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?