Thursday, January 28, 2016

Gossip - the Straight and Narrow

   Humans have a propensity towards gossip.  We do.  We discuss what we hear.  We discuss the news.  And we talk about other people.  I think there are a lot of reasons for this.  We like sensationalism and if nothing exciting is happening in our own lives, talking about others sometimes provides the drama we crave.  We like being important and having an important story to tell about someone else can give us a sense of importance at that moment.  We like being the ones to know something before others do and have the inside scoop.  We like having something to talk about, and talking about other people is easy.   Eleanor Rosevelt is quoted as having said, "Great minds discuss ideas.  Average minds discuss events.  Small minds discuss people." And perhaps that is true.  But it is also true that we aren't bad people because we like to gossip.  We are just human people.  And while others can get truly hurt by our gossip, we don't usually set out with the intent to hurt them.
    Sometimes our gossip is more personal and attacking.  Sometimes people tell stories about their own lives that make someone else look bad.  It took a long time but I did finally realize that those who did this, who told stories about others that raise themselves up as victims and make others look bad, are usually doing that because they are afraid the other person might tell their side first and would make them look bad.  They tell their story so they appear to be innocent, the victim.  They tell their story so the other side won't be sought.  They tell their story so others will not think that they did wrong.  The ones who don't need to gossip about what has happened are usually the ones who are actually less at fault, and often more confident about that: they believe they have nothing to fear, they have accepted and come to terms with their own parts in the situation, so they have no need to gossip or badmouth someone else.  Sometimes people tell a story about someone else as a way of convincing themselves that they are not at fault.  Same thing.  If they tell their story loud enough and long enough, maybe it will be true.  If they can paint a picture in which the other is wrong, maybe in fact the other WILL be wrong.
     I learned this the hard way.  But the truth has truly "set me free" in the sense that when someone badmouths someone else to me, I have learned to listen for the pain and insecurity of the person doing the gossiping, instead of listening to condemn or judge in any way the one being gossiped about.  Sometimes it changes my feelings towards the gossiper. But I do not allow it to change my opinion or feelings about the one being badmouthed because I choose to remember there is another side, one I have not heard.  Again, that has been incredibly freeing.

    But as I reflected on all of this today it occured to me that perhaps there is a more graceful way to see gossip as well.  I was reflecting on my "story" of the last 5 years.  I told very few people about what we were going through.  It was pretty public, so most people heard about it from other sources. But there were a few trusted folk that I was able to talk to directly about what had happened, what was happening at the time.  Each one of those people I begged to not gossip about it.  I told them it was my story to tell and I pleaded with them to allow me to be the one to tell it when and if I was ever ready to do that.  They all promised to hold my confidence.  And in every single case that story was passed along to at least one other person.  Each person I told talked to at least one other, despite my eliciting promises from each of confidence.  For a long time I was really hurt by that.  In a couple cases, where the story was passed not just to one or two others but to many others there is still some hurt. In a couple cases people I trusted and cared about heard the story from other sources and instead of talking to me, passed it along as gossip to others, and that too was very painful.  If they cared about me, why didn't they talk to me instead?  Or at least, why didn't they talk to me first? Why didn't they ask for my story?  Why didn't they reach out to me?
     But there has finally been enough healing that I am beginning to be able to put myself in their better shoes and still see reasons they might have chosen to share the story.  I can imagine the pain that they felt knowing someone they loved was living through hell.  I can imagine the struggle they felt in having no one to talk to about something that was shocking, devastating, a story one hears about, not a reality someone you love lives through.  In some cases, people may not have been sure if they could ask me, or if it would make things worse to ask me my story.  Maybe they were afraid they would have come across as nosy, insensitive or "abulance chasing" if they had tried to talk to me about it.  Maybe they simply didn't know how to offer support, so talking to others, passing on the information, maybe to someone who would be better able to respond, may have felt safer, and more caring.  Maybe it felt like it was all they knew how to do.
     Whatever the reasons, I find I have moved into a place of offering more grace around this.  At the time the gossip was heaping coals on an already burning body.  It was painful.  But as I said I have moved into a place of understanding and forgiveness around this.  I can have compassion, as I grow in comprehension, for those choices that others made.
    Still, what I have learned from this is that we really do need to be careful about what we say about other people.  Gossip hurts.  It may be human.  It may be understandable.  But it hurts.  We need to strive for a better way.  When we fail, we need to find grace for ourselves and one another.  That grace can give us the strength and courage to try again, to learn, to grow, and hopefully to do better.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Us

Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 12:12-31
Luke 4:14-21

          Which part of the body are you?  Are you the eyes, seeing everything that goes on, observing, and through that seeing, helping us to be guided forward as a church, as a people, into the future?  Are you the ears, hearing the concerns and hearing the gifts, hearing the wisdom but also the concerns?  Are you the feet, leading the body of the church into the world to do the work of serving people?  Or are you the shoulders, holding up those who have burdens to bear?   Are you the guts of the church, keeping it going in terms of numbers and finances?  Are you the brains of the church, called to make decisions about the direction of the church?  Maybe you are the mouth, called to speak up about injustices, or to speak God’s Good News to one another and to the world.  As you reflect on this, I want to remind you that being humble, walking humbly with God, is NOT about denying God’s gifts to you.  Instead, it is about recognizing that all talents are gifts from God and that one talent is not more worthy or more honored by God than another.  My gifts are not more valuable than yours in the service of God and God’s people, the gifts God has given me do not make me a better or more beloved person.  Each of our gifts is a gift God has given us for the purpose of serving God in the world.  All jobs are needed, all gifts are needed.  Recognizing that is humility.  When we deny God’s gifts to us we are being ungrateful to the God who has gifted us with our talents.
But I think one of our biggest challenges is simply figuring out what our gifts are.  And I would challenge you to consider that everything about who you are is a gift to the community.
          I want to share with you about a person who was one of the members of another church in which I worked.  This is a person who was - well, annoying.  Some might have said he was abrasive.  But whatever you want to call it, he was a difficult person in the church.  He always questioned every idea that came forward, never satisfied with simple answers, never just saying "let's do it!"  He spoke his mind and when he didn't like something, he spoke out, which was often.  When he heard someone say something with which he disagreed, he challenged it right away.  He also came with his own ideas, but these ideas challenged the norm, challenged the status quo at every level.  "Let's try this kind of music."  "Hey, I'm going to start an anti-gang program here at the church.  Anyone want to join me?"  "I think we should go out every Friday evening with a big sign about our church and stand on the street corner at the mall talking to anyone who passes by about what we do here."  He didn't go through the right channels and he was always a pain in everyone's life.  Do you know people like that?  People who are part of your communities who irritate and cause your life to be difficult?
          Eventually "Jason" got called away to a job out of the area and he had to leave the church.  It was only after he had left that we realized the huge hole he had left in his leaving.  He had brought so many gifts to our congregation.  He had challenged us to grow and to expand our thinking.  He had challenged us to be clear in our explanations of the visions and ideas that we had.  He had called us to think through our positions and to be open to differences.  He had challenged us to be open to the movement of the Spirit in a new way, one that didn't go through the long chain of committees, but instead moved into ministry and action without fear and with a great deal of true and deep faith.  I don't know if Jason was aware of his gifts.  I don't know if he recognized that he was in so many ways the head of our body, thinking, dreaming, leading us forward.  I do know that he realized that for many of us he was a pill, he was a challenge.  I know he knew that he wasn't the most popular guy and that people hid when they saw him coming.  I can only hope that he also came to see that the things we all struggled with the most in him were the deepest gifts he had been given by God.  And that his sharing of those gifts brought all of us spiritually, and faithfully deeper and more genuine in our relationships with each other and with God.
            C.S. Lewis in the second book of his space Trilogy, Perelandra, wrote, "Don't imagine I've been selected for ...any task...because I'm anyone in particular.  One never can see, or not till long afterwards, why any one was selected for any calling.  And when one does, it is usually some reason that leaves no room for vanity.  Certainly it is never for what the ...person...themself would have regarded as their chief qualifications."
          We don't see all of the gifts God has given to each of us ourselves.  And we don't see all of the gifts God has given to those around us.  Sometimes we fail so completely to see those gifts that we limit their expression, how much good God can bring out of them, how much we allow others to help us grow in our spiritual journeys.
Everything that you are is a gift to the community.  That means that even our great differences, not only in terms of gifts but in terms of perspectives, are gifts to the community.    Unity of the body, working towards the same goal of furthering Christ’s body in the world does not, for example, mean that we see the world, the church, our faith, any of it, in the same way.  The perspective of the feet is going to be different from the perspective of the head.  They are in different places and therefore see the world very, very differently.
I want to share with you a poem:
It was six men of Indostan, to learning much inclined,
Who went to see the elephant (though all of them were blind),
That each by observation might satisfy his mind.

The first approached the elephant, and, happening to fall
Against his broad and burly side, at once began to call:
"I see," said he, "the elephant is very like a wall!"

The second, feeling of the tusk, cried, "Ho! What have we here?
So very round and smooth and sharp? To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an elephant is very like a spear!"

The third approached the animal, and, happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands, thus boldly up and spake,
"I see," said he, "the elephant is very like a snake!"

The fourth reached out his eager hand and felt about the knee:
"What most this wondrous beast is like is mighty plain," said he,
"'Tis clear enough the elephant is very like a tree!"

The fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, said, "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most. Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an elephant is very like a fan!"

The sixth no sooner had begun about the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail that fell within his scope,
"I see," said he, "the elephant is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion exceeding stiff and strong,
though each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong!

So oft in group endeavors, the members of the team
Rail on in utter ignorance of what each other mean,
As if it were an elephant not one of them has seen.

We don’t often see the whole picture.  And the perspectives and gifts of others help us to get a greater glimpse of the whole, when we stay open.  Others’ visions and insights help us to grow, to see, to be closer to God.  It is not completely clear whether Paul was writing the passage from Corinthians to a group of people who were putting each other down, refusing to value equally the gifts, talents, and perspectives of one another, or if he was writing to a group of people who were insecure about their own gifts.    But in most of our congregations I think we tend much more towards the latter problem, refusing to acknowledge our own gifts, let alone honor them as valuable.
        Marianne Williamson said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
I think about the gospel story for today and why the people got upset with Jesus proclaiming, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then saying, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  Why did people get upset about that?  Because they felt it lacked humility?      No doubt.  But the truth is that this call is for ALL of us.  God calls each and every one of us to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  This is all of our call.          Each of you could say today, “this scripture is being fulfilled now” as you do this work in the world, in your lives, in your personal relationships.  We are all called to do this.  Claiming that call, owning that call, naming that call as FOR YOU is not lacking in humility.  It is recognizing that God has called you to a task and that you have chosen to accept that call and to answer it with a “yes”.
We do have different gifts.  So we answer that call in different ways.  But the call to follow Jesus, the call to live in this way, the call to be the people of God – that is a call for each and every one of us!
I would like to encourage all of us to think beyond what we normally identify as our gifts, to be open to the possibility that God can and does use our differences but also, will use our hidden gifts if we stay open to seeing what they are, towards the furtherance of God’s realm.  You are valued in the body of Christ.  And your gifts are valued.  You are more worthy than you know as you contribute to the body just by being you.
I want to end with another poem, this one by Howard Thurman:
"When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.
That is what our gifts are for.  I pray that we might all use them well.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Moments in Life - a more personal reflection in a challenging moment.

      I've been introducing my kids to the Beatles more seriously lately. Yesterday I played for Jasmyn the song "Yesterday". But while ultimately it is a love song, I found myself struck in a different way by the words to the first verses:
      "Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away
       Now it looks as though they're here to stay
       Oh I believe in yesterday.
      Suddenly, I'm not half the man (sic) I used to be
      There's a shadow hanging over me
      Oh yesterday came suddenly."

      Life can and often does change on a dime.  Sometimes we have no control over that: accidents, other people's choices, natural disasters - sometimes life changes suddenly for us in ways we simply can't anticipate, have no hand in creating, and therefore have no way to prevent. But other times I think that we do make choices, sometimes choices that seem very small, which, over time, impact our lives dramatically. Sometimes those choices are good.  Sometimes they are bad. Sometimes a simple choice to say "yes" can lead us forward into a whole life and journey that we just didn't expect. Sometimes those moments of choice can only be recognized in hind sight.  Some people seem blessed in the choices they make and are led into success.  Others seem cursed in their choices, even in the choices that seem to be good from the onset, and find themselves heading down paths that lead nowhere, or worse, lead to destruction of themselves or others.
     I think that for me, this is part of why I often have a very hard time making big and personal decisions.  I recognize that every big decision has consequences far beyond what I can imagine or envision in the moment.  I realize that we are called to "be not afraid" and to live in the now, which is where we find God.  But because of the results of decisions I've made in the past that have led to struggles and pain and difficulties that simply could not be anticipated, staying in the moment and choosing "now" is not easy for me.
      Many people talk about regrets.  And I've heard again and again people saying they regretted not speaking up when they should have.  I don't have too many of those regrets.  My regrets tend to focus on speaking when perhaps I shouldn't have - usually speaking truth to those who didn't or couldn't hear it, or speaking it in an unhelpful way that simply could not be heard. But I also regret many choices I've made in terms of actions.  I've regretted not taking opportunities I should have said "yes" to, and other times, choosing to do things that took me away from kids who already get too little of my time.  I've missed some amazing chances that I see now would have led me in a completely different path.  I made choices that I can only see now created a path I never would have chosen had I seen.  The life I had envisioned and laid out for myself didn't happen.  Instead, I found myself in this life, with this history, this path, this story.  And while I can see that there are ways I could use this story to help others, life continues to happen and the doors that open only briefly have shut in several cases.
       I find myself paying attention to so many of the "wise" quotes and sayings out there that tell you what to do and where to go next.  Some of the quotes I saw just today:
                 "Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but, more often than not, God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next."
        Okay.  I need to pay more attention to my own tears.
           "The gift of paying attention is the fundamental key to transforming relationships."
        Okay.  I need to pay attention more.
         "Stress comes from trying to do it all on your own.  Peace comes from putting it all in God's hands."
         Okay.  So I need to figure out how to force God to take on all of my stuff.  So far, that's not working so well for me.
         We read these quotes, we listen to the wise voices in our lives, we try to learn from our pasts, we strive to act like the people we want to be.  But despite all of this, each day there are choices and each day those choices that we make lead to unforseen consequences that make up each moment of our lives.
      In the face of all of this, I found another quote coming to mind for me today, this one from Paramahansa Yogandanda, "Do not take life's experiences too seriously.  Above all, do not let them hurt you for in reality they are nothing but dream experiences.  If circumstances are bad and you have to bear them, do not make them a part of yoruself.  Play your part in life but never forget that it is only a role."
       Learning to simply be okay with the choices we make and where life leads us is a worthwhile endeavor.  We are on the path we are on.  If we can choose to not fret about it, but just go with the flow, things move much more easily, smoothly, quickly.  And if we lay back in the current and accept it for what it is, perhaps we will have a greater ability to look around us and enjoy the scenary on the way down.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - a Time to Celebrate

John 2:1-12, Mark 14:3-9, Matthew 11:16-19, Luke 14:12-14

I’d like to ask you to take a moment and think about what your primary image of Jesus might be.  I’d like to invite you to close your eyes and see Jesus or the Christ or hear the scriptures that are most meaningful to you in terms of describing for you who Jesus is for you.
My primary image of Jesus tends to be the times he stands up for justice: he cares for those rejected by society; talking to women, children, Samaritans, Syrophoenicians, tax collectors, and sinners - those who were seen as marginal or who were excluded from being “insiders” in the Jewish society of the time. Jesus touches lepers, and allows himself to be touched by the bleeding - again something that would be considered unclean, taboo, and that would have put Jesus himself at risk for being seen as unclean. He challenges legalism (especially when it hurts people) by picking wheat to eat and healing on the Sabbath, by stopping the “lawful” stoning of the woman caught in adultery. He overthrows the money changers in the temple who use and exploit people. My primary images of Jesus are the times when he puts his own life at risk, and eventually loses his life in his work to bring the realm of God among us, to offer new life, to change people, to give voice to people, to confront the “righteous.” I see Jesus echoing in his actions the Biblical prophets, condemning the hypocrisy of rich living while others don’t have enough to survive, challenging those who “have”, comforting those who have little and are oppressed, overturning the status quo to empower the downtrodden and to bring down the mighty.
That is my primary image of Jesus. But Jesus is infinitely more complex and deep than my primary images will allow. Jesus is, God is, thanks be to God, multifaceted, multi-layered, and beyond our limited imaginings.
The three stories that were read for today give a very different picture of Jesus.   
Each of these tells us many things, but there are a few things I specifically want to point out.  The first passage from Matthew tells us, among other things, that Jesus ate and drank. 
He did not abstain, he was not ascetic, but instead he enjoyed, he celebrated, he appreciated and he partook of the good things in life. He did not limit himself from enjoying what life had to offer.
The passage in Mark tells us that he saw value in spending money occasionally on expensive, lavish ways to honor and celebrate God and what God has given us.
It is the third passage that I want us to focus on most today.  Because the story of the wedding in Cana is an amazing story telling us much that might seem surprising about Jesus.  The passage in John tells us that he honored and enjoyed rich ceremony and celebration. He went to weddings and parties. At times he celebrated. He partook of and even provided abundance.  More, he partook of and provided extravagance. The jars that Jesus used to make the wine, we are told, were vessels for Jewish purification rites. These were huge jars, which Jesus told the servants to fill to the brim. Each of these jars held 20 to 30 gallons of water, all of which were then turned into wine. Jesus did not make a few bottles of wine here, not a case of wine, but gallons and gallons of wine!! Undoubtedly much more than could be drunk at this one wedding.  In addition, this passage in John tells us that it was excellent quality. Jesus did not skimp here on quantity or quality. And again, for what reason? Simply for a wedding, for a party.
In the book of John, this story of Jesus turning the water into wine is also put in a place of prominence. This story marks Jesus’ first miracle, his first sign and his first action in ministry.  This tells us that it is not just a fluke or an unimportant part of who he is that he celebrated, helped others celebrate and did so with extravagance. 
As Jesus shows us who God is, we learn from this story that God is hugely over indulgent when it comes to good things. God is a God of abundance, extravagance, transformation and new possibility. God may enter the world as a helpless baby. But God’s ministry is also overflowing, celebratory and without limit.
This is one of the first things that Jesus’ life tells us about God in the book of John. And the theme of God’s abundance does not end with this story. The feeding of the five thousand is another example of God’s extravagance as demonstrated through Jesus. Not only were five thousand men, plus more women and children fed off of five small loaves of bread and two little fish, but there were twelve baskets of food left over. Again, our image of God is one of huge abundance.
This celebratory aspect of God is not in conflict with other images of Jesus. This information about Jesus adds to our understanding of God. While Jesus does celebrate and make wine for merry making, this is not in contrast to the Jesus that we know to confront the rich man and tell him to give everything he has, the Jesus we know who rejects the Pharisees’ legalisms, the Jesus who challenges the status quo. For while Jesus does celebrate, for what purpose does he celebrate, and with whom?
The woman Jesus defended, who poured ointment on Jesus, was celebrating her God and celebrating her Lord. She was also giving richly to one who was on his way to death, one who had limited opportunities for celebration left to him. Also, Jesus says in Luke 14: 12-13, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
We are called to celebrate God. And we are called to share and give extravagantly to those who rarely have the gift of extravagance and over abundance, those who may not be able to return the favor.
[1]Dorothy Day founded, lived in and ran the Catholic Worker house.  This was a place (now there are many of these houses) that existed for the sole purpose of caring for the needy.  It was a house that provided care for the needy every day - daily meals for hungry people, shelter for homeless people, a place to rest, an ear to listen. The workers who lived in the house lived in intentional poverty, giving everything they had to care for those who came in need.
One day a well dressed woman visited the Catholic Worker house and gave Dorothy a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked the visitor, slipped the ring in her pocket, and later in the day gave it to an old woman who lived alone and often ate her meals at the worker house. One of the staff protested that the ring could have been sold at the Diamond Exchange and the money used to pay the woman’s rent for a year. Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do as she liked with the ring. She could sell it for rent money, or she could take a trip to the Bahamas. Or she could enjoy having a diamond ring on her hand just like the woman who had brought it to the Worker. “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?”
I believe what this says to us is that we are not let us off the hook for caring for the poor and marginalized. We are still called primarily and foremost to love God and our neighbors, ALL of our neighbors, as ourselves in our Christian living. But these stories of Jesus tell us something more. They tell us that there are times for parties and celebration amidst our work.  And while we are to invite those who have little, the party is also for us. We need that: for renewal, for replenishment, simply as an offering of our gratitude for the abundant gifts of life that God has given us. 
World War I was a very bloody and aggressive war, a huge war, a terrible war, a time of great death and tragedy and loss.  At the Western Front it was bloody and violent like everywhere else.  But on Christmas Eve, 1915, things changed for a moment.  The German soldiers from Saxony made a brave choice.  Bringing food across the front, and singing Christmas Carols, they came to the British soldiers they were fighting in a Christmas spirit.  The British soldiers, shocked at first, were also moved and found themselves responding by joining in the singing and offering up what they had to share in the festivities as well.  After a time of singing and faith celebration, pictures were shared, personal stories began to be told, sometimes only through hand signs, between German and English people.  In one version of the story officers had to break up the comradery as they realized fighting would soon become impossible between these two groups if they continued to get to know, share and celebrate with one another.  In another version of the story, the bonds made that night were so great that those soldiers could not be compelled to continue fighting those they had come to see as human brothers and sisters.  These soldiers, then, on both sides, would no longer kill each other and had to be moved off the front.  Celebration, especially celebration of God, is not just joyous: with God’s help it can be powerful, an agent of true change.
This is a hard time in the United States right now. We are dealing with ongoing mass shootings. We are dealing with an extraordinary amount of fear, and hatred and vengeance, at homophobia, islamophobia, xenophobia from many different places and in many different ways. We are looking at the devastating effects of environmental damage and wondering if we can stop it and reverse the damage in time. It is a scary time, it is a difficult time. But it is in the midst of this difficult time that God calls us to celebrate, to find those opportunities to see the beauty in God’s world and to celebrate it together with one another.
Some might feel that celebration at this time is audacious. But it is a sign of gratitude, it is a sign of trust that God is with us no matter what we are going through, it is a sign of the blessings that we are given every day. That is part of what church is meant to be, what worship is to be. It is a time of celebration, of expression of extravagance, and abundance.
As part of that celebration we have to let go of outcomes. God works in surprising ways. As we celebrate, as we invite others into our celebrations, God is in charge of who might come through these doors, God is in charge of how our joy will affect others, God is in charge of whether or not our celebrations will lead to transformations. But with a spirit of gratitude and trust, we are called to enjoy and celebrate God’s love for us in this place. Let us today in this place be filled with joy, laughter and play. We have so much to be thankful for. Thank you God, for another day with trees and a sky over our heads, thank you for air and food and shelter. Thank you God for another day with children and the elderly, the middle aged and young adults.  Thank you God that this church is here, that doors are open, that some call this place home and others are here to worship searching for hope and renewal. Thank you, God, for each other, for family, for fellowship. Thank you God.
We don’t just honor God with solemn prayers and faithful promises to care more, to love more, to serve more. We don’t just please God by uplifting the downtrodden. We also honor
God by finding and sharing joy and beauty, fun and laughter in the life God has given us.  Thanks be to God.
In the spirit of celebration I’d like to finish my time by telling you a short story.
A friend of mine told me that one day she had read to her not-quite-three-year old daughter the story of Jesus’ miraculous turning of the water into wine. That night after she put her to bed, she could hear the daughter recounting the story to her stuffed animals as she often did before going to sleep. The little girl said, “Jesus was at a wedding with his mother, but they ran out of drink. Jesus’ mother said, ‘Do whatever he tells you to do.’ They took big jars and filled them with water.  Then Jesus turned the water into...”
There was a long pause; my friend wondered if her daughter would remember about “wine” which was not something in her experience. After a few moments the little girl resumed:
“Then Jesus turned the water into....chocolate milk! And it was the best chocolate milk they had ever tasted!” Amen.

[1]Love is the Measure: a Biography of Dorothy Day, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000) 66-67

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Art Vs. Life Vs. Art

      I've been listening to the radio again, something I had just stopped doing for awhile, opting instead to listen to music I had purchased from itunes.  I remembered why I stopped listening to the radio today as I found myself driving along shaking my head at what I was hearing.  The tunes that are coming out?  Catchy.  Not brilliant, but catchy.  The words, however?  I found myself wondering if we truly had sunk this low.  And then I remembered what is going on in our culture, and I thought about how life and art really do tend to reflect one another.
     25 years ago the words that were being written in many of our popular songs were truly thought provoking, artistic, deep words.  To give you some examples (and if you can name who all these artists are, I'll take you to lunch) of some of the incredible, thought provoking lyrics that were being written:
    "To sail on a dream on a crystal clear ocean
To ride on the crest of a wild raging storm
To work in the service of life and the living
In search of the answers to questions unknown
To be part of the movement and part of the growing
Part of beginning to understand...
To be true as the tide and free as a wind swell
Joyful and loving in letting it be"

"Oh my mama told me
'Cause she say she learned the hard way
Say she wanna spare the children
She say don't give or sell your soul away
'Cause all that you have is your soul
Don't be tempted by the shiny apple
Don't you eat of a bitter fruit
Hunger only for a taste of justice
Hunger only for a world of truth
'Cause all that you have is your soul"

"I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain
There's more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine."

"How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer's deadly toy
There is no monopoly on common sense
On either side of the political fence
We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too..."

"One man caught on a barbed wire fence
One man he resist
One man washed on an empty beach.
One man betrayed with a kiss
In the name of love
What more in the name of love
In the name of love
What more in the name of love"

"In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of every glove that laid him down
And cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
'I am leaving! I am leaving!'
But the fighter still remains"

And of course...
"Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one"

       Each of these artists has written many, many songs and many of them are deep and full of words that not only touch us but move us to think, to consider, and possibly even to grow and to change. That is what art should do.  It should challenge us to think, to grow, to be moved and even changed by the art, to become better than we are.  It would be unkind and unfair to say that these are no longer being written.  There still are some deep, thoughtful artists out there writing words that move and change us, that reflect back to us both who we are and who we want to be.  But the music on the radio?  The popular music?  It has become amazingly shallow.  I listened to three songs during my short drive this morning. The first was all about how the singer was so awesome that all her old boyfriends regretted losing her. The second was about revenge and damaging property because her partner had cheated on her.  And the third was a man saying he might continue to drink and therefore would no doubt cheat on his partner that evening.  And I just sat there amazed.  Are these really the deepest things we can consider right now, that we think deserve our time and attention, that we want to spend our life contemplating in our music? Conceit?  Revenge?  Casual and hurtful and trust breaking liaisons with the excuse of being drunk?  And if so, is it any wonder that we are living in a culture that is so equally self-focused, set on revenge and hate, and so unworthy of trust in our individual as well as community and world relationships?  The art we celebrate and honor mirrors the values we hold.  The values we hold become incorporated in the art we honor and celebrate.  A sexy body, a sultry smile, raunchy lyrics should not be enough to define what we value in our music.  But the fact that it does says a lot about what we value in life.  
     It's not enough for me.
     So the radio will go back off for awhile, with the hope that maybe, someday, our popular music will once again reflect the values that I hold dear and which I believe can make our world a better place: love, grace, forgiveness, gratitude, justice, peace, trust, beauty, and truth.  Until then, here is a beautiful song written by Carrie Newcomer for all of you that I hope will inspire you as it does me:

Sunday's Sermon - Jesus was Baptized? What does THAT mean?

Isa. 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Have any of you made New Year’s resolutions this year?  What does it mean to you to do that?  Many of us see the New Year as a good time to renew our commitments to those things we value.  As a matter of fact, we can learn a great deal about what people value by looking at their new year’s resolutions.  For many in the secular world new year’s resolutions tend to be based on self: self-care, self-satisfaction, looking better, feeling better, and sometimes being better - but often by making more money, becoming more famous, being more healthy, etc..  We know this.  What are the most common new year’s resolutions?  To lose weight and to exercise more.  This matches with our culture which is very “me” focused.  We want to look better so we commit to losing weight.  We want to feel better, so we commit to exercising more.  What are some other common new year’s resolutions?
Okay, now what is baptism?  When you think about your baptism, what does it mean to you?  Many of us were baptized as children and for us then it is a sign of God’s choosing us, of being adopted or claimed as members of God’s family and of the family of the church.  We baptize our children as a recognition of the promise that God loves us and claims us even before we are capable of responding to that love with faith.  But for people baptized as adults, their baptism is something different.  For adults, and even older children, as well as for the parents of those babies who are baptized, baptism is a rebirth, a washing away of the old self, a commitment to acting as God’s children as much as we are capable with God’s help, a new beginning, a  beginning again. 
In some ways it has similarities then to the commitments we make at the new year.  Baptism affords us an opportunity to look at our lives and make some changes or recommit to the values we hold dear.  It is a time to recommit to acting as God’s children.  It’s appropriate to begin the new year with a renewal of baptismal vows because it is a washing clean, a rebirth, a starting over.  As Frederick Buechner says, “Baptism consists of getting dunked or sprinkled.  Which technique is used matters about as much as whether you pray kneeling or standing on your head.  Dunking is a better symbol, however.  Going under symbolizes the end of everything about your life that is less than human.  Coming up again symbolizes the beginning in you of something strange and new and hopeful.  You can breathe again.”
For Jesus, too, baptism was, in a sense, a rebirth.  The beginning of his ministry, the marking of him as God’s son was done through his baptism and the descent of the Holy Spirit claiming him as God’s own.  As we are called to follow Christ, we too practice the act of baptism, of renouncing evil and of accepting the rebirth that comes through acknowledging and celebrating God’s love and grace.
In the Presbyterian Church, we believe that it is only necessary to be baptized once.  Only once are we given the personal experience of rebirth through baptism.  Yet every time a baptism takes place, it is an opportunity for us to recommit to our baptism vows as well. 
     In the book “The Good News from North Haven” (Pocket Books, New York, NY, 1991) Michael Lindvall tells the story of a Presbyterian Minister in the far reaches of small-town Minnesota.  At one point the pastor was asked to baptize a baby whose mother had grown up in the church.  The catch was that the mother herself was still a child, she was a teenager.  In this small town the pregnancy of a single, young girl was punishable by extreme ostracism, especially in the church.  Many in the congregation strongly disagreed with Tina’s decision to keep her baby.  And some felt that baptizing the child was somehow sanctioning Tina’s elicit behavior as well as her decision to keep the child, rather than giving it up to “responsible” or rather, adult, parents to raise.  But Tina was a member of the church and church rules dictated that her baby would be baptized within the church walls if she so desired. One of the practices of this particular congregation was that at the beginning of any baptism, the pastor asked “who stands with this child” and the extended family of the baby was expected to stand for the rest of the ceremony.  But Tina and her baby had no family. The anticipated embarrassment of this particular event for Tina as well as for the congregation was painful to everyone in the church. But church tradition and church rules were not to be challenged and so the time came for the baptism to begin.  The narrator of the story, the pastor continued, “Down the aisle Tina came, nervously, briskly, smiling at me only, shaking slightly with month-old Jimmy in her arms. The scene hurt, alright, every bit as much as we all knew it would. So young this mother was, and so alone. One could not help but remember another baby boy born long ago to a young and unwed mother in difficult circumstances. I read the opening part of the service...Then I asked, ‘Who stands with this child?’ I glanced at Tina for only a moment before my eyes went quickly back to my service book. 
I was just about to ask Tina the parents’ questions of commitment when I became aware of movement in the pews. Angus MacDowell had stood up, Minnie, his wife, beside him. Then a couple of other elders stood up, then the sixth-grade Sunday school teacher stood up, then a new young couple in the church, and soon before my incredulous eyes, the whole church was standing up with little Jimmy. 
Tina began to cry, holding on to the pew as though she was standing on the deck of a ship rolling in a great wind, which, in a way, she was.  The unexpectedness of this departure from the routine at first disquieted but then quieted us all.  Every eye was on the child, who was for a moment, everybody’s baby.”
For every member of that church that day, for every member who stood with that baby and made a commitment to God to raise this baby in the way of God, a baby they had initially wanted to reject, a mother they had initially chosen to ostracize, the baby’s baptism was a rebirth, their rebirth.

Today, on this baptism of the Lord Sunday, I invite you also to recommit to your baptism vows, to accept again the cleansing, renewing, re-birthing love of Christ, to promise again to be God’s people acting with love, compassion and justice in the world, to follow Jesus in the way of renewal and new life.  Today we will do this through a renewal of our baptismal vows.  

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Most Precious Gifts

Isaiah 60:1-9
 Matthew 2:1-12         

               I thought we’d start this morning with a little biblical quiz.  First of all, in what book or books of the Bible do we find the story of the three kings?
               None.  There are no kings mentioned and there is no number mentioned.  Instead we are told “some wisemen” or magi from the east came to Jerusalem searching for the king of the Jews. 
               What, then, are magi?  Are they kings?  No.  Astrologers.
               About how old was Jesus when they came to see him?  Between 41 days and 2 years.
               Why did they bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh?  What were these things and why were they important in this recounting?  Frankincense is often used as incense or in an anointing oil that was often used in the temple for religious reasons.  Myrrh is similar and can also be used as an oil or incense, but mostly was used to embalm the dead.  These things were incredibly valuable, monetarily, but they were also symbols of what was to come.  Symbols of a recognition of Jesus’ holiness, but also, his death.  Both are purifiers, and readiers for death, for sacraments, for religious tasks, all of which would be Jesus’ life.   The magi travelled far, took time away from families, occupation, home, significant time.  While some say it would have taken only a month of travel (one direction), others estimate that it was a year or more out of their lives that this entailed.
               They gave most precious gifts, gifts that required all of who they were – their resources, their time, their commitments, all to come and see this baby and to bring this baby their gifts.
               What are we this committed to?  What do we care about enough that we would leave home, leave FAMILY, sell all we have to spend on a gift for someone whom we’ve never met before and may never see again? 
               I think about the pilgrims and what they gave up to start a new life here in the United States.  Many of them gave their lives, dying in the travel, with the hopes for something better.  Many gave up family, leaving them behind or knowing that they risked some not making the journey successfully.  The same remains true of many of our immigrants today.  Many of those who come here as refugees or as people escaping their countries of origin are truly risking everything they have and everything they are to try to find a better life, usually for their kids.  They make this commitment, this journey, all to begin again, to start something new.  I think about this, how they gave these most precious gifts of starting in a new place, travelling, their resources, to create a new life, new possibilities, for their children, their children’s children, their family.  But these magi, they gave these most precious gifts for the hope of a new tomorrow for Israel.  They gave these most precious gifts for strangers in a strange country, in a strange world.  For a future they would never see.  For a time they would not and could not be a part of. 
               Can you imagine that?
               God loves us in this way, giving up everything to give us the most precious gifts, of life, of Jesus, of salvation.  As Bonhoeffer said it, "God does not love some ideal person, but rather human beings just as we are, not some ideal world, but rather the real world."
God also calls us to love in return in the same way.  Of course we aren’t always going to succeed in doing that.  And sometimes it won’t look like giving up everything to follow God.  But the willingness and faith to give all we have to further God’s reign, God’s place, God’s LOVE here on earth, that is our call. 
But still, this is good news.  Because what we will find is that, as Mitch Albom put it, “as is often the case with faith, I thought I was being asked a favor, when in fact I was being given one.”  God asks us to be willing to give everything for God.  But what we will find is that when we do this, our lives are deepened, enriched, made whole in a way we cannot begin to anticipate.

In the wonderful mystery story, Aunt Dimity’s Christmas, the main character, Lori, found a stranger, a dirty, disheveled stranger, passed out in her driveway.  She got him help, reluctantly, but she did it, then proceeded, with the help of a priest to provide care for him, to get him the medical help he needed but also to search out who he was and what his story was.  She helped him to get back on his feet, to remember who he was, to come into his own again.  She didn’t want to do it, but she found that when she did, the gifts that came back to her far exceeded what she had given to him.  She said, “He forced me to look at things I didn’t want to see, and remember things I wanted to forget.  If Kit hadn’t come to the cottage I wouldn’t have gone to St. Benedict’s (which included the homeless shelter).  And if I hadn’t gone to St Benedicts, I wouldn’t have realized how much I have in common with the homeless men there. …I fought it tooth and nail….I’d gotten too fat and sassy...  I’d paid my dues, so I thought I was entitled to my blessings.  Kit reminded me that blessings aren’t a right – they’re a gift.  I’m no more entitled to them than the homeless men, and I’m ashamed of myself for not remembering it sooner. “  Her choosing to help this stranger led her to gifts that were uncomfortable at first, but which deepened and strengthened her and made her more whole.

I’m reminded also of the children’s Christmas Story, “The Littlest angel.” He was a little boy who didn’t fit in with the other angels because he was a child, a young child, who found heaven “boring” or at least certainly not a good place for this young boy.  The understanding angel asked him what would help and the boy said a box that was under his bed.  The box was rough and had little boy things in it – rocks, dirt, a broken bird egg, a dead butterfly, an old dog collar.  But it was the treasure of the littlest angel. These things that the rest of us would find inconsequential, dirty, messy, broken – these were treasures for a little boy.  And so when Jesus was born, and all the angels brought presents for the Christ child, the littlest angel thought that since Jesus would be born a young boy, he would enjoy the same things as this littlest angel.  He brought to God his shabby, dirty box as an offering to Jesus.  He brought to God the things he treasured most to give to another little boy.  But as soon as he put this dirty, messy box of broken and old things in with the other gifts, he had the sudden and shocking realization that his gift was wrong.  That it was nothing, that it was “horrible” in comparison with theirs.  In shame he tried to run away from the pile of gifts, run away from God, run away from the other angels.  But as he tried to run away, God, in great wisdom, chose his gift to become the star of Bethlehem.  Because it is the gifts from the heart, the gifts that give all of what WE value, that are the brightest lights that all can see. 
As we know, real life isn’t always so obvious.  The gifts we bring, the services we offer, the sacrifices we make aren’t always so obviously, or so quickly turned into beauty.  Sometimes the results of our gifts take months, years, generations for the results. Sometimes we will never see the outcome of the gifts we bring. None the less, we are called to follow the opportunities to serve and give that God has blessed us with, with the hope, faith and trust that God takes whatever we offer in love, and makes it beautiful. 
My good friend, Tyler, sent me this email several lents ago: “My wife, Sue Ann asked if I'd play something on my guitar as a solo for Easter for her new church.  My first reaction was "I dunno, Easter is pretty 'up', and all my chord solo stuff has been pretty introspective." I said this out loud, and she expressed some disappointment.  But I kept going over my repertoire in my mind, and flipped through some of the music I’d played before. That weekend, we attended a memorial service for a woman who loved to walk, and loved nature. Among the songs they played at the service was How Great Thou Art.  Something about that song just lit up on the page.  I started working on it, to see how I could re-harmonize it for guitar.  It wasn't until I'd spent some considerable time on it, that I read the lyrics, especially the first and second verses.  I've always related my theology to nature, and music, and how well that fit!  So I spend a little time every morning with the tune.  I seem to find something different in it, some riff, some chord progression that took me where I want to go in the song.  It hit me this morning that I'd actually been DOING a Lenten practice.  But instead of my choosing it, it had chosen ME.  "What are you giving up for Lent?" people say.  I usually mumble and change the subject.  But it seems all my best spiritual practices are simply given to me.  Like the first time I was asked to play a solo at Bethel.  I wanted to just say NO, but instead my mouth said "maybe".  I don't even recognize the offerings that are given to me at the time. I might not be changing the world, saving babies or the environment with what I've been tasked to do, but I've learned to not say "No" when God asks me. I don't know what How Great Thou Art will sound like on Easter Morning, but that's only partly in my hands.”

God asks us to give and gives opportunities for us to give all the time.  They are all around us, opportunities to serve God with our time, our energy, our resources, and especially with our love.  When we give, the rewards of that giving won’t always be clear or obvious at first.  Sometimes we will never see what we have gained in our caring and serving and giving to others.  But we know that serving God is reward in itself.  And God’s love for us, for humanity, for the world, will take whatever we give and make it huge and beautiful.  Like the star in the Littlest Angel, our gifts of service, resources, and love become bright stars for those with eyes to see can experience. 

               Today we passed out stars.  Each of these has a word on it with the name of a gift or “virtue”.  These are gifts for you to reflect on for the next year, to focus your thoughts, prayers and attention for the year.  Next year on Epiphany Sunday I will ask you to share stories about how those words or stars might have touched you this last year.  They are upside down in the baskets and I ask you to pick one without looking at it first.  These aren’t “magical”, but I do think that there can be a gift in focusing on one of the many blessings God has given to each of us for a set amount of time.  I look forward to hearing how your lights will show and touch the world this year, how you will have been touched by God’s light this year.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Power, forgiveness, control

How much power we give up when we allow others to determine our course:
When we react to hatred with venom,
When we respond to assault with revenge,
When we allow another's destruction to move us towards destruction as well.

Even in the small things,
When our thoughts are consumed by what has been done to us,
When our mind is filled with the memories of what could have or should have been,
When our hearts are shattered daily by an onslaught that we cannot control,
We give up our power when we allow this.
We surrender our peace when we yield to the invasion of our being.
We die each day that we choose darkness in response to darkness,
hatred in response to hatred,
fear and anger in response to the bombardment.

What then is the alternative?
There is only one.
In order to not give you my power,
I must forgive you,
Let go of what was and what will be.
I must live in the now that is now,
not the hope of what might have been.
I must choose this day to embody the peace I hope to see in the world.
And to be the love I believe will one day change the world.