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.


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

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.