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.