#CometoTheTable2015 Bible Study (Rev 21)

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As part of the Synod of the Northeast’s Come to the Table 2015 Event I was invited to be one of the Bible Study leaders on Revelation 21:1-5.  After my group worked together I was asked for the list of questions so here’s the Bible Study design.   The idea behind this is to ask questions that open up the reading for us and get everyone talking and theologizing together!  As we rotated around after each question, we got to know each other around the room, and hear each other’s voices.  For time, there was four minutes for each question, two minutes per person.  

Open with Prayer

Set the chairs up in two circles, facing each other so that each chair has a partner.  Participants will rotate however you’d like them to so they have new conversation partners for each question.

Read the Scripture 

Silence

Questions based on the passage:

  1. What do you hear in this passage?

  2. What is new in your ministry context?

  3. What is passing away (that needs to to make space for the new) in your ministry context?

  4. What are tears you have (personally) that need to be wiped away?

  5. What breaks God’s heart in your community?  Where is God calling you to go in ministry to respond to this heartbreak?

Pause to read the Scripture passage again

  1. What is the prophetic call of God that you hear in this passage?

  2. Where is the prophetic call of God right now in your life?

  3. What will be different about your ministry as you return home from Come to the Table?  What new heaven or new earth will you seek to engage?

  4. What tools have you gained this weekend for the next season of ministry you are called to?

Read the passage

Close in prayer

Anti-Racism Training Module

Below is the information about a training in September 2015 that I led for the activist council of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.  We have covenanted to deal with questions and learnings around race and privilege each time we gather.  

Thank you to Abbi Heimach who helped work on this module for training and Joe Paparone from Labor-Religion Coalition who helped co-facilitate.  

This was a training created specifically for a group that was mostly Euro-American (white) and is at a beginning phase of its thinking/interrogating collectively and personally.  We noticed that as we got into the Q&A time there were varying degrees of receptivity and difficulty going deep and personal into self-interrogration or self-interruption of internal racial cues.  We set the room up in round tables and people were invited to mix into different groups for conversations/discussion.  We had pauses for conversation and time for “report back” and group reflection.    This was broken into two parts:

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Part One:

We began with the setting of ground rules.  These come from Eric Law’s work around Respectful Communications Guidelines.

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We then introduced the topic with a reminder of our covenant to work on this issue as a group.  We discussed how we will take collective ownership for our conversation, that if there are parts that concern or upset/offend any of us, we should feel free and safe to bring them to the group for conversation.  

We began with biblical reflection on Ecclesiastes 3.  We read this often quoted passage about time and invited us to consider the conversation about anti-racism and undoing racism in ourselves in the context of time:

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We asked some opening questions:

“Why are we still a nearly all white organization that has as its core ideas like “transformation,” “nonviolence,” and “peacemaking?”  This requires we not only take a very hard look at ourselves, but also work on our learning on these issues at every opportunity we have, because the fact that our organization is set up the way it is means that we have a problem.  What is it about the system that we have that makes it inhospitable to people of color?  What are the subtleties at play as an organization and for us as individuals that create this inhospitable climate that we barely even recognize?”

We then set the stage with the watching of a video by Ta-Nehishi Coates, as a way for the group to listen to a “younger” voice who is not from the generation of the Civil Rights Movement (which is what the Peace Fellowship often listens to).  We also wanted to push a group committed to nonviolence to listen to someone who is not committed to nonviolence.   As a group committed to Christian faith we wanted to push the limits to listen to someone who self-describes as atheist.  

We chose this clip to challenge a number of boundaries but to also offer an opportunity for deep listening.  Click on link below:

http://www.democracynow.org/embed/story/2015/9/7/ta_nehisi_coates_on_police_brutality

Part Two:

Pre-reading was assigned, in the form of an article by Robin DiAngelo on the concept of White Fragility.  The article can be found here.  

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We then broke into our groups and invited small groups into times to interrogate a series of questions in small groups and then to process in the larger group.  The groups were invited to think in deep and personal ways about each of these questions.  The first slide was to discuss the larger themes in DiAngelo’s work and what White Fragility looks like:

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These were the four questions we asked, going into greater levels of difficulty with each question.  We noticed that some went right into personal interrogation with these questions, others were not able to do that internal work and so stayed on the surface and dealt in organizational dynamics.  Every one of us is different in our ability to enter into these conversations.  It was clear that at the end there was a sense of tiredness in the room, this is difficult work!  Nothing was answered, nothing was finished, this was just one step in the holy work we have before us to know ourselves more deeply and understand our own internal cues as we seek to build beloved community.  

Question One:

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Question Two:

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Question Three:

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Question Four:

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Additional Questions that we had prepared based on DiAngelo’s work but that we did not have time for in this training:

  1. How do you react when it is suggested that your viewpoint as a white person comes from a racialized frame of reference? (challenge to objectivity)
  2. How does it feel to you when people of color talk openly about their own racial perspectives?  (such as the video we just watched) (challenge to white taboos on talking openly about race)
  3. What does it feel like when you are provided feedback that your actions had a racist impact?  (challenge to white racial innocence)
  4. Do you feel that access is unequal in different racial groups?  How does it feel when people of color describe this unequal access in our church? (challenge to meritocracy)
  5. What is it like for you, really like for you, when a person of color is in a leadership position?  (challenge to white authority)
  6. What it is like for you to watch a movie or go to a show, or read a book when there are no white people represented and the entire drama/story is all around people of color, but not in stereotypical roles?  (challenge to white centrality)

Love and Listening | A Sermon

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I was blessed to be invited on August 20, 2015 to lead worship at the famous and historic First Reformed Church of Albany.  This is the second oldest congregation in New York State and it was fun to preach in their pulpit bought by 25 beaver pelts from Holland.  I decided to use my time in a place of so much history to reflect on one of the most important and transformative roles we might live into as those of “historic mainline” congregations today….the role of listening.  The Scripture readings were from the Song of Solomon 2: 8-13 and James 1: 17-27

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Today’s readings are from two of the lesser used books of the Bible.  The Song of Solomon and the Letter of James, or the Epistle of James.  Both are relatively short, and both contain controversy.  

The Song of Solomon is considered by some to be too “racy” to be included in the Bible.  Images of two lovers, details of their encounters with each other, sensual descriptions of love.  The Letter of James was famously referred to by the reformer Martin Luther as an “epistle of straw,” mostly because Luther (and others) wanted to argue that faith saves us, and not our “works”.  It is an age-old debate and I would suggest, probably not as black and white as some theologians on both sides of the argument have made it out to be.  

So why, on this last Sunday of summer, read and reflect on these two passages, from these two somewhat controversial Books of the Bible?  

And where do these two different books of the Bible fit together?  

What I’d like to suggest today is that they come together around the theme of listening.  

In the Song of Solomon the two lovers listen to each other.  One is able to identify that their love is on the other side of the wall because they hear the voice of the other.  The passage for today starts with this short sentence, “The voice of my beloved!”  Not the sight of my beloved.  But the voice!  Identification comes through hearing!  Is there a voice of someone in your life, maybe your beloved or maybe just someone you love, and the sound of their voice is a cherished sound?  You hear it before you see the person.  And you react to it before anything else?   

Not just people but animals react to the sounds of those who are most loved and cherished.  In the movie from years ago, March of the Penguins, as Morgan Freeman narrates it, he carefully explains that as the one penguin in the mating pair leaves before the one and only egg that is produced in a season hatches, that during that time the mate and the other talk to each other, over and over and over again.  And when the penguins return, after the baby penguin is born, and brings food back, the way they find each other is through the sound of their voices. Hundred of penguins are huddled together, all looking identical—and it is the voice, the listening that allows them to be reunited—a matter of life or death.  And the cycle repeats year after year.  

“The voice of my beloved” says Scripture to us today—“Arise my love, my fair one, and come away.”  

The sacredness of love, the intensity, the singularity, the individuality, the perfection of love.  Poetry in the Song of Solomon to describe some of our deepest ways of connecting and knowing another person, perhaps even another part of the creation, maybe even understanding some of the mystery of the Divine.  

“Arise, my love, my fair one….and come away….”   

James offers another view about listening.  His instructions are clear:

Be quick to listen.

Be a “doer” of the Word, but not merely a “hearer” who deceives him or herself.

If you do not listen, you “forget what you are like”

Do not be a hearer who forgets, but a doer who acts.

And what is the only religious practice James calls us to?  Care of the least of these, the widows, the orphans (who in his time were those who were forgotten) and to stay “unstained by the world.”   A living testament and response to the God of love.

I wonder to myself—about the importance of listening.  

As we listen we figure out what is really going on with someone.  Those who suffer the most in our world today do so for so many reasons, but their suffering is most amplified because no one is listening to them any longer.  There is a reason James raises the case of orphans and widows—they were those cursed in his time with being “invisible”, “un-listened to.”  

Studies show that prisoners remanded to solitary confinement have changes to the chemistry of their brains after as little as 72 hours, because of what they are experiencing—or rather not experiencing: human connection.  No wonder solitary confinement is defined as torture by so many countries!   And there are many outside of jail who also suffer in this way—the incredible suffering of isolation.  

James’ letter is all about this.  About not forgetting, not deceiving ourselves that we are somehow doing enough or “the right thing”, and finding ways to be committed wholeheartedly to God’s original calling—justice.  

How often do those of us with the greatest privilege in our own culture of such deep separation of various groups of people intentionally place ourselves in the position to listen intently to someone who is radically different than ourselves, to really hear what they are saying, and to understand their reality and allow our actions to be transformed into real, true and lasting action for justice by this listening?  So often we want to “do”, to go and “build something” for “those poor people” on a mission trip.  

But what about mission that is just listening?

As North Americans most of us wouldn’t think we accomplished anything.  But we also live in one of the cultures in the world where listening is among our most ignored activities.  This lack of listening leads to an ignorance around the needs for justice, and I would argue—this lack of generations of deep listening, intentional separating of people one from the other has landed us in the place we are today where xenophobia and racism are not just par for the course—but acceptable ways of behavior.  

As one theologian writes, “these smalls acts [listening] are the nuts and bolts of daily life, holding together scaffold on which we build community and the social order.”  

I would argue that true listening as James invites us to engage it—listening for the sake of justice-filled action, is not a small act—but it might just be the greatest and most prophetic act we can take in this divided and hate-saturated time we live in today.  Listening, real listening has the power to transform us into discipleship in Jesus Christ—which can only be filled with real and not paternalistic, justice.

How often do we take the time to really listen to God?  Maybe the reason we avoid listening well to others is because we are terrified of the transformation that the listening might invite into our own lives.  Or terrified by what God might do with us next?   

A few weeks ago I listened to a conversation between three #BlackLivesMatter activists, among them a member of the clergy.  The language in that conversation and the conversation itself was not the sort of language those of us in mostly white, “mainline” churches are used to hearing.  But it needs to be heard.  The reason people are on the streets of our country is because we have failed to listen!  

I wondered to myself, as a white person, as a leader in the church—what risk would I take among my peers if I invited a group of us to just listen to that conversation, watch it in a meeting and discuss it for example?  

The truth is, I know I’d face retaliation in some circles of my work.  

Isn’t that one of the reasons that sometimes we do not say what we are really thinking, and trust others enough to listen?  We are fearful, and sometimes most fearful in our own “tribes.”  Nearly all of the Epistles, the letters after the Gospels in the New Testament are written to people like you and me, insiders.  There is a reason for this—transformation, a return to the justice God seeks—we have to embody it first in our own communities if we can ever dream of attempting to engage with it in communities we have long ignored!

Let me close with a story that comes to me from a friend of mine who works in New York City and spends much of her time on the subway.  She related the story that one day she was on the train and a homeless man was in the car alongside her and other commuters.  He was talking and asking for help.  No one was listening, everyone was turning away from him.  Finally she got up and went over to the man, sat down next to him and talked with him.  He burst into tears, “It’s like I’m invisible!” he yelled in pain and anger, “It’s like no one even notices me.”  A deep well of hurt and pain, almost unbearable to bear witness to.  She said she wrapped her arms around him and held him in a hug.  She said to him, “I notice you.” He sobbed in her arms, all because she offered him the gift of a listening ear—a reminder that he is not alone.  

As one who aspires to be a lover of God—who have you failed to listen to?  

Who can you listen more deeply to?  

In trust how can you allow your life to be transformed?  

In discipleship how can your commitment to God’s justice be renewed?  

Where are the wells of deep pain and isolation that you notice in our communities today—and how can listening be a place of transformation not for “those places” out there but for you?

As an agent of the living Christ in our world today—how can you live out the radical message of Jesus without fear and with abandonment born out of love?

Because as in the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “You may be the only Gospel someone reads” (and I would say, experiences…through your listening and then prayerful action-filled responses)

Arise, my love, my fair one….and come away, calls the One who listens to us….

Arise, my love, my fair one…and come away….

Amen.  

Peace | A Sermon

On Sunday August 23, 2015 I was invited to preach at the Korean Presbyterian Church in Albany.  My sermon was inspired by this photograph of a Syrian father escaping on a boat with his children.  During worship we put this image up on the screen in front of us and looked at it as we read scripture and as we mediated on the Word of God.  

Much of my sermon exegesis was inspired by Ched Myers and Elaine Enns in Ambassadors of Reconciliation

Scripture for the Sermon: Ephesians 6: 10-20

To give to help in Syria please visit the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance website.  

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Photo credit: Daniel Etter @DanielEtterFoto

On Monday of this week, at nearly 4AM local time on the shores of Kos, Greece a Syrian father walked off a small boat that was built for three people but ferried eight to safety. As he worked his way off the boat, that was badly damaged, he sobbed as he cradled the head of his young son who was leaning against his father and crying. In his arms he carried his young daughter, her little body held safely in a green lifejacket. Their mother was behind them and also about to get off the boat.

 

We know this because a freelance photographer from the New York Times[1] was also there and caught this moment on film. A mix of emotions, gratitude, pain, and grief—all caught up in one photograph. During this month of August over 100 thousand refugees have attempted to gain access to Europe—fleeing one war or another. And like in our country, there has been a backlash of ugly, hate-filled anti-immigrant language and propaganda against these refugees. And this photograph of this father, sobbing as he walked onto shore has been a counter-narrative—to show the human face of war. And the human need that every parent has, to make a place of safety for their children.

 

I tell this story as a way of framing our scripture for today. Paul is writing to us from jail. He is writing with deep theological conviction about the “divided house” of his time and creating it anew, based on race, class and gender equality, “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) As we see in Ephesians, and in our world today, that challenge, fight, and divided house is very present.

 

In Pauls’ time it was Jews and Gentiles, Romans and the underclass, wealth and grinding poverty.  

 

In our time there are many lines of division, the ones that haunt us the most these days are human-made divisions of race and country.

 

How can we hear Paul’s words from so many years ago in a new way today?

 

How can we hear in Paul new things to help us in our ongoing work as disciples of the risen Christ?

 

Can we, as disciples of Jesus Christ—find new ways to live into our calling to be peace-makers and peace-seekers, especially in this time we live in?

 

Let us listen to Paul in Ephesians again:

 

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our[a] struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.  As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  With all of these,[b] take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel,[c] for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

 

I must admit that this is a passage from Ephesians that has long has been a challenge to me. The images that on the surface, seem violent, even warlike have troubled me theologically. But how can I see these images in a new way, and how can they help us as we seek to be Christ in the situations we encounter today—situations that are so complex and so full of hatred and division?

 

And lastly—how can we name Evil when we see it? Paul does not shy away in this passage from using that name—Evil, to address the spiritual forces of divisiveness in heavenly places. The Evil of hatred, of division—one of my deepest questions today is, “What do we do when Evil is cloaked and excused by theological language or even our communities of faith? How deep must our spiritual work be as people of Jesus to root that out?”

 

Let us turn and listen to the metaphors and imagery that Paul puts before us today, perhaps in a new way:

 

  • The Belt of Truth—Paul tells us to “fasten this around our waist.” This reminds me of the image of a worker, who has their tools fastened to their belt. When then put their belt on in the morning it has everything in it that they might need. In the same way as followers of Jesus we are called to fasten a Belt of Truth around our waists. Rather than physical tools what might be in our belt? Scripture, our faith, our experiences and interactions as those seeking to live out the way of Christ. Paul is not the first one to invite this image, it first comes from Isaiah 11, the messianic promise, He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”
  • Breastplate of Righteousness—Paul continues his use of Isaiah with the image of the breastplace of righteousness. A breastplate as something we put over our torso to protect it, especially our hearts—from injury or harm. Later in Isaiah 59 we hear these words, “The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle.” Paul brings us back to the idea in Isaiah that God is displeased with the idea that we do not handle evil for what it is, or that we do not intervene when peace or justice is at stake. This is a challenge that is issued to us and that that Paul was issuing to the community of faith around him at the time—to stand up, to act, to intervene, to get in the way. Even Paul, from jail is encouraging his fellow followers of Jesus to take bold peace-building steps of faith—even if it might land them back in the place where he is. Paul is inviting us to be protectors of vulnerable communities—taking God’s breastplate as our protection.
  • Shoes—Paul tells us to put on our feet whatever “will make you ready to proclaim the Gospel of Peace.”       Isaiah writes these words that Paul seems to be alluding to: “How welcome on the mountain are the feet of the one heralding peace.” (Isa 52:7). One translation of this passage from Isaiah that I love is, “How beautiful are the feet of the one who brings peace.” It is no wonder that Paul and Isaiah before him uses feet as the metaphor here.       Feet in their time were dirty, they were not perfectly kept as so many of our feet are today, pedicured, placed in beautiful shoes, just another fashion accessory that we might have. Feet then were naked, or maybe with just sandals to protect them. The ground was dirty. Feet were oftentimes not beautiful. Years ago I preached a sermon on this passage in Isaiah and the title of my sermon was “Beautiful Feet.” Do you have beautiful feet? Do I? Do We?       Our feet are only beautiful when they are the part of our body that carries us, walks us, runs us into the places where we bring about Christ’s peace. Where do your feet take you every day? Do they take you to a place where you are a peacemaker?       This is the challenging question Paul is asking us here.
  • Shield of Faith—In Psalm 91 the Psalmist writes these words, “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.” It is true that as we seek to follow God, to be the people of peace we are called to be, that arrows will come our way. Some will seek to discredit us. Others to stop us. Paul of course, is very familiar with this issue; he is, after all, writing from jail! God will protect us—and Paul writes these words to remind us of God’s love, care and protection.
  • Helmet of Salvation—Again, this image comes to Paul from Isaiah 59, it completes the image of the breastplate—together a helmet and breastplate were the best protection one had in battle in the time of Paul. He is turning militaristic imagery on its head to repurpose it for God’s peace—a powerful message as he was imprisoned by soldiers. A helmet’s purpose is to protect our heads—and what is inside…our brains, one of our most important and most vulnerable organs. What is most vulnerable in our communities? What is most in danger, or most unable to protect itself?       These images we have of those who have been made vulnerable this summer—refugees, victims of war, children, the pastor and members of the church in Charleston who were gunned down simply because they were African-American. This is vulnerability—and I see God’s Spirit putting a new sort of helmet around them, a new sort of protection. How can we serve as God’s helmet of protection around those who are most vulnerable? How can doing so be our act of faith in Jesus Christ?
  • Sword of the Spirit—the Word of God: God’s Word is our ultimate tool. We are reminded by Paul that it is not just our actions, but our words. It is not just how we are—but by what code we live. It is not just what we do but what we say. The Word of God is a gift that brings us new life in every stage of our lives and the life of this world. The Word of God is what we learn as children and then spend our entire lives deepening our understanding of. The Word of God is what gives us hope and what brings people to faith.       As we proclaim peace—it is important that we do not just proclaim what we hear or what is said around us, but that our words are rooted and come out of the well of God’s peace, God’s love and God’s life that we see in Jesus—who was the living Word.

 

The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the spirit—the tools God gives to us to do the work of peace that is so urgently before us.

 

Let me close where I started. The image, the picture of the father clutching his children, tears filling his eyes as they got to a place of safety.

 

As the Church, the body of Christ, we are the heirs of the call to be peacemakers.

 

This is a call that is full of cost, danger and also promise.   This summer we have seen and continue to hear the loud voices of racism and xenophobia all around us. As we enter into an election season in this country, these voices are especially loud. They are rewarded in our culture by television news shows that follow the god of ratings, money and viewers. And in doing so, these voices are amplified. And their harm increases.

 

The killings of African-American church goers earlier this summer haunts my soul every day. Since that day in June I just cannot get that massacre out of my mind. We are living in moments in the life of the Church and in the life of our faith that are pivot-points.

 

The invitation of Christ comes back to us again and again:

 

Follow Me.

Follow Me.

Follow Me.

 

Amen.

 

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/kos-crisis-the-story-behind-the-photograph-of-a-syrian-father-shared-by-thousands-online-10461933.html

Who Sails the Ship?

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Today it was my joy to share worship with the United Church of Stillwater as they elected their Pastor Nominating Committee and began their journey to calling their next pastor.  The sermon text is Mark 4:35-41, Jesus and the Disciples in the Storm.  Blessings to the Stillwater Church as their search process begins! 

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“Teacher do you not care that we are perishing?”

Pastor, do you not care about the membership numbers?

Pastor, do you not care about the youth group?

Pastor, do you not care about my mom who is in the hospital?

Pastor, do you not care about the strawberry festival?

Pastor, do you not care about the leaking roof?

Pastor, do you not care about how we format the worship bulletin?

Pastor, do you not care about what hymnal we use?

Pastor, do you not care?

You can imagine Jesus sleeping in the stern of the boat as it bobbed up and down on the sea, gently rocking him to sleep.

Jesus finally getting the opportunity to rest.

He had just engaged in healings and teachings. He had struggled with his family relationships.

He has been going non-stop.

He must have been exhausted. He must have been tired.

And so as he goes out onto the sea with his new disciples, most of them fisherman and night falls, he allows himself to fall asleep and take the rest he has been needing. To get a night’s sleep.

To let others be in charge and steer the ship.

To take a rest from leadership.

No sooner does he fall asleep than a storm begins.

Jesus still does not wake up. He is so very tired.

And then he is woken up in the most unceremonious way.

Hands shaking his body.

Pushing him.

Poking him.

Yelling at him.

Accusing him.

“Teacher! Do you not care that we are perishing?!?!?”

Can you imagine?

Any of us who have been woken up when we are sleeping, bothered when we are trying to take a break, harassed when we have been trying to rest.

Can commiserate with Jesus.

What is wrong with the disciples?

Why are they so stressed out?

Why are they so worried?

Why are they not trusting their skill set?

After all they are the fishermen.

They know the sea.

They must have been in other storms before.

Jesus is not a fisherman.

Jesus is not an expert on sailing.

What is wrong with the disciples?

What is wrong is that they are anxious.

Anxiety robs us of our ability to think clearly and to behave rationally or politely. Anxiety causes us to lash out, to not trust our instincts or our accumulated skill set. Common, every-day occurrences make us behave differently.

The disciples are anxious.

I would like to suggest this morning that their anxiety is not about the storm. They know what they are doing. They are the experts of the sea.   But they have been hanging around with Jesus for a few weeks or months perhaps and what they have seen thus far is beginning to scare them. He’s taking them to the other side of the sea, to new territory and they know what is over there on the other side—people who are like the walking dead, victims of violence and terror and who are not right in the head. And Jesus is taking them over there. They’ve seen Jesus touch untouchables; heal those who no one else cared to heal. They’ve seen him talk back to his family.

And they are at that moment when you have started something new and you are starting to have misgivings.

They are in the middle of the sea.

There is no turning back.

And they have decided that their skills no longer work, they are leaving all of the control in the hands of Jesus.

They have sunk into a spiral of anxiety.

For me, this is an excellent passage to meditate upon as you begin your journey of beginning to look for your next pastor. What kind of leader do you want? What kind of responsibility do you want to take for the search and the relationship with your new pastor? Because she or he is out there—and God already knows who he or she is. The Spirit is already preparing the way for you.

This passage raises many questions. I’d like to focus on just two today:

One of them is: how is ministry practiced?

The best pastoral leaders are not what I call “Christian Performance Artists” but leaders. But oftentimes what we want is the Christian Performance Artist. The pastor who does the leadership of Christian faith for us. The pastor who makes all the hospital and shut in visits so we do not have to. The pastor who organizes every worship service. Who takes care of the building. The pastor who does it all. For the world we live in today, the communities we are a part of in this part of the country where conservatively 30% of people identify as “none”, as in no religious affiliation of any kind, be it Presbyterian or Catholic or Jewish or Muslim, Buddhist….anything—and are not looking—we need pastoral leadership that leads every single member of every single faith community to be a leader. For the congregation to take on the work of visitation, building maintenance and other tasks so that the pastor is free to spend 90% of hers or his time equipping others for ministry. Being a teacher.   Being out in the community talking to people who have no affiliation but are looking for a place to belong about Jesus and about this congregation. Helping every single person who is a part of this community of faith deepen their discipleship. Pushing the envelope and never slowing down. Being an encourager, a coach and a cheerleader. Not becoming a specialist in everything—but being a specialist in one thing only: sharing the love of Jesus Christ, teaching and making disciples and multiplying ministry while at the same time being an interpreter of today’s culture and engaging in innovative practice to reach new people in one of the hardest times for any of us to be engaged in this practice we call being Church together.

The second question is: what kind of a sea do we like?

Most of us if we are honest prefer tranquility, peace and calm. Like the disciples in the boat we prefer (and I include myself in this!) a sea that is clear blue water. Looks like a mirror on top. No waves. A light breeze that takes you exactly where you want to go. But that was not what the disciples got that night. And that is not what we are going to get into the future. Let us remember the historical backdrop to Mark’s Gospel: “As best we can discern, Mark’s church was living in the shadow of the traumatic war of the Jews against Rome that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.” The sea around them was not calm. It was disturbed and traumatized from years of war and violence. Symbols and structures of importance had been destroyed.

We are in one of those in-between, liminal times today. We are still recovering from an economic crash—some places will never recover. We have been at war for years. Our communities struggle. The sea around us is not calm. We might not have the same exact situation that is being faced by those in Mark’s Gospel—but we can relate to the feeling of wanting a calm sea. Dreaming about smooth sailing. As your next pastor begins this will not be the case.   Of course there will be joy and love and a new beginning. But there will also be greater challenges ahead of you than you have faced in your past.

Living out and sharing the Gospel in this time is difficult work. Your pastor will be tired. She or he will want to take some time to rest.  Ministry of our present-future requires a new level of commitment to constant change and constant learning. The work of community building will be more difficult because we are blessed to be living through the next reformation of our Church. A new awakening. So we have to be prepared for rough waters, choppy seas—the seas of change and renewal of the Church. That is the sea we are facing. Just like the sea in today’s Gospel passage.

Here’s the Good News!

Today you begin anew! Today you take the first steps towards calling your next pastor! And I believe that God has already called that person. He or she is out there and does not yet know the amazing adventure they are about to undertake with you.

But God knows.

God knows about the choppy sea and the needs you have in navigating them.

And God has already planned and provided for your next pastor.

And here’s the Good News!

You are not alone!

I am here, Lois is here. Pastor Aline is here. Your Presbytery is here. We are here to work with you, to walk beside you and to help you. I know the last time we did this together it was hard and it was a struggle that deeply affected your congregation. I know this. I was here with you 18 months ago in worship on one of those difficult days. And I promised you then that we would work together to make a new way. God sent Pastor Aline who has walked this journey with you. God sent new people in our Presbytery who stepped up to walk beside you. And now the Holy Spirit is working and weaving the next steps in the process.

The sea may be chopping but Jesus is steering the ship.

No one else.

And we are not alone.

And the way and new beginning has already been provided for.

The Good News, for you and for me.

Alleluia. Amen.

+Photo credits, Shannan Vance-Ocampo of Stillwater United Church (July 2015) and Lake George, NY (October 2014)

Sermon | June 28, 2015

I was honored to be invited to preach at the United Presbyterian Church in Schoharie, New York on June 28, 2015.  This was also Confirmation Sunday.  The sermon was on Mark 5, Jesus’ healing of two women.  

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The text for this sermon changed quite a bit so I am uploading the audio only.  

Some Thoughts on Race and Leadership

It has been very hard for me to put into words some of my reflections around the murder of the nine members of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC.   Nothing feels adequate.  

This is what I wrote to Albany Presbytery for our e-news this week.  A beginning of where my thoughts and prayers are.   Peace….

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Monday night I had the opportunity to worship at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Albany.  Jim Reisner and some of the members from Westminster/Albany also joined the open invitation of the new pastor of the congregation for anyone who wanted to come together to pray and talk about the racially-motivated murders at Mother Emanuel AME Church.  At the end of the candlelight vigil the Pastor urged us to turn to the people near to us and that we did not know, to hug them and say, “I love you.”  

I found myself wrapped in the embrace of and offering an embrace back to an African-American man perhaps a bit younger than me who I was meeting for the first time in this hug.  

He said to me, “I love you.”  

I said to him, “I love you too.”  

And he held onto me for a few extra moments.  

And I could feel his body shaking as he cried.  

I was also crying.

And so we held onto each other, strangers.  

It was a beautiful moment of the love of God, two people embracing as brother and sister in faith, even though strangers.  I will cherish that embrace.   

Pain and sadness is around us.  

Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pickney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr. Rev. Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson.  

These nine people were murdered inside of their church last week during Bible study.  They welcomed their killer into their midst with Christian hospitality.  And they were repaid with hate, violence, terror and racism.  

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I am completely broken hearted over what has happened.  It is unfathomable to me.  It might be easy for me, a white person, to dismiss the actions of the killer and believe that as a white person I can distance myself from this act.  In some ways I can, but in other ways, of course I cannot.  None of us is immune from this sin of racism.  I know my life isn’t.  

And I also know that as a white-majority denomination we have a lot of work to do around questions of race.  Our polity, leadership, educational and worship style is Anglo-centric.  Many of our congregational traditions from the decorations of buildings to the food we serve at coffee hour are part of that heritage.  We are organized for Anglo-centric culture.  

As part of my personal commitment towards ongoing reformation as a disciple of Jesus, I have been meeting once a month on a weeknight evening via online video conference to talk about what it means to be White.  I haven’t made every call and I need to be more diligent.  This is a group of colleagues from around the PC(USA) who are reading the book, Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk about Race and How to Do It.  These are hard conversations but I am finding them to be holy conversations where space is opened up for us to work on ourselves as leaders in the larger church and to be honest with ourselves.  Perhaps this is a resource you might want to share with a colleague-group or a small group that you are a part of for learning and conversation.  We take a chapter a month and rotate facilitation.  Attending the White Privilege Conference earlier this year in Louisville with a team from across the PC(USA) and meeting for evening conversations facilitated by Rev. Molly Casteel of the Office of the General Assembly was also helpful.  Molly will be repeating this opportunity in 2016 when this conference comes closer to us in Philadelphia and I commend it to you.  Hard spiritual work is an essential piece for me as I engage the ongoing journey of living into my ever-changing calling to ministry and discipleship.  

These are important questions related to our transition work in the Presbytery as we seek our missional future.  

The question we raised in March of “What is God’s preferred future for Albany Presbytery?” remains an important one.  

The question of “What breaks God’s heart in your community?” posed at Silver Bay is also key.  

How can we hold these questions and our need for repentance and God’s grace before us not only in this time of transition but in our lives as disciples of the Risen Christ?  What learning and soul searching do we need to engage in?  

The night that shots rang out in the Sanctuary of Mother Emanuel the congregation was engaged in Bible study.  The New York Times reports that the passage they were studying was Mark 4:16-20:

“And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”

Thank you for bearing with my extended reflections in this edition of e-news.  I appreciate the space to share them.  Below are some resources around these issues.  Let us pray for the Holy Spirit to accompany and challenge us in our continued holy conversations…

church2Resources:

Belhar Confession [English, Spanish, Korean]

Gun Violence, Gospel Values  [PC(USA) Policy and Resources approved by the 219th General Assembly.   There is also a documentary video Trigger: The Ripple Effects of Gun Violence that goes with this curriculum.  I have a DVD at the Presbytery office if you would like to borrow it.]

Facing Racism, A Vision of Beloved Community [Approved by the 211th General Assembly]

Allies, The Time for Your Silence Has Expired [written by PCUSA Teaching Elder Tawnya Denise Anderson and reprinted in the Christian Century]

Images:

Najee Washington holds a photo of her grandmother, Ethel Lance.

Rev. Clementa Pinckney

Mother Emanuel AME Church

Sermon | Trees and Seeds – A Reversal

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This sermon was preached at the New Scotland Presbyterian Church in Slingerlands, New York on Sunday June 14, 2015.  The scripture passages are Ezekiel 17: 22-24 and Mark 4:26-34.  It was a joy to share worship with this congregation! 

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Our scripture readings today are all about images.

Images of nature.

In some ways it is really too bad we are sitting inside on this beautiful day.

Because the scripture readings we just heard…they are all about outside.

So as we begin to reflect together this morning on scripture I invite you to just close your eyes for a few minutes and allow your mind to wander—and to see what images come to you as I read out the various types of nature that are mentioned in scripture today – Ezekiel and Mark.   Close your eyes if you feel comfortable….

Sprigs

Twigs

Cedars

Mountains

Boughs

Fruit

Birds

Winged Creatures of Every Kind

Trees—both green and dry

Leaves

Fields

Branches

Seeds

A Growing Plant—stalk, head and grain

Birds of the Air

Mustard Seeds

Shrubs

And…Nests.

Just keep your eyes closed for a minute and allow your mind to wander through these images of nature—the goodness of God’s first gift, the Creation.

What images of nature did you see?

As you cycle through these images in your mind’s eye say to yourself,

“Thank you—God of Creation….thank you for these precious and wild gifts.

Thank you….”

Anyone want to share what they saw?……

Like many people I find that my most healing and connected moments happen when I am outside, in nature.

A walk in the woods.

A day at the beach.

A drive through the countryside.

Sitting on a porch.

Being outside is good for your health. Those who are outside more have better cognitive function and suffer less from depression. It is no wonder to me that the Creation—animals, earth and sea, creatures of every kind, night and day, stars and planets– were the first things that God created. Even though we like to think that the world revolves around us, we were created at the end of all of that, and quickly in Genesis it is people who bring destructive energy to the Creation that God calls Good over and over again….

God’s radical renewal is what the passages we are offered today are all about.

We begin in Ezekiel.

A description is offered of the next messianic leader of Israel—the image is offered in the form of a cedar tree. God the great Gardener plucks off one branch and it is taken to a high mountain. There the branch is replanted where it can grow and all of nature will know that it is a place of safe-haven, a tree that produces fruit – sustenance, and in its branches and under its shade there will be a home of peace and safety. In the vision that Ezekiel speaks, God will create the opportunity for a reversal of fortunes—the high trees will be made low and the low trees will be made high.

Justice will be enacted.

Wrongs will be corrected.

Those in power will be de-throned.

Those who have been oppressed will be elevated back to their rightful place.

And yet even in the creation of something new—a piece of it is taken from the former thing—the original tree. The new world that Ezekiel envisions has its root in the past—but Ezekiel is also very specific—the part of the old tree that is used as a transplant to grow the new tree is new growth.

Old growth is left on the tree.

It is only the new part that can be cut off, and is healthy enough to be transplanted into new life.  

The Prophet Ezekiel has some questions for us today—

the church, the institution:

  • What in our life or way of living needs to be let go of so that God can build something new?
  • Where is the new growth—the seed of the future and the next community?
  • How are “old growth” communities serving as incubators for new birth and new life?
  • When new life happens in one of our “old growth” communities are we willing to allow that precious new life and precious new hope to be cut off and taken away from us?
  • Are we willing to trust that God’s Spirit can do a new thing?
  • We are asked to trust the Divine Wisdom. Can we do that? Can we let go just enough to be the Church reformed, always reforming?

In our congregations today we are living with the holy grief that one life and way of living is dying or has already died. But the promise is that there are still green shoots—new life. And that God will cut them off and take them somewhere new to be planted.   That somewhere, something new will grow and flourish but that it will not be ours to control, determine or even create.

A hard truth. A difficult message.

Mark’s Gospel offers us the familiar parable of the mustard seed. A traditional interpretation is that we should not be afraid of small things—because with nurturing they can grow up to be large. We plant mustard seeds of faith—knowing that with God’s help, new life can grow and flourish. “Be a mustard seed!” we tell each other.

Another interpretation that I would like to offer today is very different.

Which is that mustard seeds in the time of Jesus were not wanted.

In the last house I lived in I had cultivated a garden over the years. But in my first year I made the mistake of planting a pot of mint directly into the ground.

I should have kept it in the pot.

Because as the years went by the mint expanded its territory. I would pull it up, but it would always come back. A cold winter would not shock it into death. It would crowd out other plants. Another challenge we faced was that our neighbor planted bamboo and I would find runners deep under my yard—shoots coming up 20 feet from a stalk. I spent a lot of time hacking away at bamboo, and we tried to keep up with mint tea in the summer months.

But it was never enough.

There was always mint left over.

Bamboo was always pushing its way out of the ground somewhere else.

Mustard seed is like that.

It is an invasive plant.

Biblical prohibitions were present in the time of Jesus to not co-mingle plants, animals, fibers. And this mandate extended to gardening or farming. So a mustard seed was seen as a problem. Not only would it re-seed itself all over the garden and be a nuisance—but there was actual religious law against such a thing!

So when Jesus suggests to his mostly Jewish audience in a public space that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed he is saying something truly radical.

That as people of faith we are called to bring about the reign of God.

And it will not come from conventional places.

The things that were considered unclean by society are actually clean.

Honored.

Faith is uncontrollable.

You might want to have a neatly edged and clipped garden with everything it its place, nothing co-mingled.

In control. Under control.

But that is not the way of the Spirit or the call of God.

“Be a mustard seed!” Jesus says. Does it now sound different to you!?

Be a weed, be invasive!

Grow everywhere!

Jesus is calling for an uncontrollable, you-are-not-supposed-to-be-there lived out faith.

And lastly Jesus is saying that the plants and trees that he will cultivate are not there for the comfort, sustenance or beauty of the owners of the garden—but as home for the “birds of the air”—for each one of us, so we can experience a place of shade—rest, care and love. The mustard seed is radical because it there to build a space for all people (not just the wanted, well-manicured, well-intentioned, well-put-together people, but all people!), while at the same time invading and usurping the current power structure.

Once again Jesus has offered us a powerful and prophetic parable.

Once again Jesus is speaking words in public that those in power are using to build the case to eventually bring him to trial and murder him.

Once again as we sit here 2000 years later we must examine ourselves in light of the teachings of Jesus:

Am I a mustard-seed gardener or farmer in how I live out my faith?

Am I living my life as a disciple of Christ as an invasive species?

Do I prefer control or holy messiness?

Does my living out of my faith live up to this parable?

Does this congregation live as mustard seeds—wild and out of control, growing into every nook and cranny of the community around us?

Are we building a place of safety and care for everyone?

Is what we build or grow about us or about the kingdom of God?

Scripture today sounded good and comforting when I first read it, didn’t it?

Idyllic.

Birds of the air, trees, plants, the beauty of nature.

This is what we want our faith communities, our congregations to be like.

Calm, harmonious, comforting.

Stable like a tree, with deep roots.

And they have been these things for each of us for many years.

However, we follow a God of disruption and Creation.

A Christ who says, “See I come to make all things new!”

A Spirit who says, “The wind blows where it chooses. You hear its sound, but no one knows where it came from or where it is going.”

I want to encourage you to take the steps in faith to live into what the Prophet Ezekiel and the Prophet Jesus have offered us today.

Letting go.

Allowing something new to take root.

Being invasive.

Embracing “messy” and “out of control.”

Spending your energy looking for the new shoots of life so that they can be cut off and sent away to begin something new.

Reclaiming our twin calling to be both evangelists and gardeners.

To step out into the unknown with full faith, knowing that our God of love has already created a new nest for each of us.

To be new.

Do not be afraid of the dizzying pace of change that God has set us down in the midst of.

For God is the God of cedars high in the mountains!

And God is the God of mustard seeds growing all over homespun gardens and fields!

Be new.

Do not be afraid!

As we close today let me read to you a poem that can also be a prayer,

“A Child Unborn” by Wendell Berry:

A child unborn, the coming year

Grows big within us, dangerous

And yet we hunger as we fear

For its increase, the blunted bud

To free the leaf to have its day,


The unborn to be born. The ones 


Who are to come are on their way,


And though we stand in mortal good


Among our dead, we turn in doom


In joy to welcome them, stirred by


That Ghost who stirs in both seed and tomb,


Who brings the stones to parenthood.

Amen.

Control, Resilience and Church Institutions | Thoughts

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The post for June 9th is about resilience vs. control.

What is most needed for our larger Church today?

Institutions and institutional life if off-putting to most people in our world.  And yet there are real benefits to institutional life–in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) we reap the benefits of the Board of Pensions, or the Foundation, the General Assembly and our seminaries.  On the smaller scale, there are real benefits to a Presbytery or a congregation.   Long-term institutional gifts that are still paying dividends today.  

But as we all know, the more difficult side of institutions is that they can tend toward over-control that can at time stifle creativity or create distrust.  Or create an “insider” mentality, closed system way of being, etc.  

Everyone has one of those stories–I have a few of my own.  These things are killer.  And off-putting.  And usually do not help us expand or follow the Gospel IMHO.  

But what would it mean to create a resilient Church and to let go of the negative sides of control as much as possible?  

We still cannot predict the future.  

We cannot control it.  

Only God knows what that will be.  And at the end of the day only God is in control.

I think about the ministry of Jesus.  He took the role of a teacher and a role-model for the disciples.  He took the role of encourager, healer and advocate for beleaguered communities.  He did not try to control but rather pointed every time to God and not to himself.  He told the disciples many times to stay quiet about what they were seeing him do.  He led without attachment to ego – because he wanted to point to the love of God which is bigger than everything else.

I believe that our model of ministry in Jesus is primarily a model of resilience and not control.  What can you do in your ministry and life as a follower of Jesus to create resilient community that will thrive and multiply ministry whatever storms or sunny days might come?  

I think we need to let go of the negative sides of control that are doing more harm than good in our institutional life today.  Call them out, leave them behind, etc.   They are no good.  But that’s really hard work our anxious systems today.  We need each other for this hard work of letting go of negative control and building up capacity for resilience.  

Come and Sit Beside Me For a While…

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This sermon was preached on June 6, 2015 for the Presbytery of Northern New York at its Stated Meeting which was held at the church above, Oxbow Presbyterian Church.   This was part sermon/part address on ideas for middle governing bodies today.  

The text was Acts 8: 26-40.

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Come and Sit Beside me for a While….

Imagine if you can for a few moments the setting of this story.

Two unlikely people to encounter each other.

They couldn’t be any further apart in every way:

They were racially different.

Different socio-economic classes.

Different religious backgrounds and upbringings.

We do not know about their ages but might imagine that this could be one place where they were similar.

Luke wants us to know this one thing:

They were different.

And yet God drew them together on that lonely road between Jerusalem and Gaza.

And I would be remiss if I did not pause for a brief moment to reflect on the road.

Between Jerusalem and Gaza—what is that road like between two peoples today?

Can we ever just sit beside each other?  

“Do you understand what you are reading?”

“How can I without some help?”

The question for us today as a Presbytery, as a Church is:

  • Do we understand what we are reading?
  • This world we inhabit, this culture we live in?
  • This separation of one people from another whether it be from the sins of war and violence, difference of religious tradition, family fights that go back a generation, dislocation?
  • Do we understand the history around us, do we understand the history we are creating each day?
  • Can we correctly read the shifting winds around us of race, socio-economic change, generational divide, religious difference—even within our own tradition?
  • Can we correctly read the shifting winds of change in the Presbyterian Church (USA), in Northern NY Presbytery, in the Synod of the NE, in Oxbow Presbyterian Church, in your worshiping community—in mine?

“Do you understand what you are reading?”

“How can I without some help?”

I graduated from Seminary in 2001. I was trained as many of you were trained. I had coursework in Christian Education, preaching and worship, theology and exegesis, church history and pastoral care. I did three years of field education, six months of CPE.   I went to a Seminary that has a reputation for being cutting edge, half of my classes were at neighboring Seminaries that were not Presbyterian.

I thought I was learning a lot.

And I did.

And I love that place.

I am grateful for what I gained as a student there—a solid foundation.

But no one told me what I most needed to know:

  • That I would never serve our beloved Church (up until this point in ministry) during a time of growth in the ways we traditionally measure it.
  • That I would serve a dying institution.
  • That I would serve during highly anxious times.
  • No one could have perceived when I was in Seminary that two months after being ordained that 9/11 would pivot the direction of our world in profound ways. And that we must take up the cause of nonviolence and peace-building in urgent ways.
  • That I was being trained to be like Phillip—the bearer and bringer of God’s Word—the preacher and the teacher—the expert….
  • But that in reality, in order to thrive in today’s world, I would have to approach ministry as the Ethiopian eunuch. I would never get a chariot (but I would like one, that would be fun….)—but I would have to invite others to come and sit beside me for a while….to tell me what they know—to share with me their learnings.
  • I would have to always be in the position of asking for help.
  • That faith and leadership would be “on the road,” moving and not stopping. Transient.
  • That I would have to take the role of a lifelong learner and the humility of saying each and every day—“Things around me have shifted….I know a little bit but overall I do not understand much of anything. Can you come and sit beside me for a little while and tell me what you know, impart a little bit of truth to me? Can you help me out?”
  • I would have to be open to sitting with someone different, and to asking the hard questions.
  • I would have to constantly let go of my privilege and acknowledge that my tribe who has ruled the roost in our denominational life for so long just might not have the keys to our future.

And while I, like each of you do not need to be baptized again—we do need to renew that promise of our baptism every single day. To make that sacrament which happened in most of our lives at a time we do not remember alive and passionate in our daily living.

Will you reject evil and its power in this world?

Will you commit your life to Jesus Christ before all else?

And just like Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch our call as Presbyteries in a time of change and transition is to sit beside each other for a while to learn and renew our commitments to God.

We are called to diverse communities.

We are called to be something different.

Must most of all we are called to remember that we do not control where God will put us and what conversations then the Spirit will invite us into.

All we have to be is ready—and willing…

To God where the Spirit takes us.

And to talk with those the Spirit places us near.

And those the Spirit snatches us up and puts us beside.

“Do you understand what you are reading?”

“How can I without some help?”

Do WE understand what we are reading?

How can WE without some help?

Theologian Mitzi J. Smith offers this idea:

“The Ethiopian’s story vividly demonstrates how God in the Jesus-event will and can draw different persons, not of our choosing, to experience the power of the resurrection.”

God’s Spirit is out of control—uncontrollable by us.

We are called to diversity and to encounter someone new. To risk and see what God will do with us. Even in our congregations, even in our governing bodies—in this historic denomination that is struggling so deeply to find its way in a changed and rapidly changing world.

Do WE understand what we are reading?

How can WE without some help?

Recently I was invited to reflect on what I understand the calling of a Presbytery to be. I offer my reflection to you today and I invite you to listen to my ideas through the lens of Phillip and the Ethiopian he was called to sit beside for a while and talk with… :

In his book, The Fly in the Ointment Russ Crabtree invites this question: “How do we view the person who walks through our door? If you view the person as the potential resource to keep your life the same, then you are internally focused, and still functioning as a monopoly. If you view the person as someone to be served and that service may require growth and flexibility on your part, then you are externally focused; the monopolistic thinking has begun to be broken.”

At its core, this is the challenge that is before presbyteries in the 21st Century—to model external rather than internal focus as we engage in ministry in the name of Jesus Christ. This is the leadership challenge from which many others follow for our congregations, specialized and new ministries and for the people who fill our pews or we seek to serve. And it is the role and the responsibility for presbyteries to model servant leadership, which sets a beacon of hope and provides the challenge to congregations and ministries within our bounds to return to the Gospel-mandate of ministry out in the community that is free from the bonds of denominational loyalty in the service of institutional preservation. We must reclaim the calling that we serve each other with humility and grace.

Presbyteries are called in today’s world to be risk-taking, innovative and transformational leadership bodies. They are called to serve as gathering places for leaders and places of safe haven for artists and creators of newness. They are called to be conveners of community and places of connection in a time of ministry isolation and fear borne out of rapid change.

Presbyteries are called to be places of governance, oversight, and connectionalism. In a denomination that struggles to find its voice and place, in these in-between-times a Presbytery might just be the holding ground where denominational loyalty finds its newest location.

As we live in the time of the next reformation, in a Church that is in the midst of a pregnancy leading to the birth of something new; presbyteries are called to be faith-filled, compassionate, loyal and steady. Above all else they are called to model bold, prophetic and creative leadership and to preach without fear the Gospel of God’s abundant present-future which finds its roots in justice and peace for all people.

I’d like to close today with a story, that came to me earlier this week from a colleague in ministry:

She told me a story about a church she used to serve. It was in Arlington, VA, the church building was surrounded by apartment buildings were many single people lived who were young and worked for the federal government. One day she got a call in her office from a woman who lived behind the church building. She said she was lonely, her apartment was small and that she loved to play the piano, could she come and play the one at the church sometime. She said she didn’t believe in God, just wanted to play the piano. My friend who was pastor of the church at the time invited her over, gave her a key to the building, the security code and showed her how to turn on the lights. The woman came in and played the piano. Later she moved onto another job and the piano playing stopped.

Years later a man walked into the church who was Southeast Asian, a different social and racial class than most of the current congregation. My friend greeted him after worship and he said he was on a yearlong exploration of the world’s religions, looking for a faith to have as his own. “I’ve read your Bible,” he said, “Can we get together for coffee, I have some questions.” My friend the pastor met with him and a year or so later he asked to be baptized and join the church after many cups of coffee and conversation.

She asked him how out of all the churches in that place he came into hers, why choose hers.

“Years ago,” he said, “I had a co-worker in the cubicle next to mine. She told me that you let her come and play your piano. I figured your church was a good place to start.”

Will you come and sit beside me for a while?

Will you come and share Jesus with me for a little bit?

Will you come and learn your faith anew?

Will you come and have a different kind of conversation?

Will you go along when the Spirit snatches you up and moves you from one place to the next—or tells you to go somewhere that is not of your choosing?

Will you come and follow me, says Jesus…

Will you come and follow me….

Will you come and sit beside me for a little while…

Because I need some help figuring all of this out.

Grace for the road.

Love for the journey.

The Spirit as our companion.

Amen.

(Thanks Jan Edmiston for the story, you told a bunch and this one was perfect.)