Monday, April 30, 2018

Being Pruned

1 John 4:7-21

John 15:1-8

Malachi 3:1-5

I have found myself on many occasions wondering about the purpose of life.  What do you think the purpose of life is?

Our Western culture tells us that the purpose of life is to be happy.  Our TV ads bombard us with statements like “You deserve it!” and “Do it for you!” and “You can make yourself anything you want to be!” 

But the Bible never tells us that the goal in life is to be happy, or even comfortable or at ease. This is not the message that we get from our scriptures, and today’s passages especially show us instead a God who is not seeking our comfort, but is seeking instead to make us more holy, more whole; to make us more godly, to “prune” us as the John passage says, and to “refine” us as the Malachi passage says.

As Rick Warren, author of Purpose Given Life said in an interview, “We were made by God and for God, and until you figure that out, life isn't going to make sense…Life is a series of problems: Either you are in one now, you're just coming out of one, or you're getting ready to go into another one.  The reason for this is that God is more interested in your character than your comfort; God is more interested in making your life holy than (God) is in making your life happy.  We can be reasonably happy here on earth, but that's not the goal of life. The goal is to grow in character, in Christ likeness.”

As we know, this isn’t easy.  The Bible tells us this isn’t easy when it compares the process to the pruning of branches, to the refining of metals.  We know from the 1st John passage what that looks like.  Growing in character means loving more fully, more deeply, even those we don’t like.  But getting there is hard.  And knowing exactly how to do this, how to love more deeply and fully, is again, a challenge.  So, God calls us, throughout our lives; God challenges us, God “refines” us and “prunes” us so that we might bear more fruit, so that we might be the pure, refined silver we are meant to be.

Some women in a Bible study came across this passage from Malachi, “God will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.”  And so one of the women offered to find out the process of refining silver and get back to the group at their next Bible Study. That week, the woman called a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work.  She didn't mention anything about the reason for her interest beyond her curiosity about the process of refining Silver.  As she watched the silversmith, he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up.  He explained that in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest as to burn away all the impurities.  The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot; then she thought again about the verse that says:  'He sits as a refiner and purifier of silver.'   She asked the silversmith if it was true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time.  The man answered that yes, he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. It was a difficult and uncomfortable job, holding the silver, working the silver, constantly watching the silver over this very, very hot flame that was hot for the holder as well as for the silver.  But, if the silver was left a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed, so this was the only way to do it.  Since he loved his work, loved the silver, the pain and discomfort to the Smith were worth it to him.  The woman was silent for a moment.  Then she asked the silversmith, 'How do you know when the silver is fully refined?'

He smiled at her and answered, 'Oh, that's easy -- when I see my image in it.'

   “…When I see my image in it”. 

To be in the image of the God of love, is to love.  To be in the image of the God who loved us so much that that God was willing to die for us, is to love each other so much that we are willing to die for each other.  Again, not easy.  But that is what being in relationship with God pushes us towards, and challenges us to do.

I want to clarify here, and I will say it again later, that I don’t believe that the bad things that happen to us happen because God is trying to hurt you or test you or make you better. I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, I don’t believe people are murdered or children are raped or monsters are allowed to damage the world because God wills it.  I cannot believe in a God for whom the only way to bring about the kingdom is through the torture of God’s children.  That’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying is that I deeply believe in a God who takes our deepest, hardest, most intense times and will stand with us through them and will work with us to bring the highest good out of them, to refine us through them, to make us better on the other side of whatever we have gone through.  I believe deeply in a God who encourages us to have vision for the good and beautiful in the midst of horror, to look for it, to see it, and to allow it to change us for the better.

I invite you for a moment to think about the hardest times in your life.  For some this may be obvious, but my guess is that if we are really honest with ourselves, sometimes the hardest experiences are not the most obvious ones.  So I invite you to think about what you have lived through that is truly the hardest, most painful time in your life.  I know it is not pleasant to go there, but I invite you to sit with it for a minute.  And then I invite you to go deeper: to remember anyone who might have been kind to you during that time, or any little silly thing that may have brought laughter during that time.  I invite you to remember food you might have enjoyed eating during that time, or a sunset you saw, or a tree or plant in bloom.  I invite you to go even deeper and see if there was anything about you that was strengthened through this time.  Did you grow in your ability to be patient, in your ability to withstand hardships?  Did you grow in your compassion for other people who are suffering?  Did you come to understand your circumstances in a different way?  Did you gain appreciation for the little gifts that life hands you?

I think about the hardest times in my own life.  I realize that they are nothing compared to what some people go through.  But they are more than others have experienced.  So from that place, I look back and I see what I gained.  I learned to be more patient.  I learned to stand up for my kids, for myself.  I learned not to trust systems and I learned of their inhumanity, but while this may seem like a cynical or bad thing, I feel it helped me to grow in my willingness to confront corrupt systems and the pawns (people) who are used by them.  I gained a better picture of what I have control over and what I don’t.  I came to understand more fully that there really are things I cannot change at all, and that there are other things I certainly cannot change overnight, without work, without other people, without a long commitment and a plan.  I learned to accept help: support, affirmations, care from other people.  I learned to ask for help when I needed it, even when my natural inclination is to think I can do it all myself.  I learned to work on relationships, and to make the conscious decision to still be engaged in the world, to still love and allow myself to be loved in return.  I am learning to pray for and to genuinely care about the well-being of people who hurt us.  That’s a big thing: to learn to have compassion for people who hurt us, but I started that path for real.  I began to learn to respond to meanness and cruelty with a presence of honest, open grace.  I learned that I can choose to be who I want to be and that I choose to be a person of forgiveness and love rather than of vengeance and hate.  I continue to learn that loving and being loved are deeper challenges than I knew, challenges that call for all that we are, all that we can be – but challenges, none the less, that make life worth living, that deepen life, that deepen our relationships with God. I learned to take the hard times for what they are – a time of growth, of refinement in a hot fire, a time of challenge for God and I together to work out some kinks and blemishes in my being.  Of course the journey continues, the challenges continue, the refinement continues.  But through it all, I have felt closer to God than ever.  Through it all, I feel at a deeper and deeper level God’s tangible presence.  Through it all, I have hope that I will grow to be more like the person God calls me to be each day.

I believe seeing this, seeing the good, looking for ways that the things that are bad can move us, change us – all of that takes work and a strong commitment.  But it is a commitment to your own well-being, a commitment to your own growth, a commitment to your own resurrections, a commitment to living and loving fully, to deciding who you want to be and working to become that person.  This is not easy.  But it is a commitment that is worth our time, attention and care.

The Malachi passage ends with the phrase, “So I will come to put you on trial,… but do not fear me.”    This may seem oxymoronic – how can God declare that we will be put on trial and then in the same breath tell us to not be afraid?  But the message I receive from this is that it is a gift to us to be in God’s intense gaze as we are refined.  It is a gift to us to be challenged to grow and become more the people God calls us to be.  Yes, life hurts.  Not all of life is good.  Certainly, not all of life is easy.  But we need not fear it.  Because God is there with us – keeping God’s eye on us, and working with us until God can see God’s own image in our very beings.  Thanks be to God!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

A person's job

          Our church volunteered at Convoy of Hope this weekend.  At one point, I was part of a group of people who were collecting, tying, organizing food bags to give away.  One of the other volunteers was a young boy (10 years old, maybe?) who was there with his father.  While working, the father said to the boy, "If you don't do well in school, this will be your job!"
        Sometimes my internal filter doesn't work very well, so out of my mouth pops, "If you do do well in school, this will be your job!"  The people around me didn't understand, and I realized I hadn't phrased it well, so a number of folk jumped all over me. I tried to explain, but everyone was very defensive, so I dropped it.  It wasn't that important to me to be "right" in that moment.  I did find it ironic that they were left with the impression that I don't value education. I didn't give my credentials: somehow that felt like bragging, which I didn't believe would be helpful. Still, those who know me know that everything about my own achievements through education says that I deeply value education. You all know that the idea that I would in any way underestimate the importance of education is ludicrous, to say the least.
       At the same time, I stick to what I said: no matter what your education level, no matter what you have accomplished in life, no matter how well you do in school or how far you go in education, who you are, what your rank is, or how much money you make: this work is your job.  What I mean by that is that the most important, most valued call that we all have is to care for one another, to be available to one another, to feed those who need some help.  The "job" that God gives us is always the same: to love one another as we love ourselves.  That means feeding one another as we feed ourselves, caring for one another as we care for ourselves.  We are terrible, absolutely terrible as a species, as a unified group, at this particular job.  I know extremely few people who are willing to house others to the same degree and with the same kind of housing that they house themselves.  I know very few others who are willing to feed the same luxurious meals to others as they feed their own families.  I know one or two, out of my total acquaintance, who would send a homeless family on the same kind of vacations that they regularly pay for for themselves.  We just don't do this.  But it is our job.  And it is the most important job we will ever have.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Earth and All that Is In It

Job 12:7-10
Psalm 24:1-2
Psalm 104:1-36

               Today we are celebrating earth day, and the charge we have been given to be good stewards of the earth. 

Today’s passages are all tied together by the truth that the earth and all that is in it belong to God.  God created it, God brought it into being, God loves it, and it belongs to God. We are stewards of what God has created, called to take care of it, to love it, to share it.  We are not called to hoard it or to abuse it.  This is like when you leave a pet in the care and trust of someone.  You expect the care person to be kind to your pet, to take good care of it, to love it, to talk to it.  You expect the care person to make sure it has enough food and water, that it won’t die while you are on vacation.  God expects the same of us as stewards of this lovely planet: that we, too, will take care of it, not abuse it, not try to keep it from others.  And our response, of care, of love, is not just because we are dependent on the earth, which we are.  It should not just be because it is our home and we need it, which we do.  It should not just be because it is beautiful and lovely and gives everything that we need to us, which it does.  Our care for this lovely planet should also be because we love God.  God calls us to take care of the earth out of our love for God.  Very simple.  And yet, oh, so complicated in our current culture.

The word that we often translate “dominion” in the first chapter of our Bible’s when it says “fill the earth and have dominion over it” is better translated “stewardship”.  It is a word in Hebrew that implies care, not over something wild and distant, but over that which we know.  It is not a word that implies we must dominate or subdue (another mistranslation – better translated “cultivate”) an enemy or something chaotic, but instead, like a parent, like someone who loves and truly sees and understands the other, we are called to care for, tend to, bring out the best in, the world that God has given us.  It is very similar to the way God works with us.  God tends to us with love, with care, always working to bring out the best in us.  We are called to do the same towards the earth that God loves.

We have been given the charge as people of faith to care for God’s creation, to watch over creation and each other, to love, to tend, to care for.  We have been given the charge of loving rather than using the beauty that surrounds us.  Not always an easy charge, especially because we often have very little to hold us accountable.  It is easy to use and misuse that which won’t catch up with us. Like children who don’t think what they do is wrong unless they get caught, we have, for quite some time, been in a place where we could take what we wanted from the earth, use what we wanted of the earth, without consequence and without fear of recrimination. 

But more recently this has begun to change.  In the last century, we have started to become aware that even the way we care for, or fail to care for, the earth, has consequences for us as a people, for humanity as a whole and for each of us as individuals as well. 

            In terms of the earth, one of those wake-up calls came for Cleveland On June 22, 1969. On August 1, 1969, Time magazine wrote this about the Cuyahoga River: 

Some River! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. "Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown," Cleveland's citizens joke grimly, "He decays".  .. . The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: "The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes." It is also -- literally -- a fire hazard.

Because of this fire, Cleveland businesses became infamous for their pollution, a legacy of the city's booming manufacturing days during the late 1800s and the early 1900s, when limited government controls existed to protect the environment. Even following World War II, Cleveland businesses, especially steel mills, routinely polluted the river. Cleveland and its residents also became the butt of jokes across the United States, despite the fact that city officials had authorized 100 million dollars to improve the Cuyahoga River's water before the fire occurred.

And this fire in 1969 was not the first on the river.  The Cuyahoga had burned as early as 1868 and over the years about 13 more fires before 1952 had caused more than $1.5 million in damage.  Humans had begun to pay for not caring for the earth.  Still, until the 1969 fire, little attention had been paid to the river or the pollution. 

The 1969 river fire was different, though.  It attracted media attention like never before.  And the results were very positive.  Cleveland began to clean up the water.  But the fire also brought attention to other environmental problems across the country, helped spur the Environmental Movement, and helped lead to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.

The result was that the river has been and continues to be cleaned up.  “When they checked the river at the time, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency found 10 sick gizzard chad. Period. About five years ago when checked they found 40 different fish species in the river, including steelhead trout, northern pike and other clean-water fish. Now, even the most polluted areas of the river generally meet aquatic life water quality standards.  There is still work to be done, but it continues to happen, thanks in large part to the fire in 1969.

Change also came about through events such as Rachel Carson’s publication of her book, Silent Spring.  Her book about the possible damage of pesticides such as DTT had a huge impact on our decision to study and study fully, the impact of the changes we make to our environment, including our use of pesticides.  Combining her great writing skills with her work as a biologist and lab worker for the US fish and wildlife service, she was able to tell stories in a way that made people listen, pay attention.  She saw with a clarity that few had seen up to that point the connection of all life, and that what affects one piece of our world will and does effect all of it, all of us. 

What does this have to do with us, as people or as Christians?  Well, in many ways I see the fire of 1969 as a Good Friday in Cleveland’s environment, and in our care for the earth. Our extreme use of DTT and other pesticides without proper testing was another such Good Friday. We had done such a poor job of remembering our connection to all things that the earth that supports us, births us, is part of us was in danger of being destroyed through atrocities such as a river burning. 

But the resurrection is for all of creation.  The promise of new life and new birth is for all of creation.  Easter is for all of creation.  When you remember Noah’s Ark, the animals were included, too.  When the psalms lift up our voices in praise, they declare that the animals, the plants, the sun, the moon, the stars and the earth are also all of them praising God.  The whole earth loves God and joins with us in praise. The passage from Job today emphasis that we have much to learn from the rest of creation; the animals are to be our teachers as well as our brothers and sisters.  Reconciliation with God, life with God, love of God is for all creation. 

Pastor David Rhoades wrote this, “I had this vision in a dream during sleep at night. I was in the front row of a cathedral looking at the scene before me during a service of communion. I saw the priest passing bread to the first person kneeling at the communion railing. As I looked, the next figure at the railing was a snake! It was curled at the bottom with its back arching up over the rail and with head straining forward to receive the grace of Christ. The next figure was another person. Next was a raccoon with paws up on the communion rail leaning forward to receive the grace of Christ. Then I saw a bird perched on the corner of the railing eating bread crumbs. As I finished surveying this scene in my dream, suddenly the side walls of the cathedral fell away and outside was thick foliage of forest and jungle on each side with all manner of wild animals roaming around. In this moment, it seemed as if walls of separation had been removed and there was a seamless web of all creation praising God and exalting in the grace of Christ. From the time I awoke from that dream until this day, I have never been able to think of worship in the same way again. I now see all of Earth as the sanctuary in which we worship, and I see myself invoking and confessing and giving thanks and praising God and offering myself in solidarity with all of life. May that vision also be your vision.”

And so today, as we celebrate earth day and the fifth Sunday in Easter, I want us to take some time to look at the resurrection of the earth as well.  We created Good Friday for the Cuyahoga river, just as we killed Jesus on the cross.  But out of the death, we see God’s active hand, creating anew, bringing new life.

God created the resurrection.  But when it comes to the life around us, when it comes to the earth, we are invited to be part of ushering in the new era.  We are called to be part of the resurrection that is for all of creation and all people.  We are called to be part of the new creation that we celebrate at Easter.

The passages we read today all emphasize that this is God’s world, put at our feet to be loved and cared for.  God created everything good, to be enjoyed, to experience delight in, yes.  But when we abuse God’s creation, whether it be the earth or God’s people, we are insulting the creator, we are not honoring the God who delights in God’s creation.

We don’t actually have a lot of choice about it.  Either we are part of the new creation, or we are part of the Good Friday that precedes it.  Either we are part of destruction or we are part of creation and new life.  This is not just about how we see the world, nor is it just about how we treat other people.  This applies to how we treat God’s beautiful earth as well.

Changing the way we treat the earth takes education and it takes time.  It also takes a commitment to doing things differently.  This year at the Earth Day Event at John Muir’s home, our Interfaith Table was focused on plastic use.  According to Fauna and Flora international, the huge amounts of garbage we see in our oceans are predominantly plastics that cannot be biodegraded and which are a serious threat to our ocean life.  8,000,000 tons of plastics reach our oceans every year.  That plastic is a direct threat to 500 marine species.  And the things we can do to help in this problem are many and are fairly simple: don’t buy water in plastic bottles.  Actually, there are good health reasons not to do this as well as we are learning that mini fibers from the plastics end up in our systems.  Don’t keep using plastic bags, and if you must, reuse them: don’t just use them once and throw them away.  There are alternatives to things like saran wrap, too.  There are also alternatives to plastic dish wear, as well as to kitchen garbage bags: alternatives that are compostable, bio-degradable and do not add to our landfills and ocean garbage.  These are small and simple things that our Church is calling us to look at this year.

            The bottom line is we are called to be stewards.  Stewards of creation, stewards of humanity, stewards of love and care for the earth and for each other. We walk that by caring in each moment about how are actions impact others.  We walk that by caring in each moment about who will be hurt and who will be lifted up by our actions.  We walk this by choosing to be kind to all we encounter and that includes the beautiful earth God has given us.  We walk this by living as Jesus taught us, with love, with generosity, with compassion, and with grace.  Amen.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Coyote

      David often goes home (back to his apartment in Pittsburg) pretty late in the evenings.  He often doesn't arrive back from work until 6:30 or so, at which point I am often leaving for meetings.  So if we are going to spend any time together, it usually doesn't even begin until 9 (or later) at night.  The result is that when he finally heads over the hill to his own abode, it can often be quite late (or what I consider late, being that my natural bed-time is really about 9pm).  The other night, arriving home at 11:15, he walked up to his apartment to find a scroungy, scraggly dog laying on his welcome mat in front of the door to his small, one-bedroom apartment. This rough, scabby looking dog glanced at him as he tried to approach his door, but also made it clear that he was not moving. David talked to the dog, trying to encourage it to go "home" or at least to move enough that David could get inside his apartment, but the dog just looked at him balefully and continued to lie on the mat. He tried to intimidate it by making loud clapping noises against the side of the building, but nothing would move the dog. Fortunately, the neighbor was still up and invited David to come inside while they figured out what to do. He texted me and I said they should call animal control to get some help.  By the time animal control arrived (a long time later... after all, this was the middle of the night and they are not as well staffed after hours), the dog had died.  And, it turned out, it was not a dog: it was a coyote.
       We live in coyote country, which is one of the two main reasons my cats have had to become strictly in-door animals since we have moved here (the other being that we live only a block from a 6-lane, 55 mph road).  Neighbors and friends have all shared with us stories of their pets becoming dinner for the neighboring coyotes, whom we know have to eat.  Since we would prefer our cats not turn into someone else's meal, we keep them inside.  This is the coyote's land.  We are the invaders, we are the new-comers to this place.  While it is not common to see living coyote's out here (they are basically shy animals, especially when it comes to people), it is common to hear them at night, or to see signs of their presence in the area (or to find them dead alongside one of our busy roads).
     Still, I found I was struck by the choice of the coyote's final place to die.  The complex in which David lives has over 200 apartments of various sizes.  David's is not on the end of one of their rows, his porch is smaller than many, but is a common size for the complex.  Why choose his doorstep?  Why insist on remaining there as a place to die?
     So, because I tend to look for meaning and symbolism, I started studying up on coyotes. Reading the science behind the animal gave no understanding of why the coyote would choose a place near humans to die. They don't like people, they avoid people. If they come across people, they run or, if backed into a corner, might become threatening.  This coyote did not have any intention of leaving, but neither was it hostile towards David. David didn't touch it because it looked scruffy, not because it appeared wild or anxious.
      So I started looking at Native American sites and understandings of coyotes. As a spirit animal, Coyote has been associated with deep magic and creation.  Coyote is a jokesters, a symbol of playfulness and paradox, his teaching is not direct but is through subterfuge and symbolism.  Coyote encourages us not to take life too seriously, and to look for the unexpected.  Coyote can be an omen of bad things about to come, but he encourages survival and resourcefulness to meet those challenges and hardships.  Coyote is a symbol of growth through the difficult and unexpected.  He teaches that wisdom and folly go together. If a coyote enters your life, you are called to look at something you may have been avoiding.  One site I read said that if an animal dies near you or around you, it is a strong call for you to pay special attention to the messages of that spirit animal.  I'm taking all of that in, even if it is mostly for David.  But I also found myself thinking in another direction.
      David is kind, he is warm, he is accepting.  The coyote may have been there because the mat on his doorstep was dry, welcoming, warm (it was a very rainy, stormy evening), and felt "safe."  David does that.  He creates warm, unthreatening spaces.  He is not judging, he is very loving and open.  He is affectionate, protective, caring and safe.  The coyote was at its end.  He may simply have found that small space, the welcome mat on David's tiny entrance way, to be that safe place to end his journey here.
       What is the point of all of this?  It once more gave me something to strive to be as well: I want to be that safe place for others to come, to feel my warmth and presence.  I don't want to be scary or intimidating to someone in need, someone in pain.  I want my welcome mat to always be warm and inviting.  I am so grateful that I've found someone who embodies that safe, warm, welcoming place for me, as well as someone who can teach me to embody that for others.
        I also find myself mourning the coyote, carrying the coyote's spirit with me, even though I never even saw it.  I feel touched by it's story: a life that ended after seeking a warm, safe place to finish its journey.  Today I am carrying that coyote spirit in my heart and looking for its message for all of us.
Image result for image, coyote

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Not Recognizing Him

Acts 3:12-19
Luke 24:36b-48

They thought they were seeing a ghost.  They did not recognize the truth of his presence with them.  They were terrified by this thing that was happening that they had no context for and nothing in their life could prepare them for.  Jesus’ words and stories throughout his life, though they were intended to prepare the disciples, did not prepare them, the scriptures that had been explained could not prepare them.  They couldn’t really believe what they had been told because they hadn’t seen anything like it before.  And as a result, they simply did not, could not recognize him.
And that’s very real, isn’t it?  We don’t see the things we don’t expect to see.  It is hard for us to recognize the things that are outside of our experiences. We have a hard time assimilating those things that are “other” than what we believe, know, and expect.  Mary at the tomb didn’t recognize Jesus at first, and in the story for today, the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost.  These are not to be wondered at.  I think we would all think and feel and see the same if someone we loved and knew had died suddenly appeared among us.  Because they had no context for believing in a resurrection, they simply did not, could not recognize him at first.
So then the question becomes, how do we recognize the Holy One in our midst?  If Jesus were resurrected or were to return among us today, how would we recognize him?  How would we know him?
Mary recognized Jesus when he called her name: that moment of intimacy, of knowing and recognizing and loving someone.  The disciples knew Christ through the familiar and loving behaviors and actions of the man they knew – eating with them, talking with them, sharing scripture with them.  They recognized him, in other words, by his love for them: by the love in his voice when he spoke Mary’s name, by the love he expressed by acting with his disciples as he always did – honestly, but with comfort, eating with them, sharing with them, serving them, being with them.
I’m reminded of a poem I shared once before:
The man whispered, "God, speak to me" and a meadowlark sang.
But, the man did not hear.
So the man yelled, "God, speak to me" and the thunder rolled across the sky.
But, the man did not listen.
The man looked around and said, "God let me see you." And a star shined brightly.
But the man did not see.
And, the man shouted, "God show me a miracle." And, a life was born.
But, the man did not notice.
So, the man cried out in despair, "Touch me God, and let me know you are here."
Whereupon, God reached down and touched the man. But, the man brushed the butterfly away .
and walked on.
In the movie The Polar Express, the main character, the boy is struggling to believe in Santa Claus.  At one point he has a conversation with a “ghost” about believing.  Despite seeing, despite hearing, despite his experiences, he still isn’t sure and thinks it might all be a dream.  The ghost does not convince him otherwise.  He says to the boy, “But you don’t want to be bamboozled.  You don’t want to be led down the primrose path.  You don’t want to be conned, or Duped, to have the wool pulled over your eyes, hoodwinked.  You don’t want to be taken for a ride, railroaded.  Seeing is believing.  Am I right?”  And then he asks the boy if he believes in ghosts.  The boy shakes his head “no” to which the ghost simply responds, “interesting.”  And walks on, disappearing into the snow.. disintegrating into the snow.
We tell ourselves that seeing is believing, but we are so often guilty of seeing what we know rather than knowing what we see.  The truth is that while we tell ourselves seeing is believing, it is more often the case that believing is seeing.  And in no case is this more true than in the case of whether or not we see God.
We need to be careful, therefore, to not be so stuck in our images of what things are, in our expectations of what should be that we can’t actually see or hear what is around us.  We need to work hard to keep our minds open enough that we don’t miss seeing when God is right in front of us.
One of my very favorite lines in the very first episode of Joan of Arcadia occurs when Joan sees God and talks to God for the first time.  She wonders if there is something special about her that allows her to see God when others don’t.  She asks God, “Why are you appearing to me?”  To which God responds, “I am not appearing to you.  You are perceiving me.”  The truth of that hits me often.  God is all around.  God    is     all     around.  But do we perceive God?  Do we perceive God?
I shared with all of you in a newsletter article about a time when Jasmyn was really struggling.  My very intuitive “almost twelve year old” was struggling with a sense that her world was about to be irrevocably changed.  She was grieving her childhood and the naiveté of that childhood.  She was grieving the easy vision of life, the vision that everything could be fixed with a wave of a wand, and that we could all live happily ever after without scars or trauma.  She talked about her fears that a tornado would hit, that there would be a disaster, that all of her life would change in a second and everything that she counted on would be different.  And that tornado was about to hit for her, changing everything.  There was nothing she could do to control it, to change it, to prevent it.  This fear caused her to wonder about the very point of life.  But in the midst of all that pain and struggle, all that angst and fear and wondering, all of a sudden the most beautiful butterfly landed on the ground in front of us.  “Oh look!” she exclaimed with sudden and deep joy.  And I found myself saying, “God sent you a butterfly, Jasmyn.  There is your answer from God.  There is joy, there is beauty, even in the hard times.  And God is bringing that to you now.” Jasmyn turned and looked at me and suddenly she was sobbing in my arms, just sobbing and holding on, as if her life depended on it.  So we stood there on the sidewalk, Jasmyn crying, watching this beautiful butterfly and just being together.  God knows our pain – God suffered on the cross.  The disciples felt that pain too when Jesus died, when they felt their hopes crumbled, their lives irrevocably changed.  But God appeared for them and God appears for us and does bring the butterflies.  If we keep our eyes open, we will see them.  It is often in the hardest times that God is most near to us, touching us, offering us beauty and a deeper glimpse.
But we have to be open to seeing it.  We have to keep our eyes open.
It goes even deeper than that. Jesus was recognized by his love.  By his calling Mary’s name, by his eating and being present with the disciples.
We too, as Christians, are called to help others to see God, through our love. “They will know we are Christians by our love”.  Different groups of people were recognized by different behaviors and even by different appearances.  This is still the case.  We recognize the Amish by their appearance, Muslim women by the hijab they wear, priests by the collar.  We used to recognize Jews by the clothes they wore, the lack of cutting of side burns for men, etc.  That’s still the case with Orthodox Judaism. Others as well.  We as Christians are to be recognized by our love just as Jesus was recognized by his love.
We see God through our love.  We show God through our love.  My prayer then is that all of us may be given the eyes of love with which to see, and the hands of love with which to act.  Amen.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Humor and laughter and all good things

Acts 4:32-35
Luke 24:1-9

One Easter a priest and a taxi driver both died and went to heaven. St. Peter was at the Pearly gates waiting for them.

'Come with me,' said St. Peter to the taxi driver.

The taxi driver did as he was told and followed St Peter to a mansion. It had everything you could imagine from a bowling alley to an Olympic size pool.

'Oh my word, thank you,' said the taxi driver.

Next, St. Peter led the priest to a rough old shack with a bunk bed and a little old television set.

'Wait, I think you are a little mixed up,' said the priest. 'Shouldn't I be the one who gets the mansion? After all I was a priest, went to church every day, and preached God's word.'

'Yes, that's true.' St Peter rejoined, 'But during your Easter sermons people slept.  When the taxi driver drove, everyone prayed.'
How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?
“Change!?  My grandmother donated that lightbulb!”

"Are limericks suited to Lent?
Yes indeed, in both form and intent:
     They're a well-designed ploy
     To bring insight and joy
With a final, uplifting event.”

"Here's the question that Eastertide begs:
Is it all about candy and eggs?
   No, the point to be praised
   Is that Christ has been raised
And death taken down a few pegs.
         The point of humor Sunday is the same every year: God has had the last laugh, has even overcome death by raising Jesus.  There is nothing to fear, nothing to mourn, nothing to worry about because God has overcome the worst thing to be feared, the worst pain to be overcome, the greatest loss. Maybe that doesn’t bring laughter to your lips, but the absurdity of the one thing that could be counted on: death: that, too being overcome, being challenged, being faced – that should bring a joy that bubbles over into laughter.  If you trust that having even that which is un-challengable challenged by a loving God, if you can have faith that the God who overcomes even the most natural of things is a good and loving God, then all the rest must seem silly, trite, unimportant, and laughable.
            Several theologians wrote this year about how terribly appropriate it was this year to have Easter on April Fool’s Day.  (a very rare occurrence, by the way.  The last time this happened was in 1956). 
Easter, and the Sundays that follow it should be a relief!  All really is in God’s hands, and the outcome IS known.  It will end well, it will be okay. This is God’s world and we get to enjoy it as well as work to make it better for everyone.  We get to delight in the good, celebrate the beauty, and work for wholeness from a place of joy and trust. But even if that is hard to see, hard to trust and hard to take in, the gift of laughter is still there for us.  It is still a gift to be given and received.  We know it helps health-wise, we know it releases tension and stress.  It also reminds us to not take ourselves and our lives so very seriously. 
The funniest things I find are actually situations that happen in my own family, especially with my kids.  When Aislynn was 6, Jonah was 8 and Jasmyn was almost 12, we had a typical morning interaction.  I asked Aislynn, as I often do, "How did I get such an adorable child?"  And then turning to Jonah, who was also there, "How did I get such a handsome son?"  Again, this is part of a familiar morning routine.  But their answers have always been really unpredictable.  That particular morning Aislynn responded, "Well, your heart picked Daddy.  And that is why you now have an adorable daughter, a handsome son, and also an older, cranky daughter!"  
Another story from this year.  We were watching the Olympics and Jonah asked from the other room, “what’s happening on the Olympics now?” to which Jasmyn replied, “Well, it appears to be synchronized skiing. However, they are not doing a very good job because some are trying to outrace the others, which is not good team-work, people!!”
I remember taking my kids to see Zaboomafoo at the Oakland zoo when they were very little.  One of the things that the Zaboomafoo hosts always did was tell knock knock jokes.  But in person, they would bring the mic around and ask the children to tell their jokes.  But what was so funny about their jokes was that the kids understanding of humor was so different from adult humor.  “knock knock” the child would say, “Who’s there?” they would respond.  “Me!” they’d shout and then laugh their heads off.  We would laugh too – both because of their lack of understanding of what makes jokes jokes, but also because their laughter would be infectious. 
My experience in that humor is two-fold.  First, those real life stories are the ones that I remember most, that bring me the most joy and delight in this world.  But second, it is in those moments of utter silliness that I see God most clearly.  I hear God laughing alongside of us, enjoying the creation that He/She made, delighting in the beautiful, the wonderful, the absurd, the silly.
Today we are given two stories in scripture.  The first is a reminder that the early believers shared everything and that we are called to also share.  I believe that in our laughter we share a connection and a depth like no other.  I found the following story about a harried pastor in Alaska who was trying to bring together a very fractious, divided church. The church was in turmoil with a heavy, discouraged spirit. For several years, the pastor had tried everything, without success, to bring the various squabbling cliques together. He finally decided to try a Holy Humor Sunday celebration on the Sunday after Easter. The service was filled with joyful songs and hymns and inspiring Scripture readings celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. Members were encouraged to tell their favorite jokes. And practical jokes were played on the pastor and others. Everybody had a lot of fun. The entire congregation rallied around the resurrection of Jesus. The Holy Humor Sunday service brought everyone together in a spirit of good cheer and camaraderie. "The response was overwhelmingly positive," the pastor wrote. "The congregation needed to know that they could come to worship and just 'let go' for an hour-and that it was possible to come to church and feel good. People have been talking about the service all week. And some, who said they had intended to leave the church and go to another church, said they had decided to stay. "The Holy Humor Sunday service was just what the doctor ordered for our church. It provided much-needed healing."
In the second scripture we are reminded of how scary and unbelievable it felt to the disciples to hear that Jesus was risen.  This, too, the unpredictable nature of life can be scary for us, too.  But laughter, humor Sunday is again another opportunity to listen to the angels who say again and again, “Be not afraid!” and who invite us into joy and trust and faith.
I want to end my sermon with this poem:
"Smiling is infectious. You catch it like the flu."
"When someone smiled at me today, I started smiling, too."
"I passed around the corner, and someone saw my grin."
"When he smiled I realized I'd passed it on to him."
"I thought about that smile. Then I realized its worth."
"A single smile just like mine could travel the whole earth."
"So if you feel a smile begin, don't leave it undetected."
"Let's start an epidemic quick, and get the world infected!"

This is a way of spreading the light and joy: smile, laugh, share, hug, live in the joy of the resurrection!  Amen.
What jokes did you bring to share today?

Knock knock
Who’s there?
Interrupting Cow

Q: What did the alien say to the garden?
A: Take me to your weeder!

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Otto who?
Otto know. I’ve got amnesia.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

All in a Word

Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18

“Mary”.  That’s all he said to turn her world completely around. 
          One word.
          THE one word that would get her to stop her angst, to stop her grief, to stop her despair - to stop all those things that blocked her ability to see, to hear, to grasp that all was not left in darkness, all was not done, all was not over, all was not to end in pain… and loss… and despair…  and grief. 
C.S. Lewis said, in his book A Grief Observed, “The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just that time when God can't give it: you are like the drowning man who can't be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.”…“You can’t see anything properly when your eyes are blurred with tears.”
          But Jesus broke through that with one word:
          And in that word, her world was made new.  Everything she had known, all that she understood, all the rules that life laid before her were undone. 
         Death, the only thing that one can absolutely count on – death itself had been overcome. 
        Can you imagine?  It’s like the song “Rainbow Connection” – “Have you been half asleep, and have you heard voices?  I’ve heard them calling my name.”  It is that voice that calls your name.  That calls you by name.  It is that voice that sees you for exactly who you are, and names you, calling you out of whatever illusions, visions, and blocks you have about life, about your life, about your experiences, about your path, your journey, and instead sees right through you, to you, to what you are most really, deeply, most truly about.  It is that voice that when it says your name makes everything okay, makes everything different.  And unlike us, Mary didn’t hear it when she was half asleep. She heard it fully awake, fully in the midst of her angst and pain and torture and despair.
         Have you ever had those moments occasionally between sleep and waking in which you’ve heard your name being called?  I have, and it usually has been in those times of despair, times of doubt, times of dry lifelessness.  My name being called in those moments has felt like the voice of God – Barbara, I call you by name.  I see you.  I love you.  I call YOU because I love you.  But again, for Mary, she heard it so much more fully.  So much more tangibly.  Jesus, her Lord, speaking her name.
        I saw this quote a while back that said something like, “the best hugs are the ones that make all the stress in the world just melt away.”  Jesus’ word to Mary was like that.  A single word that made it all okay.  No, darkness had not won.  No, Death had not had the final word.  No, the body had not been taken, evil had not extended so far as to take everything that she valued, that she trusted, that she loved from her.  It sometimes felt that it had, and Jesus owned that with the single word, too.  With that word, he recognized her grief for what it was and had compassion for it.  With that word, he let her know that he knew her suffering.  With that word, he proclaimed that she need suffer no longer, that he was there, no longer dead, but there. Beside her.  With her.  With that word, he reminded her that she was LOVED by a God who would not take away her Lord from her, but would ALWAYS be with her, in her grief, in her pain, and in her joy.
        With a word he offered new life.  Not just the vision of Jesus raised, but new life for Mary as well.  With his resurrection, he offered her new life as well. 
        Today we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.  We celebrate that death has been overcome.  And that Jesus, God, Emmanuel, Christ with us, is with us even beyond death, even after death.  We celebrate that Jesus lives.  And we celebrate that we are given that same resurrection through him. 
        How does that manifest for you today?  This day?  How does Jesus’ resurrection come for you today? 
         As I prepared for today, I found myself remembering so many resurrection moments, so many times when I have been able to glimpse the promise of the final resurrection through the day to day fulfillment of the promise of new life after death.  For me, each one, each and every one of those moments, those glimpses into eternity, into new life, into resurrection has been a gift, a profound, amazing gift. 
          I was talking recently to a good friend of mine who was sharing with me that after years of struggling in her marriage, she and her husband, for the last few months have really been doing well.  With counseling and hard work, they have been able to start again in some deeply healed and resurrected ways.  Two years ago she was planning the end of her marriage.  Today she is excited to be able to tell me that she is truly married to her best friend, and they are happy together after a long time of disappointment and angst.
         An acquaintance shared with me that after several years of being out of work and looking hard for a job, he had finally found not only a job, but had been offered his dream job.  He is not just working, but working in a job he loves, for people he likes to be around, doing work that he feels good about. The job he had lost had not been a happy place for him, and while being out of work was hard, he also owned that it allowed him time with his family and time to really do a lot of soul searching and training to be in a job that he is now so happy with.
        More personally, a few years ago I attended a national stewardship conference where I ran into a person I had not seen in 20 years.  We had been close, we had dated, all those years ago, and the relationship had ended badly, painfully.  But seeing him in this place, so far away from our pasts and our present lives, we were able to talk and to create healing and reconciliation that many might have said was long overdue.  I don’t know that it could have happened any sooner.  I don’t know that either of us had grown enough or learned enough before to heal those rifts. But I was deeply grateful for the gift of being able to work that through with him, finally finding closure and healing.  Resurrection moment.  Healing moment after a painful loss, a painful death.
        Coming here to this church was a resurrection for me: after having gone through such a difficult time in my life, to be able to come back to beautiful, sunny, Ca: to be near my mountain, and in a church that is open and inclusive and loving…  To be here in this place is a resurrection for me!
         And finally - David, my David, is another resurrection for me.  I didn’t think there would be someone to be close to me again. I thought that was done. That too much trust had been broken.  Too many hurts for me and my kids. But he sits here, in this place, a man who is good with my kids, a man who is calm and grounded, a man who is loyal and deeply loving - a sign of God’s love that goes beyond any of the challenging and difficult things that have been a part of my life.  A resurrection for me that I know was a gift from God.  Not sought, not expected.  But here, grace, a gift given, none the less.
        When Jesus called Mary’s name, her world was resurrected.  And while he then went on to say to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” None the less, she knew then that she would never again be without him.  And she knew that she would see him again and be with him again.  That he WAS alive and IS alive.
        All of that was communicated in one Word. 
         God calls your name too.  Jesus calls your name too.  By Jesus life, death and resurrection we experience the reality of new life.  But our relationship with God, with the divine is personal.  Very, very personal. And our experience of life, of resurrection, is all encompassed in that one word.  We are called by name.  We are loved into being by name.
         “Mary”, he said, and she, and we, came to know resurrection.  Amen.