Friday, December 31, 2010

Regalo abbracci - Felice anno nuovo!

For all whose 2010 requires an embrace. My love and friendship to you in 2011.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Incarnation = Vulnerable

Vulnerable (c) 2005 Linda Huber

Genesis 3; Luke 2
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
Christmas Eve – 2010

(Much of this meditation is due the work of Professor Brené Brown, a researcher/storyteller at the University Of Houston Graduate College Of Social Work. I am profoundly thankful that there are academics studying what makes for joy in human living.)

Tonight we celebrate the incarnation, the embodiment of the sacred, that mystery of God-with-us in the birth of Jesus. What does that mean, the embodiment of the sacred? What does it mean that God is with us in Jesus? How does a mystery like that make any difference after we’ve taken down the Christmas tree and put away the ornaments and the nativity set? What are we really celebrating?

We call this a holy night, a holy birth because God came into this world and into our lives in a way we had not experienced before. And yet God has always been coming into this world, seeking a connection, a relationship with the creation, with every living thing. All through the salvation story we can see how God reaches out, human beings reject. God allows human beings to suffer the consequences of their disconnection, human beings repent. God then opens the way to return to connection and relationship. Sounds like any normal interaction between a parent and a child. Or between any two people who have made themselves vulnerable to one another through love.

When we say that in Christmas we celebrate the incarnation, what we are really celebrating is vulnerability. Being vulnerable is when we say ‘I love you’ first, without thought to a response. Being vulnerable is allowing ourselves to be fully seen, to risk ourselves with no guarantees. Being vulnerable is investing ourselves in a relationship that may not work and doing it anyway.

Being vulnerable is messy. It’s a messy way to live. When we open ourselves like that, when we love, we expose ourselves to the possibility of rejection and pain. We all know what that’s like, to love and to not be loved in return. We can become guarded, careful, fearful, shamed by our experience, wondering if we are even worthy of love. Some of us may have learned from those experiences not to open ourselves like that ever again.

However, when we guard our hearts from pain and rejection, we also close the way to joy and creativity and the ability to give. Professor Brené Brown says that adults today are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated in U.S. history. We find ways to numb ourselves, to keep this feeling of being vulnerable under lock and key. We all do this. If we think we are exempt, we are fooling no one but us. Perhaps we are not in debt but we still buy more than we need and save not nearly enough. We may not be obese but we still indulge ourselves at the table or between meals and we lead less-than-active lives. We may not be addicted to drugs or alcohol or tobacco; we may not be on medication but we still have to have that coffee or soda or some kind of treat; we engage in too much screen time of any kind.

All of this serves to soften the cliff-like edge between us and that open chasm of our feelings. But feelings are feelings and they travel the same pathway whether they be sorrow or joy, hope or despair, anxiety or calm, fear or love. When we numb ourselves to the bad stuff, we also blunt our ability to feel the good stuff. We then become miserable, which leads us to feeling vulnerable, which then leads us to engage in our numbing behaviors and the cycle begins all over again.

And the shocking thing of it is our culture has given us permission to do this: it’s called rewarding ourselves, treating ourselves, giving ourselves a little comfort; after all, we say, we deserve it considering all we put up with. This is how our culture makes money, it’s Madison Avenue at its finest; this is how an empire is made and recessions are born: with human misery, out of our inability to deal with the fact that life is vulnerable and messy.

From the very beginning life on this earth has been that way. The only instance when there was no mess, no risk was in that formless void. When God spoke, when energy became matter, mess and risk entered in and hunkered down for the duration. In the creation of the heavens and the earth and especially in human beings, God not only created vulnerability but also became vulnerable to the creation. In reaching out and desiring a connection with those made in the divine image, God became willing to the possibility of being a jilted lover. And our history with God has been one of the messiest love stories ever since.

In the birth of Jesus, God became completely and utterly vulnerable. In both the Matthew and Luke nativity stories, Jesus is born into a mess of some sort, whether it be under the rule of a vengeful king, the Roman occupation or laid in a feeding trough for animals. His parents were peasants, his hometown full of coarse, minimally-educated folks who worked hard and lived simple lives. His birth was witnessed by homeless shepherds or a few magi wanted for questioning, depending on which story you read.

When we are born and when we die we are at our most vulnerable and dependent. As children we love with our whole hearts, we immerse ourselves in joy and in play. It is only as we grow that we learn that the world may not and sometimes does not love us as we love ourselves. And so we begin the cycle of shame and fear that can plague us all through our adult lives.

In Jesus, God shows us how to live a vulnerable, open, wholehearted, joyful life. From Jesus we learn the risk, the price of a wholehearted love but we also learn courage, hope, and the knowledge that not only are others worthy of love and compassion but that we are too. Jesus teaches us through his vulnerable life and messy death that the practice of gratitude, joy and love are possible even in the face of great terror so that we might be able to face our own fears and be healed.

The Vulnerable Happiness of a Cherry Tree, Trine Wejp-Olsen, 2007

In Jesus we celebrate that God is fully known; God allows God’s self to be fully and deeply seen, granting us the trust we need to allow ourselves to be fully and deeply seen by others. Only in this way can we truly and deeply see others as they are. Yes, we are imperfect; yes, our lives and our life together are often quite messy. We are also worthy, just as we are.

So, baby Jesus, welcome to this messy, imperfect world! We’re glad you’re here. A weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Merry Christmas, Church! Amen.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Least likely

Saint John the Baptist, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591 - 1666)

Isaiah 35: 1-10; Matthew 11: 2-11
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
December 12, 2010 – Advent 3

I am a fan of the underdog, the supposed losers of this world. I cheered for the New Orleans Saints in last year’s Super Bowl. I grew up south of Boston, with a baseball team that long-suffered under a curse. I work for a guy who was homeless, poor, talked about loving one’s enemies and being blessed for meekness, who died a horrible death, convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.

I’m a soft touch when it comes to Salvation Army volunteers, a street person asking for a few bucks, or the many causes that fill my mailbox and ask for my time on the phone. I invite those wet-behind-the-ears, young Mormon men into my home for something to eat or hot to drink as they pass through our neighborhood every few years. When someone comes to my front door to ask for support I sign the petition and write letters to folks in Congress to abolish the death penalty or to save Long Island Sound.

I love stories about individuals and communities facing incredible odds, and maybe they don’t win the battle, they don’t save the day, but they get back up again the next day and try once more. I appreciate the courage it takes when someone is willing to step out on a limb, try their best, and though it may be far from perfect, it is enough. I love the rich, sumptuous, crowded list of those ‘least likely’.

In this morning’s reading from Isaiah we have a rather strange neighborhood: God’s ‘least-likelihood’: wilderness and desert are singing, flowers are blooming on the dry, barren land, weary hands are given strength, wobbly knees are made firm; the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap like deer, the voiceless break into song; springs of water spout forth in the desert and streams flow, like a wadi or a dry riverbed after a heavy rain; the hot sand will become a quenching pool, the thirsty ground will spout like a water fountain; even where jackals and coyotes hang out will be like a soaking swamp, and the dry grass will become lush and glossy.

Blue Reeds, a glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden

And in this least likely oasis there will be a highway, a holy road that will lead God’s people out of exile. The least likely possibility will happen, that God’s people who had been taken captive will now be welcomed home. Even those who usually lose their way will be able to find this road and follow it. For so very long God’s people could not sing their songs of home; now they shall find their voices. The seemingly endless sorrow and grieving will give way to everlasting joy. It is a dream that belongs to all of us, for we all long for home and wholeness.

By the time of John the Baptist, a time of house arrest for God’s people with the Roman occupation, the collective memory of this ‘least likely’ dream had faded. It had been some time since a prophet had been seen in Judah. Given the circumstances, many had expectations that the Messiah would come soon. Some thought he would lead a revolution to oust the Romans and establish King David’s dynastic throne once more.

So when John appeared on the scene, the very voice crying out in the wilderness, many thought he was Elijah come again to herald the advent of the Messiah, who would be the stream flowing in the desert. John’s call to repentance reminded God’s people of that least likely oasis, that peace where one expects strife, that hope where one expects despair. The people flooded the wilderness with the anticipation that now it would be God who would travel that holy road to them, that the Messiah would be their rescuer.

John also had his own expectations, someone with more fire, who would put things right, overturn the oppressive regime; someone with more power than one who talks about turning the other cheek. This Jesus didn’t seem like a very likely messiah. As John sat in prison thinking about what he was hearing from his followers, he might have been wondering if losing his life was worth it. And it sounds as if John’s disciples may have come to the same conclusion: “Are you the One we’ve been expecting, or are we waiting for another?”

Can you hear the guardedness in that question, the desire to not misplace their hopes: “You sound like the least likely candidate for the Messiah. Are you sure we can trust you, follow you?” After all, Jesus’ curriculum vita wasn’t exactly top drawer. The prophet Micah wrote about the place of his birth: “And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” Or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “But you, Bethlehem, David's country, the runt of the litter—from you will come the leader who will shepherd-rule Israel.” And before you form in your mind a lovely pastoral image of green pastures and still waters, let me remind you that shepherds were one of the lowest-caste occupations in the Middle East. They were poor, uneducated, sometimes criminal. From the most hick-town will come a bandit to lead a ragtag, often rebellious people. Yup, it’s got success written all over it.

Even Jesus’ hometown where he grew up had a rotten reputation. In the gospel of John, as Jesus is collecting disciples, one of them says to another, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazarenes, like other Galileans, spoke in a coarse dialect, sounding not quite as refined and educated as those in Judea. So here we have a coarse-speaking itinerant rabbi, the son of a carpenter and a peasant girl who descends from the none-too-perfect King David. Again, Jesus is not exactly what was hoped for.

All of us know what it is like to have our hopes dashed. Christmas is the one holiday charged with more expectations than any other and can set us up to be disappointed in any number of ways. Some of us may have hard feelings attached to this season or at least know someone who does. We’re raised on stories of magic, yet the magic does not come so easily when one grows up poor. Those of us who grew up in an alcoholic or abusive home know that Christmas was most likely the worst day, week, or month of the year. And if a loved one has died in the month of December, Christmas is never the same again.

Trouble is, we all know how this story ends, with Jesus on the cross dying a death no one deserves, least of all him. An ignominious death isn’t exactly a selling point or an obvious source of redemption. Which is what prompts John’s question: what am I here in prison for? What am I dying for? Did I proclaim the right person? Did I get the message right? Are you the one?

So Jesus reminds John’s disciples of that ancient dream, that the least likely things to happen are indeed happening: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lepers are cleansed, the lame walk, and he adds a couple of the very least likely to happen to up the ante: the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense that Jesus hasn’t lived up to their expectations of him.

Jesus came not to satisfy our expectations but God’s expectations for the kingdom. And in God’s kingdom everything is upside-down, backwards, from the bottom up, from last to first, for the least and lost. In God’s kingdom what is least likely is most likely to happen, to bear fruit, to be true.

What expectations do you have about Christmas, about yourself, about this church that are unrealistic or least likely to happen? Can you appreciate the difference between unrealistic and least likely? When have you been surprised, or uncertain, like John, about how God was at work in your life, and in the life of this community? In what ways do you long for streams to break forth in your own desert wilderness? And in our longing, how can we praise God?

And you, O Woodmont United Church of Christ, though you may be one of the littlest UCC churches in the Connecticut conference, from you shall come forth, for God, leaders who will be like springs in the desert, the Hail Mary pass in the fourth quarter, those who have the courage to step out on a limb, try their best, and though it may be far from perfect, it will be enough. A small church with no steeple that sometimes worries about its financial solvency, that can often feel chaotic and disorganized yet feeds the poor and hungry and makes everyone feel loved who comes through their doors. The dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them. Yup, it’s got success written all over it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Five Christmas markers

from Jan at Yearning for God:

Name five things that mark the Christmas season for you:

1. Salvation Army volunteers ringing their bells in front of the Stop and Shop.

One of my Advent devotions is whenever I see the red bucket and hear the bell ringing, I put a dollar in the bucket and shake hands with the volunteer, wish them a Merry Christmas, and thank them for their work.

2. Buying presents not only for my family and friends but for co-workers and for folks in town for whom the town social worker has posted a wish gift.

I love being creative and generous with gift-giving.

3. Christmas movies.

I like the classics like It's a Wonderful Life but I also like any movie that illustrates the power of the incarnation, unusual ones like Temple Grandin, about a brilliant autistic woman in the 1960's and '70's who's now a professor at the University of Colorado; or Seabiscuit, about a horse who was not only healed by those who loved and understood him but who also gave healing to those around him and to a country in the middle of a depression.

4. Thinking about my Christmas Eve meditation so I have some idea what I'm going to say.

You'll have to wait for this one.

5. Getting the Christmas tree and decorating it with my family.

We went this afternoon, to a tree farm we've never been to before but whose price seems reasonable for the quality of trees - $49. I've been looking at it as I've been writing this post. And if you've been reading this blog for a few years, you'll also know I'm looking forward my lifetime Christmas Eve tree tradition.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Vulnerable = Incarnation

Big thanks to Nina from Woodmont UCC, who shared this with me.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Church blocks

Isaiah 11: 1-10; Matthew 3: 1-12
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
December 5, 2010 – Advent 2

First, I want to thank everyone who participated in our Advent congregational art project by painting a pair of wooden blocks, which have been and will continue to be arranged differently each Sunday in Advent. On each of the blocks are words and images illustrating God’s dream for the kingdom and those things which thwart it. Participants were asked to think of something that needs to change in the world or in the Church or in ourselves and to paint that on one block. On the other block I asked folks to paint what would need to happen in order for that change to take place. For example, ‘greed’ and ‘share’, ‘confusion’ and ‘focus’, ‘war’ and ‘peace’.

As the blocks are arranged in different configurations each week, the pairs we painted are juxtaposed with other words, other images we may not have imagined. Just as in the reading from Isaiah, where we see the wolf with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf, the lion and the fatling together, and a little child leading them, so now we see ‘fear’ and ‘give more’; ‘racism’ and ‘let go, let God’; ‘let it go’ and ‘forgive’; ‘gossip’ and ‘respect’; ‘working together’ and ‘homeless'.

And we begin to realize that God’s kingdom is built with not only with the just but with the unjust as well; that in God’s vision of the world, predators, those who tear apart, come together with innocent prey, not to hurt or to destroy but to live in the fullness of the knowledge of God.

In the reading from the gospel of Matthew we see John the Baptist in the wilderness of Judea, by the shores of the Jordan, proclaiming a message of repentance. People poured out from the city of Jerusalem and from the Judean countryside and came to John for baptism, to be made whole. They turned not only from their sin but also from the persons and places of power toward someone who by all appearances was homeless, poor, and a bit on the crazy side. John was all these things out of his radical love for the Lord and so that the way of the Lord would be not only obvious but in your face.

Perhaps those who were coming to John had an inkling of some of what was wrong in the world or in their religious structure or in themselves and they recognized that this baptism, this cleansing was something that could make change possible. Certainly the poor were there and those considered easy prey by those in power: widows, orphans, the blind, the lame, the deaf and mute, ordinary folks who had to work hard to earn a living, maybe a few prostitutes and tax collectors—the folks that would soon be Jesus’ closest companions. John being who he was would have attracted the least of God’s people: those who were hungry and thirsty for God’s realm.

But then some Pharisees and Sadducees arrive for baptism as well, those with religious authority whom John viewed as predators, calling them vipers—vicious snakes with long fangs and deadly venom. John had not wasted his breath in warning them that the kingdom of God had come near. John, who was an Essene, one who rejected the religious authorities and the power they held over human souls and lives, knew that God spoke from the wilderness, not from the seat of power.

Pharisees and Sadducees were natural enemies—both spiritually and politically, yet when they had seen the crowds of people heading toward the river they joined forces to protect their status and resist the coming change in Jesus. I’d like to think they might have been motivated by a sense of guilt or shame about their past actions. After all, it was this ragtag prophet leading the people to greater devotion and not them.

But guilt and shame have a way of stopping us from changing. Though there are such things as healthy guilt and shame, more often than not, these feelings can paralyze and wound us to the point that we judge ourselves flawed and defective or it is the world around us that is to blame. Sometimes we can take our guilt too far by taking too much responsibility for others, convinced that we are good only if we can be perfect or perform tasks perfectly.

Strangely enough, the emotion that we need more of, and that John the Baptist is seeking in those Pharisees and Sadducees, is remorse. Remorse is the capability of feeling the pain we have caused others. It is the flip side of empathy, that ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, for predator to know what it is to be prey and vice versa.

Remorse is more than just the consumer regret we hear about. It comes from the Latin remordere which means to torment or to vex, or literally, to bite back. It is as if with our words or actions we sink a predator’s teeth, long fangs into someone, knowingly or unknowingly; yet also bite ourselves at the same time. With remorse the pain we cause another is our pain. When we feel that pain, it is then that we can be made whole, for we realize that we—human beings, animals, plants, the very earth, the whole of creation—are one.

It seems every day we witness those in power as lacking in remorse. To be sure, there is plenty of shaming and fists beating the chest but very little in the way of remorse. As human beings we are pain-avoidant, to the point of often taking little responsibility for the pain we cause. But we know from experience that at some point it will come back to bite us.

The irony is that what appears to block our way to the kingdom of God makes the very pathway to the wholeness God intends for us. Greed, war, guilt, shame show us the need for generosity, peace, forgiveness and respect. The pain of remorse leads to wholeness. In Advent we focus on hope, peace, joy and love, for we know the world and we ourselves can be tempted to believe that despair, strife, sorrow, and hatred are normal and even to be expected.

Where are the places in your own life and in the life of this church where you feel remorseful? With whom do you feel juxtaposed, like polar opposites, oil and water, day and night, where there is unresolved tension and the need for reconciliation? What do you do to cope with pain or to avoid it altogether? How have guilt and shame paralyzed and wounded you in your life and in your life together as the Body of Christ? In what areas of your life and your life as a congregation have you come to expect the worst? What is it that you really hope for?

What would this church, this world, what would you look like if none would hurt nor destroy anymore, if the need for remorse was no more? As God’s Advent rearranges us and puts us with people and situations that seem like natural enemies, like polar opposites, let us watch for the unexpected, for God’s surprising love to lead us to healing and to wholeness. Amen.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Red alert!

Swords and Plowshares, Phillip Ratner, 1998, from the Safad Bible.

Isaiah 2: 1-5; Matthew 24: 36-44
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
November 28, 2010 – Advent 1

I must confess to you that I procrastinated in the writing of this sermon, which can happen when God’s word is disruptive. After reading the gospel lesson numerous times, after praying, thinking, reading other sources and then reflecting on all of this, I was still quaking in my shoes. You heard the Matthew text. It sounds like a terrorist alert. “Warning, red alert! A dam has been destroyed due a terrorist bomb and a flood is coming. Warning! There have been random kidnappings in the area. Stay alert for further messages. Warning! There have been numerous break-ins in the area. Keep watch in your neighborhood.” We heard images of God coming into the world not as a cute, cuddly infant, but God as a flood, a kidnapper, a thief who comes into our lives with disturbing surprise and upheaval. What a way to begin Advent.

Did you know that in order to guard against a terrorist attack, our government established a website called It was launched in 2003 by the Department for Homeland Security. The website educated citizens on how to prepare for a terrorist attack, whether it be a chemical or biological threat, an explosion, a nuclear blast, or a radiation threat. Since Obama was elected in 2008 it is now sponsored by FEMA and Citizen Corps and is geared to prepare businesses, families, kids and military families for any natural or man-made disaster. The website exists so that we will be “better prepared for the unexpected.” During the Bush administration it used to display the different colors of the alert system. Since Sept. 11 we have been at a yellow alert and at various times that alert has been upgraded to orange. Red is reserved for an imminent threat of attack.

That color-code alert system reminds me of the 1970’s and ‘80’s when we educated ourselves about nuclear proliferation and worried that our Soviet neighbors would start the next world war. Those were anxious times.

And then there are the bomb shelters of the 1950’s and ‘60’s. And the air raid sirens of the 1940’s. It seems we have always lived in fear of our imminent destruction, especially since our technology has outstretched our ability to control it and use it for constructive purposes rather than destructive ones.

With the advent of ever-more revealing screening technologies and airport pat-downs, it seems we are more fearful of a terrorist attack than of God coming into the world. We are more ready to destroy ourselves than we are for God to disturb our lives with the message of Jesus.

Isaiah has a different vision of our future. In the future that Isaiah imagines, all nations come to God’s holy mountain. God judges between the nations and puts things right between them. And it is not God who beats the swords into plowshares but the people. It is we who turn our spears into pruning hooks, our weapons of mass destruction into tools for harvesting food, our bullets and bombs into grain to feed the hungry.

There is a monument in Washington, D.C. that illustrates this passage poignantly. Artist Esther Augsburger worked for two and a half years with the Metro Police Department to construct it. The sculpture, entitled “Guns into Plowshares”, measures 16 feet high, consisting of 3,000 handguns welded together to form the steel blade of a plowshare. The handguns were ones that had been surrendered by local residents.

It is this future that God wants us to be prepared for, this future of peace, this future of passing down knowledge to our children of how to feed people rather than how to kill them.

But sometimes it appears that this future, this vision of peace, is scarier to us than a future terrorist attack. When we prepare out of fear, we think we can hold onto what we have. We afford ourselves the illusion that we can control the outcome, that we can fight and be triumphant or that we can run away and hide if necessary.

When God warns us to prepare out of love, love for the kingdom, love for everyone including our enemies, including those whom we consider outsiders or we disagree with, we then have to let go. We have to let go of what we think we know, let go of our treasured opinions and way of living, let go of all that we think keeps us safe in the eyes of the world. We have to let go of our fear and embrace the way of love. Sadly, we humans seem to find it easier to base a life on fear than on love. And those in power find it easier to govern those who fear than those who love in Jesus’ radical way.

God comes into our lives and interrupts the order we have so carefully surrounded ourselves with. It is our reluctance to follow God’s way that gives Advent its sense of urgency. If we kept alive Isaiah’s vision even for just a few minutes each day, we think, we wouldn’t have to wake up to such a disturbing alarm. We wouldn’t have to listen to these Advent texts that drag us away from the manger and its warm scene. We could go about our orderly way.

But no. Jesus pulls up our eyelids and jolts us awake with the words, “Keep awake. You do not know when God is coming.” I have a sticker someone gave me that says, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” We smile ruefully because we know that we have been too busy with things other than those which lead to the kingdom of God.

Jesus tells us that if the owner of the house had known when the thief was coming, he would’ve kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. Hindsight is always 20/20, so we are cautioned to stay awake in the present moment, to not be lulled asleep by our comforts, to not numb ourselves from our fears.

If we had known that war only leads to death, destruction, and disease among nations and that the death of an enemy is no different than the death of a loved one in the eyes of God, would we have stayed awake and kept watch with our adversaries until God had led us to another way?

If we had known that deep water oil drilling is not failsafe, that an accident could be catastrophic—both to human and aquatic life, would we have stayed awake until we found another way to provide energy? We would have seen all people and not just some, all the earth and not just where we live, as one creation, made by God for all people.

If we had known that a child would grow into an adult in the wink of an eye, a spouse would change and grow over the years, a parent would get older and not as able, would we have stayed awake and kept watch with them until we found a way to keep our temper, give thanks for their love, accept them as they are, and take it all one day at a time?

If we had known that we were only given so many years on this earth to give, to love, to see, to smell, to touch, to hear, to taste, to know, would we have stayed awake and kept watch, watching for God in each moment, ready for God to break in at any time? We would have known our life here is far too precious to waste on business as usual.

Our God is the One who is always coming into the world. The waiting of Advent is not to wait for God to come but for us to prepare, to get ready. God is always ready to come into the life of this world and into our lives at any given moment, if only we stay awake and keep watch. If we are mindful of the holiness of each moment, of each breath, of each person, of each gift of creation, God is there, ready to break us out of our complacent ways of living and believing and transform us. We truly can be “better prepared for the unexpected”. Though we do not know when God will come, we do know God will. Of that we can be certain. What a way to begin Advent! Thanks be to God.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Bird by bird

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem A.D. 70, Roberts (1850)

Isaiah 65: 17-25; Luke 21: 5-19
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
November 14, 2010 – Stewardship Sunday

As the passage from Luke was read, was not the description of events eerily like those we are experiencing now? Certainly we have wars and nations rising up against other nations. We have had plenty of natural disasters—earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, New Zealand and Indonesia, tornados, mudslides, cholera, famine, drought, forest fires—to herald this alleged end of times.

And then there is our popular culture that at times reeks with depravity. Play Station 3 game series like “Call of Duty”, some that are rated T for teen, where war is glorified in a virtual reality and war’s greatest pain is anesthetized. In our recent election we had pundits and politicians going to war with each other rather than engaging in serious debate about what needs to be done and how it could be accomplished. And then on a lighter note: neither the Red Sox nor the Yankees was in the World Series. Surely now we know that the day of the Lord is near.

But these supposed signs of the end do not happen only to nations, cities, or groups of fans. All of these are composed of individuals and families: individuals who have been laid off from their jobs; individuals who are poor and sick and cannot get adequate health insurance or quality of care; individuals who are in danger of losing their homes; individuals who are teachers, underpaid and overworked, and their students in schools with slim to no resources; individuals who struggle to get an education, to keep their family under one roof, to hold onto hope that things will get better. Surely these are also signs that God is coming to judge the living and the dead.

Let us also remember some other words of Jesus, that we cannot know the day and the hour when God will come. That is only for God to know. Even from our own experience we can say that when we think we know something is going to happen, the fact that we think we know is proof that we don’t know anything.

We live in a culture of fear, some of it due to outside forces, all of it due to our own human weakness. Thinking we know what is going to happen is our own defense mechanism of dealing with our fear. Jesus says to us in other passages in his gospel that our fear, our anxiety will only drive us away from God and away from each other. Jesus has more important work for us to do rather than managing our fear.

Jesus tells those around him that before the end comes, they will be witnessing to the truth of the gospel as they are living it out in their lives and for this they will be arrested and persecuted. This isn’t very comforting or reassuring. For the author of Luke this was already happening to the early Christians. They were convinced the end was near because the temple and all of Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans. Being a Christian was not only unpopular, it was downright dangerous. Some Jews like Saul were bringing followers of the Way bound to Jerusalem as offenders of the Jewish faith. Believers were being tortured for worshiping Christ as their King rather than Caesar. These early Christians believed that their life in the flesh was nothing. The integrity of one’s soul was more important. As Martin Luther wrote in his famous hymn: “The body they may kill; God’s truth shall triumph still; God’s reign endures forever.”

But what is it that we can witness about? To what social concern shall we apply the truth of the gospel? Almost every one of them, from gay marriage to abortion to immigration to Islamophobia, creates conflict and divides the Church. If we are to witness, shouldn’t we be doing it together as a united front, as a Church, as the Body of Christ? Isn’t there one thing all Christians can agree on?

Often it is helpful to look at the passages that frame the lectionary text as a way of providing context for the message at hand. Before this morning’s text we have the story of the poor widow and her offering. Jesus said that out of her poverty she gave all she had to live on. The author of Luke immediately goes on to contrast this scene with other folk observing the almost royal beauty and splendor of the Temple, yet Jesus says it will be destroyed completely. And then after the text ending with “By your endurance you will gain your souls”, we are told the city of Jerusalem will fall. The “city set on a hill for all to see” will be no more.

Here is where the Church’s witness can focus in agreement. Poverty is a biblical priority. I read recently that one out of 16 verses of scripture is about poverty—one out of nine in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. James Forbes, a former pastor of Riverside Church in Manhattan, said, “According to Matthew 25, nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”

All of these other supposedly “nonnegotiable issues” that the Church is in conflict over can sometimes be distractions from the one moral issue, poverty, that one that outweighs and informs every other issue. Abortion does not directly compel us to examine what everyday choices we make with our money, how we behave as consumers. Same-sex marriage does not demand that we change how we live our lives for the sake of others. Immigration and Islamophobia beg how do we treat the outcast in our midst yet they have not necessitated a transformation of individual and collective, corporate values. To be sure, these issues are important and deserve our attention, our best efforts, our faith, and our prayer. But surely not at the cost of our fellow citizens who live in squalor or who struggle just above the poverty line.

In this bountiful land there are 43.6 million people who are poor—the largest number in the 51 years for which poverty estimates have been published; 50.7 million are without health insurance and 37 million are hungry. 3.5 million U.S. citizens are homeless—39% of them children. If our witness to the truth of the gospel is needed anywhere, certainly it is desperately needed by the poor.

“But,” we say, “What can I do? Am I to sell all that I have and give it to the poor? Surely Jesus did not mean that I am to trade places with the poor? What can I do? The problems of our world are so huge, they are seemingly insurmountable.” Sometimes we can let the problem and all its complexities overwhelm us to the point of being paralyzed.

Author Anne Lamott tells the story of her older brother who, when he was ten years old, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. She writes, “We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, CA, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

Jesus does not expect us to save the world. I suspect he does not expect our nation to save the world either. As for how the story of the world is going to end, we leave that in God’s capable hands. All anyone can do is to give what they can on a daily basis to those in need. Of course, to those who can give much, Jesus said more will be asked of them. And if we think we are doing enough for the poor, if we think we are doing our share, the very fact that we think so is proof that we could be doing a whole lot more.

But we don’t have to have some grandiose plan, some lofty goal that just might kill our efforts and our spirits. One kindness, one intervention, one increase on a pledge card, one local food drive, one hour of literacy volunteering, one church tag sale, one Saturday at Habitat for Humanity, one time when we say what we really think, just taking it bird by bird. God calls us not to manage our fear but to be stewards of our love; our money, our time, our lives are the means by which we are able to be generous and extravagant with our love. It is all anyone can really do but with perseverance. Truly it is what Jesus did in his lifetime; it is his legacy to us.

We are not meant to preserve that city set on the hill for all to see. All that we do to protect the splendor and beauty that we have created will come to an end someday. But what we do for each other, for the poor, for our neighbors—whether they be next door or 10,000 miles away or somewhere in between—what we do one person at a time, as we give witness to the truth of the gospel as it is revealed in the living of our lives, by enduring in this way will we gain our souls, which are forever. Thanks be to God.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Kingdom migration

Moses leading the Israelites by a pillar of cloud

Psalm 98; Job 19: 23-27a; 2 Thess. 2: 1-5, 13-17
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
November 7, 2010 – All Saints Sunday

November is a season of migration. Flocks of Canada geese and sand hill cranes, millions of monarch butterflies, herds of bison and pronghorn, even rattlesnakes and bats, are making their way from their summer homes to their winter camps. In this month’s National Geographic magazine I read that “animal migration is far grander and more patterned than animal movement. It represents travel with long-deferred rewards. It suggests premeditation and epic willfulness, codified as inherited instinct.”

Evolutionary biologist Hugh Dingle has identified five characteristics that apply to all migrations: a prolonged voyage that conveys animals outside their familiar habitats; a tendency to move in a straight path rather than a roundabout way; special behaviors in preparation for migration, such as overfeeding; an extraordinary distribution of energy; lastly and most importantly, an undeterred and focused attention to the journey to the exclusion of all else. You might say that animals that migrate have a higher sense of purpose.

Sand hill cranes

We who journey with God are also on a migration of sorts—a spiritual voyage spanning millennia, bearing the same five qualities, though in differing forms. In the wilderness God’s people were led by pillars of cloud and fire. Through the centuries we’ve traveled by the wisdom of prophets and the inspiration of ordinary individuals. We who call ourselves Christian look to Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life. We strive to follow the Holy Spirit who continually urges us onward to the unfamiliar territory of the kingdom. Special behaviors are required of us in preparation, such as being fed through study, prayer, giving, service and worship. As we all know in the Church vast reserves of energy are demanded of us as God’s hands and feet in the world, hence, the need to be fed. All of this is channeled into our higher sense of purpose, the kingdom of God’s grace, compassion, justice and peace.

A life of faith is a migratory path. There is no standing still, there is no status quo, despite the efforts of some to fashion the Church into an unchanging monolith. So often it is easy for us to be distracted. We hear the culture warmongering against the way of peace and justice; our spirits rise and fall with the financial market and our checking account; we are often tempted to measure our faithfulness in terms of what we do rather than by the softness of our hearts.

Monarch butterflies

The infant church in Thessalonica had been temporarily thrown off-course by reports that Jesus had returned without their knowledge, that the kingdom had arrived and they had missed it. Paul, or someone close to him writing in his name, encourages this small congregation to remain steadfast, to remember that they were chosen by God for faith and they are witnesses to the fruits of this faith. He reminds this fledgling church of the tradition that has been handed down to them by those trustworthy in the faith.

We too have a source of those trustworthy in the faith: those saints who have passed on before us, who entrusted us with the tradition of following the Holy Spirit wherever she goes. Migratory paths are taught from parent to offspring, from one generation to the next. We follow in the path of folks like Diane and Carlos, Charlie and Eleanor, Hal and Herb, Marjorie and Cecil. They knew that the path of faith is one of long-deferred rewards; that it requires reflection, planning and an epic willfulness, codified as inherited instinct—inherited from those who came before them.

Sometimes in the Church we inherit dysfunctional patterns—self-defeating habits that perpetuate unhealthy congregational behaviors which can take us off-course. It is up to every generation, as in every family, to decide what we’re going to hold onto and what we need to let go of. What was handed down to us may no longer work. It doesn’t mean we are disloyal to their memory. Rather we honor them when we remember that the greater mission is the kingdom of God, which does not change.


But our migratory path toward the kingdom is not linear nor is it spiral or zigzag: it does not even exist in time. In truth, at any given moment the kingdom can come to us. It comes when justice is lived, when we are at peace with ourselves and our neighbor, when mercy is done, resources shared, forgiveness spoken, when bread is broken and the cup poured out. The kingdom is eternally now, entering into our journey with God, when the invisible becomes visible in us and through us.

All of this we do step by step, one day at a time, feeling our way on this great migration. Our guidance system, our homing beacon is a mystery that tells us that God is very real, made known to us through the creation in which we live out our faith; for it is God who first showed us the way and continues to lead us home. And sometimes the only way we can articulate this faith, what we know to be true, is in song:

“Who taught the sun where to stand in the morning?
And who told the ocean you can only come this far?
And who showed the moon where to hide 'til evening?
Whose words alone can catch a falling star?

“Well, I know my Redeemer lives.
I know my Redeemer lives:
Let all creation testify;
Let this life within me cry
I know my Redeemer lives.”

"Redeemer"©Nicole C. Mullen

Friday, November 05, 2010

The stillspeaking church speaks again

As a friend and colleague of mine said, this is the church I love and love to serve.

Uniquely UCC from United Church of Christ on Vimeo.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Children of Abraham

Jesus and Zacchaeus

Psalm 119: 137-144; Luke 19: 1-10
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
October 31, 2010 – Reformation/Reconciliation Sunday

One of the most publicized family feuds was in 1998. It was the controversy over whether or not Thomas Jefferson fathered one or perhaps all seven of Sally Hemings’ children. Thomas Jefferson was a Virginia landowner and owned hundreds of slaves, Sally Hemings being one of them. For over two hundred years questions have been raised about their relationship and whether or not it produced children.

Technology caught up with those questions in the person of Dr. Eugene Foster, a retired medical professor from the University of Virginia. He compared the blood from five descendants of Field Jefferson, Thomas's paternal uncle, with the blood of the descendants of Sally Hemings, Thomas Woodson—whose family claims Jefferson as an ancestor, and the Carr brothers, Jefferson’s nephews—who were long thought to have fathered Sally Hemings’ children. Though the findings were not conclusive, they provided strong support to the supposition that Jefferson was the father of at least one of Sally Hemings’ children.

Thought it ranks high on the list, this quarrel is not entirely about racism, as we might assume. It also has to do with privilege: being buried at Monticello, not far from where Thomas Jefferson was laid to rest; open and accepted membership in a prestigious founding family. As a child, Shannon Lanier, a descendant of Madison Hemings, stood in front of his first grade class, stating that Thomas Jefferson was his great- great- great- great- great- great-grandfather. His teacher told him to sit down and stop telling lies. Ultimately this dispute is about inclusion, reconciliation and a sense of legitimate belonging in this nation’s history.


So you can imagine what a family reunion it must have been. Every year hundreds of Jefferson descendants, who comprise the Monticello Association, gather at the historical landmark after hours. And after an invite from one of the association members, dozens of Sally Hemings’ descendants began attending, not as family but as guests, and with them, hoards of reporters and photographers.

But as we in the church well know, an invitation can be a far cry from a warm and hospitable welcome. Many association members were in favor of the Hemings being in attendance but most were not. Eventually a vote was taken to deny them full membership and to restrict their numbers at the annual reunion. Attempting to form a human wall between the Hemings descendants and Thomas Jefferson, the association tried to deny them access to the Monticello cemetery. Since 2004 not one of the Hemings has attended the reunion; now they hold their own gathering at Monticello—at sunrise in a recently discovered slave cemetery. It’s not much of a stretch to say that, in order to get a clear glimpse of Jefferson, Hemings’ descendants may have to climb a tree, the family tree, limb by limb.

"Virginia Luxuries," by an unknown artist, around 1800. Courtesy Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.

Zacchaeus knew what it was like to be excluded because of who he was. From the text we read that he was rich, he was short in stature and he was not only a tax collector but the chief of them all. These all look like many strikes against him.

And yet, according to the Jewish wisdom tradition, being rich was not an evil thing; in fact, it was a sign of God’s blessing and favor, that one must be wise and righteous in the eyes of God. Wealth was not an end in and of itself; it was vehicle for expressing one’s faithfulness to God and to neighbor. Are you generous or greedy, giving or withholding? And as for short of stature, the Greek words for this phrase translate as ‘small in maturity’, that is, the crowd was treating him like a child. They had formed a human wall between Zacchaeus and Jesus, deciding who had access to Jesus and who did not. A tax collector who worked for the Romans and the chief one at that? According to the crowd, Zacchaeus was definitely out.

In last week’s lectionary reading from Luke, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee who when he prays, extols his own righteous behavior and thanks God that he is not like ‘that tax collector over there’. Jesus, though, lifts up the humble faith of the tax collector beating his chest, praying “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Jesus also said that prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the kingdom of heaven before the righteous. He was known to sit at table with sinners and tax collectors, even calling one to be part of his inner circle of disciples. And in today’s lectionary reading Jesus says he not only will but must come to Zacchaeus’ house.

This story has usually been read and interpreted as a man who once cheated folks but for having received Jesus into his home now repents and changes his ways. But according to biblical commentators wiser than I, there’s more to this story about Zacchaeus than meets the eye.

In verse 8 the Greek verb “to give”, didōmi, has been translated in the New Revised Standard Version in the future tense: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” But in the Greek and in other translations it is in the present active tense: “I give…”, “I repay…”, implying that Zacchaeus is already giving to the poor and repaying any fraudulent transactions. If citizens could produce the receipt given to them, tax collectors, by law, were required to repay the defrauded amount plus 20%. A faithful Jew was also required to give to the poor. Zacchaeus is not only faithful but goes beyond the law, giving half to the poor and repaying any debt plus four times as much. In fact, the name ‘Zacchaeus’ in Hebrew means “pure” or “innocent”.

Zacchaeus is a rich man in the classic Jewish tradition, in that he is more than faithful, but because he is the chief tax collector working for the treacherous Romans, the crowd grumbles and assumes Zacchaeus is a crook. Salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ household not because of anything Zacchaeus has done but because Jesus chose to lift up one who is humble and righteous, who is also a child of Abraham.

We human beings have a long-standing tradition of building walls between “us” and “them”, based on judgments, assumptions and half-truths. On Oct. 20 NPR political analyst Juan Williams was fired because of comments he made on the Fox network show “The O’Reilly Factor”. Here are his exact words: "I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous." He also tempered that remark by saying that blaming all Muslims for the actions of extremists would be akin to blaming all Christians for the actions of Timothy McVeigh.

And yet Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all children of Abraham. He was the father of nations, promised by God who is the God of all nations. Abraham was not native to the land of Canaan but originally from Ur, a city-state in ancient Sumer that would later come under the control of the Babylonian empire, the empire that would one day destroy the temple in Jerusalem and send Israel into exile.

None of us can claim legitimacy for ourselves. Just as Jesus insisted on coming to the home of Zacchaeus, legitimacy is a gift we bestow on one another. It is when we reach out to ‘the other’ and say “You are my sister, my brother, I claim you as family, and this whole earth is our home.” When we are able to do this, then we will have reconciliation; then we will have peace.

Notice the Star of David and the blossom of light around Zacchaeus.

But peace and reconciliation require that we become small and pure in heart, like Zacchaeus. If salvation is to come to this house we call Earth, and it must come, it begins with each of us acknowledging our safe distance from the poor. It begins with taking inventory of ourselves and if we have cheated anyone of forgiveness, compassion, or justice, we restore to them not only what is due but even four times as much. We are to emulate Jesus’ accounting of grace, that we are to forgive not once, not seven times, but seventy times seven, that if someone takes our coat, we are to give our cloak as well, to go the second mile, to give to anyone who begs of us.

We cannot claim any greatness except that of God working through us, and even that is a dubious claim when one examines our track record with God. Yet God’s merciful cup overflows. God’s passion for us is a stubborn love and God remains steadfast. God claims all of us as children, as one family, that none would be lost, that all would be sought and found. Thanks be to God.


Monday, October 18, 2010

Holding on and letting go

The Widow and the Unjust Judge

Genesis 32: 22-31; Psalm 121; Luke 18: 1-8
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
October 17, 2010

Earlier this week I hope you all had an opportunity to watch some of the footage of the Chilean miners being rescued from their 68-day ordeal 700 meters below the earth’s surface. To me, it was like watching a birth, as the workers stood by the rescue shaft, waiting as the cable slowly raised the capsule containing, each in their turn, one of the 33 miners, moving from darkness into the light. I couldn’t help but cry with joy and with memories of those times when someone lifted me or a loved one out of the darkness, when God reached into that pit of despair and raised me into the light.

Of course, as a follower of Jesus, I can’t help but think of the resurrection, as though that deep hole underground was a tomb of death yet through love and hope and prayer and the hard work of many, it became a womb of life. As a person of faith I would say it was the prayers of perhaps millions around the world that sustained the miners and their families in their waiting, as well as knowing that everything was being done to rescue them and care for them.

In fact, one of the miners, Mario Gomez, the 9th and oldest miner to reach the surface, knelt down and prayed when he emerged from the rescue capsule. Two of the miners who were previously agnostic were said to have ‘found religion’ in the midst of their ordeal and joined in the daily prayer time the miners shared with one other. Many are calling what happened a miracle. And the Chilean people are ascribing the success of the rescue not to themselves but to God.

Mario Gomez

Alexander Chancellor, a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian, and a self-avowed non-believer, writes that “[the] Chilean miners' rescue had everything to do with the impressive feats of the rescuers and nothing to do with God.” He admires their humility but is also confused by it, saying that the miners were also very lucky in their circumstances, unlike the nearly 500 who perished in the earthquake earlier this year. To this journalist and to us too at times, it seems that God’s mercy is mercurial, reserved for some and not for others.

Since humanity has been able to reflect on itself and human beings have perceived themselves as individuals and not just as a member of a group, the question of why do bad things happen has persisted. We have been wrestling with God on this point for millennia and we have not come any closer to an answer that gives us undoubted assurance. We have witnessed the power of prayer and yet we have also experienced its apparent failure. Does the efficacy of our prayers depend on our faith or how frequently we pray? Is it how we word our prayers, how specific or general our requests? Would things have turned out the way they did anyway, regardless of our prayers?

It seems to me that, in the American Christian experience of faith, too easily we grasp onto God and too easily we let go. The idea of God is something we should approach with fear and trembling as much as with comfort and release. The same could also be said about letting go of the idea of God. Too often, in the vacuum that our fear or anger or despair creates, we latch onto God as a cosmic cure-all, in a desperate attempt to assuage our very natural, very human feelings. We also tend to let go of God in that very same vacuum, when the God of our perceptions fails us.

There are two fundamental questions at the core of our human experience that as yet have no once and for all, satisfactory answer: one, where did this existence we live in come from? How was energy transformed into matter? What started all of this? And two, where is all this headed? What is the purpose of the universe? To put it in terms of human experience, where did we come from, how did each of us unique persons come to be? And what will happen to us when we die? Any of those questions has the power to create that vacuum, that empty space we so desperately try to fill.

The majority of human beings have come to believe that there is some sort of higher power at work in this world, that there is something beyond what science and our five senses can tell us. There is a mystery beyond our present capacity to understand, despite what Stephen Hawking says. Author Joseph Campbell wrote "We keep thinking of deity as a kind of fact, somewhere; God as a fact. God is simply our own notion of something that is symbolic of transcendence and mystery. The mystery is what's important." But how do we encounter the mystery, the unanswerable, the ineffable?

Ironically, we generally avoid these existential questions at church. Ron Brown, one of our associate conference ministers, says that there’s not a great deal of wrestling in the church. There’s plenty of what he calls ‘rassling’: arguments over small details, tussles over unimportant matters. But what the church needs is more wrestling. For instance, what about wrestling with why the church is in decline and whether nor not we’re going to follow? What about wrestling with how to be like Jesus in our daily lives? What about wrestling with forgiveness?

In these days it’s too easy to hang on to a feel-good faith or to let go of it when it runs empty. It’s hard hanging on to that mystery called God when what we’re wrestling with is the poverty or oppression of our neighbors or the cancer eating away at our life or an addiction compelling us to fill that vacuum inside us or the darkness seeping into our souls. It’s hard hanging on to God when we’re feeling spiritually hurt, especially when the church has been involved.

Jacob had the nerve to hang on until the blessing came, and we are challenged to do the same. Yes, he came away with a limp, but God never promised us a struggle-free life and certainly not struggle-free community. God did promise to help us and to remain faithful and love us—forever.

Jacob wrestling with an angel

Jesus dares us to be persistent, even nagging, in our need for justice. God’s mercy is not of the quick-fix variety or a security blanket or a bulletproof shield protecting our bodies from all harm. Luke’s gospel was speaking to early followers of Jesus—Jews and Gentiles—around the time that the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Few, if any, of Luke’s readers may have known Jesus; most did not. They were hopeful of his return but also despairing over their circumstances of persecution and what appeared to be permanent exile. In this parable, Jesus is telling his present disciples and those through the ages that God’s mercy will come quickly.

But how quickly, they and we wonder? People were perishing; communities of faith were growing weary, the power to transform seemingly ebbing away from them. Sounds familiar, yes? The spiritual practice that Jesus compels the disciples to engage in is the same for disciples of the 21st century: to pray always and to not lose heart.

Prayer that sustains us is more, though, than talking to God and a list of our requests. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes that prayer is “to come into the presence of God in the hope that we will be changed by doing so.” In prayer we persevere with God, we wrestle with God and we hang on until the blessing comes, until justice is done and mercy is granted. Prayer does not take us out of the world but brings us face to face with it and with God’s dream for the world, that kingdom of peace and righteousness for the whole of creation. In prayer we hang onto God for dear life and we let go of the outcome, trusting that God has not our best interests, but the wholeness of all at heart.

The Serenity Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer are ones we can say through the day to help us not lose heart, to help us not let go of our hearts. I’d like to introduce you to another prayer to take with you, one that if prayed in sincerity and honesty, has power, like any other prayer, to bring change and healing:

“Holy Spirit, if this direction or course of action is right for me, let it become more firmly rooted and established in my life. If this is wrong for me, let it become less important to me, and let it be increasingly removed from my life.” [1]

Are you ready to hang on for love and healing and rescue? Are you ready to let go of the schedule, the timeline, the outcome and trust God? Are you ready for blessing, for justice, for mercy? Are you ready to go deeper with God that you would be raised to new life?

[1] Flora Slosson Wuellner. Prayer, Stress and Our Inner Wounds. Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 1985, pg. 78.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Crossing the line

Psalm 111; Luke 17: 11-19
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
October 10, 2010

Two weeks ago, when rain was pounding the eastern seaboard and storm drains were flooding, an elderly woman and her great-grandson were driving down Rhode Island Avenue in Washington, D.C. The water was so high and rising so fast that it suddenly stopped the car and surged into where Bernice and Davonte were sitting. The boy opened his door and got of the car amidst the cold, raging water. But his great-grandmother was stuck in the car. As he tried to reach her, the water kept pushing him back. Because of the increasing water pressure, Bernice couldn’t open her door. When the water level reached the steering wheel, she thought she was a goner.

One of the passersby at the scene, a Hispanic man by appearance, stripped off his clothes and swam over to the car through the trash-ridden, fast-moving, unseasonably-cold water. He opened the car door, pulled Bernice out and helped her to safety. He didn’t hesitate or keep his safe distance. He didn’t take a picture or make a video. He didn’t even call 911. Instead he risked his life to save a complete stranger from drowning.

He also didn’t stick around to be thanked or to even introduce himself. Speculation is that he may have been an undocumented immigrant who didn’t wish to be questioned by the police when they arrived at the scene. Even though many undocumented immigrants may seem invisible to us, this man crossed that invisible line between citizen and foreigner and blurred that line so much that we couldn’t tell one from the other.

Boundaries and rules are important and should be respected. They keep us safe and healthy and whole. Usually when we break those limits, some sort of trouble or disease or injury ensues. We see the sense of them and we learn to keep them.

But we all know there are other restrictions intended to control or exclude or inflict harm on others. Many of us have known what that is like. Most, if not all, of you would cross such a line to set free, include and offer healing to one such as this anonymous rescuer.

So, isn’t it strange that in the gospel lesson from Luke, Jesus does not bridge the prescribed distance between himself and this small community of lepers? Jesus was known to be not only a rule-bender but a rule-breaker when it came to healing, forgiveness and the kingdom of God. These lepers are obeying the Levitical laws of purity by keeping their distance, but that’s never stopped Jesus before. In fact, it is in the obedience to those laws that these men are healed, as they are going to show themselves to the priests. And it is the lepers who bridge the gap by initiating conversation between themselves and Jesus.

Jesus is walking the line between Galilee and Samaria, between homeland and ghetto-land, doing his high-wire act on his way to Jerusalem. On his way Jesus encounters all sorts of people: a man with many demons, a girl on the edge of death, a woman with a hemorrhage, these ten lepers. Through these people Luke shows us what kind of person shows faith, what kind of person responds to Jesus and his message of forgiveness. It was not the leaders, the in-crowd, the longtime believers who were showing faith, but outsiders who were responding to Jesus’ message with shouts of praise and gratitude.

But only one healed man returns to give thanks and praise, and he is a double outcast: he is also a Samaritan, a foreigner. He is outside the covenant and thus, not even bound to go show himself to the priests. Yet he obeys anyway, and when he sees he has been healed, turns back, falls at Jesus’ feet and thanks him profusely.

Yes, the other nine did as they were told and were also healed, but it was the faith of the Samaritan that saved him. In other translations the word ‘whole’ is used in place of ‘well’: “Your faith has made you whole”, implying more than physical healing. Here we have the difference between being healed and being saved, between obedient faith and faith that has the power to save us and transform us.

Jesus wants to know what kind of faith we have. Are we obedient to God and the limits God has placed on us, such as the Ten Commandments? There is certainly nothing wrong with that kind of faith, but for Jesus, obedient faith is a place to start. Jesus wants to know if we’re willing to cross the line from homeland into ghetto-land, to join him in his high-wire act on the way to Jerusalem. And we all know what’s waiting in Jerusalem.

Keeping to the rules may heal the open wounds we human beings have made in this world but the rules won’t save us. And as we all know, sometimes we have to go beyond the rules and our self-imposed limits for mercy and compassion to have their way.

The difference is joyful, jubilant gratitude. The Samaritan crossed the line of obedience to the law into the fearless expression of gratitude. Jesus offered him not only healing but the opportunity to be saved by grace. To one who was unclean and outside the covenant, this was good news indeed! It would be like not only winning the lottery but also being given the chance to change someone else’s life for the better.

When I had that dream that saved my life some thirty years ago (!), I felt like I had to give something back, that I had to ‘pay it forward’ to someone else who needed God’s transforming grace. I came across two verses in the gospel of Matthew that became a scripture reading at my ordination: “…those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”

And so by entering the ministry I thought I was giving my life in return for the new life that had been given to me. But the giving in gratitude for my life didn’t end there. When I was in seminary, I racked up some debts. I had tuition, books, room and board, a car payment, and a credit card: American Express: no carrying the balance forward. I had gotten in over my head. Any income I had went out to pay bills. I can remember being on my knees crying and fervently praying to God because I was so scared of being in debt. I called a friend in my home church and shared my troubles.

Not long after that I received a money order for $1200 from an anonymous donor from my church, mailed to me by the church secretary. To this day, I have no idea who saved me. But in gratitude for that saving grace, I have been a pledging giver ever since.

I pledge to this church as a measure of my joy and thankfulness for what God is doing through you and through our time together. Each month I make out a check for $400—about 8% of my total salary. I know I’m crossing a line by telling you that, but if I am asking you to move beyond the comfort of home into a place none of us have been before, then I should be the first to cross that line.

I also plan to increase my pledge to $450 a month in 2011, for as long as I am here. You are searching for a settled pastor and you want to be able to pay that person well enough that they will be a good giver and pledge to this church. I want to be a part of that, to be a part of not only the healing but the saving grace and jubilant thanks that often comes with a new pastor.

Even though the stewardship season has not quite begun, I want you to start thinking about it and praying about it. I invite you to increase your pledge this year, even if it’s only by a dollar a week. If you give but don’t pledge, I encourage you to pledge whatever you can. In order to welcome the future with joy and deep gratitude, I ask you to make that transition, to go beyond where you are now, and cross that line of fear to get to a place of magic, that place where Jesus waits for us with not only healing but with soul-saving, life-transforming grace. That place is this church, Woodmont United Church of Christ, daring to reveal God’s unconditional love by welcoming and accepting all people, through joyful and creative worship, faithful service and spiritual growth. Amen.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

U.S. religious knowledge survey

An ironic surprise...agnostics, atheists, Jews and Mormons scored best on this Pew Research survey. Which means we who call ourselves Christian weren't paying attention in Sunday School. Or we forgot about that World Religions class and U.S. History and Civics. Or we're not getting our news from a balanced perspective. Or didn't receive a quality education. No wonder bigotry and ignorance still have their place in this country.

Take the quiz yourself and post your results in the comments.