Thursday, December 31, 2009

Justin Case: A Fingers-Crossed-Behind-His-Back, Well-Meaning Christian (4)

Justin didn't like the Christmas sermon this year, especially all that bunk about the incarnation being the resurrection and vice versa. It sounded like something he'd say just to sound intelligent but he didn't understand what it meant.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

O Holy Night by Kristen Graves

I know Kristen (and her husband Bryan Nurnberger) from, working together down in Oaxaca, Mexico on mission trips. I hope you enjoy her soulful rendition of this Christmas classic.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas koan

Colossians 3: 12-17; Luke 2: 1-20
******** United Church of Christ
December 24, 2009 – Christmas Eve

Earlier this week I had a mystical experience, one for which I am still finding the words. The only words I have for it sound like a koan or a riddle: the incarnation is the resurrection, and the resurrection is the incarnation. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

I was watching a German movie entitled Cherry Blossoms. The story is about an affectionate, long-married couple whose children have grown up and moved away. When the wife learns that her husband is terminally ill, she keeps it from him, and urges him to see more of life and visit their eldest son who lives in Japan. She has always wanted to travel to Japan, to see Mt. Fuji and the cherry blossoms, to study Japanese butoh dancing, but her husband is not adventurous, preferring a life of routine and predictability. When the wife dies suddenly, the husband takes it upon himself to live out his wife’s dreams. He travels to Tokyo, in the midst of the cherry blossom season, a celebration of beauty, impermanence and new beginnings. He brings with him her favorite sweater, dress, necklace, and her silk kimono, wearing the dress and sweater over his own clothes under his coat, taking his wife with him to see the cherry blossoms, to Mt. Fuji and to the performances of a street butoh dancer.

Early one morning, when Mt. Fuji finally emerges from its cloud cover, the husband dons his wife’s kimono, puts on the white face makeup of his dancer friend, and dances a beautiful butoh dance, his wife now dancing with him. At the edge of a lake at the foot of Mt. Fuji, he peacefully collapses and dies. His dancer friend then puts on his coat and hat as she mourns the loss of him.

By putting on the one who has passed, the beloved not only lives again, but makes alive the one who mourns in lonely exile.

I know this sounds tremendously deep, like that snow out there on the front lawn in the dark night. But when we sing the words “Be born in us today”, “Born to give us second birth”, do we really ponder what they mean?

The creative force to write the gospel stories and the two birth parables in Matthew and Luke came from the resurrection, that powerful mystery that galvanized a motley group of disciples into a community of faith. From rebirth came the passion to write about the birth and the life of the One who changes lives. From Jesus’ birth comes rebirth, not only to humankind but to all creation.

The incarnation is the resurrection. The resurrection is the incarnation.

When we put on Christ, as Paul puts it, when we put Christ’s clothes of compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, patience, and love we incarnate Christ within us, Christ is born in us, and Christ is not only alive once more, but so are we.

The incarnation is the resurrection. The resurrection is the incarnation.

The story is told of a man who was searching for answers in his life. He found a very wise old woman. He thought maybe this old woman could give him the answers he was searching for. Thus he was surprised to hear the old woman speak of a great blunder she herself had been guilty of.

“What great blunder have you made?” the searcher asked the wise woman.

The wise woman thought for a moment and then replied, “They called me Christian, but I did not become Christ.”

That was an odd answer. The man was confused. “You did not become Christ?” he asked. “Is one supposed to become Christ?”

The wise old woman answered, “I kept putting distance between myself and Christ. I kept deploring the distance,” the old woman told her new friend. “But I never realized that I was creating it.”

“But,” the seeker insisted, “is one supposed to become Christ?”

“No distance,” the wise woman replied. [1]

The incarnation is the resurrection. The resurrection is the incarnation. In both Christ closes the distance between humanity and God until that day when we realize that in God we live and move and have our being.

The incarnation is the resurrection. The resurrection is the incarnation.

Merry Christmas. Amen.

[1] Adapted from a story from the book Tales of a Magic Monastery, by Theophane the Monk, © 1981 by Cistercian Abbey of Spencer, Inc.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Longest Night

(Last night we held a Longest Night service after a snowstorm earlier that morning. Not many folks attended but one couple, who had heard from a friend who had seen the article in the paper, truly needed it. It was a small, intimate gathering with beautiful music and candlelight and hope.)

The Longest Night, Jim Brandenburg

The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
--Mary Oliver

“God With Us”
Isaiah 40: 1-9; Psalm 121; Luke 2: 1-20
******** United Church of Christ
December 20, 2009

Friday morning I went to the New Haven Register website to read the article that was written about tonight’s service. Below the article was a comment from an angry individual whose online identity was listed as “Religiousfactsfromfraud”. This person wrote:

“How nice. What a heart-warming story. [It’s] 2009 and people still believe this...fable of Jesus being the son of God—as Pope Leo himself said "This fable of Christ has been quite profitable for us (The Vatican)”. The Virgin birth, the Immaculate Conception, an annunciation from an angel, and the "miracles": CT Valley Hospital is full of Jesus Christs. You want to do something for these folks—the Reverends should be opening their wallets and [giving] them some financial relief. The Catholic Church will pass the basket three times during holiday masses to receive. Get real, people. No matter the denomination, Christians are like cattle: they will follow a stalk of oats over a cliff. Merry Christmas.”

I paused and wondered what wound this person had suffered to provoke such a reaction to this service. It seemed to me that this individual had witnessed firsthand the inevitable pain that comes with being human and how a relationship with God can sometimes feel inadequate to that pain, so much so as to drive this person away from God and from the church. I too have had periods of sadness and loss throughout the years that have caused me to question God’s presence in my life and in the life of this world, thus deepening my sadness and feelings of isolation.

In a way this person has a point. We do celebrate Christ’s birth as though it were a fairytale, conflating and mixing together the different birth stories into a romantic sort of whole, while omitting other, more difficult details so that we do in fact have something resembling a fable. All of the shadows—the danger of King Herod in Matthew, the warning in Luke when Simeon says to Mary that a sword will piece her heart, the implications of a Jewish king being born under the occupation of the Roman empire—are banished from the story until after Christmas Day, and thus, most of the depth and meaning is missing as well.

What does it mean to have God with us? The mystery of God and God’s activity in human lives, or seeming lack of it, has been one of the more enduring questions of faith. In the original edition of the deceptively innocent book Children’s Letters to God, one child writes: “Dear God, Are you real? Some people don’t believe it. If you are, you’d better do something quick. Love, Harriet Anne.”

It’s the oldest, most honest prayer there is: “God, are you real? Why is this happening to me or to the one I love? Please do something.” The only answers I have are the ones I have lived through. No one can really tell us about what it means to have God with us in our own experience. It is something that each of us must come to, each in our own way.

A few years ago, through much tears and pain and prayer and living, I came to my own reconciliation with Christmas and all its hoopla, expectations, materialism and religious romanticism in this way.

A Real Life

There are times I question the whole thing
Is there a God
Was there ever
a real life
in which God was clothed
all earthly, vulnerable
in our human aloneness of being
What if Jesus never was

On the edge of that precipice
I am humbled
by one thought
I would rather be a fool
A companioned
voluntary fool

Thanks be to God
for this life within a life
that Word made flesh
mundane and fragile
for which I am indeed
happily foolish

For me, ‘God with us’ means that within my sorrow, within my despair, within ‘my human aloneness of being’ there is God; that the light of God is not contained solely in the light. The light of God has life everywhere, even within my experience of loss and sadness, even on the longest night of the year. The psalmist tells us “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me.” Within my life there is another life—the Word made flesh in my mundane and fragile flesh—living out each day what it means to love and to be human in my tiny, insignificant, precious existence.

Within Christmas lives Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. With this birth there will come an untimely, torturous, innocent death. Within each of us, living and breathing, is our death. But within this Christmas story and within each of us there is also the promise of resurrection, of new life and rebirth—the kind that only comes from the ashes of sorrow and loss. It does not tarnish an otherwise bright holiday but makes it all the more real and true. It is this mystery of our faith that cannot be explained but only lived out in our questions and doubts, in prayer and in the companionship of others as we struggle to love as best as we are able.

Let us pray:

Generous and gracious God,
we look to you for compassion
and thank you for your presence this night.
Overwhelmed by our burdens we easily forget
that you never leave us alone
and that your steadfast love for us never falters.
By gathering together we find assurance and comfort
that we do not suffer this longest night alone.
You have given us strength to live through this night.
Turn us to reach out to those whose night is also long.
Grant that we may be your healing presence in their lives
by bringing them your compassion and comfort
that will assure them that they do not suffer alone. Amen. [1]

1. © 2009 the Rev. Quentin Chin, member of Church on the Hill (UCC)
in Lenox, MA, and Interim Minister of the United Methodist Church of Lenox, MA.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Flagging zeal

Zephaniah 3: 14-20; Luke 3: 7-18
******** United Church of Christ
December 13, 2009

Today is the third Sunday in Advent, when we light the candle of joy. We can hear the joy in the reading from Zephaniah. God is ready to sing for joy at the homecoming of Israel. But the reading from Luke has an entirely different tone.

This Sunday John really gets down to it. Last week’s portion of John’s message was about as sweet as it was going to get. This week we get the full picture: with the words “You brood of vipers!” we can see the camel’s skin, the matted hair and beard, the fire in his eyes—what we would call passion or zeal.

In fact, in the name of passion and zeal the people of Israel have been called other names by other prophets, some even worse. Amos calls the people on Mount Samaria “cows of Bashan”. Hosea likens Israel to an unfaithful wife who walks the streets at night. Joel tells the people to wake up out of their drunken stupor. In order to get the full attention of God’s people, to get them to turn away from sin and death, to turn toward the living God, the prophets had to use strong language in naming the sin of the people. In order to fill the people with passion and zeal for God, the prophets had to be overflowing with zeal.

You see, when John began preaching, 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 full of zeal and passion for God 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.

Around the year 175 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 the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days was witnessed. This was the first 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. All that name-calling and words of warning was the signal that John was indeed a prophet filled with the word of God. Being as spiritually starved as they were, the people and the religious authorities wanted to know 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.

But this time God’s prophet was announcing the coming of a revolution like no other. There were to be no great armies, no battles as in the days of Joshua, Saul and David or Judas Maccabee, no hard-won victories for the glory of God and God’s people. This time God’s army would be two men: Jesus and his messenger John; the battlefield was the human heart and the prize to be won was none other than the saving grace of God. God was indeed coming but right up in their faces.

But who could be saved? John tells the crowd that it doesn’t matter if they are children of Abraham, which also means that being a non-Jew doesn’t necessarily condemn either. What matters is not only repentance but the fruits of repentance—a changed life, a life of passion and zeal for God lived out not only in faith but joined with good works and righteous living.

It doesn’t matter if we have been baptized, if we’ve read the whole Bible, and gone to church every Sunday of our lives. Garrison Keillor once said that you can become a Christian by going to church every Sunday about as easily as you can become a car by sleeping in your garage.

It doesn’t matter what denomination we belong to, if we’ve been born again or how often we have Communion. It doesn’t matter if we read the Bible literally or with an interpretive eye. It doesn’t even matter if we’re not sure we believe in God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit or the doctrines of the church. What John is telling us is that none of these will save us. What saves is forgiveness and the fruits of a changed life. What saves is the fire of God that winnows away all that is false and leaves behind only what is necessary: an empty altar in our hearts that is ready to receive the light that burns eternally: the passion and the zeal of God that shines through in all that we do and say.

When was the last time any of us took a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, naming the sins that come between us and God? What is the sin that comes between God and your life together as a church? What are the false idols that sit on the altar of your heart that need to be cleared away? How is God getting up in your face this Advent? What are some of the fruits of a changed life that you see in yourself and in this faith community? Who are some folks you know who do not share your faith but through whom you can see the light of God?

Having the zeal of God within us doesn’t mean we have to carry our Bible with we everywhere we go or that we have to save others or commit our whole lives to the service of God. It means having the light of God burn brightly within us and to allow that light to shine through us, even to the point of changing our lives. And that is a cause for great joy. Amen.


1. Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills. (New York: Doubleday, 1999), Chapter 1: “Greeks, Jews and Romans: The People Jesus Knew”

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Repentance: God’s Positioning System

Because of its automatic play feature, if you wish to view the video mentioned below, click here.

I included this video because I liked the the photos and how it illustrated the theme of the sermon. I also like the idea of imagining what God's voice would be like. Since I've been a mom, the voice of God has often been like that of a child in my imagination. How would you imagine God's voice on your own inner GPS?

Baruch 5: 1-9; Luke 3: 1-6
******** United Church of Christ
December 6, 2009

I hear the prophet callin’,
“Prepare the way of the Lord.”
I hear the prophet callin’,
“Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Come and make straight the way in the desert,
a highway for our God,
Come and make straight the way in the desert.
Prepare the way of the Lord.
Prepare the way of the Lord.

When the crowds heard John crying out to them, it wasn’t a sweet song they heard. The voice that calls us to repentance more often than not has an edge to it; sometimes harsh, sometimes a whisper, but it usually manages to get our attention one way or another. It can be that annoying voice that tells us (voice now in modulated GPS mode) “You have missed the turn”; “You are going in the wrong direction”, “Make a U-turn when possible”. Or you could have Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s voice installed in your inner GPS telling you, “You’re almost home! Slide! Slide!”

In fact John was probably sounding pretty cranky and hoarse by now. If you were to look at a map of the region where John was preaching, which was “all the region around the Jordan”, you’d see that the river Jordan, about 200 km of it, runs right through the territories of all those rulers listed at the beginning of the reading from Luke. John was calling people out of their familiar and comfortable hometowns out into the wilderness of the Jordan. By preaching from the sacred river and quoting the prophet Isaiah, John’s message would have been very plain to the people, that God was coming in a very real way.

But actually, he’s misquoting Isaiah and upending the meaning for the purposes of his own truthtelling. The third verse in Isaiah 40 reads “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord…”. These words were spoken to the people of Israel when they were in exile, that God would come to them and lead them home.

However, in the gospel of Luke, we heard: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” John is the voice in the wilderness calling for the crowds to join him there for a baptism or a mikvah, a ritual bath, for the forgiveness of sins. A mikvah is ritual immersion in a bathing facility with a natural source of water, such as a spring or a groundwater well. According to Orthodox Judaism, a mikvah is necessary to make one spiritually pure in order to worship in the temple. To facilitate purification, the water has to be living water—water that moves. And so John went to the Jordan, the sacred river, to offer this baptism, this mikvah of repentance.

In a hot arid climate, such as the Middle East, water is the antithesis of death. Many of the purity laws in Leviticus relate directly to some form of death. In Orthodox Judaism women are required to have a mikvah after their monthly period, not because the bodily function is unclean, but because the loss of blood is a form of death. Death is considered unclean because it is believed to be a consequence of sin. Death did not enter God’s creation until the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

And so John was proclaiming a baptism, a mikvah of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. To repent is to return from exile, to turn from going the way of sin that leads to death, to turn toward the Way that leads to the promised land of God. The Greek root of the word ‘repent’ means to think differently, to go beyond the mind that you have, beyond conventional understanding. Einstein is quoted as saying that we cannot solve a problem with the same mind or consciousness that created it.

To think with a sinful mind is to think we are in death. That’s the positioning system we usually listen to. To repent is to realize that we are forgiven; not only forgiven but loved unconditionally, that God intends us for life and for love, and then to live that truth as a way of life; as in (voice now in modulated GPS mode) “Jesus is the Way, the truth and the life”.

But why is John offering this repentance, this forgiveness in the wilderness? If a Jew who followed the Torah wanted to be cleansed of sin and death, they would go to the temple in Jerusalem, to be washed in the temple mikvah and proclaimed pure by the temple priests. One would think that that would be the right direction.

Most scholars agree that John was an Essene, a desert sect of the Jewish faith that rejected the temple authorities, believing them to be corrupt, that they had taken too much power and authority for themselves, controlling who was in and who was out. John prophesied the coming of the Anointed One, the Messiah. To prepare to be ready to follow the Messiah, the people must turn from their sin that they may be able to accept the teaching and the Holy Spirit this Messiah would impart. They must be able to think differently about God and their relationship to God. And desperately wanting to be close to God, they came from all over the Judean countryside, from the surrounding territories, and from Jerusalem, away from the seat of religious authority, to participate in this cleansing mikvah that was free to all.

How do you need to think differently about your life and your life together here at ******** United Church of Christ? In what ways do you live as though you were in death that you need to turn away from? What familiar and comfortable places do you need to be called away from to join God in the wilderness of life-change and transformation? Are you ready to follow wherever the Christ child may lead you?

I hear the prophet callin’,
“Prepare the way of the Lord.”
I hear the prophet callin’,
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”


1. “I Hear the Prophet Callin’”, words and music by Pepper Choplin (based on Isaiah 35: 1-2, 4-6; 40: 3), © 2008 Lorenz Publishing Company.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

It's really all about God, part 2

Psalm 25; Luke 21: 25-36
******** United Church of Christ
November 29, 2009 - First Sunday in Advent

This morning I did not preach a sermon for several reasons: I was out of town for a few days for Thanksgiving, I had been fighting a cold and sore throat earlier in the week, and I sang at a funeral at my home church on Saturday afternoon. I had planned on not writing a sermon because the constraints on my time but my usual preparation, that of reading and reflecting, did happen. And so I offered an abbreviated reading from chapter 1 of the book It's Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian by Samir Selmanovic which I blogged about

Chapter 1 can be found
here. However, I encourage you to purchase a copy or request one from your local library and read the book entire. This is an important book at an important time. Given the proximity we share with many different religions and also those of no religion, we need to learn the language not only of tolerance but also of curiosity, inquiry and respect.

Christians and Christmas have a way of steamrolling through the month of December as though we are the only show in town. If we who await the birth of Christ are serious about looking for the Christ, then we must seek out the Christ in unlikely places and peoples. And what do I mean by the Christ? The word "Christ" means "Anointed One", that one anointed to be sovereign in God's kingdom, but it can also mean one who is anointed with the Spirit of love, forgiveness, kindness, compassion, justice, and peace, which can come from any human heart focused on those things.

Reading this book at times has been like reading pages from my own experience. From the prologue:
"...I know I cannot survive without some kind of certainty. To live, I need some stable ground to live on, a soil from which I can sustain my life, a place where I can pitch my tent, a landing where I can make friends.

"...To create a new empty space within, I decided to let some uncertainty enter my life, and I wish I could say the experience has been wonderful. It hasn't. It feels like stepping on a makeshift bridge, suspended, with firm ground left behind and no assurances of what I might find beyond the thick fog in the front. Questioning my own certainties has been a lonely, painful experience. Uncertainty hurts. Yet it is uncertainty that has been saving my life. Doubt would carry me. When I allowed more questions to serve as vessels of my faith, life could win. And expand. I could grow deeper, where fresh, strong new currents of faith could be found."
Right now I would describe myself as a Buddhist Agnostic Goddess 12-step Christian. Those are the five traditions so far that have informed my sense of the dual mystery of love and life but it is the Christian story that first captured my heart and made a claim upon my life and still does. If we are true to our faith and to God, one religion or worldview cannot possibly capture the essence of this mystery we call God. We must learn to be open to the other, as Selmanovic puts it, if peace is ever to come on earth.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

King of the road

Way to Calvary, Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-1311

Psalm 93; John 18: 33-38
******** United Church of Christ
November 22, 2009 – Reign of Christ

Can you wait? I don’t mean are you excited or anticipating something wonderful. I mean can you wait. Are you good at waiting? Are you a patient person when you are in the grocery checkout line, stuck in traffic, in a crowded doctor’s office? When winter groans on into March or even April, do you curse the earth out of which crocuses and daffodils will soon grow? When the search process goes into its second year, which is a possibility, will your souls still be hearty and bright with the promise to come?

Waiting is a hard thing to do but it is inherent in being a Christian. 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, our season of waiting for the birth of Jesus.

But if Christ is king, where is his kingdom? If Christ reigns, what exactly does he rule? Since the first disciples proclaimed him risen from the dead and witnessed his ascension, since the apostle Paul encountered him on the road to Damascus and began preaching the good news, Christians have been waiting for Christ to return.

We’ve been waiting a long time; it’s been a very long road. In every age, there have been those who said he would return in their lifetime, for such a time as theirs. There have been wars and revolutions, cataclysms, epidemics and pandemics, such stuff that makes for an apocalypse: a total devastation that would at last reveal this Christ, this God who rules the universe. For surely if this world is torn in two, like the curtain that surrounded the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple, we could at last force the divine hand and see who it is lurking behind that curtain. If there is enough pain, and there are some who believe this, surely Christ will come.

This past week I read a book by Cormac McCarthy published in 2006 entitled The Road. I read it now because it is also a film that has just been released in theatres. It is a postapocalyptic novel about a man and his son traveling south in a cold, gray, ash-filled world where some of the few people that are left have resorted to living in groups, preying on solitary figures as a means of sustenance. But the man and the boy strive to remain “the good guys”, sustaining themselves out of their love for each other. As affirmation and as a talisman they often say to one another that they are carrying the fire within them as they travel the lonely road, and that it is this ‘fire’ sets them apart from those who would prey upon them.

As I try to do each day in my living, I looked for the Christ throughout this book. I wanted to know where was God in this fictional but very possible world. How could it become possible for human beings to allow themselves to de-evolve in such a way as to look at each other as their only means of survival but as cattle? How is it that we might allow ourselves to become so depraved and so cruel? Why must we survive at any cost, even at the cost of other human lives? Since the first crude weapon was raised against another being, since the story of Cain and Abel, that question has loomed over us.

Many times in our daily lives we behave as though what we are living through is imminent life or death. Our adrenaline level rises, kicking up our heart rate and blood pressure, and our emotions take captive the best of us, even as we are waiting. Most, if not all, of what we deal with on a daily basis is not a matter of imminent life or death. Most, if not all, of what we deal with on a daily basis is the control of our fear: our fear of death and our fear of living a real life, that real life where the kingdom is made visible through us.

Our culture teaches us that our highest good, the truth, is life, even to the point of life at all costs. Jesus teaches us that our highest good, the truth, is love, even to the point of losing his life. All three of the lectionary readings from the gospels for this Sunday are taken from end of Jesus’ life, right before he is about to die. Christ’s kingship, his lordship begins as his life ends. How can life be the highest good, be the truth if one day it will come to an end?

We believe that life will not end not because life in its own mystical way renews itself and is reborn. We believe that life does not end because of love, because love never ends. It is the fire within us that never dies. Love is the kingdom of God within us, love so great that it can lay down life for the sake of friends. This is the truth that Pilate could not wrap his head around, the truth that went to the cross, the truth that each one of us has to come to in our own way.

We may look for the reign of Christ in this world and catch glimpses of the kingdom as we travel the road of life. We may companion one another, as we are called to do, and share this fire, this love with one another as we wait for the kingdom to come on earth, for God’s will to be done.

Icon of Matthew 25

But if we are truly serious about seeking the Christ, we must first look within us. The world offers many alternatives to combat and control our fear. Some of them work, many of them don’t. Neither death nor life can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, but if we neglect to look for Christ and his kingdom within us, it will be all the harder and more fearful to live that real life.

And so, ******** United Church of Christ, are you carrying the fire, the radical truth of love within you? Who is the king of your road? When has it been hardest for you to wait? How is the kingdom made visible through you? Where and when have you seen glimpses of that kingdom of love and peace? How often do you take time to be quiet, to meditate and to wait for the Lord?

Christ’s kingdom is within us. If Christ’s truth, which is love, is to be made real within us and live through us, we must have an inner life through which this love can express itself. The road we call Advent is a perfect time to begin a practice of quiet listening and waiting, to allow the fire to be rekindled once more.

In the writing of this sermon I was inspired to offer an Advent devotion to you. Each Wednesday in Advent at 6:30 p.m. beginning Dec. 2, I will be here in the sanctuary with candles lit and lights turned down low. I will be in quiet prayer and meditation for 45 minutes. I invite you to join me in this quiet stillness to listen in your own way. Then until 7:30 we will talk quietly and briefly about what we heard in the silence. Come when you can and enter in peace that the peace and the love of Christ may rule in your heart. Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A happy dance

1 Samuel 1: 4-20; 2: 1-10
******** United Church of Christ
November 15, 2009

(Begin by doing an end zone happy dance.)

The touchdown spike is said to have been born in 1965, by New York Giants wide receiver Homer Jones. Over the years since then, NFL or “Not Fun League” officials have made it illegal for players to call attention to themselves in any number of ways, levying huge fines on players but effectively have not been able to stop players from trying.

Let’s face it: when we have succeeded at something, when a prayer has been answered, when we realize our wildest dreams, when we have conquered the odds against us, the urge to do a happy dance cannot be squelched.

But have you ever done a happy dance before the job was finished, before the prayer was answered, before the dream came true, when the odds stacked against you were seemingly too high? No, of course not, we answer—that would jinx it. Jinx it?! Are we a people of superstition or a people of faith? Listen to this story of a preemptive happy dance by Jim Wallis, author and writer for Sojourners magazine, that took place in the last years of apartheid in South Africa. He writes:

“Change always begins with some people making decisions based on hope, and then staking their lives on those decisions. The difference between optimism and hope is that the former changes too easily; the latter is rooted in something much deeper. That something is faith. South African archbishop Desmond Tutu always said that people of faith are ‘prisoners of hope’. The succeeding events in his country vindicated that faith.

“Perhaps my favorite story of the power of hope comes from a memorable moment shared with Desmond Tutu in South Africa. I love to tell the story of the extraordinary drama I witnessed at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town where the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Anglican cleric preached. A political rally had just been canceled by the white government, so Bishop Tutu called for a worship service instead, inside the beautiful cathedral. The power of apartheid was frighteningly evident in the numbers of riot police and armed soldiers massing outside the church. Inside, all along the cathedral walls, stood more police openly taping and writing down every comment made from the pulpit. When Tutu rose to speak, the atmosphere was tense indeed. He confidently proclaimed that the ‘evil’ and ‘oppression’ of apartheid ‘cannot prevail’. At that moment, the South African archbishop was probably one of the few people on the planet who actually believed that.

Jim Wallis continues: “…I watched Archbishop Tutu point his finger right at the police who were recording his words. ‘You may be powerful, indeed very powerful, but you are not God!’ ‘You have already lost!’ the diminutive preacher thundered. Then he came out from behind the pulpit and seemed to soften, flashing that signature Desmond Tutu smile. So—since they had already lost, as had just been made clear—South Africa’s spiritual leader shouted with glee, ‘We are inviting you to come and join the winning side!’ The whole place erupted, the police seemed to scurry out, and the congregation rose up in triumphal dancing.” [1]

In an interview with Homiletics, an online preaching resource, Jim Wallis said this: “[The] choice before us as Christians is not the choice between belief and secularism; the choice is between hope and cynicism. And hope is not optimism, hope is not idealism, hope is not a feeling. Hope is a decision based on what we know about the outcome of history. Hope is based on the resurrection. Hope is based in the confidence of the triumph of God’s purposes in the world.” [2]

In Hannah’s song of exultation, most of what she sings has not yet happened but because God has granted her a son, she knows God can accomplish the rest of her hopes and those of her people. She has decided to say ‘yes’, to celebrate God’s purposes that will happen in God’s time.

You have not yet begun a search process for your settled pastor. You have begun to consider how you might change how you govern yourselves but you have not yet arrived at the future structure of your life together. Many of you have big question marks looming in your lives right now. But you have declared that you are people of faith, people who say ‘yes’ to hope, who choose to celebrate God’s very real presence in the face of uncertainty. Now is the very right time for a preemptive happy dance. And so dance whenever and wherever you can, celebrating that God’s purposes will indeed happen in God’s time. Amen.

[1] Jim Wallis. Faith Works: How Faith-Based Organizations Are Changing Lives, Neighborhoods and America (New York: Random House, 2000, 2001), pg. 5.


Monday, November 02, 2009

Homeless and homeward bound

Ruth 1: 1-18; Mark 12: 28-34
******** United Church of Christ
November 1, 2009 – All Saints Sunday

Ever since there have been wars and natural disasters, there have been refugees, that is, people forced from their homes seeking refuge. One statistic of the Iraq war we don’t hear much of is the number of refugees, both internally and externally displaced. The pre-war population of Iraq was 25 million. To date, over 4.5 million Iraqis—almost one-fifth of the population—have been forced from their homes; over 2 million Iraqis have left the country. Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Sweden, amongst many other countries, have taken in more refugees than they can handle, regardless of the fact that they have had no responsibility in the cause of this crisis. No more than 25,000 refugees have been referred to the United States in the past five years; only 7,000 have been admitted.

Because of these statistics and more, the United Church of Christ is resolved to provide funding and resources for the work necessary to care for these displaced persons and for those serving in the military and their families, and to call for an end to this war.

Even now in New Haven, five Iraqi families have been resettled through the auspices of the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, an affiliate of Church World Service. The goal is to supplement rent payments for 6 to 12 months until families can get on their feet again. Even though the cost is higher, all families are placed in small modest apartments in safe neighborhoods with decent schools so they can transition more easily into this strange new life. Donations of furniture, clothing and money are still needed to help other refugee families in New Haven, so letters are then sent to regional ministers like Mike Penn-Strah, so that local UCC churches can help where they can. Our gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing are one source of support for refugee services that give caring and hope.

Iraqi refugee family hosted by First Congregational Church, Brookfield, CT
In this morning’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures, Naomi and her two daughters-in-law have no support or caring or hope except for each other. All three of them are refugees from their homelands—Naomi from her native town of Bethlehem in Judah; Orpah and Ruth from the country of Moab. Naomi had originally left because of a famine and settled with her family in Moab. Now she and her daughters-in-law are all widows and have started to return to Judah, but really none of them has a home. Without husbands to care for them, they are homeless and without worth. They have nothing but the mercy of God upon which to rely.

It is thought that the book of Ruth was written either during the exile or after the exile, when the people of God as yet had not rebuilt the Jerusalem temple, thereby having no home themselves. Ever since God called Abraham out of Ur to the land of Canaan, to Jacob moving his family to Egypt, to Moses leading the Israelites in the desert, God’s people have been nomads. Can we really wonder then why today the land of Israel is so important to Jews? And yet in this morning’s reading we see a tension between returning home and forsaking it for something more; the same tension in any kind of transition.

Orpah, after first refusing to return home, does as a good daughter-in-law should and obeys Naomi by going back to the land of her birth. How many of us would do the same? We go back to what is familiar. How many of you are native to Connecticut? To Milford or a nearby town? Imagine what it would take to force you from your home. Loyalty to a country or town or place gives us a sense of security and identity, of being rooted and grounded.

Ruth and Naomi, He Qi, 2001.

But Ruth’s loyalty is a virtue that has the power to transform us into faithful, trustworthy individuals and a community of friends and true family. “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.”

In this life of faith we are all refugees, sojourning through this world on our way to our one true home which is there for us at any time. Jesus tells us that the greatest commandments are to do with love, the ultimate loyalty to God and to our neighbor. You know this every time you serve dinner to a homeless person and eat with them here in this home. You know this when you pray for each other, when you fill out a pledge card, when you serve as a church leader, when you teach Sunday School, when you give to a mission offering, bring food for the food pantry, or provide for coffee hour.

Home is not a place but what we do and who we are as God’s people wherever we are. Theologian Marcus Borg wrote that “…beliefs do not save us, do not transform us. Trust and loyalty do. This…is the primary meaning of faith…the purpose of Christian life…the vision at the heart of a transformation-centered Christianity”. Trust and loyalty to God, trust and loyalty to our neighbor: this is what transforms us; this is our one true home. Amen.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

It's really all about God

This is the next book on my reading list:

The author, Samir Selmanovic, has also founded an interfaith community, Faith House Manhattan.

My favorite quote from the video: "Religions are living things and we can expect them to change."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Pre-Existing Condition

Mark 10: 46-52
******** United Church of Christ
October 25, 2009

If it’s one thing we’ve been hearing a great deal of in the news, it’s health care reform. The debate, the wrangling, the angry outbursts—all this resistance has been carrying on for months. Finally, the Senate has agreed to include a public option in their health care reform bill, but they’re not as altruistic as they sound. It’s more of a political wedge, really. Democrats want Republicans to be the bad guys when they are forced to vote against a public option that right now enjoys a slim majority in most recent polls.

It seems no one is really considering the real lives that this bill will affect. Take for instance Dawn Smith of Atlanta, Georgia. Four years ago Dawn was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor that causes electric shock head pain. Recently her health insurance company doubled her premium from $350 to over $700. She had been paying a co-pay of $10 for a particular pain medication, but then she was informed that the cost of this medication had gone over $3000, raising that co-pay to over $1100! Dawn was told she would have to find another medication.

She was denied coverage of tests and treatment from an out-of-network epilepsy center. After fruitless months of persistent letters to her representatives in Washington, she caught the attention of the political action committee,, who sent her story to their massive email list. Her health care company was then forced to cover the tests and treatments at the Cleveland Clinic. Later she was also told that her doctor made a clerical error regarding her extremely overpriced medication.

Dawn also faces a conundrum that most folks like her face: because of her health condition Dawn is unable to do her work as a freelance writer, thus unable to earn an income that would help pay for expensive premiums, costly medication, treatments and tests. She has used up all her savings. Mostly she has benefited from the mercy of strangers who contribute to on her behalf. She is one of so many who have been forced to choose between making a living and living a sustainable life.

The cries of Bartimaeus in this morning’s reading from the gospel of Mark could be the cries of Dawn Smith and all those like her: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Bartimaeus was blind and thus, he had to beg for his living. He too had to rely on the mercy of strangers in order to have some money to live on.

Beggary was a life one was consigned to. There was no hope of any other kind of life, for even if one was healed by a miracle, there was no other occupation to fall back on, no other way to earn a living. Even though beggary is not enviable, in Jesus’ time it was a just-barely sustainable lifestyle, because observant Jews were obligated to be generous to those who were less fortunate, what we now call noblesse oblige. Bartimaeus could trust that on any given day a few coins would land on his cloak, enough to keep him from starving. So though his income was meager, it was also a steady stream he could depend on. Kind of like Social Security.

Yet when he hears that Jesus is passing through town (we can assume that being on a public road he must have heard the local scuttlebutt), Bartimaeus is willing to give up what is familiar to him for a life lived in the unknown. More than a story of healing, this is a story of call: Jesus’ call to servanthood and one poor beggar’s response.

Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus in a loud voice, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Here, Bartimaeus makes use of and trusts with his life the highest form of noblesse oblige. When a king passes by in procession and a subject cries out for mercy, the king, by virtue of his nobility, is obliged to stop the procession and attend to the needs of that subject. The title “Son of David”, used for here for the first in Mark’s gospel, reveals that Bartimaeus not only recognizes Jesus’ kingship but that he is also the Promised One, the Messiah who would bring about a new world order, both spiritually and politically.

"Sight to the Blind - Gene Tierney" from Hymn to Her by Karen Whitehill

But notice how this title is used. First, there is the contrast between “son of Timaeus” and “Son of David”, that the Son of David, this king, this messiah came for those humble ones such as Bartimaeus. And then there is the timing of this title. Mark places this call story right before Jesus is to enter Jerusalem for the last time. This new world order will come about not by a coronation or by revolution but by an innocent man being put to death. And this is when Bartimaeus decides he is ready to give up his meager but safe existence for the Way of Jesus, that way that leads to the cross.

Michael Moore, in his latest movie Capitalism: A Love Story, sardonically subverts some of Jesus’ teaching and turns them into profit-making slogans. In one scene Jesus refuses to heal a sick man because of the man’s “pre-existing condition”.

Bartimaeus’ pre-existing condition is on two levels. On the surface, yes, he is blind and poor, making him humble and willing to surrender but more importantly, under all that, he trusts that Jesus, this Son of David, will indeed have mercy on him. And so he is persistent in his cries, trusting that he will be heard and that Jesus will do for him whatever he asks.

I’m going to make a leap of understanding here and suggest that perhaps one reason you chose to call me as your interim pastor is that we have a pre-existing condition. We are acquainted with one another from three years ago; something that I thought could possibly be an obstacle to an effective interim time. But it seems that this previous relationship has provided us with a baseline of trust upon which we have been able to build.

But again I ask, how much further are you willing to go? Do you trust yourselves and each other to surrender what is for what can be? Do you trust that God is calling you to a reformation of your life together? Do you trust the future? Do you trust the call of Jesus to follow him on the Way? Being a part of a church means that as we move closer to Jesus, inevitably we will move closer to the cross.

Our nation is in a time of transition. President Obama is endeavoring to lead us through a time between what was and what will be. There are tremendous opportunities for real change before us. There is uncertainty but also a new hope on the rise. The same is true for this church. The interim time is a crucial period when a congregation is called to trust that the way of the cross is the way of transformation.

The first definition of the word ‘faith’ has nothing to do with belief or doctrine but with loyalty and trust. Bartimaeus trusted Jesus: he had faith that Jesus would indeed have mercy and do whatever was asked of him. Our pre-existing condition, that has been in our hearts since God first loved us, is faith: that trust and loyalty that we give to God and extend to one another, that has the power to heal and to spur us to follow Jesus, wherever he may lead. Amen.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Holy Disruption

Minimum Security by Stephanie McMillan - April 25, 2009

Mark 10: 32-45
******** United Church of Christ

October 18, 2009

A spiritual discipline that I have endeavored to apply over the years of my adulthood, especially as a pastor and mother, is the acceptance of disruptions. A disruption is any change in the status quo. It can be welcome or unwelcome, unexpected or expected, or merely a suspension of the usual process of living. Many a time I have welcomed a disruption, even planned for a few of them, such as moving away from home and resigning from full-time ministry. Some of these planned disruptions of ‘the way things are’ were of the most positive kind, like getting married or having children or returning to work, yet each also comes with its own challenges as well. Most of the time I work at welcoming disruptions into my status quo; some of them are of the merely inconvenient variety, but usually they are an opportunity for ministry.

In fact, ministry is comprised mainly of disruptions to the status quo. Someone loses a job or needs some help paying the bills or just moved into town or was in an accident or has just quit smoking or is in recovery or received disturbing news from a lab report or a relationship has ended or a loved one has passed away—and they need to talk, they need community, they need help.

Jesus knew this. Often he would try to get away by himself and pray but more often than not, folks who were hurting or lonely would find him and Jesus would give them what they needed most: healing, forgiveness, love and a changed life.

In this morning’s scripture lesson Jesus and the disciples are headed for the biggest, most traumatic disruption of their life together. For the third time Jesus has told his closest friends and followers what will happen to him when they reach Jerusalem. He goes into great detail—betrayal, torture, then death, and at the last, resurrection.

Two of the disciples, James and John, have the strangest reaction to this disruption, this oncoming train wreck: to ask to be at the right and left of Jesus when he comes into his glory. The author of Mark does nothing to gloss over their request or to make them appear less connected to this audacious demand, as does Matthew by having their mother ask Jesus for them. Mark presents the disciples as very human. It would not be the last time that when a leader’s death or leave-taking is imminent, even one as beloved as Jesus, someone would make a power grab. This does not beg for a judgment but rather understanding. By asking for seats of glory, they betray their fear at losing Jesus and the intimate community from which they have received a new life.

But Jesus is as cool as a cucumber. As the ultimate transition man, he exudes an ideal non-anxious presence. He does not judge them for asking something from him, even as he is about to enter the city where he will meet his death. He responds to the ignorance that is masking their fear with gentleness, as though they are young children lacking certain life experience.

What the disciples do not know is that disruptions can also be deep sources of transformation, especially the ones that cause a great deal of pain. Like a mother giving birth to a child, painful disruptions have within them the possibility of transformation, of birthing us from one life into another. It is how we approach and creatively handle these disruptions that determines what shape this transformed, changed life will take.

Jesus warns James and John that indeed they will drink from the same cup and share the same baptism, but who will be at his right and his left has already been prepared. Only recently have I wondered if the two thieves who were crucified on the right and left side of Jesus were representative of these two disciples, illuminating the truth that on the path to glory there is no escaping pain and disruption, but that there is also transformation of the highest order.

You’d think that if the other disciples were listening in, they would have heard Jesus’ warning and heeded it, but no. Thankfully these other disciples are just as wonderfully human as we are. They become angry at James and John, perhaps because they made the request before any of the rest of them could.

Jesus then reminds them of the worldly powers that be, that there is a certain pecking order to be observed and obeyed but as usual with Jesus, it is turned upside down. And in so doing, Jesus has set the disciples and us free from any humiliation from the powers that be by commanding that we be humble instead, by living as servants and slaves.

Servanthood is a life lived in the service of disruption. The master calls, the servant responds, disrupting whatever was currently happening. The servant is willing to disrupt his or her life for the sake of the master.

This past week I met with a group of clergy friends for our monthly spirituality group. Each month we take turns leading the group through a discussion, some prayer and singing, and sharing Communion. This time we shared Communion quite differently. We were instructed to take a sizeable chunk of bread and then to feed each member of the group with a small morsel of it, saying each person’s name with the words “I am willing to disrupt my life for you.” And a few of them had already done that for me.

You are currently living through one of the more challenging disruptions that can disturb the status quo of a congregation, that time of transition when a pastor leaves but not quite time for a new settled pastor. You may not have been willing to live through this disruption at its beginning but I have witnessed your willingness to disrupt your life together grow over the past seven months (yes, it has been that long).

How much further are you willing to go? Are you ready to make those difficult changes that will prepare you for the future, such as how you govern yourselves? You already disrupt so much of your individual lives for the sake of this church. THANK YOU! The irony, however, is that when our practice of church becomes an unconscious pattern, when it becomes the status quo, such as giving the same pledge each year or the same people leading, it is then that a holy disruption is needed.

Are you truly being challenged by the words of Jesus? Do his words poke holes in your arguments, your resistance, in your status quo? For through those holes, through those holy disruptions will come shafts of light, to illumine your way to true servanthood, to glory, to transformation, to a changed life. Amen.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Lost "Cymbal"

(as in a noisy, clanging sound...)

I've just started reading Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol and he's already lost me to a degree. In the second chapter, in the voice of his character Mal'akh, who is tattooing himself, he writes this:

"The act of tattooing one's skin was a transformative declaration of power, an announcement to the world: I am in control of my own flesh. The intoxicating feeling of control derived from physical transformation had addicted millions to flesh-altering practices...cosmetic surgery, body piercing, bodybuilding, and steroids...even bulimia and transgendering (emphasis added)."

He equates, in the mind of one of his characters, the act of tattooing and other addictions to altering one's flesh with transgendering! Transgendered persons do not feel that they are in control of their own flesh but quite the opposite. They know themselves to be a stranger in their own flesh, outwardly presenting one gender but inwardly identifying with the other.

I just couldn't believe he wrote such an ill-informed concept. If he had just used "anorexia" instead, he would have been right on.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

A passion for beauty

Kalachakra sand mandala

Just recently I began reading the daybook Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach. In today's reading she writes about having a passion for beauty, for desiring beautiful things: artwork, music, poetry, rich fabric, glassware, color, flowers, jewelry--anything that enriches and enhances our lives with joy.

Lately I have come to the conclusion that whatever art or beauty I participate in, I want it to be practical. I don't want to produce a painting or sculpture or piece of handmade jewelry or even a book that needs to be preserved. I would rather it have some practical use, like cooking a delicious meal or planting a garden or singing my own interpretation of a song for an audience or writing a sermon or poem to be spoken aloud. This world already has too many things, too much waste. I don't want to add to it.

Now that may sound harsh to some, that art cannot continue to be frivolous or art for its own sake. But I think this points to our fear, our desire to hold onto beauty because one day it will fade or change. Witness the enormous digital camera enterprise, yet our reluctance to print these pictures. We want to preserve the moment, to not let it go, yet we do not take the time to make something permanent of that moment. Or we are obsessed with doing so, as seen in the scrapbooking movement. I also think this may be the source of our materialism and our infatuation with novelty, to be able to possess the beautiful thing, whatever it is, that we may hold a piece of beauty and temporarily satisfy our passion for it.

For me, the purpose of creativity is not to produce a 'thing' to be preserved but to live a life that is a work of art, a thing of beauty in and of itself. I want to enjoy beauty but to then let it go. I think of Buddhist monks who, in the attitude of prayer, painstakingly create a beautiful mandala out of colored sand but then sweep it away in the same attitude.

We are only passing through. The key is to appreciate beauty whenever we witness it and to give thanks to the mystery that brought it into being.

"Nothing gold can stay." --Robert Frost

Sunday, October 04, 2009

What God has joined together

Hebrews 1: 1-4, 2: 5-12; Mark 10: 2-16
******** United Church of Christ
October 4, 2009 – World Communion Sunday

I almost chickened out from preaching on the passage in Mark. I mean, it doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room. One, it has a narrow view of marriage because that’s all that was known in the time of Jesus: husband and wife. And two, Jesus says if you divorce, then you have sinned.

I know a lot of divorced persons who get very angry and defensive about this passage. I was reluctant to preach on this knowing there are divorced and remarried persons in the congregation. I myself am a child of divorced parents. My parents did everything they could to save their marriage, 17 years of it by the end, even though it was probably doomed from the start. All of us have been touched by divorce one way or another. Even if we don’t know anyone who is divorced, our thoughts about marriage have been clouded by the issue.

Not long ago I heard on public radio a local journalist read her commentary about marriage and divorce. She cited her own divorce process as being very difficult, long and drawn out, a year of counseling to prove her marriage was dead and not merely sleeping. There was meeting after meeting with lawyers and her soon-to-be ex-husband about financial arrangements. There were parenting classes on how to handle this new family situation. And only after all that was she served papers. She contrasted this with the process for getting married. There was very little counseling, no parenting classes, and all the running around was merely errands for flowers, music, the hall, the church, dress, invitations, etc. Not much was required of her and her fiancé when it came to getting married as opposed to when they got divorced.

Billboard seen in New York City, 2006.
Back in the day of Jesus, it was comparatively painless to get divorced. In Deuteronomy chapter 24 it reads that if a man’s wife did not please him, that is, if he found something objectionable about her, he could write his wife a certificate of divorce and send her out of his house. If she married again, the second husband could do the same, but the first husband could not marry her again because she had been defiled. There is nothing written in Deuteronomy about how a woman could divorce her husband. In Palestine, Jewish women could not sue for divorce. Jesus, though, upholds the same standard for men and women, holding each accountable.

The Pharisees may have been snoops by testing him, but Jesus was speaking of marriage and divorce in this way because he was building a community, a kingdom, a commonwealth, where love reigns rather than power. In the case of divorce, people were just writing each other off because they had the power to do so. There was no consideration of what this action might do to a woman, which would have rendered her useless and poor, unless some other man wanted her. Jesus said to the Pharisees that Moses wrote this commandment for the people of Israel because of their hardness of heart. The Law was shaped to the character of those for whom it was written. Jesus in effect says to them and to us that we need to shape our character to God’s law, which is love.

None of us is dispensable. We cannot write anyone off. In Hebrews we read that because the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father, and to be inclusive, one Creator, Jesus is not ashamed to call us sisters and brothers. All human beings are God’s children. When we dismiss someone else’s claim to grace, we reduce them in our eyes as being not as worthy.

Sometimes we leave the community that can and often does disappoint us. We think we will find something better: another church family that will not let us down, worship that suits us better, a better preacher, people that are friendlier. But in truth we cannot divorce ourselves from community or from those whom we find objectionable just because we have the power to do so. Every group of human beings has it flaws and its own need for forgiveness. To love is to know disappointment at one time or another. We know this from our own families and relationships. Nothing could be more true about the church, about us brothers and sisters striving to live out what it means to be in covenant with one another.

Thursday morning I peeled a few bags of the ugliest apples I have ever seen. Most folks wouldn’t give these apples a second glance, let alone use them in apple pies to be served to the public. Yet you take them and peel them and season them with cinnamon and sugar and bake them into something wonderful.

And you’ve all heard the saying about ‘one bad apple spoils the whole apple barrel.’ In truth, studies have been done where good people are put into a bad system, a bad apple barrel and those good people, over time, become bad apples, behave in ways that they normally wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the bad system. It is what sort of system in which human beings connect and form relationships which can create dysfunction and that what needs to change is the apple barrel, the system if there is to be any hope of changing patterns of individual and communal behavior. Which means we’re all in this together.

In truth, we are all married, joined to each other; we are all brothers and sisters, children of God, promised to one another in Christ. What God has joined together, none of us should separate.

Imagine a world joined in covenant as in marriage, sealed with solemn promises, ‘til death us do part. Imagine then if we treated one another, thought of others around the world, as a spouse, a partner, a companion. We would promise to be faithful to them, to be with them in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow. A wedding I performed a few years ago included words from the book of Ruth for the couple’s vows: “Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following after you. For where you go I will go; and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people will be my people, your history, my history; and your future, my future.”

We enter into this covenant of commitment and renew it each time we receive Communion. Through Communion we enter into a covenant with Christ and all those whom Christ loves, even those fractured covenants where the Church is divorced against itself; even those who will not worship with us because of who we welcome; even those we deem unlovable and objectionable; even those we cannot forgive: our enemies. Through Christ’s flesh, we see that we are one flesh. Through Christ’s blood, we see that we are one people. Marriage, that is, making a covenant, means more than just two people creating a life together. Marriage is all of us making a covenant, creating a family of God together, a whole family that excludes none from God’s grace and blessing.

And I close with these words of blessing from the UCC Book of Worship in the Order for the Marriage Covenant: “Be merciful in all your ways, kind in heart, and humble in mind. Accept life, and be most patient and tolerant with one another. Forgive as freely as God as forgiven you. And, above everything else, be truly loving. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, remembering that as members of the one body you are called to live in harmony, and never forget to be thankful for what God has done for you.” Amen.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Egrets, legs and God

The Banquet of Esther and Ahasuerus, Jan Victors, Dutch, 1640s

Psalm 124; Esther 7: 1-6, 9-10; 9: 20-22
******** United Church of Christ
September 27, 2009

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 like to use this story for two reasons: one, it’s funny, and funny is good, especially in a time of transition. And two, so we can begin thinking about where is God with a lighter heart so that we might actually find God. Or be found by God.

There are times on our journey of faith when we are always on the lookout for God to show up, wondering when and in what way. It seems that when we need God the most 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!”

The Book of Esther is a rarity in that not only is it named after its main character, a woman, but it is the only book in the Bible where God is not mentioned. Not only that, but there is also no real mention of the Law of God nor of its practices. There is only scant notice of it in Haman’s description of the Jews to the King when he says that they don’t fit in, that “their customs and ways are different from those of everybody else.”

But it’s important to know the whole story of Esther to make any sense of it. Scholars still question whether this story is historical or fictional, but it doesn't matter because the power is in the story itself. It all begins with a queen who won’t do the king’s bidding. In the middle of a huge party Queen Vashti is summoned by the king just so he can show off her beauty to his drunken guests and officials. Like any self-respecting queen she refuses. He consults with his advisors and counselors about to handle ‘the situation’, and they tell him that the queen has not only insulted the king but all leaders in the provinces. Imagine if word got out and women started treating their husbands this way! So in his anger, the king has Vashti deposed and he has a nationwide beauty pageant to find a new queen.

Enter Esther and Mordecai, her uncle, who are exiled Jews living in Persia. Mordecai tells Esther that she should enter the contest but tell no one of her Jewish heritage. Esther pleases the king; he falls in love with her and makes her queen. But the story isn’t over yet.

Mordecai overhears two guards plotting to overthrow the king. He tells Queen Esther who then tells the King, giving credit to Mordecai and the event is written in the king’s logbook. Sometime later the king promotes a man named Haman, making him the highest-ranking official in the government. Whenever Haman passed by the King’s Gate, all the king’s servants would bow down and kneel before Haman. That’s what being promoted is all about, after all. But Mordecai won’t do it, presumably because he is an observant Jew, and Haman becomes outraged.

Not long after that, the king is reading his logbook and comes across the entry that makes note of Mordecai saving the king. The king asks Haman how the king should honor a man of great importance. Haman thinks the king is talking about him, so Haman suggests that this person be dressed in elegant robes and led through the streets on the king’s horse, with a servant proclaiming this is how the king rewards great deeds. The king says, “Fine. Go ahead and do this for Mordecai.” Haman then must lead Mordecai on the king’s horse through the streets of the city, proclaiming the king’s reward. When Haman finds out that Mordecai is a Jew, Haman sets about to find a way to get rid of not only Mordecai but all Jews in Persia. Haman begins his evil plot by having gallows built seventy-five feet high upon which to hang his perceived enemy, Mordecai.

Now we get to the part when Haman tells the king about these strangers who live in his kingdom, these people who just don’t fit in. He gives the king 375 tons of silver, saying that he will pay for the destruction of these people. The king gives Haman his signet ring and tells him he can do whatever he wants with his money.

When Mordecai hears of the news of his people’s imminent destruction, he pleads with Esther to go to the king and tell him of this murderous plot. But no one can go to the king without an invitation; to do so would be fatal. Esther is risking her not only her pretty face like Vashti before her; she is putting her life on the line for her people. Mordecai tells her that perhaps she was made queen for such a time as this.

As love would have it, King Ahasuerus is in love with his new queen and would give anything for her, even half his kingdom. Esther desires that Haman and the king dine with her, not once but twice. As we hear in this morning’s lesson, after the second dinner, Haman’s true colors are revealed to the king, he is hung on his own gallows, and Esther effectively saves her people.

God’s name and presence are strangely absent in a story where God’s people are far from home and in the clutches of apparent disaster. Yet even though this story ends with violence and bloodshed and the survival of God’s people, even so we witness an awkward grace displayed in the very human characters of Queen Esther, Mordecai, King Ahasuerus, and the deposed Queen Vashti.

In this world where God can sometimes seem as though God’s presence is strangely absent, I have also been seeking words for God’s presence and awkward grace in a poem I am writing, about two other queenly figures. One is a snowy white egret that I saw at a lake near my home. This is what I have so far:

As the egret stretched out
her neck, throat of
a bendy straw pulled
to its full extension,
I realized her kinship
to the giraffe.
Same disproportionate
neck, body, whose legs
fold like an elbow.

Snowy white egret

Queen Esther too stretched out her neck, and though some might call her timid, she worked within the system to save her people. The other queenly figure is a young woman I saw in a crosswalk in Ridgefield:

Then there was
another strange bird,
a young woman
who passed twenty feet
in front of my car,
her awkward grace I thought
had to do with a tattoo
beside her knee,
or was it a decorative pair of hose,
slight limp of her left leg
stretching out from underneath
a brief sundress on a golden September day.

No, it was a prosthesis,
best of its kind,
reaching all the way to her hip,
gamely walking in the same sandal
gripping her other foot
in warm embrace.

Though Queen Esther might not have been used to wearing royal robes and living like a queen, she was regal from the inside out, like this woman and her courageous sundress and sandals.

Kelsey Retich, Hartland, MI

God is always a character in the narrative of life, even if not always visible or apparent. God is seen in the actions of others, in their quiet bravery, in knowing who they are, or in a bird whose body makes no logical sense but speaks volumes about beauty and grace.

One reason that the author of Esther may not have had God as a character in the story is that the people of God were living in exile, away from the temple in Jerusalem, away from home and all that was familiar. They were strangers in a strange land. Of course they were asking "Where is God?" It was all too appropriate then for the characters themselves to rise up in God’s place and act as God would have acted. Queen Vashti in her stubborn refusal to be anything other than a royal queen; Mordecai in his steadfast loyalty to Esther and to himself as a Jew; King Ahasuerus, when we hear him say that he will give anything Esther asks, even half of his kingdom; and Queen Esther, who gathers her courage about her like a royal robe, remembering that her uncle believes in her and that she is more than just one person—she is one of her people.

Queen Esther, Fr. Jim Hasse, S.J.
It can seem as though in time of transition that God has left the building, that God is not as easily perceived and seen and heard when the future appears to be uncertain. But that is precisely the time when we are called to rise up and we become the main characters in our own story, as God works through us. You, the congregation, are the main characters in the story of ******** United Church of Christ, right now, for you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.

Indeed, it is a time when it may feel like you are being asked to stretch out your necks, to walk with confidence when you may not be sure of yourselves. But that is also when God is most alive in you, when God is shining brightest through you, when you are the most alive, when you are shining brightest. Amen.

[1] Peterson, Eugene. The Message (NavPress: Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2002)