Monday, July 26, 2010

Better than a hallelujah

Yesterday was my Sunday to not preach, part of my part-time covenant with this congregation. Instead we enjoyed a wonderful skit on the gospel lectionary passage, Luke 11: 1-13, on prayer, written, produced, and acted by members of the congregation.

Many folks at the church where I work are going through a rough time right now and prayer can often be a difficult thing when one is in the midst of a struggle or when one is in pain. This video is for those of you who are in that place right now. It's a song about how God accepts us and loves us as we are, mess and all.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Under the radar

(I decided it was time for this church to 'come out of the closet' on this blog, especially since they are celebrating their 125th anniversary this year.)

Martha and Mary, He Qi, China

Psalm 15; Luke 10: 38-42
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
July 18, 2010 - Heritage Sunday

The shortest paraphrase of Psalm 15 that I ever heard was in the movie “Friday Night Lights”, of all places: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” The movie is the story of the Odessa-Permian High School football team in 1988, the year they made it to the Texas state championships but lost by the closest, most agonizing margin I have ever seen.

It’s a story that doesn’t make it into the headlines very often—about almost winning, about losing by this much. More importantly it’s a story about having clear eyes and full hearts, and when you do, you can’t lose no matter what the scoreboard says.

Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase The Message, gives us Psalm 15 in this way:

1 GOD, who gets invited to dinner at your place?
How do we get on your guest list?

2 "Walk straight, [or move through life without blame]
act right,
tell the truth.

3-4 "Don't hurt your friend,
don't blame your neighbor;
despise the despicable.

5 "Keep your word even when it costs you,
make an honest living,
never take a bribe.

"You'll never get blacklisted
if you live like this."

You’ll probably also not be written up in the paper or in a history book, make it into a who’s who or the nightly news. Most folks who live this way go largely unnoticed yet we’re always extremely thankful that we know one or more persons like this, even more so if we call them friends.

I would bet that both Martha and Mary lived this way. They were more than, as my grandmother would have said, ‘good people’. They were the best sort of friends. In the gospel lesson from Luke, Martha opens her home to Jesus, making him feel welcome. Her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to what he is saying. So far, so good. Both women demonstrate their intent to be disciples of Jesus, each in their own way. Clear eyes, full hearts. Both have an enthusiasm for Jesus and his presence in their home and what that means to them.

Back in the latter part of the 19th century, when this church was formed, there was great debate as to how one’s enthusiasm for Jesus should be displayed. There were rationalists, born of the Enlightenment, who thought that faith was an expression of the mind and one approached God through the study of scripture or through the hearing of an expository sermon, with clear eyes. Others in the Protestant faith, of the Pietist tradition, believed that faith was a personal, transformative experience, a living reality known in a living God—full hearts. Both of these expressions of faith are present in the United Church of Christ, stemming from our forebears. The Congregationalists of Boston focused more on rational aspects of faith, called “Old Light” Puritans, in contrast to the “New Light” Congregationalists, during the revivals of the 1800’s. The Evangelical and Reformed church, from our German heritage, was more pietistic in practice and theology.

Granted, these are broad strokes of our religious history, but in it we can witness a similar tension in today’s church. How is faith to be experienced and expressed? What is to be the focus of our faith and of the church?

Washington Gladden

Toward the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, the social gospel movement was born. There was an urgent demand to match the church’s enthusiasm for Jesus with action and justice in human lives. Here it was that the study of scripture and the transformative experience of faith joined hands. Congregationalist Washington Gladden was one of the first leaders of the social gospel movement, which took seriously the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. He and others witnessed the effects of unbridled capitalism on the urban poor and brought the message of Jesus to bear on injustice and poverty. And in this we see the beginnings of the present-day mission of this church.

On May 5, 1885 twenty-one souls gathered in an old schoolhouse to form an ecclesiastical society, a community church for the purpose of worship for families who summered in Woodmont. Before that auspicious meeting, there had been the Sunday School and evening gatherings. Charles Merwin and George W. Smith each donated the hefty sum of $5.00 toward the building of the chapel. The Treat and Bryan families donated the land and in the fall of 1886 the main part of the chapel was built and then completed in 1888. When all the bills had been paid, there was a balance of $115 in the church treasury—they said they had “gone over the top!”

When I researched the narrative of this church, in a published history of Milford for its 350th anniversary, there is only one mention of this church. “The Woodmont Union Chapel, non-denominational, was built in 1886 to provide a house of worship for people of all faiths.” There are small and varied mentions of the other three UCC churches in town: building additions, the calling of pastors, the old bell ringing in the steeple of First Church after years of silence, the Trade Show sponsored by the Plymouth Men’s Club. There was no mention of when the land on New Haven Avenue was purchased, when you broke ground, or any of the pastors you called.
But in a self-published booklet for this church’s 50th anniversary I found these words: [“…our community church here in Woodmont]…began, as most great movements begin, in a small, insignificant way, much like a snowball rolling down hill, gathering momentum, adding material, weight and size…as it progressed.”

You folks fly under the radar. Though no one would doubt your enthusiasm for Jesus, you do not attract a lot of attention for the sake of attention. When you do, it’s for a very good reason—as when this church, with the leadership of your former pastor Paige Besse-Rankin, established the Milford Anti-Hate Task Force in 1999 in response to KKK recruitment and a racial incident between two neighbors. You were one of the first churches in the 1960’s to have people of different colors worship together and took some heat for it. When you became Open and Affirming, the prevailing sentiment was “Didn’t we do this already?”

You offer the hospitality of Martha but you also sit at the feet of Jesus to learn what your mission, your focus, your expression of faith will be. You are a church that takes seriously the words “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It hasn’t gotten you into the history books or a recent newspaper, but I know that this church has a hold on your affection and on your lives like none other.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Jan Vermeer, 1645-1655

Fifty years ago at the 75th anniversary of this church, the following words were shared. They sound as though they could have been written for today:

“Nowhere in the record of these years is there any earth-shaking event to which one can point and say ‘THIS was the important moment—the great decision—the finest hour.’ On the contrary, the records are prosaic and in a sense even a little dull—as the diary of the average housewife or business man would be prosaic and dull. Yet when the days are added up and the years are catalogued, we find that the total is one to make us both proud and humble.

“We can be proud indeed that we have come so far. We must be humble in our awareness that there is a long road ahead, one which we shall walk for a little way ourselves, while others will succeed us and go on beyond us.

“Of one thing we can feel fairly sure: the Chapel is burgeoning with new enthusiasms, new ideas, new hopes. With the guidance of our new minister—with the close cooperation of our members—with God’s blessing on our efforts—the future of Woodmont Union Chapel is bright.”

May Jesus continue to claim the better part of your time, your attention and your lives. May the enthusiasm of your minds and hearts be sustained and renewed by both study and service. May you keep your eyes clear and your hearts full, and if you do, you can’t lose no matter what the balance sheet or the membership numbers say. And whether you fly under the radar of history or not, I urge you to persist at the feet of Jesus that you may learn what your next mission, focus, expression of faith will be.


Monday, July 12, 2010

The heart of God

Mercy, Lina Scarfi

Psalm 82; Luke 10: 25-37
******** United Church of Christ
July 11, 2010

Often when we hear the parable of the good Samaritan, we hear the word neighbor and think of the stranger, the outcast, the other we don’t know. Ironically, our neighbor can also be those closest to us, even within our own family; even they can need us, we can need them, in ways that can transform our relationship.

Indeed, this parable is really about a family, about the children of God who were separated and grew up with different traditions and culture. The Samaritans were Jews who had escaped capture by the Assyrians when the Assyrian Empire overran the Northern Kingdom, Israel, in 722 BCE. Some of the Jewish population was carried off as spoils of war but some remained with the Assyrians who resettled in Israel. This area became separate from the Northern Kingdom of Israel and became known as Samaria, the mountainous northern region what would today be called the West Bank. There is dispute about the influences of the Assyrian religion on the Judaism practiced in this region but it would explain the antagonism between Jews of Israel and Judea and the Samaritan Jews.

How far down into history must bloodlines go for descendants not to be called family? And so Jesus uses the word ‘neighbor’ to expand our limited notions of what constitutes family and how we behave toward family members.

In Exodus 20:12 we read: “Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee” and in that verse we can see why our family is also our neighbor. In Biblical times and even not so long ago, children didn’t move away from their parents when they grew into adulthood; they were usually close neighbors, like Israel and Judea and Samaria. A few years ago I wrote a story entitled “The Heart of God” based on a dream I had after having read a book of short stories by Leo Tolstoy. It is a story about how even a family outcast can be a catalyst for transformation and mercy.

She had come home to die. Not very original, she thought, but it was all she had left. No explanations that would satisfy. No hope that would sustain. I just want to pass from this world in the same house I was born in, she prayed silently, and to be buried next to my mother. No recriminations against her father, no desire for reconciliation. She wanted only to collapse upon the old man’s doorstep, never to open her eyes again.

The winter night was bitter: frozen ground, frozen stars, frozen urine on her thighs and icicles on her cheeks. The wind whipped viciously about her, threatening more than once to knock her over and leave her there. How many more steps, she wondered. What did it matter? She couldn’t feel her feet anyway. Then a familiar crooked tree, the smell of a wood fire, a small plain in the midst of jagged hills--home. Even on a moonless night, she knew she was home.

Five years ago she had come home under very different circumstances. She was pregnant and not married, but the father of the child wanted to marry her and make a home near his own mother and father. So the young couple came to her parents’ village to ask the old man if they might borrow a small sum of money to purchase some land and build a home so that they might start a farm. The old man could not believe that having openly sinned in such a shocking manner that they would be so arrogant as to ask for such a thing. He turned them out of the house, ordering that they never return. He then took all the money he had, put it into a metal box, and buried it in the earthen floor of his home. From then on he lived off whatever food he could find on his own property, selling whatever he could to pay for his existence.

His own father had left him his fields and home. But the old man’s fields had lain fallow since his father’s death. Or rather, since he buried the last part of his legacy: a large rock, nearly as tall as the old man, with the words “The Heart of God” chiseled on it. He had no idea what to do with the rock. It stood at the corner of one his father’s most productive fields. He thought, maybe if I plant it in the ground, I will be blessed with even more. Truthfully, he was embarrassed by such a public, yet cryptic display of his father’s faith. So, with the help of some field hands, he dug a deep hole at the corner of the field and with a large, solid staff for a lever, he put the enormous rock in the ground. Interestingly, the side of the rock with the words faced the opening of the hole. The old man kept reading them as he covered up the rock with dirt. He thought about it afterward for a while, but then soon forgot the words and what his father might have intended for him. The field soon went barren after that and so did the old man’s heart.

But when he saw his daughter unconscious and near death on his doorstep, his cold heart softened and he carried her inside, placing her near the oven on a pallet covered with blankets. He could see that she was half-starved and dehydrated. He vowed he would devote the next three months to her care and restoration, spending all the money he had, if necessary. He knelt before her and wept as he prayed to God and made his confession, offering his own life for hers as penitence. Then he unearthed the tin of money and took it with him in his search for someone who could help him cure his daughter.

In three months’ time, his daughter was well again. When she had arrived, she had been unable to keep any food inside her. She had been unwell since the birth of her child. She did not rest long enough and soon suffered from an infection. She never fully recovered from it, yet she still looked for work to help support her new family. She left her husband and son with his parents while she wandered from town to town, looking for work that anyone might give her. One look at her drawn face and sunken eyes and they turned her away, not wanting to hire a weak, broken woman. She was ashamed to return home empty-handed, ashamed of the condition of her life, so she begged what she could and lived on the grace of God. But her body continued to weaken to the degree that her body rejected whatever food she put into it. So, she thought, death will bring me rest. And coming near to death, she did find the peace she thought had eluded her.

Her father sent for her husband and son, and they rejoiced to see her healthy and well again. The old man welcomed them as he wished he had welcomed the young couple five years ago. The baby was now a child, who cried with joy in his mother’s arms and rejoiced to know his grandfather. The daughter’s husband offered to help the old man with the fields, to see if they could get something to grow in them.

The next day they went to the corner of the field, where the old man had buried the large rock. With the help of some neighbors they were able to remove the dirt until they could read the words, “The Heart of God”. But the rock was so large they could not get it out of the ground. Many days went by while the old man, his son-in-law and the neighbors chiseled away at the rock, bringing it out of the hole piece by piece. During an unseasonably hot day, many large segments of the rock were removed. Then a surprise: water started bubbling up from the riven rock. As more fragments were removed they could see that there was a natural spring. Quickly they worked to dig out the rest of the rock. The water was clear and cold. The neighbors went to their homes to get containers, convinced the water was a miracle.

The old man was grateful for a rest. He had been sweating profusely, and his heart seemed to beat outside of his chest with a raging spasm. His son-in-law helped him to a shade tree while his grandson brought him some water from the spring. The old man drank from the cup, the water spilling down the sides of his mouth, a sigh spilling out from his soul as if it had been buried with the rock. Then his eyes looked toward the leaves as they cut ribbons of sunlight that wove their magic in the curly hair of his grandson. The old man said, “My eyes are opened. I see God!” and then passed his last breath.

They buried the old man next to his wife, and for the headstone they carved out a small slab of the rock. It was the rock that had caused the field to go barren, for it had blocked the underground water supply that had nurtured the field when there had been drought. Now the field was again bountiful, and from it came the tallest wheat anyone had ever seen. The neighboring fields also did well, for the daughter and the son-in-law shared the water as a source of irrigation. The chiseled rocks were used to build a cistern around the spring. The daughter, her husband, and their son lived long and well on the farm, and it passed through many generations. They called the place Serdze Boga, the heart of God, for their eyes had been opened and they had seen God.

Now which of these was a neighbor, was family to the one in pain, to the one who had been robbed of what was precious? The one who showed mercy. Who in your family or in this family needs your mercy? From whom in your family or in this family do you need mercy? Go and do likewise. Amen.

The Good Samaritan, Vincent Van Gogh, May 1890

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Gone to the dogs

Have you ever had this experience? Have you been in a bookstore and seen your name on the cover of a book? Happened today in Barnes and Noble. What was so disappointing was that it wasn't even something I would read, let alone write.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Coming clean

Naaman Washes in the Jordan River, Andreas Heidrich

2 Kings 5: 1-14; Psalm 30
******** United Church of Christ
July 4, 2010

In the United States between 1976 and 2006 there were 7,166 cases of Hansen’s disease or as it is more commonly known—leprosy. In 2006 the majority of new cases reported in the U.S. were from California, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York and Texas, with the largest proportion declaring itself as white and male. Globally, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal and Brazil have the highest outbreaks. In 2006 the World Health Organization registered a total of 259,017 new cases worldwide but this represents a drastic reduction from the 500,000 to 700,000 cases reported each year for the previous 13 years. However, there are millions of people that, though they have been cured, still suffer from physical disabilities and social injustice.

Of course it is the shame attached to Hansen’s that keeps the disease from being eradicated, among other factors. There is still the belief that one’s bad behavior is somehow responsible, especially in third-world countries. Many do not seek treatment because of fear, ignorance or social stigma. Those with Hansen’s are still shunned from community not only because of fear of contracting the disease but also because of the victim’s supposed lack of morals, very much akin to the misconceptions about AIDS. Despite our post-modern world, sickness and sin still walk very much hand in hand on this earth.

But we all know from experience that when it comes to sickness, it doesn’t matter who you are. The greatest and least and everyone in between will get sick at some point in their lifetime. It’s the last thing we want to think about: the weakness of our bodies and our dependence on them. And Naaman is no exception.

We read that Naaman is the commander of the army of the king of Aram, what would be Syria, that he was a great man, in high favor with his master, that the Lord had given him victory. Yes, it reads that the Lord had given Aram, a foreign nation, victory over Israel. Recall that Israel worshipped a foreign god, other than the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel. And for this reason sin and defeat in battle also went hand in hand.

So we have this mighty warrior, this great man. Yet we can hear the “but…” coming: he suffered from leprosy. The word ‘leprosy’ is used in the Bible to convey any number of skin diseases. It was thought that any imperfection in the body was due to one’s sin and thus, one was considered unclean by the Levitical code of purity. In truth, having a skin disease was the equivalent of saying that one was covered by one’s sin. In the psalms we read “my face is covered in shame” and “my sin is ever before me”. Though Naaman was a great man, he had been brought low by this leprosy and needed help in his suffering.

He receives help from the unlikeliest source: his wife’s servant girl, who was taken from Israel in a military raid. Naaman is to go the prophet Elisha who will heal him. To his credit, Naaman heeds this advice, even though it comes from a girl who is a servant and a foreigner. Status and station in society are observed in this communication: the servant girls tells Naaman’s wife, she in turn speaks with her husband; Naaman then goes to the king of Aram who then writes a letter of introduction to the king of Israel.

Now here’s where everyone’s egos start getting involved. First, Naaman brings a treasure trove of gifts, presumably not only for the king of Israel but also for the prophet Elisha, as a sign of power. Second, assuming that he is expected to cure Naaman, the king of Israel thinks this foreign king is trying to pick a fight with him. And third, none of this transpires the way Naaman thought it would, that he, being a great man, arriving with his chariot and horses, would be greeted by this great prophet, who would then show forth the great power of God in this great healing. Instead he receives a message from Elisha via a messenger, another servant, to wash in the Jordan, which was like a creek compared to the great rivers of Damascus. All of these unrealistic expectations are a recipe for conflict. Naaman just wanted to be healed; now everyone is ready for a fight.

Then the voice of reason and wisdom enters in from yet another unlikely source, from Naaman’s own servant. Notice that it is the servants, those in a weak position, the “little people” that bring wise counsel and the key to salvation and healing. Naaman then washes and his skin becomes like that of a young child.

This story could have turned out to be a foreign policy nightmare. Whenever there is arrogance, power, ego and large sums of money involved, conflict usually follows. Yet it was those who serve who move the story along, who know it is God who is acting, who have a simple faith in what is right and true. Without “the little people”, Naaman would still be waiting to become clean and whole.

Today as our nation commemorates its independence, we too need to come clean. Like Naaman, we have behaved arrogantly with other nations, entering in with great expectations. Like the king of Israel, we have received the expectations of other countries as though they were fighting words. Just as one person can be self-absorbed and addicted to their own way, so can a nation. Deep down we know our sin is ever before us, covering our face in shame.

But how do we correct this, how do we come clean? It is so very easy to point our finger at those in government, in multi-national corporations, at those who seemingly have more power than we do. Ironically, BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg was not far from the truth when he said that “small people matter to us”. No great healing change in this world has ever come about from government or corporations having a great idea. Abolition, peace movements, civil rights for everyone regardless of gender or color or sexual orientation have come about because of groups of individuals. If anything is going to change in our country, if the American story is going to keep moving, if God is going to act, it begins with us ‘small people’ knowing and living what is right and true.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

So I’ve got one word for you…plastics. If we really want to come clean and reduce our dependence on oil, we also need to reduce the amount of plastic we use on a daily basis. Think of all the containers you use for food, from milk to peanut butter to juice and soda and water, not mention plastic bags for things like rice, bread, veggies and snack foods. Your clothing, if it contains nylon, Lycra, acrylic or polyester, is made from oil. Oil has become the very fabric of our lives. It has become our leprosy, it has brought us low, and we are covered in it.

As we come to this table and eat this sacred meal as the Body of Christ, let us be mindful of the ways we need to be healed from this system of self-absorption, dependence and sin. Let us confess to ourselves and ask God, how do we participate in this and what can we do to change? As we consume elements of the earth, we say that this is the body of Christ, broken and shed for us, that we might be healed and begin anew. May God give us the strength to choose what is right rather than what is easy. Amen.

Go to Facebook to hear my friends Boys in Hats sing their original song "Petroleum Communion".