Monday, December 20, 2010

The One Who Claimed--Sermon 12/19/10

The One Who Claimed: A Movement in Three Parts

As we near the end of our Advent journey, as the anticipation builds, and the prospect of the holy child’s birth beckons, we linger one more Sunday with the people who live the Advent story. And while last week we looked at Matthew’s account of the impending birth of Jesus through Mary’s eyes, this week we look at them through the eyes of Joseph.

We aren’t accustomed to thinking about Joseph as much, are we? The early church especially placed so much focus on Mary, given that she was the chosen vessel to carry God’s child. And Joseph, poor Joseph, he got a little left behind in all the fuss. Instead, he was the one to accompany, he was the one to take the back seat, he was the one meant to lead the donkey. In my mind’s eye we’ve sometimes relegated him to the role of body guard, surrogate, groomsman. As I was sharing about this week’s sermon topic, and talking about the role of Joseph with a group of you on Tuesday, a true confession emerged from a beloved member of this congregation. And the revelation that she shared was this: in the late 1960s she found a crèche on sale at Murphys downtown. And that crèche was a beautiful thing, and it’s price was dramatically slashed, and this self-proclaimed frugal person, who didn’t want to miss a bargain, and whose name will not be mentioned but who might be singing in the choir, and who might have a name that begins with a “P” and rhyme with “Mat”, decided to take that crèche home and make it her very own. There was only one little tiny issue with the crèche, only one small hang-up…turns out it was on sale at such a deep discount because there was no, well, no Joseph. No male role model in that holy family. And so each year the figurines come out at the Sterling home on Homestead Road, Mary, and the wise men, and the angel, the sheep with the broken ear and that sweet little baby Jesus in the manger and each year lest Mary look like a single mother, a shepherd stands in as understudy for Joseph, I mean they both have that same burly Joseph-like working class quality, right?

Of course I’m teasing about Pat’s crèche, but isn’t it true that the Christian church has often overlooked poor Joseph? In the Catholic Church especially Mary has been elevated, dressed in blue, a look of serene piety on her face as she holds that tiny Christ child. And Joseph, well, if he’s lucky he’s relegated to a corner of a cathedral with a modest icon nearby. In fact it wasn’t until 1870 that Pope Pius IX declared him a Patron of the Universal Church. Poor Joseph, he gets no respect!

So let’s delve into the text, shall we? And I want to warn you ahead of time that the text may sound a little familiar to you, for it is the exact same text as last week [rest assured, I did that on purpose]. But this week, I’d like to read the scripture throughout the sermon for Joseph’s journey is more a movement in three parts, and there are places where we need to pause and allow the depth of his character to sink into our own souls. This morning I’ll be reading to you from Eugene Peterson’s contemporary translation of the Bible, The Message.

The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.

The writer of the book of Matthew doesn’t mince words as he tells the story of the birth of Jesus, does he? While Luke’s gospel which we focused on at the beginning of December as we fleshed out the stories of Elizabeth and Mary waxes poetic with all sorts of juicy details and unfolds the story of Mary’s impending pregnancy with astounding poetic description (remember the angel visitation to inform the young Mary? And then that harrowing journey she took through the hills to see Elizabeth for wisdom? And the leaping of the baby in the womb, and then Mary’s eloquent operatic aria of the Magnificat?) Matthew is more a “just the facts, Ma’am” kind of writer. Matthew gives us the who’s and how’s, straight up, unvarnished and raw. There are these two people. Mary and Joseph. And they were engaged (which in Jewish tradition was a binding legal agreement already, to be engaged carried with it all the responsibilities and commitments to fidelity that marriage does in our culture). And lo and behold, Joseph learns an uncomfortable and startling truth, this woman that he loves, this woman who has committed himself to him, is pregnant with another’s child.

And the very first thing we learn of Joseph, the first claim that we can make of him is that he is sensitive and discreet. In the face of what must have felt like betrayal and perhaps even deceit, he does not condemn Mary. He does not lash out at her or try to tarnish her reputation. Instead, he chooses to do the honorable thing, and privately release her from her vows of betrothal. He does not do what the law would allow or perhaps even encourage him to do, for the patriarchal legal system of the time would call for the stoning of any woman found guilty of adultery, and certainly Mary’s pregnancy would have been proof of her infidelity. But instead he offers her a tender mercy, and a quiet grace, and even as he must have been nursing his own broken heart, and asking his own anguished “why?” He chooses to release her quietly from her bonds to him. There will be no disgrace. There will be no condemnation. There will be no judgment. Joseph’s choice will be a merciful one. And he will claim no call for retribution. Instead his claim will be that he will be a man who offers grace.

While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God’s angel spoke in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, don’t hesitate to get married. Mary’s pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God’s Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus—‘God saves’—because he will save his people from their sins.” This would bring the prophet’s embryonic sermon to full term: Watch for this—a virgin will get pregnant and bear a son, They will name him Immanuel (Hebrew for “God with us”). Then Joseph woke up. He did exactly what God’s angel commanded in the dream: He married Mary. But he did not consummate the marriage until she had the baby.

And so we move into the second movement of our story.

Many of you already know that for the past three years or so I have struggled with insomnia. While my dream life used to be rich and rewarding, now I am either restlessly tossing and turning or completely zombified by the Ambien I allow myself to take every third night or so. My husband, however, has a glamorous and elaborate fairy tale world of dreams that he allows me to visit as he regales me with the stories of where his dreams took him. When he’s not flying through the air, one of his common dream-time reveries, he is enjoying the company of famous celebrities. A few months back on a Saturday morning we lay in bed, Grayson climbing over us, and Robert said, “You know, last night Barbara Bush and I were singing ‘Climb Every Mountain’ in the hallway of the college administration building. It was really quite touching.”

I miss my regular sleep habits, but the truth is, I miss the dreaming. For I believe our souls need to dream. I believe that it is one of the few legitimate ways that we allow God to get our attention sometimes. Where else but in this liminal place, the place of moonlight and hush, are our hearts soft enough to allow God to drop into them? Where else do we free ourselves to trust that God is really afoot and that answers may come?

While Joseph isn’t granted a burning bush moment, or a face-to-face angel encounter as Mary had, he still gets a subtle word from God. The angel appears to him and lets him in on the secret that Mary already knew. And Joseph asks no questions, doesn’t utter a word, but implicitly trusts God and immediately acts. How many of us would be tempted to brush off those night-time musings and assume it was just our imagination, or just too much strange food we’d eaten. God comes to Joseph and Joseph stakes his claim on God’s word. And claims his destiny as the earthly father of this newborn. Joseph will chose to claim trust.

And finally the third movement. And it is a simple and profound one. One sentence.

He named the baby Jesus.

It was not Mary who named the child. It was Joseph. In ancient Israelite culture, to name a child was to offer a blessing. Naming was a powerful symbolic gesture in which the hopes and dreams of the child were placed upon the young. And when you named someone you claimed them as well. It was not Mary who claimed the child as her own, but Joseph. And by so doing, Jesus was adopted into the whole Davidic lineage which came through Joseph’s blood.

I am remembering this morning a Sunday when I stood in the front of the congregation of the Manchester Church of the Brethren on a sunny fall morning and held in my arms a then nine-month-old Elliott Beecher Tae-Soo Shaum. Eli was the son of one of my closest friends and he was a child who was long in coming to his family. His mother, Lynn, had been through years of fertility treatments and two surgeries and when interventions were not successful she and her husband, Steve, had begun the lengthy process of adopting a child from Korea. Perhaps some of you have walked your own journeys through adoption, or been with those who have wanted so desperately to have a child to call their own. And as I held that child in my arms on that morning, speaking his name and offering him a blessing, my eyes also rested on his parents, who wept their own silent tears. And years later when Robert and I also struggled with infertility it was Eli’s mother who said to me fiercely, “Eli is my son. He is my child. And what you need to remember, Christen, is that while my son did not grow in my body, he was conceived by my dream. And that makes him no less my own.”

Joseph’s message is the message of Eli’s mother’s as well. And the message is this: it is our task in this world to expand our definition of family. It is our job to extend our arms wider to invite others into our hearts. It is our mandate as children of the One God to cradle all babies as our own babies, nurturing them and comforting them. It is our commandment as children of the One God to nurture all youth as our own youth and raise the next generation with love. It is our commandment as children of the One God to welcome all people as our own sisters and brothers and encircle those in need. It is our commandment as children of the One God to care for all of our elderly and wise ones as our own parents and grandparents and protect their dignity and honor their history. It is our responsibility as children of the One God, our responsibility and our privilege.

And we do this not in some namby-pamby, Coca-Cola “I’d like to teach the world to sing,” Hallmark photo op moment, but through consciously making decisions which we believe align with God’s dreams for humanity. Through our charitable giving, and through our lobbying for affordable health care for all. Through our demand for an end to poverty and through setting our sights on declaring war on hunger, which is a much more formidable enemy right now than terrorism.

This morning we follow in the footsteps of our brother Joseph, who acted as father to the Christ. And we walk this road of discipleship with intention. We walk this road knowing that it will not be easy. We walk this road with deliberation. We walk this road with obedience. And we walk together, placing our trust in God. And allowing ourselves to be divine instruments who claim the ways of peace.

May it be so.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Hearing from the Baptist--Sermon 11/28/10

It is hardly possible to me that I have been your pastor for near six months now and that we are already cruising in to our first Advent season together. One of the things I have learned about you is the wide array you of distinct stories you each have to tell. I am fascinated by the particularities and peculiarities which make you each a part of this body of Christ, and I realize the richness and depth of character we have among us. And so as we begin this season of Advent, I wanted us to journey together into the realm of story. I wanted us to have the chance to reintroduce ourselves to the characters and major players in this Advent drama, for they are part of our family as well. And their ancient stories shape the human story. Each week through Epiphany Sunday we will unearth one of the movers and shakers of this time, one of the cast of characters who heralded the birth and ministry of the Messiah. And this morning we begin with perhaps one of the most animated of all, John the Baptist.

It is a strange twist of the liturgical calendar which places a lectionary story about John the Baptist as a man in his 30s preaching in the wilderness a mere Sunday or two before stories about his mother, Elizabeth, who at the time we will meet her next week is pregnant with him. A bit of reverse foreshadowing, perhaps. I still have yet to figure out the mysterious and at times downright strange ways of the lectionary. But, I guess we should never be surprised when things get a little wacky when John the Baptist is involved, for he is not one who would be called orthodox, nor would we name him king of the understatement.

John wasn’t your average devout Jew circa late 20s A.D. First, there was that whole style thing. While most men were covering up from the sun by wearing soft linen or wool robes (but never both together, for that was taboo, and definitely a fashion no-no as well), John the Baptist distinguished himself by dressing in the fur of camels, which would have been like saying he chose his clothes out of the bin out back behind the Salvation Army store, in the pile of what was rejected. His clothes were styled after those of the Bedouin Shepherds who dressed for protection as they traveled through the middle of nowhere in the wild wilderness east of Jerusalem and they weren’t the standard dress of the day. And the food he ate, well let’s just say that he was not a gourmand by any stretch of the imagination. He wouldn’t have known a balanced meal if it was placed in front of him. John subsisted on a starvation diet of mostly wild locusts which rained down in abundance from the trees, and a bit of wild honey which could be easily found in the area. A diet perhaps less tasty than crunchy. But more important than what John put in his mouth were the words that were shouted out from it. For John the Baptist was a take-no-prisoners, fire-and-brimstone, holy-roller, preacher (with a capital “P”), and he minced no words as he rattled off the inequities, sins, wrongs, and hypocrisies he was witnessing. He was rough around the edges and not afraid of conflict. His admonitions and prophesies were scathing and his locust-scented breath blew across the wilderness wrathfully. He was, as the theologian Barbara Brown Taylor has written, “God’s own air raid siren.”

And yet, John’s message was reaching people, for he had amassed quite a following. Taylor goes on to say that “A helicopter flying over the desert east of Jerusalem would have looked down on a colorful string of pilgrims that stretched from the city to an encampment by the river—John’s church—where he heard people’s confessions and renewed their hope that God had not abandoned them.” (

The baptizer’s voice was heard in the midst of the sands of nowhere and his words had drawn the attention of not just the marginalized and helpless, but also of the most religious, the Sadducees and the Pharisees who loaded themselves onto their camels to make their way out to the margins to listen to what this shabby hooligan was saying, or rather who he was saying it about.

I want to interrupt our little story before we get into John’s loud pulpit-pounding phase of the story, the narrative hook of the Advent and tell you a little secret. John the Baptist has not been my favorite Advent character. This particular forerunner of the Messiah always scares me a little with his bombastic voice, with his strange diet, with his condemnation. He reminds me a little of a second cousin of mine, a loud and dear man in oversized spectacles who was always a just little too loud when he pontificated on local politics, someone who could stir my Swedish grandfather into enough of a frenzy that my he might start saying words like “criminy.” This cousin usually was speaking the social gospel, and I grew up to love him and his ideas, but his bluster and his passion and the way he could sometimes spit food out of his mouth when he got really worked up at the holiday table always turned me away a little first. I would imagine I’m not alone here as we talk about our brother John the Baptist, for we Midwestern UCC folk aren’t usually those who prefer to have our pastors shake their fists and call thunder down upon them. Or perhaps if you are, you called the wrong pastor into your fold…

Advent is not generally a time when we want to hear John’s loud, threatening voice, even if we are intent on preparing the way for the one who proclaims. For we may have different ideas. We like our Advent warm. We like to approach the coming of the Christ child, the coming of a soft baby with cozy expectation. We like to bask in the quiet reflective nuanced hushes, the soft dim lights and hushed hymns. It doesn’t always seem fair that we have this lunatic evangelist in our face screaming with all this moral righteousness, does it? Can’t we just fast-forward to the stable, and the angels, and that smell of soft baby hair as the infant lies his head in the crook of our neck? Can’t we just breathe a sigh of relief that God makes a way to us again, this year, in this human form?

No. No, friends. I’m sorry. We can’t. I can’t. For to reach that place of peace there’s some stuff we’ve got to do first. And John the Baptist does have a message for us to hear and understand, across time and distance. There is a truth he speaks that must be proclaimed as we turn our hearts toward the Advent mystery.

First of all, as we unpack John’s rant we need to remember that he was not exactly preaching to us. Matthew is recounting for us a little confab between John the Baptist and the Pharisees and the Sadducees who had traveled out to the wilderness to hear him speak. Those who were the priestly, law-abiding Jews, those who were obsessed with dotting every “I” and crossing every “T.” Those who had felt threatened by the power of this unknown prophet in the wilderness. John reminded them, without mincing words, that their obsession with the law and with the rules and with the politics of the day, was blinding them to a few things. And they couldn’t be saved by who they knew, or what prophet they followed. He reminded these priests and leaders that they seemed to be forgetting their covenant with God, forgetting that it was their job to usher in the reign of God’s love. “And oh by the way,” the Baptist said, “by aligning yourself with the powerful families and special interest groups for your own political gain, you’ve gotten a little too big for your britches.”

In short, John was preaching a message of hope wrapped up in a scathing rebuke, a reminder that by participating in a dry, same-old same-old ritual of religion, that these Pharisees and Sadducees had forgotten to grow in their faith and neglected the important work of preparing for the coming Messiah who had been promised. And so John’s most scathing words, you know, the ones about being a brood of snakes, was not really meant for our ears, but for theirs.

But even having recognized that, I’m not sure we’re off the hook (and here’s where I go all John the Baptist on you, so get ready). John the Baptist has another admonition which is universal in its appeal. One which I think we dare not lose sight of, those of us who begin the Advent journey this season in 2010, and it is this, “Repent.”

Repentance is sort of an overwhelming word, isn’t it? It’s not one we hear a lot in the UCC. Not one we hear a lot from this pulpit, but maybe we should. To repent means to “turn around” or rather, “to chose to turn toward God.” And what is so frightening about that? In fact isn’t that exactly what our Creator calls us to do on a regular basis? Aren’t we called to become new? Aren’t we asked to hear the voice of the one who invites us to awaken? To seek light in the dark cave of our hearts? To allow ourselves to prepare a space that Christ may be born again this year? To proclaim our “yes” to the hope that truth and justice may find a way to the earth again? To name ourselves as bearers of that Christ light? To be active participants in building the community of God here on earth?

The writer Frederick Buechner says it better than I ever could in his book Wishful Thinking, “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’” ( p. 96).

It is the first Sunday of Advent. And it is time for us to repent, collectively and individually. It is time for us to heed the call of our crazy uncle John the Baptist, the one who we may want to dismiss, the one who scares us a little with the loud voice, the one who isn’t exactly the life of the party. But, friends, he is the one who we need to hear as we begin this church year. He is the one who still asks the right questions about what and who we place at the center of our lives. And he is the one who cuts to the heart of the matter about where our priorities must be if we are to proclaim the good news .

It is time on this first Sunday of Advent for us to turn our faces toward the light of God, to make in souls space to bear new life. It is time for us to align ourselves with God’s call for peace, and equality, and justice. It is time for us to look honestly into our own souls and decide what changes need to be made. For we only have four weeks, and new life shimmers on the horizon, and all we can do is murmur in wonder an awed, “Wow.”


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Thin Places--Sermon 10/31/10

Sermon for All Saint's Day.

Thin Places

If you are one who likes celebrations, than the next few days offer a whole plethora of sacred and secular holidays in which to indulge. Of course our society’s consumerist cash cow of a holiday will come tonight when oodles and oodles of cowboys and princesses and batmans and pumpkins and puppies show up at your door, with already heavy-laden bags in hand brimming with M&M’s and Smarties for the time honored tradition of trick or treating. As many of you already know, Halloween’s roots lie in the pagan tradition of Samhain, which was essentially the time of year when the fields were fallow and the inedible parts and bones of the cattle were burned after they rest of their meat was cured. Samhain was considered the “new year” as the earth’s seasonal cycle came full circle again. The early church, however, in an effort at conversion of the country dwellers who had their own folk traditions, agreed that if the pagans were going to have a party, that it made sense for Christians to one up them with a bigger celebration, with a more elaborate feast, call it an early evangelism effort. An almost “Annie Get Your Gun-esque” version of anything you can do we can do better. And so, November 1st was declared by the church as “All Saint’s Day.” And just to be sure we made our point, November 2nd was declared “All Soul’s Day.” All bases were covered. The pagans may be celebrating the death of the harvest, the earth, the fallow time before winter, but we Christians could still one-up them by celebrating the death of our saints, those who have carried forward their faith. And if that wasn’t enough. We’d celebrate the saints in our midst. Take that, pagans. Church 1, or wait with All-Soul’s Day let’s make that 2, Pagans 0. However, time unfolded a different tale and both traditions survived, although Samhain’s name was changed to “All Hallow’s Eve” or just “Halloween.” Both the secular and the sacred are part of our cultural heritage and just as we live between the tensions in December of Santa and the Baby Jesus story, and the cultural tug of war in spring between little easter bunnies and a risen savior, this Sunday as well places the church betwixt and between. Between culture and religion. Between society and spirituality. Between the dominant paradigm and the subculture of the sacred. A thin place of sorts.

This brokenness, this living between, is something which can be perplexing. Especially for children. My parents have told the story before of how I used to enjoy playing with the plastic crèche that was set up each Christmas in our family home, how I would often make parades with the animals, the donkey, the camels, the sheep, and a few reindeer ornaments thrown in for diversity and then I’d have the wise men and shepherds tagging behind, and Mary and Joseph holding their baby and finally, at the back of the line like the grand poobah of the parade, Santa Claus, with the angel flying over the whole event doing loop de loops and giving color commentary from the air. It was the only way my four-year-old head could live in these tensions. I knew there was a baby Jesus, but I also had heard of this Santa. And somehow I had to make him fit into the story. And so, even though he seemed to be a dwarf, coming from a Fisher Price set, and even though he towered a good three inches lower than the smallest Shepherd, he was tacked onto the story as well.

But this dualism, this push and pull of story hasn’t always been there, and doesn’t need to divide us I don’t believe. There were others in our Christian tradition, renegades of sorts, who I believe offer us a different perspective, a more holistic vision of history, and I’d like us to turn our attention there this morning. Let us fix our eyes back to a different time, to the sixth and seventh century in Ireland when Christianity was slowly immersing itself in the Celtic culture. Because Ireland was off the beaten path, and came to be at a time before the Christian church began to rationalize and centralize in Rome, there was a different feel to it. There was a more mystical bent, a more tolerant acceptance of other religions, a more softened orthodoxy. Because of their geographical separation their faith developed differently. The Celts learned to find the spirit of Christ in a way very different than the centralized church in Rome. And this freedom allowed them to incorporate the divine in the midst of nature, in the midst of the people, in the midst of the land. For Celtic Christianity there was a more organic unity. God was among God’s people, and the sacred was all around even in the most common and ordinary of experiences. And while there may have been two different cultures in Ireland, their own tension between the secular and sacred—the Celts believed that there had to be a way to incorporate them into the unity of Christ’s vision for all. And so the spirituality and Christianity which was part of that time was unlike any we know now.

The Celtic Christians spoke freely of thin places. Those were the places where the earth seemed more holy, were the veil between heaven and earth seemed more transparent. But thin places referred to time as well as space. When one stumbled into the holy as they sat at the bedside of one who was dying, or where a woman was struggling with the birth pangs so that a baby might be born, one was in a thin place. When one realized in the midst of ordinary conversation that the person they were talking with was listening with a compassion bordering on heavenly, when one looked into the eyes of another and saw empathy and grace pooling forth, one was in a thin place. When one heard the truth spoken to power even when there may be repercussions and when forgiveness was offered even in the face of unimaginable sin, one was in a thin place. A place where the veil between God’s world and the human world was near, and the holy was afoot.

The writer of the book of Revelation knew a bit about those thin places, and on this celebration of All Saint’s Day, it seems an obvious place to turn. Tradition maintains that it was the apostle John who wrote the book of Revelation, but truth be told we really have no way of knowing. The visions and dreams we see in the book offer complex testimonies and even some uncomfortable scenes. And deciphering Revelation is complex. But, there are these snippets of grace found there as well, these offerings of what life in God’s realm may be and John walks right into these thin places in his dreams. There is in the author’s revelation a promise for the faithful, and a glimpse of what may come. It is a vision of unity where those from every nation, and every tribe, all people and all languages, all colors and all shapes are welcomed. A vision of praise where God’s power and love are acknowledged and where the canopy of grace of wide. Those who reside with God there will be sheltered, and will know no hunger or thirst. Those who find home with God will be guided to springs of the water of life where God will wipe away every tear from every eye.

I believe that on this day, on this day when we remember the faithfulness of those who have served God, and who must reside now in God’s realm of love, we feel a little bittersweet. While part of us honors the legacies of these servants and swells with pride to see their names read in the rollcall of the faithful, another part of us mourns afresh the veil that separates us from them and misses the very real human embraces they could give. While part of us smile in fond remembrance at the quicks and curiosities of our loved ones and carry with us a suitcase full of happy memories to share with our children, another part of us grieves the pain of unresolved relationships and questions left unanswered and truths unspoken. All-Saint’s Day is a bittersweet day in the life of the church, when we both celebrate and offer poignant pause. The bells toll, the candles lit, the names read, and we realize that we are ushered into a thin place.

The late Carlyle Marney a great Southern Baptist preacher from North Carolina once shared a story about what All Saint’s Day is. He believed that each of us is like a house. There are different rooms in the house that is you, he said. A parlor to welcome guests, a kitchen and dining room for eating, a bedroom where you sleep, a basement where you store your trash. The house also has a balcony, he said, and on that balcony are all the people who have exerted good and positive and gracious influences in your life. They are your balcony people. “Walk outside and look up and see who’s up there on our balcony looking down at you,” he would suggest. “Wave to them. They are your saints.” I believe that this is our job on All Saint’s Day, to turn and wave to the saints on our balcony. [John M. Buchanan editorial in Christian Century, November 15, 2003]

And so this morning I invite you to consider your balcony-sitters. Consider those to whom you turn and wave on this holy day as we dwell in the land where the veil is thin between heaven and earth. Who sits in your balcony and watches down on you with eyes gleaming with love? Who hovers above you ready to cheer you on? Who quietly lingers, aching to offer you some wisdom? To whom must we turn and wave this morning?

There is a poignant song by the group Kindling, a little known folk group comprised mostly of members of the Church of the Brethren, called “All that Remains is the Love” and the words have echoed in my mind all week as I’ve considered this Sunday. It is the song written by my friend, Lee Krahenbuhl, after visiting a family graveyard and realizing the legacy of those balcony-sitters in his own time. Hear his as blessing and benediction as we linger in the thin places this morning:
I hope I am returning all the best you gave the world
And thank you for the gift of your mistakes
I’m trying not to live my life in anger or in fear
And power isn’t worth the hate it takes
And since everything I build will turn to dust in time
And riches disappear like morning mist
Family and friends and lovers now will be my only song
Until I come to join you and they visit me like this..
And All that remains is the love
All that remains is the love bravely expressed.

On this All-Saints Day as we remember, and as we celebrate those who have gone before, may we live in the reality of the thin place, where all is sacred, and bound together by God’s inclusive love.


Wild and Precious Gifts--Sermon 11/14/10

This was my sermon for Stewardship Sunday at Peace UCC.

And so we have arrived. After hearing top ten reasons about stewardship, after receiving letters in the mail and filling out pledge cards, after prayerfully considering our gifts, or even after hastily scribbling in a number in a mad dash to get out the door this morning for worship, we have reached the culmination of our stewardship campaign, or perhaps I should say that the culmination will come with the “Beth Ring cake” after worship. I confess that I am accustomed to treating stewardship emphasis sermons like pledge week on NPR or PBS, and if you are like me, it probably a relief to get this “money talk” out of the way so we can go on to our “regularly scheduled program.” But I have a hunch that there’s more to it than that, I have a hunch that on a deeper level, we in the church aren’t always that comfortable talking about money. For those of us who make enough of it, there can be a sense of guilt. For those of us who don’t make enough of it, there can be a source of shame. Money, like sex, is something we don’t talk about publicly. There is an unspoken taboo there, isn’t there? It’s not supposed to be anyone else’s business? Right? So talk of money, seems a little threatening, and there is a sense in the church where we want to say, “Okay, okay I get it…here, let me surreptitiously hand you this pledge card and let’s get on with it, now get back to our regular programming…”

But I think that when we feel a little itchy about something, I little uncomfortable, than there is a bit of a poke from God, a little nudge to consider where we need to turn our attention.

It’s stewardship Sunday. We’re going to talk about our gifts, and our talents, and our faith. I promise no hard sells, no pulpit pounding, no altar calls, no guilt ridden lectures. It’s stewardship Sunday and we need to turn our attention to the teachings of Jesus, the one who taught us the truth of what it means to be a faithful caregiver of the gifts of God.

The parable of the talents is one which I wrestle with. It’s one of those texts which has always stuck in my craw, and because I believe Jesus to be a prophet who promotes liberation for all, justice and peace, love as all powerful and prominent, I figured it was about time for me to get over my reservations and hesitations and plow into it and figure out what I was missing before.

It has been said that every preacher has only one good sermon theme in them, and that every other sermon is just a riff of that one. It has been said that pastor’s often preach to themselves in every sermon they speak. And, so I speak confessionally when I say, that I look at this verse through the Christen Pettit Miller filter, just as each of you see it through your own independent lens as well. Let me tell you a little about what the Christen Pettit Miller history is. As a white middle-class woman living in an affluent country, as a person with what I now believe must be a learning disability when it comes to finances and a sense of helpless inadequacy when it comes to investments I read this story and place myself in the role of the one who really disappointed the master. I would be the one who buried her share of her supervisor’s money in an effort to just keep it safe and intact. And so with each reading of this parable in previous years, I have ended up scratching my head and furrowing my brow and feeling a little perplexed with exactly what the point is.

You’ve all heard the story. Chris just read it for you again. There are three people. They are all given three different amounts of money. They each make choices about what to do with it. And then they are rewarded or punished based on their choices. The moral of the story, seems to be, simply put, use it or lose it. And when one places this in a financial context, as we are apt to do with a first read, it can be a little uncomfortable, or, heck, downright painful to hear. Especially if we are ones who believe that Jesus sided with the powerless, especially if we are ones who dislike the analogy of Jesus promoting venture capitalism, or introducing us to a God who condemns those who don’t make money, or rather make sound investments. The parable of the talents, on the surface, can be a sticky one. That is, if we chose to take this parable at face value only.

Friday afternoon was sermon grappling day with me. I was picking apart the text, looking through interpretations, living through the various perspectives, placing myself in the story, trying to get my head around the words, and as is sometimes the case when I become blocked, I sent a little note out into the universe via Facebook message to a group of my closest friends, we who call ourselves the sisters, eight of us scattered across the country, the women who offer my counsel and hold me accountable, and help me see light when I can only see darkness. The message simply said, “Help! I don’t get it…” and then sent the text. And within a half hour my in box had two responses. The first said, “This is why I’m not a pastor.” Which was honest, but not all that helpful…and the second said simply, “It’s not about money. Think about it!”

Whoa! The parable of the talents is not about money? Whoa! Who knew? I was credulous but read it again taking money out of the equation and lo and behold, things started to click.

Jesus spoke in parables because the people of the time loved stories, and these stories were just that, they were stories, they weren’t instruction manuals for what exactly should happen if our boss handed us $633,000, which is the modern day equivalent of only one talent, or fifteen times the average American household income. The parable isn’t a story about investment strategy, or market climate. Instead it is a story about our gifts, and what gifts we offer to the Creator, and thus, to the world.

A talent, in ancient Palestine, was a measure of weight which later came to denote a fixed amount of silver or gold. A talent was a way to describe money, but in an interesting etymological phenomenon, a language twist of fate, the word “talent” morphed into the word that we know as talent in the English language, one’s gift, or one’s God-given ability or skill. The word talent, comes directly from this parable. And so, it appears, interpreters throughout the ages have understood this parable far better than your humble pastor, go figure.

The parable of the talents is about what we give to the church, about what we give to our families, our friends, our communities, and the world. And the parable of the talents is about investing wisely in discerning these gifts. The parable of the talents is about the sharing of ourselves, the sharing of those skills and abilities we have honed. And the parable of the talents is about recognizing our talents as valuable, and important, and necessary to the world, and not something God wants us to bury. It about all of this, but perhaps most importantly, the parable of the talents is about taking a risk. It is about the call to become involved in the messy and beautiful life of community. It is about the summons to commit ourselves body and soul to the ministry of relationship. It is about recognizing that the world is hungry for our commitments, and we can’t just glide through life on cruise control.

And so this Sunday, as we turn in our pledge cards having made our financial decisions to support the ministry of this church and the wider world beyond, as we bind ourselves to one another through the money we will combine to insure economic viability as a church, I ask you to consider something more. You’ll notice in your bulletins this morning there is a different sort of pledge card, it is a pledge of your time, a pledge of your gifts, a pledge of your talents. Take it out of your bulletin, take a look at it, ponder what you can offer, you can even fill it out now while I’m talking, I don’t mind…for this promise and commitment is placed before you as well.

On this stewardship Sunday, I ask you to do more than to consider what your money can do. On this stewardship Sunday I ask you to consider instead what gift you have buried. What do you have to offer the church and the world that needs to be dug out of its hole, brushed off, and held up to the light of the sun, to be used for the glory of God and your neighbor’s good?

In the Gospel of Thomas, one of those Gnostic Gospels which never made it into the Biblical canon, we’ve been mentioning a few of these in Sunday school lately, Jesus is said to have told his disciples, “If you bring forth what is inside you, what you bring forth will save you.” But the teacher went on to warn, “If you don’t bring forth what is inside you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you.” I believe each of us is called by God to bring forth that which has been given to them, to bring forth that joy, that story, that song, that presence that we may have been reluctant to share. We care called by our Creator to bring forth that skill, that art, that talent which we may have been holding back. For this is what it means to be a good steward; and if we deny that which we should share, we deny the God who gave us these gifts to begin with.

Frederick Buechner writes, “the place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” And so this morning I invite you to pause. As we commit ourselves to a new year of faithful stewardship, a new year of financial giving to meet the deep hungers of this community and the world, I ask you to consider one other question, what spiritual gifts are you willing to risk giving this year? What deep gladness lies buried within you that begs to be unearthed and shared with others? How brave will you dare to be in sharing yourself with your brothers and sisters? What risks do you promise to make to become necessary to someone in need? What are you being called to bring forth?

For what we are called to give today is more than just our money; we are called to give no less than our whole selves.

The poet Mary Oliver puts it more eloquently and boldly in her poem “Summer Day” when she asks, “Tell me what it is that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

The world is waiting. And it is hungry for what you have to offer. What wild and precious gift do you bring forth?


Saturday, October 30, 2010


Tonight the mistresses T. and B. were preparing to go to a Halloween party. As a parent, it is hard to cross the "we no longer trick or treat" hurdle. But I suppose 14 and 17 is as good a time as any. I'm still marveling that it was a same-sex party. How few are the ticking time bombs that we dodge as parents? I mean, really even if your child decides to dress as Snooki on Jersey Shore, who cares if she is sharing those long legs with only the girlfriends she sees in ballet every week? And, um, who loaned her the fishnet stockings?

In my defense, they were from a college production, and not at all utilitarian. And I saved them only because I thought I might use them again for a costume...and, well, B. did! Now, if only she could find a use for my old flannel nightgowns.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Hundredth Monkey--Sermon 10/24/10

This sermon is dedicated this morning to my friend, Ken Brown, long-time director of the Peace Studies Institute at Manchester College who is hospitalized today in Cleveland, OH. Ken has influenced and shaped me in profound ways as I try to be a peacemaker in this world.

This morning as we celebrate Peace and Justice Sunday, as we focus our attentions on a hungry world which calls out for peacemakers on national and international levels, and within our community and our world, I would like to draw your attention, first to one man. The man is Rupert Sheldrake.

Rupert Shedrake, a man whose name doesn’t readily roll off the tongue. A man who must of us don’t probably sit around and discuss over our morning coffee or see waltzing on Dancing with the Stars. Rupert Sheldrake, the theoretical biologist who discovered the Morphic Field Theory. A theory which many of us have never heard of and which until recently I was convinced existed mostly to stump graduate students during their GRE exams. Okay, show of hands…who understands Morphic Field theory? And which of you would like to explain how it relates to peace and justice? Anyone?

Morphic field theory can be described, very roughly, this way: a change in behavior happens in a species when a critical mass—the exact number—is reached. Now, until fairly recently, the past week to be exact, I had never heard of Rupert Sheldrake or morphic field theory. And to be quite honest, if Robert or Tess or Brynn tried to explain it to me while I was preparing dinner one night I may just be inclined to nod politely and go on tossing the salad. But, I happened upon this theory in, of all things, a book on spirituality and I want to share with you an allegory that explains this theory.

Off the shores of Japan, scientists had been studying monkey colonies on many separate small islands for over thirty years. In order to keep track of the monkeys, they would lure them out of the trees by dropping sweet potatoes on the beach. Well, the monkeys came to enjoy this free lunch, and were often in plain sight where they could be observed as they noshed on their carbohydrate-rich snacks. One day, on one small islands, an 18-month-old monkey named Imo started to wash her sweet potato in the sea before she popped it into her mouth and ate it. No one knows why she did it. Perhaps it tasted better without all the grit and sand and teeny tiny bugs on it. Perhaps the seawater salted the potato and created a new taste sensation in her little monkey mouth. But, for whatever reason, our sweet Imo changed the pattern of monkey behavior. Imo then showed her playmates, the monkey version of playgroup, and then her mother how to do this. And it wasn’t long before her friends started showing their parent monkeys, and gradually, little by little, all over the island monkeys began to wash their sweet potatoes in the sea rather than eating them grit and all. Call it the latest monkey craze, sort of like the Beatles or bell bottoms, sweeping over the island.

One day the scientists observed that all the monkeys on that particular island washed their sweet potatoes before eating them. Now, although this was significant, what was even more fascinating, and the part where I start to get excited, was that this change in monkey behavior did NOT take place only on one island. Suddenly, dramatically, monkeys on other islands were now washing their sweet potatoes as well, despite the fact that monkey colonies on different islands had no direct contact with each other, so this was not simply socialization.

There was, then a monkey who made all the difference. This monkey became called in theory the “hundredth monkey.” And the 100th one was the hypothesized anonymous monkey that tipped the scales for the species. This 100th monkey was the one whose change in behavior meant that all monkeys would from then on wash their sweet potatoes before eating them.

This allegory, this description of Rupert Sheldrake’s Morphic Field Theory fills me with great hope and gives me tingles because of what it has to teach us. A promise is made clear. A truth is revealed. When a critical number of people change their behavior, change their way of thinking, change their way of responding to the world, the larger culture will change as well. What this story tells us is that what was at first unthinkable, what was at first unimaginable, what was at first written off as too preposterous, what was at first deemed hopeless can become the norm. A shift is constantly being made, a way of being is forever altered. Someone has to be the 37th monkey, and the 63rd, and the 99th, before there is a 100th monkey—and here’s the thrilling part, no one knows how far away we are, or how unimaginably close to change that hundredth monkey is until suddenly, amazingly, we are there.

The prophet Micah was one who knew about change. He was one who knew about waiting for the climate to shift, who knew what it was like to live in a world where prophets are seen as little more tha crazy town criers. Micah was a common man, a poor man who lived in the hills of Judea just to the south and west of Jerusalem. He had seen the land of Israel become corrupt. He had heard tales of the glory days and prosperity of that land. And he lamented both the loss of Israel’s faith, the selling out of the vision of what they could be, and the weakening of his own country of Judah after the rule of King Hezekiah. And yet, Micah was not afraid to speak. He was not afraid to join his voice, the voice of a property-less peasant, the voice of country-boy with the voices of Isaiah, and Hosea in crying out for social justice, and envisioning a new Jerusalem. Micah must have known in his bones what it meant to convert a culture to a way of redemption, to crave a world of peace. Micah believed that a cry for justice must be made in a tiny village first, and that it might just have the power to echo into the neighboring hills, and then seep on into the city, and from there be spoken out into the world. Micah was not afraid of being the first monkey, if we refer to Morphic Field theory…and his voice, his prophesy, resonates centuries later.

Listen to a few of his words from the fourth and fifth chapters of Micah spoken in contemporary language through Eugene Peterson’s translation of The Bible:
God will establish justice in the rabble of nations and settle disputes in faraway places. They’ll trade in their swords for shovels, their spears for rakes and hoes. Nations will quit fighting each other, quite learning how to kill one another. Each man will sit under his own shade tree, each woman in safety will tend her own garden.
And after issuing his proclamation of peace, he goes on to predict that one will rise up to lead that movement, “And the people will have a good and safe home, for the whole world will hold him in respect—Peacemaker of the world!”

The prophet Micah lived his life proclaiming the truth that he knew. Demanding the peace that was in short supply. Starting a movemement that would swell until it could no longer be ignored. And predicting that only one who proclaimed peace could lead the people.

I think peace must be like that. Great movements of peace must begin with these tiny seeds, these tiny voices, these soft pleas for justice in tiny back water towns. And then their rippling, their waves create wider circles. The Micah’s of the world must speak, because these prophets create a culture that is made ready for peace. And it is only then that we can hear, and it is only then that we can begin. It is only then that we can imagine the scales tipping, from violence to nonviolence, from judgment to mercy, from brokenness to healing, from isolation to welcome, from that first monkey to that hundredth.

Jesus, the prince of peace, the prophet of prophets lived and breathed and walked among us. And he too had a few words to say about peace, and about love. And while we have grown comfortable with the knowledge that he offers us inner peace, we have to remember that he also spent a great deal of his time on this earth disturbing the peace as well, and we dare not forget that.

We dare not forget that our call as peacemakers calls us to disturb the peace because there are still children who will go to bed tonight with rumbling stomachs. And there are still people sleeping under bridges while the gradually cooling autumn wind blows in gusts through their thin clothes. We dare not forget that are call as peacemakers calls us to disturb the peace because there are still people who are having their homes demolished in Palestine and there are still Israelis being killed by rocks. We dare not forget that our call as peacemakers calls us to disturb the peace because as of October 21st there have been 5,758 United States soldiers killed in the global war on terror and the civilian and Iraqi and Afghan deaths are too numerous to count. We dare not forget that our call as peacemakers calls us to disturb the peace because the latest studies show that 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.
We dare not forget that our call as peacemakers calls us to disturb the peace because there are still children bullied so severely that they take their own lives and there are still children who have no one to tell them that they are loved. We dare not forget that our call as peacemakers calls us to disturb the peace because the discrepancies between the rich and poor only grow greater and this social stratification continues to divide our society into haves and have nots. We dare not forget that our call as peacemakers, our call to beat our swords into plowshares are not just pretty words to read in worship once a year. To be peacemakers we must disturb the peace to make a difference.

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite authors of all time, and someone I promise that you will hear me quote in many many sermons to come says it simply and humorously this way: “Jesus said, ‘The point is not to hate and kill each other today.’ Can you write that down and put it by the phone?”

Disturbing the peace means that we write it down and put it by the phone, lest we forget.

Friends, as followers of the living Christ, as listeners to the words of the prophet Micah, there is a call set before us. And perhaps we are on the cusp, on the edge of something profound and new. Maybe, just maybe there is some small act of peace, some tiny act of justice that we can do that can tip the scale for humanity. Perhaps by doing so we might be that 100th monkey, the one to usher in a radical change, a change unlike any we’ve ever known before. And maybe we’re just that one step away if we follow the peacemaker and simply disturb the peace.


Friday, October 15, 2010

The Dangers of the I-Phone 4

As often as I try to explain to Jim the Father that the I-Phone 4 has drawbacks, there are moments when one must just let their fledgling chicks flail on their own and make the oft-unexplained "butt call." As the younger generation explains it to me, the "butt call" is the call that happens when your phone is pressed on by your, um, derriere and unexplained signals go into the universe (no, they were not caused by fiber-rich foods) as your phone is leaned upon.

So this morning when Grayson and I returned from preschool we were welcomed by the flashing light of the answering machine informing us of a new message. We listened. We heard lots of swishing and swashing and unintelligible noises. Some of them sounded suspiciously like Babaw...Grayson's beloved grandpa traveling in Nantucket. And then we realized, like slowing dawning light...we were butt-called.

And so Babaw was confronted.

And Babaw was concerned.

But this email needed to be sent anyway:

Your butt revealed startling truths related to Deep Throat and the Watergate scandal. There were also references to Kenneth Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton. Thanks for the helpful hints about how to get horseradish stains out of khakis, and the way you pontificate on the political situation in Bangladesh is especially insightful. I’m not sure I agree with your thoughts on Hart Crane’s poetry, but you nailed it as you discussed so eruditely transubstantiation and the arguments of the Catholic Church. I also heard some Gordon Lightfoot lyrics and an artfully arranged version of Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Leaving on a Jetplane”, and a poignant rendition of “Home on the Range.” That was your voice, right? And not another part of your anatomy? It was hard to tell.

All in all, we’ve been gathered around the answering machine all night, replaying and replaying your prophetic words.

Glad your coming home to your family who love you both so much.

Consider this a public service announcement, for you never know who your rear will phone if given the chance.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Guest Blogger...Jim the Father's Installation Sermon

Oh, the Leaping

If you had told me some 30-odd years ago—
back when I was serving my first church as a minister,
back when I had a daughter who was about four years old,
a daughter who dressed in pink leotards and pink ballet slippers
5 and 6 and sometimes 7 days a week,
sure that she was going to be a dancer when she grew up, dancing her way through life—
if you had told me some 30-odd years ago that I’d be standing here this morning, in this church,
with this same daughter having asked me to be a part of this particular experience,
I would have told you, unmistakably, that someone had taken your morning bowl of Rice Krispies
and sprinkled on them something that may have looked like sugar
but it was both funny-tasting and definitely illegal,
which was the reason you were speaking incoherently.
But here we are, all of us!
What a hoot!
We’re here today to celebrate a service of installation.
That’s a foreign concept to me, since my tradition is United Methodism,
and we have a different process of placing ministers in congregations.
In my tradition you simply show up that first Sunday morning with a smile on your face,
going to a church you’ve been sent to by the bishop, even if you don’t want to go,
and the congregation you’ve been sent to has to accept you, even if they don’t like you.
Perhaps you can tell from my description that I believe your method has a little more going for it.
But I’m still getting my mind around this idea of installing a pastor.
When I hear the word installing, what I think of is car batteries and kitchen dishwashers.
In my mind the whole process calls for everyone today to show up with their toolbelts on.
I know, of course, that’s not at all the way you feel, and, in truth, neither do I.
But to my mind a notion that comes closer to capturing what’s happening here today
would have all of Christen’s family sitting on this side of the center aisle—
her immediate family, including all those generations who could be here only in spirit,
as well as those people who have been like surrogate parents and grandparents to her,
and those friends who are so close to her that they’re a family all their own,
and colleagues who support her, professors who have helped form her.
And on the other side of this center aisle would be another family,
the family of Peace United Church of Christ:
those who have been here from the beginning,
those who have caught the dream more recently,
those who left their indelible imprint here and now watch from the another place on earth,
or a place beyond earth.
In this notion I’m describing, the person standing where I now stand would say
to the family [on the right], “Will you have this person to be your pastor, your worship leader,
your congregational facilitator, your confidante, your teacher, your cheerleader, your friend?”

Then that person would turn to the other side and say,
“Christen, will you have these people to be your parishioners, your fellow travelers for the journey ahead,
your comrades in faith, your pride and your joy, and your friends?”
I believe that’s one sense of what we’re engaged in here today:
not just one person being installed into a position,
but two distinct entities, a congregation and a minister, embarking upon a momentous journey.
It is not a step that either one takes lightly.
And it is a step holds promise, and carries a sense of joy, even a hint of excitement.

Let’s now move to this afternoon’s text and allow it to lead us through out moments together
as we seek a full understanding of what this day represents.
I ask your indulgence as I speak to you from my experience as a minister
who once served a congregation that bore some similarities to this one,
and as I speak to you as a person who has known your new pastor for a few years now.
The story, as it comes to us, has five movements, each very quick.
Now Peter and John were going up to the temple
[that’s, of course, the temple in Jerusalem where Jesus used to worship too,
until his death just a few weeks before]
at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.
[that’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon for the regular daily service]
And a man lame from birth was being carried,
whom they laid daily at that gate of the temple which is called Beautiful
[we’re not sure which of the nine temple doors that one was,
because ‘Beautiful’ is not a name applied to any one of them;
the best guess is it was the main door, 75 feet tall]
to ask alms of those who entered the temple.
We must steer clear of the idea that this man was a beggar in the sense that we think of “beggar” today.
In a time when there was no Social Security, no health insurance, no Medicaid,
people willingly and naturally supported one another.
If you honestly needed, then you honestly asked.
And if you were one who had your fair share of resources, then it was not just your choice
but it was your duty to give of what you had, without a hint of condescension.
The idea was that when you gave to another who needed it, you were really giving to God.
And as you know, when you give to God, you’re helping yourself as much as anyone.
Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms.
That’s the first movement.
He asked for what he needed.
And to you who form this family of faith who are taking this important step you’re taking,
formally making it clear for all to see that a new pastor is now a part of your life together,
I encourage you: Ask.
Ask Christen—ask comfortably for what you need.
Ask your questions, all of them.

Ask for her time, for her support; ask for her perspective, for her understanding.
You have every right to ask, every right to speak, every right to make yourself known.
And to Christen I would say, “I hope those who are becoming your people will ask!
I pray they will share out of their depths with you.
Experience tells me that they will not always ask at convenient times,
because richly lived human life does not stay within the bounds of scheduled appointments
and normal office hours.
I encourage you to welcome their asking, even if you don’t understand where the questions are leading,
even if you humbly feel you don’t have nearly enough answers.
Remember: they are turning to you for a reason—trust that reason.”
Now comes the second movement to our story.
And Peter directed his gaze at him, with John, and said, “Look at us.”
In the previous verse the story says that the man who was sitting there on the stonework
saw Peter and John—he glanced up and there they were.
But an entirely different word is used for what Peter did—he didn’t just happen to see.
The word in Greek for what he did means “he grabbed ahold of with his eyes and he did not let go.”
Peter riveted his gaze on this man.
He shut out what was going on all around so he did not miss a thing
about this other human being who was now before him.
And when Peter gave a direction to this man, saying “look at us,”
he used still a different word, which meant,
“Look at us but also look into us.
Behold us!
Let your eyes envelope us!”
Thinking about this second movement in our story,
both to pastor and to people I implore you with identical words.
Don’t just glance at each other but open your eyes and really see one another.
Really peer into each other’s faces, realizing that when you do so,
you are simultaneously revealing your own face.
So model being aware—and model it to each other.
Model waking up in the moment to whoever shares this moment with you.
Wake up and really see those others around you.
Wake up and really look intently at what’s going on in the world—
the world nearby and the world at large.
Wake up and behold the extravagance of God’s grand creation.
Wake up and really see your purpose for having been placed here on earth.
Wake up, and as much as you can, stay awake.
Here comes the third movement:
And he fixed his attention upon them, expecting to receive something from them.
But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have….”
We know that when Jesus and the twelve roamed that land, they held possessions in common
and only one person handled their money.

Presumably that tradition had continued, so Peter and John had no more cash
than the man who sat looking up at them.
Peter named it, straight up:
“I don’t have money, but I do have something I think you could use, and whatever I have, it’s yours.”
To the people of Peace church today I say,
“Be like the man at the temple door—be expectant.
Look forward to receiving something.
Expect something good to happen.
Be ready for the possibilities.”
And to Christen this afternoon I say,
“Be like Peter as he stood before this man who had arrested his attention, and be clear.
Be clear about what you don’t have to give, and what is not yours to give.
Be clear about what you cannot do, what you dare not do, because it is not yours to do.
And be just as clear about what you can offer, even if it’s not quite what was asked for,
because your understanding of ministry says you must offer it,
if you are to be true to your calling, true to the Gospel,
and ultimately true to these people who are now in your care.”
And to both of you I say,
“You each have something to give and you each have something to receive, and I hope you will.”
The fourth movement:
Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but I give you what I have;
in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”
And he took him by the right hand and raised him up;
and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.
We don’t need to supply details here—the writer of Acts fills them all in:
the simple command, “Walk”, the right hand extended, the pulling up,
the feet being made strong, not to mention even the ankles.
Who would have guessed that, minutes before the 3 p.m. worship service began,
this surprising event, this unexpected healing would take place, out there in the open?
And that’s what it was: a healing.
A man miraculously coming to be more whole in ways he had not been.
To pastor and to people this morning, I suggest,
“Healing is just as possible today as it was then, individually and collectively.
Healing is just as possible right here, at the door of this sanctuary, as at the door of that temple.
With prayer, with attention, with understanding, with love,
bodies can heal, even when they’re not expected to.
Minds can heal, even when they have been fragmented.
Spirits can heal, even when they have brought very low.
Hearts can mend, even when they have been broken.
And this healing is not something that a pastor does to a people or for a people.
Healing is something that happens when pastor and people together
tap into a powerful energy that is beyond their own.

Healing is something that blossoms into being when the Holy Spirit moves among you,
calling upon anyone and everyone to get involved,
whether you carry a seminary diploma in your back pocket or not.
And then we come to the final verse.
And leaping up he stood and walked and entered the temple with them,
walking and leaping and praising God.
The final movement is the celebratory one.
We can almost hear that man, shouting with joy.
We can almost see him, bounding about, jumping up and down in his excitement.
The writer of Acts wanted to make sure we got the picture,
so in one short verse he used the word “leap” twice.
And all the delightful actions of the one man were recorded for us,
but we’re told nothing at this pivotal point in the story about Peter, about John.
We can only surmise.
My surmise is this:
Peter, always so passionate, always ready to be the bull in the china shop,
Peter could not have walked sedately on into the temple
while all this springing energy was going on around him.
My surmise is that Peter was drawn into it too—
grabbing a hand, throwing back his head,
letting out a whoop, leaping with the best of them.
Oh, the leaping, that day!
To the family of Peace church, I pray that many experiences of leaping will lie before you,
as God moves among you and your new pastor,
as the Spirit settles over you, and healings occur around you and within you.
And to Christen this afternoon I say,
“I realize now that you knew what you were doing all along,
you with your pink leotards and your tiny ballet slippers.
You were getting ready to dance and to leap,
although in ways neither of us ever quite imagined all those years ago.”
And to both people and pastor this afternoon, I offer this blessing:

May your joys together be full.
May your times of connection be ever so rich.
May your healings be transformative.
May your leaps be very, very high.
And may the dance you share be both lovely and long.

James E. Miller
Peace United Church of Church
September 19, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

With Both Ears Tingling

Stories of call are not uncommon throughout the Bible. And almost anyone who was anyone in ancient times had his or her story of call relayed in the scriptures, it was the “Who’s Who” of the Jewish world. There are stories of spontaneous calls, like the fishermen who simply dropped their nets and followed a then unknown teacher on the shores of Galilee. There are the dramatic calls, like Saul (who became Paul) who saw something like scales fall from his eyes. There are the calls to the inadequate, like Moses who had problems speaking at first. There are the calls of the elderly, like Sarah who was told late in her life that she would bear a child. There are the calls of the very young, like the unwed and pregnant Mary, called to birth the Messiah when she was barely into adolescence. There are calls of the incredulous and resistant, like Jonah who ran from God.

Hearing a sermon on discerning the call of God is as common as sliced white bread these days. They are throughout the lectionary, regularly tackled in pulpits throughout Christendom. And yet, if you ever ask a young pastor or eager seminarian the story of their call, more often than not they will wax poetic, eyes glazed in misty wonder as they retell the story of their own call, a love story of sorts.

But the story of Samuel’s call, the story we read about this morning is not the standard take on the story. For the calling of the young Samuel would never have occurred were it not for the wisdom and discernment of another. No, the hero in this tale is actually not the one that the book is named after but his mentor, the common priest, Eli.

In those days there were just two of them, the apprentice and the old priest. One was a mere boy, twelve or so, a novitiate of sorts, eager to learn the art and practice of the Jewish faith, eager to gain insight into the heart of priestly wisdom. He was young. He was inexperienced. He was only a boy who had been committed and dedicated to God at his birth by his mother Hannah. A mother who had prayed desperately for a child, and who, upon finally conceiving, promised to repay God in the only way she knew how. Samuel was farmed out to live in the temple early on, and he only saw his family once a year, when they came to offer sacrifice to God there. And so, his near constant companion was another parental figure, the avuncular Eli with whom he lived in companionable quiet.

Now Eli had his own story, as most teachers do. At this point in his life he was wizened and weary, a man who had seen his share of heartache and pain. His eyesight, and perhaps even his vision of the future, had grown dim, like a lamp that fades when the oil is low. He was the father of sons who mocked his religion. Sons who slept with temple prostitutes and flaunted their disdain for his God. Sons who rejected their birthright as future priests in the church, and who must have disappointed their father by scoffing at their lineage. We can only imagine Eli’s sense of hopelessness as he wondered what his legacy would be in a world that valued patriarchy, and sons carrying on the name and role as their fathers. On Eli’s watch the word of God had grown increasingly rare, and visions were no longer appearing as they had in years past.

And so here we have them, the inexperienced and the burned out. Samuel and Eli. Two of God’s more unlikely servants, living in the chamber of the temple, sharing their days together, allowing time to unfold before them, devoting their lives to the service of the God who had not offered direction, or vision, or leading, or wisdom for many years. There had been only silence to these faithful.

And then one night, no different than any other night, after the evening meal had been shared and the prayers had been said the old man and the young boy each made their way to their separate sleeping quarters for bed. I love to imagine the scene that comes next, and I have played it over in my head so many times that it almost seems like a movie. It is almost comic in its urgency, filled with surprises and suspense, as we the audience wait for the truth to dawn. As we wait for Samuel and Eli to understand the cosmic importance of this night. The dynamic duo are about to be stunned out of their quiet complacency with a call that will set both their ears tingling.

The twelve-year-old woke in the dim first-light of early morning and heard his name called twice, summoned at this odd hour. Can’t you just see him stumbling from his bed into the priest Eli’s room, sleep still in his eyes, his hair disheveled with a classic case of bedhead? Out of breath, with his heart pounding with that sense of surprise that one gets when the phone rings in the middle of the night, he asked, “What is it? I’m right here.” But Eli, was not the one who called. And the old man must have wondered what it was that roused the boy, what sent him on his errand into the priest’s room at night for he had not. And so the boy clip-clopped back down the hallway to his own room, back to the comfort of sleep. And no sooner had he started to drift off when he heard his name spoken again with the same urgency, the same breathless expectation. And for the second time that night, Samuel raced down to the old priest’s room, eager to do his master’s bidding (or maybe grumbling under his breath that the old man had lost his mind). But again, it was not Eli who called. And as listeners to the story, we want to burst in and give Samuel a hint now…but we can’t, not across time and distance. In exasperation and confusion the boy made his way back to his own room for the second time that night.

Eli, for his part, doesn’t seem to have picked up on the earliest clues that Samuel was having a “God moment.” For the first visit could have been a simple misunderstanding, and the second a nuisance as the boy roused him from sleep, but by the third consecutive trip that night the old priest must have picked up on something. Eli must have known that the young Samuel was being called by something or rather someone more powerful than he was. Eli was wise enough to sense that something holy was afoot. In those days when the word of God was rare and vision not widespread this saint of a man, mentor to Eli, discerned that there was more and had a sense that this was the real thing. And it was then that Eli offered the boy prophesy, “Samuel, go lie down. If God calls again, tell him your listening.”

The story goes on, of course, and if I’ve whetted your appetite for more of the Samuel saga you can mosey on over to 1 Samuel 4 for a complete run down, but for now I want to wrap up the story in this place. I want to pause and linger here, for there are important things for us to learn in these verses. Samuel’s call by the still speaking God and Eli’s wisdom in the face of this call offer us a summons that we have to hear in our day. In another time when one might say that the word of the Lord is rare and visions are not widespread.

The story of Eli’s wisdom with Samuel isn’t about an elder dictating to a youngster. It isn’t about Eli pressing his own frustrated dreams onto his protégé. It isn’t about Eli defining the parameters of what Samuel is to do. Instead, Eli simply counsels Samuel to listen for himself. Eli points Samuel to the still speaking God, and urges him to seek his own path. And isn’t this the mark of a good teacher? Eli says simply this, “I think you may be hearing the voice of God. I suggest you stop and listen.”

Good teaching is that which allows students to discern the truth for themselves. Good teaching is about believing in the potential of the student to lead. Good teaching is in offering wisdom without making demands. Good teaching is in knowing that gentle suggestion can be as powerful as rigid dogmatism. Good teaching encourages students to listen, and then listen some more. All of this Eli teaches, and because of this teaching, a leader is born.

But of course that is not the end, but merely the beginning. For the cycle of wisdom carries on to the next generation, and the one after that. And soon even more ears are tingling as the future of the still speaking God is unfurled in the world.

This morning as we celebrate our educators, as we bask in the collective wisdom they offer, as we begin our own educational year here at Peace UCC may we pledge ourselves to listening in our own lives for the still speaking God. May we listen in the quiet spaces where the sacred lurks, and may we listen in the noisy exclamations as others tell their story. May we listen to our children those who babble and those who bark. May we listen to our youth those who dream and those who ponder. May we listen to our grandparents those who reflect and those who advise. And together may we listen to the call of God as a church, as well those individual divine nudges that keep us awake at night. For the still speaking God is dreaming big dreams for us, and the world is ready. Do you feel your ears tingle? It’s time.


Monday, August 02, 2010

Rich With God--Sermon 8/1/10

This is the sixth Sunday I have been preaching here at Peace. For six Sundays the lectionary, and the book of Luke have been relatively gentle with us, showing us a Jesus who teaches about the importance of neighborliness, undistracted living and attention to prayer. The Jesus we have seen for the past six Sundays is the Jesus who calms, who illumines gently, the one we’d invite over to watch the game, or meet for a cup of coffee. He teaches us things. He enlivens our minds. He gives us helpful tips on how to be more attune to God. He’s that close friend who has our best interests at heart, and wants us to live into the fullness of who he knows we can be. It isn’t hard to be this Jesus’s friend, it isn’t hard to be his disciple. But this Sunday, Luke tells us of a different Jesus, and it can be a trifle unnerving to come face to face with this Jesus. Because this morning we become reacquainted with Jesus the radical. Jesus the prophet. Jesus the disturber.

I have a wonderful resource that I use each week which outlines the lectionary texts and then offers a perspective from several different writers. Each week this book greets me and each week there are three columns which invite me in to the scripture. The first column outlines the text based on its theological understandings and has quite a few twenty-five cent words which take me right back to seminary days and require me to do google word-searches on meanings I have forgotten. The second column outlines the exegetical perspective and tears apart and defines the Greek or Aramaic words in search of the truest translation of the text. And then there is the third column, which is actually my favorite. In this third column each week a writer shares what it means for a pastor to apply this topic to his or her church. In essence this last column says, “Okay, here’s the background, here’s what it means, now how’s it gonna play to the crowd?”

This week’s “pastoral perspective” column could have had a skull and crossbones symbol over it as warning to anyone who dare tread on this path as a preacher. In it’s reassuring, but careful, polite wording it says this: “The power of today’s Gospel lesson can sneak up on a congregation…” It then goes on to mention that in these dog days of summer when we are lulled into the rhythm of pool and patio this Sunday’s Gospel text “sizzles and spits like a backyard grill.” In fact, if it weren’t so restrained I think it might have suggested a guest speaker come and preach for this Sunday…and I missed it by just one short week!

So, I would encourage you to put your seat belts on this morning, as we listen in on Jesus’s little encounter with the man concerned about his inheritance.

You’ve heard the scripture read from the NIV this morning, but hear Jesus’s parable told this way through the lesser known translation of The Message by Eugene Peterson:

The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!
Just then God showed up and said, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?’ That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.

Now I admit, I like this translation a little better than the original. I like this idea that we have to fill our barns with God, we have to put our faith in God’s providence, we can’t fill our metaphorical barns with our own sense of self and entitlement. And I also confess, that I like that this version of scripture doesn’t focus on material goods alone, but seems to leave some room for those of us who like to stop at Starbucks for a venti Chai tea latte, and who occasionally spend more than their husband may like on the latest Oprah-endorsed novel at Barnes and Noble (strictly hypothetically speaking of course). This isn’t about material goods, I can rationalize, and so this aspect of the sermon is not for me.

Instead, I smugly think of the Freddie Macs and the Fannie Maes. I think of the higher ups at Leamon Brothers and the fat cats on Wall Street. I think of the city management team in working-class Bell, California who paid themselves several hundreds of thousands of dollars. I think of those profiled on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous who set up trust funds for their pets in excess of 12 million dollars. And I think with righteous indignation, “You Go, Jesus, let ‘em have it.” And as I wrote my sermon notes, alone in the church on Monday, I felt smug and a little righteous even.

And then the buzzer rang at the front door of the church, and because Susan was off on Monday, I went to the door myself to find a guest who asked to come in. Her name was Mary.

Now, Mary was not pretty by our cultural standards. She was missing some teeth. Her clothes were dirty, and didn’t fit her very well. And she walked slowly and with a limp, her right leg noticeably more swollen than the other. She was very sweaty, and kept wiping her brow with her hand. She shuffled slowly into my office and collapsed with a heaving sigh onto the rocking chair in my air-conditioned office and paused to look around. “This is so cozy,” she said. “How do you ever leave?”

Mary’s story was not unlike the stories of those who struggle with poverty. She has lost her job. She cannot get more work with her diabetes. She has grandchildren she cares for. She is behind in rent and in danger of being evicted. She has no health insurance. Her story spilled out of her with one tragedy after another and I simply listened.

When she finished telling me her story I said, “How can I help you, other than to pray?” She told me that all she needed was ten dollars. She needed some gas for her car, enough to get her to the health clinic and then home. And there was one more thing, and she seemed reluctant then as she looked down. She needed some toilet paper, because she couldn’t get enough of it with her food stamps. A simple request. Gas and toilet paper. I quickly took out a ten dollar bill and pressed it into her palm, and her eyes met mine as she said, “it is hard to ask. Please know it is hard for me to ask.”

We made polite conversation for a few more moments, and then I walked her out to her car.

And I walked back into my posh office where my new laptop sat gleaming and the air conditioner hummed in the ninety degree heat and I threw away my sermon notes and started again.

Mary’s visit indicted me. For this scripture is what it is: pure and simple, a call as Christians to share the wealth, to help the less fortunate. It is a call to safeguard ourselves from greed, a call to remember that there but for the grace of God go we. And to make this verse any less than that is to shy away from the radical nature of Christian discipleship. Jesus’s words were meant to rile us up, to rally us around, to remind us that we are God’s hands and feet in this world and living selfishly is not acceptable. Our responsibility is not to fill our barns with our own ego, our own material goods, but to instead let go and yield to the extravagant freedom of losing ourselves in God.

It was the Dali Lama who said, “It is not enough to be compassionate, you must act.” Discipleship calls us to a place of action. What will be do with the goods we are storing in the barn? What will we do with the treasures we keep locked away for safe keeping? What will we do to die to self? What will we do to be rich with God? How will we act? And how will that change us?

Perhaps each of us needs a visit from a Mary each week to keep us honest. Perhaps we need to see with our own eyes the plight of the poor. Perhaps we need to agitate against the social iniquity. Perhaps we need to rally against the economic systems and choices which allow the inequalities to continue. Perhaps we need to grapple confessionally with our own questions of whether we get caught up in labeling the poor as “worthy” or “unworthy.” Perhaps we need to ask us what we are storing, either metaphorically or tangibly that has become our God? Perhaps we need to open ourselves to the reality that when we take the bread and cup of communion that Jesus offered what we are really called to do is to count the cost of discipleship and seek sustenance for a spiritual journey which asks more of us than we ever thought possible.

The Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan writes: Sometime in your life, hope that you might see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope that you might have baked it or bought it or even kneaded it yourself. For that look on his face, for your meeting his eyes across a piece of bread, you might be willing to lose a lot, or suffer a lot, or die a little, even.

And that is what Jesus reminds us in his story—our barns are not for ourselves alone, we must share what we have.

I want to close this morning by sharing one final story with you that tumbled across my desk in the past few weeks as I sorted through old files. A story which I ripped out of a magazine sometime in the past several years and stuck with a post-it note on which I’d written the word “SAVE” in capital letters and then I added a few exclamation points for emphasis. It is the true story of a woman named Osceola McCarty. Osceola was a simple woman. She had no advanced degrees, had in fact never even finished the sixth grade. She worked for nearly eighty years as a laundress, taking other people’s dirty laundry in the Hattiesburg, Mississippi area and cleaning it, charging only $10.00 a bundle at her highest earning capacity. She was a woman of simple means. She never married. She had no children. Mostly she cared for her elderly relations and faithfully attended church. And so it came as a bit of a surprise to all who knew her when, in her 87th year, she bequeathed the University of Southern Mississippi a gift to assist African American students who had not previously had access to higher education. Osceola, who took her Bible seriously, did not believe in storing her treasures, in filling her own barn. Instead, this priestly laundress gave a gift of $150,000 away. (A gift to a school, I might add which would not have allowed to her When asked why she did it she said simply, “I can do something to help somebody. And what I can do I will do.” Ms. McCarty made a choice about where to store her treasure, and knew a little something about what it meant to be rich with God.

Jesus the disturber, Jesus the challenger beckons us into new worlds. And as disciples of Christ we have the choice to follow. May we chose to drink of the cup, the cup of commitment and covenant which promises us barns full of abundant life and in so doing know that we are becoming rich with God.


Tuesday, July 06, 2010

On the Bread and Cup--Sermon 7/4/10

On the Bread, and Cup, and Communion

I do not remember the first time I ever took communion. Seems I should as my spiritual upbringing was obviously important to my family, my father was a United Methodist minister, my mother a devoutly raised Presbyterian. But either due to the lack of ceremony which surrounded first communion in that church, or because my memory is poor, or a combination of both, there was not any formality drilled into my brain about receiving the eucharist. Instead my mind has morphed the memories of perhaps hundreds of communion services when I was a child seated next to my mother in the pew and the hazy memories all paint a picture like this: a small little girl with blonde braids having to wait patiently while holding that little square of white Wonder bread in her sweaty five-year-old palm antsy as she waited until all were served to eat. And then that same child savoring that sweet grape juice taste on her tongue, a juice she wasn’t usually allowed to have at home because it might stain the carpet. These are the pictures my mind conjures as I think back on what communion meant when I was young, mostly just snacks in church, snacks which we ate solemnly and reverently, but the mystery and sacredness of the ritual was often lost on me then.

I invite you to think back now as you recall the memories you have of your first communion, or perhaps your earliest ideas of what it meant to take the bread and the cup. Perhaps you were in a Cathedral celebrating your first communion in the first grade with a priest pressing the wafer onto your tongue. Perhaps you were at a youth retreat at a beloved church camp gathered around a fire with a groovy youth pastor who played folk music on the guitar (come on, you know the one…). Perhaps you were even here in this sanctuary in the same seat you occupy now. Or perhaps, like me, there is no one particular pivotal moment when you experienced the grace of God in this way through these means, but it is hazy and the call to the Lord’s table is a timeless tradition which is simply a deeply entrenched part of your faith.

This week as I pondered the importance of sharing communion with you for the first time, as I talked to others in the congregation about your ways and your practices of receiving this sacred meal, I again remembered that whenever we partake of this feast, we are embarking on a journey together as followers of Christ. Communion is all about the power of intimacy and community and vulnerability with God and with our sisters and brothers. And didn’t want this day to pass without remembering the gift of that kind of communion.

Scriptural understandings of the Eucharist vary, and I sort of like this. We know that in the gospels of Matthew and Mark and Luke, Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples. He broke unleavened bread, and poured wine as part of the Jewish meal but he added his own distinct touch. His invitation to eat and drink was cloaked in solemn reverance, and was probably misunderstood by those gathered around for who could have conceived of what would happen later, let alone how this meal would be remembered for thousands of years afterward. The theme of the Eucharist is reiterated again with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, those verses we heard earlier, and that we will hear again as invitation and reminder to remembrance. As call to commitment.

And just as there are many scriptural interpretations of this Eucharistic meal, this meal of thanksgiving if we look at the Greek translation, there are a whole host of different understandings of what it means. There are questions over who can partake (Is it for all or only those who are baptized? Is it for church members or for guests as well? And what about children are children included? ). There are questions over who can serve (Only ordained priests? Only men? Only deacons? Anyone?) There are questions over what is eaten (Is it leavened or unleavened bread? Does it have to have wheat? Does it have to be consecrated by a priest beforehand? Can it be purchased at Kroger or is Aldi an appropriate location? Does it have to be made with a five-tined fork? Does it have to be broken by hand?) And then the questions keep coming. For instance, what exactly is in that cup (is it real wine? And if it is, is it between .5 and 2% alcohol as some denominations specify? Or is it instead Welch’s grape juice, a byproduct of the temperance movement? Or maybe it’s just water?). How often do you take communion? And how is it administered? And where exactly? And what happens to the left-overs? As you can see the questions can roll off the tongue for hours.

There have been councils and encyclicals and annual meetings, pow-wows and conversations in church parking lots after worship to discuss these important details, and some churches continue to have the debate even today, and I suppose if you tend toward the legalistic nature of life, as I admit I sometimes have done, than perhaps you have the energy for these discussions, but I wonder perhaps if all of that arguing and deciding and proclaiming might not be better spent somewhere else.

The fourteenth chapter of Luke seems to offer us some wisdom. As Jesus sat in the home of a leader of the Pharisees he told a story. And, as we know, Jesus usually told stories for a purpose. They were deliberate. And not only was what Jesus said deliberate, but where Jesus said it also might tell us something. And this story was told in a specific place. In the home of a Pharisee. One whose religious tradition was all about rules and regulations, the legalisms of dotting “I’s” and crossing “t’s.” The ancient equivalent of the IRS. And the story Jesus told was this: there once was a master who wanted to have a lavish feast, and when it was prepared he sent his servant out to invite his guests and for one reason or another, his guests declined. One had a new piece of land he needed to assess, and one had some new oxen he needed to harness, and one was a newly-wed, and well, he had other plans. And so the master instead opened his doors and invited in those who were deemed the least worthy, those who were the most vulnerable, the poor and the lame, the lowest in the pecking order, the neediest and most forgotten.

And then…the parable ends. Abruptly. Or at least Luke’s account of it does, for the next verse begins a new traveling tale of Jesus off to see others on his journeys through the countryside. There is no tidy summary of why it told, no moral of the story to tie up the details. The common lectionary does not cover this scripture in its rotation, and there are not often sermons preached on the text. But the exegetical detective in me has to wonder if perhaps in Jesus’s choice to speak those words at the table within earshot of one who was, oh, a little bit anal retentive and legalistic there might have been a message to others of us who tend to err on the side of rules rather than the side of grace.

The master had invited some, but they had no time for him. Those invited guests who were preoccupied and absorbed with the thousand details of their own lives could not see the invitation and promise of offered. I can’t help but wonder if Christianity’s legalistic interpretations haven’t, at times, kept us from the true feast. If our own preoccupations and obsessions don’t sometimes keep us from true communion with Christ, either as a church or as individuals. If we are holding ourselves back from experiencing the intimacy and vulnerability of a meal offered by Jesus, the master, and shared with our brothers and sisters, and with our God.

In an article for the Christian Century, Samuel Wells once wrote, “when the Eucharist is served, a reshaping of human society begins.” And so I imagine what Jesus’s parable would mean for us today. Are we willing to leave the confines of our beautiful sanctuary and invite in the homeless man standing off the exit at 69 and 24? The young Burmese refugee, clenching the hand of her child who speaks no English as can’t understand the pharmacist at Walgreens? And let’s face it, the person driving in the car in front of you through downtown whose bumper stickers speak in phrases and jingoisms which are exactly the opposite of everything you hold true to your heart? Can we reshape human society to be both accepting and welcoming and tolerant? To be both loving and forgiving? And can we open ourselves to be that vulnerable and intimate with the stranger and with our God?

The United Church of Christ reminds us that all people of faith are welcome at Christ’s table. Our communion is not just the memory of a meal long ago, but an actual ceremonial meal that we eat with the risen Christ in and among the gathered body. It is a foretaste of the heavenly feast, where we will sit at the lavish banquet of our God, brushing elbows with all of God’s children, whoever they are, as we lick our lips savoring each juicy morsel.

This morning I invite you again to the table of the Lord. And I invite you as you take the bread, and the cup this morning to ponder what it means to open yourself to the radical movement of God’s grace. And as you bump shoulders or lock eyes with the person next to you, may you see the love of Christ beckoning you into ever widening vulnerability in your own journey of faith. You are all called to the banquet. May we each hear the invitation anew.