Monday, November 28, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - We do not know the hour

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

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


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

What we are called to do ...

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

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

Sunday's Sermon - Stewardship

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Being Brave, a personal reflection

     All of us have life lessons.  I've said this before.  I don't know what your life lessons are but I see my own.  One is that I am called to not judge others.  Everytime I err on this, everytime I have a judgment, something happens that forces me to see and do differently, to overcome it.  Every time. Some of the judgments I've had I find truly shaming now, so it is hard for me to share them with you, but I'll give you one example: I used to judge people who were caught in situations in which they had no idea what their spouses were up to. "How could they be so blind?" I thought. For example, we hear stories of women whose husbands are married to more than one spouse.  The women are unaware that there is another 'wife' out there, mostly because their husbands work involves travel so they just trust and assume when their husband is away that he is on business.  I used to judge that.  Until I found myself in that situation of being completely unaware of things my husband had been doing.  I learned.  Again.  I can't judge others.  I think other people have the same opportunity to learn this lesson, but some choose not to.  Too many people condemn something harshly only to be caught in the act of doing it themselves.  They had a choice at some point: learn not to judge, to have compassion for that which was hard for them to accept in themselves; or move into a fierce and violent denial that not only injured themselves but injured others too. Not all of us learn our lessons. And, as I said, I think we each have different lessons to learn.
       One of my other life lessons, another one that I think others share, too, is the call to be brave.  I read somewhere that being brave does not mean to be without fear.  Being brave, rather, is acting in the face of our fear.  And the truth is we all have different fears, so what it means to be brave will be different for each person. But for me, today and everyday, this is a lesson that is hard and not easy. Because the thing that I fear most (and I realize this may sound shallow to some of you, but it is my fear) is not being liked.  Of course there are people who don't like me.  There are even people whom I believe hate me.  The most evil person I know (and yes, I use that word in this case) is someone who preys on the weaknesses of others. He's done this with others in different ways, found the weaknesses in others and used them to destroy the other. In my case, he saw me coming a mile away and worked hard to discredit me, to make sure I was "not liked" by those under his influence.  I was powerless in the face of his charm and charisma to stop it because he forced those who wanted to be in that shiny light of his to choose between us. He used lies (like another charismatic leader we all know) but because he had this pull, this charismatic attraction, it was easy to believe his lies and harder for those blinded by his light to see truth. You would think that because I survived that, that I could have gotten past my fear of being disliked.  Add to that living through a public scandal and humiliation and experiencing cruelty beyond belief from neighbors and community members and again, you would think that I would have gotten over my fear.  But in fact, those situations only intensified my fear.  Yes, I survived both of those situations, but I did not come away unscathed.  I am all too aware of the damage that other people's dislike can do, especially when it intensifies into hatred and has a goal of the destruction of another attached to it.
        But it is in the face of this fear that I am called to be brave.  I have a prophetic calling: a call to speak out against injustice and unkindness and cruelty.  That looks like standing up for those who are poor, those who are oppressed, those who are silenced and threatened and put down.  I do this, but in a small way.  I say things in sermons and on Facebook and other places, but I limit my audience: not posting much to all of my "friends" (I often leave out the ones who wouldn't agree with what I have to say on certain issues), and I post even less to "public".  I don't want the hate coming my way.  I've been there, done that, am DONE with it.  I use the excuses in my own mind (one I discredit all the time when others use it), "I'm not going to change anybody with something I say on FB" for example. But again, I know that's a BS excuse.  Jesus, my model for what we are called to do and be in the world, does not ever refrain from speaking truth because he believes he won't convince someone else. He speaks truth, knowing he will be killed for it and choosing to do it anyway.
        I hear the call to be brave.  To speak the voice of love towards the loveless, to stand beside and up for those who would be treated badly.  I hear it, I follow it, but I am struggling to follow it in the fuller way I feel God calling me to do.
       I write this in public for two reasons.
       First, I am hoping for support in trying to face my fear.  I am hoping for your encouragement and your strength to enable me to push on when I am scared.  We cannot get support until we let others know where it is needed.  So I am putting out there that this is my fear and my need.
      Second, I am hoping that my sharing this with you will allow you, too, to think about both your life lessons and all of our calls to be brave.  I am hoping that it will motivate you to also be brave, and to be honest with yourselves about what your life lessons might be and how you might learn them with grace, openness, love and trust.  That is my hope, that is my wish for you.
      Peace to you all as we face this day's lessons.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Sermon - for All the Saints/ Pre-election

Psalm 149
Luke 6:20-31

            Today we celebrate All Saints day.  And in that, it is a time of remembering, it is a joint, church-wide celebration of the lives of those who have gone before, a rejoicing that those who have passed are with God, a reminder of the vast gifts their lives have given and passed to us, and, honestly, an invitation to be open once more with our grief at the loss of those we have loved.  But most of all, All Saints Day is a reminder that in God, we have nothing to fear.  Even death has been overcome, our Saints, our loved ones live on.  We celebrate their continued living with God this day.  And we celebrate that as we are called to live bravely, with only love and faith as our shield and fortress, we will follow God’s will most closely when we can let go of our fear. For as Yoda said it, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.  We’ve seen exactly how true that is over the last few months and as we edge towards Tuesday.  This is the most fear driven election I have ever witnessed.  And in that, in that it is a fear driven election, it is also the least Godly that I have ever witnessed. 
            But it is in the midst of this angst that we are experiencing as a country, this fear that we feel as Tuesday approaches, that we are reminded that we have nothing to fear, not only by the declarations of the angels, “Be not afraid!” but by the celebration of All Saints Day itself.  I don’t say this with levity.  I need to be clear about that.  I am not saying it is an easy thing to put aside our fear and choose love.  It isn’t.  It’s the hardest thing in the world to do, especially when it comes to the fear of death.  As part of my job I have had the deep privilege and honor of walking with people in their last weeks and last days.  And it is common for even people of the deepest faith to have fear as they approach the unknown that is death.  We feel that fear from both places: both feeling afraid of our own deaths, but also the place of fearing the loss of those we love.  Last night at the Chromatica concert that took place here, there were two pieces that really “got” to me in the way of moving me to have a hard time not weeping as I listened.  The first was one of the “Children’s Letters to God” in which the child asked what it was like when you die and then said he/she didn’t want to.  In the middle of it was the noise of the question coming from many voices all being raised to God at the same time (or at least that was my interpretation).  And I felt it.  I felt the fear that even our children, perhaps especially our children, have of death.  A fear that is so intense, so real, so DEEP that it influences and guides so many of our decisions.  The second was Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven, which I had never before known was written for his child who had died at the age of four.  Just that realization was beyond me.  I know some of you have lost children.  And I tell you, the fact that you continue on each day shows to me an amazing strength.  I’ve been through a lot, but I do not know how a person walks through the loss of a child.  And the terror of that, the terror of my children dying is overwhelming for me. The terror of my kids being hurt and in particular right now, honestly, of my girls being treated as less than fully human, of being molested, attacked, abused because of their gender terrifies me. I will own that many of my decisions, therefore also come from a fear that stems out of very specific love for very specific people, rather than being based on the love for all people that we are told must be the heart of all we are, including our decisions.
            But again, here we are on All Saints Day.  And we are called to remember that those who pass are with God.  We stand on the angels proclamation to “do not be afraid” again and again.  We lean on scriptures that tell us that the only thing we are called to do: the great commandments we are called to live by are loving God and loving all those we encounter.  ALL those we encounter.  The heart of what I am saying is this: Love is supposed to make our decisions for us, not fear. 
            Today’s passage from Luke reminds us that in the face of all of our loss and grief there is comfort.  We are also reminded that what we believe to be true will be turned on its head.  Once more we are told it is the poor who are rich, the hungry who will be made full, the grieving who will be comforted, and the weeping who will laugh.  When we rest in God, even when we are in pain, even when we are struggling, we will find what we need, we will find the hope, the peace, the laughter, the comfort.  Therefore we do not have to fear doing what God asks us to do: loving others, giving to others, sharing with others, welcoming others.  Because it is in our sharing and giving only that we will find we have enough.  It is in our loving that we will find ourselves loved.  It is in our seeing each other human being as a child of God that we will come to know ourselves as children of God.  We know that nothing stays the same, and that God is the God of change.  We also know that our faith boosts us up and keeps us strong no matter what we are going through, what we are feeling.  God stands with us when we are down, and God strengthens us for the times to come when we are joyful.
Death is scary.  Death creates loss and pain for us.  But this year especially as we look at the election about to take place in two days, as we see a country torn with fear, anger, and hatred, we must, as we look at death, the most feared thing there is, especially, rest in the truth that our faith teaches us we do not have to be afraid.  The bottom line in everything is to choose love over hate, choose hope over fear, and choose compassion over judgment.  We are never called to see others as anything besides our brothers and sisters.  We are called to love even those we consider enemies.  Always.
So on this, All Saints Day, and also “two days before election” day, I have two charges for you. First, be of comfort.  Know that God is with the Saints and that God is with you.  Know that as we rest in God, our fears will be eased, our struggles will be made into something good, and our pain will be transformed into life.
But second, do not vote out of fear, or anger or, worst of all, hate. Do not live out of fear, anger or hate.  If All Saints day is about anything, it is about trusting that as the Saints live on, we, too can live as God calls us to live, with love, with trust, with hope and with compassion. 
I want to share with you two writings. 
The first is a poem by W.H. Auden called “Better Fears”
O God
it is so easy
to be afraid
to be made afraid.

Demagogues of every sort
have always counted on our fears
to scare us into submission.

Politicians and preachers
commissars and evangelists
make people afraid—
afraid of what will happen to them
afraid of death
and therefore of life
afraid of differences

The fearmongers are so successful
because they find in us
such willing subjects.

But the gospel of perfect love
comes to us
to cast out fear—
from our beginning.

Some of us
have never affirmed
our first birth—
have never said 'Good!' to our emergence
'Very good!' to our creation.
Be midwife to our self-respect
and mother to our growth.

Perfect love
will cast out fear
and when You are through with us
we will be fearless.
in the mean time
at least help us
to move from petty fears
to better ones;
from fears of hell
to admissions of joylessness;
from quaking before opinions and modes and fashions
to fearing
loss of our integrity
and untruth in our very souls.

We would say 'Bravo!'
our birth
our re-birth
Your will that created us
our choice to be
and to become.


Let go of fear.  Remember that the thing that is most feared, death, ends with life.  God is with us, making those we have loved, those we love still, into the Saints that remind us of the value of living but also the value of remembering what they have been, what they have given us, who we are called to be.
This second poem I want to share with you is called “life Unbroken”. It was written by Harry Scott-Holland in 1910.
Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room. 
Nothing has happened.

Everything remains exactly as it was.
I am I, and you are you,
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.

Call me by the old familiar name.
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it.

Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same as it ever was.
There is absolute and unbroken continuity.
What is this death but a negligible accident?

Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you, for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just round the corner.

All is well.
Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

We can feel safe in the assurance that our loved ones still exist, that they are with God, that our love for them still matters, and their love for us is endless.  We honor the Saints by living in the love God calls us to extend to all creation.  Amen.