Monday, December 29, 2008

Holding Promises, sermon edition



The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Rembrandt, 1627/28

(This sermon contains portions of a blog entry from 2005 that came in handy for writing a sermon two days after Christmas. During the preaching of the sermon, I sang the hymn that is quoted in italics.)

Luke 2: 22-40
******** Congregational Church, ******** CT
December 28, 2008



One of my pet-peeves is the saying "Children are our future". Bah, humbug! Ever since I gave birth to the first of two, I have known with all my heart, soul, mind, and especially body that children are our right now, this minute, can't wait any longer. Forget that Hallmark nonsense about today being a gift: that's why they call it the present. Usually, having children is nothing like a Hallmark card. If it were, they'd sell them ripped and torn, scrawled in crayon, with greasy fingerprints all over them, and when you opened it, an explosion of dirty laundry and the sound of milk bubbles being blown through a straw would greet you.

I can remember with great clarity when it was I knew I was a mother. You would think it might have been when I found out I was pregnant or the moment when I heard the cry of my firstborn. I was too much in joy and in love to be in reality, that wonderful mixture of light and darkness. No, it was after all the visitors had left, after my husband and I had settled into the double bed in our room at the hospital’s birth center with our daughter, after the three of us had fallen asleep. In the wee hours of the morning Andrea awoke crying, demanding attention. I came out of sleep in a post-birth fog, groggily realizing that a baby was crying: my baby! No nurse came to my rescue. My mother was asleep in the next room. My husband blissfully slept on. I went straight into mother-mode, finding a diaper and wipes, laying her on the changing table, unwrapping her swaddling blanket, and cooing to her. It was then that I knew I was a mother.

Before she was born, I was a pastor, a wife, a daughter, a friend. After, I was, and will be forever more, a mother. Her birth is one of the major pivots upon which my life turns. Both she and my younger daughter literally changed my life and how I live it. How much more so do our lives turn at the birth of Jesus? Before he was birthed into our lives, what we were we? What difference has the birth of Jesus made in our daily living? What changes have we made to adjust to this small, dependent ‘God with us’?

Author Caryll Houselander wrote, “By his own will Christ was dependent on Mary during Advent: he was absolutely helpless; he could go now where but where she chose to take him; he could not speak; her breathing was his breath; his heart beat in the beating of her heart. …Today Christ is dependent on us. This dependence of Christ lays a great trust upon us. … [We] must carry him in our hearts wherever he wants to go, and there are many places to which he may never go unless we take him.” We celebrate Christmas every year, not as a birthday party for one who really doesn’t need it, but as a very insistent reminder of this baby who needs us if he is to grow into this wisdom and strength.


Born in the night, Mary’s Child, a long way from your home;
Coming in need, Mary’s Child, born in a borrowed room.

The beauty of the Christmas story is that the One who set this universe and you and me in motion revealed the power of love in a vulnerable little baby (and thus every baby)--right now, this minute, can't wait any longer. We hope and pray that our children will take care of us when we are older, but we know the truth is that they saved us from the moment we knew they were on their way to us. And they save us each day of our lives. They save us from being self-absorbed, greedy, depressed, angry, and lonely. If nothing else, the Christmas story reminds us of this as we attend a birth in a mean and lowly place.

Clear shining light, Mary’s Child, your face lights up our way;
Light of the world, Mary’s Child, dawn on our shadowed day.

Christmas is a salvation story as much as Easter. In fact, the stories of Christmas come from the Easter story, from resurrection witnesses trying to make sense of who this Jesus was. If we are to understand Christmas and its meaning for us, we must read the Christmas story through the lens of death and resurrection.

As we read this morning toward the end of the birth story in the gospel of Luke, a priest named Simeon holds the baby Jesus in his arms and proclaims that he is now ready to die for he has seen the salvation of his people, the promise of God. Jesus hasn't done a thing but be born, yet he has saved this old man from despair that he may die in peace. Simeon also tells Mary that a sword would pierce her soul, flashing forward to the future we already know. Yet I would bet that Mary already knew about that sword the moment she looked into her son’s eyes, the moment any of us first looked into our children’s eyes.


Truth of our life, Mary’s Child, you tell us God is good;
Prove it is true, Mary’s Child, go to your cross of wood.

Early in my ministry I had a long talk with a Unitarian pastor about how the crucifixion was not a case of divine child abuse. I still believe that because I do not believe God sent Jesus to live on earth only to die like a criminal. I do not believe that God required the blood of his son to expiate our sins so that we might be forgiven. The whole of Jesus’ life illustrated in stark detail that relationship, justice for the poor, compassion for the stranger and healing for the despairing were God’s priorities, and it is through these that we are saved. These elements are present even at Jesus’ birth in the witness of the shepherds, the innkeeper’s hospitality in the stable, the rejoicing of Simeon and Anna in the temple, and Mary and Joseph keeping their faith tradition to pass on to their infant son.

If we are saved by Jesus’ death, it is that we see how the world behaves in the face of such unbridled, unlimited love, that innocence does not guarantee rights in the hands of the powerful, that love is more powerful than death, that life is not life if we have not love. The Christmas story, like the Easter story, is the story of love; not just any love but God’s love: love that keeps its promises. And ultimately it is this love that saves us from ourselves, from leaving a world to our children that is worse off than when we came into it.

The birth story of Jesus has the power to remind us of all the children who need saving right now, this minute, can't wait any longer: children being conscripted into armies; children orphaned by AIDS, war, floods, earthquakes, and the tsunami four years ago this past Friday; children sold into slavery and prostitution; children who need nutrition, health care, education, a home or a legal marriage for their same-sex parents. In short, children remind us that we are all worthy of love, simply because we draw breath.

What we don't realize is that the sword that pierced Mary’s soul will drive home its dual edge of pain and love into our souls as well. Our world needs to have its soul pierced, to see that we still practice child abuse of the worst kind—the kind we choose to be blind to.

We are our children's future. We are holding the promises we made to them when they were born. In our eyes they see their future. We are the ones who create policy, social structure, decide what is truly valuable and what is just dust in the wind. The trouble is, we spend more of our energy chasing after that wind than on what is right in front of us, right now, this minute, can't wait any longer. God is watching us but through the eyes, ears, hearts and minds of our children and they are taking copious notes.

Yes, there is great joy at Christmas, for God has kept a wonderful promise, but there is also a mandate from this poor, lonely manger. We are to keep our promises to the children of this world, preserving the world for our children, that we would also experience God’s salvation for us. And for this, we need Jesus—right now, this minute, can’t wait any longer—just as he is: tiny and helpless, ready to go wherever we might take him.


Hope of the world, Mary’s Child, you’re coming soon to reign;
King of the earth, Mary’s Child, walk in our streets again.
(1)


Amen.


_______________________________________________



Notes

1. “Born in the Night, Mary’s Child”, Geoffrey Ainger, © 1964 Stainer & Bell, Ltd., printed in The New Century Hymnal, © 1995 The Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, OH.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Charlie Brown remix


Find more videos like this on Monroe Congregational Church Online Community

This is from Jazz Sunday at my church this fall. Listen at the end for a surprise theme added to the song. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, blogfriends!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

How lovely are thy branches


One of my favorite things to do at Christmas, a tradition that I have held since I was a child, is to lay down near or under the decorated tree on Christmas Eve and look up through the lighted branches. Like looking up at an azure sky on clear summer day, I get lost in it: in its depths, its height, the twinkle of the lights, the quiet of the night.

Perhaps as a child I was imagining what it was like to be a present under the tree, waiting to be unwrapped, to give joy and surprise to someone. Maybe I imagined myself as Clara in The Nutcracker when the festive tree grows to accomodate a small army of mice.

Now it is a time of meditation and peace on a late, busy night when I am going back and forth to church to sing in the choir and playing Santa in between. And it really isn't Christmas until I have done this.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
Your beauty green will teach me
That hope and love will ever be
The way to joy and peace for me.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
Your beauty green will teach me.

What is your favorite Christmas tradition, one that you might celebrate alone?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

To Tell The Truth


St. John the Baptist from the Isenheim Altarpiece, c. 1516


Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11; John 1: 6-9, 19-28
****** Congregational Church
December 14, 2008

Frank Abagnale Jr. was a confidence man, though you’d be a fool to place your confidence in him. He was an infamous forger and impostor of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, writing bad checks and posing as an airline pilot, a professor, a doctor and a lawyer. His story was the subject of the 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. In 1977 he even guest-starred on the game show To Tell the Truth, where ironically two other contestants posed as Frank, while the celebrity panelists had to decide who was the real Frank Abagnale Jr. As was the custom, at the conclusion of the show, the host Garry Moore demanded “Will the real Frank Abagnale Jr. please stand up?”

However, in this morning’s gospel lesson we have Jesus’ authentic, honest-to-goodness confidence man of another kind, John the Baptizer. And the priests and Levites are playing the same game, except they want to know if John is the Messiah. They want the real Messiah to please stand up and make himself known to the authorities. John beats them to the punch by confessing that he is not the Messiah. The gospel writer has already beaten John to the point by telling us, the reader, that though John was not the light, John came to testify to the light, that true light which enlightens everyone, which was coming into the world.

You see, it had been a long time since the Jews living in Roman-occupied Judah had seen anyone resembling a prophet. The last time God’s people had been inspired to rise up against the powers that be was in the time of Judas Maccabee, in the 2nd century BCE. But first, a little backstory is necessary.

After returning from exile in Babylon, the Jews completed the construction of the Second Temple, near the end of the sixth century BCE but only one thing was missing: the Holy of Holies was empty. The Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets of the Ten Commandments, had been destroyed in the devastation of the first temple. It was also believed that the Spirit of God was absent along with the heart of God’s law. Since prophecy—that is, telling the truth of God—depends on the Spirit—God’s living presence—prophecy in the land of Judah was at an all-time low.

Toward the end of the third century BCE the Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes, conqueror of the eastern Mediterranean, set about Hellenizing his conquest, including modest little Judah. He constructed a gymnasium, where men competed in athletic games in the nude, something unknown to Judeans. Jews who were eager to comply with these Greek influences disguised their circumcision, often painfully. In truth, they disavowed the sign of the Covenant between them and God, that which gave them their identity as God’s people. Next, a Greek Acra was built, a center for military administration that towered over the Temple, a sure sign of what was to follow.

The final blow that sent Judas Maccabee and his followers into a rage-filled rebellion was a statue of Olympian Zeus set on the altar in the Second Temple, in an attempt to fill the Holy of Holies and to unite the Syrian occupation of Judah with its Jewish citizens. Judas, the ‘Hammer of God’, along with an army of thousands, crushed the Greek troops and sent the Hellenizing king and his forces back where they came from. The desecrated altar was demolished, removing the stones and leaving them in a place to await the coming of a prophet, which alas did not come. A new altar was built, the Holy of Holies was restored, the great menorah was lit, and a celebration was made for eight days: the Festival of Rededication or Hanukkah. (1)

So, approximately 150 years after Judas Maccabee, when John began his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, he struck a deeply-felt chord in the hearts of his listeners, that perhaps the Spirit of God had returned to the people, that God’s living presence was again amongst them. Being as spiritually starved as they were, the religious authorities were sent to ascertain if John was the Messiah, the one who would save them from the oppression of the Roman Empire, the latest and the strongest in a string of empires that had occupied the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The expectations of the people and of the religious authorities were high: with persecution and tribulation comes the great anticipation of redemption: Messiah? Elijah? Was John the prophet of the end times? John could have written his own ticket if he wished, but he was no impostor. John knew he could not have delivered what God’s people were seeking: salvation, light, truth: truth that would ultimately set them free. In his denial to the claim of Messiah, John gives us his most important message.

In difficult times, our expectations can also be high. We look to our lay-leaders and our pastors to provide the answers, the direction, the vision of our future, and to make sense of the present. Many in our nation and around the world are looking to President-elect Obama and his administration to rescue the United States from financial ruin and to restore our country’s place in the world as a leader among nations. A person in a position of power can fall prey to a kind of ‘messiah-worship’.

We also place high expectations on ourselves, in the Church and especially those outside the Church, who though not believing, do the work of Christ in making justice, creating peace, and performing kindness. We, too, can suffer under a sort of ‘messiah complex’, pretending to be something we’re not. Recently I saw a bumper sticker that said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Yes…and no.

Yes, each of us is a powerful, spiritual being. Yes, we who have been baptized have been baptized into a priesthood of believers. Yes, each of us has a calling, a vocation. Each moment, each day, each challenge, each experience has its own calling, its own vocation. Each lifetime has many pathways. But God is always one step ahead of us. The mystery of living and loving is still that: a mystery.

Even though we are called to do ‘messiah-work’—as Isaiah puts it, to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to declare the year of the Lord’s favor, and to comfort those who mourn—the good news is that we are not the Messiah. That is not our vocation. The position has already been filled, and by one more than amply qualified. We may reflect the light but Jesus is the doorway through which the light comes into the world.

But sometimes it can seem as though this light moves in and out of the world. And we are not a patient people, waiting for this Messiah, waiting for God to show up. Could it be that we are slow to recognize the Messiah because we are no longer in the wilderness places, where John’s voice cries out to us to make straight the way of the Lord? Could it be, that in our impatience, we have abandoned our post in the desert and our vocation, our calling to watch and to listen?

Strangely enough, all four gospels have John the Baptist misquote the passage from Isaiah 40. Earlier we read “A voice cries out in the wilderness”, but in the original passage it reads, “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” God comes in the desert, in the wilderness, in the unlikeliest of places.

I do not think that this is a mistake or an accident. Of course I could be wrong, but it seems to me that in the lifetime of John, and in our lifetime as well, the people of God have managed to escape the wilderness of God. In John’s time, many of the Jewish faith behaved and looked more like Greeks, to fit in, to not be noticed, to fly under the Roman radar. In our post-modern, scientific age, we do not resemble a people waiting for a Messiah. In communities of faith we can still witness the struggle between independence and interdependence, between the self-determinism of the individual and what is just and best for all, between being in the world and being of the world.

Waiting for the Messiah can seem like waiting up for Santa Claus, except you have to be asleep for Santa to come. John’s crying out from the wilderness tells us that we have to be awake if we’re going to wait for Jesus. John’s voice calls out to us from the wilderness, those unlikely places that wake us and shake us up.

John’s vocation is our vocation. We’re not the Messiah, we’re not the prophets of old; we’re here to tell the truth. And the beginning of the truth is, often we don’t know who we are or what we’re supposed to do. That is the beginning of wisdom, when we allow ourselves to not have all the answers. We leave room for Jesus, the Messiah, to act, to lead, to transform; to whisper, to declare what will be our vocations, our callings.

When you discover your vocation, when you have a vision of that ‘one step ahead’, both as a person and as a community, you find your joy. Energy begins to flow forth. People discover gifts they didn’t think they had. New possibilities emerge that didn’t seem to be there before. Challenges that once seemed daunting and overwhelming are now confronted. The truth about ourselves, about this faith community, about the power of God, the saving grace of Christ, the very real life of the Spirit amongst us—all this truth comes to light when we allow the light of Christ to enlighten us and to then reflect it. We live out our joy.

So, ****** Congregational Church, what is the truth that needs to be told about this community of faith? What gives you joy, as an individual and as a community? Where is God calling you next? Toward what Advent adventure is the Spirit leading you? Where are you being ‘anointed’ to do great things for God and for the world? (2)



You are being called to be the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, in the unlikely places, to be the real ****** Church, to stand up and to tell the truth of God’s love made known to us in Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the ‘Anointed One’. How will you live out your calling? God will be with you as you seek to find your joy. Amen.


____________________________________________


Notes

1. Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills. (New York: Doubleday, 1999), Chapter 1: “Greeks, Jews and Romans: The People Jesus Knew”.
2. Bruce G. Epperly,
lectionary commentary from the Process and Faith website for Dec. 14, 2008.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Tsunami overload

(I wrote a letter to NPR today about something that has been bugging me for quite some time.)

Earlier today on Morning Edition, during a
piece about post-bankruptcy Twinkies and Wonder Bread, a reporter used the word 'tsunami', as in "there was tsunami of information" or words to that effect. Christopher Shays also used 'tsunami' in reference to the outcome of his congressional race. Since when did 'tsunami' become an adjective or a metaphor? What happened to the use of great words like deluge, onslaught, or inundated, swamped? When I think of tsunami, I think of the horrible destruction and loss of life that took place 4 years ago this month. Would you think it appropriate and accurate to say that our nation was "9-11-ed" by the recent financial crisis? Or that the Detroit Three are handling their companies like a New Orleans levee? Words are important: they paint a picture, illuminate an image in ways that make an impact, especially on the radio. Choose them wisely.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The times--are they a'changin'?

Lately I've been thinking about change. And not just because of Obama. It seems we humans are either proactive or reactive when it comes to change--I know: "Duh!". But it's very hard for us to be proactive. We'd rather skate along, get by, until we are forced to do something. The levees in New Orleans, Bush in the White House until '08, the depletion of natural resources, global warming; the list goes on and on.

What worries me is that it will take a cataclysmic event for us to form actual communities, grow our own produce, generate our own energy, give generously, buy locally, topple corporations and the might of empire; in short, create an ever-expanding ring of care and love, revealing God among us. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

We've already had several of these events in recent years (and they're getting worse), but they really haven't made a dent in our global, or even national, behavior. Ironically, war once had the ability to make a sizeable cohesion in our consciousness: food and fuel were rationed, resources were pooled and materials recycled or reused, sacrifices were made not just by some but by everyone. Not once has our current president demanded that we reduce our fuel consumption or any kind of the endless consumption this country seems to be about. Yes, we were strongly urged, but as much as we are reactive to change, we are also resistant--we have to be told what to do and why.

Nobody likes being told what to do, but really, can we afford to be so tolerant, polite and reluctant anymore? Congress must work with President-elect Obama and work hard. Money spent on war and on keeping millionaires and billionaires afloat needs to be spent on the levees in New Orleans, on education and health care, on eradicating AIDS in Africa and around the world, on making food available for every person on this planet, on creating renewable energy sources and allowing forests and mountaintops to recover from humanity's rape of them, on ending terrorism by making amends for our dominating ways as an empire.

The American empire is a direct descendant of Rome and Caesar, hence, the antithesis of the kingdom of God, that Beloved Community for which Jesus was crucified. Telling people how to live and how to resist the ways of empire was what Jesus and the prophets were all about. There is a parallel here I'm not sure I want to be around for.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Still got a long way to go, baby

from USA Today, November 30, 2008:













"Women who take on tough issues and stake out new territory are often on the receiving end of ignorance."

--Benazir Bhutto to Hillary Clinton, commiserating on their mutual challenges as women leaders, as quoted in Clinton's 2003 memoir, Living History.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The big reveal

Ta-dah!! A big shout-out to Julie over at LonePrairie.net who designed my blog header! I saw her work over at Jan's place (I like a lot of what I see over at Jan's!), found her website, and she put together this new look for me. Unfortunately for the blogosphere, Julie won't be doing web design of this sort anymore. So head on over to her site to see her work, especially her watercolors.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

New doubtfulness


Frida Kahlo, Tree of Hope, Keep Firm (1946)

"He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all."
--Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, Moral and Religious Aphorisms, XXIV.

By way of Jan over at Yearning for God, I've started reading Harold Loukes' The Quaker Contribution (see quote by Loukes on Jan's sidebar). The Quaker way fascinates me. I've been to one meeting with a former spiritual director who was a Quaker. The silence, the stillness, the absolute assurance of the presence of the Spirit within each worshipper was profound. After the service I confided to my friend that I thought of a particular hymn during the service and played it in my head as we sat in the meetinghouse. She cried with delight, "You could have stood and sung the hymn if you wished!" The outright joy and respect for each individual experience of God was palpable.

In his book Loukes quotes Robert Barclay's Apology for the true Christian Divinity (1676), then offers this reflection (the quotes are from Barclay):


"The significant phrase here is 'unwillingness to enter again into new doubtfulness': the reluctance to start again, experimentally, without certainties or comfort from the tradition.

"The Quaker theme is this extreme statement of the Reformation: that true religion consists not in certainty but in search, not old conviction but 'new doubtfulness'. In
the end there was a 'new certainty' to be discovered, but it was a certainty of a different kind from the old: no longer fixed and hardened into institutions and creeds, but infinitely more powerful because it reached the centre of human being.

"The Quaker story is thus the story of a group of people who trusted to the inward and rejected the outward."


It seems if we are to be honest about faith, we must keep a healthy balance of this 'new doubtfulness'. Faith is about "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen". Our experience of faith cannot be proven to another; the assurance, the conviction is ours alone. To keep our faith pliable and strong, it cannot be a fixed point. Nothing remains the same. We may long for the past but change keeps us moving toward a new day. In fact, change is the one constant (Octavia Butler in her book of fiction The Parable of the Sower created a whole philosophy based on God as Change). Behold, God is doing a new thing; do we perceive it?

On this first Sunday in Advent, we celebrate hope, which is to me is a mixture of faith and doubt. We see this especially in the reading from Isaiah 64, the longing for a God who appears to be absent, yet nonetheless the prophet cries out to this God. The tradition tells us that this longing was fulfilled not in the expectation of a divine rescue but in Jesus, born in poverty, by way of divine intervention in the creation of a human being. But what does our experience tell us now? What is our experience of Jesus? Of divine action in the human story? These questions beg of us a decrease of the ego and the mind, an increase in the imagination, in the capacity for mystery and for joy. The 'new doubtfulness' is meant to lead us to an authentic faith, not a pessimistic, jaundiced view of religious institutions.

In our longing for wholeness, in our search for the holy, in our 'new doubtfulness', may mercy and peace be our companions and may we know the almighty love with which we are already surrounded.

P.S. A link to an editorial by Leonard Pitts in the Miami Herald, posted on the blog The Quaker Agitator, that relates to this reflection. Thanks, Jan.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thoughts for Thanksgiving



To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.
--Johannes A. Gaertner


As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.
--John F. Kennedy


If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, "thank you," that would suffice.
--Meister Eckhart

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pedal power

from WNDU.com

Ft. Wayne, IN: The Embassy Festival of Trees offers a unique way to brighten up its newest attraction.

Visitors to the festival starting Wednesday evening will be able to create power for the lights on a Christmas tree by pedaling on a bike connected to a generator. The generator creates energy that goes into a power pack and lights the tree.

The power pack stores energy, but when it runs low, an alarm sounds indicating that more pedaling is needed.

Embassy Marketing Director Dana Poffenberger came up with the idea of installing an interactive alternative-energy tree. Its ornaments all are made from recycled or natural products.

--Maybe next year they could install one at Rockefeller Square. Gives a whole different twist to a bicycle for Christmas.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Stranger Stewardship



Matthew 25: 31-46
***** ******** Congregational Church
November 23, 2008


Today is Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday, the culmination of one year in the church and the close of one cycle of lectionary readings from the Bible. It is the last Sunday in the Christian year before the new year begins next Sunday on the first Sunday of Advent.

The gospel lesson for today, from Matthew, comes right at the end of Jesus’ ministry. He is in Jerusalem for the last time; soon he will gather with his disciples for a final Passover Seder. This is quite a juxtaposition: Jesus is near the end of his days this Sunday, speaking of when he will come in glory; next Sunday we will begin the wait for his birth in a lowly, ordinary place. Yet today we celebrate Christ as ruler of God’s kingdom.

But if Christ is king, where is his kingdom? If Christ is Lord, where is Christ being followed in ways that are saving the planet and its peoples? (1) In this morning’s gospel lesson we read that those who minister to ‘the least of these’, those who welcome the stranger, visit the sick and the imprisoned, who feed the hungry and give the thirsty water to drink, those who give as Jesus would give are the inhabitants of God’s kingdom, no matter what nation they come from. These are the ones who are following Jesus in ways that will save the planet and its peoples.

I’d like to tell you a story about where Christ is being followed in such a way. The story takes place in Oaxaca, Mexico; certainly a lowly, ordinary place if ever there was one. It begins in the summer of 2003 when Bryan Nurnberger, a young school teacher from Naugatuck, CT and a member of the Naugatuck Congregational Church, was rock-climbing his way around the mountains of central Mexico. After about a month of vacation, in his endlessly energetic way, he grew tired of what he was doing, needing a fresh challenge. A friend and fellow teacher told him about a woman who ran an orphanage outside of Oaxaca City in southern Mexico, called Casa Hogar. Bryan took a bus there, called the number he was given, and a pickup truck came to get him. It was late at night when he arrived and all the children were asleep. The next morning Bryan woke up and he was surrounded—by 80+ children.

These children were living in deplorable conditions. Many of them had special needs, most of them were malnourished; none of them had ever used a toothbrush. The majority of them were economic orphans whose family, single parent or grandparent could no longer afford to care for them. Some children had a parent who was incarcerated. Others suffered abuse from their families.

One such child was Ricardo, a 15-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. He would wear not only the same clothes for three days but also the same diaper. He and Bryan became friends, forming a connection that would change both their lives.

Once Bryan met these children, shared their lives, and got to know Carol and her husband Francisco who took care of children no one else would, he knew he had to do something to help. Upon returning to Connecticut, Bryan founded Simply Smiles, an organization dedicated to providing for the needs of impoverished people. He thought he could provide some food and necessities for the kids, maybe some support and awareness to put a band-aid on the problem. He didn’t intend that it would become his life’s work.

Now five years later, Ricardo has a new wheelchair. He eats three solid meals a day. He goes to a special needs private school. He had an operation so he could move his legs and his upper body more easily. All of the children of Casa Hogar go to school; all are well-nourished and much loved. There is also a second orphanage in the northern region of Oaxaca in Cuicatlan. Bryan and now a staff of co-workers and a board of directors for Simply Smiles organize church mission trips to Casa Hogar and raise funds and awareness. I, along with other adults and college students from Monroe Congregational Church went on our third mission trip to Casa Hogar this past summer. There is even a Silver Lake youth mission trip to Casa Hogar, now in its second year.

But what is truly remarkable is that the orphanage has its own mission: helping the resident worker families of the Oaxaca city dump. They are a close-knit community of 120 men, women, and children: families who live and work there, culling recyclable plastic bottles, tin cans, and cardboard from the mountains of garbage. They bundle up the collected materials, load it on trucks, and it is then sold to a Mexican mafia who pays them about 400 pesos (40 dollars) for the week's work: 10 pesos (1 dollar) per family. Some of their food they scavenge from their findings. They work from sunrise to sunset, in 80 degree heat, surrounded and permeated by the stench of rotting garbage. Imagine some of the worst stuff they could find, and they have found it and probably worse: medical waste, including syringes, dead animals, smells so bad they can be seen escaping from the just-ripped plastic bags.


Mitzi Garcia, whose family now has a new house.

It began by the children of Casa Hogar delivering lunches twice a week. Now that a trusting relationship has been built by Bryan, the children, and Simply Smiles, homes of dignity and comfort are being built for these families by church volunteers. And now that Casa Hogar is running so well, having its needs well-provided for, Bryan is searching for another orphanage that needs help.

Clearly, in the context of the gospel lesson, Bryan is a sheep: without thought to himself, he is one who has ministered to the least of these, members of Christ’s family. Usually when we read this story we wonder to ourselves: am I a sheep or a goat? But as is typical with the gospel, the lesson is not about us; it is about who we are in relationship to the gospel, the good news of the presence of Christ. The question before us is: Who are we in relationship to the Christ? Who are we in relationship to the stranger? Who is this church in relationship to the kingdom?

If the members of Christ’s family are the stranger, the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, then the Reign of Christ is also the Reign of the Stranger. If Christ is Lord, then so too are the needs of the least of these. If we say that Christ has a claim upon our lives, then indeed we are declaring that the stranger has a claim upon our lives.

The timing of this reading from Matthew truly is remarkable. We are approaching Advent and Christmas, coming near to an obscure manger and a tiny baby. This baby reminds us that we were all babies once, every stranger we meet, every prisoner, every hungry, thirsty, needy person. Seeing the Christ in others requires a hefty exercise of our imaginations and our hearts. Like any parent who can still see the infant in their children’s eyes, no matter how much they change, Jesus compels us to know him so well, to love him so much, that we will know him in the breaking of bread with the hungry; in the pouring out of ourselves with those who thirst; in covering another’s shame with the dignity of authentic friendship; in the sacrifice of ease and time to visit with someone else’s child in prison; in welcoming the stranger not only with a handshake but with a willingness to be transformed.

The glorious throne of judgment and its attendant angels do not reside on high but are embedded in mean and humble places. This Christ who is Lord and King is an unprivileged servant-shepherd. When we look at our resources, where our money and our time goes, where they are spent and to whom they are given, do we see the Christ reflected there or do we see ourselves, our wants and desires?

In order that Christ be made visible in this world, we must become invisible. While the world beckons that we make a name for ourselves, Christ calls us to make known the needs of the stranger amongst us.

Nations, corporations, and those in power will be and are being judged for how resources are used: for the benefit of some or for the benefit of all, especially for the least of those among us? The changes that are being called for seem harder for some because for many years we have not been called upon to sacrifice our ease and prosperity for the sake of others.

This is where it begins, in communities of faith, where we can begin to make changes that can make a difference in the lives of others, by organizing our life together around the needs of the stranger, the outcast, the most needful.

I strongly recommend you, ***** ******** Congregational Church, to find a mission about which you can feel passionate, that captures your collective imagination. Form a connection and be willing to be transformed. Have carry-in dinners about the mission. Try to be hands-on with mission trips, if you can. Raise awareness and funds for the mission, endeavoring to include neighboring churches and community groups. Invite your Sunday School students to support a child of that mission and to learn of that child’s circumstances, exchanging news with one another. Include the mission in your prayers each week and in your own daily prayers.

We make a commitment of our time, our gifts and our money to the church that we might have pastoral staff to teach and to lead us, to challenge and to care for us, to have a church building in which to worship and to meet, and to educate our young people and to be educated Christians ourselves—all so that we can be the Body of Christ and then give it away to a world in need of healing.

The next time you meet, and whenever you meet, to discuss stewardship and your church budget, ask yourselves this question: “When was it that we saw you, Lord?” May your response lead you ever closer to being the Church, ever closer to Christ and his kingdom.


Amen.

_____________________________________________

Notes


Sunday, November 23, 2008

All good

So often I begin the day in a state of neither-here-nor-there, allowing my circumstances, my chores, the unexpected, the plans, the anticipated joys to create my mood, my attitude, the lens through which I will view my life, my little corner of the world.

No wonder I get cranky.

It is better, I think (as if I'm the first person to ever think of this), to take a few moments and actually decide where I am standing. Not to take a side or a position, but to know, to create consciously that lens through which I will see every person, situation, every minute, grand actor in the drama of creation.

And to remind myself throughout the day that earlier I had decided that indeed, it is all good.

"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

--Julian of Norwich, c. 1342-1416, English mystic and philosopher

Friday, November 21, 2008

Goating on the herd

...or what I'm doing instead of writing my sermon.

I didn't think this would be quite appropriate to post with my upcoming sermon on Matthew's 'sheep and goats', illustrated below in such a dark, humorous way. Perhaps one of these days I'll learn to write dark, humorous sermons...



When I was in "Godspell", playing one of the goats (shock!), I had a great line that I wish I could use in the sermon: "Aw, Jesus, if we had known it was you, we would have taken you out for a couple of LAMB CHOPS!"

Oh well, back to writing...

Thought for the day

“Everyday courage has few witnesses. But yours is no less noble because no drum beats for you and no crowds shout your name.”
-- Robert Louis Stevenson

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Subject, predicate...we get it!"

from The Huffington Post:

Obama's Use of Complete Sentences Stirs Controversy
by Andy Borowitz

In the first two weeks since the election, President-elect Barack Obama has broken with a tradition established over the past eight years through his controversial use of complete sentences, political observers say.

Millions of Americans who watched Mr. Obama's appearance on CBS's 60 Minutes on Sunday witnessed the president-elect's unorthodox verbal tick, which had Mr. Obama employing grammatically correct sentences virtually every time he opened his mouth.

But Mr. Obama's decision to use complete sentences in his public pronouncements carries with it certain risks, since after the last eight years many Americans may find his odd speaking style jarring.

According to presidential historian Davis Logsdon of the University of Minnesota, some Americans might find it "alienating" to have a president who speaks English as if it were his first language.

"Every time Obama opens his mouth, his subjects and verbs are in agreement," says Mr. Logsdon. "If he keeps it up, he is running the risk of sounding like an elitist."

The historian said that if Mr. Obama insists on using complete sentences in his speeches, the public may find itself saying, "Okay, subject, predicate, subject predicate -- we get it, stop showing off."

The president-elect's stubborn insistence on using complete sentences has already attracted a rebuke from one of his harshest critics, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.

"Talking with complete sentences there and also too talking in a way that ordinary Americans like Joe the Plumber and Tito the Builder can't really do there, I think needing to do that isn't tapping into what Americans are needing also," she said.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Destined for Wholeness



Matthew 25: 14-30
****** Congregational Church
November 16, 2008

There has been much ado made about the recent presidential election and rightly so. The election of an African-American to the highest office in the nation is a turning point in United States history. Children of color will now say with not only hope but also with certitude that they could grow up to be president someday. But it is still one step among thousands in a universal civil rights march toward our country being a whole nation, a whole people; this world a global community.

Thirty years ago this month, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office, was assassinated, along with George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco. In the 1970’s many psychiatrists still deemed homosexuality a mental illness. Harvey tried three times to get elected. He received numerous death threats as well as loud cheers of support.

People called Harvey a megalomaniac because he was always seeking attention and publicity. Harvey had a serious motive behind his seemingly self-centered behavior. He knew that to most folks, gays and lesbians were invisible, much like women, blacks, the disabled, those with mental illness, and other minorities were often treated and still are. So Harvey made himself as visible as possible. He wisely surmised that a paralyzing fear was the gay person’s worst enemy. Having an openly gay man elected to political office constituted real hope for those still wounded and in the closet.

Harvey Milk could have led a quiet, private life; there are some who wished he had. He was a native of Long Island, served in the Korean War, and returned to Manhattan to work as a Wall Street investment banker. In the imagery of the parable read for us this morning, he could have taken the riches of who he was and buried himself in a safe existence. Instead he invested himself in organizing minorities to become a majority, working with unions and disconnected ethnic and racial groups. In the few months he served as a city supervisor he helped to pass a city ordinance supporting equal rights for gays and lesbians in San Francisco.

Harvey also knew what he was getting into, that he was risking his life by serving so openly and so passionately in the public sphere. He thought of assassination as something he could not avoid. He even made a recording, a will shortly before his death, including the famous line: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

In this morning’s gospel lesson we meet Jesus at such a point in his own life. He has lived openly and passionately for God’s kingdom, foretelling his death on numerous occasions. He is in Jerusalem for the last time. Soon he will gather with his disciples for a final Passover Seder. If there had been the same kind of publicity and media attention then as there is now, perhaps a reporter would have asked, “Jesus, any last words?” And with that, the reporter might have heard something like this:



“It’s like a man going off on an extended trip. He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities. To one he gave five thousand dollars, another two thousand, to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities. Then he left. Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.
“After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on, be my partner.’
“The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on, be my partner.’
“The servant given one thousand said, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’
“The master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.
“‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.'" (1)

First of all, let us remind ourselves that this story is not only about money. This is a parable, with meanings on many levels. Though the financial tumult of the last few months may tempt us to believe it would be better to bury our money rather than risk it in the stock market, I do not believe this is what this parable is about. Jesus has come to the end of his days; I think he might have something more valuable on his mind than money.

First, though, let us look at what a talent is and how much it is worth. A talent was the equivalent of 15 years wages for a day laborer, a denarius being the daily wage; therefore a talent was worth approximately 5,400 denari. Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase likened this to a thousand dollars, but let’s put this into today’s terms. The average low-wage immigrant worker in 2001 earned $14,400 for a year’s work; multiplied by 15 years equals $216,000. For the equivalent of five talents, 75 years of wages, that would be $1,080,000. These servants were being entrusted with an extravagant opportunity, more money than what they would see perhaps in a lifetime.

Having been given stewardship over so much—even the one talent was a great sum—we can understand the reaction of the third servant who buried his master’s wealth in a safe place. And we who follow Jesus can often confuse ourselves with the third servant, assuming that because we see ourselves as having little to give, that we must not have much ability, that we somehow have disappointed God, that God does not trust us.

But these are our self-imposed limitations, both on ourselves and on our view of God. We see ourselves in terms of what we lack, and this is a danger especially to small churches. Even though there is great blessing and generosity in this parable, it is still so easy to focus on only the warning. Even though we worship a God of love, grace, and forgiveness, still we often lead our lives and lead our community of faith in the shadow of a demanding, harsh, and fearsome god, consigning ourselves to a life lived in that same shadow, that utter darkness.

And then there is the long absence, the long time away of the Master. I can imagine that at times it has felt like a long time in this church: a long time of doing the work of ministry, often many tasks done by many of the same individuals: a long time since having an extended relationship with a settled pastor: a long time of having hopes deferred. That can wear on a congregation and on its individual members and leaders.

This is the true oppression under which we human beings can suffer. We allow our circumstances to become much like a closet in which we feel paralyzed, which becomes our greatest enemy. Everything that makes us unique and vibrant and full of life becomes invisible not only to others but also to ourselves.

But this is not our destiny. Like any parent who warns a child of consequences, what the parent truly desires for the child is the best of everything, which is wholeness: wholeness of trust, grace, compassion, purpose. And wholeness is most often found in community. Part of the third servant’s mistake was that he acted alone. The other two servants, in order to double the master’s investment, would have interacted with others in ways that brought risk but also great joy. In community we are called to come out of our closets of fear, and risk being visible by openly and freely sharing the riches God has given us.

What are those riches, those talents? Jesus is speaking here not of income or giftedness but of the gospel, that Good News of God’s radical, amazing, life-transforming love that has been lavished upon each one of us. God is ready to give to us, according to our ability to risk for the kingdom. Do you see yourselves as able or as less than able? Do you desire transformation of this faith community? That means that lives will be transformed as well. Are you ready for not only this church to be transformed but your very lives to be transformed as well? This is what it means to be open to the gospel and to share it freely and visibly with your neighbors.

There is no failure when it comes to sharing the gospel, the love of God. Mother Theresa once said, “The success of love is in the loving—it is not in the result of loving. Of course it is natural in love to want the best for the other person, but whether it turns out that way or not does not determine the value of what we have done.” The success of the gospel is in the living out of the gospel, in the sharing of it. The value of the gospel is determined by how we use it. Do we keep it safe, taking it out only on Sundays and in desperate situations or do we risk daily what it means to be a visible image of God?

Is this scary? You bet it is! To love is risky, to open ourselves and to open the gospel to others, not knowing the outcome or even being guaranteed an outcome, is risky. To have loved and been wounded again and again is difficult to recover from.

There is a powerful saying in Spanish about what to do with the troubles we experience, las cosas de la vida that we live through: Hacer de tripas coraz√≥n. Literally, it means ‘to make a heart of guts’. Feel the fear and do it anyway, which is really a definition of courage. Celebrate the life the gospel gives you and share it with others! Dream often together and dream big! Learn your strength! Eat your self-doubt for breakfast! Remember the power with which God has entrusted you! Bust out of your closet that you may be a visible Christian and a sign of hope for others still in darkness!

What great thing is God calling you toward today? What vision of your congregation’s future is luring your church forward? What limitations do you need to break out of both personally and congregationally in order to become God’s partners in healing the world? (2)

The invitation, the call is given: enter into the joy of the Lord, begin your joyous tasks, from now on be God’s partner. Transformation is upon you. Wholeness awaits you. Those still in darkness are on the lookout. The gospel beckons. God is ready. Are you?

Amen.

______________________________________________


Notes

1. Eugene Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), Matthew 25: 13-40.
2. Bruce G. Epperly,
lectionary commentary on Process and Faith website.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Question of the day

How is it that we can put this country further into debt by bailing out Wall Street and Detroit (which has been deemed a sort of sick socialism) but we somehow "can't afford" universal health care?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Yes!!

Seen before but bears repeating:






This one brought tears to my eyes:




Thursday, November 06, 2008

"...one as beautiful as you."

This past weekend my pastor and colleague, Pete Allen, and I led an adult education field trip into New York City to the Museum of Modern Art. One of the special exhibitions we saw was Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night (Click on this link to see a flash of the exhibit and the works mentioned). His famous painting, The Starry Night, used to be my favorite. But while viewing this exhibit I found others. Look at the colors of The Sower, the green of the sunset sky, the tree, the bowed figure. The Potato Eaters portrays Van Gogh's affection for those whose lives are rooted in the earth. Though the sunset in The Stevedores at Arles is beautiful, it would not be half the painting without the main characters in the foreground, even though they are in shadow.

My new favorite, however, is The Starry Night Over the Rhone: the way the light shimmers on the water, the stars shine above, the lovers below. I had no words save for a poem.


Van Gogh's Starry Night Over the Rhone




Engine of being,
that reserve of desire
to which the artist bends
is light, that blaze
so sweet--thus also
darkness, that slit into reality
through which he unleashes color,
shape, shadow and story.
Like a priest celebrating
a mystery, he holds, lifts
what is holy, gives thanks,
breaking it into a billion living stars
in a night sky shivering,
on a silent river unlocked,
above two lovers with little to regret.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

It's a Ba-rockslide!

Oh yeah, I'll be dancing to this song all day, with a smile so wide it'll take me through the next four years at least!

President Obama...my, how GOOD that sounds!

P.S. An election sign seen at a party in Teaneck, NJ:

Rosa sat...so Martin could walk...so Obama could run...so our children could fly.

Friday, October 31, 2008

NYC poetry workshop

Last weekend I attended another poetry workshop in NYC with Ellen Bass. It was hosted by one of her students who lives in the Village on 12th Street with a view of the Hudson. Can we say 'pretentious'? But the best part, besides writing poetry, was staying with some friends in the Ridgewood section of Brooklyn. The husband, Will, manages a German/Austrian hall/bar (Gottscheer Hall--look it up). We ate pulled pork nachos, potato pancakes, krainer and spaetzel, bread pudding with raisins soaked in rum, and drank beer until we were fat. And that was just Friday night. Saturday night my friend Dorothy (Will's wife) and I went to an Egyptian restaurant, a little on the sketchy side, ate a delicious dinner, and smoked a hookah for dessert; there might have been a wonderful rice pudding in there too. Good folks, good food, and talk--plus poetry; it doesn't get any better than that.

This is one of the poems that came out of the workshop--others are still in the works. On Sunday we had been sent outside to the sidewalk to glean an impression from the yard sale taking place on there (wouldn't that make it a sidewalk sale?). As far as poetic inspiration goes, the yard sale didn't do it for me, but the Mexican restaurant on the corner was akin to the eighth wonder of the world, in its own quiet, understated way. Combined with a suggested word list, I managed to write a poem.


A glory reserved

“Shoot bandits’ heads to ring bells”
reads the faded sign above
the window of the Mexican restaurant.
An oversize discolored bottle cap
teases “Thirsty? Wet your whistle.”
Plastic lantern Santa, sleigh, single
reindeer gambol over the doorway.
Skulls in chorus line on the lintel
mock each hunger, signal every regret.
Our Lady of Guadeloupe waits
in the entryway—dark, lovely,
vacant of desire, her miniature
infant Son the pivot
on which her feet turn.
I can’t look away from
this corner, this blaze
of glory reserved, where
it’s Christmas every day,
even on the day of the dead.

Monday, October 27, 2008

McSame vs. Change

This past weekend I attended a poetry workshop in NYC - more on that later. However, I met a woman who writes incredibly strong poetry and has a fantastic blog, Come Get Angry With Me. Read her poem "Straight Talk Express". It'll knock your blue socks off.

These are a couple of videos from her site that will pump some sunshine into your cloudy, rainy day.

First up, a takeoff on those annoying wassup Budweiser ads:







Check out indie singer/songwriter Sally Anthony setting her music to some hardcore video:





Nov. 4 can't come soon enough. And the 5th that much sooner.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Riven



Yesterday I was helping my husband stack firewood as he split maple, ash and black birch with a log splitter. Both of us were wearing protective headphones but I could still hear the sound of the wood as it cracked against the sharp metal blade of the wedge. The wood split easily, offering little, if no, resistance. The dulled sound of splitter smashing the fleshy wood, along with the visual image, reminded me of nutmeats in a wooden cup, snapping out of their hard walnut shells when a wooden screw presses against them. The word that came to mind was creamy, like the candied surface of a creme brulee crackling and giving way to the custard beneath.

I thought to myself, if the human heart makes a sound when it breaks, it would be this one. Yet haven't we all resisted a broken heart, steeling ourselves against the inevitable pain, its sharp blade mercilessly tearing the heartstring that connected us to our beloved? But in the end we all give way to the price of love, the cost of willingly opening ourselves to loving and being loved. And having the choice, we would do it all over again, but perhaps with more gratitude and less complaint.

I used to think that the meaning of this psalm was that God desired our pain and guilt at having sinned. Not so. The sacrifice that is pleasing to God is that we not resist love nor its cost.


"O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering,
you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God
is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise."

--Psalm 51: 15-17


A riven heart, open and pliant, is the one capable of loving, even when all hope seems lost.

from the Sunday bulletin

Thought for Preparation:

"Where am I? Who am I? How did I come to be here? What is this thing called the world? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted? And if I am compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I want to see him."

--Soren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher and theologian (1813-1855)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The blue butterfly



Recently I watched a DVD movie entitled The Blue Butterfly, based on the true story of a ten-year-old boy diagnosed with brain cancer who wants to travel to the rainforests of Costa Rica to see and capture a blue morpho butterfly. He travels there with his mother and a renowned etymologist who has seen the blue morpho himself. He professes that the blue morpho is a miracle, and that once you catch one, you can ask it the questions of life and it will give you answers.

When they reach a native village on the outskirts of the rainforest, the locals indoctrinate the young boy and his mother in the legend of the blue morpho. The shaman repeats what the etymologist has already told them. But then another man disturbs the circle, telling of the other side of the story, that there are evil spirits in the forest that take on forms of other animals, even the blue morpho. Once you are lured into the forest by the blue morpho, you are lost forever and can never get out.

The blue morpho has two sides itself. One is the brilliant blue that attracts our eye and our imagination. The underside is a mousy brown with dull yellow 'eyes', resembling a common moth. The blue morpho is neither one side nor the other; it is both and more.

There are always two sides to every story, but lately I've come to believe that there is another that we cannot know because we cannot see everything there is know all at once. I've often said when my girls have been fighting that the third side is what God witnessed. But now I wonder.

One side of the human story believes that there is a God, a miracle, that we can ask the questions of life and there are answers to be found. Others believe that God wears masks, the faces of religions, lures us into the forest of the unknown, only to leave us there to be lost to ourselves. There is a God; there is not a God.

But what if there is a third side to that story, one that we don't know about because we can't see everything there is to know all at once. To me, that is what faith is all about. That is the human paradox in which we are called to live, minister, witness and love. And that takes courage. And companionship. Jesus is my companion. My church, my family, my friends, even my so-called enemies are my companions.

And with them we all see through a mirror darkly; then we shall see face to face. Now we know only in part; then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13: 12b-13)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Covenant


That's me at my ordination, 1991.

This coming Sunday a woman that I've been advising toward ordained ministry will be ordained in a grand, wonderful worship service, full of music, meaning, and many of the people who have helped get her to this day. I have another friend, an ordained minister, who was in Israel this past year and is now looking for a position in a church as a settled pastor. She compares this process of looking for a church to dating. You look at each other from a distance, perhaps like what you see. If both are interested, maybe they meet for coffee and test the waters. Neither of you want to appear too eager; both of you are putting your best face forward. The first friend is getting married for the first time, the other is dating. And me, I'm feeling like a bridesmaid.

Last week I had a dream in which an old flame approached me for some comfort. I gave him a warm, lengthy hug to which he replied, "Let's go some place." Fear shot into me, as well as anger, because I wouldn't want just a one-night stand no matter who he is. I sputtered back at him, "I'm not the only one standing here. I've got a husband and two children. I can't just go off with you."

When I woke, my heart was pounding. I couldn't relax and sleep again until I had figured out the meaning. First of all, I was glad I gave the 'right' answer. I wouldn't betray my family, even in my dreams. But most of my dreams go beyond the superficial or surface meaning. I realized that I'm growing weary of supply preaching. It's starting to feel like a one-night stand: everybody loves what I do, but there's no relationship--not really. Not like a marriage where you love each other even when you disagree or let each other down or are just having a bad day. I want a relationship with one church; no more playing the field. I want to baptize their babies, watch them grow up, teach them in confirmation, visit their grandparents, preach sermons, sing the benediction for them, love them through whatever.

Ironically, though, I'm waiting for my husband to come to a similar conclusion about his own career. And I must wait for him, because I can't begin a relationship with a church, only to leave them in a few short years should my husband's job search cause us to pack up and move. Being in covenant is never easy but it does help when I'd rather give in to the whims or passions of the moment. Covenant reminds me that I'm part of something larger than just my own little life, that everything, everything is worked out in relationships of one sort or another. After all, it's not just me standing here.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Coming of God

This one is for Mystical Seeker:

"If you long for God, and long for union with him, yet sometimes wonder what that means or whether it can mean anything at all, you are already walking with the God who comes. If you are at times so weary and involved with the struggle of living that you have no strength even to want him, yet are still dissatisfied that you don't, you are already keeping Advent in your life. If you have ever had an obscure intuition that the truth of things is somehow better, greater, more wonderful than you deserve or desire, that the touch of God in your life stills you by its gentleness, that there is a mercy beyond anything you could ever suspect, you are already drawn into the central mystery of salvation.

"Your hope is not a mocking dream; God creates in human hearts a huge desire and a sense of need, because he wants to fill them with the gift of himself."

--Maria Boulding, The Coming of God.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Yearning for God

The content of this post is almost wholly due to Jan at her blog with the same title, which I swiped with no shame (or permission) whatsoever. I have also included some material from previous posts from this blog.



Exodus 17: 1-7; Philippians 2: 1-13
First Congregational Church of ******, CT
September 28, 2008

A couple had two little boys who were always getting into trouble. Their parents knew that if any mischief occurred in their village, their sons were probably involved. The boys' mother heard that an elder in town had been successful in disciplining children, so she asked if he would speak with her sons. The elder agreed, but asked to see them separately.

So, in the morning, the mother sent her youngest son first. The elder, a huge man with a booming voice, sat the boy down and asked him sternly, “Where is God?” The boy's mouth dropped open, but he made no response.

So the elder repeated the question in an even sterner tone, “Where is God?!!” Again the wide-eyed boy made no attempt to answer. The elder raised his voice and bellowed, “WHERE IS GOD?!” The boy screamed and bolted from the room, ran directly home and dove into a closet, slamming the door behind him.

When his older brother found him hiding, he asked, “What happened?” Gasping for breath, the younger brother replied, “We are in BIG trouble this time. God is missing, and they think WE did it!”

I had posted this story on my weblog a couple of years ago. When I went looking for it on my blog, I typed in the words ‘where is God’ and saw entry after entry that contained that haunting phrase; mostly sermons I’ve written and preached but also some reflections on faith. It is a very human question, one that we often ask in unsure and difficult times, both personal and communal.

It seems we are always on the lookout for God to show up, wondering when and in what way. And like Moses, we do not get to see God coming but only recognize the Holy One after the fact. We see the wake in the water, the clouds moving off in the distance, the sun coming out after rain, and like a point on the map of our lives, we say, “There! God was there!” Anne Lamott in her book Grace (Eventually) quoted one of her friends as saying that believing in God isn’t the hard part, waiting on God is.




It is in this waiting that we meet the Israelites in this morning’s lectionary reading from the book of Exodus. They are waiting for God to show up in answer to their thirst. But they are not only very thirsty; they want to know if God is still there for them and does God still care. In this passage physical thirst and spiritual thirst are one and the same. The Israelites have been journeying in the wilderness, the desert, for forty years, which means enough years for children to be born and for those children to have families of their own. In the plea for water in the desert we can hear the echo of the psalmist’s cry, “My soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”(1) The whole congregation of Israelites contends against God and against Moses: God who liberated the people from slavery in Egypt, Moses who led them to freedom. Yet when anxious and scared for their lives they have only a very human Moses at whom to hurl their anger and despair.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? When congregations are anxious and scared, it can feel as though we only have each other and our leaders at whom to hurl our anger and despair. Yet what we all thirst for, what we long for is the closeness of God, the reassurance that we will come through the wilderness of the unknown and still recognize one another as brother and sister.

Simply put, we all long for love: the acceptance of who we are with all our imperfections; comfort and strength in the midst of struggle; the peace that comes with belonging and being known. Psychologist Gerald May wrote that “[there] is a desire within each of us, in the deep center of ourselves that we call our heart. We were born with it, it is never completely satisfied, and it never dies. We are often unaware of it but it is always awake. It is the human desire for love. Every person on this earth yearns to love, to be loved, to know love. Our true identity, our reason for being, is to be found in this desire.”

But like the Israelites at Massah, meaning ‘test’ or ‘proof’, and at Meribah, meaning ‘contention’ or ‘argument’, we often want proof of this love and we try to prove it by testing God’s love; we argue about who God loves and whom we should love. We contend with one another and with God as to how this love is to be revealed to us and among us. In a way, we can sound like children squabbling over which child Mom and Dad love more, when, in fact, all of the children are loved very much, just in different ways.

In a scene from the movie Contact two of the main characters are discussing the fact that 90-95% of the world’s population believes in some kind of higher power or supreme being. Ellie Arroway, a scientist, does not believe in God because she needs some proof of God’s existence. Her friend, Palmer Joss, a theologian, asks her, “Did you love your father?” Ellie, whose father died when she was a young girl, replies, “Of course, very much.” Palmer jars her certainty with the reply, “Prove it.”

We cannot prove the existence of God, nor should we. Looking for proof is like chasing after wind, as foolhardy as science looking for a unifying equation that will explain everything. Author Joseph Campbell wrote, "We keep thinking of deity as a kind of fact, somewhere; God as a fact. God is simply our own notion of something that is symbolic of transcendence and mystery. The mystery is what's important." To me it seems that we yearn for God in the meaning of two questions, two mysteries, which as of now have no discernable answer.



The big picture questions are: How did this whole existence begin? How is it all going to end?


In the mystery of who we are, we ask: How did we as individuals come into existence? What happens to us when we die?


And a third that encompasses it all: How are we to live?


When I was in seminary I took a class in object psychology, the premise of which, as I recall, was this: when we are children, we treat everything around us, including people, as objects, as things we can manipulate to get what we want and need. Our development into mature people depends on how we are able to internalize those objects; that is, we learn to mother ourselves, father ourselves, befriend ourselves. We become able to take care of ourselves and help others, no longer needing to manipulate the world around us because we have become a part of it.


I have come to see our development, our evolution as human beings in a similar way. We objectify God because we are still learning how to live in the world. As I see it, we as a human species are somewhere in our adolescence. We still need our Parent to tell and show us how to live, how to be moral, ethical, loving, compassionate people, because in our development, we can be very much self-centered and self-absorbed; I know I was when I was a teenager. We try to break away from our Parent, but yet we don't know it all. As a species we're still very scared and anxious that one day we'll have to be grown-ups, be responsible and give up the unhealthy, often hurtful ways we try to fill our longing.


But one great day we will fully know what it means to be filled by God; we will have God's law of love written upon our hearts, we will have that same mind as Christ, we will be Spirit-led, having the same love for all people as we would want for ourselves. That is the day that the kingdom comes on earth. And as His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, we don't need to believe in God in order to be compassionate and loving. We need simply to do these things every day.


But for most of us it's not that simple. We need reminders to practice our compassion and our loving. And that is why we need church, why everyone needs a community of some sort to be accountable to for their actions. We do not work out our salvation in a vacuum nor solely on our own. We’re always bumping up against someone and their notion of what constitutes not only a human experience, but also an experience of God. If anything, we need at least to be forgiving. And I don't know how anyone comes by that naturally.

The church in Philippi received such a reminder from Paul while he was in prison, for they were contending against one another, as ones in the desert straying from the source, the well of compassion and love. Hear this paraphrase of the Philippians passage from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:


“If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you carethen do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.


“Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!
Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion.


“Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.


“What I’m getting at, friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning. When I was living among you, you lived in responsive obedience. Now that I’m separated from you, keep it up. Better yet, redouble your efforts. Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you, God himself willing and working at what will give him the most pleasure.”(2)

Our desire, our yearning for God is God willing and working within us, at what will give God the most pleasure, which is all creatures of this earth living as close to God as can be. As it is printed on the cover of this morning’s bulletin, all our love, our stretching out, our hope, our thirst, God is creating in us so that God may fill us. . . .God is on the inside of the longing.(3)

In all our yearning for God, do we as congregations, as the Body of Christ, have the desire, the longing to be in the same mind as Christ? What is the motivation for our life together? Is it that our own needs will be met or is it the needs of all? We all yearn for God’s gifts of healing, wholeness, forgiveness, purpose and meaning in our lives; we all yearn for love. Is there a way that we can be those things for each other and for any, thus allowing that Christ-mind to inhabit us and work through us? Are we ready to be filled with God and all that goes with that?




Even though we contend with one another and with God, even though we may frustrate that mind of Christ, even though God may not show up on our timetable, still God does come to us. God’s mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. God comes to us in the life-giving grace of everyday living, sustaining us in the wilderness of the unknown. This grace, this mercy draws us together into community that we might be revelations of the very real love of God for the whole world. Amen.


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Notes

1. Psalm 63: 1b, NRSV.
2. Eugene Peterson, The Message, (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), Philippians 2: 1-13.
3. Maria Boulding.