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.  

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.

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.)

From the Who to the How

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I preached this sermon mid-way through Lent at the First Presbyterian Church of Hoosick Falls on Mark 8: 31-38.  The story of Kayla Mueller was fresh in my mind and the haunting questions of faith, violence and war.  This sermon is the beginning of my tribute to her and her commitment to peace, nonviolence and the complicated way of the Cross.  

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A few weeks ago I began to notice through some of the posts of friends who have worked with me over the years in world mission and peacemaking about a person I did not know, Kayla Mueller. They were telling about how they knew her, about how heartbroken they were to hear that she was gone, that we must pray for her devastated family.   Of course, this is the young woman who a few weeks ago was killed in an airstrike, targeted at the militant group ISIS in Syria by the Jordanian military.   She was 25 years old.

 

What I didn’t know until that day was that Kayla had been a college student in Arizona and come to faith through a campus ministry program led by a Presbyterian pastor, Rev. Kathleen Day. What I also didn’t know until that day was that it was during those formative years, her involvement with a campus ministry program helped her to hear the call of Christ in her life in a new way and helped put her on the path that led her to many different humanitarian interventions and ministries in the United States and around the world.   What I didn’t know until that day was that there was a group of Presbyterians who were working quietly for the last year and a half to find a way to secure her release and to support her family.   Kayla died a person of deep faith, she wrote in her final letter that was able to get to her family that, “I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else….and by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.”

 

So why share this story today, as we gather for worship in the safety of this place, so far removed from the places in this world that are filled with so much horror and pain? Why share sad or upsetting stories in a place like a church building—that is a place of comfort for so many of us?

 

Because in many ways—this sort of pain, dislocation and separation is what Jesus is addressing in our reading from Mark’s Gospel. Jesus’ disciples had been with him in his ministry, had seen his miracles, his healing—had marveled at the growing crowds that were following Jesus (and them) around. The disciple’s spirits were being lifted. After all the disciples were not at the top of the heap in their society when Jesus called them to follow him. Most of them were fisherman.

But now they were with Jesus and they were part of a movement!

People were following!

Things were happening!

And they were a part of it all!

 

But Jesus has something else he wants to say, something else he wants to communicate. He wants to tell the disciples about how he is going to die, and the sort of death that might await them as well. He tells them that he will suffer, his teachings will be rejected—he will be tortured and forced to “take up his cross” which is a clear way of saying that he will be crucified. The disciples know what that is—crucifixion was a common practice by the Roman government that controlled their world. Criminals, dissenters, anyone who did not stay in line was crucified. They were made to drag the instrument on which they died to the place the government selected, usually a street corner, a crossroads, the scene of crime they committed, or in front of their home. There they would be nailed to the cross and left to die in front of their community and family, and the body left for days as a reminder not just of whatever it was that they did that was not acceptable to the military government—but as a threat and a reminder to everyone around them that you should not try to defy this government, or stand up and be different in any way. The major of the community in this time lived in a state of constant and unimaginable trauma and fear, paralyzed by their lack of powerlessness.  

 

Perhaps the disciples who were following Jesus thought that by following him they could escape this terrible reality that they had known since childhood.

Maybe they believed that they were different because they were with him.

Or that they could be part of “something” because their lives’ reality was that they were born into a place where they would never be “anything.”

 

It is no wonder that Peter protests against Jesus.

The news is not good.

What happened to miracles and healings and crowds of followers?

We did not drop everything to follow you Jesus—so that we would end up on a cross!

 

One of my good friends told me after Kayla died a few weeks ago that he was devastated by the news. He had worked in campus ministry programs and sent many college students off on international and domestic mission trips that changed their lives and helped them make the decision to engage in transformational ministries and grow in their faith in Jesus—linking the two. I feel great pride in knowing that some of the youth I have worked with over the years have done the same, one of them is serving a two-year stint right now with the Peace Corps in Africa. I saw her mom a few weeks ago from the first church I served and I am glad that some of the ministry she participated in helped her to make that decision as a follower of Jesus to use her skills, her intellect and her capacity to deal with some of the hurts of this world.

 

But as my friend said about Kayla, “Who else did I train to go and engage the powers of this world in the name of Jesus Christ that is out there in the world and in harm’s way? Isn’t that what we are supposed to do? But how would I manage if I was her campus minister—and it was I who set her on that course?”  

 

That is our message as the Church, isn’t it? To follow Jesus.

But that is also very scary.

It’s not an easy calling.

And if you go all the way, it is bound to lead to the sort of trouble Kayla—and others like her have found.

What does it mean as a church, as local congregations when we decide to form people in the life-changing, world-altering, Cross-centered faith in Jesus Christ?

 

I have heard others criticize Kayla’s decisions,

“Didn’t she know she was going into a war zone?”

“Why didn’t she deal with things here in the United States where it is safer?”

Why leave our country?

It is easy of course to sit back after something has happened and question it or to wonder why someone made the choices they did.

 

Our reading for today from Marks’ Gospel isn’t a bunch of good news.

Today is not the feel-good Jesus we tend to expect or tend to like.

Today we receive Jesus exactly how he is:

Real.

Honest.

Prophetic.

Truth-telling.

 

You cannot follow me without taking up your Cross.

You cannot follow me without making sacrifices that will lead to your death, your ridicule, your exclusion from the society of which you are a part.

You cannot follow me if you take the easy way out.

 

What would Jesus have us do as those who follow him today, 2000 years later?

We still live in a world that is full of the sort of injustices, inequalities and addiction to power and violence as he did then.

So what should we do?

How should we be?

 

It seems to me that our calling today is to figure out one place of injustice, inequality, and addiction to violence and make that our #1 calling. No one of us can do it all, but we each have the capacity to dig in deep and make one thing our way of saying, “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ! Here I make my stand!”   For the young woman, Kayla Mueller, she made her declaration.   It cost her this life—but she brought healing, hope and restoration to countless people in forgotten corners of this broken world. They now have that Spirit of Christ in their hearts, their homes, and their communities. They understand and know that even in the midst of it all they were not forgotten.

 

This is why the crowds flocked to Jesus. He was ministering to people who were living in situations as desperate, lonely and filled with fear as so many in our world today are. He was offering hope. He was offering relationship. And he was offering love. He was telling them that they were the ones that God preferred.

 

So where is that community today that is suffering great injustice that is close to you?

How can you be Jesus for it?

What can you do to stir up holy trouble and discontent with the powers that be that put people or the Created order into that place?

How can you be Jesus for it?

 

How can you take up your Cross?

Where can you take up your Cross?

It is the essential Lenten question Jesus asks us not only in this season but every day of our lives. Let us pray….

 

 

God of peace,

let us your people know,

that at the heart of turbulence

there is an inner calm that comes

from faith in you.


Keep us from being content with things as they are,

that from this central peace
there may come a creative compassion,


a thirst for justice,


and a willingness to give of ourselves
in the spirit of Christ.


Amen.

A Life Raft for Lent

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It was wonderful to be invited to preach the first Sunday in Lent 2015 at United Presbyterian in Amsterdam, NY.  We had a beautiful experience of worship together as we meditated on scripture from Genesis 9: 8-17.  

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This past week I had two spiritual conversations. One with a longtime friend who is also in ministry and the other with a colleague here in this Presbytery. The conversations were different—but both were moments when I could feel God’s Spirit breaking into my life and into theirs, and that the conversation was not just between the two of us, but that the Spirit had come and pulled up a chair alongside us.   I love it when conversations like these happen—unexpected gifts, beautiful offerings of not only friendship—but deep and real conversation with others who are engaged in seeking God and who want to share time to talk about how that’s going.

 

The first conversation was with Earl Johnson, who some of you know, he was the longtime pastor at the Johnstown Church, nearby—and he’s also been the author of a couple of books and a column in the national publication, the Presbyterian Outlook. Earl called to talk with me about a new book he’s considering and shopping around for a contract to write. It’s on the Gospel of Mark, which is the Gospel we are in the midst of listening to in worship during this Lenten Season.   Mark also is my favorite Gospel, so I was eager to talk and hear what Earl was up to in his head with these new ideas for a new book. Earl also wanted to talk with me about ecology and environmental destruction and how as a Presbytery we can be and do more around this top issue for people of faith. Larry Deyss, who has been preaching here this month, is equally concerned that we find ways to engage and address issues around the environment as people of faith. Earl had some new ideas for me on Mark’s Gospel and some new ways of looking at it. It was a fascinating conversation, listening to his thoughts and being reminded again of why it is we still study these ancient words, over 2000 years old—why they still make sense for our life today. I hope we see this new book out of Earl, it will be a gem and a gift to all of us.

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Thursday night I had dinner with one of my girlfriends, who is also a pastor and who I worked with for five years in my last call, she served at a neighboring congregation to the one I served and she and I have many things in common, including that her daughter is a senior at the same school where I went to college and like my family, she has a pet rabbit.   We had the typical girlfriend’s dinner, talking and catching up—my daughter Sofia joined us. It was just good fun. Of course, much to my daughter’s dismay—and she told us to knock it off—almost as soon as we started—we started talking about church. Karen asked if I was preaching this Sunday and I said I was. She shared that in her research on the Hebrew Scripture reading for Sunday, where we hear the story of Noah building the ark, that the Hebrew word for ark is the same word that is used later in Exodus when we hear the story about the Baby Moses and his mother making a nest-like boat for him out of pitch and sticks to float away on the Nile River. The Hebrew word TEBAH is the same for both the ark and the little raft for the Baby Moses. I had never heard this before, and never learned it. To be honest, I really struggled with my Hebrew in seminary so it’s not surprising I missed this little detail.

The word is not used to describe anything else in the Bible, just these two things, which means it is a special word.

Now I do not know if that gets you excited, but it really excites me! It means that what we take for granted as the-story-we-all-know about the ark has something even deeper going on. When the word is translated into our language, English—the translation is LIFESAVER.  

The Ark of course, saved lots of lives—the lives of the people and the animals on the boat—and then all of our lives afterwards. And the basket that was made by Moses’ mother and that she and his sister set off into the Nile River saved not just his life but later through Moses—the live of the Israelite people. These LIFESAVERS in the biblical narrative are not just about one specific person or one specific group being saved, but about a whole bunch of people—an entire group in need. Maybe Noah’s family, maybe Moses’ mother and sister only though it was about them—but in God’s larger plan—it was about so much more than that. God’s LIFESAVER or LIFERAFT is bigger and more expansive than we could ever imagine.

 

All of this has gotten me to thinking—where are my life rafts?

Where are the life rafts for our churches today?

For our communities?

For groups of people or in the spirit of today’s reading—for groups or species of animals that struggle to stay alive?

What gifts come along and into our lives in new and fresh ways that literally show us the way or show us the path—something that was obscured and difficult to find or even to perceive?

And when do we truly need a life-saver or a life-raft?

The other question is—do we still believe in these miracles? Do we still believe that God is going to provide such things for us?

An even scarier or more provocative question—what if the lifesaver or the life-raft God sends us (and I believe that God always does), isn’t what we wanted, or doesn’t look like what we think we need, or is so strange we do not even recognize it? What do we do then?!

 

Let me say that my two conversations with spiritual friends, both of them very different people in my life were lifesaving moments for me this week. They were unexpected gifts that arrived in my life and helped me to see God in a new way and to hear the call of Jesus once again.

 

Other life-rafts or life-savers for me this week?

The joy and time I spent with my daughter, we had so much fun together this week, more fun that we’ve had in a while!

Working the grill for two hours straight at another church in our Presbytery frying bacon for a youth group fundraiser and remembering during that time my first call in ministry and the many, many other times I helped youth groups raise money for summer mission trips with pancake dinners. I felt like I was going back and using old spiritual and vocational muscles that have been dormant in my life for a while. And it felt good.

Catching glimpses of beauty even in the midst of our snowy and cold weather.

Reaching my hand out of the car window yesterday to hand a homeless man standing in the freezing cold looking for money. Our hands briefly touched and he said to me, “God bless you.” Why should I receive such a blessing as I drove away in my warm car with a full tank of gas? What sort of grace was that?

After washing dishes one night this week turning salsa music up loud and dancing in the kitchen with my husband.

A text from a friend with news that made me laugh at the ridiculousness of life.

A call with a mentor about plans for the future and ministries that transform.

Gentle nudging words pushing me in directions I need to go, and caring words to remind me that together we are on the right path.

 

I share these moments from my life this week because we all have these moments. They are different for each of us, but God shows up and offers us a glimpse of heaven and a glimpse of grace.

In ways that are big and ways that are small and mundane.

God is always around, always nearby, always present.

We just have to open our eyes and look.

 

I think I might not have noticed those moments I just described as lifesavers or liferafts for myself if over dinner on Thursday night my friend Karen hadn’t shared what her study of the Bible had taught her this week. I might have looked at them differently. And yet a door was opened.

 

Today is the first Sunday in Lent. These 40 days are about paying closer attention to God and deepening our spiritual journeys. In your bulletin you will find some ideas about Lent and a calendar for you to use with your children, grandchildren and your families.

I want to encourage you to dwell on this image of a lifesaver.

A life raft.

Where is it for you each day?

What small act of salvation happens in your life, the life of this congregation, this community or our world.

We desperately need them in ways that are big and ways that are small.

 

Lent is about drawing closer to Jesus, the ultimate salvation, the ultimate grace. Seeing him face-to-face in a new way on Easter. Receiving the grace that propels us forward into a living that is a life-raft, a life-saver for others.

 

Grace, love, salvation.

 

Let us pray…..

 

Amen….

Christ the King Sunday 2014

west galway

For Christ the King Sunday I was invited to preach at the West Galway Presbyterian Church.  A beautiful historic church building, and a warm and welcoming congregation!  The scripture reading was from Matthew 25: 31-46 and Psalm 100.

It was a beautiful Sunday to be with them and share in worship!

ist2_4131575-decorative-dividers-4-5 So, today is the last Sunday before the Advent Season, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. This week we mark the holiday of Thanksgiving, a time to remember the blessings in our lives, gather at table with others and give thanks for the traditions that are around us.

 

I’d like today to think through with you the question of Christ as our King. What does it mean for Jesus to be our King? What difference does Jesus being a King make in our lives? In the life of our world? In this congregation, or any congregation?

 

In our world, a king is an absolute monarch. Kings are born into their title and power. They come from families of monarchs, and the power and prestige they have is absolute. Think of the royal family in England, even as it exists with diminished power today. Even in the United States, we still watch the “royals” with fascination. I will admit that I watched Henry and Kate get married a few years ago. When I was in college and lived in Scotland for six months, I went to visit Windsor Castle with friends who lived in London. I spent hours checking out the rooms, the décor. It is mesmerizing. Two years ago we did the same thing while in Spain visiting family, we went to see a bunch of castles and by the end of the trip our daughter, Sofia, who was 9 at the time had the castle-bug. She wandered through room after room, wondering what it would be like to be a princess. She noticed how scary the moat was around the castle, and she made sure to buy the little replica sword that was sold at each castle we visited, learning why different knights and kings had different kinds of swords and what it all meant. There is a lot of tourism to be had in castles. There is something alluring, mesmerizing about royalty. Maybe it is because we don’t really have that in the United States in the way it is portrayed in Europe. But we still have tours of the White House which is the closest thing to a castle in our country, unless of course you count the castles in Disneyland and Disneyworld. Culturally, we are still a bit obsessed with kings, queens, princesses and princes. Children find them interesting. Adults like the gossip. And there is a part of us, a very human part that is interested in the power, the story, the mystique. Didn’t you have that moment as a child where you played dress up and pretended you were a king or a queen, a prince or a princess—and wondered what life would be like if that was you?

 

There are of course, large deficits to the life of a king or queen and their reign over a group of people. They have total control over people’s lives. When kings and queens really did rule whole countries or geographic regions, they were the religion, they were the economy and they were the absolute power. It is part of the history of our country that this is one of the reasons why many of our ancestors first emigrated here from Europe—they wanted to have a life that was free of those trappings and start all over again.  

 

So what does it mean for us as Christians when we talk about Jesus as our King?

Is Jesus a king sitting on a throne?

Is heaven his castle?

How should we relate to Jesus if he is our King?

What should we make of him, how should we follow him?

 

Matthew’s Gospel begins the story:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him…..

 

Matthew gives us the impression of Jesus a King of the whole creation. Matthew’s Jesus has a throne, and invites everyone to gather around it o that he can offer his wisdom and his judgment.

 

But then Jesus says something interesting and different than most kings would say:

….for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and your gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

 

Those gathered around the throne are confused:

We never saw you like that King-Jesus! We never saw you hungry, thirsty, in the eyes of a stranger! We never saw you when you were naked or when you were sick, we never saw you in prison! We are confused! What are you talking about!

 

You can imagine that people are confused because they never thought to look for Jesus there. They wanted the Jesus who was like a king, who made sense to them because he would treat them the way the kings of their time did.

A king has a throne, right? A king has power right?

 

Jesus banishes those who cannot see him in the eyes of someone who is suffering. Those who can, he brings closer to him.

 

Jesus as King.

A King who is hungry.

A king who is thirsty.

A king who is a stranger.

A king who is naked.

A king who is sick.

A king who is in prison.

 

What Jesus is really saying is that, I am one of you.

Some of us perhaps have been hungry.

Or some of us have gone to minister and help someone who is hungry.

Some of us perhaps have been thirsty.

Or some of us have gone to minister and help someone who is thirsty.

Some of us perhaps at one time in life have been a stranger.

Or maybe you were that person who welcomed a stranger into your home, your community, your family.

 

I can remember the first time when I saw someone literally walking down a street naked because they had no clothes, that’s how poor of a community I was in during a mission trip. I had never seen such a thing before in my life. I was shocked and I wanted to turn my eyes away. I began to wonder to myself if I was in a place where I was safe. And then I thought to myself about this passage and Jesus….I was naked…and you offered me clothes….

 

We have all been sick at one moment or other in our lives, or known and loved someone who has been very ill. What does it mean to visit the sick and to care for them? This is probably the one spot where we most easily can find ourselves fitting into this passage….if we develop the right skills of visiting those who are hungry, then how can we use those skills in other areas….

 

And one of the harder ones…I was in prison and you visited me. Years ago I young woman, a child of some members of the church I served, ended up in jail. She was addicted to drugs and had had several run-ins with the law. Her family could not afford the lawyer to keep her out of jail and so there she sat. She was about 20 years old, young, confused, lonely. It was an intimidating prison and I would go and visit her. The first time I went to the jail it was such a scary experience for me. But we sat and talked, through the Plexiglas window. We shared tears. And at the end we each put our hands up to the glass so that we could pray together. It is hard to go visit a jail—isn’t it? I know I was terrified. And yet that is where Jesus finds himself.

 

Matthew’s Gospel begins with telling us the lineage of Jesus. Just like an early king, we have to make sure we know that Jesus is from “good stock” or the “right family.” Biblical scholars think that Matthew did that because the audience he was trying to reach and evangelize were those who were in the priestly Jewish ruling class, people who needed to hear about Jesus as a king in order for him to make sense to their lives. But Matthew in today’s passage is offering a different story about Jesus as King. He is making Jesus into the homeless man on the street. The mother with a hungry child. The stranger who is new to the community or maybe even the immigrant who does not even speak the language. The person who is so destitute they do not have clothes. The person who is in prison and most of us forget about. Matthew is challenging the ideas of his day about kings and queens, princes and princesses and introducing a new kind of king to the people around him. And 2000 years later the writer of Matthew’s Gospel is inviting the same questions for us, that are hard, difficult, haunting questions for us as people of faith to think about. I know I am much more comfortable with Jesus as king with power, than someone who I do not know. I know that this is a spiritual struggle for me. It is a spiritual struggle for all of us.

 

Next Sunday we begin the season of Advent, four weeks of preparation for Christmas. We will prepare to worship Jesus once again.

 

The baby Jesus.

Born to parents who did not have a home.

Born to parents who were strangers in a community.

Born to parents who were hungry and thirsty, cold…

 

That baby Jesus.

Who is our King.

And who offers us salvation, hope and love.

Alleluia. Amen.

 

 

 

What Gifts Shall we Bring?

church__saratoga_springs__new_york_by_lyncohen-d8pu279

I was honored to be invited to the Presbyterian New England Congregational Church on November 16, 2014 and to preach.  We also installed their search team for a new pastor!   The scripture for this Sunday was the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25: 14-30.  And yes, this amazingly beautiful building is their offices, classrooms and meeting rooms, next door to their sanctuary.  What a beautiful place in the heart of Saratoga Springs, NY!

ist2_4131575-decorative-dividers-4-5

It is a classic story.

 Three people are given funds and told to take good care of the money.   One doubles his funds with well-thought out investments and ingenuity. The second copies the ways of the first person seeing that he is doing a good job. The third buries the money and make 0% interest. 

Who did a “good” job?

Who made the “right” choice?

Who was “smart” and who was not?

If you take today’s parable at face-value, it seems very clear what the smart way to go is. Layer onto that today’s commonly accepted logic about money, savings, and wealth and it seems clear what the right answer is. The one who saves and saves smartly is the most intelligent person. It is all about making sure you double your investment and have more money to play with. It is all about having more.

 Or is it?

You see I find this portion of scripture confusing.

I find it hard to make sense of.

When I read this portion of scripture from Matthew’s Gospel it doesn’t sound like Jesus.

Does it confuse you?

When I was in seminary one of the admonishments of my professors was to never read a passage of the Bible like the one we have before us today all on its own, as a small snippet. Take some time, they would say, to read the whole chapter it is for context. Even better read the whole book that it is a part of. See what that sort of a reading can offer in terms of an expansive way of looking as one small text. Maybe the text will still mean what you originally thought it to say. Or maybe you will begin to get a different idea….

Now, we have a limited time today…and so I will not go through all of Matthew’s Gospel for you…I do want to be invited back to preach again here at this congregation and this is our first time together in worship!

But I do want to place this passage a bit more in context by chapter, so that we can dig in and understand it hopefully a little more clearly….

  • The chapter before (Chapter 24) begins with Jesus discussing the Temple with his disciples. Jesus says to them after they ooh and aahhh over how beautiful the Temple building is: “You’re not impressed by all this sheer size, are you? The truth of the matter is that there’s not a stone in that building that is not going to end up in a pile of rubble.” Jesus goes on in that chapter to tell the disciples that following him will mean hard times.  He is trying to get the disciples to not go down the road of the glorification of material wealth. Doesn’t this sound like us today, so many of us are caught up in loving things, and in our North American culture, the bigger the better?
  • Chapter 25 is divided into three parables, three stores. The first parable is that of the “Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids” This is also a parable about resources and their use, in that case scarce oil for lamps. A reading of that parable is to hold onto your resources so that you are never “out” and never in need. Another interpretation of this parable is that we are called to act with radical generosity.
  • Next comes the parable we just heard, the one for today…
  • And finally, Jesus closes Chapter 25 with the parable about those who enter the Kingdom of Heaven and those who do not. His famous lines of:

I was hungry and you fed me,

I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,

I was homeless and you gave me a room,

I was shivering and you gave me clothes,

I was sick and you stopped to visit,

I was in prison and you came to me.’

are said. Jesus is talking about radical hospitality and radical grace. An uncomfortable tipping of the social strata. Jesus is suggesting to his disciples that they will be asked on the day of judgment about the quality of their “works,” were they radical enough? Did they break enough social conventions?   How often have you, how often have I, engaged in these acts of mercy, even in the last week? For me that is a humbling spiritual question.

The questions and the stories in Matthew 25 are deeply challenging.

So as we look at our passage for today, in the middle of all of these stories and sayings from Jesus, how does it sound to us now?

Here is another interpretation of today’s scripture, different from the more traditional ones:

The sums of money that were being discussed in this parable are enormous. A “talent” is a word that means about 15 years labor. One talent = 15 years of work.   The three men in the passage are slaves, which means that every single aspect of their lives has been controlled by their owner and they are being asked to continue his methods of corruption and deceit with those they encounter. Theologian Walter Wink writes for Bread for the World about the parable in this way:

“The master is a rapacious aristocrat who really is the kind of man the third slave says he is. The servants know they must make a 100 percent profit; everything after that they can keep. They are the ones, then, who do the master’s dirty work, exploiting others for profit, largely through loans with exorbitant interest… But the third servant tells the master what all the poor wished they might: the master is a parasite, living off the labor of others without return to the peasants. By burying the money, he takes it out of circulation, where it can no longer be used to dispossess more peasants from their lands by usurious loans. This parable, then, far from encouraging “developing our talents,” is an indictment of the Powers That Be for reaping where they do not SOW and gathering where they do not scatter seed. What do we, as advocates for people who are hungry, make of this story? If we can let go of identifying the master in the parable with God, we can read this as an indictment of a system that creates poverty and hunger. To endanger its profits, huge as they are, is to challenge the way money and goods are distributed.”

I love to read these passages of scripture, because they take us down so many different roads and offer to us the gift of so many methods of interpretation. They invite us into the mind of God. As we wrestle with scripture our own little sliver of the world becomes alive in a new way. We begin to see with new eyes. We begin to ask different questions. We begin to wonder about the life we are walking through.

Here are some questions and ideas this passage raises for me today….

  • What does it mean to be an alternative economic community, to be non-participatory in the usual way of market capitalism that we exist in today? Is the usual way our money is divided up fair or equitable from a biblical point of view? Who are the slaves and who are the landowners in today’s world? If we are followers of Jesus—to whom should we walk alongside? What does our faith compel us to be about in today’s economy?
  • What is our prophetic responsibility? We can read scripture and meditate on it, but that only gets us so far. In the Gospels Jesus led an action-reflection way of the spiritual life. Now that we have done some reflection, what should our action be? How can we best discern our actions in community and then also on our own as we seek to follow Jesus? 
  • The third slave essentially took the corrupt slave-master’s money out of circulation. He refused to participate in the economic model for making money that was available to him because he saw the model as sinful. In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) this is a live conversation with a great deal of controversy. We would call this conversation about taking funds out of circulation in some places divestment. As you know, this past summer at our General Assembly we voted to divest of our investments from three companies who do business with the State of Israel.   This caused huge controversy. Yet we have a list of 41 other companies we have divested from over the years, who derive their prophets from militarism, tobacco and human rights abuses. Divestment is an act of faith akin to the third slave in today’s parable. And yet in today’s marketplace and today’s culture it remains highly controversial. What is our best and most faithful response as those who follow Jesus Christ—Prince of Peace as those who have the means to even enter into the world of investments?
  • As you begin your journey today as a community of faith to seek your next pastor—your next spiritual leader, how do you want to talk with him or her about scripture? How do you want to study it together? What qualities or attributes do you want to look for in how she or he picks apart a scripture reading and figures out how to interpret it?
  • As you read and re-read today’s lesson where do you hear echoes of your own life? Where do you find it raising your blood pressure and where does it offer balm to soothe your soul? Pay attention to how the passage grabs you and then allow that to be your entry point into the mysteries of God that continue to unfold and unravel all around us.

I leave you today with these holy questions and holy conversations. You are in my prayers during this next phase of your journey as a community of faith. I invite you in this time to take a serious look at scripture and at the call of Jesus. Continue to examine and re-examine what you hold to be true. Do not shy away from the difficult, challenging or outright confusing passages! Wrestle with them. And in wrestling with God’s Word, you will find your way to exactly where the Spirit is taking you!  

Let us pray…..