Sunday, July 31, 2016

Competition vs. Cooperation

I've always been highly competitive.  If I couldn't be best at something, I tended not to do it.  That's not something I'm proud of, it's just the way it was for me ... graduated number 1 in my high school class, was first chair flutist, won piano competitions, the homeletics award at seminary, etc, etc, etc. Believe it or not, I don't share those things to brag, but to point out a mind set that I'm just beginning, truly at a deep level, to question.  And while opportunities to be that competitive have, in many ways, slimmed, that competitive edge has still continued to be part of me and my experience.  It shows up now in different areas.  One of those is in the playing of games - I play to win, and because of that games are not always as fun for me as they are for other people. Despite the idea that "it's only a game" and "the point is to have fun", it's often, at some level that I usually don't admit, still about winning for me.  The truth is, I don't like losing.  I play these brain fitness games on my computer and if I can't be in the top percentile for people in my age range, I get upset and frustrated.  The point of these games is to improve one's brain fitness.  But even in this area, I play at some level "to win". But tonight I was playing a simple card game with David and found myself challenged to think differently.

In the churches I've served I've emphasized the importance of cooperative, rather than competitive games.  I do this for a variety of reasons.  First, I think there is much to be learned from games that encourage working together rather than competing against.  But additionally, I come from a theology that says there really is enough for everyone.  We don't, therefore, have to grab what we need as quickly as possible so that someone else can't take what is ours. That way of thinking is not helpful.  If we believe there is enough for everyone (or to put it in theological terms, that God gave us all enough, if we only share it) and if we can remember that what enriches you also enriches me, that we are connected, and that therefore to "win" looks like everyone succeeding, our way of walking in the world changes.  We are freed, truly, to love one another without the fear that my care for you will somehow cost me too much.  We are freed to live with the understanding that my supporting you in your gain will actually lift me up as well.  When you don't have enough, none of us do.  But when I can help you get what you need, we all have more of what we need, too.  I believe this, deeply.

But it was only as I watched myself playing this card game this evening that it occurred to me that while I believe this from a theological position, while I trust in it from a place of faith, I don't practice this belief in some very basic, practical ways. I have been gifted (there is no other word for it) to have in my life a few amazing people, truly saintly people, who comprehend the truth of our one-ness so much more deeply than I do.  David is one of those. When he plays a game with me, I have seen him actually work for ME to win, though in these competitive games it means he loses.  I've been aware of him doing this, I've even called him on it, but at the same time, there has been a part of me that hasn't minded so much because it has led to my winning more than I otherwise might. Pathetic, I know.  What is a "win" when the other person is helping you?  Well this evening, I got what it was.  It was a lesson.  A deep and valuable lesson for me.  I was convicted by this at a cellular level as the shock, the reality of the lesson went in deep.

There is a story in which an anthropologist proposed a game to a group of children in a particular African tribe. According to this story, the anthropologist put a basket full of fruit near a tree and told the children that whoever got there first won the sweet fruits. When he told them to run they all took each others hands and ran together, then sat together enjoying their treats. When he asked them why they had run like that as one could have had all the fruit for himself they said: UBUNTU, how can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad?  UBUNTU meaning: "I am because we are". Whether the story is true or not, there are other cultures which do a better job of teaching sharing and cooperation than we do.  They don't see us as all individuals trying to outclimb or outgain or outwin one another.  They understand that we are all in this together and we either work together or we fall together.  I've studied these cultures some and I see how the truth of this cooperative way of working has deepened their lives so much more than what we, with our individualistic entitlement at the cost of what others have, experience.

Again, I understand this, I believe it.  But when I saw how poorly I was putting this into practice in this card game, I found myself challenged, about half way through the game, with the idea that maybe I needed to change my thinking and my strategy in these games and try to live out what I actually believe.  So I changed my tactic.  Instead of working to win, I decided to see what it felt like to help him win instead.  What would it look like, not to sabbotage my own play, but to support him and do things in my playing that supported the possibility of his winning instead?  What if I put aside the careful strategies I had developed that gave me the upper hand and instead played in such a way that his chances of winning were better?  So I tried it.

To be honest, after 48 years of practicing competition instead of cooperation in games, I didn't find it completely easy to try this new way of playing.  I did it, but found myself fighting with a part of me that still felt, strongly, that if I helped him I might "lose" and that this would hurt.  But I breathed in deep, reassuring that child within that it really would be okay.  After all, this was a card game, and nothing more, right?

But I know, really, that it is much more than a card game.  It is a way of walking through life.  I've tried to practice something different when it has come to big things - sharing finances, food, resources, with those in greater need. But I'm beginning to see that I've gone about this backwards. And that this change in approach needs to start with the simpler, smaller things to make a real inward change in me.

Next time we play, I will try to start the game with this different approach.  And I will see how it feels, perhaps, to celebrate someone else's win, knowing I was part of that. We become the people we are called to be through the practice of loving and caring for the other.  This choice is a small step for me.  But each step, each small choice to be conscious and to do it differently can move us forward. Hopefully I will be able to keep my eyes open through the practices of changing my actions. We will see where it takes us.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - What's the Point of Christmas in July?

Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-20

            When you think about Christmas time, the season of Christmas, what comes to your mind?  I want as many answers as you can give me.   When I think about Christmas, a lot of different images and ideas come to my mind: the birth of Jesus, angels, shepherds, magi…stable, inn, donkeys, manger….lots of images that are an important part of Christmas.  But also, cookies, presents, buying, holiday songs, decorations, buying, parties, family, buying, Christmas cards, …and oh, yes, did I mention buying? 
These are not bad things.  It is good to buy presents, though I have to admit that my yearly Christmas list includes some people that I only see once a year and for whom buying a present is not only difficult, but not very heart inspired.  Still, when my heart is in a joyful, generous, grateful place, I really enjoy being able to give presents to others.  Decorations and songs and parties are uplifting and God wants us to celebrate – hence Jesus turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana… celebrating is a gift from God and a good thing, too.  Spending time with family – this is very important: making and taking the time to remember that God has blessed us with our families, celebrating with them, eating, feasting.  All of these are good things.  But I think in the midst of that, it is difficult to actually focus on the birth of Christ and what that means for us.
            We might say, “Well, we do that at church on Sundays and on Christmas eve.”  Okay.  But I’ll tell you the truth.  In my A-personality way, I have a data-base of every sermon I’ve ever written and preached in the 20 years now since I’ve been an ordained pastor (and also included are the ones I preached during seminary as well), and I realized that not one time have I preached a Christmas sermon at Christmas.  The only time I preach on Christmas is on Christmas in July Sundays.  During Advent we are focused on Advent, which means preparing, repenting, making way for what is coming.  Usually the Sunday after Christmas, in which we are actually in the Christmas season, pastors take off on vacation since these are typically the least well attended Sundays of the year.  And Christmas Eve?  Well, in the churches I’ve served, the Christmas Eve message has always been presented by either a children’s pageant or a service of lessons in carols or both.  And these are good ways to present the Christmas Biblical passages…the Biblical passages tell us the Christmas story and it is good to hear them again and again.  It is also a wonderful time to affirm the gifts of our children in encouraging their participation in the presentation of the Word, to affirm the gifts of music and of our choirs, to celebrate again with something a little different. 
            But as Presbyterians, we value the “interpretation of the Word” as well, and this just plain doesn’t tend to happen with Christmas itself.  We value this because it helps us to look more deeply at the scriptures, to hear them in a new way, and to spend time really reflecting on the message in a particular passage, even when we disagree with what that particular preacher’s words or message may be.  Taking time to communally study these passages is an important part of our life as Christians, as Presbyterians.
Additionally, sometimes people get stuck in thinking that Christmas is only a birthday celebration for Jesus and has no deeper meaning than that.  It is a birthday celebration for Jesus.  But it is so much more than just a big birthday party.
            It is for these reasons that many churches around the country are now practicing “Christmas in July” or setting aside a Sunday as a time to focus really and truly on the birth of Christ, without the distractions of decorating, feasting, writing cards, celebrating and buying, buying, buying. 
At the same time, it amazes me how quickly even this has been followed by a commercial response.  As I was studying and preparing for today, I googled “Christmas in July” and was truly horrified by the number of web-sites that popped up that were saying “Christmas in July sale!” or “Christmas in July – buy your presents now!!” 
            It amazes me how quickly commercialism sets in whenever and wherever it can.  And I invite you to work hard to truly focus  - whether it be now or in December – on Christmas, on incarnational theology or the presence of God with us, among us, as us, coming as an infant, as an innocent, as a helpless , precious and newborn baby.  And that is what I want us to do today.

            For us as Christians, the birth of Jesus is significant because it is the story of God’s presence with us.  It is the story of God being with us, not just as a Spirit or as a Parent from afar, but as another human, as one who has experienced all we have experienced, and as one who stands with us as friend, as brother, as teacher, as companion - all of these things.  We can delight in these.  But there are other aspects of Jesus’ humanity that we think about less often, or even that are less comfortable.  And these are shown to us most particularly when we think of Jesus as a person who was first a child, first a baby.  God, in Jesus, has also experienced what it is to be taught by humanity, to be cradled in human arms, to be loved by human people, to be scolded and corrected, no doubt, by human parents and teachers.  Incarnational theology, or the belief that God has been with us as another human, requires as much faith as does belief in the resurrection.  To believe that God is really truly with us, has lived a human life and therefore understands our pain, our sorrows, our joys, and yes, our desires, our temptations and even our anger…that God has lived and felt these things, too - this can require just as big a leap of faith.  What is it like to look into the face of another human and see God dwelling there?  What must it have been like to look into the face of an infant and see God there, amid the baby tears, amid the toddler temper tantrums, amid the pre-teen and teen rebelliousness?  Can you see God in the midst of these human behaviors?
            Today this can be harder for us.  We don’t have the baby Jesus to look at, to see the reflection of God’s face.   For us, then this means that we need to spend concrete and intentional time remembering that God has been incarnate in humanity.  And it means we need to both look harder for that incarnation in those around us, and be that incarnation as often as we can be for one another.
            A dear friend of mine, whom I’ll call Daniel, grew up in a very large, and yet very poor family.  When he was only seven he caught pneumonia.  His mother took him to the doctor who gave him a prescription for penicillin.  This was about seventy years ago and at that time penicillin was very expensive. My friend told me that his prescription cost about as much as his father’s take home pay for a week.  When they arrived at the pharmacy the pharmacist refused to fill the prescription.  Daniel told me that he remembered cowering at the base of the counter while the pharmacist berated his mother for not paying more on her bill.  Finally they had to leave without the medicine. 
About a week and a half later the doctor, upon arriving at 7:00 a.m. Sunday Mass, was asked by Daniel’s teacher when he would return to school since he had already missed many class days.  The doctor told her that Daniel should have been back to school by now.  So she relayed what she had heard from Daniel’s brothers and sisters, that he was still quite sick at home.  Immediately the doctor left church, even though it was very early in the morning and he would miss mass, and he went to Daniel’s home.  Daniel told me that he vividly remembered the image of the Doctor trooping down the stairs to his bed, medical bag in hand, with Daniel’s mother following close behind insisting that he needn’t have come.  She could not comfortably accept charity to the point where she had said her goodbyes to Daniel and had come to accept that he would die.  But the doctor pushed through.
He found Daniel with a high fever and fluid in his lungs.  On recalling the story, Daniel couldn’t remember too much else about the visit except for the very cold stethoscope and later being rolled over and given a shot.  The Doctor stayed there for a long time, until well into the afternoon, nursing Daniel back to strength.  Daniel’s mother was very embarrassed and continued to insist that the Doctor needn’t have come.  When he left he went to the pharmacy and returned with the filled prescription and a strict admonition that Daniel was to take every pill as instructed and was to come to see the Doctor the next morning at his office.  He insisted that if Daniel needed a ride he was to call the Doctor who would come to get him.  As Daniel said in his own words, “Years later, when I was grown, I spoke to the Doctor about it.  He acknowledged that I had been a very sick child.  That I had nearly died.  When I thanked him for coming (especially since I now knew that he didn’t get paid for the many visits we made to his office) he said, “I didn’t do anything special.  I only did what my God would have me do.”
            These stories – these are modern examples of God incarnate, in those moments, in those faces, at those times.  We don’t get to see Jesus as a baby, born into this world, fully human and fully Divine.  But we are given glimpses of that God incarnate when we look into the faces of those who would serve God, would choose God, who would follow God with their whole beings.  This is the meaning of Christmas.  This is what it is to see Jesus born among us as one of us.  It is our call then, both to look for God among us every day (not just at Christmas time!) and to strive to be God’s children in every day (not just at Christmas time!).


Sunday, July 24, 2016

When the Fairy Tale is Destroyed

We, all people I believe, have a deep desire to be loved completely and unconditionally for exactly who we are. The mirror of this is loving another with complete abandon and dedication as well. From a faith perspective, we know and can count on that love coming from God. But as Richard Rohr says, "We can't seem to know the good news that we are God's beloveds on our own. It has to be mirrored to us." For people who did not have secure childhood attachments (or "normal" attachments to a primary parent that babies in healthy families experience), that feeling of being loved unconditionally is especially hard to find, maintain or trust. I think the fairy tale is seductive in those cases - that there is someone out there whom fate will throw our way who will be the one to love us and be loved by us in this way. We hope and believe that if only we find the right person, we will experience what it is to truly love another unconditionally and to be loved unconditionally. We have the fall back myth, that only one per generation actually find their "soul mate" but we pray and hope that it will be us.

There are so many obvious problems with this, however.  First of all, if it is so rare, what are the rest of us to do?  Secondly if we are counting on another human to save us with their love, we will be disappointed.

But there is one other problem with this that I would like to focus on for this post.  When we went to the Storytelling Festival, one of the keynoters was a married pair who acted out the story of  an engaged couple.  The man said he loved her so much that he would do anything for her.  And then the woman put that to the test...she asked him to do more and more outrageous things.  When he hesitated, she broke down in tears, saying it was obvious he did not really love her.  So he did what she asked, not only hurting himself, but hurting other people around him (since the requests involved injury to other people).  In the end, the woman had her "proof" of the man's love, but the obtaining of that proof damaged their relationship. The man discovered that to be tested is an act of selfishness on the part of the tester, it is a failure to love with full depth in itself.  Frederick Buechner put it this way, "If I tried to put his friendship to the test somehow, the test itself would queer the friendship I was testing." (Wishful Thinking, New York, Harper and Row, 1969. p 26).

But the reality is that tests in every relationship do come because none of us are perfect. In every friendship, in every marriage, in every intimacy, the challenges come. What are we willing to put up with? Where is that limit to what we will tolerate?  What can we live with? What can't we live with? This isn't about forgiveness, which we are called to always offer.  It is about the nature of how you will move forward after damage has been done (and even after damage has been forgiven). Sometimes you can continue as you were. For happily married couples, for long term friendships, for many families those tests are small and don't really challenge the commitment.  But sometimes something comes that simply can't be overlooked, can't be "accepted", can't be incorporated into the relationship as it is.

From a personal perspective I've come to realize that when we decide we can't live with something, when we realize that our commitment to someone else is NOT unconditional, when we come to a point of "this is not acceptable" and we make the decision to leave, that can be as devastating to our belief in unconditional human love as would be the experience of being left. What does it mean that we choose to go our separate ways?  What does it mean that we cannot maintain the "I will love you no matter what" illusion?  Does it mean that our love was not deep?  Was somehow not real?  Was not as full or committed or strong as we had believed it to be?  How do we accept in ourselves that we have limits and are not capable of that kind of unconditional love that we all dream of?  How do we accept then the love of anyone else, knowing that humans are imperfect and that all of us have conditions on our care to varying degrees?

If I am honest, I have to admit that it is at least in small part these thoughts and beliefs that keep me taking "care of" my ex despite the change in our relationship.  I could not stay married to him, and many have said that I have not gone far enough. I have been encouraged, even by people of faith, who follow the God who commands us to love our enemies, to reject him completely. I cannot do that. I know that all of us have fallen short, that there isn't some scale that says, "well, your sins are so much worse than the rest of us that you no longer qualify as a human being worthy of care."  I see and experience repentance from him, I have forgiven him, but beyond all of that, I see that he is more than the issues which have led him to where he is. All of us are more than our worst selves.  And he is no exception. So I continue to offer care, even while the relationship cannot stay the same.  I made a commitment to care, and that commitment continues.

Still, the relationship is different.  I have not been able to keep my commitment of marriage to him. More to the point, I am incapable of loving him in the way that I did before. I care for him now more as a person like any person who has needs, not as a partner or even a friend. And while some would say that the care I offer him is a form of unconditional love, it is not what I would hope for - from myself, or for myself.

These realities have called me to face once again the truth that the unconditional and completely committed love we seek we can only find from something beyond us, beyond human, beyond our finite abilities and lives.  But if it is true that we need that acceptance and love mirrored for us in our human relationships, perhaps that explains why so many of us are still hurting, still hunting, still seeking for that which can not be found.  I'm reminded of U2's lyrics, "But I still haven't found what I'm looking for."

The answer?  On this one, I think I am still called to live in the question.  I don't have an answer for this yet.  I do know that the more I learn to love with fullness, the more whole I feel.  The more I learn to forgive and to care, the more love I experience from others that is also forgiving and caring. I haven't gotten it right yet.  I'm on the journey.  And while I still find myself searching to have that unconditional love mirrored to me from humans, I know that ultimately it will not be found here.  So I work harder to surrender and live in the love of the Divine that surrounds me.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Balancing Priorities

Luke 10:38-42

               Simplicity, or focusing on what is important and cutting back on all that is not, is an important spiritual discipline and one that is exemplified by today’s story of Mary and Martha.  Martha here is “worried about many things”.  Mary sits and listens.  Martha is doing everything that is not simple and clear and full of purpose (though it feels important at the time - and the importance of that cannot be underestimated) while Mary is paying attention to what Jesus has to say.  We can see that listening to Jesus was more important.  We can honor what she chose to do.
And yet the reality is that Martha’s behavior made sense.  It went back to the cultural expectations of men and women at the time.  Women were not supposed to sit with the men to listen and learn.  They were supposed to be serving.  They had their own sphere of existence – a very specific sphere, out of which they were not supposed to travel.  To do so would be shameful, would be “unrighteous”, would be “sinful”, would be wrong.  Martha is upset not only because Mary is not helping Martha do what they have been told all their lives they are supposed to be doing, but also because Mary is breaking the rules by sitting and listening and learning at Jesus’ feet. Mary does not have a place in that society to sit at Jesus’ feet.  Her job is to be behind the scenes, as is Martha’s.  Martha is doing what she is ‘supposed’ to do.  She is trying hard to do right, to do good, to serve God as she knows she is supposed to.  That work is not unimportant work.  Someone needs to care for the men and children.  Someone needs to be feeding and serving and providing for folk.  Someone needs to offer hospitality to those who are gathered.  What she is doing is worthwhile work.
But Jesus challenges her, as he challenges many of the notions of the time about what was “proper”.  First and foremost, he doesn’t uphold the rules about where women were supposed to be when men are talking.  He doesn’t support the idea that women aren’t to learn and sit and listen.  Second, he also doesn’t praise Martha’s service or her busyness, even as she was busy in order to serve Jesus and those men gathered there listening to Jesus.  Instead, he praises Mary’s choice to step out of the norm, step out of what was expected, to take the time to do what will feed her soul most – listening and learning from Jesus.  He praises her choice to be with him and to be forming deeper relationships with God and with Jesus, despite what other people would say about that, despite the fact that she was going against the cultural rules of the time.  He encourages her in her non-service and non-busyness in that time and place.  His encouragement was radical, again, not just because he was saying, “there are times and places to be busy and this is not one of them” but because he was going against everything the culture said was supposed to happen in this scenario.  He was challenging the most deeply engrained norms of the day.
           While we don’t have those same expectations of the roles of men vs. women anymore, this is still a radical and challenging story for us as well.  We, too, have ideas that tell us what we are supposed to be doing with our time.  We, too, have thoughts about what makes us good and right and proper.  And specifically we, too, are supposed to be busy, active, “doing” as much as possible.  Like Martha we, too, are “worried and upset” about many things.  Our jobs, our children, our health, our families, our bills, our vacations, our cars, our houses, our gardens, our friends, our church.  But beyond these things as well, if we pay attention to the news, there is much to be done and much to worry about.  There is hatred, and fear, and anger and killing.  There is violence within our culture but also in France, in Turkey, in Syria.  There are wars and people are dying. As people who are called to care, to bring about justice, to lift up the oppressed, there is so much that we need to be about.  We need to find out what we can do.  We need to do it.  There is much to be done and much to worry about.  And, like Martha, when we are told to just settle down, to sit, to listen, to take time off of worrying, to refrain from running around doing the things that need to be done, we can become even more upset!  I mean, if we don’t do what needs to be done now, it isn’t as if those jobs, those things that must be done, will just go away or take care of themselves.  In our personal lives, we will have more to do later because we have not done today’s work.  In the greater society, what we do not heal today, what we do not change now, what we fail to confront that is unjust and unkind and uncaring – all of that continues another day when we do not attend to it.  Doesn’t God call us to do this work?  And if we are not busy doing it, then, aren’t we failing in our call to love and serve God and God’s people? 
Even for people of faith, we struggle with time dedicated to praying and listening to God.  I will admit, that even as a pastor, I fear being “caught” praying when I am supposed to be “working”.  There is ingrained in all of us the “protestant work ethic” or that strong feeling that we supposed to be doing rather than being: running around and planning and working all the time? 
               But the truth of it is different, as it usually is with God, than what we seem to imagine our time and our world to be.

As one popular story has pointed out, if you pick up a glass of water you can feel that it is pretty light.  It does not take much to lift it.  Almost all of us would have the strength to do so.  However, if we are asked to continue to hold up the glass for a period of time, the actual weight becomes unimportant.  If I were to hold it up for more than a few minutes, my arm and hand would begin to become tired.  If I held it up longer, my arm and hand would start to ache.  Eventually, I simply would not be able to do it.  The longer I hold something up, the heavier it becomes. If we pick it up and put it down, we can carry around any number of things of this weight for any period of time.  But holding something up for a long time will wear us out quickly and completely.
               Our lives are the same way.  When we are “upset and worried about many things,” we are, in essence, holding the glass of our worries and concerns up for extended periods of time.  The result of doing this?  We will be less and less effective and eventually we will be unable to continue.  Putting it down, turning it over to God, taking a step back is crucial for us to be effective in our work.  More than that, when we take time out to re-center on God, we regain a vision for the purpose of what we are doing, for the priorities in our work, for the deeper meaning behind it all. 
I don’t know about you, but there are days when the weight of the world is simply too much.  It can make the simple task of starting the days’ work hard.  In those moments, everything distracts me from what I really need to be doing.  But it is most especially in those times that I have found that if I meditate, pray, take time to talk and listen to God, that I can become refocused, and much more able to do what needs to be done.  Martin Luther said it this way: “I have so much to do that I shall have to spend the first three hours in prayer.”
We don’t really have time NOT to be in our relationship with God.  We don’t have time to NOT work on that.  We don’t have time to avoid being present with God if we want our lives to be meaningful and effective.  It is that grounding in our faith that gives us the strength and focus and energy and purpose behind what we do.  Without that grounding, we are rats in a maze, running and busy but without doing what will bring us and others into true life, true living, true meaning.  We may think that Sunday morning provides us with enough of that, but it doesn’t.  This is something we need to do every day, and when opportunities arise, that is when it is most important to take a breath and be present with what God is showing us.
I read a sermon in Mitch Albom’s book, Have a little Faith  (Hyperion, New York, 2009. p59) in which a little girl came home from school with a drawing she’d made in class.  She came into the kitchen where her mom was making dinner.  “Mom, guess what?!”  she said as she danced around waving the picture.  Her mother continued her work and said “What?” 
“Guess what?”  The girl asked again, waving her drawing.
“What?”  the mom said again, tending to the dishes.
“Mom, you’re not listening.”
“Yes, I am sweetheart!”
“Mom,” the child said, “you’re not listening with your eyes.”
I love that story because it points out to us that half attention is not attention.  Martha may have thought that being present in the house with Jesus while she tended to the business of service was enough.  But Mary knew differently.
               As I said above, it is not just our lives that keep us busy.  Our faith calls us to tasks as well – caring for the sick, visiting the lonely, feeding the hungry, lifting up those who are suffering. In the face of the hatred and anger and fear we see in the world right now, there is more to do than we can imagine, and we are called to bring the Good News of life and justice and to raise up those who are oppressed. We have much to do, and not acting justly is not an option.  From the Talmud – “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.  Do justly, now.  Love mercy, now.  Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work.  But neither are you free to abandon it.”
               But none of that can be done, none of it, without grounding in why we are doing it, what it is about, how and why God calls us to do what we are about.  When we look at Jesus’ life, it was a back and forth story.  He would go into the world and teach and heal.  Then he would retreat to pray.  Then he would go back into the world to teach and heal.  The gospels show us this pattern again and again.  That prayer time, that time away, was essential for Jesus.  How much more so for us.  We need that to ground us.  That retreat time centers us.  That time with God renews us so that we can do the work we are called to do.

               The title of my sermon was balancing priorities. But perhaps a better title would be “becoming aware of priorities”.  The priority, in order for everything else we do to have meaning, is to stay grounded in our relationship to the Divine.  We are worried and upset over many things.  But now is the time to ground in God so that we can more clearly see what we need to do in the world and in our living.  Amen.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - an Old Story

Luke 10:25-37

            We have all heard this story many, many times.  We’ve heard it so many times that I fear we don’t even hear it anymore.  Or we don’t hear it for anything new.  We think we understand it.  But as a wise man once said to me, “if we think we understand the parables, we’ve missed their meaning entirely” for there are always new layers to uncover, new meanings to explore, new messages for each of us each day.  The whole point in saying things with a story is exactly that – that stories have much greater depth, they share at deeper and deeper levels if we let them into our hearts.  They stick with us, and this story sticks particularly well, and gives our hearts something to chew on, to meditate on, to engage with in our prayers and our time with God.  However, while we know that stories do this, sometimes even they can become so familiar that we no longer really hear them, or we no longer can accept new information from them.
            Today we used a “reader’s theater” version of the story in an attempt to hear it a little differently.  Did that help?  What did you hear differently?  Did anything strike you that hadn’t struck you before? 

Are there certain kinds of people who when they approach you it bothers you?  Are there strangers who, when they approach you, you find yourself thinking “oh, no: not today.”  Or “please don’t talk to me!”  Or “You can’t see me, you can’t see me!”  Who are they?  The beggars near the grocery stores?  How about political solicitors - those are the ones who really bother me - they stand outside the stores trying to get you to donate money for whatever cause they have and to sign their petitions.  I find that really annoying - I just want to go to the store in peace, but there they are trying to get my attention, my time, and sometimes my money as I try to go about my business, and there are times when it is just too much to even try to be polite, when even a simple, “no thank you!” feels like too much work.  Who else?  
A half dozen years ago I had a doctor’s appointment that I was a little nervous about and as I was waiting in the waiting room a woman came in who plopped herself down next to another patient and began to talk, asking very personal questions about his medical problems and his wife (whom all of us in the waiting room soon discovered had recently died - apparently, this did nothing though to stop this woman from further inquiries into the nature and specifics of her death!).  At first, I found it a little amusing listening to her harass this poor guy and also share some very personal stuff (like about her sex life) that the rest of us really didn’t particularly want to hear.  But as I sat there, one by one the other patients in the waiting room were called, I began to get nervous. When her conversational victim of choice was called to his appointment, this woman got up and sat next to someone else and began all over again.  I found myself quickly reaching for a book and pretending to be completely engrossed in it.  When everyone else was finally called in and I was left, just her and I in the waiting room, I found myself bending over and praying HARD that I would be invisible to her or called in as quickly as possible.  This kind of thing is hard for me to take.  And the reality is that it was only after I had left that situation that I realized that I had missed an opportunity.  An opportunity to listen, to grow, to help, and to be enrichened by this other human being.  Are there people like that for you?
Some of these people don’t need too much help.  And others need a great deal of help (this poor woman at the hospital for example, probably really needed someone to talk to).  In the face of the reality that at times we don’t want to be bothered with the hurts and needs of the strangers around us, the story of the Good Samaritan is usually a story of conviction; we are convicted of being, on too many occasions, the priest or the Levite, who in our hurry or in our own crisis do not have time to deal with the crisis of someone else right in front of us.  We’ve been told, probably almost every time we’ve heard this story, that the priest and Levite also have “good” reasons for not helping out the man: religious reasons even.  For the priest, touching this bloodied man would have rendered the priest unclean which then would have prevented him from being able to do his job as a priest - caring for others, serving others.  He did not help this beaten up man, perhaps SO THAT he might be able to help many other people.  With the Levite there are similar issues.  And most of the time that we hear this story preached, then, we are reminded that though we, too, may have really good reasons - we too are in a hurry because we have to care for our children, or go to work, or do whatever else needs to be done in our lives that involves caring for people we know and have commitments to, that according to Jesus these reasons just plain aren’t enough.  Not then.  Not now.  Not ever.
But this is hard to do, at times it feels impossible.  A few years ago one of our seminaries decided to really test its ministerial candidates.  All of the candidates had to walk through a specific tunnel on their way to one of the class rooms.  On the day of the final exam for the class, the dean “put” an “injured” person in the tunnel whom all of the students would need to pass by on their way to their final.  The result?  What we would probably consider a shocking number of students - 70% of these ministerial students did not stop to help the man because they were worried about being late for their final.  These are people like the priest and Levite in the Good Samaritan story - these are people like us.
We currently have laws called “Good Samaritan law” which in most cases in the United States are laws that say if you try to help someone medically who really needs the help, even if you fail or end up injuring them further in the attempt, you cannot be sued.  But there are also more and more places, beginning with Vermont, that now have a law that says if you are in a position to help someone without risk to yourself, who is experiencing a crime or medical problem and you fail to do so, you can be fined or even imprisoned.  This law has been enacted in places to prevent what happened in one Seinfeld episode from happening on a regular basis: in this episode everyone stood around and watched while a woman was robbed and no one did anything to help. The law in Massachusetts General Law Chapter 268, Section 40, requires that anyone who "knows that another person is a victim of aggravated rape, murder, manslaughter or armed robbery and is at the scene of said crime shall, to the extent that said person can do so without danger or peril to himself or others, report said crime to an appropriate law enforcement official as soon as reasonably practicable."   
We hear terrible stories in the papers all the time in which a crime is happening to someone in a public place and everyone just stands around and watches, but no one steps in and offers the simple assistance that would actually stop the problem, no one calls for help, no one does anything but stop and stare.  It is in response to these that such laws are made. But really, isn’t it unfortunate that the idea of helping someone in dire crisis has to be made into a law in order to make it happen in many cases? I find the fact that these laws are being made in some places pushes me to think even farther.  Maybe these laws should be expanded.  For example, maybe we should be fined, or arrested for standing idle and not sending money to help starving children in Africa when we can afford it. Maybe we should be fined for not adopting a desperate child who’s being abused. How about for failing to call the cops when we hear a neighbor hurting or being hurt by another family member? What about shopping at a store that we know uses child labor or mistreats its employees?    
There are so many ways of turning away, of failing to be the neighbors we are called to be. There is a song by Pink Floyd (that I won’t play for you) but I do want to share with you the words because I think they are really appropriate for today’s scripture lesson:
Oh the turning away  
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say, Which we won't understand
"Don't accept that what's happening Is just a case of others' suffering
Or you'll find that you're joining in The turning away
Feel the new wind of change On the wings of the night.
No more turning away From the weak and the weary
No more turning away From the coldness inside
Just a world that we all must share It's not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream that there'll be No more turning away?

The Good Samaritan story in the Bible is really about something very simple.  We are called to help those around us, no matter who they are. As an Arab proverb tells us - “To have a good neighbor you must be one.”

So, as I said at the beginning, we’ve all heard this story and mostly this story convicts us.  Where is the good news in this? Well, someone does come along to help the poor man on the side of the road - someone considered imperfect by the standards of the day - a Samaritan, an outcast, a person who didn’t have it right. Sinner saving sinner. The lost helping the lost.  Grace, mercy, coming out when we least expect it. And the Good Samaritan is sometimes us.  Sometimes it is you and sometimes it is me. Other times we are the one hurt on the side of the road. But again, someone does come and help. Together we work together, helping each other, uplifting each other, wrapped in the action of love - God’s love and God’s grace.  This is what the kingdom of heaven looks like. Here on earth, all around. As the words to one of my favorite hymns, “Gather us in” say, “Not in the dark of buildings confining; and not in some heaven light years away, but here in this place a new light is shining. Now is the kingdom. Now is the day.”  Let there be no more turning away.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Different Understanding of Divorce

      I've been in the presence of a number of couples recently who have celebrated big milestones in their marriages: 20 years, 40 years, 50 years, 60 years, and one couple 70 years!  That absolutely is something to celebrate.  It is an amazing accomplishment and worth recognizing.
      However, the other side of this coin is that we talk about divorce as "failure".  We failed to fix our relationship, we failed to stick it out, we made mistakes, sometimes even in the choosing of our partners in the first place, we married wrong, we don't know how to commit, etc, etc.  Maybe for some people this is true.  But more and more, I am seeing that this is, more often that not, a misunderstanding of many (most?) divorces.  Relationships change and people change.  That doesn't mean it was a mistake to pick your partner.  It means that what was once a good choice is no longer a good choice.  There is good in growth, there is good in change, much of the time.  But sometimes that growth, that change, means that you are no longer the best partner for the other, or that they are no longer the best partner for you.  It takes courage and strength to imagine your life other than what it is, to step into something else, to make a decision that changes everything that you are, have been and will be, not only for yourself but for children, often. It also sometimes involves needing to rework one's image of oneself.  No one enters marriage expecting to go through a divorce.  Having to adjust what we believed ourselves to be is hard.  Not that any part of divorce is easy.  It is expensive in terms of finances, but also emotionally, spiritually and in other ways.  It therefore is not an easy choice to make.  Those who choose to walk through the fires of divorce are daring to see beyond that pain to a new and different future. Do some people make this decision selfishly? I'm sure there are a few. But for most of us, for the divorced folk I know, awareness of the childrens' needs, of the impact on so many others was an extremely important part of the decision to divorce.
         It isn't a failure to recognize when something is no longer bringing life but is creating more pain and despair.  It isn't a failing to recognize when something is done, ended, or when something needs to radically change to be best for everyone involved.  It isn't a failing to choose life in a situation that is full of death, loss, and brokenness.  Sometimes even when relationships are difficult they can be healed.  But it can be wisdom to recognize when something is beyond healing, or when that healing has to look like the relationship being different than it was.  Sometimes it is dangerous - dangerous for one physically, emotionally, or spiritually, to stay in a specific marriage, and sometimes it is dangerous to choose to leave as well.  In those cases especially, the courage to say, "I can't stay.  This must change" should be honored and respected rather than criticized as a "failing".
        Perhaps it is not unreasonable to suggest that, for some, instead of a divorce anniversary being a day of sadness and shame, that it be a day of celebration, when a person found the strength to step into something new, to dream of a different possibility, to open themselves to a new phase of their journey.
      Should we continue to celebrate long marriages?  Of course.  But it is not a bad thing to celebrate new beginnings, in the form of endings, either.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Being Shut Down

Many people are shut down by others on a regular basis.  These are people others don't want to hear for many reasons.  Sometimes it is because they speak uncomfortable truths that we don't want to face.  Sometimes it is because they call us on our stuff, stuff we aren't ready to look at or own. Sometimes it is because we don't value what the other person has to say, don't respect the other, or don't believe the other has any right or business weighing in on a particular issue.  Sometime we fear there isn't "enough" and that others will take what we want, feel we deserve, or believe to be "ours" exclusively.  Sometimes we are simply threatened, fearful or angered by some aspect of who they are.  Richard Rohr and Scott Peck both describe (in different ways) "evil" as the projecting of some part of ourselves outward, a piece of ourselves that we cannot deal with, a "shadow" as it were, that we put out there somewhere and then work to destroy.  When we can put our shadow on someone else, or a group of folk, we feel safer somehow...that thing that scares us so much is now out there and something we can actively destroy. The problems with this are obvious: the part of ourselves we can't face is still there, which means we need more and more "other" to shut down.  We are damaging other people because we cannot face parts of our self.  We demonize and villify the other and often cause more people to join us in our crusade against the "evil" other that is in fact nothing other than the parts of ourselves we can't accept.  But people do this.  Far too often, and far too much, people do this.

Sometimes it is individuals we shut down, who rub us wrong or who we again don't like or don't value or don't respect. Other times it is whole groups of people whose voices we shut down.  We are afraid, we are angry, we are hating, and we don't want to hear from "them", whoever that may be, who represents "the other" for us.  So we shut them down with our words, with our looks, with our lack of response, with our gossip, with our meanness, with our privilege, and, more and more in our culture, with our violence.  We've been seeing this a great deal lately.  We demonize African Americans, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ folk, sometimes cops or people of different political or religious beliefs, to name a few.  We attack them because we fear them.  And we fear them because it is easy to not deal with our own stuff but project it out and try to destroy it.  That which we don't understand becomes an easy "blank slate" on which we write our own beliefs, our own agendas, and again, our own shadow side, which we then work to destroy.  Any time we categorize a group of people, rather than looking at each person as the individual they are, we should be highly suspicious of our own motivation.

The affects on a person of being shut down vary, depending on how it is done, who does the shutting down and how connected and affective they are. But the reality is we have seen far too many people shut down permanently, killed, for no good reason at all (is there ever a good reason to shut down someone in this way?).  When it is done by authority figures, by those who are respected, even if that respect is really just fear, then those authority figures often get away with that kind of behavior. The victim is victimized more as a person "at fault", "causing" their own demise.  We see this not just with the killings, but with rape victims, domestic violence victims, victims of any violence - physical, verbal, sexual, emotional, too.  We want the world to be just and fair.  We want those we respect to be exhonerated, even if that means allowing others to be destroyed, and blaming the victims for their own victimization.

The thing is, every time we shut someone else down, we have forgotten that they are our brother or sister.  We have forgotten that we are all one and are all connected at a very basic level.  When we injure other people, we are lessened.  When we hate other people, it is parts of ourselves we are hating. When we fear other people, we are failing to understand them.  When we keep others from having what we have, we all have less.  And often then, we set up an "us and them" dynamic that causes even more hate, even more fear, and even less understanding.

Bottom line: We have to stop killing people.  We have to stop hating people.  We have to stop fearing people. We have to stop shutting one another down. Instead, we have to remember that we are all family to each other and we have to start treating each other as such.  Treating the other in the way they want to be treated.  Listening, caring, working together to make the world a better place. Treating each person not as a member of a group, but as the individual person they are.  No one should be excluded from the table.  We have to find a way to include and invite everyone.  When even one person is left out, we are all lessened.  When even one person is killed part of each of us dies. When even one person is shut down, all our voices are weaker.  When even one person is pushed aside, discounted, devalued, seen as invisible and unimportant and unworthy of our respect, all of us are made less important, less worthy and less whole.

We learn and love and walk this planet together.  Or we fall  - apart and alone.

I realize what I'm saying we need to do is not possible at this moment in time; that just saying we have to stop fear, hate, killing will not change things.  But I also believe that we have a hand in creating the world in which we live.  So for today I will work harder to see who it is that I fail to see, who it is I fail to hear, who it is I fail to offer compassion to.  And I will work harder to choose differently.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Evangelism...the "E" word

1 Peter 2:2-10
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
               I shared this with the quilting group last week but find it appropriate to share it with all of you today, slightly edited so that it’s a little easier to tell.  About 20 years ago, before I was married, long before kids, I received a phone call, “Is this Mrs. Barkley?”  Since I wasn’t married and hadn’t been before, I felt pretty safe in assuming this was a solicitation call.  However, on the slim chance that it was legitimate, I took the safe road and decided to ask, “Is this a solicitation call?”
               The person on the other end responded, “Is this Mrs. Barkley?”
               “Is this a solicitation call?”  I asked again.
               The woman ignored me again and asked, “Is this Mrs. Barkley?”
               To which I said a third time, a little louder since perhaps she just was having trouble hearing, “Is this a solicitation call?”
               To which she answered a fourth time, “Is this Mrs. Barkley?”
               I became completely incensed at this point.  What was she thinking?  Did she really believe that after being that rude to me, calling me at my home, taking up my time, and yet refusing to answer a pretty straight forward question about her identity that I was then going to BUY something from her?  But before I was able to point this out, I gave it one last try and in a very loud voice (I mean, perhaps she was really hard of hearing and simply couldn’t hear the question) I asked again, “IS this a solicitation call??!”  Her final response was to hang up.  End of call.  But not really the end because I was left angry and bewildered.  “What is the matter with people?” I thought.  “Is she just about spreading ill-will?  Cause she certainly did not sell me anything, not that there was any chance she could have.  But she did anger me.  What was the point of all of that?” 
               But after I calmed down, I found myself reflecting on evangelism, or, as is told here in Luke, Jesus’ call to go to the people, share the news that the Kingdom of God is near at hand and bring healing to the stranger.  And the reason my experience made me think of this is that I have encountered evangelists who seem to have the same “spreading of ill-will” agenda.  These are people who come to the door or approach me in public who will not hear the words, “no” or “not interested”.  It doesn’t matter that I explain to them I’m already a believer.  When I tell them I’m a pastor, usually these are folk whose personal beliefs see the frocking of a woman as a sign of her personal damnation.  They are persistent and insistent.  And not without good reason.  After all, they have my immortal soul in mind.  But when I am finally able to end conversations with them, I always find myself thinking that they do more to turn people away from Christ than they do to promote him.
               Gerald Mann tells this story: "The first time I met a Baptist preacher, he asked me about three questions, placed his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Jerry, you’re lost, and that’s all there is to that!” I started attending church regularly. I didn’t know what “lost” meant, but he said it with such gravity that I was certain I was whatever he said I was.  By the spring of my thirteenth year, the Baptists were “hard in prayer for my soul,” as they frequently informed me. An evangelist was coming to town to lead revival services, and according to them, it could well be my last chance to be saved. Such ominous warnings didn’t frighten me. What little I had had to do with God told me that God was not that kind at all.
            "However, I attended the revival anyway, because the evangelist was a former teen-age gang-leader who had once tried to stab my older brother. I was curious to hear and see a person who claimed to have been converted from the seamy side of life.
"The ex-hoodlum-turned-Bible-thumper was something to behold! He was dressed in white and red—white suit with red cuffs and lapels, red and white shoes. Even his Bible was red and white!
His sermon was a blow-by-blow account of his former life on the “wild side.” Graphically, he portrayed scenes of gang fights, heroin sales, and sexual liaisons with wanton sirens. Considering that the wildest thing in our town was playing dominoes at the pool parlor, one can imagine how captivated we teenagers were. This was genuine Mickey Spillane stuff! And in the flesh! We didn’t miss a word.
           "Then he told us of how Jesus had reached into the midst of all that muck and plucked him out of it. I am certain he didn’t intend to, but he made it sound as if Jesus had spoiled a rather exciting life! His message had the import of one of those True Confession magazine stories: “I immersed myself in a world of booze and dope and sex. And boy, was it fun! But I tell you my story only to keep you from making the same fun-filled mistakes!”
"The story was so gripping that I was sorry he had been converted so soon. I wanted to hear a little more!
"Then the evangelist took the microphone and started down the aisle, while the song leader fed out the cord. In a flash, I realized he was heading straight for me. (Later, I learned that someone had “fingered” me as a potential convert.)
"He stopped in front of me and said in a booming voice, “Do you want to go to Hell!” The audience was silent. I didn’t know what to do. I was scared and angry and confused. I bolted from the pew, dashed outside, and ran two blocks before I looked back."

               Is this the God we meet in Jesus?  A God who condemns and attacks anything that sounds like fun?  A God who tries to SCARE people into believing with the threat of hell?  No, I know it isn’t for any of you in here.  And it is because of that, and because, I think, of a lot of the images of hating and hateful Christians that we see in the media, that mainstream Christians avoid evangelism or anything that smacks of that, like the plague.  And yet, still, we are left with these directions from Jesus and his other words in Matthew, “Go make disciples of all nations.”  Well, we know the results of following that. The crusades, the destruction of whole groups of people in the name of “making disciples of the nations.”   And again, this has done more to alienate folk than to bring them to the church on any day.
               But therein lies the problem.  We have allowed those voices of anger, of hate, of destruction of others to be the face of Christianity.  We have allowed that by not putting forward a different image.  Lyle shared last week that LGBTQ folk are leaving the church in droves.  But frankly, it is not just them.  I lived in college in a house church, at what was then called Unitas and later became Westminster House.  20 students lived there at a time, all of us deeply committed to our faith.  But of those folk with whom I worshiped and served and ate and made close friends, the only ones who now attend church are those who have become pastors.  The rest don’t want to be associated with the faith that they see portrayed on TV.  Again, the hatred that comes from people who profess to follow a man who so clearly said again and again and again that it was about love, even for your enemies.  But in order to separate ourselves from that we usually choose to be quiet, to be still, instead of speaking out.  We don’t want to reach out to folk because we respect their decisions and their independence, we tell ourselves.
               But the reality is that God gives us a very different model for what it is to be people of God.  If we are the stones that God uses to build God’s house (as per the 2 Peter passage), or even if we are the stones helping God to build God’s house, we cannot do it alone.  The corner stone, or Christ, is the necessary foundation.  But it is not the whole house.  Jesus is who he is in relationship to us.  As much as we need Christ for our wholeness, for our grounding, for our center, Jesus also needs us and calls us to be the rest of the house.  That is an awesome idea isn’t it?  That God needs us?  And yet it is true.  No matter what our culture tells us about standing independent of others, the reality is that we are a communal creation. We are called into relationships with God and with each other. God created us because God wanted to be in relationship with us.  That is foundational to our theology.  It is the very nature of God is to be in relationship.
But the reality is that people don’t very often wander into churches on their own anymore.  If you are not alarmed by some of the statistics of church decline that I have shared with you before (such as the fact that last year 20 church a day closed in the United States), you should be.  It is anticipated that if we continue at the same rate of decline that we have been moving, that the Church, big C, has only between 10 and 15 more years to exist.  ANY church.  The congregations that are surviving have two big factors in common.  The first is that they have a clear identity, and are not just a generic church.  They stand for something, and they advertise what they stand for.  The second is that their members invite other people to come.  The thing is, if you are excited about something, you will mention it.  If you see a movie you love or have read an incredible book, you will invite others.  So, what programs that we do here excite you?  Our faith and film night, which was created for the purpose of outreach?  The quilting group?  Our midweek service?  Sunday mornings?  The concert series?  The adult study?  Our writer’s group?  Men’s group?  Grief group?  And if there aren’t any programs here that excite you, then the task is to discover what would excite you and to create it.  I am open! The session is open to many ideas!  Remember, YOU are the ministers of this church, this is YOUR church.  And therefore YOUR responsibility to make it a place that excites you.  That does mean you have to connect with people other than church folk. But that, too, is a clear part of our job…making friends and connections with folk outside of these walls. 
               A friend of mine who is now a pastor told me how she came to the church. She was an adult and she had been asked to write an article for the paper about a local congregation.  She said, “When I came in I met the pastor. After our cordial hellos, she described herself as an evangelist with a social justice agenda.  I knew I was neither of those things.  Still, I appreciated her openness.  I certainly had no notion that I would ever fit into a Presbyterian church, but I was curious about this female Presbyterian pastor and I wanted to hear what she had to say, so I stayed for the service.
               “I have no memory of her sermon that day.  What I do remember is the panic that set in when I realized that the Sunday I chose turned out to be a Communion Sunday.  I had not taken part in Communion except for a couple times as a young child.  Yet, when the pastor said the words, “This is God’s table and all are welcome,” I found the courage to stay and partake.  That was an invitation given in a language that I could understand, and it is an invitation that even to this day I cherish.”
               She continued,…”that time of my life was one of major upheavals because my parents were dying three states away and I was trying to finish my degree.  It was also the time when the pastor was opening the sanctuary for prayer Tuesday mornings.  I could drop by on my way to school and just sit in the quiet.  Being able just to sit in the sanctuary, to get to know the pastor as well as a couple of the members was, I think, really instrumental in my involvement in the church.  I felt safe there.  I did not have to know the language, the culture.  I did not have to sign up for anything, I could just be.  I could get off the tour bus.  Sometimes in the quest to be a welcoming church, churches can fail to just let people sit with God.  To just be.  It was also on a Tuesday morning when I found myself crying because I knew I had to return to Texas yet again to deal with my ill parents, and I thought I did not have the strength.  The pastor simply held me in her arms and my tears flowed, and I sobbed.  People know I often cry, but in truth, I seldom sob, and never in the arms of someone I do not know well.”  And finally, “In this church, quite simply, I found love, and it was because of that love that I chose to be baptized.” 
               The Bible doesn’t stop with Luke telling us Jesus asks us to go and heal and teach.  The Bible has other passages as well with which we must measure everything we do.  John’s passage, for example, in which Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep, tells us that loving Jesus looks like caring for one another in really concrete ways, feeding one another, providing for one another – not just spiritually, but practically as well.
               Sometimes and for some people, it may feel easier to preach at people than to feed them.  It may feel easier to talk to someone about faith rather than to risk the financial and emotional resources to be in relationships with people who have little to nothing or who are going through difficult times.  It is definitely easier to be a Sunday Christian than to have to think every minute about how we show in our lives and actions what it means to be a Christian, and whether or not we will be the loving person that might intrigue someone into finding out more about the church of if we will present ourselves in a way that turns out to be someone’s excuse to fail to explore Christianity.  But no one said being a Christian was easy. 
               You all here at Clayton Valley are a special group of people.  You minister to those who enter here with your smiles.  You feed them.  You welcome them.  You sing and make music.  You visit the sick and those grieving. You care for each other and the larger community in hundreds of ways, big and little.  This is truly a wonderful congregation to be a part of.  My wish is that as a congregation we continue to be the hands of feet of Christ both within and outside these walls, that we continue to reach out and make disciples through our love, to continue to listen, value, respect, feed, reach out to the stranger, and to the loveless.  We are God’s ambassadors.  Let us shine God’s light into the dark places and show God’s love by feeding God’s sheep.
A member of a certain church, who previously had been attending services regularly, stopped going.  After a few weeks, the pastor decided to visit him.  It was a chilly evening. The pastor found the man at home alone, sitting before a blazing fire. Guessing the reason for his pastor's visit, the man welcomed him, led him to a comfortable chair near the fireplace and waited. The pastor made himself at home but said nothing.  In the grave silence, he contemplated the dance of the flames around the burning logs.  After some minutes, the pastor took the fire tongs, carefully picked up a brightly burning ember and placed it to one side of the hearth all alone then he sat back in his chair, still silent. The host watched all this in quiet contemplation.  As the one lone ember's flame flickered and diminished, there was a momentary glow and then its fire was no more.  Soon it was cold and dead. Not a word had been spoken since the initial greeting.  The pastor glanced at his watch and realized it was time to leave.  He slowly stood up, picked up the cold, dead ember and placed it back in the middle of the fire.  Immediately it began to glow, once more with the light and warmth of the burning coals around it. As the pastor reached the door to leave, his host said, 'Thank you so much for your visit and especially for the fire-y sermon.  I will be back in church next Sunday'.
               How do we go forward as people following Jesus’ call to go out and connect with folk, heal and tell them God’s Kingdom is near?  How do we teach about Christ?  We do it by following Jesus directions in John.  By feeding Jesus’ sheep, by caring for people, we show God’s love in ways that cannot be ignored.  It is by our actions that we show people the Christ.  It is by our actions that we teach Christian love.  It is by our love that we make disciples of all nations.