Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Listening, or failing to listen

I've been thinking about listening.  Partly this started because at our midweek service I showed a couple clips (one from Brave, one from Monty Python's Search for the Holy Grail) about our struggles with listening.  Both are hilarious commentaries on how we fail to listen to one another. And part of why they are funny is because they are familiar, and only slight exaggerations on the ways we actually fail to listen.

But I've also been reflecting on the fact that when we disagree with someone, often we are accused of "not listening", even when this is far from true. There was another Presbytery where I served in which there was a strong divide between left/right, progressive/conservative, evangelical/liberal. And when controversial issues arose, the Presbytery always made sure to present both sides of the issue, to allow conversation and comments from all sides, to open up the floor for differing opinions and thoughts before a vote was taken.  Even so, after a vote was taken, there was always a general outcry from the losing side of, "you don't LISTEN", by which folk really meant, "You disagree.  And if you heard what I was saying, surely you could not possibly continue to disagree."

I have found this in conversation with others as well.  I remember a conversation with someone who was telling me he thought all of those who disagreed with him politically were idiots.  I pointed out that people listen to and respect different news sources. His response was "Well, I listen to it all and therefore make educated decisions!  THEY don't listen!"  He said the other side only listened to things which supported their own beliefs.  I found this far from true.  Again, I had engaged with people on both sides of the issues on many occasions including the same people he was calling "idiots" and they were absolutely aware of what the "other side" was saying.  But they disagreed with him. It is not that they weren't listening. They heard. And they disagreed.

In reflecting on this, I have found myself thinking two things.  First, as with much of what we attack in others, my experience has been that those shouting the loudest that "others don't listen" are in fact the people who listen the least.  They want to be heard, but they don't want to hear in return.  They cannot imagine the possibility that their ideas are incorrect, so they assume if someone else disagrees, they simply must not be listening.  For those who actually are aware that we are all imperfect in our thinking and that it therefore is a gift to each of us to hear a different opinion, an opinion that might help us grow and change and expand our views, they want that gift that comes with listening. Therefore they do listen.  They listen hard.  They still might not change their opinions, but they listen. They strive to hear and to understand.  And they usually assume that others are listening, too and just coming to a different conclusion.  They assume that others are behaving the way that they are behaving and so they aren't shouting about how "they aren't listening".  They accept the truth that people can hear the same things and still come to different conclusions at the end.

Secondly, all of us need to work at helping others know we hear them.  Reflective listening is not easy.  It takes time.  It takes a concerted effort to wait before offering our ideas and thoughts and instead to just take the time to say, "I hear you saying x.  I hear you feel y."  It slows down the conversation.  But it does encourage fuller listening.  If I have to rephrase what you are saying in my own words, it means I have to really hear what you are saying first. Rather than thinking about how I will respond to what you have said, I need to be focused on listening to you.  We are often so busy and in such a hurry to make our own points heard and to get on with it, that we fail to be truly present with each other, to hear, to listen, to empower one another in listening.

There are so many reasons to really listen.  First, I don't think people can grow in their ability to hear us unless they first feel heard.  Or to say this a little differently, really listening to people and letting them know they are heard often has the side affect of encouraging the other to offer us genuine listening as well.  Additionally, once a person feels heard, they are not as anxious to be trying to "make sure they are heard" and they can actually focus more on listening.  Second, listening, genuinely listening, helps build bridges of understanding and compassion even when people continue to disagree with one another.  Those bridges of understanding and compassion go a long way towards helping people grow and work together.  Finally, slowing down and taking the time to really hear one another, and to let one another know that they have been heard, is not a terrible way to spend our time.  What is it we are so in a rush to do with the rest of our time anyway?  Aren't we supposed to be about loving each other?  And what better way is there to actually do that than to listen?

My goal for this week is to work towards listening more fully with all that I am.  But also, I strive to be someone who recognizes that just because you disagree it does not mean that you haven't listened. Peace be with all who read and hear this day.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Jesus did not come to make us comfortable

Exodus 20:1-17
1st Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-25

I’d like you to take a moment to think about why you come to church. And what you hope to get from your time here at church. 
In part, we come to church for fellowship, comfort in hard times, strength, hope. These are all important and good things. God wants us to have that support which empower us and strengthen us to do the work of the church in the world. We support one another in our faith, we support one another in the work we do for the church and the world, we seek comfort from God and from one another, we find hope that leads us out of difficult times and out of despair, we obtain the healing power of prayer and of God’s word for us as we come together.
But there is also another side to our coming here. God calls us into relationship and that has to be dynamic. We walk a journey, and we hope to move forward in that journey, growing with God, growing in our faith, growing in our spiritual lives. We are part of a Christian community to help us to move in our spiritual development. So we come to church, also, to be challenged and to grow.
James Fowler wrote extensively about spiritual growth and development. He outlined a typical path of spiritual growth through six stages as he observed them. I’m not going to outline those here, though maybe at some point I will. But I do want to share with you what he and others have said about how that movement through the stages of spiritual development takes place. And what Fowler and many others have said is that both conversion and spiritual development tend to happen in the same way: they both tend to happen most often and most fully after some kind of crisis. People are most in a position to change their understandings, their outlooks, their behaviors and their faith through and after they have gone through something that has challenged their world view, understandings, or beliefs up to that point.
That’s not to say that crises are safe or always a good thing for our faith growth. You can probably think of situations in which faith bodies have taken advantage of the fact that people in crisis are more open to belief changes. Cults, for example, typically target vulnerable people. They find people who are hurting, who have just experienced a loss or a change of some kind, and they promise something better, something which will move them out of their pain. I have seen this happen first hand. My high school good friend’s mother died a month after we began college. He had just moved away from home, across the country, living away for the first time ever. He was stressed with the new work load of attending a school far from home, and then his mother passed away. The Moonies in his college community found him within a month after her death, offering him a new family that would hold him, would love him, would fill the emptiness he felt, would offer a sanctuary from the confusion and stress, would help him walk through his new life journey. He was very attracted to the promises they made him and he attended several of their events before those of us back home became concerned enough to step in. Fortunately, there was a Presbyterian Church in the community with a pastor who, once contacted, was able to reach out to him and show him that while their promises sounded good, the cost of giving up all his outside relationships, all his finances, and even his personal identity were too high. But we also know of many who are not so lucky and who do join cults in their times of crisis.
So, too, many of us can think of examples of people who have given up faith entirely in reaction to a serious crisis. Something bad happens and people can become angry at God. Often that bad thing is something that happens in church. For some, they choose, in their anger, to deny God altogether. I’ve always found it interesting that many of the atheists I know, while claiming that they don’t believe in God, in fact are actually just really angry at a God they continue to believe in, despite what they say. They are punishing God for their pain or loss by denying that God exists. Other atheists are in between stages of spiritual growth, unable to move from one stage to another smoothly and so they reject a previous stage of faith belief but cannot embrace the faith of a later stage. For example, a person who has been at the stage of belief in which Holy texts are literal writings may find themselves confronted by scriptures that are divergent from each other, such as Jesus blatantly contradicting the Old Testament rule of “an eye for an eye.” If that person cannot find a way to understand this discrepancy, if they cannot find a community that can support them in a new understanding of those texts, if they cannot find a model for a faith that does not require a literal approach to scripture, all too often they end up leaving their faith journey all together.
So we know that crisis can be hurtful to one’s faith journey as well. But it is also, as I said at first, the fertile ground that can help us move in our faith journeys into a deeper, more genuine and more honest relationship with God. Crisis doesn’t have to be big in order to do this.  It can be as small as simply something that causes a change in one’s thinking, a comment made in a class or during a church service, seeing something that doesn’t fit into one’s world view, reading something that challenges one’s belief. Small things as well as large things, anything that challenges our thinking, that moves us even a little out of our comfort zone can move us forward in our faith, if we are open to God’s movement within these challenges and changes. Other times the crisis might be larger.

When I was a senior in college, a group of people from the house church in which I lived went to visit Nicaragua and Guatemala to try to understand the poverty, wars and political turmoil those countries were enduring. We were a group of twenty committed Christians, college students who, frankly, believed we had it all figured out and were just going to get more education. All of us were people of faith, though we were in very different places in our faith journeys. But as we listened to the stories of the people in these countries who were suffering, who were struggling, all of us were confronted, deeply, in our faith. Many of us began the journey with faith beliefs such as “God never gives you more than you can handle,” and “everything happens for a reason” only to be confronted by people of faith who had experienced much more than they could handle, and who had truly experienced atrocities that went beyond any possible “reason”. These were people who had their entire families disappeared and killed, people who had been tortured and left to die by the side of the road; deep, faithful Christians who had lost their minds because of witnessing the atrocities of war. None of us were left unaffected by the courage of the women and children who would risk their lives to share their stories with us. None of us were unaffected by the sound of machine guns mowing down local villagers, waking us from sleep one night. None of us were unaffected by the begging of the villagers for us to talk to our government about what was going on and to tell them to stop supporting a war on the peasants that was taking place in these countries at that time. But the ways in which we were affected were very different. How do you handle the challenge to your faith, when the foundation of it has been trusting that if you have faith, you will never experience more than you can handle, only to see that this isn’t always the case? If your faith is only a guarantee against bad things, how do you handle it when bad things happen despite your faith?
One of our twenty decided that these people weren’t really Christian. If they had been Christian, God would not have allowed this to happen to them, God would not have “given them more than they could handle”, and the “reason” for their suffering must be their lack of true faith.  That may have felt like a safe way for her to hang on to her faith, but it couldn’t last very long, as it was sure to be confronted again in some way. Another of our group decided, for a while, that there must not be a God at all - after all, how could a good and loving God allow such atrocities to take place. Personally, I found myself trusting the voices of the people themselves when they were asked about their faith. They said they did not believe God was responsible for these atrocities. People were. And that their experience of God was one of Jesus standing by them, crying with them, being on the cross with them; screaming out against the money changers and the Pharisees and all the injustices in their land as well; calling for other people of faith to step forward and change what was happening, promising that even if their lives were lost, there was new life on the other side that they had to believe in, in order to make a change, in order to bring the realm of God, the reign of God to their countries. And my faith grew because of listening and being moved by their faith. But the person who was most profoundly challenged by the things we witnessed in Central America took time moving through his faith crisis. He went home and crawled into bed and did not emerge for a week. Because we were all living together in a house church at the time, we rallied around this young man. We came and sat with him. We tried to offer advice and our insights, but the campus ministers wisely told us that our presence, our experiences and our love were more important than any answers at that point. So we shared our stories, and we shared our love, we shared our confusion and doubt as well. Together we walked the journey. Together we each emerged with a deeper faith. Even our friend who rejected God altogether is now serving as a Christian missionary now to those same countries, trying to change the situation. The only one whose faith did not survive was the one who refused to be challenged by the situation but who simply rejected those who suffered as un-Christian. She could not allow for the questions and doubts to rise in her mind. She could not, therefore, work through them and walk forward in her journey. And as a result, her faith finally did not survive.
What is the job of the church in light of this? 
I think we have to look at scripture and see what Jesus models for us to do. If the church is the body of Christ, then being that body must look like following Jesus. So what did Jesus do?      First, he brought healing to people. As a church we do this in several ways. We pray for people, in some traditions, that prayer can involve a laying on of hands or a healing service. For others, it is just taking people to the doctor and visiting people in the hospital. In times of crisis, the job of the church is to stand with people and to help them move through their questions, through their experiences, through their doubts, in a way that does not proscribe for another what their individual journey must look like, but that walks gently with each person and encourages above all, continued communication with God. We can’t proscribe a certain path because each journey is unique and God’s relationship with you as individuals cannot be determined by me or anyone else. It is your relationship with God. The best we can do is walk with you and help you hear God’s voice when it becomes difficult to hear. This is what my house church did for those of us who went to Central America. We walked with one another, and that was more powerful than anything.

Secondly, Jesus stood up to injustice. He stood up for people who were being put down by others. This, too, is part of our job as a church. We need to be the voice that stops those who would throw stones at the woman caught in adultery. We need to be the voice that stops those who would condemn Mary who let down her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet. We need to stop the voices of judgement and condemnation, stop the violence against the poor and oppressed, and stand with the marginalized, the outcast, the poor and the voiceless.
Third, Jesus taught about God’s love and care. He told stories, he told parables. We, too are called to tell our stories, to tell the stories we know in a way that challenges limited thinking, that challenges hateful thinking. We need to speak about God’s love in a way that moves people to be more loving.
Fourth, he challenged peoples’ understanding of worship. He changed the symbols of the pass-over meal into our communion meal. He said that wherever two or more are gathered God is there - and wherever that is becomes a site for worship, an opportunity for worship, a call to worship. He challenged people’s faith. And in doing so, he invited growth, he invited change.  We, too are called to experience new things in our worship lives, to not become complacent as a church, but remain open to the movements of the Holy Spirit, even in our worship lives.
Finally, he did things like we read in today’s scripture: he overturned the money changers in the temple, he got angry and confrontive, he stirred things up and challenged the norm, the standard way people did things which they hadn’t examined in a long time and which needed to be looked at, re-examined, spoken about in a truthful and honest way and changed. As a church, we, too, are called to look at things, even in the temple, even in the church, to look at our own actions and patterns, to risk seeing things clearly and to speak about them as they are.
            Clayton Valley is a unique place. It is a church that I believe understands the value of being challenged, the necessity of change as a part of our lives both as individuals and as a community. I have already experienced in you a great deal of openness to experience new things, and a great deal of willingness to allow your crises to be opportunities for growth, opportunities to move closer to God and to experience God in new ways. I want to encourage you as part of the process of spiritual growth to share with one another, your brothers and sisters in the church, those experiences. Share with us when things are good, share with us when things are difficult, share with us when things are challenging, joyful and when things are unpleasant. Your sharing is a gift to all of us. We learn and we grow in our faith journeys, not only from our own crisis and experiences, but from yours as well. I invite you to give us the gifts of your stories and
experiences. And I invite you to remember that sometimes the discomfort you may feel at any moment is an invitation to growth. Other times, that discomfort may be an invitation for the rest of us to grow, for the church to grow, or change. We need to be given that opportunity, too.

Growing us in our faith - that is the job of the church. We can’t do this always by being comfortable, though offering comfort is an important part of the job. Jesus offered it all: comfort and challenge, a safe haven and encouragement to go out and do the work of the church, support and empowerment to change the world, love; and a voice that challenges us to grow and be better.  As the church, we strive to follow Jesus and do nothing less than all of the above.  Amen.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Anger, Hate, and Evil

Yes, I am using the "e" word. I've seen so much anger and hate over the last two days, so much that just is beyond comprehension to me that I actually am beginning to wonder if there aren't people who choose evil.  I usually try to approach every single person with compassion.  I assume that people who are raging at others for no apparent reason simply are having a bad day and are handling it poorly.  Maybe they are having a bad life and are handling it poorly.  I assume that people who do racist, hating behaviors just haven't been educated, or are simply so afraid of what they don't understand that they are trying to protect themselves with anger and hate. I assume that the hate and fear industry (and yes, there is one) is profiting at the expense of people already angry and hateful by raising their fear to such levels that they simply can't see straight and are seriously trying to make their worlds safer with these crazy raging, hateful behaviors. I assume that people who mistreat others are generally people who've been mistreated; that Scott Peck was right when he talked about projecting those parts of ourselves that we don't like out onto other people and then acting to destroy it - that this is why people do evil.  They don't set out to do wrong, they just can't deal with parts of themselves and so they act that out in these evil ways.

But I think I may be coming to the limit of my ability to believe that this is always true.  I keep reading about Narcissists and the damage they do to others because they truly are unable to empathize.  It goes even farther with psychopaths and sociopaths.  Still, I've mostly clung to the belief that these folk don't choose their  personality disorder or their mental illness.  They have it, and so far we haven't found a whole lot of cures for these things.  Plus mostly the people who have these conditions don't necessarily want to be "cured" because that would involve feeling, and feeling remorse for what they've done which is one of the most painful states of being.

Yet, when I see the amount of anger that is proportioned so outrageously in response to...well, often to NOTHING, I just have to wonder.  What have we become?  Why are we so angry?  Why are we heading down this path of such meanness, often to people we don't even know?  And more, what can we possibly do about it?

I remain convinced of the truth of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr when he said "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."   Of course he was actually paraphrasing 1 John 4:18 (after all, he was a pastor): "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love."  Hate/fear/anger.  All the same.  And none of them can be solved or stopped or healed by more fear, more anger, or more hate.  Revenge will never heal these things, it will only escalate the problems.  Returning evil for evil will never destroy evil.  Therefore, for those of us who truly want to make a difference in terms of promoting peace, love, kindness and compassion, I don't think there is a lot of choice in how we respond to the hate, anger and fear that will, it seems, come more and more our way.

I read a story on the internet a few days ago about an African American mom and her son who were picking up food at McDonalds in the Drive through. Some mean spirited person behind them in line shouted out some very attacking and racist remarks. The mother's response was to pay for the man's lunch and to write a note that said, "We are not what you called us.  We forgive you.  Have a good lunch."  Wow.

I found myself truly moved, both with rage at what had been done to them, but also with a sense of awe for the courage that that mother showed, the choice she made to show love in the face of evil, and to teach her son a better way.  As she said, "It is easy to respond to kindness with kindness.  It is a much bigger thing to respond to evil with kindness."  Again, she was just paraphrasing another scripture, Matthew 5:46, “If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same?"

We had our panel the other night of Muslim speakers who came to share with us what it has been like to be Muslim in the United States at this time, what they have experienced, what they are grateful for, who they are, what they think, etc.  It was incredibly informative and helpful.  They took a great risk and effort (they were not paid) to take time off from their lives to come and speak to our churches in Clayton.  But I understand that they were harrassed as they left.  All of these speakers were amazing folk - one of them was THE primary engineer on the Hubble Telescope as well as one of those who worked on the Apollo. With his handful of PhDs, this man was absolutely incredible, along with the rest of them in what they have contribued to society and to the world, and they took time to speak with us, share with us, answer our questions, our concerns, our fears.  They were rewarded for that with meanness.  But again, they chose to act in a more "Christian" way than those who were yelling at them in the parking lot.  They responded with dignity, grace, and peace.  And again, I found myself moved, both in rage at what they experienced by people who claim to believe in the One who said, (again Matthew 5:43 on..) "You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Parent who is in heaven. God makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. ..", but also moved by their choice to choose peace, to choose compassion, to choose love in face of that nastiness.

I want to choose the same.  But it is not always easy.  The other day I was walking in a parking lot at the store and was about to get to my car to put in my groceries, when some rageful person started cussing me out.  I have no idea why.  I assumed it was because they wanted me to move faster to get my groceries in the car so they could have the spot, but honestly I don't know why.  I wasn't going to listen to that kind of language, so I don't know what the message was underneath it.  But I thought about these other examples that I've seen recently. And I chose then to wave, to smile, and to quickly get my groceries into the car so that he could have the spot.  He did not take the spot, but continued to shriek.  I still have not one clue about why.  I asked Jasmyn if she could see why he was so angry, but she said "no", and finally we drove out of the parking lot and were on our way.  I acted the way I wanted to act.  I acted with the peace and compassion I choose to demonstrate.  But I have to admit, I did not feel peaceful at all.  I was shaking with anger, with fear, with visions of yelling back about how that was not language that was appropriate for my kids to hear.  I felt torn up inside by a person I don't know, will never meet, who was just... ANGRY.  It didn't make me feel better to act with kindness.  It did not make me feel better to be kind in the face of that kind of anger/hate.  But it didn't make me feel worse either.  If I'd acted in anger, I would have felt more angry.  If I'd chosen rage, I probably would feel some guilt on top of everything else.

There is a saying in many 12 step programs which is "Act as If."  The theory behind it is that you act your way into being someone else.  Act as if you are a peaceful person and you will become one. Act as if you are no longer angry and you will stop being angry.  Act happy and calm and confident and those feelings and attributes will follow.  That is my choice for now.  I don't know that it will always work.  I don't know that I can always think of the kind way to respond in the face of anger or hate.  But I can try.  I can try.  And perhaps in trying, I will become what I want to be.

I may not change the world.  I may make no difference at all in the scheme of things.  But I also will not let the world make me more angry, hateful or fearful.  I don't choose that, for myself or for those around me who are affected by my behavior.  For today, I pray that is enough.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Temptations

Luke 4:1-13

Luke wrote his gospel in a highly organized, pointed way. I would encourage you to actually look at the layout of the gospel at some point for yourself. But I am going to take my job as “teaching elder” more seriously this morning and talk you through some of his organization. The gospel of Luke begins with his prologue and dedication to Theophilus, Chapter 1:1-4. Luke then begins the gospel narrative with the infancy stories, explaining about John the Baptist and Jesus’ conceptions and births. That story is told beginning in Chapter 1:5, continuing through 2:21, the verse where Jesus is named, and then on through verse 39, his presentation at the temple. All of these verses are for the purpose of showing, proving, providing the signs that Jesus was the chosen one, that Jesus is the messiah, the son of God. These verses establish for the listeners Jesus’ divinity. These are followed in Chapter 2: 41-52 by the one story we hear of Jesus as a boy in which he was preaching in the temple. As I’m sure you remember, his parents couldn’t find him, and finally when he was found in the temple, Jesus scolded them for not understanding his role, his job, his position as a temple leader. In the gospel of Luke, this story again serves the purpose of showing us Jesus’ special calling and unique place in the history of the Jewish people. In Chapter 3 John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus, baptizes him, and then Jesus is marked by the descent of the holy spirit pronouncing him to be God’s son. Finally, chapter three ends with Jesus’ genealogy. For the Jewish people, this would be like giving his credentials to prove that he really was a person who was qualified to be the messiah. While for us in the United States, this genealogy may not seem like an important sign of Jesus’ kingship, try to understand this as a blood line monarchy. Descent is important for a king to be considered legitimate. This was especially true for the divine monarchy. Jesus’ genealogy would have been a critical, crucial part of identifying and understanding who Jesus was.   
Today’s scripture reading about the temptations of Jesus then follow this genealogy.  And in these verses as well, Luke is about the work of establishing for us who Jesus is. Up to this point, Luke is telling us that Jesus is in fact the Messiah, the chosen one. With the temptation stories, Luke tells us what this Messiah is to be like. Or rather, these verses are key as they lay out in exact terms who Jesus is NOT, what the Messiah is NOT going to be, despite the expectations and hopes of the Jewish people of the time.
The Jews around the time of Jesus’ life were expecting the Messiah, and looking for the Messiah. But they had very specific ideas in mind of what that Messiah would look like, who he would be, and what he would do. They believed the Messiah would be one who would rid them of oppression, of poverty, and of hunger. And so Luke tells us that Satan first tempted Jesus to perform the miracle of making stone into bread. In this story, Satan tempts Jesus to make the bread to feed himself. But I think it would have been very easy to justify giving in to this temptation for the sake of other people. For the ability to turn stone into bread, the choice to create food where there was none could have been used for the good of the people; Jesus could have given in to this temptation and chosen to end poverty and oppression for all people simply by turning stones into food, necessities, the things people need. But Luke tells us this temptation came from Satan: this was not Jesus’ job. Jesus was not called to simply wave his hand and make everybody comfortable. And this story tells us that he resisted the temptation to do so. 

Many Jews at the time believed the role of the Messiah would be to reestablish the kingdom of Israel, overthrowing the Romans who ruled over the Jews and all the land of Israel at this time in history. The second temptation addresses this. Satan offers Jesus the power of the world, all fame, all authority. Jesus could have used this gift for good as well. He could have overthrown any power, like the Roman rule, that was oppressive and dominant, and establish a new rule, led by himself, that was for good, that was just and kind. But this, too, was not what he was called to do. We know this again because Luke tells us it is Satan who offers this. This was not Jesus’ call, and so this temptation, too, he resisted.
Finally, many simply believed the Messiah would be a priest who would, through his power, protect the people, care for the people, warding off all evil that might threaten their lives or their comfort. And so in Luke, Satan tells Jesus to test God’s call, God’s love, the power God has given Jesus. He asks Jesus to jump off the temple, and throw himself into the arms and mercy of the angels. But this temptation, too, comes from Satan and Jesus resists.
I’m guessing that all of these temptations, all of these images of the Messiah are ones we would wish for Jesus to claim as well. We, too, would want a savior who would make sure we were fed, would lead us as a king, as the President of the United States and of the world, acting
with justice, thwarting all evil, leading us as both a political and as a religious leader, doing miracles and acting with power to insure that all are safe, happy, and secured of God’s grace even when we do stupid things that might look like throwing ourselves off of buildings.
But Luke tells us very clearly this is not Jesus’ call. This is not who Jesus is. He did not cater to his own needs, he did not reach for power or popularity, compromising his beliefs or calling, he did not test God’s love for him; and, despite what everyone wanted him to do, he did not “fix” the problems of the world instantly. Instead he began a ministry which angered people because it did not support the hierarchy that had been set up. He began a ministry which eventually got him killed because he told the truth to those in power about their unjust and evil behavior, and he called them to change. He began a ministry of good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed, but not by ridding the world of these problems. Instead, he worked through the people themselves, through empowerment, through love, and through calling all of us to likewise carry out this mission, this plan. He did his work one person at a time, and sometimes in communities of people.  But he never took away free will, he never took over power, he remained humble yet continued to speak and act with love and truth. 
We are called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. We are called to be his disciples, and to do the work that he has begun. That means that in the face of similar temptations, we, too are called to resist and to follow Jesus’ way instead. We too are called to resist the temptation of feeding ourselves first, of seeking power and fame and popularity, of testing God’s love for us, but also, of taking the easy way in the face of the great needs and oppression of those around us. We are called to remember in everything that we do that the ends do NOT justify the means, that the way we get where we are going is just as important as the end result. And taking away people’s freedom, people’s choices does NOT get us where we are called to be.  Acting, even to save the world, must be done with love rather than hate. And we are called to resist the temptation to say that it’s okay to grab for our own needs because we can use them to do good for other people. 
            The truth is that I think all of us are tempted by the same things. And as people of faith, we tell ourselves that we want these things to serve and care for others. If we only had enough food, comfort, power, popularity, wealth, surely we could change the whole world for the better. But these temptations sometimes cause us to face hard day to day decisions that are not always in the best interest of others, of our communities, of the world. For example, we might have the face the choice to do something in a job that is questionable, but we do it because we need to support ourselves and our families. We might justify doing something questionable because if we don’t have a job, what use can we be to anyone? Sometimes we debate between what we believe we need for ourselves and our families and giving to those who are truly, deeply in need of basics. This is a temptation I believe we face every single day. Do we give to those most in need, who are struggling to simply survive? Or do we use what we have for ourselves and our families. We don’t want to be afraid that we or our families won’t have enough. And we sometimes lose sight of the fact that somehow our ideas of what is “enough” expand based on what we actually have. Similarly, how many times do we keep quiet, keep our mouths shut about important values or things we hold dear in order to not “upset” people when maybe we are called to do exactly that? To take a stand for something we value? 
These are things I struggle with as well. As pastors we talk about this. As I’ve mentioned before, the larger Church across the country is shrinking at an alarming rate. Across denominations our churches are dying out. We can’t, therefore, we tell ourselves, or perhaps Satan or evil or temptation whispers in our ears, afford to speak the truths that we hear in scripture, that we read there every day, when we fear it may alienate people in our congregations.  People might get mad at us if we said when we really know, think, or believe. So we fail to do it. Francis of Assisi actually put it another way when he said that people of God should never be put in positions of high authority in any institution because our job then becomes preserving the institution rather than telling the truth. But this is not what we are called to do. How is the church relevant if it isn’t looking seriously at what the scriptures say, are and do? How are we doing our jobs by failing to speak those hard truths that many would rather not hear? 
A colleague of mine wrote, “So I asked my three year old boy ‘Honey, if we were at a store, and Dad and I were in one aisle, and you were in another aisle, and there was candy, and the devil said, “You should take some!” What would you say back to the devil?’ A genuinely sweet grin lit up his entire face and without hesitation he replied, "Oh! I would say thank you!" It is far easier than not for us to say, "Thank you," when temptation comes calling. (Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide.)
But as we know, giving into temptations is a slippery slope.  There once were a couple of kids who wanted ice cream. The ice cream truck was coming, they could hear it coming up the street. So they asked their mother for money for ice cream and she said no. But they REALLY wanted the ice cream, so they were scouring the house for money but couldn’t find any. But then they found their mother’s wallet. And they took the money and used it to buy ice cream. So now they’ve done two things wrong. They had ice cream when their mother said no. They stole money to get it. But then the mom saw chocolate on their faces and asked them if they had had ice cream. And they added to their mistakes by lying about it. She knew they had, so then the next question was where did you get the money and they lied about that as well. One “sin” or mistake or error led to another, and another and another. Eventually one of the brothers gave in and told the truth. The other became angry and punched the one who told. Another wrong-doing. And it goes from there. 
In this world where there are hungry people, where there is oppression and injustice, where people are fleeing their countries because of genocides and other acts of mass violence, the bigger temptation, the biggest evil, is apathy, is inaction, is passivity. The biggest temptation for all of us is choosing to take care of our own and to not think that care for those who are out there is our job. But we are not called to be passive. We are not called to solely take care of our own. We are called to act out of love, for ALL people. That love should affect everything we do. Where we shop, paying attention to what stores are paying fair wages to people in this country and abroad. What we buy, paying attention to who has made or grown the things we buy, the food we buy and if they are treated fairly, if the land is being treated well. What we do with our money, who we vote for, how we talk to people, how we talk to strangers. All of these things, every choice we make should be informed by Love. Hard? Of course. For all of us. But that is the call. Anything less is giving into temptation.

The truth is that all of us become tempted, and all of us fail at times. The good news though is that God gives us more and more chances every day to make different choices. The good news is that God gets it because Jesus, too, was tempted. And the Good News is that Jesus models for us what to do when those temptations come. Jesus responded to his temptations by quoting scripture back to Satan. To put it in more modern terms, Jesus responded to the temptations that he faced by re-grounding himself in what he believed, in his relationship with God. And he models for us similar choices. Prayer helps. Confession helps. Meditation helps. Remembering what you believe, what is important, where God is in your life and that God calls us to love others because in doing so we are made whole. Remembering that…all of that can help reground us. Staying present so we are focused on what needs to be done now, right this minute for the good of the one in front of us, for the good of God’s creation. And again, that can be done best with God’s help. We pray each week, “lead us not into temptation”. But we will find ourselves tempted, and when we are, the prayer needs to be continued, “(and when we are tempted), deliver us from evil” both the evil of others AND our own.  Amen.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


     As I strive to walk a journey towards grace and peace, I've found myself thinking about anger, both from an objective place, but also from a personal one.
      From a more clinical or distant perspective, anger is the opposite of reconciliation and forgiveness. Anger is the opposite of peace. Anger often stems from fear, and it can lead to hate. Often anger is a stand in for different feelings: sorrow, grief, hurt, shame, embarrasment, humiliation. As such it has often been called a "secondary emotion".  It's the one we see, but it is often the symptom of something else. At the same time, sometimes anger itself is illusive in the sense that we don't realize we are angry until we have snapped out at someone. Often in those cases, the snapping happens at people other than the ones with whom we are most angry or hurt.  Sometimes when we are angry, we can have trouble sleeping, but again, the anger that keeps us awake is often not felt towards the real person with whom we have the deep anger, and often it is a cover for these other feelings of hurt, of betrayal, of grief.  For many of us anger is "unacceptable" and so we don't acknowledge our own anger, we don't see it, we don't own it until we are either called on it or it explodes out of us in some inappropriate way. Sometimes it's subtle and festers so deeply that it doesn't explode but just creeps out in hurtful ways.
      I can see this happen in other people.  I can think of several people in my life who just say mean things. They do it under the guise of being "real" and "honest", but the truth is they are angry. They have been hurt by life, they are deeply angry about it and so these attacks on the rest of the world just happen. And again, the anger is expressed in inappropriate proportion to what is actually going on because the anger being expressed is not what the real anger is about, and it's not being expressed to the one with whom we are most angry, and it is not expressing the deeper pain and hurt felt.  Does it feel better to say hurtful or attacking things?  I doubt it.  But until the underlying anger and underlying pain is seen, is named, is owned, is dealt with, I doubt very much that this sideways expression of it will stop. Therefore people will continue to get hurt. People will continue to suffer the blows that this unnamed anger deals, often without awareness on the part of the ones expressing that anger.
      Despite being able to see it in other people, I missed it in myself.  I just plain missed it.  There are many reasons for this. I want to be a person of peace, so I deny anger. Anger hasn't been safe for me in the past - when I express it I lose people I love, so it has been better to not express it. While feeling it is different than expressing it, it has been hard for me to know how to deal with it or express it, so I chose not to feel it either. I just denied it mostly. While I, too, have been woken in the night by anger, it too usually has been over little events or at least at things that should not carry so much weight with me.  But when it comes to the bigger things? "I'm not angry.  I've worked it all through." I've told myself over and over again. Those closest to me saw otherwise. I've been called on it before with words such as "calm down" or more helpfully, "You seem so very angry!" It has manifested in depression at times, which I've also been called on. "This isn't depression, this is anger. You are angry." Yes. But it was hard to see, still. What am I angry about?  At whom am I angry? And even if I can name it, tell you, admit that there really are reasons to be angry and hurts that just haven't healed yet, there is nothing I can do about these things that have happened. If there is nothing to be done about it, what can I possibly do with that anger that will move it through?
       A spiritual director said to me that I could move it through creativity.  Well, I've been writing, but it's not working.  "No.  Create something...a picture, a dance, a piece of music.  Don't use your brain trying to work this through...just create."  So then all of these stories came to me. I used to write stories as a child, lots and lots of stories. But it has been a long time. I took most of one of my weekend days this last week to write a story.  It wasn't about anything real. It was about heaven, a place I don't actually believe in...or not in this way certainly. I posted it on my new blog, which is impossible to access, apparently, but that's okay. It's okay because I wrote it for myself. And as I've sat with the story, as I've worked through the details, written and rewritten and read and re-read parts of it, something within me shifted.  That's the best way I can put it, but something truly shifted - just enough for me to see - just enough for me to become aware of some of the times that I have allowed this inner boiling anger to slip out.  It has come out in some of my writing here on this blog.  It has come out at my son who should never have to carry my anger.
         So this long winded post is actually an apology.  I am sorry if you got hit in the cross fire of this anger within me.  I will keep writing, and I hope that the creative movements within will allow me to become more aware and then, I hope, to find ways to release more of the anger.  But I've taken the first steps.  And the very first step has been to simply see, to notice.  The second then is writing apology to any who got blasted by that anger in direct or indirect ways.  I've thought about going back over old blog posts and editing out any sideways anger (which can also, I've found, sometimes look like arrogance - ugh!!). But instead I am going to let those things stand.  The past is the past and it informs who we are now, too.  I hope I can grow and learn from my mistakes.
      This blog post is also a request. There will be times when I'm still not seeing my own anger.  But I know some of you do. I am asking you to call me on it, if you are comfortable.  I don't want to be an angry person, but I know the first step really is in seeing it, owning it.  I can't work it through if I remain unaware.  And you can help me to become more aware as well.  I know it takes courage to say to someone, "you seem really angry right now".  But I ask you to have that courage.
      I strive to be a person of peace. I can't do that without working through this anger and letting it go. I ask for your forgiveness for any anger that came your way. And I accept with deep gratitude the grace that is those of you hanging in there with me through all of this.  Peace to you all.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - The Veils that Hide Us

Exodus 34:29-35
2 Corinthians 3:12 - 4:2
Luke 9:28-36
When you think about veils and people wearing veils or masks what comes to mind?  Wedding veils - originally these were so thick that you couldn’t see the person’s face – hence when Jacob married Leah he thought she was Rachael.  So thick like that – Muslim women under the Taliban. Klu Klux Klan, Bank robbers.
          What is the purpose of all these veils?  Generally their purpose is hiding people or aspects or identity of people.  Sometimes this is for a good reason.  Why did Moses wear his veil?  Well, according to the Old Testament lesson, he put on the veil because his face was changed by seeing God and he was afraid that it would scare people to see him.   The people then, as I’m sure most would now, were in awe in the presence of the holy, felt at some level that they didn’t belong to the holy.  Being in the presence of one whose face showed him to have been transformed by the very presence of God would have been scary.  Moses kept the veil off when he went to see God and when he delivered God’s message to the people– to make sure they understood it and heard it.  But then he put the veil back on so people would not be afraid.
         Paul gives a different explanation about this.  Paul says Moses put on the veil because his glory or transformation was not lasting and he didn’t want people to see his transformation fading.
        But either way, since Moses was a leader of the people, these might be considered good reasons to veil one’s face.   So, too, in communities in which veils are a requirement for some people, I am certain that those who make those requirements believe they are protecting both those wearing the veils and those in the community from breaking God’s laws or from temptation to sin.
       But there are many other reasons for wearing veils which maybe aren’t so good or holy.  Veils again, are things that we hide behind.  We still do this, we wear veils.  Physically - people wear make up or have plastic surgery, dye their hair: these are all veils in a way – things that hide or cover up things we don’t like about our bodies or about ourselves.  But there are emotional veils as well.  Have you ever met pastors with the affected personas?  We hide parts of ourselves, we veil parts of ourselves.  In today’s scripture reading from Luke, Peter grabbed hold of what I would consider another veil. – As Luke reads:
“Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’ —not knowing what he said.”
He, too, was hiding.   He was hiding behind his words and behind ideas and behind a kind of really silly plan, because he was afraid.  The Israelites at the time believed that an encounter with God would do nothing less than kill you.  But here Peter had encountered the divine – had seen Jesus transfigured and had heard God’s voice, and was still living.  His response, out of fear, out of awe, out of bewilderment was in a sense blithering because he was so overwhelmed by the experience.  He, like those around Moses, was afraid of the transfiguration, afraid of the encounter with the holy.  And so his “veil” was a blithering absurd suggestions to Jesus.
Do you find you have veils?  That you protect yourself, or hide yourself from being real in difficult situations?  In stressful situations?  What about in daily life?  Are there veils that you wear to hide parts of yourself every day?
I think people tend to do this especially in the church.  James Angell in his book, “Yes is a world” writes, “Church ought to be a set of moments when we become most expansively, openly and honestly ourselves.  Yet it is in the church where we often find it hardest to be ourselves: where we are often the most guarded, the most paranoid, the most unsure of being accepted and understood.”  The church is a place in which, every Sunday, we take time to acknowledge our brokenness and our need for God’s forgiveness to make us whole.  And yet still, we hide – from each other, from the world, and maybe even from God.
But as we know, these veils only succeed to a certain degree. I want to give you a few examples:
 1.  A man in a hooded jacket approached a gas station clerk with a gun and demanded all the money. The clerk complied. When the robber returned to his home, police were there waiting. The jacket the man wore during the hold up was his high school varsity jacket. It had his full name and year he graduated right on it.
2.  A young criminal walked into a bank and quietly handed the teller a note demanding several thousand dollars. Disguised, the man could have easily gotten away. However, he had idiotically written the note on a piece of his own stationery; it included his full name and address.
3.  A guy wearing pantyhose on his face tried to rob a store in a mall. When security came, he quickly grabbed a shopping bag and pretended to be shopping, forgetting that he was still wearing the pantyhose on his head.
4.  A man walked into the corner store with a shotgun and demanded all of the money from the cash register. After the cashier put the money in the bag as instructed, the man demanded the bottle of Scotch he saw behind the counter. The cashier refused to hand over the Scotch because he did not believe the man was 21. The robber swore he was, but still the clerk refused. Finally, the robber handed over his ID and proved that he was indeed twenty-one. As soon as he left, the cashier called and gave the police the name and address of the man who had just robbed the store.
Another example that one of my best friends shared with me this week.  She packed off her daughter to school who was wearing a sweatshirt covering a t-shirt.  She thought she knew what shirt it was, but when her daughter came home without her sweatshirt on, she saw that instead her daughter was wearing a shirt that said, “My mom came out of the closet and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.” My friend had had no intention of sharing her sexual identity with the entire elementary school, but had bought her daughter the shirt because it was funny, never thinking she’d wear it to school.  While she wasn’t exactly “veiled”, neither was she publicly sharing this information.  But her daughter did it for her.
All these stories are pretty silly.  But the reality is that this can and DOES become a lot more serious many times.  We hear so many stories of the pastors and politicians who are fighting the very things they have within themselves – Pastors and politicians condemning gay people, who are caught in same sex relationships.  Pastors and politicians condemning infidelity who are caught in affairs.  People condemning, hating, even advocating the killing of immigrants who are themselves immigrants or who are married to immigrants.
        Scott Peck in his book, “People of the Lie” talks about the evil that people do.  He says that people do evil – and I don’t use that word lightly, but true, deep evil, that destroys people, damages their persons in any way – physically, emotionally or spiritually: that people do this when they cannot face something about themselves.  People who do this evil project whatever it is within themselves that they cannot accept, out onto others and work to actively destroy it in the other.  In so doing, they often do not just destroy the thing they hate, but the other person as well.  I think it is really important for us to think about this, to reflect on this. What is it we hate in the world?  And is it possible, is it just possible that this thing that we hate is a part of ourselves that we can’t face, can’t accept, can’t deal with and so we try to destroy it in the other?  The louder the assault on the other, history has shown us again and again, the stronger the reality that it exists within the perpetrator.  J.K. Rowling showed us this in the Harry Potter series – Voldemort and his followers were trying to destroy those who came from non-magical parentage, and yet Voldemort himself had a non-magical father.  But again, it isn’t just in fiction.  When you think of the scandals of our times, it is those who yell loudest against any group of people who often are proven to have that within themselves.  Again and again and again.
A woman I know had been a member of a church for 20 years when the man we all knew as her husband left her alone with no resources and with three young children to raise.  This woman had been a staunch advocate for marriage, for family values, and had, at times, even been harsh towards other couples who chose to live together without getting married.  Still, there appeared no alternative for her but divorce, after her husband left.  The congregation rallied around her, trying to offer care, advice and support towards obtaining a legal divorce that would at least allow her to receive child support.  The congregation tried and tried to help her and could not understand why she was so resistant, so reserved until one day one of the children blurted out that they couldn’t get divorced because they had never actually been married.  Much to the poor woman’s surprise, she discovered that while this was a congregation that didn’t care if the marriage was legal or not, and it was a congregation that would have offered her all the support she could desire through a difficult and oppressive situation and even through a divorce, that still, this was not a congregation that would tolerate being lied to.  Everyone in the church felt deceived.  And the veil she had used to protect herself instead became, for better or worse, the wall that would separate her from her friends and community.
Sometimes we feel we must be careful about showing who we really are or even what we really think or believe.  Sometimes we feel that we must hide parts of ourselves in order to be effective in our jobs or even in our friendships.  Sometimes we feel we must compartmentalize parts of ourselves – “in this place I can be funny, in that place I must be political, in this place I need to be careful about what I share, in that place I can be wild and crazy” in order to navigate the waters of our lives.  But God calls us into wholeness.  God calls us to be complete people, all the time, in every place.  And what I’m saying to you today is that this is both for our own sakes and for the those around us.  When we are honest with ourselves about who we are, we will have no need to project the parts we don’t like outward and try to destroy them in the other.  When we can accept parts of ourselves we don’t like, we can also work to either be at peace with them or to change them.  When we stand before God we are seen as we are, with all our strangeness and with all of our gifts.  Our transformation, our transfiguration, each and every day, must be towards wholeness, into being all of who we are, just as Jesus’ transfiguration showed him to be exactly who he was called to be.
         My challenge then to all of us is to be as real, with ourselves and with one another as we can be.  My challenge for us is to remove the veils we put up and not worry about fear or disappointment in the other.  My challenge for all of us is to be the people God calls us to be, more and more so each and every day.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

A Deeper Exploration into Reconciliation

         I've been spending a great deal of time over the last few years thinking about reconciliation.  I believe deeply in searching for, creating, and working towards reconciliation.  I believe that we are called to move towards wholeness, and that doesn't just mean as individuals, but as a people.  I believe the anger, hatred and fear that exists between people tears us apart, not just between people, but within our very souls.  We forgive so that we can let go of anger, hatred, fear, and pain and find peace. We make amends so that we can release the heavy and debilitating burdens of guilt and shame. We heal relationships because when we hang on to pain we cannot find peace within or without. Peace comes from grace, but also I believe we reach out, own and claim grace as we make peace, not only with God and with ourselves, but with all of those around us.  We cannot be at peace as long as there are tears (rips) within us or between us.  We cannot fully embrace grace as long as we cannot own our own parts, make amends, and extend forgiveness to others and to ourselves.  We cannot be bearers of peace, grace, and their overarching parent, Love, as long as we are consumed inside with anger, hate, pain, shame, guilt or fear. And when we are not reconciled in our personal relationships, what hope do we possibly have of being reconcilers in the world?  How can we carry peace to a community when in our personal lives we are so torn? When our insides look like this:
how can we possibly hope to convey and be bearers of this?:

     My deepest heroes are people of peace: Mr. Rogers, Ben Weir, MLK, Don Carroll, Carol Creek, Jimmy Carter, Richard Rohr, Cyndi Sneeringer.  You may not know all of these people, but they are all people who embodied/embody peace, grace and love.  Their very presence makes a room feel lighter, more hopeful, more "holy". Their spirits are calming, and when I am with them in any way (with their writings, their words, or in their presence), I find myself often moved to a place of tears, a place of release, a place of praying with all of my being for the world's wholeness and reconciliation. They model for me who I want to be.  They show me a way that is better than who I currently am.  
      And yet, in the face of all of this, I am aware that there are some relationships that simply cannot be reconciled. There are some people who do not want reconciliation. There are other people who struggle with specific mental illnesses that do not allow them to create space for reconciliation. There are people who cannot be self-reflective and therefore cannot do the work of remorse, repentence, asking for forgiveness and offering forgiveness - all of which is truly necessary for reconciliation. There are barriers sometimes of time, distance, situation, even death. And sometimes there are people who are simply toxic for us for a myriad of reasons that make that reaching out, that crossing of the barriers, dangerous - for the other as well as for ourselves.  
      I struggle with this. I want reconciliation to always be possible. As I said, I believe in wholeness, in healing, in crossing boundaries. I believe in grace and peace. What, then, does a person who wants with her whole being for the world to find peace, to be reconciled - what does that person do with the reality that sometimes it just simply is not possible? I asked some of the wise people in my life, those people of peace, "How do you believe in reconciliation when you can see situations in which it appears impossible?" 
      "It is ALWAYS possible," was the answer that was returned.  But also, "It is possible within yourself, it is possible with God, it is possible with the universe.  But it is not always helpful or possible to do this directly with the other. Most of the time it is. But with a few it just isn't.  It is so important to accept this. There are people we cannot and/or should not connect with. There are people we cannot reach and people we cannot help. We are human, and because of that, we have limits and limitations. And others have those limits and limitations too. Only with acceptance of this reality of what it is to be human can God create the forgiveness, the healing and the reconciliation within each of us."
      I think about the 12-step program necessity of making amends wherever possible.  It is crucial to healing that we do this. And I have wondered if we aren't making excuses to avoid the hard work when we choose not to seek out reconciliation. Part of truly reconciling, even if it is just within ourselves, is to ask ourselves and to be able to answer honestly that we have done what we could, as well as then turning it over to God or the Universe or whatever you understand to be bigger than yourself. 
      This journey that we are on is not a smooth or easy one.  But one day at a time, one step at a time, one relationship at a time, we can learn to find peace even when the answers are not what we want or expect, either of the world or of ourselves. I believe the first step in becoming the people we strive to be is simply to accept our humanity. And to seek to offer and accept grace and forgiveness in the face of limits and limitations, not only to others, but to ourselves as well. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Being Called by God

Jeremiah 1:4-19
Luke 4:21-30

Last week, I talked about how we sometimes fail to see the gifts that God has given to one another and to ourselves, and how God has given us all of those gifts to use for God’s work of loving our neighbors in the world.  Today, I want to follow that through by asking you what think stops us from seeing another’s call as a chosen person of God?  What things stop us from claiming our identity as a chosen child of God called to specific tasks?
I think that one of the biggest things that both inhibits our insights into another’s calling and also inhibits our ability to claim our own calling is our “home” – our families, our upbringing, our sense of self that we develop by growing up as children, among other children, among regular, plain old people.  I mean, as I said last week, who are we to be called by God?  Who are we, to challenge the status quo and do what our hearts tell us is right?  Who are we?   I want to quote again what Marianne Williamson said about this as well… “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.”
But we also do just struggle with a fear of failure as well which can also lead us to fail to try as well.  I had a terrible dream last night that I couldn’t remember what I wanted to say in my sermon.  I dreamed that I was completely unprepared and I lost everyone’s attention.  Everyone was talking to each other and not listening to me and I knew I had failed.  Kind of like what happened with my children’s conversation this morning ;-).  And that fear, that fear of failing can keep us from even trying.
            As we heard in today’s reading from Luke, Jesus reminded the people around him that it is very hard for a prophet, and I might say, any person with a deep call, to fulfill that call amidst their own people.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus tell us, “truly I tell you no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”  We know this.  And it affects us and the way we respond to God’s call in our own lives.  How many of us have chosen at one time or another to turn away and choose not to do what we believe in our hearts is best, or is our call, by our very fear of the rejection of our loved ones?  Or from a fear of failure?  Rejection from our loved ones hurts.  I’d be lying if I said it didn’t.  And failure sets us up at so very many levels.  But I think, this is one of those times when it is helpful again for us to remember Jesus’ humanity as much as his divinity.  Our theology tells us that Jesus was fully human, just as he was fully divine.  And to me that has to mean that he, too, experienced the pain of the rejection of those around him.  Not only that, but he also named right here, that he was not “successful” as a prophet in his home town.  He named it here.  And my guess is that he said this out loud not only to explain to those around him that he probably would not be able to accomplish for them what they were asking for him to do, or in the way that they were asking him to do it; but my guess is that he also needed to name this out loud for himself as well.  He needed to say, out loud, in front of others, that it is the case that those most loved will often have the hardest time supporting, seeing, understanding or even believing in our call from God.  And that because of their failure to believe in us, we often may find we are failing around them as well in our call, in our sense of doing what is “right.”  Still, in the face of that pain we are called to live and love as God has taught us – striving to do God’s work, no matter where we are.  No matter whom we are with.  And hardest of all – no matter what the results! 
            I used to watch and enjoy a TV sitcom that was on for a while that featured a woman who was a columnist for a newspaper.  In one episode, the main character ended up in a conversation with her three best friends in which two of them admit that they don’t always, or sometimes ever, read her column in the newspaper.  This was devastating to Carrie because she felt that her column represented her thoughts, some of the deepest and best parts of herself.  Her friends felt that they knew her through their time with her and so therefore didn’t need to read the column.  But she is truly hurt by what she perceives to be their lack of support, and wonders about her effective power as a columnist, as a writer.  It isn’t that they don’t love her.  They do.  But to her, how is it love if they don’t even know who she is?  It forces her to call into question her very call, her very vocation. 
            In “real life” I have seen this happen as well.  From a personal place, I know that not all, perhaps not even many, of my personal friends read my blog.  My best friend certainly doesn’t.  (Therefore I have no fear of posting this sermon on my blog, knowing it will never be read by him!).  But we find it mirrored in other ways as well.  The chance of divorce increases greatly when one of the partners goes back to school to get a higher degree or when one is successful in some dramatic way while the other isn’t.  We know the divorce rate among the rich and famous is huge.  And often that, too, comes down to a jealousy.  Somehow another person’s success or gifts makes us feel less than successful or gifted, and that is hard to bear.  We also see those we know best as the flawed, human people they are.  It is hard therefore to honor or lift up those whose flaws are so evident to us.  We remember Sammy when he was a kid, picking on his little sister.  How can we possibly envision him as a successful leader now?  We remember Suzie failing her math tests regularly.  How can we honor her as a wise person now?  It is for this reason that pastors are usually discouraged from serving as a pastor the church they grew up in!  Imagine my great surprise to find so many of my old Sunday School teachers sitting in this very room!  But the fact that you have accepted me as your pastor shows you to have a maturity, a self- confidence and a wisdom far beyond what so many of our congregations could have!
       Jesus told us that he would be limited in his gifts by those of his hometown, that he would be rejected by those in his home town.  Even so, he followed God’s call and did what he was being asked to do.  Again, we are called to do likewise.  We are compelled by faith to strive to live out and respond to God’s call in our lives, no matter the pain and no matter the results.  AND as much as that hurts, as much as it pains us, we are called to see the gifts and calling of others.
As we’ve also been discussing, in the Presbyterian Church we baptize infants.  And while this is controversial in many denominations and there are many Christians who choose to wait until a child is old enough to choose baptism for him or herself, there is a deep theology behind the Presbyterian decision to baptize infants.  We stand on passages such as the one I read from Jeremiah which remind us that it is God who has formed us in the womb, God who has chosen us before we were even aware of our own existence, God who has called us into a life of relationship with God, a life of service to God by serving God’s people.  We stand on passages like Psalm 71 that remind us that it is God who is the mid-wife who brought us through our birth and into life.   Psalm 71 reads “Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.”  The gift of life itself is God’s calling to us.  And when we baptize infants, every time we baptize anyone who is unable to choose or understand the baptism itself, we acknowledge, we remember, we affirm that it is God who has chosen us.  It is God who has called us.  It is God who has formed us for true life with God before we are able to even understand that calling, before we are able to feel or appreciate the love that has brought us into being, before we are able to see or know. 
This is the same reason we also do not ever withhold communion from even small children.  It is a myth to believe that anyone fully understands the grace that is offered and given through communion.  A child may understand it less.  But compared to its mystery, none of us has a full understanding.  And still that grace is offered to each of us.  EACH of us.  So ALL are truly welcomed at the table.  That grace was given to all.  There was no test when Jesus fed the 5000, there was no test or even declaration of faith necessary when Jesus ate with anyone.  That is communion.  And that is the grace of sharing a meal with God, with Christ.
God chooses us.  What an amazing and wonderful gift that is!!  How awesome is it to know that God has chosen for us purpose, meaning, vocation, life, even before we are aware of our own existence!
Jeremiah tells us that he was called even as a young boy.  A boy who, out of fear because of his young age, did not want to answer God’s call.  But a boy who also saw that God’s call to him existed even before Jeremiah was aware enough to respond.
            I look at the children, our young people, I see them and I am touched by them to my core.  Through their witness of presence, of prayer, of song, of being here in this place they show us what it is to be loved and chosen by God.   We see in these young faces that the youngest among them, just beginning a journey of faith, is none the less a person loved and chosen by God.  Others of our young people have grown up in the Church, have spent time in prayer, in learning, in conversation with God.  And we see in them a matured response to God’s love and call.  None the less, it is not they who began their journey.  Again, we see in their growing relationships that their reaching back to God is a response, an answer, a reaching back in love to the God who has first called and loved them.
            The other thing that we must remember is that all we are called to do is what is in front of us to do.  We are not responsible for the end results.  We are responsible for the action of trying, of loving, of living into our call.  It’s like when someone plants an olive tree seed.  It takes 100 years for an olive tree to produce fruit, and yet people do this…they plant the seeds for future generations, knowing that they personally will never see the results.
            I want to end with a part of a poem entitled “Prophets of a Future that is not our own” written by Ken Untener:
            It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
            The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
            We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
            Nothing we do is complete: which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us….
            This is what we are about;
            We plant seeds that one day will grow.
            We water the seeds already planted,
                        knowing that they hold future promise.
            We lay foundations that will need further development.
            We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
            We cannot do everything
                        and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
            This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
            It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
                        a step along the way, an opportunity for
                        God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
            We may never see the end results,
                        but that is the difference between the master builder
                        and the worker.
            We are the workers, not master builders,
                        Minsters, not messiahs.
            We are prophets of a futre that is not our own.

            Listen for your call.  Look for the call of others.  And see God’s hand moving among you – it is awesome.