Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Family meeting

I walked into the meetinghouse and sat down next to my husband just as a friend of mine had finished speaking. I had just come from work--the church where I am serving as an interim. This however was home--the church I have come to love as my family. My family is having a conversation about just how welcoming they want to be, especially since the laws of Connecticut have changed concerning same-sex marriage.

My friend that spoke is a woman whose son was president of the high school youth group and a deacon in the church. She nor her wife have been to church since their son went to college--they did not feel entirely welcome in our church. To be sure they have many friends there. But there are also folk who do not understand their relationship nor did they even know these two beautiful women were part of our family. Until this Sunday.

After the meeting many people came up to this quietly courageous couple and gave hugs, kisses, words of gratitude and appreciation. I hugged them both, expressing my delight at their presence at this meeting. Then I noticed that one family, one that has expressed great difficulty in accepting this sort of change, was standing on the other side of the room. It felt like the scene at the end of the story of the prodigal son: everyone at the party, greeting the younger son who had returned while the older son looked on, unable to join the party.

The irony is, we heterosexuals are the prodigal children, the wastefully extravagant ones. We are the ones who asked for everything and got everything, went out and spent our inheritance, our sexual freedom on loose living, doing as we pleased, and hurting not a few people on the way. Meanwhile, our homosexual brothers and sisters have waited to join the party of legitimacy; yes, acting out as well, but what else is there to do when your identity has been both oppressed and ridiculed and your personhood sublimated and designated, up until not too long ago, as a mental illness and/or a criminal act.

We've talked about this before in my church family, and it was horrid, painful. But two days ago it felt like our family had come together, to listen well and to move beyond hurting each other. Change can take a long time; sometimes I am much too impatient for it. But I was glad to be there at the end of the conversation that day, the beginning of something new at my church, a deeper understanding of each other and what it means to live out the love of Christ.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A resurrection insurrection

Jesus raising Adam and Eve at his Resurrection

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

April 12, 2009 (Easter Sunday)

As long as there has been a systematic belief in a supreme power and a scientific method by which empirical information could be deduced, there has been a fierce battle between science and faith. Before Copernicus, the scientist who in 1530 that declared that the earth rotated on an axis and orbited around the sun, the world had believed for centuries, since before the time of the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy, that the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun, moon and stars revolved around it. This fit with the biblical narrative and could be seen as self-evident by observing the heavens above. It was also tailor-made to the human ego.

Since Copernicus, the church and the scientific world have had words, to put it mildly. It can almost sound like a cosmic wrestling match: the Natural vs. the Supernatural. And within the past eight years, the debate has come to a head once again in areas such as evolution, prevention against disease and unwanted pregnancy, stem-cell research, and the existence of faith itself. Those at one end of the spectrum who consider themselves to be of a solely rational frame of mind regard many religious persons as deluded and irrational. And many on the other end of the spectrum who proclaim themselves as the truly faithful, desire that all decisions, private, public, and political, be made in the context of faith—their faith.

As it is, we do not live in a supernatural world or a rational universe, either. We live in a universe where nothing can move faster than the seemingly arbitrary speed of 186,000 miles per second, where rocks and feathers fall at the same rate in a vacuum, where a measurable but unexplainable force called gravity binds objects and creatures to planets and planets to stars, where this earth orbits the sun at the exact distance needed to support life.(1)

We do not question these facts, yet they also fly in the face of a famous scientific axiom—Occam’s razor—that all things being equal, the simplest explanation is probably the truth. Did the universe turn out this way because of: one, there was an intelligence that designed it that way or two, it was random occurrence? It seems more plausible that there was some sort of intelligence behind the evolution of sustainable life on a planet with gravity that orbits only so far from a sun whose light travels at a specific speed than all of this just happening randomly. And yet most of the time it is science that wins the day. We do not question the facts of gravity and the speed of light because over many centuries humankind has learned to accept them as truth. Yet their existence still defies reason and, at least within myself, inspires awe. We need both the miracle of science and the rational argument for God.

The notion of resurrection, presumably an unscientific, supernatural event, has only been around for about two thousand years, so it is no wonder that we are still trying to grasp its meaning. If the first witnesses, as recorded in Mark’s gospel, truly did run from the tomb in terror and amazement, telling no one what they had seen and heard, then there would be no church, no Body of Christ living and breathing in us.

Somehow, the resurrection did connect with individual lives and with communities of faith and their experiences of human living. It more than caught on: the resurrection created witnesses of the risen Christ, electrifying a movement of common living, sacrifice, compassion and justice. Yet it still hasn’t gained traction in such a way as to completely transform all life on this earth into the promised kingdom of God. William Sloane Coffin once said that by all appearances it is still a Good Friday world. I remain slightly more hopeful, that we live in that Saturday, that Easter Vigil, when Christ was below, messing with the powers of hell, his work not yet completed, and we wait for his rising, his full glory to show forth.

When we accept the resurrection of Christ as truth, we also accept the whole package that was Jesus: the forgiveness of all sins and not just some, the upending of the powers that be in favor of the poor, the outcast, the stranger, and the powerless, the love for enemies as well as neighbor and God, and his faithfulness even unto death. Resurrection, new life, rebirth, is a result of a life lived as an insurrection to the way things are.

The resurrection is less about a supernatural event than it is about our experience of resurrection in our lives. And perhaps we are slow to recognize it because our experience of injustice, cruelty, judgment, and oppression is dominant over that of resurrection.

In a recent article in Discover magazine, Princeton neuroscientist Sam Wang advises that if we want to change a behavior, one way we can build up our willpower is to engage our nondominant hand in routines we normally perform with our dominant hand, such as brushing our teeth or eating a meal. The theory behind this is that the new behavior is not as dominant as the old behavior we are trying to change. So we must be subversive, building strength to lead an insurrection against our self-destructive behaviors.

In order for resurrection to become our dominant experience, we need to practice resurrection, to be subversive, to daily lead an insurrection against the destructive powers that be. In the words of the poet Wendell Berry:

“[Every] day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
…Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
… Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
…Practice resurrection.”

Resurrection does not compute, yet we can experience it any time, any place. Perhaps Mark had the women at the tomb tell no one so that we might read their story, that old, old story of Jesus and his love, that it may connect with our story, that we might know ourselves to be raised from our own death, that we would know this power in our everyday human experience. But it takes practice. We won’t always get it right. It is the risen Christ that makes it all possible. But we know what this practice, this insurrection will lead to. The real question is, are we ready for it?

May it be so. Amen.



1. Orson Scott Card, Enchantment (New York: Random House, 1999; pg. 253).

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Remember me

The Last Supper, William Blake, 1799

Luke 22: 1-23
******* United Church of Christ
April 9, 2009 (Maundy Thursday)

I used to think it odd that church folk would give money in memory of a beloved church member, only to have it spent on curtains. Or a handicapped bathroom. Or a new church kitchen dishwasher or oven. Another octave of handbells makes sense me. So does a set of hymnals or pew Bibles. Silver Communion ware. Or larger items such as a new organ or piano.

Practical items seemed almost arbitrary, without reverence or dignity. That is, until Bob Shanklin gave me a vacuum cleaner. It was to help clean up all the needles that fell from my first Christmas tree—first as a single, working pastor. He gave me the Christmas tree too but seventeen years later, I still have the vacuum cleaner.

At 90, Bob was the oldest of three Bobs in the first church I served. They went out to lunch every Saturday, and when I came along, they adopted me as a sort of granddaughter. Bob Shanklin especially took me under his wing. When I was pregnant with Andrea, he would take me out for lunch, ordering me a huge glass of milk and even buying the glass for me so I would remember to drink plenty of milk during my pregnancy.

Bob had a lot of love to share. He would have given everything he could to share that love with anyone who needed it. And it’s a vacuum cleaner that reminds me of his heart, his faith, and his giving spirit.

Jesus was also very practical with the items that would be used to remember him. It was Passover: there would be bread and wine, things that were elemental in the life of observant Jews. These were also very earthy, incarnational things: food and drink for the body, that would become incorporated into the body. It would become a part of us and we could take it with us wherever we went. By eating and drinking this blessed bread, this holy wine, the body would never be the same again. And neither would bread and wine ever be the same again.

How has this story, this meal become incorporated in us? To re-member is know once again that something is a part of us, integral to who we are. The blood of Christ intermingles with our own. What was once a piece of Passover bread is now the body of Christ, you and me and a whole host of others, blessed and broken for this world. By this bread and cup we have become a member of the great salvation story. We repeat this meal again and again to remind ourselves of the grace and forgiveness that have been made incarnate in Christ, and by his life, death, and resurrection, now incarnate in each one of us, and in this church family.

We began this Lenten journey with the reminder that one day we will be dust--something a vacuum cleaner can make short work of and an even shorter memory. How will we be remembered? As the Psalmist wrote, “[the] days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.”

We could make a name for ourselves in the world; we could do great and glorious things. But if we look at our lives we will see what is required of us, what is needed. The prophet Micah said it plainly so that we would be practical for the sake of God: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Justice, kindness, humility--these are elemental in the life of Christ and in the lives of those who remember him and serve him.

It is the sacred memory of Christ that makes all this possible, his continuing grace that comes to us in this holy meal. That Christ-spirit is present with us this evening, as we remember what the world can do to one who loves so completely.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

A father's wisdom

For about the past year or so I have been mourning once more the loss of my father who died of a heart attack at the age of 46 when I was nineteen. I missed not having him at my ordination, at my wedding, and at the birth of my children. Recently it has felt more acute. I don't know if it is because I have begun to work again or what. All I do know is that every now and then small waves of grief wash over me and I just need to feel his loss.

Perhaps it is because my mother is getting older that I now grieve the loss of my father's senior years. He would have had his 71st birthday this year. I long for the wisdom he might have shared with me. I mourn the loss of just being able to talk with him about how ministry is indeed a good way for me to live my life and to give of myself to others. I guess I could imagine what he would say to me, and there are times that my imagination can be very healing. But I really didn't know my father well enough to imagine what he might have said. So I miss what he might have actually said to me, about his daughter serving as a pastor.

My father was also a UCC minister, but it was not a joyful or fulfilling ministry for him. He was an alcoholic. He began his ministry serving in the Air Force as a chaplain, first here in the U.S., then in the Philippines during the Vietnam War. He was given a medical discharge because his alcoholism was so severe. After some time in a VA hospital, he then served as Minister of Christian Education at a UCC church in Massachusetts. He was asked to leave that position because of his drinking. My father then sobered up and not long afterward began counseling others with addictions and other crisis situations.

However, he was still smoking. The counseling took a toll on his already worn-out body and psyche, and he went on permanent disability around the age of 40. He moved to the mountains of North Carolina with my stepmother and her three children to be a 'gentleman farmer'. But congestive heart failure had already set in--it was just a matter of time.

So, at the age of fifteen, when I told him that I was thinking about becoming a minister, he replied, half tongue in cheek, "Why would you want to ruin your life?" So you can see how I might be curious as to what he would think now about what I am doing. I can imagine he would be proud of me, that he would see the sense of it. But I wish I could know how living another 24 years, in relationship with his daughter, would have influenced his opinion. And that is what I grieve.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Brace for a miracle

Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, Corinne Vonaesch, 2001

Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29; Mark 1: 1-11
******** United Church of Christ
April 5, 2009 (Palm Sunday)

They were there for varied reasons. Some of them were family. Some were traveling alone. Some had business in the city, others were just visiting and many were going home. What they didn’t expect was that their lives were about to change. They didn’t know that they were going down that day; that their journey might lead to death but that they would also live.

Though this might easily sound like a description of the crowd on that first Palm Sunday, it could also pass for US Airways flight 1549 that landed in the Hudson on January 15. I don’t know about you, but for me, this is not old news yet. There have been other crashes, other disasters, even since Flight 1549, but that one was a surprise. When the captain on a commercial jet informs the passengers to brace for impact, one thing that is not expected or assumed is survival. In fact, one prepares for just the opposite.

Though we would want to survive such a disaster as this, we all know the statistics and they’re not encouraging. We would be checking for the nearest exit but we would also be looking at wallet photos, perhaps twisting a wedding band, saying whatever prayers and snippets of scripture we could remember, holding the hand of the person next to us, watching our lives flash before our eyes, so the cliché goes. We might set our faces toward that mysterious door that leads us out of this world and into the next, not entirely sure what will be on the other side. Or we might just close our eyes and brace for impact.

Those who knew Jesus best, and even they didn’t know him that well, knew that Jesus was going down, that he was headed toward death, and that they would have to brace for the impact that his death would have on their lives. Their lives were about to change again, in ways they did not expect. They might have assumed that they too were going to die but in fact they would live and live for the risen Christ.

The account of Palm Sunday in the gospel according to Mark is not terribly high on drama. Mark was the first gospel to be written, so there are times it seems he is simply reporting on what happened and letting the reader put the meaning behind the words. This is also one of those occasions when much of the drama has already happened in the previous chapter. The events before Jesus enters Jerusalem are our ‘flight recorder’, to help us understand the context in which this motley parade takes place.

Things start to get really heated about half way through chapter 10. Jesus has just told a rich man what he must do to inherit eternal life: that he must sell all that he has, give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus. The rich man turns and walks away grieved because his possessions are many and they weigh heavy upon him.

The disciples are astounded that those who are wealthy will have difficulty entering the kingdom of God. In their world, the wealthy do as they please. If they cannot be saved, then who can, they wonder. Jesus tells them that for God all things are possible, that there might be a loophole of grace yet for that rich man.

Peter, formerly a poor fisherman, now an even poorer disciple of Jesus, loses it: “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” We can hear the assumptions, the expectations in his plea. Isn’t there a reward? Don’t we have an advantage over others because we left everything to follow you? Jesus leaves him with his infamous conundrum: Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

And if that wasn’t enough to send his disciples over the edge, Jesus then tells the disciples for the third time exactly what will happen to him when they get to Jerusalem, that he will be handed over to the chief priests; that he will be condemned to death, that he will then be handed over to the Gentiles. He will be mocked and spat upon, flogged, and killed. And after three days he will rise again.

As if they hadn’t heard Jesus, two of the disciples, James and John, then insist that Jesus do for them whatever they ask. They have the audacity to request that they sit at Jesus’ right and left hand when he is in glory. Jesus tries to explain to them that they don’t know what they’re asking for, didn’t’ they just hear how he will come into this glory, and that it is not for him to grant these places of honor but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.

Of course the rest of the disciples are angry with James and John. All this jockeying for position reveals their own assumptions and expectations about Jesus and their relationship with him. Jesus calms their squabbling by reminding them that whoever wishes to become great among them must be their servant and whoever wishes to be first among them must be slave of all. And the one who truly understands all of this is a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, who calls out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” The faith of Bartimaeus makes him well, and he then joins Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.

We have all this backstory, all this drama as Jesus prepares to enter the holy city of Jerusalem, everyone assuming they think they know what is going on, everyone’s expectations being played close to the chest. The anxiety level of the disciples tells us that they are right about one thing: the end of the world as they know it is coming.

Entry into Jerusalem, Danila Vassilieff, 1947

Yet we also have this cheering, exuberant crowd that welcomes Jesus as the Messiah, as the one who will save the people of Israel and free them from the Roman occupation. It is a triumphant day. Jesus comes in peace, entering the city of his death the same way his mother traveled to the city of his birth. Fear, anxiety, excitement, hope, and a great deal of unexpressed assumptions and expectations: does any of this sound familiar?

Most of the time we human beings are more able to convey our emotions than we are able to articulate our assumptions and expectations. And when we keep those assumptions and expectations to ourselves, we create an atmosphere that is ripe for conflict.

At the beginning of an interim period, the congregation and the interim pastor may be walking on eggshells, unsure of where the anxieties lie, what the plans may be, where this all might be headed. How much change can we all handle? When will the changes occur? Are we up to the challenges that face us?

In the coming weeks ahead I would like to schedule some cottage meetings and use the adult forum time on May 17 to ask some questions and to listen to your answers. These meetings would also be a time for you to ask questions of me and of each other. It would be a time for all of us to give voice to our assumptions and expectations that we have about this new phase in the life of this church family. After we have these meetings I will write up a reflection, communicating what you told me, what I think about it, and what our priorities will be.

So here’s a head’s up about the questions I am going to ask in these meetings. I will also post them on my online blog, publish them in the Chapel Bell and send them out in a blanket email to the congregation. I would like you to reflect on them, discuss them with each other, write down your answers if you wish and bring them with you. If you cannot make one of the meetings or the adult forum, I ask that you communicate your concerns and questions directly to me, in a conversation if at all possible. One of the tasks of the interim period is learning how to communicate in a healthy, positive manner.

Which of these five interim tasks is a priority for this church: owning your history, discovering a new identity, leadership changes, renewing ties to the UCC, or commitment to a new future?

What are the strengths of this congregation?

What are the challenges of this congregation?
What three things would you like to see changed?
What are three things you would like to keep?
What is it that you would like me to do?
What is it you’re afraid I’m going to do?
By what criteria will we evaluate the interim period?

Think on those, mull them over, chew on them, pray on them. And be aware that your answers can also change over time. Be open to that possibility.

In the meantime, let us remember the importance of this week in our faith and in the faith of this church and allow our faith to inform our concerns and questions. The events of this week created witnesses for the risen Christ, changed their lives in ways that they could not have foreseen, and galvanized what would become a worldwide movement of forgiveness, compassion and justice that continues to this day, in this very place, within you.

Like that Palm Sunday crowd of long ago, some of you may feel like you’re going down for the nth time. Others of you are excited about the future. Perhaps you are biding your time, waiting to see how it all falls out. I hope you’re not checking where the exits are. Maybe you feel like you’re with family, maybe you feel like you’re traveling alone.

We're going to make mistakes. We'll be experimenting, finding out what works and what doesn't. We'll have our share of failures but also our share of successes. All of us are headed for the cross. And we all know how that ended. Yet it’s why we’re also looking for Easter and for signs of new life.

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Though we may want to brace for impact when it comes to seemingly life-threatening change, when it comes to Jesus and our life with him, we may just want to brace for a miracle.


(As I was preaching the sermon, when I came to the part about how I would communicate these questions in other ways, I added that failing all else I would also post them on my office door. One of the parishioners responded with the comment, "Cynthia Luther, huh?")