Tuesday, November 27, 2018

A Different Kind of King

2 Sam 23:1-7
John 18:33-38a

Throughout the book of John, Jesus uses the phrase “I am”.  This begins in chapter 6 when he is calming the sea.  He says to the terrified disciples, “I am.  Be not afraid.”  And he continues throughout the book of John, over and over with these phrases that begin with those two words, “I am”.  He says, “I am the bread of life”(6:35), “I am the light of the world” (8:12), and “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25), “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14: 6), “I am the gate” (10:7), “I am the shepherd.” (10:11),  “I am the true vine” (15:1) .  Other times he simply says, “I am” in phrases such as “If you don’t believe that I am, you will die”(18:24) and “You will know that I am” (18:28), “I assure you, before Abraham was, I AM” (8:58).  Chapter 18 then begins with Jesus saying several times simply, “I am”.   All of these “I am” statements are statements in which Jesus is using a phrase that hitherto had only been used to refer to God: it harkens back to the Old Testament story of God appearing to Moses, giving to Moses the name of God as being simply “I am”.   John’s readers would have known this and realized what was being said here.  We hear in these verses a proclamation of Messiahship. A statement that in him God was to be found, a direct look at who God is, what God is like, what it means to be God in this world through Jesus.
Today then we come to the story of Jesus’ trial before Pilate.  I wonder when you think about Jesus what you think his primary purpose here was.  We can think of many purposes.  A mirror into God, a model for how to live as faithful people, an example of what Love really looks like.  But this is not what Jesus himself says.  It doesn’t tell us his purpose is death or resurrection, or salvation from sins, or any of the theological reasons we might suppose.  No, instead, in this discussion with Pilate, he states very clearly and very simply that his purpose in coming is to testify to the truth.   Pilate then ends today’s readings with the simple question, “What is truth?”
But as we know, this “simple” question is anything but simple.
Frederick Buechner says this about Truth in his book Wishful Thinking: a theological ABC: “When Jesus says that he has come to bear witness to the truth, Pilate asks, ‘What is truth?’  Contrary to the traditional view that his question is cynical, it is possible that he asks it with a lump in his throat.  Instead of Truth, Pilate has only expedience.  His decision to throw Jesus to the wolves is expedient.  Pilate views man as alone in the universe with nothing but his own courage and ingenuity to see him through.  It is enough to choke up anybody.  Pilate asks What is truth?  And for years there have been politicians, scientists, theologians, philosophers, poets, and so on to tell him.  The sound they make is like the sound of empty pails falling down the cellar stairs.  Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate’s question.  He just stands there.  Stands, and stands there.”
Jesus stands there.  The one who has declared over and over “I am” stands there.  “I am” stands there.  And that is the truth that he presents.  His truth is simply that he is.  The truth to which he testifies is that God IS.
Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday.  And we know that Jesus was not the kind of king that we all understand every other king to be.  He is not the kind of king, as he states in today’s passage, who has guards who will fight for him and prevent him from being killed.  He is not the king of power, the king of might, the king of an iron fist.  He is not the king who collects all the wealth to himself, the king who says some people are better, more important, more valuable than others.  Instead he is the kind of king who allows his subjects to kill him and who dies begging for forgiveness FOR those who are killing him.  He is the kind of king who then comes back from death to reassure and offer life to the very people who killed him.  He is not the kind of king who caters to the wealthy and powerful, but instead is the kind of king who reaches out to the marginalized and powerless.  He is not the kind of king who luxuriates in riches and in being served by others, but instead is the kind of king who serves others continually.  He is the kind of king who IS king simply because he IS.  He is the kind of king who shows us how to live life by being who he is, by becoming who he becomes, the kind of king who will be who he will be.
“What is truth?” Pilate asks – WE ask.  And for an answer we are given Jesus, the king, our king, the one who IS.
Today we also celebrate thanksgiving.  And in many ways I feel it is appropriate that Christ the King Sunday happens at the same time as Thanksgiving.  Because we are called to be thankful for all that life has given us: all of it.  And there are a lot of hard things that we face, including the fact that God as King, Jesus as King, is not someone who will swoop in with power and authority and clean up our mess.  Jesus is a different kind of king, and one who, I think in times of stress and difficulty, we wish were someone who would fix everything and make it better.  That is what we want.  And the call to be thankful, instead, for what we have, for a God whose love goes beyond our imaginings but whose power is given up for our free will – that’s a God that it can be hard to be thankful for in times of trial.  And still, on this Christ the King Sunday we are called to be thankful.  The good news, as always, is that the free will that is given to all people in exchange for that power is ours as well.  We get to choose how or even if we will respond to God’s call.  We get to choose a genuine relationship with God: not one that’s forced on us, but one we are invited into.  We get to choose to be in relationship with a God who is compassionate not only towards people we like, not only towards those we don’t like, but even for us when we mess up too.  The God who stands before us as truth is a God who IS.  And that is something to be thankful for!
In so many ways we have an odd religion.  We don’t worship a God of power and might and riches.  We worship a God of love, relationships, and a king who chooses weakness that we might have freedom.  It is odd.  But it is also wondrous and amazing.  And something worth being thankful for.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The mixed feelings that surround the Holiday season

           I usually don't talk about this.  I don't usually mention that every year when we set up Christmas decorations, a level of unbidden depression sneaks into my heart.  I don't mention that there are still Christmas songs I cannot listen to, ones that I hope this year won't carry the memories, won't connect to a sense of terror, of tragedy, of unexpected disaster, but which still do.  I don't usually say out loud that the holidays are really filled with a combination of joy and grief, of contentment and great fear, of hope and anxiety.
           But this year a number of situations converged that made me realize that owning this reality might be helpful to other people too.  The first situation was an increase in the number of parishioners, just in the last week, who are in the hospital, who are facing serious illness and, in a couple cases, maybe even death.  This tends to happen around the holidays, by the way, and this year, the difference of a week made that very clear.  I also saw on Facebook a very well written article by someone talking about the visitor of grief that comes every holiday as she reflects on the death of a parent.  And her words, "I hope this year that my uninvited visitor (grief) will not come," rang so true for me that it has given me the courage to name my own reality out loud.
          This December sixth will mark eight years since our house was raided, our lives flipped on their heads, a well-kept secret brought into our awareness in an unbearable way, and a new reality created for my whole family.  And while on a day to day basis we live our lives well, we go about each day and each week and each month with joy and challenges and opportunities and possibilities, with healing and hope; there are certain things that happen around the holidays that always bring up for me those unbidden, unwanted and difficult feelings of fear and grief (in particular), of memories unsought and undesired.
           I don't talk about this because after eight years, shouldn't this be a thing of the past?  And yet, I would never tell another person that this should be true for them.  There are things we don't "get over," things that simply become part of the DNA of who we are, what our lives have become, and what we believe and feel. There are feelings that are permanently connected to times and seasons and situations.  And while they change, and they do, they never leave us, they never fail to make an appearance, they never let us forget that they are now part of our beings.
         I know I'm not alone in this.  Holidays especially bring up grief, pain, loss, memories for people.  This is a large part of why the suicide rate is so high around holidays.  Holidays are hard as well as beautiful, challenging as well as joyful,  and full of reminders of loss, as well as opportunities to celebrate what we have now.
         But I believe that all feelings, all memories, all recollections are also gifts.  In my case, these uncomfortable holiday feelings allow me to remember not only what was lost, what was incredibly tragic, what was an absolute nightmare; but also to remember the strength - both inner and what was given to us by others - that saw us through such a difficult time.  It is a chance to reflect again on the love of people who were beyond kind, the strong presence of God that carried us in so many, many concrete ways through a crisis I could not have faced otherwise, and the surprising inner courage and stubborn determination that helped me to care for my children especially, and to continue to be pastor to a congregation during an unbelievably difficult time.  These memories and feelings also help me to focus now with much greater gratitude than I might otherwise choose on the amazing gifts of the life that is mine today, on where I have come to from where we are.  Third, they invite me to create something each holiday that is indeed different and new and all about the present, rather than the past.  And finally, they force me to slow down for a moment, to spend some time in continuing to heal, to breathe, to BE while all the rush of the season zooms on around me.  These are gifts worth accepting, even from the unwanted visitors of uneasy memories and painful feelings of fear, anxiety and grief.
      This year, therefore, I'm choosing to welcome the past memories and challenging feelings rather than trying to shove them out the door.  I am choosing to be grateful for their presence and to take the time to hear what they have to say to me, to open the gifts they have brought, even if I do not want them at first, and to appreciate what they offer.
       For those for whom the holidays are hard, I invite you to take this journey with me.  Don't run from the pain, but invite it to teach you and to care for you at a deeper level.  Together, we can accept this invitation into growth.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The thing I'm NOT looking forward to.

         Weddings are exciting events.  They are times of transition, times of hope, times of promise.  As I'm gearing up for my New Year's wedding, I have all of the normal feelings of anticipation and excitement.  But I've also done this before, and because of it, I am aware of one big thing that I am dreading.  That one thing is the loss of my personal identity.
         Don't get me wrong: I'm not changing my name.  I didn't the first time, and I won't this time.  I know too much about how that practice began, what it meant (and what it sometimes still means) to make that choice. I'm all too aware that marriage used to be an exchange of property, said property being the bride who was literally purchased or sold (hence dowries, bride prices, etc.).  The bride's name change would symbolize the change in her ownership.  Often she would not only lose her last name, but her first name too, "Introducing, Mr. and Mrs. George Smith!"  The wife would become a person without her own identity: simply the Mrs. to a man with a full identity left intact.
        This passing on of property is the same reason at weddings we still, more times than not, have the father walk the bride down the aisle and we still ask the question, "Who gives this woman to this man?"  Yes, it is still a real and active part of our weddings that the ownership of the bride is passed on from one man to another.  In case you were wondering, that, too, will not be part of our ceremony.  Many people tell me that the question and the tradition no longer mean that.  But what else can that question possibly mean?  I am not the possession of my father, something he could therefore "give" to another man. At fifty years of age, having supported myself and having raised my kids on my own for many years now, the very idea of being my father's possession is preposterous.  But even when I was young, I would have balked at the idea.  I hope to God we have moved past the idea that children are simply possessions of their parents, objects that parents can "give" to anyone.
         People will also tell me that changing one's name to that of one's husband is no longer a symbol of female ownership or possession.  I believe that for many it is not and I do not question their decision to change their names.  But I also know that my decision NOT to change my name will be met with by anger on the part of some people.  The first time round, I cannot tell you how many people turned to my husband and said, "You LET her keep her own name?"  And that in itself is pretty telling, don't you think?  Who was he to "let" or "refuse to let" me do something that was about me and my identity?  My answer, of course, was always the same, "And I let him keep his, too.  Lucky man!"
         But despite the decisions David and I have made for an equal partnership, decisions that state that we will not continue to honor symbols and rites that at any time were signs of spousal possession, I know that people will question and be bothered by both the decision not to be given away and the decision to keep my name, ALL of my name.  And so, despite the fact that we have made these choices together (as I told David, I was more than willing to adopt his last name as part of my own if he would take mine as part of his: he declined saying his name was part of his heritage, part of his past, part of his history, part of his identity... hm.  Imagine that?), there will be people who will not accept it.  I am dreading the first Christmas card that we receive addressed to "Mr. and Mrs. David Louttit."   I am dreading the first phone call that asks me if I am Mrs. Louttit.  I am dreading the conversations I will have to have with people at work and in other places where I will have to explain over and over that at 50 years of age, my heritage and my history, my past and my identity also matter to me and that I would be giving up a great deal to part with them.  I am a published author with this name; I am active, socially, politically and spiritually in the larger community using this name; I have served as a pastor with this name for twenty two years. I am proud to be part of my family of origin and I value the name connection to my parents and grandparents. These, too, are a big part of my identity and parts I don't feel I need to sacrifice in the process of joining with another person in marriage.  I am dreading the constant need to claim my identity as my own, the constant need to defend a choice that is really David's and mine to make.
         Of course, I could potentially thwart all of that by stating that I want to continue the connection to my kids that our shared last name maintains (they have a hyphenated last name, half of which is mine), and no doubt I will fall back on this also-important-answer at some point in time.  But it is just a part of the truth of the decision.
         I'm certain that in every union of people there are things that one may dread or fear.  This is mine.  And I guess I am hoping that by putting it out there in this post, perhaps I will limit, just a bit, the hassle that will come my way as a result.   As I said, I do not judge others' decisions to come together in their last names.  I understand that sharing the same last name can be an important symbol of unity for many people and since traditionally the name taken has been that of the man, that it just becomes easier for many to practice that tradition.  I also understand that for many women, "wife" is the primary identity that they happily claim.  But my hope is that others will also understand and respect the decisions we are making that are best for our marriage as well as for the rest of my family. The world is full of diversity and difference.  This is a difference we are choosing.  And I hope it can be met with respect or at least tolerance.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Thinking about the poison of Gossip

         We all know how poisonous gossip can be.  We all know that it can tear apart communities, it can destroy individuals, it can irreparably damage relationships.  We know this.  Most of us have seen this happen to someone else if we haven't experienced it directly. Recently I have seen it doing damage again, spreading and dividing a community again, with stories and tales that contain only a seed of truth and with growing venom that has hurt relationships and individuals.
          And yet, as damaging as we know it to be, there seems to be something deep in the human psyche that cannot resist passing on a juicy bit of "news" that we've heard, and something in our beings that has a hard time not embellishing and changing what we've heard... just a little... as we pass it along.  What is that?  Why is that?
          Perhaps we are needing to process through the things that we've heard, maybe we need to say it out loud in order for it to be real for us.  Maybe we are impacted by what we have heard and share it as a way to deal with our feelings.  Why then do we pass on the information changed?
        Perhaps we feel it won't be taken with enough seriousness if we don't make it bigger than we heard it was.  Maybe we believe people will not give it the full attention it needs if we don't change it a tiny bit in the sharing.
        There are cases when I think people use and manipulate gossip in order to get what they want.  And I believe there are times when people use gossip as a way to hurt or damage others.  But most of the time, I think people are not being mean or unkind or manipulative.
       Still I think the practice of gossip gets a great deal of cultural support.  People like being told news, they like being on the "in" and hearing the stories that others have to share.  That's a good thing when people are sharing their own stories.  But it is a very harmful thing when it comes to other people talking about and sharing stories that are not theirs to share.
        Most of the time I think people are not intending to hurt others.  But gossip is hurtful.  And I think the only thing that will affectively put a stop to the evil of gossip is the realization that we are just as guilty as the gossiper when we choose to engage the stories, when we support the practice of gossip by eagerly listening (not just passing along, but even listening) to the tales others tell us about other people.  I know it's not easy to do, but a simple, "I think I'd feel more comfortable hearing this story from the subject themself."  "I'm not sure 'Jane' would want me to be hearing this from anyone but Jane herself."  "I'm uncomfortable hearing this without Ed being with us."  "This sounds like it's Frank's story to tell."
         I realize direct confrontation around gossip is uncomfortable.  Walking away, or out of a circle of gossip, may be an easier way to handle it: sending a less direct but none the less clear communication that you are uneasy with the gossip.  This too can be hard, because it does communicate an unwillingness to engage a behavior our friends may be participating in.  I also realize that any time we choose not to engage in the circle of gossip, we risk becoming the target of the gossip itself.
         I understand all of that.
         But I also know that any time we choose to do what is best for a person who is being harmed, that any time we choose to opt out of or even confront something that is harmful to another person, we are choosing to make our community a tiny bit better for someone else.  And that is a deeply worth-while goal.
        I can't stop reflecting on the damage that I recently witnessed done to someone who did not deserve such hurt, condemnation, exclusion or broken relationships.  And I keep thinking that if even one person, early on in the situation, had stood up and said, "no" to the gossip circle, that things would have ended very differently.  That is tragic to me.  But it's also a call for a stronger determination to choose differently when the choices present themselves to either engage with gossip or to refuse to do so.  May we all have the strength to say "no."

A Faith that Can Move Mountains

Habakkuk 2:2-5

Matthew 17:14-21

            A tourist came too close to the edge of the Grand Canyon, lost his footing and plunged over the side, clawing and scratching to save himself.  After he went out of sight and just before he fell into space, he ran into a scrubby bush which he desperately grabbed with both hands.  Filled with terror, he called out to heaven, “Is there anyone up there?”  A calm, powerful voice came out of the sky, “Yes.”  The tourist pleaded, “Help me!  Help me!”  The voice responded, “Are you a believer?”  “Yes, yes!”  “Do you have faith?”  “Yes, yes!  I have strong faith.”  The voice said, “In that case, simply let loose of the bush and trust that everything will turn out fine.”  There was a tense pause, then the tourist yelled, “Is there anyone else up there?”


            The New Testament, especially, is filled with references to faith.  I believe, and have preached to you before, that there is really very little difference between faith and works; if you have faith, you will do the works.  And the truth is that we fall short in both areas.  Fortunately, salvation, whatever that means to you, is more about grace than either faith or works.  None the less, faith remains something that we strive to increase constantly.  According to today’s Gospel lesson, even the tiniest amount of faith will move mountains.  Yet, we rarely see even that much faith.  The exceptions are notable because of their rarity.

            Rev. Charles Tindley was an African American minister born in 1851.  He is considered the primary ancestor to African American gospel music.  He was also a dynamic preacher and a man who put his faith into action.  He turned his church basement into a soup kitchen to feed people who were without jobs in the 1920’s.  He organized a savings unit to help church members make down payments on their first homes.  He trained and educated the young people in his church.  It was out of his experience, but more, out of his faith that he wrote his sermons and his music.  His was a faith that was big enough to move mountains.  As Rev. Henry Nichols tells it:

Tindley said one morning he and his family sat down…getting ready for breakfast, and his wife said, “There is no food here.”  He said, “That’s all right.  Fix the table.  Put the dishes on – we’ll have breakfast.”  And she looked at him and said, “But Dr. Tindley, didn’t you hear me?  There’s no food here.”  He said, “That’s all right.  Fix the table.  Let’s sit down and have a prayer.”  And so she did.  The children sat down, and I’m sure the children thought he was gone…and he said, “Let’s bow our heads.”  No food: empty plates.  And then he began to pray, “Dear Lord, we thank you for what we are about to receive.”  And just then, he said, somebody knocked on the door.  He stopped and went to the door, and one of the officers said, “Brother Pastor, didn’t know whether ya’ll had anything to eat this morning.  Brought you some food over.”[1]


            Dorothy Day, founder and organizer of the Catholic worker shared similar stories of times when their house community, a community built for the purpose of and dedicated to serving the poor and destitute in and around them, would be on its last penny.  Time and again they would spend that last penny on whoever came to them for help because Dorothy and the workers had faith that the needed money would always come.  And it did.  On one such occasion the electric bill had to be paid and there was no money at all in the house.  The bill was for $9.57, not much now, but a lot at the time.  The power company said that the electricity would be turned off if the bill was not paid by the end of the day.  So everyone in the house began to pray.  At 4:30 that afternoon, the mail arrived and within it was a check – for $9.57, enclosed with a note apologizing for the odd amount and stating that the donor had found that much on the sidewalk and had felt called to send it to the Catholic Worker community.


            A doctor who worked in a country in Africa wrote:

One night I had worked hard to help a mother in the labor ward; but in spite of all we could do she died leaving us with a tiny premature baby and a crying two-year-old daughter.  We would have difficulty keeping the baby alive, as we had no incubator.  (We had no electricity to run an incubator.)  Although we lived on the equator, nights were often chilly with treacherous drafts.  One student midwife went for the box we had for such babies and the cotton wool the baby would be wrapped in.  Another went to stoke up the fire and fill a hot water bottle.  She came back shortly in distress to tell me that in filling the bottle, it had burst.  Rubber perishes easily in tropical climates.  “And it is our last hot water bottle!” She exclaimed.  “All right,” I said, “put the baby as near the fire as you safely can, and sleep between the baby and the door to keep it free from drafts.  Your job is to keep the baby warm.”

The following noon, as I did most days, I went to have prayers with any of the orphanage children who chose to gather with me.  I gave the youngsters various suggestions of things to pray about and told them about the tiny baby.  I explained our problem about keeping the baby warm enough, mentioning the hot water bottle.  The baby could so easily die if it got chills.  I also told them of the two-year-old sister, crying because her mother had died.  During the prayer time, one ten-year-old girl, Ruth, prayed with the usual blunt conciseness of our children.  “Please, God,” she said, “send us a water bottle.  It’ll be no good tomorrow, God, as the baby will be dead, so please send it this afternoon.”  While I gasped inwardly at the audacity of the prayer, she added by way of a corollary, “And while you are about it, would you please send a doll for the little girl so she’ll know you really love her?”

I just did not believe that God could do this.  The only way God could answer would be for a package to arrive from my home.  I had been in Africa for almost four years and I had never, ever received a package from home.  Even if a package did come, who would send a hot water bottle?  We lived on the equator!  Halfway through the afternoon, while I was teaching in the nurses’ training school, a message was sent that there was a car at my front door.  When I got there, the car was gone but in its place was a large package.  I felt tears pricking my eyes.  I could not open the package alone, so I sent for the orphanage children.  Together we pulled off the string, carefully undoing each knot.  We folded the paper, taking care not to tear it as some thirty or forty pairs of eyes focused on the box.  From the top I lifted out brightly colored knitted shirts.  Eyes sparkled as I gave them out.  Then there were cotton bandages for the leprosy patients, a box of mixed raisins that we could use to make buns on the weekend.  Then, as I put my hand in again, I felt the…could it really be?  Yes, a brand-new, rubber hot water bottle.  I had not asked God to send it; I had not really believed that God could.  Ruth was in the front row of the children.  She rushed forward crying out, “If God has sent the bottle, God must have sent the doll too!”

Rummaging around in the bottom of the box, she pulled out the small beautifully dressed doll.  Her eyes shone!  She had never doubted.  Looking at me she asked, “Can I go over with you, and give this doll to that little girl, so she’ll know that God really loves her?”  This had obviously been sent months before.  As Isaiah 65:24 says, “Before they call, I will answer.”

            There are less dramatic stories of people who don’t get exactly to the dime what we might think they are needing, but who none-the-less live day in and day out by their faith.  For these people, often people who have very little in the way of material possessions, faith the size of a mustard seed is more than enough.

            Truthfully, some people, preachers, pastors, and others have mis-used this passage in Matthew that declares the faith of a mustard seed could move mountains.  Especially faith healers who earn their money and power through miracle healings - for them, it is easy to blame those who do not experience these miraculous healings by saying they simply did not have enough faith.  But faith, like everything else that is good in this life, is a gift from God.  It is one we can cultivate, but more it is a gift we must pray for and be grateful for when it comes.  It is nothing less than abuse to blame someone’s suffering on their lack of faith.

            If faith, then, is a gift, what do these stories mean for the average person, for you and me who do not seem even to have the faith of a mustard seed?  When I was working on my doctorate I took a class called Spirituality and Justice.  In class we spent a lot of time talking about the culture of despair that exists here in the United States.  It is hard for us, though we are the wealthiest people in the world, to hold on to our faith and our hope, especially if we care about justice and care about the people in this world.  This is a dark time in which justice seems hard to come by.  Many, many people are hungry; many are dying in wars or in political situations or just out of blind hatred that they had no hand in creating; racial motivated killings, theologically motivated killings, many suffer abuse, torture and betrayal by those closest to them.  Children especially suffer in today’s world, in which child slave labor and child prostitution, human trafficking, shootings at our schools…among many other things – all of these are higher than ever before and the large majority of the hungry in the world are under 12 years of age.  How do we hang on to our faith and our hope in light of these realities?

            My first wish in telling you these stories of faith is that they might help you find hope.  We do have a God whose eye is on the sparrow and who does and will watch over us as well.  We do not have to be afraid because our needs will be attended to.  All of us worry.  We do not usually have the faith to believe that we will be taken care of, and there are reasons for that lack of faith.  There are people who don’t have enough, there are people who struggle to survive, times feel hard and dark.  Still, in our faith journeys, we are called not to always be “realists”, but instead to live, to risk, to love from a place of hope and faith.  My hope is that when you are struggling to be faithful and hopeful, when you find yourself in despair or depression that you will remember these true stories that I have shared with you today, or stories like them.  If you can’t remember them, I hope you will call me or one another.  Part of what can keep us in a place of despair and depression is the fear that we are alone or that something is wrong with us to feel this way.  You are not alone, and these feelings make sense.  So when you go through a hard time, call one another, share with one another.  We all need to work together to remember stories of faith and hope.  God has promised the resurrection after death.  It is a promise we can count on.

            Second, I hope that these stories of a faith that will move mountains will inspire all of us to “act as if” we too had that kind of faith.  Take the risk of caring for someone you think you can’t afford to help.  Take the risk of speaking out against an injustice trusting that your voice will make a difference and help change the world.  Take the risk of thanking God for providing for your needs, for the world’s needs, trusting that the provisions will come.  Even if you can’t believe it, even if you can’t find the faith, act as if you have it.  Act as if you live by faith and soon it will no longer be an act.

            Finally, I hope these stories will encourage you to pray for your faith to be increased constantly.  Faith is a gift wanting to be given.  Don’t be afraid to ask for it.  Others have asked and have been given faith in abundance.  The gift is there for you as well.

            As today’s passage in Habbakuk said, “There is still a vision for the end, and it does not lie.  If it seems to tarry, wait for it: it will surely come, it will not delay.”  That vision for the end is of resurrection.  That vision is of new life.  And it does not tarry or delay.  It comes daily to those with eyes of faith.  So pray for that faith, support one another in finding that faith, act out of faith even when you can’t muster it.  God is here.  God is love.  God will bring more than enough to the world this day and always.

[1] Reagon, We’ll Understand it Better By and By (Washington: Smithsonian Institute, 1992), 46

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Stewardship Once Again

                                        Mark 12:38-44

Timmy didn’t want to put his money in the offering plate Sunday morning, so his mother decided to use some hurried creative reasoning with him.

“You don’t want that money, honey,” she whispered in his ear. “Quick! Drop it in the plate. It’s tainted!”

Horrified, the little boy obeyed.

After a few seconds he whispered, “But, mommy, why was the money tainted? Was it dirty?

“Oh, no dear,” she replied. “It’s not really dirty. It just ‘taint yours, and it ‘taint mine,” she replied. “It’s God’s.”

               Today is Stewardship Sunday, probably everyone’s least favorite Sunday of the year.  And I want to let you in on a secret: it’s most pastors’ least favorite Sunday of the year too.  Stewardship tends to  be the one Sunday of the year when we talk about money.  We are uneasy talking about money, it feels like a taboo subject in many ways and each year we have to have this uncomfortable conversation.  But, as Rev. Michael Piazza points out, stewardship really should be a year round conversation.  As he puts it,  “(The real issues is)…how we change the culture. Because the church has talked about money only when we wanted some, we have abandoned our greater responsibility to shape the value system of a culture in which people are systematically and relentlessly metamorphosized from Human Ones into consummate consumers.”

 He continues, “We pious types can rant and rave about greed, and pollution, and poverty, and income inequality, and all the other evils that arise from "the love of money," but what we really need to do is repent. The church has treated money the same way we, for decades, have treated sex. We never talked about (it) unless we were ranting against it is some form, and we never talk about money unless we want some of it. In both these areas, the church has utterly failed to inspire transforming values.  …money… (is a) powerful gift.. from God, and the church should have taught us how to be better stewards of (that gift). … people come wanting to know how to raise more money. Frankly, fundraising is easy compared to teaching society how to be better stewards of all the gifts that come from God.   

“Another reason for our impotency around this issue is the third topic the church avoids: death. Oh, we talk plenty about resurrection, but we seldom have the courage to remind us that we all are going to die. If we lack a powerful sense of our own mortality, we can pretend that we earned what we have and that it is ours to keep. It isn't. You ARE going to die and leave it all behind. That is why it is called ‘stewardship.’”

               His points are really good ones: the money that we have been entrusted with is exactly that: money that we have been entrusted with.  We haven’t earned it.  I want to say that again: we haven’t earned it.  We may have worked for it, but we know that the amounts people are paid have very little to do with how hard they work.  For example, some of the hardest workers in our culture are wait staff.  They are also some of the least paid.  In contrast, most of our wealthiest people have inherited at least a good portion of their wealth, and we know they play much harder than they work.  We have different amounts of wealth, not because some are better people and certainly not because God loves those folk more or cares for them more.  But we all have at our disposal some resources, and no matter how we’ve come by them, they aren’t ours.  They are Gods, and we’ve been entrusted with our wealth to use for the work of God and God’s people in this world. 

So, with that information, what are we really called to do with our resources?  Well, as I’ve said before and will no doubt say again, the way we spend our time, money and talents is a clear indication of what we value.   So I invite you to think for a minute about what you value, truly and deeply.  If it is God, then the question remains, what is the best use of your resources?  What is the best way to serve God with those resources?  I realize that there are many areas that each of us care about.  Housing, the hungry, immigrants, children, refugees, racism, LGBTQ+ rights, the environment… there are many, many ways that we help God’s creation and that we serve God.  Church is only one of those and I recognize that.  While we do a great deal of mission through this church and in this church, sharing your resources here is only one way in which we act as stewards of God’s church.

At the same time, to be real and honest about what that means in this place: our budget this last year was about $285,000. With that money we provide worship, education, care for one another, counseling for some, and give a great deal to mission both through our time, talents and our money.  We have about 100 members.  What that works out to is about $2850 per member per year.  Or, $240 per month per person, not per family.  Not everyone can pay that, so that means some are paying significantly more.  Our Old Testament encourages giving (to all the causes you give to) by a tithe of 10% of your income: that’s gross, not net, by the way.  The New Testament goes further, and suggests that if we are giving out of our abundance rather than to the point at which we feel it, we are missing the point of giving.  But I give you these numbers in the hope that it helps us all to be realistic about what it costs to keep our programs and our church community the way it has been.  I also give you these numbers because I think it is easy sometimes to not realize the cost of what we do in this place. 

All that being said, my intention this morning and every Stewardship Sunday is not to guilt trip folk into giving more. 

As Michael Piazza said, giving, stewardship, should be a way of life.  It is not about just paying those who deserve to be paid, or paying your dues, or about being giving people.  It isn’t about trying to assuage guilt, or it shouldn’t be.  It is about remembering, at all times and in all things that all we have is not “ours” at all.  And that out of gratitude for what we have been entrusted with, we are called to use those resources for the good of God and God’s people.  But that is a pretty foreign mindset in this culture.  When I read financial pages, they all encourage saving: but saving for what?  They encourage saving for our future, for retirement, for our children’s education.  They encourage delaying gratification of “now” in exchange for gratification later.  Never have I read a financial site that encourages generosity of giving, that acknowledges that with privilege comes responsibility, and that with resources comes the gift of being able to contribute to the world in a real and meaningful way.

Changing our mindset, converting our thinking from “this is mine and if I give any of it away it is because I am being generous” into “this is God’s and I’ve been entrusted to use this money, this talent, and this gift for the highest good for all people,” is not an easy thing to do in a culture that says otherwise.  I sometimes wonder, actually, if so many of our problems as a society don’t stem from this basic confusion over what is really ours.  What is yours and really yours is only that which you take with you when you die.  And that does not include any of the resources of this world at all.  So what do we want to leave behind?  Do we want to die known as successful by cultural standards, having raised the bar of what it meant to be wealthy, that we collected so much of the world’s resources to ourselves?  Or do we want to leave behind a legacy of caring for others, making the world better, contributing what we have for the good of the world?   How would we want our loved ones to describe us after we have passed on?  Who do you want to be in the world?

But perhaps even more, a deeper question to ask ourselves, who do we want God to see us as?  I’ve asked you at times to think of what gifts God has given you: what are your talents, what are the things God has blessed you with that God gave you to use for the good of God’s people and God’s creation?  But now I’m asking you, if God were to write a sentence describing who you are, what would you want that sentence to be?  What would you want God to say about how you have been and who you are in the world?  Do those desires match your actions?  Do they match how you walk and how you act and how you move on this planet?  What could you do to be more the person God calls you to be?  What could you do to be more the person you want God to see you being?  What is the best way for you to serve God in this world?

When 9/11 happened, money came pouring in to the Red Cross in order to help.  Apparently, they received a total of about $547 Million in response.  But at first, Red Cross put all the money into their general fund and weren’t going to designate that money for the purpose of helping the 9/11 survivors.  The public outrage at this decision, however, forced the Red Cross to change its mind and they decided that every penny given towards that cause would go towards that cause.

In the same way, perhaps, God calls us to use the money, talents, time and resources with which we have been entrusted to serve and help God’s creation.  Not easy, and God doesn’t take away in the same way that those who donated to the Red Cross could take back their resources.  But God is putting a sacred trust in us and calling us to live that out.

As I wrote this sermon I found myself thinking about J.K. Rowling, a woman who was hugely successful not only because she wrote wonderful books but because she intentionally gave up being a billionaire by giving so much of her wealth to charity especially to the Multiple Sclerosis society and to a group called “Volant” that supports women, children and young people at risk in Scotland.  She has chosen to use her resources in service to other people.  That is a legacy worth leaving behind.

None of this is just about money.  Caryl Aukerman and her husband felt called to work with the very poor in Albania.  They took with them into Albania their three young children, who were sad because in living in such poverty, they found they could not continue to do the things that they loved the most: art, music, and dance, especially.  They felt cheated and the Aukerman’s began to be concerned that they were depriving their children of the opportunity to live into and use the talents that God had given them.  As they found ways to help their children still use those talents, they discovered that the neighboring kids also yearned for these kinds of experiences.  So they began classes out of their homes: they found a way to not only teach their own kids, to allow their own kids to live into their gifts, but to share those gifts with other children as they taught art, music and dance at home.  The children they served were still poor, and their work was still focused mostly on creating ways for these families to have enough.  But they also brought the arts alive into this community and enriched the neighborhood children far beyond the meeting of basic needs.  There are things all of us can do with the gifts God has given us.  It may take time to figure out how to use those gifts, but they are there to be shared, they are entrusted to you to be used for the good of all.

Studies show that most people feel they would be fine if they only had twice what they currently have.  It doesn’t actually matter how much a person has: even billionaires feel that they would be fine if they only had twice what they have now.  Humans “needs” seem to expand with what we have.  At the same time, those studies also show that having more does not equal being happier.  We think we will feel more content, more at peace, more okay when we have more.  But the reality is something else.  What DOES increase happiness is helping other people, and feeling gratitude.  These can make a huge difference in how we feel in the world.  So I wonder if, instead of feeling poor and focusing on getting more for ourselves, we focus on the gratitude of what we have and explore how we can give more to those around us.  Again, I’m not just thinking monetarily.  I’m also thinking in terms of our time, our talents, and our other our resources.

Stewardship is about all of these things.  But the bottom line is that stewardship is actually about your well-being, your wholeness.  We are happier, we are more whole, we are more connected to God when we can remember that we are stewards of what we have and that we are called to use God’s resources to help those around us who have little, who have less, who are in need.  We will feel more content and more full when we are generous with what is not even ours to begin with.  Stewardship is an invitation to remember that all we have and are come from God, are God’s and will return to God in the end.  Thanks be to God. 


The church council met to discuss the pastor’s compensation package for the coming year. After the meeting the chair of council told the pastor: “We are very sorry, Pastor, but we decided that we cannot give you a raise next year.”

“But you must give me a raise,” said the pastor. “I am but a poor preacher!”

“l know,” the council chair said. “We hear you every Sunday.”

Thursday, November 8, 2018

All Saint's Day: Life and Death

Ezek. 37:1-14

John 11:1-45

The old time pastor was galloping down the road, rushing to get to church on time. Suddenly his horse stumbled and pitched him to the ground.  In the dirt with a broken leg, the pastor called out, “All you saints in Heaven, help me get up on my horse!”

Then, with superhuman effort, he leaped onto the horse’s back and fell off the other side.

Once again on the ground, he called to Heaven, “All right, just half of you this time!”

“Jesus wept.”  The shortest verse in the Bible.  “Jesus wept.”  What does it mean to you that Jesus wept?  What do you think about Jesus weeping?  

Today we celebrate All Saints Day, and while by “all saints,” we include ourselves (because “the saints” are all of those who are communing with God both during and after life), it tends to be a day when we honor, remember, celebrate, and grieve those who have gone on before us. We remember our loved ones who’ve died.  We celebrate the lives they led, and we remember that death is a temporary physical separation from those we’ve loved.  Death is a change in our relationship from one which is material, to one which is purely spiritual.  But while All Saints Day is a day to remember and celebrate, it is also appropriate that those memories would bring up some grief for us as well.  And All Saints Day is a day to honor those feelings as well, to remember that while we can rejoice in lives well lived, while we can celebrate the end of pain, while we can carry forward the legacies of those who led the way forward for us, while we can honor those who’ve passed by leading the best possible lives forward that we can, none the less, there is grief involved for each of us when a relationship changes from one of physical interaction to being simply one of remembering, celebrating, or speaking to our loved ones that have passed without tangible reassurance or promise of an answer.  That grief is a good thing.  It is a sign of the depth of the love we have for the other.  And it is a God-given experience: an opportunity to express the changes that happen within and without when someone we love has passed.

Sometimes people struggle to accept the grief they feel, thinking that in comparison to others, the loss they are experiencing is minor.  Or they feel they shouldn’t grieve as long as they do. Or we feel that we should just be thankful for what we do have and not mourn what we have lost.  I cannot tell you how often people say to me, “I shouldn’t feel this way.  I’ve been so lucky…”  But grieving is not unfaithful.  It is a recognition that we have loved and loved deeply.

“Kierkegaard said, ‘the most painful state of being is remembering the future… particularly the one you can never have.’ ”   I want to say that again, “The most painful state of being is remembering the future…particularly the one you can never have.”  In other words, the deepest grief comes when we realize that the future we envisioned for ourselves, for example, with another person, is no longer a possibility. 

Grief is an invitation to work that through.  When we are able to do that, then we can live lives that honor and celebrate those who have gone on before us.  When we try to stuff the grief, that is when we get into trouble.   

Many years ago, a parishioner died whose husband had spent the last thirty years caring for her.  It was his purpose and his focus in his life to care for her.  And when she died, her husband was left not only with the grief of losing his wife, but also with the feeling of having lost his purpose and his meaning in life.  He could not deal with the pain and he avoided

it by jumping into another relationship almost immediately, interestingly with someone who also needed a great deal of care.  He was remarried within six months of his wife’s death.  But while that whirl-wind romance put off his feelings of grief for awhile, it could not keep them away in the long run.  The result was that he then had to do his grieving within the context of a new marriage.  His new wife, not understanding grief, felt hurt by his pain over his wife who had passed.  She felt that he hadn’t let go or that he didn’t really love his new wife enough.  It made their relationship very difficult as he struggled both to live within his new relationship and to honor his old relationship through the honest and natural process of grieving.  In addition, the woman whom he married, as I mentioned, was also extremely needy and probably not someone he would ever have married had he taken the time to heal from his last relationship.  He jumped in to this relationship, he ran away from his grief into this relationship, not making the best choice for the long term.

That’s not to say that grief has to look the same for everyone or that there is one right way to grieve or even a right time line.  There isn’t one right way and grief looks different for everyone.  While grief specialist Kubler-Ross identifies as normal parts of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance, there is no prescribed order to these feelings and many experience them in different amounts, at different times, and in different ways, sometimes experiencing each of these stages multiple times and again in multiple ways, other times skipping one or more of these stages altogether.  Other grief specialists add “pain and guilt” into their lists of normal feelings associated with grief saying that even in cases in which a person could have done nothing differently, we feel guilty about things not done, about things that might have been done, things that should have been said.  But however one experiences grief, grief is a natural, normal process in life that we can’t avoid as human beings, as real honest people.

I remember a conversation I witnessed in which a parent was trying to protect their child from grief, keeping the loss of their grandmother from the child, not allowing the child to attend the memorial service, telling others not to mention the grandmother around the child, removing the child from any situation in which the grandmother’s name might be mentioned.  The mother thought she was doing what was best for her daughter.  But the daughter in her wisdom, as she grew a little older, finally told her mother, “I have to go through this. By forbidding me to grieve, you are taking away from me something that is extremely important and beautiful.  Please don’t take my grief away from me.”  Unlike her family, she understood the deeper truth that not going through the pain of grief was in some way denying her something important.  There is a gift in that grief.  There is a gift that is hard to see when we are in the midst of deep pain.  But the gift of grief is that it leaves us open and able to see things as they really are.  It leaves us able to move on, to heal, and to be ready for what God will bring in the future.  For Christians, the gift in the celebration of the Saints who have gone on before us is that we are invited once again into a deeper relationship with God, for God is with us in our grief, grieving with us as well.  And God is the God of resurrections, bringing new life out of every loss.  But again, we have to grieve, have to go through the death of the past in order to be open to the new life that God brings.

And that brings us back to today’s verse, “Jesus wept.”  It can feel difficult to understand this verse at some level because Jesus kept saying to all those around him both before and after Lazarus had died, that Lazarus would live.  Jesus knew that Lazarus was not really gone forever.  In light of that, what does it mean that before he raised Lazarus from the dead, that he wept for him?  How could his grief have been sincere when he knew his loss was not long lasting or real?

I belief Jesus’ grief was real.  I think that Jesus realized, and reminds us through his grief, that new life never looks the same as old life.  A resurrected person doesn’t look the same or act the same as a person who has never died.  We are changed by the losses we experience, the deaths we live through.  Roberta Bondi sums it up well in her book “Memories of God” with these words, “Even Jesus was resurrected with his wounds.”  Jesus, too, was not the same after his resurrection and he knew that Lazarus, too, would not be the same.  He grieved the Lazarus that died because the Lazarus who was raised would not be the same.  He would be different, he would be changed by his experience of death.

The reality is that it is hard for us to look at those wounds, the wounds of life, the wounds that have forced us into lives different from what we imagined.  It is hard to accept that even though new life has come, the old life is gone, really gone.  But it is.  Lazarus died.  He truly and actually died.  And while Jesus was able to bring new life to Lazarus, he first had to grieve for the life that had died, the life that was, the life that ended.  That, to me, is the message in that one very important Biblical passage, “Jesus wept.”  Jesus knows that we, too, must grieve for what was, grieve for what has past, for what is over, for what is done.  It is only through grieving and letting go of the past that we can really truly be open to the wonders of the present, to the gifts of the now, to seeing the new life around us.

Those two simple words, “Jesus wept” give us permission to not just live in the Easter celebration of new life, but to grieve the death that preceded it as well.  “Jesus wept” gives us permission to recognize that every change includes grief, and that it is okay to feel that even as we look towards new life.  Jesus wept.  And we can, too.

I want to end by reading you a poem by Washington Irving:

There is a sacredness in tears.

They are not the mark of weakness, but of power.

They speak more eloquently than 10,000 tongues.

They are the messengers of overwhelming grief,

of deep contrition and of unspeakable love.

            So today, I would like to invite you to come forward and put your pictures on the tables that are set up and name the Saints that have meant something to you.  If you would like, tell one good thing about that person.  If you did not bring a picture or a momento, I invite you still to come forward and say the name of someone whom you are remembering this day.  For this is our celebration of the Saints: all those who have blessed our lives, and continue to do so with our memories and celebrations of their lives.