Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Supporting Characters: the real heroes?

     One of my children mentioned last week that she felt that Hermione was the real hero in the Harry Potter series and she stated that if she had written the books, Hermione would have been the main character.  She would have written the stories more from Hermione's perspective. I found myself reflecting on that quite a bit.  For me, the real hero in the Lord of the Rings has always been Sam, not Frodo.  So perhaps this tendency to look at the supporting characters as the real heroes is a genetic thing.  Or perhaps my daughter and I both have this perspective because we are, ourselves, more likely to be supporting characters rather than the heroes in the dramas of life.  Both my daughter and I do a lot of writing.  And when we write from a personal perspective, we are, necessarily, the heroes in our own narratives.  But when we look at the stories of our lives, it is usually other people whose story lines we end up supporting, other people whose lives seem more the center of the particular drama, other people who are the bearers of the rings and "the chosen ones" who take on the villains.  Maybe, then, it is from the perspective of being "supporting characters" that we find ourselves more attracted to and interested in the supporting characters of the books we read.  Maybe.
        And yet... I still think Sam is the bigger hero in the Lord of the Rings.  Without Sam, Frodo would not have succeeded.  Without Sam, Frodo would never have made it.  Without being carried by Same, Frodo would never be the hero.  And while Frodo carries the burden of the ring, he also wins the glory of being the hero.  Sam does not have that glory.  He has only the burden of carrying Frodo, a much heavier burden in some ways for it includes both Frodo and the ring.  The same could be said of Hermione.  Hermione is the one to plan, to think, to study, to learn.  She is the one who gets them out of the tough situations with the supplies they need, having thought through and planned ahead of time.  She is the one who thinks through the challenges and who keeps going no matter what is confronting her personally.  She is the one with the eyes to see and guide the "hero" of the novels.  And while her work is as intense and as burdensome as Harry's, she does not have her name on the books, she will never have the fame that Harry carries as a result of the challenges he can only face with her support.
          Harry, Frodo, all the other heroes we recognize as heroes: their names are forever emblazoned in our hearts and minds.  But they never would have been able to do what they did without those supporting characters who made their journeys possible.
          When you feel yourself acting as a supporting character in someone else's drama, I hope you can remember that some of us recognize you for the true heroes that you are.  We see that it is with your courage and strength that others can claim the title of "hero."  We see.  We honor you.  We are grateful for all you do.  We do not underestimate your burden and challenges.  Your name may not be up in lights.  But we know you are there.  Thank you for your supporting roles, without which the stories could never be told.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Good and Bad Soil

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

               When I have time to garden, I enjoy it very much.  I enjoy digging around in the dirt, working with the life of plants, helping them to grow and show their beauty.  Each time I dig around in the dirt and encounter tree roots, rocks, hard ground, or other barriers to growth, I find myself reflecting on this parable.  This parable is so rich with meanings.  And where we stand, where we live, what we experience daily has a great deal to do with how we hear and understand and relate to every parable, this story being no exception.  Even with Jesus’ explanation of the parable, we still hear it from our own contexts and understand it in that light. 
               What, for example, does rocky ground look like today?  When you hear this parable, what comes to mind when you think about those who, in the words of the parable, receive the seeds of Good News, of hope, of promise, with joy but then quickly fall away?  And what are we talking about when we talk about seeds?  These seeds that are planted but do not always grow or do not grow strong?  Are we talking about faith?  A belief in the Good News?  Are we talking about a commitment to following in the Way, to living out our lives with justice and compassion and commitment to our God of love?  Are we talking about lives dedicated to loving our neighbors, and yes, our enemies, as ourselves? I believe this parable, and these words can even be applied to easy, simpler situations, not just to the big picture of what it means to be people of Faith.  Sometimes we feel God’s call in our lives, for example, to do something specific and it just doesn’t take: God plants the seed in us of a dream, a hope, a calling.  But sometimes when we feel called to do a particular thing and it doesn’t work out for us, we can wonder if we’ve heard the call wrong, or if the seed we planted just wasn’t very good.  But this parable gives us another way to understand it.  Sometimes the call we have or the message we’ve been called to follow just hasn’t found the right soil yet.  Or perhaps the soil needed more tending, more tilling, more fertilizer.  And sometimes it simply isn’t the right time for the planting.  That’s why common church phrases such as “we tried that once and it didn’t work” are simply not helpful.  When God plants a seed in us, a call, an idea, sometimes it won’t work not because its bad seed but simply because the soil isn’t right for it at that moment or in that place or, most likely, with that particular combination of time and place. 
               But whether we are talking the little seeds of a particular task God gives us to plant or the big seed of living out lives of faith and following in the way, the ultimate point of this parable is that planting the seeds, being the sower, being the one to bring and attempt to grow things, ideas, visions, missions is hard.  Trusting in our calls to carry the Good News, in our words, in our actions, in our lives; trusting in the seeds that we are given, especially when they don’t seem to grow, can be so very hard.
For the disciples, these words that we hear Jesus speak today, this parable – these are words of encouragement.  After Jesus has gone, the disciples will share their stories, their experiences of Jesus, the imperative to live lives of love with others, but they must be aware that their words, the Word of God that they speak and that they ask others to live out, may not easily be received or followed.  They will encounter all kinds of people and they will not be able to succeed with everyone they meet.  Each person will come from their own place and their own perspective.  Some will not understand at all and will never be able to hear.  Others will hear and accept with joy the Good News they are given, but will have no depth in their faith, in their understanding, in their commitments to living the life that this demands of us, that will allow them to persevere when things become hard or challenging.  And some will find they are lured away from acting or living out, growing their seeds to fullness by the values of the world.  Jesus tells them this parable to reassure the disciples.  Their job, their only job, is to plant the seeds, to speak Good News, to live God’s truth, to be the people God calls them to be and by so doing to plant and plant and plant the seeds God gives them each and every day.  They are not responsible for how it is received or what people do with what they hear.  They are not responsible for the growing of those seeds, only the planting of them.  There are many reasons why those seeds might not grow, why the visions God gives them to plant might not grow, and ultimately the disciples may not know the good they are able to accomplish in some.  But that is not theirs to worry about.   
               We are given the same words of encouragement.  But still they are hard.  What do you do when things don’t work out?  When you think the seeds you’ve planted, by actions, by deed, by the way you live your life, or by your words were good and you think the soil or groundwork foundation upon which those seeds were planted was well fertilized and abundant, but it still just doesn’t work out?  What do you do when the seeds don’t grow, for one reason or another? 
               Current emphasis on church growth looks at doing studies ahead of time, or, to put it in this parable’s terms, to actually dig into the soil to understand it a bit before seeds are planted.  But this has been found in many ways to be ineffective.  Will we ever really know what is in or under the soil?  We can be educated about our communities’ needs, we can care about what is going on in the lives of those around us, but ultimately, knowing the heart of one another takes time, it takes work, and it takes a willingness to plant seeds without knowing whether they will flourish long term or not.
Sojourner’s magazine published an article entitled, “Have churches become too shallow?”  Stephen Mattson wrote, “Christians ultimately attend church to meet with God. But sometimes we turn our churches into distractions, and spiritual leaders mistakenly prioritize things beyond God, becoming obsessed with marketing, consumerism, and entertainment — creating false idols…..Truth is gauged by the amount of attention received, morality judged by popularity, holiness measured by fame, authority determined by power, security based upon control, and happiness evaluated according to wealth.  This is what happens when we ignore God — or simply try to make God more marketable: Jesus becomes a product. The Gospel becomes a promotional tool. Parishioners become customers. Pastors become celebrities. Sermons become propaganda. Churches become businesses. Denominations become institutions. Faith becomes a religion, which eventually becomes an empire.  Instead of striving to be a place for divine communion where disciples praise and worship …, churches become infatuated with accommodation — making people comfortable, happy, entertained, safe, and content. Contrarily, churches can go to the opposite extreme and remove any hint of joy, encouragement, comfort, and inspiration. Instead, they choose to implement fear, guilt, shame, and other abusive tactics to legalistically manipulate people into “loving” God.  Both types of Christianity are illusions built upon lies and a facade of clich├ęs, where cheap sales techniques and overused stereotypes are reinforced using the powerful motivations of insecurity, convenience, ignorance, and a deep fear and hesitation of being brutally honest, uncomfortable, humble, and vulnerable — scared of risking it all.  This is why people often abandon Christianity and stop attending church — because God has been replaced by shallow gimmicks.  Instead of helping the poor, feeding the hungry, tending to the sick, sheltering the homeless, fighting injustice, speaking for the voiceless, sacrificially giving, and wholeheartedly loving our neighbors (and enemies), churches have become co-opted by secular values and empty content.  Emulating Christ is not for the faint of heart, and following his commands will probably mean becoming a church that embraces conflict, discomfort, work, pain, suffering, and truth. This is the messiness of Christianity — following God through the Pilgrim’s Progress of life, forsaking the riches of this world for the treasure of a Divine relationship. Are we brave enough to embrace this?”
The call to plant seeds, to do the work, to have the conversations, to risk truth-telling and to risk truly loving others, and acting in a way that really empowers, liberates and feeds others – that call requires being brave.  I found myself thinking about the Dr. Seuss story, Horton Hears a Who.  Horton did not want the job of protecting the teeny tiny Who community that was on the little clover flower.  But he took it because the job needed to be done and it was in front of him.  He was given the seed, the opportunity to serve and he planted it by taking the job.  In contrast, a little later when the Whos were trying to get the attention of Horton’s disbelieving community by shouting with all of their might, one of the little Whos was not participating.  This little Who didn’t want to do it, he didn’t think it would matter whether he did what he was called to do or not.  In the end, when he was finally convinced to try, it was his voice, the littlest voice of all, that added enough volume to the collective shouting that Horton’s community could hear him and change their minds about the Whos existence.  That one voice, that one decision to say “yes” to the call to answer the needs at hand, to stand up, to be a voice for truth and justice, that one voice made the difference.
Will it always?  No.  But again, we are not in charge of the outcome.  We are not in charge of whether or not our voice, our work, our efforts make a difference.  We are not in charge of whether or not the seeds we plant will grow.  I realize that is a hard lesson to bear.  When we work hard at something and get nowhere, it is easy to give up.  It is easy to say, “it’s not going to make any difference, so why bother?”  (starfish?)
We also can’t always anticipate which seeds will grow what, or what good they will do.  Sometimes the things we consider to be weeds give the most life.  As a world, for example, we are having a crisis about bees dying.  In the process of studying bees, one of the things that has been found is that one small reason for this is that we get rid of “weeds”.  One of the weeds we get rid of, dandelions, happens to be one of the bees’ favorite flowers.  Similarly, gold finches are most attracted to thistle.  Sometimes when we think the seeds we’ve planted are turning into weeds, we have to take a more studied look at what is, in fact, growing after all.  We may find ourselves unhappy about the thistle and the dandelions until we see the life that surrounds them.  I have a friend who planted what he called a “butterfly plant” in his yard.  He found that the caterpillars of the butterflies kept eating most of the leaves on this butterfly plant.  He became very upset and determined to poison the caterpillars until his son pointed out that the caterpillars were what was becoming the butterflies he was hoping to attract.  He had a choice.  To let the caterpillars eat much of the plant but be rewarded with the butterflies, or to kill off the caterpillars and lose the butterflies as well.
               I began today’s sermon by saying that where we stand has a great deal to do with how we hear this story.  Wherever we stand, we tend to assume that our hearts represent the good soil, that we are the ones who have heard, in whom the seeds have taken hold and grown, the ones with depth of soil in whom the roots can also find room to move and deepen.  But my experience says that all of us hold all those different types of soil in one area of our lives or another.  Maybe the good soil within us, for example, takes strong hold of God’s words of grace offered, given and accepted into our hearts through our trust and faith in it.  But maybe at the same time, the call to love our enemies as ourselves has not found good soil in terms of loving a certain kind of person, a certain type of person, whatever or whomever that may be.  Or maybe it is the opposite.  We have good soil within us that encourages us to live lives of action and love towards our neighbors, but when it comes to the soil that allows the seeds of God’s grace and forgiveness, the new life that God offers to US to grow, our soil is not so rich. 
               In all of these cases, the soil is not up to us.  What happens with the seeds that we plant is not up to us.  We can pray for good soil, pray that God will enrich the soil, fertilize the soil.  But what we are called to do is our job - keep planting the seeds, within our world, within our communities, within our churches, and mostly, within ourselves – to keep doing the work of God, being open to receiving the seeds God asks us to plant, keep listening in every way that God speaks, and to pray for the good soil that only God, ultimately, can provide.
               I want to leave you with one more thought about planting seeds.  There is a story about a group of people who were taking a pottery class.  The teacher divided the students into two groups – a quality group and a quantity group.  The quality group was told all each of them had to do was make one beautiful pot.  The quantity group was told they needed to just make as many pots as possible.  Which group do you think did the better job?  The quality group did not do well because they spent all their time on one pot and when it was not going well, they just kept trying to redo it.  The quantity group produced beautiful pots because with each one they made, they learned something and could improve on it with the next pot. 

               When we do the work of God, we will be given more seeds to plant.  Each time we will learn and get better at the planting.  Do justice.  Speak the truth.  Share the Good News of God’s love for ALL people.  Stand up for the voiceless.: the call under all of it is simply to love one another.  These are the seeds we are called to plant.  Plant lots of seeds of love.  Each time you do, you will get better at it.  But even so, let go of the results.  We are not in charge of the soil, that is up to the hearers.  And we are not in charge of the end results: that is up to God.  And in that, there is great hope.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Christmas All Year Round - sermon

Luke 2:1-14

               Last year we celebrated Christmas in July for the first time together.  And I talked to you about how and why this was started.  To refresh your memories: there are several reasons we have this practice.
               For one thing, Christmas in December has become extremely commercialized.  It has become very focused on presents, on decorations, on cards, on parties, cookies, on buying, buying, buying and spending, spending, spending.  In church, our focus on Christmas Eve is on children’s pageants and singing.  As I mentioned last year, these are not bad things: these are very good things.  There should be a place and time when we are about giving gifts, receiving from one another.  There should be a time and place for focus on family, on parties, on decorations. It is wonderful that we have this beautiful celebration with Christmas pageants and candles and music.  I love all of that and wouldn’t change it for the world.
But I’m also aware that in the midst of all of that the real meaning of Christmas gets lost.  Christmas has become a gigantic commercialized and pretty secular event for all of us, and, as I’ve said before, an exercise in those who have too much already giving more to others who also have too much already, rather than a focus on what God’s coming to us as a poor, displaced baby is really about.  And while we love that Jesus came as a baby, because we love babies and we love children, our delight in our clean and pressed children, in our songs beautifully sung and our choirs trained to do their best music, often takes us away from the reality of what that messy, chaotic, noisy, confusing first Christmas was really like.  More, it takes us away, again, from the deeper message of God coming to us, to be with us, as one of us.  God did not come in the form of a king, not in clean clothes and rich surroundings, not in a comfortable home or hospital, not surrounded by extended and loving family bringing new baby clothes and a crib and car seat that are up to code, not with sterilized bottles and diapers; but in a stable, far, far from home, in a messy, poor place, away from family and friends, out in the cold, without doctors or nurses or midwives or attendants of any kind, without women around (and this was considered women’s work at the time), without warm water and clean towels.  God came to us messy into a messy world.  God came to us as a baby, and not, as the song would tell us, a baby that “no crying he makes” but a real baby who hollered and made messes in his diaper, who spit up at times (all babies do) and who probably threw his toys at times and got mad at his siblings as they came along and who wanted more of this and less of that, who undoubtedly disobeyed his mother at times.  A child.  A human who got cuts and bruises and scrapes.  Who knew what it was to have conflicts with other kids and other adults.  A poor child, who did not have riches and special athletics and music lessons and luxuries. 
This is the God who came to us. I think about the Joan Osborne song, “What if God were one of us, just a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home.”  For some unfathomable reason, this song was very controversial.  It is unfathomable to me because that is our Christmas story: that God WAS one of us, just like one of us.  And not, again, a rich and clean king, but a real and dirty infant.
It was scandalous.  And I think that if we did not white wash the story, we would find that it is scandalous still.  And that, to me, is the even deeper message of Christmas.  It isn’t that God came, once upon a time, into this messy and dirty and unkind world.  It’s that God still comes, even now, even with the chaos, confusion, anger, distress, extremes, alienation and isolation of today – God still comes into this place, every day, to meet with us.  And that, too, is scandalous.  God is with the poor and the suffering and the hungry.  God is with those experiencing injustice.  God is with those who are hurting.  God is with those who you are angry.  God is with those who’ve been hurt and those who hurt others.  God is with us when we’ve done something awful and when we are lost and searching.  God is with us when we are afraid.  God’s love for us meets us where we are, in this place, in the trenches of war, in the middle of divorce, in an argument with our children.  That is the message of God’s coming to us as one of us.  God’s love does not come to you after you become the one God wants you to be.  God meets you wherever you are as you are, and that love invites us to become the people we were created to be.
After World War II, as people began to care for so many children orphaned by the war, they noticed that, even though the children had three meals a day, they still were restless and anxious and had difficulty sleeping. It seemed the children had great anxiety about whether or not they would have enough food the next day. One relief worker came up with an interesting solution. Each night the nurses placed a single piece of bread in each child's hand. The bread wasn't meant to be eaten; it simply was intended to be held by the children as they went to sleep. Almost immediately, the children's anxieties were calmed, and they were able to sleep.
Jesus coming was meant to be that slice of bread for each of us to hold in our sleep.  Jesus, or God with us, reminds us of a love that is so deep that created and creator are no longer separated, no longer isolated and alienated from one another, that the sun will come up tomorrow and that we will be okay, whether we live or die, we will be okay. 
Christmas, whenever we celebrate it, is an opportunity to be grounded in that experience of God-with-us.  Are any of you familiar with Simon and Garfunkel’s version of Silent Night?  They sing beautifully the Silent Night that we all know, but in the background you hear a faint talking sound that gradually becomes louder and more attention-demanding.  Eventually, you hear the words that are being said and they are the 6 o’clock news broadcasting over the top of Silent Night.  All terrible, tragic, messy, ugly stuff.  Accompanied, throughout by the song Silent Night.  Every time I hear it, it moves me to tears.  These two Jewish men who wrote this song showed unbelievable depth and understanding about what we believe as Christians about a God who meets us where we are in this broken and hurting world.
I think God is profoundly present with us in this world, present as children are, in the here, in the now, in the real.  Amy Grant wrote a piece that we have shared at the last two Longest Night services called “Better than a Hallelujah”.  The words are:
God loves a lullaby and a mother’s tears in the dead of night
Better than a hallelujah sometimes
God loves a drunkard’s cry, a soldier’s plea not to let him die
Better than a hallelujah sometimes

We pour out our miseries, God just hears a melody
Beautiful the mess we are, The honest cries of breaking hearts
are better than a Hallelujah.
              
A woman holding on for life, a dying man giving up the fight
Are better than a hallelujah sometimes
Tears of shame for what’s been done, the silence when the words won’t come
Are better than a hallelujah sometimes

We pour out our miseries, God just hears a melody
Beautiful the mess we are, the honest cries of breaking hearts
are better than a Hallelujah
Better than a church bell ringing,
Better than a choir singing out, singing out

We pour out our miseries, God just hears a melody
Beautify the mess we are, the honest cries of breaking hearts
Are better than a hallelujah.

God is with us in our reality, in the reality of all that we are.  And while God loves our worship and praise and singing and adoration, what God wants more is a real relationship with you.  God wants to hear your pain, hear your hopes, hear your dreams and your fears.  And so God came to be as one of us, to have that kind of close relationship with us that we humans have with one another.  He came as child, as sibling, as friend, as master.  And he loved and walked and cried and raged and laughed and lived so that we might know that we could talk to God as one who understood, as one who understands. 
Sometimes I think we hide from God in the way we celebrate Christmas.  We focus on the joy, we focus on giving and parties and celebration.  Again, all of that is good.  But if the point of Christmas is that God is real, that God comes to us in a real way, as a real human being, then shouldn’t we also strive to be more open, honest and real with that God? But we hide in our rituals of faith even, making them perfect and beautiful and sweet when God’s coming was anything but those things.  I’m reminded of the musical Sound of Music.  Maria is scared of her feelings so she takes off and runs to the convent.  The wise mother superior though gentle says to her, “these walls were not meant to keep out our problems, Maria.”
           Father John Powell, professor at Loyola University in Chicago wrote about his encounter with one of his more rebellious students, Tommy, who was an atheist challenging everything Father
Powell was teaching in this theology class.  At the end of the semester, Tommy approached the Father and cynically asked, “Do you think I’ll ever find God?” to which the Father replied, “No, but I am certain that God will find you.”  A few years later, Tommy was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  He came to the Father and told him that he had been searching and searching for God without luck.  But one day he gave up on looking for God.  Still, he remembered something the professor had told him, “The essential sadness is to go through life without loving.” And he decided he needed to tell those people in his life that he loved them. 
Tommy said, "So, I began with the hardest one, my Dad. He was reading the newspaper when I approached him.
"Dad."
"Yes, what?" he asked without lowering the newspaper.
"Dad, I would like to talk with you."
"Well, talk.”
"I mean. It's really important."
The newspaper came down three slow inches. "What is it?"
"Dad, I love you, I just wanted you to know that." Tom smiled at me and said it with obvious satisfaction, as though he felt a warm and secret joy flowing inside of him.
"The newspaper fluttered to the floor. Then my father did two things I could never remember him ever doing before. He cried and he hugged me. We talked all night, even though he had to go to work the next morning."
“It felt so good to be close to my father, to see his tears, to feel his hug, to hear him say that he loved me."
"It was easier with my mother and little brother. They cried with me, too, and we hugged each other, and started saying real nice things to each other. We shared the things we had been keeping secret for so many years."
"I was only sorry about one thing --- that I had waited so long."
"Here I was, just beginning to open up to all the people I had actually been close to..
"Then, one day I turned around and God was there.
"He didn't come to me when I pleaded with Him. I guess I was like an animal trainer holding out a hoop, 'C'mon, jump through. C'mon, I'll give you three days, three weeks."
Apparently God does things in God’s own way and at God’s own hour.
"But the important thing is that God was there. God found me! You were right. God found me even after I stopped looking for God."
God is not a private possession, a problem solver, or an instant consolation in time of need, but rather by opening to love..
           
            Jesus was unexpected and my experience throughout scripture and personally is that every time God shows up it is in some unexpected way.
But, as Richard Rohr puts it, “there is no authentic God experience that does not situate you in the world in a very different way. After an encounter with True Presence you see things quite differently, and it gives you freedom from your usual loyalties and low-level payoffs--the system that gave you your security, your status, your economics, and your very identity. Your screen of life expands exponentially. This transformation has costly consequences. Moses had to leave Pharaoh's palace to ask new questions and become the liberator of his people.” 
Pastor Jeremiah Steepek transformed himself into a homeless person and went to the 10,000 member church that he was to be introduced as the head pastor at that morning. He walked around his soon to be church for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service, only 3 people out of the 7-10,000 people said hello to him. He asked people for change to buy food - NO ONE in the church gave him change. He went into the sanctuary to sit down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit in the back. He greeted people to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, with people looking down on him and judging him.
 As he sat in the back of the church, he listened to the church announcements and such. When all that was done, the elders went up and were excited to introduce the new pastor of the church to the congregation. "We would like to introduce to you Pastor Jeremiah Steepek." The congregation looked around clapping with joy and anticipation. The homeless man sitting in the back stood up and started walking down the aisle. The clapping stopped with ALL eyes on him. He walked up the altar and took the microphone from the elders (who were in on this) and paused for a moment then he recited,
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
'The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
After he recited this, he looked towards the congregation and told them all what he had experienced that morning. Many began to cry and many heads were bowed in shame. He then said, "Today I see a gathering of people, not a church of Jesus Christ. The world has enough people, but not enough disciples. When will YOU decide to become disciples?"
 He then dismissed service until next week.
The realization of God being with us, and especially of God choosing to be with us as a poor person, as a displaced person, as one of the “least of these” should transform us, should make us willing and able to take risks to stand up for those who are oppressed or poor or treated unjustly. 

Christmas is a time of blessings and celebration that God is with us.  It is also a call to be with those we usually don’t see and often dismiss.  It is a challenge for us all.  But in those people we would dismiss, we will find God-self.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Gossip, Truth Telling, Protection, Betrayal and Violation

           When I was in college I lived in a house church with 19 other students.  It was the campus ministry center and on staff were several pastors who did ministry not only for the 20 of us but for the college campus.  One of the years that I lived there, the campus ministry center hired a seminary intern to do his practical training on our site.  A very nice young man, charming, warm, newly married, very gifted. He was well loved by all the other staff as well as the students.
            He was also emotionally inappropriate with me in a way that was not only very confusing but deeply devastating.  We've heard much about clergy misconduct over the years, but we have yet to address it in all its forms.  And for those who are not clergy, sometimes the power plays involved with these violations of trust are overlooked, mostly because they are deeply misunderstood.  I have a very dear friend who, along with other women who had been violated, tried to prosecute through the church a campus pastor who had violated her not only emotionally but sexually as well.  She found that it is still the case, even now, that the victims are often blamed, and that the real understanding of how devastating and harmful these violations of trust are is rarely understood. All those with authority over us, but I would say especially clergy, who are supposed to represent God, lead us deeper into a relationship with God and help us find our way through difficult times, truly devastate the lives of those they violate when they abuse that trust.  Their power in those relationships, their leading us into compromising situations and their ability from that place of trust and power to take advantage cannot be understated.  Those they abuse are NOT to blame.  They have used their power to harm.  Trust has been broken.  And the havoc they leave in their wake is not easily healed, if it ever is.  The damage they do to bodies, minds and souls is beyond what I can describe in a few short words.  I will just say again that it is far too often minimized if it is taken seriously at all, something we should and must change.
          But the focus of this article is a little different.  I was "only" violated emotionally.  None the less, it was very hard.  And when he had gotten as far as he could with me and moved on to someone else, I shared my experience and my devastation with only one other person at the time: my best friend.  My best friend was very caring, very supportive, very understanding.  But it happened that the young woman he was dating happened to be the person that this clergy intern targeted next.  My friend saw what was happening and he begged me to talk to his girl-friend about my experience.  He begged, he pleaded, he insisted, he even threatened.  "Please tell her your experience!  You need to tell her your story!  If you don't tell her what happened to you..."
         But I wouldn't do it.  There are many reasons for this.  Looking back I can have compassion for my decision, recognizing that the seminary intern still had power over me and I was afraid he would use it.  I was afraid he would use it emotionally, to alienate me from my community, to isolate me from my friends, to mark me as a bad and catty person.  I was also afraid that he could affect my life beyond college and could block my applications to seminary, and to further programs.  I was a kid, 19 years of age, and I was worried from a practical place.  But I also felt that talking to my best friend's girl-friend about my experience was the same thing as gossiping and I had been well taught that gossiping, that talking about others, that sharing negative things about another person was wrong, was a sin, would harm another who, no matter how he had hurt me, did not deserve to be damaged by me. I learned well that I would have been in the wrong.  And so I said nothing.
         As a result, my best friend's girl-friend was also violated, and this time not only emotionally, but sexually as well.  The seminary intern took it to the next step with her.  She informed me that a few years later, after she had gained a better understanding of what he had done, of the power dynamics involved and the violation that he had committed through that breach of trust, that she did try to report it, but again, the reports went no-where.  There was no comprehension of the violation done, of the deep trust broken. There was no attempt from those with authority who knew about it to stop further power abuses and violations.  I have no doubt that he did the same with countless others after he was ordained and went on to do campus ministry in other communities around the country.
         Recently a friend sent me an article in which Theo Wildcroft wrote this, "A teacher of mine once said that gossip had to be made a sin because it’s a social survival mechanism for the almost powerless. For good or evil, right or wrong, true or false, gossip is the glue that kept traditional communities together, an early warning system and in extremis, call for sanction. Of course it’s traditionally our sin, a woman’s sin. ... (But) the only reliable social technologies we’ve evolved to cope with (the violence, the broken trust, the threats to vulnerable lives) are gossip and gut instinct."
        These words, I'll admit, hit me with a force I could not have anticipated.  They rang deeply true. The evil that is condemned in scripture again and again is slander, is lying.  The sin that we have to be careful to avoid is telling untruths, half truths, or even exaggerations that condemn others with inaccurate and false tales of what we perceive to be their flaws.  Gossip, when it is simply talking smack or telling stories on others, is extremely harmful and can tear apart communities.
       But, in a society in which violence against women, children, people of color, LGBTQ folk and people of different faith traditions is on the rise; and in a society in which the victims of this violence are the constant targets of blame for their own victimization, sometimes the only way we can protect one another is by sharing our stories.
       I do not expect our condemnation of our sharing to go away quickly.  I imagine that women (and others) who share their stories will be accused for a long, long time of the sin of gossip.  But, I also think that I will take more seriously the stories that are shared with me as signs of trust, and as offers of protection.  I will no longer see or experience sharing of the times we have been harmed by those who cannot be held accountable as signs that the tellers are gossipy, sinful, catty people.  I will understand that the trust in sharing our stories is more about building safe communities for all of us. And while I still believe we must be very careful to share only the truth, and to not exaggerate or vilify others, I will trust my gut and my experiences more fully as well.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Much to Complain About

Matthew 11:16-30

Jesus says a great deal in this passage from Matthew.  But throughout the passage he is consistent.  When people fail to see the amazing blessings that surround them, when they fail to really see it and get it, they are in danger.  They are in danger of losing their very souls, not because God will take their souls from them, or punish them for their failure to see, but because in failing to see God in front of them, they fail to truly live in faith, live in connection to the Divine, live in the fullness of life that God wants to give us, chooses to give us, every day.  Jesus said, “Woe to you…to Chorazin and to Bethsaida because they didn’t see the miracles that were performed right in front of them.”  They did not see them.  They did not take them in.  The experience of being near and around these miracles, these life-changing, wonderful, beautiful experiences of healing and transformation, of God’s wanting the best for God’s people, of God wanting and making wholeness and life happen for people whom everyone else had abandoned or given up on – these experiences did not CHANGE the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida.  Witnessing these miracles did not make them want to be the best they could be, did not move them to a gratitude that would cause them to change, to “turn around” which is the actual meaning of repent – to go another way.   They were not changed by witnessing these miracles, which said to Jesus they did not really accept them, did not see, did not choose to experience God, experience Divine love through these events.  And that failure to change in response to the blessings of their lives lead Jesus to say, ‘woe to you.”
Jesus also compares his generation to what?  To whiners.  “We played the pipe for you, and or you did not dance.  We sang a dirge and you did not mourn,” the people complained. They complained that others did not respond to them in the ways they wanted, that they had worked hard, given much, and that others did not do what they expected, did not respond in the way they’d hoped to what they had done, what they had given.  The irony of it:  They complained that others were not moved by what they did.  And yet, they, were not moved by what Jesus and John did.  They complained about John because he ate differently: eating only locusts and wild honey and refraining from drinking.  They complained about Jesus because he didn’t refrain from eating and drinking.  And they dismissed the words of both people based on things that had nothing to do with what they were saying.  Who cares what John and Jesus ate?  But all of these people found ways to not see the blessings that surrounded them.  They focused on what did not fit into their ideas of what people of God should look like, act like, what they thought people of God should do or be. They focused on their judgments of others and dismissed them accordingly. They failed to see the miracles, failed to see the beauty, failed to see God in what was around them.
               Do we do this?  We’ve discussed before how Fear can lead us to see and focus on those things that are going wrong to the exclusion of the wonders and miracles around us.  Our human instincts to complain can lead us to focus on things that are not being done the way we want them to, or expect them to be done.  We want Jesus to not “party” during his life but instead to be serious and self-sacrificing at every turn.  We want John to not be “different” or eat strangely.  We want things to fit into our ideas of how they are or should be.  And if they don’t we complain.  Actually, even when they do live up to our expectations, we also complain.  And again, the problem with that is that in focusing on what we are uneasy with, we fail to see the blessings that surround us, we fail to see the good, we fail to see God, we fail to experience God’s love.  And we are lessened by that failure.  We are the ones then who do not experience Christ, or God in our midst because we are too busy focusing on the problems and not seeing the gifts to experience the blessings, love, joy, peace, compassion, peace, and ultimately the grace that God offers us every single day.
               Rev. Craig Barnes, writes, "… we assume we can make our own lives by the way we construct them for ourselves." Barnes goes on to say this: “Complaining is usually a veiled lament about deeper issues of the soul. Since most people are unaccustomed to exploring the mystery of their own souls, they will often work out their spiritual anxieties by attempting to rearrange something external - like a church's music program. But it doesn't matter how many changes they make to the environment around them. They will never succeed in finding peace for the angst of their soul until they attend directly to it... (That is why) to be of service to the Holy Spirit, who is at work in human lives, the pastor can never reduce ministry to servicing parishioners' complaints about the church. –
               The truth is, we are often guilty of seeing what we know, what we expect and what we are used to looking for rather than knowing what we see.  (As a side note, children are much better at seeing what is around them.  The kids this week in music camp kept seeing things around the campus and in the building that I had never noticed – a ball on top of the arbor, for example.  The seed pods hanging down from the Wisteria.  The metal lights around the court yard. I don’t know exactly when and how our seeing stops, but it does.  We can learn a lot from the observations and noticings of our youth.)  Add to that that when fear is involved, it is even harder to actually see the blessings God surrounds us with. 
               About eleven years ago now my family went through a very challenging time financially.  My husband was out of work and we were trying to support our family of five on my half time pastor salary in San Leandro.  We had bought a new house right before he had lost his job, one with three bedrooms as opposed to the one we had before which had only two bedrooms and was therefore a bit tight for our family of five.  But at the last minute in the sale of our old home, the buyers had pulled out.  As a result, we were paying two mortgages, again in this unbelievably expensive part of the country.  This was right before the housing market crashed.  Add to that that the shower pan in our new bathroom cracked and we had to replace the entire bathroom, with money we just didn’t have.  It was a truly, deeply frightening time.  Because of that, complaining was at the top of my list of daily activities.  Everywhere I looked and each day there was more to complain about.  A child got sick, I left my wallet at the store, Trader Joe's stopped carrying my favorite breakfast cereal – whatever little thing that occurred was just another weight on shoulders that were already carrying far too much.  The main character in the book, Life of Pi said, “When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling”.  I found this to be absolutely true.  It was the little things, the things that I knew were so very small which would send me over the edge during this time.  I simply could not bear anything more because I was deeply frightened.  I was reassured by Biblical passages such as we find in the psalms that allow for us to voice and share with God our complaints, our fears, our concerns, with full knowledge that God does indeed hear them, care about them, want us to talk to God about them; and I took full advantage of that to complain loudly and often, to express my fear and to pray, fervently and often for our house to sell, for my husband to find employment, for us to make it through this financially terrifying time. 
               But as Craig Barnes suggested, looking back, the complaints were all hiding a deeper spiritual issue – and that is that I was living in fear, I was consumed by fear instead of living in faith and trust.  Not that I think God is a magician who takes away all our problems.  Not that I think God micromanages our lives.  I don’t.  We have free will, as do the others around us, and sometimes that means times get hard.  But trust and faith require seeing that each moment, each second, we are surrounded by love, care, presence, that will sustain and carry us and guide us through the hardest times.  Looking back, I can see God’s presence, God’s blessings.  Looking back, now that I am beyond that moment of fear or terror, I can see what I could not see then, that, in so many ways, we in fact were carried through that time.  We had savings that saw us through, and the old house did sell, right before the market crashed.  My husband did find employment right before that savings would have run out.  Yes, we used it all.  But we had it to use.  And we were okay in the end.  I can see, looking back, that we were surrounded also by love and fellowship of people who would have been there for us had things become desperate.  We were held through this time by friends and family who expressed their care in ways both “normal” and amazing.  I’ve shared with you before about that one day in particular when the outpourings of love from the community and from my own family were so deeply amazing that they were nothing short of miraculous.  I won’t share them again, because that one day is not the point.  In looking back, the bigger thing to be seen was that we were cared for daily.  Daily there were overflowing signs of love – from God, from God’s people, a love that has, and continues to sustain us through the hard times because the hard times are always there if we focus on them.  The love, too, is always there to sustain us, if we can just see it when we need it.  Miracles, are all around us, every day, if we allow ourselves to see them, if we can face the spiritual issues such as fear that prevent us from seeing, if we pray and open our eyes to seeing God because God is there, all the time, with blessings in abundance.
               As I was standing in line in the grocery store yesterday,  I overheard someone complaining loudly.  The teller was complaining about her husband, describing him in terms that would make him sound abusive.  But when you really listened to the words, it became clear that what she was actually complaining about was that he didn’t pay for an incredibly expensive luxury for her that she wanted.  Instead, she complained, her son had to do it.  And as I listened, I found myself reflecting again on how much we like to complain and how much we fail to see the beauty and good around us.  There were three different ways she could have told that same story.  In the complaining version, her terrible husband wouldn’t buy her this thing she desperately wanted and so her son had to do it.  In a second version, the husband didn’t pay and the son did – just the facts.  The third version I believe is the way we are called to look at the wonders of life, of God’s presence, of beauty and joy: she had this amazing son who was able to buy even expensive things for her and chose to do so.
               With David’s permission, I want to tell you about a conversation we had yesterday.  A similar situation, but this time about something essential.  David was telling me that he was incredibly lucky and blessed because he had a grandmother who would take money out of her tiny income and buy food for their family.  As many of you know, David grew up extremely poor.  Food could be hard to come by.  They lived from day to day, shoes were a once a year purchase at the thrift store and when they were outgrown, the kids did without.  But David was not focusing on complaining about his childhood, he was focusing on the gift of his grandmother’s help, coming at especially needed times.  He does this with other things too.  He shares with wonder about the church down the street from them that also helped provide food and other essentials.  He describes the care of the community, the wonder of those who held them up.  He does not complain about what his life was like living in that poverty.  He has chosen an outlook of seeing the good, of seeing the Divine, of seeing God.
               How do we describe the events in our lives?  But more deeply, how do we see the events in our lives?  Do we see the gifts and blessings God has given us each and every day?  Or are we so distracted by the things that are hard that we simply cannot see the miracles?
               Connie Schultz wrote that we all have stories of things we can’t explain, wondrous amazing stories that we want to tell but are afraid of being doubted.  Still, they stick with us as signs of something bigger, something that “coincidence” doesn’t quite cover.  She tells her own story this way:
               “Soon after my mother died, I was driving and listening to NPR like I always do when, inexplicably, I reached down and switched the radio station.  “I know you’re watching over me from heaven,” the singer crooned.  Still raw with grief, I sighed and said out loud, “I miss you, Ma.”  Then I looked at the license plate on the car straight ahead: MISS U2.”

               Sr. Joan Chittister once shared this story: Once, the ancients say, a seeker asked a group of disciples: "Does your God work miracles?" And they replied, "It depends on what you call a miracle. Some people say that a miracle is when God does the will of people. We say that a miracle is when people do the will of God."  Sometimes I think the will of God is nothing more than looking and seeing with God’s eyes where love and compassion and grace are all around us, and helping others to see it too.
In today’s passage from Matthew Jesus challenges us to put aside our expectations, our fears, our complaints and to look instead for the good, for God, for God’s love that surrounds us.  But the Good News is that Jesus also knows that isn’t easy for us, this people of God, to always do successfully.  So even after we are scolded for our complaining and scolded for failing to see the miracles that surround us and allow them to change us, deeply, from within, Jesus ends the passage with these words of reassurance, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  When we can’t let go, we can turn to God with our fears, with our complaints, with our burdens.  God wants to hear from us all of what we are feeling, all of what we experience.  We can lay the burdens at Jesus’ feet.  And when we do we will find that God will help us to carry them, God will show us the good that goes alongside our hardships, God will remind us that in every moment there is something both to complain about and something to be thankful for.  God will show us the face of the Divine in those around us, and God will love us into seeing.  Because that’s what God does.  God’s promise is clear: in God’s loving arms, we will find rest.  Amen.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Immigration

Hebrews 13:1-2  Keep loving each other like family. Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it.

Leviticus 19:33-34  When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any resident alien who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.

Exodus 22:21 Do not mistreat or oppress a resident alien, because you were once aliens in the land of Egypt.


This last Sunday was national immigration Sunday in the Church, big C.  The reason is obvious: this country was founded with immigrants, and so it is appropriate that the week of July 4th, we reflect on our history, on our beginning, on how we came to be in this place and to be the people we now are.
The three scriptures I posted above all say very similar things:  Don’t oppress the stranger, the foreigner, the “resident alien” - in other words, the immigrant: the one who lives in your country but is not a citizen in your country. Why? For the Israelites the reason was that they needed to remember that they too had been immigrants. They needed to treat others remembering once again that time is the difference between us: that they had also been in those situations and they were to treat others as they would have others treat them. They had been the immigrants before, and in remembering that, they were called to treat those who were the “new” immigrants with the same welcome, acceptance and compassion as they had sought to be treated. 
What does this have to do with us?  With the exception of full blooded Native Americans, all of us were also either immigrants (or our ancestors were) or we were brought here against our will. “The resident alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you too were immigrants in this land.”
But, as you must all surely acknowledge, as a country, as a people, we have struggled, from the beginning, in our relationships with the newest immigrants or newest arrivals to this country. Who those immigrants are has changed and who we struggle against therefore has changed. But the struggle itself has not. For a time, the immigrants from Ireland were oppressed and rejected. Did any of you come across with the Irish immigrants?  And were your ancestors treated well? Then it was immigrants from Italy: also abused, mistreated, threatened.  Again, any of you have Italian ancestry? Currently, it is immigrants from Central and South America as well as immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries with whom we struggle. The faces have changed, the group we struggle with has changed, but the problems: the discrimination, the fear, the abuse - it is the same, each and every time.  What’s interesting is that we still have undocumented immigrants from Ireland and Italy.  Apparently, we have 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants in the US, 10, 000 of those are in San Francisco alone. But we no longer struggle against them. No, our focus has changed. Or the deeper reality: our fear has changed.  Because when it comes down to it, that is, always, the reason we struggle against immigrants. We are afraid. We fear many things, but it comes down to fear.  Perhaps we are afraid that the United States will become too crowded. Perhaps we are afraid that their way of life is somehow different from ours and will be threatening. Some would say we are afraid of an increase in crime, though the statistics over the last twenty years tell us the exact opposite is true: 
Immigration-crime research over the past 20 years has widely corroborated the conclusions of a number of early 20th-century presidential commissions that found no backing for the immigration-crime connection. Although there are always individual exceptions, the literature demonstrates that immigrants commit fewer crimes, on average, than native-born Americans. Also, large cities with substantial immigrant populations have lower crime rates, on average, than those with minimal immigrant populations. … Cities and neighborhoods with greater concentrations of immigrants have lower rates of crime and violence. (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/fact-check-immigration-doesnt-bring-crime-u-s-data-say/)

In some cases we fear that the level of education in this country will decrease.  This too is countered by the facts:
Compared with all Americans, U.S.-born children of immigrants are more likely to go to college, less likely to live in poverty, and equally likely to be homeowners. Thirty-six percent of U.S.-born children of immigrants are college graduates—5 percent above the national averagehttps://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/reports/2017/04/20/430736/facts-immigration-today-2017-edition/  

The biggest fear I think is just plain racism. This is supported again by our behavior towards our immigrants. Because as I mentioned above, we aren’t talking about deporting the Irish “resident aliens”. To put this in bigger perspective, CNN reported that a PEW research study indicated that in this country right now there are between 475,000 - 500,000 undocumented Europeans.  Again, there is no conversation about blocking or deporting them.  Less than half of this country’s undocumented folk are from Mexico, and most undocumented folk come into this country legally and simply overstay visas.  Yet, we persist in ideas of building walls. (http://gothamist.com/2017/01/09/undocumented_immigrants_nyc.php)    
Perhaps we are afraid of how they will impact us economically. A news program that I heard about a month ago was discussing the finances that go along with the current immigrant situation. There has been a lot of “scare”, again, around the idea that somehow undocumented persons are taking our money or costing this country a great deal.  But the truth is that undocumented persons are paying taxes and many are paying into social security; every time they buy anything they pay taxes, and most have taxes taken from their pay check as well, by giving false social security numbers or in a variety of ways, they are actually paying taxes, often more than most of us. But these are people who will never be allowed to withdraw any of that as social security or many of the other benefits that come from our taxes. While this in itself is a severe miscarriage of justice, none the less, when the money numbers are punched out, the fact is that our undocumented persons contribute a great deal more to our economy and our taxes and our social security than they will ever receive or take.
In addition, as you know, our undocumented persons are currently doing jobs that most documented persons in the United States just plain won’t do. Sometimes they are severely abused, taken advantage of: hired to do work for which they are not paid, knowing there is no legal recourse for them. Or being paid so little that they can barely feed their families.  But the economic reality in this country is that California provides over half the agricultural food for the rest of the country, and most of the work on that food is done by undocumented persons.  If our immigrant workers leave, the cost of our food will rise exponentially. This, too is a severe injustice and has created almost a slave caste of people in the United States. Rev. Anthony Robinson, a UCC pastor in Washington says,  “Injustice anywhere leads inexorably to injustice everywhere. If there is a class of people without rights, without voice, without legal recourse and protection, it puts not just that group at risk.  It puts an entire society at risk. It becomes a cancer that eats away at the whole social body. If a certain group can be exploited, then exploitation begins to infect the whole society. Its overall standards of justice and fair play are lowered and distorted.” In the face of this, while treated amazingly unfairly, these undocumented persons still choose to come here, which tells us that at some level even this is better than what they have left behind.
But whatever it is we are afraid of, (and I think it is important to look at what it is we actually fear and to find out if those fears are real or imagined) the God who is God of all people, including these people, is a good God and when we decide that “these people” (whoever that is…whatever group that is) will somehow affect us negatively we are forgetting first that they, too, all of the “theys” out there are God’s children, and second that they are our brothers and sisters whom we are called to love and care for no matter what.  “The resident alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you too were immigrants in this land.”
While I realize that we could, and no doubt will, argue over the politics and economics of immigrant rights, really this is a much more basic issue about how we are to treat one another, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters. We often feel a sense of deep entitlement to this land, to this country, to the things we have here as legal immigrants (because again, we are all immigrants whether in this generation or previous). But where do we get this sense of entitlement?  Certainly not from God. We don’t own this country. We don’t own the land, we don’t own the resources. All of these are on loan from God.  Given to all people to use well, to care for responsibly, to be stewards over.  Who are we to decide who is acceptable to live here, who can go where, when and how?  “The resident alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you too were immigrants in this land.”
When I was a seminary student, half of my internship involved working with the immigrant population in an area of San Rafael known as the Canal district.  During one of my first days there, I met a wonderful woman named Maria.  When I met her she was working her little plot in the community garden of the Canal, while watching her four year old and six year old play ball together in the nearby park. She was very friendly, but even so, it took her some time to open up and tell me her story.  It seems she and her children had escaped from Guatemala after their village had been destroyed by the military, after her husband and brothers had been disappeared, after she heard the rumor that they were looking for her too. It was hard to understand why her family had become a target of the military. They had not, like some Guatemalans, dared to speak out against the military oppression in Guatemala. She and her husband had, though, been organizers of the people, beginning community projects such as childcare cooperatives and a community garden that would raise them out of the deep poverty that they all experienced, the day to day doubting whether they would have enough food to live.  Average income in her village was about $3.50 a week, almost enough to buy a pound of meat, but certainly not enough to raise her four children.  Still, the military had felt threatened.  They saw too much power in this poor Guatemalan family’s ability to organize the people.  But now she and two of her children were living in the Canal district.  She tried unsuccessfully to keep a smile on her face as she told me she had had to leave the other two children in Guatemala, with friends, there just wasn’t a way to get them all out. Their new life here wasn’t the life they had known.  The United States wasn’t and would never be, home.  Rather than being seen as a leader of her people, here she was an outcast; considered illegal, she was marginalized, refused services, anonymous, and often unseen.  Still, she told me that she didn’t mind too much, that in a way it was nice to be unknown for a change, not sought out.  She did worry about their illegal status.  She had tried to apply for asylum, but the U.S. didn’t recognize the oppression of the Guatemalan military and so asylum was denied.  Still she was here.  Yes, they were poor and illegal refugees.  Yes, they lived in what many felt was a dangerous part of town.  But she told me she was okay; her family was safe so far, and thank God, while finding work was difficult, they had enough to eat, enough to get by.
I saw Maria a lot at first and her love and commitment to improving the lives of those around her, even in the United States, was an inspiration to me.  But there came a day when I stopped seeing her around.  After a while I noticed that her little plot of land had fallen into ruins.  At first when I asked about her all I got were anxious looks.  But finally in answer to my persistent questioning, one of the other women came forward.  She told me that one day while Maria was working in the garden, Miguel, her four year old, had run into the street to get his ball and had been hit by a car.  Maria was not fluent in English and she did not have a car, but she managed to get Miguel to the hospital.  The hospital did save Miguel, but they had felt it necessary to call immigration as well which had promptly picked her up and sent her back to Guatemala, leaving her four and six year old children here because they had been born here, without parents, without family.  I never found out for sure what happened to Maria, but I was told she disappeared soon after her return to Guatemala.  Unless her kids are extremely lucky, the life they face will be extremely hard. 
This story may leave you with mixed feelings.  You may feel it is an extreme story, but unfortunately, it is not.  People come here, making the often extremely dangerous and risky trip here to the United States for many reasons - all of them about survival for themselves and their children.  Who are we to decide that we are somehow more deserving of a life that is safe, that is economically sound, that has hope and a future than some other child of God on this planet?  The resident alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you too were immigrants in this land.”
Many of my children’s friends are immigrants or the children of immigrants.  While many of these have been the top students in my kids’ classes, the fear for their families has caused some of their grades to plummet.  The school district has also reported that many children of immigrants have dropped out of extra curricular activities because of that fear.  My daughter’s best friend was born in this country, but her parents were not. At one point when I went to pick Aislynn up at her house, her friend's mother met me at the door in tears, “Why do all white people hate us?” She demanded. “we are not all bad!  We work hard, we pay taxes, we never do anything wrong!” For all my assurances, she was not convinced that we did not all feel this way.
Still many cling to stereotypes that tell us they are “other” and not as good somehow.  Because we are afraid.

Our call is so simple.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  It is not an easy call.  It is not easy to step outside of our fear of the unknown, our fear of the “other”.  It is not easy to remember that this is God’s land, not ours.  It is not easy to remember that we too were foreigners in this land.  But it is simple.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  It's that clear.  It's that simple.  Get to know your neighbors, get to know those who are different from you.  Talk to those whom you fear.  Learn to love them for the people they are.  Amen.

Monday, June 26, 2017

On Being Humble

Genesis 21:8-20
Matthew 10:24-39

            Have any of you, like Sarah in the passage from Genesis, ever felt jealous and/or threatened by the power, popularity, achievements or even just the potential of others?  Even those who have less power and stature, like Hagar, who was not Abraham’s wife, but his slave: still, Sarah felt threatened - threatened that he had another child by another woman: threatened enough that she wanted Hagar and her son sent away - in other words she wanted them dead for a woman and her son would not survive in the wilderness apart from the tribe.  She felt so jealous and threatened that she wanted Hagar and her son to die.  She must have felt an amazing amount of pain to feel so vindictive against Hagar and her son.  And while we may not act on feelings of jealousy or threat in such a way, almost all of us experience some degree of jealousy, or threat to our sense of place and status at one point or another.  Most of us, I think, experience situations and places where it is important to us that people know who we are, what our status is, what our accomplishments are.  We feel threatened and even angry or lost when others don’t value us in the way we would like, recognizing us as loved, as successful, as... whatever it is that matters to us. 
            When Jonah was eight he broke his collar bone at school.  The school called me, told me he had fallen running and that I needed to pick him up and take him to emergency.  When I got to the hospital, though, before I could tell the doctors and nurses that this had happened at school, I found the general assumption was that I had been abusing my child and that this was how his collar bone was broken.  The hospital personnel had their minds made up from the second we walked into the hospital as well.  They barked at me, treating me as if I were an uneducated, uncaring, awful mother who deserved to lose her child.  They put him in a room that I was not allowed into while they "interviewed" him.  I was already going through a horrible time because I was worried about my son. But it was also a matter of humiliation for me.  I wanted to shout at them that I had a degree in psychology, that I had a doctorate, that I was a pastor, that I had three children and all of them were wonderful and amazing and brilliant despite the tragedies they had experienced.  I wanted to shove layers of credentials in their faces because they made me feel little, small, unworthy and un-valued. In the end, I found myself grateful that his accident had happened at school, even though he did not have the comfort of a parent with him, because the possible consequences of this having happened at home were made absolutely clear to me through that experience.
            But I am not alone in this need to be seen and valued.  When I had surgery a dozen years ago: the doctor came out to talk to my family about how the surgery had gone, he still had on his scrubs, with a stethoscope around his neck, the little mirror thing around his head: My family got a clear impression that this was not so much that he felt in a hurry to talk to them as it was important to him that the other people in the hospital know that he was a doctor, not one of the patients, not a nurse, but a surgical doctor.  
            At Jasmyn’s school at one of the back to school nights, I found myself talking with another parent whom I did not know before and found that she was very quick to make sure I understood that she was not just a mere parent at the school, but a teacher as well.  Her sense of identity and sense of accomplishment needed to be validated by my knowing she taught as well as parented. 
          At many programs where the poor, homeless or marginalized are served, the volunteers all have name-tags stating their status as volunteers - distinguishing them from those who are being served.  There are always reasons for doing this, some of which are good, valid, helpful.  But at some level one has to ask what import it serves to separate us into categories in this way?  For some of the volunteers, this distinction is important.  For the newest volunteers especially, it can feel important to not be mistaken for a person in need.
          Again, I think we all have felt some sense of threat to our identity at some point, some need to stand up and say, “Wait!  That’s not who I am!  Look at what I’ve done, or who I know or who I am!”
            But today’s scriptures point out several things.
            We are told, first, that whatever is not known will be known.  All will be revealed.  In this context that means that our real selves will be known, will be measured, will be opened for all to see.  And that real self is not going to be judged by our status, our job, our accomplishments, our wealth or our popularity.  Our real self, our core self, has to do with our care and love to God and God’s people.  And by “care” I don’t mean the good works we do so much as how we approach God’s people, all of God’s people every day.  Even more, our real worth is a gift given to all.  For our real value, our worth is actually about the fact that we are God’s children - all of us - none of us loved more highly than another, none of us loved less highly than another.  Jesus assures us in this passage from Matthew that all will be known.  At that time, we will be measured by our hearts: and we will be found valuable simply by the fact that we are God’s children.  Those who would judge us then, who would hurt us, who would take away our wealth, our popularity, our health, our status, we are told, should not be feared because eventually their worth, too, will be shown and all those marks of status we value so much in this life will be found to be meaningless: those who would hurt us will also be shown as the equal children of God that they are.  Even family connections, we are told, will be brought to nothing.  Those then, who would separate us out, by our lack of these things: connections, popularity, fortune, these who judge us and put us down, who disrespect us, who treat us as “less than” are not to be feared.
            As the beginning of the Matthew passage says, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.”  In other words, all our attempts to be of more value than someone else have no worth.  God calls us to be God’s servants, doing the work of loving and caring for God’s creation.  That is our job.  And that work is not neat or tidy or beautiful or glorious: that is not work that will earn human praise or honor: but it is the real work of being God’s people. 
            One summer while I was in college I went to the most rural part of Alabama as a Volunteer in Mission for the Methodist church.  I worked that summer for a parish - or a group of ten very small congregations spread out over this very rural area: some of these churches had only 4 or 10 members, but they kept on meeting, worshiping together.  The parish center united these ten churches but it did more than that.  It ran a clothing thrift store, it kept a food pantry, and most importantly it ran a building program.  Groups of youth from around the state would come to this parish spot for a week or two and help repair and build houses for the poorest of the poor, the disabled, and the elderly: those without education or income or anything except the little pieces of land or house passed down through the generations.  I came to this program full of myself as a person who would go to seminary and become a missionary, for that is what I believed I would do at the time.  I went ready to be a community organizer and to work hard with these youth groups and with this building project.  But one week Dorsey, the pastor in charge of this project, asked me to help out with the thrift store.  I went in and Dorsey’s wife, who ran the thrift store, asked me to go into the back room and sort through boxes of donated clothes, helping to sort them by size, checking for holes, making sure they all had price tags.  I went back and began to do as she said, but found that there wasn’t a lot for me to do.  Most of this work had already been done, and I began, after time spent mostly waiting and watching, to feel resentful and even self-righteous about this.  I was a college student at Cal, I was going to be a pastor, I was going to be a missionary, they were putting me in the “hang out with thrift store clothing” box because I was female when I was just as capable as men to do other more useful work, I was....this and this and this...all reasons why the work of waiting, and the work of looking to see if anything else needed to be done, the work of looking at old discarded clothing felt somehow below me.  I hated this, and I made sure that message was conveyed. 
            The next day Dorsey asked me to go with him to a building site for a potential house.  We went out and Dorsey and another man talked about water and pipes while I stood impatiently to the side, uninvited into this conversation, and standing around waiting once more.  After twenty minutes of standing there Dorsey said, “Barbara, please go get me my wrench.”  So I walked the two feet over to his tool box and brought him back his wrench.  I continued to stand there and after another forty minutes had gone by he again addressed me, “Barbara, please bring me my measuring tape.”  I did so and again stood around waiting.  After another half hour had passed I finally lost it and said, “Dorsey, is there something useful I could be doing here?”  He looked up at me sternly for a minute, then excused himself from the conversation with the other man and took me around the corner for a lecture I will never forget.  “Who are YOU?” he demanded “that this work is too good for you?  Who are YOU that you decide what is useful and what is not?  Who decides what is God’s work?  Who decides what is needed?  You will never be God’s servant until you are able to see that God’s work is often the most humble of work, often the least recognized work, often the least glorious work.” 
            He was right.  And that day I learned a most humbling lesson.
            But it wasn’t the last day of my lessons on humility for this summer.  Remember, as I said, the houses we were building and repairing were for people who grew up in a very different culture and place than this.  Many, most, had no education at all.  Many times their rural southern accents were so strong that they were almost speaking another language.  This particular week the house the team needed to repair belonged to an elderly man who had probably never been farther than five miles from his little run-down house in his entire life.  He had been born there, he had been raised there.  He lived in extreme poverty and even squalor.  And we came that week, with a team of youth from the city to replace the original roof on this 100+ year old tiny and run-down abode.  The roof that was there hardly existed anymore.  So up we climbed onto the beams of the house, me and a team of six teens, one of whom was an African American girl, no more than 14 years of age.  And as we laid black roofing material in 100 degree humid weather and pounded nails into this man’s new roof, he stood at the bottom, on the ground and shouted up at us about how evil black people were.  He quoted scriptures that in his mind were proof of their inferiority and even their lack of humanity.  He stared at the African American girl as she built him a new roof and cursed her, again and again.  And as I listened and watched, incredulous, I noticed that the African American girl, who clearly heard every arrogant, prejudiced word that this man said, still, despite everything, put 100% of her effort into doing a good job for this man.  She never quarreled with him, she never challenged his words: she just did her work.  I tried to challenge the man and was told by her to stop.  At the end of the day we discussed the situation and she told me that she did not believe this man would change through argument or anger.  She did not believe the man would change old ingrained beliefs even through other scriptural quotes.  She said her job and our jobs that week were not to change this man, to “educate” this man.  Our job was to love this man by building him a new roof.  Our job was to be God’s hands and feet and do our best to care even for those who would hate us.  If God used that to change him, so be it.  If the man never changed, so be it.  But our job was clear. 
            Doing God’s work is not pretty or glorious.  Sometimes it looks like waiting.  Sometimes it looks like fetching objects.  Sometimes it looks like pounding nails into a roof while being cursed at from the bottom.  Sometimes doing God’s work of caring for the least of God’s people - the poor, the homeless, the oppressed, the children - sometimes that means losing friends, or losing a job, or losing connections or losing popularity, fame, glamour.  It is messy work.  It is hard work: it is not easy to stand up to someone you care about.  It is not easy to keep building on the roof even when you are being cursed from the ground.  But this is God’s work.  And we are called to do it without asking for recognition or popularity or glory.  We are called to do it as servants - servants who are loved beyond anything we can imagine.  Amen.