Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Unity - for Ecumenical service

A man was walking on a bridge one day when he was a woman about to jump off.  He immediately ran over and said, “Stop!  Don’t do it!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” she replied.
“Well, there is so much to live for.  Are you a person of faith?”
“Yes,” she answered.
“Well, are you Christian?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“So am I!  Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Protestant,” she said.
“Well, me, too!” he responded.  “What denomination?”
“Oh, I’m Presbyterian” she said.
“Well, how wonderful!  So am I!  Are you a member of the PCUSA or Presbyterian church of the Americas or...?”
By this time the woman really was beginning to smile again as she thought in amazement of all their similarities and the providence of having met this man at this time.  She replied therefore to his question with enthusiasm, “I’m a member of the PCUSA.”
The man looked horrified for a moment, then yelled “You heretic!” and pushed her off the bridge.
               15 years ago I attended a General Assembly which is when our National Presbyterian Church meets every couple years to work through issues and make decisions.  That particular year was another banner year for infighting over issues.  I went to General Assembly and spent most of my time in the chapel praying.  The whole time I was there, there was only one other person who came into the chapel to pray, and she, too, came daily.  The first day we met there we fell into discussion and it became very clear that we were on opposite sides of pretty much any theological debate and in particular those many issues that were on the floor of GA that particular year.  For the first several days this successfully isolated us from each other.  We no longer talked, no longer made eye contact.  But rather we sat on our opposite sides of the chapel each praying earnestly for the other persons’ enlightenment and even redemption.  It would have been easy for me to start seeing her as “the enemy” and as a prime example of a reason why I would have been perfectly fine with our church splitting over some of these issues.  By the last day it was obvious that neither of us had been changed in our stances or opinions by the other person’s prayers. 
               And yet, at the same time, both of us were changed.  Because, by the last day, we sat together and as were both about to leave the chapel to attend the GA session that would decide some of the issues we disagreed so strongly about, we decided instead to spend the time praying out loud together, each respectfully and earnestly caring for one another and for the whole General Assembly as sisters and brothers in faith.  Afterwards we spent some time talking, getting to know one another more personally, hearing each other’s stories.  We came to truly love each other, and in so doing, were able to have more compassion for all of those on the other sides of these issues.  She could no longer be “the enemy”.  She was family, and not someone I could or wanted to push out of “my” church.

               Unity is elusive at this point in time.  We are a country divided, not only by our politics, but by every wall that we can possibly dream up.  We are separated from each other by differing faith beliefs, by differing appearance, by different heritage, by different genders and sexual orientations.  But under all of that what separates us is fear: fear of what is other, fear of what is different; but even more, fear that we won’t have enough, that there won’t BE enough for all of us and that I therefore have to take what I feel I deserve, and keep it from others. Behind the fear is lack of understanding and compassion, lack of recognition that we are all connected, and that the other is just another person on the journey, like us. But God has given this world ENOUGH.  There is enough.  And we are called not to fear one another but to love one another.
Jesus is clear about this: “In everything you do, treat others exactly as you would have them treat you” (Matthew 7:12), as well as “Whatever you do to others, you do to me” (Matthew 25:40), and John 17:20-23: I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. ...I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—  I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.”
As long as we fear each other and build walls between us we will not be able to be in complete Unity as Christ calls us to be.

The thing is, everything we do affects the next person which affects the next person.  We are all connected, and with all of our different journeys and experiences and stories, the bigger story, the one in God’s mind is just ONE.  One story of which we are apart.  A circle that has no beginning and no end but is connected and united.  When we remember that, there is no division.  And we can live as Christ called us to live.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Sermon - Fishing for People

Isaiah 9:1-4
1st Cor. 1:10-18
Matt. 4:12-23

Two people were talking about fishing. One said to the other, "I am NEVER going to take my son fishing with me, ever again!"

"That bad, huh?"

"He did everything wrong! He did everything wrong! He talked too much, made the boat rock constantly, tried to stand up in the boat, baited the hook wrong, used the wrong lures and WORST of all he caught more fish than me!"

What do we imagine when we think of the disciples fishing before Jesus called them?  What do you think of when you think of fishing?  When we go fishing, it is to be a relaxing time of sitting, thinking, maybe talking with a couple close friends.  It is usually not too strenuous and it is enjoyable, a “get away”.  But the reality of fishing as a livelihood is very, very different.  Fishing was extremely unpredictable work, and hard, work.  It was also very dangerous as storms could arise, especially in those days before we had satellite weather systems, with very little warning.  If any of you have read Ernest Hemingway’s book, The Old Man and the Sea, you’ve had a glimpse of just how deadly and dangerous fishing really can be.  While this portrays fishing in a different part of the world than in our biblical story, we none the less gain from this story a picture of what a fisherman’s life can really be like.  The story opens with the old man, Santiago, who is a professional fisherman, having gone 84 days without catching a fish.  He lives on the fish that he catches and so to go 84 days, or nearly three months, without having caught anything is very serious and very scary.  It is so scary that the parents of the boy who has been apprenticed to Santiago refuse to let their son work with him any longer, believing him to be bad luck.  The rest of the story involves Santiago’s struggle with a single fish, a marlin.  He struggles day and night with the Marlin for over three days.  Much of his fishing equipment is destroyed in the struggle.  When the fish finally dies, sharks come and eat every useful piece of the marlin, leaving Santiago with nothing but the skeleton, head and tail.  While this is a story, it is also an accurate portrayal of some of the challenges that fishermen face.  And while the struggles of those in the Biblical stories would be different, for one thing, it was a different type of fishing, the fact remains that the lives of fisher-folk are extremely difficult, and extremely dangerous.
It is to people who lived this dangerous, day-to-day subsistence living that Jesus came.  It is to these hardworking, courageous folk that Jesus said, “come with me and I will make you fishers of people.”  They are being asked to leave a very difficult existence.  But what are they being asked to do instead?  Is it easier, do we suppose, to fish for people than to fish for fish?
Matthew begins today’s passage by referring to the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali.  These were cities that had suffered a great deal.  Jesus begins his preaching ministry in a place where the need is greatest, where there is deep pain.  Matthew then continues by quoting the passage we read today from Isaiah.  While he only quotes the beginning of the passage, the part that proclaims the light that comes into the great darkness, the rest of the passage from Isaiah offers an even more clear example of how that light might shine.  It continues, as we read in today’s passage from Isaiah, by reminding the people that Gideon defeated the hordes of Midian and broke their domination over Israel with a very small army.  God had told Gideon to send back most of his troops so that God might show that with a very small group, with a very few faithful people, God was yet powerful enough to defeat great armies and to overcome oppression.   Matthew begins to quote this passage from Isaiah that his readers would have known well, “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light”.  The readers of the time would have known how this passage in Isaiah continues by talking about the day that Midian was defeated by this small group of God’s people.  Oppression had been halted by these few for the Israelities.  By quoting this passage, Matthew is laying out right away that Jesus will succeed, that God’s people will see the light in this time of great darkness, even against all odds, and even with just a very few faithful people.  But he is also assuring them in no uncertain terms that the work will be hard, will be a challenge against all odds, will lead to crucifixion before it leads to resurrection and life.
This is the work of fishing for people into which Jesus invited those who became his disciples.  This is the difficult road to which they have been called.
We, too, are invited to be part of this journey.  To lay aside our focus on the hard work of surviving, and instead enter into the hard work of doing God’s will, defeating oppression, bringing people to a deeper sense of God’s presence and God’s light, fishing for people, or rather, being a light in the darkness of the lives around us, bringing light and hope to all we encounter.
But as we know it can be very difficult to continue to shine that light when the darkness is strong, and when it feels like we are not getting anywhere by shining the light.  I mentioned a couple weeks ago the 12 step wisdom of the saying “act as if”.  This means that even when it is hard to see the good that is coming out of the work we do for God, we have to keep acting as if it is doing good.  We have to keep acting as if we believe even when we don’t have the faith.  Being a light in the darkness takes practice, and it often takes hindsight to see that we have successfully been that light in the darkness. The call to “act as if” encourages us to keep on keeping on, to keep on reaching out to people in love, to keep on embodying the good news, even when we don’t feel like it, even when we don’t see that it is doing any good, even when it feels really hard.
        How this actually manifests in terms of AA is that people who sponsor other people, who act as support folk for other people, have a much higher success rate in any of the 12 step programs than people who feel that they “have to get themselves together first” before they can help others.
        A while back our family went to visit the National Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati.   While I was there I was struck with the amazing faithfulness of those people who participated, despite the incredible dangers, in the underground railroad, in the rescuing of people who had been enslaved, despite the fact that they had many around them disagreeing with them, despite the fact that their own lives were threatened by these actions as well.  They took their faith, a faith that calls us to care for the oppressed and to lift up the down trodden, to love those others use and abuse and reject – they took all of that very, very seriously, as we, too are called to do.  At times I’m sure they struggled, wondering what they were risking everything for. There were always more slaves coming to the United States.  It must have felt like there would always be more to help than they could possibly handle, and that the danger was increasingly large for those who chose to be part of helping.  But they chose to be a light in the darkness, even when the darkness was so very intense that it must have seemed light would never again shine.  And they became a part of changing the situation in the United States permanently with regards to slavery.  It took time, but the light did shine; through their work, they were able to fish for people and change the way we look at slavery.
        But we can make a difference on a much smaller scale as well.
        When we lived in Ohio, my kids and I lived about a half mile from church, as we do now, and we walked to church as much as we could. At one point during our time there, my kids began the practice of picking up any garbage they found on their way, so after a while we would walk equipped with bags in which they could put the garbage. While I was very proud of them for taking on this particular endeavor, I have to admit that the cynical part of me did not participate in this event with much enthusiasm. The garbage was dirty, the kids would end up dirty, much of the garbage really reflected the seedier or less appealing parts of human behavior (cigarette butts, beer cans, and sometimes even nastier objects), and I really found myself wondering WHAT was the point of picking up all of that when the next day there would undoubtedly be still more garbage that others expected someone else to clean up for them. But the kids chose to take on this particular activity without any suggestion on my part, and I found myself eventually reflecting on the story of the starfish:
      Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work. One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up. As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean. He came closer still and called out "Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?"
      The young man paused, looked up, and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean."
      "I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" asked the somewhat startled wise man.
      To this, the young man replied, "The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll die."
      Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, "But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!"
        At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean.   As it met the water, he said, "It made a difference for that starfish."
        My kids may not have been saving the world, and yes, there would always be more garbage the next day. But they were making that one place on the walk to church a little more beautiful, a little more pleasant. They were letting the sun shine on a few more blades of grass that were no longer covered by the litter, they were feeling that they could do something to contribute in this world, and they were enjoying doing it! What more could I ask?
       I know in this point of time in our history there is a great deal of darkness.  There is so much anger and hatred and violence especially being aimed at the “least of these” – at the people that society rejects, at the kind of people Jesus especially worked hard to embrace.  Interestingly many are not that different.  Jesus embraced the Samaritans – who were people of a similar religious ancestry but came out in a different place theologically.  Others rejected them as evil, as wrong.  But Jesus embraced them and included them.  Jesus embraced women, who were also rejected, seen as property, objects – belonging to their men.  Jesus embraced the poor and the disabled, healing them and not blaming them for their own problems.  He embraced the Syrophoenicians: again, people from different races, ethnicities, backgrounds. And he calls us to do the same.  To stand with them and to stand for them.
When Jasmyn was about 2 years old, my little messenger from God one day proclaimed to me, “We are God’s car.”  While that may sound funny, I think it is actually very insightful.  We are God’s car.  We carry around the Spirit of God, we do the work of God, we transport God’s love and light to those around us.
         The work of fishing for people, or bringing light to the people, light into the darkest places of life and of humanity, is not easy.  But when we reach out, when we shine our light, even when it is hard, we are assured that light will come back to us and shine for us as well.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Sunday's Sermon - Let it be So For Now

Isaiah 49:1-7
John 1:29-42
Matthew 3:13-17

               Jesus, the Human One, the Christ, the Lord, is asking to be baptized by John who recognizes that he is not worthy to do this.  Have you ever served someone, given something to someone, been asked to be part of introducing someone, or in some other way been invited into the close company of someone whom you feel is your superior?  Have you ever been in the presence of someone around whom you feel or have felt small, inferior or unworthy?
               About 12 years ago, Father Elias Chacour came to my house for lunch.  Father Chacour is the Archbishop of Israel.  He has several books out, which I am happy to lend out, about his life and how he was led finally to begin a school in the heartland of Israel for the purpose of crossing the walls, the boundaries that so strongly divide the middle East based on ethnic, religious, cultural and political differences.  His school, which teaches children from preschool age through college has teachers who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Drew.  The students also come from all of these different religious and cultural backgrounds, and his school not only focuses on academic excellence but also challenges people from these different life views to find ways to talk about their differences and to live together in peace and cooperation.  For this reason, Father Chacour has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and he is a man who, when he opens his mouth, captures the full attention of anyone in the room with him who cannot help but listen and be moved by his faith, his love, his commitment to justice, his ability to forgive the tragedies and injustices that he and his family have endured living in that area, and his unbelievable strength, motivation and ability to bring peace, understanding and love to any situation of conflict and even deep animosity. 
               Twelve years ago he was in the United States raising awareness, support and money for his school and his peace work, and it happened that through various connections Father Chacour came to my house to meet my family, my two kids (at that time), and to have lunch with us.  I found myself feeling, in anticipation of this event, deeply anxious because it was clear to me that I was not worthy to have this man in my house.  When he came, put my one year old son on his lap and blessed him with his tears, his hugs and his prayers, I myself was moved to tears of gratitude and an awareness that it was not just Jonah who was being blessed but all of us in that room.  Here was truly a holy man, who was sitting with me and my family, allowing us to feed him, and I felt completely out of my depth.  I remember this event and don’t feel that I’m even deserving of his remembering me or my children.  And then I read today’s story, and I have no doubt, NO DOUBT, that John’s comment to Jesus was a statement of that same feeling, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" 
               But Jesus’ response is the same, I think, that God says to us today.  Jesus says, “Let it be so for now: for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” 
               We are called to serve and follow God.  And that takes us into tasks that we may not feel worthy, ever, to perform.  I want to tell you a secret that I hope will not get me into trouble.  As you may imagine, I talk to other pastors.  And one of the common feelings, common comments, is that we all feel at times like “fakes”, especially when it comes to serving communion, marrying people, burying people and baptizing people.  Who are we, who are we, that we are given the privilege to bless these key times in another person’s life?  That we are called to be present with people at these most important transitions and spiritual events in another’s life?  Who are we to serve the Lord’s supper?  Who are we to follow in Jesus’ steps and serve you this meal?  Who are we to proclaim to you on Jesus’ behalf with water that you are loved and chosen by God, and given the chance for new birth through baptism?  Who are we to stand in that place?  And all of us pastors, if we have any sense at all of our own fallibility, our own humanity, our own limits, all of us at one point or another have felt like we are fakes.  That we are simply not deserving to be given these privileges in this way.  It is a gift beyond all others to serve you communion, to baptize your children and sometimes yourselves, to marry you and to be with you when your loved ones have passed, to visit with you in the hospital, to walk your journeys with you. 
               It’s not just being a pastor, though.  With David’s permission, I want to talk to you about his response to becoming a Deacon.  He was having a hard time emotionally holding it together on the day that he was ordained as a deacon.  It was a huge deal to him to be able to serve the church in this way.  And frankly, it should be.  It should be for every one of us called into the service of God, as we all are.  Who are we, that God, GOD loves us so much, so very very much that not only did this God come to be with us as one of us, but God calls us into service, into serving God-self and God’s people with love and compassion and care?
               Jesus is not here anymore to love the least of these. God isn’t here enfleshed at this point in time to bring justice, love kindness and heal and serve one another.  Jesus isn’t here to feed us and to baptize us and to marry us.  So we have to do it.  We are called to do this.  So we have to listen, even as John did, to Jesus’ words, ““Let it be so for now: for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” 
               The call is there for you too.  As Isaiah wrote, “I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”  We may not feel we are up to doing this, but we are called by our baptisms to live in fullness and wholeness and completeness…to do that which God can only do through us until God is here again. 
               This has come up in conversations with several of you at other times, but I want to say more about this here.  When I say we should feel the amazing honor it is to do God’s work, I am not saying that we should believe ourselves to be horrible sinful people who deserve nothing but death.  I don’t believe that.  God made us good and I believe that almost all people are trying to be the best they can be.  I also believe God doesn’t just love us in spite of who we are but because of who we are.  I don’t, however, believe that there is an opposing or black and white choice here between either thinking ourselves to be nothing or thinking of ourselves so highly that there is never a sense of awe at the tasks we’ve been given.  I also don’t believe that having wonder about what we’ve been called to do has to include a sense of shame or guilt.  But I do think humility, or humbleness, is an important part of what we are called to be and do.  Walking humbly with God means remembering that all we are and all we have are gifts from God.  Therefore, we are called to be deeply in awe and grateful that we are created to be God’s children, created to follow a call to love one another, created to serve in the many wondrous ways we are called to do that; with our talents, with our resources, with all of who we are.  

As we renew our baptisms today, on this baptism Sunday, I invite you to take into your heart that memory that God has chosen YOU, and that in choosing you and loving you, God is also calling you to do that which we may feel unworthy to do, but which is awe inspiring regardless….to stand up for justice, to open eyes, to bring God’s love to a world that is sometimes so lacking in compassion.  God loves you, and God calls you therefore to do this for now… ”let it be so for now” until the time when we can do it together with God, face to face.  Amen.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Different Kind of Grief

I've been thinking lately about the very different kinds of grieving that people do.  We tend to lump all grief together, we identify stages and experiences that people go through, no matter what kind of grieving they are doing, and while we "rank" grief (death of a spouse is worse, for example, in our minds than death of a acquaintance or perhaps a pet), that ranking shows in many ways how little we understand about grief.

Each person grieves differently, and each loss for each person is experienced differently.  Yes, there are some similarities: most people experience some form of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (others identify different stages which can include guilt, pain, loneliness, reconstruction and hope in addition to the others mentioned).  Most people revisit other times of grief, other losses, as they go through whatever current loss they are facing. For most, the order of these feelings and stages varies and there is a bit of "cycling" where you may pass to one stage then back to one you've experienced before then onto another and back again.  This can happen rapidly or slowly.  Sometimes, regardless of the kind of loss, people can get stuck, mostly when they are unwilling or unable to actually feel all the feelings that arise with a particular loss, or when the loss continues to cause other problems for them.

But regardless of these similarities, there are also so many differences.  I've been thinking in particular about the difference between a death and a 'break up' of any kind of relationship, be it friendship, a schism in a family or a partnership.  The stage names may be similar, but they look very different.  For example, the "bargaining and denial" stages after a death usually don't last too terribly long because the reality is you can't bring someone back.  Once they are gone, they are gone.  But after the ending of a relationship where both people are still alive, the denial and bargaining can go on for years.  We've all heard of people who still hold a torch for their exes years and sometimes even decades after the relationship has ended. I find that within those stages there are also different aspects than perhaps occur after someone has died.  One sub-stage is a vilifying of the other, which may not always happen but often does.  In this aspect or sub-stage of denial, the end of the relationship occurred because the other is just wrong, evil, messed up.  We deny our own part in the ending because we can't face it.  We exaggerate the others' part in the ending because it hurts too much to think we would be "left" or that the relationship would fail because of anything other than our partner or friend or family member just being an awful human being.  Another aspect which combines the denial and bargaining stages is a continual hope that somehow things will be resolved or that reconciliation of some kind will be possible, especially if things ended with animosity.  Most of us don't like the idea that someone out there hates us, or feels negatively about us.  And I think most of us would wish for that to resolve, for the other to see through whatever our issues and behaviors have been and to desire healing and good will in the end.  Even when we know this is an impossibility, even when we know it is not best for either of us, even when our smartest, most mature selves would balk against any renewed interaction that might look like the potential for reconciliation because we know it would lead to other problems, be unhealthy, or cause more damage, we still hope for it in our hearts as part of our grieving process.

The point of all this?  While it has been a huge step forward that we now recognize that grief is a process that takes time and that there are different and normal stages that most people experience through grief, we still have a ways to go in understanding how every grief is different.  While models of grieving initially are helpful so that we have a framework for understanding grief as a natural and healthy process, failing to see each grief as the unique experience that it is can damage our ability to be truly empathetic with what another person is feeling.  Each grief is its own.  Each loss will be handled and experienced differently by each person.  Trying to box a person into a particular stage, and scheduling out how long or in what way that stage should be "mastered" won't help. The more we can simply be with one another through whatever the other is experiencing, the more we can support each other in moving through grief. The worst thing we can do is to tell someone else to get over it, or to feel something other than what they are feeling in the moment. The best we can do is allow another to go deeper into whatever the feelings are so that they may emerge on the other side.  That means we have to let go of our preconceived ideas about what each grief should look like. There just isn't a right way to grieve.  And there certainly isn't a map through the grief process.  There isn't a "one size fits all" way to walk through our losses.  I say it again: each grief is unique and the process through each loss will therefore be unique.  There isn't a right or wrong, and there isn't even a "better" or "worse" way through.  It will be what it will be.  And the best we can do is hold hands as we walk our journeys.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Sunday's Sermon - spreading the light

Genesis 1:1-5
Matthew 2:1-12
Mark 1:4-11
John 2:1-11

I’ve been thinking about the passing of William Christopher, the man who played Father Mulcahy on MASH.  And I was reflecting on two scenes in MASH in which he played a very central role.  In the first scene, he ends up acting as nurse for a surgery Hawkeye is doing because there just aren’t enough personnel available. In the middle of the operation, Father Mulcahy closes his eyes and begins to pray for the healing of the patient when Hawkeye suddenly yells at him “retraction!” and so he does what Hawkeye says and doesn’t finish the prayer.  Hawkeye apologizes but Father Mulcahy’s response is, “Well, God knew what I meant anyway.”  Which was more important?  Which of his two actions were more Godly?  Helping with the surgery or praying?
I want you to think about that while I share with you another scene from a different episode.  Father Mulcahy is giving a boy laid out on a stretcher with a toe-tag on his big toe his last rites.  The Father is praying over him when he thinks he sees a sudden movement of the boy’s toe.  He looks up and sees a single tear falling from the boys closed eyelid and realizes the boy with the toe tag is NOT in fact dead.  As a result of seeing this, he is able to call for a doctor’s help and the boy’s life is saved.  Still, I ask you, which was more important: the Father blessing the boy and giving him last rites?  Or his recognizing that the boy was still alive?
I invite you to think about that as we reflect for a few minutes on Epiphany.  How many of you remember what the word “Epiphany” means?  The word “Epiphany” means “manifestation”.  For us in the church, Epiphany is the Manifestation of Jesus, or the marking of God’s manifestation in Jesus: the pronouncement and revealing of who Jesus is.  There are three events that we consider “Epiphanal” in the scriptures.  Do you know what these are?
The three incidents are: the visit of the magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the miracle of turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  Before 1969 all three of these Scriptures were heard on successive Sundays. All three stories were considered to form a unit because they progressively reveal first the identity of Jesus (from the visit of the Magi who proclaim him to be the Messiah), second, the authority of Jesus (the Spirit descending and the voice declaring that Jesus was God’s son with whom God was pleased) and finally the power of Jesus (through his miracle of turning the water into wine). These three events also show Jesus’ Divinity as recognized or declared first by the Magi (those considered wise), second by God (the Spirit), and third by those around Jesus (who experienced the water becoming wine).
            Now, however, instead of having three weeks of epiphany which successively and progressively focus on these three events, we usually have the Magi and the Baptism stories read either together (like today), on successive Sundays, or only one of the two stories is read each year.  Additionally, the third story, the story of the wedding at Cana is only in our lectionary every third year.  Still all three are considered Epiphany, all three are important to our faith. 
           All three involve some form of communication with God, but the primary manifestation, as seen in all three of these events, of the Divine in Jesus is through action.  The Magi travel, following the star to worship the Christ and pay him homage.  The Spirit descends on Jesus after Jesus takes the action of seeking baptism.  And Jesus, himself, physically changes the water into wine.  The manifestations of the Christ – of God’s presence, authority and power in Jesus – all happen through these actions. These aren’t actions absent of prayer or absent of connection to God, but they are action none the less.  Faith is about doing.  You are how you act, which shows how you really believe, what really matters to you, what is really important and central to you. 
About 13 years ago I was having computer trouble and a friend recommended a computer expert to fix it.  He particularly recommended this man because he was a Christian computer technician.  The computer expert, after looking at the computer in my home for awhile, said that he would need to do a full system re-format.  He took my computer and discs of all my programs that he would need to re-load onto the computer to his home office.  When he returned the computer, it was obvious within the first hour or so that he had not fixed the problem and that the computer was as messed up as before.  I ended up having to buy a new computer.  When I did so and went to load on my programs, I noticed that one program had never been returned from the computer expert.  Ironically it was my Bible software.  He was a man of faith, so I was told, yet he had “stolen” my bible software.
Matthew 21: 28-31 reads:  28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
31 (Jesus continued…)“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

Saying that we have faith is not the same as acting like Jesus calls us to act – acting with love, acting with grace, living out that faith.  We, too, are called to manifest God’s presence – to make it known to others, to shine the light of the Christ into the lives of others – to follow in the footsteps of the Christ by physically manifesting the presence of Christ.  We do this in many ways.  But paying attention, like the Father in the MASH episodes, helping provide care when called on to do so, allowing ourselves to be called into action and responding to that call – these are the ways we manifest God’s presence.  Our faith doesn’t impress others, doesn’t touch others, doesn’t shine the light into their lives, unless it is manifest in the way we live our lives and live that out. 
Again, I’m not saying that the prayer part isn’t important.  Prayer is central.  It grounds us, it makes us into the people who can do the action.  Father Elias Chacour, archbishop of Israel said this: “Vision without action is just a daydream, but action without vision is a nightmare.”   I would change that, “to action without prayer is a nightmare.”  We can’t rely on our own desires or our own impulses to guide us into being the faithful people we are called to be, to lead us to do what’s “right” in God’s eyes.  We have to be guided by God and prayer, study, meditation, time with God allows us to hear, and to be centered in our relationship with God.
Still, people know us by the way we behave.  “They will know we are Christians by our love”.  So how do we behave?  You have probably all heard the story:  A driver did the right thing, stopping at the crosswalk even though he could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection. The tailgating woman behind him went ballistic, pounding on her horn and screaming in frustration as she missed her chance to drive through the intersection with him. Still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the face of a very serious police officer.
The officer ordered her to exit her car with her hands up. He took her to the police station where she was searched, fingerprinted, photographed and placed in a cell. After a couple of hours, a policeman approached the cell and opened the door. She was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with her personal effects.
He said, "I'm awfully sorry for this mistake. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping the guy off in front of you, and cussing a blue streak at him. I noticed the ‘Choose Life’ license plate holder, the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bumper sticker, the ‘Follow me to Sunday School’ bumper sticker and the chrome plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk. Naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car."
            I think about AA and other 12 step groups.  They have a saying which is “act as if.” The idea behind it is that we grow into being who we want to be by doing the behaviors of the ones we want to be.  We grow into being the kind of Christians we are called to be by practicing doing it.  This applies to any Christian actions including praying.  None of us are going to have it right from day one.  We have to just DO it.  It is not just our thoughts or our prayers but our actions make a difference in how people feel and if and how people heal.  AA is a doing, not just a thinking.  One of the proofs of that is that those who sponsor others are much more likely to stay sober themselves.  You have to give help in order to get helped.  We have to live our faith out in order to truly and fully experience belief and the grace that is offered to us.  We grasp and experience grace by living into it.

            Epiphany, the manifestation of God’s presence in Jesus – it is grounded in relationship with God, but it is experienced through action.  For us, too – we spread God’s light by being grounded in prayer – and by living out that faith through action.  Amen.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Shaming "Humor"

          I've been thinking about teasing lately as I heard my kids interacting while on winter break. We were in the car a great deal and that meant that there was a lot of time for them to just be together and time for me to overhear their interactions.  My son has recently taken to what I call "mean" teasing... saying nasty things to people and then saying, "but I was only kidding!" When confronted on this, he pointed out that this is pervasive in our media: sitcoms and even comedians mostly specialize in this kind of nasty joking.  And we do tend to find it funny.  That's why sitcoms are so popular.  That's why our comedians make such big bucks. Some of our best known actors as well as our most popular programs specialize in humor that hurts.  To put it more positively, they speak truth to us in a humorous way that lets us hear and understand it at different, and often deeper, levels when it causes us to laugh. I get it.  I understand it.  And I also see and experience personally how devastating that kind of humor can be.  None of us found it funny when my son was spewing potentially true but definitely hurtful comments at my daughters.  Did it cause them to pause and look at their own behaviors with the possibility of change?  I don't think so.  It was just hurtful, and mostly untrue.

          I'm not saying there isn't a place for this kind of humor.  Again, I think our satire and other public forms of pointing out the hypocrisy in our country, in our behaviors as a people, in our way of life can be very enlightening. When comedy is used that truly brings us to laugh in a full and deep way at ourselves, at the ways in which we are falsely seeing ourselves or painting ourselves, when it is used to point out, again, our hypocrisies, it can really help us to see.

          But when it comes to personally shaming the real, specific, individual people around us with "humor", I find this to be not only hurtful but deeply destructive.  I had a friend for a brief period of time some years ago who used this kind of humor.  We lost touch with each other, but there came a point when the possibility of renewing the friendship arose.  I will tell you honestly, the only things I can remember about the friendship are the shaming, making-others-laugh-by-humiliating-me comments that he made.  That's it.  I remember every single one of those numerous hurtful comments, but I can't remember anything else about the friendship and struggle to remember why we became friends in the first place. Were there grains of truth in his teasing?  Yes.  But they were just that - grains.  They were not pointing out to me some deep and unseen flaw that I needed to work on. He took little errors in my speech patterns and in things I had shared with him in confidence and blew them up into "Look how ridiculous this human being is" taunting and teasing.  I didn't grow from this.  And while those around us enjoyed a good laugh at my expense, I don't think anyone else was made a better, more insightful or more aware human being because of his behavior either.  I don't know what inspired those comments except that he must have felt I (who struggle already with self-esteem issues) somehow needed to be taken down a peg.  Or maybe he needed to boost himself up; after all, it does feel good to have others laugh at our jokes, and putting someone else down can sometimes feel like we are then raised up.  But I also wonder how others remember him in the end. Do they think of him as funny, or as mean?  Do they think of him as clever, or as a bully?  Do they see him as a good and supportive friend or as someone who takes the opportunities of closeness to be cruel to those he supposedly cares for?

       I would challenge all of us to try to find humor less in things that are hurtful towards others and more in the silliness of all life.  Laughing is good for us, it is healthy for us, it is deeply healing.  But, like most beautiful and good things it can be used for evil and harm as well as for building up and making whole.  Being kind is so important.  It becomes more important as kindness becomes more elusive in the general population.  Every opportunity to be nice to one another should be grabbed by the horns.  Every chance we have to build each other up rather than tear each other down should be taken.  Every interaction with others can be a chance to spread love, good will, and grace.  I want my legacy to be one of helping others to be the best and most whole people they can be.  I don't want it to be one of diminishing others.  I would wish the same for you as well.

        And if there is something you want to confront in someone else, try to be more direct and loving about it rather than using your irritation as an opportunity to humiliate them.  If you want to use humor, use yourself as the object rather than someone else. Try not to participate when others are being shamed and humiliated.  I know it can be hard to stand up to bullies, but letting them destroy others should not an option.

          It's not hard to be gentle with those around us.  It doesn't take that much effort to be kind.  Laugh and love, but not at the expense of one another.  For we are all sisters and brothers to each other: family, whose call it is to build up, rather than tear down.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Sunday's Sermon - A New Thing

A New Thing
Revelation 21:1-6
Matthew 25: 31-46
New Year’s day, 1/1/17

I saw a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that seemed very apropos for New Year's: Cartoon

               Will this year be different?   I saw a meme that said "The mark of an effective church is not how many people come but how many live differently as a result of having been there."  Does our church, or more importantly, does our faith move us to live differently?  

               Moving to a slightly different place with this:  There are many ways to pray and many people pray in different ways.  But one thing I’ve been thinking about is that there is a difference between prayers that focus solely on ourselves and our needs and wants and prayers that are really about what God calls us to care about.  Both are important, so I’m not telling you that you should only pray for other people, or that you should only pray prayers of gratitude.  Again, all our thoughts, feelings, concerns are important to share with God.  But as we grow in our faith, I think more of our prayers become for and about others.  And as we continue to grow in our faith, our prayers expand to being more about those we don’t even know.  I want to give one specific example. There is a subtle difference between loving God for our own happiness and loving God because we simply and truly love God.  “God help me to find what it is you are calling me to do,” is really a question about me.  It is a question that invokes God, but it is still about me.  “God, how can I serve you?  Where would it be most helpful to you for me to be and what would serve you and your people and your world the most for me to do in that place?” is slightly but profoundly different.  That difference, between turning to God to make our lives whole, and turning to God so that we might serve God and help God make the world whole, that is the difference between asking God to be with us and to follow us in our journeys, and instead choosing to follow God and be with God in the journey God wants for us to have.  I know this is again, a very subtle difference.  But the difference is important. 
The genre of music called “Praise music” which is Christian Rock and usually played at more contemporary services, especially ones devoted to younger folk: youth and younger adults, is a relatively (in the big scheme of things) new kind of music.  As a result, it is often theologically shallow.  It doesn’t mean I don’t love it.  I do love it.  But most praise music is asking God to help us, love us, be with us, guide us for our sakes.  Music matures just as theology matures as we age.  So as the young people who began the praise music genre are maturing and getting older, the words they put in their songs are beginning to have more depth and maturity as well.  It doesn’t mean the old words aren’t still important.  But my focus for this coming year is going to be on how we can truly serve GOD, beyond our own needs, beyond what we hope we will ‘get” from God in return.  Another way to talk about this is to identify two arms of the cross.  There is the arm that goes up and down: that is between you and God.  The arm that goes horizontally is about loving each other.  But that arm takes longer to find, to develop: that is a part of our faith, again, that takes time and depth to mature into.  Back to praise music, there is a wonderful praise song called – “Let Them See You in Me”.  The words are, “Let them see You in me, let them hear You when I speak, Let them feel You when I sing, Let them see You, let them see You in me.” I love it because it is my wish, it is my goal, always, to have others see, experience, come to God because of me, who I am, what I do, how I act in the world.  But it is still a song about the person singing it.  Why not just “let them see You, God – alive and at work in the world?”  “Let me do your will in this place so that it is a better place”?  No, it remains a song about the person singing it.  It is still the person standing on the street corner praying so that all may see them praying, the one Jesus told to go pray in private instead.  It is not the subtle, behind the scenes work of God.  The people who do the most amazing work of God are not usually people whose names we know, but instead they are those whose names we don’t know, those who do their work quietly.  They do their work without recognition, not because they are being humble, NOT because that is what the Bible tells us to do, but because they just simply are no longer focused on themselves and instead are completely, wholly and fully focused on God.  They aren’t thinking about recognition or popularity or being known because they are too busy simply doing the work of God.
               Christian Piatt in an article called, “Five ways I’m the worst at following Jesus” put it like this (with slight editing because of language): “My biggest concern at the moment is that though a lot of us claim to “be Christians,” or even to follow Jesus, a lot of us don’t spend much intentional time trying to figure out what that means and what it looks like in daily life. We try not to be too (horrible) to other people, try not to kill, steal, adulterate (is that even a word?) or worship graven images. We try to love, and to accept love — though we still hurt each other. A lot. The world is messed up and so far from realizing the fully kingdom-inspired image of wholeness and reconciliation to which God invites us. And at least in my theological world, that’s on us, not God. I believe, with all of my being, that the audacious vision of God’s kingdom, here and now, isn’t something we sit around and pray for God to make real for us. Like Jesus said, we can (and should) collectively do greater things than even he did. When people experienced healing in his presence, he never said, “Hey, I did that!” Rather, he always told them that it was their own faith that made them well. That’s pretty amazing to consider. And inspiring. And terrifying. So here I am, not so much trying to be Jesus, but trying to at least follow his life, teaching, and example better. And in taking my own personal inventory, I can see that I… (am less than fantastic at it). That doesn’t mean I’m giving up, but it’s clear I have plenty of work to do.” (1)
               What can you do this year to make this year different?  Some of the things that occur to me include: Random acts of expressing God’s love in the world.  Acting out God’s love because that is what God calls us to do.  Doing this not to get credit, or to be seen even as an amazing person of faith, or even to lead others to God by showing yourself as an example.  But doing love, expressing love, acting out love because you love God and want to do the best for God and for God’s people. 
               I want to end by sharing with you a story told by a woman on FB.  She wrote:
Our 14-year-old dog Abbey died last month. The day after she passed away my 4-year-old daughter Meredith was crying and talking about how much she missed Abbey. She asked if we could write a letter to God so that when Abbey got to heaven, God would recognize her. I told her that I thought we could so, and she dictated these words:
Dear God,
Will you please take care of my dog? She died yesterday and is with you in heaven. I miss her very much. I am happy that you let me have her as my dog even though she got sick. I hope you will play with her. She likes to swim and play with balls. I am sending a picture of her so when you see her you will know that she is my dog. I really miss her.
Love, Meredith
We put the letter in an envelope with a picture of Abbey and Meredith and addressed it to God/Heaven. We put our return address on it. Then Meredith pasted several stamps on the front of the envelope because she said it would take lots of stamps to get the letter all the way to heaven. That afternoon she dropped it into the letter box at the post office. A few days later, she asked if God had gotten the letter yet. I told her that I thought He had.
Yesterday, there was a package wrapped in gold paper on our front porch addressed, 'To Meredith' in an unfamiliar hand. Meredith opened it. Inside was a book by Mr. Rogers called, 'When a Pet Dies.' Taped to the inside front cover was the letter we had written to God in its opened envelope. On the opposite page was the picture of Abbey & Meredith and this note:
Dear Meredith,
Abbey arrived safely in heaven. Having the picture was a big help and I recognized her right away.
Abbey isn't sick anymore. Her spirit is here with me just like it stays in your heart. Abbey loved being your dog. Since we don't need our bodies in heaven, I don't have any pockets to keep your picture in so I am sending it back to you in this little book for you to keep and have something to remember Abbey by.
Thank you for the beautiful letter and thank your mother for helping you write it and sending it to me. What a wonderful mother you have. I picked her especially for you. I send my blessings every day and remember that I love you very much. By the way, I'm easy to find. I am wherever there is love.
Love, God” (2)
The person who chose to respond to the little girl’s letter with that kind act of caring for this four year old girl was acting as God’s hands in the world at that moment.  Their name remains unknown, their actions remain anonymous.  But what incredible good they did for that girl, her family, and all of us who have heard this story. 
What is in front of you to be done?  Can you do it simply because you love God?  If you do, then 2017 will be a different year.  It will be a ‘new thing” that God has created because God will have created that new thing IN YOU.  And that is an awesome and wondrous thing to consider.  Amen.

1. https://sojo.net/articles/5-ways-im-worst-following-jesus
2.  This was posted on Facebook which means it is hard to put a correct footnote in here since if you aren't on Facebook you won't be able to see it.  But Snopes actually quotes this too, as an accurate story.  So here is the Snopes version: http://www.snopes.com/glurge/abbey.asp 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

More on Entitlement

My kids and I went to the Monterey Aquarium this last week.  It is one of our favorite places to go and though it is not close (two and a half hour drive if there is no traffic, but when is there no traffic in the Bay Area?) we try to get there when we have a vacation space to do so.  Most of our time on this trip was wonderful, but I found myself struck once more by the amazing sense of individual entitlement that I think has a lot to do with where we are now as a country and where we are heading.

The day we went to the Aquarium it was very crowded because it was over Christmas break.  There were a lot of people packed into the space, and while many of them were "well-behaved", there were also a shocking number of folk who would do anything to make sure that they were ahead of everyone else, that they had the perfect spot, that their "rights" superseded the rights of those around them.

To give a very specific example:  We especially love the otters.  And there are several times a day when they have "feeding time" at the otter tank.  Lots of folk cramped into the tight spaces in front of the glass windows.  The trainer who talks to the crowds and explains what is going on said to the crowd at the beginning of the presentation, "We know that there are many of you, and we encourage you to look around and if there are children shorter than you, please let them stand in front of you so that they can see too."  I was struck by the fact that this needed to be said.  Does someone really have to TELL us to let children stand in front so they can see?  To let children move to the front so that they are not blocked by our taller bodies?  Shouldn't this care for others' education, this care for others' enrichment, this attention to the needs and desires of others, and especially children, just be part of who we are?  But unfortunately this no longer seems to be part of who we are.  And people no longer even seem to feel they need to pretend to care about other folk.  Aislynn, my 4'9" kid, was trying to get to a spot she saw that was a little empty and she asked a woman, "Excuse me, can I please get by you?"  This 5'10" woman snapped at Aislynn, "I'm standing here! This is MY spot!" Aislynn wasn't even trying to take her spot, but was simply trying to walk by her to another spot that she saw.  This entitled and fearful woman didn't stop there.  She literally shoved in front of Aislynn who stood there just incredulous.  I was incredulous too.  Is our sense of fear that someone will take away what we have, what we want, so strong that we see even a little child trying to look at an otter as so much of a threat that we have to push them behind us, in a public place, in front of everyone?

It feels to me that that is where we have moved as a country.  We claim "Christian values" and yet we ignore the first call of that faith which includes loving our neighbors as ourselves.  If we truly see the other as a person equal in importance, equal in needs, equal in value, then we will care about their well-being.  We will not be so focused on our fear of not having enough, not getting what we want, trying to grab from others or block others getting what they want so there will be enough for ME; and instead we will be focused on the privilege we have to work towards the inclusion, the rights, the well-being of every one of our brothers and sisters. The times I experience grace, real grace, are the moments when I work for the well being of others.  I don't need their acknowledgement or gratitude or even awareness. But in my own awareness that we are not different, we are the same; and what hurts you hurts me, and what slights you slights me, and what comes as a gift to you comes as a gift to me, and when you are doing well, I am doing better too - all of that awareness brings grace to me, brings life to me.  We seem as a people to be more and more in the mode of grabbing our rights at the expense of others, of demanding what we want by pushing others out of the way (even children!!), of insisting that our wants are so much more important than others that we behave in ways that threaten to wipe us out as a people.  We have to get beyond our prejudices, our racism, sexism, heterosexism, Islamophobia, anthropocentric world view...we have to get past the fear.  We have to get past grabbing what we insist is ours instead of caring for "the least of these" in whom we find Christ again and again. We have to get over the word "mine" and instead start using the word "ours" in relation to everything.  There is no "mine".  Everything we have belongs to God and is entrusted into our care for us to share, and to be stewards over.  It's very simple.  And very clear.

We also have to have faith that there really is enough, and more than enough, for all of us.  God is the God of abundance (look how much water was turned into wine!) after all!  But if we insist on grabbing more than is our fair share, there won't be.  So it has to start by sharing, and it has to end with sharing. For each and every one of us.

I realize how hard this is to do.  I realized it as I watched this situation with my daughter at the Aquarium.  I was too far away to interfere in that moment.  But if I had been closer, it would have been impossible for me to not react to this woman's "grabbiness" by grabbing back.  As she pushed in front of my daughter, it would have been all I could do to not shove her in response rather than talking calmly and clearly.  But the more we are reactive, the more we demand our own, even in response to others doing the same; the more we respond with "an eye for an eye," the more we become part of creating the reality of an increasingly blinded world.  There was a reason Jesus argued against that very passage and insisted instead that we respond to evil and anger and even violence with love.  He is the one we are supposed to follow.  If you insist on demanding your own rights over those of any other human being, if you insist on revenge thinking, if you insist on denying any other person food, water, shelter, love; if you choose fear and anger and hate over grace, forgiveness and love, then do not tell me you follow the Prince of Peace.  Do not deceive yourself about what you really follow and what you really believe.

We have to get past our entitlement thinking.  Just because we were born privileged does not mean we are entitled to that privilege.  It is a gift to be shared, not one to be boasted of and kept to ourselves.  Again, I realize our media, our culture, our current political situation claim otherwise.  They teach us daily that what is mine is MINE, not to be shared, but to be guarded and hoarded with everything we have.  But that is not the way of our faith. Our faith stories, all of them, teach us love instead.  Again, we are all on this path, and getting there will be imperfect for each one of us.  But we must try.  The grace we will experience through that trying is the only thing that can save us.