Monday, December 19, 2011

The Revolution and the Revelation--Sermon 12/18/11

The Revolution and the Revelation

This past Tuesday I had the pleasure of being one of the Christmas storytellers for the nursery school children. Each class of children are invited into the sanctuary. The two year-olds clinging to the knots on the rope they hold as they walk with wonder into the sanctuary, the four and five year olds walking with a little more confidence, but with a glimmer of wonder still shining in their eyes. The lights are dim. The tree is lit. The characters from the nativity are placed around the chancel. I have learned my job as teller of this miracle story well from Renee Moore, who I consider the master of all storytellers. The children are invited into hear the tale. I lead them on a long walk through the pews as if they were riding a donkey. We clip and clop along, we stop and pretend to take a rest, we stop by the make-believe oasis and let our donkeys have a drink of imaginary water, while we make slurping noises and then just when we think we see Bethlehem we realize we have to walk even more to get to the place where the census counting is done. To imagine the star I light a candle, and hold it high above my head and then we all follow the star to the place where the baby Jesus is, lying in the manger near the altar.

Some children may never have heard the Christmas story before, especially the younger children who may come from homes that don’t attend church. Some children can’t remember Christmas before, their memories are so short, and they are so young. I am always careful to try to explain it in a way that makes sense, to draw attention to the sensory details that the children can understand. The feel of rough prickly hay on a baby’s skin as he was placed in a manger. How cold it may have been as the shepherds watched their flocks at night. How the frankinsence and myrrh smell. These small details seem to be things children can wrap their heads around, heck, they are perhaps the only things about this story of wonder that I, as an adult can wrap my head around most of the time.

And then there are things that I don’t say yet. I refrain from the details that make the story a little less “G” rated, things which cause the children to ask questions I’m not sure I have easy answers to offer. For instance, have you ever tried to explain immaculate conception to a child? Ever tried to talk about how Joseph isn’t “technically” the biological father of Jesus? Ever tried to give details about Herod deciding to kill all baby boys after Jesus was born? Ever try explaining to a five-year-old that Mary may have been the age of their oldest sister when the angel came calling that day?

The thing is, though, I have come to believe that the Christmas story has too often been sanitized not just for young listeners, but perhaps for our own ears as well. There are parts of the story steeped in mystery, parts we don’t understand, or parts which make us uncomfortable or parts that ask more than we might be willing to admit. There are times when we prefer our Christmas story with a priestly bend, rather than a prophetic one. This morning’s scripture is a perfect example. The verses that Luke penned in the last part of the first chapter of his gospel are the words of Mary. Spoken straight from her lips shortly after her cousin Elizabeth had confirmed the blessing of her pregnancy. The words offer a little insight about this young woman who was chosen to give birth to the Christ. And this proclamation is spoken only after Mary has wrapped her head around this wondrous event which will shape not only her life but will change the course of world history. In these words, also known as the Magnificat, we get a glimpse of revolution, of an alternate future which is poised to be birthed with the coming of Jesus.

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, as we are finishing with our gift wrapping, and preparing to sing the soft carols, imagining a Christmas straight out of a Thomas Kincaide photo with snow falling softly, our lectionary offers this prophetic revelation from one we might consider the least likely of prophets, the meek and mild Mary. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, after we have been encouraged to wait, and prepare, and then wait some more, we are offered this nugget of gospel truth. On this fourth Sunday of Advent as we rush to listen to get to that beautiful Christmas story that we have practically memorized from the second chapter of Luke, which begins, “and it came to pass…” there is this moment of poetry which we dare not ignore.

Mary’s magnificat is similar in literary style to that of Hannah, a matriarch of old, who spoke her own prophesy about the child in her womb in the first book of Samuel. It is a song of liberation, a cry for justice, it is a song sung in solidarity with all those who struggle. She who has only spoken in scripture before with passive acceptance, “let it be done” has now revealed a new perspective. Mary speaks a radical truth. Hear verses 51 through 53 again spoken in a contemporary vernacular from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:
God bared his arm and showed God’s strength, scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked the tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold.
These are not the words of a passive Mary here, accepting with quiet resignation her fate. She is an active participant in naming the oppression and injustice which she has seen. It is no wonder that Jesus became the prophet that he was, for I would imagine that a great deal of what he learned was taught by this woman who spoke of transformation and liberation, a mother who believed in her child’s destiny as a prophet himself.

The truth of Mary is this. In the church we have sanctified or, perhaps, sanitized her our contented nativity scene Mary. She with the blonde hair and blue dress. She who smiles in bemused acceptance. We forget that there is more to her. We forget, for instance, that she was a strong peasant woman. A woman who gave birth by herself in a stable. A woman who was not merely the vessel of the divine, not merely a conduit for the holy, but a prophet in her own right. Mary was a woman who had the audacity to say “yes,” to the unimaginable. And after uttering that simple “yes,” she preached of the world that could come through her child’s birth.

The writer Madeleine L’Engle writes of Mary’s legacy in this way. She says of Christmas: This is the irrational season/ When love blooms bright and wild./
Had Mary been filled with reason/ There'd have been no room for the child.


This morning I wonder how we can embrace this irrational season and Mary’s revolutionary words for ourselves. How do we make the Magnifcat our own communal manifesto? Our own proclamation of peace on earth?

I collect articles from The Christian Century. I am a natural clipper and saver. A pack rat for words. And this week I ran across an article I had cut out several years ago about Mary, and the power of her song. The writer, a Lutheran pastor by the name of John Stendehal writes this about our reclamation of the magnificat, “[As] grateful as I am for [Mary’s] example and companionship…there is something I worry about….The Magnificat may move us with its dreams of redistributive justice, but do we make imaginative solidarity with Mary only to domesticate her to our decidedly inexpensive fantasies of peace on earth? Are we drawn to consider what this will cost us and to begin paying that price?” He goes on to write, “I pray that we who have much of the world’s goods and power will hear Mary’s words about the proud and rich as warnings and salutary threats to ourselves. If we are able to sing those words lustily, let it be because we are seduced by the grandeur and grace of salvation she describes, but let it also join us to those who yearn for a turning of the socioeconomic tables.”

The Magnificat is a powerful piece of writing, and is not for the wishy-washy of faith. It is as revolutionary today as it was when it was spoken by an unknown peasant woman who lived in a Roman-occupied country. It even had the power to threaten heads of state in Guatamala in the 1980s, when it was barred from being preached, for it was deemed too subversive, too radical. And perhaps that’s the way scripture should be, right? Perhaps that’s the way our faith should be. Perhaps what we need to be about if we welcome the Christ child into the world is to truly proclaim the Magnificat with mind, body and soul at the very core of our being. Perhaps we must take seriously the call to stand in solidarity with all of those who are downtrodden—be they economically or spiritually suffering. Perhaps we must be utterly single-minded about the toppling of systems of oppression piece by piece wherever and whenever we see them hurting others. Perhaps Mary’s call, this call for a turning of the tables, a call for an inversion of the dominant structure, a call for a revolution of the system of injustice has to be something that the church proclaims with single-minded focus.

This revelation and this revolution is not for the faint of heart, but ushering in new life rarely is. Being called to join Mary as bearers of God won’t be easy, not for any of us. But can we as the church afford to be any other way if we truly believe in a kingdom of peace?

The writer Nancy Mairs sums up our mission pretty simply when she writes these words: That’s what we’re here for: to make the world new, we know what to do: seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly, treat every person as though she were yourself. These are not complicated instructions. It’s much harder to decipher the directions for putting together a child’s tricycle than to understand these.

Friends, we’ve waited, and we’ve pondered, and we’ve listened, and we’ve prepared in this Advent season. And now Mary’s voice pierces the silence with a clear call. Let us prepare for the birth of Christ, let us labor to bring the reign of peace to all.

And all God’s children said, Amen.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Now, this man...

...he can write.

Give some love to my friend Chip...one of my favorite bloggers on the block.

http://getwiththeconfusion.wordpress.com/2011/11/29/unemployed-day-140/

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Wilderness Within--Sermon 12/4/11

The Wilderness Within


I met Neil when I was a first year student at Manchester College. I was young and na├»ve, and whole-heartedly devoted to immersing myself in life as a socially conscious college student. Having been involved with Amnesty International in high school, I was eager to meet the faculty adviser for the Amnesty chapter at Manchester. And I was told that it was a psychology professor, and that he would meet with me for a soda in the local snack bar at 9:00 on a Monday night. I arrived early and ordered my root beer and sat, scanning the room for Dr. Wollman. Students streamed in and out to get their evening pizza and popcorn. I sat nervously, with my file and notepad ready, anxious to meet this professor of psychology. Fifteen minutes passed. No sign of him. Across the room sat a burly looking man with an unkept beard, a white sweatshirt with the picture of an orange cat on the front tucked into his khaki pants which had grass stains on the knees. On the man’s feet were a pair of old tennis shoes. He was hunched over a stir fry, and had carefully seemed to be picking the pieces of chicken out of it, or spitting them out of his mouth and placing them on the side of his plate. His beard had a few rice pieces in it. I immediately took pity on this man, obviously hungry, and marveled at how nice it was that the college welcomed homeless people into eat. It was now 9:25. No Professor Wollman. I finished off my root beer, stood up to throw the cup away and did one more look out over the dining room to make sure I wasn’t missing him. The odd-looking cat-shirted, swarthy man saw me and yelled out, “Hey, are you who I’m supposed to be meeting about Amnesty?” I quickly realized my mistake. The man I assumed was homeless and hungry was actually the esteemed Dr. Wollman. Embarrassed and ashamed at how quick I was to judge, I sat down to a delightful, if not quirky, conversation. Neil and I became fast friends. I learned that he was devoted to issues of social justice, care of the poor, environmental activism. He was a crusader for equality and was known nationwide for the work he began with TIAA-CREF in working with other professors all from the second floor of the Administration Building at little old Manchester College to set up a socially responsible investment fund. His passion for social change has always deeply moved me. The way he lives his beliefs have inspired me. And while sometimes as a peace studies intern at the college I had to remind him to go home and sleep after staying up in his office for 48 hours straight working, or cue him about the social graces (like not just walking into someone’s home and opening their refrigerator or medicine cabinets to see what they liked to eat or what medicines they took), I learned from him what true generosity of spirit and prophetic vision looked like.

And so whenever I hear the words of John the Baptist, or think of that misunderstood prophet who ate wild locusts and honey and wore those strange clothes, the person I see in my mind’s eye is Dr. Neil Wollman, Ph.D.. North Manchester’s own John the Baptist who speaks of his passionate belief in the hope of an infusion of peace and justice entering this world with all the quirky glory he can muster.

In some ways, John the Baptist doesn’t fit into our Norman Rockwell, Currier and Ives holiday Christmas tableau. John is untamed and a little wild. He is a prophet of the old school, hearkening back to Elijah. His words are meant to cut a little, his proclamations to make us shudder. He offers spiritual baptism, and preaches repentance in a world that would prefer their faith safe and their sermons comforting. But what I love most about his story has as much to do with where he spoke, than with who he was.

You see John the Baptist was a wilderness kind of guy. Untamed and unpolished as he was it shouldn’t surprise us that his sermons were shouted into a desolate wasteland of wild open space. The wilderness of Judea was not the wilderness of Northern Indiana. It wasn’t a nature walk through Fox Island Park with meandering paths and quiet fresh brooks. The wilderness of Judea was a sparse, hot, unforgiving place. It was a land where one had to be scrappy to survive. It was barren and inhospitable. And so the fact that the call to prepare for the Christ came out of this nowhere place gives me pause.

There is something cosmically comforting to me about the idea that the coming of God was announced in the wilderness, for I believe that each of us carry some form of wilderness within our own souls. Sometimes that wilderness manifests itself in a cavern of doubts about the goodness of the universe or fears about the direction of life and our place in it, or it shows up in the form of a gaping sense of aloneness and unease even when surrounded by others. Sometimes we dwell in that wilderness for only hours, and sometimes we can live in it for season after season. The wilderness can be a frightening and desolate place, where we may flounder and question the presence of God.

And so how utterly and simply spell-binding is it that the first inklings of the coming of Christ into ministry were uttered in the wilderness, in the place where we thought no life could grow, no plant take root, there is this glimmering hope preached. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Home By Another Way speaks of the truth of the event this way, “That was the good news that started with John. He was the messenger, and the message lit him up like a bonfire in the wilderness…[But], only those who were willing to enter the wilderness got to taste his freedom.”

And so the question for this morning, in this season of Advent and waiting that I ask is this? Are you willing to go to the wilderness? Are you willing to go to the depths of your own soul, to the dark scary places, to the places which keep you awake at night, to the nagging worries and untold secrets? Are you willing to sit in that wild place and invite the prince of peace to come, invite the living God to shed some light into the dark night of your soul? Are you able to trust that the holy presence might crouch next to you, find you in the depths of your own wild places and then breathe quietly and softly and slowly some new life into that desolate place?

The poet Wendell Berry has written, “It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.” As we wait in the wilderness, may we recognize the shimmer of light on the horizon. For Christ comes anew, may we be wise enough to hear the words of the prophets who beckon us to be agents of hope.

Amen.

*For more information about Dr. Neil Wollman and all the tremendous work he has done please note the following website.

http://www.shelterforce.org/article/216/power_of_one/

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Tao of Grayson

I was sharing with a dear friend, who has known me since I was eighteen years old, and could be, perhaps, hired as my blog marketing representative, that sometimes I do my best writing now in short Twitter bursts or Facebook updates. Aforementioned friend, for reasons which shall go unnamed (although I believe the words, "I don't get into all that tech stuff..." were used), reminded me that in my short-attention span writing style I'm forgetting to update this whole blogosphere on other crazy Graysonisms. And so...fear not, devoted reader(s?), here are a few of the words of the wise sage I live with, who still can neither button his shirt nor pull up his own pants if they have a zipper.

I bring you "The Tao of Grayson."

From 11/25/11. The traditional question was posed to the family as we sat around the Thanksgiving table. To stir it up a little I suggested that no one be allowed to say, "family" ['cause, everyone says it...]. We went around the table. When it was Grayson's turn he said, "the whole world, and the earth, and the power of love." My son is a combination of Gandhi and Huey Lewis.

From 11/20/11. Conversation with the boy tonight as we looked at some pictures of a wedding.

Me: Grayson, do you think you'll get married some day?
Grayson: Actually, Mom, I'm already married.
Me: Really?
Grayson: Yes, to you. Did you know that?

While generally I am not a fan of Freud, I sure do love the Oedipal phase.


From 11/7/11. Grayson was counting in Spanish tonight. He said, "Uno, Dos, Tres, Quatro, Cinco, Siesta, Orchard, Noplinko, DeMaisie..."

From 11/4/11. Grayson just told me that when the dog was barking that she was saying, "I want to go to college. I want to go to college. I want to go to college."

I swear. We don't pay him to say this stuff...


From 10/18/11. Grayson said to me tonight, "You know, it's so rainy and chilly some hot apple spider would be great!" And he said it with such a sense of belief that what he was saying was accurate that I didn't even gag at the prospect of what that would taste like if he knew...

From 10/6/11. Grayson's evening wisdom as we watched a video of GilChrist retreat center as I tried to explain to Grayson where I was and what I was doing this week. I told him I went away to be alone and quiet and to pray. Grayson said, "What did you pray for?" I told him I prayed for lots of things...but also for him. He said, "And did you pray for the whole world to be wise?" Sigh...words from the wisest.

From 9/28/11. Conversation with the boy tonight proceeded thusly...
Grayson: Mama, how old are you again?
Me: 39.
Grayson: You are almost 100! Great job! You get a star and are very smart!

Me:...um...good?


From 9/15/11. was just told by Grayson that he thinks his eye is broken. The problem? He can blink once, but when he blinks twice it hurts. I asked him how he did with three or four blinks. He told me that was, "just great, Mommy...it's just when I blink twice that it breaks." Take heed, double blinkers, lest your eyes break too.

From 9/13/11. when we said our evening prayers tonight Grayson and I talked about what the word "Amen" means. Afterward he said, "I love this word. I can say 'Amen' to everything. 'Amen, Amen, Amen.' My family. My school. Amen. Amen." I certainly don't think of myself as a holy roller, but I rolled just a little in joy with his wonder.



And that, my friends, is the Grayson James Pettit report for the past three months. You heard it here first.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Almost and the Not Yet--Sermon 11/27/11

The Almost and the Not Yet

Waiting has never been my gift. Never. I disclose this to you in full candor, as we enter this season of waiting. Waiting has never been high on my list of priorities. I am not a patient person. I’m not good at waiting for things to gestate, waiting for things to unfold, waiting for the truth to emerge. I tend to have a bit of a lead foot, because I like to get places faster and I’m not patient enough to just enjoy the ride, only to find that I’m early and have to, guess what…WAIT! I bring things to occupy myself when I have to wait in doctor’s offices, or appointments to have my oil changed, or while I wait for Brynn to get finished with ballet. I am the queen of cross-stitching or dish towel knitting, or crossword puzzles tucked into bags at conferences, or family reunions so I can always do two things at once. I even have a book loaded on my I-phone, so I can stop and read at railroad crossings without having to feel as if I wasted time waiting. When I run I have to listen to NPR, so I’m doing two things at once. And I confess that D.H. Lawrence is my least favorite writer because the major theme of all his books is the anticipation and the waiting. I don’t even like ketchup that isn’t in squeeze bottles, because the waiting for it to flow out of glass containers seems to take an eternity. I am a hopeless case.

And so, the Christmas season has always been sort of a whirlwind for me. Between wrapping presents, and decorating the house, and mailing Christmas cards, and purchasing gifts, and baking the occasional cookie, I find myself immersed in the briskness of the season, and to be honest, there are times when I like when the action keeps me moving. And I have a feeling that I am not alone in this. I have a feeling that there may be a few of you in this sanctuary who understand this inability to just be, to just wait, and are already impatiently wondering if I’ll ever get to the point (that is if you haven’t already started making your grocery list on the back of an offering envelope, or started playing tic tac toe with your seat mate). Sitting and waiting, being attentive, is not a strong suit for many of us in a world that tweets, and Facebooks, and instant messages, and texts. It is difficult to sink into the contemplative side of ourselves, and so (and for those of you who have been waiting for the point, here it is) the simple message that is relayed in Mark, the message to watch and wait, can feel like an impossible task.

This morning we dive head first into the first Sunday of Advent, a time when we examine some of the paradoxes of the Advent season. And the first crucial paradox is this one of time. We live in an almost and not yet world. We are almost ready to welcome the child of light, and we are perpetually not ready for him to come. We desperately desire the presence of peace, and we don’t know how we will operate when it arrives. We remain hyper-vigilant and watchful, and yet aware that we are in luminal time for the Messiah has not yet arrived. And so we hurry up…only to wait. We live between expectation and realization.

The scripture this morning from Mark, the words of Jesus about watching and waiting are not words of the faint of heart. There is an apocalyptic edge to them as we talk about the son of God coming, but I don’t think this edgy end of the world stuff was quite what Jesus wanted us to pay attention to, or quite what those who chose the texts for the lectionary this morning had in mind. You see, the gospel of Mark was written on or about the year 70 A.D. and the audience for whom Mark wrote had been waiting around for Jesus to return for quite a while, most of them their whole lifetimes. There were questions for these small bands of faithful about whether or not Jesus had been the real deal, for he hadn’t come back yet. He hadn’t come to redeem the people and create the new world yet. And so the words that Mark records, these words of Jesus, were addressed to a people trapped in their own liminal, in their own questions about what it meant to hurry up to be ready for the coming kingdom and then being forced to wait for it to arise.

There are churches that read these words of Jesus and have used them at times as baseball bats to pommel the faithful into submission, threatening those who step out of line by holding a threat of Jesus coming back bigger and better, but most Biblical scholars have come to agree that these words were actually not so much about the apocalypse, and more about saying to his followers, “Look, something marvelous is going to happen. You have to be alert. You have to be aware. You can’t live your lives passively. Even as you wait, you must watch.” It is about staying on our toes and not becoming too lackadaisical about our mission in this world.

And so, perhaps there is no better lesson for the first Sunday of Advent. For this first Sunday as things loom on the horizon, when we hold our breath in delightful anticipation, when we put down those things which are distracting us from the important task of embracing the quiet present. On this first Sunday of Advent, the lesson of the paradox is this, “Wait, but watch. Be passive, but actively. Embrace this simple lesson, for it can be so difficult.” Ah, the paradoxes of Advent.

There is a rich tradition which we learn from the desert fathers and mothers, mystics and wise folks who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries on the margins of society. We have nuggets of wisdom they have left behind, words which can challenge and free us. They are sort of the Zen Buddhists of our faith. And one of them was a monk by the name of John Cassian. Cassian spent years trying to figure out what it was that kept him from truly connecting with God. A lifetime spent in the search for a meaningful relationship with the divine. And finally, what he discovered, and then shared with all of us even all these centuries later was that good monks, indeed many good Christians, grappled with the sin of acedia. Anyone heard of it? Anyone want to confess to it now? Acedia has been one of the least understood, and perhaps most insidious of the seven deadly sins. Essentially acedia has usually, and misleadingly, been translated as “sloth”, but it actually means “apathy” or “indifference.” John Cassian realized that it was apathy for his ministry, for the ills of the world, which kept him distant from God. Acedia can be that state of the soul where we have simply given up, or simply lost hope, or simply tuned out, or simply decide to coast on auto-pilot. And perhaps this can be the biggest distraction from a connection with God, and our ability to work as Christians in the world.

And so this call that Jesus offers on this first Sunday of Advent, the call to keep awake seems to be the cure-all for any of us who occasionally lull into despondency, or apathy, or acedia. This call to keep awake, prods us from our spiritual exhaustion, or spiritual futility, our spiritual listlessness, or spiritual ennui, and reminds us that we are on the verge of a new creation, one that God does not want us to sleep through. And so this first step in our Advent journey, our wake up call, is to be mindful of the ways in which we allow ourselves to be distracted, to be side-tracked.

And after that realization, after the naming of this insidious missing of the mark, we can awaken anew to the sacredness that the next four weeks can offer. Knowing that the path to God invites us to attentiveness, it is our duty to step into that place of holy expectation and see where God calls us, what God wants us to do, and who God wants us to become.

The poet Mary Oliver wrote these words in her poem The Summer Day, “I don’t know what prayer is, I do know how to pay attention.” And this paying attention to what is beautiful, to what is real and alive and authentic, to what is wild and precious, is itself a kind of prayer. Perhaps we do this through listening more carefully to the words of our children. Perhaps we do this through watching more astutely as the trees are silhouetted against the pink of a sunset. Perhaps we do this through heeding the words of Jesus to love our neighbors, and then feel called to volunteer to deliver food to someone in need, or buy gifts for families who have so very little. Perhaps we do this by expanding the boundaries of our comfort zones and learning more about the needs of the world and asking how we can make a difference. However it happens, we can be called into places of attentiveness, and these places of attentiveness can beckon us on the Advent path.

Peter von Breemen in his book, The God Who Won’t Let Go, shares the holy task, the holy balance of the almost and the not yet in this way. He writes, “The essence of prayer is our waiting, our letting go, our bearing with our own inadequacy…waiting does not come easily. God will come, there is no doubt about that, but in God’s own time. And this waiting is not dead empty time.”

As we prepare to welcome the Christ child, as we take our first steps on the way to the manger, may we recognize that our waiting can be holy time. Our waiting can transform us. Our waiting can beckon us into a deeper relationship with God. May we remain awake and alert, in this time pregnant with hope.

Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Passing Glance--Sermon 11/20/11

A Passing Glance

Our four-year-old Grayson has recently added a new bedtime tactic which has led me to wonder if he does not have a brilliant career ahead of him as an auctioneer. While Robert and I for the past four years or so have lived under the illusion that we have had our grip on the household, running it as our own little loving dictatorship which Grayson has tolerated with a modicum of respect and obedience, we are now starting to see the roots of revolution rise up. There is our own Arab Spring happening on Strathdon Drive, our own Occupy movement in the bathtub each night as the preschooler who loves to soak in bubbles stages his protest of “Heck no, I won’t go.” I have found negotiating in the role of management, while he acts as representative on behalf of his own little union. “Five more minutes!” I command. “Ten!” he counters. “Seven minutes, but only one book.” “Nine minutes, and two books,” he counters. “Seven minutes and two books, and that’s my final offer.” I grudgingly announce. And yet, even with the offer on the table I find myself reconsidering. For Grayson is a master negotiator and he puts all his skills into the task. He gives me puppy-eyes and demonstrates that his fingers are not yet prune-like. He shows me the wooden boat he likes to play with. He promises not to splash. I pause and find myself counter-offering again, “Okay, okay, I give up. What’s an extra minute going to hurt. You win. But no complaining when I brush your hair.” “Sold! Sold to the lady who adores her son beyond all reason, and who still wants to maintain a sense of authority and, well, mystery and power. Sold to the lady who desperately wants to be fair, but also wants to make sure her child gets to sleep at a reasonable hour.” I suspect if you are a parent you’ve had these sorts of conversations in your own home. Or at one point of your life or the other you may have been on the receiving ends of the negotiations with parents or authority figures of your own. The conversation around borrowing the car, or staying out past curfew, or getting that extra ear piercing. And in authentic relationships, those gives and takes, those banterings and barterings, really can lead us into understanding one another in a deeper way, even if they exhaust us in the process. For by asserting what we need, and by listening to the other, there are compromises which lead us down new roads of relating.

Which leads us this morning naturally into learning more about that little confab that Moses had with God on Mount Sinai in the thirty-third chapter of Exodus. But first a brief backstory, a little reader’s digest condensed version of what brought God and Moses to that talk that day. You see, Moses had been leading the Israelites on a long, long journey, an insanely long journey. And Moses had taken a little time away from his people, a little break to get the latest news from God, a break to get away from the backseat whining and wailings of “Are we there yet?” and “I have to go to the bathroom.” Moses had been away from the people, up on the mountain receiving the ten commandments. He hadn’t been gone that long, but things had gotten a little rowdy at ground level while he was away. If you wonder what that party was like you can watch Cecil B. Demille’s version of it--you’ll see lots of dancing girls and special effects as the people worshipped a golden calf which symbolized the pagan religion that the Israelites had left behind. Who knows why these forebears of ours in our Judeo-Christian heritage got so rambunctious that day. Perhaps they were bored down there waiting for Moses, perhaps they wanted some tangible thing to symbolize a god, perhaps the yearning for the familiar of their past religion became the panacea they needed on that long wait. Perhaps they just began to doubt who was calling them on their journey, and if this God was really present.

Regardless, God wasn’t happy about it--called them a few names, including stiff-necked, which I don’t know about you, but seems to be fighting words of a sort. And here is where we pick up the story…with Moses the negotiator, with Moses who stands in the gap between God and the people and speaks in defense of these people who he has led, and who he has grown to love, even in all their rebellion and whining.

In verse twelve Moses, the one who has always had God’s ear, the one who has trusted the vision which God has cast seems to have reached his breaking point as intermediary. In a move of utter chutzpah and gutsy nerve Moses minces no words as he speaks to God. In the contemporary words of Eugene Peterson’s The Message, a modern day version of scripture, Moses says frustratingly to his Lord, “Look, you tell me, ‘Lead this people,’ but don’t let me know whom you’re going to send with me. You tell me, ‘I know you well and you are special to me.’ If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans. That way, I will continue being special to you. Don’t forget, this is your people, your responsibility.” Whoooo…talk about speaking truth to power, talk about calling someone on the carpet, talk about venting feelings. Moses has moxie. He’s not afraid of telling it like it is. And he’s not afraid of reminding God, the creator of heaven and earth, what’s on his mind. He doesn’t like the threats to abandon the people. And he’s sick and tired of wondering what’s next on this journey of faith.

Has it every occurred to you that Moses was speaking to the one who created him, was speaking in essence to the divine parental figure? Moses was speaking to one who had the power to squash him like a bug to smite him or ignore him or abandon him? And yet, Moses spoke. And perhaps this is our first inkling of the power of this story. The relationship that Moses had with his God was so profound, was so intimate, was so interactive, that he was not afraid of speaking the truth. He wasn’t afraid of naming his frustration. He did not feel powerless in the face of a problem or conflict. The first lesson we learn is that we are free to speak, even angrily, with the God who has broad shoulders and can take our questions and feelings.

But the scripture deepens, for in verse fourteen, God reconsiders and acquiesces. God says in one simple sentence, in essence, “you’re right, Moses.” With these words God speaks, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” The Hebrew translation for “presence” is actually the word “face.” God’s face will be turned toward these people, God will see the journey through. And perhaps this is the second little nugget for us to grab hold of, God is not one who abandons us. Like any good parent, God may be frustrated, there may be days when God wouldn’t mind pretending like he doesn’t know his children when they have a screaming fit in the grocery store, for instance. And, let’s be honest, building those idols must have really, really ticked God off—I mean, that was sort of like his was children thumbing their nose at their father, but, ultimately, God proclaims that he would be faithful and God will forgive again and again. So lesson number two of the morning offered, God promises faithfulness.

But, this little encounter in Exodus offers our 21st century ears even one more thing. After the little bargaining session with Moses and God, there is this last perplexing exchange. Moses wants just one more thing from God, just one more little favor. Since the Israelites have been forgiven, and since Moses is doing this leading, than would it be too much, Moses, asks, too much at all if God wouldn’t mind turning a face so that Moses might see God face to face? This was a bold proposition. For it was believed in Jewish tradition that to see God face to face might lead to death. One could not stand the utter glory of God and continue to live. And, well, Moses had already seen God when he got those ten commandments on the mountain a little earlier. So, why ask now? Did Moses want to be equal to God? To show that he could stand eye to eye with the divine? Did Moses want some reassurance of who he was dealing with? Did Moses want to fully understand the mystery of this one who was at times unfathomable?

The dialogue closes with God denying Moses’s request. For, while God will relate to Moses, and while God will not abandon Moses or his people, there are ways in which God will still be God. And ways in which God must still be God, and ways in which part of our faith is to walk into the mystery of that relationship and trust the one who reaches out to lead us, and promises not to abandon us.

But like any good negotiator, there is one exception that God will make for Moses. One final offer God places on the table, a little incentive to thank Moses for all his hard work. In verses 21 through 23, God offers a counter-offer. God says, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” And with that, God sweeps through in a way we cannot even imagine, perhaps with rushing wind, or silent majesty, all the while protecting Moses by shielding him safely with the palm of his hand. Hiding the sensitive eyes of his beloved child, allowing him to rest safely in the mystery of grace. And this, I believe is our third lesson. Not only does God invite us to share all of ourselves, not only does God forgive and faithfully accompany us, God also safely shields us and invites us to linger in the mystery, and that sense of mystery and wonder can be a beautiful place.

The Persian mystic, Rumi, once wrote, “Mysteries are not to be solved/ The eye goes blind when it only wants to see why.”

My prayer for each of us on this Sunday as we enter into a holiday of thankfulness and gratitude, is that we remember that the mystery of God’s presence is enough for us to rest in. The core of God’s grace is a safe place to tarry. And we can trust the faithfulness of the God who desires deep relationship with us. May our eyes focus not on trying to solve the mystery, but instead marvel at the shining glory that we glimpse only in passing. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Being and Being Better--Sermon 10/30/11

Being and Being Better

I want to tell you the story of a little church. A church which began as a new church start in a blossoming part of Fort Wayne. A church which began with a mission, but no building. A church which instead spent gathered in a business space, where they could rent a room. But there were those who believed that there could be more, who believed in the ministry that was happening, those who believed in sharing the Gospel as best they could. And a vision was shared, the vision for a new sanctuary. And money was gathered, and architchetural plans were drawn, and cornerstones were placed. And the people believed in the church. And it grew. And before long an education wing was added, and nursery school was invited to join ranks, and new rooms were needed and so another wing was added. It was the little church that could. And it did.

And then after time of steadiness, establishing rituals, naming their mission, recognizing who they were and what they wanted to become there were a few changes which rocked the boat. Pastoral changes, and demographic changes, and growing churches around them. And as other churches in the area grew, some of the little flock left. And as some of the changes happened, it wasn’t as easy to remain hopeful. And there came a time when the church faced a feeling of true loss, and when they were even asked by a pastor whether they could keep their doors opened.

But in the midst of that fear, and in the questions and doubts, there remained a remnant of people who dug their heels in and believed in the church, and believed in what it meant to follow the steps of Christ. It was these people, this cloud of witnesses, some of whose names we heard read this morning, some of whom still sit in the pews with us, who believed in digging their faith deeper, and who trusted that God would lead them out of the wilderness they felt they had been led.

It is to these sorts of people, to the believers, to the hopers, to those who remain that Paul spoke when he wrote his letter to the Hebrews. His letter was in essence this, “Keep on keeping on. And thank you for it.” When Paul wrote this letter, this letter which encouraged them to run the race set before them, he knew what they were going through. He knew what kind of ministry that had once been, and then hadn’t been, but could be again.

At that time, the second coming had been promised. The date had been predicted. And so these Christians that Paul wrote had lived their lives day by day, in anticipation of that event. And still year had followed year. The oppressive government of Caesar still ruled and had not been overthrown. Christians were still mistreated by the government and there was no let-up in sight. Congregations that followed Jesus were taunted by unbelievers who asked, “Where is your Lord that he doesn’t get busy and do something?” Or when they weren’t taunted, they were ignored, as if they did not exist. Time passed for them slowly. Some believers left the flock. There was talk of giving up. “Why keep on?” they asked.

Many of you know already, that I am a runner. I’m not fast, in fact I laboriously lumber up and down the streets or around the track. I’m not graceful, I have been known to trip and break an arm or toe. And I am here to tell you that the idea of a runner’s body being muscular is a myth in my case. Up until a month ago I had never run in a race, despite the more than twenty-two years I’ve spent running. But this year, this year, I decided things would be different, and in an effort to raise some money for the nursery school, Tonja Ashton and I loped through the streets of Fort Wayne at a healthy ten minute per mile pace for six whole miles. And as I think of that day, I remember the crowds gathered on the streets, calling our names, ringing cowbells, waving to us and offering us water, or at one eccentric place, even offering shots of beer [we didn’t partake…]. I remember the ecstasy of the last few hundred yards as we circled the Parkview stadium and ran across home plate. But just as much, just as often as I consider that day of glory, I remember more the training that got me there. I remember running five miles in the rain, and one afternoon at Foster Park at dusk when I had run for a good forty minutes straight and thought, if I take one more step I will surely pass out right here on these pretty roses. I remember mornings of lacing up my shoes and wondering why I was committing myself to this thing which seemed impossible. But all that training, all those miles, was where the race was really determined: not when we started out like a big happy parade crowded together; not even when we ran faster toward then end and saw our faces on the jumbo-tron, but in those long lonely runs in rain, on those days when I had to walk after fifteen minutes and cursed myself, on those days when I bandaged my blisters and doubted my abilities. The race was determined because of the training. The race was completed because I persevered.

This morning we celebrate All Saint’s Day, we remember all of those saints who persevered in running the race of faith. We remember people like Harvey Miller, who built the cross which stands behind us. We remember people like Phil Dunkle, who dressed as Santa Claus for countless years to make our children laugh. We remember Lowell McLaughlin who was a charter member of this church and one of its first board chairs. We remember Wallie Sterling, and Jo Condo, Bob Rich, and Brenda Kelly and many, many others. Beloved members of this body who lived lives of extraordinary ordinariness. Folks who loved their families, and loved their God, and lived out their faith in everyday life. People who persevered not just when there were smiling crowds and finish lines but long lonely cold runs with blisters on top of blisters. We remember the great cloud of witnesses who have run their race and who, in running it, cleared another path for us.

In his book, The Screwtape Letters, the writer C.S. Lewis tells us a thing or two about perseverance. The book is written as a compilation of letters from an old devil to a young apprentice devil about how to deal effectively with Christians. In one of those letters, old Screwtape has this advice: “It is so hard for these creatures called Christians to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful hopes, the quiet despair of ever overcoming the temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives—all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition.” Now, I don’t buy into the idea that there is a devil training program, but I love style with which Lewis writes and the truth about Christian life that he speaks.

The testing of our faith usually comes not in those mountain-top experiences of life, those moments which are the flashbulb, still-frame images of our memory. The testing of our faith instead comes on those drab day-to-day, ho-hum, no-big-deal days. Just as the testing of our commitments to our partners don’t come in the day we stand in front of the church and take our vows, but comes in the middle of the night when we sit together with a croupy baby, or negotiate car pools, or face midlife crises. The testing of our faith comes not when our commitment to our church and its ministry involves only tangential connection, but connects us to the core of what we believe about service, and when we find our places there even when the others have abandoned it. The testing of our faith comes not when we go along with the crowd, but when we speak out in those quiet moments when we think no one is listening. It is in those thousand quiet, seemingly inconsequential moments, those miles and miles of training runs, that we commit ourselves to the great race of discipleship. That race run by the saints before us.

This week, as I’ve contemplated All-Saint’s Day, a poem by Maya Angelou has been rattling around in my head and I want to share it with you. When great souls die/ the air around us becomes; light, rare, sterile./ We breathe, briefly./ Our eyes, briefly/ see with/ a hurtful clarity. / Our memory, suddenly sharpened, / examines, / gnaws on kind words/ unsaid, promised walks never taken…/ And when great souls die,/ after a period peace blooms,/ slowly and always/ irregularly. Spaces fill/ with a kind of / soothing electric vibration. / Our senses, restored, never/ to be the same, whisper to us./ They existed. / We can be. Be and be/ better. For they existed.

I believe that this is what it means for us to continue to run the great race, surrounded by that cloud of witnesses. We can be. We can be in all our humanity, and all our messiness. We can be in all our weakness, and all our fragility. And we can be in all our striving for the good, in all our earnest desire to follow Christ. We can be and be better because we have known the saints who have gone before us, the saints who have persevered, the saints who have run this path a time or two before. We can be. And we can be better, for they existed.

If you come close to the worship table after the service you can feel the heat of all these candles. Already you can see the light they cast. Those who have gone before us in this congregation, and in our own lives, have left a legacy. And because we remember them, they live here, just as surely as they live in the realms of light beyond.

Friends, all too soon the bell will toll for us. Take this day to ponder the legacy you leave. Consider the path you want to clear for the next runner. Wonder about what you will do in those quiet moments when your faith is tested. And above all, friends, may we look to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who will lead us all the way home.

Amen.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

American Boy

So, the American Girl catalog came to our house today (as it does every year since Tess and Brynn were 5 or 6 years old). Robert saw it and put it in the recycling bin, but in a fit of wanting to make sure we had gender equity and non-sex-segregated toys in our home I pulled it out of the bin and gave it to Grayson, saying, “Look…you got a catalog today! It has some ideas for what Santa might bring you…”

Grayson was excited! He got mail!

And then he sat on the floor and started looking through it. “Ummm, Mama,” he said, “Ummm…where is the boy department in this book?” I explained that boys and girls could have dolls…and then I leafed through and folded down the boy doll pictures. I explained that boys and girls can both like dolls, that there was nothing wrong with it, and that there were boy dolls too! Grayson looked carefully, pausing at some pages, and then he put the catalog down and said, “Mama, I just don’t think dolls are my thing.” And then he paused and said, “Okay?”

Of course, of course, my sweet. Thank you for humoring your feminist mommy…

“Now what do you want to get for Christmas, Grayson?” I asked…He pointed to some wrapped presents on the cover of the American Girls doll catalog. “I think I’d like something wrapped up like that with something in it I would like.”

“What would that be?” I asked…

“Ummm…Mama, I don’t know…but probably not a doll. Remember, just remember, Mom. I’m not a doll kind of person.”

Gotcha.

And then three hours passed…and I was moving the catalog to the recycling bin myself. And Grayson said, “Mama, let’s just keep this here right now. It’s still really cool…” Then he hid it carefully behind the pink chair in our parlor. Into his secret hiding place. He said, “Now it’s safe. Now it won’t be thrown away…and also, Mommy, here’s a magic wand to play with. And I think I’ll start calling you ‘Your Majesty.’”

And, to think I worried that he wouldn’t be a feminist.

Sincerely,
Her Royal Highness of the Recycling

Monday, September 26, 2011

"Thy Kingdom Come"--Sermon 9/25/11

Thy Kingdom Come

Jesus was in the heart of his ministry. The disciples were joining, the crowds were gathering. Seeing Jesus heal and hearing him speak had become stranding room-only events. His words were words that set the people on fire. His message was one which could never have been imagined before in that time. He had become a prophet of the first order, and his words were both challenge and comfort. And it was, at this time, as the crowds fanned in to hear him, and as his polling numbers had risen to their height, that he was asked an important question. And the question, posed by some of those who followed him, by some of those who wanted to be the favorite of their teacher, by some who wanted to be assured of how to please their master, was a relatively simple one. Perhaps it was just one of them who nuzzled their brother to the front to ask, or maybe a few of the disciples rallied together to implore Jesus. However it happened, the question was asked, “Jesus, who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

You see, they had been listening to all this talk of the kingdom, of the coming reign of God, of the mystical union of Mr. Rogers neighborhood and streets of gold that they had been wondering about. They knew that the kingdom was near, that the meek and the persecuted and the poor were welcomed there. They knew that they were to strive for the kingdom, and they knew that Jesus was at the heart of telling stories about this place. They knew that the kingdom was like a mustard seed that grew to enormous proportions if left unfettered. They knew that like yeast that could do mysterious things to bread causing it to rise the kingdom of God would also grow. They knew that there was joy in the kingdom, joy akin to finding treasure in a field, and joy akin to hauling in nets and nets full of fish. They knew that they had been promised keys to heaven. And they knew it had many rooms. They knew the stories they had been told by a loving teacher, but they still must have had swirling thoughts in their head about this mysterious other-worldly, out of time world. Its values antithetical to the world they knew. What was important in the here and now would be tilted upside down there. What was clung to on earth would have no bearing in heaven. And the questions they would ask about the kingdom reveals not ignorance, as much as earnest desire.

“Jesus, who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

I find myself wondering what it was they expected to hear. Were they wanting reassurance that they were worthy of the kingdom? Were they wanted Jesus to name names? Were they competitive, wanting one of their names to be spoken and not their rival? Did they really expect an answer that would even make sense to them given their confusion about the kingdom of heaven after all?

Jesus didn’t answer the disciples. Not a word was spoken. But as they stood, with baited breath, he turned from them and called to him a child, a child who may have been standing with a parent nearby, or who may have been playing in the dust of the ground. A child, a paidion (pie dee own), one between three and five years old, not entirely unlike the little ones we minister to here at The Children’s Nursery school, was beckoned by a gentle Jesus into the circle of disciples. Jesus told a story with a simple gesture. All the while the disciples stared on, watching the lesson unfold.

Jesus placed the child before them. Perhaps he held the child close to his chest, or urged his disciples to make their way down closer to the ground to look at this little one eye-to-eye. And with the disciples looking on, he said quietly and reverently, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And then he added even more, perhaps still standing eye to eye with the little one gathered in their midst, surrounded by these grown up men, “and whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

I’ve been thinking about this verse throughout the week as we consecrate our nursery school teachers, as we celebrate their teaching in our midst, as we recognize our Sunday school teachers and as we emphasize our commitment to education. And I’ve been thinking about this verse in light of the fears I sense in our world. It’s hard not to ponder the problems with our national economy, as we wonder about the future of our planet, as we worry about what kind of world we are offering our children. There are dark days pressing around us. Days when I am almost afraid to turn on the news for fear of what I will learn next. There are times when I wonder if the kingdom of God is all some aberration. There are days when I want to shake my fist and demand that the human race figure out how to do better than we’ve been doing. And I have to ask, “How do we as the United Church of Christ, people who believe in ushering in the kingdom of God in the here and now, who believe in the power of the kingdom to burst forth in this world, how do we make that happen?”

Perhaps one of the greatest gifts we have in answering that question comes when we listen to the ones who Jesus pointed toward, when we listen to children.

Our building is hopping all week with our littlest ones. That may be easy to forget if you’re only a Sunday morning dweller here at Peace, but our Children’s Nursery School little ones call our building home. They wander in and out through the doors, leave their handprints on the walls, scuff their shoes on the floors, drop tiny goldfish crackers on the carpet. They also bestow on those of us who are blessed enough to get to know them random moments of unexpected grace as they offer us hugs, or sing in warbling voices sporadic songs in the hallways, or look at us with eyes filled with hope. And the best way for us to welcome the kingdom, is to follow Jesus’s example and welcome the little ones.

This week I was talking with another parent about my sermon this week. I was sharing that I wanted to talk about the kingdom of God, and how we instill faith in our children, and how hard that was to do when I felt so little hope right now in the world. I lamented and I despaired and I wrung my hands in misery and may have even said, “Oh, woe is me, how do I preach…woe is me.” And she said calmly and with pragmatic certainty, “Then, perhaps, you should spend a little time in the nursery school this week instead.” And I remembered the words of Jesus, that to enter the kingdom we must become like children. To enter the kingdom, we must sit in little chairs, and watch with big eyes, and touch with small hands, and trust with open hearts.

And so what does it mean for us as a church community to usher in the kingdom of God? What does it mean for all of us as a community to embrace child-like ways that we may be instruments of the holy spirit?

I believe we begin by looking at our brothers and sisters with child-like attitudes of truth and openness. I believe we begin with facing our deepest fears. I believe we begin by trusting that the world is a good place, and that we were created for good. I believe we begin by listening to the stories of Jesus. And I believe this leads us to worlds of hope anew. But it all begins with welcoming children.

My grandmother died five years ago. This week would have been her 95th birthday, and so my mind has been drifting back and forth to her this week. I’ve found myself reflecting on the legacy she left and on the lessons she taught me and to the ways in which she shaped me. I learned from her what it meant to welcome children—to welcome their passion, and their wonder, and their questions, and in so doing, create an inkling of what it means to be part of the neighborhood of God. One afternoon a year or so before she died, I went with my mother to take my grandmother to lunch. This was often a bit of a chore to do because at that time in my grandmother’s life she had difficulty seeing and hearing. She would speak loudly, and due to a problem with double vision, one of the lenses of her glasses was tinted black. We sat, a happy intergenerational trio on that Saturday morning, at Cosmos restaurant and as we were eating our scrambled eggs and bacon a preschool girl, her pigtails bobbing, turned around in the booth in front of us and after carefully sizing up our dining party decided to strike up a conversation with my delighted grandmother, who never knew a stranger. This little one watched my grandmother hesitantly, and then said curiously, “Why’s your eye like that?” And my grandmother paused in her eating and first admired, loudly, to my mother and me, how cute the child was, how adorable was her red shirt, and then she turned her attention to the business at hand. She inched her face closer to the face of the girl and said, “Well, let me tell you a story. My eye doesn’t work very well anymore. It’s broken So, now I have this black thing here and, look, I don’t need to use my eye anymore! It’s hidden!” The little girl stared closer, the two generations almost touching nose to nose. And my mother and I held our breath, because we always worried that Grandma would get self-conscious. But we were wrong, because Ila Soderstrom was not a woman to let a little honesty from a child get her down. She welcomed the conversation, and in so doing she welcomed the child. And then the little girl said, softly in response, “Does that make you sad? To not have your eye work?” I was struck at the time how intuitive this child was, how honest she had been, how easily she offered sincere empathy. And my grandmother nodded quietly with resignation, and said, “Thank you.” I still remember that encounter, for it is a reminder to me of the power of welcoming children, and of realizing once you’ve welcomed them that they offer us a glimpse of what the kingdom of God looks like. It must be a place of honest compassion, and curious wonder, and authentic vulnerability. In that graced space where we meet one another nose to nose, generation to generation and God is there in the midst of it.

The prophetic writer Paul Grout, a Church of the Brethren sage, once wrote these words which I have kept in a quote file on my desk and have read and reread again and again, “The North American Church may be in trouble, make no mistake, The kingdom of God is not.” And that sentence resonates deep in my soul. For the kingdom of God is not made of rules and requirements about who belongs and who doesn’t, as the church can do. And the kingdom of God is not concerned with declining membership, as the church has been. And the kingdom of God is not focused on fear, as the church can do. The kingdom of God is doing just fine.

Remember: when Jesus invites us to consider the kingdom it is a child who is our example. May we be wise enough to clasp the tiny hands they offer and may we allow them to lead us into a world of hope that God’s will may be done.

Amen.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Vineyard Justice?--Sermon 9/18/11

Vineyard Justice?
A prominent Homiletics professor when asked about preaching on this scripture once wrote, “The parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard is a little like cod liver oil: You know Jesus is right, you know it must be good for you, but that does not make it any easier to swallow.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven, p. 100). It is one of those scriptures that tends to afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted, depending on where you see yourself standing in line. It’s one of those stories which can make us feel just a little bit edgy, a little bit itchy, a little bit uncomfortable. It proposes a reversal of order, an upset of the apple cart, a topsy turviness that we didn’t see coming. It challenges the sacred assumptions of the way things should be, heck, it even calls into question our beloved Protestant work ethic.

So let’s unpack this scripture a little shall we? Let’s look a little at the message Jesus was trying to impart both for his followers that day, and for 21st century readers. The story is a quite simple one. There was once a vineyard owner. An esteemed man who invited workers to labor in his vineyard. The scripture isn’t clear on telling us whether or not this vineyard owner actually needed the help, or whether he was just providing the opportunity for work, offering the chance to make an honest day’s wage for someone in need, but regardless, there he was, first thing in the morning. Now, if you were looking to hire someone to work in your own personal vineyard back in the first century in Palestine, you’d be inclined to look for strong workers, capable workers who could harvest a hefty yield. And your best bet to find those workers would be to go first thing in the morning as the sun rose, to the marketplace. There you’d gather with other estate managers and you’d carefully examine the pooling crowds of laborers, looking for the strongest, the ablest, the one who comes from the heartiest stock, the one who has that ambitious glimmer in his or her eye.

And in our story, laborers were, indeed, hired that morning and a fair price was offered in keeping with the laws of the Torah, and all seemed content. Vineyard management team and contracted laborers alike. A deal was struck and hands were shook.

But a few hours later, after this first cream of the crop of workers was picked and already at work, the manager went back and saw that there were still others looking for work, still others unemployed, and so again the vineyard manager offered a fair price, and it was accepted, and more workers joined the workforce already toiling away in the vineyard…three hours later, but still in the morning.

This happened again three more times on that day. And workers were still crowding the marketplace, looking hungrily for work that would offer them the coveted denarius which would pay them enough to buy a meal that night. Standing idly around wondering if they would have something to provide for their families that day, something to take home to wherever it was they sought shelter at night with growling hungry bellies and dashed hopes. The pickings for strong workers with each trip to the marketplace would have gotten slim, those who were left would have been weaker, perhaps lame, perhaps elderly, perhaps infirm, those who were not wanted, or those who had been cast away by other estate owners. And yet with each trip to the marketplace, our vineyard owner invited more, and more were hired and more were offered a fair wage. One has to wonder what the other estate managers and vineyard owners in the region were saying as that last load of workers were contracted even at 5:00 in the evening and still heading out to the field to work only for an hour as the sun began to set. Was there snickering at the naievety of the vineyard owner? Was there joking about how much work would actually get done and how much money would be wasted? Surely this vineyard owner missed his Corporate Economics 101 class, or at least was sick the day they talked about profit yielding.

And at 6:00 p.m. whenever the metaphorical equivalent to the time clock was punched and the dinner bells were beginning to ring, the workers headed in from the vineyard to receive their just rewards, their compensation for their hard work under the hot sun. Sunburned and sweaty they gathered, the strong and the weak, the ones with sinewy muscular arms and strong tanned backs and the ones with the withered legs and scoliosis and sunburns. The ones who could find work any day of the week and the ones who were still puzzled at how they were invited to be hired at all. All of the workers gathered to receive their pay.

And here’s where the story gets a little wonky, here’s the part that makes us scratch our heads. The workers were lined up in reverse order of when they were hired, those hired latest were placed first in line. And these were given one whole denarius. These late-day add-ons were given a full day’s wage. It was incredible really, a full day’s wage for an hour’s work, in this economy!.

And so those in the back of the line must have begun to imagine what the weight of a pocketful of coins felt like, the jingle as they were gathered into two receptive hands. For if a denarius was offered for an hour’s worth of work, how much would twelve denari buy. And one can imagine the excited murmurings. But as each successive group of workers made it to the front of the line to receive their wages, those happy murmurings probably turned into snarling gripes, for there was just one standard payment that day for all. One denarius. Early or late to work. Strong or weak. There was one standard price, a fair and agreed upon price, but the same for all. One denarius.

And scripture says that one outspoken worker named this perceived inequity and said, in the words of Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible, “These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under the scorching sun.” The anger of these first-hired workers was not just over money, it was over status. They didn’t want those who were hired later to be equated with them. Those hired later, those who would have been weaker, were in a category all their own, considered the lowest of the low. They were the ones who had been cast-aside, the ones with the invisible “L’s” on their foreheads, labeled as losers and written off for whatever reason. How dare they be considered equivalent to the hale and hearty first-hired?

The vineyard owner was pragmatic. He said, “Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn’t we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?” The Greek version of that last little bit has a bit more bite to it. It is translated this way, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

And so ends the story. But, if you are anything like me, you may still be left with the question. Was vineyard justice done? Was it really fair?

Any of you who have more than one child, or who were raised with siblings may have faced this very dilemma. Shortly after Robert and I married, I moved into the home which Robert shared with Tess and Brynn who were then nine and six years old, I encountered my first difficult lesson in parenting. Sometimes fairness is not easily attained. Before parenting our three children, I had been largely oblivious to the ins and outs of sibling struggle. A common refrain I learned early on in our newly formed family’s life were those three deadly words, “It’s not fair.” I learned that it wasn’t fair when one sister got to keep the dog in her room overnight and the other sister was relegated to a cold dachshund-less bed. I learned that it wasn’t fair when one sister finished the last red popsicle in the freezer while the other sister was stuck with only the dreaded toxic orange ones. I learned that it wasn’t fair when one sister was sick and got to stay home sleeping fitfully on the couch while watching the Disney channel while the other sister had to go to school. There are a thousand things that are not fair in this world, I learned. And I learned it through the eyes of two children who I loved passionately and deeply and honestly. And I found myself uttering the words to them that I believe the landowner might utter to his workers, “No, no it isn’t fair, but it is still good. Trust in what I offer you.”

Barbara Brown Taylor writes, in her book The Seeds of Heaven, “God is not fair. For reasons we may never know, God seems to love us indiscriminately, and seems also to enjoy reversing the systems we set up to explain why God should love some of us more than others of us…God is not fair; but depending on where you are in line that can sound like powerful good news, because if God is not fair, then there is a chance we will get paid more than we are worth, than we will get more than we deserve. God is not fair; God is generous.”


I have a little secret to tell you this morning. The parable of the vineyard is not about fairness. It is about grace. The God of the vineyard is the God who surprises us all with what we need, and claims we are all entitled to walk on the same ground, the weak and the strong alike, the old and the young alike, no matter who you are or where you are on your faith journey. The God of the vineyard begs us not to begrudge our brothers and sisters of their good fortune, not to look at generosity with an eye of evil. The God of the vineyard throws caution to the wind and upsets the systems of power and domination and offers a new paradigm. The God of the vineyard offers generous grace and plenty.

The psychotherapist Gerald May once wrote, “Grace threatens all my normalities.” Yes, yes, yes. Extravagant grace, freely given, is hard to get our heads around. And can shake us to the core.

This is the truth which may be hard to swallow at first, just like that cod liver oil. But once you get past those first tastes you’ll realize how sweet life is in the kingdom of our generous God, where we look upon one another with only the eyes of love.

Amen.

Friday, September 09, 2011

True Confessions of a Bunnynapper

I admit it. Slap the handcuffs on me now. I kidnapped a bunny tonight.

I had accomplices, so don't send me to the clink on my own. Haul our ailing Brynn (who I might add has pneumonia so go easy on us, please) and four-year-old Grayson along with me. Please allow us to have one phone call so we can phone Robert, and wake him up from his nap (I repeat, he had no part in this bunnynapping and needs to stay home to care for the other animals to whom I have offered a piece of my soul).

The long and the short of it is this: the neighbors had a rabbit. For the past two months he has lived an eighth of a mile radius of their house. This is the second animal that they have neglected, the next-door neighbors adopted the dog who wandered the cul de sac for a good week before anyone took her in. I've tried to talk to our negligent neighbors twice, suggesting kindly and gently that perhaps it might be best for the rabbit to be moved to a safe locale. I've offered to adopt the rabbit. I've been sweet syrupy nice. I've cooed and batted my eyes.

They said the rabbit was fine. He liked to, you know, be with the wild rabbits outside so they could, you know, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

Um, no. I refuse to allow rabbit solicitation or prostitution in my neighborhood. No, no, no. So I created my own little vigilante vice squad. I decided that once and for all wanton rabbit copulation, or suggestion thereof, could not happen on Strathdon Drive. No siree. Not on my watch.

The only thing to do was steal the rabbit. That's right, friends. I am now a rebel without a cause (or, wait, I guess I have a cause and my cause is this "Purity Codes for all Rabbits" or "Hey, Ho, Unprotected Rabbit Sex Just Has to Go!"). Just call me the Phyllis Schlafly of the bunny set.

I do have twinges of guilt about my role in the heist [in all honesty, I really am troubled by this, but after consultation with several neighbors who were all ready to call animal control it seemed like my own little "let my people go" moment], and my husband may not forgive me for the many dollars "we've" invested now in bunny paraphernalia, including a promise ring for Robert to give the rabbit to ensure its chastity. But, I can say that I will sleep better tonight knowing that I have curbed some of the rampant bunny madness in Crown Colony tonight.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Oil of Olay


When I was a little girl, my mother smelled of Oil of Olay night cream. The bed she shared with my father was hijacked by me, her only child, at bedtime while my dad was away at church meetings or tucked away in his dark room in the basement. The two of us, cocooned in the green and blue modern print 1978ish bedspread, would lie like spoons while she read aloud to me. Each in our own Barbizon nightgowns. Each flush from our evening baths. Each exhausted from our days at school as teacher and student. Oil of Olay was the elixir of my childhood. Aromatic comfort food. Scent of safe harbor. Truest, fondest, purest smell of my life on Christopher Lane in Fort Wayne.

Tonight after my own bedtime ritual at the ripe old age of almost-40 I slathered Oil of Olay on my own face. And then, when Grayson called out, startled, I went to him in the dark and kissed his warm cheek. He said, "Mommy, My Mommy, you smell so good. You smell just like my mommy." And I lay my head down next to his and we wrapped ourselves in his soft blue blanket at peace together.

And the daughter has become the mother. And I pray that he is comforted as I was. And I see myself in that long line of strong women who nurtured and tended and read bedtime stories.

And who knew the power of a good moisturizer.

Friday, September 02, 2011

A Contemplative Chaplain Diary: The Edge of Reason

6:34 p.m. Rats. The air conditioning is not functioning. Again. Just like last year. And the year before.

11:40 p.m. Will report that ACME Heating and Air Conditioning representative Vern is here to offer excellent customer service. Vern likes to explain things in detail. And mutter under his breath a lot about the shoddy A.C. which was put in originally. He blinks. Perhaps he has allergies? He shakes his head and says, “Wow…” and then reminds me he can fix it. Then he explains things again. And he draws diagrams. Lots of diagrams. Sadly, 4-year-old Grayson, the only one in our family who would care, is asleep.

11:42 p.m. Vern still on duty outside. Maisie, the miniature dachshund is hyper-vigilant and panting in her cage.

11:45 p.m. Vern and air conditioning unit still enjoying meaningful encounter in yard. I would like to go to bed, but Vern, he has other plans which include fancy red machine which looks like radar gun which beeps and tells temperature. Damn, how can Grayson sleep through this excitement?

11:46 p.m. Beginning to wonder if Vern’s inability to look me in the eye and his blinking thing is like the old veterinarian Dr. Curly who could only look at animals and not at people. Hmmm…wonder if this is a syndrome I don’t know the name of…Hmmm…will google.

11:48 p.m. Hmmm…could be NVLD, Non-Verbal Learning Disability. Will administer Myers-Briggs test to Vern in his next pass through the house to the upstairs thermostat.

11:53 p.m. I’m wondering if Vern is a 7 on the eneagram. Says that my air conditioner is an “adventure.” It’s “challenging.” I think Vern likes challenges. And diagrams. More diagrams. With arrows. And air flow charts.

11:59 p.m. Offered Vern a caffeine-free diet coke. He doesn’t “drink on the job.” Efficient Vern.

Friday
12:07 a.m. Vern replaced 4 cubic something of coolant. Same amount as last year. And asked to see paperwork on unit to see if it’s still under warranty. I produced aforementioned paperwork and billing from previous contractors. Vern actually makes the “tsk, tsk” sound with his tongue. I had only read "tsk, tsk" sound in book. Never knew it really existed. Vern, though, Vern can demonstrate. “They charged you this much? For this unit? They just had this on-hand [tsk, tsk]. They were trying to unload it. In 2010 our industry was forbidden from selling this product.” Vern is clearly being polite, but what he means is, “You got screwed big time. And I think you know I don’t have to draw you a diagram to explain that.” He could say this with his eyes, but of course, he doesn’t. Because he is studying the cat hair ball Moses just puked up on the tile floor in the kitchen instead. Vern’s eyes could speak volumes if he would only look at me. Sigh. Oh, Vern…

12:11 a.m. It’s getting cooler. I am considering making my next tattoo a little icon that says, “I [heart] Vern.” or "Vern the A.C. man + Contemplative Chaplain = Love" Or maybe I’ll just get a roving eyeball to remember our night together.

12:13 a.m. I’m thinking of inviting Vern to church. Why not make the night an evangelistic opportunity? Will ask him how his walk with Jesus is when he comes in again. Will ask him if he is saved.

12:25 a.m. Missed opportunity for conversion as Vern seemed intent on leaving me with last diagram. Vern should have PBS show like artist Bob Ross who drew “tiny trees.” Vern would also look good with white afro.

12:34 a.m. $681.30 the poorer are we. Cooler. But poorer. But I have a new friend. And shouldn’t that be all that matters, really?






Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Holy Ground on a State Road--Sermon 8/28/11

Holy Ground on a State Road

It was the summer of 1993. I was twenty-one years old and in that liminal time in the summer before my senior year of college at Manchester. And I remember that August evening like it was yesterday, the night I experienced the holy in the ordinary and still get shivers. The night I felt, if just for a moment, as if the present held all of eternity. The night I felt that I should get out of my Honda civic and lay my Birkenstocks aside at the wonder I saw around me. It was on State Road 114 between here and North Manchester.

I was, at the time, renting a small house across from a noisy book bindery. I was commuting two hours round trip into Fort Wayne early in the mornings and again early in the evenings to work in a day care center. And the job, caring for eight infants, while, delightful was also exhausting. I had been battling with a low grade sinus infection all summer and was due to have sinus surgery. I was pondering breaking up with my boyfriend of four-years. And on that ordinary summer night I turned from my work toward home with NPR as my companion.

I want to state again that weatherwise there was really nothing remarkable about that evening. There was nothing different about my routine. But I was aware, as I graduated from I-69, to 24, to 114 that my shoulders were loosening from their customary location around my earlobes, and my breathing was steadying and deepening, and that furrow between my eyes was becoming a little less pronounced.

There was nothing different about that day. I promise. But I slowly realized as I was driving my customary route that the grass seemed greener, and the pinkish-blue of the sunset looked as if it were painted by Maxfield Parrish’s brush. The barns were so red, and even the yellow lines on the road seemed more vivid. I simply could not believe the beauty around me, the literal breath-taking beauty of a little road in Northern Indiana at sunset. I began to weep softly as I stared around me in wonder, and then I realized that I was sobbing, the kind of piercing sobs which make your face blotchy and cause your mascara to run. But I wasn’t sad. I was simply overwhelmed. Overcome with the beauty of the moment. I had not sought this. I had not anticipated it. I had instead stumbled into a sense of wonder, ushered into the presence of the holy in the ordinary. Experiencing my own mini-epiphany, a “take off your shoes” moment.

The story is told in Exodus 3:1-6 of a common man, a man who while keeping to the routine of his everyday life, while tending his flock of sheep, meanders into his own holy moment. The Moses in this story is not the Moses who leads his people to the promised land. He is not the one who parts the waters and talks with God on the mountain. The Moses who speaks in these verses is not the one with the big Charlton Heston booming voice. Instead, the Moses here is Moses the son-in-law, Moses the shepherd. Moses the guy next door. Moses was meant for great things, but at this point in Exodus, the great things have not even begun to happen yet. Moses in this story had not yet received “the call.” It is important for us to remember this.

As Moses wandered up and down those worn paths through the wilderness in Midian he stumbled upon an angel who appeared to him a flame of fire in a bush, and the text says, the bush was not consumed. This bush interrupts Moses’ work. It isn’t something Moses was searching for. And yet, Moses was open to this wonder in his midst. He responded, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why this bush is not burned up.” Something about this bush was so fascinating, perhaps sacred, perhaps beautiful, that Moses had to make the choice to stop and investigate. And when God saw that Moses had paused, God called Moses by name. In that liminal holy space, which Moses probably had no words to describe, God called.

Out of the fire God called, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

I can almost picture in my mind’s eye this young man, awkwardly unwrapping the straps of his sandals, first one foot, and then the other, filled with wonder at this mystery set before him. God was revealed as the God of Moses’ forebearers, the God of Abraham, and therefore Sarah. The God of Isaac, and therefore Rebekah. The God of Jacob, and therefore Rachel and Leah. And Moses did what was customary in those times, Moses hid his face. In a culture where God’s name was so holy that it was not even to be uttered, the thought of actually seeing God face to face must have been mind-blowing, surely one might die, the Israelites believed. And so Moses did what was proper. And in his act, he acknowledged formally that he had been ushered into the holy, that this was the real thing. In the midst of his ordinary tasks, in the midst of the mundane details of life this revelation was opened to him. It was in the not-looking, in the not-expecting, that he saw, that he was found.

I consider this phenomena a lot, because I am paid by the church to try and usher all of you into holy places. It is my job to take off my shoes. I went to college and then seminary for this. So, shouldn’t it just fall into my lap? Shouldn’t the burning bushes just blaze all around me? And yet, I have a secret to tell you, those of us with M.Div. behind our name are no more equipped to stalk the divine than a common shepherd. And the times when I have tried to seek the mystery the most, the times when I have ardently demanded God’s presence are the moments when my relationship with God seems the most distant and elusive. Not always, certainly not always, but often enough. And so in my own life I have found that it is in letting go of the search, in simply pausing to open myself to the divine, that the sacred creeps in on tiny kitten-like paws. In the everyday tasting, seeing, listening, in the routine and commonplace all of a sudden I have been pounced on by the divine, sort of like Moses just watching the sheep in Midian. Sort of like a college coed just driving down a road in North Manchester.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber has a name for this kind of holy encounter, the encounter where one realizes there is something more in an instant, something deeper in an event. He calls it the “I-Thou” encounter, an encounter which is outside the realm of details and physical realities but instead enters a realm of deep relationship and holiness.

In the novel, The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, a novel which takes place in the deep south before the civil rights movement, there is a perfect I-Thou encounter, a burning bush moment which I think names well some of what it means to meet the holy. In the book Shug, a former lounge singer, is recovering from a long illness and she explains to Celie, a woman horribly emotionally damaged by an abusive spouse, her theology. Shug says, “here’s the thing. The thing I believe. Sometimes God just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for. I believe God is everything. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that you’ve found It.” She continues, “My first step away from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being a part of everything, not separate at all…And I laughed and I cried…”

Shug had taken off her shoes after recognizing the holy. She hadn’t necessarily sought out this connection, she just happened upon it. In the presence of the mystery, her laughter and tears brought her to a sacred place. A shoe-removing place.

My hope for each of us this morning is that we may stumble across the holy around us. My hope is that we can welcome its presence even when we don’t expect it, and are even inconvenienced by it. My hope is that we, like Moses and Shug, can allow ourselves to be still to recognize the burning bushes in our own lives. And that we can pause wherever we are, whether it be Mount Horeb, or the deep south, state road 114, or in a sanctuary at Peace UCC, and that we can each take off our shoes.

Amen.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Life Going Not Backward

Cue the violins. Get 'em ready. Have them tuned, because after this post they'll be swelling to magnificent proportions in our final poignant scene as our young heroine turns her face toward the light, her eyes set on a future we cannot see but can only imagine and walks purposefully into the brilliant future.

I have learned something in parenting. Raising cats is easier. This is the truth of the matter. Cats may soil your rug. They may hack up hairballs on your carpet. They may decide to take a nap on your newly ironed black pants and leave a mess of fur behind. But cats, cats will never leave to go to college. Nope. The cat, he will stay home.

The truth about parenting is that if we do it right, one day our children leave us. Whether they walk out our doors hauling shower shoes and laptops to attend college, or take that ukelele and the tiny bubble maker and head to Hawaii to become the next Don Ho, the time will come when their dreams call them into a new reality. And we can't go with them.

I'm especially mindful of this after last Friday's sojourn to Franklin College, a two-and-a-half hours drive to the south of us. The cars were laden with a mini refrigerator, a microwave, ether net cables, and more shoes than Imelda Marcos. And as we made up the bed with the turquoise extra-long sheets, and lined up the staple of the college student's existence, Kraft macaroni and cheese, on the shelf, and as we made the last minute run to Walmart to buy lightbulbs I found myself simultaneously giddy for her and puzzled for how life continues at our home without her.

Kahlil Gibran once wrote these words in his poetic masterpiece The Prophet:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.


Truer words have never been spoken.

And she is already dwelling in the house of tomorrow. While I sit with the cat quietly purring on my lap.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Well, Helllloooo, Internets....

Contemplative Chaplain back and reporting for duty. I know, I know, it's been a lapse of, what, three-four years? Oh, wait, let me see how old Grayson is...ah yes, yes four years. I've tried to keep you (and by "you," I mean, my one faithful and loyal reader, Ms. Sandi Buchanan, my mother's best friend out there on a mountain in North Carolina...hey, Sandi! Hey there...I see you...thanks for the encouragement and hanging with me, and thanks for sending me that curling iron back in fourth grade when my parents weren't sure I was mature enough to not burn myself!), I've tried to keep my reader(s) up to date on the whereabouts and that whatabouts of my life by dropping a few bird crumbs in the form of sermons here and there...so as to keep some hope alive for my inner-writer, some hope that I would return in time to being the blogging mistress that I once was.

But there are, alas, some complications now. For, I am no longer that same Contemplative Chaplain. I have even forsaken my coveted Association of Board Certified Chaplain title (and the $300 plus yearly dues that went with it) and cast my lot back in the land of pastoral ministry. And, so who am I? Musing Minister? Pondering Pastor? Pontificating Parson? And, there is that tricky issue of "Pastoral Authority." Seminary professors and Clinical Pastoral Educators get all sorts of hot and bothered when they took about "Pastoral Authority." Essentially, there are furrowed brows and wagging fingers by some when it comes to the issue of a pastor sharing themselves personally, or irreverently, or honestly. So, how do I navigate this terrain without being unprofessional, without embarrassing my parishioners, without being cordially invited to answer to the association ministry commission?

And further, there is this. One little person who stands about 36 inches tall who says, "Mommy, what are you doing? Why are you typing? I'm still starving. I've only had two fruit smoothies and now can I have another one [Answer: No, last time you drank three in a row you puked a technicolor smoothie Jackson Pollock on the white carpet]? Mommy, ummm...I'm really, really still starving. Can't you type on your 'puter another time?"

And yet, and yet, and yet...I miss this outlet. And I miss you all (Ms. Sandi Buchanan, reader extraordinaire), and Grayson needs to learn about patience, really, right? And so, I think I'm back. God willing and the parishioners don't mind.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Most for the Least--Sermon 8/21/11

The Most for the Least


I pause as I begin this sermon this morning mindful of the sacredness of this gathered body, composed of two distinct groups of people united in mission. The two congregations: Pleasant Chapel and Peace. The two denominations: The Church of the Brethren and the United Church of Christ. The two settings: one rural and one suburban. My roots sink deep into the soil of your denomination, Pleasant Chapel, for I am a Bethany graduate who was ordained in the Church of the Brethren for twelve years. And it was the Church of the Brethren that gave me wings to fly in to the United Church of Christ a year or so ago. And so to preach to both congregations, to both denominational affiliations feels so natural, and I am humbled to have the chance to pastor a church which shares this partnership with the Global Foods Resource Bank.

In the twenty-fifth chapter of the book of Matthew, there is a story that Jesus tells which has guided the mission of both our denominations. It is a story which cuts straight through to the heart of our faith. There is little nuance, little subtlety. It is direct and succinct. “When the Son of Man comes…” it begins.

A middle eastern shepherd often tended different kinds of animals, and sheep and goats were common combinations. Both provided a decent income. During the day they would mingle together in the fields, but as the sun set they would have to be separated. You see, goats would become too cold in the nights and needed to be kept in a place of shelter, while the sheep with their wooly coats could sleep outside under the stars. And so the evening task of the shepherd was to gather the goats, and make sure they had a safe place to rest. Each night this was the shepherd’s routine.
And so, the parable that Jesus told hearkened back to a common role that his listeners, many of whom were shepherds, or who came from shepherding families knew. Separating sheep from goats, two distinct animals, no one breed any better or worse than the other, just different types of creatures with different needs in care.

But in the story that Jesus told on that day there was a twist, for one group of animals, the sheep were gathered at the right hand of the king at the place of honor, and the other group, the goats, were gathered at the left hand. And a pronouncement was made, the sheep were welcomed into the kingdom of heaven, and the goats, well, not so much. The sheep were called “blessed” and the goats, well, not so much. The sheep were validated for the acts of caring they had offered, and the goats, not so much. But what is really mind-boggling about this text was that neither sheep nor goats seem to know why they were placed in either category. Both are genuinely surprised at the outcome. Neither group remember the circumstances which led them to be chosen, or not chosen for eternal bliss.

I confess that this scripture causes me no tiny bit of anxiety. This is a brow-furrowing scripture for me. You see, while I am earnest about my desire to follow the teachings of Christ, I fear those things which I may neglect to do. I read this scripture as a grocery list of discipleship. Okay, Jesus said we need to “feed the hungry, provide beverage for the thirsty, house the homeless, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.” And I immediately want to run out and do each of those things: work in homeless kitchen (check), find someone who is thirsty (“Anyone here need some water?” check). And then I’ll head on over to Target and buy a few sweatsuits to pass out to those who might be cold (check). It is tempting, for us Type-A personalities, to see this story as a checklist and try to do everything on it so that we might receive tickets to the eternal kingdom.

And you know what? I have come to believe that this is not exactly what Jesus had in mind when he told the story. No, I think that there was a bigger picture that Jesus wanted his listeners to understand, a grander vision that he had in mind as he shared those words under that hot middle-eastern sun. And that bigger picture was this: It isn’t about trying to cross or “t’s” and dot our “i’s” just to score points in a grand celestial game, but instead it is about what we do in the moments when we think no one is watching, what we do when we choose to serve our brothers and sisters humbly, what we do for the one who is the most despised or alone in our society. It is about serving the least, and seeing the least, and aligning ourselves with the least, and realizing that this is where we will find the living Christ today. And it isn’t about trying to gain attention or trying to please others. What we do in the company of the least of these, whoever they are or or wherever they happen to be, is where we learn how to be true disciples.

The writer Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, The Preaching Life says this, “One thing is for sure. You cannot win the truth like a scavenger hunt, checking off one hungry person, one thirsty one, one sick one, and one in prison. You cannot toss a quarter in a cup or throw a dollar bill at an old woman in the grocery store and call it done, ‘There! There’s my good deed for the day, my ticket to eternity is with the sheep!’ You cannot use people that way, and besides, emptying your pockets may not always be the right thing to do.” [Taylor, The Preaching Life, p. 137]

But even beyond this, I think there is one more startling revelation that we can learn from the parable. And it is an admonition that we dare not ignore. The goats who are placed at the left hand of the king have not been deliberately cruel. They didn’t do anything purposefully to hurt others. They didn’t speak maliciously. They didn’t steal. They didn’t incite violence. Their sin, the thing which threw eliminated them from a chance for eternal life in the hereafter was this: they were apathetic. They simply passed over the needs of the least. They failed to look. They failed to serve. With their tunnel vision and their ability to ignore, they lost their chance to mingle with the living Christ--the Christ who came to them in the beggar, and in the prisoner, and in the stranger. The goats didn’t overtly wound their neighbors, they just neglected to notice them. The sin was in the omission. The sin was in avoiding the faces of those who were considered “the least.”

In the spring of 2002 I was at a retreat center in Three Rivers, Michigan called The Hermitage. The war in Afganistan and Iraq had only broken out a few days before. It was an agonizing time for our country in the wake of the September 11th attacks of 2001. Our country was at war in a nation that I wasn’t even sure I could locate on a map, let alone understand. I had watched the bombings and the smoke on CNN and had worried and wondered about the safety of so many people—both civilian and military personnel, Afghanis, and Iraqis, and Americans all. Like many people concerned for issues of peace in the world, I felt helpless, and I felt angry. That evening I walked into the common area of the retreat center and saw, a framed portrait hanging on the wall. I’m sure many of you have seen it as well, for it is a portrait which has graced the cover of National Geographic and has been referred to as one of the most poignant pictures of the past thirty years. It is a photo that was taken by Scott McCurry in 1984 of an Afghan girl. A child who was a refugee forced out of Afghanistan after the death of her parents. A young girl who had traveled across the border to Pakistan and settled in a camp there. In the photo this child’s crystal clear aquamarine eyes stared out from beneath the dark folds of her robe, full of anguish and innocence. And one of the nuns at the retreat center in a shaky cursive hand had posted a 4x6 card right under this photo which said simply, “This is the face of an Afghani child. May peace prevail.” I stood with those eyes staring deep into my soul. Eyes which indicted me. Eyes which haunted me. Eyes which reminded me that I was not allowed to ignore my brothers and sisters in this world who were in war zones, or hungry on street corners, or alone in alleyways. I was not permitted to be a passive witness to suffering. I was not allowed to be ignorant.

This, I believe, is what Jesus wants us to learn. As disciples of Christ we cannot afford to be apathetic. We cannot afford to avert our eyes from pain, for in doing so we do not see Jesus. We cannot choose to isolate ourselves from our neighbors, for by doing so we isolate ourselves from the Christ.

But I have to warn you that looking comes at a cost. Gazing into the eyes of the least of these is a risk. Barbara Brown Taylor says it this way, “I will tell you something you already know. Sometimes when you look into those eyes all you see is your own helplessness, your own inability to know what is right. And sometimes you see your own reflection; you see everything you have and everything you are in a stark new light. Sometimes you see such gratitude that it reminds you how much you have to be thankful for, and sometimes you see such a wily will to survive that you cannot help but admire it, even when you are the target of its ambitions. These are all things we need to know—about Jesus, about our brothers and sisters, about ourselves—but we cannot know them if we will not look.”

This morning we gather as one body to worship God, to pause in gratitude and joy for our shared mission. But, we also gather to together focus our eyes together on the least of these, in a people who reside with Christ in Mozambique where 63% of children go to bed hungry at night and where 1 in 4 adults are infected with HIV/AIDS. And then we turn our eyes toward Uganda, where the life expectancy rate is 53 years old, and where malnutrition causes tiny bellies to swell. This morning may we turn our eyes to look at the faces of these brothers and sisters in Christ. And may we know that it is our responsibility to serve those who have so little, and need so much. It is not just our responsibility it is our duty.

There is a story that has been told throughout the years. It is a classic tale offered by the Desert Fathers and Mothers, those early Christian mystics who lived in the third century in Egypt. I believe it speaks to the truth of the imperative of service. Let me share it with you:
Past the seeker, as he prayed, came the crippled and the beggar and the
beaten. And seeing them, the holy one went down into deep prayer and
cried “Great God, how is it that a loving creator can see such things and
yet do nothing about them?” And out of the long silence, God said:
“I did do something about them. I made you.” [Spirituality of
Imperfection]

We are made to see. We are made to see the least of these, and to know that in seeing them we see Christ. May it be so for us this morning. For God made us for such a time as this.

Amen.