “No matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out of this world alive.” So in this finite world, where do you find your hope? Where have you and your congregation seen life out of death? Have you also felt terror and amazement in the presence of the resurrection of Jesus? Have you too been so overwhelmed by the fear of God that you could not tell a soul because you were afraid?

Author Richard Swanson, who has written a commentary on the Gospel of Mark says that “[the] task of Easter (which is every Sunday for an Easter-based faith) is to tell stories about resurrection in a world where everyone dies.” The way you have started telling these resurrection stories, giving witness to your faith, is during announcements and through prayer requests. You give witness to the life of Christ at work in this church when you make announcements. And there are so many, and yes, they take up so much time, but this testifies to the life and love of Christ that is very present and palpable in this church, in you, the people who make this church what it is. When you ask for prayers, you sometimes give some background behind the request, which is a testimony of the trust and the love you have for one another and to your belief that prayer makes a difference. And the Good News Team invites members to give testimony to why they are members here and what difference the church has made in their lives.

But if I were to ask you to give witness, to make testimony about your Easter faith, what would you say? Does this leave you too feeling like running in terror and amazement? Let’s go back to the text to see what the good news is for us.

The messenger of the resurrection, the young man in the white robe, says several things. The first is, do not be alarmed. Whenever an angel or heavenly representative appears, usually the first words out of their mouths are ‘do not be afraid’. So, first step of giving witness to the good news of the resurrection: do not be alarmed.

Second, remember why you are here today. You are seeking Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. You are not seeking evidence; you are not looking for the body. Why? He has been raised; he is not here, that is, he is not in this place of death. He is among the living. And so are you.

And where are the living? Third, Jesus is going ahead of you, to Galilee, where you will see him, just as he told you. He is going to Galilee, where it all started. This is not the end but only the beginning. We are to go back to the stories of Jesus, to his words and his life, and to read them again and again and again, so that they become real to us, as real as our own lives. Many of us, when we want to draw strength from our faith, will remember Jesus’ words that we were taught to memorize so long ago. What words of Jesus do you remember that have special meaning for you?

If we go back through the gospel of Mark we see a Jesus of action, a teacher, a healer, a man of prayer, of justice, a man of love that was not a feeling but a way of living and being engaged with this world according to God’s law of love. We hear Jesus’ repeated promise that he would rise again. At the very beginning of Mark we hear the words “prepare the way of the Lord.” And at the start of his ministry in Galilee, we hear Jesus say “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This is the resurrection of Mark’s gospel. It is us going back to the beginning of the story, realizing that the kingdom has come near, turning toward God and believing the good news of Jesus Christ. It is us preparing the way of the Lord, making his paths straight, crying out like a voice in the wilderness that God is coming. Jesus lives because he lives through us. Jesus is alive because he is alive in us and because we are alive. Not just existing, not just breathing, not just taking up space, but alive. And because we are alive we are able to give witness, to make testimony, that Christ is risen from the dead.

So, ******** United Church of Christ, are you ALIVE? How is God still speaking to you and through you? What is the good news of Jesus Christ to be found here among you and within you? Where is your hope? When have you as a congregation seen life out of death? What words of Jesus disturb you as well as comfort you, cause you to fear as well as offer reassurance? What about your faith makes your jaw drop and leaves you dumbfounded? What keeps you from running away in fear? If someone asked you why you believe in the resurrection, what would you say?

Thanks be to God for an Easter faith that still has the power to instill awe in us and make our faith a humble one. Thanks be to God for the words, the life, and the death of Jesus that make real his resurrection. Thanks be to God for speechless witnesses at the tomb so that we may find our own voices and give witness and testify with our lives and with our life together that Christ is indeed risen from the dead. Amen.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Last Suppers

For an annotation about this painting go to the artist's website.

Exodus 12: 1-14; John 13: 33-36, 14: 1-6
******** United Church of Christ
April 13, 2006 (Maundy Thursday)

Yesterday at sundown the festival of Passover began. This was the most important ceremony in ancient Israel and early Judaism. It is a day of remembrance, to remember what God had done to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt. The exodus is the defining moment in Israel’s faith history. Through the Passover meal and ceremony, Jews acknowledge and celebrate that it is God who sets people free, who names each person, and calls them “God’s people”.

The Seder meal, the last supper to be eaten in captivity and in slavery to Egypt was to be eaten hurriedly, for the people of Israel were running for their very lives. It was to be a meal without leftovers if possible, and whatever was left was to be burned. Nothing was to be wasted or left as scraps for scavengers. The meal was to be an act of salvation from God. They were ingesting the very means by which God would save them, by the blood of a lamb, perfect and without blemish.

In the gospel of John it is this Passover festival that Jesus and his disciples have come to Jerusalem to celebrate. It was a holy pilgrimage that Jews made each year, to observe the highest of festivals in the holiest of cities. Unlike the synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, in John’s gospel Jesus has his last supper with his disciples before the Passover festival begins. There is no institution of the Eucharist. Jesus himself is to be the Eucharist, the Passover of God, the lamb who will be slain to save Israel.

If both of these passages were taken literally, we would have an awfully gruesome picture of who God is: a God who slaughters the innocent firstborn Egyptian sons, who demands a blood price in the form of his own son in order that we be saved from the penalty of death for our sins. There are many hymns about being “washed in the blood of the Lamb” and the blood of Christ being referred to as a “precious fountain”.

But if we look at the intent of both of these “last suppers” we see God’s desire to save and set free all people in bondage, and we see the relationship between God and humankind in every age. These stories are true in every generation. God’s people were in slavery and bondage not only in the past but still continue to live in bondage in the present and our need for liberation and mercy persists. Through a meal and God’s intent behind it, we are saved from bondage and from sin.

In the movie Babette’s Feast we see how a meal and its intent as an expression of extravagant love have the power to save a small community of believers from pettiness and disagreement. Two sisters in tiny provincial village on the northern Danish coast, daughters of an itinerant minister who have carried on his ministry in their household, wish to honor the 100th anniversary of his birth with a dinner. Their French cook and housekeeper, Babette, asks if she can cook a real French dinner to celebrate the occasion and to express her love for the sisters. All of the guests are superstitious and skeptical about the French meal and afraid of what it might do to their souls. Their bickering continues right up until the night of the party. But in the unfolding of this sumptuous banquet, tempers are cooled, love is rekindled, and forgiveness flows like the wine at the table. In the candlelight the group is warmed by each other’s presence and the years seem to fall away. By the end of the evening the guests are singing a hymn hand in hand under a winter sky.

This night, this Maundy Thursday, this last supper, draws us in, in a powerful way. We find ourselves strangely attracted to the drama presented before us in a way that makes us a part of the story, for indeed we are. Just as Passover is a day of remembrance that calls to mind the continual need for liberation, so is this Thursday night a reminder of our constant hunger for God’s mercy and forgiveness. As the shadows become heavier and heavier, we begin to feel a small measure the weight that Jesus carried that night, and tonight once again. We can almost see ourselves as one of the disciples seated with Jesus, wondering who will betray him.

Many of you have heard about the newly-translated and published “Gospel of Judas”, written in about the 3rd century, long after that last supper so long ago. According to this gospel, Jesus asked Judas to betray him so that he might leave this life in the flesh to live with his Father. As with the canonical Bible, these stories about Jesus’ last moments are not necessarily about what actually happened but about the meaning behind these events, describing the relationship between God and humankind. The gospel of Judas describes what most folks wished had happened, that Judas and Jesus were in on the betrayal together. No one likes the idea of a Judas goat, someone whose task it is to betray the hero of the story. In a Newsweek article about the gospel of Judas it says: “It’s such a downer to think the guy sinned and felt bad…”

We’d all like to feel better about Judas; we’d all like to feel better about ourselves. The harder truth is that we have sinned and feel bad, especially about the ‘Judas’ in our own lives, that one who betrayed us, hurt us, left us, deserted us. God desires not only that we be set free from sin, from our own guilt but also that we be set free from our unwillingness to forgive.

In the book If Grace Is True, the authors invite us to envision that great heavenly banquet when all God’s people have come home. They ask us to imagine who will be seated around us and next to us. Not only will we be welcomed by those we love and who love us, but we will also be greeted by those who have hurt us and those whom we have injured. For this last supper, this one that will be for eternity is a table of grace where no one is excluded. Who will be seated next to you?

Through a meal and the intent of God’s love that is behind it, we are saved. There is power here: power to transform us, release us, and increase our faith. Tonight let us come to this table with an open heart, that we might meet our Lord face to face.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Hybrid Blog

Ecclesiastes was right: there is nothing new under the sun. Hybrid cars, new? Really? Check out this story about the "Great Hybrid Car Cover-Up of 1974". Yep, that's the height of the energy crisis, with long lines at the pump, there were those who tried to hush up a brilliant inventor who engineered his own hybrid car. Wait 'til you see who the villain is...

The following is a funny little ad about plug-in hybrids. At the conclusion you have the opportunity to sign a petition in favor of them.

Which is "bettah"?

My husband and I just purchased a Honda Civic hybrid. Just lovin' that 40+ mpg!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Palm Sunday p.s.

A great big cheer and thank you to all the children who handed out bulletins and palm branches, led the procession into the sanctuary and carried the "donkey", collected the offering, participated in worship and sat through my sermon(!). You are wonderful!!!

Monday, April 10, 2006

A Different Kind of Parade

Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29; Mark 11: 1-11
******** United Church of Christ
April 9, 2006 (Palm Sunday)

We aren’t given many opportunities to make procession in today’s world nor do we create many opportunities for them, either. The closest thing would be a parade and even then we save those for holidays and special occasions. One way that our nation still uses to honor someone is to give them a ticker tape parade in New York City. Astronauts, presidents, and other public figures have ridden in a shower of shredded paper through the financial district. And when someone dies they are honored with a procession to the grave. Listen to this account of a funeral procession.

For more than six hundred years the Hapsburgs of Austria exercised political power in Europe. When Emperor Franz-Josef I of Austria died in 1916, his was the last of the extravagant imperial funerals.

A processional of dignitaries and elegantly dressed royalty escorted the coffin, draped in the black and gold imperial colors. To the accompaniment of a military band’s somber dirges and by the light of torches, the funeral procession descended the stairs of the monastery. At the bottom of the stairs was a great iron door leading to the Hapsburg family crypt. Behind the door was the Cardinal-Archbishop of Vienna.

The officer in charge followed the prescribed ceremony, established centuries before. “Open!” he cried.

“Who goes there?” responded the Cardinal.

“We bear the remains of his Imperial and Apostolic Majesty, Franz-Josef I, by the grace of God, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, Defender of the Faith, Prince of Bohemia-Moravia, Grand Duke of Lombardy, Venezia, Styrgia…” The officer continued to list the Emperor’s thirty-seven titles.

“We know him not,” replied the Cardinal. “Who goes there?”

The officer spoke again, this time using a much shorter and less ostentatious title reserved for times of expediency.

“We know him not,” the Cardinal said again. “Who goes there?”

The officer tried a third time, stripping the emperor of all but the humblest of titles: “We bear the body of Franz-Josef, our brother, a sinner like us all.”

And with those words, the door swung open, and the body of Franz-Josef was admitted to eternal rest.

Today we remember a procession not for an emperor but a peasant king, riding not on a horse, a symbol of power and might, but on a colt that had never been ridden before. And it is the task of two of the disciples to acquire this colt for Jesus. It is such a mundane and humbling thing to do, like the person whose job it is to follow the elephants in a circus parade. But the disciples should be used to these prosaic requests of Jesus by now: distributing food to the multitudes, collecting the leftovers; being sent out two by two, taking nothing with them except a staff; finding food and lodging and securing a room for the Passover feast. Perhaps Jesus even sent James and John to fetch the colt, those two who were quibbling just one chapter ago over who was going to sit at the right and the left of Jesus when he came into his glory.

When I was ordained into the Christian ministry, I heard the words that Jesus spoke to the disciples when they heard about what James and John had asked of him: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles dominate them, and their great leaders exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must first be your slave.” And with those words I was invited to come forward and make my promises as a servant of the Church.

I had no idea that being a minister meant finding child care for a meeting, setting up chairs and tables then taking them down, driving to St. Louis in a van full of young teens listening to “Smashing Pumpkins”, knowing where the unity candle holder was kept, buying ashes for Ash Wednesday, washing dishes and the stinky feet of junior high kids at a moving ceremony at the end of a week of camp. Being a part of church life sometimes means doing the stuff no one else wants to do but without it, it wouldn’t be the church.

NPR commentator Richard Rodriguez, an editor for New California Media, points out that in our nation’s debate over illegal immigrants, those who do the stuff no one else wants to do, the talk has been all about what more do these people want from us. Haven’t we given them enough already? Should we give them a green card? Grant them amnesty? Forget all this generosity and send them packing? But, he says, not two relevant words have been said about what they do for us, so he says them: thank you. He then goes through a litany of “thank-you’s” for all the mundane, ordinary, thankless, boring, tiring, demoralizing, even dangerous jobs that illegal immigrants do in this country:

“Thank you for turning on the sprinklers,

thank you for cleaning the pool and scrambling the eggs and doing the dishes;
thank you for making the bed,
thank you for getting the children up and ready for school;
thank you for picking them up after school;
thank you for caring for our dying parents;
thank you for plucking dead chickens;
thank you for bending your bodies over our fields;
thank you for breathing chemicals and absorbing chemicals into your bodies;
thank you for the lettuce and the spinach and the artichokes, the asparagus and the cauliflower, the broccoli, beans and tomatoes and garlic;
thank you for the apricots and the peaches and the apples and the melons and the plums and the almonds and the grapes;
thank you for the willow trees and the roses and the winter lawn;
thank you for scraping and painting and roofing and cleaning out the asbestos and the mold; thank you for your stoicism and your eager hands;
thank you for all the young men on rooftops in the sun;
thank you for cleaning the toilets and the showers and the restaurant kitchens and the schools and the office buildings and the airports and the malls;
thank you for washing the car, thank you for washing all the cars;
thank you for your parents who died young and had nothing to bequeath their children but the memory of work; thank you for giving us your youth;
thank you for the commemorative altars; thank you for the food, the beer, the tragic polka. Gracias.”

Two weeks ago over 500,000 people in Los Angeles protested the latest proposed immigration reforms that would criminalize illegal workers. President Bush’s policy is that of a guest worker program. Germany tried that with India, wanting their technological brains at work in their country but would not give them anything that might lead to citizenship. The plan failed miserably. Indian citizens saw right through it: you’re good enough to work here but not enough to become a citizen of Germany and of the European Union.

On that Palm Sunday long ago the Hebrew people were also demonstrating against the powers that be. It was not just a procession to welcome Jesus. The people were shouting “Hosanna”, which means “Save us”, and they were shouting it to a poor rabbi on a colt, with cries that hailed the coming kingdom of their ancestor David, a kingdom diametrically opposed to that of empire and all that it entails.

The Romans barely tolerated the Hebrew people as residents of their own country and as second-class citizens of the Empire. They were a bug to be squashed should they become an irritant. They were the slaves and the servants, the little people in their own country. The procession that we celebrate today, as evidenced by what the crowd proclaimed, was a small but noticeable protest march against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire and a celebration of the Hebrew people’s hope and trust that God would one day redeem their demoralization and their slavery.

The beginning of the gospel of Mark starts with the preparing of the way of the Lord. Reading Mark’s account of Palm Sunday through this lens gives us insight. Preparing the way of the Lord means we who follow Jesus do so in the role of a servant and a slave and joining with those who are treated like servants and slaves and second-class citizens and non-citizens. Preparing the way of the Lord means us as individuals, as citizens, and as a nation recognizing our role in the continuation of our American empire. Preparing the way of the Lord means that all our mundane tasks and those of illegal workers are ultimately about the ministry and work of Jesus.

When someone washes your car, they are doing the work of Jesus. When someone roofs your house, they are doing the work of Jesus. When they fill your glass, they are doing the work of Jesus. When someone keeps a public bathroom clean for you to use, they are doing the work of Jesus. When you make the coffee, you are doing the work of Jesus. When you lick stamps, write your check for your pledge, put a few dollars in the plate, count the money, pay the bills, set up tables and chairs, clean the kitchen, take out the trash, turn off the heat and the lights and lock up, when you visit someone who is not able to come to church, drive someone to church, listen to a complaint, a sad story, or a request for prayer, when you serve on a committee, you are doing the work of Jesus. You are preparing the way for him, as though you were laying down palm branches and the shirt off your back for him.

And probably no one will ever throw a parade in our honor because of doing the work of Jesus. We may do more than we think is our fair share. Many a time we may not even hear a “thank you”. But without doing this mundane work that is the work of Jesus, the church would not be the Church. And the way of the Lord would not be as prepared; we would not be prepared for the Lord’s way, which is love, which is the cross, which is resurrection.

So in this coming Holy Week, go the extra mile. Do something that no one else may feel like doing; you might not feel like doing it either but without it, the church would not be the Church. And when we’re all serving and doing and being the Church for each other, we make a procession of witnesses preparing ourselves to follow Christ, even unto the cross. And remember, whatever you do in the Church, at least you’re not following the elephants. Thanks be to God.

Friday, April 07, 2006

WHO is THAT??? - Part Deux, Answer

Hard to believe that this innocent-looking boy could grow up to be that scary-looking man. Once again, Andy Peterson recognized the mystery guy.

Yes, that's teen idol (never made it to my bedroom wall) Leif Garrett.

No more guessing games for me. I can't seem to find anyone obscure and obscured enough to stump anyone or at least Andy. So stay tuned for Palm Sunday's sermon, entitled "A Different Kind of Parade".

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

WHO is THAT??? Part Deux

This one is way too sad.

Here's another seventies teen idol. He was arrested and charged with possession of heroin. Have you seen some the photos of what crystal meth can do to a person? What heroin was in the '70's is what crystal meth is now, only it's cheaper and more lethal. A fatal combination.

The only hope for this guy is that this is the bottom; if he realizes it, he can start over and make another life. Right now he is a mere shell of what he used to be.

So, you who dare to look upon this gruesome face, WHO is THAT???

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

WHO is THAT??? - Answer

Of course, I knew that Andy Peterson would get the answer right away....

That's right, Teen Beat cutie, a Hardy Boy 'til the day he dies...Shaun Cassidy.

Makes you wonder where has the time gone. Tomorrow I'll have another mystery guy, hopefully more obscure and more difficult to recognize.

Monday, April 03, 2006

WHO is THAT???

Taking a cue from my friend Andy I have started a new game with mystery guys instead of women.

(If you're looking for this past Sunday's sermon, scroll to the blog entry below this one.)

WHO is THAT???

He was a hunk in my generation, seen in teen magazines (and maybe on my bedroom wall), a heartthrob through and through.

We haven't seen much of him lately. He's the creator/writer/producer (Cold Case, American Gothic, Cover Me) of a new series, a suspenseful tale...blah, blah, blah, I don't want to give it away.

Those of you media hounds will probably recognize him right off the bat. He has aged well (and I did correct the red eye in the picture to make him look more like himself). And the tan helps.

What gets me is that a man can still look like who he was when he was younger and be recognizable AND he still gets good roles and good projects because of who he is (Have you seen Robert Redford lately? Yikes!). And no one gets creeped out (enough so to keep him unemployed) by HIS crepe-paper neck or his receeding hairline or his pudgy face. Women, on the other hand, see their acting careers careening down the same slope with their face, boobs, and figure. George Clooney gains 50 lbs. for "Syrianna" and gets an Oscar, for Pete's sake.

Alright, enough whining. Who can tell me? WHO is THAT???

Dying to Live

Jeremiah 31: 31-34; John 12: 20-33
******** United Church of Christ
April 2, 2006

It seems hard to believe but we’re approaching the end of Lent. Next week is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, the beginning of our keeping vigil with Jesus as he moves toward Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Are you ready? Do you feel like you’re prepared for all this? We are following a man to his execution. I don’t know of anything that would prepare me for that; except perhaps preparing for my own death. Eventually I am, we are, all going to die. Like the song says, we won’t get out of this world alive.

At first my Lenten devotion to take on was going to be writing to others to let them know how important they are in my life. But I had done that one before, and it is something I try to do every day with those around me. Instead I started writing in a book by Hallmark, full of empty pages and questions to answer that would tell the story of my life to my children. After Eleanor’s funeral I began to wonder: who would tell the story of my life to a pastor, to my children? Who would be able to go back to my childhood, my teenage and college years, my time in seminary, and my first position in a church as an associate? I began to reflect on the words of Ash Wednesday: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” I didn’t want to be dust and ashes without someone, especially my children, knowing how my life had been lived. So I began to write my brief history to my husband and my children, so that, in the words of Thoreau, when I came to die I would not discover that I had not lived.

How often do we think about our own death? How many of us have made out a will? How many of us have a living will? How many of us have life insurance? Freud would say that our unconscious fear of death is what motivates most of human behavior and neuroses.

In the movie “When Harry Met Sally”, when they first meet, neurotic Harry and neurotic Sally have a discussion about death:

Sally: Amanda mentioned you had a dark side.
Harry: That’s what drew her to me.
S: Your dark side.
H: Sure. Why, don’t you have a dark side? Oh, you’re probably one of those cheerful people who dot their i’s with little hearts.
S: I have just as much a dark side as the next person.
H: Oh really? When I buy a book I always read the last page first; that way, in case I die before I finish, I’ll know how it ends. That, my friend, is a dark side.
S: That doesn’t mean you’re deep or anything. I mean, yes, basically I’m a happy person.
H: So am I.
S: And I don’t see that there’s anything wrong with that.
H: Of course not. You’re too busy being happy. You ever think about death?
S: Yes.
H: Sure you do. A fleeting thought that drifts through the transom of your mind. I spend hours, I spend days…
S: And you think this makes you a better person?
H: Look, when the [bleep] comes down I’m going to be prepared and you’re not; that’s all I’m saying.
S: In the meantime you’re going to ruin your whole life waiting for it.

Some of us think about death to avoid living life. The kind of reflection about death that I’m talking about, that Jesus is talking about, is the kind that leads us toward living a whole life that bears much fruit.

I want to tell you two stories about two women, both of whom faced their own death and lived to live life anew.

The first is about a white woman who traveled with a tribe of Aborigines for four months across the Australian outback. She was to learn their way of being and living on this planet. Each day they would pray to Divine Oneness, asking for whatever was needed for that day if it was for their highest good and the highest good of all life everywhere. Each day she would travel in the group, sometimes at the rear, sometimes in the middle. One day she was given the assignment of being out in front, to lead the tribe to their evening destination of dinner, some water, and rest. She tried to decline, but she was told that ultimately everyone must lead at some time. One cannot understand what it is like to lead unless one takes on the leadership role.

So they began their day with her leading the way. It was higher than 105 degrees by her estimate. They stopped midday to create some shade with some animal skins. Then later in the day they continued their trek, walking much longer than usual. No animals or plants had emerged along their path to be honored for the evening meal. There was no water. Finally she called the day’s journey to an end.

She went to the tribal member who spoke English and asked for help. She asked others for help but no one would help her. Instead they talked about how every person at some time walks at the rear of the group.

The next day the tribe once again traveled with this woman in the leadership role. The heat was unbearable. She felt her throat closing. Her tongue was dry and swollen. Every step was slow and difficult. The land around them was barren and hostile to any kind of life. In the distance there was a heavy rain cloud but it stayed out their reach; they could not get close enough to enjoy even its shadow. They ended the second day again with no food and no water.

On the third day the woman pleaded with the tribal members. She begged them on her knees to help her, to save themselves. They listened to her with compassion but only smiled at her as if to say, “We are thirsty and hungry too, but this is your experience so we support you totally in what you must learn.”

As they traveled that third day the woman could no longer feel her body. She was numb from the heat. She knew she was suffering from fatal dehydration. She thought to herself, “This is it. I am dying.” She began to question why was she here; had she traveled 10,000 miles from home only to die in the desert? She realized that she was still using her western mind, her western way of doing things rather than the ways of this tribe, who used mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart communication. She had used her voice to ask for help rather than open her heart and mind as in prayer.

So in her mind she cried out, “Help me. If it is in my highest good and the highest good for all life everywhere, let me learn.” An answer came to her mind: “Put the rock in your mouth”. She had been carrying a small rock in the cleavage of her chest since the first day of this walkabout. She put the rock in her mouth, rolled it around, and moisture began to return to her mouth.

She then asked with her heart and mind: “I will do whatever is necessary to find water, but I don’t know what to do, how to look.” The thought came to her: “Be water.” So she thought about water in all its various forms and images, in vapor, ice, snow, cold, tepid, clear, muddy, still, bubbling. She became in her mind whatever images of water came to her.

She walked up a small sand dune, about six feet high, and sat down on the rock on top of it. As she gazed down at her friends, they were all smiling at her. Then she stretched back her hand to steady herself and she felt something wet. She jerked her head around and saw a rock pool extending ten feet from the rock ledge she had been sitting on, its contents the water from yesterday’s rain cloud. She estimated that it only took 30 minutes from when she surrendered her way to the tribal way and thought about being water to the time the whole tribe was splashing with joy.

The other story I want to tell you is about a woman when she was in her late twenties. As a result of an overly-strong measles vaccination, her immune system created auto-antibodies that assaulted her muscular and vascular systems. In several months she lost 20 lbs. She barely had enough strength to lift her body out of bed in the morning. Every day she suffered from chronic pain. Her doctors had no cure for this but could only give her massive doses of steroids for the pain, hoping that this would shock her system back to normal.

She tried many kinds of alternative medicine as well: vitamins, psychic healing, shiatsu massage, chiropractics, macrobiotics, biofeedback—nothing worked. One day she just gave up. She went to her biofeedback appointment and while the technician was attaching the electrodes, she prayed to God to just let her die. She was tired, physically, emotionally, spiritually. Every day she was in pain. It was so bad she thought it would be better for someone else to raise her two children.

As she imagined herself shedding her body, being greeted by God in heaven, and had these thoughts of death and giving up, the tone on the biofeedback machine kept going lower and lower. A lower tone is what is desired, indicating that the body is relaxing and allowing the body to heal. The closer she felt to death, the lower the tone on the monitor. The technician told her excitedly that whatever she was doing was working, that she was on the track of mastering her life.

She had come to death only to discover how to live. She was still worn out but those few minutes of giving up and giving her life completely to God were the most peaceful she had since becoming sick. The technician told her to go home and practice what she had discovered during the session. So she went home and practiced dying, giving up, surrendering.

Jesus surrendered. As a seed surrenders itself to the soil, dies, and brings forth new life, Jesus also died. He was obedient, even unto death on a cross. Over the centuries this has been interpreted by some as God demanding Jesus’ obedience to die on a cross so as to appease God’s death sentence for sin. What Jesus was obedient to was love; God is love and love is God. He came to glorify that love in the way that he lived. And the way Jesus lived, as the full expression of God’s love for all people, became misunderstood by some, raised their fears and angered them, so much so, that Jesus could see that his life would lead to his death. But he also knew that God who is love would not let death be the final word. New life, resurrection, eternal life that begins the moment we are ready for it was to be the word that would speak to all people. If Jesus had run away from the garden that night and left Israel, he would have saved his own life, but he would not have love by cheating death. By his surrendering, by his obedience to this love that is God, even unto death, Jesus would draw all people to himself.

What if we were transformed, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, “into a community of glad obedience”? Imagine what the Church would look like if we surrendered completely to the covenant of grace that God offers us. It is this covenant that helps us to be obedient to love, for God’s law, which is love, will be written on our hearts. In order for this love to take hold within us as a community, our communal need for control and security has to die. Any thought of success or fear of failure as a church has to die. Our worship of the past and our anxiety about the future has to die. Our inability to forgive and our memory of those who have wronged us have to die. In letting go of these things, in giving them up, we will be surrendering to love. We will die in order that we may love and live abundantly, fruitfully, glorifying the One who died for the sake of love.

So, ******** United Church of Christ, to what do you need to surrender, to obey, to die so that you might bear much fruit? How is God’s law of love written upon your hearts? What about God is difficult for you to trust? What does it mean to you that Jesus died and lived again? In God’s covenant God will remember our sin no more; what are you prepared to offer God as your part of the covenant? As a community of faith, are you living to eventually die or are you dying that you might love and live abundantly, glorifying the One who died for the sake of love? Are you living to die or dying to live?

Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior who showed us the way of love, the way of good death, and the way to eternal life that begins right now. Amen.