Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter Sermon - All in a Word

Isaiah 65:17-25
John 20:1-18

We start Easter morning in despair.  We start with Jesus dead, and a journey to a tomb where we will be comforted by at least preserving the body.  And we go to the tomb and even the body has been taken away.  There is nothing left of the man who was hope, who was God, who had become everything to us in such a short time.  There is nothing left of the one who led, instructed, healed, freed, saved and LOVED us more than his own life.  We start Easter by facing an empty tomb that appears to be a sign that every single part of this Lord we loved has been taken from us.  Everything we have known, everything we counted on, everything we believed and trusted and which gave us life and a reason to get up in the morning, EVERYTHING has been taken.  It is all gone.  There is nothing left.  This, THIS is how Easter begins. 
Women are crying, men are desperate.  And God appears to be silent.  In the face of Jesus’ suffering and death, where is God for those couple days?  He dies on Friday evening.  A day and a half pass and there is nothing.  Emptiness.  Silence. 
BUT, God’s silence is not God’s absence.  I want to say that again because I think there have been times when all of us have felt angry, hurt or abandoned by God.  God’s SILENCE is not God’s ABSENCE.  I think it is sometimes in the silence that God is most profoundly with us.  It’s just that there are times when the pain is so deep, so profound that there is simply nothing left to be said.  Have you ever come across someone at the point of tragedy where you know that there just simply isn’t anything to say?  What do you say to someone who has just been evicted from their home?  What can possibly be said to a child whose dog has died?  What words of comfort are there to a parent whose child has just committed suicide?  Phrases like “it’ll be okay”, or “everything happens for a reason” or “he’s in a better place now” not only mean nothing in those moments but often do more damage than good.  The best we can do is to be present with one another in those times.  Deeply, and completely present.  And that’s what God does. 
We see it first in Jesus.  When Lazarus dies, Jesus first response at seeing the tomb was not to speak words, but to weep.  So, too, when he comes before Pilate.  Pilate asks him “what is truth?” and Jesus does not answer but stands there in the silence – a profound statement in itself. 
Here we see it again.  Jesus has been killed, is dead.  And some of his last words are those feelings that we share, too, when we are faced with tragedy and devastation.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  And we feel that too in the face of our Lord’s death.  He is gone.  He is dead.  And now even his body is removed from the tomb, it would seem.  And God?  Where is God in this?  The answer is silence.  Silence for almost two days. 
               But I say to you again, God’s silence is not God’s absence. 
A pearl begins its life inside an oyster's shell when an intruder, such as a grain of sand or bit of floating food, slips in between one of the two shells of the oyster.  In order to protect itself from irritation, the oyster quickly begins covering the uninvited visitor with layers of nacre — the mineral substance that fashions the mollusk's shells. Layer upon layer of nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl, coat the grain of sand until the pearl is made. 
In the silence, as God sits with us, weeps with us, grieves with us, carries us, God is also doing a new thing.  In the silence, in the quiet, in the stillness, God is transforming the evil into good.  God is changing that which is ugly, devastating and destructive into new breath, new beauty, new meaning.  God is bringing life out of death.  Making the sand and pain and irritation into a pearl.  Can we see it?  Is the silence around us so loud that we cannot see the new thing God is doing?  Like Mary, are we so blinded by our tears that we do not see the risen Lord standing right there beside us, but instead mistake him for the gardener? 
And yet, even then, God has the final word.  Even then, in that moment of ultimate despair when the silence, when the loss was so great that even that which was right before her could not be seen, even in that moment, God reached across the divide, and called for our attention when we did not want to give it.  In that moment, Jesus called Mary by name.  He spoke into her heart, opened her ears to hear that which she could not SEE, and through his voice, his naming her his own, his calling her by her name, he invited her into belief.  And that belief allowed her to SEE, finally.  Because, though we’ve been told that seeing is believing, we here know that the truth is that some things must be believed in order to be seen.  And resurrection is such a thing. 
Resurrection is not a past event.  The God of resurrection, the God who ended the ultimate tragedy and brought Jesus into new life continues to do the same.  That is what God is about.  That is what God does.  Can we believe in it enough to see it?  Can we have the faith to experience the resurrections that surround us?  Whenever a friendship that has died is replaced with a closer friendship that is even stronger.  Whenever a divorced or widowed person meets someone new to love.  Whenever a lost job leads us to find a new job that we really, deeply love.  Whenever our tragedies are made into something new and whole, resurrection is occurring again. 
               But perhaps the even deeper question is not only can we see it, but can we allow ourselves to be part of the resurrection?  I think about the women who began MADD – Mothers Against Drunk Driving.  One of the two women was a person who had lost her 13 year old to a drunk driver as the child was walking to a church carnival.  The other was a mother whose 5 ½ month old baby was hit in a car by a drunk driver, leaving her a quadriplegic.  These two women began MADD, taking their rage, their pain and their loss and transforming it into a group that educates, tells the truth and works hard to prevent any further tragedies such as their own.  The tragedy still happened.  Lives have still been lost, others severely and permanently injured. The resurrection doesn’t happen without the scars being there. 
               I was sent this story some time ago and found it appropriate to share with you today:  The author wrote: I try not to be biased, but I had my doubts about hiring Stevie. His placement counselor assured me that he would be a good, reliable busboy.  But I had never had a mentally handicapped employee and wasn't sure I wanted one. I wasn't sure how my customers would react to Stevie.  He was short, a little dumpy with the smooth facial features and thick-tongued speech of Downs Syndrome. …I knew people would be uncomfortable around Stevie so I closely watched him for the first few weeks.  I shouldn't have worried. After the first week, Stevie had my staff wrapped around his stubby little finger, and within a month my truck regulars had adopted him as their official truck stop mascot.  …He was like a 21-year-old kid in blue jeans and Nikes, eager to laugh and eager to please, but fierce in his attention to his duties. Every salt and pepper shaker was exactly in its place, not a bread crumb or coffee spill was visible when Stevie got done with the table. Our only problem was persuading him to wait to clean a table until after the customers were finished. He would hover in the background, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, scanning the dining room until a table was empty. Then he would scurry to the empty table and carefully bus dishes and glasses onto his cart and meticulously wipe the table up with a practiced flourish of his rag. If he thought a customer was watching, his brow would pucker with added concentration. He took pride in doing his job exactly right, and you had to love how hard he tried to please each and every person he met.  Over time, we learned that he lived with his mother, a widow who was disabled after repeated surgeries for cancer. They lived on their Social Security benefits in public housing two miles from the truck stop. Their social worker, who stopped to check on him every so often, admitted they had fallen between the cracks. Money was tight, and what I paid him was probably the difference between them being able to live together and Stevie being sent to a group home. That's why the restaurant was a gloomy place that morning last August, the first morning in three years that Stevie missed work.  He was at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester getting a new valve or something put in his heart. His social worker said that people with Downs Syndrome often have heart problems at an early age so this wasn't unexpected, and there was a good chance he would come through the surgery in good shape and be back at work in a few months.. A ripple of excitement ran through the staff later that morning when word came that he was out of surgery, in recovery, and doing fine. Frannie, the head waitress, let out a war hoop and did a little dance in the aisle when she heard the good news…But when asked what was going on by the customers, she responded, " Yeah, I'm so very glad that he is going to be OK, but I don't know how he and his Mom are going to handle all the bills. From what I hear, they're barely getting by as it is." One of the customers nodded thoughtfully in response.  After the morning rush, Frannie walked into my office. She had a couple of paper napkins in her hand and a funny look on her face.
"What's up?" I asked.
"I didn't get that table where Marvin and his friends were sitting cleared off after they left, and Pete and Tony were sitting there when I got back to clean it off," she said. "This was folded and tucked under a coffee cup." She handed the napkin to me, and three $20 bills fell onto my desk when I opened it. On the outside, in big, bold letters, was printed "Something For Stevie."
"Pete asked me what that was all about," she said, "so I told him about Stevie and his Mom and everything, and Pete looked at Tony and Tony looked at Pete, and they ended up giving me this." She handed me another paper napkin that had "Something For Stevie"scrawled on its outside. Two $50 bills were tucked with in its folds. Frannie looked at me with wet, shiny eyes, shook her head and said simply: "truckers."
That was three months ago. Today is Thanksgiving, the first day Stevie is supposed to be back to work.
His placement worker said he's been counting the days until the doctor said he could work, and it didn't matter at all that it was a holiday. He called 10 times in the past week, making sure we knew he was coming, fearful that we had forgotten him or that his job was in jeopardy. I arranged to have his mother bring him to work. I then met them in the parking lot and invited them both to celebrate his day back.
Stevie was thinner and paler, but couldn't stop grinning as he pushed through the doors and headed for the back room where his apron and busing cart were waiting.
"Hold up there, Stevie, not so fast," I said. I took him and his mother by their arms. "Work can wait for a minute. To celebrate your coming back, breakfast for you and your mother is on me!" I led them toward a large corner booth at the rear of the room.
I could feel and hear the rest of the staff following behind as we marched through the dining room. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw booth after booth of grinning truckers empty and join the procession. We stopped in front of the big table. Its surface was covered with coffee cups, saucers and dinner plates, all sitting slightly crooked on dozens of folded paper napkins. "First thing you have to do, Stevie, is clean up this mess," I said. I tried to sound stern.
Stevie looked at me, and then at his mother, then pulled out one of the napkins. It had "Something for Stevie" printed on the outside. As he picked it up, two $10 bills fell onto the table.
Stevie stared at the money, then at all the napkins peeking from beneath the tableware, each with his name printed or scrawled on it. I turned to his mother. "There's more than $10,000 in cash and checks on that table, all from truckers and trucking companies that heard about your problems. "Happy Thanksgiving."
Well, it got real noisy about that time, with everybody hollering and shouting, and there were a few tears, as well.
But you know what's funny? While everybody else was busy shaking hands and hugging each other, Stevie, with a big smile on his face, was busy clearing all the cups and dishes from the table..
Best worker I ever hired.”

               We participate in God’s resurrections whenever we transform the negative experiences we or others have had into life-giving, life-changing work.  We participate in God’s resurrection whenever we can forgive and reconcile a relationship.  We participate in God’s resurrection whenever we see an opportunity to give through a crisis or be present with someone else in their pain.  We participate in God’s resurrection work whenever we become creative in our solutions to problems that seem impossible and step out to make a difference in the life of one or more people.
It doesn’t mean the bad things didn’t happen.  They DID happen.  The resurrection does not wipe out what took place.  When someone hurts us, it DID happen, and the reconciliation cannot look like the injury never took place.  The women who began MADD still lost their children or watched their children suffer.  In the story I told Stevie was still a boy with Down’s Syndrome who would still struggle physically as well as mentally.  Jesus, too, was resurrected with his scars, which we know because Thomas put his hands in them and in Jesus’ side.  But a resurrection with the scars is a resurrected life that has deepened, that understands pain and loss and that can walk with even deeper compassion and fully love. 
I want to end by sharing with you a poem written by Brian McLaren for pastors during this Easter time.  But since all the people of the church are the ministers of the church…I think this will none the less resonate with all of us:
  A prayer for pastors on Easter
Dear Lord, I pray for all the pastors today
 Who will feel enormous pressure to have their sermon
 Match the greatness of the subject
 and will surely feel they have failed.
 (I pray even more for those who think they have succeeded.)

Help them to know that it is enough
 Simply and faithfully to tell the story
 Of women in dawn hush ...
 Of men running half-believing ...
 Of rolled stones and folded grave-clothes ...
 Of a supposed gardener saying the name of a crying woman ...
 Of sad walkers encountering a stranger on the road home ...
 Of an empty tomb and overflowing hearts.

Give them the wisdom to know that sincere humility and awe
 Surpass all homiletic flourish
 On this day of mysterious hope beyond all words.

Make them less conscious of their responsibility to preach,
 And more confident of the Risen Christ
 Whose presence trumps all efforts to proclaim it.

Considering all the Easter choirs who will sing beautifully, and those who won't,
 And all the Easter prayers that will soar in faith, and those that will stumble and flounder,
 And all the Easter attendance numbers and offering numbers that will exceed expectations
 And those that will disappoint ...
 I pray they all will be surpassed by the simple joy
 Of women and men standing in the presence of women and men,
 Daring to proclaim and echo the good news:
 Risen indeed! Alleluia!

For death is not the last word.
 Violence is not the last word.
 Hate is not the last word.
 Money is not the last word.
 Intimidation is not the last word.
 Political power is not the last word.
 Condemnation is not the last word.
 Betrayal and failure are not the last word.
 No: each of them are left like rags in a tomb,
 And from that tomb,
 Arises Christ,

Help the preachers feel it,
 And if they don't feel it, help them
 Preach it anyway, allowing themselves
 To be the receivers as well as the bearers of the Easter



Friday, March 25, 2016

Good Friday Mini-Homily on 3rd Last Word

I was deeply privileged to be part of two amazing Good Friday services today.  The second one was led by our truly wonderful choir.  24 strong voices leading worship with the Tenebrae "Song of the Shadows" by Joseph Martin.  Incredibly beautiful.  Left me with goose bumps.  Such a gift to be in our darkening sanctuary listening and experiencing those words sung and spoken.

The first service today was an Ecumenical service, once again held at our local Catholic parish.  Each of four of us pastors/priests took one of the last 7 words and spoke on it.  So for the second time in three months I preached in a Catholic church.  Truly an honor to lead with my brothers of other faith traditions today.  Here is my sermonette on the words "Woman, here is your son....(Disciple), here is your mother."

John 19:23-27

               “And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.”  And it was right and good that he did so. And yet, it also shows a continuing misunderstanding of Jesus.  He had very little breath left.  He could not again spend it explaining everything he had taught to them, once more, from the beginning.  So he summed it up as concisely as possible with these words, “Woman behold your son.”  And to his disciple, “Behold your mother.”  And they made a start towards understanding it.  But they didn’t go far enough.
               The reality for women at that time was that they were supported by the men in their lives.  Unattached to a male, their lives were nothing.  Without Jesus, without her first son, it is likely that Mary would have had no living, no life, no support.  But perhaps more than that, she had lost this person whom she loved, her child, her everything.  And Jesus was trying to comfort her, trying to reassure both her and the disciple whom he loved that they would not be alone, that they would not be without support.  I’m sure it was a huge comfort to both to have each other, to have one another, to be together.  But it was only part of the picture. 
               Mitch Albom in his book, Have a Little Faith: A True Story (Hyperion, New York, 2009) shared that the Reb, or the Rabbi, whom he loved and who was the focus of the story, struggled with what seemed to be an increasing lack of community.
               “When I was growing up in the Bronx,” the Reb said, “everyone knew everyone.  Our apartment building was like family.  We watched out for one another.  I remember once, as a boy, I was so hungry, and there was a fruit and vegetable truck parked by our building.  I tried to bump against it, so an apple would fall into my hands.  That way it wouldn’t feel like stealing.  Suddenly, I heard a voice form above yelling at me in Yiddish, ‘Albert, that is forbidden!’  I jumped.  I thought it was God!”  Who was it? I asked. “A lady who lived upstairs… (the point is) We were part of each other’s lives.  If someone was about to slip, someone else could catch them…. We’re losing that now… everyone has a car.  Everyone has a million things scheduled.  How can you look out for your neighbor?  You’re lucky to get a family to sit down for a meal together.” (p 62,63)
               Again and again, Jesus called us to love one another.  Again and again Jesus reminded us that this is what our call is all about: caring for each other.  And not as an abstract concept but as a concrete, real idea, practical and necessary.  Jesus tells us later in John 17:20-23: "...that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, … The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one.”  Jesus’ whole ministry centered on how to do that, how to love one another.  He healed, he fed, he touched the untouchable, he uplifted the down trodden, he cared for those no one else even SAW, he talked to and honored women, children, Samaritans, Syrophoenicians, Gentiles – anyone and everyone he encountered. He stood up for those others would reject. But people still didn’t get it.  They still treated each other as strangers, as people we encounter but don’t really, truly LOVE.  So Jesus said it again, here, at the end of his life, in the most practical way he could to those who loved him the most.  “This is your mother.”  “This is your son.” 
I say those words to you again, for all to hear, “The woman sitting in front of you whom you do not know is your mother.  The child sitting in school struggling to understand his math is your son.  The man in prison whom you have never considered except to condemn or fear is your brother.  And the woman who hears voices, who talks to herself, is unbathed and uncombed, the one who lives on the street - she is your sister.  This is your family.  This is our family.  And we are called to love one another in that same way.
               “Woman, behold your son.” 
               “Disciple, behold your mother.”

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Raising Kids Alone, Part II

On October 2, 2015 I wrote about being a solo parent from the perspective of recognizing that it really does take a village to raise a child and that we are all called to be part of that.  I shared the struggles, the challenges, of trying to raise kids alone.

But I found myself today reflecting on this in a different way, from the perspective of the gifts that I experience in being a solo parent, as well as being the solo head of house.

I have found that my children are much closer to me than they were before.  The downside of this is that I worry they have not done the "growing up and away" that kids are supposed to do, or at least not as early or as fully as other kids.  But while I have a bit of concern about that, I also really enjoy the closeness I share with my kids. They talk to me.  I know not every parent experiences that from their kids.  They share with me their fears, their hopes, their dreams and their frustrations.  They ask for one on one time with me and we value that time together, both individually and as a family.  We are close in a way that I see only shared by other solo parents with their kids.

Secondly, I get to make the kid and parenting decisions on my own.  There is no debating, the decisions are mine to make. I shared the downside of this before which is that I know I sometimes make mistakes with those decisions, or I don't always choose what is ultimately best for my kids (though I try hard to do so). None the less, there are times when it is simply easier to not have to make every decision about the kids with someone else.

Thirdly, while I have had to learn some things I never really wanted to learn, on the other hand, I've learned many things that I now value knowing.  Even more, I've learned how to DO things that I never expected I would learn how to do.  I had no desire to learn how to mow a lawn, but I know how to do that now.  I had no desire to learn how to fix basic household things, or how to hang outdoor Christmas tree lights, or how to change the furnace filter, but I know how to do these things now.  I know many women learn these things without becoming single moms.  And because I believe in equality, it embarrasses me at some level how traditionally our roles ended up being divided in some ways. But they did. Not anymore.  And finally, I never thought I would learn how to do this:

     Cutting hair and shaving heads (sometimes he chooses to have a shaved head) just never made the list of things I expected to learn how to do.  But I do it now for my son on a semi-regular basis.  (As an aside, my son's crabby face is not because he doesn't like having his hair cut.  He didn't like that his sister was watching. (sigh).)
       Yes, being a single parent is tiring at times.  I can become overwhelmed when everyone has immediate needs at the exact same moment.  But there are huge gifts as well.  And for today, I am grateful for the life I am leading this day.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Lord, Save Us!

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Luke 19:28-40

In a small college town a tavern frequented by students ran the following ad in the campus paper during the days before Parent’s Weekend: “Bring your parents for lunch Saturday.  We’ll pretend we don’t know you!”  The ad was soon challenged by the college chaplain, who posted a revised version on the campus bulletin board.  It read: “Bring your parents to chapel Sunday.  We’ll pretend we know you!”
Our laughter in part, I think, reflects our realization that our expectations for people can blind us to who they really are.  If we expect our child to be the one bringing us to chapel, that is what we often will see.  So it is with Jesus as well.      

Today we read the story we tell every Palm Sunday, the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In a sense, this is the same story as the advent stories of Jesus’ coming. Or at least there are strong parallels. During advent we prepare for Jesus’ coming as a baby. And we are reminded that his coming will not be what we expect. He won’t be the king of the powerful and rich, he will be king of the poor and outcast, not born in power and might, but born as a poor baby. He won’t make things comfortable but will disrupt and disturb the status quo. Today, he comes again: this time into Jerusalem at the end of his life. And again, the people of the time are filled with expectations which will not be met. In the Matthew, Mark and John versions of today’s scriptures, they shout “Hosanna!” which means?  It means, “Lord save us!” or “Lord Help us!” And they had every expectation that this salvation would come in the form of stopping the oppression of the Romans in a military way.
We are again called to look for Jesus in the unexpected, to look for God’s presence in new ways. To look beyond the triumphal march into Jerusalem and instead focus on Jesus’ message for us and his call for us to follow in his ways of love, peace, sacrifice and hope.
Jesus was the lord of the outcasts, the lord of the poor, the lord of the marginalized and displaced. And this day, the day of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was his day. It was also THEIR day.  He entered Jerusalem to the waving of palm branches, on a donkey’s colt (according to the other gospels), with the multitude of his followers placing their cloaks on the ground before him. He was surrounded by those who had been healed of their afflictions, those he had empowered, those he had freed, those he had loved, and they were so excited by his coming! Their king, their lord was entering Jerusalem! They believed he would save them, that he would take back the city and he would free Israel from the oppression of the Romans. He would lift high the lowly and everything would be okay again. Can you imagine the excitement? Jesus would make all their pain go away, he would make it good, he would bring blessings, freedom and shalom, peace, wholeness to Israel.  This was a day to rejoice indeed.
The Pharisees, the righteous, those who still had some power and some wealth and some freedom, even in the midst of Roman occupation were also present. But how differently they must have seen things! Here was this carpenter’s son, this Jewish man on a DONKEY - a sign of humility and poverty, not a grand royal horse, but a donkey. And here he was surrounded by the outcasts, the poor, those who had no power or resources, the “riff raff”. How could they really think this man would make a difference in their lives? How could they really think he could help them? They laid their cloaks on the ground before him - a gesture usually reserved for royalty.  But what cloaks! These were not rich frocks covering the dirt to provide a clean and royal ride for a king. Instead they were rags, used clothes, hand-me-downs, worn to threads - a symbolic gesture for a clown king. What a joke!! How could this man be a king? How could he do anything with this rag tag group of people to make their lives acceptable? 
In addition, the Pharisees were undoubtedly more than a little nervous about the scene Jesus and the disciples were making. The Romans did control Jerusalem. What if they felt threatened by this man? Who would they punish? Probably all of Israel - starting at the top. No, the Pharisees figured, it was important that this man and this demonstration be stopped before there were violent repercussions and more hardships inflicted on them from the Romans. 
And then there is Jesus’ perspective. This was Jesus’ day - the only day during his life time that the work he had done and the message he brought were honored and supported and uplifted in this grand way. For within a week the crowds would become disappointed by his lack of military action. Within a week they would have turned on him. Within a week he would be dead. And Jesus saw this. He knew that he was not the kind of king they wanted. He was never going to be the military man, come to overthrow the Roman rule. He was never going to be like our mortal, human kings. Instead, he was a king of love. He was a king of peace. And the difference he came to make was not military or violent. It was to change people from inside, to heal, to empower, to teach them to see everyone as brother and sister and to rejoice in that love. And if he could succeed in teaching people to love each other, that would make a difference far greater than any military or violent action possibly could. For Jesus, this was the day to celebrate. It was also a day to grieve for the people still didn’t get it. They still didn’t see him or his message. They were still expecting something different.
What version of Jesus do we see? What expectations for Jesus do we have? As we read today’s story about his entry into Jerusalem do we see, like Jesus’ disciples, a king who will rule the people and lead them in triumph? One who will return in glory to take over and make everything fair and right? I think most of us would hope for that. Most people, indeed most Christians, still expect a returning Jesus to overthrow our current governments and rule with might and strength. But that has never been the God Jesus has shown us. Do we, then, like the Pharisees, see a weak fool who really will not be able to effect positive change but may instead make things worse by creating fear in those who do have power? Or… can we instead see the man of the marginalized who will confront us for our riches and power and ask us to change our ways and serve the poor and marginalized? Can we see and expect a man who will upset the status quo, upset our comfortable lives by overturning the money changers in the temple – demanding a counter cultural behavior instead, ask from us actions of love instead of simple work towards making money, or friends or power? Who do we see? What do we expect?
“Lord Save us!” the people cried. They cried it in trust that he would save them. They cried it with hope and expectation. They cried it with joy and celebration. And the fact is, if they had listened he would have saved them, but again, not in the way they expected or wanted. When we can change our lives around from being fearful, angry, and hating into being people whose lives are truly governed by LOVE (which includes gratitude, faith, hope, trust, peace), then our lives ARE saved, they become different, they are changed into lives of meaning, of purpose, of “eternal life” in the sense of becoming so much bigger than ourselves. But this is not the way people then, or now, want to be saved. We want to be saved from our pain, from our grief. We want to be saved from financial struggles and worries. We want to be rescued from anything that hurts us or is oppressive, demeaning, unfair. We forget that we are called to be the change we want to see, to be God’s hands and feet in the world. We forget and instead want to be rescued – from ourselves perhaps most of all.
Palm Sunday is a day of celebration. We celebrate the kingship of Jesus. But it is also a day of reflection. We are called to reflect on the ways that kingship is different from our expectations. We reflect on our call to look for God’s coming in different and unexpected ways. We look to see God’s glory as it speaks to us today. Open your heart to God’s coming. Open your soul to the new possibilities present this day, here and now. And maybe, instead of “Lord, save us!” we need to be shouting, “Show us how to save you through saving and loving one another.” Amen.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Life is not fair. Do we really get that?

      It is from a place of privilege that we hold on to the belief that life is fair.  People who are not in a place of privilege cannot tell themselves that lie with any hope of convincing themselves it is true. But from a place of privilege we continue to trumpet the mistaken belief that life is somehow fair. We lie to ourselves in many ways about this.  Some of the most common include:

1.  Well, everyone goes through good times and everyone goes through bad times.  It all evens out.  
No.  No, it doesn't all even out.  There are people I know who lead truly charmed lives. I can think of one man in particular - white, heterosexual, extremely good looking, gifted musically, athletically, intellectually.  He married another charmed life and together they have children who are all also gifted in terms of being athletic, musical, smart.  I asked him straight out once - "have you ever gone through a difficult time?  Have you ever really struggled with anything?"  Well, no, not really.  He was given their house which is huge and sits on five acres of land.  Not that he needed that gift since he is successful in his career as well.  He has been given amazing opportunities for no other reasons than that he is likeable, good looking (yes, that does make a difference in how people treat you!), and just has always been at the right place at the right time.  Things just fall into his lap.  They always have.
In contrast I met someone yesterday who grew up in the projects.  There wasn't money for shoes, let alone for the equipment needed to succeed in school.  School wasn't the priority anyway.  Surviving was the priority.  He works now for minimum wage, which is not a living wage in CA.  At $10 an hour, he cannot possible afford any kind of housing out here.  So, he works two full time jobs meaning that he works 4 times as hard as the CEOs of the company he is serving but is paid 1/350th what the "boss" makes.  He cannot possibly raise himself out of this hole because he spends every waking minute working.  There is no way to get further education, there is no way to get out of his own situation.  He has survived family members being shot by random shootings and gangs.  He has survived imprisonment for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He still can't afford to live here, even with two jobs, so he slips from bridge to bridge, from street to street, occasionally being able to stay in a shelter or with a friend.  From this place, though, of recognizing that life is not fair, he was able to tell me how much better off he is than those in war torn countries, than the refugees fleeing their homes, than those experiencing torture or rape.  Life isn't fair.  He knows this.  And all he can do is tell his story and work towards change that will make it "more" fair.

2.  Karma tells us you reap what you sow. So those who are struggling deserve it and will have better things come to them as they live better lives.
Again, I don't see this playing out in real life.  Those who were born into poverty, war torn countries, into violent households or violent political situations haven't somehow 'deserved' it, unless you believe they messed up in a previous life and are therefore reaping the punishment from a past life. This sounds to me, again, like a very fancy way for privileged folk to feel okay about the many good things they celebrate while not worrying too much about the fact that so many others are struggling. If it's their own fault then there is nothing I need to do about it.  If it's just 'karma' then I would be irresponsible to interfere with what the universe has handed out to them.
No.  I can't buy this.  We've been given a world to make "right" and to make "fair".  We are simply doing a horrible job of bringing that about.

Life isn't fair.  But we are given all the tools to make it work for everyone.  Making it work for everyone has to start with the acknowledgement that life ISN'T fair.  We have to start by seeing that reality for what it is.  Only by first seeing that the inequalities all around us, the struggles, the suffering of others are not because they deserve it, not because of karma, not because of Divine providence; only with that vision, that insight can we start to own our part.  Our part is that those with privilege, those whose suffering is "less" are called to ease the suffering of others - not just through charity, but through systemic change.  We've set up a world where some are winners and some are losers.  This isn't what God wants or envisions.  Divine imagination is abundant, and the world we've been given is full of abundance as well - enough for all, if we only work to make that reality.  God has given it to us to make right and God won't just "fix" it for us.  We have responsibility in this.  We've been given a call, a job, to help.  That has to start with seeing, but seeing is not enough.  Life isn't fair. But we have the tools to make it more so.  If only we would step into that call.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Hard Choices

Isa. 43:16-21
Psalm 126
John 12:1-8

               The story we hear from John is one that I find filled with challenges for all of us as people who strive to follow Jesus on the Way.  Jesus himself feeds people, heals people, comforts people.  He tells us that whenever we feed, visit, care for, or provide clothing or shelter for the least of these we do it for God.  He calls us to follow in his path of caring for and loving others completely.  And yet in this story a woman has just spent an extraordinary amount of money to celebrate Jesus, who he is, what he has done and what he will do.  She recognizes that his path is one that will lead to his own destruction and yet to life for so many, and she comes to celebrate and honor that choice. This is a story that is told in all four of the gospels, though slightly differently. In Luke, the woman is not Mary but a “woman of ill repute”, someone who is seen as unclean, unworthy and untouchable.  In that version especially, there are parts of the story that we recognize as the way that Jesus always behaves: Jesus is not afraid to talk to or even be touched by a woman that others reject and condemn as sinful and unclean.  Jesus honors and lifts up a person whom others would not see except to harm, and would not ever approve of.  Jesus empowers, supports, and LOVes a person others saw as the dregs of society.  We get that.  That is the Jesus I love.  That is the Jesus I follow.  That is the Jesus I want to be like.  But I have to admit, Judas had a point here, too.  The nard with which she anointed Jesus represented a great deal of money.  And it could have been used for the poor.  John discounts Judas’ motives saying that he wanted that money for himself.  In the other gospels, it is all of the disciples who are upset at this use of the money, and it is for exactly the reason they say: they think, as any of us might, that this extravagance was a huge waste of money, money that could have served many people. 
               I preached on a similar passage before when I talked to you about how in the midst of suffering and struggle, God is not only the God of comfort and healing, God is also the God of celebration, of abundance, of JOY.  And that is true.  We see it in the overflowing of food when he fed the 5000.  We see it in the overflowing of wine when he turned the water into wine.  We see it in the two old testament passages we read for today.  And we see it here as well… “This woman has done a wonderful thing for me!  Let her alone.”  I shared with you before the story of Dorothy Day, founder off the Catholic worker making a very similar choice when given an expensive diamond ring that she chose to give to a poor woman.  The other volunteers at the center condemned her saying that she could have sold that ring and helped many, many people with the money.  Dorothy Day responded by saying, “Do you believe Diamonds were only made for the rich?”  and we recognize in her words the Jesus who did not condemn the woman who celebrated him with this expensive nard.
               But I think Jesus was about something very different in this story.   
               As I have said before, even God’s celebrations are about lifting up those who are downtrodden.  We have Luke 14:13-14 in which Jesus says, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid (at the resurrection of the righteous).”  In today’s story, Jesus is lifting up the woman who has been scorned and rejected.  Every time there is a celebration, those who previously have not had the opportunity to celebrate and “party” are given that chance.  But this story is more, even, than that.  While the woman in the story was honoring Jesus, she was also being given the opportunity to give something back.  In Jewish practice it is considered a blessing, a Mitzvah, to allow someone to serve you.  It is considered an act of service to allow another to serve you, to give something back to you.  This is a woman, again, who was rejected by society, according to the other gospels.  She would not have been allowed to touch others, to serve others, in any way.  But Jesus gives her the gift of allowing her to serve him, to give to him.  And he honors that, says her actions will be remembered, and raises her gifts and her offerings up for all to see.
We know from psychological studies that when people are allowed to contribute to what they are given, it impacts them very differently than when they are only served and not allowed to give anything back in exchange.  It was for this reason that one of the soup kitchens where I volunteered “charged” those who came a quarter for their meal.  This was a token amount and did not begin to make any difference financially for the soup kitchen.  But in terms of the esteem and sense of worth of those who came, it made a huge difference.  The guests no longer felt they were receiving charity.  Instead, they felt that they were paying for something, contributing to their own nourishment, participating in their own lives in a different way than when they were just given food for free.  It changed the way they saw the exchange, and we found that many asked to volunteer to prepare and serve the food as well and to give back in other ways, too.  They saw themselves as worthy and able enough to contribute when we asked them to “pay” for their meals in some small way. They came to the table as equals: people who had paid for what they were given.  And that equality allowed them to offer more, to contribute and care more about what they were giving and doing.
               I think this is a practice we need to consider whenever we give someone a gift of our service.  During the many years that I have visited people who are “shut ins” or who are in the hospital and convalescent homes, the comment I have heard the most often, and which I hear again and again and again, is that the people in these situations feel useless, pointless.  I try to explain to them that they are giving a gift by allowing others to serve them.  They have served others many times, and now it is their turn to receive.  And while I believe that deeply, I find it is not satisfying for those listening to what I am saying.  They often would rather die (and they express this to me in phrases such as "Why am I still alive?  There is no reason for me to still be here!") than to live without purpose or meaning. And I have found myself wondering, isn’t there instead a way that we can help even those in the hospital and those who are shut in to “give back”?  We can bring those whose hands and arms are still functioning yarn and invite them to knit hats or scarves for various programs and projects.  We can bring in birthday cards and ask them to send them to those in the church who are having birthdays this month.  We can ask them for advice and listen to their wisdom.  We can bring them small hand sewing projects. 
               Again, the studies show that when people are given the opportunity to be useful, they recover much more quickly and much more fully.  When they have a purpose, meaning, a reason – no matter how small – to continue, they make a fuller effort to do exactly that. 
               I invite you to think for a moment about your own experiences and ask if this isn’t true for you as well.  Personally, I am reminded of a time when my church was invited to join other congregations in serving a monthly community meal.  We were already serving a monthly community meal in an inner city Presbyterian church, but our local Ecumenical group also served one just down the street and we were encouraged to be part of that as well, to join with our brothers and sisters of all faiths in serving people in our own neighborhood.  About ten of us showed up to help, only to find that the woman in charge of the kitchen would not allow any of us to help.  She kept saying kind things, “Oh, you all do so much already!  Just sit back and let me serve you!” and these words were sweet, sounded generous and helpful, they seemed good and right.  But I’ll tell you, all of us left feeling useless, frustrated, pointless in that situation.  And none of us returned to help again. 
               In contrast, when I have visited people in prison, I often hear stories of even the prisoners’ needs to serve in some way, to help, to GIVE in some way.  One person told me he would not eat everything from his meal but take the morning bread he was given to feed the birds.  He needed that opportunity to give and found it in his own way.  He told me that he noticed that several of the other prisoners were feeding the local skunks in the same way, calling “Here kitty, kitty” each morning as the skunks came by – incorporating laughter with their “service”.  And while at some level this was just funny, it was also necessary.  They found their spirits lifted immensely by this simple act of giving to something else.
               I think we get stuck in an ideology of either serving or being served.  But this doesn’t help us.  We all need to give as much, if not more, than we need to receive.  It doesn’t matter how old we are, it doesn’t matter what we have been through, it doesn’t matter what we have done or failed to do, how much we have given or been given in the past.  Having purpose, giving to others, serving others, and receiving care – all are vital to our well-being. But sometimes we get stuck in an ideology of competition which serves no one.
               "There was a farmer who grew excellent quality corn. Every year he won the award for the best grown corn. One year a newspaper reporter interviewed him and learned something interesting about how he grew it. The reporter discovered that the farmer shared his seed corn with his neighbors. “How can you afford to share your best seed corn with your neighbors when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” the reporter asked.
“Why sir,” said the farmer, “Didn’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn.”
So it is with our lives.  When we deny education, for example, so some people, all of us are lessened in our wisdom, our insight, our ability to grow and learn more fully.  When we deny food to our neighbors, all of us are lessened by not connecting with these others who would bless our lives.  And when we deny others the ability to give and to serve, we take away a collective sense of purpose, of meaning, and of true community. The fact is, none of us truly wins, until we all win!

               In today’s story, Jesus served the woman, whoever she was, by allowing her to do a good thing for him, by honoring that service and by celebrating it.  We are called to do the same.  We are not called to just serve others, but to see them for the full humans they are, people in need not only of our love, but people in need of loving as well; people not only in need of being served and cared for, but people in need of serving and caring for others as well.  It is a gift to allow another to serve you, whoever they may be.  Jesus saw that and recognized that in allowing the woman in today’s story to offer him care.  Let us pray to be just as generous in allowing ourselves to be served as well.  Amen.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

And the other side...It is still MORE my job.

      I am grateful for the feedback folk have given me on yesterday's blog and in response I have felt it was necessary to write a follow up.  The follow up can be summarized really as this:  while I think we are all called to confront injustice and to speak truth to one another, it is still MORE the job of those in power to speak up for those who are oppressed, dismissed and harmed than it is the calling of those who are being hurt.  I believe this as firmly as I believe we are all called to speak.
     I want to put this in more practical terms and feel the need to do so from both sides of the experience: both from the place of privilege and from the place of non-privilege.
     From the place of privilege: As a white person it is exponentially more my job to speak out against the injustice, racism, prejudice and bigotry that I see other white people doing, expressing and living. This is the case for many, many reasons.  First of all, the only reason I would say it is ever a person of color's "job" to speak out against racism is from the faith perspective of being called to love even our enemies.  That is no small thing.  But it is a very hard thing.  And it does set up the potential of allowing an abuser to be even more abusive.  But it is always, without exception, the job of a person of privilege to speak for those whose voices are not heard, for those who are experiencing meanness and abuse.  We have the model of our heroes, starting with Jesus, who always stood up for the women, the children, the "unclean" (usually those with diseases or disabilities), the Syrophoenicians, the Samaritans - every time those in power would reject, harm, stone, diminish these folk.  We who have voices that are already heard will be much more affective at getting our message out than those who are dismissed by the abuser.  It is much more likely that we will not be harmed for speaking up whereas people of color can be doubly attacked when they speak up.  We cannot, CANNOT stand by and be silent in the face of the cruelty that our brothers and sisters experience.  It is our job in every way to say what we see, to name the abuse, the meanness, the bigotry, the racism and to say "no more!"  It is our job to hold "our own" accountable.
      From the place of non-privilege: As a woman, I can speak out against a rape culture mentality, but I find that I am dismissed more often than not.  Despite my own experiences of being threatened, molested, demeaned, belittled throughout my life, often by strangers on the street; when I have named and spoken out about those experiences, I am often seen as "hysterical" or "making a big deal out of nothing."  Let me be clear, those experiences have made me who I am.  Childhood traumas which I will not detail here, but also having my chest and rear grabbed on the street by strangers as I've walked by them; having truly cruel, objectifying comments thrown my way as I walk to the store - these experiences cause me to live in a state of hypervigilence, and to feel unsafe with men I don't know (and sometimes even with men I do know).  These are not little experiences.  And while I will speak out when I hear a comment made that is misogynist and unseeing, my experience has been that it has little affect on those who hear the stories.  It is too easy to dismiss me.  I have also had the experience though of hearing men I trust gathered together in a place and group in which they did not realize I was present and could hear them.  I have heard the comments they have made about women, the belittling, the objectifying, the demeaning.  And I am all too aware that all it would have taken was one of them speaking up, saying, "what if I said that about your daughter or your mother or your wife?" for the atmosphere to have changed, for learning to have occurred, for awareness to have increased.  It rarely happens.  We all want to "fit in" and not "cause waves".  We don't want to confront the horrible things we see others do, even when we choose not to participate.  But the power of one person of privilege speaking out for those without can be enormous.
     I stand by what I said yesterday - it is all of our calling to speak our truth because we are all called to love even our enemies.  But I also believe with all my heart and soul that it is MORE my job to speak out against the injustices I see being done by people like me than it is for those who are being harmed to have to fight for themselves. We are called to stand up for the oppressed, to fight injustice and to be brave, even in the face of our loved ones, when it comes to confronting behavior that can harm or destroy another.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

It's not my job to teach you....

      I keep hearing people say lately, "It's not my job to teach people x".  And yet, I think I come at this slightly differently, so I want to speak for a moment about this from a personal perspective.
      It could be strongly argued that it is not my job to teach men who think that it is okay to beat up on, rape, abuse, cat-call, molest, or otherwise diminish, oppress and stomp down women that what they are doing is harmful.  This is not my job.  If I'm already one being harmed, why should I have the added burden of being the one to try to fix it?  Why should it be my job to also stand up for and try to fix the bad behavior of those who would, or have, harmed me? When I am put in a second class by these folk, why would they listen to what I have to say anyway?  It is not my job to set myself up for more abuse. That is not my job.
      I agree with this so far. I understand why this is true and I agree with it as far as it goes; except for three things, all of which come from a faith perspective.  The first is that we are called to love even our enemies as ourselves. I love what Scott Peck says about what it means to love the other. He says loving the other means working towards the highest spiritual good of the other, helping the other become the best, most full version of themselves. From this perspective, it absolutely IS my job to help even the most hateful, angry, oppressive people to see and understand when what they are doing is harming others. It is my job to love my enemy as myself.  And since loving is wanting their highest good, I am required to help them be the best they can be by seeing the ways they are being hurtful and harmful. I don't think I can say this strongly enough. It may not be my job as a woman to help men see the harm they do to women.  But it is my job as a Christian to be loving towards even those who would do harm.  I know no better way to be loving than through helping others to see.
      Secondly, I deeply believe that while we are separate, we are also all one. This belief is deeply part of every religious and philosophical tradition, and I believe it gets to the root of who we really are as creation. From the Christian tradition, Jesus said it this way (John 17:21-23): "I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. ... I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one." From this perspective, what hurts me also hurts you. And what hurts you also hurts me. Therefore we also have a responsibility from this perspective to help one another grow. It is just not enough to allow you to stay ignorant, hurtful and damaging because in allowing you to stay there, part of me also remains there. Additionally, it is not just me who is harmed by hateful, prejudiced, oppressive attitudes. Others are too. And if I care about them I will stand up for their rights as well.
     Finally, also from a biblical perspective, we are charged to confront damaging behavior.  Or again, to say it as Jesus said it, (Matthew 18:15):  "If your brother or sister does damage against you, go and correct them...."  This does require acknowledging the common humanity of all of us that causes me to see even my enemies as my brothers and sisters, but we are called to start with this understanding.
      I understand that people will disagree with me here.  And, of course, you are free to do so.  But again from a very personal perspective, I am deeply, deeply grateful to those who have confronted my prejudices, my lack of vision, and my mistakes.  I know I am on a journey and that I cannot, have not, and will not get it all right.  So for those who have taken the time to point out my mistakes, who have called me on my stuff, who have helped me to see, I am grateful beyond words.  You have made me who I am, you have helped me to grow, you have helped me on my way to following the path of Love, Hope, Justice and Peace more fully.  I am also aware of other times when people of faith have said "I'm not going to tell her she's wrong. That's not my job." And I will tell you with honesty that those comments have been the most hurtful ones I have known because that statement makes me "other" - not even in the same creation enough to be the enemy that we are called to love, the enemy that is confronted, the enemy we are called to care for. That statement moves me beyond being recognized as on the same journey and puts me in a category of "beyond hope, beyond reconciliation, beyond learning".  It fails to see my humanity since if it had been seen, the other would have taken the time to "love their enemy" and to "confront the one who sinned against you".
      It is not my job to teach you.  Except that, from a faith perspective, it IS my job to teach you.  I pray that you will find the same faith to continue to teach me, despite the fact that I may not deserve your time and attention.  For without your help, without your insight, without your teaching, I cannot grow, I cannot do better, and I am lost along the way.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Sunday's Sermon: Generation to Generation

Ezra 3:10-13
Luke 15:103, 11b-32

“Why do grandparents and grandchildren get along so well?  They have the same enemy – the mother”.  (Claudette Colbert from Brown, H. Jackson,.Wit and Wisdom of the Peanut Butter Gang. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, Inc., 1994).
               Today I want to spend some time talking about generational differences.  How do we communicate across the generations?  How do we teach across the generations?  How do we form community with different generations?  How do we do worship which speaks, teaches and empowers all who come, across the generations?
               I believe that it is more than possible to do worship that touches and moves and is positive for people of many ages, but I also think that before we can make that possible, we have to start by understanding one another across those generations.  This is not always an easy task.  I have come to believe that we are all the ages we ever have been, meaning that while I stand before you a woman in my 40s, I am also still a person in my 30s, 20s, teens and even a child.  We have all of those parts of us, so in one way maybe it is easier for me to understand a young person that it is for them to understand me.  But at the same time our society and culture are constantly changing, so the world that we interacted with as children, the issues we dealt with as young people are very different from what today’s young people face.
               This morning I want us to spend some time looking at and understanding some of those differences.  But because I am limited by my own generation, I want to ask you for your help this morning with the message.
               Towards that end, I want to start by asking you, in this fairly intergenerational congregation, what do you, personally, have a hard time understanding about people of a different generation?  I’ll give you an example, to start us off.  I don’t understand, have never understood some of the fashions of different generations.  On the upper end, I think Polyester is extremely uncomfortable and don’t know why people wear it.  On the younger end, I don’t understand why kids wear their pants so low as to show their underwear.  I understand how that started – gangs wanted to have ways of hiding large weapons and these baggy pants do that successfully.  But what on earth is the appeal for kids who are not in gangs?  I don’t get it.  What are things that You don’t understand?
               Okay, maybe an easier question, what is something in your current life that you feel people of other generations don’t understand or have a hard time understanding? 
               The two Bible passages I shared with you today reflect those differences in generational experience and understanding.  The book of Ezra talks about what occurred after the destruction of the first Jerusalem temple.  The temple had been destroyed at least 49 years, but now, Ezra tells us, God was at work again and the people of Israel were finally able to begin rebuilding the temple.  They laid the new foundation for the temple, and everyone was rejoicing.  But the older people, and the priests who knew the stories of the older temple were also weeping.  Their experience was different.  On the one hand, here was a new generation, excited about what it could do, excited that it could build again, form community again, be a worshiping people again.  But on the other hand, here too was an older generation for whom this new temple foundation brought memories of the past, of the glory of the temple that was destroyed, of their loss of that temple, of the loss of that space, community, and experience.  Yes, a new temple would be built.  But it would not be the same.  It could not be the same.  As some of the other prophets, Haggai, for example, recount, this second temple was nothing like the first.   The young people had not been alive to see the previous temple, they were not alive to suffer its destruction.  But for the older people, this new temple was a reminder of what could never be again.
               For the older people, the new also reminded them that the temple was not the indestructible house of God that they had once believed it to be.  With the destruction of the first temple, their entire understanding of their world had been wrenched from them and changed irreparably.  No longer did they see their God as one who would, against any odds and at any price, live in the temple and save them from other peoples and their other gods.  There was much here to grieve as well as to celebrate; much that a younger generation would not, could not understand.
               In the story of the prodigal son, the misunderstanding between generations flowed in both directions.  While Jesus is telling a story and does not go into detail about the feelings of those in the parable, we can imagine how we might have felt as each character in the parable.  As a parent, what hurt would we feel if our child asked for his inheritance while we still lived, then took that inheritance and left.  How could we understand that?  What would cause a son to do that?  As the younger son, what anger would cause us to leave in such a cold way?  And how, as the younger son, could we possibly understand the father, his feelings, his potential actions as we crawled back to that father in shame, begging to be a hired hand?  What total lack of comprehension we might have felt as the older son on discovering that while we had done exactly what we were “supposed to do” for our father, without any seeming reward, our younger brother, who had been hurtful, rude, and selfish, who had left the house and squandered away what father had given him, had then been given a party after returning home!  Neither son could know, or could understand what it was like to be the parent; the depth of love, the depth of pain, the depth of rejoicing their father felt.  The father in turn did not know the pain, the shame, the hurt their sons suffered from their own actions.  Each was in a unique place, each generation suffered its own unique sufferings, each rejoiced and experienced its own unique experiences.
               Those barriers of understanding often keep us talking and “hanging out” with those who are closest to us in age and experience, and that is understandable.  We share with our peers a common history that makes conversation easier, that makes communication smooth.  Talking to our own peers, there is much that is assumed which we don’t need to make explicit.  There is much, not only in content, but in style of communication that makes it affirming and comfortable to share with those close to us in age and culture. 
               And yet, we have so much to learn from each other.  God has created us to be born, to live, to grow, to die, and to do so in community with people of all different ages and experiences.  We have been given a wealth of resources in those different ages, and different approaches to life.  There is so much abundance here in this room because we are multi-generational, a bit multi-cultural, because we come from and with very different experiences and backgrounds.  We can learn from our children what it means to really trust.  We can learn from them what it is to be completely genuine and vulnerable.  We can learn from people older than us that experience can teach wisdom, we can learn history.  We can learn patience and perseverance. We can learn more than we imagine from people of all ages.
               The book, Wit and Wisdom from the Peanut Butter Gang (see above citation) highlights some multigenerational wisdom, and I thought I would share with you some of these marvelous quotes, particularly about people of other generations, from children of all ages.
               Katherine, age 13 said, “I can remember what flavor of ice cream my grandmother and I shared at Disneyworld, but most of the time I can’t remember what day it is.  I guess it depends on what you think is important.”
               Adult Harold Hubert said, “Children need love, especially when they do not deserve it.”
               Kara, age 13 said, “Once you’ve lost your parents’ trust, it’s hard to earn it back.”
               Adult Rebecca Richards said, “Oh, to be only half as wonderful as my child thought I was when he was small, and only half as stupid as my teenager now thinks I am.”
               Shanna, age 14 said, “Parents should come with instructions.”
               Adult Mignon McLaughlin said, “Likely as not, the child you can do the least with will do the most to make you proud.”
               Jamie, age 16 said, “One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was their love for each other.”
               Writer Pearl Buck said, “The young do not know enough to be prudent; and therefore, they attempt the impossible – and achieve it, generation after generation.”
               Sarah, age 12 said, “You should be careful around those younger than you.  It is surprising how much of an impact a word or action can make on them.”
               Lois, age 11 said, “You always have time for someone you care for.”
               Finally, I’d like to read to you “on Children” by Kahlil Gibran (The Prophet. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1995):  “Your children are not your children.  They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.  They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.  You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts.  You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.  You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.  For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.  You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.  The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.  Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; for even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”
               God has given us each other in all our diversity as a gift.  But God has also given us the free will to choose whether or not we will embrace this gift.  It will take time and commitment to get to know those around us who are older, younger, different than ourselves.  We may not quickly see or learn the gems of wisdom and experience we each have to share.  But one of God’s greatest gifts to us is the gift of each other, across all boundaries and ages.  It is worth the time and energy of getting to know people. 
               Coming back to your part in helping me with this morning’s message, I have one more question for you.  If you could share something with all the other generations about your own generation to help them understand you, what would that be?  What wisdom would you share?

               Finally, to leave you with one more piece of wisdom from the peanut butter gang, “children are a great comfort in your old age – and they help you reach it faster too!” – Lionel Kauffman.  

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Nature of Grief

I've been thinking more about the nature of grief.  Here are some things we know about grief:

Everyone grieves differently.

There is no prescribed amount of time for grief since it is different for everyone.

Some common feelings associated with grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance, though often there are other feelings as well: shock, guilt, regret, loneliness, and finally hope. Still, because grief is different for everyone these stages don't necessarily go in any kind of order, and they can cycle and recycle back around.  Also, not everyone will experience all of these, and each person experiences them in different ways.

Grief is a process.

Grief affects a person physically as well as mentally and emotionally.  It can affect sleeping, eating, memory, judgment, concentration, cognition - all of it.  It doesn't mean you are going crazy when you experience these things.  They are part of grieving.

Griefs, or rather losses, pile onto each other.  In other words, every new loss can bring up all of the old losses.  You don't know which losses will affect you the most because you don't know which ones will bring up the old losses at the deepest levels.

Telling people to "get over it" is extraordinarily unhelpful.

We don't know what someone else is experiencing in grief, so the best we can do is to walk beside, to walk with, and to listen without judgment.  We can't hurry someone else's process, and trying to do so usually results in unhealed and prolonged grief.

It is really important to go all the way through the grief, no matter how uncomfortable that may be, because unresolved grief does not allow us to be the whole people we are meant to be and may interfere with our abilities to risk and trust again in the future.

With all of this wisdom however, the bottom line is that losses hurt.  And that while it may seem that we should be able to gain some ability to handle grief better with each additional loss, in fact, because each new loss brings up all the old losses, each new grief can feel like the weight of the world dumped onto us once again. Each time a major loss (or any loss for that matter) happens I find myself wondering if this is the one that will completely destroy me, if this is the one that I simply won't be able to get through, if this is the one that is just plain "too much".  And all I can say is that, like with everything else, we are called just to take one day at a time, sometimes one step at a time, one breath at a time.

Remember that you don't walk this alone.  There are people here to help.  There are people here to care and to offer love and support.  There is help when it feels like too much.

Sunday's Sermon - The Rain Falls on the Just and Unjust

Luke 13:1-9

I wanted to begin today by discussing Lent. Lent is a time to repent - or, to put it in less “churchy” words, to look at our lives, to reflect, to try to make some changes, to turn from one direction and go in a new direction, to grow, to try to be more worthy and more whole and just plain more Godly, as we anticipate what Jesus sacrificed, as we remember the things that we are a part of that lead and led, inevitably towards the cross.           
As part of that, what is the most common Lenten practice that we know of? Giving something up. What kinds of things do people give up? There can be something good and healthy about giving something up: if we are really looking at our lives and we find something that is getting in the way of our wholeness, of our serving God and others. Then we can decide to make a practice of limiting, for a set period of time, but perhaps with the idea that if we can do it for a short time, we might be able to do it for longer, whatever it is that is interfering in our growth, wholeness and service to God. 
But I found myself thinking about the falseness, so many times, of these deprivations or sacrifices. A good friend of mine told me that for years she gave up chips every lent. Chips were her favorite food and a staple in her diet. Every lent though she went through the tortuous ritual of throwing out all of her unfinished bags of chips. Of course there weren’t many by lent; fat Tuesday, otherwise known as Mardi-gras, allowed her to gorge and cram down as many as she could ahead of time. And she told me that every year she felt sick for the first three days of lent; whether it was withdrawal symptoms or whether it was a chip hang-over from Fat Tuesday she was never sure. But after six long weeks of agonizing deprivation and anticipation, lent finally came to an end. The day before Easter her kids would go out and buy every kind of chip they could imagine, open the bags, and line them up in front of my friend. They would have a count-down and at the exact moment lent was officially over she would eat and eat until she was too full and sick to eat anymore, leaving her, once again, sick for the first few days of Easter.
These sacrifices on many occasions are almost like a game we play - “let’s see if I can give this up,” or they are a way of feeling like we’re really doing something in the name of our faith. But they represent a choice that a privileged or wealthy person (and we are all wealthy here by the world’s standards) makes for a short and specific period of time: a choice that can be “cheated” and even changed at any moment. 
What do these deprivations actually mean in the bigger scheme of our faith? What does it mean in terms of our dual call to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves? What does it mean to the people God really calls us to care for - the oppressed and the poor?
To put it in more concrete terms, what does it mean to those who can’t afford and therefore don’t own a television that you give up watching TV for a month? What can it possibly mean to the person who struggles to find enough of any kind of food to eat that you give up chocolate or ice cream for a month? What does it mean to God that you “give up” something but aren’t giving to someone else who might really need it? The intent of these sacrifices is to focus on God. But often the Lenten practice of sacrifice gets warped and trivialized. And do we then use those deprivations to focus more on God, or do we end up focusing on something else - like on our own “religiousness” or even more, on a sense of deprivation? Are we taking the time that we would otherwise use watching TV or whatever else it is we have given up to volunteer with the poor, to meditate on the direction God wants for our lives or even very simply to pray? 
As I said before, this Lenten practice started with good intentions. Get rid of the things that separate you from God and develop a closer relationship with God through doing so. But I think that many of our spiritual practices, this being one of them, have instead become bargaining chips in an “If I do x, God, will you please give me y” kind of way. You may not be familiar with the term “prosperity gospel” but it is what is espoused by many of our rich and powerful preachers and their followers in the United States, people like Joel Osteen. It was reflected in the theology of the movie, Leap of Faith that we showed here on our first movie night as well. It is an incredibly popular theology because it promises that if you just do “a” right or “b” right, if you give enough money to these prosperity gospel preachers, if you pray enough, if you give up something for lent, that God will reward you with riches, with prosperity, with “stuff” beyond your wildest dreams.
Just to be clear, I find no justification for this in our scriptures. Today we hear in two different gospels Jesus telling us that the rain falls on the just and unjust alike, that bad things and good things happen to all people. We know the story of Job. Despite his faith and goodness, he lost everything. And while at the end, he is doing fine again, every time I hear the story now I am now reminded of a wonderful poem by Carl Denis about Job that ends with these words, “How foolish … To … assume that Job's new family, New wife and children and servants, Would be an ample substitute for the old.” A loss like the death of one’s children is a loss never to be recovered from. And no faith can protect against that.
Bad things happen to good, God-fearing people. If you are faithful to God because you envision God as a kind of Santa Claus that rewards good action or even faith, and punishes the bad, or those who lack faith, you might want to find a new religion, one that emphasizes karma more. Because that just isn’t how the God shown to us by Jesus works. 
As Cathleen Fasani wrote in a recent article to the Washington Post, “Few theological ideas ring more dissonant with the harmony of … Christianity than a focus on storing up treasures on Earth as a primary goal of faithful living. The gospel of prosperity turns Christianity into a vapid bless-me club, with a doctrine that amounts to little more than spiritual magical thinking: If you pray the right way, God will make you rich.  But if you're not rich, then what? Are the poor cursed by God because of their unfaithfulness? And if God were so concerned about 401(k)s and Mercedes, why would God's son have been born into poverty?... Jesus was born poor, and he died poor. During his earthly tenure, he spoke time and again about the importance of spiritual wealth and health. When he talked about material wealth, it was usually part of a cautionary tale.”
The bigger problem with prosperity gospel theology is that it completely wipes out grace. In the prosperity gospel model our faith becomes an economic system of rewards and punishments. You get what you earn, you get what you deserve. But God isn’t like that. God causes the sun to shine on all of us. The rain, too, falls on all of us. And God loves ALL of us, no matter what.
I think historically, people have done many things in an attempt to earn God’s favor. A large part of the protestant reformation was in response to the Catholic church charging people “indulgences” as a way to pay off their sins and to earn God’s forgiveness and grace. And if you are a person who struggles with guilt, it is likely that that guilt is a remembrance, especially when things go wrong, of the ways we have failed. We start thinking that somehow the bad things that have happened to us are because we haven’t been enough, haven’t done enough, haven’t been faithful enough. But the good news is that this is not true. God love you just the way you are. And out of that love, God offers grace, free undeserved gifts and forgiveness and love and care. God offers that grace to all of us, not as a response to anything we have or have not done. You cannot earn grace by its very definition. It is a gift freely given. 
I believe with all my being that Grace is always there for us. But receiving that becomes possible when we see it, if we are able to connect the dots and trust that grace is from a God who loves us, if we can see the many beautiful good gifts that surround us as the sign and promise of God’s love, as they are. But whether we are able to see it or not, that grace is offered to everyone, NOT because any of us deserve it, or have failed to deserve it. It is there because that is the nature of God: God is the One who offers grace, every single day, to each of God’s children.
So, then, if we do not do our Lenten practices and other spiritual disciplines in order to earn God’s grace, why do them? Again, the original idea behind any spiritual discipline is to increase our closeness to God. We don’t do this to “earn” grace because grace can’t be earned.  We do this out of gratitude and love for a God who has already given us grace. We do it to build a relationship with the amazing God who does love creation so much that She/He offers that grace to everyone. We do it because in growing closer to God we find that, no matter what else we are going through, we come to learn, experience and trust that we are truly held and supported and loved by a God who walks with us graces us even through the hardest times. 
Today’s story from Luke is not an easy story. Jesus first says that bad things don’t happen to people because they sin, but then he goes on to say “I tell you unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” The second half of the lesson isn’t much more comforting. The fig tree doesn’t produce fruit and so the owner wants to tear it out. The gardener persuades the owner to give the fig tree another year to produce, but even then, the owner still says that if it doesn’t produce good fruit in another year, it will be ripped out. Not a really reassuring story, is it?
Except that the fig tree is not left to its own devices. The gardener promises to dig around it, to put fertilizer on it, to care for it. That gardener working hard to make us into the beautiful fruitful trees we are called to be is Grace, straight from God. That care for us, that pruning, that nurturing takes many forms: our life lessons, the church, the things that happen to us which confront us to change and to grow and to truly be servants of God, the many places we experience God’s love. When we remain open to God’s grace, we find ourselves in that place where we are dug around, where the hard places are pointed out and softened with some digging, some aeration, and in a place where we are nourished and fed, replenished, and given the best nutrition possible in order to grow so that we, too may produce fruit.

God does indeed call us to be the people of love, finding, searching, seeking and serving with that love. And when we follow God, we see grace all around us. But I remain convinced that it is not because we have “earned” it that God gives us grace. Still, through our faith and through our actions of faithful living we learn to see the grace that is offered. So, do we do our Lenten disciplines? Doing anything that brings you closer to God is always a good plan. And Lent is a good time to begin to do it (though truly, any time is). But we are called to these tasks out of love for God, out of gratitude for the grace already given. Amen.