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.


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.


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.

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?