Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I thought this truth was self-evident...

...but apparently some explaning was necessary.

Thanks to Suzanne for this video.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Entertaining angels

Andrei Rublev, icon of the holy visitors at the oaks of Mamre, c. 1410

Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16; Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
August 29, 2010

On the
Emily Post website, a host giving a party is given six tips for a successful gathering:

1. Invite clearly. Include necessary information for your guests in the invitation. Is the party a casual get-together or more formal? What about the attire? Maybe a guest would benefit by knowing ahead of time who else will be there, which you might mention when they RSVP.

2. Plan well. Preparing your guest list carefully is key to a successful party. Then do as much as you can ahead of time. (Lower the stress level by serving food and refreshments you know will work.) Get everything ready well before your guests arrive, so you'll feel relaxed from the very beginning.

3. Remain calm. Giving a party can be enjoyable, especially if you approach it with simplicity. Get help if necessary, and don't let your guests think you're huffing and puffing. They'll feel far more comfortable if they don't have to wonder whether they're causing you any trouble.

4. Keep your guests feeling welcome. Make sure guests are warmly greeted, then made to feel welcome throughout the party. Look after each guest as much as you can. If you notice that a guest has an empty glass or if there's one person standing alone, remedy the situation as quickly and cheerfully as possible.

5. Be flexible and gracious. Your soufflé falls. Or one friend arrives with an unexpected guest. The ruined dessert? Have a fallback. The uninvited guest? As discourteous as it is for someone to spring a surprise on you, be gracious. No polite host would ever send an uninvited guest packing.

6. Be appreciative. Thank people for coming as you bid them good-bye. And don't forget to thank anyone who brought you a gift.

In the readings from both Hebrews and the gospel of Luke, it sounds as though we are being given a similar list of manners and behaviors but it’s more than being congenial and welcoming. It’s about realizing that we are all guests at God’s table:

1. Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

2. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured as though you yourselves were being tortured.

3. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

4. When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host. …Rather, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that [you may be invited to move up higher and be honored in the presence of all].

5. When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

A week ago Friday my family and I, and two other couples from this church, were guests at a banquet of sorts: a Ramadan fast-breaking meal called an iftar. It was held at the University of Bridgeport and it was the first time that all the Muslim communities of Bridgeport had gathered together. And to this auspicious occasion of solidarity they also opened the invitation to anyone who wanted to join them. In the same room, sharing tables, food and fellowship, were Muslims, Jews and Christians—men, women and children. (WSHU.org news story)

When we first arrived we sat at a table about midway toward the front of the room. But David, my husband and Bruce and Will wanted to mingle with others. Then one of the organizers of the evening encouraged everyone to move to the front, to make room for any latecomers. Therese, Dorothy, and my girls and I remained at our table and were joined by a group of Muslim women and their children. I called it ‘the women’s table’.

Speeches were given by representatives from the different Muslim communities, from the Executive Director of CAIR, the Council for American-Islamic Relations, and from a Jewish synagogue and from the Bridgeport Council of Churches. There was no rancor or criticism against
those who protested outside Masjid An-Noor, the Bridgeport Islamic Society on Clinton Avenue. Rather, we heard encouraging words of compassion, wisdom, and faith.

We were told we did not have to pray but we prayed. We took off our shoes, with men lining up in the front and women lining up behind them. We bowed, we kneeled, we put our foreheads on the floor as best as we could. We listened to verses of the Qur’an and prayers sung in lyrical Arabic. We observed moments of silent prayer.

At sunset the fast was broken with plates of sweet dried dates, bringing to mind a line from the Psalms: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” Bottles of water were passed around, as the Muslims in the room had not had anything to drink or eat since sunrise. Blessings were said and then we waited to be called up to the buffet lines for a dinner of hummus, lamb, roast chicken, chicken kabob, rice and salad. There was even cheese pizza for the children and for my vegetarian daughter.

There we were, all of us children of Abraham, many nations, different skin colors, each with our own holy books yet sharing the same story: that of the holy visitors who came to Mamre to prophesy what was promised by God—a child whose descendents would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, as the grains of sand in the desert. Abraham and Sarah gave them the best meal out of what they had, gave them water to wash their feet and shade in which to rest from the hot sun. They had entertained angels without knowing it, for hospitality was law in the desert. It became part of the Mosaic code of law. Jesus counted it as one of the greatest commandments, that we love our neighbor as ourselves, thus, our Muslim brothers and sisters also share this belief, as Jesus is one of their prophets as well.

I know you are welcoming folk, that your hearts are open, your minds inquisitive, and that your hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness are keen. The challenge presented to us in these scriptures is that those whose rhetoric is filled with fear are the strangers to whom we need to extend our love and our hospitality. As it says in the Holy Qur’an: “And the servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth easily, and when the ignorant address them [harshly], they say [words of] peace.” —Surat Al-Furqān 25: 63, The Holy Qur’an, Sahih International version.

Those who say that Islam is a lie: their minds are imprisoned; therefore let us have the courage to think what it must be like to be in a prison of fear and ignorance. They are tortured by this fear and ignorance; therefore let us put ourselves in that place of torture and find within us a source of compassion. Let us give them a place of honor by listening with compassion and an open heart. May we offer words of peace when we are faced with hate and fear, remembering that we are all children of God.

Let us also remain calm and be flexible and gracious. Perhaps this church would like to invite our Jewish brothers and sisters from Congregation Sinai and our Muslim sisters and brothers from West Haven to a meal here at church. You could also open that occasion to any who are interested in learning more about how much we have in common.

If you haven’t already,
make a donation to the United Church of Christ for flood relief in Pakistan, home to 16% of the world’s Muslims and the second largest Muslim population after Indonesia. It’s estimated that over 17 million Pakistanis have been affected by the floods, on par with the damage done by Hurricane Katrina in this country but not receiving not nearly as much press or support.

In Gainesville, Florida the Dove World Outreach Center plans to burn as many copies of the Qur’an as possible on Sept. 11. In response to this misinformed plan, Larry Reimer, a UCC pastor in Gainesville, said “If they can burn it, then we can read it.” On Sunday, Sept. 12, along with other Gainesville religious leaders, Rev. Reimer plans to read from the Qur’an in worship. We could join them.

This is a crucial time, when people are uncertain of their future and fear of the other is on the rise, when unrest can be taken advantage of by those who seek power and control. It all depends on how the rest of us respond. Indeed, we need to invite clearly, to plan well, to make our guests, those angels unawares, feel welcome. Most of all we are to be appreciative of this gift, this opportunity given to us, to offer compassion, to be peacemakers, to join together at God’s table of reconciliation. Amen.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fighting fire with humor

You can usually tell who is on the side of justice by the quality of their protest signs.

Thanks to my seminary friend Rick Barber for this video.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Places I've been

When I look at where I've been, and I think I've been quite a few places, I realize how little of the world I've seen. One of my life goal's is to have map pins in every continent, to see as much of this world as possible.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A dangerous faith

Rahab was told to tie a scarlet cord from her window (Joshua 2).

Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2; Luke 12: 49-56
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
August 15, 2010

Some years ago Tony Campolo, an American Baptist minister and author, flew to Hawaii to speak at a conference. He checked into his hotel and tried to get some sleep. Unfortunately, his internal clock woke him at 3:00 a.m. The night was dark, the streets were silent, the world was asleep, but Tony was wide awake and his stomach was growling.

He got up and prowled the streets looking for a place to get some bacon and eggs for an early breakfast. Everything was closed except for a grungy dive in an alley. He went in and sat down at the counter. The guy behind the counter came over and asked, "What d'ya want?"

Well, Tony wasn't so hungry anymore, so eying some donuts under a plastic cover he said, "I'll have a donut and black coffee."

As he sat there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee at 3:30, in walk eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes just finished with their night's work. They plopped down at the counter and Tony found himself uncomfortably surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing hookers. He gulped his coffee, planning to make a quick getaway. Then the woman next to him said to her friend, "You know what? Tomorrow's my birthday. I'm gonna be 39." To which her friend nastily replied, "So what d'ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake and sing happy birthday to you?"

The first woman said, "Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? Why do you have to put me down? I'm just sayin' it's my birthday. I don't want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I've never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?"

Well, when Tony Campolo heard that, he said he made a decision. He sat and waited until the women left, and then he asked the guy at the counter, "Do they come in here every night?"
"Yeah," he answered.
"The one right next to me," he asked, "she comes in every night?"
"Yeah," he said, "that's Agnes. Yeah, she's here every night. She's been comin' here for years. Why do you want to know?"
"Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?"

A cute kind of smile crept over the man's chubby cheeks. "That's great," he said, "yeah, that's great. I like it." He turned to the kitchen and shouted to his wife, "Hey, come on out here. This guy's got a great idea. Tomorrow is Agnes' birthday and he wants to throw a party for her right here."

His wife came out. "That's terrific," she said. "You know, Agnes is really nice. She's always trying to help other people and nobody does anything nice for her."

So they made their plans. Tony said he'd be back at 2:30 the next morning with some decorations and the man, whose name turned out to be Harry, said he'd make a cake.

At 2:30 the next morning, Tony was back. He had crepe paper and other decorations and a sign made of big pieces of cardboard that said, "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" They decorated the place from one end to the other and got it looking great. Harry had gotten the word out on the streets about the party and by 3:15 it seemed that every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. There were hookers wall to wall.

At 3:30 on the dot, the door swung open and in walked Agnes and her friend. Tony had everybody ready. They all shouted and screamed "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" Agnes was absolutely flabbergasted. She was stunned, her mouth fell open, her knees started to buckle, and she almost fell over.

And when the birthday cake with all the candles was carried out, that's when she totally lost it. Then she was sobbing and crying. Harry, who wasn’t used to seeing a prostitute cry, gruffly mumbled, "Blow out the candles, Agnes. Cut the cake." So she pulled herself together and blew them out. Everyone cheered and yelled, "Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake!" But Agnes looked down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly and softly said, "Look, Harry, is it all right with you if...I mean, if I don't...I mean, what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don't eat it right away?"

Harry didn’t know what to say so he shrugged and said, "Sure, if that's what you want to do. Keep the cake. Take it home if you want."

"Oh, could I?" she asked. Looking at Tony she said, "I live just down the street a couple of doors; I want to take the cake home, is that okay? I'll be right back, honest."

She got off her stool, picked up the cake, and carried it high in front of her like it was the Holy Grail. Everybody watched in stunned silence and when the door closed behind her, nobody seemed to know what to do. They looked at each other. They looked at Tony.

So Tony got up on a chair and said, "What do you say that we pray together?"

And there they were in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 a.m. listening to Tony Campolo as he prayed for Agnes, for her life, her health, and her life with God. Tony recalled, "I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her."

When he was finished, Harry leaned over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he said, "Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?"

In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answered him quietly, "I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning."

Harry thought for a moment and said, "No you don't. There ain't no church like that. If there was, I'd join it. Yep, I'd join a church like that."

That’s the kind of church Jesus calls us to be, the same one that lists Rahab the prostitute as a hero of the faith right after Moses and before those of Gideon, Samson, David, and Samuel in the reading from the book of Hebrews. Jesus said, “Tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before the righteous will.” Jesus was a dangerous man. He broke the religious laws of his time to show forth God’s radical love, compassion, and forgiveness. He ate with those considered unclean, he healed on the Sabbath, he spoke with women and included them in his inner circle. He said the last would be first and the first, last. Grace would be given to all, the just and the unjust. If we were rich we were to sell all we had and give it to the poor. We were to love our enemies and pray for them. We were to deny ourselves and take up our own cross.

A friend once said in a sermon, “It isn’t the unbelievable, fantastic stories in the Bible that make me feel uncomfortable. What really makes me squirm is precisely that which I do understand, what I can fathom, what I am certain is true. The stories and the words of Jesus cut like a knife in order to purify and heal, to bother us into eternity. God is the great Botherer, to save us from drowning in the Red Sea, from burning to a crisp in warfare with our brothers and sisters or with our own selves. If we must be bothered, and we must, let us be bothered for the right reasons.”

Jesus made folks angry and aroused their passion. He not only comforted the afflicted but afflicted the comfortable. We think of the peaceful shepherd carrying his sheep, but he also carried a sword of division that would break the most precious peace, that of family. If it is one thing we try to preserve with all our might, it is the peace of our families: those at home and those at church.

In polite company we stay away from the four taboo subjects: religion, sex, politics, and money. Even in church we manage to do this. We have told ourselves that unity in the church means no fighting or disagreements. I am not advocating a knock-down, dragged-out fight, but we all know that in marriages and families, keeping our disagreements and our opinions to ourselves in the name of peace and unity only leads to misery.

In the church it can lead to quiet, comfortable, so-so faith that neither attracts newcomers nor energizes steady members. Our faith is meant to be fuel for the engine that drives the kingdom of God. Discomfort, passion, and being bothered by Jesus can fire up a sense of mission and purpose in the church.

In the first version of the movie “The Karate Kid”, Mr. Moriyagi told Daniel, “Walk on one side of the road, fine; walk on other side of road, fine. Walk in the middle of the road—squish! Like grape. Same thing with karate: you do karate, yes, or do karate, no. You do karate, so-so—squish! Just like grape.”

It is the same with believing and following Jesus, wherever we are in our journey. Whoever we are, whether we are an agnostic, a seeker, or a whole-hearted believer, we are to do it with decision, passion, and drive, even if it might lose us a few friends and more money than we think we can afford to give, even if our families wonder about us, even if it might cost us our comfort zone. We will make mistakes. We will feel pain. And we will be alive, fully so.

In today’s world, what would Jesus be doing to stir people up?

For all those folks who want to be able to carry a gun to church.

He’d be cleaning up the beaches on the Gulf coast AND working with BP, forgiving them, praying for them, helping them make restitution, prodding them on to make justice-filled policies. He’d be weeping and raging over the American empire we’ve become, driving us out of our malls and superstores and away from our computer screens and into the cities where violence and poverty enslave our fellow Americans. He’d tear down the borders, walls and fences between us and Canada and Mexico, our neighbors. He’d be picking up trash on the highway, on the beach, and in the park. He’d move in next door to a recently released sex offender and invite him over for a meal. He’d invite a homeless person to live in his house, give her the best room, and let her stay until she was on her feet again. He’d protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan AND he would stand with every last U.S. soldier, every last Iraqi and Afghani civilian AND share a meal with a group of insurgents. He’d buy a big house in a great neighborhood with good schools and open it up to homeless kids and teens. He’d be CEO of his own company with all the stock options, big benefits, and salary but only so he could give them away to his employees and work in the mailroom and drive the delivery truck and get the coffee every morning. He’d take red states and blue states and somehow make purple.

Ultimately, Jesus’ sword of division brings us together, not around our own rallying points but his. Jesus breaks our illusion of peace by pulling our attention away from our addiction to our own point of view and our fear of conflict. Jesus demands our undivided attention.

Each week we read names and nations and situations that need our attention in prayer. As I look at the list there is not one item that bothers me or makes it difficult for me to pray. What if the church also had a so-called ‘enemies list’: a list of persons and situations needing prayer that would be a struggle for us. Jesus said that we were to love our enemies and pray for them. Who would you have difficulty praying for?

As a church, what is your comfort zone? Where are you being challenged to step out in faith? What is it about Jesus’ message that disturbs you, bothers you, and afflicts your personal and collective conscience? What is it about Jesus that presents a crisis, a moment or occasion of truth and decision, in your life and in your life together? Think about what has been bothering you recently as a church, as person of faith, and ask yourselves, “Is this worth spending our energy, my energy on or is there something more important? Is this about me and my will be done or is this about Jesus and God’s will be done?” As my friend said, “If we must be bothered, and we must, let us be bothered by the right reasons.” Find what it is about Jesus that fires you up and gets you hot under the collar and then follow that.

Let us dare to believe in that One, our Savior who came with a sword to cut us loose from our chains of comfort, our bondage to the ways things are, our “peace at any price”, that we might be set free, that we might have power to imagine something more wonderful and life-giving—even a church as dangerous as one that gives birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning. What makes this church dangerous? Yep, I’d join a church like that. How about you?

The "Agnes" story is from Let Me Tell You a Story by Tony Campolo, (c) 2000, published by Thomas Nelson.

Monday, August 02, 2010

A place for our stuff

Parable of the Rich Fool by Jim Janknegt

Psalm 49; Luke 12: 13-21
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
August 1, 2010

In 1981 George Carlin made a comedy album entitled “A Place for My Stuff”. I can still remember listening to a cassette tape of this routine in my mom’s overstuffed kitchen:

“That's all I want, that's all you need in life, is a little place for your stuff, ya know? …[E]verybody's got a little place for their stuff. This is my stuff, that's your stuff, that'll be his stuff over there. That's all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That's all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn't have so much stuff, you wouldn't need a house. You could just walk around all the time.

“A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you're taking off in an airplane. You look down; you see everybody's got a little pile of stuff; all the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn't want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that [junk] you're saving. All they want is the shiny stuff. That's what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get...more stuff!

“Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore. You gotta move your stuff, and maybe some of it goes into storage. Imagine that—a whole industry designed around keeping an eye on your stuff! Did you ever notice when you go to somebody else's house, you never quite feel a hundred percent at home? You know why? No room for your stuff. Somebody else's stuff is all over the place! And what awful stuff it is! Where did they get this stuff? And if you stay overnight, unexpectedly, they give you a little bedroom to sleep in. Bedroom they haven't used in about eleven years. Someone died in it, eleven years ago. And they haven't moved any of his stuff! Right next to the bed there's usually a dresser or a bureau of some kind, and there's NO ROOM for your stuff on it. Somebody else’s [junk] is on the dresser.

“Have you noticed that their stuff is [junk] and your [junk] is stuff? And you say, "Get that [junk] offa there and let me put my stuff down!"

We hear the humor in this because our ‘stuff’ can often be a source of anxiety. Do we have too much stuff or too little? Is our stuff safe? How much is our stuff worth? Can we lay our hands on what we need to find at any given moment? Is our stuff organized? Is it the right kind of stuff? Can we afford to get rid of some stuff or will we need that stuff in the future? What does our stuff say about us?

We all probably have known someone who has too much stuff, to the point that it has become an obstacle in our relationship with them. In the past five years or so the disorder of compulsive hoarding has been getting quite a bit of news, from Oprah Winfrey to TV news items and newspaper articles across the country. In years past, folks with this problem were considered eccentric or products of the Great Depression or just plain crazy. Now clinical social workers and other mental health professionals are researching and studying this behavior, from the Mayo Clinic to the Boston University School of Social Work, in order to help those who suffer from this disorder.

To a certain degree most of us have a problem with accumulating stuff—it’s whether or not it’s an obstacle, an addiction, or a bad habit. When we save stuff, hold onto it, hoard it, we give ourselves some sort of permission to do so, using one or more messages to ourselves: one, the object or item has sentimental value: it represents my life—it is a part of me, it was a gift from a special person or it belonged to them; two, the object has instrumental value: it could be repaired at some point and be of use; three, it has intrinsic value—it is beautiful or could be resold for an increased price someday. To let go of the item might cause us to feel anxious and fearful, so we hold onto it, like a child with a stuffed toy or blanket.

Luke 12: 2o-21, mezzotint made by Jacques Meheux and published by Girard Audran, Paris, France, 1660-1703.

In this morning’s gospel lesson Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool, a man who needs a bigger place for his stuff because he has so much. His first thought is not sharing what he has but storing it up for himself for many years so that he can relax, eat, drink and be merry. But Jesus isn’t looking for folks to relax into the future and pad themselves against the anxiety of the present; he’s looking for those who want to live in the kingdom of now. God says to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” Jesus is looking for those who can make the transition between this world and the kingdom—right now.

Jesus makes plain the difference between security and serenity and puts it as a choice: what will reduce our anxiety and fear: riches and possessions or God? In the 1860’s during the Civil War and again amid the blind fears of communism in the 1950’s and ‘60’s the U.S. Treasury had the wisdom to put on our currency the words “In God we trust.” Rather than clinging to our stuff like a child’s transitional object, we are to transfer our anxiety instead to God; to trust God with our baggage, our stuff, our fears, our worries, so we don’t have to cling to it and carry it around with us while we’re trying to find that kingdom of now—God’s now of healing and peace and forgiveness; God’s now of justice and wholeness and compassion.

While writing this sermon my husband spoke to me about his recent mission trip to Oaxaca, Mexico; of how over two thousand indigenous people walked hours through the jungle to stand in line all day to receive a month’s worth of rice, beans, salt, and sugar. There are no guarantees that the food will be there every month but when a sign is posted even a week before, folks will show up, trusting the relationship they have with Bryan Nurnberger and the Simply Smiles mission trippers that come to help. That’s serenity. And though the food sustains life, it’s the relationships that transform lives and usher in that kingdom of now.

Even this seemingly skimpy meal that we share today—it’s not the bread and cup that matter the most but what they represent: the very real presence of God’s extravagant love in this world.

We don’t have to give up everything in order to serve Jesus and the kingdom. But what we hold onto, what we hoard, what we can’t let go of can be an obstacle in our relationship with God and hinder our view of that kingdom. As we say in the prayer of thanksgiving after communion, “make us aware not so much of what we’ve given as of all we have received and so have yet to share.”

In what are we investing our energy and our resources? Where is our focus? We may or may not be rich in things but how rich is our relationship with God? What takes priority in our lives and in our life together as a faith community? Jesus tells us that if we’re going to follow him, it’s the kingdom that takes priority. In the verses following in Luke Jesus tells his listeners that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom, but it is up to us to live into it.

All we need in life is not just a place for our stuff but a kingdom for the stuff of life…and love. Amen.