Monday, December 26, 2016


        It is the day after Christmas.  For many, I'm sure, it is a day of rest, of relaxing.  Not for me.  We had half the family over for Christmas yesterday and the other half is coming today.  I also have a memorial service in the early afternoon.  And since the house was full of folk yesterday, it requires cleaning again today, as well as cooking, before our guests arrive.  Another very full day, after an incredibly full week (a total of 6 worship services in the span of a week plus the preschool program, and regular scheduled activities.  I know other large churches may have this many services on a regular basis, but then they also have multiple pastors on staff...) which was just the last in an incredibly busy month.  And at the end of it all, I'll admit I'm tired.
       But right now, in this moment, before the kids are awake and before David comes over to help me with all that needs to be done; right now it is quiet.  I sit in my house, looking out my back window on a gorgeous sunny winter's morning.  And it is silent.  The beauty of the morning calls me to be outside, walking, and when I am done writing this I will probably accept that invitation.
        But as I sit in the quiet, I am aware of how many times and ways we are pulled out of the quiet. I'm aware that even my writing and even my desire to be out walking are ways to avoid being in the stillness by myself.  We flood ourselves and our lives with noise, with disturbances, with distractions on so many different levels.  There are those we are willing to name as a culture: TV, radio, videos, time with people, busyness.  But there are the ones we are less willing to own that are also distractions and ways to avoid the quiet: social media is a big one, but I would also add books, activity of any kind (including writing), music in any form, and yes, even walking, exercising, and being with our most intimate companions.  I heard a story this last week about a man who was struggling and told by his therapist that for a week he needed to go home after work each day and be just with himself.  At the end of the week he returned to his therapist and informed her that it had done no good.  She asked what it looked like for him to be with himself at the end of each day.  He said he went home and read and listened to music.  The therapist told him, "I told you to go home and be with yourself each day, not with the authors and composers of the books and music that filled your time."  I think there is so much wisdom in that story.  It reminds me frankly of something Martin Luther supposedly said, "I have so much to do today that I shall spend the first three hours praying." I don't know what he meant by praying, but for me, the listening, the silence, the being is the most important part of praying.
            It is so hard to be with ourselves.  We escape constantly.  Even as I write this my mind is going a hundred different places into what I need to do today, what must be accomplished.  It escapes into thinking about relationships and situations and things needing to be done or fixed or righted or tried.  My mind goes to encounters I've had and analyzes them, picks them apart.  It is hard to just BE.  But I believe the more that we practice BEing, the more we find there is nothing to fear, there is nothing to escape, and that some of the moments that are most truly lived and experienced are those we find in solitude and in silence.  If nothing else, these moments of silence can ground us and help us remember that at the end of the day, little that we focus on in our constant busyness really matters. We are given the gift of living, of life, of being.  And in the end accepting the invitation into life is what it is all about.  I'm going to stop writing now and try to do what I'm urging the rest of you to do. Have a blessed day, whatever your faith tradition.  Take time to BE.  Peace to you all.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Times of Darkness

         I love the psalms.  I love them because they give words to all the feelings we have: all, including that which we often think we should not share with God.  There is anger, there is despair, there is sadness; as well as praise and thanksgiving and joy and delight.  There is envy and frustration, feelings of abandonment; as well as celebration of life and all of its gifts, triumph, trust, and victory.
         I am part of a spiritual journeys group that meets once a month for 4 1/2 hours or so and that is practicing different spiritual disciplines each month.  This month we looked in particular at psalms of lament.  Every week we were to pick a different psalm of lament and each day we read through it, listening for where God is and what speaks to us in that particular reading.  I love Psalm 22 for many reasons, not least of which is that I think many of us can resonate so strongly in times of despair with much of what the psalmist wrote, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,     by night, but I find no rest."  If we are honest with ourselves, all of us have felt this at one time or another.  I also love it because Jesus quoted that first line from the cross.  Christ, too, knows what it is like to feel that despair, that pain.  I find great comfort in that, in the idea that we are understood for all of who we are and all of what we feel.
       But this last week I focused on a different psalm.  I chose Psalm 88, which doesn't resolve as most of the other psalms of lament do.  There is no "it's okay" at the end, or even praise of God to set us back on our feet.  It ends in the dark.  It ends still in the despair.  It ends in anguish and sorrow.
      I know there is a theological position that states that we should never leave our people in that darkness, that we must always shine a light to lead them out of that place.  But I do not and cannot agree with that. For one thing it does not acknowledge that there simply ARE times of despair for all of us, that there are times when we cannot find the light.  To acknowledge that and to honor those feelings is to really see people and to be with them even in that darkness.  When we try to rush people too quickly out of their pain and anguish, we do not give them the space to fully grieve and therefore to truly heal.
         To be fully human means to experience the darkness as well as the light, to be willing to learn the lessons and accept the gifts that sorrow can bring to each of us.  These aren't easy lessons to learn and I understand not wanting to be in the pain which alone can lead us to these deeper understandings.  But without that willingness to be in the dark for a while, the light's brightness can never be fully understood, experienced, or appreciated for the gift it brings. Without that commitment to walking through the despair, we cheapen life in all its wondrous variety.  Without sinking into the desolation and suffering for a time, the pain cannot be completely released, and we will not be set free to experience joy with fullness.
        We were encouraged to write our own psalms of lament during this time as well.  I am aware that, to quote Hildegard de Bingen, "My greatest disobedience is my self-doubt".  I also want to remind you that a psalm of lament is a glimpse, a moment.  It is not the totality of our beliefs or even an accurate reflection of our faith.  It is a snapshot on the pain we are feeling at the moment (so please don't send me a message "correcting" my theology on this.  Again, this is a reflection of the feelings I had in a moment).  With all those caveats, I am choosing to share with you my psalm of lament in the hopes that it might resonate with some of you as well:

I hear you calling, God
I hear it constantly,
This call
To do more
To be more
Than I am.

You call me through the Prophets’ words
Of preaching good news to the poor
Lifting up the downtrodden
And healing the broken hearted.

You call me through the words
Of Jesus as he begs and demands and insists
That our call is to feed the hungry
And clothe the naked
And visit those in prison
And who are sick.

You call me through our modern prophets
Who speak of the need
To advocate for the voiceless,
To fight the powers that would hold down
Any of our sisters and brothers,
To stand up with those who are threatened.

And you call me through the pain I feel
At the suffering of others,
And at the destruction of the environment.
At the cutting down of the trees
And at the anger, bigotry, misogyny, homophobia,
That cuts me like it was my own skin being torn to shreds.

You call me through all these things.

But I’m all too aware that I fall short
I don’t do enough
I’m not enough.

And in my failing, God, I feel your absence.
I feel your tangible disappointment in me:
Not only what I have done
And what I have failed to do,
But also in who I am.

I call to you
Day and night
To release me from this torment
Of self-doubt and judgment

I ask every day for you to help me
Let go of my own ego
That keeps me more focused
On my failings
Than on doing what is there to be done
In each day
In each moment.

I beg and plead of you
To help me see where to put my next step
And to let me be a vessel
Of your will
And your way:
Your grace, love and compassion
To a hurting world.

But what I hear is silence.
What I get is absence.
What I experience is a turning of your back
With sad eyes.
A walking away.
A giving up
On me.

Don’t turn away from me!
Be there to give me the words
And the actions
And the vision
That I need.

Do not leave me
To fight my own inner demons
Of judgment and anxiety
By myself.

God, I beg you to return
And guide me on this dark
And difficult journey,
To help me get the “me”
Out of my laments
And to focus instead
Always and all the time
On the You
That is the person in front of me at any moment
As well as the God beyond us all.

          If this resonates with you, I hope you will try writing your own psalm of lament.  Finally, I want to end by encouraging you to listen to Amy Grant's song, "Better than a Hallelujah".  Beautiful.  Her own psalm (which means "song") of Lament.  Click here to hear it: Lament 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Honor of our Work

I deeply believe that my call is not better or greater or more important than anyone else's. But I think it is good to take seriously whatever our calling is and to look at what we are really entrusted to do. (Teachers, for example, have the incredible job of setting examples for their kids, engaging their minds and interests in learning, helping students to grow, to think, to see the world through new eyes. That is not a job that can or should ever be taken without a deep sense of the formidable and extraordinary job they have to care for those in their class rooms.)  We could examine the gifts of our callings with every vocation there is.  But today I would like to focus for a minute on the astonishing gift that has been given to those of us who serve as pastors.

As pastors we have been given an awesome task.  We speak to God on behalf of the people. And we attempt to speak words both of challenge and comfort to the people on behalf of God.  In the Protestant church we don't believe these calls or gifts are limited to the clergy by any means.  All people are to pray to God and all people are ministers to one another.  None the less, standing in front of people on a weekly basis to pray and to interpret God's word...  It is an unbelievable gift of trust from our congregants and from those who read our blogs or FB posts, or watch our YouTube videos, that they do take the time to listen to us, that they ask us to pray for them, that they come with the hopes of hearing something that will be meaningful to them, give them comfort or challenge them to a new way to understand and live their lives more fully, that they trust our prayers will be heard.

I found myself thinking today about Matthew 18:6 - “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea." As pastors, perhaps, we have more opportunities than many to cause others to stumble.  None of us are perfect.  Therefore all of us have undoubtedly gotten things wrong and been, at times, less than loving or compassionate. I believe it is only with grace and humility that we can stand before our God and pray that we mostly do good for those in our communities. This isn't, though, because I believe God will punish us when we end up hurting someone, but simply because I am aware that with this privilege comes an authority and therefore a responsibility to tread with care and love and a humbleness in all that we do.  We all have heard of times when pastoral authority has been misused, and it can be devastating.  Therefore the first prayer we who serve should pray every day is that God will use us in the service of good with those whose lives we touch.

But our job as pastors goes even beyond the praying and preaching.  I am aware every time I sit with someone going through a transition in their lives, every time I walk with someone in their last days, or pray with someone who has lost a loved one, each time I work with a couple as they make the decision to commit their lives to one another, or plan with a family the baptism of their child, of what an awe-inspiring privilege it is to be with people in these times, to hear their stories, to share in their experiences of deepest pain and greatest joy, to walk their journeys with them.  There is no greater honor than to be allowed to see someone's heart, to be trusted with another person's tears, to hold someone's hand as they transition out of this life-time, to bless a baby as it begins its journey, to hear the hopes and fears, the joys and sorrows, the grief and the wonder others carry.  It is in those times that I see the face of God most clearly in those around me.  It is in those experiences that my own heart finds healing.  It is through those moments that I glimpse eternity. And it is in walking the journey with another that I find myself held most deeply in Grace.

We also have the amazing privilege of interacting with people that most folk avoid, condemn, judge or simply don't see.  We often have people who are in need come into our ministries or churches.  I believe Jesus when he said he is to be found "in the least of these" and that when you do things for those others do not acknowledge that you experience Christ.  I know it is possible to become jaded by experiences of being lied to by someone asking for help.  But my own wish, my own striving is always to see the person behind whatever story they tell me whether it is true or not; to go deeper and really see the person who has been so hurt by life that they stand before me with a story, again true or not.  And in those interactions with other broken people, I see reflected my own brokenness, my own need for truths that go beyond the stories I share, my own need for other people and for their help.  It would be less than honest to say I never feel threatened or overwhelmed in these interactions.  But every time I have an interaction with someone I would rather avoid, I feel the call to look at myself and what I am uneasy with, what makes me uncomfortable.  I am forced to face my own prejudices and biases and to learn from them.  The opportunity to weekly and sometimes daily grow and learn is another of the great gifts of our work. We are called to love and serve those in need.  And as pastors we are able to answer that call as part of our daily service.  That is a gift as we experience grace in the giving, in the loving, in the serving.

Finally, I want to mention one other way in which our work is an amazing call, honor and privilege. I do not believe there is one pastor out there who has not been hurt by the people they serve.  This can take many forms.  Parishioners hold pastors to higher standards most of the time and expect from us, therefore, a level of performance that none of us can meet all the time. They also don't seem to realize that we have as many feelings, insecurities and doubts as everyone else.  Parishioners hurt us, therefore, in many ways.  They can become angry when they perceive we have made a mistake, or when they feel we have slighted them in some way. Sometimes they choose to attack rather than talk to us about their needs and their feelings. They can be nasty and cruel in evaluations.  And sometimes they gather others to them and attack as a group. Parishioners hurt us by dismissing our ministry with them and asking other pastors to serve in important life transitions instead.  I could go on and share stories of pastors who've been chewed up, spit out and broken by congregants who have no regrets at all about the way they have treated them.  The truth is they hurt us in a myriad of ways and in a myriad of situations. And again, there is not one pastor I know who has never been hurt by those they are called to serve.  But it is in the midst of that we hear God asking us to love even those who would hurt us and would hate us.  When we are called to sit with,  pray for, and hold the hand of someone who has made our life difficult, painful, or stressful, it moves us to be better than we are.  It challenges us to live what we preach by forgiving even when forgiveness is not sought, by loving even when the other does not want our love, and by rising above our own egos to truly show the face of grace, love and compassion.  For me personally, this is one of the hardest things I am called to do. Even as I write this faces float before my eyes of people who have been unkind whom I have still been called to love and care for.  My profession forces me to do what I might otherwise avoid. It calls me on my stuff, and forces me to own what is my own baggage, my own brokenness, and my own ego.  That too is a gift that deepens in me every time I am able to it.  When I am able to forgive and let go, I feel God's presence moving in my being.  When I am able to look at an angry face and love the person behind it, sometimes I have been gifted to experience tears of healing for both of us.  When I am able to move myself out of the way and just be a presence for the other, I have felt an awareness of that which is bigger than all of us in the room guiding, affirming, and loving us both.

As pastors we have the joy of being able to focus all of our time on God and on loving others.  We get to study, read, teach, be creative, plan, vision and dream.  We get to walk with people through it all. We get to be blessed by the ministries of those around us.  It is an honor and privilege to be able to serve people as a pastor because we are the ones who are blessed by each person we encounter.  May all of us who serve in these positions walk with the gentle reminder that our work is a blessing to us. And that we are therefore called to walk with grace, joy and humility in every step we take.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Disagreeing in these terrifying times

              I wrote much of this in a newsletter article for my congregation before the election, but I still think it applies so I'm posting it here as well:

               As we approach the new year, tensions within our country are on the rise.  I don’t remember them ever being this high before, but they certainly are now.  People read different news articles, believe very different "truths" and believe absolutely that the other side is reading lies.  We don't see or hear the same things, we don't believe the same things, we don't trust the same sources, and as a result, we cannot possible see eye to eye.  This is becoming more and more true, instead of less.  
For both sides it feels like central issues are at risk right now, core beliefs, core values, and in some ways I feel that we have entered into a truly terrifying time where we no longer listen, no longer hear, but are more and more divided from one another.  How can we be family together if we cannot stand in the same room?  How can we learn to “love our enemies” when we will not listen to them?  How can we work together to help bring the kindom of God to earth “as it is in heaven” when we refuse to work together towards solutions?  And what can we do when we are afraid?
               There is a YouTube personality called “kid president” whom I feel did a really nice summary of the ways we might choose to respond to people with whom we disagree.  For those who are computer savvy and enjoy these videos, I would encourage you to check this out.  He is funny, sweet and right on target:  For those who’d rather not watch a video, I will share a few of his awesome points about how to disagree, mixed with thoughts of my own. 
              We have to start by remembering that the other person with whom we are talking is another person.  They are not a punching bag.  They are not an ant (though, frankly, it wouldn't hurt us to try to be respectful of all God's creation, including the ants).  They are a person.  Or to put it in Christian terms, we are called to remember that the other is also a child of God.  They are our brother or sister.  Therefore we are called in all times and in all ways to treat the other as that child of God, a reflection of God, a living, breathing soul who has been given life by none other than our good Creator.  Even when the other is horrible to us, we are called to love them.  You know the scriptures.  From Matthew 5: You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” And “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
               We have to treat each other with love and kindness.  This is not optional here, especially for those who claim to follow Jesus.  Fighting hate with hate is not an option, being violent is not an option, fighting the darkness with darkness (to use MLK's phrase) is not an option for those who follow Christ.  That means, though, that we have to spend time getting to know the brother or sister that we see as an enemy.  It isn't an "out there" idea.  It certainly isn't a theoretical philosophy.  It is our call.  We are to love the other. That has to start by getting to know the other.  And getting to know the other begins with listening.
         That means refraining from yelling or attacking or shutting someone else up.  It starts with simply listening.  Closing our mouths, opening our ears, and working with every breath in you to HEAR.
           Kid President says the next step is to “pause, breathe, love”.  Another way to say this is take a moment, remember again that the other is a person, love them as God has called us to love one another, breathe in the Spirit, the Ruach, which is the Spirit of God, the spirit of peace.  Do all of this before you respond.  And when you respond, don’t be MEAN.  That means no name calling, no insulting.  Just state your difference of opinion and why.  Saying things like “well, that’s just stupid” does not further communication, understanding or peace.  Saying things like, “what a ridiculous thought!” again does not further love.  That is what we are about, furthering love.  To quote Kid President, “nobody wins when all you want to do is win.” 
               I would encourage all of us to listen more and to strive more for kindness.  Those random acts of kindness make a huge difference in the world. When someone yells at you from their car, it can ruin your day. When someone takes the time to help you, it can make your whole day brighter.  When we are doing better, we treat others better. We pass that along. Meanness, hatred, anger, fear – these things cannot be allowed to rule us in the big things or in the small things.  And that means we have to start by showing that kindness, love and caring to each other in the small matters as well as in the big.  Especially now during this season of such high tension, fear, anger and hatred, we are called to show a better way.  “They will know we are Christians by our love”.  Well, let’s be part of proving that.  Let us love one another.  That's it. Not easy.  But simple and clear.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Sunday's Sermon -Advent II - Repentance

Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

John was baptizing.  And when the Pharisees and Sadducees came to him to be baptized, the implication is that he did baptize them as well.  But what he had to say to them was pretty harsh.  He offered baptism for repentance, but then declared that this was just a beginning…  just a prelude to what Jesus would bring.  He himself declared that the baptism he was offering was, in a sense, “easy”.  It was gentle.  He said, come to me and let me baptize you and your sins will be cleaned.  But John also warned that Jesus’ coming would not be so simple.  Making amends, repenting, is not just the easy task of saying to God, “I messed up.”  Not that saying this is easy, either.  Even admitting to God our mistakes can be hard.   We like our general prayers of confession – our general prayers that don’t get into the “specifics” but just state in very general terms the errors of our ways.  Sitting down with God and really taking a moral inventory is much harder.  Saying to God, admitting to ourselves that we have passed up those in need, that we have hurt people around us, that we judge too quickly and live out that judgment in unhealthy ways….the specifics of our errors are harder to admit.  But John takes this a step further.  He says, yes, he baptizes with water for repentance.  But when Jesus comes, he will be baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  What does that mean?  We understand that it has to do with repentance, but what exactly is John saying to the Pharisees and Sadducees, and to us as well?
               At some level, I think the Pharisees and Sadducees did get that they had things they needed to repent of.  They would not have come to John otherwise.  But they did come to John for baptism.    So I think it is helpful to take a step back and look at who the Pharisees and Sadducees really were.  Apparently, the more research that is done on who the Pharisees and Sadducees are, the less that is actually known about them.  Everyone has a different guess - but more and more scholars admit that’s all they have: guesses.  Our greatest information about them, then, must come from the gospel stories themselves.  When reading Biblical passages that talk about Pharisees and Sadducees, it becomes apparent that the one characteristic that is constantly being confronted in their strict dedication to the law to the point that they would sometimes hurt others just so they would be following that law.  They follow the Biblical law to a tee.  They would never touch someone who was “unclean,” ie bleeding, or somehow broken, they would never work on the Sabbath, and that included healing or allowing for others to be healed.  They are trying to follow God’s law in all that they do: and apparently, they are very good at it. 
But they do it so rigidly that people end up hurt. They fail to live the deeper law of LOVE because they are so focused on the specifics of the laws that they feel make them “clean” or right.   The problem has to do with their fruit, as John the Baptist tells it in this passage.  In their efforts to uphold and live out the law, the Pharisees and Sadducees passed up many opportunities to really care for and serve people, God’s children, others, those around them.  John the Baptist tells them that it is by their fruits that they are known, not by their legal goodness, not by their righteousness, not by the laws they so strictly follow and obey.  What God cares about is that we live lives of love - loving your neighbor, loving your enemy, loving all you encounter, in the same way that you would love yourself.  It is by the care that a person provides, the lives each person touches and changes, it is by how much good we do in the world, not by righteously following the laws, but by how we live lives of love, that we will find ourselves judged. 
The Pharisees and Sadducees come to John for repentance.  But they are repenting breaking laws.  They are repenting wearing clothing of mixed cloth or eating something unclean, or feeding an animal on the Sabbath, or whatever law they happened to feel they may have broken.  What they are failing to repent of is their failure to live lives of love. 
It is easy for us to stand with John the Baptist in condemnation.  It is easy for me to say, “in today’s world, these Pharisees and Sadducees are the equivalent of people who are so set on following some laws that they are willing to kill people by blowing up Planned Parenthood clinics, supporting hate crimes, telling the homeless that they will be helped only if they convert first, telling those who are sick that if they only had enough faith they would be healed.”   We don’t do that.  We aren’t like that.  This passage doesn’t seem to really apply to us.  We strive hard to live lives of service and love and I believe we do a good job of that here at Clayton Valley. 
But during this Advent time, and at a time when we are looking at repentance, we are called to go even deeper.   It means taking things the next step, the much harder step, of actually repenting, of turning around, taking a different path, a different road, fixing what we have done wrong or failed to do that was good.   We don’t fix these things by simply asking God for forgiveness, or being baptized for forgiveness.  We fix these things by looking at how we have hurt others and making the choice, the decision, to turn another direction, go a different way, make amends to those we have injured, and choose different behavior that will not injure again in the same way.
When I was in high school I went through a period of time when I began to feel this nagging at my heart every time I passed up a homeless person begging.  I began to feel that God was calling me through Jesus’ example and Jesus’ call to feed the poor that my abundance in the face of their poverty was in itself sin.  This feeling grew in me when I went to Berkeley for college and found I had to pass these poor and broken people every day on my way to and from classes.  But shortly after I arrived, one of my new Christian friends told me, “Oh, well, I don’t give them money because I’d just be supporting their addictions and paying for their alcohol.”  I cannot tell you the relief for me in those words.  Here was an excuse that I could stand on.  Of course God didn’t want me to support their addictions, so God must not have meant for me to give money to these people.  And I found this belief to be supported, quoted, worn almost like a badge by the Christians around me.  Here was our excuse for not caring for these people.  Interestingly, most of the time an alternative, such as giving them food instead of money when they asked, was never offered.  Instead, we all clung to our Christian righteousness and excused our neglect of Jesus’ command to feed the “least of these” in this simple, straightforward way.
But then I began to volunteer with the local soup kitchen and the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy to the Homeless.  There I met two pastors who had different things to say on the subject.  Pastor Alexia asked me, “Do you know for sure they will spend the money on alcohol?  Maybe the one who asks you is Jesus in disguise.  How will you know?”   Lucy was even more confrontational in her thinking, “Do most of the people you know refuse alcohol to their friends at a party, even when they know their friends to be alcoholics?  They don’t see it as their place to decide for someone they see as an equal whether or not they can drink.  They might suggest AA, they might intervene, but not without knowing them well, not without caring deeply and making sure their alcoholic friend has the resources to stand against their addictions with help and love.  You do not withhold from your friend, even though he may be an alcoholic.  Yet, you feel it is your place to determine how a person struggling with incredible poverty survives in that situation?  Have you ever been the poor person without family, a shower, a home, any resources for their own comfort except maybe an occasional drink?  Who are you to judge that?  Who are you to take away even the false comfort they turn to in their hours of despair and desolation?  If you take the time to know them and then from a place of loving support offer alternatives to alcohol, good for you. But until you are willing to stand in that place of knowing them, loving them, caring for them materially and emotionally, you cannot judge them or make yourself judge and jury over whether they are worthy of the time, the money, God’s money that has been entrusted to you.  You cannot decide for them how they will spend God’s money that they beg off of you.  You are not God.  But if giving money makes you that uneasy, then what is stopping you from loading up on peanut butter sandwiches to pass out?  The excuses are numerous, but the solutions are also numerous if you are willing to take the risk of caring.” 
In her words, I heard truth.  A truth that was hard because it threw me back into guilt.  Actually, while I think guilt is a God-given emotion at times, I don’t think guilt usually motivates us to change.  The real change has to come from a place of gratitude and thanksgiving for what God has given us.  The real change has to come from a place of understanding the other person - their needs, their motivations, their situations.  To love our neighbor we must spend time with them, come to know them. But most of us don’t find it easy to take the time to get to know our poor, our destitute neighbors.  And even in our abundance, we can also find gratitude hard to grasp for very long. 
The reasons we give ourselves for not caring, whatever they are, can stop us from loving others.  But there are other things that prevent us from caring for others in concrete tangible ways.  
I think about Nelson Mandela, the amazing man that he was and how he was foundational in changing a nation.  But as I reflect on his great life, I also find myself wondering about all the people who were part of what he did whose names just aren’t recognized.  Rarely will any of us be a Nelson Mandela.  But we can be those people who act with love, compassion, grace and peace in the world.
John tell us to prepare by changing our lives.  By repentance.  Repentance does not mean saying you are sorry.  It means turning around, walking the other direction, it means a complete change in your life.  It involves change.  It also involves making amends, which is hard.  Making up for those things we have done and have failed to do.  So I ask you, if you knew that God was coming here in three weeks - and that God’s coming would involve judging between those who produce good fruit and those who don’t; if you knew that you would meet God in three weeks - face to face - and that God would see everything you are, everything you’ve done, everything you have left undone, how would you prepare?  What would you do differently?  How would that change your life?  Well, in the season of Advent, this is what we are being told.  In three weeks comes Christmas: God’s appearance in this world as one of us. 
Advent is not a time of remembering those who waited for the birth of the Christ.  It is an invitation to us to wait for the coming of God with us.  It is a time of preparation to meet God, face to face.  It is a time of reviewing our own lives, changing what needs to be changed to meet God with hope and peace, it is a time of repentance in the truest sense of that word.

I invite you during this Advent time to do more than be in the business of the season.  I invite you to take some time to be with the reality that God is coming into this world as one of us.  What will that mean for you?  What will God’s message bring to you?  How will you prepare?  How will you repent?  Amen.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - We do not know the hour

Isaiah 2:1-5
                                                                Romans 13:11-14                                   
Matthew 24:36-44

            I’d like to start today by asking the young people of all ages a question.   Have you ever had a babysitter come and stay with you?  When that happens, do your parents usually give the babysitter instructions on things you are supposed to do while they are gone?  Like what?  (going to bed at a certain time, doing your homework, cleaning up, getting a shower, etc.).  When your parents come home and those things HAVEN’T been done, how do your parents react?  And that reaction tells you that they feel…what?  You know they love you and you love them and so when your parent comes home and is disappointed or angry or sad, how do YOU feel?  So generally we try to do what others expect us to do, right?
            Okay, changing gears for a moment, I want to ask you another question: I want to invite you to think a minute about the greatest surprises you have experienced in your life.  If you feel so inclined, I would love it if you would share one or two of them with me.  They can be good surprises, or…not such good surprises.  Surprises thrown by life, or by family or by friends. 
Okay, you guys can go sit back down though I will use what you’ve said and thank you for your help with this. 
I’ve been thinking through the greatest surprises I’ve experienced in life so far.  Life is full of surprises, right?   Here’s a few that I remember experiencing…  I remembered the first time I put on glasses after having my first glasses prescription filled.  I remember looking out the window of the car, and seeing actual leaves on the trees and being deeply surprised, even SHOCKED that people could actually see those!  That was an amazing surprise, one I still remember because of how wonderful it was to be able to see in that way.  I’ve won things that I didn’t anticipate or think through at all.  Those were good surprises, too.  Finding friendship again & again in the people and places I least expected, those were awesome surprises.  When I went to work at Bethel, I went as an “interim” expecting to be there only a few short months since I thought the other pastor there would be too strong and hard to work with and for.  She was and is a very strong woman but I had the wonderful surprise of discovering how amazing she was to work with and to become good friends with this extraordinary pastor and person.  I ended up staying 8 ½ years in large part because I didn’t want to leave the amazing working relationship I had with this person I thought I wouldn’t want to work with at all!  That was a wonderful surprise.  Occasionally I’ve had the joy of experiencing the healing of a relationship –those, too have always surprised me in ways that leave me almost breathlessly grateful.  There have been bad surprises as well – deaths, divorces, people saying unkind things, traumas … surprises I did not and could not anticipate.  But whether the surprise was bad or good, anticipated at some level or completely unexpected, all surprises have something in common.  We don’t know when they will come.  We don’t know how they will come.  We don’t know IF they will come.  And even with all of that, they manage to still surprise us.
            The scriptures for today are all talking about an unexpected time.  A time we cannot know the date of (though people keep trying to figure it out and build whole careers on those guesses!) when God will come to us again in ways we cannot expect.  We will be surprised, we are told.  So knowing that a surprise is coming, even while knowing what that will be – God coming to be among us, but that it will happen in an unexpected way at an unexpected time, we are called to be prepared as much as we possibly can.  How do we do that?  How do we prepare for a surprise?  Or, going back to the first question that I asked, what is it that God has called us to do that we need to get done so that when God comes to us, in whatever way that may be and at whatever time that may be, like when our parents come home after a babysitter has been over, we are ready?  What is it that God wants us to do while we wait for Jesus to come, during Advent or at any time? 
            What are we called to do while we wait for our maker?  It is interesting that most of the time when we hear that phrase, “I am going to see my maker” we think of death.  But Jesus coming, God coming to be among us, Emmanuel, “God with is” is also a way we meet, or encounter, our maker, our God, our Lord.  And I believe we are to prepare for it actually, in the exact same way that we are called to meet our maker when we die.  Preparing to meet our maker, whether it be in the wondrous and amazing gift of a baby coming to be with us; or preparing to meet our maker because we are done with this life – both require the same preparation, the same attuning of our hearts to God, to looking for God, to hearing God, to seeing God, to experiencing God.
            In today’s scripture lesson from Romans, Paul said, The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let’s get rid of the actions that belong to the darkness and put on the weapons of light.  Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in obscene behavior, not in fighting or jealousy or obsession.  Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires.”
             So what is Paul saying?  How do we plan to “meet our maker” this Advent or any time, according to Paul?  Do you believe that Paul is trying to say that we should not enjoy things in this life because we never know when God is coming?  Well, I will just tell you straight out that I don’t believe that.  Jesus ate and drank – he turned water into WINE, he feasted and went to weddings, he allowed and even encouraged the indulgent expenses of oils to be poured on his feet.  No, I don’t think that’s the message.  I think the message IS to try to get your house, your spiritual house, in order.  And by that, I mean doing the things Jesus kept repeatedly telling us to do…learning to love ALL people, learning to love GOD, and learning to love ourselves.  And that may change the way we have fun.  It means having fun in a way that doesn’t damage others or ourselves.  It means having fun in a way that doesn’t ignore the pain of other people or exclude them or fail to love them.  But it also doesn’t mean failing to appreciate the good world that God has given us, or failing to enjoy it, or failing to delight in it. 
            We prepare by doing the things God calls us to do every day as if that were our last, as if we were “going to meet our maker.”  So, as a child of God who loves God, if you had only one day left to live, what would you do?  It may be hard to know what we might do in a situation like that.  But I think about what people did on 911 when they knew they were going down.  The stories are that they called their loved ones, when they were able, and told them they were loved.  They told them “thank you”.  They reassured them.  They prepared to meet their master by expressing love. 
            That is what we should be doing every day.  Expressing as much love, as much compassion, as much gratitude and caring (for others, for ourselves, and for God) as we can muster each and every day.
            We live in an uneasy world, an uneasy country right now.  We do not know what tomorrow will bring, truly.  Each day that we are given is an opportunity to do what God calls us to do.  Every time we see another human being in pain or being treated unkindly, we are given the opportunity to do things differently, to demonstrate compassion and love but also to stand up for one another.  Every day should be a day of preparing to meet the God who only calls us to do three things: love God, love neighbor and love self.  If we prepare for each day as if it were the day we would meet God, face to face, I cannot help but believe we would be behaving differently in the world.      
So here are some more specifics about what that might look like for us this Advent:  First, don’t leave any relationship unreconciled or unhealed, if there is any way to reconcile or heal it.  I know you can’t force that.  God knows you can’t force that.  But if you have left something untried or un-attempted in terms of healing with your sister or brother, now is the time to do it.  Second, don’t leave anyone short of hearing the words that you love them.  Say them today, this day, to everyone you love, and especially to those whom you have not had the courage to speak to before.  Third, don’t leave any “thank you” to God or to another human being unsaid, and leave no prayer unspoken.  Fourth, don’t leave anyone unforgiven.  Fifth, don’t leave anyone out in the cold, waiting for a blanket or warm food, or place of safety or healing that you have to give.  This is not easy.  I know that.  But I challenge you to remember Matthew 25 each day, that every time you offer food or warmth or comfort to someone else, you do it for God.  And every time we FAIL to do this, we also do it to God.
Does this mean that life needs to be nothing but work, work, work?  No.  We are also called to enjoy life.  If this were your “last day” you would do your best to relish and appreciate the life God has given you.  But do it, as you do all things, with love.
            Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “You can never do a kindness too soon because you never know how soon it will be too late.”  Life is full of surprises.  During advent we anticipate and remember the best surprise ever…the surprise gift of God’s coming to be with us in person as one of us, to walk with us and among us, to lead us, to guide us, to save us, and to overcome even death.  But each Advent we are called again to prepare.  To prepare as if we were going to meet our maker this very day.  And the best way to prepare is simply to do what God calls us to do every single day.  To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.  And to love your neighbor as yourself.  Love, love, love.  Amen. 


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

What we are called to do ...

        I'm writing this to all of you who are spiritual leaders, which, if you are Presbyterian at least, means I'm writing it for all of you.  We believe strongly that the "ministers" are "all the people."  We are all called to lead with our voices, with our actions, and most especially with our love.  But that is why I am writing this today.  Because I'm aware of my own feelings and I cannot help but believe that many of you probably share some of these with me.
      If you are like me, you may be feeling discouraged, frustrated and sad.  If you are like me, you may even be wondering what you have been doing for the last however-many-years that you've been serving in the church.  If you are like me, you are wondering if the words you have preached, the scriptures you have quoted, the stories you have told have made one iota of difference.  If you are like me you are wondering if the mouths you have fed, the blankets you have given, the council meetings at which you've spoken, the letters and phone calls you have made, the music you have played, the houses you have repaired, the children you have taught, the hands you have held, the sick and imprisoned whom you have visited, the protests you have made and the prayer circles you have created have mattered at all. If you are like me you have had some moments recently of wondering if it was just time to quit, to own that everything we do does not matter and in the end all the education programs you've created and the opportunities for growing, healing, learning, worshiping, praying have been for nought, if it isn't just time to own our ineffectiveness and our pointlessness and walk away from it all.  
    So I'm going to repeat what the wise people in my life remind me of on a monthly, weekly and, recently, daily basis:
    All that we are called to do is what is in front of us to do.  We are called to speak the scriptures of love that we read.  We are called to stand with those who are voiceless and to offer healing, empowerment, strength and comfort to all around us.  We are called to lift up the low and bring down the mighty.
    BUT, and this is key here,  we are not in charge of how what we do will be taken, how it will be used, who it will change and who it will pass over.  We are not in charge of the outcome.
      We throw the ball.  But once it is out of our hands, we no longer have control over where it lands. We pray and trust that if we strive to do what God asks us to do that God will use it for good.  That is all we can do.  That's it.  We speak the words, but once they have left our mouths we are no longer in charge of who will hear them, how they will be taken in or whether or not others listen and understand.
      We have to keep going.  We have to keep walking.  But we can let go of needing to succeed because what happens after we have done the work is not up to us.

     You may hear this as a relief.  Or you may be devastated to hear this.  But the reality is we cannot control the "other".  We can't.  So I say again, all we can do is what we are called to do.  Whatever your gift is, use it.  Whatever your call is, follow it.  Whatever God asks you to do, do it.  Do it with grace, do it with love, do it with compassion and do it with conviction.  And then do the next thing as it comes up.  And the thing after that.  And the thing after that.  But do not despair at the outcome.  Because that is in God's hands.  Be the person you are called to be.  And find your peace in having followed your path to the fullest, whatever follows.

Sunday's Sermon - Stewardship

Isaiah 65:17-25
               Luke 21:5-19

               The pastor was preoccupied with thoughts of how she was going to, after worship, ask the congregation to come up with the money they needed to repair the church roof.  He was annoyed therefore to remember that the church was not using a substitute organist who wouldn’t know what to play after this announcement.  “Here’s a copy of the service,” she said impatiently.  “But you’ll have to think of something to play after I make the announcement about the finances.”  That point in the service came and the minister paused before saying, “Brothers and Sisters, we are in great difficulty.  The roof repairs are going to cost twice as much as we had expected and we need $20,000 more to meet the new budget.  Any of you who can therefore pledge at least a $1000 a month to the church, please stand up.”  At that point the substitute organist played, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  And that is how the substitute became the regular organist!
               Today is Stewardship Sunday, the favorite day of both pastors and parishioners when we are supposed to be guilting our parishioners into a strong sense of obligation to give more than they currently are, to give until they feel it.  It would probably be more effective perhaps than other things I could say, to try to guilt you into giving more.  I could remind you that we are supposed to tithe, according to scripture, and that tithing means giving 10 percent of all the money we bring in BEFORE taxes.  I could remind you that we are doing wonderful things at church but that these things all require money.  I could restate what I told you last year about the fact that study after study show that people are NOT in fact happier who have more and that everyone feels they don’t have enough, regardless of how much they actually bring in.  I could remind you that studies show that in fact the people who have less do give a greater percentage of their incomes than those who have more.  But I don’t want to do any of that.  Because I believe very strongly that we should be giving not out of guilt, but out of gratitude.  Because God isn’t good to us because of what we do for the church.  God loves us first, and therefore we are called to do what we do for the church as well as for others out of gratitude to God for all that blesses our lives.  We show our faith by being grateful, and we tell people who we are and what we believe by how we behave. You show what matters to you by what you do with your time, your energy, your money, your talents, and your gifts.  All people do.  You want to know what really matters to people, look at where their money goes.  You want to know who people really are, look at where and how they spend their time.  Actually, this congregation is amazing in that almost everyone in here is involved in some way beyond Sunday morning.  And that says a lot about where you are, who you are, what your priorities are.  Stewardship then is following through on that as well…giving back to God and God’s people through our actions, our talents, our time, and yes, our resources. 
That doesn’t mean that giving is easy for any of us.  What we perceive to be our needs grows to fit our incomes or often to even exceed them.  We can see it happening in our lives and in the lives of those around us, but it is hard to stop it.  As a result as I said before, the most generous people are usually the poorest, those least able to share are often those with the most money.  I shared this with you before, but a person I know whom I call “Sally” has an income that exceeds mine by over five times.  Sally spends a great deal of time and energy worrying about her money, and is right now in a place where she absolutely finds it impossible to be generous with time, talents or money.  She is often found lamenting on how trapped she feels, how tight things are financially, and saying that she doesn’t know how the bills will be paid next month.  And the truth is that she isn’t making this up.  She really does struggle to keep up her expected standard of living.  Her investment properties, her motorbikes, the time she spends with friends of like economic status at vacation spots, expensive restaurants, her home remodel – all of these things do take every bit of the income that she brings in as well as every extra minute of her time.  Of course, for those of us who don’t live like that, it is easy to see the other side.  How much of that is necessary spending?  How much is luxury?  And how much good could actually be done with that money if she were to spend it on caring for others?  But this is what Sally is used to, what she knows, what she believes is necessary.  She has forgotten the bigger picture…the picture that says that none of her resources are actually her own.  They are all God’s and therefore should be used for the good of all rather than the good of just Sally.  She has lost touch with the fact that one of the meals she eats out in a month could feed a family overseas for six months and that this is a better use for God’s resources.  Sally has become owned by her possessions and lost in her material wealth.  And she is poorer because of it.
               In contrast, Rebecca makes half of what I make.  Yet she bakes cookies for her co-workers and friends on a regular basis, she invites people into her tiny home, not worrying about whether it is big enough or pretty enough or prestigious enough, she feeds them, invite them to stay.  She always has little gifts for the children she knows and gives back to the community in a myriad of ways, teaching music lessons, cooking for church potlucks, being around and available and generous with her smiles, her materials, her talents and her gifts.  Rebecca is far wealthier than Sally.  And yet Rebecca makes so much less.
               We see this.  We know that wealth is not just a matter of possessions, but of living in our faith, living secure in God rather than our things.  But it is still hard to live in our faith, to exercise our gratitude, to remember that we are stewards of the resources God has given us, not owners of it.
               I have a family member who was a psychology professor.  Every semester he used to do an experiment with his psychology class.  He would tell the class that everyone would have a choice about how many points they would get for attending class that day.  They could choose to get 5 points or 25 points.  However, if more than 15% of the class were to ask for 25 points, everyone in the class would get zero.  What do you think the results were?  Always the class got no points.  Every single time it was almost exactly 70% of the people in the class who would ask for the 25 points for themselves.  Even when they knew the results of other classes in which Gene had offered the test, the percentage was the same.  There was, however, one thing that could change that percentage.  If he told the class that those students who asked for the 25 points for themselves would have their names read aloud, the effect went away.  The fear of loss of social status was the only thing he found that was greater than the fear of not getting ahead in points.  Because of this knowledge, more and more churches are starting to publish what people give for the congregation.  We are not going to do that here.  But it does make one think… 
               One of my house-mates from college lives as a Catholic worker volunteer.  This means that she lives in a community of other volunteers who open their house to the poor in their community.  They feed them, house them, living in community together.  She is married with children and still lives in this community.  While I struggle to find the money to send my children to lessons so that they might have a full education, her children have the fullest education possible, living with and serving God’s people in community.  She has found God’s wealth to be far greater than that of material wealth and security.   She lives in God’s kingdom and she does it every day.
               Stewardship, choosing to give of our resources and to give with generosity, is a statement of trust in God, a statement that we know that our real wealth comes from our connections with God and God’s people rather than from money or resources.
A little girl stood near a small church from which she had been turned away because it was, supposedly, 'too crowded.' 'I can't go to Sunday School,' she sobbed to the pastor as he walked by. Seeing her shabby, unkempt appearance, the pastor guessed the reason and, taking her by the hand, took her inside and found a place for her in the Sunday school class. The child was so happy that they found room for her, and she went to bed that night thinking of the children who have no place to worship.  Some two years later, this child died in one of the poor tenement buildings. Her parents called for the kindhearted pastor who had befriended their daughter to handle the final arrangements. As her poor little body was being moved, a worn and crumpled red purse was found which seemed to have been rummaged from some trash dump. Inside was found 57 cents and a note, scribbled in childish handwriting, which read: 'This is to help build the little church bigger so more children can go to Sunday School.' For two years she had saved for this offering of love. When the pastor tearfully read that note, he knew instantly what he would do. Carrying this note and the cracked, red pocketbook to the pulpit, he told the story of her unselfish love and devotion. He challenged his church officers to get busy and raise enough money for the larger building. A newspaper learned of the story and published it. It was read by a wealthy realtor who offered them a parcel of land worth many thousands. When told that the church could not pay so much, he offered to sell it to the little church for 57 cents.  Church members made large donations. Checks came from far and wide.. Within five years the little girl's gift had increased to $250,000.00--a huge sum for that time (near the turn of the century). Her unselfish love had paid large dividends. Supposedly, this is the true story of Temple Baptist Church in Philadelphia, with a seating capacity of 3,300 and along with it, Temple University.
One day, a poor boy who was selling goods from door to door to pay his way through school, found he had only one thin dime left, and he was hungry. He decided he would ask for a meal at the next house. However, he lost his nerve when a lovely young woman opened the door.  Instead of a meal he asked for a drink of water!  She thought he looked hungry so brought him a large glass of milk. He drank it so slowly, and then asked, “How much do I owe you?"  “You don't owe me anything," she replied. "Mother has taught us never to accept pay for a kindness.." He said ... "Then I thank you from my heart." As Howard Kelly left that house, he not only felt stronger physically, but his faith in God and humanity was strong also. He had been ready to give up and quit. Many years later that same woman became critically ill. The local doctors were baffled. They finally sent her to the big city, where they called in specialists to study her rare disease. Dr. Howard Kelly was called in for the consultation. When he heard the name of the town she came from, a strange light filled his eyes. Immediately he rose and went down the hall of the hospital to her room.  Dressed in his doctor's gown he went in to see her. He recognized her at once.  He went back to the consultation room determined to do his best to save her life. From that day he gave special attention to her case. After a long struggle, the battle was won.  Dr. Kelly requested the business office to pass the final bill to him for approval. He looked at it, then wrote something on the edge, and the bill was sent to her room. She feared to open it, for she was sure it would take the rest of her life to pay for it all. Finally she looked, and something caught her attention on the side of the bill. She read these words ...
"Paid in full with one glass of milk."
(Signed) Dr. Howard Kelly.

               The words of the hymn we will be singing later, “we give thee but thine own” is one of the truest statements of our faith.  The money, the talents, the gifts and resources we have are not ours.  They are on loan to us from God…but as scripture tells us, “from those who have much, much will be expected.”  So let us return to God out of our gratitude, knowing everything we give can be used for good. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Perfect Love Casts out Fear/ Post election

1 John 4:16-18
Mark 4:35-41
Matthew 14:22-33

               Today we heard the passage from 1st John that tells us that perfect love casts out fear.  As people of faith we believe this. That the God of love will be the one who tames our fears, casts away all doubt, all insecurity and surrounds us with the blanket of love and comfort. We believe that love will win, that good triumphs over evil and that in the end, all will be well.
               But this week, no matter how you voted or what you believe, we cannot get away from the fact that people are scared by the results of the election.  Again, no matter how you voted or what you believe, we cannot get away from the fact that violence is being acted out both towards people who feel they have been given free rein to put down and injure people who are different from “us” in this way, and from people who are terrified and feel they are fighting for their lives.  My news box has been filled with stories in the last few days.  According to USA Today, hate crimes including harassment, threats, vandalism, assault and even killing have been numerous. From my own friends I have seen posts such as this:  “My 12 year old daughter is African American.  A boy approached her and said, “now that Trump is president, I’m going to shoot you and all the blacks I can find.”  “Kids at my kids school have been told to “get out” because of their skin color.  They’ve been told they will be sent out or be killed or even imprisoned because of their heritage.”  One post of a friend said that a man had walked up to her grabbed her crotch and told her it was now legal to “grab p___” whenever he wanted. A lesbian acquaintance in New York city was told on the subway, “I hope you enjoy the concentration camp!” and far too many people are expressing deep concern about their health care coverage.  According to several studies, the worst of it has been happening in our elementary schools.  On one school wall the words “make America white again” were written along with a swastika.  A friend’s sister, who is Muslim girl, had a knife pulled on her on the bus.  And one person reported students yelling “Hiel Trump-Hitler” on the campus during recess.  Another post came from a woman who was born in Minnesota but who was wearing a scarf and was told at the gas station that she had better “go home” or face the consequences as he actually showed her his gun.  Again, I understand that people voted for different folk and for different reasons.  But you cannot get away from the hateful reactions that have been going on this week. And you cannot get away from the protests (most peaceful, though those aren’t being reported as much because they aren’t as big news) as well as riots from people who are scared.  No matter what you think or feel, we cannot escape the reality that this has given people permission at some level to be open with their hatred towards others.  And we cannot get away from the fact that people are demonstrating their fear and anger through many ways, including a returned violence. 
               In the face of all of this, what are we called to do?  Where is Jesus when all of this is going on?  Does he tell those who are suffering or who are hurting to ‘calm down’?  Does he tell them “Don’t worry, God’s got this!”?  Does he promise them everything will be okay?  That God is in charge so it will all be alright?  Does he say, “just relax and sit back.  Everything happens for a reason.”  Or “your faith will protect you.” Does he encourage violence as a solution?  Does he say, “hate for hate” or even “an eye for an eye”.  No.  Jesus said none of that.  Instead, Jesus did four things.  First, he goes out there and heals people.  He heals the people who others have called “unclean”.  He heals the people others have dismissed and don’t want to have around.  He heals, talks to, acknowledges and eats with the people others call “sinners” and those the elite, the powerful, rejects.  He heals those others don’t want to see or touch or be around. 
Second, he empowers people.  Again, he does this in a variety of ways.  First, he talks to people he is not supposed to talk to: women, tax collectors, Samaritans, Syrophoenicians, children, prostitutes.  He talks to people others want gone, want out.  He listens to them, is present with them.  He stops the stoning of the woman caught in adultery.  He talks to the woman living with a man who is not her husband and offers her his life-giving water.  He argues against violence, encouraging us to instead take a non-violent stand.  But I want to be clear with you about this.  When he says “turn the other cheek” this is not an argument for passivity.  It is also not an argument for acceptance.  He does not say “run away when someone hits you”, he says “turn the other cheek”.  This is an act of civil protest which can only be understood by understanding something of the culture at the time.  People were not allowed to use their left hands for contact with others, including hitting others.  If you hit with your left hand, you were shamed.  We have a hard time understanding this in our culture, but shame was a huge deal in this society.  So if someone struck you they would have used their right hand.  Additionally, if it was someone trying to shame you or say that you were an inferior, he would have to have used the back of his hand.  That was considered a statement that the other was an inferior.  But when you turn the other cheek, if the other were to try to hit you again, he would have no choice but to use his unclean hand, which would be a deeply shameful act for the one doing the action, or he would have to use a fist or the open palm, both of which were statements that the other was an equal rather than an inferior.  Standing there and turning the other cheek therefore was a way of saying, “I am not your inferior and I will no longer be treated as such.”  But Jesus continued.  “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well. And if any one forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”  These too were acts of civil disobedience.  Roman law allowed that soldiers could demand others to carry their stuff for them for one mile.  They were not allowed to demand more than a mile.  So if a person insisted on carrying the stuff for a second mile, the soldier would have been doing something that had the consequence of severe punishment for the soldier.  Likewise, the only two garments usually worn by peasants were a coat and an inner garment called a cloak.  You were allowed to gain in exchange for a debt someone’s coat.  By saying, “if they take your coat, give them your cloak as well," Jesus was basically encouraging his followers to strip naked.  In that system, nakedness shamed the person who observed it, not the one naked.  He gives those who were being oppressed non-violent but active tools for standing up and reclaiming his power. *
Third, he teaches.  He teaches about loving God, loving ourselves, and loving each other.  And again and again he says this is it: this is what it’s about. No matter how you feel about someone else, no matter if you disagree with them or if they scare you or if they are threatening, we are called to love them.  And there is an especially here – especially if they are “the least of these”, especially if they are suffering.  Jesus is clear: when you feed people, when you visit people, when you care for people, especially “the least of these” you are caring for Jesus.    
And the last thing Jesus did was to tell us to follow him, to do as he did, even to the cross in order to teach love and to bring healing and empowerment to those others have harmed, to love those who are feeling scared and threatened and have been cast out.  We usually in our gospel lessons are seeing Jesus talking to people or interacting again with those we would consider “the least of these” – the unclean, rejected, outcast.  But in today’s gospel lessons we see Jesus talking to the insiders, to the disciples, to US.  In the passage from Mark we hear him being reassuring, but also castigating.  Have faith. But by faith he is not talking about belief.  He is talking about a faith that is active.  He quiets the storm because his faith is active, not simply expecting God to do things for him, but taking action himself to quiet the storm.  He calls them to do the same.  The second passage, the passage from Matthew, it is an even stronger statement.  Peter is not just instructed to have faith, to believe.  He is instructed to act on that belief.  To have the courage and faith to step out of the boat, out of his comfort zone, to do what others claim is impossible and to walk on the water towards Jesus; walking on the water towards Jesus, towards faith, towards LOVE because that is what Jesus is and who Jesus is and what Jesus calls us to do. 
               These are the things Jesus does.  And these are the things we are called to do as well, even in our fear.  The thing is, fear doesn’t leave room for anything else: like beauty or truth or love. From a physiological place we know this.  Fear literally leaves no room in our psyches for anything else, including rational thinking.  In this way, the only thing about fear that is helpful is that it informs us that there is danger, and that something needs to be done.  The message of perfect love casting out fear is not, therefore, a message of “it’s okay, everything will be fine.” It’s a message that calls us to strive to live out perfect love, to be kind and gracious and loving so that fear will no longer have a place, a need, a reason.  Our job in this is not one of telling others to not be afraid.  Our job is not to tell others it’s not a big deal.  No, our job is to be part of creating a world in which people do not have to BE afraid because they know they are loved, actively, by us, and that we will stand with them, and keep them safe, and hold them up no matter what happens. 
               I think for all of us, for all of us who are afraid in one way or another by what is happening, again, no matter what side of the political coin you are on, our actions have to start with the reminder that we are all connected.  We are clearly not unified.  And we may not even be united, but we are still connected. We are all God’s children.  And therefore we are brothers and sisters to one another.  Therefore what hurts any of us, hurts all of us.  When one person feels threatened, we are all threatened. 
I am reminded once again of Niemoller’s poem:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
               All of our actions for love over fear have to start with our faith.  So I found myself reminded of this prayer by Thomas Merton:

         "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone."

*This is one of the many articles that talks about this.  See Walter Wink and Marcus Borg for more info on this.