Friday, July 31, 2009

Chowdaheads, ca. 2009

Today my family and I are headed off for the Cape for our annual summer vacation week. So, no sermons for two Sundays (Awww!!). Yes, I know but we brave it as best as we can: the beach, the sun, the fresh seafood, the lazy mornings and the campfire in the cool evenings. Ah well.

I am also hoping to treat my girls to some parasailing on my birthday. Instead of getting a gift for myself with the gift check my in-laws give me, I would love to see them grinning and yelling with glee above Nantucket Sound, with the wind blowing through their hair, their imaginations on fire.

And my brother who lives in Tucson will be there a few days with his girlfriend, whom I have yet to meet except by email. My girls have never met their uncle, and all they have are the stories I have told them about our childhood, mostly about how he would get into trouble or do really goofy things, because for the most part, those are the only stories I have. I was the goody-two-shoes older sister, and he got into enough trouble for the both of us.

As always, because we do take our vacation with my mother and her husband, and now that my brother will be there for a bit as well, this is also a 'business trip'--not always as relaxing as I wish it could be but still, we are away from work and its attendant responsibilities. We usually manage to carve out some 'just us' time, as well as my husband and I will also have a date some evening. And I need some down time, just to be.

Hope you all are finding time for your summer vacances and enjoying some relaxation.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Justin Case: A Fingers-Crossed-Behind-His-Back, Well-Meaning Christian (2)

Justin wasn't sure if Jesus was in his heart or his mind but he definitely wasn't okay with Jesus being in both at the same time.

"I know your deeds, that you are neither cold or hot. I wish you were either cold or hot." --Rev. 3: 15.

from the Sunday bulletin

Every Sunday we have a place in the worship order for an affirmation of faith. Sometimes we use the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith. Other occassions we have used the church covenant, which has its origins in the Congregational church. Most of the time we use something suggested by Homiletics or I have written it myself, according to the scripture and theme of the sermon.

This past Sunday we read words suggested by the Homiletics website but they were written by a group at a Mennonite seminary:

We believe in God
whose love is the source of all life and the desire of our lives,
whose love was given a human face in Jesus of Nazareth,
whose love was crucified by the evil that waits to enslave us all
and whose love, defeating even death,
is our glorious promise of freedom.
Therefore, though we are sometimes fearful
and full of doubt,
in God we trust;
and in the name of Jesus Christ, we commit ourselves in the service of others,
to seek justice
and to live in peace,
to care for the earth
and to share the commonwealth of God's goodness,
to live in the freedom of forgiveness and the power of the spirit of love,
and in the company of the faithful
so to be the church for the glory of God.

-From a morning prayer liturgy at Eastern Mennonite Seminary

Monday, July 27, 2009


Psalm 145: 10-18; Ephesians 3: 14-21
******** United Church of Christ
July 26, 2009

How many of you have ever been to Silver Lake Conference Center? One of the things I love about it is that for a week you can enjoy a unique faith community, with its own little idiosyncrasies and church culture peculiar only to that week. Two weeks ago my youngest daughter Olivia and I attended the “Mom and Me” conference at Silver Lake. During the same week, my oldest daughter participated in the “Sing Praise” conference. Each summer at Silver Lake there is theme that frames, infuses and supports everything—worship, morning devotions, staff shows, even conferences. This summer the theme is ‘breakthrough’.

The Sing Praise crew took this theme to heart, using it in skit exercises to get their creative juices flowing. In one skit, the 8th grade boys demonstrated their breakthrough of realizing that they and their room stank.

One of the fun things about camp is the meals in the social hall. We sing grace, we learn fun songs, we shout cheers, clap hands, stomp our feet, and we do some crowing about the conference we’re involved in. During the week, each conference comes up with a call-out to identify themselves with:
“Mom and Me” used the call-out “Mommmmyyy!”
“Reach for the Sky”was “Woooooo!”
“Footprints” called out “Footprints (stomp!), Footprints (stomp!), Footprints (stomp!), knee slap, knee slap, clap, WHAT (right arm and index finger pointing up)!”

But as usual, the Sing Praise crew took to the theme like water in the lake. If you called out, “Hey Sing Praise!”, this is what would happen next: 50 people, teenagers and their deans and counselors, raising their arms over their heads in an arc, making a circle with their hands, yelling out proudly in unison “Grapefruit!”

You see, the Sing Praise folks had had a breakthrough. While listening to the deans and counselors talk about the concept of ‘breakthrough’, the kids heard the word ‘grapefruit’ instead and wondered what was the big deal about grapefruit that it had to be the summer theme for Silver Lake. When they realized what the big deal was, they had an epiphany, a breakthrough: in order for God to break through, we need to be listening, looking, and paying attention, with lots of imagination.

Are you listening? Can you hear that still, small voice?
God is breaking through to us (God is breaking through to us).
Open your heart and let God in.
Are you ready for the breakthrough? Can you hear God calling you?
God’s calling you.

‘Cause you can’t see if you’re not looking.
You can’t hear if you’re not listening.
You can’t find if you’re seeking.
Just open your heart…let God grow.

In our reading from Ephesians, a circular letter that was distributed widely among the churches in Asia Minor, Paul was praying for his readers not only in Ephesus but wherever they were gathered, that they would have a breakthrough in their experience of faith.

The situation from which Paul was writing was rather shaky, you see. He was in prison in Rome and not likely to be released. He was writing mainly to gentile Christians, those who came to the faith not through Jewish tradition but as new converts from Roman, Greek or other faith traditions of the time. These new believers followed the teachings of Jesus who was considered weak in the eyes of the world, having been publicly and wrongly condemned, and then executed on a cross. Throughout the Roman Empire, persecution of Christians was rife. Everything that mattered seemed broken apart.

In his introduction to the letter to Ephesians in his paraphrase The Message, Eugene Peterson writes:
“What we know about God and what we do for God have a way of getting broken apart in our lives. The moment the organic unity of belief and behavior is damaged in any way [as when a pastor of fourteen years leaves and moves on to another congregation], we are incapable of living out the full humanity for which we were created. …Once our attention is called to it, we notice [this brokenness], these fractures all over the place.”[1]

A few of you have mentioned to me that you feel you are not being spiritually fed at church right now. I don’t doubt it. I think what some of you may be sensing is this feeling of brokenness, of things falling apart, and yes, they are, in a way. One of the patterns of behavior this church needs to let go of is depending on one person, whether it be the pastor or any another leader, to be the locus of control, direction, decision, communication, and spiritual nourishment. No one particular person is filling that role right now, so it feels like things may be spinning out of control, that there is no center from which to gain that spiritual fuel needed for living. And when one aspect of our lives feels like it is breaking apart, we start to notice other fractures in our lives and in the world around us.

As for spiritual food, or a center for us to go to, it’s right here in our very hands. One of the very real gifts of the Reformation was that the scriptures were translated into the vernacular, into everyday speech, and the folks in the pews were allowed to not only read the words there but to interpret them for their own lives. Let’s look and see what Paul’s response is the brokenness that he experienced.

“My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth.”

First, he gets on his knees before God. Now for some of us, that particular prayer posture might be the equivalent of a Herculean effort. But it’s the attitude of being on one’s knees that counts. It’s the first, second, and third of the twelve steps. When we kneel before God we are penitent, humble and ready to listen and receive God’s direction. Here’s the direction:

“I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.”

Paul then prays that these believers will open themselves to Christ, to the expansive magnitude of his love. The irony is, however, that when we are experiencing brokenness, God has the perfect inward path to us! All those fractures we notice are also the very source of God breaking through to us.

Often we move through this world as though there is a boundary between us and the holy, between the everyday life we live and the divine, between life and death. What if those fractures, those cracks in the world that we’ve so carefully constructed are God breaking in, dispelling our illusion that God is somehow apart from us?

Paul invites his readers to test the boundaries, the depths, the height of God’s love, to find that there are none. In Acts 17: 28 we read that “[In] him we live and move and have our being.” In our psalm for today we read “The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down”, that God satisfies the desires of every living thing. Paul then finishes his prayer with a glorious benediction:

“God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.”

Breakthrough at Brighton Beach Pier

God is always ready to break through within us, with unimaginable love, compassion, and forgiveness. God is shaping us for the kingdom, that kingdom of light and freedom, of peace and justice, of wholeness and wonder for all of God’s creation. Each breakthrough is a step toward that kingdom. The breakthroughs come in big and small spaces, in little cracks and huge gaping holes. And they take time. But with God, it’s time well spent.

Are you willing, to trust God’s plan for you?
The journey’s worth the time it takes (the journey’s worth the time it takes).
Each moment matters, embrace your life.
Are ready for the breakthrough? Can you hear God calling you?
God’s calling you.

‘Cause you can’t see if you not looking.
You can’t hear if you’re not listening.
You can’t find if you’re not seeking.
Just open your heart…let God grow


[1] Peterson, Eugene. The Message (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), pg. 2125.
[2] Ibid., Ephesians 3: 14-15, pg. 2129.
[3] Ibid., Ephesians 3: 16-19, pg. 2129.
[4] Ibid., Ephesians 3: 20-21, pg. 2129.
[5] “Are You Listening?” Original song written by the Sing Praise conference, Silver Lake Conference Center, Sharon, CT, July 2009.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Today I am officiating at a funeral for a gentleman who, for thirty years, had abdominal cancer and chose to end his life this past week. The following is the latter half of his eulogy, which I will be delivering this afternoon:

H. also kept a Bible in which he highlighted and underlined many passages. One in particular that I noticed this past Saturday was from Psalm 90, verse 10: "The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong." I think H. was not feeling very strong of late. None of us truly knew how deep was his despair at his failing health and daily loss of control. For thirty years he carried the heavy burden of cancer within him. His dignity was important to him, as it would be to any of us. Whatever time was left to him may have felt more like a prison sentence, the prison being his body that was betraying him with each passing day.

But as the apostle Paul has assured us, in another passage that H. underlined, "Love never ends. Prophecies will come to an end, as will knowledge, for we know only in part and we prophesy only in part but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. ...For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love."

We cannot begin to understand the reasons why H. did what he did. When we love, we do not see clearly; we see with the eyes of love. We overlook shortcomings or we expect a great deal of our beloved. We hope beyond what is realistic; we cut our losses; we would rather walk through the fire alone than ask those we love to walk through it with us. We see only in part, but God knows us through and through.

God knows H. and the pain he suffered. And there is nothing H. could do to separate himself from God's love. We can feel separate from God when we distance ourselves through sin and suffering. But God is always closer than breathing; no matter where we go, God is there. When we come to the end, God is with us still.

If the life of Jesus teaches us anything, we learn that healing and wholeness go hand in hand with forgiveness: "Rise and walk, your sins are forgiven." I don't know what exists beyond this life, but I hope in this: whatever peace or justice or comfort or healing or forgiveness or love that could not be achieved in this life, God will complete it. That's what grace is all about. Now we live in the partial; when the complete comes, all that is incomplete will be accomplished.

Thanks be to God for the love shared with us in the life of H., incomplete though it was, for he loved and lived well, and this world is the better for it. Amen.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Thought for the day

"Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step." --Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


(Last week I was headed off for church camp with my 9-yr. old daughter and pressed for time. This is a sermon from three years ago that I edited and reworked for this church with their needs in mind. It seemed like the right message that was needed. Thanks again to Andy at Improbable Bostonian for his adoption story.)

Psalm 85: 8-13; Ephesians 1: 3-14
******** United Church of Christ
July 12, 2009

Chosen. What a powerful word. Think about what it means to be chosen. You have been chosen. It feels grand to be chosen, doesn’t it? Well, if it’s something good, yes. Remember back in elementary school, when teams would be chosen for kickball or some other game during recess? It felt great to be among the first ones chosen; it was humiliating to be chosen last. You knew what kind of player your friends thought you were based on when you got picked for the team.

There are so many wonderful opportunities to be chosen: a part in the school play or local amateur production, class president, graduation speaker, prom date, friendships, relationships, the one who wants to marry us, scholarships, teaching fellowships, awards, job interviews, promotions, work projects, college applications and essays, sports and academic teams, even something as simple as being asked to help. It can be thrilling when we are chosen, when we are needed, accepted, desired, wanted, required. It’s as though our purpose in life has been suddenly illuminated for that brief instant and we think “Wow, me?” or “I’m glad you finally saw the light of day!” We know ourselves to be joined in creating something special, which may not have been the same if we were not a part of it.

There are times we’d like to think that we’re important, that somehow our corner of the world hinges on our participation in it. And then we are chosen for something we’d rather not do and our measure of our importance conveniently shrinks. Sometimes our talents are matched perfectly to the chosen task; often we can be chosen to do something for which we feel wholly unqualified and we wonder just who is in charge.

When we are chosen for something in the church we oftentimes feel just like that: feelings of inadequacy, that we’re not the right person for the job, they should find someone who is more faithful, who knows more about the Bible, who is a better public speaker. We may wonder if God’s hand is really in our being chosen. What can God be thinking, asking us? What plan does God have in mind?

In today’s epistle lesson, Paul tells us that God is thinking about grace and has been doing so since time immemorial. Grace has been the plan all along. God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children though Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” Even though we are made in God’s image, even though we are of God’s creation, we are in need of adoption because we reject this image, this creation when we sin against God and choose our own way. God gave humankind free will and humankind did not choose God and the way of love. But before the foundation of the world, God adopted us, chose us in Christ, even before we had an opportunity to reject God.

Any of us who are parents know what it means to choose our children, to choose that they will be ours, no matter what, long before they are born, whether they are born to us or to their birth parents. We know we will never stop being their parents, come what may.

A longtime friend of mine, Andy, wrote in his weblog about when he was adopted, or as his parents told him, when he was chosen. He writes, “My mother explained that after the adoption process was complete (a two + year process) my parents were asked to ‘select’ their child. Apparently there were ten babies, all chosen to match up with my parents heritage, who were ‘available for adoption’ and my parents were asked to choose their first child from this group. Now, I was a goofy looking child. I was cross-eyed and had ‘creative’ hair that went wherever it wanted to. I've seen the pictures. Believe me, it's true. Goofy goofy goofy looking child. How they chose me I figured that I would never know. So one anniversary I finally asked my Mom, ‘If I was so silly looking, then how come you chose me?’ And my mother smiled and said, ‘We chose the baby that needed the most love.’” And each year his family honors the day that he and each of his siblings were chosen as well as the day they were born.

But not all adoption stories are so happy like my friend Andy’s. In some cases children do not attach or bond themselves readily to their new parents, no matter how much they are wanted, no matter how much they are sought after. If they are at an older age, they may be afraid that they will be abandoned again. They may have difficulty trusting anyone. They may believe that they don’t really belong, that they aren’t anyone’s son or daughter. They might act out their anger with their parents, their siblings, their teachers, with anyone they might feel tempted to be close to. It can leave parents at their wits end, knowing they have done everything to tell their child that they love them and that they are wanted.

But we can’t give back our children, nor do we really want to. All any parent can do, when his or her child is in pain, whether adopted or not, is love that child, even when they don’t deserve it; especially when they don’t deserve it.

It is this grace that God offers us, each one of us adopted as God’s child, as the apostle Paul puts it. And it is God who does the choosing, not us. We do not choose who is adopted, who is among the chosen; God is the chooser. And through the life of Jesus the Christ we see who God chooses: the poor, the outcast, the sinner, the weak, the forgotten, the oppressed, the meek, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who mourn, those who are pure in heart, the poor in spirit, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Jesus didn’t hang out with, or make himself out to be one of the insiders, the winners, the eloquent, the brightest, or the star. He traveled and lived as one of the outsiders, the losers, the plain-spoken, the simple, and the ordinary.

Indeed this church is a community of those whom God chooses. But sometimes you may be wondering for what God has chosen you. What does God have in mind for you? Perhaps, when considering what is going on in your own life, and then taking into account the pain of transition, it may feel more than overwhelming. I have a plaque hanging in my kitchen that says “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish she didn’t trust me so much.”

Back when my children were little, there were times it was very painful for me to be in church. I wanted to be preaching, serving Communion, visiting folks in hospitals and nursing homes and in their own homes. I did not want to sit on the bench; I wanted to be in the game. It was painful for me to put aside one calling that gave me joy in order that I could give all of my time to another calling that gave me joy. I know that sounds selfish, to want both. But I believed then that I had been called to do both, that both were my life’s work and to not be able to do them both felt like a half life. Yet I knew I could not do both justice at the same time either. It felt like a trap.

I was mad at God, that God would call me to ministry and to motherhood—two things that turned out to be mutually exclusive in my life. How could God do that? Why did God choose me for this? I felt as though I had lost not only my vocation as a minister but I also felt my faith in God slipping away. And it was then I realized that I had chosen this life. I was the one who chose to say ‘yes’. I was the one who chose to go to seminary, to accept a call at a church in Ohio. I was the one who, when the feelings of wanting to be mother called to me with a fierce desire, convinced my husband the time was right. I was the one who, through tears and much struggling and prayer, asked if we had the means for me to stay home with our new baby.

God does indeed choose us for salvation, for grace, for holiness and for blamelessness, but I don’t believe God chooses us for suffering, sacrifice, pain or struggle. I think life happens. I think human beings make billions of choices each day, some of which affect only ourselves, most of which affect countless others. We make choices about what kind of person we want to be, what’s important to us, what our needs are, our wants, our desires, our hopes, our wishes, our dreams. We make choices about who we want to spend our lives with and who our friends will be. We make choices that concern our family, our friends, our church, our faith, and that neighbor that Jesus spoke of. We make choices about justice and giving and right living. And then we live the life that comes from those choices.

God is there so we don’t have to do it alone, so we don’t have to live with our choices without grace and forgiveness, without unconditional love and the guidance for right living. God is there so that when we look like a fool in the eyes of the world, in God’s eyes we are a fool for Christ. A sucker for Jesus.

God has chosen us, chooses us now and will choose us…forever. But each day we must decide if we’re going to choose God and God’s ways of love and mercy, of faithfulness and right living. Each day we choose how much we can handle with God’s help. There are days it feels like too much and we back off from our relationship with God—because not only does God give extravagantly, God also asks a great deal from us. And this time of transition may feel like to some as though God is asking one thing too many.

So I invite you to choose, to adopt God’s grace and mercy in this time of uncertainty, to choose the light at the end of the tunnel than the present unknown, to choose the new life that is to come after this brief time of giving birth, to once again choose this wonderfully goofy Church that needs and reveals God’s love so much.

Thanks be that God has adopted all of us, chosen all of us and named us as holy and precious. Thanks be that God invites us to be a part of the family of grace, that we might make God the chosen and precious One of our lives. Amen.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Made Perfect in Weakness

Mark 6: 1-13; 2 Corinthians 12: 2-10
******** United Church of Christ
July 5, 2009

(Because I am responding to a specific event in the life of this congregation, I decided to preach from notes rather than from a prepared manuscript in order to rely on the same grace about which I am preaching.)

Have you ever seen one of those optical illusions that appears to be one thing but if you look at it a different way, you see something entirely different?

In today’s epistle lesson Paul offers us a different vision of weakness. First he tells of an experience of being swept up in a spiritual experience, of being caught up into Paradise and of hearing revelation of such an exceptional character, that it could not be repeated, even if he wished to boast.

· To keep him from boasting, from thinking of himself as better than others, God gave him a thorn in the flesh, a weakness.
· Paul pleads with God to remove this weakness, this ‘messenger of Satan’ that torments him.
· God responds that grace is sufficient, that power is made perfect in weakness.

Often we see weakness as just that: something that drains us of power, something that is lacking in grace. But Paul writes to the church in Corinth that it is through our weaknesses that God is able to make us perfect, to make us complete, that we are able to experience God’s sufficient gift of grace.

Last week we had a congregational conversation, perhaps the first one this church has ever had—not a congregational meeting where a vote may take place, but a time to be informed and to converse about matters that concern the whole church.

Many things went wrong, some of them resting on my shoulders. I ask your forgiveness. Many suggestions have been made as to how things would go more smoothly the next time and they have been duly noted. EL (the moderator) and I have spoken and acknowledged what could have been done better, we have learned some important lessons, and we have put it behind us.

But I’m not here to talk about what when wrong. I think we all have a pretty good idea about that. Instead, I invite you to see that conversation in a different way. I want to talk about what went right. And that what went right is just as important as what went wrong.

· You were respectful of each other.

· You were honest.

· You were responsible with your emotions.

Some of you were worried about the impression that meeting would have made on a visitor. You weren’t pretending to be perfect. Your weaknesses and mine were highly visible. We were not of one mind. We were being very human. And in my experience, when that happens in the midst of a congregational gathering, I begin to suspect, and I hope a visitor would too, that this really might be the body of Christ.

“So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

The Christian story is full of weakness: a birth in an animal manger, no room in the inn, witnessed by fragile human beings, a poor rabbi who roams from place to place, teaching truth and love in the face of those who seek to destroy him, living with and touching, healing the outcasts of his time (and ours too).

Even Jesus, a transition man himself, preaching in his hometown, is met with opposition, confusion, insults, and disbelief. He sends his disciples out by twos and orders them to take nothing with them, that they would be dependent on nothing, save the grace of God.

The story ends with the ultimate failure—crucifixion and death. Yet God works through all this weakness and more to show us that there is new life, that there is grace, to save us from ourselves, from thinking that it all rests on our shoulders.

When our weaknesses are visible, it is then we can work on them. God doesn’t call us after we’ve gotten it all together. If that were so, there would be no one in the church. Jesus came to heal sinners, not gratify the righteous. No, as it is with grace, God calls us as we are and invites us to relationship and to minister as we are, weaknesses and all.

Many folks of this church have been touched by addiction, one way or another. Each Sunday we pray for all those dealing with addiction and for their families. This church is host to hundreds of people who come here for weekly meetings. And you welcome with open arms and open hearts anyone who is seeking a closer relationship with Christ.

Some might consider all that to be a weakness, but you know it is not. But in light of this weakness that makes you a strong witness for Christ, I would like to make a proposal: I suggest that this congregation use the twelve steps and the Serenity Prayer as its guiding principles during this transition process. I suggest this for one reason: the steps and the prayer are all about taking the power and control out of our hands and putting God in the driver’s seat. I don’t think committee meetings or worship should look like a twelve step meeting; rather, that the steps and the prayer would be part of why we do church and how we do church: “to practice these principles in all our affairs”.

The transition process brings our weaknesses, our defects of character to the surface so that God can heal them, so that we can forgive ourselves and each other, so the past can be laid to rest, so that we can be ready for whatever the future may hold. But of course, the first step is admitting that we are powerless, that it is God’s power that is made perfect in our weakness and in the weakness of our sisters and brothers. The first step is admitting that we are in deep need of God’s grace.

Thanks be to God, that God’s grace is sufficient! Amen.